Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 15 

Chapter 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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