"That was hard. One of the hardest things I've ever done, and it almost got me hanged. But even knowing what the Peeps planned to do to me, personally, my responsibility, in the same situation, would be to give the same order again."
   She looked deep into Andrea Jaruwalski's eyes, and her own softened with approval for what she saw there.
   "I believe you advised Admiral Santino to withdraw, and I believe you did it for the right reasons. Not out of fear, but out of common sense and sanity. And that was no easier for you than ordering Alistair McKeon to surrender was for me, because it does cut against the tradition. But there comes a time when we have to look past the form of a tradition to the reason it came into existence in the first place, and throwing away a task force, and all the lives that go with it, in a futile gesture of defiance is not what Edward Saganami did or would have expected those who followed him to do. If there's even the remotest chance of victory, or if other, overriding considerations, like the honor of the Star Kingdom or the risk of losing an ally's trust, make it necessary, that's one thing. But to take a force that badly outnumbered into the teeth of that much firepower in defense of a star system that was of absolutely no use to us in the first place... ?"
   She shook her head firmly.
   "You saw that, and you advised your admiral to see it for himself. He failed because he lacked the moral courage you displayed in advising him, and his failure killed him and every man and woman aboard his flagship... and most of the people aboard all the other ships of his command. When it comes to choosing between two people who demonstrate those patterns of behavior, I know which one I want in the Queen's service. Which is why I asked you to come see me."
   Jaruwalski's eyebrows rose in silent question, and Honor smiled.
   "I've been in command of ATC for less than two weeks now," she said. "I've got three very capable deputies, plus my own experience with the Crusher, and despite the extra load Admiral Caparelli saw fit to assign me as a Tactics 101 lecturer, I've already identified several changes I want to make. Places I want to tweak the program just a bit, or change its emphasis slightly. And I want you to help me do that."
   "Me, Your Grace?" Jaruwalski was obviously certain she'd misunderstood, and Honor chuckled.
   "You. I need an aide, Andrea. Someone whose judgment I trust, who'll understand what I'm trying to do and see to it that the effort gets organized effectively. And someone who can stand in for me in the simulators, and in the classroom sessions, when I can't make it myself. And someone, if you don't mind my saying so, who can serve as a living example of how to do it right... despite the price they may have to pay afterward."
   Jaruwalski's dark face had paled, and she blinked hard, lower lip trembling ever so slightly.
   "Besides," Honor went on in a deliberately lighter tone, "I've got at least one much less laudable reason to offer you the slot."
   "Y-you do, Ma'am?" The commander's soprano was husky, and it stumbled just a bit over the first word, but Honor pretended she hadn't noticed.
   "Of course I do!" she said, and her smile was her best 'cat-in-a-celery-patch grin. "Just think of it — this gives me the opportunity to poke that jackass Santino right in the eye even after he's gone by `rehabilitating' the officer whose career he tried to wreck out of sheer spite and spleen. Heavens, woman! How could I possibly pass up an opportunity like that?"


   "Who did they say they were?" Samuel Mueller asked his steward.
   "They said they were investors looking for sites for new farming domes, My Lord," Crawford Buckeridge replied. The steward had been with Mueller for over thirty years, and the steadholder did not miss the slight emphasis he'd placed on the verb.
   He gave no sign of it, however. He often wondered what Buckeridge thought of his own... extracurricular activities. The Buckeridges had been in the service of the Muellers for generations, so whatever the steward might think, Mueller had no fear of his mentioning anything to anyone else. But Buckeridge was also a deeply religious man who'd been badly shaken by the murder of Reverend Julius Hanks and the proof that William Fitzclarence had been behind both that and the deaths of dozens of school children right here in Mueller Steading. While the steward disapproved of Benjamin Mayhew's reforms as severely as Mueller could have asked for, he'd been horrified that a steadholder could stoop to such actions, which probably meant it was fortunate that he'd never realized Mueller had been Fitzclarence's silent partner.
   But not for that insane assassination plan of his, Mueller reminded himself. I still can't imagine what got into his so-called brain to inspire him to that. Brother Marchant had a lot to do with it, no doubt, but could even Marchant have been so stupid as to deliberately kill Reverend Hanks?
   He shook his head, brushing aside a familiar sense of bemusement. It wasn't as if it really mattered. Marchant and Fitzclarence were both dead, and no one had tied him to either of them. Besides, he'd been out of his mind to get involved in something so crude, and he was just as happy to be rid of such incompetent allies. Violence, whether open or covert, was not the answer. Not because he had any particular moral objections — indeed, one of his fondest dreams was of Honor Harrington and Benjamin Mayhew in the same air car as it blew up in midair — but because killing either of them at this point would probably be counterproductive. Especially since Harrington had come back from the dead and added that accomplishment to her Grayson hagiography.
