She paused as Adenauer half-raised a hand.

            "Yes, Dominica?"

            "It sounds like you're saying all the Agamemnons are being retained here at the front, Ma'am."

            "That's exactly what I am saying," Michelle agreed. "The Nikes were designed for this sort of duty from the beginning. We're bigger than the Agamemnons, we've got larger crews, and we've got more Marines. And we're not a pod design. Unlike us, the Agamemnons can load their pods with all-up Mark 23s, whereas we're limited to the Mark 16."

            Adenauer nodded, although it was evident she didn't see exactly why that was particularly significant, given the traditional battlecruiser's role and tactical doctrine. Then again, Commander Adenauer knew even less about a fire control system called Apollo than then-Rear Admiral Henke had known prior to the Battle of Solon . . . and considerably less than Vice Admiral Henke hoped to know about it in about two days' time.

            And this isn't the time to tell her about it, either, Michelle thought.

            "I'm sure another aspect of the Admiralty's thinking is that the Havenites have MDMs of their own, whereas the Sollies — as far as all of our intelligence sources know, at any rate — don't. The new laser head modifications are going to turn the Mark 16 into a much heavier hitter, and if we do find ourselves in a shooting situation with the Sollies, the Mark 16 is also going to outrange anything they've got. Which, unfortunately, is not the case where Haven is concerned."

            Adenauer nodded again, this time more firmly, and Michelle shrugged.

            "Unless present plans change — and Lord knows they're entirely likely to do just that — we'll be seeing a total of at least two and probably three squadrons of Nikes in the Cluster within the next few months. And, also unless present plans change, those squadrons will be integrated into a new fleet, designated Tenth Fleet. My understanding is that Vice Admiral Khumalo will remain Talbott Station SO, and that the entire Cluster will be integrated into that station. Tenth Fleet will be his primary naval component, and Achilles will become Tenth Fleet's flagship when it's formally activated."

            Cynthia Lecter's eyes widened, and Michelle restrained an urge to chuckle at her expression. Michele's own expression when Cortez and First Space Lord Caparelli had sprung that additional little surprise upon her had been considerably more flabbergasted than Lecter's was.

            From prisoner-of-war to fleet commander in one easy jump, she thought. What would life be like without these little surprises to keep us on our toes?

            "That's, ah, the first I've heard of that, Ma'am," Captain Armstrong said after a moment, and Michelle snorted softly.

            "I did say plans are likely to be subject to change, Captain," she pointed out. "Despite that caveat, however, I also have to say Admiral Caparelli and Admiral Cortez made it quite clear they don't expect this particular plan to change. The reason I'm mentioning it at this point is that we all need to be thinking outside the 'single-squadron' box. That's where our thinking has to be right now, of course, for a lot of reasons, but I want all of us to remember what's coming at us from the other side of the horizon. Not just because of its implications for our own responsibilities, either. When we begin interacting with the Talbotters — and, for that matter, with any Sollies in the vicinity — it should be with the understanding that in a very short time you people are going to be the staffers and flag captain, respectively, not of a single battlecruiser squadron, but of an entire fleet. We need to be careful about the sort of relationships we establish with the Talbotters, and we need to be both firm and cautious from the outset where the Sollies are concerned."

            Heads nodded soberly, and she nodded back.

            "In addition to the purely military dimensions of our duties in Talbott," she continued, "there are the diplomatic dimensions. At the moment, unfortunately, our military and diplomatic responsibilities are rather . . . intimately interwoven, one might say. Not only that, but the entire Quadrant is in a transitional stage. We're still going to be involved in what are essentially diplomatic missions, even though officially all of the ratifying star systems are now member systems of the Star Empire of Manticore."

            She wondered for a moment if those last four words sounded as bizarre to the others as they still did to her.

            "It's going to take some time for them to settle into their new relationships with one another and with us," she went on. "While that's happening, we're still going to be acting much more in the role of someone refereeing disputes between independent entities. At the same time, however, we have to act in a fashion which clearly indicates that as far as we're concerned, the annexation is an accomplished fact. And it's just as important we indicate that to the star systems — and the navies — of anyone who hasn't ratified the new constitution. I'm thinking in particular of systems like New Tuscany, but that also applies to the Office of Frontier Security and to the Solarian League in general.

            "And, of course, in our copious free time, we'll be doing all those other little things navies do. Chasing down pirates, interdicting the slave trade and generally making ourselves pains where those bastards on Mesa are concerned, updating charts, surveying for dangers to navigation, rendering assistance to ships in distress, disaster relief, and anything else that comes along.

            "Any questions?"

            The other five officers looked at one another speculatively for several seconds, then returned their attention to her.

            "I think that's all reasonably clear, Ma'am," Armstrong told her. "Please note that I didn't say that it sounds easy, just that it's clear," she added.

            "Oh, believe me, Captain, any suspicion I might have cherished that the Admiralty, in the kindness of its heart, was trying to find some simple, uncomplicated billet for a recently released prisoner-of-war to fill went right out the airlock at Admiral Givens' first briefing. And I'm sure that, after tomorrow's briefing, the rest of you are going to be just as well aware as I am of the dimensions of the job waiting for us. Mind you, getting to play with all of the new ships as they become available is going to be fun, I'm sure. Unfortunately, this time around, one other thing I'm sure of is that we're all going to be earning our pay."