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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Thursday, March 11, 2004 01:54 EST



    Ansten FitzGerald looked up at the sound of a cleared throat. Naomi Kaplan stood in the opened hatch of his small shipboard office.

    “Chief Ashton said you wanted to see me?” she said.

    “Yes, I did. Come on in. Take a seat.” He pointed to the chair on the far side of his desk, and she crossed the decksole and sat down, smoothing her long blond hair with one hand. “Thanks for getting here so promptly,” he continued, “but it really wasn’t quite that urgent.”

    “I was on my way stationward when Ashton caught me,” she said. “I’ve got a dinner date at Dempsey’s with Alf in about --“ she looked at her chrono “-- two hours, and I wanted to do a little shopping first.” She grinned, her dark-brown eyes glinting. “I’d still like to get the shopping in if I can, but to be perfectly honest, I’d rather have the free time to stay out after dinner, Daddy. So I thought I’d come see you ASAP.”

    “I see.” FitzGerald smiled back at her. The petite, attractive tactical officer reminded him of a hexapuma for more than just her ferocity in combat. He didn’t know whether he envied Alf Sanfilippo, or whether he sympathized with him, but he knew the other man wasn’t going to be bored that evening.

    “I think you can probably count on having the free time you want,” he told her, and then his smile faded. “But you may not have much more than that.” She cocked her head, looking a question at him, and he shrugged. “How do you think Lieutenant Hearns is working out?” he asked.

    Kaplan blinked at the sudden apparent non sequitur. Then her eyes narrowed.

    “Are you asking my opinion of her as my assistant tactical officer, or as Hexapuma’s OCTO?”

    “Both,” FitzGerald replied simply, tipping back in his chair and watching her expression.

    “Well,” Kaplan said slowly, “I haven’t really had the opportunity to see her in action, you understand.” FitzGerald nodded. For someone who had absolutely no trace of hesitation when the fecal matter hit the rotary air impeller in combat, Kaplan had a pronounced tendency to throw out sheet anchors in non-combat situations.

    “Having said that,” Kaplan continued, “I’d have to say that so far she’s worked out quite well as the ATO. I’ve worked with her in the simulator, along with our entire Tac team, and she’s very, very good. As I would have expected from her Academy grades and her evaluation from Captain Oversteegen.” She snorted suddenly. “Actually, it would be a goddamned miracle if she weren’t a superior tactician after studying under Duchess Harrington at the Island and then going to finishing school under Oversteegen!”

    “I imagine some people could manage to remain blissfully incompetent, no matter who they studied under,” FitzGerald said dryly.

    “Maybe they could, but I guarantee you they couldn’t do it without getting hammered in their evaluations by the Salamander and Oversteegen.”

    “Um.” FitzGerald considered for a moment -- it didn’t take any longer than that -- then nodded. “Point taken,” he conceded.

    “As I say,” Kaplan went on, “she’s performed very well in simulated combat. Given the degree of composure she showed dirt-side during that business on Refuge, I’m not worried about her losing her nerve or panicking when the missiles are flying for real, either. I haven’t had as much opportunity to evaluate her on the administrative side, though. Everything I’ve seen suggests that she sees keeping up with her paperwork and staying current with the department’s details as being almost as important as solving tactical problems -- which is rare enough for officers with twice her experience. But we’ve only been working together for a bit over one week. Over all,” she shrugged, “I think she could hold down the slot if she had to.”

    That, FitzGerald reflected, was probably about as unequivocal a statement as he could expect out of her at this point. It wasn’t that Kaplan was one of those compulsive ass-coverers. She was perfectly willing to stand up and take responsibility for the consequences of her decisions or recommendations. But if she had no fear of consequences for herself, she did have her own peculiar version of a moral fear of consequences for others. Of making the wrong decision through hastiness and letting down those who had the right to rely upon her judgment. He wondered what episode in her past accounted for that tendency, but he doubted he would ever know.

    “And her performance as OCTO?” he asked.

    “So far, excellent,” Kaplan replied with a promptness which surprised him. “I actually had more reservations about that aspect of her duties than I did about her performance on the bridge,” the TO said. “The main thing that worried me was the same thing you pointed out to the Captain: how young she is. I figured she might have trouble maintaining the necessary distance because of how close to her age the snotties are. But it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve been monitoring her sims with them, for example, including her post-action critiques. She not only manages to maintain her authority without ever having to use a hammer, but for someone her age, she’s also shown an amazing sensitivity to their social dynamics.”

