World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.04a

CROWN OF STARS, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 4: Basilisk on Station, Chapter 1

Previously:  Cat and Mouse

Timestamp: 2nd October 1904 PD

“Oh god, Honor… you look good!” Solace lied. It had been nine months since the events of Second Yeltsin, and Honor’s face was still healing from the latest batch of microsurgeries to replace the nerves that had been destroyed in the Maccabean Coup attempt on the life of Protector Benjamin and his wives. Honor had lost an eye and half the nerves in her face and was still months away from being able to return to active duty… and that was just the physical wounds. The psychological fallout of losing so much of her crew, of losing Admiral Courvoisier, of what had happened on Blackbird… A lesser woman would have broken.

But Honor Harrington was not a lesser woman. She would endure. The smile she gave Solace told her that. “Thaanks,” she said. “You look ridiculously good, as always.”

“Lies,” Solace shot back. She looked half blown up… which was fair because she’d been very nearly blown up when her shuttle down to Landing from Hephaestus was sabotaged. Only the fact that she was wearing an emergency grav-belt had saved her and her treecats when the shuttle had ripped apart at 18,600 meters. No one else had survived, including two of her Andermani bodyguards. “I’d been planning on visiting you… and here you are visiting me.” She patted the side of her bed with her left hand.

“No,” Honor said, “Really. You look amazingly good for what happened. Good thing you regenerate…” she touched the side of her face. “How long do they think you’ll be in for?”

“They have to regrow both my legs and my right arm. The bomb was on the wing outside my window. If Ruth and Naomi hadn’t been asleep in their case…” she shook her head, then winced. “And my hair.”

“Hair grows back,” Honor said. “You know the worst of it?”

“They’re going to give me another medal?” Solace groaned.

Honor shook her head, “They probably will, but I meant that your body guards are going to try and make you take your own shuttles everywhere.”

Solace looked at the other woman, then asked, “I take it yours are demanding the same?”

“Something like that. Either private shuttles or military ones. Why were you even on a civilian shuttle?”

“It was a Coswell Passenger Services shuttle,” Solace said, then (seeing the look of incomprehension on Honor’s face) explained. “New Temple owns Coswell.”

“So… you figured it was as good as a private shuttle? Or just free?” Honor frowned.

“Yes yes. I’m cheap… And I can’t help thinking I got a hundred and eighty-four people killed because of it,” Solace leaned back into her pillows.

“Has Gilly been told?”

“What? No. No. We’re going to wait until I’m back on my feet before sending her word. No reason for her to rush back in a panic… oh just a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

Honor sat on the edge of the bed and Nimitz hopped down to annoy Ruth. Naomi sniffed from a nearby shelf but didn’t join the other two. “Shoot,” Honor said.

“Do you remember your promise?” Solace asked, eyes twinkling despite the pain. She was on the lowest possible dose of painkillers, just enough to keep the inflammation down. She’d take more before she slept, but when she was groggy it bothered the ‘cats.

“Promise? Which… oh my god… have you really been waiting all this time just to bring that up?” Honor frowned with half her face. A moment later, the other half twitched a little, but didn’t move much.

Solace grinned, trying not to stare. “Now now… you did say you’d remember when the time came.”

“The fact that I’m technically a Lady now is a source of far too much amusement on your part, Grand Duchess,” Honor said, frowning.

“Hey. I’m only a great noble in one nation. You’re a great noble in two,” Solace pointed out.

“I’m only a great noble in one kingdom. A countess is hardly a great noble,” Honor corrected. “And you were all but empress of your own little empire that dwarfs both Manticore and Grayson combined.”

“I gave it up. Way more effort than it was worth.”

“I hear they’ve dissolved the government again. What is that, three times in eight years?”

“Four. The first two governments failed within five months each. The third government lasted almost two years. This one lasted just over four.”

“And there’s a push to balkanize?”

“Of course there is,” Solace sighed. “It’s a big area and the outer worlds have had to shoulder the burden of multiple failed wars. That’s the problem with how spread out they are. And the way their government is structured means that three planets have more than half the combined votes… and the smaller colonies don’t get any say in the government at all.”

“Glad to be out of there?”

“You’re changing the subject,” Solace waggled her finger at Honor.

“Fine… yes. I remember saying that I’d do my best to serve others, not my own ego. Now…” Honor paused, caught off guard by something and Solace’s eyes widened.

That… was new. “You can hear them,” Solace said. It wasn’t a question.

Honor twitched, then looked at Solace wide eyed. “That… they…” she was looking at where Naomi had just sent a complex bolus of annoyance that had to be the treecat equivalent of a lecture on interrupting her nap to Nimitz and Ruth. Solace, who had to deal with that kind of interplay between Naomi and Ruth all the time, and between her cats and Barnabie when he was around, was used to the sensation. Clearly Honor wasn’t.

“Yes,” Solace confirmed. “They really are telepaths.” It had been long suspected that that was the case, but proving it was all but impossible Humanity simply had no such thing as a telepathic communication detector. Honor’s family, which had had more contact with the treecats than any two other families, had done much to discourage too close a look into the treecats’ abilities out of a desire to protect the fuzzy weirdos, but their private records, shared only with those they most trusted to have the ‘cats’ best interests at heart, had hints and supposition to spare.

“H… how long have you… it’s been from the beginning with you, hasn’t it? That’s how you bonded two?”

Solace shrugged, then flinched at the pain of her broken ribs and cracked collarbone. “Maybe? I don’t know exactly. But yes. I’ve been able to ‘hear’ them communicating… and I can feel other people’s emotions… I assume you can too?”

Honor breathed out slowly. “Okay… I guess it’s good to know that I’m not crazy. Can you send thoughts to them?”

“Not really? I can project emotions to them, and I’ve gotten pretty good… I think… at making them understand what I’m trying to project… but I suspect it’s the equivalent of yelling at someone in a language you barely speak? Know what I mean?”

