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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, May 7, 2004 22:59 EDT



    Abigail Hearns sat in the copilot’s seat on the flight deck of the pinnace tractored to the hull of the Nuncian Space Force light attack craft. Although NNS Wolverine -- named for a Pontifex species which bore remarkably little resemblance to the far smaller Terran predator of the same name -- dwarfed the pinnace, she was tiny compared to any true starship. In fact, at barely fifteen thousand tons, she was less than five percent the size of Hexapuma, yet she was one of the more powerful units of Nuncio’s fleet.

    And, she thought, remembering a night sky speckled with the brief, dying stars of deep-space nuclear explosions, she’s not that much smaller than the LACs we had when Lady Harrington took out Thunder of God. There’s a certain symmetry there, I suppose… if this works out.

    Wolverine sat motionless in space relative to Nuncio-B, holding her position while Pontifex -- and HMS Hexapuma -- moved steadily away from her at an orbital velocity of just over thirty-two kilometers per second. Five other LACs sat with her, all that could reach her present position before she’d stopped in space, holding position on minimal power, and let her homeworld move away from her. They were packed to the limits of their life-support capacity with two companies of Nuncio Army troops who, Commodore Karlberg had assured Captain Terekhov, were fully qualified for boarding actions and vacuum work. She hoped Karlberg was right, although if everything went well, it probably wouldn’t matter one way or the other.

    The real teeth of the boarding force lay in the platoon of Captain Kaczmarczyk’s Marines distributed -- along with Abigail Hearns, Mateo Gutierrez, Midshipman Aikawa Kagiyama, and Midshipwoman Ragnhild Pavletic -- between the two pinnaces under her command. She’d kept Ragnhild with her aboard Hotel-Papa-Two and put Aikawa aboard Hotel-Papa-Three with Lieutenant Bill Mann, Third Platoon’s CO, and now she glanced at the midshipwoman’s snub-nosed profile. The young woman looked tense, but if she was nervous, she gave remarkably little indication. She sat in the pilot’s couch, the gloved hand resting on the helmet in her lap relaxed, fingers spread, and rather than sitting there staring at the time display, she was gazing raptly out the cockpit canopy at the Nuncian vessels.

    Probably because she’s never seen anything that antique outside of a historical holo drama, Abigail thought wryly.

    She grinned, and then the smile faded as she caught sight of her ghostly reflection in the armorplast beyond Ragnhild. She looked much the same as ever… except for the hastily modified rank insignia on her skinsuit. Its sleeves still carried the single gold ring of a junior-grade lieutenant, but the single gold collar pip of the same rank had been replaced by the doubled pips of a senior-grade lieutenant. She was tempted to reach up and touch them, but she suppressed the urge firmly and returned her attention to the instrument console.

    There’s no way they’ll let me keep them, whatever. But it was a nice gesture on the Skipper’s part. And practical, too, I suppose.

    Terekhov had surprised her with the appointment to the acting rank just before she left the. In theory, he had the authority to make the promotion permanent, but only pending a BuPers review. And given that Abigail had held her current rank for less than eight months before reporting aboard Hexapuma, she rather doubted BuPers would feel inclined to confirm it. In fact, her peculiar status as a Grayson currently in Manticoran service -- and the only steadholder’s daughter serving in either of her two navies -- would probably make the Promotion Board even stickier than usual. But at least it made her technically superior to Mann in rank, which was handy, since the Captain had stressed that she, not the Marine, was in command. And it also gave her a leg up with Captain Einarsson, Wolverine’s commander and the senior NSF officer of the hastily organized little squadron.

    Captain Magnus Einarsson was obviously one of the Nuncians who had trouble remembering that prolong meant the Manticorans with whom he was interacting were uniformly older than they appeared to Nuncian eyes. When he looked at Abigail, he saw a teenager, probably somewhere on the lower side of sixteen, and not a young woman almost ten T-years older than that. Worse, Nuncio was an uncompromisingly patriarchal culture. The bitter centuries of bare subsistence and miserable medical care had created a society which was forced to stoically endure a horrendous child mortality rate. For most of their planetary history, Nuncian women had been too busy bearing children -- and dying of childbirth fever, as often as not, until the local medical establishment finally rediscovered the germ theory of disease -- to do much of anything else. Only in the last two or three generations had the system’s slowly climbing technology level made it possible to change that. And, human societies being human societies, cultural changes of that magnitude didn’t happen overnight.

    Yet another parallel with home, the Grayson lieutenant thought sardonically. Although at least this atheistic bunch doesn’t try to justify it on the basis of God’s will! But without Lady Harrington, the Protector, and Reverend Hanks to kick them in the butt, they’re going to be slower -- and even more mulish -- about accepting the change, anyway.

