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On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington 1)
By David Weber
Baen BooksCopyright © 1993 David Weber
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Chapter OneThe fluffy ball of fur in Honor Harrington's lap stirred and put forth a round, prick-eared head as the steady pulse of the shuttle's thrusters died. A delicate mouth of needle-sharp fangs yawned, and then the treecat turned its head to regard her with wide, grass-green eyes.
"Bleek?" it asked, and Honor chuckled softly.
"'Bleek' yourself," she said, rubbing the ridge of its muzzle. The green eyes blinked, and four of the treecat's six limbs reached out to grip her wrist in feather-gentle hand-paws. She chuckled again, pulling back to initiate a playful tussle, and the treecat uncoiled to its full sixty-five centimeters (discounting its tail) and buried its true-feet in her midriff with the deep, buzzing hum of its purr. The hand-paws tightened their grip, but the murderous claws-a full centimeter of curved, knife-sharp ivory-were sheathed. Honor had once seen similar claws used to rip apart the face of a human foolish enough to threaten a treecat's companion, but she felt no concern. Except in self-defense (or Honor's defense) Nimitz would no more hurt a human being than turn vegetarian, and treecats never made mistakes in that respect.
She extricated herself from Nimitz's grasp and lifted the long, sinuous creature to her shoulder, a move he greeted with even more enthusiastic purrs. Nimitz was an old hand at space travel and understood shoulders were out of bounds aboard small craft under power, but he also knew treecats belonged on their companions' shoulders. That was where they'd ridden since the first 'cat adopted its first human five Terran centuries before, and Nimitz was a traditionalist.
A flat, furry jaw pressed against the top of her head as Nimitz sank his four lower sets of claws into the specially padded shoulder of her uniform tunic. Despite his long, narrow body, he was a hefty weight-almost nine kilos-even under the shuttle's single gravity, but Honor was used to it, and Nimitz had learned to move his center of balance in from the point of her shoulder. Now he clung effortlessly to his perch while she collected her briefcase from the empty seat beside her. Honor was the half-filled shuttle's senior passenger, which had given her the seat just inside the hatch. It was a practical as well as a courteous tradition, since the senior officer was always last to board and first to exit.
The shuttle quivered gently as its tractors reached out to the seventy-kilometer bulk of Her Majesty's Space Station Hephaestus, the Royal Manticoran Navy's premiere shipyard, and Nimitz sighed his relief into Honor's short-cropped mass of feathery, dark brown hair. She smothered another grin and rose from her bucket seat to twitch her tunic straight. The shoulder seam had dipped under Nimitz's weight, and it took her a moment to get the red-and-gold navy shoulder flash with its roaring, lion-headed, bat-winged manticore, spiked tail poised to strike, back where it belonged. Then she plucked the beret from under her left epaulet. It was the special beret, the white one she'd bought when they gave her Hawkwing, and she chivied Nimitz's jaw gently aside and settled it on her head. The treecat put up with her until she had it adjusted just so, then shoved his chin back into its soft warmth, and she felt her face crease in a huge grin as she turned to the hatch.
That grin was a violation of her normally severe "professional expression," but she was entitled. Indeed, she felt more than mildly virtuous for holding herself to a grin when what she really wanted to do was spin on her toes, fling her arms wide, and carol her delight to her no-doubt shocked fellow passengers. But she was almost twenty-four years old-over forty Terran standard years-and it would never, never have done for a commander of the Royal Manticoran Navy to be so undignified, even if she was about to assume command of her first cruiser.
She smothered another chuckle, luxuriating in the unusual sense of complete and simple joy, and pressed a hand to the front of her tunic. The folded sheaf of archaic paper crackled at her touch-a curiously sensual, exciting sound-and she closed her eyes to savor it even as she savored the moment she'd worked so hard to reach.
