Chapter Three

“All right, People. Let’s not block the gallery, shall we?”

The soft Grayson accent sounded more amused than anything else, but there was a definite edge of command in it. Helen looked over her shoulder quickly, and her eyebrows rose as she recognized the young woman behind her. So far as she was aware, there was only one native-born Grayson woman in the Grayson Space Navy. Even if there hadn’t been, the face behind her had been splashed across just about every HD in the Star Kingdom a T-year ago, after the business in Tiberian.

Helen broke off her conversation with Ragnhild Pavletic and stepped swiftly out of the lieutenant’s way. The towering giant in the blue and gray uniform walking at the lieutenant’s shoulder considered all three midshipmen thoughtfully. His uniform might be that of a Grayson armsman, but he himself could only have been from San Martin, with the dark complexion, heavy-grav physique, and hawklike profile of so many of its inhabitants. And while there was no threat in his eyes, something about him suggested that it would be a good idea not to crowd him or his charge.

The other two middies made haste to follow Helen’s example. The lieutenant’s seniority would have been enough to produce that result under any circumstances; the quality of her personal guard dog only gave it a bit more alacrity, and her smile showed that she knew it.

“No need to be quite that accommodating,” she assured them mildly, and turned to look through the thick armorplast of the space dock gallery herself.

The sleek, double-ended spindle of an Edward Saganami -class heavy cruiser floated to her mooring tractors in the crystalline vacuum, physically connected to the gallery observation deck by personnel tubes while parties of hard-suited yard dogs and their remotes swarmed over her after impeller ring. Technically, Hexapuma was a Saganami-C , an “improved” version of the original Edward Saganami design. Once upon a time, she would have been considered an entirely different class, but BuShips’ nomenclature had become a bit more flexible under the previous Admiralty administration. By calling the design a Saganami , rather than admitting that it was an improved, completely new class, they’d actually gotten funding to continue its construction-albeit in very small numbers-as part of the Janacek Admiralty’s concentration on building up the Navy’s lighter combatants.

At 483,000 tons, Hexapuma was sixty-one percent larger than the Star Knight- class ships which had been the Navy’s newest, latest-and largest-heavy cruisers before what people were beginning to call the First Havenite War. Yet despite the increase in tonnage, and a vast increase in firepower, her ship’s company was tiny compared to a Star Knight‘s. In fact, the way the decreased manpower and life support requirements had freed up mass was as much the reason for her increased combat power as the improvements in weapons technology.

Unlike the original Saganami design, Hexapuma was uncompromisingly optimized for missile combat. Although she actually mounted only forty tubes, fewer than the intermediate Saganami-Bs , she still had half again the missile broadside of a Star Knight . And the tubes she did mount were bigger than a Saganami-B‘s, capable of handling larger and more powerful missiles, while her magazine space had been substantially increased over the preceding class. Her energy weapons were fewer in number-she mounted only eight in each broadside, plus her chase armament-but, taking a page from the pattern the Graysons had set, they were individually more powerful than most navies’ battlecruisers mounted. She could hit fewer targets at energy range, but the hits she landed would be devastating. And the Saganami-C s had been the first cruiser class to receive the new, improved two-phase bow wall generators.

In short, given her choice of engagement ranges, Hexapuma could have engaged and destroyed any prewar battlecruiser-Manticoran, as well as Peep.

“Pretty, isn’t she?” the Grayson lieutenant observed.

“Yes, Ma’am. She is… Lieutenant Hearns,” Helen agreed. The other woman-she was no more than two or three T-years older than Helen herself-glanced at her speculatively. She was probably used to being recognized, at least by other Navy types, Helen realized. But she looked as if she were wondering why Helen had made the point that she ‘d recognized her, and Helen suddenly hoped it wasn’t because Hearns thought she was trying to brownnose. She met the lieutenant’s eyes steadily for a moment, then Hearns nodded slightly and returned her attention to Hexapuma .

“Our new snotties?” she asked after a moment, without looking at them.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Well, I realize it’s considered bad luck to welcome a middy aboard before she’s officially reported,” Hearns went on, her gaze still fixed on the floating cruiser, “so I’ll continue to assume you people are just passing through and stopping off to admire the view. It would never do to violate traditions, after all.”

