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Chapter Thirty-Four

"Contact!" Isaiah Pettigrew called out. "Multiple contacts, bearing zero-one-five, two-eight-eight, range three-point-eight-niner light-minutes, closing velocity six-zero-niner-one-six kilometers per second, accelerating at four-eight-seven-point-three gravities!"

"Acknowledged," Abigail Hearns said crisply. "Number of contacts?"

"Uncertain at this time, Ma'am," Pettigrew replied. His eyes never moved from his display's sidebars as he andTristram's Combat Information Center both worked the contacts, trying to pry more information out of them, and his voice was just as crisp, just as professionaland just as devoid of any excess "My Ladies"as Abigail's.

"It looks like they just got close enough to the beta platforms for their impeller signatures to burn through stealth. Shall I go active on the platforms, Ma'am?"

Abigail considered for a moment, then nodded.

"Go active on the betas," she said, "but remain passive with the others."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Going active on the beta platforms only."

Pettigrew tapped in commands at his console, and the data codes on his display began to shift and change.

"CIC makes it three destroyer-range and three heavy cruiser or battlecruiser-range signatures," Pettigrew reported as the beta line of Ghost Rider reconnaissance platforms reported at FTL speeds. "Designate these targets Alpha One through Alpha Five."

"Understood." Abigail turned her head and looked at Lieutenant (JG) Gladys Molyneux. "Any IDs?"

"Negative, Ma'am," Molyneux replied. "CIC is stillWait a minute."Tristram's junior tactical officer peered at her own displays, then raised her head. "CIC has tentative class IDs on the heavies. Alpha One is a SolarianIndefatigable-class battlecruiser, and CIC's calling Alpha One and Alpha Two Mikasa-class heavy cruisers. No positive ID on the destroyer-range contacts at this time."

"Acknowledged."

Abigail gazed at her own display, thinking hard and fast. This particular simulation had been loaded toTristram's computers before the ship ever left Manticore. There were whole reams of similar sims tucked away in there, and she'd had no more idea than any of her subordinates had of what the computers were about to throw at them. They would hardly have constituted learning experiences if she'd known ahead of time what she was going to have to do in them, after all. Lieutenant Nicasio Xamar,Tristram's assistant tactical officer, on the other hand, knew exactly what this particular simulation contained, since it had been his job to tweak the parameters just a little, just as Abigail did for him when it was his turn in the barrel. Fortunately, Xamar didn't seem to resent the fact that someone with over seven T-months less in grade than him had been assigned as his boss. On the other hand, he'd have been more than human if he hadn't taken advantage of the simulation to see what he could get past her.

Okay, she thought. We've got these six coming at us from starboard and low, and they're headed almost directly for the convoy. That means they knew where we were long enough ago to build an intercept vector, and a pretty respectable one, too. So that means they've had us under observation, probably using their own remote platforms, for quite a while. Now, it's unlikely their passives are sensitive enough to track the Ghost Rider platforms, especially under thesesensor conditions, but I don't know enough about Solly tech levels to be positive about that. They might have known exactly where we deployed our recon shells, and if they do, then that means they have to be pretty confident we'd manage to pick them up pretty soon now. Their stealth is pretty good for them to get this close without our seeing them, but even if we hadn't seen them coming with the remotes, we'd start picking them up ourselves on shipboard passives by the time they got down to a light-minute and a half. So, assuming they have working brains over there, they'd figure that we had to pick them up sometime in the next twelve minutes or so...unless they dropped their acceleration a lot.

She felt the pressure to start making decisions, but she resisted it. Even at their present closing velocity and acceleration, it would take eleven and a half minutes for anyone equipped with single-drive missiles to get into their powered attack range, and they weren't going to fire before that. Admittedly, they were going after a convoy of merchantman, which meant any last-minute evasive maneuvers by their targets were going to be sluggish, at best, but even a merchie had a darned good chance of outmaneuvering a missile which had gone ballistic. They couldn't get out of the range basket of the attack bird's laser heads (unless the missile in question had one almighty long ballistic component), but they could maneuver to interpose their impeller wedges between those laser heads and their own hulls, which would be just as good. So there was still time for her to think things through.

But not a lot of it, she reminded herself grimly.

