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Chapter Twenty-Five

"Take a seat, Matt," Commander Ursula Zeiss invited, pointing at one of the chairs in front of her desk as Lieutenant Maitland Askew stepped through her shipboard office door.

Askew obeyed the polite command, seating himself in the indicated chair, then watched as she punched the console button to close the door behind him.

Askew was twenty-eight T-years old, with sandy-brown hair, brown eyes, and a wiry build. He was slightly below average in heightin fact, the compactly but solidly built Zeiss was at least a centimeter taller than he wasand something about him gave an impression of continual bemusement. Zeiss was one of the people who knew better than to take that "bemusement" at face value. There was a brain behind those mild brown eyes, and it seldom truly shut down.

Which, of course, was part of her current problem, she thought, sitting back and contemplating him thoughtfully across her desk.

"You wanted to see me, Ma'am?" he observed after several moments of her silent scrutiny, and she snorted.

"Of course I wanted to see you. I always want to see you, don't I?"

Askew's lips twitched ever so slightly at her acerbic tone. Zeiss was SLNS Jean Bart's tactical officer, and Askew had been her assistant tac officer for almost two T-years now. They'd worked well together over that time, but there was no denying that they had fundamentally different personalities. Zeiss was an excellent training officer, and her main interestand strengthlay in recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of her human material and adjusting for them. Askew's personnel management skills, while adequate, were nowhere near as strong as hers were, and his main interest was in what he called the "nuts and bolts" of the tactical officer's trade. As a result, Zeiss tended to leave hardware issues in his hands while she got on with other things. As a rule, that worked well, but sometimes the difference in their emphases led to a certain amount of...friction, perhaps. That wasn't really the exact word Askew was searching for, but it came closer than anything else he could come up with.

"I'd like to think you're usually able to at least tolerate my presence, Ma'am," he said now. "On the other hand, I had the impression that there was something specific you wanted to discuss with me."

"You had the right impression, then," Zeiss said, straightening in her chair with a considerably more serious expression. She looked at him for another few moments, then waggled one hand in the air in front of her.

"Captain Mizawa had a little discussion with Captain Aberu yesterday," she said, "and it would appear your name came up."

"My name?" Askew repeated carefully, and frowned when Zeiss nodded.

Captain Warden Mizawa, Jean Bart's CO, was one of the better officers Askew had ever served under. He was also career Frontier Fleet, like Askewand, for that matter, Zeissand not particularly fond of Battle Fleet officers, like Ingeborg Aberu, Admiral Byng's staff operations officer. It wasn't likely the two of them had just gotten together for a friendly chat over a stein of beer. Coupled with Zeiss' expression, that lent a somewhat ominous aspect to the thought that his name might have come up in conversation between them.

"May I ask the context, Ma'am?" he inquired even more cautiously..

"It would appear, Matt, that Captain Aberu is not one of your greater admirers. Did you do something at some point that might have personally stepped on her toes? Something that might explain why she'd take a certain degree of dislike to you?"

"Ma'am," Askew said, "I don't even know Captain Aberu. Aside from the dinner party Captain Mizawa hosted when the admiral and his staff came aboard, I don't think I've ever even been introduced to her."

Which, he did not add aloud, would not be the case if she were on the staff of a Frontier Fleet Admiral.

There was remarkably little love lost between Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet at the best of times, and Askew wasn't immune to that institutional lack of mutual admiration. All the same, Admiral Byng and his staff seemed to have taken the traditional rivalry between the two services to an all-time high. There'd been virtually no social interaction between them and Captain Mizawa's officers, despite the lengthy voyage involved in just getting to the Madras Sector. Obviously, they'd had better things to do with their time. And they'd made it abundantlyone might almost have said painfullyclear that the sole function of the none-too-bright ship's company of SLNS Jean Bart was to chauffeur them around the galaxy while they got on with the business of sorting out everything Frontier Security and the local Frontier Fleet detachment had managed to screw up beyond all repair here in the Madras Sector. Probably because none of them knew how to seal their flies after taking a leak.

So why, after totally ignoring Jean Bart's entire company ever since they'd come aboard, should Captain Aberu find herself "discussing" Maitland Askew with Captain Mizawa? Right offhand, he couldn't think of a single reason, and he doubted very much that he was going to like where this was headed.

"I didn't think you'd ever crossed swords with her," Zeiss said, "but apparently you've managed to really piss her off. I suspect this had a little something to do with it."

