Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT



    "Captain Oversteegen is here, Admiral Draskovic."

    The dark-haired, dark-eyed woman in the uniform of an admiral of the red looked up from the paperwork on her terminal at the yeoman's announcement.

    "Thank you, Chief," she said, with perhaps just a trace more enthusiasm than the Fifth Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Navy might normally be expected to show over the arrival of a mere captain. "Please show him in," she added.

    "Yes, Ma'am."

    The yeoman withdrew, and the admiral quickly saved the document she'd been perusing. Then she stood and walked around her desk to the conversational nook arranged around the expensive coffee table. The door to her office opened once more, and the yeoman ushered in a man in the black-and-gold of an RMN senior-grade captain.

    "Captain Oversteegen, Ma'am," he murmured.

    "Thank you, Chief." The admiral held out a hand and smiled at her visitor in welcome. "That will be all," she added, never looking away from the newcomer.

    Her yeoman withdrew once more, and she gripped the captain's hand firmly.

    "Good to see you, Captain." She waved at one of the waiting chairs with her free hand. "Please, have a seat."

    "Thank you, Ma'am," Oversteegen said, and if it occurred to him that a full admiral of the red did not normally greet the commander of a mere heavy cruiser quite so enthusiastically, no sign of it showed in his expression or manner as he availed himself of the offer. He settled into the indicated chair, crossed his legs, and regarded his superior with polite attentiveness.

    "I don't believe that I've had the opportunity yet to congratulate you, Captain," the admiral said as she sat in another chair, facing him across the coffee table. "That was quite a show you put on in Tiberian."

    "I had a bit more luck than a man should get into the habit of expectin'," he replied in calm, even tones. "And, even more importantly, the best crew and officers it's ever been my good fortune t' serve with."

    For just a moment, Draskovic seemed a bit taken aback. Then she smiled.

    "I'm quite certain that you did. On the other hand, even with good luck and an excellent crew, it took a captain a cut or two above the average to polish off four Solarian heavy cruisers. Even," she added, raising a hand to stop him as he began to open his mouth, "when the cruisers in question had Silesian crews. You did us proud, Captain. You and your people."

    "Thank you, Ma'am," he said again. There was, after all, very little else he could have said under the circumstances.

    "You're very welcome," she told him. "After all, God knows the Navy needs all the good press it can get these days!" She shook her head. "It never ceases to amaze me how quickly everyone seems to forget everything else we've accomplished. I suppose it's one more example of 'Yes, but what have you done for us recently?'"

    "It's always that way, isn't it, Ma'am?" Oversteegen replied, and smiled ever so slightly. "I suppose it's not unreasonable for the man in the street t' be just a tad confused over exactly what the Navy's doin' for him these days." One of Draskovic's eyebrows arched, and he smiled again, more broadly. "I mean," he explained, "in light of the current debate between the Government and the Opposition over what the Navy ought t' be doin'."

    "I see your point," Admiral Draskovic said, and sat back in her chair to regard him with carefully disguised thoughtfulness. There was something about him that baffled her. No, not baffled—confused, perhaps. He said all the right things, yet she had a sense that he didn't mean exactly what she thought he did. A part of her almost suspected that he was laughing at her from behind his respectful expression, but that was ridiculous, and she knew it.

    If the captain felt the least discomfort under her regard, he disguised it admirably. No doubt he'd had plenty of practice at that. Unlike Draskovic, he not only came from a traditional naval family, but boasted connections to the most rarefied heights of the Manticoran aristocracy. He'd probably attended more formal dinners and met more senior officers and peers of the realm than Draskovic ever had, despite the half-T-century difference in their ages. Or the gulf between their ranks.

    For just a moment, Josette Draskovic felt a stab of sheer, unadulterated resentment as she took in his superbly tailored, not-quite-regulation uniform and complete self-assurance. She'd worked hard all of her life to attain her present rank and authority; he'd been born into an elite world of privilege and advantage that had raised him to his current position with the inevitability of gravity.

