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Excerpt for Sydney Chambers Omnibus #1 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

SYDNEY CHAMBERS:

OMNIBUS

#1



Two CONFEDERACY Novels

in one volume

First Officer • Captain

 

 

by B. T. Jaybush


SYDNEY CHAMBERS: OMNIBUS #1

 

SMASHWORDS EDITION

 

Copyright © 2018

by Brian Jaybush and Timothy Jaybush

(writing as B. T. Jaybush)

 

Visit Brian and Timothy on the web at

www.BTJaybush.com

 

All rights reserved

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the authors.

 

This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to people or places, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 



CONTENTS



FIRST OFFICER

CAPTAIN

A SYDNEY CHAMBERS TIMELINE

FUTURE INSTALLMENTS

ABOUT B. T. JAYBUSH


 

SYDNEY CHAMBERS:

FIRST

OFFICER

The Prequel to CAPTAIN



a CONFEDERACY Novel

 

 

by B. T. Jaybush



Copyright © 2018

by Brian Jaybush and Timothy Jaybush

(writing as B. T. Jaybush)




 



CHAPTER ONE

Twenty-eight Months Before

 

 

“Transit completed, Captain. We’re in Cyg-A space.”

“Acknowledged, Mr. Systern.” Captain Jonathan Moley held himself in tight check, waiting for what seemed to be the inevitable pirate attack when a freighter such as the Spirit of Shenandoah entered the environs of 16 Cygni-A, one of two type-G stars in the 16 Cygni trinary. Pirate activity had soared in both A and B over the previous couple of years but the A system was by far the most dangerous. “Keep on your toes. They usually hit —”

“Captain, I’ve got a contact! It’s ...” Systern broke off as he scrambled to verify his readings. “It’s definitely pirates.”

Moley shuddered at the words, his eyes closed and his fists clenched against his command chair. After drawing and releasing two deep breaths the captain asked, his voice mostly steady, “Time to intercept, Mr. Systern?”

“Looks like four minutes, Captain. They’re real close.”

Moley drew another steadying breath before responding. “Standard protocol,” he said at last. “Lock us down and ...”

The ship shuddered slightly from what could only be a launch. The captain broke off his usual order and jabbed frantically at the all-ship call button. “What the hell was that?”

It was a few seconds before a sheepish voice answered back. “Collins here, sir. I, ah … well, I launched a … a tracker. Sir.”

Moley felt a fist of fear smash full force into his belly. “All hands,” he said into the all-ship, his voice tight. “We’ve launched against a pirate vessel. As of this moment, consider yourselves dead. Get your useless butts into lock-down, anyway. Never mind the ship and the systems, people, just move! Everyone into the hole in sixty seconds or less if you want any chance at all!”

“Sir —” Systern began.

“You heard me, mister,” the captain snapped. “Leave everything as is and get your ass to the hole. At this point I don’t give a damn about the cargo or the ship, I just want a chance to see my granddaughter again.”

Both men turned and sprinted as fast as they could for the “hole,” a special compartment that had been added to all Cygni freight vessels since piracy had begun to grow rampant. Usually, the crew would secure the ship’s systems before heading for the bolt hole; once the pirates had taken what they wanted the crew would re-emerge to complete their interrupted voyage.

Except no one had ever survived firing on a pirate vessel, not even launching something as innocuous as a tracker.

It was the stroke of fifty-nine seconds when Moley entered the lockdown, the last one to do so. He slapped the control that would seal the room and activate its separate three-day oxygen supply; three seconds after that the Spirit shuddered from a pirate laser blast smashing through her engine compartment, turning that entire section of the vessel to slag.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Twenty-seven months before

 

1

 

“Commander Sydney Chambers, reporting for duty.”

Captain Horace Steubing ignored the officer braced at attention in his command office aboard the TSM Tecumseh, continuing instead to study a data pad containing that officer’s credentials along with her orders to report to Steubing as Tecumseh’s new first officer. The credentials were impressive for one so young, with less than a decade of TSM service under her belt: Commendations, successful tours, and rapid progressions following on a record of sterling academic achievement at TSM Academy. Steubing ignored the details, for the most part. His concern with his new first officer was not how well she performed, nor how she might fit in with the crew. Steubing’s main interest was how easily she could be kept out of the profitable loop that he and his other top officers had perfected during their years together on Tecumseh. The sudden and premature death of Steubing’s former first officer, Alex Manion, had rattled all of them. Not even one of the survivors had bothered to consider this new person for inclusion in their little enterprise, though … not an officer who was so young and so obviously idealistic, and definitely not an officer with such close ties to the admiralty.

It was an open secret that Admiral Lord Stephen Alexander was Sydney Chambers’ long-time mentor. While Lord Alexander was no longer the admiral to whom Steubing reported — that position was currently held by Admiral Lady Alexander, the commander of Frontier Fleet, to which Tecumseh had migrated several years before — Sydney’s pedigree in that regard was entirely too dangerous for comfort.

“At ease, Commander,” Steubing finally allowed, belatedly and half-heartedly returning the salute that Sydney had been holding since coming to attention minutes before. “Welcome to the Tecumseh.”

“Thank you, sir. I —”

“I have a few questions, Commander Chambers.”

The new exec snapped her mouth shut, swallowing anything she had been about to say. “Yes, sir.”

“This is your first tour as an executive officer, I see.”

“Since graduating, yes, sir.”

Steubing formed his mouth into a smile that a dispassionate observer might better describe as a smirk. “I don’t give much weight to Middie cruises, Commander. I do note that you’re rather young for the posting. Don’t you agree?”

“Sir,” Sydney said, and drew a breath before continuing. “My promotion to commander did come somewhat sooner than I had anticipated.”

“Sooner than pretty well anyone expected,” Steubing interjected. “Sooner than damn near any officer before you.”

