All of which meant the Navy had discovered it had no choice but to reach down into the ranks of its noncoms to find the warm and, especially, competent bodies it needed. At least BuPers had been able to keep up with the demand so far without diluting skill levels, and the shutdown of so many forts should ease much of the pressure shortly. But it hadn't eased it yet, and the fact that the petty officers BuPers was tapping for the new slots and offering warrants to tended to be older and more experienced than the commissioned officers junior enough to be assigned to the LACs also offered a useful leavening of seasoned judgment to rein in the youthful exuberance that was part of the emerging "LAC jockey" mentality. That was good, but some of the purists among the commissioned officers deeply resented the sudden mass elevation of senior chiefs, chiefs, and even a few PO 1/cs to fill slots that ought properly to have been filled by lieutenants and lieutenant commanders.
   That attitude, in Sir Horace Harkness' considered opinion, was stupid. Actually, he usually appended a few colorful adverbs to his opinion, if only to himself. It was also hurting the acceptance of the new LACs and their carriers — or, at least, the notion that "real" officers should associate with the jumped-up riffraff who crewed them.
   The RMN's officer corps, as a whole, was among the most capable in space, but that didn't mean it wasn't riddled with its own careerists. And in those careerists' view, nothing so minor as a war for survival should be allowed to interfere with the appointed unfolding of God's plan for the universe... otherwise known as the seniority system. They'd always hated officers like Honor Harrington for their meteoric rises and the way they kept jumping the zone, leapfrogging those ahead of them on the basis of mere achievement and, in the process, pushing back the regular, seniority-based promotions on which any good careerist relied. But now they had something even worse to worry about — a situation in which noncommissioned peons were receiving warrants in job lots in order to occupy slots in which their more deserving (and commissioned) betters could otherwise have been accruing the seniority which would lead to the promotions they so earnestly desired. Even worse, a lot of those ex-noncom warrant officers were almost certain, eventually, to wind up exchanging the warrants they ought never to have been offered in the first place for regular commissions. Not only that, the miserable wretches and their irritating LAC carriers were going to be in the thick of the new offensives, if the tea leaf-readers had gotten it right, which meant they would also be the ones picking up the medals, being mentioned in dispatches, and generally acquiring all the other career-enhancing benefits of combat experience. (Of course, they would also be getting shot at — a lot — while zipping around in the most fragile warships in the RMN, so perhaps, on more mature consideration, that last point could be considered a wash.)
   Among the undeserving souls, who, strictly on the basis of their unfair advantages in experience, training, and ability, had received warrants, however, was a surprisingly large leavening of men and women like Sir Horace Harkness. Individuals who would have been happier to cut their own throats than accept regular commissions. Who'd seen the world of the officers' mess from the outside and much preferred a slot that let them get their hands dirty, tinker with the hardware they loved, and avoid the increasing levels of executive responsibility that were part of the commissioned seniority track. It wasn't that they were afraid of responsibility per se so much as that they preferred to remain with the type of responsibility they understood and stay well clear of the threat of ever commanding an entire starship and finding themselves in the hot seat, responsible for hundreds or even thousands of other lives, when it all fell into the crapper.
   Sir Horace Harkness had many friends among that particular group of individuals, including one Warrant Officer Scooter Smith. WO-1 Smith had been only a petty officer first before the Second Battle of Hancock, and he was considerably younger than Harkness, but he was also very good at his job. Which was the problem. Smith's ability and willingness to dig in and heave when the going got rough accounted for how much Harkness liked him. Those same qualities, however, also helped explain how Captain Ashford's wing readiness rate had just edged Harkness' by exactly three percentage points. Which meant Incubus had won the competition Admiral Truman had organized to see which LAC-carrier would be the senior ship of CLAC Squadron Three. Ashford's seniority to Tremaine had given his ship the inside track for the job, but Hydra's captain was senior to Incubus' by over six T-months. Had Hydra's wing — which meant Sir Horace Harkness' wing — aced the competition, Admiral Truman might well have decided (as the outraged traditionalists insisted she ought) to go on the basis of the seniority of the two CLACs' skippers rather than that of the commanders of the LAC wings.
   "Oh, come on, Chief!" That was another thing that tended to confuse outsiders to whom the Navy's inexplicable customs remained a foreign language. There were chief warrant officers, and there were chief petty officers. Properly speaking, a CWO was always addressed as "Chief Warrant Officer" and a CPO was addressed as "Chief Petty Officer" or "CPO" to avoid confusion. In fact, the Navy tended to be much more informal in practice. Besides, Harkness would always be "the Chief" to Scotty Tremaine, and although Captain Adib, Hydra's CO, was known as a stickler for correct etiquette, not even she would have protested in this very special case.
