STORM FROM THE SHADOWS – snippet 14:
She thought about Theisman's dinner party. As promised, Admiral Redmont had been present, and under Theisman's watchful eye, Redmont had actually unbent to the point of telling a few modest jokes over the post-dinner wine. Michelle realized she still wasn't very high on his list of favorite people — not surprisingly, when Ajax had killed almost six thousand of his personnel — and he wasn't exactly likely to become her lifetime pen pal, either, given what had happened to her flagship. But at least the two of them had acquired a sense of mutual respect, and she was a bit surprised by how little bitterness there truly was in her feelings where he was concerned.
She hadn't had that sort of baggage with the other dinner guests. Admiral Lester Tourville had been something of a surprise. According to all of the reports she'd ever seen, he was supposed to be something of a loose warhead — one of those colorful, larger-than-life people who would always be far more at home on the command deck of a single battlecruiser fighting a ship-to-ship action somewhere (assuming he couldn't find the eyepatch, cutlass, and flintlock pistols he really wanted) rather than commanding a task force or a fleet. She should have realized those reports could scarcely be accurate, given his string of successes commanding those task forces and fleets. In fact, the only person who'd ever bloodied his nose was Honor, and as nearly as Michelle could tell, honors were about even between the two of them. A point which became much easier to understand when she finally had the opportunity to look into his eyes and see the shrewd, cool, calculating tactician hiding behind what she'd come to suspect was a carefully cultivated façade. In fact, she'd discovered she rather liked him, which she hadn't really expected to.
All things being equal, she was just as happy that she hadn't heard — then — about the masterful job Tourville had done of thoroughly trashing the Zanzibar System and its defenses.
Theisman's other two dinner guests — Vice Admiral Linda Trenis and Rear Admiral Victor Lewis — had also been pleasant enough dinner companions, although she'd found herself feeling definitely grateful for Theisman's promise the meal's beverages would be truth-drug-free. She was reasonably confident the Navy's anti-drug protocols would have worked, but even without that, Trenis and Lewis — especially Lewis — would have made formidable interrogators if Theisman hadn't quietly reminded them this was a social occasion. Given the fact that Trenis commanded the Republican Navy's Bureau of Planning, which made her the equivalent of Second Space Lord Patricia Givens, the commander of the Manticoran Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence, and that Lewis commanded the Office of Operational Research, the Bureau of Planning's primary analysis agency, their ability to put even small fragments together shouldn't have surprised her, she supposed. It was still impressive, though. In fact, pleasant though the evening had been, she'd come to the conclusion that the Republic of Haven's senior command staff had a depressingly high level of general competence.
Most of the time, it was hard to believe that dinner party had been a full six weeks ago. She managed to stay busy here on the island — with a total prisoner population of almost nine thousand, there was always something that needed her attention, despite Turner's efficiency — which kept boredom at bay most days. And Charlie-Seven's island home was far enough north to provide the occasional interesting storm, now that this hemisphere's autumn was well advanced. Some of the POWs, she knew, found those storms less than reassuring. She wasn't one of them, however. The camp's sturdy, storm-tight buildings stood up to the howling wind without any particular difficulty, and the surf on the island's rocky southern beaches was truly spectacular. In fact, she found the local storms invigorating, although McGregor insisted they were mere zephyrs compared to a real Gryphon storm.
Still, there were days when the fact of her captivity, however little like the brutality of StateSec from the last war it might be, ground down upon her. When she looked out the window of her office and saw not sky and sea, but an enemy planet, where she was held prisoner, powerless, unable to protect the Star Kingdom she loved. And that, she knew, was going to get only worse in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Before too long, I'm probably going to be grateful for the distraction of snafus in the vegetable deliveries, she reflected. Golly! Isn't that something to look forward to?
"Excuse me, Ma'am."
Michelle twitched and looked up quickly from her reverie as a head poked in through her office door. The head in question was belonged to one of the very few men she'd ever met who'd probably been in the Service as long as — and, she suspected, racked up more demerits in his youth as — Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness.
"Yes, Chris?" Michelle's tone was pleasant, although she felt an inner pang every time she looked at Master Steward Chris Billingsley.
Her steward of many years, Clarissa Arbuckle, had never cleared Ajax. Billingsley had been provided as Clarissa's replacement once Michelle arrived at Charlie-Seven. The good news was that, physically, Billingsley reminded her as little as anyone possibly could of Clarissa. He was about James MacGuiness' age, and — like MacGuiness — a first-generation prolong recipient. And, unlike Clarissa, he was not simply male but solidly, if compactly, built with a rather luxuriant beard he'd grown since his capture. That would have been more than enough to differentiate him from Clarissa in Michelle's mind even without . . . certain other differences. Obviously, as a prisoner-of-war, his personnel file hadn't followed him to Charlie-Seven, which was probably not a bad thing in his case, since he was undoubtedly what the Service had always described as A Character.
Actually, the Service had a great many serviceable — and quite probably more accurate — terms for describing someone like Master Steward Billingsley. It was just that he was far too likable for Michelle to have the heart to apply them to him. And, in all fairness, he seemed to have mostly reformed his more questionable ways. To be sure, Michelle suspected that he had, upon occasion, during his stay here on Nouveau Paris, supplied certain minor but highly desired luxuries to his fellow POWs by way of not quite legal transactions with the Peeps. And if there were a game of chance — especially one involving dice — within a half light-year, Master Steward Billingsley knew where it was, knew who was playing, and had a reserved seat. Then there was that minor matter of the distillery he'd once been involved with, purely as a part of his social responsibility to help provide the camp medical staff with medicinal alcohol.
Despite his various shenanigans, and what Michelle was sure a novelist fond of clichés would have described as "a checkered past," he was one of those people who was always popular with the officers he served under and the enlisted personnel he served with. Almost despite herself, Michelle had found herself warming to his undeniable charm, despite the fact that the mere fact of his presence reminded her of Clarissa's absence, like a wound which refused to truly heal. That wasn't even remotely Billingsley's fault, though, and Michelle more than suspected that he'd figured out what she felt, and why, for he was surprisingly sensitive and considerate of her wounds.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," he said now, "but there's an air car inbound, ETA twenty minutes, and we've just received a message from Captain Bouvier's office. For you, Ma'am."
"What sort of message?" Michelle's eyes narrowed speculatively.
"Ma'am, Captain Bouvier presents Secretary Theisman's compliments and requests that you make yourself available to the Secretary at your earliest convenience."
The eyes which had narrowed widened abruptly, and she glanced quickly at Turner and McGregor. They looked as surprised as she felt.
"And may I presume," she said, turning back to Billingsley, "that the imminent arrival of the air car you mentioned has something to do with my 'earliest convenience'?"
"I'd say that's a fairly safe conclusion, Ma'am," Billingsley said gravely. "Especially since the same message from Captain Bouvier specifically requested that I pack a bag for you, and one for myself."
"I see." Michelle looked at him for a moment longer, then inhaled. "All right, Chris. If you'll see to that, Commodore Turner and Colonel McGregor and I have a few details we should probably discuss before I go haring off to wherever it is we're going."