World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.20

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 20: Life in Quarter Time

Previously: Part 19, Chaper 4

-4th May, 1896 PD, early morning-

“You look terrible,” Honor commented as Solace took her place next to the older woman in the lecture hall. They were two t-months into the ten t-month program and between them held the one and two slots in their class with Constance Brennerman rounding out what the rest of their class called ‘The Terrible Trio’. Solace personally felt that it was all a bit unfair. Constance was the terrible one, with an acerbic personality and all the friendliness of a stone. Of course, that wasn’t why she was feeling low, though the idea of having to deal with Constance ‘The Admiralty’s Pet’ Brennerman didn’t exactly thrill her.

“I had another duel this morning,” Solace said, feeling drained by the entire process.

“Another one?” Honor raised an eyebrow, “About Midgard? How many is this? Eleven?”

“Thirteen, there were two before the term started. Brothers, fathers, sons, wives… they all want… demand, satisfaction.”

Honor’s brow furrowed. “Do they think that having you shoot at them will somehow bring those loved ones back?”

“It’s not about that. It’s about their family reputations… mostly. They’re trying to prove that their kin didn’t die because they were cowards… I guess. I don’t know. I’ve fought so many duels… It seems like a curse has been laid upon me. Today’s was worse than most though. It was just… Delores Meech’s mother. Hard woman. The only one of the bunch besides Captain Danica to ask for the Ellington Protocol. She was practically demanding that I shoot her.”

“You didn’t, right? She’s got to be in her eighties. And why are they picking the terms? They challenged you.”

Delores Meech had been a second generation prolong recipient and one of the oldest junior captains in Manticoran service, the kind who everyone knows will never make list. She was a plodder, a by the book cruiser captain with all the creativity of a ham and cheese sandwich and (before signing up with Midgard) had been on half-pay because she was getting too senior to do anything with. She’d driven her cruiser right onto to some of Solace’s mines at the Battle of Second Midgard. Her mother, Parian Meech, was actually in her nineties and hadn’t been young enough for any generation of prolong.

Solace rested her forehead against the smooth surface of the lecture hall table and groaned. “Danica said that she’d brand me a coward if I didn’t accept the harsher protocol… and she was trying to kill me. Useless woman. I hope she enjoys trying to grow back her hand. As for the Meech woman… she gave me that old lady glare when I suggested that the Dreyfus would be more suited. ‘Do you think me too frail to face your fire, you horrid woman?’ she said when I made the offer.”

“What happened? You didn’t shoot a little old lady, did you?” Honor asked, aghast and uncertain how she would have handled the situation.

“Honor. Parian Meech might be a little old lady, but she was a little old lady with ten rounds of very live ammo. Bullets don’t care how old you are. I shot the gun out of her hand, but I’m certain I broke her wrist and several fingers and the bullet bounced off the gun and lodged in her thigh. She went into shock even before the medics reached her. It’s anyone’s guess if she’ll make it.” She banged her head against the table several times as Naomi patted the back of her short hair.

Ruth and Nimitz, engaged in playing with some jacks that Solace’s little brother Duty-and-Honour had given them at the family open-house the previous weekend, glared at Solace for making the table bounce. Ruth was wearing a harness that had her tiny medal and her Andermani admiral’s stars on it, making her one of the few treecats who routinely wore clothing of any kind. More than one of their classmates had made the assumption that Nimitz and Ruth or Nimitz and Naomi were an item, but despite a certain amount of playful flirting between Ruth and Nimitz, nothing could be further from the truth. As for Naomi, as far as Solace could tell, the bigger of her ‘cats had absolutely no interest in romance at all.

Whatever Honor was about to say was cut off as Admiral Massey entered the room and they all rose to attention… well, everyone besides the treecats.

======

-5th May, 1896 PD, lunch time-

“Commander Smythe,” came a voice from behind her as she left Captain Demaine’s Logistics lecture the next day, “A moment?””

Solace turned and looked back, motioning for Honor and Nimitz to head to lunch without her. The speaker was Admiral Clarence Massey’s aide, a small mousey woman who reminded Solace painfully of a puppy. “Can I help you, Lieutenant?”

“The Admiral was hoping you’d join him for dinner tonight?” the aide asked, just as nervous this time as she had been the last seven times she’d invited Solace. The Admiral routinely invited the more promising junior officers to dine with him on friday nights, and the topics of discussion were always lively and varied, ranging through military history and theory to galactic politics to the latest in technology and the arts. The only problem with those dinners was that Massey’s invitations were not so subtly biased, as he only invited those promising junior officers with powerful patrons or from the more connected families. Solace didn’t know if she’d have noticed except for her friendship with Honor, who had never been invited.

Still, it wasn’t a Commander’s place to tell off an Admiral for not inviting someone. That didn’t mean she had to support the system… but would boycotting do anything beside limit her own voice… she had to wonder how Machiavelli would have handled it. “I’ll be there,” she said, still pondering the question as she hurried to catch up with Honor.

“Watch where you’re stampeding, you useless elephant,” snapped a voice Solace had come to despise over the last two months.

She looked down at the smaller woman (not that almost every woman she’d ever met hadn’t been shorter than Solace’s own 202 centimeter height) and snarked, “Connie. How nice to see you today. I didn’t notice you down there, licking the floor.”

Constance Brennerman harrumphed, puffing up a chest that could politely be described as ‘prodigious’ and glowered. Solace found herself reminded unpleasantly of the time her cat Raoul had tried to intimidate the Babcock’s Rottweiler. Constance or Connie to those who liked annoying her, was barely a hundred and sixty centimeters and looked like a doll someone had dressed in an RMN uniform. It would have been all too easy to underestimate her, but she was actually an insightful and calculating opponent and had earned every promotion she’d been given. She was the RMN’s poster-girl for by the book hard work, dedication, and conservative, but not dogmatic, thinking. She was also two years younger than Solace herself, making her the youngest member of their class. Unfortunately, she seemed to have something against ‘Provincials’ (i.e. people from Sphinx or Gryphon) who brought vermin (i.e. Treecats) into the hallowed halls of Saganami Island and thought the rules didn’t apply to them (i.e. had ever gotten demerits for anything). Her record was so spotlessly clean one could have used it to wipe the queen’s bum.

“Are you going to stand there and be annoyed at me for existing all lunch or do you have a reason for this newest bout of unwarranted Capital Worlder Hostility?”

Constance gritted her teeth, clenched her hands into fists, then stepped aside, muttering to herself about livestock needing to watch where they were going.

Solace waved as the other left, calling, “Maybe you should carry a big sign that says ‘Warning, Cranky Mouse Crossing, Maintain a Safe Distance.”

Honor was waiting just outside the dining hall when Solace and her quasi-feline retinue arrived. “Were you teasing CB again?”

Solace shrugged. “She started it.”

“God, what are you, eight?” Honor sighed, shaking her head. She punched Solace on the shoulder, “Come on, it’s meatloaf day.”

Solace grinned. “You and your fascination with reconstituted steak always amuses.”

Once they were seated, Honor asked, “Any movement on what we talked about yesterday?”

“Nothing yet. I’ve been invited to the Admiral’s again.”

“Thinking someone might cause a scene?”

“I always think someone might cause a scene… but I doubt anyone would be that stupid.”

=====

-5th May, 1896 PD, late evening-

“Ha!” Donovan Massey, the Admiral’s eldest, sneered, looming over Solace. “I can’t believe you were that stupid!” he mocked. “Bogey said you were supposed to be sooo clever, but I told him it was all luck and Andermani agitprop and look!” he waved his hands around the Admiral’s private den. “I was right!”

Solace groaned, head swimming from the chemicals flowing through her system. “Haahg?” she managed to get out, voice barely strong enough to be heard. The evening had been going so well and her poison snooper (artfully disguised as part of her wrist watch) hadn’t detected anything harmful in the food or drink she’d been served at dinner, and she’d poured her own tea upon entering the den to relax while Naomi and Ruth played with the Admiral’s two youngest children, Abigail and Houston, who were six and four respectively and absolutely fawned over the fluffy ‘cats. Treecats loved children, with their bright inquisitive minds and simple clear emotions.

“How? How?” Donovan mocked, pocketing the remote with which he’d locked both of the doors to the room. “I coated the teacups.”

“W… hagib?”

“Hmmm?” he asked, not understanding her slurred speech.

“Whaaa…” she had to struggle to make herself understood. “Duuuggg?”

“Oh! What drug? Don’t worry. It’s tetrametha something or other. It’s not a fatal poison, just a muscle relaxant… couldn’t have my fun disrupted before I arranged an accident for you. That’s what they’re paying me for. Make the great Anvil suffer a mischief.” He giggled, sounding as if he were a bit drugged himself… probably something to steady his nerves.

Solace rolled her head limply around on her shoulders, looking around the room as she tried to get her eyes to focus. “Nnng… paamorrr?”

“Pay me more? I’m sure you could!” he laughed, leaning over to begin to unbutton her jacket and blouse. “But as soon as you recovered, you’d turn me in. Can’t have that… my my… such lovely ladies,” he said, reaching out to run his finger down the exposed valley of her chest. “Don’t worry, we won’t be interrupted.”

He was just pulling a hyponeedle injector out of his vest pocket when the window behind him slide silently open and a large figure dressed all in very dark blue pulled itself up and in with a gymnast’s silent grace. Standing upright, the figure reached out one hand and poked a flower vase in the Ming style. It fell with a crash and Donovan whirled. “Wh… what the… who?” His hand flashed to his jacket where there was a faint hint of a bulge from a needler, but the newcomer threw a heavy paperweight at him, nailing him in the gut and causing him to double over. A quick sharp blow to the back of the neck and Donovan Massey was out for the count.

“Tuugg… yerr… taaaim…” Solace groaned as the figure knelt next to her on the couch and pulled her own hyponeedle out of a bag containing a couple dozen single dose vials.

“Do you know what he gave you?” Honor asked.

“Tee… emmmm… buuuuh,” Solace managed to get out, the vertigo making her want to throw up.