Honor laughed. “I… yeah. I do… I’d love to talk more… but mostly I just came to check that you were still alive… I can’t believe your luck.”

“My luck? Miss I fought a Battle Cruiser with a Heavy Cruiser?”

“You did it with a LAC!”

“I didn’t fight the Wotan! That doesn’t count. And all the other times I did something one-sided, it was pretty much an ambush. I never did a head to head slugfest with a ship many times my size… and you’ve done it twice now!”

Honor sighed. “And I’ve paid the price… or at least my people have.”

“Maybe,” Solace said, “But both times you did what needed to be done and the fact that any of your people survived is amazing, frankly. And a testament to your skill… and the kind of loyalty and skill you inspire in your people.”

The other woman slowly exhaled. “I try to remember that… remember that I would have been willing to give the last full measure to stop either Sirius or Saladin… So I can hardly complain that it wasn’t necessary… but I still wonder if I could have paid less of a butcher’s bill.”

“I do know,” Solace patted the other woman’s hand.

“I know you do… I should go. Let you sleep. Oh. and congratulations.”

“Yes yes,” Solace sighed. “The irony of the assignment does not escape me.”

Honor smiled, then reached down into a bag she’d brought with her, pulling out a small cardboard box. It was just large enough for an individual pizza. “It’s about time.”

Solace opened the box as Honor set it on her chest, already suspecting what would be inside. Indeed, the white wool practically gleamed and Solace felt a tear come to her eyes as she carefully lifted it out. She’d had two others like it, but it had been thirteen very long years and she’d begun to doubt she’d ever get another. The first, for the light cruiser Orlando, had been a brevet command, made possible by the exigencies of war and taken away as soon as the war was over. The second had been for the courier ship Atalanta, as swift a craft as could be desired, but hardly the dream command of any Naval Captain.

The patch on this beret was entirely different. No mere cruiser this time. No. The patch depicted a crowned serpent and the name “HMS BASILISK” and below that the hull number “SD-105”.

“Thank you,” Solace said, meaning it.

“I’m consumed with envy, you know?”

“Says the woman getting Nike?”

“Wait… What?” Honor’s living eye went wide.

“I’m the former chief of staff of the Fifth Space Lord. you think the new Fifth Space Lord wouldn’t tell me something like that my dear friend Honor was getting the finest battle cruiser in the entire fleet?”

“I’m not even back on duty yet!” Honor protested.

“And I’m in any condition to accept command of Bessy?”

“What a terrible nickname,” Honor groaned. “Anyway, you’ll be back on your feet before I will at this rate.”

“Nonsense. Your feet are just fine, Miss Harrington. You’ve proven you can command a ship just fine with one eye. And Nike won’t be finished for at least five months, so you’ve got plenty of time.”

“Sooo… do your spies at BuPers know who my XO is going to be?”

“Mmm… maaaybe,” Solace grinned. “I hear a certain Honorable Commander is bucking for the slot… pulling in a few favors in fact.”

“Was one of those favors calling your mother?” Honor asked wrly.

“You mean did she ask my mother to ask me to ask Admiral Cortez to get her the slot?” Solace asked, then shook her head. “Not so much. She’s more than earned the slot, and Laertes was part of our screen in Endicott. When she heard you’d be getting a Battle Cruiser, she asked me to make certain her name was on the short list. If she did anything else, I don’t know about it. But like I said, if she’s given the post, it won’t be because of family connections. She’s very competent. Even if she hasn’t had a career quite as blessed as either of ours have been.”

“Blessed. Right. Strange definition of blessing, if you ask me.”

“God isn’t always kind to those who he calls upon to serve,” Solace said.

“Is that what this is? Why do you worship him again?”

“The universe isn’t a nice place. Asking God not to put challenges in front of us would leave us terribly prepared, wouldn’t it?”

“You’ve got a very strange relationship with your deity,” Honor said, chuckling drily.

“Hey, I might worship him… but I’ve been known to tell him off a time or five too.”

“Like I said… very strange. Not quite as strange as the Graysons… but then you don’t have the doctrine of the test.”

“True… but that’s only because my faith predates the written exam,” Solace said, smirking.

“That,” Honor sighed. “Was terrible. You should feel bad.”

“If it helps, I can’t feel my toes?”

“The fact that you currently don’t have knees would have something to do with that, I suspect.”

“You’re probably right… did you know that the mythical basilisk feared only one thing?”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“The weasel.”

“This is another segue into criticizing my ancestress for calling them treecats, isn’t it?”

“They look more like treeweasels!”

“You look more like a treeweasel!”

“Bleek!”

Both humans shot the two ‘cats who’d climbed up onto the foot of Solace’s sickbed a glare, and (as one) snapped “You stay out of this!”

=====3rd December, 1904=====

“Welcome aboard, ma’am,” Commander Zilwicki said, snapping to attention alongside the sideparty as bossun’s pipes trilled.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t rise,” Solace said. Her recovery was mostly complete, but her ability to stand unaided had not returned and she’d still need months of physical therapy before she was back in anything like fighting trim. But a Captain only needed a functioning mind and the ability to give orders… everything else was negotiable. “But thank you for the welcome. I’m sorry to hear we’ll be losing you… but congratulations on your new command.” Solace said.

Helen Zilwicki had been the third officer of HMS Basilisk when her former Captain, Antoinette Lemaitre, had been bumped upstairs. Now Commodore Lemaitre had taken Commander Bagworth, her XO with her to CruRon 74 as her new flag captain. That had left Helen as senior officer aboard the superdreadnought as it entered yard hands for a refit with the latest inertial compensators that BuShips was producing thanks to the breakthrough the Graysons had developed as well as the new FTL comms.

While they hadn’t (yet) gotten as great a performance boost out of the new technique as the science said they should be able to get, when Bessy’s refit was done, she’d be the fastest Superdreadnought in the entire galaxy. The yard dogs were fairly certain that Bessy would be able to hit 440 g’s of acceleration at 80% military power… making her a full 36 gees faster than her sisters, and 33 g’s faster than the Havenite DuQuesne Class. Of course, they hadn’t exactly tested her yet… That was Solace’s job, now wasn’t it?