The problem was that she didn't know whether this particular simulation had been set up with a smart and sneaky op force or a sloppy one. With a sloppy one, the force Pettigrew and CIC had picked up would be the only threat, and its commander could probably be excused for thinking it was a pretty darned good one, actually. A battlecruiser and two heavy cruisers packed a lot of firepower, and the convoy's escort was only five destroyers. So a head-on attack, disdaining subtlety in order to get into decisive range as quickly as possible, would probably work. And if the bad guys didn't know the defending destroyers were allRolands, with magazines full of Mark 16 dual-drive missiles, then they didn't know Tristram's powered missile envelope was three times their own. Which, assuming the geometry remained unchanged, meant Tristram and her consorts could open fire at over fifty-one million kilometers. But if the bandits didn't realize that, then they were probably anticipating a massive superiority in missile firepower when they entered their own effective range.

But missile superiority or not, they're still going to get hurt, at least a little, and if they'd just reduced their impeller strengthor even come in ballisticthey wouldn't have burned through their stealth fields yet. They didn't have to let us know they were coming. Not this soon, anyway. Not in h-space. So why...?

Her eyes narrowed suddenly as she realized that whoever had designed this simulationor tweaked it, she reminded herself, thinking about Xamarhad assumed a very smart and sneaky op force, indeed.

Detection ranges in hyper-space were far lower than in normal-space, due to the higher particle density and general background levels of radiation which obtained there. The attackers had caught the convoy between gravity waves, where their impeller nodes were configured to produce standard impeller wedges, rather than the Warshawski sails necessary to navigate in the stressed and potentially deadly volume of a grav wave. And where impeller-drive missiles could be used. But that detection difficulty, coupled with the fact that the attackers had obviously known where to wait for the convoy andespeciallythe intercept vector they'd managed to generate, told her a lot. In particular, it told her they knew exactly where she and every ship of her convoy was, and that there'd been absolutely no need for them to come in this close under power at all.

The convoy consisted of merchantships with a maximum acceleration less than half that of the attackers. There was no way a fat, wallowing herd of merchies could possibly evade them at this point. So they could have killed their drives long ago and come in ballistic without the betraying grav signature of their impeller wedges. Which, under these conditions, would probably have allowed them to get all the way into their own powered missile range before they were ever seen. For that matter, against someone without the Ghost Rider platformsand without the platforms deployed even in hyper, she allowed herself to reflect with a certain complacencythey could very well have gotten into energy range before anyone saw them coming.

So why hadn't they'd done that?

Because they want me concentrating on these people, she thought. They showed themselves to me on purpose, when they didn't have to. Which means that sometime in the next five or six minutes...

"Priority active and passive sensor sweep," she said sharply. "I want Galahad'sand Lancelot'salpha and beta platforms sweeping astern. Have Roland sweep directly ahead of the convoy. Ivanhoe is to continue to hold the known contacts on her platforms. And I want ours to sweep this volume, right here."

She dropped a cursor into the master plot, using it to sketch an arc directly on the opposite side of the convoy from the known contacts.

Acknowledgments came back quickly. There were still rough spots in Tristram's tactical crews, and they'd only come in second in the squadron's "top gun" competition. It had been a very close second, however, and they'd actually been edged out of first primarily because HMS Gawain had managed (somehow) to squirm around and block what should have been the fatal shot fromTristram's broadside lasers with her wedge. That particular turn of events had scarcely been the tactical department's fault, and everyone in it knew that. In fact, in some ways, Abigail's people seemed to take a sort of perverse pride in being robbed of what they considered to have been their rightful victory by the intervention of the Demon Murphy. And the exercise had pulled them together as a group. They'd really buckled down since, and their rough spots were nowhere near as rough as they had been.

"New contacts!" Pettigrew announced suddenly. "I have three battlecruiser-range contacts on the alpha platform shell! Bearing one-niner-six, two-five-three, range one-point-eight-two light-minutes, closing velocity five-niner-three-three-zero kilometers per second. CIC designates them Beta One through Beta Three. No, I repeat, no impeller signatures!"

My, aren't we clever? Abigail thought, so intent on watching the three new scarlet icons blink into existence on the plot that she didn't even notice the looks she got from one or two of the simulator's occupants as they spotted the enemy exactly where Lieutenant Hearns had obviously expected to spot him. The five we already knew about to keep us looking in that direction while these three come whooping in on almost an exactly reverse heading to pincer us. If we see the first five and turn away from them, we run directly into the others. And if we don't see them, if we concentrate on the ones we know about, then these people sneak in close and put daggers in our backs just about the time their buddies are starting to get into range.

"Designate the new contacts the Beta group," she heard her own voice saying. "Prepare to flush the pods. Attack pattern Papa-Three and set for forty-six thousand gravities. We'll put all of them on the Beta targets and take the Alphas with internal tubes!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am! Setting pods for Papa-Three on the Beta targets; drive setting four-six thousand gravities."

Abigail itched to enter the firing commands herself. If this had been a real combat situation, rather than a simulation, that was exactly what she would have been doing. But it was a simulation, and its purpose was not to have her doing things she knew perfectly well she could handle at need. It was to train the rest of her team to do those things...and her to rely upon them to do it.

"Beta targets designated and locked in, Ma'am," Lieutenant Molyneux reported barely twenty seconds later. "Missile drives set for four-six-thousand gravities acceleration."

"All units report pod separation and on-board fusion initiation," MT 1/c Kaneshiro announced at almost the same instant.

"Target acquisition!" Molyneux reported as the computers aboard the "flat pack" missile pods which had just fallen away from the destroyers' hulls and cleared their impeller wedges, turned on their on-board thrusters to align themselves with their designated targets.

"Launch!"

"Launching, aye!"

None of the destroyers had been carrying the maximum possible external load of pods. They couldn't without beginning to block shipboard sensor arcs or the firing arcs of their defensive laser clusters. But each of the five of them had carried fifteen of the pods, limpeted to their motherships' hulls with their internal tractors, and each of those pods contained ten Mark 23 MDMs.

Seven hundred and fifty capital missiles went shrieking away from the convoy, straight into the teeth of only three targets. Three targets which had continued closing at the next best thing to sixty thousand kilometers per second for just under thirty-two seconds since they'd been detected...and whose impeller wedges were still just starting to come up when the missiles launched. It took those missiles two hundred and sixty-one seconds to reach their destinations, and two hundred and fifty of them went slashing in on each of the battlecruisers.

The Solarian ships had clearly been prepared for the possibility that they might be detected on the way in. Their missile defense crews had obviously been waiting at maximum readiness, because their counter-missiles began launching almost instantly, and they were firing a lot of them. But Abigail had anticipated that anyone smart enough to set up something like this and actually pull it off wouldn't exactly be just sitting there with her hands in her lap. That was why she'd committed all of her pods to this attack. It was almost certainly going to be a case of overkill, but she wanted nothing threatening her back while she dealt with the more numerous but individually weaker Alpha bandits, and that meant putting the Beta targets out of action as quicklyand thoroughlyas possible.

The other side's counter-missiles were actually more effective than she'd expected, and she wondered if BuWeaps had updated their projected effectiveness on the basis of the captured Solly hardware the Navy had been able to examine after the Battle of Monica. They were certainly more effective than the Monicans' counter-missile fire had been then! On the other hand, those were supposed to be Solarian crews behind those launchers this time around, too, which could also explain why BuWeaps might have increased their kill probabilities.

She watched narrowly as the counter-missiles picked off almost three hundred of the attack birds. Manticoran defenses would have done considerably better than that, but, then, Manticoran defenses had been designed to survive against the volume of fire produced by pod-launched missiles, and the Sollies' defenses... hadn't been.

Despite everything the Solarian counter-missiles could do, four hundred and fifty-plus Manticoran missiles got through to the inner defensive zone, and laser clusters fired desperately. But those missiles were coming in at an effective velocity of sixty percent of light-speed. That didn't give very much engagement time, and to make matters far worse, the attack missiles had been liberally seeded with electronic warfare missiles specifically programmed to penetrate the inner boundary defenses. Dazzlers flared, beating holes in the Solarians' defensive coverage with massive spikes of interference, and in the same instant, the Dragon's Teeth platforms spun up, generating hundreds of false images to confuse any of the sensors which somehow managed to see past the Dazzlers.

Abigail couldn't tell exactly how many of her attack birds actually survived long enough to detonate, but it was obviously enough.

