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Chapter Thirty-Nine

"Yes, Ma'am? You wanted to see me?" Lieutenant Askew said just a bit nervously as he entered Commander Bourget's office aboard SLNS Jean Bart.

"Yes, Matt, I do," Bourget said, leaning back in her chair. The commander was a petite brunette, with hazel eyes and what would have been called a "pug nose" on someone of less towering authority than the executive officer of one of the Solarian League's battlecruisers. As a general rule, Askew liked Bourget, who reminded him rather strongly of one of his favorite grammar school teachers, but the summons to her office had been as unexpected as it had been abrupt.

"You may recall a conversation you had with Commander Zeiss a couple of months ago," the XO said now in a straight-to-the-point tone which set all of Askew's mental hackles quivering.

"Yes, Ma'am. I do," he confirmed cautiously when she paused and cocked an expectant eyebrow at him.

"Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't she say something to you about 'lying low'?"

"Well, yes, Ma'am, but"

"But me no buts, Lieutenant Askew," Bourget interrupted in a rather colder tone. "I thought Commander Zeiss had made herself quite clear at that time. And I suppose I should add that she did so at my specific instructions, on behalf of the Captain."

"Yes, Ma'am. But"

"When I want to hear interruptions, Lieutenant, I'll let you know," Bourget said flatly, and Askew closed his mouth.

"Better," the exec said with a frosty smile. She swung her chair gently from side to side for several seconds, regarding him with cold hazel eyes, then drew a deep breath.

"In case you haven't already figured it out," she said, "I'm more than just a little bit pissed with you at this particular moment. Damn it, Mattwhat did you think you were doing?"

This time, despite the fact that it was obviously a question, Askew found himself much more hesitant about replying. Unfortunately, he didn't have much choice.

"Ma'am, I didn't mean to make any waves. It's just that...just that I haven't been able to turn my brain off, and the more I looked at Thurgood's analysis, and the more I've looked at our own intelligence reports, the more convinced I am that we've well and truly underestimated the Manties' capabilities."

"It may surprise you to discover this," Bourget voice was somewhat gentler yet still carried an unmistakable note of asperity, "but the Captain and I already entertain some modest suspicions in that direction ourselves. Suspicions which, unlike certain lieutenants I might name, we've kept rather quietly to ourselves."

Askew started to open his mouth again quickly. Then he stopped, and his momentary flash of anger dissipated as he looked into Bourget's eyes.

"I didn't know that, Ma'am," he said more quietly after a moment.

"No," Boucher sighed. "No, I don't suppose you did. And I guess that's my fault. For that matter, it's probably the reason I'm so pissed at you. People tend to be that way when someone else makes a mistake because they didn't warn her not to." She rubbed her forehead. "I should've called you in for a heart-to-heart myself instead of delegating it to Ursula. But, to be completely honest about it, given that we didn'tand still don'tknow exactly how your original report came into Aberu's hands in the first place, I figured having her handle it as a purely intradepartmental matter might keep the entire conversation below Aberu's radar. Not drawing any more attention to you seemed like a good idea. And, frankly, so did distancing myself and the Captain from any appearance of...over enthusiastically endorsing your conclusions."

Askew nodded slowly. He found himself wishing rather passionately that the exec had been willing to explain the situation to him more aggressively from the outset, but he understood her logic. It was the sort of convoluted thinking that too often turned out to be the price of survival in the SLN's Byzantine internal maneuvering.

"Now, however," Boucher continued a bit more briskly, "you appear to have well and truly loomed above the radar horizon, Matt. Apparently your latest literary effort got squeezed right through the same ratholewhatever it isinto Aberu's in-basket. And if she was less than amused with your first memo, that was nothing compared to the way she reacted to this one."

Askew swallowed. He'd taken every precaution he could, short of writing the entire report in longhand on old-fashioned paper and hand-delivering it to the captain, to keep it secure. Obviously, he'd failed. That suggested among other things that it had to be some sort of unauthorized, illegal hack from someone on Admiral Byng's staff. It couldn't have come to them through what the ONI sorts called a "human intelligence source," since he hadn't opened his mouth and verbally discussed his conclusions and concerns with a solitary living soul. The only question that remained in Askew's mind was whether the hacker in question had penetrated only his own security or that of his report's single addressee: Captain Mizawa.

