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Chapter Ten

Vice Admiral Shannon Foraker stood in the boat bay gallery with her hands clasped loosely behind her and gazed out through the bay's clear vacuum at the unwinking stars as she watched the incoming pinnace settle into the docking buffers. The service umbilicals ran out to it, followed by the boarding tube, and she straightened her shoulders and stood a bit straighter as the side party came to attention.

The telltales on the gallery end of the tube blinked from red to the amber of standby, and then to the bright green that indicated a tight seal and good atmosphere. Then the hatch opened, and the bosun's pipes began to squeal in the high, shrill voices she'd never been able to develop a taste for.

"Secretary of War, arriving!" the intercom announced as a slightly stocky, brown-haired man in an admiral's uniform stepped through the hatch and into the sound of the pipes, and the side party snapped instantly to attention. So did Admiral Foraker as she watched the newcomer salute RHNS Sovereign of Space's captain.

Captain Patrick M. Reumann returned the salute sharply. At just over a hundred and ninety centimeters, Reumann was half a head taller than the visitor, and Foraker supposed he was the physically more imposing of the two, despite his receding hairline. But somehow that didn't seem to matter. It wasn't because of any weakness in the captain; the man picked as the skipper of the lead ship of the newest, most powerful superdreadnought class in the Republican Navy wasn't exactly likely to be a weakling in anyone's book. It was just that for the Navy generally, and for everyone connected to Operation Bolthole in particular, Thomas Theisman had become a larger than life figure, almost an icon.

That wasn't something Shannon Foraker would have spent much thought on six or seven T-years ago. She'd been amazingly oblivious to the harsh realities of naval service under Rob Pierre and State Security. Until she'd been brought face-to-face with the ugly truth, at least. The humiliation and shame of being forced to become an unwilling accomplice to StateSec's brutality had changed Foraker's universe forever. The talented, apolitical "techno nerd" who'd wanted no more than to do her job with patriotism and honor had recognized that she couldn't—not under StateSec. She'd seen an admiral she trusted and respected driven to the brink of mutiny, seen an ex-skipper she'd respected even more actually driven into willing treason because his own sense of honor could take no more violation, and been sent all too closely to the brink of imprisonment or execution herself.

In the wake of those experiences, the same qualities which had made her an outstanding tactical officer in the People's Navy had been brought to bear on other problems . . . which was why she—and Admiral Tourville and Admiral Giscard—were still alive. But it was unlikely that anything she'd done would have prevented the same ultimate outcome if not for Thomas Theisman.

She hadn't known Theisman before Oscar Saint-Just's overthrow, but she'd come to know him since, and somehow he just kept on getting more impressive. He'd joined a select handful of other senior officers in Foraker's estimation, one of the dedicated cadre which had somehow kept the concepts of duty and honor alive in their own lives, no matter what their political masters had demanded of them. More important, he was also the man who'd restored the Navy's honor. Lester Tourville and Javier Giscard might exercise command of the Republic's fleets, but it was Thomas Theisman who'd made it possible for them to do so. Just as he was the man who'd invited the Navy's officers and ratings to rediscover their self-respect. To remember that they'd chosen to wear the uniforms they wore because they believed in something, not because a reign of terror would shoot them if they declined to become willing agents of terror themselves.

He had restored the Navy to itself, made it his ally in the defense of the restored Constitution, both out of its own sense of honor and obligation and as a means to cleanse its shield of the filth with which StateSec had spattered it. And because he'd given it back that sense of mission, of commitment, of standing for something, the Navy would have followed him unflinchingly through the gates of Hell itself.

Just as Shannon Foraker would have.

"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" the Secretary of War requested formally as the twittering pipes finally fell silent, and Captain Reumann nodded sharply.

"Welcome aboard the Sovereign, Sir!" he replied in a carrying voice. "It's a pleasure to see you back aboard again," he added in a lower, more conversational tone, and held out his right hand.

"It's a pleasure to be back, Pat," Theisman replied, gripping the proffered hand and shaking it firmly. "I only wish Bolthole were close enough to Nouveau Paris that I could get out here more than three or four times a year."