   Too many people were prepared to carry on if anything happened to her or Mayhew these days, and the only way to deal with that was to build a counterorganization, one openly dedicated to slowing the "reform" process... although only through legal, constitutional channels, of course. Since Mayhew had succeeded in institutionalizing his reforms, dismantling them would require an institutional framework of its own, and that was what Mueller had dedicated himself to building. At the same time, he'd retained some of his old clandestine connections. Most of them were pure information conduits these days, but he still had a few contacts tucked away that were a bit more action-oriented. He had to be particularly careful about those contacts, but he was a steadholder. And the leader of what had emerged as the equivalent of the loyal opposition, at that, which meant even Mayhew had to be very careful when dealing with him, lest it appear he were attempting to smear someone simply because that someone disagreed with him.
   Mueller snorted at the thought. No one on Grayson had had any experience in running a system of government based on a division of powers eleven T-years ago. If they'd had that experience, they might have been able to hold Mayhew in check and prevent the entire damned "Mayhew Restoration." But they hadn't, and when Mayhew reasserted the written Constitution during the Masadan Crisis, he'd gotten away with resurrecting an autocratic system which the Keys, individually and collectively, lacked the strength to break.
   Since they couldn't break it, they'd had to learn to work within it, and that took time. Whatever else he might be, Mayhew was a student of history and an extremely astute politician. He'd taken ruthless advantage of the Keys' temporary paralysis and overturned their autocracy and secured near total ascendancy for the Sword while they were still dithering and trying to remember what the ancient procedures had been. But they'd learned eventually, and the degree of autonomy they enjoyed within their own steadings had helped. At least they still possessed solid local bases of support, plus control of the organs of government and law enforcement in their home steadings. And Mueller, in particular, had emerged as a master of parliamentary tactics. He and his allies could only nibble away at the Protector's power at the moment, but he was patient. Benjamin IX's attention was being drawn more and more completely to fighting the war. No one could have the energy or time to do that effectively and keep a keen watch on all the domestic aspects of his government, and Mueller had convinced his fellow opposition leaders to work quietly and carefully in the shadows to which Benjamin could no longer pay close attention. It wasn't glorious or spectacular, but, in time, it would prove to be something much more important than either of those things: effective.
   Still, his position as the clear leader of those opposed — respectfully, of course — to the Mayhew reforms put him in a somewhat exposed position. Every crackpot who had any hope of working within the system, and quite a few perfectly content to work outside it, saw him as a logical rallying point. The strangest people seemed to spring out of the very ground to bring him their plans and suggestions, and as he reflected on his steward's response to these two, he wondered how odd they were going to turn out to be.
   On the other hand, one never knew when even the most unlikely tools could turn out to be just what one needed, could one?
   "Show them into my office — the formal one. And have someone keep an eye on them. Hmmmm... Hughes, I think."
   "Yes, My Lord," Buckeridge replied, and turned to sail majestically off.
   Mueller smiled after him. Buckeridge didn't much care for Sergeant Steve Hughes. Not because of anything the armsman had ever done, but because, unlike the steward, Hughes was the first of his family in Mueller Steading. But that was all right with Mueller. For certain sensitive duties, he relied on people Buckeridge would have approved of, whose families had served his for decades or centuries. He could trust those people to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves, assuming they thought about his instructions at all rather than simply obeying. But Hughes was part of the new breed. A tall, lanky fellow, especially for a Grayson, he was far more comfortable than his more traditional fellows with the new technology gushing into Grayson. He was particularly good with computer software, and he'd been very useful to the Mueller Steadholder's Guard (and to Samuel Mueller personally) in that area.
   More importantly, he was virulently conservative and almost rabidly religious, with an oppressive personal piety which was a rarity even on theocratic Grayson. Those character traits went a bit oddly with his fascination with the new technology pouring into his home world from the off-worlders he hated, but that didn't bother Hughes. And they did make him particularly valuable to Mueller. It was good to have someone who was reliable and intelligent (those two qualities, alas, did not always go together among his more traditional retainers) and technologically sophisticated.
   Sergeant Hughes had only been with the Mueller Guard for about five years, and Mueller had been very cautious about him initially. As the man had proved his reliability and demonstrated his conservative bent, however, he had been gradually tapped for increasingly sensitive duties. Nothing seriously illegal, of course. Mueller didn't do much of that sort of thing anymore, and he knew precisely which of his armsmen to rely upon for the rare instances in which something a little... irregular had to be accomplished. But Hughes had amply demonstrated his fundamental reliability, and Mueller had come to depend on him in matters which were merely shady.