Sydney forced herself not to blink at her new captain’s tone. “Those things are both true, yes, sir,” she said, speaking carefully so as not to step onto any metaphorical landmines. “I was given to understand that the sudden vacancy on this vessel caused a bit of a problem for the personnel office. Personnel believed, though, that I had shown some talent in those areas most relevant to the position of first officer. It was therefore Personnel’s request that I assist them in resolving their problem. My understanding, sir, is that, while Personnel considered my age to be an unusual factor, their hope was that someone of your long experience would serve as an excellent teacher for an individual in my position.”

“Personnel,” Steubing spat, clearly not liking the taste of the word. “They don’t really give a crap who they send where, as long as slots get filled. Tecumseh is more discriminating about its cadre.

He narrowed his eyes at the young officer in front of him. “You believe that I should teach you to be the first officer of this ship, do you?”

 “Sir, I have been assured that is what Personnel believes. My beliefs in the matter are irrelevant, at this point.”

“Damn straight.” Steubing stared at Sydney for a long moment, silent, brown eyes blank beneath a carefully groomed head of coal-black hair, his sculptured features unreadable. “So tell me, Commander, why should I believe you’re any more trainable than a hound dog? Why should I spend my time and energy doing that?”

Sydney fought hard against the urge to gulp before she answered. “Well, sir, I would venture to suggest that offering me guidance in the particulars of serving as executive officer of a vessel of this size would allow you the opportunity to extend your well-known propensity for an efficiently-run ship unto a new generation of officers. I might also suggest, sir, that — at least in the short term — teaching me to do things your way will smooth my transition into the position that Commander Manion filled so ably for the past five years.”

Sydney paused a moment before adding, “Sir, I am fully conversant with the duties and responsibilities of an exec according to the book. I am also quite aware that ‘the book’ and the reality of actual service are frequently at odds. You are someone who has not only served as a first officer, you have also commanded first officers. That experience would be priceless to me.”

The captain sat back in his chair, allowing his features to slowly turn from blank to thoughtful. “Not bad, Commander Chambers,” he commented after a moment, his voice droll. “That was a nice suck-up.”

“Sir, sucking up wasn’t my intention —”

“Of course it was, Commander,” the captain overrode her protest. “In your position, I’d do the same thing. I can’t help but notice, though, that you didn’t hit me with the one fact more compelling than any other.”

Sydney snapped her mouth shut as she felt a chill run down her spine, managing only by sheer dent of will to retain her outward calm. “Sir?”

“I’m stuck with you, whether I like it or not.”

Steubing quirked his mouth into the semblance of a smile and allowed a small portion of it to reach his eyes. “Perhaps, in fairness, it might be better to say that we are stuck with each other, Commander, for better or for worse.” When his new officer didn’t seem to relax, the captain forced a full smile onto his face and even chuckled softly.

“Lighten up, Commander. I have yet to kill a junior officer in cold blood, not even by accident ... and you have sufficient rank to make working you to death more than a little awkward to explain to Command. So, we will work together and we will get along. That, Commander Chambers, is both a promise ... and an order.”

Sydney finally allowed herself to relax slightly. “Thank you, sir.”

“That being said,” Steubing continued, “you will find that ‘the book’ with which you are so conversant definitely does not cover much of the reality of being First Officer of the Tecumseh. For one thing, I tend to be independent in extremis regarding decisions involving my ship and the people on my ship. What that means is, I expect you to manage the duty roster. I expect you to handle matters with enlisted crew and with anyone below lieutenant, on your own, just as ‘the book’ describes. Do not expect to be consulted about matters involving any other personnel; you will definitely not be asked about anything to do with ship functions or command decisions. I’m not interested in your opinions, I won’t ask for them and I don’t expect them to be offered. Clear?”

The chill was back in Sydney’s spine. “Yes, sir.”

Steubing’s eyes sparkled as they remained fixed on his new officer, but there wasn’t the smallest touch of humor behind the effect.

“Oh, buck up, Commander,” the captain grumbled, “I gave the same speech to Al Manion when he first reported to me, and to the man who came before him as well. That’s just the way I run this ship. It has nothing to do with you as a person or your lack of experience as a commander.

“Plus,” Steubing added, for the first time sounding slightly conciliatory, “if you do your work well and learn fast, then you never know. I just might ask for your opinion somewhere down the road. Don’t hold your breath, of course, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. I’m not a fool; I’ve read your record. I understand that, in the fullness of time, you will likely have something to offer that might merit my consideration.

“For now, go get yourself settled. You’ll find the crew roster and the current duty lists on the terminal in your quarters. The current duty list is good through end of week, so you’ve got a couple of days before you need to post your first attempt. I expect you at my table in the officers’ mess tonight, seventeen hundred sharp, so I can formally introduce you to the rest of the command staff. After tonight you’re on your own as to where you sit or if you even eat in the mess. Beginning tomorrow you’ll take second watch on the bridge — that’s sixteen hundred to midnight; we run traditional tours on the Tecumseh, not like some of the fancy ships where your record indicates you’ve served.

“Now, get out of here, Commander. You’re dismissed until mess call.”

Sydney offered a formal salute. “Yes, sir,” she nearly snapped, then turned and exited the captain’s office as gracefully as she could. As Steubing watched her go he felt his jaw clench in anger at the drones in personnel who had cut Sydney’s orders — and at the incessant Confederacy-wide budget cuts that had likely been the driving force behind those orders.

Kee-rist in a straitjacket, the captain thought to himself. Not only a rookie, but a spick-and-span clean one with a stick up her ass and ties to the Admiralty. What a fine kettle of fish we’re going to face every time we have to make a pickup or delivery.

He toggled his intercom to summon Tom Spencer, his second officer and surviving partner in the Tecumseh’s decidedly unsanctioned side business, for a strategy session.

 

 

 

2

 

“ ... they had essentially no oxygen left when we got to them, Manager.” Bart Jurgens, director of Arega Shipping Lines Ltd., continued to glare at Walter Rudolph, manager of Outpost Station and senior representative of the Terran Confederacy to 16 Cygni. “Not to mention they were all more than a little bit hungry. We stock water in those lockdowns, Manager, but not much in the way of food — most pirate strikes last only an hour or so. These people were stuck in there for days. The ship itself was holed in three places; it’s a complete loss. The salvage value of the metal will barely cover the cost of towing it in. Of course, the cargo was completely gone.

