"Skipper, we've got an unscheduled hyper footprint at six million kilometers!"

            Captain Jane Timmons, CO, HMS Andromeda, spun her command chair towards her tactical officer. Six million kilometers was inside single-drive missile range!

            She opened her mouth to demand more information, but the tac officer was already providing it.

            "It's a single footprint, Ma'am. Very small. Probably a dispatch boat."

            "Anything from it?" Timmons asked.

            "Not FTL, Ma'am. And we wouldn't have anything light-speed for another –" he glanced at the time chop on the initial detection "– another couple of seconds. In fact –"

            "Captain," the com officer said in a very careful voice, "I have a communications request I think you'd better take."

* * * * * * * * * *

            "Excuse me," the extremely suspicious looking woman in the uniform of a Royal Manticoran Navy captain of the list said from the smallish com screen on Comet's command deck, "but you're going to have to do a bit better than that, Captain . . . Brangeard, was it? There are proper channels for diplomatic exchanges. Ones that don't let Havenite dispatch boats into sensor range of sensitive installations. So I recommend you try a bit harder to convince me not to open fire."

            "All right, Captain," Michelle said, stepping into the range of the visual pickup. "Let's see if I can't just do that little thing for the Captain."

            Michelle hadn't realized just how badly the Manticoran Alliance's FTL com had spoiled her until she found herself forced to put up once again with the limitations of purely light-speed communications at such piddling little ranges. She stood there, waiting while her transmission crossed the twenty light-seconds to the other ship, then for another twenty seconds while the response from the other end crossed back to Comet.

            In the end, she decided, it was worth the wait.

            Forty seconds after she'd first spoken, a spike of heightened suspicion flashed across the face on Comet's com display as the other woman saw Michelle's immaculate Manticoran uniform on someone speaking to her from aboard a Havenite vessel. But then Andromeda's captain looked past the uniform, and the suspicion turned into something very different. Michelle knew from personal experience that the RMN didn't exactly pick people it expected to be easily confounded to command its battlecruisers, but the other woman's jaw actually dropped.

            Well, Michelle thought, I do have the Winton nose. And aside from the fact that my complexion's about twelve shades darker than Beth's, we really do favor. Or so I've been told, anyway.

            "I suppose this is all a bit irregular," she said dryly as recognition flared across the captain's face, "but I have a message for Her Majesty from the President of the Republic of Haven."

* * * * * * * * * *

            Michelle made herself sit very still as thrusters flared, easing Andromeda's number one pinnace into the boat bay of the stupendous superdreadnought. It was hard. Too many emotions, too many conflicting tides of relief, surprise, hope, and anxiety were washing through her. The last time she'd seen this ship's icon on a tactical display, she'd known she would never see it or the admiral whose lights it flew again. Yet here she was, turning up once again, like the proverbial bad penny.

            And with such an . . . interesting message to deliver, too, she reflected. But it's really not fair. When Honor came back from the dead, I was nowhere in the vicinity. At least we'd both gotten a chance to get our emotions back under control before we came face-to-face again.

            The pinnace settled into the docking arms, and the personnel tube and service umbilicals ran out and mated with the access points on its hull. The flight engineer checked the hatch telltales.

            "Good seal, Flight," he reported to the flight deck. "Cracking the hatch."

            The hatch slid open, and the petty officer who'd opened it stood aside and braced to attention.

            "Welcome home, Admiral," he said with an enormous smile, and Michelle smiled back at him.

            "Thank you, PO Gervais," she said, reading his name off the nameplate on the breast of his uniform. The petty officer's smile grew even broader, and then she nodded to him and launched herself into the personnel tube's zero-gravity.

            The distance from the pinnace's passenger compartment to HMS Imperator was no more than a few meters, but she relished the brief zero-gee passage. Her leg hadn't been simply broken when Ajax was destroyed. "Shattered" would have been a more accurate choice of verb, or even "pulverized," and quick-heal always slowed down on bone repairs, anyway. The leg was perfectly capable of supporting her weight now, at least as long as she took it easy, but it still tended to ache most unpleasantly if she pushed it too hard.

            She reached the inboard end of the tube, caught the red grab bar, and swung herself back out of the tube's microgravity and into the standard one-gravity field of Eighth Fleet's flagship. She landed more than a bit gingerly — sudden impacts pushed the nerve messages from her broken leg beyond unpleasant to acutely painful — and came to attention and saluted through the twitter of bosun's pipes.

            "Battlecruiser Squadron Eighty-One, arriving!"

            The announcement she'd expected never to hear again came over the bay's speakers, and the side party snapped to attention, returning her salute sharply.

            "Permission to come aboard, Sir?" she requested from the lieutenant who wore the black brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck.

            "Permission granted, Admiral Henke!"