Back | Next
Contents


Chapter Eleven

". . . so Earl White Haven is still pressing the Peeps around Nightingale and Trevor's Star, My Lady, but it doesn't look as if they're going to crumble anytime soon."


Lieutenant Commander Paxton paused, touched a key to freeze his memo pad's display, and looked down the conference table as if to invite questions, but Honor only nodded. Paxton's brief on the front had been as comprehensive as she would have expected from someone with his credentials.


"Thank you, Commander," she said now. "To be honest, however, I'm more concerned with our local situation. What can you tell us about Home Fleet?" It felt odd to apply that label to any non-Manticoran formation, but with eleven GSN SDs added to it, it certainly merited the title.


"From all indications, My Lady, I expect to see some major changes shortly. I'm sure Commander Bagwell—" Paxton nodded to the operations officer "—has been better briefed on the details than I have, but my understanding is that the Manties—"


He broke off, and his face darkened with what Honor guessed was a most unusual blush. She raised a hand to hide her smile, but Nimitz was less restrained. His soft bleek of amusement sounded clearly in the silence, and Paxton turned even darker.


"Sorry, My Lady. I meant to say 'the Manticorans.' "


"No, Commander, you meant to say the Manties." Honor lowered her hand and let him see her smile. "I have heard the term before, you know, and as long as you don't add any, ah, pejorative adjectives, I won't hold it against you."


"I—" Paxton paused, then grinned suddenly and raised both hands in surrender. "Mercy, My Lady. I yield." Honor grinned back, and the lieutenant commander shook himself. "At any rate, my understanding is that the Manticorans will be pulling their remaining ships of the wall out of Yeltsin sometime in the next few weeks. Fred?"


He glanced at Bagwell for confirmation, and the ops officer nodded.


"It's not official yet, My Lady," he said, "but we've received an informational warning from Command Central. Admiral Suarez has officially informed High Admiral Matthews that the Manticoran Admiralty is reconsidering its deployments. Given conditions at the front, Central expects them to radically reduce the RMN presence in Yeltsin now that we can more or less look after ourselves. Since over half of 'our' Home Fleet's wall of battle still consists of Manticoran units, the impact will be pretty severe."


Honor raised an eyebrow, but Bagwell shook his head quickly.


"Command Central isn't complaining, My Lady. If the Alliance wants to maintain any momentum, the RMN has no choice but to draw reinforcements from somewhere, and we've become a logical place. Under the circumstances, they've given us a generous lead time on any changes, and BatRon Two's ready to take up the immediate slack. All the same, our defenses will become much more dependent on our own resources, and Central wants our squadron ready for operations no later than—" he consulted his own memo pad "—March sixth, as well."


"Um." Honor rubbed her temple while her mind juggled the date. Like every other extra-solar planet, Grayson had a local calendar, but unlike most such planets, its people used it only to keep track of the seasons. Nor did they date things from their first colonists' landing as most other systems did. Instead, with a degree of stubbornness unusual even for Graysons, they clung to the ancient Gregorian calendar of Old Earth, which was totally unsuited to the length of their planet's day, much less its year, for official dating. Worse, they retained the old Christian Era date . . . and just to make things really confusing, they followed it with "A.D.," for "Anno Domini," while everyone else used that to indicate "Ante Diaspora"! It was enough to thoroughly bewilder any hapless newcomer, and, for some reason, Honor always had trouble remembering whether this was the year 4009 or 4010, despite all the official documents she had to sign. But at least they also used Old Earth's twenty-four-hour day aboard their warships, as well, so she didn't have to convert different day lengths. She only had to remember how many days each month had.


She ran through the silly jingle Howard Clinkscales had taught her to keep track of the days per month, then frowned. February was the short one, which meant March sixth was only forty days away, and her frown deepened as she redid the calculations, hoping she was in error. She wasn't, and she looked at Bagwell and Mercedes Brigham.


"That doesn't give us much time, people." Their expressions told her that was one of the more unnecessary remarks she'd ever made, and the right corner of her mouth quirked. "Can we do it?"


Bagwell looked at Captain Brigham, deferring to the chief of staff and clearly just as happy that he could, and Mercedes frowned.


