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Mission of Honor: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Saturday, June 12, 2010 08:10 EDT



    “Alpha translation in two hours, Sir.”

    “Thank you, Simon.”

    Lieutenant Commander Lewis Denton had been perfectly aware of that fact, but procedure mandated the astrogator’s report just in case he’d somehow failed to notice. He smiled at the familiar thought, but the smile was brief, and it vanished quickly as he glanced at the civilian in the assistant tactical officer’s chair.

    Gregor O’Shaughnessy was doing a less than perfect job of concealing his tension, but Denton didn’t blame him for that. Besides, it wasn’t as if his own surface appearance of calm was fooling anyone, even if the rules of the game required everyone — including him — to pretend it was.

    He glanced at the date/time display. Seventy-four T-days had passed, by the clocks of the universe at large, since HMS Reprise had departed from Spindle for the Meyers System, the headquarters of the Office of Frontier Security in the Madras Sector. Of course, it hadn’t been that long for Reprise’s crew, given that they’d spent virtually all of it hurtling through hyper-space at seventy percent of light-speed. But they’d still been gone for just over fifty-three T-days even by their own clocks, and the return leg of their lengthy voyage had seemed far, far longer than the outbound leg.



    “More coffee, Ma’am?”

    Michelle Henke looked up at the murmured question and nodded agreement. Master Steward Billingsley filled her cup, checked quickly around the table, topped off Michael Oversteegen’s cup, and withdrew. Michelle watched him go with a smile, then returned her attention to the officers around the conference table in HMS Artemis’ flag briefing room.

    “You were saying, Michael?”

    “I was sayin’, Milady, that findin’ myself up against Apollo seemed like just a tiny bit of overkill.”

    He smiled at her, and although it would have taken someone who knew him very well, Michelle recognized the twinkle deep in his eyes. Not every subordinate flag officer who’d been so thoroughly (one might almost, she admitted, say shamelessly) blindsided by a weapons system the other side shouldn’t have possessed would have found the experience amusing. Fortunately, Oversteegen at least had a sense of humor.

    “To be honest, it seemed that way to me, too.” She quirked a smile of her own at him. “I didn’t do it just to be nasty, though. I mean, I did do it to be nasty, but that wasn’t the only reason I did it.”

    This time there was a general mutter of laughter, and Oversteegan raised one hand in the gesture of a fencing master acknowledging a touch.

    “The other reason I did it, though,” she continued more seriously, “was that I wanted an opportunity to see someone — a live, flesh-and-blood someone, not an AI-administered simulation — respond to Apollo. I couldn’t find anyone here in Tenth Fleet who wouldn’t realize what was happening as soon as she saw it, but I could at least set up a situation in which she — or, in this case, he — didn’t know it was coming ahead of time.”

    “And is your lab rat permitted t’ ask how he performed?” he inquired genially.

    “Not bad at all for someone who lost eighty-five percent of his total command,” she reassured him, and another chuckle ran around the squadron and division commanders seated at the table with them.

    “Actually, Sir,” Sir Aivars Terekhov said, “I thought it was even more impressive that you managed to take out three of the op force’s superdreadnoughts in return.”

    More than one head nodded in agreement, and Oversteegen shrugged.

    “I remembered readin’ your report from Monica,” he said. “You might say I had a proprietary interest in your actin’ tac officer’s performance. I was impressed by th’ way you used your Ghost Rider platforms t’ reduce th’ telemetry lag for your Mark 16s. Didn’t seem t’ me there was any reason I couldn’t do th’ same thing with Mark 23s.” He shrugged. “It’s not as good as Apollo, but it’s a lot better than nothin’.”

    “You’re right about that,” Michelle agreed. “And, by the way, the dispatch boat which arrived this morning had several interesting items aboard. The latest newsfaxes from home — and from Old Terra — among other things.” She made a face, and Oversteegen snorted harshly. “In addition to that inspiring reading and viewing material, however, there were two additional items which I think you’ll all find interesting.”

    One or two people sat up straighter, and she saw several sets of eyes narrow in speculation.

