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Mission of Honor: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 07:49 EDT



    “So you’re satisfied with our own security position at the moment, Wesley?”

    Benjamin IX, Protector of Grayson, leaned back in his chair, watching the uniformed commander in chief of the Grayson Space Navy across his desk. Wesley Matthews looked back at him, his expression a bit surprised, then nodded.

    “Yes, Your Grace, I am,” he said. “May I ask if there’s some reason you think I shouldn’t be?”

    “No, not that I think you shouldn’t be. On the other hand, I have it on excellent authority that certain questions are likely to be raised in the Conclave of Steadholders’ New Year’s session.”

    Matthews’ expression went from slightly surprised to definitely sour and he shook his head in disgusted understanding.

    The two men sat in Benjamin Mayhew’s private working office in Protector’s Palace. At the moment, the planet Grayson’s seasons were reasonably coordinated with those of mankind’s birth world, although they were drifting slowly back out of adjustment, and heavy snow fell outside the palace’s protective environmental dome. The larger dome which Skydomes of Grayson was currently erecting to protect the entire city of Austen was still only in its embryonic stages, with its preliminary girder work looming against the darkly clouded sky like white, furry tree trunks or — for those of a less cheerful disposition — the strands of some vast, frosted spiderweb. Outside the palace dome, clearly visible through its transparency from the bookcase-lined office’s window, crowds of children cheerfully threw snowballs at one another, erected snowmen, or skittered over the steep, cobbled streets of the Old Town on sleds. Others shrieked in delight as they rode an assortment of carnival rides on the palace grounds themselves, and vendors of hot popcorn, hot chocolate and tea, and enough cotton candy and other items of questionable dietary value to provide sugar rushes for the next several days could be seen nefariously plying their trade on every corner.

    What couldn’t be clearly seen from Matthews’ present seat were the breath masks those children wore, or the fact that their gloves and mittens would have served the safety requirements of hazardous materials workers quite handily. Grayson’s high concentrations of heavy metals made even the planet’s snow potentially toxic, but that was something Graysons were used to. Grayson kids took the need to protect themselves against their environment as much for granted as children on other, less unfriendly planets took the need to watch out for traffic crossing busy streets.

    And, at the moment, all of those hordes of children were taking special pleasure in their play because it was a school holiday. In fact, it was a planetary holiday — the Protector’s Birthday. The next best thing to a thousand T-years worth of Grayson children had celebrated that same holiday, although for the last thirty T-years or so, they’d been a bit shortchanged compared to most of their predecessors, since Benjamin IX had been born on December the twenty-first. The schools traditionally shut down for Christmas vacation on December the eighteenth, so the kids didn’t get an extra day away from class work the way they might have if Benjamin had been thoughtful enough to be born in, say, March or October. That little scheduling faux pas on his part (or, more fairly perhaps, on his mother’s) was part of the reason Benjamin had always insisted on throwing a special party for all the children of the planetary capital and any of their friends who could get there to join them. At the moment, by Matthews’ estimate, the school-aged population of the city of Austen had probably risen by at least forty or fifty percent.

    It was also traditional that the protector did no official business on his birthday, since even he was entitled to at least one vacation day a year. Benjamin, however, was prone to honor that particular tradition in the breach, although he’d been known to use the fact that he was officially “off” for the day as a cover from time to time. And it would appear this was one of those times. Events were building towards the formal birthday celebration later this evening, but Matthews was among the inner circle who’d been invited to arrive early. He would have found himself in that group anyway, given how long and closely he and Benjamin had worked together, but there’d obviously been other reasons this year.

    The high admiral regarded his protector thoughtfully. This was Benjamin’s fiftieth birthday, and his hair was streaked progressively more thickly with silver. Not that Matthews was any spring chicken himself. In fact, he was ten T-years older than Benjamin, and his own hair had turned completely white, although (he thought with a certain comfortable vanity) it had remained thankfully thick and luxuriant.

    But thick or not, we’re neither one of us getting any younger, he reflected.

