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David Weber

The Honor of the Qween

CHAPTER ONE

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.

She twitched her shoulders, and Nimitz scolded gently as he dug his claws deeper into the padded shoulder of her tunic for balance. She clicked her teeth and rubbed his ears in wordless apology, but she never took her eyes from the view port as the cutter continued its slow tour of Fearless's exterior.

Half a dozen work parties paused and looked up as the cutter ghosted past them. She couldn't make out expressions through their visors, but she could imagine the combination of exasperation and wariness some of them would wear. Yard dogs hated to have a captain peering over their shoulders while they worked on her ship ... almost as much as captains hated turning their ships over to the yard dogs in the first place.

She swallowed a chuckle at the thought, because while she had no intention of telling them so, she was impressed by how much Vulcan — and Venizelos — had accomplished during her two- week absence, despite Antrim's passive resistance to the node change. Replacing an impeller node was a major pain, and Antrim obviously hoped he could skate out of it, but that ambition was doomed to failure. Beta Fourteen had been a headache almost since Fearless's acceptance trials, and Honor and her engineers had put up with it long enough. It wasn't as crucial as an alpha node, of course, and Fearless could easily maintain eighty percent of max acceleration without it. Then, too, there was the little matter of the price tag for a replacement—something like five million dollars—which Antrim would have to sign off on. All of which no doubt helped explain his reluctance to pull it, but Commander Antrim wouldn't be aboard the next time HMS Fearless had to redline her drive.

The cutter curled back up over the hull, crossing diagonally above the after port missile battery and the geometric precision of Radar Six. The long, slender blades of the cruiser's main gravitic sensors passed out of sight under the lower lip of the view port, and Honor nodded in satisfaction as her chocolate-dark eyes noted the replacement elements in the array.

All in all, she was more than pleased with how Fearless had performed over the last two and half T-years. She was a relatively new ship, and her builders had done her proud in most respects. It wasn't their fault someone had slipped them a faulty beta node, and she'd stood up well to an arduous first commission. Not that anti-piracy patrols were Honor's first choice for assignments. It had been nice to be on her own, and the prize money from picking off that Silesian 'privateer' squadron hadn't done her bank balance a bit of harm. For that matter, the rescue of that passenger liner had been a piece of work anyone could be proud of, but the moments of excitement had been few and far between. Mostly it had been hard work and more than a little boring once she got over the sheer excitement of commanding her first heavy cruiser—and a brand spanking new one, to boot.

She made a mental note of a scuffed patch of paint above Graser Three and felt a tiny smile tugging at her lips as she contemplated the rumors about her next assignment, for the alacrity with which Admiral Courvosier had accepted his invitation to the traditional recommissioning party suggested there was more than a bit of truth to them. That was good. She hadn't seen the Admiral, much less served under him, in far too long, and if diplomats and politicians were normally a lower order of life than pirates, it should at least be an interesting change of pace.

* * *

'You know, that young man has a really nice ass for a round-eye,' Dr. Allison Chou Harrington observed. 'I bet you could have some fun chasing him around the command deck, dear.'

'Mother!' Honor stepped on an unfilial urge to throttle her parent and looked around quickly. But no one seemed to have overheard, and, for the first time in her memory, she was grateful for the chatter of other voices.

'Now, Honor,' Dr. Harrington looked up at her with a deadly gleam in those almond eyes so much like Honor's own, 'all I said was—'

'I know what you said, but that `young man' is my executive officer!'

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