"We can make a good try, My Lady," she said. "Admiral Brentworth's drilled Magnificent, Courageous, and Manticore's Gift as a single, oversized division for over two months. Furious and Glorious have only been operational for a couple of weeks, but they're shaping up. Of course, none of them have ever exercised as a complete squadron, and Terrible only left the yard Friday. I suppose the real question's how quickly we can get her fully on-line."


"Do you agree, Captain Yu?" Honor heard her voice go just a bit cooler, but Yu seemed not to notice. He simply leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin, eyes half-closed for a moment, then nodded.


"I think so, My Lady. It'll be close, though. Admiral Brentworth's done well with his exercises, so we've got a solid core to build around, but Admiral Trailman and Admiral Yanakov have only been with the squadron a few days, and so far we haven't even run any sims, much less actual exercises, at the squadron level. I think our COs will pick it up quickly once we get started, but at the same time," his eyes went slightly opaque once more, "Terrible still has yard reps on board for final adjustments, and I haven't even completed my full power trials or gunnery checks. We're officially operational, but—" He shrugged and turned those opaque eyes to Honor. "It might be worthwhile to consider transferring your flag to one of the other ships for a few days, My Lady. That would give you a chance to start squaring the squadron away while I complete acceptance trials and deal with any last-minute glitches."


Honor studied him thoughtfully. No captain liked to admit his ship might be less than fully ready for duty, and Yu had more reason than most not to do it. He had to know that if she did want to get rid of him as her flag captain, he was offering her the perfect pretext. If Terrible's working up was delayed, she'd have no choice but to use one of the other COs as her acting flag captain. Afterwards, she could always retain that other captain rather than Yu on the basis that she had a proven command team already in place.


Yet there was no evasiveness in his voice. He was giving her his considered judgment of what was best for the squadron, and she knew he was right. Which only woke an oddly perverse disinclination in her to accept his offer. She didn't fully understand her own motives, but she found herself shaking her head.


"Not yet, Captain. Let's see how your trials look, first." She smiled suddenly. "I've commanded a lame duck flagship, myself. The least I can do is be as patient with you as my admiral was with me."


Some of the opacity faded from Yu's eyes. He said nothing, but he ducked his head in a small bob that might have been agreement or thanks, and Honor turned back to Paxton.


"All right, Commander. We'll get to operational matters in a moment. In the meantime, we've wandered a bit afield from your background brief."


"Yes, My Lady." Paxton consulted his memo pad again. "Leaving aside whatever deployment changes we may have here in Yeltsin, High Admiral Matthews has decided to reinforce the Endicott Picket with half the Second Battlecruiser Squadron. This reflects his concern that—"


His clear, precise voice went on painting the details of local deployments and concerns, and Honor tipped back in her chair as she listened.


 


Citizen Vice Admiral Alexander Thurston read the brief, terse dispatch with a careful lack of expression. It wasn't easy to hide his contempt for the stupidity behind it, but he'd had a lot of practice in the last year or so. He laid the message board on his blotter and took another moment to be sure his mask was properly adjusted before he looked up from it.


Thurston might be the official commander of Operation Dagger, but the man across his desk from him knew better. Citizen Michael Preznikov's simple undress coverall lacked all insignia, yet that very absence of any rank badges was its own brand of arrogance. The fact that Preznikov alone, of every man and woman aboard PNS Conquistador, bore no insignia identified him as the battleship's resident people's commissioner and the direct representative of the Committee of Public Safety itself.


And, Thurston reminded himself, as the man who could make anyone else aboard Conquistador, including any vice admiral foolish enough to criticize those same civilian authorities—or his orders—vanish forever. It was a point Thurston intended to bear carefully in mind until the time came to change it.


"A problem, Citizen Admiral?" Preznikov asked now, and Thurston schooled his tone into one of purely professional concern.


"Another delay," he said as mildly as he could. He handed over the dispatch, for Preznikov had the right to see any communication, personal or official, and gritted his teeth as the commissioner read this one.


