CROWN OF STARS, Solace of Manticore Book 2
Part 1: Snake Charmer
Previously: Solace of Manticore Part 20
-3rd September, 1901 PD-
Solace hadn’t initially been able to believe her own ears. The young officer couldn’t be serious… Case Zulu? In Basilisk? Case Zulu was never sent in drills, not even in the most intense or realistic Fleet maneuvers. Case Zulu had one meaning, and one meaning only: ‘Invasion Imminent.’ That was insanity… but Honor wouldn’t have sent that message if it wasn’t true.
D’orville was clearly running through the same logic chain, though it was doubtful that he knew Honor as well as Solace did. Still, within seconds he snapped, “Bring the fleet to actions stations. I want everyone ready for a crash transit ASAP,” he told his flag lieutenant, then turned to Solace. “You know Commander Harrington and are familiar with the situation in Basilisk, right?”
Nodding, Solace said, “I’m current as of three days ago. Can we get anything off the courier boat’s sensors?”
A minute and a half later, they were on the flag bridge of King Roger, D’Orville’s stupendous SD flagship, watching the feed from Basilisk Astro-control. When Honor had sent her lightspeed Case Zulu, she’d been in orbit around Medusa, the sole habitable planet in the Basilisk system, and had been ten light hours (give or take a few minutes) from the Terminus. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken Homefleet, normally stationed halfway between the Junction and Manticore-A, another three and a half hours to even receive her communique, but Sebastian had been conducting exercises right near the Junction and that had cut out a great deal of lag.
Unfortunately, there was nothing the fleet could do for Fearless. Whatever was happening in Basilisk had happened by now. The sensors of Astro-Control had picked up both the lightspeed data of Fearless setting out in pursuit of the Havenite Q-Ship (she had to be a Q-Ship as no freighter carried military grade impellers, which Sirius clearly did) as well as gravimetric sensor readings that showed that, a little over seven hours ago, Sirius’s gravitic signature had simply vanished… and soon after, so had Fearless’s.
Solace felt a lump in her throat, and feared the worst. It was possible one or both ships hadn’t been destroyed, merely crippled to the point that their wedge’s had failed, and a ship without a wedge was all but invisible to purely light-speed sensors… Solace made a note of that in the back of her mind… there was something there… She shook her head, clearing the distraction.
Then, miraculously, a couple hours later, in the recording, Fearless had reappeared on Astro-Control’s gravitics. Her wedge was faint, a flickering thing, but there none the less. Still, Solace couldn’t allow herself to hope yet. Clearly, Fearless had taken a hell of a beating. It was possible, probable even, that Honor and or Nimitz… Solace shook her head once more time, pushing the fear back. “Admiral, permission to bring the Palace Athena with the fleet?” Solace asked.
He turned from the viewer, brow crinkled. “Are you asking as a Member of Parliament, or for some other reason? If you’re asking as a representative of Andros-Brandyne and worried about your facilities in the system,” he began, uncertain if he should be annoyed or angry.
She cut off whatever he was going to finish with and said, “No sir, I’m thinking that, given Fearless’s condition, she’ll need as much help as she can get. The Athena is the fastest ship in Manticore besides a courier and we can load up medics and engineers and ferry them over to Fearless. She’s decelerating now, and she’ll head back to Medusa, but if things get worse and she has to skuttle, we can pick up her pods. Either way, Athena has a fully stocked medical bay and Doctor Chandler used to be Navy.”
“Steven Chandler?” Sebastian asked, quirking an eyebrow. Solace nodded. The admiral smirked. “Must be nice to have enough money to hire the former head of surgery at Bassingford as your private care provider.”
“We use the Athena to provide disaster relief and we go a lot of places that don’t exactly have access to the best medical care. Money is only as good or bad as the people spending it,” Solace explained with a shrug. “Regardless, the Athena is at the Navy’s disposal. If we can help, we will.”
He considered briefly, then nodded. “As commander of Homefleet, I’m reinstating you early. Please bring your command into the fleet, Captain Smythe.”
“Permission to come aboard?” Solace asked as she swam up through one of the few remaining boarding tubes in Fearless’s ravaged flank. The entire fleet had been relieved to see that Fearless was still intact and heading back to the planet but, as the Athena had drawn ever closer to the crippled cruiser, the extent of her damage had become evident and Solace had stood, stiff at the con, flinching inside as each new detail resolved on screen.
Fearless had arrived in Medusa orbit a full seven hours before the Athena could arrive and there her wedge had died again, and Solace knew that if the engineers ever got it back up, it would only be to bring the cruiser home to Manticore one last time. The ship was too small, too old, too broken. She’d never fight again.
