Back | Next


“In the history of every so-called crisis,” Breakwater intoned, his voice permeating every cubic centimeter of air space in the House of Lords assembly chamber, “there comes a point where one doesn’t quite know whether to laugh or to cry. Sadly, this is the point where I find myself regarding the Star Kingdom’s massive hunt for roving bands of elusive pirates.”

Seated four chairs to Breakwater’s left, Winterfall eased his gaze unobtrusively around the chamber, his eyes automatically measuring faces, his brain automatically gauging the moods and attitudes behind those faces. He would never be as good at this kind of analysis as Baroness Castle Rock, say, or Breakwater himself. But ten T-years of practice had made him far better than he’d once been.

Ten years.

It had been an extraordinary decade. Toiling away at the bottom of the Parliamentary power pyramid, his presence in the House of Lords due solely to the serendipity of his grandparents being one of the first fifty investors in Manticore, Limited, Winterfall had been destined to be forgotten by history, just one more nameless peer whose only contribution to society and the Star Kingdom was to vote however the more powerful and influential of the Lords ordered.

And then, out of nowhere, Breakwater had invited him into his inner circle. Had chosen Winterfall to be part of the group of Lords and Ladies standing at the Chancellor’s side against the resource pit that the Royal Manticoran Navy had become.

Breakwater’s selection hadn’t been random, of course. Winterfall knew that. There’d been subtle but good political reasons for the Chancellor and his Committee for Military Sanity to pluck the young baron out of the mass, not the least of which was that Winterfall’s half-brother Travis Long had just joined that same Navy. If one had close family in an organization, after all, it must certainly follow that one would do only that which one believed to be best for that organization.

Still, at the time of Breakwater’s offer, it had been clear that the Chancellor had assumed Winterfall would remain just another face and warm body to stand behind him in silent support of his policies and his convoluted bids for additional power and prestige. Breakwater and his circle had explicitly said as much.

It was a role Winterfall would have been perfectly willing to play. Reflected glory and recognition were still better than no glory and recognition at all.

But to everyone’s surprise, it hadn’t worked out that way. Winterfall had been asked a question at a high-level meeting, he’d answered the question and offered a suggestion, and suddenly he was being seen as a voice of reason and compromise by everyone from King Michael on down.

Winterfall had expected the limelight to fade away quickly. To his surprise, it hadn’t.

He’d weathered the Phobos debacle. He’d survived the fallout from Dapplelake’s investigation of the incident, which had implicated not only two high-level RMN officers but also three members of the Lords who’d had information they’d failed to pass on to higher authorities. He’d even made it through HMS Guardian’s return from Secour, and the subsequent surge in Navy prestige that had followed Captain Eigen’s report of pirate activity in the region.

In fact, he’d made it through that surge better than Breakwater himself. The Chancellor and MPARS had both taken a political double-punch, and while the loss of status had largely been kept out of the public eye Breakwater had taken the Navy’s new popularity very, very personally.

But like the crafty politician he was, the Chancellor had bided his time, staying low and quiet and watching for signs that his opponents’ position was weakening. And once that erosion started, he’d been more than willing to grab a shovel and help the process along.

And the shovel he was about to wield was a very hefty tool indeed. One that he’d been preparing for just such a moment as this.

“Because the fact of the matter is,” Breakwater continued, “that while I say elusive, I might just as well say nonexistent. Because, really, that’s what they are. That’s what they’ve always been.”

No murmur of interest or excitement ran through the assembled Lords. Nor had Winterfall expected one. Breakwater railing against the Navy and Defense Ministry was so commonplace that anyone who’d been here for the past ten years—which, with a very few exceptions, was pretty much everyone—knew what to expect whenever the Chancellor got onto this topic.

But as Winterfall continued to look around the room he noticed that a few heads which had been bowed over their tablets were starting to come back up. Breakwater had a simmering fire in his voice, a passion that had been largely absent since Guardian’s return from Secour. The change in tone was striking, and the more astute among the peers were taking note, wondering where the Chancellor was going with this.

