World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.14

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 14: The Manticore Shuffle

Previously: Square Dance, Revenge Style

Timestamp: 5th April, 1892

“Mary, I don’t care if God Almighty came down from Heaven on the Merkaba itself surrounded by a host of Seraphim and Kherubim and, flanked by Metatron and Sandalphon, spoke as the Ancient of Days as he commanded it, I still wouldn’t play Mahjong with Missus Kowalski and her group of biddies,” Solace told her mother. “I don’t like Mahjong and I don’t care how traditional it is. I’ve got 48 hours of shore leave before I have to be back on Manny and I’ve already blocked out eight hours with you and dad, four with Loyal, eight for sleep, and twenty-eight with Minerva including two plays and a dinner party. Now will you kindly take your turn… those pins aren’t going to knock themselves down.”

“Sandy, dear, you really need to get out of your comfort zone more,” Mary said, scooping up the six kilo sphere, and sighting along it, stepped forward and half knelt, sliding the ball across the line and down the waxed wood lane. The ball had incredible english and it curved almost all the way to the rim of the gutter before swinging back to run through the four remaining pins for the spare. “When you have kids you’ll want to be connected to the community and people like the Kowalskis and Janaceks and Mendels can help there.”

Solace rolled her eyes, ignoring the tiny frown from Hope. “I know you mean well, Mary. I do. But I’m too young to be thinking about a family… and Missus Kowalski is 98. She’ll be dead long before I’m ready to… er… spawn… Daaad. Mary’s giving me that look again!”

Hope humphed, then said, “Can’t hear you over the awesomeness that is a Strike… you’re up.”

Solace groaned. “But Mahj is the most tedious waste of time! They don’t even bet!” She grabbed her nine kilo ball and, with absolutely no finesse, launched it straight and true down the lane, obliterating the pin formation at the far end… except the two at the far edges. Damn it! Stupid 7-10… Ruth bleeked with laughter at her.

The game ended up being close, but Solace lost. Mary was too technical and almost always spared, and Hope got strikes 80% of the time and seldom missed a spare when he didn’t. Solace just rolled the ball as straight and hard as she could, meaning that when she was lucky, she got a strike… but when she wasn’t, she ended up with 9 and while that was good… it wasn’t good enough. Ruth and Naomi usually ended up beating her… though they were using much lighter balls and had the bumpers up.

And, of course, she ended up playing Mahjong with the Octogenarian-plus Club and trying not to scream as they chattered about their grandchildren and the prices at the local market and how their various aches and pains were doing and how MP Hitchcock was such a nice man and didn’t his wife have the nicest hats? It would have been rude to smack her head against the table… “I’m sorry, what was that, Mimi?” she asked, “I was thinking.”

Molveda Mendel, Mimi to everyone, was 102 years old and the leader of the Landing City Conservative Jewish Women’s Coalition. She was also East this round and she patted Solace’s hand. “Nothing dear. I was just saying how nice it was having some young blood around here for once. I try to get my greats involved, but they’re too busy with school and work. So… will you or your pretty lady friend be the egg donor… or will you both do it? Are you going to use those horrid tubes or do it the natural way?”

“Those tubes,” Agnetha Janacek, 84, commented, “Are called Uterine Replicators and they’re not horrid. When I had my Edward, I’d have had to give up horse riding if I hadn’t had the replicator!”

“But you did give up horse riding for Catherine,” Sylvia Kowalski said.

“Catherine was my third, I was already getting pretty old for competitive events.”

“What’s Catherine doing these days?” Sylvia asked and Solace wanted to stick her head in a bucket as Agnetha Janacek decided that it was now time to list the occupations and achievements of every last one of her five children, nineteen grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.

“And Catherine is director of advanced research at Snurlson Gravodynamics.”

Solace perked up at that. “Snurlson? That’s a subsidiary of Andros-Brandyne… What’s she working on?”

“Oh… Something to do with generating gravitic pulses to determine the composition of asteroids without having to drill. That’s her current brainchild. But it’s all very classified I’m certain,” the mother of the Commander of Homefleet said… then proceeded to ramble on about all the classified information that her Edward had told her over the years.

As they completed the seventeenth hand, a message pinged Solace’s personal comm marked ‘Potential Action Required’. It was a message from one of her people and said, “Calendar Relay, From Stonemason: H&S, ESQ, Landing City. Doing Business with Sun King? Checked with V. R.I.H sent a big sun deck to BdM 3star actual.” Solace translated that quickly. Calendar was the Aprilists. Stonemason was McQuarry. Sun King was the Harris Government… and V was Uncle Vanya. Big Sun Deck was roughly 5 billion Solarian Credits (a deck of cards was roughly fifty cards and Big was Billion. Bigger would have been 50 Billion, Biggest 500. Modern was Million, Terrific was Trillion. It was a serviceable code and had been translated from an entirely different cypher.) BdM was Banco de Madrid, and 3star actual was three days ago. She checked the listings for Landing City lawyers and found Holger and Sparrow, Rikkard Ingeborg Holger senior partner, specializing in Patent Law… the address was across the Queen Adriene Plaza from Mount Royal Palace. “Ladies… It’s been great, but I’ve got to run.”

As Solace left the game, having lost every hand, she mentally shifted from Civilian mode to Foreign Service mode, and commented to Naomi, “Remind me to make a note… find out how many Havenite Admirals have aged mothers or grandmothers who play social games like mahj or bridge or… euchre… I’ll make a list.” The LCCJWA Social Center was only three blocks from the Palace and she was supposed to be having lunch with Mary and Minerva anyway. She’d walk… and it would take her right past Holger & Sparrow… she had thirty minutes… she could claim some business and use her connections to see the top brass, surely.

Naomi just bleeked dolefully, stretching as she sauntered down Camden Way as they made their way past the Embassies that lined the wide avenue leading towards Mount Royal. There had better better be celery at lunch. It was the least her two-leg could do for dragging her to that place that smelled of stale cloth and was full of flickering mindglows and confused emotions.

“Don’t give me that,” Solace chided. “I didn’t want to be there either… and I’m not planning on playing more myself… Maybe just getting some of my agents to attend-” she started telling the ‘cat when Ruth perked up, looked around, then leapt off Solace’s shoulder and raced into the just opening door of 808 Camden way, home of quite a number of businesses… including, on the 1st-40th and 239th-240th floors, Holger & Sparrow, Esquire. “What’s going on?” Solace asked Naomi, who shrugged. They could both feel Ruth’s concern, almost panic… but the smaller ‘cat hadn’t paused to explain and now all her friends could do was track her process up through the building… and the yelps of outrage or confusion as she brushed past or leaped past or climbed past the humans within. The duo shared a glance, then broke into a run, following as fast as they could… only to run into building security almost immediately.

The treecat that Solace called Ruth was known to the members of the Deep Valley Clan as ‘Soul of Ice’ and, appearances to the contrary, she was the older of the two ‘cats. She was also a memory singer, a historian of the People, a leader who could record and retransmit experiences between two or more ‘cats, thus passing on history and skills from one generation or clan to another. Of the two cats, she had the better grasp of human emotions, better than Naomi, also known as ‘Silent Judge’, and certainly better than their two-legged friend, the one they called ‘Sky Jumper’, and when she’d felt the emotion she’d just felt, she’d know that something very bad was going happen… even if she wasn’t exactly certain what that something was.

Soul of Ice could feel that confusing two-leg emotion that was part hate and part madness, a desire to hurt other two-legs and the satisfaction of a soon accomplished goal. It burned like a flickering candle, not a bright mindglow, but one so different from the rest of those around it that it was a candle amid flashlights, the only light that flickered. And so she ran, feeling the clusters and echoes of mindglows, intuiting the layout of the two-leg warrens, and then, when she reached an impasse she couldn’t bypass, she scrambled up a wall and into the false ceiling that hung from the real ceiling above it. The gap would have been tight for any two-leg, even a child, but Ruth was no two-leg and she ripped through the paneling, then crawled into the dimness and began racing across the uncomfortably sharp support structure, still heading towards the flame-light glow.

Aljaz Rojniki was happy for the first time since the Manticorans had destroyed the Chancellor’s Palace. He’d been in university during the ‘Civil’ War, studying hyperphysics. His mother and father, loyal supporters of Otar Magnusson, had both died trying to stop the Manticoran aggression and soon… soon the Manties would know the pain of losing their spiritual liege too… what was that scratching noise? Aljaz looked up from the weapon he’d built in the supply closet at his cover job… such fools, these Manties. They’d believed him an illiterate, but skilled, maintenance technician. Soon… soon his inverter would cause space-time to fold in on itself, transporting the entirety of Mount Royal… and no small part of Landing City into Hyperspace… there it was again… was it coming from the ceiling? Rats maybe? He didn’t have time for this… He connected the final molecular circuit, priming the device, and began the process of wiring the manual detonator… that noise was driving him crazy!

He looked up, then screamed as thirty scimitar claws ripped through the acoustic tile and dropped towards his face.

Solace looked out the window of the building, down at the Palace where even now the Queen was being escorted by her mother into a waiting air-car. The bomb was utterly unlike anything ONI and Landing PD had ever seen and it had been decided to evacuate the city until it could be disarmed safely. The Midgardian who’d apparently built it wasn’t talking, but he’d been stopped from actually setting it off by Ruth’s unexpected arrival and held at bay until Solace and Building Security could arrive. Holger and Sparrow was right across Queen Adrienne Plaza from the Palace and Solace, who’d been on her way to tell Mary that the Mahjing had been Mahjed and that she’d done her daughterly duty… had had to tell her mother that there was some kind of bomb across the street from the Palace and they had no idea what it would do.

“Commander Smythe?” said Amanda Swallow, “Shouldn’t we be evacuating?” She was escorted by three Landing PD officers who’d apprehended her heading for the roof and her personal aircar.

“Almost certainly… I just have one question… why, exactly, did your partner hire that man. I spoke to your head of Human Resources, he was most forthcoming. Rikkard Holger hired Aljaz Rojniki personally. It wasn’t a general hiring call.”

“I don’t see how this is the business of the RMN, Commander,” the Lawyer sniffed.

“Oh. It’s not. I’ve been empowered by three different organizations to ask you questions. First, Palace Security asked me to look into this. Second, I have been temporarily empowered by ONI as a Special Investigator. And third, this building is owned by the New Temple Group, as I’m certain you’re aware. Your lease, by the way, has been terminated. I’m fairly certain the Queen’s Bench will rule that you are in breach of contract with what will either be determined to be criminal negligence or conspiracy to commit terrorism,” Solace explained, without looking away from the view. Ruth fastidiously groomed her claws at the woman.

“Terrorism! N… Nonsense! That bomb would never have wo…” Sparrow trailed off, unaware that her emotions had been pushed to make her more reckless and impulsive.

“Thank you for confirming that…” Solace said, turning at last from the window and, hiding the incredible headache pushing the woman had caused, fixed the lawyer with her lavender gaze. “You have thirty seconds to explain exactly how you knew that and to convince me that you weren’t planning on blowing up the FUCKING CAPITAL!”

“Would I have stayed if I knew the building was going to blow up?” Amanda gasped. “We had him under surveillance… he wanted the job too much… but he’s a brilliant hyperphysicist… crazy, obsessed with revenge! But we were able to replace the central coil of his device with a dummy… We… we just wanted the…” She trailed off, slumping into a chair. “We just wanted the plans… Imagine how much money the hyper-inverter might be worth!”

“So you hired a crazy man, let him build a bomb that could kill millions across the street from the Palace and down the street from Parliament because you thought you’d make a little money?”

“A… A little? I… It wasn’t my idea! It was Rikkard’s! He said we’d sell it to the military! We were trying to help!”

Solace considered the woman’s emotions, then said, “Surveillance? I want everything you’ve got.” She held up one hand as her earbud whispered to her. “Oh, and Rikkard Holger has just been apprehended trying to board a ship for Beowulf under an assumed identity. His home computer has been destroyed, and his office comp scrubbed by IT this morning on his orders.” She knelt in front of the clearly distraught attorney. “Tell me… did he handle the removal of the bomb’s key component?”

