World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.07

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 7: The Porcelain Two-Step

Previously: A Final Waltz

“Bleek!” Ruth said, “Bleek Bleek Bleek!”

“What is she doing?” Lt. Alistair McKeon asked, looking on in confusion as the treecat, who was sitting in a box with a bowl on her head, waved to no one at all.

“She’s pretending she’s the Queen,” Solace said with a sigh, plucking the bowl off the ‘cat’s head and pretending to glare at her. “She thinks it’s unfair that Elizabeth gets a crown and Ariel doesn’t.”

“She’s… protesting that ‘cats don’t have their own queen?”

Solace liked McKeon, even if he was a little stiff at times. He was flag lieutenant to Admiral Count Rodney Bridges, and she’d been assigned to the Admiral’s staff as assistant tactical officer when her tour on Dottie had ended. She found herself missing the bucket of bolts, even if it hadn’t been the same after Captain Hemphill had left. Sonja had been transferred to BuWeaps, thanks to personally figuring out that the weapon that had knocked D’Orville out of commission had been a new type of gravitic mine. It had been, as far as anyone could tell, developed by parties unknown to allow pirates to disable ships without doing too much damage… unfortunately for the pirates and fortunately for everyone else, it didn’t seem like it would work if the ship’s wedge was up… or even if the impellers were ready to generate a wedge, which made it more useful as a terror tool than anything else.

After that, HMS D’Orville had seemed a lonelier place, and she’d welcomed the chance to transfer away from Pavel Young’s odious presence and all too wandering hands. He hadn’t seem to understand that no meant no… she’d even gone so far as to ‘accidentally’ break his wrist one time as he’d groped her, but he’d persisted in being a nuisance and had, in fact, seemed to enjoy teasing her all the more after that. She’d very nearly challenged him to a duel after one particularly odious event wherein he’d commented that she should put out for him since that was what she’d been made for… but she was so stunned by the fact that he obviously knew what her tongue-code meant that she’d forgotten to get fully angry at the implication that she was nothing more than a sex toy. By the time she’d realized what he’d been getting at, the moment had passed.

Still, she’d passed on a report of the conversation to Mary and Loyal and Uncle Vanya, just in case. The family had a tradition… call it a genetic inheritance even if Solace wasn’t actually genetically related to them… It was a tradition summed up in the phrase ‘A threat to one is a threat to all.’ The Jews in general had not survived 5,000 years of purges, pogroms, and persecution without learning a few things about solidarity. The New Temple Jews? They were masters of the game.

But that was for another day, a day when enough information had been gathered to shape an action agenda… for the time being, Solace wanted to make absolutely certain that Lord Young understood that he was not the hunter in whatever cat-and-mouse game he thought he was playing.

So, a couple days after he’d issued his little suggestion, deep in the ship’s night, Pavel Young had woken to find himself stripped naked and bound, spread-eagle on his bunk, as a sock was cruelly forced into his mouth and a strip of electrical tape used to hold it in place. A figure that was little more than a black shadow in the darkness held a blade that resembled the hooked claw of a very large raptor in front of his face. The blade gleamed in the light from his chronograph and he grunted and thrashed as it was drawn over his skin, digging in just enough to cause pain without leaving a mark despite his movements.

“Listen to me very well, you pig,” a voice that was delicate and full of menacee instructed. “I killed my first person at the age of four. I cut her throat with a straight razor I’d spent a year making out of a tie pin, then gouged out her eyes for good measure. Before the month was out, I’d killed or helped kill sixteen more, all of them grown adults. I shot a man’s brains out without a second thought before my fifth birthday.” Pavel was too terrified, and the voice was too soft, for him to tell for certain who it was, but he was pretty certain it was a woman’s voice. She grabbed his chest hair and pulled on it hard enough to lift him slightly off the bunk, then drew the blade across the strands of hair, slicing through them right where they met the skin, effectively shaving him in the most painful way possible. He grunted with agony as he fell back to the bed.

“Do you know why I did all that?” she asked.

Eyes wide and full of terror, he grunted, shaking his head frantically as she moved the blade down to his crotch, letting the point slide over the sensitive skin it found there.

“I did it because, even at age four I was unwilling to be a toy for anyone. Ever.” The figure leaned over him and he flinched as he recognized those eyes, that gorgeous lavender color so unlike anyone else he’d ever met. Those eyes were utterly emotionless and he felt dread in the pit of his stomach as she hissed, “I would rather die… and before you get any bright ideas about getting revenge… or even telling anyone about this… Be aware that I’ve told my family about your harassment. If anything happens to me… anything. For any reason at all… even if I die in combat… someone from the Temple will make very, very certain that the rest of your life is very, very short… and excruciatingly painful… and if you go after a member of my family? Remember the motto of the New Temple Family… ‘I Am My Brother’s Keeper’. He that hurts one of us is an enemy of all of us. We don’t forgive and we never, ever forget those who have wronged us.”

She pulled back a bit, eyes softening just a touch, and chuckled dryly. “Also, I’ve hacked your personal database. You really shouldn’t have pictures like that… even if the fear in their eyes is staged.”

And with that, Solace Smythe had slashed his left hand free and stabbed the mattress between his legs with the knife, causing him to whimper in fear until he realised she hadn’t stabbed him. By that time she was out the door and gone. None of the ship’s logs would show she’d ever left her bunk, and she’d left no physical evidence behind in his room. Even the knife had been stolen from one of the enlisted men who had a reputation for illicit activities and loansharking. The socks were, of course, Pavel’s own.

Still, if she didn’t miss Pavel, she had made a few friends aboard Dottie and now here she was on the Odysseus. If HMS D’Orville had been the oldest BC in the fleet, Oddboy was the newest, or very nearly. Laid down only 2 years earlier, she was one of the four most recent members of the Homer Class that had been designed to replace the venerable Redoubtable class that had first seen life back in 1786, nearly 100 years earlier. The Homer had been introduced in 1863 and was still being made nearly 20 years later as the RMN continued expanding in anticipation of the coming war with Haven.

Odysseus, nicknamed Oddboy was the flagship of Task Force 44, the newly strengthened RMN presence in and around Matapan and Asgard, resolutely enforcing the fact that Manticore was neutral in the civil war that was ripping apart Midgard and Asgard’s century old alliance. As Task Forces went, 44 wasn’t that big, being more of a detached cruiser flotilla, but BCs were considered ships of the wall, if barely, and 44 had three of them: Odysseus under Flag Captain Harold Styles, Invictus (a Redoubtable) under Captain (SG) Jasper Braintree, and Rampage (another Redoubtable) under Captain (SG) Rexford Jurgens.

TF 44 had twenty-three ships all in all, counting the Battlecruisers; six Heavy Cruisers (Prince Phillip, Prince George, Princess Anne, Prince Carl, Pippin, and Mallard) under Rear Admiral Edward Janacek; eight Light Cruisers (Hyperion, DIone, Phaeton, Horus, Rabbit’s Foot, Leprechaun, Resplendent, and Exalted) under Rear Admiral Eugene Walters; and six Destroyers (Soprano, Tenor, Aria, Fortissimo, Lancer, and Dart) under Commodore Francine Maurier. And all of it was under the watchful hand and unsteady eye of Admiral Count Bridges, a man it would have been easy to laugh at if he wasn’t so quick to laugh at himself.

“I know, I know, Ensign, I look ridiculous,” he’d said when she’d first met him. He was (at that time) trying on a uniform that was at least fifty years old and designed for a man two stone thinner. “It used to fit,” he complained, then pulled the jacket off and pulled on his current one… which to be honest probably could have stood to be taken out a little. “Welcome aboard and all that. Don’t worry, I don’t expect much out of you, just sit back and try not to mess up too badly and you’ll be an L.T. before you know it.”

“Sir?”

“Your uncle. Damned fine golfer. Said I should look after you. Said you were having a spot of trouble and needed to get out of Manticore for a little. I had a slot in my flag crew, and honestly, we’re not going to run into any sort of trouble out here. Nothing serious anyway. These rebels would have to be damned fools to try anything again. We’re ready for ’em this time… Got two Talisman Class Destroyers…” He looked at her, chuckled, “Go on, spit it out. I know you’re dying to say something.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t need protection. I’m good at my job and I can look after myself. And… and Talismans are Light Cruisers,” she said, blushing furiously, unable to believe she’d spoken like that to a flag officer and peer of the realm.

He just chuckled. “Oh? Heh. Well, all young people think they’re immortal. We all need looking after, even your inimitable uncle from time to time. I wasn’t implying you were incompetent… I’d have to be a fool to think that, with your record! Of course, I am a fool, a true blue buffoon, which is why I’m out here at the ass end of humanity instead of in Erewhon where the casinos are… but yes… hmmm… Talisman Cruisers… recon ships, had to pull strings to get them… only six in the entire fleet you know?”

Solace did know. She knew every ship that was on the books, its Captain, when it was laid down, and the date of its last refit. She also knew every ship that had ever been in the fleet, every one of its captains, senior staff, weapons, crew complement, service history, refit schedule, awards, and battle honors. But she didn’t say anything. The Admiral was the strangest man she’d ever met and nothing in her experience was giving her even the faintest clue of how to respond to his comments, so she’d simply nodded and said, “Yes Sir.”

“Good Good… well.. My flag lieutenant, McKeon… He’ll show you round, introduce you to everyone. Two years will just fly by and you’ll earn your… well, you’ve already got your pip… but a gold one, eh?”

Solace frowned. Honor was already a Senior Grade Lieutenant and it had only taken her five years to get there from Ensign, and only three to get to there from Junior Grade… in two years it would be nearly five years since Solace’s graduation, and she still hadn’t reached JG… She’d graduated at the top of her class, darn it!. Still, complaining wasn’t going to get her anywhere, so she’d just saluted and gone to find McKeon.

He was an SG like Honor but while Honor could be a bit of a hard case, Alistair was a bit of a joker, all self-confidence and wry self-deprecating humor and a smile that showed you he wasn’t serious. Except when he was. Then he was very serious.

Which was why he was having such trouble with Naomi, who seemed to enjoy teasing him, and Ruth, who confused him. To be honest, she confused Solace too, but in an amused kind of way. Naomi would occasionally let Solace know how others were feeling when she thought Solace needed to know. Ruth? Ruth just sent random emotions at Solace as if poking her to see how she reacted, or to startle her and make her laugh at the wrong time… It was like having Loyal make funny faces at her when she’d been practicing for her Bat Mitzvah.

Ruth also liked to pretend she was queen of the ‘cats whenever she could get an audience. “Sorry about the mess,” Solace said, putting the definitely-not-a-crown bowl she used for candy when she was reading back on its spot, turning it so that the faint scuff mark on one side wasn’t visible.

“What mess?” McKeon asked, looking around the tiny cabin.

Solace just waved her hands vaguely to indicate the room, knowing he was about to say something like ‘mess, riiight,’ or ‘This is the cleanest cabin I’ve ever been in.’ or just look at her like she was crazy. She was used to all those reactions and to head him off, she asked, “You wanted me for something?”

“Hmm? Oh. Yes. Some of the junior officers are getting together to play poker after shift tonight and we were wondering if you might be interested in joining us?”

“Poker?” she asked, dubiously.

He nodded. “Game of chance, played with cards, involves gambling our munificent pay.”

“I know what poker is,” she confirmed. “We used to play for candy back home… I never won. Loyal always got all my candy.”

“Loyal?”

“My brother. He’s good at games like that.” She didn’t need to add the implicit ‘and I’m not.’

“Well, you’re welcome to join us. We mostly play tenpenny a hand, nothing major. It’s fun… and a good way to get to know your crewmates.” He shrugged. “If you’re not up for it, maybe Queen Ruth will join us? We might be able to scrounge up some celery… I’ve seen you feeding them some on occasion, right?”

Ruth gave Solace a look that said ‘PLEASE?’ and Bleeked plaintively. Naomi, napping on the shelf over Solace’s desk, looked up at the word celery, but seeing none in evidence, humphed and laid her head back down.

“Fiine. Fine. But don’t complain if they fleece you completely dry.”

It had been years since Solace had last played poker, and she’d thought she’d known everything there was to know about it. Ante, get five cards, bet, toss up to three cards, get the same number back, bet again, best hand wins. That night she learned more than she’d ever dreamed possible. Wildcards, Stud, Hold Em, Hi-Lo, Carousel, Godzilla, Cricket in the Dark, Marketplace, Loser’s Cup… and there was tactics involved. She’d known all about bluffing of course. Bluffing was how Loyal, who was not nearly as good with numbers as she was, had always beaten her. She played the numbers, he played her… but playing against your parents and siblings was a far cry from playing with your peers and as she played she found herself watching the others more and more, noticing all the little things they did and the patterns of them.

Finger tapping, ring turning, swallowing, word repetition… it was like a list was forming in her mind, a matrix for each individual and all the things they did when they had good cards and when they had bad cards, when they were downplaying their cards hoping to drive the pot up and when they were lying through their teeth about having good cards. And there were clues that she was certain no one else was able to pick up, emotions relayed from the ‘cats, nervousness and nervous excitement, boredom and disgust, disappointment and elation. She experienced them all even as her funds dwindled.

Finally, she took a chance and bid big on a hand that was iffy but looked strong. She just had to sell the idea that it was strong. She wasn’t looking to score big… just stay in the game a bit longer. It didn’t pay off. “Ah well, better luck next time?” she offered and they nodded as she rose from the table and gathered her ‘cats.

McKeon followed her out and whispered to her, “Next time… you might want to leave Naomi behind.”

“W… what? Why? Did she do something wrong?”

Naomi bleeked indignantly at the imprecation.

“No. no,” the Lt said, waving his hands in denial. “It’s just that whenever you had a good hand, her ears would perk up and whenever you had a bad one she’d… I dunno… sulk?”

Solace blushed, then looked to the ‘cat who gave her a ‘who me?’ shrug. “Right… good note. This was fun… Can I come again next time?”

“Sure. we try to do this once a week or so.”

As it turned out, she only got to go to three more games with McKeon. She’d been aboard Oddboy for barely two months when orders from the Admiralty came down and TF 44 pulled out of the Matapan system. “It is the opinion of Her Majesty’s government that the current hostilities in the Asgard Theater are destabilizing trade in the region and thus, until such time as the current climate of insurgency ends, Task Force 44 is requested and required to proceed to the Asgard System and there to take control of the Wormhole Junction and guarantee free passage of all ships not involved in hostility against Midgard, Asgard, The Andermani, Matapan, or Manticore. Signed, First Lord of the Admiralty Margaret Rathborne.” Leaving behind Phaeton and Horus from the Light Cruisers and Tenor and Aria from the tin cans, the Task Force had then proceeded to the Sparta system with plans to use the wormhole there to jump to Asgard.

As they’d entered the Sparta system, Admiral Bridges had been desperately ill, suffering from a stomach bug that had gone round the flagship like wildfire, making all but the few who appeared immune uncomfortable for two or three days. More than half the flotilla had been reporting a few cases, and while it was debilitating, it wasn’t life-threatening. Solace had been on the flag bridge, manning sensors as they’d dropped out of hyper and at once she noticed something amiss.

“Sir,” she said to McKeon, certain that the command bridge’s sensor officer was reading the same information off to Captain Styles, “I’m picking up 11 bogies, all heading our way at acceleration that’s too fast for merchies… I think it’s another fleet.”

In one of those moments where one knows that the Universe likes playing jokes on mere mortals, it turned out that the Midgardians had decided to seize the Matapan terminus to keep Manticore from getting any bright ideas and had thus sent out two of their dreadnoughts, two battleships, and five battlecruisers… plus two frigates for scouts. Of course, no one on the Manticoran side had any idea that was why they’d just run into an apparently unknown force heading right towards them.

“Smythe,” McKeon asked, standing in for the Admiral who was currently hugging the porcelain in his personal head, “any idea who they are?”

“I don’t… I think it’s got to be the Midgardians… they’re the only ones out here that used Battleships and those frigates are the same class as the ones that attacked us in Matapan.”

“Why would they be out here in… Solace, I’ll take over sensors, you go tell the old man what’s happening and see what he has to say.”

So she went. The Admiral groaned, looked up at her with a face so white it was almost green and asked, “Are you the angel of death come to claim me?”

“No admiral… Mr McKeon says to tell you that we’ve run into a Midgardian fleet, two DNs, two BBs, five BCs, no screen to speak of… least time course for Matapan, sir.”