   "Stew and Scooter beat us fair and square... and we beat everyone else!"
   "They don't give out anywhere near the same prizes for second-best, Sir," Harkness grumbled, "and if that beta node on Twenty-Six just hadn't—"
   He made himself stop and breathe deeply, then grinned at his youthful boss.
   "All right, Skipper. Guess I was venting just a bit much. But it really frosted me to lose over a component that passed every preinspection test and was supposed to have another three thousand hours on its clock! I swear, I think Scooter bribed the damned thing to fail just when it did."
   "That, Sir Horace, is because you are a devious and unscrupulous soul. I, on the other hand, as the trusting, honest, and open sort I am, rather doubt Mr. Smith would stoop so low. And even if he would have stooped so low — which," Tremaine admitted thoughtfully, "upon more mature consideration, I don't suppose we can quite rule out — I don't see how he could have pulled it off. Besides, we're still the senior ship for Division Two, and that's nothing to sneeze at!"
   "No, Sir, it isn't." Harkness gazed at the results for one more second, then shook his head and turned away with an air of resolution. "And now that that's outta the way," he went on more crisply, "what do you want me to tell Commander Roden?"
   "I don't know." Tremaine rubbed his nose in a gesture uncannily like one Harkness had seen scores of time from Lady Harrington. "I can't fault his eagerness, but I'm not sure what Dame Alice would think of the idea. Or if this is the right time to be tinkering with it in the first place."
   "Never gonna know if we don't ask, Sir," Harkness pointed out reasonably. Then he cocked his head. "You want me to write up a proposal?"
   Tremaine's eyebrows rose. Harkness must feel pretty strongly about Roden's suggestion if he was actually volunteering to write a proposal which he knew was certain to end up on at least one flag officer's desk. And which, under the circumstances, might go all the way up the chain to Vice Admiral Adcock, the Fourth Space Lord, at the head of the Bureau of Weapons.
   And he may have a point, Tremaine mused. Besides, I sort of think I may be waffling because of the rarified heights to which any such suggestion is likely to ascend.
   He grinned at the thought, then folded his arms and leaned back against the bulkhead while he replayed the idea once more.
   At twenty-seven, Lieutenant Commander Robert Roden was even younger for his rank than Scotty Tremaine. And he didn't exactly look like an HD writer's concept of the steely-eyed, courageous warrior, either. He was a bit on the plump side, stood just under a hundred and seventy-six centimeters, and wore his dirty-blond hair quite a bit on the long and shaggy side by current RMN standards. Thanks to the fact that he was third-generation prolong, he looked a lot like a pre-prolong sixteen-year-old, and his guileless eyes and innocent expression contributed to an impression of youthful diffidence.
   Appearances, however, could be deceiving, which was how Lieutenant Commander Roden had come to command the 1906th LAC Squadron, the sixth squadron of Tremaine's own Nineteenth LAC Wing.
   The organizational structure of the new carrier forces had been worked out by Alice Truman and Captain Harmon, and its nomenclature sounded a bit odd to those accustomed to traditional Navy designations. The number designator of each wing matched that of its mother ship. Hence the wing assigned to CLAC-19, HMS Hydra, was the Nineteenth Wing. In turn, each LAC squadron was numbered to indicate both its parent wing and its own place within the wing, which meant that Roden's squadron, the sixth of the nine squadrons Hydra carried, was designated the 1906th. Orderly as the system was, it resulted in squadron numbers which seemed preposterously high to people accustomed to numbering squadrons of starships rather than sublight parasites, but it got even worse, because a LAC's hull number was based on its slot in its wing, not on the original builder's number by which BuShips tracked its maintenance and service history, and was subject to change whenever the vessel was reassigned. For example, Tremaine's own Shrike-B was officially LAC-1901, indicating that it was the number-one LAC of the Nineteenth Wing. Roden's personal bird, on the other hand, was LAC-1961, and the last unit of the 1909th Squadron was LAC-19108. The system broke down just a bit at the very end, because the twelve spare LACs aboard each carrier were designated by their builder's numbers until they were put on-line to replace one of the birds from the regular squadrons... at which point they assumed the number of the LAC for which they were substituting. The full number of any LAC was too cumbersome (and, with so many digits, too likely to be misheard or misunderstood in the heat of combat) so each bird was also assigned a call sign: Hydra One in the case of Tremaine's own ship, since he was both Hydra's COLAC and skipper of the 1901st LAC Squadron, and Hydra Six in the case of Roden's ship. The other units were assigned alpha designators within their squadrons to build their call signs, so that the second ship of the 1906th was Hydra Six Alpha to the controllers, while the third was Hydra Six Beta, and so on.