“I… Yes… he… he said he had someone from an engineering firm we work with remove it. They… I saw the coil myself.” She folded in on herself and shut down at that point, merely going along meekly when Landing PD finally got around to arresting her.

In the personal files confiscated from Rikkard Holger, they’d found the plans for the device and proof that he hadn’t actually transmitted them to anyone yet, waiting for a payday from auctioning off the prize after the demonstration which was to have decapitated Manticore and allowed a fleet sitting at Trevor’s Star to come through and take the devastated kingdom unaware.

“This thing is horrifying,” said Sonja Hemphill, looking over the schematics. “It turns a planet’s gravity into a field that inverts real-space and alpha-hyper over an area whose upper bounds are limited by the size of the planet and how close it is to the edge of the hyperlimit…”

“Agreed, very nasty…” Solace said. “But why am I here?”

“I thought you’d be curious.”

“I am. But that doesn’t answer the question,” Solace sighed. She loved Sonja’s mind, but the woman liked to tease her junior officers to see if she could provoke creativity… or force them to admit they didn’t have a clue what the often monomaniacally brilliant woman was getting at. “You had me escort the bomb across the city… that’s fine, you’re an Admiral… congrats about that, by the way, but I’m not a weapon’s engineer nor a hyperphysicist.”

“You’re not. No… but I want you to look at the schematics. You’re one of the most intuitive people I know. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Solace looked at the schematics floating in the BuWeps tank and rotated them slowly… spotting what the Admiral was talking about took her three minutes. “This is based on the gravitic mine technology, isn’t it?”

Sonja tapped her nose. “Bingo. I knew you’d notice it.”

“Did this guy invent the mine? He’d have been in college back then!”

“He was. We checked. His parents were Brotherhood of Odin. Bought Magnusson’s line about reunification hook line and sinker. His papers on gravitic theory are brilliant… look, he’s got notes on something called a Gravitic Lance.” Sonja enthused.

“That’s great… but how do we stop this technology from being used against us or other civilian centers?” Solace asked.

“Oh. That’s simple!” The admiral waved her hand vaguely.

“Simple?”

“Oh… mm… yes… the bomb doesn’t really explode… it takes about two days to reach full power and the seismic effects are pretty noticeable. We know the device exists now… any attempt to use it will create a signature that’s unmistakable and impossible to conceal. The only problem would have been not knowing. That’s the other thing. The Admiralty wants us to take this to the Solies. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. We’re going to expose the technology before the Eridani Council so that early warning detectors can be installed in every major city.”

Solace blinked. “It’s only been eight hours!”

“The Queen and Cromarty had an emergency session with the Lords of Admiralty while you were on your way across town. It was decided that there was no ethical use for this weapon and the political upside of revealing that the technology was possible to the Galaxy had a huge upside.”

“I hate politics,” Solace muttered.

“I know. Me too… You know they’re going to give you another medal for this?”

“They should give it to Ruth. All I did was walk down the street.”

“Riiight. Just walk down the street next to a bomb just as it was being armed. Tell me you’re that lucky and I’ll start believing in that god of yours.”

Solace shrugged. “It was on my way to the Palace.”

Sonja humphed, pulled up a map of downtown Landing. “You were coming from a meeting with Admiral Janacek’s mother… who, by the way, is my father’s first cousin… at the Jewish Social Center.” A dot appeared on the map five blocks from Mount Royal Palace, one block from Amherst Boulevard which, like Camden Way, ran out into QA Plaza. “And walked all the way to Camden” A line showed how Solace had walked four blocks out of the way instead of proceeding down Amherst. “Let me guess… there was a coffee shop with really good pastry you just had to stop at before having lunch with Mary?”

Solace shrugged. “It was a nice day. I had thirty minutes.”

“I checked. You left the game early after receiving an extremely cryptic message from your agents… you know, a Commander running her own personal spy ring should be more careful… even if you do have cover from the Foreign Service.”

“It’s not a spy ring. It’s simply business.”

“Business right. Why aren’t you with ONI again?”

“Because I’m as subtle as my brother is a gifted strategist… also, my budget is entirely discretionary. Anyway, why aren’t you with ONI?”

Sonja chuckled. “That’s true. You’re as subtle as an anvil dropped from great height. As for me? I’m just good at math. Regardless, their lordships wanted me to inform you that your leave has been extended another three days, then we’ll both report aboard Manny and proceed to Old Earth.”

====

Silent Judge sat on the edge of the table, looking at the gathered Two-Legs, trying to ignore her ‘sister’s’ smug gloating. Ever since the Human Leader had awarded Soul of Ice with the shiny medallion on a ribbon, Soul had been almost unbearable… but now it was Judge’s turn to shine. This was her place, her real of power. She adjusted her visor, and began flicking the cards with machine-like precision, each floating to land just so in front of its assigned Two-Leg.

“She’s really good at that,” Sonja said, watching Solace’s furry minion drop two cards face down and one face up in front of each of the six humans at the table. A three and an eight landed in front of her face down, and a six landed face up, all in clubs… it wasn’t much, but it could be the start of a straight flush… or just a flush. She looked around the table to see what the others had. Solace had the King of Spades showing, Theodosia (Captain of HMS Manticore) had the 2 of Diamonds, Lukas Janacek (Lt (SG), Manticore’s Tactical Officer) had the Queen of Spades, Edward (CO Homefleet, Lukas’s uncle and Sonja’s second cousin) had the 10 of clubs, and Elvis Santino (Captain of HMS Birmingham and soon to take over as Flag Captain of Home Fleet while Manny was in Sol) had the 7 of Hearts.
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C
Solace: ?? ?? KS
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D
Lukas: ?? ?? QS
Edward: ?? ?? 10C
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H
Ante – 1 Dollar, Bring-in – 2 Dollars, Raise = 5 Dollars, 20/40 dollar limit

“She doesn’t know how to play poker at all…” Solace explained. “I’ve tried to teach her and Ruth the game, but Ruth only likes to throw cards… which she’s good at, and Naomi loves doing card tricks… but I don’t think they really understand that it’s a game or what the relative ranking of hands means. Captain, you’re low card.”

Although both Theodosia and Elvis held the rank of Captain of the List, since the ship was Kuzak’s she was ‘The Captain’, and Elvis was merely ‘Captain Santino’. Theodosia sighed, and tossed the bring-in into the pot. “Stupid tradition,” she muttered, glaring at the two dollars that had joined the six dollars anted in already.
[Pot = 8 Dollars]

Lukas, juniormost at the table but a nicely serious lad with a good head on his shoulders, considered, then said, “Raise.” tossing in a five. The game was fixed limit, 20/40… because regulations prohibited high stakes games, though it did mean for Solace and Sonja, both quite wealthy in their own rights, that the game was more for fun than actual profit.
[Pot = 13 Dollars]

Edward harrumphed. “Still can’t quite wrap my head around the idea that it’s not somehow cheating… but it’s not like she can hide a card anywhere. No sleeves. Call.”
[Pot = 18 Dollars]

Elvis grunted, frowned, then agreed.
[Pot = 23 Dollars]

Which brought it round to Sonja herself. She had the start of something… if she could just get the right cards she could have a straight or a flush… or both, if she was very lucky. Still, right now it was garbage. “Call.”
[Pot = 28 Dollars]

Solace hmm’d softly, then raised. Everyone else matched the bet, though Theodosia looked like she’d rather eat a lemon. Naomi bleeked happily, and another flight of cards flew through the air, all six in the air before the first one landed, spinning right into place face up on the table. Sonja blinked… She’d gotten the 4 of spades. Better and better. Then she frowned as Lukas announced the cards.
[Pot = 63 Dollars]

“Broken Wand to Admiral Boomstick, possible flush. Suicide King to go with King David, pair of knights to the Anvil. The Captain gets Pedro the Lover, no help. I get the Sailboat Regatta, possible flush. Uncle Eddy gets Lancelot, possible flush. And Captain Santino gets Sargent Pepper, another possible flush. XO, bet’s to you.” Sonja had no idea where the habit of giving bizarre nicknames to the cards had come from, or where the tradition of having someone, usually the dealer (but that would have been a series of chitters and bleeks, assuming that the ‘cats could even tell the symbols apart), or the lowest ranked person present, describe what they all could see had come from… but it did liven up the otherwise incredibly cerebral game.
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C
Solace: ?? ?? KS KH
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D 5H
Lukas: ?? ?? QS 4S
Edward: ?? ?? 10C JC
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H AH

Solace opened the bidding, Theodosia folded, Lukas raised, Edward raised… and it was around to Santino. “We’re not really going to reveal to the Solies and everyone else how this hyperbomb really works are we?” He called, looking disgusted.
[Pot = 108]

“Have to,” Sonja said, raising to the limit. Everyone else called and another flight of cards went out. Thwip-thwip-thwip-thwip-thwip… shhh-shhh-shhh-shhh-shhh… even though there were only five players now, Naomi still managed to get all the cards airborne before the first landed.
[Pot = 163]

“Neener My Love to the lady from BuWeps, no help. Big Cassino to the XO, no help. Fancy Boat to yours truly, no help. The Big Boss gets the Lady with the Big Stick… very possible straight flush. And the man of the hour gets… Ogier the Dane. No help there. XO, still your table,” Lukas supplied, then asked, sounding a bit aghast. “Why do we have to? Isn’t telling everyone how to make a bomb that can wipe out a city just a little… crazy?”
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C 9H
Solace: ?? ?? KS KH 10D
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D 5H xx xx xx – FOLD
Lukas: ?? ?? QS 4S 4D
Edward: ?? ?? 10C JC QC
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H AH JS

Solace considered. “Yes, there’s a lot of potential for abuse, and we’re talking a hell of a risk, but I agree with Cromarty and the Queen. Ten.”
[Pot = 173]

Theodosia, out of the hand, only nodded, then said. “As do I.”

Lukas considered his cards, then shrugged and called.
[Pot = 183]

“Well, I don’t,” said the highest ranking officer at the table. “It’s insanity. Giving away a potential military secret like this. Raise.”
[Pot = 203]

“I agree with the Admiral… Admiral Janacek, I mean,” Elvis said, playing with his chips, then shrugged. “Call.”
[Pot = 223]

Sonja considered both the debate and Edward’s hand. He did have a very good chance at having a straight flush… if his hole cards were the Ace and or King of Clubs… but if they weren’t, she had the eight and that would cut him off there. It was a risk… he could just have garbage… but Edward was a terrible bluffer in her experience. She covered her consideration with an explanation, “It’s not actually more dangerous than a KEW and it only works on planets as far as we can tell. Might work on a star but getting it close enough would be technically improbable within the next thousand years I’d guess. Raise.”
[Pot = 253]

Solace didn’t pause. “Also, if we don’t reveal it, it could be seen as a threat. A ‘we’ve got this weapon you don’t’ kind of thing. Very bad for business. This way, the Solies think highly of our ethics and we turn an almost disaster into a public relations coup… even the Havenites will be publicly pleased… and it will make moving against us a little more risky as long as we’re in the Solies good graces. Raise.”
[Pot = 283]

Sonja and Theodosia both nodded at that, and even Edward had to grudgingly agree. Everyone called and Naomi chittered happily and tossed out more cards, her left handfoot standing on the cards that had been burned after each round of betting.
[Pot = 363]

Once again, Lukas gave the play-by-play. “Salmon of Doubt to my not quite an Aunt, vague hope for a straight, but something’s keeping her in the game. Uncle’s Alexander for the crazy lady… three kings… very nice… possible full house if she’s hiding another ten, four of a kind if she’s hiding The One-Eyed King in her pocket. Musketeers to me, maybe a flush? Who can say? Sebastian to Uncle… not helping much and it’s gotta hurt seeing that King over there flirting with the XO.” Edward frowned at his nephew at that, but Lukas ignored the old man. “And Evil Elvis gets… ooh… The Pig’s Eye! Nice. Could help, maybe not. Maybe he’s hiding the other two rockets in his pocket? Or he’s got Ajax or The Slapshot in the hole for a Full House?”
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C 9H 7S
Solace: ?? ?? KS KH 10D KC
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D 5H xx xx xx – FOLD
Lukas: ?? ?? QS 4S 4D 3S
Edward: ?? ?? 10C JC QC 3H
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H AH JS AD

