Chapter Twenty-Three

Just under twenty-five T-days after leaving Spindle, Michelle Henke’s flagship crossed the alpha wall into the star system of Monica. Michelle sat in her command chair on Achilles’ flag deck, watching her displays and wondering what sort of reception she and her ships were likely to receive.

The dispatch boat with O’Malley’s orders had sailed directly from the Lynx Terminus to Monica, without detouring by Spindle. That had saved it the better part of eleven days in transit, and the boat which had brought copies of his orders to Spindle had arrived there three days before Michelle had departed. Which meant, by her math, that O’Malley’s task group had received its marching orders just under two T-weeks ago. Assuming Hexapuma’s and Warlock’s repairs had completed on schedule, they should have been ready to head home even before that, which would have freed O’Malley from any concerns for their security if he withdrew immediately in response to his orders. So, assuming everything had gone the way it was supposed to, there would be no Manticoran warship waiting here in Monica to greet her.
And somehow I don’t really think ‘President Tyler’ is going to be particularly happy to see me, either, even if we are “treaty partners” now, she thought sardonically. So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sort of scout the area before I head in-system.
The planet of Monica itself lay just over eleven light-minutes inside the G3 primary’s 20.6-light-minute hyper limit, and Captain Conner’s division’s closing speed was barely two thousand kilometers per second. At maximum military power with zero safety margin on her inertial compensator, Achilles’ maximum acceleration was better than 6.5 KPS2, which was a third again what any prewar ship of her tonnage could have turned out. Even at the eighty percent of maximum power which was the RMN’s normal top acceleration, she could produce 5.3 KPS2, which was still the next best thing to half a kilometer per second better than the old-style compensators could have produced running flat out. Given the present . . . delicate state of affairs with the Solarian League, the Admiralty had decided it might be wiser not to flaunt all of the Navy’s current capabilities where Solly warships might see them. According to ONI’s best current appreciations, the Solarians remained unaware of many of those capabilities. Some people — including Michelle — took that appreciation with a certain grain of salt, although she had to admit it wasn’t as preposterous as it might have been if they’d been talking about any other navy in space.
It was obvious to anyone who’d ever had to deal with the Solarian League Navy that the SLN suffered from an extraordinarily severe case of professional myopia. The League’s navy was divided into two primary components: Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet. Of the two, Battle Fleet was the bigger and the more prestigious, but Frontier Fleet actually did the lion’s share of the SLN’s real work. Given the League’s enormous size, population, and industrial power, it was scarcely surprising that the SLN was far and away the biggest fleet in human history. Unfortunately for the League, the SLN knew it was the biggest, most powerful, most advanced fleet in human history . . . and at least one — and possibly two — of those well known facts were no longer true.
The League’s towering sense of superiority where any “neobarb” star nation was concerned, while scarcely one of its more endearing qualities, didn’t normally constitute a direct threat to the League’s security. When it’s navy shared that same sense of superiority (and burnished it with the institutional arrogance of a service which had existed literally for centuries and never known defeat), that wasn’t exactly the case, however. Despite the fact that several of the League’s member planets had sent observers from their locally raised and maintained system-defense forces to both Manticore and Haven, the SLN itself, so far as Michelle was aware, never had. There was, after all, no reason for it to concern itself with what a couple of minor, neo-barbarian polities on the backside of beyond might be up to. Even assuming that Manticore and Haven hadn’t been too busy killing each other (no doubt with the equivalent of clubs and flint hand-axes), both of them together couldn’t possibly have built a fleet large enough to threaten the League, and the thought that two such insignificant so-called star nations could have appreciably improved upon the technology of the incomparable Solarian League Navy was ludicrous.
No one at ONI doubted for a moment that the SDF observers had offered their reports to the SLN. The majority opinion, however, was that the SLN’s institutional blinkers were so solidly in place that those reports had been quietly filed and ignored . . . assuming they hadn’t simply been tossed. The SDFs were only local defense forces, after all — the backup, second-string militia to the SLN’s professional, first-string team. They were obviously going to be more parochial in their viewpoints, and, without the SLN’s sound basis of training and vast experience, they were also likely to be unduly alarmist. Not to mention the fact that without the solid core of institutional and professional competence of the regular navy, their “observers” were far more prone to misunderstand — or even be deliberately misled by — what the neobarbs in question made sure they actually saw. Even if Solly naval intelligence was willing to grant their complete sincerity, the analytical methods already in place, relying upon tested and proven techniques, were bound to be more reliable than reports from what were little more than reservist observers who’d probably been steered to what the locals wanted them to see in the first place.
That, at any rate, was how ONI read the SLN’s current attitudes and decision trees, and the Sollies’ failure to deploy any significant improvements in their own military hardware certainly seemed to validate that interpretation, although Michelle, for one, preferred not to invest too much confidence in that particular assumption. The mere fact that no new hardware was being deployed didn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t being developed, after all, and for all its arrogance and condescension, the fact remained that the League had the greatest pool of human talent and wealth of any political unit in human history. If the SLN ever got its collective head out of its ass, that talent and wealth could almost certainly make it just as scary as it already thought it was.
Whether or not there was more R&D going on than anyone was mentioning, ONI’s sources within the Solly navy all seemed pretty much in agreement that the vast majority of Solarian naval officers put very little credence in the obviously wildly exaggerated claims about Manticoran and Havenite military technology. Based on evidence from the Battle of Monica, the Sollies (or one of their major defense suppliers, at any rate) were at least experimenting with newer-generation missile pods, which was something they’d previously disdained, and their missiles drives had proven surprisingly powerful and with greater endurance than anyone had really expected. But none of the missiles they’d fired — or, rather, supplied to Monica — had been MDMs, their pods hadn’t had the new-generation grav-drivers which were so much a part of Manticore’s designs, and there’d been no reports of increases in basic Solarian warship acceleration rates, which were incredibly low and inefficient compared to those of the Manticoran Alliance or even the Republic of Haven. After stirring all of that together and pondering it carefully, the Office of Naval Intelligence had come to the conclusion that at least some improvements could be anticipated out of the SLN, possibly as the result of privately sponsored in-house research and development by people like Technodyne, but that significant improvements were unlikely, at least in the short term.
Bearing that in mind, the Admiralty had instructed all of its captains not to exceed seventy percent of maximum military power in the presence of Solarian warships. The use of Ghost Rider and FTL coms was also to be minimized. And no MDM live-fire exercises were to be conducted in Solarian space.
All of which meant that Achilles’ maximum allowable acceleration was only 4.7 KPS2, and that it would take almost three and a half hours to reach a parking orbit around Monica. That was plenty of time for her to deploy recon drones to take a close look at the local real estate and report back, even using light-speed communications links.
“All right, Dominica,” Michelle said, glancing at Commander Adenauer. “Confirm that the grav-pulse coms are shut down, then go ahead and fire them off.”
“Aye, aye, Ma’am,” the operations officer replied. She checked her own readouts carefully, then keyed in the command. “Drones away, Ma’am.”
“Very good.”
Michelle tipped back her command chair, waiting patiently as Achilles and the other ships of her first-division accelerated steadily — if slowly — towards Monica.