    She started to speak again, then stopped and gave herself a stern mental shake. How he'd gotten to where he was was really beside the point, wasn't it? He'd certainly demonstrated his fitness to command a Queen's ship at Tiberian last year, after all.

    "The… 'debate' between the Government and the Opposition is probably enough to confuse anyone," she acknowledged. "Especially when we're having to make so many hard decisions about the Navy budget. That's one reason why what you accomplished out there has such implications for our domestic public opinion. It was so black-and-white, an example of the suppression of piracy and murder which has always been the Navy's primary peacetime job."

    "As you say, Ma'am," he agreed. "At the same time, however, I think it's fair t' point out that the pirates and murderers in question had managed t' get their hands on modern Solarian warships. It seems t' me that the question of just how they managed t' pull that off deserves some careful consideration."

    "Oh, I certainly agree with you there, Captain. Admiral Jurgensen has ONI working on that very question, I assure you."

    "May I ask if they've come up with any theories, Ma'am?"

    "Several," she said wryly. "Most of them mutually contradictory, of course."

    "Of course," he agreed with another small smile.

    "Obviously, the Sollies didn't just 'lose' four modern cruisers, whatever their government's official 'we don't have any idea what happened' position may be," Draskovic continued. "On the other hand, the Solarian League is huge, and we all know how little genuine control over its internal bureaucracies—including its military bureaucracies—its government really has. One theory is that some Frontier Fleet admiral decided to provide for her retirement by putting some of her ships up for sale rather than mothballing them. Which would be a neat trick, if she could do it. Personally, I don't see it. In the first place, those ships were too modern for anyone to be disposing of them on any pretext, including mothballing, I can think of. And even if they hadn't been, I can't quite convince myself that even the Sollies' logistics people wouldn't notice the complete disappearance of a million and a half tons worth of warships sooner or later!"

    "Unless it was someone a lot more senior than any Frontier Fleet commander," Oversteegen said thoughtfully. "Someone with the reach and authority t' make embarrassin' paperwork vanish at its destination, instead of its origin point."

    "That's more or less the thought that had occurred to me. I've spent enough time wrestling with our own paperwork to realize how much easier it would be for some bureaucratic chip-pusher at the top to arrange for their disappearance. Especially someplace like the League." She shrugged. "My personal theory is that somebody very high up in their equivalent of BuShips probably has a bank account somewhere with a very high credit balance."

    "I'd be inclined t' agree with you, Ma'am," Oversteegen said. "But I still have t' wonder how someone like that made connections with a batch of Silesian pirates in the first place."

    "I doubt that she ever did—directly, at least," Draskovic replied with another shrug. "God only knows how many middlemen may have been involved in the deal! Whoever first took them off the books probably disposed of them to a fence somewhere, who finally brokered the deal at third or fourth hand to the scum you and your people took out."

    "You're probably correct," Oversteegen said after a moment, although his tone suggested that he wasn't totally convinced that she was. "But however they got their hands on them, they were operatin' an awful long way from Silesia at Tiberian. And that's not exactly an area noted for rich pickin's for pirates, either."

    "No, Captain, it isn't," she acknowledged, allowing just a trace of coolness to color her own tone. "Those same thoughts have occurred to Admiral Jurgensen and his analysts, I assure you. As has the point that they deliberately chose to engage you. That's not typical pirate behavior, even at four-to-one odds."

    "As you say, Ma'am." Oversteegen shifted ever so slightly in his chair. "I hope I don't appear t' be belaborin' the obvious, Admiral. It's just that no one seems t' have come up with answers t' the questions which bother me most. Or, at least, no one's mentioned any of those answers t' me if they have come up with them." He shrugged. "Given the casualties my people took, I'm afraid I have more than a passin' interest in them."

    "I can certainly understand that," Draskovic assured him more sympathetically. "Unfortunately, until and unless ONI can get its hands on some solid leads, I don't think anyone is going to be able to provide those answers."