    “Really?” FitzGerald hoped he didn’t sound as surprised as he felt. Kaplan’s comments amounted to the closest thing to an unconditional endorsement he believed he’d ever heard from her.

    “Really,” the tactical officer affirmed. “Matter of fact, she’s better at the dynamics thing than I ever was. I can appreciate someone who does it well, but it’s never really been my strong suit. I can do it; it just doesn’t come naturally to me, and I think it does come that way for Abigail. For example, I know there’s something going on between Zilwicki and d’Arezzo. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think Abigail knows, either, but there’s some source of friction that seems to be coming from Zilwicki.”

    “Is there something I should be stepping on as XO?” FitzGerald asked, and Kaplan shook her head quickly.

    “No, it’s nothing like that. She just doesn’t like him very much, for some reason. It’s probably exacerbated by the fact that he’s the closest thing to a genuine outsider in Snotty Row. The others all shared classes at the Island, but he doesn’t seem to have caught any of the same class schedules they did. On top of that, he has a pronounced tendency to keep to himself. He’s the closest thing to a true loner I’ve seen in a snotty in a long time. And, to be honest, the way we’ve tapped him to work with Guthrie isn’t helping. It’s pulling him outside the normal snotty parameters and only underscoring that ‘outsider’ status of his.”

    She shrugged.

    “It’s not that Zilwicki or any of the others are actively riding him, or getting on his case. For one thing, they’re all good kids. For another, they all take their responsibility to function as junior officers seriously. They’re not going to piss in each other’s beers over any minor crap. But Zilwicki’s as much of a natural leader as he is a loner, and her attitude affects those of the other snotties. She’s not deliberately hammering d’Arezzo, but the fact that she doesn’t much care for him is helping to keep him an outsider. So Abigail’s been deliberately assigning the two of them to work together in situations which require them to cooperate to solve problems. Sooner or later, that’s going to get them past whatever it is Zilwicki’s got stuck up that stiff-necked, Highlander nose of hers. Either that, or bring it out into the open where Abigail can deal with it once and for all.”

    FitzGerald gazed at her for a moment, smiling quizzically, then shook his head.

    “‘Stiff-necked, Highlander nose.’” He shook his head again. “Do you have any idea how scrambled a metaphor that is, Naomi?”

    “So sue me.” She made a face at him. “Doesn’t mean it’s not accurate, now does it?”

    “No, I don’t suppose it does.” He rocked his chair from side to side for several seconds, his lips pursed in thought. “So, from what you’re saying, you’re satisfied with her performance?”

    “Yes, I am,” Kaplan said, coming up to scratch with unusual firmness. Then she grinned suddenly. “By the way, did I tell you what she says the snotties are calling the ship?”

    “The snotties?” FitzGerald cocked an eyebrow at her.

    “Yep. Sounds like the official nickname’s probably been bestowed -- the Nasty Kitty.”

    “Nasty Kitty.” FitzGerald rolled the name on his tongue, then chuckled. “Well, I’ve heard worse. Served on ships with worse, for that matter. Any idea who came up with it?”

    “None. Abigail says Pavletic used it first -- and damned near died when she realized she’d let it slip. And, of course, Abigail took the opportunity to twist all of their tails just a bit. In a gentle, kindly fashion, of course.”

    “Oh, of course!” FitzGerald agreed. He considered the name again and decided it would probably stick, unless something catchier had already come out of the enlisted quarters. And as he’d said, he’d heard worse. Much worse.

    “Well, it’s a good thing she’s got her new name all issued and ready to go,” he said. “And it’s an even better thing that you’re satisfied with Abigail’s performance,” he added, and smiled sourly as it was her turn for both eyebrows to arch. “It seems Captain Terekhov was correct. We’re not going to get a more senior ATO assigned before our departure date. Especially since said departure date has just been moved up by forty-five hours.”

    Kaplan sat back in her chair, her expression suddenly thoughtful. Forty-five hours was two Manticoran planetary days.

    “May I ask if we were given any reason for expediting our departure?”

