Tales from the Academy

Book Four

Fourth Form

Third Interlude

Rear Admiral Sylvia Thayer closed down her terminal and reached for the cane propped against her desk. She took it in her hands and looked at it fondly. It was a beautifully made thing. A golden manticore was the head and there was a gold tip on the other end. The rich, dark wood was intricately carved with the images of starships, planets and other naval motifs. Each of the eight starships had a name engraved next to it. She brushed her fingers over the image labeled "Redoubtable". Halfway down the staff was a gold plate. On it were engraved the words:

To Rear Admiral Sylvia Thayer,

In Admiration and Fond Remembrance,

From the Ninth Battlecruiser Squadron.

"Thayer's Slayers"

The cane had been delivered unexpectedly about five months ago. The timing had been almost as touching as the gift itself. It arrived two days before Thayer was due to have her regeneration cast removed-clearly someone had been keeping close tabs on her progress. She had no doubt the metal pieces were real gold-some of the Ninth's officers were very well to do-but that is not why she considered the cane her most prized possession. The Ninth had gone on to fresh glory under William "Hutch" Hutchinson, but they still called themselves "Thayer's Slayers".

There were days when she wished she had a less bloodthirsty nickname-and there were nights when she wished she had not earned that nickname so well. Still, there were certainly worse things to be called by your people and Thayer felt very proud that she had left her mark on the Ninth.

Thayer turned her chair away from the desk and took the cane in her hand. With a slight groan she rose to her feet, leaning heavily on the cane. She had two legs again after three years, but the newly regenerated one still needed a lot of therapy. The doctors said it "needed to be fully integrated into the main physiology of her body" and "the neural and musculature systems had not completely adapted". Which in plain English meant it hurt like hell to walk on it.

Also, it itched.

Thayer slowly walked around her desk and out the door of her office. In the corridor she was met by Commander Semancik. He always seems to know when I'm coming. Does Gwen have a secret signal she sends him?

"Good morning, Admiral," he said brightly. "How's the leg today, ma'am?"

"No worse than usual, Chris. I suppose it improves a bit each day."

"You'll be trying out for the soccer team before you know it, ma'am."

"I doubt that." snorted Thayer. "I always hated sports. Have all our budding myrmidons arrived?"

"Yes, ma'am, they are all in the conference room, waiting," replied Semancik.

"Good," said Thayer. They reached the conference room and entered. Twenty-four cadets were inside and they all sprang to their feet as she walked in. Thayer hobbled to the head of the table and stood there, looking over the young men and women she was about to send off to the Fleet. These were the company and battalion officers of the Second Battalion of the Regiment of Fourth Form Cadets. In a few days they would begin their 'prentice cruise. Due to the large size of the class, they were being rotated to the Fleet by battalion. First Battalion was already out there and would return shortly. Now it was Second Battalion's turn. Thayer's eyes drifted around the table and paused for a moment on the battalion commander, but Cadet-Major Helen Zilwicki gave no sign that she was aware of Thayer's special interest in her.

Still the Battle Steel Cadet, thought Thayer. So damn perfect she would have been the regimental commander if she had any noble blood in her. Well, not quite perfect, perhaps. If it had not been for that fight last form, she'd still be a lieutenant colonel.

It irked Thayer that others has been given more prestigious ranks, despite inferior performance, due to their parents' titles, but she knew that was the way the Navy worked and there was no use complaining about it. Thayer slowly sat down and put aside her cane.

"Please be seated," she said, and the cadets all sat stiffly on the edges of their chairs.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," she began, "You are still eight months away from graduation, but your real final exams begin in a few days. You still have some important classwork to do this form, but you all know that what you will face on your 'prentice cruise is the real test of what you have learned here. You have all been on previous cruises, first on the training ships and then on active duty ships in the rear areas. This time you will be assigned to ships going into combat zones. I know all of you are eager to see combat." Thayer paused and looked at the cadets. There were a number of grins and nods. Some cadets looked serious. Helen had a strange, hungry gleam in her eye that made Thayer shudder. If any of them knew what combat was really like, they wouldn't be so eager! Thayer unconsciously reached down and scratched her right leg which was suddenly itching again.

"Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that any of you will actually see combat," said Thayer with an ironic smile. "Due to the large number of you, we have to assign you to whatever ships are available. All will be in combat zones, but their actual missions will depend on their specific circumstances. Those of you who do not see action should not be disappointed. The vast majority of an officer's career is spent getting ready to fight or cleaning up the mess afterward-very little is actually spent fighting. Your time spent on the cruise will be extremely important in familiarizing you with the realities of actual service.

"I called you here today to make certain that you understand your status and your duties. Each of you will have between twenty and twenty-five cadets assigned to you. You will be in charge of those cadets and they will be required to take orders from you. However your command authority is subordinate to the chain of command on the vessels on which you will be serving. On board ship your groups will be split up and assigned to the various ship's departments. The cadets will be under the direct command of the ship's officers. Your responsibility will to be to supervise your cadets in their off duty hours. The cadets are expected to continue with their studies while off duty and stay out of trouble. It will be your job to see that they do so. You will also be expected to write an evaluation report of each of the cadets that will be appended to the reports of the officers they serve under.

"Now as to the matter of rank." continued Thayer. "While you are on Saganami Island, you have been designated as 'cadets'. As a cadet you have no authority whatsoever in the Navy." Some of the cadets stirred uneasily in their chairs. "The lowest ranking spacer has no duty to obey an order given by a cadet. When you leave Saganami Island your official designation changes to 'midshipman'. This is to place you in the chain of command. Even so, on your earlier cruises you were basically observers and guests and had no real place in the chain of command. For this cruise you will be expected to act as officers and give as well as take orders.

"The people under your command will, of course be midshipmen. Those of you here, however, will be given the brevet rank of ensign." There were a number of happy grins around the table at this news. "Since the rank of midshipman is only used by cadets from the Academy, there will be no other midshipmen already aboard your ships. There may, however, be some ensigns on those ships-some of them may be from last year's class. Ladies and Gentlemen, those ensigns are your superior officers! Don't get any ideas about swaggering around because you have twenty midshipmen under your command. Those other ensigns have spent time on active duty. They are real officers. You are merely potential officers. Don't forget it."

The cadets looked properly humble and chastised, but Thayer wondered if they really understood what she was saying. The officers they would be serving with had been out there, on the line, for years. They would have no toleration for some wet-behind-the-ears Kaydet who got too big for their britches.

"Now, for a bit of good news-or at least you will probably think it is good. My recommendation to the Admiralty concerning uniforms has been approved. In years past when cadets went on their 'prentice cruises they wore their gray cadet uniforms and simply added the appropriate rank collar pips. I have argued, successfully it seems, that the uniform was a constant reminder of the cadets' unusual status that actually undermined their authority aboard ship." Some faces around the table suddenly lit up as they realized what she was about to say. "For the duration of your cruise, therefore, you will wear the regulation RMN uniform."

They didn't quite cheer, but the look of excitement on their faces betrayed what they were feeling. Even Helen was smiling. It was a shame the Admiralty had not acted soon enough to allow the first battalion this same privilege, but that was the bureaucracy for you.

"I will remind you that these uniforms are only being loaned to you. When you return to the Academy, they will be put away until graduation. You will find the uniforms waiting for you when you return to your quarters-you are not permitted to wear them outside your rooms until your actual day of departure.

"In approximately thirty minutes you will find that your official orders have been transferred to your terminals and com-pads," continued Thayer. "You will find a list of the cadets assigned to you, the name of the ship you will be serving aboard and instructions for when and how you will depart. Obviously, we do not have all twenty-four ships waiting for you in orbit. In some cases you may have a bit of traveling to do to reach your ship."

"Do you have any questions?"

One cadet tentatively raised his hand.

"Yes, Mr. Redmond?" said Thayer.

"Admiral, have you received any news on how First Battalion is making out?"

Thayer shifted in her chair and scratched her leg again. "Just as you will be going out to your ships in separate groups and on separate schedules, First Battalion will be returning in the same manner. Approximately one third of the battalion has returned already. They have been granted short leaves-as you will be- until the remainder of the battalion returns. The initial reports I have received indicate that your comrades have acquitted themselves very well." Thayer's face became grim. "Unfortunately, I have also received notice that three of them have been killed in action."

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Thayer looked at those young, young faces and wondered how many of them would make it back here from their own cruise.

"I know you all have friends in the first battalion. I wish I could tell you the names of the dead, but no official announcement will be made until the entire battalion has returned and all families have been notified. As always, your comrades will receive their commissions posthumously and their names will be inscribed on the Roll of Honor in Memorial Hall."

"Are there any more questions?" asked Thayer. There were none.

Thayer slowly and painfully got to her feet. The cadets all stood up and came to attention. Thayer brought her hand up in salute and the cadets did likewise.

"Very well, Ladies and Gentlemen! Carry out your orders. Good luck and good hunting!"

Thayer brought down her hand and watched as the cadets filed out of the room.

"Cadet Zilwicki, will you remain a moment?" said Thayer.

Helen Zilwicki stopped with a mild look of surprise on her face. "Of course, Admiral." she said.

A moment later only Thayer, Zilwicki and Semancik were in the room. Commander Semancik turned to Thayer. "Will you be needing me, Admiral?" he asked.

"Not for the moment, Commander, thank you." answered Thayer and she watched her adjutant leave the room. She turned back to Helen and stared at her for a few moments. She looks just like her mother did when we were cadets together, thought Thayer. Except her mother smiled a lot more. Helen just stood there with no emotion on her face. Thayer had not been able to see much of Helen in the time they had been here, but each time she did, it was just like this. Helen treated her like the Commandant rather than her godmother. Thayer was frustrated by her inability to break through Helen's outer shell.

"You wanted to see me, Admiral?" asked Helen after the silence became lengthy.

"Yes," said Thayer rousing herself from her woolgathering. "Walk with me back to my office." Thayer took her cane and slowly walked back the way she had come. Helen matched her pace.

"How is your leg, Admiral?" asked Zilwicki.

"It's getting better, Helen, thank you," answered Thayer. "A few more months, the doctors say, and I should be nearly back to normal."

"I imagine you are anxious to get another combat command," said Helen.

Thayer looked closely at Helen. "It is something I have thought about. Of course, I'm committed here for at least another year and a half. And to tell you the truth, I've grown rather attached to this place. Turning you young folk into officers is more challenging-and rewarding-than I ever imagined when I accepted this post."

"I can see that it is a very important job, Admiral," said Helen.

Meaning it is a job that doesn't directly kill Peeps, thought Thayer, grimly. You still haven't learned that there is more to being an officer than killing the enemy, have you Helen? God! How do I undo what I've done to this girl?

They reached Thayer's office; Helen had been here on only three other occasions. Thayer remembered the first time, when Helen had seen the portrait of her mother. It almost seemed like something had finally gotten through her shell-but not quite. Now as she came in, she scarcely spared it a glance. Thayer invited Helen to sit in the comfortable chairs by the fireplace. As she expected, Helen declined any refreshments.

Thayer had thought of a number of things to say beforehand, but now they all seemed clumsy and pointless.

How can I get through to her? Maybe if I had children of my own I would have some clue of how to start. Probably not, her armor is so thick it may be impenetrable.

"Have you gotten any letters from your father lately?" asked Thayer at last. It was the only thing she could think of to say.

"Why yes, ma'am," answered Helen, obviously surprised by the question. "He writes me often-usually once a week."

"Do you write back to him?"

Helen blushed slightly. "Not as often as I should, Admiral."

"No need to explain, Helen," smiled Thayer. "I was terrible about writing home when I was a cadet. Too many other things to do. I've had a few letters from your father myself. He worries about you, Helen."

Helen shrugged. "Parents do that, I understand."

"Yes they do," said Thayer with a smile. "Sometimes they even have good reason to, Helen. He also mentioned that your Aunt Jennifer just made the Captain's List."

That seemed to get Helen's attention. "Yes, he mentioned that in his last letter to me. My Aunt, that is Captain Loehlin, had also sent me a letter mentioning it. She and I have been exchanging letters for a while."

This was news to Thayer and she felt a brief surge of irrational jealousy. Helen had used to write to her. Thayer knew Captain Jennifer Loehlin only casually. She had never seemed very close to Helen's mother and Thayer had only met her a few times. The older Helen's death did not seem to fill her sister with the same sort of passion that it had Thayer-and the young Helen.

"Indeed? Well I'm sure you are getting some good tips on what it is like being on active service from her-like you used to get from me."

"Yes, ma'am, I am. Captain Loehlin is an excellent officer."

"I'm sure she is," said Thayer. "Some day you are going to be an excellent officer too, Helen. In his letters, your father mentions how proud he is of you. He is very proud of you-and so am I."

Helen blushed more deeply and said, "Thank you Admiral, that's very kind."

"It's not kindness, Helen, it's the simple truth. Your record here has been outstanding. All of the instructors have been extremely impressed." Thayer paused and tried to think how to say what she wanted to say. "If they've had any reservations about you at all, Helen, it has been that you seem overly eager to get out there and fight-not that that is too unusual for someone your age."

"That is our job, isn't it, Admiral?" asked Helen, "to fight the Peeps?"

"That is certainly one of our jobs, Helen, and right now probably our most important job, it is true. But being an officer is much more than just knowing how to fight. I know you have learned all this in your classes, but no matter how well prepared we think we are, we find that our duty is far more complicated than we expect. I speak from experience, Helen." The young woman nodded but said nothing.

"We have a lot of responsibilities. Not just the obvious ones, to Queen and Country, the Fleet, our superiors and subordinates. We also have morale obligations to our society and ourselves. Sometimes the most direct action isn't the best one, and we have to consider how what we do fits into the larger scheme of things." Thayer felt like she was just babbling, just throwing random phrases at Helen, hoping one might get past her defenses, is any of this making any sense to her?

Zilwicki sat there for a moment and a frown grew on her face.

"You're afraid I'll do something stupid out there, because of her," said Helen indicating the portrait with a jerk of her head. "Is that it, Admiral?"

Thayer was taken back. She had been trying to be circumspect, but she had not expected Helen to be so blunt. She fumbled for something to say.

"Not stupid, Helen, not stupid. But I have been concerned-for a long time-about your...motivation for becoming an officer."

"You mean because I hate the Peeps?" said Helen and anger tinged her voice. "Don't I have every reason to hate them, Admiral? Isn't that a good reason to want to fight them?" She paused for a moment and stared straight into Thayer's eyes. "I can remember when you used to hate them, too."

Thayer sat back in her chair in surprise. Zilwicki seemed to realize that she had gone too far, her eyes dropped and she said: "I'm sorry, Admiral, that was impertinent of me."

Thayer sat and stared at her goddaughter for a few moments, her mind in turmoil. What do I say to her? She does have good reasons to hate them, but how do I tell her that the hate can destroy her, too-like it nearly did me?

"No it wasn't, Helen, I probably deserved that," said Thayer at last. "You are right, you do have reasons to hate them and I did, too. But hate can't be the only thing driving you, Helen. Someday the war will be over and you will need something more to sustain you than your hate."

Helen was silent for a while and looked down at the carpet. Finally she looked up and said: "You may be right, Admiral. But the war will probably go on for a long time, and right now it's all I have."

Thayer was silent in turn. She looked at this young woman that meant so much to her. She wanted to take her into her arms and comfort her, but Helen wanted no comforting-would not admit she needed any comforting. Thayer slowly got to her feet and Zilwicki did the same.

"Helen, take care of yourself out there," she said.

"Thank you, Admiral, I will."

They exchanged salutes, and Helen left. I would trade every salute in the galaxy for one hug from her, thought Thayer sadly. Well, that was a disaster, so much for trying to reach her.

Thayer took her cane and slowly walked to her desk and carefully sat down. She looked up at the portrait of Captain Helen Zilwicki. Thayer found herself talking to the portrait more and more as time went by. She called it "Thinking out loud" and so far, no one had caught her at it-at least as far as she knew.

"She's quite a woman, Helen. Captain Wagner says she's one of the best tacticians to come through the academy since Honor Harrington. She is a daughter to be proud of and she will go far."

If the war-or the fire inside her- does not kill her first.

Chapter Twenty-One

Cadet-Major Helen Zilwicki walked across the Quad, away from Gatchell Hall, with her usual brisk stride. There were a number of other cadets moving along the pathways and a few cyclists wove between them. It was quite a walk to the new cadet quarters on the edge of the bay and from time to time Helen had considered acquiring a cycle. She had never actually gotten around to it, and there was not much point now with her time at Saganami Academy nearly done. In any case, Helen enjoyed the walk; it gave her a chance to think.

Two cyclists zipped by her from behind, missing her by centimeters. She was slightly startled, but she did not flinch or make any sign as the pair of riders looked back at her with a grin and then sped off. The near miss was quite intentional she was sure. It was one of the few ways an underclassman could try and get the better of an upperclassman without fear of retaliation. "Strafing" it was called and unless there was an actual collision, the underclassman could claim it was just an innocent miscalculation and no harm done. If the upperclassman tried to make an issue of it they would only end up looking ridiculous. The best countermeasure for the target was to ignore the whole thing, which Helen did.

Helen checked her chrono and saw that her new orders should have been downloaded to her computer by now. She turned off the main path and found an empty bench among the neatly sculpted gardens on the south side of the Quad. She sat down, opened her com-pad and called up the orders. She quickly scanned over the main points and left the rest to be studied later.

Let's see... I've been assigned to HMS Relentless-that's an old Prince Consort class heavy cruiser... just finished a refit here in the Manticore system. I'm to report via Academy shuttle the day after tomorrow. Report to Captain Sir Michael Kraus... haven't heard his name before, I'll have to look up his record. I have twenty-five cadets assigned to me, list to follow... etc. etc.

Helen scrolled down to the list of cadets and was pleasantly surprised. Anny, Patric and Alby! All three of my roommates! There was an article of faith in the Navy that the first thing BuPers did was to find out who your friends were and then assign them to somewhere as far away as physically possible. It wasn't really true of course, but it was one of those legendary gripes that everyone took pleasure in perpetuating. Still, for Helen to be assigned to the same ship with her three closest friends seemed a bit too lucky. I wonder if Admiral Thayer had anything to do with this?

The thought of the Admiral wiped the smile off her face as she replayed the meeting she just had with her in her mind. It had been as awkward as all the other ones since Helen had come to the Academy.

I don't understand her, she thought in frustration; I don't understand any of them. Her, my father, the psych people, they all treat the fact that I hate the Peeps like some dirty little secret that you can't talk about in public! Well, it's not a secret: I hate the Peeps!

"I hate the Peeps," she said aloud. And then she said it louder just to be sure the whole galaxy knew it. "I hate the Peeps!"

A passing cadet looked at her in surprise, but Helen glared at him so fiercely he turned his head away, quickened his pace and disappeared. It did not make her feel one bit better.

What's wrong with hating the Peeps? Surely I have good reason to hate them. Personal reasons. But they should hate them too! My father and Admiral Thayer have reasons just as good as mine. And every Manticoran should hate the Peeps. Hell, every decent person in the galaxy should hate them! They've looted and enslaved a hundred different worlds and if they win this war the same will happen to Manticore. They'll rape the planet and every military or civilian leader above the rank of petty officer or dog-catcher will be shot or sent off to one of their labor planets and never heard from again.

Helen had thought these thoughts a hundred times before but she admitted that her own hatred went beyond even what the Peeps deserved. It worried her father and Admiral Thayer and now and then it even worried her a little. There were times when the hate would build up in her and she would go to the gym and take it out on some poor sparring partner in martial arts exercises. That wasn't too bad, but there were other times when the blinding rages would come. At those times if she had suddenly found a magic button that would have blown away the Peeps-all thirty billion of them-she would have pushed it without a second's hesitation. She could usually control the rage-focus it to give her an unstoppable energy-but she knew it was not quite normal.

For as long as she could remember the hate had been there. She had only dim memories of her mother, but the desire to avenge her-the desire to hurt the Peeps as they had hurt her-was always there. For years she had looked to Admiral Thayer as the model for the revenge she someday hoped to exact. Thayer had hurt the Peeps! Young Helen had thrilled to hear her accounts of the battles she had fought and won. Then something had changed the Admiral. In her letters, the tales of combat had become inquiries about Helen's schoolwork, about her friends and family. Thayer had once even asked if she had a boyfriend-a boyfriend! Helen wondered what had caused the change. Sometimes a major wound, like losing a leg, made a person more cautious, but the change in Thayer had come long before she lost her leg. The model warrior had started to sound like her father.

Her father.

Helen shook her head. Her father was even more of a mystery than Admiral Thayer. She knew he loved her and she loved him, too, in her way. He had been a good parent to her after her mother was killed. He gave her the love and care she needed-but he had not hurt the Peeps. Helen could not understand. He was a naval officer, why didn't he fight the Peeps? In her mind she knew that he was a support officer and his job was just as important to the war effort as those out on the line, but her heart did not understand. Didn't he burn inside? Didn't he want to hurt the people who had killed his wife? Helen never doubted that her father loved her mother. She still had nightmares about the times she had listened at his door at night and heard his terrible sobs. So she did not understand. After her mother's death they had spent a year on Grendelsbane and then her father had gotten a transfer back to Manticore and there they had stayed. He had not put in for a transfer to shipboard duty and ten years later he had only risen one grade in rank. Helen was not exactly ashamed of him but she was... disappointed.

She sighed and looked at her chrono again. It was time to get back to her quarters. She had no class or battalion duties before her departure, but she wanted to make sure her subordinates were getting ready and she had a few things she wanted to do herself. Helen rose from the bench and resumed her walk

Before the changes to the Academy, her quarters as a Fourth Form cadet would have been in one of the ancient buildings just off the Quad. Now, however, all the cadets were housed in a huge new complex of buildings constructed on pilings that projected out over the sea near the harbor. The old dormitories had been converted to offices for the expanded faculty. As she walked through a vine-covered archway between two of the buildings she encountered Captain Gabriel Keeler. They exchanged salutes and Keeler stopped.

"So, Ms. Zilwicki, off for your 'prentice cruise I understand?" said Keeler.

"Yes, sir, I ship out the day after tomorrow."

"Well, I just want to wish you luck. Things are getting pretty hot out there-be sure to watch your back!" said Keeler with a grin.

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir, I will." answered Helen with a small smile.

Keeler offered her his huge hand. She took it and shook it firmly. They exchanged salutes again and Helen continued on her way. She glanced back to see Keeler disappear around a corner. Helen rather liked Captain Keeler. When she had first come to the Academy he had seemed very cold and gruff, but then he discovered her interest in the martial arts. They had become sparring partners and she eventually ended up as an assistant instructor. He had warmed to her considerably after that and Helen had to admit Keeler was probably her favorite faculty member.

