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Chapter Twelve

Michelle Henke leaned back in her comfortable seat beside Gervais Archer as her pinnace separated from HMS Artemis' number one boat bay, rolled on gyros and maneuvering thrusters, aligned its nose on the planet Manticore, and went to main thrusters. It had no option but to use reaction drive, since Artemis was still wedded to HMSS Hephaestus by the entire complex tapestry of personnel and equipment tubes and current traffic control regulations prohibited the use of even small craft impellers until the small craft in question was at least five hundred kilometers clear of the space station. That was many times the pinnace's impeller wedge's threat perimeter, but no one was inclined to take any chances with the Star Kingdom's premier orbital industrial node. For that matter, inbound small craft (and larger vessels) were now required to shift to thrusters while still ten thousand kilometers out.

Michelle could remember when Hephaestus had been little more than twenty kilometers in length, but those days were long gone. The ungainly, lumpy conglomeration of cargo platforms, personnel sections, heavy fabrication modules, and associated shipyards, all clustered around the station's central spine, now stretched for over a hundred and ten kilometers along its main axis. Something better than three quarters of a million people—not including ship crews and other transients—lived and worked aboard the station these days, and the hectic pace of its activity had to be experienced to be believed. Vulcan, in orbit around Sphinx, was almost as large, and just as busy. Weyland, the smallest of the Star Kingdom's space stations, orbited Gryphon, and was actually the busiest of the three, given the amount of highly classified research and development which was carried out there.

Those three space stations represented the heart and soul of the Manticore Binary System's industrial muscle. The resource extraction ships which plied the system's asteroid belts, and the deep-space smelters and refiners which processed those resources, were scattered about the system's vast volume, but the space stations housed the production lines, the fabrication centers, and the highly trained labor force who made them all work. The mere thought of what an active impeller wedge could do to something like that was enough to cause anyone the occasional nightmare. Michelle might not care very much for the way traffic control's restrictions extended her flight time, but she wasn't about to complain, and she had remarkably little sympathy for people who did moan about it.

There were some of those, of course. There always were, and some of them wore the same uniform Michelle did and damned well ought to understand why those restrictions were in place. More of them were civilians, though, and she'd heard more than one upper-level civilian executive venting about the Hephaestus approach rules and Planetary Approach's new rules in general.

Idiots, she thought, gazing out the viewport as the shuttle's fusion-powered thrusters moved it Manticoreward at a steady (if pokey) ninety gravities. All we need is some lunatic, like one of those Masadan fanatics who attacked Ruth in Erewhon, to get a shuttle with an active impeller wedge into ramming range of the station! And, she added unhappily, glancing briefly at the youthful lieutenant beside her, until we can figure out how the hell Haven got to Tim Meares, we can't be sure they couldn't get to a shuttle pilot, either. Which means the poor son-of-a-bitch at the controls wouldn't even have to be a volunteer. Hell, he probably wouldn't even realize he was doing it until it was too late!

The thought had no sooner crossed her mind than her eye caught the subtle distortion of an impeller wedge a hell of a lot bigger than any pinnace's. In fact, it was at least the size of a superdreadnought's wedge . . . and it couldn't be more than a couple of hundred kilometers outside its threat perimeter from the station. She tensed internally, then relaxed almost as quickly as she saw the second ship moving steadily—and rapidly—away from Hephaestus behind whoever was generating that wedge and realized what it must be.

Well, I suppose there have to be some exceptions to any rule, she reflected. But even the tugs have been required to make a few operational changes since Haven tried to kill Honor.

The Royal Astrogation Control Service's tugs were the only type of ship which was allowed that close to a space station under impeller drive. They were also the only ships, aside from warships of Her Majesty's Navy, which were permitted to enter or leave planetary orbit under impellers. Manticoran registered and crewed merchant traffic could approach to within ten thousand kilometers of Manticore, Sphinx, or Gryphon under impellers, if their ACS certification was current. Even they were required to have reduced their closing velocity to a maximum of no more than fifty thousand KPS while still two light-minutes out, however, and no one was allowed to use impeller drive outbound until they were at least ten thousand kilometers clear of their parking orbital radius. No one else's merchant vessels—not even those of such close allies as Grayson—were allowed to approach within two and a half light-minutes without first having gone to reaction drive, however, and there had been absolutely no exceptions to that policy since the attack on Honor.

