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
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.
OMAKE: Relationship Chart