"Oh, I think they have." White Haven waved her into the lift car ahead of him, then joined her while Robards punched the destination code into the panel. "I've been more and more impressed with the First Space Lord's insight into the Peep operational posture, especially over the last few months," he went on. "Oh, he got caught out like the rest of us by the Basilisk raid, but between them, he and Pat Givens have predicted just about every major Peep move since then with surprising accuracy. And that little number he pulled off on the Grendelsbane approaches was nothing short of genius." The earl shook his head. "Even if they don't launch the sort of offensive down there that he's hoping for, he's certainly drawn them into a false position. They have to believe we're still not ready for a stand-up fight... and I'll guarantee they don't have a clue as to what Buttercup is about to do to them."
   "I hope you're right, My Lord," Truman repeated. And, to be honest, she felt confident he was. Which was the reason she spent so much time and effort making herself stand back a bit from the general confidence. Someone had to watch out for the pseudogators lurking in the reeds to bite them all on the ass if Sir Thomas Caparelli — and Hamish Alexander — weren't right, and it looked like the job was hers.
   And one reason I made it mine was because I know how green some of my people really are, she reminded herself grimly. I said we can hold up our end, and we can, but Lord what I'd've given for just three more weeks of training!
   "Another reason I'm glad you're here now," White Haven went on in a more serious tone, "is that security on the entire Anzio project has held up much better than I ever expected it to. All my flag officers and most of my captains have received the stage one briefing, and there are lots of rumors floating about all the way down the line. But no one really knows anything, and people have been remarkably careful about when, where, and with whom they'll even discuss the rumors. Which is why I scheduled this conference on the very day of your arrival. I know it's rushing you a bit, but I really want my senior officers, at least, to hear about the new LACs from the horse's mouth, as it were, before the carriers actually begin arriving."
   "I understand, My Lord. And at least you said `from the horse's mouth,' rather than another portion of his anatomy." She chuckled. "Besides, I might as well admit I'd pretty much figured out that was what you had in mind when you invited me aboard. Which is why I brought this." She raised her left hand, and the chain from her wrist to the briefcase it held glittered in the lift car's lights.
   "And `this' is?" White Haven inquired politely.
   " `This' is the official holo presentation my staff put together for Admiral Adcock and BuWeaps just after our last readiness tests, My Lord. I think it will bring all of your people up to speed quite handily. And give them a realistic appreciation of the LACs' limitations, as well as their potential."
   "Excellent!" White Haven beamed at her. "I've known you were a resourceful officer since that business at Yeltsin's Star, Dame Alice. I'm happy to see you've stayed that way." The lift slid to a halt, and he looked at Robards. "I see we did forget one thing though, Nathan," he said.
   "We did, My Lord?" Robards frowned, and White Haven chuckled.
   "It's not our fault, of course. We didn't know Admiral Truman was going to be bringing her home video. I'm sure if we had known, we'd have remembered to be sure everyone had lots of popcorn."
* * *
   Commander Tremaine sat in the chair reserved for him in PriFly, otherwise known as Primary Flight Operations. PriFly was the nerve center of HMS Hydra's LAC operations, and he let his eye flick down the long rows of steady, green lights on the master status panel. Each of those lights showed a LAC bay with its own LAC nestled into the docking arms at one hundred percent readiness for launch. Had any bay been down, or the LAC in it not ready for instant deployment, its light would have burned an angry red, not green. But there wasn't a single flicker of red, and he allowed himself a deep, well-deserved glow of pride as the big CLAC held her place in the transit queue.
   He took his attention from the master status panel and looked into the repeater plot deployed from the arm of his command chair. In its own way, that plot was even more impressive than the status panel. There were almost as many lights on it, although their precisely drawn lines were spread more widely, and the ships each of those lights represented were far larger than any LAC. Especially the string of blinking green beads which stretched out ahead and astern of Hydra's own light dot.
   Seventeen. That was how many LAC carriers — and their wings — Admiral Truman had managed to get worked up. Each of them was the size of a dreadnought, and between them, they carried almost two thousand LACs.
   A lot of those LACs could have used weeks or even a month or two more of working up, but that would have been true whenever the Admiralty decided to take the gloves off, he reminded himself. Someone would always have been the new kids in the pipeline, after all, and they were scheduled to spend almost a month integrating the carrier groups with Eighth Fleet. Most of that would be for Eighth Fleet's benefit, but they'd get in some more training of their own. And however it worked out, it was past time to commit the carriers and their broods. Past time to throw the Peeps back onto the defensive once more.