The path took Helen past more buildings. These were newer than those on the Quad, but still quite old. The Academy had begun with Gatchall Hall and the Quad and then grown outwards. It was like a tree: the inner ring was the oldest and it got younger and younger as you neared the edge. The youngest of all the buildings now came into sight, the Cadet Dormitory.

Helen did not know anything about architecture, but she knew what she did not like. Compared with the elegant, ivy-covered buildings of the inner campus, the dormitory was an eyesore. She could have understood a simple box-like structure as a wartime necessity, but the dormitory was an unpleasant collection of shapes and geometric forms that must have cost far more to build than the classical structures of the Quad. It was functional enough, she supposed, once you got used to the strange circulation patterns and room numbering system, but the cadets joked that it had been built on pilings so that at the war's end, a few well placed demolition charges could dump the whole unsightly mess into the bay.

Rumor also had it that the dormitory was going to be called "Harrington Hall" after the then-presumed dead Admiral Honor Harrington. If true, the plan must have been hastily abandoned after the Admiral's miraculous return. I'm sure she's far happier with just the statue than having her name attached to this monstrosity!

The name of Admiral Harrington brought Helen's thoughts back to her roommate Anny Payne, which in turn brought a smile to her face. Anny worshipped the ground Lady Harrington walked on and Helen had to admit she could have hardly picked a better role model. From all that she had heard about her, Admiral Harrington, for all her tactical brilliance, was a little too open-minded when it came to the Peeps for Helen's tastes, but she was perfect for Anny.

It still amazed Helen that she had gotten so close to Anny Payne. They were not exactly opposites, but they were very different people indeed. By her own admission, Helen was as grim and serious a cadet as you were likely to find. Anny was no less dedicated to becoming an officer, but she was light-hearted, good-natured and at times downright frivolous. She could light up a room, but Helen also found her exasperating. Helen understood the handicaps Anny's culture had inflicted on her, but when Anny would start fussing over their laundry and mooning over boys, Helen could only roll her eyes. The fact that Admiral Thayer had charged Helen, Patric and Alby with seeing to it that any mooning never went any further only added to the strangeness of their friendship.

By all rights Helen should not have liked Anny at all. Anny basically had a free ride like the other cadets from noble families. As long as she made a semblance of an effort, Anny was sure to be commissioned for political reasons. And Anny's whole reason for wanting to come to the Academy was little more than a schoolgirl fantasy: it was romantic and following the lead of her idol, Admiral Harrington. Anny had no desire to kill Peeps at all-even after what they had done to Harrington. Helen should have resented Anny, but she did not. It was just impossible not to like Anny Payne.

Even so, Helen wondered if Anny would ever become a real officer. She certainly had the brains, her grades were excellent and even Helen had asked her for help on occasion, but she just didn't act like an officer. For one thing, she could not give orders-especially to men. She took orders just fine, but when it came to telling someone else to do something, she would ask or request or even plead, but she would not order them. It was hard to imagine Anny leading anyone in a dangerous situation-or anyone following her. Anny was well aware of her limitations. Helen knew that she had had a serious crisis of confidence in her second form and had nearly resigned. Something had happened-Helen did not know what-but Anny had stayed and stuck it out. Helen had to admire her for that: it could not have been easy.

Helen reached the causeway leading to her section of the dorm and crossed over into the building. A lift ride and a short walk brought her to her quarters. She entered the common room and glanced into the other bedrooms and the bathroom, but none of her roommates seemed to be in. She went into her room and closed the door. On her bed was a neatly folded black uniform. She glanced at it and then went to her desk and sat down. Listed on her terminal was a copy of her orders, several other messages, and a letter from her father. She read the letter quickly and frowned. It was the same sort of thing he usually wrote, plus a wish of good luck for her cruise. Helen knew she really should answer the letter before she left, but right now she did not feel like it.

Instead, she re-read her orders and called up Captain Kraus' record as well as the record of HMS Relentless and her crew. Helen was a great believer in being prepared. She wanted to know everything she could about the people she would be serving with. She was checking to see if there was any way to contact Relentless' first officer before she arrived, to iron out details, when she heard someone enter the common room. A muffled squeal of delight came through the door and confirmed that it was Anny. Helen checked the time and in less than five minutes there was a rapid knock at her door.

"Helen! Helen! Are you in there?" asked Anny excitedly.

"Yes, I am, Anny. Come on in," answered Helen.

The door opened and in danced Anny Payne wearing-as Helen expected-her space-black midshipman's uniform. Anny had a huge grin on her face, but she stopped and stared at Helen, looked at the folded uniform on the bed and then back at Helen.

"I can't believe you're not wearing it!" exclaimed Anny. "Aren't you excited about this?"

"It's just a uniform, Anny," said Helen with exaggerated patience in her voice. "We wear them so we don't have to go naked."

"Oh, Helen! You are so...so... boring!" said Anny in exasperation. "This is what we've worked so hard for: not the uniform, but what it represents! We're nearly there, Helen, can't you at least get a little excited?"

We're not there yet, Anny. We still have a lot of work to do."

Anny stuck her tongue out at Helen and went over to look at Helen's uniform. After a moment her eyes opened wide and she whipped her head around to stare at Helen in delight.

"They made you an ensign! Oh, Helen, that's great! You've really earned that." Anny came over and gave Helen a hug in her chair, then she turned back to the uniform and traced her fingers over the narrow gold welt that encircled the sleeves of Helen's uniform-and that her own uniform lacked. "I wonder what ships we'll each get?" mused Anny.

Now Helen did roll her eyes. "If you had not been so intent on your wonderful new set of clothes, you might have noticed that our orders have been posted."

"Really?" said Anny and she dashed back into her own room. Helen silently counted seconds in her head. She had not reached thirty when a loud whoop of joy came from Anny's room and a few seconds later Anny reappeared.

"We've got the same ship!" she shouted. "We're on the same ship, Helen!"

"Yes, I know," said Helen with a smile. "Patric and Alby are with us, too."

"Really? said Anny again. "That's wonderful! Of course, I knew Patric and I would get the same ship, but having you and Alby along, too! Oh, we are going to have such a great time, Helen!"

"That's not really why we're going on this cruise you know."

"I know, but we are still going to have a great time," insisted Anny. "Now come on, put on your uniform so I can practice saluting you."

"Anny, you salute me all the time, I'm your battalion commander, remember?"

"That's not the same," said Anny, grabbing Helen's arm and pulling her out of her chair.

Helen smiled; she knew a hopeless position when she saw it. She gave in to the inevitable and started peeling off her gray cadet tunic.

Chapter Twenty-Two

When the day of departure arrived even Helen was excited, although she did her best to conceal it from her charges. She and the twenty-five cadets under her command were all packed, dressed in their new uniforms, and down at the landing pads a good hour ahead of time. By chance-if it was chance-their cutter was piloted by CPO Jon Seaton, who was a special friend of Patric McDermott. Patric and Seaton chattered away while Seaton made his final check of the cutter's systems. Helen knew that the gray-haired chief had a wealth of practical experience, so she stayed close enough to overhear his talk with Patric.

"A Prince Consort, eh?" said Seaton, who had his head stuck into an open inspection panel. "I've served on a few of them, though not this Relentless you're headed for. They're tough customers: fast and dangerous. Leastways they were when I was aboard them; I know they've got more modern cruisers now, but you'll do well enough, I'm thinking."

"She's just finished a refit, Jon," said Patric, "that should help."

"Aye, a face-lift for an old lady," chuckled Seaton. "Upgrades in electronics and other systems can keep an old ship useful. Why, do you know that some of the dreadnoughts in the fleet are older than I am? Still, it's the heart of the ship that really counts. Every ship has a heart and soul, Patric. Some of it comes from the people who built her and some from the people who serve aboard her. If you treat her right she'll give you more than the designers ever thought she could."

Seaton finished whatever he was doing and shut the inspection panel. He patted the skin of the cutter. "Even a little lady like this one deserves to be treated well," he said lovingly. It always amused Helen that even though Manticoran society had done away with all sexual stereotypes and biases, spacers-and especially male spacers-continued to treat their vessels as females. Apparently that was something so ingrained that even centuries of enlightenment could not eradicate it.

The chief noticed Helen standing nearby and although he continued to speak to Patric he seemed to be aiming his words for both of them. "A word of advice, young Patric: When you get up to your ship and get assigned to a department, find the senior petty officer of that section and have a little chat with him. He'll be able to tell you how things run better than anyone else. Most of you officers don't realize, but it's the POs that actually run a ship; you lordly types are just along for the ride." Seaton was grinning and had a twinkle in his eye. "I really shouldn't have told you that-it's a guild secret-but it might save you some grief. Just don't tell anyone else or I'll get in trouble with me mates."

Seaton walked over to where Helen was standing, came to attention and saluted. "Ma'am, I've completed my inspection. You can board whenever you are ready."

"Thank you, Chief." said Helen, returning his salute. "We'll board at once."

Turning to where her people were standing, Helen called them to attention. They fell into ranks and she called off the roll from memory. Naturally, everyone was present-who would be late on a day like this?

"Squad! Board Ship!" ordered Helen.

Her cadets shouldered their bags and climbed into the cutter. Alby winked at her as he passed and Anny had a huge grin. Helen watched them and then, as the senior officer present, was the last one aboard. This "last on, first off" tradition for the senior officer was fine for veterans who had seen it all, but it had one drawback for newbies like Helen: By the time she got aboard and closed the hatch, all the window seats were taken. She knew it was childish, and it was not like she had never spaced before, but she wanted to see the approach to the ship. She could not order one of the cadets to give up their seat without seeming petty. She looked into the flight deck, but Patric was in the co-pilot's seat next to his friend. Helen was just about to give up and sit down next to Anny when she remembered there was a pull-down chair in the rear bulkhead of the flight deck. She stuck her head through the hatch.

"Permission to observe, Chief?" she asked. She may have outranked Seaton, but it was his vessel and he would have had the final say even if she were an admiral.

"Of course, Ms. Zilwicki, honored to have you here, pull up a seat." answered Seaton, without taking his eyes off the instruments.

Helen "pulled up" a seat, by pulling it down. It wasn't nearly as comfortable as the regular passenger seats, but it had a good view through the forward port. She sat down and buckled the safety harness. "Thanks, Chief."

"Not at all, not at all," said Seaton. Then he hit the com switch. "Saganami Control, this is cutter SA-112, requesting permission for take off."

"SA-112, you are cleared for take off," replied a female voice. "Where you off to today, Jon?"

"I've got a load of middies bound for their 'prentice cruise and they're mighty eager to get there, Trish," said Seaton.

"I bet they are, well don't keep them waiting."

"Roger, Saganami Control, SA-112 commencing lift off."

The Chief activated the counter-gravity generators and the cutter was suddenly weightless. "Raise the gear will you, Patric?" said Seaton, even though he could have easily done it himself.

Patric grinned and hit the proper switch, "Gear coming up, Chief." In a moment there was a slight thump. "Up and locked," said Patric.

Seaton put his hands on the thruster controls and the cutter jumped upwards pushing them down into their seats. He held the acceleration to only about one and a half gravities. He claimed his old bones could not stand any more than that. Helen felt sure that if he had increased the acceleration he would have still been conscious long after the rest of them had passed out. Even at the lesser acceleration, it was only a few minutes before the blue sky started fading to black and the stars came out. The experience never failed to awe Helen; they were literally leaving the world behind.

The Chief altered the direction of thrust to throw the cutter into a path around Manticore that would intersect the orbit of HMS Relentless. The amount of power at his disposal allowed Seaton to take a very direct course but would require him to decelerate sharply as they approached the ship. He checked his navigational instruments, confirmed his course with Manticore Traffic Control and announced they would rendezvous in twenty-eight minutes.

Helen relaxed as much as the uncomfortable chair would allow and watched the sights visible through the viewport. The space around Manticore was always crowded and a fair number of other vessels were visible, although most were just gleaming white specks moving against the starry backdrop. The gigantic Hephaestus space station, which could be clearly seen from the ground even in the daytime, was hanging overhead, a long, lumpy cylinder with a dozen other specks hovering nearby. Near at hand, Helen could see several cargo lighters heading for the planet.

Helen had little interest in the civilian traffic and she tried to pick out the warships of Home Fleet. She thought she could spot a few, but most of the warships were kept in extremely high orbits to give them a large safety zone when they needed to bring up their impeller wedges. She could see several of the huge orbital fortresses that ringed the planet. She did not know exactly what orbit Relentless was in, but Chief Seaton did and that was good enough for right now. Keeping half an eye out the viewport in case something interesting turned up, Helen reviewed what she had learned in the last day and a half.

Helen had managed to get a message through to the ship's executive officer, Commander Paula Constantini, inquiring about the arrangements for the cadets. Constantini seemed quite impressed that Helen had made that effort and was very forthcoming with information. Some of the information had not been very good. The officers of Relentless were so busy getting her ready for space after her refit that they had made no plans for the batch of cadets about to descend on them. The Academy had a set of guidelines for ships playing host to cadets, but it was always up to the officers in command to implement them. To make matters worse, Relentless was terribly undermanned when it came to officers. An old cruiser like her was low on the priority list for replacements and the Navy-wide shortage of officers had hit her hard. They were stretched so thin, that even Helen's batch of twenty-six would not put them up to full complement. Constantini and Helen had done some brainstorming via the com the previous night. Together they had come up with a plan that was better than anything Helen could have hoped for.

Relentless' refit had incorporated some changes that went beyond an upgrade in electronics. The most significant-at least as far as the cadets were concerned-was the construction of an auxiliary control room. This was basically a small duplicate of the main bridge. Prior to the war, the policy in BuShips was that no ship smaller than a battlecruiser rated an auxiliary control. Wartime experience, however, had shown that there were many times when a cruiser could lose its bridge and still be battle worthy. The Navy had had a number of its ships put out of action unnecessarily because of bridge hits. Thus the newer cruisers were now being built with auxiliary control rooms from the start and the older ships were having them added when the opportunity allowed. Of course, nothing comes free and something had to be removed in order to fit in the auxiliary control. In the case of Relentless, this meant losing two-thirds of her marine complement. This decision was also a wartime lesson. Pre-war ships had heavy marine contingents because they were often cruising about on their own, escorting merchant ships, chasing down pirates and generally showing the flag in far off places like Silesia. Under those circumstances it made sense, but in a full-blown war, with ships usually part of large squadrons, the marines from a cruiser rarely had anything to do. Marines typically filled in as weapons crews and damage control parties during a battle, but it was a waste of highly trained troopers. Instead of two companies, Relentless now only had two, slightly overstrength, platoons.

Helen thought it was too bad about losing the marines-she liked marines. In fact, she had once considered joining the Marines instead of the Navy. She was not sure if that was so she could kill Peeps face to face or not, but it had never really become an issue. When the Navy had reduced the enlistment age, the Marines had not and that settled it right there as far as Helen was concerned.

No matter what Helen's personal feelings about the marines, she knew that she and her cadets were going to be very lucky because of this change. As was so often the case in a large bureaucracy, the right hand did not know what the left was doing. BuShips was refitting its cruisers with an auxiliary control, but BuPers was not providing its cruisers with a duplicate set of bridge personnel. Some ships may have been able to deal with this situation, but it was stretching the resources of Relentless' officers beyond the breaking point.

Every ship had a minimum number of officers and crew needed to man the ship during its most critical period-when the ship was at battlestations. There were a certain number of posts that simply had to be manned if the ship was to fight efficiently. Relentless did not have enough officers to fill those posts and was using its petty officers to take up the slack. This could work in a lot of the engineering and damage control departments, but for the critical posts on the bridge-and now in Auxiliary Control, you just had to have the highly trained officers. Relentless was managing to scrape by, but there was no way to come up with nine new bridge officers for Auxiliary Control without leaving serious holes in other departments. This fact was creating a wonderful opportunity for the cadets.

Instead of being loaned out to the various ship's departments to stand watches in the power rooms, impeller controls and damage repair parties, the cadets would stand their watches in Auxiliary Control. Naturally there would be an experienced officer actually in command, but the cadets would fill the other posts. This was really a major break: bridge duty was the key to advancement in the navy, and having three months of it on their record before they even graduated would give them a jump-start to their careers. Helen had not mentioned this to the other cadets and she smiled when she thought about their likely reactions.

"There's your new home comin' up fast," said Chief Seaton, startling Helen out of her musings. She looked out the port but could not decide which speck he was referring to.

"Stand by for braking," said the Chief. He took the controls and the cutter spun end for end. He activated the thrusters and Helen was pushed back in her seat once again. Seaton was not sparing his old bones this time and they were under about four gravities for several long minutes. Helen was starting to wish they were in a larger vessel that had an artificial gravity unit designed to counteract the acceleration effects when the thrust gradually died away.

Seaton spun the cutter again and when she looked out the port this time, Helen had no doubt which ship they were headed for. A Prince Consort class heavy cruiser was right in front of them about twenty kilometers away and still closing fairly fast. The ship was over a kilometer long and had the standard shape of all large warships. She was basically a long, flattened cylinder that narrowed suddenly about a quarter of the way in from each end and then flared back out again before tapering down at the very ends, giving her a spindle or hammerhead shape.

"Cutter SA-112, calling HMS Relentless, requesting permission to dock," said the Chief into his com.

"SA-112, this is Relentless Flight Ops, you are cleared to dock in boat bay one, docking coordinates uploading now," said a voice.

"Roger, Relentless, coordinates received, thank you."

The Chief swung the cutter slightly to starboard and began to decelerate gently using the bow thrusters. The cruiser continued to grow rapidly in the viewport and Helen could now see more details. The most noticeable feature was a darker band that stretched along the side of the ship. This was the main gundeck, where all of the broadside weapons-missile tubes, laser and graser batteries-were mounted. There was an identical band on the opposite side of the ship. The size of the weapons, particularly the lengthy missile tubes and their ammunition feeds dictated the shape and layout of the main hull. The gundeck took up a thick slice of the ship that ran side to side and the whole length of the hull between the hammerheads. Most of the other components of the ship were located in the space above or below the gundeck or in the two hammerheads. The two boat bays were mounted in the top and bottom of the ship and slightly aft of the ship's center. They were headed for Boat Bay One, which was mounted on top of the ship.

The cutter was moving around to the stern of the ship and turning to approach from behind. By now their speed had dropped to just a few dozen meters per second relative to the cruiser. More details could be seen: counter-missile tubes, point defense laser clusters, sensor arrays, hatches, and viewports. Helen noted the stern chase armament peering menacingly from the rear hammerhead. They drifted over the top of the ship and they got a glimpse of the alpha and beta nodes of the aft impeller ring. Then they were hovering motionless over the opening to boat bay one.

"Relentless, this is SA-112, we are ready for the tractor," said Seaton.

"Acknowledged, SA-112, engaging tractor." An invisible beam of force reached out and grabbed the cutter. Seaton shut down the thrusters and the counter-gravity, lowered the landing gear and let the cruiser pull them into the boat bay. In a few moments, they had been deposited gently on the deck. Seaton activated the magnetic grapples in the landing gear and they were down.

A boarding tube extended itself from one bulkhead and made fast to the lock of the cutter. The cadets unstrapped from their seats and made ready to debark. Patric extended his hand to Seaton who grasped it firmly.

"Good-bye, Jon, I'll see you in three months," said Patric solemnly.

"Take care of yourself, lad, I'll be waiting for you." replied Seaton. Then he looked at Helen. "You'll take good care of my pal, won't you, Ms. Zilwicki?"

"I'll do my best, Mr. Seaton," replied Helen with a smile, "but he doesn't need much looking after."

"Well, well, let's not get all emotional, those lads on the cruiser are probably waiting for me to get out of here. Off with you now! Good luck and try not to get this fine ship all dented-they just finished sprucing her up and that would be a pity." Patric and Helen grinned at the elderly CPO and then made their way off the flight deck and to the cutter's lock.

Helen checked to make sure the seal was tight since the boat bay was still in vacuum, then opened the hatch. She stepped out of the cutter's artificial gravity field and pushed herself down the boarding tube. Helen was quite adept at zero-gravity maneuvers, but it was awkward since she was towing her bag. She had to gently push off the side of the tube several times before she reached the end and landed on her feet as she crossed into Relentless' gravity field.

There was a typical side party of an ensign and two marines waiting for her. Helen saluted. "Permission to come aboard sir?"

"Granted, welcome aboard," replied the ensign, returning her salute. "Commander Constantini is waiting for you and the others over there."

Helen looked where the ensign had indicated and saw a tall, handsome woman in the uniform of a commander waiting a dozen paces away. Helen walked over to her and saluted again. "Ensign Helen Zilwicki reporting, ma'am, here are my orders."

The Commander returned her salute, "Welcome aboard, Helen, it's nice to meet you in the flesh." Constantini took the orders and then offered Helen her hand. "As soon as all your comrades are aboard I'll take you to your quarters and we'll have a little talk."

Helen turned and looked back and saw that it was taking a while for all twenty-five of her midshipmen to get permission from the side party to come aboard. The ensign in charge was starting to look a little bored with it by the time the last middie had been saluted through. Once they were all together, Commander Constantini led them along several corridors, down a lift and through more corridors to reach their quarters. Helen had studied the layout of the ship beforehand, and she thought she knew where she was.

After the cruiser's refit had eliminated most of the facilities needed for the marine complement and built the new Auxiliary Control, there had actually been a little room left over. This was made into extra bunk space in case more marines needed to be carried for special missions. This bunk space had been turned over to Helen and her comrades. Originally designed for fifty marines, twenty-four of the bunks had been removed and worktables had been installed. It was rather crude compared to what they had been used to, but the midshipmen were excited enough that they would have gladly slept on the bare decks. As understrength as Relentless was, there were actually enough empty berths in the Officers' Quarters to house the cadets, but Constantini and Helen had decided it made more sense to keep the cadets together rather than scatter them all over the ship.

Constantini called them all together and welcomed them aboard Relentless. When she explained what she and Helen had come up with for their duty assignments, the middies were even more excited; twenty-five grinning faces met the Commander's gaze.

"It's not all good news, I'm afraid," she continued, "the Captain is going to have to be convinced that you can handle yourselves adequately in Auxiliary Control before he will actually trust you to function there when the ship is at battlestations. We do not have enough regular officers to replace you there, so until you get Captain Kraus' approval, your boards will be taken off line when we go to general quarters. In addition, only one of the three watches will be designated as the prime watch for battlestation duty even after you get his approval. We can't afford to let the rest of you sit around! All of you will be assigned to a secondary duty station. In order to learn what to do at that post you are going to have to serve there as well as in Auxiliary Control. You will be standing two watches a day in Auxiliary Control, and I'm going to have to assign each of you a third watch at your secondary station. That means you will be on duty twelve hours out of every twenty-four. I know you have studies to continue as well. By the time you add in eating and the other necessities of life, you are going to be a bit short on sleep, I'm afraid. I'm sorry about that, but most of the officers on Relentless are already standing three watches as it is. Frankly, we can use your help and we intend to."

