Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 37

“Not your fault.” Kaplan shook her head. “You’ve actually done better than I expected, given how small — and how far from home — Saltash is. I didn’t think you’d be able to pull this much out of the files.”

Simpkins’ smile showed his pleasure at the compliment, and she smiled back at him briefly. Then she returned her attention to Tallman.

“Like I say, Alvin, we don’t really have a good enough feel for Dueñas to make any predictions on how he’s likely to react when we turn up on his doorstep. Unless he’s a fool, he has to’ve known word of his activities was going to get to the Talbott Quadrant sooner or later, though, so I’m not exactly inclined towards wild optimism about how reasonable he’s likely to be. Captain Zavala checked with everybody in Montana who’s had dealings with Saltash, but he’s only held the governorship for less than a T-year. That’s not long enough for anyone to’ve gotten a real handle on his personality. On the other hand, he was sent out here specifically to replace his predecessor after things started going into the crapper between us and the League, and try as I might, I can’t convince myself that’s a good sign.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there, Ma’am?” Tallman smiled fleetingly. “Just once I wish we could do it the easy way, though.”

“Oh, I do, too,” Kaplan told him, and then she showed her own teeth in a thinner and far colder smile. “I do, too,” she repeated, “but one thing Saltash is not going to be, people.” She looked around the conference table. “It isn’t going to be another New Tuscany. Not this time.”

* * *

“Any new thoughts occur to anyone since our last meeting?” Jacob Zavala asked.

His squadron was eleven days out from Montana and still four days short of Saltash by the clocks of the galaxy at large, although only eight days had passed by DesRon 301’s clocks, and his com display was split into four equal sized quadrants. Each quadrant was further subdivided into thirds to show the commanders, executive officers, and tactical officers of four of his squadron’s five destroyers. Commander Rochelle Goulard, Lieutenant Commander Jasmine Carver, and Lieutenant Samuel Turner of HMS Kay were physically present in his flagship’s briefing room, along with Lieutenant Commander George Auerbach, his chief of staff, and Lieutenant Commander Alice Gabrowski, his operations officer. Now he looked around the faces — electronic as well as flesh and blood — with one eyebrow raised.

“I’ve got something, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Rützel, HMS Gaheris’ CO said. He was a heavyset man with a face designed for smiling, but at the moment he was frowning slightly, instead. “Not so much a new thought as an observation, though.”

“Observe away, Toby,” Zavala invited.

“I’ve been looking back at the information — such as it is — we’ve been able to pull together on Shona Station, Sir. I know none of our data suggests the station mounts any anti-ship weaponry, but according to the best info we have, there’s an OFS intervention battalion permanently stationed there. I realize it’s probably going to have a lot of its personnel deployed as detachments on Cinnamon and elsewhere around the system, but if they’ve managed to hang on to any significant portion of that troop strength and we have to actually board the station, things could get ugly.”

There was silence for a moment. Then Captain Morgan, HMS Gawain’s CO and the squadron’s senior captain, spoke.

“Toby’s got a point, Sir,” he said. “Under most circumstances, it probably shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ve already had ample evidence the Sollies are willing to push things way past the point of reason. Especially when we don’t have a batch of Marines of our own to send aboard to help them recognize the logic of our argument.”

Zavala nodded soberly.

“You’ve both got points,” he agreed. “I’d like to think any responsible officer would recognize the need to stand down when we turn up in strength, but people have different definitions of ‘responsible.’ And let’s be fair here. I’d find it difficult to roll over and play dead if a Solly squadron came sailing into a star system I was responsible for defending and started throwing around demands.”

“And Frank’s right about our dearth of Marines, Sir,” Naomi Kaplan said a bit grimly. “Holding down crew size is all well and good, and I’m all in favor of the increased efficiency for shipboard operations, but not having any Marine detachment for moments like this is a pain in the ass.”

Abigail Hearns, by far the youngest officer attending the conference, nodded unconsciously in agreement with her CO’s observation. She seemed to specialize in being short of Marines when she needed them, Abigail thought wryly, remembering a really unpleasant afternoon on a planet called Tiberian and another, almost as bad, aboard a shattered hulk which had once been the Solarian superdreadnought Charles Babbage.

Never around when you need one, she reflected wryly. Well, aside from Mateo, she amended, thinking about Lieutenant Mateo Gutierrez.

“There are moments when something more…flexible than a laser head seems indicated,” Zavala acknowledged. “Hopefully this won’t be one of them. We do need to be prepared in advance if it turns out it is, however. Now I wonder who among us might be best qualified by experience and training to oversee a little responsibility like this?”

His tone was almost whimsical as his eyes tracked across the com display. He smiled as they came to rest upon one of his officers’ faces, and Abigail found herself looking back at him.

“I believe you’ve had some small experience in matters like this, haven’t you, Lieutenant Hearns?”

* * *

“What’s this all about, Vice Admiral?” Damián Dueñas demanded a bit testily. He’d been in bed for less than two hours when the emergency com call came in, and he wasn’t one of those people who woke up cheerful.

“We’ve confirmed a significant hyper footprint, Governor,” Vice Admiral Oxana Dubroskaya replied from his display. “Gravitics make it five separate point sources.”

Dueñas stiffened and felt his face oozing towards expressionlessness. Merchantships didn’t travel in shoals like that in Solarian dominated space, and he wasn’t expecting any additional Navy visitors. Or not from his own Navy, at any rate.

“What else can you tell me, Vice Admiral?” he asked after a moment.

“Less than I’d like to, Sir.” Dubroskaya she didn’t much care for Dueñas, and she’d argued — respectfully — against his plan from the outset, which was one reason she took such care to address him as courteously as possible. “They’re headed in-system now, but they made their translation right on the hyper limit, and they’re still over nine light-minutes from Cimarron. It’ll be another couple of minutes before we can get any lightspeed sensor reads on them. I can confirm that they’re headed for the inner system on a least-time course for a zero/zero intercept with the planet in approximately” — her eyes moved to the time display in the corner of her own com — “another one hundred and seventy-one minutes, however. From their footprints and the strength of their wedges, CIC puts them in the hundred and fifty to two hundred-ton range, but their initial velocity was nine hundred and twenty-six kilometers per second, and they’re up to just over thirty-two hundred now. That means they’re accelerating at five-point-six KPS squared, Governor.”