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Chapter Thirty-Three

"Do you believe this crap, Maxie?" Scooter Smith demanded in a disgusted mutter. He and PO Maxwell sat in the rear of the briefing room, listening while Lieutenant Gearman explained the day's program to the wing's engineering staff. Commander Stackowitz and Captain Harmon would brief in the squadron and section leaders a bit later, but as always, everyone else's efforts ultimately depended on the engineers. Which meant they had to get the word first, and at the moment, Smith wanted to spit as he glanced at Maxwell.

"What's not to believe?" his hirsute friend replied, using the junior officers and senior noncoms seated between him and the briefing lectern for cover as he scratched his ribs industriously. Then he shrugged. "The brass has decided to screw the Minnie over. You gonna try to tell me you've never been part of that procedure before?"

"Is that all you have to say about it?" Smith regarded him with pronounced disfavor, and Maxwell shrugged again.

"Hey, what I say—or you say—don't matter squat, Scooter. What matters is that that asshole Holderman's decided we're gonna blow this exercise. I don't know why he's so hot to make us look bad, but there's damn all you or I can do about it, so how's about you vent with just a little less fervor? Or on someone else, at least."

"You never look outside your toolbox, do you?" Smith snorted.

"Nope," Maxwell agreed, then grinned crookedly. "Course, that could be because I've had a little more experience dodging official displeasure than you have, Scooter m'boy."

"Well, that's true enough, anyway!" Smith grunted with a laugh. "You've had more experience at that than just about anyone else in the Service, 'Silver Spanner.'"

"A low blow," Maxwell observed sadly, "but no lower than I'd expect from someone like yourself."

Smith grinned, left more cheerful by the exchange despite his disgust with the briefing. But Maxwell was obviously correct about what was happening here. Rear Admiral Holderman had leaned on the umpires hard, and the result had been an order for the LACs to make their approach on Hancock Base without utilizing their stealth systems at all. They could come in at whatever acceleration they liked, on whatever vector they wished, from a starting point that would be completely their own choice. But they could not take advantage of a single aspect of their powerful EW suites on the approach. Worse, the umpires had decided to reduce their active missile defenses' efficiency by forty percent in order to "reflect probable enemy upgrades in scan data enhancement and fire control," which was bullshit if Smith had ever heard it.

But at least they'd get to try it in real space, not the simulators, he reminded himself. If nothing else, that would prevent Holderman and his merry band from fudging the exercise's parameters still further once it was actually underway—and Scooter Smith wouldn't put even that past this bunch. Unlike Maxwell, he had at least a suspicion of what had punched Holderman's buttons, and he wondered what in heaven's name had possessed the Skipper to do something that dumb.

Well, I guess even captains can fuck up, he thought as philosophically as he could, and at least there won't be all that many "bad guys" looking for us. Aside from the base itself, there's only five SDs and the battlecruisers. That's a lot of sensor ability, but Captain Harmon's a sneaky one. I'll bet she and Commander Stackowitz will figure out a way to get a hell of a lot closer in before detection than old Holderman even dreams is possible!

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