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Chapter 11

“Does she ever stop griping and grousing?” asked Colonel Donald Toussaint. His tone of voice was relaxed, though, and he was smiling rather than frowning. Apparently, he’d already been briefed on the . . . distinctive personality and behavior of the Hali Sowle’s captain.

“Ganny?” Commander Loren Damewood shook his head but didn’t look up from the console he was monitoring. “Not that I’ve ever noticed. But I might have missed a stretch where she was quiet, here or there, if I was preoccupied with something. After a while you just tune it out. It’s like living by the ocean—before too long, you don’t hear the surf unless you think about it.”

Another burst came over the com. “—the fuck designed this stupid software, anyway? For Christ’s sake, I could chew some raw silicon—don’t think I couldn’t!—and spit out a better program than this miserable misbegotten—”

Donald tuned it out and swiveled his seat in order to bring his three immediate subordinates into sight.

He had to fight down a grin. This must be what the historical novels mean by “a motley crew.”

On the left, looking like a misplaced piece of heavy equipment that someone as a prank had made to resemble a human being was Major Arkaitz Ali bin Muhammad. He was even bigger and squatter than Donald himself.

The major had formerly gone by the monicker of Arkaitz X. When he joined the Torch military he dropped the “X” and, as was the usual custom, adopted as a new surname the identity of some historical leader of anti-slavery revolts or protests. In his case, the name of the man who’d led the great Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate more than two millennia earlier.

On the right stood a woman whose membership in the human race was evident at a glance. That was Lieutenant Colonel Ayibongwinkosi Kabweza, Donald’s second-in-command. Insofar as this motley crew had a normal human member, it was Kabweza. She was the descendant in the matrilineal line of a slave freed a century earlier by a Beowulfan cruiser, but the ensuing four generations had brought the usual genetic blending. There were still traces of her maternal ancestor’s largely Mfecane heritage, but she looked more like a native of Terra’s great archipelago in southeast Asia than anything else.

Then, there was the person in the middle. Major Anichka Sydorenko. As was the case with Kabweza, Major Sydorenko’s membership in the human race was self-evident, as was her gender. As was true of almost all former Scrag females, she was tall, blonde, blue-eyed, erect of posture and generally majestic in appearance.

Although it was encouraged, it was not a legal requirement that former Ballroom members or former Scrags who joined the military had to abandon the “X” appellation or the Scrag habit of having no surname at all. But Torch’s Secretary of War insisted that anyone who desired to rise above the rank of noncommissioned officer did have to do so. When it was pointed out (by zealous news commentators as well as disgruntled comrades) that the Secretary of War himself had not followed suit, Jeremy X argued that maintaining his established identity was essential to demonstrating civilian control of the military.

And if that argument didn’t make any sense, so be it. Jeremy X he remained. Most people were pretty sure that the real reason was to quietly reassure the Ballroom that while he had formally resigned his membership he hadn’t abandoned them. Not in the least.

Donald gave the two majors no more than a passing glance, however. He was mostly concerned with Lieutenant Colonel Kabweza. Until he’d arrived there a week earlier, Kabweza had been the commander of the Torch forces at Parmley Station. Furthermore, she had a real military background.

The fact that Donald had enlisted in the military was mostly a legal formality. What he really was, official rank be damned, was the Torch analog of the ancient position of commissar and its modern equivalent, the post of People’s Commissioner favored by the former Havenite regime of Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just.

The analogy was only a rough one. The original post of commissar had been created during the Russian Revolution because the Bolshevik regime didn’t trust many of the former Tsarist officers who formed the backbone of its military cadre during the civil war that followed. The task of the commissars was to oversee the political reliability of the officers who directly led the armed forces in combat.

Reliability wasn’t the issue here. Nobody thought that Torch’s military was in any way politically suspect. A high percentage of the soldiers and officers were former members of the Audubon Ballroom, for one thing. For another, whatever political disagreements and policy disputes might exist among the military cadre, none of the officers—commissioned or noncommissioned—had their origins in the overthrown Manpower regime. And finally, there was not the proverbial cold chance in hell that any member of Torch’s armed forces—officer, noncom, green private just joined yesterday, anybody—would defect and switch sides, which the Bolsheviks and Havenites had had to worry about.

There were some real advantages to having an enemy as blatantly committed to chattel slavery as Mesa and Manpower. Why don’t you come over to our side so we can put you in shackles and keep you there for the rest of your life—oh, and that of all your descendants too—is about the worst recruiting pitch ever devised.

In a sense, the problem Torch faced was the exact opposite. The reason that Jeremy X had decided he needed a layer of officers like Donald (X-now-Toussaint) was not to ride herd on the officers. They were not so much overseers in the traditional manner of commissars as they were negotiators and facilitators whose main job was to ensure that the enlisted ranks didn’t rupture military discipline and protocol.

Depending on the armed service in question, former members of the Ballroom constituted anywhere between twenty percent and forty percent of the enlisted personnel. And at least that high a percentage was made up of people who were heavily influenced by the Ballroom and its attitudes.

But the Ballroom had provided less than half that percentage of the officers.