"So do we, Sir," Reumann assured him.

"Well," the Secretary said, glancing approvingly around the orderly, disciplined boat bay, "maybe we'll be doing a little something about that."

"Excuse me?" The captain cocked his head, and Theisman grinned, although there was a faint edge of something besides humor—possibly even a trace of worry—in his expression.

"Don't worry about it, Pat. I promise I'll explain everything before I head back to the capital. In the meantime, however, Admiral Foraker and I have a few things we need to discuss."

"Of course, Sir," Reumann acknowledged, and stepped back as Theisman turned to offer his hand to Shannon.

"Admiral," the Secretary of War said, and Shannon smiled.

"Admiral," she repeated, fully aware of how much he preferred to think of himself in his persona as Chief of Naval Operations, someone who was still a serving officer and not merely a political animal. His eyes twinkled as he squeezed her hand firmly, then she cocked her head.

"I'd tentatively scheduled welcoming cocktails in the officers' mess," she said, "but none of our plans were set in ceramacrete. Should I assume from what you just said to Pat that I should reschedule the festivities until after you've had a chance to tell me just what brings you clear out here?"

"Actually, I think I'd prefer for you to do that, if it won't inconvenience people," Theisman said, and she shrugged.

"As I said, none of our plans were really definite, Sir. We didn't have enough of an idea of what was on your agenda for this trip to make any hard and fast arrangements." She turned to a chunky captain at her right elbow. "Five, I seem to have forgotten my com again. Would you screen Paulette for me? Ask her to see to it that everyone knows we're going to Plan Beta."

"Of course, Ma'am," Captain William Anders replied with a slight grin. One thing about the old Shannon Foraker which remained the same was a degree of . . . absentmindedness where the minutiae of day-to-day life was involved. It took a certain talent to "forget" her wrist com, but she managed to do it at least twice a week.

The hirsute captain activated his own com and punched in the combination for Lieutenant Paulette Baker, Foraker's flag lieutenant, and she turned her own attention back to Theisman.

"Do we need to speak in private, Sir? Or should I assemble my staff, as well?"

"I'll want to bring all of them up to speed while I'm out here," he said, "but I think I'd prefer to brief you individually before that."

"Of course. In that case, would you care to accompany me to my day cabin?"

"I think that would be an excellent idea," he agreed, and she glanced back at Anders.

"Did you catch that, Five?" she asked.

"I did. And I'll pass it on to Paulette, as well."

"Thank you." She smiled at him with a warmth which transfigured her narrow, severely attractive face, and then gestured respectfully for Theisman to proceed her to the lifts.

"After you, Sir," she invited.

* * *

It took several minutes to reach Foraker's day cabin, despite the fact that the architects had deliberately placed it close to the lift shaft core. Of course, "close" was a relative term aboard something the size of Sovereign of Space. The superdreadnought was the next best thing to nine million tons of battle steel and armor. She was also the first unit of the biggest and most powerful class of warships the Republic of Haven had ever built, although it probably wouldn't hold that distinction for long. The plans for the follow on Temeraire class were well into the final approval stage, and if things stayed on schedule, the first Temeraire would be laid down here at Bolthole within the next three or four months, for completion in another thirty-six. Which might have been a considerably longer building time than someone like the Manties would have required, but still represented an enormous decrease in construction times for Haven . . . much of which was the work of one Vice Admiral Shannon Foraker and her staff.

Still, they got to their destination eventually, and Foraker removed her cap and tossed it to Chief Callahan, her steward, as she and Theisman stepped past the Marine sentry and through the hatch into her cabin.