Beta One simply disappeared. Beta Two staggered, the impeller wedge which had just come up and stabilized fluctuating madly as x-ray lasers slammed intoand throughher sidewalls and armor. Then her forward impeller room went down completely, and she turned away, leaking atmosphere and water vapor in clear proof of massive penetrations of her core hull. Her active sensor emissions vanished almost completely in equally clear proof that her missile defenses and fire control had been hammered into wreckage.

Beta Three didn't seem to have been hammered quite as badly as Beta Two. Not at first. But then, ten seconds after Beta One, she suddenly broke in half. There was no stupendous explosion, no sudden, insane spike in her impeller wedge to explain it. She simply...broke up.

It was only a simulation, but even so, Abigail felt an icy chill blowing up and down her spine as she tried to picture the structural failure which could have produced that result. But then she shook herself. The Alpha bandits were still out there. They probably had no ideayetwhat had happened to the Beta bandits, given their limitation to light-speed transmissions from any recon platforms they might have deployed. But they were going to find out shortly.

Five minutes had elapsed since she gave the order to fire. Only five minutes, in which two battlecruisers had been totally destroyed and a third had been hulked. And during which the range to the Alpha bandits had fallen to 51,474,268 kilometers...which just happened to be 21,000 kilometers inside the range of a Mark 16 dual-drive missile against a target closing at 61,000 km per second. It would take the bandits another nine minutes to reach their own range of the convoy, however, and the Mark 16's new Mod G laser heads were going to make that just a bit difficult for them, she thought with a sharklike smile.

"Fire Plan Tango-Seven," she said.

"So, how do you really like her, Naomi?"

Aivars Terekhov grinned mischievously as Commander Naomi Kaplan gave him a very sharp glance, indeed. Her own Tristram, as well as Terekhov's heavy cruiser flagship and their various squadron mates were boring steadily through hyper-space under impeller drive, between gravity waves, and Terekhov had invited her aboard Quentin Saint-James for a private dinner. Joanna Agnelli had done her customary superb job with the meal, and the after-dinner wine was a vintage port from the O'Daley Vineyards, a Gryphon winery which had been established by Sinead O'Daley Terekhov's many-times-great-grandfather better than three hundred T-years ago. Kaplan didn't really understand why it had to be properly defined as a Gryphon vintage porto, but she suspected it had something to do with the ferocity with which wine-sticklers guarded the classifications of their favorite beverage. In this case, however, she had to admit that its rich, fruity flavor (whatever it was properly called) was a wonderful choice to accompany the wedges of cheese Agnelli had left on the table between her and Terekhov.

The dinner had been the first opportunity the two of them had had for any sort of relaxed, face-to-face meeting since Terekhov's return to Manticore and immediate departure back to the Talbott Quadrant. At the moment, despite his status as a relatively junior commodore, Terekhov found himself the senior officer commanding no less than sixteen shipsthe eight cruisers of his own squadron and the eight destroyers of Commodore Chatterjee's squadron. Since not a single one of those vessels was more than four T-months old, and every single one of them mounted the Mark 16 dual-drive missile, it could probably be said with a fair degree of accuracy that it represented the plum command of any commodore in the Royal Manticoran Navy.

Which, Kaplan reflected, said quite a bit about how the Royal Navy regarded one Aivars Terekhov.

She also remembered the reserved, withdrawn captain who had joined HMS Hexapuma's company on effectively zero notice. There was still a lot of that captain in the commodore sitting across his dining cabin table from her, but now the humor and the warmth behind those arctic blue eyes found it far more difficult to hide from her. And this, she reminded herself, was a purely social occasion. He'd invited her to dinner as her ex-CO, not as her current squadron commander, and that gave a certain flexibility to the things she could discuss with him.

"Should I assume, Sir," she responded to his question primly, "that the 'her' in question refers to Tristram?"

"Yes, you should," Terekhov agreed. "I mean, I know any destroyer has to be seen as something of a step down from a heavy cruiser. And I certainly wouldn't care to suggest that a modicum of disappointment on receiving such a lowly command might not be understandable. Still, as destroyers go, she doesn't seem that bad. Of course, I understand from Commodore Chatterjee that she only came in second in the tactical competition. But I'm sure that if an officer of your caliber really buckles down and applies herself, most of those nagging little problems will speedily disappear."

