World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19b

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

PART 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 2

Timestamp: October 19th, 1894

It turned out that Task Group Valkyrie was not merely four Battle Cruisers and two supply ships. In fact, in addition to the Battlecruisers Orlando (second of the Charlemagne Class), Geirskogul, Grimnismal, and Hildrmadchen (Die Walkyrie Class… with names translating as Spear-Shaker, Odin-Speaks, and Battle-Maiden), and the Deutchberg Class Colliers Munchen and Bremen, there were two Scout Cruisers (a type Solace had never heard of before) of the Relikt Class and eight Nebelung Class Destroyers as screen. Solace looked over the list of ships and sighed. So many drills were going to be needed. She might have a flawless memory, but remembering and knowing intuitively were two different things. In the heat of battle, she’d have to know the strengths and weaknesses of each ship, each class, each commander, each crew.

She looked around the table at her subordinates. Erica, as her tactical deputy and defacto commander of Orlando, and Reni, who she’d been somewhat surprised to realize had been selected by the Crown Prince to be her Flag Lieutenant in all but name, had been joined by five Kapitäns der Stern, none of them regular IAN, two Fregattenkapitän, eight Korvettenkapitän, and two Oberstleutnants… she even had a Flotillenadmiral under her, commanding her destroyers… Jing-Pei was clearly a man who believed in getting his way, no matter what the table of organization might say.

If Admiral Saberhagen was at all annoyed to be taking orders from a woman half her age, Solace couldn’t sense it. In fact, the emotions of those at the table ranged from fierce pride to something very much like hero worship… what the hell had Jing-Pei been telling these people? And where in the name of god had the Crown Prince found this group? Had he just happened to have sixteen ships lying around with female commanders who could be fashion models… if the fashion was highly athletic women. Half of them looked like they could be Figure Skaters or Gymnasts, the others looked like a mix of Volleyballer, Powerlifters, and Martial Artists. In fact, having read their dossiers, she was aware that all of them were highly accomplished in a variety of fields, all having been hand picked out of the academy or regular fleet to be part of Crown Fleet.

Magda Fei-Browning, Munchen’s captain, had a PhD in particle physics and was championship skier. Her sister, Lotte Fei, was Bremen’s captain and was a supermarathon runner and electrical engineer. Geirskogul’s Karla Bjornsdottir was an opera singer and an accomplished grappler and boxer. Grimnismal’s Abahai Xiacigao was a grandmaster Chess player and a master of the considerably harder Go, as well as being an accomplished equestrian. Hildrmadchen’s Ming-Wu Nurhaci was a championship archer and an imperial swordmaster… and apparently quite fond of penning erotic limericks. The list went on and on.

The Xue Twins, Yuting and Dian, who commanded the two Scout Cruisers, Tarnkappe and Tarnhelm respectively, had worked in Intelligence under deep cover for more than seven years before being sent to Command School and were marked as exceptionally deadly with blades and pistols. Even the commanders of the Destroyers, as young as they were, were outstanding in some way. Durand’s Daphne Pau had graduated from Medical School at 20 before joining the Imperial Navy. Alberich’s Miao-Ling Gersweiler was a professional-tier dancer with a legal background. Ortnit’s Lai-Fan Rechnagel was a bi, tri, and pentathlete. Thedrik’s Haifeng Thoma had grown up on one of the Empire’s newest conquests and had been a skilled tracker and hunter by the time she was ten. Nebelung’s Anja Wang was a published philosopher and playwright. Fafner’s Wensong Chen came from a family that still practiced the ancient Chinese Traditional Martial Arts, of which she was skilled in a dozen different styles. Fasolt’s Jiaxin Thiedemann was a stand-up comedienne and romance novelist.

And then there was Rheingold’s Wei-Lau, who was a freediver, one of that special breed of insane people who enjoyed seeing just how deep they could dive without scuba gear. Her current personal best was nearly 200 meters, which was strangely appropriate considering the story of the Rheingold… Solace had to wonder if she’d been given that ship as her command specifically for that reason.

The last two at the table were not ship commanders. Xin-Xin Rabenstrange was the Crown-Prince’s cousin and Solace’s S2, her Intelligence Officer. The woman’s dossier was nearly empty and she was listed as being 23 T-Years old though, as a third-generation Prolong recipient, she looked no more than 15. If she had any skills besides being related to royalty, it wasn’t in her official record, but it was evident that Jing-Pei trusted her enough to give her a security clearance that was higher than either Solace’s own or Erica Yuha’s.

The last was by far the darkest skinned individual at the conference. While not quite as chocolate brown as the Queen of Manticore, Faquan Mustafa was the color of a deep (almost burnt) caramel and even taller than Solace. It was clear that the woman was descended, probably by no more than two generations, from a genetically engineered soldier breed, probably from the Mfecane worlds… most likely Zulu since she wasn’t an Albino, but it could be either. She was the senior member of the Task Group’s Imperial Army contingent, as the Andermani had no dedicated Marine Corps. In fact, each of her ships had IAA detachments that were between a quarter and a sixth of the size of RMN detachments that a Manti ship of the same type would have. Holding the rank equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel, if Faquan’s command was considered to be all the Army personnel in the entire Task Group, it would barely have matched the total Marine personnel contained in three Manti BCs.

“Okay people, good to have you all here. I’m eager to get to know you all, and I’m certain I will over the next month and a half. I’m certain you’re all skilled operators and that the last thing you want is some outsider coming in and telling you that you’re doing things wrong… but, well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” she smiled, shrugging to show that it wasn’t malicious. “I have a very particular way of doing things, based on traditions that, I’m sorry, have made the Royal Manticoran Navy the most professional navy in known space. I’ve seen your training reports and your readiness reports and, by my standards, your competency numbers in drills are too low. Across the board, numbers your manual holds to be outstanding would not be considered adequate in the RMN.”

