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Chapter Thirty-Five

Helen Zilwicki looked out the pinnace viewport as the sleek, variable geometry craft settled gracefully onto the Thimble Spaceport landing pad. She still thought Thimble was a pretty silly name for a planet's capital city, although she had to admit that it at least offered more originality than "Landing," which was undoubtedly the most common name for capital cities in the entire galaxy.

Well, maybe except for the ones that're named First Landing, anyway, she amended with a silent chuckle. And whatever the citizens of the Spindle System might have chosen to name their capital, she was actually a bit surprised by how glad she was to be back here again.

It didn't hurt that Commodore Terekhov's little task group had made a huge amount of progress during the voyage to Spindle from the Lynx Terminus. Its various ships weren't anywhere near as well drilled and trained as Hexapuma had been when they went to Monica, but it would have been grossly unfair to compare them to the level of proficiency Hexapuma's company had attained by that time. For a bunch of ships which had been more or less thrown together and sent off, mostly straight from their (highly abbreviated) builders' trials, less than three T-weeks before, they were actually damned good.

Sure they are, part of her brain thought mockingly. And you, of course, are such a seasoned old vacuum-sucker that your highly experienced judgment of just how good they are is undoubtedly infallible, isn't it?

Shut up, the rest of her brain commanded.

The pinnace touched down perfectly, and Helen stood, trying not to think about all the times Ragnhild Pavletic had piloted Captain Terekhov to one meeting or another. She gathered up Terekhov's briefcase and her own minicomp, then turned and led the way off the pinnace in obedience to the ironbound Manticoran tradition that required passengers to disembark in reverse order of seniority.

Vice Admiral Khumalo, Bernardus Van Dort, Captain Shoupe, Commander Chandler, and a small, dark-haired commodore almost as sturdily built as Helen herself, were waiting as she followed Commodore Terekhov, Commodore Chatterjee, Captain Carlson, and Commander Pope into the office. All of them rose in greeting, and Helen felt a flare of amusement as she saw the small, female commodore gazing up at her counterpart's towering centimeters. She was considerably shorter than Helen, while Chatterjee was one of the very few people Helen had ever met who could actually make Duchess Harrington look petite, which probably explained his nickname of "Bear." Despite her amusement, though, she was far more aware of her deep surge of pleasure as she saw Van Dort again. The special minister without portfolio smiled with obvious pleasure of his own and nodded to her as she trailed along in all the monumentally more senior officers' wake.

"Aivars! Welcome back." Khumalo reached across his desk, shaking Terekhov's hand with obvious pleasure and genuine warmth. Which, Helen reflected, was a noticeableand welcomechange from the then-rear admiral's stiff-legged wariness when Aivars Terekhov had first arrived in the Talbott Cluster.

"I believe you know all of us," Khumalo continued, waving at the welcoming committee, "except, perhaps, for Commodore Onasis." He indicated the smallish woman Helen had noted, and Onasis stepped forward to offer her own hand in turn.

"Commodore Onasis," Terekhov murmured in greeting, then nodded to his own officers. "Commodore Chatterjee, commanding DesRon 301," he said, introducing Chatterjee first. "And this is Captain Carlson, my flag captain in Quentin Saint-James, and Commander Pope, my chief of staff. And this, of course," he smiled very slightly, "is Ensign Zilwicki, my flag lieutenant."

More handshakes were exchanged, along with murmurs of greeting (although no one offered to shake her own lowly hand, Helen noticed with another flicker of amusement), and then all of them scattered, like uniformed birds accompanied by a single civilian-garbed crow, into the office's comfortable chairs. Helen waited until all those vastly senior officers had been seated, then found herself a perch to one side, pulled out her minicomp, and configured it to record mode.

"It really is good to see you back, Aivars," Khumalo said. "And to see more ships arriving with you."

"I'm glad you think so, Sir. And, frankly, I'm glad to be back, even though I could wish I'd had at least a day or so on Manticore, first. I'm sure I speak for Bear, as well," Terekhov said, nodding at Chatterjee. "On the other hand, I wouldn't want you to think we're fully up to snuff yet. For one thing, I still have to steal a few staff officers from you. And, for another, we've only really had the opportunity to start drilling as cohesive squadrons for the last two or three weeks. Our people are willing as hell, and I think they're individually about as good as it gets, but we're a long way from really shaking down the way we ought to have before we were ever deployed."

"There's been a lot of that going around lately," Shulamit Onasis observed with a tart smile.

"That's one way to put it," Khumalo agreed feelingly. "On the other hand, between you and Vice Admiral Gold Peak, we've already got a good twenty or thirty times as much combat power as we had in the Quadrant before Monica. I'm looking forward to still more, you understand, but adding eight more Saganami-Cs to the mixnot to mention Commodore Chatterjee's Rolandsis going to help me sleep a lot more soundly at night."

"All of us, I think," Onasis said, nodding firmly. Then she cocked her head at Frederick Carlson. "One thing I wanted to ask you, Captain Carlson. I thought there was already a Quentin Saint-James in the ship list?"