“TMB? Tetramethelbaclofen?” Honor asked, seeking confirmation.

As best she could, Solace nodded, and grunted, “Yuih.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Honor said, injecting the drug. “You don’t want me to stick around?”

“Nuggg… gooo… b… bettaa safe,” Solace flop-waved a hand at her friend.

“What if he recovers before you do?”

“Rissk… gooo…. Beee faaiinnn,” she struggled to sit up, not feeling fine at all, but needing Honor to go before she endangered herself or her family by getting caught up in whatever this was. As she did, the events of the previous afternoon came back to her and she privately cursed and blessed Pavel Young in the same thought.

======

-4th May, 1896 PD, late afternoon-

“I hate math,” Honor groaned at their study group later that day. “This doesn’t make any sense!” She tossed the tablet across the table and leaned back, groaning. “I’m never going to get this!”

“It’s not that hard to understand,” Solace commented.

“Says the woman who’s never had to think about complex equations,” groaned the older woman.

It was true, to an extent. Solace’s intuition was strong enough that she all but instantly knew the solution to any plot, calculation, or equation she so much as looked at. Only the most complex of theoretical mathematics could force her to actually run the calculations… and when she ran into them she invariably had to turn to a machine to do the math, seeing as how she no real knowledge of how such things actually worked, and even less interest in polydimensional physics, proton clustering, or transfinite number theory.

Solace shrugged. “Maybe that’s true, but I kill to be as good of a pilot as you are. And you’re better with conventional tactics than I am.”

“Hah!” Honor snorted. “Blatant lies.”

“I’m serious! I use clever tricks and guesswork. You look at a situation and just… I don’t know… You’re relentless.”

“You’ve beaten me in every head to head we’ve had,” Honor pointed out.

“And you’ve done more damage to my ship than the next three contenders combined. And only you and Brennerman have avoided my traps or seen through my gambits.”

“At which point we discover that you’ve got another trap waiting for us.”

“I’ve got more experience with actual combat, that’s all. And I’ve only commanded a ship of my own in combat once. You’re much better at ship handling than I am.”

Honor chuckled. “That’s true. You’re really bad at that.”

“Hey!” Solace humphed. It was something of a sore spot that her actual ship handling skills were so poor. Of course, calling them poor outloud would have infuriated most of the class, since Solace was ranked eighth in their class of sixty. Honor, of course, was ranked number one. Where Solace was the best at squadron and fleet level maneuvers, in the heat of battle, she didn’t have the same instinctive speed of command that Honor had.

Indeed, the two of them had nearly diametric fighting styles in every area. Solace was all finesse in ship handling and brutally fast in hand to hand, while Honor was the opposite. At the helm, Solace set up weaknesses in her enemies, manipulating them like a spider with prepositioning and planned reactions, looking for the perfect one hit kill. Honor, on the other hand sought out every trick, every opportunity to land a damaging blow, killing her enemies with a dozen little blows that combined to produce the same result. The longer one stayed in contact with Honor, the more damage one took. It was as if her soul was fire. Solace found she was actually looking forward to seeing what kind of force Honor would put together once she’d managed to pass through the obligatory Captaincy period before the Admiralty inevitably realized she was wasted with only a single ship to her name. That Honor wasn’t already a Captain, maybe not of the list, but a Captain nonetheless, was a shame.

“Want to come dancing with Minerva and me tomorrow night? Lukas will be there,” Solace asked, changing the subject.

“God… no. I look like an ox stumbling about on the dance floor.”

“Honor. I’m fifteen centimeters taller than you and have bigger shoulders. If you look like an ox, I look like an elephant.”

“Please! You’re gorgeous. I look like a horse.”

“I like horses.”

“No flirting!”

“I’m not flirting with you. I know you’re straight… but you should come. Lukas likes horses too.”

“I’d look like a giantess dancing with him! He’s cute, but he’s tiny!”

“He’s only 18 cm shorter than you! He’s not tiny!”

Honor was about to retort, but a uniformed steward walked over to their table in the COC’s common area.

“Commander Smythe,” the woman said, “This is marked for your eyes only.” She held out a silver tray upon which was a folded and wax sealed piece of very expensive stationary. The steward had a faint smirk on her face, clearly thinking that it was a love letter, and even Honor had the corner of her mouth kinked as she watched Solace take the missive.

“Thank you,” Solace said, waiting until the woman left to do anything more than tap the edge of the envelope against her lips.

“That doesn’t look like it’s from Minerva,” Honor half-teased.

“It’s not. It’s from lord Young,” Solace half-growled. She’d managed, finally, and after many beers, to get Honor to explain why she detested Pavel Young, and had related her own experiences with the odious spawn of the North Hollow line.

“How do you know?” Honor asked, “the wax isn’t embossed with the North Hollow crest.”

“That arse thinks it’s funny to use a stylish F as his seal… it’s for Farussi.”

“Farussi? I don’t understand,” the Sphinxian Yeoman said.

“Baron Farussi was an alias of Giacomo Casanova… the Casanova,” Solace explained, referring to the Italian adventurer of the fourth century Ante-Diaspora whose name was, even two millennia and more later, synonymous with ‘womanizer’. “This is also his favorite stationary… It’s imported from Venice on Old Earth and costs eighteen Manticoran dollars a sheet… a ridiculous expense for a ridiculously spoiled brat.”

“Why is he sending you… he’s not stupid enough to flirt with you, is he?”

“No. He’s not. At least I don’t think he is. And that’s why I’m trying to figure out what this might be.”

“You could open it?” Honor pointed out, sounding reasonable.

“I don’t like surprises.”

“Are you actually trying to use that intuition of yours to figure out what’s inside a sealed envelope?” Honor chuckled.

Solace sighed. “No, I’m not. I just…” she shrugged. “I guess I’m just procrastinating because I can’t think of any reason he might have sent this that wouldn’t be unpleasant.”

“You’re going to stress yourself out more by worrying about it than you would by just getting it over with. It’s like a bandage.”

“I don’t follow.”

“When you have a bandage on and you know pulling it off slowly is going to hurt, you just rip it off all at once. Sure, it’ll hurt a bunch, but it’ll be over sooner and the total pain will be less than the cumulative pain and anticipation,” Honor explained.

Solace stared at her friend for several long seconds, then said, “You do realize they make a spray for dissolving the adhesive on bandages, right?”

“Oh just open the damned envelope, your Imperial Grace.”

“Stop calling me that,” Solace groaned. The Imperial Andermani Court had finally gotten organized enough to send word that her position as ninth in line to the throne (after Prince Huang and his children and the Herzog von Rabenstrange and his children) had been confirmed, which was deeply worrying. More worrying was the fact that her home was now playing host to a dozen Totenkopf Hussars assigned as her diplomatic guard. Thankfully, they couldn’t follow her into the various military precincts she frequented, and it was nice knowing that they were there to protect Gilly, Barnabie, and Minerva, but it was a bit annoying to be followed by black uniformed, jackbooted thugs (highly attractive though they might be) at all times. That their leader was the redoubtable Oberstleutnant Mustafa was perhaps the most worrying of all, though it was nice having Ulrike assigned as her personal driver. She and Gilly seemed to really be hitting it off, though not in a romantic way.

“Fine…” Solace grumbled, then broke the seal, “But if this is some kind of deadly contact poison or an eldritch magical rune that makes my eyes melt, I’m blaming you.”

“You read too many weird books,” Honor said.

“Well, excuse me for liking fiction,” Solace replied, pulling out the card.

In Pavel’s admittedly impressive calligraphy, the note said, “For years the specter of your threat has hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles. No more. I have information for you which should square us, so take your damned Jew hex off of me. Parties of my father’s acquaintance have arranged for someone to assassinate you. I don’t know who the assassin is, but father seems convinced that they will be able to reach you even at the Island. The attempt will happen sometime within the next four days, presumably before the Commons votes on the resolution to withdraw from Basilisk.”

Solace read through the letter twice. It was unsigned, of course, and no doubt if she took it to the authorities, Pavel would claim it was a forgery, since his preferences in writing material weren’t exactly unknown among his set. She handed over to Honor as she considered.

After five minutes of silence, punctuated only by the feeling of Honor’s emotions boiling away, the other woman spoke. “Even when he’s trying to be helpful, he really can’t help but make an arse of himself, can he? Fucking nobles.”

Feeling a little defensive, Solace said, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a noble, any more than there is in being a politician or a soldier. The problems arise when one acts as if holding such a position entitles one to more respect, to take liberties, or have a sense of superiority over those who aren’t your peers. As long as one remembers that one’s duty is to serve others, one should be okay.”

“Oh? One will remember that in case one ever becomes a noble,” Honor said, trying to mimic Michael Janvier’s ridiculously posh accent.

“Oh hush.”

“What are you going to do about this?” Honor asked, waving the stiff card… then gasped as it began to crumble.

“Oh. interesting. I’d heard about that,” Solace commented, watching as the note corroded outward from the ink.

“Wh… what just happened?” Honor asked, looking at the hollowed out card.

“Nanotechnological ink. You write a note on a cellulose rich medium with the special ink, then spray it with a primer and seal it in a visible light proof envelope, like this one.” She held up the foil-lined envelope. “Then, when optical light hits it, it activates the ink and the ink… consumes the medium.”

“That’s… creepy. Is it some kind of spy tech?”

Solace laughed. “Believe it or not, no. It’s so rich brats can send each other self-destructing notes. It’s used as a bullying tool in Gilly’s school and also to write love letters. Gilly’s gotten quite a number of them. Of course, she takes snapshots of each as soon as she opens them.”

“How’s she doing?” Honor asked. “I know she looked happy enough at the open-house… but you know better than most how good escaped slaves can be at hiding trauma.”

Solace shrugged a little, “She’s as normal as a thirteen year old gets, I guess. Not as driven as I was at that age, and much more interested in matters romantic than I was. She’s more interested in sports too, and less interested in the military. She’s got a big grappling tournament coming up at the end of the month. And I have no idea what I’m going to do about the threat. How does one prepare for an assassination attempt when one doesn’t know the time, place, or killer’s identity?”