The reason was obvious and nobody thought it was due to political discrimination. Not with Jeremy X himself as the Secretary of War! The problem was simply that the training and experience of Ballroom activists, while it had certainly exposed them to combat, had little in common with the skills and experience needed by officers of a regular military force.

The potential for clashes between officers and the ranks was clear, therefore. Jeremy had decided the best way to deal with it—forestall it where possible; diffuse it where necessary; squash it outright as a last resort—was to place some of the Ballroom’s most prominent and respected leaders in the top ranks of the field grade officers.

So, in the here and now that Donald was dealing with, he was officially in charge of all Torch forces assigned to Parmley Station and whatever missions might be dispatched from there. But he knew and she knew and anyone except outright dimwits knew perfectly well that Lieutenant Colonel Kabweza would be leading any of the ground forces that actually went into combat. Just as everyone knew that Lieutenant Commander Jerome Llewellyn was the person who’d really be in charge of the two frigates which had been assigned to the Parmley Station task force whenever they went into action.

Frigates were simply too small and fragile to have any significant role in modern naval combat. The roles the frigate had once filled were now filled by destroyers in any navy which aspired to be anything more than a system-defense force, and even destroyers were experiencing a steady upward creep in size and tonnage. There was still a role for small warships—indeed, a larger one than they had played in the better part of a century—but that role was played by LACs, not frigates, thanks to the revolution in warship technology which had come out of the Havenite Wars, especially where LACs were concerned. Unlike true starships, which were required to sacrifice considerable amounts of their internal mass to the hyper generator and alpha nodes which made hyper-flight practical, LACs were pure sub-light vessels. They could use all of that mass for the additional weapons, better armor, more point defense, and much stronger sidewalls which were now possible, and that made them far more effective in combat. They were also more survivable and, assuming equivalent levels of technology in their construction, cost less than a frigate.

But the LAC did have one great weakness, because it was a sub-light warship, unable to deploy across interstellar distances on its own. It was well suited to system defense, but to project power, it required a LAC carrier, and CLACs were very, very expensive.

Up until very recently, Torch’s tiny navy consisted entirely of the fifteen frigates built for it by the Hauptman Cartel: seven of the John Brown class and eight of the newer Nat Turner class. The John Brown class were modernized conventional frigates while the Nat Turner class were the more fancy hyper-capable Shrike equivalents.

That situation had changed radically when Luiz Rozsak handed Torch the heavy cruiser Spartacus and all the other captured warships which had surrendered to him after the Battle of Torch, but that gift—magnificent though it had been—was something of a problem in its own right. The primary reasons the Royal Torch Navy had consisted solely of frigates prior to the battle were fairly straightforward. First, they were the cheapest hyper-capable ships Torch could afford, and even that had been possible only because of the Hauptman Cartel’s generosity. Second, (and even more importantly), they made ideal training platforms.

Because of the nature of Manpower’s genetic slavery, there were very few ex-slaves who had any experience with the complex requirements of operating starships—of any kind, much less warships. There were no more than a handful who had any experience with operating the sort of huge warships—battlecruisers, dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts—which completely dominated modern warfare. And none of those had any experience in command positions. The few ex-slaves who did have naval experience had mostly been marines. And those who hadn’t been marines had almost all been simple ratings. Volunteers from Beowulf and Manticore, where liberated slaves and the children of liberated slaves had enlisted in the military with ferocious patriotism, had supplied a small core of highly experienced and highly proficient officers, but that supply could be stretched only so far. It could have been exhausted very quickly, indeed, in manning heavy hyper-capable combatants, so what would be the point of equipping Torch’s navy with capital ships? Even if they could have afforded such craft, they didn’t have the personnel to staff and operate them.

Most poor one-planet star nations, faced with the same reality, abandoned any idea of having a navy at all. At least, beyond whatever token force the existing regime decided was necessary for its own self-esteem. That varied quite a bit. The general pattern was that nations with a reasonably democratic political structure only maintained what pre-space travel people would have called a “coast guard.” Nations which labored under autocratic regimes, on the other hand, sometimes devoted a preposterous share of the public wealth to supporting naval forces that were still much too puny to do any good in an actual war, but made the local despots feel good about themselves. These were the sort of despots who invariably paraded around in fancy military uniforms festooned with a chestful of medals and decorations.

As it happened, though, Torch’s immense pharmaceutical potential gave its new government good reason to believe that it wouldn’t take more than a few years before it could afford a real navy. Still a rather small one, granted, but a navy that would be powerful enough to deal with the sort of recent raiding expedition that would have destroyed Torch had not Luiz Rozsak and his Mayan forces stood in the way. And, thanks to Rozsak, they had a very substantial core around which that sort of navy could be built. But before they could make proper use of those ships, they had to train not simply the officers to command them but the crews to man them, and for that the Nat Turner-class frigates were ideal. Too small and feeble to survive a modern space battle, frigates were still big enough and had the FTL capability to provide Torch’s fledgling navy with the experience it needed to train its officers and ratings.