“While I admit that this is by far the worst case that we’ve had in recent months, I can’t emphasize enough that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a rare cargo that goes through untouched anymore. We can’t take it any longer. Not only are we losing cargos, we came close to losing lives on this one. We’ve definitely started to lose crews — spacers are refusing to fly the rigs until something is done.”

Walter Rudolph settled back in his chair, sighing lightly as he cast his eyes about his office. The number of Cygni industrialists gathered there was unprecedented — leaders of shipping, mining, and manufacturing, from all four inhabited worlds of Cygni’s three stars. Moreover, all of them were clamoring for action.

The problem, to Rudolph’s mind, was that none of them realized just how little he could do.

“So what is it you want from me, gentlemen, ladies?”

“Ships!” The voice from the back of the gathering was quickly followed by several calls of “Here, here,” and “Right!” The man standing directly in front of Rudolph’s desk, though, shook his head.

“No, we can build our own ships,” Jurgens said, turning to look at his fellow scions of industry. “I told you we have to ask for the moon here, people.” He turned back to face Rudolph one more. “We need the one thing that this system can’t supply for itself, Manager Rudolph. The one thing the Confederacy has sole authority over. We need the military. We need the navy here to patrol our spaceways.”

Rudolph was silent a moment. “You want me to request a TSM flythrough?”

“No, you’re not quite understanding,” came a woman voice. “We can’t settle for anything that temporary — the bastards will just crawl back out of the woodwork when the fleet leaves again. What we need is a naval presence. Ships stationed here permanently. As many as they can send.” Rudolph looked past Jurgens to find Rachel Heinz of A2 Mining Enterprises taking a step toward him.

Heinz’s words were greeted with nods and a strong rumble of agreement. The manager let the noise die down before looking back at Bart Jurgens, who had arranged for the meeting and was the unofficial spokesperson for the group.

“Is that what you’re asking for?”

Jurgens nodded. “Yeah, Rachel said it right. Manager, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask,” he said, frustration resounding in his words. “We pay our taxes. We pay more than our share of duties on shipping both in and out of Cygni. Every other member system gets Confederacy and TSM support. Why don’t we?”

“Could have something to do with the fact that we’re out here in the boondocks,” Rudolph said. “God lost his pants when he last visited 16 Cygni and was too embarrassed to ask the TSM to come and look for ’em.”

“Are you saying —”

“No, of course not.” Rudolph cut Heinz’s sputter off before she could get wound up. “But you have to remember that Cygni is not a full member state of the Confederacy, not yet. That’s a big hurdle in something like this. You people have stuffed the ballot box every time full membership’s come up for consideration, voting it down like a curse. You say that you love your freedom and your independence. Well, pirates love their freedom and independence, too. If you keep yours, you’ve got to expect them to want to keep theirs. Someday you’re going to have to bite the bullet and understand that one leads to the other.

“Oh, I’ll send on the request, of course. I can try to sell it as stopping the pirates before they spread to other systems that are full members. I wouldn’t set my hopes too high, though, if I were you, folks. TSM is not going to send in the whole fleet, not even a small part of it. Speaking of which, what kind of help are you saying I should ask for? A ship for each star? Two ships? A whole wing?”

“Shoot for the moon,” Jurgens reiterated. “Ask for everything you can think of, and maybe we’ll get half of what we need.”

Walter Rudolph found himself smiling for the first time that afternoon. “I can do that. And I suspect that is just about exactly what you’ll get — half of what you need. But what you need right now is to be aware of something that I’ve learned the hard way over the last twenty years, trying to keep this station and this system together.

“The reality of our existence, people, is that bureaucracy and the TSM tend to move on a glacial time scale. Hell, everyone on Terra seems to think that ‘tomorrow’ and ‘next century’ mean the same thing. I suspect that you experience much of the same type of response when you try to pry something out of your own corporate offices back on Terra. Sure, I’ll send the request off today … but that request won’t get responded to today, or next week, or next month. Maybe not even next year.”

The manager formed his features into a look that was part smile, part grimace. “Rest assured, though, the request will be sent today. In fact, I had my assistant draw up an application for pretty much exactly what you folks are asking for, shortly after you asked for this meeting. All I have to do is fill in the numbers that you want and off it goes. I’ll be sending it by the fastest method available: courier boat to the closest system that has a direct link back to Confederacy Central. Now, that’ll take a while, and it’ll take at least couple of days for the Confederacy staff in that system to figure out what to do with it. They won’t believe that we’re begging for what they take for granted. Eventually, they’ll pass it on, but it’s going to take time before they do. Add to that the transit time in the —” he fashioned a set of air quotes “— ‘direct link’ and I believe you’ll find that it might get to Central in about a week. That’s a best case scenario; more likely, figure two weeks. Or more.

“Then, of course, the Confederacy has to get off their lazy butts before they even read the thing. If there’s anything that moves slower than a snail, it’s a Confederate bureaucrat. After they finally read it, they’ll probably dither and fuss and consider it for another six months before passing it on to TSM with a notation that says, ‘Somebody out in the boonies has a stick up their ass, so why don’t you maybe think about doing something.’ TSM may or may not do something, depending on who gets that message, because — again! — Cygni isn’t a full member state and they flat out don’t have to care.

“Bottom line is this, folks: Prepare yourselves to deal with pirates for the long haul. There is a cavalry out there, without a doubt. It may even be that they’re only a call away. But it’s a very long distance call from 16 Cygni, and we can’t be sure that their receiver’s call signal isn’t on mute.”

 

 

 

3

 

“Well, would you get a load of this.”

Jan Remlinger raised her eyes to consider her co-worker, Jerry Simmonds. The two of them comprised the entire work force of the Terran Confederacy Colonial Communications Team. The listed purpose of the TCCCT was to facilitate dialog between the Confederacy’s far-flung member states, and between those states and the central government. The fact that none of the member states were colonies anymore was considered a minor impediment to the free flow of information, so no one ever bothered to question the organization’s name. Likewise, few seemed to wonder how two people could manage to read, process, and forward, the hundreds of thousands of official communications which were generated annually by Terra’s fifty territorial children. In fact, those few who did question the efficiency of the system tended to reside in the member states in question … and their queries regarding the process were routinely routed across the desks of Remlinger and Simmonds. The pair considered such inquiries to be comic relief and processed them as such.

