Lieutenants

By Scott Washburn

Note: If you haven't read "Tales from the Academy – Honorverse" please go and read that first!

DISCLAIMER

What follows is a work of fan fiction. It uses characters and situations created by David Weber. It is not authorized, recognized or, as far as I know, known to exist by David Weber or Baen Publishing Enterprises. My efforts here should be taken as a sincere homage to the wonderful universe of Honor Harrington that David Weber has created. I in no way mean to imply that I can do a better job than Mr. Weber.

Scott Washburn

July 1999

Prologue

Sylvia Thayer watched the titanic bulk of Her Majesty's Space Station Hephaestus grow in the viewport of her pinnace. She had not had reason to visit the station in nearly a T-year and she was amazed at the changes that had taken place in that time. The huge, lumpy cylinder was at least ten kilometers longer than it had been and several dozen new building slips and repair bays studded the addition. All of those slips had vessels being built in them. Thayer shook her head in awe and admiration. Between the new slips and the facilities that had already been there, the equivalent of a whole battlefleet was under construction before her eyes - and Hephaestus was only one of several such facilities in the Manticore star system.

A small thrill of pride ran through Thayer. The terrible war with the People's Republic of Haven was in its twelfth year and with no end in sight. The Royal Manticoran Navy had sustained heavy losses during that time. But the Fleet - the fleet Thayer's whole life had revolved around -was bigger and more powerful than ever.

As the pinnace got nearer, Thayer's eyes were drawn to a ship that was floating just beyond one of the repair bays. It was tiny compared to the leviathan dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts of the Fleet but Thayer recognized the sleek lines and menacing shape of a battlecruiser. Her last command had been on such a ship and a sudden longing to stand on its flag bridge filled her. The feeling was so powerful it made her shudder and wrench her eyes away.

Someday, maybe someday.

Thayer looked down at her hands. The cuffs on the sleeves of her tunic were circled by one broad gold band and two narrower ones. She was wearing the uniform of a vice admiral. The First Space Lord, Sir Thomas Caparelli, had made good on his end of an unspoken agreement and Sylvia Thayer had received her promotion from rear admiral. Thayer had kept her part of the bargain, too, and agreed to another term as commandant of the Royal Manticoran Naval Academy on Saganami Island. Except for rare times like this, she did not regret her decision. Training the young officers who would someday command the ships that were taking shape outside the viewport was tremendously rewarding. As proud as Thayer was of her earlier accomplishments as a combat commander, it could not quite compare with how she felt about the Academy and her cadets.

I'm just getting old. I'm a sentimental old fool.

The Academy had always been a special place to Sylvia Thayer. She had been a Navy brat and had been dragged from base to base throughout the Manticore star system while growing up. At age sixteen she had entered the Academy and spent four T-years there. After graduation, she had gone from ship to ship in an endless cycle. Now she had spent four more T-years on Saganami Island. She had lived there longer than anywhere else in her life. Of all the places in the galaxy she had been, the Academy was home.

A small thump jolted Thayer out of her musings. Her pinnace had entered one of the station's multitude of docking bays and was now resting on the deck. As she watched, a boarding tube extended from one of the bulkheads and made fast to the lock of her pinnace with a barely audible clang. Thayer unstrapped from her seat and made her way to the airlock. The interior of the large vessel was unoccupied except for her. Normally, she would have taken a smaller shuttle, but she was on a tight schedule today and the pinnace's impeller drive had allowed her to make the 40,000 kilometer trip up to Hephaestus in just a few minutes

"All secure, Admiral," said a voice over the com.

"Thank you, James," answered Thayer to her pilot. "I'll probably be two or three hours. Feel free to debark if you want. I can always com you when I'm ready to leave."

"Aye, aye, ma'am, I'll be ready when you are."

Thayer pressed the proper button on the airlock controls and the door slid open. She stepped inside the lock, closed the inner door behind her, and then opened the outer door. Bending her knees, she leaned forward and then pushed herself off like someone doing a swan dive into a swimming pool. Her motion carried her out of the artificial gravity field of the pinnace and into the null gravity of the boarding tube, so instead of falling flat on her face, she floated down the tube like a gliding bird. Thayer had always prided herself on her skill in zero-gee maneuvers. This was the first opportunity she had had to test herself since she finished the therapy on her newly regenerated leg. She floated down the exact center of the tube and she grinned when she saw that her motion would carry her all the way to the end without her needing to push off from the side of the tube.

The old lady still remembers her stuff!

The grin left her face when she saw what was waiting for her at the end of the tube.

Damn! I told them I didn't want any fuss!

