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"I'm impressed, Dame Honor. This is quite a ship you have here," Admiral Sarnow said as they walked down the passage, and Honor smiled.

"I'm a bit pleased with her myself, Sir," she said. "When she isn't broken, that is."

"I can understand that, but the base crews do excellent work, and I've noticed that they tend to consistently overestimate how long a job is likely to take." The admiral's mustache quivered as he grinned. "I don't think they've quite realized just how good they are."

"They're certainly the most efficient bunch of yard dogs I've ever dealt with," Honor agreed, and she meant it. The task the Hancock Station base staff faced was far more complex than Captain Tankersley's assessment might have suggested, but they were tearing into it with energy and efficiency.

The two of them reached the central lift, and she stood aside to let her senior precede her into it, then keyed their destination. The short trip passed in comfortable silence, and Nimitz sat relaxed on her shoulder, a sure sign he approved of her new squadron CO. She was inclined to agree with the 'cat. Mark Sarnow was young for his rank, only eight T-years older than she was, but he exuded an air of confident energy.

The lift delivered them to Nike's flag bridge. It was smaller than Honor's command deck, but just as magnificent, and the master plot took up almost two-thirds of the deck space while repeater displays duplicated the critical readouts of her own bridge crew.

The admiral's staff was waiting, and Captain (Junior Grade) The Honorable Ernestine Corell, his chief of staff, looked up from a memo pad with a smile.

"I was about to send out a search party, Sir. You're cutting it awful close for Admiral Parks' conference."

Sarnow glanced at his chrono and grimaced. "We've got time, Ernie. Why don't you and Joe join us in the briefing room?"

"Of course." Corell and Commander Joseph Cartwright, Sarnow's operations officer, followed the admiral toward the briefing room hatch, and Honor paused only to smile at Samuel Webster before she joined them.

"Have seats, people," Sarnow invited, waving them into chairs around the conference table. He pulled off his beret, unsealed his tunic, and dropped into the chair at the head of the table; Honor took her own place, facing him up its length from the far end.

"We don't have time to get too deep into things," the admiral said, "but I want to hit the high spots for Dame Honor's benefit before we disappear to Gryphon again." He grimaced again. "One reason I'll be glad to get Nike operable again will be the chance to get away from the station flagship. I seem to be spending more time there than anywhere else."

Honor said nothing, but Sarnow's edge of exasperation wasn't lost on her, and she wondered just how tense things really were between him and the man who'd relieved him.

"And once we are operable, Captain Harrington," he continued, "we're going to be extremely busy working up the squadron. I'm afraid the Admiralty hasn't sent us out here on vacation."

His staff officers chuckled, and Honor smiled at his wry tone as he turned to Corell.

"What's our status, Ernie?"

"We got an updated ETA on Defiant and Onslaught while you and the Captain were below decks, Sir," the tall, delicate-boned chief of staff replied. "We can expect Defiant within another three days, but Onslaught's been delayed. She won't be here until the twentieth of next month."

"Wonderful." Sarnow sighed. "Any explanation of why?"

"No, Sir. Just the revised ETA."

"Why am I not surprised? Oh, well. The yard won't be releasing Nike any time soon, either. Does Admiral Parks have that information?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good." Sarnow rubbed his chin, eyes narrowed in thought, then looked at Honor.

"Basically, Dame Honor, what we have here is an entirely new squadron. There hasn't been a Fifth Battle Cruiser Squadron since the last major Fleet reorganization, and aside from Achilles and Cassandra, who transferred in from BatCruRon Fifteen together, none of our units have any experience as a team. We'll have to start building from the ground up, and time isn't on our side."

He held Honor's eyes, and she nodded.

"Every flag officer I've ever known," he went on, "had his own ideas on exactly what he expected from his flag captain, and I'm no exception. I expect your constant input, Dame Honor. If you see a problem, either fix it yourself or bring it to my attention—and if the problem is me or something I'm doing, tell me about it. Ernie and Joe do their best to keep me straight, but there are times I need all the help I can get. Understood?"

He smiled, but there was steel behind the smile, and Honor nodded again.

