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Chapter Thirty-Two

"That was good work picking up the contact, Pettigrew," Lieutenant Abigail Hearns said. "We need to be a little quicker on updating the ID on bogeys, though."

"Yes, My Lady," Sensor Tech First-Class Isaiah Pettigrew replied almost humbly, and Abigail managed not to grit her teeth.

The tall, lanky sensor tech's accent was just as soft, with just as much of a slight lilt, as her own. In many ways, hearing it was a deeply soothing reminder of who she was, since she'd been away from home for so long. In other ways, though, what she most wanted to do was to strangle Pettigrewand a handful of other Graysons in HMS Tristram's companywith her bare hands.

It's not really his fault, she told herself...again. He's from Grayson. He can't forget that Daddy is Steadholder Owens, which makes me Miss Owens, not just Lieutenant Hearns. I suppose that's why he can't seem to remember the word "Ma'am" when he talks to me. And, irritating as that is, I could probably live with it, if he'd only stop looking like he wants to go down on one knee and kiss my hand whenever Italk to him!

Somehow, of all the problems she'd envisioned facing on the day she returned to her birth world's navy, this one hadn't occurred to her, and it should have. She'd been too focused on Grayson's long-standing prohibition against seeing its wives and daughters serving in the military, worried too much about whether or not Grayson males would be prepared to accept a female Grayson voice of command as well as they had become accustomed to accepting female Manticoran voices from Steadholder Harrington and the other "loaners" from the RMN. She'd braced herself for dealing with subordinates who found it hard to believe any proper Grayson girl could be a "real officer," but she'd never considered how more traditional Grayson males might respond to the almost genetic-level social and religious programming of their birth society.

Pettigrew was the product of a very traditional Grayson rearing. He couldn't seem to get past the deference due to the daughter of any steadholder, which could be a real problem for Abigail, considering that she was the most junior of Tristram's department heads. She already labored under the distinction of being the only member of the ship's company who was permanently assigned her own bodyguard, as Grayson law required. Mateo Gutierrez, her towering personal armsman, had fitted himself as neatly into Tristram's small ship's company as he had into Hexapuma's, but everyone knew he was there, and she suspected that some of her Manticoran-born fellows thought his presence was just the sort of pretension to be expected out of Neobarbs. And the sort of special consideration which was bound to give her a vastly inflated sense of her own importance. She didn't need any of the other lieutenants aboard who were senior to her deciding that the Grayson members of the crew accorded her greater respect and obedience than they did anyone else, either. Nor, for that matter, did Abigail like it very much, herself. One of the things she'd loved about her experience in the Royal Manticoran Navy was that as far as most Manties were concerned, she was only Lieutenant Hearns. No one wasted a lot of time kowtowing to her, or looking as desperately eager to please as puppies.

Even that, though, bothered her less in a lot of respects than the obvious conflict between Pettigrew's naval discipline and training, on the one hand, and the ingrained Grayson belief that women were to be protected at all costs. And not just from the physical dangers of the universe. Oh, no. They were to be protected from anything which might offend their delicate sensibilities, as well! Pettigrew had imbibed that notion with his mother's milk, and it showed.

You've only been aboard ship for six days, Abigail, she reminded herself. It might be just a little bit early yet to be letting your frustration quotient rise so high, don't you think? Besides, at least thirty percent of the ship's company is Grayson.

"I'm not saying you didn't do an excellent job over all, Pettigrew," she said out loud. "I'm just saying we need to move a bit more quickly working the contacts through to a positive identification, at least by class."

"Yes, My Lady. I understand."

Abigail bit her tongue before she reminded himagainthat she'd specifically told him, and all the other Graysons in her department, that she was a naval officer, to be addressed as such, and not as what was for all intents and purposes a Grayson princess.

I do need to make that point to him again, but not right now, she thought.

