In many ways, Josef Byng was a typical product of the SLN, according to the ONI file. He came from a family which had been providing senior officers to the League Navy for the better part of seven hundred T-years; he’d graduated from the naval academy on Old Terra; and he’d gone directly into Battle Fleet, which was far more prestigious than Frontier Fleet. He was a second-generation prolong recipient who was just over a T-century old, and he’d been an admiral for the last thirty-two T-years. Unlike the Royal Manticoran Navy, the SLN had not developed the habit of routinely rotating senior officers in and out of fleet command to keep them current both operationally and administratively, and it looked as if Byng (or his family) had possessed sufficient pull to keep him in what were at least technically space-going commands for virtually his entire flag career.

That didn’t mean as much in Battle Fleet as it might have in other navies, given the huge percentage of Battle Fleet’s wall which spent virtually all of its time in what the SLN euphemistically referred to as “Ready Reserve Status.” It was quite possible for an admiral to spend several T-years in command of a squadron of superdreadnoughts, accruing the seniority — and drawing the pay — which went with that assignment, while the superdreadnoughts in question simply went right on floating around in their mothballed parking orbits without a single soul on board.
What was much more interesting to Michelle at the moment, however, was the fact that fifty-nine T-years ago, a young, up-and-coming Captain Josef Byng had been officially reprimanded — and moved back two hundred names on the seniority list — for harassing Manticoran shipping interests.
Her skimming eyes slowed down as she reread that particular portion of the entry again, and she grimaced. Despite the ONI analyst’s dry, rather pedantic writing style, it was easy enough to read between the lines. Captain Byng had clearly been one of those Solly officers who regarded neobarbs — like Manticorans — as two or three steps below chimpanzees on the evolutionary tree. It also appeared that his wealthy and aristocratic family (although, of course, Old Terra didn’t have an aristocracy . . . officially) was deeply involved in interstellar commerce.
It was common enough in Manticore for families involved in the Star Kingdom’s vast shipping industry to provide officers for the Navy, as well, and Michelle was perfectly well aware that more than one of those officers had used and abused her authority in her family’s interest. When the RMN became aware of those instances of abuse, however, it usually took action. On those rare occasions — which no longer occurred with anything like the frequency they once had — when the officer involved had proved too well connected for the JAG to deal with the situation, she’d normally been eased out of any command which might give her the opportunity to repeat the offense.
That, unfortunately, was not the case in the Solarian League, where cronyism and the abuse of power were both common and accepted. Especially in the Shell and the Verge, officers with “comfortable” relationships with the local OFS structure routinely used their positions to feather their own nests or promote their own interests. Captain Byng had obviously seen no reason why he shouldn’t do the same thing, but his harassment had been far more blatant than most. He’d gone so far as to impound three Manticoran freighters on trumped up smuggling charges, and the crew of one of them had spent almost two T-years in prison without ever even being given the opportunity to face a judge.
The Star Kingdom had attempted to deal with the problem locally, without raising it to the level of a major diplomatic incident, but Byng had flatly refused even to discuss the matter with the local Manticoran trade and legal attachés. The terms in which he had expressed his refusal had been . . . less than diplomatic, and the second time around, the legal attaché, without Byng’s knowledge, had recorded the entire conversation. Which had then been presented formally to the Solarian Foreign Minister by the Manticoran ambassador to the Solarian League — who’d happened to be an admiral himself — with a polite but pointed request that the minister look into the problem. Soon.
