Back | Next
Citizen Admiral Thomas Theisman leaned back in the sinfully comfortable chair and rubbed his eyes with both hands, as if the act could somehow scrub away the burning ache of fatigue. It couldn't, of course, and he lowered his hands once more to smile bitterly at the opulent office which surrounded him. At least the condemned man gets a comfortable cell, he told himself. Too bad they couldn't give me a few more ships of the wall to go with it.
He grimaced as the familiar thought wended through its well-worn mental rut. It wasn't as if he were the only system CO who needed more tonnage; it was just that his need was a bit more desperate than most. . . and that he knew his command area had already been written off by the planners back home.
Not that anyone would tell him that in so many words. That wasn't the way things were done these days. Instead, commanders were sent out on hopeless missions to hold the unholdable with the knowledge that whennot ifthey failed to achieve victory, their families would suffer for that "failure." Theisman couldn't deny that such measures could strengthen a COs willingness to fight, but in his opinion, the cost was far too high for the return even from a purely military viewpoint, far less a moral one. Officers who knew both that they couldn't win and that their families were hostage for how hard they tried to win were prone to desperation. Theisman had seen it again and again. All too often, an admiral stood and fought to the death for an objective rather than break off and retreat or even adopt a more flexible strategy of maneuver (which might, after all, be mistaken for a retreat by people's commissioners without the military experience to realize what was really happening), and in the process the toll in lost warships and trained personnel rose to even more disastrous levels. Not that anyone seemed able to convince the Office of State Security of that simple, painfully evident fact. Indeed, Theisman often suspected that his own lack of any immediate family was one reason the present command structure of the People's Navy regarded him with permanent low-grade suspicion. Since an officer with no family was less amenable to terrorization, it was inevitable that a regime which depended on terror to maintain its power would distrust him and watch perpetually for the first sign of "treason."
He snorted and let his chair snap upright, then stood to pace restlessly around his huge office while he pondered the paranoia of that last thought. Thomas Theisman had been born fifteen days after his unmarried Dolist mothers sixteenth birthday, and he often wondered what she had been like. All he had of her was a single holocube of a skinny teenager in the cheap, typically flashy garb and overdone cosmetics Dolists favored even now. She'd been almost pretty, in a washed out, rather vapid-looking sort of way, he often thought, and there'd been at least a glimmer of intelligence and a trace of character in that otherwise amorphous face. With a few more years of maturity, a little genuine education, and a reason to at least try to improve her life, she might even have grown into someone he would have liked to know. But he'd never had the opportunity to find out if she had, for she'd handed him over to one of the state-run creches before he was six months old. He'd never seen her again, and he had even her holocube only because the senior matron of his creche had violated regulations to let him keep it.
Which, he told himself now, rubbing the deep scar on his left cheek, is probably a good thing. Since I've never met herdon't even know if she's still alive, for that matternot even State Sec would threaten to shoot her to "motivate" me. Or I don't think they would, anyway.
He grimaced again and stopped near the door of his office, turning to survey the site from which he governed his doomed domain.
It was, beyond a doubt, the biggest, most luxurious working space he'd ever had, for this was the nerve center of the Barnett System. Buried deep at the heart of DuQuesne Base, the largest military installation on the planet Enki, it was only a moments walk from the War Room. Once second only to the Haven System itself among the People's Navy's command slots, it had been outfitted with all the luxury the old Legislaturalist officer corps had reserved to itself, and if the decor showed signs of wear and neglect, at least no one had gotten around to stripping the office of the "decadent trappings of elitism." Theisman supposed he was grateful for that. The only problem was that no amount of personal comfort could disguise the fact that he was in yet another of the hopeless positions the People's Republic and its Navy seemed to spend so much time stumbling into, and he couldn't quite suppress the suspicion that he was here because the situation was hopeless.
He put his hands behind him and gripped them together, rocking on his heels as he contemplated his unpalatable and probably brief future, and cursed himself yet again for his inability to play the political game properly. If only he'd been able to bring himself to kiss ass a little where the Committee of Public Safety or State Security were concerned he might not be in this office, looking down the barrel of a loaded pulser. He'd known all along that he was headed somewhere like this, he supposed. It wasn't because he'd been loyal to the old regime, for the old regime had given him very little reason to feel any devotion to it. Nor was it because he was disloyal to the PRH, for whatever its faults might be, the People's Republic was his country, the star nation whose uniform he'd chosen to wear and which he'd sworn to defend.