The full side party that the rank of vice admiral entitled her to stood at attention in the boat bay. A platoon of marines in dress uniforms stood to one side and a gaggle of naval officers on the other. Directly in front of her was a short, pudgy man in the uniform of a rear admiral.

Thayer reached the end of the tube and grasped the metal bar that hung down. She swung herself across the glowing red line that warned of the return to full gravity and landed lightly on her feet. A tiny twinge in her right knee reminded her that her leg was not completely healed yet. She brought her hand up and saluted the man facing her.

"Permission to come aboard, sir?"

"Granted, Dame Sylvia, granted!" gushed the man, returning her salute. "Welcome to Hephaestus!"

"Thank you, Admir...Sir Hunter," said Thayer awkwardly. "I was not expecting a reception like this. I had sent a message to your office requesting..."

"Yes, I know," interrupted Rear Admiral Sir Hunter Kinkaid with a grin. "But I couldn't just let you come aboard like a common rating now could I?"

Thayer held back a grimace. That is exactly what she had hoped to do. She had personal business on the station and she did not want to get snarled in the red tape of an official visit. That was the reason she had chosen one of the military docking bays instead of a VIP bay that had its own internal gravity field. In theory, she could have come aboard unannounced, but that just was not done. For her to board the station without informing Admiral Kinkaid she was coming would have been like him roaming around Saganami Island without telling her. If she had been a lieutenant or even a captain, it would not have mattered, but admirals were the prisoners of their own rank. They could not tread on one another's turf without the courtesy of informing each other. Thayer had sent the required notice to Kinkaid's office and requested that her visit be treated in a low-key fashion, but he had ignored her wishes.

Kinkaid was now directing Thayer to where his staff was waiting. He enthusiastically introduced each one and Thayer smiled and shook their hands and forgot each name the instant it was told to her. The only name she was likely to remember was Kinkaid's and that was mainly because it seemed so inappropriate. The name 'Hunter Kinkaid' brought to Thayer the image of one of the bold explorers on the edge of human space. A brawny man with rippling muscles, conquering new worlds with nothing more than his wits and a vibro-blade. It was impossible to reconcile that name with the round, teddy-bear of a man puffing next to Thayer.

Kinkaid introduced the last person in his staff and then turned and looked past Thayer, back toward the boarding tube. He then looked at Thayer in surprise.

"Your staff...?" he began.

"I came alone, Admiral," said Thayer, deliberately using his rank rather than his title. "As I said in my message, I am here on personal business. I can only stay a short time, and I had really better be going."

"Oh dear, I was hoping you could stay for lunch!" said Kinkaid in dismay.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible on this visit, Admiral. I'm simply here to see off some friends and a family member." Thayer very openly examined her chrono. "And I'm already running late. Thank you for your courtesy, Sir Hunter, I hope I can return and enjoy your hospitality on another occasion. But right now, I must be going - with your permission, of course."

"Er, of course, Dame Sylvia, you have the run of the station," said Kinkaid in a flustered fashion. "Can one of my staff accompany you to where your friends are waiting?"

"That won't be necessary, Sir Hunter, I can find my own way," said Thayer with a smile. She saluted and then turned and walked toward one of the transport stations, leaving Kinkaid and his staff gaping at her.

Fortunately, there was a car waiting and Thayer was in it and off before Sir Hunter could think of some excuse to come after her. Once she had punched in her destination, she leaned back in her seat and let out a sigh of relief.

After a moment she looked at the panel that showed her location and saw that she had a few minutes to wait before she arrived at her stop. Thayer took out her compad and made a note to herself to arrange some sort of social invitation for Admiral Kinkaid. She knew that she had probably offended Kinkaid and she had to make up for it somehow. The upper echelons of the Navy ran, to a very great degree, on an "old boy/old girl" network. Admirals did favors and owed favors and an awful lot of the Navy's work got done because of it. Thayer now 'owed' Kinkaid and she needed to even the score in case she ever needed a favor from the commander of Her Majesty's Space Station Hephaestus. And, of course, that was exactly why Kinkaid had been so eager to greet her in the first place: someday he might need a favor from the commandant of the Royal Manticoran Naval Academy.

Thayer knew she was going to be running into more and more of this sort of thing now that she had been promoted. As a rear admiral she had been marginally involved in the network, but she had been one of nearly a thousand rear admirals in the Fleet. Now she was one of less than a hundred vice admirals. And even though she was the most junior of that select body, her position as commandant gave her far more influence than all but a few of her peers. There were a great many people in the Fleet who would love to have Sylvia Thayer owe them a favor. Thayer was still slightly amazed at the effects of her new status.

And the knighthood did not hurt either.