Solace opened up strong. She had to, so it was no surprise when she bid ‘ten’. Lukas didn’t seem to have much, so either he was bluffing, or he had the straight, a flush, or a straight flush… he certainly didn’t have four fours, but he was staying in, so he had something worth running up against Solace’s probably full house. He called. Edward, king of the go big or go home school, raised. Elvis, who had to have a full house to stay in… raised… thus telling everyone he either had the Slapshot… no one knew why Ace-Seven was called a Slapshot… but it was. Some thought it might have to do with Lacrosse or Polo, but no one was really certain. Sonja considered her own hand. She had a gutshot straight flush, a short straight… or garbage. A sane woman would bow out… but if she drew that Five of Clubs, she was golden. If she drew the Ace of Clubs, she’d have an Ace High Flush… Not that it would beat Santino’s or Solace’s Full House… if they had it… but that last card called to her. She was sooo close. She wanted to raise, but she couldn’t. She didn’t have the cards to sell anything, and she’d look a fool if she raised and got nothing. “Call.”
[Pot = 463]

Without missing a beat, Solace capped the pot. She had to have the Full House or the Kings. No doubt about it… Shit… should have dropped out, Sonja thought. Everyone else called and it was back around to her in a flash. Four players left going into the River… could she drop out now? No. She still had a save. Still had a way to win this. One card could seal the deal for her. It was a long shot… but it was only ten more to see it. She shrugged and flipped the chip into the pot. It spun, and was still spinning as Naomi launched the last five cards, face down, across the table.
[Pot = 563]

Lukas couldn’t call the last card, of course. The River was down. Now it was down to a final bet. Sonja snuck a peak at her final card. It was the Clover, the Blackberry… the Ace of Clubs… She’d gotten a Ace High Flush… but if Santino had the Full House, she was sunk. If Solace had the Full House, she was sunk… if Lukas had… she had no idea what the young man had. Edward… edward didn’t have the Straight Flush he was pretending he had. She and Solace had the cards he needed. But he was going to go right on pretending. At best he had a Queen High Flush. The betting went round the table and Elvis capped it before it even reached her.

“Fold,” Sonja Hemphill said. She knew when she was beaten. She tossed her cards into the Muck and Naomi gathered them up with her hand-feet.
[Final Pot = 723]

“Show and tell time,” Edward said, since he’d been the last to call. “What you got, son?”

Elvis grinned hugely, flipping up his hole cards to reveal the Ace of Spades, the Seven of Diamonds, and the Two of Hearts… Aces over Sevens, a Full House.

“Shit,” muttered Edward, tossing his own cards out of turn, not bothering to reveal them.

Solace smiled. “Very nice Elvis. Very nice… It beat my Full House, Tens over Kings” she said, flipping up her original hole cards to show the Tens of Hearts and Spades. Elvis grinned, but his grin faded as she continued, “But not as nice as Four Kings…” she flipped up her final card to reveal the King of Diamonds. “Still nice though. Lukas? Did you get your Straight Flush?”

Lukas blushed, then shrugged apologetically. “Yes ma’am… Sorry about that,” the young man said, flipping up his hole cards to reveal the Two, Five, and Six of Spades… the lowest possible straight flush… but a straight flush was a straight flush. When someone had the cards and was willing to take the chance… kid had real gumption to play that hand to completion. Sonja’d have to watch him… maybe he wasn’t as big an idiot as his uncle. No wonder Solace liked him.

Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C 9H 7S AC – FOLD (Ace High Flush)
Solace: 10H 10S KS KH 10D KC KD – Four Kings
Theodosia: 9D 8S 2D 5H xx xx xx – FOLD
Lukas: 6S 5S QS 4S 4D 3S 2S – Straight Flush in Spades
Edward: 9C 7C 10C JC QC 3H QH – MUCK (Queen High Flush)
Elvis: AS 7D 7H AH JS AD 2H – Full House (Aces/Sevens)

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 15

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

Explaining Poker Terms
I didn’t know if the poker notation was a good choice or not, but I figured it would help people follow what was going on a bit better. C = Clubs, D = Diamonds, H = Hearts, and S = Spades. Yes. almost every hand (and every 2 card hole pair) has at least one nickname. Below is an explanation of each.

  • Seven Card Stud = This is the game they’re playing. It is a stud variant, meaning that there is no discarding. Instead, the game proceeds in 5 betting rounds. Before the first, the players ante, then they’re dealt 2 cards face down (hole cards) and 1 card face up. Then there is a round of betting. After that, the players each get a second face up card… and another round of betting. A third face up card, round of betting, fourth face up card, round of betting, and a final face down card (the River) and a final round of betting. In the first round, the player with the lowest face up card starts the betting, but after that, the player with the best hand starts every subsequent round.
  • Broken Wand = My own name for the 4 of Clubs. Clubs are also known as Staves or Wands, and 4s are called ‘Broken Aces’ because a 4 looks like an A with one leg missing. An Ace can be called The Heart or The Cup, The Spade or The Sword, The Club or The Wand/Stave, and The Diamond or The Coin/Pentacle. So a Broken Ace of Clubs is the Broken Wand.
  • Suicide King = Because the King of Hearts is often depicted stabbing himself in the head, he’s called the Suicide King.
  • King David = The King of Spades is nicknamed ‘King David’
  • Pair of Knights = Kings are abbreviated K, so a pair of knights is two Kings
  • Pedro the Lover = Pedro, Nickel, Five-Spot, and Fever are all nicknames for a 5, and ‘the lover’ is a Heart. Five of Hearts. Pedro references a different card game.
  • Sailboat Regatta = A Sailboat is another name for a Four because the 4 looks like a sail, A Regatta is many Sailboats, and since a Spade also looks like a sail, the 4 of Spades is a Sailboat Regatta.
  • Lancelot = One of the specific nicknames for the Jack of Clubs.
  • Sargent Pepper = My own invention. The Ace of Hearts is a ‘Lonely Heart’, and well… it’s a Beatles reference.
  • Neener My Love = Neener is a corruption of Niner or Nine. My Love is a Heart. Neener My Love is the Nine of Hearts
  • Big Cassino = The Ten of Diamonds is called the Big Cassino because of the card game Cassino. It is not a misspelling of Casino.
  • Fancy Boat = The Fancy Boat is the Four of Diamonds. The Love Boat is the Four of Hearts.
  • The Lady with the Big Stick = The Lady is a Queen and the Big Stick is a Club. Queen of Clubs.
  • Ogier the Dane = Ogier the Dane is a nickname for the Jack of Spades. As are Pam and Eunuch.
  • Salmon of Doubt = Salmon is a nickname for a Seven. The Salmon of Doubt is a book by Douglas Adams (hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy… sci-fi… Space… Spades)… I made up the name as an homage. Dunno if it works, but many of these are already silly.
  • Alexander = Nickname of the King of Clubs.
  • The One-Eyed King = Nickname of the King of Diamonds, aka The Man with the Ax, the Butcher of Baghdad, and Julius Caesar.
  • Musketeers = Spades are Swords. Three Swords is Three Musketeers. Three of Spades. I made this one up.
  • Sebastian = A three is called a ‘Crab’ (no idea why). But Sebastian is the Crab from Little Mermaid, a love story. Hearts. Crab of Hearts is Sebastian. I made this one up.
  • The Pig’s Eye = The Diamond Ace is called this.
  • The River = the final card in 7 card stud.
  • Burn = before dealing the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th cards (4th Street, 5th Street, 6th Street, and The River) the dealer discards a card face down, burning it.
  • Ante = The starting price to play the hand. Usually quite nominal. In this game, it was $1.
  • Bring-in = Whoever has the lowest card showing after the initial deal in 7 Card Stud pays the Bring-In or Folds. This is an opening bid, and it’s usually less than the full bid. The player after the one who pays the Bring-in can call the Bring-in, or ‘Complete’ the bid and go to the full bid. In this game the Bring-In was $2 and the Full Bid was $5. Both are considered ‘Calling’. No Checking (saying I’ll wait to see what everyone else does) is allowed in the first round of bidding in 7 Card Stud. The second player can also raise. In this game, it would have been to $10.
  • Limit Bid = This means that all raises are in increments of 5… or later 10. Not all limit bidding doubles the limit in the second half of the hand.
  • 20/40 = this means that the first two rounds of bidding (sometimes three) are played with a limit of $20 per person. Then the last three (or two) rounds of bidding have a limit twice that, at $40. Sometimes the Limit is doubled when the cap is doubled, sometimes it isn’t. There are many many many house rules for poker.
  • Any other questions, just ask.

Solace Verse Local

The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.13

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 13: Square-Dance, Revenge Style

Previously: A Pas-de-Deux with You and You

TIMESTAMP: 1890 PD

“Heya Sandy-Girl,” said a voice from the other side of the room and, aged though it was, she knew those inflections, the gentle biting mockery in them. Not that she ever forgot anything (well, sometimes she did need to be reminded that planned events were happening in the near future, but so did everyone else… there was a difference between remembering that someone’s birthday was June 15th and remembering to buy them a present because June 15th was in two days. Even a perfect memory needs a day planner.), but she had few more important memories than those featuring that voice.

HMCS Atalanta was assigned to the Maya Sector of the Solarian League, a sector which included (in a rough way) The Phoenix Republic, Atropos, Erewhon, and (unfortunately) Congo, a star system owned entirely by Manpower Inc and populated almost entirely by slaves. The entire region was a weird one. Far from Manticore physically, largely isolated from the growing tension of the war everyone knew was coming, it lay between Haven and the Solarian League and were it not for the Phoenix Wormhole ‘Junction’ (not really a junction but actually two termini of two different junctions in neighboring star-systems, the Hennesy Terminus of the Manticoran and the Terra Haute Terminus of the Erewhon), and the Atropos Terminus of the Jewel Junction, Manticore would probably be disinclined to meddle… but they did exist and so here she was, running messages for Queen and Country.

Each of the worlds out here beyond the Solarian Verge was strange in its own way. Congo… or as Manpower liked to call it ‘Verdant Vista’ was a slave colony that no one quite wanted to do something about (No matter what the Cherwell Convention on Genetic Slavery might have to say about the legality of the world). Erewhon was actually and officially run by oligarchs who descended from old time crime bosses, and whose industry was among the least corrupt in the known universe. The actual Maya Sector’s capital was a planet called ‘Smoking Frog’ and they were the only Frontier Sector to actually negotiate somewhat favorable terms with the League’s Office of Frontier Security and thus avoid becoming puppet states at the same time they became protectorates. And Atropos was the deadliest world humanity had ever encountered and still decided to colonize. Home to extreme isolationists, the New Magi Order was technically a colony of Jewel, to whom they provided resources and military personnel in exchange for being left alone.

Jewel, comprised of two star systems just like Manticore, was a distant binary with a four termini junction… and if Atropos was on the southern flank of Haven, then the Jewel-Corona system and its junction were on Haven’s western flank, almost in the center of a triangle formed by Manticore, Basilisk, and Trevor’s Star. Their king was young, energetic, and beloved… and absolutely dedicated to the cause of peace… odd for a country that had had its foundation as a pirate state and still celebrated pirates in its art and culture… including, of all things a day once a year where everyone talked like a pirate. And not a space pirate either, but an Old Earth sea pirate. Very strange. Especially since their navy, the largest cruiser fleet outside of the Solarian League, was largely in the business of providing mercenary commerce escorts.

For the last six months, Solace had been making regular runs to Erewhon and Smoking Frog, delivering diplomatic correspondence as fast as Atalanta could go. She wasn’t privy to the contents of those messages, but it was fairly obvious that the Cromarty Government, which governed Manticore in the name of Parliament and the Queen, was trying to put together a coalition of systems to stand against Haven’s relentless aggression. Of course, most of the systems that lay between Haven and the Solarian League or Haven and Manticore were tiny single system propositions like Alazon, Zanzibar, Erewhon, Grayson, or Masada, And those that weren’t, like Phoenix, Jewel, and Manticore herself, were the hubs of trade routes or dead poor. Most of the remaining single system polities were even poorer, like Yorik, Zuckerman, Minette, Casca, and Idaho… but all of them had two somethings Manticore could use… position and people.