“Thank you, ma’am,” Helen said. “Sorry to leave you shorthanded, as it were.”

“Nonsense. I’d hardly begrudge anyone their first cruiser command. Why I remember mine as if it were a century ago,” she smiled. “But I suppose I should read myself aboard?”

“It’s your ship, Captain,” the commander said.

Solace did, then had Helen accompany her to her new quarters. “We’ve got you for three more weeks, is that right?”

“Yes Captain,” the junior officer agreed. “Any idea who’ll be replacing me?”

“As third or executive?” Solace asked.

“Both, I guess?”

“Ray Chatterjee will be my operations officer. He’s solid. Frances Yeargin will be XO. I’ve heard good things about her. We’ll have to see how she does. I understand your husband is on the refit crew?”

“Anton? Yes. He’s from Gryphon too.”

“Is my accent showing again?” Solace asked, laughing.

“Oh, no ma’am,” Helen rushed to explain. “I’ve studied your record. You’re fairly famous.”

“Infamous, more like,” Solace grumbled. “Don’t see Admiral Alexander getting a silly nickname like ‘The Anvil’.”

Helen chuckled, “True. But I’ve heard that some people are calling Captain Harrington ‘Hellride Harrington’.”

“Oh… That’s terrible,” Solace said. “I hope that doesn’t get back to Honor.”

“You know Captain Harrington?” the commander asked, evidently intrigued.

“We were at Command School together,” Solace said, although that didn’t come close to explaining. “She’s Sphinxian, but we shan’t hold that against her, yes?”

“Yes ma’am.”

======

“Let’s try this again, shall we Frances?” Solace asked, rubbing the bridge of her nose in frustration. Four times they’d tried bringing the ship up above three hundred gravities… and four times the wedge had flickered… and died. At least the last time hadn’t (miraculously) blown a single beta node. After being towed back to HMSS Weyland, the yard dogs had promised that this time they’d finally figured out the problem.

Of course, they’d said the same thing the first three times.

“Yes ma’am,” Commander Yeargin said, crossing her fingers and signalling to helm, “Fifty percent, Mister Chakrabarti.”

Solace wanted to fidget. They’d been at this for six weeks and the new compensators that had been installed in new build construction had worked fine. So why weren’t they working in Bessy’s case. Each test was a monumental pain, what with having to unload everyone non-essential from the massive superdreadnought, and the stress of knowing that those who remained aboard stood an uncomfortably high chance of just turning into paste if the compensators failed instead of the wedge… which was why the wedge had interlocks that took it down instantly if the compensators moved even slightly out of tune.

What made it all the more annoying was that the rep from the Jankowski Cartel, Fitzwalter Comeuppance, was exactly as pompous and supercilious as his name suggested. He’d been on the station for the first three attempts, but the Cartel had, after being yelled at by BuShips for the repeated failures and looking at potentially losing the refit contracts to Andros-Brandyne or Dempsey, demanded that their rep be allowed to oversee the testing personally. Thus she simply couldn’t kick him off her bridge. Not that that would have freed her of pompous gits.

As bad as Fitzwalter was, Lt Commander Simon Chakrabarti was, if anything, the worst human being she’d ever served with… and that was including Edward Janacek, Elvis Santino, and Pavil Young… sometimes all at the same time. He was as conservative as Janacek, as lazy as Santino, and as convinced of his own superiority as Young… and he was a primping popinjay who thought he was god’s gift to humanity. An inveterate name-dropper, he would go on at length to tell you what person X had happened to have said at party Y that he’d been invited to by his good friend Lord Z… and his hair product, technically not against regulations (she’d checked) made Naomi sneeze. Thankfully, human noses couldn’t smell it particularly well (hence why it wasn’t against regs), not even genetically engineered ones like Solace’s (to her it smelled ever so slightly of copper-tainted motor oil). To Ruth, it was unpleasant, but to Naomi it made the ‘cat want to murder her helmsman every time he walked past her command chair.

“Fifty percent aye,” Simon said. “We are at two-seven-zero g’s and holding.”

Solace had all the repeaters that would normally be giving battle-readouts feeding her engineering status reports, and not for the first time, she cursed Sonja Hemphill for stealing Lucas Janacek. Of course, an Admiral outranked a Captain, and a slot on the Weapons Development Board, even as an adjunct, looked a lot better on a CV than tactical officer or assistant chief engineer of an SD. “How do things look on your end, Fitz?” she asked.

“Five-by-five here, Ma’am,” came the report from the civilian at ops, which was normally Simon’s slot. “Recommend we go to fifty-five percent and see how the interface-couplers are holding up.”

“Agreed. Helm? Make it so.”

“Aye ma’am, increasing acceleration… coming up to two-eight-zero g’s… two-nine-zero g’s… two-nine-five… two-nine-six… holding steady at two-nine-six.”

“Fitz?” Solace asked, leaning forward… there was something…

“I’m not seeing any problems,” he said, voice slightly slurred and Solace almost missed it when his emotions flattened out completely. A moment before, he’d been hyper focused… now he was too calm. “Recommend we go to Fifty-Six percent.”

“Fifty-six percent, aye,” Simon replied without waiting for her order.

Without knowing why she did so, she instinctively snapped “Belay that order, helm!” She was staring at the readouts… what had she seen… what?

“Captain?” Commander Yeargin asked, but Solace ignored her.

“Engineering… what’s the status of the safety interlocks?” Solace asked, trying to remember… and then it clicked. There was a pattern to gravitic waves, a pulse that flowed through a ship underway. You could feel it if you lived with it for long enough, just at the edge of awareness. It was like the beating of your own heart… and each ship had its own feel at each speed. On Atalanta, with her hugely powerful wedge and tiny hull, Solace had been able to peg the ship’s acceleration to within three gravities. On Bessy, so massive, so ponderous… so new to Solace’s senses? She could barely feel the difference at ten times that range… but 10% military power was nearly twice that again… and the feel was viscerally different… so why had the interlock readings registered almost no change?

