"Bill is good, very good," she said. "I really wanted to go on hanging onto him, but I couldn't justify it. Or, rather, I couldn't justify doing that to him. He's been with BuWeaps ever since he was an ensign — as Vice Admiral Adcock's flag lieutenant, originally — and he's way overdue for a rotation. In fact, he's at the point where he needs a shipboard deployment in his File 210 if he doesn't want to get stuck dirt-side permanently. Besides, I know how badly he's wanted one for years, even if he didn't exactly sit around crying about it. And, as I say, he's always been very good at whatever we've asked him to do."

            "That was my impression of him, too," Michelle agreed, but she was watching Hemphill's expression a bit more closely than she had been. The last three hectic days seemed to have confirmed her initial concern that Edwards was more of a techno-type than a combat officer. In many ways, that was fine, since the communications department was a lot less likely than others to find itself making tactical decisions, and there was absolutely no question of Edwards' outstanding competence where hardware and administration were concerned. Still, Michelle had continued to cherish a few concerns.

            "I sometimes think Bill would have been happier in the tactical track," Hemphill continued, rather to Michelle's surprise, given what she'd just been thinking. "I think he probably would have done quite well there, in fact. The problem is that while he might have done well there, he's done outstandingly on the development side. He's nowhere near as strong on pure theory as some of my people are, and I don't think he'd ever have been happy at all on the research side of things. But where development is concerned, he has an absolute talent for recognizing possible applications and seeing what he calls 'the shooters' perspective' on what we need to be doing. In fact, he had quite a lot to do with what we're going to be discussing today. Which," she shook her head, her expression suddenly wry, "undoubtedly explains why he's being sent in the opposite direction from where the new systems are actually likely to get used!"

            "I hadn't realized he was directly involved in developing Apollo," Michelle said. "He hasn't even twitched a muscle the time or two I've wandered a bit too close to mentioning it to the rest of the staff."

            "He wouldn't have," Hemphill agreed. "One thing about Bill; he knows how — and when — to keep his mouth shut."

            "So I've just discovered, Ma'am."

            "Well," Hemphill shrugged, "I know Bill doesn't exactly come off looking like a classic warrior, Admiral. Not until you get to know him, at least. And, as I say, he knows how to keep his mouth shut, which means he's not going to be polishing his image by dropping hints about all of the wonderful things he did for the Fleet's tactical sorts while he was over here at BuWeaps. To be honest, though, he did do some pretty good things while he was here, which is why I took it upon myself to mention that to you. I'm sure he'd be upset if he found out I had, but, well . . . ."

            She let her voice trail off with another shrug, and Michelle nodded once more. Much as she despised the patronage game herself, she had no problem with anything Hemphill had just said. Making certain the admiral a subordinate who'd served you well was now serving was aware of your high opinion of the subordinate in question was light-seconds away from the kind of self-serving horse-trading of favors which had so bedeviled the prewar RMN.

            "I won't mention this conversation to him, Ma'am," she assured Hemphill. "On the other hand, I'm glad you told me."

            "Good," Hemphill said again, then gave herself a little shake, as if to shift mental gears.

            "Tell me, Admiral Gold Peak. Just how much do you already know about Apollo?"

            "Very little, really," Michelle replied. "As one of Duchess Harrington's squadron commanders, I was briefed — very generally — on what the tech people were trying to accomplish, but that was about as far as it went. Just far enough to make me really nervous about the possibility of spilling something while I was the Havenites' . . . guest, you might say."

            Hemphill snorted at Michelle's wry tone and shook her head.

            "I imagine I'd probably have worried about the same thing myself, in your place," she said. "On the other hand, when we're done here today, you're definitely going to know enough to be nervous about 'spilling something.'"

            "Oh, thank you, Ma'am," Michelle said, and this time Hemphill laughed out loud.

            "Seriously, Ma'am," Michelle continued after a moment, "I'm not at all sure that giving me any sort of a detailed briefing at this point is a good idea. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm curious as hell. But like Commander Edwards, I'm headed in the opposite direction from where it's likely to get used. Do I really have the need to know any of the details about it?"