    “The first is that we should be receiving an entire battle squadron of Apollo-capable Invictuses in about three weeks.” The reaction of almost explosive relief which swept around the table was all she could have asked for. “There was a bit of a glitch in the deployment order, and their ammunition ships will be here a week or so before they are.”

    There were quite a few smiles, now, and she smiled back.

    “Actually, the missile ships were originally scheduled to arrive two weeks after the wallers,” she continued, “but the squadrons we were supposed to get under that deployment plan wound up going somewhere else, so we had to wait until their replacements finished working up.”

    She paused again, and Commodore Shulamit Onasis, the CO of Battlecruiser Division 106.2, frowned thoughtfully.

    “I know that ‘cat-in-the-celery-patch look, Ma’am,” she said after a moment. “Why do I have the sense another shoe hanging in midair somewhere?”

    “Well, I guess it might be because there is,” Michelle admitted cheerfully. She had everyone’s full attention again, she observed, and glanced at Cruiser Division 96.1’s commanding officer from the corner of one eye. “It seems that although somehow the newsies haven’t picked up on it yet, the reason our original reinforcing squadrons went somewhere else is that Duchess Harrington and Eighth Fleet have gone somewhere else, as well. To the Haven System, as a matter of fact.”

    The youthful senior-grade captain she’d been watching stiffened, and there was a sudden and complete silence. Her own smile slid into something much more serious, but she shook her head.

    “No,” she said. “She wasn’t planning on attacking the system. In fact, unless something went very wrong, about three weeks ago she delivered a personal message from the Queen to President Pritchart. Apparently our discoveries about Manpower’s involvement out here in New Tuscany have inspired a certain rethinking of who might actually have been behind Admiral Webster’s assassination and the attack on Queen Berry. On that basis,” she drew a deep breath and looked around the table, “and in light of the worsening situation with the Solarian League, Her Majesty has decided to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Republic after all, and she’s chosen Duchess Harrington as her lead negotiator.”

    “My God,” Captain (SG) Prescott Tremaine, CruDiv 96.1’s CO, murmured. She turned her head to look at him fully, and he shook his head, like a man shaking off a stiff right cross, then gave her a crooked smile. “You were certainly right when you said you had a couple of things we might be interested in, Ma’am!”

    “I thought that would probably be true, Scotty,” Michelle said with a grin. “In fact, I should probably go ahead and admit I saved that particular little tidbit until I could watch your expression.”

    Most of the others chuckled at that one. Scotty Tremaine had been one of Honor Alexander-Harrington’s protégés ever since her deployment to Basilisk Station aboard the old light cruiser Fearless. Michelle wondered if he’d been as surprised as she was when she discovered that the Admiralty, in its infinite wisdom, hadn’t merely transferred him from the LAC community (where he’d not only made a considerable name for himself but actually survived the Battle of Manticore) but chosen to give a new-minted captain of the list such a plum assignment. Once she’d had time to think about it, however, she’d realized exactly why they’d done it. Even in a navy expanding as rapidly as the RMN, a flag officer had to have at least some experience in command of conventional starships, and aside from a brief stint in the “Elysian Space Navy” during the escape from Cerberus (where, admittedly, he’d performed extremely well), Scotty didn’t have any. Obviously, Lucien Cortez had decided to rectify that situation, even if giving him a division of Saganami-Cs had to have stepped on the toes of quite a few captains — or even commodores — with considerably more seniority.



    And they damned well gave him the right flagship, too, she reflected, remembering how tears had prickled at the backs of her eyes when she first saw the name HMS Alistair McKeon listed in the Admiralty dispatch announcing CruDiv 96.1’s assignment to Tenth Fleet. She didn’t know what the ship’s original name had been supposed to be, but she understood exactly why she’d been renamed after the Battle of Manticore.

    And why Tremaine had chosen her as his flagship.

    “Well, I hope my reaction was up to your expectations, Ma’am,” he told her now, his smile less crooked than it had been.

