"I still don't like it," he said after a moment, his voice flat. "Too much can go wrong. And even if it succeeds perfectly, remember that InSec tried exactly the same trick thirty-three T-years ago. Pulled it off, too. And look what that got us. Besides, think of the PR consequences if something like Hassan blows up in our faces!"
   "It's not the same thing at all," Saint-Just said calmly. "Oh, the basic concept is the same, but we're at war now. The impact on the Manties would be immeasurably greater, and even if we wound up being blamed for it, no one could possibly say we weren't striking at a legitimate military objective!"
   Pierre grunted skeptically, and Saint-Just shrugged.
   "All right, forget that. But InSec managed to set it up so that no one knew we'd been behind it thirty-three years ago, and I can do the same today. I swear I can, Rob," he said earnestly. "None of the people I'd use in the action teams would have the least idea who they were actually working with, and my planners have come up with cutouts at all levels to keep any Manty investigator from tracing it back to us. And even if it doesn't have exactly the effect we're hoping for in a best-case scenario, it would have to hurt their coordination and determination. I don't happen to share the most optimistic of my people's expectations, but if we pull Hassan off, I can guarantee you that people like New Kiev, High Ridge, and Descroix and Gray Hill would turn the Manty Parliament into a dogfight to end all dogfights. They'd be so busy squabbling for power among themselves no one would have the time to spare for something as minor as a war."
   His voice and expression were earnest and persuasive, and Pierre felt his instinctive opposition to the plan waver before his security chief's conviction.
   But Oscar is a spymaster at heart, he reminded himself. He's preprogrammed to think in terms of clandestine ops, and hard as he tries to avoid it, I know he can sell himself on an operation just because it has all the "secret agent" bells and whistles. And there's at least a little empire-building at work here, too, because if he pulls off something like Hassan, he could very well win the war, or at least end it, which is something the entire People's Navy hasn't come close to accomplishing this far.
   "Do you really think there's a chance of success?" he asked after a moment, and Saint-Just frowned at his serious tone.
   "Yes," the StateSec CO said after a long moment of obviously hard, careful thought. "Depending on where the operation is finally mounted, the chances could range from excellent to poor or even very poor, but even in a worst-case situation, it could work. And as I say, if it fails, all we've lost is some cat's-paws."
   "Um." Pierre rubbed his chin some more, then sighed heavily.
   "All right, Oscar. You can set it up. But only if you can assure me the operation will not be mounted without my specific authorization." He raised a hand to fend off Saint-Just's slightly pained expression. "I'm not afraid you might go off half-cocked," or not, at least, against my specific orders,"but, as you say, we'd be relying on cat's-paws for the actual dirty work. I want to make damned sure one of them doesn't drag us into something we don't want to do."
   "I can do that," Saint-Just said after another moment's thought. "To be honest, the biggest risk would be with Hassan Two, in Yeltsin's Star, because the people we'd use there are a bit harder to control. On the other hand, our cutouts are actually cleaner there than they are in Manticore. And, to be honest, Hassan One doesn't stand very much chance of success. Not up against domestic Manty security. I've thought from the beginning that Hassan Two is our best chance — we'd've had a clean shot for a partial Hassan there year before last, if the pieces had just been in place — and I think we ought to be willing to accept a little more risk of premature action to set things up there."
   "Hmpf." Pierre closed his eyes in consideration of his own, then sighed once more and nodded. "All right. Set it up, but I'm serious about giving the final okay myself, Oscar. And I'm trusting you, personally, to see to it that any `accident' in this particular case is just that, and not a case of someone further down the chain deciding to act on his own initiative just because a target strays into his sights!"
   "I'll see to it personally," Saint-Just promised, and Pierre nodded in approval. When Oscar Saint-Just gave him his word, it could be relied upon.
   "But Hassan has to be a longshot," the StateSec man went on. "If it works, it can be decisive, but we can't do a thing to create the circumstances which would let us mount it, because there's no way we can assert control over them. Unlike military operations."
   Pierre sighed again, inwardly this time, but with feeling. He'd known this was coming from the moment Saint-Just arrived, but he'd allowed himself to hope the discussion of domestic Manticoran politics, civilian morale, and Operation Hassan might have diverted his chief spy from it.
   Silly me. I wonder if the energy death of the universe could divert Oscar from this particular subject?
   "All right, Oscar," he said finally. "I know you're unhappy about McQueen in general, but I thought we'd already been over that. Is there something specific — and new — you wanted to discuss about her? Or is there something you just want to revisit?"
