"Admiral Gold Peak!"

            Admiral Sonja Hemphill held out her hand with a smile as Michelle and Gervais Archer were ushered into the Admiralty House conference room. Hemphill — who had somehow managed, Michelle reflected sourly, to avoid being addressed as "Admiral Low Delhi," despite her succession to the Barony of Low Delhi — was the Fourth Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Navy.

            There were those, and Michelle had been one of them, who'd been astounded (to put it mildly) when the First Lord of Admiralty, Hamish Alexander-Harrington (although he'd been only Hamish Alexander at the time), had selected Hemphill for her present position. Alexander-Harrington, the Earl of White Haven, and Hemphill had been bitter opponents for decades. White Haven had been the champion and leader of the "historical school," which had argued that changes in technology could only shift the relative values of strategic and tactical realities which were themselves constant. That being so, the true art of strategy and naval command had lain in understanding what those realities were and applying them in the most effective manner possible with the available tools, not in looking for some sort of magical gimmick which would make them all go away.

            Hemphill, on the other hand, although substantially junior to White Haven, had been the leader of the "jeune ecole." The jeune ecole had argued that the plateau — or, as they preferred to call it, "stagnation" — in military technology over the past couple of centuries had led to a matching stagnation in strategic and tactical thinking. The answer, as far as the jeune ecole's members were concerned, was to follow the pattern established (sort of) by the introduction of the laser head and break the hardware stagnation, thus completely restructuring strategy and tactics. Or even making conventional tactics — and strategy — completely irrelevant.

            The internecine warfare between the supporters of the two schools had been . . . vigorous. It had also, upon occasion, been highly personnel, and possibly just a little less than professionally correct. In light of the fact that the Star Kingdom's survival had probably hinged on getting the answer right, it wasn't surprising tempers had run high, Michelle supposed. And the White Haven temper had been famous throughout the Navy even before combat was joined. Nor had Hemphill exactly been a shrinking violet, and despite the fact that the Alexanders and the Hemphills had moved in the same social circles for generations, there'd been a time when the hostesses of Landing had gone to great lengths to make sure they did not invite both of them to the same party.

            In the end, they'd both turned out to be right . . . and wrong. Hemphill's near-obsession with new weapons and command-and-control systems might have left people feeling as if they'd been "run down by an air lorry without being physically injured," as one of her contemporaries had put it, but it had also led directly to the FTL com, the new missile pods, the new LACs, Ghost Rider, and, ultimately, to the multidrive missile and the podnought. Yet for all of the huge increases in lethality which those new systems had made possible, the strategic and tactical constraints faced by military commanders had not magically disappeared. At the same time, however, the historical school had been forced to admit that the new technology had fundamentally transformed the parameters of those constraints to an extent which had created a radically new tactical paradigm.

            And it seemed that, along the way, White Haven and Hemphill had learned to tolerate one another again. Or, at least, to recognize that each of them had vital contributions to make.

            And it probably helps that Hamish is First Lord, not First Space Lord, too, Michelle thought wryly as she gripped Hemphill's proffered hand. He's the Admiralty's political head these days. I know he hates it, feels like he's out of the loop — or even out to pasture — but it also means the two of them are a lot less likely to lock horns than they might have been. Still, the idea to move her up to the head of BuWeaps came from him, not from Tom Caparelli or Pat Givens, so maybe he really is mellowing under Honor's enfluence. I suppose something more unlikely has to have happened somewhere in the galaxy. Maybe.

            "I'm glad you could make it," Hemphill continued, escorting Michelle around the conference table to the waiting chair. "I was afraid there wouldn't be time in your schedule, given your deployment date."

            Archer trailed along behind, carrying the small hand case which contained his minicomp. Michelle had been more than a little surprised when neither Lieutenant Commander Hennessy, Hemphill's chief of staff, nor the admiral's personal yeoman, had objected to the minicomp's presence. One of a flag lieutenant's normal responsibilities was to record and annotate a record of her admiral's meetings, conferences, and calendar, but the subject of this particular conference was so highly classified Michelle had half-assumed she wouldn't be permitted to tell herself about it, far less keep any notes.

            Apparently, she'd been wrong.

            "I'm glad there was time, too, Ma'am," Michelle replied, and shook her head with a slightly lopsided smile. "Fortunately, it's turning out that I have a pretty fair staff, so I've been able to steal the occasional few hours here and there instead of wrestling personally with all the squadron's problems. They're clubbing most of the hexapumas as they come out of the shrubbery all on their own now."

            Hemphill smiled back, and gestured for Michelle to sit down, then sat in her own chair at the head of the conference table. Lieutenant Archer waited until both flag officers were seated, then sat himself, and Hemphill didn't turn a hair as the lieutenant uncased his minicomp and configured it to record mode.

            "I'm glad to hear that," the admiral told Michelle, without so much as glancing in Archer's direction. "I understand Bill Edwards wound up working for you?"

            "Yes, he did." Michelle nodded. "Admiral Cortez told me I was lucky to get him, and I've come to the conclusion that — as usual — the Admiral was right."

            "Good!" Hemphill's smile got considerably broader, and she leaned back in her chair and swung it at a slight angle to the round table so that she could face Michelle squarely.