“We’ve been hailed by the Monicans, Ma’am,” Captain Armstrong said from Michelle’s com screen. “Finally.”
Her voice was dust-dry, and Michelle chuckled as her flag captain added the final word.
“And they said?” she inquired.

“And they said we’re welcome to Monica, Ma’am. Personally, I expect they’re lying diplomatically through their teeth, given what happened the last time Queen’s ships came calling here, but at least they’re being polite.”
“Did they happen to mention their Solarian visitors?”
“Not in so many words. They did instruct us to assume a parking orbit a minimum of eight thousand klicks clear of the closest Solly, though.”
“Probably not a bad idea even if they hadn’t made the suggestion official,” Michelle said. “All right, Vicki. Go ahead and park as.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Clear.”
Armstrong nodded respectfully to Michelle, then disappeared from the display, and Michelle turned to Lecter, Edwards, and Adenauer, who stood in a loose semicircle around her command chair.
“So far, so good,” she said. “And God knows I don’t want to ruffle any Solly feathers any more than we have to. Nonetheless, Dominica, I think it would be a good idea to keep a very close eye on them. Let’s make it passives only, but if a gnat breaks wind aboard one of those ships, I want to know about it. And inform all units that we’ll maintain our own status at Readiness Two indefinitely.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
Adenauer’s expression was sober, and Michelle didn’t blame her. Readiness Two was also known as “General Quarters.” It meant that all of a ship’s engineering and life-support systems were fully manned, of course, but it also meant her combat information center and tactical department were fully manned, as well. That her passive sensors were fully manned; that her active sensors were at immediate readiness; that her point defense laser clusters were active and enabled under computer control; that her counter-missile launchers had rounds in the tubes and backup rounds in the loading arms; that her passive defensive systems and EW were on-line, ready for instant activation; that her offensive missile tubes were prepped and loaded; and that the human backup crews for half her energy weapons were sealed into their armored capsules with the atmosphere in the surrounding spaces evacuated to protect them against the effects of blast. The other half of her energy weapons would be brought up and manned on a rotating basis to allow crew rest for the on-mount personnel, and twenty-five percent of her watch personnel from all other departments would be allowed rotating rest breaks, in order to allow her to remain at Readiness Two for extended periods.
In short, except for bringing up her wedge and sidewalls and running out her energy weapons, Achilles and every one of Michelle’s other battlecruisers, would be ready to respond almost instantly to any Solarian act of aggression.
Of course, it’s that “almost instantly” that’s the killer, Michelle reflected. Especially at this piddling little range. They could reach us with their damned laser clusters, far less their broadside mounts! Keeping our wedges and sidewalls up in parking orbit would certainly be construed as a hostile act by the Sollies or the Monicans, and rightly so. But that means that if someone else decides to pull the trigger, they’ll probably blow the ever-loving shit out of us before we can respond, anyway. Still, it’s the thought that counts.
“I don’t want to do anything that could be construed as provocative, Cindy,” she continued aloud, switching her attention to the chief of staff.
It wasn’t as if Lecter didn’t already know that perfectly well, but Michelle had learned a long time ago that it was far better to make absolutely certain of something like that than it was to discover the hard way that someone hadn’t in fact known something “perfectly” . . . or, for that matter, at all.
“At the same time,” Michelle went on as Lecter nodded, “I don’t have any intention of letting these people ‘Thunderbolt’ us while we sit here fat, happy, and stupid. So I want you to help Dominica ride herd on CIC. If we pick up any status change aboard any of those Solly ships, I want to know about it before they do.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
“Good. And now,” Michelle drew a deep breath and turned her attention to Edwards, “I suppose it’s time I did my duty and checked in with our hosts personally. And, of course,” she smiled without any humor at all, “with our fellow visitors to this pleasant little corner of the universe. Please raise the Monican port admiral for me, Bill.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The conversation with Rear Admiral Jane Garcia, Monica Traffic Control’s senior officer, went rather better than Michelle had anticipated.
Garcia didn’t even attempt to pretend she was happy to see Michelle’s battlecruisers, for which Michelle couldn’t blame her. Having been a prisoner of war herself, she had a better appreciation than many Manticoran officers might have of just how bitter a pill it must have been to see the destruction of virtually Monica’s entire navy. Undoubtedly a great many of Garcia’s personal friends — quite probably family members, as well, given the way military service tended to run in families in most star nations — had been killed along the way. And however much Manticore might have regarded Monica as a corrupt, venal tool of Frontier Security, the Union was Garcia’s star nation. Its ignominious surrender, and the fashion in which Manticore had dictated peace terms afterward, could only have made Garcia’s anger worse.
Despite that, the other woman’s demeanor had been crisp and professional. Although she hadn’t welcomed Michelle to Monica, she’d been surprisingly courteous otherwise. Her lips might have tightened just a moment when Michelle asked her to pass her compliments to President Tyler, but she’d nodded almost naturally, then asked if Michelle had any pressing service requirements.
With that out of the way, unfortunately, Michelle no longer had any excuse for not contacting the Solarian senior officer. Fortunately, Garcia had volunteered the Solly’s name.
“All right, Bill,” Michelle sighed. “Go ahead and raise Admiral Byng’s flagship. I suppose –”
“Just a minute, Ma’am,” Cynthia Lecter interrupted respectfully. Michelle paused and looked at her chief of staff, one eyebrow arched, and Lecter nodded towards the display in front of her at her own command station.
“I’ve just been looking at ONI’s records, Ma’am,” she said. “I punched in Admiral Byng’s name, and it looks like I got a direct hit.”
Both of Michelle’s eyes rose in surprise. The Office of Naval Intelligence did its best to keep track of the senior personnel of other navies, but its records on the SLN were sparser than on, say, the Republic of Haven or the Andermani Empire. Despite the Manticoran merchant marine’s deep penetration of the League’s carrying trade, the Solarian Navy had been assigned a far lower priority than more local — and pressing — threats over the past half-century or so. And the fact that the SLN was so damned big didn’t help. The same absolute number of officers represented a far smaller percentage of the total Solly officer corps, all of which helped to explain why it was actually unusual to find any given Solarian officer in the database.
“I think so, at any rate,” Lecter replied. “It’s always possible they have more than one Admiral Josef Byng, I suppose.”
“Given the size of their damned navy?” Michelle snorted. “I’d say the odds were pretty good, actually.” She shrugged. “Well, go ahead and shoot me whatever you’ve found.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
The entry which appeared on Michelle’s display a moment later was surprisingly long. For reasons which became depressingly clear as she skimmed through it.
The file imagery showed a tall, aristocratic-looking man with chestnut hair, just starting to go gray at the temples, and sharp blue eyes. He had a strong chin and sported a bristling mustache and a neatly trimmed goatee. Indeed, he looked every centimeter the complete professional naval officer in his immaculately tailored dress whites.
The biographical synopsis which went with that sharp, taut imagery, however, was . . . less aesthetically pleasing.
“It says here he’s a Battle Fleet officer,” Michelle said aloud, and even to herself, her tone sounded plaintive, like someone protesting that there surely had to be some sort of mistake.
“I know, Ma’am.” Lecter looked profoundly unhappy.
“I hope — oh, how I hope — that either you’ve got the wrong man or else this is just a very unhappy coincidence,” Michelle said, and Lecter nodded.