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Mission of Honor: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Monday, May 17, 2010 21:14 EDT



    “May I help you, Lieutenant?”

    The exquisitely tailored maître d’ didn’t sound as if he really expected to be able to assist two such junior officers, who’d undoubtedly strayed into his establishment by mistake.

    “Oh, yes — please! We’re here to join Lieutenant Archer,” Abigail Hearns told him. “Um, we may be a few minutes early, I’m afraid.”

    She managed, Ensign Helen Zilwicki observed to sound very . . . earnest. Possibly even a little nervous at intruding into such elegant surroundings, but very determined. And the fact that her father could have bought the entire Sigourney’s Fine Restaurants chain out of pocket change wasn’t particularly in evidence, either. The fact that she was third-generation prolong and looked considerably younger than her already very young age, especially to eyes not yet accustomed to the latest generations of prolong, undoubtedly helped, yet she clearly possessed a fair degree of thespian talent, as well. The maître d’ was clearly convinced she’d escaped from a high school — probably a lower-class high school, given her soft, slow Grayson accent — for the afternoon, at least. His expression of politely sophisticated attentiveness didn’t actually change a millimeter, but Helen had the distinct impression of an internal wince.

    “Ah, Lieutenant Archer,” he repeated. “Of course. If you’ll come this way, please?”

    He set sail across the intimately lit main dining room’s sea of linen-draped tables, and Abigail and Helen bobbed along in his wake like a pair of dinghies. They crossed to a low archway on the opposite side of the big room, then followed him down two shallow steps into a dining room with quite a different (though no less expensive) flavor. The floor had turned into artfully worn bricks, the walls — also of brick — had a rough, deliberately unfinished look, and the ceiling was supported by heavy wooden beams.

    Well, by what looked like wooden beams, Helen thought, although they probably weren’t all that impressive to someone like Abigail who’d grown up in a (thoroughly renovated) medieval pile of stone over six hundred years old. One which really did have massive, age-blackened beams, a front gate fit to sneer at battering rams, converted firing slits for windows, and fireplaces the size of a destroyer’s boat bay.

    Two people were seated at one of the dark wooden tables. One of them — a snub nosed, green-eyed officer in the uniform of a Royal Manticoran Navy lieutenant — looked up and waved as he saw them. His companion — a stunningly attractive blonde — turned her head when he waved, and smiled as she, too, saw the newcomers.

    “Thank you,” Abigail told the maître d’ politely, and that worthy murmured something back, then turned and departed with what in a less eminent personage might have been described as relieved haste.

    “You know,” Abigail said as she and Helen crossed to the table, “you really should be ashamed of the way you deliberately offend that poor man’s sensibilities, Gwen.”

    Personally, Helen was reminded rather forcefully of the old saying about pots and kettles, given Abigail’s simpering performance for the same maître d’, but she nobly forbore saying so.

    “Me?” Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer’s expression was one of utter innocence. “How could you possibly suggest such a thing, Miss Owens?”

    “Because I know you?”

    “Is it my fault nobody on this restaurant’s entire staff has bothered to inquire into the exalted pedigrees of its patrons?” Gervais demanded. “If you’re going to blame anyone, blame her.”

    He pointed across the table at the blonde, who promptly smacked the offending hand.

    “It’s not polite to point,” she told him in a buzz saw-like accent. “Even we brutish, lower-class Dresdeners know that much!”

    “Maybe not, but that doesn’t make it untrue, does it?” he shot back.

    “I didn’t say it did,” Helga Boltitz, Defense Minister Henri Krietzmann’s personal aide, replied, and smiled at the newcomers. “Hello, Abigail. And you too, Helen.”

    “Hi, Helga,” Abigail responded, and Helen nodded her own acknowledgment of the greeting as she seated herself beside Helga. Abigail settled into the remaining chair, facing Helen across the table, and looked up as their waiter appeared.

