Michelle managed not to chuckle again, although it was difficult. Not many captains would have been prepared to wax quite that cheerful with a vice admiral they'd never met before. Especially not a vice admiral whose flag captain they'd just become. Armstrong, obviously, was, and that said interesting things about her. Either she was a buffoon, or else she was sufficiently confident of her own competence to be who she was and let the chips fall wherever they fell.

            Somehow she didn't strike Michelle as the buffoon type.

            In fact, what she strikes me as is the Michelle Henke type, she admitted to herself. God. I wonder if the squadron's going to be able to survive two of us?

            "Ah, here we are," Armstrong observed as the lift slid to a halt and the door opened.

            They passed two more yard dogs in the very brief walk between the lift shaft and the armored hatch protecting Achilles' flag deck, and Michelle shook her head mentally. A lot of what was being done seemed to come under the heading of "cosmetic" — closing up interior bulkheads around circuitry runs, painting, lighting fixtures, that sort of thing — but she doubted that she could have been as cheerful as Armstrong if she'd been the captain of a ship due to deploy into a potential war zone in less than one week now and still buried under such swarms of yard workers.

            That thought carried her through the hatch, and the spacious, dimly lit coolness of her flag deck spread about her.

            Four people had been waiting for her there, and all four of them came to attention as she appeared.

            "Rule Number One," she said pleasantly. "Unless we're trying to impress some foreign potentate or convince some newsy we're really earning our lordly salaries, we all have better things to do than spend our time bowing and scraping before my towering presence."

            "Yes, Milady," a trim blonde at least twelve or thirteen centimeters shorter than Michelle replied.

            "Rule Number Two," Michelle continued, reaching out to shake the smaller woman's hand. "It's 'Ma'am,' not 'Milady,' unless the aforementioned foreign potentate or newsy is present."

            "Aye, aye, Ma'am," the other woman said.

            "And it's good to see you, too, Cindy," Michelle told her.

            "Thank you. Although," Captain (junior-grade) Cynthia Lecter told her, "after what happened at Solon, I didn't think I was going to be seeing you again quite this soon."

            "Which makes two of us," Michelle agreed. "This," she continued, waving Archer forward, "is Gwen Archer, my flag lieutenant.” She grinned as Lecter quirked an eyebrow at the first name. “Don't let that innocent expression of his fool you, either. He graduated fourteenth in his class in Tactics, and he's just finished a deployment as JTO on a heavy cruiser."

            She decided against explaining exactly how and when that deployment had ended. Cindy was more than good enough at her job to discover that information – as well as the reason for Archer’s nickname – without having it handed to her on a plate. Besides, the practice would do her good.

            Lecter didn’t seem particularly perturbed by Michelle’s failure to provide the information. She only nodded and smiled at Archer, who smiled back, and Michelle looked past Lecter at a considerably taller dark-haired commander

            "And this must be Commander Adenauer," she observed.

            "Yes, Ma'am," Adenauer confirmed as she shook Michelle's hand in turn. Adenauer was obviously from Sphinx, and her accent reminded Michelle strongly of Honor's, although Adenauer's voice was considerably deeper than her own contralto, far less Honor's soprano.

            "I hope you don't mind me mentioning this, Commander," Michelle said, "but your accent sounds awfully familiar."

            "Probably because I was raised about thirty kilometers outside Twin Forks, Ma'am," Adenauer replied with a grin. "The other side of the city from Duchess Harrington. But she's my . . .um . . . fifth cousin, I think. Something like that, anyway. I'd have to ask my mom to nail it down any closer than that, but just about everyone born in Duvalier is related to everyone else, one way or another."

            "I see." Michelle nodded. "Well, I've met Her Grace's mother and father,  and if their level of competence runs in the family, I think you and I should get along just fine, Commander."

            "Being related to 'the Salamander' is actually something of a karmic burden, Ma'am," Adenauer said. "Especially for a tac officer."

            "Really?" Michelle chuckled. "Well, so is being her tac officer or XO. Both of which positions I happen to have held in the dim shades of my own youth."

            "And speaking of tactical officers," Armstrong put in, "may I introduce Wilton Diego, my tac officer?"

            "Commander Diego." Michelle offered her hand once again and hoped he hadn't noticed the sharp, biting flicker of pain she'd felt when Armstrong introduced him. It wasn't Diego's fault, but simply hearing his last name reminded her of her last flag captain, Diego Mikhailovich.

            Fortunately, the stocky, broad-shouldered commander was as fair-skinned as Lecter and as red-haired as Archer. He didn't look a thing like Mikhailovich, and if he'd noticed her tiny twitch, he gave no sign of it.

            "Admiral," he said, returning her grip firmly.

            "I'm sure you're looking — that you and the Captain both are looking — forward to getting the yard dogs out of your hair, Commander," she said.

            "You've got that right, Mil — I mean, Ma'am," Diego said fervently. "Actually, Tactical is in pretty good shape. If it weren't for the traffic passing through at the most inopportune possible moments, I'd be a lot happier, though. It sort of takes the edge off a simulation when some yard dog cuts power at the critical moment because he has to change a heating element in the air scrubbers."

            "I know," Michelle said with carefully metered sympathy.

            "And this," Armstrong continued, waving the fourth and final officer forward, "is Ron Larson, my exec."

            "Commander Larson."

            Larson's handshake was as firm as Armstrong's own, although he was half a head shorter than the flag captain. He was as dark-haired as Adenauer, but his eyes were a curious slate-gray, not brown, and he sported a luxuriant but neatly trimmed beard that made him look vaguely piratical. There was something about him that reminded Michelle of Michael Oversteegen, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was. Hopefully it wouldn't turn out to be Oversteegen's cheerfully unquenchable arrogance. Michelle had always rather liked Oversteegen, and she respected his abilities, but that didn't mean she liked everything about him.