"Ma'am," he said finally, "I'm not going to pretend I'm happy hearing about any of this. Just between the two of us, I'm especially concerned about how Captain Aberu got access to a confidential report addressed solely to the Captain."

Even here, in Bourget's office, with no other human ear actually present, that was as close as he cared to come to suggesting that someone on Byng's staff had actually violated half a dozen regulations and at least two federal laws to acquire that "access." The two of them looked into one another's eyes for a second or two, sharing the same thought, before he went on.

"Having said that, however, I wrote that memo for two reasons. One was because I really had collected some additional evidence in support of Commodore Thurgood's analysis and wanted to make the Captain aware of it. But the second was expressly to give him something he could use in any discussions with Admiral Byng and his staff." He held Bourget's eyes unflinchingly. "Something he could throw out as a worst-case set of assumptions from a junior officer too inexperienced to realize how absurd they were...who might still have managed to stumble across something that needed to be considered."

"I thought that was probably what you had in mind," Bourget said softly, and those hard hazel eyes warmed with approval.

"Don't get me wrong, Ma'am." Askew produced a tight smile. "If the Captain didn't think he needed it, I hoped to hell that no one elseespecially Captain Aberuwould ever even see it! I just wanted him to...have that warhead in his ammo locker if he did need it."

"I appreciate that, Matt. And so does the Captain. But I'm very much afraid that it's actually had something of the reverse effect."

"Ma'am?" Askew twitched in surprise, and Bourget's eyes hardened once morethough not at him, this timeand she snorted harshly.

"However Aberu got hold of it, and whether Admiral Byng ever saw your initial memo or not, she sure as hell showed this one to him. I'm not absolutely positive about this, and under normal circumstances I wouldn't even be suggesting the possibility to you, for a lot of reasons, but I'm inclined to think at this point that Aberu deliberately chose her moment carefully for sharing it with the Admiral." Askew's eyes widened, and the exec shook her head. "As I say, normally I wouldn't even suggest such a thing to you. In this case, though, to be honest, the shit you're in is deep enough that I think you need to know exactly who the players are and what they may be up to."

"Ma'am, it sounds to me like we're getting into things here that are way above my pay grade," Askew said nervously, and Bourget's laugh was even harsher than her snort had been.

"I'll keep it simple. Ingeborg Aberu and Admiral Thim'ar both have close personal and family links to...various industrial interests in the defense sector, shall we say? Both of them have spent their entire careers in the tactical track, and both of them have established firm reputationsin Battle Fleet, at leastas being on the cutting edge. Admiral Thim'ar, in particular, was one of the senior staffers when the Navy Ministry put together the 'Fleet 2000' initiative. As a matter of fact, she was the lead author on the final report."

Askew couldn't quite keep himself from grimacing at that. The Fleet 2000 Program had been the brainchild of Battle Fleet, although it had since spread and found adherents in Frontier Fleet, as well. Essentially, it combined good, old-fashioned pro-Navy propaganda with a more-or-less hardware response to some of the more extreme rumors coming out of the Manticore-Haven wars.

Funding within the gargantuan Solarian League was far more a bureaucratic than a legislative function, and had been for centuries. Nonetheless, public opinion often played a not insignificant role in deciding how funds were split up between competing bureaucracies, and so Fleet 2000 had been initiated. At its most basic level, it could arguably have been described as a "public education" effort designed to inform a largely ignorant Solarian public about the valuable services the Navy provided as humanity entered the twentieth century of interstellar flight. As such, it had included HD features on "Our Fighting Navy" and "The Men and Women of the Fleet," both of which had focused primarily on Battle Fleet, which had then been plastered across the entertainment channels.

Frontier Fleet hadn't had any objection to the notion of additional funding going to the Navy, but it had objectedstrenuouslyto the notion of that funding going to the white elephants of Battle Fleet's superdreadnoughts rather than Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, or even destroyers, which might actually do something useful. As a consequence, Frontier Fleet's Public Information Office had gotten into the act, as well, producing such features as "On the Frontiers of Freedom" and "First to Respond."

"First to Respond" had been particularly effective, concentrating as it did on the many instances of disaster relief, deep-space rescue, and other humanitarian missions Frontier Fleet routinely carried out.

