The Politics of Failure
Commonwealth Naval HQ
Yves Dupuis sat in the shadows of the conference room, in awe of the powerful names and faces he saw around him. It was one of the largest meetings he had ever been part of, and it boasted more brass and senate cronies than he'd seen in a single room. As a lower-ranking officer in the administrative branch of Naval Intelligence, and as one of the youngest people in the room, he felt distinctly out of place. His recent promotion to Lieutenant still felt unreal to him, and he hadn't expected to find himself participating in a high level meeting like this so soon, but he was starting to feel like the sacrifices he'd made were starting to pay off.
There was a great deal of subtle political positioning and discussion that he had trouble following. But there was a kind of excitement and sense of opportunity feeding his ambitious side that kept him riveted to the proceedings. The meeting was turning out to be something of a scolding, and had nothing of the dignity nor decorum he imagined high-powered meetings should have. He hadn't been called upon to deliver his information to them yet, and he was wondering if he would even get the chance. Dupuis had known that this was going to be a tough meeting going in, but he hadn't imagined that it would get this bad. This was not going to be a debriefing, as it was initially described to him. It was shaping up to be more of an inquisition or a maybe even a straightforward mob lynching. He felt bad for the poor fool that got stuck wearing this one. Careers got destroyed in meetings like this. But they also got made, if you played cards right. He still felt a little excitement at being asked to sit in this room, the Big Room; the conference room designed for Navy HQ as a replica of the main council chamber on Earth.
Sitting near the end of an enormous black glass-smooth conference table, in this shadowy room, with the who's who of Commonwealth Navy brass and politicians was intimidating enough. But to be seated opposite Colonel Chen was downright terrifying. That woman was, without a doubt, the most intimidating individual with whom he'd locked eyes. Ever.
He took a sip of water from the glass placed in front of him, hoping no one would hear how loudly he swallowed, and tried to place the glass back exactly on the same ring of condensation, as if to minimize any traces of his presence in the room. He reminded himself that he was supposed to be here; that his presence had been requested as an intelligence analyst and technical consultant. He glanced at the reversed glowing lettering of his name 'Lt. Yves Dupuis' on the nearly invisible nameplate on the table in front of him, announcing his identity to Colonel Chen directly across from him. He still wasn't used to the new rank in front of his name, making him feel a little as if he was granted the new bars by clerical error; a mistake that would be discovered at any moment.
The Colonel's calm but piercing gaze made him wish he'd used someone else's name. From the tone of voice of whoever was yelling at that moment, he was pretty sure that there were others in this room also wishing that they were invisible right about now. This was turning out to be a meeting for recriminations. The politicians and navy brass looked like they were preparing for a feeding frenzy.
Blame was being hurled around the room like manure from a spreader, and no one wanted to have any stick to them. He lifted his eyes from the flat display screen in front of him to view the same images on the giant screen at the end of the table to his right. The shouts were quiet now, as everyone paid attention to the recording. He recognized this part of the briefing as it played. He'd heard the transmission recordings many times already, so he knew how it ended. He hated having to listen to this part again, but at least it was getting to be near the end, and he would soon be out of this meeting, back at his little desk, in his little cubicle office on the lower decks of this station.
Everyone else seemed to be looking down at their screens as they listened to the recordings. Everyone, except Chen. She never stopped scanning the members of the room with eyes as dark as the gleaming table between them. She watched them all, as they listened to the recording of ship-to-ship comm chatter. The comm traffic all seemed to be very normal, while a computer-generated schematic showed a reconstruction of the position and formation of the now-dead ships. Then they heard the voice of Admiral Devette as his recorded voice spoke from beyond the grave, from that day on the bridge of his cruiser the Syracuse over two weeks ago. The volume of the recording gained a few decibels as they came to the moments of interest.
"Still no sign that we've been detected." said the overconfident voice of the late Admiral. "The debris field is turning out to be excellent cover, Captain. Good choice. They're just sitting there, waiting for us to pulverize them. Stand by to deploy the fleet as planned. I want everyone to hit them at the same time."
The Captain of the Danube-class cruiser must have nodded during that brief pause. "All ships, this is Captain Marberg. Assume attack formation Beta and."
"Captain, we've got hostile contacts appearing all around us." This was the distressed voice of one of the bridge officers. "More are still appearing.dozens of them, sir."
"Tell me what you're seeing, WEPs." The captain replied to the Fire Control Officer. There was nervousness in his voice already.
"They're still popping up, all around us," said the incredulous WEPs officer. "They look like mines, or maybe gun platforms. They're going active everywhere, and it looks like."
