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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 7, 2004 02:03 EDT



    “Welcome to Talbott Station, Captain Terekhov. Commander FitzGerald.”

    “Thank you, Admiral,” Terekhov replied for them both as he shook the rear admiral’s offered hand.

    Rear Admiral of the Green Augustus Khumalo was three centimeters shorter than Terekhov, with a very dark complexion, dark eyes, and thinning dark hair. He was broad shouldered, with big, strong hands and a powerful chest, although he was becoming a bit on the portly side these days. He was also distantly related to the Queen, and there was something of the Winton look around his nose and chin.

    “I sometimes think the Admiralty’s forgotten where they put us,” Khumalo went on, smiling broadly. “That’s one reason I’m so glad to see you. Every time they slip up and send us a modern ship, it’s a sign they remember.”

    He chuckled, and the captain responded with a polite smile. Khumalo waved him and FitzGerald into chairs, then gestured at the slender, strong nosed junior-grade captain who’d been waiting with him when Terekhov and FitzGerald were shown into his day cabin.

    “My chief of staff, Captain Loretta Shoupe,” the station commander said.

    “Captain,” Terekhov acknowledged, with a courteous nod. FitzGerald nodded in turn, and the chief of staff smiled. Then Khumalo settled his own bulk into the comfortable chair behind his desk, facing Terekhov and FitzGerald across a deep-pile rug. Khumalo’s flagship was HMS Hercules, an old Samothrace-class superdreadnought. Her impressive size was reflected in the spaciousness of her flag officer’s quarters, but she was sadly obsolete. How she’d managed to avoid the breaker’s yard this long was more than Terekhov would have been prepared to say, although if he’d had to guess, he would have bet she’d spent most of her lengthy career as a flagship assigned to minor fleet stations like this one. Certainly the fact that she was the only ship of the wall assigned to Talbott Station, and that she had to be almost as old as Terekhov himself was, said volumes about the force levels the Admiralty was prepared to assign to Talbott.

    But old or not, she was still a ship of the wall, and he’d never seen a more luxuriously furnished cabin. Terekhov himself was more than modestly affluent, and Sinead had hammered at least a modicum of an appreciation for the finer things through his skull. But the vastness of Khumalo’s personal wealth was obvious in the hand-loomed carpets, the holo tapestries, the nicknacks and crystal in the display cabinets, the antique trophy weapons on the bulkheads, and the rich, hand-rubbed patina of bookcases, coffee tables, and chairs. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth III on one bulkhead gazed out at the display of wealth with what seemed to be a slightly disapproving air, despite her smile.

    “Obviously, your arrival is more than welcome, Captain,” the rear admiral continued, “as is your news from home. I’ve already reviewed the dispatches the Admiralty sent out aboard Hexapuma. It sounds as if the situation at the front is stabilizing, at least.”

    “To some extent, Sir,” Terekhov agreed. “Of course, I don’t believe anyone’s really too surprised. We took it on the chin in the opening engagements, but the Havenites got badly chewed up in Silesia themselves. And it doesn’t look as if they had quite as many of the pod designs in commission when they pulled the trigger as ONI’s worst-case estimates assumed. I doubt they expected the Andies to come in on our side, either, or that the Andies had developed pod designs of their own. So they’ve probably had some serious strategic rethinking to do. And the fact that they know they’re up against Earl White Haven at the Admiralty, and that Admiral Caparelli is back as First Space Lord, with Duchess Harrington in command of the new Eighth Fleet, may be playing a small part in their thinking, too.”

    “No doubt.” Khumalo’s agreement was prompt but little more than polite, and a small flicker of distaste seemed to touch his eyes.

    Terekhov gave no sign he’d noticed either of those things, but Ansten FitzGerald certainly saw them. Hexapuma’s executive officer added the rear admiral’s lack of enthusiasm to rumors he’d heard about Khumalo’s political connections to the Conservative Association and concealed a mental grimace of his own.

    “Mpre likely,” Khumalo continued, “the Peeps are delaying further active operations while they digest the technological windfall they acquired when the damned Erewhonese turned their coats!”

    “I’m sure that’s playing a part,” Terekhov agreed with no discernible expression at all.

    “As I say,” the rear admiral said after a moment, “I’ve viewed the dispatches. I haven’t had time to digest the intelligence summaries, yet, of course. And it’s been my experience that even the best recorded summaries aren’t as informative as a first-hand briefing. May I assume you received such a briefing before being sent out, Captain?”