While she had been expecting the promotion, the knighthood had come as a complete surprise. Thinking back, she realized that she should have expected it. There were very few vice admirals in the Fleet who did not have some sort of title. But it had surprised her. Sylvia Thayer was descended from 'zero balancer' and yeoman stock and as far as she knew there was not a drop of noble blood in her veins. Titles and the privileges that went with them were always for other people, not her.

Secretly, Thayer had always thought the monarchy and the aristocracy was a pretty silly way of running a world, and her own knighting had only confirmed that belief. She had been knighted not so much for her accomplishments or even because she had friends in high places. Rather, she had been knighted because of the enemies she had made. The strict new rules of discipline she had been expected to enforce when she was made commandant had outraged a great many of the Peerage who had children at the Academy. No one too important, but enough of them that they could have made serious problems for a commoner like Thayer who had no patron. The pressure to remove Thayer built slowly but steadily until the Admiralty was forced to act. But they acted in a fashion other than what Thayer's detractors wanted: they arranged with Her Majesty to have Thayer knighted.

It was done in a public ceremony to send a clear message to Thayer's critics. The official message was that Thayer had the full support and confidence of the Crown. In plain English, however, the real message was: "I need this woman. Back off!"

And that was all it took. There had been no trouble since. Pretty damn ridiculous when you stopped to think about it.

I wonder what Mom and Dad would have thought of this? Not too shabby for the daughter of a pair of CPOs!

A soft chime sounded in the car and Thayer looked up to see that she was approaching her stop. The car came to a halt with no sense of any motion and the door opened. Thayer got out and found herself in a busy corridor. Moving past crowds of spacers and marines, she entered a large open space that stretched away from her into the distance. The roof was far overhead and sunlight streamed through the polarized armorplast windows that lined the walls below the roof. At floor level there were all manner of shops and eateries and entertainment establishments.

Thayer was in the main commercial section of the station. Although Hephaestus was a military base, thousands of people passed through it every day and tens of thousands more worked and lived aboard. The Navy permitted a number of privately owned businesses to operate in this one section. Thayer strolled as briskly as the crowds would allow. She checked her compad from time to time to help her find the one establishment she was looking for. It was a bit of a walk and she found herself being distracted by the people and places around her.

Almost all of the people were in uniform, mostly Royal Navy or Marine, but a considerable number were wearing the uniforms of Alliance navies. She saw a pair of ensigns in the Grayson Navy's unusual blue uniforms looking in a shop window. When they saw her looking at them they gawked at her like she was a Sphinxian hexapuma. Thayer was sure they must have seen women in uniform before - there were hundreds all around them right now - but maybe never one so high ranking. Thayer kept walking and had to detour around a company of marines. They were carrying their duffel bags and must have been switching ships here at the station. A sergeant was swearing at them lustily to keep together and not straggle.

Thayer turned down a side corridor and kept an eye peeled for the place she was looking for. She almost missed it anyway. She had walked past it before the modest sign registered on her consciousness: "The Drydock". She double-checked her compad, but there was no mistake, this was the place.

She walked inside and looked around. It was a small restaurant - hardly more than a lunch counter, really. A few booths were against the outer wall and there was a counter with stools opposite them. A half-dozen ratings were scattered about and a man stood behind the counter. All of them looked up in surprise at Thayer. Apparently vice admirals were not part of the regular clientele.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" asked the man behind the counter.

"I'm meeting some people here, but I don't see them."

A look of understanding came over the man's face. "Ah! They're around the corner there, ma'am." He pointed to the far end of the counter and Thayer saw that there was an adjoining space. She walked over and saw a few tables in the next room. Five people were sitting at one of them and there was a single empty chair.

Thayer smiled. All of them were in the space-black uniforms of the Royal Navy and she knew each one. A thin, blonde-haired woman caught sight of Thayer and bounded to her feet.

"Aunt Sylvie!" cried Helen Zilwicki gladly, "You made it after all!" She came over to Thayer and hugged her warmly.

"Well, I certainly wasn't going to let my only goddaughter go off to war without saying good-bye!" said Thayer, returning the hug. She spoke lightly, but the full meaning of her statement was like an icicle through her heart.

Helen detached herself and Thayer turned to greet the others who had all stood up. A young woman with elaborately braided brown hair and striking green eyes came forward first.

"Ms. Payne, good to see you again," said Thayer taking her hand.

"Thank you, Admiral," said Andreanne Payne, "it's good to see you, too."

Next was a very tall young man whose head was only a dozen centimeters below the ceiling. Thayer shook hands with Patric McDermott and he stuttered a greeting.

After McDermott was a small, boyish figure who looked positively tiny next to Patric. He had unruly red hair and freckles and a wide grin.

