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The battlecruiser Invincible accelerated toward her assigned target area. Captain Marguerite Daumier sat in her command chair, outwardly relaxed as she led her temporary division's firing run, but Honor suspected she was less calm than she looked, for the atmosphere on Invincible's bridge was prickly with tension.

She rubbed Nimitz's ears, her own face carefully expressionless, as she stood at the back of the bridge, silently comparing Daumier's command crew to her own. Daumier had commanded Invincible for over a T-year, and her people worked with a smooth precision Nike's bridge crew had yet to attain—not that Honor intended to admit that to a living soul. But whatever Invincible's internal command team was like, the performance of her division had been sadly substandard.

It wasn't Daumier's fault. Nor, for that matter, was it anyone else's, really. None of the three ships had ever worked together before, and there was an undeniable hesitancy to their coordination. Intolerant had actually missed a course change and maintained three hundred and eighty gravities acceleration on her old heading for over ninety seconds before Captain Trinh realized what had happened. Honor was just as glad she hadn't been on his bridge to witness his reaction when he did, and she'd half expected Sarnow to com the unfortunate offender for the express purpose of ripping his head off. But the admiral had only winced and stood watching the display in silence while Trinh fought to get back into formation.

That had been the day's most spectacular error, but it certainly hadn't been the only one. Most of them might not have been apparent to someone simply watching the exercise, but they were painfully evident to the people trying to carry it out. Despite their size, battlecruisers were far too lightly armed to oppose a wall of battle ship broadside to broadside. They had to rely on bold, perfect handling to outmaneuver larger opponents, and the same qualities were required to catch the smaller ships which were their rightful prey, for cruisers and destroyers could pull higher accelerations and were faster on the helm. Unhappily for Sarnow's captains, their ability to act and react as a unit was far below the Navy's usual standards, however good they might be as individuals.

Except for Achilles and Cassandra, that was, which must make Captain Daumier even more unhappy, Honor thought sympathetically. Commodore Isabella Banton's veteran division had operated as a team for over two T-years, and it showed as she whipped them around in obedience to Sarnow's signals. They moved as if they were a single ship, performing with a precision which brutally underscored the other ships' clumsiness. Had it come to an actual fight, Banton's two ships could probably have whipped Daumier's three, which couldn't make Daumier a very happy woman just now.

"Entering firing range, Ma'am." Invincible's tac officer sounded a bit tense, and his spine was taut, as if he were physically resisting the urge to look over his shoulder at Admiral Sarnow.

"Pass the word to the division, Com," Daumier said. "Request confirmation of their readiness."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." The com officer bent over her panel. "All units confirm readiness, Captain," she reported after a moment.

"Thank you."

Daumier leaned back, arms folded. There was something almost prayerful in her attitude, and Honor tried hard not to smile in sympathy lest someone misinterpret her expression. She knew Daumier would have vastly preferred to slave Agamemnon's and Intolerant's weapons to Invincible's fire control, but that wasn't the purpose of the exercise. Sarnow already knew Daumier's was a crack gunnery ship; he wanted to see how the division performed in a high-speed, short-range, short-notice firing pass without the squadron tac net, and Honor suspected the answer was going to be not very well.

"Coming to final firing bearing," the tac officer said. "Beacon search initiated. Searching . . . searching . . . contact!" He waited one more moment, eyes glued to his display as the asteroid-mounted beacons mimicking hostile warships blinked at him. "Beacon ID confirmed! I have lock, Captain!"

"Fire," Daumier replied sharply, and Invincible's waiting broadside fired in instant response.

Honor's eyes turned almost automatically to the visual display. It was useless for battle control, but at such a short range—

A terrible, silent tornado erupted across the display as lasers and grasers tore at the inoffensive nickel-iron of Hancock's asteroid belt. Some of the smaller asteroids simply vanished, vaporizing in explosive spits of fury; others flashed like tiny stars as the beams ripped into them, and then the first missiles began to glare like small, dreadful suns, and Honor felt something almost like awe.

She'd seen more destruction unleashed in a single broadside. Indeed, she'd unleashed it herself long ago, as HMS Manticore's tac officer. But Manticore was a superdreadnought, huge, slow, and ponderous, clumsy with her own power and designed to survive the crushing embrace of the wall of battle. This was different, somehow. There was a sense of fleetness fused with power, an awareness of the squadron's graceful lethality.

Or, she amended with a glance at the tracking display, its potential lethality, at any rate, for someone had screwed up big time.

She kept her eyes on the display, carefully not looking at Sarnow, as the ships completed their firing pass and CIC analyzed the results. One of the ships—it looked like the unfortunate Intolerant yet again—had locked her batteries on the wrong set of target beacons.