    It was a thought which had occurred to him more frequently of late, especially when he ran into Manticoran officers half again his age who still looked younger than he did. Who were younger, physically speaking, at least. And more than a few Grayson officers fell into that same absurdly youthful-looking category, now that the first few generations to enter the service since Grayson’s alliance with Manticore had made the prolong therapies generally available were into their late thirties or — like Benjamin’s younger brother, Michael — already into their early forties.

    It’s only going to get worse, Wesley, he told himself with an inescapable edge of bittersweet envy. It’s not their fault, of course. In fact, it’s nobody’s fault, but there are still a lot of things I’d like to be here to see.

    He gave himself a mental shake and snorted silently. It wasn’t exactly as if he were going to drop dead of old age tomorrow! With modern medicine, he ought to be good for at least another thirty T-years, and Benjamin could probably look forward to another half T-century.

    Which had very little to do with the question the protector had just asked him.

    “May I ask exactly which of our esteemed steadholders are likely to be raising the questions in question, Your Grace?”

    “Well, I think you can safely assume Travis Mueller’s name is going to be found among them.” Benjamin’s smile was tart. “And I expect Jasper Taylor’s going to be right beside him. But I understand they’ve found a new front man — Thomas Guilford.”

    Matthews grimaced. Travis Mueller, Lord Mueller, was the son of the late and (by most Graysons) very unlamented Samuel Mueller, who’d been executed for treason following his involvement in a Masadan plot to assassinate Benjamin and Queen Elizabeth. Jasper Taylor, was Steadholder Canseco, whose father had been a close associate of Samuel Mueller and who’d chosen to continue the traditional alliance between Canseco and Mueller. But Thomas Guilford, Lord Forchein, was a newcomer to that particular mix. He was also quite a few years older than either Mueller or Canseco, and while he’d never been one of the greater admirers of the social and legal changes of the Mayhew Restoration, he’d never associated himself with the protector’s more strident critics. There hadn’t been much question about his sentiments, but he’d avoided open confrontations with Benjamin and the solid block of steadholders who supported the Sword and he’d always struck Matthews as less inclined than Mueller to cheerfully sacrifice principle in the name of “political pragmatism.”

    “When did Forchein decide to sign on with Mueller and Friends, Your Grace?”

    “That’s hard to say, really.” Benjamin tipped his swiveled armchair back and swung it gently from side to side. “To be fair to him — not that I particularly want to be, you understand — I doubt he was really much inclined in that direction until High Ridge tried to screw over every other member of the Alliance.”

    Matthews snorted again, this time out loud. Like Benjamin himself, the high admiral strongly supported Grayson’s membership in the Manticoran Alliance. Not only was he painfully aware of just how much Grayson had profited, both technologically and economically, from its ties with the Star Kingdom of Manticore, but he was even better aware of the fact that without the intervention of the Royal Manticoran Navy, the planet of Grayson would either have been conquered outright by the religious lunatics who’d run Masada or at best have suffered nuclear or kinetic bombardment from space. At the same time, he had to admit the High Ridge Government had proved clearly that the Star Kingdom was far from perfect. In his considered opinion, “screw over” was an extraordinarily pale description of what Baron High Ridge had done to his alliance so-called partners. And like many other Graysons, Matthews was firmly of the opinion that High Ridge’s idiotic foreign policy had done a great deal to provoke the resumption of hostilities between the Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom and its allies.

    As far as the high admiral was personally concerned, that simply demonstrated once again that idiocy, corruption, and greed were inescapable elements of mankind’s fallen nature. Tester knew there’d been more than enough traitors, criminals, corrupt and arrogant steadholders, and outright lunatics in Grayson history! Indeed, the name “Mueller” came rather forcibly to mind in that connection. And for every Manticoran High Ridge, Matthews had met two or three Hamish Alexanders or Alistair McKeons or Alice Trumans, not to mention having personally met Queen Elizabeth III.

    And then, of course, there was Honor Alexander-Harrington.



