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Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Not much ofa picket, is it?" Michelle Henke commented quietly to Cynthia Lecter, twelve days after her conversation with Josef Byng, as HMS Artemis and the other three ships of the first division of Battlecruiser Squadron 106 decelerated towards a leisurely rendezvous with the ships Augustus Khumalo had detached to keep an eye on the Tillerman System when he returned to Spindle from Monica.

"No, Ma'am," Lecter agreed, equally quietly. "On the other hand, Admiral Khumalo didn't have a lot to work with. And I don't think anyone expected Vice Admiral O'Malley to be recalled quite so...precipitously."

"You do have a way with words, don't you, Cindy?" Michelle smiled without very much humor, but she had to admit that Lecter had made an excellent point. Two of them, in fact.

Which leaves me with a not-so-minor problem of my own, she thought dryly. Nobody had a clue the Sollies were going to send such a big-assed task force straight out to Monica to wave in our face. But now we know they have...and that we are going back to war with Haven, too. So do I reinforce Tillerman by detaching a couple of battlecruisers, or do I leave Tillerman like it is and take everybody I've got back to Spindle to keep things concentrated?

The question was, unfortunately, one she wouldn't be able to duck, much as she might have wished she could do exactly that. The mere notion of dividing her forces in the face of any potential threat from the Solarian League was calculated to inflict insomnia on any fleet commander. On the one hand, the three days she'd spent in Monica had convinced her that whatever else Josef Byng might be in the vicinity to accomplish, it wasn't to reassure one Michelle Henke of his friendly and pacific intent. So if she didn't reinforce the pair of over-aged light cruisers and the single destroyer Khumalo had been able to station here, she risked sending the entirely wrong signal not just to him but to everyone else in the Talbott Quadrant. She dared not give anyoneespecially Byngthe impression that she would be unwilling to run serious risks, or even fight, to defend the territory and citizens of the newborn Star Empire of Manticore. For that matter, she had both a legal and a moral responsibility to do just that, regardless of the nature of the threat.

On the other hand, even a pair of Nikes might find themselves hard-pressed against all of Byng's battlecruisers at once. Despite the advantages in range and hitting power the Mark 16 and Mark 23 provided for the RMN, enough effective missile defense could go a long way towards blunting that advantage, and no one had any way to assess just how effective SLN missile-defense doctrine might actually be. Michelle strongly doubted that it would be enough to tip the odds in the Sollies' favor, but she couldn't be positive of that before the fact. Worse, even if it turned out after the fact that two Nikes were, indeed, a match for everything Byng had, Byng wouldn't know that ahead of time, either. For that matter, he'd never admit itprobably even to himselfno matter how much evidence anyone presented to him before the shooting started. Michelle had seen enough Manticoran officers who were capable of that sort of self-delusion when it suited their prejudices. Someone like Byng would be able to pull that off effortlessly.

And if he doesn't recognizeor admitthe threat even exists, then the "threat" won't deter him for a moment, will it? she thought bitingly. Aside, of course, from the possibility that taking out our "outnumbered and outgunned" picket would be crossing a line he may have specific orders not to cross.

Yeah. Sure he does. If you're willing to bank on that, girl, don't be accepting any real estate deals that involve bridges or magic beans!

She grimaced, then inhaled deeply and glanced over her shoulder at Lieutenant Commander Edwards.

"Contact Devastation, Bill. My compliments to Commander Cramer, and would it be convenient for him to join me for dinner here aboard Artemis at, say, eighteen-thirty hours?"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the com officer replied, and Michelle turned her attention to Gervais Archer.

"As for you, Gwen," she said with a smile, "you get to go tell Chris that Commander Cramer will be joining us for dinner. Make sure Captain Armstrong and Commander Dallas know they're invited, as well."

"Yes, Ma'am," Gervais replied gravely. He supposed some might argue that the admiral was being just a bit presumptuous to be organizing dinner parties when the guest of honor hadn't confirmed that he'd be present. On the other hand, it was just a bit difficult for Gervais to conceive of any commander who wouldn't somehow find it possible to fit an invitation from any admiral into his schedule, no matter how busy it might be.

