Chapter Seven


            Michelle Henke made herself look up from her book reader calmly, with no sign of burning anticipation or nervousness, as Master Steward Billingsley cleared his throat politely in the open hatch.

            "Yes, Chris?"

            "Sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," Billingsley said gravely, dutifully allowing her to pretend she felt neither of those emotions, "but the Captain asked me to tell you we'll be dropping out of hyper in another twenty minutes. He requests that you join him on the command deck at your earliest convenience."

            "I see." Michelle carefully bookmarked her place, then tucked the reader away, and stood. "Please inform the Captain that I'll join him there in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, I'm going to freshen up just a bit."

            "Yes, Ma'am."

            Billingsley disappeared, and Michelle crossed to her minuscule cabin's even tinier head and allowed herself to smile wryly into the mirror over the small lavatory.

            She knew perfectly well she hadn't fooled Billingsley. For that matter, she hadn't really been trying to. She'd simply been  dutifully playing the roles their respective ranks had assigned to them, and Lieutenant Toussaint Brangeard, the CO of RHNS Comet, was playing by the same rules.

            And all of us are as nervous as treecats trying to sneak up on a hexapuma with a sore foot. She shook her head at the reflected admiral in the mirror. I'm damned sure I'm not the only one aboard who wishes there'd been time to set this up through the regular diplomatic channels instead of making this dramatic dash. Dropping in all unannounced is certainly one way to be sure we get Pritchart's message delivered in time to do some good, but only if we survive the experience. Under the circumstances, I wonder whether Brangeard is more nervous about being blown out of space by one of our pickets or of going down in history as the skipper who let the Queen of Manticore's cousin — and his President's diplomatic mission — get blown away along with him?

            Brangeard himself probably would have found that one hard to answer. Personally, Michelle would just as soon not get anyone killed, herself included, and she'd been extremely tempted to steer Brangeard towards one of the Hermes buoys seeded around the perimeter of Trevor's Star. As yet, however, there was no indication the Havenites were aware of that particular adaptation of Manticore's superior FTL communications technology. The system was still on the Official Secrets List but she'd come very close to telling Brangeard about it on the theory that the message she carried was far more important than preserving the secret of the Hermes buoy's existence. Always assuming, of course, that it really was still a secret.

            In the end, she'd decided against it for three reasons. First, it was entirely possible that seeing an unidentified hyper transit close to one of the buoys might prompt a shoot-first, ask-questions-later response from some overeager destroyer or light cruiser skipper. It wasn't supposed to, and neither Honor nor Theodosia Kuzak would be particularly pleased with the skipper in question. All of which would no doubt be very satisfying to the ghosts of the unarmed dispatch boat's passengers and crew. Second, she'd realized, was the fact that deep inside, she was still afraid to let herself believe her mission — or Pritchart's mission, perhaps, if she was going to be totally accurate — was going to succeed. It was almost as if a part of her had decided that she dared not do anything that might tempt a capricious fate into punishing her hubris. Which was undoubtedly about as dumb as it got, but was unfortunately also the truth. And, third, was the fact that the quicker communication the FTL relay would have permitted probably wouldn't really have had that much effect on the system defense forces' response to the sudden emergence of an unidentified ship from hyper. The fact that the entire star system had been declared closed military space gave any of its defenders the legal right to shoot first and try to identify the bodies — if any — afterwards, although she rather doubted any Manticoran squadron commander was likely to do anything of the sort.

            You hope, anyway, she told herself dryly.

            She checked her appearance carefully, making certain it was as close to perfect as humanly possible, then drew a deep breath and straightened her shoulders.

            Time to stop wasting time pretending Chris would let you leave this cabin looking anything but perfect, girl. You told him to tell Brangeard you'd join him on the flight deck. Now do it.

* * * * * * * * * *

            "Good morning, Admiral Gold Peak," Lieutenant Brangeard said, standing respectfully as Michelle stepped onto Comet's thumbnail-sized command deck.

            "Thank you, Captain," Michelle replied. She'd tried, for the first couple of days, to break Brangeard of the habit of addressing her by her title, but she'd met with no more success than she had with Arlo Tanner, although the reasons were quite different, she felt certain.

            "You timed it pretty well, Milady," he said, and nodded to the digital display on the bulkhead which showed the remaining time until Comet dropped back out of hyper-space again. As Michelle glanced at the display, it slipped over to show exactly four minutes, and she chuckled. Brangeard raised a polite eyebrow at her, and her chuckle turned into a snort.

            "I was just contemplating the perversity of the universe, Captain," Michelle told him. "A rather close friend of mine once did something very similar to this, although on a substantially grander scale."

            "Oh?" Brangeard cocked his head for a moment, then snorted himself. "You mean Duchess Harrington after she got away from StateSec at Cerberus, Milady?"

            "That's exactly who I mean," Michelle agreed. "As I say, though, she managed her arrival quite a bit more flamboyantly then we're about to. For one thing, she wasn't a paroled prisoner of war on someone else's command deck. And she had at least a half-dozen battlecruisers, which was probably enough firepower to give anyone pause long enough for her to establish communications."

            "I suppose that's true, Milady. On the other hand, the fact that Comet's only a dispatch boat is probably going to keep anyone from thinking we're any kind of significant threat. Which ought to keep any fingers off the launch button at least long enough to ask us what we think we're doing."

            "I keep telling myself that, Captain. Fervently and often," Michelle told him only half humorously. "Of course, there was one other small difference about Her Grace's arrival and ours." Brangeard looked at her, and she smiled. "At that point, no one had MDMs. So she had a lot more distance to play with before anyone could get into range of her ships."

            "Milady, I could've gone all morning without your reminding me of that particular little difference," Brangeard said in a desert-dry tone. "Let me thank you for drawing it to my attention."

            Michelle laughed and started to reply, but before she could, a soft tone chimed and Comet dropped back into normal-space just outside the Trevor's Star hyper limit.