Which has led to a few pissed-off exchanges between ACS and some of the "regulars" on the Manticore-Grayson run, Michelle thought. More from our side than anybody else's, from what Admiral Grimm was saying.

Admiral Stephania Grimm was the current commanding officer of the Junction ACS. She was also ex-Navy, and her younger brother had served with Michelle aboard the old dreadnought Perseus far too many years ago. Michelle had run into her at a dinner party three or four weeks after her return from Haven, and the two of them—inevitably—had ended up in a corner talking shop.

Grimm didn't have to put up with anywhere near the crap Planetary Traffic Control did, of course, but to make up for that, she had many times the amount of traffic to keep track of. Actually, for a star nation whose preposterous wealth was so heavily based upon its merchant marine, there were usually remarkably few hyper-capable ships anywhere near Manticore or Sphinx, even under normal conditions. It made far more sense for cargoes bound in or out of the Manticore System to take advantage of the stupendous warehousing and service platforms associated with the Junction itself. It was much more time and cost effective, even for ships which weren't using the Junction—and there were some of those, headed for more local destinations—to use its facilities, which were undoubtedly the biggest, most efficient, and most capable in the entire galaxy. The ships and cargo shuttles which plied back and forth between the Junction and the star system's planets were far smaller than the leviathans which traveled between stars, and they were a far more efficient way for most shipments to complete the final transition to their destinations.

It was those freight-haulers who were complaining most vociferously about ACS' new rules and attitude, according to Grimm. After all, before a shuttle pilot or, even more, the astrogators and helmsmen aboard one of the bigger, short-haul freighters were certified for planetary approach, they had to clear dozens of certifications, background checks, and routine physical and mental evaluations, and all of those certifications and evaluations had to be kept current, as well. Given all of that, some of them seemed to deeply resent the fact that they were no longer trusted to make those approaches under impeller drive. And some of the owners of those vessels clearly resented the way the new requirement to have two fully certified planetary approach pilots on the bridge at all times was increasing their overhead.

Well, I can live with that, Michelle reflected. I think sometimes they forget just how frigging dangerous an impeller-drive ship is. Maybe it's because they spend so much time in space themselves that for them it's all just routine, but they might want to remember that even a fairly small ship could turn itself into a dinosaur-killer from hell if it really wanted to.

She shuddered inside at the thought of what a mere hundred thousand-ton short-haul freighter could do if it hit, say, Manticore, at twenty or thirty thousand kilometers per second. A ten-teraton explosion would pretty much ruin the local real estate values. Michelle was no historian herself, certainly not to the extent Honor was, but Admiral Grimm, who'd seen all the ACS threat analyses and recommendations, had told her that an impact like that represented something like sixteen times the destructive power of the meteor impact which was supposed to have killed off Old Earth's dinosaurs. Given the fact that the danger represented by her ship was pounded into the head of every ACS-certified planetary approach pilot from Day One of her training, the idiots who were complaining certainly ought to understand why the new rules—including the "two-man" rule—were in place.

Especially after what had happened to Tim Meares.

I wish we knew more—hell, I wish we knew anything!—about how they got to him. And not just because of how much I liked him, Michelle thought for far from the first time, glancing again at the young man sitting beside her and remembering all the youthful, murdered zest and promise of Honor's flag lieutenant. And I wish we knew whether or not the same "programming" could have made him do something else . . . like flying a pinnace into downtown Landing at a few thousand KPS. But until we have the answers to both of those questions, I don't think anyone's going to be venturing into or out of Manticore orbit under impellers. Or no one except Navy ships and the tugs, that is.