They could hear the sounds of explosions as the Syracuse was rocked by hit after hit. Amid the noise, fragments of both the Captain's and the Admiral's voices were heard above the pounding explosions and frantic reports of the bridge crew.
".walked into a trap!"
"Someone must have tipped them off that."
".the hell didn't we detect these things earlier? They're everywhere."
"Taking damage to all systems. We're losing.."
"Reports of damage . from all.."
".weapons offline. Hull breach aft of."
".got the Mistral requesting permission to withdraw. The Victorious is also ."
". with heavy damage to..."
"Get us out of here, Captain! NOW! GET US THE HELL OUT OF."
The recording ended after a few more seconds of static. Dupuis wasn't sure if the static was left in intentionally or not, but its effect was far more dramatic than silence would have been. It was all followed by silence in the room for a few moments anyway.
One of the Senators down at the other end of the table finally broke the silence.
"An entire fleet, including a Danube-class cruiser, several highly decorated and experienced Captains, and Admiral Devette, were all lost in what was supposed to be a surprise raid to take out the Crack-In-The-World group. Vice Admiral Wexler, would you please explain to me why this happened?!"
The Vice Admiral cleared his throat at the other end of the table and spoke in his best I'm-in-command-here booming voice. "In response to your request, I'd like to introduce you to Lieutenant Dupuis. He's one of the intel officers who was involved in the planning of this strike, and he's been kind enough to prepare a summary of the most recent analysis reports for this meeting. Lieutenant?"
This was it. This was the reason he'd been called into this session. For a moment he was paralysed by indecision. Should he stand? Should he go to the podium in front of the big screen? Should he just start talking? He could feel the eyes of everyone, particularly those of Colonel Chen, fixed on him. Waiting. He decided to simply stand where he was to address them. His chair slid silently on the carpet as he stood. He swallowed hard, wishing he'd taken another drink of water.
"Gentlemen. And, um, ladies..um.Sirs. As you have just heard, our fleet was led into a trap, ambushed, and entirely wiped out as it lay in wait at the Amarid debris field in the Tau Ceti system. It was supposed to have been our trap. Instead, we walked into one and lost an entire battle group. The strike fleet we assembled for this mission, a total of 22 ships, is presumed destroyed. We don't have specific numbers, but it is possible that some of those vessels were captured by the Indies. So not only have we lost a large number of vessels, but the Indies have possibly gained strength in the process. Fortunately, it should be some time before they would be able to deploy any of this materiel against us.
"We're still analyzing the available telemetry from the nearest FTL relay to determine the nature of the weapons used against us, but it appears that the attack was made by some form of stealth gun platform equipped with some form of beam weapon, likely a higher intensity particle beam weapon, or some form of disruption projector, not unlike that used by our own disruptor missiles. These weapons platforms are far more advanced than anything the Indies were thought to have acquired. As I said, we're still not sure exactly what they used but it's clear."
Senator Hartwick, chairman of the Naval Oversight and Appropriations Committee, interrupted him. "Lieutenant, what's CLEAR is that we got our asses whipped in a humiliating ambush," he said. The Senator bellowed on to the rest of the room, completely ignoring Dupuis. "We lost almost two dozen ships and crews. That's over two thousand lives, ladies and gentlemen. Do you have any idea of the expense of that kind of catastrophe? Do you have any idea of the impact of this kind of loss on our war effort? We're losing ships faster than the Indies are, and they turn around and start using our own ships against us every chance they get. We can't keep this up." The Senator turned and aimed his next volley at Dupuis. "You helped planned this raid? YOU tell us why it failed. It was supposed to take out the Crack-In-The-World. It was supposed to be infallible. It was supposed to strike a much-needed blow for the Commonwealth. It was supposed to be a highly publicized victory for our strained and war-weary population. What I want to know is: How did those Indie bastards know we were coming?"
Dupuis could see the direction this was starting to take, and felt a tightness growing in his gut. Accusations were being aimed in his direction. Some of them were sticking to him already. He had been involved in the analysis of the intelligence data gathered about the Indie battle group, and he'd helped set up some of the parameters of the strike. He wasn't the main strategist for that strike, but he knew that making excuses would only sink him in deeper. He realized this was only going to get uglier, so he took a deep breath. Fear gripped him even more tightly, but somehow he managed to speak.