Had that been an enemy squadron out there, one of its units would have been left totally unengaged. Not only would it have escaped any damage of its own, but its fire control crews, unhampered by the threat of incoming fire, would have been free to reply as if they were engaged in target practice. Which meant one of Sarnow's ships would have taken a terrible beating.

Captain Daumier's shoulders tightened, and the silence on the bridge stretched out endlessly until Sarnow cleared his throat.

"It would appear we have a problem, Captain," he observed, and Daumier turned her head to meet his gaze. "Who was it?" he asked after a moment.

"I'm afraid Intolerant targeted Agamemnon's beacons, Sir." Daumier's level reply was equally devoid of apology or any condemnation of Trinh's ship, and Honor gave a mental nod of approval.

"I see." Sarnow folded his hands behind him and walked slowly over to the tactical section to study the detailed readouts, then sighed. "I suppose it's still early days. But we'll have to do better than this, Captain."

"Yes, Sir."

"Very well. Bring the division about, please, Captain Daumier. Put us at rest relative to the belt while Commodore Babcock makes her run. I want to see how her division does."

"Aye, aye, Sir. Plot it, Astro."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." The astrogator's voice was as uninflected as his captain's, but Honor knew neither of them was looking forward to the Admiral's wordless object lesson.

* * *

The squadron and division commanders of BatCruRon Five and its attached screening elements came to attention as Admiral Sarnow walked into the briefing room aboard Nike. Honor followed at his heels with Captain Corell, and the assembled officers' wariness was like a visible cloud. It was the first time Sarnow had gathered them all together, and Commodore Prentis, CO of Division 53, had arrived with HMS Defiant less than six hours before. He hadn't been around to participate in the last few days' exercises, but that was a mixed blessing. He might not have any blots on his copybook, but it made him very much the new kid on the block, and he must have realized by now that the rest of the squadron expected their admiral to pitch a tantrum over their recent performance.

"Be seated, ladies and gentlemen," Sarnow directed, taking his own chair at the head of the table while Honor and Corell sat to his right and left. Most of the others looked uncomfortably straight ahead of themselves, but an immaculately groomed commander seated beside Commodore Van Slyke, CO of Heavy Cruiser Squadron Seventeen, glanced sharply at Honor before he looked away. He looked vaguely familiar, though she was certain they'd never met, and she wondered who he was.

"Well, people," the admiral went on after a moment, "it seems we have our work cut out for us. Fortunately—and I use the word advisedly—Admiral Parks isn't going to expect us to do anything difficult any time soon."

His tone was light, almost whimsical, but something like an invisible mental wince ran around the table, and Captain Trinh flushed.

"I realize no one person can be blamed for our present shortcomings," Sarnow continued. "Unfortunately, all of us bear the responsibility for overcoming them. From this moment, we start with a clean slate, but everything that happens from here out gets written down. Understood?"

Heads nodded, and he gave one of his fierce smiles.

"Good! Understand, ladies and gentlemen. I don't look for scapegoats and I don't hold past mistakes against people, but I can also be the worst son-of-a-bitch you never want to meet. And the fact that Admiral Parks is watching every move we make isn't calculated to put me in a better humor. Any new squadron has its problems. I know that, and Admiral Parks knows it. The extent of our sympathy for those problems, however, will be dictated by the efforts made to overcome them. I'm sure you won't disappoint us."

Heads nodded again, a bit more emphatically, and he leaned back.

"In that case, let's begin by examining what went wrong. Captain Corell and Captain Harrington have prepared a critique of the recent exercises, and I'm sure we'll all find their presentation fascinating."

* * *

Murmuring voices filled the compartment, and crystal clinked gently as stewards refilled empty glasses. Admiral Sarnow's guests stood clumped in small knots or circulated like slowly swirling water, and Honor made herself smile and nod whenever the Brownian movement brought someone into interaction range.

It wasn't easy, for she disliked social gatherings. She always had, but at least she'd learned to counterfeit the air of comfort required of a host.

She plucked a celery stick from a tray of canapes and reached up to hand it to Nimitz. The cat gave a soft chitter of delight and clasped the delicacy in a true-hand, balancing himself on her shoulder with his four rear limbs while he chewed, and her eyes twinkled as she felt his epicurean bliss. She scratched his chest idly while she watched MacGuiness move unobtrusively among the commodores and captains, watching over Nike's other stewards, and thanked God she had him. And while she was at it, a prayer or two of gratitude for her exec might not be amiss. Commander Henke glided about with the grace of a Sphinx albatross, and her junior rank was more than offset by her poise. And, of course, her lineage, Honor thought with a smile.