    Given that balance, and how much Manticoran and Grayson blood had been shed side by side in the Alliance’s battles, Matthews was prepared to forgive the Star Kingdom for High Ridge’s existence. Not all Graysons were, however. Even many of those who remained fierce supporters of Lady Harrington separated her in their own minds from the Star Kingdom. She was one of theirs — a Grayson in her own right, by adoption and shed blood — which insulated her from their anger at the High Ridge Government’s stupidity, avarice, and arrogance. And the fact that she and High Ridge had been bitter political enemies only made that insulation easier for them.

    “I’m serious, Wesley.” Benjamin waved one hand, as if for emphasis. “Oh, Forchein’s always been a social and religious conservative — not as reactionary as some, thank God, but bad enough — but I’m pretty sure it was the combination of High Ridge’s foreign policy and Haven’s resumption of open hostilities that tipped his support. And, unfortunately, he’s not the only one that’s true of.”

    “May I ask how bad it actually is, Your Grace?” Matthews inquired, his eyes narrower.

    It wasn’t the sort of question he usually would have asked, given the Grayson tradition of separation between the military and politics. Senior officers weren’t supposed to factor politics into their military thinking. Which, of course, was another of those fine theories which consistently came to grief amid the shoals of reality. There was a difference, however, between being aware of the political realities which affected the ability of his Navy to formulate sound strategy or discharge its responsibilities to defend the Protectorate of Grayson and of becoming involved in the formulation of political policy.

    “To be honest, I’m not really certain,” Benjamin admitted. “Floyd is taking some cautious political soundings, and I expect we’ll have a pretty good idea within the next week or so of who else might be inclined in Forchein’s direction.”

    Matthews nodded. Floyd Kellerman, Steadholder Magruder, had become Benjamin’s chancellor following Henry Prestwick’s well-earned retirement. He’d been Prestwick’s understudy for the last two years of the old chancellor’s tenure, and the Magruders had been Mayhew allies literally for centuries. Lord Magruder hadn’t yet developed the intricate web of personal alliances Prestwick had possessed, but he’d already demonstrated formidable abilities as both an administrator and a shrewd politician.

    “Having said that, however,” the protector continued, “I’m already pretty confident about where the problem is going to come from . . . and what our problem children — however many of them there turn out to be — are going to want.” He shook his head. “Some of them wouldn’t have supported us sticking with Manticore against Haven this time around if the Protector’s Own hadn’t already been involved at Sidemore. Their position is that High Ridge had already violated Manticore’s treaty obligations to us by conducting independent negotiations with Haven, which amounted to a unilateral abrogation of the Alliance. And while we do have a mutual defense treaty outside the formal framework of the overall Alliance, one whose terms obligate us to come to one another’s support in the event of any attack by an outside party, the Star Kingdom’s critics have pointed out that the Republic of Haven did not, in fact, attack Grayson in Operation Thunderbolt despite our involvement in defending Manticoran territory. The implication being that since High Ridge chose to violate Manticore’s solemn treaty obligations to us — along with every other party to the Alliance — there’s no reason we should feel legally or morally bound to honor our treaty obligations to them if doing so isn’t in the Protectorate’s best interests.

    “And — surprise, surprise! — the way the Manticorans’ expansion into the Talbott Sector’s brought them into direct collision with the Solarian League has only made the people who are pissed off with Manticore even less happy. And to be honest, I can’t really blame anyone for being nervous about finding themselves on the wrong end of the confrontation with the League, especially after the way High Ridge squandered so much of the Star Kingdom’s investment in loyalty.

    “Of course, none of our vessels have actually been involved in operations anywhere near Talbott, but we do have personnel serving on Manticoran warships which have been. For that matter, over thirty of our people were killed when that idiot Byng blew up the destroyers they were serving in. Which gives the people who worry about what may happen between the League and the Manticorans — and, by extension, with us — two legitimate pieces of ammunition. The Sollies may view the participation of our personnel, even aboard someone else’s ships, in military operations against the League as meaning we’ve already decided to back Manticore, and I don’t think it would be totally unfair to argue that the people we’ve already lost were lost in someone else’s fight. Mind you, I think it should be obvious to anyone with any sort of realistic appreciation for how Frontier Security and the League operate that standing up to the Sollies should be every independent ‘neobarb’ star system’s fight. Not everyone’s going to agree with me about that, unfortunately, and those who don’t will be airing their concerns shortly. Which brings me back to my original question for you. How satisfied are you with the system’s security?”