    “I did, Sir,” Terekhov replied.

    “Then I’d appreciate it if you would share your impressions with Captain Shoupe and myself.” Khumalo smiled tightly. “Never a bad idea to know what the current Admiralty thinks is going on in your command area, is it?”

    “Of course not, Sir,” Terekhov agreed. He sat back a bit further in his chair and crossed his legs. “Well, Admiral, to begin with, Admiral Givens made it clear our intelligence assets here in Talbott are still at a very early stage of development. Given that, she emphasized the need for all of Her Majesty’s ships in Talbott to pursue the closest possible relations with the local authorities. In addition -- “

    The captain continued in the same competent, slightly detached voice FitzGerald had heard so often over the past month and a half as he quickly and concisely summarized several days of intelligence briefings. FitzGerald was impressed by both his memory and the easy skill with which he organized the relevant information. But even as the executive officer listened to his captain’s voice, he was conscious of Khumalo’s expression. The rear admiral was listening intently, yet it seemed to FitzGerald that he wasn’t hearing what he’d wanted to.

    “-- so that’s about the size of it, Admiral,” Terekhov finished, the better part of forty minutes later. “Basically, ONI anticipates a gradual, inevitable backlash against the annexation from those who voted against it and lost. Whether that backlash will remain peaceful or express itself in acts of frustrated violence is, of course, impossible to predict at this point. But there’s some concern about who might decide to go fishing here, if the waters get sufficiently troubled. And Admiral Givens stressed the importance of ensuring the Lynx’s security.”

    FitzGerald’s mental antenna tingled suddenly at the ever so slight change of emphasis in his captain’s last sentence. He saw Captain Shoupe’s eyebrows lower almost warningly, and Khumalo’s face seemed to tighten.

    “I’m sure she did.” His tone hovered on the edge of petulance. “Of course, if the current Admiralty were prepared to deploy sufficient hulls to Talbott, I’d be in a far better position to do that, wouldn’t I?”

    Terekhov said nothing, only gazed calmly back at the rear admiral, and Khumalo snorted. His mouth twitched in a smile of sorts, and he shook his head.

    “I know. I know, Captain!” he said wryly. “Every station commander in history has wanted more ships than he actually got.”

    He sounded, FitzGerald thought, as if he regretted letting out that flash of resentment. Almost as if he thought he had to somehow placate Terekhov, which was an odd attitude for a senior rear admiral to adopt in conversation with a mere captain.

    “But the truth is,” Khumalo continued, “that in this instance, our low position on the current Admiralty’s priority list means we genuinely don’t have sufficient strength to be everywhere we need to be. It’s the next best thing to two hundred and fifty light-years from Lynx to the Scarlet System, and the entire Cluster represents five and a half million cubic light-years -- it’s flattened quite a bit, not a true spherical volume, or it would be even bigger. That’s almost nine times the volume of the entire Silesian Confederacy, but Admiral Sarnow has twelve times as many ships as we do, even though he’s in a position to call on the Andermani for additional support in an emergency. And, I might add, he doesn’t have a junction terminus to worry about.”

    He shrugged.

    “I realize our available forces have to be prioritized, and that Silesia, especially in light of our alliance with the Andermani, has to have priority. For that matter, Silesia has several times the population -- and industry -- the Cluster does, despite its smaller volume. But however good the current Admiralty’s reasons for the force levels they’ve assigned may be, I’m simply spread too thin to cover our area of responsibility in anything like the depth real security would require.”

    That’s the fourth or fifth time he’s referred to “the current Admiralty,” FitzGerald thought. I’m not too sure I like the sound of that. Especially not from someone whose political connections were so close to the High Ridge crowd.

    “I realized as soon as I read my orders that our forces were going to be spread unacceptably thin, Sir,” Terekhov said calmly. “I don’t think anyone back home likes the force level assigned to Talbott, and it was my impression -- not simply from Admiral Givens’ briefings, but from every other indication, as well -- that the Admiralty is only too well aware of the difficulties you’re facing out here.”

    “Hmph!” Khumalo snorted. “Be nice if that were true, Captain! But whether it is or not, I’ve still had to make some decisions -- difficult decisions -- about where to employ the units I do have under command. Which is why the Lynx picket is as understrength as you undoubtedly noticed when you passed through. That’s the one spot in our entire command area where we can count on rapid reinforcement from the home system if it hits the fan.”