“Craapp… okay… we can’t stand against ships of the wall…” He paused to hiccup, groaned, then gasped out, “Have the task force… urp… have the task force… uhmmm max power, g… get us back across the hyperlimit and… oh god… and we’ll run back to M… m..” he was violently sick and in that brief pause, Solace ran the numbers in her head.

If the Task Force reversed power now, they’d be within the enemy’s powered missile envelope for 63 minutes and the enemy, if it was the enemy, would know exactly what they were. A crazy idea occurred to her as she watched the Admiral puke his guts out, and she snapped to attention and said, “Yes Sir,” then ran back to McKeon.

“Sir. The Admiral says to have the Cruisers all limit acceleration and pretend to be merchies. The Midgardians don’t have as good of sensors as we do and they won’t have a good fix on our classes since we’ve not been accelerating. Pretend we’re running, but dump all our missiles out into space with proximity fuses.”

McKeon nodded, passing the message on to the Captain and the rest of the fleet and Solace wanted to twitch and fidget… she couldn’t believe she was doing this. She was risking everyone’s lives on the chance that she was right… was she? Maybe the Midgardians wouldn’t attack… Maybe this was an act of war… either way, she was breaking all the rules, replacing an Admiral’s orders with her own… it was an act of madness. She stifled a giggle and McKeon looked at her.

“Something wrong, Ensign?”

“N… No sir. Just nervous. D… Do you think the plan will work?”

“We weren’t expecting them, I doubt they were expecting us. Either way we look like we’re running and intel says Midgardians like a chase. Go get into your skinsuit and bring me mine.”

She fled, knowing that if she stayed on the bridge another second she’d reveal her terrible bluff. Two hours later, it was all over. The Midgardians had demanded the surrender of the Manticoran fleet once they’d gotten close enough to see through the ruse of weakened impeller signatures and when no surrender had been forthcoming, had opened fire, despite the extremely long range.

At which point TF 44 had gone to maximum military power and begun pulling away from the slower dreadnoughts and battleships. The chase was on… for twenty-one minutes.

Then the lead battlecruiser had plowed right into the first of nearly a thousand proximity fused bomb pumped X-ray laser warheads and had blown up spectacularly. The two frigates were the only ones to avoid the zone of destruction. Six of the enemy ships were crippled and the last two, the BCs that had been on the edge of the Midgardian formation were the only ones still able to fight… and they peeled off and hypered out, going too fast for the Manticorans to catch.

In the end, four of the ships, both dreadnoughts and one each of the others had been salvageable, being loaded with prize crews and sent back to Manticore where, eventually, the Admiralty would decide to fix them up and give them to the Asgardians in exchange for ‘securing’ their junction. The other two could not be saved and, after pulling off their crews, and all the intel that could be vacuumed from their computers, they were scuttled.

Thousands of Midgardians had died in the brief exchange… of Manticorans? 32 had been killed and 102 were wounded. They’d taken more than three times their combined weight in ships and emerged all but unscathed… and only two people in the entire Task Force knew that it hadn’t been the Admiral’s brilliance that had carried the day.

“Come in Smythe,” Count Bridges said, sounding gruff and annoyed. Solace had to admit that he had every right to be. She entered, standing stiffly at attention. “You do realize that I could have you court martialed and at the very least you’d be dismissed her majesty’s service?”

“Yes Admiral.”

“You realize that what you did violated every conceivable…” His serious face cracked and he started chuckling, “Sorry, sorry. I can’t do this,”

“Sir?”

“I’m a fool. I really am,” he sighed, covering his face with his hands and shaking his head. Finally, he looked up at her. “If I hadn’t been… indisposed… I probably would have ordered exactly the same thing… or at least I’d like to think I would have. What I proposed was idiotic and you saw that. What I should have done was have the Task Force scatter… but your plan was audacious and makes me look brilliant. I could have you brought up on charges… but that would end up ruining your career and making me a laughing stock. Right?”

“Ummm… yes?” she asked, uncertain. She’d never been a laughing stock but it didn’t sound pleasant.

“So here’s what we’re going to do…”

And that was how Lt. Solace Smythe came to command LAC-216 in the Asgard system. Close enough to Count Bridges so he could keep an eye on her… and far enough away that she wouldn’t be able to usurp his command. She added another yellow stripe to her uniform, for once again being mentioned in dispatches as well as the Navy Commendation Decoration for… admirable service in assisting resisting enemy aggression. She still cringed at the deception of it all… but the Admiral had won the Navy Star for the Battle of Sparta… so secretly, she mentally swapped the two… and if anyone noticed she was wearing the medal in the wrong place on her tunic? Well, who ever really paid attention to stuff like that?

“Bleek!”

She looked over at Ruth. “What?”

Ruth pulled the candy bowl onto her head and pointed commandingly as if mimicking an officer giving orders in the most bombastic way possible.

“You’re not an admiral either,” Solace said, shaking her head. “But maybe someday…”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 8

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.06

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter Six: A Final Waltz

Previously: The Matapan Two-Step

‘God, medals are a pain in the proverbial backside’, Solace thought to herself as she tried (once again) to make the awards on her formal mess uniform hang right. To an untrained and less hyper-critical eye, if would have seemed fine, but for an event like this? It wasn’t right to be less than her best… the grief she shared with the rest of the nation had to be pushed aside.

“Ten minutes, Ensign,” came a voice at the door to the room and she acknowledged with a small barely vocal mmmhmmm, but the steward accepted it and left.

The last year had been… frustrating didn’t begin to cover it. Dottie had been pulled back to the Manticore system for yet more refits and repairs and so the Admiralty could try and figure out what had been done to knock out her systems so effectively and the entire ship’s crew had been granted the Royal Meritorious Unit Citation for holding the terminus even while their ship was functionally dead in space and then for getting her up and running fast enough to hold off the four Brotherhood Destroyers that had been approaching ballistically from out system.

The fight had been extremely nasty, for even though HMS D’Orville had outmassed the entire enemy squadron, the tin cans were fresh and undamaged while Dottie was anything but. Everything Solace had learned about Damage Control in the preceding weeks had been sorely tested and she’d gained a profound respect for those who could handle the chaos without losing their heads. The entire time she was barely able to keep from screaming in a mix of frustration and terror as one system after another failed either from strain or battle damage… yet the results of the battle had never been in doubt. Battlecruisers, even ones as old and dodgy as Dottie simply carried too much armor and weaponry to be taken out by a squadron of lesser cruisers, let alone destroyers. The captain of a BC who couldn’t take on three or four heavy cruisers in a stand up fight was a poor commander.

Hell, Saganami himself had fought the BC Nike against more than six times his number of lighter ships and destroyed several and crippled several more before they brought him down. Could the namesake of his successor do any less?

No, she couldn’t, and at the end of that battle, what history would recall as the Battle of Matapan, no Brotherhood ship remained operational in the system, though one of them had managed to break away and hyper-out before the Captain’s final salvo could smash it to pieces.

Then came the backbreaking work of getting the impellers back online (again) so that they could take the Wormhole back to Manticore and spend the next three months docked at HMSS Weyland for a complete overhaul.

And that was when Asshole the Lord Pavel Dipshit had joined the crew. He was a JG, too senior for his posting as assistant damage control officer, but apparently (according to the scuttlebutt she was making an effort to pay attention to even though it made her want to scream at people to mind their own business) he’d pissed off his former ship’s XO badly enough that she’d asked the Captain to transfer Young ASAP… and the first slot available had been aboard Dottie.

Helena Bogs had been a hateful wretch who was willing to kill others for money, and had cast aspersions on Solace’s virtue… but she’d never been dumb enough to assume that Solace hadn’t actually earned her collection of awards. The first words out of Pavel Young’s mouth upon meeting her had been to scoff, “Conspicuous Gallantry? For pulling a bunch of commoners out of a sewage leak?” and then he’d leered and asked her if she wanted to come back to his cabin after her shift and she could show him the rest of her shiny trinkets.

It had taken her almost ten whole seconds to process the idea that he was flirting with her and then almost three minutes to figure out how anyone could possibly believe that insulting someone was a good way to make them like you… or want to sleep with you. The entire time she’d been pondering that, Pavel had continued his pathetic badinage… it was worse than being flirted with by the fresh rabbinical students at temple… the thirteen year olds who, having just had their bar mitzvahs, actually believed they were adults.

“Your Lordship?” she’d asked, “Are you trying to get laid?”

He’d grinned broadly at her, a grin so unctuous and elitist that it reminded her of a Hexapuma but with less tact, and waggled his eyebrows. “You know it, babe.”

“Then I would like to invite you to kindly go fuck yourself.”

His face had fallen, then turned a shade of red that nearly matched the two Wounded in Action stripes on her uniform.

A week later, she’d sent off a letter to Honor on the subject:

Dear Honor, repairs to Dottie have finally begun and they’re ripping out all those ancient compressors and her entire after impeller ring, which I believe were last fully serviced before we were born. Half our laser mounts were destroyed in the battle, and the Captain says that it’s likely at least some of them will be replaced with the new grasers.

Speaking, however obliquely, of the battle, it has me concerned for the safety of not just Naomi and Ruth, but also Nimitz and all the other ‘cats in Naval service. Why is there no standard enviro-pod… I hesitate to call it a pet-carrier, but something similar… with life support and a locator beacon and some basic armoring in case the ship loses atmosphere? I spoke to one of my classmates, whose family does this kind of work… chandlery and such for the Navy… and he said that, if there was enough interest, and the Admiralty approves, we might be able to purchase such custom pods and have them installed in our berths. I passed the notion on to the Captain who said she’d speak to some of the Admirals and test the waters, and thought that maybe you might see if your father could put in a word with BuMed? It’s going out on a limb (haha) for our fuzzy friends, but they’re worth it.

On the subject of classmates, I have had the deepest misfortune to become acquainted with one of yours, one Lt (JG) Lord Pavel Young… I believe he was a year ahead of you at the Academy and was wondering if, perhaps you might have heard anything about him or had the displeasure of interacting with him. I tell you in confidence that every time he opens his mouth, I feel a desire to drive my fist into it.

If it does not violate secrecy, do you think you will you be in the system next month, around the 19th? I have a plus one to a party and have a friend there I would like you to meet. I promise, this is not an attempt to play matchmaker… I have not suddenly become middle aged.

Best wishes, Solace.

====

The response had been… confusing. Honor had expressed interest in the ‘cat-pods and in the refit, and her regrets that she would not be available on the 19th… and then had warned Solace to watch herself around Young and never allow herself to be caught alone with him.

Sensing something hidden, Solace had tried to gently pry, but had gotten a rather terse demand from Honor that she drop the subject. In the end, she’d had no choice but to do exactly that, having no desire to antagonize one of her relatively few friends.

Thankfully, Paul was available to escort her to the King’s birthday party and had laughed in amused pleasure as Monroe, Ariel, Naomi, and Ruth had scampered about in the garden playing with their frisbee. The party had been wonderful and the King had even asked if Solace would like to dance with him, much to her profound embarrassment. She’d protested that a) his wife might object and b) she had no idea how to dance anything other than the age old chicken dance that jewish children had been taught to do for as long as there was recorded history of such things.

“My dear Ensign, I’m eighty years old and have been married to Angelique for a quarter of a century. She’s seen me dance with many, many young ladies and I’ve seen her dance with many a young gentleman. It is a host’s prerogative to dance with whomever he or she likes. As for dancing skill… behold my brother-in-law Jeptha… does that look like a man who knows how to dance? Now get up and dance with your king,” he’d teased.

Solace had glanced over at where Duke Adcock seemed to be having an epileptic fit that was vaguely in time to the music, then smiled nervously. She’d extended her hand to her monarch and, laughing lightly, commented with the first thought to come into her head that wasn’t some variation of ‘AAAAAAA!’, “Well, I guess it would be a court-martial offense to disobey, your majesty.”

“Don’t be silly… I’m not allowed to directly issue orders to the military,” he’d replied, smirking. He was very handsome, she’d thought. The queen was a lucky lady.

—–

It had been a wonderful evening and a bright spot in her life that Pavel Young’s constant presence had been unable to squash, especially since she found great (if perhaps undue) humor in the fact that he was deeply offended that she’d been invited and neither he nor his odious (according to Uncle Vanya) father had been asked to attend. Vanya had been, as had Mary, and they’d brought along Loyal and Hope as their plus ones… and Duty as a guest supernumerary. After the party the entire family had met up for a late dinner at Cosmo’s in Landing. Over coffee, Loyal had announced that he’d been accepted into diplomatic corps as a translator, and that it was merely a stepping stone to more serious work and little Duty had announced that his team had won the under-sixes football cup… and then fallen asleep under the table with Naomi and Ruth.

Those warm memories had lasted not quite forty days. On the morning of the 8th of October, 1883 PD, the entire system awoke to the stunning news that the King had died in a grav-skiing accident. Combined with an already grim awareness that Haven had invaded the neighboring Republic of San Martin and it looked certain that they’d gain control of San Martin’s terminus of the Manticore Junction, and the public mood was dark indeed.

For Solace, the blows hadn’t stopped there as, on the tenth, she’d been called the Captain’s office where the XO had handed her black envelope sealed with red wax and a ribbon. On the front was her rank and name, and opening it she found that it contained a formal request from the Earl Marshal. She had been selected as the only living person to hold the Roger Cross with Cluster, to ride at the head of the honor guard for the King’s processional through the streets of Landing and to assume the ceremonial post of Ensign of the Bodyguard, which would, for the last time, protect the king’s body as he lay in state for three days and nights in the Royal Cathedral.

She simply stared at the paper, its fine linen so stiff and warm in her hands and wondered why it was shaking so violently. Then tears began sliding down her face, splashing against the surface of that immaculately hand scribed summons and she felt Commander D’Orville’s strong arm on her shoulder as she wept.

It had been three days, three days in which she’d stood at attention for twelve hours straight, refusing any offer to let her take a break, and three nights in which she’d barely slept a wink, finding herself waking up shivering in the dark and only the presence of Naomi and Ruth had kept her from panicking. In the middle of the third night, she’d called Loyal, explaining to him through her tears that she didn’t know what was wrong with her that she was filled with such… pain.

“Sandy… it’s the first time you’ve known someone who’s died. It’s natural. This is grief.”

She wanted to protest that she’d known other people who’d died… that she’d killed people… but she understood what he meant. King Roger was the first person she had had an emotional connection with to have died and it had been a stupid accident that was out of her control and she knew she had to accept it… but every time she tried, she felt such anger and she’d found herself yelling at Loyal about how she hated feeling like this and that grief was a stupid biological response and she hated the fact that the stupid Mesans had left that part of her alone.

“Oh, sweetie… that part is what makes you human,” had been Loyal’s gentle reminder. “And you’re more human than you know… now get some sleep.”

She had gotten a couple of hours, and then it was time to convey her liege to his final resting place and she banished her anger and frustration and tears as she pulled on her beret and whispered, “God, full of mercy, who dwells in the highest of heavens, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your most holy presence, amid the ranks of the blessed and the pure, illuminating them like the brilliance of the skies, to the soul of our beloved king who goes now to his eternal rest. May you who are the source of mercy shelter him beneath your wings eternally and bind his soul among the living that he may rest in peace, and let us say…a..am…” Unbidden, her lip quivered and a single tear broke through her control to slide down her face.

With a stifled sob, she finished the prayer. “Amen.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 7

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.05

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 5: The Matapan Two-Step

Previously: The Light Fandango

Award ceremonies, Solace judged, were not worth the pain and suffering required to be honored at them. Not only had her leg-wound ended up being contaminated with a particularly nasty necrotizing pathogen that had nearly required the entire leg to be amputated, but the tongue lashings she’d gotten from Commandant Hartley, First Lord of Admiralty Clarissa Santino, and (worst of all) Mary had been mortifying. She’d also gotten a formal letter of reprimand in her jacket and enough demerits that she could have papered her quarters in them, but all that had been worth it, since breaking the rules had saved lives. And she hadn’t actually been expelled, which was something, right?

What had almost made her doubt if she’d done the right thing had been when the media had gotten ahold of the story and run with it. They’d barely mentioned Paul, listing him as ‘with the help of other cadets’, but her? They’d fallen all over themselves to mention that the same girl who’d saved an entire clan of treecats had done it again, going AWOL with a military shuttle to rescue 14,216 civilians (apparently single-handedly), most of them women and children. To Solace, it seemed like she’d failed to rescue thousands more, but the newsies had treated her self-doubt as humility or modesty, then asked if she was aware that three newborns had been named Solace in honor of her and that she’d been formally invited to the baptisms and would she be going?

