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Chapter Five

Admiral Sir Edward Janacek (retired), Royal Manticoran Navy, looked up from the report on his desk terminal and hid a frown as his yeoman secretary ushered Reginald Houseman into his office. He hid it because the First Lord of Admiralty of the Star Kingdom of Manticore wasn't supposed to greet one of his fellow lords with a grimace. But despite almost thirty T-years as a civilian, he continued to think of himself as a naval officer, and any naval officer would have regarded Houseman with distaste. Houseman rarely even attempted to conceal his own deep and abiding contempt for the Star Kingdom's military, and when he did make the attempt, he failed. Worse, Houseman and his entire family were hopelessly inept and politically naive in Janacek's view . . . to put it mildly. The fact that they were exactly the sort of Liberal Party idiots Janacek had left the Navy in order to oppose more effectively made the current situation more ironic than he cared to contemplate, but there it was. Houseman and his allies among the Liberals were absolutely essential at the moment, which was what made it politically impossible for Janacek to allow his distaste to show.

"The Second Lord is here, Sir," the secretary announced unnecessarily, in the obsequious voice he kept on tap especially for Houseman's visits. Like many who not so secretly despised the military, Houseman reveled in any opportunity to extract subservience from it.

"Thank you, Christopher." Janacek nodded dismissal to the secretary, then stood and extended his hand to Houseman. "It's always good to see you, Reginald," he lied smoothly. "Should I assume you have those projections for me?"

"Edward," Houseman replied, shaking the proffered hand with a smile Janacek felt certain was at least as false as his own. The First Lord waved for his visitor to seat himself, and Houseman settled into one of the comfortable chairs facing Janacek's desk.

"I do, indeed, have the numbers you requested," he went on, and produced a chip folio. He leaned forward to place the folio on the corner of Janacek's blotter, then leaned back once again. "And they support your conclusions rather well, actually."

"Good." Janacek managed to conceal his irritation at the edge of condescension in Houseman's tone. It wasn't easy, even for someone with his decades of political experience, but he made it look that way. And it wasn't as if Houseman's attitude was a surprise. Even though Janacek was now a civilian, the fact that he'd ever been a naval officer was sufficient to contaminate him—in Houseman's eyes—with the automatic ineptitude and stupidity of all officers. Which made any evidence of competence or imagination on the First Lord's part perpetually surprising and unexpected.

Of course, Janacek reflected, the fact that the Navy's officers in general—and one of them in particular—have made their opinion of him crystal clear probably has a little something to do with the strength of his feelings. Pity it's the only thing I'll ever agree with that lunatic Harrington about.

"Assuming that we freeze construction on all units not at least sixty-five percent completed, scrap about twelve percent of our older ships of the wall still in commission, mothball another sixteen percent of the wall to go with them, and put the yard space we won't need anymore into inactive controlled storage, we can implement your plans and still reduce naval spending by approximately fourteen percent of the currently budgeted funds," Houseman continued, and this time there was a pronounced note of approval in his voice. "That amounts to the better part of two trillion dollars we can divert to far more useful ends."

"I'm glad to hear it," Janacek replied, and he was. Not, perhaps, for the same reasons which had produced Houseman's obvious pleasure, but he'd long since accepted that politics made strange bedfellows. His toleration of Houseman as Second Lord, the civilian lord in charge of the Admiralty's fiscal policy, was certainly proof of that! On the grander scale, the liberation of so much cash for the Government to use primarily on projects of which Janacek himself heartily disapproved was yet another. He understood the logic behind the strategy, and intellectually he approved of it, but that made it only marginally more palatable.

He extracted Houseman's datachip from its folio and plugged it into his own console, then brought up the file header. He advanced to the first page of the report summary and scanned the first few paragraphs while Houseman adjusted his own memo pad in his lap and keyed its display.

"As you'll note in paragraph two," the Second Lord began, "we can begin by listing the entire King William-class for disposal. After that . . ."

* * *

"So you agree we can safely reduce military spending," Lady Elaine Descroix observed in that bright, cheerful tone which always set Baron High Ridge's teeth on edge. Descroix was a small, sweet-faced woman who took great pains to project the image of everyone's favorite aunt, and he reminded himself yet again not to forget the armor-plated pseudocroc behind her smile.

"Within limits, Elaine," the Prime Minister of Manticore cut in smoothly before the First Lord could respond to his Foreign Secretary. "And that assumes the situation in the People's Republic—excuse me, the Republic of Haven—remains effectively what it currently is."

High Ridge made himself return her smile with one of his own. One with a carefully gauged edge of steel. Pseudocroc or not, Descroix wasn't in charge of this meeting. He was, and the sun-bright spaciousness of his luxurious woodpaneled office was the outward sign and confirmation of his ascendancy. The antique clocks which had cluttered its shelves, coffee tables, and credenzas during the Duke of Cromarty's tenure had disappeared, replaced by his own knickknacks and memorabilia, but this was the same office from which four T-centuries of prime ministers had governed the Star Kingdom, and his smile reminded her of the power he represented.

"Oh, I think we can assume the situation will remain unchanged," Descroix assured him. Her eyes acknowledged his expression's message, but even as they did, her own smile showed a decided complacency. "We can keep them talking for as long as we need to. After all, what else can they do?"