    “Oh, I suppose it was . . . if you really like that stunned ox look,” Michelle allowed. Then it was her turn to shake her own head. “Not, I ought to admit, that you looked any more stunned than I felt when the dispatch got here. I imagine that’s pretty much true for all of us.”

    “Amen,” Rear Admiral Nathalie Manning said softly.

    Manning commanded the second division of Oversteegen’s Battlecruiser Squadron 108. She had a narrow, intense face, brown eyes, and close-cropped hair, and the Admiralty wasn’t picking Nike-class divisional COs at random. In fact, aside from the shape of her face and her height, she reminded Michelle of a younger, harder-edged Honor Alexander-Harrington in a great many ways. Now Manning smiled briefly at her, but there was a hint of alum behind that smile, and Michelle arched an inquiring eyebrow.

    “I was just thinking, Ma’am,” Manning said. “After the last few months, I can’t help feeling just a bit apprehensive when things suddenly start going so well.”

    “I know what you mean,” Michelle acknowledged. “At the same time, let’s not get too carried away with doom and gloom. Mind you, I’d rather be a little bit overly pessimistic than too optimistic, but it’s always possible things really are about to get better, you know.”



    Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so quick to discourage Manning’s pessimism, Michelle thought thirty-seven hours later.

    She was back in the same briefing room, but this time accompanied only by Oversteegen; Terekhov; Cynthia Lecter; Commander Tom Pope, Terekhov’s chief of staff; Commander Martin Culpepper, Oversteegen’s chief of staff; and their flag lieutenants. It was not only a considerably smaller gathering, but a much less cheerful one. Terekhov and Oversteegan had come aboard Artemis for supper and to discuss the most recent news from Manticore, and their after-dinner coffee and brandy had been rudely interrupted by the burst-transmitted message they’d just finished viewing.

    “I really, really hate finding out how many alligators are still in that swamp we’re trying to drain,” she said, and Oversteegen chuckled harshly.

    “I’ve always admired your gift with words, Milady. In this case, however, I can’t help wonderin’ if it’s not really a question of how many hexapumas there are in th’ underbrush.”

    As usual, he had a point, Michelle reflected, wishing she could recapture some of the confidence she’d felt after the post-exercise debrief. Unfortunately, she couldn’t, and she shuddered internally as she considered the one-two punch which had just landed here in the Spindle System.

    Personally, Michelle Henke wouldn’t have believed water was wet if the information had come from Mesa, but she was unhappily aware that quite a few Solarians failed to share her feelings in that regard. Those people probably were going to believe Mesa’s version of the Green Pines affair . . . and the linkage between the “calculated Ballroom atrocity and a known Manticoran spy” was going to resonate painfully with the people who already hated the Star Empire. That much was evident just from the Solly newsies’ strident questioning. News of the Mesan “shocked discovery” of Manticoran involvement in the attack had reached Spindle less than fourteen hours ago, and Tenth Fleet’s public information officers had already been deluged with literally scores of requests — and demands — for an interview with one Admiral Countess Gold Peak.

    As if I could possibly know one damned thing they don’t know. Jesus! Is a lobotomy a requirement for a job in the Solly media?

    She realized she was trying to grind her teeth together and stopped herself. Actually, she reminded herself, the newsy feeding frenzy was probably understandable, however stupid. They had to be frantic for any official Manticoran response. In fact, she hated to think what it must be like for Baroness Medusa’s and Prime Minister Alquezar’s official spokesmen right now. And she had to admit Mesa’s fabrication really did have a certain damning plausibility. Until, that was, they inserted Anton Zilwicki into the mix. Michelle had met Anton Zilwicki. More than that, she’d known him and his wife well before Helen Zilwicki’s death, back when they’d both been serving officers of the Royal Manticoran Navy. She never doubted Zilwicki possessed the ruthlessness to accept collateral civilian casualties to take out a critical target, but the man she knew would never — not in a thousand years — have set out deliberately to execute a terrorist attack and kill thousands of civilians purely to make a statement. Even if he’d become afflicted with the sort of moral gangrene which could have accepted such an act in the first place, he was far too smart for that. The man who was effectively Cathy Montaigne’s husband had to be only too well aware of how politically suicidal it would have been.

