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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, February 15, 2004 22:16 EST



    Commander Ansten FitzGerald stepped through the briefing room hatch with his memo board tucked under his arm.

    “Sorry I’m late, Sir,” he said to the tall, blond man in the white beret sitting at the head of the briefing room table. “I had to… straighten out Commander Bennington.”

    “Ah. The yard dogs are still arguing about the Engineering spares?” Captain Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov leaned back in his chair, arctic blue eyes faintly amused.

    “Yes, Sir.” FitzGerald shrugged. “According to Bennington, we’re twenty percent over establishment in almost every category.”

    “Shocking,” Terekhov murmured. He quirked an eyebrow at his Chief Engineer. “Do you have any idea how this sad state of affairs could have come about, Commander Lewis?”

    “Why, no, Sir,” Ginger Lewis said. She shook her head, guileless green eyes wide.

    “Lieutenant Duncan?” Terekhov looked at the short, attractive officer at the foot of the table. Lieutenant Andrea Duncan was the most junior officer present, and she looked more than a bit uneasy. Although she was Hexapuma’s logistics officer, she wasn’t a natural scrounger. She took her responsibilities seriously, but unlike Lewis, she appeared to be… uncomfortable whenever it came to going outside officially approved channels. And the fact that Terekhov had been aboard as Hexapuma’s CO for less than three weeks didn’t exactly make her feel any more at ease with him.

    It didn’t make FitzGerald feel a lot more at ease, for that matter. Not that a good executive officer was about to let that show.

    “Uh, no, Sir,” Duncan said after a moment, glancing at Lewis’ serene expression. “None at all.”

    “I thought not,” Terekhov said, and pointed at FitzGerald’s waiting chair. The executive officer settled into it, and the bearded captain let his own chair come back forward. “And how did your conversation with Commander Bennington go, XO? Is the Station Patrol likely to turn up to place us under arrest?”

    “No, Sir,” FitzGerald replied. “I pointed out that whatever the exact numbers of spares we might have on board, all of our materials requests had been properly submitted and approved. I informed him that if he wishes to submit the required paperwork to have our original requests disallowed, all of our onboard spares off-loaded, new requests drawn up, considered, and approved, and the new spares loaded, that’s certainly his privilege. I also pointed out that I estimated it would take him a minimum of three weeks, and that we’re under orders to depart Hephaestus in less than two.”

    The executive officer shrugged, and one or two of the officers seated around the table chuckled. Given the current situation at the front, no yard dog was going to risk Their Lordships’ displeasure by delaying the departure of one of Her Majesty’s starships.

    “I take it the Commander didn’t indicate he intended to accept your generous invitation.”

    “No, Sir.” FitzGerald smiled slightly. “As a matter of fact, Sir, Bennington isn’t all that bad a sort. Oh, he’s a bean-counter, but I think that when it comes right down to it, he’d prefer for us to have the spares we may need in an emergency, whether we’re excess to establishment or not. He just thinks we were a little too successful in our midnight requisitions. All I really needed was to give him an excuse he can use if any of his superiors fault him for what we got away with.”

    “I can live with that, as long as we don’t really end up with our departure delayed,” Terekhov said, then moved his right hand in a little throwing away gesture. FitzGerald hadn’t known Terekhov long, but he’d already learned to recognize the mannerism. That hand-flick was the captain’s way of shifting from one mental focus to another, and the XO wondered if he’d always had it, or if it was one he’d developed since the hand was regenerated.

    “How does our schedule look from your end, Commander Lewis?” Terekhov asked. “Is the yard going to be done with us on time?”

    “It’ll be close, Sir,” Lewis replied, meeting his eyes squarely. “To be honest, I don’t think the yard dogs have time to get everything done, so I’ve had them concentrating on Beta Thirty. That much, they should have done with at least a couple of days to spare. Most of the rest of our problems are relatively minor, actually. My people can take care of them underway out of our onboard resources. That was one reason I, ah, acquired so many spares.” She shrugged. “Bottom line, Sir, this is a new ship. We passed our trials, and aside from that one beta node, everything on our list is really nothing more than squeaky hinges and parts that need wearing in.”

    Terekhov gazed at her for a moment, and she looked back steadily. More than one engineer would have sounded far less confident than Lewis. They would have insisted it was Hephaestus’ job to repair every problem their own departments’ surveys had identified instead of cheerfully accepting responsibility for them themselves. Especially given the way their commanding officers were liable to react if it turned out they couldn’t deal with them themselves, after all.

