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Chapter Forty-Eight

"You're putting me on," Admiral Karl-Heinz Thim'ar said.

"No, Karl-Heinz, I'm not," Fleet Admiral Winston Kingsford replied, sitting back in his chair and frowning at the commanding officer of the Solarian League Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence.

"You're serious," Thim'ar said almost wonderingly, as if he found that difficult to credit, and Kingsford's frown deepened.

"I'm sorry if you find this humorous," he said. "Under the circumstances, though, I'd appreciate it if you could find the time to give at least a little personal attention to the problem."

Thim'ar's face stiffened, and a slight flush stained his cheekbones. Anger flickered at the backs of his eyes, and his jaw muscles tightened, but he sat back in his own chair and nodded.

It was a bit jerky, that nod, but Kingsford decided to let that pass. He'd made his point, after all, and there was no need to rub the other man's nose in it. Especially because despite the fact of his own seniority as the commanding officer of Battle Fleet, Kingsford wasn't blind to how high Thim'ar's family connections reached in the Byzantine world of the Solarian League Navy's command structure.

"Thank you," he said rather more warmly, and produced a wry smile. "And, believe me, Karl-Heinz, I found it just about as hard to believe as you did when they first sprang it on me, too."

"Yes, Sir." Thim'ar nodded again, and this time his expression was thoughtful.

"All right." Kingsford let his chair come back upright with an air of briskness. "I haven't had an opportunity to thoroughly review the data myself, but I've skimmed the summary and read the 'note' that came along with it, and I find myself pretty much in agreement with our civilian 'colleagues'...even if the assholes didn't even do us the courtesy of mentioning it to us before they settled on 'our' response."

He grimaced.

"I don't think the Manties would have given this to us in the first place if it wasn't going to show what their note already says happened," he continued. "Kolokoltsov and the others want us to analyze it thoroughly, anyway, of coursegive them our independent assessment of its reliability and implicationsbut I don't think they expect us to find any real surprises. For that matter, I don't expect us to find any. But it's also our best chance to figure out what the hell Josef thinks he's doing out there, and it's always possible the Manties have slipped up and let something useful get past them."

Thim'ar started to say something, then visibly stopped himself, and nodded once again.

"To be honest," Kingsford continued, "what I'm most concerned about is the potential for setting an unfortunate precedent. I don't think the Navy wants to find itself with pissant neobarb navies thinking they can get into the habit of popping out of the underbrush to make 'demands' on us. If this looks likely to head anywhere in that direction, we may just need to step on ithard. In that respect, at least, I think Kolokoltsov has an excellent point. And so does Rajani."

Thim'ar nodded again, recognizing an oblique instruction when he heard it.

Fleet Admiral Rajampet Kaushal Rajani was the Solarian League Navy's chief of naval operations. In theory, that made him merely the uniformed commander of both Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet, as Minister of Defense Taketomo Kunimichi's deputy. In fact, however, Taketomo's real command authority was sharply circumscribed (despite the fact that he himself was a retired admiral), and since Battle Fleet was the senior of the SLN's two branches, Rajampet was the de facto Defense Minister.

On the other hand, even Rajampet's actual, direct authority over Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet was, itself, largely illusory. In no small part, that was because his time was too occupied with the day-to-day affairs of keeping the entire Ministry of Defense running to act as any sort of genuine commander in chief. In addition, however, there was the minor fact that over the centuries Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet had each become its own separate empire, currently ruled over by Kingsford and Fleet Admiral Engracia Alonso y Y'a~nez, the CO of Frontier Fleet, respectively. Both of them were much too jealous of their own prerogatives to surrender any of themor any true authorityto Rajampet. Especially not if giving up any of those prerogatives might reduce their own commands' slices of the funding pie.

Some navies' CNOs might have resented that attitude on the part of their uniformed subordinates. Some might even have attempted to do something about it. But the force of precedent had set iron hard over the centuries, and Rajampet had always been more of an administrator than a fleet commander, anyway. He was a hundred and twenty-three T-years old, one of the very first wave of first-generation prolong recipients, and he hadn't held a space-going command in over fifty years, so it was entirely possibleeven likelythat he didn't resent it at all. But that didn't mean he was completely out of the loop. Thim'ar knew that...just as he knew that Kingsford's last remark had been deliberately intended to remind him of it.