There never had been enough tugs, of course, and the situation was even worse now. Traditionally, three ready-duty tugs had been assigned to each of Manticore's space stations. Actually, there'd been seven—enough to keep three continually on call, three more at standby as backups, and one down for maintenance or overhaul. Despite the wear and tear on their impeller nodes, the trio of ready-duty tugs' nodes were always hot, ready for instant use. And, despite their relatively diminutive size, they had hugely powerful wedges, as well as gargantuan tractors. One of them could easily handle the unpowered mass of two, or even three, superdreadnoughts if it had to. And the reason their nodes were always hot was that one of their responsibilities was to maintain a safety watch over the space stations. Even without some sort of esoteric mind control to create a deliberate collision, there was always the possibility of an accidental collision as ships maneuvered under thrusters to dock with the station. So whenever a ship approached or departed from Hephaestus, Vulcan, or Weyland, one of the duty tugs was ready to intervene. And they were always ready to pounce on any random bits of space debris, as well.

Only the most experienced captains and helmsmen were allowed to command the ACS tugs, and they'd always used the "two-man" rule, for reasons Michelle had always found self-evident. But these days, with all of the new, additional restrictions, the demand for their services had risen astronomically.

Michelle winced internally as she recognized the word play she had just inflicted upon herself, but that didn't make the thought inaccurate. According to Grimm, her Planetary Control counterparts needed at least half again the number of tugs they actually had. The good news was that even with the press of warship construction, at least some vital auxiliaries were still being laid down, and eight new tugs were set to commission over the next couple of T-months. The bad news was that despite the newly commissioned units, the number of ships which were going to be leaving the near-Manticore dispersed building slips over the next several months meant the need for still more tugs was going to get even worse quite soon now.

Fortunately, I'm not going to be here when it does. But I do wish we could figure out how they got to Tim.

"Twenty minutes from the pad, Milady," the flight engineer informed her, and she looked up with a nod.

"Thank you, PO."

"Admiral Gold Peak!"

Admiral Sonja Hemphill held out her hand with a smile as Michelle and Gervais Archer were ushered into the Admiralty House conference room. Hemphill—who had somehow managed, Michelle reflected sourly, to avoid being addressed as "Admiral Low Delhi," despite her succession to the Barony of Low Delhi—was the Fourth Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Navy.

There were those, and Michelle had been one of them, who'd been astounded (to put it mildly) when the First Lord of Admiralty, Hamish Alexander-Harrington (although he'd been only Hamish Alexander at the time), had selected Hemphill for her present position. Alexander-Harrington, the Earl of White Haven, and Hemphill had been bitter opponents for decades. White Haven had been the champion and leader of the "historical school," which had argued that changes in technology could only shift the relative values of strategic and tactical realities which were themselves constant. That being so, the true art of strategy and naval command had lain in understanding what those realities were and applying them in the most effective manner possible with the available tools, not in looking for some sort of magical gimmick which would make them all go away.

Hemphill, on the other hand, although substantially junior to White Haven, had been the leader of the "jeune ecole." The jeune ecole had argued that the plateau—or, as they preferred to call it, "stagnation"—in military technology over the past couple of centuries had led to a matching stagnation in strategic and tactical thinking. The answer, as far as the jeune ecole's members were concerned, was to follow the pattern established (sort of) by the introduction of the laser head and break the hardware stagnation, thus completely restructuring strategy and tactics. Or even making conventional tactics—and strategy—completely irrelevant.

The internecine warfare between the supporters of the two schools had been . . . vigorous. It had also, upon occasion, been highly personal, and possibly just a little less than professionally correct. In light of the fact that the Star Kingdom's survival had probably hinged on getting the answer right, it wasn't surprising tempers had run high, Michelle supposed. And the White Haven temper had been famous throughout the Navy even before combat was joined. Nor had Hemphill exactly been a shrinking violet, and despite the fact that the Alexanders and the Hemphills had moved in the same social circles for generations, there'd been a time when the hostesses of Landing had gone to great lengths to make sure they did not invite both of them to the same party.

In the end, they'd both turned out to be right . . . and wrong. Hemphill's near-obsession with new weapons and command-and-control systems might have left people feeling as if they'd been "run down by an air lorry without being physically injured," as one of her contemporaries had put it, but it had also led directly to the FTL com, the new missile pods, the new LACs, Ghost Rider, and, ultimately, to the multidrive missile and the podnought. Yet for all of the huge increases in lethality which those new systems had made possible, the strategic and tactical constraints faced by military commanders had not magically disappeared. At the same time, however, the historical school had been forced to admit that the new technology had fundamentally transformed the parameters of those constraints to an extent which had created a radically new tactical paradigm.