But the tone of Jerry’s voice was such that it gave Jan hope of something new and different to break the monotony, so she decided to respond to her partner’s muttered remark rather than simply ignoring it, as was her usual practice.

“What? Somebody on Gliese C asking to fund an ice palace for the royal family?” Gliese C was a particularly cold world whose residents tended to outlandish requests. Workers at the TCCCT relished communications from Gliese as a reliable source of amusement.

“Huh?” Simmonds focused on his partner, taking a moment to realize she was responding to a comment he hadn’t consciously spoken aloud. “Oh. No, nothing like that, but this may be even funnier. Guy in charge of the station at 16 Cygni reports what he calls ‘an alarming increase in pirate activity’ and wants TSM to send out a fleet of ships to deal with it.”

“Well, yo ho ho,” Jan replied, giggling slightly. “Pirates, in this day and age? That’s rich.”

“You think?” Still, Jerry hesitated before routing the request to TCCCT hold status — the equivalent of what, in a time long past, had been called the Dead Letter Office. “Still, it’s something new and different, isn’t it? And last we heard from the guys up in Colonial Affairs they were looking for things new and different. I think they just want more opportunities to justify their jobs, but what the heck.”

Jan considered. “Yeah, you may have something there,” she said, her tone thoughtful. “Tell you what. Maria Alderton up in CA sent me a box of Altarian candies that she couldn’t eat — something about an allergy. Apparently, she got them as a ... uh, ‘token of thanks,’ she said. Anyway, how about you route the thing to her.”

“As a thank you for the candy?”

“Nah,” Jan said, and made a particularly sour face. “As retribution for the candy. Stuff stank to high heaven.”

Both civil servants laughed evilly, then Jerry entered Maria Alderton as the forwarding recipient and touched “send.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

Twenty-six Months Before

 

“Finally on the agenda today,” said Colonial Affairs Commission chairperson Alison Hendrick, glancing around the plush boardroom that the commission used for its weekly sessions, “is this curious little bit from the wild frontier. It seems that there is a situation at 16 Cygni. It was brought to the attention of my aide, Maria Alderton, who thought that we might get a laugh out of it.”

There was a pause as Hendrick shuffled the item to the screens of fellow commissioners George Hermann and Amy Stephanopolous, then another couple of minutes as the two examined the request. Hermann was already laughing before he had half finished reading.

“Is this fellow serious? Pirates.” The senior of the three commissioners, Hermann was also the one most firmly entrenched in the ideal of maintaining status quo ... possibly, because the interstellar shipping cooperative that his family had managed since two centuries before continued to profit so handsomely from the stable conditions that the status quo represented. “Truly laughable. I believe the last validated report that I saw on space piracy was generated more than a century ago. Makes me wonder if we’re testing our candidates for system administrator quite thoroughly enough.”

“It is a kicker, isn’t it,” Hendrick agreed. “I do believe I recall that century-old report you refer to. Didn’t the ‘pirates’ turn out to be a bunch of kids running wild in their family yachts while their parents were away somewhere?”

“I believe so,” Hermann chuckled. “Which is probably what’s going on here. Pirates, indeed.”

“So then,” Hendrick said, joining in Hermann’s chuckle, “amusing as it is, this is one more item for the —”

“Not so fast.”

Both Hendrick and Hermann choked on their laughter as their heads snapped around to stare in shock at the final member of their commission. Amy Stephanopolous was not only junior on the commission, having joined them a mere three months earlier, she was also only thirty-six years of age, decades younger than either of her fellow commissioners. None the less, the Stephanopolous name carried significant weight … not only with her fellow commissioners, but also in the wider community of the Confederate government. Members of her family had served in a myriad of Confederate offices over the centuries: Her illustrious ancestors included two presidents, half a dozen prime ministers, and nearly a score of senators, plus uncounted functionaries in the various and sundry appointed offices that crowded the Confederate bureaucracy. While Amy Stephanopolous had not yet proven herself to be in the same class as her illustrious forebears, neither had she disproven her right to membership in that stellar pantheon.

Hendrick and Hermann quickly glanced at each other and nodded in silent agreement to give their usually silent junior member the benefit of the doubt.

“You have an alternative viewpoint, Ms. Stephanopolous?”

“I do, Ms. Hendrick,” Stephanopolous began, then double-checked the wording on her screen before continuing. “Don’t get me wrong, at first glance I find the proposition of pirates as humorous as do both of you. However, I can’t help remembering what my aunt, Admiral Meredith Stephanopolous, once told me about pirates.”

Hermann had managed to recover from his surprise at Stephanopolous speaking up on the matter; now he found his surprise renewed and himself intrigued — he hadn’t realized that Amy Stephanopolous had links to the TSM as well as every other part of Confederate government. “What was it that the admiral had to say,” he asked when Stephanopolous lapsed into silence, as much to learn a new tidbit about the usually quiet junior commissioner as to keep her from withdrawing into her own thoughts once more.

“Well,” Stephanopolous said, her voice tenuous now that she found herself the center of attention, “Aunt Meri was an absolute well of stories about her years in space. It hasn’t been all that long, you know, since the navy actually had to fight a lot of battles, especially out in the wilds where 16 Cygni is. Anyway, one of her stories was about pirates. My aunt said that she actually fought pirates and that it was only something like thirty years ago. It wasn’t just kids pranking, either, but a nasty bunch who kept stealing ships and cargoes running between a couple of the newer colonies. Hip Six-Three-something-or-other and 70 Virginis were the colonies she mentioned, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is, there was a really big fight before they wiped out the pirates. The TSM ships took a lot of damage, lost a lot of people.”

“Really?” Hendrick, too, now found herself intrigued. “As recent as thirty years ago?”

