All over but the shouting

It had descended almost into farce before the week ended. Less than four hours after the last Solarian ship had come to rest five Marksman class light cruisers and two hulking Arsenal Ships arrived from Smoking Frog. Then five days later both Witch Queen and Witch Bride had arrived within an hour of each other from opposite directions.

The explanation of how they had been able to hack the drones and how Semmes had been there as well was discovered. A Sollie destroyer captain from Smoking Frog had become interested in the CLACs, and, as a representative of an ally, he had been given a tour of one of them before Witch Maiden had even returned to the system from her last patrol. As she had departed from the system for the last time, a dispatch boat had arrived, asking that both the Governor and Detachment commander in Smoking Frog also get that tour.

Seeing dollar signs, Queen Berry and the captains of the CLACs had gotten their heads together, rounded up every Sidemoran crewman that had not already been sent home, including those who had been assigned to the LACs themselves (after all, as any salesman of military hardware knows, you show the client what your systems will do using the best trained people you have) and Semmes (With Dwayne Kelly still in command) had set out with TRMS Nat Turner as an escort.

The LACs had shown their stuff (But not all of it) and the Governor and Admiral Rozsak had been suitably impressed. In fact a dispatch boat had left for Sidemore to start negotiations to license the construction of both LACs and carriers in the Maya sector when ensign Kyle had come over the wall with his warning.

She had been right; all Rozsak had in system at the moment had been the five cruisers, the Arsenal ships, four destroyers and a single dispatch boat with nothing ready to leave immediately. The smaller ships he had immediately sent to gather all of his ships, and when he heard that Semmes was going to the rescue, had asked permission to board before they departed. Turner had already raced ahead, coming out of hyper as Witch Maiden herself had, beyond sensor range almost thirty hours before Semmes had arrived. Jacques Chartaine, who had asked permission to go aboard Semmes on the visit had literally been shanghaied from the CLAC and thrown aboard Turner because he had mentioned that he thought he might be able to integrate the relief forces into Witch Maiden's data net. He had just completed the hack when Semmes arrived.

Now this. Rebecca looked at the repair survey, and her heart sank. "So you can't build us a new hyperspace generator?" She asked the four men sent over from the fleet repair ships.

"No ma'am." The senior man, Commander Fitzroy of SLNS Westinghouse told her. "You see, if you were a Solarian design, or close to one, we could order a new one from the factory faster than rebuilding it. All we would do normally is just patch it together enough to send you to a shipyard. But frankly there isn't enough of your original one to make it worth the effort to even try. What we would do in this case is scuttle her."

She wondered if this was what Jinhua had felt when her older brother had finally died. The sense of helplessness. "Thank you, gentlemen." She touched the control and her hatch opened. "Lance Corporal LeBeau, escort these men to Cargo 2."

It didn't take long for her crew to abandon ship. Finally she stood in Cargo 2. Her pods had been loaded aboard the Bride, along with half of her LACs, which had already departed. The rest had gone aboard the Queen and merely awaited this last shuttle. Lieutenant Huggins came into the compartment, carrying two swords, her own, and Mordechai Ruben's.

"Last out, Becca?"

"Yes, captain." She looked around. "She was a good ship."

"The best. Nothing the Queen gives me will be worth as much to me as the old Witch hasbecome." She walked over to the bulkhead, resting her hand on the painting. Pankowski was still alive. If she had a chance again, maybe he would do another for her. "I almost wish I was going with you on this last voyage old girl." She whispered, rubbing it as she would have Irene. "Maybe ships have souls. I hope they do because when I go on, I hope I can walk your decks again. Go with god. "

They boarded the shuttle. It sat there as the remaining cargo crew evacuated the compartment, and came aboard in SUTs. Then she backed out of the hold, spun lightly, and headed for the nearby Witch Queen. Rebecca walked down the ramp, numbly accepting the sideboys and greetings. All of her crew was here. No, everyone on the ship was here standing in their lines broken only by divisions. As she had during the burial service, a large plasma screen monitor had been mounted on the hatch to space, and 5,000 kilometers away, Witch Maiden could be seen. They had to do this; there was too much aboard her still covered by the Official Secrets Act.

"Hand, salute!" At the shout everyone of both ships snapped a parade ground salute. Then the screen darkened as every warhead remaining in the LAC magazine went off simultaneously. Witch Queen died as she had lived, in blood and fire. "To!"

Rebecca turned to Miriam. "Take us home, captain."

Christmas present

It was odd that humans held on to holidays of old Earth; even when they had no meaning where man had settled. Landing Day was celebrated on every planet where humans had survived, though such dates as 'thanksgiving' and 'Christmas' depended on the locals and what they faced.