Honor thought about that for a very long moment, then sighed. “You’re right. It doesn’t seem like an easy problem. How does one prepare for an attack that can come anywhere, anytime, from anyone?”

“Paranoia?”

“That just has us looking at shadows.”

“Intelligence work?” Solace suggested.

“What?” Honor asked, “Planning on running a comprehensive and highly illegal background check on everyone who has access to the Island?”

“We’re thinking of it the wrong way,” Solace said, thinking out loud. “We’re looking at this as if it matters who the assassin is.”

“That’s a fairly important piece of information, isn’t it?” Honor asked, voice tinged with sarcasm, but Solace could feel the worry coming off the older woman.

She patted Honor’s hand and smiled wanly, then shook her head. “No. What matters are vectors of attack. How someone might plan to kill me is much more important than who, though who will often inform how.”

Honor nodded slowly, getting it and running through the permutations. “So, we’re talking all the classics; poison, direct attack with a weapon, sniper, bomb, sabotage,” she said, ticking them off on her fingers.

“I can get a poison snooper from Minerva and use it on my food. Contact poison and traps potentially endanger others. Same with bombs. It’s unlikely that unless the assassin has a personal stake in killing me or is a complete psychopath that they’d resort to them. The Island’s security is fairly tight, and there aren’t many places a sniper can get a good line on someone…” she paused, mentally modeling the campus and thinking about potential sniper roosts that didn’t already have campus security… and that made her pause. “Could it be someone on the security detail?”

“Their weapons are monitored and they’d be the first suspect if a shot came from one of their nests. Assassins don’t usually want to be caught,” Honor pointed out.

“True,” Solace agreed.

“And any direct attack would have to face Ruth and Naomi,” Honor added, “So that’s not much risk.”

“Unless we’re dealing with someone who knows about treecats… either on the hiring side or the action side.”

Honor snorted, “If it’s on the hiring side only, you won’t have much problem. People underestimate ‘cats all the time, don’t they Nimitz?” Nimitz, who was laying on his back and batting lazily at a beam of dusty light coming through the window, bleeked at her and yawned.

“True… hmmm…” Solace considered, then brought up the public personnel information for everyone currently assigned to the Island. She had VIctoria, the Andros-Brandyne AI, sort the list by those who had close family members who worked for the Sphinx Forestry Service or were adopted by treecats. “Eighteen… not a good total, but not bad. The question is, who from Sphinx would know enough about the ‘cats, hate me, and be in a position to hire someone with clearance to kill me?”

“I think that’s coming back around to who,” Honor pointed out. “Best you can do is be prepared and modify your behaviour. And it might not be someone who currently has clearance, but someone who will gain access in the next few days.”

“Good point,” Solace agreed, “So… you coming dancing with us tonight?”

“You… what about the assassin?”

“I highly doubt they’ll try anything while I’m being watched by my bodyguards,” Solace said, shrugging, “Having them around has to be good for something, right?”

“I don’t know, your Grace… I’ve never heard of a foreign head of state serving in the RMN.”

“I’m not currently head of state, and the Midgardians are officially pissed as hell about the title Jing… I mean Gustav, saddled me with.”

“You could have turned it down,” Honor pointed out. “They can’t force you to be a Grand Duchess without your permission.”

“Sure. Turn down an Emperor. May you find out how hard that is,” Solace retorted.

“Oh no!” Honor mock gasped, “I have been afflicted by a Jew Hex!” They both laughed at that and Honor sighed, “Could Pavel be more of a jackass?”

“Could he be? Yes. He could be that disgusting slime he’s descended from.”

“Give him time,” Honor said.

“Naw. Dimtri’s got a brain… and a spine. Pavel has neither.”

Honor smirked, but nodded, “Good point.”

======

Donovan Massey had not lived to see trial. He’d taken his own life in police custody even before he could be officially charged. Solace had been allowed to graduate, though the incident and the controversy surrounding it had followed her. It had resulted in the retirement of Admiral Massey because even though he’d been unaware of his son’s predilections and gambling habit, there were many who felt he should have been aware.

Less scrupulous media outlets published stories claiming that Solace might have framed the youth, or led him on and then rejected him, causing him to snap, but in the absence of any evidence that they’d met more than socially, that went nowhere.

Still, in January of 1897, when her fellow graduates were given their new assignments, with Honor getting the destroyer Hawkwing and Connie getting Huntress, Solace Smythe found herself once more sitting on the beach as various forces in the Lords and Admiralty debated her suitability to command, with one faction demanding she be dismissed entirely as a security risk and an opposing faction demanding she be immediately sent to the Advanced Tactical Course and given command of something bigger than a Destroyer.

In April of 1897, with her military future very much uncertain, a strange opportunity arose. Gerard Makepeace, the MP for the district of Jason Bay suddenly retired, citing health reasons (he was a hundred and nine years old).

“I don’t understand,” Solace said, sitting in the sunroom of Minerva’s Jason Bay house. “What, exactly, does this all have to do with me, your Grace?”

His Grace, Alan Summervale, aka the Duke of Cromarty, was the current Prime Minister of the Star Kingdom and perhaps the most respected man in the entire nation. Next to him was Admiral Hamish Alexander on one side, and Patrick Roark, head of the Crown Loyalist faction in the Commons. “It’s very simple, Miss Smythe,” Roark said, his rich Gryphon accent making Solace think of home, “We want you to run for Gerard’s seat.”

“Gerard’s a Conservative. I’m not.”

“We know. We aren’t asking you to switch party allegiance. Merely to stand in the election for the MCLP.”

“What about the Navy?”

Hamish spoke. “Right now, they aren’t using your talents. That does not seem likely to change any time soon.”

Solace leaned back, considering. “You wouldn’t be coming to me unless you’d already run numbers. How likely is it that I’ll win?”

The Prime Minister leaned forward, “Not good. But we hear you enjoy a challenge.”

Three months later, Solace realized she’d been suckered. Of course, by that point, it was too late. She was already an MP and there was no escape.

======

-2nd September, 1901, early morning-

“Honor says she got a visit from Klaus Hauptman the other day,” Solace said, reading her most recent missive from her friend. The Sphinxian’s career had been steadily ticking along for the last five years, watched from afar by Solace and company, and, after her tour on Hawkwing, Solace had been pleased that, at last, the Admiralty had felt it time to send Miss Harrington to the Advanced Tactics Course, where, under Admiral Courvosier’s excellent tutelage, she’d passed with flying colors. Solace had had to stifle an ungenerous surge of envy at that, and another when Honor had been given command of the Light Cruiser Fearless.

She’d had to stifle another emotion when Honor had been shifted to Basilisk after the failure to perform of the Grav-Lance Fearless had been refitted with. Solace had confronted her old friend Sonja Hemphill about why she’d arranged for Honor to be banished to the Basilisk system, and Sonja had explained that the banishment hadn’t been her idea, but that since Fearless had been turned into a testbed, it wasn’t particularly useful as a screening unit. Sonja’d argued with the other Admirals that Fearless would do fine on commerce protection, but her clout hadn’t been enough to sway the others. It had been decided to put Fearless someplace where her weakened armaments couldn’t get her into trouble, and Basilisk had been deemed the safest place for her. It might not be an exciting exile, but after a year or so, she’d be recalled and Honor would be transferred to something larger, with Fearless maybe sold off to Alison or Zanzibar or Erewhon… or maybe even Grayson if that deal ever got worked out.

Honor’s job had been a difficult one, as the RMN mandate in the Basilisk system had been created with the idea that a dozen light units would be assigned to the system. In reality, the current picket strength was two; Fearless (a light cruiser) and Warlock (a heavy cruiser). Those two ships were supposed to protect the planet, the wormhole terminus, and police the entire system… as well as assisting the Wormhole Command and Native Protection Agency with customs inspections both at the Wormhole and in Medusa orbit. For the crews of two ships, it would have been nearly impossible… but Honor didn’t have two ships.

Honor wasn’t even supposed to be station commander of Basilisk Station. No, that task should have gone to the Captain (Senior Grade) of Warlock. Unfortunately for Honor, that festering waste of skin was none other than Pavel Young and he’d immediately pulled Warlock back to Manticore for refitting and long overdue maintenance.

Against all odds, Honor had done the impossible with only one ship and was, barely, managing to do her duty. She’d even caught dozens of smugglers since she’d been smart enough to recognize that Horace Harkness (now a chief again and assigned to Fearless) was the perfect sniffer-dog. He’d even managed to get himself a young and impressionable Ensign to corrupt in the form of one Prescott ‘Scotty’ Tremaine.

Pavel had, of course, caught wind of how well Honor was doing and had made every effort to rush back to Basilisk to either ruin all the progress or take credit for it… but thanks to the efforts of Paul Tankersley (Pavel’s XO), Lukas Janacek (now a Lt. Commander and in charge of the refit on Warlock), and Admiral Craig Warner (in charge of the refit yards of HMSS Hephaestus), the three month repair job had spiraled to six months and counting.

Solace had been hoping to arrange a Parliamentary Inspection of Basilisk Station, so the other MPs of the Military Oversight Committee and the Committee for Basilisk to see first hand what Fearless’s Crew and the Native Protection Agency had been dealing with, and the date for that had been tentatively set for the 20th, but working out the details had been a supreme hassle.

Gilly, now a strapping eighteen year old in her third term at Queen’s College where she was reading particle physics and galactic history when she wasn’t playing lacrosse or practicing her grappling, looked up from where she was trying to keep Barnabie from stealing her bacon, “Oh? Why was he there? The Hauptmans don’t have anything in system, do they?”

“A few ships and a transhipment point,” said Minerva. “Plus they built some of the communication and power stations in Medusa orbit.”

“But nothing like Port Royal, right?” Gilly asked, furrowing her brow and trying to figure out why the trillionaire industrialist would bother going to Basilisk. “Are we certain he wasn’t spying on us?”

Minerva laughed. “Darling, CEOs do not spy on each other… we pay people to do that. Ask your sister what Honor says.”

