Mission Of Honor – Snippet 15

Which was precisely what the Silver Cepheids had just finished doing.

“Should I assume, Bridget,” Carus said, “that you have some pressing reason for wanting to head home at this particular moment?”

“Oh, how could you possibly suspect anything of the sort?” Lieutenant Commander John Pershing asked from the bridge of HMS Raven, and Lieutenant Commander Julie Chase, CO of HMS Lodestone chuckled.

“I take it your senile old skipper is missing something?” Carus said mildly.

“She’s got one of those creative archaism thingies,” Chase said.

“That’s creative anachronisms, you ignorant lout,” Landry corrected with a frown.

“Are you going off to play dress-up again, Bridget?” Carus demanded.

“Hey, don’t you start on me!” she told him with a grin. “Everyone’s got her own hobby — even you. Or was that someone else I saw tying trout flies the other day?”

“At least he eats what he catches,” Chase pointed out. “Or is it that what catches him eats him?” She frowned, then shrugged. “Anyway, it’s not as silly as all those costumes of yours.”

“Before you go around calling it silly, Julie,” Pershing suggested, “you might want to reflect on the fact that ‘the Salamander’ is an honorary member of Bridget’s chapter.”

“What?” Chase stared at him from her display. “You’re kidding! Duchess Harrington’s part of this silly SCA thing?”

“Well, not really,” Landry said. “Like John says, it’s an honorary membership. One of her uncles is a real big wheel in the Society on Beowulf, and he sponsored her back, oh, I don’t know . . . must’ve been thirty T-years ago. I’ve actually met her at a couple of meetings though, you know. She took the pistol competition at both of them, as a matter of fact.”

“There you have it,” Carus said simply. “If it’s good enough for the Salamander, it’s good enough for anyone. So let’s not have anyone abusing Bridget over her hobby anymore, understand? Even if it is a remarkably silly way for an adult human being to spend her time, at least she’s being silly in good company. So there.”

Landry stuck out her tongue at him, and he laughed. Then he looked sideways at Lieutenant Linda Petersen, his astrogator aboard HMS Javelin.

“Got that course figured for us, Linda?”

“Yes, Skipper,” Petersen nodded.

“Well, in that case pass it to these other characters,” Carus told her. “Obviously, we have to get Commander Landry back to Manticore before she turns back into a watermelon, or a pumpkin, or whatever it was.”

* * *

Commodore Karol Østby leaned back in the comfortable chair, eyes closed, letting the music flow over him. Old Terran opera had been his favorite form of relaxation for as long as he could remember. He’d even learned French, German, and Italian so he could listen to them in their original languages. Of course, he’d always had a pronounced knack for languages; it was part of the Østby genome, after all.

At this moment, however, he found himself in rather greater need of that relaxation than usual. The seven small ships of his command had been creeping tracelessly about the perimeter of the Manticore Binary System for over a T-month, and that wasn’t something calculated to make a man feel comfortable. Whatever those idiots in the SLN might think, Østby and the Mesan Alignment Navy had the liveliest possible respect for the capabilities of Manty technology. In this case, though, it was the Manties’ turn to be outclassed — or, at least, taken by surprise. If Østby hadn’t been one hundred percent confident of that when Oyster Bay was originally planned, he was now. His cautious prowling about the system had confirmed that even the Alignment’s assessment of its sensor coverage had fallen badly short of the reality. Any conventional starship would have been detected long ago by the dense, closely integrated, multiply redundant sensor systems he and his personnel had painstakingly plotted. In fact, he was just a little concerned over the possibility that those surveillance systems might still pick up something soon enough to at least blunt Oyster Bay’s effectiveness.

Stop that, Karol, he told himself, never opening his eyes. Yes, it could happen, but you know it’s not very damned likely. You just need something to worry about, don’t you?

His lips twitched in sour amusement as he acknowledged his own perversity, but at the same time, he was aware that his worrier side was one of the things that made him an effective officer. His subordinates probably got tired of all the contingency planning he insisted upon, yet even they had to admit that it made it unlikely they would truly be taken by surprise when Murphy decided to put in his inevitable appearance.

So far, though, that appearance hadn’t happened, and Østby’s flagship Chameleon and her consorts were past the riskiest part of their entire mission. Their own reconnaissance platforms were the stealthiest the Alignment could provide after decades of R&D and more capital investment than he liked to think about, and those platforms hadn’t transmitted a single byte of information. They’d made their sweeps on ballistic flight profiles, using purely passive sensors, then physically rendezvoused with their motherships to deliver their take.

And, overall, that take had been satisfying, indeed. Passive sensors were less capable than active ones, but the multiple systems each platform mounted compensated for a lot of that. From the numbers of energy sources they’d picked up, it appeared the ships the Manties currently had under construction weren’t as far along in the building process as intelligence had estimated. If they had been, there’d have been more onboard energy sources already up and running. But at least Østby now knew exactly where the orbital yards were, and the external energy sources his platforms had picked up indicated that most of them had projects underway. From the numbers of signatures, and they way they clustered, it looked as though more than a few of the yards were at early stages of their construction projects, and he hoped that didn’t mean intelligence’s estimate of the Manties’ construction times was off. It was hard to be certain, given how cautiously he had to operate, but if all those new projects meant the yards in question had finished their older projects ahead of estimate . . . .

And the fact that the Manties seem to be sending all their new construction off to Trevor’s Star for working up exercises doesn’t help, either, he admitted sourly.

Which was true enough — it didn’t help one bit. Still, there was a lot of work going on in those dispersed yards of theirs, and while his estimates on what their space stations were up to were more problematical, he had no doubt there were quite a few ships under construction in those highly capable building slips, as well.

And we know exactly where they are, he reminded himself.

Now it was just a matter of keeping tabs on what their recon platforms had located for them. He’d really have preferred to send the platforms through on another short-range sweep closer to their actual execution date, but his orders were clear on that. It was more important to preserve the element of surprise than it was to monitor every single detail. And it wasn’t as if there’d been any effort to conceal the things Østby and his people were there looking for. People didn’t normally try to hide things like orbital shipyards (even if they’d wanted to, Østby couldn’t imagine how someone would go about doing it), nor did they move them around once they were in position. And if anyone did move them, Chameleon and her sisters would be bound to know, given the distant optical watch they were keeping and the fact that the impeller wedge of any tug that started moving shipyards would certainly be powerful enough to be detected by at least one of the watching scout ships.

So all we have to do now is wait, he told himself, listening to the music, listening to the voices. One more T-month until we put the guidance platforms in place.

That was going to be a little risky, he admitted in the privacy of his own thoughts, but only a little. The guidance platforms were even stealthier than his ships. Someone would have to almost literally collide with one of them to spot them, and they’d be positioned well above the system ecliptic, where there was no traffic to do the colliding. He would have been happier if the platforms had been a little smaller — he admitted that to himself, as well — but delivering targeting information to that many individual missiles in a time window as short as the Oyster Bay ops plan demanded required a prodigious amount of bandwidth. And, despite everything, it was highly likely the Manties were going to hear something when they started transmitting all that data.

Not that it was going to make any difference at that late date, he reflected with grim pleasure. Everything he and his squadron had done for the last three and a half T-months all came down to that transmission’s handful of seconds . . . and once it was made, nothing could save the Star Empire of Manticore.