   He chuckled again at the thought, then pushed back his chair. The office from which he actually ran his steading was far less grand than the formal one to which Buckeridge had just shown his guests. It was also more comfortable and much more efficiently arranged... and he had no intention of allowing anyone he did not know and trust absolutely anywhere near it.
   He tucked a few record chips and several pages of old-fashioned, handwritten notes into a secure drawer of the desk, closed it, and spun the ancient but still effective combination lock. Then he shrugged into his jacket, straightened his tie, and walked slowly down the hall towards his waiting visitors.
* * *
   The two men sat patiently in the armchairs to which Buckeridge had ushered them, and Mueller smiled as he noted the coffee cups on the low table between their chairs. They were from the everyday set, not one of the more formal china patterns. Obviously Buckeridge considered these people to be of sufficient potential worth to his master that they merited the rites of hospitality; equally obviously, he didn't much approve of what he clearly considered to be their devious, probably dishonest way of approaching his steadholder.
   Poor Crawford. If he only knew, Mueller thought, but he allowed his expression to show no trace of it as he walked briskly into the room.
   Sergeant Hughes stood just inside the door, imposing in Mueller red-and-yellow, and Mueller nodded to him as he passed. The strangers heard him enter and rose quickly, turning towards him with courteous expressions.
   "Good morning, gentlemen." The steadholder sounded breezy, like the confident, busy, honest man he was. "I'm Lord Mueller. What can I do for you this fine day?"
   The strangers glanced at one another, as if taken a bit aback by such cheerful gusto, and he hid an inward, catlike smile. It wasn't strictly necessary in this case, of course, but he did enjoy playing with people's minds.
   "Good morning, My Lord," the older of them finally said. "My name is Anthony Baird, and my friend here is Brian Kennedy. We represent an investment cartel interested in agricultural expansion, and we'd appreciate a few moments to discuss it with you."
   His eyes flicked meaningfully towards Hughes as he spoke, and Mueller allowed just a trace of his smile to show as he shook his head amiably.
   "That worked fine to get you past my steward, Mr. Baird," he said cheerfully, "but I very much doubt that you or Mr.—Kennedy, was it?—have any particular interest in farmland. In which case, we should probably get down to your real reason for being here, don't you think?"
   Both visitors were definitely taken aback by that, and they turned to look at one another much harder than before. Then, as one, their gazes swiveled back to Hughes.
   "The sergeant is one of my personal armsmen, gentlemen," Mueller said, putting a cooler edge on his voice, and Baird and Kennedy — assuming those were their real names, which Mueller doubted — pulled themselves quickly back together. Casting doubt on an armsman's loyalty had once been a swift way to a most unpleasant end... and it was still nothing a prudent man wanted to do in the presence of the armsman in question.
   Accidents, after all, happened.
   "Of course, My Lord. Of course!" Baird said. "It's just that, well, we weren't quite prepared— I mean..."
   "You mean, I imagine, that you expected to have to beat around the bush and work your way gradually up to whatever actually brought you here," Mueller supplied helpfully, then chuckled at Baird's expression as he sank into the comfortably padded chair behind his huge desk.
   "Forgive me, Mr. Baird. I shouldn't let my levity get the better of me, but my position among the Keys uncomfortable with the Protector's so-called `reforms' has made me a logical rallying point for others who are... uncomfortable with them. And since the `Mayhew Restoration,' quite a few of those others have felt a need to avoid attracting the, ah, official attention of the Sword."
   Baird started to speak, but Mueller waved a hand and tut-tutted him back into silence.
   "I regret the fact that they feel that way, Mr. Baird, and I personally feel an honest man has nothing to fear from the Sword simply because he does not agree with Protector Benjamin in all things. The Test still calls us to take our stands for what we believe to be right and true, after all. Sadly, however, I can understand why not everyone would agree with me, and so I mean no disrespect if you and Mr. Kennedy are among those who prefer not to put my opinion to the test in that respect. My time is in short supply, however, so I'd prefer not to waste time on cautious, circumspect approaches."
   "I... see," Baird said. He cleared his throat. "Well, in that case, My Lord, let me come to the true point of our visit." He nodded to Kennedy, and the two of them sank back into their chairs. Baird reached for his coffee cup once more and crossed his legs, obviously working hard to project an aura of relaxation.