"I'm still not convinced we should have completely ignored their last proposals," another voice said, and High Ridge turned to consider the third member of the quartet which had assembled in his office to await Janacek's arrival. Marisa Turner, Countess of New Kiev and Chancellor of the Exchequer since the last Cabinet reorganization, looked troubled. Then again, she often looked troubled. It wasn't that she didn't understand political necessity when it looked her right in the eye, but she sometimes found pursuing that necessity . . . distasteful.

Which has never prevented her from pursuing it anyway, he reminded himself cynically.

"We didn't have much choice, Marisa," Descroix assured her, and shrugged when New Kiev looked at her. "If we're going to be completely honest," the Foreign Secretary continued, "on the surface, their proposal was much too reasonable. If we'd accepted it, certain elements in Parliament would probably have insisted that we seriously consider using it as the basis for a formal treaty. Which would have opened the door to the territorial concessions from us which were also part of their new proposals. And which, of course, would have required us to give up far too much of all that our courageous Navy won for us."

New Kiev's expression flickered for an instant, but High Ridge noticed that she raised no objection to Descroix's explanation. Which underscored her willingness to do what pragmatism required, however unpleasant she might find that, because she understood the subtext of the explanation as well as anyone else in the office.

In the final analysis, everyone in the present Government understood all the reasons not to bring the war against the Peeps to a formal conclusion. There was no real need, given the Star Kingdom's overwhelming technical superiority. The Havenite Secretary of War, Theisman, obviously understood just how helpless his forces were in the face of that superiority. Even if he hadn't, in High Ridge's private opinion, he'd never have the nerve to resort once more to open military action against a star nation which had so decisively defeated his own. If he'd come equipped with that sort of testosterone supply, he would never have supinely surrendered the absolute power which had lain in his grasp to someone like Pritchart!

No. If operations were ever resumed, the People's Navy—or the Republican Navy, as it now chose to style itself—would be quickly annihilated, and it knew it. Which meant that until the Star Kingdom deigned to propose the terms of a formal treaty of peace, the new Havenite government had no choice but to continue to talk. Which, he conceded, was a most fortunate state of affairs, given the domestic threats he and his political allies faced.

The Constitution required a general election no less than once every four Manticoran years, except under certain carefully specified extraordinary circumstances . . . yet the last election had been over five Manticoran years ago. One of the circumstances which permitted electoral delays was the existence of a declared state of emergency, proclaimed by the Crown and confirmed by a two-thirds majority of both houses. Any state of emergency, however, had to be reconfirmed each year, both by the Crown and by the same majority in each house, or it automatically lapsed.

The other circumstance which permitted the postponement of a general election was the existence of a state of war. The Constitution didn't require that elections be postponed in either case; it merely provided that they could be, at the discretion of the current government. Unlike High Ridge, the Duke of Cromarty's primary base of support had been found in the Commons, and despite occasional sags in the public's morale, it had remained essentially firm. Cromarty had timed the elections carefully, but he'd also called two of them during the course of the war, and his majority in the lower house had increased after each.

High Ridge's primary support base, however, lay in the Lords, which meant that the last thing he wanted, for many reasons, was to call a general election. And since sustaining a state of emergency required a majority in both houses—not to mention the concurrence of the Crown, which he was most unlikely to get—only the official state of war against Haven allowed him to hold off the election which, under current conditions, would almost certainly have proved a disaster.

But that state of war was useful in other ways, as well. High Ridge had not only managed to postpone confirmation of the San Martino peers and an almost certain embarrassing electoral defeat for both the Liberals and Progressives (his own Conservative Association's representation in the lower house was already so tiny that no conceivable popular vote could have had much impact upon it), but also to maintain the "wartime only" tax measures which had been instigated by the Cromarty Government. Those taxes were unpopular, to say the very least, but their passage was firmly associated in the public mind with Cromarty—and thus with the Centrist Party.

The Star Kingdom's Constitution had been drafted by people determined to restrict the power of the state by restricting the power to tax, and the Founders had crafted a fiscal system in which the government's income was intended to depend primarily on import and export duties and property and sales taxes. The Constitution specifically required that any income tax be flat-rated and limited to a maximum of eight percent of gross income except in time of emergency. To make their position crystal clear, the Founders had also specified that even in emergency conditions, any graduated income tax could be enacted only with the approval of a super-majority in both houses and automatically lapsed (unless confirmed by the same super-majority) in five T-years or at the next general election.

Those restrictions had made it very difficult for the Cromarty Government to pass the income tax (with a top rate of almost forty percent in the uppermost brackets) and special import duties required to finance the war. The public had accepted the immense financial burden of that tax structure with glum resignation only because Cromarty had successfully made the case for its necessity . . . and because the voters had expected it to lapse as soon as the war ended. Unfortunately for their expectations, the war hadn't ended (not officially, at any rate), and so the taxes remained in effect.

Naturally, High Ridge and his allies deeply (and publicly) regretted the fact that the Havenite refusal to conclude a formal peace required them to maintain the tax burden the Centrists had enacted. But their duty to ensure the Star Kingdom's security would not allow them in good conscience to reduce taxes until they could be positive the military threat had been ended once and for all in a formal treaty. In the meantime, that same tax structure provided an enormous influx of funds they could divert to other programs now that the shooting had stopped. Which was, of course, a simple, unanticipated consequence of the unsettled international situation.