"Hello, Mr. Hinsworth," said Thayer. "I had a little trouble finding this place and I was beginning to wonder if you had hacked into my compad and scrambled the directions."

Alby Hinsworth blushed but met Thayer's glance evenly and his grin grew wider. "I only hack into Peep computers these days, ma'am. Don't blame me for your faulty navigation." Thayer laughed.

Lastly Thayer turned to greet an elderly man in the uniform of a chief petty officer. His hair and mustache were nearly white and he had a long row of hash marks on his sleeve.

"Well, Chief, still riding herd on this pack of rapscallions, I see."

"Yes, ma'am," replied Jon Seaton with a twinkle in his eye. "It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it."

"You know the Chief, Aunt Sylvie?" asked Helen.

"Oh yes, he and I go 'way back," chuckled Thayer.

"That we do," confirmed Seaton.

Thayer knew that Chief Seaton had taken the foursome of youngsters under his wing while they had been at the Academy. Somehow it did not surprise her that he had never told them about another terrified plebe that he had befriended forty-five years earlier.

The six of them now found places around the table. Thayer glanced at her surroundings.

"My, what a...charming place," she remarked.

"It's a special place, Aunt Sylvie," said Helen. "Patric and the Chief first met here."

"Actually we met out in the passenger bay, but we ate breakfast here," corrected McDermott.

"I see," said Thayer. "Then it is an appropriate place for a farewell, too."

A silence settled over the group. None of them had really wanted to think about that. Fortunately, the silence only lasted a moment and then a woman came bustling up to their table.

"Ah! Your missing guest has arrived I see!" she began and then stopped in her tracks, staring at Thayer. She looked at Seaton in surprise. "You are coming up in the world, Jon! Entertaining admirals now!"

Jon Seaton chuckled and introduced Thayer to the restaurant's owner. The woman seemed properly impressed. She took Thayer's order and then disappeared again.

Soon Thayer was sipping at a drink and listening to the casual conversation that was going around the table. It was all far too casual, really. They were avoiding the real reason they were here and they all knew it. The four young people had spent over three T-years as Academy roommates. They had gone on their 'prentice cruise together and had fought and bled at each other's sides.

And today was good-bye.

They would try to be lighthearted about it, give each other a 'So long, see you in Hell' sort of banter, but each of them knew that today could well be the last time they would ever meet. Thayer had gone through it enough times herself to know what was in the minds of these new officers.

They had graduated six months ago. Three of them had spent that time in advanced training, but Lieutenant (junior grade) Andreanne Payne had spent it catching up on the classes she had missed while recovering from the wounds she suffered on her 'prentice cruise. The visible effects of those wounds could be seen on her uniform: The blood-red wound stripe on her sleeve, the two ribbons for gallantry on her chest, the tiny pip marking her as a survivor of a ship lost in action, and her lieutenant's rank itself. Thayer wondered what other effects there might be that she could not see.

"So, Ms. Payne, I understand you and Mr. McDermott will be heading off to your home world for a while," said Thayer.

"Yes, ma'am, although I'm not sure how homelike it will seem to me. I've spent most of my life here on Manticore. I have not been on Grayson since I was nine years old."

Thayer nodded. Anny Payne was a native of the male-dominated planet of Grayson. However, her father was in the diplomatic service and he and his family had been on Manticore since the start of the war. The fact that Anny was sitting here today was a testament to her determination and courage. Women were not permitted to serve in the Grayson military, but Anny found a way around that: she had joined the Manticoran Navy instead. At first, Thayer had doubts if Anny had what it took to be an officer, but she was very glad to have been proved wrong.

"Do you have your assignments yet?" asked Thayer.

"Yes, ma'am," said Anny with a smile. " Patric and I will be serving aboard the Alliance."

Thayer raised her eyebrows. "That's one of the new Harrington class ships, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am, she's just about to start her acceptance trials. We report aboard in three weeks."

"A superdreadnought - and a brand new one to boot - I'm envious. My first assignment was a very old light cruiser," said Thayer.

"It's terribly exciting," nodded Anny.

"And you are going along too, Mr. McDermott?"

"Yes, Admiral, I'll still be Anny's 'male protector'. The GSN is insisting that Anny have one."

"So you are both transferring to the Grayson Space Navy," stated Thayer.

At the start of the war, Grayson's navy was virtually non-existent and their technology was far behind that of either Manticore or Haven. In spite of that, in an amazingly short time Grayson had built a first class navy that in the Alliance was second only to Manticore in size and second to none in its technology. Quite understandably, an expansion of that magnitude had left the Graysons terribly short of experienced officers. Right from the start, Manticore had been lending its own officers to the GSN - this in spite of the fact that the Royal Navy was badly short of officers itself. In the last few years, the number of officers lent to the GSN had dropped as Grayson trained its own officers and gained experience in battle.