And it seemed that, along the way, White Haven and Hemphill had learned to tolerate one another again. Or, at least, to recognize that each of them had vital contributions to make.

And it probably helps that Hamish is First Lord, not First Space Lord, too, Michelle thought wryly as she gripped Hemphill's proffered hand. He's the Admiralty's political head these days. I know he hates it, feels like he's out of the loop—or even out to pasture—but it also means the two of them are a lot less likely to lock horns than they might have been. Still, the idea to move her up to the head of BuWeaps came from him, not from Tom Caparelli or Pat Givens, so maybe he really is mellowing under Honor's influence. I suppose something more unlikely has to have happened somewhere in the galaxy. Maybe.

"I'm glad you could make it," Hemphill continued, escorting Michelle around the conference table to the waiting chair. "I was afraid there wouldn't be time in your schedule, given your deployment date."

Archer trailed along behind, carrying the small hand case which contained his minicomp. Michelle had been more than a little surprised when neither Commander Hennessy, Hemphill's chief of staff, nor the admiral's personal yeoman had objected to the minicomp's presence. One of a flag lieutenant's normal responsibilities was to record and annotate a record of her admiral's meetings, conferences, and calendar, but the subject of this particular conference was so highly classified Michelle had half-assumed she wouldn't be permitted to tell herself about it, far less keep any notes.

Apparently, she'd been wrong.

"I'm glad there was time, too, Ma'am," Michelle replied, and shook her head with a slightly lopsided smile. "Fortunately, it's turning out that I have a pretty fair staff, so I've been able to steal the occasional few hours here and there instead of wrestling personally with all the squadron's problems. They're clubbing most of the hexapumas as they come out of the shrubbery all on their own now."

Hemphill smiled back, and gestured for Michelle to sit down, then sat in her own chair at the head of the conference table. Lieutenant Archer waited until both flag officers were seated, then sat himself, and Hemphill didn't turn a hair as the lieutenant uncased his minicomp and configured it to record mode.

"I'm glad to hear that," the admiral told Michelle, without so much as glancing in Archer's direction. "I understand Bill Edwards wound up working for you?"

"Yes, he did." Michelle nodded. "Admiral Cortez told me I was lucky to get him, and I've come to the conclusion that—as usual—the admiral was right."

"Good!" Hemphill's smile got considerably broader, and she leaned back in her chair and swung it at a slight angle to the round table so that she could face Michelle squarely.

"Bill is good, very good," she said. "I really wanted to go on hanging onto him, but I couldn't justify it. Or, rather, I couldn't justify doing that to him. He's been with BuWeaps ever since he was an ensign—as Vice Admiral Adcock's flag lieutenant, originally—and he's way overdue for a rotation. In fact, he's at the point where he needs a shipboard deployment in his File 210 if he doesn't want to get stuck dirt-side permanently. Besides, I know how badly he's wanted one for years, even if he didn't exactly sit around crying about it. And, as I say, he's always been very good at whatever we've asked him to do."

"That was my impression of him, too," Michelle agreed, but she was watching Hemphill's expression a bit more closely than she had been. The last three hectic days seemed to have confirmed her initial concern that Edwards was more of a techno-type than a combat officer. In many ways, that was fine, since the communications department was a lot less likely than others to find itself making tactical decisions, and there was absolutely no question of Edwards' outstanding competence where hardware and administration were concerned. Still, Michelle had continued to cherish a few concerns.

"I sometimes think Bill would have been happier in the tactical track," Hemphill continued, rather to Michelle's surprise, given what she'd just been thinking. "I think he probably would have done quite well there, in fact. The problem is that while he might have done well there, he's done outstandingly on the development side. He's nowhere near as strong on pure theory as some of my people are, and I don't think he'd ever have been happy at all on the research side of things. But where development is concerned, he has an absolute talent for recognizing possible applications and seeing what he calls 'the shooters' perspective' on what we need to be doing. In fact, he had quite a lot to do with what we're going to be discussing today. Which," she shook her head, her expression suddenly wry, "undoubtedly explains why he's being sent in the opposite direction from where the new systems are actually likely to get used!"

