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Chapter Forty-Six

"Welcome to Flag Bridge, Citizen General," Citizen Commander Yang said pleasantly.

"Thank you, Citizen Commodore," Citizen Major General Thornegrave responded, as politely as if they both meant a word of it, and they smiled at one another.

"As I explained when I screened you, we're just coming up on our alpha translation, Sir," Yang went on. "We'll reenter n-space in" she glanced at the date/time display "eleven and a half minutes."

"Excellent, Citizen Commodore. And from there to Hades orbit?"

"We're making a fairly gentle translation, Sir." Yang smiled again, this time with genuine humor. "There's no need for what a crash translation does to people's nerves and stomachs, after all. That means we'll hit normal-space with a velocity of only about a thousand KPS, and we'll be about fourteen and a half light-minutes from Hades on a direct intercept course. Unfortunately from the prospect of a fast passage, however, the Longstops can only manage about two hundred and twenty gravities. That gives us a total flight time of almost exactly six hours, but the decel leg will be eight minutesand about a hundred and fifteen thousand klickslonger than the accel because of the velocity we'll take across the alpha wall with us."

"I see." Thornegrave nodded gravely, and despite his antipathy for regular officers in general and his awareness of the need to put this regular officer in particular in her place and keep her there, he was grateful for her apparent tact. No doubt a Navy officer, or even a Marine, would have realized what bringing an initial velocity across from hyper-space would have meant for their passage time to Hades. Thornegrave hadn't, but Yang had found a way to give him the information without drawing any attention to the fact that he'd needed it. That might not matter in the long run, but her explanation might also keep him from saying something which would sound at best ill-informed and at worst stupid in front of some junior officer.

Yang saw the flicker of awareness in his eyes, but she had no intention of indicating that she had, for she'd long since decided Thornegrave needed regular stroking to keep him off her back. It wasn't even really because he was StateSec, either. She'd had regular Navy superiors who were just as compulsive about controlling everything and everyone around them, and she sometimes wondered if that sort of personality was what had propelled them to senior rank in the first place.

Of course, she didn't dare forget his SS connections for a moment, either, and he'd seen to it that she hadn't. The one good thing about her current assignment was that there was no people's commissioner attached to her staff. The downside of that was that the reason for it was that she was, in effect, simply attached to Thornegrave's staff, which left him filling the role of watchdog himself. Worse, the Longstops couldn't climb above the delta bands (which was why no Navy officer would have even considered using them to deliver so many troops so close to the front line of a serious war), so the piddling little 33.75 light-year-voyage from Shilo to Cerberus had required over two hundred and ninety-five hours, base-time. Relativity had reduced that to just under ten days subjective at the transports' best speed, but that had still given him entirely too much time to make himself totally unbearable. Of course, she thought moodily, a man with his immense native talent could have done that in just a few hours. Nine days had simply given him the time he needed to achieve complete artistry.

But they were coming up on Cerberus at last, thank God. She could at least hope that the chance to boss around more of his red-coated SS minions would distract him from badgering her for the next couple of days. On the other hand, we're scheduled to ship everyone on board and be out of here within seventy-two hours, and it's going to take us over five and a third T-weeks subjective to reach Seabring. She shuddered at the very thought, but shuddering wouldn't change anything.

"The actual translation from hyper to n-space is quite visually spectacular, Sir," she went on in her most pleasant voice. "Have you ever had the opportunity to observe it?"

"No. No, I haven't," Thornegrave replied after a moment.

"If you'd like a ringside seat for it, Sir, you can watch the main plot here on Flag Bridge. CIC will be keeping an eye out for Tactical, and I'm sure Citizen Captain Ferris will be watching his maneuvering plot carefully. But I rather enjoy watching the translation bleed myself, so I normally have the main plot configured to take a visual feed from the forward optical heads. Or you can also watch it directly with the naked eye from the observatory blister."