Solace knew her cue and shrugged, “He was upset about his shipping being searched and one of his freighters being seized.” At Minerva’s quirked eyebrow, she explained, “Mondragon. It was smuggling Kodiak Max pelts. Quite a lot of them. Hauptman probably didn’t know anything about it, but he should have. We’re keeping tabs on all our merchant captains, right?”

Minerva nodded, but made a note for a comprehensive audit. It wasn’t that Andros-Brandyne did a lot of shipping, and most of what they did these days was to Midgard and the Andies, but they were doing more and more with every year even as they expanded their ship building capacity. In addition to Port Royal in Basilisk, they also had yards in Gregor (Port Solomon), Corona (the second half of the Jewel binary, Port Caine), and Manticore (Port Victor), with eleven Tortuga-Class mobile yards spread out across their holdings. It didn’t take an economic genius to know war was coming and ABC was not going to miss out on their share of military contracts when the RMN discovered its in house yards weren’t enough to satisfy demand.

“Maybe I should visit Honor myself, see if there’s anything we can do to help her out?” Minerva suggested.

“To Basilisk?” Gilly asked, excited. “Can I come? I’ve always wanted to meet a Stilty!”

“Always?” Solace asked. “I don’t remember you mentioning it before?” The Medusans (nicknamed Stilties) were the eleventh race of sophonts that Humanity had encountered, though they were barely a bronze age civilization.

Gilly blushed. “Ooookay. Not always! But you know what I mean!” She humphed, hugging Barnabie who had stolen a sausage and was gnawing at it. Gilly pretended to speak as the obese treecat, “Pweeez! We pwomise to behave and not try to see if the Medusans are nummy.”

“I’m having lunch with Admiral d’Orville tomorrow. If you two want to tag along, we can take the Palace out to the Junction,” Solace invited, putting down her tablet and tucking into her breakfast.

=======

-3rd September, 1901, lunch time-

“I hope you’ll consider the offer,” Admiral d’Orville, CO Homefleet, said. “I know that the politics have been against giving you your own ship, and you’ve got to be annoyed by constantly being beached, but… well…” he shrugged apologetically.

“I’ve been an MP for five years now, Sebastian. I know all too well the compromises of realpolitik. I don’t like them, but I do understand. That said, yes, of course I’ll return if the Navy needs me.”

“You’d be Admiral Whitehaven’s chief of staff,” he said.

“You already have a position lined up? I’m still a standing member, you know?”

He waved the concern away as if it didn’t matter, “Unimportant. Homefleet is assigned to the Home System.”

“So I’m supposed to be able to fulfil my duties to my constituents and run the Admiral’s staff at the same time?”

“Well, yes. Hamish has been relying on Captain Kuzak since taking over BuPlan as Second Space Lord, but we’re promoting her to Rear Admiral and giving her CruRon sixteen. You’ll be in Landing the entire time, barring inspection. And you’ll have a staff for most details.”

Solace chuckled. “The problem with being a miracle worker is that people keep expecting you to repeat it. Aren’t I a bit too junior for this post?”

“We’ll promote you to Captain JG. It’s supposed to be an SG’s post, but no one will protest that you’re unqual…” he cut off at the sound of a hurried conversation from the hall outside his private dining chamber. “What in the-” he began, but at that moment, his flag lieutenant burst in.

“Admiral, sir… Basilisk Station just sent Case Zulu!”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 1

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, Ryune, Sphinxes and Deltoren, 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.

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19d

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 4

Previously: Chapter 3

“Hello, Your Excellency,” Solace said. “Forgive me for not rising.” She motioned to the cast on her leg. “Assassination attempt. Fifth this week. What brings you to Midgard?”

Loyal looked at his sister and sighed. She looked terrible. The stress of the Midgardian Campaign and the loss of so many people under her command, as light as her casualties had been, would be weighing heavily on her. Even more heavy would be the news he had to bring. He sat opposite her and opened his attache case.

“The Lords has formally condemned you, Solace,” he said, sliding the packet across the desk, meeting her gaze as her eyes blazed. “They’re taking the opinion that you had no business invading the Midgard System and that you’ve escalated a territorial squabble into an outright invasion. They’ve already had me issue a formal request for clarification to the Andermanis demanding to know if the Empire plans to assert sovereignty over the Federation.”

Solace opened the packet and half snarled, a sound which was echoed by her treecats. “This is about Admiral Lord Mosby, isn’t it?” she asked, voice too sharp.

“Partly. Solace… your command killed six half-pay Manticorans. Granted, they were serving in Midgard without explicit permission of Her Majesty’s government, but they were still Manticoran citizens. And you’re holding fifteen more as prisoners of war… Her Majesty formally requests they be returned, along with the bodies of Admiral Mosby and the others if they’ve been recovered.” He felt the heat of her gaze as she studied him. His tone had been perfectly polite, with a hint of apology in it, but this wasn’t Loyal Smythe speaking to Solace Smythe, it was the Manticoran Ambassador to the Court of Gustavus Rex speaking to the de facto Despot of Midgard, a territory claimed in war and rightfully surrendered by action of their body politic.

“I’m willing to return them if they give their parole, as I’ve told them. Some of them have been less than… polite, I’m afraid. Captain Tredmont accused me of treason, Commander Alcott called me Gustav’s Assassin, and Captain Danica is somewhat annoyed I killed her fiance.” Solace shrugged. “She was sleeping with Mosby, in case you’re unaware why both of them were placed on half-pay in the first place. I know you’re not up on military gossip.”

“She was his flag-captain, both here and in the kingdom, right?” Solace nodded. “That’s a violation of regs, I thought?”

“It is. Lord Mosby’s family pulled strings. The other twelve have given their paroles and will be returned to her Majesty as soon as transport can be arranged. The other three you’ll have to speak to and convince, which (of course) you’re free to do. As for this,” she waved the formal documents in annoyance. “Please convey to the Lords that Oberst Smythe acted with the full authority and consent of the state she was currently serving under and violated none of the laws of man or war. She has no intention of apologizing for doing her duty.”

“I… see,” Loyal said stiffly, accepting her words in the spirit they were given. “I shall attempt to… phrase that as diplomatically as I can. If Mosby’s family weren’t Centrists, I doubt this would have had much traction, but you had people from both sides of the aisle voting on this.”

“They’re worried that Manticore will be caught between the Andermani on one side and Haven on the other?” Solace asked, voice calming a little.

“Wouldn’t you be?”

“Not really. The Andermani Navy is twenty years behind the Manticoran… They’re catching up, but they don’t have the traditions and think like ground pounders. In fact, if the Emperor does claim Midgard, it will be safer for Manticore.”

“Safer? How so? And should you be telling me all this?”

Solace shrugged. “The Crown Prince and the Emperor are fully aware that my ultimate loyalty lies with Manticore. My oath of service to the Andermani specifically precludes me acting against Manticore’s publicly avowed interests.” That kind of thing was fairly typical, since Manticore had a habit of loaning out officers to allied powers. The Empire wasn’t technically allied, but there had never been a war or even open conflict between the Empire and the Star Kingdom. “Regardless. As to your question; the Andermani would have to spend the next twenty years integrating Midgard if they want to keep it. It’s my opinion that they’ll settle for the eight systems that are in dispute and leave it at that.”

The eight systems (Bodel, Bostwick, Dey Rey, Chatham, Pungu, Kyuzu, Mughal, and Tulsa), only three of which lay within the claimed boundaries of either nation (the first two in Andermani Space and the last one in Midgard) were asset rich but barely inhabited. The largest colony in the set had less than a hundred million people, while the smallest had eighty-eight thousand… but both nations wanted to settle and exploit the worlds and asteroid belts in those systems. What the locals wanted wasn’t really something any of the local powers cared much about, since they were de facto protectorates of the Andermani or Midgard already and making them de jure part of one of the two had been all but certain for a century.

“The Emperor might even hand over Tulsa, just because it’s so far away from his sphere of influence… but Bodel and Bostwick are a lock. The others?” she shrugged.

“What of the Federation?” Loyal asked.

“They’ll be forced to sign a treaty blocking them from building wallers for eighty years is my guess. My suggestion too. Maybe some reparations. I’m advising that the termini of the Jewel and Asgard Junctions be sold to those nations for a period not to be less than one century. Oh, and it turns out Midgard has three wormholes they were keeping schtum about.”

Loyal blinked at that. “Really? Anything interesting?”

“Not yet. The one in Vanaheim is so faint they haven’t figured out the vector for it yet. The one in Svartalfheim has got to be the shortest I’ve ever heard about. It comes out in M846B… that’s right outside Helheim, good for internal trade but not much. Third one comes out in Karlov.”

Loyal gasped. “Karlov? That’s…”

Solace nodded. “Two light years from Caperna… Yeah. We’re pretty certain that’s how they got to the system undetected.” The Karlov system had two planets in the goldilocks zone of habitability, but both were ecological a mess thanks to heavy bombardment and would take centuries of work to turn habitable. “The wormhole is also extremely distant. It’s at 81 AUs.”

“Ah. Well… I assume that… where’s the other end?”

“Utgard… They’ve been harvesting the outer Karlov system for decades. We’re also pretty certain that’s where Simione Rathskeller took the Midgardian Second Fleet.” Utgard was only 12.3 lightyears from Muspelheim. Yeah… it’s a pretty nice little triangle from Jewel to Muspelheim to Utgard to Karlov to Weissen and back to Jewel. The Andermani are going to want to keep it, but I’m going to push for us having access to it. Midgard will be better off in the long run.”

“If you say so. Economics isn’t my strong suit… not yours either… I’m guessing Minerva helped with this plan?”

She threw a grape at him. “Hey. I can understand basic supply and demand and trade routes. Anyway… It’s good to see you, even if you’re here to scold me. Ughh… I hate having broken bones. You know how annoying it is to have to wear a cast for a week?”

Loyal rolled his eyes. “Where regen isn’t possible it takes six to eight months for a broken tibia to heal completely, often with casts and splints for the entire time. Don’t complain.”

“Yes, Mom.”