She reached into her drawer, withdrew a fairly thick sheaf of hard copy, and slid it across the deck to him. He picked it up, glanced at the header on the first page, then looked quickly back at her with his eyes full of questions.

"No," she answered the first of those questions, "I don't know how Aberu got hold of it. I suspect that neither the Captain, nor I, nor the Exec is going to be very happy if we ever manage to find out. The salient point in your case, however, is that the Admiral's operations officer has apparently read your little treatise and been singularly...unimpressed by it."

Askew looked back down at the header. "A Preliminary Appreciation of Potential Technology Advances of the Royal Manticoran Navy," it said, and in the originating officer's name block it said "Askew, Maitland, LT."

"Ma'am, this is the report the captain asked me for," he began carefully, "and I never meant for it to"

"I'm well aware that it was never intended for general circulation, Matt," Zeiss interrupted him. "That's why I said I don't expect to be particularly happy when I find out how it came to be in Aberu's hands. One thing I do know, though, is that it didn't get there by accident. So either someone from the ship's company gave it to her, or else..."

The tactical officer let her voice trail off, and Askew nodded. Bad enough if someone in their own company was passing potentially "interesting" information on to Admiral Byng's staff without authorization. But if it had come into Aberu's possession because Byng's people were hacked into the tactical department's information netor, even worse, Captain Mizawa's personal internal com channelsit said even worse things about Task Force 3021's command structure.

And in either casewhether she got it from a spy or through some illegal hackthe fact that Aberu decided to tell the captain she had the access isn't exactly a good sign either, now that I come to think about it.

"Should I take it that she complained about my conclusions to the Captain, Ma'am?" he asked after a moment.

"She objected to your conclusions, your assumptions, your estimates, and your sources," Zeiss said almost dispassionately. "She characterized you as alarmist, credulous, ignorant, incompetent, and 'obviously not to be trusted with any significant independent analysis.' That last phrase is a direct quote, by the way. And she informed the Captain that if this represented the caliber of his officers' work and capabilities, the entire task force was obviously in deep and desperate trouble."

Askew swallowed. Naval service had run in his family for the last eight generations, but all of those generations had been spent in Frontier Fleet. That wouldn't cut a lot of ice with a Battle Fleet captainor admiraland he couldn't even begin to call upon the level of patronage and family alliances someone like Aberu could. If Byng or his staff decided an example had to be made of Maitland Askew, the destruction of his own naval career would become a virtual certainty.

"Ma'am" he began, with absolutely no idea where he meant to take the sentence. Fortunately, Zeiss interrupted him again before he had to find out.

"You did exactly what the captain and I asked you to do, Matt," she said firmly. "I realize that may seem like cold comfort if someone like Aberu decides to set her sights on you, but neither of us have any intention of simply cutting your air line because she's a little miffed. Having said that, however, I have to admit that what she's chosen to be miffed over actually worries me more than the potential fate of one of my subordinates, however much I like and value him."

Askew couldn't pretend he was happy about that last sentence, but neither could he argue with her professional priorities.

Captain Mizawa had commissioned the report to which Aberu had taken such exception as part of his own background planning for their current mission. Askew had no idea how much of the report's content Mizawa was prepared to take at face value. For that matter, the assistant tactical officer wasn't really certain how much of it he was prepared to take at face value. Nonetheless, he was now convincedand he knew Zeiss was, as wellthat the official ONI estimates of the Manties' capabilities were badly flawed...to put it mildly.

Askew hadn't given much thought to the Royal Manticoran Navy himself before Jean Bart had been posted to the Madras Sector in the wake of the attack on the Republic of Monica. He knew the RMN was a lot bigger than most of the neobarb fleets floating around out in the Verge and beyond. It could hardly be otherwise, given the size of the Manticoran merchant marine, the need to protect it, and the fact that Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven had been at war with one another for the last twenty-odd T-years. That much he'd been prepared to admit, in a sort of offhand, casually incurious way, but his own assignments had kept him clear on the other side of the Solarian League's vast volume. He'd had rather more pressing concerns in his own area of operations. So even if he'd been vaguely aware of the Manty navy's sheer size, that awareness hadn't inspired him to think about it with any particular urgency. And if he'd thought about the ridiculous rumors about new "super weapons" coming out of the so-called Havenite Wars at all, it had mostly been to dismiss them as the sort of wildly exaggerated propaganda claims to be expected out of such a backward and distant corner of the explored galaxy. He certainly would have agreed that it was ludicrous to suggest that a single neobarb star system, be it ever so deeply involved in interstellar commerce, could have put together an R&D effort that could manage to outpace that of the Solarian League Navy!

