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Hamish Alexander stepped into Harrington House's library with what an unbiased observer almost certainly would have called a furtive air, looked around carefully, then relaxed. The enormous room was empty, and he loosened the collar of his mess dress tunic with heartfelt relief as he crossed the huge Harrington coat of arms inlaid into the parquet floor. The sound of music followed him through the open door, but distance had swallowed the background murmur of voices, and the click of his heels on polished wood carried clearly.
He unclipped the archaic sword which was mandatory with mess dress and laid it atop one of the book-lined room's terminals, then lowered himself into the comfortable chair at the data station and stretched hugely. The library had become one of his favorite places in Harrington House. If its contents had been chosen to reflect Honor Harrington's tastes, then the two of them had more common interests than he'd realized, but the big room's tasteful, comfortable furnishings and quietespecially quiet, he thought with a grinwere also factors in his feelings.
His grin grew as he finished stretching and tipped the chair back. His birth had exposed him to the most formal parties of the Star Kingdom's social elite at a very early age, but that didn't mean he'd ever learned to enjoy such evenings. His parents had seen to it that he learned to pretend he did, and there were occasions when pretense mergedtemporarily, at leastwith reality. But by and large, he would have preferred an old-fashioned, pre-space root canal to at least half the parties he'd attended, and tonight's formal ball had pushed him into active flight.
It wasn't that he didn't like his hosts, for he found Graysons admirable in many ways, from their refusal to admit any task might be beyond their capabilities to their courage, basic decency, and inventiveness. He was perfectly comfortable in professional conferences with their officers and enlisted personnel, and he seldom had any problem connecting with even their civilians on a pragmatic level. But their notion of classical music was enough to set his teeth on edge, and they insisted on playing it at affairs like tonight's. Worse, Graysons entire society was in a state of flux which only made his fundamental dislike for formal social gatherings even stronger here than it was back home, yet there was no graceful way for him to avoid them.
At least a third of his mission to Yeltsin's Star was as much diplomatic as military. He was the older brother of the Cromarty Governments second ranking minister, and he'd served as Third Space Lord, an appointment with almost as many political as military implications, for three T-years during the Duke of Cromarty's immediately previous stint as Prime Minister. As such, he found himself required to interact with Grayson political circles at the highest level, and since so much of politics was conducted under the guise of social activities, that meant he had to spend most of his theoretically "free" evenings at some party or another. Musical tastes aside, the rapidly changing mores of Grayson society could make that particularly wearing for someone from the Star Kingdom, where the notion that anyone could possibly consider men and women as anything but equals was as bizarre as the idea of treating a fever by bleeding, and tonight that persistent background sense of tension was only exacerbated by the professional concerns the latest dispatches from home had awakened in his mind.
Things would have been simpler, he mused, tipping even further back and resting his heels on the counter beside his dress sword, if Grayson society had simply stayed frozen where it had been before the planet joined the Alliance. In that case, he could have written its people off as a batch of backward barbariansadmirable in many ways, but still barbariansand fitted himself into the proper role for interacting with them like an actor in a historical holo-drama. It wouldn't have been necessary to actually understand them; all he would have required was the right set of social cues to pretend he did.
Unfortunately, these days Grayson's social elite were as confused about what constituted proper behavior as any outsider. They were trying. White Haven had to give them that, and he rather admired how much they'd achieved in such a short period, but there was an underlying air of uncertainty. Some of society's grande dames resented the changes in the rules they'd learned as girls even more than the unreconstructed male conservatives resented their loss of privilege. Those groups formed a sort of natural alliance that clustered somewhere just beyond the reception line and radiated a prickly intensity as they clung grimly to the old rules and forms . . . which, of course, brought them into direct collision with their (mainly) younger counterparts who had embraced the notion of female equality with militant fervor.
Personally, White Haven found the more enthusiastic reformers more wearing than the reactionaries. He couldn't fault their motives, but the fact was that Benjamin IX had imposed a top-down revolution on his home world. He was remaking what had been, whatever its faults, a stable social order which had changed only slowly and incrementally over the last six or seven hundred years. With a very few exceptions, that social order's current members had only the vaguest notion of where they were headed, and many of the reformers seemed to believe stridency could substitute for direction. The earl was confident that most of them would get over itthey'd only been at it for a few years, and they were bound to figure some of it out with timebut at the moment, their main function at social gatherings seemed to be to make everyone else uncomfortable by aggressively demonstrating their rejection of the old order.
And, of course, the conflict between the old guard and the new put White Haven and other Manticorans squarely in a crossfire. The reactionaries regarded the foreigners as the sources of the infection which had attacked all they knew and held dear, while the reformers took it for granted that the Manticorans must agree with them . . . even though it was painfully obvious that all the reformers didn't agree with one another! Walking that sort of tightrope without giving offenseor, at least, further offenseto someone was almost as exhausting as it was irritating, and White Haven was heartily tired of it.
To be fair, the situation was better here. Harrington Steading had attracted the most open-minded citizens from Grayson's other steadings from the outset, for only people like that had been willing to relocate themselves and their families in order to live under the personal rule of the first female steadholder in their planets history. More than that, the people at the party he'd just escaped had been given ample opportunity to see their Steadholder in action in political and social terms, as well as military ones. Whether she realized it or not, her status as their liege lady made her the ultimate arbiter of custom in her steading, and her steaders had watched her carefully and adapted their etiquette to fit her reactions to it. All of that left White Haven feeling far more at ease in Harrington than in most of Grayson's other steadings, and he'd actually enjoyed at least the early phases of tonight's ball to welcome Lady Harrington home. His need to escape it was more a matter of cumulative fatigue than anything else.
Besides, he had a lot on his mind after scanning the orders and briefing documents Lady Harrington had brought with her. He'd been pleased to learn that she would be assigned to Eighth Fleet, but some of the Office of Naval Intelligence's reports made for disquieting reading, and he was supposed to brief High Admiral Matthews and Command Central on them as soon as possible. That was one of the main reasons for sneaking away from the party early. He needed to think about the data and fit the pieces together. And, he confessed, he had to decide how he felt about other aspects of the total package, for grim as some of ONI's analyses of the Peeps' activities might be, the notes on the RMN's own Weapons Development Boards recommendations actually worried him even more.