Stephanopolous nodded. “My aunt down-played her own role in the fight, because I think she was only a commander at the time and wasn’t making all the decisions. She was adamant, though, that there are still pirates out there.”

“Huh.” Hermann drummed his fingers on his terminal stand in thoughtful contemplation. “Now that you mention it I do have a vague memory of us — that is, the family company — having some kind of trouble out that way. It could have been around thirty years back, I suppose; by that time I’d already put my company shares in trust and joined this commission, so I wasn’t getting reports as frequently as I had before. There was quite a stir among the board members for a while, but I never bothered to follow up because the discussions simply stopped. I presumed the situation had been dealt with.” He shook his head. “Pirates. Who would have thought.”

Hendrick glanced between her two colleagues, a frown forming on her face. “This is all well and good,” she said, “and I have to admit I do find the idea intriguing more than funny now that I’ve heard your stories. But it begs the question: What are we supposed to do about this request?” She focused on Stephanopolous as having been the one to pursue the issue. “Do you have a suggestion?”

Stephanopolous smiled meekly. “Well, I don’t think we can just throw it out,” she said in her usual soft manner.

“Why not simply dump it on the TSM?” Hermann looked pleased with himself at the thought. “After all, they are the ones who’ll have to deal with it if the report has any merit. Route it to them. Let them decide whether to follow up or not.”

“Sounds good to me,” Hendrik said, relief ringing in her voice. “Ms. Stephanopolous?”

The youngest commissioner nodded. “Aunt Meri told me that there’d always be some cowboy in the Navy willing to go check out things like this,” she said. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

Hendrik nodded, and using her authority as chairperson, quickly added a TSM routing to the pending request. Before finishing she asked, “Should we add any recommendation?”

“Nah,” Hermann said. “Let them figure it out, just like we had to.” Stephanopolous nodded in silent agreement.

“Very well, then,” the chairperson agreed. “Indicate on your terminals that you approve of the routing, and I believe that we’re done for the day.”

 


CHAPTER FOUR

Twenty-Five Months Before

 

Lieutenant Commander Ilona Park, Secretary for Resource Allocation of the Terran Space Military’s Central Command, stared at the request on her screen with a raised degree of incredulity ... a state which she seldom entered and disliked with a passion. The request so upset her usual tranquility that she found herself muttering under her breath, a thing she disliked even more than being surprised.

“They want an entire wing just to deal with a few pirates?”

Unlike her civilian counterparts, Park was fully aware that piracy still flourished within the borders of the Terran Confederacy. Frequently enough she would find crossing her desk, reports of actions taken against — or by — pirates, in one or more of the fifty member states.

Now, Park re-read the request slowly, in its entirety. From all the included documentation it was clear that there was, indeed, pirate activity at — what was the place again? 16 Cygni ... the farthest-flung star system that humanity had yet claimed as a permanent outpost. Indeed, the incidents cited caused Park no little discomfort. Stealing cargoes, even stealing whole ships ... those were things expected of such criminals. Some of the activities documented by this Station Manager Walter Rudolph, though, were revolting. Park found her stomach churning over the disregard for human life.

The existence of pirates on the frontier, Park understood, was nothing new. Though TSM and the Confederacy worked hard to keep it quiet, piracy was something that had followed in lock-step synchronicity with every move humanity had taken outward from its origins on Terra. The fact that such acts of criminality had been essentially eradicated in the home system and her more established daughter systems had made it easier to keep that reality hidden; it had not changed the fact that, in those areas where TSM’s presence was the lightest, piracy and similar despicable behavior was at its worst.

There was no TSM presence at 16 Cygni. The surprise was that pirate activity hadn’t been reported there, long before.

The finite nature of TSM resources was nothing new, either. Park’s job constantly presented her with uncomfortable choices: allocate a warship here, a battle group there. One situation might be resolved while another might be exacerbated, or left as a festering sore which would one day lead to a much deadlier conflict and a far higher drain on the people and equipment that constituted the Terran Space Military.

The problem facing her right then was that she had no battle groups or even battleships to allocate. Cutbacks had slowed naval ship production to a crawl, which essentially meant, nothing was built that was not a direct replacement of a ship being retired. Add to that the reality that all existing ships were allocated … locked into wings assigned to member states, states that paid to have those wings in their space … and Park’s hands were essentially tied.

Still, the brutal nature of the documented attacks demanded response. Far out on the rim they may be — and not full members, on top of that — but the residents of 16 Cygni were still citizens of the Confederacy and deserving of the benefits and securities that such citizenship entailed. Only the fact that 16 Cygni was presently in a unique form of TSM limbo — assigned to neither the Home fleet or the Frontier Fleet — rendered the request politically sticky. Park sighed as she finished re-read the glowing words for the third time.

After briefly consulting a list to confirm her memory, Park appended commands to the request that would, over the course of the following few days, route the document to the Command of whichever fleet currently had assets closest to 16 Cygni.



CHAPTER FIVE

Twenty-Four Months Before

 

1

 

Fleet Admiral Lord Stephen Alexander scowled, the action causing an appalling distortion of his otherwise classic features. The target of his displeasure was a message forwarded by his wife, Fleet Admiral Lady Chelsea Alexander, containing a request from the Station Manager of system 16 Cygni.

Cygni, the most recent addition to the Confederacy, was also the one odd-ball system that formally fit under the jurisdiction of neither Frontier Fleet nor Home Fleet. The locals had not yet voted to pay for a Home Fleet presence; that technically defaulted them to the jurisdiction of Lady Alexander’s Frontier Fleet, which was responsible for all TSM activity outside of the Confederacy’s core. However, as his wife’s note pointed out, her organization’s charter was to explore and expand the reach of humanity, not to fight pirates.

 

... Not that we don’t end up facing them here and there, my husband, as you well know; but I currently have no ships available for the task. Besides, this poor system should properly be included in your own Fleet, regardless of their reluctance (or inability) to commit to paying annual fees. A century after joining our beloved Confederacy, these people are long overdue for our support. Blast and bedevil the bureaucrats who have brought us to this, that we cannot serve our citizens unless they pay through the nose first!