“No, Ma’am,” Helen agreed, still speaking for all of them.

“If I were you,” Hearns continued with a slight smile, “I’d spend a few more minutes taking time to admire her properly. You won’t see very much of her from the inside. And,” her smile broadened, “you won’t have much free time for admiring anything after you report aboard.”

She chuckled, then nodded to them and continued on her way towards the forward personnel tube, a slender, graceful destroyer trailed by a lumbering superdreadnought.

* * *

The Marine sentry watched expressionlessly as the trio of midshipmen approached the end of Hexapuma‘s main boarding tube. The corporal had to have seen them playing gawking tourist and watched their exchange with Lieutenant Hearns, but no one could have guessed that from his expression. From the hashmarks on his sleeve, he’d seen at least six Manticoran years-over ten T-years-of service. He’d probably also seen more midshipmen than he could have counted in that time, and he regarded this newest batch with professional impassivity as they walked towards him.

The snotties shook down into formation on the move without a word. Pavletic had graduated highest of them in their class, although she’d edged the other two (who’d ended in a dead heat) by less than two points. But what mattered was that Pavletic’s class standing made her senior, and at the moment, Helen was just as glad that it did.

The delicately built honey-blond midshipwoman led the way to the gallery end of the tube, and the Marine came to attention and saluted. She returned the salute crisply.

“Midshipwoman Pavletic and party to join the ship’s company, Corporal,” she said. The others had passed her the record chips of their official orders, and she handed all three of them over to the sentry.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” the Marine replied. He slotted the first chip into his memo board, keyed the display, and studied it for a second or two. Then he looked up at Ragnhild, obviously comparing her snub-nosed, freckle-dusted face to the imagery in her orders. He nodded, ejected the chip, and handed back to her. Then he plugged in the next one, checked the image, and looked up at Aikawa, who returned his regard steadily. The sentry nodded again, ejected the chip, passed it back to Ragnhild, and then checked Helen’s face against her orders’ imagery in turn. He didn’t waste a lot of time on it, but it was obvious he’d really looked at the imagery. However routine his duties might be, he clearly didn’t take anything for granted.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said to Ragnhild. “You’ve been expected. I’m afraid the Executive Officer is out of the ship just now, though, Ma’am. I believe Commander Lewis, the Chief Engineer, is the senior officer on board.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Ragnhild replied. He hadn’t had to add the information that Lewis was the Engineer, and some Marines, she knew, wouldn’t have. The function of a snotty cruise was at least in part to throw midshipmen into the deep end, and declining to provide helpful hints about who was who aboard their new ship was one of countless small ways of adding to that testing process.

“You’re welcome, Ma’am,” the Marine replied, and stood aside for the three midshipmen to enter the boarding tube’s zero-gee.

They swam the tube in single file, each taking care to leave sufficient clearance for his or her next ahead’s towed locker. Fortunately, they’d all done well in null-grav training, and there were no embarrassing gaffes as, one-by-one, they swung themselves into Hexapuma‘s midships boat bay’s one standard gravity.

A junior- grade lieutenant with the brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck on her left arm and the name “MacIntyre, Freda” on her nameplate was waiting with an expression of semi-polite impatience, and all three of the midshipmen saluted her.

“Permission to come aboard to join the ship’s company, Ma’am?” Ragnhild requested crisply.

The lieutenant returned their salutes, and Ragnhild handed over the record chips again. The BBOD cycled them through her own memo board. It took a bit longer than it had for the sentry, but not a lot. It looked to Helen as if she’d actually read Ragnhild’s orders-or skimmed them, at least-but only checked the visual imagery on the others. That seemed a little slack to Helen, but she reminded herself that she was only a snotty. By definition, no one aboard Hexapuma could be wetter behind the ears than she was, and perhaps the lieutenant had simply learned to recognize the Mickey Mouse crap and treat it accordingly.

“You seem to be running a little late, Ms. Pavletic,” she observed as she passed the chips back. Ragnhild didn’t respond, since there wasn’t really much of a response she could make, and MacIntyre smiled thinly.

