World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.11

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 11: Last Mosh in Paris

Previously: A Gavot, A Foxtrot, and The Twist

TIMESTAMP: 1889 PD

“Those bastards finally did it,” Minerva commented over breakfast, looking at the news feed playing across her fantascopic glasses.

“Mm?” Solace asked, looking up from tickling Ruth and unable to hear the sound that was reaching her lover’s ears through the dermal contact patches at the back of the glasses’ earpieces. “Bastards? Which ones, there are ever so many of them these days. Are we talking about the Conservative Association, the Liberal Party, Manpower, Jessyk, Axelrod, The Brotherhood of Odin, the Aparatchiks who run the Solarian League, The Hauptmans, Stephan Jordan, Ravinder and Mika Jankowski, Sean-Michael Dempsy… give me a hint here, babe. There are an awful lot of people we don’t like, either collectively or individually, or just because they’re business rivals.”

Minerva, who had started the rant looking annoyed at Solace, was smirking by the end of it. “Ohh hooo… it’s us now, is it?” She’d slid the glasses down her face so she could peer at the younger woman over the top of the frameless-rims.

Solace blinked, trying to figure out where that had come from and then rolled her eyes. “That was a year ago, you bitch,” she humphed. “And I was talking about sports teams where I’m not on the team. Sure, I might not work for Andros-Brandyne, but I’m… call me a cheerleader of theirs. Plus, I own a vast quantity of stock.”

“Since when?” Minerva asked, sliding the glasses back up and commanding, “VIvian, what’s the Commander’s current stock investment at?”

The Household Computer Intelligence, one of Andros-Brandyne’s major products, was normally named VIctoria, where the VI stood for Virtual Intelligence. VIvian was the prototype that had been upgraded again and again over the last century and now essentially was a shadow member of the board. Only by Crown order were the two systems kept seperate, with VIvian having to make direct requests to VIctoria just like every flesh and blood person had to.

VIvian’s voice, clear as a bell, said, “Commander Solace owns 503 common stock shares, which, as of the current time are worth 20,645 Manticoran Dollars and 63.5 cents. They represent just under 1/25,000,000th of the common stock or 1/982,174,860th of the total value of the Cartel. Her Uncle, Earl New Temple, owns-”

“Yes, thank you, VIvian, that’s enough,” Minerva said, smirking. “What was that about vast quantities of stock?”

Solace grinned, “Hey, it’s vast for me… that’s a third of my salary now that I’m on half-pay!”

“Isn’t your trust-fund huge?”

Solace considered that. Her Uncle was one of the twenty or so richest people in the Star Kingdom, or so people said… but that was largely because he was the head of the New Temple Group, the kingdom’s largest investment and banking house. His wealth was always something removed from the man himself and her family never really talked about it. Mary and Hope lived simply off their combined incomes. Mary had been written out of her parents will long before even Loyal was born for some mysterious incident in her youth, and had steadfastly refused all financial aid from her vastly more wealthy sibling. Solace realized she hadn’t answered when Ruth nipped her fingers and she blushed, then shrugged. “Umm… I guess. I mean I know Uncle set up a fund for all of us, but I’ve never touched it… why? I think it doesn’t mature until next year.”

“I’m curious,” the mogul replied. “You’ve never looked into your finances?”

“I give Loyal half my paycheck and all the prize money I’ve earned. Up until these last nineteen months, I’ve either lived at home or on the Navy’s dime. I didn’t exactly have a lot of expenses. The most expensive things I owned were my dress uniforms, the armored rescue pods for Ruth and Naomi, and my first edition copy of DUNE.”

“Dune?”

“No. DUNE… all caps. Ancient ancient book. First printed in 138 AnteDiaspora… it was a gift from my Uncle. Insane thing to give a child. He also gave me a digital copy because the other is two thousand years old. Can’t even take it out of its protective case.”

“What’s it about?” Minerva asked, leaning forward with her elbows on the table. Naomi, finishing her breakfast of smoked salmon and poached eggs, eyed the woman, then licked her paws as she rolled her eyes. The ‘cat had had to listen to this conversation or one very like it more than once.

“Hard decisions, necessity, and how being able to see the future as a terrible burden. It’s a fantasy novel… though I imagine when it came out it was what would have been called ‘speculative fiction’. Technically, it’s set in the far far future, at least 10,000 years in the future even today. It’s about how a hard world can make a strong people, and how even one bred for a specific task can accomplish more than his creators ever thought he could.”

“Ah… I can see why your uncle gave it to you. Now, as for the Bastards I was talking about… Haven’s formally annexed San Martin.”

Solace made a face and nodded. “Knew it was coming. The invasion was a fait accompli within a week. That the resistance held out this long is a miracle… We should have held the line then, but the Navy wasn’t ready. I think that’s why the Government was so willing to get involved in the Midgard Crisis.”

Minerva considered that, then asked, “What? As some kind of testing ground to see how well a junction system could be defended?”

“Partly, but also to give us experience in fighting an enemy that’s more than just pirates. Fleet exercises are all well and good, but they’re not real.”

“True…. But ideally, no one dies in a fleet exercise.”

“That’s the reality of war, I’m afraid. It’s a duel between nations to determine whose will is stronger.”

“And whose pockets are deeper.”

“Perhaps, but economic warfare is no less bloody and cruel than open warfare. Someday soon, the Star Kingdom and the Republic will duel to see if their will to conquer is greater than our will to remain free.”

“And is it?”

Solace opened her mouth and said, “I certainly hope so.” but it was little more than a pro forma response. Her mind was running through what she knew of the variables and it didn’t take her long to determine that she simply didn’t know enough. That realization would stay with her for the next few months until, finally, she made a phone-call.

======

“First time on Haven, Ma’am?” the driver asked as he met her at the diplomatic gate on Isle d’Haven, the largest of the space stations in orbit around the planet of Haven. The Isle was in geosync above Nouveau Paris, the capital of the People’s Republic of Haven and one of the largest and most economically depressed slums anywhere in the known galaxy.

Nouveau Paris was a city of contradictions, home to most of the Legilaturalist Families that were Havenite Nobility in all but name, there were parts of the sprawling metropolis that were full of art and light and obscene displays of the wealth Haven had gained by raping the economies of its neighbors… and yet, cheek by jowl with those museums and palaces in some kind of hideous parody of social structure were towering megascrapers a kilometer or more on a side crammed full of crushing poverty and rotting slowly from within and without… like the nation in microcosm if the analyses she’d read were to be believed.

“Yup. Figured I’d see that all the fuss was about… you the guy the Embassy was supposed to send to pick me up?” She waved to the valet who was pushing her bags down the jetway… what a strange thing to call it, jetway. It had been more than two centuries since any jets had flown on any significant world in the galaxy and this was a space-station… and yet… jetway… “Over here, Zane… I found the driver.”

If the driver, whose uniform tunic had the name Webster on the breast, found it at all odd that the valet gave the woman he was there to collect a meaningful glower, he didn’t remark on it. To be fair, he was looking at the small mountain of bags and gulped. “Ma’am… I don’t know if we can fit all that in the shuttle…”

Using skills honed watching the spoiled wealthy sprogs of Manticore’s elite, Solace waved the comment aside as a trifling thing beneath her concern. “Oh, of course they will. They all fit on the shuttle up to Haephestus, didn’t they Zane?”

“My name is Abraham, Miss Smythe,” the Valet corrected.

“Is it? Is it really,” she teased, then smiled as a Havenite Internal Security Goon sneered at the trio and the mountain of bags as they approached the end of the diplomatic concourse and the security checkpoint which led to the rest of the station.

“Ello, and Welcome to Haven,” the woman who was not wearing any formal uniform besides an Internal-Security armband said. “Passport?”

Solace rolled her eyes, then leaned forward until her nose was actually touching the other woman’s nose, and peered over her sunglasses. “Passport? Do you know who I am? Does she know who I am?” she said, breaking eye-and-skin-contact just as the woman was about to respond, spinning around to face Webster. “I’m a special diplomatic attache! I don’t do ‘passports’,” she sneered, actually making air-quotes even as she drawled the final e in attache.

The goon… who was actually fairly attractive, opened her mouth to tell this preening popinjay that everyone entering Haven territory had to sign in and present credentials… even if they arrived at the diplomatic concourse on a diplomatic courier ship… or in this case a monstrously huge space-yacht that someone had clearly paid someone else a very large amount of money to get declared a diplomatic courier ship… but stopped as she saw what was on the back of the towering and clearly deranged woman’s jacket.

In glittering emeralds and rubies, the white jacket’s back read ‘Je Suis un ESPIONAGE!’ and beneath that was a stylized representation of a domino mask with targeting reticles in the eyeholes.

Biting off every word to make certain this aristocratic… overbred… cretin understood, Solange McQuarry half-snarled, “Everyone who enters ‘Avenite territory must present their credentials and be verified. We cannot zhust take your word for it that you are oo you say you are!”

“Okaaaay… then who are you? I don’t see no uniform or nothing. You could be a papazzo trying to see how horrible my passport picture is,” Solace snapped, then turned to Webster, “It’s totally not horrible. It’s amazing. Eric Jon-Carlo came in from New Tuscani to take it. We did a whole shoot… cost my uncle an arm and a leg, but it was WOOORTH IIIT!” She threw up both arms, her handbag nearly bonking the valet, knocking his hat off, and if the InSec woman didn’t notice the family resemblance, she could be forgiven, since that resemblance was entirely on the inside.

“My name Inspector McQuarry, Department of Internal Security,” Solange snapped, flipping open her badge. “If you do not present your passports immediately, I shall ‘ave to insist that you return to your ship and leave ‘Avenite space immediatement! “

“Sheeesh, what crawled up your bonnet… a bonnet’s a hat, BTdubs… and died?” Solace said, flipping the hair she’d let grow out over the last two and a half years since they’d taken her ship away. “Here,” she snapped, thrusting four passports at the woman.

“Four? I do not under… oh, mon deu… you ‘ave brought Aliens to ‘Aven?”

“Non!” Solace proclaimed, “We are all aliens to Ayvon! My treecats, they are citizens of the Star Kingdom, yes? They are my wards, they come where I go, so they come here… and those passports are direct from the office of the Foreign Secretary.”

“This one claims that one of these… cats, as you call them, is a Fleet Admiral!” Solage sputtered.

“But of course! You see, she was appointed to that position by the Emperor of the Andermani himself! Would you like to see a picture of the two of them together?” Solace almost laughed aloud at the outraged expression on the woman’s face and leaned in, hugging the woman around the shoulders and pulling her in so they could both see the scrreen of Slace’s personal comm unit. “See, that’s Ruth, and that’s Gus… his friends can call him Gus… you know how you can tell if you’re the Emperor’s friend? If you call him Gus and you aren’t shot immediately.” She did laugh then, as if amused by her own joke.

The speed at which they cleared the inspection after that was almost in violation of causality.

======

“Do you think she’s a spy?” asked Lt. Commander Anastasia Ustinova twenty minutes later.

“If she is, she’s the worst one I’ve ever seen. No tradecraft, no sense… just… air…“

The People’s Navy liaison shrugged. “She’s got to be more than just an airhead… she’s the most decorated junior officer in the Manticoran Navy. Maybe it’s an act?”

“No one would choose to act like that. No, her uncle is one of those obscenely wealthy jews… and a lord. Certainly he could have bought her her commision,” countered Solange, not sounding at all sure of what she was saying.

Anastasia ignored the InSec officer’s casual anti-semitism out of a sense of career preservation, and asked, “And the medals?”

“Luck and connections?” It was more a question than a statement of fact.

“You seem convinced that she’s not a spy,”

McQuarry shuddered, then shook her head. “No. That’s just it. I’m absolutely certain she’s a spy, and she’s got to know that I know she’s a spy, which means she clearly can’t be a spy because the purpose of being a spy is people not knowing you’re a blasted spy! Oh, mon dieu… my head hurts… and that jacket!”

“Jacket?”

“She was wearing a jacket that said ‘I am a Spying!’

Anastasia blinked at that. “Surely you mean, I am Spying or I am a Spy?”

“No! It was in french and it said ‘I am an Espionage’… in jeweled sequins!”

“Okay… now I need a drink too.”

“I told you this was a weird one.”

=======

Loyal groaned, straightening his back after he finished unloading the bags from the shuttle, and signed to his sister, using the private language they’d invented to pass the time in temple, “You were right. They never even looked at my passport.”

“Told you. When do you meet up with your contacts?”

“Couple of days. They’ll get in touch… are you certain about this… its a lot of money we’re talking about.”

“I don’t get my trust fund for another 5 months. If you think the loan’s too big…”

“Oh, no. Nothing of the kind. My baby sister just asked to borrow a billion Solarian Credits in untraceable currency and then help her smuggle it into the capital of the People’s Republic so she can fund terrorist cells! That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask!”

“You could have said no.”

“I could have… but you’ve have gone ahead and done it anyway. This way you’re sanctioned by ONI and the Foreign Office… well… half sanctioned. They’ve said this is insane but they’re willing to use any information you can get. Plus you got me back onto the planet without anyone looking at me twice. And I can spare the money for a good cause. Maybe if there’s a civil-war in Haven they’ll be too busy to attack us.”

