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