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Mission of Honor: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 19:30 EDT



    “Good morning, Michael,” the very black-skinned woman said from Rear Admiral Michael Oversteegen’s com display.

    “Mornin’, Milady,” Oversteegen drawled, and smiled slightly as her eyes narrowed. His chosen form of address was perfectly appropriate, even courteous . . . no matter how much he knew it irritated Vice Admiral Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke, Countess Gold Peak. Especially in that upper-crust, languid accent. Of course, the fact that she knew he knew it irritated her only made it even more amusing.

    Serves her right, he thought. All those years she managed t’ avoid admittin’ she was only half-a-dozen or so heartbeats away from th’ Throne. Not anymore, Milady Countess.

    It wasn’t that Oversteegen had anything other than the highest respect for Michelle Henke. It was just that she’d always been so aggressive in stamping on anything that even looked like the operation of nepotism in her behalf. Oh, if she’d been incompetent, or even only marginally competent, he’d have agreed with her. The use of family influence in support of self-interest and mediocrity (or worse) was the single greatest weakness of an aristocratic system, and Oversteegen had studied more than enough history to admit it. But every social system had weaknesses of one sort or another, and the Manticoran system was an aristocratic one. Making that system work required a recognition of social responsibility on the part of those at its apex, and Oversteegen had no patience with those — like his own miserable excuse for an uncle, Michael Janvier, the Baron of High Ridge — who saw their lofty births solely in terms of their own advantage. But it also required the effective use of the advantages of birth and position to promote merit. To see to it that those who were capable of discharging their responsibilities, and willing to do so, received the preference to let them get on with it.

    He was willing to concede that the entire system disproportionately favored those who enjoyed the patronage and family influence in question, and that was unfortunate. One of those weaknesses every system had. But he wasn’t going to pretend he didn’t see those advantages as a rightful possession of those who met their obligations under it . . . including, especially, the enormous obligation to see to it that those advantages were employed on behalf of others, in support of the entire society which provided them, not simply for their own personal benefit or the sort of shortsighted class selfishness of which aristocrats like his uncle (or, for that matter, his own father) were altogether too often guilty. In particular, one of the responsibilities of any naval officer was to identify and groom his own successors, and Oversteegen saw no reason he shouldn’t use his influence to nurture the careers of capable subordinates, be they ever so commonly born. It wasn’t as if being born into the aristocracy magically guaranteed some sort of innate superiority, and one of the greater strengths of the Manticoran system from its inception had been the relative ease with which capable commoners could find themselves elevated to its aristocracy.

    Mike ought t’ recognize that if anyone does, he reflected, given that her best friend in th’ galaxy is also th’ most spectacular example I can think of of how it works. When it works, of course. Be fair, Michael — it doesn’t always, and you know it as well as Mike does.

    “What can I do for you this fine mornin’?” he inquired genially, and she shook her head at him.

    “I was going to invite you to observe a little command simulation over here aboard Artie in a couple of days,” she said, using the nickname which had been bestowed upon HMS Artemis’ by her flagship’s crew. “But given how feisty you’re obviously feeling, I’ve changed my mind. Instead” — she smiled nastily — “I think you’d better join me for lunch so we can discuss the defenders’ role. You’ve just inspired me to let you play system-defense force CO in our little exercise instead of Shulamit.”

    “I’d hate t’ be quoted on this, Milady, but that sounds just a mite . . . I don’t know . . . vengeful, perhaps?”

    “Why, yes, I believe it does, Admiral Oversteegen. And, speaking as one decadent, effete aristocrat to another, isn’t vengefulness one of our hallmark traits?”

    “I believe it is,” he agreed with a chuckle.

    “I’m glad it amuses you, Admiral,” she said cheerfully. “And I hope you’ll go right on feeling equally amused when it turns out the other side has Mark 23s, too, this time.”

    “Why do I have th’ impression you just this minute decided t’ add that particular wrinkle t’ th’ sim, Milady?”

    “Because you have a nasty, suspicious mind and know me entirely too well. But look at it this way. It’s bound to be a very enlightening experience for you.” She smiled sweetly at him. “I’ll expect you at oh-one-thirty, Admiral. Don’t be late!”

    Michelle terminated the connection and tipped back in her flag bridge chair, shaking her head wryly.

    “Are you really going to give the aggressor force Mark 23s, Ma’am?” a voice asked, and Michelle looked over her shoulder at Captain Cynthia Lecter, Tenth Fleet’s chief of staff.

    “I’m not only going to give the op force Mark 23s, Cindy,” she said with a wicked smile. “I’m probably going to give it Apollo, too.”