“Well, you’re here now, which is the important thing, I suppose,” she said after a moment. She turned her head and beckoned to an environmental tech. “Jankovich!”

“Yes, Lieutenant.” Jankovich’s pronounced Gryphon accent was like a breath of home to Helen, straight from the Highlands of her childhood. And there was something else she recognized in it-an edge of deep-seated dislike. There was nothing especially overt about it, but Highlanders were remarkably bad at hiding their true feelings… from other Highlanders. The rest of the Star Kingdom found everyone from Gryphon rough-edged enough that they seldom picked up on the subtle signs that were unmistakable to fellow Gryphons.

“Escort these snotties to their quarters,” the lieutenant said briskly, obviously unaware of the subliminal vibrations Helen was receiving from the environmental tech.

“Aye, aye, Lieutenant,” Jankovich replied, and looked at the midshipmen. “If the Ladies and Gentlemen would follow me?” he invited, and led off towards the boat bay’s central bank of lifts.

* * *

The midshipmen managed not to crane their necks and gawk as Jankovich led them to the Midshipmen’s Berthing Compartment. That was its official name on the ship’s inboard schematic, but, like all such compartments aboard all vessels of the Royal Manticoran Navy, it rejoiced in the colloquial nickname “Snotty Row.” Hexapuma was a new ship, about to embark on her very first commission. As such, and as befitted a cruiser of her tonnage (especially one with her manpower-reducing automation), her Snotty Row was considerably larger and more comfortable than anything which might have been found aboard older, smaller, more cramped vessels.

Which was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same thing as “palatial.” Each middy would have his or her own privacy-screened sleeping compartment, but those consisted of very little more than their individual, and none too large, bunks. Each bunk boasted a mounting bracket to which the bunk’s occupant could affix his or her locker. There was a cramped “sitting room” area against the forward bulkhead, and a large commons table with a tough, nonskid surface. The table also contained a pop-up com unit and at least three computer terminals. The bulkheads were painted a surprisingly pleasant deep, pastel blue, and at least the compartment-like the entire ship-still had that “new air car” smell and feel.

There were two midshipmen already waiting for them when they arrived. All three newcomers already knew one of them-Leopold Stottmeister-with varying degrees of familiarity. He stood just under a hundred and eighty-eight centimeters in height, with auburn hair, dark eyes, and a physique built for speed and endurance, not brute strength. He and Helen had known one another for the better part of three T-years, which was longer than he’d known anyone else in the compartment, and he gave her a welcoming grin.

“Well if it isn’t Zilwicki the Terrible!” he greeted her. “Wondered where you were.”

“We poor tactical types can’t find our way to the head unassisted without one of you brilliant engineers to show us the deck plan,” she said, folding her hands piously and casting her eyes up at the deckhead.

“Yeah, sure,” he said in his pleasant tenor, and waved at the other two new arrivals while Helen turned her attention to the fifth member of Hexapuma‘s midshipman contingent.

The nameplate on his chest said “d’Arezzo, Paulo,” and he was a good six centimeters shorter than she was, with fair hair and gray eyes. But what struck her most immediately about him was how incredibly handsome he was.

All sorts of internal alarms went off as she observed that classic, perfect profile, the high, thoughtful brow, the strong chin-with cleft, no less!-and firmly chiseled lips. If Central Casting had sent out for an actor to play a youthful Preston of the Spaceways, d’Arezzo was exactly who they would have gotten back. Especially with those narrow hips and broad shoulders to go with all the rest of the package.

Helen’s experience with people who approached d’Arezzo’s level of physical beauty (she didn’t think she’d ever met anyone who actually surpassed it) had been less than happy. The kind of biosculpt it took to produce those looks was expensive, and the people who were willing to fork over the cash for it were either very spoiled, very rich, or both. Not exactly the sort of people a Gryphon Highlander was likely to find congenial.

He’d been sitting at one end of the table, reading from a book viewer, when the newcomers arrived. Another bad sign, she thought. He hadn’t even bothered to try to strike up a conversation with Leo, who was one of the easiest going, friendliest people she’d ever met. At least he’d looked up when they entered the compartment, but there was a cool reserve behind those gray eyes. He made absolutely no effort to enter the conversation until Ragnhild and Aikawa had exchanged handclasps with Leo. Then those manly lips curved in a polite, distant smile.