"I hadn't realized he was directly involved in developing Apollo," Michelle said. "He hasn't even twitched a muscle the time or two I've wandered a bit too close to mentioning it to the rest of the staff."

"He wouldn't have," Hemphill agreed. "One thing about Bill; he knows how—and when—to keep his mouth shut."

"So I've just discovered, Ma'am."

"Well," Hemphill shrugged, "I know Bill doesn't exactly come off looking like a classic warrior, Admiral. Not until you get to know him, at least. And, as I say, he knows how to keep his mouth shut, which means he's not going to be polishing his image by dropping hints about all of the wonderful things he did for the Fleet's tactical sorts while he was over here at BuWeaps. To be honest, though, he did do some pretty good things while he was here, which is why I took it upon myself to mention that to you. I'm sure he'd be upset if he found out I had, but, well . . ."

She let her voice trail off with another shrug, and Michelle nodded once more. Much as she despised the patronage game herself, she had no problem with anything Hemphill had just said. Making certain the admiral a subordinate who'd served you well was now serving was aware of your high opinion of the subordinate in question was light-seconds away from the kind of self-serving horse-trading of favors which had so bedeviled the prewar RMN.

"I won't mention this conversation to him, Ma'am," she assured Hemphill. "On the other hand, I'm glad you told me."

"Good," Hemphill said again, then gave herself a little shake, as if to shift mental gears.

"Tell me, Admiral Gold Peak. Just how much do you already know about Apollo?"

"Very little, really," Michelle replied. "As one of Duchess Harrington's squadron commanders, I was briefed—very generally—on what the tech people were trying to accomplish, but that was about as far as it went. Just far enough to make me really nervous about the possibility of spilling something while I was the Havenites' . . . guest, you might say."

Hemphill snorted at Michelle's wry tone and shook her head.

"I imagine I'd probably have worried about the same thing myself, in your place," she said. "On the other hand, when we're done here today, you're definitely going to know enough to be nervous about 'spilling something.' "

"Oh, thank you, Ma'am," Michelle said, and this time Hemphill laughed out loud.

"Seriously, Ma'am," Michelle continued after a moment, "I'm not at all sure that giving me any sort of a detailed briefing at this point is a good idea. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm curious as hell. But like Commander Edwards, I'm headed in the opposite direction from where it's likely to get used. Do I really have the need to know any of the details about it?"

"That's an excellent question," Hemphill conceded. "And, to be honest, I'd really like to keep this whole thing closed up in a dark little cupboard somewhere—preferably under my bed—until we've actually used it. The tests we've carried out with it have made it clear we substantially underestimated the tactical implications in our original projections, and I've had more than a few bad dreams about the secret getting out. But there actually is a method to our apparent madness in briefing you fully on the system capabilities."

"There is?" Michelle tried not to sound dubious, but she suspected she hadn't fully succeeded.

"Given the possibilities offered by this summit between Her Majesty and Pritchart, it's at least possible we're going to see a cease-fire, maybe even a long-term peace agreement, with Haven," Hemphill said. "In that case, we're not going to need Apollo against the Republic. But it's entirely possible we will need it in Talbott if the situation there turns as nasty as it still could. And you, Admiral Gold Peak, are the designated commander for Tenth Fleet. So the feeling here at Admiralty House is that if we suddenly find ourselves able to begin transferring Apollo-capable ships to Talbott, it would be nice if the Fleet commander who's going to be using them was already aware of the system's capabilities."

Michelle's eyes had narrowed while Hemphill was speaking. She hadn't really thought about that possibility, because there were no ships of the wall on Tenth Fleet's planned order of battle. Her admittedly incomplete knowledge of Apollo had suggested to her that it could be used only by Keyhole-equipped ships of the wall. The Nikes and the second-flight Agamemnons were both Keyhole-capable, but their platforms were rather smaller than those of superdreadnoughts, and her impression had been that only wallers were big enough to carry the refitted, FTL-capable Keyhole platforms the new system required. Since she didn't have any wallers, it had followed that she wouldn't be using Apollo. But now she found herself nodding in understanding.