    “In the short term, completely, Your Grace.” Matthews’ response was as firm as it was instant. “Whatever High Ridge and Janacek might have done, ever since Willie Alexander took over as Prime Minister, especially with Hamish as his First Lord of Admiralty, our channels of communication have been completely opened again. Our R&D people are working directly with theirs, and they’ve provided us with everything we needed to put Apollo into production here at Yeltsin’s Star. For that matter, they’ve delivered over eight thousand of the system-defense variant Apollo pods. And they’ve also handed our intelligence people complete copies of the computer files Countess Gold Peak captured from Byng at New Tuscany, along with specimens of Solly missiles, energy weapons, software systems — the works. For that matter, if we want it, they’re more than willing to let us have one of the actual battlecruisers the Countess brought back from New Tuscany so we can examine it personally. So far, we haven’t taken them up on that. Our people in Admiral Hemphill’s shop are already seeing everything, and, frankly, the Manties are probably better at that sort of thing than we are here at home, anyway.

    “Based on what we’ve seen out of the Havenites, I’m confident we could successfully defend this star system against everything the Republic has left. And based on our evaluation of the captured Solarian material, my best estimate is that while the Sollies probably could take us in the end, they’d need upwards of a thousand ships-of-the-wall to do it. And that’s a worst-case estimate, Your Grace. I suspect a more realistic estimate would push their force requirements upward significantly.” He shook his head. “Given all their other commitments, the amount of their wall of battle that’s tucked away in mothballs, and the fact that they’d pretty much have to go through Manticore before they got to us at all, I’m not worried about any known short-term threat.”

    He paused for a moment, as if to let the protector fully absorb his own confidence, then drew a deep breath.

    “In the long term, of course, the Solarian League could pose a very serious threat to the Protectorate. I agree with the Manties’ estimate that it would take years for the SLN to get comparable technology into production and deployed. I think some of the individual system-defense forces could probably shave some time off of how long it’s going to take the SLN in particular, and the League in general, to overcome the sheer inertia of their entrenched bureaucracies, but as far as I’m aware, none of those SDFs are in anything like the Star Kingdom’s — I mean the Star Empire’s — league. For that matter, I don’t think any of them could come close to matching our combat power for quite a lengthy period. But in the end, assuming the League has the stomach to pay the price in both human and economic terms, there’s not much doubt that, barring direct divine intervention, the Sollies could absorb anything we and the Manticorans combined could hand out and still steamroller us in the end.”

    Benjamin puffed his lips, his eyes worried, and rotated his chair some more. It was very quiet in the office — quiet enough for Matthews to hear the creaking of the old-fashioned swivel chair — and the high admiral found himself looking out the window again, at the throngs of children.

    I’d really like for someone to grow up on this planet without having to worry about wars and lunatics, he thought sadly, almost wistfully. I’ve done my best to keep them safe, but that’s not the same thing.

    “I wish I could say I was surprised by anything you’ve just said,” Benjamin said at last, pulling Matthews’ eyes back to him. “Unfortunately, it’s about what I expected to hear, and I don’t doubt Mueller and Friends, as you call them, have reached about the same conclusions. They already think of us as ‘Manticoran lackeys’ who put Manticore’s interests ahead of Grayson’s. That’s going to dispose them to take the least optimistic possible view, shall we say, of our long-term strategic position. Nor do I doubt that they’re going to be perfectly ready to share their thoughts on the subject with their fellow steadholders.”

    “Your Grace, I could –”

    “No, you couldn’t, Wesley,” Benjamin interrupted. The high admiral looked at him, and the protector smiled tartly. “I’m sure, High Admiral Matthews, that you would never suggest to the Lord Protector that it might be possible for you to prevaricate or even mislead the Conclave of Steadholders if you were called to testify before them.”