The notion of making far-reaching and fundamental changes in the Fleets weapons mix at a time when the Star Kingdom was fighting for its very life struck him as highly questionable. He'd waged a bitter, decades-long prewar battle against the efforts of the material strategists of the jeune ecole to introduce half-baked weapon systems before they were fully tested. At times the battle of ideas had spilled over into venomous personal exchanges, and he deeply regretted the vicious feuds which those had spawned between some within the RMN's senior ranks, but he'd never dared let that affect his resistance. The jeune ecole was so in love with the idea of developing decisive advantages out of new technological departures that they seemed to believe any new idea was good simply because it was new, regardless of its actual tactical virtues or vices. Nothing he'd seen lately convinced him that they'd learned a thing from the present war, which meant
His half-drifting thoughts broke off as someone else's heels clicked on the library floor. He snatched his feet off the console and let the chair snap upright, spinning it to face the door, then paused. He'd acquired far too much polish over the years to let consternation show, but it was harder to conceal than usual as he realized his hostess had caught him hiding from her party.
She stood just inside the doorway, tall and slender in the deceptively simple white gown and jade-green vest which had, for all intents and purposes, become her civilian "uniform," with Andrew LaFollet standing at her shoulder. Her brown hair spilled far down her back, in sharp contrast to the short-clipped fuzz she'd favored the first time White Haven saw her, and the golden Harrington Key and equally golden Star of Grayson glittered on her breast. She made a striking picture, he thought, and rose respectfully to greet her.
Honor watched the earl stand and smiled at his surprised expression. Of course, she told herself, stepping towards him to extend her hand, he didn't know that Harrington House's security systems had kept her advised of his location all evening long.
He bent over her hand, kissing it in proper Grayson fashion, then straightened, still holding it in a light clasp. White Haven was a tall, broad shouldered man, yet he and Honor stood virtually eye to eye, and she felt Nimitz's interested examination of the earl as the `cat rose a bit higher on her shoulder.
"I see you've found my own preferred hiding place, My Lord," she observed.
"Hiding place?" White Haven replied politely.
"Of course." She glanced at LaFollet, and her armsman read the silent order in her eyes. `He still didn't much like the idea of leaving her back unguarded, but even he had to admit she should be safe enough here, so he gave a small half-bow of surrender and withdrew. The library door closed behind him, and Honor walked past White Haven to the main data console in a rustle of skirts. She lifted Nimitz to the perch installed above the console especially for him, and he gave a soft, half-scolding, half-laughing sound and snatched playfully at her hand. But that was an old game, and she evaded him easily and gave him a gentle swat on the muzzle before she turned back to the earl.
"I've never really enjoyed parties, My Lord," she admitted. "I suppose it's because I still feel out of place at them, but Mike Henke and Admiral Courvosier taught me to at least pretend I'm having a good time." She gave him another of her off-center smiles, and he nodded as though he hadn't already known that. Raoul Courvosier had been one of his closest friends, as well as Harrington's professional mentor, and over the years, Raoul had let fall even more about his favorite student than he himself, perhaps, had realized.
"At any rate," she went on, stepping back to prop a hip on the corner of the console behind her, "I decided that since I'm a steadholder now, I have the authority to at least provide myself with a hidey hole. That's why the staff has orders to keep the library clear on party nights to provide a place where I can clear my head between skirmishes."
"I didn't know, Milady," White Haven said, reaching for his dress sword as he prepared to withdraw, but she shook her head quickly.
"I'm not trying to evict you, My Lord," she assured him. "As a matter of fact, Security saw you headed this way and passed the word to Andrew. That's why I'm here myself . . . and if you hadn't found your way here on your own, Mac would be gently nudging you in this direction about now."
"Ah?" White Haven cocked his head, and her smile turned wry as she shrugged.
"I've just come from a stint on the Weapons Development Board, and Admiral Caparelli felt you might have some, um, concerns over certain of its recommendations. Because of that, he specifically instructed me to brief you on what the Board's been up to. Since neither of us seems particularly addicted to the social life, and since I know you'll be talking to High Admiral Matthews and his staff about them in the next few days, I'd rather hoped I could create an opportunity to answer any of your questions that I can tonight."
"I see." White Haven rubbed his chin as he considered her confident, self-assured manner and found himself impressed yet again by all the ways in which she'd grown into her many roles. He knew he shouldn't be, yet he couldn't help comparing her to the focused military officer, painfully ignorant of and filled with contempt for politics (or at least politicians), whom he'd first met here in Yeltsin.
There was no sign of that officer's political ignorance in this poised stateswoman, and the transformation still astounded him. Partly, he supposed, that stemmed from the fact that he belonged to the first Manticoran prolong generation. Whatever his own life expectancy, he'd grown up in a society where people still died after little more than a T-century, and at the deepest levels, the assumptions of that earlier society remained a part of his mental baggage. At ninety-two, anyone as young as Honor Harrington still seemed a child to him, and the fact that her own third-generation treatments froze the aging process at a far earlier point only made it worse. He at least had streaks of white in his hair and what he preferred to think of as "character lines" around his eyes, whereas she looked like a pre-prolong nineteen or twenty!
But she wasn't a child, he reminded himself. In fact, she was fifty-two, and as smartand tough, mentally as well as physicallyas anyone he was ever likely to meet. She was also a person who had always accepted the responsibilities which came her way, whether she'd sought them or not, and that made it almost inevitable that she should "grow" into her role as Steadholder Harrington. She couldn't have done anything else without being someone else.
None of which made her accomplishments any less admirable. It only meant it was damned well time he stopped thinking of her as a brilliant, talented, gifted junior officer and began thinking of Admiral Lady Harrington, GSN, as his equal.
Those thoughts flickered through his brain almost too quickly to keep track of, and then he smiled at her.
