Shuffling the Deck
Saltlake Naval Base
L5 point in Earth orbit
Ted Allbright spent a sleepless night, wondering what Chen's offer had really been about, and why he'd been singled out. He guessed that there was some kind of internal power struggle going on within the Navy. He was fairly certain that he was the newest pawn in the latest ploy to gain a few points for someone's ambitious climb to the top. The choice he'd been offered hadn't been much of a choice, so here he was sitting in a brightly lit room, with navy personnel drifting in silently, coffee in one hand, files and data pads in the other. He'd given Chen what she wanted, wondering if she were already en route to fetch Sneezy and the sensor recordings he'd made. There wasn't much he had been able to do about it now.
He watched new arrivals come in and take their place, and tried to learn as much about each individual as possible while still appearing to show only casual interest. Just a few minutes earlier, he had followed one of Chen's people through mazelike passages, and found himself deposited unceremoniously, in this meeting room, with only the data files he'd been given by Chen, and a new mustard and green coloured Navy flight suit, the kind seen on crewmembers everywhere, including this room.
This room wasn't anything like the standard technology-laden, semi-circular briefing rooms he'd seen elsewhere on Saltlake base. It was more like a small rectangular classroom with excessively bright overhead lighting. He sat in the chair at the left end of the second row and looked more carefully at the others in the room. A very young non-com was moving about the room as if he were the only person there, distributing documents and DRD cards, looking very formal, very proper, very grim, and about seventeen years old. Allbright also noticed a man of medium build who settled himself toward the back of the room. He wore Commonwealth Navy Captain's bars, and had that look in his eyes that Ted recognized as the regard of a principled man with a formidable presence. Allbright's sight wasn't as acute as it used to be, but he was able to make out the fellow's nametag on the uniform: W. Ferris. Ferris looked back at him, and Ted met his new C.O.'s gaze with a silent and respectful nod.
There were others in the room, but Allbright didn't recognize anyone else. Before long, three men walked in with an air of authority and importance. He wasn't positive, but he guessed from the briefing file that the taller of these men would be Vice Admiral Wexler, and the short, fierce-looking bald Colonel would be none other than the infamous Colonel 'Barber' Carr. The third man entering the room was unlike any man Ted had seen before. He didn't recall anything from the briefing document about a man with see-through skin, but he guessed this must be the Vice Admiral's aide. Allbright couldn't refrain from staring, at least for a moment. The man's appearance had a similar effect on the entire room, which quickly came to a hushed silence. The effect must have been calculated: it meant that the meeting was about to begin.
Vice Admiral Wexler strode to the front of the room, placed a few documents in front of him when he got there, gestured for everyone to sit as he did the same, and began the meeting without any ceremony. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologize for the hasty manner in which this briefing has been thrown together, but we haven't had a lot of time to prepare for the mission we're about to discuss. In fact, the details are still being worked out and will be transmitted to your command workstations prior to launch, so this may seem a little rough around the edges. But, folks, we're fighting a war here."
Everyone in the room relaxed a little. His easy drawl, and good-old-boy style instantly removed much of the tension from the room. Having warmed them up as much as he was going to, the vice admiral continued with the briefing.
"We don't have time to go through introductions all around, but I'm sure you'll recognize at least a few others in the room. I will introduce you to the people up front here with me. I think you all know who I am, I'm Vice-Admiral Wexler. To my right is Colonel Carr of the Commonwealth Navy Marines, and on my left is Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard. For the rest of you, please consult your DRDs to match faces to names and get full profiles after the briefing. Just accept my assurance that we've assembled the best and the most qualified individuals available, in order to assure the success of this mission. So heads up, folks, this is an important one. Let's get down to it, shall we?!
"Most have you have already heard the bad news, but in case you haven't, here it is, straight up: We lost a battle group of almost two dozen ships, including the cruiser Syracuse, under the command of Admiral Devette, in a failed raid against the Indies about a week ago. This raid was basically an ambush that we set up after a good deal of planning and intelligence gathering. It was designed to catch the Crack-In-The-World and her battle group with their pants down. We've managed to keep the existence of a second Indie destroyer fairly quiet, but I'm sure pretty well everyone here knows about the Crack-In-The-World. She's a Bastille-class destroyer you may have known in her Navy days as the Oxford. The Indies stole her last year in an ambush that disabled most of her escort. We've learned a thing or two about information control since we lost the Harvard to the Indies six years ago, which really made us look the fools. So far we've managed to avoid any embarrassment about the Oxford because we've been able to keep it under wraps, but we won't be able to keep it quiet for long. Which is why we are so eager to take her out." He paused to let that sink in. "The raid we set up to eliminate the Crack-In-The-World and her support fleet backfired completely. They knew we were coming, and they let us walk into a trap of their own. We got bushwhacked, folks, plain and simple."
