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Chapter Three

"All right, People. Let's not block the gallery, shall we?"

The soft Grayson accent sounded more amused than anything else, but there was a definite edge of command in it. Helen looked over her shoulder quickly, and her eyebrows rose as she recognized the young woman behind her. So far as she was aware, there was only one native-born Grayson woman in the Grayson Space Navy. Even if there hadn't been, the face behind her had been splashed across just about every HD in the Star Kingdom a T-year ago, after the business in Tiberian.

Helen broke off her conversation with Ragnhild Pavletic and stepped swiftly out of the lieutenant's way. The towering giant in the blue and gray uniform walking at the lieutenant's shoulder considered all three midshipmen thoughtfully. His uniform might be that of a Grayson armsman, but he himself could only have been from San Martin, with the dark complexion, heavy-grav physique, and hawklike profile of so many of its inhabitants. And while there was no threat in his eyes, something about him suggested that it would be a good idea not to crowd him or his charge.

The other two middies made haste to follow Helen's example. The lieutenant's seniority would have been enough to produce that result under any circumstances; the quality of her personal guard dog only gave it a bit more alacrity, and her smile showed that she knew it.

"No need to be quite that accommodating," she assured them mildly, and turned to look through the thick armorplast of the space dock gallery herself.

The sleek, double-ended spindle of an Edward Saganami -class heavy cruiser floated to her mooring tractors in the crystalline vacuum, physically connected to the gallery observation deck by personnel tubes while parties of hard-suited yard dogs and their remotes swarmed over her after impeller ring. Technically, Hexapuma was a Saganami-C , an "improved" version of the original Edward Saganami design. Once upon a time, she would have been considered an entirely different class, but BuShips' nomenclature had become a bit more flexible under the previous Admiralty administration. By calling the design a Saganami , rather than admitting that it was an improved, completely new class, they'd actually gotten funding to continue its construction-albeit in very small numbers-as part of the Janacek Admiralty's concentration on building up the Navy's lighter combatants.

At 483,000 tons, Hexapuma was sixty-one percent larger than the Star Knight- class ships which had been the Navy's newest, latest-and largest-heavy cruisers before what people were beginning to call the First Havenite War. Yet despite the increase in tonnage, and a vast increase in firepower, her ship's company was tiny compared to a Star Knight's. In fact, the way the decreased manpower and life support requirements had freed up mass was as much the reason for her increased combat power as the improvements in weapons technology.

Unlike the original Saganami design, Hexapuma was uncompromisingly optimized for missile combat. Although she actually mounted only forty tubes, fewer than the intermediate Saganami-Bs , she still had half again the missile broadside of a Star Knight . And the tubes she did mount were bigger than a Saganami-B's, capable of handling larger and more powerful missiles, while her magazine space had been substantially increased over the preceding class. Her energy weapons were fewer in number-she mounted only eight in each broadside, plus her chase armament-but, taking a page from the pattern the Graysons had set, they were individually more powerful than most navies' battlecruisers mounted. She could hit fewer targets at energy range, but the hits she landed would be devastating. And the Saganami-C s had been the first cruiser class to receive the new, improved two-phase bow wall generators.

In short, given her choice of engagement ranges, Hexapuma could have engaged and destroyed any prewar battlecruiser-Manticoran, as well as Peep.

"Pretty, isn't she?" the Grayson lieutenant observed.

"Yes, Ma'am. She is… Lieutenant Hearns," Helen agreed. The other woman-she was no more than two or three T-years older than Helen herself-glanced at her speculatively. She was probably used to being recognized, at least by other Navy types, Helen realized. But she looked as if she were wondering why Helen had made the point that she 'd recognized her, and Helen suddenly hoped it wasn't because Hearns thought she was trying to brownnose. She met the lieutenant's eyes steadily for a moment, then Hearns nodded slightly and returned her attention to Hexapuma .

"Our new snotties?" she asked after a moment, without looking at them.

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Well, I realize it's considered bad luck to welcome a middy aboard before she's officially reported," Hearns went on, her gaze still fixed on the floating cruiser, "so I'll continue to assume you people are just passing through and stopping off to admire the view. It would never do to violate traditions, after all."

"No, Ma'am," Helen agreed, still speaking for all of them.

"If I were you," Hearns continued with a slight smile, "I'd spend a few more minutes taking time to admire her properly. You won't see very much of her from the inside. And," her smile broadened, "you won't have much free time for admiring anything after you report aboard."

She chuckled, then nodded to them and continued on her way towards the forward personnel tube, a slender, graceful destroyer trailed by a lumbering superdreadnought.



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