    Einarsson, at any rate, clearly had serious reservations (which he no doubt thought he’d concealed admirably) about accepting “recommendations” from even a senior-grade lieutenant who happened to be female. How he would have reacted if she’d turned up with her permanent rank was more than she cared to contemplate.

    She looked down at the chrono once more and nodded as it came up on the five-hour mark since her remote arrays had detected the intruders. Five hours in which Pontifex had moved over half a million kilometers, taking Hexapuma with it. If the bogeys had managed to put one over on Hexapuma and get a recon drone into space headed to intercept the planet at the time they themselves would approach the hyper limit, its course would take it far enough from Wolverine’s present position to make anything as weak as a LAC’s impeller signature invisible to them. And since Bogey One and Two themselves were still far beyond shipboard detection range of the planet --

    “Stand by for acceleration in three minutes,” Captain Einarsson’s voice said in her earbug.

    The three minutes ticked past into eternity, and then the six LACs and their pinnace parasites went instantly to five hundred gravities of acceleration.

    Well, we’ll find out whether or not the Skipper is a tactical genius in about ten and a half hours, Abigail thought.




    Naomi Kaplan settled herself at Tactical, racked her helmet on the side of her bridge chair chair, and gave her console exactly the same quick but thorough examination she always did. It took several seconds, but then she made a small sound of approval and sat back, satisfied.

    “I have the board,” she said to the midshipwoman sitting beside her, where she’d minded the store while Kaplan caught a belated breakfast. The ship was at Condition Bravo -- not yet at General Quarters, but with her crew already skinsuited -- and it was the RMN tradition to see that its people were well fed before battle. Kaplan had already seen all of her people fed… and been informed rather pointedly by Ansten FitzGerald that he wanted her fed, as well.

    “You have the board, aye, Ma’am,” Helen Zilwicki said, and Kaplan looked at her.

    “Nervous?” she asked in a voice too low for anyone else on the bridge to overhear.

    “Not really, Ma’am,” Helen replied. Then paused. “Well, not if you mean scared,” she said in a painstakingly honest voice. “I guess I probably am worried. About screwing up, more than anything else.”

    “That’s as it should be,” Kaplan told her. “Although you might want to reflect on the fact that just because we think we’re bigger and nastier than they are, we’re not necessarily right. And even if we are, we’re still not invulnerable. Somebody can kill you just as dead by hitting you in the head with a rock as with a tribarrel, if she gets close enough and she’s lucky.”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” Helen said, remembering the breaking-stick feel of human necks in the shadows of Old Chicago’s ancient sewers.

    “But you’re right to concentrate on the job,” Kaplan continued, unaware of her middy’s memories. “That’s your responsibility right now, and responsibility is the best antidote to more mundane fears, like being blown into tiny pieces, that I can think of.” She smiled at Helen’s involuntary snort of amusement. “And, of course, if you should happen to screw something up, I assure you that you’ll wish you had been blown into tiny pieces by the time I’m done with you.”

    She frowned ferociously, brows lowered, and Helen nodded.

    “Yes, Ma’am. I’ll remember,” she promised.

    “Good,” Kaplan said, and turned back to her own plot.

    Zilwicki was a good kid, she thought, although she’d had some reservations, given the midshipwoman’s connection to Catherine Montaigne and the Antislavery League. Not to mention her super-spook’s father’s working association with the technically proscribed Audubon Ballroom. Unlike altogether too many officers, in her opinion, Kaplan didn’t figure politics -- hers or anyone else’s -- had any business in the Queen’s Navy. Personally, she was a card-carrying Centrist, delighted that William Alexander had replaced that incompetent, corrupt, fucking asshole High Ridge, although she normally stayed out of the political discussions which seemed to fascinate her fellow officers. As a Centrist, she wasn’t particularly fond of Montaigne’s bare-knuckled political style, and she’d never cared for the Liberal Party, even before New Kiev sold out to High Ridge. But she had to admit that, whatever Montaigne’s faults, there was absolutely no doubt of her iron fidelity to her own principles, be they ever so extreme.

    Still, Kaplan had wondered if someone from such a politicized background would be able to put it aside, especially now that Zilwicki’s kid sister had become a crowned head of state! But if there’d ever been a single instance of Zilwicki’s political beliefs intruding into the performance of her duties, Kaplan hadn’t seen it. And the girl was a fiendishly good tactician. Not as good as Abigail, but she had the touch. So if someone had to sub for Abigail, Zilwicki was an excellent choice.

    But I don’t want anyone subbing for Abigail, Kaplan thought, and felt a flicker of surprise at her own attitude. The youthful Grayson had a knack for inspiring trust, on a personal as well as a professional level, without ever crossing the line to excessive familiarity with superiors or subordinates. That was rare, and Kaplan finally admitted to herself that she was worried. That she disliked letting Abigail out of her sight, especially out amongst those primitive, sexist Nuncians.

    Of course, she thought wryly, she’s probably had one helluva lot more experience dealing with primitive sexists than I ever have! There’s probably quite a few of them in her own family, for that matter.

    She snorted at her own reflections, and checked the time.

    Nine hours since the remote arrays had first detected the intruders, and so far, everything was ticking along right on schedule.



    “Ma’am, I think you should look at this,” Helen said after rechecking her data twice, very carefully. It had come out stubbornly the same each time, however preposterous it seemed.

    “What is it?” Lieutenant Commander Kaplan said.

    “The Alpha-Twenty array just picked Bogey One back up, Ma’am. It got a good look at her, too, and I don’t think she’s exactly what anyone’s been expecting.”

    Kaplan looked up from the missile attack profile she’d been reviewing and turned until she could see Helen’s plot. She’d had Helen monitoring the sensor arrays -- largely to give her something to do, Helen suspected. But now she looked at the data codes and the library entry sidebar CIC had thrown up on the plot at Helen’s request, and her eyebrows rose.

    “Well, Ms. Zilwicki,” she said dryly, “I see you have a true Gryphon’s gift for understatement.”

    She studied the display for another few moments, and Helen watched her as unobtrusively as possible.

    The data had come in on a laser, not FTL, to insure that the bogeys didn’t pick anything up, so it was several minutes old. But that didn’t matter for ID purposes, and after a moment, the TO shook her head and reached for her com key. She pressed it and waited two or three seconds until a voice spoke in her own earbug.

    “Captain speaking.”

    “Sir, it’s Kaplan. We just got a positive relocation on Bogey One. She’s right where we’d expected her to be, and the array got a pretty good look at her. Ms. Zilwicki -- “ she gave Helen a quick smile and a wink that made her feel astonishingly good “ -- patched the data through to CIC, and we have a tentative identification.”

    “And?” Terekhov asked when she paused.

    “Skipper, according to CIC, this is a Mars-class heavy cruiser.”

    “A Peep?”

    There was something in the Captain’s voice. A sharper edge, or a pause. A fleeting break, perhaps. Something. But Kaplan couldn’t quite put her finger on it, whatever it was. And if she’d actually heard it at all, it had disappeared by his next sentence.

    “CIC is confident of that?” he asked.

    “Reasonably, Sir. They’re still calling it tentative, but I think that’s just ingrained caution. There is one weird thing about it, though, Skipper. The sensor array crossed astern of Bogey One, right through her stealth field’s keyhole, and got a read on her emissions. That’s how we were able to ID her. But according to CIC’s analysis of the neutrino data, this ship appears to have the old Goshawk-Three fusion plants.”


    “Yes, Sir. And according to ONI, their yards upgraded to the Goshawk-Four at the construction stage with the third flight for the class, and they’ve systematically updated the surviving older members of the class -- there aren’t many of them left -- since the armistice. There were some serious design flaws in the Goshawk-Three, and the Four not only corrected those but boosted output by over fifteen percent, so they’ve made a real effort to upgrade across the fleet. According to ONI, they shouldn’t have any of the old Threes left.”

    “That’s… very interesting, Guns.” Terekhov’s voice was slow and thoughtful. He was silent for a few moments, then said, “There’s no indication that they picked up the array as it passed?”

    “None that I can see, Sir. They’re still just drifting along, exactly the way they were. That’s a very stealthy array, Skipper, and we’ve got the grav-pulse transmitters locked down on all the platforms. I think it’s extremely unlikely they’ve seen a thing yet.”

    “Agreed,” he said. “All right, Guns. Thanks for the update.”

    “We strive to keep the customer satisfied, Skipper.” Kaplan heard him chuckle as she cut the circuit, and she smiled herself, then looked back across at Helen.

    “That was good work, Ms. Zilwicki. Very good work, indeed.” Which, she didn’t add aloud, is why I made certain the Skipper knew who did it in the first place.

    “Thank you, Ma’am,” Helen said. And, she didn’t add aloud, thanks for telling the Captain I did it.



    Aivars Terekhov’s forced chuckle faded, and he returned his eyes to the book viewer, but he didn’t really see it. His mind -- and memories -- were too busy. Too… chaotic.

    A Peep. He remembered FitzGerald’s earlier comment and shook his head. No Havenite warship should be this far from home. Not the next best thing to a thousand light-years from the Haven System.

