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HMS Pasteur

Manticore Planetary Orbit

Manticore Binary System

March 17, 1905 PD

“how you doing there, Lieutenant?”

Brandy Bolgeo turned her head on the pillow and smiled. It was a worn, crooked smile, and she raised the cast on her right hand and forearm.

“I’ve been better, actually,” she told the sick berth attendant.

“I hear that.”

The petty officer tapped the display on the end of Brandy’s bunk to check her chart, then nodded in satisfaction.

“I expect you’re tired of hearing this, Ma’am,” he said, “but you really are going to be fine. It’ll take a while, but they do good work at Bassingford.”

“I know.” Brandy nodded. “They put my dad back together after that explosion on Vulcan in ’97. Of course, he still had most of his original parts, except for one hand. They were busted up, but he still had them.”

She looked down at the flat sheet covering the space her right leg should have occupied and grimaced.

“Hey, your chart says regen will work fine in your case!” the SBA said.

“But I’m going to be down with this for months.” Brandy’s grimace turned bitter. “This isn’t the best time for any of us to take a vacation, PO!”

“Getting yourself put back together is not a ‘vacation,’ Ma’am.” The SBA’s tone was sterner. “It’s called doing your job. And you and your people damn well earned the right to take however long it takes.”

Brandy’s mouth tightened as memories of all the shipmates who’d never have the chance to put themselves “back together” flowed through her. HMS Cassandra had been brutally hit in what the newsies had dubbed the Battle of Hancock Station. Not that its name mattered a single solitary damn to anyone—like Brandy—who’d survived it. Almost a third of her crewmates aboard Cassandra hadn’t. In fact, it was a miracle the battlecruiser herself had escaped destruction, and a quarter of her survivors—like Brandy herself—had been badly wounded. If Admiral Danislav had arrived with Battle Squadron 18’s dreadnoughts even twenty minutes later than he actually had . . . 

“You’re probably right,” she said after a moment. “I wish it wasn’t going to take so long, but you’re probably right.”

“I am right,” the SBA corrected her firmly, then smiled. “But once they get you back up on your feet—plural—do me one favor, Ma’am.”

“And what would that be, PO?”

“Well, I think we do pretty good work here aboard the Louie, and we’re always glad to be there when you need us, but we do try to discourage repeat customers. So try real hard not to end up in the body shop again, okay?”

“I think you can safely assume that’s on my list of priorities.” Brandy smiled back, more naturally. “This is probably something somebody should only do once.”

“Actually, even if it would leave me with nothing to do, I’d prefer that people never did it.” The SBA patted her gently on her good shoulder. “If I don’t see you again before they transfer you, it’s been an honor taking care of you and everyone else from Hancock. We’re proud of you, Ma’am.”

Brandy nodded, although she felt uncomfortable every time someone told her that. She supposed they had a point, and she knew they were sincere, but it still felt . . . wrong. Like she was stealing somehow from the men and women who would never come home from the Hancock System. Logically, she knew that was stupid—or at least irrational. But logic wasn’t a lot of help just now.

The SBA headed on along the ward, and Brandy heard him checking in with his other patients. The enormous hospital ship had gathered in all of the Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron’s wounded—including Admiral Sarnow, its commanding officer—immediately after the engagement, and they were damned lucky she’d been attached to Danislav’s command. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have been, but given the level of tension with the People’s Republic and Hancock Station’s exposed position, the Admiralty had realized the odds that Danislav’s squadron was sailing straight into battle were high, and Hancock’s medical facilities were rudimentary, at best.

At that, though, the station’s facilities had been better than the ones on Cassandra. After the battle, at least. Brandy’s memories of the final stages of the engagement and its immediate aftermath were thankfully vague, but she remembered the battlecruiser’s skinsuited sick berth attendants desperately sealing her into the emergency life-support pod as sick bay lost pressure. And she vaguely recalled the way the ship had lurched as laserhead after laserhead pounded her even as Brandy slithered down the slope into unconsciousness and wondered if she’d ever wake up again.

It was hard to believe that had happened barely ten days ago, but Pasteur had headed back to the Manticore Binary System within forty-six hours of the battle. Some of the damaged warships had left even before that. Pasteur had been delayed until search and rescue operations were officially completed, but the cripples like Cassandra—far too badly shot up to be combat effective but still capable of movement under their own power—had been sent directly home. Some of them were probably beyond repair, but those which could be repaired would be needed—desperately—as quickly as they could be returned to service.