Honor stood at the end of the tube, looking like hell, but she spared Solace a wan smile. “Glad you came. We’re in a bad way, Sandy. Ooff…” she grunted a little as the bigger woman gave her a fierce hug. “I’m fine. Nimitz is fine too… that pod your people made held up great… my cabin took a near hit. It was without air for six hours… all my paperwork went poof.” She tried to chuckle, but it came off a little strangled and Solace could feel the terrible grief at what the victory had cost her friend.
“Let’s get your people squared away. We’ll get some tugs to bring Fearless to Port Royal and fix her up, but we’ve got a dozen doctors and a fresh medbay to take care of your injured. Anything I can do to help?”
“Plenty, I’m certain…”
-12th September, 1901-
“We must respond to this Havenite aggression in clear and unambiguous terms,” Solace said, pounding her fist on the rostrum in front of the joint session of Parliament. “The Article of Annexation must be amended to make it absolutely clear before god and man that Basilisk and Medusa are, and forever shall be, part of the Star Kingdom and that the Medusans are a protected species just like the Treecats of Sphinx!”
There was a general roar of agreement with only a few grumbles of complaint from the more reactionary members of the Conservative Lords and Liberal Commons, but the appearance of three Havenite Battle Squadrons in Basilisk on the 9th had made it clear that everything Honor had feared when she’d chased down the Havenite Q-ship Sirius had been spot on. To say that the Havenites had been surprised to find the entire Manticoran Homefleet doing maneuvers in Basilisk would have been an understatement of galactic proportions, but D’Orville and Solace, as representatives of the Fleet and Government of Manticore, had been meticulously polite, treating the Havenites with the dignity of visiting dignitaries, inviting them to stick around for some war games.
While the fleets were having their fun, Solace had taken the Palace back to Manticore and, armed with the evidence of exactly what Haven had been up to, had called for a joint session to discuss the situation. The Prime Minister had given her the floor after announcing that, by Crown Proclamation, the junction would, from now on, be closed to all Havenite warships and that all Haven flagged hulls would have to submit to a full inspection before being allowed to transit.
Fearless had been evacuated and hauled out to Port Royal, where she’d be repaired enough to make one last transit, but the Admiralty had already decided her fate. Acting with resolve, BuShips had proclaimed that the old Fearless would be decommissioned and her name, now permanently etched into the Roll of Honor, would be applied to the next Starknight-class Heavy Cruiser to be finished.
Solace had been amused to discover that her stint as Honor’s superior was to be brief, as, for her ‘crimes’, Honor had been jumped two full ranks, making her a Captain of the List. She’d don the white berret of a ship commander once more, as the new Fearless would be hers once the yard-dogs released the ship. Of course, Honor knew nothing of this yet. Solace only knew it because she was now chief of staff to the head of BuPers, even if she hadn’t actually had a chance to do any chief of staffing yet.
-18th September, 1901-
“Sonja, I’m saying this as a friend, and as someone who respects you, you have to talk to Honor. Right or wrong, she blames you in part for how many of her crew died in Basilisk,” Solace said over desert at Bar Ziggy. She saw the stubborn expression crease the older woman’s face and shook her head, “I’m neutral in this. You’re both my friends, and I think she’s missing the point that Fearless would almost certainly have been destroyed by Sirius if the Q-Ship’s Captain had felt she was a bigger threat. He would have turned sooner instead of running if he didn’t think he could outrun her.
“I know,” Hemphill said, sighing. “But what am I supposed to say?”
“Tell her the truth. That you never anticipated that Fearless would ever see actual combat. That she was chosen because she was old enough that the fleet wouldn’t lose a new cruiser to test the technology out. That you figured she’d be safe in Basilisk after Janacek had her assigned there. That you’re sorry for everything that’s happened. Talk to her. She’s not stupid.”
“And how do I justify going out to Basilisk to talk to her?”
Solace laughed, “Are you kidding? She just used the Grav-Lance to destroy a huge Q-Ship. You simply explain that you’re getting the report straight from the treecat’s mouth as it were.”
Sonja chuckled, “God, can you imagine Ruth actually in command of a starship?”
Solace ruffled Naomi’s ears as Ruth bleeked a protest at the Admiral and shrugged. “Ruth? No. Naomi? Maybe. Ruth doesn’t take anything seriously. You know that the Grav-lance is useless, right?”
The admiral sighed again, putting down her fork and nodded. “Yeah. it looks like it. Maybe with more research, we could boost the range, but we’d have to boost the plasma containment field for the plasma torpedoes as well, and that doesn’t seem very likely.”
“No. It doesn’t… but I had a thought as I was looking at the feed from Fearless, something I want to show you.” She passed the Admiral a data pad.
