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CHAPTER NINE: We Do Our Job

"The last probe flight is back, Sir. Or part of it, anyway."

Captain George Snyder paused in his restless prowl of TFNS Sarmatian's command deck and looked at his exec. Lieutenant Commander Harris didn't notice the sharpness of her captain's gaze. Her attention was on her display, and Snyder saw her mouth tighten.

"No changes according to the preliminary run, Sir," she said, looking up at last. "We may turn up something when we fine-tooth it, but until then-"

She shrugged apologetically, and Snyder nodded. It was hard to keep the gesture courteous and not simply curt, but Sonja Harris had been his XO for over a year. Before that, she'd been his astrogator for almost twenty months, and she deserved better than to have her head bitten off just because her CO was feeling antsy.

And he was feeling antsy, Snyder admitted as he turned back to the visual display and resumed his pacing. He really shouldn't be doing that, either, since it advertised his impatience and concern to all eyes, but he couldn't help it, and he glared at the cool, barren class M star burning at the heart of the lifeless system they'd dubbed El Dorado.

Five days. Prescott had been gone for five full days, and the tension was getting to the entire flotilla, not just George Snyder. In theory, the continued probe flights might give them some clue of what was happening, but the odds of that were infinitesimal. Unless something had happened to cause a truly massive Bug redeployment in this direction (like the pursuit of a retreating TFN battlecruiser), or unless Concorde's cloaking systems hiccuped at exactly the right point in her return, no probe was going to see anything from this far out. Which meant that, for all anyone knew, Concorde had been destroyed with all hands days ago. Or she could be minutes away from returning to El Dorado, coasting towards them under cloak, invisible to their transit-addled probes. Or she could be fighting a desperate running battle against hopeless odds even as he paced Sarmatian's bridge. Or-

He chopped the useless speculation off . . . again, and his mouth twitched with something far too biting to be called humor.

You always told yourself you could do as well as Prescott in the worry seat, he told himself. At least you've shown you can worry as well as he can!

He chuckled, then made himself settle into the captain's chair at the center of the bridge and look around with approving eyes. Survey Command skippers always got to hang on to their ships longer than officers in other branches. It only made sense, given the megacredits it cost to train a Survey captain and the lengthy deployments such ships regularly undertook. It would hardly be worthwhile to spend all that time and effort training a man for his job just to snatch it away from him when he'd carried out no more than two or three missions, after all. But Snyder knew he was lucky, even so, for he'd commanded Sarmatian for over five years. He'd been her XO before the war, and he'd moved up to the captain's chair when she emerged from refit to the Hun-B standard, with military engines and fourth generation ECM.

That meant he'd had plenty of time to fine-tune his personnel . . . and that he'd operated under the new, wartime guidelines from the moment he took command. Which ought, he conceded, to have given him plenty of time to accustom himself to the new realities. Yet it still seemed . . . unnatural to have a gunslinger telling the senior Survey officer what to do. Unnatural and wrong. Gunslingers didn't have the exhaustively trained instincts a Survey officer could acquire only by actually doing the job. No matter how good they were at their own jobs, they simply didn't understand Snyder's, and exploration work was far too important to have someone screw up out of something as avoidable as inexperience.

But there was nothing he could do about it, and truth to tell, however much he might resent the situation, just now he wished Prescott would hurry up and get himself and his flagship back from the far side of the warp point. It was past time for them to be headed home with their data, and he seriously questioned Prescott's decision to remain in the Bug system for so long. They'd confirmed who owned it, and that they had an unsuspected point of access, and that information was too important for them to risk compromising it-or even, in a worst-case scenario, getting themselves detected, caught, and destroyed and never getting their data home at all. But however George Snyder might feel about it, Andrew Prescott was the one sitting in the admiral's chair . . . assuming he and his command chair still existed. And no matter how questionable Snyder found Prescott's current actions, he had to admit that in most respects, the admiral had been a pleasant surprise.

The captain hadn't been at all certain that would be the case when he learned who his new flotilla CO was to be. The entire Navy had heard about the Prescott brothers, and Snyder had wondered whether someone with a reputation for derring-do was the right man to command a mission designed completely around stealth and sneakiness. The older Prescott had certainly demonstrated guts, determination, and tactical savvy, but he wasn't exactly noted for constructive timidity. And the younger Prescott's Justin exploit had constituted a very mixed review for any Survey officer. He'd shown an impressive flair for operating covert, but according to the rumor mill, he'd also actually shut down his drive at one point rather than let himself be pushed away from the warp point he was keeping under observation. In Snyder's book, that sort of "gutsy move" verged on lunacy. Prescott wouldn't have done Admiral Murakuma any good if he'd gotten his entire ship and crew blown out of space, after all! Surely the proper move would have been to pull back, evade in deep space, well away from the warp point, and then creep back into position once the coast was a bit closer to clear.

You weren't there, George, he reminded himself once more. And aside from this latest escapade of his, he hasn't exactly been a loose warhead since he took command of the flotilla. And be honest with yourself. How much of your resentment is really a matter of principled disagreement with Fleet policy or questions about his competence and how much of it stems from the fact that if he weren't here, you'd be the one in command?

That was the aspect of the entire situation which bothered him most, if he was going to be candid. He didn't want to suspect his own motivation, yet he was too self-honest not to admit the possibility. Especially since it was beginning to look like no Survey officer was going to be allowed to command his own branch of the Navy's missions for the duration of the war.

He sighed and tipped his chair a bit further back and stared into the depths of the visual display while he wondered what the hell was keeping Concorde.



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