"Oh, and, Bill," Michelle said, glancing back at Edwards. "While you're sending out the invitations, go ahead and invite Captain Conner and Commander Houseman, too."

Commander Wesley Cramer of Her Majesty's StarshipDevastation was a hard-bitten looking officer, forty-one T-years old (which made him three T-months younger than his own cruiser), with dark hair and quartz-hard gray eyes. His neatly clipped mustache mostly hid a scar on his upper lip, one of several souvenirs of a bruising Saganami Island rugby career, and it didn't look as if he'd mellowed a great deal since leaving the Academy.

Which, Michelle reflected, suited her just fine, under the circumstances.

She examined him with carefully hidden intensity as Gervais Archer ushered him into the magnificent dining cabin BuShips had seen fit to provide for her. Despite the fact that he was both the commander of a Queen's ship and currently the senior officer assigned to Tillerman, he was also junior to every officer in the compartment except Archer himself. If he was particularly aware of that fact, however, it didn't seem to weigh too heavily upon him.

"Commander Cramer," Gervais murmured to her by way of formal introdmction, and she extended her right hand.

"Commander," she said.

"Milady," Cramer responded, gripping the offered hand firmly.

"Let me introduce you to everyone," she continued, turning to her other guests. "Captain Armstrong, of the Artemis, and her XO, Commander Dallas. Captain Conner, of the Penelope, and his XO, Commander Houseman."

Cramer was busy shaking hands as she spoke, and she gave him a moment to catch up before she turned to the members of her own staff who were present.

"Captain Lecter, my chief of staff; Commander Adenauer, my ops officer; and Lieutenant Commander Treacher, my logistics officer. And I believe you've already met Lieutenant Archer, my flag lieutenant."

It took Cramer a few more moments to shake all of the newly introduced hands, and then Michelle nodded towards the large table under its snow white tablecloth and burden of plates, crystal, and gleaming tableware.

"One of my own previous COs was firmly of the opinion that a good meal was often the basis for the most effective officers' conferences," she observed. "Which, in case any of you somehow failed to catch my subtle implication, was an invitation to eat."

It was fascinating to watch Admiral Gold Peak in action, Gervais Archer reflected some time later. Despite her lofty birth, there was an undeniable earthiness about her basic personality, and he'd come to wonder if she might not have developed that trait deliberately. He'd already seen ample evidence of her effortless mastery of the proper rules of etiquette and her ability to project the public persona appropriate to someone who stood only five heartbeats away from the Crown of Manticore. Very few people, watching her operate in that mode, would ever have grounds to suspect how much she clearly loved escaping from it, he thought, but anyone who'd worked withor forher for any length of time knew exactly how little she liked playing that particular role. And it wasn't as if she needed to remind anyone in the Navy that the Queen was her cousin. First, because however much she might have wished they didn't, everyone already knew. But second, and more importantly, because she needed no aristocratic airs to underscore her authority. She'd demonstrated her competence too many times, and even if she hadn't, five or ten minutes in her presence would have made that competence painfully clear to anyone, however "casual" or "earthy" she might choose to appear.

Now she leaned back in her chair at the head of the table, nursing a cup of coffee instead of one of the wineglasses several of her guests preferred, and favored Commander Cramer with a smile which held very little humor.

"Now that we've impressed you with my hospitality, Commander," she said dryly, "I suppose we probably ought to get down to business."

Cramer nodded politely in acknowledgment, and a trace of true amusement worked its way into her smile.

"I've read your reports," she continued, and Gervais knew she truly had read them, not simply skimmed them, after they'd been burst-transmitted to Artemis. "I'm very pleased with what you've managed to accomplish here," she went on. "On the other hand, there's not much point any of us pretending that you're in any position to hold off some sort of serious attack on Tillerman."