He regarded her so earnestly across the table that she felt a very strong temptation, despite the difference in their ranks, to kick him smartly in the kneecap. Instead, she leaned back in her own chair, nursing her wineglass, and pursed her lips thoughtfully.

"I'm deeply touched by your concern for me, Sir," she told him. "And, I suppose I ought to admit, it was something of a wrench to leave the Kittyalthough, to be honest, I don't actually remember doing that. Something to do with being unconscious at the time, I imagine. Still, when they offered me Tristram, I recognized the sort of challenge where my experience in rectifying more senior officers' errors could stand me in good stead. I feel we've made considerable progress, although we clearly still have some way to go to achieve the level of proficiency I'd truly like. Still, I'm confident we'll get there in the end. After all, I know exactly what not to do when bringing along a new ship's company."

She smiled sweetly at him, and he laughed.

"Touch'e!" He raised his own glass in salute and took a sip. Then his expression sobered a bit as he lowered the glass again.

"Seriously," he said, "is she as much fun as you expected her to be?"

"In some ways, yes," she replied, equally seriously. "In other ways, all joking aside, it's been even harder than I expected to knock off all the rough edges. I knew we were sailing with a green ship's company, but I don't think I'd let myself freely admit just how green some of them really were. And even though she doesn't have that big a crew, she's one hell of a first hyper-capable command, Sir!" She shook her head. "I hope I don't screw it up."

"If anybody at Admiralty House thought that was likely to happen, you wouldn't have her," Terekhov pointed out. "And as someone who's had the opportunity to watch you in action, I don't think it's likely to happen, either. Nobody can ever know what kind of circumstances may come along and bite someone on the asswhat happened to us on our last deployment is proof enough of that! But barring some sort of major disaster of someone else's making, I don't expect you to put any blots in your copy book, Commander."

"Thank you," she said quietly.

"No need to thank me for telling the truth," he said wryly. "And if you want to talk about the possibility of screwing up, don't forget who they decided to give a brand-new squadron to, either!" It was his turn to shake his head. "It's one thing to hijack a squadron nobody decided to give you in the first place. I've discovered that it's quite another to worry about disappointing people who wanted you to have it. And I suppose, if I'm going to be honest, that one reason I was teasing you about Tristram is how much I've discovered I miss the white beret."

"I can see how that would be." Kaplan's tone was thoughtful. "I've only had her for a few weeks, and I'm already beginning to suspect how much it's going to hurt when I have to hand her over to someone else. There's never another first starship, is there?"

"No," Terekhov agreed. "Unfortunately, Naomi, someday there will be a last starship. Enjoy her while you've got her."

"Oh, I intend to!" Kaplan replied with a fresh sparkle of humor. "And even though we've got a couple of potholes here and there, I think Alvin Tallman and I are on top of them. Not only that, but it's been amusing as hell watching Abigail deal with one of those potholes."

"Abigail?" Terekhov cocked one eyebrow, and Kaplan chuckled.

"It would appear Abigail's concern that some officers might feel she'd received an undeserved assignment wasn't totally without foundation. Lieutenant O'Reilly, my com officer, seems to have resented Abigail's elevation to Tristram's tactical officer."

"Really?" Terekhov leaned back and crossed his legs.

"Really. O'Reilly was careful to keep it from coming to my ears, of course, but I've discovered that you were right when you told me how useful a captain's steward was for tapping into the grapevine. Of course, Clorinda hasn't been with me as long as Chief Agnelli's been with you, but it's remarkable how little goes on aboard ship that fails to come to her ears. And, of course, from her ears to my ears. So I knew when O'Reilly began voicing her opinion that Abigail might be less than totally qualified for her new position."

"From that gleam in your eye, I assume neither you nor Commander Tallman found it necessary to take a hand?"

"You assume correctly. As a matter of fact, it was pretty informative to see which of the other members of the wardroom stepped on her. My engineer was surprisingly effective, as a matter of fact. But what really did the trick was Abigail herself. Well, her and her people in Tactical."

"How?"

