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Naomi Kaplan settled herself at Tactical, racked her helmet on the side of her bridge chair, and gave her console exactly the same quick but thorough examination she always did. It took several seconds, but then she made a small sound of approval and sat back, satisfied.

"I have the board," she said to the midshipwoman sitting beside her, where she'd minded the store while Kaplan caught a belated breakfast. The ship was at Condition Bravo-not yet at General Quarters, but with her crew already skinsuited-and it was the RMN tradition to see that its people were well fed before battle. Kaplan had already seen all of her people fed… and been informed rather pointedly by Ansten FitzGerald that he wanted her fed, as well.

"You have the board, aye, Ma'am," Helen Zilwicki said, and Kaplan looked at her.

"Nervous?" she asked in a voice too low for anyone else on the bridge to overhear.

"Not really, Ma'am," Helen replied. Then paused. "Well, not if you mean scared ," she said in a painstakingly honest voice. "I guess I probably am worried. About screwing up, more than anything else."

"That's as it should be," Kaplan told her. "Although you might want to reflect on the fact that just because we think we're bigger and nastier than they are, we're not necessarily right. And even if we are, we're still not invulnerable. Somebody can kill you just as dead by hitting you in the head with a rock as with a tribarrel, if she gets close enough and she's lucky."

"Yes, Ma'am," Helen said, remembering the breaking-stick feel of human necks in the shadows of Old Chicago's ancient sewers.

"But you're right to concentrate on the job," Kaplan continued, unaware of her middy's memories. "That's your responsibility right now, and responsibility is the best antidote to more mundane fears, like being blown into tiny pieces, that I can think of." She smiled at Helen's involuntary snort of amusement. "And, of course, if you should happen to screw something up, I assure you that you'll wish you had been blown into tiny pieces by the time I'm done with you."

She frowned ferociously, brows lowered, and Helen nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am. I'll remember," she promised.

"Good," Kaplan said, and turned back to her own plot.

Zilwicki was a good kid, she thought, although she'd had some reservations, given the midshipwoman's connection to Catherine Montaigne and the Anti-Slavery League. Not to mention her super-spook father's working association with the technically proscribed Audubon Ballroom. Unlike altogether too many officers, in her opinion, Kaplan didn't figure politics-hers or anyone else's-had any business in the Queen's Navy. Personally, she was a card-carrying Centrist, delighted that William Alexander had replaced that incompetent, corrupt, fucking asshole High Ridge, although she normally stayed out of the political discussions which seemed to fascinate her fellow officers. As a Centrist, she wasn't particularly fond of Montaigne's bare-knuckled political style, and she'd never cared for the Liberal Party, even before New Kiev sold out to High Ridge. But she had to admit that, whatever Montaigne's faults, there was absolutely no doubt of her iron fidelity to her own principles, be they ever so extreme.

Still, Kaplan had wondered if someone from such a politicized background would be able to put it aside, especially now that Zilwicki's kid sister had become a crowned head of state! But if there'd ever been a single instance of Zilwicki's political beliefs intruding into the performance of her duties, Kaplan hadn't seen it. And the girl was a fiendishly good tactician. Not as good as Abigail, but she had the touch. So if someone had to sub for Abigail, Zilwicki was an excellent choice.

But I don't want anyone subbing for Abigail , Kaplan thought, and felt a flicker of surprise at her own attitude. The youthful Grayson had a knack for inspiring trust, on a personal as well as a professional level, without ever crossing the line to excessive familiarity with superiors or subordinates. That was rare, and Kaplan finally admitted to herself that she was worried. That she disliked letting Abigail out of her sight, especially out amongst those primitive, sexist Nuncians.

Of course, she thought wryly, she's probably had one helluva lot more experience dealing with primitive sexists than I ever have! There's probably quite a few of them in her own family, for that matter.

She snorted at her own reflections, and checked the time.

Nine hours since the remote arrays had first detected the intruders, and so far, everything was ticking along right on schedule.



Chapter Nineteen | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *