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"All right, peoplelets see some enthusiasm! We've got some Manty ass to kick!"
Citizen Rear Admiral Lester Tourville's thick mustache bristled aggressively over his fierce grin. Conformity had become the path to survival for most of the People's Navy's senior officers, but Tourville was and would always remain a character, indeed, almost a caricature. His climb from captain to rear admiral had been meteoric, yet he knew as well as anyone that the likelihood of his ever rising above rear admiral was essentially nonexistent. Not that it bothered him. Most of his more colorful mannerisms might be deliberate affectations, but underneath them he truly was the hard-charging warrior he parodied so well. Higher rank would only have diluted the impact his talents (and style) could exert at the squadron level. It would also require him to play the political game, and Tourville knew his limits. Even those idiots at StateSec were unlikely to execute a mere rear admiral who was constitutionally unable to fit the party moldparticularly if he was also a trouble-shooter who always came throughbut a vice admiral or admiral with the same tendencies would quickly end up dead. All of which helped explain the "loose warhead" persona he'd gone to such lengths to perfect.
Of course, there were drawbacks to his relatively junior rank. Foremost among them was the fact that he would always be charged with executing someone else's orders, since any squadron he commanded would always belong to someone else's task force or fleet. On the other hand, any navy often had to detach squadrons for independent service. When that happened, any set of orders could offer only general guidance, with the squadron CO expected to use his own good sense to implement them, and that was as close to being his or her own master as any PN officer was likely to get these days. Besides, sometimes the person writing your orders actually knew what he was doing.
That was one of the reasons Tourville liked working for Citizen Admiral Theisman. The keen analyst hidden behind Tourville's bullheaded exterior rather doubted Theisman would be around much longer, for the citizen admiral had made the mistake of allowing himself to be promoted. A postgraduate degree in ass-kissing was required at Theisman's level, and the Barnett System CO lacked the ability to buff sufficient buttocks. That probably said something good about him as a human being, but it was a fatal flaw in the present day PRH. So far, Theismanlike Tourvillehad always managed to deliver the goods, which kept him valuable to his masters. Unlike Tourville, he'd climbed too high to be allowed to remain apolitical. His purely military value would soon be outweighed by his political liabilities if he persisted in trying to remain his own man.
In the meantime, however, Theisman was one of the minority of senior officers who both saw what had to be done and was willing to risk saying so. He also had the guts to take calculated risks, despite the SS's habit of shooting those who tried and failed, and he was always careful to phrase his orders in ways which would protect the subordinates he sent out to run those risks from StateSec's wrath. Like Tourville's current orders.
"I commend your own enthusiasm, Citizen Rear Admiral," People's Commissioner Everard Honeker said dryly, "but lets not get carried away. Our orders are to carry out a reconnaissance in force, not to defeat the Alliance single-handedly!"
"Agreed. Agreed." Tourville waved one hand airily and drew a cigar from the breast pocket of his tunic. He shoved it into his mouth at precisely the right angle of jauntiness, lit it, and blew a stream of pungent smoke at the air return over his console. In point of fact, he didn't much care for cigars, but smoking had once more become fashionable over the past several years, and he'd decided cigars fitted his image. Now he couldn't get rid of the miserable things without admitting they'd been a mistake, and he was damned if he'd do that.
"A reconnaissance in force, Citizen Commissioner," he went on once he had the cigar drawing properly, "is just that, however: a reconnaissance in force. That means we get to kick the ass of anything that isn't capable of kicking our ass, and the Manties are kind of thin in the neighborhood just now. Seems to me the bastards've gotten a little overconfident. They've kicked us out of Trevor's Star and they're closing in on Barnett, and they figure we haven't got squat to stop `em. They aren't too far wrong, either," he admitted, "but assuming the other side's gonna just lie down and die is never a good idea, and that's what they're doing in our sector. So, yes, Sir. Our orders are to pull a `reconnaissance,' but when I find something to shoot, I'm damned well gonna shoot it!"
Honeker sighed, but he'd grown accustomed to Tourville's ebullience. There was no real point trying to resist it, for the citizen rear admiral seemed unaware that Honeker held his leash. Indeed, Honeker often thought of himself as being towed bodily along by the cheerful, clumsy eagerness of the Great Dane or Saint Bernard he was supposedly walking. It wasn't how things were supposed to be, but it had workedso far, at leastand his political superiors gave him much of the credit for Tourville's successes. Besides, Honeker actually liked the citizen rear admiral . . . even if he did choose to play the role of someone who belonged on a holystoned wooden quarterdeck with a cutlass and a brace of flintlock pistols in his belt, bellowing orders over the roar of cannon.
