Kaiser-class Battleship SMS Prinzregent Luitpold
July 10, 3400
0900 Hours Fleet Standard Time
Admiral Gregor von Mückenberger stretched his arms, then picked up his coffee cup. It was a wonderful day to win a battle, even if he'd had to get out of bed a little early.
His ships were doing their final top-off of auxiliary fuel tanks. Ammunition was loaded- mixed solid, guided, flak and nuclear, plus a healthy number of ground-attack thermobarics for the heavy cruisers. Everyone was ready to go, at last!
"Sir! Message from Black Hole
Verio would like a word with you."
"Of course, of course, I will see him." The Centralist admiral was a stiff fellow with some funny ideas, but his heart was in the right place. And it was always good to put one's intentions on the record with allied commanders before going off to win a major battle.
Disruptor-class Battleship CNS Black Hole
Flagship Task Corps 8
Deep Space, Sector H-11
0905 Hours Fleet Standard Time
Vice Admiral Prots Verio didn't relish speaking to Admiral Mückenberger. Theoretically, the Prussian was his superior in rank. Practically, Verio found it very difficult to think of the cretin as his superior in any way.
The overwhelming size of the Prussian Second Fleet had made the question of who had overall command of the Coalition forces very touchy. Even before the start of operations, the Umerian and Tianguo embassies to the Center had flatly refused to place their forces under Prussian command for any reason. Verio couldn't blame them. The Eoghan and Atlantean contingents had withheld judgment until hearing back from their officers on the spot... at which point they'd agreed fully with the Prussians' neighbors.
For a while, the Centrality had feared they would need to send out a full admiral to take over, which was... politically inadvisable for a number of reasons. A matter of some delicacy, he gathered by reading between the lines of notes from Fleet headquarters. What salvaged the situation more than anything else was sheer inertia. The Prussians themselves said nothing on the matter, neither agreeing to subordinate their fleet to a foreigner nor asking that foreigners be subordinate to them.
Second Fleet, with tonnage comparable to the combined forces of all the other contingents, was treated more like a cobelligerent that happened to be in the same neighborhood, and less like part of an integrated command structure.
It prevented squabbles, but it was very inelegant. In practice, what it came down to was that Verio was willing to defer to Mückenberger as fit their relative ranks... so long as Mückenberger didn't try to tell Verio what to do.
But they had to confer before Mückenberger left; he had to try one more time to get the Prussian to agree to some kind of sensible plan other than "charge!"
Mückenberger's bewhiskered face appeared before him on the viewscreen, with an almost absurdly 'Stoic Paternal' expression on his face. Verio hoped
was a pose. Either Mückenberger was posturing, or his head was even emptier than the Centralist wanted to think possible. "Hello there, Vice Admiral!"
"Good day to you, sir. I wanted to call on behalf of the Central State to wish your forces good luck for the operation-" Mückenberger beamed at this- "And also because I wanted to propose some minor adjustments to our dispositions."
The beaming grin faded. "What do you mean?"
"I've mentioned this before, but... I've been thinking about the attack plan, and I recommend in the strongest possible terms that we move a bit more slowly, and try to clear or at least sweep the surrounding systems before dropping your command on Zebes. We don't know nearly
enough about what's out there, and some of what I've been hearing from the junior admirals is... disturbing."
Now the grin was replaced by a frown. "Von Musel?"
"He's not the half of it. I've heard the same story from the Umerians- Yang called me with his concerns within less than two hours of the release of your Sixth Battlecruisers' report. He didn't reference any communications with the Rear Admiral either; just the fact that they did
run into a noticeable starship force. The day after that, Hazarika- the former CO of their contingent- chimed in too. She sent me a twelve page report on just how much the pirates could have squirreled away in some of those systems without us knowing. It's not encouraging, and it isn't just them either. The Eoghans are twitchy, the Tianguo contingent have been muttering darkly about the whole thing, though neither of them has really explained their sources for the intel yet... I don't like it, sir."