    Gilded the lily just a bit too richly there, you bastards, she thought now. For anyone who knows Anton or Montaigne, at least. Which, unfortunately, is an awfully small sample of the human race compared to the people who don’t know either of them.

    She grimaced, then made herself draw a deep breath and step back. There wasn’t a damned thing she or anyone else in the Talbott Quadrant could do on that front. For that matter, anything that needed to be done about it fell legitimately to Prime Minister Alquezar and Governor Medusa. What Michelle had to worry about, as the commander of Tenth Fleet, was the second thunderbolt which had come slicing out of the cloudless heavens exactly thirteen hours and twelve minutes after the dispatch boat from Manticore delivered its bad news.

    “It would seem,” she said dryly, “that our worst-case estimate was too optimistic. I could have sworn the New Tuscans said Anisimovna told them Admiral Crandall only had about sixty ships-of-the-wall.”

    “Well, we already knew Anisimovna wasn’t the most honest person in the universe,” Terekhov pointed out dryly.

    “Granted, but if she was going to lie, I would have expected her to overstate the numbers, not understate them.”

    “I think that’s what all of us would have expected, Ma’am,” Lecter said. Michelle’s chief of staff was still functioning as her staff intelligence officer, as well, and now she grimaced sourly. “I certainly didn’t expect them to have this many ships, and neither did Ambrose Chandler or anyone in Defense Minister Krietzmann’s office. And none of us expected them to already be in Meyers before Reprise even got there with Baroness Medusa’s and Prime Minister Alquezar’s note!”

    Michelle nodded in glum agreement and looked back at Lieutenant Commander Denton’s strength estimate. Seventy-one superdreadnoughts, sixteen battlecruisers, twelve heavy cruisers, twenty-three light cruisers, and eighteen destroyers. A total of a hundred and forty warships, accompanied by at least twenty-nine supply and support ships. Upwards of half a billion tons of combat ships, deployed all the way forward to a podunk Frontier Security sector on the backside of nowhere. Until this very moment, she realized, even as she’d dutifully made plans to deal with the possible threat of Solarian ships-of-the-wall, she hadn’t truly believed a corporation like Manpower could possibly have the capacity to get that sort of combat power moved around like checkers on a board. Now she knew it did, and the thought sent an icy chill through her veins, because if they could pull off something like this, what couldn’t they pull off if they put their mind to it?



    She drew a deep breath and ran her mind over her own order of battle. Fourteen Nike-class battlecruisers, eight Saganami-C-class heavy cruisers, four Hydra-class CLACs, five Roland-class destroyers, and a handful of obsolescent starships like Denton’s Reprise and Victoria Saunders’ Hercules. Of course, she also had right on four hundred LACs, but they’d have to go deep into the Sollies’ weapons envelope to engage. So what it really came down to was her twenty-seven hyper-capable warships — the Hydras had no business at all in ship-to-ship combat — against Crandall’s hundred and forty. She was outnumbered by better than five-to-one in hulls, and despite the fact that Manticoran ship types were bigger and more powerful on a class-for-class basis, the tonnage differential was almost thirteen-to-one. Of course, if she counted the LACs, she had another twelve million or so tons, but even that only brought it down to around ten-to-one. And as far as anyone in Meyers knew, she had only the ships she’d taken to New Tuscany, without Oversteegen’s eight Nikes.

    “If the people who set this up picked Crandall for her role as carefully as they picked Byng for his, she’s bound to believe she’s got an overwhelming force advantage. Especially if she assumes we haven’t reinforced since New Tuscany,” she said out loud.

    “T’ my way of thinkin’, it’d take an uncommonly stupid flag officer, even for a Solly, t’ make that kind of assumption,” Oversteegen replied.

    “And what, may I ask, have the Sollies done lately to make you think they haven’t hand-picked the flag officers out here for stupidity?” Michelle asked tartly.