"I hadn't thought about it that way," she admitted. "Would it happen that one reason Commander Edwards found himself available for service on my staff was that same possibility?"

"It . . . had a bearing," Hemphill replied.

"And will I be authorized to fully brief the rest of my staff on it, as well?"

"You will," Hemphill said firmly, and grimaced. "The object is for you to begin familiarizing yourself with Apollo's capabilities and tactical possibilities. To do that, you're going to have to play around with those capabilities, game them out in the simulators, at the very least. You can't do that without bringing your staff, and for that matter, your flag captain and her tactical department, fully on board. And, of course," she glanced in Archer's direction for a moment, "if an admiral and her staff know about anything, her flag lieutenant probably knew about it first."

Archer's head came up and he looked quickly at Hemphill, but the admiral only chuckled and shook her head.

"Don't worry about it, Lieutenant. You're doing exactly what you're supposed to do—assuming that minicomp is as secure as I expect it is. And it's hardly going to be the only electronic record about Apollo aboard Artemis." She looked back at Michelle. "Before your squadron actually deploys, Admiral, we'll be uploading the same sims Duchess Harrington is using with Eighth Fleet to Artemis' tactical department."

"Good," Michelle said, not even trying to hide her relief. "Of course, from the little I already know, I sort of suspect that having the sims to play around with when I don't have the actual hardware is going to get just a bit frustrating. I have to admit, Admiral—you've come up with some really neat toys."

"One tries, Milady." Hemphill waved one hand modestly, but Michelle could see the comment had pleased her. Which was fair enough, given the fact that those "neat toys" of Hemphill's were one of the main reasons there was still a Royal Manticoran Navy and a Star Kingdom for it to serve.

"It's just about time," Hemphill continued, glancing at her chrono, and tapped a brief command into the conference table console. The holo imager built into the tabletop came to life, projecting the images of a dozen or so Navy officers manning a tactical simulator's command deck. The senior-grade captain in the command chair looked up as he realized the electronic conference connection had come on-line.

"Good morning, Captain Halsted," Hemphill said.

"Good morning, Ma'am."

"This is Vice Admiral Gold Peak, Captain," Hemphill told Halstead. "We're going to be giving her the inside story on Apollo this morning."

"So I understood, Ma'am," he said, and looked respectfully at Henke. "Good morning, Ma'am."

"Captain," Michelle acknowledged with a nod.

"I think, Captain," Hemphill said, "that we should start with a general description of Apollo's capabilities. Once we've done that, we can run through a couple of the simulations for the admiral."

"Of course, Admiral." Halsted turned his command chair so his holo image was directly facing Michelle.

"Essentially, Admiral Gold Peak," he began, "Apollo is a new step in missile command and control. It's a logical extension of other things we've already been doing, which marries the existing Ghost Rider technology with the Keyhole platforms and the MDM by using the newest generation of grav-pulse transceivers. What it does is to establish near-real-time control linkages for MDMs at extended ranges. At three light-minutes, the command and control transmission delay for Apollo is only three seconds, one-way, and it's turned out that we've been able to provide significantly more bandwidth than we'd projected as little as seven months ago. In fact, we have enough that we can actually reprogram electronic warfare birds and input new attack profiles on the fly. In effect, we have a reactive EW and target selection capability, managed by the full capability of a ship of the wall's computational capacity, with a shorter control loop than the shipboard systems trying to defeat it."

Despite herself, Michelle's eyebrows rose. Unlike Bill Edwards, she was a trained and experienced tactical officer, and the possibilities Halstead seemed to be suggesting . . .

"Our initial projections were based on trying to install the new transceivers in each MDM," Halstead continued. "Originally, we saw no other option, and doing things that way would have made each MDM an individual unit, independent of any other missile, which seemed to offer us the most tactical flexibility and would have meant we could fire them from standard MDM launchers and the Mark 15 and Mark 17 pods. Unfortunately, putting independent links in each bird would have required us to remove one entire drive stage because of volume constraints. That would still have been worthwhile, given the increased accuracy and penetration ability we anticipated, but the development team's feeling was that we would be giving away too much range performance."

