Mission Of Honor – Snippet 37

Chapter Eleven

“Good morning, Michael,” the very black-skinned woman said from Rear Admiral Michael Oversteegen’s com display.

“Mornin’, Milady,” Oversteegen drawled, and smiled slightly as her eyes narrowed. His chosen form of address was perfectly appropriate, even courteous . . . no matter how much he knew it irritated Vice Admiral Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke, Countess Gold Peak. Especially in that upper-crust, languid accent. Of course, the fact that she knew he knew it irritated her only made it even more amusing.

Serves her right, he thought. All those years she managed t’ avoid admittin’ she was only half-a-dozen or so heartbeats away from th’ Throne. Not anymore, Milady Countess.

It wasn’t that Oversteegen had anything other than the highest respect for Michelle Henke. It was just that she’d always been so aggressive in stamping on anything that even looked like the operation of nepotism in her behalf. Oh, if she’d been incompetent, or even only marginally competent, he’d have agreed with her. The use of family influence in support of self-interest and mediocrity (or worse) was the single greatest weakness of an aristocratic system, and Oversteegen had studied more than enough history to admit it. But every social system had weaknesses of one sort or another, and the Manticoran system was an aristocratic one. Making that system work required a recognition of social responsibility on the part of those at its apex, and Oversteegen had no patience with those — like his own miserable excuse for an uncle, Michael Janvier, the Baron of High Ridge — who saw their lofty births solely in terms of their own advantage. But it also required the effective use of the advantages of birth and position to promote merit. To see to it that those who were capable of discharging their responsibilities, and willing to do so, received the preference to let them get on with it.

He was willing to concede that the entire system disproportionately favored those who enjoyed the patronage and family influence in question, and that was unfortunate. One of those weaknesses every system had. But he wasn’t going to pretend he didn’t see those advantages as a rightful possession of those who met their obligations under it . . . including, especially, the enormous obligation to see to it that those advantages were employed on behalf of others, in support of the entire society which provided them, not simply for their own personal benefit or the sort of shortsighted class selfishness of which aristocrats like his uncle (or, for that matter, his own father) were altogether too often guilty. In particular, one of the responsibilities of any naval officer was to identify and groom his own successors, and Oversteegen saw no reason he shouldn’t use his influence to nurture the careers of capable subordinates, be they ever so commonly born. It wasn’t as if being born into the aristocracy magically guaranteed some sort of innate superiority, and one of the greater strengths of the Manticoran system from its inception had been the relative ease with which capable commoners could find themselves elevated to its aristocracy.

Mike ought t’ recognize that if anyone does, he reflected, given that her best friend in th’ galaxy is also th’ most spectacular example I can think of of how it works. When it works, of course. Be fair, Michael — it doesn’t always, and you know it as well as Mike does.

“What can I do for you this fine mornin’?” he inquired genially, and she shook her head at him.

“I was going to invite you to observe a little command simulation over here aboard Artie in a couple of days,” she said, using the nickname which had been bestowed upon HMS Artemis’ by her flagship’s crew. “But given how feisty you’re obviously feeling, I’ve changed my mind. Instead” — she smiled nastily — “I think you’d better join me for lunch so we can discuss the defenders’ role. You’ve just inspired me to let you play system-defense force CO in our little exercise instead of Shulamit.”

“I’d hate t’ be quoted on this, Milady, but that sounds just a mite . . . I don’t know . . . vengeful, perhaps?”

“Why, yes, I believe it does, Admiral Oversteegen. And, speaking as one decadent, effete aristocrat to another, isn’t vengefulness one of our hallmark traits?”

“I believe it is,” he agreed with a chuckle.

“I’m glad it amuses you, Admiral,” she said cheerfully. “And I hope you’ll go right on feeling equally amused when it turns out the other side has Mark 23s, too, this time.”

“Why do I have th’ impression you just this minute decided t’ add that particular wrinkle t’ th’ sim, Milady?”

“Because you have a nasty, suspicious mind and know me entirely too well. But look at it this way. It’s bound to be a very enlightening experience for you.” She smiled sweetly at him. “I’ll expect you at oh-one-thirty, Admiral. Don’t be late!”

Michelle terminated the connection and tipped back in her flag bridge chair, shaking her head wryly.

“Are you really going to give the aggressor force Mark 23s, Ma’am?” a voice asked, and Michelle looked over her shoulder at Captain Cynthia Lecter, Tenth Fleet’s chief of staff.

“I’m not only going to give the op force Mark 23s, Cindy,” she said with a wicked smile. “I’m probably going to give it Apollo, too.”

Lecter winced. The current iteration of the Mark 23 multidrive missile carried the most destructive warhead in service with any navy, and it carried it farther and faster than any missile in service with any navy outside what was still called the Haven Sector. That was a sufficiently significant advantage for most people to be going on with, she supposed, but when the faster-than-light command and control link of the Apollo system was incorporated into the mix, the combination went far beyond simply devastating.

“You don’t think that might be a little bit of overkill, Ma’am?” the chief of staff asked after a moment.

“I certainly hope it will!” Michelle replied tartly. “He deserves worse, actually. Well, maybe not deserves, but I can’t think of a word that comes closer. Besides, it’ll be good for him. Put a little hiccup in that unbroken string of four-oh simulations he’s reeled off since he got here. After all,” she finished, lifting her nose with a slight but audible sniff, “it’s one of a commanding officer’s responsibilities to remind her subordinates from time to time of their own mortality.”

“You manage to sound so virtuous when you say that, Ma’am,” Lecter observed. “And you can actually keep a straight face, too. I think that’s even more remarkable.”

“Why, thank you, Captain Lecter!” Michelle beamed benignly and raised one hand in a gesture of blessing which would have done her distant cousin Robert Telmachi, the Archbishop of Manticore, proud. “And now, why don’t you sit down with Dominica, Max, and Bill to see just how devious the three of you can be in putting all of those unfair advantages into effect?”

“Aye, aye, Ma’am,” Lecter acknowledged, and headed off towards the tactical section, where Commander Dominica Adenauer was discussing something with Lieutenant Commander Maxwell Tersteeg, Michelle’s staff electronic warfare officer.

Michelle watched her go and wondered if Cindy had figured out the other reason she was thinking about giving the op force Apollo. They weren’t going to find a more capable system-defense CO than Michael Oversteegen, and she badly wanted to see how well the Royal Manticoran Navy’s Apollo — in the hands of one Vice Admiral Gold Peak and her staff — could do while someone with all the Royal Manticoran Navy’s war-fighting technology short of Apollo pulled out all the stops against her.

Her own smile faded at the thought. None of her ships currently had Apollo, nor did they have the Keyhole-Two platforms to make use of the FTL telemetry link even if they’d had the Apollo birds themselves. But unless she missed her guess, that was going to change very soon now.

I hope to hell it is, anyway, she reflected grimly. And when it does, we’d damned well better have figured out how to use it as effectively as possible. That bastard Byng may have been a complete and utter incompetent — as well as an asshole — but not all Sollies can be that idiotic.

She settled back, contemplating the main plot with eyes that didn’t see it at all while she reflected on the last three T-months.

Somehow, when she’d just been setting out on her naval career, it had never occurred to her she might find herself in a situation like this one. Even now, it seemed impossible that so much could have happened in so short a period, and she wished she knew more about what was going on back home.

Be glad of what you do know, girl, she told herself sternly. At least Beth approved of your actions. Cousin or not, she could’ve recalled you as the sacrificial goat. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people think that’s exactly what she should’ve done.