Chief Petty Officer Sylvester Callahan caught the airborne headgear with the ease of much practice and only a hint of a long-suffering sigh. Foraker was well aware that she owed that restraint to Theisman's presence, and she grinned smugly at the steward. Not that she'd been quite so comfortable with him when he was first assigned to her. It had taken her months to get used to the very notion of having a "steward" of her own, admiral or no admiral, because such "elitist" institutions had been among the first casualties of Rob Pierre's systematic efforts to eradicate all traces of the old Legislaturalist officer corps. A part of Foraker had rebelled against the restoration of the old officer corps' privileges, and she was just as happy Theisman had refused to reinstate at least half of them. But she'd also been forced to admit that assigning stewards to commanding officers and flag officers actually made an awful lot of sense. Any CO had vastly more productive things to do with her time than to tidy up her own quarters or polish her own boots. Perhaps even more importantly, senior officers needed keepers who they could count on to keep their lives functioning smoothly while they dealt with the unending series of decisions and judgment calls which came with their own jobs.

And those of them who tended to be just a tad on the absentminded side needed keepers more than most, she admitted.

"The Admiral and I have some things we need to discuss, Sly," she told Callahan. "Do you think you could scare up a few munchies for us while we do?"

"I'm sure I can, Ma'am," Callahan replied. "How heavy did you have in mind?" She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "Lieutenant Baker already commed about the change in plans," he explained. "As I understand it, dinner is being moved back by about an hour and cocktails are being moved around behind it. So I simply wondered whether you and the Admiral would require a light snack, or something a little more substantial to carry you."

"Um." Foraker frowned, then glanced at Theisman. "Admiral?"

"I'm still on Nouveau Paris time," the Secretary told her. "Which means I'm about two hours overdue for lunch right this minute. So I think 'a little more substantial' is a pretty fair description of what I'd like."

"Hear that, Sly?"

"I did, Ma'am."

"Then make it so," she told him with a grin, and he bowed slightly and withdrew in the general direction of his pantry.

She watched him go, then turned back to Theisman once more, and waved at one of the comfortable chairs.

"Please, Admiral. Have a seat," she invited.

"Thank you."

Theisman settled into the indicated chair and gazed about himself thoughtfully. This was his first visit to Foraker's shipboard quarters, and he was impressed by the simplicity of the furnishings with which she'd surrounded herself. She seemed to have overcome her aversion to "pampering" herself at least to the extent of acquiring proper powered chairs, and the wet bar and liquor cabinet in one corner of the spacious compartment looked promising. But aside from that, she seemed to have settled for standard Navy-issue furniture and carpet, and the handful of art pieces on the bulkheads, while pleasant to the eye, were hardly high-ticket items. Which was pretty much in keeping with the woman he'd selected to head Project Bolthole for him, and he was pleased to see that she was still with him, despite the power and authority Shannon Foraker had come to wield.

A few of his initial appointees had disappointed him in that respect, succumbing to the temptation to regard themselves as the new masters of the Republican Navy, and not as its stewards and servants. Some of them had responded to his subtle promptings and gotten themselves reorganized. Those who hadn't had been quietly but firmly shunted aside into duties which still let him make use of their undeniable talents but took them out of any position to put their imprint on his Navy.

"Tell me," he said, bringing his gaze back to Foraker as she sat in a facing chair, "why do you call Captain Anders 'Five'?"

"Haven't the foggiest," Foraker replied. "I started out calling him William, and he politely but firmly informed me that he preferred 'Five.' I'm not sure where the nickname came from, but I'm guessing it was some disreputable event in his lower-deck past. On the other hand, I don't really care what he wants to be called as long as he goes on doing his job as well as he does."

"I can live with that," Theisman told her with a chuckle. Then he sobered slightly. "You know, much as I loathed and despised the Committee of Public Safety, I have to admit Pierre and his cronies actually accomplished some good. Like the way they eventually managed to turn the economy around for one, and the way they broke the Legislaturalists' stranglehold on the officer corps, for another. Under the old regime, someone like Anders would never have gotten a commission. Which would have been an enormous loss."

Foraker nodded in complete agreement. Anders had been a petty officer with over thirty-five T-years of service when Rob Pierre overthrew the Legislaturalists, but that was as high as he ever would have gone under the old regime, and that truly would have been a loss for the entire Navy. Like Foraker, his childhood experience with the old Legislaturalist educational system had taught him that he was going to have to teach himself anything he really wanted to learn, and that was precisely what he'd done. Unfortunately, he hadn't been a Legislaturalist. In fact, his family had been Dolists, which had made his attainment even of petty officer's rank quite an achievement.