Unfortunately for Captain Byng, the Star Kingdom of Manticore carried far more clout than the “neobarbs” he was accustomed to browbeating. Faced with the politely veiled suggestion that failure to return the impounded vessels — and to free the imprisoned crewman, with apologies and reparations — might very well result in higher junction transit fees for all Solarian merchantmen, the League’s bureaucracy had sprung ponderously into action. It had taken another six T-months, but eventually, the ships and the imprisoned crewman had been released, the League had paid a sizable damages award, and Captain Byng had been required to apologize formally for “exceeding his authority.” Despite that, he’d gotten off incredibly lightly for someone whose actions — and stupidity — had embarrassed an entire star nation, Michelle thought. He’d been allowed to make his apology in written form, rather than in person, and any Manticoran officer who’d acted in the same fashion would undoubtedly have been dismissed from the Queen’s service. In Byng’s case, however, there’d never really been any possibility of that outcome. In fact, it was astonishing he’d even been moved back on the promotion lists.
It would appear from his subsequent record that he held everyone but himself responsible for that outcome, however. It had undoubtedly delayed his promotion to flag rank by several T-years, and it seemed evident that he blamed Manticore for his misfortunes.
Michelle would have found all of that sufficiently unhappy reading under any circumstances, but the fact that he was out here commanding a Frontier Fleet task force — and what looked, despite the fact that it was far larger than one normally saw in the Verge, to be a rather small one, for an officer of his seniority — made her even more unhappy.
Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet were not fond of one another. Battle Fleet, despite the fact that none of its capital ships had fired a shot in anger in over two T-centuries, received the lion’s share of the SLN’s funding and was by far the more prestigious of the two organizations. Its officer corps was populated almost exclusively with officers whose family backgrounds were similar to Byng’s, making it virtually a closed caste. Whereas the RMN had a surprisingly high percentage of “mustangs” — officers who had risen from the enlisted ranks to obtain commissions — there were none at all of them in Battle Fleet. That helped contribute to an incredibly (by Manticoran standards) narrowness of focus and interest on the part of the vast majority of Battle Fleet officers. Who not only tended to look down particularly long and snobbish noses at all non-Solarian navies — and even the planetary defense forces of major Solarian planets — but even looked down upon their Frontier Fleet counterparts as little more than jumped up policeman, customs agents and neobarb-bashers who obviously hadn’t been able to make the cut for service in a real navy.
Frontier Fleet, for its part, regarded Battle Fleet officers as overbred, under-brained drones whose obsolescent capital ships — as outmoded and useless as they were themselves — soaked up enormous amounts of funding Frontier Fleet desperately needed. Personally, Michelle would have been even more incensed by the fact that so much of the funding officially spent on those same capital ships actually disappeared into the pockets of various Battle Fleet officers and their friends and families, but she supposed it would have been unrealistic to expect Frontier Fleet to feel the same way. After all, graft and “family interest” were as deeply ingrained a part of Frontier Fleet’s institutional culture as they were for Battle Fleet. And to be fair, Frontier Fleet was also dominated by its hereditary officer caste, which resented the hell out of the juicier opportunities for peculation which came the way of its Battle Fleet counterpart. Still, its commissioned ranks contained a significantly higher percentage of “outsiders,” and even a relatively tiny handful of mustangs of its own.
Bearing all of that in mind, no Battle Fleet admiral would have been happy to find herself assigned to command a mere Frontier Fleet task force. And no Frontier Fleet task force would have been happy to find her assigned to command it, either. Under any circumstances Michelle could think of, a Battle Fleet officer of Byng’s seniority would have to regard a command like this as a demotion, probably even a professional insult, and he damned well ought to have had the family connections to avoid it.
If, of course, he’d wanted to avoid it.
Oh, I don’t like this at all, she thought. This bastard must have “I hate Manticore” embroidered on his underwear, which means the situation out here just got one hell of a lot more . . . delicate. I wonder if it was all his idea? In fact, I hope it was. Because if it wasn’t, if someone else pulled strings to get him assigned to this particular task force and he went along with it willingly, I think we can all be damned sure it’s not going to be a reason we’re going to like. On the other hand, I doubt anything I could say to him is going to make him like us any better, so I suppose I can just go ahead and be my normal, infinitely tactful sort.
“Well,” she said finally, “I suppose I’d better go ahead and talk to him. Give me a minute to get my happy face put back on, Bill, then go on and hail him.”