    Lecter winced. The current iteration of the Mark 23 multidrive missile carried the most destructive warhead in service with any navy, and it carried it farther and faster than any missile in service with any navy outside what was still called the Haven Sector. That was a sufficiently significant advantage for most people to be going on with, she supposed, but when the faster-than-light command and control link of the Apollo system was incorporated into the mix, the combination went far beyond simply devastating.

    “You don’t think that might be a little bit of overkill, Ma’am?” the chief of staff asked after a moment.

    “I certainly hope it will!” Michelle replied tartly. “He deserves worse, actually. Well, maybe not deserves, but I can’t think of a word that comes closer. Besides, it’ll be good for him. Put a little hiccup in that unbroken string of four-oh simulations he’s reeled off since he got here. After all,” she finished, lifting her nose with a slight but audible sniff, “it’s one of a commanding officer’s responsibilities to remind her subordinates from time to time of their own mortality.”

    “You manage to sound so virtuous when you say that, Ma’am,” Lecter observed. “And you can actually keep a straight face, too. I think that’s even more remarkable.”

    “Why, thank you, Captain Lecter!” Michelle beamed benignly and raised one hand in a gesture of blessing which would have done her distant cousin Robert Telmachi, the Archbishop of Manticore, proud. “And now, why don’t you sit down with Dominica, Max, and Bill to see just how devious the three of you can be in putting all of those unfair advantages into effect?”

    “Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Lecter acknowledged, and headed off towards the tactical section, where Commander Dominica Adenauer was discussing something with Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Tersteeg, Michelle’s staff electronic warfare officer.

    Michelle watched her go and wondered if Cindy had figured out the other reason she was thinking about giving the op force Apollo. They weren’t going to find a more capable system-defense CO than Michael Oversteegen, and she badly wanted to see how well the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Apollo — in the hands of one Vice Admiral Gold Peak and her staff — could do while someone with all the Royal Manticoran Navy’s war-fighting technology short of Apollo pulled out all the stops against her.

    Her own smile faded at the thought. None of her ships currently had Apollo, nor did they have the Keyhole-Two platforms to make use of the FTL telemetry link even if they’d had the Apollo birds themselves. But unless she missed her guess, that was going to change very soon now.

    I hope to hell it is, anyway, she reflected grimly. And when it does, we’d damned well better have figured out how to use it as effectively as possible. That bastard Byng may have been a complete and utter incompetent — as well as an asshole — but not all Sollies can be that idiotic.

    She settled back, contemplating the main plot with eyes that didn’t see it at all while she reflected on the last three T-months.

    Somehow, when she’d just been setting out on her naval career, it had never occurred to her she might find herself in a situation like this one. Even now, it seemed impossible that so much could have happened in so short a period, and she wished she knew more about what was going on back home.

    Be glad of what you do know, girl, she told herself sternly. At least Beth approved of your actions. Cousin or not, she could’ve recalled you as the sacrificial goat. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people think that’s exactly what she should’ve done.



    The four-week communications loop between the Spindle System, the capital of the newly organized Talbott Quadrant of the Star Empire of Manticore, and the Manticoran Binary System was the kind of communications delay any interstellar naval officer had to learn to live with. It was also the reason most successful navies simply assumed flag officers on distant stations were going to have to make their own decisions. There just wasn’t time for them to communicate with their governments, even though everyone recognized that the decisions they made might have significant consequences for their star nations’ foreign policy. But however well established that state of affairs might be, the potential consequences for Michelle Henke this time around were rather more significant than usual.

    “More significant than usual.” My, what a fine euphemistic turn of phrase, Mike! she thought sourly.

    It didn’t seem possible that it was one day short of two months since she’d destroyed a Solarian League battlecruiser with all hands. She hadn’t wanted to do it, but Admiral Josef Byng hadn’t left her much in the way of options. And, if she was going to be honest, a part of her was intensely satisfied that the drooling idiot hadn’t. If he’d been reasonable, if he’d had a single functioning brain cell and he’d stood-down his ships as she’d demanded until the events of the so-called First Battle of New Tuscany could be adequately investigated, he and his flagship’s entire crew would still be alive, and that satisfied part of her would have considered that a suboptimal outcome. The arrogant bastard had slaughtered the entire complements of three of Michelle’s destroyers without so much as calling on them to surrender first, and she wasn’t going to pretend, especially to herself, that she was sorry he’d paid the price for all those murders. The disciplined, professional flag officer in her would have preferred for him (and his flagship’s crew) to be alive, and she’d tried hard to achieve that outcome, but only because no sane Queen’s officer wanted to contemplate the prospect of a genuine war against the Solarian League. Especially not while the war against Haven was still unresolved.