   And this time, we finish the bastards, he thought grimly. As the commander of the Nineteenth Strike Wing, he'd been part of the audience when Admiral Truman's staff briefed them on Operation Buttercup. He still thought that was an idiotic codename — it sounded like the name someone might bestow on a pet pig — but he'd been awed by the sheer scale of Admiral Caparelli's brainchild.
   Buttercup was going to virtually double the total number of hyper-capable hulls assigned to Admiral White Haven's Eighth Fleet. That was impressive enough, given how hard Tremaine knew the Admiralty had been forced to scratch and scrape to built White Haven's original order of battle. But Eighth Fleet's actual combat power was about to go up exponentially, not arithmetically. In addition to Truman's seventeen LAC carriers, with six more scheduled to follow within two months, it was about to receive twenty-four more of the new Harrington/Medusa —class SD(P)s. That would give White Haven thirty-one, and he would be the first admiral allowed to use their full capabilities in an offensive operation. With hordes of LACs to cover their flanks and sweep up lighter units and cripples, those ships were going to mow a swath right through any Peep force stupid enough to get in their way.
   Tremaine cocked his chair back, watching the beads ahead of Hydra's vanish through the Junction to Trevor's Star with metronomic precision.
   It was funny, really, how important missiles had become for capital ships even as LACs turned into energy-range combatants. It was a reversal of all classic doctrine, for the inability of an old-fashioned LAC to squeeze in and power a weapon like the massive graser the Shrike-B was wrapped around had left the designers no option but to rely on missiles. They hadn't been very good missiles, but they'd been the only armament a ship that size could hope to carry, and the theory had been that even crappy weapons were better than none.
   Dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts, on the other hand, had (with a few experimental exceptions) always emphasized energy-heavy armaments and skimped on missiles. Partly that was because a unit locked into the formation of a wall of battle had a very limited firing arc. Its sensors and fire control could see only a relatively small slice of any enemy formation at a time... and the same was true for the seekers in its missiles. Worse, each missile broadside's impeller wedges blinded the sensors of its mother ship or any follow-on missiles, at least until they were far enough out to clear the range.
   The width of a missile wedge meant that even with the massive grav-drivers missile tubes incorporated, the tubes themselves had to be fairly widely spaced. Otherwise, wedge fratricide would have killed a ship's own broadside. That limited the total number of tubes in a broadside, because there was only so much hull length in which to spread the tubes. Designers had tried for centuries to come up with a way around that, but they'd failed. Staggered launches had seemed like the best bet for many years, but wedge interference with fire control sensors was the spacegoing equivalent of the blinding walls of gunsmoke old wet-navy ships had spewed out. The delay between launches had to be long enough for the missiles already out of the tubes to clear the range... and that would have made the intervals between launches so long that it became virtually impossible to achieve the sort of time-on-target fire that saturated an opposing capital ship's active defenses. Rather than a constant dribble of missiles coming in on the target in twos and threes, designers had opted for the maximum number of tubes they could cram in, allowing for mutual wedge interference, in order to throw salvos which would at least be dense enough to give point defense a challenge.
   For lighter combatants, who fired lower numbers of missiles and whose ability to maneuver was not restricted by the need to maintain rigid position in a wall of battle, missiles became a much more attractive weapon. Their firing arcs were wider, and they could maneuver as radically as they wished to clear those arcs faster once a broadside was away. Not only that, their shorter absolute hull length, coupled with the lower number of tubes they had the mass to mount anyway, meant their missiles spread much more rapidly relative to their firing arcs and made tubes with higher cycle times practical, thus increasing their effective rate of fire even more.
   And, of course, there was another reason capital ships had been missile light. Any ship of the wall was extremely hard to kill with missiles. ECM, decoys, and jammers made any ship harder to hit, and ships of the wall could produce more of all of them than anything else in space. Countermissiles, laser clusters, and even broadside energy weapons, could kill incoming missiles short of threat range, and ships of the wall mounted more point defense launchers, laser clusters, and energy mounts than anything else in space. Sidewalls bent and attenuated energy attacks of all types, including the lethal "porcupines" of X-ray lasers generated by bomb-pumped laser heads, and ships of the wall had heavier sidewalls and better particle and radiation shielding than anything else in space. If all else failed, armor could still limit and restrict the damage of anything which actually managed to hit a ship... and ships of the wall had heavier, more massive armor (and sheer hull size to absorb damage) than anything else in space. And when you put a couple of squadrons of them into a wall, with interlocking point defense and sensor nets, with screening units on their flanks to add to the antimissile fire (and run away and hide as the range dropped to that of the energy weapons), any single missile broadside which could have been mounted by any SD — even one of the Andermani's Seydlitz —class — could never hope to take out an opposing superdreadnought.