"I don't have a problem with engaging the enemy, Citizen Rear Admiral." The commissioner heard a familiar, half-soothing note in his voice and hid a wry mental grimace. "I'm simply pointing out that your squadron represents a valuable asset. It shouldn't be risked unless the potential gain clearly justifies doing so."
"Of course not!" Tourville agreed genially through another cloud of aromatic smoke. Honeker would have felt a bit better if the citizen rear admiral's grin had been a little less fierce, but he decided to accept Tourville's agreement at face value. There would be time enough to argue when the moment came . . . and precious little point trying to make this cheerful, bloodthirsty adolescent see reason ahead of time, anyway.
Tourville watched the people's commissioner give up the argument with deep satisfaction. One thing he'd learned early on was that it was far better for one to appear overly aggressive, so that the Committee of Public Safety's spies were forced to rein one in, than to appear timid or hesitant. It was a lesson Citizen Admiral Theisman's own performance at the Fourth Battle of Yeltsin had underscored, and it had served Tourville well since the Harris Assassination. When he was certain Honeker had stopped objecting, he turned sharp, dark eyes on his chief of staff and jabbed the cigar at him like a pulser.
"All right, Yuri. Let's hear it," he commanded.
"Yes, Citizen Rear Admiral," Citizen Captain Yuri Bogdanovich replied. He'd been with Tourville long enough to learn to double-team their watchdog, and his crisp, cool tone was a deliberate contrast to his admiral's jovial ferocity. Now he straightened his shoulders, sitting upright with military precision, and activated the holo unit to project a floating star map above the table in PNS Count Tilly's flag briefing room.
"This is our general operations area, Citizen Rear Admiral, Citizen Commissioner. As you know, Citizen Admiral Theisman and Citizen Commissioner LePic have detached our second and third divisions to reinforce the Corrigan System pickets here." He touched a key, and the G6 primary of the Corrigan System pulsed brightly. "While that represents half our total unit strength, the ships in question are all Sultans or Tigers, whereas the units remaining under our immediate command are all Warlords. In addition, Barnett HQ has assigned us five Scimitar and three Mars-class heavy cruisers and six Conqueror-class light cruisers to replace them. Our cumulative loss in actual fighting strength is thus about equal to one Sultan-class, but we've gained three and a half times as many scouting platforms and a somewhat higher squadron acceleration curve in return. In other words, we've got more eyes, more speed, and almost as much punch as we had before. In addition, we've been assigned two fast minelayersYarnowski and Simmonswhich have been reconfigured as freighters to provide logistical support."
Bogdanovich paused and glanced around the table to be sure his recap had sunk in, then cleared his throat and tapped more keys. Three more stars blinked in the display, and he highlighted the tiny characters of the system names beside them.
"Our current areas of interest are these three systems," he went on. "Sallah, Adler, and Micah. According to our latest intelligence dumps, the Manties have taken Adler and Micah, but we still hold Sallah. Unfortunately, the data on Sallah is over two weeks old, so with your permission, Citizen Commander Lowe and I recommend beginning our sweep there, then moving south to Adler and Micah before returning to Barnett."
"What sort of passage times are we looking at?" Tourville demanded.
"Just under nine and a half days to Sallah, Citizen Rear Admiral," Citizen Commander Karen Lowe, Tourville's staff astrogator, replied. "Sallah to Adler would be another three days, and Adler to Micah would be another thirty-one hours. Return passage from Micah to Barnett would be another nine-plus days."
"So the entire sweep, exclusive of any time we spend shooting Manties, would bewhat?" Tourville squinted against his cigar smoke while he did the mental math. "About three T-weeks?"
"Yes, Citizen Rear Admiral. Call it five hundred twenty-four hours, or just under twenty-two days."
"How does that stack up against HQs time limit, Yuri?"
"Citizen Admiral Theisman and Citizen Commissioner LePic have authorized up to four T-weeks," Bogdanovich replied in that same crisp tone. "There's also a provision allowing you and Citizen Commissioner Honeker to extend your operational time by up to another week if that seems justified."