“This isn’t just my opinion,” Breakwater continued. “In fact, it isn’t opinion at all. Ask First Lord of the Admiralty Cazenestro. Ask Defense Minister Calvingdell. Ask any of the hundreds of men and women who’ve gone on months-long patrols to neighboring star systems hunting in vain for signs of these alleged marauders. All of them will tell you there’s not a single scrap of evidence that any pirates were ever working this region, let alone that there are pirates working here now.”

Winterfall smiled to himself. As always, it was all in the wording. There were certainly hints that someone was preying on merchant ships out there. There were vanished freighters, unexplained gravitic footprints that suggested someone might be coming or going at the edges of various systems, and even a couple of possible sightings by freighters whose sensors weren’t adequate to the task of distinguishing between real images and hyper ghosts.

But evidence? As Breakwater said, not a scrap. No actual pirates or pirate ships had been caught in the act. No one had spotted or boarded the gutted, blood-spattered remains of captured freighters. No identifiable cargo from any of the vanished ships had turned up in local markets or, as far as anyone had heard, the more distant Haven or Solarian League ports.

Though there was always Silesia. The Confederacy had started off as idealistically as Manticore, but there were signs things weren’t going to stay that way. They appeared to be settling into a client-patron arrangement that favored special interests over broader based policy decisions. While Winterfall was well aware of which side of his bread was buttered, he was also aware—more aware than certain other Peers he could have mentioned—of the downsides of that sort of system. More to the point at the moment, however, the Silesian government’s insularity, and disinclination to cooperate with its neighbors, even when known problems reared their heads, offered little reason to believe it would have any interest in dealing with piracy. At least, not so long as that piracy was afflicting someone else’s shipping. If Winterfall was a pirate, he’d mused on occasion, that was where he would go to peddle his stolen merchandise.

It was even possible that someone in Silesia had set up a black-market system to buy and sell the pirated ships themselves. Certainly the ships were the most valuable part of the loot, assuming that the pirates managed to take them even partially intact.

But of course, any such thoughts would undermine Breakwater’s argument, which was why he would never bring them up. What Winterfall found interesting was that no one on the other side ever brought up the Confederacy as a counter-argument. Probably they just realized that lack of proof was of no value in political arguments.

“But the true, even frightening irony is that while the First Lord claims that all this is making the Star Kingdom safer, it is exactly the opposite,” Breakwater went on, his voice deepening in pitch even as it rose in volume. “Each needless voyage translates into many additional hours’ worth of maintenance, refitting, and replacement. Each useless trip into the void takes with it hundreds of men and women whose talents and skills could be used right here at home instead of locked away inside a metal tube for weeks or months on end. Each wild-goose hunt eats up resources that could be far better spent upgrading or maintaining miners, freighters, and other civilian spacecraft.”

More heads were starting to come up now as Breakwater’s passion began to prick the notice of even the most oblivious or cynical Lords. The Chancellor was coming out of the shadows where he’d been nursing his wounds, rising again to challenge the Navy and its supporters.

Some of the Lords would be pleased by that. Others would be dismayed. Still others wouldn’t much care either way, but would merely enjoy the break in the general air of legislative boredom that seemed to have settled around Parliament these past few months.

“And the final paradox of all: if someday an actual pirate should by some miracle stumble upon the Star Kingdom, where will the very ships be that we would need to defend us?” Breakwater intoned, lifting his hand as if in supplication to an invisible protector. “Exactly. They’ll be scattered across the cosmos, completely and utterly useless.”

He brought the hand down to slam the edge of his fist firmly against the top of the podium. “No, My Lords. For all these reasons, and more, this situation is unacceptable.

“But that’s about to change. This very afternoon, I intend to meet with King Michael and First Lord Cazenestro to discuss the situation. And I’m confident that we’ll come to an understanding that will set the Star Kingdom of Manticore along a new and more sensible road.”

With that, and with the entire body of the Lords finally giving him their full attention, he gave a little bow to Prime Minister Davis Harper, Duke Burgundy, and resumed his seat.