"She did it by being Abigail," Kaplan said simply. "Our last set of simulations, Tactical scored four hundred and ninety-eight out of a possible five hundred. That was the highest score in the entire ship, although she only beat out Engineering by two points. Communications, on the other hand, came in at barely three ninety-seven. I believe Alvin called Lieutenant O'Reilly in for a private conference in which he pointed out to her that her performance had been the weakest of any department and that it might behoove her to spend a bit more time drilling her personnel. And if she wanted any advice on how to do that, there were several of her fellow lieutenants whojudging by their own departments' performancemight be able to help her out. Like, oh, Lieutenant Hearns, let's say."

"Well, I bet that endeared Abigail to this O'Reilly," Terekhov observed dryly.

"Frankly, I don't think anything could 'endear' Abigail to O'Reilly," Kaplan said tartly. She looked at Terekhov steadily, and he knew she would never have voiced such a personal criticism of one of her officers to anyone else. But he wasn't "anyone else," and she continued. "She reminds me a lot of Freda MacIntyre, actually."

Terekhov managed not to grimace, but Kaplan's choice of examples conjured up a very precise image in his mind, given the rather scathing efficiency report he'd endorsed, on young Lieutenant (Junior Grade) MacIntyre of HMS Hexapuma's Engineering Department. The actual report had been written by Ginger Lewis, who hadn't pulled any punches in her assessment of MacIntyre's capabilities, and he rather doubted it had done MacIntyre's career one bit of good, even in the manpower-starved RMN.

Which is too damned bad...and still better than someone who treats her people like dirt deserves, he thought grimly.

But choosing MacIntyre as her example had done more than give him a feel for O'Reilly's personality without ever meeting her. It also explained why Kaplan was almost certainly right about the inevitable antipathy between her and Abigail Hearns. Abigail was constitutionally incapable of giving less than a hundred and ten percent effort, and the officers Terekhov privately thought of as "sixty percenters" could never forgive people like her for the commitment they brought to any task.

And every single one of them thinks the people they resent are getting unfair preference, he reflected. I suppose that's human nature. No one wants to admit he's being "overlooked" because he's an incompetent, lazy-assed timeserver. And now that I think about it, I'd reallyhate to be an officer like that aboard Naomi Kaplan's ship!

That last thought gave him a certain glow of pleasure, and he shook his head mentally.

Damn it, I am playing favorites, he admitted cheerfully to himself. Of course, unlike some people I've known, I try to make sure that the favorites I play deserve it. And, by God, if anyone deserves it, Abigail does! If she just manages to avoid getting herself killed in the next few years, that young lady's going to be one of the admirals who go into the history books. And when that happens, I'll be able to kick back, sniff my brandy, and say "Why, I knew her when she was only a JG, and let me tell you...!"

That thought gave him even more pleasure, and he reached for his wine glass once more.

"Well, Captain Kaplan," he said, "I'm sure you have the situation well in hand."

"I feel pretty sure the commodore's offering something better than this to Commander Kaplan," Helen Zilwicki said wryly as she handed Abigail Hearns a chilled bottle of beer.

"More expensive, anyway," Abigail agreed. She took the beer, ignored the stein sitting on the table between them, and drank directly from the bottle.

"Oh, if your family could only see you now!" Helen shook her head, grinning hugely.

"My family might surprise you," Abigail replied, lowering the bottle with a satisfied sigh. "Formal occasions are one thing, but Daddy's always preferred beer to wine. In fact, I sometimes think it was Lady Harrington's introduction of Old Tilman to Grayson that really got him on the side of the reformers."

"Really?" Helen laughed. "Somehow that doesn't quite fit the image most Manticorans have about steadholders."

"I know." Abigail grimaced. "It's amazing to me how many people think all Graysons have to be dour, repressed, and just plain gloomy all the time." She snorted. "I guess I'd have to go along with 'repressed' in at least some ways, I suppose. But the rest of it!"

"I think part of it is the way your armsmen spend so much time guarding your image, not just your skins," Helen suggested.

"You're probably right."

Abigail tipped back the chair in Helen's tiny cabin. It was so small that her senior mother Helen would have described it as having "too little room to swing a cat," but given the fact that it belonged to a mere ensign, it was downright palatial for any warship.