==========

The next eleven months were among the most frustrating of Solace’s life. Stuck in Midgard, she felt like a glorified babysitter, receiving endless reports of how Simione’s fleet kept retreating across the Empire, causing incredible amounts of destruction as it smashed and burned its way slowly towards Silesia.

Things were complicated in that the Crown Prince, who was steadfastly refusing to ascend to fill the currently empty throne until the war was officially ended, could not afford to pull her fleet, now swollen with dreadnoughts and battleships, ancient though they were (most of the BBs still rotated for gravity) to move out to help catch Rathskeller in a vice for fear that Midgard would throw off its constraints and reignite the war on two fronts.

The solution, one that no one liked, was to deploy Andermani Army personnel into a occupation force, but that too presented problems in the form of logistics. Ultimately, that problem was solved by bringing Jewelian and Manticoran business interests into the mix. Andros-Brandyne and the Crown owned Highmark Cartel agreed to supply the logistics in exchange for Midgardian independence and a guarantee from the Andermani that all forces would be removed according to a list of drawdown milestones so complex that it made Solace’s head hurt.

What the treaty required of Midgard was absolute surrender of its claim on all systems outside its current borders (they were allowed to keep the single disputed colony world inside that border, Tulsa, population 1.2 million, and the undisputed Aland and Svalbard colonies), an agreement not to build anything heavier than a Battlecruiser for at least forty years, extendable to eighty at the Empire’s discretion, and a two century lease on all their extra-territorial wormholes, with Andros Brandyne administering the as yet unmapped Vanaheim Wormhold via their Snurlson subsidiary. In exchange, the Midgardians got to hold public elections and resume the functions of a sovereign nation as as long as they agreed to vest control of their military in their system governors instead of their Chancellor.

Through it all, Solace had had to act as the Crown Prince’s enforcer, the eight ton hyper-elephant ready to step on heads if the various system delegates didn’t agree to play nice and to constantly remind the idiots that they’d started both recent wars and no the galactic community was not being mean to them… and no she was not going to duel them. Nor was she going to sleep with any of them. Secretly (or not so secretly by the end of the talks) she wanted to take many of them out and have them shot, but a capable cadre of diplomats and a staff who were getting all too good at reading her moods managed to restrain her.

And so it was that, eleven months, five days, and a number of hours that hyper-navigation and wormhole transit made measuring exactly difficult later, Task Force Valkyrie, now Task Fleet Valkyrie departed Midgard for Kyuzu, one of the disputed systems, a quarter of the way to the Andermani Empire from the Federation.

The Battle of Pungu, the next colony in the chain, would mark the end of what History would call the Long Retreat of Simione Rathskeller as her fleet, which had been joined by rebellious Andermani Naval units under former Minister for War Chang Xiaopeng, was trapped between Crown Fleet and Valkyrie and destroyed. It had been a long and bloody year, a year full of painful slogs and attrition for the Rebel Fleet as it was called in the Solie press and the murderous bastards as far as the Andermani were concerned.

Xiaopeng had had the good grace to kill himself to avoid capture. It wouldn’t save his family from disgrace, but his recorded admission of wrongdoing would keep his kin from being lynched by the mob. Simione Rathskeller had not. After being captured, she’d defiantly demanded repatriation to Midgard, whose ambassador had declined with great haste and no little alarm. Her trial, in which she’d insisted on defending herself from charges that ranged from piracy and brigandage to violations of the Eridani Edict against wanton slaughter of civilians or targeting purely civilian targets to fomenting insurrection, had been a media circus.

Her very public execution had, of course, been decried as rampant barbarism in the Solie Media, and had been heralded with a three day festival on New Berlin, a fete that had culminated with the Crown Prince formally crowning himself Emperor Gustav, Eleventh of His Name.

“Isn’t it odd for a monarch to crown themselves,” Minerva asked. She was sitting in the Manticoran VIP section along with Loyal and the Queen of Manticore. Solace, as one of the three Totenkopf commanders, was on the dias, holding the cushion that had previously held the Crown of the Andermani.

“Normally, yes. But it’s not unheard of in history. The Gustavs are nominally Lutheran, so normally the Patriarch of the Andermani Lutheran Church does the deed,” Loyal explained. “But Gustav the First proclaimed himself emperor, so I’m guessing the current Gustav is invoking that image.”

“Hush,” Queen Elizabeth said, “He’s speaking.”

“Today we are made whole again,” the Emperor said. “Today we are at peace, no longer threatened by enemies without and within. It is with great pleasure that I announce that, on New Year’s day, I shall take a wife and give you all an Empress to look upon in awe and admiration.”

The crowd within the cathedral went absolutely quiet at that, whispers of Solace’s name or epithets (much to her chagrin, the Midgardians and Andermani had added Der Valkyrie, Battle Crow, Skadi, Guan Di, and Brunhilde to The Anvil… she’d had to look up three of them.) being shared amongst the dignitaries gathered. From outside, the roar of the crowd as the Emperor’s words spread was defining. If anyone besides Manticorans noticed the faint but smug grin on Solace’s face, they didn’t remark on it, but only her brother could read her well enough to see that it was a grin of relief, not of acceptance.

“Ah. She turned him down,” Loyal muttered. Minerva elbowed him.

“One does not turn down an emperor. She merely… hold on,” she said as the Emperor was rising to his feet and motioning for someone to come forward. “This wasn’t in the script.”

Of course, there wasn’t an actual script, but the Queen could see that Solace was thrown off balance, just a little, by the action. It hadn’t been something she was expecting and she unconsciously smoothed her ridiculous uniform tunic a little straighter than it already was.

A young officer, attractive and bearing the look of a member of the house of Anderman came out, holding a second, smaller crown, almost a tiara on a gilded crimson pillow. She knelt in front of Solace and the Emperor picked up the crown. He cleared his throat and said, “Your hat?”

Solace, eyes fixed on the crown, jerked. This was soo not the plan… She wanted very much to shake the little shrimp and demand to know what he thought he was doing, but knew she couldn’t do that in front of everyone. He had better not be planning to… they settled this weeks ago! She took off her frankly silly fur hat and handed it to Oberst Kleine who handed off the Sword of State’s Pillow to Oberst Herzog von Rabenstrange, the Prince’s cousin and father of the girl kneeling before Solace. He balanced the Sword Pillow (control of the military) atop the Orb Pillow (control of the legal system) and smirked at Solace. She glared, then stiffened as the Emperor raised the diadem to place it on her head. Just to be difficult, she refused to bow even a millimeter to make his job easier. Take that, shrimpy.

=====A Week Previously=====

“I’m not marrying you, Jing,” she said as she entered the private sitting room. “I’ve told you that.”

“Yes yes, you’re already in a relationship and you don’t love me,” the Emperor in all but name said, “You understand that I’m not asking because I’m attracted to you. You’re a fine woman, but this is a matter of state.”

“And breeding?” she asked.

He chuckled, “Oh, no. I’m afraid not. I think perhaps I have even less desire to mate with you than you have to mate with me.” He sipped his wine and motioned for her to sit.

She took the chair opposite him, glancing at the other three men present. They were Huang and Chien-Lu Anderman as well as Oberst of the Totenkopf Hussars Wong-Fei Kleine. The first two were the Crown Prince’s younger brother and his cousin, while the final two were the remaining command staff of the Totenkopfs. That Chien-Lu, the Herzog von Rabenstrange, was in both groups showed just how much the Emperor trusted him. “I’m missing something,” Solace said.

“His majesty has… mmm… how to put this,” Chien-Lu began.

“I’m not interested in women,” the Crown Prince said. “No point hedging about this. She’s a big girl, she’ll understand.”

Solace blinked, looking at the Emperor-to-be. “Ah. Well… hmmm… That does change the equation a bit. May I assume that Oberst Kleine is… mmm… your significant other?”

The Emperor shrugged. “Call him a companion. But yes, essentially. My brother can supply an heir of the body as easily as I can. So? Will you accept now?”

“Ah… no. I’m flattered, really. But being Empress doesn’t really interest me. May I recommend Captain Yuha?” She’d had to promote most of her command staff as the Task group had expanded to fleet strength and Yuha had been formally bumped to Solace’s Flag Captain as well as being the de facto Vice-Admiral of Dreadnought Division One.

“As Empress?” Chien-Lu asked

“She’s absolutely loyal. No family to speak of. Very pretty,” Prince Huang said.

“I gather you’re resolute in this?” Jing-Pei asked.

“Unless you’re comfortable with your Empress being an active duty officer in the Manticoran Navy,” Solace replied.

“You’re going back?” Prince Huang gasped. “They publicly condemned you!”

Solace shrugged. “The House of Lords might have, but the Queen didn’t. My oath still stands. I appreciate the offer. I really do. It’s flattering… but I’m not interested in helping you preserve dynastic power through political means. I’m too much… what was it the Midgardians called me… Brunhildyr? Shieldmaiden? I’m not exactly a maiden, but I’m too much a warrior to give it up. And as Empress, I’d drag you into my wars.”

“You have wars?” Oberst Kleine asked.

“As long as Haven threatens the Star Kingdom? I do. And if Haven takes Manticore, it will be your war too. But once Manticore is safe, I’m going to build a fleet of my own and stamp out slavery once and for all.”

“We’re already fighting that war,” Chien-Lu said. “As is the Star Kingdom and Haven.”

Before she could correct him, Jing-Pei raised his hand, “My dear Herzog, I believe she means to take her fleet to Mesa directly.”

Solace shrugged. “Well, to wherever Manpower, Jessyk, Axelrod, and the others go. I’m not against Mesa itself except that their government has been tolerant of these atrocities, but they’ve at least outlawed actual slavery on Mesa, so they seem to be getting a little better. It’s a complex matter and I’m not certain how much Mesa is controlled by the various transtellars… but yes. I mean to destroy all those who profit by the sale of human misery.”

“Perhaps you do have a point,” Jing Pei conceded.