Again, Winterfall hid a smile. It was one hundred percent pure Breakwater: a strong, eloquent teasing of the audience, culminating in a smooth halt just as they were starting to hunger for more. It was a flair for the dramatic that Winterfall unfortunately didn’t have, and knew he would never be able to pull off.

Breakwater had it in double handfuls. More than that, he knew when and where to bring that flair to the forefront. The entire House of Lords was now aware that something significant was in the works, and within minutes of the session’s close the media would know it, too. An hour after that, all of Manticore would know. By the time Breakwater emerged from the palace this afternoon, the entire planet would be primed and ready for whatever he had to say.

And no matter what happened in that meeting, they wouldn’t be disappointed. Breakwater would make sure of that.

Winterfall almost felt sorry for First Lord Cazenestro. Almost.

By all rights, Captain Edward Winton would reflect later, he shouldn’t have been at the meeting. For that matter, he shouldn’t have been on Manticore at all.

As usual with such things, it was all in the timing. He and his ship, the heavy cruiser Sphinx, should have been on patrol with the rest of Green One, the nine-ship task force assigned to protect the space around Manticore and Sphinx.

But like every other ship in the Navy, Sphinx was dripping with maintenance problems, spare-parts issues, and short crews. This time it was the tuning on the Beta nodes of the aft impeller ring that had gone gunnybags, and the necessary repair work had been deemed serious enough for Admiral Carlton Locatelli to order it to be handled in space dock. Edward had brought his ship in, gotten the repair work up and running, and assigned his executive officer to ride herd on the operation. After that, invoking commander’s prerogative, he’d engineered a three-day leave for his son Richard from the Academy, then slipped off groundside to spend a couple of precious days with his wife, son, and daughter.

It was an escape he very much needed. Captaining a heavy cruiser was challenging and time-consuming enough, but Edward had the extra burden of being crown prince. That meant keeping tabs on everything that was happening in the Palace, the government, and—for that matter—the entire Star Kingdom.

At least, that was what it theoretically meant. In actual practice, Edward had been more than a little lax on that latter set of duties. His ship’s travel schedule often kept him away from Manticore—or even out of the system entirely, given the Navy’s aggressive anti-piracy stance since Secour—when there were meetings and Parliamentary events that he should be keeping an eye on. At the same time, his lack of anything approaching free time had forced him to mostly ignore the Palace’s daily reports.

It had been a nagging sore spot between him and his father for a long time. Eventually, the King had given up trying to press Edward on the point, but Edward knew that his father’s frustration and disappointment were still there.

Every time the guilt bug bit—and it bit on a fairly regular basis—he promised himself he would do better. Accordingly, as he headed home for his impromptu escape he promised himself that after a few hours with his family he would head to the Palace and check in with his father.

He was exactly four and a half hours into that escape when his father called one of the King’s Own security men assigned to Edward and requested the Crown Prince’s presence at the Palace.

Edward’s first concern, that the King was having some serious medical problem that his haphazard skimming of the daily reports had missed, lasted until he reached the Royal Sanctum where his father was waiting. King Michael seemed a bit more frail than the last time Edward had seen him, but was clearly and thankfully not anywhere near death’s door.

The resulting sense of relief lasted until Edward found out that he’d been summoned for a meeting with Chancellor Breakwater.

The final souring of a previously wonderful day came when he learned the precise topic of the meeting.

He couldn’t let his annoyance show, of course. He was the Crown Prince, he was at the side of the King, and the need to maintain absolute solidarity in public was one of the first lessons he’d been taught by his grandmother as a young child.

But years in the Navy had taught him how to seethe invisibly. He did so now, passionately, all the way to the conference room.

He’d given up an afternoon of board games with his wife, son, and daughter for this?

They reached the conference room to discover no surprises at all awaiting them. Chancellor Breakwater was there, of course, as were First Lord of the Admiralty Cazenestro, Admiral Locatelli, and Defense Minister Clara Sumner, Countess Calvingdell. Flanking Breakwater in support of his side of the issue were his two strongest allies in his ongoing anti-Navy crusade: Earl Chillon and Baron Winterfall.