    He took their drink orders, handed them menus, and disappeared, and she cocked her head at Gervais as she opened the elegant, two centimeter-thick binder.

    “Helga may have put you up to it, and I can’t say I blame her,” she said.” This has to be the snootiest restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, and trust me, Daddy’s taken me to some really snooty places. Not to mention the way they fawn over a steadholder or his family. But you’re the one who’s taking such a perverse enjoyment over thinking about how these people are going to react when they find out the truth.”

    “What truth would that be?” Gervais inquired more innocently yet. “You mean the fact that I’m a cousin — of some sort, anyway — of the Queen? Or that Helen here’s sister is the Queen of Torch? Or that your own humble father is Steadholder Owens?”

    “That’s exactly what she means, you twit,” Helga told him, blue eyes glinting with amusement, and leaned across the table to whack him gently on the head. “And much as I’m going to enjoy it when they do find out, don’t think I don’t remember how you did exactly the same thing to me!”

    “I never misled you in any way,” he said virtuously.

    “Oh, no? If I hadn’t looked you up in Clarke’s Peerage, you never would’ve told me, would you?”

    “Oh, I imagine I’d have gotten around to it eventually,” he said, and his voice was considerably softer than it had been. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, gave his right hand a pat where it lay on the table between them, then settled back in her chair.

    If anyone had suggested to Helga Boltitz eight months ago that she might find herself comfortable with, or actually liking, someone from a background of wealth and privilege, she would have laughed. The idea that someone from Dresden, that sinkhole of hardscrabble, lower-class, grub-for-a-living poverty could have anything in common with someone from such stratospheric origins would have been ludicrous. And, if she were going to be honest, that was still true where the majority of the Talbott Quadrant’s homegrown oligarchs were concerned. More than that, she felt entirely confident she was going to run into Manticorans who were just as arrogant and supercilious as she’d always imagined they’d be.

    But Gervais Archer had challenged her preconceptions — gently, but also firmly — and, in the process, convinced her that there were at least some exceptions to the rule. Which explained how she found herself sitting at this table in such monumentally well-connected company.

    “Personally,” Helen said, “my only regret is that I probably won’t be here when they do find out.”

    At twenty-one, she was the youngest of the quartet, as well as the most junior in rank. And she was also the non-Dresdener who came closest to sharing Helga’s attitudes where aristocrats and oligarchs were concerned. Not surprisingly, given the fact that she’d been born on Gryphon and raised by a Gryphon highlander who’d proceeded to take up with the closest thing to a rabble-rousing anarchist the Manticoran peerage had ever produced when Helen was barely thirteen years old.

    “If you really want to see their reaction, I suppose you could tell them yourself this afternoon,” Abigail pointed out.

    “Oh, no way!” Helen chuckled. “I might want to be here to see it, but the longer it takes them to figure it out, the more irritated they’re going to be when they finally do!”

    Abigail shook her head. She’d spent more time on Manticore than she had back home on Grayson, over the last nine or ten T-years, but despite the undeniable, mischievous enjoyment she’d felt when dissembling for the maître d’, there were times when she still found her Manticoran friends’ attitude towards their own aristocracy peculiar. As Gervais had pointed out, her father was a steadholder, and the deepest longings of the most hard-boiled member of Manticore’s Conservative Association were but pale shadows of the reality of a steadholder’s authority within his steading. The term “absolute monarch” fell comfortably short of that reality, although “supreme autocrat” was probably headed in the right direction.

    As a result of her own birth and childhood, she had remarkably few illusions about the foibles and shortcomings of the “nobly born.” Yet she was also the product of a harsh and unforgiving planet and a profoundly traditional society, one whose deference and rules of behavior were based deep in the bedrock of survival’s imperatives. She still found the irreverent, almost fondly mocking attitude of so many Manticorans towards their own aristocracy unsettling. In that respect, she was even more like Helga than Helen was, she thought. Hostility, antagonism, even hatred — those she could understand, when those born to positions of power abused that power rather than meeting its responsibilities. The sort of self-deprecating amusement someone like Gwen Archer displayed, on the other hand, didn’t fit itself comfortably into her own core concepts, even though she’d seen exactly the same attitude out of dozens of other Manticorans who were at least as well born as he was.