"You know," he said after a moment, "I never have really understood why Josef accepted that command in the first place. I mean, Frontier Fleet?" He shook his head. "That's just so wrong, somehow."

Kingsford snorted in amused agreement, but he also shrugged.

"Don't ask me," he said. "As far as I know, that was Rajani's idea. For that matter, it could actually have come from Takemoto, himself. You'd probably have a better chance of finding out by asking Karlotte."

Thim'ar looked at him for a second or so, then decided Kingsford was telling him the truth. Which only made the entire question even more perplexing, andparticularly as ONI's commanding officerhe found that irritating as hell. He supposed Kingsford was right. It would take months for him to get any letters back from his cousin, but Karlotte's position as Byng's chief of staff probably did put her in the best position to answer his question.

And maybe, while she's at it, she can explain to me just what the hell Josef thought he was doing blowing three Manty destroyers out of space, he thought rather more grimly. Not that the irritating bastards didn't have it coming, likely as not. But still...

He hid a mental grimace. Without any way to ask Karlotteor Byngwhat the hell had really happened, all they could do was look at the Manties' so-called data. Not that it was particularly probable that the Manties would have handed it over to Roelas y Valiente in the first place if they'd thought it was likely to give them any useful information. Still, forewarned was forearmed, and all that. And they might need all of the forewarning they could get to tidy this one up before it splashed all over everyone.

"Anyway," Kingsford said, flipping the chip folio across his desk, "here it is. Go analyze away. I'd like to hear something back in a day or two."

"So, Irene, what do you make of all this?" Captain Daud ibn Mamoun al-Fanudahi asked casually as he seated himself beside Captain Irene Teague in the Anchor Lounge, the Navy Building's 0-6 dining room, and Teague glanced at him sharply.

The Anchor Lounge was reserved solely for Navy captains, although the occasional, particularly audacious Marine colonel might occasionally invade its sacred precincts, and it was a very nice dining room, indeed. Far short of the sybaritic luxury of the flag officers' dining room, of course, but much more magnificent than mere commanders or lieutenants (or Marine majors) were likely ever to see. And, because it was located in the Navy Building, it was much less uncommon to see Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet officers rubbing elbows here, as it were. Officially, it was even encouraged, since they were all members of the same Navy. Unofficially, it was extraordinarily rare, even here, for officers in the Solarian League Navy's competing branches to actually seek out one another. It simply wasn't done.

Al-Fanudahi and Teague were something of a special case, however. Although he came from an old and well respected Battle Fleet family while Teague was equally well connected in Frontier Fleet, they both worked (theoretically together) under Admiral Cheng Hai-shwun in the Office of Operational Analysis. Of course, the majority of the SLN's officers still wouldn't have socialized with someone from the wrong side of the Battle Fleet-Frontier Fleet dividing line, and Teague found herself rather wishing that al-Fanudahi hadn't quite so obviously sought her out in such a public venue.

The man really is completely tone deaf, she thought. Not enough he has to put his own career at risk, now he's got to do the same thing for me!

She gave him an exasperated look, yet her heart wasn't fully in it. Although she (unlike him) was far too politically astute to openly contest official wisdom in some sort of quixotic quest, she rather respected al-Fanudahi's apparent indifference to official displeasure. Of course, he was still only a captain, despite the fact that he was twenty T-years older than she wasand Battle Fleet, at that. So while she was prepared to respect him, she really had very little desire to emulate him.

Even though she did find herself quite often in agreement with at least some of his less outrageous theories.

"What do I make of what, Daud?" she asked after a moment.

"Of our latest little tidbit," al-Fanudahi said. "You know, the one from our friends in Manticore."

"I'm not sure this is the best place to be discussing it," she responded a bit pointedly. "This isn't exactly the most secure"

She broke off as one of the uniformed stewards arrived with her soup course. The steward placed it before her, made sure both her water glass and her glass of iced tea were full, and took al-Fanudahi's order, and Teague found herself hoping that the interruption would distract her politically inept colleague from his current self-destructive hobbyhorse.