“D’Arezzo, Paulo d’Arezzo,” he introduced himself, and extended his hand to Helen, who happened to be closest.

“Helen Zilwicki,” she replied, shaking it with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Something flickered in the backs of his eyes, and she hid a mental grimace. Her accent was too pronounced to disguise even if she’d been inclined to try, and it seemed to have affected him very much as his too-beautiful face had affected her.

The other two newcomers introduced themselves in turn, and he greeted each of them with exactly the same, exactly correct, handshake. Then he nodded to Leo.

“You guys obviously already know each other,” he observed, manifestly unnecessarily, “so I imagine Leo is better placed than I am to bring you up to speed.”

He gave them another polite smile and withdrew back into his book.

Helen looked at Ragnhild and Aikawa, then raised her eyebrows at Leo. The auburn-haired midshipman twitched his shoulders in a very slight shrug, then waved at the bunks.

“If this is all of us, and I think it is, we’ve got three extra berths. Paulo and I have already staked out two of the bottom berths-first-come, first-served, and all that-” he gave them a toothy grin “-but you three just go right ahead and divvy up the remainder however you like. Try not to get any blood on the decksole, though.”

“Some of us,” Helen observed, “are capable of solving interpersonal disputes without violence.” She sniffed audibly and looked at the other two new arrivals. “And in the name of settling any possible disputes amicably,” she said, “I think it would be wise of you both to accept that one of the two remaining lower berths is mine.”

“Settle them ‘amicably,’ indeed!” Ragnhild snorted. “You figure you’ll get whatever you want just because you were an assistant unarmed combat instructor, and you know it.”

“Me?” Helen looked at her innocently. “Have I issued a single threat? Have I suggested even for a moment that I might be willing to tie anyone else up into a pretzel?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Aikawa replied. She looked at him, and he waved one hand. “Oh, not right this instant, perhaps, but all of us know you, by reputation, at least. We know what a brutal, intimidating person you can be, Helen Zilwicki. And we aren’t going to be intimidated any longer, are we?”

He looked appealingly at the other middies. Ragnhild looked up at the deckhead, whistling tunelessly, and Leo chuckled.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I played soccer. And I kept as far away from unarmed combat as the instructors would let me. I never sparred with Helen, but I’ve heard about her. And if you think I’m going to piss off someone who taught some of the instructors , you’re out of your mind.”

Everyone else laughed, including Helen, but there was a cold core of ugly memory under her laughter. She loved Neue-Stil Handgemenge , the judo derivative developed on New Berlin several centuries earlier, and she’d been fortunate enough during the time she and her father had spent on Old Earth to study under sensei Robert Tye, who was probably one of the galaxy’s two or three most experienced practitioners of the Neue-Stil . She was intensely grateful for the discipline, physical and mental, and the sense of inner serenity the Neue-Stil had given her, and her workouts and training katas were like a soothing, graceful dance. But she had also used that same training to kill three men with her bare hands before she was fifteen T-years old, defending not simply herself, but also her adopted sister and brother.

“Well, since we’ve settled everything so democratically and all,” Aikawa said to Ragnhild after the laughter had faded, “suppose you and I cut cards to see who gets the other lower berth?”

* * *

Helen had just finished unpacking her toiletries when the com terminal chimed softly. D’Arezzo, still reading his book, was closest to the unit and pressed the acceptance key quickly.

“Midshipmen’s Berth, d’Arezzo speaking,” he said crisply.

“Good afternoon, Mr. d’Arezzo,” a soprano voice said as an attractive, red-haired woman’s face appeared on the display. “I’m Commander Lewis. I understand all of your fellow midshipmen have now arrived. Is that correct?”

“I think so, Commander,” d’Arezzo replied, just a bit cautiously. “There are five of us present, at any rate, Ma’am.”

“Which is our complete complement,” Commander Lewis said with a nod. “I’ve just heard from Commander FitzGerald that he’s going to be delayed for another several hours. Under the circumstances, he’s asked me to formally welcome all of you aboard. Would it be convenient for you to join me on the bridge?”

