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Chapter Twenty-Nine

HMSHexapuma and HMSWarlock emerged from the central terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction exactly one T-year from the day Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki, Midshipman Aikawa Kagiyama, and Midshipwoman Ragnhild Pavletic had reported aboard her. Now Ensign Zilwicki tried to wrap her mind around how truly monumental the events of that year had been as she sat beside Lieutenant Senior Grade Abigail Hearns at Tactical. Abigail was undoubtedly too junior for permanent duty as aSaganami-C-class heavy cruiser's tactical officer, but Captain Terekhov had flatly refused to allow anyone to replace her before Hexapuma'sreturn to Manticore.

Helen was glad. And she was glad some other people were still aboard, as well.

She glanced over her shoulder and hid a broad mental smile as her eye met Paulo's. Ansten FitzGerald was still in obvious pain and more than a little shaky. That wasn't especially amusing to anyone who knew and respected the exec, but watching Aikawa Kagiyama hovering in the background while he kept an anxious eye on FitzGerald certainly was.

"Message from Invictus, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri announced from Communications.

"Yes?" Terekhov turned his command chair to face Nagchaudhuri. HMSInvictus was the flagship of Home Fleet, no doubt in orbit about the planet of Manticore.

"Message begins," Nagchaudhuri began, and something in his tone made Helen look at him sharply.

" 'To Captain Aivars Terekhov and the men and women of HMSHexapuma and HMSWarlock, from Admiral of the Green Sebastian D'Orville, Commanding Officer, Home Fleet. Well done.' Message ends."

Helen frowned, but before the message had time to sink in, the main tactical display changed abruptly. In one perfectly synchronized moment, forty-two superdreadnoughts, sixteen CLACs, twelve battlecruisers, thirty-six heavy and light cruisers, thirty-two destroyers, and over a thousand LACs, activated their impeller wedges. They appeared on the display like lightning flickering outward from a common center, a stupendous globe thousands of kilometers in diameter, andHexapuma andWarlock were at its exact center.

Helen recognized that formation. She'd seen it before. Every man and woman in Navy uniform had seen it, once every year, on Coronation Day, when Home Fleet passed in review before the Queen...with its flagship in exactly the position Hexapuma and Warlock now held.

Even as she stared at the display, another icon appeared upon it. The crowned, golden icon of HMSDuke of Cromarty, the battlecruiser which had replaced the murdered HMSQueen Adrienne as the royal yacht, sitting just beyond the threshold of the Junction. A Junction, Helen sudden realized, which had been cleared of shippingall shippingexcept for Home Fleet itself.

The vast globe accelerated towardsCromarty, matching its acceleration rate exactly toHexapuma's, holding formation on the heavy cruiser and her single escort, and the raised wedge of every ship in that huge formation flashed off and then on again in the traditional underway salute to a fleet flagship.

"Additional message, Sir," Nagchaudhuri said. He stopped and cleared his throat, then continued, and despite his throat clearing, his voice seemed to waver about the edges.

"Message begins. 'Yours is the honor.' " He looked up from his display, meeting Aivars Terekhov's eyes.

"Message ends, Sir," he said softly.

"Hey, Helen!"

Helen Zilwicki looked up from the footlocker she was packing, and Paulo d'Arezzo waved at her, then pointed at the com unit on the outsized table in the commons area of HMS Hexapuma's Snotty Row.

"The Skipper wants to see you," he continued.

"Wants to see me?" Helen repeated carefully. "As in, 'I'd like to see you around sometime,' or as in 'Get your butt up here right now, Ms. Zilwicki'?"

"The latter," Paulo told her with a smile. "As in 'Mr. d'Arezzo, ask Ms. Zilwicki to come by my day cabin at her earliest convenience.' "

"Crap." Helen sat back on her heels, trying to think of anything she might have done to earn her a last-minute 'counseling interview' with Captain Terekhov. She couldn't come up with anything right off the top of her head, but that wasn't necessarily reassuring; it was the unanticipated reamings that smarted the most, she'd discovered. Of course, it was always possible he just wanted her to stop by because he'd heard a really good joke and wanted to share it with her, but somehow she didn't find that possibility extremely likely.