"I see," he repeated, and sat back down in the chair he'd vacated. Honor returned his smile and turned the chair at her own data station to face him, then sat and made a small gesture which invited him to begin.
"Actually," he said after a moment, "I'm at least as concerned over some of ONI's reports as I am about the WDB. The Admiralty's kept me generally abreast of developments, but the analyses you brought out with you are both more detailed and rather more pessimistic than anything else I've seen. They also seem to contain a lot of new data, and I can't help wondering about that data's reliability. Did you have the chance to discuss any of this with someone at ONI before you left the Star Kingdom?"
"As a matter of fact, Admiral Givens and I spoke about it at some length month before last," Honor replied. "We didn't go into any detail on the operational sideONI's actual information-gathering activities are classified on a need-to-know basis, and I didn't need tobut the WDB needed the most complete background available before it wrote its recommendations. From what she told me then, I'd say she's convinced of her sources' reliability, and given how well she and ONI have read the Peeps since the shooting actually started"
She shrugged, knowing White Haven understood what she'd left unspoken. The actual outbreak of hostilities had taken the Office of Naval Intelligence by surprise, and Admiral Givens and her analysts had been given no more reason than anyone else to expect (or predict) the Harris Assassination or the creation of the Committee of Public Safety. But those failures aside, ONI's spooks had done a sterling job of dissecting Peep capabilities and probable intentions.
"I gathered the impression," she went on after a moment, choosing her words with care, "that a good deal of the raw data is coming from new human intelligence sources."
She held White Haven's eyes until he nodded once more. "Human intelligence" was a more polite term than "spies," but even today, the many and varied technological means for gathering information fell short of what an alert, intelligently used pair of eyes and ears in the right place could deliver. The problem, of course, was assessing your spies' reliability, then getting their reports across interstellar distances. On the other hand, intelligence agencies had been working on the data transmission end of it ever since the Warshawski sail made hyper-travel a truly practical proposition.
"In particular," she continued, "I rather suspect, though Admiral Givens didn't say so directly, that we have at least one source within the Peeps' embassy on Old Earth."
White Haven's eyebrows rose at that, but then his lips pursed as thoughtfulness replaced surprise. That actually made sense, he reflected. Ron Bergren, the Havenite foreign secretary under the old Legislaturalist government, had been the only member of Sidney Harris' cabinet to escape the massacre of the PRH's so-called military coup attempt. He'd survived for the simple reason that, at the time, he'd been in transit to Old Earth to explain to the Solarian League that the war with Manticore hadn't really been started by the Peeps, however things might look. Upon learning of the coup, he'd declared his enthusiastic loyalty to the Committee of Public Safety . . . and found as many reasons as possible why neither he, his wife, nor their three children should return to the People's Republic. That was probably wise of him, given the fact that over ninety percent of the members of the great Legislaturalist families had been executed or exiled to prison planets by the People's Courts, and he'd been helped by the fact that Old Earth was over eighteen hundred Light-years from the Haven System.
The Manticore Wormhole Junction was closed to Peep traffic for obvious reasons, and the Cromarty Government had scored an enormous diplomatic triumph when it added the Erewhon Republic to the Manticoran Alliance seven years ago. Erewhon was only a single-system polity, but like the Star Kingdom itself, though on a lesser scale, it was far wealthier than any single system could normally expect to be, for it just happened to control the only other wormhole terminus connecting to League space from within twelve hundred light-years of the Peeps' capital. There'd been a degree of economic rivalry between Erewhon and Manticore in the past, but both of them had recognized the threat Haven posed to them, and Erewhon's admission to the Alliance had closed the Erewhon Worm-hole to the Peeps. That meant even Peep courier boats, which routinely rode the upper edge of hyper-space's theta bands, required well over six months for the trip to Old Earth, whereas a courier from Manticore could reach the mother world in barely a week.
The diplomatic advantages for the Star Kingdom were obvious, but those for Ron Bergren personally were almost as great. He was well beyond the Committee's reach but already in place in Old Earth's diplomatic structure, where he'd represented the interests of his new masters with diligence and industry (after all, he still had relatives back home), and any attempt to recall him against his will could only result in his requesting political asylum from the League . . . or defecting to Manticore.
As a consequence, he was still technically the PRH's foreign secretary, although for all practical purposes he'd been reduced to the status of the Peeps' ambassador to Old Earth and the League. But even if Bergren himself truly wasor acted as if he wereloyal to the new regime, he'd taken a staff with him. Most of them were also Legislaturalists, and the possibility that one of them might have become a Manticoran agentwhether for money, vengeance, patriotic loyalty to the old regime, or any combination of the abovewas excellent. And given the difference in transit times, the Star Kingdom would get such an agent's reports on any changes in the Peeps' relations with the League at least six months before the Committee of Public Safety could.
"At any rate," Honor observed after giving the earl a few minutes to consider what she'd already said, "the nature of the data clearly indicates that at least one major source is reporting from Old Earth. Look at the information on the Peeps' efforts to get around the tech embargo."
"I did," White Haven said sourly, and it was Honor's turn to nod soberly. The Solarian League's prewar embargo on technology transfers to the belligerents clearly favored the Star Kingdom, with its more active research and development establishments and superior educational system, and the RMN's technological advantages had been a major factor in its ability to carry the war to the Republic thus far.
But, White Haven reminded himself, some of the League's member systems had always resented the embargo, which the Star Kingdom had achieved only because of the economic clout bestowed by its vast merchant marine and control of the Manticore Wormhole Junction. And for all its undeniable size and power, the League was a rather ramshackle proposition in many ways. It might be called the Solarian League, but in actual fact Old Earth was simply first among equals, for every member world held a seat on the Executive Council . . . and each Council delegate held the right of veto. By long tradition, that veto right was used only rarely on domestic issues for two reasons. First, the League ministers' awareness that their policies could be vetoed by a single objector had for generations inspired them to recommend only center of the road domestic policies they could be fairly certain would command a broad consensus. And, second, any member world which used its veto right frivolously soon discovered that its fellows had any number of means of unilateral retaliation.