    “No, we weren’t. Of course, there could be any number of reasons. Including the fact that Hephaestus obviously needs our slip. We’ve got ships with combat damage coming back from the front. I wouldn’t blame the yard dogs a bit if they wanted to see our back just because they’ve got somebody else with a higher priority waiting in line behind us. And, of course, it could also be that Admiral Khumalo needs us in Talbott more badly than we’d thought.”

    “He’s certainly got his hands full,” Kaplan agreed. “Although, from the intelligence summaries I’ve been reading, the situation in Talbott’s a lot less tense than the situation in Silesia right now.”

    “Admiral Sarnow is ‘living in interesting times’ in Silesia, all right,” FitzGerald agreed. “On the other hand, he’s got a lot more ships than Khumalo does, too. But whatever our Lords and Masters’ logic, what matters to us is that we’re pulling out in three days, not five.”

    “Agreed.” Kaplan’s expression was pensive, and she drummed on the arms of her chair. Then she glanced at FitzGerald and opened her mouth, only to hesitate and then close it again. He gazed at her, his own face expressionless. Knowing her as well as he did, he knew just how concerned she must be to have come that close to voicing the unthinkable question.

    Do you think the Captain is past it?

    No serving officer could ask a superior that. Especially not when the superior in question was the ship’s executive officer. The captain’s alter ego. The subordinate charged with maintaining both the ship and the ship’s company as a perfectly honed weapon, in instant readiness for their commanding officer’s hand.

    Yet it was a question which had preyed upon FitzGerald’s own mind ever since he’d learned who would be replacing Captain Sarcula.

    He didn’t like that. He didn’t like it for a lot of reasons, beginning with the fact that no sane person wanted an officer commanding a Queen’s ship if there was any question about his ability to command himself. And then there was the fact that Ansten FitzGerald was an intensely loyal man by nature. It was one of the qualities which made him an outstanding executive officer. But he wanted -- needed -- for the focus of that loyalty to deserve it. To be able to do his job if FitzGerald performed his own properly. And to be worthy of the sacrifices which might be demanded of their ship and people at any time.

    There was no one in the Queen’s uniform who had more amply proven his courage and skill than Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov. Forced into action under disastrous conditions which were none of his fault, he’d fought his ship until she and her entire division were literally hammered into scrap. Until three-quarters of his crew were dead or wounded. Until he himself had been so mangled by the fire that wrecked his bridge that the Peep doctors had been forced to amputate his right arm and leg and regenerate them from scratch.

    And after that, he’d survived almost a full T-year as a POW in the Peeps’ hands until the general prisoner exchange the High Ridge Government had engineered. And he’d returned to the Star Kingdom as the single officer whose command had been overwhelmed, destroyed to the last ship, however gallant and determined its resistance, at the same time Eighth Fleet, in the full floodtide of victory, had been smashing Peep fleet after Peep fleet.

    FitzGerald had never met Terekhov before he was assigned to Hexapuma. But one of his Academy classmates had. And that classmate’s opinion was that Terekhov had changed. Well, of course he had. Anyone would have, after enduring all that. But the Terekhov his classmate recalled was a warm, often impulsive man with an active sense of humor. One who was deeply involved with his ship’s officers. One who routinely invited those same officers to dine with him, and who was fond of practical jokes.

    Which was a very different proposition from the cool, detached man Ansten FitzGerald had met. He still saw traces of that sense of humor. And Terekhov was never too busy to discuss any issue related to the ship or to her people with his executive officer. And for all his detachment, he had an uncanny awareness of what was happening aboard Hexapuma. Like the way he’d singled out d’Arezzo as a potential assistant to Bagwell.

    Yet the question remained, buzzing in the back of Fitzgerald’s brain like an irritating insect. Was the Captain past it? Was that new detachment, that cool watchfulness, simply an inevitable reaction to the ship and people he’d lost, the wounds he’d suffered, the endless therapy and the time he’d spent recuperating? Or did it cover a weakness? A chink in Terekhov’s defenses? If it came to it, did the Captain have it in him to place another ship, another crew, squarely in the path of the storm as he had done in Hyacinth?

    Ansten FitzGerald was a Queen’s officer. He was past the age where glory seemed all important, but he was a man who believed in duty. He didn’t ask for guarantees of his personal survival, but he did demand the knowledge that his commanding officer would do whatever duty demanded of them without flinching. And that if he died -- if his ship died -- they would die facing the enemy, not running away.

