“Ensign Zilwicki to see the Captain,” Helen told the Marine sentry outside Captain Terekhov’s quarters five minutes later.

“You’re expected, Ma’am,” the corporal told her, and reached back one hand to press the button for the admittance chime.
“Yes, Corporal Sanders?” Helen recognized the voice of Chief Steward Joanna Agnelli, Captain Terekhov’s personal steward.
“Ms. Zilwicki is here,” Sanders said.
“Thank you.”
The hatch slid open a moment later, and Helen stepped through it . . . then paused in surprise. There were rather more people in the Captain’s day cabin than she’d anticipated.
Terekhov himself sat behind his desk, in the act of sipping from a cup of coffee. That much, at least, she’d expected. But Lieutenant Abigail Hearns sat in one of the comfortable armchairs facing his desk, and there were three other officers present, as well. One of them was Commander Kaplan, and Helen was both astonished and delighted to see how much better Kaplan looked than she had the last time Helen saw her, but the other two were a commander and a senior-grade captain Helen had never seen before in her life, and she braced quickly to attention.
“You wanted to see me, Captain?”
“At ease, Helen,” Terekhov said, then smiled and waved his coffee cup at the chair beside Lieutenant Hearns. “And have a seat,” he added.
“Thank you, Sir.”
Helen obeyed his command and sat, hoping she sounded less mystified than she felt as she parked herself in the indicated chair. She sensed a presence at her shoulder and looked up to see Agnelli standing there with another cup and saucer in one hand and the coffee pot in the other. Helen was scarcely accustomed to sitting around sipping coffee with such astronomically superior officers, but she knew better than to decline the offer . . . which presumably indicated that this was at least marginally a social occasion. She took the saucer and held the cup while Agnelli filled it, then took a sip and nodded in appreciation before she turned her attention back to Terekhov.
“I realize this is a bit irregular,” he said then, “but so is our situation. Abigail, I know you and Helen are both well acquainted with Commander Kaplan. However, you may not be aware — as I wasn’t, up until about –” he glanced at the time display on the bulkhead “– fifty-seven minutes ago — that she is also the brand-new commanding officer of HMS Tristram.”
Helen’s eyes flipped to the petite, fine-boned blonde with the improbably dark complexion. Kaplan happened to be looking at her at the moment, and the commander smiled at Helen’s obvious surprise. And her chagrin, for that matter, as she scolded herself for not noticing the white beret of a starship’s CO tucked under Kaplan’s epaulet.
“These other two gentlemen,” Terekhov continued, pulling her attention back from Kaplan, “are Captain Frederick Carlson, the commanding officer of HMS Quentin Saint-James, and Commander Tom Pope . . . my new chief of staff.”
This time both of Helen’s eyebrows rose in astonishment. Hexapuma had been back in home space for substantially less than two days. In fact, she’d only docked here at Hephaestus three hours ago. The Captain hadn’t even been off the ship yet — couldn’t even have had so much as the opportunity to give his wife a hug! Things simply didn’t change this quickly and drastically — not even in the Navy!
Not usually, at least.
“As I’m sure both of you were already aware, things have changed considerably since we first deployed to Talbott,” Terekhov said, almost as if he’d heard her thoughts, and smiled thinly. “Quite a bit of that seems to be our fault, as far as the Admiralty is concerned, so they’ve decided we ought to do something about it.
“Obviously,” he continued, “the Navy’s deployment plans in general are in what we might charitably call a state of flux. The cancellation of the summit talks with Haven and the decision to resume active operations make it even more unlikely that the Admiralty is going to be able to free up wallers to reinforce Admiral Khumalo anytime soon. In addition, it’s effectively anchored Admiral Blaine to the Lynx Terminus, where he can get home in a hurry if he has to. Which has lent added emphasis to the Admiralty’s decision to reinforce Talbott primarily with lighter units.
“In addition to the ships Vice Admiral Gold Peak already has, an additional squadron of Nikes is in the process of forming. Admiral Oversteegen is its commander (designate), and as soon as all of its units have joined up, it — and he — will be transferred from Eighth Fleet to Tenth Fleet. In addition, however, the Admiralty is already prepared to deploy a full squadron of brand new Saganami-Cs and one of the new Roland-class destroyer squadrons to Talbott. Tristram –” he nodded at Kaplan “– is one of the Rolands. And I, to my considerable surprise, am the newly designated commodore of CruRon 94. Commander FitzGerald will take over Hexapuma, Commander Pope will be acting as my chief of staff, and Captain Carlson will be my flag captain.”
Helen glanced at Lieutenant Hearns, who seemed remarkably composed, given how caught-in-the-slipstream Helen felt as the Captain’s — no, the Commodore’s — explanation rolled over her. She hoped she looked like she was at least managing to keep up with him, although she was at a loss to understand how he could be so calm about it all. He sounded as if things like this happened to him every day!
“I’m sure that by now both of you are wondering why I’ve dragged a pair of such relatively junior officers in to explain all of this to them. Well, I do have a reason. Two of them, in fact.
“With so many ships moving in so many directions in such a short period of time, the Admiralty is finding it just a bit difficult to meet everyone’s manning requirements. For example, Commander Pope didn’t know until last week that he was going to be anyone’s chief of staff, and the decision that he was going to be my chief of staff was actually made this morning. It looks as if we’re going to be deploying at least one or two people short for the rest of the staff, as well, although BuPers has given me permission to poach additional officers from Admiral Khumalo when we get back to Spindle. Commodore Chatterjee, the senior officer of Commander Kaplan’s destroyer squadron, is in rather better shape than that where his staff is concerned, but several of his units are undermanned.
“And the reason we’ve called the two of you in for this little conversation is that one of the slots I still need to fill is the flag lieutenant’s billet, and Tristram needs a good tac officer.
“Helen,” he looked directly at her, “you worked out very well as my liaison with Mr. Van Dort. I believe we have an established and efficient working relationship, and you’re already very familiar — especially for an officer of your youthfulness — with the political and military realities of the Cluster. I mean, the Quadrant. Normally, this slot would be filled by someone rather more senior than you are at the moment, and I’m well aware that what you would really prefer at this point in your career is to move directly into a tactical department slot somewhere. I don’t want you to feel pressured, and if you decide you want a tactical assignment, I will unreservedly recommend you for it. At the same time, the opportunity for this sort of experience, this early in your career, doesn’t happen along every day. And, unfortunately, given the time constraints involved, I need your decision almost immediately — within the next twelve hours, at the latest. And I, also unfortunately, am about to leave for several hours of conferences at Admiralty House. Since I needed to speak to you personally about this, I had to cram it at you before I leave the ship, as it were.
“As for you, Abigail,” he turned to the lieutenant, “Commander Kaplan has specifically requested you as Tristram’s tactical officer.”
Helen’s brain had been doing its best to imitate a chipmunk in the headlights as she tried to assimilate Captain — No, damn it! she told herself sharply — Commodore Terekhov’s offer. Now, despite herself, her head snapped around towards Abigail.
At a hundred and eighty-nine thousand tons, the Roland was bigger than a pre-MDM light cruiser . . . and she was armed with Mark 16s, just like Hexapuma. She and her sisters were the plum assignments of the Navy’s destroyer force, and they were offering a Roland’s tactical department to a brand new senior-grade lieutenant?