For most planets, Thanksgiving had boiled down to 'we've survived almost a full planetary year, so let's celebrate!'. And as everyone who had migrated from Earth knew Christmas was about a month later, they would sometimes celebrate it then, or go even further back to when it had been the winter solstice as the Manticore system had. She had been amused because with three planets, each with different years, they could have had three different Christmas days, but finally the Star Kingdom had merely chosen the one of Manticore itself. So ever since the Diaspora, the idea became scattered, and if you had a mythical teleportation device, you could have spent every day of your life celebrating just the one holiday.

But there were some really stubborn people out there, Grayson for example, that used the Earth Dates for everything. Which was funny because the planet didn't have the same length of a day not to mention the year. So thanksgiving was celebrated on the third Thursday of November, and Christmas on the 25th of December, period. Rebecca Huggins had talked of her first Christmas on Grayson in the middle of the planet's summer. Captain Duvalier had thought her people were stubborn!

For the people of Torch, it came down to their Queen. Berry had lived more than half of her life on Earth, and remembered some of the times her mother had given her gifts, so she knew when her birthday was, and even Christmas, though sometimes thanksgiving was just having enough to eat, even if you didn't the day before. When her mother had gone away, she had taken up the standard for Lars, her brother, doing what she could to make some days more special than others.

So once she knew how long the year was on Torch, (419 days) and when the winter solstice would be, she had marked two dates on the calendar of her realm, and they were celebrated as Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Sometimes it's good to be the Queen.

Due to a quirk in that decision, Christmas would be celebrated this year only about 17 hours earlier than the actual date on Earth.

The Inferno Incident at it had been called had ended without a whimper. Officially the Task Group had come to a remote system merely for maneuvers, and some 'accidents' had happened, causing the destruction of Moscva in a friendly fire incident and Lowell due to a freak compensator accident. Over seven thousand dead. Except for the Destroyers and Cruisers which had been detached to join the Maya Sector picket, the ships had returned home. She had been merely an outside witness, nothing more. She did enjoy the fact that the four surviving admirals connected with it, and still alive, had been handed over to Torch by Admiral Rozsak. He had 'requested' that the fleet colliers load up the missiles, but they had gone to Smoking Frog, where he would put them to good use.

Thanks to the lung damage, she had agreed to the request of Francis Dollaryde that he be given a medical discharge. She had also discharged the Twins, and they had settled into a house beside the brewery in Beacon. The local hospital was testing some medicines made locally that might ease tissue rejection, so they stayed in hopes that a transplant would work. She had been informed that Cao Mei was pregnant, and when Fengniao had said she was doing everything possible to join her sister in that state, Rebecca had merely cursed her imagination. After all, he had trouble breathing just from routine exertions... Maybe she would wait until after the transplant? No, she wouldn't do that.

Rebecca looked at the latest delivery from the home system. While her ship had been destroyed, she was still the senior officer of the tiny squadron, and she had duties beyond her own ship's hull. In fact as senior officer on station, she was the closest thing they had to an ambassador for Manticore here this last six weeks. She had never done a stint in an embassy, and she had found you needed the patience of Job with the wisdom of Solomon to do the job.

Until now, that is. The dispatch boat had delivered three items directed at her as Captain. She sensed Sir Arthur's heavy hand in this, since everything in it was dated weeks earlier. He had arranged his own Christmas present as it were.

After due consideration, the Court decision had been that both Cathcart and O'Connor be allowed to resign 'for the good of the service' rather than stand trial. The Court of Inquiry (And she was not surprised to see the President of that court was Collingwood) had determined that she had recklessly hazarded her command, and censured her for that fact. Then this.

"Her Majesty's Navy regrets to inform you that we do not have a command position at present suitable to your skills. When one does become available..." Miriam was ordered to assume command of the squadron, and a new ambassador had arrived on the Liner when she returned to Torch this morning.

With the navy struggling to man her ships, and facing the fight of their lives, she had been beached thanks to one vindictive son of a bitch. Merry Christmas, you bitch.

She heard a happy bleek, and the door to the office opened. Cynthia Wagoner looked in. "Miss Kiel and her daughter are here to see you, ma'am."

"Please send them in."

The first through the door was Che, who walked in as if he owned the place. A blur of white shot from under the coffee table, and he spun, caught Irene, and rolled on his back, both of them purring furiously. Fenghua was next, and oddly enough she had another treecat in tow.

"Captain, may I introduce Sammie?" The treecat started to sign, but Fenghua gave him a minatory look. "You know what to do." She handed the cat, of all things, a simple pad. The cat typed into it, then hit another button.

"Merry-Christmas-Captain-Duvalier." a voice synthesizer said.

