Cobra outlaw earc, p.23
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.23

           Timothy Zahn
 
That left Chief Surgeon Lancaster, who didn’t really count, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth officers, none of the latter, in Barrington’s estimation, having particularly distinguished themselves during the long voyage or the subsequent encounters with the Trofts. The most likely scenario was that it was two or more of those lower officers who’d decided or been persuaded to back Castenello’s play.

  The tactical officer finished his prescribed recitation and stopped. “Let the record show that with the exception of Commander Kusari and Chief Surgeon Lancaster all members of the senior staff are present,” Barrington replied with the prescribed response. “Commander Castenello, if you have specific comments or questions, speak them now.”

  “My comments are six, Captain Barrington,” Castenello said. “First: you were warned by this group of officers in the days and hours before the engagement of the unfavorable odds entailed by the presence of two major Troft warships plus subsidiary war vessels. Second: you were reminded even as the action began of those odds and the dangers therein. Third: as expected, serious damage has been sustained by both the Dorian and the Hermes. Fourth: the intel collected from the engagement is no more than would have been collected should the Dorian have declined to engage and remained strictly an observer. Fifth: the total number of casualties sustained during the engagement are greater than would have been sustained by the Hermes alone should the Dorian have declined to engage. And sixth: the delay created by waiting for the Hermes’s appearance may very well have lost us our contact with Commander Ukuthi and any hope of finding Qasama.”

  He raised his eyebrows slightly. “My question is only one,” he continued stiffly. “Why? Why did you risk so much for so little?”

  Again, he stopped. Barrington let the silence linger another couple of seconds, keeping his face impassive. He waited until the fifth officer started to squirm—Barrington’s usual indicator when he was forced to play these games—and then cleared his throat. “Let me answer your comments in order, Commander,” he said. He frowned slightly, as if reconsidering. “On second thought, permit me to answer all of them together.”

  He drew himself up as far as he could while still remaining seated. “Because we are a warship of the Dominion of Man,” he said, throwing in every gram of dignity and resolve that hundreds of years of blood and death had earned for the Service. “We do not hide from the enemy. We do not run from the enemy. And we absolutely do not abandon our fellow officers and men to the enemy.”

  He paused, counting off two more beats of silence. “Furthermore,” he continued, “two of your comments are demonstrably inaccurate. You have, in fact, no idea whatsoever how much intel has been gained from the engagement. I know you have no idea because at this point none of us has. Once the data have been analyzed, you’ll be free to make your own assessment and, if justified, restate your comment. Until that point, the comment is wrong.”

  “Perhaps,” Castenello said, his voice studiously neutral. “May I ask which other comment you deem to be incorrect?”

  “I don’t deem anything,” Barrington countered. “The fact is that we have not lost more men than the complete destruction of the Hermes would have entailed. So far we’ve lost only ten men, barely a third of the Hermes complement.”

  “Excuse me, Captain, but that’s hardly the full story,” Castenello said stiffly. “There are fifty-eight more men in sickbay, many of whom Dr. Lancaster believes will not survive the next few days. Certainly the death toll will ultimately reach and surpass the Hermes’s complement.”

  “If and when it does, you’ll again be free to restate your comment,” Barrington said. “Until then, the comment is wrong.” He cocked his head. “As to Commander Ukuthi, you already know my answer to that one. Whatever conflicts and politics are going on out here, we’re a wild card, and Ukuthi clearly want that card in his demesne’s hand. He’s not going to give up on us that easily.”

  “Perhaps,” Castenello said, not sounding at all convinced. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

  “I suppose we will,” Barrington agreed. “Have you anything else to say?”

  Castenello seemed to measure the captain with his eyes. “Not at this point, sir,” he said. “I simply note that the engagement and your decisions surrounding it warranted the calling of an Enquiry Board.”

  And Castenello wanted to be on the record as having called that Board, Barrington noted cynically. “Your dedication to regulations is noted, Commander,” he said, allowing just a hint of sarcasm into his tone. “If there are no further questions or comments…?”

