“Commander Sydney Chambers, reporting for duty.”
Captain Horace Steubing ignored the officer braced at attention in his command office aboard the TSM Tecumseh, continuing instead to study a data pad containing that officer’s credentials along with her orders to report to Steubing as Tecumseh’s new first officer. The credentials were impressive for one so young, with less than a decade of TSM service under her belt: Commendations, successful tours, and rapid progressions following on a record of sterling academic achievement at TSM Academy. Steubing ignored the details, for the most part. His concern with his new first officer was not how well she performed, nor how she might fit in with the crew. Steubing’s main interest was how easily she could be kept out of the profitable loop that he and his other top officers had perfected during their years together on Tecumseh. The sudden and premature death of Steubing’s former first officer, Alex Manion, had rattled all of them. Not even one of the survivors had bothered to consider this new person for inclusion in their little enterprise, though … not an officer who was so young and so obviously idealistic, and definitely not an officer with such close ties to the admiralty.
It was an open secret that Admiral Lord Stephen Alexander was Sydney Chambers’ long-time mentor. While Lord Alexander was no longer the admiral to whom Steubing reported — that position was currently held by Admiral Lady Alexander, the commander of Frontier Fleet, to which Tecumseh had migrated several years before — Sydney’s pedigree in that regard was entirely too dangerous for comfort.
“At ease, Commander,” Steubing finally allowed, belatedly and half-heartedly returning the salute that Sydney had been holding since coming to attention minutes before. “Welcome to the Tecumseh.”
“Thank you, sir. I —”
“I have a few questions, Commander Chambers.”
The new exec snapped her mouth shut, swallowing anything she had been about to say. “Yes, sir.”
“This is your first tour as an executive officer, I see.”
“Since graduating, yes, sir.”
Steubing formed his mouth into a smile that a dispassionate observer might better describe as a smirk. “I don’t give much weight to Middie cruises, Commander. I do note that you’re rather young for the posting. Don’t you agree?”
“Sir,” Sydney said, and drew a breath before continuing. “My promotion to commander did come somewhat sooner than I had anticipated.”
“Sooner than pretty well anyone expected,” Steubing interjected. “Sooner than damn near any officer before you.”
Sydney forced herself not to blink at her new captain’s tone. “Those things are both true, yes, sir,” she said, speaking carefully so as not to step onto any metaphorical land mines. “I was given to understand that the sudden vacancy on this vessel caused a bit of a problem for the personnel office. Personnel believed, though, that I had shown some talent in those areas most relevant to the position of first officer. It was therefore Personnel’s request that I assist them in resolving their problem. My understanding, sir, is that, while Personnel considered my age to be an unusual factor, their hope was that someone of your long experience would serve as an excellent teacher for an individual in my position.”
“Personnel,” Steubing spat, clearly not liking the taste of the word. “They don’t really give a crap who they send where, as long as slots get filled. Tecumseh is more discriminating about its cadre.”
He narrowed his eyes at the young officer in front of him. “You believe that I should teach you to be the first officer of this ship, do you?”
“Sir, I have been assured that is what Personnel believes. My beliefs in the matter are irrelevant, at this point.”
“Damn straight.” Steubing stared at Sydney for a long moment, silent, brown eyes blank beneath a carefully groomed head of coal-black hair, his sculptured features unreadable. “So tell me, Commander, why should I believe you’re any more trainable than a hound dog? Why should I spend my time and energy doing that?”
Sydney fought hard against the urge to gulp before she answered. “Well, sir, I would venture to suggest that offering me guidance in the particulars of serving as executive officer of a vessel of this size would allow you the opportunity to extend your well-known propensity for an efficiently-run ship unto a new generation of officers. I might also suggest, sir, that — at least in the short term — teaching me to do things your way will smooth my transition into the position that Commander Manion filled so ably for the past five years.”
Sydney paused a moment before adding, “Sir, I am fully conversant with the duties and responsibilities of an exec according to the book. I am also quite aware that ‘the book’ and the reality of actual service are frequently at odds. You are someone who has not only served as a first officer, you have also commanded first officers. That experience would be priceless to me.”