   "As you alluded to, My Lord, your position among the Keys who are distressed by the changes here on Grayson is well known. In our own way, my colleagues and I share that distress and have labored as best we might in the same cause. But while we have many friends and a degree of funding which might surprise you, we lack the prominence and position to make our efforts effective. You, on the other hand, lack neither of those things and are widely respected as an astute and thoughtful leader. What we would like to propose is an association between our organization and you."
   "Your organization," Mueller repeated, swinging his chair ever so slightly from side to side. "And just how large would this `organization' of yours be, Mr. Baird?"
   "Large," Baird said flatly. Mueller looked a question at him, and he shrugged.
   "I would prefer not to be very specific about numbers, My Lord. As you suggested earlier, most of us are more than a little uncomfortable about letting the Sword know our identities. While I would never criticize your own faith in the safety of honest men, I've also seen how many of our ancient rights and traditions the Protector has trampled underfoot in the last eleven years. The Sword has never been so powerful, and we fear it seeks more power still. If our worst fears should be true, then those of us less prominent than the Keys would be well advised to be cautious in openly opposing the `Mayhew Reforms.' "
   "I don't agree with your conclusions," Mueller replied after a moment, "but, as I said, I can sympathize with your concerns, and I respect your decision." He rubbed his chin. "Having said that, however, what does this `large' and anonymous organization of yours propose?"
   "As I said, My Lord, an association. An alliance, if you will. Many of us have been active in the picketing and protest movements. We have many friends among the hardcore members of those movements. They bring us information which could be very useful to someone in your position, and they also provide a visible and powerful medium for transmitting your positions to the public at large. We can also offer a useful infusion of campaign workers for the next elections, and we're quite good, if I do say so myself, at getting out the vote among those who share our views. And—" he paused for just a moment "—our members are as generous with their money as with their time. We are not, by and large, wealthy individuals, My Lord. Few of us are among the rich or powerful. But there are a great many of us, and all of us give as we may for the Lord's work. I realize that campaign finance sources are being looked at more closely than ever before, but I'm sure we could devise a... discreet means of contributing to your political war chest. To the tune, let us say, of ten or eleven million austens. Initially."
   Mueller managed to keep his shock from showing, but it was hard. That was a substantial sum, equivalent to seven and a half to eight and a half million Manticoran dollars, and Baird seemed to be suggesting that it was only a beginning.
   Wheels whirred behind the steadholder's eyes. He was too wily a conspirator not to recognize the skill with which Baird had trolled the hook before him. But his initial confidence that Baird was overstating both the numbers and power of his "organization" had just taken a severe blow. It would take an organization of considerable size to produce that sort of money from its members' contributions, especially if, as Baird was suggesting, they came from the middle and lower-middle classes.
   What was most tempting was Baird's suggestion that the contributions would be slipped to him secretly. There was no legal ban on contributions from any source — any such ban would have been considered a restriction of free speech — but there was a very strong tradition of full disclosure of donors. In fact, the Sword required such disclosure for any election which crossed the borders of more than one steading, which meant for any race for the Conclave of Steaders, the planetary government's lower house.
   And therefrom hung a large part of the emerging Opposition's problems. They were strongest in the Keys, where the defense of power and privilege against the Sword's encroachments naturally strengthened opposition born of principle. In the Conclave of Steaders, the reverse was true. The lower house had been reduced to total irrelevance before the power of the great Keys prior to the Mayhew Restoration. Now it had reemerged as the full equal of the upper house, and the majority of its members, even many uncomfortable with Benjamin's reforms, were staunch Mayhew loyalists. It was there that the Opposition most needed to make electoral gains... and also where open campaign contributions from conservative sources would do a candidate the most harm.
   But if no one needed to know where the money for those contributions had come from in the first place...
   "That's a most interesting proposition, Mr. Baird," Mueller said after a moment. "It's sad but true that even the Lord's work requires frequent infusions of capital. Any contributions would be most gratefully accepted, and, as you, I feel sure we could find an unobtrusive way for us to accept your generous support. But I believe you also mentioned information sources and campaign organizations?" Baird nodded, and Mueller leaned back in his chair.
   "In that case, gentlemen, let's take this discussion just a little further. For example, what about..."
* * *
   Several hours later, Sergeant Samuel Hughes, Mueller Steadholder's Guard, ushered Baird and Kennedy from his steadholder's office and showed them back out of the sprawling, ancient stone pile of Mueller House. He'd said nothing while he stood post in Mueller's office, and he said nothing now — a taciturn fellow, Sergeant Hughes — but the teeny-tiny camera whose lens was hidden in the uppermost button of his tunic had caught the two visitors and their earnest discussions with Lord Mueller.