But the destruction of the old Legislaturalist order, coupled with the People's Navy's desperate need for competence, regardless of its sources, had changed all of that. By the time Thomas Theisman shot Saint-Just (assuming that the rumors about the mechanics of the ex-Chairman's demise were as accurate as Foraker strongly suspected they were), PO Anders had become Lieutenant Commander Anders. He might not have gone a lot higher even under Pierre and Saint-Just, though. In fact, he might well have found himself shot by the Committee, instead, because he had a contrary streak at least a meter wide. Somehow, he seemed to lack the admiration for the "People" which had been the magic key to promotion in the brave new world created by people like Rob Pierre and Cordelia Ransom. Personally, Foraker suspected that his contrariness stemmed from the fact that he knew he had overcome the limitations of his childhood and the People's Republic's ramshackle excuse for an educational system to make something out of himself and had nothing but contempt for people who hadn't even made the same attempt.

However that might have been, she was delighted to have him as her chief of staff, and his promotion since the fall of the Committee was amply deserved. In some ways, she regretted pulling him out of his original slot in R&D, because he was one of the best practical engineers in the Navy, if not the entire Republic. Unhappily, she needed him even more where he was, interpreting for the engineers who had to communicate with those less gifted individuals who happened, in this less than perfect universe, to be their superior officers. And, she admitted, she needed him to do the same interpreting for her when she spoke to those engineers' superiors.

Now, if the only people I had to communicate with were the engineering types themselves, she thought, maybe I could get Five back where he belongs. Unfortunately, this is the real world.

"I don't know about the rest of the Navy, Sir," she said after a moment, "but I, for one, am delighted to have him out here."

"I'm delighted to have both of you out here," Theisman told her with simple sincerity. "Lester Tourville told me you were the right woman for Bolthole, and the job you've done only reconfirms my faith in his judgment."

Foraker felt her cheekbones heat, but she managed to meet his regard steadily enough, then glanced up with a hint of relief as Callahan returned with a tray of sandwiches and raw vegetables. He positioned it on a small table between their chairs, poured each of them a cup of coffee, set the coffee carafe beside the sandwiches, and disappeared once more.

"That's someone else I'm delighted to have out here," Foraker said wryly, contemplating the food and drink which had so magically appeared.

"I can't imagine why," Theisman murmured with a small smile, and reached happily for one of the sandwiches. "Ummm . . . delicious!" he sighed.

"He has a way about him," Foraker agreed, and selected a carrot. She sat back, nibbling politely to keep the Secretary company while he ate, and waited.

It wasn't a long wait. Theisman finished one sandwich and ate half of a second one, then built himself a small plate of celery and carrot sticks with just a little more of the rich bleu cheese dip than he really ought to be eating, and leaned back in his own chair.

"Now that the pangs of starvation have been blunted, I suppose I should get down to the reason for my visit," he said, and his eyes gleamed as Foraker sat up straighter, her expression intent.

"To be perfectly honest," he continued, "one of the reasons I'm here is to do a personal eyeball check of your reports. Not that I have any concerns about their accuracy, but because a part of me just has to see the reality behind them." He shook his head. "I sometimes wonder if you really realize all you've managed to accomplish out here, Shannon."

"I think you can safely assume all of us realize that, Sir," she told him dryly. "At least, we all know we've spent the better part of four T-years—some of us over five—more or less in exile while we did it!"

"I know you have, and I expect the entire Navy is going to appreciate it just as much as I do when we finally tell them what you've been doing," he said seriously. "And although I have rather mixed feelings about the timing, it's possible that the rest of the Service is going to begin finding out just a bit sooner than we thought."

"It is?" Foraker's eyes narrowed, and he nodded.