Not that she really expected it to happen, of course.

"Oh, come on," he said, confirming the accuracy of her expectations almost before the steward was out of earshot. "You don't really think the entire content of the Manties' note hasn't already hit the grapevine running, do you? I mean, security, Irene?"

He snorted and rolled his eyes. Teague glared at him, but then her glare faded just a bit as she recognized the glint of amusement in those same eyes. The rotten bastard was actually enjoying himself!

She started to say something tart and pithy, then stopped herself. First, because it was only likely to amuse him even more, given his obviously twisted sense of humor. And, second, because he was right. She had no doubt at all that the information the two of them had been ordered to keep "Most Secret" was all over the Navy Building by now.

I really ought to shut him up anyway, because I just know he's going to say something I don't want anyone thinking I might agree with. On the other hand, he's way senior to mein fact, he's probably the most senior captain in the entire damned Navy, given how many times he's been passed over for promotion by now. There's no way anybody's going to be able to blame a wet-behind-the-ears young sprout like me just because one of the old sweats she works with decides to bend her ear over lunch.

For that matter, her lips twitched in what could have turned into a smile,if I let him run on and just nod politely here and there, I can probably convince anybody who's watching us that I wish he'd just take his ridiculous theories and go away.

"All right." She sighed, dipping her spoon into the lobster bisque in front of her. "Go ahead. I'm not going to be able to stop you, anyway, am I?"

"Probably not," he agreed cheerfully. "So, to repeat my original question, what do you make of all this?"

His voice remained as amused as ever, but his eyes had narrowed intently, and she realized he was serious. She gazed at him for a second or two, then swallowed a spoonful of the rich, thick soup and looked back up at him.

"With all due respect, Captain," she said, "one of the things I make of it is that a certain Battle Fleet admiral doesn't have the brains God gave a cockroach."

It was not, she realized, the most respectful possible comment a mere captain might have made about a senior admiral, but she wasn't too worried about that. Given traditional attitudes on both sides of the divide, people probably would have been more surprised if she hadn't been disrespectful. Besides, Byng obviously was an idiot...even if his chief of staff was related to her (and al-Fanudahi's) ultimate boss at ONI.

"I might not have expressed myself quite that, um...frankly," al-Fanudahi said with a grin. "Not that I don't think the sentiment was entirely appropriate, of course. But I believe we can both take Byng's less than stellar intellect as a given. I'm more interested in your impressions of the data itself."

"The data itself?" Teague's eyebrows furrowed in genuine surprise. He only nodded, and she considered the question for several seconds, then shrugged.

"It seems fairly straightforward to me, actually," she said finally. "Somethingor someone, ratherblew up the New Tuscans' space station, Admiral Byng clearly pani"

She paused, deciding there were some verbs a Frontier Fleet Captain shouldn't be using about an admiral even if he was a Battle Fleet officer.

"Admiral Byng clearly concluded that the Manties had been responsible for it," she said instead, "and responded to the perceived threat. I wasn't there, of course, but my initial impression is that he responded too quickly and...too forcefully, but that's not really my call."

Al-Fanudahi cocked his head, his expression skeptical, and Teague felt the tips of her ears heat. While she was undoubtedly correct that it wasn't her place to make any final judgments on Byng's actions, providing the analysis on which those judgments would be based was supposed to be one of Operational Analysis' primary functions. The fact that its analysis was more likely to be used to whitewash someone than to nail actual cases of obvious incompetence was one of those little secrets polite people didn't talk about in public. On the other hand, failing in its responsibility to report unpalatable truths was hardly OpAn's only fault. They were also supposed to be the office which identified and analyzed potential foreign threats or new developments which might require modifications of the SLN's operational doctrine, and they didn't do very much of that, either. In fact, OpAn did a lot less of either of those things than al-Fanudahiand Teaguethought it ought to be doing, although Teague (unlike al-Fanudahi) wasn't prepared to make her views in that regard officially explicit.

Not unless I want to spend the next twenty or thirty years as a captain, too, at any rate.

"That's not what I was talking about, either," the Battle Fleet officer said after a moment. "Or, not directly, anyway."