   Saint-Just looked most uncharacteristically sheepish. It was not an expression anyone but Rob Pierre had ever seen on his face, but given the Chairman's tone, and the number of times they'd been over the same ground, it was inevitable. Despite that, however, his voice was calm and collected when he replied.
   "Yes and no," he said. "Actually, I wanted to discuss the misgivings you already know I have in context with these latest reports from the Sollies." He nodded to the holo display of the memo pad Pierre had been perusing when he arrived, and the Chairman nodded. He might be weary unto death of hearing Saint-Just's reservations about Esther McQueen, but he was far too intelligent to simply ignore them. Saint-Just's track record at ferreting out threats to the New Order was too impressive for that.
   "Actually," the SS man went on, "I think Parnell and his lot are going to do us a lot more damage than Harrington's return. Much as I hate to admit it, it was particularly clever of the Manties to send him on to Beowulf without any major medical treatment. And it was particularly stupid of Tresca to have recorded his sessions with the man."
   Pierre nodded again, but this time more than a trace of sick fascination hovered in the back of his brain. Saint-Just's conversational tone was completely untouched by any horror or even any indication that he saw any reason to feel so much as a mild distaste for his subject matter. Which, given that the "sessions" to which he referred had been neither more nor less than vicious physical and mental torture, was more than a little appalling. Pierre was well aware that the ultimate responsibility for anything Saint-Just or any of the security man's minions did was his. He was the one who'd brought about the fall of the Legislaturalists, and he was Chairman of the Committee. More than that, he'd known from the beginning what StateSec was doing, and he would not pretend even to himself that he hadn't. But the knowledge bothered him. There were times it bothered him a very great deal indeed... and he suspected Oscar Saint-Just slept like a baby every night.
   I need him, Pierre thought, not for the first time. I need him desperately. More than that, horrible as he is, the man is my friend. And unlike Cordelia, at least there's never been anything personal about the things he does. They're just... his job. But that doesn't make it any less horrible. Or mean the universe wouldn't be a better place without him in it.
   "I have to agree that Tresca's judgment was... questionable," he said, allowing no trace of his thoughts to color his tone. "But so was our decision— No, be honest. It was my decision not to simply shoot Parnell along with the others."
   "Maybe. But I supported it at the time, and, given what we knew then, I still think it was the correct one. He knew things no one else knew. Especially about the Navy, of course, but also about the inner dynamics of the core Legislaturalist family connections. Given that the purges had hardly begun, and how much internal resistance still existed in some sectors of the Navy command structure, we'd have been fools to blow all that knowledge away with a pulser dart."
   "Then, I suppose. But that was years ago... and he never gave us very much, despite all the `convincing' even someone like Tresca could come up with. On balance, we certainly ought to've gone back and cleaned up the loose ends long before any of this had the chance to happen."
   "Hindsight, Rob. Pure hindsight. Oh, sure. If we'd shot him two or three years ago, none of this would've happened, but who in his right mind would have expected a mass breakout from Hades? We'd tucked him away in the safest place we had, and he should have just quietly rotted there without making any problems for us at all."
   "Which, unfortunately, is certainly not what he's doing," Pierre observed dryly.
   "No, it isn't," Saint-Just agreed.
   The Secretary of State Security's tone showed commendable restraint, Pierre reflected, considering what the testimony of the Hades escapees and, even worse, the HD records Harrington had pulled from Camp Charon's supposedly secure data banks, were doing in the Solarian League.
   The fact that PubIn had lied about Harrington's death was bad enough. Having an entire series of witnesses, beginning with Amos Parnell, the last Legislaturalist Chief of Naval Operations, turn up to denounce the Committee of Public Safety in general and Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just in particular as the true instigators of the Harris Assassination was worse, much worse. The fact that many of those witnesses, including Parnell, obviously had been tortured (and the Manties had been smart enough to send all of them to Beowulf, where physicians from the League itself could determine they truly had been) was worse yet. And having recorded imagery of Dennis Tresca personally, gloatingly, overseeing that torture and confirming that Pierre and Saint-Just had planned the entire coup was worst of all.
   The damage was going to be catastrophic, and all Saint-Just's analysts and their very probably correct new models of Manticoran politics and attitudes couldn't begin to mitigate that damage's impact where the League was concerned.