    But Elizabeth, Baron Grantville, Earl White Haven, and Sir Thomas Caparelli had all approved her actions in the strongest possible language. She suspected that at least some of that approval’s firmness had been intended for public consumption, both at home in Manticore and in the Solarian League. Word of the battle — accompanied by at least excerpts of Elizabeth’s official dispatch to her, approving her actions — had reached Old Terra herself via the Beowulf terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction a month ago now. Michelle had no doubt Elizabeth, William Alexander, and Sir Anthony Langtry had given careful thought to how best to break the news to the Sollies; unfortunately, “best” didn’t necessarily equate to “a good way to tell them.”

    In fact, Michelle had direct evidence that they weren’t even remotely the same thing. The first wave of Solarian newsies had reached Spindle via the Junction nine days earlier, and they’d arrived in a feeding frenzy. Although Michelle herself had managed to avoid them by taking refuge in her genuine responsibilities as Tenth Fleet’s commanding officer. She’d retreated to her orbiting flagship and hidden behind operational security and several hundred kilometers of airless vacuum — and Artemis’ Marine detachment — to keep the pack from pursuing her.

    Agustus Khumalo, Baroness Medusa, Prime Minister Alquezar, and Minister of War Krietzmann had been less fortunate in that regard. Michelle might have been forced to put in appearances at no less than four formal news conferences, but her military and political superiors found themselves under continual siege by Solarian reporters who verged from the incredulous to the indignant to the outraged and didn’t seem particularly concerned about who knew it. From her own daily briefings, it was evident that the flow of newsies — Manticoran, as well as Solarian — was only growing. And just to make her happiness complete, the insufferable gadflies were bringing their own reports of the Solarian League’s reaction to what had happened along with them. Well, the Old Terran reaction, at least, she corrected herself. But the version of the “truth” expounded on Old Terra — and the reaction to it on Old Terra — always played a hugely disproportionate part in the League’s policies.

    And it was evident that Old Terra and the deeply entrenched bureaucracies headquartered there were not reacting well.

    She reminded herself that all of her information about events on the League’s capital world was at least three T-weeks old. She supposed it was remotely possible something resembling sanity had actually reared its ugly head by now and she just hadn’t heard about it yet. But as of the last statements by Prime Minister Gyulay, Foreign Minister Roelas y Valiente, and Defense Minister Taketomo which had so far reached Spindle, the League’s official position was that it was “awaiting independent confirmation of the Star Empire of Manticore’s very serious allegations” and considering “appropriate responses to the Royal Manticoran Navy’s destruction of SLNS Jean Bart and her entire crew.”

    While Roelas y Valiente had “deeply deplored” any loss of life suffered in the first “alleged incident” between units of the Solarian League Navy and the Royal Manticoran Navy in the neutral system of New Tuscany, his government had, of course, been unable to make any formal response to the Star Empire’s protest and demand for explanations at that time. The Solarian League would, equally of course, “respond appropriately” as soon as there’d been time for “reliable and impartial” reports of both the “alleged incidents” to reach Old Terra. In the meantime, the Solarian League “sincerely regretted” its inability to respond directly to the “purported facts” of the “alleged incidents.” And however deeply the foreign minister might have “deplored” any loss of life, he’d been very careful to point out that even by Manticoran accounts, the Solarian League had lost far more lives than Manticore had. And that that Solarian loss of life had occurred only after “what would appear to be the hasty response of a perhaps overly aggressive Manticoran flag officer to initial reports of a purported incident which had not at that time been independently confirmed for her.”

    All of which had clearly amounted to telling the Star Empire to run along and play until the grown-ups in the League had had an opportunity to find out what had really happened and decided upon appropriate penalties for the rambunctious children whose “overly aggressive” response was actually responsible for it.

    On the surface, “waiting for independent confirmation” sounded very judicial and correct, but Michelle — unlike the vast number of Solarians listening to the public statements of the men and women who theoretically governed them — knew the League government already had Evelyn Sigbee’s official report on what had happened in both the “New Tuscany Incidents.” The fact that the people who supposedly ran that government were still referring to what they knew from their own flag officer’s report was the truth as “allegations” was scarcely encouraging. And the fact that they were considering “appropriate responses” to Jean Bart’s destruction by an “overly aggressive Manticoran flag officer” and not addressing even the possibility of appropriate responses to Josef Byng’s murder of three Manticoran destroyers and every man and woman who’d served upon them struck her as even less promising. At the very least, as far as she could see, all of that was a depressing indication that the idiots calling the shots behind the smokescreen of their elected superiors were still treating this all as business as usual. And if that really was their attitude . . . .

