Like her, he was also a knight of the Order of King Roger, but while Honor had risen to the rank of Knight Commander following First Hancock, Caparelli was a Knight Grand Cross. Even more importantly, particularly in this office and under these circumstances, every single uniformed member of the Royal Manticoran Navy answered directly to him... including Commodore Honor Harrington.
   "It's good to see you," he went on now, regarding her measuringly. "I understand Bassingford has signed off on your fitness to return to limited duty?"
   "Not without a fair amount of hemming and hawing, I'm afraid," Honor agreed with a small smile. "They've finished their exams, and my med records have been duly reactivated from the dead files, but I think the fact that I don't regenerate and do reject nerve grafts bothers them more than they want to admit. What they really want to do is keep me wrapped up in cotton until they get the new nerves installed and the new arm built... and they're not too happy about the fact that I'm going to have the work done outside Navy channels."
   "I'm not surprised." Caparelli snorted. Unlike too many people, Honor was pleased to note, he felt no need to shy away from a frank evaluation of her injuries. Of course, he'd been scraped up with a spatula himself when he was only a captain. Unlike her, he'd been able to take advantage of regeneration, but he'd put in his own time in the doctors' and therapists' clutches along the way.
   "Bassingford Medical Center is probably the finest single hospital in the Star Kingdom," the First Space Lord went on conversationally while he guided Honor towards the comfortable chairs grouped around a polished crystal coffee table to one side of his desk. "The Navy's tried to make it that, anyway, and it's certainly the biggest. But that can be both a plus and a minus, since BuMed clearly hates to admit that no one can be the best there is at everything. I suspect they probably also feel just a little piqued with themselves for losing your father to civilian practice. Still, once they calm down, they'll realize only a lunatic would fail to avail themselves of his expertise if it was available."
   There was a strange undertone to his emotions, and Honor cocked her head as she sank into the indicated chair with Nimitz while Caparelli seated himself facing her.
   "Excuse me, Sir Thomas, but that sounded rather like a personal observation."
   "Because it was." The First Space Lord smiled. "Your father was Chief of Neurosurgery at Bassingford after that little misadventure of mine in Silesia, and he did a far better job of reassembling all my bits and pieces than anyone expected. He cut way down on the amount of regen I had to survive along the way, and I rather doubt that he's gotten anything but better since." He shook his head firmly. "You go right ahead and ignore anyone at Bassingford who tries to talk you into letting them do the work, Your Grace. They're good, but `good' is no substitute for the best there is."
   "Why, thank you, Sir Thomas. I never knew Daddy was one of your physicians, but I'll certainly tell him what you just said. I'm sure it will mean a great deal to him."
   "It's no more than the truth. And no more than what I said to him at the time, for that matter," Caparelli said with a chuckle. "Of course, I imagine people in his line of work hear a lot of that sort of thing from the patients whose lives they put back together."
   He leaned back in his chair, eyes focused on something Honor couldn't see for several seconds, then shook himself.
   "But I didn't ask you to visit me to talk about that, Your Grace," he said more briskly. "Or, at least, not to talk about it beyond being certain you've been cleared to return to duty. What I actually wanted was to offer you a job. Two of them, really."
   "Two jobs, Sir Thomas?"
   "Yes. Well, there was one other point I wanted to address, but we can get to that later. First, I'd like to tell you what I had in mind for letting us get the most good we can out of you while you're stuck here in the Star Kingdom anyway."
   He leaned still further back, crossed his legs, and interlaced his fingers across his raised knee, and Honor could feel the intensity of his thoughts. She was rather surprised by some of what she sensed, for Caparelli had never had a reputation as a thinker. No one had ever accused him of stupidity, but he'd always had the sort of direct, shortest-distance-between-two-points, linear approach that went through obstacles, generally rather forcefully, rather than around them. It was a personality which went well with his weight-lifter's torso and wrestler's arms, but there had always been those who felt he was just a little short of... finesse for a flag officer of his seniority.
   Now, as she sampled his emotions and as he marshaled his thoughts, she knew his critics had been wrong. It was possible he'd changed since becoming First Space Lord and finding himself responsible for directing the Star Kingdom's and, for all intents and purposes, the entire Manticoran Alliance's combat operations, but she felt very little of the bull in a china shop he was supposed to be. He might not be a supporter of an indirect approach to many problems, and he would never, she suspected, be the intellectual equal of someone like Hamish Alexander. But there was an almost frightening discipline behind his dark eyes, and a toughness and tenacity — an unwavering determination — which she suddenly realized might just make him a perfect choice for his present position.
