Chapter Thirty

I wonder if this was really such a good idea, after all? Helen Zilwicki asked herself wryly as she stepped into the lift car and punched in the proper combination.

She’d been half afraid the Commodore might reconsider his choice of flag lieutenants once he discovered how unsuited to the position an officer as junior as she was truly was. She probably shouldn’t have, since she’d had ample opportunity to observe just how decisive he was, but so far he actually seemed not even to have experienced any serious qualms. Which was more than she could say.
She grimaced at the thought, but there was at least some truth to it. Once upon a time, she’d thought the pressure a midshipwoman experienced on her snotty cruise was intense, and she supposed it was. She’d certainly felt more than sufficiently exhausted at the time, at any rate! But her present assignment had an intensity all its own.
Oh, stop whining, she told herself sternly. “This, too, shall pass,” as Master Tye was always so fond of telling you. You’ll get your feet under yourself this time, too. After all, you’ve only been a flag lieutenant for four days!
Which was true enough, even if it did seem scant comfort as she went scurrying about the passages of HMS Quentin Saint-James on Commodore Terekhov’s missions.
When she thought about it, she rather suspected that the Commodore was running her harder than he actually had to. For example, there was her present mission. There was absolutely no reason she could think of why the Commodore couldn’t have simply screened Commander Horace Lynch, Quentin Saint-James’ tactical officer, for this particular message. In fact, it probably would have been more efficient. But, no; he’d decided Ensign Zilwicki should trot right on over to the TO’s office and deliver it in person. Helen didn’t mind the exercise, and the actual message was pretty interesting, but the fact remained that there had been other — and arguably much more efficient — ways for the Commodore to deliver it.
But this one keeps me busy, she thought, watching the lift car’s position indicator flicker across the display panel. And he’s been doing a lot of that ever since we found out about that assassination attempt on Torch. Despite herself, she shivered at the thought of how close her sister had come to death. And she knew Berry entirely too well. She knew exactly how she must have taken the deaths of so many other people, especially as a consequence of an effort to murder her. And she could also understand why there’d been no message from her father about it. There probably was one chasing its way off towards Spindle, where he could expect it to be relayed to Hexapuma, but she had no doubt that he — and probably that scary son-of-a-bitch Cachat, too, now that I think about it — were off . . . looking into who had truly been responsible for it.
Unlike most subjects of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, Helen was less than convinced that Haven had orchestrated the attack on Torch. Of course, she had the unfair advantage of her sister’s and her father’s letters, which was why she knew Victor Cachat, that otherwise apparently unfeeling juggernaut of a Havenite secret agent, was madly in love with one Thandi Palane, who happened to be Berry’s”unofficial big sister,” as well as the commander-in-chief of the Torch armed forces. Not only would Cachat have refused to have anything to do with an assassination attempt which might so readily have caught Palane in its path, but he had to know how she would have reacted to his complicity in any attempt to kill Berry or Princess Ruth, either. And if he hadn’t had anything to do with it, then it was for damned sure no other Havenite agent had. Not the way Cachat, the Audobon Ballroom — and my own dear Daddy, of course — were wired into the intelligence community.
Unfortunately, Helen Zilwicki was only one of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s newest ensigns. The fact that she was convinced someone else had pulled the trigger wasn’t going to cut very much ice with the powers that were. For that matter, she felt quite confident that one Anton Zilwicki had already reached as high up the intelligence food chain as he could in an effort to convince Manticore of that glaringly self-evident (in her own modest opinion) fact. If he hadn’t been able to get anyone to listen to him, then no one was going to be listening to her anytime soon.
And fair’s fair, she admitted grudgingly. We Zilwickis have had just a bit more experience than most people with the sordid world of espionage and dirty tricks in general. And too much of that experience has been with the ladies and gentlemen of Manpower. I suppose we’re as naturally predisposed to look for the Mesa connection as other people are to look for the Haven connection. But I do wish some of those people thinking “Haven done it!” would stop and think about the weapon they used. Sure, the People’s Republic carried out plenty of assassinations, but so far as anyone on our side knows, they never used a sophisticated neurotoxin like that. They thought in terms of bombs and pulser darts and missiles. But Manpower, now . . . they think in bioscience terms.