Arguably even more horrible was that Paul wasn’t the least bit upset at her that she’d gotten him written up, nor that the media was ignoring him. His demerit count was just as high as hers, but he seemed to be blithely unworried about ‘youthful indiscretions’ which she was pretty certain was not the proper term for what they’d done that morning. The night before, maybe, but not that morning.

The King, on the other hand, had been more amused than angry at her for stealing the shuttle and had commended her quick thinking and gumption in private before the ceremony wherein she’d been awarded her second King’s Cross and Paul had been granted the King’s Medal for his somewhat reduced role. The King had merely laughed when she’d told him that she’d be more than happy to settle for the lesser award. It was good enough for the more than three dozen other rescue workers who’d rushed to help without it being their job to do so. Most of the professionals on site had earned themselves the Conspicuous Bravery Medal, which might have been of lower prestige than the even the King’s Medal, but it carried much less pomp and ceremony. At the bottom of the public embarrassment scale, every active duty rescue worker who had been awarded the crimson Monarch’s Thanks stripe for helping to turn what could have been the worst loss of civilian life in decades into merely a grotesque tragedy.

A further 18 of the 196 honorees would be receiving the red Wounded in Action stripe, including Solace. Her BuMed appointed psychiatrist had assured her that feeling conflicted about the red stripe was normal, that many people who earned it felt, as Solace did, that it was somehow silly to honor someone for being clumsy enough to get injured, but that the award was to honor the sacrifice of being willing to risk pain for one’s fellows, for one’s nation, or simply out of a sense of duty.

Four others had been awarded the King’s Cross for the Tek Sing Disaster… three of them having died when the ship broke apart and the fifth having suffered horrible burns over 60% of his body. Solace felt like a sham up there on the stage besides the families of the fallen and the still scarred firefighter who stood stiffly to attention despite the auto-injector on his hip beeping steadily as it supplied him with painkillers. Still, there was little doubt that her actions had saved those people, for they hadn’t been on the ship’s manifest at all and those sections had all been marked as bulk storage.

Tek Sing had never been inspected by customs, since it had only stopped at Hephaestus to take on supplies (including some spare parts for her impellers) rather than to offload anything. A standing order from the Government had been issued that would change that. Now, all ships coming in-system to doc at any of the orbital stations would be inspected… and all three vessels flagged to the same transtellar, Trompp Enterprises, in the system had been impounded until they could be gone over with a fine toothed comb.

As for Solace, she was even invited to tea with Crown Princess Elizabeth, who asked her a great many questions… mostly about her ‘cats (the princess having just been adopted by one the month before), but also including, “Miss Smythe, if you don’t mind me asking, why do you keep smoothing down your tunic? Is it because you’re nervous to be in the palace?”

“M… No your highness…” Solace explained, stumbling over her words as she suddenly found herself at a loss to explain something. “I… It bothers me when things aren’t just so.”

“Just so?” the princess asked, cradling her treecat, Ariel, in her lap as the ‘cat fixed Solace with a gaze almost as resolute as that of the monarch-to-be’s own. “Do you mean in a military sense?”

“Not just uniforms or stuff covered by regulations. At home, everything in my room has a specific place except for Raoul’s toys,” Solace explained, finding herself counting her words and wondering if she was using too many.

Still, that earned a small smile from the Princess, who asked, “Is Raoul your baby brother?”

Darn… not enough words. “No your highness,” Solace said. “Duty’s the baby. Raoul’s my cat. Not a treecat, just a cat. He was born the day Mary… my mother… rescued me from the slavers.”

The Princess laughed at that. “I’ve heard about that. The way I hear it, you did ninety-five percent of the rescuing yourself, and Captain Smythe merely mopped up after you.” Solace shrugged, not knowing what to say to that and more intensely aware of how many things could go wrong or be out of place than normal. She found herself not breathing and had to exert her will to force herself to resume… and not straighten the silverware… or her napkin… was that a smudge. She almost flinched as Elizabeth asked, “Have you seen a counselor?”, voice tinged with concern, not because of the contents of the question, but simply because she’d been so distracted she’d momentarily blanked out the princess’s presence.

“Counselor?” Solace asked, running through the various meanings before realize that the other woman was asking if she’d gotten professional psychological help. “Yes. I mean yes, your highness. I have,” she assured her. “Mary made certain I saw a therapist to help me deal with any residual trauma I might have relating to the things I had to do to escape from Mesa, and again after I killed those men who were trying to abduct the treecats, The academy and BuMed made me talk to one because I was injured and for any survivor’s guilt I might have for not dying when all those people did aboard the Tek Sing.”

“Have you ever told any of them about your need for things to be just so?”

Solace began mentally reviewing every one of the many sessions, growing almost painfully aware of the princess watching her and finally she had to shake her head before the silence grew too uncomfortable. The motion was jerky, uncoordinated, and Solace was not at all certain it was the truth because she hadn’t had time to review the earliest sessions.

Elizabeth Winton placed her hand on Solace’s and said, not unkindly, “I really think you should. It sounds like a control issue from what I’ve read, a way for you to compensate for a lack of control in your formative years. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things to be orderly, but you seem to get worse the more you feel out of control, if I’m any judge. Am I right?”

Solace nodded, feeling like she was laid bare before the princess. “I… yes… I’ll do that.”

“Good… now, what is that strange disk that your ‘cats are playing with?”

Wincing, she looked out over the immaculate garden to verify that, yes, apparently the ‘cats had smuggled their frisbee in with them and she then had to explain what it was and how it had been a gift from a friend who also had a ‘cat.

“Fibzee, hmmm? Fascinating. What language is that? Italian?”

“Frisbee, your highness. And I have no idea. But they seem to enjoy it… though if you get Ariel one, be warned, a treecat can put some wicked english on the disc.”

“Wicked english? Now that is a term I haven’t heard before.”

“It’s a term from billiards… table pool. Mary taught me to play. English is a form of uneven spin that causes the ball, or the bee, to veer sideways from it’s primary vector. It can even cause a ball to roll backwards if you do it just right. You get it by hitting the ball off-center, and you can impart it to the bee by flicking your wrist just as you release it. It’s a way to fool your opponent into thinking that you’re heading one way but really you’re about to go another, or to steer the projectile around an obstacle. Ruth likes using English to make Naomi overextend and fall on her face. She tries it on me too, but I’m harder to… I’ve got longer arms than Naomi.” She blushed as she realized that she was rambling and perilously close to bragging.

“Fascinating…” Elizabeth said, leaning forward, Ariel watching the bee soar back and forth, “Can you teach me and Ariel how to do it?”

“But your dress…” Solace said helplessly, not at all certain what the protocol was for teaching a royal heir lawn games.

“Damn the grass stains! Full speed ahead!”

=====

HMS D’Orville was, in Solace’s perhaps biased opinion, a dump. The oldest battlecruiser in the entire fleet and the only surviving member of the D’Orville class, she’d clearly been keep in service out of some kind of morbid sentimentality. Named for Admiral Ellen D’Orville, one of the Star Kingdom of Manticore’s greatest heroes, the D’Orville was one hundred and thirty eight years old and probably should have been retired at least a decade ago… and probably more like five.

One of the earliest grav-plate equipped ships, she’d been refitted again and again and again, making her cramped, patchworked, and stubborn as an old mule (according to Commander Sebastian D’Orville, the ships XO and descendant of her namesake). Solace, or as she was known aboardship, Midshipwoman Smythe, had only nodded, having never actually seen a mule, old or otherwise, but knowing that disagreeing out loud with someone who held her career in his hands was the act of an idiot.

That they were stationed out in the ass-end of nowhere on system patrol was symptomatic of the ship’s general state of decrepitude. D’Orville (nicknamed Dottie by no doubt petulant and feckless midshipmen at least a century earlier) was considered too slow and lumbering for pirate hunting and so she’d drawn the short straw and been assigned to guard the Matapan Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Exactly what they were guarding it from was very much up for debate.

In theory, the massed shipping and nearby orbital warehouses would have made the terminus system a huge prize… if the Manticoran Home Fleet wasn’t right on the other side of the Wormhole, just waiting to drop a dozen dreadnoughts on the head of anyone stupid enough to try something. Which was why D’Orville and her flotilla of destroyers and light-cruisers, and the heavy cruiser HMS Richard, which technically was the flotilla flagship, since (as a Crusader-Class) she’d been intended to be a flagship from day one. D’Orville, which had been a flagship once upon a time, had had that capacity squeezed out long before her current Captain was born.

Regardless of which ship was the official flagship, Commodore Parks still seemed to spend most of his time aboard Dottie anyway, and many in the flotilla whispered that it was because he and his flag captain, Harding Stuart, secretly loathed each other. Others, those of a more prurient or judgemental bent, claimed it was because he was sleeping with Dottie’s Captain. Solace, though she wasn’t even close to being a confidant of Captain Lady Hemphill’s, doubted that her CO would do anything so flagrantly counter to regulations. Dottie might be a mess, but Hemphill ran a tight ship and disliked chaos almost as much as Solace did.

As much as Solace felt frustrated at the hodgepodge of systems that made the ship barely functional at the best of times, she also despised the gossip that surrounded her and wondered if every ship in the Navy was so infected. Certainly it couldn’t be good for morale or efficiency. She’d even included a minor rant on the subject in her last missive to Honor, who (according to her own note) had just been promoted to Lt Senior Grade and made Sailing Master of HMS Osprey, which might only have been a frigate, but at least it was a ship that did stuff… even if that stuff was little more than escorting convoys.

All Dottie ever did was break down… and that’s what she was doing right now.

“Midshipwoman Smythe, if you would please hand me that spanner?” the Captain asked, sliding part way out from under a condenser housing and wiping sweat from her brow. It was absolutely sweltering in the compartment, unsurprising since one of Dottie’s heatsinks was currently offline so the Captain of all people could tinker with it. If all four had been offline, the crew would have cooked in their own skins, but with one down, they merely felt like they were roasting. And if it was decidedly odd for the ship’s Master and Commander to be doing an engineer’s work, it absolutely wasn’t the place of Middy Smythe to say anything… Which, of course, was why she couldn’t keep her big mouth shut.

Handing over the requested tool and taking the rag from the Captain’s hand, she asked, “Can’t Commander Braskovich handle this ma’am?”, invoking the name of the Chief Engineer.

Sliding back under the condenser and grunting as she no doubt tried to loosen some recalcitrant bolt, the Captain replied, “Braskovich is busy making certain our inertial compensator is functioning. There were flutters in it last time we brought the wedge up.”

“Then Chief Meecham?” Solace suggested. Clarence Meecham was head of the environmental technicians and could probably have handled a condenser repair with ease.

“Down in sickbay with a herniated disk from sparring with your cousin, Sargent Babcock… ah, there we glub-” The captain began sputtering and Solace quickly pulled her out by her ankles as greenish-blue condenser fluid began pooling under the older woman.

Handing over the towel, Solace said, “Iris isn’t my cousin. She’s just the daughter of my father’s sister’s husband’s sister. There are two in-law clauses in-between us… did you get it fixed?”

“No. But the pressure imbalance is definitely the problem. Have the techs clean up this mess and tell them to drain the condenser completely, then yank the regulator for inspection. I’m going to go shower. Once you’ve got them started on that, tell the XO that I said to take the ship to condition yellow and to power down all nonessential systems. I want all the regulators checked… shit… I’d heard there were problems with this batch. Jordan Cartel garbage.” She kicked the bulkhead, then sighed. “Sorry you had to see that, Middy. Lesson to take to heart, even Captains are human.”

“Not according to the Admiralty, ma’am,” Solace said, smirking a little. The Captain just shook her soaking head and stomp-squelched from the compartment. Solace wasn’t smirking fifteen hours later when the second condenser, stressed to the limit by the heat despite the reduced load, blew, its regulator failing spectacularly in the middle of inspection. The overload sent the freshly recovered Meecham back to sickbay with third degree burns to his face and Solace joined him there to have multiple metal shards removed from her feet and hands. They were shards she’d picked up running into the condenser bay to help pull out the injured environmental techs… they were probably going to give her another stupid red stripe for this.

“You’ve got to be more careful,” SBA Hooper said. “I’ve read your file. You’ve been injured more often than any officer twice your age onboard this ship.”

Solace shrugged, keeping herself from wincing by force of will. “I heal fast.”

“One of these days you’re going to seriously injure yourself, or get yourself killed,” the Sick Berth Attendant chided.

“People needed help. Any delay might have cost them their lives… and I was wearing a mask.” Indeed, she’d pulled on a breather as soon as the environmental alarms had sounded, but she hadn’t had time to pull on a full hazmat suit, or even gloves and the exploded shards of machinery had punched right through her soft deck-shoes.

Hooper regarded her for a moment, then asked, “Does this hurt?” He jabbed Solace in the inside of the elbow with her tweezers before she could ask, ‘Does what hurt?’

Solace considered, then nodded. “A little. It’s certainly not a pleasant sensation.”

Hooper frowned. “Why didn’t you jerk away?”

“Should I have?” The idea profoundly confused her. “You hadn’t damaged me.”

His face showed her that she’d said the wrong thing. “Have you ever had your reflexes tested? I don’t mean combat reflexes, I mean like autonomic reflexes?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I’ve had several comprehensive health examinations over the years. But I can suppress my reflexes if I want to.”

“How is that possible? Reflexes are supposed to be… you know… reflexive.”

Solace didn’t have the words to explain how she did it, so she simply stuck out her tongue to show the man. “Ai wath enet’illy enethneered.”

“Yes, I can see that..” He made a note in her file, then faced her squarely. “But don’t do that. That’s a thing the Ballroom does.”

“Ballroom?” Had she missed something?

“The Audubon Ballroom?” Hooper explained, then, after she shrugged, asked, “You’ve never heard of them?”

“I don’t dance,” Solace responded, confused.

“No no… the Ballroom are an anti-slavery terrorist organization…” he regarded her suspiciously. “You’ve seriously never heard of the Audubon Ballroom?”

“I don’t pay attention to gossip or politics,” she said, then explained, “I have far too much studying to do if I’m going to make Admiral by the time I’m forty-five.”

He laughed at that at first, but quickly realized she wasn’t joking and the laughter trailed away. “Riight.. Well, being an Admiral is all about politics, or so I hear, so you might want to start paying attention on that front… and gossip might be annoying, but it’ll tell you more about what’s going on on a ship than anything else will, so if you want to be a Captain, you might want to start paying attention there too. As for the Ballroom, I don’t know if it would be safe for you to research them onboard the ship… NavInt might think you were thinking of joining them, given your past… but you can probably find out more by talking to the ship’s Marines… if you can take the gossip. Now lay back and let your hands and feet heal.”

“I have duties,” she complained.

“You aren’t going anywhere for at least 24 hours until we make certain you don’t have any infections… and anyway, genetically engineered or not, you can’t walk on those feet. You’d rip open the wounds.”

Solace groaned… being in Sick Bay was soooo boring… and her ‘cats couldn’t join her. “Can I read at least?”

Hooper rolled his eyes, then nodded, “But only if you don’t stress your hands… I’ll get you a bracket to hold your data-pad.”

Despite herself, she fell asleep, waking in the middle of the ship’s night to the sound of arguing in the passageway outside sickbay. It had to be someone standing in the boatbay door she judged groggily, her limbs feeling all tingly and throbby. It was god awful hot in the ship, made only slightly bearable by the relatively low humidity. Maybe some of the officers were sleeping in the ship’s boats, which had their own internal environmental controls. Slipping out of the bed, she slid silently across the deck on her bandaged feet, ignoring the twinges from them, and listened by the open sickbay hatch.

“Sonja, I know you want think this is unwise,” a man’s voice said, “But ONI has recieved actionable intelligence that the Havenites are supplying the Asgardians with destroyers and light cruisers. The Midgardian government is concerned that the Asgardian Association might attempt to break away from the Federation. This is just a show of force. The Admiralty wants me to take the flotilla to Asgard itself and show the flag.” The voice belonged to Commodore Parks, she was certain, and he was clearly speaking to Captain Hemphill.

“The Asgardian Association isn’t formally part of the Midgardian Federation, Yancy. If they want to provide their own military protection, they are fully within their rights,” Sonja protested, sounding heated. Asgard was the location of one of the lesser but still important wormhole Junctions, one with only three termini, but (like Erewhon), it was an important one thanks to the fact that one of its termini was astrographically close to one of the Manticore Wormhole Junction’s termini. Matapan was home to termini of both the Manticore and Asgard junctions, with Manticore’s junction in the Matapan system itself and Asgard’s in the Corinth system.