"You're probably right," she said again, thinking about her own personal armsman, Matteo Gutierrez. Gutierrez wasn't even a Grayson by birth, yet he'd somehow soaked up through his pores that guard dog protectiveness that seemed to infuse all personal armsmen. Fortunately, his background as a Royal Manticoran Marine also gave him a reasonable perspective on just how much "protecting" a mere lieutenant serving aboard one of Her Majesty's starships could survive. Which, now that she thought about it, a Grayson-born armsman might very well have lacked.

You know, maybe Daddy put even more thought into picking Matteo as my keeper then I realized, she reflected.

"I'm glad you were able to tag along with the commander," Helen said now, and Abigail's mental antenna pricked. There was something about Helen's voice, an almost hesitant note Abigail was unaccustomed to hearing from brash Ensign Zilwicki.

"Well, I didn't have the duty tonight," she pointed out. "I don't know whether I could have gotten pinnace time on my own, but since the skipper was headed over this way anyhow..."

She shrugged, and Helen nodded.

"That's kind of how I figured it would work when I invited you," she acknowledged, tipping back her own chair and propping her heels on her neatly made bunk.

"Why did you invite me?" Asked the wrong way, that question could have carried all sorts of sharp edges. The way Abigail actually did ask it, it came out oddly...sympathetic.

"I guess I'm just feeling a little...lonely," Helen said, looking away for a moment. Then she looked back at Abigail. "Don't get me wrong. Most of Jimmy Boy's officers are just fine, and nobody seems to resent the fact that I'm only a lowly little ensign. But it's kind of hard, Abigail. I'm not really all that senior to Captain Carlson's snotties, but the commodore's flag lieutenant can hardly hobnob with them. In fact, there's not a single soul in this entire ship who's not astronomically senior to me that I could actually sit down and discuss what I do for the commodore with. I hadn't thought about that part of it."

"I hadn't thought about it either," Abigail said after a moment. She considered adding that it would never have occurred to her that it would have presented a problem to such a hardy and resilient soul as Helen Zilwicki. Which said more about her own lack of imagination than it did about any lack of confidence on Helen's part, she decided.

"It doesn't make any static where the job itself is concerned," Helen said quickly. "Nobody seems to resent the fact that I'm so junior. To be honest, that was what I was most afraid of, but they're a pretty good bunch. No, scratch that. They're a damned good bunch, and most all of them are ready to take time 'mentoring' the new kid. I think I'm actually getting the hang of things pretty well, too. It's just that, well, once we're off duty, they're all so damned senior to me again."

"I see." Abigail considered her for several seconds in silence, then smiled. "Tell me, Helen, how much of your 'loneliness' has to do with missing your fellow snotties from the Kitty?"

Helen twitched, and Abigail's smile grew broader at the confirmation that she'd scored a direct hit.

"I don't know what you're" Helen began quickly, then stopped and actually blushed.

"I, uh, didn't think you knew about that," she said finally, and this time Abigail laughed out loud.

"Helen, there may have been some rating stuck down in Engineering somewhereone of the ones that never gets out of the fusion roomwho didn't figure it out. I don't think there could have been anyone else."

"Oh, damn," Helen muttered. Then she grinned just a bit sheepishly. "Actually, you know, there was at least one person on board who didn't figure it out."

"Paulo?" Abigail asked, her tone much more sympathetic, and Helen nodded.

"Yeah," she sighed. "He's too damned prettyand too damned well aware of how he got that way. It's like...it's like trying to get too close to an Old Earth porcupine! I think he was finally starting to get the picture before I went haring back off to Talbott, but, Lord, the size of the clue stick it took!"

She shook her head, and Abigail used a quick swallow of beer to drown another laugh at birth. Helen obviously wasn't accustomed to having to work that hard to attract the attention of the male of the species, she thought.

"I don't think anyone could reasonably blame him for being a little gun shy," she pointed out once she was confident she had control of her voice again. "I mean, I'd probably feel a lot the same way if a bunch of genetic slavers had specifically designed me aswhat? A 'pleasure slave'?"

" 'Sex toy,' is the way he puts it." This time Helen's voice was harsh and hard with anger. "You know, I already hated those bastardseven before they tried to kill Berry. Hell, even before they tried to kill me back on Old Earth! But I never really understood what hate was before I realized not just what they've done to Paulo, but what they must have done to all the other 'pleasure slaves' they've sold like so much meat over the centuries. I mean, I knew what they were doingeven knew other people they'd done it tobut this time...well, I guess this time is different. It's finallyreal. And the truth is, I'm a little ashamed of that."