   However vital and all-consuming the war between the People's Republic and the Manticoran Alliance might have been for the inhabitants of what was still known to the Solarian League as the Haven Sector, it had been distinctly secondary news to the Sollies. The League was the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful political unit in the history of humankind. It had its own internal problems and divisions, and its central government was weak by Havenite or Manticoran standards, but it was enormous, self-confident, and almost completely insulated, as a whole, from events in Pierre's neck of the galaxy. Specific components of the League, like merchants, arms makers, shipping lines, and investment firms, might have interests there; for the Solly man on the street, the entire sector lay somewhere on the rim of the universe. He felt no personal concern over events there, and his ignorance about the sector and its history was all but total.
   Which, Pierre admitted, was the way Haven had preferred things.
   The Solarian League had its own share of oligarchies and aristocrats, but the ideal to which it hewed was that of representative democracy. In fairness, most of the core worlds actually did practice that form of government, and every single member of the League embraced at least its facade, whatever the reality behind the outward appearance. And that had played neatly into the hands of the Office of Public Information, for Manticore was a monarchy.
   Half of the Star Kingdom's allies were also monarchies, for that matter. Places like the Protectorship of Grayson, or the Caliphate of Zanzibar, or the Princedom of Alizon all boasted open, hereditary aristocracies and were, or could readily be made to appear to be, autocracies. Actually, as Pierre knew, most of them were closer in practice to the mushy Solarian ideal than the PRH was... but the Solly public didn't know that. Which had given PubIn's propagandists a clear track at convincing that public that the Republic was just like them. It must be, after all, since it was a republic —it said so right in its name, didn't it?—fighting against the intrenched, despotic, and hence evil forces of reactionary monarchy. The fact that at least half of the out-colonies (and, for that matter, many of the planets which were now core worlds of the League itself) had gone through their own monarchical periods was beside the point. The exigencies which had all too often faced colony expeditions, especially before the Warshawski sail, had provided fertile ground for strong, hierarchical forms of government in the interests of survival, but the core world populations had forgotten that. After all, many of them had been settled for almost two millennia. They took their current, comfortably civilized status for granted and tended to forget (if it had ever occurred to them at all) that the Star Kingdom of Manticore, for example, had been settled for barely five centuries.
   The societies of this entire sector were much younger than any of Old Earth's older daughter worlds, and some of them, especially in systems like Yeltsin's Star and Zanzibar, had faced particularly brutal struggles for survival. Although continued social evolution tended to undermine the autocratic systems such worlds had developed once the problems of clinging to survival yielded to security and prosperity, that process took time. Many of the regimes colony worlds had thrown up had been at least as despotic as popular prejudice could ever have imagined, and some remained that way still in many sectors, like the Silesian Confederacy, for example. But those worlds were the exceptions, and those who had joined the Manticoran Alliance were not among them.
   Except that the Solly public hadn't known that, and Public Information had gone to great lengths to keep it from finding out. With, Pierre thought sourly, a remarkable degree of success, once again proving it was always wisest to bet on the side of ignorance and intellectual laziness.
   But the testimony and evidence of men and women like Parnell had broken through PubIn's shield, and the SS personnel Harrington's Cerebus court martials had tried and convicted for particularly vicious violations of the PRH's own laws only made it still worse. It was difficult for anyone on Haven to make a comprehensive assessment of how bad the actual damage was because of the lengthy communications lag between the People's Republic and the League. The Manticoran Alliance's control of both the Manticoran and the Erewhon wormhole junctions meant the Star Kingdom's capital was mere hours away from the Sigma Draconis System and Beowulf, the second-oldest human colony world, and barely a week from the Sol System itself. But Haven was a six-month round trip away even for a dispatch boat, which meant the only real information Pierre or Saint-Just had was that which was carried to them aboard the neutral vessels still allowed through either junction to the People's Republic. Any additional information would be badly out of date by the time they heard about it.
   Most of what they knew had thus come from the Solarian news agencies' feeds, since the Manties had been very careful not to interfere with any of the newsies' courier boats or with any third party's diplomatic traffic. And, as Pierre had feared, most of the reporters for those agencies were pursuing an aggressive style of journalism which had not been seen in the PRH in decades. They were using their better information sources to bully still more information (or admissions, at least) and more open interviews out of PubIn by doling out their own tidbits on a quid pro quo basis, and the fact that Pierre needed that information strengthened their hands.