The two systems were separated by less than ten light-years and Matapan itself had no planets, while Corinth had only one, the relatively lightly settled Sparta. In fact, the entire Matapan region was lightly settled and would have had significance only as a bridge to the outermost worlds of the explored galaxy… if not for the relatively high taxes the Andermani charged to tranship goods through their space.

The Asgard Junction also linked to Durandel in the Andermani Empire and the fact that the trip to Manticore’s Gregor A terminus from the Durandel terminus was nearly 60 light-years would not have made a huge difference… except for those taxes. The cost of moving goods across the Empire was, once you figured in taxes and extra distance, as much as 40% higher than simply going to Matapan… and that was assuming you were entering the network at Asgard or Midgard. Coming from anywhere else in explored galaxy, it could be 60% or even 80% higher, as Manticore and Asgard had mutual trade agreements… and Midgard relied on those trade agreements to stay connected to the rest of the galaxy without having to send ships the long way to Gregor and Matapan to connect Manticore junction or Weisen and Manderlay to connect to the Jewel junction.

“Sonja, I respect your dedication to junction system solidarity and the concepts of liberty and self-determination, but the Asgardians are not oppressed by the Midgardians. All that Midgard asks is that Asgard pays for the protection Midgard provides in the form of modest tariffs on the goods they import from Midgard… and that Asgard kindly stop provoking the Andermani,” the Commodore said, sounding very reasonable. “even with those taxes… I mean tariffs, the goods they get from Midgard are better and cheaper than what they can get from us or the Solies.

The Captain wasn’t having any of it. “The tarrifs would be fine if they gave the Asgardians a choice, but it’s nothing short of extortion. Just because it’s a government doing it doesn’t make it any less a protection racket… and the Andermani seized control of Durandel, Yancy. How would you feel if Haven seized control over Trevor’s Star?”

“Trevor’s Star is not Manticoran property. The San Martinos might object, I suspect.”

“How about if they seized control of Gregor A?”

“Be reasonable, Sonja. They won’t. Doing so would cut them off from our junction, leaving them with only the Weisen-Crown hyper-bridge… and that would take them to where? Atropos? Haven? Manderlay? Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll be back in a month and I’m leaving you Shadowfax.”

HMS Shadowfax was the ancient courier ship that routinely transited from Manticore to Matapan, little more than a hyperdrive and a hull, she was used for diplomatic packages and to bring updates from the Admiralty. She must have come through the wormhole sometime in the last few hours.

There was a hiss as the boatbay door slid closed, and Solace was about to slide back to bed, when the Captain’s voice came from the other side of the bulkhead. “If you’re well enough to be spying on me, you’re well enough to join me for a cup of coffee, midshipwoman.”

Gulping, Solace stepped out into the doorway. She was already twelve centimeters taller than the Captain, and it was likely she wasn’t done growing even at 181 centimeters. Even in her bandaged feet, she had to look down even as she snapped to attention, but the Captain was smiling up at her and waved for her to follow.

They ended up in Sickbay’s small mess area and the Captain motioned Solace to take a seat as she snagged two mugs from a cabinet and asked, “How do you take it?”

“Ma’am… I can do that?” The idea of a Captain of the List fetching coffee for her most junior officer was almost unbearably ‘Not-How-Things-Are-Done!’ and the displacement was making Solace extremely uneasy.

“Nonsense. You’re injured and you got that way saving my people. That’s what you are, you know. You’re my people. When you become a Captain, you’ll understand. Your Crew are your people and it’s your duty to look after them, to guide them and, if possible, bring them safely home. If you can’t do that, it’s your duty to make certain they don’t die needlessly. You understand?” she asked, sliding the black coffee across the table to Solace.

Solace hated black coffee, often dumping as many as six spoonfuls of sugar into an espresso and then diluting it with cream until it was smooth and all the bitterness was gone… but you could drink muddy rainwater if you had to and she wasn’t about to criticize the Captain’s service… though she did wipe a smudge from the edge of the cup as surreptitiously as she could.

“Anyay, you have my thanks for that. I should have had the crew in their suits and I didn’t think of it,” Captain Hemphill said, sighing and shaking her head, then took a long sip of coffee. “I’d like to blame the heat, but it was an oversight, plain and simple.”

“Should you be telling me that?” Solace asked, pretty certain that that wasn’t the kind of thing a Captain was supposed to be telling a Midshipwoman.

“Heh. Middies. You’re so young. Think you know everything about being an officer…” Hemphill smiled to show it wasn’t condemnatory. “A significant portion of being an officer is teaching your juniors how to do your own job. Remember, when you’re the Captain, the buck, as they say, stops with you.”

Solace had no idea what a ‘buck’ was, but nodded in vague agreement. Mary said much the same thing, though she expressed it in words Solace and Loyal weren’t allowed to say. “I don’t think I’m ready to be Captain just yet,” Solace finally admitted, hiding a grimace at the taste of the coffee… it wasn’t even good coffee.

“No. You’re definitely not. But I think you are ready for some more responsibility. So I’m giving you some. I’m down a dozen environmental techs and three petty officers. Your records says you were tops in your class at engineering theory?”

Solace just nodded. She’d been top five in every class it was possible to memorize the answers or formulas for and had in fact graduated top of her class despite her demerits and her relatively low grades in the more interpersonal or interpretational classes. She had purely hated Political Science and while she’d had no trouble at all memorizing the dates and facts of History, she still had the occasional nightmare about Creche Monitors shouting essay questions at her such as ‘What was the historical, economic, and political significance of the hundred years wars?’ or ‘What were the sociopolitical ramifications of the technology boom at the dawn of the computer age!?’

“Excellent,” the Captain said, rising. “I’m making you temporary assistant environmental officer. You’ll report to Lt Suarez in the morning and you’ll help him get the condensers back online. Once that’s done, you’ll report to Lt MaGruder in Damage Control, Ensign. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am!” she said, wincing as she banged her knees and inflamed her soles snapping to attention.

The Captain shook her head and smiled softly, “Oh, sit down, and finish your coffee.”

Solace sat.

======

“Well well, Captain’s pet,” sneered Ensign Bogs, “Your uncle pay off the Captain to get you bumped up, or did you let the Commodore play with you a little?” Helena Bogs was her immediate senior in Damage Control and had been stuck as an Ensign for four years. She was also a slob, a gossip, and a pain in the ass, as far as Solace was concerned. She’d only been working with the woman for all of 20 seconds. “I heard you was a custom model, so you must be pretty good at that, right?”

Solace just stared at the older woman, aghast that anyone would speak to her like that. She’d been accused of using family connections before, and she had to be honest that, actively or not, her family connections had helped her. But no one had ever been as… as… she couldn’t think of a word that wasn’t something Hope would have been disappointed with her for using… she settled for ‘mean’… as mean as to claim she’d slept her way to the… well… middle? Finally, she asked, stiffly, “did you just imply that I’m a whore?”

“Not at all. I implied you were a slut,” the woman said, sneering.

Solace looked around at the Damage Control Section to see if anyone else was watching, then (seeing no-one looking their way) leaned into Bog’s space and whispered, “If you had said that where anyone else had heard you say it, I’d be challenging you to a duel right now, you horrible woman. If I hear from anyone that you’ve been spreading such baseless rumors, I shall petition the Captain to allow me to challenge you regardless of the presence of witnesses to the actual slight.”

“You can’t speak to me that way!” Bogs snapped. “I outrank you!”

“And you can’t speak to me that way at all. It’s against regulations and civil law to slander someone that way…” Solace replied, coldly, then smirked and added, “though I will admit that you do need to work on your personal hygiene.” With that she walked away, shaking her head in amazement at the woman’s gall. Helena Bog’s reflection in one of the monitors was turning silently red behind her.

Two weeks later, they were standing in the ship’s main boatbay as the Master of the Field recited the rules, Helena Bogs glaring viciously at Solace as the two of them examined their pistols. Three days earlier, Bogs had gotten drunk in the junior officer’s mess and very publicly claimed that Solace Smythe was sleeping with Lt MaGruder and that’s why she’d been given the first shift duty watch that had been previously belonged to Helena… and then thrown a glass at Solace’s head. It had missed her by millimeters, since Solace hadn’t been facing the other way rather quietly fuming and trying to keep tears of rage from spilling onto her dinner, but the shards had hit the back of her head and a large chunk had knocked Naomi silly, giving the ‘cat a minor concussion.

Bleeding and cradling her treecat in her arms, she’d risen, walked silently across the mess, and hissed. “You will take back everything you have just said or I shall demand satisfaction.” Bogs had merely laughed in her face until Solace had slapped her resoundingly in a backhand that had (according to scuttlebutt) broken three of Bogs’s teeth and cut the inside of her mouth quite badly.

Since the ship wasn’t in a combat zone and the kingdom was not currently at war, Solace was entirely within her rights to issue the challenge (subject to the Captain’s approval), and Helena had been more than willing to accept. So willing, in fact, that (since as the challenged, she had the right to set the terms under which the duel would be conducted) she’d demanded use of the Ellington Protocol. Solace noted, in that moment, that the drunken slur had slipped from Helena Bogs’s voice just a little and that a cold gleam had come into her eyes. Still, it was too late to take back the challenge without looking like a coward who was admitting to not only breaches of propriety but breaches of military law, for sleeping with a superior office was very much against the rules. Not that Solace would have thought to back down under any circumstances at all.

Within the hour, both of them were in front of the Captain, Naomi resting safely in medbay with Ruth by her side. The Captain did not look pleased, and demanded to know where Bogs thought she was to say such things, but Bogs had, for once, remained silent. Solace’s only response was that it was a matter of honor and that she had requested an apology before issuing the challenge. Neither of them had been willing to allow the duel to be withdrawn, and Captain Hemphill hadn’t seen a way to avoid looking as if she wasn’t protecting Solace without allowing the duel to go forward.

“You’re dismissed, Ensign Bogs,” Sonja had said, then, once the hatch had closed behind her, turned to Solace and asked, “Do you have a Second, Ensign Smythe?”

“No ma’am.”

“Have you ever practiced dueling?”

“No ma’am.”

“Helena Bogs has fought seven duels in the fifteen years she’s been in the Navy, and was a Marine Sharpshooter before she applied to officer candidate school and switched services. Do you know how many of them were fought under the Ellington Protocol?”

“If I may hazard a guess, ma’am? All of them?”

“Very good, Ensign. She’s walked away from all of them, not unscathed, but still in one piece. None of her opponents ever walked off the field, and only two of them survived with medical treatment. One of them’s in a vegetative coma.”

“I…” she swallow. “I think she deliberately goaded me into challenging her… but I don’t know why.”

“Because she’s just plain mean? The Judge Advocate General’s investigated her twice under the assumption she’s being paid to duel, but if she is, she’s hiding it well.”

“Thank you for telling me this, Captain.”

“I feel responsible for this happening. I should have considered how Ensign Bogs would take it, but…” she shrugged. “One cannot anticipate all things. Still, if you’d like, I’ll stand Second to you… It’s a little unorthodox, but certainly not unheard of.”

“I’d like that, Captain. And thank you again.”

Solace hadn’t slept that night. Instead, she’d contacted Junction Control and pulled up all the information she could find on Helena Bogs… and her entire family. If the JAG hadn’t found anything on Bogs, maybe the payments weren’t going to her. It took her all of her sacktime, but in the end she found it. Bogs had a sister, Martina Dimetriev, whose husband was a small time importer. His business had received a large boost right around the time of each of the last five duels, and again just a month ago, if the fact that he’d bought a new aircar despite already owning eight was any indication. A search of Bogs’s records had pulled up three different traffic infractions, each of which showed her driving a car owned by Dimetriev Imports Limited.

Unfortunately, she had no way of knowing who had paid for this attempt on her life, or why they had done so, but she forwarded the information off to Loyal, now just finishing up his Degree in Law to go with the doctorate in International Relations. Maybe he could find out more.

And now she was about to shoot at another human being for the first time in seven years… The Bosun stood at the middle of the ‘field’, handkerchief raised, and the gun in her hand seemed unreasonably heavy, loaded with a full ten rounds of quite deadly ammunition that was guaranteed not to do more than scuff the paint of any of the shuttles or pinaces or cutters in the boatbay.

Helena and she were inside twin circles, forty meters apart. She’d watched every one of Helena’s duels… such things were recorded as a matter of course in the military… and the woman liked to fire rapidly, barely bothering to aim, getting off the first four shots before her opponent could get a line on her and then, if she hadn’t hit, usually her opponent would be so off balance she could take her time and aim with the last six shots.

Solace let her eyes widen, not focusing on any one thing, but taking in the totality of the bay, the seconds, the XO as Master of the Field, the Bosun with his kerchief… and then he let it go and Solace’s arm snapped upward, firing a single shot in mid arc. The chunk of lead smacked into the deck and ricocheted upwards in a slightly depressed but otherwise mirror of its former downward trajectory. The mark it left lay directly under the falling kerchief and the bullet buried itself with a soft thunk right in Helena’s right side, throwing off her first shot.

Solace felt the bullet ruffle her hair but she exhaled, steadied her aim, and fired again, this time not at the floor, but at the center of Helena Bog’s chest… then moved her point of aim just slightly and fired. The woman gasped, looking down at the bloom of blood on her left breast, then tried to raise her own pistol back into line, but she was losing blood too fast, her left lung collapsed, the pulmonary artery almost certainly badly damaged. She considered shooting the woman again, then did so, firing a bullet to smash the gun out of the other Ensign’s hand.

As it hit, the entire ship rocked slightly and Helena collapsed, struggling to breathe as everyone else staggered. The Captain pulled out her comm and yelled, “Bridge, what the blazes was that?”

“Captain,” came the response, “A freighter just plowed into Shadowfax and they went up like blazes… then someone used a ship mounted laser to sweep our comms antennae.”

“Any damage?”

“We can’t signal out, ma’am, but the ship’s otherwise intact. Should we bring up the wedge?”

“Yes! Get us to…” at that moment, there was a much harder lurch, and the ship’s alarms went up… then died as Dottie lost power for a couple of seconds. When it came back, it wasn’t steady.

“Captain… two frigates just ripped their way out of Freighter Karamazov and opened fire on us… Whatever they used caused the Fusion bottles to flicker, ma’am. They’ve all scrammed and Fusion Three is non-responsive. But they’ve blown our impeller rings, ma’am.”

“Are they approaching us.”

“Negative ma’am, they’re moving towards the Terminus Station and demanding the immediate surrender of the Terminus in the name of the Brotherhood of Odin.”

“Do we have any weapons?”

“Negative ma’am… we can launch missiles, but we’d have to open the bay doors and they’d see that. We’re sitting ducks.”

The captain swore, looking deeply frustrated.

Into the silence, Solace asked, “Where are they relative to us, Lt. Commander?”

Captain Hemphill looked at her, wondering why she was asking.

“They’re on the starboard… was that you Captain?”

“No, it wasn’t… but answer the question,” the Captain said, wondering where this was going.

“Starboard side, 65 and 67 thousand klicks, 27 degrees up from our midline and 41 degrees back from the centerline.”

Solace considered for another moment, the turned to the captain. “If we bring some counter-missiles out of the magazine, then strap them to the bottom of our pinnaces… we’re on the port side…” she shrugged.

Sonja’s eyes widened, then she laughed. “Heh. That’s brilliant.”

The process wasn’t fast, but the frigates clearly didn’t think there was any danger from the crippled battlecruiser and within ten minutes, they had two of Dottie’s pinaces out in space and, as one, the two rose over the mass of their mothership and launched a half dozen counter-missiles each at the two frigates. Counter missiles lack the extended range of ship-killers, but they weren’t intended to take out ships. In fact, they lacked warheads of any kind, using their powerful wedges to rip incoming missiles apart before they could detonate. But Ship-killers were used at hundreds of thousands of kilometers and counter-missiles were much smaller and shorter legged… they made up for that range disadvantage with much more powerful wedges.