  He looked around the table. No one seemed inclined to jump in. “Then I declare this Board to be ended.” He looked at Castenello. “Until such future time as it is deemed necessary for it to reconvene,” he added.

  Castenello’s expression flickered, enough to show that Barrington’s guess had been correct. The tactical officer had been hoping that the captain would slip up on the required protocol somewhere along the line. That wouldn’t have been a fatal flaw by any means, but it would have provided a small bit of additional ammunition that Castenello could use should matters ever reach full court-martial status.

  Which they never would, Barrington told himself firmly. No matter how good Castenello was at these political games, Barrington would be able to hold his own.

  Assuming, of course, that he could persuade Commander Ukuthi to take the Dorian to Qasama. And that the Qasamans could be persuaded to cooperate.

  Around the side of the table, Garrett cleared his throat. “Dismissed,” he said.

  There was a general shuffling as the assembled officers pushed back their chairs and filed silently out the door. Barrington watched them go, a hard knot forming in the pit of his stomach.

  Qasama.

  That was the gamble Commodore Santores was banking on to save the Cobra Worlds from the horrors that Asgard and the Dome in their infinite wisdom had devised for the innocent colonists there. On a smaller scale, it was the same gamble Barrington and Castenello were on opposite sides of. If the Qasamans were able to heal the majority of the injured crewmen, Barrington would come out of this incident with enough prestige and political position that Castenello would have no choice but to back off. If the Qasamans refused, there would almost certainly be a court-martial somewhere in Barrington’s future.

  The depressing part was that if Barrington won this round, all Castenello had to do was wait for the next questionable incident and try it again. Unless Castenello himself made a fatal mistake, Barrington would always be on defensive.

  Still, there was a war on, and even those Committés who reveled in these political posturings tended to mute their enthusiasm during times of threat. If Castenello kept pushing, it was possible that he would overrun his bounds and run afoul of his own patron once the Dorian returned to the Dominion.

  Qasama was the key. The world that could save Barrington’s career and the lives of Barrington’s men.

  And all it would cost would be that world’s complete destruction.

  War is hell. It was an obvious statement, so obvious that Barrington couldn’t even remember which Earth general had said it. What was less obvious was that the hell wasn’t just for the vanquished, but for the victors as well.

  That seemed wrong, somehow. Victory should mean something. But somehow, it was always the case. With a sigh, he pushed back his chair.

  Only then did he suddenly notice that Garrett hadn’t left with the others. The first officer was still sitting quietly in his chair, waiting for Barrington to finish his musings. “Was there something else, Commander?” he asked.

  “Nothing specific, sir,” Garrett said. “I just wanted…he’s up to something, Captain. I don’t know what yet, but he’s definitely up to something.”

  “You mean Commander Castenello?” Barrington shrugged. “Of course he is. He’s up to whatever will get me out of my job. I thought all my officers knew that.”

  “I meant he has a plan, sir,” Garrett said doggedly. “Are you sure there
s nothing in the data we got from the engagement that he can use against you?”

  “There wasn’t as of an hour ago,” Barrington said, twitching his eye to pull up the data stream. “And there still isn’t.”

  “Unless the tactical department has something they haven’t yet put up.”

  “I sincerely hope that’s not the case,” Barrington said darkly. “Withholding data from the captain is a serious offense. Castenello would hang himself if he tried that.”

  “Unless he can claim the data’s still undergoing analysis.”

  “He can claim anything he wants,” Barrington said. “He still needs to put it in the data stream as soon as the scrubbing’s been completed.”

  “But he doesn’t have to put up speculation and educated guesses,” Garrett reminded him. “He’s got a lot of wiggle room in there, and he knows how to use it.”

  “I appreciate the warning,” Barrington said. “I’ll keep an eye on the data stream, see if I can figure out the hand he’s trying to deal himself.”

  “Yes, sir,” Garrett said. He started to push back his chair.

  “What’s your assessment of the engagement?” Barrington asked.

  Garrett paused. “Sir?”