The middies smiles hardly faded, they had been working that sort of schedule for the last twenty-seven months. They were all young, superbly conditioned, and highly motivated. Most of them were wondering how long the Commander had been out of the Academy to have forgotten those days.

"But the work won't start immediately, "said Constantini with a smile, "Captain Kraus has invited all of you for a welcome dinner in the Officers' Mess at 1900 hours tonight. You have until then to get settled in and explore the ship. I think I can trust you all not to get into any trouble before then." The Commander dismissed them and left.

The midshipmen looked over their new quarters and found their bunks. The bunks were stacked four high, so Helen, Anny, Patric and Alby grabbed one rack for themselves. Helen was not quite sure how she ended up with the top bunk, but she really did not mind. After they had stowed their gear, Anny came up to Helen.

"Pretty sneaky there, Ensign," she said with a grin, "scheming with the Commander, and not even telling your roomies-for shame!"

"Yes," agreed Alby, "I'm supposed to be the clever one in this group."

Helen smiled at them but instead of answering, she called all the middies together and told them that if they wanted to explore the ship, they had to stay in groups and to be back in quarters no later than 1800 to get ready for the dinner. Before long, most of her charges had left. Helen and her friends soon followed.

They called up the ship's layout on their compads and spent the next few hours tramping from bow to stern, port to starboard and top to bottom of HMS Relentless. It was interesting enough, but the truth is that the innards of one warship are pretty much like the innards of every other. The main thing was to become familiar with how to get from one part of the ship to another. The only section that really caught their attention was the Auxiliary Control which they spent nearly an hour investigating. Something else also caught Anny's attention, although she tried not to show it: The middies were going to have to share their shower and toilet facilities with the marines.

Helen noticed Anny's discomfort when they realized that fact. Oh my, I hope she can deal with that, thought Helen. There were many cultural differences between Manticore and Anny's home on Grayson, but one difference that Helen had never thought about before meeting Anny was the complete segregation of bathroom facilities between the sexes. It seemed very strange to Helen, but the fact was that Grayson's men and women never saw each other naked unless they were married to each other. She remembered during their first form how they had become aware of Anny's inhibitions. Patric, lovable, clueless lunk that he was, walked out of the shower and to his room right past Anny with nothing on but the towel he has using to dry his hair. Helen and Alby had to peel Anny off the wall and push her eyeballs back in her head. After that, they had been careful not to do anything to shock Anny. Patric still felt bad about that, doubly so after Anny's father had named him Anny's "male protector".

Still, Anny had been forced to adapt at the Academy. There were times when she had to use a common shower and locker room and there was no time for her to wait until everyone else was finished. She managed by keeping her eyes averted and she had become quite skillful at protecting her own modesty with a towel and still get clean. Helen supposed she would manage here too. She briefly considered asking Commander Constantini if Anny could use one of the officers' showers, but the nearest one was so far away, it was not really practical. When they returned to their quarters, some of the other middies were already getting showered in preparation for the Captain's dinner. Anny claimed she had done nothing today to work up a sweat and decided she did not need one. Helen suspected she would be up well before their first watch tomorrow to use the facilities.

The dinner with Captain Kraus and the other officers of Relentless was much different from what Helen had expected. There were nearly a hundred of them in the Officers' Mess but even with the twenty-six cadets there were empty places. A half dozen officers were standing watch, but all the others were there and the left over chairs were disturbing. Equally disturbing were some of the officers themselves. A lot of them were quite young, only a few months or years out of the Academy. But in a Prolong-using society most people looked young. What surprised Helen were the ones that did not look young. There were a number of gray or even white haired officers. They must have been first generation Prolong recipients and by rights should have been enjoying an honorable retirement. Instead, they were still in uniform, helping hold the line against the Peeps. Helen, used to the bustling and well-staffed Academy, had not quite realized just how thin that line had become. Of course if it were not for the shortage of officers, I would not even be here yet. That thought did not make her feel much better.

On the other hand, the food was very good and their hosts treated them like officers instead of school children. The Captain had considerately not made this dinner a mess dress uniform affair since none of the middies had that elaborate set of clothing. Helen found that the Captain, along with his officers, was glad to have the midshipmen aboard-they could use the help. Captain Kraus appeared to be a good-natured sort although a bit too conscious of social rank for Helen's tastes. He made sure that Alby and Susan Pescatore, the two middies from the Peerage in Helen's group, were seated near him and he was constantly addressing them as "Lord Hinsworth" and "Lady Pescatore" and insisting that they call him "Sir Michael". Helen had researched Kraus' record and his knighthood seemed to have come from family connections rather than any great accomplishment in the Navy. Still, his career had been solid enough to make the Captains' List and he had been in command of Relentless for three years, with a number of engagements to his credit.

Kraus mostly ignored Helen, although he made several well-intentioned but rather clumsy comments about her mother. Helen was used to that sort of thing and she spent most of the evening talking with Commander Constantini. She found that she liked the Commander and it was obvious that Constantini was rather taken with Helen as well. They discussed how to set up the watches in Auxiliary Control, but they also talked about their respective backgrounds. Helen was reminded of her correspondence with both Admiral Thayer and her Aunt Jennifer, but for the first time she felt like she was an equal (or nearly equal) partner, rather than just a kid listening to the stories of her elders. It made her feel very good.

The Captain did make one significant announcement during the course of the evening. He stood up and officially welcomed the middies to his ship and then mentioned how pleased he was with the plan for using them in the Auxiliary Control.

"Right now, the plan is to disable your controls when the ship really goes into action. But you are going to be given a rigorous schedule of simulations. Whichever watch scores the highest will become the prime watch for Auxiliary Control. If I am satisfied with your performance, then you will be allowed to remain active in battle." There were a number of smiles among the midshipmen and a few frowns among the ship's other officers at the Captain's statement. "I suppose this is truly a no lose situation for me," continued Kraus with a smile, " the only way you young folks are going to end up running my ship is if I'm already dead, so I'll never live to regret my decision."

There were a number of chuckles and polite laughs at the Captain's joke, but Helen was already determined that she and her watch were going to become the prime crew!

When the dinner neared its end, there was a bit of uncomfortable shuffling and looking around among the midshipmen. Helen was confused for a moment and then suddenly realized what was wrong: They don't know who should make the toast! It was a tradition as old as the Navy that at the conclusion of a formal dinner, the junior officer present should make a toast to the sovereign. Unfortunately, there were twenty-five midshipmen in the room, all with exactly the same date on their brevet commission! At the Academy they had their cadet ranks and after graduation, their seniority was determined by their final class ranking, but that was meaningless here. Captain Kraus seemed to have anticipated this problem.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said rising again. "Before we have the toast, I wanted to tell you a little about our coming assignment." He suddenly had everyone's undivided attention. "Tomorrow we shall proceed to the wormhole terminus to join the escort of a convoy." There was a bit of squirming in seats at this; convoy duty was not terribly exciting. "The convoy will proceed to Trevor's Star and from there to Maastricht. At that point we shall be attached to Admiral Sir William Cristen's Task Force 55. As you may have heard, Maastricht is the center of quite a bit of activity these days. I expect we shall be able to show our young ladies and gentlemen a bit of action before their cruise is up."

Many grins met this statement, and even Helen began to feel excited. Combat! I haven't let myself get my hopes up, but could this really be it? A chance to hit back at the Peeps! A chance for revenge at last? All faces were on the Captain, but if anyone had chanced to look at Helen they would have seen her hands clutching the table and a fire in her eyes.

"Now, about that toast," continued Kraus. " I think it would be appropriate if all of our midshipmen-and you too, Ensign Zilwicki-led the toast together. A show of comradeship and solidarity, eh?"

Twenty-six young men and women got to their feet and lifted their glasses.

"To the Queen!" they said together. The other officers rose and responded.

"To the Queen!"

"And confusion to the Peeps!" added Kraus lustily.

And death to the Peeps! added Helen to herself.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Ensign Helen Zilwicki sat down with her tray at an empty table in the Officers' Mess aboard Her Majesty's heavy cruiser Relentless. She picked up the mug of cocoa and took a sip. She wished it was coffee, but she was so over-cafeinated right now, she knew she had better lay off it for a while. She had just come off watch from her secondary assignment in Missile Battery Two. She had four hours to eat, study, check on the other middies, and maybe, just maybe, get an hour or two of sleep before she had to report to Auxiliary Control.

I guess Commander Constantini was right about the pace after all, she thought, I've put in as many hours at the Academy, but I've never been this tired. Is it just because this is 'for real' that it wears us out more? I know the others are just as tired. And still another three weeks to go!

It had been two and a half months since Helen and her comrades had come aboard Relentless and they had never been so busy in their lives. But it had also been an exciting and very valuable experience. Helen slowly began to eat and she let her mind wander over the things that had happened.

The convoy escort had turned out to be routine except for the passage of the wormhole. Helen had done a fair amount of hyper travel in her short life, but she had never made a wormhole transit. The fact that she was able to make it sitting at the tactical station of Auxiliary Control had made it even more special.

It was no surprise to anyone that Helen became the Tactical Officer on one of the watches in Auxiliary Control. Even if she had not been the ranking cadet and working with the Executive Officer to set up the watch lists, she would still have been the obvious choice. Helen's grades in the tactics classes and in the simulators were the talk of the Academy and she very quickly gained the confidence of Lieutenant Commander Gerald Hyman who was the officer in command of her watch. She had a natural feel for it and she had studied hard to sharpen her natural skill to a fine edge. A fine killing edge.

Helen had to admit that she had used her influence with the Exec to determine the rest of the people on her watch. Anny Payne was at the helm; Anny had nearly as natural a skill as a pilot as Helen did at gunnery. Alby was the Sensor and Detection officer and Patric was at the Engineering and Damage Control station. She had selected Linda Dover to work with her at Tactical to handle Missile Defense. Linda was not brilliant, but she was fast which is what was needed at that post. Communications was in the hands of Ryan Devlin, Marcy Tarburton was the Navigator and Michael Mullen was at Flight Ops. It was a good team and they had worked hard to really become a team. Their scores in the simulations were the best of the three watches and Commander Constantini had brought their performance to the attention of Captain Kraus. After he had observed them working simulations personally, he had made good on the promise he had made that first night. Helen and her team-under Lt. Commander Hyman's command-would be the primary crew in Auxiliary Control when the ship was at battle stations.

Helen and her team were extremely proud of their accomplishment. They realized that they would probably never get a chance to do much, but it was still a great feeling. The Captain had allowed them to carry out a few routine activities while the bridge crew observed their actions. It was evident that the Captain was pleased with the whole situation because it allowed him to retain Commander Constantini as his Tac officer on the primary bridge watch. The presence of the midshipman also allowed him to actually use the Auxiliary Control. With his otherwise limited manpower he would have had to leave it unoccupied in spite of BuShip's expectations.

After the wormhole transit, they had delivered the convoy safely to Maastricht. Helen had been a little disappointed that they had not gotten a chance to look around at Trevor's Star. The Alliance base in this critical system was nearly as big as what could be found at Manticore. Instead, they had hypered out to Maastricht almost immediately. During the two-week cruise escorting the slow transports, they had run countless simulations and drills. By the time they reached their destination, Relentless, including the crew of Auxiliary Control, was ready for action.

And they had seen a good bit of action in the next two months.

Maastricht had been a major Peep naval base before the war. The Alliance had captured the system in the second year of the conflict, during Admiral White Haven's campaign to take Trevor's Star. It was the closest system to the Peep's capital at Haven that the Alliance now held. That should have put Maastricht at the center of action, but it had not. The campaign to take Trevor's Star had dragged on for nearly two more years. After that, the Peeps had doggedly refused to give up Barnett, even though conventional wisdom said it was an untenable position. Barnett was in the opposite direction from Maastricht and the attention of both fleets had been focused there for the next four years. The Peeps had finally given up Barnett less than a year ago, along with a half dozen less important systems and fallen back to a more defensible line of stars closer to Haven. Ten years after the start of the war, and eight years after its capture, Maastricht was finally on the front lines.

The main battle fleets were still licking their wounds after the costly fighting around Barnett, but rumor had it that the Alliance would be starting a new offensive soon. After the surprise Peep counterattack two years earlier, it was not out of the question that the Peeps might try something, too. The famous admirals like White Haven, Kuzak and Harrington were making their plans behind the front lines, and presumably the Peep admirals, Theisman, Giscard and Tourville were doing the same. But until they put their plans into operation, someone had to hold the line. Task Force 55 was just one such holding force, but it was an exceptionally powerful one. Maastricht was the obvious jumping off point for any new offensive. It might not be used for that just because it was so obvious, but it still had to be held by the Alliance, and the Peeps had to keep a close watch on it.

One of the keys to the strategic situation was intelligence gathering. It was vital to keep tabs on where the enemy's strength was concentrated. Both sides had demonstrated on numerous occasions that raids could be mounted from far behind the lines, travel hundreds of light years undetected and strike without warning. There was no way to prevent that sort of thing. Both sides kept large reserve forces protecting their most vital systems to insure that such raids could not do irreparable damage. But raids could not hold territory, that took a major offensive with massive support. The build up for an offensive was hard to hide. Supplies had to be accumulated close to the front along with all the other paraphernalia of a major military operation. A vigilant enemy could detect these build-ups and prepare himself for an attack. That required aggressive scouting by the fleet's light forces.

There were a half dozen Peep held systems within a week's travel of Maastricht and a dozen more not too much further away. All of these had to be patrolled and scouted and probed. There were also hundreds of uninhabited systems that also had to be scouted from time to time to make sure the enemy was not building a secret base or supply dump. The Peeps were just as eager to see what was going on in and around Maastricht. Both sides also wanted to interfere with the others' activity and conceal their own movements. This meant that there was a constant series of skirmishes and small battles going on between the fleets' scouting forces.

Task Force 55, under Admiral Cristen, was a powerful one. There were three full battle squadrons including some of the new Harrington class ships. There were also ten massive orbital fortresses that had been gradually constructed in the years since the system was captured. These, along with the various minefields and other static defenses, could defend the system against any likely attacking force. Cristen had also been given an unusually large screening force of battlecruisers, cruisers, destroyers and the new Light Attack Craft. With these he had to not only protect the extensive mining and industrial activities that took place in Maastricht, but also aggressively probe the nearby enemy held systems. The light forces of Task Force 55 were kept very busy.

In the two and a half months since HMS Relentless had joined the task force, Helen had been involved in two small raids on enemy systems, several scouting operations and endless hours on patrol. They had also helped repel an enemy probe here at Maastricht. Both sides were trying to gather information on the others' strength, but they were also trying to cause damage as well. A lot of orbital industry could be smashed in a raid and each side hoped to take out some enemy warships, too. Lately the Peeps had begun to go after the Manticoran's sensor satellites with the FTL communications system. The Peeps still had not managed to duplicate the Manticoran system which gave them nearly instantaneous sensor data, but they had become adept at locating the satellites when they transmitted. Once located, destroying them was easy. It was just a nuisance, but one that could not be ignored.

The Peeps had also become very good at slipping ships into a system undetected. Any ship coming out of hyperspace within a light month of Maastricht would be detected because of its hyper footprint, but if the intruder did not use his impellers and just built up a small vector with thrusters, after a few weeks it would be impossible for any observer to keep track of them and they could then maneuver on low impeller power undetected. Helen knew the Peeps had ships lurking in the system right now and it did not make her happy. In fact, Helen was not very happy at all.

Yes, Relentless had seen a lot of action, but unfortunately, that was all she had done-seen it. So far, they had not fired a shot in anger. They had been on the edge of several fights, but fate had not put them close enough to actually join in. Helen knew that they had played a valuable role in all those engagements and she had watched with great satisfaction as icons representing Peep warships had winked off her tactical display. But it was not the same as blasting the Peeps themselves. Helen knew that even if Relentless had gotten into firing range, she would not have been the one pressing the button. She would not have been killing Peeps herself. It should not have made any difference if Relentless was killing the Peeps or some other ship.

But it did.

Helen wanted to be on the ship that was killing the Peeps. Then, in some small way, she would be directly contributing. She could collect some tiny piece of her revenge.

It also had not helped that there were three other ships with cadets aboard assigned to Task Force 55 and two of them had kills to their credit. Helen had never been concerned about bragging rights, but it still irked her.

She was staring into her half-empty cup of cocoa, only dimly aware that she had finished her meal, when Patric and Alby thumped down at her table.

"Worn out already, Ensign?" said Alby brightly. "If you get tired so easily you should have chosen another line of work."

Helen glared at him, but she smiled in spite of herself. "Has anyone ever told you how annoying you are, Midshipman?"

"Not in the last twenty minutes, but I was recalibrating a sensor array and there wasn't anyone else around."

"So he has to make up for lost time now," said Patric.

"I do have my reputation to uphold, after all," insisted Alby. "And I am a member of the Peerage, what other function do we have but to annoy you peasants?"

"I've been wondering about that myself," said Helen. "You certainly don't do much else in Auxiliary Control."

"Aarg! A touch! I do confess it! I fear I breathe my last!" cried Alby clutching his chest. Helen looked for something on her plate to throw at him, but she seemed to have eaten everything without noticing.

"So what are you reprobates up to?" asked Helen trying to avoid a battle of insults with Alby-one battle she knew she could not win.

"I just finished my watch in Damage Control Central," said Patric. "What a madhouse that is! You know Chief Seaton was right: the POs really do run the ship. The officers give them orders and they just stand there nodding their heads and saying 'yes, sir' and then they go out and do things their own way!"

Helen had observed the same thing in Missile Two. She was not sure if that was a Navy-wide phenomenon or unique to Relentless because they were so short handed. The POs had far more responsibility here than they would have if the ship had its full quota of officers. But there was no denying the fact that everyone, officers and crew alike, were working very hard. Helen was proud that the middies were pulling their weight. She could not imagine how the ship was going to function when they left.

"As for what we are doing right now, we were arguing over whether to sleep or eat, and I won," said Patric proudly, gesturing to their trays.

"To sleep, perchance to dream, perchance to skip my next watch." intoned Alby.

"I'm going to sleep for a month when we get back to the Academy," said Patric, "I never knew you could get this tired."

"It wouldn't be so bad if we would see some real action," said Helen grumpily.

"Don't worry, Helen," said Alby, "you have your whole career ahead of you to kill Peeps."

Helen glanced at him sharply and Patric did so, too, with a startled look on his face. She had never made a secret of her hatred for the Peeps, but her roommates had never really commented on it before either.

"Is it that obvious?" said Helen, not sure if she was amused or angry.

"Uh, well...yeah, I guess it is," said Alby. For the first time Helen could remember, Alby actually looked embarrassed by something he had said. He avoided her eyes for a moment and then looked across the compartment.

"Well, well! There's Midshipman Serrafina Ferraro! She has those three essential qualities I like in a person: Female, cute, and not in my chain of command! If you peons will excuse me..." Alby picked up his tray and headed over to another table.

The two of them watched him go. "Well, I guess there's a first time for everything," said Patric in surprise. Helen said nothing and Patric started eating.

"Is it wrong for me to hate the Peeps, Patric?" she said after a while. Patric looked uncomfortable and was silent for a few seconds.

"I don't know, Helen." he said finally. "I guess you have good reasons to."

"I suppose I do. But there are times when it worries me. There are times when I think maybe I am crazy; times when I'd destroy the whole universe if I could take all the Peeps with me."

"Well, they are the enemy..." said Patric uneasily.

"But you don't really hate them, do you?"

"I hate what they've done, but they have not really hurt me personally they way they have you."

"Anny doesn't hate them either, and she does have reasons, after what they did to Admiral Harrington." said Helen.

"I don't think Anny has ever hated anyone."

"No, I suppose not," smiled Helen. "Where is she anyway?"

"I think she's trying to find a shower with nobody in it," replied Patric, smiling in turn. They both laughed at that. Helen stared at him for a moment.

"You're kind of sweet on her aren't you, Patric?"

"No..." he answered instantly, then he paused and looked at Helen. "Well, yes I guess I am-not that it means anything. Me being her 'male protector' and all."

"That won't last forever," said Helen, trying to gauge her friend's feelings.

"But after graduation who knows where we will all end up? And both the Navy and Grayson have big plans for her. Plans I doubt I fit into."

Helen thought back over the last thirty months. She thought about Anny and Patric.

"What really happened that day? The day Anny almost resigned?" asked Helen.

Patric looked at Helen in surprise, but before he could give any answer at all, the shattering noise of the battle stations alarm howled through the mess hall. A moment later they were dashing down the passage towards Auxiliary Control.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Auxiliary Control was located in the after third of the ship, about as far aft from the ship's center as the bridge was forward from it. Fortunately, it was almost adjacent to the quarters that had been assigned to Helen and her middies. She dashed into the compartment and grabbed her skinsuit out of her locker and began stripping off her uniform. Anny was already there and for once she was paying no attention to her own modesty as she struggled into the skin-tight vacuum suit. She was gone by the time Helen had finished and a few moments later they were all in Auxiliary Control.

They relieved the previous watch and settled into their control stations. Lt. Commander Hyman was there and they looked at the tactical plot to see what was happening. One glance told them that this was not a false alarm.

"Multiple hyper footprints, sir," reported Alby Hinsworth. "At least forty so far, but they are scattered all over the periphery of the hyper limit."

"A raid," said Hyman, "a big one."

"The satellite network should give us more data in a few minutes, sir," said Alby.

A half dozen more contacts appeared on the plot and then data about the size, course and speed of the enemy ships began to show up as the sensor network analyzed their emissions. It seemed like Lt. Commander Hyman's estimation was correct; there were no enemy vessels larger than a battlecruiser and they were scattered in small groups and individually at a number of points around the edge of the hyper limit and further out-system. Clearly, they were insufficient to challenge the capital ships of Admiral Cristen's wall of battle. But they could still do a lot of damage in the outer system. A single battle squadron could have annihilated the entire Peeps force without difficulty, but the dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts were too slow to catch the lighter Peep vessels. There was also always the chance that the Peeps were trying to lure some of the capital ships away from their fellows as part of some larger attack that might materialize later. No, if the Peeps were going to be driven off, the smaller ships of Task Force 55 were going to be the ones to do it.