            "That's an excellent question," Hemphill conceded. "And, to be honest, I'd really like to keep this whole thing closed up in a dark little cupboard somewhere — preferably under my bed — until we've actually used it. The tests we've carried out with it have made it clear we substantially underestimated the tactical implications in our original projections, and I've had more than a few bad dreams about the secret getting out. But there actually is a method to our apparent madness in briefing you fully on the system capabilities."

            "There is?" Michelle tried not to sound dubious, but she suspected she hadn't fully succeeded.

            "Given the possibilities offered by this summit between Her Majesty and Pritchart, it's at least possible we're going to see a cease-fire, maybe even a long-term peace agreement, with Haven," Hemphill said. "In that case, we're not going to need Apollo against the Republic. But it's entirely possible we will need it in Talbott if the situation there turns as nasty as it still could. And you, Admiral Gold Peak, are the designated commander for Tenth Fleet. So the feeling here at Admiralty House is that if we suddenly find ourselves able to begin transferring Apollo-capable ships to Talbott, it would be nice if the Fleet commander who's going to be using them was already aware of the system's capabilities."

            Michelle's eyes had narrowed while Hemphill was speaking. She hadn't really thought about that possibility, because there were no ships of the wall on Tenth Fleet's planned order of battle. Her admittedly incomplete knowledge of Apollo had suggested to her that it could be used only by Keyhole-equipped ships of the wall. The Nikes and the second-flight Agamemnons were both Keyhole-capable, but their platforms were rather smaller than those of superdreadnoughts, and her impression had been that only wallers were big enough to carry the refitted, FTL-capable Keyhole platforms the new system required. Since she didn't have any wallers, it had followed that she wouldn't be using Apollo. But now she found herself nodding in understanding.

            "I hadn't thought about it that way," she admitted. "Would it happen that one reason Commander Edwards found himself available for service on my staff was that same possibility?"

            "It . . . had a bearing," Hemphill replied.

            "And will I be authorized to fully brief the rest of my staff on it, as well?"

            "You will," Hemphill said firmly, and grimaced. "The object is for you to begin familiarizing yourself with Apollo's capabilities and tactical possibilities. To do that, you're going to have to play around with those capabilities, game them out in the simulators, at the very least. You can't do that without bringing your staff, and for that matter, your flag captain and her tactical department, fully on board. And, of course," she glanced in Archer's direction for a moment, "if an admiral and her staff know about anything, her flag lieutenant probably knew about it first."

            Archer's head came up and he looked quickly at Hemphill, but the admiral only chuckled and shook her head.

            "Don't worry about it, Lieutenant. You're doing exactly what you're supposed to do — assuming that minicomp is as secure as I expect it is. And it's hardly going to be the only electronic record about Apollo aboard Achilles." She looked back at Michelle. "Before your squadron actually deploys, Admiral, we'll be uploading the same sims Duchess Harrington is using with Eighth Fleet to Achilles' tactical department."

            "Good," Michelle said, not even trying to hide her relief. "Of course, from the little I already know, I sort of suspect that having the sims to play around with when I don't have the actual hardware is going to get just a bit frustrating. I have to admit, Admiral — you've come up with some really neat toys."

            "One tries, Milady." Hemphill waved one hand modestly, but Michelle could see the comment had pleased her. Which was fair enough, given the fact that those "neat toys" of Hemphill's were one of the main reasons there was still a Royal Manticoran Navy and a Star Kingdom for it to serve.

            "It's just about time," Hemphill continued, glancing at her chrono, and tapped a brief command into the conference table console. The holo imager built into the tabletop came to life, projecting the images of a dozen or so Navy officers manning a tactical simulator's command deck. The senior-grade captain in the command chair looked up as he realized the electronic conference connection had come on-line.

            "Good morning, Captain Halsted," Hemphill said.

            "Good morning, Ma'am."

            "This is Vice Admiral Gold Peak, Captain," Hemphill told Halstead. "We're going to be giving her the inside story on Apollo this morning."

            "So I understood, Ma'am," he said, and looked respectfully at Henke. "Good morning, Ma'am."

            "Captain," Michelle acknowledged with a nod.

            "I think, Captain," Hemphill said, "that we should start with a general description of Apollo's capabilities. Once we've done that, we can run through a couple of the simulations for the Admiral."

            "Of course, Admiral." Halsted turned his command chair so his holo image was directly facing Michelle.