“We’re showing green across the board, Captain,” Commander Angelica Collins, her Chief Engineer, replied. “Are you seeing something we’re not?”

Solace opened her mouth to reply, then twitched as a feeling of panic began to radiate from Fitzwalter. She looked over at the man, then saw his face. He looked white as a sheet as he reached towards his control panel. Her eyes focused in almost slow motion as she realized that he was about to override the helm, and, almost languidly, she reached out, grabbing the data tablet out of her XO’s hand and, snapping it forward, frizbee’d it right into the ops console, which, as it was designed to do, sparked and died as the fuses within it registered damage and killed the power before someone could get hurt.

“Collins. Kill the wedge now!” she snapped, leaping from her seat and grabbing the Cartel rep by the neck before he could even finish rising from his seat. He was far too heavy, and she was far from her best, and his wild haymaker came at her too fast for her new muscles to dodge. Still, she was far tougher than he was and she took the blow to her face without flinching, then rammed her left hand, the one that had survived the accident intact, into his solar plexus, driving the wind from him and cracking his breast bone.

“Get security here now!” she commanded… then swore. “Damn it. I know Frances, we don’t have security right now. Well, get me whoever we’ve got and tell them to pull every damned compensator interlock on the ship and go over them with a fine tooth comb… and tell Weyland we need a tow and to get some marines out here ASAP… and someone from BuShips and Jankowski and the Judge Advocate General. Tell them we’ve got a saboteur… and that I’ve got a black eye… and I think I broke my wrist.” She swore as her right hand dropped the wheezing rep to the deck and pain lanced up her arm. “Can someone get me some… oh… good… I’m going to pass out now.”

And she did. Thankfully, Simon Chakrabarti was there for her to land on… but that was only because he’d been too slow to get out of the way, and not because he’d actually tried to catch her.

====

“Well, that was hideously embarrassing,” she commented six hours later as Patricia Givens, HMSS Weyland’s NavInt Chief, entered her office. “Sorry to drag you out of bed, Admiral… and please excuse my not standing… my medical officer wants me in bed… says I’ve been pushing myself too hard and have a concussion… ridiculous of course.” she could barely see out of her right eye and what she was seeing out of the left was slightly out of focus… and her right hand was in a pressure cast. “Be right as rain in a day or so…”

“You were right. The interlocks were rigged to fail.”

Solace nodded. “I figured. The loss of Bessy would, what? Put the entire refit operation back… a year?”

“At least. Yes. We caught Miss Comeuppance and Commodore Donovan Michaels… he’s Fitzwalter’s counterpart on the navy side, if you can believe that shit… trying to transit to Trevor’s Star on a Solarian Cruiseliner.” Patricia looked royally pissed. “What we can’t figure out is why Fitzwalter was going along with it. It makes no sense. No outstanding debts, pitiful life insurance… he’s not sick. No red-flags for security. Jankowski’s people are having a shit fit.”

“I think he was conditioned,” Solace said.

“What?” Givens asked, eyes narrowing dangerously. “Why do you say that?”

“Civilians aren’t given the same treatments we are. The anti-torture, anti-suborning ones. I know because Andros-Brandyne has been doing just that since right after that attempt was made on my life before I headed off to Midgard. I proposed a bill in the commons to have it be required for all military contractors, but Highridge and his cronies said it was an assault on business, and New Kiev said it was ‘Inhumane’… and that asshole Houseman told the press that I was paranoid and had no eye for business and that I should leave such things to my wife.”

Givens chuckled. “You’re not married… why is that?”

“Dunno… never came up really,” she shrugged, then ground her teeth against the pain. “Never really needed to formalize our relationship that way, I guess.”

“Maybe she’s just waiting for you to ask,” Pat suggested.

“Can we please talk about the saboteur and not the status of my lovelife?”

“Sure. Well… we’ll look into it… this isn’t going away… do you think you can get Bessy back on her feet?”

“Can I bring in some of my people from AB?”

“Officially? I’m certain that BuShips would scream bloody murder, and Jankowski would do it double… but if they’ve got the right clearances… and it’s all under the radar, I’ll bet Morris Jankowski and Admiral Danvers will sign off on the… let’s call it a consultation.”

“Great… still can’t believe Jankowski outbid us for the compensator development.”

“Aww… poor dear, ABC doesn’t have enough government contracts?” Givens said, smirking. “Don’t you have enough to do with Ghost Rider?”

“That’s in development. And it’s a long way out.”

“You’ve got the contracts for Grendelsbane… and the FTL comms,” Pat pointed out. “I’m certain you’re not hurting for money… is Hauptmann worried yet?”

“They’re in shipping and consumer goods,” Solace pointed out.

“Yeah. sure… and ABC is just an electronics firm. All the Cartels are in everything these days.” The Admiral rose. “Anyway, get Bessy operational… fast.This isn’t official yet, but we know where you’re being sent.”

“Sent? Not Homefleet then?” Solace asked.

Givens shook her head.

“Then… Hancock?”

“No. Parks has all the ships he needs… or at least all the ones we can spare. You’re going to Erewhon.”

Solace made a face. “Erewhon? With an SD? We don’t even have basing rights in Erewhon.”

“True… but ONI and the Foreign Office think that the President… or more accurately the heads of the five families… might be willing to sign on to the Alliance. We can’t station a fleet there… but we can station you there.”

“Me?”