    At least the fact that Manticore was inside the Sollies’ communications loop meant Old Terra had found out about Admiral Byng’s unexpected demise even before Lorcan Verrochio. In theory, at least, Verrochio — as the Office of Frontier Security’s commissioner in the Madras Sector — was Byng’s superior, but pinning down exactly who was really in charge of what could get a bit slippery once the Sollies’ dueling bureaucracies got into the act. That was always true, especially out here in the Verge, and from her own experience with Josef Byng, it might be even truer than usual this time around. It was entirely possible that everything which had happened in New Tuscany, and even his decision to move his command there in the first place, had been his own half-assed idea.

    Which doesn’t mean Verrochio was exactly an innocent bystander, she reminded herself. He sure as hell wasn’t last time around, anyway. And even if it was all Byng’s idea — this time — Verrochio had to sign off on it under the Sollies’ own regulations, officially, at least. And then there’s always the Manpower connection, isn’t there?

    She frowned and suppressed an almost overpowering temptation to gnaw on her fingernails. Her mother had always told her that was a particularly unbecoming nervous mannerism. More to the point, though, as far as Michelle was concerned, she doubted her staff and her flagship’s officers would be especially reassured by the sight of their commanding officer’s sitting around chewing on her fingernails while she worried.



    That thought elicited a quiet snort of amusement, and she ran back through the timing. It was obvious Elizabeth had reacted as promptly (and forcefully) as Michelle had expected. Additional dispatches had arrived since her initial approval of Michelle’s actions — along with the influx of journalists of every stripe and inclination — and it was evident to Michelle that very few people back home had appreciated the patronizing tone Roelas y Valiente and Gyulay had adopted in the Solarians’ so-called responses to Elizabeth’s notes. She also doubted it had surprised anyone, however, since it was so infuriatingly typical of the League’s arrogance.

    When the first of the Solarian news crews reached Spindle, it had been obvious there was already plenty of blood in the water as far as they were concerned, even though they’d headed out for the Talbott Quadrant before the League had gotten around to issuing a formal press release about what had happened to Jean Bart. They’d arrived armed with the Manticoran reports of events, but that wasn’t the same thing, by a long chalk. And the Solarian accounts and editorials which had accompanied the follow-on wave that had departed after the official League statements (such as they were and what there was of them) were filled with mingled indignation, anger, outrage, and alarm, but didn’t seem to contain very much in the way of reasoned response.

    Michelle knew it wasn’t fair to expect anything else out of them, given the fact that all of this had come at them cold. Not yet, at any rate. And so far, none of the ‘fax stories from the League which had reached Spindle had contained a single solid fact provided by any official Solarian source. Every official statement the Solly newsies had to go on was coming from Manticore, and even without the ingrained arrogance the League’s reporters shared in full with their fellow citizens, it wouldn’t have been reasonable for them to accept the Manticoran version without a healthy dose of skepticism. At the same time, though, it seemed glaringly evident that the majority of the Solly media’s talking heads and pundits were being fed carefully crafted leaks from inside the League bureaucracy and the SLN. Manticore’s competing talking heads and pundits weren’t being leaked additional information, but that was mainly because there was no need to. They were basing their analyses on the facts available in the public record courtesy of the Star Empire of Manticore which, unlike the Solly leaks, had the at least theoretical advantage of actually being the truth, as well. Not that many of Old Terra’s journalists and editorialists seemed aware of that minor distinction.

    It was all looking even messier than Michelle had feared it might, but at least the Manticoran version was being thoroughly aired. And, for that matter, she knew the Manticoran version was actually spreading throughout the League faster than the so-called response emerging from Old Chicago. The Star Empire’s commanding position in the wormhole networks could move things other than cargo ships, she thought grimly.

    At the same time Elizabeth had dispatched her second diplomatic note to Old Terra, the Admiralty had issued an advisory to all Manticoran shipping, alerting the Star Empire’s innumerable merchant skippers to the suddenly looming crisis. It would take weeks for that advisory to reach all of them, but given the geometry of the wormhole network, it was still likely it would reach almost all of them before any instructions from the League reached the majority of its local naval commanders. And along with the open advisory for the merchies, the same dispatch boats had carried secret instructions to every RMN station commander and the senior officer of every RMN escort force . . . and those instructions had been a formal war warning.

    Michelle devoutly hoped it was a warning about a war which would never move beyond the realm of unrealized possibility, but if it did, the Royal Manticoran Navy’s officers’ orders were clear. If they or any Manticoran merchant ship in their areas of responsibility were attacked, they were to respond with any level of force necessary to defeat that attack, no matter who the attackers might be. In the meantime, they were also instructed to expedite the return of Manticoran merchant shipping to Manticore-dominated space, despite the fact that the withdrawal of those merchant ships from their customary runs might well escalate the sense of crisis and confrontation.