But if the League's domestic policies were coherent, its military and foreign policies were another matter, for it was far harder to forge a consensus on the diplomatic front. Much of that stemmed from the League's sheer size and power. Even the vast military machine the People's Republic had forged was less than a fourth the size of the League Navy, and the League's industrial base probably equaled that of all the rest of humanity combined. As a consequence, it was very difficult for anyone to convince the League's member worlds that anyone or anything represented a credible threat to them, and that sublime confidence was disastrous when it came to creating a harmonious foreign policy. The consequences of domestic policy decisions had a direct, perceptible impact upon the standard of living League citizens enjoyed; the absence of a rational foreign policy did not, and so each member world felt free to press for its own idiosyncratic ideal of "proper" policy . . . or simply to ignore the entire matter. And delegates to the Executive Council were far more likely to use their veto power to prevent "dangerous foreign adventures" than to cross their fellows on domestic matters.
That was why the Cromarty Government had been forced eventually to put the technology embargo in purely economic terms. The Star Kingdom had been less than subtle in the pressure applied, but nothing less than a threat to close the Manticore Junction to all League-registered shipping and to impose punishing duties on all League cargoes traveling in Manticoran bottoms had been sufficient to get the Council's attention. Cromarty had been perfectly well aware that such strong-arm tactics would generate resentment, but he'd also been convinced he had no other choice.
They'd worked . . . and they'd also produced even more resentment than he'd expected. Not only did many League leaders regard such a tough stance as a personal and diplomatic affront, but Cromarty's analysts had failed to appreciate quite how much money the Peeps would offer for League technology. Once combat made the Star Kingdom's edge obvious, even a financially strapped empire like the People's Republic had managed to come up with immense payments for anyone willing to sell them what they needed. For the League's arms merchants, being required to forgo that lucrative income was even more of an affront than Manticore's negotiating tactics, and from the evidence ONI had assembled, it seemed painfully apparent that someone in the League had decided to violate the embargo's restrictions after all.
Equally apparently, the leak in the embargo spurted both ways, for a source within the League Navy reported that the League's R&D types were now experimenting with their own version of the short-range FTL com system which was one of the RMN's most valuable tactical advantages. Their success was extremely limited to date, but they were headed in the right direction, and the progress they'd made, not to mention the basic concepts upon which their efforts appeared to be based, suggested that someone had been sharing data with them. It was always possible that an agent within the Allies' own military had passed the information on, but the Peeps, who'd seen the system in action and undoubtedly had sensor readings on it (not to mention the possibility that they might have captured a transmitter sufficiently intact to permit them to reverse-engineer it), were more likely suspects. And if they could, in fact, provide information to help the League develop that sort of capability, then a quid pro quo that sent more capable military hardware back to Haven in return would seem only fair.
"We've got some confirmation of technology transfers from other sources, as well," Honor told her guest quietly. "The seeking systems in Peep missiles have gotten much better in a very short period of time. We had a thirty to forty percent edge when the war began; BuWeaps estimates that our superiority's dropped to no more than ten percent at present. Fortunately, our countermeasures and general electronic warfare capability have continued to improve at a faster rate than theirs, so the effective relative increase in their missile accuracy is `only' on the order of twenty percent, but that's still not good. Also," her eyes darkened, "we've had unconfirmed reports that the Peeps have begun deploying missile pods of their own."
"We have?" White Haven's voice was sharp. "I didn't see that mentioned in ONI's briefing documents!"
"As I say, it's unconfirmed . . . mainly because the ships we think may have encountered them haven't come home to tell us about them." Honor shrugged. "The Weapons Development Board was convinced of the accuracy of the reports in large part because they dovetailed so neatly with other, incremental improvements we're seeing across the board in the PN's technology. But ONI's taken the position that until we have something more definite, the existence of Peep pods has to be considered conjectural."
"`Conjectural'!" White Haven snorted harshly. "That's going to be a lot of help when they stick their damned `conjectural' pods up some poor damned commanders" He broke off suddenly and cleared his throat. "I mean, the first time one of our fleet commanders encounters them. I can't believe Pat Givens is being this coy about a threat like that!"
"I know exactly what you mean, My Lord," Honor said with a lurking smile for the word he hadn't let himself use in her presence. Was it possible Grayson mores were contaminating the Manticorans assigned here? And if they were, was that such a bad thing? Then she turned more serious and leaned slightly towards him.
"As for Admiral Givens, I don't know why she's failed to make the warning official. One possibilityand I offer it only as pure conjecture on my part, from some of the things I observed while at the WDBis that she's less of a technician than a strategist. It seems to me that she's a bit more hesitant to commit herself on hardware issues than on operational or diplomatic ones." She shrugged apologetically. "I may be out of line on that, but it seemed that way to me." She saw no reason to add that what she and Nimitz had read of Givens' emotions was a major factor in her "conjecture."
"You may well be right," White Haven said. In fact, he was certain she was, and it was another sign of her own intelligence that she'd reached that conclusion from such a relatively junior position in the RMN.
"At any rate," Honor went on, "whether they're developing pods or not, general increases in their systems efficiency are turning up in almost every area. Fortunately, our latest estimates indicate that we have a certain margin of superiority even over the more recently introduced League hardware, but it's far thinner than the one we enjoy over the Peeps. It may be enough if we continue to exploit it aggressively, especially in view of the long turnaround time on any data or equipment flow between the League and the Peeps, and BuWeaps and the WDB hope to do just that. There's also been quite a bit of discussion with BuShips about ways we might be able to shoehorn more EW capability into our hulls without cutting into weapons volume, but it looks like we're beginning to reach a point of diminishing returns in that regard. That's one reason BuWeaps has been pushing the Ghost Rider Project so hard for the last T-year."
She glanced at the earl, who nodded in understanding. "Ghost Rider" was the code name assigned to what would hopefully turn out to be a whole new generation of electronic warfare. If things worked out as planned, the needed capabilities would be built into drone bodies, providing an EW capability which could be deployed in multiple, independent platforms. Ideally, a ship would be able to put out shells of drones,, relatively simple-minded and limited compared to shipboard systems, but with each operating in a different mode to give much greater overall capability than onboard systems which might be more powerful but could operate in only a single mode at any one time.
