The cutter passed from sunlit brilliance to soot-black shadow with the knife-edge suddenness possible only in space, and the tall, broad-shouldered woman in the black and gold of the Royal Manticoran Navy gazed out the armorplast port at the battle-steel beauty of her command and frowned.
The six-limbed cream-and-gray treecat on her shoulder shifted his balance as she raised her right hand and pointed.
"I thought we'd discussed replacing Beta Fourteen with Commander Antrim, Andy," she said, and the short, dapper lieutenant commander beside her winced at her soprano voice's total lack of inflection.
"Yes, Ma'am. We did." He tapped keys on his memo pad and checked the display. "We discussed it on the sixteenth, Skipper, before you went on leave, and he promised to get back to us."
"Which he never did," Captain Honor Harrington observed, and Lieutenant Commander Venizelos nodded.
"Which he never did. Sorry, Ma'am. I should've kept after him."
"You've had a lot of other things on your plate, too," she said, and Andreas Venizelos hid another—and much more painful—wince. Honor Harrington seldom rapped her officers in the teeth, but he would almost have preferred to have her hand him his head. Her quiet, understanding tone sounded entirely too much as if she were finding excuses for him.
"Maybe so, Ma'am, but I still should've kept after him," he said. "We both know how these yard types hate node replacements." He tapped a note into his pad. "I'll com him as soon as we get back aboard Vulcan."
"Good, Andy." She turned her head and smiled at him, her strong-boned face almost impish. "If he starts giving you a song and dance, let me know. I'm having lunch with Admiral Thayer. I may not have my official orders yet, but you can bet she's got an idea what they're going to be."
Venizelos grinned back in understanding, for he and his captain both knew Antrim had been playing an old yard trick that usually worked. When you didn't want to carry out some irksome bit of refit, you just dragged your feet until you "ran out of time," on the theory that a ship's captain would rather get back into space than incur Their Lordships' displeasure with a tardy departure date. Unfortunately for Commander Antrim, success depended on a skipper who was willing to let a yard dog get away with it. This one wasn't, and while it wasn't official yet, the grapevine said the First Space Lord had plans for HMS Fearless. Which meant this time someone else was going to buy a rocket from the Admiralty if she was late, and Venizelos rather suspected the CO of Her Majesty's Space Station Vulcan would be less than pleased if she had to explain the hold-up to Admiral Danvers. The Third Space Lord had a notoriously short fuse and a readiness to collect scalps.
"Yes, Ma'am. Ah, would you mind if I just happened to let slip to Antrim that you're lunching with the Admiral, Skipper?"
"Now, now, Andy. Don't be nasty—unless he looks like giving you problems, of course."
"Of course, Ma'am."
Honor smiled again and turned back to the view port.
Fearless's running lights blinked the green and white of a moored starship, clear and gem-like without the diffraction of atmosphere, and she felt a familiar throb of pride. The heavy cruiser's white skin gleamed in reflected sunlight above the ruler-straight line of shadow running down her double-ended, twelve-hundred-meter, three-hundred-thousand-ton hull. Brilliant light spilled from the oval of an open weapon bay a hundred and fifty meters forward of the after impeller ring, and Honor watched skinsuited yard techs crawling over the ominous bulk of Number Five Graser. She'd thought the intermittent glitch was in the on-mount software, but Vulcan's people insisted it was in the emitter assembly itself.