She’d thrown the words out as an open challenge, seeing who would rise to the bait… but none of them did. Instead, Kapitan de Stern Nurhaci raised a hand to be recognised and, when Solace had nodded, she rose, standing at attention. “We are aware of these numbers, Frau Oberst. The Crown-Prince has instructed us to follow all of your suggestions. All of us here were either at Caperna or have thoroughly reviewed the results of both the war games and the battle that followed. Although the Imperial Navy is, as a whole, unaware of or unwilling to accept the results, an unbiased comparison between the level of skill demonstrated by your fleet shows that your level of readiness outpaces our own by a significant margin.” Ming-Wu looked around the table and the others nodded. “In addition, none of our ship commanders or fleet admirals have accomplished such one-sided victories as your navy has managed.”

“Ah,” Solace said as the officer retook her seat, “So Jing-Pei has given me an experimental testbed, has he? Every time I think I have figured out every angle, that man manages to have another… I don’t know if he’s the best tactician… but he may be the best strategist I’ve ever seen,” she chuckled. “Right, first off, I’ll get to know you all both as a group and one by one over the course of our trip, but for now, I’ve got the first of what I anticipate will be a host of changes, including loadout changes for missiles, changes in watch stander procedure, bridge layout, and crewing.”

“Crewing, Frau Oberst?” Admiral Saberhagen asked. “How do you mean?”

“We’re going to be capturing every Midgardian flagged ship we come across, ladies and… “ she stopped herself when she remembered there was only one male present. “And that means we’ll need larger Army contingents. I know you don’t do that sort of thing much, and that your Army personnel are largely for security and fighting off other people’s boarding actions… but that’s going to change. Your ships lack the berthing for full sized Marine contingents, but we’re going to double what you’ve got now. I’ve already contacted Gregor and they’re loading everyone who has shipboard experience and sending them up to us,” Solace said, holding up a hand to stop any muttering. “We will make this work, ladies. And we’ll need to run drills on the basics of shipboard combat and all the ways Marines can help with operations, so I’ve already sent a message back through the Junction and requested some back up.”

“Back-up? From Manticore?” Xin-xin Rabenstrange sounded appalled at that idea. “How-”

“How do we know we can trust them?” Solace asked, voice hard. “Because I vouch for them, Miss Rabenstrange. All of them are retired RMMC NCOs or RMN Petty Officers or Warrant Officers… well, all but two. Those two are active duty and I’ve had to pull in quite a number of favors to get them. Okay… to get one of them. The other the Navy almost gave me for free… I can’t believe he got himself busted down a rank again.” She shook her head sadly. “The long and short of it is I’ve got two or three ex-Marines coming per ship… and yes, that includes Bremen and Munchen, to train your people in shipboard action. We’ll see if we can pad out those numbers with some of your ratings, and we’ll be crosstraining the Army Personnel in helping out when the ship is at battlestations.”

This time it was Lt. Colonel Mustafa who complained. “Army Personnel? At Battlestations? Certainly the Oberst must be joking!”

“I do not joke in uniform,” Solace said. “It is beneath my dignity as… whatever I am.” She swept the table with her gaze. “Failure to take advantage of all available hands during an emergency, be that an accident or battle, is a waste of resources and befits not a trained professional. Every Dragoon… not Marines, not Hussars, not Army, will have a specific battlestation and they will be expected to learn how to assist those in that section, be that pulling fuses in a grazer mount or helping rack counter-missiles or just as a medical corpsman. Am I understood?”

The coordination of the ‘Jawohl, Frau Oberst’ nearly knocked her back a step.

“Excellent… now, are there any questions?”

Admiral Saberhagen rose without being recognized, but Solace didn’t mind. “If I might ask… you said we were going someplace a month and a half away? Where, exactly are we going?”

“Ah. Well… We’re going to Weissen.”

“Weissen? The only thing in Weissen is the terminus of the Jewel Junction.”

“That is correct.”

“Jewel has forbidden passage to the militaries of both Midgard and the Empire.”

“That isn’t precisely correct,” Solace said. “I’ve reviewed the text of their statement and they’ve said that they’re willing to allow military vessels if they are helmed by officers of the Jewel Navy and agree to have a 200 megaton nuke attached to the hull for the duration of their stay in Jewel or Corona.”

“That’s as good as forbidding it. That would make our ships far too vulnerable to take Muspelheim!” the Admiral insisted. Just as Weissen was the Andermani terminus of Jewel Junction, Muspelheim was the Midgard terminus. Aside from Midgard itself, no system in the Federation had a larger military presence. In fact, the Muspelheim system was home to the Midgardian Navy’s Second Fleet, which (as of the last ONI update) numbered 43 battleships and dreadnoughts… though the dreadnoughts were old enough that they still had autocannons and rotating sections… in fact, more than half of them had been bought from Manticore when the RMN had upgraded to gravitic plating. The rest were old Solarian designs, more expensive, tougher, and a bit faster… but just as outdated by modern standards. If Second Fleet was outdated, it was still enough to hold the terminus that connected Midgard to Haven. Fourteen cruisers and destroyers were not taking that on.

“You’d be absolutely right… but we’re not going to Muspelheim. We’re going to Niflheim, by way of Manderlay,” Solace said, grinning like the fabled Cheshire Cat.

“Mander… Nifelheim… I don’t…” the Admiral started, then sat back, considering. Solace was pleased to note that she wasn’t protesting having Jewelian Naval Personnel on her ships or bombs strapped to their bellies. Jewel was neutral, not stupid. They would know that the IAN would avenge any betrayal of the transit contract. The Jewel Junction had four termini of which Weissen and Muspelheim were two. Atropos, which lay between Haven and the Solarian League’s Maya Sector was the third… and Manderlay was the fourth. The system of Manderlay was one of the most remote of all human colonies. Further to galactic north than even Manticore’s Basilisk terminus, it lay on the far side of the Silesian confederacy from the Andermani Empire and the Weissen-Jewel-Manderlay route was used by many Andi merchantmen doing a Silesia run. From Manderlay to Niflheim (the northernmost of Midgard’s thirteen systems) was almost exactly seven weeks. A week to Weissen… “That’s two months, Frau Oberst.”