“Another point. As I’m rather publicly in a relationship with a woman, I might not be the best beard for you… no matter how much the idea of you being so manly as to turn me back to the path of heterosexuality might appeal to your public.” She grinned, then turned to Wong-Fei… “Is his majesty really that good in bed?”

Without missing a beat, the stoic Hussar chuckled and replied, “I’ve got no complaints.”

==========

“I, Gustav Anderman, Eleventh of my House, do hereby proclaim you Grand Duchess of Midgard, and name you Cher Cousin,” the Emperor said, placing the diadem on Solace’s head.

“Did he just adopt her?” The queen asked Loyal.

“I’m fairly certain that’s the case… or at least he named her to his court. I’m guessing the formal paperwork will show that she’s now an Anderman by adoption. Yes.”

Elizabeth hmmmed, then asked, “Does he realize that he just named her Grand Duchess of a place that’s technically not part of his Empire? Or that won’t be in two more weeks?”

Minerva growled, “He wants everyone to think she’s his mistress.”

The Queen chuckled, “Well… we can’t have that. Loyal, be a dear and find some way to get her recalled to active duty. I think we’ve let the Andermani play with Solace long enough.

=====Mar 17 1896 PD, 17/17/277 AL=====

“Isn’t this a bit silly?” Honor asked Solace as they walked towards the entrance to Saganami Island, being trailed by three treecats.

“Silly?” Solace asked.

“You’ve commanded a fleet, what can you possibly learn in the Commanding Officer’s Course?”

“I was in tactical command, Honor. I haven’t the faintest idea how to actually command a ship.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Swear to god. I’m as much in the dark about how to actually be a Captain as you are.”

“I guess we both have much to learn.”

“True.”

“But you were an admiral! Doesn’t it feel a bit strange to… you know…” Honor asked, shrugging.

“Oh, I wasn’t an admiral.”

“You were in charge of Fleet Valkyrie. What would you call that?”

“Naw. I was just an advisor. Technically, if you check the documentation, Ruth was Admiral in Command of Fleet Valkyrie. I was just her tactical deputy.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Hand to god,” Solace said solemnly. “Gustav Ten made Ruth the second ranking member of the Andermani Navy and the ranking member shot himself after going full traitor. So technically, Ruth outranks everyone besides the Emperor. I’m just a Hussar… I don’t have an Andermani Naval Rank.”

Honor just laughed. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“So, should I call you Duchess?”

“Please don’t. The Andermani aren’t allies. In the Star Kingdom, I’m still just Solace Smythe.”

“Awww… But I want to call you Your Grace!”

“Do it and I’ll have Cousin Gustav make you a Countess just so you have to curtsey to me.”

“HA! As if! I’ll never bow to your aristo butt.”

“Sphinx Yeoman!” Solace snapped back, laughing, “Never should have given your kind the vote.”

“Yeoman and proud,” Honor shot back, patting the taller woman on the shoulder. “You know… for a blue-blood, you’re not so bad?”

“Eh. My blood’s only dyed blue. Secretly it’s green. Loyal’s the real blueblood and he’s just boring.”

“Boring?”

“Yeah. He bought me this old book, said I should read it,” She pulled the reader out of bag. “The Prince by someone named Machiavelli. Ever heard of it?”

“No. Sounds interesting. Mind if I read it once you’re done?”

“Of course not,” Solace said with a shrug, “Though I doubt you’ll ever need it… who’d put you in charge of a nation?”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 20

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, Ryune, Sphinxes and Deltoren, 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.

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19c

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 3

Previously: Chapter 2

The Midgard Federation consisted of thirteen star systems, all given names drawn from the mythology of Old Earth, specifically the realms of the Nordic pre-Christian faith. In addition to Midgard (the mortal realm according to the Norsemen) and Asgard (not part of the Federation but named by the same people for the realm of the gods), there were Niflheim, Muspelheim, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Ljusalfheim, Svartalvheim, Helheim, Nornheim, Utgard, Nidavellir, and Thrymheim. According to mythology, they were the homes of the various other races and elemental forces of the Norse cosmology, ranging from giants of ice and fire to elves, dwarves, and the fates, to the dead, and even the primordial mists… but in practice, they were merely worlds populated by the myriad branches of humanity flung to the stars.

The Federation was not hugely populous, but the colonists who’d put together the original plan to settle the region had had a very large population to draw on, coming from the various ethnic groups that considered themselves ‘White’ and disadvantaged all across the Solarian League. The expedition had been funded into the trillions of dollars and was comprised of more than fifty colony ships, making it by far the largest single exodus in human history. Since their foundation, the colonies, which outlawed all forms of birth control and actively encouraged immigration of peoples matching each colony’s chosen ‘ethnic’ look, had only grown. Each of the systems was rich in natural resources, even if only three of the worlds had been ‘move in ready’ as it were.

The level of terraforming had varied widely. Jotunheim, named for the land of Giants, was cold and rocky. Niflheim, named for the land of primordial ice and mist, was terribly cold. Muspelheim, named for the land of primordial fire and heat, was exactly what one would expect. But bad weather, heat, cold, perpetual overcast, sandstorms, brutally long days and nights, extremes of gravity… none of those things had ever stopped humanity’s relentless expansion, and they hadn’t in Midgard’s case either.

The systems of the Federation were grouped into a rough triskelion, a three legged wheel, with Midgard at the approximate center. To the galactic east were Muspelheim, Utgard, Helheim, and Nornheim. To the galactic southwest were Alfheim, Ljusalfheim, Svartalvheim, and Jotunheim. To the galactic northwest were Vanaheim, Niflheim, Nidavellir, and Thrymheim. The Midgardian Navy, given such a large area to patrol, had only light pickets on station in most of their systems and had roving patrols to accompany shipping. Since the Federation was so remote from most of humanity, covering its two wormhole termini (Midgard and Muspelheim) was deemed the most effective use of its forces… especially since those two systems represented 31% of the entire Midgardian GDP, and 22% of the nation’s population, just by themselves.

It all made perfect sense from a strategic point of view… but if there was a third most important planet in the Federation, it was Vanaheim. Vanaheim was the lushest planet in the entire federation, providing a whopping 29% of the population and more than half the food. The botanical wealth of Vanaheim could not be understated and it lay only eleven light years from Niflheim.

A little further from Niflheim, almost halfway to Midgard itself, was Nidavellir, a relatively small colony, but home to the Federation’s largest shipyards and heavy industry, thanks to the eleven asteroid belts that dominated the system. It was certainly a prize worth taking, if it could be done.

As for Thrymheim? It was a backwood, providing tough men and women to serve in the military… and that was pretty much it. But it did so very well, to the extent that almost every ship in the Federation’s Navy had some Thrymians among its Raiders.

But cold, distant Niflheim? What did it have? It had that most important of all strategic assets… location. It took Solace’s Task Group a day to conquer the system, absolutely smashing the token resistance put up by a picket that never expected the war to come to them. No ship in the system managed to escape the encirclement that Valkyrie’s widely separated units threw up, not that many tried. In fact, the Niflheim defense force had saved Solace the trouble of blowing up their own space station by scuttling it first. Apparently they thought it would make Solace’s forces less likely to stay.

Indeed, it might have… had Solace not brought her own. “Lukas? How long to get the yard set up?”

The young man, borrowed from the Manticoran Navy, looked out of the screen at Solace and grinned, “This is madness you know?”

“Hey, I didn’t have that mobile yard spit out a fast repair fleetyard completely off the books for no reason. This is as good a time to test the theory as any other, right?” she said, rubbing Naomi’s ears as the ‘cat purrred.

Lukas nodded, considering the five battleship-sized ships that had been his mentor’s brainstorm and were now his command. They might have been as big as battleships, and were certainly fitted with military grade impellers and radiation shielding, allowing them to ride the same hyperspace bands as the task group… but that was where the similarities stopped. Each was designed to unfold into one of the construction nodes of a shipyard that could, given time and resources, churn out LACs, Frigates, Destroyers, and Light or Heavy Cruisers. It could also service up to three Battlecruisers at a time if the damage wasn’t too extensive, and, most importantly, they could churn out missiles like no one’s business. Each was protected, or would be, by copious point defense clusters and arranged so that, in extremis, the entire thing could create a torus of wedges. As it produced missiles, those would add to its defensive matrix like a mechanical infection vector.

“Tortuga is ready to give the Migardians a bad case of Anvilpox,” Lukas said, grinning. “I’ll have the base set up by the time you get back from Thrymheim.”

“Sounds good,” Solace agreed, “I’ll leave you two of the cans to protect Tortuga and make certain that no one gets outsystem… plus you have the LACs.” the convoy had also brought in a dozen retired RMN LACs that Andros Brandyne had bought from the Dempsey Cartel for a steal after the RMN had canceled the order after the LACs were 80% finished. Minerva had had the LACs finished and assigned to Project Ulysses as the secret shipyard was called. Solace hadn’t even thought of it, but the LACs were certainly small enough to dock with the parts of Tortuga. Ten had come to Niflheim, and the last two were with the mother yard, Port Royal, currently in Basilisk for tax purposes and to keep the House of Lords from paying too much attention to it. What the Conservatives and Liberals didn’t notice, they couldn’t complain about.

The next three weeks was filled with non-stop raids as TG Valkyrie smashed the defenses of first Thrymheim, then Vanaheim, and finally Nidavellir, each time making sure to limit the number of escaping craft to a few slow merchies. From Nidavellir, they returned to Vanaheim, arriving just in time to catch the responding task group too far in system to run. Five Midgardian Heavy Cruisers fell with barely a fight and no damage at all to Solace’s BCs. And then it was back to Nidavellir to smash the response there. The dreadnought Sigurd and it’s two light cruisers faired little better than the HCs, though they managed to partly disable Ortnit and seriously damage Thedrik and Nebelung. Grimnismal lost two grasers and a missile mount.

“Send the damaged destroyers back and have Fafner and Fasolt join us here in Nidavellir at point X-Ray in ten days,” Solace told Admiral Saberhagen. “I’m afraid you’ll be down to three until they get back here. Do you want to transfer your flag from Nebelung or go back to Niflheim?”