“I don’t think I can start a City War, Loyal… and that’s not my intention. I just need information and contacts… and to stir up trouble. I’ve read everything Ambassador Deitmar and Earl Gold Peak have put together on the various people’s action groups and this one looks the best. They’ve got a reputation for being tough but fair.”

“And you were going crazy with nothing to do,” her brother pointed out. “Except Minerva, I mean.”

“I’m bigger than you,” she threatened. “And the last few months have been fun. Learning new languages, spy tricks-”

“It’s called Tradecraft,” he signed with a frown.

“Your face is called tradecraft,” she signed back, letting Ruth and Naomi out onto the bed.

“I still can’t believe you bought all these clothes just for this trip,” Loyal groaned, as he pulled the last bag off the floating platform and watched his sister tossing them casually into the hotel’s walk-in closet, utterly unconcerned for the two that didn’t contain Ruth and Naomi or the one that had their toys. “How does one person do that?”

“It helps to have a trillionaire girlfriend… you should try it. And anyway, we needed this many cases to justify the PX-44 grav-sled,” she said, thumping the now empty platform sharply.

With a hiss, the section between the six smaller than normal a-grav coils (a PX-44 normally had four 14 cm coils, but this platform had six 9 cm advanced model coils with 65% more lift capacity than the previous generation. All told, that meant that the grav-sled had been able to hold a brick of untraceable currency worth nearly 200,000,000 Manticoran Dollars,

It was, rather prosaically, more money that Solace had ever seen in one place and yet not very much at all, considering that the interest alone on her trust fund was ten times that much every year… but she wouldn’t come into that money until her next Smythe-Day and then she’d be tradition bound to squander it on something insane like… she honestly didn’t even know what idiotically rich people spent their money on… all she could think to do with it was to do research, give to charity, and maybe, a small voice in the back of her head suggested, find out what happened to Jimmy… would he be mad she’d abandoned him?… and Rudy… Buttons would probably be dead by now. Raoul had passed away while she’d been in Saint Vincent, but by the end he’d been more Hope’s cat than hers. Maybe she should buy a Superdreadnought and name it after him… that would be a reasonable investment, right?

She scooped up the credit chips, tucked a stack of them into a small backpack, and loaded the rest of them into an attache case. “These will go into the hotel vault,” she said, out loud, laying a couple cases of expensive jewelry atop the credits. “Do you think I should wear the sapphires or the emeralds when I attend President Harry’s little party?”

Loyal rolled his eyes, knowing she was speaking for the audio bugs they’d left in place, but still unable to believe the words that were coming out of his sister’s mouth. “President Harris ma’am. Sidney Harris.”

“That’s what I said… isn’t it?”

“I’m certain it was ma’am, I must have misheard.”

=======

The room was small, cramped, and damp, barely large enough for the five people and two treecats it held. The throbbing base music from the club just above their heads was barely muffled by the cracked and decaying layer of ceramacrete between them and the dancers, but the same noise that made it extremely hard to hear oneself think also virtually guaranteed no one who wasn’t supposed to hear their conversation would.

“Thank you for coming, ladies,” Loyal said, having arrived earliest and swept the room for bugs. He stood nearest the door, back to it, while the other six hugged various of the room’s mildew stained walls, heedless of the damage that would be done to their club clothes. Of course, for two of the four women, said clothes had so many holes in the them already that he couldn’t be certain where fashion ended and damage began. The third was dressed in slick latex that would not have been out of place in a bondage dungeon, and the fourth, his sister, was wearing a nano-fabric outfit so expensive it made the frugal part of him want to cringe and the mathematician side of him calculate how many of Haven’s Dolists could be fed for a year in exchange for that outfit… but it was ballistic fabric and proof against treecat claws and would be sparkling clean again within seconds after she climbed out of a swimming pool full of crude hydrocarbons. Just the cost of importing it all the way from Old Milan was more than most of his outfits were worth when new.

“What’re those things doing here?” the honey blonde in the dominatrix getup asked, glaring at the treecats.

“They’re with me,” Solace said, all traces of bubblehead gone. “What’s she doing here? You said two. This is three.”

“Running away so soon, little rich girl?” the blonde sneered.

“Miss Ransom,” Loyal said, placatingly, “please. I invited all of you here in good faith. Miss Smythe, Miss Ransom is one of the two I wanted you to meet. She’s a leader in the CRU, the Citizens Rights Union, one of the local political action groups.” Solace tried not to roll her eyes as her brother euphemized ‘terrorist’ into something polite. “These two ladies represent the Aprilist Tribunal, who are a little smaller than the CRU and a little more focused. This is Brigade Commander Delta and Brigade Commander Sigma.”

Cordelia Ransom sneered. “Ridiculous. In the CRU, we are not afraid to use our real names.”

Loyal cut off the incipient shouting match by the simple act of explaining, “Miss Smythe represents a small but influential group who believe that the People of Haven are being pushed into a series of wars of conquests they never asked for. She’s willing to help.”

“Help how?” Delta asked, striking a vocal tone that was half-way between challenge and curiosity.

Solace knew her cue and stepped forward, pulling out a bundle of Solarian 5,000 credit chips. There were a hundred in the five centimeter thick stack. She slid it across the table, and said, “I’m not an expert in this kind of conflict. When I want someone to see reason, I usually shoot them or use missiles to blow them up. I am, conservatively speaking, extremely good at that. My brother, he’s good at convincing people to do the right thing, but he’s persona non-grata on Haven since he seduced President Harris’s daughter. That’s officially why I’m here, by the way, to deliver a message to President Harris that his daughter is very nice, I’m certain, but not really suitable to my family at this time. Nouveau Riche and all that.”

Ransom’s face was torn between a sneer and a snort, but the two brigade commanders both snerked at the pun and the calculated insult. Solace continued, “My family’s money is in banking. Finding good investments, selling off bad ones, opening up new markets… and Haven has a lot of potential new markets. Redevelopment loans… the real kind, not the crap the Solies offer that are tantamount to indentured slavery. My people don’t exactly approve of slavery. No. Honest loans, reasonable rates. We make our money on the long term financial stability of the region and by having positive cycle consumers… you know this phrase?”

All four humans and both ‘cats shook their heads, though Loyal was only acting since he was the one who taught her the term on their crossing from Trevor’s Star to Haven. “Negative Cycle Consumers are ones who are forced ever deeper into debt because they have no choice but to continue borrowing from the same people who are oppressing them. Positive Cycle Consumers are ones that keep paying off loans and then taking new ones so they can expand their growing businesses, and keep coming back to the people who gave them the earlier loans because of a strong mutually beneficial relationship.”

“So you want us to sell out the people of Haven so you can make a buck?” Ransom barked, missing the point by a light second.

“Not at all, Miss Ransom,” Solace said, “I expect you to use us as a resource to fund your propaganda campaigns and to bribe or buy access to any assets you might feel you need. I’ve read about the CRU. You’re unfocused, dangerous, but connected. You’ll play along with me because you want my money. And you’ll give me valid information because you know the moment you lie to me, you risk my support. So here’s my thirty pieces of silver. Spend them well and, if you want more, come back to me with something I can use.” She slid a million credits across the table, willing herself not to cringe at the idea of giving money to this dangerously stupid woman.

Ransom scooped up the credits, then said, “I’ll take your offer to my people,” and left.

“Good God, I hate that woman,” said BC Delta. She stepped forward, offering her hand to Solace. “Eloise Pritchart. This is my colleague, Agradyne Ysbek.” Solace shook both woman’s hand and nodded in recognition of their apparent openness. “We think you’re making a mistake trusting that woman, but maybe you know that. Regardless, Kincaid says we can trust you and you have practically nothing to gain by, as you Manties would say, ratting us out. Still… trust is hard to come by in this line of work. Your money is welcome… such operations as ours do not fund themselves… but for us it is not enough.”

BC Sigma took up the thread, “The Aprilist Tribunal is dedicated not only to the removal and trial of the leeches who claim to lead us, but in restoration of the original Constitution of the Republic. Not the People’s Republic, the Republic. We fight tyranny with the tools available to us, but we are ultimately loyal to the people of Haven and the ideals Haven once stood for. A good part of that is egalite… equality. We don’t know if we see much of that in Manticore.”

“It’s a valid point, and one I’m certainly not the best qualified to judge or comment on,” Solace responded, “But I will say this; all human systems have inequality built into them. It’s not possible to remove it completely, and detrimental to try, since to remove one form of inequality one must add a different form. There are three forms of equality as I see it; Outcome, Opportunity, and Virtue. Outcome? Well, everyone dies in the end, so that’s one form right there,” she smiled wanly, “But when people speak of this form of equality, they mean that everyone ends up roughly equal. Good in theory, terrible in practice.”

“How so?” Agradyne asked, looking a little offended at that.

“That’s the kind of thinking that led to the People’s Republic. If everyone ends up the same, what point is there in striving? Why become the best, or even very good… when the best doctor makes as much as the worst?” They nodded, though it was grudging. “Next, is Opportunity… a bit better, if just as impractical.” She held up a hand to forestal Eloise’s question-challenge. “It’s impractical in that, after a certain point, the only way to achieve it is to handicap the hyper-capable or take away the wealth of the rich or the connections of the connected. That’s how this works. We’re the product of evolution… most of us. We want what’s best for our offspring and will do our best to make certain they carry not just our genes but our ideals. To do less is to disgrace the sacrifices all our ancestors have made. But we can strive to lift everyone to at least a socially acceptable ground state so that no-one starts in the hole. Manticore is firmly committed to this.”

“Are you, really?” Eloise asked. “Your wealthiest citizens have enough wealth to buy their own fleets! You’ve got enough money on the table to feed a thousand families for a year and more… and yet you claim this?”

Solace shrugged. “We do have incredible wealth… but we don’t have extreme poverty. Not like Haven, not Old Earth. We have no slums, few who are homeless except by choice, and a healthy social safety net. Which brings us to Equality of Virtue. This is the hardest one, and relies on a collective will to help each other excel. This form of equality espouses the ideal that a society should help everyone be the best they can be. Not equal in outcome, not equal in opportunity, but equal in potential met. It penalizes no one, rewards effort, and shores up weakness. Some will, inevitably, fall through the cracks. No system made by man is without them… and yes, there is corruption and venality and even malfeasance in Manticore, and abuse of power and privilege and position… but that is true of all societies. The best I can say there is that at least in Manticore we have the good grace to be embarrassed about it.”

That last provoked a snort of laughter from Loyal, prompting him to cover his mouth to hide the blush. Solace added that to her mental scoreboard… she was still down a great many points.

The two Brigade Commanders hid their amusement better, though she could still feel it through the ‘cats. “I think you did a fair job expressing your beliefs,” Agradyne said, “And we don’t doubt you mean what you said. It had the air of truth about it… but you cannot speak for your people any more than we can for ours. We’ll take your words… and your offer, back to the others and-”

At that moment, the door popped open and a boy no more than fifteen poked his head into the room. “It’s Poncho. He popped Enri in the face and he’s on his way through the club with fifteen goons.”

Eloise nodded. “Solace Smythe, this is Kevin. Good head on his shoulders. Kevin, take these two out the back and-”

Solace shook her head. “Kevin, get the commanders and Kincaid here out. I take it this Poncho is someone in authority?” She slid the stack to Eloise and tossed her bag to Loyal / Kincaid, the two ‘cats leaping into it as he opened it on the fly.

“Lieutenant Ponchartrain Duval, Haven Marines… Civil Obedience Squad,” Agradyne explained, heading out the door. “He’s a blockhead and a bully.”

“Gotcha,” Solace said. “I’ll give you as big a headstart as I can manage. Kevin, toss me that bottle of rum.” He did and she took a mouthful, swallowed it, took another, spat it out, then grinned, hiccuped, and staggered out of the tiny room and back up the hall towards the dancefloor as the others headed into their escape tunnels. She was already pulling open her tunic’s top.

“Heeeeyyyy… T… tha’s a pretty uniform,” Solace said, bumping into the bulldog faced man just as he pushed through the sound dampening curtain at the top of the stairs. “Did yer momma make it for you?

“What did you say, you little-” He didn’t get to finish those words as Solace smashed the bottle against his face, giggled, then pirouetted as the second man in the goon squad pushed his way through. He paused to stare at the towering topless woman, stumbled over his companion who was lying face down in his own blood, and barely had time to register that she’d moved before he went flying down the stairs to land in a crumpled heap at the back of the first landing.

Three more went down just as fast, but by that point they were pushing through faster than Solace could KO them and they were drawing weapons. She took another eight down for a total of thirteen out of the sixteen before one of them rammed a stunner right between her breasts and held it there, but she broke his nose for him in thanks before she went down.

=====

“Lieutenant Duval,” asked Oscar Saint-Just, head of the Nouveau Paris Anti-Terrorism Task Force and Duval’s Boss’s Boss, “Explain this to me again… you, acting on your own authority, took fifteen patrol men who were not on the clock, to the Moulin, in the middle of the night… and then assaulted an accredited member of the diplomatic corp!”