“Very good. Yes it is,” Solace responded. “Or so anyone would figure.” She held up a document. “As it turns out, Snurlson Gravodynamics (A wholly owned subsidiary of the Andros-Brandyne Cartel) has recently finished mapping the Rylie Grav-wave. This is a chart of that Grav-wave. Not only will use of the wave shave two weeks off our travel time, it will bring us out on the far side of Niflheim.” The gathered officers considered that information with worried expressions.

Hyperspace was… in a word, complex. Although often pictured as a neighboring reality to Realspace, Hyperspace was, in actuality, a stack of closely related parallel realities, uninhabitable as far as human science could tell, where the congruence between points was the same as in Realspace, but the points were far closer to each other. While much of Hyperspace was as empty as Realspace, there existed titanic multi-lightyear long ‘structures’ in the fabric of Hyperreality called Gravitic Waves. Before the invention of Warshawski Sails, encountering a grav-wave was certain death, as the sheer forces would rip a ship apart in an instant. The Sails changed all that, but waves were still a potential threat. Some, indeed most, were relatively calm and stationary, but others were turbulent, unpredictable, or had sheer so powerful that attempting to ride the wave was a dubious proposition at best. The worst of these were the waves classed as ‘Roaring Deeps’ which could and often did shift widely. The Rylie was one of them.

“Frau Oberst…” Madga Fei-Browning of Munchen began, then cleared her throat. “How much faith do you have in these charts?”

I grinned. “Enough to trust my own life. Trust me… I’m very fond of it. Don’t worry. I know the Rylie has a reputation, but that reputation is based on fear, not fact. The facts are that while the Rylie does shift regularly and dangerously, those shifts are not unpredictable. They’re actually cyclic. By shifting hyperbands at precise intervals, we’ll avoid the worst of it.” She looked around the table, then said, “We’re military officers. It is our duty to accept certain risks. I judge this risk to be acceptable in the face of the advantage it will give us. We need to be in control of Niflheim in ten weeks, and we will be.” Her voice was firm and her stance brooked no disagreement.

“Any further questions?” There were many exchanged glances, but no one spoke. “Good. Now, before I end this meeting, can someone please explain to me exactly what a Scout Cruiser is?”

The elder Xue sister, Tarnkappe’s Yuting, stood, still and straight. “It is a compromise between a destroyer and a heavy cruiser, Frau Oberst. The armor of a Heavy Cruiser, the weaponry of a Destroyer, the size and speed of a Light Cruiser.”

Solace restrained the blink of surprise and the desire to snap about how silly the concept was… then considered. If a Scout Cruiser was as armored as a Heavy Cruiser and as fast as a Light Cruiser… “I assume they have enhanced Sensor systems and better stealth systems?”

“Jah, Frau Oberst,” Yuting agreed. “Variable configuration wedge strength to simulate small merchant vessels or a variety of minor military craft.”

Her sister rose. “Technically, the weaponry is not so limited as one might think, Frau Oberst. The reduction is not in number of launchers but in bunkerage, and both ships have energy torpedos and grasers instead of lasers. Together, they can stand up to a Heavy Cruiser and can outrun anything else besides a frigate or… how is it that you call them? Tin Can? A Relikt cannot outrun a Can… but it can fight three or four at a time. IANS Tyrfing and Balmung took on eleven Midgardian Hreindýr class Destroyers before being forced to retreat.”

Solace asked, “How many of them did Tyrfing and Balmung destroy?”

“Ah… well… they disabled three of them… The Aland system’s gas mining operation they were assigned to destroy was later hit by Vizeadmiral Lai Xiaopeng,” Yuting said, mentioning the younger son of Minister for War Chang Xiaopeng. The elder son, Großadmiral Qin Xiaopeng, was the de facto supreme commander of the IAN, being outranked by, technically, the Crown Prince and Ruth. The last Großadmiral fer Flotte, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, had been responsible for the attempted coup that had resulted in Solace saving the lives of both the Emperor and the Crown Prince and, despite the Minister’s pushing, Jing-Pei had steadfastly refused to appoint Qin to that high office, since that would, again technically, have given him the authority to assume command over both the Expeditionary Fleet and Crown Fleet.

“Ladies… if you give me that poor a showing, I shall begin to doubt the Crown Prince’s judgment in selecting my subordinates. Now, before I dismiss you, I have one more change of procedure that I’ve saved for last because it is vital you understand me in this and that you appreciate just how important I consider this. You are never, I repeat, never, to allow your nodes to be cold. You will keep them on standby at all times that they are not being actively used or actively repaired. This includes in all friendly ports. Over the next week, I’ll speak to each of you individually and in groups… but for now, let’s dance.” She rose and the rest of the room did as well, all of them snapping to attention as she turned and left, being trailed by Reni, Erica, Xin-Xin, and Faquan.

On the trip back to Orlando, Erica was strangely silent, but Xin-Xin kept glancing at her Manticoran commander and opening her mouth, then closing it again. It didn’t take an empath to know that confusion and curiosity were duking it out with propriety in the young S2’s mind. Finally, just as they were leaving the docking bay, when Xin-Xin clearly assumed that Solace could not hear her, she whispered to Colonel Mustafa, “How did she know? We didn’t include that in the intell packets.”

“She can still hear you, dumkopf. If I can do a thing, assume the Oberst can do a thing,” the towering Army officer said, not bothering to keep her voice down. Solace was not looking in their direction, so only caught a flicker of shock and confusion from the Intel officer before Mustafa was chuckling. “Do not look so surprised. A fish will grab your tongue. Of course she knew. Like calls to like, yes?”

Deciding that maintaining her dignity was more important than getting to the bottom of this little mystery directly, Solace returned to her office and took another look at the personnel jackets of her command team. There was something… something about them… something she’d said had made Xin-Xin think she’d uncovered something… something Faquan… Ruth looked up from where she was napping and bopped her human on the forehead with a tennis ball.