They were also nearly impossible to hit, even by a ship’s point-defense laser grid, and the missiles streaked out towards the two frigates far faster than a human crew would be able to figure out what was happening and respond. Automated defenses opened up, but the lasers that actually hit were attenuated and bent by the CMs’ wedges at first. One went, then a second, then a third, but by that point they were too close to stop. Two of the remaining CMs smashed into the edges of the frigates’ wedges, causing flickers and immeasurable stress to the nodes, but a 43,000 ton Bastogne Class Frigate was hardly going to be destroyed by wedge interference from a 12.5 ton CM’s wedge.

The remaining 7 CMs, however, were not stopped by wedges and, thanks to being able to line up the shots from nearly directly behind the two tiny warships, there was no sidewall present to stop them either. At 82,000 Gs of acceleration, they slammed into the ships like hammers, smashing their way through the practically unarmed hulls and ripping away systems and crew in a tidalwave of gravitic annihilation. The more distant ship went up with a flash, silent in the depths of space, and the nearer’s wedge fluttered and failed, the ship drifting, spewing atmosphere and bodies.

Captain Hemphill turned to Solace and chuckled. “Congratulations, kiddo. Not many people can claim they’ve survived two duels in one day and not gotten hit once. Now let’s get you back to the ship. You’ll be pulling double shifts at Damage Control until I can get Bogs out of sickbay and traded for a replacement.”

“This time, can you get someone competent, Captain?”

“From the Admiralty? I sincerely doubt it.”

=====

Two weeks later, Solace was dreaming longingly of Helena Bogs. She might have been a stone cold bitch, but she had to be better than Lt Young. He was smug enough that she wanted to punch his face in… and that was before he opened his big fat mouth.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 6

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.04

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 4: The Light Fandango

Previously: A Tango of Words

“Solace, I heard from my father that you have been admitted to Saganami Island. Congratulations on that, and pass on to your parents my congratulations on the birth of your new brother. If anyone at the academy gives you any flack because of your age, know that they are envious and it’s no reflection upon you or your abilities. I know you’ll do your best, and, if you have any problems, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I myself struggled with mathematics, but Captain Courvosier convinced me to get a tutor and trust myself, and that got me through.

News on my front, I have been reassigned from Warmaiden to Royal Winton, a dreadnaught I’m certain you’re aware, as you’ve no doubt memorized all the ships in the fleet by now. They also promoted me to Lieutenant and have made me a Gunnery Officer Trainee. I thought things were busy under Captain Bachfisch, but the difference between Warmaiden and Winny is night and day, and my seniors are keeping me so busy that Nimitz has been doing my duty logs for me.”

Solace chuckled at the image of the treecat trying to fill out paperwork, then glanced over at where Naomi was industriously trying to beat Ruth at frisbee, a plastic throwing disk that had been a party favor from Honor and Nimitz two years earlier at the fete following Honor’s graduation ceremony. It wasn’t that Naomi was bad at frisbee, but Ruth was lighter and more agile and better at throwing things than Naomi was at catching.

She finished reading Honor’s letter and folded it up, smoothing out the faint wrinkles in the paper and slid it back into her sidecase. She and Honor had become occasional, if infrequent penpals, though Honor was terribly busy with her studies and Solace had been all but compulsive in finishing the prepwork required to qualify for the Academy. Mary, justifiably distracted with her pregnancy, was around more often, and if she was annoyed with Solace finding a loophole in her ‘No joining the Marine Corps until after College’ injunction, she was equally supportive of her daughter’s drive to become the youngest Naval cadet in 226 years.

Of course, the fact that her commendations to the Island had come from her uncle, the king, and one of her father’s friends who happened to be the Member of the House of Commons for the borough in which she lived meant that almost everyone at the school thought she’d gotten her admission (at age 14 instead of the normal 16) on the basis of connections rather than talent. When they discovered how good she actually was, some of them revised their opinion of her for the better… but all too often, it was for the worse.

She was head of her class, acing every class by dint of constant study and a reduced need for sleep, courtesy of her makers. If they’d done it to be generous, she’d have thanked them for it, and for her eidetic memory, inhumanly fast reflexes, incredible hand eye coordination and all the other advantages that came from being the product of genetic engineering. But they hadn’t. They’d almost certainly meant her to be breeding stock for some rich monster, to give him sons and daughters that had these gifts. She had merely been intended as a method of transmission. But now she was going to use those advantages to acquire the skills she’d need to hunt down those like her creators who thought of human lives as merely marks on a scoreboard.

She checked her chrono. There was another twenty minutes before her afternoon military theory class began, so she recorded a message for Mary and Hope and the one year old baby Duty-and-Honour. Frankly, if she hadn’t already been planning to attend the academy, she might have run away from home just to escape the presence of her baby brother. Loyal had been more than grateful to accept early admission to Queen’s College to escape the incessant screaming and, without his presence, Solace had found the house suddenly too small. She loved being with Mary, but felt overwhelming guilt every time Duty started crying and she found herself resenting the sudden co-opting of Mary-Solace time.

More than once, she’d found herself plotting against the infant, and that realization had made her start crying hysterically and taking refuge in her treehouse until the violent shaking subsided under the crooning of the ‘cats. When Hope dropped her off at the Academy on her first day, she’d been practically giddy to be away from the child she had absolutely no idea how to deal with. Compared to that, the scorn shown her by judgemental staff and envious cadets barely registered. And with that distance, she was able to admit that she’d been jealous… and a brat… and so, everyday, she sent Mary and Duty a message promising them, and herself, that she was missing them terribly and would see them come break.

As she gathered her ‘cats and their toy and headed towards class, she began mentally composing a response to Honor’s letter with one train of conscious while she reviewed her notes for class with another… and it was in that distracted state that she ran right into Paul.

Paul was in her class, of course, and was by far the handsomest boy there. More than once she’d found herself staring at the back of his blond head and imagined running her fingers through his hair… and more than once she’d caught him looking at her when he thought she wasn’t paying attention. He clearly wasn’t aware how sharp her eyes were, or how reflective certain surfaces were. She yelped and fell backwards, nearly sitting on Ruth, but the ‘cat reflexes were snakelike and she leapt forward between Solace’s legs, her tail clearing the danger zone by millimeters.

“Opps. Sorry Smythe,” Paul said, his smile dazzling and confusing in equal measure. “Didn’t see you there.” He bent over and picked up her sidecase, handing it over as she stood. Part of her wanted to thank him… another part of her wanted to kick him and run. She settled for a nod and brushed her uniform tunic straight… then did it again… stupid thing didn’t hang right since her chest had started expanding again. Paul was looking at her chest and caught himself, wrenching his gaze to her face and held out the case. “Chief MacDougal’s announcing the final positions for the unarmed combat team… think you’ll make it?”

“Maybe,” she said, relieved by the sudden refocusing of their encounter. She knew the Chief doted on her ‘cats, always slipping them celery when no one was looking, but personally she found him a little grumpy. “Chief LeMoyne wants me on the flight team and Chief Prescott wants me for the shooting team…” she trailed off, worried he might think she was bragging. Mentally she kicked herself for caring what anyone thought, let alone a stupid boy with a nice smile.

“Oh dear,” he said with a chuckle. “Too many options. I can imagine. Accept all those offers and you’ll be out of free time completely. What do you want to do?”

She thought of telling him that she wanted to join the fencing team, but that was seen as effete, the kind of thing only lords and those who sucked up to them did, so instead she shrugged as he opened the door to the lecture hall. “I don’t know… coup de vitesse is kinda… sloppy, isn’t it?”

“Them’s fighting words, Smythe!” Paul said, then moved away from her to sit with his friends. She didn’t follow. Of course she didn’t. She always sat off to the side at the back with her ‘cats.

=====

“Why didn’t you join us?”

She started, looking up from the letter she was writing. Everyone else took notes in class, but that was pointless for Solace, with her ability to instantly recall what had been said exactly as it had been said, and so she would write letters or sketch schematics for machines she’d try to build later. She didn’t even have to think about what she was writing, just held a picture in her head and let her fingers copy it down. Of course, the result was bizarre to look at, since she wrote down the page rather than across it, leaving words and letters incomplete as her hand moved.

Paul was looking down at her, smiling that annoyingly smile. “Why’d you wander off? We were right in the middle of discussing your bias against the coup and you walked away.”

“Oh… uh… you were sitting with your friends and…” she shrugged, stacking her pages for later completion. She tried not to be irritated. Once her concentration was broken like that, she’d have to write out the letter the long way or start over. If she didn’t the letters would look wrong. Part of her worried that she was too concerned with everything looking perfect, but she couldn’t help it. It was probably part of the same reason she had to straighten her tunic so often or arrange her desk just so or fold her dirty laundry before stacking it neatly in the hamper.

“You could join us,” he suggested.

“I…” she didn’t have an answer for that, and pointing out that he hadn’t invited her would make her sound clueless. “Okay.”

He laughed. “Well, class is over now. But tomorrow. Can I walk you to Tactics?”

=======10 months later======

“Paul,” Solace hissed.

“Nnnngg… too early…”

“Paul!” she hissed a little louder.

“Goway. Got another hour ‘til-” he mumbled into the pillow

“Cadet Tankersley!” she snapped, tugging on his ear. “I just got a notice. A colony ship from Gaspar that was docked at Hephaestus just had her entire forward impeller ring blow. She’s falling towards the planet and they don’t think they can stop her.”

Paul sat up at once. “What?”

She repeated herself, thrusting his skinsuit at him, ignoring how good his chest looked. Naomi was holding his helmet. Solace was already wearing hers.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because there are 160,000 civilians onboard the Tek Sing, and there’s no way some of them weren’t injured,” she said, trying to sound reasonable.

“And?”

“And we should grab an academy shuttle and go help the evacuation.”

“We don’t have orders, Solace. I’m certain they’d call us if… where are you going?”

“To grab an academy shuttle and go help the evacuation!” she called, running out of his room.

Ten minutes later, they were aloft, Paul having overridden the hangar doors while Solace overrode the authorization permissions. Reaching the slowly plummeting freighter wasn’t hard, though it was made more difficult by the fact that there were dozens of tugs trying to save the ship, or at least keep it from breaking up before the passengers could be evacuated. The Tek Sing, not in the best of condition apparently, was not cooperating, as chunks of hull were steadily ripping free whenever the tugs tugged too hard.

“There,” Paul indicated one of the docking ports that wasn’t currently playing host to an evac shuttle already, and Solace aimed for it, nudging the shuttle in close. “You know we’re going to get in so much trouble for this, right?”

“My brother always says trouble is the natural state of man. Mary says that’s not an excuse. My dad says that people shouldn’t worry so much about getting themselves into trouble and should worry more about getting others out of it,” Solace said, easing the shuttle against the hull and dogging the seal. It was at 80% and probably wouldn’t hold much longer, as this port was nearer the blown node ring than any others, but it was holding for now.

Inside the Tek Sing, the corridors were full of smoke and exposed conduits where deck plating had buckled and wall panels had given way. To make matters worse, the signs were not in standard English, but only in a simplified form of Chinese, which was in contravention of nearly universally accepted practice. Paul cursed.

“I don’t suppose you know how to read this?” he asked, holding his suit-light steady on the deck-map.

“Not a clue… but I downloaded the schematics of the Tek Sing’s class. If I’m right, there should be a passenger berthing section here,” she tapped a space two decks up.

“I hope you’re right,” he said, following her lead. In the last year, she’d caught up with him, not that he was particularly tall, and they looked of an age, even though he was probably two years older than her chronologically.

They couldn’t take the lifts, but since this was a civilian ship, it had stairs as well, and though they were full of smoke, they were relatively free of debris. In the reduced gravity, they were able to reach the passenger deck in moments only to find that some asshole had engaged the manual override latch on the bulkhead door at the top of the stairs.

Paul looked at the latch in confusion. “Why the hell is this locked?”

“To keep ignorant passengers from wandering would be my bet,” Solace responded, grabbing one end of the slightly corroded metal and heaving. “This ship is a junker. I bet they don’t do more than the minimum amount of repairs to keep the sections people see maintained… help me with this.”

Between the two of them, they barely managed to get the latch open, and the they were among the strongest in their class (not counting Simpkins who was from Sphinx and huge, or Daguerro who was, thanks to parents from San Martin, built like a wall). The likelihood of any random rescue crew managing to open the way without specialized equipment wasn’t high. Unsuited colonists on the wrong side of the door stood as much chance as a snowflake in a nuclear furnace.

Wrenching the latch open, they found a mass of humanity, the corridor beyond filled not just with people but with bedding and belongings. There wasn’t much smoke here, but it was clear these people were scared and confused. “160,000 my ass,” Solace muttered over her private channel to Paul and then triggered her suit speakers. “Does anyone here speak Standard?”

A hundred terrified faces turned to face the newcomers, and then there was a mass of babbling in a dialect Solace didn’t recognize. One of them, an older woman pushed through the mass and poked her in the chest, looking like she was telling her off. One of the others pulled the woman away and managed to explain, in very broken Standard, “She thinks you costumes man. Says we have all papers. Everything legal. Smoke? Is some wrong? No power to lifts. Lights… Grabity… not work right.”

She nodded, then swallowed hard and began to explain, hoping the younger of the two women would understand. “Ship fall towards planet. Crash soon. Break apart soon. Everyone must get off. Must get off or die.”

“Die?” the younger woman (who looked about 40) asked, dubious.

Solace sighed, then switched to Andermani Chinese, which she knew only because Loyal had studied it and she’d read his texts during a week when there wasn’t anything else she was interested in doing. She was certain her accent was terrible, but maybe the woman would be able to understand that?

“Si?” the woman asked. Damn.

Desperate, and seeing that the woman was wearing a crucifix instead of a cross, she switched to liturgical latin, which she’d learned just to prove to Loyal that she really could if she wanted to. It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t a language nerd. Standard and Hebrew and Spanish were more than enough for her. She didn’t need to know nine different languages just because the books she was interested in reading weren’t written 4,000 years ago by a bunch of people who couldn’t agree on how many arms god had. When was she going to need Latin or Sanskrit or Aramaic or Arabic or German…

Well, apparently now, because the woman’s eyes opened wide and she began shouting at the others and soon there were many more people out in the hall as others joined them. A crowd of what had to be elders was allowed through. between the sixteen of them, they looked to have a collective age of nearly two thousand.

“What’s going on?” Paul asked. “They’re grabbing their stuff.”

Solace waved him off, not having the time to explain in two different languages at once. “Respected Elders,” she began, flipping through the insanely complicated grammatical rules of latin in her mind and knowing she was butchering cases and tenses. “This ship is crashing. You must have your people come with us, only your people. Bring nothing besides medicine and children and any breathing equipment you have. This ship will enter atmosphere soon.”

That got them moving without their stuff, and soon they were streaming down the stairs, covering their faces with rags wet with water that looked none too clean and Solace had a hard time believing anyone would willing drink it. She imagined the stench of humanity was horrible in the compartment and was grateful she couldn’t smell it. Paul led the first group onto the shuttle, and she insisted he take four more children rather than having her as his copilot. “Radio the other rescue shuttles. Tell them that there are another ten thousand evacuees still needing lift off… at least.”

Part of the reason she stayed behind was to assure the extremely worried parents that their children would be fine. She’d hated breaking up families, but loading the pregnant women, nursing women, and just a tithe of the smallest children had loaded the shuttle to its limit and a little over.

Over the next hour, shuttles of all descriptions docked again and again, pulling off more and more of the huddled masses, but it scarcely seemed to be making a dent as the passengers unlocked other decks that were supposed to be reserved for bulk cargo, ones that turned out to be loaded with more and more people… where were they all from? Some part of her mind kept right on counting and each time she hit another thousand, she would flinch a little. Finally, Paul was back and she hugged him fiercely… then sent him off with another batch of kids.

“Officer?” A voice said at her elbow. She turned to look at the figure, a girl of maybe 12 but undernourished and short for her age, standing only a meter and a half or a little less.

“Yes?”

“The fire is spreading and momma cannot move grandmama.”

Solace cursed. The last time she’d asked the people around her to help her in a case like this two of them had been badly burned and now the crowd looked sulky and would almost certainly refuse to assist. She gave one of the elders her communicator and followed the girl. Grandma was unconscious and Solace had no idea what was wrong with her, though her lips were bluish from lack of air and Solace realized that the oxygen level must be pretty low as everyone was moving slower and had a blue tinge to their lips. She grabbed the elderly woman and pulled her over her shoulder, turning to make her way back towards the docking port… just as the ship lurched, slamming her and the woman hard into a wall. The old woman slipped from Solace’s shoulder and right into an exposed cluster of wires.