Too bad battlecruisers don’t regenerate, she thought. The yard dogs on Hephaestus and Vulcan are good, but they’re not miracle workers. Cassie snuck off before I could get a good look at her, but just from the damage she’d taken before I got clipped, she’s going to be down for months. Probably almost as many as me.

She closed her eyes, remembering her own terror amidst the roaring inferno in the ship’s environmental spaces. Remembering how the ship lurched again and again as she fought her way back through the passages to her duty station in Damage Control Central. The lurid schematics, blazing bloodred with battle damage, when she got there at last. Remembering the chatter over the com. The staccato damage reports. The high-pitched stress in those voices. The voices that chopped off in mid-syllable as they took still more hits.

And then the moment the blackness fell and everything just . . . stopped.

They try to get us ready for it. They really do. That’s what the Last View is all about. But Commandant Vickers was right. They can’t really prepare us. Nobody could.

But at least she’d survived, she told herself. And the SBA was right. Bassingford Medical Center did do good work.

Maybe by the time they got done with her, she’d actually be ready to return to duty.

At the moment, she doubted it.

* * *

“I don’t want you wearing him out, Sir.”

The stern voice penetrated Mark Sarnow’s semi-doze, and he opened his eyes. He also found himself trying not to smile, despite all the drugs floating through his system, as he saw the barrel-chested man trying to tiptoe into the compartment.

Sir Thomas Caparelli hadn’t been designed by nature to tiptoe anywhere, Sarnow thought. As a midshipman, he’d collected at least three broken noses, two concussions, a broken shoulder, and an awesome total of yellow—and red—cards on the soccer pitches of Saganami Island, and in some ways, he’d changed very little over the ensuing decades. His weight lifter’s torso and sprinter’s legs were an only too accurate reflection of his preference for going through obstacles, rather than around them, and he looked ridiculous trying to sneak into an invalid’s sickroom.

He was also the Royal Manticoran Navy’s First Space Lord, however, and Sarnow reached for the controls to raise his bed into a sitting position.

Caparelli opened his mouth, probably to tell him to stay right where he was, but then the First Space Lord shook his head.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said instead as the powered bed brought Sarnow upright. “And I don’t think you’re supposed to be sitting up yet.”

“Probably not, Sir,” Sarnow agreed, but he made no effort to lie back flat again, and Caparelli snorted.

Sarnow’s tenor was weaker and hoarser than it ought to have been, the First Space Lord reflected. But for a man who’d lost both legs below the knee, broken all but one of his ribs, and had somewhere around a quarter kilo of splinters from his command chair’s armored shell removed from his back, the admiral actually sounded far better than he’d anticipated.

“I’m not going to stay long,” he said. “For one thing, your doctors would murder me if I did! For another, they’re moving you dirtside in a couple of hours, so they’ll need me out of your hair by then. I wanted a few words before they haul you off to Bassingford, though.”

“Of course, Sir. What can I do for you?”

“The first thing you can do is not wear yourself out trying to do anything for me. Just listen.”

Sarnow nodded, and Caparelli flashed a brief smile. Then his expression sobered.

“First, you and your people did magnificently,” he said. “I know right now what you’re feeling most is how badly you got hammered and how many of those people of yours you lost, but what you—and they—did to the Peeps was—Well, it was damned amazing, is what it was. We never expected them to hit you that quickly, and given Admiral Parks’ dispositions—”

He shrugged, and Sarnow nodded in understanding. There were limits to how severely the First Space Lord would permit himself to criticize a station’s official commander, especially before the full reports on something like Hancock were in and analyzed. Sarnow suspected a lot of other flag officers would be less reticent, yet the truth was that in his own opinion, the wisdom of Sir Yancey Parks’ response to the Admiralty war warning could have been argued either way. It wasn’t the one he would have chosen. In fact, it wasn’t the one for which he’d argued. But given what Parks had known at the time, it hadn’t been totally unreasonable. And in the aftermath, Parks had moved with commendable speed to counterattack and crush the Peeps’ forward base in the Seaford System from which the attack had come.

It was unlikely that would absolve him in the Navy’s eyes for what had almost happened—hell, what had happened—in Hancock, but at least he’d moved swiftly to claim the prize for which Sarnow’s squadron had paid.

“What you may not have heard yet,” Caparelli continued, “is that White Haven hammered Parnell in Yeltsin even harder than the Peeps hammered you in Seaford. They got out with almost half their fleet, but White Haven shot hell out of them before Parnell could disengage. From the tac data, it looks like at least a third of his survivors will be in the yards for months, if not longer. Between the two of you, you gave us a pair of overwhelming victories in the opening engagements. With a little luck, we’ll be able to ride that while they’re still off balance. At the moment, White Haven’s moving from Yeltsin against Mendoza. Hopefully, he’ll be able to take out Chelsea before they can redeploy, as well.”