    “I can see the logic, Sir,” Terekhov said. Which was not, FitzGerald observed, the same thing as saying he agreed with it.

    “Yes, well,” Khumalo said, sorting through a pile of document chips on his desk, as if looking for something for his hands to do. After a moment, he restacked them neatly and looked back up at his guests.

    “Thank you for the briefing, Captain Terekhov,” he said. “I appreciate its thoroughness, and both your ship and your proven capabilities will be welcome, most welcome, here in Talbott. I’m afraid I’ll be working you and your people hard, but I have every confidence in your ability to meet any challenge which might arise.”

    “Thank you, Sir,” Terekhov murmured as he and FitzGerald rose at the obvious indication that their arrival interview was at an end.

    “Captain Shoupe will see you out, Captain,” Khumalo continued, rising to offer his hand once again in a farewell handshake. He shook hands with FitzGerald, as well, and smiled pleasantly.

    “System President Lababibi has invited me to a political banquet in Thimble tomorrow evening, Captain,” he said, as if in afterthought as he walked them to his cabin hatch. “Most of the Constitutional Convention’s senior delegates will be there, and Baroness Medusa will also be attending. She’s suggested that I bring some of my senior staffers and captains along with me, and I feel it’s important for the Navy to make a good showing at these affairs, especially given our responsibilities and the force levels we have to work with. I trust you and some of your own officers will be able to attend?”

    “We’d be honored to, Sir,” Terekhov assured him.

    “Good. Good! I’ll look forward to seeing you there,” Khumalo said, beaming as the hatch opened and the Marine sentry stationed outside it came to attention. “And now,” he continued, “I’ll leave you in Captain Shoupe’s care. Good day, Captain. Commander.”

    The hatch slid shut again before Terekhov could say anything else, and he and FitzGerald were suddenly alone in the passage with Shoupe and the carefully expressionless sentry.

    “This way, please, Sir.” The chief of staff had a pleasant soprano voice, and her hand moved gracefully as she gestured down the passage.

    “Thank you, Captain,” Terekhov said, and the three of them set off towards Hercules’ boat bays.

    “The Admiral seems to be even more shorthanded than I’d expected from my briefings and orders,” Terekhov observed as they stepped into one of the superdreadnought’s lifts and the door closed behind them. His tone was pleasantly impersonal, that of someone who could have been simply making idle conversation, except for the fact that he’d waited until there were no other ears at all to hear it.

    “Yes, he is,” Shoupe replied after an almost imperceptible pause. She looked up at Terekhov, brown eyes meeting blue. “And I’m afraid he isn’t quite as confident as he’d like to appear that there aren’t additional political factors involved in the priority accorded to Talbott.”

    “I see,” Terekhov said with a slight nod.

    “At the moment, we have an almost impossible number of balls to keep in the air simultaneously,” the chief of staff continued, “and I’m afraid the Admiral is feeling the strain, just a bit.”

    “I’m sure anyone would be, in his position,” Terekhov replied.

    “Yes. That’s one reason -- “ The lift car reached its destination, and Shoupe cut off whatever she’d been about to say. She gave Terekhov a small smile, and stood back courteously for him to leave the car first.

    Too bad, FitzGerald thought, as he followed her out in turn. She was about to say something interesting there. As in that old curse about living in “interesting” times.




    “All right,” Aivars Terekhov said, several hours later, laying his white beret on the conference table in his bridge briefing room and looking around it. Ansten FitzGerald, Ginger Lewis, Naomi Kaplan, and Captain Tadislaw Kaczmarczyk, the CO of Hexapuma’s Marine detachment, looked back. Chief Agnelli had provided steaming cups of coffee or tea, as each guest preferred, and insulated carafes of both beverages sat on a tray in the center of the table.

    “I’ve had the opportunity to review the intelligence packet from Commander Chandler, Admiral Khumalo’s intelligence officer,” Terekhov continued, “and also the Admiral’s rules of engagement and general orders for the Station. Now I’d like to go over them briefly with you.”

    Heads nodded, and he tipped his chair back slightly, nursing his own coffee cup in both hands.

    “I suppose things always look a bit different to the people actually on the spot from the way they look to the folks back at headquarters,” he began. “Given the fact that Admiral Khumalo’s been out here ever since the Talbott Station was created, he’s clearly in a better position to be aware of local conditions than anyone could be back in Manticore.