The other prong of "Fleet 2000," however, had been a deliberate effort to impress the public with the valueand effectivenessit was receiving in response to its lavish funding. As a tactical officer himself, Askew had looked askance (to put it mildly) at that aspect of the program. Oh, there'd been some genuine advances, and some recognition of shifting threat levels where things like missiles were concerned, but nowhere near as much of it as the PIO releases suggested. In fact, a much greater degree of effort had been invested in what amounted to window dressing with the express purpose of making the Navy's ships and their equipment look even more impressive on HD.

Consoles had been redesigned, bridges and command decks had been rearranged, and the parts of the ships the public was ever likely to see had been generally opened up so that they looked more like something out of an HD adventure flick than a real warship. There'd actually been some improvements along the wayfor example, those sleek new consoles not only looked "sexier" but actually provided better information and control interfaces. And although nothing much had been done to actually upgrade most of the fleet's tactical hardware, more recent construction had been redesigned to reflect a modular concept. It would appear that someone was at least willing to admit the possibility that improvements and upgrades might be forthcomingsomedayand the Office of Ship Design had been instructed to design for the possibility of plugging in new components. That was one of the major differences between the older Indefatigable-class ships and the newer Nevadas, like Jean Bart.

Yet despite the impression which had been deliberately created for the Solarian public, and despite all the money which had been spent in pursuit of Fleet 2000, very little in the way of actually improving the SLN's combat power had been achieved. After all, the Solarian Navy was already the most powerful and advanced fleet in space, wasn't it?

To be fair, Askew had partaken of that same confidence in the SLN's qualitative edge until very recently. Now, however, he'd been forced to confront the mounting evidence that his confidenceand everyone else'shad been misplaced. Which meant that whether or not anyone had intended them as such, the Fleet 2000 public relations claims amounted to...untruths. In fact, if it turned out Askew's fears were justified and it really did hit the fan out here, the public was going to see them as outright lies. And if Aberu and Thim'ar had direct family connections to the people who'd put the entire program together...

"Obviously, I can't be sure about this," Bourget said now, "but I don't think I'd be particularly surprised to discover that Captain Aberu and Admiral Thim'ar both had...vested interests in quashing any 'panicky fears' about 'impossible Manticoran super weapons,' especially if those 'panicky fears' suggest that our hardware might really need some minor improvements. And if that's the case, they wouldn't be very happy to have anyone rocking their boat."

Askew nodded more than a bit sickly, and she gave him a sympathetic smile.

"Captain Mizawa never meant to put you into a possible crossfire, Matt. That initial report he asked you for was something he neededneeded for his own informationmainly because he'd already figured out that ONI's official reports on what the hell was going on out here were crap. He trusts your judgment and your integrity, and I think he figured you were junior enough no one would notice what you were up to if he sent you out to talk to people like Thurgood. And I know he didn't expect your memo to fall into Aberu's hands any more than I did.

"I also think her initial 'discussion' with the captain was her own idea. Or, possibly, hers and Thim'ar's. But when she got her hands on your second effortwhich, let's face it, really does sound a lot more 'alarmist' than your first memo didI think she picked a moment when Admiral Byng was already feeling...frustrated over the delay in getting the task force reconcentrated here at Meyers and shared it with him."

The bottom seemed to fall straight out of Maitland Askew's stomach. He stared at Bourget, and she nodded slowly.

"That's right. This time around, the Admiralthrough Admiral Thim'ar, not Captain Aberuhas expressed his personal displeasure with your 'obvious defeatism, credulity, panic-mongering, and at best marginal competence.' "

She said it quickly, a numb part of Askew's brain noted, with a sort of surgical brutality that was its own kindness.

"He also statedthrough Admiral Thim'ar," Bourget continued with obvious distaste "that since the 'defeatist officer' in question was a Frontier Fleet officer, rather than a Battle Fleet officer, he would leave the 'suitable disposition' of your case in Captain Mizawa's hands. There wasn't much doubt from the way Admiral Thim'ar delivered his message about what he had in mind, however."

Askew only looked at her. It was all he could do as he felt the total destruction of his career rushing towards him.

