Chapter Fifty-Two

It was lonely in Snotty Row.

Aikawa was away in Copenhagen . Leo was still on Kornati. And Ragnhild was… gone. Only Helen and Paulo remained.

Helen sat in the observation dome, her heels on the edge of the seat cushion, her knees tucked up under her chin and her arms wrapped around her shins, and gazed out at the growing number of vessels in Montana orbit while she thought. It was very peaceful under the dome, and she let her eyes rest on Hexapuma‘s nearest orbital neighbor.

The heavy cruiser Warlock had been at Dresden when Ericsson arrived with Captain Terekhov’s orders for any Navy ships in the system to join him in Montana. Captain Anders was junior to Captain Terekhov. As such, he’d had no choice but to obey, whatever he might think about his orders, and he and the destroyer Javelin had arrived in Montana two days before. Helen didn’t know exactly what the Skipper had told Anders and Lieutenant Commander Jeffers, Javelin‘s CO, he had in mind. He might not have told them anything yet, she thought. But everybody aboard the Nasty Kitty had a pretty good idea by now, and she suspected the inter-ship grapevine must have carried at least a few hints to Anders and Jeffers.

Then, this morning, more ships had come in, this time from Talbott. Volcano had returned with Commander Eleanor Hope’s Vigilant , another Star Knight -class cruiser, and the light cruiser Gallant , a sister of the Skipper’s old Defiant , in tow, accompanied by two more destroyers- Rondeau and Aria , both old Chanson -class ships.

It was turning into a fairly respectable little squadron, she reflected. True, most of its ships verged on obsolescent, by Manticoran standards, but those standards were a bit high by anyone else’s measure.

Of course, it was also, in many ways, a stolen squadron. All those ships were part of Rear Admiral Khumalo’s “Southern Patrol,” one of the mainstays of his anti-piracy strategy. Technically, the Skipper was within his rights to call them in, and communications delays over interstellar distances required that officers exercise their initiative. The more senior an officer became, the more initiative she was expected to demonstrate, but countermanding a superior officer’s orders, and especially those of a station commander, wasn’t something to undertake lightly. An officer who did so had damned well better be able to demonstrate that her actions had been justified.

Still, if she got herself killed in the process, she’d at least neatly avoid the all but inevitable court of inquiry her actions would provoke.

The thought made Helen smile with sour amusement. She wished she could share it with Paulo, but he was on duty. Which was one reason she’d come here now, when she could sit with her thoughts and the dim quiet without having to share them with him.

Her smile faded as she reflected on the fact that she was actually glad to be able to avoid him, at least for the moment. Not happy, just glad. Or, perhaps, the word she really needed was relieved . Although that, too, carried connotations that weren’t quite right.

In some ways, she and Paulo rattled around like two lonely peas in Snotty Row. The midshipmen’s quarters had been designed to house up to eight people. Just the two of them found themselves with almost too much space, although that was a concept they would have found difficult to visualize when they first joined Hexapuma‘s company.

In other ways, though, the space was entirely too confined. With no one to hide behind, there was no room for Paulo to be his old, standoffish self, even if he’d wanted to. Which posed complications of its own, especially in light of the Articles of War’s ban on physical intimacy with other military personnel in the same chain of command.

The fact was that, now that she understood where Paulo’s good looks had really come from, and even more since she’d gotten over her own silly prejudices and begun to know the person behind those features, she found him… attractive. Very attractive, if she was going to be honest, which she very much wished she could avoid. The comfort he’d given her after Ragnhild’s death, she’d come to realize, was completely typical of him, despite his aversion to letting people get too close. Of course, Ragnhild had become his friend, as well as Helen’s, but not in the same way. He’d known her for less than six T-months; Helen had known her for four T-years. He and Ragnhild had gotten just close enough for him to realize how much her death had hurt Helen, and for it to hurt him enough that he, too, had needed to draw comfort from another.

That sharing, when she’d wept on his shoulder and his own tears had kissed her hair, had changed the relationship between them. What had been growing into a friendship as close, in its own way, as her friendship with Aikawa and Ragnhild, had become something else. Something far more intense, and more than a little frightening.

Helen had been what she’d thought of as “romantically involved” before. Several times, in fact. Sometimes it had been fun; other times, sheer frustration had made her want to kill the idiot. Like most Manticoran adolescents, she’d been reasonably well instructed in the basics of human sexuality, and she’d found those lessons valuable in those romantic involvements. That, too, had been fun. On occasion, lots of fun, she admitted cheerfully.

But none of those relationships had begun as whatever was growing between her and Paulo had. She hadn’t started out disliking the other person intensely, for one thing. And the other person had never carried Paulo’s history and background around with him. Never possessed near godlike handsomeness… and despised its source. There was an ingrained, intense suspicion in Paulo. A defensive reaction against the attractiveness designed into his genes to make him a more sellable commercial commodity. He didn’t want people to desire him for his appearance, and that jagged, wounded part of him was always only too ready to assume anyone who did desire him was, in fact, drawn to his physical attractiveness.