   Of course the LAC crews were a bit less formal in the unofficial names they assigned their ships. In Hydra One's case, Harkness' bid to immortalize his wife, Sergeant-Major Iris Babcock, by naming the vessel the Iris B had come to naught — not without vigorous campaigning and a certain degree of somewhat threatening moral persuasion on his part. Instead, Ensign Audrey Pyne's nomination had carried the day. Ensign Pyne, Tremaine's tac officer, was a bit of a romantic and a pronounced history nut, and she'd dug back into Old Terran history in search of ancient parallels to her new duty slot. Like Jackie Harmon, she'd found inspiration in the fragile, old-fashioned, downright quaint pure air-breathers of the last two centuries Ante Diaspora, and it was largely thanks to her efforts that the Nineteenth Wing had begun a new tradition, already spreading to the other wings (with Admiral Truman's support, despite the disapproval of certain other senior officers), of embellishing their LACs with distinctive "nose art." She was also something of an optimist, and her crewmates had decided her suggested name — Bad Penny —carried hopeful connotations which certainly ought to be encouraged. Lieutenant Commander Roden's crew, on the other hand, had opted for the rather more colorful suggestion of its engineer, PO 1/c Bolgeo, and decided to go with Cutthroat.
   At the moment, however, what mattered more than the internal organization of the RMN's LAC force was what Roden and Bolgeo had come up with.
   The original Shrike —class LACs had suffered from the fact that they were still an experimental design. The concept's basic soundness had been demonstrated conclusively at Second Hancock, but it would have been remarkable if their first battle hadn't demonstrated a certain number of flaws in the initial execution.
   The worst weakness had been the absence of any after-point defense. The ability of the new LACs' missiles to accept radically off-bore firing solutions theoretically let countermissiles fired from their bow-mounted launchers cover most of their rear threat arc. But only in theory, because the designers had been overconfident. They had assumed that Shrikes would be such elusive targets that "overs" would be unable to attack from astern, and, in order to save mass and internal volume, they'd included no countermissile control links to guide long-range intercepts, and CM sensors were too myopic to do the job without the links. That had been bad enough, but even worse, perhaps, they had also failed to provide aft-firing laser clusters for close-in defense... and their assumptions had proven far too optimistic. Most of the Shrikes lost at Second Hancock had, in fact, been killed by "up-the-kilt" laser head snap shots at close range — exactly the sort of attack the designers had believed would be impossible. But while the firing solutions for that sort of attack against something as small and agile as a Shrike were, indeed, difficult to generate, the odds of success were much better than prebattle analyses had projected, and it took only a single one of them to kill an LAC.
   BuWeaps' and BuShips' response had been the Shrike-B, which exchanged the original Shrike's internal hangar for its own small cutter/lifeboat for four more countermissile launchers, a half dozen fire control links, and six more laser clusters designed to cover its stern. In addition, total countermissile magazine space had risen from fifty-two to one hundred, evenly divided fore and aft. Unlike larger, hyper-capable ships, the Shrike-Bs lacked transfer tubes, so each point defense battery had its own magazine, and the forward launchers could not use the after-launchers' birds or vice versa. That was a fairly minor concern, however, and all of the sims (whose parameters had been heavily updated on the basis of actual combat experience at Hancock) indicated that the new LACs would be considerably more survivable than the original Shrike.
   In addition, however, Vice Admiral Adcock's BuWeaps was finally getting the entire Ghost Rider missile and drone family into full production. Because Ghost Rider's components had initially been conceived of as something to be carried only by hyper-capable combatants, BuWeaps had faced a severe challenge in engineering the same capabilities into something a LAC could carry, but they'd met it. The LAC-sized specialist missiles and drones were less capable than the full-sized versions, but the LACs were also far harder for enemy fire control to lock up in the first place, so the trade-off in effectiveness was virtually a dead heat. Where the LACs came up shortest was that they didn't have much internal capacity for any missiles, and each electronic warfare bird they carried was one less shipkiller they could have fitted in.
   BuShips' solution, designed in close cooperation with BuWeaps, was the Ferret —class LAC. The Ferrets dropped all offensive energy armament to provide the maximum hull volume for missile magazines and an even more powerful electronic warfare suite. The enormous squeeze the Shrikes' massive graser put on their internal volume was obvious when the missile numbers on the Shrike-B— twenty shipkillers and a hundred countermissiles — were compared to the same numbers for the Ferret: fifty-six shipkillers and no less than one hundred and fifty countermissiles. That was particularly impressive given that EW volume requirements had grown by over twelve percent at the same time.
