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Chapter Nineteen

Abigail Hearns sat in the copilot's seat on the flight deck of the pinnace tractored to the hull of the Nuncian Space Force light attack craft. Although NNS Wolverine- named for a Pontifex species which bore remarkably little resemblance to the far smaller Terran predator of the same name-dwarfed the pinnace, she was tiny compared to any true starship. In fact, at barely fifteen thousand tons, she was less than five percent the size of Hexapuma , yet she was one of the more powerful units of Nuncio's fleet.

And , Abigail thought, remembering a night sky speckled with the brief, dying stars of deep-space nuclear explosions , she's not that much smaller than the LACs we had when Lady Harrington took out Thunder of God. There's a certain symmetry there, I suppose… if this works out .

Wolverine sat motionless in space relative to Nuncio-B, holding her position while Pontifex-and HMS Hexapuma -moved steadily away from her at an orbital velocity of just over thirty-two kilometers per second. Five other LACs sat with her, all that could reach her present position before she'd stopped in space, holding position on minimal power, and let her homeworld move away from her. They were packed to the limits of their life-support capacity with two companies of Nuncio Army troops who, Commodore Karlberg had assured Captain Terekhov, were fully qualified for boarding actions and vacuum work. She hoped Karlberg was right, although if everything went well, it probably wouldn't matter one way or the other.

The real teeth of the boarding force lay in the platoon of Captain Kaczmarczyk's Marines distributed-along with Abigail Hearns, Mateo Gutierrez, Midshipman Aikawa Kagiyama, and Midshipwoman Ragnhild Pavletic-between the two pinnaces under her command. She'd kept Ragnhild with her aboard Hawk-Papa-Two and put Aikawa aboard Hawk-Papa-Three with Lieutenant Bill Mann, Third Platoon's CO, and now she glanced at the midshipwoman's snub-nosed profile. The young woman looked tense, but if she was nervous, she gave remarkably little indication. She sat in the pilot's couch, the gloved hand resting on the helmet in her lap relaxed, fingers spread, and rather than sitting there staring at the time display, she was gazing raptly out the cockpit canopy at the Nuncian vessels.

Probably because she's never seen anything that antique outside of a historical holo drama, Abigail thought wryly.

She grinned, and then the smile faded as she caught sight of her ghostly reflection in the armorplast beyond Ragnhild. She looked much the same as ever… except for the hastily modified rank insignia on her skinsuit. Its sleeves still carried the single gold ring of a junior-grade lieutenant, but the single gold collar pip of the same rank had been replaced by the doubled pips of a senior -grade lieutenant. She was tempted to reach up and touch them, but she suppressed the urge firmly and returned her attention to the instrument console.

There's no way they'll let me keep them, whatever happens. But it was a nice gesture on the Skipper's part. And practical, too, I suppose.

Terekhov had surprised her with the appointment to the acting rank just before she left the Hexapuma . In theory, he had the authority to make the promotion permanent, but only pending a BuPers review. And given that Abigail had held her current rank for less than eight months before reporting aboard Hexapuma , she rather doubted BuPers would feel inclined to confirm it. In fact, her peculiar status as a Grayson currently in Manticoran service-and the only steadholder's daughter serving in either of her two navies-would probably make the Promotion Board even stickier than usual. But at least it made her technically superior to Mann in rank, which was handy, since the Captain had stressed that she , not the Marine, was in command. And it also gave her a leg up with Captain Einarsson, Wolverine's commander and the senior NSF officer of the hastily organized little squadron.

Captain Magnus Einarsson was obviously one of the Nuncians who had trouble remembering that prolong meant the Manticorans with whom he was interacting were uniformly older than they appeared to Nuncian eyes. When he looked at Abigail, he saw a teenager, probably somewhere on the lower side of sixteen, and not a young woman almost ten T-years older than that. Worse, Nuncio was an uncompromisingly patriarchal culture. The bitter centuries of bare subsistence and miserable medical care had created a society which was forced to stoically endure a horrendous child mortality rate. For most of their planetary history, Nuncian women had been too busy bearing children-and dying of childbirth fever, as often as not, until the local medical establishment finally rediscovered the germ theory of disease-to do much of anything else. Only in the last two or three generations had the system's slowly climbing technology level made it possible to change that. And, human societies being human societies, cultural changes of that magnitude didn't happen overnight.

Yet another parallel with home, the Grayson lieutenant thought sardonically. Although at least this atheistic bunch doesn't try to justify it on the basis of God's will! But without Lady Harrington, the Protector, and Reverend Hanks to kick them in the butt, they're going to be slower-and even more mulish-about accepting the change, anyway.

Einarsson, at any rate, clearly had serious reservations (which he no doubt thought he'd concealed admirably) about accepting "recommendations" from even a senior-grade lieutenant who happened to be female. How he would have reacted if she'd turned up with her permanent rank was more than she cared to contemplate.

She looked down at the chrono once more and nodded as it came up on the five-hour mark since her remote arrays had detected the intruders. Five hours in which Pontifex had moved over half a million kilometers, taking Hexapuma with it. If the bogeys had managed to put one over on Hexapuma and get a recon drone into space headed to intercept the planet at the time they themselves would approach the hyper limit, its course would take it far enough from Wolverine' s present position to make anything as weak as a LAC's impeller signature invisible to them. And since Bogey One and Two themselves were still far beyond shipboard detection range of the planet-

"Stand by for acceleration in three minutes," Captain Einarsson's voice said in her earbug.

The three minutes ticked past into eternity, and then the six LACs and their pinnace parasites went instantly to five hundred gravities of acceleration.

Well, we'll find out whether or not the Skipper is a tactical genius in about ten and a half hours, Abigail thought.



* * * | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *







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