"I don't suppose he said anything about why he wants to see me?"

"Nope," Paulo said with what Helen privately considered to be appallingly callous cheerfulness.

"Great." She sighed, and stood up.

She looked down at the open locker for a second or two, then shrugged philosophically. She and Paulo were due to catch the regularly scheduled ferry flight from HMS Hephaestus to Saganami Island in order to clear the final Academy bits and pieces of paperwork required to formally graduate them and confirm their acting promotions to ensign. She'd been dreading it in some ways, since it would inevitably mean new assignments for both of them, and she was still working her way around the edges of turning her friendship with the stunningly handsomeand terminally standoffishMr. D'Arrezo into something deeper and more enduring. Given his hatred for the Manpower Incorporated genetic manipulation which was responsible for those looks of his, that wasn't the easiest job in the universe, and she didn't really like the thought of letting him get out of arm's reach before she was done working on him. At the same time, she was eager to see what new challenges the Navy was going to offer her. But if she didn't get done packing in the next twenty minutes, she was going to miss the ferry shuttle, and it seemed unlikely she could get up to the captain's day cabin, find out what he wanted, get back down here, and finish packing in that tight a time window.

"Unlikely," ha! Try "no way in hell," honey, she told herself sourly.

"Looks like I'll be catching the evening shuttle, instead," she told Paulo resignedly.

"Well, we won't be assigned a formal mess billet yet," he pointed out. "I'll save you a place in the cafeteria."

"Gee, thanks. Your generosity and thoughtfulness overwhelm me."

"I'm just a naturally generous and thoughtful kind of guy," he told her with a broad grin few other people had ever seen out of him. "A natural born philanthropist, too, now that I think about it. A veritable paragon. A giant among men, aooph!"

He broke off as the flying boot hit him in the region of his navel. Helen was an extraordinarily strong young woman, thanks to both natural aptitude and rigorous training, and she'd actually tossed the boot quite gently...for her. It seemed unlikely Paulo would have agreed with that particular adverb, and he sat down rather abruptly.

"And the strong silent type, too, I see," Helen observed sweetly, smiled at him, and headed out of the compartment.

"Ensign Zilwicki to see the Captain," Helen told the Marine sentry outside Captain Terekhov's quarters five minutes later.

"You're expected, Ma'am," the corporal told her, and reached back one hand to press the button for the admittance chime.

"Yes, Corporal Sanders?" Helen recognized the voice of Chief Steward Joanna Agnelli, Captain Terekhov's personal steward.

"Ms. Zilwicki is here," Sanders said.

"Thank you."

The hatch slid open a moment later, and Helen stepped through it...then paused in surprise. There were rather more people in the captain's day cabin than she'd anticipated.

Terekhov himself sat behind his desk, in the act of sipping from a cup of coffee. That much, at least, she'd expected. But Lieutenant Abigail Hearns sat in one of the comfortable armchairs facing his desk, and there were three other officers present, as well. One of them was Commander Kaplan, and Helen was both astonished and delighted to see how much better Kaplan looked than she had the last time Helen saw her, but the other two were a commander and a senior-grade captain Helen had never seen before in her life, and she braced quickly to attention.

"You wanted to see me, Captain?"

"At ease, Helen," Terekhov said, then smiled and waved his coffee cup at the chair beside Lieutenant Hearns. "And have a seat," he added.

"Thank you, Sir."

Helen obeyed his command and sat, hoping she sounded less mystified than she felt as she parked herself in the indicated chair. She sensed a presence at her shoulder and looked up to see Agnelli standing there with another cup and saucer in one hand and the coffee pot in the other. Helen was scarcely accustomed to sitting around sipping coffee with such astronomically superior officers, but she knew better than to decline the offer...which presumably indicated that this was at least marginally a social occasion. She took the saucer and held the cup while Agnelli filled it, then took a sip and nodded in appreciation before she turned her attention back to Terekhov.

"I realize this is a bit irregular," he said then, "but so is our situation. Abigail, I know you and Helen are both well acquainted with Commander Kaplan. However, you may not be awareas I wasn't, up until about" he glanced at the time display on the bulkhead "fifty-seven minutes agothat she is also the brand-new commanding officer of HMS Tristram."