“ZIR! Tee Brog by dose an beed ub mode of by ben!” the racoon-faced Marine said, snapping as rigid as an obelisk. “Tee’s brobably in leeg wid de rebbles!”

“They are not rebels!” Saint-Just snarled, “They are agitators and disturbers of the peace! They are criminals… and they don’t have diplomatic immunity! She’s claiming your men tried to assault her! Assault her! You brought her in topless, covered in blood, and your claim is that she beat up not only you but twelve of your men? Go. Get out of my sight. Feel lucky I have to sweep this entire mess under the rug or you’d be transferred to Prague! Effective yesterday.”

Saint-Just wasn’t blind, nor did he miss the look of pure hatred that crossed Duval’s eyes, but he couldn’t worry about that now. Steeling himself he put on his most mild-mannered face and headed down stairs to talk his way out of a diplomatic incident.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 12

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.10

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 10: A Gavot, A Foxtrot, and The Twist

Previously: A Waltz Under the Stars

Timestamp: 1886-1887 PD

“What do you mean I’m beached?” Solace tried not to yell at the Admiral, but the feeling of the floor falling out from under her was making that difficult.

“I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re an excellent officer, and if it were my choice, you’d be golden,” Count Bridges said. “But they’re putting me on the shore as well. I’m too senior for anything but a fleet command and there isn’t a third fleet command slot open. There’s talk of the Lords giving me BuPers when Sumatra retires next year, but that’s a year off. Maybe I’ll find I enjoy not getting shot at. You, on the other hand… they can’t justify taking away your brevet rank, not after you saved the Andermani Emperor and Crown Prince… the Andies would throw a fit, for one… but you’re too junior to keep it. So they’re going to beach you for a while until time turns a twenty three year old Commander into a slightly older Commander.”

Solace sighed. She known there was no way she’d get to keep the field rank… no one jumped from Senior Lieutenant clear past Lieutenant Commander all the way to Commander… especially not a SG with not even a full year in grade to her name. She’d been expecting to be bumped back down to SG, hoping for her name to be put on the short list to promotion… and then she had to go and save that stupid smug Andermani Prince and his decrepit old dad.

The Andermani Emperor had categorically refused to allow Manticore to honor her for her actions, insisting that it was a purely Andermani issue and that she would be honored by the Andermani… and if Her Majesty’s Government had any issues or complaints, the House of Anderman would take it as a personal slight.

The diplomacy went over Solace’s head of course. This was statesmanship on a whole different level from watching Uncle Vanya twist another lord’s arm in Parliament and the negotiations of where to place the award she was being given … a sword or something… was so much pointless nonsense to Solace… but thankfully, no one was consulting her. Indeed, mostly they were just sending in an endless string of servants and minor functionaries to pester her with totally different nonsense. Did she favor Earl Grey or some tea she’d never heard of. Did she prefer trousers or skirts, and if so, what style?

She’d had to be fitted for a new wardrobe, since all her possessions had been vaporized when Orlando had taken a grazer blast meant for HMS Gryphon. Thankfully, Ruth and Naomi had been on Nemesis with Solace at the time, but Naomi was sulking over the loss of her collection treecat sized hats and her collection of poker decks, while Ruth was missing her box that said ‘HMS Treecat, Admiral Ruth Commanding’ on it… Solace had assured her they could find another, possibly even better box. She’d assumed no one was listening. She was wrong.

Forty minutes later, a gilded box lined with exquisite fur was delivered, with small diamonds spelling out ‘IANS Gustavs Geschenk, Großadmiral der Flotte Ruth von Baumkatze Kommandant’ around the sides of it. Ruth had immediately leapt into it and begun pretending to do her impression of Jing-Pei… it was very silly. For Naomi, they even found one of those deathshead caps in her size…, explaining that they were the traditional headdress of the Totenkopf Hussars. When Solace had admitted, slightly embarrassed, that she couldn’t speak or read Court German, not only had they translated the name, but they’d provided her with a personal computer with tutorial programs for both Court German and Andermani Chinese… and then apologized to her for their rudeness… what was up with these people?

They also apologized for not having any celery on hand… but made up for it by serving some simply astoundingly good hasenpfeffer that almost made Solace want to kidnap the chef. “Probably makes more than I do in a year… every month,” she commented to Naomi, who nodded, then Bleeked at the servant when asked if she wanted more. “That’s your third rabbit,” Solace chidded her. The ‘cat simply shrugged all four of her shoulders. “Piggy.”

Ruth did the treecat version of laughing while Naomi groomed her whiskers and pretended not to notice.

The negotiations had gone on and on and on for two weeks as they’d made the trip back to New Berlin. There, surrounded by people who reminded her quite strongly of Honor’s mother, she’d been presented with a dress uniform that made her feel ridiculous, a kind of ‘artist’s interpretation of a Manticoran full dress uniform as re-envisioned by a madman’. She’d tried to protest, but the imperial functionaries and diplomatic pukes both agreed that there wasn’t time. The uniform fit, that was enough…

Enough for a parade in her honor down the streets of the Imperial capital, small bits of paper falling from aerostats in a blizzard of pressed tree pulp and coloring as a million Andermani cheered her as the heroine of the hour. There had been a quite gastly public execution for the uncle who’d planned the coup and a dozen of his chief supporters, and then the Emperor, who looked as if he was a thousand years old, had stood from his throne on the dias of state and had taken a tottering step forward as Jing-Pei had held up a cushion with, yes, a saber on it… no… not a saber… it was too straight… damn it… she should have paid more attention when Loyal was rambling about archaic weapons. Now she’d have to go digging through her memories until she found it… it was going to bug her all day…

“Kneel,” hissed the voice of the Manticoran Ambassador’s translator, transmitted to her through the ear bug in her ear. That voice sounded familiar, but she was too distracted to consider why. She knelt and the Emperor had nearly brained her with the sword as the familiar voice relayed what he was saying. “Blah blah blah glorious ancestors, blah blah greatest respect, okay, here’s the meat ‘Solace Smythe, I, Emperor Gustav Anderman the Tenth, do acknowledge my nation’s debt to you and my own personal gratitude for your warnings which potentially saved my life and for the actions which did result in the rescue of my eldest son from the traitor’s clutches. As such, upon this date, the 25th of September, I, Gustav Anderman, Rittergroßmeister… Grand Master of the Imperial Order of the Sword do proclaim a national day of celebration and general amnesty for all outstanding misdemeanors in your honor and do forthwith name you Ritterkommandant… Knight Commander of the Imperial Order of the Sword. May God Uphold the Right!”

Solace understood the individual words and felt the incredible surge of fierce pride and adulation from the crowd behind her as they roared their approval, but the sheer pressure of so much emotion and the overwhelming strangeness was making her want to flee to a dark corner and hyperventilate. The Emperor took a massive medallion on a chain from the cushion next and draped it around her neck, then commanded her to, “Rise a Knight and accept this weapon which has never before been granted to an outsider”. She rose and Crown Prince Jing-Pei did that strange little heel click and bowed to her again, this time a bit lower, and offered her the sword.

It was heavy, cruciform, and old. “This sword was one of three forged from the hull of the first starship Gustav the Great ever took in battle. My father wears one, it is named Durandel. As crown prince, I bear the second, named Curtana. This one has never before been given out. It was crafted so that, if some day there were no sons of the line of Gustav and a woman came to the throne, it would be hers. Until such a day comes, in the name of the fatherland, we call upon you to take up this sword, Joyeuse, and wield her in the name of Almighty God. Deus Vult.”

And the hundred soldiers flanking the dias all drew their swords as one and held them aloft in a salute, crying, ‘DEUS VULT!’ which the bud in her ear told her was not German, but Latin for ‘God Wills it’ and then it started to explain that that was the battle cry of the Knights Templar and suddenly Solace’s sense of being overwhelmed faded in the face of familiar annoyance.

Of course she knew that voice… It was Loyal… and he was being pedantic… again. With an act of will that had formerly been keeping her from cringing or fleeing or punching someone in the face for invading her personal space, she held back the frown of ‘I can’t believe I’m being lectured on pointless old history by my idiot brother when I’m standing in front of million bloody Andermani and the Imperial Court!’

She took the sword and bowed back as the protocol voice interrupted Loyal’s lecture, then repeated the words diplomacy put in her ear. It was all pointless frippery, but the sword felt heavy and real and she couldn’t wait to draw it and see if it was a real sword under that jeweled scabbard or merely a prop.

Finally, she was finished, and was just looking forward to getting out of these uncomfortably high boots… who thought it was smart to put a nearly two meter tall woman into boots with 5 cm heels? When another figure, the Reichschancellor protocol man whispered to her, stepped forth. He was holding a different cushion, this one smaller and inside a very nice wooden box, which he opened to reveal a more traditional medal.

The Emperor took it in shaking hands and spoke again, this time his voice fairly boomed from the speakers around the plaza instead of the subdued murmur they were before. “In the name of the Imperial Senate and the People of the Empire, I, Supreme Admiral of the Fleet, Gustav Anderman, Tenth of my Name, do thank you for rescuing the crew of my ship, August von Gneisenau while under heavy fire and under absolutely no obligation to do so, at risk to your own life and your ship’s safety. For steadfast resolve, clear thinking, and the utmost valor, especially in saving men and women not your own brothers in arms, we, the people of the Empire do bestow upon you the rank of Knight-Captain of Hussars and award you Imperial Cross of Honor, our highest award. Wear it in good health and may your days be long under the stars.”

Solace just stared. They couldn’t…. She didn’t need a translation for that one… The IC was the Andermani equivalent of the Parliamentary Medal of Valor… there wasn’t an award higher. If she’d known, she would have refused… she’d been suckered into this… somehow it was Loyal’s fault… the PMV was for people who’d done something truly heroic, often laying down their lives for their fellows… She hadn’t… it wasn’t right… but she couldn’t refuse it now… not in front of a crowd cheering like that… she looked down at her chest and sighed… why were so many medals cross-shaped? Would it have killed them to make a couple that were stars? Maybe a six pointed one?

The party afterwards had been almost equally overwhelming as she’d been flanked by the protocol voice (a very cute woman in her early 30s) and Loyal and had it explained where each of her two new awards would feature on her chest plate. Loyal had commented that this was not a ‘Gotta Collect Them All’ game and she’d elbowed him none too gently… then asked protocol lady what she was supposed to do with the sword?

“Oh, of course. You wouldn’t know. There’s a loop on your right hip and a lanyard with a clip a little back from that… here… let me just…”

Solace looked at the sword, hanging on the opposite side from her Manticoran saber… except longer of both pommel and blade. The military saber, a custom dating back to when officers rode horses into combat, was not fitted to her. It was too light, did not complement her reach, and was pretty much a generic one taken from stores to replace the one Uncle Vanya had bought her when she’d graduated from the Academy… that one too had been a bit off, since she’d kept right on growing, but it had been made for her.

Joyeuse, the protocol lady said had been adjusted for her grip and sweep, and was very much a live sword. As a state treasure of the Andermani, she would only be expected to carry her at functions inside the Empire or at which the Emperor or Crown Prince was present. A case for the blade was waiting for her, with two other scabbards (one for semi-formal, one for state-formal outside the Empire), and two replicas and a practice blade with the same profile and balance. “It’s made of battlesteel and has been fitted with Solarian rescue beacons. It’s been swept for bugs and it’s clean.”

The trip back to Manticore (where she was to receive the far less impressive Conspicuous Service Medal for the battle and the Fleet Excellence Award for disabling AvonG in the exercise) was fairly embarrassing. There was even some mockery by people calling her ‘The Andermani Ritter’ and the gossip… oh… good lord… the gossip. Apparently, she was engaged to Jing-Pei… who was nearly forty years older than her. She’d tried tracking down the source of that, only to find it was her former commander, Elvis Santino.

Santino had tried to claim the missile swarm was his idea, but had instead received a letter of censure for leaving the bridge and abrogating command in a simulated live fire situation. So, apparently, he’d spread the lie that she’d gone off with Jing-Pei that first night and cooked up the entire sequence of I’ll disable you, you disable me as a form of payment for helping her career.

That part hadn’t caught on, but the illicit affair angle had caught on and Solace had hunted down Santino when they’d both been aboard HMS Gyphon for a commander’s conference (and hadn’t he been pissed that his former XO had a bigger ship than he had and now outranked him… of course he’d known that he’d have been given Nemesis if he hadn’t been in sickbay delirious from his head injury) and waited until she heard him whispering his lies to some of the others before stepping up and slapping him with her gloves.

She called him a coward, a wretch, a letch, and a poor excuse for a commander and demanded satisfaction upon their arrival in Manticore. Six days latter, in the dueling field in Landing, Elvis Santino had managed to avoid getting a bullet between his eyes by the simple act of fainting dead away even before the kerchief fell.

It had been a good day…. But the following morning she’d been summoned to Count Bridge’s office at Fleet HQ and been given the news. The Lords of Admiralty had confirmed her Brevet rank… and moved her name off the active roles. There was (currently) no place in Her Majesty’s Navy for Commander Solace Smythe.

