Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Whiting strode into General Johnson’s office like she owned it. As just one of many mid-level officers, her situation could not be good. Johnson usually addressed her as one of a group, leaving the details to his cadre of advisors. A one-on-one meeting with a Major General broke through the command hierarchy.
General Johnson looked old, chubby and frail without his flock of sycophants and supporters. Johnson’s first career was the creation of a vast business empire; he leveraged his business contacts to create career in politics as the governor of a system of bases near here at the edge of the Core Planets. His origins were deep in the Old Core, but he had moved out to the frontier to exploit the new opportunities there as the local military leader. Service in his organization opened the door to making money in his business empire or advancing in his political sphere.
“Whiting,” Johnson said as a greeting. He pointed to one of the chairs the crowded the office. The small office was made claustrophobic by the absurdly large and plush furniture.
Whiting was tall and muscular; while she wore a uniform well, she wore more jewelry than regulations allowed and had her uniforms tailored. After spectacular business failures, she had been reduced to borrowing money from her family to buy a commission in the military. Stripped of self-confidence, she blamed her problems to taking a hands-off, armchair leadership style. She accused herself of being too distant in an effort to avoid nagging and micro-managing. In the Marine Corps she hoped to find success by getting her hands dirty. While she came from a different social class, she tried to put herself on an equal footing with the marines she commanded by joining their daily physical training drills. She also carried one of the biggest side arms the Marine Corps used. It was a heavy, cumbersome gun, and the power packs were bulky, but it made her comfortable.
“Have a seat,” Johnson said, smiling broadly.
Johnson sighed as she sat down. He glanced down at his desk for a moment, looking at some notes printed on paper.
“You’re ambitious,” he said, slowly, tentatively.
Whiting looked at him, wondering if she was supposed to respond. It didn’t sound like a question, but he left a large silence hanging in the small office. She decided to wait for him to spin out his story.
“You’ve had your share of problems and setbacks, haven’t you?” Johnson asked, growing more confident.
Whiting scowled, wondering where he was heading.
“I think my record speaks for itself, sir,” she began. She faltered, but went on anyway, “I’ve got the best fitness rating an officer can have. I’ve accomplished every mission, met every objective.”
Johnson nodded, looking at his notes for a moment.
“You know we’ve had our share of problems out here on the frontier,” he said.
She didn’t try to fill the silence with a response to his statement. Whiting was well aware of Johnson’s mission to drive the Outer Rim forces from this cluster. She was also aware that he was building a huge frontier base, which involved high transport costs, and a large number of independent, civilian pilots and freight ships. The presence of so many people on an isolated, incomplete frontier base created innumerable problems that were only tangential to the real mission.
“Can I be honest?” Johnson asked.
“Of course,” she said, completely disappointed. She hated this kind of statement; it meant that the whole conversation was a blurry muddle of lies and half-truths.
“There are some concerns about your ability to work with your peers,” he said, firing the first real shot after his initial maneuvering.
She stared, unable respond to this kind of accusation.
“Nothing serious, nothing definite. However,” he continued and coughed. “To be honest, I think there’s nothing to it, just — honestly — jealousy from my advisors.”
She had trouble understanding what she was hearing. She concluded that when he said “his advisors” this had to be the handiwork of Seth Pomeroy, a former lawyer, and Johnson’s most odious toady. She wondered what she had done to draw fire from Pomeroy. She couldn’t think of anyone who might have reported her as uncooperative.
“Here on the frontier, we have to make sacrifices,” Johnson said. “Anyone who can’t work prioritize properly...” Johnson trailed off. “Anyone who doesn’t have the support of their peers...” Johnson said, vaguely. “I’d have to honestly question their potential.”
Johnson went on, telling a rambling story about how he had overcome some business crisis by focusing on his strengths. She’d heard this kind of story from Johnson many times. Some of his stories were true, but many were paraphrases from management self-help books, lightly reworded to be in the first person. Someone must have decided that she still had a personal fortune somewhere, and this was a problem. She had only been able to buy a commission as lieutenant, and had earned every promotion: Johnson’s report didn’t include this.
Johnson stopped talking and looked at her with a puzzled expression. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he asked.
He’d said something about an opportunity. She realized she was sweating heavily. Her heart was racing and she felt queasy. The situation was suddenly crystal clear to her. She’d been set up as the ideal candidate for something either risky or stupid. Someone had convinced Johnson that she had all three desirable features for a dangerous mission: capable, desperate and expendable.
She saw that her career in the military had become entangled around Pomeroy; she trapped in the well of dark gravity he created within Johnson’s command structure. Dragged into a decaying orbit, the best she could hope for was a miraculous escape from career death.
Johnson turned a computer on his desk toward her. He’d said something about freighter pilots. She looked at the list of pilots, ships, loads and arrival times. One of the ships carried a mini factory that she’d ordered for metal extraction and base fabrication. She pointed at the ship in the list, unsure precisely what Johnson was talking about.
Johnson nodded and clicked the screen with a stylus. “So you know this pilot?” Johnson asked.
Whiting shook her head. The company that made the factory had contracted for delivery. She only knew that the shipping rates were competitive; the pilot was able to work the frontier cheaply.
“Doesn’t matter. I know that you are an excellent leader, capable of making the hard decisions when the time comes. I know that when you tackle a problem it gets solved right away,” Johnson said, brightly.
She couldn’t put this comment together with “doesn’t have the support of their peers.” She knew that “hard decisions” was military code for letting people get killed. Did he think she unfit for her command or not?
Catching her breath, she realized that this was an opportunity for hands-on leadership. This was her chance to get her hands dirty under Johnson’s command. It was, perhaps, the only way to put her business failures behind her.
“So you want me to take some scouts out to patrol the frontier?” she asked, tentatively. Then she cursed herself for not saying something more positive and direct.
Johnson coughed again. It was his nervous, evasive cough. “No, no. We don’t want to provoke an incident. Those freighters have immunity to move back and forth across the frontier with ease. They are always involved in smuggling or stealing. They are the perfect cover.”
Whiting sat up, laser straight. “You want me to go undercover?” She blurted it before she realized what she was saying.
Johnson shook his head. “In all honesty, I can’t order, ask, or even suggest it,” he said, suddenly stern. “I’m ordering you to gather intelligence for Colonel Williams. How you accomplish that mission is your business.”
She looked at him closely. “Yes, sir,” she said.
“About your construction details. I’ll take control of those,” he said, then added “in the interim.”
Johnson clicked his computer a few times. “I’ve sent you an invitation to a meeting with those freighter pilots. Fourteen hundred.”
She stood up. Pomeroy had twisted her independent leadership into a liability. He had colored her business failures to maker her look desperate. Her factory was now Johnson’s factory, making her expendable. But was she truly capable of undercover work? Perhaps Pomeroy was right about her level of desperation making her capable of success.