    “Our primary tasks, as laid down in his general instructions, are first to maintain peace on and between the Cluster’s planets. Second, he’s charged with assisting the Spindle System government and Baroness Medusa’s available Marines -- which amount to only a single understrength battalion -- in maintaining the security of the Constitutional Convention here on Flax. Our third priority is to suppress piracy and, of course, genetic slaving throughout the Cluster and to discourage . . . adventurism by any outside elements.”

    He paused for a moment, his eyes sweeping around the table, and there was no need for him to elaborate on just which “outside elements” Khumalo’s general instructions might refer to.

    “Fourth,” he continued, “we’re to assist local authorities in the suppression of any extralegal resistance to the annexation. Apparently the people who lost the vote are becoming increasingly, and there are indications at least a few of them are about to step beyond mere verbal expressions of displeasure.

    “Fifth, we already know our local charts are seriously inaccurate. The Admiral’s assigned a high priority to updating our astrogation databases, both by collecting information from local pilots and merchant skippers and by conducting regular survey activities of our own.

    “And, sixth and finally, we’re to ‘show the flag,’ not simply inside the Cluster, but along its outer fringes, as well. Piracy here in the Cluster has never been as serious as in, say, Silesia, but there’s always been some. The Admiral desires his ships to make their presence known along the arcs Nuncio-Celebrant-Pequod-Scarlet and Lynx-Montana-Tillerman, where he’s set up standing patrol lines. On the one hand, we should serve as an advertisement of the advantages of membership in the Star Kingdom, and on the other, remind any larcenously inclined souls from outside it that Her Majesty would take their little pranks amiss.”

    He smiled thinly at their expressions.

    “As you can see, this won’t exactly be a relaxing pleasure cruise.”

    “That’s one way to put it, Sir,” Ginger Lewis observed after a moment. “Since you’re discussing the Admiral’s general instructions, may I assume we don’t have any specific movement orders just yet?”

    “You assume correctly, Ginger,” Terekhov agreed with a nod. “When we do receive orders, however, I imagine we’ll find ourselves moving around quite a bit. Looking over the ship list, it’s obvious Hexapuma is the most powerful modern unit assigned to the Station. I don’t see any way the Admiral can afford not to work us hard.”

    “I can see that, Sir,” FitzGerald put in. “Still, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I didn’t hear anything in that specifically about the security of the terminus.”

    “No, you didn’t,” Terekhov agreed. “We have two separate problems. One is the security of the terminus; the other is the security of the rest of the Cluster. The fact that the terminus is an eight-day trip from Split, the closest system in the Cluster proper, even for a warship, doesn’t make reconciling those responsibilities any easier.”

    His tone was level, his expression calm, yet for just a moment, FitzGerald thought he saw something else behind those blue eyes. Whatever it was, it disappeared as quickly as it had come -- assuming it had ever been there in the first place -- and Terekhov continued in the same dispassionate voice.

    “From the economic, astrographic, and military perspectives, Lynx is the real strategic chokepoint of the cluster, as far as the Star Kingdom is concerned. But from the immediate political perspective, Spindle, where the Constitutional Convention is meeting, is at least equally critical. And, the need to maintain a visible presence in the Cluster’s inhabited star systems is yet another magnet drawing our available strength away from Lynx. Under the circumstances, and bearing in mind that Lynx can be reinforced on short notice by Home Fleet, Admiral Khumalo’s decided his short-term emphasis must be placed on supporting the political processes of the Constitutional Convention and assisting the local planetary governments.”

    But what do you think he should be doing? FitzGerald wondered. Not that he even considered asking the question aloud.

    “I can see why you wanted Naomi and Tad sitting in on this, Sir,” Lewis said after a moment. “I’m not too clear on why I’m here, though.”

    “First, because you’re my senior officer, after Ansten,” Terekhov replied. “And, second, because unless I miss my guess, we’re going to be pushing the ship’s systems hard, without much in the way of outside support. Admiral Khumalo has three depot ships -- four, counting the one stationed here -- to support all of his units. At the moment, the others are assigned to Prairie, Montana, and Scarlet, to provide the maximum coverage for his patrol units. There are also ammunition ships at Montana and Prairie. Aside from that, however, we’ll be essentially on our own for both maintenance and general logistics.