Helen's eyes flipped to the petite, fine-boned blonde with the improbably dark complexion. Kaplan happened to be looking at her at the moment, and the commander smiled at Helen's obvious surprise. And her chagrin, for that matter, as she scolded herself for not noticing the white beret of a starship's CO tucked under Kaplan's epaulet.

"These other two gentlemen," Terekhov continued, pulling her attention back from Kaplan, "are Captain Frederick Carlson, the commanding officer of HMS Quentin Saint-James, and Commander Tom Pope...my new chief of staff."

This time both of Helen's eyebrows rose in astonishment.Hexapuma had been back in home space for substantially less than two days. In fact, she'd only docked here at Hephaestus three hours ago. The captain hadn't even been off the ship yetcouldn't even have had so much as the opportunity to give his wife a hug! Things simply didn't change this quickly and drasticallynot even in the Navy!

Not usually, at least.

"As I'm sure both of you were already aware, things have changed considerably since we first deployed to Talbott," Terekhov said, almost as if he'd heard her thoughts, and smiled thinly. "Quite a bit of that seems to be our fault, as far as the Admiralty is concerned, so they've decided we ought to do something about it.

"Obviously," he continued, "the Navy's deployment plans in general are in what we might charitably call a state of flux. The cancellation of the summit talks with Haven and the decision to resume active operations make it even more unlikely that the Admiralty is going to be able to free up wallers to reinforce Admiral Khumalo anytime soon. In addition, it's effectively anchored Admiral Blaine to the Lynx Terminus, where he can get home in a hurry if he has to. Which has lent added emphasis to the Admiralty's decision to reinforce Talbott primarily with lighter units.

"In addition to the ships Vice Admiral Gold Peak already has, an additional squadron ofNikes is in the process of forming. Admiral Oversteegen is its commander (designate), and as soon as all of its units have joined up, itand hewill be transferred from Eighth Fleet to Tenth Fleet. In addition, however, the Admiralty is already prepared to deploy a full squadron of brand new Saganami-Cs and one of the new Roland-class destroyer squadrons to Talbott.Tristram" he nodded at Kaplan "is one of the Rolands. And I, to my considerable surprise, am the newly designated commodore of CruRon 94. Commander FitzGerald will take over Hexapuma, Commander Pope will be acting as my chief of staff, and Captain Carlson will be my flag captain."

Helen glanced at Lieutenant Hearns, who seemed remarkably composed, given how caught-in-the-slipstream Helen felt as the captain'sno, the commodore'sexplanation rolled over her. She hoped she looked like she was at least managing to keep up with him, although she was at a loss to understand how he could be so calm about it all. He sounded as if things like this happened to him every day!

"I'm sure that by now both of you are wondering why I've dragged a pair of such relatively junior officers in to explain all of this to them. Well, I do have a reason. Two of them, in fact.

"With so many ships moving in so many directions in such a short period of time, the Admiralty is finding it just a bit difficult to meet everyone's manning requirements. For example, Commander Pope didn't know until last week that he was going to be anyone's chief of staff, and the decision that he was going to be my chief of staff was actually made this morning. It looks as if we're going to be deploying at least one or two people short for the rest of the staff, as well, although BuPers has given me permission to poach additional officers from Admiral Khumalo when we get back to Spindle. Commodore Chatterjee, the senior officer of Commander Kaplan's destroyer squadron, is in rather better shape than that where his staff is concerned, but several of his units are undermanned.

"And the reason we've called the two of you in for this little conversation is that one of the slots I still need to fill is the flag lieutenant's billet, andTristram needs a good tac officer.

"Helen," he looked directly at her, "you worked out very well as my liaison with Mr. Van Dort. I believe we have an established and efficient working relationship, and you're already very familiarespecially for an officer of your youthfulnesswith the political and military realities of the Cluster. I mean, the Quadrant. Normally, the flag lieutenant's slot would be filled by someone rather more senior than you are at the moment, and I'm well aware that what you would really prefer at this point in your career is to move directly into a tactical department slot somewhere. I don't want you to feel pressured, and if you decide you want a tactical assignment, I will unreservedly recommend you for it. At the same time, the opportunity for this sort of experience, this early in your career, doesn't happen along every day. And, unfortunately, given the time constraints involved, I need your decision almost immediatelywithin the next twelve hours, at the latest. And I, also unfortunately, am about to leave for several hours of conferences at Admiralty House. Since I needed to speak to you personally about this, I had to cram it at you before I leave the ship, as it were.