Perhaps twenty minutes went by while the higher ups analyzed the Peep's movements, and then orders began to flash out from the flagship. HMS Relentless was officially part of the Twenty-Third Cruiser Squadron, but she had been attached and reattached as needed since reaching Maastricht. Currently she was part of Task Group 55.3.2, which consisted of two battlecruisers, four heavy cruisers, six destroyers and twelve Shrike class Light Attack Craft under the command of Commodore Anthony Daniels. They were cruising just outward of the inner asteroid belt.

Trying to defend, or even patrol, the Maastricht system was quite a chore. It was unusually rich in planets and other debris. There were five rocky inner planets, including the inhabited fourth planet (also called Maastricht) huddling close to the F2 star. The inner asteroid belt separated them from three gas giants, all with large families of moons and ring systems. Then there was a second asteroid belt and two more gas giants. Several other small icy planets orbited at the frigid edge of the system. Both asteroid belts and four of the five gas giants had some sort of mining or industrial activity associated with them. Since everything except the inner belt and the planets sunward of it were outside the hyper limit, the Peeps could hit these lucrative targets with little warning.

As a result, the Alliance light forces were also scattered throughout the system in an attempt to guard the most valuable installations. It was obvious that the Peep ships that had been lurking in the system had gotten fairly accurate information about the Alliance dispositions and relayed it to the raiding force. Most of the incoming ships were headed towards unguarded areas or were trying to pounce on weaker detachments of the garrison.

Helen studied the tactical plot and tried to anticipate Admiral Cristen's likely reaction. So many variations and options! I can see why a task force needs a big tactical staff! She was still pondering possibilities when they got their orders.

Task Group 55.3.2 smoothly accelerated at 520 gravities and angled out for the first of the gas giants. A Peeps force was approaching the installations there. Fortunately, there were already some defending ships in the area, along with some minefields and parasite pods. TG 55.3.2 could not arrive for nearly an hour, but they would be there to backup the defenders.

Time passed and the battle unfolded on the tactical plot. First blood went to the Peeps. Two Erwonese destroyers could not evade three Peep heavy cruisers and were destroyed. Shortly thereafter, a Peep light cruiser was caught by eight LACs that had eluded the notice of the lurkers. The cruiser was wrecked at the cost of a single LAC. A number of mining craft in both belts were destroyed or damaged and dozens more were fleeing for the inner system. Suddenly, more enemy ships appeared on the plot.

"New impeller sources detected!" said Alby excitedly.

Four new icons, well sunward of them, were identified as light cruisers. They each launched a half dozen objects that had to be sensor drones and then darted off at angles to the ecliptic. They were obviously running for the hyper limit. The drones all streaked towards Maastricht and the inner system. It was apparent that this was a major objective of the raid. The cruisers must have been drifting slowly inward for weeks. They were now as close as they dared approach so they launched their drones and were running for their lives. Helen could see two dozen LACs from the main fleet suddenly light up their drives and head out for the incoming drones. Unfortunately, it seemed likely that the drones would get a good sensor scan of Admiral Cristen's wall and the installations around Maastricht before they could be destroyed.

"Score one for the Peeps, I'm afraid," murmured Lt. Commander Hyman. Helen was impressed by the planning and coordination the Peeps had managed on this operation. The days when the Peeps could be counted on to make clumsy errors were long gone.

More time passed and they began decelerating towards the gas giant. The approaching Peep force hit the defenders and was repulsed with losses. They were not expecting the missile pods orbiting among the gas giant's moons and a heavy cruiser and a destroyer paid the price. They did manage to destroy an orbital ore processor, but the remaining Peeps retreated away from TG 55.3.2. The Manticorans resumed accelerating to pursue, but it seemed likely the Peeps would get outside the gas giant's hyper limit before they could close to missile range.

We're going to miss out on it again! fumed Helen silently. All these targets and we can't get close to any of them!

"Signal from flag, sir," reported Midshipman Ryan Devlin. Even though the bridge was in control of the ship and Captain Kraus was in command, not Lt. Commander Hyman, Auxiliary Control operated as if they were controlling the ship. All incoming messages and data were treated as if they were meant for them. None of their controls were activated, but they were ready to take over instantly if the bridge should be knocked out.

"Message as follows: 'Relentless and LACs 1023, 1159 and 1088, proceed to Purbach at best speed. LACs to stay in Relentless' impeller shadow. Enemy destroyer attacking mining operation on Purbach-F. Engage and destroy if possible. Remainder of TG 55.3.2, pursue current target, Commodore T. Daniels, out.' end of message, sir."

Well, we'll never catch those bastards in front of us; maybe we can sneak up on a destroyer, thought Helen. Purbach was the fourth gas giant out from the star and at the moment far from any of the actions currently going on in the system. There was not much there worth attacking or defending. Helen looked at the plot and saw that the moon mentioned in the message, Purbach-F, was on the far side of the gas giant at the moment. Obviously Commodore Daniels was hoping that no one would notice the three LACs accompanying Relentless and perhaps the DD would not flee soon enough and the three LACs could run it down. With the sophisticated stealth systems the ships possessed, it might be possible to make their four impeller signatures look like just one cruiser. It was a long shot, and just a tiny part of a minor battle. As Helen watched, the three LACs moved in as close to Relentless as they safely could and then the quartet changed course and headed outward at 550 gravities.

"Estimated time to Purbach, Ms. Tarburton?" asked Hyman. Marcy Tarburton consulted her panel.

"Three hours, twelve minutes assuming we turnover for a zero velocity arrival, sir," said the young woman.

"Make it three hours then, the Captain will want to have some velocity left on us when we get there. I guess we can relax for a while, people. Mr. Devlin, will you see if we can get some more coffee in here?"

The time ticked slowly away. Helen watched the tactical plot and could see that the battle was winding down. Most of the Peeps had already hypered out and the rest would surely do so soon. Only one running fight was in progress on the opposite side of the solar system. TG 55.3.2's target had escaped without further damage and Commodore Daniels had sent another destroyer after Relentless, but it would take a number of hours to catch up with them. The battle had been pretty much a draw. The Peeps had lost a few more ships, but they had done a fair amount of other damage, and gotten the sensor readings they were after. She took another sip of coffee and tried to stay alert.

An hour passed and they were decelerating towards Purbach and Helen started to get worried. Where is that DD? she wondered. They must know we are coming and even if they don't know about the LACs they would have to be crazy to stick around. The mining operation had gone silent over two hours ago. The miners were probably safe underground, but the topside installations had no doubt been smashed. The Peep had also killed two sensor satellites in the area and then disappeared among the moons and rings of the gas giant. He may be on a course that keeps the planet between him and us. At a low acceleration he might be able to escape detection by one of the other ships or satellites, but why bother? Purbach only has a hyper limit of about two light minutes; he could have hypered out a long time ago. The only thing that Helen could think of was that the Peep was hoping to become a lurker and did not want to leave.

Twenty minutes later Relentless and her consorts passed the orbit of Purbach's outermost moon. They were down to under a hundred kilometers per second and curved slowly around the giant planet. The coffee cups had been put away and everyone was tensely looking at their consoles. Captain Kraus launched two drones to expand his sensor envelope. He could have used the LACs but he probably wanted to keep them as his hole card. Relentless and the drones slid around Purbach on three different vectors, each searching for a foe who might not even be there. The cruiserskirted under the planet's impressive rings. A ship could hide in them-if it were lucky. Minutes went by and they would soon have a line of sight on the moon with the mining operation.

"Contact!" shouted Alby. "Impeller source at one-five-nine, mark one-six! Range four point two light seconds!" Every eye jumped to the tactical plot where a new red icon had appeared. It was the destroyer all right and she was fleeing at maximum acceleration. The Peep, either by good planning or good luck, had put the planet's ring between himself and Relentless. It would not have stopped energy weapons but they were far out of energy range. It was easy range for missiles, but they would be unlikely to survive a flight through that disk of ice and pebbles. They would have to get around the edge of the ring before they could fire. Even so, they would get a clear shot on the Peep once they did and he was deep inside their missile envelope.

The Peep had not counted on the LACs, either. Captain Kraus took them off their leash and they leapt after the fleeing destroyer like hounds on a fresh scent. The LACs had a hundred gee advantage over Relentless and nearly seventy-five on the destroyer. It took them only ninety seconds to clear the ring-and Relentless was right behind.

Helen watched her targeting plot; the forward pair of missile tubes were ready to fire as soon as they had a clear shot. Her hand was poised over the firing key even though her board was not active. The planet's rings were suddenly behind them and a pair of missiles spat from the cruiser's bow tubes. Helen took a deep breath. We've done it! I've done it! I've hit back at the Peeps! The feeling could not be described by any words Helen possessed.

Helen watched their two missiles on the plot and she realized it was only a gesture: the Peep was already doomed. The three LACs had salvoed off a dozen missiles apiece from their rotary launchers as soon as they had a clear shot. Even now they were entering attack range on the destroyer. The range was too short for decoys or electronic countermeasures to do much good against the superior Manticoran seeking systems. Counter-missiles destroyed four of the missiles and point defense laser clusters killed a half dozen more, but the remaining twenty-six all got through. Despite frantic maneuvering on the part of the Peep, they blew the destroyer into a ball of plasma as X-ray lasers tore through the ship's fusion reactor. Die! You bastards! thought Helen savagely.

But the Peep did not die alone.

Helen had to admire the courage of the Peep skipper. When the LACs had come after him he knew he could not escape so he had turned and fired a double broadside of missiles back at his executioners. One of them scored a hit and the lightly armored LAC 1159 had vanished in flash of light.

"Damn!" exclaimed Hyman. "I thought we had him clean!"

The mood in Auxiliary Control was dampened slightly from a moment before, but even the death of ten of their comrades could not overshadow the fact that they had helped destroy an enemy ship. There were almost three hundred Peeps on that destroyer, thought Helen, not a bad exchange for ten of us.

The ship's communicator demanded their attention: "This is the Captain. Well done people! Well done indeed! Relentless gets an assist on that one! A fine job, and my compliments to you all. I'm sending the LACs ahead to look for survivors. The rest of us should keep our eyes open, there may be more of them around."

The Captain clicked off and there was a ragged round of applause in the compartment. Helen was not concerned about any Peep survivors, but even she had to admit it was the right thing to do. The middies and Lt. Commander Hyman were congratulating themselves, but Helen stared at her plot and frowned. Something was nagging at the back of her mind.

Why had the Peep stayed? It makes no sense at all... unless there are more of them around! An ambush? But where? She looked at the tactical display on her own board and started drawing in vectors. The Peep was headed this way. If the LACs had not been with us, it would have taken a lot longer for us to kill him, so we would have gone like that... Helen saw that their vector was taking them towards one of Purbach's outer moons, they would be only a few hundred thousand kilometers from it in another minute. The LACs were already almost there. Helen quickly looked to see where their two sensor drones were. She wanted to get a scan of the moon's opposite side, but the drones had never been recalled when the action started. They were far away by now and still accelerating. She looked at the moon again on her plot. There! If they are here at all, that's where they are!

"Commander Hyman..." said Helen with sudden urgency in her voice, but an alarm buzzer cut her off.

"New contact!" shouted Alby.

LACs 1023 and 1088 suddenly vanished from Helen's tactical display as their killer emerged from the sensor shadow of the moon.

"Enemy ship bearing three-one-five, mark two-seven!" blurted Alby, "range two-hundred thousand kilometers!"

"Changing course to port!" cried Anny, relaying the action the bridge was taking

.

"Starboard batteries locking on target!" reported Helen.

"Target reads as a Scimitar class heavy cruiser," said Alby, trying to keep his voice calm.

There had indeed been an ambush. The Peep heavy cruiser had drifted in from out-system weeks beforehand and was waiting to use the destroyer as bait. It was just a tiny part of the Peep's operation, but they had caught more than they bargained for. The Manticoran LACs had forced the Peeps to spring the ambush early, and now two old heavy cruisers squared off at what amounted to point-blank range. They opened fire almost simultaneously. Their missiles would take over twenty seconds to reach attack range, but their lasers and grasers leapt the distance between them in two-thirds of a second.

"Starboard batteries firing!" said Helen, but her words were only half out of her mouth when Relentless shook with the impact of the enemy's weapons. Admiral Thayer had once told Helen that a ship always made a strange noise when it took a hit and that no two ships sounded quite alike. Now she heard what Relentless sounded like when she was in pain. Again and again and again.

"Multiple hits on starboard side!" said Patric, frantically scanning the rapidly growing list of damage and trying to decide which to report first.

"Counter-missiles going out, point defense on automatic!" said Linda Dover at Helen's side as Relentless tried to knock down the incoming Peep missiles.

The ship continued to shake and groan as the enemy took bites out of her, but the enemy was being hurt, too.

"Weapons are on target!" cried Alby. "Target is spilling air and debris!"

The ships' sidewalls deflected some of the damage and reduced its effect, but at this range nothing could stop it completely. Armor plate and battle steel blew into deadly fragments, air gushed out into space, and men and women died.

"Hits on nodes B3 and A6; radar-two destroyed; hit on boat bay one; sidewall generator twelve damaged..." Patric was reading off his litany of destruction like an automaton.

Helen clung to her console as the ship rocked around her. She was thrown against the shock frame of her chair and she automatically grabbed her helmet off its rack and fastened it on. But she never took her eyes off her weapons display. They were firing and firing again, but there were fewer of them every moment. Lasers, grasers and missile tubes were being wiped away by the enemy fire. Weapon after weapon blinked from green to red on her board. That the enemy fire was slackening, too proved that they were hurting him just as badly.

The Captain's going to have to roll the ship soon to bring the port batteries to bear, thought Helen calmly, Take some of the Peep's fire on our wedge and then give him a fresh broadside!

But the Captain did not roll the ship. Seconds crawled by and the ship shook again and again.

An alarm sounded and Patric shouted: "Fusion Two is in emergency shutdown!"

Relentless had lost half her power, but Fusion One took up the load without a pause. Over half the starboard broadside was out of action now. What's he waiting for? Roll the ship! Do it now!

The ship seemed to lurch sideways; the lights flickered for an instant and a new alarm sounded.

"Hit on Power Room One!" said Patric in near panic. "Main and secondary power feeds are down!

"We're losing the wedge!" said Anny in a shrill voice. "Sidewalls are coming down!" The ship shook again, but more violently than before. The ship was naked to the enemy fire.

Oh my God! We're finished! thought Helen numbly. Without the sidewalls, we haven't got a chance! For an insane, totally incongruous instant Helen remembered that she had never answered her father's last letter.

Then Alby gave a whoop: "Target is gone from gravitics! They've lost their wedge, too!" Nine hearts suddenly started beating again, the odds were still even.

But Helen looked at her board in growing desperation. Less than half the starboard weapons were still in action, and they were now operating from their emergency capacitors. A few shots and they would be done. We have to roll now!

The ship twitched again, and a light at the top of her display turned from red to green and a chime sounded that was almost lost in the noise around her. She looked at it incredulously for an instant.

"My board is hot!" she cried. "We have control!"

She looked at Lt. Commander Hyman for orders, but his face had gone paper white.

"Captain Kraus, come in please," he said into his com in growing panic. "Commander Constantini, report. Bridge! Respond!"

We don't have time for this! Helen thought frantically. If the Peep rolls first he'll finish us! I'm the Tactical Officer now, we have to act!

"Helm, roll ship 180 degrees starboard!" said Ensign Helen Zilwicki in a voice that cut through the noise. Anny Payne looked at Helen with wide eyes that flicked to Hyman and back to her.

"Anny, do it!" said Helen.

Anny Payne's hands flew over her console. "Aye, ma'am, ship rolling to starboard!"

Helen's eyes were glued to her board. It would take fifteen seconds for the thrusters to complete the roll. Is the Peep rolling already? The ship shuddered from another hit, but that could have been from a missile already in flight.

Fifteen seconds…

Time slowed to a crawl. Helen was focused as she had never been before. An incredible energy seemed to fill her. It was as if her entire life had been leading to this moment.

Fourteen…thirteen…

There was no time for anything fancy; she set all the weapons to fire as soon as they bore.

"Tactical, bring the port batteries to bear!" said someone with Lt. Commander Hyman's voice.

"I'm on it, sir!" said Helen without noticing.

Eleven…ten…

She finished the firing instructions and a red light flashed on her board. Her heart leapt into her throat as she looked at the warning light. Her hand slapped a switch and the light went out.

"Missile tubes set for sequential fire!"

Eight…seven…

Come on! Come on! Every instant Helen expected the ship to explode around her with the Peep's undamaged broadside, but the seconds continued to tick away.

Six…five…

Helen's hand was over the firing key. The computer should fire automatically, but she was taking no chances. Her com was open to all the battery commanders.

Four…three…

"Standby!"

Two…one…

"All batteries... FIRE!" and she pushed the key with all her strength.

HMS Relentless was already a wreck by anyone's standards, but her builders had given her a great heart, and the men and women who crewed her had more soul than anyone knew. The energy weapons in her port broadside hurled death at her tormentor and the missile tubes fired their loads at half-second intervals with recoils that shook the whole ship.

Wham! Wham! Wham!

Without the inertial compensator, the powerful mass drivers had a tremendous recoil. If they had all fired simultaneously, the ship and her crew might have taken serious damage.

Wham! Wham! Wham!

Helen was jolted in her seat by each discharge. The pounding seemed to match her pounding heart. It was like she was pumping out her hate. Pumping it down her arm to the fingers on the firing key. Pumping it through the ship's controls to the weapons batteries. Pumping it through beams of coherent hell into her enemy. And Peeps are dying! Her face was contorted in an animal snarl.

"Weapons are on target!" shouted Alby, getting reports from his sensors.

"Maintain fire!" said Hyman.

"Continuous fire on all weapons, aye, sir!" replied Helen, still oblivious to everything but the target on her board.

"Pour it into them, 'Guns'!" whooped Patric. The other people in the compartment began to cheer as well.

Helen stared at her display. Yes, she was pouring it into them, but not for much longer. The missile tubes hammered out another salvo and then went silent, their capacitors exhausted. Even as she watched, the power-hungry grasers flashed from green to red on her board. The lasers had another shot or two and they would run dry as well. But the Peep must have been smashed, he had only gotten off a single laser shot and a half dozen missiles. Point defense was engaging them. With a little luck...

The ship lurched again.

"Hit on Power Room One!" shouted Patric. "Fusion One is..."

A tremendous blow rocked the ship. It made what had come before seem like love-taps. Helen was slammed against her shock frame, and the lights went out.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The lights came back on in Auxiliary Control. Helen never did find out if they had actually gone off or if she herself had blacked out for a moment. There was pain in her shoulders where she had been thrown against the shock frame and her neck hurt, too. She looked around the compartment and saw the others shaking their heads and dazedly trying to figure out what had happened.

"All stations report," said Lt. Commander Hyman, just as dazed as the rest of them.

Helen looked at her board. She was still getting readouts from some of her weapons, but the targeting display was blank. She reported as much to Hyman.

"I'm blind here," said Alby. "No readings from any of the sensors, sir."

"Damage Control, what's happening?" demanded Hyman.

Patric shook his head again. "I'm not sure, sir. I'm not getting any readings from forward at all I...I think Fusion One may have blown."

There was a moment of stunned silence. If the containment field of a fusion plant failed catastrophically, it would be like setting off a nuke inside the ship. Fusion one was in the forward hammerhead. If it had blown...

"Sir, we are tumbling," reported Anny. "Spinning in all three axes. The "Y" axis is worst, sir, almost two revolutions per minute." The ship was tumbling end over end and fast enough to create a formidable artificial gravity at the extreme ends of the ship. Now that she was aware of it, Helen could actually feel herself being pulled slightly by the centrifugal forces. But she was being pulled forward. That meant that the ship's center of gravity was now behind Auxiliary Control, but that could only be true if... a chill went down Helen's spine.

The same thought had obviously occurred to Lt. Commander Hyman. He bit his lip and stared for a moment. "Ms. Payne, can you stabilize the ship?" he asked at last.

"I'll try, sir, but most of the thrusters are not responding. It will take a minute for me to figure this out, sir."

"Do your best, Anny," said Hyman.

"Sir, I have no direct communications," reported Ryan Devlin. "The FTL system is out and so are my other transmitters. I'm picking up some chatter from the Task Force but it's just routine. Should I activate the disaster beacon?"

Gerald Hyman was having too much thrown at him at once, but he was coping with it as well as could be expected. He thought for a minute. "Yes, go ahead."

"Aye, sir, activating disaster beacon."

Relentless was now broadcasting a signal that told anyone listening that she had suffered major damage and was in need of assistance. At the distance they were from their friends it would take quite a while for anyone to receive the signal, but it should not have been necessary anyway. Every ship in the task force would have seen their impeller signature drop off the gravitic sensors-there would be only one reason for that to happen. Help was probably on the way already.

"Sir, I have Lieutenant Gallagher in Secondary Damage Control," reported Patric.

"Don! What the hell is going on down there?" said Hyman into his com.

"That you, Gerry?" came the reply. "I think Fusion One cut loose, but that's about all I can tell you right now. We've got a hell of a spin on the ship. I can't send repair parties anywhere the grav plates are out. Can you get the ship under control?"

"Ms. Payne, how's that coming?" said Hyman to Anny.

"Standby, sir, I think I can get it. Yes! Thrusters activated, we should be stable in a few minutes." Anny looked up with a satisfied gleam in her eye and exchanged nods with Helen.

"Well done, Anny," said Hyman. "Hang on Don, we should have the spin off in a couple of minutes. Once you can move around, I need reports ASAP."

There was a short pause. "Am I reporting to you now, Gerry?" said Gallagher slowly.

"I think so, Don," answered Hyman. "We lost contact with the bridge even before the big hit. I guess I'm in command now."

"Okay, Skipper. I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

Other reports started coming in. The main sickbay, which was about forty meters forward from Auxiliary Control, had taken some damage but was basically intact. Fortunately, the fighting had happened so quickly that no wounded had even been brought there when the damage took place. They were starting to pour in now, however. Power Room Two was heavily damaged and the fusion plant was a total loss. That meant there was no hope of getting the impellers back up, but they had plenty of battery power to run the environmental plant and most of the smaller ship systems. Both boat bays had been hit but the extent of the damage had not yet been determined. Helen could feel the effects of the tumbling slowly die away as the ship stabilized. After about ten minutes Lieutenant Gallagher called back and his voice was grim.

"Gerry, I've got Chief Skoronski on the line. He's got a report... I'll patch him through."

At first they thought the com connection was breaking up but then they realized it was actually the chief's voice. "I...I'm at frame ninety-four... I can't get any further forward...oh God, there's nothin' left...I'm looking out into space. The whole bow section is just gone..."