    I guess you can take the girl off of Grayson, but you can’t take Grayson out of the girl, she thought. It wasn’t the first time that thought had crossed her mind. And it won’t be the last, either, she reflected tartly.

    She started to say something else, then paused as their drinks arrived and the waiter took their orders. He disappeared once more, and she sipped iced tea (something she’d had trouble finding in Manticoran restaurants), then lowered her glass.

    “Leaving aside the ignoble, although I’ll grant you entertaining, contemplation of the coronaries certain to follow the discovery of our despicable charade, I shall now turn this conversation in a more sober minded and serious direction.”

    “Good luck with that,” Helen murmured.

    “As I was about to ask,” Abigail continued, giving her younger friend a ferocious glare, “how are things going dirtside, Helga?”

    “As frantically as ever.” Helga grimaced, took a sip from her own beer stein, then sighed. “I guess it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. I don’t think anyone in the entire Quadrant’s ever seen this many dispatch boats in orbit around a single planet before!”

    All three of her listeners grimaced back at her in understanding.

    “I don’t suppose we can really blame them,” she went on, “even if I do want to shoot the next newsy I see on sight! But exactly how they expect Minister Krietzmann to get anything done when they keep hounding him for ’statements’ and ‘background interviews’ is more than I can imagine.”

    “One of the less pleasant consequences of an open society,” Gervais said, rather more philosophically than he felt.

    “Exactly,” Abigail agreed, then smiled unpleasantly. “Although I’d like to see the newsy back home on Grayson who thought he could get away with ‘hounding’ Daddy!”



    “Well, fair’s fair,” Helen said judiciously. They all looked at her, and she shrugged. “Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time watching Cathy Montaigne maneuver back home, but it occurs to me that having Thimble crawling with newsies may be the best thing that could happen.”

    “Just how do you mean that?” Gervais asked. In the wrong tone, the question could have been dismissive, especially given the difference in their ages and relative seniority. As it was, he sounded genuinely curious, and she shrugged again.

    “Politics is all about perceptions and understandings. I realize Cathy Montaigne’s mainly involved in domestic politics right now, but the same basic principle applies in interstellar diplomacy. If you control the terms of the debate, the advantage is all on your side. You can’t make somebody on the other side make the decision you want, but you’ve got a much better chance of getting her to do that if she’s got to defend her position in the public mind instead of you having to defend your position. Controlling the information — and especially the public perception of that information — is one of the best ways to limit her options to the ones most favorable to your own needs. Don’t forget, if the Sollies want a formal declaration of war, all it takes is one veto by a full member star system to stop them. That’s a pretty significant prize for a PR campaign to go after. And, at the moment, the way we want to control the debate is simply to tell the truth about what happened at New Tuscany, right?”

    Gervais nodded, and she shrugged a third time.

    “Well, if all the newsies in the universe are here in Spindle getting our side of the story, looking at the sensor data we’ve released, and interviewing our people, that’s what’s going to be being reported back on Old Terra. They can try to spin it any way they want, but the basic message getting sent back to all those Sollies — even by their own newsies — is going to be built on what they’re finding out here, from us.”

    “That’s more or less what Minister Krietzmann says,” Helga admitted, “although he’s prone to use some pretty colorful adjectives to describe the newsies in question.”

    “I think Lady Gold Peak would agree, too, even if she is doing her dead level best to stay as far away from them as possible,” Gervais said, and Abigail and Helen nodded. As Michelle Henke’s flag lieutenant, he was in a far better position to form that kind of judgment than either of them were.