Your loving Wife,

Chelsea”

 

Alexander allowed himself a brief tug of emotion. Since he and Lady Chelsea had divided responsibilities for the Confederacy’s two fleets between them, opportunities for them to communicate with each other — let alone spend time together — had become rare and precious. He relished the note and the underlying tenderness, but strongly resented the reason that had impelled her to send it.

Pushing his irritation aside he moved on to assess the situation. According to the request attached to Lady Alexander’s note — sent under the full authority of the most senior Confederacy official in far-away 16 Cygni — the citizens there had lately suffered a “flurry” of pirate activity and needed TSM assistance in dealing with it.

“Well, hell,” the admiral muttered to himself. “Isn’t this a fine mess. Pirates, just when I’ve got no ships to spare, either.”

Alexander was fully aware of the havoc that piracy could cause in a star system, especially one as recently established as 16 Cygni. He had fought pirates many times early in his career and a steady flow of reports from his subordinates showed that pirate activity was still rampant wherever the TSM was weakly represented or completely absent … exactly as at 16 Cygni. Worse, the appearance of organized pirates when a system was still in what all reports said was its “wild west” phase of development could skew that system’s entire future. Swift and decisive military intervention was the most — the only — effective response.

Unfortunately, the admiral was also painfully aware that, in a time of budget restraints and government penny pinching, he did not have even one ship available for dispatch to the beleaguered Cygni system. As for the entire wing that was requested and in all fairness, called for ... that was a complete fantasy.

With a dissatisfied grunt, he dragged the report to his “pending” file and switched his attention to the personnel section on the tablet he held, quickly scanning through the routine movements of officers and enlisted. While his approval was not needed for such everyday assignments, Alexander had long made it a point to keep up with the many thousands of men and women who made up Home Fleet. It was those men and women who made the Terran Space Military work, not the ships and hardware that were merely tools of the trade. It was certainly not the bureaucrats who cut budgets and fidgeted and generally made securing the peace and security of the Confederacy a lot harder than it needed to be.

He was nearly to the bottom of the list when his eye fell on one item that caused him to grunt once more, as well as clenching his jaw in dismay:

Lt. Cdr. Sydney Chambers, promoted to Commander. Assigned, Executive Officer, TSM Tecumseh.

Alexander’s vision blurred and he felt his blood pressure soar. He shut his eyes and fought back with long, slow, deep breaths, his hands trembling until the urge to hurl the tablet across the room slowly receded to a lingering anger. There was little he could do; the report in front of him was, after all, merely a chronicle of what had already happened.

And that particular entry should not have happened.

The admiral glared at the line entry once his vision had cleared. Sydney Chambers, promoted to full Commander. That much he was fine with; in fact, it was right on time, according to his personal schedule. Chambers was a wonder, a singularly talented officer he had discovered while she was still a cadet. She had first crossed his path when her actions saved a ship-full of lives during a Middie cruise gone awry. Though he had interacted with her only briefly, in the larger scheme of Fleet activity and of the several Middie cruises the Academy sponsored each year, Alexander had been instantly convinced that Sydney Chambers was an officer critical to the future of the Confederacy.

Quietly and without her direct knowledge he had taken the young officer under his wing — guiding and boosting her career behind the scenes, continually placing her in positions where her brilliance could shine through and lead to promotion after promotion — until she was now, with this latest promotion, the fastest rising officer in the Terran Space Military, a full commander barely eight years after graduating from TSM Academy.

But Sydney Chambers should not have been dropped into the cesspool that was TSM Tecumseh. That ship’s captain, Horace Steubing, was little better than the pirates of which 16 Cygni had complained.

At that thought, Alexander froze. Was it possible ...

He set aside the tablet he was studying and turned to his desk computer, pulling up a current list of ship assignments. It took nearly a minute to search out a ship that matched the idea quickly gelling in his mind; when he found it a wicked smile slowly began to replace the grimace that had nearly frozen on his lips when he’d noticed Chambers’ assignment. His voice was almost cheerful as he activated the intercom port that connected him to his aide, Commander Anna Czerkawski.

“Commander,” he asked, “is the Cahan Morrigan within hailing range?”

One moment, sir, let me check.” The line fell silent for several seconds as Czerkawski did her job. “Yes, sir, barely,” the commander returned at last. “They’re on patrol ...”

“That’s fine, Commander, I don’t care about their status. Please send my compliments to Captain Furling; I would like him in my office at his earliest convenience.”

Yes, sir,” Czerkawski acknowledged.

Alexander relaxed back into his chair with a definite sense of mixed feelings. He had been planning to maneuver Sydney into a position where she could be tapped as Executive Officer of his flagship, the Shades of Glory, when current XO Stanley Sebring retired in a few months. That plan was now out the airlock. While he had confidence that Sydney would emerge from the Tecumseh with her career intact, there was no chance that she would emerge entirely unscathed by close contact with Horace Steubing. He could not bring an officer with even the slightest taint onto his flagship.

Neither could he afford to lose an officer of Sydney Chambers’ ability.

Decided now, he set about arranging for the several other pieces that would need to fall in place for his new plan to work.

 

 

 

2

 

Admiral, Captain Furling is here.”

Alexander drew a quick breath. It had been several busy days for him since summoning the commander of Cahan Morrigan: reallocating funds, shifting priorities, fast-tracking investigations. The pieces weren’t all in place yet, but the admiral was satisfied with his progress so far. Now came the one move that involved asking for help rather than simply cutting an order … and he found himself torn. Francis Furling had been a visiting professor during Alexander’s student days at TSM Academy and the two had become fast friends, one of those odd circumstances where the end result could never be seen as the sum of its parts. He was about to ask of his old friend for a favor that wasn’t difficult — on paper. From an emotional standpoint, though ...

He shook his head, quashing the doubts without mercy. There were alternatives, but none as good. Furling would simply have to understand.

“Show the captain in, please, Commander.”