   "What I had in mind, Your Grace," he began after a moment, "was to use you at Saganami Island. I realize that's not very conveniently placed for access to your father's hospital on Sphinx, but it's only a few hours away, and we would, of course, make Navy transport available and coordinate your schedule around your treatment's timetable."
   He paused, looking at her questioningly, and she twitched a small shrug while she stroked Nimitz's ears.
   "I feel sure we could work around that, Sir Thomas. Daddy may be a civilian now, but he was an officer for twenty-odd T-years. He's well aware of how even `limited duty' can complicate a course of treatment, and he's already told me he'll do everything he can to eliminate scheduling conflicts. For that matter, he and Doctor Heinrich, one of his colleagues here on Manticore, have already discussed the possibility of his using Doctor Heinrich's facilities rather than my shuttling back and forth between here and Sphinx."
   "That would be an excellent arrangement from the Service's viewpoint," Caparelli said enthusiastically. "At the same time, your health and recovery come first. If it turns out that you need to return to Sphinx, even full time, until you're fit to return to full, active duty, I would expect you to tell us. I trust you understand that."
   "Of course I do, Sir," Honor replied, and to her surprise, he snorted.
   "Easy for you to say, Your Grace, but I've talked with several of your ex-COs, including Mark Sarnow and Earl White Haven. Even Yancey Parks. And every one of them warned me that I'd have to have someone watch over you with a club if I really expected you to put your health above what you fondly conceive to be your duty!"
   "That's a bit of an overstatement, Sir." Honor felt her right cheek heat and shook her head. "I'm the daughter of two physicians. Whatever anyone else may think, I'm not foolish enough to ignore doctor's orders."
   "That isn't exactly what Surgeon Captain Montoya told me," Caparelli observed with what the uncharitable might have called a grin, and she felt his fresh amusement as her blush darkened. "But that's neither here nor there... as long as I have your word that you will inform us if you need additional down time for medical reasons?"
   "You do, Sir," she said, just a bit stiffly, and he nodded.
   "Good! In that case, let me explain what Admiral Cortez and I have in mind."
   Despite herself, Honor's eyebrow quirked at that. Sir Lucien Cortez was Fifth Space Lord, in charge of the Bureau of Personnel. In many respects, his was the hardest Navy job of all, for it was his responsibility to manage the Service's enormous manpower demands, and he'd shown a positive genius for making the available supply of bodies stretch. As BuPers' CO, the Naval Academy on Saganami Island fell within his sphere for rather obvious reasons, but she was surprised that he'd gotten personally involved in deciding how the Academy might best make use of a simple commodore. But her surprise passed quickly, because, of course, she wasn't a "simple commodore" anymore, whether she liked it or not.
   "As you know," Caparelli went on, "we've been steadily increasing the size of the Saganami student body since the war began, but I doubt that anyone who hasn't spent some time there could fully realize how much its composition has changed. A bit less than half our total midshipmen are now from out-kingdom, from various Allied navies, and probably thirty percent of those allied personnel are Graysons. We've graduated well over nine thousand Grayson officers since Protector Benjamin joined the Alliance."
   "I knew the number was high, Sir, but I hadn't realized it was quite that high."
   "Few people do." Caparelli shrugged. "On the other hand, there were about eighty-five hundred in our last graduating class, and eleven hundred of them were Graysons. In addition, we've accelerated the curriculum to run each form through in just three T-years... and this year's first form will have well over eleven thousand in it."
   Both Honor's eyes widened. There'd been only two hundred and forty-one in her own graduating class... but that had been thirty-five T-years ago. She'd known the Academy had expanded steadily over most of those three and a half decades, and that its expansion had become explosive in the last ten or eleven T-years, but still—
   "I never imagined we were turning out that many ensigns every year," she murmured, and Caparelli shrugged again.
   "I wish the number were twice as high, Your Grace," he said bluntly. "But one of the core advantages which have let us take the war to the Peeps despite the numerical odds has been the difference in our officer corps' training and traditions. We're not about to throw that edge away, which means we can't cut the training time any shorter than we already have. We've called up a lot of reservists, and we're running even more mustangs through the Fleet OCS program, of course, but that's not quite the same. Most of the reservists require at least three or four months of refresher training to blow the rust off, but they already have the basic skills. And the mustangs are all experienced enlisted or noncoms. We've adjusted our criteria a bit to reflect the realities of our manpower requirements, and we make some exceptions in the cases of truly outstanding candidates, but on average, they've all got a minimum of at least five T-years of experience."