   Fortunately, however, they were not (for the moment, at least) his sole sources of information. The PRH had arrangements with half a dozen League member worlds who let its diplomatic pouches and couriers travel aboard their diplomatic vessels. It was an invaluable connection to Haven's embassies and intelligence nets in the League, but at its best, it was slower than the finely polished courier networks the news services maintained and the information it provided was always somewhat dated. That hadn't been a problem when PubIn controlled the only information gates the newsies had been interested in opening, but it certainly was one now that PubIn desperately wanted to know what was happening somewhere else.
   Worse, there was no way to know how much longer that arrangement would hold. They'd already received rumblings that at least two of the worlds they'd counted among the PRH's friends were seriously rethinking their relationships in light of the disturbing revelations coming from Parnell and his companions. Pierre felt certain others would soon be engaged in the same process, especially if, as seemed likely, Parnell was invited to testify before the Solarian League Assembly's Committee on Human Rights. It was unlikely that anything as fundamentally unwieldy as the League would actually get around to formally declaring the PRH an outlaw state, but the inevitable mass coverage of Parnell's testimony could only make the PR disaster worse, and public opinion wasn't something any Solarian world's government could safely ignore.
   Of more immediate concern, Pierre had no idea how the situation would affect Haven's arrangements with certain Solarian arms firms. Legally, any Solly firm which traded weapons technology to either the Manties or the PRH faced formidable penalties for violating the embargo the Assembly had enacted shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. In fact, the central government had always lacked the muscle or the will to make that embargo fully effective. Even if the Assembly had possessed the police power to enforce it, the Star Kingdom had used the economic clout the Manticore Wormhole Junction gave it too openly to secure it, and a great many people and firms who'd stood to make unreasonable amounts of money from supplying the belligerents (or cutting into the enormous Manty merchant marine's carrying trade) resented it enormously. Given the Assembly's official acceptance of the embargo, none of those outraged parties had been in a position to demand their government force the Manties to allow them to trade openly with the PRH, however, which meant the Manties had been able to close their wormholes to any direct, rapid transfer of actual hardware and had made even technology or information transfers difficult.
   Difficult, but not impossible. It had taken a depressingly long time to establish the contacts and make the arrangements, given the time lag built into any communications loop, yet Saint-Just's people had managed it in the end. The heavy combat edge the Manties' superior technology had given the RMN and its allies had provided all the incentive anyone could have asked for from Haven's side, and those at the Solarian end had incentives of their own. Greed was undoubtedly the greatest one, for there were huge profits to be made, even from a government as close to bankruptcy as that of the PRH, but there were others.
   Many Solarian shipping lines deeply resented the near monopoly the Star Kingdom had enjoyed on shipping to and from the Haven Sector and the Silesian Sector thanks to the astrographic accident of the Manticore Junction. There were other, wealthier sectors, but very few outside the League itself which were as heavily populated or which offered as potentially rich pickings as the regions to which Manticore controlled rapid access. Worse, the pattern of wormholes extending from Manticore covered over half the League's total periphery, with advantages in transit times whose value was almost impossible to overstate. As a percentage of the total commerce of the Solarian League, the sums involved were barely even moderate; as a percentage of the bottom lines of individual shipping lines and corporations, they were enormous, which meant the individuals in question had reasons of their own to want to see the Star Kingdom... diverted from nurturing its merchant marine.
   Another form of greed helped explain the interest of several Solly arms makers, of course. The League in general had an invincible confidence in its technology's superiority to that of any lesser power. By and large, that confidence was probably justifiable, but there were individual instances in which it was much less so than the Sollies believed. The Star Kingdom of Manticore's R&D talent, in particular, compared favorably with that of any League world, whether the League knew it or not. The PRH's did not, but once the People's Republic realized how completely current Manticoran technology outclassed its technology (most of it purchased from the same people who built the Solarian League Navy's warships), it had hastened to share that fact with its suppliers. While those suppliers had felt that Solarian hardware in Solarian hands would undoubtedly prove far superior to that same hardware in the hands of a Navy whose personnel came from a ramshackle education system like the PRH's, they could not overlook specific items, such as the Manties' development of the first, practical short-range FTL communication system in history, reported by their Havenite customers. They couldn't seem to get the League Navy itself interested in sending competent observers to the front of what the League persisted in regarding as a squabble between minor, third-rate foreign powers, but the combined allure of profitable sales and access to the information the People's Navy could provide from sensor readings and occasional examination of Manty wreckage had proved irresistible.
