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Chapter Thirty-Seven

Honor leaned back on the couch in her day cabin with her legs curled comfortably under her and a book viewer in her lap. Her right hand held a long-stemmed glass of her prized Delacourt, an open box of chocolates sat beside her, and she smiled as she pressed the page advance with her left forefinger.

Like the wine, the novel in her lap was a gift from her father. She hadn't had much time to read over the past arduous months, and she'd decided to save it for a special treat—a reward to herself, which she would know she'd earned when she actually had time to read it anyway.

It was a very, very old book, and despite the way printed and audio recordings had frozen the language, its pre-space English was hard to follow, especially when characters used period slang. It had also been written using the old English system of measurement. Math had never been Honor's strong suit, and all she knew about English measurement was that a "yard" was a little shorter than a meter and that a "mile" was a little less than two kilometers. She had no idea how many grams there were in a "pound," which was of considerable importance for this particular novel, and the situation was complicated by the fact that "pounds" (and also "guineas" and "shillings") seemed to be monetary units, as well. She remembered pounds (and "francs") from her study of the Napoleonic Wars, but her texts had converted most monetary amounts into present-day dollars, which left her only a vague notion of how much a pound had been worth, and she'd never heard of "guineas" or "shillings" in her life. It was all very confusing, though she was fairly confident she was catching most of it from context, and she considered—again—querying her desk computer for English measurement equivalents and a table of pre-space currencies.

For the moment, however, she was entirely content to sit exactly where she was. Not only was her father's gift proving an extraordinarily good read in spite of its archaisms, but she was also aware of a rare and complete sense of satisfaction. Wayfarer might not be a ship of the wall, but she'd cut quite a swath, and after the better part of six months, her crew had come together as well as any Honor had ever seen. The newbies had their feet under them, the best of the experienced hands had been given time to pass along their own skills, the bad apples were in the brig, reformed, or keeping a very low profile, and department efficiency ratings were closing in on a uniform 4.0. She felt certain the rest of TG 1037 was doing equally well—though it would be nice to have confirmation when they checked in at Sachsen on their way back from New Berlin—and, best of all, she was back in Manticoran uniform. And, she thought, turning another page, what we've accomplished so far should go a long way to completing my "rehabilitation."

Even the fact that she'd ever needed "rehabilitating" no longer had the power to disturb her, and, she admitted, she actually preferred Wayfarer to the battle squadron she'd commanded in Grayson service. She'd been born to be a captain, she thought wistfully, commander of a starship, mistress after God and all alone on her own responsibility. It was, without a doubt, the loneliest job in the universe, but it was also the proper task—the proper challenge—for her . . . and one she would have to give up all too soon.

She thought about that last point fairly often. She was a captain of the list with almost nine years' seniority. Even if the Opposition managed to block any Admiralty plans to promote her out of the zone, time in grade would make her a commodore within another four or five years—probably less; wars gave ample opportunity to step into a dead man's shoes. And from what Earl White Haven had said on Grayson, she'd probably be dropped into an acting commodore's slot much sooner.

When that happened, her days as a captain would be over. A part of her looked forward to it as she always looked forward to the next challenge—with anticipation and an eagerness to be about it—and for once she didn't feel the nagging uncertainty that this time she might not be equal to the task. She'd proven she could command a squadron of the wall—or, for that matter, an entire heavy task force—in Yeltsin. More than that, she knew she'd done it well. Her abilities as a strategist had not yet been tested, but she knew she could hack the tactical side of it.

But for all the satisfaction that brought her, and for all her awareness that without flag rank she could never play a role on the larger stage of actually shaping the war's direction, she hated the thought of giving up the white beret of a starship's commander. She knew she'd been lucky to command as many ships as she had, and to have had two of them straight from the builders as a keel plate owner, but she also knew she would always hunger for just one more.