But there wasn’t very much she could do about it, especially considering the fact that Quentin Saint-James (which had already come to be known as Jimmy Boy by her crew, despite the fact that she was less than three T-months old) was headed in exactly the wrong direction. And, since that was the case, she did her best to put it out of her mind once more and, as the lift car stopped and the doors slid open, turned her attention to the other reason she suspected Commodore Terekhov was keeping her so enthusiastically on the run.
She hadn’t really thought about it when the commodore offered her the flag lieutenant’s slot, but there were several very good reasons — two of which had presented themselves strongly to her over the last few days — why that particular position was never offered to someone who wasn’t at least a lieutenant.
First, the reason a flag officer needed a personal aide to help keep him, his schedule, and his workload organized was fairly glaringly apparent. And, generally speaking, it took someone with rather more experience than any ensign could have accrued to do all that organizing. Helen had never actually realized — not in any emotional way, at least — just how much time a flag lieutenant spent making certain her flag officer’s time was spent as efficiently and productively as possible.
When she’d discovered just how thoroughly she was supposed to be tapped into all of the squadron’s departments, even her naturally hardy soul had quailed. The responsibility for learning what went on in the administration and coordination of all those various departments– plus operations and logistics — and their respective duties had come as something of a shock to Helen. And the fact that they still didn’t have an operations officer, a staff astrogator, a staff communications officer, or a staff intelligence officer didn’t help any, either. At the moment, Commander Lynch was holding down the operations department for Commodore Terekhov, and Lieutenant Commander Barnabé Johansen and Lieutenant Commander Iona Török, Quentin Saint-James’ astrogator and com officer, respectively, were filling in as his astrogator and communications officers, but the whole arrangement had an undeniably temporary, makeshift feeling do it.
Helen suspected that everyone felt as off-balance in that regard as she did herself, but at least all of them were the heads of their own departments aboard the squadron flagship. That meant they had a far better understanding of what they were supposed to be doing than she did. Despite the fact that a midshipwoman on her snotty cruise was given experience working in every ship’s department, Helen’s perspective during her time aboard Hexapuma had always been that of a relative peon. Now she had to understand not simply what each department did, but how it did it in relationship to every other department, which was another kettle of fish entirely. Besides, even Lieutenant Ramón Morozov, Terekhov’s logistics officer, was monumentally senior to her. Dealing with all of those other department heads on a “The-Commodore-says-you-have-to-do-this-right-now!” basis could be . . . daunting, to say the least.
Even worse was the fear that she might drop some critical ball simply because of her own lack of experience. She knew she could count on Commodore Terekhov to keep an eye on her, but she’d also learned — the hard way, which, she often thought, was the way she tended to learn most things — that failure taught more than success. The Commodore, unfortunately, was also aware of that minor fact, and she had no doubt at all that he was prepared to allow her to fail as part of the learning process. Which was probably all well and good from his perspective, but tended to suck vacuum from hers. Helen Zilwicki was unaccustomed to failing. She didn’t like it when it happened, she didn’t handle it well, and, she admitted to herself as she trotted down the ship’s passage towards Lynch’s office, she absolutely hated the thought of letting someone else down through her own ineptitude.
But that brought her to the other reason her present assignment was usually reserved for a full lieutenant. A flag lieutenant didn’t exist simply because a flag officer needed an aide. She existed because an assignment as a flag lieutenant was a teaching experience, too. Well, in fairness, every naval assignment was a teaching experience — or it damned well ought to be, at any rate. But Manticoran flag lieutenants were far more than just aides and what were still called go-fors, and RMN flag lieutenacies were normally reserved for officers being carefully groomed for bigger and better things. The experience of managing a flag officer’s schedule and sitting in on staff discussions and decision making processes other lieutenants never got to see was supposed to give a flag lieutenant a deeper insight into a flag officer’s responsibilities. It was supposed to teach someone whose superiors felt she had already demonstrated the potential for eventual flag rank herself how the job was supposed to be done . . . and also how it wasn’t supposed to be done.