“I wouldn’t miss what comes next for anything. I’ll transfer to Rheingold.”

“Good, Good. You’ve been invaluable, Admiral… but the next part is going to be a pain in the ass, you know that?” Solace advised.

“God created adversity to train the Righteous,” the Admiral said, saluting.

======

“Chancellor! There’s another hyper footprint!”

Simione Rathskellar swore. “It’s that fucking bitch, again! How bad is it going to be?” She climbed out of her bed, not that she’d slept well for the past two weeks. Four times before, this bloody minded Manticoran mercenary and her fleet had swooped into the Midgard system, smashing the outer defenses that Rathskellar’s government had spent a fortune restoring after the last War. Each strike was precise, she had to admit, and every time, the witch… this ‘The Anvil’ as the media was calling her… would give her people just enough time to abandon their posts before those posts were destroyed. The crews of the first had been defiant… they’d died to a man. The crews of the second had hesitated. Less than one in eight had survived. The reports coming in from the fifth were that the crews had abandoned their posts before the Manticoran had even sent the demand.

“It’s going to be bad, Chancellor,” Grand Admiral Yorik Gunterson said. “But we’ve got their pattern now. We’ll preposition the entire fleet for the next attack. We’ll crush her like a bug.”

Simione grinned viciously, even as she watched the footage of the six ships, two destroyers and four battlecruisers, absolutely smashing trillions of crona worth of infrastructure and then escaping long before the fleet she’d allowed Gunterson to convince her could not be moved out of orbit could catch them. “You’d better, Admiral, or I’ll have you drawn and quartered in the Grand Hall of the Chancellery and your entire family hung.”

The military man stiffened, eyed the guards standing behind him, and swallowed hard. “I thank the Chancellor for giving me this chance to prove myself,” he said, though secretly he was thinking, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

=======

“Ma’am,” Ulrike Wu said from the long range sensor station, “they’re almost exactly where you said they would be. They’re bringing their wedges online now.”

“Good,” Solace said, nodding, “How many?”

“Sixty-seven footprints… eight dreadnoughts, fifteen battleships, eleven battlecruisers, and the rest are lighter units. It looks like a full half of their homefleet.”

“Very well, go to maximum military power,” Commander Yuha said at a nod from Solace. “Captain, should we-”

Solace held up a hand, studying the enemy formation as it lit up its drives. They’d fired up sooner than she was expecting. That meant that either their commander, this Admiral Gunterson, was smarter than she’d given him credit for, or he’d figured there was a chance to drive her off before she could destroy the sixth of the system’s fifteen system defense platforms. The placement of those platforms around the system’s major extraction or production facilities had been intelligent, but the network had been compromised with the placement of the fleet, which should have supported the long range missile emplacements on the platforms. The fleet was too far in system to respond to lightning raids like hers, as the system planners had clearly been anticipating dreadnoughts and hadn’t anticipated someone bringing their ships up to max velocity before launching to give the missiles as long of range as they could have. The difference between Andermani missiles and Midgardian missiles wasn’t nearly as much as the difference between Manticoran and Midgardian, but there was still a degree of superiority in the Andermani’s favor, and the closing velocity made shooting them down difficult. On the first five raids, those missile flights had served to soften up the System Defense Platforms and their protected facilities enough that the Cruisers following behind could finish the job and hyper out before anything heavier than a Destroyer could catch them. Five cans had tried on the second raid and had been summarily dealt with.

“Go to flight plan Gamma… they’ve prepositioned mines along paths Alpha and Bravo,” Solace instructed, eliciting a few gasps. Gamma was the most risky, since it took the six ships of Task Force Magyar inside the hyper-limit of Midgard’s primary, while Alpha and Bravo both kept the ships outside. Of course, they could have just used plan Kappa, which meant abandoning the raid and running for it, but that would have been used only if the Midgardian Commander had positioned themselves to destroy the group without risking the massive asteroid refinery that was their target. Gunterson hadn’t. It was clear he was using the refinery to draw her in and was willing to sacrifice it if it meant killing her. It was a good move, the kind that seemed reasonable on paper, since the other would have required incredibly precise placement and a stern chase. It was everything Solace had come to expect from the man. He was practical, pragmatic, and efficient, and it was clear he was thinking at least six moves ahead.

Indeed, although her initial raids had been costly to the Midgardians, a lesser commander would have broken up his forces to protect the entire system, but he had to be assuming she was making spoiler raids, trying to draw him out of position as Count Bridges had done to his predecessor. The reports he would have gotten from the other systems she’d hit would have told him that she had a much bigger fleet (including two ‘SDs’ which where really nothing more than massive max hull freighters she’d captured and was burning the Nodes super hot on to fool distant scans from fleeing merchies.). Splitting his forces with that kind of threat would leave the home system far too vulnerable. With his group massed like this, at worst, he’d have to race an invasion fleet to either the terminus or the planet, and if the invaders brought those ‘SD’s’ he’d have a speed advantage and could sandwich the attackers between the two halves of his fleet.

That wasn’t going to help him here. Although Gamma was risky, it was an oblique course, one that offered no direct shots until right before Solace’s forces would break back across the limit, and there was a massive cluster of densely packed asteroids that Magyar could use to shield themselves, unless Gunterson swung wide, which would offer him better shots, but at longer range. If he accepted the trade off, he’d be able to get one good salvo off in exchange for three poor salvos. Solace gave him even odds and was honestly uncertain which she’d go after were their positions reversed. She was hoping for the second… but that meant pushing him.

“Frau Oberst,” Commander Yuha said, “We’re coming up on launch position for missiles.”

“Mm… yes, we have to keep up the show… Launch the first salvo at the refinery… ignore the platforms. Run magazines two and three dry, then begin flushing the stern tubes at our friend Gunterson and his boys, yeah?” Solace very much wanted to fidget. She was taking a huge risk here, and putting her forces in terrible danger… and she wanted to do nothing more than bury her face in Ruth’s tummy and groan that she had no business commanding a fleet when she really didn’t even know how to command a single ship… but she would be damned if she’d show that kind of weakness before her crew… and as a Jew, she didn’t believe in damnation, so that was right out.

The range was still too long for the missiles to reach optimal attack against the refinery. Alpha and Bravo, which were basically over and under versions of each other, would have taken her close enough to all but ensure the destruction of both platforms and refinery, as well as most of the associated transports, but Gamma was too far inside to make her odds of a twofer more than 60%. With that many ships following her, she couldn’t afford to come within the range of the platform missiles.

“Three minutes to long range on the Midgardian missiles,” Yuha advised as the battlecruisers Orlando and Hildermadchen began spitting missiles like they were going out of style.

=======

“Admiral, two of the ships aren’t firing,” the flagbridge sensor officer pointed out.

“I can see that… what is going on… How much longer until we have range?” the Admiral demanded. The Manticoran woman had, by luck or intuition, avoid his mines, but he’d positioned himself so that if she wanted to complete her mission, she’d have to allow him to cut her cord, his relatively low base velocity rendered unimportant because he was inside any possible course that took her to her objective. If she’d turned and run as soon as he’d brought his fleet to battlestations, it would have taken her 49 minutes to come to zero and reverse course, which would given him nearly an hour with the Emperor’s whore’s ships within missile range and eleven minutes with her inside energy range. He hadn’t thought she’d be that stupid and was gratified to see that she was as intelligent as the rumors said. It was nice to have a cunning foe, even if the result of their clash was a forgone conclusion. Hopefully, she’d surrender so he could sell her back to Axelrod. The bounty the Mesan multistellar was offering was quite enough to retire on.

“Sixty seconds, Admiral, for the Wallers. Five minutes for the cruisers,” was the reply.

“Mmm… hold off then. They can’t escape. We’ll do a big salvo once we can range with all ships,” he said, watching as the two ships fired themselves dry. Foolish. Why wasn’t she saving her ammo? If she was certain she wouldn’t need it against his wallers, and four BCs could not stand against thirty-four of that class or higher, then why not fire all her missiles? If she thought they could be some us, why waste any against the base? Or why not use some from each ship instead of running two dry without the other two firing a shot. They’d spent over two thousand shipkillers against the refinery when they could have spun and sent those missiles into his own teeth… Something didn’t add up. “Do we have any classes at all on those ships yet?”

“One is a Die Walkyrie, Ops is certain of that. We think the big one is one of their new Charlemagne’s… but the other two, the two that haven’t fired yet, they’re an unknown class. Maybe they’re Manticoran?”

“No,” Gunterson said, “We know the Mantis… what are they doing?” he asked as the Andies began firing stern missiles at his fleet. Both ships were blazing away… with all eight combined chase tubes. By the time the first salvo was halfway to his fleet, there were two hundred and sixteen in space… It was a pathetic showing… and then they split apart, spreading out and, before his disbelieving eyes, began pumping out a storm of Electronic Countermeasures… an entire swarm of nothing but ECM? Why? “ROLL SHIPS. All ships, Roll ships. Mines!” he snapped, knowing it would be too late for some of his ships.

“That BITCH!” he swore as he took in the audacity of it. She’d brought mine colliers. Those were Deutchberg Rapid Colliers… and she’d brought them on raids just in case she was ever followed! No wonder she was called the Anvil, he begrudged as his ship bucked as the storm of sixty-seven thousand shipkiller mines smashed into the combined wedges of his fleet. It was a hell of a trick, but not one she could repeat, and most of his fleet would survive.

========

“They’re coming out of it and have rolled back to pursuit,” Ulrike announced. “They’ve lost nine of their lighter craft outright and it looks like two battleships…. Three…” she corrected as third went up in a ball of atomic fire. “Two of the DNs have lost their wedges and a third has a flutter, and a fourth BB is out of action. The BCs look like they made it mostly unscathed…. They’re opening up,” the young woman announced professionally.

“Time to Lechfeld?” Yuha asked.

