Chapter Twenty-Nine

HMS Hexapuma and HMS Warlock emerged from the central terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction exactly one T-year from the day Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki, Midshipman Aikawa Kagiyama, and Midshipwoman Ragnhild Pavletic had reported aboard her. Now Ensign Zilwicki tried to wrap her mind around how truly monumental the events of that year had been as she sat beside Lieutenant Senior Grade Abigail Hearns at Tactical. Abigail was undoubtedly too junior for permanent duty as a Saganami-C-class heavy cruiser’s tactical officer, but Captain Terekhov had flatly refused to allow anyone to replace her before Hexapuma’s return to Manticore.

Helen was glad. And she was glad some other people were still aboard, as well.
She glanced over her shoulder and hid a broad mental smile as her eye met Paulo’s. Ansten FitzGerald was still in obvious pain and more than a little shaky. That wasn’t especially amusing to anyone who knew and respected the Exec, but watching Aikawa Kagiyama hovering in the background while he kept an anxious eye on FitzGerald certainly was.
“Message from Invictus, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri announced from Communications.
“Yes?” Terekhov turned his command chair to face Nagchaudhuri. HMS Invictus was the flagship of Home Fleet, no doubt in orbit about the planet of Manticore.
“Message begins,” Nagchaudhuri began, and something in his tone made Helen look at him sharply.
“‘To Captain Aivars Terekhov and the men and women of HMS Hexapuma and HMS Warlock, from Admiral of the Green Sebastian D’Orville, Commanding Officer, Home Fleet. Well done.’ Message ends.”
Helen frowned, but before the message had time to sink in, the main tactical display changed abruptly. In one perfectly synchronized moment, forty-two superdreadnoughts, sixteen CLACs, twelve battlecruisers, thirty-six heavy and light cruisers, thirty-two destroyers, and over a thousand LACs, activated their impeller wedges. They appeared on the display like lightning flickering outward from a common center, a stupendous globe thousands of kilometers in diameter, and Hexapuma and Warlock were at its exact center.
Helen recognized that formation. She’d seen it before. Every man and woman in Navy uniform had seen it, once every year, on Coronation Day, when Home Fleet passed in review before the Queen . . . with its flagship in exactly the position Hexapuma and Warlock now held.
Even as she stared at the display, another icon appeared upon it. The crowned, golden icon of HMS Duke of Cromarty, the battlecruiser which had replaced the murdered HMS Queen Adrienne as the royal yacht, sitting just beyond the threshold of the Junction. A Junction, Helen sudden realized, which had been cleared of shipping — all shipping — except for Home Fleet itself.
The vast globe accelerated towards Cromarty, matching its acceleration rate exactly to Hexapuma’s, holding formation on the heavy cruiser and her single escort, and the raised wedge of every ship in that huge formation flashed off and then on again in the traditional underway salute to a fleet flagship.
“Additional message, Sir,” Nagchaudhuri said. He stopped and cleared his throat, then continued, and despite his throat clearing, his voice seemed to waver about the edges.
“Message begins. ‘Yours is the honor.'” He looked up from his display, meeting Aivars Terekhov’s eyes.
“Message ends, Sir,” he said softly.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Hey, Helen!”
Helen Zilwicki looked up from the footlocker she was packing, and Paulo d’Arezzo waved at her, then pointed at the com unit on the outsized table in the commons area of HMS Hexapuma’s Snotty Row.
“The Skipper wants to see you,” he continued.
“Wants to see me?” Helen repeated carefully. “As in, ‘I’d like to see you around sometime,’ or as in ‘Get your butt up here right now, Ms. Zilwicki’?”
“The latter,” Paulo told her with a smile. “As in ‘Mr. d’Arezzo, ask Ms. Zilwicki to come by my day cabin at her earliest convenience.'”
“Crap.” Helen sat back on her heels, trying to think of anything she might have done to earn her a last-minute ‘counseling interview’ with Captain Terekhov. She couldn’t come up with anything right off the top of her head, but that wasn’t necessarily reassuring; it was the unanticpated reamings that smarted the most, she’d discovered. Of course, it was always possible he just wanted her to stop by because he’d heard a really good joke and wanted to share it with her, but somehow she didn’t find that possibility extremely likely.
“I don’t suppose he said anything about why he wants to see me?”
“Nope,” Paulo said with what Helen privately considered to be appallingly callous cheerfulness.
“Great,” she sighed, and stood up.
She looked down at the open locker for a second or two, then shrugged philosophically. She and Paulo were due to catch the regularly scheduled ferry flight from HMS Hephaestus to Saganami Island in order to clear the final Academy bits and pieces of paperwork required to formally graduate them and confirm their acting promotions to ensign. She’d been dreading it in some ways, since it would inevitably mean new assignments for both of them, and she was still working her way around the edges of turning her friendship with the stunningly handsome — and terminally standoffish — Mr. D’Arrezo into something deeper and more enduring. Given his hatred for the Manpower, Incorporated, genetic manipulation which was responsible for those looks of his, that wasn’t the easiest job in the universe, and she didn’t really like the thought of letting him get out of arm’s reach before she was done working on him. At the same time, she was eager to see what new challenges the Navy was going to offer her. But if she didn’t get done packing in the next twenty minutes, she was going to miss the ferry shuttle, and it seemed unlikely she could get up to the Captain’s day cabin, find out what he wanted, get back down here, and finish packing in that tight a time window.
“Unlikely,” ha! Try “no way in hell,” honey, she told herself sourly.
“Looks like I’ll be catching the evening shuttle, instead,” she told Paulo resignedly.
“Well, we won’t be assigned a formal mess billet yet,” he pointed out. “I’ll save you a place in the cafeteria.”
“Gee, thanks. Your generosity and thoughtfulness overwhelm me.”
“I’m just a naturally generous and thoughtful kind of guy,” he told her with a broad grin few other people had ever seen out of him. “A natural born philanthropist, too, now that I think about it. A veritable paragon. A giant among men, a — ooph!”
He broke off as the flying boot hit him in the region of his navel. Helen was an extraordinarily strong young woman, thanks to both natural aptitude and rigorous training, and she’d actually tossed the boot quite gently . . . for her. It seemed unlikely Paulo would have agreed with that particular adverb, and he sat down rather abruptly.
“And the strong silent type, too, I see,” Helen observed sweetly, smiled at him, and headed out of the compartment.