Quite a bit of that largess had gone very quietly to certain political action organizations, union leaders, industrialists, and financiers. Siphoning those funds discreetly into the intended hands had been relatively easy, although it had been necessary to dress up the transfers with justifications like "research grants," "employment conditions studies," "educational subsidies," or "industrial expansion incentives." The new Royal Manticoran Astrophysics Investigation Agency had been one of the most successful of those sorts of ploys. No doubt some practical good would come of it, but its real value was that it had engaged the public imagination. It was the poster child for the "Building the Peace" campaign New Kiev had devised, and with excellent reason. After all, something like three quarters of the Star Kingdom's prosperity rested on its carrying trade and the mammoth through traffic the Manticoran Wormhole Junction serviced. Discovering additional destinations the Junction could serve could only enhance that wealth.

Of course, it was also a hideously expensive undertaking . . . rather more so than its administrators fully realized, High Ridge devoutly hoped. Almost ten full percent of its budget could be neatly skimmed off the top and passed directly to various ship builders and consulting firms without ever being wasted on something useful, and it had become such a popular icon no one dared question its expenditures.

Here and there, a few more odd forty or fifty million-dollar transfers had disappeared completely even without benefit of the RMAIA's cloak of respectability. Most of them had gone through discretionary funds or payments whose recipients could be concealed under a claim of national security endorsed by obliging members of the intelligence community, but very little of that sort of thing had actually been required.

By far the largest expenditures, however, had gone into long-cherished Progressive and Liberal social programs. High Ridge himself regarded them as nothing more than vote-buying boondoggles, and he was certain Descroix shared his view, whatever she might say for public consumption. But New Kiev was another matter. She truly believed that the "poor" of the Star Kingdom were destitute . . . despite the fact that the poorest of them enjoyed an effective income at least four times that of the average citizen of their Grayson allies, and somewhere around seven or eight times that of the average Havenite living in the financially ravaged Republic. She and her fellow Liberals were determined to build a new "fairer and more equitable Star Kingdom" in which the "indecent wealth of the monied classes" would be redistributed by government fiat, since the normal operation of the marketplace seemed incapable of doing so.

If pressed, High Ridge would have admitted that, as a matter of principle, he ought to have found the Liberals far more threatening than he ever could the Centrists. The impassioned rhetoric of New Kiev's more vociferous cohorts carried an ugly echo of the thinking which had led to the collapse of the original Republic of Haven and the creation of the People's Republic, after all. Fortunately, there was very little chance of their ever achieving their proclaimed goals in the Star Kingdom. And in the meantime, by giving both the Exchequer and the Home Office to the Liberals and strongly and publicly supporting New Kiev's domestic programs, he was able to blunt at least the sharper edges of the electorate's traditional view of the Conservative Association as the purely reactionary defender of aristocratic privilege at the expense of all other classes.

That had taken on additional importance following that damned Montaigne woman's hysterical slavery charges and the scandal they'd spawned. For that matter, the reorganization which had given the Liberals such a disproportionate share of ministerial power had been dictated by the same scandal. Support for the Government's handling of the resultant witch hunt had been reasonably solid in the Lords, although it had proven unfortunately necessary to sacrifice a few individuals to the moral outrage of the proles. The Commons had been a different matter, however, and Alexander's efforts to initiate a special inquiry—separate from and in addition to the official Government investigation—had been dangerous. In fact, it had been extremely dangerous, because although there'd been one or two names from the Centrists and a single Crown Loyalist in the files Montaigne and her common-born lover had turned over, there'd been many more Conservatives and Progressives.

And Liberals.

That had been the most dangerous aspect of the entire scandal, given the size of the Liberal Party's representation in the lower house. Not so much because of the convictions Alexander and his cronies might have secured, though those would have been bad enough, as because of the Liberals' internal revulsion at the mere possibility that any of their own could have been involved in something like genetic slave trading. That was the problem with people who insisted on defining themselves in terms of their principles and holier-than-thou morality. When something offended those principles (or at least threatened to draw the public's eye to their public violation), they tended to attack the offenders without any consideration at all of pragmatic strategy. High Ridge himself deplored the very existence of something like genetic slavery, of course, although he frankly doubted it was carried on on anything like the scale that hysterics like Montaigne insisted it was. But much as he deplored it, there were other matters to be considered, and he could scarcely be expected to throw away his one opportunity to prevent the Crown from destroying the fundamental balance of power mandated by the Constitution over a single issue, however much public agitation that issue might generate.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to explain that to a Liberal. Or, at least, to a Liberal member of the House of Commons who thought his constituents or the press might be listening in on the explanation. There'd been a dangerous groundswell of Liberal support for Alexander's demand for a separate inquiry, and High Ridge had managed to defuse it only by shifting things around to give New Kiev the Cabinet's second-ranking position and make Sir Harrison MacIntosh Home Secretary. In his new post, MacIntosh had been the member of the Government responsible for overseeing the investigation, and he had a well established reputation as a jurist. He was also a member of the Commons, not a peer, which had allowed the Liberal MPs to argue that he would never be a party to any "aristocratic coverup." And just as importantly, certain indiscretions in his past, coupled with a personality that was far more pragmatic in private than his public persona might have suggested, had helped provide the Prime Minister with a certain additional leverage even New Kiev wasn't aware existed.