    “Naomi is obviously going to be deeply involved if -- or perhaps I should say when -- we encounter pirates or slavers. And Tadislaw’s Marines are going to be at least as busy, even assuming we weren’t going to run into any need to deploy planet-side detachments. Which, I might add, I’m quite certain we are going to find ourselves doing. But the bottom line is that everyone else aboard the ship depends on Engineering. If we suffer a major maintenance casualty, it’s going to make a huge hole in Admiral Khumalo’s available strength. So,” he smiled suddenly, “I basically wanted you sitting in on this so I could tighten the screws on your sense of responsibility!”

    “Gee, thanks, Sir,” Lewis retorted with a smile of her own.

    “Don’t mention it. It’s known as motivation enhancement.” Several people chuckled, and Terekhov let his chair come fully back upright.

    “It’s obviously too early to be thinking in anything but the most general terms,” he said in a more serious tone. “The one thing we can depend on is that Murphy will surprise us, no matter how much effort we put into preparing for his inevitable appearance. When that happens, our ability to cope with the surprise is going to depend on our agility and flexibility. That’s one of the primary reasons I asked all of you to attend this meeting. I intend to conduct a general briefing for all department heads within the next day or so. But you people’s departments are going to carry the largest share of the burden, so I wanted to give each of you an early heads-up and take the opportunity for all of us to try bouncing some preliminary ideas off of one another.

    “For example, Major Kaczmarczyk, it’s occurred to me that the nature of the developing political situation here in the Cluster is likely to require intervention by the Station’s Marines. That means you and your people, as far as Hexapuma is concerned.”

    “Yes, Sir.” Kaczmarczyk was a short, solid, compact man in his late thirties with brown, bristle-cut hairand a neatly groomed mustache. He seemed just a little detached from the naval officers seated around the table with him, but his oddly colored amber-green eyes were very direct as he looked back at his captain.

    “I foresee a very broad spectrum of missions for you, Major,” Terekhov continued, “and the nature of the political equation is going to require a certain deftness. There may very well be situations in which a hammer is what will be required, although I’m sure everyone would prefer to avoid that. But there will also be situations in which your people are going to be required to perform more as policeman than as combat troops. I realize it’s difficult to switch back and forth between those roles, and that the training and mindsets they require are to some extent mutually contradictory. There’s nothing we can do about that, unfortunately, so I want you to concentrate on prepping your people to operate in small, independent units at need. I’ll try to avoid chopping you up into penny-packets, but I can’t promise that you won’t find yourself detaching individual squads.”

    “I’ve got good noncoms, Sir,” Kaczmarczyk said. “But I don’t have a whole lot of warm bodies, and some of those I do have are pretty green.”

    “Point taken,” Terekhov agreed.

    The renewed war and the sudden huge increase in the Star Kingdom’s territory had combined with the Navy’s new construction policies to force changes in the size of the Marine detachments which Manticoran warships embarked. Traditionally, the RMN had assigned companies to light cruisers, and full battalions -- including their attached heavy weapons companies -- to capital ships. Heavy cruisers and battlecruisers had embarked “short” battalions: regular battalions with the heavy weapons companies detached.

    Other navies had embarked far smaller detachments, but prior to the Havenite Wars, the Manticoran Navy’s primary responsibilities had been piracy suppression and peacekeeping operations. Blowing pirate cruisers out of space was a straightforward proposition, but the Navy had found that recapturing merchantmen which had been taken by pirates without killing off any surviving members of their original crews required something a bit more delicate than a laser head or a graser. The boarding parties tasked to go over and retake those ships were composed of Marines. So were the boarding parties sent to support Navy inspections of suspected slavers or smugglers. And so were the landing parties sent down in places like Silesia to deal with planet-side riots, attacks on Manticoran nationals, and natural disasters.

    Unlike most other navies -- including both the SLN and the Star Kingdom’s own Grayson ally -- Manticoran Marines were also integrated into damage control parties and assigned to man broadside weapons aboard the ships in which they served. Aboard Hexapuma, for example, Kaczmarczyk’s personnel crewed half a dozen of the ship’s grasers. RMN ships had been able to carry so many Marines because they weren’t displacing naval ratings; they were performing the same functions as naval ratings.

    But that practice required additional cross-training of the Marines. It took time to produce people who could proficiently perform the multiple tasks assigned to them, and it wasn’t cheap. Which was one of the reasons even the RMN had been forced to rethink things a bit.