"There was," Carlson said. "In fact, she was one of the early Saganami-As. She was transferred to the Zanzibar Navy, though, as part of the program to try and rebuild their fleet after Tourville trashed it. SinceQuentin Saint-James is on the List of Honor, Zanzibar renamed her to release the name for my ship." He shook his head. "I'm flattered, of course, but it does give all of us a bit to live up to."

"Ah." Onasis nodded. "I thought I was remembering correctly. Still, with all the ships coming out of the yards, I don't suppose it's any wonder that some of the names are getting flipped around without warning."

"Everything's getting flipped around without warning, Shulamit." Khumalo's tone was considerably grimmer than it had been, Helen noticed. "Which probably means we should go ahead and get down to our own latest installment of what's-going-on-now, I suppose. Ambrose, would you care to take the floor and brief Commodore Terekhov and Commodore Chatterjee on all of our own recent fun and games?"

"...so that's about the sum of it, so far, at least," Ambrose Chandler finished up the better part of ninety minutes later.

"Thank you, Ambrose," Khumalo said, then looked at Terekhov. "As you can see, things are looking up over most of the Quadrant. In fact, when Minister Krietzmann gets back on-planet tonight, he and Loretta will be giving us a complete joint briefnot just for your benefit, Aivars; Baroness Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar will be attending, tooon how well the local system-defense forces are integrating with the new LAC groups as we get them deployed forward. We're in pretty good shape on that front, according to our original schedule, but the LACs are still spreading out from the Lynx Terminus. It's going to be at least another month or so before we can get decent coverage around the northern periphery. And, frankly, our original deployment plans gave much lower priority to the areas around Pequod and New Tuscany because we figured the San Miguel and Rembrandt navies could handle security in the area. Now that the situation in Pequod is getting so...touchy, we really want to expedite the deployment of a LAC group to that system. Unfortunately, we're not going to have the transport platforms for that for at least two months, because the only CLACs available to us have already deposited their groups at their assigned destinations or are still in transit.

"Which still leaves us in a...less than ideal situation, shall we say?"

Khumalo's office was silent for several seconds after he finished speaking, and Helen glanced surreptitiously sideways at Terekhov's profile. His eyes were half-closed, his lips pursed in obvious thought, and she noticed the way both Khumalo and Van Dort were looking at him, both obviously waiting for him to surface with his own impression of Chandler's briefing. Van Dort's reaction didn't surprise her a bit, after the way he and Terekhov had worked together to stymie the entire Monica-based operation. Khumalo's still did, just a bit, although she was delighted to see it.

"I don't like the sound of this New Tuscany business at all, Sir," Terekhov said finally, eyes opening wide once again and focusing on Khumalo. "I didn't have the opportunity to actually visit New Tuscany inHexapuma, but everything I've ever heard, seen, or read about the New Tuscans only makes me even unhappier about these latest shenanigans of theirs."

"So you agree that they're up to something we're not going to like very much, Aivars?" Van Dort asked with a quizzical smile, and Terekhov snorted.

"I can see how that razor-sharp brain of yours helped impel you to the top of the local financial heap, Bernardus," he said dryly. "Nothing much gets past you, does it?"

"One tries to keep up," Van Dort admitted modestly, and more than one of those present chuckled. But then expressions sobered again, and Van Dort leaned slightly forward. "What do you think we should do about it?"

Helen's eyes flicked sideways to Khumalo, wondering how he would react to having a civilian ask the opinion of one of his subordinates directly. But Khumalo only tipped his head slightly to one side, obviously listening for Terekhov's response as closely as Van Dort was.

"Give me a break, Bernardus!" Terekhov protested. "I just heard about this for the first time. What makes you think I've had long enough to formulate any kind of an opinion about it?"

"I'm not asking for an opinion. I want that first impression of yours."

"Well, my first impression is that we need more than just a LAC squadron or two in the system. More platforms would be good, of course, but if New Tuscany really is working to some concerted plan, I doubt that that alone would cause them to back off. In fact, my most pressing thought right this minute is that we ought to put someone senior to Commander Denton into Pequod. And that someone senior, whoever he is, should be authorized to kick any New Tuscan in the ass if that's what it takes to get them backed off."

Both Khumalo and Shoupe looked very much as if they agreed with the commodore, Helen decided. Not that agreeing with him was the same thing as being happy about the notion.

"That's pretty much the way we've been looking at it ourselves," Khumalo said, as if deliberately confirming Helen's impression. "The problem is that we can't help wondering if that's exactly the reaction they're hoping to draw. Mind you, none of us can think of how that would help them, but that's the problem, isn't it? Since we don't know what the hell it is they're trying to accomplish, we can't know how what we do is going to fit into their plans and objectives. Frankly," the vice admiral admitted, "one reason I haven't tried harder to divert one of the CLAC deliveries to Pequod is that ignorance."