The existence of that leverage had been another excellent reason to shuffle New Kiev from the Home Office to the Exchequer, as well. There was absolutely no way of predicting what she might have done if she'd been running the slavery investigation and it had taken her to places she didn't want to know existed. It was entirely possible, however, that such a journey would have led her to publicly break with the Government's handling of the case as a matter of principle, which would have been disastrous. As it was, with her good friend MacIntosh in charge of the affair, she'd been able to look the other way, confident he would get to the bottom of things . . . and safely insulated from confronting such ugly possibilities (and hard political decisions) herself.

All in all, High Ridge was rather pleased with how neatly he'd managed to turn a potential liability into an advantage and, at the same time, cover himself and his own party against charges of collusion with the accused. If it became necessary, he could always point out that it was his coalition partners, the Liberals, who'd dropped the ball. And the fact that the Liberal Party enjoyed such a towering reputation for moral rectitude, at least among its own voters and a certain segment of the news media, also provided an additional layer of cover. After all, if anything had been allowed to slip past during the course of the investigation, it had to have been an honest mistake on the part of such upright investigators.

Nor, for that matter, did it hurt to have New Kiev and her coterie of Liberal advisers—like the Housemans—to hide behind if any awkward questions were asked about fiscal and monetary policy, either.

That point might become particularly critical in the next few months, since the time limit on the graduated income tax was rapidly running out. The other tax increases could be legally maintained until the next general election, but not the income tax, and the disappearance of that huge fiscal surplus (which the Centrist-controlled House of Commons would never vote to renew) was the real reason Janacek and Houseman had been instructed to cut naval spending still further. Without those cuts, non-military spending would have to be reduced, instead, which was tactically unacceptable to any of the Government's parties. High Ridge devoutly hoped they could finesse the cuts through without having to admit their true motives, but if they couldn't, he firmly intended to lay the blame off on New Kiev. After all, everyone knew Liberals were the "tax and spend" party, and it was remotely possible that he could hang onto enough Independents in the Lords to sustain his majority there even if he was forced to cut New Kiev adrift. Possible, but highly unlikely, which was the reason it was so vital to get the cuts and new budget approved as quietly and expeditiously as possible.

Assuming all went well and they got away with that, it would still be useful to have New Kiev at the head of the Exchequer. If nothing else, the fact that she held such a powerful post in the Cabinet was a potent argument to bolster the claim that the current Government was, in fact, a broad-based coalition which embraced all political viewpoints and perspectives.

Perhaps even more importantly, High Ridge knew that when it came down to it, he and New Kiev agreed absolutely on one principle which was anathema to the Centrists: both of them believed in using the power of the state to accomplish their ideological goals. They differed intensely on what those goals should be, but both were perfectly prepared to embrace a degree of intrusiveness into public policy and private lives (or, at least, other people's private lives) which Alexander's Centrists would bitterly have opposed . . . and to make tactical compromises with one another along the way. And the Prime Minister had to admit that New Kiev's plethora of spending initiatives and government programs was having an effect. Quite a few of them provided funding for projects and services—like RMAIA—which even a Centrist had to admit were beneficial, however much he might have disputed the notion that it was appropriate for government to provide them. Others were less universally regarded as beneficial, but created a strong sense of loyalty among those who actually benefitted from them. And all of them capitalized on the very natural and human desire to turn from the sacrifices, death, and destruction of war and embrace something positive and life affirming.

Which was why the polls showed a slow but steady erosion of electoral support for the Centrists. Conditions were still far from ripe for the carefully timed election he intended to call, and it was unlikely anything could cut deeply enough into their support to deprive the Centrists of their position as the single largest party in the Commons. Especially not since any general election would also transform the San Martin "observers" into full-fledged members of Parliament. But if the projected trend lines continued, they would almost certainly lose their position as the majority party, even with the San Martinos. The Liberals, in particular, were gaining ground steadily, and that was another reason New Kiev was hardly likely to rock the boat. Not to mention yet another reason it was so crucial to sneak the new cuts past the Opposition.

Nonetheless, High Ridge reminded himself—again—not to underestimate the countess' distaste for the tactics pragmatic expediency forced upon her. Nor could he afford to forget that anything which smacked of imperialism and territorial expansion was complete heresy to any good Liberal, whatever a Progressive might think. It was time to smooth the waters a bit, he decided, and gave Descroix a quelling glance before he turned to face New Kiev squarely.

"None of us have any imperial ambitions, Marisa," he told her earnestly. "Despite that, however, and especially in light of the security problems the Cromarty Government committed us to in the annexation of Trevor's Star, we're going to have to insist on some Havenite concessions. And it's about time they were the ones who gave a little ground, too. We already made a major gesture towards meeting them more than half way by agreeing to the general repatriation of POWs when we didn't have anything but a truce agreement, you know."

New Kiev gazed at the Prime Minister for several seconds, then nodded thoughtfully. Descroix, on the other hand, confident that New Kiev was looking elsewhere, rolled her eyes cynically. "Repatriating prisoners of war" sounded very generous, but New Kiev ought to realize as well as she did that the Star Kingdom hadn't proposed it out of the goodness of High Ridge's heart or to demonstrate its willingness to be accommodating. Just getting out from under the expense of feeding and caring for the far more numerous Peep prisoners held by the Manticoran Alliance would have been worthwhile in its own right, and as for the enormous PR advantages in being the Government which had "brought our men and women home" . . .