Had Helen decided to pursue him aggressively, it would have been like trying to embrace an Old Earth porcupine. And, in the end, almost certainly as futile as it would have been painful. So it was possibly a good thing she wasn’t certain she wanted to “pursue” him at all. Yet she suspected that he, like her, felt the changes in whatever was growing between them. It was already too intense for Helen to call it mere friendship, but hadn’t-quite-toppled over into anything else yet.

Yet.

She grimaced, looking out through the armorplast, and felt a reverberation of loss as she saw a pinnace separate from Vigilant and head for Hexapuma . It reminded her of so much, and along with the loss, she felt a stab of guilt. Ragnhild had been gone for barely three weeks, and it seemed grotesque that the death of one of Helen’s two closest friends could have had such a powerful effect on drawing her and Paulo closer. It felt almost like a betrayal of her friend’s memory. And yet there was a sense of rightness to it, as well. As if it were an affirmation that life went on.

She sighed, then shook her head as her chrono chimed softly.

It was time to report for duty herself, and she shoved herself up out of the comfortable chair as Vigilant‘s pinnace began its final approach to Hexapuma .

No doubt Commander Hope was coming aboard to find out what all of this was about, Helen thought, and smiled again, crookedly, wishing she could be a fly on the Skipper’s cabin bulkhead.

* * *

“Well, I thought that went fairly well,” Terekhov said as the cabin hatch closed behind Eleanor Hope and Lieutenant Commander Osborne Diamond, her executive officer.

“You did, did you… Sir?” Ginger Lewis responded, and he turned to look at her. She sat in one of his comfortable armchairs, just to one side of Sinead’s portrait. Terekhov was certain the juxtapositioning was a coincidence, but he was struck again by how much Commander Lewis looked like a younger, slightly taller version of his wife.

Which isn’t precisely what you need to be thinking about your acting XO, Aivars, he told himself wryly.

“Yes, I did,” he replied. He poured himself a fresh cup of coffee from the carafe Joanna Agnelli had provided, leaned back, and crossed his legs. “Why? Didn’t you?” he asked innocently.

“Skipper, far be it from me to suggest you’re talking through your beret, but Hope doesn’t care much for this little brainstorm of yours. And she still doesn’t know the half of it, whatever she may suspect.”

“Nonsense. Just a little perfectly understandable… -apprehension at having her previous orders overruled on such short notice, I’m sure.”

“Sure it was,” Ginger said, shaking her head with a smile. Then her expression sobered. “Skipper, I don’t much care for Hope. She looks to me like an ass-coverer who abhors the very thought of sticking her neck out. When she figures out what you’re really planning, she’s going to have three kinds of hissy fit.”

“What I’m really planning?” Terekhov arched his eyebrows, and she snorted.

“I’m an engineer, not a tactical officer, Sir. I check the gizmos and widgets, oil the parts, wind the ship up, and make her go wherever you lordly tactical types decide. And I do my best to patch up the holes you same tactical types eventually get blown in my perfectly good ship. Still, I’m not exactly brain dead, and I’ve had six months now to watch you in action. Do you really think I haven’t figured it out?”

Terekhov considered her thoughtfully. He’d found himself missing Ansten FitzGerald more and more badly since sending him off to Monica seventeen days ago. Indeed, he’d been more than a little surprised by just how badly. The executive officer wasn’t brilliant, but he was far, far from stupid, and he was also competent and experienced and possessed the courage of his convictions. He’d become exactly the sort of sounding board a good XO was supposed to be, even when Terekhov never said a word to him. Simply visualizing FitzGerald’s probable response was often all he needed to do.

Ginger Lewis was different. Although, as she’d just pointed out, she was an engineering specialist, not a tac officer, she had a first-class brain-a better one than FitzGerald’s, as a matter of fact. Possibly even a better one than Terekhov himself had, he often thought. And the fact that she’d come up as a mustang, without ever attending Saganami Island, gave her a different perspective. It was as if thinking outside the box came naturally for her, and she possessed a degree of irreverence which was both rare in a regular officer and refreshing. In many ways, he realized, she was almost more valuable to him in the present circumstances than FitzGerald himself might have been.

“I imagine you’ve deduced most of it, Ginger,” he conceded after a moment. “And you’re probably right that Hope isn’t going to be delighted when she finds out. Assuming, of course, that worse comes to worst and we do end up provoking a major interstellar incident.”

“You remember, back in 281, when Duchess Harrington blew that Peep Q-ship out of space in Basilisk, Skipper? You know, the one that got her convicted as a mass murderer in absentia by the Peeps?” Ginger asked, and he nodded.