Some officers were still being lent, however, and there had never been any doubt that Anny Payne would be one of them. The political leadership of Grayson were progressives and they were slowly trying to do away with the laws and customs that kept women as second-class citizens. A lot of progress had already been made, thanks in large part to that remarkable Manticoran woman, Honor Harrington. One restriction that was still in place, however, was on Grayson women in the military. There were women in the GSN, but they were all Manticoran or Alliance officers who had been lent to Grayson. When the powers-that-be learned of Anny's plan to go to the Academy, they latched on to it as a way to break that restriction. If Anny could become an officer in the Royal Navy, she could then be lent to the Grayson Navy. Then the Progressives could point to Anny and show that there was a Grayson woman in the Grayson Navy. Thayer knew that the original plan had been to have Anny get a few years of experience in the Royal Navy before making the transfer, but after Anny's courageous actions during her 'prentice cruise, the decision was made to do it right away.

"Yes, Admiral," said Anny, "I'm not sure how long it will be for, but we'll both be in Grayson service."

"Do you have plans to return to the RMN? Considering your background, I would think you might want to stay in the Grayson Navy permanently."

"I have not really thought that far ahead, Ma'am," said Anny with a nervous smile.

"What about you, Mr. McDermott? Not that it is any of my business."

Patric McDermott looked down at the table and shuffled his feet. "I don't know, ma'am. For now I'm going with...going to go into the GSN. In the long run, I just don't know."

Thayer nodded her head and gave a grim smile. McDermott was in love with Anny Payne. Thayer had never had any doubt about that. Now it seemed he was being torn in two. Thayer did not envy him.

"Sometimes you just have to follow your heart, Patric," said Thayer quietly.

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, Admiral."

The group was silent for a few moments, then Thayer turned to Alby Hinsworth.

"Mr. Hinsworth, you said you were hacking into Peep computers these days. Are you finding anything interesting in them - or is that classified?"

"Well, no and no, Admiral," grinned Hinsworth. "Right now I'm still in the training process. They give me old Peep computers off captured ships to practice on. Anything in them is stuff we already know. Basically, I'm just familiarizing myself with Peep programming methods and protocols. Eventually, I'll be working with intelligence reports from the field and trying to predict what the Peeps are up to as far as their computers and electronics are concerned."

"It sounds interesting," said Thayer, trying to conceal her real thought that it sounded incredibly tedious. "So you are part of Naval Intelligence?"

"Yes, ma'am, I guess my grandmother wanted me where she could keep an eye on me."

Thayer smiled. Admiral Patricia Givens was Alby's grandmother. She was also the Second Space Lord and head of the Bureau of Planning which contained the Naval Intelligence Department. It did not surprise Thayer that Alby had ended up in Given's domain. Nepotism was a fact of life in the Royal Navy and the aristocracy definitely took care of its own. If Hinsworth made no major screw-ups, he could be assured of rapid promotions and a long and successful career - assuming that was what he wanted. When he had been a cadet, Hinsworth was a thorn in Thayer's side. He was very intelligent - brilliant even, where computers were concerned - but he had graduated dead last in a class of over two thousand because of an incredible number of demerits. It had seemed to Thayer that Hinsworth did not want a naval career and she had despaired of trying to teach him discipline or responsibility. He had improved dramatically in his last form at the Academy, but it also did not surprise Thayer that Admiral Givens was keeping him on a short leash.

"Well, I wish you the best, Mr. Hinsworth," said Thayer. "Just a word of advice: You are not a cadet anymore, this is for real now, and Admiral Givens is not as forgiving as I am."

"That I knew already, Admiral," replied Hinsworth with a grin, "but thank you anyway."

Thayer chuckled and then another silence descended on the group. Thayer's eyes were drawn to the young woman sitting next to her. Helen Zilwicki was staring back at her. One side of Helen's mouth was drawn out in an expression that could instantly become a grin or a frown. There were things that Thayer needed to say to her goddaughter - and things that Helen had to say in return. Some of those things Thayer did not want to hear even though she already knew what they would be. But there was no putting it off. Things were going to happen no matter what Thayer did.

"You have not told me how you made out in your preliminary training, Helen," said Thayer at last. "You are shipping out, but you did not tell me where."

The side of Helen's mouth curled upward a tiny bit. "I wanted to surprise you, Aunt Sylvie."

Thayer suppressed a shudder. I don't want any surprises at this point!

"Oh," she said keeping her voice level, "and just what is this surprise?"