"I know you've been working to my original timetable. And to be candid, I'd really prefer to stick to that timetable. Unfortunately, that may not be possible. And if it isn't, at least you and Captain Anders and the rest of your people have gotten more done in less time then I'd believed would be possible when I first sent you here."

"I'm happy to hear that . . . mostly, Sir," she said cautiously when he paused. "At the same time, and as much as all of my people deserve to be recognized, we're still well short of the deployment levels you specified when you assigned me here. And while I've gotten the number of building slips up to target levels, we've only laid the first keels in a third of them within the last six months or so."

"Believe me, Shannon, you can't be more aware of that than I am. On the other hand, there are things going on back at Nouveau Paris that may not leave me much choice about accelerating the deployment schedule."

"May I ask what sort of things, Sir?" she inquired even more cautiously, and he snorted.

"Nothing catastrophic!" he reassured her. "Probably not even anything serious . . . yet, at least. But basically, and for your private information, the President and I are finding ourselves more and more likely to be locking horns with Secretary Giancola. That," his eyes narrowed and his voice turned just a bit crisper, "doesn't leave this day cabin, Shannon."

"Of course not, Sir," she reassured him, and inwardly she felt an undeniable glow of pleasure that he trusted her enough to share what he obviously considered sensitive information with her.

"I don't know that anything is actually going to come of it," he went on after a moment. "In fact, it's entirely possible that the President and I are worrying unduly. But the Secretary of State is becoming more and more impatient with the Manties, and it looks to us as if he's in the process of building a block of support for his position in Congress. As a part of his efforts, we believe he's been dropping a few hints here and there about Bolthole."

Foraker's expression tightened indignantly, and he gave her a crooked smile.

"I know. I know! He's not supposed to be doing that, and if he is, then he's in violation of the Classified Information Act. But even if he is, we can't whack him the way we would some underling. Or, rather, we could, but the President feels that the political cost might be extremely high. Both because of the support he's managed to build in Congress and because if we acted to punish him for violating the Information Act, at least some people would see our charges as no more than a justification for purging a political opponent. We'd have every legal right to proceed against him—assuming he's guilty of what we think he is—but the practical consequences of doing so might very well be to undermine the legitimacy we've worked so hard to earn."

"I understand that, I suppose, Sir," Foraker said. "I don't much like it, but I can see what you're saying."

"I don't much like it either," Theisman told her with massive understatement. "But whether we like it or not, we still have to decide how we're going to respond. Obviously, my original concerns about coming out into the open too soon and panicking the Manties into doing something hasty still apply. On the other hand, you've done much better than I'd hoped at tweaking the production queue. How many Sovereigns are you projecting by the end of this quarter?"

"Assuming we don't hit any more bottlenecks, I believe we'll be looking at right on sixty-six of them, Sir," she told him with simple, well justified pride. "We have thirty-eight currently in full commission, with another sixteen in various stages of working up, and the yard is supposed to hand a dozen more over to us next month."

"And the Astra class?"

"As you know, we haven't assigned them quite the same priority the superdreadnoughts have had, Sir. And Commander Clapp came up with a few LAC modifications we decided were worth retrofitting to the completed birds as well as incorporating in those still on the production line, which has slowed things still further. We have about thirty of the Astras either in commission or working up, but we don't have complete LAC groups to put aboard them. And the same shortage of LACs is putting a crimp into our training schedule, as well. I don't think we could deploy more than twenty, or possibly two dozen, by the end of the quarter."

"I understand." Theisman leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the deckhead, lips pursed in thought. He stayed that way for quite some time, then shrugged.

"You're still enormously far ahead of where I expected you to be," he told her. "What I'm hoping is that we can keep you and Bolthole under wraps for at least one additional quarter, possibly two, but I don't think we can hope for much more than that. And, in a worst-case scenario, we may have to go public this quarter."

He saw her slightly puzzled expression and waved one hand.

"If Secretary Giancola creates a situation in which he and the President and the rest of the Cabinet end up on opposite sides of a public debate, I don't want him dropping any bombshells about our new and improved military posture. Not out of the blue, anyway. I can't be positive, but I suspect that he's at least considering the advantages of suddenly revealing the capabilities of the ships you've been building and working up out here.