   Yet those arrangements, like everything else, now stood jeopardized by Amos Parnell's escape to the League. If he was believed, and Pierre felt dismally certain he would be, the PRH was about to stop being the "good guys" in the eyes of Solarian public opinion. It was possible, even probable, that the longstanding acceptance of the Star Kingdom and its "autocratic" allies as the heavies of the piece would prevent any fundamental, long-term swing of public support in the Manties' favor, but that wasn't the same thing as saying that it wouldn't provoke a swing against the PRH. If Pierre was lucky, it would generate a feeling of "a pox upon both your houses!" and lead to a general disgust with both sides, and Leonard Boardman and Public Information would certainly do their utmost to bring that about. But even that attitude would intensify public support for the embargo. Which, in turn, would inspire certain League bureaucrats to look more closely at their legal responsibility to enforce it... and to publically slap the wrist of anyone caught violating it. Since one thing they could slap those wrists with was a temporary or even permanent bar against bidding on Navy contracts, the PRH's suppliers were about to become much more skittish about doing business with them.
   None of which was going to do anything good for the People's Navy's combat efficiency.
   "Well," the Chairman said finally, "there's not much we can do about the situation in the League right now. We'll just have to ride it out, I suppose. And Boardman's right in at least one respect. The official communications lag between here and Sol really does work in our favor right now."
   "For what it's worth," Saint-Just replied. "But let's not fool ourselves, Rob. We can delay sending official government responses to inquiries from the League by claiming that the Manties' control of the wormholes means we have to send them the long way around, but that's not going to help us when it comes to their newsies' questions. They don't have that problem, and anything we say to them is going to get back to the core worlds almost as quickly as anything the Manties say."
   "Thank you for pointing that out." Pierre's tone was sour, but there was a slight, weary twinkle in his eye. He wouldn't have shown it to anyone but Saint-Just, and the StateSec CO snorted.
   "You're welcome. It's my job to bring you the bad news even more than the good, after all. Which is why I mentioned Parnell in context with McQueen."
   He cocked his head, eying his superior expectantly, and Pierre surrendered to the inevitable.
   "Go on," he said.
   "We're not going to be able to completely control the Solly version of events even here in the Republic," Saint-Just said. "So far, our existing censorship is containing its open dissemination, and the Solly agencies understand that we will retaliate if they violate the Information Control Act or the Subversive Agitator statutes. But bootleg versions of Solly stories are going to get out. Hell, we've never been able to fully suppress the Manty'faxes dissidents keep smuggling in!"
   "I know that," Pierre said patiently. "But I think Boardman is right about our ability to at least mitigate the damage. Unconfirmed, `bootleg' reports have always been with us, but they've never been able to offset the full weight of the official information system. Not even people who automatically take anything PubIn says with a grain of salt are immune to the saturation effect over the long term. They may reject our version of specific events, but the background noise still shapes the context in which they view the rest of the universe."
   "I'm not disputing that, although I think Boardman is overconfident about his ability to spin this particular story. But I'm also not worrying about public opinion, Rob. Not in the short term, at least. I'm worrying about how the Navy is going to react once the full extent of Parnell's charges sinks in."
   "Um." Pierre cocked his chair back and ran one hand's fingers through his hair.
   " `Um,' indeed," Saint-Just said. "You know how popular Parnell was with the Legislaturalist officer corps. We may have had the better part of ten T-years to build our own cadre of officers, but every single senior member of it started out under the Legislaturalists. They may've been lieutenants and even ensigns, but they started out with Parnell as their CNO. As long as he was safely dead, especially after being executed for his part in the Harris Assassination, he was no threat. In fact, branding him with responsibility actually helped undermine any lingering loyalty to the old regime. After all, if someone they respected that much had been part of the plot, then everything they'd respected about the old system suddenly looked far less certain than it ever had before.
   "But now he's back, and alive — which absolutely proves that at least part of what we told them about him was a lie — and he's telling the universe we engineered the Harris Assassination. Which means everything we thought we'd accomplished by making him one of the fall guys is now likely to turn around and bite us right on the ass."
   "Are you seriously suggesting we could be looking at some sort of spontaneous general military revolt?" Pierre asked, and his tone was less incredulous than he could have wished it were.
   "No." Saint-Just shook his head. "Not a spontaneous one. Whatever else is happening, they're in the military and the Republic is fighting for its life, with dozens of its star systems still occupied by the other side. They may not like us much — in fact, let's be honest and admit that they've never liked the Committee — but that doesn't change the larger picture, and they must realize what the Manties could do to them if the chain of command falls apart or we split into factions that start fighting among themselves. They certainly saw enough of that when we were still securing our own control and the Manties were picking off frontier systems we were too disorganized to reinforce.