   Honor nodded. For all its aristocratic traditions, the RMN had always boasted a remarkably high percentage of "mustangs," enlisted personnel or petty officers who'd chosen (or, sometimes, been convinced) to seek commissioned rank via the Fleet Officer Candidate School program. The FOCS cycle ran a bit less than half as long as that of the Academy, but that was because its personnel were already professionals. There was no need to instill in them the platform of basic military skills, and their lower deck origins gave them a tough, pragmatic view of the Navy which the "trade school" graduates often needed surprisingly badly.
   "But the core of our officer corps," Caparelli went on, "is still the supply we graduate from Saganami, and we are absolutely determined to preserve its quality. Moreover, there are very compelling reasons for us to graduate as many Allied officers from the Academy as possible. If nothing else, it's one way of making sure we and our allies are on the same page when we discuss military options, and the fact that they're completely familiar with our doctrine helps eliminate a lot of potential confusion from joint operations.
   "Unfortunately, maintaining quality while steadily increasing quantity leaves us chronically short of teaching staff, especially in the Tactical curriculum. The Star Kingdom produces plenty of qualified teachers for most areas — from hyperphysics to astrogation to gravitics to molycircs — but there's only one place to learn naval tactics."
   "I can see that, Sir," Honor agreed.
   "Then I suspect you're also beginning to see where we want to make use of you. Without wanting to embarrass you, you've demonstrated rather conclusively that you're one of our better tacticians, Your Grace." Honor made herself meet his gaze levelly, and he went on calmly. "You've also, Lucien tells me, shown a particular knack for polishing the rough edges of junior officers. At my request, he pulled the jackets on several officers who've served under you, and I was most impressed with the professionalism, dedication, and skill you seem to have instilled into them. I was especially impressed by the way Captain Cardones and Commander Tremaine have performed."
   "Rafe and Scotty — I mean, Captain Cardones and Commander Tremaine — were very junior when they first served with me, Sir," Honor protested. "Neither of them had yet had the opportunity to show his full capabilities, and it's hardly fair to say that they've performed so well since then because of anything I may have done!"
   "I said I was particularly impressed by them, Your Grace, not that they were the only ones who seem to have responded to your touch. In point of fact, however, Lucien ran an analysis, and there's a clear correlation between the time officers spend under your command and the subsequent improvement in their efficiency ratings."
   Honor opened her mouth once more, but he waved a hand before she could speak.
   "I said I didn't want to embarrass you, so let's not belabor the point, Your Grace. Instead, let's just say Lucien and I think you could be of great benefit to Saganami's Tactical Department and let it go at that, all right?"
   There was nothing she could do but nod, and he smiled with an edge of sympathy that echoed even more strongly through her link to Nimitz.
   "Actually, the large number of Grayson midshipmen was another reason we wanted you," he told her. "Some of them have problems making the transition from such an, um, traditional society to the Star Kingdom's. It helps that they're disciplined and determined to succeed, but there have still been a few incidents, and one or two have had the potential to turn ugly. We've imported as many Grayson instructors as we can to try to alleviate that, but the supply of qualified Graysons is limited, and the GSN needs them on active fleet service even worse than we need their Manticoran counterparts. Having you available, both as an advisor to the faculty and as a role model for Grayson and Manticoran midshipmen alike, will be very valuable to us."
   That much, at least, Honor could accept without quibbles, and she nodded again.
   "Good! In that case, what we'd like to do is assign you two slots in Introductory Tactics. It's a lecture course, so class size is large, but we'll also assign you three or four teaching assistants, which should let you keep your office hours within reason. I hope it will, anyway, because we've got a couple of other things we'd like you to do for us while we've got you."
   "Oh?" Honor regarded him suspiciously. There was something going on behind those eyes, but even with her link to Nimitz, she couldn't figure out exactly what.
   "Yes. One of them will be to make yourself available for an occasional conference with Alice Truman. You heard about her action at Hancock?"
   "I did," Honor agreed.
   "Well, she was already on the short list for flag rank, and Hancock accelerated the process, so she's now Rear Admiral of the Red Truman. And she's also Knight Companion Dame Alice Truman. I was quite honored when Her Majesty asked me to dub her into the Order."
   "Good for her!" Honor said.
   "Agreed. And well deserved, too. But in addition to her new rank, she's also in charge of training and working up our new LAC carriers. She and Captain Harmon did wonders with Minotaur's original wing, as they amply demonstrated in action. But Captain Harmon's death was a tragedy in a lot of ways... including the loss of her experience and perspective. Especially since we've made some major modifications to the Shrike design, based on experience in Hancock. We're still working out what that means in terms of doctrine, and since you wrote the final WDB specs for the original Shrike —class LACs, not to mention your experience creating LAC doctrine in Silesia with your Q-ships, we think you could be of major assistance to Dame Alice, even if it's only by acting as a sounding board for her own concepts. She's going to be nailed down to Weyland, where we're building the carriers, but you could certainly correspond, and she'll be here on Manticore fairly often for face-to-face discussion."