Instead of answering, Helen reached into a pocket and brought out two small objects that she placed on the table in front of Thayer. One was a small silver pin in the shape of a stooping bird of prey. The other was a round, embroidered shoulder patch. On the patch was a multi-headed creature on a background of stars. Some of the dragon-like heads were breathing fire and others were crushing starships in their jaws. Around the edge of the patch were the words: HMS Hydra and CV-6.

Thayer stared at them for an instant. Oh God!

For a moment, Thayer could not speak, but fortunately, Helen's friends caught sight of what was on the table and jumped in.

"You got the Hydra? Oh, Helen, that's great!"

"Way to go, Helen!"

"Well done, Helen, you've really earned it!"

Alby slapped her on the back and Anny came over and gave Helen a quick hug. Thayer just sat and stared at the two objects that in all probability would cost Helen her life.

LACs! God! I knew she was taking the training, but I had prayed she would change her mind. And a carrier, too!

The Shrike class Light Attack Craft were some of the newest weapons in the Alliance's arsenal. They were small ships, incapable of hyperspace flight. They were extremely fast and carried a powerful armament for their size. Before the war, LACs had been very common, but advances in technology had rendered them obsolete and they had fallen out of favor. In the endless cycle of advances in military technology, new equipment had made the LACs a potent weapon once more. The Alliance was building them in great numbers and they had scored some notable successes against the unprepared Peeps. The new Shrikes were far more powerful and better protected than the ones Thayer had known as a young officer before the war. But they were still the proverbial "eggshells armed with sledgehammers". One good hit would blow a LAC to tiny pieces. Even the successful actions against the Peeps typically cost the LAC forces ten or fifteen percent casualties. It did not take a mathematical genius to calculate a LAC crew's life expectancy.

It had not surprised Thayer that Helen had applied for LAC training - and with her record at the Academy, she could have virtually any assignment she wanted. Helen was a brilliant tactician and utterly dedicated to the Navy. While the LACs might be dangerous, they also were a way for an ambitious young officer to quickly rise through the ranks. Someone with Helen's talents could expect to become a squadron commander

within months and command a wing in a year or so-assuming she survived.

But Thayer knew there was another reason for Helen's choice.

Twelve years ago, just before the start of the war, the Peeps had attacked a Manticoran convoy. The commander of the escort has taken on the Peeps even though the odds were impossibly long. She had saved the convoy but her escort had been wiped out with all hands. The escort commander had been Sylvia Thayer's best friend - and Helen Zilwicki's mother.

For years hatred of the Peeps had consumed Thayer. To her horror, Thayer found that the same hate was infecting young Helen. Thayer had finally mastered her own hatred, but Helen was still struggling with hers. Thayer knew that Helen had accomplished a major breakthrough in conquering her hate while she was on her 'prentice cruise. But the recording chip from Helen's space suit had also told Thayer just how close a thing it had been. Thayer had never told Helen that chip had survived, and only a few people had heard it before it was erased, but its contents had given Thayer nightmares.

Was Helen's choice of the LACs a desire to get in close with the enemy? Did she still hunger to see the Peeps blown apart with her own eyes? Did she insist on having her own finger on the trigger? Thayer did not know.

But she did know that Helen was taking an enormous risk. The Alliance was producing LACs by the hundreds. Most of them were being formed into system defense squadrons and sent to bolster the thin-stretched garrisons of the Alliance systems. LAC crews were being trained in similar numbers to man the tiny warships. Most of those squadrons would see little or no combat: they were simply there to free larger warships for other duty. But the best of the LAC crews - the very best - were selected for the new carriers that were being built. The carriers could transport the LACs through hyperspace and into combat. They were offensive weapons, not defensive. The LAC carriers would seek out the enemy - and the losses among the LAC crews would be high.

Thayer was very proud that Helen had been selected for carrier duty, but she was terrified as well. The young girl sitting next to her was the most precious thing in Thayer's life. Her mother's death had nearly destroyed Thayer. The thought of Helen being killed was more than she could bear.

Thayer became aware that the congratulations had stopped and Helen was looking at her expectantly.

"Helen..." Thayer began. Her eyes flicked to Jon Seaton on the other side of the table. There was a small smile on the old man's face, but his eyes met Thayer's and for a moment he seemed to be sharing her pain.

"Helen," said Thayer again and she forced a smile. "That's wonderful, Helen, I'm so proud of you. And another new ship! Four new officers, fresh out of the Academy and three of them keel plate owners on their first assignments! Did you ever hear of such a thing, Chief?" Thayer was babbling, but it was that or break down in tears.