"You won't be the squadron's senior captain, but you are its flag captain. That may lead to problems when you have to deal with someone who's senior to you, but I expect you to deal with that—and to remember you're the flag captain. You're the woman who's going to be sitting in on staff meetings they can't get to, the one most familiar with my plans and intentions. I don't plan on passing any bucks to you, but I expect you to use your own discretion and initiative to deal with squadron matters, as well as Nike, whenever they come within your purview.

"In return for your slavelike devotion to duty," he went on, with another of his fierce grins, "I will back you right down the line. If at any time I am displeased with your actions, I will tell you so before anyone else hears about it. From your record, I expect you to be a major asset, especially to a brand new squadron. Don't do anything to change my mind."

"I'll try not to, Sir," Honor said quietly.

"I'm certain you will—and I expect you to succeed. Now, Joe," Sarnow turned to his ops officer, "what do we know about our mission parameters?"

"Not as much as I'd like, Sir," Cartwright said. "With Admiral Tyrel's squadron detached, we're obviously going to be Admiral Parks' primary screening unit, but the entire task force's operational posture seems to be undergoing a fairly radical reassessment." The bearded commander shrugged. "All I can tell you right now is that the Admiral apparently intends to retain us here for the immediate future."

"Could be worse," the admiral said, though he didn't sound especially convinced of it. "At least it'll give us time to work up." Cartwright nodded, and Sarnow rubbed his chin again, then looked back at his chrono and straightened in his chair.

"All right. Ernie, since Achilles and Cassandra have at least operated together before, we'll start building around them. I want you and Joe to get the available squadron set up for gunnery practice in the next day or two. Form them in two divisions—Achilles and Cassandra in one, Invincible, Intolerant, and Agamemnon in the other—to compete with one another. I'll ride in Invincible. Please warn Captain Daumier I'll be coming."

"Yes, Sir." The chief of staff made notes on her memo pad, and Sarnow glanced at Honor.

"Obviously, we can't take Nike along, Dame Honor, but I'd like you to ride with me. And don't worry about your presence bothering Captain Daumier. Invincible's the current holder of the Queen's Cup, and she's almost as proud of her ship as you are of Nike. No doubt she'll enjoy showing you what kind of gunnery I'll expect my flagship to match." He flashed another grin, and she smiled in reply.

"When we get back, I'm going to start setting up the squadron command net, so please have your com officer sit down with Commander Webster to be certain everything's up and running before we leave. I'd like to run through some squadron-level sims ASAP to see where the roughest spots are."

"Of course, Sir."

"Thank you." The admiral inhaled, pushed himself to his feet, and gathered up his beret. "I suppose that's everything for the moment, then. Ernie, Joe—we have an appointment with the Admiral. Will you excuse us, Dame Honor?"

"Of course," Honor repeated, and Sarnow bustled through the hatch, staff officers in tow. The energy level in the compartment dropped dramatically with his departure, and she smiled as Nimitz sighed on her shoulder.

But even as she smiled, there was an edge of question deep within her. George Monet had receipted the original message setting up the conference aboard Gryphon because Webster hadn't been aboard yet, and every other admiral had been instructed to bring his or her flag captain along. Sarnow had not.

No reason had been given for excluding her, and there might be any number of causes. Certainly the fact that her ship was undergoing major repairs could have explained it. But by the same token, a captain whose ship was in yard hands had more free time, not less . . . and she was the only flag captain who wouldn't be there. Was there some other reason Admiral Parks hadn't invited her? She couldn't think of one, but that didn't mean one didn't exist. And if it did, was it something to do with Sarnow, or did it reflect on her?

She rose, folded her hands behind her, and walked slowly from the conference room, and her mind was busy.

* * *

The sound of her breathing was loud in the hushed gym as Honor worked grimly through the reps. Of all forms of exercise, she was least fond of weight work, yet her convalescence had taken a lot out of her. Not enough to worry the BuMed, perhaps, but enough to dismay her. She was still rebuilding upper-body muscle, and weights were the fastest way to do it, even if they were mind-numbing. But once she got her edge back, she promised herself, releasing the grips with a gasp, she'd find any number of more enjoyable ways to keep it.