"Why?" Abigail asked softly.

"Because it shouldn't matter that they did it to me, to someone I care about. It should matter that they did it to anyone, anywhere, ever. It shouldn't have taken Paulo to make it real to me, not just some kind of intellectual awareness."

"Don't be too hard on yourself," Abigail said, and Helen looked at her quickly. "And don't be so sure you were really that blind to it before you met Paulo. Frankly, I don't think you were. I think your anger is different now, sure, but that's natural, Helen. It's not so much anger at what they did, but that they did it to someone you love. That doesn't make your anger 'real' in some way it wasn't before itit only makes it personal."

Helen continued to look at her for several heartbeats, and then the younger woman's shoulders relaxed suddenly, and she drew a deep breath.

"Maybe that's what I've been trying to fumble my own way into figuring out," she said. "Thanks. I think, anyway. I wouldn't want you to be giving me a free pass when I don't really have one coming. Not that I think you areor at least, probably not."

Abigail chuckled, but she only shook her head when Helen raised an eyebrow at her. Somehow, she didn't feel like explaining just how un-Helenish those last few sentences sounded. On the other hand, if there'd been any question in her own mind about the depths of Helen's feelings for Paulo d'Arezzo, the disappearance of the Zilwicki certainty would have laid it to rest.

"See, that's one of the things I can't discuss with anyone over here," Helen continued after a moment, clearly having decided not to ask Abigail what was so humorous. "Matter of fact," she added thoughtfully, "I don't know who I could have discussed that one with even aboard the Kitty!"

"Well, that's not because of anything to do with seniority," Abigail told her. "It has to do with friendship, Helen, and I don't suppose you've had the time to make a lot of new friends aboard the flagship anymore than I have aboard Tristram."

"Yeah, I guess it does," Helen said slowly. She took another swallow from her own beer bottle.

"It's okay," Abigail reassured her with a faint smile. "I'm not your training officer anymore, and you're not one of my snotties. For that matter, we're not even in the same chain of command, these days. So, despite my own lordly seniority, if I want to have a mere ensign for a friend, it's not against regs."

"Yeah, sure!" Helen laughed, but her eyes were curiously soft for a few moments. Then she shook herself.

"Well, as one friend to another," she continued, "what do I do about Paulo?"

"What? About catching him?"

"Catching him!" Helen shook her head. "I can't believe you said something like that!" she protested. "I'm shockedshocked, I tell you!"

"Hey," Abigail shot back with a much broader smile, "you try living on a planet where women outnumber men three-to-one! Trust me, you Mantiesboth sexes of youhave it pretty darn good when it comes to stumbling into a relationship with Mr. or Ms. Right! Where I come from, women have to work at it...and the competition gets pretty darned cutthroat, too!"

Helen shook her head again, laughing, and Abigail glowered at her.

"See?" she growled. "There you go again. Another Manty thinking all Graysons are repressed. Probably that we're all frigid, for that matter!"

"I do not!" Helen protested.

"Sure you don't." Abigail rolled her eyes. "If you could've heard all the crap I had to put up with at the Academyor in Gauntlet, for that matterout of some of you 'enlightened' Manties...! Sometimes I couldn't decide who was worse. The guys who thought I must be starved for sex because there were so few men on my planet, or the women who were busy just oozing sympathy for the poor, repressed little foreign girl."

"Come onwe're not all that bad!"

"Actually, all of you aren't," Abigail admitted, satisfied that she'd loosened up any remaining reticence Helen might have harbored. "In fact, for a Manty, you're a fairly enlightened sort yourself, Ms. Zilwicki."

"Gee, thanks."

"You're welcome. And now, for that little question you raised a few minutes back. The one about catching Paulo."

"That's not exactly the way I phrased it," Helen replied with a certain dignity.

"No, but it's what you meant," Abigail said blithely. "And now that we have that out of the way, tell me what you've already tried." She smiled evilly. "I'm sure that between the two of us we can come up with...additional approaches, shall we say?"


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



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