"Um." Tourville drew heavily on his cigar, then took it from his mouth to examine its glowing end. Then he looked at Honeker. "Personally, Citizen Commissioner, I'd rather begin by sweeping straight through Adler and then on to Micah. We know we're going to find bad guys there, whereas Sallah's probably still in our hands." He barked a harsh laugh. "God knows there's nothing important enough there to justify a Manty attack on the place! Still," he put the cigar back in his mouth with an unhappy grunt, "I suppose we have to start at Sallah, anyway. HQ apparently wants to know what's going on there, and it's the longest leg of the mission. Do you concur?"
"I think so." There was an edge of caution in Honeker's reply. He'd been too quick to agree with Tourville a time or two, only to discover that the citizen rear admiral had sold him a bill of goods just so he could see a little action. The experience had taught him not to rush into anything, and he looked at Citizen Commander Shannon Foraker, Tourville's ops officer and the newest member of his staff. "What do we know about probable enemy forces in the area, Citizen Commander?"
"Not as much as I'd like, Sir," Foraker replied promptly. The golden-haired citizen commander had a formidable reputation as a tactical officer (indeed, she was widely regarded as something of a witch in that department), including the enthusiastic recommendation of her previous peoples commissioner. Fortunately for Foraker, Citizen Commissioner Jourdain's report had also warned Honeker that when she became immersed in a problem, she often backslid into some rather prerevolutionary habits of speech. Viewed against her accomplishments, Honekerlike Jourdain before himwas prepared to cut her some slack, and one of the things he most liked about her was that it never seemed to occur to her to cover her own posterior by hedging. If someone asked her a question, she answered it to the best of her ability and without equivocating, and that, unfortunately, was increasingly rare in the People's Navy. In his more honest moments, Honeker knew why that was, though he preferred not to think about it too closely.
"Our info on Micah is especially spotty," Foraker went on. "We think there's a light Manty task forcecall it a couple of divisions of the wallwith escorts from the Grayson and Casca navies. That's what moved in and took it away from us, anyway, and I think it would be smart to assume they're still there until we prove differently."
"I agree," Honeker said firmly. He didn't know whether or not Tourville would have disputed that cautious note, but he didn't intend to find out, either. "And Adler?"
"We think we've got a better picture there, Sir," Foraker replied. She punched up data on her own terminal and consulted it to refresh her memory before she continued. "At our last count, their Adler picket was only a cruiser squadron and two or three divisions of tin cans. That's probably gone up some since, but given that we haven't counterattacked or raided at all in this entire sector for over six months, I doubt they've reinforced very heavily. They're strapped for ships, too, Citizen Commissioner. They have to be skimming hulls off from quiet areas to build up for their next offensive."
"Which is precisely why this operation is more important than its scale might seem to suggest," Tourville pointed out, waving his cigar like a smoldering baton. "Like I say, Citizen Commissionerthe bastards are getting too confident. They're taking it for granted that since we haven't counterattacked them, we won't. But if we hit them hard a couple of times and disillusion them, they'll probably beef up the local picket forces. And that will suck at least light forces away from their eventual attack on Barnettor attacks anywhere else, for that matter."
"I understand the intent of our orders, Citizen Admiral." Honeker's tone was a touch repressive, but Tourville only grinned, and the people's commissioner hid a mental sigh. Everyone in this briefing room knew that he, as the squadron's commissioner, was its true commander. A single word from him could "disappear" any of these officers, even Tourville, and they knew that, too. So why did he feel like a harassed scout master besieged by an entire troop of ten-year-olds? It wasn't supposed to be like this.
"All right," he said after a moment. "I assume, Citizen Rear Admiral, that you concur with Citizen Commander Foraker's recommendations?"
"Of course I do," Tourville replied cheerfully. "Shannon's got the right idea, Sir. Make our sweep, sneak in on Adler before they know we're there, and shoot us enough Manties to get their attention and draw some more picket ships into the area."
"When could we depart Barnett?" Honeker asked.
"Within six hours, Sir," Bogdanovich answered for his CO. "We're topped off with ammunition and spares now, and we're scheduled to tank for reactor mass within six hours. Judging from HQ's alert order, though, I doubt we'll be leaving for at least a few days. We're anticipating the arrival of BatRon Sixty-Two sometime in the next ninety-six hours. My understanding is that we won't be released for operations until they get here."
"So we've got some time for contingency planning," Honeker observed.
"Yes, Sir," Tourville agreed, "and with your concurrence, I intend to get started on that this afternoon."
"Good," Honeker said, and meant it. Bellicose as Tourville often appeared, he was meticulous in planning for every conceivable, and most inconceivable, contingencies. For all his aggressiveness, he calculated the odds finely before he committed to action, which was one reason Honeker was willing to put up with his whirlwind approach to command. The people's commissioner leaned back, then cocked an eyebrow as Bogdanovich twitched in his chair.