    Matthews closed his mouth and sat back in his chair, and Benjamin chuckled harshly.

    “Don’t think that I wouldn’t appreciate the offer, if you’d ever been so lost to all sense of your legal and moral responsibilities as to make it. But even if I were tempted to encourage you to do any such thing, and even if it wouldn’t be both morally and legally wrong — which, granted, aren’t always exactly the same things — it would only blow up in our faces in the long run. After all, it’s not exactly like it would take a hyper physicist to realize just how damned big the League is. If we tried to pretend the Sollies couldn’t kick our posterior in the long run, we’d only look and sound ridiculous. Or, worse, like we were trying to carry water for the Manties. So I doubt you’d be able to do much good . . . in that respect, at least. ”

    Matthews nodded slowly, but something about the protector’s tone puzzled him. He knew it showed in his expression, and Benjamin chuckled again, more naturally, when he saw it.

    “I said I don’t want you to mislead anyone about the long-term threat the League could pose, Wesley. I never said I didn’t want you to underline your confidence in our short-term security, if you’re actually confident about it.”

    “Of course, Your Grace.” Matthews nodded with no reservations. In fact, even though he’d scrupulously used the phrase “any known short-term threat” in his response to the protector’s question, in his own mind a better one would have been “any conceivable short-term threat.”

    “Good.” Benjamin nodded back. “One thing we scheming autocrats realized early on, High Admiral, is that short-term threats have a far greater tendency to crystallize political factions, for or against, than long-term ones do. It’s the nature of the way human minds work. And if we can get through the next few months, the situation could certainly change. For example, there’s Lady Harrington’s mission to Haven.”

    Matthews nodded, although he suspected he hadn’t succeeded in keeping at least a trace of skepticism out of his expression. As the Grayson Space Navy’s uniformed commander, he was one of the handful of people who knew about Honor Alexander-Harrington’s planned mission to the Republic of Haven. He agreed that it was certainly worth trying, even if he didn’t exactly have unbridled optimism about the chances for its success. On the other hand, Lady Harrington had a knack for accomplishing the improbable, so he wasn’t prepared to totally rule out the possibility.

    “If we can manage to bury the hatchet with Haven, it should be a major positive factor where the public’s morale is concerned, and it would certainly strengthen our hand in the Conclave,” Benjamin pointed out. “Not only that, but if anyone in the Solarian League realizes just how steep our present technological advantage is, and couples that with the fact that we’re not being distracted by the Republic anymore, he may just figure out that picking a fight with Manticore is a game that wouldn’t be worth the candle.”

    “Your Grace, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve just said,” Matthews said. “On the other hand, you and I both know how Sollies think. Do you really believe there’s going to be a sudden unprecedented outburst of rationality in Old Chicago, of all places?”

    “I think it’s possible,” Benjamin replied. “I’m not saying I think it’s likely, but it is possible. And in some ways, this makes me think about a story my father told me — an old joke about a Persian horse thief.”

    “Excuse me, Your Grace?”

    “A Persian horse thief.” Matthews still looked blank, and Benjamin grinned. “Do you know what ‘Persia’ was?”

    “I’ve heard the word,” Matthews admitted cautiously. “Something from Old Earth history, wasn’t it?”

    “Persia,” Benjamin said, “built one of the greatest pre-technic empires back on Old Earth. Their king was called the ’shah,’ and the term ‘checkmate’ in chess comes originally from ’shah mat,’ or ‘the king is dead.’ That’s how long ago they were around.

    “Anyway, the story goes that once upon a time a thief stole the shah’s favorite horse. Unfortunately for him, he was caught trying to get off the palace grounds with it, and dragged before the shah in person. The penalty for stealing any horse was pretty severe, but stealing one of the shah’s was punishable by death, of course. Still, the shah wanted to see the man who’d had the audacity to try and steal a horse out of the royal stables themselves.