“Was that your way of distracting me, or are you just feeling bored?” Solace asked the ‘cat.

Ruth shrugged her four shoulders and flirted her fluffy tail at Solace.

“I see, Naomi’s too busy redecorating our cabin and you’re bored?”

“Bleek!”

“Yeah, well, bleek to you too… fine. We’ll go get some gym time. I’m going to turn into a hunchback if I have to do any more paperwork today anyway.”

The gym aboard Orlando turned out to quite large for a battlecruiser, especially one without Marines… but Solace didn’t know if larger physical fitness facilities were de rigueur for the IAN or not. She wouldn’t put it past the Andies, with their tradition of ‘Semper Preparatus’… Always Ready. It was also a pleasant surprise to discover that the room not only came with adjustable grav plates, but that those plates were currently dialed in to 1.25g. Entering, she’d found half a dozen of her off duty officers working out… and their movements, unfettered in that moment by uniforms or static poses, made it all click. She waved away the first to notice her, then thought better of it and beconned the young Ensign (in actuality a ‘Leutnant der Sterne’) over.

“Tell me, Ulrike,” Solace asked conversationally, “Does the IAN adhere to the tradition of ‘no rank in the mess’?”

“Frau Oberst? I do not…” the young woman, whose jacket said she was twenty but who looked thirteen, replied, then paused, “Ah… you mean where junior officers are allowed to speak freely and need not rise and salute every time a senior walks by? Jah. We have this tradition.”

“Excellent. I want you to spread it around, both on Orlando and to the rest of the Task Group, that the same applies in the gymnasium… and for enlisted personnel transporting heavy equipment in the halls. I’ve had four different work parties stop what they’re doing, put down their parcels, and salute. If you’re doing something important, an Officer will know if it’s more important for you to pay attention to them than your task and will let you know. You’ll pass it around, or do I need to make it formal?”

Ulrike Zu, who’d been a Cadet (the Andermani equivalent of a midshipwoman) only a month before, was uncertain how to respond. Part of her felt deeply overwhelmed by the Oberst’s mere attention… and was very much aware how much shorter she was than the warrior-woman that the Prince had placed in command of the Valkyries, but the rest of her felt elated at this signal honor and she eagerly shook her head, “No Frau Oberst. I will, as you say, pass it around. You will probably get requests for confirmation from the other Commanders.” She paused, then asked, “How should the Officer signal their desire to be paid attention to?”

“That, my good woman, is a very good question. Tell you what, instead of me making a half-assed job of it, I want you to gather the Cadets and brainstorm a working draft of a regulation. Submit it to Commander Yuha by…,” she checked her chrono, “Nineteen Hundred. Oh, and very nice form on the rings by the way. Impressive.”

Ulrike could only gape at her new master after god’s back as the woman walked away, trailed by one of her alien pets. The Oberst had watched her work out? The Oberst was trusting her with writing regulations for the entire Task Group. She wanted to hurry after the Oberst and tell her that she should get someone with experience, someone with seniority, someone other than herself. Then the pet… who, because the Emperor had felt it amusing to do so, was technically the second highest ranking officer in the entire IAN… turned and winked at her. The wink seemed to say, “I know! Crazy isn’t it?” and Ulrike felt her panic evaporate into a stifled giggle and she hurried to get changed.

Solace did not cut her own workout short. In fact, she decided to push herself hard, burning off as much of her energy as she could until every muscle ached in a good way… well, her left hamstring was hurting a little more than it should have, and she was pretty certain she’d pulled it… but it would be fine by morning. Stretching her back until it popped, she looked around, then realized that she was being watch.

“Yes, Oberstleutnant?” she asked, tilting her head to study the bigger woman.

“Her Majesty can call me Colonel if she is more comfortable with that,” Faquan replied, not really answering the question.

“I am not the Empress, nor am I Princess Consort… and there is no ‘yet’ implied in that statement,” Solace said, frowning, as she reached for her towel. “And that didn’t answer my question. How can I help you?”

“The Oberst’s reputation precedes her. I was merely wondering if she could use a sparring partner?” the taller woman responded.

Solace considered the offer, then asked, “What percentage of Valkyrie are ex-slaves or the descendants of ex-slaves?”

If Colonel Mustafa was surprised by the question, it did not show on her face, and her emotions were just as unreadable as they had been before. Interesting. “I am not here to offer Intel to her. That is Officer Rabenstrange’s duty. I am merely here to offer myself as a training partner… if the Oberst desires one.”

“Ask me again tomorrow, once I’ve gotten my trainers situated. Have you begun clearing space for the new personnel and their gear?”

Mustafa pursed her lips into a tight line, then stiffened to report, “Pursuant to the Obersts orders, I have begun the reallocation of space and supplies, though this will inconvenience the crew. Six storage rooms are being consolidated and bunks are being added to accommodate the incoming soldiers. The armory will be overstocked, but we shall make do. Does this please her?”

Being spoken to in the third person was very strange and Solace honestly didn’t know what to make of it, or of this odd woman, but as long as she did her duty, Solace could put up with anything. Also, she couldn’t quite tell if the woman was being respectful or not. She nodded, bent to scoop up Ruth who was wrestling with Solace’s spare towel, then said, “Tell Xin-Xin and Erica to join me in my office in fifteen minutes. I’m going to grab a shower… you needn’t watch.”

“I shall arrange her meeting, and no, it is not my place to safeguard her body. The Hussars protect their own,” Mustafa said, snapping her heels together and, with a turn so crisp it would make celery blush, exited the gymnasium.

“What an odd duck,” Solace commented to Ruth, who pawed her nose and said, “Bleek!” “I’m glad you agree.”

