Chapter Nineteen

Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov swung out of his pinnace’s personnel tube and into the boat bay of HMS Black Rose through the wailing twitter of the bosun’s pipes. He released the grab bar, landed neatly outside the deck line, and saluted the boat bay officer of the deck as the bay sound system announced, “Hexapuma, arriving!”

“Permission to come aboard, Ma’am?” he said to the BBOD.
“Permission granted, Sir,” the lieutenant replied, and Captain Vincenzo Terwilliger, Black Rose’s commanding officer, was waiting to clasp Terekhov’s hand in greeting.
“Welcome aboard, Aivars.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Terekhov told his old friend, then reached out to take the hand of a short, slender man in the uniform of a Manticoran vice admiral.
“Captain Terekhov,” Vice Admiral O’Malley said quietly.
Terekhov released O’Malley’s hand and looked around the battlecruiser’s boat bay. He’d always thought”Black Rose” was an unusually poetic name for a Manticoran battlecruiser, but he’d always rather liked it, too. And the reason O’Malley’s flagship wore that name was that it — like the name of Terekhov’s own heavy cruiser — was listed on the RMN’s List of Honor, one of the names to be kept permanently in commission. Perhaps that was one reason he’d decided to come aboard and take his leave of O’Malley and Terwilliger face-to-face rather than simply bidding them — and the System of Monica — farewell over the com.
His mind ran back over the three months it had taken first Khumalo’s repair ships and then the repair ships in O’Malley’s support squadron, after the vice admiral had arrived and Khumalo had been able to head back to Spindle, to repair Hexapuma and Warlock at least well enough for them to make the voyage home to Manticore under their own power. Altogether, he’d been in Monica for four T-months, and it seemed like a lifetime.
Actually, it was a lifetime for too many other people. Or the end of a lifetime, at any rate, he thought grimly, once again recalling the horrendous casualties his scratch built “squadron” had taken here. We got the job done, but, God, did it cost more than I ever dreamed it might! Even after Hyacinth.
“So you’re finally ready, Captain,” O’Malley observed, pulling his brain back to the present, and he nodded.
“Yes, Sir.”
“I imagine you’ll be glad to get home.”
“Yes, Sir,” Terekhov repeated. “Very glad. Ericsson and the other repair ships have done a remarkable job, but she really needs a full-scale shipyard.”
Which, he reflected, was nothing less than the truth. And at least, unlike the older and even more heavily damaged Warlock, Hexapuma would be getting that shipyard’s services. He didn’t like to think about how long it was going to take to return her to active service even with them, but at least she’d be returning. Warlock, on the other hand, almost certainly would not. It wasn’t official yet — it wouldn’t be until she’d been surveyed back home at one of the space stations — and she deserved far better after all she’d done and given here, but she was simply too old, too small and outmoded, to be worth the cost of repair.
“Well, Captain,” the vice admiral said, holding out his hand once more, “I’m sure the yard will put her back to rights quickly. We need her — and you — back in service. Godspeed, Captain.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Terekhov shook his hand, then stepped back and saluted. The pipes wailed once more, the side party came back to attention, and he swung back into the personnel tube.
He swam the tube quickly, nodded to the flight engineer, and settled into his seat as the umbilicals disengaged and the pinnace began backing out of the docking arms under nose thrusters. His mind ran back through his brief visit to the flagship, and he wondered again why he’d made that visit in person. He doubted that he’d ever really be able to answer that question, although his present sense of satisfaction — of closure — told him it had been the right decision.
He frowned thoughtfully, gazing out the viewport as the pinnace cleared the threat perimeter of its impeller wedge from Black Rose and accelerated rapidly towards the waiting Hexapuma. The two ships lay very close together in their parking orbits, separated by barely three times the width of the larger vessel’s wedge. That was still too far apart for their relative size to be registered by the unassisted human eye, but Terekhov felt a familiar surge of pride as Hexapuma swelled steadily as the pinnace approached her. His ship might be “only” a heavy cruiser, but she was a Saganami-C-class. At 483,000 tons, she was almost half Black Rose’s size. Admittedly, she was far smaller compared to the RMN’s more recent battlecruisers, but she was still a force to be reckoned with . . . as she’d demonstrated rather conclusively four months ago here in Monica.
Now, as he’d told O’Malley, it was time to take her home once more.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Captain on the Bridge!” the quartermaster of the watch announced as Terekhov stepped onto Hexapuma’s command deck.
