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I seek political asylum, the first man in the popular joke pleaded. Take a transport to the House of Lords, the second man retorted. That’s the finest political asylum in the world.

There were days, Gavin Vellacott, Second Baron Winterfall, thought sourly as he strode along the busy corridor toward his office, that the joke was more fact than fiction, and not at all funny.

Today had been one of those days.

It had started with an Appropriations Committee meeting. Winterfall wasn’t actually on that committee, but Countess Calvingdell had double-booked herself again and asked Winterfall to sit in for her. Then Earl Broken Cliff, the Secretary of Education, had double-downed with a snap straw vote that had forced Winterfall to go racing across the building with all the dignity of a low-range chicken, and for absolutely nothing.

Now, to close off the day, he’d returned to his desk to find a hand-delivered note from Earl Breakwater, Chancellor of the Exchequer, requesting Winterfall’s presence at his earliest convenience.

And when the second-ranking member of His Majesty’s government said earliest convenience he meant now.

Breakwater’s secretary passed Winterfall through the outer office with her usual perfunctory smile. He crossed to the door, gave it a brisk two-knock, and pushed it open.

Two steps into the room he stopped short as his brain belatedly registered the fact that Breakwater wasn’t alone. With him were Baroness Castle Rock, Earl Chillon, and Baroness Tweenriver. All of them political powerhouses; all of them far above Winterfall in rank or status or both; all of them gazing at the newcomer with utterly neutral expressions.

What the hell was going on?

“Come in, My Lord,” Breakwater invited, waving to the empty chair beside Tweenriver. “Thank you for your time. I trust Jakob’s vote was illuminating?”

“Not really, My Lord,” Winterfall said, ungluing his feet and continuing on into the expansive office. Whatever was going on, he was determined to maintain an air of casual professionalism, as if he was invited to top-level political meetings all the time. “It broke along the same interest lines as always.”

Chillon snorted. “There’s a surprise,” he rumbled.

“If there’s one thing Parliament has going for it, it’s consistency,” Castle Rock agreed.

“The consistency of bull-headed stubbornness,” Chillon countered scornfully. “Nothing ever changes except which group is plotting to stab which other group in the back in the name of protecting their own little turf and their own little collection of cronies. And nothing’s ever going to change unless we can shake them up.” He peered intently at Winterfall from beneath bushy white eyebrows. “All of them.”

Winterfall didn’t reply, pretending to be preoccupied with the complicated business of lowering himself into his chair. What was he supposed to say to a comment like that?

Fortunately, Breakwater was already moving into the conversational gap.

“Which is the purpose of this gathering, My Lord,” he said. “The four of us—plus a few others—have come up with a new proposal we hope will break the permanent stalemate that Parliament seems to have settled into.” He tilted his head slightly. “In a nutshell, Gavin—may I call you Gavin?”

“Of course, My Lord,” Winterfall said, the unexpected familiarity again briefly throwing him off-balance until he realized it was probably meant to do precisely that. Certainly he had no illusions that Breakwater was offering any reciprocal intimacy.

“Thank you,” Breakwater said. “In a nutshell, Gavin, we propose a complete restructuring of the Royal Manticoran Navy.”

Winterfall felt a flicker of disappointment. From the buildup, not to mention the political firepower surrounding him, he’d expected something a little more groundshattering. As it was, plans and arguments involving the RMN’s future littered the Star Kingdom’s political landscape like the droppings that littered his mother’s dog run.

“I see,” he said.

“I doubt it,” Chillon said. “Because we’re not simply suggesting a variant of O’Dae’s tired old scrap-the-battlecruisers plan.”

“And we’re certainly not going with Dapplelake’s perennial hope that Parliament will throw the entire budget onto his desk and let him take his fleet out into the galaxy and fight someone,” Breakwater said contemptuously. “No, we believe we’ve found a middle ground that actually takes political and economic realities into account.”

That would be a first for Parliament. “Sounds interesting,” Winterfall said aloud. “I’d like to hear more.”

Breakwater looked at Castle Rock, and out of the corner of his eye Winterfall saw her give the Chancellor a small nod. Apparently, she was the one who’d been tasked with reading Winterfall’s vocals and body language and deciding if he was the right person for the job.

Whatever the job was.

“I’m sure you know the RMN’s history,” Breakwater said, turning back to Winterfall. “From the four frigates that the Trust had waiting when the colony ship arrived, it grew to nineteen by the time of the first skirmish with the Free Brotherhood, seventeen years later, then to a total of thirty-four warships over the next forty years.”