Alexander Thurston had been one of the very few officers with no links to any Legislaturalist family to reach captain's rank in the People's Navy under the old regime. That gave him certain advantages under the Committee of Public Safety, since the lack of patronage which would have denied him any chance of flag rank under the old regime had become a guarantee of it under the new one. He was well aware of the factors which made that true . . . and that the Committee wouldn't last forever. Pierre was too much the mob's prisoner; when he couldn't keep his promises, it would turn on him, and the resulting chaos would offer a military commander with a record of success his chance. Thurston was willing to put up with the inconveniences of the moment to position himself properly for that chance—but that didn't mean he liked being second-guessed by a political hack with absolutely no naval training.


Still, Preznikov was scarcely unique in that respect. The Committee could hardly select its watchdogs from the same officer corps it wanted them to watch, and Thurston supposed he should be grateful he'd at least been spared one of the commissioners who were ex-enlisted. He'd seen one or two of them in action; they were even more insufferable than hacks like Preznikov, and having some ex-missile tech overruling him on the basis of his "previous naval experience" would have been more than Thurston could stomach. And dangerous. A fool who knew a little was far more dangerous than someone who at least had the wit to admit he knew nothing.


Preznikov finished reading, then laid the board on the desk and frowned.


"Just how serious is this, Citizen Admiral?"


"That's hard to say, Citizen Commissioner." Even the best of them loved to hear that title, Thurston thought sourly. "We're already two weeks behind schedule. If this—" he tapped the dispatch with a fingertip "—holds and we only lose another week or so, it shouldn't matter too much. But if the delay runs longer than that, it could have serious repercussions."


"Why?" Preznikov asked, and Thurston's other hand fisted under the desktop. Damn it, the man had read the entire operations plan! Surely even an idiot commissioner should know that question's answer!


But the citizen vice admiral made his hand relax and nodded as if Preznikov's question were perfectly reasonable. And, he reminded himself, at least he'd asked. That indicated an awareness of his own limitations . . . or Thurston hoped it did, at any rate.


"There are two main reasons, Citizen Commissioner," he said. "First, Dagger depends on the proper execution of Stalking Horse to draw the enemy into positions of our choice, and Stalking Horse's maneuvers have to be carefully coordinated in time and space to have the effect we desire. Even if they succeed entirely, we must be able to strike our actual objective within a very narrow window of time, and anything which makes that window narrower—like a delay in the ops schedule—decreases the odds of our final success."


He paused, and Preznikov nodded for him to continue.


"Secondly, the original ops plan required the assembly of all of Task Force Fourteen here so that we could proceed as a single, unified force. This—" he tapped the message again "—doesn't say anything specifically about the other units of the task force, but if HQ believes the situation around Nightingale is still so dangerous that it's delaying the release of Stalking Horse's superdreadnoughts, it may decide not to reduce the battleship covering forces in other systems around Trevor's Star, either. And since over half our total units are supposed to be drawn from that sector—"


He broke off with a shrug, and Preznikov's frown deepened.


"Why wasn't this possibility allowed for in the preliminary planning?" he asked in a colder voice, and Thurston controlled his own tone very carefully when he replied.


"When my staff and I prepared the original plan for this operation, Citizen Commissioner, we specifically requested that the forces for it be drawn from deeper inside the Republic to avoid this sort of problem. In fact, we originally asked for the Fifteenth and Forty-First Battle Squadrons, and our request was approved. Unfortunately, we were subsequently informed that both those squadrons—which as you know, are currently in Malagasy—had become . . . unavailable. That meant we had to find the ships somewhere else at a very late date, and if we were to avoid unacceptable delays in transit times to assemble the task force, that somewhere else had to be closer to hand. Unhappily, any system close enough for our purposes is also so close to Trevor's Star as to be susceptible to last-minute diversions in response to enemy pressure."