"Surely they know as well as we do that the next major concession has to come from their side," High Ridge continued earnestly. "And they must be aware that territorial adjustments to address our new security issues are inevitable. Yet every proposal Secretary Giancola has so far put forward has been based on the return of all occupied systems as a very first step. There's no way any Manticoran government could accede to that sort of demand when our military personnel paid so high a price to occupy them in the first place."

That wasn't quite accurate, of course, though he had no intention of pointing that out. The Havenite position did, indeed, insist on the return of all occupied planets, but everyone in the Foreign Office recognized that as little more than the staking out of a bargaining position from which concessions could later be made. And High Ridge, unlike New Kiev, knew Descroix's reports to the Cabinet had carefully not mentioned Giancola's latest suggestion that perhaps plebiscites—overseen by the Republic, of course—might allow individual star systems to choose which side should retain control of them.

It was probably as well he hadn't brought that up, he thought, watching New Kiev's lips tighten ever so slightly at the words "military personnel." She might not share the contempt which a Reginald Houseman felt for the Star Kingdom's military, but like most of the Liberal leaders, she was at best ambivalent whenever it came to the use of military force. The fact that the Star Kingdom occupied any foreign star systems, regardless of how or why that had come about, offended every anti-imperialist bone in her body, and knowing political expediency forced her to actually support such an occupation, publically at least, only made it worse.

The fact that she was the only person in the office who felt that way became obvious a moment later, however.

"I agree, of course," Stefan Young, Earl North Hollow, said. North Hollow had received the Office of Trade as the price of bringing the enormously potent secret files his father had assembled to the Government's support. The power of those files was also the reason he was the fifth and final person present for this high-level strategy session despite his ministry's relatively junior rank in the official Cabinet hierarchy. After all, they were what had provided the crucial leverage which had made High Ridge confident he could . . . constructively direct MacIntosh's slavery investigation if that became necessary.

"We can't possibly contemplate the return of any Peep systems until our own security needs have been properly addressed," North Hollow continued. "All the same, Michael, I do feel a little concern over how the Opposition is likely to react to Edward's recommendation that we build down our capital ships still further."

Janacek frowned at him, and the earl waved his hand languidly.

"Oh, I'm not questioning them," he assured the First Lord. "And speaking both in a personal sense and as Trade Secretary, I certainly support transferring that funding from the maintenance and crewing of obsolescent warships to more productive ends! Nor," he added a bit more grimly, "am I about to lose any sleep worrying about admirals throwing tantrums because someone took their toys away from them. But we are proposing a substantial shift in the present stance and composition of the Fleet, and I think we have to be careful about the potential openings we give the Opposition if we move too boldly."

Translated, High Ridge thought sardonically, my wife thinks we have to be careful.

Stefan Young was much smarter than his older brother, Pavel, had been before Honor Harrington killed him on the Landing City dueling grounds. Not that being smarter than Pavel would exactly have required a genius IQ, but at least Stefan could usually zip his own shoes without assistance. Neither of them, however, would ever amount to more than a pale shadow of their father, and High Ridge was just as glad of it. No leader of the Conservative Association could have crossed Dimitri and survived, and all of them had known it, for his extensive, painstakingly assembled files had contained far too many devastating political secrets.

When Dimitri died, his eldest son had shown disturbing signs of an ambition which would inevitably have challenged High Ridge's own position. Fortunately, Harrington had eliminated that threat along with Pavel, and Stefan, although ambitious enough and possessed of the same deadly files, was also wise enough to be guided by his wife. Lady North Hollow was a most astute tactician and strategist, and she clearly recognized that Stefan was not the material of which charismatic political leaders were made. Before her marriage to him, Georgia Young—the former Georgia Sakristos—had been a senior aide to both Dmitri and Pavel, however. Officially, she'd been their security chief, but it was common knowledge, though never openly discussed, that she'd actually been the "dirty tricks" specialist for both of them, which was the reason High Ridge had selected her to chair the Conservative Association's Policy Coordination Committee. The fact that placing her at the head of the PCC might also help bind her loyalties to the Association's current leadership had played a not insignificant part in his decision, and while he was never likely to forget she was a two-edged sword, it had worked out well so far.

Which was why recognizing that the concern North Hollow had just raised actually came from his wife suggested that it was at least potentially a valid one, the Prime Minister reflected.

"Edward?" he invited.

"I fully recognize that the Admiralty is proposing a not inconsiderable change in priorities," Janacek said a touch pompously. "But the realities of the current situation require a systematic reconsideration of our previous posture."

He did not, High Ridge noted, specify even here exactly why that was. No one else seemed to notice that minor fact, and the First Lord continued in the same measured tones.

"The deployment policies and force mix we inherited from the Cromarty Government might have made sense as the basis for prosecuting the war against Haven. Mind you, I believe our force mix was badly skewed in favor of the older, less effective capital ship types. Like certain other officers, I'd wanted to change that mix for years, even before the war broke out, but it was probably too much to expect any Admiralty to recognize the validity of such new and radical concepts."

