Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Not much of a picket, is it?” Michelle Henke commented quietly to Cynthia Lecter, twelve days after her conversation with Josef Byng, as HMS Achilles and the other three ships of the first division of Battlecruiser Squadron 106 decelerated towards a leisurely rendezvous with the ships Augustus Khumalo had detached to keep an eye on the Tillerman System when he returned to Spindle from Monica.

“No, Ma’am,” Lecter agreed, equally quietly. “On the other hand, Admiral Khumalo didn’t have a lot to work with. And I don’t think anyone expected Vice Admiral O’Malley to be recalled quite so . . . precipitously.”
“You do have a way with words, don’t you, Cindy?” Michelle smiled without very much humor, but she had to admit that Lecter had made an excellent point. Two of them, in fact.
Which leaves me with a not-so-minor problem of my own, she thought dryly. Nobody had a clue the Sollies were going to send such a big-assed task force straight out to Monica to wave in our face. But now we know they have . . . and that we are going back to war with Haven, too. So do I reinforce Tillerman by detaching a couple of battlecruisers, or do I leave Tillerman like it is and take everybody I’ve got back to Spindle to keep things concentrated?
The question was, unfortunately, one she wouldn’t be able to duck, much as she might have wished she could do exactly that. The mere notion of dividing her forces in the face of any potential threat from the Solarian League was calculated to inflict insomnia on any fleet commander. On the one hand, the three days she’d spent in Monica had convinced her that whatever else Josef Byng might be in the vicinity to accomplish, it wasn’t to reassure one Michelle Henke of his friendly and pacific intent. So if she didn’t reinforce the pair of over-aged light cruisers and the single destroyer Khumalo had been able to station here, she risked sending the entirely wrong signal not just to him but to everyone else in the Talbott Quadrant. She dared not give anyone — especially Byng — the impression that she would be unwilling to run serious risks, or even fight, to defend the territory and citizens of the newborn Star Empire of Manticore. For that matter, she had both a legal and a moral responsibility to do just that, regardless of the nature of the threat.
On the other hand, even a pair of Nikes might find themselves hard-pressed against all of Byng’s battlecruisers at once. Despite the advantages in range and hitting power the Mark 16 and Mark 23 provided for the RMN, enough effective missile defense could go a long way towards blunting that advantage, and no one had any way to assess just how effective SLN missile-defense doctrine might actually be. Michelle strongly doubted that it would be enough to tip the odds in the Sollies’ favor, but she couldn’t be positive of that before the fact. Worse, even if it turned out after the fact that two Nikes were, indeed, a match for everything Byng had, Byng wouldn’t know that ahead of time, either. For that matter, he’d never admit it — probably even to himself — no matter how much evidence anyone presented to him before the shooting started. Michelle had seen enough Manticoran officers who were capable of that sort of self-delusion when it suited their prejudices. Someone like Byng would be able to pull that off effortlessly.
And if he doesn’t recognize — or admit — the threat even exists, then the “threat” won’t deter him for a moment, will it? she thought bitingly. Aside, of course, from the possibility that taking out our “outnumbered and outgunned” picket would be crossing a line he may have specific orders not to cross.
Yeah. Sure he does. If you’re willing to bank on that, girl, don’t be accepting any real estate deals that involve bridges or magic beans!
She grimaced, then inhaled deeply and glanced over her shoulder at Lieutenant Commander Edwards.
“Contact Devastation, Bill. My compliments to Commander Cramer, and would it be convenient for him to join me for dinner here aboard Achilles at, say, eighteen-thirty hours?”
“Aye, aye, Ma’am,” the com officer replied, and Michelle turned her attention to Gervais Archer.
“As for you, Gwen,” she said with a smile, “you get to go tell Chris that Commander Cramer will be joining us for dinner. Make sure Captain Armstrong and Commander Dallas know they’re invited, as well.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Gervais replied gravely. He supposed some might argue that the admiral was being just a bit presumptuous to be organizing dinner parties when the guest of honor hadn’t confirmed that he’d be present. On the other hand, it was just a bit difficult for Gervais to conceive of any commander who wouldn’t somehow find it possible to fit an invitation from any admiral into his schedule, no matter how busy it might be.
“Oh, and, Bill,” Michelle said, glancing back at Edwards. “While you’re sending out the invitations, go ahead and invite Captain Conner and Commander Houseman, too.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Commander Wesley Cramer of Her Majesty’s Starship Devastation was a hard-bitten looking officer, forty-one T-years old (which made him three T-months younger than his own cruiser), with dark hair and quartz-hard gray eyes. His neatly clipped mustache mostly hid a scar on his upper lip, one of several souvenirs of a bruising Saganami Island rugby career, and it didn’t look as if he’d mellowed a great deal since leaving the Academy.
Which, Michelle reflected, suited her just fine, under the circumstances.
She examined him with carefully hidden intensity as Gervais Archer ushered him into the magnificent dining cabin BuShips had seen fit to provide for her. Despite the fact that he was both the commander of a Queen’s ship and currently the senior officer assigned to Tillerman, he was also junior to every officer in the compartment except Archer himself. If he was particularly aware of that fact, however, it didn’t seem to weigh too heavily upon him.
“Commander Cramer,” Gervais murmured to her by way of formal introdmction, and she extended her right hand.
“Commander,” she said.
“Milady,” Cramer responded, gripping the offered hand firmly.
“Let me introduce you to everyone,” she continued, turning to her other guests. “Captain Armstrong, of the Achilles, and her XO, Commander Dallas. Captain Conner, of the Penelope, and his XO, Commander Houseman.”
Cramer was busy shaking hands as she spoke, and she gave him a moment to catch up before she turned to the members of her own staff who were present.
“Captain Lecter, my chief of staff; Commander Adenauer, my ops officer; and Lieutenant Commander Treacher, my logistics officer. And I believe you’ve already met Lieutenant Archer, my flag lieutenant.”
It took Cramer a few more moments to shake all of the newly introduced hands, and then Michelle nodded towards the large table under its snow white tablecloth and burden of plates, crystal, and gleaming tableware.
“One of my own previous COs was firmly of the opinion that a good meal was often the basis for the most effective officers’ conferences,” she observed. “Which, in case any of you somehow failed to catch my subtle implication, was an invitation to eat.”