    “So the shah’s guardsmen brought the thief in, and the shah said, ‘Didn’t you know stealing one of my horses is punishable by death, fellow?’ And the thief looked at him and said ‘Of course I knew that, Your Majesty. But everyone knows you have the finest horses in all the world, and what horse thief worthy of the name would choose to steal any but the finest?’

    “The shah was amused, but the law was the law, so he said ‘Give me one reason why I shouldn’t have your head chopped off right this minute.’ The horse thief thought about it for a few moments, then said, ‘Well, Your Majesty, I don’t suppose there’s any legal reason why you shouldn’t. But if you’ll spare my life, I’ll teach your horse to sing.’

    “‘What?’ the shah demanded. ‘You claim you can actually teach my horse to sing?’ ‘Well, of course I can!’ the thief replied confidently. ‘I’m not just a common horse thief, after all, Your Majesty. I don’t say it will be easy, but if I can’t teach your horse to sing within one year, then you can chop off my head with my blessings.’

    “So the shah thought about it, then nodded. ‘All right, you’ve got your year. If, at the end of that year, you haven’t taught the horse to sing, though, I warn you — a simple beheading will be the least of your problems! Is that understood?’ ‘Of course, Your Majesty!’ the horse thief replied, and the guards hauled him away.

    “‘Are you crazy?’ one of them asked him. ‘No one can teach a horse to sing, and the Shah’s going to be even more pissed off when he figures out you lied to him. All you’ve done is to trade having your head chopped off for being handed over to the torturers! What were you thinking?’ So the thief looks at him and says ‘I have a year in which to do it, and in a year, the Shah may die, and his successor may choose to spare my life. Or the horse may die, and I can scarcely be expected to teach a dead horse to sing, and so my life may be spared. Or, I may die, in which case it won’t matter whether or not the horse learns to sing.’ ‘And if none of those things happen?’ the guard demanded. ‘Well, in that case,’ the thief replied, ‘who knows? Maybe the horse will learn to sing!’”

    Matthews chuckled, and the protector’s grin broadened. Then it slowly faded, and he let his chair come back upright, laying his forearms on his desk and leaning forward over them.

    “And in some ways, that’s where we are, isn’t it?” he asked. “We’ve been too closely allied with Manticore for too long, and we’ve already had personnel involved in active combat with the SLN. If the League decides to hammer the Star Kingdom over something that was clearly the League’s fault in the first place, what makes anyone think they’ll hesitate to hammer any of the uppity neobarbs’ uppity neobarb friends, at the same time? What’s one more star system when you’re already planning on destroying a multi-system empire, with the largest independent merchant marine in the entire galaxy, just because you can’t admit one of your own admirals screwed up by the numbers?”

    Matthews looked back at his protector, wishing he could think of an answer to Benjamin’s questions.

    “So that’s where we are,” the protector repeated quietly. “In the long term, unless we’re prepared to become another nice, obedient Frontier Security proxy and go around bashing other ‘neobarbs’ for the League, I’m sure they’ll decide one of their flag officers should have another unfortunate little accident that gets our Navy trashed along with Manticore’s before we turn into a threat to them. So all I can see for us to do is the best we can and hope that somewhere, even in the Solarian League, someone’s going to be bright enough to see the shipwreck coming and try to avoid it. After all,” Benjamin grinned again, this time without amusement, “the horse really may learn to sing.”



    “All right, boys and girls,” Commander Michael Carus said. “It’s official. We can go home now.”

    “Hallelujah!” Lieutenant Commander Bridget Landry said from her quadrant of his com display. “Not that it hasn’t been fun,” she continued. “Why I haven’t enjoyed myself this much since they fixed that impacted wisdom tooth for me.”

    Carus chuckled. The four destroyers of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Destroyer Division 265.2, known as “the Silver Cepheids,” had been sitting a light-month from Manticore-A for two weeks, doing absolutely nothing. Well, that wasn’t exactly fair. They’d been sitting here maintaining a scrupulous sensor watch looking for absolutely nothing, and he was hardly surprised by Landry’s reaction.

    No, I’m not, he admitted. But somebody had to do it. And when it comes to perimeter security for the entire star system, better safe than sorry any day, even if it does mean somebody has to be bored as hell.