Edward eyed the latter as he rounded the table toward the chair that had been reserved for him at the far end. Several years ago, in the aftermath of the Phobos debacle, King Michael had warned Edward that Winterfall was someone who needed to be watched. At the time, Edward hadn’t been convinced.

But seeing Winterfall here brought back those memories. Especially since the typical service life of one of Breakwater’s political sock puppets was only a couple of years. The fact that Winterfall was still around was strong indication that the young man hadn’t yet outlived his usefulness to the Chancellor.

Maybe that was the real reason Edward had been so resistant to keeping up with Manticoran politics, he mused as he found his seat at the table. Not the inconvenience of distance or even the chronic lack of time, but the fact that he hated the genteel infighting and backbiting that seemed to have become a permanent part of the Star Kingdom’s operational machinery.

That was one reason he’d gone into the Navy, in fact. Not just to protect his home and his people—though those were certainly important—but because the whole naval structure was different. There were politics, certainly—far more than he liked. But in the end, when push came to shove, there was always a clear line of command, and a clear set of regs and standing orders that everyone followed.

And as King Michael grew steadily more frail, Edward was also increasingly aware that the day was coming when he would never again hold a space-going command. When he would be embroiled in these dirtside politics for the rest of his life.

Across the table, Breakwater was watching him, though clearly pretending to be studying his tablet, and Edward wondered yet again why the Chancellor hadn’t used the Crown Prince’s neglect of his political duties as yet another stick with which to beat the Navy. Certainly it was an easy enough target.

The answer, unfortunately, was probably that Breakwater had decided that Edward’s disengagement from the political fray suited his own purposes.

He felt his lip twist. Yet another reason for him to feel guilty.

“We appreciate your time, Your Majesty,” Breakwater said after the formalities and greetings had been dispensed with and everyone was once again seated. “Your Highness,” he added with a respectful nod to Edward.

Respectful, but with an odd half-frown to it, as if he was wondering why exactly the Crown Prince had even been invited to this get-together.

Edward wasn’t offended. Breakwater liked to be in control of his environment, and adding an extra person to the group weakened that control.

Besides, Edward was wondering about that himself. With luck, maybe he and the Chancellor would find out together.

“As you all know—as most of you know,” Breakwater corrected himself with another nod toward Edward’s end of the table, “MPARS is once again in the midst of a logistics crisis. We have far too few ships to patrol the regions we’ve been assigned to protect, particularly the Unicorn Belt. The ships we do have are undercrewed and are forever struggling to obtain spare parts and orbital dock space.”

Which wasn’t exactly true, Edward knew. In fact, Breakwater’s whole diatribe was edging close to outright falsehood. MPARS might not have any sizeable ships, but they had a half dozen converted ore and mining craft that had been refitted as patrol-and-repair ships. As for personnel, they’d stolen over three hundred officers and enlisted from the RMN five years ago for their ill-fated Phobos project, and as far as Edward knew they’d never given them back.

He looked over at Cazenestro, waiting for the First Lord to call him on that one. To his surprise, though, the rebuke didn’t come.

“It’s not any better in the Navy,” Cazenestro said instead. “In case you hadn’t noticed. If you’ll look to the bills you and your colleagues have passed over the past few years, you’ll see that the various planetary infrastructure rebuilding and expansion programs are still getting first priority in terms of resources and personnel.”

“Yes, thank you, I understand that,” Breakwater said, just as coolly. “And I would be the last person to take food from the mouths of babes.”

There was, Edward knew, an opportunity there for a very sarcastic comment regarding Breakwater’s policies. Fortunately, everyone present had too much class to take the easy shot.

“But that same rebuilding has led to more miners than ever plying the asteroid belts, and their lives and safety are also important to the Star Kingdom,” Breakwater continued. “And it cannot be overemphasized how important the raw materials so obtained are to our current rebuilding—”

“If you please, My Lord,” Calvingdell interrupted in her clear soprano. “I believe we’re all well acquainted with your views and thoughts on this matter. Can we please move to the bottom line?”

“If you insist, My Lady,” Breakwater said, inclining his head to her even as his eyes gave a small flash of annoyance. Clearly, he still had some drawing-room oratory he’d wanted to trot out. “The bottom line is that the Navy has a group of ships that it really has no use for, and which MPARS desperately needs. Namely, the seven Pegasus-class corvettes.”