No, the problem, as he was only too well aware, was that he couldn't stomach the stupidity and waste and gratuitous violence wreaked in the name of discipline by half-wits who lacked the intelligence to see where their version of "discipline" must ultimately lead. Like many other officers, he'd found in the Legislaturalist purges a chance for the flag rank he could never have attained under the old regime, but his attitudes, as his military skills, had been shaped by his one-time mentor Alfredo Yu. And like Yu, Thomas Theisman believed in finding ways to maximize the strength of the raw material assigned to him, whether in terms of equipment or personnel, which required that an officer lead, not simply goad from behind.
But the crude tactics embraced by the SS rejected that tradition. Indeed, StateSec didn't want leaders in the military, for anyone who could motivate his people to follow him and give of their very best for him in the furnace of battle could only be regarded as a potential threat to the new regime. And that, Theisman told himself gloomily, was the real reason he was in this office. He'd made the mistake of convincing his personnel to follow him without devoting sufficient industry to personally espousing the Committee of Public Safety's platform, and thatdespite a record as one of the Committee's most effective field commandershad turned him into a dangerously ambitious disloyalist in StateSec's eyes.
He rubbed his scar once more, remembering the bloody chaos of the day he'd received it stopping a Manty thrust at the Seabring System. It hadn't mattered in the end, but his stand at Seabring had probably bought Trevor's Star another three or four months, possibly even more. It had also cost virtually his entire task force, for he'd been forced to engage dreadnoughts with battleships and battlecruisers. He knew he'd fought well, even brilliantly, but brilliance had been too little to overcome his units' individual inferiority. He'd had twice as many ships as his opponent but less than two-thirds the tonnage, and battleships and battlecruisers had no business fighting dreadnoughts even at two-to-one odds. Not even if they'd had technological parity. He'd managed to destroy only a single Manticoran dreadnought in return for the total destruction of seven battleships and eleven battlecruisers plus sufficient damage to send three more battleshipsincluding PNS Conquerant, his flagshipto the breakers, but he'd inflicted such a heavy pounding upon the enemy in reply that the opposing admiral had broken off to shepherd his cripples clear.
Eleven battlecruisers and ten obsolete, undersized, underarmed "capital ships" which had no business in the wall of battle anyway wasn't an exorbitant price for holding a star system . . . assuming that there'd been any point in holding it in the first place, and he tried to believe there had been. Oh, the First Battle of Seabring hadn't stopped the Manties cold, nor had it prevented Theisman's successor in command of the system from losing the Second Battle of Seabring or saved Trevor's Star in the long run. But it had at least slowed the enemy up, weakened him at least a little, cost him at least a few escorts and sent half a dozen dreadnoughts back to the yard for extensive repairs. And in a war in which the People's Navy could count its victories on the fingers of one man's hands, it had been a major boost to the Navy's morale . . . a point Theisman tried to remember when he reflected upon the nineteen thousand men and women who'd died winning it.
So here he was, servant of a government which had rewarded him with a chest full of medals for delivering even a passing victory at Seabring only to send him to Barnett to fill what had once been a premier command slot but now could end only in defeat whatever he did. And given that StateSec was still in the habit of shooting defeated admirals, it seemed highly probable that the Committee of Public Safety had finally concluded that it could dispense with the services of one Thomas Edward Theisman.
He snorted again, this time in bitter amusement, walked back to his oversized desk, and settled himself once more in his overly comfortable chair. It was possible he was being too pessimistic, he told himself. Of course, it was better to be overly pessimistic than optimistic in the current People's Republic, but perhaps Esther McQueen's elevation to the Committee of Public Safety was a hopeful sign. She would be the only military person on the Committee, and for all her brilliance in battle, she'd always been dangerously ambitious, even under the Legislaturalists. Isolated as she was among civilians with no understanding of the problems the Navy faced, and ambitious to boot, she was more likely to get caught up in playing the power game than in solving the Fleet's problems. And even if she was inclined to fight for the Navy, she looked like being too little and too late to save Theisman's bacon, but he couldn't quite quash a lingering hope that she would make a difference. Whatever her other faults, she'd been a Navy officer for over forty T-years, and she'd always been able to inspire loyalty in her immediate subordinates. Perhaps she would remember that loyalty cut both ways. . . or at least see the need to strengthen the Navy if only to keep her own constituency strong.