Askew had found it extremely difficult to wrap his mind around the possibility that his initial estimate of the situation might have been seriously defective, but Captain Mizawa had asked him to keep an open mind when he undertook his appreciation of the Manticoran threat's severity. He'd done his dead level best to do exactly that, and the more he'd looked, the more...concerned Maitland Askew had become.

The actual hard data available to him was painfully limited. There'd never been much of it to begin with, and he'd decided at the outset that if he was going to come at his task with the "open mind" Captain Mizawa wanted, he'd have to start out by discarding the ONI reports which flatly dismissed the possibility of any threatening Manticoran breakthroughs. That left him gathering data on his own, and since they'd already been in hyper-space, on their way to their new duty station, there'd been precious little of that around until they reached the Meyers System, the Madras Sector's administrative center, and he was able to quietly talk things over with some of the officers of the Frontier Fleet detachment on permanent assignment to Commissioner Verrochio's office.

Commodore Thurgood, the senior officer in Meyers prior to Admiral Byng's arrival, had been more than willing to share all of the information, analysis, and speculation available to him. At first, Askew had been strongly inclined to dismiss Thurgood as an alarmist, but he'd dug into the commodore's documentation, anyway. And, as he'd dug, he'd begun to feel more than a little alarmed himself.

There was virtually no hard data from the actual attack on Monica. Any sensor data which had been available had either been destroyed along with Eroica Station's military components and the ships the Manticorans had engaged, or else swept up afterward by the Manticoran "investigation teams" which had swarmed over the Monican wreckage. Yet even though hard data was effectively impossible to come by, Thurgood had drawn certain very disturbing conclusions from the reports of as many Monican survivors as he'd been able to interview.

First, unlike a majority of Solarian Navy officers, Thurgood had declined to write off what had happened as due solely to Monican incompetence. He'd personally known the Monican flag officers involvedespecially Isidor Hegedusic and Janko Horster, the two admirals who had actually engaged the Manticorans and gotten themselves killed for their pains. While the highest levels of the Republic of Monica's military had been as riddled by cronyism and political favoritism as any other Verge "star nation," Thurgood had respected the personal abilities of both Hegedusic and Horster, and he'd also informed Askew that the Monican Navy's basic level of competence had been surprisingly high.

Second, although he wasn't supposed to have been, Thurgood had been briefed on the missile pods Technodyne had made available to Monica. As a consequence, he'd been aware that the missiles in those pods had possessed a substantially higher rate of acceleration and drive enduranceand therefore a substantially greater effective rangethan the standard missiles of the Solarian League Navy.

Third, ten Manticoran warships, four of them mere destroyers and only three of them as powerful as a heavy cruiser, had taken the combined fire of all of the pre-deployed missile pods and, although quite obviously surprised by the missiles' range and sheer numbers, not only survived as a fighting force but managed to destroy the entire military component of Eroica Station and nine of the fourteen modern battlecruisers Technodyne had provided to the Monicans. Not only that, but the six damaged Manticoran survivors of the engagement with Eroica Station had destroyed three more modern, fully functional battlecruisers in stand up combat. And they'd apparently managed to do that using nothing but their internal missile tubes, without any interference from pods at all.

Fourth, although there was no hard sensor data to explain exactly how they'd done it, it had been made abundantly clearboth during the engagement against Horster's three battlecruisers and afterwardthat the Manticorans had managed to emplace what amounted to a system-wide surveillance system without being caught at it. And while Thurgood readily admitted that the supporting evidence and logic were much more speculative, the speed of the Manties' reaction to both Horster's attack and Admiral Bourmont's later maneuvers suggested that they might very well be capable of FTL communication with their recon platforms, after all.

There'd been more, but even Thurgood had conceded that a lot of itlike the preposterous missile attack ranges some of the system-defense forces observers had been reporting from the main Manticore-Haven front and the ridiculously high acceleration rates attributed to Manticoran starshipssounded unlikely. On the other hand, he'd pointed out, he had absolutely no effective way of personally testing or evaluating those outrageous claims. He hadn't said so in so many words, but it had been evident to Askew that whether or not he could test or evaluate the claims in question himself, he was...strongly disinclined to reject them out of hand.