"Then just what are you talking about, Daud?" she demanded.

"They provided us with really good sensor resolution, don't you think?" he respondedrather obliquely, she thought.


"I mean, it was really good resolution," he pointed out.

Teague sat back in her chair, wondering where he thought he was going with this, and it was his turn to sigh.

"Didn't it occur to you to wonder how they happened to be able to provide us with that kind of data?" he asked.

"No, it didn't." She shrugged. "After all, what diff"

She broke off abruptly, her eyes widening, and al-Fanudahi nodded. There were very few traces of his earlier humor in hisexpression now, she noticed.

"I've put their data through the computers half a dozen times," he said, "and it keeps coming out the same way. That's shipboard-quality data. Actually, it's pretty damned good even for first-line shipboard sensors. Better than anything smaller than a battlecruiseror maybe a heavy cruisershould have been pulling in. So where did they get it?"

Teague said nothing for several seconds, then shook herself and swallowed a couple of more spoonfuls of her rapidly cooling bisque. She was only buying time, and she knew he knew it, but he waited patiently, anyway.

"I don't know," she admitted finally. "Are you thinking that maybe it's too good? That the quality of the data is evidence it's actually a fake?"

"No, it's not a fake," he said flatly. "No way. They'd have to know we're going to get our own ships' data in the end. If they'd faked it, we'd find out eventually, and I don't think we'd be particularly amused by their little hoax."

"Then..." she said slowly.

"Then I only see four real possibilities, Irene." He held up his left hand, counting his points off on its fingers as he made them. "First, the Manties have somehow developed a shipboard sensor that can get this kind of resolution from outside missile range of our ships. Second, the Manties have some sort of recon platform whose stealth is so good that none of our sensor crews noticed it was there even at what must have been point-blank range. Third, they've managed to come up with some kind of stealth so good that they got an entire starship that close without anyone noticing. Or, fourth, Admiral Byng opted to blow three Manticoran destroyers out of space without warning while allowing a fourth ship that must also have been well inside his missile range to sail merrily on its way. Now, which of those do you think is most likely?"

She felt a distinct sinking sensation as she gazed at him.

"It had to be a recon platform," she said.

"My own conclusion, exactly." He nodded. "But that leads us to another interesting little question. I'm not familiar with any recon platform in our inventory that would have pulled in data this good even if it had been inside energy range, must less missile range. Are you?"

"No," she said unhappily.

"I'm trying to remind myself that we still don't have anything from Byng," al-Fanudahi said. "Maybe he did pick up something and then went ahead and fired anyway, but I find that difficult to believe even of him. And here's another interesting little point to consider. Even if it was a remote platform, there had to be someone out there monitoring its take. I'm inclined to wonder if even Josef Byngand, by the way, I think you were doing cockroaches a disservice there a minute agowould be stupid enough to kill three destroyers and their entire crews while he knew he was on camera!"

"Which suggests the Manties do have shipboard stealth capability good enough that he never realized this Chatterjee had deployed at least one trailer on his way in," she said even more unhappily.

"That's exactly what it suggests to me, at any rate," he agreed.

"Crap," she said very, very softly, looking down at her lobster bisque and suddenly not feeling very hungry after all.

"Listen, Irene," he said equally quietly, "I know you've been being careful to keep your mouth shut, but I also know you have a working brain, unlike altogether too many of our esteemed colleagues. You've had your own suspicions about all of those 'ridiculous' reports from the SDF observers, haven't you?"

She looked back at him, unwilling to confirm his suspicions even now, but she knew he saw the truth in her eyes, and he nodded.

"What I thought," he said. Then he smiled crookedly. "Don't worry. I'm not about to invite you to commit professional suicide by suddenly announcing that you, too, believe that every spacer in the Manticoran Navy is three meters tall, impervious to pulser fire, and able to snatch speeding missiles out of space in his bare teeth. I've had a little experience myself with the consequences of being 'overly credulous' and 'alarmist.' In fact, Admiral Thim'ar himself saw fit to 'counsel me' on my obviously distorted pet theories. But look at this data. No, it's not a smoking gun, not conclusive proof, but the implications are there, aren't they? The Manties have to have a significantly more capable level of technology than anyone here on Old Terra is willing to even consider. For that matter, I'm coming to the suspicion that at least some of their toys aren't just better than most people think they have but actually are better than ours are, as well. When you couple that with some of the reports about their missile ranges at Monica, or the ridiculous salvo sizes some of the system-defense force observers say they can generate..."