If Honeker hadn't known better (and he didn't), he would have sworn Foraker had just kicked the chief of staff under the table.
"Ah, there was one other point I wanted to raise, Citizen Rear Admiral," Bogdanovich said, glancing sideways at Foraker as he spoke.
"Yes?" Tourville invited.
"Well, it's just that Ithat is, Citizen Commander Foraker and Iwondered if we could get HQ to agree to release some of the new missile pods to us?" There was a moment of silence, and Bogdanovich hurried on before anyone else could break it. "The thing is, Citizen Rear Admiral, that by now the Manties must be aware that we've got them. We know they've already been used closer to Trevor's Star, and we know HQ is planning to use them against any attack on Barnett. But what we don't know is whether or not the Allied units in our sector have been informed that we have them. If they haven't, the surprise factor could be decisive. And we have been assigned Yarnowski and Simmons, Citizen Admiral. Each of them could carry up to seventy pods and a complete set of reloads and still leave plenty of capacity for the rest of our requirements."
"Um." Tourville chewed his cigar, then glanced at Honeker. "Citizen Commissioner?"
"I don't know," Honeker said slowly, and plucked at his lower lip while he frowned in thought. Bogdanovich and Foraker were certainly right about the probable utility of the system, but asking HQ to let it out of the bag would really mean sticking his neck out. On the other hand, he decided, LePic and Theisman could always veto the suggestion. If they didn't, then any repercussions would be on their heads, not his.
"All right," he said finally. "I'll support you if you want to ask for them, at any rate. Just try to write a convincing proposal."
"Oh, I think we can manage that, Sir," Tourville assured him with a smile, then nodded to Foraker once more. "All right, Shannon. Assume you've got your pods. Now sketch me out an ops plan to make the best use of them."
"Yes, Sir." Foraker punched up fresh data, her long, narrow face intent, and Honeker bit his lip against the automatic urge to correct her. He'd seen her at work often enough by now to realize that Jourdain had been right: her reversion to the older, forbidden military courtesies simply meant her brain was too thoroughly engaged on the problem before it to leave any room for other considerations.
"First of all," the ops officer began, "we have to bear in mind that Manty tech systems are still better than ours across the board. On the other hand, they haven't been in possession of Adler or Micah long enough to have deployed their usual sensor platform network. Even if they had been, their operational patterns around Trevor's Star indicate their Sixth Fleet is short of platforms just now. That, at least, is NavInt's interpretation of their increased use of destroyers and light cruisers as perimeter pickets, and it makes sense to me, too. If they don't have enough sensor platforms, they'd have to cover the gaps with ships. I also think it's a fairly safe bet that if they're short at someplace as critical as Trevor's Star, they're probably even shorter in the much lower priority systems in our operational area. If they do have a sensor bottleneck, it's probably temporary, but until they get it fixed, it offers us a window of opportunity."
The other members of the staff were leaning forward as they listened raptly to Foraker and punched notes and questions into their memo pads for later discussion. And, for all his feeling that control of the squadron's affairs somehow eluded him, Everard Honeker leaned forward with them, for this was the reason he was willing to put up with Tourville's posturing and defend him against the occasional charges of having created a "personality cult." Whatever faults the citizen rear admiral might have, he was a fighter. In a People's Navy which had far too much experience with desperateand losingdefensive fights, Tourville looked constantly for opportunities to attack. No wonder he'd wanted Foraker for his staff! The two of them were exactly alike in at least one respect, for where all too many of their fellows viewed the Manticorans' superior technology as a fatal disadvantage, Foraker and Tourville saw it as a challenge. They were more concerned with finding ways to exploit any opening against the Manties than with seeking ways to protect themselves from the Manties, and Honeker would tolerate anything short of outright treason to protect people who actually wanted to fight.
"Now," Foraker continued, replacing the star map with a detailed schematic of a hypothetical star system, "lets assume that this is our objective and that the Manties only have about half the sensor platforms they'd really need to cover its perimeter. If I were them, I'd put the platforms I did have here, here, and here." Volumes of space within the star system blossomed with tiny red speckles to indicate the areas covered by her theoretical sensors. "This pattern would make optimum tactical use of their platforms, but it leaves the system periphery vulnerable, so what I'd suggest would be"
She went on talking, sketching out her proposed attack plan with bold red arrows, and Everard Honeker smiled in approval as he listened.
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