“Of course, Ma’am!” d’Arezzo replied instantly, without so much as glancing at his fellow midshipmen. It was the first thing about the too-pretty midshipman of which Helen unreservedly approved. A “request” from a full commander, however politely phrased, was a direct command from God as far as any midshipwoman was concerned.

“Very well.” Lewis reached out, as if to switch off her com, then paused. “Excuse me, Mr. d’Arezzo,” she said. “I’d forgotten for a moment that you’ve all just reported aboard Hexapuma . Should I send a guide, just until you learn your way about?”

“No, thank you, Ma’am,” d’Arezzo said politely. “I’m sure we can find our way.”

“Very well, then,” Lewis repeated. “I’ll see you on the bridge in fifteen minutes.”

“Aye, aye, Ma’am.”

This time, she did cut the circuit, and d’Arezzo looked up to see all four other middies looking at him rather intently. Something like a ghost of a smile twitched at his firmly formed lips, and he shrugged.

“What?” he asked.

“I hope you know what we’re doing,” Ragnhild said dryly. “Because I know I don’t have a clue how to find the bridge from here.”

“Oh, I feel confident we could find it even from a cold start, if we had to,” he replied. “As it happens, however…”

He slid his book viewer out into the center of the table, and Ragnhild bent over it. Then she chuckled suddenly and turned the viewer so the others could see it. It was a schematic of Hexapuma , and Helen felt her own mouth twitch in an unwilling smile. She still didn’t care too much for the way d’Arezzo had buried himself in the viewer, ignoring everyone else, but at least what he’d been perusing so intently made more sense than the novel she’d assumed he was reading.

* * *

“As you know,” Commander Ginger Lewis said, sitting very upright in the chair at the head of the table in the captain’s briefing room immediately off of Hexapuma‘s bridge, “it’s traditional for midshipmen and midshipwomen on their graduation cruises to be formally welcomed aboard their ships. Usually, that duty falls to either the executive officer or to the assistant tac officer, since she’s normally the one who will serve as their officer candidate training officer for the deployment. Unfortunately, at the moment Commander FitzGerald, our XO, finds himself detained dealing with the yard dogs, and our ATO hasn’t reported aboard yet. And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, you find yourselves stuck with me.”

She smiled with a curious blend of impishness, sympathy, and cool command.

“I find myself at something of a disadvantage, in some ways,” she continued, “because I never attended the Academy. I was directly commissioned, and they put me through OCS aboard Vulcan . As a result, I never made a snotty cruise, so this particular rite of passage is outside my direct personal experience.”

Helen didn’t move a single muscle, but she found herself studying Lewis much more intently. The commander looked young for her rank, even in a society with prolong. And now that Helen was paying attention to the medal ribbons on the breast of the Engineer’s space-black tunic, she was impressed. They were headed by the Osterman Cross. The Osterman was about one notch below the Manticore Cross, and, like the MC, it could be awarded only for valor. Unlike the MC, however, it could be awarded only to enlisted personnel or noncommissioned officers. The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal kept the OC company, as did the red sleeve stripe which indicated the commander had been wounded in action and the additional stripe which indicated someone who had been mentioned in dispatches.

An impressive collection, Helen thought. And one which almost certainly helped explain Lewis’ commission. The RMN had always had a higher percentage of “mustangs”-officers who’d been promoted from the enlisted ranks-than most navies, but it appeared Ginger Lewis was something out of the ordinary even for the Star Kingdom.

“Despite that,” Lewis continued, “I do have a certain degree of secondhand knowledge of what you people are getting into. I’ve seen quite a few snotties come and go, even before I became a Queen’s officer myself, and there are only a few points I’d like to make to you.

“The first is one all of you’ve already had made to you over and over again. But that’s because it’s an important one. This cruise, here aboard Hexapuma , is your true final exam. Every one of you will officially graduate from the Academy, regardless of the outcome of your cruise, on the basis of your academic record, barring the unlikely event of your committing some court-martial offense in the course of it. But ,” she let her green eyes sweep their faces, and there was no longer any smile in them, “if you screw up badly enough aboard Hexapuma , you will not receive a commission in Her Majesty’s Navy. If you screw up less than totally, you might receive a commission, but it wouldn’t be a line commission, and you would never hold command of any Queen’s ship. Remember that, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is pass-fail, and it isn’t a game. Not a test you can retake or make up. I know all of you are intelligent, motivated, and well educated. I expect you to do well. And I strongly recommend to you that you expect-and demand-the same superior performance out of yourselves.