    FitzGerald waited to see how Terekhov would respond. Captain Sarcula had been assigned to command Hexapuma while she was still only a gleam in BuShips’ eye. He’d supervised her construction from the keel plate out, and begun the assembly of a handpicked command team, starting with one Ansten FitzGerald and Commander Lewis. But Sarcula’s assignment had been overtaken by events. His orders to assume command of the battlecruiser Braveheart, following her skipper’s death in action at the Battle of Marsh, had been totally unexpected, and Terekhov’s abrupt assignment to Hexapuma, for all intents and purposes straight out of Bassingford Medical Center, must have come as just as much of a surprise to him as Sarcula’s sudden transfer had come to FitzGerald.

    That sudden reshuffling of command assignments had, unfortunately, become less uncommon then it ought to have been. BuShips and BuPers were still fighting to regain their balance after the shocking losses inflicted by the Havenites’ opening offensives. But even so, it couldn’t have been easy for Terekhov. He’d missed Hexapuma’s builders’ and acceptance trials and inherited another man’s command team, composed of officers he’d never even met before. They didn’t know him, and he hadn’t been given very long to form an opinion of their competence, either. Which meant he had precious little upon which to base any evaluation of Ginger Lewis’ judgment.

    If that worried him at the moment, however, it didn’t show.

    “Very well,” was all he said, and the right hand flicked again. His head moved, as well, as he turned his attention to Lieutenant Commander Tobias Wright, Hexapuma’s Astrogator. Wright was the youngest of Terekhov’s senior officers, and the most reserved.

    “Have you received all of the downloads you requested, Commander?” he asked.

    “Yes, Sir,” the sandy-haired lieutenant commander replied. Terekhov gazed at him a moment longer, as if waiting to see if he cared to add anything to that bald reply, but Wright only looked back at him.

    “Good,” the captain said after a few seconds, and turned his attention to Lieutenant Commander Amal Nagchaudhuri. “Have we received our communications downloads, Commander?”

    “Not yet, Sir.” Nagchaudhuri was very tall -- over a hundred and ninety-three centimeters -- with dark black hair and brown eyes that stood out in sharp contrast to a complexion that approached albinism. That complexion was a legacy of the planet Sandor, from which his parents had immigrated before he’d learned to walk.

    “We’ve received some of them, Captain,” he continued, “but we won’t be receiving the full crypto download until forty-four hours before we depart. I’m also still waiting for the Trade Union’s secure merchant codes, but I’ve been assured that we should have them within the next day or two. Other than that, we’re ready to go.”

    There was something about his last sentence. Not anything anyone could have put a finger on, but there, and FitzGerald looked at him with an edge of warning. Nagchaudhuri was a cheerful, extroverted sort. Some people tended to underestimate the sharp brain hidden behind the pun-cracking jokester he preferred to present to the rest of the universe. But there was a very serious and dedicated naval officer behind that facade, as well, and one with all of the fervent patriotism of a naturalized citizen. Amal hadn’t taken it very well when he was informed of the change in Hexapuma’s assigned station.

    Neither had FitzGerald, for that matter. But orders were orders, and there was no point in making his disappointment too evident to their new captain. Especially not if they’d received their orders for the reasons FitzGerald suspected they had.

    If Terekhov had noted the same slight edge FitzGerald had, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he simply nodded.

    “I’m sure you’ll have everything we need before we depart, Commander,” he said. The right hand moved, and he turned to the petite, fine-boned officer seated to FitzGerald’s left.

    “Commander Kaplan.”

    “Yes, Sir.” Lieutenant Commander Naomi Kaplan was the physical opposite of Amal Nagchaudhuri. She was forty centimeters shorter, and where he was so pale-skinned he’d had a permanent nanotech sun blocker installed, her complexion was almost as dark as Queen Elizabeth’s own. Which only made her blond hair, so light it was almost -- but not quite -- platinum stand out even more vividly. Her eyes were as dark as Nagchaudhuri’s, but they were also far more intense. She reminded FitzGerald forcibly of their ship’s hexapuma namesake -- territorial, naturally aggressive, perpetually poised for mayhem, and very, very sharp-clawed.

    “I’m afraid I have some potentially bad news for your department, Commander. Lieutenant Grigsby won’t be reporting aboard, after all. It seems there was an air car accident.” He shrugged. “And there’s also the matter of your request for an assistant for Lieutenant Bagwell.”

    “Sir?” Kaplan glanced at the lieutenant seated to her left.

