Witch Maiden II:
Journey to Hell
With a flare of light and energy HMS Witch Maiden came through the Junction almost exactly ten months after she had departed. She floated there like a rabbit conjured from a magician's hat for several seconds until the flare of energy finally died. Her sails configured into her impeller bands, and she made her way out of the path of any traffic following at her best speed, a paltry 208G.
Rebecca Duvalier, Baroness Duvalier leaned back in her chair as her crew went through their own duties. It was good to be home, though for most of her crew, this would be somber. The Yawata Strike had slaughtered a large portion of the navy in one hellish afternoon, and there were those aboard who had lost their families or good friends, as she had. She looked across at Gaelin Watson, her exec. He'd lost his entire extended family in that strike.
"FTL signal with our number, captain." Lieutenant Heinreid reported. "We've been given a docking orbit 200,000 kilometers from Manticore. BuPers wants our crew listing so they can reassign some of them."
"Any idea how many, this time, Millie?"
The woman shook her head. Rebecca sighed in disgruntlement. She had expected and even anticipated that this would happen. When a warship no matter what class returned home, Bupers grabbed who they could to transfer them to other ships in need of blooded personnel. It also meant that whoever took command after her would have to deal with training up their replacements. She wondered what her next command would be. A heavy cruiser or maybe even a battlecruiser? That was worth looking forward to.
In all of her time in the service, she had never seen so many ships using active sensors at the same time. There were four hundred super dreadnoughts, almost a eight hundred battlecruisers, almost two thousand heavy and light cruisers, almost three thousand destroyers, and tens of thousands of LACs filling space with radar energy. In fact if the energy had been solid matter, she could have walked from the Junction to Manticore. Nothing could move out there without being spotted, at least, that was what everyone hoped. Before word that the war had ended was sent, show would have been worried; over half were Republican ships
She was reminded of the old saw about locking barn doors. Her ship picked it's way through the throng, moving ever inward. Finally she reached her parking orbit, and her wedge came down. Her small craft loaded and launched toward the planet. Some going down for some R&R, others leaving the ship forever. Rebecca was buried in paperwork as were all of her department heads. All that is, but Gaelin. She had seen him and Holmes off almost the instant the ship achieved orbit.
She had joked with each of her juniors, from when she was a department head on the old Enchantress on through her now three hyper capable commands that she refused to do paperwork unless they began using paper again. Now she not only had to do her own paperwork, but check on all of her juniors. Most of course only needed a quick check to assure they were done before sending them on.
Until the Admiralty sent aboard someone to replace her, it was her ship, and she acted as her master before god. Her ship would need resupply; they had shot off almost all of her allotment of pods plus a lot of the ones they had picked up, or had carried to deploy. Revictualling for the new crew, and some replacement for hydroponics. She nodded as Os delivered some nibbling food as she worked on. Irene Adler, the cat who had become her companion slid up onto the desk, stalking toward the plate. She caught a chunk of sausage, flipping it into the air for the cat to chase down. At the moment, only about ten percent of the crew was still aboard; she had taken the first day's watch mainly to allow the others a chance to relax.
The annunciator sounded, and she tapped it. "Yes, Private?"
"Commander Kiel to see you, Captain."
"Send her in."She stood as the Andermani officer came in. The Oriental woman saluted, and Rebecca made a motion like a salute at her forehead, before waving it off. "Damn it, Jinua, we have shared too much for this crap."
"Fine liquor, commiseration, and a bed if I am not mistaken." Jinhua agreed with a smile.
"So your arrangements to go back to the Empire are done?"
"They are unnecessary." Jinhua husked. "Sun Chi died less than a week after the message was sent."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"As much as I am. Since there is no reason for me to go home, I have been assigned to the Observers who will report on your actions from this point on."
"So you were right, the Empire is bowing out."
"As an active belligerent yes. But that was at the request of your Admiralty." She cocked her head. "With us sitting out, you have a source for more missiles. Our lines have geared up to produce the Mk23s and Apollos, with more than enough production capability to supply some of your needs. You research and development and Weapons Design Bureau has been split; half were sent to the Republic's 'Bolthole'. The rest to New Potsdam. The Solarians in the words of one of our admirals, have taken a bite out of the bear." At Rebecca's confused look, Jinhua smiled. "An old proverb among us. If you take a bite out of the bear, expect to have to eat all of him, or pay the price."