The admiral’s office door opened a moment later to admit a tall, strapping man, sporting a shock of gray hair over eyes so dark as to seem almost onyx, yet so bright they nearly glowed. Furling’s uniform was as impeccable as the number of honors displayed on his chest was impressive … and Alexander knew that each and every medal was well earned, often awarded for sweat and blood far beyond that needed to achieve any benefits the Confederacy had reaped from his actions. With Furling’s retirement, the Terran Space Military was doomed to lose a true hero. Alexander was losing a stout ally.

He could only hope that this new request wouldn’t also lose him a friend.

“Francis,” the Admiral said, walking around his desk to greet the visitor and offering his hand in welcome. “Thank you for coming.”

Furling smiled, his features as warm as had been the admiral’s greeting. “I could hardly say no to a request from you, now, could I,” a gentle reminder of how their relative positions had reversed since the Academy. He accepted the offered hand none the less, then settled into the comfortable seat offered when the handshake ended. “I could never say no to you, Stephen, even before you rose high enough in rank to make it a crime to say no.”

Alexander laughed at the joke, valuing the droll wit despite its truth, then sat in a matching chair next to Furling. “Still, I appreciate it. I understand you were quite a way off.”

Furling nodded. “Morrigan’s farewell tour.” His face took on a melancholy cast. “Much as I look forward to some peace and quiet in my retirement, I do wish that my ship had a better future than the scrap heap. Still, I know she’s old and you have much better, much newer hardware in line to replace her.”

Alexander felt a wave of relief wash through him — found himself hoping that maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as he’d feared. “Odd you should say that, Francis,” he said, keeping his voice soft and low. “As it happens, the Cahan Morrigan may just have a future after all.”

Furling sat up straighter in his chair, his eyes sparkling at the thought. “Oh?”

The admiral drew a quick breath and schooled his features into solemnity. “A situation has come up out in F sector. 16 Cygni.”

“16 Cygni?” The older man shook his head. “Wow. You don’t hear much about that one.”

“No you don’t, even though Cygni’s been a member system for a century already.” The admiral added a wry smile. “Things have been so quiet out that way that we’ve never been required to allocate a fleet presence.”

The captain gave a slow nod. “Meaning, they’ve never anted up to pay for a presence,” Furling said, irony filling his voice. “But now this — situation — changes things. Demands a fleet presence.”

“It does, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. You’re as familiar with budgetary realities as I am, Francis. All available ships in both fleets are assigned somewhere, and every system keeps near fanatical track of those assignments. If I pull a ship from its current assignment there’ll be a hue and cry by the system losing it that they aren’t getting full value for their TSM assessment. Frontier Fleet is in a similar fix — in fact, that’s why they kicked the problem to me.

“The only reason you’re taking a ‘farewell tour’ is that I was able to back-fill your spot with a piece of that newer hardware you mentioned. That puts Cahan Morrigan in a unique situation: Right now, yours is just about the only ship in the Confederacy not tied to a specific location. That’s how you’ve been able to take your final bows.”

Furling frowned. “I can see that,” he said slowly. “But what can Morrigan do? She’s over the hill, Stephen. We’re not down to chewing gum and baling wire yet, but that day isn’t far off. She won’t stand up to anything more than showing the flag. If this ‘situation’ of yours is just diplomatic, OK, but anything more than that ...” He let the thought trail off.

“Oh, it’s more than diplomatic,” Alexander reassured his old friend. “But it’s not, I don’t believe, something that’s going to boil over in the next week. I’m looking to assign a ship there in an eighteen to twenty-four-month time frame.”

Understanding began to dawn on the old captain’s face. “Two years, you say,” he acknowledged. “That’s just about the time needed for —”

“A complete refit,” the admiral broke in, confirming Furling’s thought. “A refit that comes out of maintenance money, not capital funds. I have available maintenance money … in fact, if I don’t spend that money, I won’t get as much next year. But it has to begin now, Francis. I have to get Morrigan into Spacedock within the next couple of weeks to make it work.”

Furling drew a breath. “Meaning the end of our victory lap.”

“Yes.”

The captain nodded for a minute as he pondered the idea. “Well, that’s not so bad. I’ll be happy to step aside early, make room for whatever captain you have in mind to oversee the refit.”

Alexander hesitated. This was the hard part. “You’re right, Francis, I do have someone in mind.” He watched his old friend’s face closely as he added, “Unfortunately, that someone is only available in the same eighteen to twenty-four-month time frame.”

“Ah.” Furling pursed his lips as the reality of the request sank in. “I gather you’re asking me to oversee the job.”

“Get it started, anyway.” The admiral watched for some sign of hope that he wasn’t asking too much. “It’s a lot to ask, I know. Not only is the job itself taxing, but I understand the ... emotions ... of prepping your ship for someone else. You’re scheduled to retire in ... what?”

“Just over nine months, now.”

Alexander nodded. “Nine months gets the refit well underway — certainly gets it past the design phase and into the part that’s mostly grunt work.”

“Grunt work?” Furling chuckled. “The one refit I was involved with was all grunt work, but there were also lots of glitches that had to be resolved after the nine-month point.”

“Mmmm.” Alexander considered. “Your exec up to the job?”

“Would he be staying with Morrigan, then?”

“Strikes me that some continuity and experience would be a good thing. The person I have in mind for captain is damn good, but will be newly promoted.”

Furling shrugged. “Steve Garvey’s the type of officer who can carry out an assignment, yes. Good man, if not overly imaginative.”

“He won’t feel slighted over not getting the slot himself?”

Furling considered. “I’m inclined to think not, but who can really know what’s in another man’s head? Still, he’s been casting around for another exec spot he can slide into rather than applying for a captain’s pip, so it would seem that he’s comfortable in the number two spot.”

“How about the rest of the crew?”

“The officers mostly have their reassignments bagged, since we were scheduled for final docking in two months. Everyone else is at the mercy of personnel.”

The admiral brightened. “Sounds about right. The new captain will want to do some of her own staffing, anyway.”

“I would expect so.”

“OK, then.” Alexander stood, offering his hand once more. “I believe that we’re set. Francis, I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to this. There simply isn’t another good option within the time frame that I need.”