    Oversteegen nodded, and a brief silence descended upon the office. Draskovic allowed it to hover for a moment, then drew a sharp breath and straightened in her own chair.

    "Obviously, Captain Oversteegen, what happened in Tiberian is one of the reasons we're redeploying Gauntlet to Erewhon now that she's completed her repairs."

    Oversteegen regarded her with polite attentiveness, and she shrugged.

    "You've demonstrated that you have a good general awareness of the situation in the Erewhon area. That's a major plus. And the fact that you found and took out the pirates who'd ambushed one of Erewhon's own destroyers and killed its entire crew is another one, especially in light of the current . . . strain in our treaty relationship with Erewhon." And, she did not add, so is the fact that your mother is the Prime Minister's second cousin.

    Oversteegen's expression didn't even flicker, but something about his eyes suggested to Draskovic that he'd heard what she carefully hadn't said. Well, no one but a complete political idiot could have been unaware of that consideration in his place. But that was all right. In fact, it was considerably more than all right. Too many of the officers who'd earned reputations in combat against the People's Republic of Haven had made their disagreement with the current Government's policies abundantly clear. Having one of their own demonstrate that he was just as capable—at least!—as the Government's detractors had been a godsend.



    "From what you've just said, Ma'am," Oversteegen said after a moment, "I gather that Gauntlet will be operatin' solo again?"

    "In light of our current naval posture and the fact that Erewhon is—or certainly ought to be—capable of looking after its own security interests, I'm afraid that it's impossible to justify a larger Manticoran naval presence in the area." Draskovic waved one hand and pursed her lips slightly. "I don't know how much a larger naval presence would actually help, under the circumstances," she admitted. "I don't claim to have any special expertise where Erewhon is concerned, but my own read of the situation is that the present tension in our relationship didn't develop overnight. Which suggests that it's not going to go away overnight, whatever we do.

    "On the other hand," she continued, "you, Captain, currently enjoy a very high reputation in Erewhonese circles. If we can't send them a battle squadron or two, we can at least send them what the newsies used to call ' an officer of renown.'"

    "I see." Oversteegen obviously wasn't the sort to let flattery go to his head, Draskovic noted with a trace of amusement. "Should I assume, then, that my ship's presence will be largely symbolic?"

    "To be perfectly honest," Draskovic replied, "any deployment of a single heavy cruiser to an area which is already as well patrolled as Erewhon's neighborhood has to be mostly symbolic. By the same token, however, the fact that you'll be the only Queen's ship on station will mean that you'll face serious and extensive responsibilities. For all intents and purposes, Captain, you will be the Royal Manticoran Navy. As the senior officer present, you'll be responsible for protecting and overseeing our commerce, cooperating with Her Majesty's diplomatic representatives to Erewhon, and representing not only the Navy, but the Government and the Crown, as well. In fact, you'll be just as responsible for implementing—or, if it's required, modifying—naval policy as any flag officer commanding a full fleet or task force station."

    She paused for a moment, wondering if perhaps she was laying it on just a bit thick. What she'd said was true enough, but any mere captain of the list who took it upon herself to actually "modify" naval policy under any circumstances would require more guts—or gall—than even someone of Oversteegen's exalted connections was likely to possess.

    On the other hand, she reflected, those same connections probably justify at least that much stroking.

    "I imagine that you'll find more than enough things to keep you busy," she concluded.

    "No doubt we will, Ma'am," Oversteegen agreed. "I suspect, though, that one of the questions I'm goin' t' be asked is what the Star Kingdom thinks was actually goin' on in Tiberian. That's another reason I raised the point earlier, and I'd appreciate it if ONI could arrange t' brief me directly on our current information about that entire episode." He smiled again, easily. "I'd hate for the Erewhonese t' decide that our 'officer of renown' doesn't have a clue about just how and why he came t' enjoy that renown!"