"While I was with the Board, I saw some encouraging long-range reports on Ghost Rider," Honor went on after a moment. "The only hardware actually in the production pipeline are the new decoy missiles and the stealthed missile pods, and it'll be some time before any of the other goodies reach deployment status. I think Vice Admiral Adcock is right about how much the project will enhance our capabilitieseventuallybut for now, the PN has definitely cut into our advantage."
"And their building rates are going up," White Haven muttered, and she nodded once more, her eyes very serious.
"That they are, My Lord. The total number of new hulls per month has continued to decline, but that's only because we've taken so many yards away from them. The yards they have left are showing a marked increase in output. They're turning out individual new ships much more quickly, even though their overall loss of yard space means they can build fewer of them simultaneously. Again, part of that increase could result from technology transfers, but it's more likely that it stems from more effective personnel management. Their building rates went into the toilet when they started drafting Dolists into the yards, but that trend has reversed in the past year or so. I think ONI is right that the reversal indicates both that their original, effectively unskilled labor force is learning to do its job more efficiently and that popular support for the war remains high, which produces a motivated work force. Without really substantial technology imports from the League, the limitations of their physical plant should keep them from matching our construction rates, but they're going to come a lot closer than they used to be able to."
"So Admiral Givens stands by the notion that Pierre and his crowd enjoy `popular support,' does she?" White Haven cocked his head. "That business in Nouveau Paris didn't change her mind?"
"No, My Lord. Reports about exactly what happened are mixed, but since both ONI and the Special Intelligence Service agree that it's actually strengthened the Committee of Public Safety's position, I don't think we dare disagree."
She grinned, despite the gravity of the conversation, and White Haven smiled back. The Office of Naval Intelligence and the Special Intelligence Service, the umbrella agency coordinating its civilian counterparts, enjoyed a tradition of lively competition . . . and resentment. As was probably to be expected, ONI tended to be right more often on military matters, while SIS had a vastly better record on diplomatic and economic matters. Where their areas of expertise collided, however, disputes were both common and passionate. Having both of them actually agree on something was almost unheard of.
But then he remembered what they were talking about, and his smile faded.
"I don't think I do disagree," he said after a moment, "but I'm curious as to whether their reasoning coincides with my own. Did they share it with you?"
"In general terms," Honor replied. "I think their first point would be that the fighting took place in Nouveau Paris, nowhere else in the Haven System or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Republic. Since that business at Malagasy and the mutiny in the Lannes System, we've had no reports of open resistance to the central government in any other system. That's not to say that there may not have been some, but if there were, they must have been on a small enough scale for their Office of Public Information to hush them up. That means that whoever controls the capital controls the provinces."
She paused, curving an eyebrow at him, and he nodded for her to go on.
"Their second point is that whoever was behind the coup attempt failed pretty spectacularly," she said. "Whether we take the official Public Information version of what happened or the less coherentbut probably more accurateversions from other sources, it seems pretty clear that the bulk of their supporters were caught in the open. We've got reports that they used snowflake clusters on street mobs, My Lord." Her eyes were briefly haunted, as she remembered a time when pinnaces under her command had used similar weapons on unprotected targets. "They may have managed to get several million other people killed with them, but after that sort of . . . treatment, the `Levelers' can't have a lot of manpower left. Not only have they been crushed themselves, but the example of what happened to them should make anyone else think twice about launching a similar attempt.
"Finally, all the available evidence suggests that it was the Navy which actually stopped them. Public Information insists it was State Security, Committee Security, the Public Order Police, and the Chairman's Guard, supported by the Navy, but all of our other sources suggest it was the other way around. The security forces certainly didn't just lie down and play dead, but their responses weren't coherent. ONI suggests that someone must have managed to compromise their command and control net, though we haven't been able to confirm that. But whatever happened, it was Navy kinetic strikes and air strikes and battle-armored Marines acting under Admiral McQueen's orders that broke the uprising's back, and McQueen didn't go on to take out the Committee herself.
That indicates a higher degree of military backing for the Pierre regime than we'd earlier estimated, and the reports that McQueen's been offered a seat on the Committee should only make that backing even stronger."
"So what you're saying," White Haven summarized when she paused once more, "is that the provinces have been brought into line, civilian resistance in the capital has been crushed, and the military has signed on?"
"Pretty much," Honor agreed, "though I don't think I'd put it precisely that way. I'd say that a particular segment of the civilian population of the capital was crushed. Given the amount of carnage and collateral casualties inflicted in the process, I suspect the bulk of the Dolists have decided to support the Committee as a source of stability which may be able to keep similar things from happening again. That goes quite a bit beyond the notion of civilians simply cowed into obedience by an iron fist, My Lord."
"Um." White Haven tilted his chair back once more, propping his elbows on its arms and lacing his fingers together in front of him, and frowned. Once again, he couldn't fault her analysis . . . or, perhaps more to the point, ONI's and BuShips' estimates of what stability within the People's Republic meant for the building race. The Peeps had definitely turned up the heat under their construction programs. Where it had once taken them very nearly twice as long to build a superdreadnought, they'd cut their disadvantage in half, and if there were no fresh domestic upheavals to disrupt their efforts. . . .
"However you look at it," he said slowly, "we're losing our margin of superiority. Not just in numbersI saw the building rate increase coming months agobut in quality, as well." He shook his head. "We can't afford that, Milady."
"I know," she replied quietly, and watched his eyes narrow as he turned his full attention upon her.
"On the other hand," he said, "I think this adds extra point to my concerns about the Weapons Development Boards recommendations."
"Concerns, My Lord?" she asked calmly.