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“This Just In! The Andermani Ritter has been seen on the town with Minerva Andros! Is the kingdom’s most eligible bachelorette seeking a body-guard or is she off the market? Andros, heir of the Andros-Brandyne Cartel, 50, is an intensely private individual and routinely shuns the limelight. Commander Solace Smythe, 24, whose meteoric rise through the ranks of the Navy some say is an example of just how far money and family connections can take a person, has been on half-pay since last year’s successful resolution of the Asgardian Crisis. The Commander has also been much in the news of late for her vocal support of the Anti-Slavery League and the numerous duels she’s been challenged to. The two of them were seen dining last night at Bar Ziggy where they were allowed to sit at the ultra-exclusive Owner’s Table! After dinner, they crossed the street to Club 99 where they met up with friends, only one of whom has been identified.”

Solace sighed as she looked at the screen, the somewhat blurry image showing her hugging Lukas Janacek. With the crisis over, he’d been serving as aide to Admiral Whitehaven… the son, not the Earl, and had just learned he was being promoted to SG. He had called at the last minute to tell them he was running late at a family function and wouldn’t be able to join Minerva and Solace for dinner, but would meet up with them at the club. She’d been impressed with the young man during her stint on Orlando, and had written him a glowing recommendation to her old CO, now Rear Admiral of the Green, Sonja Hemphill… who had been trying to lure the young man away from Rear Admiral of the Red, Hamish Alexander ever since.

Minerva groaned, “Why are you always awake when I get up?… and why are you watching that horrid program?”

“They have pictures of us,” Solace said, trying to keep the annoyance in her voice to a minimum.

“Doing what? Standing around? Eating? As long as they aren’t candids, who cares?”

“I haven’t even told Mary or Dad about us yet and the bloody newsies are bandying it about like it’s anyone’s business but yours, mine, and maybe our families’.”

Minerva, who was more than a head shorter than Solace, squirmed up out of the duvet and sat up, patting the larger woman’s shoulder. “Are you worried your parents will be upset that you’re dating a woman? Or angry that you didn’t tell them?”

“No…. no… Dad may be from Gryphon, but he’s not a prude. I think Mary would love me regardless of what I did unless I started rooting for Army to win the All Manticore Cup.”

“She doesn’t mind you rooting for Navy?”

“Why would I root for Navy?”

Minerva just eyed her suspiciously. “Who are you, and what have you done with Solace?”

“Harhar. I never root for a team in any sport. I’m perfectly happy with anyone winning as long as they all do their best.”

“Seriously? No Us versus Them?”

“Us? You don’t see me down on the field trying to fling a ball into a net, do you?”

“I wouldn’t mind it…. Your ass would look amazing in a tiny pair of really tight shorts.”

Solace smacked the woman who was more than twice her age with a pillow, then handed the pillow back to Ruth who had been laying on it and was now giving her an affronted look. “I look amazing in everything,” she sniffed daintily.

“Or nothing!” her lover responded with a leer and an eyebrow waggle. “Best decision of my life to hire you as captain of my yacht.”

“I turned you down!” Solace protested.

“Yes, you did. You threatened to throw me into the harbor for daring to suggest that a Queen’s Officer would deign to play dress up for a spoiled little rich girl,” Minerva said, laughter in her eyes. “You looked so dashing.”

“And then you asked me out,” Solace harrumphed.

“And then I asked you out,” the heiress agreed. “Dastardly of me, I know… But I get all sorts of people trying to get close to me for mother’s money. Not only weren’t you interested in that, but you were passionate about it. And then we went out for hotdogs at Queen’s Garden.”

“I like funfairs!” Solace defended her often pedestrian hobbies. “Anyway, a good hotdog with pickle and cabbage on a hot day with a cold soda? Beats any 300 dollar steak and a bottle of a wine whose name you can’t pronounce without sounding Havenite.”

“You are a heathen, Commander.”

“And you are a snob… damn… you don’t have a title… I mean, you do… Vice Chairwoman of the Board…. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as military ranks… you should change that. Get the board to adopt snazzy titles like ‘Supreme Walrus’ instead of Chief Financial Officer or ‘Snivelling Little Toadie’ instead of… what’s that guy you hate’s actual job title?”

“Sir John Descroix. He’s Executive Director of Resource Development. And I don’t hate him. I hate his wife, Lady Elaine Janvier Descroix, who can’t go ten bloody minutes without reminding you that she’s in the House of Lords and good friends with her cousin the Earl of High Ridge. And what in the name of Zeus is a Walrus?”

“I’m surprised a cousin of High Ridge’s can string together a coherent sentence. High Ridge himself certainly can’t. A Walrus is like an extremely large…. Hmmm… imagine if you crossed Michael Janvier’s Moustache with the Earl of North Hollow’s belly, gave it half meter long canines, thick brown skin and flippers for hands and legs… then tossed it onto some rocks to bellow at passing seagulls.”

Minerva blinked, then burst out laughing. “Whatever are you talking about?!”

“It’s an Earth Creature… was, I guess. I think they’re extinct. Hope used to read a story to me from a book called ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and in it there’s this wonderful poem called ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ about a talking walrus and a normal carpenter who walk along the sea and eventually trick a bunch of little kid oysters into following them out of the safety of the sea… at which point they eat the oysters because it’s a horrible horrible poem and the Walrus and the Carpenter are evil bastards who represent the way in which Industry (the Carpenter) and Politicians (the Walrus) trick the young people of the nation into going to war only for them to be killed… and wow I had not thought about the implications of that before… I need to catch my breath… it’s too early for a drink, isn’t it?”

“It’s two in the afternoon.”

“Good Lord, is it? It feels early.”

“We were partying until six in the morning and then we… didn’t get to sleep until nearly nine. You’re still on military time.”

“I’ve lived my whole life on someone else’s time table. It’s very strange not having that…”

“Tell me about the poem… how does it go?”

“The sun was shining on the sea, shining with all his might; he did his very best to make the billows smooth and bright… And this was odd, because it was the middle of the night. The moon was shining sulkily, because she thought the sun had got no business to be there, after the day was done. ‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said, ‘To spoil all my fun.’ The sea was wet as wet could be, the sands were dry as dry; you could not see a cloud, because no cloud was in the sky. No birds were flying overhead… there were no birds to fly.” Solace recited from memory as Minerva snuggled against her side.

“The Walrus and the Carpenter were walking close at hand; they wept like anything to see such quantities of sand. ‘If this were only cleared away,’ they said, ‘Why this would be quite grand.’ ‘If seven maids with seven mops, swept it for half a year, do you suppose,’ the Walrus asked, ‘That they could get it clear?’ ‘I have my doubts,’ replied the Carpenter, and shed a bitter tear.”

“‘O Oysters, come and walk with us!’ The Walrus did beseech. ‘A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach; we cannot do with more than four, to give a hand to each.’ The eldest Oyster looked at him, but ne’er a word he said. The eldest Oyster winked his eye, and shook his heavy head, meaning to say he did not choose to leave the oyster-bed.”

“When did the oysters enter this?” Minerva laughed. “First it was the sun and moon, then this Walrus and his idiot friend… and now Booom! Oysters!”

“I have no idea. They just showed up… and apparently young oysters are very dumb… as you will soon see.” Solace brushed the top of Minerva’s head with her lips, then continued, “But four young Oysters hurried up, all eager for the treat. Their coats were brushed, their faces washed, their shoes were clean and neat… and this was odd, because, you know, they hadn’t any feet.”

Minerva giggled at that and shook her head. “This is silly!”

“Very. But like most rhymes for children, it is a cautionary one.” Solace agreed. “Four other Oysters followed them, and yet another four; and thick and fast they came at last, and more, and more, and more… All hopping through the frothy waves, and scrambling to the shore. The Walrus and the Carpenter walked on a mile or so, and then they rested on a rock conveniently low; and there the little Oysters stood and waited in a row. ‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘To talk of many things; of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax — of cabbages — and kings — and why the sea is boiling hot — and whether pigs have wings!’” Solace gesticulated grandly, then noticed that Ruth and Naomi were standing at the foot of the bed watching as well, as Minerva fell over giggling.

“You’re not taking this very seriously,” Solace teased. “I can stop if you’re not interested.”

“You do and there will be no breakfast for you, young woman,” the trillionaire rebuked.

“Very well… but if there’s any more giggling, I shall be most cross,” Solace said, trying not to smirk, though Ruth had her true arms crossed and was looking very serious as well, but her ears and tail were twitching in silent treecat amusement. “But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried, before we have our chat; for some of us are out of breath, and all of us are fat!’ ‘No hurry!’ said the Carpenter, and they thanked him much for that. ‘A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said, ‘Is what we chiefly need, pepper and vinegar besides, are very good indeed… now if you’re ready, Oysters dear, we can begin to feed.’ ‘But not on us!’ the Oysters cried, turning a little blue. ‘After such kindness, that would be a dismal thing to do!’ ‘The night is fine,’ the Walrus said. ‘Do you admire the view? It was so kind of you to come! And you are very nice!’ The Carpenter said nothing but ‘Cut us another slice. I wish you were not quite so deaf… I’ve had to ask you twice!’ ‘It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said, ‘To play them such a trick. After we’ve brought them out so far, and made them trot so quick!’ The Carpenter said nothing but ‘The butter’s spread too thick!’ ‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said, ‘I deeply sympathize.’ With sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size, holding his pocket-handkerchief before his streaming eyes.’ ‘O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter, ‘You’ve had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?’ but answer came there none… And this was scarcely odd, because they’d eaten every one.”

“Well foey… now I’ll feel all sad everything time I eat Oysters.”

“Nonsense. If they didn’t want to be eaten, they should have stayed in bed.”

“Is that an invitation, Commander?” Minerva asked, eyes twinkling.

“I… um…” Solace stammered, suddenly embarassed and very aware that her clothes were strewn across the immaculate white shag carpet.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 11

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.09

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 9: A Waltz Under the Stars

Previously: A Full Dance Card

Dear Honor, is it normal to feel like a fraud after an award ceremony? I certainly do. I knew the Lords of Admiralty (those whose friends in the House of Lords don’t want my head for ‘unprovoked escalation of the situation in ‘The Outer Colonies’ (sorry for the sub-parenthetical, but is that not the most ridiculous term coming from a Manticoran Lord? Asgard is effectively a single transit from Manticore, which makes it two from Beowulf. Midgard Prime is three. That effectively makes all three systems 60-65 LY from old Earth. If Midgard is an Outer Colony, so is Manticore… end of rant… Lord Janvier is an arse… real end, forgive my french.) were planing on giving me the Saganami Cross, which grossly exaggerates my own actions (though I am much gratified with the List of Honor Citation for Birmingham and the Royal Unit Citation for my people… which should have been the limit of my own award… but when I protested, they threatened to bump it to the Manticore Cross and give me a RUC myself… no, that ceremony is for my crew. I shall be more than happy to stand in the audience and clap for them)… I fear I am rambling, and beg you to forgive me, but I am somewhat overwrought.

Not only have I been promoted again, but just prior to the christening of the SD Birmingham (Samothrace’s are huuuge. Have you seen one? I mean I know Royal Winton was massive and I imagine HMS Manticore is even bigger… but good lord… Manny is 143 years old! Bernie as they’ve already dubbed her, is brand spanking new (do they use that expression on Sphinx?)… Good thing old 216 had a nickname, what? Imagine an SD named HMS LAC-216? Horrible… See how flustered I am? I keep going off on tangents… (I keep asking myself ‘where was I?’ but I don’t write it for the sake of your sanity)… where was I? Right, the christening… jewening?

It was twenty minutes before the formal presentation of the Nameplate, when who should show up but my whole family and Sir Webster… Admiral Sir James Webster, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Golden Lion Sir James Bowie Webster… and he’s got my baby brother holding a cushion and he’s dressed all in mess and he’s really handsome… and he pulls out his sword and I’m gawping like something that gawps and Mary has to remind me to kneel, only Duty doesn’t want to give up the cushion until Naomi distracts him by tickingly him… it was very not dignified but they made me a Companion of the Order of the Golden Lion… WHY?

I only did what anyone would have done in my position…

And speaking of that… Axelrod had lodged a formal complaint against me with the Solarians for violating the Eridani Edict… but this week we just found out that Saint Vincent has tried me in absentia for ‘Piracy and Brigandage and Acts of Terror against the Placidity of the Soul of the Republic’… of which they have found me Extremely Guilty… I’m not joking, they actually have differing levels of guilt ranging from ‘somewhat’ to ‘extremely’… for which the maximum punishment, in keeping with their commitment to nonviolence, is that I have been formally banished from Saint Vincent and told never to come back… as if I ever would anyway, but the point is that they released a complete transcript of the trial to the Solie media…. And the evidence shows that Axelrod evacuated the station before Ramrod hit it.

Not only does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing, but the right hand just punched the left right in its slimy slaver face… and I know, I know… I shouldn’t get wrapped up in the Anti-Slavery rhetoric… but sometimes I dream of taking a fleet to Mesa and leveling the parts of their cities where the people who have thrived on the… no… bad thoughts… planetary bombardment baaad. Nuclear winter very bad.