She snapped to attention. "By your leave, Captain?"
"Granted." They shook hands.
She sipped her tea, closing out the document. The intercom rang and she tapped the button. "Captain."
"Ensign Xaviar here, Captain. Admiralty house sent a signal. Admiral Cortez wants to see you tomorrow morning at 1100."
"Thank you ensign." She shut it off. Xaviar, he was third shift communications. Why was he doing a double... She looked at the chrono. Two AM. She'd been at it for almost fourteen hours. She shut down her computer, and trudged into her stateroom. She neatly set down her uniform, stripping down to her underwear, and climbed into bed. There was a thump, and Irene leaped onto the bed. She padded up Rebecca's body, then burrowed under the covers to curl up against her side. She rolled, her arms pulling the cat to her bosom, and drifted off.
Manticore had missed being hit badly by debris thanks to Mount Royal Palace's defenses. She watched Jason Bay slide below her cutter as they dropped to the main Naval landing field. Minutes later she reported to Admiralty House, and was directed to Admiral Cortez of Bupers.
He stood when she came in, shaking her hand as he directed her to the conversation pit in his office. "You've barely gotten home, captain, and I apologize for the hurry, but you are to redeploy in less than a month."
She cocked her head. "So I am staying in Witch Maiden?"
He nodded. "It wasn't what we had planned originally. When you left on your last deployment, you were supposed to be coming back to a Battlecruiser. Unfortunately, Odysseus was destroyed in the Yawata Strike."
Her heart leaped. She'd been getting an Agamemnon! Then she realized what he had said. Her new ship had been in the slip almost a year from completion when the Yawata strike had occurred. She would never even see that ship.
"Unfortunately, we do have something that needs to be done that can't wait. We have placed Witch Maiden at the top of all of our lists for personnel and supply. Almost half of your original crew have already been reassigned, or will be in the next few days, but the last of those replacing them will be aboard long before you sail.
"I know it is not what you had hoped for, please take it as a given that it is not what we expected for you either."
With so many ships that had been building destroyed, and those who would have manned them slaughtered, she did understand. The desperate attempts to fill too many holes in their roster was stretching Personnel more than anyone else. From what she had heard and seen Sir Lucien had been doing minor miracles every day since the Battle of Manticore, and major ones since the Yawata Strike.
"Yes, sir, I do understand."
"Good. Then I will let you get back to work."
"And you keep trying to make bricks without straw."
He grinned at her, standing. "Good hunting."
"Thank you." She shook his hand, and marched out. It was only as her cutter rocketed into space before she allowed her own hurt to show. Command of a battlecruiser was every Manticoran Captain's dream. Until the war had begun it had been the epitome of trust. That her Majesty and the navy thought you were good enough to be handed such a plum. She had been among that number, albeit briefly. Well there would be another soon enough.
The cutter dropped into the cargo bay and she disembarked. There were people there waiting for her. Ominously, there was also a small mountain of luggage with them.
Commander Collins, her chief engineer stood alongside Surgeon Lieutenant Jeffries, Lieutenant Heinreid her communications officer, and her purser, Lieutenant Danials. "So you're leaving us?" She asked.
"Yes ma'am. We've got expedited orders with two week leave enroute for any memorial services we felt we needed to attend."Collins waved with a hurt look. "They didn't even send us separate orders. Just 'all of you, off the boat'."
She shook her head, smiling sadly. "I know what you mean. Instead of a 'we have a new battlecruiser for you' I got a meeting where they tell me the old Witch still has me as skipper." She looked at all of those faces. "It was an honor to serve with you all. Godspeed, and good hunting." She shook hands with them one by one as they also wished her the same. Already the ship felt empty.
As the next days passed, it felt more than empty. Over two thirds of her senior ratings had been reassigned, along with over half of the junior officers. Every one of them had come by to say goodbye, and she had wished them well as they departed her deck for the last time.
With the last of her paperwork done, she considered who to give command so she could go to Gryphon. There were so many things she had to do at Oak Glen. She checked the duty roster. Lieutenant Zachary was still listed as her A-Tac. She tapped the bridge annunciator.