    And, Michelle felt unhappily certain, office lights were burning late at Admiralty House while Thomas Caparelli and his colleagues worked on contingency plans just in case the entire situation went straight to hell.

    For that matter, little though she cared for the thought, it was entirely possible the penny had officially dropped back home by now. But even if the Star Empire had received a formal response from the League — even if the League had announced it would pursue the military option instead of negotiating — Michelle hadn’t heard anything about it yet.

    All of which meant she was still very much on her own, despite all the government’s approval of her previous actions and assurances of its future support. She’d received at least some reinforcements, she’d shortstopped the four CLACs of Carrier Division 7.1 on her own authority when Rear Admiral Stephen Enderby turned up in Spindle. Enderby had expected to deliver his LACs to Prairie, Celebrant, and Nuncio, then head home for another load, and the LAC crews had expected nothing more challenging than a little piracy suppression. That, obviously, had changed. Enderby had been more than willing to accept his new orders, and his embarked LACs had been busy practicing for a somewhat more demanding role. She expected her decision to retain them for Tenth Fleet to be approved, as soon as the official paperwork could catch up, and the arrival of another division of Saganami-Cs had been a pleasant surprise — in more ways than one, given its commanding officer. For that matter, still more weight of metal was in the pipeline, although the original plans for the Talbott Quadrant were still recovering from the shock of the Battle of Manticore.

    In a lot of ways, given Enderby’s diversion, she was better off at the moment then she would have been under the initial plan, but that might turn out to be remarkably cold comfort if there was any truth to the New Tuscans’ reports that major Solarian reinforcements had already been deployed to the Madras Sector, as well . . . .

    Well, you’ve got orders for dealing with that, too, don’t you? she asked herself. Of course, they’re basically to “use your own discretion.” It’s nice to know the folks back home think so highly of your judgment, I suppose, but still . . . .

    She inhaled deeply. Baroness Medusa, the Talbott Quadrant’s Imperial Governor, had dispatched her own note directly to Meyers at the same time Michelle had departed for New Tuscany and Josef Byng’s date with several hundred laser heads. It must have reached Verrochio two T-weeks ago, and she wondered what sort of response he’d made.

    You’ll be finding out soon enough, girl, she told herself grimly. But even if he dashed off a response the instant Reprise got there with O’Shaughnessy, it couldn’t get back here for another T-week. And one thing Solly bureaucrats aren’t is impetuous about putting their necks on any potential chopping blocks. So even if he didn’t have a thing to do with anything that’s happened — however unlikely that is — I doubt he’s going to have been a lot faster out of the blocks than Roelas y Valiente was.

    She remembered the old proverb that said “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” It was remarkably little comfort at the moment. She had absolute confidence in her command’s ability to defeat any attack Frontier Fleet might launch against Spindle. They’d have to transfer in scores of additional battlecruisers if they hoped to have any chance against her own Nikes, Saganami-Cs, Enderby’s CLACs, and the flatpack missile pods aboard her ammunition ships. In fact, she doubted Frontier Fleet had enough battlecruisers anywhere this side of Sol itself to take Spindle, even if they could send every one of them to call on her, and battlecruisers were the heaviest ships Frontier Fleet had. But Battle Fleet was another matter, and if the New Tuscans had been right about Solly superdreadnoughts at McIntosh. . . .

    She gave an internal headshake and scolded herself once again. If there were Solly ships-of-the-wall in the vicinity, she’d just have to deal with that when she got confirmation. Which, of course, was one reason she’d assigned Oversteegen to defend against Mark 23s. She might relent and pull Apollo back out of the equation, but she doubted it, because the purpose wasn’t really to smack Michael, no matter how much he deserved it for being such a smartass. And no matter how much she would enjoy doing exactly that, for that matter.

    No, the purpose was to force one of the best tacticians she knew to pull out all the stops in defense of the Spindle System. Seeing how well her own staff did against a truly capable Mark 23-equipped opponent would have been desirable enough in its own right, yet that was actually secondary, as far as she was concerned. She was confident of her own tactical ability, but there was always something new for even the best tactician to learn, and Michelle Henke had never been too proud to admit that. She’d be watching Rear Admiral Oversteegen closely, and not just to evaluate his performance. If he came up with something that suggested tactical wrinkles to her, she’d pounce on them in a heartbeat, because she might need them altogether too soon . . . and badly.

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