   Doctrine called for the Ferrets to operate in a support role for the Shrike-Bs in alpha strikes on heavy warships. Against light combatants or merchantmen, the Ferret would be lethal from well outside the Shrike-B's energy-attack range, but LAC-sized missiles would be much less effective against anything bigger than a heavy cruiser. Against heavy units, the Ferret's job was to accompany the Shrike-B to provide EW support and as an antimissile escort, relying on its heavy countermissile load for active intercepts, and with its main magazines stuffed with electronic warfare birds rather than with shipkillers. Each LAC wing was assigned two squadrons of the missile boats, and despite a certain initial skepticism, the "Bird Boats" of the missile squadrons had quickly earned the respect of anyone who exercised with them. Or against them.
   But the Ferrets also had one more innovation which the Shrike-Bs lacked. Because they had no offensive energy armament, it would have been foolish for them to accompany the graser-armed LACs all the way in on an alpha strike, so doctrine called for them to break off before the strike entered the enemy's point-blank energy range. That protected them from the fury of heavy shipboard lasers and grasers to which they could not reply, but it also meant enemy missiles were far more likely to get a clean shot at their after-aspects as they broke off and away. Accordingly, BuShips had used the last scraps of the internal volume freed by removing the graser to shoehorn in an additional sidewall generator. Just as powerful as the new "bow-wall" that closed off and protected the front of a Shrike' s wedge as it bored into energy range, the Ferret's "sternwall" closed off the rear of the wedge. Power requirements and the physics of the wedge meant only one aspect, bow or stern, could be closed at any given moment, but it gave a Ferret's skipper a much more flexible choice of breakaway vectors.
   What Roden and Bolgeo wanted to do was build the same capability into a Shrike-B. BuShips had already considered the possibility and pronounced against it because the designers had no more internal volume to work with. They couldn't put the additional generator in without taking something else out, and they were disinclined to start pulling the additional systems BuWeaps had just bullied them into putting in in the first place.
   They were no doubt correct about that, but Roden and Bolgeo had a notion of their own. They were both natives of Liberty Crossing on Gryphon, and until Bolgeo went into the Navy, ten years before Roden headed for Saganami Island, he and Roden's older brother had spent most of their free time in the machine shop of Bolgeo's engineer father. They'd done a lot of tinkering with spacegoing hardware, and Bolgeo had come up with an interesting solution to BuShips' objections. If the generator wouldn't fit inside the hull, why not mount it out side?
   Personally, Tremaine was a bit surprised Roden and his crew had been able to find time to even consider such an original approach. The new LAC wings had already demonstrated a propensity for attracting the oddballs and the colorful (himself excluded, of course), but Cutthroat's crew was more offbeat than many. Bolgeo, Cutthroat's engineer, for example, had a record almost as distinguished as Horace Harkness' had been in his more adventuresome days. Then there was PO 2/c Mark Paulk, Cutthroat's helmsman. Paulk had a well-deserved reputation as a hot pilot... and he'd once been a chief petty officer before a certain incident involving an admiral's pinnace, a pair of young ladies of negotiable virtue, and a case of really good Hadrian's World scotch. Cutthroat's astrogator, Lieutenant (jg) Kerry Gilley, was younger than the others, but old in sin, with eyes which tried (generally unsuccessfully) to look innocent as the newborn day... as they had the day after he and CPO Paulk had taken the admiral's pinnace for its unauthorized spin. There were PO Sam Smith and his buddy PO Gary Shelton, Cutthroat's electronics warfare specialist and com officer respectively. Both of them were lifers — Smith had over thirty-six T-years in, and Shelton wasn't far behind — and there were persistent rumors that before the war, they had made themselves very helpful to Logistics Command in the disposal of redundant electronics. Of course, LogCom hadn't known the parts were redundant, but that was only because Smith and Shelton hadn't wanted to bother the Navy by cluttering up the proper channels with the paperwork on them. Or the profit from their disposal.
