Mission Of Honor – Snippet 50

And they damned well gave him the right flagship, too, she reflected, remembering how tears had prickled at the backs of her eyes when she first saw the name HMS Alistair McKeon listed in the Admiralty dispatch announcing CruDiv 96.1’s assignment to Tenth Fleet. She didn’t know what the ship’s original name had been supposed to be, but she understood exactly why she’d been renamed after the Battle of Manticore.

And why Tremaine had chosen her as his flagship.

“Well, I hope my reaction was up to your expectations, Ma’am,” he told her now, his smile less crooked than it had been.

“Oh, I suppose it was . . . if you really like that stunned ox look,” Michelle allowed. Then it was her turn to shake her own head. “Not, I ought to admit, that you looked any more stunned than I felt when the dispatch got here. I imagine that’s pretty much true for all of us.”

“Amen,” Rear Admiral Nathalie Manning said softly.

Manning commanded the second division of Oversteegen’s Battlecruiser Squadron 108. She had a narrow, intense face, brown eyes, and close-cropped hair, and the Admiralty wasn’t picking Nike-class divisional COs at random. In fact, aside from the shape of her face and her height, she reminded Michelle of a younger, harder-edged Honor Alexander-Harrington in a great many ways. Now Manning smiled briefly at her, but there was a hint of alum behind that smile, and Michelle arched an inquiring eyebrow.

“I was just thinking, Ma’am,” Manning said. “After the last few months, I can’t help feeling just a bit apprehensive when things suddenly start going so well.”

“I know what you mean,” Michelle acknowledged. “At the same time, let’s not get too carried away with doom and gloom. Mind you, I’d rather be a little bit overly pessimistic than too optimistic, but it’s always possible things really are about to get better, you know.”

* * *

Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so quick to discourage Manning’s pessimism, Michelle thought thirty-seven hours later.

She was back in the same briefing room, but this time accompanied only by Oversteegen; Terekhov; Cynthia Lecter; Commander Tom Pope, Terekhov’s chief of staff; Commander Martin Culpepper, Oversteegen’s chief of staff; and their flag lieutenants. It was not only a considerably smaller gathering, but a much less cheerful one. Terekhov and Oversteegan had come aboard Artemis for supper and to discuss the most recent news from Manticore, and their after-dinner coffee and brandy had been rudely interrupted by the burst-transmitted message they’d just finished viewing.

“I really, really hate finding out how many alligators are still in that swamp we’re trying to drain,” she said, and Oversteegen chuckled harshly.

“I’ve always admired your gift with words, Milady. In this case, however, I can’t help wonderin’ if it’s not really a question of how many hexapumas there are in th’ underbrush.”

As usual, he had a point, Michelle reflected, wishing she could recapture some of the confidence she’d felt after the post-exercise debrief. Unfortunately, she couldn’t, and she shuddered internally as she considered the one-two punch which had just landed here in the Spindle System.

Personally, Michelle Henke wouldn’t have believed water was wet if the information had come from Mesa, but she was unhappily aware that quite a few Solarians failed to share her feelings in that regard. Those people probably were going to believe Mesa’s version of the Green Pines affair . . . and the linkage between the “calculated Ballroom atrocity and a known Manticoran spy” was going to resonate painfully with the people who already hated the Star Empire. That much was evident just from the Solly newsies’ strident questioning. News of the Mesan “shocked discovery” of Manticoran involvement in the attack had reached Spindle less than fourteen hours ago, and Tenth Fleet’s public information officers had already been deluged with literally scores of requests — and demands — for an interview with one Admiral Countess Gold Peak.

As if I could possibly know one damned thing they don’t know. Jesus! Is a lobotomy a requirement for a job in the Solly media?

She realized she was trying to grind her teeth together and stopped herself. Actually, she reminded herself, the newsy feeding frenzy was probably understandable, however stupid. They had to be frantic for any official Manticoran response. In fact, she hated to think what it must be like for Baroness Medusa’s and Prime Minister Alquezar’s official spokesmen right now. And she had to admit Mesa’s fabrication really did have a certain damning plausibility. Until, that was, they inserted Anton Zilwicki into the mix. Michelle had met Anton Zilwicki. More than that, she’d known him and his wife well before Helen Zilwicki’s death, back when they’d both been serving officers of the Royal Manticoran Navy. She never doubted Zilwicki possessed the ruthlessness to accept collateral civilian casualties to take out a critical target, but the man she knew would never — not in a thousand years — have set out deliberately to execute a terrorist attack and kill thousands of civilians purely to make a statement. Even if he’d become afflicted with the sort of moral gangrene which could have accepted such an act in the first place, he was far too smart for that. The man who was effectively Cathy Montaigne’s husband had to be only too well aware of how politically suicidal it would have been.

Gilded the lily just a bit too richly there, you bastards, she thought now. For anyone who knows Anton or Montaigne, at least. Which, unfortunately, is an awfully small sample of the human race compared to the people who don’t know either of them.

She grimaced, then made herself draw a deep breath and step back. There wasn’t a damned thing she or anyone else in the Talbott Quadrant could do on that front. For that matter, anything that needed to be done about it fell legitimately to Prime Minister Alquezar and Governor Medusa. What Michelle had to worry about, as the commander of Tenth Fleet, was the second thunderbolt which had come slicing out of the cloudless heavens exactly thirteen hours and twelve minutes after the dispatch boat from Manticore delivered its bad news.

“It would seem,” she said dryly, “that our worst-case estimate was too optimistic. I could have sworn the New Tuscans said Anisimovna told them Admiral Crandall only had about sixty ships-of-the-wall.”

“Well, we already knew Anisimovna wasn’t the most honest person in the universe,” Terekhov pointed out dryly.

“Granted, but if she was going to lie, I would have expected her to overstate the numbers, not understate them.”

“I think that’s what all of us would have expected, Ma’am,” Lecter said. Michelle’s chief of staff was still functioning as her staff intelligence officer, as well, and now she grimaced sourly. “I certainly didn’t expect them to have this many ships, and neither did Ambrose Chandler or anyone in Defense Minister Krietzmann’s office. And none of us expected them to already be in Meyers before Reprise even got there with Baroness Medusa’s and Prime Minister Alquezar’s note!”

Michelle nodded in glum agreement and looked back at Lieutenant Commander Denton’s strength estimate. Seventy-one superdreadnoughts, sixteen battlecruisers, twelve heavy cruisers, twenty-three light cruisers, and eighteen destroyers. A total of a hundred and forty warships, accompanied by at least twenty-nine supply and support ships. Upwards of half a billion tons of combat ships, deployed all the way forward to a podunk Frontier Security sector on the backside of nowhere. Until this very moment, she realized, even as she’d dutifully made plans to deal with the possible threat of Solarian ships-of-the-wall, she hadn’t truly believed a corporation like Manpower could possibly have the capacity to get that sort of combat power moved around like checkers on a board. Now she knew it did, and the thought sent an icy chill through her veins, because if they could pull off something like this, what couldn’t they pull off if they put their mind to it?