"That was one of Bill's suggestions, Admiral," Hemphill said quietly.

"Once we'd taken up ways to deal with that particular objection," Halstead went on, "it became evident that our only choices were to either strip the drive stage out of the birds, as we'd originally planned, or else to add a dedicated missile. One whose sole function would be to provide the FTL link between the firing ship and the attack birds. There were some potential drawbacks to that, but it allowed us not only to retain the full range of the MDM, but actually required very few modifications to the existing Mark 23. And, somewhat to the surprise of several members of our team, using a dedicated control missile actually increased tactical flexibility enormously. It let us put in a significantly more capable—and longer-ranged—transceiver, and we were also able to fit in a much more capable data processing and AI node. The Mark 23s are slaved to the control bird—the real 'Apollo' missile—using their standard light-speed systems, reconfigured for maximum bandwidth rather than maximum sensitivity, and the Apollo's internal AI manages its slaved attack birds while simultaneously collecting and analyzing the data from all of their on-board sensors. It transmits the consolidated output from all of its slaved missiles to the firing vessel, which gives the ship's tactical department a real-time, close-up and personal view of the tactical environment.

"It works the same way on the command side, as well. The firing vessel tells the Apollo what to do, based on the sensor data coming in from it, and the on-board AI decides how to tell its Mark 23s how to do it. That's the real reason our effective bandwidth's gone up so significantly; we're not trying to individually micromanage hundreds or even thousands of missiles. Instead, we're relying on a dispersed network of control nodes, each of which is far more capable of thinking for itself than any previous missile has been. In fact, if we lose the FTL link for any reason, the Apollo drops into autonomous mode, based on the prelaunch attack profiles loaded to it and the most recent commands it's received. It's actually capable of generating entirely new targeting and penetration commands on its own. They're not going to be as good as the ones a waller's tac department could generate for it if the link were still up, but we're estimating something like a forty-two percent increase in terminal performance at extreme range as compared to any previous missile or, for that matter, our own Mark 23s with purely sub-light telemetry links, even if the Apollo bird is operating entirely on its own."

Michelle nodded, her eyes intent, and Halstead touched a button on his command chair's arm. A side-by-side schematic of two large—and one very large—missiles appeared above the conference table, between Michelle and the simulator command deck, and he indicated one of them with a flashing cursor.

"The Apollo itself is an almost entirely new design, but, as you can see, the only modifications the Mark 23 required were relatively minor and could be easily incorporated without any break in production schedules."

The cursor moved to the very largest missile.

"This is the system-defense variant, the Mark 23-D, for the moment, although it's probably going to end up redesignated the Mark 25. It's basically an elongated Mark 23 to accommodate both a fourth impeller drive and longer lasing rods with more powerful grav focusing to push the directed yield still higher. Aside from the grav units and laser rods, this is all off-the-shelf hardware, so production shouldn't be a problem, although at the moment the ship-launched system has priority.

"With the Apollo missile itself—we've officially designated the ship-launched version the Mark 23-E, partly in an attempt to convince anyone who hears about it that it's only an attack bird upgrade—" the cursor moved to the third missile "—the situation's a bit more complicated. As I say, it's an entirely new design, and we're looking at some bottlenecks in getting it into volume production. The system-defense variant—the Mark 23-F—is another all-new design. Aside from the drives and the fusion bottle, we had to start with a blank piece of paper in each case, and we hit some snags getting the new transceiver squared away. We're on top of those, now, but we're still only beginning to ramp up production. The 23-F is lagging behind the 23-E, mostly because we've tweaked the transceiver's sensitivity even higher in light of the longer anticipated engagement ranges, which increased volume requirements more dramatically than we'd expected, but even the Echo model is coming off the lines more slowly than we'd like. When you factor in the need for the original Keyhole control platforms to be refitted to the Keyhole-Two standard, this isn't something we're going to be able to put into fleet-wide deployment overnight. On the other hand—"

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