   Lord Mueller didn't know that, however. Nor would he... until the proper time.
   Unfortunately, nothing which had been discussed this morning was — quite — illegal. Not yet, at any rate. Once campaign money actually changed hands without disclosure of its sources a crime would have been committed. The best that anyone could hope for out of what had been said in Mueller's office was a conspiracy conviction, and even with the camera footage, convicting a man like Mueller in open court of conspiracy would be extremely difficult.
   That was disappointing, or should have been. Yet Hughes felt no disappointment, for he sensed an opening. For the first time of which he was aware, an outside organization, not just an individual nut or a small cluster of them, had reached out to initiate contact with Mueller. Always before it had been the other way around, with Mueller very carefully approaching allies of his own selection. That had been one of the steadholder's greatest strengths, for he'd built his own contacts and alliances as a spider built its web, weaving the strands cautiously and artfully and always making certain they would bear the weight he chose to put upon them.
   But if he accepted the offers Baird and Kennedy had made, and it looked very much as if he would, then he would have allowed an unknown into his web, and it would begin to generate strands of its own, whether it meant to or not. The steadholder's entire organization would become more porous and easily penetrated, and the number of potential witnesses against him would go up geometrically.
   And that, Sergeant Hughes thought fervently, was a consummation greatly to be desired. Because Sergeant Hughes, who was also Captain Hughes, of the Office of Planetary Security, had spent the better part of five years worming his way into Mueller's confidence, and he still had very little to show for it. But if this morning's meeting was headed where he thought it was, that was about to change.


   "Well it's about time... I think," Citizen Vice Admiral Lester Tourville observed. He'd tilted back his chair at the briefing-room table, and his eyes glittered as he studied the star-spangled hologram above it. He'd seen it before, many times, during the preliminary planning stages, but then a plan was all it had been. Now it was an actual operation, waiting only for the proper concentration of assigned forces to become reality.
   "Qualifications from you always make me nervous," People's Commissioner Everard Honeker replied dryly, and Tourville chuckled. The citizen vice admiral often wondered what StateSec thought it was doing leaving Honeker as his political watchdog. It seemed too much to hope that none of the citizen commissioner's SS superiors had realized that a certain strain of corruption through association had crept into their relationship. Since that entire disgraceful business with the decision to execute Honor Harrington on what everyone knew had been trumped up charges, Honeker's corruption had increased apace. By now, it had come perilously close to outright disaffection, and Tourville was willing to bet that the citizen commissioner's reports to Oscar Saint-Just bore only a passing acquaintance with reality.
   For a time, both Tourville and Honeker had tried very hard to pretend nothing had changed between them. It had seemed safer that way, especially since they could never know when some other informer might be in a position to see or guess what was actually happening. But things had changed since Operation Icarus. Indeed, Tourville had noticed without comment, even to Honeker, that there seemed to have been a general thawing of the relationships between the people's commissioners and the Twelfth Fleet officers whose political reliability they oversaw. He doubted that it was anything remotely universal, but Twelfth Fleet had accomplished something none of the rest of the People's Navy, with the possible exception of Thomas Theisman's Barnett command, had managed to achieve: it had defeated the Manties in battle. More than simply defeated them. Twelfth Fleet had humiliated the Royal Manticoran Navy and it allies. In the process, it had obviously shaken the entire Manticoran Alliance — a man only had to look at the Allies' current total lack of offensive action to realize that — and simultaneously given the Republic's civilian morale its first real boost since the war began.
   And the men and women of Twelfth Fleet, Navy and people's commissioners alike, knew precisely what they'd achieved. The pride and solidarity which came from something like that, especially after so many years of defeat and humiliation of their own, was impossible to overestimate. A man like Honeker, who'd been fundamentally decent to begin with, almost had to succumb to it... and not even a cold fish like Eloise Pritchart, Citizen Admiral Giscard's commissioner, was completely immune to it.
   Surely the people back at StateSec GHQ had to realize something like that was inevitable. But they seemed not to have. Or, at least, they weren't reacting as they would have reacted to such a realization earlier in the war. Saint-Just's minions had made a few changes, but not the ones Tourville would have anticipated. Oh, he was more than slightly suspicious about StateSec's sudden generosity in reinforcing Twelfth Fleet with units of its private navy, but none of the citizen commissioners had been relieved or removed. And so far as Tourville could tell, no new watchdogs had been appointed to keep an eye on the commissioners, as well as the admirals... which he would have considered the most rudimentary of precautions in Saint-Just's place.