Fifteen years-twenty-five T-years-since that first exciting, terrifying day on the Saganami campus. Two and a half years of Academy classes and running till she dropped. Four years working her way without patronage or court interest from ensign to lieutenant. Eleven months as sailing master aboard the frigate Osprey, and then her first command, a dinky little intrasystem LAC. It had massed barely ten thousand tons, with only a hull number and not even the dignity of a name, but God how she'd loved that tiny ship! Then more time as executive officer, a turn as tactical officer on a massive superdreadnought. And then-finally!-the coveted commanding officer's course after eleven grueling years. She'd thought she'd died and gone to heaven when they gave her Hawkwing, for the middle-aged destroyer had been her very first hyper-capable command, and the thirty-three months she'd spent in command had been pure, unalloyed joy, capped by the coveted Fleet "E" award for tactics in last year's war games. But this-!
The deck shuddered beneath her feet, and the light above the hatch blinked amber as the shuttle settled into Hephaestus's docking buffers, then burned a steady green as pressure equalized in the boarding tube. The panel slid aside, and Honor stepped briskly through it.
The shipyard tech manning the hatch at the far end of the tube saw the white beret of a starship's captain and the three gold stripes of a full commander on a space-black sleeve and came to attention, but his snappy response was flawed by a tiny hesitation as he caught sight of Nimitz. He flushed and twitched his eyes away, but Honor was used to that reaction. The treecats native to her home world of Sphinx were picky about which humans they adopted. Relatively few were seen off-world, but they refused to be parted from their humans even if those humans chose space-going careers, and the Lords of Admiralty had caved in on that point almost a hundred and fifty Manticoran years before. 'Cats rated a point-eight-three on the sentience scale, slightly above Beowulf's gremlins or Old Earth's dolphins, and they were empaths. Even now, no one had the least idea how their empathic links worked, but separating one from its chosen companion caused it intense pain, and it had been established early on that those favored by a 'cat were measurably more stable than those without. Besides, Crown Princess Adrienne had been adopted by a 'cat on a state visit to Sphinx. When Queen Adrienne of Manticore expressed her displeasure twelve years later at efforts to separate officers in her navy from their companions, the Admiralty found itself with no option but to grant a special exemption from its draconian "no pets" policy.
Honor was glad of it, though she'd been afraid it would be impossible to find time to spend with Nimitz when she entered the Academy. She'd known going in that those forty-five endless months on Saganami Island were deliberately planned to leave even midshipmen without 'cats too few hours to do everything they had to do. But while Academy instructors might suck their teeth and grumble when a plebe turned up with one of the rare 'cats, they recognized natural forces for which allowances must be made when they saw one. Besides, even the most "domesticated" 'cat retained the independence (and indestructibility) of his cousins in the wild, and Nimitz had seemed perfectly aware of the pressure she faced. All he needed was a little grooming, an occasional wrestling bout, a perch on her shoulder or lap while she pored over the book chips and to sleep curled neatly up on her pillow, and he was happy. Not that he'd been above looking mournful and pitiful to extort tidbits and petting from any unfortunate who crossed his path. Even Chief MacDougal, the terror of the first-form middies, had succumbed, carrying a suitable stash of the celery stalks the otherwise carnivorous treecats craved and sneaking them to Nimitz when he thought no one was looking. And, Honor reflected wryly, running Ms. Midshipman Harrington ragged to compensate for his weakness.
Her thoughts had carried her through the arrival gate to the concourse, and she looked about until she found the color-coded guide strip to the personnel tubes. She followed it, unburdened by any baggage, for she had none. All her meager personal possessions had been freighted up this morning, whisked away by stewards at the Advanced Tactical Course facility almost before she'd had time to pack.
She frowned a bit at that thought while she punched up a tube capsule. All the scramble to get her here seemed out of character for a navy that preferred to do things in an orderly fashion. When she'd been given Hawkwing, she'd known two months in advance; this time, she'd been literally snatched out of the ATC graduation ceremonies and hustled off to Admiral Courvosier's office with no warning at all.
The capsule arrived, and she stepped into it, still frowning and rubbing gently at the tip of her nose. Nimitz roused to lift his chin from the top of her beret and nipped her ear with the scolding tug he saved for the unfortunately frequent moments when his companion worried. Honor clicked her teeth gently at him and reached up to scratch his chest, but she didn't stop worrying, and he sighed in exasperation.
