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Chapter Seven

The sting ships in Winton blue and silver which had escorted them from White Haven banked gently away to either side as the armored limousine in Harrington Steading livery came in across the sparkling waters of Jason Bay and crossed the threshold into Mount Royal Palace's defensive envelope. Honor suspected that very few citizens of Landing ever really considered the fact that Mount Royal was one of the most heavily defended pieces of dirt on any of the Star Kingdom's three inhabited planets. She was aware of it primarily because of the necessary interfacing between her own armsmen, the Queen's Own, and Palace Security, and even as a serving naval officer, she'd been astonished at the amount of firepower hidden away under the various innocuous-looking weather domes and secondary structures scattered over the immaculate grounds.

None of that firepower was directed at her, however, and she glanced at Hamish as Mattingly settled the limo lightly onto the semiprivate pad near the old-fashioned, squat spire of King Michael's Tower. Spencer Hawke opened the passenger door and stepped out first, sweeping the immediate area in the automatic threat search of a Grayson armsman even here. LaFollet followed him, and Honor watched her personal armsman give the uniformed Army captain waiting for them a sharp glance.

When no crazed assassins hurled themselves out of the shrubbery, LaFollet stepped to one side so she and Alexander could climb out of the vehicle. Hamish was in civilian court dress trimmed in the maroon and green of the earls of White Haven, as befitted the civilian head of the Admiralty on his way to a formal meeting with his monarch, but Honor was in mess dress uniform, complete with the archaic sword that demanded. In her case, the ancient weapon was no mere prop, either, and the jeweled hilt of the Harrington Sword glittered as she settled the scabbard at her side.

"Your Grace." The captain wore the griffin-headed shoulder patch of the Falcons End Rangers, the Griffin-recruited battalion of the Queen's Own, and saluted sharply, then turned to Alexander. "My Lord."

He saluted again, and Honor chuckled mentally, wondering exactly how the Palace Protocol Office had decided to resolve the question of precedence between them. Hamish was senior to her in Manticoran service, but although both of them were fleet admirals in Grayson service, she was senior to him in that navy.

"If you'd be so good as to follow me?" the captain requested without specifically addressing it to either of them, and the two of them fell into step behind him, trailed by LaFollet, Mattingly, and Hawke.

It was a relatively short walk, and one Honor had made before. The gardens about her were peaceful, drowsing in the sunlight which lay heavily across her shoulders. As a Sphinxian, Honor always found Landing's summer weather unnaturally warm, and the late morning sunlight was almost uncomfortably hot, despite her uniform's smart fabric. The scent of Old Earth roses and Manticoran crown blossom mingled in the still, humid air, and the buzz of Old Earth bees and Manticoran rainbow bugs was improbably loud in the quiet. It was hard to imagine a more placid, comforting setting . . . or one more totally at odds with the reality confronting the Star Kingdom and its allies.

They reached the tower, and the captain escorted them up the old-fashioned elevator. A lieutenant with the shoulder flash of the Copper Wall Battalion came to attention—and dropped one hand to the butt of her holstered pulser—as they approached the door outside which she stood.

"Her Grace, Duchess Harrington, and Earl White Haven to see Her Majesty," their escort announced. Quite unnecessarily, Honor felt certain.

The lieutenant keyed her com without removing her hand from her weapon.

"Her Grace, Duchess Harrington, and Earl White Haven to see Her Majesty," she repeated into the com, and listened a moment to her earbug, eyes still riveted to Honor and Hamish. Then she removed her hand from her pulser.

"Her Majesty is expecting you, Your Grace, My Lord," she said, and pressed the door button.

The door swung open, and Hamish stood back to allow Honor to precede him. She removed her uniform beret, tucked it properly under her left epaulette, and stepped through it.

"Honor!"

Queen Elizabeth III stood in front of the comfortable armchair from which she'd risen, holding out both hands with a huge smile of welcome. Her pleasure at seeing Honor again was like a crackling fire on an icy night, and Honor smiled back, reaching out to take Elizabeth's hands. The treecat on Elizabeth's shoulder flirted his tail, radiating his own pleasure, and bleeked a happy welcome to Nimitz and Samantha as the Queen turned to welcome Hamish, as well. Honor watched the three 'cats and felt an inner bubble of amusement at the contrast between today and her first, almost timorous visit to this room with its simple, comfortably-used furnishings and rust-red carpet.