She smiled wryly and sipped more wine, wondering why the thought didn't hurt more than it did. Why it was a thing of bittersweet regret mingled with pleasure rather than total unhappiness. Maybe I'm just a bit more ambitious than I'd like to admit?

Her smile grew, and she glanced at the gently snoring ball of treecat on the couch beside her. Nimitz, at least, had no second thoughts at all. He understood her love for starship command, but he was also smugly confident of her ability to handle any task which came her way . . . and not at all shy about making it clear he thought she deserved to command the Queen's entire Navy.

Well, that was for the future—which had a pronounced gift for taking care of itself in its own good time, however much humans dithered in the process. Meanwhile, she had an excellent glass of wine and a novel which was thoroughly enjoyable. This Forester guy writes a darned good book, and I can certainly identify with his hero. Besides—she giggled—I like his initials!

She'd just turned another page when the admittance chime sounded softly. She started to set her novel aside, but MacGuiness padded into the compartment, and she settled back as he crossed to her desk and pressed the com key.

"Yes?" he said.

"The Chief Engineer to see the Steadholder," Eddy Howard announced, and MacGuiness glanced at his captain with a raised eyebrow.

"Harry?" Honor glanced at the chrono. It was late in Wayfarer's day, and she wondered why Tschu hadn't simply screened her. But he probably had his reasons, and she nodded to MacGuiness, who punched the hatch button.

Tschu stepped into the compartment with Samantha on his shoulder. The female 'cat looked unbearably smug—Honor blinked, wondering why that particular adverb had occurred to her—and Nimitz gave a soft snort and roused instantly. He sat up, then stretched with a long lazy yawn that stopped abruptly. He cocked his head, gazing very intently at Samantha, and Honor blinked again as she felt a deep, complex stir of emotion from him. She couldn't sort it all out, but the strongest component of it could only be described as delight.

"Sorry to disturb you, Skipper," Tschu said wryly, "but there's something you should know."

"There is?" Honor laid her novel aside as Samantha hopped down from the engineer's shoulder. The 'cat scampered across the deck to jump up on the couch beside Nimitz, and the two of them sat so close together their bodies touched. As Honor watched in bemusement, Nimitz curled his prehensile tail around the smaller 'cat in an oddly protective gesture and rubbed his cheek against the top of her head with a deep, softly buzzing purr.

"Yes, Ma'am," Tschu said with that same wry smile. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to put in for maternity leave."

Honor blinked a third time, and then her eyes narrowed.

"Yes, Ma'am," the engineer said again. "I'm afraid Sam is pregnant."

Honor sat up very straight, jaw dropping, then whipped around to stare at the 'cats. Nimitz looked back with an absurdly complacent—and proud—expression, and his sense of delight soared. He held her gaze for several seconds, and then she shook her head with a slow smile of her own. Nimitz? A father? Somehow she'd never really believed that could happen, despite all the time he'd spent with Samantha. She'd considered the possibility intellectually, but it had been just the two of them for so long—aside from her brief, happy months with Paul Tankersley—that her emotions had assumed it would always be just the two of them.

"Well," she said finally, "this is a surprise, Harry. I assume you're certain about it?"

"Sam is," Tschu half-chuckled, "and that's good enough for me. 'Cats don't often make mistakes about things like that."

"No, no, they don't." Honor glanced at MacGuiness, whose surprise seemed just as great as hers but who also stood there with a huge smile on his face. "I think we need another glass, Mac," she told him dryly. "In fact, make it two glasses—you're about to become an uncle. And, under the circumstances, a few stalks of celery probably aren't out of order, either."

"Yes, Ma'am!" MacGuiness gave her another smile, then hurried out of the cabin, and she returned her attention to Tschu.

"This is going to leave me with a bit of a problem. I'm going to need a darned good replacement for you, Harry. You've done an outstanding job."