    Guthrie Bagwell was a solidly built man, thirty centimeters taller than the tactical officer, but almost painfully nondescript. His features were eminently forgettable, his hair was an unremarkable brown, and his brain was quite possibly the sharpest of any of Hexapuma’s officers. As the heavy cruiser’s electronics warfare officer, he was one of Kaplan’s subordinates, but ever since the new hardware developed as part of Project Ghost Rider had reached the deployment stage, EW had become a specialist’s job once again. Bagwell, for all of his undisputed brilliance in his own esoteric area, completely lacked the broad-based tactical background which Lieutenant Grigsby had been supposed to bring to Hexapuma as her junior tactical officer.

    “The entire Navy is chronically short of EW officers,” Terekhov said. FitzGerald, watching him closely and listening to his calm, reasonable tone wondered how much of what he was saying was his own opinion and how much was the rationale BuPers had used when it denied Kaplan’s request.

    “The units being committed to active operations against Haven have a higher priority for electronics warfare specialists than units being assigned to… other duties,” Terekhov continued. “And, to be perfectly honest -- and with no desire to inflate any egos -- the fact is that Lieutenant Bagwell has absolutely top-notch efficiency reports. He’s substantially better, both in terms of ability and training, than anyone most ships could reasonably hope to have assigned to them. In part because of that, BuPers feels Hexapuma is adequately covered, and that the scarce supply of qualified EW officers shouldn’t be further depleted providing such a paragon with backup which will probably never be needed for this deployment, anyway.”

    No, FitzGerald thought. He doesn’t agree with the rationale. In fact, I’d say he’s pissed as hell about it. Interesting that he shows so little sign of it.

    “With all due respect, Sir, and without -- I hope! -- any threat of ego-inflation,” Lieutenant Bagwell said, “I really wish BuPers didn’t have quite so high an opinion of my ability.” He smiled, and Terekhov’s lips twitched in what was almost an answering smile.

    “I think I can safely say Commander Kaplan and I agree with you,” the captain said after a moment. “Unfortunately, that’s not going to change BuPers’ position. If it were, the, ah, forcefulness with which I have expressed that opinion would already have borne fruit. Under the circumstances, I think we’re all just going to have to figure out how to spread the load as much as possible. I understand at least one of our midshipmen showed outstanding promise in the Island’s EW program.”

    FitzGerald managed not to blink, but he couldn’t help wondering where Terekhov had gotten that particular tidbit of information. If it was in one of the midshipmen’s personnel files, the exec hadn’t found it himself yet.

    “A midshipman, Sir?” Kaplan repeated in a very careful tone, and this time Terekhov did smile. Not that there was a great deal of humor in the expression.

    “I’m not proposing we slot someone quite that junior into the JEWO’s position, Commander. But I am hopeful Lieutenant Bagwell might at least be able to use this particular snotty as an assistant. A snotty cruise is supposed to be a sort of an apprenticeship, after all.”

    “Well, that’s true enough, I suppose, Sir,” the tactical officer said, trying her best not to sound overtly doubtful.

    “In the meantime,” Terekhov said, right hand flicking again, “I’ve screened BuPers about the Grigsby replacement matter again. I pointed out that, since we’re already sailing without a junior electronic warfare officer, it would behoove them to at least find us a junior tactical officer. I’m afraid I waxed rather emphatic on the point, and they’ve promised to find us a replacement - another replacement, I should say - before our departure. However,” this time his smile was downright wintry, “under the circumstances, and given how long it took them to scare Grigsby up in the first place, I wouldn’t care to place any money on the probability that they will. So it looks as if we may be sailing shorthanded at Tactical in more ways than one.”

    “I see, Sir.” Kaplan’s dark eyes were hooded, and she frowned. “I can’t say I’m delighted to hear it,” she continued after a moment. “As you say, Captain, this is going to leave us shorthanded. With all due respect to Guthrie -- I mean, Lieutenant Bagwell -- I believe we’re in a somewhat better position to get by without a JEWO than without an ATO. Lieutenant Hearns is very good, but she’s also extremely junior for the ATO’s slot aboard a heavy cruiser. She’s more than won her spurs, and her Academy grades and efficiency reports since graduation are both top-notch. But her actual combat experience was limited to that dirt-side business on Refuge.”

    “I agree that she hasn’t had the opportunity to demonstrate her competence in space under actual shipboard combat conditions,” Terekhov said. “On the other hand, as you say, she has ‘won her spurs’ and demonstrated she’s not prone to panic. And the fact that she made her snotty cruise with Michael Oversteegen is probably a fairly good sign, too, wouldn’t you say?”