"As for you, Abigail," he turned to the lieutenant, "Commander Kaplan has specifically requested you as Tristram's tactical officer."

Helen's brain had been doing its best to imitate a chipmunk in the headlights as she tried to assimilate CaptainNo, damn it! she told herself sharplyCommodore Terekhov's offer. Now, despite herself, her head snapped around towards Abigail.

At a hundred and eighty-nine thousand tons, the Roland was bigger than a pre-MDM light cruiser...and she was armed with Mark 16s, just likeHexapuma. She and her sisters were the plum assignments of the Navy's destroyer force, and they were offering aRoland's tactical department to a brand new senior-grade lieutenant?

"I'm flattered, Sir, of course" Abigail began, but Commander Kaplan interrupted her.

"With your permission, Sir?" she said to Commodore Terekhov. He nodded, and Kaplan turned to Abigail.

"Before you turn it down because you think you're too junior for the slot, or because you think it's time you moved back over to the GSN, let me explain a few things to you. First, you arguably have more tactical experience actually using the Mark 16 in combat than anyone else in the entire Navyin fact, than anyone else in either of your two naviesgiven how quickly AuxConand Igot taken out of action in Monica. While there may be someone else whose overall experience with the Mark 16 matches yours, I can't think of any other officer of your rank who's been responsible for managing an entire squadron'shell, an entire light task group'sfire in a furball like that one. So, yes, you are junior for the slot. But you've also demonstrated your competence under fire, which a lot of tactical officers senior to you haven't, and you bring with you a lot of very valuable experience with Tristram's primary armament.

"And as far as moving back over to the GSN is concerned, this is the first squadron ofRolands to be formed. For a change, we're actually ahead of Grayson in deploying a new class, and High Admiral Matthews has specifically requested that Grayson personnel be assigned to it to help develop doctrine and accrue experience with the new class and its weapons. I'm thinking you'd be an extremely logical choice for that assignment. You're already fully experienced in how we Manties do things, and, let's face it, you're still the first Grayson-born female officer in the entire GSN. Getting your ticket punched as a full-fledged tactical officer, in command of your own department, is only going to bolster your authority when you finally return full-time to Grayson. And when you do, unless I very much miss my guess, High Admiral Matthews is probably planning to assign you to relatively light units, where your example will be most direct and where you're least likely to get shoved away into some admiral's convenient flagship pigeonhole just because he can'tor doesn't want tofigure out what to do with you. That being the case, adding demonstrated familiarity with the new destroyers and cruisersand their main weapons systemsto your r'esum'e strikes me as a very good idea."

"Ma'am, I really appreciate the offer," Abigail said. "And under other circumstances, I'd probably be willing to kill to get it. But if I run off with a prize like this, it's going to be a blatant case of string-pulling!"

"Of course it is!" Kaplan replied, and snorted at her expression. "Abigail, that's what happens with officers who demonstrate superior performance. Oh," she waved one hand in midair, "it happens for other reasons, too, and a lot of those other reasons suck, when you come right down to it. God knows we all know that! And I suppose there probably will be at least a few people who think you got this assignment because of who your father is. I rather doubt anyone who knows Steadholder Owens is going to think he pulled the string in question, but that's not going to keep some people from whining and bitching about the fact that you got it and they didn't. And most of those people who are going to be doing the whining and bitching aren't going to want to consider the possibility that you got it because you were better than they were, which is whyas far as they're concernedit's obviously going to be a case of nepotism. Well, guess what? That happens, too. Or do you think there weren't plenty of officers who thought Duchess Harrington was being pushed up faster than she deserved, even after Basilisk Station, because of favoritism from people like Admiral Courvoissier and Earl White Haven?"

"I'm not Duchess Harrington!" Abigail protested. "I don't have anywhere near her record!"

