Mission Of Honor – Snippet 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me, Your Grace?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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