Mission Of Honor – Snippet 38

The four-week communications loop between the Spindle System, the capital of the newly organized Talbott Quadrant of the Star Empire of Manticore, and the Manticoran Binary System was the kind of communications delay any interstellar naval officer had to learn to live with. It was also the reason most successful navies simply assumed flag officers on distant stations were going to have to make their own decisions. There just wasn’t time for them to communicate with their governments, even though everyone recognized that the decisions they made might have significant consequences for their star nations’ foreign policy. But however well established that state of affairs might be, the potential consequences for Michelle Henke this time around were rather more significant than usual.

“More significant than usual.” My, what a fine euphemistic turn of phrase, Mike! she thought sourly.

It didn’t seem possible that it was one day short of two months since she’d destroyed a Solarian League battlecruiser with all hands. She hadn’t wanted to do it, but Admiral Josef Byng hadn’t left her much in the way of options. And, if she was going to be honest, a part of her was intensely satisfied that the drooling idiot hadn’t. If he’d been reasonable, if he’d had a single functioning brain cell and he’d stood-down his ships as she’d demanded until the events of the so-called First Battle of New Tuscany could be adequately investigated, he and his flagship’s entire crew would still be alive, and that satisfied part of her would have considered that a suboptimal outcome. The arrogant bastard had slaughtered the entire complements of three of Michelle’s destroyers without so much as calling on them to surrender first, and she wasn’t going to pretend, especially to herself, that she was sorry he’d paid the price for all those murders. The disciplined, professional flag officer in her would have preferred for him (and his flagship’s crew) to be alive, and she’d tried hard to achieve that outcome, but only because no sane Queen’s officer wanted to contemplate the prospect of a genuine war against the Solarian League. Especially not while the war against Haven was still unresolved.

But Elizabeth, Baron Grantville, Earl White Haven, and Sir Thomas Caparelli had all approved her actions in the strongest possible language. She suspected that at least some of that approval’s firmness had been intended for public consumption, both at home in Manticore and in the Solarian League. Word of the battle — accompanied by at least excerpts of Elizabeth’s official dispatch to her, approving her actions — had reached Old Terra herself via the Beowulf terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction a month ago now. Michelle had no doubt Elizabeth, William Alexander, and Sir Anthony Langtry had given careful thought to how best to break the news to the Sollies; unfortunately, “best” didn’t necessarily equate to “a good way to tell them.”

In fact, Michelle had direct evidence that they weren’t even remotely the same thing. The first wave of Solarian newsies had reached Spindle via the Junction nine days earlier, and they’d arrived in a feeding frenzy. Although Michelle herself had managed to avoid them by taking refuge in her genuine responsibilities as Tenth Fleet’s commanding officer. She’d retreated to her orbiting flagship and hidden behind operational security and several hundred kilometers of airless vacuum — and Artemis’ Marine detachment — to keep the pack from pursuing her.

Agustus Khumalo, Baroness Medusa, Prime Minister Alquezar, and Minister of War Krietzmann had been less fortunate in that regard. Michelle might have been forced to put in appearances at no less than four formal news conferences, but her military and political superiors found themselves under continual siege by Solarian reporters who verged from the incredulous to the indignant to the outraged and didn’t seem particularly concerned about who knew it. From her own daily briefings, it was evident that the flow of newsies — Manticoran, as well as Solarian — was only growing. And just to make her happiness complete, the insufferable gadflies were bringing their own reports of the Solarian League’s reaction to what had happened along with them. Well, the Old Terran reaction, at least, she corrected herself. But the version of the “truth” expounded on Old Terra — and the reaction to it on Old Terra — always played a hugely disproportionate part in the League’s policies.

And it was evident that Old Terra and the deeply entrenched bureaucracies headquartered there were not reacting well.

She reminded herself that all of her information about events on the League’s capital world was at least three T-weeks old. She supposed it was remotely possible something resembling sanity had actually reared its ugly head by now and she just hadn’t heard about it yet. But as of the last statements by Prime Minister Gyulay, Foreign Minister Roelas y Valiente, and Defense Minister Taketomo which had so far reached Spindle, the League’s official position was that it was “awaiting independent confirmation of the Star Empire of Manticore’s very serious allegations” and considering “appropriate responses to the Royal Manticoran Navy’s destruction of SLNS Jean Bart and her entire crew.”

While Roelas y Valiente had “deeply deplored” any loss of life suffered in the first “alleged incident” between units of the Solarian League Navy and the Royal Manticoran Navy in the neutral system of New Tuscany, his government had, of course, been unable to make any formal response to the Star Empire’s protest and demand for explanations at that time. The Solarian League would, equally of course, “respond appropriately” as soon as there’d been time for “reliable and impartial” reports of both the “alleged incidents” to reach Old Terra. In the meantime, the Solarian League “sincerely regretted” its inability to respond directly to the “purported facts” of the “alleged incidents.” And however deeply the foreign minister might have “deplored” any loss of life, he’d been very careful to point out that even by Manticoran accounts, the Solarian League had lost far more lives than Manticore had. And that that Solarian loss of life had occurred only after “what would appear to be the hasty response of a perhaps overly aggressive Manticoran flag officer to initial reports of a purported incident which had not at that time been independently confirmed for her.”

All of which had clearly amounted to telling the Star Empire to run along and play until the grown-ups in the League had had an opportunity to find out what had really happened and decided upon appropriate penalties for the rambunctious children whose “overly aggressive” response was actually responsible for it.

On the surface, “waiting for independent confirmation” sounded very judicial and correct, but Michelle — unlike the vast number of Solarians listening to the public statements of the men and women who theoretically governed them — knew the League government already had Evelyn Sigbee’s official report on what had happened in both the “New Tuscany Incidents.” The fact that the people who supposedly ran that government were still referring to what they knew from their own flag officer’s report was the truth as “allegations” was scarcely encouraging. And the fact that they were considering “appropriate responses” to Jean Bart’s destruction by an “overly aggressive Manticoran flag officer” and not addressing even the possibility of appropriate responses to Josef Byng’s murder of three Manticoran destroyers and every man and woman who’d served upon them struck her as even less promising. At the very least, as far as she could see, all of that was a depressing indication that the idiots calling the shots behind the smokescreen of their elected superiors were still treating this all as business as usual. And if that really was their attitude . . . .

At least the fact that Manticore was inside the Sollies’ communications loop meant Old Terra had found out about Admiral Byng’s unexpected demise even before Lorcan Verrochio. In theory, at least, Verrochio — as the Office of Frontier Security’s commissioner in the Madras Sector — was Byng’s superior, but pinning down exactly who was really in charge of what could get a bit slippery once the Sollies’ dueling bureaucracies got into the act. That was always true, especially out here in the Verge, and from her own experience with Josef Byng, it might be even truer than usual this time around. It was entirely possible that everything which had happened in New Tuscany, and even his decision to move his command there in the first place, had been his own half-assed idea.

Which doesn’t mean Verrochio was exactly an innocent bystander, she reminded herself. He sure as hell wasn’t last time around, anyway. And even if it was all Byng’s idea — this time — Verrochio had to sign off on it under the Sollies’ own regulations, officially, at least. And then there’s always the Manpower connection, isn’t there?

She frowned and suppressed an almost overpowering temptation to gnaw on her fingernails. Her mother had always told her that was a particularly unbecoming nervous mannerism. More to the point, though, as far as Michelle was concerned, she doubted her staff and her flagship’s officers would be especially reassured by the sight of their commanding officer’s sitting around chewing on her fingernails while she worried.