“They’re used to backroom deals… and they know you. Officially, you’ll be assigned to the Henesy terminus defense force,” Pat said, and Solace snorted at the humor. The Henesy Terminus of the Manticoran Junction did have SDs. It had four of them, and they were four of the seven Samothrace Class SDs in the entire RMN… including HMS Samothrace herself. The Samothrace had been laid down in 1848, and was the fourth SD ever built by the Star Kingdom (after Manticore, Sphinx, and Gryphon of the Manticore Class). SD-04 (aka Sammy) was more advanced than Manny, Riddler, and Gerry, but they’d been refitted, as befitted the pride of the RMN. The Samothraces had been followed by the Sphinx Class (which had seen Riddler decommissioned so her name could be given to the class ship) which had been followed by the new Gryphon Class… which had laid Gerry to rest. Manny too was being stepped down by the end of the year… which would make Samothrace, Hercules, Theseus, and Perseus (as well as Jason, Daedalus, and Icarus which were stationed at Matapan) the oldest SDs in the entire RMN.

“So my official brief is to guard the backdoor… but my officially unofficial brief is to blow off Admiral Brubaker and take my shiny newish Sphinx Class baby to wow the families with just how much protection they can expect from us in exchange for basing rights?” Solace asked. “And Admiral Brubaker is okay with this?”

“Brubaker is… probably not going to be pleased, to be honest. And there’s going to be a pretty hefty whiff of corruption about the whole thing…”

“What do you mean?” Solace asked, frowning. “This is some underhanded intrigue shit, isn’t it?”

“Well… remember how you bribed Khan Industries?”

Solace frowned, then nodded in understanding. “You want me to hint that Andros-Brandyne might hire a few hundred thousand Erewhonese to build widgets?”

“That is part of the Alliance plan… yes?” Pat said, making it a question only in the rhetorical sense.

“Well then… I guess I’m off to wine and dine?”

“Something like that… oh… and please… take your bodyguards with you… they’re against regulations… but they make you look ever so corruptible.”

“Gee… thanks. Have they decided who’s going to take over Parks at ONI?”

“Not yet… why?”

“For your sins, Pat… I hope you get it.”

“Wow… way to be a friend… what did I ever do to hurt you?”

“You’re the bearer of bad news? You cheat at poker? Your nose is too short? I dunno… pick one. But you’re wasted out here at Weyland.”

Pat sighed. “Good luck… things are going to break here soon… you know that, right?”

“No… because I never get reports from a clandestine and possibly treasonous intelligence gathering apparatus which operates in no less than six star nations… and I never watch the news,” Solace grumbled, rubbing the bridge of her nose… then flinched. “Oww.”

“If it hurts when you do that,” Pat began.

“Yeah yeah… don’t do it… go away… and take Chakrabarti with you as a material witness. I honestly don’t care if I get him back before we leave for Henesy.”

Next: Crown of Stars – Part 4, Chapter 2

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.03

CROWN OF STARS, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 3: Cat and Mouse

Previously: Fox Hunt Chapter 5 or Gift of the Maegi (Omake)

Timestamp: 1903 PD

“We’re getting signs of a major push back by the fundamentalists,” Solace said to her commanding officer.

“We control the orbitals,” Admiral Whitehaven growled, “What is wrong with these people?” He glowered as he gazed down on the planet Masada, sole habitable planet of the Endicott system. Three months earlier, after arriving at Yeltsin with two squadrons of battlecruisers and just in time to provide Honor the distraction she needed to defeat PNS Saladin, Hamish had conquered Endicott in the name of Manticore… and been stuck with a mess ever sense.

“They’re religious zealots,” Solace said, as if that explained everything. She had no love lost for the Masadans. Not only had they very nearly killed her friend (and left her grievously injured and mourning all too many of her people) they’d killed Raoul Courvoisier and tortured all but two of the female Manticoran POWs to death in the most appalling way possible. Solace had never thought she’d meet people she despised as much as she loathed Manpower… but the Faithful of Masada were doing their level best at giving the Mesan slavers a run for their money. They even had that whole superior attitude and sexual slavery thing down pat.

“Zealotry shouldn’t counter logic,” Hamish snapped.

“From your mouth to god’s ears,” she responded, hiding a smile. It was a sad fact that that’s exactly what zealotry did.

“Any word on when the Army units we were promised are coming?” The admiral asked.

There had been a courier boat in earlier in the day, and Solace had been hoping his lordship wouldn’t ask, but few things escaped the old man’s analytical mind. It was one of the reasons she respected him so much. That he usually spoke his mind and didn’t try to play the political game was another large part of it, and the fact that he legitimately believed in the concept of noblesse oblige summed up most of the rest… that he was very much a handsome figure was merely icing on the cake. Shame about his wife… in more ways than one. “Mm… yes sir,” she began. “The transports are ready, and loading will begin as soon as escorts can be arranged to bring the-”

She didn’t even flinch as he hammered the desk with one fist. “Damn it!” the admiral roared. “What is taking them so long!?” Parliament and the Lords of Admiralty had promised the Endicott Occupation Force army units to complete the pacification of the planet and constructor ships with to begin building orbital defenses above it two months ago. Nothing had emerged and their Marines were being pushed to the breaking point just holding Zion, the planetary capital.

“I believe there’s debate about who to put in command of the occupation. Boots has experience, but Marcel and Fonseka both have their advocates,” she said, pulling up the relevant information. General Boots was senior, but as Assistant Army Chief of Staff, his presence on Manticore was, in theory, invaluable to the home system’s defense. He (and his boss, Chief of Staff Godiva Bradshaw) had refused to take sides in the political games going on in the House of Lords as the Conservatives pushed Marcel and the Liberals pushed Fonseka. The Crown Loyalists and Centrists wanted Boots, but were willing to make a deal with either other faction, if they could get something out of it… and the matter wasn’t considered particularly pressing… unless of course it was your marines getting hammered trying to hold a planet of four and a half billion with the contingents of twenty-two battleships.

“Wonderful,” the old man growled, then tore his gaze away from the viewport. “Any other good news?” he asked his chief of staff.