“You must be joking,” Locatelli said, his voice a sort of disbelieving outrage. “If you’d ever bothered to study naval tactics you’d have learned that corvettes are the ship of choice for flank protection and long-range triangulation.”

“I have studied tactics, thank you Admiral,” Breakwater said, his own voice the smooth confidence of a man who’s anticipated the objection and has already formulated a counter-argument. “The only reason you use corvettes that way is that there’s not much else you can do with them. Your Salamander-class destroyers are equally effective for that kind of duty: almost as fast, and better armed.”

“Except that we only have six destroyers,” Cazenestro pointed out. “Losing the corvettes would cut our useful flanking force in half.”

“That assumes you actually have need of a flanking force,” Breakwater said. “But that leads us to the real core of our proposal. At the moment the Navy’s forces are split into, I believe, three groups: Green Task Forces One and Two in the Manticore-A system, and Red Force out at Manticore-B. Distributing your forces that way means that, at any given time, only three spots in the entire Star Kingdom are truly safe.” He lifted a finger. “Whereas if the seven corvettes were with MPARS and patrolling other regions of our space—”

“Just a moment,” Locatelli interrupted. “Are you suggesting that the corvettes would still be armed?”

“Of course,” Breakwater said, frowning as if that was obvious. “They wouldn’t be much use against your roving pirates if they weren’t.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in pirates,” Calvingdell said mildly.

Edward focused on her. Calvingdell had taken over the Ministry four T-years ago, after the Phobos investigation came to an end and the former Defense Minister, Earl Dapplelake, had handed in the final report and his resignation. Completely unnecessarily, in Edward’s opinion, especially given that the report hadn’t laid even a hint of the blame at the Defense Minister’s own door. But Dapplelake had considered the debacle ultimately his responsibility, and neither the Prime Minster nor the King himself had been able to talk him out of stepping down.

Calvingdell wasn’t a bad choice to fill his shoes, really. She understood people and numbers, and could deal with both.

The problem was that she didn’t understand the Navy. Not the way Dapplelake had understood it. Certainly not the way Cazenestro or Locatelli or Edward himself understood it.

And like a miscalibrated impeller wedge, that blind spot might end up costing them. Badly.

“There are a lot of things I don’t believe in,” Breakwater said, his eyes focused directly on hers now. Like a Kodiak Max targeting the weak one of the herd, the irreverent thought flickered through Edward’s mind. “But I’m willing to concede that my knowledge is imperfect, my opinions not always correct, and the future may throw some surprises our direction. Even if there are no genuine threats out there right now, diversifying the Star Kingdom’s defensive capability still makes sense.”

“Hardly,” Cazenestro said, throwing a sideways look at Calvingdell that probably wanted to be a glare but couldn’t quite bring itself to cross the line of propriety. “If a threat does present itself we need to be able to counter with a strong and focused response. I doubt an attacker would sportingly hold off his operation while we gathered our ships together from every corner of the Kingdom.”

“On top of which, MPARS has no training in the use or maintenance of such weapons,” Locatelli added. “It would take years to bring your people up to speed.”

“Which is why we’re not asking that all seven corvettes be transferred at once,” Winterfall spoke up. “Nor is there need for them to be armed. At least, not yet.”

All eyes turned to him.

“Explain, please,” Cazenestro said, his voice cautious.

“Chancellor Breakwater is looking to the future,” Winterfall said. “But if the past has taught us anything, it’s that small steps are often the prudent course.” He tapped a key on his tablet, the command popping a set of diagrams and data pages onto the tablet lying on the table in front of Edward. “I’ve therefore taken the liberty of working up a compromise suggestion.”

Edward picked up his tablet, mentally shaking his head as he skimmed through the report. Just as he had back in the early Phobos debate, Winterfall had picked the precise psychological moment to undercut the whole basis of both Breakwater’s suggestion and Cazenestro’s objections.

“So you’re saying you don’t want the missiles at all?” Cazenestro asked warily.