    “As I say, Sir,” Kaplan replied a bit stiffly, “Abigail -- Lieutenant Hearns -- is very good. I have no reservations whatsoever about her capability. My only concern is for the level of her experience.”

    “Well,” Terekhov said, his tone absolutely devoid of expression, “given our deployment orders, she should have the opportunity to slip into her duties fairly gradually.”

    Kaplan had been about to say something more. Instead, she closed her mouth and simply nodded tightly.

    “There is one other point about Lieutenant Hearns’ qualifications as ATO, Captain,” FitzGerald said carefully after a moment. The captain looked at him, and the executive officer raised his right hand, palm uppermost. “We have five midshipmen on board, Sir, and traditionally, it’s the ATO’s job to act as the ship’s Officer Candidate Training Officer. Lieutenant Hearns is only a jay-gee, and no more than a couple of T-years older than the snotties.”

    “I see your point,” Terekhov murmured. He tipped his chair back and rocked it gently from side to side, his lips pursed in thought. Then he shrugged.

    “I see your point,” he repeated, “and I agree that it’s something we’ll need to keep an eye on. At the same time, I’ve been quite impressed with Lieutenant Hearns’ record. And don’t forget she’s a steadholder’s daughter. I don’t think exercising authority over people that close to her own age would be as difficult for someone from that background as it might be for someone else. And the experience could stand her in very good stead, as well.” He shook his head. “No, in the unfortunately likely case of BuPers’ failing to find us a replacement for Lieutenant Grigsby, I think we might give Lieutenant Hearns a shot at it. Obviously, we’ll have to see how well she handles it, and we may need to rethink it if it doesn’t seem to be working out.”

    FitzGerald nodded. He wasn’t at all certain he agreed with Terekhov, despite the fact that his own impression of Abigail Hearns had been extremely favorable. But he’d voiced his concern over a possible problem, as a good executive officer was supposed to do. Now, as a good executive officer was also supposed to do, he would devote his efforts to making his commanding officer’s decision a success.

    Everyone in the briefing room looked up as Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri chuckled suddenly.

    “Something amuses you, Commander?” Terekhov’s tone might have been cutting. Instead, it expressed only mild interest, and the com officer shook his head with just a hint of apology.

    “Sorry, Sir. I was just thinking. Lieutenant Hearns is also Miss Owens.”

    “Yes, she is,” Terekhov agreed. “I believe I just observed that she was a steadholder’s daughter myself.”

    “I know you did, Sir. But what I was thinking is that that makes her the equivalent of a princess of the blood. Which might make her even more qualified as our OCTO.” Terekhov crooked an eyebrow, and Nagchaudhuri chuckled again. “Well, Sir, one of our midshipwomen is Helen Zilwicki. Anton Zilwicki’s daughter. Which means, after that business in Congo, that she’s a princess of the blood, too. After a manner of speaking, of course. In fact, if I understand what I’ve read about the Torch Constitution properly, I think she’s probably the legal heir apparent if something should happen to Queen Berry.”

    “You know,” Terekhov said with a slight smile, “I hadn’t really considered that.” He chuckled. “For a ship which is sailing without a single member of the Manticoran peerage in Snotty Row, we would appear to have an abundance -- one might almost say a super-abundance -- of noble blood aboard.”

    He considered the situation for several more seconds, still with that same, faint smile. Then he shook himself.

    “Well, it should be interesting to see how that works out,” he said. “In the meantime, however, we still have a few other details to attend too. Commander Orban,” he turned to Surgeon Commander Lajos Orban, Hexapuma’s ship’s doctor.

    “Yes, Sir?”

    “I’ve been looking at your requests for additional sick berth attendants. In light of the situation in the Cluster…”



    “You wanted to see me, Sir Lucien?”

    “Yes, I did, Terence. Come in -- sit down.”

    Admiral of the Green Sir Lucien Cortez, Fifth Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Admiralty, looked up and pointed at the chair on the other side of his desk. Captain Terence Shaw, his chief of staff, took the indicated seat and looked at him expectantly. Sir Lucien had been back in his old job for less than three months, and Admiral Draskovic, his immediate predecessor, had left a monumental mess in her wake. Not as bad as the disaster which had been left at BuShips or over at the Office of Naval Intelligence, perhaps, but bad enough. Especially in the face of a war which was going so badly at the moment.