"Sit down, both of you," Elizabeth commanded, pointing at a pair of chairs arranged around the coffee table. Honor obeyed, taking one of the chairs, and her mental antennae twitched as she noticed the white beret on the table.

"I realize we're running a bit behind schedule," Elizabeth continued as she seated herself once again, "but when Emily screened me, I was able to flip a couple of functions, so we've got time. Besides, I'm going to take the time for a personal visit with you before we get bogged down in all the formalities, no matter what my appointments secretary thinks." She grimaced. "Before things got rearranged, I'd allowed time for it between the audience and dinner, but we've squeezed this morning's briefing from the Admiralty into that slot, so there's not going to be long enough now."

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," Honor said contritely.

"Don't be." Elizabeth waved the apology aside. "These formal receptions and dinners are important—I know that. And, to be perfectly frank, we need to show you off to the Allied ambassadors, Honor. Given what happened at Sidemore, most of our allies seem to regard you as something of a talisman." She smiled. "For that matter, so do I, I suppose. You do seem to keep doing three impossible things before breakfast every day for me, don't you, Your Grace?

"I've just been in the right place at the right time . . . and with the right people," Honor protested.

"I don't doubt it, although I suspect you personally have probably contributed a bit more to your string of successes than you're prepared to admit. But even at this level of diplomacy, Honor, it's still more of a game of perceptions than anything else. And what our Allies perceive right this minute is that you're the only Allied commander who won an unambiguous victory when the Peeps jumped us. They believe you're lucky, as well as good, and that gives you a stature in their eyes which I intend to capitalize upon to the maximum. The fact that it also gives me the opportunity to publicly thank someone who's done far more than most in the service of my kingdom, and who I happen to regard as a personal friend, is simply icing on my cake."

Honor felt her cheeks heat slightly, but she nodded.

"Good. Now," Elizabeth continued, sitting back in her chair with a broader smile, "there is one other small detail I wanted to deal with before the formal audience. Oh," she raised one hand and wiggled it back and forth in a dismissive gesture, "we'll have to cross the 't's and dot all the 'i's during the audience, but that's mostly for public consumption."

Honor regarded her monarch warily. Elizabeth Winton was a remarkably good card player, and her expression revealed only what she chose for it to reveal, but she couldn't conceal the anticipation bubbling within her from Honor. She was up to something, and Honor recognized that wicked zestfulness. She'd tasted it before when Elizabeth looked forward to opening the box of toys the Queen of Manticore got to bestow on people who had served her well. It was one of the perks of her office which Elizabeth most treasured, and she took almost childlike delight in exercising it when the opportunity arose.

"You needn't look so worried, Honor," the Queen scolded now. "This isn't going to hurt a bit, I promise."

"Of course, Your Majesty," Honor said even more warily, and Elizabeth chuckled. Then she leaned forward, scooped up the white beret on the coffee table, and flipped it across to Honor.

"Here," she said as Honor caught it reflexively. "I think this is yours."

Honor arched her eyebrows, then looked down at the beret in her hands. It looked exactly like the black one tucked under her epaulette, except for its color—the white color, reserved for the commander of a hyper-capable warship of the Royal Manticoran Navy. It was the emblem of a captain of a Queen's ship, a mistress after God, which Admiral Honor Harrington would never be again.

"I don't see exactly where you're going with this, Elizabeth," she said after a moment.

"Well, you've already got the Parliamentary Medal of Valor, a knighthood—although, now that I think about it, we're going to be promoting you to knight grand cross this afternoon, I believe—a duchy, a mansion, a baseball team—whatever that is—your own personal starship, a multibillion-dollar business empire, and a steading." Elizabeth shrugged. "With all that, deciding what to give you is getting a bit complicated. So I decided to give you back your white beret."

Honor frowned. In theory, she supposed, Elizabeth could issue whatever directives she wanted. She could permit Honor to wear the white beret even if she were no longer a ship's captain. She could even order Honor to wear it. But that wouldn't make it right. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Hamish put a hand on her knee.

"Wait," he said, then looked at Elizabeth. "I told you, didn't I?" he said to the Queen.

"Yes, you did. And I owe you five dollars." Elizabeth shook her head, grinning at Honor. "You really don't have a clue where I'm headed, do you?" she asked cheerfully.

"No, I don't," Honor admitted.