He then looked directly at captain Ferris, before continuing. "Captain William Ferris of the Redoubt, was involved in the recon mission that spotted the Crack-In-The-World a few months ago, and he helped gather some of intel that was critical in planning that raid. He and his crew nearly got killed getting us that information. It's a damned shame the raid turned out to be such a disaster."
The Vice Admiral then turned his gaze toward a young man with dark hair, olive skin, and a clean-shaven face shadowed by what would be a thick dark beard if allowed to grow. "Lieutenant Yves Dupuis, over there, is an intelligence analyst. He was the handler behind the recon mission, and he made use of the data collected by Ferris and helped plan what should have been a successful ambush.
"These individuals are in this room for a good reason, and their work was not, and I repeat, not the cause for the disaster we have recently suffered: They are here because they are some of our best assets. They already have considerable familiarity with this security-sensitive situation, and they possess the skills to get this next job done."
Wexler consulted his notes for a moment before continuing. "The reality is that we don't know why, after months of planning, the Indies turned our 'great assault' into a rout. The fact that they did tells us that they knew exactly what we were up to, which means their intel was better than ours. In old-fashioned terms: they're better at the spyin' game than we are."
"The mission we're here to discuss is part of a larger response to this crisis, but this mission is an essential component and it must be completed successfully before we move forward with any of our other contingencies. Here's the problem we're faced with: We've got an intelligence leak and we need to stop it. The Indies knew exactly when and where we were going to be. No amount of careful planning on our part could have prevented that kind of damage. We've got naval intelligence cracking down hard on every possible lead we can trace at this end, but there's something more we can be doing out there, too." He waved his hand toward the back of the room, in a gesture that was meant to include all the vastness of space that defined the Commonwealth Systems. "In fact, we have a pretty good idea who the spy is! It looks very much like it is none other than one of our own intelligence operatives. The spy game is a tricky one, and you can never be sure who's spy is who's."
"What some of you may not know, is that we've had our own spy in amongst the Crack-In-The-World battle group for some time. Our spy ship, the Wolf-In-The-Fold is commanded by Captain Yevgienyi Volochkov. They were in large part responsible for providing the intelligence for the ambush that was planned. They collected the intel, they transmitted it, and they assisted in the extraction of that intel during the Redoubt's recon mission.
"This Volochkov character, code-named 'Clarinet' is one wily bastard. He's arrogant as hell and equally smart. He's well educated, well-trained, and has more experience in the command chair on a corvette than most of you in this room. Unfortunately, he also has a checkered past, to say the least, as he was something of a mercenary and a dirty job specialist for the Indies before he started doing some of the same for us. All this makes him one dangerous sumbitch. We even think he's had a few flirtations with piracy, but we've been known to overlook a few nasty details if it means we get ourselves a decent spy. And with Volochkov, we definitely had one hell of an asset.at least for a while. Now it looks like our trust was misplaced. Remember Metallake? He was instrumental in helping the Navy learning about the location of their secret base there. Unfortunately, that's another mission that turned to rat shit in a hurry. They were expecting us there, too. The Indies had already pulled out and left us an anti-matter present that took out several ships, and almost cost us our brand new carrier. I guess we should have seen the writing on the wall then.
"We now have very strong evidence indicating that Volochkov and his crew are responsible for the recent disaster at the Amarid debris field. We have just retrieved two EDRs from the wreckage fields near the supplementary L-point in Tau Ceti. This is exactly where we lost at least two of our corvettes in that disaster. The recordings from the EDRs show that the Wolf-In-The-Fold attacked retreating and damaged navy vessels in that battle. The recordings are available in your briefings, and are very clear. In addition, not only has this former operative neglected to provide us with any intelligence on the enemy in the last three months, they haven't responded to any of our contact signals, nor have they appeared at any of the designated drop sites in weeks. We received a brief contact from them a few days ago, at an unscheduled drop, then nothing again since. It's remotely possible that they're just doing the best they can under some very tight circumstances, but all evidence suggests that they've turned against us, and are now working for the enemy.
"It seems we have a rogue spy, ladies and gentlemen, and we need to bring them in or bring them down. At the very minimum, we need eliminate them in order to stop the leaking of intelligence from our own networks, and we need to do so before we can proceed with any other actions currently in preparation.