When Solace exited her cabin ten minutes later, she found two middle aged and hard faced matrons posted outside her door. They were dressed in the shipboard duty uniforms of Totenkopf Hussars, no badge of rank or medals or names on their black and silver uniforms. Only the small death’s head pin on their collar and the twin lightning bolts forming a V that was the Task Group’s symbol. Neither woman saluted, but they fell into step behind her silently as she, Naomi, and Ruth headed for the Kapitan’s office.

No sooner had she sat, leaving the two shadows outside her door, than Commander Yuha announced her arrival. “Come,” Solace commanded, triggering the door from her desk, then closing it and activating the lock as soon as it closed behind the duo. “Good. Now…” she looked at them as she leaned back against the edge of her desk. Her height was such that even half-sitting on the polished black surface she was several centimeters taller than either other woman. “How about you two tell me just how many of my officers and ratings are… shall we say… genetically engineered in some way?” She held her hand up to indicate that she wasn’t done. “And then you two can convince me that the entire war with Midgard is not some convoluted plot by the Crown Prince to convince me of his qualifications to be my husband!” Her eyes were agate hard and she could practically taste the excitement coming off of the Commander and the concern baking off the Oberstleutnant.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19c

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19a

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 1

Previous: Duets of Motherly Love

Timestamp: October 18th, 1894

The Andermani maintained a small consulate in the civilian sections of all three of the Star Kingdom’s major space-stations; Hephaestus, Vulcan, and Weyland, one each for each of the Manticore system’s inhabited planets. Little more than trade missions, they existed to allow merchants and tourists heading into the Empire to get their paperwork in order. A more prosaic administration might have been tempted to make these diplomatic offices as spartan as possible, but that was not the Andermani way. Each of them was a showroom of Andermani culture and was, if not opulent, then quite comfortable. That each was also attached to a restaurant didn’t hurt.

Solace had said goodbye to her family in the chinese restaurant attached the HMSS Vulcan consulate an hour earlier, and now sat in one of the comfortable chairs, waiting for her ride and looking at the small photograph that Uncle Vanya’s antique camera had produced. In the image, everyone was dressed for winter and smiling at the viewer. Mary and Hope rested their hands on Duty’s shoulders on the right side of the image. Vanya was in the center, looking like the grey-capped mountain towering behind him, his huge grin as infectious as ever. And on the left, Solace found herself with Naomi on her shoulder and Minerva with Ruth on hers and Gilly between them, the girl hugging a treecat that was clearly unused to being photographed. The ‘cat, whom the local rangers had named ‘Barnabie’, was huge for a treecat, pudgey in a way few of the cats were, and considerably younger than was usual for a bonding and both Ruth and Naomi seemed to find him annoying.

Barnabie had been the local Sphinx Forestry Service’s problem child for nearly two years, constantly sneaking into people’s homes and eating everything he could before the owners got back. The service had contacted the Earl, since the ‘crimes’ had happened on his lands, and the Earl had contacted Solace, suggesting that maybe this treecat that was all too fond of human food might be looking for a human to bond with… and did Solace know of a candidate?

Exactly why treecats picked their partners was unknown, at least to the human side of the equation, but what was known to those who paid attention to such things was that they clustered in family groups. The Harringtons and the Wintons were proof positive of that, and there were veritable dynasties of human-treecat pairs in the Forestry Service’s annals. It stood to reason that there was a genetic component, and if Solace had whatever that was, there was a good chance that Gilly would have it too.

The question of how Gilly would cope with the removal of Solace, Ruth, and Naomi from her life, even if only temporarily, had been weighing on not just her parents, but also on her therapists. All agreed that some distance was, ultimately, for the good, even those unaware of how interconnected Gilly and Solace’s thoughts could be, but feared that the separation would be traumatic. If Gilly had a ‘cat of her own, Solace reckoned, perhaps that would provide her with a suitable distraction, as well as providing the calming presence of an empath attuned to her emotional state.

It had taken all of one look between the two and they’d become inseparable. Unfortunately, Barnabie was anything but a ‘calming’ presence. Deeply inquisitive, lacking impulse control, and an absolute glutton, he looked like a giant pudge-ball… but even for a treecat he was strong… if lacking in grace. Minerva’s comment to the effect was that, if the ‘cat had been a human, he’d be Solace’s height and built like a brick wall. Which might have explained why he was hunting in kitchens instead of the forest.

In the three weeks of the family vacation, Solace had seen ‘The Bee’ brain himself with a bowl of fruit three times, get stuck under the couch chasing a snack twice, and once steal an entire chicken from a hot oven. He wasn’t stupid, that was certain, but the only thing that kept him from being a food-obsessed monomaniac was his newly found obsession with her daughter, who carried him everywhere, despite the difficulty of hauling around a fifteen kilo dead weight in 1.3g.

Still, the leavetaking had been a solemn occasion, with Gilly trying very hard not to cry and barely touching her food… something that Barnabie was more than happy to help with… little goober. Solace smiled softly, running her finger over the image, her memory summoning up the smell of Gilly’s hair fresh from the shower and Minerva’s trace perfume. Home… such a strong anchor… but duty… duty had a pull all its own. She would miss them all, but she had a job to do, a job she loved.

Granted, serving as an Advisor to the Andermani wasn’t the same as serving aboard one of her majesty’s ships, but even as an advisor, she’d be honing her skills, learning, becoming a better asset in the coming war with Haven… and helping to, at the very least, keep the Andies neutral in that struggle.

As the Andermani junior officer snapped to attention in front of her, Solace tucked the picture into her valice and stood. “I’m going to hazard a guess that you are not Commander Yuha?” she asked.

“That is correct, Frau Oberst,” the young man began, standing extremely rigidly. “I am not Fregattenkapitän Yuha. She is delayed with a dental matter. I am Oberleutnant der Sterne Reni Absalom. I’m here to bring you this,” he patted the rolling piece of luggage next to him, “and then escort you to your command.”

Solace blinked. “Command? I don’t… Oberst? I’m a Hauptman, surely… a Captain?” She was feeling very confused.

“Ah. My apologies, Frau Oberst. I am meant to give you this?” he held out a diplomatic pouch, the seal still intact. “It is from the Ambassador… the Manticoran Ambassador, I mean.”