She stared at him in amazement, and Fenghua caroled, "I told you, Mutti! Pay up!" Rebecca watched as the woman reached into her pocket, and handed the girl a small sack of chocolate coins which she took over to the coffee table. Sammie and Che leaped up onto it, Che carrying Irene, and watched as she split them into three piles, putting one pile in front of each treecat.

"I came officially to see you-"

"How did you pull this one off, Jinhua. I really want to know!"

"I did not. Fenghua did. Remember when she suddenly started reading stories to Daedelus? She was teaching him to read and spell, and when we arrived here, he taught the other treecats. It was their idea to see if pads could be altered so they could use a voice synthesizer, and Mr Chartaine supplied the programming. Professor Arif has already been apprised of this development, and is busily teaching the Mind Singers who are on her project so that from this point on, every cat will know it.

"Now, Captain-"

"I am not a captain anymore." She passed across the document. "Admiral Collingwood was able to have me beached."

"Yes." Jinhua said softly. "I know. Along with all of the men and women of the JAG team sent to investigate you." She caught Rebecca's stunned look. "He is a very... vindictive man, your Sir Arthur. I came to deliver this, and an invitation from Queen Berry." She set the box down before her.

Rebecca picked it up, and opened it. There was a medal and ribbon in it. "An Andermani Intelligence Star?"

"For all of the work you did on your voyages on the Witch Maiden. I felt it was the least our empire could do for you. As for the invitation, Raphael Semmes is going to be officially turned over to Torch tonight, and as the commander of the Squadron, you have been asked to attend. You are to be in Mess Dress, and since you are a Gryphon Highlander, she has asked that you do so in full kilt."

"And who told her about the kilt?" She looked long and hard at Jinhua. "I will have to think of a way to get even with you for this."

"My heart flutters in anticipation. You just have enough time to get dressed, Captain."

The story never really ends...

"Witch Maiden Arriving." She flinched as her feet came to rest in the boatbay of the Semmes. But her salute was crisp. Witch Maiden aboard."

She looked around, then her eye caught on the man walking toward her with his hand out. "Friday?"

"Yes, ma'am. Welcome aboard."

"What are you doing here?"

"Queen Berry heard about what Sir Arthur was going to do, and the same dispatch boat that took us home took her request that we all be seconded to her as loaners." He looked good in the Black and Navy blue of Torch's navy, with the rank of Captain. "She assigned us here, so my chief engineer is commander Murray, Warrant officer 2 Lithgow is my senior computer technician, and Conway is my Bosun."

"Yes, it is good to be the Queen." Rebecca turned, then snapped to attention, and threw a salute to Queen Berry, who was followed by Thandi Palane and of course, Hugh. The girl turned to the people in the boatbay. "The Royal Manticoran Navy has what is called the Honor list, ships that have earned renown, and instead of striking their names, they are instead kept alive by assigning them to new construction. I have decided to institute the same procedure in my own navy." She nodded to Thandi.

"Attention to orders!" The entire crew snapped to attention as Thandi opened the papers in her hand.

"From Admiral John Brown, Senior Admiral Royal Torch Navy, to Captain Rebecca Duvalier, Royal Manticoran Navy, greetings:

Pursuant to the requests of Queen Berry of Torch, you have been offered a position in her navy. A letter from your own Admiralty had been appended.

"Madam: You are hereby directed and required to proceed aboard Her Majesty's Starship TRMS Witch Maiden, CLAC 04 there to take upon yourself the duties and responsibilities of Rear Admiral in command of CLAC Squadron 1 in the service of the Crown. Fail not in this charge at your peril.

"By order of General Thandi Palane, Commander in Chief of the armed forces of Torch for Her Majesty the Queen."

The bulkhead that had held the crest of Raphael Semmes was uncovered. The same painting of the old Witch Maiden was there, the ball of fire looked more like the planet below them. But the motto was unchanged. Who touches me dies.

"Oh, I forgot. You are the first ship to receive the newly deployed Gungnir class dog fighting LACs Sidemore has begun building. I felt you needed an old hand with the concept. So..." with a gesture like a stage magician asking for applause, Berry moved aside, and two more women came out of the crowd. "Your Wing commander and one of your LAC commanders."

Commander Rebecca Huggins, and Lieutenant Stacey Kramer saluted her. Stacey wore the hat that had been her prize in the LAC competition, though both were now in Torch uniforms.

Berry reached out, and Rebecca still in shock, shook her hand. Then Berry handed her the light blue Beret of a Captain. "I have also started the same tradition Beth does with the Captain of HMS Unconquered, though the first commander was chosen by me rather than a vote since every Admiral of the new Witch Maiden after you will be voted." Then she shook Rebecca's hand again. "Merry Christmas, Admiral."

Author's closing notes.

And so it ends. Lord Grise and I have been working on a follow on which will be set inside Ruth Winton's Institute. For those who enjoyed the characters of this work, you will see them again