Anyway, I eagerly await your response… yours, sincerely, Lieutenant (SG) Solace-and-Justice Smythe, CGL, Executive Officer, HMS Orlando… see how I snuck that last in? I know I hate bragging and I know it’s unbecoming an officer and a whatever the hell a companion is… but they made me XO of a Destroyer! Can you believe it? I can’t. I keep pinching myself… or rather I did. Ruth has apparently decided to help and now I have to ward off pinches at the oddest times. Does Nimitz every do stuff that makes you think they’re smarter than they seem… or is that a silly question?

Oh, you asked why my family gives out such silly names? I asked Hope about that and he says it dates back to the Puritains of old old old England… where the original Queen Elizabeth was from (though ours is a marked improvement on that bloodthirsty tyrant)… and Hope’s great great great grandmother thought it would be cute to resurrect this weird naming style, so she did… it’s become something of a running joke among her descendants, but they all keep doing it. Hope’s sister… my aunt, is named Faith-Be-With-You… isn’t that just horrible? If I ever have children, I’m naming them… I dunno… not a noun, that’s for sure. Maybe a Gerund? (Just kidding).

P.S. Almost forgot, Mary has been promoted to Brigadier and assigned to Mount Royal… she’s not happy about it, says marching around looking pretty is no job for a Marine. I pointed out that she’s not one of the actual guards, but is in fact commander of the Queen’s Own. She just mutters about glorified shore patrol… what were they thinking? I know she’s only a Gryphonite by marriage, but she’s still a Gryphonite… She has all the tact of a tactical nuke to the face… heh… tact… tactical. There’s a joke to be made there… but I can’t think of it.

P.P.S. If you ever find yourself on a ship with one Horace Harkness, do not let him near your Marines… he was a Spacer First on my LAC, good with his hands and better with a computer… he tried to pick a fight with Mary at the party I threw (okay, Loyal arranged it, I hadn’t even thought of it) for the crew after they got their RUC. Loyal refused to take credit for it and now people are going to think I’m a fun boss or something… However will I maintain discipline when I get my own real ship? Mary broke his nose… it was very funny. She doesn’t have a problem maintaining discipline… but I don’t think I’m allowed to punch my subordinates in the face. You’re senior to me… what’s your take on the matter? Punch or no Punch?

=====

Count Bridges, now a fully fledged Fleet Admiral, had returned in triumph from the Midgard Invasion at roughly the same time as Solace had arrived aboard the Chanson-class Destroyer Orlando. The Count (who was quite clearly bucking for Duke) had, after arriving in Midgard and, commanding the orbitals, landed 20,000 Marines and 200,000 Army Personnel in and around Greenfield, the planetary capital. There had been some resistance from the Magnusson Loyalists, but more than half the Midgardian Army Units had quite simply refused to engage once it became clear that the Manties were there only to arrest the High Chancellor.

Still, a five day siege of the Chancellor’s residence had ensued and, though Valhalla’s defenders had fought to the last man, they had been unable to stop the capture of 90% of the Junta that had seized power eight years earlier. Only three Generals and the Vice-Chancellor had escaped, and within the month, the remnants of the Brotherhood of Odin were fleeting for parts unknown. It would take moths more, possibly years, for the Federation to get back on its feet, and there would be a marked increase in piracy as Midgardian naval vessels that had gone rogue rather than submit to the rightful government turned to brigandage and slaughter… but the ‘definitely not a war’ was, officially, over.

Manticore had promised both Asgard and Midgard that they would provide junction security and commerce protection in exchange for basing rights and a treaty of free trade and interstellar friendship. This would, in theory, lessen the tension surrounding Midgardian use of the system and keep Asgardian warships far from the temptation to get revenge. Loyal, assigned to the trilateral talks as an actual advisor now, had sent back over six thousand minutes of recordings and hundreds upon hundreds of stills… a third of which featured him looking smug. Loyalty-Unto-Death clearly didn’t include an iota of humility… so why did he have so many friends? Solace didn’t know, but she suspected witchcraft.

“XO, are you doodling horns and a goatee on a picture of your brother at my very very important meeting?” Orlando’s Captain, Lt. Commander Elvis Santino asked, half smirking. The meeting in question was Orlando’s twice weekly officer’s poker night, and the Captain was down almost a thousand dollars, but clearly he was having fun and that was what mattered. When she’d come aboard, he’d given the mental equivalent of a groan (as relayed by Ruth) and had, according to Naomi, the mental equivalent of an ‘oh no, not again’ tinge to his mindglow… Solace didn’t really have another name for it… it wasn’t a real glow… but it felt like one. She’d seen his eyes flick to the ‘cats on her shoulders as he’d felt those feelings… and then he’d actually looked at her and his mindglow had turned from annoyance to what she was pretty certain the ‘cats thought of as ‘the feeling of seeing a piece of celery and not yet having convinced the silly human to hand it over’.

Solace, now just under two meters tall and fully matured into what her designers had meant her to be, was all too aware of the significance of that emotion. She provoked admiration and arousal in most men and not a few women, envy in many who wanted to look like her, and jealousy from those whose partners or desired partners watched her every move too carefully. It was those who could look past the engineered surface to the person inside that Solace responded to… and she shuddered to think of how she’d fare without the ‘cats to clue her in to people’s emotions. It also made her heartsick for all those other escaped pleasure slaves. How did you know if the person you were with valued you as a person and not just as the pretty face you were engineered to be? People who could look past the surface were rare…. And Elvis Santino was not one of them, no matter how hard he flirted… though he never actually crossed any lines. He always took her deliberate cluelessness and treatment of his flirtations as if they were merely conversation in stride and seldom let up, finding even the smallest of excuses to use in his bids to try to worm his way into her good graces and soon after, he clearly hoped, into her pants.

“Not all all, sir,” she responded, letting Ruth toss the chips into the pot for her as Naomi Bleeked and adjusted her visor before starting to deal. She flipped around her tablet to show her immediate boss what she’d been doing. “It’s called a Fu Manchu and it’s a moustache not a beard and those are clearly bunny ears not horns… but I didn’t doodle them in. This is the work of the notorious guerilla artist known Kingdom-wide as…” she dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “The Brat.”

“Brat?” Santino looked confused for a moment, then aahed. “You mean your baby brother? What’s his name… It was…” his face darkened for a moment as he remembered Duty’s full name and Solace wondered again at how the Honor that wasn’t her baby brother’s middle name had so earned this cretinous fool’s ire.

She was about to respond when Steward Rogers opened the cabin door and anounced, stiffly, “Orders from the Admiral, sir.”

“Ah. Thank you. I’ll take them in my cabin,” Elvis said, rising, “Lady, Gentlemen? Last round I believe.” and he left.

Solace eyed her cards… garbage…. She hadn’t been asked or ordered to follow the Captain, but she was XO… did duty demand she make certain the bridge was ready when he got there? It seemed likely.

“Fold, Depak, get down to engineering and have your people check and double-check our onboard spares, and run basic diagnostics on all systems. It’s clearly not an emergency, but in case it’s movement orders, I want all departments to check in within twenty minutes.” And with that she excused herself from the wardroom as well, her fuzzy minions trailing behind her, Naomi clutching her deck of cards protectively. Last to leave would be Harris, the ship’s surgeon, a terrible gambler, but an excellent bookkeeper.

The orders, it turned out, were a general recall of Count Rodney’s fleet and a reduction of Asgard Station from Fleet Base to Patrol Station. The wallers and half the escorts would be heading home to be split up. Normally, that would have meant a short hop from Asgard to Sparta, a brief hyperspace voyage to Matapan, and then back home for tea… but the Lords of Admiralty had received a request from the elderly Emperor Gustav the Tenth of the Andermani Empire and one of Manticore’s Queen’s peers.

The gist of the request was that the Emperor wished to present a reward to Third Fleet for so handily ending the Midgardian Civil War that had been troubling his own people (none of whom were related to the Midgardians in any significant way) and would the Lords of Admiralty please allow an old man the chance to watch a fleet games between his own forces and the RMN?

It sounded insane to Solace, not just allowing but asking for nearly seventy ships from a non-allied navy to transit through one’s territory, but a small honor guard would be provided… in the form of a dozen imperial battlecruisers and half that number of battleships. What seemed even more preposterous was the stopping at every star system between Durandel, where the Asgard wormhole had dropped them into Andermani space, and Gregor, where the Manticoran wormhole would bring them home, but apparently the Andermani really liked military formality, even if it wasn’t their own navy.

By the time they’d reached Caperna, the system chosen for the wargames, little more than an elaborate dance where neither side would actually be trying their hardest for fear of causing an incident, Solace was beginning to heartily loathe her mess dress uniform… the medals in particular jangled when she walked and she felt like a thundering Old Earth Unicorn wearing gilded frippery. She was proud of her achievements and treasured her awards even if she felt embarrassed by them, but wearing her normal semi-formal uniform was far different from the ludicrous spectacle of full mess dress.

“Tell me, Kapitanleutnant, did you really destroy a Battlecruiser with a LAC?” asked Flotillenadmiral Jing-Pei. He was a bulldog of a man with a fierce moustache, and part of Solace wanted to pet it and see if a small head popped up.

Naomi’s head perked up at that and she scanned the Andermani Commodore’s face for the presence of something pouncable. Solace sent her a bolus of disapproval and Naomi sent back one of quiet disregard for Solace’s lack of appreciation of the fine art of the hunt. They couldn’t quite speak in full concepts, but they’d been together long enough to have gotten quite nuanced in their emotional layer.

“Yes, but it was a unique circumstance. My LAC was powered down undergoing repairs to our forward impeller ring when the BC lost their wedge and came drifing towards us. We simply latched on to the front of the BC and evacuated our ship, then detonated her fusion bottle. That in turn caused the BCs fusion bottles to go up and suddenly… no BC.”

“Hmmm… We were wondering. It seemed all to fabulous a claim. You will tell this story to his Imperial Majesty?”

“Umm… I… I’ll have to check with the foreign office to see if I’m cleared for talking to such an… august personage… But I’d be happy to do so, if it please the emperor.”

She ended up telling the entire official version of the story (a few elements had been censored by the Admiralty) eleven times that evening and was feeling exceptionally out of sorts the next morning, as each new Admiral, Konteradmiral, Vizearmiral, Grossadmiral, and Emperor had insisted she toast with them to the downfall of the Brotherhood and the burning down of ‘that festering eyesore’ Valhalla. Solace had never had so much booze in her life and even with counteragents to take the edge off, she was feeling like she’d been exploded and put back together incorrectly and with extra cotton wadding inside her brain.

Still, it wasn’t like there was much in a set-piece battle for a Destroyer to do, and so she’d done her best to do her duty at tactical, knowing that all that was at stake was the reputation of the Queen’s Navy… no pressure or anything. In a real battle, the consequences of failure were death for you and your crew and failure of your mission… but this was diplomacy disguised as a friendly game and the reputation of a nation’s military was the credit it used to stop wars from ever starting. Failure here could make the Andermani think that Manticore was weak and that would mean they were free to expand into Silesia or maybe annex Asgard, or even Midgard or, heaven forbid, Manticore itself. The last thing the Star Kingdom needed was to be caught between two larger hostile nations. The fate of entire worlds could hang on the results of this not-a-battle.

Still, what harm could a hungover Destroyer XO do? The answer was apparently very little as, in the first three clashes of the scheduled five, Orlando was knocked out in the opening minutes… it was almost as if the Andermani were taking extra effort to target a single DD, and Solace quietly wondered in that paranoid part of her mind if they were saying, ‘Ha! You’re not so tough, little BC killer!’ That feeling was only reinforced when, curiosity driven, she’d checked the battle logs to see who’d scored each of the kills on her ship, only to find that it had been not a group effort… but a single Andermani BC named August von Gneisenau… which was listed as the flagship of Commodore / Flotillenadmiral Jing-Pei. This wasn’t just deliberate targeting… this was a challenge. Jing-Pei was saying ‘Show me what you’ve got, little girl with the furry things that steal food from the buffet tables and make crude but amusing models of Manticores out of pate and carrots.’

Which was all well and good, but it wasn’t exactly as if she was calling the shots. Count Bridges was, and below him Garvey was commanding the screen and below him, Commodore Alexander was commanding the destroyers. And of course, Elvis Santino was, in theory, her superior… how to do… ah… Solace started chuckling to herself, then went to have a few words with the chief engineer,

The next day, twenty-seven minutes into the closing evolution that would bring the two fleets into attack distance, HMS Orlando’s impeller wedge started fluttering. It was very dramatic, and the flagship ordered them to fall back get it under control. Santino was apoplectic and demanded that the flaring be fixed immediately. Which was of course possible, since it was caused by a computer subroutine that had been added overnight, but the Captain knew nothing about it and so he was (from his perspective) ordering the impossible, which was just stupid.

Mary had, long ago, told Solace and Loyal that the secret to giving commands was to give orders in such a way as your people will want to follow them. Sometimes you’d have to give hard orders that would cost people their lives, and most times your orders would be proforma… but there were two kinds of orders you never ever gave. The first was orders that you knew wouldn’t be obeyed… the second was orders that were flat out impossible to follow.