The tactical simulator was fully manned, and only three of the people in it, aside from Abigail herself, were Graysons. So far, most of her Manticoran personnel seemed to be taking their Grayson crewmates' peculiarities pretty much in stride. The fact that Manticore had its own aristocracy probably helped in that respect, although even now not all Manticorans seemed prepared to take Grayson titles quite seriously. But Abigail had decided at the outset that she couldn't accept one set of responses from Manticorans and another from Graysons. She'd seen enough evidence of what allowing cliques to form aboard a warship could do to its internal cohesiveness.Her department was going to be composed of people who were all members of the same ship's company, not internally divided into "us" and "them," Manticorans and Graysons. At the same time, she didn't want to hammer Pettigrew. For one thing, much as it irritated her, he hadn't really done anything to be hammered for. And, for another thing, reprimanding him for the way he addressed her would only draw attention to the very fault lines she was determined to eradicate in the first place.

"All right," she said instead, her tranquil tone revealing none of her internal thoughts as she turned to Missile Tech 1/c Naomi Kaneshiro and the next point of her post-simulation critique of the exercise Lieutenant (JG) Gladys Molyneux, Tristram's most junior tactical officer had just conducted while Abigal monitored. "Kaneshiro, when Bogey Two started to swing wide of the wing escort and Lieutenant Molyneux designated her asTristram's primary target, your section was a bit slow to paint her properly."

Despite her rate and an almost unbroken string of "Excellent" and "Superior" evaluations from her instructors, Kaneshiro was very young, even younger than Helen Zilwicki. She was also fresh out of school, where she'd completed the testing for her first-class rate less than three weeks before reporting aboardTristram. She'd borne up well under the burden of having the same first name as her commanding officer (for which, Abigail knew, she had been ribbed unmercifully for the first week or so) but it was evident to Abigail that Kaneshiro was also one of those people who took failure as an affront, rather than a challenge, and she watched the missile tech hovering on the brink of protesting her criticism. Abigail waited a moment or two to see if the other woman's obvious sense of ill use would actually spill over into disputing a superior officer's comments, but Kaneshiro rather visibly sat on her resentment.

"I realize you suffered a computer glitch," Abigail continued calmly when Kaneshiro kept her mouth shut. "In fact, that may be one of the reasons why I noticed it so specifically. I knew that glitch had been programmed into the sim, and I was watching to see how well we handled it. You responded quickly and well when you realized you were going to have to paint the target manually, but it took you longer to realize that than it ought to have. Longer than we might have in an actual combat situation. You need to be better prepared for the possibility of equipment failure. We all do. That's one of the points this simulation was intended to make. And the reason it was intended to make that point is that we all learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. Just between you and me, I'd prefer to do as much as possible of that kind of learning in a simulation instead of when missiles are flying for real."

"Yes, Ma'am." Kaneshiro' acknowledgment came out a bit stiffly but without that edge of personal resentment Abigail had initially detected.

"All right." Abigail checked that point off on her memo pad and turned to the next one. "This one is more in the nature of a general observation. I realize we haven't been together long, and we're still at an earlier point in shaking down the department and the ship than we really ought to be. Unfortunately, the time between here and Spindle is all the time we have before we're likely to find ourselves tasked for deployment somewhere in the Quadrant. That doesn't give us very long to knock off our rough edges. I've discussed this with Captain Kaplan, and she's discussed it with Commodore Chatterjee, and the result is that we're going to be having a little competition."

She smiled slightly as a ripple of what might have been consternation or even apprehension flowed through the simulator.

"Starting the day after tomorrow," she continued, "we're going to begin a squadron-wide 'Top Gun' contest. Commodore Chatterjee and Commander DesMoines are going to design the problems and assign tasks. The first phase will be a direct competition between just the tactical departments of the squadron's ships, and we'll duke it out in a straight simulator-on simulator link.But" she smiled again, much more thinly "once we've made the first cut and winnowed it down to the best ship from each division, we'll go up against each other in real-time and real space. It'll be every department in the ship, then, people, not just us, but all the others are going to be relying on us to get our job done right. I wouldn't want anyone to feel particularly pressured, but I suppose I ought to point out that if we don't get our job done right and at least make the first cut, I'm going to be...unhappy. And, trust me, you really won't like me very much when I'm unhappy."