   The rest of Cutthroat's crew were almost mundane in comparison. Lieutenant (jg) Olivia Cukor, the LAC's sensor officer, and Lieutenant Kirios Steinbach, the executive officer, actually didn't have a single blemish on their records. How long that would remain true, given the company they were now keeping, remained anyone's guess, of course. PO 3/c Luke Thiele, the assistant engineer, was too brand, squeaky new to have earned the same reputation as his older crewmates, but the way he followed Bolgeo around with puppylike devotion boded ill for his future record. As for the final member of the crew, Lieutenant Joe Buckley, the tac officer, the jury was still out. He was very good at his job, and had demonstrated a positive genius for tweaking and modifying his weapon systems' software, but the consensus in the squadron was that he could not possibly be as innocent as his earnest expression and manner seemed to indicate. He was, after all, assigned to Cutthroat, and everyone knew what that meant.
   Actually, Tremaine admitted to himself with an inner smile, Roden had managed to hammer his personal collection of misfits into exactly the sort of "LAC jocks" Captain Harmon had envisioned. Their record in sims and drills was second to none, Cutthroat's engineering readiness was the second best in the wing, and they had that swaggering confidence, verging on arrogance, which was the mark of an elite small-craft crew. Indeed, Tremaine was often bemused by how well they performed, since they never seemed to have the time to waste on things like practice. That would have dragged them away from their true passion, for the lot of them seemed addicted to cards, and particularly to the ancient game of spades, which they played with special fervor and bloodthirstiness. As a rule, they seemed to resent the intrusion of anything so ephemeral as an interstellar war on important things like setting the high-bidder in a hand of cutthroat, and Bolgeo and Paulk, the two who'd actually come up with the idea for locating the sternwall generator, were the worst of the lot.
   Of course, it was an... offbeat approach, which was probably no more than was to be expected of those two. Indeed, it was hardly surprising that the more orthodox thinkers at BuShips had never considered such an outré notion, no matter how much sense it made once someone actually suggested it.
   Sidewall generators were too fragile and too valuable to expose to damage. Everyone knew they had to be put safely behind armor, where a freak hit would be less likely to destroy them and open a deadly chink in a warship's defenses. That meant they always went inside the hull, since the armor, by definition, was on the outside of the hull. But as Bolgeo, Paulk, and Roden pointed out, a LAC had no armor. There was no point in it, since no one could armor a ship that small to stand up against heavy weapons fire while still having the internal volume to carry a worthwhile weapons load of its own. So if there was no armor to put the generator behind in the first place, there was no logical requirement to put the generator inside the ship, either.
   Harkness and Tremaine had checked their numbers, and it certainly looked as if the three of them were on to something. The problem of interference with the after beta nodes would require some careful number crunching, but it was the matter of power supply which seemed likely to pose the real difficulties. Nice as the new LACs' fission plants were, they simply couldn't produce the power out of current generating capacity for everything that had to be done in the heat of combat... especially in a Shrike or Shrike-B, with its battlecruiser-sized graser mount. The bow-wall, like the graser itself, was actually fed from a massive superconductor capacitor, and one of the flight engineer's jobs was to see to it that any of his pile's output not being used for anything else was diverted into maintaining the charge on the capacitors. To make the sternwall work, one of the other capacitors would have to be tapped (with the potential for draining it doing one job just at the moment it was urgently needed for its originally intended purpose), or else yet another dedicated capacitor of its own would have to be crammed into (or onto, possibly) a hull that was already packed like an e-rat can.
   "They really think they've got the node interference and wedge deformation problems solved?" Tremaine asked Harkness finally.
   "Tim says so," the warrant officer replied, and shrugged. "He's the one with the hands-on experience. Commander Roden's more into the theory and enthusiasm, but Tim's the one who's run up the actual schematics, and he says he's confident."
   "Um." Tremaine rubbed his nose again. "And the power feeds?"
   "They're talking about running two taps, one to the graser ring and one to the ring for the bow-wall. That way they could siphon off power from either of them and balance the load rather than have to choose between draining one of the other systems completely or doing without the sternwall."
   "Or they could end up draining two critical systems."
   "Yep." Harkness nodded, then shrugged. "Other way to look at it, though, Skip, is that if the shit's so deep they're draining both the other capacitors just trying to cover their asses while they bug the hell out, it ain't real likely they're gonna need any power for offensive action, now is it?"
   "You could just have a point there, Chief." Tremaine thought another moment, then shrugged. "All right. Go find Bolgeo, and tell him to round up Roden and Paulk. I want to talk to all three of them and go over their numbers in person. After that, I'll write up the memo and route it to Captain Adib and Admiral Truman. In the meantime, I'll authorize you and Bolgeo to start building the thing out of the wing's own resources."
   "Good enough," Harkness said with obvious satisfaction, then grinned. "You know, Sir, I think the thing I may like best about this job is the machine shops. I got all those gorgeous new toys to play with, and the Navy actually pays me to do it! It don't get a lot better than that, Skipper."