    I suppose I’m still a sucker for the “Saganami tradition.” And when you come right down to it, that’s not so bad a thing.

    But, of course, he couldn’t say any of that any more than Kaplan could have asked the question in the first place. And so, he simply said, “Go enjoy your dinner with Alf, Naomi. But I’d like you back aboard by zero-eight-thirty hours. I’m scheduling an all-department heads meeting for eleven-hundred hours.”

    “Yes, Sir.” She rose, her shuttered eyes proof she knew what had been going through his mind as well as he knew what had gone through hers. “I’ll be there,” she said, nodded, and walked out of his office.




    “We have preliminary clearance from Junction Central, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri announced. “We’re number nineteen for transit.”

    “Thank you, Commander,” Captain Terekhov replied calmly, never taking his blue eyes from the navigating plot deployed from his command chair. Hexapuma’s icon decelerated smoothly towards a stop on the plot, exactly on the departure line for the Lynx Terminus transit queue. As he watched, a scarlet number “19" appeared beneath her light code, and he nodded almost imperceptibly in approval.

    It had taken them a long time to get here. The trip could have been made in minutes in hyper-space, but a ship couldn’t use hyper to get from the vicinity of the star associated with a junction terminus to the terminus itself. The gravity well of the star stressed the volume of hyper-space between it and the junction in ways which made h-space navigation through it extraordinarily difficult and highly dangerous, so the trip had to be made the long, slow way through normal-space.

    Helen Zilwicki sat at Lieutenant Commander Wright’s elbow, assigned to Astrogation for this evolution. Astrogation was far from her favorite duty in the universe, but just this once she preferred her present assignment to Ragnhild’s. The blond, freckled midshipwoman was seated beside Lieutenant Commander Kaplan, which was usually the position Helen most coveted. But that was usually, when the astrogation plot and the visual display didn’t show the Central Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction.

    The Manticore System’s G0 primary was dim, scarcely visible seven light-hours behind them, and its G2 companion was still further away and dimmer. Yet the space about Hexapuma was far from empty. A sizable chunk of Home Fleet was deployed out here, ready to dash through the Junction to reinforce Third Fleet at Trevor’s Star at need, or to cover the Basilisk System against a repeat of the attack which had devastated it in the previous war. And, of course, to protect the Junction itself.

    Once that protection would have been the responsibility of the Junction forts. But the decommissioning of those fortresses had been completed under the Janacek Admiralty as one more cost-saving measure. To be fair, the process had been begun before the High Ridge Government ever assumed office, for with Trevor’s Star firmly in Manticoran hands, the danger of a sudden attack through the Junction had virtually disappeared. Perhaps even more importantly, decommissioning the manpower-intensive fortresses had freed up the enormous numbers of trained spacers to man the new construction which had taken the war so successfully to the People’s Republic.

    But now Manticore, and the diminished Manticoran Alliance, was once again upon the defensive, and threats to the home system -- and to the Junction -- need not come through the Junction. Yet there was no question of recommissioning the fortresses. Their technology was obsolete, they’d never been refitted to utilize the new generations of missiles, their EW systems were at least three generations out of date, and BuPers was scrambling as desperately for trained manpower as it ever had before. Which meant Home Fleet had to assume the responsibility, despite the fact that any capital ship deployed to cover the Junction was over nineteen hours -- almost twenty-one and a half hours, at the standard eighty percent of maximum acceleration the Navy allowed -- from Manticore orbit. No one liked hanging that big a percentage of the Fleet that far from the capital planet, but at least the home system swarmed with LACs. Any Light Attack Craft might be a pygmy compared to a proper ship of the wall, but there were literally thousands of Shrikes and Ferrets deployed to protect the Star Kingdom’s planets. They ought to be able to give any attackers pause long enough for Home Fleet to rendezvous and deal with them.

    Ought to, Helen thought. That was the operative phrase.

    Almost stranger than seeing so many ships of the wall assigned to ride herd on the Junction, was seeing so many of them squawking Andermani transponder codes. For the entire history of the Star Kingdom -- for even longer than there’d been a Star Kingdom -- Manticoran home space had been protected by Manticoran ships. But not any longer. Almost half of the superdreadnoughts on Ragnhild’s tactical plot belonged to the Star Kingdom’s Grayson and Andermani allies, and relieved though Helen was to see them, the fact that the Star Kingdom needed them made her feel… uncomfortable.

