Chapter Thirteen


            "We're cleared for station departure, Ma'am," Captain Lecter reported.

            Michelle nodded as serenely as possible and wondered if she was doing a better job of hiding her relief than Cindy was.

            Go ahead, admit it — to yourself, at least. You didn't think you were going to make it on deadline after all, did you?

            Of course I did, she told herself astringently. Now shut up and go away!

            "Very well," she said aloud, and touched a stud on the arm of her flag deck command chair. The small com display came to life almost instantly with Captain Armstrong's face.

            "Hephaestus Control says we can leave now, Captain," she said.

            "Did they happen to mention anything about missing personnel, Ma'am?" Armstrong inquired in an innocent tone.

            "As a matter of fact, no. Why? Is there something I should know about?"

            "Oh, no, Admiral. Nothing at all."

            "I'm relieved to hear it. In that case, however, I believe Admiral Blaine is expecting us at the Lynx Terminus."

            "Yes, Ma'am." Armstrong's expression turned much more serious, and she nodded. "I'll see to it."

            "Good. I'll let you be about it, then. Henke, clear."

            She touched the stud again, and the display blanked. Then she turned her command chair, once again admiring the magnificent spaciousness of Achilles' flag deck, and moved her attention to the huge tactical plot. Normally, that was configured into a schematic representation of the volume about the ship, spangled with the light codes of tactical icons, but at the moment, it was configured for direct visual from the optical heads spotted about the huge battlecruiser's hull, instead, and Michelle watched as Achilles' bow thrusters awoke. She felt the faint vibration transmitted through the ship's two and a half million tons of battle steel, armor, and weapons, and the big ship began to back slowly and smoothly out of the docking arms.

            The moment when a starship actually began her very first deployment was always special. Michelle doubted she would ever truly be able to describe that specialness to someone who hadn't actually experienced it, but for someone who had, there was no other moment quite like it. That sense of newness, of being present at the birth of a living creature, of watching the Star Kingdom's newest warrior take her very first step. A keel-plate owner understood without any need of explanations, knew that whatever fate ultimately awaited the ship, he or she was a part of it. And knew that the reputation of that ship, for good or ill, would stem from the actions and attitudes of her very first crew.

            And yet, this moment was different for Michelle Henke. Achilles was her flagship, but she wasn't her ship. She belonged to Victoria Armstrong and her crew, not to the admiral who simply happened to fly her flag aboard her.

            She remembered something her mother had once said — "From those to whom much is given, much is taken, as well." It was odd how accurate that had proved since Michelle had attained flag rank herself. At the Academy, she'd known flag rank was what she wanted. That squadron, task force, or even fleet command was where she wanted to apply her talents, test herself. But she hadn't known then what she'd have to give up to get it. Not really. She'd never realized how much it would hurt to realize she would never again command a Queen's ship herself. Never again wear the white beret of a starship commander.

            Oh, stop being maudlin! she told herself as the gap between Achilles's bow and the space station widened steadily. Next thing you know, you're going to be asking them to take the squadron back!

            She snorted in amusement, and leaned back in her command chair as one of the waiting tugs moved in.

            Achilles' thrusters shut down, and the ship quivered again — a subtly different quiver, this time — as the tug's tractors locked onto her. Nothing happened for a moment, and then she began to accelerate again, much more rapidly, although nowhere near so rapidly as she could have accelerated under her own power if she'd been permitted to use her impeller wedge this close to the station. Or, for that matter, as rapidly as the tug could have moved her, if not for niggling little considerations like, oh, keeping the crew alive. Without the wedge, there was no handy sump for the inertial compensator, which limited the ship's protoplasmic crew to an acceleration her internal grav plates could handle. If they'd really wanted to push the envelope, and if the squadron had been prepared to secure for heavy acceleration, they could have pulled at least a hundred gravities, but there wasn't really much point in that. No one was in that big a hurry, and modern starships weren't really designed to handle heavy accelerations for any extended period of time. The ships themselves might not have minded particularly, but their personnel was another matter entirely.

            At least Achilles, Romulus, and Theseus were the only ones still docked at one of the stations, so you didn’t have to worry about tug availability, she reminded herself.

            She tapped a control on her chair arm and her repeater plot deployed from the chair base. It configured itself into standard tactical format, and she watched the icons representing the three battlecruisers moving steadily away from the purple anchor which had been used for generations to represent space stations like Hephaestus. HMS Stevedore, the single tug towing each of them, showed as a purple arrowhead pointed directly at the five icons of the rest of the squadron, waiting under their own power for their last three consorts to make rendezvous.

            Michelle didn't know whether or not the Admiralty intended to completely scrap the squadron reorganization plan the Janacek Admiralty had put into place. There were some advantages to the six-ship squadron format Janacek had adopted, much though it galled Michelle to admit that anything that ham-fisted idiot had done could possibly have any beneficial consequences. Fortunately for her blood pressure, if not for the Star Kingdom's wellbeing, there weren't very many instances in which she had to. But even though the smaller-sized squadrons offered at least some additional tactical flexibility, they also required twenty-five percent more admirals — and admirals' staffs — for the same number of ships. Personally, Michelle suspected that had been part of the attraction for Janacek and his partisans. After all, it had provided so many more flag slots into which he could plug sycophants, despite the way he'd downsized the fleet. Those of his cronies who hadn't been removed by the Havenites in the course of Operation Thunderbolt (she supposed any cloud had to have at least some silver lining) had been ruthlessly purged by the White Haven Admiralty, yet that had left a tiny problem. Finding that many competent admirals was a not so minor concern in a navy expanding as rapidly and hugely as the present Royal Manticoran Navy. Just as even the new, highly automated designs still needed complete bridge crews, complete engineering officer complements, admirals still needed staffs, and there simply weren't that many experienced staff officers to go around. For example, Michelle herself still didn't have a staff intelligence officer. At the moment, Cynthia Lecter was wearing that hat as well as holding down the chief of staff's slot, which was rather unfair to her. On the other hand, at least she'd spent a tour with ONI two deployments ago, so she knew what she was doing in both slots. And it didn’t hurt that Gervais Archer was turning out to be a surprisingly competent assistant intelligence officer.

            There were undoubtedly other reasons for the White Haven Admiralty's new thinking, as well, but in combination, they explained why the 106th Battlecruiser Squadron consisted of eight units, not six. And, to be perfectly frank, Michelle didn't really care what other reasons there might have been. She was too busy gloating over the possession of those two additional battlecruisers.

            Not that most other navies would consider them "battlecruisers," I suppose, she told herself. At two and a half million tons, the new Nike-class ships were closing in on the size of the old battleships no one had built for the last fifty or sixty T-years, and some navies — like the Sollies, she thought sourly — still defined ship types by tonnage brackets which had become obsolete even before the First Havenite War . But even though the Nikes were the next best thing to half again the size of her dead Ajax, Achilles was capable of almost seven hundred gravities' acceleration at maximum military power. And her magazines were crammed with over six thousand Mark 16 dual-drive missiles.

            I don't care how big she is, she's still a battlecruiser, though, Michelle thought. It's the function, the doctrine, that counts, not just tonnage. And by that meter stick, she's a battlecruiser, all right. One from the dark side of Hell, maybe, but still a battlecruiser. And I've got eight of her.

            It was possible, she admitted to herself, watching the plot as the tugs moved her new command steadily away from Hephaestus, that flag rank did have its own compensations.