Chapter Eight



            Michelle accepted her beret from Master Steward Billingsley and started to turn towards the door and the waiting Admiralty air car when she paused suddenly.

            "And what, Master Steward, might that be?" she asked.

            "I beg the Admiral's pardon?" Billingsley said innocently. "What 'that' would the Admiral be referring to?"

            "The Admiral would be referring to that 'that,'" Michelle replied, one forefinger indicating the broad, prick-eared head which had just poked itself exploringly around the corner of a door.

            "Oh, that 'that'!"

            "Precisely," Michelle said, folding her arms and regarding him ominously.

            "That's a cat, Ma'am," Billingsley told her. "Not a treecat, a cat — an Old Terran cat. It's called a 'Maine Coon.'"

            "I'm well aware of what an Old Terran cat looks like, Chris," Michelle said repressively, never unfolding her arms. "I don't believe I've ever seen one quite at large, but I do know what they are. What I don't know is what it's doing in my mother's townhouse."

            Actually, the townhouse and its landscaped grounds belonged to Michelle now, not to her mother, but it was Caitrin Winton-Henke's home, even if Michelle did have most of a wing reserved for her private use whenever she was on Manticore.

            "Well, actually, Ma'am, he's mine," Billingsley said with the air of someone making a clean breast of it.

            "And just when did this monumental change in your status as a parent take place?" Michelle inquired just a bit acidly as the rest of the impressively large feline ambled into the foyer.

            "Day before yesterday," Billingsley said. "I . . . found him wandering around over near the Master Chiefs' Club. He looked like he needed a home, and he walked right up to me, and I couldn't just leave him there, Ma'am!"

            "I see," Michelle said, looking into his guilelessly wide and innocent eyes. "And would it happen that this hulking menace to all mice, hamsters, chipmunks, and unwary small children has a name?"

            "Yes, Ma'am. I call him 'Dicey.'"

            "'Dicey,'" Michelle replied with long-suffering resignation. "Of course."

            Billingsley continued to look as if butter would not melt in his mouth, but the name was a dead giveaway of how his new pet had really come into his possession, Michelle thought, looking at the enormous cat. It was the first terrestrial cat she'd ever seen who looked like he probably came close to matching Nimitz's mass. Not only that, but 'Dicey' was a good twenty centimeters shorter overall than Nimitz, and although he was definitely a long hair, he was nowhere near as fluffy as a treecat, which made him substantially bulkier. One ear had a notch that looked like someone else had taken a bite out of it, and there was a visible scar across the back of his burly neck. Obviously, he'd been to the wars, yet there was something about him that reminded her irresistibly of Billingsley himself, now that she thought about it. A certain endearing disreputability, perhaps.

            "You do realize how many regulations there are against having a pet on board one of her Majesty's starships?"

            "Regulations, Ma'am?" Billingsley repeated blankly, as if he'd never heard the word before.

            Michelle started to open her mouth again, then gave up. A wise woman knew when to cut her losses, and she didn't begin to have the time it would take to make a dent in Billingsley's bland innocence. Besides, she didn't have the heart for it.

            "As long as you understand that I'm not going to put any pressure on anyone to allow you to bring that beast along on our next deployment," she said, trying womanfully to sound firm.

            "Oh, yes, Ma'am. I understand that," Billingsley assured her without a trace of triumph.

* * * * * * * * * *

            "Excuse me, Admiral."

            Michelle turned from her study of the streets and green belts of the City of Landing, two hundred floors below her crystoplast window viewpoint, as the Admiralty yeoman spoke.

            "Yes, Chief?"

            "Sir Lucian is ready for you now, Ma'am."

            "Thank you, Chief."

            She managed to restrain the almost overpowering impulse to let nervous fingers check her appearance one last time, nor did she lick her lips anxiously or whistle a merry tune to disguise her nervousness. Despite which, unusually large butterflies seemed to be waltzing about in her midsection as the yeoman pressed the button which opened the door to Sir Lucian Cortez's palatial Admiralty House office.

            She nodded her thanks and stepped through the waiting portal, with Lieutenant Gwendolyn Archer, her brand new flag lieutenant, on her heels.

            "Admiral Gold Peak!"

            Cortez was a smallish man who wore the uniform of an admiral of the green. In many ways, he looked more like a successful schoolteacher, or perhaps a bank bureaucrat, than a naval officer, despite the uniform. And in many ways, Michelle supposed, he was a bureaucrat. But he was a very important bureaucrat — the Royal Manticoran Navy's Fourth Space Lord and the commanding officer of the Bureau of Personnel. It was his job to meet the unending appetite of the frantically expanding, brutally overworked Navy, and no one — including Michelle — quite knew how he had done that so well, for so long. Under the prewar system of rotating senior officers regularly through fleet commands and then back to desk jobs in order to see to it that they stayed operationally current, Cortez would have been replaced in his present position long since. No one in her right mind was going to suggest replacing him under wartime conditions, however.

            Now he came to his feet, smiling and welcome, and extended his hand to her across the desk as the other man, a commander wearing the insignia of the Judge Advocate's Corps, who'd been sitting beside the office's coffee table also stood respectfully.

            "Good morning, My Lord," Michelle responded to Cortez's greeting, and clasped his hand firmly. Then she quirked one eyebrow politely at the waiting commander, and Cortez smiled.

            "No, you're not going to need legal representation, Milady," he assured her. "This is Commander Hal Roach, and he is here because of you, but not because of anything you've done. Unless, of course, you have a guilty conscience I didn't know anything about?"

            "My Lord, my conscience is as pure as the driven snow," she replied, holding out her hand to Roach, and the commander smiled in appreciation as he took it. He was a solidly-built fellow, with dark hair, and probably somewhere in his mid-forties, Michelle estimated.