He snorted againthis time in exasperation with his masochistic need to believe the Republic might somehow survive despite the lunatics running itand punched for a fresh file. He might have been handed a dead ship drifting steadily deeper into a gravity well, but that didn't change his responsibility to do the best he could with it until
The quiet buzz of his com interrupted his thought. He punched the acceptance key, and the neat blocks of alphanumeric characters disappeared from his display as it dropped into split-screen com mode. Raven-haired, brown-eyed Citizen Captain Megan Hathaway, his chief of staff, and Citizen Commander Warner Caslet, his ops officer, looked out of the screen at him, and Theisman hid another grimace, for Caslet was one more bit of evidence that the Committee had decided it could manage without Thomas Theisman.
It wasn't Caslet's fault; in fact, he was an officer of superior quality whose services, under normal circumstances, Theisman would have been delighted to obtain.
But the citizen commander was a man under a cloud. Up until a little over a T-year ago, he'd been one of the rising young stars of the People's Navy, but that was before the results of Citizen Admiral Giscard's commerce raiding campaign in Silesia were reported back home . . . and before Caslet lost his own ship trying to save a Manticoran merchantman from homegrown Silesian pirates.
Theisman had seen the reports on the pirates in question, and even through the obvious censorship to which they'd been subjected before reaching him, he could understand why any officer worth the uniform he wore would have wanted to save any merchant crew from them. It had simply been Caslet's misfortune that the freighter he tried to rescue had turned out to be a disguised armed merchant cruiser of the Royal Manticoran Navy which had wound up taking his ship as well as finishing off the pirate vessels Caslet had engaged in order to save it.
Once in Manticoran custody, Casletwith the approval of his people's commissionerhad shared his data on the pirates with his captors, and that, coupled with his effort to "save" them, had led the Manties to repatriate him and his senior officers rather than clapping them into a POW camp somewhere. Considered all in all, returning Caslet had been a mixed favor, for the only thing which had kept the SS from executing him for losing his ship under such circumstances was the fact that the Admiralty had issued every unit of Giscard's task force standing orders to come to the assistance of any Andermani merchant vessels threatened by pirates.
The idea, as far as Theisman had been able to discover, had been that by doing so Giscard's commerce raiders would win enough gratitude from the Andermani Empire for the Imperial Navy to overlook the next-door operations of the People's Navy and the spread of the war with Manticore to its doorstep. If that had been the idea, it certainly hadn't worked, as the Andermani's ferocious diplomatic protests had made abundantly clear, but those orders were what had saved Caslet's neck, for at the time he'd thought he was coming to the Manty Q-ship's rescue, the Q-ship in question had disguised itself as an Andermani freighter. Which meant, of course, that Caslet had simply been following his orders.
Whatever its other faults (and God knew they were legion), the current leadership at the Admiralty had at least managed to convince StateSec that shooting officers for following orders would have a . . . negative impact on naval operations. It was bad enough to know you would be shot for failing to execute orders, however impossible the task to which they assigned you, without knowing that you'd also be shot if you did execute them and things turned out badly anyway. Besides, officers who figured they had nothing to lose whatever they did were far more likely to turn upon their political masters, and thank God someone had been able to make the SS see at least that much!
The fact that they hadn't shot Caslet, however, didn't mean that the powers that were intended to forgive and forget, and he'd been denied a new command. Instead, and despite an otherwise brilliant command record, he'd been shuffled off to staff duty . . . and sent to Barnett, which promised to be even more of a dead end, with emphasis on the "dead"than most backwater staff assignments.
On the other hand, it could represent a chance for him to "redeem" himself by how he performs here, Theisman thought. If he does his job and we actually manage to hold out long enough to please our lords and masters, maybe they'll "rehabilitate" him. Hell, maybe they'll even pull me out in time. Yeah. Sure they will, Tommy.
It was only then that he realized a face was missing. Dennis LePic, Barnett's senior people's commissioner and Theisman's personal watchdog, was a relatively decent sort, but he was also inquisitive and assertive and took his responsibilities seriously enough to be a general pain in the ass. He was smart enough to leave operational matters to the professionals upon whom he spied, but he insisted on being kept informed and routinely "shared" conferences between Theisman and his staffers. LePic's absence from the split screen was more than enough to raise Theisman's mental eyebrows, but he kept that, too, from showing. Any prudent officer assumed that any com channel, be it ever so secure, was bugged, and his voice displayed no surprise as he greeted his callers.
"Hello, MeganWarner. What is it?"
"We've just received the latest ship movement report from the Admiralty, Citizen Admiral," Hathaway replied in exactly the same sort of calm tones. "We're looking at several more ships than we'd anticipated, and Warner and I thought we should bring you up to speed."