"Aside from the personal repercussions in your own case," Bourget said, "it's pretty obvious where Admiral Byng has decided to come down on the question of Manticoran capabilities. And, unfortunately, your second memowhich, by the way, both the Captain and I feel was very cogently reasonedis now irrevocably tainted in his eyes. In fact, if the Captain tries to dispute Aberu's or Thim'ar's views, Admiral Byng will probably automatically reject anything he says because, as far as he's concerned, it's going to be coming from your report and just thinking about it is going to piss him off all over again. From what we've already seen of him, it's pretty apparent that when his temper is engaged, it tends to disengage his brain, and that's what's going to happen any time he even suspects the Captain is waving your report in his direction. Which, unless I am considerably mistaken, is exactly what Aberu and Thim'ar had in mind."

"Ma'am, I'm sorry," Askew half-whispered. "I was trying to help. I never thought that"

"Matt, neither Captain Mizawa nor I think that you're anything other than an intelligent, talented, conscientious young officer doing his dead level best to do his duty under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. If either of us has any personal regrets, it's that we inadvertently stranded you in the middle of this minefield."

Askew closed his mouth again and nodded once more, hoping he didn't look as sick as he felt.

"I've explained all of this to you for a specific reason," Bourget told him. "Normally, I would never have suggested to an officer of your relatively junior status that I cherished suspicions about Captain Aberu's and Admiral Thim'ar's motives. Nor, for that matter, would I have discussed with you the...shortcomings of Admiral Byng's own attitude towards Frontier Fleet or Manticoran capabilities. In this instance, however, you need to be aware of the fact that you've potentially made some very highly placed, and probably highly vindictive, enemies. I can't begin to estimate all of the potential professional repercussions, and I wish there were some way to deflect them from you if any of those three decide to make 'punishing' you a personal project. But at least now you know.

"That wasn't my main reason for explaining it to you at such length, though. What I especially want you to understand, Matt, is why Captain Mizawa has taken the action he's taken in regard to you."

"What...what action, Ma'am?" Askew managed to ask.

"You are relieved as Jean Bart's assistant tactical officer, effective immediately," Bourget said flatly. "Your new assignment will be as Admiral Sigbee's assistant public information officer aboardRestitution."

Askew felt as if he'd just been punched in the gut, and his face tightened painfully.

"Let me finish before you say anything," Bourget said quickly, holding up her index finger. Her eyes met his, and after a moment, he managed to nod yet again.

"I realize exactly how this looks to you at this moment," the exec continued then in a quietly compassionate voice. "Hopefully, it will also look like that to Aberu and Thim'arand, for that matter, Admiral Byng. As far as they'll be concerned, Captain Mizawa got the message and shit-canned your entire career. And getting you aboard Restitution will also get you out of Jean Bart and hopefully out of their field of vision, as well.

"In this case, however, appearances are a little deceiving. First, Admiral Sigbee is an old friend of the Captain's. He's discussed this situation with herI don't know in exactly how much detailand she's agreed to make a place on her staff for you, despite the potential for pissing off Admiral Byng. Second, whatever Aberu and Thim'ar may conclude, the Captainand I, and Commander Zeisswill all be endorsing your efficiency report in the most positive terms. Third, there's been no official communication between Admiral Byng or any member of his staff and Captain Mizawa about the Admiral's concerns about your 'defeatism.' Because of that, no mention of it will appear in your file."

She paused at last, and Askew inhaled deeply.

He understood what Captain Mizawa was trying to do, and he deeply, deeply appreciated itespecially considering the distinct possibility that if Admiral Byng or his staffers did decide to personally oversee the "shit-canning" of his career, they, too, would recognize what the captain was up to. But it wasn't going to be pleasant, whatever happened. When the number two officer in a battlecruiser's tactical department suddenly found himself assigned as an assistant public information officer, people were going to assumeusually with reasonthat he had royally screwed up somehow. The efficiency reports from Captain Mizawa and Commander Bourget would probably counter that assumption in front of some theoretical future promotions board, but they weren't going to do a thing about how his new shipmates were going to regard him when he arrived aboard Restitution. Nor was there any assurance that Aberu and/or the others, would be prepared to settle for his obvious current disgrace.

Which didn't mean it wasn't absolutely the best Captain Mizawa could do for him.