The old woman screamed, flailing, suddenly awake as the electricity grounded through her and into the deckhead and, without thinking, Solace grabbed up the girl and lifted her from the floor as everyone else within 20 meters just… died. A second later a fuse somewhere blew and the entire corridor went dark, leaving only the smoke of charred flesh drifting in her suit-lights. The suit which had, thanks to its insulated soles, protected Solace and the girl. The girl was shaking violently, stunned by even the split second of shock she’d received, and thankfully wasn’t likely to be able to see the horror that surrounded them.

She loaded the girl aboard the next transport, collected her communicator, and mentally subtracted the nearly 200 dead from the tally she still needed to get off the ship, even as she brushed the smudges of human ash and debris from her skinsuit, trying very hard not to think about what it was. 11,906. 11,341. 11,007. 10,428. She wondered how much longer the ship could be kept out of the atmosphere. 9,840. 9,601. 9.152. Paul should be nearly back again. Should she go with him or wait until…

The world cracked around her and suddenly she was flipping end over end, the walls of the ship pulling away from her and bodies were all around her… not bodies… living people… dying people, dying as they asphyxiated in the near vacuum. Her mind screamed for her to do something, anything, to save them, but she couldn’t… she couldn’t even save herself.

She watched, horrified, as the ship broke apart completely, and saw that at least one of the tugs had been smashed apart as, for a second, the rear impellers had come back on line and the ship’s wedge had tried to form. She didn’t know for certain, but she had a sneaking suspicion that the fools manning the bridge had tried a last ditch gamble to save the ship. She didn’t know if it had been idiotic or just desperate, but it had failed and cost the lives of pretty much everyone onboard… including probably her.

The remaining tugs were latching on to larger sections, tugging them up to higher orbits, but the bottom half of the ship was plunging downwards now and soon the planetary defenses would have no choice but to open fire on it, rather than allow it to impact in anything like solid pieces. She watched the planet growing slowly larger under her and sighed. “It’s been a good life,” she said.

“Sandy?” her comm crackled. It was Paul’s voice.

“Yeah. I’m here… just hanging about.”

“Are you still inside a chunk of the ship?”

“Nooo… I’m right above Jason Bay. I think I’ll go for a swim.”

“Christ… are you in freefall?” He sounded worried. Should she be worried? She felt she probably should be.

“That would be the situation that obtains, yes,” she confirmed.

“Well turn on your bloody transmitter so I can find you!”

“I would, but it looks smashed. My comm’s pretty beat up too… tell you what… I’m about a kilometer from a shuttle marked ‘Hauptman 895-N’ and about three from a tug named… I can’t tell… it’s too blurry… it’s 8 letters long.”

“Slackhand or Breakneck?”

“I think Breakneck.”

“Okay… I think I’ve found you… Give me 90 seconds…”

They were the longest 90 seconds of her life, but soon enough, drifting beneath her, was the shuttle they’d stolen from the school. Relief washed through her as she triggered her comm… nothing… it was dead. She screamed wordless imprecations against the uncaring universe for a good ten seconds, then checked her suit readouts… one by one, they too were going offline. She tried to point her suit-light at the shuttle to give him a clue he might use, but of course, it too was gone.

She twisted around, looking for anything that was nearby, knowing her window was rapidly dwindling. Beneath her, and falling just a little slower, was a chunk of ship decking that had been ripped away from the ship when she’d torn apart. Hoping against hope that Paul would stay roughly where he was, she angled her descent towards the chunk, stretching her hands out to maximize her chance of grabbing it squarely, knowing she’d have exactly one chance at this.

She held her breath and waited. 10 seconds. 5 seconds. 1 second. Contact. The impact was like slamming into a wall at twelve klicks and she gasped in pain, hands scrabbling for a hold, legs swinging around the bottom of the chunk and she started to slip… and then she caught… on both sides of the chunk. Her hands had caught on a fold.. And she had no idea what her leg had caught on but she could feel the metal digging into her flesh and knew it had punctured her suit.

Gingerly, she pulled her leg free, feeling at least three centimeters of whatever it was sliding out of her calf and tried not hyperventilate. It wasn’t as if she had the air to spare, though thankfully it didn’t seem her suit was leaking that fast. Taking her bearings, she spotted the shuttle, slowly rotating in place, searching for her. She knew Paul was probably getting frantic right now, but hoped he wouldn’t move in the next two minutes.

With a prayer to the most holy, and a curse to uncaring physics, she pushed off the chunk, arrowing through space like a javelin. Well, if this didn’t work, at least she wasn’t going to have to listen to a lecture from Commandant Hartley. If this did work… well, she was in free fall going at least 60 kilometers per hour relative to the shuttle… this was going to hurt! Flipping onto her back at the very last moment, knowing that there was no way in hell she could grab hold of the shuttle at this speed even if it had had external handles and hoping the spinal armor of her suit held, she went totally limp… and bounced wildly off the shuttle, every coherent thought driven from her mind as the impact rattled her almost unconscious.

Some time later, she became aware that she was laying in the passenger bay of the shuttle, her suit helmet sliding off and Paul was looking down at her, concern in his bright eyes.

“N… nnng…” she grunted.

“Are you okay?”

“Goway… nother hour…” she mumbled, her everything hurting.

“I thought you were dead for a second when I saw you falling past the view screen… Good thing I caught you before you hit atmo… don’t move. I’ve got her on a course for Bassingford Medical now and she’s on autopilot. I put a pressure bandage on your leg.”

“Paul…”

“Yes Solace?”

“Next time…”

“Yeah, next time you stay in the shuttle.”

“Nnnn Noo… next time… we sleep in my quarters.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 5

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

Resources: BuildHonor Harrington DocumentHonorVerse DocumentFrozen Document

OMAKE: Relationship Chart

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.03

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 3: A Tango of Words

Previously: A Dance for Three

There are certain traditions that go hand in hand with being a treecat’s human, especially when that human is a child. Foremost of these is that the child in question very seldom wants to put the treecat down, usually carrying it everywhere. As an adult, this often manifests in the form of treecats riding around on their human’s shoulder. It was more than habit… it was tradition. As a jew, even by adoption, Solace knew all about the value of tradition… and she was more than eager to comply. After all, her two new friends were wonderful (though she was still very fond of Raoul, he wasn’t nearly as intelligent, playful, huggable, or in her mind like Naomi and Ruth were).

The problem was that together they weighed 18 kilos and that was a lot, even for a girl as strong as Solace. She wasn’t nearly big enough or stable enough to have them on her shoulders… and even if she was, the two of them were constantly bickering and playing pranks on one another. Well, that wasn’t absolutely true. Naomi, the small pale furred one with the arctic blue eyes, was constantly pranking Ruth. Ruth, whose eyes were almost completely black and whose fur was black horizontal stripes on a grey so light it was almost cream colored, did not prank Naomi. She sat on her, or groomed her, or occasionally batted the smaller ‘cat upside the head… which usually prompted a pouncing from the smaller ‘cat and then the two of them were rolling about on the floor or grass and chewing on each other.

They also liked to stalk Raoul, then pretend that they were doing nothing of the sort when the cat glared at them. Occasionally, she’d come back from showering or swimming (none of the cats particularly liked water), to find the three of them curled up asleep in a pile, and sometimes, when she was reading, she’d look over to find Raoul grooming one of the treecats. Thankfully, they never played too rough with the feline, who (though he was a decent sized tom) was only 5 kilos and not nearly as tough or strong as even Ruth (who was 7.5 kilos and something of a runt according to her books and the SFS.)

Still, Solace tried to do her best and not look too silly with the ‘cats draped across her shoulders. It had been almost a year since they’d adopted her and she’d gotten used to wearing the specially armored shirts that protected her skin from their claws. She adjusted her tunic and looked down at the silver cross hanging from the green ribbon around her neck and gulped. She’d just gotten it yesterday in a formal ceremony in front of news cameras and the largest crowd of strangers she’d ever seen outside of the temple on the high holy days. The King had placed it on her himself, praising her for her courage in saving over two hundred tree cats (the rangers had located the poacher’s unregistered shuttle and found scores of cages inside, all full of sedated ‘cats and kittens). She felt like an imposter standing up there in front of those people while King Roger himself read the citation and bestowed upon her the Monarch’s Cross for Bravery. She didn’t feel brave. She had just done what needed to be done, and had been extremely lucky to survive.

Worst of all, Mary had been in the front row, in her best and most special uniform, and she’d been crying and that had done things to Solace’s insides that she didn’t like to think about… and then the calming presence of Ruth had pressed against her mind and she’d realized that Mary wasn’t crying for a bad reason, but was crying for a good one… which was just weird, but people did that sometimes. Hope had looked very proud and given her a thumb’s up when she looked his way and Uncle Vanya had had a smile so broad it nearly reached his ears.

Her brother, for his assistance and level headedness… it had been him who’d dragged the dead poacher off her, thus saving her life and set about checking to make certain that all the cats were safe and out of the snow… had gotten the less prestigious (but also less mortifying) King’s Cross for Bravery. More importantly, he hadn’t gotten a lecture from Mary about taking unwarranted risks and nearly getting herself killed.

After she received the award, a silver cross that bore the legend ‘FOR BRAVERY’ on the top bar and a crown and wreath with the initials RW above it on the obverse and her name (her whole faintly ridiculous name which she treasured above all her possessions) on the reverse suspended from a green ribbon, the King had shaken her hand, then, to her very great surprise, so had Monroe, his treecat. She’d felt a pressure on her mind as she’d shaken the quasi-monarchacal ‘cat’s hand and had pressed back in kind. That had earned her a quisical little head tilt from the ‘cat, a motion she’d learned to recognize as surprise, and then she’d felt something pass between Monroe, Ruth, and Naomi.

She often felt that, though in smaller bursts between just her ‘cats, and suspected it was something like a conversation you could faintly hear in the distance but where you couldn’t make out any words. She’d often thought about talking to someone about it… but she didn’t actually know anyone who had their own cat. Well, she did, but all of them lived on Sphinx and she didn’t know them that well.

And that was why she was there, standing right outside the Royal Manticoran Naval Academy, in her best pants-suit (she’d worn her best dress yesterday, but that was civilian formal and this was almost like military formal which was kind of like school formal, right?) and wearing her medal. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be wearing it or not… part of her felt it was silly and she shouldn’t show it off… it felt like bragging and she hated people who bragged… but it was the closest thing she had to a formal uniform and everyone around her was wearing a real uniform. She’d get a uniform someday, though Mary said she had to wait until she was done with college before she was allowed to join the Marine Corps.

“Solace?” a soprano voice called and she turned to see a tall, almost gangly looking young woman, sixteen or seventeen, hurrying towards her, a cream and grey treecat on her shoulder. She was wearing a first year’s uniform and practically jogging, the hand attached to the arm the ‘cat wasn’t on holding her cap in place.

“Umm… yes… that’s me… Hi… I…” Solace felt tongue tied talking to this imposing figure. There was something about her that seemed to radiate poise and strength, and she was very pretty in a lanky coltish kind of way. “My Mary… I mean my mom said your dad said you’d uh…”

“Right right. Never fear. Dad asked me to show you around the campus while you pretend to be planning on coming here, but secretly you want to talk about treecats and you’ve got your heart set on being a Marine,” the young woman said, smiling. “Or something like that?”

Solace nodded, blushing a little, feeling a tiny amount of heat in her belly, and returned the grin, “Right. Something like that.” She stuck out her hand, wobbled a bit as Ruth shifted and dug in her claws, then said, “I’m Solace Smythe. This is Naomi, and this is Ruth.”

The young officer-in-training saluted her, then took her hand, shook it firmly, and replied, “And I’m Honor Harrington, this is Nimitz, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Nimitz leaped down from Honor’s houlder and stood on his true-feet, balancing with his tail, to shake her hand. Solace giggled. “That’s a cute name… does it mean something?”

“It’s the name of an Old Earth wet water Admiral, Chester Nimitz. I’m a bit of a military history buff. Why’d you pick Naomi and Ruth?”

“They’re from my favorite book of the bible… And it seemed appropriate. Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law and when Naomi decided to move back to Israel… that’s a country on Old Earth… She told Ruth and her other daughter-in-law to go back to the country they were from, which was called Moab, but it doesn’t exist any more. Orpah, that’s the other woman, she went back, but Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Wherever you go, I’ll go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.’…” Solace raised her hands instead of shrugging, which she couldn’t do with the ‘cats there, but they leaped down to ‘converse’ with Nimitz.

She breathed a sigh of relief, and Honor asked, “Heavy?”

“Yeah… I mean I can manage one of them okay… but it feels like I’ve got bags of sand on my shoulders and I have to keep adjusting my center of gravity… I wonder what they’re talking about,” she said, looking at the trio with their heads so close together, ears and tails twitching.

“How do you know they’re talking?” Honor asked.

“I don’t, exactly… but when they’re together, I can almost… it’s not really hearing… it’s like… someone talking on the comm in the next room and you can’t make out what their saying… but inside my head,” she tapped her own forehead. “That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. I thought about asking your dad… I met him in the hospital after I did the thing… Tamar… that’s the Ranger who oversees the area where my uncle’s home is, she said the Harringtons know a lot about ‘cats, but your father doesn’t have a ‘cat so I wanted to asked you, but he said you’d be super busy learning how to do navy stuff… doesn’t it get boring just sitting and poking consoles all day?”

Honor blinked at the stream of conciousness, then laughed. “Is that what you think the Navy does?”

“After Mary rescued me from the slavers, I followed her around on Fearless… that’s the Light Cruiser she was on,” Honor nodded. She wasn’t familiar with the ship, Solace could tell, but she was saying she understood. “And all the Navy Officers were just sitting or standing giving reports and reading information off of screens. Only the ratings looked like they were actually doing stuff.”

“And that’s why you’d rather be a Marine?” Honor asked, frowning but with a smile hidden behind the frown. They were walking now, the ‘cats following behind in a kind of rotating rearguard, occasionally leaping up to highwalk along railings or disappearing into bushes to chase the near-squirrels.

“I want to be a Marine because Marines save people,” Solace said firmly. “From Slavers and Pirates and other bad people. And because Marines get trained to shoot and do martial arts. Mary’s been teaching me and Loyal… he’s my brother… to do both, but it’s not like the real thing.”

“And you know the real thing?” Honor asked, sounding dubious.

“I cut the throat of the Phenotype Technician in my creche and then gouged out her eye to escape. I was four,” Solace said, matter of factly. Honor gasped, hand covering her mouth. “Sometimes I still can see her face in my dreams and I don’t know if I should feel bad about it or not. At the time I didn’t even know the word murder, or death, or kill. I didn’t…” she stopped, hugging herself and the ‘cats gathered around her and purring soothingly. After a minute or so, she swallowed hard. “It had to be done and she was a terrible person, and I’d do it again if I had to… but I don’t feel good about it… but yes. I know the real thing.”

“I guess you do,” Honor said, then opened a door to allow her into the building. “Captain Courvosier… what?”

Solace had stiffened at the name, then she blushed as she realized Honor was staring at her. “Oh… no… I met him… he was Captain of the Fearless when Mary found me… He’s nice, though he tried to lock me up.”

“Lock you up?”

“In a cabin… to keep me from following Mary all over the ship. I couldn’t stay in Medbay with Jimmy. He had a really bad concussion and some brain damage and needed his sleep… and Rudy was in the brig after he got out of Medbay, and Buttons had her kittens… so Mary was the only person I knew back then who I could be with… and then Raoul locked me in a cabin until Mary let me out. After that, Raoul was nice. I named my kitten after him.”

“Well, here, he’s Captain Courvosier, not Raoul. You’ll have to tell me about your friends some time… Buttons was a cat? A cat cat, not a treecat, I take it?”

Solace nodded, “Yeah. Rudy, he was a member of the slaver crew, he’d snuck her aboard and was planning on jumping ship… Jimmy thought that meant he was going to try and leap over the ship, but I knew better… sorry… That was bragging… I shouldn’t brag… anyway, we needed food and Rudy helped us get it and protected us from being discovered by the rest of the crew… even when he got caught because of Buttons, he didn’t tell them where we were or that we existed. He was given probation for turning Crown Witness… I think he went to Beowulf with Jimmy.”

“Jimmy was another slave?”

“Yeah, he was almost two years older than me… Mesan years, not T-Years… and in the same Creche. We escaped together.”

“Oh. I hope they’re doing okay. Well, here we are,” Honor said, showing Solace a big door. It looked like something you’d find aboard a ship, not in a building, and she looked up at the cadet.