She touched the storage button, retracting the adjustable resistance cables silently into the bulkhead, and ran her hands through her wet hair. Nike had been designed from the keel out as a flagship, and unlike any of Honor's previous commands, she had a private gym for a flag officer and his staff. Honor wasn't sure she approved of that in principle, but she wasn't about to turn down Admiral Sarnow's invitation to use it. It was smaller than the main gym, but its privacy meant she could adjust the internal gravity to match that of her homeworld without either inconveniencing others or waiting until the middle of the night to get it to herself.

She braced both hands against the small of her back and arched in spine-popping relaxation as she turned away from the weight machine, and Nimitz looked up from his usual comfortable sprawl along the lower of the uneven parallel bars. He started to get up, but she shook her head.

"Oh, no you don't, Stinker. It's not time for frisbee yet," she told him, and he curled back down with a mournful sigh. She chuckled at him and stepped up onto the diving board, which was one thing she unequivocally approved of. Most spacers were perfectly happy "swimming" in a null-gee tank, but Honor preferred water, and Nike's designers, in a burst of no doubt misplaced zeal, had provided a pool for the admiral's use. The water in it formed part of the battlecruiser's consumables storage system, which probably explained how the architect had convinced BuShips to buy it, and it was on the small side, but it was deep enough for diving.

She took three gliding steps along the board, arced gracefully through the air, and entered the water with no more splash than a fish, and Nimitz shuddered fastidiously on his perch. Humans, he'd long ago concluded, found pleasure in some very strange activities.

The water was warmer than Honor would have chosen . . .  but then again, she was from Sphinx. She glided to the bottom, then curled briefly into a ball, straightened, and broke the surface with a gasp of delight. She shook her head to toss hair out of her eyes, got her bearings, and swam strongly over to the ladder. Principle, she decided, was a very fine thing, but there was something to be said for wallowing in the decadent privileges of rank, as well.

She grinned and started up the ladder, then paused, waist-deep in the water, as the hatch opened. Sarnow's staff was still aboard Gryphon, and she'd expected to have the gym to herself until their return.

The newcomer started through the hatch but stopped dead when he felt the cranked up pull of the grav plates. He wore a comfortably worn-looking exercise outfit, and he looked around quickly, his own surprise evident, then straightened his spine as he saw her standing in the water.

"Excuse me, Dame Honor," he said quickly. "I thought the gym would be unoccupied. I didn't mean to intrude."

"That's all right, Captain Tankersley." Honor finished climbing out of the pool. "And you're not intruding. Come on in."

"Thank you, Ma'am." Tankersley moved further forward to let the hatch close behind him, then looked around and whistled silently. "Admiral Sarnow wasn't joking when he said they'd given him his own playground, was he?"

"No, he wasn't," Honor agreed. "Just a second, and I'll turn the gravity back down."

"Don't bother, please. I often turn it up myself—when there's no one around to scream about it. That's one reason I was so grateful the Admiral invited me to drop by when I was off duty."

"It does make people a bit cranky," Honor agreed with a smile.

"Well, I can see their point, but I got into the habit at Saganami Island. I was on the unarmed combat team, and Chief MacDougal always had us Manticoran and Gryphon sissies work out under at least an extra quarter-gee."

"You were on the team?" Honor asked in surprise. "So was I! Which form did you train in?"

"The Chiefs favorite," Tankersley said wryly. "Coup de vitesse." 

"Have you kept in training?" she demanded.

"Yes, Ma'am. Not as well as I'd like, but I've kept it up."

"Well, well, well," Honor murmured. "That's very interesting, Captain Tankersley. It just happens that I need a sparring partner. Interested?"

"Only if you promise not to hurt me," Tankersley said. Honor's eyebrows rose, and he grinned. "I've seen that footage from Grayson, Ma'am."

"Oh." Honor's cheeks heated, and she looked away. "I'd hoped people would forget about that."

"Good luck, Ma'am. It's not every day a Manticoran officer foils an attempt to assassinate a friendly head of state—and on camera, no less."

Honor shrugged uncomfortably. "It was really Nimitz's doing. If he hadn't felt their emotions and warned me, we'd all have been dead."