    The increased automation which had allowed the Navy to drastically reduce its manpower (and life support) requirements and pack in additional firepower and defensive systems had been another. Maintaining the traditional size of the Marine detachments would have defeated much of that advantage. Which didn’t even consider the fact that the Star Kingdom’s sudden expansion required additional garrisons and peacekeeping forces which, particularly so close on the heels of major “peacetime” reductions in the roster strength of both the Navy and the Marines, had stretched the available supply of Marines to the breaking point. The troop strength of both the Marines and the Army was being increased as rapidly as possible, but manpower, not money or industrial capacity, had always been the Star Kingdom’s Achilles heel.

    All of which explained why, instead of the four hundred and fifty-four men and women, in three companies, commanded by a major, assigned to a heavy cruiser under the “old” establishment, Captain Kaczmarczyk (who received the “courtesy promotion” to major aboard ship -- since a warship could afford no confusion over who one meant when one said “Captain”) had barely a hundred and forty in his single company. Even at that, they represented almost half of Hexapuma’s total complement of three hundred and fifty-five.

    “We’ll just have to do the best we can,” Terekhov continued. “I’m hoping that, for the most part, the local governments will be able to deal with their own internal problems. For one thing, if we get involved, we run the risk, as ‘imperialist outsiders,’ of escalating whatever ill feeling produced the problem in the first place. If they need to call on us at all, I’m hoping it will be either for intelligence support, using our recon systems, or for quick, hard, in-and-out strikes on specific targets.

    “In line with that, Major, I’d like you and your intelligence officer to go over these briefs from Commander Chandler.” He handed over a slim folio of record chips. “They’re planet-by planet analyses, based on the most recent data available from local law enforcement types. Of course, a lot of that data is probably out of date by now, given transit times, but it’s still the best information available. I’d especially like you to look for --“



    “Well, Loretta. What do you think of him?”

    “I beg your pardon, Sir?” Captain Shoupe looked up from the data chips she’d been sliding into slots in a folio. She and the rest of the staff had just finished their regular daily report on the station’s status, and it was early afternoon, shipboard time. Rear Admiral Khumalo always preferred to catch a short nap before dinner, and the other staffers had already departed.

    “I asked what you think of him,” Khumalo replied. The rear admiral stood with his back to her, gazing into the cool, glowing depths of one of his holo tapestries. “Captain Terekhov, of course.”

    “I haven’t really had the opportunity to form an opinion of him, Sir,” she said after a moment. “He seems pleasant enough.”

    “Yes, he does, doesn’t he?” Khumalo said in a rather distant tone. “Still, he’s not quite what I’d expected.”

    Shoupe said nothing. She simply stood there, waiting patiently. She’d been with Khumalo ever since the rear admiral had been sent out to Talbott, and, almost despite herself, she’d actually grown fond of him. He could be frustrating, vacillating, and vain, and he was definitely one of the Navy’s “political” admirals. But he also worked long hours -- one of the reasons he liked to catch naps in the afternoon -- and whatever his other faults, he was truly determined to bring the annexation of the Cluster to a successful conclusion.

    “I’ve read the reports on the Battle of Hyacinth, you know,” the rear admiral continued after a moment. “It must have been terrible.” He turned to look at her. “Have you read the reports, Loretta?”

    “No, Sir. I can’t say I have.”

    “Hyacinth was supposed to be in our possession,” Khumalo said, walking slowly back over to his desk and sitting behind it. “In fact, it was when Terekhov’s convoy was dispatched there. It was supposed to be turned into one of Eighth Fleet’s forward supply depots, but the picket force covering it was hit by a Peep counterattack. The picket didn’t have any of the new ship types, and the Peeps were in overwhelming strength. The picket commander had no choice but to withdraw, and when Terekhov arrived, he sailed straight into an ambush.”

    The rear admiral paused for a moment, one hand toying with a richly ornamented dagger he used as a paperweight.

    “The Peeps called on him to surrender, you know,” he went on after a few seconds. “He refused. He didn’t have any of the pod technology, but he did have all of the new electronics, including the latest generations of ECM and the FTL com, and the freighters in his convoy were loaded with all the latest technology, including spare parts and MDMs intended to reammunition Eighth Fleet. He couldn’t let that fall into enemy hands, so he tried to fight his way out, at least get the merchantmen back out across the hyper limit.

    “He did get two of them out. But he lost six, and his entire division of light cruisers, and three-quarters of his personnel. Most of the merchie crewmen survived, after they set their scuttling charges and took to the boats. But his own people were massacred.”