    The number code under Hexapuma’s icon had continued to tick steadily downward while Helen brooded. Now it flashed over from “11" to “10,” and Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri spoke again.

    “We have immediate readiness clearance, Sir,” he said.

    “Thank you, Commander,” Terekhov repeated, and glanced at Hexapuma’s helmswoman. “Put us in the outbound lane, Senior Master Chief.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” Senior Master Chief Jeanette Clary responded crisply. “Coming to outbound heading.”

    Her hands moved gently, confidently, and Hexapuma responded like the thoroughbred she was. She nudged gently forward, accelerating at a bare fifteen gravities as Clary aligned her precisely on the invisible line stretching into the Junction’s heart. Helen watched the heavy cruiser’s icon settle down on the plot’s green streak of light and knew Clary wasn’t doing anything she herself couldn’t have done… with another thirty or forty T-years of experience.

    “In the lane, Captain,” Clary reported four minutes later.

    “Thank you, Senior Master Chief. That was handsomely done,” Terekhov responded, and Helen looked back up at the visual display.

    The Junction was a sphere in space, a light-second in diameter. That was an enormous volume, but it seemed considerably smaller when it was threaded through with ships moving under Warshawski sail. And there were seven secondary termini now, each with its own separate but closely related inbound and outbound lanes. Even in time of war, the Junction’s use rate had continued to do nothing but climb. Fifteen years ago, the traffic controllers had handled one transit every three minutes. Now they were up to over a hundred and twenty inbound and outbound transits a T-day -- one transit every eleven and a half seconds along one of the fourteen lanes -- and an astonishing amount of that increase moved along the Manticore-Lynx lane.

    As she watched, a six million-ton freighter came through the central terminus from Lynx, rumbling down the inbound lane. One instant there was nothing -- the next, a leviathan erupted out of nowhere into here. Her Warshawski sails were perfect disks, three hundred kilometers in diameter, radiating the blue glory of transit energy like blazing mirrors. Then the energy bled quickly away into nothingness, and the freighter folded her wings. Her sails reconfigured into impeller bands, and she gathered way in n-space as she accelerated out of the nexus. She was headed away from the Manticore System, for the Lynx holding area, which meant she was only passing through -- like the vast majority of Junction shipping -- and was probably already requesting insertion into another outbound queue.

    Hexapuma moved steadily forward, and Helen watched in fascination as the azure fireflies of Warshawski sails flashed and blinked like summer lightning, pinpricks scattered across the vast sooty depths of the Junction. The nearest ones, from ships inbound from Lynx, were close enough for her to see details. The most distant ones, from ships inbound from the Gregor System, were so tiny that, even with the display’s magnification, they were only a handful of extra stars. Yet she felt the vibrant, throbbing intensity of the Junction, beating like the Star Kingdom’s very heart. Her father had explained to her when she was very young that the Junction was both the core of the Star Kingdom’s vast wealth, and the dagger against the Star Kingdom’s throat. Not so much because of the possibility of invasion through the Junction, as because of the temptation it posed to greedy neighbors. And as she looked at that unending stream of merchantships, each of them massing millions of tons, each of them paying its own share of transit duties, and probably at least a third of them carrying Manticoran transponder codes, she understood what he’d meant.

    Senior Master Chief Clary held Hexapuma’s place in the queue without additional orders, and as the number under her icon dropped to “3,” Terekhov glanced down into the com screen connecting him to Engineering. Ginger Lewis looked back at him, her green eyes calm.

    “Commander Lewis,” he said, with a tiny nod. “Standby to reconfigure to Warshawski sail on my command, if you please.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. Standing by to reconfigure to sail.” Terekhov nodded again, then gave Senior Master Chief Clary’s maneuvering plot a quick check. The number on it had dropped from “3" to “2" while he was speaking to Lewis, and his eyes switched briefly to the visual display as the Solarian freighter ahead of Hexapuma drifted further forward, hesitated for just an instant, and then blinked into nothingness. The number on Clary’s plot dropped to “1,” and the captain turned to cock an eyebrow at Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri.

    “We’re cleared to transit, Sir,” the com officer reported after a moment.