    DesDiv 265.2 had been sent to check out what was almost certainly a sensor ghost but which could, just possibly, have been an actual hyper footprint. It was extraordinarily unlikely that anyone would have bothered to make his alpha translation this far out, be his purposes ever so nefarious, since his impeller signature would certainly have been detected long before he could get close enough to the Manticore Binary System to accomplish anything. But Perimeter Security didn’t take chances on words like “unlikely.” When a sensor ghost like this one turned up, it was checked out — quickly and thoroughly. And if the checker-outers didn’t find anything immediately upon arrival, they stayed put for the entire two T-weeks SOP required.



    Which was precisely what the Silver Cepheids had just finished doing.

    “Should I assume, Bridget,” Carus said, “that you have some pressing reason for wanting to head home at this particular moment?”

    “Oh, how could you possibly suspect anything of the sort?” Lieutenant Commander John Pershing asked from the bridge of HMS Raven, and Lieutenant Commander Julie Chase, CO of HMS Lodestone chuckled.

    “I take it your senile old skipper is missing something?” Carus said mildly.

    “She’s got one of those creative archaism thingies,” Chase said.

    “That’s creative anachronisms, you ignorant lout,” Landry corrected with a frown.

    “Are you going off to play dress-up again, Bridget?” Carus demanded.

    “Hey, don’t you start on me!” she told him with a grin. “Everyone’s got her own hobby — even you. Or was that someone else I saw tying trout flies the other day?”

    “At least he eats what he catches,” Chase pointed out. “Or is it that what catches him eats him?” She frowned, then shrugged. “Anyway, it’s not as silly as all those costumes of yours.”

    “Before you go around calling it silly, Julie,” Pershing suggested, “you might want to reflect on the fact that ‘the Salamander’ is an honorary member of Bridget’s chapter.”

    “What?” Chase stared at him from her display. “You’re kidding! Duchess Harrington’s part of this silly SCA thing?”

    “Well, not really,” Landry said. “Like John says, it’s an honorary membership. One of her uncles is a real big wheel in the Society on Beowulf, and he sponsored her back, oh, I don’t know . . . must’ve been thirty T-years ago. I’ve actually met her at a couple of meetings though, you know. She took the pistol competition at both of them, as a matter of fact.”

    “There you have it,” Carus said simply. “If it’s good enough for the Salamander, it’s good enough for anyone. So let’s not have anyone abusing Bridget over her hobby anymore, understand? Even if it is a remarkably silly way for an adult human being to spend her time, at least she’s being silly in good company. So there.”

    Landry stuck out her tongue at him, and he laughed. Then he looked sideways at Lieutenant Linda Petersen, his astrogator aboard HMS Javelin.

    “Got that course figured for us, Linda?”

    “Yes, Skipper,” Petersen nodded.

    “Well, in that case pass it to these other characters,” Carus told her. “Obviously, we have to get Commander Landry back to Manticore before she turns back into a watermelon, or a pumpkin, or whatever it was.”



    Commodore Karol Østby leaned back in the comfortable chair, eyes closed, letting the music flow over him. Old Terran opera had been his favorite form of relaxation for as long as he could remember. He’d even learned French, German, and Italian so he could listen to them in their original languages. Of course, he’d always had a pronounced knack for languages; it was part of the Østby genome, after all.

    At this moment, however, he found himself in rather greater need of that relaxation than usual. The seven small ships of his command had been creeping tracelessly about the perimeter of the Manticore Binary System for over a T-month, and that wasn’t something calculated to make a man feel comfortable. Whatever those idiots in the SLN might think, Østby and the Mesan Alignment Navy had the liveliest possible respect for the capabilities of Manty technology. In this case, though, it was the Manties’ turn to be outclassed — or, at least, taken by surprise. If Østby hadn’t been one hundred percent confident of that when Oyster Bay was originally planned, he was now. His cautious prowling about the system had confirmed that even the Alignment’s assessment of its sensor coverage had fallen badly short of the reality. Any conventional starship would have been detected long ago by the dense, closely integrated, multiply redundant sensor systems he and his personnel had painstakingly plotted. In fact, he was just a little concerned over the possibility that those surveillance systems might still pick up something soon enough to at least blunt Oyster Bay’s effectiveness.