"Jesus," Lieutenant Wanda O'Reilly's voice was quiet but harsh as she leaned slightly across the table towards Lieutenant Vincenzo Fonzarelli inTristram's wardroom. "Who had this frigging brainstorm?"

Fonzarelli,Tristram's chief engineer, took his time sipping from his beer mug while he considered O'Reilly thoughtfully. Like the rest of the destroyer's company, her officers were split between Manticorans and Graysons. Unlike the rest of Tristram's company, they were split just about evenly, and O'Reilly was one of the Manticorans who seemed to have a bit of a problem with that.

And with one of those Graysons in particular, I'd say, Fonzarelli reflected. The idiot.

"As a matter of fact," the engineer said mildly, lowering his mug, "I believe the Skipper came up with the notion of making it a squadron-wide, winner-take-all competition. The original idea of having the ships exercise against each other, though, came from Lieutenant Hearns, I think."

"Well, that figures!" O'Reilly snorted.

"And just what exactly does that mean?" Fonzarelli asked, still in that mild tone of voice.

"You know," O'Reilly replied, waving one hand in the air between them andFonzarelli noticedcareful to keep her volume down.

"No, I don't," the engineer disagreed.

O'Reilly looked at him, eyes narrow, then smiled and shrugged.

"Oh, I guess it makes sense, sort of. It'd make more sense if we'd had more than two or three T-weeks to shake down our people first, though." She shook her head. "I mean, it's a great idea, in theory. But what's it really going to prove, this early? It's not like anyone really thinks this squadron's had time to train up properly, now is it?"

"I suppose not. Then again, I don't suppose a batch of piratesor, even worse, a batch of Sollies, let's sayis going to check to see that we've had time to get ourselves properly together before they start shooting, either."

"Of course not." O'Reilly flushed slightly. "I just said I thought it was a good idea. But we're not going to have anyone shooting at anyone before we ever even get to Spindle, Vincenzo, and that won't be for another nine days yet. I'm just saying that I think it would make sense to wait another couple of days, maybe even another week, before something like this."

"Then maybe you should mention that to the Skipper," Fonzarelli suggested.

"Hah! Fat chance that would do any good!"

"Meaning?" Fonzarelli's voice was considerably sharper than it had been, although he hadn't raised it above a quiet conversational level...yet. O'Reilly's flush darkened, and her lips pressed firmly together, but the engineer held her gaze steadily.

"I mean I'm a com officer, not a tac officer," O'Reilly said finally, shaking her head. "And I haven't known the Skipper as long as Hearns has, either. Naturally her ideas are going to carry more weight than mine would at this point."

"I see."

Fonzarelli sat back, considering the communications officer even more thoughtfully. Then he cocked his head.

"Don't much care for Lieutenant Hearns, do you, Wanda?" he asked after a moment.

"What's not to care about?" O'Reilly responded with another of those shrugs. "I hardly even know her!"

"The very thought that had just crossed my own mind," Fonzarelli agreed. "But that wasn't really answering my question. So let me try phrasing it a bit more clearly. What's your problem with Hearns, Wanda?"

The engineer's voice hardened on the final sentence, and O'Reilly glowered at him. Unfortunately for the communications officer, while they were both senior-grade lieutenants, Fonzarelli was almost a full T-year senior to her. That didn't leave much wiggle room in the face of a specific question.

"I don't like her," she finally said, his expression almost defiant. "I don't like her, and I don't think she's really qualified for TO, either."

"I see." Fonzarelli smiled ever so slightly. It was not an extraordinarily pleasant expression. "Let me see if I've got it straight, though. You've known her for less than one week, and you've already decided you don't like her. And on the basis of that same lengthy acquaintance, you've decided she's not qualified as the ship's tactical officer, either. I am awed by the clarity and deliberate speed with which your extraordinary intellect comes to these carefully considered evaluations."