    “Very good, Commander. Extend our thanks to Junction Central,” Terekhov said, and turned his chair slightly back towards Clary.

    “Take us in, Helm.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.”

    Hexapuma accelerated very slightly, moving forward under just over twenty-five gravities’ acceleration as she slid flawlessly down the invisible rails of her outbound lane. Her light code flashed bright green as she settled into exact position, and Terekhov looked back at Lewis.

    “Rig foresail for transit.”

    “Rig foresail, aye, Sir,” she replied. “Rigging foresail -- now.”

    No observer would have noticed any visible change, but the bridge displays told the tale as Hexapuma’s impeller wedge dropped abruptly to half-strength. Her forward nodes were no longer generating their part of the wedge’s n-space stress bands. Instead, her beta nodes had shut down, and her alpha nodes had reconfigured to produce a Warshawski sail, a circular disk of focused gravitation that extended for over a hundred and fifty kilometers in every direction.

    “Stand by to rig aftersail on my mark,” Terekhov said quietly, his eyes focused on his own maneuvering plot as Hexapuma continued to creep forward under the power of her after impellers alone. A new window opened in a corner of the plot, framing numerals that flickered and changed, dancing steadily upward as the foresail moved deeper into the Junction. The Junction was like the eye of a hyper-space hurricane, an enormous gravity wave, twisting forever between widely separated normal-space locations, and the Warshawski sail caught at that unending, coiled power. It eased Hexapuma gently into its heart, through the interface where grav shear would have splintered an unprotected hull.

    The dancing numbers whirled upward, and Helen felt herself tensing internally. There was a safety margin of almost fifteen seconds on either side of the critical threshold, but her imagination insisted upon dwelling on the gruesome consequences which would ensue if that window of safety were missed.

    The numbers crossed the threshold. The foresail was now drawing sufficient power from the tortured grav wave spiraling endlessly through the Junction to provide movement, and Terekhov nodded slightly in satisfaction.

    “Rig aftersail now, Commander Lewis,” he said calmly.

    “Aye, aye, Sir. Rigging aftersail now,” she replied, and Hexapuma twitched. Her impeller wedge disappeared entirely, a second Warshawski sail sprang to life at the far end of her hull from the first, and a wave of queasiness assailed her entire crew.

    Helen was no stranger to interstellar flight, but no one ever really adjusted to the indescribable sensation of crossing the wall between n-space and h-space, and it was worse in a junction transit, because the gradient was so much steeper. But the gradient was steeper on both sides, which at least meant it was over much more quickly.

    The maneuvering display blinked again, and for an instant no one had ever been able to measure, HMS Hexapuma ceased to exist. One moment she was seven light-hours from the Star Kingdom’s capital planet; the next moment, she was four light-years from a G2 star named Lynx… and just over seven light-centuries from Manticore.

    “Transit complete,” Senior Master Chief Clary announced.

    “Thank you, Helm,” Terekhov acknowledged. “That was well executed.” The captain’s attention was back on the sail interface readout, watching the numbers plummet even more rapidly than they had risen. “Engineering, reconfigure to impeller,” he said.

    “Aye, aye, Sir. Reconfiguring to impeller now.”




    Hexapuma’s sails folded back into a standard impeller wedge as she moved forward, accelerating steadily down the Lynx inbound lane, and Helen permitted herself a mental nod of satisfaction. The maneuver had been routine, but “routine” didn’t mean “not dangerous,” and Captain Terekhov had hit the transit window dead center. If he’d been off as much as a full second, either way, she hadn’t noticed it, and she’d been sitting right at Lieutenant Commander Wright’s elbow, with the astrogator’s detailed readouts directly in front of her.

    But now that transit had been completed, she found herself beginning to envy Ragnhild after all. Astrogation’s maneuvering plot wasn’t as good as Tactical’s for displaying information on other ships, and there were a lot of other ships out there.

    This terminus of the Junction was less conveniently placed than most of the others in at least one respect. The closest star, a little over five and a half light-hours from the terminus, was a planetless M8 red dwarf, useless for colonization or for providing the support base a wormhole junction terminus required. Every bit of the necessary infrastructure had to be shipped in, either direct from Manticore or from the Lynx System -- sixteen hours of flight for a warship in the Zeta bands, and thirty-two hours for a merchantship in the Delta bands. That wasn’t very far, as interstellar voyages went, but it was far enough that it would be difficult for anyone to make a day-trip for a few hours’ visit at a planet suited to human life.