"That sounds reasonable," Theisman agreed, tipping his chair back once more, but Hathaway's response, however reasonable it might seem, obviously wasn't the real reason she'd commed him. They were due for a routine staff meeting in less than two hours, and even word that the Admiralty was sending him the entire Capital Fleet could have waited that long. "So just what sort of good news are we looking at?" he asked.
"For starters, they're sending us the Sixty-Second and Eighty-First Battle Squadrons," Caslet replied, and despite himself, Theisman's eyebrows did rise this time. "The Sixty-Second is twenty-five percent understrength, and the Eighty-First is short one ship, but that's still thirteen more of the wall, S Citizen Admiral."
Theisman nodded. That was a much heavier reinforcement than he'd let himself anticipate. In fact, it would increase his wall of battle's strength by almost thirty percent, which might actually indicate that the Republic's rulers intended to make a serious fight for Barnett. They wouldn't be able to hold it even if they did, but if they gave him enough combat power he could at least make his defense buy the rest of the Navy a chunk of time big enough that it might actually mean something. But despite his surprise, he delivered a moderately quelling frown to his ops officer. Caslet had commanded his own ship long enough to know to avoid slips like the one he'd just almost made. Or perhaps it was because he'd commanded his own ship for so long that he had trouble remembering that the only people the Navy was allowed to address as "Sir" or "Ma'am" these days were its people's commissioners.
PNS Vaubon had been a light cruiser, and as light cruisers were wont to do, she'd spent most of her time cruising independently. However much he might have ridden herd on the revolutionary vocabularies of his subordinates, Caslet himself had gone for enormous stretches of time in which he'd had no superioraside from his own commissionerto whom to report directly. But whatever the reasons, an officer in his present position simply could not afford anything remotely suggestive of lack of enthusiasm for the new regime.
"That's certainly a good start," Theisman said after a moment. "Is there more?"
"Yes, Citizen Admiral," Hathaway said. "That's the heavy metal, but it looks like we're getting another destroyer flotilla, the better part of the Hundred Twenty-First Light Cruiser Squadron, and another half-dozen heavy cruisers. We may even be getting another battlecruiser, assuming we get to hang onto her." Except to someone who knew her very, very well, Hathaway's tone as she delivered her last sentence would have sounded completely normal, but Theisman did know her.
"We can always use more battlecruisers," he said easily. "Which one is she?"
"The Tepes, Citizen Admiral." Caslet's tone exactly matched Hathaway's, and Theisman felt his expression try to congeal as he realized the true reason Megan and Warner had commed without LePicand probably only after making certain the commissioner had been diverted elsewhere by some very legitimate distraction.
The Tepes, he thought. One of the Warlord-class ships which had replaced the Sultans as the newest and most powerful battlecruisers in the Navy's inventory. But Tepes didn't belong to the Navy . . . and her crew consisted not of Navy personnel but of officers and enlisted personnel drawn from the Office of State Security.
Theisman hid a core-deep sense of disgustand fearas he considered the news. Like virtually all regular officers, even those who most ardently supported the new regime, he found the logic in diverting desperately needed warships from front-line task forces questionable, to say the least. But what he found frightening, and what he dared never voice aloud, was the other side of the logic. StateSec was amassing an entire fleet of warships which were either commanded by SS officers or even, as in Tepes' case, manned entirely by SS personnel.
Admittedly, much of StateSecs present manpower had come from discontented elements of the pre-coup People's Navy and Marines, but even with the aid of those volunteers, Oscar Saint-Just's thugs lacked the training and experience to make full, proper use in combat of the ships they controlled. Yet those vessels constituted what was, in effect, a second navy, and one had to wonder why it had been created. No doubt part of it was simple, if stupid, bureaucratic empire-building. Like any other parasite, StateSec had an insatiable appetite for ever more power, even at the expense of diverting strength from the fleets which actually had to face the enemy. Yet there was more to the creation of the SS's private fleet than mere egotism or muscle-flexing. It would be all but useless against the Manties, but that wasn't the real point. As the real Navy knew perfectly well, the point was to provide StateSec with a "navy" which could be relied upon to execute the coercive domestic missions Saint-Just might not fully trust the regular fleet to carry out against the Republics own citizens. Or, Theisman thought grimly, to execute missions against Navy personnelor their dependentslike that idiocy in Malagasy.