    He stared down at the jewel-hilted dagger and drew it from its sheath. Light glittered on its keenly honed edge, and he turned it slowly, watching the reflection.

    “What would you have done in his place, Loretta?” he asked softly, and she stiffened. She said nothing for a moment, and he looked up.

    “That’s not a trick question,” he said. “I suppose what I should have asked is what’s your opinion of the decision he actually made.”

    “I think it took a lot of courage, Sir,” she said after a moment, her tone still a bit stiff.

    “Oh, there’s no question of that,” Khumalo agreed. “But is courage enough?” She looked a silent question at him, and he shrugged slightly. “The war was almost over, Loretta. By the time he was ambushed at Hyacinth, it was pretty clear nothing the Peeps had was going to stop Eighth Fleet whatever happened. So was it a case of good judgment, or bad? Should he have surrendered his ships, let the Peeps have the technology, knowing they wouldn’t have time to take advantage of it?”

    “Sir,” Shoupe said in a very careful tone, “you’re talking about cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

    “Am I?” He looked at her levelly. “Cowardice, or good sense?”

    “Sir,” Shoupe began, then paused. Khumalo’s career had been primarily that of a military administrator. He’d commanded several fairly important bases and support stations, some quite close to the front in the First Havenite War, but he himself had never commanded in combat. Was it possible he felt threatened by Terekhov’s reputation?

    “Sir,” she resumed after a moment, “neither you nor I were there. Anything we may think is a case of second guessing the man who was there. I don’t know what the best decision was. But I do know Captain Terekhov was the man who had to make the decision in a very narrow time window. And, with all due respect, Sir, I have to say it’s far more obvious now that the Peeps were about to lose it all than it was at the time. And I suppose it’s also fair to add that if he had surrendered, and if the Peeps had gotten their hands on his ships and the freighters, with their systems and cargoes intact, we’d probably be in even worse shape vis-a-vis the Peep navy then we are now.”

    “So you’re saying you think he was right, at least given the limitations of what he knew at the time?”

    “I suppose I am, Sir. I pray to God I’ll never have to make a similar decision. And I’m sure Terekhov prays to God that he’ll never have to make another one like it. But I think that, given the choices he had to select between, he probably picked the right one.”

    Khumalo looked troubled. He sheathed the dagger and laid it on his desk, then sat gazing down at it. For just a moment, his face looked worn and old, and Shoupe felt a powerful pang of sympathy. She knew he wondered why he hadn’t been recalled when the Janecek Admiralty collapsed, taking his patrons with it. Was it simply because no one had gotten around to it yet? Were his recall orders already on board a dispatch boat en route to Spindle? Or had someone decided to leave him here as a suitable scapegoat if something went wrong? It was like having a double-ended Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, and now, obviously, something about Terekhov bothered him deeply.

    “Sir,” she heard herself saying, “forgive me, but we’ve worked together closely for some time now. I can see that something about Captain Terekhov, or his decisions at Hyacinth, or both, concerns you. May I ask what it is?”

    Khumalo’s mouth twisted for just a moment, then he pushed the dagger to one side, squared his shoulders, and looked at her.

    “Captain Terekhov, despite the recent date of his promotion to senior grade, is now the second most senior ship commander on this station, after Captain Saunders. After myself, he is, in fact, the third ranking officer in Talbott. In addition to that, his ship is the most modern and, arguably, powerful unit we have. That makes him, and his judgment, far more significant then they might have been somewhere else, especially given the diplomatic aspects of the situation.”

    He paused, still looking at Shoupe, and the chief of staff nodded.

    So that’s at least part of it, she thought. He’s wondering if Terekhov’s stint at the Foreign Office means he’s here to help jab us into a greater “political sensitivity,” or something like that. And the fact that the Admiral’s such an uncomfortable fit for the current Government must make him worry about it even more.

    But if that was the case, Khumalo chose not to admit it.

    “I have to ask myself whether his actions at Hyacinth reflect good judgment, as well as courage,” the admiral said instead, “or if they reflect something else. With all of the hundreds of potential sparks floating around, I don’t need someone whose first inclination is going to be to squirt extra hydrogen into the furnace.”

    “Sir, Captain Terekhov didn’t strike me as a hothead,” Shoupe said. “I haven’t had any opportunity to form a real opinion of his judgment, but he seems levelheaded enough.”

    “I hope you’re right, Loretta,” Khumalo sighed. “I hope you’re right.”

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