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?”
“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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