If they also had resources to help support the war effort, that was a bonus… but not one Solace had any way of knowing about. Well, she could have read up on the ‘official’ reports, but those were about as useful as a bag of sand in the desert. No nation in its right mind advertised its resources when an aggressive neighbor with a very large military had spent the last two t-centuries gobbling up everything in its reach.

And so the delicate soft shoe of diplomacy, espionage’s ‘evil twin’. Sure sure, espionage was vicious, underhanded, and often murderous… but diplomacy? Diplomacy was pretending to play nice while figuring out how many times you could stab the other guy before he noticed… all while wondering how many times you’d already been stabbed. Diplomacy was making deals no one liked in the hopes that if you swallowed enough poison you’d build up a tolerance for it.

As a Diplomatic Captain as well a minor celebrity, Solace would often arrive in a system only to be told to wait while her missives were decoded and a reply generated… oh, and the Lord High Muckety Muck of Poobah Land was having a party and won’t you please come? She was heartily sick of diplomatic parties… and proposals.

The Caliph of Zanzibar had wanted her to marry his nephew, the Crown-Prince of Alizon had wanted her to marry his son, the President of Candor has wanted her to be his mistress (and he’d asked right in front of his wife), and Protector Benjamin VIII of Grayson had wanted her to be his third wife. She’d had to gracefully explain that, as a Jew, she had no intention of converting to Bahai, Rastafarianism, Presbyterianism, or Grayson’s weird technophobic branch of Christianity and that, furthermore, she’d expect all their children to be raised Jewish as well… that last had, thankfully, been a dealbreaker in every case but Candor’s, and there she’d had to explain that her mother would probably want to assassinate the President if she said yes, so really she was doing him a favor by saying no.

Smoking Frog was actually a pretty nice place then, by comparison. She was luxuriating in forty-eight hours of leave while Atalanta’s nodes were taken all the way down for maintenance (they were normally kept hot for reasons of haste), and for the first twenty hours, no one had proposed to her or asked her to dance any weird culturally significant but usually astoundingly silly dance, and she’d been able to find a really nice restaurant (where she’d almost proposed to the desert chef), a wonderful day spa where the masseur had hands like granite wrapped in silk and an accent that she couldn’t place but that did all sorts of things for her libido, and a techno-rave dance-club where she could let her hair down and really soak up the ambiance of mindless youth partying meaninglessly at 112 decibels amid a constellation of flashing spinning whirling lights. The emotional high was like nothing else and she’d had to really restrain herself from bringing one or more of the pretty people back to her hotel room… but she hadn’t. She wasn’t really the kind to pick up a bit of strange without a comprehensive background check first. She fervently hoped that Minerva was having more fun on that front than she was. Someone should be. But fun was the last thing on Solace’s might right then… she had danced herself ragged and all she wanted to do now was sleep.

Which was why, as she stumbled back into her suite an hour before local dawn, she’d not been expecting someone to be sitting in the dark in her room. The ‘cats, who’d spent the evening hunting Smoking Frog’s indigenous tree-voles in the national forest outside her hotel, had been asleep by the time she’d returned from clubbing and she hadn’t bothered to wake them, knowing that they knew how to reach her if they needed anything. And so, she was alone and very tired, but in a good way, when she opened the door and that voice, like an arrow of out the past, hit her square in the emotions.

“Jimmy?” She asked, scarcely believing it. “I looked for you in Beowulf! They said you’d been fostered out but kept running away to join the circus! Eventually they lost track of you!”

“Ah ah ah,” he said, rising to his feet and doing a little pirouette which brought a pair of throwing knives into each of his hands. “I’ve changed my name too, little sister.” Arms spread wide, he bowed, straightened, then launched all four knives directly at her.

“Sister?” she asked, turning just enough to allow the light of the hall to catch on the blades, then plucking them out of the air. She set them on the table. “And let me guess, your new name ends in X?”

“Of course you’re my sister… we have the same horrible parents, do we not?” He laughed, doffed an invisible hat, did a little cappering dance, and threw up his arms in a ‘ta’da!’ “Indeed! Not as grand as Grand Duchess Solace-and-Justice Yekaterina Anna-Maria von Lichtenstein-Heartburn Lubyanka-Smythe, but I am, as you see me, Jeremy X, of the Audubon Ballroom.”

She ignored the title he’d given her and the extra nonsense he’d added to her name. “Jeremy? You’re the infamous Jeremy X? Why Jeremy?”

“Jimmy is a boy’s name. Jeremy? A little older boy’s name. You look good Sandy.” He hopped up onto her bed, crossing his legs as he flew and landing indian style.

“You do too. Terrorism and murder suit you.”

“And you!” he responded, unbothered by the characterization, “but I’ve known that from the beginning.”

“You’ve been keeping track of me?”

“Me? No. Took me years to figure out where you’d gone… not until your agents starting looking for me… how big of an organization do you have now? Does your queen know you’re funding a war?”

“It’s not a war yet. It’s merely a war in potential… the build up to war. Like my queen, I’m getting my pieces all in a row. Why, do you want to join me?”

“Funny… I was going to ask you if you were willing to join us.”

“I can’t, Jimmy. I swore an oath to serve Manticore. I can’t just run off and fight with you. Maybe if you had a nation backing you, I could ask the Admiralty’s leave to serve in your military… but the Ballroom doesn’t have a fleet.”

“You could be our spy-master?”

“Me? Ha. I’m a rank amateur. You want my brother, Loyal. And Manpower aren’t my parents… they’re my creator… and not in the good way. Mary and Hope are my parents… I’m sorry I didn’t think to bring you with me… I didn’t understand what family was then.”

He smiled sadly, “I was very mad at you when you ran off… I thought you weak to shed tears. I blame being seven. But I do forgive you. Have you seen Rudy?”

“I have! He’s soo fat now… and his family! Eighteen kids! Madness… Eighteen’s a good number in Judaism. It means life.”

“You have religion?” he asked, incredulously.

“Of course I do… why woudn’t I?”

“You’d worship a god who allows such evil to happen?”

She shrugged, “I wouldn’t have the free will not worship a god who would stop it.”

“Well, that’s probably true… but doesn’t it bother you?”

“If the soul is eternal as they say, then a mortal life is but the larval stage. That means we’re all children, playing at games we think to be of the highest import, but in reality? They are little more than the squabbles of youth, and the evil we see around us little worse than an early bedtime or a stolen dolly. God gives us morals to guide us in doing the right thing, but never stops caring for us when we do the wrong thing. And we? We honor God for all the things they have given us and only occasionally yell at him for being a feckless thug sometimes.”

Jeremy laughed, “Well, at least you’re not forgiving Manpower, right?”

Her face firmed. “Oh. I’ll forgive them all right… once they’re dead or they’ve made a sincere attempt at atonement.”

“Atonement? You really believe such a thing is possible?”

Possible? Yes. Likely? No… but if tomorrow the head of Manpower gave out a list of all his customers, freed all the remaining slaves, and pledged honestly to turn his corporation’s assets to the cause of ending Genetic Slavery once and for all? Yeah, I’d consider forgiving him.”

“After all the pain they’ve caused?”

“Pain is the past, Jeremy. Forgiveness is for the future,” she said, sighing. “I’m not saying you have to forget what they’ve done. Only a fool would do that… and I certainly wouldn’t trust such a one without a watchdog… but if we ever hope to bring them down… we’re going to need to find those among their number who have grown to see the evil they have done and desire to make what restitution they can.”

“Heh. I’ll believe it when I see it… oh… hah. Good one,” he said, thumping his palm against his forehead as she quirked an eyebrow at him and began juggling his knives. “Rudy.”

“Rudy,” she agreed. “After all… there are those who would see what we have done as wickedness. Children who can kill without mercy? Without hesitation? Without regret? There are many who’d consider us monsters.”

“Aren’t we though? Aren’t we abominations crafted by sociopaths?”

“No we’re not. We were children who sought that most basic of all rights; the right to chart our own course, who refused to be property, to be play things. We killed because it was the only way to be free.”

“And all the deaths you’ve caused since… have you felt any remorse at all?”

“Oh, Jeremy… of course I have.”

“Really?” He asked, sitting up stiffly as she hugged him.

“Not for the lives I’ve taken… but for the lives I’ve failed to save.”

“Oh,” he said, the false cheer in his voice falling away and she felt a spot of wetness on her bare shoulder.

“Now that you know I don’t think you’re a bad person, why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”

He laughed. It was half-a-sob, but it was the first genuine laugh that she’d heard from him ever and he pushed her gently away, flipping backwards and up to his feet… of course, since he was standing on a waterbed, he promptly banged his head against the wall, but he was smiling. “I came to invite you to a meeting.”

“Of the Ballroom?” she asked, dubiously.

“Of minds. No, this is sponsored by the Anti-Slavery League. W.E.B. Du Havel and Hieronymus Stein will be speaking, as will Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou… We’d like you to speak as well.”

“Me? Why me?”

“Sandy… do you really have to ask?”

“Ummm… yes? I’m a member of the league… and my family gives a lot of money to support league programs… but I’m not an expert on slavery or fighting slavers.”

“No… you’re just an ex-slave who just so happens to have been honored by the three most influential Star Nations outside of the Solarian League itself.”

“Most people don’t know about my past…” she said, lamely.

“Are you embarrassed by it?”

“I… no. I just don’t like letting it define me in other people’s eyes… don’t give me that look, Jimmy!” She said, threatening him with one of his own knives. “People don’t make assumptions about K series ex-slaves. Same for Utility or Technical. With V and F Lines people might assume they’re dumb until they speak, or assume they’re big and strong… but people hear C-Line and think we’re all just submissive play things who can’t go five minutes without a shag.”

He smirked, “A Shag? Is that what you Manties call it?”

“Oh shut up.” She frowned.

“Look, you don’t have to tell anyone anything you don’t want to… but I think you’d be a good role model for younger survivors trying to build lives for themselves.”

“I don’t. I was very lucky to be taken in by Mary and Hope.”

“Yeah yeah, and they totally fought all your battles for you and did all that boring classwork which made you top of your class at the academy. You didn’t do any of that on your own?” He was dancing about on the bed, pretending to stumble back and forth as the water shifted. It was very distracting.

“Would you knock that off…” she began, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll check with Ambassador Cosgrove and see what he says. Technically, I’m under the Diplomatic Corp not the Admiralty, but I’m still active duty and need permission.” He opened his mouth to say something, but she wagged a finger at him. “And you’re lucky I didn’t hurt you when you threw those knives at me. I’ve gotten a lot more dangerous since we were children.”

“Haven’t we all?”

====

“I’ve read your work,” Solace said, feeling a little out of her depth amid these scholars of the human condition.

W.E.B. duHavel smiled, “And? What did you think?”

“I like what you say about dignity and how it’s the one thing that can never be taken away from you… but it’s not.”

The much older man, former a labor slave, mmm’d? “Oh No? I suppose you’re going to say that honor can’t be taken away from you either?”

Solace smirked at that, then shrugged. “If you’re going to put words in my mouth, do I even need to be here for this debate?” That earned her a guffaw from the even older Heronymous Stein and a chuckle from Ludmilla Evchenko, the Maya Sector’s Commissioner of Human Rights. DuHavel frowned at that but she continued before he could issue a rejoinder. “I’d never make that claim. Honor and dignity are very nearly the same thing, or at least part of a larger even more elusive concept. No. I was going to say that, unfortunately, I don’t believe that there is anything that a person cannot be stripped of, given a dedicated enough opposition. Too many ways to get inside a person’s head. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s only that.”

“I… see…” He considered, still frowning and his emotions showed that he wasn’t thrilled to have his central argument so criticized, but he wasn’t angry with her. He was carefully considering his words, when Jeremy, dressed like a hotel steward, opened the door and escorted in a well built man of asian extraction.

“Jacque!” cried Hieronymus. “You made it! We were thinking you’d been eaten by tree-voles!”