“The First Lord of Admiralty has, once again, sent a request asking you just how long you intend to keep two squadrons of her majesty’s battlecruisers tied up in a ‘Pissant’ system with no space infrastructure to speak of? His words, not mine,” she said, voice calm and cool, trying not to let her opinion of Sir Edward cloud her report. “He sounds as if he’s one step away from ordering us back.”

“How bad is the situation on the planet?” Hamish asked, changing the subject and dropping back into his chair.

“Bad… but not disastrous. We have power armor, they don’t. We have the orbitals, they don’t. We hold the capital. The rest of the planet? It’s a cesspit, but they’re fighting themselves since we have all the elders in custody and incommunicado. Lots of wives killing husbands and vice versa… we’re taking in as many asylum seekers as we can, but we’re going to run out of room for them very quickly. Especially since they’re coming with their children… especially daughters.”

Hamish raised an eyebrow at that, “I thought it was only a few. How many are we looking at?” He slumped a bit, feeling the weight of the fates of all those poor souls trapped in this cycle of violence.

“Eighteen thousand and five as of this morning,” Solace said, not looking at her notes. “Which is only a few compared to the planetary population… but my agents say that number will only increase if we demonstrate that we might be pulling out…”

“Christ… what a mess,” the admiral said. “Fine. Wonderful. Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.” He sat up, assuming a more formal posture. “I’m going to take everything but Gilgamesh and Enkidu back to Manticore with me, but I’m leaving you in command of the system and all the marines. I’ll leave you as many pinnaces as I can, and I want you to establish a secure landing zone for all the supplies I’m going to leave you. Then I want you to use that LZ to evacuate all those seeking refuge to our ships before we leave… or at least as many as we can carry. Search them well. We don’t want what happened to Saladin happening to us. Trust… but, you know, verify.” He shrugged, then continued. “I’ll go back and give the Lords, both the House of and the Admiralty, a piece of my mind. That should give the locals the impression that we’re pulling back a bit… but not too much. Get the more desperate to brave up, maybe draw some of the crazies out too… can’t help that. Just hold down the fort until I can get back with… who do you think?”

Solace considered, then shrugged. “I hate to side with North Hollow and Highridge on anything, but Marcel’s a hard ass. Fonseka will try and make peace with these lunatics. I’d like Boots, but then I’ve worked with him and know how he feels about fanatics.”

“Isn’t he a shoot first, ask questions never kind of fellow?” Hamish asked.

“You say that as if that’s a bad thing,” she said, smirking.

“You don’t like the Masadans much, do you?”

She frowned. “I despise their religion. It represents the very worst of humanity. Kill in the name of God. Judge others for living their own lives. Oppression. Slavery. Mass Murder. Purges and Inquisitions. If I had my way, I’d try every single one of their priests for crimes against humanity and lock them up for life.”

“You wouldn’t kill them?”

“Martyr them you mean?” she shook her head, “No. I’d expose all their dirty little secrets, lock them away, silence their voices… but I won’t stoop to their level. That’s a purge, even if it’s being done in the name of making them pay for all the wrong they’ve done. There’s no easy solution to this mess… but I’d like to get as many as want to get away from here away. Maybe send them to Gryffon as a new colony of the Sisters of Barbara. Or settle them on Grayson, if they’ll have them. Maybe at Honor’s new…” she chuckled.

“What?”

“Oh… just thinking of how Honor twitted me about being named a great feudal lady of a foreign power,” Solace said, then shook off the thought. “Maybe her steading can take some of these ladies? I’ll send her a note. You’ll pass through Greyson on the way, yes?”

“I will… now, get to it.” he commanded, rising.

“Yes sir… oh, and if the Navy won’t send constructors for the defenses, ask Minerva to send a Tortuga or two, if we can spare them. I know most of them are in Yeltsin and Jewel right now, but I think Singapore and Malta were about to come online, so maybe?”

“How many of those damned things do you have now?” Hamish asked, frowning.

“Eighteen of the Tortugas and three Tortuga IIs… twenty if Singapore and Malta are done, and four when Liverpool comes online.”

Hamish frowned in thought, then said, “Tortuga IIs? First I’ve heard about them.”

“Dreadnought hulls instead of Battlecruiser hulls. We had to slow down Liverpool because we swapped out the Impellers and Inertial Compensators at the last minute.”

“You did?” He asked. “Why?”

“New design coming out of Yeltsin. Much more efficient. Should boost top acceleration by as much as 80%. Really something to see.”

“You and your mobile shipyards,” he chuckled. “Half the infrastructure at four times the cost.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “But my infrastructure can be anywhere I want it to be and can run from enemies.”

“That is a point,” he agreed.

========

“I really wish we had someplace to run to,” Colonel Hopkirk growled. He was the senior Marine on Masada, and definitely not enjoying his day.

“I know exactly what you mean, sir,” Lord Seymour Kipling agreed. Lord Kipling was also Steadholder Byron, and was the duly appointed observer from the Keys of Grayson on Masada. He was trying to decide which bothered him more, the bombs exploding overhead or the screams of the four women in labour. His companion, Duenna Witkin, the eldest daughter of Steadholder Morcock, was there as the representative of the charitable arm of the Church of Humanity Unchained (Grayson division), and was, it seemed, the only fully qualified midwife on the entire stinking planet.

“I’ve evacuated as many people as possible to the cruisers,” Solace said, scanning the horizon, “But we’ll just have to hold out.” The attack had come, as anticipated, within 72 hours of the occupation fleet’s departure. It hadn’t, however, been anything like light. Even with two battlecruisers still in orbit, the Faithful were demonstrating just how batshit insane they truly were by openly courting orbital bombardment by laying siege to their own capital.

Unfortunately, the level of control the Manticoran Marines had assumed they’d had had been… sorely overestimated, as two entire companies had been wiped out in suicide bombings within minutes of each other, on two different sides of the city. Pregnant women had rushed their lines and the marines had checked fire… only to discover that the women were stuffed full of high explosives, not infants. A third company had been forced to pull back with heavy casualties when a woman threw her actual baby at them… and then detonated both herself and her child, filling the position with shrapnel. And now the Faithful had brought artillery pieces into the city and were using their own people as shields to ward off any counter fire from the ‘insufficiently zealous’ Manticorans.

