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.”
“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?”
“Have you ever practiced dueling?”
“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.”
“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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