Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 10

March 1922 Post Diaspora

“Trust me, the hole would’ve been a hell of a lot deeper!”

— Ensign Helen Zilwicki, Royal Manticoran Navy

Chapter Three

“Just a second, Gwen,” Captain Loretta Shoupe said as she followed Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer out of Admiral Augustus Khumalo’s office space aboard HMS Hercules.

Gervais had just finished delivering a late-hour briefing to Khumalo and Shoupe, his chief of staff. There’d been a lot of those briefings over the last three weeks, and it didn’t look like getting better anytime soon. The entire Spindle System was still somewhere between astonishment and euphoria over the devastating defeat Admiral Gold Peak’s Tenth Fleet had inflicted on the Solarian League Navy, but the Navy remained too busy to celebrate as it scrambled frantically to deal with the enormous flood of POWs it had so suddenly and unexpectedly acquired. Despite which — or perhaps because of which, given the exhaustion quotient of her crew — the ancient superdreadnought flagship of the recently created Talbott Station was quiet around them.

“Yes, Ma’am?” Gervais replied, turning to face her.

“You know Ensign Zilwicki pretty well, don’t you, Gwen?” Shoupe’s tone made the question a statement, Gervais thought, and wondered where she was headed.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said again. Despite the monumental rank disparity between a mere ensign and a senior-grade lieutenant, he’d come to know young Zilwicki, Sir Aivars Terekhov’s flag lieutenant, very well, as a matter of fact.

“I thought you did,” Shoupe said now. She actually looked a bit uncomfortable, but she went on steadily. “The reason I ask is that — like everyone else, I suppose — Commander Chandler and I are trying to get some kind of handle on this story coming out of Mesa. I don’t want to intrude on her or pressure her, but the truth is that we really need any insight she could give us about this.”

Gervais nodded respectfully, despite a quick flare of anger. Commander Ambrose Chandler was Khumalo’s staff intelligence officer, and like Captain Shoupe, he was usually on Gervais’ list of good people. And Gervais even understood exactly why they were looking for any “insight” they could get. The horrendous ‘fax stories about what the Solly newsies had dubbed the “Green Pines Atrocity” had reached Spindle the day after the battle — less than nineteen hours after Admiral O’Cleary’s surrender, in fact — and he didn’t envy Admiral Khumalo or Baroness Medusa (or, for that matter, Lady Gold Peak) when it came to dealing with this one’s implications. None of which him any happier about where he was pretty sure Shoupe was headed.

“Yes, Ma’am?” he said in as neutral a voice as he could manage.

“I don’t want you to grill her, Gwen,” Shoupe replied with an edge of sharpness. “But it’s obvious just from what we’ve heard from home that this story’s already making problems — big problems — where Solly public opinion is concerned. For that matter, the local Solly newsies are starting to ask the Governor and the Prime Minister for their reactions to ‘Manticoran involvement in the atrocity,’ as if anyone out here would have a clue even if the Star Empire had been behind something like that!” She snorted in disgust. “What makes them think we could know more than they do, given the communications loop, or that we’d’ve been briefed in on a black op like this — assuming anyone back home could’ve been stupid enough to sanction it — completely eludes me, but there it is.”

She shrugged. It was an angry, frustrated gesture, Gervais noted.

“On top of that, we’re less than two hundred and sixty light-years from Mesa,” she went on. “No one expects the Mesans to launch some kind of retaliatory strike at us, but they’re for damned straight going to play it for all it’s worth in the League. And given how far they’ve already gone to destabilize the Quadrant, there’s no telling how else they might try to capitalize on it. For one thing, I think we can be pretty damned sure they’re going to be flogging their version of what happened to every independent star system in hopes of keeping any more of them from siding with us or being ‘neutral’ in the Star Empire’s favor. It looks like the Solly newsies are fully prepared to help them do it, too, to be honest, and we need to be able to knock that on the head. While I doubt Ensign Zilwicki’s in a position to shed any light on what actually happened in Green Pines, any window into what her father might have been doing — really doing, I mean — to lead Mesa to make this kind of claim could be extraordinarily useful.”

“I haven’t discussed it with her, Ma’am,” Gervais said. “I haven’t seen her face-to-face since the story hit Spindle, and, to be honest, it wasn’t something I wanted to discuss with her over the com. My understanding is that it’s been months since she actually saw her father, though, and frankly, I doubt she’d be able to add anything much to what we already know.”

“I understand your feelings, Gwen.” Shoupe’s tone was a bit cooler. “I’m afraid this comes under the heading of doing my job, however. In fact, there’s a part of me that’s inclined to invite her in to personally discuss anything she might know, think, or suspect in my office. I’m trying to avoid turning this into some sort of formal interrogation because I don’t doubt for a moment that she’s even more worried — and with a lot better personal reasons — than anyone else in the Quadrant.”