"Fairly serious ones, as a matter of fact," he said. "Given that we're already looking at steepening numerical odds and improvements in the enemy's technology, this is no time to be tinkering with our own weapons mix by backing blue-sky projects." He snorted derisively, curling a mental lip at the preposterous proposalsand claimsput forth by the WDB white paper Harrington had delivered. He'd only skimmed the document, but that had been enough to show him it was more of the jeune ecole's nonsense. "The last thing we can afford to do is split our efforts between too many projectsmost of which are probably useless anyway. What we need to do is rationalize production plans to turn out the maximum number of weapons we know work rather than fritter away resources pursuing crackpot `breakthroughs.' Surely the need to concentrate on realizable technologies rather than harebrained, pie-in-the-sky, panacea boondoggles is one lesson people should have learned by now, if only from Old Earth's history!"
"The Board isn't precisely calling for `boondoggles,' My Lord," Honor said in a slightly frosty tone, but he shook his head.
"I'm sure your aware of my, um, differences of opinion with Lady Hemphill and the jeune ecole" he said. "I've never denied that there's room for new technologyGhost Rider is a prime example of a new system with real and immediate valuebut there has to be a balance. We can't just throw a new weapon into service because it's new. It has to have a functional slot, and the Fleet requires a rigorous analysis of its advantagesand disadvantagesbefore it's deployed. The mere existence of a weapon, however potent, doesn't guarantee proper doctrine will be formulated for it, either. A system we haven't figured out how to employ properly could turn out to be more dangerous to us than to the enemy, especially if we commit so heavily to it that we skimp on other, battle-proven weapons."
Honor felt his disgust through her link to Nimitz, and it surprised her. She knew White Haven was the acknowledged leader of the so-called "historical school" which believed that the fundamental strategic truths didn't changethat new weapon systems and technology simply offered new and better ways to apply those truths, not that they could create new onesand his clashes with the jeune ecole were legendary. But the depth and bitterness of the weariness coloring his emotions startled her. It was almost like combat fatigue, she realized, as if he'd fought so many battles against the jeune ecole that he could no longer summon the detachment to consider the WDB proposals dispassionately.
She started to speak, but he held up a hand and went on before she could.
"I realize that your stint on the Board was brief, Milady, but just look at some of its proposals." He ricked the points off on the fingers of his raised hand. "First, it wants us to radically redesign our ships of the wall to produce a totally untested class. Next, it wants us to accelerate the construction of light attack craft, when we've demonstrated just about conclusively that even modern LAC's are no match, ton-for-ton, for properly designed starships, even in a defensive role. Then it wants us to divert something like ten percent of our building capacity from super-dreadnoughts and dreadnoughtsand this, mind you, at a time when the Peeps' building rates in those same classes are going upto build these so-called `LAC-carriers' in order to transport light attack craft across interstellar distances as offensive units, not defensive ones. Not content with that, it wants to strip the missile tubes out of our existing ships of the wall and replace them with launchers which will use up twelve percent more weapons volume and fire missiles whose size effectively reduces magazine capacity by eighteen percent?" He shook his head.
"No, Milady. This isn't just changing horses in midstream; this is jumping off your horse without making sure you have another one to land on, and you don't do that in the middle of a war. Not if you want to win that war. This sounds too much like a Sonja Hemphill wish list for me to endorse it."
"Then you're wrong, My Lord," Honor said, "and perhaps you should have read that white paper rather than just venting your spleen on it."
Her soprano's flat, biting indecisiveness twitched White Haven upright in his chair, and she felt his astonishment through Nimitz. He was unused to hearing anyone speak to him like that, she realized, but she refused to retreat and held his eyes unflinchingly.
White Haven looked at his hostess, and it was as if he were truly seeing her for the first time. Very few officers below three-star rank dared cross swords with him, and even those who did seldom had the nerve to address him in such a cool, clipped tone. But Honor Harrington had the nerve, and her chocolate-brown eyes were very leveland hard. He blinked as he digested her demeanor, for it was painfully clear that all his undeniable experience, achievements, and seniority failed to overwhelm her. There was no hint of apology or hesitance in her manner, and her treecat raised his head to glance at White Haven from his perch above her.
"I beg your pardon?" The question came out more harshly than he'd intended, but she'd hit a raw nerve. He'd spent the better part of thirty T-years fighting "Horrible Hemphill's" mania for new toys. If not for him, the entire Navy might have found itself lumbered with the same weapons mix which had almost gotten Harrington's own ship killed on Basilisk Station ten years ago!
"I said you're wrong," Honor repeated, not yielding a millimeter before the cold anger in his voice. "I've had my own differences with Lady Hemphill, but the WDB recommendations are not her `wish list.' Certainly she had a lot to do with pushing most of the new concepts into deployment. Be honestMy Lord, has there been a new tech development in the last thirty years that she hasn't been involved with? Whatever else she may be, she's imaginative and technically brilliant, and while it's true a lot of her ideas have proven operationally unsound, assuming all of them will always fail is as foolish as rejecting them out of hand simply because she proposed them. No one whose imagination is as fertile as hers can be wrong all the time, My Lord!"
"I'm not rejecting them simply because she proposed them," White Haven returned sharply. "I'm rejecting them because this package she rammed through the Board will disorder our production schedules and require us to develop whole new tactical doctrinesfor weapons which probably won't work as well as she and her supporters thinkin the middle of a damned war!"
"Before we continue this discussion, My Lord," Honor said very calmly, "I think you should know that the person who wrote the Board's final recommendations was me."
White Haven closed his mouth with a snap and stared at her. She didn't really need Nimitz to feel his astonished disbelief, and she suppressed a sudden desire to snort in exasperation. She'd always respected White Haven, both as an officer and a man, and she knew he'd taken a personal interest in her career since Admiral Courvosier's death. His guidance and advice had been invaluable to her on more than one occasion, but this time she felt a powerful sense of disappointment in him. She knew he was tiredone look at the deep lines etched around his ice-blue eyes and the thicker streaks of white in his black hair proved thatbut he was better than this. He'd better be, anyway! The Navyand the Allianceneeded him to throw his influence behind the right policies, not to retreat into dogmatic opposition of anything associated with Sonja Hemphill.
He started to say something more, but she beat him to it.
