Chapter Twenty-Four

“Sir, the Manty admiral is on the com,” Captain Willard MaCuill said. “It’s a Vice Admiral Gold Peak. She’s asking to speak to you.”
“Oh, she is, is she?” Admiral Josef Byng smiled sardonically as he turned his command chair to face his staff communications officer. “Took her long enough to get around to it, didn’t it? I wonder why that was?”

“Probably took her that long to get back out of the head after she changed her underwear, Sir,” Rear Admiral Karlotte Thimár, Byng’s chief of staff, replied with a nasty chuckle. “Not quite like the last time one of their ships was here, after all.”
“No, it isn’t,” Byng agreed, and glanced at the tactical display on SLNS Jean Bart’s flag bridge.
He didn’t quite curl his lip as he considered the flag bridge’s old-fashioned instrumentation and cramped size. He understood that Frontier Fleet had a lower priority for the Fleet 2000 upgrades, after all, so he’d also known from the beginning that it was unrealistic to expect better, but he didn’t exactly attempt to conceal his feelings, either. There was no need, since all of his staff officers had come over with him from Battle Fleet. All of them shared his awareness of the step down they’d been forced to take for this particular mission, although they did do their best to conceal their feelings whenever any of their Frontier Fleet “brothers in arms” were present.
Not that anyone on either side of that particular division was actually likely to fool anyone very much, he supposed.
Still, even though they were only battlecruisers — and Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, at that — rather than the superdreadnought squadrons he should have had under command, Karlotte was undoubtedly correct about the Manties’ reaction when they found seventeen Solarian League warships sitting here to greet them. Indeed, Byng’s only real regret was that the Manty ships which had previously occupied the system had already withdrawn before his own command came over the hyper wall. He would’ve loved to see their reaction to his arrival. Or, for that matter, how they would respond when his third battlecruiser squadron arrived in a couple of T-weeks.
His eyes moved to the scarlet icons of the Manticoran ships, and this time his lip did curl ever so slightly as he considered CIC’s data bars. Of course, it was a Frontier Fleet combat information center with a Frontier Fleet tactical crew, so one had to take its analyses with a grain of salt. Still, at this piddling little range, it was unlikely that even Frontier Fleet could get its sums wrong. Which meant the “battlecruisers” on his plot really did mass well over two million tons apiece.
Just like them and their so-called “navy,” he thought contemptuously. No wonder the doomsayers have been whining and moaning about how “dangerous” Manty warships are all of a sudden. Hell, if we built “battlecruisers” twice the size of anyone else’s, we could probably stick a lot of firepower into them, too! Sure, I’ll bet they can take a lot of damage, too, but ONI’s right. The real reason they’re building them that damned big is the fact that they realize they couldn’t go toe-to-toe with a real first-line navy without the tonnage advantage. And the biggest frigging “battlecruisers” in the galaxy won’t help them if they ever come face to face with Battle Fleet!
Before deploying to command Task Group 3021, Byng had dutifully read through all of the intelligence appreciations. Not surprisingly, those from Frontier Fleet’s analysts had been much more alarmist than anyone else’s. Frontier Fleet had always had a tendency to jump at shadows, in large part because viewing with alarm was one way to try to twist the accountants’ arms into diverting additional funding to it. Then too, one had to consider the quality of the officers making those reports.
Still, even Frontier Fleet’s reports had sounded almost rational and reasonable compared to the ludicrous claims being made by some of the system-defense forces. God only knew why any of them had bothered to send observers to watch two batches of neobarbs five hundred light-years from nowhere in particular butchering each other with muzzle-loading cannon and cutlasses in the first place. Perhaps that was part of the explanation for the wild exaggerations some of those observers had included in their reports? Not even an SDF admiral was going to send a competent officer that far out to the back of beyond. No, he was going to send someone whose services could be easily dispensed with . . . and who wouldn’t be missed for the weeks or months he’d spend in transit.
Oh, there was no doubt the Manties and their Havenite dance partners had managed to fall into at least some innovations as they stumbled about the dance floor with one another. For example, they obviously had improved their compensator performance to at least some extent, although clearly not to the level some of those “observers” were claiming. And even though it irritated him to admit it, fair was fair; that improvement in their compensators had sparked Solarian R&D efforts in the same direction. Given the difference between the basic capabilities of their respective scientific communities, however, there was no doubt that the Manties’ advantage — never as great as those exaggerated reports had asserted — had already been pared away. He only had to look at the acceleration rate of those outsized “battlecruisers” to know that!
Oh, well, he thought. I suppose I’d better get this over with.
“Very well, Willard,” he said, turning back from the plot. “Go ahead and put her through.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Well, so much for my hope that there were two Josef Byngs on the Solly officer list, Michelle thought as the Solarian admiral’s face appeared on her display.
It had taken him long enough to get around to taking her call, but that had scarcely been surprising. A lot of Solarian naval officers liked to keep their inferiors waiting as a not-so-subtle way of emphasizing that inferiority.
“I’m Admiral Josef Byng, Solarian League Navy,” the white-uniformed man on her display said. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
Michelle managed to keep her jaw from tightening. She’d never thought much of SLN officers’ efficiency, but she rather suspected that Byng’s subordinates had at least bothered to inform him of the identity of his caller. And she’d asked for him by name and rank, which made his self-introduction a deliberate and patronizing insult.
I can already see how this is going to go, she thought.
“Vice Admiral Gold Peak,” she replied. “Royal Manticoran Navy,” she added helpfully, just in case he hadn’t recognized the uniform, and had the satisfaction of seeing his lips tighten ever so slightly.
“What can I do for you today . . . Admiral Gold Peak?” he inquired after a moment.
“I only screened to extend my respects. It’s not often we see a full Frontier Fleet admiral this far out in the sticks.”