   "I'm not sure how much help I could actually be, but of course I'd be delighted to do anything I can, Sir."
   "Good. And, now that I think about it, you'll probably be in a better position than most to game out and evaluate new doctrine," Caparelli said, in an offhand sort of tone which was a very poor match for the sudden peak of anticipation in his emotions, and Honor looked up sharply.
   "I will?" she said, and he nodded. "May I ask why that might be, Sir?" she asked when he failed to volunteer anything more.
   "Certainly, Your Grace. You'll be well positioned because of your access to the ATC simulators."
   "Access?" Honor frowned.
   The Advanced Tactical Course, otherwise known (to its survivors) as "the Crusher," was the make-or-break hurdle for any RMN officer who ever hoped to advance beyond the rank of lieutenant commander. Or, at least, to advance beyond that rank as a line officer. A handful of officers, including Honor, might have commanded destroyers without first surviving the Crusher, but no one who failed the Crusher would ever command any starship bigger than that. Those who washed out were often retained for nonline branches and even promoted, especially now that the long-anticipated war with Haven had arrived, but they would never again wear the white beret of a hyper-capable warship's CO. Even those who, like Honor, had commanded DDs before passing ATC were few and far between... and they'd become even fewer over the last ten or twelve T-years. Being selected for ATC was the coveted proof that an officer had been picked out for starship command. That her superiors had sufficient faith in her abilities to entrust her with the authority to act as her Queen's direct, personal representative in situations where she might well be months of communication time away from any superior officer.
   And because that was so, the Crusher was, and deliberately so, the toughest, most demanding course known to man... or as close to that as the Royal Manticoran Navy had been able to come in four T-centuries of constant experimentation and improvement. The ATC Center was also on Saganami Island, attached to the Academy campus, but it was a completely separate facility, with its own faculty and commandant. Honor's own time there had been among the most exhausting and mind-numbing of her career, but it had also been one of the most exhilarating six T-months of her entire life. She'd loved the challenge, and the fact that ATC's commandant at the time had been Raoul Courvosier, her own Academy instructor and beloved mentor, had only made it better.
   Even so, she was at a loss to understand what Caparelli was driving at. Any Academy tactical instructor could request time on one of the ATC's smaller simulators or holo tanks, but they had access to almost equally good equipment right there in Ellen D'Orville Hall. And if the Navy was punching out new officers — and, presumably, new commanding officers — at the rate Caparelli had just described, then no one outside the ATC itself was going to have much access to the big, full-capability simulators and tanks reserved for the Crusher and the Naval College.
   "Well, I certainly hope you'll have access," Caparelli told her. "It would be most improper for the staff to refuse to allow sim time for their own commandant!"
   "For—?" Honor stared at him, and he grinned like a naughty little boy. But then his grin faded, and he raised one hand, palm uppermost before him.
   "I've already said you're one of our best tacticians, Your Grace," he said quietly, "and you are. If it hadn't been for how badly we needed you in the field — and, of course, for the political fallout after your duel with North Hollow — we'd've dragged you back to teach tactics years ago. Unfortunately, we've never been able to spare you from front-line command... until now. I would certainly prefer for you to abandon this habit of getting yourself shot up, but if you're going to be stuck here in the Star Kingdom for a while anyway, then we intend to make maximum possible use of you!"
   "But there's no way I'd have time to do the job properly!" Honor protested. "Especially not if you've got me lecturing at the Academy!"
   "In the prewar sense, no. You wouldn't have time. But we've had to make some changes there, as well. The staff is much larger now, and in addition to your regular XO, you'll have several very good deputies. We'd obviously like as much hands-on time as you can spare, but your primary responsibility will be to thoroughly evaluate the current curriculum and syllabus in terms of your own experience and propose any changes you feel are desirable. We've reduced the normal tenure for the commandant to two T-years, largely because of our desire to cycle as many experienced combat commanders through the slot as we can. We're aware that your medical treatment shouldn't take much more than a year, however, and as soon as the medicos sign off for your return to full, active duty, we'll find a replacement. But you have a great deal of experience to share with the prospective commanders of Her Majesty's starships, paid for in blood, more often than not. We cannot afford to let that experience escape us... and you owe it to the men and women passing through ATC, and to the men and women they will command, to see to it that they have the very best and most demanding training we can possibly give them."