“Well, that was ‘a major interstellar incident,'” she said. “What you’ve got in mind is going to be something else entirely. Something I’m not sure they’ve actually invented a word for yet. Although, now that I think about it, ‘act of war’ might come pretty close.”

He considered disagreeing with her, but he didn’t.

She was right, after all.

* * *

“I knew Yvernau was an idiot,” Dame Estelle Matsuko said over the appetizer. “I never realized he was directly descended from a lemming, though.”

“‘Lemming,’ Milady?” Gregor O’Shaughnessy repeated, and she wrinkled her nose and reached for her wineglass. She sipped, then set the glass back down and brushed her lips with a napkin.

“It’s a species they have on Medusa,” she told him. “Actually, the name goes back to an Old Earth species. The Medusan version was named because it has some similar habits. Specifically, at irregular intervals, enormous masses of them get together and either charge off the edge of a high cliff or swim straight out to sea until they drown.”

“Why in the world do they do that?”

“Usually because they breed like Old Earth rabbits, only more so. Their numbers grow to a level which threatens to destroy their environment, and that seems to be their genetically programmed mechanism for reducing the population pressure.”

“It seems a bit excessive,” the analyst observed.

“Mother Nature can afford to be excessive,” Medusa pointed out. “There are always plenty more where they came from, after all.”

“True,” O’Shaughnessy conceded, then cocked his head. “Actually, that’s not a bad metaphor for Yvernau, now that I think about it. He and his fellow oligarchs really are threatening their own environment, and like those… lemmings of yours, there are, unfortunately, plenty more where he came from. Although, to be fair, I was also rather taken with Alquezar’s metaphor during the debate.”

“‘Dinosaurs with stomachs full of frozen buttercups,'” Medusa quoted with a certain relish. “Something wrong with it, though. I don’t think it was dinosaurs with buttercup-stuffed tummies. I think it was… elephants? Hippopotami? Something warm-blooded, anyway. But it was a nice turn of phrase, I’ll grant you that.”

“And Yvernau didn’t like it very much, either,” O’Shaughnessy said with poorly suppressed glee.

“No. No, he didn’t,” the baroness agreed judiciously.

She and her guest fell silent as uniformed Navy stewards, assigned to her support staff along with Colonel Gray’s Marines, removed the appetizers and replaced them with the soup course. It was a delicious local concoction of chicken, rice and a local grain which closely resembled pearl barley, and the Provisional Governor sampled it appreciatively.

“So how do you think the New Tuscan government’s going to react to his little fiasco, Milady?” O’Shaughnessy asked. He was officially her analyst and intelligence chief, but he’d long since discovered that in political matters, she was often better at his job than he was.

“Hard to say,” she replied thoughtfully. “What they ought to do is get behind him and help him over the cliff, of course. I just wish I were confident they’ll see it that way.”

“About a third of his own delegation would cheerfully shoot him on the Convention floor,” O’Shaughnessy observed, and she nodded.

“They certainly would. And they could make a nice profit selling tickets. Did you see Lababibi’s expression when she realized his motion was going to fail?”

“Yes, Milady.” O’Shaughnessy smirked. Undeniably, he smirked. “I’ll almost guarantee you her instructions were to support him. She must’ve been delighted that Spindle’s position as host meant she had to vote last.”

Medusa nodded. She’d been watching Yvernau’s expression almost as closely as Lababibi’s when the Spindle System President rose to cast her vote. The New Tuscan had obviously counted hers as being in the bag, and his furious consternation when she voted against his motion had been almost as obvious as her own delight.

“It’s been obvious for weeks-months-Lababibi despises Yvernau,” she said. “He’s probably the only person in the entire Convention who didn’t know it. And you’re right about her instructions. But the motion had already failed before the vote got to her, so she’s not even going to have to pay the price of disobeying orders. She’s the woman who put them firmly on the winners’ side instead of death-locking them to the losers, the way she’d been told do to. And she got to kick Yvernau publicly in a particularly sensitive spot in the process. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!”

She and her analyst smiled nastily at one another. Then she shook her head.

“It should be evident to anyone with a measurable IQ that Yvernau’s policy’s been proven a disastrous failure, Gregor. Sheer, cynical pragmatism, as well as principle, ought to turn his supporters back home against him. But the members of the New Tuscan political elite-I use the term loosely, you understand-have more than a little lemming in their own genotypes. Why else would they have set up the rules for their delegation the way they did?”

“It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“So did the first Peep attack on Grayson,” the baroness said dryly, and the analyst chuckled. But his humor was fleeting, and he frowned.