Solace had ordered all Marines in the city to fall back to the reinforced cantonment that was the city of Zion’s former Spaceport, and hold positions. Refugees were still streaming in, but they had to come through a line of scanners and a gauntlet of guns that filled one of the four heavily reinforced tunnels leading to the Liftzone.

“How long do you think it will be before reinforcements come,” Lord Seymour asked, carefully not specifying if he was talking to Solace or Hopkins. Hopkins had been a Captain up until that morning, but a suicide bomber who’d managed to crawl through the Spaceport’s waste recycling system had taken out the command conference, leaving Solace with a single Marine Captain as the highest ranking Marine officer on planet. And Hopkins had immediately turned the ground forces over to her, since technically, as she’d been Ensign of the Guard, her date of commission in the RMMC (as well as the RMA and every other branch of the Manticoran Military besides the Navy) predated his. The Ensign of the Guard held ceremonial rank equivalent to a Marine Captain… so in addition to being the system’s commanding officer, she was also the ground commander… a task she had no practical experience with… which was better than Hopkins, who had never fought a ground war either.

In fact, the only person on their side who had seen ground combat at all was Lord Seymour, who (in his youth) had interned with the Solarian Army. He’d been a tank mechanic. Of course, they had no tanks… and were only holding out thanks to having the air superiority provided by the navy pinnaces and the heavy guns of the marine power armor.

“At a bare minimum? It will be eight more days before the Admiral can get back,” Solace said, running through their expenditures and losses. The siege had lasted four days so far, and they’d already lost a sixth of their forces. With twenty-two hundred men and forty pinnaces, she was faced with defending nearly ten times that number of women and children. As long as she could keep the birds in the air, she could hold out… but unless she got more fuel, their air-engine turbines were going to be grounded by the end of the eighth day… and the irony of fighting Masadans with oil running out on the eighth day did not escape her.

“We’re the fucking Maccabees,” she muttered, getting a look from Lord Seymour that was more than a bit surprised. “The original ones. Not traitorous bunch on your planet… another reason to hate these bastards… giving my cultural icons a bad name.” She looked out at the city again, then sighed. “Lord Seymour… how do you feel about drumming up a miracle or two?”

He raised his eyebrow, then stiffened to attention despite himself. “What have you in mind?”

“You know these people better than any of my troops… want to help me sneak out into the city and do a little… creative miracling?”

Seymour chuckled, then shrugged. “The Tester helps those who help themselves,” he responded.

She grinned. “Indeed. Let’s go help ourselves to some of their supplies.”

“Commander,” Duenna said, emerging from the birth tent at the heart of the compound. “Surely you can’t be planning on going out there!”

“It’s Captain,” Solace corrected. “Or Lady.” She didn’t look back at the older woman. “And I very much can. It’s my duty to protect this base until we can be reinforced.”

“No!” the woman snapped, stamping her foot most petulantly. “You can just have your ships,” she pointed up at the sky where one of the battlecruisers hung in orbit, “blast the bastards!”

“We’re not here to destroy the Masadans, Miss Witkin. We’re here to ensure that no more innocents suffer under their tyranny… That means I’m not going to open fire with kinetic weapons or orbital strikes against civilian targets.”

“They wouldn’t hesitate to do so!” Duenna yelled, “Thirty Five years ago, they used nuclear weapons against us! My mother died in that holocaust! Half of Morcock Steading was obliterated by these monsters!”

“That’s hardly charitable, Miss Witkin,” Solace said. “I know you’re afraid. But think of how many children will die if I unleash all the weapons I can bring to bear. Think of how many mothers who had no choice in this will die. How many boys who only obey their elders because they don’t know any better.” She turned to face the woman then, locking eyes with her. “ I’m here to help make this a world for humanity, not hatred. I will not begin that process by leveling a city.”

“Even if it dooms us all?”

“Then we will be martyrs to restraint… but I’m not ready to give up just yet. Hopkins… keep the pressure on them. I want at least thirty pinnaces up at all times. I’ll send up a beacon if I need evac, and I’ll report in at least once a day… but I’m not doing anyone any good here. I need information and we need supplies.” She jumped down, then motioned for Seymour to follow her, the two treecats not even needing an invitation.

======

“I know the shot came from this building, Zachariah,” the first man said as he climbed the stair, “It’s got to be one of those accursed harlots.”

“I don’t know, Jedidiah,” the second man said, “What if it’s one of the Manticorans?”

“They are marines. They don’t skulk around taking potshots at artillery emplacements. They call in pinnaces and blow them up.”

“They do if that emplacement is under a highway overpass,” Solace said, looking down from her perch above the two. They tried to swing their rifles up to cover her, but noticed the glowing eyed monsters that flanked her just before they started screaming. They died without getting a shot off. “Think you can use that?” she asked Seymour, pointing at the rocketlauncher the man named Jedidiah had had strapped to his back.

“I think I can manage,” the Steadholder said. He was feeling his age, all of forty-one, but he’d never felt more alive. Even the piece of shrapnel that had stuck in his forehead like some twisted horn made him only feel more like a warrior angel, sneaking through this wilderness of wickedness, dispensing justice against the enemies of his world.

The woosh of the chemical rocket was most satisfying… the crack-boom of the artillery ammunition dump and the screams of the fanatics was practically an aria to his ears.

====

“Where the hell are they?” Hopkins muttered.

“Who?” Duenna asked, running her hand over his chest. He was very handsome. “That crazy woman and the Steadholder, or the reinforcement fleet?” It had been six days since Solace and Seymour had headed out into the no-man’s-land of the city, and the fact that each day’s bombardment hadn’t increased… and on days six and nine had demonstrably decreased… showed that the duo was having an effect.

