Mission Of Honor – Snippet 12

Chapter Three

“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.