Preznikov's eyes flashed at the mention of the Malagasy System, but Thurston knew he'd scored a point. The squadrons he'd originally been promised were "unavailable" because Malagasy had exploded in the Committee of Public Safety's face. He didn't know precisely what had provoked it, though it seemed likely the officer corps purges had backed someone into too tight a corner. Shortly after Secretary Ransom had started whipping up the Proles, some of the SS "reeducation teams" had taken to shooting suspect officers' families, as well as the officers themselves. It had been among the stupider of many stupid things State Security had done, and he knew the maniacs responsible had exceeded their own authority when they did it, but moderation wasn't in great demand in the People's Republic just now, and he doubted they'd be punished for it. Not, he thought bitterly, until someone realized that little things like wrecking ops plans by diverting desperately needed warships to suppress local revolts were likely to have an adverse effect on the war effort, at least.


"I see," Preznikov said after a moment, sitting back in his chair with an unwilling nod. "But is it really that important to concentrate the entire force in one place before launching the operation?"


"It's extremely important, Citizen Commissioner." Thurston tried not to sound as if he were lecturing a slow student, but it was hard. "If we can't assemble the entire task force here, then we'll have to do it somewhere else, possibly in the very face of the enemy. Converging thrusts by widely dispersed forces look good in war games, Citizen Commissioner, but they don't work out well in practice, especially over interstellar distances. In theory, they offer the advantage of surprise by making it harder for the enemy to deduce the target from your beginning deployments, but they only work if every one of those separated forces moves precisely on schedule. If your timing is even slightly off, coordination falls apart and whatever part of your force reaches the objective first ends up facing everything the enemy has, which exposes you to the risk of defeat in detail. That," he finished as pointedly as he dared, "is largely what happened when Admiral Rollins moved early and attacked Hancock with only a portion of the strength originally allocated to the operation."


"I see," Preznikov repeated in a much more reasonable tone.


"But that's only part of the problem, Citizen Commissioner," Thurston went on. "If we can't concentrate the task force before we launch Dagger, then I can't brief my officers. This is a very complex operation. A lot of things can go wrong, and let's be honest—our command teams are hardly what I can call experienced." Preznikov frowned but said nothing. Thurston found his lack of response encouraging and went on in a voice of calm dispassion. "That makes human error much more likely, however well motivated our people are, and our operational security instructions mean none of our captains know the details. If I don't even have time to discuss my plans with them before they have to go into action, the chance of fatal misunderstandings increases astronomically."


"Should we consider delaying Dagger, then—even rescheduling it completely?" The question was so sensible it surprised Thurston, but it was also dangerous, and he considered carefully before he replied.


"That's impossible to say for certain, Citizen Commissioner. Dagger is predicated on the strategic situation which exists now. If the enemy has time to adjust his position—if, for example, he brings up a substantial portion of the Manty Home Fleet—he'll have a different set of choices when we spring Stalking Horse on him. As things stand, he'll almost have to withdraw forces from our target to respond to our attacks on Candor and Minette without uncovering Grendelsbane. There's no place else he can withdraw them from, but if we give him the time to reinforce the front from Manticore, he may choose to divert some of those reinforcements, instead. And if that happens, Citizen Commissioner, our entire task force will be too weak to take our objective or even carry out a worthwhile hit-and-run raid."


"So what you're saying, Citizen Admiral, is that we have to get Dagger in before the balance of forces shifts or else scrub it completely?"


"I'm saying that, depending on what the Manties do, cancellation may become our only option," Thurston said even more carefully, for the PN's officers had learned the hard way that disappointing their political masters carried a stiff penalty.


"I understand," Preznikov said with a thin smile. "What can I do to help, Citizen Admiral?"


The offer was almost as surprising as the question which had preceded it. Preznikov would never be anything but a political hack in Thurston's eyes, but at least he seemed to be a hack who was actually willing to do something. That was more than many of Thurston's fellow flag officers could count on.


"If you could stress in your own reports that it is imperative to hold any additional delays to the absolute minimum, I would be most grateful, Citizen Commissioner," he said.


"That much I can do," Preznikov agreed with a nod, and his thin smile turned almost warm. "In fact, I'll inform the Committee that I fully share your concerns, Citizen Admiral, and suggest that if they want this operation to succeed, they'd better make sure someone at Fleet HQ gets his thumb out."


"Thank you, Citizen Commissioner. I appreciate that," Thurston told his political master, and the most galling thing about it was that he truly did.


 



Back | Next
Framed