“It’s a door?”

“It is!” Honor said, almost chuckling. “Captain Courvoiser arranged for you to witness a bridge drill. That’s when cadets like me and Command candidates practice simulated combat situations. This one is a simulation of a RMN Battlecruiser up against three Havenite Heavy Cruiser divisions… do you know what a division is?”

“You don’t mean division like in math, right?” Solace asked dubiously.

“Right. A division is two to four ships operating together, though in this case it’s usually two.”

“Why don’t they just say a pair?”

“Military tradition. A Pair can be any two ships of the same type, but a Division is a formal military grouping. A Division is part of a Squadron, usually two to four per, and a Squadron can be part of a Flotilla or a Task Force, or a Fleet, but there’s no set numbers for those.” Honor opened the door and they found themselves in a balcony overlooking a replica of a starship’s bridge. The fake bulkhead read “HMS Pinafore” and was flanked by two rampant lions wearing jester hats.

Solace eyed the bigger girl. Was she making this all up. Mary had explained Marine Corps formations to her before, and those had made sense: fireteam, squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, brigade, and corps, each of a progressively larger number of Marines, starting with four… but having two… that was silly. But then against, according to Mary, half of everything the military did was silly… the other half was dreadfully serious… and the third half was ‘make-work’. Solace had pointed out that that was three halves, but Mary had just reminded her of what the first half was. Eventually, she’d figured out that the halves overlapped, and it was, in fact, possible for something to be all three… like singing while marching. Marching was make work. Singing was silly. But the camaraderie built by doing both together? That was dead serious.

“What’s the difference between a Flotilla, a Task Force, and a Fleet?”

“A Fleet is the biggest grouping of ships, Young Lady,” said a elderly male voice.

Honor stiffened and gasped, “Sir!” she snapped a salute, which the old man replied to with a nod.

“At ease, cadet. I see you’ve brought along a friend?”

“Yes Lord Whitehaven,” Honor agreed. “This is Solace Smythe, niece of Earl New Temple. Her mother served under Captain Courvosier and he invited her to witness today’s drill. Solace, this is Lord Murdoch Alexander, Earl White Haven, and former First Space Lord.”

Solace looked up at him. He was old, older than her uncle, probably nearly a century old, and too old to have received even the first generation of prolong, but he seemed nice, if a bit rickety. “You look like an Earl,” she said, not saluting. Mary had explained when and where and who one saluted, and Solace wasn’t military yet.

“Is that based on a sample size of two?” he asked with a smile and she nodded. “Are you planning on joining the Navy?”

“Not unless you can adequately explain the difference between a Flotilla, a Task Force, and Fleet in fifty words or less. Otherwise, I’m joining the Marines. They make sense.”

He humphed, sitting down and patting the seat next to him. “A challenge is it?” She nodded, then gathered Naomi into her lap as Ruth claimed the seat back. “Very well. A Flotilla is a formation of smaller ships, cruisers and destroyers, that either operates independently or as part of a fleet. A Task Force is a part of a fleet temporarily detached for a specific mission, hence the word Task. And a Fleet is a semi-permanent collection of Ships of the Wall and screening units. How did I do?”

Doing a quick count, she shook her head, “Fifty-five. I guess I’ll be a Marine.”

“Ah, well. I tried.”

Honor chuckled, “You shouldn’t have used the word Hence, My Lord.”

The old man laughed. “Curse my old bones for explaining a word. How about if I removed that bit?” he asked.

Solace considered, replaying his words in her mind again. “If you removed hence the word Task, it would be fifty-one. Still too much.”

“See? One over. That’s a golden BB I guess.” Lord Murdoch said, shaking his white hair regretfully.

“What’s a golden BB?” Solace asked.

“A missile that gets passed all a ship’s defenses and takes it out in a single hit. It’s the rarest shot possible, but when you get one, it’s golden. When your enemies get one… not so much,” Honor explained, just as the doors opened and a few dozen cadets and officers filed in. They saw Lord Murdoch and saluted, but he waved them off and they took their seats, and soon the lights in the balcony dimmed and a different group of cadets and officers entered the fake bridge.

What followed next started off almost exactly like what Solace had witnessed aboard Fearless. Nothing but reports and screen watching and button pressing… but then, after nearly twenty minutes of the most horrific tedium imaginable… everything had changed. Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency in the air and every word became tense, every action deliberate, and she soon found herself forgetting that this was only a drill as the bridge crew of His Majesty’s Ship Pinafore fought an unseen but deadly foe. The tedium had been transformed into a kind of ballet of math and physics, and she began to paint a mental picture of what the space outside the hull of the ship might be like. It was the most incredible thing she’d ever experienced.

Later, after she’d said goodbye to Lord Murdoch and Honor and Nimitz and Captain Raoul, she’d caught a taxi back to her uncle’s house in Landing and thought long and hard. Finally, that night at dinner, she asked Mary, “Is Taskforce one word or two?”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 4

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

Resources: BuildHonor Harrington DocumentHonorVerse DocumentFrozen Document

OMAKE: Relationship Chart

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.02

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 2: A Dance for Three

Previously: Let the Children Dance

The Earldom of New Temple encompassed the Star Kingdom’s largest jewish community. Founded by the members of the New Temple Reconstructionist movement, over twenty-thousand jewish families had pooled their funds and moved to Manticore just after the Plague had passed and the Kingdom had offered stakes, land, and citizenship to anyone willing to immigrate. Being a community of scholars, doctors, teachers, and scientists, the New Temple Foundation was able to buy, through concerted effort and using up the vast majority of their collective funds, not only passage for every family (thus maintaining the initial land-grant offered by the Manticore Colony Trust to attract new settlers), but also an Earldom for their chief rabbi, one that encompassed a third of Sphinx’s Thule Continent.

The capital, Solomon, was the fourth largest city on the planet, with a population of just 900,000, and it was absolutely dominated by the huge gleaming white structure of the Temple of Solomon, a combination of city hall, synagogue, and museum, at least according to the big man with the hairy face. Beard. It was called a beard.

“Mary, my darling angel!” Hairy face beardman boomed, throwing his arms around the solidly built woman who had told Solace to call her ‘Mom’. Solace wasn’t certain about that. The Hairy face beardman called Mary ‘Mary’. Hope called Mary ‘Mary’… only Loyal called Mary ‘Mom’. Even Raoul, who was like Buttons but smaller and more stupid, called Mary ‘Mrrrm!’… maybe that was halfway between? Solace didn’t know. She didn’t speak cat.

“Ivan, get off you great lout!” Mary-Mom-Captain-Major said, thumping beardman on the shoulders. At first, Solace had thought he was attacking Mary, but Mary had not hit him and had allowed the embrace and even smiled, so it probably wasn’t an attack.

“Of course, of course! To what do I owe this great and sudden surprise? And don’t you ask me ‘But Ivan Ilych! What surprise?! Can’t I visit my big brother without having an ulterior motive?’! I am too old and wise to be taken in by your trickery!”

“He’s loud,” Solace, who was still not certain about being called Solace, but only two people had ever called her Sandy and now four people called her Solace… Raoul called her ‘aaarrro’ which was close? She didn’t know. She didn’t speak cat.

Loyal shrugged. “He’s a Rabbi. Rabbi’s boom.” According to Mary, Loyal was now her ‘brother’. It was a very strange word. ‘Brother’. She’d asked Mary what purpose Loyal served, but that had only made Mary laugh. Loyal was the biggest child she’d ever actually talked to, but he didn’t have a tattoo on his tongue, so she wasn’t certain if he was a real-child or some kind of weird pseudo-child.

“Is that good or bad?” Rabbi was a job. It was what Hope did, but Hope was a Teaching Rabbis, which meant he taught other people to be Rabbis instead of doing Rabbi things himself… but according to Hope, the word Rabbi meant Teacher… so wasn’t teaching a Rabbi thing? And why did they need two words for the same thing? Hope had said the words were in two different languages… and languages were entire new sets of words. She’d asked Hope why they needed two different sets of words and he’d told her there were thousands of different sets of words… Solace was half certain he was lying… but she couldn’t figure out why. Every time she’d lied it was to keep from being punished.

“It’s good. That way lots of people can hear you,” Loyal explained, then squirmed as he was enveloped in the hairy beardman’s arms. Solace considered aiding him, but Mary stilled her with a hand on her shoulder as the big man pressed his face against Loyals, making the boy giggle and squirm more.

“Ivan is my brother, Solace. He’ll be your Uncle.”

“UNCLE?” the Ivan man boomed, shifting Loyal to one arm and kneeling in front of Solace, peering at her through heavily lidded eyes. “Have you been hiding this one from me?” He asked, not looking at Mary-Mom, but Solace was pretty certain he was talking to the other Adult. Still, she tugged down the bottom of her light pink sweater. It had catpaw prints all over it and Mary had bought it for her, along with matching hat and sunglasses and ‘sneakers’ which were like slippers but for outside. She even had a special catpaw print slipcase for her personal comm unit… even though she didn’t need one since she went everywhere Mary went and Mary had her own comm unit.

“Mm.. Yes,” Mary said in a funny tone of voice. “Yes, I’ve been hiding a daughter for five years, Ivan. A daughter with white hair and alabaster skin.” Solace knew Mary was lying, but the tone of her voice seemed to imply that she wanted the Ivan man to know she was lying. Adults were clearly crazy. “No, you idiot. Would you believe she followed me home from Silesia?”

The Ivan Uncle Man glance up at Mary, then set Loyal down and held out a big hand. “Well then. Welcome to the family, little one. I am Lord Ivan Ilych Lubyanka, Earl New Temple. But you can call me Vanya.”

“Why should I do that?” she asked. It was apparently the wrong thing to ask, but instead of hitting her, a huge smile appeared in the beard and he tossed his head back and laughed. It was the loudest sound Solace had ever heard.

“Because, little one,” The Vanya Ivan Uncle Beard Man with the name that was too long… but not as long as saying a number… said, placing his hands on her shoulders. They were big and strong but somehow gentle and warm. They made Solace feel safe instead of threatened, just like Mary had. “Vayna is the affectionate version of Ivan.”

“Oh.” she didn’t know what affection was… maybe it was something you ate? Affection… ate? No… you wouldn’t eat a name… maybe it was… she didn’t know. “Is there an affectionate version of Solace?”

“Would you like there to be?”

“When we escaped from Mesa, we decided to call each other Jimmy and Sandy. Jimmy went to Beowulf because his head hurt. But I came to find Mary because my heart hurt.”

“Do you want Sandy to be short… to be your nickname?” he asked. She decided to just call him Beardman. It was simpler than all those words.

“Okay Beardman,” she agreed, earning a humph from the man, a giggle from Loyal, and a chuckle from Mary-Mom.

==========

Solace stretched her arms, grinning as she pulled herself out of the pool. She’d gotten bigger than Loyal over the last five years, even though he was fourteen and she was ten. She was tall, slender, her hair having been treated to turn it black, and her skin having browned nicely in the light of Manticore-B. Loyal and she looked of an age, but Loyal was stocky and hadn’t gotten his growth spurt while it sometimes seemed like she would never stop growing.

Hope came out of the house, tossing her a towel. “Get dried off. Your mom’s landing now. She’ll be here in twenty.”

Solace hated that Mary had to go away so often for so long… even after all this time she couldn’t bring herself to call the woman mom or mother… it wasn’t personal enough. Mom was generic. Mary was… Mary. And anyway, she didn’t call Loyal ‘Brother’, now did she? Mary’s job was very important. She was helping stop slavers and pirates, and it would have been selfish for Solace to demand she stay… but she wanted to. Instead, she demanded only that Mary come back… and so far she had.

This time though was special. It wasn’t quite her birthday, but it was close. She’d known how to measure time since she was two, but traveling through hyperspace could make you lose or gain days, and the day she’d been decanted really wasn’t a happy day. So while the family celebrated the date of Loyal’s birth, they celebrated the date on which the ex-slave designated C-76a/169-11/11 had officially become Solace-and-Justice Yekaterina Smythe. Officially, she was 12 T-Years old, since she’d had no idea if the days in the Center were Earth Days or not and had no idea what year she’d actually been given life in.

There had been a great many tests, and even a few physical examinations, but Mary had been there for most of them and she’d learned that the Doctors in the Star Kingdom were not like the Doctors back on Mesa. She’d even been interviewed by a man named Jacques (it was pronounced Zhak even though it wasn’t spelled like it) who said she was the only 76a they’d seen in nearly 200 years. They’d taken blood, and made her solve puzzles, and asked her a lot of questions she didn’t know how to answer… but in the end, they’d let her stay with Mary and Loyal and Hope, who often liked to complain that no one ever asked him if he even wanted a cat.

She knew he was teasing, because he doted on her and Raoul in the same way he doted on Loyal. His work took him away from the house for six hours, five days a week, but often Loyal went with him, and after all the tests and questions, she’d discovered that Loyal and Hope both went to school… though Hope went there to teach and Loyal to learn. Solace too had gotten to go to school to learn, though she’d quickly outpaced even the most dedicated of her teachers.

For a time, she’d resented the wasted time spent in classes where she’d already read the books and mastered all the lessons by the end of the first week, but then Loyal had told her the secret of school, and everything had made much more sense after that. The secret was that it wasn’t about learning the things in the books or on the screens. That was important, but they could have done that at home. No, school was for learning about how to be people.

And so, over the last five T-years, she’d learned all about people even as she mastered every other lesson in a single try. Mastering dealing with people was much harder. It was like people were deliberately confusing. And most confusing were her family.

Loyal was easily the most annoying thing in the entire universe… but she often found herself coming to him when the sadness welled up inside her and Mary was off saving other slaves. Loyal would hug her and pat her on the back and let her cry on his shirt. Sometimes he’d cry too and she’d ask him why and he’d shrug and say it seemed like the thing to do.

Hope was wise, witty, and (even though he wasn’t stupid) made the dumbest jokes. He also liked standing in the rain, swimming in freezing cold water, and (worst of all) Jazz. To Solace, Jazz sounded like someone torturing a cat.

And then there was Mary. Mary was everything Solace wanted to be. Brave, strong, a fighter, confident, knowledgeable, and not afraid of anything or anyone. Mary gave the best hugs, and told the best stories, and had the best hair… hair that Solace had had her own white locks treated to look like.

If Mary was the star around which Solace orbited, Uncle Vanya was its binary twin. Once or twice a year, the family would pack up for a week or so and go visit New Temple, usually for Passover or Rosh Hashanah, and every year he’d come to visit them for Chanukah and bring presents and scratching kisses and tickles and the house would ring with laughter. Solace had asked Mary why he didn’t spend the holiday with his own children, but it turned out that Vanya’s only child had accidentally killed himself by ingesting too many chemicals that were bad for him. After learning that, Solace was extra careful to give Vanya a double dose of hugs.

She very much enjoyed the trips to Sphinx, even though everything was heavier there and the weather was oddly predictable, but those trips were as much for religious reasons as they were for family, and religion was something she never really understood, no matter how often Loyal tried to explain it. This trip, however, would be different. To celebrate her Smytheday, the were going to Uncle Vanya’s ‘Cabin’, which was outside the city up in the Thunderhead Mountains and they would be able to go crosscountry skiing. Gryphon was good for downhill… but Sphinx was tops when it came to skiing through the forests… even if you had to carry a gun to scare off the Hexapumas. She’d never seen one, except in pictures, and those were always in summer, but she’d once climbed up on a Kodiak Maximus and played with it while the adults freaked out. She wondered if Hexapumas in winter were as fluffy as Kodiak Maxes.

Of course, the real reason she wanted to go skiing on Sphinx was that she was hoping to see a wild treecat. She’d seen plenty of treecats in pictures, but those weren’t the same. Thos treecats were always on someone’s shoulder or in someone’s arms… especially this one treecat named Napoleon, though everyone called him Grumpus because his face looked permanently angry. His human, a member of the Sphinx Forestry Service, posted lots of pictures of him judging things angrily. There had even been a movie.

She heard the front door open and, before Mary could call out that she was home, Solace was vaulting the railing from the upstairs and landing like Raoul falling off the table. “MARY!” the almost 10 year old squealed, hugging the woman so hard she almost dropped the bag she was carrying.

“Careful. Careful. I need those ribs… oh dear, you got taller again, didn’t you?”