“As I said, perhaps in the future,” Winterfall said. “If and when we get solid proof that there’s a threat to the Star Kingdom, we’ll want as many armed ships as possible. Until then—” he gestured to the tablet “—I think a pair of hull-mounted rescue pods would be more useful to MPARS’s primary mission of search and rescue. It would also make sense to take the opportunity to also do a complete overhaul and upgrade. If we needed to rearm them in the future, we’d want to make sure all of their systems were fully serviceable and up to date. We should probably also fit them to tow other ships in an emergency.”

“Interesting,” Calvingdell said as she scrolled down the pages. “So the rescue pods would simply replace the missile box launchers?”

“Exactly, My Lady,” Winterfall said. “And the launchers could always be restored. The necessary connection points are already there, and I understand box launchers are designed for relatively easy removal and replacement.”

Relatively being the key word,” Locatelli rumbled. “Have you run the design by anyone else?”

“Not the full design,” Winterfall said. “But everything in it is off-the-shelf technology, so I don’t anticipate any major surprises.”

“It would certainly be a welcome sight to a distressed mining ship,” Calvingdell commented.

That point, at least, was unarguable. Edward ran his eye down the list of emergency equipment, spare parts, tools, and survival gear that would make up the bulk of one of Winterfall’s proposed rescue pods, all arranged so that individual sections could be split off and dropped alongside a ship in distress. The second pod, in contrast, was a last-ditch solution for when all the repair gear failed: a compact life pod where survivors of a wrecked ship could huddle together, cramped but safe, while the corvette ferried them back to port.

“I’m sure it would be,” Cazenestro said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that this would pull seven vital warships out of service.” He looked at the King, who had been watching the verbal duel in silence. “I presume, Your Majesty, that you recognize the potentially dire situation this would leave us in.”

“I do,” the King said. “But I also recognize that Chancellor Breakwater is correct. MPARS’s resources have been stretched beyond the limit, and that situation needs to be addressed.”

Edward stared down the length of the table. Was his father actually agreeing with Breakwater’s transparent grab for ships and power? Especially after Secour?

“We would, of course, take another page from Baron Winterfall’s list of small steps,” the King continued. “We should begin by transferring just two of the corvettes to MPARS instead of all seven.” He gestured to Cazenestro. “Do you have a suggestion as to which two, My Lord?”

Cazenestro looked like he’d just eaten something sour. But he knew an order when he heard one. “Probably Aries and Taurus,” he said reluctantly. “They’re currently attached to Red Force at Manticore-B, which is where the bulk of the MPARS patrols are anyway. They should feel right at home there. Though it seems to me, Your Majesty, that there’s no reason to remove their box launchers or approve their transfer until it’s been confirmed that Baron Winterfall’s modules are actually practical.”

“Agreed,” Michael said. “And of course, the transfer can’t take place until MPARS has men and women capable of crewing them. Chancellor Breakwater’s first task will be to have those crews chosen, after which you’ll arrange for them to be run through the Academy and Casey-Rosewood.”

Cazenestro sat up a bit straighter. “They’ll be coming to us, Your Majesty?”

“I doubt standard MPARS training includes corvettes, My Lord,” Michael pointed out dryly.

“Yes, Your Majesty, I understand that,” Cazenestro said, floundering a bit. “But there’s no significant difference in the basic systems between those ships and the ones MPARS already has in service. In fact, the primary differences are all combat systems.”

“And the tactical training to use them, of course,” Calvingdell murmured.

“Of course,” Cazenestro agreed. “Neither of which are MPARS priorities. My thought was that I could simply detach some of my instructors on a temporary basis to handle the degree of familiarization they’d need where the core systems are required.”

“As Baron Winterfall said, those ships might someday be pressed into combat,” Breakwater put in smoothly. “In such an event, the fact that the crews had undergone military training might prove crucial to their success and survival. In fact,” he went on, as if the thought had just occurred to him, “it might be a good idea if all MPARS personnel underwent such training.”

“An interesting proposal,” Michael said, turning to Cazenestro. “My Lord?”