O'Reilly's face flushed more darkly than ever. Given her fair complexion, it was painfully obvious, too, and she knew it. Which only made her even angrier, Fonzarelli supposed.

"Look," the communications officer said rather more sharply, "I never claimed I know her well. You asked me what my problem with her was, and I told you."

"That's true enough," Fonzarelli agreed. "But you also said you don't think she's qualified for her position. That's a pretty serious accusation to be leveling at the ship's senior tactical officer."

"Maybe it is. But this wouldn't be the first time someone's family or connections got him moved up faster than his ability justified, and you know it. Christ, Vincenzo! Don't tell me you've never served withor undersome idiot whose sole qualification for her position was whose cousin she was!"

"So you're thinking Hearns got where she is because she's a steadholder's daughter?"

"Well, what am I supposed to think? She's three frigging T-years out of the Academy, for God's sake! And she was a jay-gee barely a year agountil her last skipper appointed her as anacting senior-grade. And when they get home from Talbott, the Admiralty confirms her as a senior-grade lieutenant retroactive to Terekhov's appointment less than three days before they hand her a Roland-class's entire tactical department!"

She shook her head, looking as if she wanted to spit on the decksole in disgust.

"You tell me, Vincenzo. You really think all of that would have happened if she hadn't been a steadholder's daughter and one of 'the Salamander's' favorites at Saganami?"

Fonzarelli took another sip of beer to buy a little time before replying. He'd known O'Reilly resented Hearns, but he hadn't really recognized the true depth of that resentment until this moment.

In some ways, the engineer could understand where O'Reilly was coming from better than he really wanted to. As O'Reilly had just pointed out, Abigail Hearns had been a shiny new snotty barely three years ago. At that time, Vincenzo Fonzarelli had already been a jay-gee on the brink of promotion to senior-grade...and he'd been just over four years out of the Academy himself. Of course, the Janacek build-down which had set the stage so disastrously for the Peeps' Operation Thunderbolt had slowed everyone's promotions during that time period. The braking effect had been even more apparent given the speed with which promotions had come during the First Havenite War. The fleet's expansion and the opportunity to step into dead men's shoes had seen to that while the fighting had been going on, and the sudden deceleration when the peacetime Navy started downsizing so drastically under the High Ridge Government had come as an unpleasant surprise for everyone.

O'Reilly had left Saganami Island six T-months after Fonzarelli, just in time to run into that effect, and she'd spent considerably longer as an ensign than Fonzarelli had. On the other hand, she'd spent considerably less time as a jay-gee, since the need for officers was even more insatiable under the stress of this war than it had been during the last one. Still, there was no denying that Abigail Hearns' career bade fair to set some sort of all-time record for promotions.

"Let me stand your question on its head, Wanda," Fonzarelli said, finally lowering his beer again. "You really think that someone who took two squads of Marines down on to someone else's planet, without any outside support, on her snotty cruise, played tag with better than five hundred pirates for the better part of a full day, and killed damned near two hundred of them for the loss of only ten Marines, then turned around and as the acting tactical officer of a scratch built squadron that had already been hammered into scrap took out three Solly battlecruisers, wouldn't have been promoted, even if her father had been a sewer worker?"

O'Reilly's nostrils flared, but she didn't respond, and Fonzarelli shook his head.

"You just came mighty damned close to suggesting Commodore Terekhov and Captain Kaplan are playing favorites," he said. "You might want to think about that a little more carefully the next time. And you might want to think about who you express that opinion too, as well. I don't know the Skippernot yet. Haven't had time to get to know her...any more than you have. But what I have seen of her, and what I've seen ofand heard aboutCommodore Terekhov suggests to me that it's...unlikely they'd let favoritism run away with their better judgment. And that anyone who suggests they might is gonna find herself really, really wishing she hadn't if they should happen to find out about it. I'll grant you it can't possibly hurt Hearns' chances for promotion and eventual flag rank to be the daughter of a head of state. And having Duchess Harrington in her corner isn't going to hurt any, either. But the Salamander isn't the kind of woman who goes around allowing favoritism to overrule her judgment. I know that much, even if I can't be positive about thatyetwhere the Skipper and the Commodore are concerned."