   "I—" Honor began, then stopped. He was right, of course. She might argue about whether or not she was the best woman for the job, but he was right about how important the job itself was.
   "You may be right, Sir," she said instead, trying another approach, "but ATC has always been an admiral's billet, and if you've expanded it as much as it sounds like, I'd think that would be even more true now than when I went through it." Caparelli listened gravely, then pursed his lips and nodded. "Well, I realize I carry an admiral's rank in the Grayson Navy, but ATC is a Manticoran facility. I'd think there'd be an awful lot of stepped-on toes and out-of-joint noses if you brought in a Grayson to command it."
   "That might be true of any other Grayson, Your Grace. We don't expect it to be a problem here. And if you're concerned about it, we could always put you in command as an RMN officer, instead."
   "But that was my point, Sir. I don't have the seniority for the post as a Manticoran: only as a Grayson. As a Manticoran, I'm only a commodore."
   "Oh, I see what you're getting at now," Caparelli said, and once again his thoughtful tone was completely at odds with the bubbling mischievousness behind his sober expression. He sat there for several seconds, rubbing his chin, then shrugged. "That may be a valid concern," he admitted. "I doubt it would be the problem you seem to be assuming it could, but it might cause some friction. I suspect, however, that there are countervailing considerations of which you are, as yet, unaware."
   "Countervailing?" Honor repeated, and his sobriety vanished into a huge grin as he heard the suspicion in her voice. Yet he didn't answer immediately. Instead, he reached into the pocket of his tunic and withdrew a small case.
   "I believe I said there was one other matter I meant to discuss with you, and I suppose this may be as good a time as any." He held the case out to her. "I think you'll find the explanation of those countervailing considerations in here, Your Grace," he said.
   She took it gingerly. It was a fairly typical jeweler's case, with two thumb notches for a magnetic lock. Like many routine tasks whose performance two-handed people took for granted, opening it presented a daunting challenge for a woman with only one, but Nimitz reached out an imperious, long-fingered true-hand. She smiled and handed it over, and his busy fingers did what she could not.
   The lid sprang open, and Nimitz peered into the case, then bleeked in profound satisfaction. Honor's eyebrows went up as she tasted his pleasure, but she couldn't see past his prick-eared head until he looked up and passed the case back to her.
   She glanced into it... and her breath caught.
   Nestled into a bed of space-black velvet were two small triangles, each made up of three nine-pointed golden stars.
   She recognized them, of course. How could she not recognize the collar insignia of a full admiral of the Royal Manticoran Navy?
   She looked up, her expression stunned, and Caparelli chuckled.
   "Sir, this— I mean, I never expected—" Her voice broke, and he shrugged.
   "In point of fact, Your Grace, I believe this is the first time in the Star Kingdom's history that an officer has been jumped straight from commodore to admiral in one fell swoop. On the other hand, you've been an admiral in Grayson service for years now, and performed in exemplary fashion in that role. And you did spend two years in grade as a commodore, you know... although I understand you chose to act in your Grayson persona for most of that time in an effort to defuse certain seniority problems."
   His voice turned darker with the last words, and Honor understood perfectly. Rear Admiral Harold Styles had been allowed to resign his commission rather than face trial on the charges of insubordination and cowardice she'd laid against him, but not everyone felt that was sufficient punishment.
   "We've decided you shouldn't have to face that particular problem again," Caparelli told her. "Besides, you and I both know that only political considerations delayed your promotion to commodore as long as we had to wait. Those considerations no longer apply, and we need flag officers like you."
   "But three grades—!"
   "I think it likely you would have made vice admiral before your capture but for the caliber of your political enemies," Caparelli said, and she tasted his sincerity. "Had that been the case, then an additional promotion out of the zone would certainly have been appropriate after your return, given the nature of your escape and the multiple engagements you fought in the process." He shrugged. "I won't deny that there's an element of politics in jumping you quite this far in a single leap, Your Grace. I understand you turned down the PMV, and Baroness Morncreek passed along the reasons you gave Her Majesty and Duke Cromarty. I respect your decision, although I also think you've amply demonstrated that you deserve that award. This promotion, however, is quite another matter. Yes, it will offer political advantages to Cromarty and the Foreign Office. Yes, it will make Grayson happy — not a minor concern in its own right. And, yes, it's a way to punch the Peeps right in the eye by showing how we regard their charges against you. But it's also something you have absolutely and demonstrably earned, both in the Queen's service and as the woman who won at Fourth Yeltsin and Cerberus in someone else's uniform."
