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
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