"You must understand, Vice Admiral, these things are normal before a major battle. They can't be allowed to distract us from combat operations- every part of the plan is essential, and changes now are impossible, as you must see."
"Admiral... I have to state for the record that I believe we need to apply more caution in this situation. We have five or six system-cracking task forces here without even dipping into your forces; I suggest that we use them."
Mückenberger frowned. "I understand your concerns, but I don't want any unnecessary interference with my fleet's activities. If you force me into contrived coordination with other fleets, it will only serve to kill my fleet's strength, and in the end, benefit the pirates. You'll be limiting our strategic options."
"What strategic options, sir?-" and it took all Verio's willpower not to put a contemptuous pause before that 'sir'- "You're planning to attack, you're planning for them to defend. What options do you have that you'd lose if you coordinated with a backup force?"
The Prussian said nothing for a moment. His face went flat, then returned to his original expression of Noble Paternal Dignity. It was as if a switch had flipped in Mückenberger's head, a reset button of some kind.
"Thank you for your kind offer, vice admiral, but there is no need! We have ample forces to destroy the pirates at Zebes, and that is what we will do, as promised and as planned! Von Mückenberger out!" The display went black.
What was he thinking? Was
he thinking, or was he just grandstanding? Was there anything going through his brain aside from speeches? The man is insane, and I can't order him not to be!
Verio blinked, then blinked again, unable to comprehend the absurdity of what he'd just heard, until he was politely interrupted by his chief of staff.
Staffers in the Central State had to walk a careful line. On the one hand, proper subordination was vital if superior officers were to have freedom of action. On the other, it was a staff officer's duty to understand and clarify his superior's thoughts- and that duty was no less an iron law than any other. So Higgs asked a question that any other man of his rank would hesitate to raise.
Higgs cleared his throat to draw his superior's attention. "Sir, at the risk of being presumptuous, I wonder if our fleet should just remain here as spectators, since Admiral Mückenberger seems to be so confident in his plans."
The Centralist admiral shook his head. "We can't. Plans don't fail before they're put into effect. It's after the first shot that things start to go wrong. And if something goes wrong on this scale..."
"Are you concerned about anything in particular, sir?"
"No. I don't know what there is to be
concerned about yet. But I don't like it when I see a flag officer trying to use calculation in place of mental strength. To be blunt, Mückenberger is... not strong-minded. He has a huge weight of metal at his command, but I don't think he has the heart or the brains to use it efficiently, and that could mean trouble. And consider the situation. Second Fleet will be several hours into the shoals, through a lane network that looks like thirty light-years of cable spaghetti. Communications will be miserable; anything
could happen in there and we won't have either a clear picture of what's going on or an easy path to support him."
"...What are your orders, sir?"
"Tell all the allied contingents to prepare for the jump to hyperspace, leaving... one eighth of their force as a joint force to cover the fleet base- I want at least one cruiser or heavy destroyer from each contingent. We'll be pushing into the shoals behind Second Fleet to cover their rear- whether they like it or not. Alert me when the Prussians finish their final refueling checks and our other contingents are ready to move."
CNS Black Hole
0920 Hours Fleet Standard Time
Force Lord wrote:
"Sir, it is time. The Prussians have proper supply and our other allies report as ready."
"Let's not waste any time, then. Inform the other higher commanders that we move into Zebes now!", said Vice-Admiral Prots Verio.
Oh, how long he waited. Granted, he managed to get replacements for the ships lost at Hawk's Nest, but that would have taken less time than von Mückenberger's issues. But now the time was ripe. The only thing left was to go to hyperspace...
...Verio wasn't so much concerned about Zebes itself as he was about the surrounding systems. They still didn't know enough about what was out there.
Mückenberger wanted to make the run at top speed, accepting that his ships' detection radius would suffer from the churning his hyperspace wake created in the shoals. The Prussian had brooked no argument. Verio planned to take it rather slower- someone
had to be able to see where they were going, and anyone closing in behind.I may not be able to tell Mückenberger not to be a fool, but I won't allow him to make one out of me.