"You are absolutely correct, Senator Hartwick. This was a severe loss of military hardware and skilled personnel. We cannot ignore the impact that a loss of this magnitude will have on our war effort, on the security of our shipping supply lines, and on the morale of the people who rely on us. I am also aware of the most recent statistics of Naval losses. This is one of the largest single defeats we've suffered since the independent movement started pirating our supply routes and stealing naval vessels. This is worse than the debacle at Metallake. It rivals our recent losses at Midway." The bitterness felt by the Navy brass at the mention of Midway was almost palpable. He instantly regretted bringing it up. "Our attack was planned and coordinated carefully so as to catch the Crack-In-The-World and her battle group at a vulnerable staging area, while they re-supplied with Indie-sympathetic commercial vessels. We took great pains to set this one up. This operation involved months of intelligence gathering and careful work. It simply should not have failed. But it did." Murmurs of protest could be heard down the table as he spoke, and he tried to finish his point by speaking louder and a little faster. "You are absolutely correct when you say that it failed because someone betrayed us. You have already stated the obvious conclusion: Someone knew we were coming. But frankly, that is not the most important question we face." he paused for effect, taking a moment to glance around the room before continuing. That last statement got the room quieter. He was not enjoying himself. In fact he was so terrified, he wasn't sure he would be able to muster enough saliva to continue speaking in a coherent way. He dared another sip of water, which normally would have been a mistake. But this crowd was politically astute, and they understood the role of drama and theatrics in this kind of forum. They waited in silence for him to continue.
"We know exactly what the Indies have, because they got much of it from us. We can calculate with a relatively high degree of accuracy how many ships the Indies have, and what their capabilities are. Up until recently, our biggest problems have been finding them, and choking their supply lines. They have very limited military manufacturing capabilities. Starship R&D, test programs, and shipbuilding are not something they have access to. Not yet anyway, and not of a scale that poses any significant threat at this time. We knew this when we planned the strike. It should have worked whether they knew we were coming or not. The attack group we sent in to get the Crack-In-The-World simply should not have failed, even if we were detected early and an all-out engagement ensued. The fact that it did fail confirms for us something that we have been suspecting for some time: That the Indies have been getting some help from someone else," he paused again as the room began to settle. "Ladies and Gentlemen, there is another party involved in this conflict, and its time that we faced that fact."
"Nonsense!" Bellowed Hartwick and he addressed the chamber. "A monkey in a spacesuit can do more damage with a toolkit than an entire fleet, if he has the right information. All you need is good intelligence. Our enemy, is somewhere amongst us! Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a spy problem, not some mysterious new power with super weapons." The Senator turned and faced Dupuis with a searing glare and an accusatory tone. "Let's not get distracted from the issue at hand, Lieutenant: That issue is the security of our Naval Intelligence Network. How did the Indies know we were going to hit them there and then?!"
Dupuis remained on his feet, consulted his notes, and tried to regain his composure. He couldn't think straight. He looked directly at the Senator. "Security is, indeed, an important issue Senator. Their knowledge of our plans indicates a disturbing breach. Even though they must have known about our plans, the Crack-In-The-World and her battle group did not destroy our strike force. They were the bait. The Indies have always known that this group was a priority target for us. But the weapons that wiped out our ships were of a new variety. We are still trying."
"Yes, we heard." Interrupted the Senator, "You and your people are '.still trying to analyze the data'. Well I have another solution, and it was tabled before the joint council weeks ago. We step up production at the shipyards and we build a bigger and better fleet! Then we go and crush the bastards!"
Colonel Chen continued to listen and watch in silence with those piercing dark eyes. Vice Admiral Wexler rose to speak again in his best good-ol'-boy baritone drawl that always seemed to put people at ease. Dupuis felt a palpable relief when the Vice Admiral finally came to his defence. "Of course, the Crack-In-The-World group already knew we were going to try to hit them. They've always known that we'd try to hit them. They're just too much of a target for us to ignore. They were even alerted to our efforts to locate them by a recon mission a few months back. That was the same mission responsible for gathering key intelligence on their strength and movement. They aren't idiots, and they already knew we'd found them at one of their hiding places."
The Vice Admiral continued slowly, letting the members of this meeting digest the information. "But all of that was taken into account. The inexplicable thing is that they knew exactly where and when we'd be lying in wait. This was not a lucky guess on their part. They had time to prepare for us. Hell, they filled the entire region with some form of stealth weapon, and they let us waltz in and get comfortable. They even dangled the prize in front of us by bringing the Crack-In-The-World group in for re-supply exactly as expected. Gentlemen, we were played like fools."
"And that's exactly what we look like, isn't it?!" replied Governor Ledbetter. "We went from an assured victory to a humiliating defeat in minutes. The entire Commonwealth Navy looks like a bunch of fools, and those of us in the government are the fools who back you and pay for these precious ships you keep throwing away. What we need right now is to know how the information got to the enemy, and then we need to show everyone in the Commonwealth that we can gain the upper hand. We need to take back the initiative."