Solace studied the man, trying to place where she knew him from as he circled the room, double clasping the hands of those he knew and giving nods to those he didn’t as he made his way round the room. She smoothed down the expensive blouse she’d spent all together too much time and money acquiring earlier in the day, as she compared his face to everyone she could remember having met… why couldn’t her memory be more like a computer? Where did she know this man from… it was going to drive her mad… And what was up with that name? Benton-Ramirez y Chou… Chou… ah ha!

As he reached her, she said, “Your moustache was smaller in the picture.”

“Picture?” he asked, twilling his ridiculous handlebar style facial hair.

“In Alfred Harrington’s office at Bassingford,” she replied, calling up the room out of memory. “You, Dr. Mrs. Harrington, Alfred, and Honor.”

He quirked an eyebrow at that. “You know the Harringtons? A, don’t tell me,” he said, holding up a hand. “You don’t know them socially… You’re familiar with Alfred and Honor, but you’re not on a first name basis with Allison. Therefor, I surmise that, despite the lack of a uniform, you must be the redoubtable Solace Smythe.”

“I am… And I assume that means you must be Dr. Mr.s Harrington’s brother?”

He beamed hugely. “That I am! It is my greatest claim to fame… though we have met before.”

“Have we?” she asked, searching back through her memory and resisting the urge to straighten his tie… tie… tie pin… doctor… “Oh… yes.” she blushed a little. “You were one of the doctors Mary took me to see before the Smythes adopted me. You were much less ridiculously moustached in those days.”

He chuckled. “I was, yes. Lower ranking, less slack. Now I am such an exalted personage that none but foreigners dare tell me that I look silly.”

“You talk funny too.”

“Well, it comes with the territory. I’m glad you found a home for yourself… though I’m a bit surprised that you are so close with the Harringtons.”

“Surprised? Why so?”

“Your mother nearly got Alfred kicked out of the Marine Corps. There was a great deal of animosity there for several years. Allison called your mother several unflattering things and very nearly challenged her to a duel before Alfred pointed out to her that she’d never actually fired a gun at someone and Mary Smythe… well, Mary Lubyanka at the time, had done so a great deal.”

“Why would Mary try to… I’m confused.”

“Alfred didn’t start out as a doctor. He joined the Marines to pay for medical school. Mary, his superior officer, gave him a scathing review. She said he was unfit for active duty, lacked the resolve needed to be a Marine, and should be given a job in supply before he got his company killed with his lack of aggression.”

“Oof. That does sound like Mary… but it also sounds like it was at least thirty years ago… Maybe they made up?”

“Perhaps. It honestly didn’t occur to me that you might know the Harringtons before I saw your ‘cats and remembered Honor asking me to acquire another frisbee for a friend of hers. Are you two still in contact?”

“We write, whenever we have a chance. It’s her turn, but you know how slow mail can be getting to and from Silesia.”

Jeremy popped his head between them. “Did someone say Honor Harrington?”

Solace caught the porter’s hat as it fell from Jeremy’s head and mashed it back down, pushing him out of her personal space. “Yes. How do you know Honor, Jimmy?”

“This is Jimmy? The same Jimmy you escaped from Mesa with?” Jacque asked, amusement in his voice and mindglow.

“Yess… though he’s calling himself Jeremy X these days,” Solace grumped. “Ridiculous affectation. X. Trying to sound all mysterious and cool.”

Jeremy grinned. “Me? Sound Cool? Nonsense! I am a dashing rogue! A bon-vivant. A-”

“A madcap murderous punchinello?” Jacque suggested.

Jeremy laughed! “Indeed! But as for the equally dashing… one might even say stalwart Honor of the Harringtons? I do, indeed, have news! Mostly good… a little bad.”

“What’s the bad news?” Jacque asked, sounding worried.

“”Never you fear. The Lieutenant Commander is fine,” Jeremy assured the Beowulfan. “She got a bit banged up in a pub on Breslau, coming to the aid of one of my fellow freedom fighters, the most formidable Lupus X. Having met by happy chance, and being unwilling to let such serendipity pass unattended, the duo did rouse their fellows and effectuate a raid, off the books of course, of a local facilitator of the institution we are all here to discuss.”

Jacques blinked, trying to parse the report, and Solace sighed. “Jimmy… you use a great many words when a few would suffice. Jacques, he means that Honor got dragged into a bar-fight between a slave-agent’s goons and a Ballroom agent. The Ballroom agent then roped her and some of her shipmates into breaking up a clandestine slave-auction…” She glanced at Jimmy for confirmation just as the sound of automatic weapons fire and screaming came from outside the greenroom.

As if in slow motion, Solace watched the occupants of the room react. There were four groups of actors. The Civilians, like Stein and Evchenko, turned to look towards the door. The Survivors, like duHavel and some of the other panelists, dove to the floor or took cover behind solid objects. The Combatants, like Chou and Jeremy, also turned toward the door, but not out of curiosity. They were readying themselves and they (as well as every attendant in the room) were drawing weapons. Then there was the convention organizer, Stepan Bayers. He was nervously checking his timepiece and glancing towards the backdoor to the room, the one guarded by a pair of rent-a-cops.

Solace thought about notifying the other two, but instead directed Ruth and Naomi towards the side door as she stepped up next to the odd-man-out and whispered, “tell me who’s attacking us and I won’t kill you.”

Mr. Beyers flinched, looked up at her, opened his mouth to proclaim his innocence, then gulped as he met her eyes. “S… scrags… s… super-soldiers… they work for Manpower… hunting down runaways… th… they have my daughter. Threatened to kill her… what else could I do?”

“They’re going to kill your daughter anyway. You as well. You could have been a man.” She grabbed him around the throat with one hand and, glancing towards the guards who were just now reaching to open the door, sent a pulse of confirmation to Ruth and Naomi. At the same time that Stepan Beyers was being hurled across the room, both guards found their side-arms liberated by a pair of telempathic arborials and their pants falling down around their ankles.

The side door flew open as the organizer’s eighty kilo frame smashed into it. Beyond, eight armed and armored figures stood, momentarily taken aback as their accomplice flew through the door. In that second of hesitation, each of the ‘cats flipped the safeties off the heavy pulse pistols and tossed them into the air. As the octet began to recover, raising their weapons towards the ready. Solace’s long strides carried her right between the two handguns and she caught them in a cross-body motion, then snapped them straight, firing without pausing to line up her shots.

The impacts of the super-dense plasma smashed the attackers backwards, but these pulsers were subdual weapons, not lethal even at this distance unless aimed very well. Solace Smythe aimed very well and three of the air went down with crushed larynxes. If they got medical attention very soon, they’d survive. Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t very likely as Solace, Ruth, and Naomi crossed out of the greenroom and into the hallway.

With ruthless efficiency, Solace rammed both pistols into the lead scrag’s chest, slamming him back into a second as she pulled the triggers twice more, emptying the six round plasma-capacitor that was all hired security on Smoking Frog was allowed to carry. She heard the crunch of ribs breaking and felt the heat wash back over her hands, but ignored the pain as she grabbed the leader’s machine gun, twisting the strap to crush his throat as she turned, opening fire into the three to the left as she used the man’s body to shield herself from the last.

As the gun fell silent, she heard the last man scream as the ‘cats sank their claws into his hands, then he went silent as Naomi’s true-feet dug into his manhood and ripped down with all her might. Telling the ‘cats to wait in the hall, Solace grabbed two of the machine-rifles and peeked around the corner of the doorframe back into the greenroom. In the 6 seconds it had taken her to clear the hall, the other door had opened and Jacques and Jeremy had taken cover as a dozen more scrags entered the room… was that a camera crew?!

“Nobody move and most of you walk out of here in one piece. We only want the terrorists and their accomp…”

Solace sighted down the rifle and blew the speaker’s head off, then began walking her fire across the men who were with him. All of them looked like they had come out of central casting; Type 3 Bruiser, ugly, strong, beetle-browed. But they weren’t identical, nor were they incompetent per se. They clearly knew what their own guns sounded like and the first six shots didn’t cause most of them to react except to continue moving to secure their zone. In every case, Solace was shooting the trailing man of the four 3-man squads and then they were four 2-man squads and she was lining up to take out number eight when the cameraman of all people yelled, “From the Back Door!”

She had just enough time to drop to the floor before the remaining five gunmen aimed her way and opened fire with a hail of darts. She rolled across the frame, sighted, and shot one in the ankle, aiming as always for wherever their combat fatigues weren’t. She didn’t know if they had anti-ballistic outfits, but they weren’t dressed like people expecting to be shot back at. Then again, neither was she. Stupid Solace. Stupid.

A blossom of pain lanced through her mind and she felt Ruth cry out as one of the darts ripped through the wall and into the ‘cat’s shoulder. The pain was utterly unlike anything Solace had ever felt, obliterating thought and, with a primal scream, she stood, dove over the downward aimed needles, and hurled her rifle at the first of the gunmen so hard that his head snapped backward to bump into the middle of his back. A needle hit her in her chest, a second clipped her ear, four more hit her in the belly, and a seventh smacked into her pelvis, but most of those places were covered with anti-ballistic fabric. The shot that ripped off three of the fingers on her left hand slowed her less than the others had and she was feeling no pain as she whipped a chair into gunmen ten and eleven, then proceeded to beat number twelve to death with a rostrom.

She was breathing hard, chest hitching, as she felt a handgun’s barrel press against the back of her head. It was the fucking cameraman… he wasn’t a scrag… how had he moved that fast? “Godric Detweiler’s father sends his reg-”

That was as far as he got before Jeremy X cut his throat.

=====

“I don’t know whether to be horrified or impressed,” Jacques said when Solace came to. They were aboard the Biological Survey Corps Ship Pasteur, technically a battlecruiser, though one designed more to hunt pirates and slavers than to stand in the Wall of Battle, and it had, by far, the best medical facility in the Maya sector.

“Both?” Solace hazarded, then asked “Ruth?”

“She’s fine. Broken true-arm, some internal bleeding, but it looks like the wall took most of it. Lucky I was here… I’m something of a treecat expert… you on the other hand… you should be dead. You walked right into the fire of half a dozen needle-rifles. You lost an ear, most of your hand, and have 18 cracked ribs and a bruised sternum and pelvis. Oh… and the sector Governor is threatening to have you arrested on conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, claiming that you attacked a news crew and their armed escort without provocation…. Why are you laughing?”

“I… you… oww…” she managed to get out, then shrugged as best she could, unable to explain how hilarious it was to do something like this and for once, no one was trying to give her a damned medal!

“I think I’ll choose to be impressed, in a horrified kind of way,” the Beowulfan said as she tried not to groan at the pain. “Last time we talked about your background, I told you that the 76a variant was very rare… but I didn’t tell you what we think the reason is.”

Solace panted softly and dialed her painkillers down a little. She wanted to be lucid for this. “I… I’ve figured that I was breeding stock. Some asshole wanted genetically advanced grandchildren.”

“Ah…. yes… that was our thought too… but it’s more than that. Enhanced strength, reaction time, pain resistance, kinesthetic sense… those are traits from a super-soldier line… your memory, self-control, intelligence, and intuition… you tested near or at the limits of our ability to test those. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were someone’s attempt to make what a eugenicist might call ‘the next step in human evolution’,” Jacques explained. “And I know a little something about that. Alfred and Honor are descended from Meirdahl Beta genies… you have a lot of similar adaptations in your genome… but more extreme.”

“Maybe there’s a cabal of wealthy, amorale jackasses secretly in league with Manpower?” She suggested, feeling a little giddy. “They might trade influence to keep the slave trade flowing in exchange for an improved legacy?”

“Maybe. But if so… Manpower’s just a company, right?”

“That’s what they said about the British & Dutch East India Companies, or Google and Amazon… maybe Manpower and Jessyk and the other Mesan Transtellars are all connected?”

“Seems far fetched to me. Probably the pain making you loopy. I’ll check back in in a few hours,” He rose to leave, but Solace grabbed his wrist in her good hand.

“Jacques… does the name Godric Detweiler mean anything to you?” She couldn’t see his, and for years after would wonder if it was all in her drug and pain addled mind, but he seemed to stiffen profoundly for a moment… though he didn’t answer.

