“I’m flattered, Sir, of course –” Abigail began, but Commander Kaplan interrupted her.
“With your permission, Sir?” she said to Commodore Terekhov. He nodded, and Kaplan turned to Abigail.

“Before you turn it down because you think you’re too junior for the slot, or because you think it’s time you moved back over to the GSN, let me explain a few things to you. First, you arguably have more tactical experience actually using the Mark 16 in combat than anyone else in the entire Navy — in fact, than anyone else in either of your two navies — given how quickly AuxCon — and I — got taken out of action in Monica. While there may be someone else whose overall experience with the Mark 16 matches yours, I can’t think of any other officer of your rank who’s been responsible for managing an entire squadron’s — hell, an entire light task group’s — fire in a furball like that one. So, yes, you are junior for the slot. But you’ve also demonstrated your competence under fire, which a lot of tactical officers senior to you haven’t, and you bring with you a lot of very valuable experience with Tristram’s primary armament.
“And as far as moving back over to the GSN is concerned, this is the first squadron of Rolands to be formed. For a change, we’re actually ahead of Grayson in deploying a new class, and High Admiral Matthews has specifically requested that Grayson personnel be assigned to it to help develop doctrine and accrue experience with the new class and its weapons. I’m thinking you’d be an extremely logical choice for that assignment. You’re already fully experienced in how we Manties do things, and, let’s face it, you’re still the first Grayson-born female officer in the entire GSN. Getting your ticket punched as a full-fledged tactical officer, in command of your own department, is only going to bolster your authority when you finally return full-time to Grayson. And when you do, unless I very much miss my guess, High Admiral Matthews is probably planning to assign you to relatively light units, where your example will be most direct and where you’re least likely to get shoved away into some admiral’s convenient flagship pigeonhole just because he can’t — or doesn’t want to — figure out what to do with you. That being the case, adding demonstrated familiarity with the new destroyers and cruisers — and their main weapons systems — to your résumé strikes me as a very good idea.”
“Ma’am, I really appreciate the offer,” Abigail said. “And under other circumstances, I’d probably be willing to kill to get it. But if I run off with a prize like this, it’s going to be a blatant case of string-pulling!”
“Of course it is!” Kaplan replied, and snorted at her expression. “Abigail, that’s what happens with officers who demonstrate superior performance. Oh,” she waved one hand in midair, “it happens for other reasons, too, and a lot of those other reasons suck, when you come right down to it. God knows we all know that! And I suppose there probably will be at least a few people who think you got this assignment because of who your father is. I rather doubt anyone who knows Steadholder Owens is going to think he pulled the string in question, but that’s not going to keep some people from whining and bitching about the fact that you got it and they didn’t. And most of those people who are going to be doing the whining and bitching aren’t going to want to consider the possibility that you got it because you were better than they were, which is why — as far as they’re concerned — it’s obviously going to be a case of nepotism. Well, guess what? That happens, too. Or do you think there weren’t plenty of officers who thought Duchess Harrington was being pushed up faster than she deserved, even after Basilisk Station, because of favoritism from people like Admiral Courvoissier and Earl White Haven?”
“I’m not Duchess Harrington!” Abigail protested. “I don’t have anywhere near her record!”
“And she wasn’t ‘Duchess Harrington’ at the time, either,” Kaplan replied. “That’s my point. She was given the opportunity to achieve what she achieved because of the ability she’d already demonstrated. I’m offering you this slot for the same reason. There’s nothing wrong with pulling strings as long as the result is to put the right officer in the right billet at the right time, and if I didn’t think that was what was happening here, I wouldn’t have made the offer. You know that.”
She held Abigail’s eye firmly until the younger woman finally pulled away from her gaze to glance appealingly at Terekhov.
“I suppose that all sounds pretty embarrassing,” the newly promoted commodore told her with a crooked smile. “As it happens, though, I concur with Commander Kaplan’s assessment of you and your capabilities. I think she’s right about the reasons you’d be a perfect fit for this particular slot, too. And, to be honest, Abigail, I think you need to consider very carefully whether your reasons you should turn it down are anywhere near as good as her reasons why you should take it. Not just from the personal perspective of your own career, either. I think this is where the Navy — all of the Alliance’s navies — will get the maximum benefit from your experience and your talents.”
Abigail looked at him for several seconds, then looked back at Kaplan and managed a smile of her own.
“Am I on as tight a time schedule for making up my mind as Helen is, Ma’am?”
“Not quite.” Kaplan smiled back, then twitched her head in Terekhov’s direction. “I figured I might need the Skipper — I mean, the Commodore — to help twist your arm, so I asked him to play rabbi for this little discussion. Unlike Helen, you have, oh, eighteen hours before you have to decide, though.”
“Gee, thanks.” Abigail looked back and forth between her and Terekhov for another moment, then shrugged. “Actually, I don’t need that long,” she said. “I’ve just discovered that I’m neither sufficiently selfless nor concerned enough about whether or not people think I’m using ‘influence’ to turn something like this down. If you’re really serious about wanting me, Ma’am, you’ve got me! And . . . thank you.”
“Remember that sense of gratitude when I start working you till you drop.” Kaplan’s smile segued into a grin, and Abigail chuckled.
“Which brings us back to you, Helen,” Terekhov said, and Helen’s eyes popped back to him. “As I say, you have a few hours to think it over.”
She stared at him, her mind racing as it dashed off down all the branching futures radiating from this moment.
He was right. She had been anticipating a stint as a very junior assistant tactical officer squirreled away aboard a battlecruiser or a superdreadnought somewhere. An assignment which would punch her ticket for the next stage of her desired career track. And, she admitted to herself, an assignment which would be unspeakably boring after Hexapuma’s deployment to Talbott. Then there were all the people she’d met in Talbott, the sense that she had a personal stake in making certain the Quadrant’s integration into the Star Empire went smoothly, without still more bloodshed. Obviously, one lowly ensign — even if she was a commodore’s flag lieutenant — was hardly going to be a maker and a shaker at that level of politics, but she found that she still wanted to be there.
Yet if she took this assignment, it would divert her from the tactical track. She’d lose ground on the other ensigns and junior-grade lieutenants who were putting in that boring time, laboring away in the bowels of some capital ship’s tactical department.
Oh, get real! she scolded herself. You’re planning on making the Navy your career! You’ll have plenty of time to make up for any ground you lose here. And Master Tye always did tell you you needed to cultivate more patience, didn’t he? So if you’re going to find an excuse, find a better one than that!
Which brought her face-to-face with the real reason she was hesitating. A reason named Paulo d’Arezzo. He was almost certainly going to draw the same sort of assignment she’d expected — right here in Home Fleet, more likely than not — and she’d suddenly discovered that she really, really didn’t want to be clear across the Talbott Quadrant from him.
Oh, that’s even better than the last excuse, she thought sourly. Or it’s less logical, at least. You know damned well they’d assign the two of you to two different ships, don’t you? Which means you’d see almost as little of each other even if you were both assigned to Home Fleet as you’d see with him here and you off in Talbott again.
It seemed to her that it took forever for those thoughts to flow through her mind, even though she knew better. But, finally, they trickled to an end, and she drew a deep breath and looked up Terekhov again.
“It wasn’t what I had in mind, Sir — obviously. But, like Abigail says, if you’re serious about wanting me, you’ve got me.”