"Admiral, I'll be the first to acknowledge your successes, both before and since this war began. As a matter of fact, I've always been more comfortable with the historical school than the jeune ecole myself. But the Star Kingdom doesn't have the luxury of letting its senior officers battle one another to submission over this point. I assure you that I wasn't the only officer asked to comment on my personal experience with the hardware the Boards recommending. And if you'd checked the technical appendices rather than simply skimming the proposed changes in production priorities, you'd have seen that regardless of who first proposed them, every one of our recommendations has been modified to reflect actual combat experience.
"For example, the LAC's to which you object are an entirely new model, with improvements even the ones I took to Silesia didn't have. The new compensators will make them much faster than anything else in space; BuShips has found a way to upgrade their beta nodes almost to alpha node strength, which will give them far stronger sidewalls than any previous LAC; and the new designs incorporate extremely powerful energy armamentsgrasers, not lasersin a spinal mount configuration. They won't be designed for broadside combat at all; their function will be to approach hostile starships obliquely, denying the enemy any down-the-throat shot until they close to decisive range, then turn simultaneously to attack single targets en masse. In many respects, it will be a reversion to the old wet-navy aircraft carrier . . . and with a lot of the same advantages for the LAC-carrier. It can deploy its assets from outside missile range, attack, and get out without ever coming under threat from a conventionally armed defender. And whether you and I like it or not, Lady Hemphill does have a point about LAC's expendability. They're so small and carry such small crews that we can trade a dozen of them for a heavy cruiser and come out ahead, not just in tonnage terms, but in loss of life, as well.
"Next, the new ships of the wall you object to are a logical extrapolation of the armament I had in Silesia. Where, I might remind you, Sir, my squadron, operating as single units outside any mutual support range, captured or destroyed an entire pirate squadron, plus a Peep light cruiser, two heavy cruisers, and a pair of battlecruisersfor the loss of a single armed merchant cruiser. Certainly building a superdreadnought around a hollow core would be a radical departure, and BuShips agrees that the new design will result in some reduction in structural strength. But it will also allow each SD to carry just over five hundred ten-missile pods and fire a salvo of six of them every twelve seconds. That's over five thousand missiles, at the rate of three hundred per minute, from a single ship which will sacrifice about thirty percent of its conventional armament to fit them in. I might also point out that the Ghost Rider remote platforms will make their pods even more useful, since it will allow the new design to deploy a complete, multilayered shell in a single salvo. Moreover, the new missile ships and the LAC-carriers between them will divert only twenty-five percent of the yard capacity currently devoted to conventional ships of the wall, assuming the recommended WDB ship mix is adopted.
"And as far as the new missiles are concerned, My Lord, did you even look at the performance parameters before you decided they were more of `Horrible Hemphill's wish list'?" Honor demanded, unable to hide her exasperation.
"Certainly she came up with the concept, but R&D took it and ran with it. We're talking about a `multistage' missile, one with three separate drives, which will give us a degree of tactical flexibility no previous navy could even dream of! We can preprogram the drives to come on-line with any timing and at any power setting we wish! Simply programming them to activate in immediate succession at maximum power would give us a hundred and eighty seconds of powered flight. . . and a powered attack range from rest of over fourteen and a half million kilometers with a terminal velocity of point-five-four cee. Or we can drop the drives' power settings to forty-six thousand gees and get five times the endurance, and a maximum powered missile envelope of over sixty-five million klicks with a terminal velocity of point-eight-one light-speed. That's a range of three-point-six light-minutes, and we can get even more than that if we use one or two `stages' to accelerate the weapon, let it ride a ballistic course to a preprogrammed attack range, and then bring up the final `stage' for terminal attack maneuvers at a full ninety-two thousand gravities. I don't know about you, My Lord, but I'll sacrifice eighteen percent of my total missile load for that performance envelope!"
White Haven tried to say something, but she rolled right on over him, and her flashing eyes were no longer cold.
"And finally, Sir, I submit to you that the fact that the Peeps are beginning to cut into our technology advantage is the strongest possible argument for these new systems. Of course we can't afford to dissipate our resources chasing after unworkable concepts just because they're exotic or fascinating! But the only thing that's let us maintain the upper hand, however narrowly, so far has been the fact that both our hardware and our tactics have been better than theirs. If you want to cite examples from Old Earth, let me paraphrase Admiral Saint-Vincent for you. `Happen what will, the Star Kingdom must lead,' My Lord, because our survival depends even more heavily on our fleets superiority now than Great Britain's did then!"
She stopped speaking abruptly, and White Haven shook himself. He felt dull spots of color burning on either cheek, but they weren't born of anger. They burned because he'd let himself be caught short this way, for however much he might wish differently, he couldn't deny her charge that he hadn't read the appendices. Nor could he deny that it was his own prejudice which had kept him from doing so. There was no question in his mind that he'd been right to fight Hemphill's efforts to introduce things like the grav lance or the pure energy torpedo armament into general service, and God only knew where things might have ended if she'd been allowed to implement her "spinal mount" main armament concept for ships of the wall! The idea of a capital ship which had no choice but to cross its own "T" for an enemy in order to engage it still made him cringe, and, he was certain, it would have the same effect on his hostess.
But that didn't alter the accuracy of her indictment. What would be madness in a ship of the wall might make perfectly good sense in something as small, agileand (however little he might like it) expendableas a LAC, and he hadn't even considered it. Nor had he made sufficient allowance for what the new central-core missile pod systems had allowed Harrington to accomplish in Silesia when he dismissed the concept's applicability to "real" warships. And, worst of all, he hadn't even bothered to look at the drive numbers on the new missiles or recognize their implications. And all of it, he admitted with still deeper chagrin, had stemmed from his instinctive, unreasoning, gut-level rejection of any project with which Sonja Hemphill was connected. Which meant he'd just exercised exactly the same knee-jerk reaction to technological change, albeit in the opposite direction, for which he'd always lambasted the jeune ecole.
And Honor Harrington had called him on it.