"No, we can't know how any move on our part is going to affect their plans," Terekhov agreed thoughtfully. Then he shrugged slightly. "On the other hand, I don't think we can afford to allow our current ignorance to paralyze us, either. I'm certainly not recommending that we send someone in to play bull in the china shop, because if what we're looking at really is a deliberately orchestrated set of manufactured provocations, the last thing we want to do is actually give them the mother of all provocations. But by the same token, I don't see how anyone here in the region could possibly have guessed how much firepower the Admiralty is ready to begin transferring in this direction. I'm willing to bet that all of New Tuscany's calculations are based on the sort of shoestring force structure they gave you before Monica, Sir. In that case, I think it could be a very good idea to let them know there are going to be more and more modern ships out here in the Quadrantand not just LACs. Let them see the kind of trouble they're going to be buying themselves if they push too far."

"I think there's quite a bit to that, Admiral," Van Dort said soberly.

"Agreed." Khumalo nodded. "And, to be frank, it's a thought that's occurred to my people, as well as to Minister Krietzmann and Baroness Medusa. I just hate the sense that somebody's getting ready to hit me right across the top of the head with the other shoe instead of just dropping it on the floor!"

"After what those Manpower and Monican bastards tried to do?" Terekhov showed his teeth briefly. "Admiral, I'm right with you on that one!"

"Now why," Khumalo asked almost whimsically, "does that fail to fill me with bubbling optimism, Commodore Terekhov?"

"Excuse me, Ensign Zilwicki."

Helen paused as the extraordinarily attractive blonde touched her elbow in the hallway outside Vice Admiral Khumalo's dirt-side office.

"Yes?" she replied courteously, wondering who the other woman was and how she happened to know who Helen was.

Aside, of course, from the fact that I wear my name on the front of my tunic. D'oh.

"I'm Helga Boltitz," the blonde said in a sharp-edged accent which reminded Helen somehow of Victor Cachat's. "Minister Krietzmann's personal assistant," she added as she clearly recognized the blank expression in Helen's eyes.

"Oh. I mean, of course," Helen said. She glanced down the hall, but Commodore Terekhov and Commodore Chatterjee were still engaged in some sort of last-minute personal conversation with Captain Shoupe, and she returned her attention to Ms. Boltitz. "Is there something I can do for you, Ma'am?"

"Well, as I explained to Admiral Gold Peak's flag lieutenant not so very long ago, you can start by not calling me 'Ma'am,' " Boltitz said with an impish grin. "It makes me feel incredibly old and entirely too respectable!"

"I'll try to remember that, Ma Ms. Boltitz." Helen smiled back at her.

"Good. And, for that matter, given the fact that I do for the Minister basically what you do for the Commodore, I think it might actually be simpler if I call you Helen and you call me Helga. How's that?"

"As long as I still get to call you 'Ms. Boltitz' in public... Helga."

"I suppose I can live with that under those circumstances... Ensign."

"Well, in that case, let me rephrase. Is there something I can do for you, Helga?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," Helga said with a rather more serious air. "The Minister will, of course, be present with the Prime Minister and the Governor General for the formal dinner before tonight's full-scale briefing. He's asked me to inform you that he's going to be bringing along a couple of guestsjust for dinner, not for the briefingwho represent fairly important components of our local system-defense forces. One of them is from Montana, and he's requested what...well, what amounts to a photo op with Commodore Terekhov. My impression is that it has something to do with what Captain Terekhovand your entire crew, of courseaccomplished there. At any rate, Minister Krietzmann would greatly appreciate it if Commodore Terekhov could attend in mess dress uniform."

Helen managed to stifle a groan. It wasn't particularly easy. If there was one thing Aivars Terekhov hated, it was what he called the "fuss and feathers" side of his duties. Personally, Helen suspected it had something to do with all the years he'd spent in the Foreign Office's service, with their endless succession of formal dinners and political parties, before he returned to active naval duty.

On the other hand, she told herself rather hopefully, that same Foreign Office experience means he'll probably understand the importance of Krietzmann's request. After he gets done pitching a fit, that is.

"Is anyone else planning on attending in mess dress?" she asked after a moment. Helga quirked an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged. "He's not going to be happy about climbing into his 'monkey suit,' Helga. But if I can tell him he's not going to be alone..."

She allowed her voice to trail off hopefully, and Helga chuckled.

"Well, I doubt we could get everyone all dressed up," she said. "If it will help, though, I can go and have a word with at least a few of the othersAdmiral Khumalo, Captain Shoupe, Commander Chandler, Captain Saundersand suggest that the Minister would appreciate their attendance in mess dress, as well."

"Oh, good!" Helen made no particular effort to hide her relief. "If you can do that, I'll exaggerate a little myself and suggest that the Minister would appreciate it if Commodore Chatterjee and Captain Carlson came the same way. I mean, it wouldn't exactly be a lie. Minister Krietzmann would appreciate it, wouldn't he?"

"Oh, I'm sure he would," Helga agreed.

Chapter Thirty-Four | Storm From the Shadows | * * *