The room erupted in a roar of agreement and other sounds of assent. Two politicians leaned their heads closer together to share a comment before Senator Hartwick took the floor again, waving his arms to restore order.
"Ladies and Gentlemen." He took in the room in a sweeping dramatic look that made his gaze move over them like a lighthouse beacon. "We demand a thorough inquiry into this obvious breach of security." He slammed his palm onto the glassy black surface for effect. "And we want justice for some downright atrocious planning. Someone from within our own naval intelligence organization, whether by accident or by design, did not take sufficient security precautions to protect these plans." He glanced at Dupuis, still standing there. "More importantly, we need to send the Indies a message of the strongest kind that we will not cower; we will not give in to their terror tactics. I say we assemble a fleet faster than they would imagine possible and crush them once and for all. With my funding bill before the senate right now, our shipyards can start really doing what they should have been doing for months now: Building a Commonwealth war machine that will crush this group of pirates once and for all. I'm prepared to open discussion for an amendment that would attach a security rider to that, so we can tighten things up in our military forces, and stop the pathetic haemorrhaging of intelligence to the enemy. In fact, we need to become more vigilant across all sectors of our society, ladies and gentlemen, if we want to preserve our security and our way of life."
The room was taking on the air of a parliamentary session, and the politicians were warming up their rhetoric and getting in line to take their turn on the floor. The murmur grew louder as more raised their voices calling for the blood of the traitor and the blood of the Indies. Dupuis took this opportunity to sit down.
Vice Admiral Wexler cut through the cacophony, bellowing "Gentlemen," with his powerful voice, and quickly had the room calmed again. "Ladies," he then looked directly at the Senator. "If we could keep pouring ships and crews at the Indies, then we would have already won by attrition. We are, after all, the best equipped and trained force in known space. However, we need to find them, first. We simply do not have the resources to assemble an operation like that. Not yet. Our forces are committed elsewhere, and the President has made it clear that we are not to thin ourselves out any more than we already are. We need more time.
"Now, Senator Hartwick, we are all aware of the industrial interests you represent, and how happy your constituents would be if the government approved that funding bill quickly. We'll build more ships, I'm sure. But we need time to build that fleet you so badly want to assemble Senator Hartwick. We need time to train the crews. I agree that we need to reclaim the upper hand from these terrorists as quickly as possible. We need to take SOME kind of action and we need to take it now. Our current priority, as stated by President King himself, is to learn more about the Indies, and to cut off any intelligence leaks. In the process we may learn more about the origin of this new kind of weaponry they seem to have. We have been fighting the Independent forces in a guerrilla war for almost fifty years now, without any decisive advantage. The last few years have seen hostilities escalate dramatically as they've grown more powerful, and more determined. The harder we try, the worse the problem becomes. We need to learn to fight them more on their own terms.
"The trouble is we've been thinking too much like.. well, like the Navy."
Hartwick took the bait and questioned Vice Admiral Wexler. "What exactly are you getting at Vice Admiral?"
Wexler did not respond. Instead, he looked at Colonel Chen, nodded, and sat down again. The entire room turned to face the small, middle aged woman who was clearly still very fit under her highly decorated military tunic. Colonel Chen looked back at most of the individuals in the room in a subtler version of the senator's sweeping lighthouse gaze from a few moments earlier. The effect of her quiet regard was far more disturbing than anything the senator had managed to evoke. Finally Chen rose and spoke in a clear and controlled voice. "The Independent forces have been successful with small-scaled, hit-and-fade attacks for many years. They use subterfuge where we use force. They use guile where we use by-the-book, academy-approved battle plans. They favour speed and mobility over our fortress bases, rigid patrol routes, and cruiser blockades.
"Simply put, we need to change and adapt our approach to match those of the Independent Navy." Referring to the Indies as a naval force sent a disturbance rippling around the room. There was a hint of admiration when Chen spoke of the tactics favoured by the Indies. "We propose a small mission deep into Indie territory that will disrupt their infrastructure and compromise their interests. Such a mission will also provide you with your answers to the security questions, and may even provide you with your photo-opportunity victorious moment with which to appease your weary constituents. We have a mission in preparation that, with luck, could solve several problems at once."
Senator Hartwick, cheated of the chance to showcase his oratorical skills blustered onward. "How do we know this little strike will uncover the spy? Unless .it's a setup!" A knowing smile spread across his broad jowls. "But wait a minute, if it's meant to trap the traitor in some kind of a sting, then how will it hurt the Indies?"