Loyal, being Loyal, had of course pointed out that there were in fact three types of orders that one just didn’t give, with the third category being ‘illegal orders’. Mary had bopped him with a folded up placemat for that, and Loyal had chuckled and responded ‘Well argued mom. Big stick diplomacy at its finest. I’ll stop now before you go find a bigger stick.”

Eleven minutes later, with no progress on the propulsionsituation, Elvis had left the bridge to Solace so he could go yell at the Impeller techs in person… just as she’d been subtly pushing him to do… it was a trick she’d learned from Naomi, though it gave her a splitting headache, but if she was close to someone physically, and they were distracted, she could… shove their emotions one way or another, but only in the grossest of ways. Still, making Captain Santino madder than he already was hadn’t been too terribly difficult.

Once in defacto command, Solace had ordered Orlando’s entire missile stockpile launched into space without turning on their drives. All of them were launched in a specific direction using only the launch rails to give them enough kick to send them on their way. Then she’d altered course to head almost exactly away from the missiles, but only at a hundred and twelve gravities. It would be interesting to see if the same trick worked twice.

“Lt… one of the Andi BCs has broken formation and is heading straight towards us…” Orlando’s Assistant Tactical Officer, Lt. (JG) Lukas Janacek, said diffidently. She liked the young man. He had a head on his shoulders

Solace hmm’d… nodding slowly.

“And our missiles?”

“They won’t be passing through the field ma’am… I supose you guessed wrong about their attack angle… good try though.”

“Try, guns?” Solace asked, grinning sardonically.

“At setting up a minefield, ma’am?” the younger lieutenant asked.

“Is that what I was doing?”

“Isn’t it ma’am?”

Solace just laughed, watching the BC edge closer and closer. As it passed an invisible line in space, Solace said, “Comms, send out this message on band thirteen-gamma, omnidirectional. ‘Jericho. I say again, Jericho.’”

The signal took all of eighteen seconds to cross the 5.4 million kilometers between Orlando and her jettisoned payload…. And (more importantly) the three pinnaces that were floating with them. Three pinnaces loaded with the spare fire control computer, a power plant from stores, and a missile tracking suite and transmitter that had been jury-rigged into the trios’ cargo bays over the last eighteen hours. As one, the one hundred and sixty Mark 32t stepped down training missiles flared to life and raced towards the solitary target of IAN AvonG. The salvo was something Jing-Pei and his flag captain (was that a FlaggenKapitan? Solace considered… maybe she should learn Court German…) could have expected out of an entire squadron of light cruisers, not appearing out of nowhere in space, and it had been launched at practically knife range, only 1.2 million klicks from the Battlecruiser (Cruzerinbattlor? Hey, she was getting pretty good at this German stuff already!)

She had to give the Andies credit… AvonG nearly made it through the firestorm. Her CM handling was on point and her point defense served admirably. Of the hundred and sixty ship-killers, less than half had made it through the CMs and less than a third of what was left had made it through the point defense… but that was still twenty-six missiles, all armed with simulated x-ray laser heads. AvonG twisted and writhed, trying to avoid her simulated death and whoever was at her helm was a mad genius, but she got absolutely pounded and then the tactical computers updated to list her as out of action, crippled, likely destroyed.

Solace felt like celebrating. In fact, she was opening her mouth to woop like a school girl, when the tactical master plot updated itself to show a crash translation into the system. Eighty-three unknown ships had just entered the fray.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Solace ordered “Clear from wargames, battlestations, battlestations, battlestations. Sensors, what are we dealing with? Are those Andies?”

“Negative ma’am,” the JG replied. “They’re signalling that they are the Brotherhood of Odin, Task Group Ragnarok, and have stated that no mercy will be given.”

“Well… ship…” Solace muttered, “Captain to the bridge, Captain to the bridge, we’ve got eighty-three hostiles approaching, repeat eight-three bogies, least time vector for the fleets….” She paused… that was the wrong move. These idiots were making the wrong move. The fleets weren’t currently armed with real missiles. Both fleets had been stripped of functioning missiles and those missiles had been loaded onto colliers which were with the observers on the only four SDs in the entire system that were fully armed, The Brotherhood should have attacked there first… unless…. How had they known to attack Caperna at this juncture… Someone in the Andi line of succession must have orchestrated this… and that meant there was about to be a coup.

“Coms, open a channel to Gustav the Great, tell them someone’s about to try to assassinate the emperor.” She looked around at her stunned bridge crew, “Well? Whatcha waiting for? And where is Captain Santino?”

“Ma’am… Engineering just called. Captain Santino banged his head when you went to battlestations… then fell off the impeller housing he was inspecting… the doc’s there right now… probably a concussion and a broken collar bone… compound fracture of the… where’s the Tibia ma’am?”

The world seemed to go a little out of focus at those words and Solace felt almost giddy as she heard herself reply “Lower leg….” THis sooo could not be happening.

It in fact was happening… and continued to happen. The Battle of Caperna would rage for four endless days and by the end of it fifty-one ships would be destroyed outright, eighty-eight crippled, and only six ships in all three fleets would be unharmed. Orlando, tiny Orlando, had made it back to the colliers to secure a reload, but before Solace could get back into the action, she’d been ordered to take control of HMS Nemesis, a light cruiser after Nemesis’s Captain, one Theodosia Kuzak, had been bumped up to take control of the BC Homer. The system was a madhouse, with Andi and Manti forces scattering to avoid missile range contact with the Brotherhood squadrons and trying to regroup around their own resupply, but ships were being pounded in flight and arriving already damaged and with key personnel taken out of action.

It was as close to SNAFUBAR (Mary’s favorite military saying) as Solace had ever seen. But the Brotherhood was losing, slowly… even though the temporary allies were hampered by a total unwillingness on either side to share command. The Andies felt they should be in command because it was their system. The Manties felt they should be in command because it was technically their not-technically-a-war. Solace thought they should all shut up and work together, but she wasn’t in the meetings and was only able to see the results of the discoordinated commands. She wasn’t even certain who she was supposed to be taking orders from and half her brand new command’s staff had gone to Homer to replace what had been killed in a fluke hit on the bridge.

Which is how Solace and Nemesis found themselves helping an Andi cruiser cluster take down one of the ancient Solarian dreadnoughts that the Brotherhood were using. The damned things were huge, slow, and close to four hundred years old, still using rotating sections, but what they lacked in refinement, they made up for in suicidally crazy commanders.

The dreadnought was flagging badly, most of its energy weapons down… but the coalition cruisers had no more missiles to stand off, and even if a DN had lost 4/5ths of its energy weapons, what was left was still way more than a Light Cruiser carried.

Solace heaved a sigh of relief as the DN’s wedge collapsed and the cruisers were free to pound the ship into plasma. None of the Brotherhood ships were surrendering and all attempts at boarding had ended with the ships self-destructing. It was safer just to kill them all and let god sort them out.

“Skipper… one of the Andi BCs just lost half her wedge strength… I think she’s lost an alpha node.”

“Which one?” she asked, feeling numb, and was utterly unsurprised to learn that the crippled cruiser was none other than August von Gneisenau, currently the closest ship to her own and separated from the other ships of the cluster by 504,000 klicks. She and AvonG and two Andi Destroyers had been on one side of the Brotherhood DN, with the six Andi CAs on the other. She was, however, surprised when the rest of the squadron began firing at AvonG and her. She thought fast, faster than she’d ever thought before, and ordered Nemesis in close to AvonG’s side, then signalled to the other ship that they should run for it.

“Why should I trust you?” Jing-Pei asked.

“You shouldn’t. But currently, those people are actively trying to kill you. I’m not. So? Whatcha waiting for? We need to get out of here fast… unless you think you can take six of them, on your own… If so, I can always run for it… my nodes are in good shape.”

Jing-Pei nodded and announced, “We shall run for it… as you say… but AvonG will not be able to outrun them. They will box us in before we can make it to the flagship… If the Emperor wants me dead, he would not have done it this way… I request permission for myself and as many of my crew as can manage it, to come aboard your ship. My people will surrender all weapons and submit to be-” the image broke into static for a moment as one of the CAs got in a solid hit with a laser, but AvonG proved that she’d been stockpiling some missiles by beginning to launch them at the others…

Unfortunately they turned out to be nukes, but the distraction allowed Solace and Jing-Pei to come to an agreement, despite the protest of the deathshead hat-wearing Andi Marine commander. The Andies would cross only in their skinsuits and the two ships would break for Gustav the Great together until either it became clear that AvonG was lost or reinforcements arrived to relieve the pair.

What followed was harrowing beyond belief, with AvonG taking hit after hit after hit as the crew was shuttled off as fast as they could manage. One of the two cans fell back, streaming atmosphere… then the other had to jettison her fusion bottle, leaving her dead in space. The CAs ignored the cripples and kept on coming after their prize. Timing the maneuvers and twists of the ships’ wedges to allow the small craft passage without opening either ship up to undue fire was a nightmare of precision and every time she was petrified they’d timed it wrong. The corkscrew flight pattern forced on them by their pursuers and the fact that those individuals had no desire to die in the commission of this assassination which kept the CAs from getting too close to the still largely operational (though rapidly becoming less so) BC kept them the smaller ship from being pounded too hard. Still, Nemesis had taken at least a dozen minor hits and had lost her chase armament entirely by the time AvonG lost a second alpha node.

Jing-Pei, sighed. “Captain… I believe it is time, as your people say, to cut our losses… those who remain will hold off the traitors until such time as we have made our escape… but if we stay here any longer, we risk all our lives. It is imperative we reach the flagship.”

Solace tried not to be relieved at leaving over five hundred people to die, but she was and it shamed her a little… but she had to respect their sacrifice and dedication to their commander and fellows, more than twelve-hundred of whom were in every compartment that still had air and wasn’t a secure space.

As they pulled ahead of the much slower CAs, Solace asked, “If it’s not rude of me to ask, why would they be trying to kill you?”

He blinked at her, looked at her rank insignia for a moment as if suddenly realizing something, then chuckled. “Ah. Of course. You are still too junior to know. My appologies.” He clapped his fist to his chest, clicked his heels together, and bowed slightly. “We have not been formally introduced. My name is Jing-Pei Anderman. I am the crown prince of the Empire, and I am very much worried that if cruiser captains loyal to my uncle are trying to kill me so openly, my father may be in a great deal of danger.”

“Oh… good thing I sent off a warning about an Assasination atempt then.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You did? When was this?”

“About a minute and a half after I disabled your ship in the war games, why?”

“You, my good woman, deserve very careful watching,” he said with a smile.

“Well, prince… you’ll have to do it from a distance… I’ve got a strict rule against dating royalty.”

“You do!?” he asked, startled, then leaned in. “Did you just create that rule?”

“Nope. I came up with it when I was dancing with our late King. Figured I’d better be safe than sorry.”

“Ah… so you don’t date, but you do dance… I shall have to remember that.

Solace mentally kicked herself. Somehow, someway, she knew she’d have to dance with this… this… this smug little man. She was going to need dancing lessons.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 10

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.08

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Chapter 8: A Full Dance Card

Previously: The Porcelain Two-Step

No one besides the Admiralty called Her Majesty’s Light Attack Craft #216 that. To most it was simply LAC-216, but to her tiny crew of forty-one (forty-three counting Ruth and Naomi), she was called Birmingham. No one knew exactly where the name had come from, but the thirty-four year old sub-light patroller had been built to provide in system defenses right before King Roger had made his decision to resist the growing threat of Havenite aggression. For the last three decades, the RMN had been steadily growing larger and larger, as had her merchant marine as the improved ability to hunt pirates had increased the areas where Mantie businesses dared to go. That cycle had brought in greater taxable revenue which had in turn allowed for more money to be diverted to the military… though many complained that social programs had been slashed and that taxes were too high.

Solace wasn’t at all certain where civilians got off thinking that their freedom and the freedom of their child and children’s children could have a price tag that was too high, but in her experience, most people were all too focused on the here and now and not focused enough on long term planning. The Manticoran Jewish Communities Alliance had decided to stand as a block in firm support of the war economy after the fall of the Jewish Republic of Samson in 1874 PD to the gradual Haven expanse. The subsequent looting of its economy and the brutal purges among its civil and religious leaders had convinced the Kingdom’s Jews that they were not likely to be granted their continued freedoms (social, liturgical, and economic) under the People’s Republic. If there was one thing that Jews were good at besides survival, it was planning for the future.

Part of the Kingdom’s build up had been the gradual phasing out of LACs for defense of the home-system, replacing the twelve kiloton patrol-craft with destroyers which massed roughly seven times as much but could do double duty as both anti-piracy escorts and in system protection. LACs had, until the Midgardian Civil War, looked like they would eventually be little more than customs boats and there had been talk of the Navy selling their entire LAC fleet to Royal Manticoran Astro-Control as search and rescue cutters.

Still, if they weren’t much good for hunting down pirates in Silesia or escorting merchies anywhere without the capacity to enter hyperspace, let alone the ability to use the wormhole, they had two major advantages over even a destroyer like one of the Chanson-class. The first was that, for the price of one Chanson, the Navy could build a dozen Highlander-class LACs like Birmingham, which meant that, if they could find crews for all those LACs, they could have much six times the coverage in a given system for half the price. The second was that, although LACs couldn’t go to Hyper themselves, they were small enough to be loaded into the hull of a freighter and transported through the Wormhole network that way.