   Of course, the fact that he'd seen no evidence of new watchdogs proved nothing. StateSec had effectively unlimited manpower, and Saint-Just had been setting up domestic spy networks for decades, first for Internal Security and the Legislaturalists and now for StateSec and Rob Pierre. No doubt he could manage to avoid detection while he set one up here if he put his mind to it. But Tourville genuinely believed he hadn't, and he wondered how many other people realized what a monumental realignment in the power balance between Saint-Just and Esther McQueen that represented.
   But one of the more mundane and enjoyable side effects of the changes had been a general loosening of the frigid formality and distance the people's commissioners had previously maintained. Honeker had begun loosening up sooner than most, but a year ago, not even he would have joked about the possible risks of an ops plan. Not when it had been his job to ensure that the officer with whom he shared his jest drove the plan through to unflinching success despite any risks it might entail.
   Of course, the fact that Lester Tourville had carefully built a reputation as the the sort of gung-ho, bloodthirsty officer who could hardly wait for his next fight had given Honeker a set of priorities which differed somewhat from those of his fellow watchdogs. All to often, he'd found himself maneuvered into the position of being forced to restrain Tourville's enthusiasm, and as he'd realized long ago, that had given the citizen admiral and Citizen Captain Yuri Bogdanovich, Tourville's chief of staff, a pronounced advantage when it came to maneuvering him into doing things their way.
   Which lent a certain added point to his jest. And probably meant it was Honeker's way of posing a sincere question.
   "I suppose I'm a little surprised to hear myself adding qualifiers, too, Everard," the citizen vice admiral admitted after a moment. The use of Honeker's first name was something neither of them would have dared contemplate before Icarus; now neither of them turned a hair. "And I'm not at all sorry we're actually getting Scylla organized. I just wish we knew more about whatever buzz saw Jane Kellet walked into at Hancock."
   He pulled a cigar from his breast pocket and played with it without unwrapping it while he swung his chair back and forth in minute, thoughtful arcs.
   "NavInt is still contradicting itself at regular intervals trying to explain what happened to her," he went on in a musing tone. "I guess I can't blame them for that, given the dearth of hard tactical data and the absolute confusion and trauma of her survivors, but I think its obvious the Manties have something we don't know about."
   "Citizen Secretary McQueen's `super LACs'?" Honeker's voice held an ever-so-slight edge of whimsy, but his eyes were somber, and Tourville nodded.
   "I read Citizen Commander Diamato's— No, he's a citizen captain now, isn't he?" Tourville shook his head. "Damned hard way to win a promotion, but, by God, the man deserved it! I'm just glad he got out of it alive." The citizen vice admiral shook his head again, then inhaled sharply. "At any rate, I read his report, and I wish he'd been in shape to produce it before McQueen convened the board of inquiry."
   "I do too. For the technical data it contained, at any rate." Tourville quirked an eyebrow, and Honeker chuckled humorlessly. "I've read it, too, Lester. And, as I'm sure you did, I rather suspected there'd been a few excisions. He said remarkably little about his task force's command structure, didn't he?"
   "Yes, he did," Tourville agreed. Even now, neither he nor Honeker was prepared to comment openly on the fact that the Hancock Board had proved that despite any other changes, Esther McQueen was not fully mistress of the Navy. Citizen Admiral Porter's idiocy was excruciatingly obvious to any observer, yet no one on the Board had commented on his arrant stupidity. His political patrons remained too powerful for that, and nothing could be allowed to taint the reputation of an officer famed for his loyalty to the New Order. Which meant that despite all McQueen could do, the Hancock Report had lost two-thirds of its punch and turned into something suspiciously like a whitewash rather than the hard-hitting, ruthless analysis the Navy had really needed.
   "But like you, I was thinking about the hardware side of his report and wishing the Board had been given a chance to see it before it issued its official conclusions," the citizen admiral went on. "Not that it would have convinced the doubters... or even me — fully, I mean — I suppose. It just doesn't seem possible that even the Manties could squeeze a fusion plant, and a full set of beta nodes, down into a LAC hull and then find room to cram in a godawful graser like the one Diamato described, as well!"
   "I've never really understood that," Honeker said, admitting a degree of technical ignorance no "proper" people's commissioner would display. "I mean, we put fusion plants into pinnaces, and isn't a LAC just a scaled-up pinnace, when all's said and done?"
   "Um." Tourville scratched an eyebrow while he considered the best way to explain. "I can see why you might think that," he acknowledged after a moment, "but it's not just a matter of scale. Or, rather, it is a matter of scale, in a way, but one in which the difference is so great as to create a difference in kind, as well.