    “What about Sir Aivars?” Helga asked. Helen, who was Sir Aivars Terekhov’s flag lieutenant, raised both eyebrows at her, and Helga snorted. “He may be only a commodore, Helen, but everybody in the Quadrant knows how long he spent in the diplomatic service before he went back into uniform. Besides, Mr. Van Dort and the rest of the Prime Minister’s cabinet all have enormous respect for him.”

    “We haven’t actually discussed it,” Helen replied after a moment. “On the other hand, he’s passed up at least half a dozen opportunities I can think of to hide aboard the Jimmy Boy to avoid interviews, so I’d say he was doing his bit to shape public opinion.”

    Gervais grinned as she used the crew’s nickname for HMS Quentin Saint-James. The brand-new Saganami-C-class heavy cruiser had been in commission for barely five months, yet she’d had her official nickname almost before the commissioning ceremonies concluded. Most ships wouldn’t have managed the transition that quickly, but in Quentin Saint-James’ case things were a bit different. Her name was on the RMN’s List of Honor, to be kept in permanent commission, and the nickname was the same one which had been applied to the first Quentin Saint-James the better part of two T-centuries ago.

    And if “Jimmy Boy” was a youngster, she was scarcely alone in that. In fact, aside from Admiral Khumalo’s ancient superdreadnought flagship Hercules, there wasn’t a single ship heavier than a light cruiser in Admiral Gold Peak’s Tenth Fleet which was even a full year old yet. Indeed, most of the destroyers were no older than Quentin St. James and her sisters.

    “Well,” Helga said after a moment, “I imagine the Minister will go right on ‘doing his bit’, too. Don’t expect him to like it, though.”

    “Some things are more likely than others,” Helen agreed. Then she snorted.

    “What?” Abigail asked.

    “Nothing.” Abigail looked skeptical, and Helen chuckled. “All right, I was just thinking about how the first newsy to shove his microphone in Daddy’s face would make out. I’m sure Daddy would be sorry afterwards. He’d probably even insist on paying the medical bills himself.”

    “I wondered where you got that physically violent disposition of yours,” Gervais said blandly.

    “I am not physically violent!”

    “Oh, no?” He did his best to look down his longitude-challenged nose at her. “You may recall that I was sent over to Quentin Saint-James with that note from Lady Gold Peak to the Commodore last week?” She looked at him suspiciously, then nodded. “Well, I just happened to wander by the gym while I was there and I saw you throwing people around the mat with gay abandon.”

    “I wasn’t!” she protested with a gurgle of laughter.

    “You most certainly were. One of your henchmen told me you were using something called the ‘Flying Mare’s Warhammer of Doom, Destruction, and Despair.’”

    “Called the what?” Helga looked at Helen in disbelief.

    “It’s not called any such thing, and you know it!” Helen accused, doing her best to glare at Gervais.

    “I don’t know about that,” he said virtuously. “That’s what I was told it was called.”

    “Okay,” Abigail said. “Now you’ve got to tell us what it’s really called, Helen!”

    “The way he’s mangled it, even I don’t know which one it was!”

    “Well, try to sort it out.”

    “I’m guessing — and that’s all it is, you understand — that it was probably a combination of the Flying Mare, the Hand Hammer, and — maybe — the Scythe of Destruction.”

    “And that’s supposed to be better than what he just said?” Abigail looked at her in disbelief. Abigail herself had become proficient in coup de vitesse, but she’d never trained in Helen’s chosen Neue-Stil Handgemenge. “Coup de vitesse doesn’t even have names for most of its moves, but if it did, it wouldn’t have those!”

    “Look, don’t blame me,” Helen replied. “The people who worked this stuff out in the first place named the moves, not me! According to Master Tye, they were influenced by some old entertainment recordings. Something called ‘movies.’”

    “Oh, Tester!” Abigail shook her head. “Forget I said a thing!”

    “What?” Helen looked confused, and Abigail snorted.