Tankersley nodded more soberly and glanced across the gym at Nimitz, who returned his gaze with all the hauteur of a holovid star.

"At any rate," Honor went on more briskly, "I still need a sparring partner, and if you're available . . . ?"

"Of course, Ma'am. I'd be honored."

"Good!" Honor held out her hand and he took it with a smile. She smiled back, but then she looked into his eyes and paused. There was something in them she wasn't accustomed to seeing. She couldn't quite put her finger on what that something was, but she was suddenly aware of how wet and clinging her thin unitard was. She felt her face heating again, and her own eyes fell as she released his hand with a sudden sense of awkwardness.

He seemed to feel it, too, for he looked away with a slight air of embarrassment. Silence hovered between them for a moment, and then he cleared his throat.

"By the way, Dame Honor," he said, an edge of strain shadowing his voice, "I've always wanted to apologize for what happened in Basilisk. I—"

"There's no need to apologize, Captain."

"I think there is, Ma'am," Tankersley disagreed quietly. He looked back into her face, his own expression serious.

"No, there isn't," she said firmly. "You happened to get caught in an old feud. You certainly didn't have anything to do with it, and there wasn't anything you could have done to prevent it."

"But I've always felt so dirty over it." Tankersley's eyes fell. "You see, I'd endorsed Captain Young's request for a refit before we knew anyone else had been assigned there. All his senior officers had."

Honor stiffened. She'd wondered why Young hadn't been relieved for leaving his station; now she knew. He must have learned of her assignment to Basilisk before she had, and he'd taken steps to cover himself when he abandoned the picket to her. A captain who arbitrarily pulled his ship off station for refit had better have a very compelling hardware problem to justify it. But if all of his department heads agreed his ship was in need of general overhaul, The Book authorized him to seek permission from his station's senior officer to return to the yard. As long as the senior officer in question approved, he couldn't be officially censured for abandoning his station . . . even if it later turned out the overhaul hadn't been necessary after all. And since Pavel Young had also been the senior officer on Basilisk Station, he could grant his own "request"—and leave Honor alone and unsupported—without ever quite violating the letter of the regs.

But his career couldn't have survived it when the station blew up in her face, family influence or no, if his officers hadn't signed off on his request as well.

"I see," she said after a moment. She picked up her towel and dried her hair, then wrapped it around her neck and draped its ends to cover her breasts. Tankersley stood silent, spine rigid, still looking away, and she reached out and touched his shoulder lightly.

"I see," she repeated, "but what I don't see, Captain, is any reason you should blame yourself for it." She felt his shoulder twitch and gave it a tiny squeeze before she removed her hand. "You couldn't have known what was coming when you endorsed his request."

"No," he said slowly, then sighed and turned back to her at last. "No, Ma'am, I didn't know what he was up to. As a matter of fact, I did know there was bad blood between you. I didn't know exactly why," he added hastily, "and, as I say, I didn't know you were coming when I signed off on his refit request. But I should have guessed he was up to something, and it never even occurred to me to wonder what. I suppose that's what I really blame myself for. I knew him, and I should have wondered, but to tell you the truth, all I wanted was to get away from Basilisk myself."

"Now that," Honor said with a grin that was only slightly forced, "I can understand! I was none too pleased to be sent there myself, and you'd already been stuck there for—what? A T-year?"

"Just about," he replied more naturally, and his mouth twitched in a grin of its own. "The longest year of my life, I think."

"I can imagine. But, seriously, I don't blame you or anyone but Young himself, and you shouldn't either."

"If you say so, Milady." The broad-shouldered captain surprised her with a formal bow that should have made her feel ridiculous as she stood looming a full head taller than him in her dripping unitard. But it didn't, somehow.

"Well, then!" she said. "You were on your way to exercise, and I've got to get back to my paperwork. When do you think you might be free for a match?"

"Tomorrow at twelve hundred would be good." He sounded relieved by the change of subject. "I've got a work crew scheduled to start pulling the outer hull plates under Fusion Three during the first watch, and I want to be there, but I should be clear by lunch."

"Fine! I'll see you at twelve hundred, then, Captain Tankersley," Honor said with a nod, and headed for the showers with Nimitz padding along at her heels.


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