=====

Solace recovered with the speed of someone who took very well to the regen therapies, and was soon back on her way. Ruth recovered a bit slower, be soon enough she too was back to pretending to be an officer or a monarch or (in one very silly case) a hydroponics tech trying to access the celery patch aboard HMS Bellerophon while Solace was delivering the mail.

She was not to see Jeremy again during her time commanding Atalanta, but from time to time a message would reach her from the Ballroom. Some of them were just FYI kinds of things, heads ups for her network or herself or for Manticore in general. Other times, they were requests for aid, either financial or material, and never in amounts she found hard to pull together… and once in a while, they would list assets that the Ballroom had liberated and could not make use of… such as a Axelrod mobile shipyard designed to turn out smaller ships.

The entire thing was crammed into a max-hull freighter and would take some serious infrastructure to support, as well as the, no pun intended, manpower and design crews… and it was just for building hulls… other systems, such as powerplants and weapons would be another matter… but for all intents and purposes the thing was a ‘Baby-star-nation’s First Infrastructure’. She didn’t ask where they’d gotten it, simply bought it off them and arranged for it to be delivered to Andros-Brandyne with a note that said, “Never say I don’t get you presents.”

Finally, towards the end of 1891, upon returning to Erewhon from yet another trip to Smoking Frog, Solace found orders waiting for her, not from the Diplomatic Corps, but from the Admiralty. “From Admiral Sir James Bowie Webster, Fifth Space Lord, Royal Manticoran Navy to Commander Solace-and-Justice Smythe, Royal Manticoran Diplomatic Corps, First-Day, Eighth-Month, Year Two Hundred and Seventy-Five After Landing. Madam: You are hereby directed and required to proceed to HMS Manticore, Flagship, Homefleet, there to take up the post of Executive Officer under Captain Theodosia Kuzak in the service of the Crown. Fail not in this charge at your peril. By order of Admiral Lord Hayden O’Higgins, First Lord of Admiralty, Royal Manticoran Navy, for Her Majesty the Queen.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 14

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Solace Verse Local

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.12

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 12: A Pas-de-Deux with You and You

Previously: Last Mosh in Paris

TIMESTAMP: 1889 PD

Seven sets of eyes were watching as Solace was escorted out of the Spire, Nouveau Paris’s Metropolitan Police HQ by an incredibly nervous functionary who had been woken up in the early morning hours and told, by one of the scariest humans in the galaxy, to make a situation disappear. At first, Wallace Canning had protested that assassinations weren’t his job, but the look that Oscar Saint-Just had given him over the comlink had made him shut his mouth and mumble an apology.

“Tell the Manticoran Woman that it was all a big misunderstanding and that we’re releasing her immediately. Then get her to agree not to mention this to anyone. Especially not the President when she meets with him tomorrow night!” The InSec Man had ordered and Canning, quite junior in the diplomatic corps and well aware that Saint-Just had destroyed the careers of others who’d failed him, had rushed to obey.

Of course, upon arrival, he’d found the woman already out of her cell and restraints and regaling the Commissioner and the Chief of Inspectors with a story about how she had once gotten so drunk that she’d accidentally stolen the Lord Mayor of Landing’s yacht for a party with two-hundred of her closest friends. “It was an easy mistake to maaake!” she squealed, waving her hands in a devil-may-care fashion, “It was dark! My yacht’s a lovely pink Excelsior 640b and the Lord Mayor has a beige Excelsior 640r! Of course, the interiors are totally different, but, hey! I was drunk!”

Wallace Canning looked at the young, vibrant, stunningly beautiful woman and wondered, longingly, how long it would take for him to embezzle enough money out of his department to afford to buy someone like her from Manpower… and then she looked at him. Really looked at him, and her eyes told him that she would, in that moment, willfully rip out his throat with her bare teeth and he wanted to run screaming from the room… but the moment passed and her expression, which had never changed from one of lighthearted banter, reached her eyes again. Canning had to wonder if he’d imagined it. Surely he had. The visceral surge of predatory loathing he’d thought he’d felt must have been guilt. He laughed nervously then offered her all the platitudes he could muster.

====

As they walked down the steps of the Spire, Solace felt intense regard aimed her way. Hatred and Anger, Curiosity and the Kind of Super Disdain that only some Nobles and most Fanatics had, Curiosity and Confusion, Curiosity and Admiration, someone being Concerned, someone wanting a tummy rub, and someone trying to pretend she wasn’t worried and didn’t very much need a nap. Solace had felt five of those mindglows before. Three she knew like the back of her own hand, as the Concern was Loyal, the tummy rub was Ruth, and the Worry-fatigue was Naomi. The fourth familiar glows she’d encountered at customs on Isle d’Haven, and the last was the boy Kevin who’d warned them of the coming raid. That meant that InSec and the Aprilists were both keeping an eye on her. The Anger was probably one of the officers she’d intercepted, almost certainly this Inspector Duval. And that meant that the Disdain was probably from someone in the CRU.

She felt the hatred spike and deliberately stumbled against Canning, knocking him over and pretending to get caught in his legs just as a hypervelocity dart passed through the space her head had occupied the moment before. Behind her, the window-wall of the Spire splintered as the dart hit it, stopping cold as its energy bled into the anti-ballistic material. Alarms sounded as the Spire went into lockdown and officers poured out the front door already in riot gear, weapons drawn. Solace felt a bolt of irritation and then saw an officer in full gear rushing towards her, not out of the Spire but from the same direction the shot had come and she instinctively reached for a sidearm… that wasn’t there.

The figure was fifteen meters from her and approaching at a dead run, pistol in one hand, almost certainly unregistered needler concealed in the other, the thrill of impending victory and vindication in his mindglow… and she had no weapons… except the conniving, lecherous toad’s attache case. She pretended not to notice it as she allowed Wallace to steady her, feeling sickened by the nearness of him and the sense of his arousal at touching her, then stepped down onto the attache, falling backwards as she hooked one heel under it and launched it, spinning through the air,

The crack as the heavy near-crocodile leather bag shattered Pontchartrain Duval’s tactical armor visor could be heard over the shouting of the other gendarmes and the wailing of the alarms and he went down, unable to believe the bitch’s luck… and certain that God was punishing him for something. Then, his freshly set nose broken again, he blacked out, even before his head could bounce off the pavement, his helmet saving him from a fractured skull.

As Duval’s head stopped bouncing, Kevin Usher reached out from under the parked police-wagon he was hiding under and snagged Duval’s ID, service weapon, cuffs, ammo belt, stun rod, and wallet… then his belt and shoes just for good measure before sliding back down into the sewers to escape notice. BC Delta would want to know about this latest development, and Sigma would probably let him have some of her wine for the loot. Sigma always had the best wine and cheese… and sometimes even real coffee, courtesy of her job at Bistro d’Zig, the most exclusive restaurant in all Nouveau Paris. She was a hell of a chef, was BC Sigma.

Solange McQuarry could not believe her eyes. No one was that good… and no one was that lucky. The airheaded bimbo had beaten up a baker’s dozen of Saint-Just’s thugs because she was too drunk to realize they were cops apparently… or because they really had tried something… Solange wouldn’t put it past some of the moronic dolist slime that joined InSec’s MetroPol Force just for a chance at enough power to bully people around… and then survived not one but two assassination attempts in the space of three seconds flat by dint of being colossally clumsy or blessed by the Almighty. For this woman to have avoided the first deliberately would have require some kind of precognitive or extrasensory ability like something out of a children’s story… and to do what she’d done with the bag to the assassin’s face… that would have taken… Solange didn’t even know how one got good at impromptu briefcase heelflinging. It just wasn’t a skill… and the vacuous twit who’d clearly advanced thanks to the Infernal One’s sick sense of humor was now making goo-goo eyes at some idiot from Foreign Affairs.

Solange McQuarry didn’t have a thing against Jews. Not really. Nor against rich people. Her parents weren’t among the elites, but they had an estate and were comfortable enough. She had a thing against stupidity… and, being both brilliant and egotistical, she felt that the entire world, the entire universe really, was full of idiots. Idiots who survived on dumb luck while Solange herself had had to climb up out of a broken education system and claw her way to the middle of the InSec pecking order… She was in charge of keeping tabs on foreign diplomats, not the head of the department, where she could sit on her ass in a comfy office all day… no, that was her boss, Henri Deschaud, an idiot of the first water and someone she was supposed to report to as soon as the Manticoran idiot got into the waiting embassy car and was officially no longer her problem.

She was so focused on that that she barely even felt the syringe as it entered her neck, but a moment later she was falling, not just into the arms of a man wearing a maintenance worker’s overalls into which a disposable muscle-relaxant injector had just been tucked, but also into darkness as a bag was placed over her head.

Solace had just been in the middle of the act of sliding into the back of the air-limo when she felt something peculiar. One of the people focused on her, the fanatic, had disengaged, fading back into the general throng some time during the attempt on her life and another, the boy, had run off completely, while a third, the woman from customs had been getting more and more annoyed at her for some reason… and then the fanatic had noticed something else, something that had made him fiercely happy… and then had felt furtive… then triumphant all within a few seconds… ending right at the moment the customs woman’s consciousness and emotions became a whirl of fear and confusion.

“Zane,” she said, using one of Loyal’s five different aliases on Haven, “go around the corner and hit something.”

“Hit something?”

“Clip something. Another car, a dumpster, a gendarme cruiser if you can manage it. I need to disappear and I need some confusion. I’ll meet you back at the Embassy. Yes Ruth, I love you too… But you have to stay with Z. Naomi, I’ll need your senses.”

Naomi yawned, stretched, then nodded. Solace and the ‘cats relaxed as the car went around the corner of the next block too fast and plowed, with only minor corrections, into the side of a delivery van. The heavily armored diplomatic vehicle wasn’t so much as dented, its molecularly reinforced, self-healing paint job not showing a single scar as it sloughed off the transfer from the other vehicle. There were, however, frozen chickens everywhere.

In the ensuing chaos, Solace and Naomi slipped away, bringing with them the bag that had been in the back seat waiting for her. Ducking into one of the multiple ground-level entrances to the middle class hab-block that sat next to the Spire, the duo passed a sign that said, ‘La Rochefort’ as they went. The passage was badly lit, though this close to the city center, that was due to a design flaw rather than because the lights had been broken and never fixed, and the shops she was passing were tacky rather than half-looted or disheveled in that particularly Havenite way that shops run by middle class and poor people for Dolists had. It was a look that said, ‘I have cleaned the dirt off the decay as best I can, yet the decay remains.’ There were a few places like that on Gryphon or Sphinx, but in Solace’s experience, those had that look deliberately, either because the building was a preserved relic of pioneer days or because it had more modern fixtures trying to emulate the look of the past.

Ducking into the first clothing store she came across, Solace grabbed some clothes at random from racks as she passed, then stepped into a changing room and shucked her party clothes in favor of something far more practical; from the bag she pulled out a bodysuit of the kind a street-racer might wear, though hers had far more bells and whistles than most, including adaptive camouflage, anti-hyper-ballistic fabric, and impact dampening gelpads everywhere important. Over the outfit, she pulled on the hideous new clothes, and tucked her old clothes into the now empty bag.

Fastening a collar and leash around Naomi’s neck (purely for appearances), she left, tossing a single Solarian 500 credit chip onto the counter, probably ten times what the outfit she was wearing cost, but not bothering to actually check out. Together, woman and treecat crossed the ground level of Rochefort Tower, excited out onto Rue Plachent and began the search at roughly the point the two mindglows had converged.

Solace had found that she could pick out mindglows at around 620 meters (more if the human had a particularly strong glow like Honor or the Queen), differentiate between them at two-thirds of that range (much more if it was a treecat or Loyal), and gain a steadily increasing degree of insight into the emotional state of the individual at rangers between 300 to 80. Within 20 meters, she could begin to… there wasn’t a word for it… but push came close, and pushing became easier and easier until she was in direct contact with someone. With either of the two ‘cats around, she’d found her range nearly tripled… but with both ‘cats it was closer to five-fold… however that had its downsides too, since Ruth was far more nuanced than Naomi and the conflicting impressions from the two treecats could cause Solace some difficulty forming her own impressions… or remembering who was feeling what. Ruth had a calm quality about her, incisive, silly, and happy go lucky as she was, she was much more a ‘I shall fight if I must’ kind of girl. Naomi, on the other true hand, was almost entirely aggressive, a warrior born and bred, focused and constantly scanning for danger or opportunity.