“You may be right, Milady,” he said slowly. “Everything I’ve managed to put together about Yvernau suggests that even now, he’s not going to relinquish control of the delegation without direct, nondiscretionary orders from home. And as long as he wants to stay obstinate, there’s nothing the rest of the New Tuscan delegates here on Flax can do about it. I’d like to think the system government’s bright enough to send instructions from home to override him, though.”

“You’d like to think that, but do you?”

The analyst sighed after considering it for several seconds. “Not really.”

“I’m not overly optimistic myself. I thought Tonkovic was bad, but at least the Kornatians called her home and hammered her hard enough for her to resign.” The dispatch boat from Split had brought the news the day before. “But I’m afraid the New Tuscan oligarchs are even more stubborn and a lot more monolithic than the Kornatians.”

“Yes, Milady, they are. My best prediction at the moment is that there’s about an eighty percent chance they’ll leave Yvernau here, still heading their delegation. I figure there’s a seventy percent chance they won’t send him any new instructions, either. They’ll let him continue standing in front of the air lorry until it runs him down, hoping for the best. After that, though, I don’t know what they’ll do. That’s why I was asking you. It looks to me as if it’s too close to call at this point. There’s almost an even chance they’ll buy into this notion of his that they can do just fine without us, thank you.”

“That’s my reading of the situation, too,” Medusa said. “And he’s probably right that we’ll find ourselves obliged to prevent anyone else from moving in on them. But for the rest of it-” She shook her head. “Either New Tuscany’s going to turn into some sort of police state, or else the current management’s going to get bounced out on its collective posterior when the New Tuscan electorate sees what’s happening to the rest of the Cluster without their participation.”

“Which could be even messier than Nordbrandt’s efforts on Kornati,” O’Shaughnessy said grimly.

“That’s what happens to closed, exploitative ruling classes which insist on trying to tie the cork down more tightly instead of reforming themselves or at least venting the pressure in some controlled fashion,” Medusa agreed sadly. Then she shook herself.

“There’s not much we can do if they’re going to insist on some sort of mutual suicide pact,” she said. “On the other hand, it looks like the rest of the Cluster’s falling into line behind Alquezar and Krietzmann quite nicely.”

“Yes, it does.” O’Shaughnessy made no particular effort to hide his satisfaction, and the Provisional Governor returned his broad smile with interest. “Given what Terekhov and Van Dort did to Nordbrandt and the FAK, and now the approval of the Alquezar draft Constitution virtually in its entirety, I’d have to say the annexation logjam seems to be breaking up. The one thing I was most worried about-once the Government finally decided to go ahead and impose a hard and fast deadline-was the effect all of the death and destruction on Kornati was going to have on domestic political opinion back home. Tonkovic and Yvernau’s delaying tactics never had a hope of standing up to the threat of exclusion, but I had my doubts about whether or not Parliament would approve the annexation, even with the Queen getting behind and pushing hard, if it thought we were going to be looking at a constant, running sore in Split.”

“I think you might’ve been underestimating both Her Majesty’s grip on the present Parliament and the electorate’s intestinal fortitude,” Medusa said. “On the other hand, you might not have been. Either way, I’m glad there’s not going to be any more spectacular bloodshed and explosions coming out of the Cluster.”

* * *

“Very well, Amal,” Terekhov said. “General signal to the Squadron. All units prepare to depart Montana orbit and proceed in company to Point Midway.”

“Aye, aye, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri acknowledged, and Terekhov glanced around his bridge.

Hexapuma was understrength, what with the Marines she’d left on Kornati, the casualties she’d suffered when Hawk-Papa-One was destroyed, and the detachment of Ansten FitzGerald’s party to Copenhagen . The same number of casualties and detached personnel would have made a relatively minor hole in the company of an older ship, like Warlock or Vigilant . Aboard Hexapuma , it represented a significant reduction in manpower. He’d been tempted to “borrow” a few people from the other ships, but not very strongly. He knew the temper of his weapon. He preferred to see it slightly understrength rather than risk introducing flaws into it at this critical moment.

He turned his attention to the main plot. The green icons of twelve ships gleamed upon it now. In addition to Hexapuma‘s own, there were two other heavy cruisers- Warlock and Vigilant -and three light cruisers- Gallant and Audacious , both sisters of his dead Defiant , and Aegis , one of the new Avalon -class ships, almost as modern as Hexapuma . That was the core of “his” squadron’s combat power, but they were supported by four destroyers- Javelin and Janissary , both relatively modern, and the ancient (though neither of them was really any older than Warlock ) Rondeau and Aria . The ten warships were accompanied by the dispatch boat he’d impressed from its assignment to the Montanan government and by HMS Volcano .

He let his attention linger on Volcano‘s light code for a moment, then laid his forearms precisely along the armrests of his command chair and rotated it to face Lieutenant Commander Wright.

“All right, Tobias,” he said, his voice calm, unshadowed by any trace of uncertainty. “Take us out of here.”

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