"Well, it happens that Admiral Massengale retired month before last," Elizabeth said slowly, watching Honor's expression carefully. Honor felt her eyes widen, and the Queen nodded. "Which means," Elizabeth continued, her voice much more serious, "that Unconquered needs a captain."

"Elizabeth, you can't," Honor protested. She shook her head. "I'm honored, flattered—delighted—you'd consider me, but there are too many people senior to me who deserve the berth at least as much as I do! You can't just jump me over their heads this way!"

"I can, I want to, and I have," Elizabeth told her flatly. "And, no, this isn't just politics, not a matter of waving my 'talisman' under everyone's noses. And, before you continue to protest, I remind you that the choice of Unconquered's captain is not solely up to the Crown. I may get to make the final decision, but you know the tradition. I can choose only from the list of names submitted to me by the Navy. And not," she added, glancing at Hamish, "by the Admiralty. The list of candidates comes solely from the serving officers of the Queen's Navy. You know how it's generated, and you also have to know you were nominated for it after Cerberus."

"Well, yes, but—"

Honor broke off. HMS Unconquered was the oldest starship still in commission in the Royal Manticoran Navy. She had been commanded at the very beginning of her lengthy career by Edward Saganami when he was a commander, and her last commanding officer on active deployment had been Lieutenant Commander Ellen D'Orville. Unconquered was unique, the only ship to have been commanded by both of the Star Kingdom's greatest naval heroes, which was why she had been rescued from the breakers by the Royal Naval League after a century in reserve.

The League had organized a massive fund-raising project to repair and refurbish the ship, then convinced the Crown to return her to commissioned status as a combination memorial and living museum. Restored to her exact condition when she was Saganami's first cruiser command, she was maintained in permanent orbit around Manticore. Membership in her official "crew," which was maintained at the exact number of officers and ratings which had served under Saganami, was a high honor, reserved as a way of recognizing the achievements of the Navy's best and brightest. None of them actually served aboard her, because the tradition also required that they be personnel on the active duty list, and her captain, by long tradition, was an admiral. Nominated by majority vote by all of the Navy's serving officers, selected by the Queen from the list of elected candidates, Unconquered's captain was the single serving flag officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy who was permitted to wear the white beret of a starship commander.

"I didn't put your name on the list, Honor," Elizabeth said quietly. "Your peers did that. And, while I might have been tempted to jump you to the top of the list if I'd had to, your name was already there."

"But—"

"No buts, Honor," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "I have to admit this pleases me from an enormous number of perspectives. And, if I'm going to be honest, 'waving my talisman' is one of those perspectives. But much more important to me than that, it's an indication of the respect in which you are held by the officer corps of my Navy. If anyone in the galaxy is in a position to properly appreciate all you've done for me and for my Star Kingdom, it's that officer corps, and they saw fit to nominate you for this honor. You will not reject the judgment of my officer corps, Your Grace. Is that clear?"

Honor gazed at her, clutching the soft fabric of the beret, then, finally, nodded slowly.

"Good. And now, we've got about forty-five minutes before that audience, after which Willie will be turning up with Sir Thomas and Admiral Givens. We'll discuss all those depressing military details then. For now, I do intend to spend some time just visiting with you. Not with Admiral Harrington, not with Duchess Harrington, and not even with Steadholder Harrington. Just with you. All right?"

"Fine, Elizabeth," Honor said. "That's just fine."

* * *

"So the raid on Alizon didn't help a bit," Sir Thomas Caparelli said. He, Patricia Givens, Honor, Nimitz, Hamish, Samantha, Elizabeth, Ariel, and Lord William Alexander, the newly created Baron Grantville and Prime Minister of Manticore, sat around a conference table of brilliantly polished feran wood. Hamish, the Queen, and Baron Grantville still wore their formal court attire, but Caparelli and Givens, like Honor, were in mess dress uniform. Three sheathed swords lay across one end of the conference table, and a holographic star map was projected above it, spangled with the icons of friendly units and enemy units' reported positions. There seemed to be considerably more of the latter than of the former, Honor noticed.