"And she wasn't 'Duchess Harrington' at the time, either," Kaplan replied. "That's my point. She was given the opportunity to achieve what she achieved because of the ability she'd already demonstrated. I'm offering you this slot for the same reason. There's nothing wrong with pulling strings as long as the result is to put the right officer in the right billet at the right time, and if I didn't think that was what was happening here, I wouldn't have made the offer. You know that."

She held Abigail's eye firmly until the younger woman finally pulled away from her gaze to glance appealingly at Terekhov.

"I suppose that all sounds pretty embarrassing," the newly promoted commodore told her with a crooked smile. "As it happens, though, I concur with Commander Kaplan's assessment of you and your capabilities. I think she's right about the reasons you'd be a perfect fit for this particular slot, too. And, to be honest, Abigail, I think you need to consider very carefully whether your reasons you should turn it down are anywhere near as good as her reasons why you should take it. Not just from the personal perspective of your own career, either. I think this is where the Navyall of the Alliance's navieswill get the maximum benefit from your experience and your talents."

Abigail looked at him for several seconds, then looked back at Kaplan and managed a smile of her own.

"Am I on as tight a time schedule for making up my mind as Helen is, Ma'am?"

"Not quite." Kaplan smiled back, then twitched her head in Terekhov's direction. "I figured I might need the SkipperI mean, the Commodoreto help twist your arm, so I asked him to play rabbi for this little discussion. Unlike Helen, you have, oh, eighteen hours before you have to decide, though."

"Gee, thanks." Abigail looked back and forth between her and Terekhov for another moment, then shrugged. "Actually, I don't need that long," she said. "I've just discovered that I'm neither sufficiently selfless nor concerned enough about whether or not people think I'm using 'influence' to turn something like this down. If you're really serious about wanting me, Ma'am, you've got me! And...thank you."

"Remember that sense of gratitude when I start working you till you drop." Kaplan's smile segued into a grin, and Abigail chuckled.

"Which brings us back to you, Helen," Terekhov said, and Helen's eyes popped back to him. "As I say, you have a few hours to think it over."

She stared at him, her mind racing as it dashed off down all the branching futures radiating from this moment.

He was right. She had been anticipating a stint as a very junior assistant tactical officer squirreled away aboard a battlecruiser or a superdreadnought somewhere. An assignment which would punch her ticket for the next stage of her desired career track. And, she admitted to herself, an assignment which would be unspeakably boring after Hexapuma's deployment to Talbott. Then there were all the people she'd met in Talbott, the sense that she had a personal stake in making certain the Quadrant's integration into the Star Empire went smoothly, without still more bloodshed. Obviously, one lowly ensigneven if she was a commodore's flag lieutenantwas hardly going to be a maker and a shaker at that level of politics, but she found that she still wanted to be there.

Yet if she took this assignment, it would divert her from the tactical track. She'd lose ground on the other ensigns and junior-grade lieutenants who were putting in that boring time, laboring away in the bowels of some capital ship's tactical department.

Oh, get real! she scolded herself. You're planning on making the Navy your career! You'll have plenty of time to make up for any ground you lose here. And Master Tye always did tell you you needed to cultivate more patience, didn't he? So if you're going to find an excuse, find a better one than that!

Which brought her face-to-face with the real reason she was hesitating. A reason named Paulo d'Arezzo. He was almost certainly going to draw the same sort of assignment she'd expectedright here in Home Fleet, more likely than notand she'd suddenly discovered that she really, really didn't want to be clear across the Talbott Quadrant from him.

Oh, that's even better than the last excuse, she thought sourly. Or it's less logical, at least. You know damned well they'd assign the two of you to two different ships, don't you? Which means you'd see almost as little of each other even if you were both assigned to Home Fleet as you'd see with him here and you off in Talbott again.

It seemed to her that it took forever for those thoughts to flow through her mind, even though she knew better. But, finally, they trickled to an end, and she drew a deep breath and looked up Terekhov again.

"It wasn't what I had in mind, Sirobviously. But, like Abigail says, if you're serious about wanting me, you've got me."

Chapter Twenty-Eight | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty