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Chapter Fourteen

Honor's gravity booties shuffled on the deck, and she wore a huge smile as she turned in place with the anchor end of Nimitz's tether. The 'cat had always loved zero gee; now he circled her on buzzing suit thrusters, chittering with delight over his helmet com. Her earbug carried his comments to her, but she didn't really need it. The sheer exuberance echoing through their link was far more eloquent.


His headlong progress slowed abruptly as he snapped his long, sinuous body end-for-end and shot up in a perfect loop. Paul's "Uncle Henri" must be a genius, she thought, listening to the spatter of applause from their audience. He'd configured the thrusters' computers to react to every range of movement possible to a 'cat; all she'd had to do was watch Nimitz and figure out how to coordinate his normal zero-gee aerobatics with the suit's greater capacity.


He flowed through a slow roll and altered direction, and she ducked as he buzzed her head. She felt the wash of his thrusters as he passed and sent a flash of warning disapproval over their link. He hadn't quite grasped the need to respect his thruster safety zone, but she felt his repentance and moderated the strength of her scold. And, she reminded herself, at least the thrusters' minuscule size gave them a much smaller danger zone than a full-size suit's.


He executed another loop, then launched himself straight toward her, and the thrusters died as his four rearmost limbs reached for her padded shoulder. She staggered under the impact—even in free fall, he retained the momentum and inertia of his nine-plus standard kilos, plus the suit's mass—but, over all, she was impressed by how gently he'd landed. He was a natural, which probably shouldn't have been a surprise, given his species' treetop environment on Sphinx. Not that she intended to trust him without a tether outside the safe confines of a ship any time soon.


She toggled the remote hand unit to lock the thrusters on safe and reached up to unseal his helmet, but he rose high enough to evade her hand and bleeked reprovingly at her. His gauntleted true-hands found the pressure releases, and she heard the soft "shussh" of an opening seal. He let the armorplast bowl hang down his spine and groomed his whiskers fastidiously.


"Good job, Stinker." She drew a celery stalk from her belt purse, and he stopped grooming and seized it greedily, happier than even his aerobatics had made him. It wasn't a case of response-reward training—Nimitz had no need for that sort of thing—but he'd certainly earned his treat.


Gravity returned suddenly. Not the 1.35 g of her homeworld, but the much lighter gravity of Grayson, and she looked over her unencumbered shoulder. Captain Brentworth stood beside the gym's control panel, grinning at her.


"Agile little devil, isn't he?" Alvarez's captain said.


"He is that," Honor agreed. She reached up and ran a fingertip over one tufted ear, and Nimitz paused—briefly—in his chewing to push back against her touch. Then he got back to important matters with a juicy crunch.


Honor laughed and lifted him down into her arms. Skinsuits might be far lighter than older styles of vac gear, but their internalized storage vacuoles made them much more massive than they looked, and Nimitz's suited weight was too much for comfort even in this gravity. The 'cat didn't care about the change; he only curled comfortably in her embrace and clutched his celery tight, and her smile turned into a grin. Nimitz was comfortable enough with the suit now, but he'd bristled indignantly when she first introduced him to the plumbing connections Paul had warned her of.


She started to bend over to remove the gravity booties, but one of Brentworth's crew was already there. The barely postadolescent electronics tech went down on one knee, offering the other knee as a raised platform, and she smiled as she lifted one foot to the proffered support. He unsealed the booty and laid it aside, then repeated the process on her other foot.


"Thank you," she said, and the youngster—he couldn't have been over twenty T-years old—blushed.


"My pleasure, My Lady," he got out, and she managed not to chuckle at the near-awe in his tone. Not that she'd been particularly amused when she first encountered the reverence in which Brentworth's crew held her. They watched her almost worshipfully, with a deference they normally would have offered only to the Protector himself. It had annoyed her immensely—not least because she hadn't had a clue how she should react. But there was nothing sycophantic about it, so she'd settled for just being herself, however they cared to treat her, and it seemed to have been the right tack. Awe had turned into something much more like respect, and they no longer looked as if they wanted to genuflect whenever they met her in a passage.


Still, she thought, it might have been easier all around if she weren't the only woman in Alvarez's complement of eight hundred. She'd never encountered that situation before, either, but up until three T-years ago Grayson women had been legally barred from military service . . . or from owning property, serving on juries, or managing their own money, for that matter. It would be a while yet before they started serving on warships.


She nodded again to the youngster who'd helped with the booties, then settled Nimitz's weight more evenly in her arms and headed for the hatch, and Brentworth fell into step beside her.


The Grayson captain studied her profile in silence as they headed down the passage. She looked better than he'd dared hoped, but now that she'd been aboard a couple of days he was beginning to realize the repairs hadn't been quite as complete as he'd first thought. The left side of her mouth moved with an ever so small hesitation. It gave her smile a slight lopsided effect, more a matter of timing than anything else, and hard though she tried to overcome it, certain consonants still came out just a bit slurred. Grayson's pre-Alliance medical establishment could never have matched the near-miraculous job Manticore's had done, but he couldn't suppress a twinge of regret.


She turned her head and caught his expression, and he blushed as one of her crooked smiles showed she'd followed his thoughts. But she only shook her head at him, and he smiled back.


This was a very different woman from the one he'd seen defending Yeltsin's Star. She'd been driven and grim, then—unfailingly courteous but with cold, naked steel in her one good eye while ghosts of pain and loss twisted deep inside her. She had, he thought, been the most dangerous person he'd ever met as she placed her two damaged ships between the battlecruiser Saladin and a planet full of people who weren't even allied to her Kingdom. People who'd done their best to humiliate and denigrate her for daring to insult their prejudices by wearing an officer's uniform. She'd gone up against a warship more than twice as massive as both her own wounded ships for that planet, and she'd lost nine hundred of her people stopping it.


That memory still shamed him . . . and explained the reverence with which Alvarez's crew regarded her. He felt it himself, but he knew her better than most, for he'd been on HMS Fearless's bridge as her liaison officer when she did it, and he snorted in sudden laughter.


"What?" she asked, and he grinned.


"I was just thinking, My Lady."


"About?" she prompted.


"Oh, about how amused you probably would have been when your steward came aboard."


"Mac?" One eyebrow rose. "What about him?"


"Well, it's just that he's a man, My Lady." The other eyebrow rose in sudden understanding, and she began to chuckle wickedly. "Absolutely," Brentworth agreed. "It came as, er, something of a shock to some of our people. I'm afraid we're not quite as liberated as we'd like to think just yet."


"Lord, I can imagine!" Honor's chuckle turned into soft laughter. "And I can imagine the way Mac reacted to it, too!"


"Oh, no, My Lady! He took it perfectly in stride—just looked at them like a Sunday school teacher who'd caught a bunch of adolescents telling dirty stories in the head."


"That's exactly what I meant. He saves the same sort of look for me when I'm late for supper."


"Does he?" Brentworth laughed, then nodded slowly. "Yes, I can just see him doing it. He's really attached to you, My Lady."


"I know." Honor smiled fondly, then shook her head. "By the way, Mark, there's something I've been meaning to mention to you. You're a senior captain yourself, now. There's no reason you have to go on 'My Ladying' me all the time. My name is Honor."


Brentworth almost missed a stride in sheer shock. Grayson society was barely beginning to evolve the proper modes for a society of sexual equality; indeed, he suspected much of the planet was still too bemused by the changes Protector Benjamin had mandated to realize just how sweeping they truly were. The use of an unmarried, unrelated woman's Christian name would have been an unthinkable insult to her under the old mores, even if the woman in question hadn't been a steadholder. Especially this steadholder!


"I— My Lady, I don't know if—"


"Please," she interrupted. "As a personal favor. You don't have to do it in public if you'd rather not, but all these 'My Ladies' and 'Steadholders' are suffocating me. Do you realize there's not a single person aboard this ship who would dream of calling me by name?"


"But you are a steadholder!"


"I haven't been one all my life," she replied a bit tartly.


"Well, no, I know that, but—"


Brentworth broke off to struggle with his emotions. One part of him was immensely flattered, but it wasn't as simple as she seemed to think. As he'd said, she was a steadholder, and the first and only woman to hold that high office in Grayson's thousand-year history. She was also the only presently living holder of the Star of Grayson and the person who'd saved his planet. And last but not least, he admitted, there was her sharp-edged, intriguing beauty.


She didn't look a bit like a Grayson woman, and she was ten T-years older than he was, but his body had been fully mature, too old to respond to the prolong therapies when Manticore made them available to his people. That meant she looked ten T-years younger than him . . . and his hormones were disrespectfully aware of her apparent youth.


Her strong, triangular face, with its exotically slanted eyes, owed nothing to classical beauty, but that didn't matter. Nor did the fact that she was easily fifteen centimeters taller than most Grayson men, and other, deeper changes made her attractiveness even more noticeable. She was . . . happier, more relaxed, than he'd ever imagined she could possibly be, and she seemed far more aware of her femininity. She'd never worn a trace of makeup in Yeltsin, even before she'd been wounded; now understated, skillfully applied cosmetics enhanced the graceful strength of her face, and the hair which had been close-cropped fuzz fell almost to her shoulders, instead.