   "But, Sir—"
   "The discussion is closed, Admiral Harrington," Sir Thomas Caparelli said, and there was no mistaking the command in his voice. "The Promotions Board, the General Board of Admiralty, the First Space Lord, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Prime Minister of Manticore, and the Queen have all reached the same conclusions; the chairman of the Military Affairs Committee assures Duke Cromarty that the promotion will be duly approved; and you are not allowed to argue with us. Is that understood?"
   "Yes, Sir." The live side of Honor's mouth quivered just a little, and Caparelli smiled.
   "Good! In that case, why don't I take you over to Cosmo's for lunch? I understand a few dozen or so of your closest friends are waiting to help you celebrate your promotion — I can't imagine who could have let the 'cat out of the bag to them about it — and after that, we can hop out to Saganami Island and let you meet your new staff."


   "This just gets worse and worse," Rob Pierre sighed as he skimmed Leonard Boardman's synopsis of his latest gleanings from the Solarian League reporters covering the PRH. "How can one person — one person, Oscar!—do this much damage? She's like some damned elemental force of nature!"
   "Harrington?" Oscar Saint-Just quirked an eyebrow and snorted harshly at Pierre's nodded confirmation.
   "She's just happened to be in the right places — or the wrong ones, I suppose, from our perspective — for the last, oh, ten years or so. That's the official consensus from my analysts, at least. The other theory, which seems to have been gaining a broader following of late, is that she's in league with the Devil."
   Despite himself, Pierre chuckled. The jest, such as it was, was bitterly ironic, but that didn't deprive it of its point. Especially from someone as dour and emotionless as Saint-Just. But then the Chairman sobered and shook his head.
   "Let's be honest with ourselves, Oscar. She's managed it in no small part because we've fucked up. Oh, I have no doubt she's at least as capable as the Manties think she is, but her effect was pretty well localized until we decided to tell the universe we'd hanged her! Aside from a few stories buried in the back files of one or two of the Solly 'faxes, no one in the Solarian League had ever even heard of her. Now everyone, with the possible exception of a few neobarbs on planets no one's gotten around to rediscovering yet, knows who she is. And what she's done to us."
   "Agreed." Saint-Just sighed. "And in the name of honesty, we might as well admit it was my people who did the major share of the fucking up. We can't do much about punishing Tresca, of course, but Thornegrave survived his share of the fiasco."
   Pierre nodded. Brigadier Dennis Tresca had been the StateSec commander of Hades, and Major General Prestwick Thornegrave had been the officer, also in StateSec, who'd lost an entire transport fleet and its escorts to Harrington. Which had provided her with the warships to completely destroy Seth Chernock's task force and capture its ground combat component's transports. Which, in turn, had provided the additional personnel lift she'd needed to pull out every single prisoner who'd opted to join her.
   "We could always shoot him for his part in letting her escape," Saint-Just went on. "Politically, he's as reliable as they come, or he wouldn't have been a sector commander in the first place. His prior record was excellent, too, but God knows he deserves a pulser dart or a rope over this one. And I suppose it wouldn't hurt the rest of my people to know they can be held to the same standards as anyone else if they screw up spectacularly enough," he added, grudgingly but without flinching.
   "I don't know, Oscar." Pierre pinched the bridge of his nose. "I agree he blew it, but in fairness to the man, he had no reason to expect anything until it was far too late. And while I know she's not one of your favorite people, McQueen has a point about the downside of shooting people whose real crime was simply that they got caught in the works. If he'd done anything outside procedure, or if he'd been given any prior clue that the prisoners had taken over the planet and its defenses, then, yes, the decision to shoot him would be a slam dunk. But he didn't do any of that, and he hadn't been given any clues. So if we shoot him, we tell every other SS officer that he's likely to be shot for anything that goes wrong, even if it resulted from elements totally outside his control."
   "I know," Saint-Just admitted. "At the very least, we'll encourage cover-your-ass thinking when and where we can least afford it. At worst, there'll be even more pressure to cover up mistakes by not reporting them or even actively conspiring to conceal them. Which is how you get blind-sided by problems you didn't even know existed until it was too late to do a damned thing about them."
   "My point exactly," Pierre agreed. Privately, he was, as always, rather amused by how clearly Saint-Just could see the detrimental consequences of a rule of terror when they might affect his own bailiwick even while McQueen's efforts to eliminate them from hers only fueled his suspicion of her "empire building."
   "But he still has to be punished," Saint-Just went on. "I can't afford not to come down on him after something like this."