   "If you're happy, I'm happy, Chief," Tremaine told him expansively. "Just don't get too carried away. This monster of Roden and Bolgeo's isn't going to be cheap, and if it doesn't work, I'm going to have a real hard time explaining to the LogCom people where all the parts for it went."
   "Don't worry, Sir. If I build the thing, it'll damned well work. And if it don't, I'll personally take Bolgeo's spades' deck away from him until he makes it work!"


   "And it's been one thing after another for months now," the slender, dark-faced woman on the display groused. "We're still catching flak from the attack on Zanzibar. The Caliph's ambassador was in here just yesterday to see Dame Elaine and press for `clarification' on the status of the reinforced picket. Which really meant he wanted her to swear a blood oath to leave it there forever. Which she couldn't, of course. They needed to talk directly to the Earl, not to one of the permanent undersecretaries. And even if Dame Elaine had the authority to make official policy commitments, the Duke's made it clear to everyone in the Alliance that something like that is a military decision, which means Ambassador Makarem ought to have one of his attachés sounding out your bosses' staff over at Admiralty House, not us!"
   Rear Admiral Aristides Trikoupis, GSN (who had been a captain junior-grade in the Royal Manticoran Navy just over three years before) reclined on the couch in the admiral's day cabin aboard GNS Isaiah MacKenzie and wiggled his sock toes in shameless luxury as he viewed the letter from his wife. Mirdula Trikoupis was a senior-level member of the Foreign Office's permanent staff, and the expression on her lively face was just a tad on the disgusted side.
   "And then certain individuals who shall remain nameless started trying to pressure us for details of privileged communications between the Earl and the Graysons — and hinting at all sorts of dire consequences the next time the government changes hands if we didn't cough up what they wanted!" She grimaced with more than a hint of true anger. "I swear, Aristides, sometimes I want to run out into the street and strangle the next three politicians I meet with my bare hands!"
   Trikoupis chuckled aloud at that. Not because he didn't share her longing to permanently remove certain of those "nameless" individuals — I wonder if they were staffers for High Ridge, New Kiev, or Descroix? Had to be one of them —but at the image that flashed through his brain. Unlike most of the Manticoran officers on loan to the Grayson Space Navy, Trikoupis, at just a hair over a hundred and seventy centimeters, did not tower over the native Graysons of his crews... but he looked downright tall next to his diminutive wife. Mirdula was fourteen centimeters shorter than he was, and the thought of her strangling politicians — preferably one with each hand, simultaneously, while holding their toes well clear of the ground — appealed mightily to him.
   Strictly speaking, Mirdula had no business sharing that sort of information with anyone outside her office, but she'd been careful to use their private encryption (which was supplied by the Foreign Office), and her letters to him traveled only aboard high-security Navy courier boats. Besides, he'd spent three prewar years as a naval attaché on Haven, and his Foreign Office and ONI clearances remained in force. Still, he made a mental note to suggest that she might want to tone down the inside info in her next letter.
   "I really don't know how the Earl puts up with it, even with us to run interference for him," Mirdula went on more seriously. "I suppose he must be used to projecting a pleasant mood even when he wants to shoot people. And he has to be used to people trying to buttonhole him for personal favors, too; he is the Queen's uncle, after all. But this place has been a madhouse, and he and Lord Alexander are taking the brunt of it."
   Trikoupis grunted, his humor souring as he contemplated the truth of yet another of his wife's observations. His Grayson commission had taken him out of the mainstream of the Star Kingdom's political life, but Mirdula's insights and a thoughtful study of the 'faxes (plus the analyses Grayson Naval Intelligence circulated to its senior officers) kept him abreast of what was happening, and he didn't like some of what he was hearing.
   Trikoupis had met Countess New Kiev during his stint assigned to the FO, and he hadn't much enjoyed the experience. He was willing to accept that she held her beliefs sincerely, and honest enough to admit he'd met Centrists and Crown Loyalists who were just as officious and nearly as strident. But her towering faith in her own rectitude was so sublime as to elevate her to a status all her own. No doubt the fact that he shared so little of her view of the universe made it seem even worse, but she reminded him irresistibly of the witch-hunters of ancient Terra who had dragged their victims out, tortured them into confessing, then burned them alive... all strictly for the good of the sinners' immortal souls. The Countess had that same zealous streak, and she was just as determined to do what was "best" for people whether they wanted it done for — or to —them or not.