  “The Trofts’ tactics,” Barrington said. “With the firepower they had available they could have blown the Hermes out of the sky inside of two minutes. But they didn’t. Why?”

  “I assume they were hoping to take it more or less intact,” Garrett said, looking puzzled. “The Trofts at our end of the Assemblage have tried that any number of times.”

  “Exactly,” Barrington agreed. “Which means they’ve surely learned by now that we’ve got every useful bit of data and tech doomsdayed. So what were they hoping to gain?”

  “Prisoners, maybe,” Garrett said slowly. “Or else the demesnes out here don’t know about all our doomsdaying.”

  “Which is ridiculous,” Barrington said. “Whoever launched the attack on Qasama and Cobra Worlds has to be in close contact with the demesnes at our end. Otherwise, why attack a few minor outposts of humanity, especially right now? It’s not like they were bothering anyone.”

  “Then it has to be prisoners,” Garrett concluded. “Someone wants Dominion Fleet personnel. Probably hoping to learn more about what’s going on back there.”

  Barrington pursed his lips. That made sense even if the attackers were connected to the demesnes currently at war with the Dominion. No matter how closely a group of demesnes cooperated with each other, they were all still continually on the lookout for ways to gain an advantage or a bit of extra position over everyone else, enemies and allies alike. “That’s possible,” he said. “But here’s my problem. We hit the edge of the net while heading toward Ukuthi’s rendezvous point. The Hermes was caught because it was also heading toward those coordinates. Right?”

  “Unless they were trolling for a Troft merchant ship, as Commander Castenello suggested,” Garrett pointed out. He frowned. “Except that they attacked the Hermes immediately, which they shouldn’t have done if they’d been expecting a freighter.”

  “Right,” Barrington agreed. “They should at least have opened communication with an unfamiliar and unexpected ship before opening fire.”

  “And the only logical place for them to have set up their trap was along the Aventine-to-Qasama vector,” Garrett said. He flashed a sudden, tight smile. “That’s why you aren’t concerned about whether Ukuthi waits for us or not. You were right from the start: Qasama is either at the coordinates he gave us or somewhere beyond it on the Hermes’s original vector.”

  “Exactly,” Barrington said. “If it’s the first, that makes Ukuthi an honest Troft, which means he may be someone we can do business with. If it’s the second, it means he’s a cheater but a poor and unimaginative one, which means whatever threat he represents can probably be easily neutralized.” He scowled. “Unfortunately, it’s occurred to me that there’s a third option.”

  He stopped, watching Garrett’s face. The young officer’s expression changed from anticipation at what the captain was going to say, to surprise that the captain wasn’t saying it, then to understanding and thoughtfulness as he realized the captain was expecting him to come up with the third option himself. “We hit the edge of the net because we were following the course Ukuthi gave us,” he said slowly as he worked it through. “If we’d been a little off that course we would have missed it completely.”

  His eyes narrowed. “Or we would have been caught in it. Were the ambushers were his allies, and Ukuthi was trying to get rid of us?”

  “I don’t think so,” Barrington said. “Remember, the two big warships weren’t there when we first showed up. If we’d hit the net with just the spider ships waiting we’d have cut through them like a laser through fiberboard.” He lifted a finger. “But. If we’d gone back to Aventine personally to report instead of sending the Hermes, we would have hit the net after the Troft warships were in position.”

  “So it was a test?” Garrett asked, sounding a bit confused. “Ukuthi was trying to see if we would follow his directions without deviation?”

  “I don’t know,” Barrington admitted. “And that’s my problem. Our appearance at the Hoibie homeworld had to have been a surprise to him. Given that, I can’t see how Ukuthi could have had enough time to set up the net on the fly, not unless his couriers are a lot faster than anything we’ve seen elsewhere in the Assemblage. The only way I can make sense of this is if he knew someone else had set up the net, and that someone wasn’t his demesne or an allied one.”