   Not that missiles hadn't always been important. They were the long-ranged sparring tool an admiral used to feel out his enemy's EW and defensive dispositions. And no admiral in his right mind fought one-to-one duels between the units of his wall and those of his opponent's. An entire division or squadron of his ships would lock their sights on a single unit in the enemy wall and throw every missile they had at it, hoping, usually with at least some success, to saturate the defenses locally and get a few hits through. Besides, there was always the chance of a "golden bee-bee." Scotty Tremaine had no idea what a "bee-bee" was (or used to be, at any rate), but every tac officer knew what the ancient term meant. Even the mightiest superdreadnought might simply find itself fatally unlucky when the laser came in from the laser head. Loss of beta or alpha nodes was the most common "freak" hit, but there were others, and there had even been extremely rare cases in which a dreadnought or superdreadnought actually blew up after no more than a couple of hits. No sane strategist would dream of relying on such a one-in-a-million occurrence, but it had been known to happen, so it was always worthwhile to throw a few missiles at an opposing wall as you closed.
   But the real killer of ships of the wall had always been the short-ranged energy duel... which was why, prior to the present war, so very few ships of the wall had been killed over the last few centuries. To really finish off an enemy fleet, your wall had to close through his missile envelope and get to shipboard energy range. No countermissile could stop a capital ship graser or laser. No laser cluster could kill it, and at any range under four hundred thousand kilometers, no sidewall could deflect it. And no other weapon in the universe could match the sheer, armor-smashing, hull-crushing destructiveness of a ship of the wall's energy batteries.
   And that was why no reasonably intelligent admiral hung around, if he could help it, while a more powerful wall closed with his. And as it happened, he usually could help it. Every admiral knew when to break off and run, and by turning his wall up on its side relative to its attacker, he could completely neutralize his enemies' energy weapons while he ran for it. Which meant it was all up to the missiles once more, and that the advantage shifted decisively to the evader. Indeed, it was the fact that admirals did know when to run which had made the slaughter of Fourth Yeltsin so shocking to the naval community when Lady Harrington's SDs managed to close to energy range of Peep battleships.
   But that had been a special case. Against an adversary who knew he faced ships of the wall — which the Peeps hadn't known at Fourth Yeltsin — the trick had been to pick a target the other side simply had to defend. If you could find one in whose defense he would be compelled to stand and fight, he was effectively pinned while you waded into his fire, closed with him, and finished him off with point-blank energy fire. The problem was that those sorts of targets were hard to find, especially in a war against something as big as the People's Republic of Haven. Which explained why naval warfare had been one long, weary attritional contest for so long.
   But the missile pods changed that. By definition, pod missiles launched from some point outside their mother ships' wedges, and their salvos never blinded the sensors or cut the telemetry links of the launching ships' fire control. That allowed a vastly higher number of missiles to be put into space simultaneously, and the hollow-cored SD(P)s could go right on launching them in enormous numbers. The sheer volume of fire they could sustain was guaranteed to swamp any old-fashioned wall's defenses, and any electronic warfare more old-fashioned than Ghost Rider's would be only marginally effective against such massive, crushing broadsides.
   And where any single missile, or handful of missiles, posed no threat to a ship of the wall, two or three hundred laser heads was another matter entirely.
   Yet just when the capital ships were rediscovering the joys of long-range missile duels, the Shrike-Bs were designed to attack straight into an enemy's teeth. Their grasers could be stopped or at least severely blunted by dreadnought or superdreadnought armor; nothing lighter could stop them. And at close enough range, even a ship of the wall's armor could be breached. It would be suicide to take such a small, light craft in that close against a healthy ship of the wall, but cripples were another matter entirely, and so was anything lighter than a ship of the wall.
   Which was why Eighth Fleet was about to show the Peeps what the bear did to the buckwheat, Tremaine thought with cold, vengeful anticipation as it became Hydra's turn to slip into the Junction. A lot of LACs were probably going to get killed along the way. Some of his would be among them, possibly even Bad Penny herself. But with shoals of Admiral Truman's piranha to sweep ahead of Eighth Fleet's wall and a solid core of thirty-plus SD(P)s to smash anything the LACs couldn't handle, nothing in the People's Navy could stop them.