    "Point taken, Captain," Draskovic acknowledged. "I'll have Chief Dautrey put in a priority request to Admiral Jurgensen's office for you."

    "Thank you, Ma'am. In addition, however, and in light of what you just said about the responsibilities which are goin' t' devolve upon Gauntlet, I'd like t' request the assignment of an additional officer t' assist me in analyzin' situations which may arise."

    "Another officer?" Draskovic's eyebrows arched. "What sort of officer? I was under the impression that your table of organization was complete, now that your executive officer has returned to duty."

    "Indeed it is, Ma'am," Oversteegen agreed. "That's why I requested an additional officer. I realize that it's a mite irregular, but I feel that under the circumstances, Gauntlet is likely t' require someone with a better background knowledge of Erewhonese affairs and attitudes. And, t' be perfectly blunt, it's entirely possible that circumstances will arise under which it would be most beneficial t' have our own in-house 'spook' available for consultation."

    "You're right—that is an irregular request," Draskovic said. She frowned slightly, but her expression and voice were both more thoughtful than condemning. An officer of Oversteegen's accomplishments—and connections, she reminded herself—was entitled to the occasional irregular request. "We don't normally assign intelligence specialists below the squadron level."

    "I'm aware of that, Ma'am." Oversteegen, Draskovic noted, did not comment on the blindingly obvious nature of her own last remark. "That's normally the tactical officer's responsibility for a single-ship deployment. Commander Blumenthal, my TO, is an excellent officer, and I have complete confidence in him both as a tac officer and for normal intelligence functions. But my impression of Erewhon's current attitude towards the Star Kingdom suggests that the situation isn't exactly normal. Under the circumstances, I feel it would be advisable t' assign someone more thoroughly versed in Erewhonese politics and naval capabilities t' Gauntlet. Indeed, with your permission, I have a specific officer in mind."

    "You do?" Draskovic said, and Oversteegen nodded. "Well, Captain, as you know, it's always been the Navy's policy to accommodate the personnel requests of commanding officers whenever possible. May I assume that you have reason to believe that the officer you're thinking of would be available for assignment to your ship?"

    "I do, Ma'am."

    "And who might that be?"

    "Lieutenant Betty Gohr," Oversteegen said, and Draskovic frowned again, a bit more darkly as the name rang some distant bell in her memory. "She's a bit of an odd duck," the captain continued. "She started as a tactical officer herself, then moved over to add intelligence work t' her résumé. At the time of the cease-fire, she was assigned t' our intelligence liaison with the Erewhonese navy."

    "Gohr," Draskovic repeated, her eyes sharpening suddenly. "Would that be the Lieutenant Gohr who wrote that article about interrogation techniques for the Proceedings?"

    "Actually, it would," Oversteegen acknowledged, and Draskovic's frowned deepened. She couldn't recall the details of the article, but she remembered the gist of it quite clearly, given the furor it had engendered in certain quarters.

    "I'm not certain that assigning an officer who has publicly advocated the use of torture to obtain information to a politically sensitive position would be wise, Captain," she said after a moment, her tone decidedly on the frosty side.

    "Actually, Admiral, Lieutenant Gohr never advocated the use of physical coercion," Oversteegen corrected politely. "What she said was that the proliferation of military conditionin' programs and drug protocols t' resist conventional interrogation techniques has substantially restricted the options available t' intelligence gatherin' officers. She discussed torture as one possible solution, and noted that under certain circumstances, it might be an effective one. She also observed, however, that torture is often and notoriously unreliable under most circumstances, in addition t' its morally objectionable nature, and proceeded t' examine other options available t' an interrogator at considerable length. Her phrasin' was, perhaps, unfortunate, since certain casual readers failed t' grasp that she was analyzin' and dismissin' certain techniques, not recommendin' them. The outcry and hysteria her article provoked resulted, in my opinion, entirely from the manner in which both her purpose and her arguments were misconstrued."