"The mission is simple, but not easy: Your primary goal is to find the Wolf-In-The-Fold, and remove them from the enemy's ranks. Ideally we'd like you to disable, board, and bring them in. Volochkov is the kind of man who would be very valuable to our intel people, whether he's cooperative or not. Colonel Carr and his people will be along to assist you in this aspect of the mission. Your secondary objective is to retrieve any useful intelligence possible from the Wolf-In-The-Fold's logs and sensor recordings about the Indies' operations and sources. We want to turn this around and get as much as we can from them. We also want our chance to debrief Volochkov and his staff personally. However, it seems likely that they will not cooperate with this effort, and we anticipate some hostile action. If it comes to a shooting match, you're to destroy them completely, and seal up that leak.we can live with a few unanswered questions so long as we know they aren't a liability anymore. Is that clear?"
He glanced at Captain Ferris alone, who had a puzzled expression up until this point. When asked directly though, Ferris gave the nod of an officer who knew how to follow orders.
"We can help you locate the Wolf-In-The-Fold to a certain extent, but the detail work is going to be up to you and your mission specialists. You have a diverse team this time to help in this job, and a fair amount of latitude to make optimal use of them. Finally, if you do happen upon the Crack-In-The-World, and if you get the opportunity, we want you to hit her as hard as you can. Chances are the Crack-In-The-World won't be far from the Wolf-In-The-Fold, so if you can, take her out! Keep in mind that this is a tertiary objective, and is not to jeopardize nor interfere with your primary mission to forcibly extract or eliminate the Wolf-In-The-Fold. This one won't be easy, folks, but you'll have all the help we can give you on such short notice."
"Captain Ferris, you've been selected for this operation for a number of reasons, not least of which is your previous contact with our covert operatives on the Wolf-In-The-Fold. You're already on the inside as far as security clearance for this op goes, but fortunately for us, you've also got 'the skills and the kills', as they say. You will be taking the Redoubt out again as soon as she's ready. We're making some mission-specific changes to her as we speak. The most noticeable of these changes will be a special-function accommodation module designed to house your guests: a contingent of Marines under the command of Colonel Carr, here."
Allbright followed Vice Admiral Wexler's gaze, as he looked in the direction of the bald Marine Colonel. He had heard of this Colonel, feared throughout the Commonwealth, and known everywhere as 'The Barber'. Ted tried to imagine why the lean-looking Colonel Carr had been given that nickname, and his mind conjured up lurid images of unspeakable acts with sharp objects, but he was drawn away from his thoughts by Wexler's booming voice. "Along with the new pastie, you'll also receive special munitions, and crew replacements better suited to this sort of mission. These replacements include the services of a hand-picked specially-trained Chief Engineer on your bridge, and a new second Engineer. Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard was a crack Engineer on the Purdue, and he was chief Engineering officer aboard the Toulon, before he was seconded to be my Aide-de-Camp. He'll be sitting in the chief's seat for this mission. In addition to these crew changes, you'll also be taking Lieutenant Dupuis on this mission as your intelligence advis..."
"Excuse me, Vice-Admiral Wexler." Ferris interrupted, barely disguising his anger. "There's an old saying that goes: 'The devil is in the details'. We seem to be glossing over some important details. Leaving aside for a moment the rather dramatic personnel changes you're proposing, I'd like to know how we're expected to go out there and find your spy ship. My last encounter with the Crack-In-The-World group was blind luck, mostly bad luck, and it came very close to getting us killed. The presence of our covert operative in amongst their fleet was a complete surprise to us, and if it weren't for them, we would have been killed by that Indie fleet, without any doubt.
"In fact, based on what they did to help us get away, I wouldn't be surprised if they exposed themselves to the Indies, and got themselves 'purged' right away. How do we know for certain your operatives are still out there and in command of that vessel? They could all be dead, and the ship seen on your recordings attacking our ships could have been an Indie crewed corvette pure and simple" Ferris was taking quite a step by jumping on a Vice Admiral like that, but Allbright recognized a pissed-off, fatigued, combat-hardened ship captain when he saw one.
Wexler seemed to recognize and respect it, too. He took this interruption in stride and surveyed the entire room before responding. "I realize that there will be a number of questions about the.irregularities of this mission, as I go through some of the broader strokes of this mission. I'll do my best to clarify as much as I can after we're finished. But you'll need to keep in mind that this mission is part of a larger operation, and we can only provide information to you on a need-to-know basis. Some of what you want to know is the kind of information you do not need to know, but I can tell you this much: Our intel leads us to believe that the recent contact from the Wolf-In-The-Fold was authentic. For better or for worse, we believe that Volochkov is still in charge of that corvette, but acting outside of mission parameters. As for finding them, that contact has been traced and we can place them in the Tau Ceti system, or in one of its neighbouring systems as recently as two day ago. Further details will be included in your recorded mission brief as you depart.