Handing off her valice to Ruth, Solace scanned her thumbprint on the seal and opened the envelope. Inside, she found a single sheet of paper, written in Loyal’s hand and containing the correct marks that told her this was legitimately from him. “Sandy, the situation has… evolved. Regrettably, The Emperor is dying and will probably not last the month, Bless his Soul. It seems that the crown prince has taken control of the government and the military, pushing out his father’s advisors in favor of his own. What this means for you is that, rather than coming to the Empire as a consultant, the Crown Prince has requested that you assume direct command of IANS Orlando, BC-84… yes, she’s that new. From what I hear, You’ll Like Her. Strictly speaking, Orlando isn’t a Navy Vessel, she’s part of the Crown Fleet, the Emperor’s escort. Bodyguard Detail isn’t so bad, if you know that’s what you are. Solace… They’re recalling you to active service, as a Totenkopf Oberst… a Colonel, although technically you’ll be a Commodore.”

She read through the plain text twice, then pulled up their private cypher and decoded the meaningless phrases and modifiers contained in the short paragraph. “Something amiss at Imperial Court. I suspect intrigue, possibly assassinations or sabotage. Be careful. Can’t tell if the Prince is using you as bait or hopes you’ll be able to help him.”

Folding the paper up, she slid it back into the envelope and resealed it. Glancing at the luggage, she asked, “I assume that’s a uniform?”

“Yes, Frau Oberst. Additionally, you are requested to wear your sword when you come aboard. It would help with morale. Everyone is quite worried about the Emperor.”

She pursed her lips, considering how ridiculous she was going to look in a Hussar’s formal uniform walking through a Manticoran station, then sighed. The things she did in the name of diplomacy. “I’ll go change then, shall I?”

“Very good, Meine Dame. Also, in answer to your question, a Kapitän of Hussars is not a the equivalent of an Army Hauptman, a Captain, but an Oberst, or Colonel. The Hussars are commanded by three Obersts under one Brigadegeneral,” the young man explained, still rigid enough to be used as a bridge support.

“Right then,” Solace said, grabbing the case and grunting in surprise. “Why is this thing so heavy?” It was too, far more than even a stack of uniforms would be.

“Ah,” the Andermani said, blushing and looking very much like he wanted to rub the back of his neck sheepishly. “The Fregattenkapitän said that it was the Crown Prince’s desire that you be given your back pay.”

“Back… pay?” Solace asked, voice a little shaky as she hoisted the case onto a nearby table and popped its latches. In one compartment was a pristine Totenkopf Hussar’s uniform, complete with ridiculous hat and chinstrap. In the other was dozens of shiny silver bars… “Is this eight years worth of pay?”

“Ja, Meine Dame!” the man said, looking a little goggle-eyed at what must be close to two-million Manticoran dollars worth of precious metal. “It is one hundred and three kilograms of platinum.”

“Well… that’s just ridiculous… Naomi, put the hat down. Sorry. She likes hats.”

“Ja, Meine Dame. We are aware.”

“Good thing you didn’t bring Ruth’s pay.”

“Nein, Meine Dame. We did not know how the Großadmiral prefered to be paid.”

Solace blinked at that, then sighed. “In celery, if she had her druthers, but she’d try to eat it all and make herself sick. Is this uniform reinforced for their claws? And you can say Yes ma’am.”

“Yes ma’am. The uniform fabric is Manticoran. We have also outfitted a pair of survival pods with IAN transponders. They are the best currently on the market in Manticore.”

“Ah. Good thinking. Ruth… just because Naomi put the hat down doesn’t mean… never mind.”

=====

Walking through the station wasn’t nearly as bad as Solace had feared, mostly because Naomi was wearing the hat even though it was practically big enough for the ‘cat to fit inside. Of course, the boots were nearly as silly, high and stiff and totally impractical for shipboard purposes, but Reni had promised her that shipboard uniforms and a skinsuit would be available aboard Orlando (and boy howdy was the idea of serving on a second ship of that name odd) so she would be able to change. And speaking of change, while she’d been pulling on her uniform, she’d called the local Veterans Affairs office and told them to send an armed guard to collect a sizable donation. Seriously… she hadn’t needed the money in the first place, and raw platinum, while valuable, wasn’t exactly as fungible as cash. This had clearly been the Prince showing off.

Station security didn’t even give her a second look as she cleared into the Andermani diplomatic dock, which was something of a relief as well, and once she was in Imperial Country, she tapped pause on the follow command on her luggage (the new case had joined the rest of her stuff on the good old grav sled (she’d paid good money for that thing!)) and turned to face Reni. “Okay, LT, how about you tell me what to expect as I come aboard? I assume some kind of side party is waiting?”

“Pardon, ma’am, but… Ellety??” he asked, brow furrowed.

“Your rank, Oberleutnant der Sterne, is equivalent to that of a Manticoran Junior Lieutenant, yes? In English, a lieutenant is sometimes called ‘Ell’-’Tee’.”

“Ah. I see… so better I be an Oh-Ell-deh-Ess?”

“Too long. Doesn’t roll off the tongue. Maybe Ellday… but you’re avoiding the question,” she pointed out and he blushed again… dear lord… was she ever this young?

“Yes, ma’am. There will be a formal introduction of the ship’s officers… I believe we are keeping them waiting.”

“I’m the Cap… Kapitan. Back when I was merely a Military Advisor, we would have done things on someone else’s schedule. Now, it is my privilege to keep people that I outrank waiting. You will explain to me how to do the various salutes and what is expected of me before we take another step. Additionally, I assume there are orders from your Admiralty for me to take command of this ship? A document I am required to read into the ship’s log?”

He looked at her as if she was insane. “Why would we require such a thing? You have been given command of Orlando by order of the Crown Prince and the Minister of War. That information was listed in the ship’s records before we left New Berlin.”

“Riiight. Not big on the traditions of the Navy. That’s a shame.”