So far, none of the senior officers she’d found herself working with seemed to resent the fact that she was a mere ensign. She didn’t know how long that was going to last, though, and she had a sinking sensation that more than one lieutenant she ran into was going to resent it. Not to mention the fact that she could absolutely guarantee that at some point in her future career some officer to whom she’d just reported was going to have looked in her personnel jacket, examined her Form 210, noted her present assignment, and concluded she was receiving preferential treatment from Commodore Terekhov.
Which, after all, is only the truth, she admitted. It wasn’t the first time that thought had crossed her mind, and she tried to banish it with the memory of Commander Kaplan’s comments to Abigail. Which, of course, only made her wonder if she was reading too much into them in her own case . . . and if she was headed for what her father had always called a terminal case of infinitely expanding ego.
She reached her destination and pressed the admittance chime.
“Yes?” a velvety tenor inquired over the speaker above the button.
“Ensign Zilwicki, Commander,” she said crisply. “Commodore Terekhov sent me.”
The door opened, and she stepped through it.
Lynch’s office was considerably larger than Helen’s modest cubbyhole. In fact, it was larger than many an executive officer might have boasted aboard an older, more manpower-intensive ship. With a crew as small as a Saganami-C carried, there was room to give personnel a bit more cubage.
The commander was seated at his workstation in his uniform blouse, and the desktop around his terminal was mostly covered in neat stacks of data chips and sheafs of hardcopy. He was a man of moderate height, with sandy hair and deep set brown eyes, and he had a magnificent singing voice. He also appeared to be quite good at his job.
“And what can I do for the Commodore this morning, Ms. Zilwicki?” he asked.
“He asked me to bring you this, Sir,” she said, placing a chip folio on the corner of his desk. “It’s some thoughts he’s been having about the new laser head modifications.”
“I see.” Lynch drew the folio closer to him, but he wasn’t looking at it. Instead, he had cocked his head and those sharp brown eyes were studying Helen. “And would it happen that he discussed some of those thoughts with you before he sent you to see me?”
“As a matter of fact, he did say a little something about them,” Helen acknowledged a bit cautiously.
“I rather thought he might have.” Helen’s eyes widened slightly, and Lynch chuckled, then pointed at a chair stacked high with what looked like tactical manuals of one sort or another. “Dump that stuff somewhere and have a seat, Ms. Zilwicki,” he invited.
Helen obeyed, and Lynch tipped back his chair and gazed at her thoughtfully. She wondered what he was thinking, but the commander would have made an excellent poker player. His expression gave away virtually nothing, and she tried not to sit too nervously upright.
“Tell me, Ms. Zilwicki — Helen. What do you think of the new laser heads?”
“I think they’re a great idea, Sir,” she said after a moment, then grimaced. “Sorry, Sir. That sounded pretty stupid, didn’t it? Of course they’re a great idea.”
Lynch’s lips might have twitched ever so slightly, but if they had, he managed to suppress the smile quite handily.
“I think we might agree to consider that a prefatory remark,” he said gravely. “But with that out of the way, what do you think of them?”
The faint twinkle Helen thought she might have seen in his eyes eased some of her tension, and she felt herself relax a bit in the chair.
“I think they’re going to have a very significant tactical impact, Sir,” she said. “The Mark 16 is a big enough advantage against other cruisers and battlecruisers as it stands, but with the new laser heads, they’re actually going to be able to hurt genuine capital ships, as well.” She shook her head. “I don’t think the Havenites are going to like that one bit.”
“No doubt,” Lynch agreed. “Although I trust,” he continued more dryly, “that what you’ve just said doesn’t mean you think it’s going to be a good idea for a heavy cruiser to take on a superdreadnought, even with the new laser heads?”
“No, Sir. Of course not,” Helen said quickly. “I guess I was just thinking about Monica, Sir. If we’d had the new laser heads there, I don’t think those battlecruisers would have gotten into their effective range of us in the first place. Or, at least, if they had, they would’ve had a lot more of the stuffing kicked out of them first.”
“Now that, Ms. Zilwicki, is a very valid observation,” Lynch said.
“I also think it’s bound to have at least some implications for all-up MDMs,” she continued. “I mean, I don’t see any reason why the same engineering can’t be applied to bigger laser heads, as well.”
This time, Lynch simply nodded.