He realized he'd stopped dead while he wrestled with her request and looked up to meet her eyes as she stood quietly, waiting. The cybernetic left one looked exactly like the natural one, he thought inconsequentially, and then he looked still deeper and saw the loneliness within them both. It was a loneliness she was used to, one he was still learning to bear himself. It came to every starship's captain, but that made it no less lonely, and as he recognized it, his mind suddenly settled.


"Very well . . . Honor." He reached out and touched her arm, something else no well brought up Grayson male would ever have done, and smiled. "But only in private. High Admiral Matthews would take my head off if anyone suggested I was offering you lese majesty in public!"


* * *


GNS Jason Alvarez settled into Grayson orbit, and Honor leaned back in the admiral's command chair on the heavy cruiser's flag bridge. It felt a bit presumptuous to seat her fundament in such an exalted perch, but Mark had insisted, and she had to admit she hadn't argued very hard.


There was only a skeleton watch on the flag bridge with her while Mark handled the final maneuvers from his own command deck, but the displays were live, and she watched them with appreciation and a sense of awe as she realized how much Grayson had achieved since her last visit.


Grayson was as beautiful as ever—and as deadly. The Church of Humanity Unchained had come here fleeing what it had regarded as Old Earth's soul-corrupting technology only to discover it had marooned itself on a planet with higher concentrations of heavy metals than most toxic waste dumps. Had it been up to her, she would have abandoned the planetary surface completely in favor of orbital habitats, but Grayson's stubborn people had rejected that policy. They'd moved as much as possible of their food production into orbit, once they regained space capability, but they themselves clung to the world they had made their own with such titanic toil. The enormous constructs floating in orbit with Alvarez were even more numerous than they'd been before Grayson joined the Alliance and gained access to modern industrial capacity, but they were still farms and pastures, not retreats.


And, she thought, that really shouldn't be a surprise. She didn't think Graysons knew how to retreat. They weren't the religious fanatics who peopled their fratricidal sister planet of Masada, but they had a core of stubbornness which perhaps only a Sphinxian could fully appreciate. And for people descended from antitechnology, religious fundamentalist loonies, they'd shown an incredible flexibility and technical ingenuity, as well.


A surprising percentage of their orbital constructs were fortifications, small, perhaps, but heavily refitted now that they had modern technology to work with. And newer, bigger forts were under construction to augment the ones left over from the long Grayson-Masada cold war. She hadn't seen any schematics or blueprints, but she was willing to bet their designs were impressively innovative, too. The Graysons hadn't simply bought off-the-shelf Manticoran designs. They still required advice and technical assistance, but they'd studied their defensive requirements and made their own decisions with formidable self-confidence, just as they had with Alvarez herself. The heavy cruiser mounted barely half as many energy weapons as a Manticoran cruiser would have, yet those she did mount were far heavier, easily a match for most battlecruisers' beams. She couldn't hit as many targets, but the ones she did hit were going to know they'd been nudged. It was a radical departure in warship design, yet it made uncompromising sense, given the increased power of modern energy weapons. And now that she'd seen it, Honor wondered how many other aspects of Manticore's own building policies had been shaped by an unconscious acceptance of outdated conventionality.


And the sheer scale of the Graysons' efforts was even more astonishing than their sense of innovation. The planet's entire population was barely two billion, only a quarter of it male, and she doubted that even a tiny fraction of its women had yet been integrated into its workforce, yet they'd already put in—with a great deal of Manticoran assistance, to be sure—not one, or even two, but three modern orbital shipyards. The smallest was easily eight kilometers across, and it was growing steadily . . . all of that despite the fact that they were simultaneously building a modern navy from the keel out.


She shook her head, marveling silently, as the visual display showed her a quartet of orbiting battlecruisers. They were units of the new Courvosier class, and tears prickled as she watched them. The Grayson Navy had chosen its own way to acknowledge its debt to Admiral Courvosier and the other Manticorans who'd fallen in its home world's defense. Somehow, she thought, the admiral would have found it a fitting tribute . . . once he stopped laughing. But—


Her thoughts broke off as the flag bridge hatch whispered open, and she turned her head to smile a welcome at Mark Brentworth.


"All tucked neatly into orbit, Captain?" she asked, conscious of the understrength bridge watch's ears, and he nodded.


"Yes, My Lady," he returned just as formally. He crossed to her side and looked down into her visual display, then tapped the image of one of the battlecruisers. "That's the Courvosier herself. You can recognize her by the missing graser bay amidships. They left it out to free up mass for her flag accommodations and a full-scale fleet CIC. The other three should be Yountz, Yanakov, and Madrigal; together they form the First and Second Divisions."


"They're gorgeous," Honor said, and she meant it. They were easily the size of her own Nike, perhaps even a bit bigger, and their design mirrored Alvarez's concentration on fewer but more powerful weapons.