   Given the uproar over the Peeps' resumption of the offensive, it was probably inevitable for New Kiev and her allies to gain more credence with the electorate. Less because they'd done anything right where the war was concerned (because even the stupidest voter knew they hadn't), but because they led the opposition to the government on whose watch things had gone wrong. Human nature's desire to find someone upon whom to blame disasters had operated faithfully and efficiently... and in their favor.
   Much of the furor had faded when the Peeps failed to follow up with more deep raids, and Duchess Harrington escaped from Cerberus. But the public wanted the Navy to do more than just stop the Peeps. It wanted the Navy to resume the offensive — without running any risks, of course, or exposing any more core systems to attack — and push the Peeps back where they belonged so the Allies could end the war once and for all. Worse, the military budgets were beginning to bite truly deep, and the taxpayers who felt that bite failed to understand that their increased tax burden was actually a good sign.
   Trikoupis switched off the viewer, puffed his cheeks, and swung into a sitting position. This was his third time through Mirdula's letter, and he knew he'd view it several more times before he recorded his response. Just at the moment, though, the direction of his own thoughts had soured his enjoyment of it, and he rose to pace, still in his sock feet, on the carpet covering his day cabin's decksole.
   Isaiah MacKenzie (known to her crew as Izzie when they figured no spies from the Office of Shipbuilding might overhear) was part of the taxpayers' pain, although the taxpayers in her case were Graysons and not Manticorans. Despite an exponential increase in effective firepower, Izzie actually had only about forty percent as much crew as her older consorts, thanks to the sophistication of her automation, and the same trend towards lower crew numbers obtained across the board in all the new classes being designed by BuShips and the Grayson Office of Shipbuilding. Trikoupis rather doubted that the average Manticoran civilian would have understood what that meant even if the Government had been in a position to share such sensitive information with anyone. But what they did know about the Navy's new ships was quite simple enough for the voters to grasp: they cost a lot.
   But there was more to it than that. In fact, there was a great deal more to it, and Trikoupis wished it were possible to tell the people paying for the new designs just how much they were actually getting for their money.
   The most obvious advantage of the new designs — and especially the SD(P)s, as the new Harrington/Medusa class was being designated — was a huge increase in offensive capability. Whether or not the new defensive systems could match that increase remained to be seen, but until the Peeps had equivalently armed classes, that hardly mattered. Trikoupis had commanded Battle Division Sixty-Two from the Izzie for over a T-year now and run innumerable exercises with her and her division mate, GNS Edward Esterhaus, so he knew exactly how devastating the Peeps were going to find her and her sisters once the new class was employed en masse.
   Perhaps even more important than the increase in offensive power was the huge decrease in crew requirements. With one exception, the bottleneck for the RMN's expansion had always been more about manpower than the cost of hulls. That exception had been the Junction forts in the Manticore Binary System itself, where a large number of units had been a strategic necessity, whatever the cost. That commitment had put a squeeze on available peacetime funding, and manning the forts had only made the personnel problems worse. But the capture of Trevor's Star had alleviated that particular requirement, and two-thirds of the forts had been transferred from active to reserve status. Even with the need to fortify the Basilisk and Trevor's Star ends of the Junction, that had still released enough personnel to man a hundred and fifty old-style SDs. With the new automation, that gave the Navy the manpower for almost two hundred and fifty, which was a third again more than the RMN's entire prewar superdreadnought strength.
   The junction fortress reduction was the most enormous windfall BuPers had ever experienced, and while the new LAC wings about which Trikoupis had heard endless rumors seemed to be skimming off a lot of junior officers and senior noncoms, the vast bulk of that manpower pool remained untouched. Which meant that for the first time since Roger III had begun his Navy's buildup against the Peep threat, the RMN literally had the crews to man as many vessels as it could physically build.
   And it was building a lot of them.
   No one had experienced a true revolution in naval design or weaponry in over half a millennium, and the sheer expense of carrying one through in the midst of a shooting war was enough to stagger the most avid militarist. According to Trikoupis' latest classified briefing on the subject, the Navy had close to two hundred new ships of the wall under construction simultaneously. At roughly thirty-five billion a pop, that came to the tidy sum of seven trillion Manticoran dollars, and that was an enormous bite out of anyone's budget. Nor did it include the price tag on all the escorts those ships would require, or the new carriers (and the LACs to go on them), or the new missiles, or the R&D to support all of the above.