  “The Drim ships,” Garrett murmured thoughtfully. “They had him pretty well cornered and were just waiting for the Hoibies to give up and hand him over. You think someone bragged a little too much on an open mike?”

  “It’s certainly happened before,” Barrington said. “Something along the lines of ‘Don’t be a fool, Commander—our allies have already set up a net to capture the next human ship to Qasama.’ Or some such.”

  “‘And once we’ve destroyed the Dominion ships, your demesne will be next,’” Garrett added the likely next line of Barrington’s imagined conversation. “In that case—”

  Abruptly, he snorted a laugh. “And Commander Castenello was even on the right track. Ukuthi was hoping we’d be grabbed by the net, blow away the spider ships, and in the process find out who the hell they are.”

  “Very good,” Barrington said, nodding. “Or at least that’s the conclusion I came to. So here’s the crux. If the situation is indeed Option Three, what exactly does that make Ukuthi? Potential ally? Potential enemy? Extremely clever opportunist?”

  “Probably all three,” Garrett said. “The clever part, certainly. Using Cobra Merrick Broom’s name as a hook for you shows that much.”

  “Especially since it might not be just a hook,” Barrington pointed out. “The kind of deviousness we’re ascribing to him is quite consistent with him capturing a Cobra and managing to persuade him to go off and spy for him.”

  “He sure persuaded us to do some of his dirty work for him,” Garrett said sourly. “And cost us a lot of lives along the way.”

  “He’ll be making up for that soon enough,” Barrington promised ominously. “He’ll be agreeing to take us to Qasama. And he’d better not try to weasel it.”

  “Yes, sir,” Garrett said. “If there’s nothing else, Captain, with your permission I’ll return to my station.”

  “Go ahead,” Barrington said. “No, wait.”

  “Yes, sir?”

  Barrington hesitated. He really wasn’t supposed to ask this.

  What the hell. “Do you happen to know which other officers signed off on Castenello’s Enquiry Board?”

  Garrett’s lip twitched. He knew the captain wasn’t supposed to ask that, either. “Off the record, sir?”

  “Very much so,” Barrington assured him.

  Garrett seemed to brace himself. “I don’t know who the second was, sir. But I was the third.”

  Barrington f
elt his mouth drop open. “You?”

  “Yes, sir,” Garrett said. “I was sure you could stand up to his complaints and charges, and I thought it would be better to get it out in the open.”

  Instead of letting Castenello worm his doubts into the other officers behind Barrington’s back? “I suppose that’s reasonable,” he said. “Thank you, Commander. Dismissed.”

  Garrett’s lip twitched. “Yes, sir.”

  The door closed behind him, and Barrington permitted a quiet but heartfelt curse. Reasonable or not, logical or not, politically smart or not, it was clear that Garrett wasn’t at all happy with his own decision to back the Enquiry Board. It had come out all right, but everyone—Garrett included—could see that it was simply Castenello’s first shot in what was probably a long-term campaign.

  And when that fresh hammer came down, whether Barrington managed to dodge it or not, Garrett would have to deal with the knowledge that he had helped set the whole thing in motion.

  Most senior officers wouldn’t care, but would simply join in the game, lining up where they chose, or where they presumed their patrons would want them. Not Garrett. Without a patron, he would instead line up as his rank, position, and military protocol demanded.

  He’d made that choice here, for better or worse. And while they all waited for Castenello to play his hand, Garrett would carry a lingering, low-level sense of guilt.

  And Barrington knew that anything that distracted a senior officer could be a bad thing in time of war. A very bad thing.

  Damn Castenello anyway for engineering this mess.

  And speaking of engineering…

  Putting Castenello out of his mind, Barrington tapped into the data stream. There was no change in Kusari’s condition, either better or worse. But there was a new note from Dr. Lancaster, urgently requesting that the captain authorize the proposed amputation of Kusari’s legs.

  Barrington pushed his chair back from the table. He would answer Lancaster’s request, all right. He would go down to sickbay personally and tell the surgeon straight to his face to keep his damn cutting laser off his engineering officer’s legs.

 
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