He shook his head, and his eyes were dark. Worried.

"They can'tall be true," she protested quietly. "The rumors, I mean. Manticore's only one tiny little star system, Daud! All right, so it's a rich little star system, and it's got a hell of a lot bigger navy than anybody else its size. But it's still one star system, however many other systems it may be in the process of annexing. Are you seriously suggesting that they've managed somehow to put together a better, more effective R and D establishment than the entire Solarian League?"

"They don't have to have done that," he said flatly. "The League could be ahead of them clear across the board, but that doesn't mean the Navy is. These people have been fighting a war for better than twenty T-years, and they started their military buildup way the hell before that. You think maybe they could have been working really hard on weapons R and D in the process? That maybe, unlike us, they've been looking at real combat reports, instead of analyses of training simulations where the 'secret details' get leaked to all the senior participants before they even begin the exercise? That, unlike us, the people building their weapons and evaluating their combat doctrines might once have heard of a gentleman named Charles Darwin? Compared to someone who's been fighting for his life for two decades, we're soft, Irenesoft, underprepared, and complacent."

"And even assuming you're right, just what the hell do you expectme to do about it?" she demanded, her voice suddenly harsh with mingled anger, frustration, and fear. Not just fear for the consequences to her career, either. Not anymore.

"At this particular moment?" He looked at her levelly for a heartbeat or two, then his nostrils flared. "At this particular moment, I don't expect you to do anything except what you've been doing. Hell, for that matter I don't propose to make the full extent of my 'alarmist conclusions' part of my official report. Even if I did, it would never get past Cheng. And if it miraculously got past him somehow, you know damned well that Thim'ar would kill it. Or Kingsford himself, for that matter. It's too far outside the received wisdom. I'm going to go ahead and raise the question of exactly what sort of platform could have gathered the data, but I'm not going to offer any conclusions about it. If someone decides to ask me about it, I'll tell them what I think, but, frankly, I hope they won't. Because without a lot more to go on than the inferences I've been able to draw, I'll never convince the powers that be that I'm not crazy. And if they decide I'm crazy, they'll shit-can my arse so fast my head will spin, which means I'll be able to accomplish exactly nothing if the wheels do come off.

"But what I do want you to do is to keep your eyes and your mind open. I've got a strong suspicion that there are even more of those system-defense observer reports out there than ever made it to us in the first place. Unless I'm mistaken, they've been being tossed as 'obvious nonsense' somewhere between their originators and us. But if you and I both start very quietly looking around, maybe we'll be able to turn some of them up. And maybe, if we manage that, we'll be able to start drawing at least some of the conclusions we're going to need if the shitstorm hits."

"Surely the Manties aren't that stupid," she said softly, in the tone of someone trying to convince herself. "I mean, no matter how many technological advantages they may have, they have to know they can't fight the entire Solarian League and win. Not in the long term. They're just plain not big enoughnot even if they make this annexation of Talbott stand up!"

"Maybe they are that stupid, and maybe they aren't," al-Fanudahi replied. "Frankly, though, if they really did send this Admiral Gold Peak off to New Tuscany to press the demands they say they did, I'm not so sure they aren't ready to go nose-to-nose with us, however stupid that might be. And even if you're right, even if they can't possibly win in the endand I'm inclined to think youare right about thatGod only knows how many thousands of our own people are going to get killed before they lose. Somehow, I don't think that either you or I will sleep too soundly at night if we just sit back and watch it happen. Nobody's going to take any warnings from me seriously at this point, but you and I need to start pulling the truth together now, because if this blows up in our faces, somebody is going to need the closest thing to accurate information we can give them. And, who knows? Whoever that 'somebody' is, he may even realize he does."

Chapter Forty-Seven | Storm From the Shadows | * * *