She’d wanted to bring both ‘cats, but Ruth would be able to guide her brother to find her just in case she needed him, and Naomi was a considerably better tracker. Within moments, they’d found the scent and were off, heading into a different tower, this one called ‘Place Bonacieux’ and in considerably worse condition, even though it looked nice on the outside.

The interior was a bit of a maze, and once it became clear that there was nothing in the way of surveillance equipment still functional inside the main corridor, Solace doffed the horrible local fashion, tucking it into her bag, and pulled up the hood of her racing gear, sliding a pair of lowlight UV goggles over her eyes and a breather over her nose and mouth, then a pair of heavily reinforced fighting gloves over her hands. She unclipped the lead from Naomi and the two of them reached out with senses mankind had no real name for as Solace released a quartet of microdrones into the air.

The drones, designed specifically for search and rescue aboard starships or in urban disasters, were designed to place navigation tags that served as signal relays as they went and used a combination of infrared, microburst sonar, and aero-chemical analysis to locate individuals for (in theory) recovery. The ones Solace had were designed to report back to the scaled down version of Minerva Andros’s Personal Digital Assistant, VIctoria. Solace’s was named Vikky and it spoke to her through mesh speakers on the inside of her hood and read the subvocal twitches of her larynx for commands, commands which, in this case were directing the drones to fan out three ahead and one behind as she and her faithful blood-cat homed in the the two mindglows. Thankfully, those glows were in no way hampered by the metal and plascrete in the way… or not so thankfully, since one of those glows was steadily growing darker and more predatory with every passing moment and the other was coming out of confusion into fear and outrage.

Solace took a deep, centering breath and let it out slow. She couldn’t hurry, had to be careful. There could be… ah… sentries. She reached back her bag again, now rolled into a five centimeter thick cylinder and slung tight to her back with the strap serving as a bandoleer and whispered, “stun gee-tee-three.”

Vikky obliged, dispensing a thumb-sized tube with a print-scanner on the top into the air above Solace’s right shoulder but there was no need for her to scan her finger as the scan-window already showed a numeral three which flipped to two even as she caught the tube in mid-air, drawing her arm snapping forward, launching the tube forward at better than fifty meters per second. It rocketed down the hall as the drones pulled back, their sensitive systems knowing they were unable to cope with the coming overload. Solace did not pull back. With her hood generating a counter tone and her goggles set to blackout, she rushed forward just as the grenade’s three second timer ran out as it passed directly between the two sentries lounging at their posts and exploded, a blastfront of sound and light strobing over them.

Covering the 100 meters took Solace slightly more than twice as long as it had taken the stun grenade and, without even looking at the sentries, Solace shot each with a pair of tranquilizer pistols drawn from a brace of thigh pouches. She slapped her right-hand to her chest, leaving that pistol stuck to the molecular-adhesion strip on her bag’s strap and whispered, “three-dee-bee-tee-two” and repeated the throwing process, this time lobbing the trio of spheres that Vikky had produced at the lock and hinges of the door that lay just ahead. The spheres deformed as they flew, autocorrecting their course in midair, then, two seconds later, smashed into the lockplate and hinge-assemblies just as they blew, destroying all three and blasting through into the room beyond with a cloud of smoke and debris and a thundercrack boom.

The door didn’t even have time to fall as she hit it with both feet, surfing into the room beyond, both hands spitting darts into the five men who were just beginning to look up from their game… idly, her mind took in the number of cards and the board… huh… Catan. Blue was about to win. She shot him an extra time, just on general principles, then, as Naomi joined her, strode down the hall towards the back room. Her system was telling her the room was soundproofed via distortion field and she pocketed both tranqs and drew a vibroblade from the small of her back.

The door, a cardboard sandwich between two 2mm veneers of one-ply particle board put up less resistance than soft butter would have before a hot knife and she was behind the man, his overalls down around his ankles when she rammed the 22cm blade through his back without even pausing. He grunted in surprise even as she was withdrawing it. A moment later, she stepped over him as he crumpled to the floor with a stifled scream, his spine divided in half right through the L4 vertebrae.

“I apologize for my lateness, Officer McQuarry,” Solace said, looking at the naked woman bound and gagged on the bed in front of her. She glanced around for the woman’s clothes, found them, realized they were too damaged to be used, and without looking stomped down hard on the man’s exposed hand, shattering half the bones. “I also apologize for the incredible tackiness of the clothes I’m about to offer you, but in this case, naked InSec Officers can’t be choosers.” And with that, the same knife that had crippled the would be rapist slashed through the straps holding the captive to the filthy mattress.

Solange could not believe this was happening. The airhead had rescued her? The ditz was speaking flawless Havenite French? The airhead was wearing some extremely high end gear that made her barely visible enough though she was standing right in front of her? Had the universe gone insane? Then she saw the hideous frock and pashmina the woman had pulled from her bag and tossed in her direction and she had to laugh. They weren’t quite a fate worse than death… but they were close.

“I don’t suppose you have any panties in that bag of yours?” she asked the avenging valkyrie who was scanning the room looking for something.

“No. Sorry. Actually, I do, but they won’t fit you. Vikky, note to Minerva, adaptive underwear.” It was all said in a tone of voice that carried with it that particularly ominous tone of command that one gets when someone in charge is worried that something is wrong.

“What’s wrong?”

“There were eight people in this apartment. The eighth is running. Naomi is hunting her.”

“This is a problem?” This was just surreal. A terrorist was running from an overgrown tree-weasel and the woman from Manticore was somehow aware of it? She must have some very good telemetry systems built into those goggles.

“Yes, I would like to not kill anyone. I need these people. Ah… good. The runner just tripped down a stairwell. Probably a broken leg.”

Very good telemetry indeed. “You… need these people?”

“I’m sorry to thrust you into this. You seem like someone who’s just trying to get by and do her job. I assume you followed me and got picked up by this… trash?” she asked, grabbing the man and tossing him onto the bed that Solange had recently vacated with a single hand and no appreciable effort… how strong was this woman!? The virtual ghost knelt next to the scum’s head and asked, “Who are you with? Answer truthfully, and you may survive this. I’ll even give you something for the pain. Lie to me and I’ll know.”

Solange looked at the belly wound and flinched. It was a small incision, less than 2cm across, but she knew the knife had gone straight through the man from the back and had seen what the blow had done to the weapon he’d been ready to use against her. “I… I knew you were a spy!” she managed to get out.

“Yes, very good… I was wearing a sign that said as much. I suppose you’ll be reporting this to deputy-director Palmer-Levy?”

“You know who I work for? You’re going to just let me walk out of here?”

“Yes. And Yes,” Solace responded without having to consider. That raised Solange’s respect for the woman more than being saved had. “You’re one of three pegged to replace Constance when she rises to Secretary of Internal Security. And killing you after I’ve gone through the trouble of saving you seems like incredibly bad form on my part. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to interrogate this man to find out which of the many subversive elements of your oh-so-charming society he works for. I’m hoping it’s not one of the more powerful ones.”

McQuarry sighed, pulling down the hideous dress and pulling on her shoes, the only part of her outfit that had survived the purge. “His name is Francisco Belasco, he’s from Monte Casino, and he’s with the Citizens Rights Union.”

Solace considered the woman’s emotions. They spoke of familiarity with the man and a distaste that ran beyond the personal. “You know him? Of him I mean?”

“Yes. He’s wanted for several high profile attacks,” the InSec woman said, attractive face twisting in hatred. “Including one on a school.”

“A school? What kind of school?” Solace asked, looking down at the man.

“A font of propaganda for the tyrants and their dogs! A den of mindwashing-” he began, speaking in rough English.

“An elementary school where the children of those who work for the government went,” McQuarry said, bitterly. “They planted a bomb under the circle where the children were dropped off in the morning and timed it to go off on the first day of school. Five-hundred and eleven parents and students were killed. And this monster uploaded a video taking credit and denouncing all those who were ‘lapdogs of the Imperialists’ and promising that more of them would know the grief of slain spouses and children.”

“G… guilt by associati-” Belasco started to say, but Solace punched him in the jaw so hard that McQuarry heard the bone break.

“My apologies. I had not realized that the CRU was so… indiscriminate. It’s easier for us to find out information on… you wouldn’t be willing to be a double agent, would you?”

McQuarry blinked at the mercurial transition from rage to contrition to manipulation… no, not manipulation. She’d come right out and asked, point blank, if McQuarry was willing to betray her own government. Who was this woman, and where did she get this strange energy, the willingness to make an absolute fool of herself as a disguise and then throw it all away to save… “Answer me this. Look me in the eyes and answer me this… did you set all this up just to try and recruit me?”

Solace lifted her goggles and looked the shorter woman in the eyes. “No. I had no idea. I came to Haven to find dissidents and arm them in exchange for information. I was looking for people willing to sabotage your government and military… not to attack civilian targets. The last thing we want is your people to actually care about your government. The BLS may be the driving force of your wars of conquest, but it’s also the anchor around your nation’s neck. Stir the people so they care, make them aware of foreign interference, and they’ll stop being a drain and start helping. If you’d had… eh… but if you hadn’t had the BLS, you’d never have starting empire building anyway.”

She sat down on the frame of the bed, well away from the blood pooling under the dying terrorist and picked up the strange six-legged mega-weasel that had just entered the room. It swarmed up her chest and curled around her head, resting on her shoulders and fixing McQuarry with alien eyes… intelligent alien eyes. Those eyes were just as cold as those of this chameleon of a woman.

“Tell me about yourself… I want to know who I’m working for,” the Havenite commanded, feeling a little silly and knowing she was in absolutely no position to bargain. But better to hear the entire pitch than wonder. She could make her mind up later.

“Heh… tell you what… let’s get out of this place and get you some better clothes and a cappuccino… or maybe some irish coffee and tiramisu,” the Manty offered. “My treat.”

“Tiramisu?”

“Coffee and sugar, cocoa powder… good to calm your nerves. And you’ll feel more balanced once you’re dressed in something that wouldn’t terrifying bloodthirsty Midgardians.”

Half an hour later, they were sitting at a cafe in the middle of one of the ever-shrinking luxury districts, sipping coffee and Solange had finished a tiramisu, a chocolate volcano, and one of Solace’s cookies. She felt like a pig… but the Manticoran had polished off twice as much and was working on a huge slice of a cake called ‘Death by Chocolate’. Solange felt like she’d explode if she even looked at it too closely. “Soo?”

Solace paused, fork raised halfway to her cupid’s bow lips, and shrugged. “I was created in a lab on Mesa, designed to be a sex slave for someone with a great deal of money and absolutely no morals. I killed one of my jailors on the day of my fourth… call it birthday… and, with the help of another slave, escaped the facility where we’d both been born and raised. We killed eleven guards, four phenotype technicians, and a doctor on the way out, hid in the slums with the freed-slaves and their descendants… the Seccies they’re called, Second Class Citizens, then stowed away on a slave ship bound for Silesia. The slaves were rescued when the ship was boarded by the Manticoran Marines and we were taken into custody. I was adopted by the Captain of those Marines and the rest is history.”

“Phenotype technicians?”

“I’d explain, but you’ve just eaten.”

“I have a strong stomach.”

Solace explained exactly how potential sex slaves were trained, about the abuse, both psychological and sexual committed against children as young as four, about how the technicians would try to break the will of their subjects and how she and Jimmy had watched for a while from a vent while the older boy had explained what little he knew to her, and how they’d killed those people and tried to convince their subjects to leave with them, but how those broken children had merely screamed and wept and how they’d had to leave them behind in the end. “Someday, I’ll find someone to give me a fleet of starships and I’ll sail to Mesa and burn the world down around their ears. I’ll liberate all those they’ve… and find out the names of everyone they’ve ever done business with… and then I’ll give those names to the Ballroom if they’re alive and to the press if they’re dead. I will burn their legacies to the ground and…” She sighed, putting down her fork, the cake only half eaten. “But first, I have to safeguard the place that has allowed me to become the person I am… and that means stopping your nation from destroying my nation.”