Helen closed her eyes. Everything they had learned so far had warned them that this was probably the case, but it was still hard to take. They had hoped that there would be something left-something that could hold some survivors. The bridge is gone; Captain Kraus is dead... With a sudden, horrible shock Helen realized that Commander Paula Constantini was dead, too. If it wasn't for us-for me-she might have been in Auxiliary Control! And I would have been forward in Missile Two. Helen felt a terrible guilt but it quickly turned to anger. The Peeps have killed another person I care about! Helen clutched her console and tried to fight down the rage building up inside her.

After a moment she looked around the compartment. Everyone else was locked in their own thoughts. Helen looked at the faces of her middies and she saw tears on a few of them. Suddenly a new thought struck her. Oh my God! What about the others? She knew it was selfish to only worry about her midshipmen when several hundred other crewmen had just died as well, but she couldn't help it. Her mind started running down a list of who was in the forward part of the ship. Bob Hall was in the forward impeller room; Gerhard Frisch in Missile One; Marjie Barbarie in ... she wrenched her mind away, she could mourn the dead later!

Gerry Hyman shook his head. "Thank you, Chief. Don, we're blind up here, we need to get some sensors back on line as soon as possible."

"Okay, Gerry," answered Gallagher, "I'll see what we can do."

"Ms. Zilwicki," Hyman said, turning to Helen, "I think we can assume that the Peep was hit pretty hard or he would have killed us by now. Even so, we have to be ready. Assuming we can get some sensors back, what is the situation with the weapons?"

"Not very good, sir," admitted Helen, glad to have something to distract her from her previous thoughts. "The port batteries have all run their capacitors. I'm sorry, sir, if I'd been thinking I would have held something back.

"

Hyman snorted. "Helen, you were the only one here who was thinking. By the way, that was a hell of a job and I'm grateful."

"Thank you, sir," said Helen, blushing. "There are some charged capacitors and undamaged weapons on the starboard side, but unfortunately none of them are connected to each other. The closest pair would be laser four and the capacitor for graser six. If we can get a repair party in there maybe we can cross-connect them."

"What about the stern chase armament?"

"They are all showing red on my board, sir. We took some hits back there during the first exchange. I don't know if any of them can be made operable."

Hyman nodded his head, and then he turned to Linda Dover and stopped. Helen turned to look, too and noticed for the first time that Linda had blood dripping down the side of her head.

"Are you all right, Linda?" Hyman asked.

"I'm fine, sir, just bumped my head a bit when...when...I'm fine, sir," repeated Dover. "I've got six laser clusters that are reporting as operational, but without sensors to aim them..." she trailed off.

"And the counter-missiles?" asked Hyman.

Linda shook her head and then grimaced.

"Sir, when Fusion One blew it must have played hell in the magazines," interjected Helen. "I'm getting reports from some of the ammo handlers that they've got missiles broken loose from their racks all over the place down there. There are smashed missiles blocking the hoists and the feed tubes. The counter-missiles are probably just as bad."

"I see," said Hyman. "Well, contact Lieutenant Gallagher about laser four and that capacitor and see if he can get someone over there."

Before Helen could do so, Gallagher was back on the com.

"Gerry, I've got some remotes out on the hull now and it doesn't look too good on the sensors. The blast must have sheared off everything sticking out on the main hull. I've got one array, radar fourteen, that looks intact from the outside."

Alby Hinsworth's head jerked up suddenly. "That's on the aft hammerhead, sir. It's reading dead on my display, but maybe it's just the connection that's severed."

"Don, can you get a party back there to have a look?" asked Hyman.

"I don't know, Gerry," Gallagher sounded desperate. "We... Gerry, we had over half our repair teams headed for the forward power room to try and reconnect those feeds when it blew...two-thirds of my repair parties haven't reported in. Most of the rest are trying to dig people out of the wreckage."

Gerry Hyman nodded his head. An awful lot of good people had died today. "I'm sorry, Don, can you find anyone at all, it's important."

"I've got half a dozen ratings here, but none of them are qualified for that sort of work, and I've got nobody to lead them," said Gallagher.

"Sir! I can go!" said Alby suddenly. Hyman turned to look at him and Alby continued. "I was just recalibrating that array yester... gosh, it was only a few hours ago! I know where it is, sir."

Hyman thought for a moment. "All right, Mr. Hinsworth, report to SDC and collect those ratings and whatever tools you'll need. Ms. Tarburton, you go with him, I'm afraid you won't be doing much more navigation for a while."

The two midshipmen got out of their chairs and headed out of the compartment. Alby gave Helen a wink as he passed. Helen shook her head in wonder and smiled. To think that just six months ago Alby would not volunteer or stick his neck out for anyone-what a change!

Hyman sat back in his chair and thought for a while. Patric continued to monitor the reports from SDC, but the rest of them had nothing they could really do. They waited.

What is the Peep doing? wondered Helen, We must have hit him very hard, maybe even destroyed him, but if he's still out there, what's he up to?

The waiting was getting to all of them. Lt. Commander Hyman asked Ryan Devlin if he was picking up anything over the radio concerning them, even though he must have known the answer.

"No, sir, even if they broadcast something as soon as we went off gravitics, it will still be a few minutes before the signal could reach us." Hyman just nodded his head.

Another ten minutes went by and then they got a call from Midshipman Tarburton. "Sir, we think we've found the break in the connection with the sensor array," she reported to Hyman. "The bulkhead is all smashed in and we're in vacuum here. We're trying to bridge the gap in the line, but the only way through is almost completely blocked. Midshipman Hinsworth is trying to get at it."

Helen could suddenly picture what was going on. Alby Hinsworth was one of the smallest cadets at the Academy. He was trying to worm his way through some gap in the wreckage that none of the others could fit through, trailing a fiber-optic cable behind him. She just hoped he didn't get stuck or tear his skinsuit on some sharp bit of debris. Minutes passed, then suddenly Alby was on the com.

"Commander Hyman, I've reached the junction box for the array-seems like I was just here. I'm about to patch in the new cable...here goes." There was a pause and then Helen's tactical display suddenly came to life.

"You did it, Alby! You did it!" she cried.

"Well done, Mr. Hinsworth," said Hyman. "You can come back here now if you are finished."

"Thank you, sir," replied Alby, "But I think I'm stuck. Maybe I'll just wait here for a while." Helen, Anny and Patric exchanged worried glances.

"All right, Mr. Hinsworth, we'll get you out," said Hyman. "Ms. Tarburton, get some cutting equipment and see if you can free Mr. Hinsworth."

"That's okay, Marcy," said Alby, "I was wanting an excuse to take a nap anyway. Take your time and I'll be right here."

Helen grinned at her friends and then turned to her tactical display. The grin froze on her face.

The Peep was still there.

"Sir, take a look at this," she said, switching her display to the main readout.

Hyman looked at the red icon glowing on the screen. "Well, he's about where he was before, what do you think, Ms. Zilwicki?"

"The radar return is fluctuating a bit, sir," answered Helen. "He may be tumbling the way we were. I'm picking up returns from a lot of debris, too. The range is a little over a hundred thousand klicks."

They continued to study the display and then Helen began to tap in numbers on her console. When she finished they looked at the projected course of their ship and the enemy.

"Damn," muttered Hyman.

The two ships had been on nearly parallel courses at nearly the same speed when they wrecked each other. But the courses were not quite parallel. The plot showed that the enemy ship would pass across Relentless' stern in just over two and a half hours at a distance of less than four thousand kilometers. At that range, even without active sensors, the enemy could fire using the last-ditch optical sights on their weapons. If the Peeps had anything left to throw at them, there would be very little chance for Relentless to stop them. Against an unshielded and defenseless ship, even a counter-missile would be enough to tear them to pieces with its impeller wedge.

"Are you picking anything up from the Peep?" asked Hyman.

"No, sir," replied Helen. "No active sensors, no communications, no disaster beacon, but if they have passive sensors they know where we are now."

Hyman turned to the others in the compartment. "All right, people, we need some ideas. Any possible help won't arrive until after our closest approach to the enemy. What kind of a threat does the Peep represent and how do we neutralize him?"

"Sir," said Linda Dover, "launched from four thousand kilometers, a missile or counter-missile would hit us in less than three seconds. Point defense might be able to stop one missile, but I wouldn't want to stake our lives on it." Her face looked very pale compared to the dried blood on the side of her head, but her voice was strong and steady.

"Wouldn't they just surrender?" asked Midshipman Michael Mullan. As head of Flight Ops, Mullan had virtually nothing to do so far. "I mean, they have to know their situation is hopeless."

"Maybe, but all it takes is one People's Commissioner with a martyr complex and we could be in trouble." said Helen with a look of distaste.

"I agree," said Hyman, "and in any case we have to assume they will not surrender."

"Then I guess we have to get them before they can get us," said Anny Payne.

"But how?" asked Patric. "The only thing that can take them out with one shot is a missile or counter-missile. Even if we get that laser operational all we can do is punch a couple more holes in them-that's not likely to do fatal damage."

"Are there any drones or decoys operational?" asked Ryan Devlin. "Anything with an impeller that we can crash into them would do the job at this point."

Patric shook his head. "The decoy bays have been smashed. The drones are stored in the magazines and you heard what kind of shape they are in."

"What about the two we launched earlier?" asked Hyman.

"Sorry, sir, they were never recalled and they've been accelerating steadily away from us since they were launched," said Helen. "Even if we could contact them and turn them around, their drives would be burned out before they could get here."

"Mr. Mullan, what's the situation with our small craft?"

"Not good, sir," answered Michael Mullan. "Both boat bays took hits. The reports I'm getting are that the ordnance stored in both of the marines' pinnaces blew and that took out everything else. All that we have left are emergency shuttles three and four."

Hyman pondered that. Several dozen escape pods were located around the ship for use in a disaster. They were little more than airtight containers with life support and supplies. The ship was also provided with four emergency shuttles. If the ship were crippled far from help, the shuttles were to be used to round up the escape pods and possibly tow them to a habitable planet. The shuttles were small and simple and they relied on thrusters rather than impellers. Two were stored in each hammerhead of the ship and the two in Relentless' stern seemed to have survived.

"Could we rig one of them with a remote control and use it as an impact weapon?" asked Helen.

"I doubt it, Ma'am, the shuttles are not set up for remote control," said Mullan. "I mean, it could certainly be done, but we'd have to build the remote control almost from scratch. I don't think we have time for that."

Helen thought for a while. "Sir, that laser can only punch a few more holes, just as Mr. McDermott has said, but if we knew where to punch them it would certainly be a help."

"What do you mean, Helen?"

"Well, sir, if we sent someone out in one of those shuttles to have a close look at the Peep, they could relay targeting information and maybe we could hit them where it hurts."

Hyman pursed his lips and frowned. "If the Peep has any point defense, hell, any weapons at all, that could be suicide for whoever was in the shuttle."

"Those shuttles would be almost invisible to passive sensors, sir. We should be able to sneak right up on them."

"Unless somebody looks out a viewport," said Patric.

"I don't know," said Hyman. "Even if we managed it, I don't know if two or three laser shots would be enough to disable every weapon that could potentially be active."

"It's a shame all the marines' ordnance went up," said Patric, "we could build a big bomb and send it over there."

"What about taking a warhead off a missile and doing the same thing?" asked Ryan Devlin eagerly.

Helen shook her head. "It would take more time than we have to get a nuke off one of the missiles and get it out to the shuttle. The magazines are an incredible mess right now."

Anny Payne had been frowning for a few moments. Now she looked up and said: "We can't send the marines' ordnance, but what about sending the marines?"

There was a long silence.

"You mean a boarding party, Ms. Payne?" asked Hyman incredulously.

"Why not, sir?" said Helen suddenly jumping in. "The Peeps would never expect it and they always have a very small contingent of marines anyway. We could seize the ship and make sure they can't make trouble for Relentless!"

Hyman just stared for a moment, but the idea seemed to take hold and generate its own enthusiasm. To board and capture an enemy ship! After five thousand years it was still the ultimate symbol of naval victory. Hyman made a few half-hearted attempts to discourage his eager midshipmen and then gave in.

"All right, let's find out what we have left in the way of marines." He got on the com. "Lieutenant McCloskey, come in please.

Silence. "Lieutenant Herwitt, this is Auxiliary Control, please report." A few moments passed and then there was a response.

"Sir, this is Med-tech Kienost. Lt. Herwitt is here in Sick Bay, he is in pretty bad shape, sir."

"Sergeant Philbin, are you there?" said Hyman in increasing dismay, but there was no answer. "Any marine NCO please report!"

A few minutes later they concluded that there were twenty-six uninjured marines left on board and they were being led by two corporals. None of them were qualified to pilot the shuttles.

"The shuttles can hold fifteen normally, I would say maybe a dozen marines with their gear might fit in," said Hyman, who was losing his enthusiasm for the project. "We need somebody to pilot them and somebody to lead those marines."

"I'll go," said Helen without hesitation. "There's nothing for me to do here anyway, sir. Any of you could fire that laser."

"Ms. Zilwicki, with all due respect, this is hardly the situation for a raw cadet!" said Hyman.

"Who better, sir? If it is a suicide mission, we're more expendable than anyone else."

"No one's expendable, Ms. Zilwicki! I've seen quite enough people expended today!" Hyman turned away. Helen could see that the pressure was starting to get to Gerald Hyman. He was not that much older than the midshipmen and the awful responsibility of command was weighing him down. After a few moments he started checking on the com for other officers that could lead the boarding party. It did not take him long to discover that the only officers on board HMS Relentless who were uninjured and not involved in some vital repair activity were sitting with him in Auxiliary Control. Hyman sat scowling for a few long minutes and then turned to Helen.

"All right, it is against my better judgment, but, Ms. Zilwicki, you've got the job. Who do you want in the other shuttle?"

Helen looked at the other midshipmen. There was only one logical choice, but she did not want to say it.

Anny Payne saved her the trouble. "I'll go too," she said simply.

Patric McDermott was on his feet in a second. "No! Sir, I should go," he said with alarm in his voice.

"Mr. McDermott, I need you to monitor Damage Control. I'm afraid Ms. Payne is correct. We have no need for a helmsman under these circumstances. She and Ms. Zilwicki are the most easily spared of any of you."

"But..." said Patric, helplessly staring at Anny.

Anny smiled at him. "It will be all right, Patric. It was my idea after all."

Patric sank back into his seat with an utterly forlorn look on his face. Helen turned away. I can see why they don't allow people working together to get romantically involved-poor Patric!

"Okay, people, if this is going to do any good we've got to do it fast," said Hyman. "All marines report to Auxiliary Control. Bring any extra weapons or equipment you can find."

"Away all boarders!" came Alby Hinsworth's voice over the com. Helen had not known he had been listening in. "Cutlasses for all hands! Wish I was going with you!"

It took about ten minutes, but they had all their marines assembled in the corridor outside the control room. Lt. Commander Hyman divided them into two eleven-man squads under Corporal Greene and Corporal Lafferty. They did not have a lot of equipment. Most of their heavy weapons were stored in the pinnaces or in the 'morgue' along with their suits of battle armor. Unfortunately, the 'morgue' had taken a direct hit. The marines mostly carried the standard pulser rifles, but there was one tri-barrel, a few grenades and a couple of flechette guns as well. Helen and Anny buckled on pistol belts and Helen took one of the spare flechette guns. She cradled the deadly close quarters weapon in her arms and thought fondly of what it could do to a Peep. She noticed Anny Payne had picked up a plasma carbine.

"You sure you want to take that thing, Anny?" asked Helen.

"Sure!" said Anny brightly. "They make such a neat noise when you fire them!" Her smile faded when she saw Patric looking at her. She went over to him, raised the visor on her helmet and stood on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. Helen could not hear what she said to him.

Lt. Commander Hyman came over to Helen. "Ensign, I want to be sure you understand your orders," he said. "You are to take the two shuttles and rendezvous with the enemy ship. You will make a visual inspection of its condition. If you think that we can disable its remaining weaponry with shots from laser four-assuming we can get it operational-you will illuminate the target area with your com-laser. If that is not possible, I will, if I think fit, give you permission to board. At that point you will have to operate on your own initiative. Disable the operational weapons or secure the whole ship as you think best and the circumstances allow." Hyman looked into Helen's eyes and offered her his hand. Helen took it and they shook solemnly. "Be careful, Helen. We've lost enough people for one day."

"Aye aye, sir. We'll do our best." Helen let go of Hyman's hand, saluted, and started her people down the passageway towards the shuttle bays.

Once they had left the comforting and undamaged confines of Auxiliary Control Helen started to realize just how badly hurt Relentless was. They had to detour several times past damaged corridors. At one point they had to go down two decks and through an access corridor between the weapons batteries on the gundeck to get around a huge gash in the ship. They also met medical teams heading towards SickBay carrying their pitiful burdens. When they reached the aft hammerhead, they had to split up to get to the two shuttles. Fortunately, the way was clear and the shuttles were undamaged.

Helen reflected that the shuttles were deliberately made so simple to operate that the marines could have surely piloted them on their own, but she was not going to mention that now. Besides, it was Navy policy that any expedition like this be under the command of an officer. She felt scared but also excited. I'm leading a boarding party! I never would have expected this in my wildest dreams. Another part deep inside her was exulting over the prospect of killing some Peeps face to face.

Once everyone was aboard, Helen contacted Anny Payne in the other shuttle. When she was ready, they blew the protective hatches over the shuttle bays and carefully maneuvered their tiny craft outside.

If the ruined interior of HMS Relentless had been disturbing, from the outside she was a nightmare.

Helen had never imagined such destruction. It seemed impossible that anyone was still alive on board. The ship's starboard side, the side facing the enemy when the fight began, had been torn open in dozens of places. Structural members were exposed and twisted in bizarre shapes. Armor and hull plating had been ripped apart like tissue paper. Helen could see where Boat Bay One had exploded from inside. The port side was hardly damaged at all by comparison. Most of the hull was unblemished, and the imposing, but now impotent, weapons bays were intact.

At least until you looked forward.

About a hundred meters past the midway point of the ship the hull just...ended. An incredible, ragged stump was all that remained of the forward half of the ship. It was something the mind could scarcely accept. It was like waking up some morning and finding that half your home town had just vanished during the night-along with all the people who had lived there-and leaving nothing behind but an ugly hole.

Corporal Greene was muttering curses where he sat next to her in the co-pilot's seat. Some of the other marines were straining to catch glimpses over their heads. Those that got a look followed Greene's example. Helen's own emotions defied words nearly as well as they had a few hours before when they killed the Peep destroyer. She had only served on Relentless for a few months. She didn't really know the crew very well. But that was my ship, dammit! The rage started to build in her again. She clutched the controls and tried to fight it down. She almost lost it this time, but the urgency of her mission cut through the red haze that was nearly blinding her.

She shook herself and then turned her shuttle towards where the enemy was waiting.

Chapter Twenty-Six

The Peep cruiser looked to be in better shape than Relentless as the two shuttles approached. The basic double hammerhead shape, common to all warships, was still intact: clearly the Peeps had not had a fusion plant cut loose. They were still too far away to see any details but there did seem to be a lot of debris floating around. And the Peep was tumbling very slowly, end over end. If there was anyone still alive aboard, either they had not regained any sort of control-or they were playing possum.

"You picking anything up, Ms. Payne?" asked Helen. A hair-thin, and hopefully undetectable, com laser linked the two shuttles.

"Negative, ma'am," reported Anny Payne. "The sensors on these shuttles aren't worth much, but there are no active scanners detected and no major energy sources. I'm getting a few garbled com transmissions though, so somebody must still be alive."

"Acknowledged, I'm getting about the same. Hopefully they don't know we are coming," said Helen.

"Amen to that. We're clay pigeons out here."

Helen shivered slightly. Anny was correct; they were all dead if the Peeps had any sort of weapons still functional. Even a point defense laser cluster could tear the two fragile shuttles apart in an instant.

They drew closer and closer but there was no sign the enemy was aware of their presence. The cruiser was tumbling end over end, but it was also spinning, even more slowly, around its long axis. When they had first gotten close enough to see her clearly the port side was towards them. Then the top of the ship had turned to face them. As they watched, the starboard side came into view and they realized that their enemy had been hurt far more badly than they first thought.

"God! Look at that!" exclaimed Corporal Greene, from the co-pilot's chair.

The Peep cruiser scarcely had a starboard side. There were only a few places where the outer hull plating was intact. The rest was a tangled and twisted mass of wreckage. Enormous holes had been blasted deep into the ship at several points and as they looked more closely, they realized that some of those holes went completely through to the other side. They stared in silence for a few moments, trying to take it all in.

"Good shooting, "Guns"," said Anny Payne quietly over the com.

Helen said nothing but continued to stare. Anny was certainly correct that this was her handiwork. The damage to the port side had been done through the cruiser's sidewalls during the first exchange, and bad though it was, it was nothing like this. Both ships had rolled to bring their undamaged batteries to bear. By then their wedges and sidewalls had gone down. But Helen had fired a fraction of a second quicker. The Peep had managed to get a few shots off and that was what had blown Fusion One, but Relentless must have already destroyed most of the enemy's weapons with her first salvo. Her remaining fire, until the capacitors ran dry, had torn the guts out of the Peep.

Helen had dreamed of someday smashing an enemy like this, and she had expected to feel savage satisfaction at dealing out her revenge. But now that it had actually happened, it was too enormous for any emotion except awe at the forces she had unleashed.

And if I had been an instant slower, this could have been us! The terribly narrow line between life and death in space combat had never been more starkly pointed out to Helen than right now.

Pulling herself back to the business at hand, Helen called Relentless. "Commander Hyman, are you getting this, sir?" The shuttles had several external cameras and Helen was sending an image back to the ship via another com-laser.

"Affirmative, but it's pretty fuzzy. It looks like they've had it. What do you think, Ms. Zilwicki?" asked Hyman. Relentless was now less about fifty thousand kilometers away and the time lag on the communications was barely perceptible.

"It's hard to say, sir, some of the port side weapons could still be intact and..."

"I know, all they need is one shot," finished Hyman.

"Sir, I want to take a closer look at the port side," said Helen.

"Acknowledged. You may proceed, and good luck," said Hyman.

The two shuttles were only a few kilometers away from the enemy cruiser by this time. Helen took them around to the port side, being careful to stay clear of the hammerheads that were slowly windmilling around the ship's center of gravity. They were moving so slowly that it was easy to forget that there was enough mass in motion to swat their shuttles like gnats. Of course, the port side kept slowly turning away from them so it required some complicated gyrations of their own to stay where they wanted relative to the ship. It took about fifteen minutes to complete their inspection.