He let his eyes circle the conference table, but no one chose to comment. All of them knew he was referring to Admiral Sonja Hemphill. It was a habit of his to give Hemphill and her so-called jeune école full credit for the enormous changes in the Royal Navy's hardware, since, after all, she was his cousin. Of course, that overlooked the fact that the success of the new ship types which had revolutionized combat had resulted at least as much from people who'd managed to restrain Hemphill's enthusiasm by opposing her most radical suggestions. And the fact that she'd all but publicly disassociated herself from the Janacek Admiralty because of her fundamental disagreement with the Government's policies. That disagreement was probably the only reason he didn't mention her by name. It might also have been an unwonted exercise in tact, however. It was an open secret that it was Hemphill who'd cast the decisive vote at the court-martial leading to Pavel Young's dismissal from the Queen's service, which probably wasn't something to remind Pavel's brother of just at the moment.

"But whatever might have been the case before the war began, or even as recently as four or five T-years ago," Janacek resumed, "the Cromarty military posture is hopelessly out of date in light of the new realities of naval warfare and our current fiscal constraints. Our plan will hold the number of battle squadrons up to approximately ninety percent of the current totals."

By, he did not add, reducing each squadron from eight ships to six. Which meant that a ten percent reduction in squadrons represented a thirty-three percent reduction in hulls.

"As for the ships we're talking about taking out of commission, whether by scrapping or mothballing," he continued, "the truth is that they would be no more than obsolete deathtraps if they were committed to combat against the new missile pod superdreadnoughts or LAC carriers. Not only would it be unconscionable for us to send our men and women out to die in ships which were little more than targets, but every dollar we spend on manning or maintaining those ships is a dollar not spent on the new types which have proven their combat superiority so decisively. From every perspective, including that of maintaining a lean, efficient fighting force, the inventory of useless older types has to be reduced."

"But in favor of what?" North Hollow pressed. However bright he might not have been, he was extremely good at projecting the attitude he wanted, and at the moment, he was earnestly questioning, certainly not criticizing.

"The Navy has been badly in need of lighter units for years," Janacek replied. "For the most part, the relative drawdown in those types was unavoidable, especially in the early years of the war. The need to build the largest and most powerful wall of battle we possibly could diverted us from the construction and maintenance of the light cruisers and cruisers required for things like commerce protection. Those we did build were never sufficient to meet the scouting and screening requirements of our main battle fleets, let alone police commerce in places like Silesia. As a consequence, piracy activity everywhere in the Confederacy beyond the immediate reach of Sidemore Station is entirely out of hand."

"So you intend to concentrate on building up the forces we need to protect our shipping," North Hollow said, nodding sagely. "As Secretary of Trade, I can only approve of that objective, and I do. But I'm afraid of what some so-called 'expert' working for the Opposition might be able to make of it. Especially given the decision to suspend work on the SD(P)s which haven't yet been completed."

He cocked an eyebrow at the First Lord, and Janacek made a sound which the less charitable might have described as an irritated grunt.

"No other navy in space has so far commissioned any pod superdreadnoughts," he pronounced with the infallibility of God. "Admiral Jurgensen and his analysts at ONI have amply confirmed that! We, on the other hand, have a solid core of over sixty. That's more than sufficient to defeat any conventional navy, especially with the CLACs to support and scout for them."

"No other navy?" North Hollow repeated. "What about the Graysons?"

"I meant, no potentially hostile navy, of course," Janacek corrected somewhat testily. "And while no one but a planet full of lunatic religious fanatics would be idiotic enough to pour so huge a percentage of their gross planetary product into their naval budgets at a time like this, at least they're our lunatics. Exactly why they think they need such an out-sized navy is open to different interpretations, of course, and I, for one, don't happen to believe their official explanations are the whole truth."

In fact, as all of his colleagues knew, Janacek nursed more than a few dark suspicions about Grayson. Their religious ardor made them automatically suspect, and he did not find their argument that the lack of a formal peace treaty required them to continue to build up their defenses convincing. It was entirely too convenient a pretext . . . as he and the rest of the Cabinet had already discovered. Besides, Graysons were uppity, without the proper respect and deference such a planet full of hayseed neobarbs ought to show the Alliance's senior navy. He'd already had three venomously polite exchanges with their High Admiral Matthews—who'd only been a commodore, for God's sake, when Grayson signed the Alliance—that amply demonstrated Grayson's overinflated opinion of its interstellar significance.

One confrontation had been over the long overdue security restrictions he'd found it necessary to institute at ONI after getting rid of Givens. The previous Second Space Lord's "open door" policy with second-rate navies like Grayson's had been a standing invitation to disastrous security breaches. In fact, the risk had been even greater with Grayson than any of the Alliance's other minor navies, given Benjamin Mayhew's willingness to trust ex-Peep officers like Admiral Alfredo Yu, the de facto commander of his grandiosely titled "Protector's Own." A man who would turn his coat once was always capable of turning it again if it seemed advantageous, and the restoration of the old Havenite constitution would actually provide a moral pretext for doing so. Yet the Graysons had steadfastly refused to cut such officers out of the information loop. They'd actually had the effrontery to dismiss the Admiralty's entirely legitimate security concerns on the basis that the officers in question had "proven" their loyalty. Of course they had! And the ones most likely to go running home to Haven were the ones who would have taken the greatest care to be sure they'd proved they wouldn't. No doubt they could even justify their deceit on the basis of patriotism, now that the StateSec regime they'd fled had been demolished!