"The Manties clearly don't have any serious interest in negotiating a treaty which would return any of our occupied planets. There's some disagreement as to why that should be true. I personally tend to agree with General Usher over at FIA—that they could care less about hanging onto our territory except for the political advantages it secures the High Ridge crowd domestically—but other people have different theories. Including, I'm afraid, quite a few of the analysts at FIS . . . and at NavInt, for that matter."

Foraker nodded. General Kevin Usher had been President Pritchart's personal choice to head the new Federal Investigation Agency when Oscar Saint-Just's repressive StateSec machine was demolished. The old organization had been split into two new ones—Usher's FIA, and the Federal Intelligence Service, specifically charged with foreign intelligence at the federal level. The new agencies' carefully chosen names had the advantage of a complete break with names like Internal Security and State Security, but they performed many of the same intelligence functions. With Usher in command, Pritchart could be confident that the FIA would not perform the old suppressive functions, and there were rumors that the President had wanted him in charge of the functions now assigned to both agencies. But many members of Congress had balked at the notion of creating yet another single intelligence/security umbrella organization. And, much as Foraker respected President Pritchart, she agreed with their disinclination. Not just because she, too, feared the potential for such an agency to become a new StateSec under a President other than Eloise Pritchart and a director other than Kevin Usher, either. She'd been less impressed with Wilhelm Trajan, the FIS's new director, than she was with Usher, but she'd been delighted when Theisman resurrected Naval Intelligence as an independent agency within the Navy, as well. There were simply some questions civilian analysts wouldn't think to ask, much less know how to answer.

Unfortunately, it sounded as if the old turf wars between competing intelligence outfits were rearing their ugly heads once more. Which, she reflected, was probably inevitable, given that each set of analysts would come at the raw data with its own institutional priorities and preconceptions. And to be completely fair-minded, Usher was supposed to be concerning himself with domestic matters and counter-intelligence, not with analyzing foreign intelligence data. Not that having several competing analyses might not offer its own advantages, since a rigorous debate was probably the best way to get at the actual truth.

"The people who disagree with General Usher tend to fall into two main camps," Theisman told her. "One group, which agrees with Secretary Giancola's position and probably represents the largest number of dissidents, believes the Manticoran government intends to hang onto the occupied planets indefinitely. Their view is that Descroix's refusal to respond to any of our proposals or to make any serious offers of her own is simply a ploy to waste time until they've properly prepared public opinion in the Star Kingdom to accept outright annexation of at least some of the occupied planets. For the most part, they point to Trevor's Star as their example, although at least some of them will admit that the junction terminus makes that system a special case. A much smaller percentage will even admit that the way the Legislaturalists and StateSec treated the San Martinos made the system even more of a special case. I personally can't see any Manticoran government pursuing any sort of territory-grabbing policy across the board, but I suppose it would be stupid to completely rule out the possibility. Especially if there were to the some sort of drastic change in the Manties' internal political dynamics.

"The second group who disagrees with General Usher's analysis doesn't bother its head with imputing any deep, conspiratorial machinations to the Manties. They're still locked into the mindset that the Manties are our natural and inevitable enemies. I don't know how much of that is left over from old Public Information propaganda and how much of it's simply the result of how long we've been at war with the Star Kingdom. Whatever the origin of their beliefs, though, they're either unwilling or unable to consider the possibility of a lasting peace with the Manties. So in their view, of course the Star Kingdom has no interest in negotiating seriously with us. All that High Ridge and Descroix are doing is killing time before the war between us inevitably breaks out again."

"I hope you'll pardon my saying this, Sir, but that's bullshit," Foraker said, and Theisman looked at her. His raised eyebrows invited her to continue, and she gave her head a little toss and obeyed.