"I'm reading two grasers, one laser and three missile tubes on her broadside that could possibly be operational," reported Helen. "The aft chase armament is gone, but there could be a missile tube forward."

"I can see six laser clusters and three, possibly four, counter-missile tubes that could still be good to go," said Anny Payne. "Some of the sensors look undamaged as well."

"Have you seen any sign of repair parties?" asked Helen.

"Negative," replied Payne, " but they could be reconnecting power leads or hauling a missile into a tube without our seeing."

"Roger, and my readings indicate there are definitely some capacitors that still have power in them," said Helen. "Given time they could get off a shot at us."

"So what do we do, ma'am?" asked Anny.

Helen answered by contacting Lt. Commander Hyman. "Sir, our inspection indicates that the Peeps could still make trouble for us given time. There are too many separate weapons mounts to be taken out with Laser Four. I recommend that we board and secure the enemy vessel."

"Are you sure about that, Ms. Zilwicki?" asked Hyman. "From the looks of things you are going to have a hell of a time moving around inside that wreck, and we've received word that help is on the way."

"How long until it arrives, sir?"

"Active should be here in three hours, and two pinnaces have been dispatched from Formidable that will arrive in less than two," replied Hyman.

"Closest approach to Relentless is in eighty-two minutes, sir," said Helen. "I'm not sure we can afford to wait."

There was a lengthy silence, then Hyman said: "Very well, Ms. Zilwicki, you have permission to board, but for God's sake be careful!"

"Aye aye, sir," responded Helen. She then took out her computer pad and called up the schematics of the enemy cruiser. Fortunately the Alliance had captured a number of Scimitar class cruisers during the course of the war and they had reliable information on their construction. She stared at the schematics and then looked at the mangled wreck tumbling before her. For the first time she began to have doubts. What should I do? The Regs don't cover a situation like this!

The standard procedures for boarding an enemy ship called for a heavy boarding party of marines in battle armor supported by assault pinnaces that could take out enemy weapons and sensors with direct fire. If necessary, a ship's guns could be "spiked" with manually placed demolition charges. As a last resort against fanatic resistance, a nuclear "scuttling" charge could be employed although in those circumstances the mother ship could just as well stand off and blast the target from a distance. All was to be done "By the Book".

However, the "Book" did not anticipate a situation where the boarding vessel was as badly damaged as the vessel to be boarded. Helen had no marines in battle armor, no supporting assault pinnaces, no demolition or scuttling charges. She had two unarmed emergency shuttles, twenty-two marines with small arms and a few grenades and two very green-and very scared-midshipmen to lead them.

"What are your orders, ma'am?" asked Anny Payne over the com.

Helen swallowed. Don't ever let them know you don't know what to do! "Ms. Payne, can you call up the Peep's schematics on your com-pad?"

"Already have them up, ma'am."

"Good. Can you spot airlock three-eight near the after impeller ring?"

"The one near that big hole, ma'am? I think so," replied Anny Payne.

"That's the one," said Helen. "I want you to dock there. Leave one man with the shuttle, then take your squad inside. Check to see if there is any repair activity around the nearest weapons mounts and then make your way to Auxiliary Control. If it is still functional I want you to secure it and wait for further orders. The inside of that wreck will play Hob with our suit radios so leave a com-wire back to the shuttle when you move, I'll do the same. If Auxiliary Control is not functional or you can't get to it and you can't reach me for further orders, make your way forward to the main bridge."

"Aye aye, ma'am," replied Anny.

"I am going to take first squad forward to check out that chase missile tube and then move aft towards the bridge. Any questions?"

"Yes, ma'am, what do I do with any survivors I encounter?"

Helen paused for a moment. "This is a combat situation, Ms. Payne. Any personnel encountered must be considered hostile."

"Ma'am, I don't have the manpower to guard a lot of prisoners or to take care of any wounded," said Anny Payne.

Helen clenched her fist. Damn it, Anny! she thought, Do I have to spell it out for you? You can't take any prisoners! It's them or us, if you run into any Peeps-Shoot!

Carefully controlling her voice, Helen said: "Ms. Payne, you are going to have to use your own judgment in this, but I remind you of the vital nature of our mission. You must carry out your orders and you must not needlessly endanger your command when dealing with enemy personnel. Do you understand?"

There was a short pause and then Anny Payne said: "Aye aye, ma'am. I understand."

"Good, now let's get on with it."

The two shuttles turned and headed for opposite ends of the Peep cruiser. Helen had to pilot very carefully to approach the slowly swinging bow hammerhead. Because the bow weapons were so far removed from the broadside weapons she wanted to check them separately for any repair activity. Careful inspection revealed that it was a wasted trip. The missile tube that had appeared undamaged from outside could now be seen to have extensive internal damage. Damn! If I had been more careful on the first pass I could have skipped this.

"Ms. Payne, are you there?" asked Helen as she maneuvered the shuttle away from the cruiser's bow.

"Yes, ma'am," answered Anny Payne.

"Slight change in plans," said Helen. "The bow tube is junk, so I am going to enter just aft of the forward impeller ring, at airlock one-four. I will inspect weapons mounts and head for the main bridge. What is your status?"

"We are hard docked at airlock three-eight and my squad has just entered the ship, ma'am," reported Payne with a slight strain in her voice. "There is no pressure in this part of the ship. We have not encountered any ... live enemy personnel."

Helen didn't need to be told why Anny had included the "live" qualifier in her report. By every indication so far, the cruiser was going to be a charnel house inside. "Acknowledged," said Zilwicki.

Helen brought her shuttle around toward the airlock she had decided to enter. They could have entered through one of the many holes in the ship's hull, but Helen wanted to stay out of the badly damaged areas if she could. She skillfully matched her motion to that of the cruiser and activated the docking tractors. There was a small bump and they were hard docked.

"All right, Corporal," said Helen, "Let's get going."

"Okay, people! Visors down, check your seals. Weapons are hot. Jaworski, you're in charge of that com cable, Randolph, you're to remain here-don't give me any lip, Marine! We've all got a job to do!" Helen was impressed with how well Corporal Greene was handling his sudden promotion to squad sergeant-it couldn't be easy with a patched together force like this.

Slinging her flechette gun, Helen moved to the lock at the rear of the shuttle. Greene offered to lead the way, but Helen, already a little miffed that Anny Payne's squad had beaten them aboard, was determined to go first.

"All right, standby for vacuum," said Helen, and she hit the controls to depressurize the cabin. There was a faint hissing sound that quickly faded, and Helen could feel her skinsuit expanding slightly as the pressure died away. A light turned green and she hit the button to open the door. A moment later she was looking at the exterior of the Peep airlock. Interstellar conventions had made the design and operation of all airlocks virtually identical. Helen was able to get the door open without trouble.

The interior of the lock was dimly lit by a few emergency lights. The grav plates in the deck were also operating off their emergency batteries but only at about a third of a gee. Helen moved gingerly into the lock and over to the control panel on the opposite wall. The instruments confirmed that there was vacuum on the other side of the lock. That was a mixed blessing. It meant they would be able to open the inner door without closing the outer door-leaving them a quick line of retreat if necessary. But it also meant that if they encountered compartments that still had pressure, it could be difficult to get into them. They had brought enough emergency patching to build one or possibly two temporary airlocks, but that was all.

Two burly marines got the inner door open, which was not as cooperative as the outer door had been. Helen peered down a dimly lit corridor.

"Corporal Greene, let's move out," ordered Helen.

"Right, Ma'am," replied the corporal. "Palanchar! Lewis! You're on point. You're with me Ma'am, the rest of you, in pairs at five-meter intervals. Spangler, you're in the rear and help Jaworski with that com cable. Okay, heads up everyone, let's go!"

They headed into the enemy ship.

Except for the dim lighting and the reduced gravity, there was nothing at first to indicate the ship they were in was a drifting wreck. At the first intersection Helen directed them to the right toward the forward broadside missile battery. Every twenty or thirty meters they had to open emergency bulkheads. Most opened easily enough, but several took more effort. They found no sign of any Peeps, living or dead. After a few minutes they reached the weapons bay.

They entered on a walkway above the four huge missile tubes of the battery. Each tube was about six meters in diameter on the outside. To their right the tubes merged with the skin of the ship, to their left they disappeared through the bulkhead. The tubes were heavily braced with large structural members and mammoth power conduits connected with them at intervals along their lengths.

The tube nearest them appeared undamaged, but they could see several large holes in the hull further down the line and wreckage in the bay. Sunlight streamed in through the holes at the moment, but that soon faded as the ship continued to tumble. They advanced cautiously but the huge compartment seemed unoccupied by the Peeps-except for the dead ones. About halfway down the walkway they found two bodies. They were lying near where something had blasted through the hull. Warships were constructed of some of the toughest materials man had yet developed, but they were still no match for man's weapons. Lasers and grasers didn't melt or burn their way through their targets. The amount of energy was so enormous that there was no time for that. Anything hit by them was literally shattered by the impact-producing a lethal spray of fragments. The two Peeps had been skewered by bits of hull and armor plating. One was horribly mangled, but the other one just seemed to be sitting there. Helen could see his face clearly through his helmet. The face of the enemy.

Unfortunately, the same blast that had killed the Peeps had also destroyed the walkway and bulkhead for about ten meters. Helen looked through the hole and could dimly see the missile tubes continuing back to meet with their ammunition feeds, but there was no obvious pathway. They were forced to backtrack and climb down a ladder to the floor of the bay. Helen had her squad spend a few minutes wrecking whatever they could on the first missile tube. They did not have the tools to do any serious damage, but they could do enough to delay any repair attempts. Helen looked at her chrono and was shocked to see that thirty minutes had passed since her discussion with Commander Hyman. This is taking too long. We have to get moving!

"Corporal Greene, I want to move down to the far end of the bay and see if we can get back up to that walkway."

"Right, Ma'am." replied Greene. "Okay, marines, let's go."

Getting to where Helen wanted took more time. The far end had been badly smashed and there was wreckage everywhere. There were more bodies-and parts of bodies, too. The reduced gravity helped them scramble over the missile tubes and around the debris but they started discovering that some of the grav-plates were not working at all and some of them were working too well. Gravity would go from a third of a gee to nothing, to a half gee and back to nothing with no warning. They stumbled and fell often covering the hundred meters to the end of the bay.

Helen peered through a hole into the next weapons bay, but it looked in even worse shape than this one. A ladder let them get back up on the walkway where there was a hatch leading into the adjoining bay. Helen wanted to move further inboard and fortunately another hatch led that way. Unfortunately, that passage was completely blocked after only twenty meters. Helen spent a few anxious minutes with her com-pad before she found a way up to the next deck. Once there, they found a passage that was headed the direction she wanted to go.

Their progress was still slow. Several bulkhead doors refused to open and had to be cut. Wreckage had to be moved aside-and they found more bodies. Then they came to a gigantic tear in the ship. The passageway ended in a ragged hole. Helen stuck her head out and shone her helmet light around. She saw that this was one of the huge holes that had come in from the starboard side-one of the holes that she had made. To her left she could see stars and empty space in the distance. Opposite her the passageway continued, but there was a gap of a dozen meters. Above and below, the gash extended several decks. She picked up a piece of debris and gently tossed it across the gap towards the passageway. It sailed slowly across and then fell to the deck soundlessly as it entered the effect of the other passageway's grav plates. She did it again and noted that there did not appear to be any errant grav plates still operating to drag them down into the gash. The debris did travel in a slight curve due to the tumbling of the ship.

Helen felt herself trembling. The empty ship was becoming unsettling. There were dark spots where the Peeps could be waiting in ambush. The nightmarish shapes of the twisted wreckage, the bodies, and the shifting shadows caused by the ship's motion were also tugging at ancient fears that most people had long forgotten. She knew her nerve was starting to falter. There was only one thing to do.

Helen jumped.

Corporal Greene cried out, but Helen sailed smoothly across the gap and landed on her feet as easily as if she were in a ship's boarding tube. She looked back and waved.

"Send them across, Corporal, nothing to it."

"Yes, ma'am!" said Greene, half in admiration and half in exasperation.

Shortly the entire squad had joined her on the other side. One of the marines misjudged her jump slightly and bounced off a sharp piece of metal at the side of the passageway. The small tear in her suit could have been dangerous if she had been alone, but her squadmates slapped a patch on it and she was fine. Private Jaworski unreeled about thirty meters of the hair-fine com-cable and was the last one across. Helen was congratulating herself on a fine piece of leadership when the com nearly scared her out of her skin.

"Ms. Zilwicki, come in please." said Anny's voice.

"Zilwicki here," said Helen regaining her composure, "Go ahead."

"Ma'am, I'm at frame one-eighty-three," reported Payne. "The schematic says that Auxiliary Control should be just ahead, but there is nothing here but a big hole. I can look out the starboard side and see stars."

"Very good, Ms. Payne." replied Helen. "You can assume Auxiliary Control has been destroyed. We are running short on time, so I want you to come forward and meet us on the bridge. Your route should take you past the Secondary Damage Control center, check that out as you go by."

"Aye aye, ma'am. We have not encountered any live Peeps yet, but we did come across some bodies that have been disturbed. Somebody is alive on board."

"I understand, Ms. Payne, stay alert, Zilwicki out."

Helen sent two marines forward to scout and then she reported to Lt. Commander Hyman. He listened to her report and then said:

"It sounds like a real mess over there, Ms. Zilwicki, perhaps you should come back."

Helen was tempted; they had found no evidence that the Peeps were trying to get any part of the ship operational. But then she got the sudden mental image of Relentless disappearing in a blazing flash of light as they were returning to her.

"Sir, it is thirty-four minutes until closest approach. It will take us nearly that long to get back to our shuttles. I hope to make it to the bridge in less than twenty minutes. I think we may as well stay and see this through, sir."

There was a pause and then Hyman said: "Very well, Ms. Zilwicki, you have a better view of the situation than I do. You may proceed."

As Helen signed off, her scouts returned. "There is a closed bulkhead about thirty meters ahead, ma'am," one of them reported. "The controls indicate that there is pressure on the other side."

Helen followed the marines to the bulkhead. She consulted her schematic and discovered that just beyond was supposed to be the cruiser's sickbay. If any part of the ship was likely to still have air, that was it.

"All right, Corporal, let's get that airlock set up here," said Helen.

The temporary airlock consisted of some folding metal frameworks that could be secured to the walls and deck. In between the frames were sheets of extremely strong plastic. The size of the airlock could be adjusted by where the frameworks were attached. Helen decided to make it big enough to fit the whole squad into at once. If there was an ambush waiting on the other side of the lock this could be a big mistake, but the other option was to divide her forces, which she did not want to do.

When everything was secure, one of the marines opened a canister of compressed air he had been lugging along. Helen could feel the air pressure building inside their plastic bubble. The silence of the vacuum gave way to a loud hiss from the canister. After a minute or two, the red light on the pressure door turned to green and they closed the air canister. They could now open the door. Corporal Greene slowly eased it open a crack as quietly as he could. He peered through and after a moment opened the door the rest of the way. He and several marines went through and then motioned for Helen to advance.

They were in another corridor running to the left and right. To the left there was a door about four meters away. The pressure indicator on it shown red. To the right the corridor went another five or six meters and turned to the left. Helen could hear voices coming from around the corner. She couldn't make out the words but there were also people groaning or crying out in pain. Turning off their helmet lights, Helen and Greene moved slowly up to the corner. Greene snuck a look around the corner and then indicated Helen should take a look.

Helen saw a long corridor with a number of open doors on the right hand side. Several people were standing in the corridor, but there was a larger number of people, twenty or thirty at least, sitting or lying on the deck. Many of them had bandages on them and they were clearly injured. A cry of pain came from one of the rooms. Helen withdrew around the corner.

Now what do I do? she thought in growing desperation. I can't take all this lot prisoner! A voice deep inside her was screaming: Kill them! Kill them all! While there was nothing in her that protested that ruthless thought, she remembered something Colonel DuPique had said in his leadership class: Never give an order that you know won't be obeyed. Her marines would never go along with slaughtering a bunch of wounded. Even if they were Peeps.

Making certain her external speaker was off and that she was on the secure com channel, Helen addressed her squad. "All right, this is the Peep sickbay. There are a bunch of Peep wounded up ahead. I don't know if there are any armed personnel among them. We are going to advance at the double-quick and try to secure the whole area in a rush. Don't take any chances, if there is any resistance-shoot. Any questions? Okay, let's go!"

There was no resistance.

Helen's squad dashed down the corridor and quickly had every compartment under their guns. The Peeps just stood or sat and stared at them. There were a few sidearms among them but they made no attempt to use them and they were quickly confiscated. Helen strode through the sickbay and her gaze was met by indifference, hatred and even looks of relief. Most of the Peeps were hurt, some of them badly. Bloody bandages covered arms and legs-and the stumps of arms and legs. Even Helen's inner voice was stilled for the moment by this pitiful mob-not that she felt any pity for them, they were Peeps. She fingered the grip on her flechette gun and scowled.

In one of the compartments a Peep surgeon's mate was working on a man who had several large metal splinters impaling him.

"Are you in charge?" demanded Helen.

The man didn't stop working but he spared her a glance. "I suppose I am," he said. "Doctor Cavender was in charge, but he was in there."

Helen looked where the man had indicated with his eyes. Across the corridor was a row of sealed doors with the red indicator light glowing. That direction was toward the starboard side of the ship-the side Helen had destroyed. Looking around, Helen realized that the main sickbay had been behind those doors. This was just a series of sick berths that had been pressed into service as a makeshift surgery.

"Are there any officers in here?"

"I think I saw a lieutenant in one of the other rooms," said the man in growing irritation. "Look, I'm busy here! You've slaughtered most of us, give me a chance to save the rest!"

Helen's hands clenched on her gun, but she turned and walked out of the compartment without another word.

Nearby she found the Peep lieutenant. Most of her head was swathed in bandages and she was being cradled in the arms of an ensign with a bandaged leg.

"Ensign, where is the ship's captain?" asked Helen harshly.

The Peep looked at her for a moment. "I don't know, dead probably."

"Who's in command? I want this ship surrendered at once!" said Helen.

"How the hell should I know who's in command?" said the Peep angrily. "Look around! See what you've done? You proud of yourself, you Manty bastards!?

Private Morgenweck who was watching this compartment stepped forward and leveled his rifle, "Stow it, Peep! Our sickbay doesn't look any better!" the Peep subsided with a look of surprise on his face.

Helen turned away. They don't know how badly hurt Relentless is! But how could they? For all they know I have a battalion of marines backing me up. She looked at her chrono again and realized if they were going to do any good they had to get to the bridge very soon. She couldn't leave this batch of Peeps in her rear: if any armed Peeps came here, these could tell them where she had gone. And as much as she wanted to, she couldn't kill them either. A plan began to form in Helen's mind. She keyed the 'all hands' circuit.

"Attention everyone. The Peeps have no clue there are only two dozen of us-don't let them know! Act like you're just one part of a big boarding party. They shouldn't give us any trouble. Ms. Payne, are you getting that?"

There was no answer.

"Second squad, do you read me?" Silence. "Commander Hyman, come in. Private Randolph, respond!" The com was dead.

"I'm sorry. ma'am," said Private Jaworski, "The line must have broken."

"That's all right," said Helen, "I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did." Which was perfectly true, but it was damned inconvenient nonetheless. Helen made up her mind and walked over to Corporal Greene.

"Greene, you are to remain here with seven of your troopers and hold this area. There are probably Peep rescue parties out there who will be coming back. You will take prisoner anyone entering this area and hold them. I will take the other three troopers and proceed to the bridge."

"Ma'am, do you think that's smart?" asked Greene in surprise. "There could be a lot of armed Peeps in that area. You should take more people with you."

"Midshipman Payne and the second squad should be arriving there shortly, between them and us we should not have any problems," said Helen.

"I don't like it, ma'am," began Greene.

"I'm not asking you to like it!" snapped Helen. "Now carry out your orders!"

"Aye aye, ma'am," said Corporal Greene stiffly. "Palanchar! Ricks! Lomas! Go with the officer."

They left the sickbay and headed for the bridge. Helen was now in the lead and she held her flechette gun at the ready. It was only about seventy-five meters, and one deck down, to the bridge. Slowly, they made their way through the debris-littered passageway. Down the gangway, through another bulkhead and around a corner and they were there. They paused to listen, but there was no sound. The door was standing open and Helen peered inside.

The bridge was a wreck.

The compartment still had pressure so the damage must have been caused by a secondary explosion. Warships had so many systems that operated at such gigantic energy levels that once a ship started taking damage, there was a frightful danger of equipment and energy conduits exploding violently. Something had clearly done so not far from the bridge. A large hole was torn in the rear bulkhead and part of the overhead. Jagged shards of metal had sprayed across the bridge smashing equipment and people. Helen could see perhaps a dozen bodies lying in various locations. Some had been badly torn up.

Helen walked around looking at the control panels. Some of them still worked, but she could see no indication that anything they were connected to did. As far as she could tell, the ship was dead. She checked the time again and saw that closest approach was only ten minutes away. If the Peeps had any weapons operational and ready to fire under local control, there was nothing she could do about it now. Her mission was complete-one way or the other.

Helen felt a strange lack of purpose. After the desperate rush to get here, now the feeling of anti-climax was numbing. She wandered aimlessly for a few minutes looking over her conquest. On one bulkhead was the builder's plaque. Helen went over to it and saw that she was aboard the PNS Sword. There were three doors into the bridge, the one they had entered through, another one opposite, and a third leading to the briefing room. Helen looked inside that and paused. Her marines had already checked the compartment, but they had missed something important. After a few moments she turned and addressed the marines with her.

"Private Palanchar, I want all three of you to proceed through that hatchway and try to make contact with second squad. They shouldn't be too far away. Be careful you don't get shot by them by mistake. If you haven't found them in fifteen minutes you can return. I will remain here to secure the bridge."

"Ma'am, you shouldn't stay here alone! This place could be crawling with Peeps!" protested Palanchar.

"I can take care of myself, Private," said Helen calmly. "Now carry out your orders."

The Marine could see that arguing would get him nowhere. He collected the others and moved out. Helen watched them go and waited for several minutes. Then she took her flechette gun and walked to the briefing room door.

Inside the compartment lay two Peeps. A young man, an ensign, had his arms around another figure. The ensign had a badly mangled right leg, but there was a tourniquet tied around his thigh and he was still breathing. He appeared to be unconscious. The other figure was not breathing as far as Helen could see. She stared at the pair for a moment. A look of cold fury was on her face.

Then she kicked the ensign's injured leg.