Furling grinned as he accepted the handshake. “Stephen, I’m far beyond the point of being willing to march into hell for you. But since our victory tour was close to ending, anyway, the chance to spend a few extra months with the Morrigan sure beats the half-year of desk duty I was slated for.”

The admiral chuckled at his old friend’s comment, relieved to have dodged a potential bullet. “You know, I can understand that,” he commented. “You’re well aware of how much I love being behind a desk. Well. I’ll have your orders transmitted by the end of the day, and you can snug the Morrigan into Spacedock any time after that.” He showed the man to the door, turning him over to the tender care of Commander Czerkawski, then returned to his desk and the biggest challenge of all.

Pulling the strings that would lead to Sydney Chambers being court marshaled.

 

 

 

3

 

“So, Morrigan is not to be scrapped?”

Captain Furling sat on the front edge of his desk and grinned at his executive officer. “That’s right, Steve, Morrigan is not being scrapped,” he confirmed. “She’s getting the biggest, baddest, full-out refit that Admiral Alexander’s money can buy, and you and I are going to see that refit through.”

Commander Steve Garvey sat back in one of two hard chairs positioned for visitors to Furling’s tiny office aboard the Cahan Morrigan, blue eyes filled with surprise as he cradled the glass of sweet-smelling whiskey his superior had thrust in his hand as he’d entered. Morrigan’s reprieve from the scrap heap was not what he had anticipated hearing when Furling had called him in, minutes after the older man returned from his own summoning to Fleet Admiral Alexander’s presence. He remained calm on the outside, even swirling the liquor around in its glass and then allowing himself a tiny sip of the potent stuff, but on the inside he was torn. If Cahan Morrigan was indeed resurrected but Francis Furling followed through on his retirement plans, where did that leave Steve Garvey?

Was he going to be expected to take on Morrigan’s captaincy?

“So, ah — Captain,” Garvey began, eliciting a frown from his superior.

“What?” Furling stared at his exec for a long moment before continuing. “I can’t say as you look as thrilled as I would have expected, by this little gift from on high.”

Garvey blew out a frustrated sigh. “I’m very happy for you, Captain,” he said, and he really was; Francis Furling was the best superior he’d served under during his long but workaday career. “And of course, for the ship. You know I’ve never thought the old girl was ready to be scrapped. It’s just ...”

“What? Don’t think you’re up to the challenges of a refit?” Furling grinned wide, though a bit less dazzlingly than before. “I admit that after I retire you’re going to have to shoulder the whole burden, but I have faith in you. You’ve been a rock the whole time we’ve served together.”

Garvey sighed again. “Oh, I’ll handle that well enough. But —” He broke off, then frustration got the better of him and he continued in a rush, “Dang it, sir, am I going to get stuck with a captain’s pip? Is the admiral forcing me to take on a command that I don’t want?”

Furling stared at his exec for a long moment as his grin slowly diminished to a knowing smile. “Steve, Steve, Steve,” he said, his voice filled with almost fatherly compassion. “Do you really think I’d let even a Fleet Admiral do that to you?”

Garvey lifted his eyes to measure the captain’s expression, then allowed himself a lopsided smile. “No, sir, I guess not. Not after how clear I’ve made the way I feel about command over the last few years.”

“Damn straight,” Furling agreed, adding an ironic chuckle. “You’ve made it depressingly clear. But have no worries. Somewhere during the refit process, the Cahan Morrigan will acquire a new captain and it will not be you.” The older man paused a moment, then added, “Though it’s only fair to warn you that Admiral Alexander does expect you to stay on as first officer, under the new command. To offer the new captain a measure of continuity.”

Garvey drew and released a deep breath, then helped himself to another taste of whiskey before answering. “That, I can live with,” he finally allowed, “though it would be nice to have some idea of who this new captain is going to be. Did His Highness give you a clue?” He pinned Furling with an anxious glare.

“The admiral declined to name names. All he would say,” Furling said, being careful not to imply anything he didn’t actually know, “is that she will be newly promoted, but isn’t available for that promotion yet. Not for over a year.”

“A newbie, eh?” Garvey was moved to chuckle and finally allowed himself an easy smile. “That’ll be fun, especially after all the fun of the refit. Ah, well, at least I’ll be the one who knows each and every molecule of the ship. She’ll have a lot to learn, but as you have noted many times —” and he added a sly grin, “teaching is something that I’ve always been good at.”

“You’ll do fine.” Furling turned and grabbed his own glass of whiskey from the desk where it had sat untouched while he got his exec settled. “Especially if you manage to, ah, leave a couple of subtle refit touches for the new captain to decide on once she arrives. Like the decor of this office, for example. And probably a couple of the more sensitive command crew slots — she may be newly promoted to captain, but she has to have been an officer for long enough to know what she likes and who she likes to work with.”

“I think I can manage that.”

Furling offered his glass for a toast; when Garvey had clinked it with his they both sealed the deal with a sip and a sigh. Silence hung light between them for a few minutes as they finished their drinks, then Furling returned his glass to the desktop and stood.

“So,” he said, clasping his hands together in the age-old sign of a man moving on to new business. “What say we get ready to settle this tub into Spacedock so the party can begin?”

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

Twenty-Three Months Before

 

1

 

“Admiral, you know that we’ve had to be ... discreet, let’s call it. Circumspect. The ship and officers in question are under the aegis of Admiral Lady Alexander.”

Admiral Lord Alexander eyed his visitor, Judge Advocate General Captain Hernando Marcos, as though the lawyer was a bug that had infested the admiral’s office rather than being the lead investigator into the activities of Horace Steubing and the TSM Tecumseh. Alexander subconsciously expected cockroach-like behavior from lawyers and all too often got it, particularly when the lawyer in question was charged with uncovering the cockroach-like behavior of other Naval officers. In this particular case, it didn’t help that the captain’s most prominent features — a stick-like physique, dark, fluffy eyebrows, slightly bulging eyes and a thin mouth — lent him an inescapably insectile appearance.


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