Cramer nodded again, and the admiral sipped from her coffee cup again.

"Under almost any other set of circumstances, Commander, I would be completely satisfied to leave Tillerman in your care. Given our recent encounter with so many Solarian battlecruisers at Monica, however, and given the proximity of both Meyers and Monica to Tillerman, I think we need something a bit more...impressive here in the system. Mind you, I'm not happy about the notion of spreading our forces out in penny packets. We're too thin on the groundfor the moment, at leastto go around diluting our combat power that way. Unfortunately, I don't see any real option here. At least for the foreseeable future, Tillerman's going to be our most advanced picket in an area where we've already crossed swords with a Solarian client state. Given that, it turns the entire region into a potential flashpoint that I believe requires a force which is not simply more powerful than yours but is self-evidently more powerful. Powerful enough to give any reasonable potential adversary pause. My judgment in that regard represents absolutely no reflection on you, any of your people, or the other ships under your command here."

She held his eyes levelly, letting him see the sincerity in her own, then twitched her head at Jerome Conner.

"I'll be returning to Spindle by way of Talbott, Scarlet, Marian, Dresden, and MontanaI think this entire area needs a little reassurance, after what happened in Monica and Vice Admiral O'Malley's recallbut Captain Conner is going to be taking over as Tillerman's senior officer. I'm detaching his ship and Captain Ning's Romulus. Unless something changes, I'll be sending up additional destroyers as soon as some of them arrive from Manticore. In the meantime, I'll expect Devastation, Inspired, and Victorious to conduct anti-piracy patrols and generally show the flag in this vicinity while Captain Conner's battlecruisers stay home and mind the store. As soon as we can get some more modern destroyers, and possibly a few heavy cruisers, out here to replace you, I'll withdraw your ships to Spindle for a well deserved rest."

"I understand, Milady," Cramer replied, when she paused. It was, Gervais reflected, a rather tactful way for the admiral to describe pulling the older, less capable ships back for secondary duties elsewhere.

"Until we have the hulls in-quadrant to do that, however," she continued after a moment, "I'll expect you to make your own local knowledge and advice available to Captain Conner. It's clear to me from your reports that you haven't let any grass grow under your feet, Commander. The time you've spent making contacts with the local system government, emplacing the system surveillance platforms, and deploying missile pods for defensive use has been very well-useda point I intend to make in my own report when I unreservedly endorse your actions and conduct here in Tillerman. You've done a great deal to make Captain Conner's job easier, and I'm confident that you'll be equally helpful during his settling-in period."

This time, there was an obvious flicker of appreciation in those hard gray eyes. Cramer was never going to be one of those officers who gushed effusivelyespecially to their superiorsGervais thought. But it was clear he recognized genuine praise when he heard it...and that he realized when it was well deserved, as well.

"Jerome," the admiral went on, turning her attention to Captain Conner. "As I told the Commander, I'm not happy about leaving you and Kwo-Lai out here with only two battlecruisers. Unfortunately, for right now I don't see any option. I'll get you reinforced as quickly as I can, but in the meantime, you're going to be in what might charitably be called a somewhat exposed position. And, to be honest, after talking to that jackass Byng, I'm even less happy about that state of affairs than I might have been otherwise."

"I can't say I'm delighted about all the aspects of my new, independent command, either, Admiral," Conner replied with a faint smile. "Not that I'm not grateful for the opportunity to distinguish myself, of course."

"Don't you mean to further distinguish yourself?" the admiral inquired, and a quiet laugh ran around the table. But then her expression sobered, and she sat forward, setting her coffee cup back on the table and folding her hands in front of her.

