Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 26

Chapter Seven

Vice Admiral Gold Peak stood in the late-night quiet of her day cabin in a pair of comfortably worn sweats and fluffy purple treecat bedroom slippers. Her shoulders were hunched, her hands were shoved deep into her sweat shirt’s pockets, and she glowered — undeniably, she glowered — at the outsized holographic display. One side of that display showed a detailed, if small-scale, schematic of the Spindle System; the other side showed a breakdown of her current fleet strength. If she’d cared to turn her head and look at the smart wall behind her, she would have seen a star chart of the entire Talbott Quadrant, as well. At the moment, however, she was concentrating fairly hard on not looking at that chart, since she found herself rather in the position of someone with insufficient icing to cover the birthday cake she’d just been given.

Hell of a birthday party, she reflected morosely, although to be fair it wouldn’t be her birthday — her sixty-fourth birthday, to be precise — for another two days. Given the amount of time she’s spent trundling around the universe at relativistic velocities, her subjective age was a good three years less than that, but no one worried about that when it came time to keeping track of birthdays. And the Royal Manticoran Navy used its own calendar, not someone’s subjective experience, to determine relative seniority, as well.

She considered that last point for a moment, then grimaced as she thought about the rank insignia sitting in the upper drawer of the desk behind her. The ones she would be allowed to officially pin onto her uniform collar in two days.

I can just see Beth grinning all over her face when she saw the official date of rank. Hell, for that matter I’ll bet she damned well had the original date changed to make sure it fell on my birthday! Just the sort of thing she’d do.

There could be disadvantages to being the Empress of Manticore’s first cousin and next in line for the crown after Elizabeth Winton’s two children and her brother. Especially for someone who’d spent her entire career aggressively fighting even the appearance of nepotism. She remembered the day her best friend had ripped a strip off of her for the way her avoidance of anything which could have been construed as preferential treatment had slowed her career, and the memory made her snort in amusement.

Well, I’ve made up for it since, haven’t I, Honor? Forty-one years from the Academy to vice admiral, then only eleven T-months to full admiral! Talk about a career catching fire. Of course, her amusement faded, it would have been nice if the rest of the galaxy hadn’t decided to catch fire right along with it.

She shook her head as the weight of those waiting admiral’s stars ground down upon her. She wondered sometimes if perhaps the real reason she’d so zealously avoided favoritism was because she’d feared the responsibilities that came with exalted rank and hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself. She’d certainly found herself wishing over the last year or so that she could have handed the ones currently bearing down on her to someone else.

She imagined there was a lot of that going around, too.

She inhaled deeply and gave herself an impatient shake. Brooding about the unfairness of the universe was about the least effective way of dealing with that unfairness she could think of, and she made herself re-focus her attention on the numbers and ship names before her.

While there might be a few people who suspected her rapid promotion was due primarily to who she’d chosen as a cousin, there were undoubtedly a lot more who saw it as a reward for Tenth Fleet’s smashing triumph in the Battle of Spindle. For that matter, there was almost certainly a political element in it, as well, since the promotion was yet another way for Empress Elizabeth — Michelle was still working on remembering her cousin was an empress these days, not “just” a queen — to demonstrate her approval and support for Michelle’s actions. A way to re-emphasize to the rest of the galaxy, and especially to the Solarian League, that the Star Empire of Manticore had no intention of backing down before the threat of the League’s massive economic and military power.

Michelle was confident her family connections had played the smallest part in the decision. She’d have been even happier if she could have been certain they’d played no part at all, but she happened to live in the real universe, and politics and diplomacy would always be politics and diplomacy. That was one reason she’d chosen the Navy instead of going into politics herself. Yet there was another aspect to it, as well, and she knew it.

If Elizabeth was going to retain her in command of Tenth Fleet (and it would have been impossible to relieve Michelle without looking like Manticore was backing down), Michelle needed the rank to go with the growing strength of her command. No less than four vice admirals, all senior to her, had been added to Tenth Fleet over the last month or so. It was always awkward when a junior commanded a senior, so the Admiralty had cut this particular Gordian knot by once again promoting Michelle “out of the zone.” Which was why in two days’ time she’d be exchanging the pair of stars on each point of her collar for a trio and replacing the three broad rings on her uniform cuffs with four. Which, at the tender age (for a prolong society) of only sixty-four, was a meteoric rise, indeed.

Unfortunately, even with the number of flag officers being added to it, Tenth Fleet remained badly understrength for its obligations. With upwards of a dozen star systems to defend, spread throughout an area of responsibility which stretched over two hundred and thirty light-years from the Lynx Terminus to the Scarlet System and four hundred from Tillerman to Celebrant, she could have wished for at least twice her assigned order of battle. And that would have been if she’d been worried about defending it against any reasonably sized foe, rather than the Solarian League. But whatever she could have wished, her total strength, after the dust settled, was only seventy-seven hyper-capable combatants. On the other hand, twenty of those were CLACs, which gave her just over two thousand light attack craft, and present-generation Manticoran LACs were nothing to sneer at. Especially against someone whose designs were as obsolescent — or even outright obsolete — as the SLN’s had demonstrated themselves to be. The Sollies still might not be prepared to accept that anything as small as a LAC could possibly threaten a capital ship, but if they did think that, and if they attempted to prove it, they’d be sailing into a universe of hurt. The only problem was that what happened to them wasn’t going to keep a lot of Michelle Henke’s spacers from getting killed right along with them.