"No, ma'am!" said Seaton. "Why, my first ship was so old we had to shinny up the ratlines and set the Warshawski sails by hand!"

The others laughed, but Helen's eyes had not left Thayer. They were wide and gleaming.

"Admiral? Would you do me the honor?" she said, indicating the insignia lying on the table.

Thayer blinked back tears. Oh God, I am so very proud of her!

"Of course, Helen, and I'm the one who should be honored."

Helen and Thayer got to their feet. Thayer reached a trembling hand towards the silver pin that denoted a trained LAC officer. She would have rather picked up an angry Sphinxian fire slug, but she forced herself to do so and she pinned it to Helen's lapel. Then she took the shoulder patch and peeled off the backing to expose the adhesive. She carefully positioned it on the left shoulder of Helen's tunic and pressed it in place. It was almost exactly over the spot where a pulser dart had torn open Helen's shoulder on her 'prentice cruise.

They stepped back and looked at each other. Helen's hand snapped up in a salute and Thayer returned it solemnly. The other four applauded and Helen blushed and smiled at her friends. Thayer was trying to figure out what else to say, when the restaurant proprietor saved her again by appearing with their meals. Thayer was not particularly hungry by this point - in fact her stomach was churning - but she forced herself to sit down and eat.

The conversation around the table became lighthearted again and Thayer did not say a great deal. She did learn that Helen was now on her way to the Unicorn Belt in the nearby Manticore-B system. The major LAC production facility was there and HMS Hydra would be training her LAC contingent in the same area. Thayer stared at the patch on Helen's shoulder. Before the war, the Navy had not gone in for distinctive unit patches like that. They were becoming more and more common now. Ship patches, squadron, and fleet insignia were popping up all over. Often they were not even officially approved, but no effort was made to get rid of them. The Admiralty knew they were good for morale and helped build espirit de corps. And if any outfit needs to have their morale kept high, it's those LAC crews! Thayer thought back to an action earlier in the war. Her battlecruiser had been raiding a Peep system and in desperation the Peeps had thrown about thirty of the old style LACs at her because they had nothing else available. The action had been short and one-sided and there had been no survivors on the Peep side. The Shrikes were far more powerful than the ships Thayer had massacred with so much satisfaction, but still... Thayer shuddered.

Her thoughts returned to the present and she realized that the others were exchanging glances with each other and sneaking looks at her. Now what's going on?

Anny Payne glanced around sheepishly and then stood up.

"Admiral, we have something we would like to present to you." She looked at Patric, who reached under the table and came up with an object that looked like a small briefcase. It had a hinged lid and a carrying handle and seemed very heavy for its size. The others cleared a spot on the table in front of Thayer and Patric placed it carefully down. Thayer could not imagine what it was.

"We wanted to get something special for you, Admiral," continued Anny, "but for awhile we could not think of anything appropriate. Then we had a bit of good fortune. We would like you to accept this in token of all that you have given to us and to our class and to the Navy."

Even without knowing what was inside, Thayer was quite touched. She slowly turned the case around and undid the latches and lifted the lid. She looked inside and for a moment she could not quite figure out what she was looking at. Then it hit her and she was stunned. It was a heavy metal plate about forty centimeters long by thirty high - a ship's builders' plaque. It read:

PNS Sword

CA-326

It was the plaque from the ship they had captured on their 'prentice cruise! Thayer's mouth opened and closed several times but no sound came out. Attached to the plaque was a smaller metal plate with words engraved on it:

Captured by the officers and crew

of HMS Relentless in gallant combat.

Maastricht System

February 17, 1916 P.D.

"How...how did you get this?" asked Thayer, finally getting her voice to work.

"The salvage crew at Maastricht took it off the wreck," explained Anny. "They were not sure what to do with it until they thought of us. They were the ones who put on the smaller plate."

"Normally a trophy like this would go to the capturing ship," said Helen, "but the regulations are a bit vague about what to do when the capturing ship is destroyed, too."

"We contacted as many of the survivors of Relentless as we could, but they basically left the decision up to us," said Anny.

"I...I'm not sure I should take this," said Thayer.

"Well, we would like you to take it on behalf of the Academy," said Helen. "Perhaps you could add it to the collection in your office."

"We would really be honored if you would accept it, Admiral," said Anny with a solemn look on her face.

Thayer was very moved. A captured enemy builder's plaque was like a battle flag in ancient times. It had tremendous emotional importance. For these youngsters to offer it to her!

Thayer smiled. "Of course. On behalf of the Academy, I would be pleased and honored to accept. And thank you. Thank you all very much."

The cadets blushed and stammered a few 'you're welcomes'. An awkward silence ensued for a few moments.