But what sent a chill down his spineand explained LePic's absencewas that PNS Tepes had a very special reputation. Although her crew was drawn from the Office of State Security, she was permanently assigned to the Office of Public Information. She was, in fact, Committeewoman Cordelia Ransom's personal transport, and if the thought of diverting one of the Navy's most powerful battlecruisers to serve as a private yacht for the mistress of the Republics propaganda machine and her persona] crew of technicians seemed obscene, no one would ever dare say so. Just as no one would ever dare point out that Ransom's decision to visit the Barnett System could be far more dangerous to the officer charged with defending that system than any Manty task force.
"Well," Theisman heard himself say in brisk, efficient tones, "whether we get to keep Tepes or not, we can certainly use the other units! In fact, Warner, I want you to rethink our current forward pickets. If we're going to be seeing more ships of the wall, then I'd like to look at releasing Citizen Rear Admiral Tourville's battlecruisers from patrol duty here in Barnett."
"Yes, Citizen Admiral. We can do that," Caslet replied, eyes lowered as he keyed notes to himself into his console. "The destroyer reinforcements alone will more than compensate for the loss in sensor platforms. What did you want to do with them instead, Citizen Admiral?"
"I'd like to send his second and third divisions up to thicken the picket at Corrigan. That won't be enough to hold it when the Manties finally move in, but at least it could help force them to be a little more cautious about the way they scout the system. Let's put in enough firepower to make them think twice about recon sweeps with light cruisers."
"Yes, Citizen Admiral. And the rest of the squadron?"
"I think I'd like to detail them for a little aggressive sweeping of our own." Theisman tipped back his chair, and his voice was suddenly more thoughtful as he got past the warning that Tepes was en route to Barnett and began truly considering the rest of the news. "You say half a dozen heavy cruisers are in the pipeline, Warner?"
"Yes, Citizen Admiral."
"All right. In that case, let's give Tourville CruRon Fifty and half a destroyer flotilla or so in return for the battlecruisers for Corrigan. That'll give him a nice little raiding force, with the speed to run away from anything it can't fightunless, of course, it runs into a couple of divisions of Manty battlecruisers with their new compensators."
Theisman grimaced as he added the qualifier, and the more than half-defensive edge he couldn't quite keep out of his voice despite his best efforts irritated him immensely. At the same time, however, all four of the battlecruisers he intended to assign to the operation were Warlords, with the first fruits of the technology transfers from the Solarian League. The Manties' most recent Reliant-class still boasted a marginal advantage in weapons fit, and its electronic warfare capabilities offered it a substantial combat edge, but both those margins would be far smaller against a Warlord than anyone on the other side was likely to suspect. And, of course, if Tourville happened across something older than a Reliant, well . . .
"Yes, Citizen Admiral," Caslet said again. "Do you have a specific target in mind, or do you want Citizen Commander Ito and me to work up a list to choose from?"
"I think Adler or Madras," Theisman said. "They're still settling in at Adler, in particular, so a good hard jab there might at least draw them into diverting more force to their pickets there and away from Barnett. But let's not limit ourselves to what occurs off the top of my head. Go ahead and sit down with Ito, then give me what the two of you think are the best prospects." He paused a moment, rubbing an eyebrow, then nodded to himself. "And go ahead and think about possible multiple targets. I don't want to get carried away with my own aggressiveness here, but if we can scrape up the tonnage, hitting the bad guys in more than one place at a time could be a good idea. Even with these new reinforcements, we're unlikely to hold Barnett if they concentrate properly, so any chance to make them worry about their defenses is worth taking, I think."
"Yes, Citizen Admiral. We'll have something for you by this afternoon's brief."
"Good, Warner." Theisman smiled at his ops officer, then glanced back at Hathaway, and his voice was carefully normal again as he addressed her once more. "In the meantime, Megan, would you please see about locating Citizen Commissioner LePic and passing this information on to him, as well? This is a lot more firepower than I'd anticipated having available, and it could substantially change my contingency planning. Please tell him that I need to discuss the new possibilities it opens up and that I asked you to bring him up to speed on the new ship movement schedule before he and I put our heads together."
"Of course, Citizen Admiral," Hathaway replied as if she had no suspicion at all that Theisman was speaking for the recording devices all three of them were certain had been tapped into the entire conversation . . . or that everything before the chief of staffs first mention of the name "Tepes" had been so much window dressing.
"Thank you, Megan. And you, too, Warner," Theisman said very sincerely. "I appreciate it."
Back | Next