   And the Peeps didn't even have a clue what was coming.


   "All right, Oscar." Rob Pierre sighed with an edge of resigned humor. "I know why you're here, so you might as well get started."
   "Am I really that predictable?" Oscar Saint-Just asked wryly, and the Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety nodded.
   "To me, at any rate. On the other hand, I know you just a bit better than most other people. And it's part of your job to be persistent about things you genuinely feel should be brought to my attention. So lay on, MacDuff."
   Saint-Just's right eyebrow rose as the last reference sailed over his head. But literary allusions weren't high on his list of interests, and he brushed the momentary flicker of curiosity aside and turned to the matter which had brought him here.
   "Not to harp too strongly on it, Rob, I think the preliminary reports from Twelfth Fleet confirm the fact that McQueen's been... overly cautious, let's say, where the Manties and their new weapons are concerned."
   "Maybe," Pierre replied, and smiled as Saint-Just's eyes rolled ever so slightly heavenward. "All right, Oscar," he admitted. "I tend to agree with you. But that doesn't necessarily mean her caution has been the product of sinister designs on you and me."
   "It doesn't prove it," the emphasis of Saint-Just's concession was pointed, "but the fact that she has been over cautious seems fairly evident, doesn't it?"
   "It looks like it, but as you just pointed out yourself, all we have so far are the preliminary reports. And the fact that we lost five of the wall, including the task force's flagship and its commanding admiral and his commissioner at Elric to a single missile salvo from the Manties is at least a little worrisome."
   "Giscard's and Tourville's reports are preliminary," Saint-Just retorted. "My own reports from the senior SS officers assigned to their task forces aren't. They set forth their own conclusions very clearly and, I think, with powerful supporting evidence."
   "And Twelfth Fleet's commissioners? Have they expressed any reservations about Giscard's and Tourville's reports?"
   "Not so far," Saint-Just admitted. "But they're part of the command structure. Honeker, Tourville's commissioner, has gotten a good bit more reticent in his reports since Operation Icarus. No—" he shook his head as Pierre's eyes sharpened "—I don't think he's covering up for anything overtly treasonous on Tourville's part. If I did, I'd yank him home in a heartbeat. But I do think he's been directly associated with Tourville in his moment of triumph and he's seen how well the man performs in action. What I'm afraid of is that that may make him less skeptical about Tourville's post-battle analyses than he ought to be. It's fairly clear — from what he hasn't said, even more than from what he has — that Honeker admires and respects Tourville, and that he also respects Tourville's military judgment. Which, in turn, might explain why he's withholding his own judgment until he feels Tourville's had time to fully consider the results of Scylla.
   "And Pritchart?" Pierre watched Saint-Just carefully. Pritchart had been Oscar's fair-haired girl for years, and Pierre knew how much Saint-Just respected her instincts.
   "I think it may be more of the same in her case, though for somewhat different reasons," Saint-Just admitted. "As I've said before, Eloise has never liked Giscard a bit, and that seems to have become even more pronounced over the last T-year or so. But she's always respected his military ability, and that's become more pronounced, too. Overall, I think it's a good thing she can overcome her personal dislike enough to consider his command decisions dispassionately, but in this instance, I think she may have bent too far over backward trying to be fair."
   "And it's also possible you're refusing to bend far enough over backward because of your distrust for McQueen," Pierre pointed out. Saint-Just gazed at him for a moment, then nodded. "All right. As long as we both bear that in mind, go ahead and tell me what your superdreadnought captains have to say."
   "They're pretty much in agreement with Giscard, really. Except for the need for more in-depth analysis he keeps harping on. The Manties have demonstrated an improvement in their electronic warfare abilities and a somewhat smaller improvement in their missiles' seeking capability. Giscard certainly seems to be correct when he suggests that a higher than normal percentage of Manty missiles managed to acquire locks on their targets, but he may be overly pessimistic about how much higher the percentage was. My captains were more impressed with the improvements in the Manties' defensive EW and ECM. Their jammers and decoys both seem to have been much better than they ought to have been, and my analysts agree with Giscard and Tourville that the improvement is likely to have unpleasant implications for future missile engagements.