He jerked suddenly and cried out in shock and pain.

She kicked his leg again. Harder.

The man screamed and looked wildly at Helen. He tried to move away from her but still clung to the other figure. Helen took a step forward and kicked him again. And again. The man was sobbing in pain and terror and the blood from his leg was covering Helen's boot. The other figure slipped from his grasp and Helen saw that it was the ship's captain. The woman was quite dead; a large splinter was protruding from her abdomen. From the amount of blood, she had not died instantly. Helen stopped and stared.

Is this how my mother died? she thought. All alone on a dead ship? Ambushed before the war even started? The rage began to build inside her and she did not even try to control it.

"Damn you," she said to the trembling Peep. "Damn you!" and her voice rose to a scream. "Damn you!"

She raised her flechette gun and pointed it at the terrified man.

"You've taken everything from me! My mother! My father! My childhood! Everything! Damn you! Damn you all to Hell!" her voice has half shout and half sob. Her eyes were stinging, but she shed no tears. Helen Zilwicki had shed no tears for twelve years.

The Peep said nothing but continued to cry. He regained his grasp on his captain and pulled her close to him again. His eyes goggled at her in fear and then he tried to bury his face against the captain.

Helen tightened her grip on the gun. All she had to do was squeeze and dozens of lethal darts would rip through the Peeps. She wanted to-more than anything in the universe, she wanted to. Her face was twisted with hate. The man was a Peep! Right now to Helen he was every Peep! A single squeeze of the trigger would wipe them all away! She raised the gun to her shoulder. She stood there for a few seconds, shaking so badly she could scarcely aim, and then she lowered the gun slightly. She stiffened and raised it again. A battle was raging inside of Helen Zilwicki that rivaled the holocaust between the two cruisers three hours earlier.

After an endless moment, Helen gave a strangled cry of frustration and lowered the gun.

The Peeps had taken everything from her. Even her revenge.

Helen did not know how long she stood staring at the enemy she could not bring herself to kill. Finally, she turned and left the room.

And almost collided with something large and green.

In a tiny fraction of a second a half dozen thoughts flashed through her mind. A marine. They came back early. Oh, God! Did they see me in there? Wait. That's the wrong shade of green! A Peep!

With reactions trained by years of the martial arts, Helen pivoted on her left foot and drove her right heel into the chest of the Peep. Against a man in a skin suit, her blow would have been fatal. Even a man wearing body armor, like her marines had, would have been knocked down and stunned. Unfortunately, the Peep was not wearing a skinsuit or body armor. He was wearing a quarter-ton of battle armor and Helen's kick affected him not at all.

A stab of pain went up her jarred leg, but Helen instantly tried to spin away. She knew she couldn't fight a man in battle armor so all she could do was try to evade. She tried-but failed. A huge armored fist, propelled by powered servos, smashed into her left arm and side and flung her five meters across the bridge, slamming her into the bulkhead.

She slid to the deck, stunned. She looked around dazedly for her flechette gun, not that it was of any use, but she didn't see it. She looked down at her left arm. It was twisted at a bizarre angle and a strange lump was pushing out against her skin suit. Slowly she realized it was one of the bones in her forearm. She could hardly breath; daggers stabbed her left side when she inhaled. Ribs broken, too, she thought numbly. Her right arm and side were also in agony where she had hit the bulkhead. She had a pulser pistol in a holster on her belt but her right hand flopped about uselessly like a gaffed fish.

She raised her eyes slightly and saw a pair of huge armored feet standing two meters from her. Her eyes traveled up the legs and then stopped at the muzzle of the tri-barrel that was pointed at her. For a dozen thundering heartbeats she waited for the blast of fire that would tear her to bloody fragments, but it did not come. Helen's gaze continued upwards. By a trick of the light, she could see her own distorted reflection in the Peep's visor and also see his face as well. Two cold eyes looked down on her.

Helen's mind was a blank. She felt no fear, just an awful anticipation. Why doesn't he do it? The Peeps have taken everything from me-and now my life, too.

The Peep continued to stare at her and Helen's mind slowly cleared. She saw that four or five other Peeps had entered the bridge. None of the others were in battle armor and two of them were not even marines, but they were all armed.

Helen was taking short shallow breaths and she felt a cough building up in her. She tried not to, but the cough burst out with a stab of agony in her side. She coughed again. Three more times and the pain had her crying out. Small gobs of spittle sprayed onto the inside of her visor. There were flecks of red in it. Ribs must have punctured a lung, she thought through the pain.

The Peep, towering over her, glanced into the briefing room. He looked back at Helen. Finally the tri-barrel swung aside and he stooped down to take Helen's pistol out of its holster. The Peep straightened and started to turn away...

"Helen!"

The shout froze everyone in the compartment. Helen looked to the source and on the other side of the bridge stood Anny Payne. For an instant nobody moved. Then Anny fired the plasma carbine she was carrying. Battle armor could stand up to pulser fire and it was proof against most splinters and shrapnel, but it could not stand up to a point blank plasma bolt. For a split second a shaft of brilliant light stretched between Anny's carbine and the Peep's helmet. Then the helmet-and the head inside-exploded in a blast of fire. A man-made thunderclap shook the bridge. Something sharp hit Helen's leg.

The Peep marine's body collapsed in front of Helen with a crash and then everyone was moving. The other Peeps dove behind control consoles and Helen saw Anny and some of her marines do the same. In an instant a hail of pulser darts, flechettes and plasma bolts swept across the bridge, pocking the bulkheads and chewing pieces out of the control consoles. Helen cringed down as far as she could, trying to shield herself behind the armored body of the Peep marine. Projectiles ricocheted everywhere. Several hit the bulkhead behind her and something pinged loudly off her helmet. After a few moments the fire slackened. For all its fury, none of the Peeps had gone down. Helen could not tell if any of the Manticorans had been hit either.

Suddenly, Anny Payne was calling her over the private command circuit. "Helen! Helen! Are you there? Answer!"

"I'm here, Ms. Payne," replied Helen.

"Are you all right?"

"I...I'm...hurt. But I'm all right."

"Hold on! We'll get you out!" cried Anny.

Helen looked over the situation. Another volley of shots rang out. "Anny, you can't get to me without exposing yourself. I know you have some grenades, you are going to have to use them," said Helen.

"Not with you there!"

"There's no choice. That's an order," said Helen.

There was a short pause and another burst of firing. "Your signal's breaking up, ma'am, I can't hear you," said Anny.

"You heard me!" said Helen angrily. "Now do it!"

"No, ma'am, I won't," said Anny firmly.

Anny could get her whole force wiped out-and there was no point to it anymore! The mission was done! Helen looked around in desperation. The Peeps were not in armor and she was behind them, if she could get a weapon...

Her flechette gun was gone and she could not see her pistol anywhere either. The Peep marine lying in front of her still had the tri-barrel. Helen started inching away from the bulkhead. She knew it was hopeless: even with two good arms she would have trouble handling a tri-barrel, but she had to do something.

There was another fusillade of shots and something hit her left arm below the shoulder and threw her back against the bulkhead. Helen cried out more from the pain in her ribs than from the new wound in her arm. She looked and saw blood oozing out of the hole in her skin suit.

"Helen! Are you hit!?" shouted Anny.

"I'm still here, Anny," said Helen. "Anny, you don't have to do this. The mission's accomplished. Help will be here soon. Pull out and leave me."

"I'm not leaving you!"

"I'll be all right," said Helen in fresh desperation. "Come back when you find help!

"

"I'm not leaving you with the Peeps! You need help and there's no telling what they might do!" Anny's voice was just as desperate as hers.

"Then you're going to have to use those grenades."

"No!" cried Anny.

"Anny, please!" moaned Helen. "There's no other way."

There was a pause.

"Yes, there is," said Anny Payne.

Helen didn't know what Anny meant, but a chill ran through her. She heard Anny switch to the 'all hands' circuit.

"Anny, no," she whispered.

At the other end of the circuit was Andreanne Payne, proud daughter of the planet Grayson, Midshipman in the Royal Manticoran Navy.

"Second Squad! Follow me!"

Helen watched helplessly as Anny vaulted over the console she had been sheltering behind. The Peeps were taken off guard by the sheer audacity of the move and did not fire for an instant. Even when they did, nothing seemed to touch Anny.

Helen saw Anny take two long strides in the low gravity and leap up onto one of the consoles. She saw her cut down one of the Peeps with her carbine. She saw the rest of Anny's troopers come surging behind her shouting a marine battle cry. She saw the Peeps start to break. She saw the one Peep who did not. And she saw a burst of pulser darts stitch a neat row across the chest of Anny's skinsuit and hurl her to the deck.

"Anny! No!" screamed Helen.

Helen was away from the bulkhead and crawling awkwardly toward where Anny lay. She scarcely felt the sickening pop or the white-hot pain as her right shoulder was pushed back into its socket. Her useless left arm trailed behind her. She reached her and stopped in horror. Anny lay on her back with her eyes closed. There was a faint smile on her lips. Her chest was covered with blood.

"Anny, no."

Helen reached out her hand to touch the blood stained body. Sobs wracked her chest sending more agony shooting through her. But still no tears came-her eyes had forgotten how to cry.

A marine suddenly thumped down beside Anny. Helen looked in his face and saw his shock and anguish. "Medic! Get the medic over here! We've got an officer down!" he shouted, his voice breaking.

Another marine with a medkit appeared. Helen looked at Anny... God, there was so much blood!

"Help her. Please help her," moaned Helen.

"I'll try, ma'am," said the marine. "Christ, she's a mess!"

He clipped his medical scanner to the connection on Anny's suit and looked at the readout. "Okay, her heart and her spine weren't hit, but she's got holes in both lungs and God knows what else," he said in near panic. "I'm not a fully trained medic, ma'am, I've never done this before!"

Helen took Anny's left hand in her right and to her amazement Anny opened her eyes.

"Anny! Anny!" cried Helen.

Anny rolled her eyes to look at Helen and she smiled.

"I told you there was a way," she whispered.

"Ma'am, the only thing I can do for her here is to use the med-gel on those wounds and then get her to some real help fast," blurted the medic.

"Then do it," sobbed Helen. The med-gel was a miracle worker on the battlefield. When sprayed into a wound it would seep down inside and stop bleeding both internally and externally. The problem was that it could not reconnect severed veins or arteries. If something vital had been cut, the gel would not fix that. It was also dangerous to use the gel on lung punctures because it tended to seal breathing passages as well as blood vessels. The gel might save Anny, but it might kill her, too.

The medic started wiping blood away to find the punctures and squirt the med gel into them. Helen clung to Anny's hand.

"You're going to make it, Anny!" hissed Helen through clenched teeth. "You're not going to die. We're going to get you out of here. You're not going to die! Do you hear me?" The medic gently rolled Anny on her side to get at the exit wounds. She winced although the low gravity made it easier on her. The medic finished and slowly laid her flat again.

Anny smiled, but there was blood on her lips. "I hear you, Helen. No, I'm not ready to die... I'm not going to give up yet." She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them and looked into Helen's eyes.

"That's the secret, you know."

The med-gel had powerful painkillers in it, and they were taking effect on Anny. Her eyelids were fluttering and finally closed. For an instant Helen panicked, but then she could see that Anny was still breathing.

The medic straightened up and said, "That's all I can do, ma'am, we need to get her to help right away."

The corporal of Anny's squad said: "Those pinnaces should be nearly here, ma'am. We can carry her out to meet them."

Helen looked up. The marines of Anny's squad were all standing in a circle around her. The three marines she had sent off were there, too. She had completely forgotten the fighting, but they seemed to have won. She moved back from Anny and four of the marines moved in. They picked Anny up gently-reverently, even. Several of the others were weeping openly. One battle-scarred old veteran with a tear-streaked face looked at Helen.

"Did you see? Did you see her, ma'am? Did you see the way she led us? You'll tell them won't you? Tell them what she did?"

Helen nodded. "I'll tell them."

The medic started to help Helen to her feet. She groaned as he touched her arm and he pulled back in surprise, really looking at her for the first time.

"Shit! I didn't know you were hurt, too, ma'am!"

"I'll be all right," said Helen.

"Hell! You're all banged up! That arm looks broken!"

"The ribs too, I think," admitted Helen.

"And you got hit in the arm," he said squirting some of the med-gel onto her shoulder. "Come on, ma'am, we've got to get you out of here."

Several of the marines carefully helped Helen to her feet. The painkillers were starting to work. Helen felt drowsy, but she refused to leave immediately.

"There's a wounded Peep in there," she said motioning to the briefing room. "We need to bring him, too." She had no idea why she said it.

Two of the marines went to the door and looked in. After a moment they looked back at Helen.

"There's nobody alive in here, ma'am."

Helen stood there in confusion for a moment and then shuffled over to the door. The two Peeps were lying where she had last seen them, but they were both dead. A ricocheting pulser dart had hit the ensign in the chest and a dark stain covered the front of his skin suit. Helen just looked in stunned silence. After a few long moments she turned and looked at the headless body of the Peep marine who had refused to kill her. She looked back at the dead ensign.

Is this revenge? thought Helen in a daze. Is this what I've waited for so long? I've smashed an enemy ship, killed close to a thousand Peeps; I'm standing on the bridge of an enemy ship with its captain dead at my feet. This should be better than anything I ever dreamed of.

She looked down at the dried blood on her boot.

Why do I feel so empty?

She made no protest as the marines led her gently away.

HHH

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Helen woke up in a private sick bay berth aboard HMS Formidable. This was not surprising since she had been waking up there every day for over a week. What was surprising was that she could not feel the subtle but ever-present hum of the Alpha nodes generating the Warshawski sails.

We've dropped out of hyper, she thought, I wonder where we are?

Helen tried moving her arms. The right one was nearly as good as new. The Quick Heal had repaired the dislocated shoulder almost completely. There was a little stiffness, but no real pain. The left arm was another matter. The pulser wound had been minor: the deflected dart had not penetrated far and it did not trouble her. The shattered bones, however, still needed quite a bit of mending. An inflatable cast held her elbow and forearm immobile and she could tell from the dull ache that she had better leave it be for the moment. An attempt to take a deep breath also warned her that her ribs were not fully repaired either. The general feeling of fatigue that the Quick Heal caused was still very noticeable in spite of Helen sleeping about fourteen hours a day.

I can't stay in here another day! she thought, looking around the small compartment in frustration. If they don't let me at least see Anny today, I'm going to tear this place apart! Helen had been trying to get information about the condition of Anny, and the other cadets who had been injured aboard Relentless, ever since she had awakened from the surgery that put her arms and ribs back together. Patric and Alby had visited her but they could not get anything out of the doctors either. Patric was almost frantic over Anny. Except for vague reassurances, they had gotten nothing. That had left Helen with far too much time to think. Too much time to think about some of the things that had happened aboard the Peep cruiser. Too much time to think about the last twelve years of her life.

Helen closed her eyes. The image of Anny charging across the bridge of the enemy cruiser and then falling to the deck replayed itself yet again. She felt guilt that her friend had been hurt trying to save her, and guilt over why she had needed saving. But more than anything, she felt awed and troubled by what had happened that day. Hate had driven Helen for years. It had given her strength and courage and endurance. But it wasn't hate; it wasn't a desire to kill Peeps, that had made Anny lead that charge. It wasn't hate that had caused Anny's marines to follow her into the Peeps' guns. Helen had studied about the psychology of combat, the principles of leadership and the powerful bonds that develop between comrades. To her they had simply been useful facts, tools that would allow her to kill Peeps more efficiently. That day on the Peep cruiser had shown her that they were far more than that.

Anny had come to her rescue because of who the two of them were and the bonds that joined them. The marines had followed because of the loyalty they had developed for Anny in the few short hours she had led them.

And hate had not been a factor at all. Killing Peeps was not even an issue. Is everything I believed irrelevant? Admiral Thayer said I need something more than hate to sustain me-is she right? But what else do I have? She shook her head. These thoughts had been troubling her for days. She had no answers anymore. The Admiral was right about one thing: It's not as simple as we think.

Helen was still locked in these gloomy, puzzling thoughts, when the door opened.

"Someone here to see you, ma'am," said a med-tech sticking his head in the room.

The head withdrew and in limped Rear Admiral Sylvia Thayer. To say Helen was surprised was an understatement. She could only gawk for a moment.

"Good morning, Helen," said Thayer, closing the door behind her.

"Good...good morning, Admiral," stammered Helen. She tried to pull herself up in the bed a little more but Thayer put out a hand.

"Please, Helen, rest easy. This isn't an official visit," said Thayer. And then, almost shyly: "I just came to see how you are doing."

"I'm doing fine, Admiral," answered Helen. There was a moment of awkward silence and then Helen said, "Won't you sit down, Admiral?"

"Thank you, Helen," said Thayer with a relieved smile. She came around to the right side of Helen's bed, leaning on her cane, and sat down on the chair that was there. Helen noticed the grimace as Thayer bent her knees.

"How is your leg, ma'am?" asked Helen.

"Oh, very well, thank you," said Thayer. "Almost good as new. Or I suppose I should say: 'as good as the old'." Thayer's smile faded and she looked at Helen intently. "But how are you feeling?"

"A little tired. I must have slept longer than I thought," said Helen. "I didn't realize we had reached Manticore already."

"We haven't," replied Thayer. "We're still at the Junction. We should be getting under way for Manticore shortly."

"You came all the way out here just to see me, ma'am?" asked Helen in surprise.

"Well, the courier was bringing Cadet Payne's parents anyway and I just hitched a ride," said Thayer with a smile.

"Anny!" exclaimed Helen. "How is she? I mean really? They just keep giving me this bedside bullsh-, er... I mean they won't tell me anything and they won't let me see her!"

"She's doing well enough, considering," said Thayer. "She was pretty badly shot up, but she should recover completely given some time. Fortunately they didn't have to freeze her, so a month or two should do the trick."

"Thank God," whispered Helen in relief. "She saved my life, Admiral. You should have seen her lead that charge into the compartment! She was a real hero! She deserves a medal."

"I've heard all about Cadet Payne," nodded Thayer. "The Marines' reports were quite detailed. I imagine she will get that medal. I wouldn't be surprised if there was one for you, too."

"For me?" said Helen in surprise. "I didn't do anything special. I just tried to do my duty-and got a little busted up in the process." And I don't deserve a medal for what I almost did.

"There's doing your duty and then there's doing your duty," said Thayer. "Leading a boarding party to take control of an unsurrendered enemy ship is not exactly typical duty for a cadet on her 'prentice cruise. And Lt. Commander Hyman's report on your performance during the battle was also extremely complimentary. Of course, I would be remiss in my duty if I didn't point out that anticipating the commanding officer's orders is not always the best thing to do."

Helen blushed fiercely, her pale complexion turning a bright pink.

"I'm sorry, Admiral, it just seemed that time was critical and..."

"Don't be sorry, Helen, you did the right thing. Commander Hyman's report was quite candid about his own hesitation and he credits you with probably saving the ship."

"Thank you, Admiral," said Helen. "Not that there was much ship left to save at that point."

"No, I suppose not," said Thayer gravely. "You and the other cadets did a magnificent job in all that mess. We didn't anticipate sending you into quite so desperate a situation, but you all met the challenge in the finest tradition of the Academy. Sadly, I'm afraid Relentless has fought her last battle."

Helen stared at Thayer for a few moments and then asked the other question she had not been able to get a straight answer to: "How many of the cadets made it back?"

Thayer dropped her eyes and said quietly, "Fourteen, including you and Anny. Six of those are wounded."

A groan escaped Helen's lips Twelve! Twelve of my people are dead!

"I'm sorry," whispered Helen.

"I'm sorry, too," said Thayer sadly. "It's a hard thing to lose people under your command Helen, but that's another part of our duty."

Duty. Helen had thought about nothing but duty for years. Long before she set foot on Saganami Island she had become a creature of duty. Duty to the Queen, duty to the nation, duty to the Fleet. Duty to the memory of her mother. Duty to seek her revenge. But what about her duty to people? Not her 'shipmates' or her 'comrades', but to the people who were wearing those uniforms? What about her duty to herself? It had all seemed so simple. But it's not is it? What is my duty? And to whom?

Helen looked up and realized that Thayer was still sitting there looking at her. Helen could not quite interpret the look in the Admiral's eyes, but the silence was becoming uncomfortable.

"Admiral, it was very kind of you to come all the way out here to tell me this," said Helen at last.

"I didn't come here just to tell you that, Helen," said Thayer, and there was a quaver in her voice. "I came because I was worried about you, Squirt."

The use of Thayer's old nickname for her seemed to grab hold of something deep inside Helen and she inhaled sharply despite the pain in her ribs. It felt like something was swelling up, getting ready to burst out. Tears were filling her eyes making it hard to see clearly. She blinked and blinked, but they would not go away. Rear Admiral Sylvia Thayer-Aunt Sylvie-her godmother-was here because she was worried about her! Helen suddenly realized one duty she had been neglecting for a very long time. One duty that was more important than her revenge.

Helen reached out her right hand towards Thayer. Both of Thayer's hands came up and enfolded hers. Helen could not tell if it was her trembling, or Thayer-or both. Thayer's eyes were bright with tears, too. They looked at each other for a long moment. Helen tried to speak, but it took several attempts before she could get anything out through her quivering lips.

"Aunt Sylvie?" said Helen at last.

"I'm right here, Squirt," whispered Thayer.

"I love you, Aunt Sylvie," said Helen. Her voice was just a squeak and a hot tear ran down her face.

With a tiny sob Thayer was out of her chair and kneeling by Helen's bed. She did not quite know how to embrace Helen for fear of hurting her, but Helen reached out with her good arm and pulled Thayer to her fiercely and hung on.

"I love you too, Squirt," said Thayer through her tears, returning her embrace. They kissed each other and rocked gently back and forth.

The dam inside of Helen burst at last and she cried and sobbed and wept-for how long she did not know. A dozen years of unshed tears poured down her cheeks. She wept for her mother; she wept for her father. She wept for Anny and the Twelve on Relentless. She wept for the nameless Peeps on the wrecked cruiser. She wept for Sylvia Thayer-and most of all she wept for Helen Zilwicki, age sixteen.

And all that time her Aunt Sylvie held her and wept along with her.

It seemed a long, long time later when the sobs finally stopped. Thayer pulled away a bit and they stared at each other's tear streaked, but smiling faces. It must have been a very uncomfortable position for Thayer, bent over the bed as she was and on her bad knee, but neither of them wanted to let go.

At last Helen loosened her embrace and Thayer got back into her chair. Helen kept a tight grip on Thayer's hand.

"Don't let go, Aunt Sylvie," said Helen.

"Never, Squirt, I'll never let go again."