Now why, she wondered, was she so certain Courvosier had deliberately bustled her out of his office and off to her new assignment? The admiral was a bland-faced, cherubic little gnome of a man with a bent for creating demonic tac problems, and she'd known him for years. He'd been her Fourth Form Tactics instructor at the Academy, the one who'd recognized an inborn instinct and honed it into something she could command at will, not something that came and went. He'd spent hours working with her in private when other instructors worried about her basic math scores and, in a very real sense, had saved her career before it had actually begun, yet this time there'd been something almost evasive about him. She knew his congratulations and satisfied pride in her had been real, but she couldn't shake the impression that there'd been something else, as well. Ostensibly, the rush was all because of the need to get her to Hephaestus to shepherd her new ship through its refit in time for the upcoming Fleet exercise, yet HMS Fearless was only a single light cruiser, when all was said. It seemed unlikely her absence would critically shift the balance in maneuvers planned to exercise the entire Home Fleet!
No, something was definitely up, and she wished fervently that she'd had time for a full download before catching the shuttle. But at least all the rush had kept her from worrying herself into a swivet the way she had before taking Hawkwing over, and Lieutenant Commander McKeon, her new exec, had served on Fearless for almost two years, first as tactical officer and then as exec. He should be able to bring her up to speed on the refit Courvosier had been so oddly reluctant to discuss.
She shrugged and punched her destination into the capsule's routing panel, then set down her briefcase and resigned herself as it flashed away down the counter-grav tubeway. Despite a peak speed of well over seven hundred kilometers per hour, the capsule trip would take over fifteen minutes-assuming she was lucky enough not to hit too many stops en route.
The deck shivered gently underfoot. Few would have detected the tiny bobble as one quadrant of Hephaestus's gravity generators handed the tube off to another, but Honor noticed it. Not consciously, perhaps, but that minute quiver was part of a world which had become more real to her than the deep blue skies and chill winds of her childhood. It was like her own heartbeat, one of the tiny, uncountable stimuli that told her-instantly and completely-what was happening around her.
She watched the tube map display, shaking off thoughts of evasive admirals and other puzzles as her eyes tracked the blinking cursor of her capsule across it. Her hand rose to press the crispness of her orders once more, and she paused, almost surprised as she looked away from the map and glimpsed her reflection in the capsule's polished wall.
The face that gazed back should have looked different, reflecting the monumental change in her status, and it didn't. It was still all sharply defined planes and angles dominated by a straight, patrician nose (which, in her opinion, was the only remotely patrician thing about her) and devoid of the least trace of cosmetics. Honor had been told (once) that her face had "a severe elegance." She didn't know about that, but the idea was certainly better than the dread, "My, isn't she, um, healthy looking!" Not that "healthy" wasn't accurate, however depressing it might sound. She looked trim and fit in the RMN's black and gold, courtesy of her 1.35-gravity homeworld and a rigorous exercise regimen, and that, she thought, critically, was about the best she had to say about herself.
Most of the Navy's female officers had chosen to adopt the current planet-side fashion of long hair, often elaborately dressed and arranged, but Honor had decided long ago there was no point trying to make herself something she was not. Her hair-style was practical, with no pretensions to glamour. It was clipped short to accommodate vac helmets and bouts of zero-gee, and if its two-centimeter strands had a stubborn tendency to curl, it was neither blond, nor red, nor even black, just a highly practical, completely unspectacular dark brown. Her eyes were even darker, and she'd always thought their hint of an almond shape, inherited from her mother, made them look out of place in her strong-boned face, almost as if they'd been added as an afterthought. Their darkness made her pale complexion seem still paler, and her chin was too strong below her firm-lipped mouth. No, she decided once more, with a familiar shade of regret, it was a serviceable enough face, but there was no use pretending anyone would ever accuse it of radiant beauty ... darn it.
She grinned again, feeling the bubble of delight pushing her worries aside, and her reflection grinned back. It made her look like an urchin gloating over a hidden bag of candy, and she took herself firmly to task for the remainder of the trip, concentrating on a new CO's responsibility to look cool and collected, but it was hard.
Excerpted from On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington 1) by David Weber Copyright © 1993 by David Weber. Excerpted by permission.
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