“And now here we sit with twenty-eight of the damn things,” Chillon growled. “All of them draining funds from the treasury like giant blood leeches.”

“And sucking off the workforce our civilian infrastructure needs a hell of a lot more than the Navy does,” Breakwater threw in. “We’ve still got enormous holes from all the people we lost during the Plague, and even with the Trust’s spadework before Jason got here, we’re still playing catch-up with the rest of the galaxy as far as indigenous tech and industrial capacity are concerned. We don’t just need the money it would take to put the fleet back into the kind of service Dapplelake is fantasizing about; we can’t afford to waste that much trained, skilled manpower aboard ships that aren’t contributing a damned thing to the economy.”

“Especially those nine utterly useless battlecruisers,” Castle Rock added.

“Exactly,” Chillon said, nodding. “In service to nothing and no one except the officers and crew lazing around inside.”

“Actually, two or three of them are officially in service,” Tweenriver murmured. “Depending on how you count.”

“Irrelevant,” Chillon said with a sniff. “Being in service doesn’t mean they’re actually doing anything.” He jabbed a finger at Winterfall. “Case in point: Jakob’s deadlocked vote this afternoon. If even a tenth of the RMN’s budget was reallocated to Education, do you think there would be nearly so much acrimony on how to spend their funds?”

Actually, Winterfall knew, there probably would. For one thing, there were some serious philosophic differences dividing the members of the Education committee. Without a drastic change in the group’s membership, that wasn’t likely to change, extra money or no.

But of course that wasn’t Chillon’s point. His point was that, whatever the Star Kingdom’s bank balance might be back in the Solarian League, that money was a long ways away, and a sizeable fraction was already earmarked for the ongoing Assisted Immigration project. The resources available right here and now were far more limited. And, as Breakwater and his allies were fond of pointing out, part of Parliament’s job was to see that those resources were used as wisely and efficiently as possible.

Of course, for all of the budget hawks’ focus on the Navy budget, it really wasn’t that large a slice of the Exchequer’s commitments. True, if the ships were all put back into full service, with the systems’ damage they’d suffered during their hasty demobilization at the height of the Plague, it would cost a pretty penny. At present levels of spending, though, the burden was scarcely crushing, especially with the steady resurgence of the Star Kingdom’s economy, thanks to the immigrants who’d flooded in to provide the necessary workers.

The charge that rebuilding the Navy’s depleted manpower was in direct competition with the civilian economy’s needs was a much more valid criticism, to Winterfall’s thinking. And there wasn’t much question that Dapplelake’s ambitious manning totals would push naval manpower costs up into levels which could become burdensome. Especially if he was simultaneously spending money bringing the RMN’s obsolescent vessels back up to acceptable levels of serviceability.

On the other hand . . .

“I’m not sure it would be a good idea to scrap the Navy entirely,” he said cautiously, trying to read Breakwater’s face. “The Free Brotherhood incident—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Chillon cut him off. “No one’s suggesting a complete scrapping. But let’s be realistic. The chances that anyone out there would bother with us are pretty damn small.”

“As for the Free Brotherhood, that card was already decades out of date the first time Dapplelake played it,” Breakwater added. “The dangers to the Star Kingdom aren’t coming from outside, Gavin. They’re coming from inside.”

Winterfall felt his face go rigid. Was Breakwater actually suggesting—?

“Relax,” Castle Rock soothed, an amused smile tweaking her lips. “We’re not talking about treason or Enemies Domestic, as the Navy oath so quaintly puts it. We’re referring to the ever-present threat of natural disasters to the transports, ore miners, and other ships that ply Star Kingdom space.”

“Oh,” Winterfall said, feeling relieved and foolish at the same time. He should have realized it was something like that.

And they were right about the risks of intersystem space travel. Only last month one of the ore miners in Manticore-B’s Unicorn Asteroid Belt had lost its fusion bottle and disintegrated, taking its entire crew with it. A nasty incident, and sadly not an isolated one.

“Baroness Castle Rock is right,” Breakwater said. “At this point in the Star Kingdom’s history a navy bristling with battle-eager warships is the last thing we need.” He grimaced. “It’s the workforce—the people—putting our deep-space infrastructure back together that we really need. They’re an absolutely vital national resource, and the Navy would be far more useful protecting them than defending all of us against imaginary interstellar foes. The bottom line is that what we need right now is an expansion of the Em-Pars fleet.”

“Yes, that makes sense,” Winterfall murmured. MPARS—the Manticoran Patrol and Rescue Service—was the group that patrolled the spacelanes around the twin suns of the Manticore System, focusing a lot of their attention on the asteroid belts where so much of the Star Kingdom’s resource mining took place.