"We're badly strapped for deployable assets everywhere," the First Space Lord continued, turning back from the map to face the Queen. "Obviously, we're going to have to reinforce Alizon, if only to make our commitment to their defense clear, and that's going to stretch us even thinner, but there's no quick fix for that, Your Majesty. We're reactivating superdreadnoughts from the Reserve as quickly as we can, of course. They may be obsolete compared to the pod-layers, but some waller is better than no waller, and the Republic still has quite a few of the older ships in its own order of battle. But we're not going to be commissioning very many new ships in the foreseeable future. After what they did to Grendelsbane, we have only thirty-five SD(P)s under construction. They should be commissioning within the next six to ten months, but we won't see any more than that until the ships we're laying down right this minute commission. Which means our total available pod-laying wall will consist of no more than a hundred and ten units for at least another two T-years."

"Excuse me, Sir Thomas," Honor said, "but what about the Andermani?"

"Unfortunately, they don't have as many pod-layers as we'd estimated they might when it looked like they were going to be shooting at us," Caparelli said, and nodded to Givens. "Pat?"

"Essentially, Your Grace," Givens said, "the Andies were estimating the number they'd need if push came to shove between us on the basis that at least half our available strength would be required closer to home to keep an eye on Haven. They projected a total build of roughly a hundred and thirty SD(P)s, but they have only forty-two currently in commission. The other ninety are all under construction at various states of completion. Some of them won't be completed for at least another eighteen months."

"And even the ones they've completed are going to require fairly substantial refits before we can make best use of them," Hamish put in. Elizabeth cocked her head at him, and he shrugged. "Their multi-drive missiles are considerably cruder than ours. In fact, they're less sophisticated than the ones Haven is currently deploying. They're almost as big as Havenite three-drive missiles, but they incorporate only two drives. Tactically, they're a lot more like the Mark 16s we're deploying aboard the new Saganami-Cs. They've got heavier warheads than the Mark 16, but their range is very similar. And because they're capacitor-fed, without the Mark 16's fusion plant, their EW is less effective. They simply can't match our birds' power budgets. And while their pods are bigger than ours are, they actually carry fewer birds than the Republic's currently do, which means their salvo density is thinner than ours, as well.

"We've put BuWeaps and BuShips on to the problem, and Admiral Hemphill and Vice Admiral Toscarelli have come up with a minimum-modification solution. They can't operate the new fusion-powered MDMs from their pods, but we can load their launcher cells with our own older-style, capacitor-fed three-stage missiles. It won't give them any greater salvo density, and the EW will still be less capable, but it will significantly improve their range. It's going to require some modifications to their pods, which they're going to be making at their end, but that part of the process should be completed within the next sixty days. After that, it's just a case of their building the new pods.

"The longer-range fix is to modify their existing SD(P)s to accept the Keyhole platforms and fire our new 'flat-pack' pods with the all-up fusion-powered birds. That's going to take considerably longer, because each ship will have to spend an absolute minimum of ninety days in yard hands to carry out the modifications. Toscarelli's people have just about completed the blueprints for the necessary alterations, and they've been working with the Andies' architects to provide a fix which can be incorporated into the ships still under construction. At best, though, that's going to impose an additional delay on those units' completion."

"So," Caparelli said, "looking at every pod-laying waller we can scrape up between us, Grayson, and the Andies, and including all of the Andy SD(P)s currently in commission as fully effective units, we have a total of two hundred and thirty-two. Assuming our construction times hold up, and allowing for working up time, we can have a total of just over four hundred within the next eleven to eighteen months. We can add about a hundred and sixty pod-laying battlecruisers to that total, but they can't stand in the wall against proper superdreadnoughts. That's an impressive number, but the Havenites have some pretty impressive numbers of their own."

"Yes," Elizabeth said, looking intently at Admiral Givens. "I saw a precis of your revised strength estimates last week, Admiral, but it didn't include the basis for your revisions. Is the situation really that bad?"

"That's impossible to say with certainty, Your Majesty," Givens replied. "I'm not trying to cover myself, and I stand by the numbers in the most recent report, but until the shooting's over, we can't do an actual nose count to prove it. I'm sorry it's taken this long to produce the report in the first place, but we still have a certain amount of reorganizing to do over at ONI."

Elizabeth grimaced, her eyes hard, at the oblique reference to Admiral Francis Jurgensen's disastrous tenure as Second Space Lord.

"Our human-intelligence sources in the Republic are considerably weaker than they used to be," the admiral continued. "Partly, that's due to the political changes there. Quite a few of the people supplying information to us were doing so because of their opposition to the old régime, and their motivation to continue to work with us largely disappeared along with Saint-Just. Others, who we'd managed to buy or suborn, lost their access when they were purged by the new management. And, unfortunately, under the Janacek Admiralty, ONI hadn't assigned a high priority to building new networks. In fairness, doing so under the new circumstances would have been difficult, time-consuming, and probably expensive."