Chen responded quietly. "Despite the budget changes outlined by your own recent funding bill, Senator, the Navy still runs a special service under the command of the Naval Intelligence branch, known simply as Covert Operations. You may also recall that I am attached to this branch. This service has certain assets operating under deep cover close to the Independent Navy. Certain of these assets may have been compromised. Without going into details, we will be making contact with, and further use of one of these assets one way or another, to respond to your needs for retribution."
The small Colonel then returned to a sitting position with smooth agility. She made it clear she had nothing further to say. There was a brief silence followed by a murmur of questions from Senators. Vice Admiral Wexler deflected the questions with a single statement.
"The Covert Operations branch of the Naval Intelligence Service is already in the advanced stage of planning in this operation. For obvious reasons, there will be no further discussion of the details. Are there are any further questions? Very well, that is all."
Governor Ledbetter braved a single question as the military personnel in the conference room stood and started to collect their documents. "Who's going to keep watch on the watchers, Vice Admiral? You seem to be placing too much emphasis on the Naval Intelligence Service. How do we know they aren't the ones selling our secrets?"
This halted everyone. Chen looked at him with a hint of amusement before answering. "We are in the advanced stages of planning this operation. Mission briefings are being prepared as we speak. However, in order to guarantee the security of the mission objectives, the final decisions regarding the personnel for this mission have yet to be made. Rest assured that all service branches of the Commonwealth Navy will be represented by their best," she said. She then turned and began to gather her things signalling the end of the meeting. Ledbetter didn't look satisfied.
Dupuis was relieved to have been left aside in that discussion, and was eager to leave the room. As he hastened toward the exit, Wexler, standing with Colonel Chen, called to him.
"Lieutenant Dupuis. A word, please, before you go."
He felt the surge of nervousness rise again as he turned to walk toward the officers. He snapped to attention in front of them, fixing his gaze somewhere neutral between them. "Yes, Admiral."
"At ease, Lieutenant. As you already know this is Colonel Chen. Colonel, this is Lieutenant Yves Dupuis, with Naval Intelligence." They exchanged almost imperceptible nods. "Dupuis is a very bright and promising analyst; one I'd hate to see lynched in some bullshit political game," Vice-Admiral Wexler paused for effect to let that sink in before turning again to face Dupuis.
"I'll get straight to the point, Dupuis. Because of your involvement in the handling and analysis of the recon data from our undercover asset in with the Crack-In-The-World, and because your involvement with the planning stages of the failed raid, you have gained the attention of people looking for someone to blame. Trust me, this is not the kind of attention you want to have. These are powerful people. They are precisely the people you don't want to get noticed by."
"I see, sir," was all Dupuis could stammer out. And here he thought he'd almost gotten away clean.
"No, I'm afraid you don't see. Those people that just left are already working on court martial charges aimed at you. In the past few days, I've seen two other bright young careers sacrificed to these jackals. Those 'bright young careers' are people you know. People you've worked with on this. Hell, I'll probably have to face a board of inquiry myself, next week. But I'm only going to be inconvenienced. Vice Admirals rarely get axed, but you know the navy: 'Shit rolls downhill' and all that. Its people like you that get real damage, and these harpies are looking for a scapegoat; someone who they can make look like a spy, so they can look like they caught a spy. You see what I'm getting at? The risk to your career is greater than you think."
"What." Dupuis tried, but failed, to swallow. "I mean. What can I do, sir?" Nervousness was escalating into real, honest-to-goodness, fight-or-flight terror.
"We're working on it. For the moment, it means you're going to have to go away for awhile; do some.field work for a change," Wexler said. The Vice Admiral then reached into the folder he carried and produced an envelope. Dupuis saw his name written on the envelope, and watched Wexler's perfectly manicured hand as he held it out to him. "Briefing's at oh-seven-thirty tomorrow on Saltlake Base. I suggest you get your things together, and get on the next shuttle over there. Read this carefully and don't be late."
Dupuis stood in silence, envelope in hand, still trying to process what he'd heard. The Vice Admiral straightened slightly, signalling his dismissal. "That is all for now Lieutenant," Wexler added. "You have your instructions. Dismissed."
Dupuis snapped to attention and saluted, grateful for the automaticity of this act from his academy training. "Sir," was all he managed to say, instantly embarrassed that he hadn't properly addressed Colonel Chen. The salute was returned almost as an afterthought as the Vice Admiral and the Colonel turned to confer with each other, ignoring Dupuis as if he'd already gone. There was nothing else to do except oblige them, so he left.