   "But what is going to happen is that we're about to lose a lot of the legitimacy we've slowly built up in their eyes. We've done our best to promote people who had bones to pick with the old order, of course, and most of those officers won't feel any great nostalgia for the Legislaturalists even if Parnell has come back from the dead. But not all of them are going to fall into that category, and even some of the ones who do are going to remember that at least the Legislaturalists never shot officers in job lots for failure to perform. So if the people who have shot them suddenly turn out to have seized power by having lied to them, they're not going to feel any great loyalty to us, either."
   He paused, eyebrows raised, until Pierre nodded.
   "I expect inertia to be on our side," he went on then. "We've been the government for ten T-years, and they've seen too much chaos. The Levelers aren't that far in the past, and the natural tendency is going to be to shy away from any course of action which is likely to encourage the Mob's more extreme efforts or provoke new power struggles at the top. But that's why I'm so concerned about McQueen and the degree of loyalty she's managed to evoke by winning battles."
   "We'd have that problem with anyone who won battles, Oscar!"
   "Agreed. And I also realize, although you must sometimes think I've forgotten, that we have to have someone who can win battles. I'm fully aware that it would be just as fatal — to you, me, and the Committee, at least — to lose the war as it would be for someone to stage a successful coup against us. But the person who's winning for us right now is Esther McQueen, and she's as ambitious and smart as they come. Worse, she's a member of the government... and one who only came on board well after all the things Parnell is accusing us of had already happened. She's in a position to claim all of the advantages of the incumbent, if you will, without having to shoulder any of the dis advantages. And worst of all, perhaps, she's the one woman in the Navy who's in a position to have a realistic chance of delivering a shot to the brain of the Committee. She's right here, on Haven, with direct access to you, me, and the rest of the Committee. And she's already the civilian head of the Navy. If the officer corps decided to follow her lead, there wouldn't be any factional struggles. Not immediately, at any rate. And you can bet anything you want that she's smart enough to make that point to them."
   "But there's no evidence she's done anything of the sort," Pierre pointed out.
   "No, there isn't. Trust me, if I'd picked up even a whisper of anything like that, you would have been the first to know. But there wasn't any evidence that she'd done anything out of the ordinary before the Leveler coup attempt, either, Rob."
   Pierre nodded unhappily. It had been fortunate for the Committee that McQueen was in a position to act when the Levelers managed to completely paralyze the normal channels of command. She'd been the only senior navy officer with both the quickness to grasp what was happening and the guts to act on her own initiative, and that was all that had saved the lives of Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just. But she'd been able to act with such decisiveness only because her flagship's entire company had been prepared to follow her without orders, despite the knowledge that such a display of initiative might well get them all shot for treason even if the Committee survived. Worse yet, she'd obviously managed, completely undetected, to set up her own contingency plans with her immediate staff and the senior officers of her flagship.
   And those plans most definitely had not been directed against the Levelers, however they might have worked out in practice.
   "What are you suggesting, Oscar?" he asked finally. "Do you seriously think we can remove her?"
   "Not without running serious risks, no. As you say, we need someone who can win battles. But we only need her until the battles are won, and she's smart enough to know that, too. That's why I'm so antsy about her delays in launching Operation Scylla. And about the way she keeps harping on the Manties' supposed `new weapons.' I think she's playing for time while she makes her own arrangements."
   "I'm not sure I can agree with you," Pierre said. "She's kept us much more fully informed on the status of operations than Kline ever did. Granted, she could be doing that in part to convince us to leave her alone while she polishes up her plans to shoot us both, but she's right when she points out the sheer problems of scale. Hell, you referred to them yourself just a few minutes ago! It takes months to concentrate task forces and fleets, train them to carry out an operational plan, and then launch them at an enemy a hundred light-years from their own bases."
   "I know it does. But I also think she's harping on the arguments in favor of caution more than the situation justifies." Saint-Just raised a hand as Pierre opened his mouth. "I'm not saying I know more about naval operations than she does, Rob. I don't. But I do know about the ways an expert can use his expertise to confuse an issue, especially when he — or, in this case, she — knows she was put in charge specifically because the people who put her there didn't have that expertise themselves. And I also know what my own analysts are telling me about the technical plausibility of things like these `super LACs' of hers. I've been through their arguments very carefully and double-checked their contentions with people still active in our own R&D, and—" his tone changed ever so slightly "—with four or five of the Solly tech reps here overseeing the technology transfers. And they all agree. The mass requirements for a fusion plant capable of powering both a LAC's impeller nodes and a graser the size of the one McQueen says she believes in are completely incompatible with the observed size of the vessels. And McQueen is a professional naval officer, so she has to have sources at least as good as mine. That's one reason I think we have to look carefully at the possibility that she's deliberately overstating the risks to slow the tempo of operations still further and give herself more time to organize her own network against us."
