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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 Artemis' 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,Artemis' 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 thatArtemis' 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 Artemis and the other ships of her first-division accelerated steadily—if slowly—towards Monica.

"Well, this is a fine kettle of fish," Michelle murmured an hour later as she gazed at the data codes on the master plot.

Artemis' combat information center had analyzed the (slowly) arriving sublight transmissions from the recon probes, and it was apparent that there had, indeed, been some changes since Vice Admiral Khumalo had received Vice Admiral O'Malley's latest update. The absence of any Manticoran units was scarcely a surprise, and while she couldn't precisely call the arrival of a visiting squadron of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers a surprise, the number of ships present was certainly unpleasant.

"CIC makes these eight their newNevada-class, Ma'am," Dominica Adenauer said, highlighting the icons in question. "The other nine battlecruisers are Indefatigables. The IDs on the destroyers are a lot more tentative than that. CICthinks they're allRampart-class, but they can't guarantee it." She grimaced. "Frontier Fleet's modified and refitted so many of the Ramparts that no two of their emission signatures really match one another."

"I don't suppose the tin-cans really matter all that much," Michelle replied, still gazing at the icons. Then she turned and glanced at Edwards. "Still no communications from them, Bill?"

"No, Ma'am." Edwards' tone could not have been more respectful, but it was undeniably . . . patient, and a smile flitted across Michelle's lips.

Guess I must be a little more nervous than I'm trying to pretend. If anybody over there had wanted to talk to us, Bill would have told me. Maybe I need to ask less obviously time-killing questions if I want to look suitably imperturbable during these little moments of stress?

Still, she supposed she could forgive herself for feeling just a little tense, under the circumstances. Finding seventeen Solarian battlecruisers in orbit around the planet Monica constituted a rather significant escalation in potential threat levels. Whatever else might be happening, she had an unpleasant suspicion that their presence was evidence the Solarian League wasn't planning on pulling in its horns quietly after all.

Don't borrow trouble, she scolded herself. It could be as simple as a reassuring gesture to a longtime "ally" like President Tyler. Frontier Security wouldn't like the perception that it's prepared to abandon its stooges at the drop of a hat to get around, after all. For that matter, they could just be here to show the flag and shore up the League's prestige in the area after the hammering Monica took.

The problem with both of those comforting theories was that it didn't really require two full squadrons of battlecruisers to make either of those points. And the fact that no one had taken the slightest notice of the arrival of her own four ships struck her as ominous. Either they really hadn't noticed her, which seemed . . . unlikely, or else they were deliberately ignoring her as if she were unworthy of their attention. Which was precisely the sort of dismissive arrogance all too many Manticoran officers had experienced from Sollies in the past.

And if they did send these people out to make some kind of statement, and if the officer in command of them really is a typically arrogant, pompous twit, things could get messy, she thought grimly.

"Do you want to open communications with them, Ma'am?" Cynthia Lecter asked quietly.

"Eventually, one of us is going to have to talk to the other one," Michelle replied wryly. "But while I don't really want to get into some sort of stare-the-other-fellow-down pissing contest about it, I'll be damned if we're going to be the whiny, nervous little kid begging the great big bully to take notice of us, either."

Lecter nodded, although Michelle thought she detected at least a faint shadow of concern behind the chief of staff's eyes. If so, she wasn't exactly surprised. One of the jobs of a good chief of staff was to worry about the mistakes her boss might be making rather than play yes-woman.

"We're still two and a half hours out of Monica orbit," Michelle observed, "and they're the people already in orbit. Besides, we're squawking our transponders, and technically this is still Monican space."

Lecter nodded again. The accepted interstellar convention was that the fleet in possession of a star system or a planet initiated contact with any newcomers. If contact wasn't initiated, if no challenge was offered, it indicated the fleet in possession wasn't planning on shooting at anyone who got too close. Besides, as Michelle had just pointed out, the Union of Monica was not a member system of the Solarian League, which made any Solarian units in Monican space at least as much visitors as the First Division. No doubt everyone understood perfectly well that Monica's sovereignty—such as it was, and what there was of it—currently existed only on sufferance, but there were still appearances to maintain. Which meant that unless the Sollies had, in fact, occupied the star system, any contact—or challenges—should be coming from Monican traffic control, not from the Sollies.

Or, for that matter, from Manticore.

"Somehow, I think this is going to be an interesting port call, Ma'am," Lecter said quietly.

"Oh, I think you could safely put the odd thousand-dollar bet on that one, Cindy."

"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 us."

"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,Artemis 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 theSolarian 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."

"Really?"

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 unusualto 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.

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 attach'es. The terms in which he had expressed his refusal had been . . . less than diplomatic, and the second time around, the legal attach'e, 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 crewmen, 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 crewmen 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 incredible (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 elsepulled 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 for 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."


Chapter Twenty-Two | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Twenty-Four



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