"I...understand, Ma'am," he said finally, very quietly. "Thank you. And please thank the Captain for me, too."

"I will, of course," she replied. "Not that there's any need to. The only thing I regretand I'm sure I speak for the Captain, as wellis that you got caught up in all this crap and that this is the best we can do to protect you from the consequences of doing your job." She shook her head. "I know it doesn't seem that way at the moment, but sometimes, the good guys really do win, Matt. Try to remember that."

Lieutenant Commander Denton frowned unhappily as he contemplated the events of the last couple of days.

He appreciated Admiral Khumalo's official approval of his actions here in Pequod, but he hadn't needed the dispatches from the admiral and Captain Shoupe to warn him to watch his back. In fact, there were more dispatches from him already en route to Spindle, with the details of fresh confrontations with New Tuscan skippers. Now the New Tuscan trade attach'e was getting into the mix, as well, registering "formal protests" over the "increasing high-handedness" of HMS Reprise and her personnel. And, to make things even worse, there were being genuine incidents and confrontations now. The New Tuscans were being increasingly sullen, insulting, and rude during routine inspections and ship visits, and even their non-officers were starting to push the limits. Denton suspected that a lot of what they were seeing out of the regular spacers was the result of their having been fed stories about Manty insults and bullying aboard other ships by their own officers. By now, most of them seemed to believe all of those alleged incidents had actually occurred, and none of them were in particularly conciliating moods. Which meantsince Denton and his people had jobs to dothat every New Tuscan ship was a smouldering powder keg just waiting for a spark, and there'd been some genuinely ugly confrontations as a result.

His people were trying hard to avoid pumping any hydrogen into the fire...for all the good it seemed to be doing. The entire ship's company knew about the stream of complaints and protests by now, but they still had their duties to discharge. And, like their captain, they'd come to the conclusion that all of this had to be orchestrated by some central authority and that it had to be headed towards some specific climax. And, once again like their captain, every damned one of them wished he or she had some clueany cluewhat that climax might be...and how it might be avoided.

Unfortunately, no one had been able to come up with that clue.

Oh, how I wish the Admiral would hurry up and get someone senior out here, Denton thought fervently. I don't care if it would be an escalation. I'm delighted that everyone is so damned pleased with how well I've done so far, but I'm getting awful tired of waiting for that other shoe. And I'm damned certain that whenever it finally comes down, I'm gonna find myself ass-deep in a shitstorm that's way the hell and gone above my pay grade!

He knew why his nerves were even tighter than they had been, and his eyes slid across the tactical display to the data code of NTNSCamille. The New Tuscan light cruiser was about thirty percent larger thanReprise, and the NTN had a decent tech level for a Verge star system. It wasn't as good as the Rembrandt Navy, or the San Miguel Navy, perhaps, but it was two or three cuts above the average hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth, third- or fourth-tier "navies" one normally saw out in this neck of the woods.

Despite that, and despite the fact thatReprise was no spring treekitten, Denton wasn't at all intimidated by the larger ship's firepower. The truth, as he felt quite confidentCamille's captain realized as well as he did, was that the cruiser wouldn't stand a chance against the smaller Manticoran destroyer.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as deciding who can blow who out of space, he reflected grimly.

Camille had arrived in Pequod almost five local days ago, and Captain S'eguin had immediately informed the Pequod system authorities that New Tuscany had decided it would be both useful and advisable to permanently station one of its warships in Pequod as a formal observer. It was not, she had hastened to assure everyone in sight, viewed or intended by New Tuscany as a hostile act or as an affront to Pequod's sovereignty. Indeed, it was New Tuscany's hope, as the formal notes she'd delivered on behalf of Foreign Minister Cardot and Prime Minister V'ezien made clear, that having an official New Tuscan presence in the system would help to cool things down, rather than heat them up.

Sure it was. Denton shook his head. If he hadn't been convinced all of the "incidents" New Tuscan merchant skippers were complaining about had been deliberately concocted on orders from their home government, he might have been willing to at least entertain the possibility that S'eguin was telling the truth. Unhappily, he was convinced that if the New Tuscan government had been serious about bringing an end to the tension, all it really had to do was tell its captains to stop doing what it had them doing. Which meant Camille was obviously here for something else, and that "something else" wasn't going to turn out to be something Denton wanted to know anything about. That much, at least, he was sure he could count on.