   Pierre rocked his chair slowly from side to side, lips pursed while he considered Saint-Just's argument. It was clear the StateSec CO had been headed in this direction for months now, but this was the first time he'd laid out his fears in such concise and unambiguous terms. And as he considered what Saint-Just had said, Pierre found himself wishing he could reject those fears out of hand.
   Unfortunately, he couldn't. Still...
   "Do you have any specific evidence?" he asked. "Not that she's plotting anything — I know we've just agreed we don't have any evidence of that — but that she's exaggerating the military risks?"
   "Not hard and fast," Saint-Just admitted. "I have to be careful who I ask. If she is up to anything, asking anyone in her own immediate chain of command would risk letting her know what we were asking about. But as I say, I've had my own people looking at both the analyses she's presented to us and the raw data on which those analyses are based, and their conclusions are quite different from hers."
   "Hardly conclusive," Pierre objected. "Any group of analysts is going to differ with any other. God knows you and I both see enough of that, even when the people doing the analyses are scared to death of us and know exactly what we want to hear!"
   "Granted. That's why I said I don't have any hard and fast evidence. But this fixation of hers on the `new weapons' the Manties used during Icarus really worries me. I know her official rationale for why they might be sitting on new hardware, but they haven't launched a single offensive action since Icarus, aside from a few local counterattacks, every one of which was executed without any new mystery weapons! And why is she so quick to dismiss the argument that we ought to be pushing the pace to take the Manties completely out before they can get their supposed new weapons into mass production? For that matter, why hasn't their Eighth Fleet moved against Barnett, if they're not fully on the defensive? They spent the better part of a year organizing it in the first place, then diverted it to Basilisk against Icarus, and now it's been sitting in place in Trevor's Star for another damned year! Everyone knows it was supposed to be their primary offensive force. That's why they put White Haven in command of it. So why is it just sitting there... unless they're afraid to attack us?"
   "Have you asked her that?"
   "Not in so many words, no. You've seen how she responds to the questions I have asked, and I've certainly given her plenty of openings to explain why she thinks White Haven is just sitting in Trevor's Star. All she ever does is trot out the old arguments about how critical the Trevor's Star terminus of their wormhole junction is to them. But even she has to admit they've finally gotten their fortresses on-line to cover the terminus... not to mention the fact that their Third Fleet is still permanently on station there. No, Rob. There has to be another reason to hold White Haven on such a short leash, and the only one I can think of is that they're afraid of us. Of her, if I want to be fair, I suppose."
   "I don't know," Pierre said slowly. "That's all awfully speculative, Oscar. You have to admit that."
   Saint-Just nodded, and Pierre scratched an ear while he frowned in thought. The problem, of course, was that it was part of Saint-Just's job description to be speculative where possible threats to the Committee's security were concerned.
   "Even if you're right," the Chairman said at length, "we still can't just summarily dismiss her. For one thing, and particularly in light of the whole Parnell mess, it would look like another put-up job, especially to anyone who's already inclined to support her."
   Saint-Just nodded once more, his expression sour, and Pierre felt his mouth quirk in a wry twist of its own as he thought of all the work he and Saint-Just had done on McQueen's StateSec dossier. It had been such a lovely job, complete with all the evidence anyone could ever ask for to "prove" she was guilty of plotting treason against the People with none other than colleagues of that arch-traitor Amos Parnell, himself. And now the fact of Parnell's survival meant it was effectively useless for its intended purpose of satisfying the military that they'd had no choice but to shoot her.
   "I don't know that there is anything we can do about her, immediately," Saint-Just said aloud. "We're both in agreement about how good she is at her job. If I'm wrong about what she's doing, it would be a stupid waste to deprive ourselves of her abilities. For myself, my natural inclination is to dispense with her services rather than risk the possibility that my suspicions are justified, but that's part of the nature of my job. I'm supposed to look for internal threats to the state first, and I realize that sometimes I have to rein myself in before I let that carry me away."
   "I know you do," Pierre said, and it was true. Which, unfortunately, lent more weight to his concerns, not less.