   "At the same time, however, my captains' reports indicate that the other side's improved EW wasn't enough to overcome the disparity of throw-weight Twelfth Fleet managed to achieve. At Elric alone, we killed at least four Manty SDs. Given the difference in the sizes of the two forces, that was decisive, and the Manties had no choice but to break and run. The same thing happened at Treadway and Solway, except that the Manties ran sooner, inflicted lower losses on us, and took lower losses of their own. The implication of that, it seems clear, is that they're still more sensitive to losses than we are, probably because their absolute strength is still so much lower than ours and because of the way McQueen's earlier operations pushed them into redeploying the ships of the wall they have. If we move against them in strength and force combat, we're going to take heavier losses than they are. That's been a given from day one. But I think Elric also demonstrates that as long as we can balance our numbers against their tech advantage, we can push them back for an acceptable loss ratio. Which, by the way, is exactly the argument McQueen made when she put Operation Icarus together."
   "Which does suggest she ought to at least understand what you're getting at," Pierre acknowledged, and Saint-Just nodded vigorously.
   "Exactly. She was the one who trotted out that old saying about omelettes and eggs, Rob, and she was right. Which gives one furiously to think when she suddenly starts sounding so much like Kline did before we brought her in to replace him.
   "But most importantly, there wasn't a single sign of any of her `super LACs,' and while the Manties' missiles may have been a bit more accurate than usual, there was no sign of any enormously extended range, either. Those are the two things she's been most scared of, officially, at least, and our ships never saw either of them. And they never saw them, let me remind you, in a series of actions in which we broke through the Manty front to within less than sixty light-years of Grendelsbane. If they had any new weapons, surely they would have used them to protect the approaches to a system that critical."
   "So you think this proves they don't have them, and that Esther's argument they may just be withholding them for the right moment is unfounded."
   "Pretty much. The reports don't absolutely disprove or invalidate her arguments. Then again, nothing short of a Manty surrender ever will absolutely disprove them. More to the point, I don't think we can afford to let ourselves be paralyzed by `might-be's and `maybe-so's. If the Manties are on the ropes, even if it's only temporary, we need to slug them harder than ever, and McQueen is certainly a good enough strategist to know that. So if she keeps refusing to push the pace, I think we ought to start seriously considering the need to assume the worst about her ultimate motivations and intentions."
* * *
   Citizen Secretary of War Esther McQueen sat back and puffed her lips irritably while Citizen Admiral Ivan Bukato finished reading the memo from Rob Pierre. The man who had inherited all the unglamourous portions of Amos Parnell's job got to the end, snorted harshly, deactivated the memo pad, and leaned forward to lay it on her desk.
   "Short and to the point, at least."
   "It is that," McQueen agreed. "I'm still not convinced that activating Operation Bagration is the right move, but orders are orders. In the final analysis, all I can do is advise the Committee — the actual decision is theirs," she added for the benefit of StateSec's microphones. "Our job is to do what we're told, so I suppose the first order of business is to start looking around for reinforcements we can send Twelfth Fleet."
   "Agreed." Bukato sat back and crossed his legs. "But we also need to see about getting more repair ships moved up, as well, Ma'am. If we're going to accelerate the operational tempo, Giscard is going to need the capacity to make more temporary front-line repairs for units with minor damage."
   "Good point." McQueen nodded and frowned thoughtfully. "We'll need a bigger commitment in missile colliers, too. I don't like the initial estimates of how much the Manties' EW has improved. It looks to me like it's going to take more missiles than ever to saturate their defenses, and if their fire is going to get even more accurate than it has been, we'll need that saturation badly."
   "I think we can hack that part of it, Ma'am. I'm more concerned about coming up with the ships of the wall."
   "I suppose we'll have to take them away from Tom Theisman." McQueen sighed. "I hate it, but it looks like the only real option."
   Bukato nodded unhappily. Neither he nor his superior chose to comment, for the microphones, on why reducing the mobile forces defending the Barnett System was the only real option, but the answer was simple enough. Even though the People's Navy clearly held the initiative, the very politicians who demanded that that initiative be exploited were unwilling to uncover any of their own vital areas. The Capital Fleet here in the Haven System, for example, contained over seventy ships of the wall. McQueen would dearly have loved to cut that number by a third. If she'd been allowed to do that for the Capital Fleet and only two or three other fleets covering nodal systems, she could have more than doubled Twelfth Fleet's superdreadnought strength. And all without taking a single additional ship away from Barnett, which was the system most likely to draw an actual attack if the Manties did suddenly throw an offensive at her.
   "Theisman won't like it," Bukato predicted after a moment, and McQueen surprised herself with a small, sharp laugh.
   "No, he won't. For that matter, I wouldn't like it very much, if I were in his shoes. Hell I'm not in his shoes and I don't much like doing it! But everything we've seen suggests the Manties have more or less turned their Eighth Fleet into a scarecrow. I think NavInt is right; they're using White Haven and his ships as their strategic reserve, and their possession of the Junction lets them get away with it."