And, truth be told, there were frigates . . . and then there were frigates, and the Nat Turners were significantly more dangerous than most people might have expected. Effectively, they were hyper-capable versions of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Shrike-class LAC but with about twice the missile capacity and a pair of spinal-mounted grasers, with the second energy weapon bearing aft. Their electronics were a downgraded “export version” of the RMN’s (which was hardly surprising, given the fact that they’d been going to be operating in an area where the Republic of Haven’s intelligence services had ready access and no one in the galaxy had dreamed Haven and Manticore might end up allies), but the Turners were probably at least as dangerous as the vast majority of the galaxy’s destroyers. They were, in fact, considerably more modern and up-to-date fighting ships than the ex-State Security ships which had been handed over to Torch, and they would have eaten most navies’ destroyers for lunch in a stand-up fight. The new ships were earmarked for substantial upgrading courtesy of Haven, but until that process had been completed, the Turners were much better training platforms and combat units in almost every respect.

On the other hand, training could only go so far against simulated enemies. At some point, the frigates and their crews had to be tempered in real combat.

The trick, obviously, was to pick the right enemy—and for that purpose, Manpower’s far-flung slave-trading empire was ideal. There were any number of outposts and depots scattered throughout the human-occupied galaxy that would provide Torch’s adolescent navy with opponents tough enough to test it but weak enough to be defeated if the navy handled itself properly.

Hence, also, the Hali Sowle. The one big problem with using frigates against the slave trade—at least, against outposts and depots if not other spacecraft—was that the ships were hard to disguise. Nothing else really looked much like a frigate. By now only the most ignorant slave traders didn’t know that a slave revolt on the planet once called Verdant Vista had produced a nation of ex-slaves; that the new nation called itself Torch, a name which itself had obvious implications; that Torch had declared war on Mesa; and . . . had a small navy that mostly consisted of frigates. Granted, it wasn’t the only star nation that used frigates, but the rest were either single-star systems that generally stayed out of everyone’s way or the now-collapsed and ramshackle Silesian Confederacy.

So here you are, staffing a slave trading depot, and a frigate arrives in your star system. Gosh, who is it most likely to be?

There would be no such suspicion attached to the Hali Sowle, on the other hand. Tramp freighters were an integral part of the slave trade. Some were slave transports themselves; others provided the slave trade with the supplies it needed. No slaver would think twice at the appearance of such a craft in their star system, even if that particular freighter had never come there before.

And a Nat Turner could be handily fitted into many tramp merchantmen’s cargo holds, which had suggested all sorts of devious possibility to the RTN’s operational planners.

The Hali Sowle’s owner and operator had to agree to the whole project, of course. But Ganny El was nothing if not a haggler, and she had a whole clan of people she was responsible for on whose behalf to haggle.

So, haggle she did. She’d already gotten Beowulf to absorb the cost of providing prolong treatments for all clan members still young enough to benefit from them. She figured it was time to provide those same now-long-lived youngsters with the galaxy’s best education, all expenses paid. By others.

Three others qualified, when it came to the galaxy’s best educational systems. Manticore, Beowulf, and most of the the Solarian League’s other Core worlds.

For obvious reasons, the other Core worlds were ruled out. So Ganny started chewing on the flanks of Beowulf and Manticore. Both of whom, as it happened, were patrons of the new star nation of Torch.

* * *

But now, unfortunately, a hitch had developed. The Hali Sowle, it turned out, did not have an internal topology that leant itself to carrying the frigates inside its hull. Furthermore, being a merchant ship—and an old one, at that—it did not have the capability to operate the long-range drone sensor platforms that were critical to its mission. The compromise that had been decided upon was that the Hali Sowle would carry a support and communications module in its cargo hold that did have that capability. Both of the frigates would be tractored to the hull of the Hali Sowle, riding the racks which had been built to transport external cargo canisters back when the freighter’s designers had thought they were building an honest merchantman.

That wasn’t likely to be a problem, though. Unless Ganny maneuvered the freighter like an idiot once they neared a target—and nobody thought for one moment there was anything wrong with the old lady’s brains—there was no real chance that frigates tractored to the ship’s hull would be spotted by anyone. All she had to do was keep the roof or belly of the Hali Sowle’s wedge toward enemy sensors and they wouldn’t be able to see a thing.

The problem lay elsewhere. Trying to integrate the new, state-of-the-art systems of the comm module with the aged and obsolescent systems of the Hali Sowle was proving to be trickier than anyone had foreseen.

* * *

There came another string of blistering phrases over the intercom. Louder than usual, even.

—ever catch the worthless pedophile who foisted this piece of crap so-called software on innocent babes in the woods I swear to God I’ll cut—”

Donald Toussaint couldn’t keep from wincing. Having taken a momentary break from his work at the nearby console, Loren Damewood spotted the grimace.

He laughed. “You think the grousing and griping is bad? Try negotiating with her sometime.”

Donald stared at him, wide-eyed. “Did you have to—”

“Not personally, no. ’Course not. Way over my pay grade. Thank God.” Damewood shook his head. “But the stories you hear . . . Scare children to sleep with ’em.”

—be any razor, neither. Screw the quality of mercy. I’m going medieval. Chain saw, that’s what I’ll use. Never heard of a chain saw? Well, gather ’round, kiddies—”

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