Unfortunately, that’s where the advantages stopped. Where a Chanson could carry 160 mark 34 anti-ship missiles and had three missile tubes in each broadside and two fore and aft, with a cycle time of only 14 seconds… the Highlander had 24 missiles in total… all of them mounted on her sides, in single shot cells. Where a Chanson had eight total Laser mounts, the highlander had three, one fore and one on each broadside… and that was considered heavily armed for a LACs, most of which had a single spinal laser to their name… and if the Highlander lacked dedicated point defense laser clusters, the Lords of BuShips had seen fit to optimize their existing lasers for both antiship or point defense roles. But again, that was making the best of a bad situation. To cap it all off, where the Chanson had a maximum military acceleration of roughly 525 gravities… the Highlander could only reach a paltry 409, which was roughly the same delta v that could be expected out of a dreadnought five hundred times a Highlander’s mass.

To make matters still worse, the inside of Birmingham was incredibly cramped. Every cubic centimeter had been dedicated to some piece of military hardware, and a third of the ship’s internal volume was dedicated to her powerplant alone. There were no amenities to speak of, and the crew mess (there wasn’t a separate officer’s mess) was too small to have the entire crew eat in there at once… though it was, technically, big enough for everyone to stand in if the tables and benches were retracted into the floor… which they were designed to do as the mess did triple duty as the exercise room (when the weight machines were slid out of the walls and gymnasium (when everything was retracted). Frankly, Solace was amazed BuShips hadn’t designed something to spring out of the ceiling so as to maximize the total volume usage… Maybe the bridge controls? Naw… someone had to be actually running the ship at meal times. What it couldn’t have been was a medbay because a LAC simply didn’t have one… or even a qualified doctor.

Instead, they had a ship’s medic, who had taken some nursing classes and could set a split… which would have been fine, if the person whose arm was broken in three places wasn’t, in fact, the medic. PO Fortes was white as a sheet and looked like she was about to pass out at any moment, but was managing to hold, barely, onto consciousness. Solace would have loved to give the woman something for the pain, but somehow the LAC’s tiny supply of painkillers had vanished. That somehow was almost certainly Engineer’s Mate third class James Zucker, but it wasn’t as if knowing that would help Fortes and Solace didn’t have a lab to test Zucker for drug usage… not that she had a brig to toss him in if he tested positive.

She’d been in command of the tiny ship for almost ten months now and while she was certain it was a vital experience on the path to becoming the Captain of a real ship… she had to admit that, all in all, it was not a pleasant one. She painfully hated Birmingham, and wanted to throttle half of the wildly incompetent reprobates who crewed her.

She had two Ensigns fresh from their middy cruise who had apparently learned nothing serving aboard HMS Royal Winton (a Dreadnought) and HMS Leutzen (a Marine Transport) respectively, despite technically being qualified at Tactical and Engineering (in theory). She had CPOs as her other department heads (Supply, Communications, Astrogation, and Operations), and technically two of those were POs who’d been bumped up to CPO to fill the slot left when a bigger ship had poached her people. As the single most junior ship commander in Her Majesty’s navy, Solace could pull rank on exactly no one. In fact, most LAC commanders were Senior Grade Lieutenants so even the very few who’d been given their commands after she had still had rank on her.

It was a fact Solace was all too aware of, and was also aware of the fact that her current boss, Rear Admiral Thompson Garvey, felt that she was utterly and completely useless to do anything besides stooge around the outer limits of the Asgard System in what he called “Shark Podding”. Shark Podding was idiotic. The idea was that, by constantly having his eight LACs travelling round and round the hyperlimit, the picket would always have a ship with enough speed built up to catch up with anyone crashing through the system and heading towards either the wormhole or the planet.

That was fine in theory… but in practice? The man was thinking in two dimensions, not three and even if a single LAC could have closed on any threat that came in on the ecliptic… what were they going to do? Annoy it? A LAC could not, on her own, take out so much as a Destroyer unless they were incredibly lucky.

Birmingham had been incredibly lucky… but not that lucky. Solace pulled steadily on PO Fortes’s arm, getting the bones lined up as best she could and having Ensign Padowalski lash the splint into place. Fortes’s arm had been broken in the explosion that had ripped away the forward laser mount completely, but not before Birmingham had killed the fleeing Midgardian Destroyer that had been raiding Asgard’s orbital mining infrastructure for more than two months.

The destroyer had always seemed to come in where Admiral Garvey’s Cruiser Task Group couldn’t catch up to it, then jumped back into hyper before they were ever at risk. They’d killed a dozen ore haulers and taken out three orbital mines in the past fifty days, and Garvey was becoming more and more aware that he was being made to look like an arse (which he was). Even Ruth had taken to making faces at the man’s image whenever he issued one of his rambling and pointless fleetwide broadcasts designed (so Solace guessed) to bring up morale, though if her crew were any indication it barely served to alleviate the boredom.

Five times, Garvey had changed up the timing on the Shark Pod LACs and each time, the Migardians had seemed aware of it. In fact, the only reason Solace had ended up catching the Destroyer (they had no idea what her name had been) at all was because Birmingham had suffered a flux in her impeller ring and had been unable fix it without taking the wedge down and coasting… out of the ring around the ecliptic and all the way out to the asteroid belt. For seven hours, they’d sailed, wedge down, trying to tune the nodes back into harmony… just as Bogie One had dropped out less than 3 light seconds from their current position.

Bringing the wedge up to full strength had been impossibly risky, but Solace had ordered it anyway. Garvey had taken to issuring dire warnings that he’d have the entire LAC squadron sent to do customs work in Basilisk if they didn’t produce results and while Solace was reasonably certain he didn’t have the clout to do it to any of them, least of all herself, she was getting sick and tired of pretending to be impressed by the overbred weanie’s pretense at aristocratic airs and his overly prissy way of talking (why anyone thought turning r’s into w’s was a good idea she’d never know, but Garvey did it all the time… except when he got angry. Then he slipped… not much, just a little. It was very hard not to laugh… but laughing at an Admiral, any Admiral, was a good way to trash your career, and so Solace Smythe had had good reason for not taking the easy way out.

Not that she would have, of course… there were civilians on the ore freighter that the Midgardian can was chasing down, and LAC-216 was the only craft in the area who could conceivably help. Thankfully, the Midgardians were not profligate in their use of missiles, as had been demonstrated every time this destroyer had taken out a civilian ship. And it made sense. Why kill a ship with an expensive missile when you could take an extra twenty minutes and kill it with lasers.

Solace could have ordered her LAC to fire on the Destroyer without bringing up the wedge… might have even risked it if she was half the distance… but to score a direct hit against a ship with its wedge and sidewalls up at 900,000 klicks? With a single laser? Even with the best gunner in the Navy she wouldn’t have taken that bet. And even had she wanted to risk taking the shot, the simple fact of the matter was that a single laser wasn’t going to disable the enemy destroyer. And that meant Missiles… and missiles meant that the Midgardians would get a chance to fire back, and without her wedge, Birmingham was a sitting duck.

So she’d given the order and they’d spun once to bring their port launchers to bear, fired, then pirouetted around to bring their starboard launchers up and fired again, right behind the destroyer. The Destroyer had had just enough time to launch her own salvo in response before the twenty-four shipkillers ripped her apart in a titanic fireball.

That left the Midgardian missiles orphaned, with only their onboard computers to guide them, and they weren’t the most modern of missiles… but they were still nukes and they could still destroy a ship if they overloaded the sidewalls… and the sidewalls of a Highlander were feeble things indeed. Yet, if a LAC’s sidewalls were paper thin, a wedge was a wedge and missiles could not penetrate that, so she’d flipped her ship and gone racing off, interposing her wedge between her ship and its potential killers, praying as fast as she could.

There were six enemy missiles that had been pumped from the Midgardian’s chase tubes before the ship had become no more and they came in two waves. The first three hit Birmingham’s wedge… the second three, fired with even less precision, had all but missed the LAC entirely. Unfortunately for Birmingham… the LAC hadn’t quite missed the missiles. Two of the three had been wide… the third had exploded just in front of the fleeing LAC’s course and there had been no way to avoid the deadly pulsewave that had expanded ever so briefly from it. It hadn’t been a direct hit, but it was still enough to cause most of LAC-216’s forward sensors and her spinal laser canon’s lens to vaporize. The energy transfer had caused several fuses to blow, and one of those had blow up rather than just pop… which was where PO Fortes right arm happened to be at that moment… presto, one shattered wrist.

And of course… that had completely destabilized the impellers, so now she was floating here, alone, waiting for a tug to come pick her up, and her very junior ‘Captain’ was playing first aid to her medic.

“Fun day, huh, Skipper?” asked Fortes as Solace tightened the last of the splint straps down.

“Oh, yes. Isn’t it though,” she’d snarked.

“Hey, a kill’s a kill, right? First time for everything and all.”

“Not my first kill… technically my second, though I’ve got an assist or two as well.” It was technically not true. Her technically illegal orders had destroyed three outright and crippled two more, and her ideas had killed a further two, even if they were only frigates.

“Oh. Sure Skip… but I meant for me. My last stint was on a tender ship. We didn’t have anything but defensive armaments. Never even scored once… except with the Bosun’s mate, but that don’t count, I recon… Heard as you had a thing with some Lordling on yer first boat, that true?”

Solace gave the older woman a look that said, “I will allow you your ramblings because you are in pain, but if you ever suggest that I did anything carnal with Pavel Young again, I will ensure that you have latrine duty on an Army Transport for the rest of your career.”

Fortes did not seem to notice. “Heard their stuff was blue? That true, Skipper?”

Mercifully, the alarm claxon began screaming before Solace could do more than tug the final strap a bit further than she should have. She pressed the stud on her communicator. “Bridge, this is the Captain speaking. What’s going on?”

“Unknown hyperfootprint… twenty six ships I think… just dropped into real space almost on top of the hyperlimit.”

“PO, you’re on your own. Get your people to replace as many of the sensors as they can and see if we’ve got a spare lense for the laser,” Solace ordered as she raced back to her tiny bridge. Once there she very gently told CPO Brently, a man with nearly 40 years experience as a LAC sensor tech, to report. She wasn’t expecting much.

“Ma’am… we’ve got no forward sensors. All we’ve got are gravitics and astrographics.”

“I am aware of that, David, now please go sit in my chair while I work on this… and can someone please run to my cabin and tell Ruth and Naomi they can come out now.”

“I’ll do it, ma’am,” Brently said.

“Not you. I’m going to need your help. Ensign Tompkins, we shan’t be shooting anything for the next while, so you’re free.” She didn’t turn to watch her tactical officer leave, but instead focused on the readout from gravitics. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing, and she’d spent enough time at sensors to know roughly what she was looking at. “David, are these dreadnoughts at the center of the enemy formation?” She threw them up on the big screen, which wasn’t all that big but was still eight times larger than her personal screen.

The formation was odd, more a cup with something inside it than a proper wall, and the thickest part of the cup was facing Garvey’s flotilla. While David studied the big screen, she played back the formation as it had first appeared and hmmed… it had been more a blob than it’s current cup design and she wondered why, picking out each ship to see how it had moved in the last ten minutes. Then she grunted as she understood.

“Look at this,” she said, pulling out all eight of the center ships and leaving just the shell, a mixture of larger ships (though not quite as large as the center ships) and smaller ships. “I think these are cruisers and battleships. They’re forming a sphere when they dropout of hyper… and they look for Admiral Garvey, find that he hasn’t moved and begin to form up as a protective cup around whatever they’re escorting… I think this is an invasion fleet… Could those be Midgardian troop transports?”

“They could ma’am,” Brently said, “But they could also be minelayers or missile colliers. There’s no way to tell… these three… they could be BBs… can’t imagine what else they could be, but if they are BBs why aren’t they heading right towards Garvey… all he’s got is a BC squadron and it looks like they’ve got…” he counted, “Four of them as well. They’ve got seven wallers to our six and they’ve got twice our number of lighter ships.”

It was true. Count Rodney had taken almost all the light cruisers and destroyers with him on his sweeping course up to Midgard to convince the Federation’s current insane High Chancellor that he really wanted to back off and not fuck with Asgard. Garvey had been left with two tin cans and four heavy cruisers… and the destroyers were ancient, barely more than frigates. Of course, the CA’s were some of the newest Prince Consorts and their Crusader flagship, and those were worth nearly two of the Midgardian’s Volstag class, but if Solace was reading the gravitics right, the Midgardian’s had six Volstags as well as two Hermod Destroyers and three Shieldmaiden Light Cruisers. The Midgardian’s had a definite advantage… so why weren’t they moving in system?

“Ma’am… are they chasing down one of the Shark Pod LACs?” Brently asked… and it took Solace a moment to realize that was exactly what they were doing…. Which made no sense at all… One didn’t need twenty-six ships… okay eighteen plus whatever the big ones were… they weren’t as slow as normal freighters, but they weren’t much faster than a LAC, and they were definitely slowing down the Midgardian formation. Why would they… oh… that was just idiotic.