   "But their stance could change, Ma'am, and that's what Theisman's going to be worried about."
   "Me, too," McQueen admitted frankly. "But the Citizen Chairman is right in at least one respect. If we're going to push the offensive, we're going to have to take some risks somewhere. And let's be honest, Ivan. Barnett was mainly important because of the way Ransom turned it into some sort of `People's Redoubt' for public morale. The fleet base is big, and losing it would hurt, but it was really designed as a jumping-off point for offensive operations against the center of the Alliance. If we're going to go around their flank instead, DuQuesne Base isn't going to be very useful to us, and losing it would hardly cripple us at this point."
   "I know, Ma'am." It was Bukato's turn to grimace. "How much were you thinking about taking away from him?"
   "At least a couple of more squadrons of the wall," McQueen said, and the citizen admiral winced. "I don't like it either, but he's got almost all the fixed defenses back up and running, and we've shipped in over three hundred additional LACs. They may not be all that nasty compared to Manty LACs—" she and Bukato met one another's eyes with matching humorless smiles "—but they're a hell of a lot better than nothing for inner system defense. And, frankly, I was impressed by what he's managed with the mines and pods."
   "Me, too," Bukato agreed, and he meant it. Minefields were a part of almost any area defense plan, but traditional mines were little more than floating, bomb-pumped laser buoys designed to lurk until some unfortunate entered their range. Theisman had taken them a bit further, using Barnett's local yard capacity to field-modify the mines by strapping the buoys onto the noses of stealthed recon drones. They weren't very fast, and they weren't very accurate, but they had a lot of endurance and they would be hard to detect. McQueen wasn't certain that they would prove effective at sneaking into attack range, but there was always a chance, and it was the sort of innovative adaptation the People's Navy needed badly.
   Longer-ranged missiles, deployed in orbit around key planets, were also a common defense. Those missiles were subject to proximity soft kills and always had marginally shorter powered ranges than those launched from proper shipboard launchers, and arranging fire control for them had always been a problem, yet they were a useful adjunct to proper orbital fortresses or launchers on moons and asteroids.
   But Theisman had made changes there, too, by figuring out how to duplicate what NavInt (or, at least, the portion of NavInt under McQueen's control) had decided White Haven must have done at Basilisk. It hadn't been easy, given the generally cruder state of the PN's fire control and cybernetics, but his techs had found a way to deploy literally dozens of missile pods for each orbital fortress. The pods' internal launchers neatly overcame the small range disadvantage older style orbital missiles suffered from, which was nice. But what was even nicer was that the techs had come up with a cascade targeting hierarchy, one in which individual pods were designated to lead a wave of up to six additional pods in a single launch. In practice, it meant the forts' fire control "aimed" only one pod at each target. That pod then uploaded exactly the same targeting data to the six pods slaved to it, and all seven of them went after the same victim with over eighty missiles... and required only one "slot" of a given fort's targeting capability. None would have a firing solution quite as good as the fort might have managed had its targeting systems been linked directly to each pod, providing each with its own individual solution, but the degradation was acceptable. Indeed, given the sheer weight of fire it would produce, the degradation was much more than merely "acceptable."
   "I don't think he could hold out indefinitely if the Manties really came after him," McQueen went on after a moment, "but he could certainly hurt them badly. Especially in the initial attacks, before they figure out what his pod fire control can do to them. And, like I say, we've got to find the ships somewhere, Ivan."
   "You're right, of course, Ma'am. But even if we take two squadrons away from him, we're going to have to come up with more from somewhere else. Groenewold lost five of the wall, with two more damaged badly enough to require yard repairs. Giscard lost another at Treadway, with two more headed for the yard. Tourville didn't lose any outright at Solway, but he still has at least one that's going to have to head for the yard, and from my reading of his initial report, that may go up to four for him, too, once he has a chance for complete damage surveys. That's six completely destroyed, and from five to eight down for repairs, and that makes a minimum total of eleven and possibly as many as fourteen. So even if we take two full squadrons away from Theisman, Twelfth Fleet's order of battle will only be back to where it was before Scylla, and we need more than that if Bagration's going to be a serious offensive."