Sandy nodded enthusiastically, “Yeah. 16 whole millimeters. What did you bring? Is it for me?” She danced around, studying the black cloth bag. Volume? Approximately 280 cubic centimeters. Mass? From the indentations of Mary’s fingers, approximately .84 kilos. Shape? Lumpy? Not clothing… “Is it a new pair of ski-goggles?”

Mary laughed, shaking her head in wonderment. “I don’t know how you do that, sprout, but yes.” She pulled the high impact plastic visor out of the bag.They were like a silver mirror from the outside, with all sorts of digital readouts on the inside, and they were designed to hug her face perfectly.,

She pulled them on, then hugged Mary again. “Do I look like a Robot Invader?”

“No. You look like a girl wearing a pink Grumpus-cat shirt that’s too long and ski-goggles indoors.”

“Heh. Close enough.”

“You all packed?”

“Of course. At least I am. Loyal is probably reading and has forgotten all about it.”

Loyal, sitting on the sofa only three and a half meters away, said “Hey! I have not forgotten. My duffle is already out on the landing apron with yours.” He put down the book and came over, giving Mary a hug. “Hi Mom. you look good.”

“You didn’t complain about me saying you were reading,” Sandy pointed out, but her brother ignored her.

Mary hmmed, then hugged both her children and asked, “Is Raoul already over at the Babcock’s?”

“Yeah. Dad dropped him off this morning. Missus Babcock says Iris got promoted to platoon sergeant,” Loyal confirmed as the brat ran off to show dad her new goggles.

“Oh good. I’m glad. I’ll have to send her a note of congratulations. Iris Babcock is a good life lesson for you,” Mary said.

“Hmmm? In what way?”

“It’s never too late to reconsider what you want to do with your life. She was 46 when she joined the Corps. You were two at the time and I’d spent a lot of time chatting with her about it. Before that she worked at the coffee place on Kingsway for nearly 30 years.”

“So you’re saying I can start out a freelance nude model, then switch to street juggler, and finally end up a professional billiards player?” Loyal suggested, then acked as his mother gave him a fierce noogy.

=======

Solace loved the mountains. They were, to her mind, the clearest evidence that their might really be a god, not that she possessed the words needed to express or explain such a statement. A mountain in the distance was gorgeous, up close daunting. From the bottom, insurmountable, from the slope unending, and from the top breathtaking. When you were among the mountains you could lose your way incredibly fast, but from the peak? You knew exactly where you were. In the cities, you had to be a person. In the mountains you could be yourself.

She whooped as she glided along the valley floor, sliding on her narrow skis with all the power of her youthful legs, carving long lines in the densely packed snow under the towering oaks. She could feel the delicious burn in her calves, the pounding of her heart in her chest, the throb of blood in her ears and felt not just alive, but free. If there was one place in the entire Universe that was the opposite of the Center on Mesa, it was here, in the mountains, where she didn’t have to be anyone or anything thing and there were no monitors or rules or walls or ceiling. No other children with numbers instead of names. She whooped again, laughing as Loyal gasped behind her, telling her to slow down.

She was about to answer him when the sound of a gunshot cracking through the morning air, the sound echoing off the mountains, scattering itself with profligate abandon. She slid to a halt, and a moment later, Loyal was next to her.

“Do you think it’s a hunter?” he asked, sounding a little worried. “Or someone trying to scare off a Hexapuma?” His breath puffed out in whirls of vapor and he rubbed his hands together making a faint hissing noise as the wool pads on the palms of his gloves rasped against each other.

Opening her mouth to respond, she was interrupted by the sound of swearing and the sound of someone reloading a gun. It was faint, diffused by the trees, but not too distant. She couldn’t make out the words, but recognized the anger in them. Without a word, she took off in that direction, Loyal hot on her heels. For once, he wasn’t asking her any silly questions.

The two of them arrived in a clearing to discover three men in heavy protective suits standing over a stack of cages. Two of the men were holding rifles that looked like they were fitted with compressed air canisters, while the third was holding what Solace recognized as an antique revolver. They were looking up into the branches of the trees and Solace couldn’t quite figure out what they were shooting at.

“There!” cried the man with the revolver and one of the two with the rifles turned and fired into the canopy. Something up there hissed angrily, but the projectile, which was sticking out of a 3cm thick branch had clearly missed.That made everything make more sense.

Grabbing Loyal, she explained in a whisper. “Poachers. They’re trying to capture Treecats… I bet they already have some of them in those cages and the rest are trying to save their friends.”

“W… what?” Loyal gasped, “That’s illegal. They’re a protected species.”

“Duuuh. What part of Poacher do you not understand… call Uncle Vanya and tell him where we are,” she commanded, kneeling behind the tree and, pulling off her gloves, began to unclip her skiboots.

He looked at her in confusion and hissed, “What are you doing? We should get out of here. They have guns!”

She didn’t answer directly, just handed him her jacket and began to climb the tree, flinching as another shot range out, but the bullet didn’t sound like it hit something soft. After a moment’s hesitation, Loyal gathered up her gloves and coat and, tucking them under one arm, slid almost soundlessly away from the clearing, raising his other wrist to his mouth to whisper to his wrist comp. Then he was out of sight and Sandy was alone in the tree.

Crown Oaks weren’t like the Oaks back on Gryphon, where the branches thinned as you got closer to the ends. With Crown Oaks, the branches flowed from one tree to the next, linking them all in a kind of network. It meant that, if you were small and agile enough, you could walk from one side of the forest to the other without ever touching the ground. And that’s just what she planned to do… well… not the entire forest… but to get around behind the poachers.

Halfway there, however, she ran into a slight issue… in the form of a very angry treecat. It reared up, arching its backs and bared its fangs at her. She didn’t have time for this, so she reached out her hand and flicked the ‘cat’s nose like she would when Roaul was feeling extra bitey… not hard, but enough to make the cat, domestic or tree, pause.

“Shhh,” she whispered, then pulled herself up to a higher parallel branch and bypassed the cat. Soon, she was behind the Poachers. She pulled the emergency knife out of her belt and judged the weight of it, then pulled the small needler Mary had instructed was to only be used against attacking Hexapumas. She wasn’t certain the needler, which was low power, designed to hurt, inflicting heavy bruises rather than breaking bones and smashing organs, the animal rather than kill it, would penetrate the heavy fabric clearly designed to thwart treecat claws. Mary had, when she was home from deployment, made certain both of her children could shoot, though Loyal wasn’t fond of the practice as it took him away from his books.

The ‘cat she’d flicked was watching her with slitted eyes, tail twitching in consternation.

She flashed it a tight grin, then whispered to herself, “God? If you’re listening… ummm… please help me save the treecats from the bad men.” Aiming carefully, Sandy shot the revolver armed poacher in the hand, causing him to grunt in pain as the gun went flying as several of the small bones in his hand were bruised or broken. She didn’t have clear shots at the hands of the two holding the tranq-rifles, so she unloaded the remaining seven shots at their heads, three each and one at the head of the revolver man. Then, before she could think better of it, she launched herself into the air, knife in her right hand, needler reversed and held in her left like a club. It would have worked very well as a surprise attack if not for one tiny oversight.

She’d forgotten to account for the fact that there might be more than one cat. With a ripping snarl that was the exact opposite of her own silent leap, a larger cream and black treecat hurled itself right at the same poacher she’d aimed her leap to land on. The man, dazed from the heavy blows against the anti-kinetic fabric of his suit, managed to turn at the sound, saw the cat, screamed, and (raising his arms to protect his face) fell backwards into the pistolero, thrashing as the cat tried to rip at his hands and face. The fabric began shredding almost instantly.

Unfortunately, that poacher’s body had been what Sandy had been relying on to break her faul, and without him there, she plowed into the stacked crates, knocking them every which way and sending her skidding on the snow slicked ground into a tree. There was a sickening crunch as her knee hit the dense bark, but she managed to keep hold of her knife. Of her needler, there was no sign.

A shadow loomed over her and she looked up to see one of the poachers approaching her, his heavy gloved hands identifying him as the other rifleman. “Oh ho,” he grunted. “Got us a would be junior ranger. Maybe we can get something for you too, you little brat.” She recognized that accent. It was like Rudy’s, her first friend. Rudy had been from Visigoth he’d said, which her studies had told her was only a single wormhole jump away from Mesa.

He reached for her, but she lunged forward, using his knee to brace herself as she drove her knife, the blade shivering in full vibro-mode, up into his mask at where she judged his chin was. There was a crunch and the sound of the vibro cut off with a sickening squelch and he made several howling noises as he fell backwards, gloved hands scrabbling at his face.

She looked around frantically for something she could use as a weapon, saw the dropped revolver, took one step, then had to keep from screaming as her knee folded up under her.

The revolver man turned from where he’d been trying to get the cat off his partner, saw her, saw the gun, then growled something feral, and began stomping over through the tramped down snow, kicking a crate out of the way. There was a thump from inside the crate and Sandy knew he’d just kicked a probably unconscious ‘cat.

In that instant, she saw red and, without conscious thought, launched herself between the man’s legs, her own knee screaming in protest. A moment later, it was joined by her wrist and ribs as he (knocked off balance and with her tangled in his legs) fell heavily. His weight drove her chest into the ground and the air from her lungs.

Gasping in agony, chest hitching as she struggled to breathe, Sandy realized that the gun was directly in front of her, only centimeters from the tips of her fingers. she stretched for it, then felt the man twisting, bending so he too could reach for the weapon. She tried to scream as his motions caused the pressure on her wounds to flare bright and brutal, but she had no air, so instead she screamed inside her mind, willing her fingers to be just a little longer. She clawed at the snow and the dirt beneath it and raged at how close she’d come… and then there was a kind of lurch and another was inside her mind, inside her awareness.

Pale blue eyes like the heart of glacial ice caught her and she realized she was face to face with the ‘cat she’d flicked earlier. It regarded her cooly for a moment, then batted the gun into her waiting hand. She twisted, ripping something inside herself, and fired twice into the chest of man half atop her, then turned turned to sight at the remaining poacher, but she couldn’t shoot him without risking hitting the ‘cat still savaging his suit. She wanted to yell at the cat, to throw something, but all she had was mud and it wouldn’t go far before falling apart. She was rapidly running out of air as well.

Wait… she could feel the smaller ‘cat in her mind… maybe she could… She tried to calm her racing heart and extended a… a feeling… towards the angry cat. There was another one of those weird lurches inside her head and she felt like she was in two places at once for a split second as she sent the sensation one feels right before someone hits you in the back of the head.

The larger ‘cat leapt away from the man with a hiss and, with the last of her energy, Sandy shot him again and again until the gun clicked empty and she kept firing until darkness claimed her.

====

“Never seen anything like it,” the man was saying as Solace swam back to consciousness.

“Will the ‘cats be okay, Dr. Harrington?” asked another voice, this one belonging to a woman… it seemed familiar, though she didn’t quite recognize it.

“Mmm?” the man, Dr. Harrington maybe?, responded. “Oh. Oh yes. I believe so. The drug seems to have been a long term paralytic designed specifically for Sphinxian wildlife. It only hampers the body’s ability to control moment. It should wear off in a couple of hours. Clearly these men were planning on transporting the ‘cats off-planet alive. Have you learned anything from them?”

“No. She only left one alive and he’s in surgery. She rammed a seven centimeter vibroknife up into the underside of his chin. It severed his tongue, broke his jaw, and ended up with the point wedged into his sinus cavity. He’ll survive, but the surgeons are pretty certain he won’t ever talk again without some serious regen, and he appears to be one of those that can’t regen.”

“Ah. My daughter’s one of those. Gets it from my side of the family, I’m afraid, though I’m only a carrier,” the man said. “I’m grateful the Forestry Service called me. I’ve never seen so many treecats at a time. My daughter, Honor, will be quite green with envy. She has a treecat of her own. Nimitz.”

“Oh? Where is she now?” the woman asked.

“She just entered the Naval Academy. In fact, I was just coming back from dropping her off when I got your call and rerouted from Duvalier. Do you think these two are a mated pair?”

“Mm? Oh. No, I can see how you’d think that. They’re both female. The smaller one is so pale I’d almost think it was albino. The bigger one is very aggressive, and quite large for a female but they seem close. They’re acting like they don’t like each other, but the smaller one is putting up with being groomed by the bigger, so I don’t know what their relationship is. Maybe sisters. You don’t have much contact with Thulian Cats, over on Haley’s Land, I imagine. Ours females are striped instead of dappled,” the woman said. “I know your family has a long history with the ‘cats, so if you’ve never heard of anything like this…”

“Like what?” Solace asked. It took her a couple of tries to remember how to speak with her mouth and she was very aware of the two treecats in a way she’d never been aware of anyone else. “Heyyy.” she yelped before either of the two adults could answer as the cats both tried to nuzzle her, then began to bat at each other in annoyance.

A tall dark-haired man loomed over her, but he had a gentle face and something about him just seemed to radiate a sense of… niceness. He was joined by another face, this one she recognized. It was her uncle’s liaison with the Sphinx Forestry Service, Tamar Kakhetiba. “Ah. you’re awake. Your parents are in the other room talking to the doctors and your brother stepped out to, ahem, well…” Tamar said.

“Are you feeling okay?” the man, who was wearing a badge that confirmed he was, indeed, Dr A. Harrington, asked.

“Feel… muggy… l… like…” she didn’t know what she felt, but it was very hard to move and thinking was like she was mostly asleep.

“That would be the painkillers. You fractured your kneecap and tore some ligaments when you fell. You’ve got five broken ribs and a hairline fracture in your wrist.  But you’ll be okay soon enough. Just a few regen treatments and minimal rehab,” Dr Harrington said. “Also, it can take a while for the adoption bond to stabilize… there’s usually a period of adjustment.”

“Adoption? N… noo… was…. Was five years ago… is… is my Smythe-daay.” she giggled at how her voice sounded.

The doctor looked confused, but Tamar explained. “She was adopted by the Earl’s sister. She’s a marine and this one followed her back from a raid in Silesia.”

“From? Then she’s… you’re an escaped…” he looked a little uncomfortable, but Sandy nodded. She didn’t know why people had such a hard time saying the world ‘slave’, but a lot of people did.

“Well, you’ve been adopted again. This time by a pair of treecats,” the doctor explained.

“Noooo,” she complained, feeling overwhelmed by the day’s events and loogy from the drugs. “I already got a family… I don’t wanna live in the woods!”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 3

OMAKE: Relationship Chart (Updated, because you are awesome people… the old chart is still there for anyone who wants to go back a few pages to compare.)

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in progress here. Please Check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

Resources: BuildHonor Harrington DocumentHonorVerse DocumentFrozen Document

AN: I originally planned to do all this in four parts. AHAHAH. no. I’ve not even gotten to On Basilisk Station and I’m up to 50,000 Words. And since I’ve been posting this on SpaceBattles, I’ve been giving each section it’s own title. So I decided to just go ahead and post the chunks here instead of trying to post a single massive chunk. The numbering is going to be a little weird. Let The Children Dance is actually the name of the short story that ends the previous post… but LtCD is also the first chapter of the first of the Solace Books. Book 1 will be called “Solace of Manticore”, Book 2 will be called “Shadow of a Jumper”, and Book 3 will be called “Crown of Stars” (in honor of the three major spin off serieses). I also have planned an Omake called “Fuzz-Dragon Wars” to focus on Ziggy & Atura. That will have two parts and I plan those to come out between Books 2 and 3. At the current rate, It will probably take me to the end of November to finish the Honor Jump, so I hope I can keep you all entertained. This is promising to be my largest jump project to date and the outline I have is longer than some of my smaller jump logs.

The current plan is SoM will feature the set-up for Solace’s history before the point that Solace and EssJay would normally have become one. It will feature events that could be canon or that are not counter to established canon (to the best of my ability). SotJ will feature the adjustment period and the initial drift from canon events. CoS will feature the largest canonical drift.

Currently, there are 12 chapters of Solace of Manticore finished and available to read on Space Battles (here) and I’ll be posting them here over the next two weeks at one a day (if I remember and have the time… one of those days I’ll be flying back to the States so…). I am rereading the sections as I post them here and cleaning them up a bit more, so there’s that. I’m editing them on Space Battles then posting them here.

Also, just so you know, I have, as of now, finished revamping Jumps 1-6 and am a third of the way through Star Trek TOS. So if you haven’t re-read those, I encourage you to do so. The links are below. I am posting the revised sections on Space Battles (here) as I go, but I edit them on this site, so you can read them either place. I love to hear your comments (And yes, I have the old copies as well, so I can supply them if you’re a purist. I hope you like the updates.