"Maybe not," O'Reilly said stubbornly. "And I'll grant you Harrington's got a reputation for not playing the favorites game. But I still say Hearns wouldn't be where she is today if her last name had been Smith."

"Or O'Reilly, maybe?" Fonzarelli asked softly.

"Maybe." O'Reilly's glower was unyielding. "And I'm not going to be the only one who thinks that, either."

"Well, allow me to suggest that you'd better let those others be the ones to badmouth her." Fonzarelli looked her up and down and shook his head. "The last thing any ship needs is some officer undercutting some other officer's authority. I believe you'll find the Regs frown on that sort of behavior. And I also believe you'll probably find the XO's boot so far up your backside you'll be tasting leather for a week or so."

O'Reilly's eyes narrowed, and Fonzarelli shook his head again.

"I don't have any intention of going to Commander Tallman about this, Wanda. And from what I've seen of her, neither will Hearns when it finally comes to her ears. And that will happen if you keep this up, as you and I both know perfectly well. I mean, that's one reason you're sharing it with me instead of discussing it directly with her, isn't it? To be sure the campaign gets nicely underway?"

His lip curled slightly, and O'Reilly's jaw muscles tightened angrily. Not that Fonzarelli seemed to notice her reaction particularlyor care about it if he didas he continued levelly.

"I'd say Hearns is the kind of person who fights her own battles, and I think she's not going to want to go running to Commander Tallman to make the big, bad Manty lieutenant be nice to her and stop saying all those nasty things. Not that I think you're going to like what happens to you when she decides to handle you all on her own. And however she feels about involving the XO won't make one damned bit of difference, as far as you're concerned, if he hears about it on his own. Trust me on that one. Or don't." The engineer shrugged as O'Reilly almost visibly hunkered down and dug in her heels. "It's no skin off my nose which way you go with this. But I think it's gonna be quite a bit of skin off of another part of your anatomy if you piss off the Skipper and the XO."

"So what do you think about Abigail now?" Naomi Kaplan asked cheerfully, sipping after-dinner coffee as Chief Steward Brinkman removed the dishes.

"I beg your pardon?" Lieutenant Commander Alvin Tallman said guilelessly, eyebrows raised in question, and Kaplan chuckled. There was still a slight stiffness to her movements, but Bassingford had done its usual bangup job of putting someone back together again. And there was something remarkably feline about the skipper, Tallman thought. And not just about the way she moved, despite any lingering discomfort, either. There was that same sort of almost affable deadliness waiting for anyone foolish enough to trespass into her territory and a purring edge of sensuality, as well, he thought, and decidedagainthat it was a pity the Articles of War forbade any sort of romantic relationship between officers in the same chain of command.

Or maybe it isn't such a pity, he reflected. She'd probably chew me up and spit me out...in the nicest, most enjoyable sort of way, of course. Somehow, I don't think I'd be able to keep up with her long enough for it to work out any other way. And God knows there's a damned good reason the Regs frown on anyone sleeping with hisor herexec! Still...

"Oh don't give me that innocent look," Kaplan said, shaking an index finger in his general direction. "You know exactly what I'm asking."

"Yes, Ma'am. I guess I do," he acknowledged, his expression sobering, and reached for his own coffee cup. He sipped for a moment, then lowered the cup and shrugged.