They sat and stared at each other in silence, but now there was nothing uncomfortable about it.

"Aunt Sylvie?" said Helen after a while.

"What is it, Helen?" asked Thayer.

"Will you tell me about my mom?"

Epilogue

Rear Admiral of the Green Sylvia Thayer got up from her desk and walked toward the door. From habit, she picked up her cane as she went. Halfway to the door she stopped and looked at the precious piece of wood and gold. A faint smile passed over her lips. She turned and walked slowly through her office until she found a display case that was not too crowded. She opened it up and carefully placed the cane inside. Then she closed the case and strode out of her office, winking at a certain portrait as she went.

She passed by her secretary in the outer office and walked down the corridor. For once, she made it past Commander Semanick's office without his seeing her. But he's busy working out the last of the details-I guess I can forgive him for missing this once, thought Thayer with a grin. She strode by the bank of lifts and took the stairs down to the main floor. Then it was out through the double doors and down the steps to the Quad. It was so good to be able to walk again! What joy in such a simple thing. Now that it was all over, she was very glad she had gone through with the regeneration therapy. What was three years against the century and a half she still had ahead of her?

It was a beautiful spring morning. It had rained the night before and a few puddles remained here and there, but it would not dare rain today. It was Graduation Day for the Three Hundred and Forty-Second Regiment of Cadets. There were a number of cadets wandering the Quad; many of them were with their families. They would only be cadets for a few more hours and most were already in their new Royal Navy mess dress uniforms.

Thayer smiled. This was a special day to her for many reasons. This was the first class to complete the new curriculum. What came after this would be the test of how well Thayer and her subordinates had done their jobs. Everything that Thayer had seen indicated that this class would be as good as any that had passed through these halls. The Admiralty seemed pleased as well. But the true test, as always, would come Out There.

Thayer walked across the Quad and toward the southwest exit. As she passed groups of people she returned salutes and stopped now and then to talk to cadets and their parents. She passed between two of the buildings and walked along a path lined with huge old trees. She had not often taken this path, but today was a special day.

The trees gave way to an open lawn. The path led her towards a large stone building: Memorial Hall. It was built in a style that the Solarians condescendingly called "Colonial Gothic". In truth, it was not a bad classification. Except for some rather unusual decorative details, a medieval townsman or bishop of Old Earth would have felt right at home inside.

She went around the statue of Edward Saganami that stood outside and walked up the wide stone steps. Three sets of huge wooden doors with black metal hinges gave entry to the building. Taking off her beret, Thayer quietly opened one of the doors and stepped through. It seemed much darker inside in spite of the morning light streaming through the stained glass windows. Thayer had to pause for a moment to let her eyes adjust.

It was not really a church, even though it looked like one. Enormous stone columns rose to the soaring ceiling. Once her eyes got used to it, it seemed adequately lit. There were elaborately carved stone and wood decorations throughout the building. Some were abstract, but many were of motifs that anyone in the navy would recognize. Lining the upper walls were row on row of flags. The flag of each class to pass through the Academy was displayed. By the end of this day, one more would hang here. A number of people were strolling about, looking at the various memorials. They spoke in whispers.

There were mosaics in the floor. Inset tablets of bronze and marble marked the resting-places of the remains of many great men and women. There were small alcoves and niches on either side. Thayer walked slowly towards one alcove that she had visited a number of times before. As she drew near she saw that two people were already standing there and she stopped a few meters behind them. A man of medium height in the uniform of a senior grade captain stood next to a smaller woman with short blond hair. They had their arms around each other's waists.

Thayer stood silently watching the pair. When she had seen these two the evening before, Anton Zilwicki and his daughter Helen, walking up the path towards her residence, arms around each other just like this, Sylvia Thayer thought her heart would break with joy. She had to excuse herself to her other guests and retire to her room for a while to compose herself. Standing here now she found herself again blinking back tears. Anton had his daughter back, just as Thayer had regained her goddaughter. There were still a lot of wounds to heal, a lot of awkwardness to overcome, but it was a start.

Thayer walked up beside the pair and they smiled when they saw her.

"Aunt Sylvie!" said Helen gladly. She detached herself from her father and hugged Thayer warmly. Thayer closed her eyes and hugged her back. Not 'Admiral', not 'Commandant', Aunt Sylvie! It's all I ever wanted from her. Thank God! Thank God!

When Helen stepped back, Thayer and Anton Zilwicki exchanged greetings and a quick hug. The three then turned back to regard what was in the alcove; Helen in the center; Anton and Thayer each with an arm around her.

A bronze bust that looked very similar to one of the portraits on Thayer's wall sat in a niche. A tablet below described the accomplishments of Anton's wife, Helen's mother and Sylvia Thayer's best friend. The bust had been here for over ten T-years and the original finish had dulled and turned brown. Except for the Parliamentary Medal of Valor that hung around its neck. That was still a bright, gleaming gold; burnished by the fingers of thousands of cadets who had touched it for luck.

The three stood in silence, lost in their memories of the woman they all had loved. Minutes passed and finally Anton Zilwicki stirred.

"She was a great lady," he said quietly. "I wish she could be here to see this today."

"She is, Dad, she is," said young Helen, her voice breaking slightly. Thayer closed her eyes and hugged Helen close to her. Anton did the same and after a moment Helen said:

"Hey, guys, you're squishing me."

The elders loosened their grips slightly.

"Sorry, Squirt," said Thayer. "How are those ribs of yours?"

"Fine, Aunt Sylvie, fine. They've had five months to heal, you know."

"I know, Helen," said Thayer, "but you know how we old folks worry." Helen smiled at her and Thayer smiled back. But then Thayer's eyes looked down to the Wound Stripe on Helen's uniform. It matched the one on Thayer's own tunic. Scarcely seventeen and she already bears the scars of battle.

Helen suddenly turned and looked towards the doors of the hall. Thayer followed her gaze and saw a group of people walking in their direction. As they drew closer, Thayer recognized two of Helen's roommates, Andreanne Payne and Patric McDermott. With them were some of Cadet Payne's family. Even though she must have seen them only an hour or two earlier, Helen went to meet her friends and hugged them. Then the two groups exchanged greetings.

"Ambassador Payne, good morning," said Thayer to Anny's father. "I hope the guest quarters were to your satisfaction. Again let me give you my congratulations on your promotion."

"Thank you, Admiral. I look forward to spending many more years on Manticore-and the quarters were perfectly satisfactory."

With the Ambassador was one of his wives, Ruth, and two of his other daughters. To her embarrassment, Thayer could not remember their names.

"Where's Alby?" asked Helen.

"He's off with his parents and Admiral Givens," said Anny. "My mother Rachel, Abigail, and Jeremiah went with him to keep him out of trouble."

"I wish them better luck than I had," said Thayer with a smile. It was a joke and they all knew it. Cadet Hinsworth's performance had been much improved since its nadir during his third form. He still had more demerits than any other cadet in the class, but Thayer no longer feared what sort of officer he would make.

Anton Zilwicki shook hands with Ambassador Payne. They had met for the first time the previous night at Thayer's residence. There was still a bit of awkwardness on Anton's part. That was understandable: what do you say to the father of the person who saved your child's life?

Anny Payne came up to Thayer. "Admiral, I want to thank you again for making this possible. I realize it was the decision of the Faculty Council, but I know you had a great deal to do with it as well."

"I'm glad it worked out for you, Anny, and you are welcome," replied Thayer. Anny Payne smiled and moved away. Thayer watched as she returned to the side of Patric McDermott and their hands met and clasped. A few more hours and that won't be any concern of mine, I hope they can find happiness together. Anny was moving a little unsteadily and she seemed pale and thin. It had been five months since she was wounded on the Peep cruiser. There had been some complications with her recovery and she had gotten out of the hospital only a month ago. As a result she had missed a lot of classes. She had done as much as she could from her hospital bed, but she had still fallen badly behind. At Thayer's urging, the Faculty Council had voted to allow Anny Payne to graduate with her class today, provided she remain at the Academy long enough to make up what she had missed.

Thayer smiled and shook her head slightly. I've never been so glad to be wrong about a person. She's going to be a fine officer. As Thayer stared at the young woman, she noticed the Wound Stripe on her uniform. Another child forced to grow up too soon. Thayer refused to let herself get depressed about it. Instead, she looked at the rest of Anny's uniform. It was nearly identical to Helen's, but different from that of every other cadet on Saganami Island. Instead of the thin gold welt of an ensign on the sleeves, Anny and Helen wore the broader stripe of a lieutenant, junior grade. The reason for that difference could be found hanging on their chests. Anny and Helen had been awarded the Royal Navy's Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for their actions aboard HMS Relentless and the enemy cruiser. One old tradition of the Academy had not been changed: Any cadet decorated for heroism was always bumped one rank at graduation. That was a tradition with which Thayer fully agreed. It had only happened ninety-seven times before in the four hundred T-year history of the Academy. Helen and Anny were the ninety-eighth and ninety-ninth.

Thayer felt very good about that. It was something that all the money or the highest parentage in the world could not buy. Helen and Anny would start their careers a full grade in rank higher than their peers. Influence might send others up the ladder faster, but at least these two had a well-deserved head start.

Anny Payne had a second medal hanging on her chest. She might not be a member of the Grayson Navy, but they had not forgotten her. She wore their equivalent of the CGM. Actually, Anny had become something of a darling of the media after her exploits. Admiral Cristen had recommended the two of them for the CGM based on the after-action reports he received. Once the media got hold of the story, some people in Parliament had latched on to it and there was actually talk of awarding Anny the Manticore Cross or even the Parliamentary Medal of Valor. Fortunately, when The Graysons made it quite clear that they would not even consider giving Anny the Star of Grayson, cooler heads prevailed and they went with the CGMs. Helen and Anny seemed quite content.

While Thayer was thinking, they had been walking slowly toward the far end of the hall. The young folks had been pointing out items of interest to Anny's family, but now they fell silent. Thayer and Anton slowed their pace and let Helen and Anny and Patric move ahead. She and Anton put out their hands to silently halt Ambassador Payne and his wife and children. The Ambassador looked at Thayer in puzzlement. Thayer gestured toward the far wall. He looked and then understood. High on the marble wall were letters which read:

The Royal Manticoran Naval Academy

Roll of Honor

In Memory of Those Cadets Who Gave Their Lives for The Kingdom

Thayer and the others looked on in silence as the three youths approached the wall under the letters. Inscribed in the marble were nearly five hundred names: The names of cadets who had died while at the Academy during its long history. Some had died in training accidents. Many had died on their 'prentice cruises.

There were thirty-seven new names on the roll.

The three were drawn to those new engravings. Trembling hands gently brushed the names of their comrades. Shoulders shook and tears flowed. McDermott put his huge arms around the shoulders of the two young women and they put their heads close together. Thayer bit back her own emotions. She heard the Ambassador's wife give a tiny sniffle.

"I envy you, Admiral," said Ambassador Payne quietly.

"Sir?"

"I said that I envy you." Thayer glanced at the man standing next to her. He was staring intently at his daughter.

"The pride I hold for my daughter cannot be expressed in words. She has done so very well already, and if God wills it, she may do greater things yet. I am a realist, Admiral, I know that those who favor the reforms will use her as an example and her deeds will be magnified. Generations from now her name may be spoken in the same breath as Benjamin IX and Honor Harrington. What father could ask more of his child?

"But we Graysons love our children above all other things, Admiral," continued the Ambassador. "I love my daughter more than my own life. Yet I can see now that she has entered a world that I can never fully understand. It is the way of things that children grow apart from their parents, but as the years pass and they have children of their own, they come back to us. Will my daughter return to me? She has shared something with those young people, has a closeness with them, that I cannot share or be any part of. You are a part of that world, Admiral, and I envy you."

Thayer was silent. What the Ambassador said was true. The bonds that grew between people who had served and faced death together were very strong. It was unusual for a civilian to be aware of those special ties. Thayer did not know what to say to him.

"But she will not love you any less because of it, sir," she said at last.

Ambassador Payne looked at her with a faint smile. "Thank you, Admiral. Thank you for that."

The three young cadets had now dried their tears and were coming back to their elders. Sad smiles were on their faces. Thayer checked her chrono.

"Well, I had better be getting back to my quarters to get ready," she said. "Unless I miss my guess, that's true for you three as well."

"We want to return to our quarters for a while, too, Admiral, " said Ambassador Payne.

"Then we will all be heading in the same direction for a while. Shall we go?"

Three hours later Sylvia Thayer was on the reviewing stand by the parade ground. Graduation Day usually brought a lot of guests and Thayer was sometimes hard pressed to play host to all of them. Fortunately, the Queen was always present and she naturally became the center of attention. More often than not, the Queen and her retinue ended up in the role of hosts and Thayer just had to make certain that Her Majesty was properly taken care of.

Today, however, there were enough guests that even Her Majesty and Admiral Thayer together had their hands full. The presence of Anny Payne in the graduating class had attracted a number of Graysons beside her family. High Admiral Wesley Mathews of the Grayson Navy was here with some of his staff, as well as Protector Mayhew's younger brother. One special guest was Admiral Honor Harrington. Thayer was not sure which navy she was on leave from at the moment, but somehow she had found out about Anny Payne's great admiration for her and had arranged a visit. Anny had met her at the reception the night before. Considering how dazed she had been at the time, Thayer was a little surprised that Anny had not been walking into the walls when she saw her that morning.

Somehow Thayer managed to get all the guests onto the reviewing stand at the same time and get the ceremony going. It was all very impressive. Over ten thousand cadets filled the parade ground. The graduating class, in their new black uniforms, stood in a regimental front directly before the platform. The three other regiments, still in Cadet Gray were lined up behind. Speeches were made and oaths were sworn and received. Finally, it was time for the grand review.

Starting with the First Form cade

ts, each of the classes marched by the reviewing stand to pay their respects to the Queen. The First Form was not quite as sharp as they might have been, and their regimental band definitely needed some work. The Second and Third Forms looked splendid, however, and then it was time for the graduating class.

The black uniformed officers-cadets no longer-wheeled by company into a long column. They first marched to Thayer's left, but then countermarched so they would pass directly in front of the reviewing stand. First came the band, playing a lively march, with the Regimental Commander and his staff right behind. As they came abreast the reviewing stand, the band wheeled to the left and the Commander and his staff to the right. The band stopped opposite the reviewing stand and the Commander to the stand's right. The regiment would pass in between them. Thayer knew that this ceremony had come down to them almost unchanged after twenty-five hundred T-years. It sent a thrill down her spine each time she saw it.

The First Battalion approached, led by its commander. This officer also wheeled to the right and joined the Regimental Commander next to the reviewing stand. The ten companies marched past, each company guidon dipping and every head snapping to the right to salute the Queen.

Then came the Second Battalion. A slender woman with short blonde hair led them. Thayer had been pleased when the Faculty Council had restored Helen's Cadet-Lieutenant Colonel rank, but today she was through with cadet ranks forever. She was Lieutenant (j.g.) Helen Zilwicki now, but this was still her command. She marched over to join the other field officers and then watched her battalion pass in review for the last time. Thayer glanced down at her goddaughter. Helen's face had an expression of sadness and incredible pride.

Rank after rank, the companies marched past. Their lines were laser straight and precise. As the end of the battalion drew near there was an excited stir among the guests on the reviewing stand.

After Second Battalion came the Regimental Color Company. This consisted of forty cadets-officers now, one from each company of the regiment. They were selected by their peers. Within the Color Company there were two posts of honor, the persons who would bear the Queen's Colors and the Regimental Colors. These were selected by a vote of the Color Company itself. A deserving young officer was carrying the Queen's colors today, but every eye was on the young woman bearing the Regimental Colors.

There was nothing unsteady about her stride now. She marched proud and erect. Lieutenant (j.g.) Andreanne Payne carried the colors of her regiment to pay honor to the Queen.

As the Color Company approached, the band struck up a traditional Grayson military march. They came abreast the reviewing stand and the Queen's Colors dipped slightly. Anny Payne brought the staff of the Regimental Colors to a forty-five degree angle. Thayer could see the two bits of bright metal pinned to her chest.

Up until now, the salutes of the cadets had been acknowledged only by the Queen. Now, however, every officer, Manticoran and Grayson alike, brought their hands up in salute. The civilians put their hands over their hearts. The regiment's field officers saluted with their swords.

With perfect timing, a faint rumble grew to a roar and three flights of Javelins screamed overhead, one after the other. They were piloted by cadets from the other classes. It was the traditional "Three Cheers" formation. Thayer stood there; holding her salute and blinking back tears. God, I'm proud of these kids!

And then they were gone. The Third Battalion followed and then the Fourth. The regiment marched around and finally ended up back where it had started. All four regiments opened their ranks and presented arms and it was over.

As Thayer stood there, the Queen turned to her.

"Admiral, I want to offer you my congratulations and my thanks," she said. "You and your officers have done a magnificent job. There are those who have questioned whether the cadets trained under this new system are up to the task that lies before them. I can confidently tell them-and the Kingdom-that they need have no fears."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," replied Thayer. "On behalf of all of us, thank you very much."

An hour later, Sylvia Thayer had finally managed to break free of all the guests. There was a formal dinner tonight, but that was four hours away and Thayer needed some time alone. She headed back toward the older part of campus by some of the less used paths. She found that she was exhausted both mentally and physically. Her leg was aching and she wished she had brought her cane. She could have summoned a ground car, but she could stand the pain if it allowed her this moment of solitude.

At the end of the day the Three Hundred and Forty-Second Regiment of Cadets, Royal Manticoran Naval Academy, would cease to exist. Three thousand, one hundred and fourteen cadets had been mustered in thirty-five months ago. Of those, Thirty-seven were dead and commissioned posthumously. Eighteen more had been retired honorably due to injuries or other medical reasons. Four hundred and twenty-two had transferred and three hundred and seventy six had been expelled or resigned. The remaining two thousand, two hundred and sixty-one were now commissioned officers in the Royal Manticoran Navy.

Thayer should have felt very good about that, but instead, she found herself almost overwhelmed by a sense of gloom. She knew part of it was just her own sentimentality: she was going to miss those kids. Although she tried to project a tough, no-nonsense exterior, inside she was very emotional and nostalgic.

But her depression was more than that. Her thoughts went back to that morning. Helen and Anton, together as father and daughter for the first time in years. Anny Payne and Patric McDermott, obviously in love. Would they be given the time they needed? Could Helen find the time to heal? Would Anny and Patric be given the chance to love? Or in a few months' time would they be dead? Today did not mark the end, but just the beginning. The War was still waiting Out There.

And it did not care who it killed.

There were thirty-seven new names on the Roll of Honor. Twenty-two others had been inscribed there in the time that Thayer had been Commandant. Those fifty-nine names were burned into Thayer's soul. She knew every one of them. She had certainly had people under her command killed before. Some of them were nearly as young as those cadets. But this was different somehow. Those others had been killed while she was out there with them-running the same risks, taking the same chances. Now, she was staying here, safe, training them to kill and then sending them out to kill and be killed. Captain Keeler's words came back to haunt her yet again. Sending those wonderful young people out to die while she stayed behind was turning into the hardest thing Thayer had ever had to do.

And she was not sure she could do it anymore.

In less than a year her term as Commandant would be up. A large part of her wanted this to be her last year. That part of her wanted to leave the Academy, take her promotion and get a new combat command. But it was not a matter of the rank. Admiral Caparelli had hinted today that if Thayer stayed on for another term as Commandant, she might get her promotion to Vice Admiral very soon anyway. Was it a bribe to keep her here? Thayer really did not care.

No, it was not the rank. It was the war. The war was out there. For twelve years it had been killing and killing and killing. Thayer was sick of it. She wanted to do something to end it. To make the killing stop. And I can't do that from here. All I can do here is prepare more lambs for the slaughter! Maybe if she went back out on the line she could do something to help win this war and halt the slaughter. And save some of those young people. The depression weighed heavier on her with every limping step she took.

Thayer had reached the formal gardens south of the Quad. Up ahead there was a fountain and at that point the path she was on would split. One way would take her back toward her office. The other way would take her back to her residence. She knew she ought to go to her office. There was so much work piled up she should make use of these coming hours. But she was tired. More tired than she could ever remember being. Maybe a little nap would be a good...

Out of the corner of her eye Thayer saw someone. She turned her head and then stopped. Walking among the flowering plants was a slightly stooped man in the full dress uniform of a chief petty officer. His hair and his mustache were nearly white. The man saw Thayer and walked over to her. There was a twinkle in his eye. He saluted and Thayer returned it.

"'Afternoon, Admiral!" said Jon Seaton. "How are you this grand day?"

"I'm fine, Chief." answered Thayer quietly. "And how are you?"

"I'm as good as can be, Admiral. It's a great day, a great day. The ceremony was quite a sight wasn't it? As many times as I've seen them graduate, I still get a big kick out of it. Watching those fine young folk out there does my heart good. It makes me feel like...like... Spring!"

"Spring?" said Thayer, raising her eyebrows.

"Yes, Admiral like Spring," said Seaton and he gestured to the flowers all around them. "It's like new life growing, new strength for the Fleet, like Spring!"

Thayer stood and stared at the elderly CPO. Part of her was amused, but she was moved as well. "You're a philosopher, Chief," she said.

"No, just a sentimental old man," smiled Seaton. "But you've done a fine job here, Admiral, you should be proud of what you've done."

"I've had a lot of help along the way. A lot of people deserve credit-including you, Chief. Thank you."

"Not at all, not at all," said Seaton with a chuckle. "We all have our place in the grand scheme of things."

Thayer looked at the long row of hash marks on Seaton's sleeve.

"We've put in a lot of years between the two of us, Chief," said Thayer.

"That we have, Admiral, but you seem to carry your years a bit better than I do."

Thayer looked at the man. How old is he? Eighty? Ninety? First generation Prolong for sure. He seemed old that first day I saw him-over forty years ago.

"Have you ever thought about retiring, Chief?"

Seaton laughed. "Retire? Now why would I want to do a thing like that, Admiral? Why would I retire when there is still a job to be done?"

Thayer just shook her head, but a faint smile started on her lips. Her leg did not hurt quite so much. Some of the weight had left her shoulders. She held out her hand.

"Take care of yourself, Jon."

Jon Seaton took her hand and gripped it firmly.

"That I will, Ms. Sylvie, that I will. You take care, too."

They exchanged salutes and Jon Seaton turned and walked slowly away, back down the path Thayer had just come up. Sylvia Thayer stood and watched him until he was out of sight.

Then she turned and continued on her way. Her stride was sure and her shoulders were back.

She reached the fountain and she took the path to the right.

The path that led back to her office.

There was still a job to be done.

The End