   "I know. I know." McQueen leaned her head back and pinched the bridge of her nose. "We can probably divert another squadron or two from rear areas if we pick off single ships here and there, but they'll come as individual units, not cohesive squadrons." She thought hard for several seconds, then sighed. "Moving additional units from all over the Republic to Treadway would take too long, Ivan. The Citizen Chairman wants this expedited to the maximum — he made that clear enough — but if that's what he really wants, he's going to have to give me a little more freedom in deployment postures."
   "Meaning, Ma'am?" Bukato asked. His expression was considerably more cautious than he allowed his tone to be, and McQueen gave him a faint, reassuring smile.
   "We need to get concentrated reinforcements to the front as quickly as possible if we're going to comply with this directive," she said, flicking a finger at the memo pad on the corner of her desk. "The fastest way to do that would be to slice them off of Capital Fleet. We can dispatch them directly from the capital, without having to send couriers all over Hell's back forty before the ships we're reassigning even know to begin moving, which would cut weeks off the total deployment time. And we can send experienced squadrons who've had months and years to train together, rather than singletons and doubletons from all over the damned place that Giscard will have to shake down, plug in, and train after they arrive. I know it's against existing policy, but we've got to make some hard choices to bring this off, and we can avoid being uncovered here for a couple of weeks. I can think of four or five core systems where we could easily skim off single SD squadrons and order them to the capital... and every one of them could be here almost as quickly as any units we detach from Capital Fleet could reach Tourville."
   "Do you think the Committee will agree?" Bukato asked, and she shrugged.
   "I think the military arguments are persuasive," she said, "and I know what the Citizen Chairman's just ordered me to do. Combining those two things, yes, I think the Committee will agree. Not happily, perhaps, but I think we'll get the go ahead."
* * *
   "... think we'll get the go ahead."
   Oscar Saint-Just stopped the playback, and his frown was pensive. He didn't much care for what he'd just heard. Oh, McQueen and Bukato were saying the right things, outwardly, at least, about the primacy of civilian control and the need to obey orders. But there was an... undertone he didn't like. He could scarcely call it conspiratorial, but neither could he avoid the suspicion that the two of them had plans of their own. No doubt Rob would remind him, probably with reason, that any smoothly functioning command team had to develop a shared mindset and a sense of solidarity. The problem was that both McQueen and Bukato knew they were speaking to his bugs, which meant they were certain to say all the right things. It didn't mean they were certain to mean them, however, and all their dutiful subservience to civilian authority sounded entirely too much like a mask for something else to his trained and suspicious ear.
   Nor did he care for this notion of transferring units from Capital Fleet. Oh, it made sense in a narrow military way. That was the problem; everything McQueen suggested made sense, or could at least be justified, in military terms. But he'd taken a look at her preliminary list of proposed ship movements, and it seemed... interesting to him that the admirals commanding the squadrons she wanted to send Tourville seemed to include such a high percentage of politically reliable officers. Of course, all of the COs in Capital Fleet had demonstrated their reliability, or they would have been somewhere else in the first place. But she still seemed to Saint-Just's possibly hypersuspicious way of thinking to have concentrated on the most reliable of them. The squadrons she wanted to transfer into the capital system, on the other hand, seemed to contain a remarkably high percentage of officers who would clearly have been more comfortable in a more traditional naval command structure. Which was to say, one without people's commissioners looking over their shoulders.
   The problem was that because the movements were so logical from a military perspective, and because McQueen was justifying them on the basis of obeying a direct order from Rob Pierre, Saint-Just could scarcely object to them. He'd gotten his way in the accelerated operational tempo. If he started complaining about how McQueen was doing what he'd wanted her to do in the first place, it could only be seen as a possible indication of paranoia on his part, which would undercut his credibility with Pierre on the topic of McQueen in the future. But if she was, in fact, using her new orders as a way to restructure Capital Fleet into something which would be more... responsive to any plans of her own, then it was Saint-Just's job to see to it she failed in her objective.
   He tilted his chair back and drummed the fingers of his right hand on a chair arm while he swiveled back and forth in short, thoughtful arcs. What he needed, he decided, was a way to defang any plans she might have while justifying his own actions just as amply and logically as she'd justified hers. But how?
   He thought for several more moments, then stopped drumming on the chair arm while an arrested light flickered in his eyes.
   Theisman, he thought. The man's about as apolitical as a lump of rock, he's good at his job, and the Navy respects him. More to the point, he's been stuck out at Barnett the whole time McQueen's been Secretary of War. Whatever she may be up to with Bukato and his bunch over at the Octagon, she hasn't had the opportunity to involve Theisman in it, and if he winds up commanding Capital Fleet, she'll at least be stymied until she can bring him on board her little conspiracy. And since she's raiding Barnett herself on the basis that we can afford to lose it, she can hardly object to the transfer by arguing that we need to leave him in such a critically important post.