"I was about to finish telling you about the personnel and parameters of this mission, so if I may?" Wexler glared. Ferris remained silent, but clearly wasn't satisfied. The Vice-Admiral's tone did not invite any further interruptions, and no one was willing to test him. The briefing continued. "You'll also be taking Lt. Dupuis with you on the Redoubt as a mission specialist and intelligence advisor. We have a number of covert operatives aboard the Wolf-In-The-Fold, and Lt. Dupuis will be your best hope of finding them, and he'll be the main contact person once you locate and secure the target. I'll repeat that because I want everyone's job to be very clear. Yves, here is the best help you're going to get when it comes to finding the Wolf-In-The-Fold, so listen to him. Once you locate her, he's the main contact, and communications person. Understood?"
Vice-Admiral Wexler looked around the room to make sure he saw at least a few heads nodding before continuing. "Colonel Carr will be along to make the job of securing the Wolf-In-The-Fold that much easier. As you know, having a spy in command of a ship with almost fifty people on board is something of a challenge. We've found that it almost never works, at least not for very long. We have learned that it can work very well if you have an entire team of spies, basically all the officers running the ship with very few additional personnel aboard. The Indies have a chronic staffing problem, and are constantly running ships under complement, so having our corvette operate with an all-spy skeleton crew isn't that much of an anomaly. The entire bridge and backup crew of the Wolf-In-The-Fold, led by a Captain Volochkov, are, or rather were ours posing as Indies. There are a handful of additional crew aboard that are genuine Indie crewmen, and as such, represent a risk we'll need to neutralize. The Colonel, his Lieutenant, and sixteen of the best combat specialists in known space will dock in their modified accommodation module, designed specifically for this kind of operation, and secure the Wolf-In-The-Fold." He gestured toward Colonel Carr, who nodded once to the room. No one needed to elaborate on what 'securing the ship' meant. The marines were going to do what they do best, which would leave more corpses than survivors amongst the spy ship's crew.
"Since this mission includes a preferred 'capture' option, Captain Ferris, you'll be armed with more disruptor missiles and fewer guided combat missiles than you are accustomed to. However, we'll provide you with two of our newest remote missiles, just in case you get a target of opportunity and get the chance to strike at that destroyer. Just remember: the only target of opportunity we're interested in hitting is the Crack-In-The-World, so save your REM missiles for the right moment. Finally, you'll get an escort squadron of four vessels." Wexler looked at the list in his hand, and then looked around the room until he found the individual he was seeking, and nodded toward him. "Captain Hyslop-Smith back there, of the CNV Crusader, will lead your escort group as far as the L-point in Tau Ceti, but then you'll be on your own until you return to the L-4 there. They'll wait, assist with any extraction difficulties, and cover your return here."
Allbright looked around the room again, realizing that several of the different faces were likely escort captains, or crew replacements for the Redoubt. Ferris was studying the documents in front of himself, looking anything but thrilled with things.
The Vice Admiral resumed his explanation. "There are too many details to completely cover in this briefing, so I recommend you study your mission materials carefully. It may seem like this was slapped together at the last minute, and frankly some of the final personnel decisions were," Ted didn't miss the glance in his direction, "But a good deal of planning went into this, so make sure you know it inside out."
This did not reassure Allbright at all, considering that the ambush mission for the Syracuse fleet was also the result of a good deal of planning.
They were all dead now.
The Vice Admiral continued. "Take some time right now to go over the materials, and get to know the rest of the people here. This will be your only opportunity to discuss matters with one another before shipping out. There is a complete security blackout on this one, so keep it zipped beyond this room. Most of you'll be working together on the Redoubt for the duration of this next mission, so if you've got problems, work them out here and now. When you're ready, Colonel Carr's assistant, Lieutenant Minnes, will try to answer any mission-specific questions you may have. Good luck ladies and gentlemen." With that, he nodded to no one in particular in the room, looked at Colonel Carr, then at Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard. The three of them left the room in single file without saying another word.
Allbright knew a disaster-in-the-making when he saw one, and this had all the signs of being a good one: Shoddy mission planning, mixed up mission objectives, crew switches, severely tired command staff, thin evidence condemning their target, and big holes in the intelligence behind the planning all pointed to a brewing disaster. He understood why Chen felt that this mission was at risk for failure.to Ted's eyes, it seemed like it was doomed from the start by a committee of high-ranked buffoons. And he had just signed on as the new chief's second, promising Colonel Chen to keep a low profile, and to help the Redoubt get through this one successfully. He suddenly realized the full magnitude of the task he'd agreed to undertake.and it didn't feel good.