The captain sat back in his chair, allowing his features to slowly turn from blank to thoughtful. “Not bad, Commander Chambers,” he commented after a moment, his voice droll. “That was a nice suck-up.”
“Sir, sucking up wasn’t my intention —”
“Of course it was, Commander,” the captain overrode her protest. “In your position, I’d do the same thing. I can’t help but notice, though, that you didn’t hit me with the one fact more compelling than any other.”
Sydney snapped her mouth shut as she felt a chill run down her spine, managing only by sheer dent of will to retain her outward calm. “Sir?”
“I’m stuck with you, whether I like it or not.”
Steubing quirked his mouth into the semblance of a smile and allowed a small portion of it to reach his eyes. “Perhaps, in fairness, it might be better to say that we are stuck with each other, Commander, for better or for worse.” When his new officer didn’t seem to relax, the captain forced a full smile onto his face and even chuckled softly.
“Lighten up, Commander. I have yet to kill a junior officer in cold blood, not even by accident ... and you have sufficient rank to make working you to death more than a little awkward to explain to Command. So, we will work together and we will get along. That, Commander Chambers, is both a promise ... and an order.”
Sydney finally allowed herself to relax slightly. “Thank you, sir.”
“That being said,” Steubing continued, “you will find that ‘the book’ with which you are so conversant definitely does not cover much of the reality of being First Officer of the Tecumseh. For one thing, I tend to be independent in extremis regarding decisions involving my ship and the people on my ship. What that means is, I expect you to manage the duty roster. I expect you to handle matters with enlisted crew and with anyone below lieutenant, on your own, just as ‘the book’ describes. Do not expect to be consulted about matters involving any other personnel; you will definitely not be asked about anything to do with ship functions or command decisions. I’m not interested in your opinions, I won’t ask for them and I don’t expect them to be offered. Clear?”
The chill was back in Sydney’s spine. “Yes, sir.”
Steubing’s eyes sparkled as they remained fixed on his new officer, but there wasn’t the smallest touch of humor behind the effect.
“Oh, buck up, Commander,” the captain grumbled, “I gave the same speech to Al Manion when he first reported to me, and to the man who came before him as well. That’s just the way I run this ship. It has nothing to do with you as a person or your lack of experience as a commander.
“Plus,” Steubing added, for the first time sounding slightly conciliatory, “if you do your work well and learn fast, then you never know. I just might ask for your opinion somewhere down the road. Don’t hold your breath, of course, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. I’m not a fool; I’ve read your record. I understand that, in the fullness of time, you will likely have something to offer that might merit my consideration.
“For now, go get yourself settled. You’ll find the crew roster and the current duty lists on the terminal in your room. The current duty list is good through end of week, so you’ve got a couple of days before you need to post your first attempt. I expect you at my table in the officers’ mess tonight, seventeen hundred sharp, so I can formally introduce you to the rest of the command staff. After tonight you’re on your own as to where you sit or if you even eat in the mess. Beginning tomorrow you’ll take second watch on the bridge — that’s sixteen hundred to midnight; we run traditional tours on the Tecumseh, not like some of the fancy ships where your record indicates you’ve served.
“Now, get out of here, Commander. You’re dismissed until mess call.”
Sydney offered a formal salute. “Yes, sir,” she nearly snapped, then turned and exited the captain’s office as gracefully as she could. As Steubing watched her go he felt his jaw clench in anger at the drones in personnel who had cut Sydney’s orders — and at the incessant Confederacy-wide budget cuts that had likely been the driving force behind those orders.
Kee-rist in a strait jacket, the captain thought to himself. Not only a rookie, but a spick-and-span clean one with a stick up her ass and ties to the Admiralty. What a fine kettle of fish we’re going to face every time we have to make a pickup or delivery.
He toggled his intercom to summon Tom Spencer, his second officer and surviving partner in the Tecumseh’s decidedly unsanctioned side business, for a strategy session.