    Moreover, Lynx was a Verge system, with very limited industrial infrastructure and even less modern technology. There was a distinct limit on anything except raw materials and foodstuffs which it could provide, and its labor force would have to be entirely retrained on modern hardware before it could make any significant contribution to the development and operation of the terminus.

    Which didn’t mean there wasn’t a great deal going on, anyway. Even with the limitations of her astrogation display, as opposed to the tactical plot, Helen could see that.

    Although the Star Kingdom had opted not to reactivate the fortresses around the Junction’s central terminus, there were at least a dozen of them under construction at the Lynx Terminus. They wouldn’t be as big as the Junction forts, but they were being shipped in in prefabricated chunks, and unlike the Junction forts, they were being built with the latest in weapons, sensors, and EW systems. And they were also being built using the same manpower-reducing automation which was a feature of the most recent Manticoran and Grayson warship designs. When finished, each would mass about ten million tons, significantly larger than any superdreadnought, and with far less internal volume devoted to impeller rooms. Bristling with missile tubes and LAC service bays, they would constitute a most emphatic statement of the Star Kingdom’s ownership of the wormhole terminus.

    Purely civilian installations were also under construction at a frantic rate. The mere existence of the terminus, especially in light of all of the other termini of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, was acting on merchant shipping less like a magnet than a black hole. The Lynx Terminus cut distances -- and thus time -- between, say, New Tuscany and Sol from over eight hundred light-years to less than two hundred and fifty. That was a savings of almost twenty-seven T-weeks for a typical freighter, and the interlocking network of the Manticoran Junction and a handful of smaller ones allowed similar time savings around almost three-quarters of the Solarian League’s huge perimeter. And, Helen thought grimly, when the annexation was completed, that terminus would also move the Star Kingdom’s border six hundred light-years closer to the Solarian frontier… and places like Mesa.

    As she gazed at the display, she could see construction crews working on freight terminals, repair facilities, crew hostels, and all the dozens of other service platforms the wormhole’s through-traffic was going to require. And she could see the long line of ships, waiting patiently for their turns to transit to Manticore, just as she could see the merchant vessels which had preceded Hexapuma moving steadily away from the terminus. Most of them appeared to be headed away from the Talbott Cluster, towards busier, wealthier, more important planets deeper into the Shell Systems of the League. Some of them, however, were obviously bound for Talbott, and she wondered how much of that traffic would have been here if the terminus hadn’t effectively reduced shipping distances so drastically.

    She was still gazing at the display, listening with one ear as Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri reported their arrival to the control ship serving as temporary home for Manticoran Astro Control’s Lynx detachment, when something else occurred to her.

    The forts were under construction, the civilian infrastructure was growing almost literally as she watched, and hordes of merchies were streaming through the terminus… and the Royal Manticoran Navy’s total presence -- aside from Hexapuma, who was only visiting -- were two relatively modern destroyers and one elderly light cruiser.

    Well, she thought, I suppose Home Fleet is on call at the central terminus, but still….

    The sight of that grossly understrength picket --almost as weak as the one the first Janacek Admiralty had assigned to Basilisk Station before the First Battle of Basilisk -- made her feel even queasier than the wormhole transit had. She knew the Navy couldn’t be strong everywhere, but she also knew the Talbott Station task force was far more numerous than anything she saw here. Surely, Rear Admiral Khumalo could have spared something more to watch over the billions of dollars worth of fortresses and service platforms under construction. Not to mention the trillions of dollars worth of merchantships and cargo passing through the terminus itself every single day.

    But I’m only a snotty, she reminded herself. If Earl White Haven wants my opinion on his deployment policies, he knows where to send the e-mail.

    Her mouth quirked wryly at the thought.

    “Ms. Zilwicki.”

    Helen twitched in her chair, all temptation towards humor vanishing as Captain Terekhov’s calm, cool voice addressed her.

    “Yes, Sir!” At least she managed to avoid sounding as if she’d been daydreaming, despite the fact that she had been, but she felt her cheekbones heat as she heard the trace of breathless scared rabbit in her own voice. Fortunately, the naturally dark complexion she’d inherited from her father wasn’t one that showed blushes easily.