    He closed his eyes and rubbed them hard, trying to massage his brain into working, but it obstinately refused. It was trapped, caught in a hideous fragment of memory, watching the Mars-class cruisers rolling to present their broadsides. Watching that hurricane of death sweeping out towards HMS Defiant. His nostrils remembered the stench of blazing insulation and burning flesh, the screams of the wounded and dying, and a memory of maiming agony -- a memory of the soul, deeper than bone and sinew -- rolled through him. And the faces. The faces he’d known so well and condemned to the death he’d somehow cheated.

    He inhaled deeply, fighting for control, and a soft soprano voice spoke suddenly.

    “It’s over,” Sinead said. “It’s over.”

    He exhaled explosively, blue eyes opening to gaze across the cabin at the bulkhead portrait. He felt her head on his shoulder, her breath in his ear, and the demon-memory retreated, banished by her presence.

    A flush of shame burned dully over his face, and his right fist clenched on the book viewer. He hadn’t realized his armor was that thin, hadn’t dreamed it could hit him so hard, so suddenly. An icy stab of fear cut through the heat of his shame like a chill razor at the abrupt thought of what might have happened if it had slammed him that way in the middle of an engagement.

    But it didn’t, he told himself fiercely. It didn’t. And it won’t. It was the surprise, the unexpectedness. I can handle it, now that I know what’s coming.

    He stood up, laying the book viewer on the cushion of the huge, comfortable chair Sinead had picked out for him, and walked across to stand in front of her portrait, looking into her eyes.

    I won’t let that happen again, he promised her.

    I know you won’t, her green eyes said, and he nodded to her. Then he turned away, watching his right hand -- his regenerated right hand -- as he poured fresh coffee from the carafe Joanna had left on his desk. Almost to his surprise, that hand was rock steady, with no tremor to betray how badly he’d been shaken.

    He took the coffee back to his chair, moved the book viewer, and sat back down.

    His mind was beginning to work again, and he sipped the hot, comforting coffee while he replayed Naomi Kaplan’s report mentally. She was right; it was ‘weird.’ Weird enough to find any Havenite warship way the hell and gone out here, but one with Goshawk-Three fusion plants?

    His experiences at Hyacinth had left him with a fiery, burning need to know all there was to know about the ships which had slaughtered his division and his convoy. He’d haunted ONI, trading ruthlessly on his “war hero” status, until he’d learned the names of the task force commander and each of his squadron COs. He’d learned the enemy order of battle, which ships his people had destroyed, which they’d damaged. And in the process, he’d learned even more about the enemy’s hardware than he’d known before the battle. Including the reason the Goshawk-Three had been retired with such indecent haste when the follow-on generation of fusion plants had become available.

    The Goshawk-Three, like the heavy cruisers and battlecruisers in which it had originally been mounted, had been a typical product of the pre-war Peep tech base: big, powerful, and crude. Unable to match the sophistication of the Star Kingdom, the People’s Republic had relied on hardware designed for brute strength and far shorter intervals between overhauls, but the Goshawk-Three had been unusually crude, even for the Peeps. It had represented a transitional phase between their pre-war hardware and the more sophisticated designs they’d managed to produce later, courtesy of Solarian tech transfers. It had been substantially more efficient than its predecessors, producing almost twice the output for a bare ten percent increase in size. But it had reduced the redundancy of its failsafes to save mass… and ended up with what turned out to be an extremely dangerous glitch in the containment bottle. At least two ships had suffered catastrophic containment failure in parking orbit under standby power levels. No one, the Peeps included, knew how many other ships had been killed by the combination of the same design fault and combat damage, but the number had undoubtedly been far higher than that.

    So why should the Peeps send an obsolete ship, with notoriously unreliable power plants, a thousand light-years from home? Of all the people who might wish the Star Kingdom ill, the Republic of Haven had the least to gain from destabilizing the Talbott annexation. Of course, that very fact could explain why they might send an obsolete unit, whose combat power was no longer up to front-line standards and which would scarcely be missed from their order of battle. But why should they care enough to send anyone? And surely if they were going to hang some poor damned captain out at the end of a limb this long, they wouldn’t have stuck him with Goshawk-Three fusion plants, on top of everything else!

    Yet it appeared what they’d done precisely that, and try as he might, Aivars Terekhov couldn’t think of a single explanation for the decision that made any sense at all.

    But even as he tried to think of one, another thought was running somewhere deep, deep in the secret hollow of his mind.

    A Mars-class. Another Mars-class. And no light cruiser to kill it with, this time.

    Oh no, not this time.

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