    Stop that, Karol, he told himself, never opening his eyes. Yes, it could happen, but you know it’s not very damned likely. You just need something to worry about, don’t you?

    His lips twitched in sour amusement as he acknowledged his own perversity, but at the same time, he was aware that his worrier side was one of the things that made him an effective officer. His subordinates probably got tired of all the contingency planning he insisted upon, yet even they had to admit that it made it unlikely they would truly be taken by surprise when Murphy decided to put in his inevitable appearance.

    So far, though, that appearance hadn’t happened, and Østby’s flagship Chameleon and her consorts were past the riskiest part of their entire mission. Their own reconnaissance platforms were the stealthiest the Alignment could provide after decades of R&D and more capital investment than he liked to think about, and those platforms hadn’t transmitted a single byte of information. They’d made their sweeps on ballistic flight profiles, using purely passive sensors, then physically rendezvoused with their motherships to deliver their take.

    And, overall, that take had been satisfying, indeed. Passive sensors were less capable than active ones, but the multiple systems each platform mounted compensated for a lot of that. From the numbers of energy sources they’d picked up, it appeared the ships the Manties currently had under construction weren’t as far along in the building process as intelligence had estimated. If they had been, there’d have been more onboard energy sources already up and running. But at least Østby now knew exactly where the orbital yards were, and the external energy sources his platforms had picked up indicated that most of them had projects underway. From the numbers of signatures, and they way they clustered, it looked as though more than a few of the yards were at early stages of their construction projects, and he hoped that didn’t mean intelligence’s estimate of the Manties’ construction times was off. It was hard to be certain, given how cautiously he had to operate, but if all those new projects meant the yards in question had finished their older projects ahead of estimate . . . .

    And the fact that the Manties seem to be sending all their new construction off to Trevor’s Star for working up exercises doesn’t help, either, he admitted sourly.

    Which was true enough — it didn’t help one bit. Still, there was a lot of work going on in those dispersed yards of theirs, and while his estimates on what their space stations were up to were more problematical, he had no doubt there were quite a few ships under construction in those highly capable building slips, as well.

    And we know exactly where they are, he reminded himself.

    Now it was just a matter of keeping tabs on what their recon platforms had located for them. He’d really have preferred to send the platforms through on another short-range sweep closer to their actual execution date, but his orders were clear on that. It was more important to preserve the element of surprise than it was to monitor every single detail. And it wasn’t as if there’d been any effort to conceal the things Østby and his people were there looking for. People didn’t normally try to hide things like orbital shipyards (even if they’d wanted to, Østby couldn’t imagine how someone would go about doing it), nor did they move them around once they were in position. And if anyone did move them, Chameleon and her sisters would be bound to know, given the distant optical watch they were keeping and the fact that the impeller wedge of any tug that started moving shipyards would certainly be powerful enough to be detected by at least one of the watching scout ships.

    So all we have to do now is wait, he told himself, listening to the music, listening to the voices. One more T-month until we put the guidance platforms in place.

    That was going to be a little risky, he admitted in the privacy of his own thoughts, but only a little. The guidance platforms were even stealthier than his ships. Someone would have to almost literally collide with one of them to spot them, and they’d be positioned well above the system ecliptic, where there was no traffic to do the colliding. He would have been happier if the platforms had been a little smaller — he admitted that to himself, as well — but delivering targeting information to that many individual missiles in a time window as short as the Oyster Bay ops plan demanded required a prodigious amount of bandwidth. And, despite everything, it was highly likely the Manties were going to hear something when they started transmitting all that data.

    Not that it was going to make any difference at that late date, he reflected with grim pleasure. Everything he and his squadron had done for the last three and a half T-months all came down to that transmission’s handful of seconds . . . and once it was made, nothing could save the Star Empire of Manticore.

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