Absolom shrugged. “When the Oberst is Empress, she can change things, yes?”

Solace felt as if she’d just been clubbed upside the head with a dandelion the size of a shipkiller missile. The world wasn’t really spinning was it. He… they… “What?”

“When you are-” he began.

“I heard that part!” she snapped. “What do you mean ‘when I’m Empress’?”

“It is common knowledge that the Crown Prince intends to marry you… why else would the Emperor let you carry Joyeuse?” The boy looked confused and Solace had to restrain the urge to shake him until the universe made sense again.

“I am not marrying the Emperor.”

“No. No… the Crown Prince.”

“I’m not marrying him either!” she growled and both ‘cats nodded in agreement… or maybe Naomi had just lost her balance dealing with the giant fluffy hat as she slipped off the stacked luggage and landed inside the now upside-down hat.

“Of… of course. I should not speak of things above my paygrade. Shall we proceed?”

Solace opened her mouth to protest, again, that she was not, in fact, Jing-Pei Anderman’s fiance, then sighed, rolled her eyes, bent to scoop up Naomi who was trying to get out of the hat without damaging it, then nodded. “Very well. Lead the way.”

=====

Three hours later, Solace was certain of four things. One, someone very high ranking in the Andermani Government was plotting to kill her. Two, her XO, Erica Yuha, was a spy put in place to keep very careful watch on her. Three, the Andermani were clearly insane if the lavishness of their BC Captain’s quarters were any indication. And Four… she was going to throttle the Crown Prince if she got her hands on him.

Even getting to the ship had proven problematic, as a member of the cleaning staff had tried to kill her… or rather, would have tried to kill her had she not broken his nose the moment she realized he was raising his hand to try to spray her with the contents of a bottle of cleaning solvent. Reni had gaped in horror as she, apparently without provocation, assaulted some random peon… then had gaped again in horror as, rather than allow himself to be taken alive, the cleaner had suicided via cyanide tooth.

The consul had had to be called and embassy security had quarantined the body, and it had taken two hours for medical to verify that there was some kind of unknown nanotech pathogen in the sprayer that had begun breaking down nearly as fast as they could study it. The assassin had been a recent hire, and the functionary who’d done the hiring had died of a previously undiagnosed cerebral aneurysm three weeks later… or, yesterday, depending on how one looked at it.

All of it made no sense… how had anyone known to insert an assassin on Vulcan three weeks ago? Three weeks ago, the assumption back on New Berlin should have been that she’d be catching her shuttle for the Andermani Transport ship Thüringen from Manticore’s Hephaestus station. Was there another agent waiting there to kill her? If so, someone was very good at covering their bases. If not… someone had information they should have had no way of acting on. The information lag between Manticore and New Berlin was too long for this to make sense any other way.

In the end, she’d had to call upon her position as a Totenkopf Hussar to get the consul on Hephaestus to check on recent hires… but there hadn’t been any. That meant nothing of course, the hypothetical assassin there might be a long term employee. Or maybe the control was local? Too many variables… but something wasn’t adding up. There was something…

“Captain?” Yuha said, “should I have the ship proceed to the junction?”

Solace looked up from the imaginary chessboard she’d been picturing in front of her, and nodded. “Yes. Then have Kapitänleutnant Chiang take the bridge and join me in my office?” She plucked up Ruth and left the bridge… the layout was bugging her… the placement of bridge stations wasn’t optimal… were all the ships in the fleet structured like this? It was like… like… like a ground-pounder had laid it out. It wasn’t anything… too much to process… she was getting a headache. Too many things to think about, too much she couldn’t control…

She took a deep calming breath, then hit the switch to lock the door as soon as Yuha entered. “You have three minutes to convince me not to have you spaced, Commander Yuha,” she said, voice like steel even as she used the title she was more comfortable with. The Andermani had too many kapitäns on one ship. IANS Orlando had, including her, thirty-one ‘kapitäns’ of one sort or another; one Kapitän der Sterne, three Fregattenkapitäns (Commanders), five Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commanders), and twenty-two Kapitänleutnant (Senior Lieutenants). One more thing that was just… annoying.

“Ma’am?” the spy asked, her voice remarkably calm for someone being threatened with a gruesome death. Maybe she thought Solace was joking?

“You understand that I’m not kidding, Yuha?”

The short woman, mostly asiatic in appearance and nearly half a meter shorter than Solace, nodded calmly and smiled. “Yes ma’am… and you may address me as Erica if you so desire.”

“Then why do you seem unconcerned by my threat?”

Commander Yuha shrugged. “Ah. As to that. I remain sanguine that the Captain will refrain for acting hasty.” She relaxed her stance from parade rest to casual.

Solace quirked an eyebrow at that, and asked, “Not at all curious as to why I might feel that spacing you is reasonable?”

“I assume it is because you assume that I am plotting against you?”

“Are you?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“And I shouldn’t space you even though you are plotting against me why?” This was the strangest conversation Solace had had that didn’t involve Gilly, one of the ‘cats, Loyal, or someone heavily intoxicated.

“You have not verified the nature of the threat.”

“Do you intend to tell me the nature of the threat?”

“I am,” the small woman said, “currently undecided. I will, however, assure you that I do not plan to kill you nor to in any way seek to sabotage your actions… as long as they do not pose a threat to the security of the Empire.”

Solace studied her second in command for a long time, peering at the woman though slitted eyes, tapping her steepled index fingers against her cupid’s bow. “So… what you’re saying is that, should I take an action you believe is a threat to the Empire or the Imperial Haus of Anderman, you’ll attempt to take me out, but otherwise…”

“Otherwise, I will merely continue to plot against you in some unspecified way,” Yuha agreed, nodding happily.

“You’re a remarkable woman, Commander.”

She grinned. “I assume that this is not a compliment?”