    “Plot us a least-time course to the Spindle System, if you please, Ms. Zilwicki,” Terekhov requested courteously, and Helen swallowed hard. She’d calculated endless courses to all sorts of destinations… under classroom conditions.

    “Aye, aye, Sir!” she said quickly, giving the only possible answer, and began punching data requests into her console.

    Lieutenant Commander Wright sat back, elbows propped on his chair’s arm rests, with a mildly interested expression. Part of her resented his presence, but most of her was deeply relieved he was there. He might not intervene to save her from herself if he saw her making a mistake during her calculations. But at least she could count on him to stop her at the end if she’d plotted a course to put them inside a star somewhere on the far side of the League.

    The computers began obediently spewing out information, and she plotted the endpoints of the necessary course, feeling grateful that Hexapuma was already outside the local star’s hyper limit. At least she didn’t have to crank that into her calculations!

    Next she punched in a search order, directing the computer to overlay her rough course with the strongest h-space gravity waves and to isolate the wave patterns which would carry them towards Spindle. She also remembered to allow for velocity loss on downward hyper translations to follow a given grav wave. She’d forgotten to do that once in an Academy astrogation problem and wound up adding over sixty hours to the total voyage time she was calculating.

    She felt a small trickle of satisfaction as she realized the same thing would have happened here, if she’d simply asked the computers to plot a course along the most powerful gravity waves, because one strong section of them never rose above the Gamma bands, which would have required at least three downward translations. That would not only have cost them over sixty percent of their base velocity at each downward translation, but Hexapuma’s maximum apparent velocity would have been far lower in the lower bands, as well.

    She punched in waypoints along the blinking green line of her rough course as the computer refined the best options for gravity waves and the necessary impeller drive transitions between them. The blinking line stopped blinking, burning a steady green, as the waypoints marched along it. Helen knew it was taking her longer than it would have taken Lieutenant Commander. Still, she decided, she didn’t have much to feel embarrassed about when the numbers finally came together.

    “I have the course, Captain,” she announced, looking up from her console at last.

    “Very good, Ms. Zilwicki.” Terekhov smiled slightly, and waved one hand in Senior Master Chief Clary’s direction.

    “Helm,” Helen said, “come to one-one-niner by zero-four-six at five hundred and eighty gravities, translation gradient of eight-point-six-two to h-band Zeta-one-seven. I’m uploading the waypoints now.”

    “Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Clary replied. “Coming to one-one-niner by zero-four-six, acceleration five-eight-zero gravities, translation gradient eight-point-six-two, leveling at Zeta-one-seven.”

    Helen listened carefully as the senior master chief repeated her instructions. Under any conceivable normal circumstances, there was no way a petty officer of Clary’s seniority was going to get them wrong. Even if she did, she almost certainly would have caught any error when she checked her actual helm settings against the course data Helen had loaded to her computers. But even improbable accidents happened, which was why the Navy insisted orders be repeated back verbally. And just as it was Clary’s duty to repeat her orders, it was Helen’s duty to be certain they’d been repeated correctly.

    Hexapuma turned to starboard, climbing relative to the plane of the ecliptic of the local star, and moved ahead with ever gathering velocity as she accelerated at her maximum normal power settings.

    “Thank you, Ms. Zilwicki,” Terekhov said gravely, then he looked at Commander FitzGerald. “I believe we can secure from transit stations, XO. Set the normal watch schedule, if you please.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir.” The executive officer turned to Lieutenant Commander Wright. “Commander Wright, you have the watch.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir. I have the watch,” Wright agreed. “Third Watch personnel, man your stations,” he continued. “All other watches, dismiss.”

    There was an orderly stir as the other three watches’ bridge crew, including Helen and Ragnhild, but not Aikawa, turned their stations over to the Third Watch. As they did, Wright seated himself in the command chair at the center of the bridge which Captain Terekhov had just surrendered to him. He pressed the stud on the arm rest which activated the ship-wide intercom.

    “Now hear this,” he said. “This is the Officer of the Watch. Third Watch personnel, man your stations; all other watches, dismiss.”

    He settled himself more comfortably in the chair and leaned back as HMS Hexapuma bored steadily onward into the Talbott Cluster.

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