Bad news, this is the final snippet.

Mission Of Honor – Snippet 61

Bautista started to open his mouth angrily, but Vice Admiral Ou-Yang Zhing-Wei, Crandall’s operations officer, spoke up before he could.

“I’m disinclined to think they could have a great deal more range Pépé, but Commander Shavarshyan is right. It’s a possibility we have to bear in mind.”

“Yes, it is,” Crandall agreed, although she manifestly didn’t like doing so. “All the same,” she continued, “it really doesn’t matter in the long run. Assuming Gruner’s observations and Sigbee’s report were accurate at all, we already knew we were going to be out-ranged by at least some of these people’s missiles. On the other hand, I agree with Sigbee — and with you, Commander — that no missile big enough to do that could be fired from missile tubes the size of the ones we’ve actually observed aboard even those big-assed Manty battlecruisers. So they had to come from pods.”

She shrugged. Like the woman herself, it was a ponderous movement, without grace yet imbued with a self-aware sense of power.

“But whether they came from pods or missile tubes, they can’t have the fire control links to coordinate enough of them to swamp the task force’s point defense, and their accuracy at such extended ranges — assuming they actually have even more range — has to be poor. I know some of them will get through. We’ll take damage — hell, we may even lose a ship or two! — but there’s no way they’re going to stop a solid wall of battle this size by just chucking missiles at it. And I’m not going to let them bluff me into going easy on them because of some kind of imagined ‘super weapon’ they’ve got!”

She snorted in contempt, and her eyes were harder than ever.

“By now that damned destroyer of theirs must’ve gotten back to Spindle. I imagine that once they all got done crapping their skinsuits, they sent home for reinforcements. But after the reaming they got from the Havenites, they can’t have much left to reinforce with. So we’re just going to turn up and be their worst nightmare, and we’re going to do it right now.”

“I understand your thinking, Ma’am,” Ou-yang said. “And I agree we need to move quickly. But it’s one of my responsibilities to see to it that we don’t get hurt any worse than we can help while we pin their ears back the way they’ve got coming. And just between you and me, I’m not all that fond of surprises, even from neobarbs.”

She rolled her almond eyes drolly with the last phrase, and Crandall chuckled. At least, that was what Shavarshyan thought the sound was. It was difficult, sometimes, to differentiate between the admiral’s snorts of contempt and snorts of amusement. In fact, the commander wasn’t certain there was a difference.

At the same time, he had to admire Ou-yang’s technique. The operations officer was the closest thing to an ally he had on Crandall’s staff, and he rather thought she shared some of the suspicions which kept him awake at night. For example, there was that nagging question of exactly how someone like Josef Byng, a Battle Fleet officer with limitless contempt for Frontier Fleet, had ended up in command of the Frontier Fleet task force he’d led so disastrously to New Tuscany. Given the involvement of Manpower and Technodyne in what had happened in Monica, and knowing some of the dirty little secrets he wasn’t supposed to know about Commissioner Verrochio and Vice Commissioner Hongbo, Shavarshyan had a pretty fair idea of who’d been pulling strings behind the scenes to bring that about.

Which brought him to the even more nagging question of exactly how Admiral Crandall had chosen the remote hinterlands of the Madras Sector for her “Exercise Winter Forage.” He was willing to admit the distance from any of Battle Fleet’s lavish bases in the Core and Shell made the sector a reasonable place to evaluate the logistic train’s ability to sustain a force of Battle Fleet wallers for the duration of an extended campaign. On the other hand, they could have done the same thing within a couple of dozen light-years of the Sol System itself, if they’d wanted to pick one of the thoroughly useless, unsettled star systems in the vicinity and just park there.

But even granting that Battle Fleet had decided it just had to actually deploy its evaluation fleet hundreds of light-years from anywhere in particular in the first Battle Fleet deployment to the Verge in more than division strength in the better part of a century, it still struck him as peculiar that Sandra Crandall should have chosen this particular spot, at this particular time, to carry out an exercise which had been discussed off and on for decades. And one possible explanation for the peculiarity lay in the fact that someone had obviously had the juice to get Byng assigned out here and get him to agree to the assignment. If they could accomplish that outright impossibility, Hago Shavarshyan didn’t see any reason they couldn’t accomplish the mere implausibility of getting Crandall out here for “Winter Forage.”

He didn’t care for that explanation at all, which unfortunately made it no less likely. But it did leave him with another burning question.

How deep inside Manpower’s pocket was Sandra Crandall? Shavarshyan hadn’t been a Frontier Fleet intelligence officer for the last fifteen T-years without learning how things happened here in the Verge. So the fact that Manpower had an “understanding” with Verrochio and Hongbo had come as no surprise. He was surprised by Manpower’s apparent reach inside Battle Fleet and the SLN in general, but it wasn’t that much of a stretch from the arrangements he’d already known about. So he could more or less handle the concept of individual Battle Fleet admirals taking marching orders from Manpower.

He’d come to the conclusion that Byng, at least, had been more in the nature of a ballistic projectile than a guided missile, however. Certainly no one with any sense would have relied upon his competence to accomplish any task more complicated than robbing a candy store. If he’d been running an operation that sent Josef Byng out here, it would have been only because he anticipated that the man’s sheer stupidity and bigotry would steer him into doing pretty much exactly what he’d actually done. He certainly wouldn’t have taken the chance of explaining his real objectives to him, and he would never have relied upon the man’s nonexistent competence when it came to achieving those objectives.

At first, Shavarshyan had assumed Manpower had been as confident of Byng’s ability to smash the Manties as Byng himself had been. On that basis, his initial conclusion had been that New Tuscany represented the failure of their plans. But then he’d started thinking about Crandall’s presence. If they’d been confident Byng could handle the job, why go to the undoubted expense (and probably the risk) of getting seventy -plus ships-of-the-wall assigned for backup? That sounded more as if they’d expected Byng to get reamed . . . which, after all, was precisely what had happened.

Assuming all of that was true, the question which had taken on a certain burning significance for Hago Shavarshyan since his unexpected staff reassignment was what they expected to happen to Crandall’s command. Was Byng supposed to provide the pretext while Crandall provided the club? Or was Crandall simply Byng written larger? Was she supposed to get reamed, as well? And was she aware of how her — call them ‘patrons’ — expected and wanted things to turn out? Or was she another ballistic projectile, launched on her way in the confident expectation that she would follow her preordained trajectory to whatever end they had in mind?

If, in fact, Crandall was intentionally cooperating with Manpower, it seemed pretty clear Ou-yang Zhing-wei wasn’t part of the program. Bautista was basically another Byng, as far as Shavarshyan could tell, but Ou-yang obviously had functioning synapses and a forebrain larger than an olive. In fact, it was the operations officer who’d convinced Crandall that she had to at least attempt a negotiated outcome instead of simply opening fire the minute she crossed the hyper limit. Bautista had all but accused Ou-yang of cowardice, and Crandall clearly hadn’t cared for the note of moderation, but Ou-yang was at least as good at managing her admiral as she was at carrying out training simulations.

And the fact that it took this fat-assed task force a solid week to get underway probably helped, the commander thought sourly from behind his expressionless face. Not even Crandall can argue that we’re going to have the advantage of surprise when we arrive!

He’d heard about Crandall’s tirade in Verrochio’s office, complete with its vow to be underway for Spindle within forty-eight hours. Unfortunately, the real life lethargy of Battle Fleet’s stimulus-and-response cycle had gotten in her way.

Welcome to reality, Admiral Crandall, he thought even more sourly. I hope it doesn’t bite your ass as hard as I’m afraid it will, given that my ass is likely to get bitten right along with yours.