Chapter Eleven


            "Welcome aboard, Admiral," Captain of the List Veronica Armstrong said as Michelle stepped across the decksole line that marked the official boundary between Her Majesty's Space Station Vulcan and HMS Achilles, which had just become her flagship.

            The outsized personnel tube connecting the battlecruiser's number two boat bay to the space station had been crowded when she arrived. It was amazing how that had changed when the PA had informed everyone she was headed down-tube, however. The flow in and out of the tube had stopped almost immediately, and those souls who'd been unable to get out of it had shrunk back against the tube walls as Michelle made her way down its center with Gervais Archer and Chris Billingsley at her heels.

            It's good to be the Admiral, she'd thought to herself, working hard at maintaining a properly solemn expression. The temptation to laugh, however, had faded abruptly as she stepped out of the tube and the bosun's pipes began to shrill. The ancient boarding ceremony's salutes and formalities had flowed around her, and she'd felt her nerves tightening in a combination of anticipation, excitement, and nervousness. Now she reached out and clasped the hand Armstrong was offering her.

            "Thank you, Captain," she told her brand new flag captain . . . whom she'd never met before in her life.

            Armstrong was on the tall side, somewhere between Michelle and Honor for height, with a strong face, dark green eyes, and chestnut hair, She was young for her rank, even after a half T-century of naval expansion and twenty-plus years of war — just over twenty-five T-years younger than Michelle, in fact– and no one would ever consider her beautiful, or even exceptionally pretty. But there was character in that face, and intelligence, and the green eyes looked lively.

            "As you can see, Milady," the flag captain continued, waving her free hand at the bustling activity and seeming chaos which engulfed her boat bay, "we're still just a little busy." She had to raise her voice to be heard over the noise level, which had surged back up as soon as the new admiral's official welcoming was out of the way. "In fact, we've got yard dogs hanging from the deckhead, I'm afraid," she said with a smile.

            "So I can see," Michelle agreed. "Is there a particular problem?"

            "Tons of them," Armstrong said cheerfully. "But if you're asking if there's a problem that's going to delay our departure, the answer is no. At least, I'm pretty sure the answer is no. Engineering is the most buttoned up department, and I'm confident the ship will move when we step on the hydrogen, anyway. I may have my doubts about some of the other systems, but one way or the other, we will make our schedule, Milady. I've already warned Hephaesteus Central that if I have to, I'm taking their yard dogs with me when I go."

            "I see." Michelle shook her head, smiling. Her first suspicion — that Armstrong was drawing attention to the yard workers still thronging her boat bay as a preliminary for explaining why it wasn't her fault they couldn't pull out on time — had obviously been misplaced.

            "What I thought would probably be best, Milady," Armstrong continued, "was to get you onto the lift and out of this bedlam. Once we've got the doors closed and we can hear ourselves think, you can tell me where you want to go. Captain Lecter and Commander Adenauer are on Flag Deck at the moment. Cindy — I mean, Captain Lecter — asked me to tell you she knew you wouldn't be able to get anything done in the middle of all this racket, so she's waiting for you to decide where you want her. If you want her and Adenauer — and me, for that matter — in your day cabin instead of on Flag Deck, they'll be there by the time we could get there from here."

            "I would like to see my quarters," Michelle admitted, "but I'd like to see Flag Deck even more." She pointed over her shoulder at Chris Billingsley, who stood beside Lieutenant Archer a respectful three paces behind her. "If you could detail a guide for Chris here, and see to it that he gets to our quarters, I'd really prefer to head on up to Flag Deck. It's one way to stay out from underfoot while he fusses around and gets everything arranged perfectly."

            Armstrong glanced at the steward, one eyebrow rising as she noticed the out-sized  animal carrier in his right hand, then shrugged, chuckled, and nodded.

            "Of course, Milady. Would you object if I had my XO and tac officer join us there, as well?"

            "On the contrary, I was just about to ask you to invite them to do that."

            "Good. In that case, Admiral, I believe the lifts are on the other side of that heap of engineering spares somewhere."

* * * * * * * * * *

            It was indeed much quieter once the lift doors had closed behind them, and Michelle's nostrils flared as she inhaled the new-ship smell. There was nothing else quite like it. The environmental plants aboard the Navy's warships were extremely efficient at filtering out the more objectionable aromas a starship's closed environment generated so effortlessly. But there was a difference between air that was inoffensively clean and air that carried that indefinable perfume of newness. Before Michelle's Uncle Roger had begun his military buildup in response to the People's Republic of Haven's remorseless expansionism, some naval personnel had served their entire careers without smelling that perfume more than once. Some of them had never smelled it at all, for that matter.

            Michelle, on the other hand, had actually lost track of the number of times she'd smelled it. It was a small thing, perhaps, but it was the sort of small thing that put the enormous investment in money, resources, industrial effort, and trained personnel into stark perspective. The Star Kingdom of Manticore, for its size, might well be the wealthiest political entity in the entire galaxy, yet Michelle hated to think about the deficit the Star Kingdom was running up as it strained every sinew to survive.

            It's cheaper than buying a new kingdom, Mike, she told herself grimly, then gave herself a mental shake. And only you are perverse enough to go from "Gosh this ship smells wonderful!" to worrying about the national debt in point-three seconds flat. What you need is a treecat of your own. Someone like Nimitz to kick you in the ass — or bite you on the ear, or something — when you start doing crap like this.

            "Despite all of the yard dogs and loose parts scattered around, she looks like a beautiful ship, Captain," she said to Armstrong.

            "Oh, she is. She is!" Armstrong agreed. "And I only had to contract three murders to be sure I got her, too," she added cheerfully.

            "Only three?"

            "Well, there was that one other candidate," Armstrong said thoughtfully. "But he requested assignment somewhere else after I pointed out what had happened to the other three. Tactfully, of course."

            "Oh, of course."