Sonja quirked an eyebrow, looking at the schematic on the screen. “It’s a node of some kind?”
“Not quite. It’s a gravitic pulse generator. We developed it over at Snurlson for asteroid mining. We’ve been testing it out at Port Royal.”
“Asteroid mining? With gravity? To break up the asteroids?”
Solace shook her head. “It doesn’t hit that hard… but what it does is detect what’s inside the asteroid using mass differentials. We can get a pretty accurate map of up to a twenty-six cubic kilometer asteroid… more if it’s a spindle.”
“So? I think I’m missing something.”
“Have you ever heard of something called Morse Code?”
“Of course… oh my god… how fast can this thing generate pulses?”
Solace smiled. “Fast enough.”
-5th October, 1901-
The surviving crew of HMS Fearless had returned to her after three weeks of shoreleave on sunny Medusa and had spent several days getting her ready for what amounted to a funeral. The techs of Port Royal had patched her up just enough to make one last transit, to bring her people home. It was an honor few warships got and, technically, a waste of resources and effort from a purely logical standpoint. But this had been a labour of respect, a solemn duty, and had very much been necessary from a morale standpoint.
The Battle of Basilisk had been the first battle in Manticore territory in almost two centuries and the entire Star Kingdom had been shaken by it. Fearless was a symbol to not only the Navy, but to the people of Manticore, that they would win the coming war… and that they would pay a heavy price for that victory. The price to be paid was one that had to be paid by men and women in uniform, and it was the people’s duty to honor that sacrifice.
As Fearless approached the terminus, accompanied by an entire superdreadnought battle squadron as honor guard, Solace watched from the bridge of the Athena as the Manticoran anthem played over every transmitter in the system and the rest of Homefleet flashed their running lights at the lamed cruiser, a formal salute to a fleet flagship, as she vanished from the system she’d given her all to protect.
Solace knew that Honor hoped that Fearless could be saved, that she would not be consigned to the breakers, and Solace had not had it in her to crush her friend’s dreams, no matter how cowardly that might have seemed. It wasn’t her place to speak for BuShips, she reasoned, though as Whitehaven’s deputy, she was there to present the Admiralty’s orders to the crew of Fearless as she docked at HMSS Hephaestus.
One by one, she handed over the envelopes to the one hundred and fifty-one survivors who had not been evacuated back to Manticore for advanced medical procedures. Some she knew from having served with them, others she knew from Honor’s letters, but she’d come to know them all, at least on paper, as she’d worked into the late hours of the night trying to find them places where they could heal the wounds they had taken, physical and spiritual, in pursuit of the safety of their nation. Some were given desk jobs, others berths on the various stations of the Manticore home system, and a couple would, by their own request, be released the service with full honors. Most, however, would return to space.
And finally, it was time for her command staff and Solace smiled down at McKeon and Venizelos as they exited the boarding tube, just ahead of Honor and Nimitz. “Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain. Welcome to Hephaestus.”
“I think you have that wrong, ma’am,” Andreas said, looking confused. Alistair elbowed him and the younger officer blushed, then remembered to salute. Solace waved that off and handed over the sealed packets.
“Good to see you, Andy. You’re looking better. And no, I seldom make mistakes like that. In fact, I would have brought your new rank tabs, but I had a feeling that Alistair wouldn’t be needing his any more.” She grinned as McKeon started, then blushed himself and nodded, reaching up to his collar and pulling off his three pips and pressing them into the younger man’s hands.
“Wear them in good health, Andreas,” Alistair said, feeling a little choked up.
Solace held out a box to Honor, “These are from Admiral Courvoisier. He says you’ve earned them twice over.”
Honor, who hadn’t been informed of her double promotion, could only stare at the contents for a long long moment before Alistair ahemed. It was Honor’s turn to turn a little pink, but she handed Nimitz the box containing the pair of single suns of a full captain and worked her own four diamond pips off and handed them to her former Executive Officer. “It’s been an honor, XO,” she said. “Any idea where he’s going now? Are they going to give him Fearless?
Solace sighed, silently cursing the idiot from BuShips for not being there. “Actually, you’re getting Fearless, Honor.”
“But…” Honor was confused. A Light Cruiser was far too small a command for a Captain of the List.
“Captain Lemaitre was supposed to tell you this, but BuShips has decided not to-” Solace began, but stopped as she saw that all three understood. “The new Fearless will be a Star-Knight. She’ll be done in a few months. Alistair will, after he completes the Commanding Officer’s Course, be getting Troubadour. She’s a Chanson Destroyer,” Solace explained as she fixed Honor’s new pips on for the other woman. She could feel the barely contained tears and knew that Honor’s hands wouldn’t be steady enough for the somewhat delicate task.