   He pondered the idea for a while longer, turning it in his thoughts to examine it from all angles. It wasn't perfect, he decided, but it would at least be a step in the right direction. Besides, McQueen would know why he'd done it, and that would piss her off mightily... which would make it eminently worthwhile in its own right.


   Honor looked around the smallish office and sighed. It was a heartfelt sound, but even she couldn't have said whether it sprang from relief or sadness. There was certainly relief in it, because the last several months had been much more exhausting than any "convalescent duty" should have implied. Which was mostly her own fault. She should have turned down at least one of Sir Thomas' requests, but she could no more have done that than she could have flown the Copperwalls without her hang glider.
   It had left her with some hard decisions, though. One had been to more or less abandon the language-teaching project to Doctor Arif and Miranda. Well, the two of them and James MacGuiness. Leaving Nimitz behind for his and Samantha's "lessons" had been one of the harder things she'd done since escaping Cerberus, especially when, even at a distance, she'd been able to taste his frustration in the early days of the project. But one lesson she'd forced herself to accept years ago was that she simply had to turn loose when she delegated some responsibility. Hovering over the person she'd entrusted a task to only bought the worst of both worlds. She ended up spending almost as much time on it as if she'd simply done it herself from the beginning, and those she'd delegated were liable to be left with the impression that she didn't fully trust their ability. Not to mention the fact that the only way someone really learned was by doing, and trying to clear all the obstacles out of someone's path didn't do her any favors, however it seemed at the time. At the very best, it cost them the chance to learn from mistakes. At worst, it simply postponed the time when they ran into a problem they didn't know how to handle... and left them fatally overconfident because they thought they did know.
   It was something she'd long ago learned to do where junior officers were concerned — her lips twitched in a small smile as she remembered an agonizingly young Rafael Cardones and a flight of improperly programmed recon platforms — but that was because she'd recognized her responsibility to teach them. It was infinitely harder to hand a job she thought she ought to be doing to someone she knew could do it just as well, because that felt... lazy. Like shirking. Which helped explain why she felt she'd never had quite enough time over the last T-year to spend on any given task.
   But if she hadn't been able to put in as many hours in this office as she thought she really should have, she'd put in enough to discover something she hadn't known. Something she had to give up along with the office... which explained the sadness that was also so much a part of that sigh.
   She loved to teach.
   She supposed that she shouldn't have been surprised by that. After all, one of the things she'd most enjoyed about her career was stretching the minds of junior officers, sharing with them the joy she'd found in mastering their shared profession. And, if she was honest, she took far more pleasure from the men and women she'd watched grow and blossom into the potential she'd seen in them from the outset than she did in all her medals and titles and prize money. They were what the future was all about, just as they were the ones who would have to do the fighting and the dying if the Star Kingdom was to have a future, and teaching them how much they could accomplish was one of the highest callings she could imagine.
   Which had made her a natural at Saganami Island. Not only that, but the empathic sense she'd developed had given her a priceless gift: that of knowledge. Of knowing her students recognized how much they meant to her, how proud of them she was.
   She would miss D'Orville Hall. She would miss everything about Saganami Island, even if it was no longer quite the Academy she recalled. It was so much bigger, so much more bustling. The reality of the war which had been only a looming threat during her years here had fallen upon the Academy like a landslide and made it over into something faster and more furious, with a different, harder-edged dedication. In all too many ways, the wartime Academy had become an extension of the front lines, which was good, in some respects, she thought. She had stressed to her students that they were headed straight from their classrooms into a shooting war, and it was important they understand that. Yet along the way the "Saganami experience," she supposed she should call it, had lost something. Not of innocence, or of sleepiness. But of... assimilation. Of the way young men and women grew gradually into the Navy, and of the way the Navy accepted that transformation of civilians into itself.
   No, that wasn't right, either. In fact, she couldn't seem to hit exactly the right way to describe it, and she doubted she ever would be able to. Perhaps there wasn't a word.
   And perhaps what I'm really remembering is that golden glow of never-was that seems to hang onto everything we remember from "happier days," she thought with a wry snort, and Nimitz bleeked softly from the perch beside the door.
   "All right. All right, Stinker! I'm through moping," she told him, and closed the desk drawer firmly. Her papers and record chips had already disappeared, and she made one last check for dust or forgotten possessions, and then held out her arms to the 'cat.