Elizabeth's agate-hard eyes flickered, but she didn't seem disposed to entertain any excuses for the unfortunate Jurgensen's failures.

"At any rate," Givens went on, "there are serious holes in our information-gathering capabilities. And I have to admit that Pierre and Saint-Just managed to build this entire shipbuilding complex of theirs, wherever it is, on my watch, without my getting so much as a sniff of it. We're looking for it hard, scouting every system we can think of, but so far, we haven't found it. Which is more than mildly irritating, given the resources we're committing to the effort. On the other hand, the way they've spread out their building capacity since Theisman first went public about the Peep pod-layers, Bolthole is becoming steadily less of an absolutely critical node for them.

"But bearing in mind the limits on our intel ability, and counting only the new ships we've actually observed, and making allowances for errors in post-battle reports, we're estimating that they must have a minimum of three hundred pod-layers currently in commission. We know they had at least two hundred old-style superdreadnoughts in service, as well, plus another hundred or so in reserve, but it's the pod-layers that pose the critical threat. If they do have three hundred in service at this time, then they have approximately one and a half times as many as we and the Graysons do. It drops to about one-point-three-to-one in their favor if we include all of the completed Andermani SD(P)s. By our best estimate of the differences between their current hardware and our own, that equates to near parity between the two sides, but they've got much more strategic depth than we do."

"That depth tips the strategic balance significantly in their favor, Your Majesty," Caparelli put in. "They can afford to concentrate their forces for offensive operations to a far greater extent than we can. We can't afford to allow them the opportunity to take out the industrial capacity here in the Star Kingdom or in Grayson, and that means we're forced to maintain sufficient strength in those systems to deter a serious attack. As Pat says, we don't even know where this 'Bolthole' of theirs is, so there's no way we could do the same thing to their infrastructure. We could hurt them badly in several places, if we uncovered enough to go after them, but without at least Bolthole's location, we can't cripple them the way they could cripple us."

"I understand," Elizabeth said, nodding, and reached out to scratch Ariel between the ears. "But you're estimating an enormous growth in their total numbers, Admiral Givens."

"Yes, Your Majesty, we are," Givens admitted bleakly. "The problem is that we've uncovered evidence that even before Theis-man shot Saint-Just, they'd been stockpiling huge numbers of components. We'd picked up on that before Buttercup, but we'd never been able to figure out where they were going or why. Then, after the Cromarty Assassination and the cease-fire—" if Elizabeth's eyes had been hard before, they could have been used to cut diamonds now "—the Admiralty stopped worrying about it. We'd never been able to confirm it was happening in the first place, and it seemed irrelevant in light of our technical and tactical superiority.

"However, after examining the wreckage from Her Grace's victory at Sidemore, we've determined that even though the SD(P)s Haven deployed for the attack were new-build, new-design ships, they used existing, off-the-shelf components wherever possible. Obviously, many of their systems had to be new-construction, but the truth is that probably at least eighty-five percent of the design was based on existing hardware. Exactly what they appear to have been stockpiling. Our numbers for what they squirreled away are nowhere near as precise as I'd like, but allowing for a twenty-five percent overestimate, and assuming the stockpiled items represent only seventy percent of the new ships' total requirements, they could still have an additional four hundred to four hundred and fifty under construction at 'Bolthole' alone. And, of course, there's no way for us to estimate how far along in the construction process those ships might be."

Chill silence hovered in the conference room. Honor tasted the grim awareness of what those numbers meant radiating from her fellow naval officers. Elizabeth and the Prime Minister were deeply concerned, but the full impact didn't appear to have hit them yet.

"Excuse me, Pat," she said, after a moment, "but I noticed you said they could have that many ships under construction 'at Bolthole alone.'"

"Yes, I did, Your Grace." Givens nodded. "Obviously, until they announced the existence of their own pod-layers, all their construction was carried out under conditions of maximum secrecy—the entire rationale for Bolthole in the first place. But as soon as Theisman announced they had SD(P)s of their own, they began preparations to lay down additional units in other shipyards. Our estimate is that they're probably looking at longer construction times in the older yards, not to mention the fact that they had to set up all of the long-lead items and get organized before they could begin construction there at all. Nonetheless, we have indications from various sources that they have somewhere in the vicinity of an additional four hundred new units under construction at Nouveau Paris and two or three other of their central systems. That's the bad news. The good news is that although the Pritchart Administration authorized their construction the better part of a T-year ago, they only really hit their stride about four months ago. Which means it's going to take them at least another two and a half T-years to complete any of them. So they're not a factor in the immediate gap between our numbers and theirs."

"That may be, Pat," Hamish said, "but the thought of looking at twelve hundred SD(P)s in a couple of years doesn't exactly fill me with joyous enthusiasm."

"But, with all due respect, Admiral Givens," his brother said, "how realistic is your estimate in fiscal terms?" Givens looked at him, and Grantville smiled thinly. "As Duke Cromarty's Chancellor of the Exchequer I enjoyed quite a bit of experience of just how difficult it was for us to pay for hundreds of new superdreadnoughts, and the Havenite economy is still a long way from anything I'd call healthy. They may have laid down all the ships you're talking about, but will they be able to sustain the building program without an economic collapse?"

"That, Prime Minister, is outside my own area of expertise," Givens admitted. "The financial analysts attached to ONI believe they can, indeed, complete all or a high percentage of the total projected current program—or, rather, our estimate of what that program is. They're going to have to make some hard decisions about what not to build to pull it off, but they have many times the star systems we do. Despite our much higher per capita income, their absolute budgets are at least as big, or bigger, than our own, and their manpower costs are far lower. It's certainly possible that trying to complete this program would indeed lead to the economic collapse of the Republic. Which, on a long-term basis, could be good or bad from our perspective. My own feeling, however, is that we dare not count on that outcome. Especially not given how much of Havenite strategy under the Legislaturalist régime was based on seizing Manticore and our wormhole junction specifically as a revenue source. The new régime might well be willing to go deeply into debt if it believes that by doing so it can succeed where Harris, Pierre, and Saint-Just failed."

Baron Grantville nodded, but he clearly wasn't fully convinced, and Honor tasted his deep reservations about Givens' estimates.

"So what do we do?" Elizabeth asked simply after silence had lingered for several seconds.

"For the immediate future, we're effectively forced to stand primarily on the defensive," Hamish said. "I don't like it, and neither does Sir Thomas, but that's simply the reality we face. We're still working on ways in which we might be able to modify that defensive stance in order to put at least some pressure on Haven, and we'll be discussing those possibilities with Admiral Harrington and her staff over the next several days. Hopefully, we'll come up with something that will prevent the other side from retaining sole possession of the strategic initiative, but we'll probably still be forced to adopt a mainly reactive stance until our own new construction begins to come forward in large numbers."

Something else flickered behind his thoughts. Honor caught just a trace of it, too little to even begin to estimate what it was, but it seemed to carry a flavor of wariness and apprehensive disappointment. Whatever it was, no trace of it shadowed his voice as he continued.

"We're also engaged in a comprehensive evaluation of our building options. One of the very few things the Janacek Admiralty did right—by accident, I'm sure—was to leave Vice Admiral Toscarelli at BuShips. I doubt they would have done it if they'd realized what he was actually up to over there, although I may be doing Chakrabarti a disservice. He may have known exactly what Toscarelli was doing.

"At any rate, despite the official Janacek position that there was no need to build anything other than LACs and commerce-protection units, Toscarelli and his people managed to get the Saganami-C approved as a 'modification' of the existing Saganami design, rather than as a totally new class which represents as significant a tactical departure for cruisers as the Medusa-class represented for superdreadnoughts. He also managed to get the design for the new Nike-class battlecruisers and Agamemnon-class BC(P)s approved. We only have the lead ship of the Nike-class about to commission, and only six of the Agamemnons, but there are six more Agamemnons already in the pipeline. Almost more importantly, most of the construction kinks have been worked out of both designs, and they can be put into rapid series production quickly. Then there's the new Medusa-B-class SD(P). It was authorized by Chakrabarti solely as a paper study, but Toscarelli took it to the detailed blueprint stage. It's a significant improvement on the Invictus design, but we'd be looking at an additional delay of six to ten months to put a completely new design into production rather than simply building repeat Invictus-class ships."