After a very long time without either of them speaking, Solange said, “Okay… what’s in it for me?”

“Good. Good!” Solace smiled, leaning forward and picking up her fork again.

“You’re not shocked and appalled that I’d ask for something?”

“You’re a practical woman. It’s a practical question… and if you’d suddenly had a change of heart and decided to fight the good fight for God and Country? I’d have thought you’d become unhinged by your experience. No. You’re no use to us as a convert. We want you motivated by intellect not passion. We’ll get you funds, information… and if you’re willing, in touch with some more reasonable subversives.”

“Reasonable?” McQuarry sounded doubtful.

“Of course. Have you ever wanted to stand before the Aprilist Tribunal?”

“Ummm… no?”

“Good answer.”

=======

“You’re insane,” Brigade Commander Sigma said, chuckling, several hours later.

“I know. I know. Look. trust her or don’t. It’s entirely up to you. If she tells, I’ll be sent home having been caught out. I’m not a career diplomat, my reputation won’t be hurt. Hell, some in the Star Kingdom will probably assume Haven’s just being stupid and making stuff up. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for President Harris’s birthday party.”

“That’s part of why I came to you,” Sigma said. “You might want to send your regrets. We’ve had word that the CRU are planning something. We think they’re going to try and assassinate the president.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I accidentally dropped Ambassador Dietmar’s security packet when I rescued McQuarry.”

“Accidentally?”

Solace shrugged, “Accidentally on purpose. It’s partly a test.”

“A test? How so?”

“To see how the CRU reacts. If they’re smart, they’ll do nothing. It’s clearly a trap. But if you know, that means they’re putting something together on very short notice. They’re reckless, stupid. Dangerous. I’ve already set a meeting with that Ransom woman for tomorrow evening. I could use some back up if you’re willing to stand up to a group as large as the CRU?”

“We’ll consider it… what’s the other reason?”

“If I don’t show up and something happens, they’ll blame Manticore. Can’t have that happen.”

‘“Even if it’s partly your fault and even if it costs you your life?”

“I serve my Queen and my Country with everything I have. My Life, My Fortune, My Sacred Honor.”

The Aprilist looked at the Manticoran for a long moment, trying to decide if she was serious and or crazy. Finally she asked, “That sounds like a quote… is it from somewhere?”

“Yeah… one of the most important documents in human history… and one a little flawed by compromise, but undeniably worthy of attention. You should read it sometime.”

Agradyne Ysbek chuckled. “I would, if I knew what you were talking about.”

“I’ll give you a clue,” Solace said, then recited, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness… that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

“I don’t know what it’s from… but it sounds good. I’ll have to look it up… might even steal a few lines of it myself… will have to see how it sounds in a more modern tongue. How old is that dialect?”

“More than 2200 years… and it was fairly formal even then. But I thought you might enjoy the sentiment.”

“As much as I understood it… I like the part of about abuses and usurpations… that really sums up the Leggies. I’ll go now… you get ready for your party.” BC Sigma said, rising from the edge of the bed and straightening the hem of her maid’s uniform. Solace killed the playback of the sounds of rather energetic lovemaking and aftermath just before Agradyne giggled and asked, in a breathy lisp, “Will there be anything else, miss?”

=======

The party was absolutely inane. A ridiculously opulent ball held in a magnificently appointed palace while people just outside were living in hab-blocks without running water or steady electricity. And the people… what a bunch of sycophants and toadies. Solace wanted to drown half of them in the punchbowl and was trying hard not to laugh as Ruth impersonated Secretary of the Economy Frankel by wearing an olive under her nose as a moustache and pretending to drone on and on at Naomi who was pretending not to notice.

“I’m sorry Sidney… I can call you Sidney, right?” Solace was saying as the Hereditary President of the People’s Republic of Haven glowered up at her, his hands on his hips, clearly wanting to point out that he’d already said no to that question twice this evening, “But we can’t return your daughter to you.”

“This is reprehensible! I demand-” He snapped.

“It’s not that we wouldn’t love to ship her off back to you… I mean, she’s adorable and all, but she’s… rather pedestrian and my Uncle would never approve of a union between someone common-born and a member of the family. It’s just not done!” She went on, ignoring the Havenite’s look of rage at being told that his daughter wasn’t good enough for the nephew of a Manticoran Earl… while wanting to laugh at his frustration between being torn defending his daughter’s honor or demanding her return. “No no… we shipped her off to Beowulf and arranged for her to be admitted to that school she liked… what was it? Oh, yes…. The Conservatorio Medici.” They had too, which would no doubt stick in Harris’s craw because he’d been unable to secure his daughter’s admission to that very same program despite some fairly massive under the table bribes and copious wheedling.

Of course, Uncle Vanya hadn’t tried invoking Head of State privileges. Instead he’d just promised to endow a chair in perpetuity. That the chair was in Russian and Slavic Folk Music was irrelevant. When a New Temple offers to fund an entire department, universities sit up and listen.

Solace was barely paying attention to the President’s response as it was, already crafting more scathing but inane insults when all of a sudden she felt a shift in the way the servants were moving behind her. One of them had just stepped back into the kitchen with an empty tray and had been replaced with a new man carrying canapes. The transition hadn’t been smooth, there had been three too many seconds and the new man moved… wrong… heavily… his emotions felt… muddy… he was a hundred and fifteen paces away when she started turning in that direction, interrupting Harris with a “Good god I’m parched, where’s that blasted fool with the swill you Havenites have the audacity to call champaign.”

That turn took five seconds and the man had taken seven steps… too fast, her mind screamed at her… That was about four and a half kilometers per hour, twice what a servant should be walking… where were the guards? She scanned the crowd, found them distracted by a woman having a fainting spell and a man peeing on some rose bushes, and a lapdog off his leash. She felt the mindglows of each… poisoned, drugged, liberated… no doubt someone had cut the leash… ninety-one paces… too soon to act… and then she saw past the makeup on the not a servant’s face and understood. Not a gun… a bomb… a bomb inside the man. Inside Francisco Belasco, his odd gait and drugged state the only thing allowing the near mortally wounded man to be mobile… what kind of wizardry could repair a severed spine that fast?… or was it… she glanced at his legs, saw the tell-tail bulges of an armature system… of course… electro-stimulation of the nerves of the legs… that’s how they’d gotten him passed the security scanners…. How to do this so she didn’t reveal knowledge… ah… the video… the footage of Belasco taking credit for the school bombing… eighty-five paces and he was tensing up, getting ready for the end.

Solace inhaled and then screamed, throwing her clutch at the man’s face and flinging herself into Harris and knocking him backwards over the garden wall he was leaning against, the same wall that Naomi and Ruth were sitting on. President, Commander, Treecats… all four went over the wall in a tumble of limbs a second and a half before the bomb detonated. The president just had time to say, “Get off me, you daft-” before the world went white and bits of person, grass, and a silver tray rained down on them.

====

“You have very good aim, Miss Smythe,” the President said, watching the playback of the clutch bouncing off the wouldbe assassin’s face. Belasco, stunned by the unexpected blow and unable to feel his legs, lost his balance and went over backwards, his belly exploding even before he hit the ground, the top half of his body flipping away into the bulk of the partygoers and out of frame, his legs flipping end over end to spray gore across the hedge on the boundary of the garden. The wall Solace had knocked the President over had been half-smashed, but its reinforced armorplast core… clearly there just in case the palace was ever sieged, had soaked up most of the blast.

“I don’t know why I came either!” Solace responded at nearly a yell. She was only half acting… her ears were killing her and both ‘cats were even more miserable and their mood was affecting hers.

“No no. I said you had…” he sighed and grab a pen and notepad from his desk as his personal physician bandaged his sprained ankle. The gash on his forehead from a bit of the tray had already been closed with a pressure bandage until such time as the micro-suture medibot under the bandage finished stitching the wound closed. He wrote, “You have very good aim. How did you know?”

She blushed, then said, “On the trip here, they made me watch these ghastly videos of the terrible terrorism problem you poor people have. There was this one at a school… and then that man took credit for it! He was wearing terrible makeup that didn’t match his skintone properly… it looked patchy and that’s why I noticed and looked closer… and I recognized him and OMG… I was like… that’s that guy! And I just was like… I’ve got to get away and there was a wall behind you and I didn’t even think!”

======

Eighteen hours later, once more shed of the airhead disguise, Solace Smythe strode into a meeting of the leadership of the CRU, or at least some of it, flanked by a dozen members of the Aprilists. Ransom looked pissed. Felt pissed too. The rest were seething with quiet anger.

One of the older members, a man wearing a priest’s collar stood up and pointed at Solace accusingly. “You! Enemy of the People! Foreign Aristocratic Devil Woman! You-”

“Oh shut the hell up!” Solace snapped, glaring at the man until he gulped and sank back down onto the the bench he’d risen from. “If I hadn’t saved Harris, I’d be dead right now. I was standing next to him when the bomb went of. Should I have allowed myself to be martyred for your cause?”

“You could have safed yourzelf!” one of the others called in a provincial accent.

“And then I’d have been arrested as party to the crime. I had to think damned fast to come up with a way to cover my ass as it was. It was a good thing I’d run into your little hitman earlier this week.”

“Yes, so he said,” Cordelia snapped. “You nearly killed him and his cell. And then you thwart our plants to rid Haven of one more Leggy bastard!”

Solace just looked at the woman, sighed, and said, “ You can’t possibly be this stupid. I’ve been on your planet two weeks and even I can bloody well tell that killing Harris won’t do a fucking thing. There are a thousand more just like him waiting to take over and all your little stunt did was make a scared, shallow little man who thinks he’s an Emperor a little more afraid for his life. You know what he’s going to do now that you blew up his garden and killed half a dozen of his associates?” There was a general shaking of heads, and Solace looked to Eloise, who stepped forward.

“He’s going to ramp up gendarmes in any area he can decide is to blame and have them beat on a few poor people until he feels safe again,” the woman also known as Brigade Commander Delta said.

Solace continued, “Then he’ll forget all about it. But his victims won’t. Sure, they might blame him… or they might blame you for pushing him into this. You have to fucking connect with people, get the masses on your side… not make them hate you to the same degree they hate the Legislaturalists. Get a fucking clue, Cordelia… You’re supposed to be the good guys in all this! Oh, and keep a tighter rein on your people. I had to stop your goon from raping a woman he’d kidnapped off the street in broad daylight.”

“An InSec Office!” one of the backbenchers yelled, and Cordelia whirled around, glaring in that direction.

“They are enemies of the people, yes! But she is right. We are not monsters! We kill when there is reason to kill… torture when there is information we must gain, but we don’t act like animals. I find out any of you are letting your people take liberties, and I’ll put a bomb inside you and deliver you to the Spire personally!” Ransom growled and Solace could feel the conviction in her words. She’d cross many lines… but there were some she wouldn’t. Good to know, maybe there was hope for the woman yet.

=====

Five weeks later, Solace Smythe received orders from the Admiralty. She’d been been recalled to active duty and given command of the Diplomatic Courier Atalanta, the same boat as had brought her orders. As she boarded the tiny ship, she turned back to look over Isle d’Haven Station’s diplomatic concourse one last time, wondering if she’d ever return… and if she did, if it would be as part of a fleet. She met Solange McQuarry’s eyes and nodded slightly, then turned and vanished down the tube with her ‘cats in tow.

Once aboard, she handed a member of the receiving party a small box and said, “Do me favor, Bosun. Space this once we get far enough out.”

“Ma’am?” asked the grizzled veteran whose uniform said she was named ‘Ruffian’ and whose jacket had said her name was Willemina. “What is it?”

“The Légion d’Honneur,” Solace sighed. “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that hideous thing.”

=====

“So, McQuarry,” said Lt. Commander Ustinova, “Still think she’s a spy?”

“Funny you should mention that, Anna,” Solange replied. “You and I? We should talk. Tell me… have you ever been to Bistro d’Zig… I have an in with the owners.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 13

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