    “Nothin’,” he conceded disgustedly. “It just offends my sense of th’ way things are supposed t’ be, I suppose. I’d expect better thinkin’ than that out of a plate of cottage cheese!”

    “I can’t say I disagree,” Terekhov said, “but fair’s fair. There might actually be a little logic on her side.” Michelle and Oversteegen both looked at him, and he chuckled sourly. “I did say ‘a little logic’,” he pointed out.

    “And that logic would be?” Michelle asked.

    “If she assumes all of this came at us as cold as it came at her — although assuming it did come at her cold could constitute an unwarranted supposition; she could have been involved in this thing up to her eyebrows from the very beginning — then she probably assumes we didn’t have any idea she might even be in the area. After all, when was the last time any of us can remember seeing Battle Fleet ships-of-the-wall putting time on their nodes clear out here in the Verge?”

    “That’s true enough, Ma’am,” Lecter put in. “And, for that matter, as far as we know, Byng didn’t know she was out here. There was nothing in any of the databases we captured to suggest she might be. So if she wasn’t aware Anisimovna had mentioned her to the New Tuscans, she could very well believe that the first we knew about even the possibility of her presence is Reprise’s scouting report.”

    “And she also can’t have any way of knowing what’s going on in the ‘faxes back on Old Terra or in Manticore,” Terekhov continued. “So whatever she does — assuming she does anything — she’s going to be acting on her own, in the dark, with no hard information at all on enemy ship strengths or the diplomatic situation.”

    “Are you suggesting a Solly admiral’s going to just sit in Meyers, waiting for orders from home, after what happened in New Tuscany?” Michelle asked skeptically.

    “I’m suggesting that any reasonably prudent, rational flag officer in that situation would proceed cautiously,” Terekhov replied, then bared his teeth in something which bore only a passing relationship to a smile. “Of course, what we’re actually talking about is a Solly flag officer, so, no, I don’t think that’s what she’s likely to do. Besides, we’ve all read their contingency plans from Byng’s files.”

    Michelle’s mouth tightened.

    It wasn’t as if the SLN’s “contingency planning” had come as a surprise, although she suspected the League would be most unhappy if the Star Empire chose to publicize some of its juicer details. There was “Case Fabius,” for example, which authorized Frontier Security commissioners to arrange Frontier Fleet “peacekeeping operations” which “accidentally” destroyed any locally owned orbital infrastructure within any protectorate star system whose local authorities proved unable to “maintain order” — meaning they’d been unable to induce the owners in question to sell to the transstellars OFS had decided would control their economies henceforth. Or “Case Buccaneer,” which actually authorized Frontier Security to use Frontier Fleet units — suitably disguised, of course — as “pirates,” complete with vanished merchant ships whose crews were never seen again, to provoke crises in targeted Verge systems in order to justify OFS intervention “to preserve order and public safety.”

    All that was sufficiently interesting reading, but she knew what Terekhov was referring to. Byng’s files had also confirmed something ONI had suspected for a long time. In the almost inconceivable event that some neobarb star nation, or possibly some rogue OFS sector governor, attacked the Solarian League (or chose to forcibly resist OFS aggression, although that wasn’t specifically spelled out, of course), the SLN had evolved a simple, straightforward strategy. Frontier Fleet, which possessed nothing heavier than a battlecruiser, would screen the frontiers and attempt to slow down any invaders or commerce raiders, while Battle Fleet assembled an overwhelmingly powerful force and headed directly towards the home system of the troublemaker . . . which it would then proceed to reduce to wreckage and transform into yet another OFS protectorate.

    “I see where you’re going with that, Sir,” Commander Pope said. “At the same time, not even a Solly admiral could think she’d get through the Lynx Terminus with less than eighty of the wall. For that matter, we’ve had a couple of squadrons based there ever since Monica, and there’s been enough Solly traffic through the terminus by now that they have to know the forts are virtually all online by now.”

    “I wasn’t actually thinking about her trying to go directly after the home system,” Terekhov said.