“The second point I want to make to you is that this is going to be hard . It’s supposed to be. In fact, it’s designed to be harder than it really has to be. Some middies break on their snotty cruises, and that’s always a tragedy. But far better that they break then, than break in action after they’ve received their commissions… or after they’ve actually received a command of their own. So there are going to be times, over the next several months, when you’re going to feel harried and driven to the point of collapse. But afterward, when you’ve survived it, you’ll know you can survive it, and, hopefully, you will have learned to have faith in your own capacity to rise to challenges.

“The third point I want to make is that although you hold temporary warrants as Queen’s officers for this deployment, and although your positions in Hexapuma‘s chain of command are very real, you have not yet even attained what a civilian might call ‘an entry-level position.’ In fact, Ladies and Gentlemen, a midshipwoman is what you might think of as the larval stage of an officer. Be aware of that. You face the difficult task of projecting authority over men and women much older than you are, with many T-years more experience than you possess. You must have confidence in yourself before you can expect those men and women to have confidence in you. And be assured that they will recognize any effort to bullshit them, just as they’ll recognize petty tyrants in the making when they encounter them. But your self-confidence can’t stop with the ability to make them obey you. It must extend to the point of being willing and able to learn from them without sacrificing your authority.

“And the fourth point is that unlike a great many other middies, you’re making your snotty cruise in time of war. It’s entirely possible Hexapuma will be called to action while you are on board. You may be wounded. You may be killed. And what is even worse, as I can tell you from personal experience, you may see those you care about-friends or those under your orders-killed or wounded. Accept that now, but don’t allow it to prey upon your thoughts or to paralyze you if the moment actually comes. And remember that aboard this ship, you are Queen’s officers. You may live, or you may die, but your actions-whatever they may be-will reflect not simply upon you, but upon every man and woman ever called upon to wear the uniform we all wear. See to it that any reflections you cast are the ones for which you want to be remembered… because you will be.”

She paused, her eyes circling the table once more, and silence stretched out in the briefing room. She let it linger for several seconds, then smiled again, suddenly.

“And now that I’ve hopefully scared you all to death,” she said in a much more cheerful tone, “I suppose I should also point out that it won’t all be doom and gloom. You may find yourself feeling utterly exhausted from time to time, and you may even feel your superiors are taking a certain unholy glee in contributing to your exhaustion. You may even be right about that. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find the odd opportunity to enjoy yourselves. And while we expect a professional demeanor and deportment, you won’t be on duty all the time. I expect you’ll even discover that those same superior officers may be surprisingly approachable if you find yourself in need of advice. Remember, People, you’re here to learn, as much as to be tested, and while it’s part of our job to identify any potential weak links, it’s also our job to help temper and polish the strong ones.

“And now,” she pressed a button on the arm of her chair, and the briefing room hatch slid silently open. A brown-haired senior chief petty officer stepped through it. He was of little more than medium height, with a slender build, but impressively muscular, and his uniform was perfectly turned out as he came to attention.

“This, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Commander Lewis informed them, “is Senior Chief Petty Officer Wanderman. Senior Chief Wanderman is going to take you on a little tour. Before you set out, however, I believe you might find it advisable to return to your quarters long enough to change out of those nice uniforms into something you can get a little grease on. The Senior Chief believes in, ah, a hands-on approach. Don’t you, Senior Chief?”

She smiled at the tough-looking, impassive petty officer, and there might have been the tiniest flicker of shared amusement in his brown eyes, though one would have had to look very close to find it.

“As the Commander says, Ma’am,” he said. Then he looked at the midshipmen. “It’s now thirteen-twenty-five hours, Sirs and Ma’ams,” he told them. “If it would be convenient for you, I thought we might begin the tour at thirteen-forty-five.”

It was really quite remarkable, Helen reflected. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized a noncommissioned officer’s polite “request” could also be a direct decree from God.

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