    Draskovic regarded him with hard eyes. He might very well be correct, she thought, admitting to herself that she had never personally read the offending article. But whatever Lieutenant Gohr might actually have said, the "outcry and hysteria" Oversteegen had just mentioned had been… severe. The allegation that the lieutenant had specifically suggested the use of torture by Queen's officers, in direct contravention of at least a dozen interstellar treaties to which the Star Kingdom was a signatory, had hit the news faxes like a laser head. Collateral damage had threatened to splash all over the lieutenant's superiors, which was why Second Space Lord Jurgensen had declined to defend her. Personally, Draskovic didn't much care one way or the other; the entire debacle had been Jurgensen's problem over at ONI, not hers. But the spectacular fashion in which Gohr's career had nosedived would make assigning her to Gauntlet a tricky proposition. The potential public relations drawbacks were obvious enough, but if Jurgensen decided that Draskovic was going behind his back to rehabilitate an officer he had personally cut adrift…

    "However her arguments may have been misconstrued, Captain," the admiral said finally, "the fact remains that, if I recall correctly, Lieutenant Gohr is currently on half-pay status specifically because of the controversy her article stirred."

    "That's correct, Ma'am," Oversteegen agreed calmly, and actually smiled at her. "That's also how I can be positive that Lieutenant Gohr is available at the moment."

    "I see." Draskovic considered him through narrow eyes. He was pushing her, she thought. Definitely pushing her . . . damn him.

    "You are aware, I trust," she said after a moment, "that returning an ONI officer to active duty as an analyst without Admiral Jurgensen's approval after she's been placed on half-pay status in the wake of a controversy like this would be far more than 'a mite irregular.'"

    "It certainly would be under most circumstances, Ma'am," Oversteegen acknowledged, tacitly accepting Draskovic's implication that Jurgensen would never approve Gohr's return to duty. "However, Lieutenant Gohr isn't really an ONI officer. She's a tactical officer, with a secondary specialization in combat psychology, who was assigned t' London Point t' work with the Marines on specific means t' resist strenuous interrogation techniques . . . like torture. She was seconded t' ONI after Admiral Givens reviewed several of her articles on that subject."

    "Which doesn't change the fact that she was assigned to ONI when the fallout of her last article hit the fan," Draskovic pointed out.

    "That wasn't exactly my point, Ma'am," Oversteegen said. "What I was suggestin' was that she be assigned—officially, at least—t' Gauntlet as a tactical officer, not an intelligence specialist. As I say, I'm completely satisfied with Commander Blumenthal, but my assistant tactical officer is due for promotion. What I'd like t' request is that he be relieved from duty aboard Gauntlet and assigned t' a slot elsewhere better suited to his seniority and that Lieutenant Gohr be assigned t' Gauntlet in his place."

    "I see." Draskovic considered him in silence for several more seconds while she considered the patently transparent fig leaf he was proposing. It was remotely possible that he actually believed she was stupid enough not to recognize the quagmire into which he was inviting her to step. It wasn't very likely, though, since no officer could have accomplished what he'd pulled off in Tiberian without a functioning brain of his own.

    She began to open her mouth to refuse his suggestion point-blank, then paused. If Jurgensen found out about this, he would be livid. It was unlikely that he would confront her about it openly, of course. He was too old and experienced a hand at bureaucratic infighting for something that crass and crude. Oh no. He'd find his own, far more subtle way to get his own back. But Josette Draskovic had never been particularly fond of Francis Jurgensen at the best of times. And there was the fact that Oversteegen was currently the entire Navy's golden boy. Not to mention a close family connection of the Prime Minister, himself.

    Besides, she thought, given the fact that Gauntlet is headed for Erewhon, it's entirely possible the idiot won't find out about it. Or, at least, not until it's too late for him to convince even Janacek that Oversteegen wasn't entirely justified asking for her in the first place…

    "All right, Captain," she said at last. "I'll look into it and see what can be arranged."

    "Thank you, Admiral," Michael Oversteegen murmured, and he smiled.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image