Well, Janacek had put a stop to that nonsense, and if the "High Admiral" had a problem with the closing of the open door he'd so willfully abused, that was his lookout.

The second confrontation had been over the First Lord's decision to shut down the joint Manticore-Grayson R&D programs. There'd been no need to continue funding them—not when what they'd already produced would provide at least twenty T-years worth of development work under peacetime budgetary constraints. Besides, it was obvious to Janacek that what the "joint programs" really amounted to was little more than a way for Grayson to siphon off technology from Manticore without footing the bill for developing it on its own. It was hardly surprising Matthews had been miffed when he cut off access to the trough . . . especially after the way the Cromarty Government and Mourncreek Admiralty had coddled and cosseted their Grayson pets.

And as for the third one . . . There was no way Matthews could have been unaware of the insult to the First Lord involved in granting that asshole White Haven the rank of a full admiral in their precious Navy. And it would be a cold day in Hell before Janacek forgot it, either.

"Whatever it is they think they're doing, though," he went on after a moment, "not even Graysons are stupid enough to think they could hope to accomplish anything significant on an interstellar scale without our support. Whether they want to be or not, they're as much in our pocket as the Erewhonese, and they know it. So their navy—even assuming both that they could find some way to sustain it at its present size for more than a year or two without bankrupting themselves and that they knew what the hell they were doing with it without us to hold their hands—is really a non-factor in our security considerations. Except inasmuch as it actually increases 'our' modern warship strength, that is."

It never occurred to anyone in the room to question that assessment of their ally, and the Trade Secretary shrugged.

"I only raised the point because someone on the other side is likely to contrast it with our own building policies," North Haven said. "But what about the argument that our current superiority in that class could be challenged by someone else? The Peeps, for instance. They've certainly seen them in action, and they have a powerful incentive to acquire the same sorts of capabilities, especially since we don't have a formal peace treaty with them."

Janacek glared at him, and North Hollow shrugged again, this time half-apologetically.

"I'm only trying to play devil's advocate, Edward," he said mildly. "You know if I don't ask you these questions now, the Opposition will certainly ask them later. And someone on the other side is just as certain to point out that even though we have a monopoly on the new types, the numbers of them we have are relatively low in comparison to our total ship list. They're going to suggest that if another navy launched a concerted effort to overcome our lead in the new classes, we don't have a sufficient numerical advantage to guarantee someone like the Peeps couldn't succeed in the attempt."

"You're probably right," Janacek conceded sourly. "But in answer to your question, our only conceivable enemy for the immediate future would be the Peeps. As you say, they undoubtedly have an incentive to match our capabilities, but, frankly, their tech base is much too far behind ours for them to duplicate our hardware any time within the next ten years or so, by ONI's most conservative estimate. I've discussed this very question with Admiral Jurgensen, and he assures me his analysts are virtually unanimous in that opinion.

"Furthermore, even if they had the technical ability to build matching ships, they'd still have to lay down the hulls, build them, crew them, and then train them up to an operational standard before they could pose any threat to us. As all of you are aware from the ONI reports I've shared with you, Theisman, Tourville, and Giscard are still busy fighting their own dissident elements with exactly the same obsolescent ships they used against us. We've seen absolutely no sign of any enhancement in their capabilities. Even better, from our perspective as a potential adversary, the way they're continuing to kill one another off is not only continuing to cost them their more experienced officers and crews but producing a steady drain even on the ships they do have."

He shook his head.

"No, Stefan. Only the Peeps have any reason to threaten us, and they simply don't have the capability. By the time they could begin to produce a fleet which could threaten us, we'd have plenty of lead time to increase our own SD(P) and CLAC strength. In the meantime, sixty-four of the new superdreadnoughts are more than sufficient."

"I don't doubt it," North Hollow said. "But those sixty-four ships can only be in one place at a time, or that's what an Opposition analyst might argue, anyway. So what argument do we use to justify not completing all the other SD(P)s already under construction?"

"They don't have to be in more than one place at a time," Janacek told him. "Eighth Fleet was essentially an offensive instrument, a means to project force against an enemy. Now that we've folded its modern units over into Third Fleet, of course, it also serves a powerful defensive purpose as a deterrent at Trevor's Star, but it remains an offensive asset. Third Fleet's superiority to anything it might face is so pronounced that it would be able to cut its way directly through any opposition to the capital system of any opponent, much as it Eighth Fleet was in the course of doing to the Peeps when the current truce was arranged."

He unaccountably failed, High Ridge noted, to mention the name of the officer who'd been in command of Eighth Fleet at the time.

"Given that capability, what we really need to be concerned about is the protection of our own territory and the defense of the Havenite star systems we currently control against the purely obsolescent ship types any potential adversary might be able to bring to bear against them. The most cost-effective and efficient way to do that is to use the new light attack craft. We can build and man LACs in enormous numbers compared to superdreadnoughts, and enough of them will be able to hold any star system that needs to be held. In the meantime, the ships which we're not currently completing will still be available if we need them later. We're not scrapping them, after all. We're merely halting construction. The hulls will remain in their building slips and docks, and all of the materials already acquired for their completion will be kept in orbital storage, as well. The money we save in the meantime can be used to build up the force of LACs we require for system defense and also to support the construction of our anti-piracy forces, not to mention the many vital domestic programs which urgently require funding," Janacek added, glancing sideways at New Kiev.