His mouth twitched in a humorless smile as he watched Ensign Monahan's pinnace heading for another vessel. He tapped an inquiry into his plot, and his smile disappeared as the name NTNSH'el`ene Blondeau appeared.

Not another of those damned New Tuscan freighters! he thought.Dammit, they must be cycling their entire frigging merchant marinethrough Pequod! Don't they have a single ship still in

His thoughts broke off as theH'el`ene Blondeau's icon was abruptly replaced with the flashing crimson symbol that indicated a spreading sphere of wreckage, flying outward from the point in space at which a ship had just blown up.

"so after completing my debrief of Ensign Monahan and each member of her crew separately, it is my conclusion that their reportssingly and as a groupare an accurate account of what actually happened during their approach toH'el`ene Blondeau," Lewis Denton told his terminal's recording pickup fourteen hours later.

His voice was more than a little hoarse, exhaustion-roughened around the edges, and he knew it, just as he knew the report he was recording would show his weary eyes and the dark, bruised-looking bags which had formed below them. There wasn't much he could do about that, though. He had to get this report off, and the sooner the better. It was the better part of seventeen days from Pequod to Spindle by dispatch boat, but it was less than six days from Pequod to New Tuscany. He didn't really think anyone in New Tuscany would be insane enough to launch some sort of punitive expedition againstReprise or Pequod, but he was nowhere near as confident of that as he would have liked to be. Not after the most recent episode.

"Despite Captain S'eguin's assertions to the contrary, there is absolutely no evidence that Ensign Monahan or her pinnace played any part in H'el`ene Blondeau's destruction," he continued. "I am, of course, appendingReprise's sensor and tactical recordings for the entire time period, beginning one full standard hour beforeH'el`ene Blondeau blew up and ending one full standard hour after the ship's destruction. I am also appending a copy of the pinnace's flight log and a complete inventory of my ship's magazines, which accounts for every small craft and shipboard missile issued to us. Based upon those records, I will state unequivocally and for the record that I am absolutely convinced no one aboard Ms. Monahan's pinnace or aboard Reprise fired a single shot of any sort or for any reason.

"Indeed, I must reiterate that I have been able to find no evidence anywhere in any of our records or sensor data that indicates any external cause forH'el`ene Blondeau's destruction. There is no indication of missile fire, energy fire, or collision. The only tentative conclusion I have been able to arrive at is that the ship andapparentlyher entire company were lost to an internal explosion. Neither I nor any of my officers, specifically including my engineering and tactical officers, have been able to suggest any normally occurring cause for such an explosion. The vessel was so completely destroyed that little short of a catastrophic and completely unanticipated failure of her fusion bottle would appear to be a remotely reasonable explanation. I find that explanation completely implausible, however, given the observed nature of the explosion. In fact, from the admittedly partial sensor data we have of the vessel's destruction and our analysis of the wreckage's scatter patterns, it appears to me and to my tactical officer that she was destroyed not by a single explosion, nor even by a single primary explosion and a series of secondary explosions, but rather as the result of a virtually simultaneous chain of at least seven distinct explosions."

He paused, his exhausted face gaunt and bleak, and his nostrils flared. Then he continued, speaking slowly and distinctly.

"I fully realize the seriousness of what I am about to say, and I very much hope that a more thorough and complete analysis of the limited data I have been able to include with this report will prove that my suspicions are in error. However, it is my considered opinion that the destruction of H'el`ene Blondeau was the result of a careful, skillfully planned, and well executed act of sabotage. I can think of no other explanation for the observed pattern of destruction. I am not prepared at this time in a formal report to speculate upon who might have been responsible for that act of sabotage. I am not a trained investigator, and I do not believe it would be proper for me to make any formal charges or allegations before a more detailed analysis can be performed. However, if, in fact, this was an act of sabotage, whoever may have been responsible for it clearly does not have the best interests of the Star Empire at heart. Given that Captain S'eguin,Camille, and all other New Tuscan shipping in the system have been withdrawn, I believe the potential for some sort of additional and unfortunate incident is high. I must, therefore, respectfully request that this star system be promptly and strongly reinforced."

Chapter Thirty-Eight | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Forty