    “I’ve been thinking about Terekhov,” Cortez said abruptly.

    “Aivars Terekhov, Sir?” Shaw asked. He’d served as one of Cortez’ aides during Sir Lucien’s previous stint as Fifth Space Lord, and he was no longer amazed by his boss’ ability to carry names and faces around in his memory. Impressed, yes. Even awed. But seeing Cortez perform the same feat so often had worn away the outright amazement.

    “Yes.” Cortez tipped back in his chair, frowning. “I’m just not entirely comfortable with his orders.”

    “With all due respect, Sir,” Shaw said, “I think this may be exactly what he needs.”

    Some people might have thought it odd that the commander of the Bureau of Personnel and his chief of staff should be spending time discussing the assignment of a single senior-grade captain. Some people might even have called it “wasting” their time, given all of the other emergency decisions demanding their attention. But Sir Lucien Cortez had demonstrated a master’s touch at nourishing the careers of outstanding officers too often for Shaw to wonder about it now.

    “His combat record is too good,” Cortez said. “And God knows we need all the proven combat commanders we can get!”

    “I agree with you, Sir. But given what happened at Hyacinth… .” He let his voice trail off, and Cortez grimaced.

    “I know all about Hyacinth, Terence. And I also know all the medals in the universe won’t make a man like Terekhov feel any better about losing his ship or the destruction of so much of his convoy. But BuMed’s psychiatrists say he’s fit for duty again.”

    “I’ve read their evaluation, Sir, and I’m certainly not attempting to dispute their conclusions. I’m just saying that whether he’s fit for duty again or not, letting him slip back into active command someplace a bit quieter than Trevor’s Star might be advisable. And another point to consider is his Foreign Office experience.”

    “Um.” Cortez frowned, but he also nodded.

    Aivars Terekhov had left active RMN service for almost thirty T-years to pursue a diplomatic career. He’d done well during his twenty-eight T-years with the Foreign Office, but he’d maintained his reserve commission. Promotions had been much slower in the reserve than among active-duty regulars, and he’d advanced only to the rank of lieutenant commander before -- like many reservists -- reporting for active duty after the Battle of Hancock. Also, as with a lot of “retreads,” Cortez’s own BuPers had spent longer than it should have recognizing his raw ability and steering him into the promotions and more demanding duties it had deserved.

    Which had ultimately gotten him sent to Hyacinth and disaster, the admiral reminded himself grimly.

    “You know Admiral Khumalo’s going to need experienced, smart captains, Sir,” Shaw continued. “And I can’t think of anyone we could send him who could match Terekhov’s diplomatic experience. He could be invaluable to Baroness Medusa and the Admiral, especially with his demonstrated ability to think outside the box. And, speaking frankly, you know as well as I do how few officers with that ability Admiral Khumalo has.”

    “And how poor he is at it himself,” Cortez said with another grimace. Shaw didn’t say anything in response. However true Cortez’ assessment might be, it wasn’t a captain’s place to pass judgment on a rear admiral of the green.

    “Actually, what I’d really prefer would be to recall Khumalo,” Cortez continued. “Unfortunately, that’s a political decision as much as a military one. Besides, who would we send out to replace him? To be brutally honest, Talbott doesn’t exactly have the same priority as the front. Or as Silesia, for that matter.”

    He leaned further back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose wearily.

    “Too many fires,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “Too many fires, and not enough people to piss on all of them.”

    He sat that way for several seconds, then let his chair come back upright.

    “Maybe you’re right, Terence,” he sighed. “We’ve got to prioritize somehow, and Earl White Haven’s been as clear about that as anyone could ask. First, the front and our main combat formations. Second, the integration of our share of Silesia into the Star Kingdom. Third, commerce protection. And Talbott comes fourth. Not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s less important -- or at least less vital -- than the others… and so much less likely to turn around and bite us on the ass. At least everyone there got to vote on their future!”

    And, Terence Shaw added silently, whether the Government wants to admit it publicly or not, Talbott isn’t going to be a matter of life or death for the Star Kingdom, whatever happens there. I hope.

    Cortez sat drumming on his desk with his fingers for a moment, then shrugged.

    “All right. I’m still not entirely happy about it, but someone has to draw the Talbott duty, and Lord knows they need at least a few modern ships on the station, whatever happens. And Khumalo does need someone with some diplomatic experience who can also help him think unconventionally. And maybe you’re right. Maybe Terekhov really does need -- or deserve, at least -- the opportunity to get back up on the horse on a fairly quiet station.”

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