   "A pinnace has a far weaker wedge than any regular warship or merchantman. It's enormously smaller, for one thing, not more than a kilometer in width, and less powerful. The little hip-pocket fusion plants we put into small craft couldn't even begin to power an all-up wedge for a ship the size of a LAC. Which is just as well, because they use old-fashioned mag bottle technology and laser-fired fusing that's not a lot more advanced than they were using back on Old Earth Ante Diaspora. We've made a hell of a lot of advances since then, of course, in order to shoehorn the plants down to fit into pinnaces, but the way they're built puts a low absolute ceiling on their output.
   "Even the biggest pinnace or assault shuttle comes in at well under a thousand tons, though, and a worthwhile LAC has to be in the thirty— to fifty-thousand-ton range just to pack in its impellers and any armament at all. Remember that courier boats in the same size range don't carry any weapons or defenses and just barely manage to find someplace to squeeze in a hyper generator. A LAC may be smaller than a starship, but it still has to be able to achieve high acceleration rates (which means a military grade compensator), produce sidewalls, power its weapons — and find places to mount them — and generally act like a serious warship, or else people would simply ignore it. Which means that, like any starship, LACs need modern grav-fusing plants to maintain the power levels they require. And there are limits on how small you can make one of those."
   The citizen vice admiral twitched a shrug.
   "Of course, the designers can cut some corners when they design a LAC. For one thing, they don't try to build in a power plant which can meet all requirements out of current generating capacity. Ton-for-ton, LACs have enormous capacitor rings, much larger than anything else's, even an SD. They're a lot smaller in absolute terms, naturally, given the difference in size between the ships involved, but most energy-armed LACs rely on the capacitor rings to power their offensive armament, and a lot of them rely on the capacitors even for their point-defense clusters. And not even a superdreadnought has enough onboard power generation to bring its wedge up initially without using its capacitors. Just maintaining it once it is up, even with the energy-siphon effect when it twists over into hyper, requires a huge investment in power, and initiating the impeller bands in the first place raises the power requirement exponentially. So even when they're not doing anything else, most warships tend to have at least one fusion plant on-line to charge up their capacitor rings... and, of course, a LAC only has one power plant, and just keeping it up and running requires its own not insubstantial power investment.
   "And that's why so many of our own shipyard people will tell you that anything like Diamato's `super LACs' is flatly impossible. Either the damned things have to be bigger than Diamato thought they were, or else there's some serious mistake in his estimate of the destructiveness he claims they were capable of handing out."
   "I'm a bit confused, Lester," Honeker admitted. "Are you saying Diamato was right? Or that he must have been wrong?"
   "I'm saying that by every logical analysis I can come up with, he must be wrong... but that what happened to Jane Kellet argues that he must be right. That's what worries me. Javier Giscard is good, and with all due modesty, I'm not exactly a slouch myself when it comes to tactics. And I've got Yuri and Shannon to help me think about them. But none of us has been able to come up with a way to really defend against the `super LAC,' because none of us can make any rational, useful projections as to what its real capabilities are. And, frankly, I'm almost as worried by what Diamato had to say about the range and acceleration on those damned missiles someone kept shooting up their wakes while the LACs — or whatever — were shooting them from close up and personal. LACs or no LACs, the kind of range advantage that suggests is enough to keep a man from sleeping very soundly at night."
   "So you think McQueen is right to be cautious," Honeker said flatly.
   "I do," Tourville replied, and his tone was equally flat. Then he shrugged. "On the other hand, I can also understand why some people—" he carefully refrained from mentioning Oscar Saint-Just by name, even now and even with Everard Honeker "—keep asking where the Manty secret weapons are. We've hit them several times since Icarus. Not in any more of their critical systems, granted, but all along their northern frontier, without seeing a sign of anything we didn't already know about. So if they've got them, why haven't they used them? And if they haven't got them, then we ought to be beating up on them as hard and as fast as we can. And if they're in the process of getting them, but don't have them yet, then we really ought to go after them hammer and tongs."
   "I see." Honeker regarded the citizen vice admiral speculatively. It must be like pulling teeth for Lester Tourville to even appear to agree with Oscar Saint-Just about anything. Not that Honeker blamed Tourville a bit for that. For that matter, Honeker had come to share a lot of the citizen admiral's reservations about the soundness of StateSec's commanding officer's military judgment.
   But one thing Honeker had learned about Tourville was that there was an extraordinarily keen brain behind the wild man facade he was at such pains to project. And if Lester Tourville was genuinely worried by his inability to reconcile the apparently contradictory aspects of the reports from Hancock, Everard Honeker was certainly not prepared to dismiss his concerns.
