Michelle Henke finished toweling her hair vigorously, draped the towel around her neck, and settled into the chair in front of the terminal in her sleeping cabin. Her sadly worn-looking Accademy sweats' fleecy lining was sinfully warm and sensual feeling against her just-showered skin, and she grinned as she looked down at her feet. Honor had given her her first pair of fluffy, violently purple treecat slippers as a joke several Christmases ago. Michelle had started wearing them as a joke of her own, but she'd kept wearing them because of how comfortable (if undignified) they were. The original pair had been lost with Ajax, but she'd insisted on finding time to buy a replacement pair before deploying with her new squadron, and they were finally getting properly broken in.

            Chris Billingsley had left a carafe of hot coffee on a tray at her elbow, along with a single sugared doughnut, and she grimaced wryly at the sight. Unlike Honor, Michelle had discovered that it was distinctly necessary for her to keep an eye on her caloric intake. The majority of naval officers led relatively sedentary lives when they were aboard ship. Others — like Honor — verged on the fanatical when it came to physical fitness. Michelle was one of those who preferred to follow a middle-of-the-road path, with enough exercise to keep her reasonably fit, but without going overboard about it. And since every excess calorie seemed to go directly to her posterior, and since it was harder than ever for her to find the time for the amount of exercise she was prepared to tolerate, she had no choice but to watch what she was eating very carefully.

            It had taken Billingsley a little while to realize that, but he'd caught on quickly. And Michelle was grateful to discover that as the immediacy of what had happened to Ajax receded into the past, the pain of losing Clarissa Arbuckle was easing. It would never go away, but like most naval officers of her generation, Michelle had acquired far too much experience in dealing with losses. In this case, the fact that Billingsley was so unlike Clarissa in so many ways actually helped, and she was glad it was so. He deserved to be taken on his own terms, without being measured against someone else's ghost. And, taken on his own terms, he was a gratifyingly competent force of nature who took no nonsense from his admiral where questions of her care and feeding were concerned. His style of bullying involved reproachful glances, deep sighs, and what Michelle privately thought of as "the Jewish mother" technique, which was very different from Clarissa's oh-so-polite insistence, but it was certainly . . . effective.

            She chuckled at the thought, poured herself a cup of coffee, allowed herself a single (small) introductory bite of the doughnut, then brought the terminal on-line. She was just about to open the letter to her mother which she'd begun the evening before when something large, warm, and silky stroked luxuriously against her ankle. She looked down and found herself gazing directly into Dicey's large, green eyes. They blinked, then swivelled towards the doughnut before they tracked back to her face.

            "Don't even think about it, you horrible creature," she told him severely. "You don't get enough exercise to be stacking up that kind of calories, either. Besides, I'm sure donuts are bad for cats."

            Dicey looked up at her appealingly for several more seconds, doing his very best to look like a small, starving kitten. He wasn't noticeably successful, however, and she pointedly moved the plate further away from him. Finally, he gave up with a mournful sigh, turned away, flipped his tail at her, and wandered off to see who else he might be able to mooch some desperately needed sustenance out of.

            Michelle watched him go, then shook her head, finished opening the letter and ran forward through it, reviewing what she'd written previously while she sipped the rich, black coffee, savoring its touch of harshness after the doughnut's sweetness.

            It was hard to believe the squadron had been here in Spindle for just over one T-week already. Despite the relentless schedule of training exercises and drills with which she and Victoria Armstrong had afflicted their personnel on the voyage here from the Lynx Terminus, those ten subjective days in transit looked positively soporific in retrospect. Or perhaps not. Perhaps that was only true for Michelle and her staff. The squadron's demanding training schedule hadn't relented — if anything, it had intensified — but while the rest of her people were grappling with that, Michelle, Cynthia Lecter, Augustus Khumalo, and Loretta Shoupe were engaged in an intensive analysis, along with Henri Krietzmann and his senior staffers,  of the Quadrant's resources, as well as its needs, while they tried to formulate the most effective deployment plans.

            So far, the main conclusion they'd been able to draw was that until more of Tenth Fleet's starships and the first of the LAC squadrons got forward, it was simply physically impossible for Michelle's ships to be everywhere they needed to be. Which was why she was due to leave Spindle the day after tomorrow and proceed with the squadron's first division to Tillerman. That would put her in position to pay a "courtesy call" on Monica about the time that Hexapuma and Warlock completed their repairs and O'Malley was withdrawing his Home Fleet battlecruisers from the system. At the same time, Commodore Onasis would split up her second division, and the individual ships would begin a sweep through the Quadrant's systems as visual reassurance of the Royal Navy's presence. Which, unfortunately, was about all Michelle could actually offer them until the rest of the Quadrant's assigned units put in their appearance.

            And, of course, we'll all go right on training, she thought wryly. No wonder all my people love me so much!

            She reached the end of her previous recording, which had covered Baroness Medusa's dinner party and the after dinner conversation, and straightened in her chair as she keyed the microphone.

            "So I'm sure you and Honor are both going to sprain your elbows patting yourselves on the back and chanting 'We told you so!' in two-part harmony about my aversion for politics." She smiled and shook her head. "I knew I wouldn't be able to stay completely away from them once the Admiralty decided to send me out here, but I can't say I anticipated getting into them quite so deeply. At the same time, I have to admit it's actually pretty . . . exciting. These people are really fired up, Mom. Oh, there's still some opposition and unhappiness, but it looks to me like that's starting to fade. Nothing is going to convince someone like that maniac Nordbrandt to see reason, but I think anyone whose brain actually works has to realize everyone involved is doing her dead level best in a good-faith effort to work things out as quickly and equitably as possible. These people aren't saints, any more than our politicos back home are. Don't get me wrong about that. But I think most of them have a genuine sense that they're creating something greater than any of them. They know they're going into the history books, one way or the other, and I think most of them would prefer to get good reviews.

            "I'm not too happy about what I'm hearing about New Tuscany, though." She grimaced. "Everyone warned me the New Tuscans were going to be a problem, but I'd really have preferred for them to be wrong about that. Unfortunately, I don't think they are. And, to be frank, I can't begin to get my head wrapped around wherever it is these people are coming from. They were the ones who decided to opt out of the Quadrant, but you wouldn't know that to listen to their trade representatives. Just yesterday one of them spent the entire afternoon in Minister Lababibi's office complaining about the fact that New Tuscany isn't going to be getting any of the tax incentives Beth is offering to people who invest in the Quadrant." Michelle shook her head. "Apparently, this guy was ranting and raving about how 'unfair' and 'discriminatory' that is! And if that's the way 'politics' work, Mom, I still don't want to get any deeper into them than I have to!

            "On another front, though, I really wish you could try the cuisine out here. Thimble is right on the ocean, and the seafood they have here is incredible. They've got what they call 'lobsters,' even if they don't look anything like ours — or like Old Earth's, for that matter — and they broil them, then serve them with sauteed mushrooms and peppers, garnished with lemon juice and garlic butter, over a bed of one of their local grains. Delicious! And if I were only Honor, I could eat all of it I wanted to. Still –"