    “No, you’re thinkin’ she’s likely t’ see Spindle as th’ Talbott Quadrant’s ‘home system,’” Oversteegen said.

    “That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” Terekhov agreed, and Michelle nodded.

    “We can always hope something resembling sanity could break out in Meyers,” she said. “There’s no way we can count on that, though. And I think that’s especially true given how carefully the people who planned all this seem to have chosen their cat’s-paws. So, starting right now, we’re going to plan for the worst.”

    She drew a deep breath and sat back in her chair.

    “Gwen,” she said, looking at Lieutenant Archer, “I want you to have Bill make certain Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa have both seen Commander Denton’s report. I’m sure they’ll want to sit down with him and Mr. O’Shaughnessy as soon as they’re within a reasonable two-way FTL range of Thimble, but see to it that they have all the information we have ahead of time.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.”

    “As soon as you’ve done that, tell Vicki I’ll want dispatch boats sent to every system in the Quadrant. Ask her to contact Captain Shoupe and start looking at the boats’ availability. First priority is Captain Conner at Tillerman, then Montana. He gets a complete copy of Denton’s report and data, and I’ll want to put together a personal message for him before the dispatch boat pulls out.”

    “Yes, Ma’am.” Gervais nodded, although he knew as well as she did that if Admiral Crandall had decided to respond forcefully, Jerome Conner’s pair of Nikes at Tillerman had probably already found out the hard way.

    Michelle knew exactly what he was thinking, and smiled tightly at him. The fact that he was right didn’t change her responsibility to warn Conner as quickly as possible.

    “In addition,” she went on, “when Bill makes sure Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa are up to speed, tell the Admiral that unless he disagrees, I propose to send Reprise direct to Manticore to inform the Admiralty both of what she discovered at Meyers and that I am presently anticipating an attack in force on Spindle.”



    An almost physical chill went through the briefing room as she said the words out loud, and she straightened her shoulders.

    “Inform the Admiral that I intend to get Reprise on her way within thirty minutes of her arrival in Thimble planetary orbit.” Even Terekhov looked a little startled at that, and she bared her teeth. “If Crandall thinks Reprise got a good look at her task force, and if she is inclined to launch an attack, she’s going to move as quickly as she can. We have to assume she could be here literally within hours, and if she’s decided to head directly for the Lynx Terminus instead, it’ll take her only one more T-day to get there than it would to get here.

    “We may all agree that would be a stupid thing for her to do, but that doesn’t mean she won’t do it. For that matter, we can’t really afford to assume the ships Reprise saw are the only ones they have. What if she’s got a squadron or two sitting in reserve at McIntosh? We’re already looking at more than Anisimovna told the New Tuscans about, so I don’t think it would be a very good idea to think small.”

    Terekhov and Oversteegen nodded soberly, and she turned back to Gervais.

    “Go ahead and get Bill started on that, Gwen. Then come straight back here. I think it’s going to be a long night.”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” Gervais said for the third time, and headed for the door.

    “In the meantime, Gentlemen,” Michelle resumed, “I believe it’s time the three of us started thinking as deviously as possible. If I were Crandall, and if I meant to go stomp on a bunch of neobarbs, I’d have my wall in motion within twenty-four hours, max. She may not feel that way, though. She may figure she’s got enough of a firepower advantage she can afford to take a little longer, make sure she’s dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in her ops plan before she breaks orbit.”

    “Personally, given that the passage time is over a T-month, I’d do my operational planning en route, Ma’am,” Terekhov said.

    “So would I,” she agreed. “And that’s what I’m going to assume she’s done. But even though we’re going to plan for the worst, I can at least hope for the best, and the best in this case would be her taking long enough for our Invictus battle squadrons to get here before she does. Or for their Apollo pods to get here, at least. No?”

    “I could certainly agree with that,” Oversteegen acknowledged with a small smile.

    “And when she does get here — assuming, of course, that she’s coming — I want to accomplish four things.

    “First, I want her to underestimate our actual combat power as badly as possible. I realize she’s almost certainly already doing that, but let’s encourage the tendency in every way we can.