   "The only thing I can see to do is to leave her where she is but press her even harder to move ahead on Scylla," Saint-Just told him. "She's agreed it's the next logical step and that we should execute it as quickly as possible, so she can hardly object to our pushing for its early execution. If she turns obstinate, that would not only indicate my worries may be justified but also provide us with a completely legitimate difference over policy to justify her removal. On the other hand, if we launch the operation and the Manties give ground the way my analysts expect them to, we'll have evidence that a generally more aggressive policy is in order, and we can demand she pursue it. In the meantime, I'll keep as close an eye on her as I can in hopes that if she actually is planning something we wouldn't like, she'll slip up and give herself away."
   "And if she does slip up?"
   "If she does, then we eliminate her, however fast and dirty we have to do it," Saint-Just said simply. "We won't have any choice, no matter what fallout may result. A dead, martyred McQueen will be a hell of a lot less threat to us than a live McQueen organizing firing squads of her own!"
   "Agreed." Pierre sighed heavily. "But if push comes to shove and we have to remove her, we'll need someone on hand to replace her. Someone who could pick up where she left off against the Manties without picking up where she left off plotting against us. And someone we're fairly certain wasn't part of whatever she may — or may not, God help us — be planning."
   "You're certainly right about that. I wouldn't want to put any money on Giscard or Tourville or any of their crowd. We've discussed that before, and my concerns about their loyalty to us are only heightened by the success they've achieved under McQueen. They'd almost have to be feeling more loyal to her than they were before Icarus." He rubbed his chin again. "I don't know, Rob. I can think of a half dozen admirals whose loyalty I'd feel confident about, but I'm afraid most of them fall well short of McQueen's military competence. Then, too, if I feel sure where their loyalties lie, I'm quite sure the Navy does, too. Which means they'd almost certainly be seen as our creatures, whereas McQueen's been seen as one of their own. I could live with that, but I'd rather not provide any incentive for her replacement's new subordinates to start right out feeling disloyal to him." He grinned mirthlessly. "Clearly what we need is an outstanding commander, outside McQueen's circle, who was never so loyal to us as to make the rank and file immediately suspicious of him but who has no ambitions of his own."
   "And Diogenes thought he had trouble looking for an honest man!" Pierre snorted. "Just where do you expect to find this paragon?"
   "I don't know." Saint-Just chuckled. But then his face hardened, and there was no humor at all in his voice when he spoke again. "I don't know — yet. But I've already started looking, Rob. And if I find him, then I think my estimate of Citizen Secretary McQueen's indispensability will undergo a small reevaluation."


   "It looked pretty good to me, Scotty." Captain (Junior Grade) Stewart Ashford leaned over Scotty Tremaine's shoulder to study the tac simulator's display. It showed only the results of the exercise, not the "attack" itself, but the number of "dead" LACs was depressingly high, and he winced as he contemplated it. "I certainly thought it was going to work when we discussed your attack plan. So what happened?"
   "I got overconfident, Stew." Scotty Tremaine sighed. "That's what happened."
   "How?" Ashford demanded. He tapped keys, then pointed almost accusingly at the plot as it obediently altered to a static display of the situation just before the start of the attack. "They didn't have a sniff of you to this point, or the escorts would've already opened fire. You were in clean within — what? A hundred and eighty k-klicks? And closing with an overtake of over ten thousand KPS. And an accel advantage of almost five hundred gees over the merchies! They were dead meat."
   "Yep." Tremaine gazed dolefully at the icons of the simulated freighters which had been his LAC wing's objectives, then gave Ashford a crooked grin.
   There were only a few T-years' difference in their ages, but Ashford, part of HMS Minotaur's original LAC wing and now the COLAC of HMS Incubus, had already enjoyed almost a year of hands-on training with actual hardware. Incubus was officially carried on the Ship List as CLAC-05, and she was rather closer to the original Minotaur in design than Hydra was. Not that the differences were pronounced, although Hydra, on a bit less tonnage, actually carried twelve more LACs. She paid for it with somewhat lower magazine capacity for her shipboard launchers, but given the fact that a LAC carrier had no business getting close enough to other starships to shoot at them (and be shot at by them), that was a trade-off Tremaine was perfectly happy to accept. But Hydra would be CLAC-19 when she finished working up in another month or so, and her own LACs were only beginning to arrive. Which meant that unlike Ashford, Tremaine and his wing had been forced to do almost all of their training in simulators.