   "I agree," Pierre said. "How about this? We've already agreed there's not much point in our pretending the other side doesn't know where Cerberus is now, but there are still too many prisoners on the planet for us to move them, right?" Saint-Just nodded, and Pierre shrugged. "In that case, we may as well tell our own Navy where it is, too. I know Harrington blew the old orbital defenses to bits when she pulled out, but the main base facility and the farms are still there on Styx. So we put a Navy picket squadron into the system, under the local StateSec CO's overall command, of course, and keep the prison up and running, and we send our friend Thornegrave to one of the camps. We'll even give him a cover ID so his fellow inmates don't know he was a StateSec officer. They may lynch him anyway if they figure it out, but we won't have done it. So we get the effect of punishing him, and seeing to it that everyone in StateSec knows we did, plus the benefit of having shown mercy by not shooting him ourselves."
   "That's an evil thought, Rob," Saint-Just observed, then chuckled. "And appropriate as hell, too. Maybe you should have my job."
   "No, thank you. I have enough trouble with mine. Besides, I'm not stupid enough to think I could do yours half as well as you do it."
   "Thanks. I think." Saint-Just rubbed his chin for a moment, then nodded. "I like it. Of course, there's nothing to keep the Manties from coming back in strength and taking everyone else off the planet, I suppose. I doubt very much that McQueen would agree to divert a big enough force to protect the system against any sort of raid in strength. For that matter, even if she would, it would probably be unjustifiable." The last sentence came out in a tone of sour admission, and Pierre smiled without humor.
   "I don't see any reason for the Manties to come back. For one thing, it seems pretty obvious that everyone who had the guts and gumption to leave already went with Harrington. They might be able to make a little more propaganda capital out of going back and `liberating' everyone else, but not enough of it to justify the effort on their part. And it's not as if they really need any more propaganda capital out of it." He shook his head wryly. "They're doing just fine as it is, now aren't they?"
   "It seems that way," Saint-Just agreed sourly. Then he brightened just a bit. "On the other hand, my people are putting together a four-month summation on the Manties' domestic front, and their preliminary reports suggest that the Manties may just need all the good propaganda they can get." Pierre couldn't quite keep a hint of incredulity out of the look he gave the StateSec chief, and Saint-Just waved a hand in a brushing-away gesture. "Oh, I know anything they're reporting to me now is behind the curve. And completely out of date, in a lot of ways, since none of the information they had when they made their analysis allowed for any of the news out of Cerberus. But that doesn't invalidate its reading of base-line trends, Rob. And let's face it, what Harrington did to us at Cerberus, or even what Parnell may be doing in the League, are short-term spikes as far as domestic Manty morale is concerned. Sure, they can hurt us a hell of a lot in the short term, and if Cromarty and his bunch capitalize properly on it, they can build some long-term advantage out of it. But the really important factors are the ones that can't be fudged or spin-doctored. If anyone knows that's true, we do. Look at all the problems trying to put the best face on that kind of thing's given us, for God's sake, even when Cordelia was around to turn disaster into glorious triumph for the Dolists." He shook his head. "Nope. The Manty government still has to deal with its public's response to things like ship losses, the capture or loss of star systems, casualty rates, tax burdens, and the general perception of who has the momentum militarily."
   Pierre nodded with a guarded expression, and Saint-Just's eyes gleamed with brief humor, but he declined to bring McQueen back into the conversation... yet.
   "It's that kind of factor my people have been looking at, and according to what they've found, they actually believe we may have the long-term morale advantage."
   "And how much of that is because they know you and I would really like to hear it?" Pierre asked skeptically.
   "Some, no doubt," Saint-Just acknowledged, "but most of these people have been with me a long time, Rob. They know I'd rather have the truth... and that I don't shoot people for telling me what they think the truth is just because I don't like hearing it."
   And that, Pierre mused, actually is true. And you go to some lengths to make sure it stays that way, don't you, Oscar? Which, I suspect, is one reason you're so concerned over the possibility of your upper echelon people developing cover-your-ass mentalities after Cerberus. But the fact that the people at the top genuinely want to produce accurate reports may or may not mean they manage to pull it off. "Garbage in-garbage out" is still true, and there's no way to be sure agents lower down in the chain aren't "sweetening" the reports they send up to their superiors, who may not be quite so understanding as you are. Nonetheless...
   "All right," he said aloud. "I agree that your senior analysts know better than to lie to keep us happy. But I fail to see how they can feel we have the morale advantage!"