   Whether he understood their technical basis or not.
   "So I take it that you approve of the basic Scylla plans," he said after a moment. "Given your desire to get in and beat up on the Manties hard and fast, I mean."
   "Of course I do. There's room for us to get hurt, but that's true of almost any operation worth mounting. And the only way we could get hurt too badly would be for the Manties to figure out where we plan to hit them and concentrate everything they can scrape up to stop us. That would require them to be a lot more daring in their deployments than they've been ever since we hit them with Icarus, and I don't see any sign of that changing just yet. Which, of course, gives added point to hitting them now, before they do get around to regaining their strategic balance.
   "But McQueen was also right about the need to concentrate our own forces and drill them before we commit them. You know as well as I do how much Twelfth Fleet has expanded since Icarus, and we still don't have all of our assigned order of battle. An awful lot of our people have some frighteningly rough edges, especially in the new-build units that haven't fully completed their working-up process. And the expansion in new hulls is spreading our trained engineering people still thinner... not that we were exactly oversupplied with them to begin with!"
   He shook his head with a sardonic grin.
   "Typical, isn't it? We finally start to get on top of our shortage of competent onboard technicians, and that's when the yards start producing enough new ships that we have to thin them out all over again!" He chuckled. "Oh, well. I suppose we're better off having too many ships and not enough techs than when we had too few of either of them.
   "But the point I was making was that McQueen's insistence on taking time to prepare adequately makes a hell of a lot of sense. We'll commit as soon as we possibly can — in fact, I think McQueen is probably pushing too hard and fast, if she seriously intends to make the execution date she's specified — but it's going to take time. Just to get all of our units here, given the sheer distances over which they'll have to travel, and then to get them all up to effective combat standards once they arrive."
   And, he did not add aloud, just to teach those cretins StateSec's palmed off on us which hatch to open first on their damned air locks!
   He might not have said the words aloud, but Honeker heard them anyway. Like Tourville, Honeker had been astonished by StateSec's ongoing failure to make wholesale replacements among Twelfth Fleet's people's commissioners. Partly, he knew, that reflected Saint-Just's complete faith in Eloise Pritchart's judgment and coldly analytical intelligence. But for all that, he rather doubted Saint-Just was anywhere near as comfortable as he tried to appear about Twelfth Fleet's personnel relationships. He couldn't be — not when the stability of those relationships could only serve (in his judgment) to strengthen Esther McQueen's hand. Which obviously explained the "reinforcements" StateSec had provided to Twelfth Fleet.
   Officially, it was only an effort to help the Navy overcome the shortage in the hulls required for the proper execution of Operation Scylla and its follow-on ops. Clearly, if the Navy was short of ships, it was the duty of State Security, as the People's guardians and champions, to make up the shortfall.
   It had come as something of a shock to Honeker to discover that StateSec actually had dreadnoughts and even superdreadnoughts in its private fleet. Not a great many of them, it appeared, but Honeker had never suspected that the SS had any ships of the wall. From Tourville's expression, he suspected the existence of those ships had come as an even greater shock to the citizen vice admiral... and not a pleasant one. True, there didn't seem to be a great many of them, but still—!
   Both Tourville and Giscard clearly regarded the SS units' arrival as a mixed blessing. No officer about to embark on a high-risk offensive could help feeling at least a little grateful when the equivalent of an entire, oversized squadron of the wall appeared out of the woodwork to reinforce his order of battle. At the same time, the crews of those ships were among the most fervent supporters of the New Order generally and of Oscar Saint-Just in particular. None of them really trusted regular officers, and they weren't shy about showing it. Which meant that the sense of unity and pride which lay at the core of Twelfth Fleet's achievements was threatened by the divisive inclusion of the SS ships, their companies, and — especially!—their officers. Those ships had also required a much greater amount of drilling than Navy ships would have in order to attain Twelfth Fleet's standards, and the graphic proof of their initial deficiencies hadn't done a thing to sweeten relationships between their crews and the PN regulars.
   Honeker had no doubt that Esther McQueen had been less than thrilled to have the StateSec units palmed off on her, but she could hardly object to what everyone knew was their real reason for being there without appearing to be guilty of the very subversive attitudes Saint-Just clearly believed she harbored. Even if that hadn't been true, turning them down would have made it harder to argue in favor of delaying Scylla. If she were truly that short of hulls, she should be jumping at such a powerful reinforcement, after all! So if she'd objected to it instead, regardless of her official reasoning, it could only be because she wanted to drag her feet for nefarious reasons of her own, right? Or that, at least, would be StateSec's interpretation.