"I'm sorry, Skipper. I hate to run out on you, but—" The engineer shrugged, and Honor nodded. It probably hadn't happened more than twice before in the entire history of the Royal Navy, but the precedents were clear. The Admiralty didn't like them much, but seven of the last nine Manticoran monarchs, including the present Queen Elizabeth, had been adopted by treecats, and they'd been very firm with the Navy. 'Cats were people; they would be treated as any other people in the company of a Queen's ship, and that meant pregnant females were barred from shipboard duty or anyplace else where they might encounter a radiation hazard. Nor would they be separated from their adopted humans, even if that did make problems for BuPers, which meant Harold Tschu was entirely serious about requesting "maternity leave." He and Samantha would have to be returned to Sphinx by the earliest available transport, and he'd probably be stuck there for at least three years. It would be that long before Samantha's (and Nimitz's) offspring—of which there would probably be at least three—were old enough for her to foster with another female 'cat.

Which brought up another point, and Honor turned to look at the two 'cats on her couch.

"You two do realize what this means, don't you?" she asked gently. Nimitz cocked his head at her while Samantha leaned her cheek against his shoulder. "The regs are the same for you as they are for us two-foots," Honor told him. "We're going to have to send Sam back to Sphinx as soon as we can so she and her babies will be safe."

Nimitz made a soft sound and tucked a strong, wiry arm around Samantha. He looked down at her, and their eyes met and held. Once again, Honor felt that deep, subtle flow of communication—and their unhappiness at the prospect of separation. They truly were mated, she thought, wondering where that was going to end, and the idea of being parted caused both of them pain. But even if they hadn't had to be separated for this, Honor thought, sooner or later she and Tschu were certain to be assigned to different ships. Had Nimitz and Samantha even considered that?

Then Nimitz turned his eyes back to her. They were grave and dark, without their usual mischievousness, and she knew the answer. They had considered it. And, like any Navy personnel who chose to wed, they'd accepted that they would be parted both often and for extended periods. Honor knew how the prospect felt, for she'd faced it before Paul's death, and she could tell they didn't like it any more than she had. But neither of them could any more have ended their relationships with their adopted people just to be together than they could have renounced their feelings for one another, and that was simply the way it was..

Honor felt their unhappiness, and their love—not just for one another, but for her and Harold Tschu—like an extension of her own psyche, and it hit her hard. There was so much joy with the sorrow, such intense pleasure at the thought of the children to come and such regret that Nimitz would not be there when they were born, that she felt tears in her own eyes. She blinked them away and reached out, running her hand over both of them, then looked up at Tschu.

He lacked her own link to Nimitz, but the emotions being generated in Honor's cabin were too intense for him not to feel them, and she saw them echoed in hi's face.

"Have a seat, Harry," she said softly, patting the couch on the other side of the 'cats. He hesitated for a moment, then nodded and sank down, with the 'cats between them, and the soft, sad rejoicing of the 'cats' harmonized purring reached out to them both.

"Never thought the little minx would decide to settle down." Tschu's deep voice was suspiciously husky, and his hand was gentle as he stroked Samantha.

"And I never expected this to happen to Nimitz," Honor agreed with a smile. "Looks like we're going to be seeing quite a bit of each other over the next several years. We'll have to try to juggle our leave schedules so they can have time together."

"Won't be that big a problem for me for at least a few years, Skipper," Tschu pointed out with a grin. "I'll be stuck on Sphinx till they're old enough to foster, so you should know right where to find us."

"True. And it's a good thing the 'cat clans are such extended family arrangements, or you might be stuck there for at least ten years. Think what that would do to your career!"

"Hey, everyone has to make adjustments for his family, doesn't he? I wish they'd given us a little more warning, but—"

He shrugged, and Honor nodded. No doubt if more female 'cats adopted Navy personnel the Admiralty would have extended the contraceptive program to them, as well. But it hadn't, and Nimitz and Samantha had a right to make their own decisions. Which they'd undoubtedly done, she reflected, recalling how uncommon pregnancies were among unmated 'cats.