"Lieutenant, I have business in Gryphon for the next two days. Think you can handle her for that long?"
"Of course, Captain."
"Then she's all yours. But remember, you break her, you buy her."
"I shudder to think of it, captain."
She broke the connection with a grin. Oselli came out, with a cup of tea, and she nodded to him gratefully. "We need to pick up a cat carrier."
"Come on, Os, the regs allow Treecats, but not felis domesticus. She'll have lots of other cats to be around down at Aunt Grace's Cat House." Rebecca knew the old woman was probably in the afterlife tittering like a school girl. A mansion donated to her furry minions and the estate named the Cat House just to shock the more conservative people of her home world.
"Yes, ma'am." She was sure he'd come up with a reason why she should stay aboard. But maybe she had blindsided him.
There was a hyper shuttle running eight times daily from the Manticore A component to the B component. Rebecca caught the next one and was home three hours later. The old house felt so empty. Tommy and father gone. She walked through the building, almost expecting one of them to come from a door ahead. Wesley the major domo had let her in, then left her alone. He always knew what to do.
She went into the office. The Baron's office... now hers. She walked over, and her hand rested gently on the back of the chair. She stood there for a long moment in silence. "Oh, Father." She whispered.
She couldn't do it. She couldn't. She pulled out the drawer. Mister Matthew had delivered the papers, and she pulled them out. Sitting across the desk from her proper place, she accepted the Barony. More paperwork, this time real crisp vellum and blue-back folders. Her fingers cramped, but she continued to work. Irene meowed plaintively, and she remembered she'd forgotten to let the cat out. She opened the carrier, and Irene leaped into her lap. Rebecca stopped, leaning back. The cat oozed upward, licking it her wet cheek before rubbing against it.
Rebecca clutched the furry monster to her, and cried. It had to end, and it did. Finally she was cried out. Irene had spent all of that time stroking her face with her cheeks, purring. She sighed, wiping her face. Then she licked the cat's nose. Irene licked her nose, eyes closed in bliss.
"Let's see about some dinner for you." Rebecca stood, walking around the desk to touch the intercom. Wesley was there with a tray. She honestly thought Os might have taken lessons from the man.
"A proper tea, madam." He set the tray down, and set a plate of cucumber sandwiches and scones down. He also set a saucer of cream down. Irene leaped over to the desk, and began lapping it up.
"You are spoiling us both, Wesley."
"Your father always accused me of that, madam. But spoiling implies something unearned. We serve out of respect."
"My father deserved that respect, Wesley. Even Tommy did."
"Implying you do not, madam." Wesley replied. "We have heard of what you did in Copperplate. That was not the act of someone worthless. You lived up to your grandfather's memory." He motioned toward the battlecruiser model near the wall. HMS Belligerent, the last command of her grandfather before his death on her last cruise fifty years before.
Her father had never commanded a ship, but he had made a name for himself for almost 60 years in the JAG office going from trial council to Judge Advocate General.
She'd never live up to that. Not if she lived to be a hundred.
"Madam, I know what you're thinking. In fact when your father passed the bar he was positive he would never make his mark either. But he succeeded, as you have and will. Don't expect to be perfect in one leap." He leaned forward, stroking Irene. "She looks like Hannibal, your father's cat."
"Father had a cat?" She asked. "After all the grief he gave aunt Grace?"
Wesley sighed. "He died before you were born. Hannibal was his good luck charm. He was taken along on every case you father handled, whether he was prosecuting or defending, for his first ten years in the JAG office. But when Hannibal died, your father didn't want another cat. He didn't want to feel that he had replaced his best friend in the world." He picked up the empty tray. "I will leave you to it, madam."
Rebecca looked at the door for a long moment. Irene leaped into her lap, curling up to sleep.
"Welcome back, Captain." The ensign in the hold greeted her. She nodded, walking on to the lift. At the quarters deck she walked into her cabin, setting down the carrier.
"Welcome back, Captain." Os stepped from the pantry with a cup of tea. "Ma'am."
"Not a word, Os." She told him firmly, opening the carrier. Irene ran out of it, leaped onto the desk, and curled up.