Askew had been taken aback by Thurgood's attitude. His original response had been strongly skeptical, but rather than simply reject the commodore's concerns, he'd painstakingly retraced Thurgood's logic, searching for the flaws he suspected had to be there. Unfortunately, he hadn't found them. In fact, as he'd dutifully searched for them, he'd come more and more firmly to the belief that Thurgood had a point. In fact, it looked as if he had several points.

And that was what he'd reported to Mizawa, Zeiss, and Commander Bourget, Jean Bart's executive officer. He'd been a bit cautious about the way he'd reported it, of course. He was an SLN officer, after all, well versed in the ways of equivocation and careful word choices, and his own initial reaction to Thurgood had suggested how his superiors would probably respond to any wild-eyed, panicky warnings about Manticoran super weapons. Besides, even though the analysis had been requested only for Captain Mizawa's internal use, there'd always been the possibility that it mightas, indeed, appeared to be the casehave come into someone else's possession. If that happened, some other superior officer might prove rather less understanding than Captain Mizawa if young Lieutenant Askew came across as too alarmist.

Apparently I wasn't cautious enough, he reflected grimly.

"Should I assume, Ma'am, from what you said about Captain Aberu's response, that Admiral Byng feels the same way?" he asked.

"I don't have any idea how Admiral Byng feels," Zeiss told him. She shook her head and grimaced. "From the way Captain Mizawa described the 'conversation' to me, it sounds like Aberu was expressing her own opinions. From what I've seen of her so far, I'd guess she's one of those staffers who sees it as her duty to prevent obvious nonsense from cluttering up her admiral's desk. So I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that she'd taken it upon herself to quash this sort of 'panicky defeatism' on her own, without ever discussing it with Admiral Byng at all. Unfortunately, Matt, we don't know that that's the case. It's equally possible that Admiral Byng sent her out to suggest rather firmly to the Captain that he leave the threat analysis business to the task force staff without the Admiral himself getting involved."

"I see, Ma'am." Askew gazed at her for several silent seconds, then cleared his throat. "May I ask what the captain intends to do about Captain Aberu's concerns?"

"He's not about to toss you out the nearest airlock, if that's what's worrying you." Zeiss actually produced a chuckle, but then her expression sobered again. "At the same time, though, he has to be a bit cautious about how he proceeds."

Askew nodded glumly. Captain Mizawa's family connections went quite a bit higher than Askew's own, but they still ended well short of the lofty sort of influence Byng could bring to bear. Given that, especially against the background of the traditional Battle Fleet-Frontier Fleet rivalry, Mizawa would have to pick his ground carefully for any quarrel with Byng. Coming to the impassioned defense of his assistant tactical officer probably wouldn't be the most career-enhancing move a flag captain could make.

And it wouldn't solve the problem of Aberu's pigheadedness, either, he thought.

"For the moment," Zeiss continued, "he wants you to lie as low as possible. Just go about your duties, and he and Iand the Execwill keep you as far away from Flag Bridge and the Admiral's staff as we can. Bearing in mind that we don't know exactly how your report came into Captain Aberu's hands, it would probably be a good idea for you to keep your mouth shut about its contents, as well."

She looked at him levelly, and he nodded again. If they did have someone working as Byng'sor Aberu'sinformant, talking about his and Thurgood's theories could very well get him charged with spreading defeatism.

"Yes, Ma'am," he said. Then, a bit more daringly, "And may I ask how the Captain reacted to my analysis?"

Zeiss rocked back in her chair, regarding him narrowly for several heartbeats, then shrugged.

"Captain Mizawalike Commander Bourget and myselfis inclined to take your more alarming hypotheses with a sizable grain of salt. I think the Captain was as impressed as I was by the caliber of your work, but as you yourself point out, the supporting data is really pretty damned thin on the ground, Matt. You and Commodore Thurgood may very well be onto something, but I think we're all inclined to reserve judgment for the moment. I will say that your appreciation of the potential threat is likely to make all three of us approach the situation much more cautiously than we might have otherwise. It's just that until we've acquired some of that missing hard data we can't afford to get overly timid in our relations with the Manties." She gave him another of those hard, level looks, then added, "Or with anyone else."

"Yes, Ma'am. I understand."

Askew didn't try to keep his own worryand not just for the possible implications for his naval careerout of his own voice, but he understood, all right.

"I thought you would, Matt," Zeiss said quietly. "I thought you would."

Chapter Twenty-Four | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Twenty-Six