"If we're looking at a two-year window of vulnerability," the Prime Minister asked, "why not consider building smaller units? I know we haven't built any dreadnoughts since before the first war, but given that we're talking about pod-laying designs, shouldn't it be possible to build an effective DN(P)? Units that size could be built much more rapidly, couldn't they?"

"Yes, and no, Prime Minister," Caparelli said formally. "Construction time on a dreadnought runs about eighty percent of the construction time on a superdreadnought. In theory, that means we could build one in about eighteen months rather than twenty-three. Unfortunately, we don't have a DN(P) design. We'd have to produce one from scratch, then get it into construction, with all the delays always attendant on the introduction of a completely new class. We'd probably be looking at a minimum of three T-years from the moment we began work to the moment we completed the first unit, which means it would take six months longer to build the first of the smaller ships. Thereafter, we could, indeed, build them faster, but if we're prepared to use dispersed yards and build 'Grayson-style,' we can build as many superdreadnoughts simultaneously as we can fund. So it doesn't seem to us over at Admiralty House that there's any advantage in designing a smaller, less capable unit when it would actually delay our building programs."

"There's no way we can speed construction?" Grantville asked. All of the uniformed officers—and his brother—looked at him, and he shrugged. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to question your professional judgment, but the Graysons managed to get their first SD(P) built in under fifteen months."

"Yes, they did," Hamish replied. "But to complete her to their new schedule, which had a little something to do with Honor's supposed execution, they pulled out all the stops. In fact, they diverted major components from older-style SDs to the new designs. The Harrington's fusion plants, for instance—all of them were diverted from two of their Steadholder Denevski-class ships, which delayed their completion by almost eight months. We can't do that here because we don't have the new construction to divert components from. But that's pretty much what ONI is saying the Havenites have been doing with those stockpiled components Admiral Givens was just talking about."

"I understand," William said. He grimaced—in disappointment, not in anger—as Caparelli and his brother demolished his suggestions. "I hadn't considered the dreadnought notion from the aspect of design time," he added.

"We do have some additional potential force multipliers in the pipeline," Hamish said after a moment, with a slight edge of caution. "I've been very impressed with what Sonja Hemphill and Toscarelli have been coming up with ever since Sonja took over at BuWeaps."

He shook his head, his expression somewhat bemused, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was saying about the Admiral who had been his personal bête noire for literally decades.

"I don't want anybody counting on miracle weapons," he continued, the note of caution in his voice stronger than before. "Specifically, at this time, we don't see anything on the horizon that will equate to the sort of quantum leap in capabilities Ghost Rider and the MDM represented. It's always hard to project the impact of new technologies until you actually have them in hand, so I could be wrong about that, but I'd prefer to err on the side of caution at a time like this. And don't forget that any improvements we may make will be offset, at least to some extent, by Havenite improvements based on the examples of our own hardware they must have captured during their offensive and, I'm sure, ideas all their own. Their Admiral Foraker, for example, appears to be a fiendishly clever innovator. Having said all of that, however, Sonja and Toscarelli are looking at several developments which could have at least as significant an impact on our relative combat capabilities as the introduction of the Keyhole platforms."

"And while we're talking about things the Janacek Admiralty did right for the wrong reasons," Caparelli put in, "his mania for using LACs as a panacea has at least guaranteed that the LAC assembly line was in full swing when the penny dropped. We foresee no bottlenecks in LAC or missile pod production, including the new system-defense pods and setting up our own lines to produce the Graysons' Vipers. There may be some problems we haven't foreseen with the new munitions BuWeaps has in the pipeline, but production of our existing weapons should be ample for our needs. It's going to take us a while to build up to full speed for the system-defense units, but we can probably build LACs faster than we can train crews for them. They won't help us out a lot against an intact wall of battle, but they'll give us a high degree of scouting and rear area coverage which should at least allow us to economize on hyper-capable pickets."

"Which just about sums up the military side of our options," Hamish said, and Honor tasted another flash of that disappointment from him. This time there was an answering flicker, one of stubborn exasperation, from Elizabeth. And an echo of it from William Alexander, as well.

"Yes, I suppose it does," Elizabeth agreed, with a very slight but unmistakable note of finality. Then she glanced at her chrono.

"And it sums it up just in time," she said more briskly, with a wry grimace. "Honor, you and Willie and I—and you, Hamish—have a dinner appointment in the Crown Chancery in about twenty minutes. So," she smiled at Honor, "let's be about it, you three!"


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Framed