“Eleven minutes, twenty seconds,” said Solace and Ulrike as one and the younger woman, who had started her life as C-84a/1001-10/22, blushed despite herself. She doubted the older woman was even aware of it, but they’d met before, nine years earlier, aboard a Jessyk Combine freighter named Alraune in the Saint Vincent system. The entire vessel had been turned over to Beowulf and her former cargo of slaves given new lives. Several of them, Ulrike knew, had joined the Ballroom, others had settled on Beowulf or Manticore… but she and a dozen of her sisters had been recruited by agents of the Crown Prince of the Andermani Empire. A full thirty percent of Valkyrie’s personnel were rescued slaves and another were the children or grandchildren of former-slaves. The unit had been formed especially to hunt down slavers beyond the Empire’s borders, and now they had one of their own leading it… the woman Ulrike Wu respected most in the entire universe. To say that she was pleased by this turn of events would have been an understatement… and here she was on the bridge! She didn’t know why, but she wasn’t complaining. She also didn’t know what ‘Lechfeld’ was or why the Commander and Oberst had argued about whether to call it Lechfeld or Augsburg (the Oberst had won despite the Commander pointing out that the Magyars called whatever it was Augsburg. “Yes, that’s true,” Solace had said, “but Augsburg is a town… Lechfeld is a place… which is this?”)

For an endless eleven minutes, Task Force Magyar’s CMs and ECCM systems weathered the storm of missiles aimed at them, burning through the CMs that the entire group was massively overstocked on, having filled every spare compartment with them. The additional the soldiers that Horace Harkness and Wilemina Ruffian and the other Manticorans had drilled and drilled to make them into the next best thing to Manticoran Marines were run ragged keeping the CM launchers fully stocked despite the fact that the Migardians didn’t have a clear shot. It was two BCs and two Destroyers protecting two Colliers that didn’t have the armor to take a hit, even if they had the same amount of CM Launchers as Hildermadchen did.

As the distance closed, the number of near misses kept climbing higher and higher, and more than once Orlando was hit. By the time the turn for Lechfeld came, she’d lost two grasers, eight lasers, and her entire stern armament. And Hildermadchen was in worse condition… but still running. As one, the entire Task Force swung behind the clustered rocks that Solace had dubbed ‘the place’ and the missiles were mercifully silent as they smashed into rocks thousands or millions of time heavier than a Battlecruiser.

======

Admiral Gunterson swore. He’d been so focused on the fleeing ships he’d almost forgotten about the Lokisanna cluster. Local legend claimed that the prison the ancient trickster god of the Aesir, the Asgardian Gods, was hidden within those rocks. Of course, that was base superstition and nonsense, but the cluster had a mass one tenth of that of Old Earth’s moon and that was enough to make it a navigational hazard. Only the constant perturbation of the cluster by the local supergiant gas planet kept it from solidifying into a dwarf planet.

“Swing us around the cluster, and get me a firing solution… we’ll hit them one last time as they run for the limit,” he ordered, tapping the arm of his command chair in annoyance. He’d hoped to at least smash her little raiding party, but at least this way there was no way she’d dare come back for a seventh raid. As his ships swung wide around the cluster, he grinned, already picturing the up the kilt shots his now reduced but still mighty fleet would have on the Bitch’s… “what in the name of almighty god?”

He could only stare in horror for a fixed moment in time as the titanic missile salvo roared to life ahead of him. The missiles were blasting off the surface of the cluster right down his Fleet’s throats. There were so many… “too many…” they were the last thoughts Admiral Yorik Gunterson ever had as the remaining two Battlecruisers of Task Group Valkyrie fired off every missile that they’d been able to smuggle into the Lokisanna cluster over the last few weeks. Raids did make such excellent distractions.

The handful of ships that survived the maelstrom intact were then subjected to the graser, laser, and energy torpedo fire of Geirskogul, Griminismal, Tarnhelm, and Tarnkappe before all ten Andermani ships fled into hyper, leaving behind the utterly smashed ruins of their pursuers. Although they didn’t know it, the devastation had been almost total.

=======

“How many?” Simione Rathskeller demanded.

“S… sixty one… the… we lost sixty one ships ma’am… The Baldr and the-”

The Chancellor glared at the very newly promoted head of First Fleet, and growled, “Do not give me ship names, Admiral Gellert. Classes! How many wallers do we have left?!”

“N… None… Not from Battle Group One. We lost all the Dreadnoughts and Battleships. We’ve got three Battlecruisers that are better than fifty percent operational and two heavy Cruisers. One Destroyer survived, but she’s got a blown node and will have to be towed. S… should we go after them? They’ll be heading to Nidavellir.”

Simione considered, eyes slitted like a snake’s and then shook her head, “No. She’ll be expecting that. Admiral Gellert, you are hereby ordered to take Battle Group Two to Niflheim and wait for her to show up there.”

“Ma’am?”

“My spies tell me that has to be where she’s based. She keeps withdrawing to somewhere and the only system we haven’t heard from on that side of the Federation is Nif!”

“But… that will leave the homeworld-” the Admiral began.

“I AM THE CHANCELLOR! Damn the Homeworld! She just destroyed half our homefleet with four FUCKING BATTLECRUISERS. I WANT HER HEAD ON A PIKE! I’LL FUCKING SHIP HER EYES TO THE GOD-BE-THRICE-DAMNED MANTI HARLOT AND THE LUTHERAN FUCK ON NEW BERLIN!” Spittle flew as the Midgardian Chancellor well and truly lost her shit.

Wisely, Chalis Gellert was not a stupid woman, and she simply saluted and signed off, making ready to head to Niflheim for what she hoped wouldn’t turn out to be a tactical mistake. If the Chancellor was right, by heading straight to Nif, and if the Andi Task Force did go to Nid first, the Midgardians would arrive two days sooner. If the Andis were counting on this, and had a fleet at either Asgard or just outside the Midgard system, say waiting in hyperspace? The Homeworld would fall for the second time in a decade… but maybe that was fine. This time they’d have a mostly intact fleet all in one place to take it back.

=========

“Admiral Gellert,” Lukas Janacek said, “I formally surrender control of this base to you, but be aware, we are Manticoran citizens merely contracted to provide repair services to the Andermani. We are not combatants.”

The Admiral, who could not see Horace Harkness smirking just off camera at the baldface lie, nodded. “You and your facility will be returned to Manticore unharmed as long as you don’t do anything to disprove your non-combatant status. The last thing we want is another war with your nation. In fact, several of my unit commanders are Manticorans. My people will be coming aboard, please do nothing to provoke them.” The line went dead.

“I so cannot believe this is the plan,” Ruffian muttered.

“I cannot believe this is working,” Horace agreed.

“Shhh,” Lukas replied as he shutdown Tortuga’s secondary control system. The repair yard, now fully set up, was located near one of the large Lagrange points in the Niflheim system, a place full of asteroids and planetismals to harvest. On the face of it, it was remarkably similar to the Lokisanna cluster, though more spread out… which would, no doubt, suit the Midgardian Admiral’s purposes… which was exactly why Tortuga was stationed there.

======

Solace smiled as she she arrived in Niflheim’s system. It was a grim smile, a smile that encompassed pleasure at a job well done while also containing sorrow at the lives on both sides it had cost. Granted, it had cost the enemy far more than it had cost her… but hopefully whoever had replaced Gunterson was reasonable and she wouldn’t have to kill more of them.

======

“She’s here, Admiral,” Gellert’s sensor officer reported. “She’ll reach zero zero with the station in twenty-five minutes.”

“Excellent. Begin warming up the nodes. We’ll go hot just as she crosses the hyper-limit… what was that?” The ship had lurched violently.

“Unknown… Admiral, we’re being hailed… its Tortuga.”

“Hello, Admiral… I’m sorry, I don’t know if this is Admiral Chalis Gellert or Admiral Konstantin Karschild… I am, as you may be aware, Solace Smythe, Oberst of the Andermani Hussars. When you just felt is a gravitic mine detonating on your ship’s hull. Your nodes will require major repairs and retuning before they will be able to generate a wedge again. I’m sorry to trick you like this, but, alas, much is fair in war that a Gentlewoman such as myself would normally consider cowardly. Your ships are defenseless. I advise you to surrender immediately or I will be forced to have the laser-warhead mines we seeded that asteroid field with turn active.”

=====18 Days Later====

“Your Majesty, we have a communique from Solace Smythe,” Chen-Lu Anderman told his cousin as he walked into the Emperor’s private chambers. The old man had died weeks earlier, but the two of them and a few trusted advisors had been hiding that information from the Imperial Court and the Empire at large, waiting for a time where the news would not demoralize the populace. The Empire’s fleet had been having precious little luck fighting the near constant and widespread raids by the Midgardian expeditionary force. The two had their suspicions of why that was, but scant evidence.

Jing-Pei, technically now the Emperor, looked up from the glass coffin containing the body of his father and blinked, “I thought she was in Midgard.”

“Ummm… yes. That is the case.”

“Ah. Well, does she need reinforcements? Resupply? We’re a bit thin, but maybe we can cut a few light cruisers?”

“Cousin… you don’t understand. She’s not in Midgard Space… She’s in Midgard. Midgard System. She’s asking us to send in the army… she’s captured the system… she also asks if we can spare crews for eight Dreadnoughts and thirteen Battleships. She also warns that Simione Rathskeller has apparently fled to Muspelheim and is probably in direct command of the Midgardian Second Fleet.”

“I… she had better say yes or she’s going to end up ruling this Empire instead of me…” the not-quite an Emperor shook his head. “Send General Schenk with eighteen divisions and every Naval Officer and Rating we can spare. Shame we’re not going to be able to keep it all.”

Chen-Lu shrugged, “Easy come, easy go.”

“Jah? You tell Solace that it was Easy. I’ll sit back and watch her eviscerate you. I’m half expecting her to try to throttle me when we next meet. Your daughter says she has many nasty things to say about my ancestry.”

“Are you scared of her, cousin?”

“I gave her four battlecruisers and she conquered Midgard. Aren’t you scared of her?”

Chen-Lu, the Herzog von Rabenstrange, considered that for a moment before shaking his head. “No.”

“No?”

“Of course not. She’s on our side.”

“AH… yes… good point. Now I’m terrified.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19d

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