    “Second, I’d like to push her, to . . . keep her as much off-balance mentally as possible. In a lot of ways, the madder she is, the less likely she is to be thinking very clearly, and that’s probably about the best we can hope for. She’s not going to head for Spindle in strength unless she’s already got blood in her eye, which means it’s unlikely — hell, the next best thing to it impossible! — that she’s planning on presenting any sort of terms or demands Baroness Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar are remotely likely to accept. So if push is going to come to shove anyway, I’d just as soon have her making angry decisions instead of good ones.”

    She looked at her two subordinate flag officers, and Oversteegen cocked his head and pursed his lips thoughtfully, then nodded.

    “Third,” she continued after a moment, “and although I realize it’s going to sound a little strange after what I just said about pushing her, I’d be just as happy to stall for as long as possible. If Baroness Medusa can get her to burn a day or two in ‘negotiations’ before anyone actually pulls a trigger, so much the better.”

    “Is that really very likely, Ma’am?” Commander Culpepper asked dubiously. “Especially if she’s underestimating the odds and we’ve managed to piss her off on top of it?

    “If I may, Ma’am?” Terekhov said. Michelle nodded, and Terekhov looked at Oversteegen’s chief of staff. “What it comes down to, Marty,” he said, “is how much Crandall thinks she can get for nothing. If the Baroness can convince her there’s even a possibility she might surrender the system without firing a shot, she’s likely to be willing to spend at least a little while talking before she starts shooting. And I’m pretty sure that with a little thought, we ought to be able to. . . irritate her significantly, let’s say, while simultaneously reminding her that sooner or later she’s going to have to justify her actions to her military and civilian superiors. However belligerent she may be feeling, and however angry she may be, she’s got to know it’ll look a lot better in the ‘faxes if she can report she’s ‘controlled the situation’ without any more fighting.”

    “And she’s more likely t’ feel that way if she does decide she’s got a crushin’ tactical superiority,” Oversteegen added. “She’s already goin’ t’ be assumin’ exactly that, whatever we do, so there’s no point tryin’ t’ convince her she should just turn around and go home while she’s still in one piece. Which suggests th’ Admiral here has a point. No matter how pissed off she is, there’s probably a damned good chance we can keep her talkin’ long enough t’ convince her superiors — or th’ newsies, at least — that she tried real hard t’ talk us into surrenderin’ like nice, timid little neobarbs before she had no choice but t’ blow us all t’ kingdom come.”

    “That’s what I hope, but Marty’s got a point that it could also work the other way,” Michelle pointed out. “If she feels confident she can punch right through anything in front of her, that may actually make her more impatient. Especially if she was already feeling the need to inflict a little punishment as revenge for what happened to Jean Bart even before we started pushing back at her.” Her expression was grim. “Don’t overlook that probability. We’ve bloodied the SLN’s nose, and we’ve done it very publicly. I’d say it’s a lot more likely than not that what she really wants is to hammer us so hard no other neobarb navy is ever going to dare to follow our example.”

    “Wonderful,” Lecter muttered, and Michelle surprised herself with a bark of laughter.

    “Trust me, Cindy. If that is the way she’s thinking, she’s in for a rude awakening. I’d really prefer to stall, as I said, in the hope the Admiralty’s managed to expedite our reinforcements and they come over the alpha wall in the proverbial nick of time. I’m not going to hold my breath counting on that, though, and I’m not going to delay a single minute if it looks like they mean to keep right on coming. Which brings me to the fourth thing I want to be certain we accomplish.”

    She paused, and silence hovered for a second or two until Oversteegen broke it.

    “And that fourth thing would be what, Milady?” he asked.

    “The instant any Solly warship crosses the Spindle hyper limit inbound,” Michelle Henke said flatly, “the gloves come off. There won’t be any preliminary surrender demands this time, and despite whatever Admiral Crandall may be thinking, we’re not going to be thinking in terms of a fighting retreat, either. I think it’s about time we find out just how accurate our assumptions about Battle Fleet’s combat capability really are.”

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