MPARS expansion was hardly a new idea—the Chancellor had raised such suggestions more than once during Winterfall’s years in Parliament. So far none of the proposals had gained traction, not just from monetary considerations but even more so because of the scarcity of trained personnel and the only gradually accelerating resource flow.

And, of course, because of politics. Unlike the Royal Manticoran Navy, which was under the authority of Earl Dapplelake’s Defense Ministry, MPARS was controlled by Breakwater’s own Exchequer.

Distantly, Chillon’s comment about turf-fighting flicked through Winterfall’s mind.

“I imagine Dapplelake would argue that any new small ships the Star Kingdom gets should be warships,” he murmured.

“Ah—but that’s the point,” Breakwater said. “They will be warships. The sloops we have in mind will be every bit as well-armed as the Navy’s corvettes and frigates, ready to take on any external threat that might befall us.”

“But under the Exchequer’s authority.”

Breakwater waved a hand in dismissal.

“An accident of history,” he said. “That’s simply the way MPARS was set up. It has nothing to do with me personally.”

“The point is that the sloops will be designed for in-system defense, not the kind of extra-system war expedition that battlecruisers are best suited for,” Castle Rock said. Her expression probably showed more scorn than she intended it to, but she was a long-standing member of the Parliamentary faction which distrusted Dapplelake and cast a leery eye toward the sort of foreign adventures they feared the Defense Minister might be tempted to use his Navy for. “In the unlikely event that another group of marauders like the Free Brotherhood ever tried anything, we could swarm them with at least the same number of missiles as we could now,” she added.

“And when these new ships aren’t fighting mythical bogeymen,” Chillon said, “they’ll be available to assist with any real trouble that might arise.”

“I see,” Winterfall said, feeling a small frown creasing his forehead. The idea made a certain amount of sense, as far as it went. But Breakwater and the others seemed to be ignoring the giant hexapuma in the room. “I understand how a fleet of smaller ships would save money in the long run,” he continued. “But at the moment, we don’t have them. So we’re still talking about building more ships, and I don’t see where the extra money would come from.”

“Indeed,” Breakwater said with a nod. “As Chancellor I know more about the budget than anyone else on Manticore. You’re absolutely right—the money simply isn’t there. Unless.

He let the word hang in the air a moment. Winterfall leaned forward a few centimeters . . .

Unless these new ships are created from existing ones,” Breakwater concluded.

Winterfall blinked. That was not the answer he’d expected.

“Excuse me?” he asked carefully.

This time, it wasn’t just Castle Rock who smiled smugly. It was all of them.

“No, you heard right,” Chillon assured him. “Tell me, have you ever heard of Martin Ashkenazy?”

Winterfall searched his memory. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“I don’t think so.”

Chillon’s lip twitched. Disappointment?

“He’s a mining ship designer, working with civilian spacecraft and mostly under governmental radar,” he said. “He’s also the grandson of one of the officers on the original Triumph battlecruiser eighty-odd years ago. It turns out that he has copies of the diagrams and specs of that ship.”

“And with a little prompting from us,” Breakwater said, “he’s concluded that each of those mothballed battlecruisers can be taken apart, reformed, rebuilt, and converted into a pair of corvette-sized ships.”

“What?” The word blurted unasked-for from Winterfall’s lips.

“And for a fraction of the cost of building those ships from scratch,” Breakwater continued, graciously ignoring the disrespectful outburst.

“As we said: political and economic realities,” Tweenriver added.

“So that’s the plan,” Breakwater said, his eyes boring into Winterfall’s. “Your thoughts?”

“It’s . . . very interesting,” Winterfall managed, struggling to figure out how exactly this was going to work. He’d never seen a battlecruiser up close and personal, but he’d seen plenty of holos and vids, and no matter how he tried to visualize such deconstruction his mental image of the results came out looking hideously ugly, like spacegoing versions of the misshapen hunchbacked ogres of the Old Earth legends he used to read as a kid. An irreverent thought flashed through his mind: Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Ducklings

“Naturally, it won’t be simply a matter of cutting the ship in half like a banana and sealing all the openings,” Castle Rock said. “It’ll take some serious refitting, rewiring and replumbing.”

“But there are a lot of repeaters and redundancy centers—environment, energy, and others—scattered around each of the big ships that can form the center of the smaller ships’ systems,” Chillon added.

“We don’t pretend to understand all of it,” Tweenriver said. “But Ashkenazy is an expert, and he’s convinced the theory is sound.”