"I never had any doubts about her capability, Ma'am," he said. "Obviously, I don't know her as well as you do, but just looking through her personnel jacket, it was pretty clear she's not the kind of person who panics and runs around in circles when the shit hits the fan. And I have to agree with you, however junior she may be, she's got as much or more experience with the Mark 16 than any other officer around. But if I'm going to be honest, I did cherish a few doubts about her age. She's so damned young I expect to hear her uniform squeaking when she walks by. And, let's face it, 'good when the shit hits the fan' doesn't automatically equate to someone who's a good officer all around. I guess a part of me just questioned whether or not anyone her age could possibly have enough experience on the administrative and training side to run an entire tactical department."

"And does that question still bother you?" Kaplan asked.

"No, Ma'am. Not really." Tallman shook his head. "I'll admit, I've been keeping a closer eye on her administrative and personnel management skills than those of anyone else on board. So far, she hasn't dropped a single stitch anywhere on the paperwork side. And my spies tell me she already knows every member of her department by name, along with the world he comes from, his hometown, whether or not he's marriedor romantically involved with anyoneand apparently even who his favorite sports teams are."

"So you'd give her passing marks on that side?"

"Without turning a hair," Tallman agreed.

"And when it does come to training and exercising her department?"

"To be honest, I'm more impressed with her there than I am with her ability to manage paperwork. Oh, don't give me wrong. We've got so many damned rough edgesnot just in Tactical, but in every department!that I don't even know where to start counting them. Putting together a ship's company this quickly isn't what the recruiter promised me when I let him talk me into going to Saganami Island lo those many eons ago, Ma'am! But overall, I think we've got a good bunch, and Abigail is really tearing into her own problem areas. And this idea of hers to stage a competition between the ships is going to do nothing but help out every other tac officer in the squadron, as well."

"So you don't have any serious qualms about her?"

"Ma'am, if I'd had serious qualms about her, you'd already have heard about them," he said levelly.


Kaplan's relief was evident, and Tallman quirked one eyebrow.

"Having you in her corner takes a certain load off my mind," she explained. "Because the fact is that even though every single thing I told her about her qualifications for the job is absolutely true, it's also true that if I were inclined to play favorites, I'd be playing the game hard on her behalf. In a way, actually, I am playing that game, and I know it."

"Yes, you are," Tallman agreed. "On the other hand, you're not alone about doing that in her case. Let me see...there's Commodore Terekhov, Duchess Harrington, Admiral Cortez..."

"And don't forget High Admiral Matthews," Kaplan reminded him with a quirky smile. "While we're thinking about her patrons, I mean."

"Oh, believe me, I won't, Ma'am."

"Good. But," she leaned back in her chair, "correct me if I'm wrong, but do I detect the merest hint of resentment on the part of some of her fellow officers?"

"Not on any sort of general scale," Tallman told her. "There are some people who feel their noses have been put out of joint, but to be honest, none of them would have been in the running for the tactical officer's slot even if Abigail had never come along at all. I wouldn't worry about it too much, Ma'am. We've got some cooler heads out there helping to sit on the ones with the problem, and she's turning out to be pretty damned good at doing that sort of thing herself. I think it probably has to do with growing up as a steadholder's daughter. She had to learn the basic people-managing skills early on. And if all else fails, you can always reach for your patented five-dollar special executive officer hammer. Not that I think you're going to need it any time especially soon."

"We can hope, anyway," Kaplan said. Then she gave herself a little shake.

"Well, since you've put my mind to rest on that little problem, let's look at the next one on the list," she suggested. "I've been thinking over what Fonzarelli was saying about the forward impeller rooms, and I think he's got a point. Given how cramped the access way is thanks to the chase armament and the launchers, getting everyone to battle stations is going to be a lot bigger pain in the ass than BuShips allowed for. We need to be looking at some revised flow patterns there, I think, if we want to avoid a major bottleneck when we can least afford it. I've been pushing some numbers around on the ship's schematic, and I think if we move the route for Point Defense Two's and Four's crews up one deck, and the crews for PD One and Three down a deck, we ought"

Chapter Thirty-One | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty-Three