"Commander Cramer made a good start deploying pods from Volcano in strategic positions," she said very seriously. "On the other hand, he didn't begin to have the control links to take full advantage of them. Penelope and Romulus, on the other hand, both have Keyhole. They're going to be able to control a hell of a lot more pods than the Commander could have with a pair of light cruisers, and Volcano's pods are loaded with all-up Mark 23s. I've had Jackson here"she nodded at Lieutenant Commander Jackson Treacher, her logistics officer"confer with Commander Badmachin. She tells him that Vice Admiral O'Malley topped off Volcano's missile holds from his own fleet train before he headed back to the Lynx Terminus, so you've got plenty of pods. Which means you should be able to raise holy howling hell with anything that's likely to come at you out here."

She paused, waiting until Conner had nodded, then went on levelly.

"I'm fully aware that the Admiralty would prefer for us not to advertise all of our capabilities unless we have to. Nonetheless, I'm specifically authorizing you to use any weapon available to youincluding the Mark 23sto their full capabilities in defense of this star system...against anyone. If anybody, and I'm specifically including the Solarian League Navy in that 'anybody,' attacks this star system, you are to defend it as if it were the Manticore Home System itself. My formal written orders to you will emphasize those points, and they will further authorize you to use deadly force against anyoneonce again, specifically including the Solarian League Navywho violates the territorial sovereignty of this system."

She paused once more, and Gervais realized he was almost holding his breath. What she was doing was telling Conner he had carte blanche to do whatever he thought he had to do in the defense of Tillerman. It was obvious she wouldn't have done that if she hadn't trusted his judgment, but the fact remained that her orders would cover anything he did, including starting a shooting war with the Solarian League, and that the responsibility would be hers.

"I understand, Ma'am," the captain said quietly after a moment.

"I believe you do," she agreed, sitting back and reaching for her coffee cup once more. "On the other hand, I also want you to understand this. Defending this star system does not mean throwing away the ships under your command. I expect you to use all of the resources at your disposal, if necessary, to accomplish that mission. If it becomes evident, however, that you aren't going to be able to stop an attack, then I also expect you to pull your ships out. Kick as much hell out of the other side as you can, but get them out intact. Losing them, in addition to losing the system, won't help anyone, no matter how 'gloriously' you all die. Keeping them intact for when we come back to kick the Bad Guys back out of Tillerman on their asses, will. Strive to bear that in mind, please? I had the misfortune to make Elvis Santino's acquaintance too many years ago. The Royal Navy doesn't need another one of him."

"I understand, Ma'am," Conner repeated, and this time the admiral chuckled.

"I'm delighted to hear that. On the other hand, I'm not going to pull out and leave you here on your own tomorrow. Given the importance Tillerman looks like assuming, I think it would be a very good idea for me to make President Cummings' acquaintance and get to know as many senior members of the system government as I can. And it won't hurt for me to express my confidence in you in the proper quarters, either. So I'll probably be spending at least a couple of weeks in the vicinity before I go haring off."

"Yes, Ma'am. I understand. And I appreciate the thought, for that matter. I think it would have to help get us off on the right foot here."

"I'm glad you agree. I thought it was a rather clever notion myself."

She grinned at him, then drained her coffee cup and stood.

"And now that we have those details out of the way, I suggest that all of us adjourn to the flag bridge, where Commander Cramer will walk us all through his sensor platform deployment patterns. What I'd really like to do, Jerome, is to give you a day or so to look the situation over, then run a couple of simulations with Penelope and Romulus defending the system against several different levels of threat."

"Should I assume that you intend to be commanding the opposition force, Ma'am?" Conner asked just a bit warily.

"Me?" the admiral said innocently. "Oh, no, Jerome! I'm just going to be advising. Vicki here will be actually running the attack," she nodded to Captain Armstrong, who grinned challengingly at Conner. "And, I suppose that just to make it interesting, we ought to let Commander Cramer command a couple of units of that op force you were talking about." She smiled sweetly at Conner, then glanced at Cramer, who was obviously trying very hard not to smile himself. "You might want to bear that division of command responsibility in mind while you brief Captain Conner on your sensor deployments, Commander."

"Oh, thank you, Ma'am," Conner said. "Thank you ever so much!"

Chapter Twenty-Six | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Twenty-Eight