“As you were,” Terekhov said as the bridge watch started to come to its collective feet, and made a note to have a word with the quartermaster in question. Or, better yet, to have the XO have that word with her, which would probably feel less threatening to her. After all, Petty Officer 1/c Cheryl Clifford was young for her rate, one of the people who’d been promoted in the wake of Hexapuma’s casualties. This was her first watch as bridge quartermaster, and it wouldn’t do to step on her too hard . . . especially when her announcement was perfectly correct, according to The Book. It was not, however, Terekhov’s preferred procedure. Like many of the younger captains in Manticoran service, he was normally less concerned about formalities on the bridge than he was about efficiency.
Ansten FitzGerald, however, continued to rise. He’d been sitting in the command chair at the center of the bridge, and Terekhov stepped across to him quickly.
It took a conscious effort on Terekhov’s part not to reach out an assisting hand. Naomi Kaplan had been evacuated to Manticore aboard the high-speed medical transport which had departed along with Agustus Khumalo the day after O’Malley’s arrival. Which, ironically, meant the tactical officer was almost certain to be returned to duty sooner than Fitzgerald. Although his wounds had been less serious, the medical technology available at Bassingford Medical Center, the huge (and, unfortunately, growing of late) hospital complex the Royal Manticoran Navy maintained just outside the City of Landing, was going to put Kaplan back on her feet much more quickly. “Less serious” than her massive skull trauma, however, didn’t turn FitzGerald’s injuries into “just a scratch,” and the medical officers had . . . strongly suggested that he accompany her. But, as Terekhov had told Ginger Lewis, Ansten was a stubborn man. He’d been determined to return to Manticore with his ship, and Terekhov hadn’t been able to bring himself to overrule his exec.
Acting Ensign Aikawa Kagiyama, currently standing his watch at Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri’s elbow as Hexapuma’s assistant communications officer, watched FitzGerald out of the corner of his eye. He had a distinct tendency to hover with what he obviously thought was unobtrusive worry where FitzGerald was concerned. It was rather touching, actually, Terekhov thought, although from the gleam in FitzGerald’s eye, the XO found it at least equally amusing, as well.
“I have the ship, Mr. FitzGerald,” Terekhov said formally, stepping past FitzGerald and seating himself in the command chair.
“You have the ship, Sir,” FitzGerald acknowledged, and straightened his spine just a bit cautiously as he clasped his hands behind him.
“Anything from Black Rose, Communications?”
“Yes, Sir,” Nagchaudhuri replied. “Vice Admiral O’Malley wishes us a quick — and uneventful — voyage.”
“Well, that’s certainly something I think we could all appreciate,” Terekhov said dryly, and glanced across at Lieutenant Commander Tobias Wright, Hexapuma’s astrogator.
“May I assume, Toby, that with your customary efficiency you have already computed our course?”
“Unfortunately, Sir, in this case I haven’t,” Wright replied with a sorrowful expression. The astrogator was the youngest of Terekhov’s senior officers, and normally the most reserved. It turned out that he’d always had a lively sense of humor behind that reserved façade, however, and it had bubbled to the surface after the Battle of Monica. Which probably said something interesting about his basic personality, Terekhov reflected.
“I’m afraid,” Wright continued, “that this time we’re all dependent on Enign Zilwicki’s astrogation.”
“Oh dear,” Terekhov said. He looked at the sturdily built young woman sitting beside Wright and shook his head with a doubtful air. “Dare I hope, Ms. Zilwicki, that this time you’ve done your sums correctly?”
“I’ve certainly tried to, Sir,” Helen replied earnestly.
“Then I suppose that will have to do.”
Several people chuckled. Astrogation wasn’t precisely Helen’s favorite occupation, and everyone knew it. By now, in fact, Terekhov reflected, there was very little about anyone in Hexapuma’s company which “everyone” didn’t know. Despite her impressive tonnage and firepower, the cruiser’s total complement was little larger than a prewar destroyer’s, and her ship’s company had been through a lot together. They were all keel-plate owners, as well, and he knew that, like him, all of them already understood perfectly well that there would never be another ship like Hexapuma. Not for them, not ever.
His own awareness of that fact seemed to flow outward, settling across the entire bridge crew. Not oppressively, but almost . . . comfortingly. His subordinates’ smiles didn’t disappear; instead, they faded gradually into more serious expressions, as if their owners were soberly reflecting upon all they and their ship had endured and accomplished. Something very like love washed through Aivars Terekhov, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.
“All right, then, Astro,” he said. “Let’s go home.”