"Will you be able to locate Sam's clan?" she asked after a moment. It wouldn't be at all unusual for the answer to that to be no. Her own visit to Nimitz's clan was highly unusual; about the only adoptees who regularly knew both the identity and location of their companions' home clans were Forestry Service rangers.

"As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I will," Tschu admitted. "I was vacationing in Djebel Hassa over on Jefferies Land when she adopted me. I know she's from somewhere up in the Al Hijaz Mountains, but as to exactly where . . ."

"Um." Honor rubbed an eyebrow, then glanced down at the 'cats before she looked back at the engineer. "As it happens, I do know where Nimitz's clan hangs out in the Copper Walls."

"Oh?" Tschu considered for a moment, then turned to Samantha. "How about it, Sam? You want to be introduced to Nimitz's family? I'm sure they'd be delighted to see you."

The two 'cats looked into one another's eyes for a moment, then each turned to his—or her—person and flipped his—or her—ears in agreement, and Tschu chuckled.

"Glad that's decided," he said wryly. "I had this picture of spending all my free time for the next six months wandering around Djebel Hassa until Sam said 'We're home!'" He looked at Honor, and his expression turned much more serious. "It must be nice to be able to communicate as clearly as you and Nimitz do, Skipper."

Honor raised an eyebrow at him, and he laughed.

"Skip, people who haven't been adopted might not notice, but anyone who has would know damned well you've found an extra wavelength we don't know about. Is it something you could teach me and Sam? I know she understands me, but I'd give just about anything to be able to hear her back."

"I don't think it's something anyone can teach," Honor said with genuine regret. "It just sort of happened. I don't think either of us knows exactly why or how, and it's taken years to get to the point of exchanging emotions in a clear two-way link."

"I think it's more than just emotions, Skipper," Tschu said quietly. "You may not realize it, but the two of you are an awful lot more in tune than anyone else I've ever seen. When you ask him a question, you get a much clearer—or less ambiguous, at least—answer than any other pair I know. It's like you each know what the other's actually thinking."

"Really?" Honor considered that for a moment, then nodded slowly. "You may have something there." She'd never actually discussed her specialized link with another human, but if she couldn't talk about it with her fellow "grandparent," then who could she discuss it with? "I can't actually hear what he's thinking—it's not like full telepathy—but I do seem to get . . . well, a more complete impression of the direction of his thoughts than I do just emotions. And we can send one another visual images—most of the time, anyway. That's a lot tougher, but it's been darned useful a time or two."

"I imagine," Tschu said wistfully, then stroked Samantha again, radiating love for her as if to reassure her that his inability to feel her emotions in return made her no less precious to him.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to anyone else, though," Honor said after a moment. Tschu looked a question at her, and she shrugged. "I can sense human emotions through Nimitz, too. That can be very useful—it saved my buns when the Maccabeans tried to assassinate the Protector's family on Grayson—and I'd prefer to hold it in reserve as my secret weapon."

"Makes sense to me," Tschu replied very seriously after a moment's consideration. "And I'm glad you can. In all honesty, there's no way in the universe that I'd want to have to wear all the hats you do, Skipper. I've got enough troubles just being a lieutenant commander."

Honor smiled, but MacGuiness returned with the extra glasses and a small bowl of celery before she could reply. The steward set the bowl in front of the 'cats and started to reach for the wine bottle, but Honor waved him off and pointed at a chair.

"Drag that up and have a seat, 'Uncle Mac,'" she told him, picking up the bottle herself, then poured for all of them. "A toast, gentlemen," she said then, and raised her own glass to Samantha, who sat in the protective curl of Nimitz's tail nibbling delicately on a celery stalk. She lowered it and regarded Honor gravely, and Honor smiled. "To Samantha," she said, "may your children be happy and healthy, and may you and Nimitz have years and years together."

"Here, here!" Tschu said, raising his own glass, and MacGuiness joined them both.


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