    “Up until Lady Harrington did some research back home in Manticore — I think she even queried the library computers in Beowulf and on Old Terra, as a matter of fact — nobody on Grayson had ever actually seen the movies our ancestors apparently based their notions of swordplay on. Now, unfortunately, we have. And fairness requires that I admit most of the ’samurai movies’ were at least as silly as anything the Neue-Stil people could have been watching.”

    “Well, my ancestors certainly never indulged in anything that foolish,” Gervais said with an air of unbearable superiority.

    “Want to bet?” Abigail inquired with a dangerous smile.

    “Why?” he asked distrustfully.

    “Because if I remember correctly, your ancestors came from Old North America — from the Western Hemisphere, at least — just like mine did.”


    “And while Lady Harrington was doing her research on samurai movies, she got some cross hits to something called ‘cowboy movies.’ So she brought them along, too. In fact, she got her uncle and his friends in the SCA involved in putting together a ‘movie festival’ in Harrington Steading. Quite a few of those movies were made in a place called Hollywood, which also happens to have been in Old North America. Some of them were actually darned good, but others –” She shuddered. “Trust me, your ancestors and mine apparently had . . . erratic artistic standards, let’s say.”

    “That’s all very interesting, I’m sure,” Gervais said briskly, “but it’s leading us astray from the truly important focus we ought to be maintaining on current events.”

    “In other words,” Helga told Abigail, “he’s losing the argument, so he’s changing the rules.”

    “Maybe he is,” Helen said. “No, scratch that — he definitely is. Still, he may have a point. It’s not like any of us are going to be in a position to make any earth shattering decisions, but between us, we’re working for several people who will be. Under the circumstances, I don’t think it would hurt a bit for us to share notes. Nothing confidential, but the kind of general background stuff that might let me answer one of the Commodore’s questions without his having to get hold of someone in Minister Krietzmann’s office or someone on Lady Gold Peak’s staff, for instance.”

    “That’s actually a very good point,” Gervais said much more seriously, nodding at her in approval, and she felt a glow of satisfaction. She was preposterously young and junior for her current assignment, but at least she seemed to be figuring out how to make herself useful.

    “I agree,” Abigail said, although as the tactical officer aboard one of the new Roland-class destroyers she was the only person at the table who wasn’t a flag lieutenant or someone’s personal aide, and gave Helen a smile.

    “Well, in that case,” Gervais said, “have you guys heard about what Lady Gold Peak is planning to do to Admiral Oversteegen?”



    “It’s time, Admiral,” Felicidad Kolstad said.

    “I know,” Admiral Topolev of the Mesan Alignment Navy replied.

    He sat once more upon MANS Mako’s flag bridge. Beyond the flagship’s hull, fourteen more ships of Task Group 1.1, kept perfect formation upon her, and the brilliant beacon of Manticore-A blazed before them. They were only one light-week from that star, now, and they’d decelerated to only twenty percent of light-speed. This was the point for which they’d been headed ever since leaving Mesa four T-months before. Now it was time to do what they’d come here to do.

    “Begin deployment,” he said, and the enormous hatches opened and the pods began to spill free.

    The six units of Task Group 1.2 were elsewhere, under Rear Admiral Lydia Papnikitas, closing on Manticore-B. They wouldn’t be deploying their pods just yet, not until they’d reached their own preselected launch point. Topolev wished he’d had more ships to commit to that prong of the attack, but the decision to move up Oyster Bay had dictated the available resources, and this prong had to be decisive. Besides, there were fewer targets in the Manticore-B subsystem, anyway, and the planners had had to come up with the eight additional Shark-class ships for Admiral Colenso’s Task Group 2.1’s Grayson operation from somewhere.

    It’ll be enough, he told himself, watching as the pods disappeared steadily behind his decelerating starships, vanishing into the endless dark between the stars. It’ll be enough. And in about five weeks, the Manties are going to get a late Christmas present they’ll never forget.

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