"I've met some of the Manties," she reminded him. "Both after I was captured by Admiral Harrington in Silesia, and after Admiral Tourville captured her. Certainly some of them hate us, if only because we've been fighting each other for so long, but most of the people I've met on the other side didn't have any more desire to conquer the Republic than I had to conquer the Star Kingdom. I realize naval officers are expected to follow orders, and that if their government decided to continue the war against us, they would. Even admitting that, though, I don't think any Manticoran government is going to be able to ignore public opinion against fighting a war that doesn't have to be fought.

"But leaving all of that aside, if they really expected to be going back to war any time soon, I can't believe that even the High Ridge Government would be building down their navy to the extent all of our intelligence reports seem to indicate."

It was Theisman's turn to nod. Given her position in command of Bolthole, Foraker was in the pipeline for any scraps of intelligence about Manticoran building policies and technology.

"If they seriously anticipated resuming combat operations," she pointed out, "they certainly wouldn't be delaying construction of the ships they'd need to fight the war. They may not realize that by doing so they're giving us an opportunity to build up a counterweight, but even assuming our security has held as well as we hope, they'd want as great a margin of superiority as they could get. Remember, their Eighth Fleet was the only real spearhead they had, and now that they've deactivated it and reassigned its wall to Third Fleet—not to mention scrapping and mothballing their pre-pod wall of battle so enthusiastically—their "spearhead" is a lot shorter than it was. As I see it, the fact that they're busy systematically reducing their margin of superiority even over the wall of battle we hope they think is all we have is the best possible indication that they think the war is effectively over."

"I see." Theisman regarded her for a moment. "And I think I generally agree with you, as well. But tell me, Shannon—if the Manties did plan on retaining all of the occupied planets and systems, would you be in favor of resuming operations against them if what you've been building out here really does level the tactical balance?"

"Do you mean me, personally, Sir? Or are you asking what I think the government's policy should be?"

"Either—or both."

She thought about it very carefully, taking her time, and her expression was almost surprised when she decided how to reply.

"Do you know, Sir, I never really thought that hard about it. But now that you ask, I think probably I would be in favor." She shook her head, obviously bemused by her own conclusion. "I never thought I'd say that, but it's true. Maybe part of it's patriotism, and maybe part of it's a desire for revenge—to get some of our own back after how completely they kicked our butts. And much as I hate to admit it, maybe part of it's a desire to see how my new hardware would actually perform."

"I'm afraid you're not alone, whatever the reason you feel that way," he told her somberly. "Personally, I think it would be insane for us to go back to war with the Star Kingdom under almost any circumstances I can imagine. Even if Bolthole lets us meet them with something like technical parity, our experience over the last fifteen years should certainly indicate to anyone with the brains of an amoeba that the cost—for both sides—would be enormous. But one of the things the President and I have to be aware of is that there's a huge residual anger at the 'enemy' we've been fighting for so long, not only in the Navy but in the electorate, as well. That's why Giancola scares us. We're afraid his demand for a more confrontational foreign policy will resonate with that anger and hatred. That it could actually, God help us all, create a fresh public support for resuming the war. And if we can't get the stupid Manties to at least put some sort of serious, permanent peace proposal on the table, they're playing directly into the hands of the idiots on our side of the line who want to go back to war with them.

"That's why I need you to be aware that the moment at which we reveal the existence of Bolthole and the ships you've been building out here is going to be a matter of very careful political consideration. Both the President and I, on one side, and the confrontationalists, on the other, will want to announce the new fleet at the moment which would be most advantageous for us. The President and I need to find a time when we can be confident the Manties won't be tempted into some sort of preemptive action, which means holding off for as long as we can to build up the most powerful deterrent possible. The confrontationalists will be looking for a time when the fact that we now have the capability to match the Manty advantages—or to offset them, at least—will generate the most push behind their own policies.

"The decision will be made at a higher level than yours, of course. But we need you to be ready, and you need to understand that the amount of notice you're likely to get will be slight. And," he smiled wryly, "we also need you to go right on working your miracles and exceeding our expectations, because whenever Bolthole gets announced to the rest of the galaxy, we're going to need to have all of the available muscle we can."


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