He blinked again and sat back in his chair, noting the slight flush in her cheeks, the light of battle in her eyes, the refusal to back down simply because the most successful fleet commander the RMN had produced in two centuries disagreed with her. And as he gazed at her, he realized something else, as well. He'd always been aware of her physical attractiveness. Her triangular, sharply-carved face, dominated by her strong nose and the huge, almond eyes she'd inherited from her mother, would never be conventionally beautiful. Indeed, in repose, it was too harsh, its features too strong, for that. But the personality behind itthe intelligence and character and strength of willgave it the life and energy to make one forget that. Or perhaps she was beautiful, he thought. Beautiful as a hawk or falcon was, with a dangerous vitality that warned anyone who saw her that this woman was a force to be reckoned with. The slim, sinewy grace with which she moved only added to that image, and his mind had always recognized it.
But her attractiveness had simply been one more facet of an outstanding junior officer who'd somehow become his protégé, and his cerebral awareness that so much competence was wrapped in such a fascinating package had never moved beyond his forebrain. Perhaps that was because he'd never really seen her as anything except a naval officer, or perhaps it was because he'd always been attracted to women who were shorter than he . . . and who didn't have the hand-to-hand training to tie him into a pretzel. And, he admitted, whose ages were closer to his own. Perhaps there'd even been a sort of subconscious awareness on his part that it would be far better for both of them if he never did "see" just how attractiveto himshe had the potential to become.
But whatever it might have been, it had suddenly become irrelevant. In that moment, he no longer saw her simply as an officer, nor even as a head of government. In an odd sort of way, it seemed to be because of the way she'd taken him to task, as if that had somehow jarred him into a fundamental reevaluationon an emotional, as well as an intellectual basisof who and what she truly was. And among the many other things she might be, he realized now, she was an astonishingly fascinating woman . . . and one whom he suddenly feared (though fear, he admitted, was not precisely the proper word) he would never again be able to see solely as his protégé.
Honor's eyes went wide as the emotions flowing into her through Nimitz changed abruptly, and her own exasperation vanished, blown away by White Haven's sudden, intent focus on her. Not on what she'd been saying, but on her.
She pushed back in her chair and heard Nimitz thump down on the console behind her. Then the `cat flowed over her shoulder and down into her lap, and she busied herself clasping him in her arms as if that could somehow make time stand still while she thought frantically.
This shouldn'tcouldn'tbe happening, and she wanted to shake Nimitz like a toy as the `cat added his own approval of White Haven's reaction to the emotions pouring into her. Nimitz knew how much she'd loved Paul Tankersley, and, in his own way, the `cat had loved Paul almost as fiercely. But he also saw no reason she shouldn't someday find another love, and his bone-deep purr was only too clear an indication of his reaction to the earl's sudden recognition of her attractiveness.
But if Nimitz couldn't see the potential disaster looming ahead, Honor certainly could. White Haven wasn't simply her superior officer; he was also Eighth Fleets designated CO, while she was slated to command one of his squadrons. That put them in the same chain of command, which meant anything at all between them would be a violation of Article 119, and that was a court-martial offense for officers. Even worse, he was marriedand not to just anyone. Lady Emily Alexander had been the Star Kingdom's most beloved HD actress before the terrible freak air car accident which had turned her into a permanent invalid. Even today, locked forever into a life-support chair and reduced essentially to the use of one hand and arm, she remained one of Manticore's foremost writer-producers . . . and one of its leading poets, as well.
Honor made her brain stop racing and drew a deep breath. She was being ridiculous. All she'd felt was a single surge of emotion, and it wasn't as if she hadn't felt spikes of admiration and even desire from other men since her link to Nimitz had changed! Things like that happened, she told herself firmly, and she'd never worried about it unless someone tried to act upon it. In fact, she'd often found it rather pleasant. Not because she felt any desire to offer the men in question encouragementher relationship with Paul had made difficulties enough for her on conservative Grayson, and she didn't need to awaken old memories, personal or publicbut because it was rather flattering. Especially, she admitted, for someone who'd spent thirty years feeling like an ugly duckling.
This was just another case of passing interest, she told herself even more firmly. The best thing she could do was pretend she was unaware of it and offer no encouragement. If she ever let White Haven suspect she'd recognized his feelings, it could only embarrass him. Besides, his enduring love for his invalid wifeand their devotion to one anotherwere legendary. Their marriage was one of the great, tragic love stories of the Star Kingdom, and Honor couldn't even imagine him turning away from Lady Emily, however attractive he found someone else.
Still, a small corner of her brain whispered, there were those rumors about him and Admiral Kuzak. I suppose it's possible that
She chopped that thought off in a hurry and cleared her throat.
"Excuse me, My Lord," she said. "I didn't mean to lecture. I suppose part of my reaction stems from the fact that I've had my own doubts where Lady Hemphill is concerned. It may be that making the adjustment to supporting at least some of her concepts has given me a sort of evangelical fervor, but that's no excuse."
"Um." White Haven shook himself, blinked in bemusement, then waved away her apology with a smile. "No excuse is needed, Milady. I deserved every word of it . . . and if I had bothered to read the appendices, I could have avoided a well earned tongue-lashing." She felt his own confusion over his reaction still echoing below the surface of his thoughts, but no sign of it touched his expression, and she was grateful. Then he glanced at his chrono and twitched in surprise so artfully assumed it would have fooled even Honor if not for her link to Nimitz.
"I hadn't realized how late it's gotten," he announced, rising and reaching for his sword once more. "It's time I turned in, and I imagine your guests are about ready to depart." He clipped the sword to his belt and smiled again, and any disinterested observer would have thought that smile was completely natural. "Allow me to escort you back to the ballroom," he suggested, extending his arm, and she rose with a matching smile and set Nimitz back on her shoulder.
"Thank you, My Lord," she said, placing her hand on his elbow in approved Grayson fashion, and he swept her out of the library in style.
Andrew LaFollet fell in behind them, and his calmly attentive, utterly normal emotions were a soothing contrast to what Honor still sensed from White Havenor, for that matter, felt herselfas she walked down the hall at the earl's side, chatting as if nothing at all had happened.
And, she told herself, nothing had happened. She told herself that firmly, almost fiercely, and by the time they reached the ballroom once more, she almost believed it.
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