"We're being hailed, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Edwards reported.

            "Well, that was prompt," Michelle observed dryly. Achilles had just emerged from the Lynx Terminus, a bit over six hundred light-years from the Manticore Binary System. In fact, she'd barely finished reconfiguring her Warshawski sails into a normal-space impeller wedge, and none of the other ships of the squadron had yet transited the junction behind her.

            Edwards' only response to her command was a smile, and she grinned back, then shrugged philosophically.

            "Go ahead, Bill."

            "Yes, Ma'am."

            Edwards input the command that triggered Achilles' transponder, identifying her to the mostly-completed forts and the two squadrons of Home Fleet ships of the wall holding station here.

            "Acknowledged, Ma'am," he said a moment later.

            "Good," Michelle replied. And it was good that the local picket was obviously on its toes, she reflected. To be sure, no hostile force was likely to be coming through from Manticore. Or, if one was, the Star Kingdom would have to be so well and truly screwed that it really wouldn't matter how alert anyone in the Talbott Quadrant might be. Still, alertness was a state of mind, and anyone who let herself grow slack and sloppy in one aspect of her duties was only too likely to let the same thing happen in all aspects. Not that any Manticoran admiral was likely to let that happen after the reaming Thomas Theisman's navy had given them in Operation Thunderbolt.

            Or we'd better not be, at least, she thought grimly, then shook herself. Time to make our manners.

            "Raise Vigilant, please, Bill,” she said, walking back across the bridge to her command chair. Gervais Archer looked up from his own bridge station to one side of her chair as she seated herself. “My compliments to Vice Admiral Blaine,” she continued, “and inquire if it would be convenient for him to speak with me."

            "Aye, aye, Ma'am," Edwards replied, exactly as if he hadn't known she was going to say exactly that . . . and exactly as if there were, in fact, the remotest possibility that Vice Admiral Blaine would not find it convenient to speak to a newly arrived admiral passing through his bailiwick.

            "I have Admiral Blaine, Ma'am," Edwards said a handful of minutes later.

            "Put him on my display, please."

            "Yes, Ma'am."

            Vice Admiral Jessup Blaine was a tallish, bland-faced man with thinning hair and a thick beard. The beard was neatly trimmed, but the contrast between it and his far sparser hair made him look vaguely lopsided and scruffy, and she wondered why he'd grown it.

            "Welcome to Lynx, Milady." Blaine's voice was deeper, and much more smoothly modulated than she had allowed herself to expect from his appearance.

            "Thank you, Admiral," she replied.

            "I'm glad to see you," Blaine continued. "For a lot of reasons, although, to be honest, the biggest one from my perspective is because it means I'll probably be getting Quentin O'Malley back from Monica sometime soon."

            That's coming right to the point of things, Michelle thought dryly.

            "We'll get him back to you as quickly as we can, Admiral," she assured him out loud.

            "It's not that I'm not glad to see you for all those other reasons, as well, Milady," Blaine told her with a quick smile. "It's just that, technically, I'm still one of the reserve forces for the home system, and Quentin is supposed to be my screening element. I'd really like to have him back just to give me a little extra depth here in Lynx until the forts come on-line. And if things go so wrong they do call me back to Manticore, I think I can assume I'll need all the screening support I can get."

            "I understand," Michelle assured him, and she did. "On the other hand, according to my last briefing at Admiralty House, there should be quite a few additional forces headed this way shortly."

            "And not a moment too soon."

            Blaine's fervent approval was evident, and Michelle smiled slightly. She doubted that they'd pulled Blaine's name out of a hat when they decided they had to dispatch reinforcements to Talbott, which argued that there was a very competent officer under that bland exterior. But even the most competent officer had to feel the occasional moment of . . . loneliness when he found himself hanging out at the far end of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction waiting for a possible attack by the Solarian League. No wonder Blaine wanted to see all the friendly faces he could find.

            "Do you know Rear Admiral Oversteegen, Admiral?" she asked.

            "Michael Oversteegen?" Blaine frowned. "Last I heard, he was a captain." He sounded a bit plaintive, and Michelle chuckled.

            "And I was a rear admiral up until a week ago," she said. "I'm afraid they're going to be pushing a lot of us up quickly, with all the new construction coming out of the yards. But my point, Sir, was that they've given Michael the 108th. And assuming he makes his deployment schedule, he should be following along behind me within a couple of months or so. And the first squadron of Rolands is about ready to start working up. In fact, it may already have begun the process."

            "That, Milady, is very good news," Blaine said frankly. "Now, if this cease-fire only lasts long enough to get all that new construction deployed."

            "We can hope, Sir."

            "Yes. Yes, we can." Blaine seemed to give himself a mental shake, then smiled. "I appear to have forgotten my manners, though. Would you and your captains have time to join me for dinner, Milady?"

            "I'm afraid not," Michelle said with genuine regret. Like Honor, she believed personal, face-to-face contact was the best way for officers who might have to work together to feel confident they actually knew one another.

            "I'm under orders to expedite my arrival in Spindle by all possible means, Sir," she continued. "As a matter of fact, Achilles still has over a dozen of Hephaestus' yard dogs on board, working at adjusting this and that. And Captain  Duchovny has even more than that aboard Horatius."

            "And the station commander let you go without opening fire, did she?" Blaine inquired with something suspiciously like a chuckle.

            "I don't think she would have without Admiral D'Orville standing behind me with his energy batteries cleared away," Michelle replied.

            "Actually, I don't find that particularly hard to believe. I've had my own dealings with yard dogs over the years, Milady. The stories I could tell you!"

            "As could we all, Sir."

            "True." Blaine smiled at her, then inhaled with an air of finality. "Well, in that case, Milady, we won't delay you. Please give my respects to Admiral Khumalo when you reach Spindle."

            "I will, Sir."

            "Thank you, Milady, And on that note, I'll wish you a speedy voyage and let you be on your way. Blaine, clear."