“That’s good, Milord.” Sarnow nodded. His voice was still weak, but satisfaction flickered in his green eyes.

“Well, I’m afraid we don’t have an official declaration of war yet.” Caparelli shrugged. “We should—Parliament should’ve given it to us the day word of Hancock hit Landing—but apparently politics are still politics.” He grimaced with the sour disgust of someone whose position forced him to spend far too much time dealing with the realities of the Star Kingdom’s political establishment. “I think we’ll probably get it before much longer, though. Assuming the Liberals get their thumbs out, anyway.” The First Space Lord’s nostrils flared. “You may not believe it, but some of them are still arguing for ‘the path of sanity’ and ‘not leaping to any hasty conclusions until we have all the information we need before we make any irrevocable decisions’ despite the fact that the Peeps obviously shot first!”

From his tone, the First Space Lord was quoting someone exactly. In fact, Sarnow was pretty sure he could have guessed which of Countess New Kiev’s Liberal Party peers had made the remarks. That second one, about “hasty conclusions,” had to have come from the Earl of Dabney. The man was a pompous, sanctimonious, overprivileged windbag whose invincible confidence in his own opinions made him dangerous, in Sarnow’s opinion. His dogged, unremitting opposition to every single year’s Naval Estimates for the past fifteen T-years, despite the looming menace of the People’s Republic of Haven, was a case in point.

On the other hand, unlike some other members of the House of Lords, like Baron High Ridge, say . . . 

“Fair’s fair, Sir,” he said. “Don’t say I agree with them, but I think a lot of them—the Liberals, I mean—are sincere.”

“I’m prepared to admit most of them are sincere,” Caparelli replied. “Not all of them, though. Especially not in the Lords. Given the company they keep there, honesty isn’t all that high on their list. And even granting they really believe what they’re spouting on the House floor, that just means they’ve put their heads very sincerely up their asses.”

Sarnow chuckled, then winced, and Caparelli shook his head apologetically.

“Sorry! I don’t imagine laughing does your gizzards a lot of good just now, Mark. Anyway, it won’t hurt anything if they burn another couple of weeks before they vote out the formal declaration.” He shrugged. “Given message transit times and deployment speeds, it’ll be a while before we’re ready for anything beyond the immediate counterstrikes. I’ve already authorized Riposte Gamma, and that’s really about as far as we can go until we have better intel on what the hell the Peeps are going to do, now that their initial offensives got shot to hell.”

Sarnow nodded again. The Royal Manticoran Navy believed in being both prepared and thorough when it came to defending the Star Kingdom’s home star system and commerce from attack. As part of its thoroughness, it had dutifully considered the possibility of an attack by any hypothetical star nation, but it had always recognized that the only logical “hypothetical aggressor” was the People’s Republic of Haven, and it had planned accordingly. The RMN had long recognized that the People’s Republic would almost inevitably fire the first shot in the war against which both star nations had prepared for the last twenty T-years or so. Longer than that from Manticore’s perspective; the RMN’s buildup had actually begun well over half a T-century earlier, under Samantha II, ten T-years before Roger III came to the throne in 1857 PD, and it had only accelerated after Roger’s death in 1883. Sixty T-years was a long time to think about something, so even though the Admiralty had always anticipated that the Peeps would shoot first, they’d given quite a lot of attention to considering just what the Star Kingdom might do in the event that Manticore—unlike any of the People’s Navy’s previous targets—survived that opening shot and got to shoot back.

The result was Case Riposte, a war plan whose options covered every imaginable set of circumstances. Riposte Gamma was, in fact, a far more optimistic variant than most Navy analysts had ever believed would be possible. If Caparelli had authorized Gamma, Admiral White Haven must have inflicted truly catastrophic damage on the People’s Navy when he ambushed it at Yeltsin’s Star.

“All right, I should get the hell out of here so they can prep you for transport,” the First Space Lord said now. “The real reason I came is that I know that if I were the one in that bed after how brilliantly my people had performed, I’d want to know what was happening. Especially”—Caparelli smiled warmly—“because the way they performed—the way all of you performed—is what’s put us in a position to take the war to the enemy and kick the ever-loving shit out of him. Thank you. You did us all proud.”

He held Sarnow’s eyes until the admiral nodded in acknowledgment. Then he nodded back, waved one hand, and stepped back out of the compartment.

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