"And," Descroix murmured, also flicking a glance at the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "suspending construction will be a demonstration of our own desire for peace. Superdreadnoughts, as Edward so rightly points out, are used to project power. They're offensive weapons systems, unlike the cruisers he wants to build as an anti-piracy measure. And LACs are even less suitable for aggression against our neighbors, because they're not even hyper-capable without a carrier."

"An excellent point," New Kiev said, nodding vigorously as her anti-imperialism reflex triggered.

"I see." North Hollow frowned thoughtfully for a long moment, then nodded himself, slowly. "I see," he repeated more briskly, "and I completely agree, of course. Nonetheless, I continue to have some concerns about the way in which an alarmist jingoist might try to attack the new policies. In particular, I'm concerned about White Haven and Harrington."

The effect of those two names was remarkable. Every other face in the room tightened with expressions which ranged from hostility through revulsion and contempt to just a trace of outright fear. North Hollow alone seemed unaffected, although all of them knew that was a lie, for he had even more reason than any of the others to hate and loath Honor Harrington. Nor was he likely to have forgotten that Hamish Alexander had been president of the court-martial which had ended his dead brother's military career in bitter disgrace.

"The two of them have been troublesome and obstructionist enough over other issues," the earl continued levelly. "Given their stature in the public mind as great wartime leaders, they could prove even more troublesome over an issue this directly related to the Navy."

"Harrington," Janacek grated, "is a maniac. Oh, I suppose she's charismatic enough, but she has yet to demonstrate anything approaching true strategic insight. And my God, the casualty figures she's run up!" He snorted harshly. " 'Salamander,' indeed! Too bad the fire seems to burn everyone else to a crisp!"

"But she does enjoy immense popularity," North Hollow pointed out calmly.

"Of course she does!" Janacek growled. "The Opposition media's seen to that, and the general public is too ignorant of military realities and too besotted with her public image of derring-do to question it."

For just a moment, North Hollow seemed to hover on the brink of asking the First Lord if Admiral White Haven's reputation was equally undeserved, but not even he was foolish enough to do that. The savagely caustic (and highly public) tongue-lashing White Haven had administered to Janacek when they'd both been serving officers was legendary.

"We all realize Harrington's reputation is grossly overinflated, Edward," High Ridge said soothingly instead, "but that doesn't invalidate Stefan's point. Particularly given how critical the enactment of our new budget and spending priorities has become. However she acquired that reputation, she possesses it, and she's learned to use it effectively when she launches her attacks against our policies."

"She and White Haven together," Descroix amplified.

"I know." Janacek drew a deep breath and made himself sit back in his chair. "In fact, I might as well admit that not offering Harrington a space-going command was a mistake. I wanted to keep her off any flag bridges, especially since she's obviously totally out of her depth as a flag officer, despite the promotions the previous Admiralty administration so unwisely showered upon her. The last thing I wanted was her anywhere near the Havenite front while we were in the process of negotiations, because God only knew what sort of unilateral lunatic action she might have committed us to. That's why I approved her request to return to the Saganami Island faculty; I thought we could keep her safely shelved teaching, instead. Failing that, I'd hoped the Graysons would be foolish enough to call her home and offer her a command, since they so obviously worship the ground she walks on. I never expected her to turn into a permanent fixture at Saganami, but she has, and now I can't justify removing the damned 'Salamander' from the faculty without opening a tremendous can of worms." He shrugged unhappily. "I hadn't considered that she might realize that by keeping her here on Manticore I'd also keep her handy to Parliament as well as keeping her in the public eye."

"And none of us realized she and White Haven would make such an effective team." Descroix's voice was sour, and for a few seconds her benign, harmless mask slipped as her eyes went flint-hard.

"Precisely the point I wished to raise," North Hollow said. "Either of them alone would be bad enough; together, they're the greatest single obstacle we face in the Lords. Would anyone disagree with that?"

"You're probably right," New Kiev said after a moment. "William Alexander is bad enough, but he was always a team player, completely loyal to Cromarty. He stayed in the background, so the public saw him as the nuts-and-bolts member of Cromarty's team—a technician and strategist, and an excellent one, but not a leader. Not with the sort of charisma Harrington has or the reputation for command his brother enjoys. And the same thing's true for James Webster and Sebastian D'Orville on the Navy side. They're both respected, but neither of them ever captured the public's eye the way Harrington and White Haven did. And, of course, neither of them holds a seat in Parliament, however influential they may be as Opposition 'analysts.' "

"So I think we're all in agreement," North Hollow said, "that anything which could, um, decrease White Haven's and Harrington's popularity, especially at this particular moment, would be . . . advantageous?"

He looked around the conference table with bright, speculative eyes, and one by one, the others nodded. New Kiev's nod was smaller and less enthusiastic than the others, almost uncomfortable, but it was a nod nonetheless.

"The question which comes to mind, My Lord," Descroix remarked, "is precisely how we could go about decreasing the popularity either of them enjoys, much less both of them. Goodness knows they've proved remarkably resistant to previous efforts in that direction."

"Ah, but that was because our efforts were directed at . . . disarming each of them. Not both of them," North Hollow said with a most unpleasant smile.


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