“I’ve also run the financial numbers,” Breakwater said. “If he’s right, we’ll be able to create our new Home Guard without unduly straining the budget. And every penny we spend on it will be spent right here in the Star Kingdom, providing jobs and helping to build—rebuild—our infrastructure, not ordering ships from some well-heeled shipyard back in the League.”

And the fact that some of your staunchest political allies happen to own the local shipyards where all that work will be done—and where all that money will be spent—is just an added bonus, isn’t it, My Lord? Winterfall very carefully did not ask out loud.

“Granted, the new ships won’t be sleek and beautiful,” Tweenriver said. “But they’ll be functional.” She smiled. “I daresay aesthetics will be the last thing on the minds of a mining crew facing certain death as their rescuers arrive.”

“Yes,” Winterfall murmured. “A question, if I may?”

Breakwater waved a hand in invitation, and Winterfall braced himself.

“Why me?”

“Why not you?” Castle Rock asked.

It was, Winterfall knew, a reply designed to deflect the question. But for once, he wasn’t going to be dissuaded. Not even by such people as these.

“I’m just a baron,” he said doggedly. “My house and lands are miniscule, my political and economic positions are negligible, and all my friends are in pretty much the same state as I am. If my grandparents hadn’t been one of the first fifty investors in the colony, no one in the Star Kingdom would ever even have heard of me.”

“But they did make that investment, and you are in the Lords,” Breakwater reminded him. “Accident of history or not, it still makes you one of the fifty most powerful men and women in the Star Kingdom.” He pursed his lips. “Fifty-one, of course, counting King Michael.”

“I understand that,” Winterfall said. “Please don’t misunderstand. I’m honored and flattered that you consider me worth inviting into your confidence. I simply don’t see what additional assets I can bring to the table.”

“You give yourself too little credit,” Breakwater said calmly. “Where you see weaknesses, we see strengths. Your youth and circle of friends make you the ideal person to reach out to young peers of similar rank and position. Your political averageness helps allay any suspicions that your true motivation is to draw more power to yourself.”

“Because, frankly, you’re not destined to rise much higher than you already are,” Chillon said. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Winterfall assured him. It was a conclusion he’d reluctantly come to years ago.

“There’s also Clara Sumner’s tacit recommendation,” Tweenriver said. “The countess wouldn’t let just anyone sit in on an Appropriations meeting for her, you know. We trust Clara, and she obviously trusts you.”

“And of course, there’s your brother,” Castle Rock added. “He’ll add a nice touch of additional sincerity to your message of reform.”

“Excuse me?” Winterfall frowned. His brother? What did his brother have to do with this?

“Your brother,” Castle Rock repeated. “Sorry; your half-brother. Travis Long.”

“Yes, I know who you mean,” Winterfall said. “What about him?”

The others exchanged puzzled glances.

“He’s just enlisted in the Navy,” Castle Rock said.

“He what?” Winterfall demanded, feeling his eyes go wide in disbelief. “Enlisted?”

“Three weeks ago,” Castle Rock said, staring at him in some confusion of her own. “He’s already two weeks into boot camp.” She threw a look at Breakwater. “You didn’t know?”

“No, I didn’t,” Winterfall ground out. He’d talked with his mother not two days ago, and she hadn’t said a single word about Travis, let alone mentioned anything about any such sudden and seriously major decisions.

Unless his mother herself didn’t know.

He felt his throat tighten. Four years ago, Travis had tried to talk to him about his growing isolation from his mother. Winterfall, in his usual hurry to finish up the perfunctory visit and return to his work, had brushed the concerns aside, assuming Travis was merely presenting with standard teenage angst, and had offered the boy the same half-baked aphorisms he himself had been given when he was that age.

Now, he wondered if maybe Travis hadn’t been imagining things. Wondered, too, if he should have listened to his brother a little more closely.

“But it doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to filter the foreboding from his voice. He had no idea what RMN boot camp was like, and he frankly didn’t know his half-brother very well. Even so, he had a pretty good idea that Travis and the rigors of boot camp wouldn’t be especially compatible. “He’s my brother, not me. Whatever he does or doesn’t do, his actions don’t impinge on my life and career. Nor do they affect how well I can assist in this undertaking.”

He looked at Breakwater. “Assuming you still want me.”

Once again, Breakwater looked at Castle Rock. Winterfall looked at her too late to catch her response; but when he turned back to Breakwater the other was smiling.

“Welcome aboard, My Lord,” he said, inclining his head. “The Committee for Military Sanity is pleased to have you among us.”

His smile faded.

“Let’s just pray we can get the rest of the Lords to see the universe the same way we do. Before it’s too late.”

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