Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 19

April 1922 Post Diaspora

“It’s an imperfect universe. Deal with it.”
— Admiral Michelle Henke

Chapter Five

Chris Billingsley poured the final cup of coffee, set the carafe on the small side table, and withdrew without a word. Vice Admiral Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke, Countess Gold Peak and commanding officer, Tenth Fleet, Royal Manticoran Navy watched him go, then picked up her cup and sipped. Other people were doing the same thing around the conference table, and she wondered how many of them were using it as a stage prop in their effort to project a sense that the universe hadn’t gone mad around them.

If they are, they aren’t doing a very good job of it, she thought grimly. On the other hand, neither am I because as near as I can tell, the universe has gone crazy.

The first intimation of what looked like it was going to come to be called “the Yawata Strike” because of the total destruction of the city of Yawata Crossing had reached Spindle twenty-six hours ago. At that time, all they’d had was the flash message telling them the Manticore Binary System itself had been attacked and that damage to the Star Empire’s industrial capacity had been “severe.” Now the first follow-up report, with a more detailed estimate of the damage — and the casualties — had arrived, and she found herself wishing the message transit time between Spindle and Manticore was longer than eight days. She supposed she should be glad to be kept informed, but she could have gone for years — decades! — without this particular bit of information.

“All right,” she said finally, lowering her cup and glancing at Captain Lecter. “I suppose we may as well get down to it.” She smiled without any humor at all. “I don’t imagine any of you are going to be any happier to hear this than I am. Unfortunately, after we do, we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do about it, and I’m going to want recommendations for Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa. So if any of you — and I mean any of you — happen to be struck by any brilliant insights in the course of Cindy’s briefing, make a note of them. We’re going to need all of them we can get.”

Heads nodded, and she gestured to Lecter.

“The floor is yours, Cindy,” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Lecter didn’t look any happier about the briefing she was about to give than her audience looked about what they knew they were going to hear. She spent a second or two studying the notes she’d made before she looked up and let her blue eyes circle the conference table.

“We have confirmation of the original reports,” she said, “and it’s as bad as we thought it would be. In fact, it’s worse.”

She drew a deep breath, then activated the holo display above the conference table, bringing up the first graphic.

“Direct, immediate civilian loss of life,” she began, “was much worse than any pre-attack worst-case analysis of damage to the space stations had ever suggested, because there was absolutely no warning. As you can see from the graphic, the initial strike on Hephaestus –”

* * *

“I never realized just how much worse a victory could make a defeat taste,” Augustus Khumalo said much later that evening.

He, Michelle, Michael Oversteegen, and Sir Aivars Terekhov sat with Baroness Medusa on the ocean-side balcony of her official residence. The tide was in, and surf made a soothing, rhythmic sound in the darkness, but no one felt very soothed at the moment.

“I know,” Michelle agreed. “It kind of makes everything we’ve accomplished out here look a lot less important, doesn’t it?”

“No, Milady, it most definitely does not,” Medusa said so sharply that Michelle twitched in her chair and looked at the smaller woman in surprise.

“Sorry,” Medusa said after a moment. “I didn’t mean to sound as if I were snapping at you. But you — and Augustus and Aivars and Michael — have accomplished an enormous amount ‘out here.’ Don’t ever denigrate your accomplishments — or yourselves — just because of bad news from somewhere else!”

“You’re right, of course,” Michelle acknowledged after a moment. “It’s just –”

“Just that it feels like the end of the world,” Medusa finished for her when she seemed unable to find the exact words she’d been looking for.

“Maybe not quite that bad, but close,” Michelle agreed.

“Well, it damned well should!” Medusa told her tartly. “Undervaluing your own accomplishments doesn’t necessarily make you wrong about how deep a crack we’re all in right now.”

Michelle nodded. The Admiralty dispatches had pulled no punches. With the devastation of the home system’s industrial capacity, the Royal Manticoran Navy found itself — for the first time since the opening phases of the First Havenite War — facing an acute ammunition shortage. And that shortage was going to get worse — a lot worse — before it got any better. Which was the reason all of Michelle’s remaining shipboard Apollo pods were to be returned to Manticore as soon as possible. Given the concentration of Mark 16-armed units under her command, the Admiralty would try to make up for the differential by supplying her with all of those they could find, and both her warships and her local ammunition ships currently had full magazines. Even so, however, she was going to have to be extraordinarily circumspect in how she expended the rounds available to her, because there weren’t going to be any more for quite a while.

“At least I don’t expect anyone to be eager to poke his nose back into this particular hornets’ nest anytime soon,” she said out loud.

“Unless, of course, whoever hit the home system wants to send his ‘phantom raiders’ our way,” Khumalo pointed out sourly.

“Unlikely, if you’ll forgive me for sayin’ so, Sir,” Oversteegen observed. Khumalo looked at him, and Oversteegen shrugged. “Th’ Admiralty’s estimate that whoever did this was operatin’ on what they used t’ call ‘a shoestring’ seems t’ me t’ be well taken. And, frankly, if they were t’ decide t’ carry out additional attacks of this sort, anything here in th’ Quadrant would have t’ be far less valuable t’ them than a follow up, knock out attack on th’ home system.”