   The Cromarty Government had borrowed heavily, and the Star Kingdom's record of stable financial growth, coupled with how well the Allied navies had done up until the Basilisk Raid, had helped sell a lot of bonds in places like the Solarian League. Increased Junction use fees had also helped, but ultimately there'd been no choice but to raise taxes. More, for the first time in the Star Kingdom's history, Parliament had, with much trepidation, adopted a graduated income tax rather than the Constitutionally-mandated flat rate. The new tax would automatically expire at the next general election or within five years, whichever came first, but it had still come as a profound shock to the taxpayers and sent a massive ripple through the financial and investment markets, and there were sinister signs of a steadily rising inflation rate, all coupled with a far more intense, government-imposed rationalization of the entire industrial sector.
   Trikoupis could scarcely blame the electorate for its dismay. The Star Kingdom had gotten by without such measures for almost five T-centuries, and experiencing them now seemed like a reversion to the Dark Ages of the last century or two Ante Diaspora. Or, even worse, to the ruinous policies which had transformed the once prosperous Republic of Haven into an interstellar appetite that could never be sated.
   And New Kiev, North Hollow, High Ridge, and Lady Descroix had all voted for the new taxes out of "patriotic duty." Of course, they'd done so only with profound, eloquently expressed personal reservations, and only because the Cromarty Government had assured them it was essential to ultimate victory. They'd made certain the electorate knew how reluctant they'd been... and how Lord Alexander, Cromarty's Chancellor of the Exchequer, had twisted their arms to make them cooperate. Which had been shrewd of them, Trikoupis acknowledged. Not nice, but certainly effective. They'd not only garnered the benefits of having put aside their own agendas in the interest of the Star Kingdom's security in a time of emergency, but managed to stick the Cromarty Government with full responsibility for imposing such a painful burden. And they'd taken great care, throughout the process, to never, ever mention the fact that the new ships coming off the ways would win the damned war and so, ultimately, get the entire Alliance out from under its crushing economic burden.
   At the moment, the three most unpopular men in the entire Star Kingdom were probably Cromarty, William Alexander, and the Earl of Gold Peak. They were the senior members of the government, and so the inevitable targets of public resentment and unhappiness. Given the Queen's unflinching, iron support for her senior ministers, there was little the Opposition could do in the short term to capitalize on that unhappiness, and Trikoupis hoped fervently that the anticipated turn in the war's military momentum would hurry up and arrive. Once the Allies were again winning victories, a lot of the—
   His thoughts chopped off as his com terminal sounded the strident, two-toned warble of an emergency message, and he reached the acceptance key in two strides.
   "Yes?" he said sharply, even as the display lit.
   "Sensor One reports unidentified hyper footprints at nineteen light-minutes from Zelda, bearing one-one-seven, zero-one-niner true, Admiral." Captain Jason Haskins, Isaiah MacKenzie's skipper, was grim-mouthed, and his normally soft Grayson accent was crisp, almost staccato. "Admiral Malone has ordered the task force to readiness state one. The FTL buoys make it at least thirty-five of the wall, Sir."
   "Not just a raid this time, I see," Trikoupis said much more calmly than he felt.
   "I think that's probably a safe assumption, Sir." Haskins' tight mouth relaxed into a quirky grin for just a moment. "They're headed in-system now at three hundred and twenty gravities, which suggests they're heavy with pods. Current velocity is thirty-five hundred KPS, so assuming a zero-zero intercept with the planet, a least-time course would make it just over five and a half hours with turnover at two-point-six hours — call it a hundred and fifty-six minutes. Except that I doubt that's what they have in mind."
   "I share your doubts." Trikoupis' tone was wry, and he gave a small grin of his own. The planet Zelda was the Elric System's only more-or-less (and rather less than more) habitable planet. It had a thoroughly unpleasant atmosphere: dank, muggy, and heavily flavored with volcanic outgassing. As if that weren't enough, Zelda was home to a microscopic, airborne plant that contributed to the fuzziness of planetary vistas, added its own piquant flavor to the methane, sulfur, and other objectionable smells of Zelda's many volcanoes, and generally clogged up every air filter in sight, including the human lung. And, as a sort of piéce de resistance, the planet had an axial inclination even more extreme than Manticore-B's Gryphon, which produced a seasonal climate shift which had to be seen to be believed.
   It was, in short, one of the most worthless pieces of real estate Aristides Trikoupis had seen in his entire life. Its sole value was that its marginally breathable atmosphere had made it a logical place for the Star Kingdom's engineers to camp while they built (as quickly as possible, considering the incentives) the much nicer orbital habitats to which they had moved as soon as humanly possible. And since their superiors had decided they had to use Zelda as their local support base while they built the habitats, they'd also used the planet as the gravitational anchor for the Alliance's presence in Elric.