"We think so," Brentworth admitted. He reached past her to manipulate controls, and the view in the display shifted to a more distant objective. "And this, My Lady, is what your kingdom gave the Grayson Navy," he said quietly.


Honor inhaled sharply at the sight. She'd heard about it, of course, but this was the first time she'd actually seen it. When Admiral White Haven ambushed the powerful Havenite fleet that had attacked Yeltsin, eleven of its superdreadnoughts had been forced to surrender intact. Not undamaged, by any means, but in repairable condition, and White Haven and Admiral D'Orville, his immediate Manticoran subordinate, had handed them directly over to Grayson.


It had been a generous gesture—in more ways than one. On a personal level, White Haven and D'Orville had given up an almost unimaginable prize money award, and, on another level, some Royal Navy officers argued that the ships should have been retained for Manticore's own desperate need. But Queen Elizabeth had endorsed White Haven's decision without a moment's hesitation, and Honor was in complete agreement with her Queen. The Grayson Navy, for all its gallantry and willingness, had yet to build its first ship of the wall. That had made it little more than a spectator in the titanic clash which had raged across its system, but Grayson deserved those ships—and even a political illiterate like her grasped the enormous diplomatic benefit in giving them to the GSN. It told the Graysons how highly Manticore valued its alliance with them—and said exactly the same thing to all the Star Kingdom's other allies.


But even though she'd known about it, she hadn't been emotionally prepared to see those wounded leviathans lying quietly under the guns of Grayson's orbital forts. They dwarfed those forts to Lilliputian dimensions, yet their very presence was proof the navy which had built them was far from invincible. Repair ships swarmed about them as the furious business of repair and refit went on, and it looked like one of them was already nearing its recommissioning under the Grayson flag.


"We're going to rename that one Manticore's Gift," Brentworth said quietly, and shrugged as Honor looked up at him. "It seemed appropriate, My Lady. I don't know what they've decided to call the others, and they won't be true sisters when we're done with them. We're upgrading their electronics to Manticoran standards and putting the new inertial compensators into each of them, but we're also retaining any weapons that survived. I imagine we'll refit all of them to the same standard once we have time; for right now, we're concentrating on simply getting them back into service as quickly as possible."


"If Manticore's Gift is as close to ready as she looks, you people must be setting new records," Honor said, and he smiled at her sincerity.


"We're certainly trying to, My Lady. As a matter of fact, our biggest problem just now is figuring out how to crew them. You do realize that the Navy's total tonnage is something like a hundred and fifty times what it was before the Alliance? The first batch of our officers is just finishing accelerated training at your Saganami Island, and the scale of our orbital work's always given us a lot more trained spacers than our planetary population might suggest, but we're recruiting heavily from Manticore's merchant fleet. Not," he grinned suddenly, "without some screaming about 'poaching' from your own Admiralty. Of course, we've promised to give them back as soon as we can."


"I'm sure that helped." Honor laughed. "But, tell me, are you recruiting mixed crews?"


"Yes, My Lady, we are." Brentworth shrugged again. "There was some opposition, but those SDs made too big a hole in our personnel. We'd managed to keep up with our own construction, barely, and some of our more conservative types wanted to do the same with them—until they saw the numbers. I'm afraid we're still restricting 'our' female personnel to the capital ships, though."


"Really? Why?"


"Because," Brentworth replied with a slight blush, "the Office of Shipbuilding insisted on separate accommodations for them, and only ships of the wall have the mass for that." Honor blinked in astonishment, and his blush darkened. "I know it sounds silly, My Lady, and High Admiral Matthews argued himself blue over it, but the whole concept is still too new to us. I'm afraid it's going to be a while before we stop doing silly things."


"Don't sweat it, Mark," Honor said after a moment. "Nothing says there's any reason for Grayson to mirror-image Manticoran practice. And one thing you don't want to do is destabilize yourself making changes too quickly."


Brentworth cocked his head, as if a bit surprised to hear her, of all people, say that, and she chuckled.


"Oh, I was furious over the way you treated our female personnel when we first arrived here, but you people have done an unbelievable job so far, and I know it hasn't been easy for you. I assure you, no one from the Star Kingdom—with the possible exception of a few idiots in the Liberal Party—is keeping any sort of scorecard. I'm certainly not. Your Navy and I got to know one another too well for that sort of nonsense."


Brentworth started to reply, then closed his mouth and nodded with a smile before he stood back from her chair and gestured at the hatch.


"In that case, Lady Harrington, may I invite you to accompany me? Certain members of that Navy, including High Admiral Matthews, Admiral Garret, and my father, should be arriving in Boat Bay Two to welcome you back in about fifteen minutes."


 


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