Thornegrave regarded her thoughtfully. He more than half suspected she was looking for any excuse to tempt him off "her" flag bridge, but if she was she'd certainly found a bait that piqued his interest. And she had covered his ass for him with that smoothly slipped in little explanation, so he supposed he could argue that he owed her some small triumph in return. He weighed silent pros and cons for several seconds, then shrugged mentally. He had no intention of spending the next six hours standing around on Flag Bridge. Yang was going to, but it was her job to play chauffeur. In his own case, however, he could use the observation blister as an excuse to leave now, then come back several hours later to fulfill his role as the expeditionary CO without losing face.

"I believe I will watch it from the observation blister, Citizen Commodore," he said graciously. "Thank you for the suggestion."

"You're quite welcome, Sir," Yang told him, and her eyes glinted with satisfaction as she watched him head for the lift.

Citizen Lieutenant Rodham was waiting to play guide again. Thornegrave's initial opinion of the citizen lieutenant had been amply confirmed in the course of the trip from Shilo, and he was amazed and baffled by how someone as unprepossessing as young Guillermo could convince so many different women to sleep with him. The citizen major general still didn't like the citizen lieutenant a bit, but he'd been forced to change his mind about him in at least one regard. He'd figured the smarmy, apple-polishing little bastard to be completely useless, but he'd been wrong. The citizen lieutenant wasn't particularly skilled at his official duties, but he attacked them (when anyone was looking, at any rate) with enormous energy, and he'd displayed a facile wit at borrowing other people's work or at least explaining away his own failures. More to the point, however, he had a quality StateSec occasionally needed badly: amorality.

It grieved Thornegrave to admit that, for he disliked seeing people in SS uniform who were devoted to the Revolution solely out of ambition, not conviction. He despised such fellow-travelers on a personal level, and on a professional one, he regarded them as dangerous soft spots in the People's armor. If they would profess one belief out of expediency, there was no reason to believe they wouldn't embrace conversion to another the instant the winds of advantage looked like shifting.

Yet much as he disliked admitting it, he knew people like Citizen Lieutenant Rodham made the best informers. One had to be careful to ensure that they weren't "informing" on some obstacle to their own advancement simply to get the unfortunate person out of their way, but people who had no convictions would not be led by mistaken convictions to risk their own hides to protect others. More to the point, perhaps, they had a priceless gift any really good informer needed: they made people trust them. In Rodham's case, for example, he had not only inveigled Citizen Major Regina Sanderman into his bed, but also into some highly indiscreet pillow talk. Sanderman didn't know it yet, but Thornegrave did. He and his chief of staff were watching the citizen major very carefully, waiting for the actions which would confirm the disaffection her talks with Rodham had suggested.

I really do hate this little bottom-feeder, Thornegrave reflected as, once again, the citizen lieutenant punched the code to summon a lift car, but the People can't afford to throw away a perfectly useful tool just because its handle is a little slimy. And at least he does know his way around this damned ship better than I do. I wonder how much of that comes from nipping in and out of other people's bunks?

"Does the Citizen General wish the Citizen Lieutenant to escort him to the observation blister, Sir?" Rodham asked when the car arrived, and Thornegrave looked at him sharply. Rodham hadn't been on Flag Bridge when Yang made her offer, nor had Thornegrave yet told him where they were headed.

It seems I underestimated him. He's got better sources than I thought. But he may be even stupider than I thought, too, if he's going around showing off the fact that he's keeping tabs on me. Or else he's clever enoughand gutsy enoughto deliberately risk pissing me off by displaying that his ability as an information gatherer extends even to my own movements because he figures his demonstrated value will impress me enough to outweigh my irritation with him?

"Yes," he said after a moment. "Please do escort me to the blister, Citizen Lieutenant."

"Of course, Sir! If the Citizen General will follow me, please?"

Oh, I will. I will! Thornegrave decided. And I'll give you a little more rope, too, Citizen Lieutenant. You're too full of your own cleverness to last forever, but it'll be interesting to see how far you get before you fall off that cliff you're so busy building... and how far you bounce.

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