   "I didn't say they did," Saint-Just said patiently. "Not just at the moment. I said they believe we may have the advantage in the long term." He paused until Pierre nodded acceptance of the correction, then went on. "The way they see it, our morale started at rock bottom when our initial offensives got hammered into the ground and the Manties seized the initiative... and held it for five damned T-years. And people in general haven't been any too happy with StateSec's policies, either," the SS CO went on, his tone calm but not apologetic, "and the financial hardships of the war only made that worse."
   It was Pierre's turn to nod unapologetically. The Dolists' Basic Living Stipend had been frozen by the Legislaturalists at the outbreak of hostilities. Indeed, the war had begun when it did largely because the Harris Government couldn't afford the next scheduled round of BLS increases and had needed an outside threat to justify delaying them. Nor had the Committee been able to find the money for the increases. Possibly the most useful single thing the late, otherwise unlamented Cordelia Ransom had managed was to convince the Dolists to blame the Manticoran "elitists" and their "aggressive, imperialist war" (not the Committee) for the threadbare state of the Treasury. But the Mob's acceptance that it wasn't Rob S. Pierre's personal fault that its stipends hadn't gone up hadn't made it any happier with what that meant for its standard of living. And he supposed he ought to admit that his economic reforms had made the situation far worse in the short term. But he and Saint-Just both knew they'd been essential in the long run, and even the Dolists seemed to be coming, grudgingly, to accept that they had.
   "But in a way," Saint-Just continued, "that actually works to our advantage, because when you come right down to it, the only way our morale could go was up. The Manty public, on the other hand, started the war terrified of how it might end, only to have its confidence shoot up like a counter-grav shuttle. As far as their man-in-the-street could see, they beat the snot out of us for three of four T-years without even working up a good sweat, and there didn't seem to be very much we could do to stop them.
   "But the war hasn't ended, and they expected it to. No one's fought a war this long in two or three centuries, Rob. I know a lot of Sollies probably think that's because we and the Manties both are a bunch of third-class incompetents, but you and I know that isn't true. It's because of the scale we're operating on and, much as we may hate to admit it, because the Manties' tech has been so good that their quality has offset our advantages in quantity. Which is pretty depressing from our side, of course. But it's also depressing from their side, because their public knows as well as we do that they hold the tech advantage, and up until Icarus they were winning all the battles, but they hadn't won the war. In fact, they weren't even in sight of winning it. Every year their taxpayers have been looking at higher and higher naval budgets as both of us keep building up our fleets and investing in new shipyards and hardware. Their economy's stronger and more efficient than ours, but it's also much smaller, in an absolute sense, and every bucket has a bottom. The Manty taxpayers would be more than human if they didn't worry that the bottom of theirs was coming into sight after so long, so they're feeling the economic strain — less of it than we are, but more than they've ever felt before — and their casualties, low as they are compared to ours, are much higher as a percentage of their population."
   He shrugged.
   "They want the war to be over, Rob. Probably even more than our own people do, since the civilian standard of living here in the Republic is actually stabilizing after the last couple of T-years' roller-coaster ride. And then along came Operation Icarus and hammered their morale with a series of major military reverses." He shrugged again. "I'm not saying they're on the brink of imminent collapse or anything of the sort. I'm simply saying that Manty support for the war is nowhere near as monolithic as we tend to think it is, and my people are suggesting that Cromarty and his government are under more strain holding the war effort together than any of our previous models indicated."
   "Hmmmm." Pierre cocked his chair back and toyed with an antique letter opener which had once belonged to Sidney Harris. It actually made sense, he reflected, and only the fact that he was so busy pissing on his own forest fires had kept him from giving the possibility the consideration it probably merited. But still...
   "I'd have to agree that all that sounds reasonable," he admitted finally. "But I don't see where it's going to have a major effect on our immediate position even if it's true. Manty war weariness isn't going to cause them to collapse any time soon, and unless something like that happens, Cromarty will stay in power and he and Elizabeth III will go right on pounding us. And whatever Manty morale is like, the worst effects of Parnell's `revelations' are going to be felt here at home and on Solly attitudes."
   "I know that." Saint-Just flicked the fingers of one hand in agreement. "But that's one reason I want to keep the pressure on them as much as possible. And why I'd like you to reconsider your position on Operation Hassan."
   Pierre bit off a groan. In fact, he managed to stop it before it even reached his expression, but it wasn't easy. Aside from McQueen, Operation Hassan was the point on which he and Saint-Just were in the most fundamental disagreement. Not because Pierre couldn't accept the basic logic behind Hassan, but because he doubted its chances of success... and feared the consequences if it failed. For that matter, even its success might not come anywhere near producing the results Saint-Just's planners anticipated.