Mission Of Honor – Snippet 52

An almost physical chill went through the briefing room as she said the words out loud, and she straightened her shoulders.

“Inform the Admiral that I intend to get Reprise on her way within thirty minutes of her arrival in Thimble planetary orbit.” Even Terekhov looked a little startled at that, and she bared her teeth. “If Crandall thinks Reprise got a good look at her task force, and if she is inclined to launch an attack, she’s going to move as quickly as she can. We have to assume she could be here literally within hours, and if she’s decided to head directly for the Lynx Terminus instead, it’ll take her only one more T-day to get there than it would to get here.

“We may all agree that would be a stupid thing for her to do, but that doesn’t mean she won’t do it. For that matter, we can’t really afford to assume the ships Reprise saw are the only ones they have. What if she’s got a squadron or two sitting in reserve at McIntosh? We’re already looking at more than Anisimovna told the New Tuscans about, so I don’t think it would be a very good idea to think small.”

Terekhov and Oversteegen nodded soberly, and she turned back to Gervais.

“Go ahead and get Bill started on that, Gwen. Then come straight back here. I think it’s going to be a long night.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Gervais said for the third time, and headed for the door.

“In the meantime, Gentlemen,” Michelle resumed, “I believe it’s time the three of us started thinking as deviously as possible. If I were Crandall, and if I meant to go stomp on a bunch of neobarbs, I’d have my wall in motion within twenty-four hours, max. She may not feel that way, though. She may figure she’s got enough of a firepower advantage she can afford to take a little longer, make sure she’s dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in her ops plan before she breaks orbit.”

“Personally, given that the passage time is over a T-month, I’d do my operational planning en route, Ma’am,” Terekhov said.

“So would I,” she agreed. “And that’s what I’m going to assume she’s done. But even though we’re going to plan for the worst, I can at least hope for the best, and the best in this case would be her taking long enough for our Invictus battle squadrons to get here before she does. Or for their Apollo pods to get here, at least. No?”

“I could certainly agree with that,” Oversteegen acknowledged with a small smile.

“And when she does get here — assuming, of course, that she’s coming — I want to accomplish four things.

“First, I want her to underestimate our actual combat power as badly as possible. I realize she’s almost certainly already doing that, but let’s encourage the tendency in every way we can.

“Second, I’d like to push her, to . . . keep her as much off-balance mentally as possible. In a lot of ways, the madder she is, the less likely she is to be thinking very clearly, and that’s probably about the best we can hope for. She’s not going to head for Spindle in strength unless she’s already got blood in her eye, which means it’s unlikely — hell, the next best thing to it impossible! — that she’s planning on presenting any sort of terms or demands Baroness Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar are remotely likely to accept. So if push is going to come to shove anyway, I’d just as soon have her making angry decisions instead of good ones.”

She looked at her two subordinate flag officers, and Oversteegen cocked his head and pursed his lips thoughtfully, then nodded.

“Third,” she continued after a moment, “and although I realize it’s going to sound a little strange after what I just said about pushing her, I’d be just as happy to stall for as long as possible. If Baroness Medusa can get her to burn a day or two in ‘negotiations’ before anyone actually pulls a trigger, so much the better.”

“Is that really very likely, Ma’am?” Commander Culpepper asked dubiously. “Especially if she’s underestimating the odds and we’ve managed to piss her off on top of it?

“If I may, Ma’am?” Terekhov said. Michelle nodded, and Terekhov looked at Oversteegen’s chief of staff. “What it comes down to, Marty,” he said, “is how much Crandall thinks she can get for nothing. If the Baroness can convince her there’s even a possibility she might surrender the system without firing a shot, she’s likely to be willing to spend at least a little while talking before she starts shooting. And I’m pretty sure that with a little thought, we ought to be able to. . . irritate her significantly, let’s say, while simultaneously reminding her that sooner or later she’s going to have to justify her actions to her military and civilian superiors. However belligerent she may be feeling, and however angry she may be, she’s got to know it’ll look a lot better in the ‘faxes if she can report she’s ‘controlled the situation’ without any more fighting.”

“And she’s more likely t’ feel that way if she does decide she’s got a crushin’ tactical superiority,” Oversteegen added. “She’s already goin’ t’ be assumin’ exactly that, whatever we do, so there’s no point tryin’ t’ convince her she should just turn around and go home while she’s still in one piece. Which suggests th’ Admiral here has a point. No matter how pissed off she is, there’s probably a damned good chance we can keep her talkin’ long enough t’ convince her superiors — or th’ newsies, at least — that she tried real hard t’ talk us into surrenderin’ like nice, timid little neobarbs before she had no choice but t’ blow us all t’ kingdom come.”

“That’s what I hope, but Marty’s got a point that it could also work the other way,” Michelle pointed out. “If she feels confident she can punch right through anything in front of her, that may actually make her more impatient. Especially if she was already feeling the need to inflict a little punishment as revenge for what happened to Jean Bart even before we started pushing back at her.” Her expression was grim. “Don’t overlook that probability. We’ve bloodied the SLN’s nose, and we’ve done it very publicly. I’d say it’s a lot more likely than not that what she really wants is to hammer us so hard no other neobarb navy is ever going to dare to follow our example.”

“Wonderful,” Lecter muttered, and Michelle surprised herself with a bark of laughter.

“Trust me, Cindy. If that is the way she’s thinking, she’s in for a rude awakening. I’d really prefer to stall, as I said, in the hope the Admiralty’s managed to expedite our reinforcements and they come over the alpha wall in the proverbial nick of time. I’m not going to hold my breath counting on that, though, and I’m not going to delay a single minute if it looks like they mean to keep right on coming. Which brings me to the fourth thing I want to be certain we accomplish.”

She paused, and silence hovered for a second or two until Oversteegen broke it.

“And that fourth thing would be what, Milady?” he asked.

“The instant any Solly warship crosses the Spindle hyper limit inbound,” Michelle Henke said flatly, “the gloves come off. There won’t be any preliminary surrender demands this time, and despite whatever Admiral Crandall may be thinking, we’re not going to be thinking in terms of a fighting retreat, either. I think it’s about time we find out just how accurate our assumptions about Battle Fleet’s combat capability really are.”