Chapter Twenty-Five

“Take a seat, Matt,” Commander Ursula Zeiss invited, pointing at one of the chairs in front of her desk as Lieutenant Maitland Askew stepped through her shipboard office door.

Askew obeyed the polite command, seating himself in the indicated chair, then watched as she punched the console button to close the door behind him.
Askew was twenty-eight T-years old, with sandy-brown hair, brown eyes, and a wiry build. He was slightly below average in height – in fact, the compactly but solidly built Zeiss was at least a centimeter taller than he was – and something about him gave an impression of continual bemusement. Zeiss was one of the people who knew better than to take that “bemusement” at face value. There was a brain behind those mild brown eyes, and it seldom truly shut down.
Which, of course, was part of her current problem, she thought, sitting back and contemplating him thoughtfully across her desk.
“You wanted to see me, Ma’am?” he observed after several moments of her silent scrutiny, and she snorted.
“Of course I wanted to see you. I always want to see you, don’t I?”
Askew’s lips twitched ever so slightly at her acerbic tone. Zeiss was SLNS Jean Bart’s tactical officer, and Askew had been her assistant tac officer for almost two T-years now. They’d worked well together over that time, but there was no denying that they had fundamentally different personalities. Zeiss was an excellent training officer, and her main interest – and strength — lay in recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of her human material and adjusting for them. Askew’s personnel management skills, while adequate, were nowhere near as strong as hers were, and his main interest was in what he called the “nuts and bolts” of the tactical officer’s trade. As a result, Zeiss tended to leave hardware issues in his hands while she got on with other things. As a rule, that worked well, but sometimes the difference in their emphases led to a certain amount of . . . friction, perhaps. That wasn’t really the exact word Askew was searching for, but it came closer than anything else he could come up with.
“I’d like to think you’re usually able to at least tolerate my presence, Ma’am,” he said now. “On the other hand, I had the impression that there was something specific you wanted to discuss with me.”
“You had the right impression, then,” Zeiss said, straightening in her chair with a considerably more serious expression. She looked at him for another few moments, then waggled one hand in the air in front of her.
“Captain Mizawa had a little discussion with Captain Aberu yesterday,” she said, “and it would appear your name came up.”
“My name?” Askew repeated carefully, and frowned when Zeiss nodded.
Captain Warden Mizawa, Jean Bart’s CO, was one of the better officers Askew had ever served under. He was also career Frontier Fleet, like Askew – and, for that matter, Zeiss – and not particularly fond of Battle Fleet officers, like Ingeborg Aberu, Admiral Byng’s staff operations officer. It wasn’t likely the two of them had just gotten together for a friendly chat over a stein of beer. Coupled with Zeiss’ expression, that lent a somewhat ominous aspect to the thought that his name might have come up in conversation between them.
“May I ask the context, Ma’am?” he inquired even more cautiously.
“It would appear, Matt, that Captain Aberu is not one of your greater admirers. Did you do something at some point that might have personally stepped on her toes? Something that might explain why she’d take a certain degree of dislike to you?”
“Ma’am,” Askew said, “I don’t even know Captain Aberu. Aside from the dinner party Captain Mizawa hosted when the Admiral and his staff came aboard, I don’t think I’ve ever even been introduced to her.”
Which, he did not add aloud, would not be the case if she were on the staff of a Frontier Fleet Admiral.
There was remarkably little love lost between Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet at the best of times, and Askew wasn’t immune to that institutional lack of mutual admiration. All the same, Admiral Byng and his staff seemed to have taken the traditional rivalry between the two services to an all-time high. There’d been virtually no social interaction between them and Captain Mizawa’s officers, despite the lengthy voyage involved in just getting to the Madras Sector. Obviously, they’d had better things to do with their time. And they’d made it abundantly — one might almost have said painfully — clear that the sole function of the none-too-bright ship’s company of SLNS Jean Bart was to chauffeur them around the galaxy while they got on with the business of sorting out everything Frontier Security and the local Frontier Fleet detachment had managed to screw up beyond all repair here in the Madras Sector. Probably because none of them knew how to seal their flies after taking a leak.
So why, after totally ignoring Jean Bart’s entire company ever since they’d come aboard, should Captain Aberu find herself “discussing” Maitland Askew with Captain Mizawa? Right off hand, he couldn’t think of a single reason, and he doubted very much that he was going to like where this was headed.
“I didn’t think you’d ever crossed swords with her,” Zeiss said, “but apparently you’ve managed to really piss her off. I suspect this had a little something to do with it.”
She reached into her drawer, withdrew a fairly thick sheaf of hard copy, and slid it across the deck to him. He picked it up, glanced at the header on the first page, then looked quickly back at her with his eyes full of questions.
“No,” she answered the first of those questions, “I don’t know how Aberu got hold of it. I suspect that neither the Captain, nor the Exec, nor I are going to be very happy if we ever manage to find out. The salient point in your case, however, is that the Admiral’s operations officer has apparently read your little treatise and been singularly . . . unimpressed by it.”
Askew looked back down at the header. “A Preliminary Appreciation of Potential Technology Advances of the Royal Manticoran Navy,” it said, and in the originating officer’s name block it said “Askew, Maitland, LT.”
“Ma’am, this is the report the Captain asked me for,” he began carefully, “and I never meant for it to –“
”I’m well aware that it was never intended for general circulation, Matt,” Zeiss interrupted him. “That’s why I said I don’t expect to be particularly happy when I find out how it came to be in Aberu’s hands. One thing I do know, though, is that it didn’t get there by accident. So either someone from the ship’s company gave it to her, or else . . . .”