“And me?” Venizelos asked.
“Well, unless Honor objects, you’ll be her new Executive Officer,” Solace said, stepping back as Ruth gave Honor a little salute and Nimitz adjusted the white beret that Honor would have to give up for a little while. Only the Captain of a hyper-capable craft got to wear that, and Honor was technically between Captaincies at the moment. Solace herself had only two such commands to her name (at least in Manticoran service), and those had been a brevet rank and a courier captaincy. Honor would be going to her third formal warship command and Solace had to push down a little bit of envy.
“Anyway, get yourselves squared away. I’ve rented out Dempsey’s for you and your crew. We’re going to raise a toast or five to the fallen and those still with us. Well, you are.”
“You’re not coming?” Andreas asked.
“I didn’t serve aboard Fearless,” Solace pointed out, “it would be wrong of me to invite myself.”
“But…” the young man began, but McKeon placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m certain the Captain has duties she needs to get back to,” he said, nodding to Solace.
“Indeed. Gentlemen, Honor… I guess you outrank me again… I shall see you around.”
-18th October, 1901-
“I got a visit from a Commodore Yerensky today,” Honor said over dinner. “He had the gall to ask me to speak to the Weapons Development Board about that damned Grav-lance.”
“Ah. Good,” Solace said, smiling softly.
“Good? I’m going to give them a piece of my mind. That damned thing got half my crew killed.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Sirius would have turned sooner if you’d presented a bigger threat and Fearless without the Grav-Lance could not have taken that kind of pounding,” Solace said, shrugging, “But I say good because Admiral Hemphill arrange it.”
“What?” Honor half-growled and Nimitz hissed in sympathetic agreement. “Why would she… she has to know I’m going to go off on her like a bomb-pumped laserhead.”
“Because the Grav-lance has to very definitively fail. It has to be public, or at least as public as military secrecy allows, and it has to come from someone who has used the thing in battle. We need the admiralty… especially that arse Janacek… The First Lord of Admiralty, not Lukas or his mother… I know too many Janaceks…” Solace chuckled, “Especially Agnetha. She must cheat at Mahj, I swear.”
“You were saying? About Admiral Janacek?” Honor reminded her, deftly keeping her fork between Naomi and the grilled salmon on her salad.
“Oh. Right. Janacek is already talking about retrofitting all the Battlecruisers and CAs with Gravlances. We need him to be forced to drop it, rather than wasting any more time or resources on the stupid thing.”
“I don’t understand. This was Horrible… Sonja’s baby, wasn’t it?”
Solace shook her head. “She doesn’t care about any given project. Really. And she’s not just interested in technology for the sake of technology. She’s looking for a game changer… and we’ve found one.”
“Found one? What are you talking about?”
“This is very very black right now. You and Alistair are going to be doing a little more testing for Sonja.”
“Oh dear lord. What is it this time? An Antimatter warhead?” Solace flinched at that. Every attempt to make one of the legendary CT-Missiles had failed spectacularly, since the slightest fluctuation in the bottle holding the antimatter meant the destruction of the missile… and usually the test platform it was mounted on.
“A new sensor package and a new communication system,” Solace said, then laughed as Honor’s face relaxed. “The sensor is based on the inverter detector. It’s much better at picking up gravitic fluctuations. The communication system is… well, we’re still working on the prototypes that will be installed on Fearless and Troubadour.”
“We? When did you switch to BuWeps?”
“Haha. No, I’m still chained to Admiral Whitehaven at BuPers, but in this case We is Andros-Brandyne. We’re doing the development and R&D. Lukas Janacek and Sonja Hemphill are running the operation at BuWeps. Lukas will be monitoring the prototype for your shakedown cruise. He’s a good kid.”
“That’s what you said about Alistair and Andreas,” Honor pointed out.
“I never said McKeon was a good kid. He’s older than you are. I said he was good people. I still don’t know why he was acting like that when you first got there. That’s not like him.”
“He got better… much better actually. And Venizelos is great. Is there going to be a problem with getting Rafe Cardones as my tactical officer? I know he’s a bit too junior for the position, but he’s good.”
“If you say he’s competent, I’ll get the Admiral to sign off on it. I trust your judgement and the Admiral trusts mine.”
“Good… good… so what does this thing you’re foisting on me actually do?”
“This thing, as you call it, is the Holy Grail.”
Honor’s confusion was palpable, but the light of realization as she looked down at the system schematics was enough to almost wipe away the grief that she’d been carrying since the battle. “No… fucking… way…” she gasped, and Solace almost laughed. Honor very seldom swore.
“You said it, sister.”
Next: Crown of Stars – Part 2
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