“Either,” the Marine said, pulling the blanket up to cover them both a bit more. It wasn’t really that cold, but there was a lot of wind and it was raining out there. “The Captain’s eight hours past due for check in… the fleet could have been here two days ago…”

The ground shook as the ship in orbit fired, taking out another attempt by the fanatics to reinforce their troops in the city. If cities were off the menu, troops moving between cities very much weren’t.

====

“Why aren’t there any of the outworld heretic fighters in the air,” Mathias O’Donnal, Commander of the Faithful, questioned from the former home of his uncle, Elder Michael O’Donnal.

“Perhaps they have all been shot down?” his aide and second, Liam Fitzpatrick, said.

“No. We only managed to shoot seven of them down. They have at least twenty more.”

“Perhaps God has made their fuel tanks run dry? In punishment for them naming their base after the Maccabees of old?”

Mathias considered, then nodded. “Yes. I think you might be right. Spread the word. If there’s no sign of their airships, we attack with everything in one hour.”

“Everything?”

“Yes. We’ll rush their walls with all our people. They’ll never be able to hold out against our righteous wrath. God wills it.”

“God wills it,” Liam agreed, leaving the room to spread the word.

“That was a nice speech,” Lord Kipling said, dropping out of the hatch to the attic and pointing a pistol at the other man.

“Wh… who are you?” Mathias demanded, not moving from his desk. The tiny gun didn’t look particularly dangerous.

“Hands up or I shoot,” the interloper said, firing a round into the phone and blowing it to splinters. The gun had hardly made a sound, but had left a fist sized crater in the heavy wood. The room was soundproofed, as all good offices were. No one outside would have heard that.

Mathias raised his hands, eyes narrowing. “You’re Grayson.”

“A Steadholder,” Kipling agreed. “And I have to thank you for giving that idiotic order.”

Mathias brideled at that, “We shall overrun that camp of traitors and heathens and put all within it to the torch.”

“Do that, and the Manticorans will flatten your cities when they return.”

“Return?! Ha! The Lord God has seen fit to arrange to send them running back to that whore queen of theirs. They have abandoned you to… what was that?”

“That would be your command and control center blowing up,” Seymour said. Mathias blinked in confusion, clearly not understanding. “Oh… sorry. That way no counterorder can be sent. We have to thank you for flushing all your little lunatics out in one massive orgasm of fanatical stupidity.”

“How da-” Mathias began, but he never finished.

“Opps… this thing has such a light trigger pull… sorry, were you saying something?” Kipling asked, looking at where the Masadan was gripping the stump of his left hand and screaming. “Oh, stop being such a big baby.”

======

“Solace… you’re looking well,” Hamish commented, looking around at Maccabee Base, busy now with ships landing with units of the Manticoran Army under General Marcel and taking off the injured and the refugees, now numbering nearly a quarter million.

“You took your time, sir… but the reprieve is very welcome.” The siege had lasted sixteen days, ending definitively when the army transports had begun landing dropships all over the city. All over the planet, the same thing was happening as mechanized infantry and tank divisions surrounded every temple, power station, and government building then demanded unconditional surrender. Some areas were resisting; they were finding out that the Manticoran restraint had been a matter of limited resources, not of lack of will. Entire cities were without power, and more than one local uprising had been ruthlessly squashed.

“Sorry about that, Smythe. There were a few stubborn heads that needed bashing. I didn’t expect to be gone so long… You did well for yourself?”

“I abandoned my post and lost half the troops in my sector,” she said.

The admiral chuckled, “Your post was the entire system. And considering the odds, I’d say losing only half your troops is a testament to Colonel Hopkins… Where is he?

“Oh, he’s around here somewhere,” Solace said, shrugging. “I’d like to at least see he keeps the rank of Major… once he gets back from his honeymoon.”

“Honeymoon?” Hamish asked, confused.

“He and Steadholder Morcock’s daughter… Apparently they… hooked up during the siege and she insists on him making her an honest woman.”

“She wasn’t married?”

“Her husband died in First Yeltsin,” Solace shrugged.

“These Graysons bounce back fast,” Hamish commented.

“Hard world… hard people,” Solace agreed. “I wonder how upset Hopkin’s first wife will be.”

“Oy.”

“You said it,” she agreed, then stiffened. “Why, may I ask, are my Andermani pulling out of that transport?”

“Oh… well, you see,” Hamish began. “It turns out that Steadholders aren’t allowed to go anywhere without their personal armsmen.”

“I’m not a Steadholder…” she said, though it was true, as she well knew. Kipling had only been without a guard because all three of the armsmen he’d brought with him to Masada had been either killed or injured too badly to accompany him into the field. “Right?”

“Ha. No. You’re not. Although I suspect the Graysons will want to honor you for this fiasco, I don’t think they’re ready for two female Steadholders. But the House of Lords has decided to elevate Honor to Countess Harrington and special dispensation has been given for her Armsmen to follow her everywhere besides shipboard.”

“That’s lovely for Honor, but I don’t…” she paused, then sighed melodramatically. “The Andermani are insisting, aren’t they?”

“Not insisting. Just hinting strongly.” The Admiral was smirking quite broadly now.

“Wonderful. Can we get back on ship where they can’t follow me?”

“I’m afraid not. We’ve been given three months to secure the system… and I’m putting you in charge of smoothing the transition from Naval control to Army control.”

“And what, prey tell, are you going to be doing, sir?”

“I was thinking of going to tell the Protector all about the wonderful work you did.”

“You’re a troublemaker, you know that my lord?”

“Little bit,” Hamish said, pulling out some celery for Ruth and Naomi. “Is that the chief elder’s skullcap Naomi’s wearing?”

“No comment.”

Next: Crown of Stars – Part 4

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

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 begun a series of smaller jump-threads called EssJay’s Omake Theatre. The first, Big Box Isekai is about a Warehouse Store that’s reborn in another world. The second, Zed & The Walrus-Men, is a more lighthearted look at what might have been if I’d been made a jumper at age sixteen.