“I think they’re trying to pull Admiral Garvey out from Asgard orbit… but they’ve got to know that the Admiral is going to see their force numbers and know he can’t take that many…”

“Admiral Garvey is breaking orbit, ma’am,” Brently said from where he’d taken over Tactical and was using its screens to pull up gravitic data.

“I stand corrected,” Solace said, banging her head against her console. What played out over the next three days was a farce. It had to be. The two flotillas seemed to be playing tag, with Garvey closing to long range and then flushing his missile tubes… and the Midgardians doing the same. It was as if neither commander wanted to risk their valuable prize… the transports for the Midgardians (Solace was absolutely convinced that what they had to be since there had been no evidence of mines and no sign that the Midgardians had missiles to spare.) and the planet for the Manties.

One by one, ships began to fall out of both formations as they took enough damage to be left behind, but neither side was willing to go back and finish the lamed trailers off… and with the wide orbit they were doing, they might actually come back around to the cripples if those cripples didn’t get operational again ASAP. The two groups were orbiting Asgard’s primary just over once every four hours, almost right on the twenty-two minute hyperlimit.

On the third day, however, one of the two formations finally managed to tip the balance. A lucky hit from one of Garvey’s salvos had knocked out the forward impeller ring on one of the Midgardian Battleships, causing it to drift helplessly as the crew, no doubt, rushed to try and make repairs. By itself, the loss of a single Battleship wouldn’t have made a huge difference, but the long days of attrition had been much less kind to the Midgardian screen than the Mantie one, and Garvey, sensing his moment, began to close the distance.

“Bring up the wedge to its lowest possible setting and give me long range visuals on the BB,” Solace said.

“Where are we going, Skipper?” asked Ensign Danvers, her engineer, and current helmsman, being finally done with what repairs could be made from onboard supplies.

“Right towards that BB, Helm. Right down her throat.”

“Captain, our missiles are gone and our laser won’t do more than annoy her… she’s going to…”

The visuals came up then and Solace saw what she’d been hoping to see. The missile strike which had taken down the BB’s impellers had looked all too familiar to Solace and if a similar shot had taken out her forward sensors… After 18.2 minutes at 80 gravities, she ordered the wedge struck and all systems to go dark.

“We’re a sitting duck out here,” Ensign Elaine Tompkins said, half to herself.

“We are… distance to the BB?”

“150,439 klicks and closing at 90.6 klicks per second, ma’am. Impact in just over 27 minutes.”

“Elaine, use all availible reaction mass to slow us to zero zero right as we make contact,” Solace said, rising from her seat. “If you need me, I’ll be on the hull. Tompkins, you have the bridge.”

“On the hull?” Danvers whispered to Tompkins, but Solace didn’t stay to listen to the conversation. Instead, she went back to her cabin and, opening one of her trunks, pulled out the Marine Issue pulse-laser rifle that Mary had given her for her last Smythe Day. It was a lovely piece of technology, designed to work in vacuum, and capable of punching through even armored suits at incredible distances… but it had never been designed to work at the distances Solace was about to try it at. She pulled off the scope and swung by the machine bay, grabbing 120 meters of optronic cable, a crimper, and two omni-jack male heads. In the airlock, she plugged one end into the diagnostic panel, then told Tompkins to have the ship’s visual feed sent to the panel… then she crawled out onto the hull of her tiny spaceship and deployed the rifle’s bipod, plugging the other end of the much shorter cord into her rifle’s scope port…

“Who needs a scope when you’ve got ship sensors?” she asked no one as she used the built in screen to line up on the rapidly approaching BB, scanning the front of the ship for work crews or existing sensors. Finding them, one by one, she began to service them, the light speed pulses attenuated by distance causing barely enough damage at first to disable suits, but as they got closer and closer, she was able to pick off the last remaining sensor by the time the no doubt very confused crew members managed to get themselves back inside.

Six minutes later, her incredible gamble had payed off… for certain measures of ‘paid off’. LAC-216, aka Birmingham, was parked right on the smashed up hammerhead of an Odin-class Battleship. Now she just had to figure out what to do next.

Solace was still trying to figure out the next step, be that to try and take the BB or to cripple her nodes even more so they couldn’t escape… when the question became moot… or a lot more complex. Thirty-one seconds after they arrived, the Odin’s wedge began to cycle back up and the ship began to move.

Diving back into the LAC, Solace waited impatiently for the airlock to cycle and only then did she contact the bridge. “What’s our course, Astrogation?”

“Course Ma’am? We’re not moving.”

“Oh yes we are,” she snapped as the entire LAC began to vibrate with the buidling pressure. “We’re just not the ones powering it.”

It soon became evident that the Odin was heading out system, as the fight hadn’t been going well for the Midgardians and one by one, the transports had started hypering out, while the flottilla stayed behind to hold off the Manties to keep them from following. “Brace for Hyper translation,” she told her crew… and a moment later, they crossed into the Alpha Band of Hyperspace. “Raise radiation shielding and I want everyone as far inside the ship as possible. Stay in your skinsuits ladies and gentlemen… LACs aren’t built for this and I don’t want any of you getting a lethal dose before we get back to real space.” Of course, the problem with getting back to real space was, once they were there… there wasn’t any way for Birmingham to ge back to Asgard. She simply didn’t have the supplies for a sublight interstellar voyage between the stars.

“Okay folks… we’re going to have to do something utterly insane… And I know it’s insane because I came up with it. Our best bet is that this ship is going someplace nearby to get fixed up. There are only a few systems that close to Asgard that we know of and the fact that this ship has only jumped to the Delta band implies that the distance isn’t too far and that they don’t trust their repairs in a higher band. So here’s what we’re going to do.” She laid it all out for them, and they stared back at her in shocked horror.

“Ma’am… we’re not Marines,” one of her ratings pointed out uselessly.

“That’s true. We’re not. And Midgardians train their entire crew for boarding action, so we’re not going to try to take a battleship by main force. We’re just going to borrow one of her pinnaces to snag a freighter… or something similar, and try to get home. If we get caught, we surrender, but we’re not caught yet so we’re going to do our duty to the queen. Engineering, I want the fusion plant rigged to blow on my orders… and I want the biggest boom you can figure out how to make.”

Her chosen team consisted of herself, her cats, two ratings who had been MPs, one who was a black belt in Coup de Vitesse, two who were Sphinxian natives who’d grown up hunting, and a Gryphon Highlander named Harkness who had a rapsheet four pages long, much of it involving brawling. He was also supposedly a bit of a hacker and a bit of a smuggler and his pre-enlistment jacket showed he’d done time as a juvenile. Or rather, it showed a sealed juvie record which was pretty much the same thing.

They made entry to the Odin, which turned out to be named Wotan, after having traversed half the ship in utter silence, the two cats inside a carrier strapped to Solace’s back. She couldn’t help but feel she’d doomed them all, but she’d only done what duty had demanded of her and was doing likewise even now. Gaining access to the ship wasn’t particularly hard (no one really expects to be boarded when not in battle, especially not in hyperspace) and moving through service ducts and back corridors wasn’t much harder.

Solace had the ‘cats out in front, feeling for anyone coming, and used her strange empathic link with them to signal the rest of her crew as they made their way to the BB’s boatbay, by way of the exercise facilities for junior officers. There they’d done some dirty work to some unfortunate souls and stolen their uniforms, then used those uniforms to infiltrate the boatbay.

Across the bay, she saw one officer stop Harkness, and demand to know who he was and what he was doing here. The altercation was made all the more ridiculous because Horace was pretending he didn’t speak a word of the man’s stilted English. “Eh? Wut?” and it was provoking the officer to a fit of pique… exactly as intended.

With the very loud distraction, Solace’s remaining team entered the bay and spread out and, in a very brief and one-sided fight that followed, took out everyone in the space of thirty-one seconds. The last one standing was the yelling officer, and he went down as Horace Harkness decked him with a right cross that Solace could feel across the room. No one had gotten close to signalling out for help.

A bit of hacking later, and the doors to the bay could be forced open and three of the Wotan’s ship’s boats were ready to go the second the ship hit Saint Vincent, an independant polity fifteen light-years from Asgard that had claimed neutrality in the conflict, stating that getting involved would violate their national doctrine of non-violence and non-interference. Harkness had managed to pull the destination out of the system and confirmed it with the Boat Bay’s senior officer, who was sullen, but easily convinced to talk by Naomi showing him her claws and Solace pointing out what they could do to his privates.

They also managed to confirm that, while Saint Vincent wasn’t actually supporting the war, they were more than willing to allow Midgard to base ships at their space station… which they technically didn’t own but rather leased from Axelrod Transtellar… a name Solace hadn’t heard in a decade and a half.

“Axelrod does business on Mesa,” she muttered, mostly to herself. “Hmmm…”

“Something skipper?”

“Oh. no… nothing major, Horace… nothing major…” she considered… “How well can you get into the system? I mean, can you find scans from their last visit?”

“I can try, Ma’am,” he said with a grin. “Ain’t got nothing but time, as long as our luck holds out.” They’d cleaned up the bay, but it was pretty likely people were going to start noticing that none of the duty personnel from the boatbay ever came back from their shifts and someone was bound to call eventually, either with orders or with a squad of Migardian Marines in full battle kit.

Three Hours Later, and in the middle of the fifth day of their expected six day voyage, Horace had worked his magic and Solace had the Wotan’s sensor data from her previous visit. The system had two major space installations, one serving as military support owned by Axelrod, and one civilian one owned by Jessyk… also a Mesan company that Solace was all too aware of and hated. It also had a thriving asteroid mining program where rocks were hauled in close to the planet and broken up in situ rather than hauling freighters back and forth to the belt… with tractor technology, it wasn’t hard to do… but no one sane did it that way because of the inherent risk of giant space rocks near habitable planets.

“I… have an idea.”

“Oh?” Horace asked. “Is it a sneaky and underhanded one?”

“All the best ones are,” she agreed.

As the Wotan dropped out of hyper, she never noticed three of her cutters falling away from her, their wedges down and systems dark. Every member of Birmingham’s crew had made the trip over and now each of the three ships had their orders. Team One, dubbed Ramrod, was where Solace had put Ensign Tompkins. Team Two, dubbed Cutout, was hers. And Team Three, dubbed Netcaster, was under Ensign Danvers.

All three relied on stolen identities and massive gullibility, but people (in Solace’s experience) seldom saw what they weren’t expecting to see. Ramrod, once free of Wotan’s ambient, and knowing she was invisible if Horace’s technosorcery had worked to keep Wotan’s sensors from even noticing the three cutters, pulled gracefully away and headed towards where the massive gravitic asteroid tug was hanging out. Cutout was headed to the Jessyk station and its freighters. And Netcaster was heading to the fleet rendezvous spot where, even now, there were eight, count’em eight, rapid troop transports in high orbit.

“It would be a shame of something happened to them, eh Elaine?” She’d suggested to the junior officer.

“Right shame… but what can we do, Skipper?”

“Ever wonder what a counter missile does to a ship if can land a solid hit?”

“You’re kidding… that’s just… wrong…”

Sixteen hours later, aboard the bridge of MFNS Wotan, Sensor Officer Magnusson gasped, “Holy shit, Capitan! The transports…” He never got to finish that statement as Birmingham did one last service for her queen and detonated herself, ripping the front third of Wotan, including her bridge, away in an atomic fireball. A moment later, the BB’s own forward fusion plants blew, and the ship was so much wreckage… as were the transports. The CMs Birmingham’s crew had packed into Netcaster’s cargo bay had been targeted painstakingly on each of the eight ships, using stolen schematics to locate their the transports power rooms with pinpoint precision.

Every one of the sixteen CMs was a golden BB, punching right down through the unarmed top of the transports on a direct path to glory. The explosions were so bright that Netcaster’s rear sensors went off line, but by that point she was docking with the Jessyk Combine Freighter Alraune, now firmly in the hands of Solace and Company and headed out system as fast as her new owners and their newly liberated friends could make her go.

They stopped only once, slowly to allow Ramrod to rejoin them. “How’d it go?” she asked Tompkins, having to yell over the sound of partying from the ex-cargo. She certainly wasn’t going to tell them to keep it down.

“Oh… Axelrod’s station should be receiving our present in about fifteen hours. We picked one with really low albedo.”

“It’s not going to hit the planet, right?”

“Nope, we set it up to slingshot around the planet, punch through Axelrod’s base and go rocketing off to parts unknown. Don’t worry, no Eridani incidents on our end, Skipper.”

“Good. Good. They should pick it up soon enough to evacuate, but not soon enough to stop it. Helm, take us back to Asgard… I just hope the Admiral forgives me for leaving my assigned duty zone.”

“He should, skipper. After all, your orders were to stop the raiders… never said how you were supposed to do it.”

“I guess… I wonder if the Admiralty will consider the cost of this freighter as colateral against the cost of Birmingham… otherwise, I might need to call my uncle. ‘Help… I need 320 million dollars… I’ve misplaced my LAC.”

Horace snorted and did an impression of Uncle Vanya that was absolutely nothing like the man, but still made everyone laugh. “Really? Where’d you see it last? Did you check your pockets?”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 9

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Solace Verse Local

Jump 84 - Honor Harrington Part 3