Commodore Stephen Van Slyke emerged from the crowd to engage Sarnow in a low-voiced conversation. Honor didn't know Van Slyke, but what she'd seen of him looked good. He was built like a wrestler—bullnecked, black-haired, and brown-eyed, with eyebrows even heavier than Sarnow's—but his movements were quick, and if his comments during the COs' meeting hadn't been marked by brilliance, they'd been both pragmatic and to the point.

The same gorgeously-tailored commander who'd looked her way at the conference table followed in Van Slyke's wake and paused with an almost pained expression as the two flag officers stepped aside without him. He looked about for just a moment, and then his hazel eyes settled on Honor and narrowed.

She returned his gaze levelly, wondering what his problem was. He was a slender, wasplike man who moved with the languid, studied grace a certain segment of the aristocracy affected—and which Honor had always disliked. She'd served with officers who were even more languid and drawling, and some of them had been among the sharpest people she'd ever met. She had no idea why they chose to hide their competence behind such irritating, foppish facades, and she wished they wouldn't.

The commander continued to look at her—not quite staring, but more fixedly than was courteous—then crossed the deck to her.

"Captain Harrington." His voice was cultured, with a polished veneer that reminded her instantly of someone, though she couldn't think who.

"Commander." She nodded. "I'm afraid we haven't been introduced," she continued, "and with so many new officers to meet, I didn't catch your name."

"Houseman," the commander said flatly. "Arthur Houseman, chief of staff to Commodore Van Slyke. I believe you've met my cousin."

Honor felt her smile stiffen, and Nimitz stopped chewing his celery. No wonder he'd seemed so familiar. He was shorter than Reginald Houseman, and his complexion was fairer, but the family resemblance was pronounced.

"Yes, I have, Commander." Her cool soprano struck his rank with just an edge of emphasis, and he flushed faintly at the reminder of her seniority.

"I thought you had . . . Ma'am." The pause was deliberate, and her lips tightened. Icicles formed in her eyes, and she stepped closer to him, pitching her voice too low for anyone else to hear.

"Understand something now, Commander. I don't like your cousin, and he doesn't like me, but that doesn't concern you. Unless, of course, you want it to, and I really don't think you do." Her smile showed her teeth, and something like alarm flickered in his eyes. "But regardless of your personal feelings, Commander Houseman, you will observe proper military courtesy, not simply to me but to anyone on my ship." Houseman's gaze avoided hers, flitting to Sarnow and Van Slyke, and Honor's smile turned even colder. "Don't worry, Commander. I won't involve Admiral Sarnow—or Commodore Van Slyke. But, then, I don't think it will be necessary, will it?"

His eyes darted angrily back to her, and she held them coldly. Then he swallowed, and the moment of confrontation passed.

"Was there anything else, Commander?" she asked softly.

"No, Ma'am"

"Then I'm certain you have somewhere else you need to be," she said. His face tightened again for just an instant, but then he nodded curtly and turned away. Nimitz quivered with anger on Honor's shoulder, and she reached up to stroke him reassuringly while she watched Houseman vanish into the crowd.

She could have handled that better, she told herself, though the man's sheer arrogance appalled her. A commander, whatever his family influence—and the Houseman clan, she admitted, had plenty of that—who picked a quarrel with a captain of the list deserved whatever grief it bought him, yet she knew her own response had confirmed his enmity, and she regretted that. There probably hadn't been much chance of avoiding it, but she was Sarnow's flag captain. It was part of her job description to defuse matters that might hamper the squadron's smooth operation, and she hadn't even tried. Worse, it hadn't even occurred to her that she ought to have tried until it was all over.

She sighed silently and listened to Nimitz crunch his celery. One of these days she was going to have to learn to control her own temper.

"Penny for your thoughts, Dame Honor," a tenor voice murmured. She looked up quickly, and Admiral Sarnow smiled at her. "I was wondering when you and Commander Houseman would meet. I see he survived the experience."

Honor's cheeks heated at his ironic tone, and his smile turned wry.

"Oh, don't worry about it, Captain. Arthur Houseman is a liberal bigot with an ego problem. If you stepped on him, he undoubtedly needed it, and if I'd thought you'd step too hard, I would have warned you about him." Honor's blush faded, and he nodded. "Exactly. As I told you, Dame Honor, you're my flag captain, and I expect you to act the part. Which includes not taking any crap from a junior officer who's also a stuck-up prig and resents your having proved his cousin is a coward. Unfortunately, he really is good at his job. That, I imagine, is the reason Commodore Van Slyke tolerates him, but it's no reason you have to."

"Thank you, Sir," she said quietly.

"Don't thank me, Captain." He touched her elbow lightly, his eyes twinkling with curiously mingled amusement and warning. "When you're right, you're right. When you're not, I'll cut you off at the knees."

He smiled again, and she felt herself smile back.


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