Then Jon Seaton suddenly looked at his chrono and exclaimed: "Sometimes I think I'm the only one in this crowd who can tell time! If we don't get a move on, Patric, you and Anny are going to miss your shuttle!"

Patric grinned at his friend. "It's not that late, Jon, but I guess we should wrap this up."

"Aunt Sylvia, my shuttle's not for a while yet, can you stay and see us all off?" asked Helen.

"Of course, Helen, for this I'll make the time."

They got up and said good-bye to the restaurant owner and headed out into the main corridor. They slowly made their way through the crowds to the departure bay. Thayer walked next to Helen and glanced at her frequently. She had the same ribbon for the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal as Anny Payne and the same Wound Stripe and the same lieutenant's rank. She also had the same Survivor's Pin; indeed all four of the youngsters had one of those for surviving the destruction of HMS Relentless. But Helen had always seemed so different from the others: so determined, so serious, the perfect cadet and now the perfect officer. Is she really that different? Or is it just because I love her so much?

They reached the departure bay and Anny, Patric, and Helen got their bags out of the lockers they had left them in. Thayer decided to put her heavy gift in a locker rather than carry it along. The conversation was becoming more and more forced as they walked down the long line of boarding tubes. They reached the proper one and the shuttle was just starting to let people on board. They had about ten minutes.

"Well, I guess this is it," said Patric.

Anny and Patric came over to Thayer and shook hands and said good-bye. Then Anny went over to the Chief and kissed him on the cheek. Patric embraced the old man but Thayer could not hear what he said to him. The Chief was blushing and his eyes were wet.

"Well, well," said Jon Seaton. "Let's not get all emotional now! You two be careful. The last time I sent you off you got your ship all dented up. For some reason they gave you medals. I don't think they'll be so forgiving if you let it happen again!"

Anny kissed Alby's cheek and hugged him and Patric shook his hand. Anny came over to Helen. The two young women stared at each other for a moment. Anny had saved Helen's life during their 'prentice cruise and Thayer knew that there were no words that were adequate at a time like this. Anny's lips were quivering and she had tears on her face. They embraced and clung to each other for a few seconds, then Anny pulled away. She grabbed up her bag and walked to the departure tube without looking back. Helen just stared after her. Patric stood there for a moment and then put his hand lightly on Helen's shoulder.

"Good-bye, Helen, take care of yourself."

He picked up his bag and gave a small wave to others, "Bye," he said, and then followed Anny.

The four remaining people walked over to the viewport and watched the shuttle preparing to depart. No one said anything. A few minutes later it was gone.

Helen stirred. "Well, I better get to my shuttle too," she said in a raspy voice.

"I really should be getting back to work," said the Chief. "So if you don't mind, I'll say my good-byes here, Ms. Zilwicki."

Thayer looked on gratefully as Helen said farewell to Chief Seaton. He wanted to give Thayer and Helen a few minutes alone together. Unfortunately, Alby did not seem to take the hint and tagged along as they walked to Helen's boarding tube. Thayer glanced at him and his usually impish face had a strange, serious expression on it. He was quick-witted enough, however, that after he and Helen had shook hands and said good-bye he stepped away to give her and Thayer a little privacy.

They stood a meter or so apart and stared at each other. Thayer suddenly had a million things to say to Helen, but now there was no time.

"Aunt Sylvie, I just want thank you for all that you've done for me - for everything."

Thayer held out her arms and Helen moved into her embrace. They held each other very closely and the tears started down Thayer's cheeks in spite of her furious blinking.

"I'll try to make you proud, Aunt Sylvie," whispered Helen.

Thayer clung a little tighter. "I've always been proud of you, Squirt," she whispered back. "Just get yourself back home, do you hear?"

Helen stepped away and nodded her head. Her face was wet, too. She picked up her bag and started toward the boarding tube. Unlike Anny, she stopped and looked back and waved.

And then she was gone.

There were just two of them left now. They went to the viewport. The shuttle detached its boarding tube and then lifted off. A few moments later it was just a dwindling speck, vanishing among the multitude of stars. Thayer's hands were clutching the sill of the viewport like a pair of claws.

Dear God, bring her back safe!

After a moment she took a deep breath and shook her head. She noticed that the young man next to her was still staring after the vanished shuttle.

"Are you sorry you are not going with them, Mr. Hinsworth?"

Alby looked at Thayer. "I've had my taste of combat, Admiral, and I can't say I liked it." He resumed looking out the viewport and there was a faraway look in his eyes. Thayer recognized that look and realized that Alby Hinsworth was not staring at the docking bay. He was seeing again that twisted hell that had been HMS Relentless.

"But I don't much care for being left behind either," he whispered.