“Oh. Very few people manage to confuse me… take it as you will. Now, move tactical and main sensors to right in front of the captain’s chair. Move helm back to where you’ve got tactical now and switch out operations with Sensors. Oh, and see that AuxCom is rearranged as well. I want you seeing what I’m seeing. Once we clear the Wormhole, I want to run drills at least three times a day. I want to see how everyone handles things. I’ll be controlling the opposition for the first few iterations. You’re not to discuss this with the department heads.”

Yuha considered, then nodded. “Yes Captain… what about with the other Captains of the other ships?”

“Other… ships?”

“Yes Captain. The taskgroup consists of the colliers Bremen and Munchen, and the battlecruisers Hildrmadchen, Geirskogul, Grimnismal. They’re waiting in orbit around Gregor… the planet, not the stars.”

“Ah. Of course. I’m so used to having orders. Who am I supposed to report to once we get there?”

“Report, Captain?”

“Yes. Sorry… I thought I was better at Andermani Chinese than this… I meant, who is in charge of the task group?”

“Oh!” the other woman flushed slightly, “I must have not been clear. You’re to command Taskgroup Valkyrie.”

Solace blinked very very slowly, then said, “I’m not going to ask if the Crown Prince has gone insane… clearly the answer is yes… but… what, exactly, are my orders? I mean, I’ve never commanded a ship of the… My largest command was a… What am I supposed to do with a squadron of Battlecruisers?”

“Anything you want…. Captain? Why are you banging your head on the desk?”

Leaning back in the surprisingly comfortable chair, Solace looked up at the ceiling. “Commander… I’m going to assume that you’re actually one of the Totenkopfs and not actually a naval officer?” She didn’t have to see Erica Yuha’s carefully neutral shrug to feel the woman’s surprise, but she didn’t let that knowledge change her posture or tone of voice. “A long time ago, in the lands of Old Earth known as Russia, there were predators known as Wolves. Wolves hunted the sheep and goats that the people relied upon for their livelihoods and so the people wanted to hunt the wolves in turn. Wolves are cunning, sneaky, and have a natural wariness of humans, so hunting them in the forests of Russia, especially in winter, with snow thick on the ground… it was not a thing a wise hunter did. Do you know what the hunters of Russia did?”

“No ma’am. I am not Russian. I am Mongolian. My people ruled the steppes of Siberia. We hunted the wolves from ponyback and drove them from our lands.”

Solace laughed. “Very good. A student of history. Jing-Pei made a good choice in assigning you to me. My Russianness is purely adoptive, but my uncle would never forgive me if I did not point out that the Kievan Rus did kick the Mongol’s out and go on to establish the largest land empire in the history of Old Earth. Of course, the Jew in me would not forgive me if I did not then point out that that jewish peasants and scholars brought down that mighty empire. Being a Russian Jew is confusing… regardless, what the hunters of Russia did, having to deal with trees in numbers larger than all the ponies of all the Mongols, was to tether a horse to a log out in the open and wait for the wolves to come for the horse.”

“Seems like a waste of a horse,” Yuha said. “Was the meat poisoned?”

“The horse was still alive, and the hunter nearby with crossbow or rifle. The wolves would come in for the kill and the hunter would have a new coat before long. They call that horse a stalking-horse, and Jing-Pei has made me his.”

“I don’t follow. His majesty trusts you.”

“His majesty knows that, without orders, I used a LAC to destroy a space-station, a battleship, and more than half a dozen marine transports. His majesty knows that I used a destroyer to take out his battlecruiser. His majesty knows that I’ve got a reputation for unpredictability. He’s given me four BCs and enough supplies to do some serious damage and set me loose in his theater of war amid rumors that I’m to be his empress and knowing that he’s got internal problems. He wants to use me to draw out his enemies and those supply ships are intended to run for it if I get overwhelmed and report back.” She sat up and looked at the other woman, then commanded, “Tell me I’m wrong.”

Yuha shrugged, honestly uncertain this time. “I cannot say. I am not in his Imperial Majesty’s confidence. But if this is all true, what do you plan to do?”

Solace considered that for a long moment, then grinned. “I’m going to win this war for his Majesty… then see if he’s crazy enough to actually propose. I’m hoping that he’s got a secret fiance and is merely using these rumors to protect her. I could understand that.”

The Commander laughed. “You don’t mind being used as bait, but do mind being chased by the most powerful man in the Empire?”

“I don’t like being seen as a prize,” Solace said, lips tight. “If the Crown Prince wants a broodmare, he can find another woman. If he wants someone to smash his enemies… I’m willing. Especially if those enemies are Midgardians… how the hell they let a second lunatic rise to power this fast I’ll never understand.”

“You’re not a fan of Chancellor Simione?” The question was light, as if Commander Yuha was surprised to find that Solace had an opinion at all of the Midgardian leadership.

“Otar Magnusson was a psychopath and his Brotherhood of Odin were hardline reactionaries. Simione Rathskeller is a fanatic with delusions of holy crusade. Just because she opposed Otar doesn’t make her a hero. Her reeducation camps and ‘enemies of godliness’ should terrify everyone. The fact that she’s stirring up so many Andermani is worrying as well. The last thing the region needs is a civil war.”

“The fact that it will disrupt Manticore’s trade in Silesia has nothing to do with it?”

“That’s Minerva’s concern, not mine,” Solace said, petting Naomi who had claimed her lap. “New Temple handles money, not trade goods. Anyway… get on the bridge reorganization. I’ll be reviewing the intel packet and crew… sorry, squadron details… I assume that they’ve been loaded for me?”

The Commander snapped to attention. “Yes ma’am.” She came over and entered a command into the deskcomp. “I’ve just released all security codes and clearances to you. Will you be wanting a tour of the ship later?”

“Tomorrow. Once we rendezvous with the squadron, I’ll want the other Captains and their XOs over here for a conference, and then I want all of Orlando’s section heads to join me for dinner. Now scoot. I’ve got reading to do,” Solace waved the woman off, her eyes already fixed on the display… there were over eight thousand pages of intel briefings and service dossiers to make sense of.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19b

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