“Under current conditions, I’m afraid that would be impossible, Your Majesty,” Cazenestro said stiffly. “We simply don’t have the facilities to accommodate such an influx of new people.” He glowered at Breakwater. “Unless the Chancellor would be willing to fund an expansion for those facilities.”

“Unfortunately, Parliament’s budget has little room for such extras at the moment,” Breakwater said. “But again, we can leave that for the future. We’ll just focus on training the corvettes’ future crews and leave the full regimen for another day.”

“I think we have a plan of action, then,” the King said. “We’ll meet again when the final details of these rescue pods have been settled and some cost estimates worked out. I presume that will be agreeable to everyone?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Calvingdell said.

“Very much so, Your Majesty,” Breakwater confirmed.

Michael nodded and gestured to them. “Then we are dismissed,” he said. “Thank you all for coming.”

The exit formalities were shorter than the entrance ones. Edward remained standing beside his chair until all but the King had left the room. The door closed behind the last of them, and Michael turned to his son.

“I trust you found that amusing?” he suggested, rising from his chair and gesturing toward the more intimate circle of lounge chairs off to the side of the room.

Amusing is hardly the word I would use,” Edward said, heading for the conversation circle. “Are you really going to just give Breakwater those corvettes?”

“I assume you have an objection?”

“More than just one,” Edward assured him, waiting for his father to sit down and then taking the chair across from him. “With your permission?”

Michael inclined his head. “Please.”

“Let’s start with logistics,” Edward said. “If we give MPARS even a single missile, we’ll have set the precedent for two services competing for the same small stockpile of very expensive ordnance.”

“Seems to me I remember the exact opposite argument being made when Breakwater wanted to break up the battlecruisers,” Michael pointed out mildly.

“It wasn’t me making that argument,” Edward pointed out in return. “The fact remains that we have only a limited number of missiles to go around.”

“We can always get more.”

“Not with Breakwater’s death grip on the purse strings we can’t,” Edward countered. “Remember that old Defense Ministry policy forbidding the use of missiles in non-combat situations unless it’s specifically authorized practice?”

“Which has since been rescinded,” his father pointed out.

“No thanks to Breakwater,” Edward said. “Point two: training. Breakwater’s right about his people needing a full military run-through. Cazenestro is also right about the facilities for such an influx of new people not existing. Bottom line: every slot that MPARS takes is one less slot we’ll have for a future RMN officer or spacer. We’re already behind on our personnel expansion, and that would slow it down even more. As Breakwater and Winterfall no doubt had in mind the whole time.”

“Ah—so you did note the collusion,” Michael said approvingly. “Despite the surface conflict in their two proposals.”

“Please, Dad—I wasn’t born yesterday,” Edward said with all the scorn he felt he could deliver to a sitting monarch, trying to ignore the fresh flicker of guilt over all those missed briefings. “Winterfall’s last fully independent act was back at the first Phobos discussion when he undercut Breakwater’s original demands. Breakwater saw how well that worked and adopted the gambit, and Winterfall’s been playing dagger to Breakwater’s rapier ever since.”

“Nicely put,” Michael said with a small smile. “Dagger to rapier. I may steal that one. Anything else?”

“The biggest one of all,” Edward assured him. “Command and control. You may have noticed that the Navy and MPARS don’t exactly get along, at least not at the top. If the Star Kingdom ever was attacked, trying to get coordinated action from two services who’ve been competing for everything for years would be difficult at best and impossible at worst. And impossible in a combat situation usually means catastrophic.”

“Good points, all.” Michael leaned forward slightly, his expression more intent. “My turn now. We’ll skip the dramatic buildup and go straight to the big one. Namely, Countess Calvingdell and First Lord Cazenestro want to give those corvettes away.”

Edward felt his jaw drop. “They what?”

“No, you heard correctly,” Michael said. “We discussed this in detail some time back. A conversation you’d have been included in had you been available.” His eyes held Edward’s for a moment, and the Crown Prince felt his cheekbones heat as his father’s expression mirrored his own earlier thoughts. He wondered for a moment if Michael was going to make the message more explicit, but then the King shrugged and settled back. “They’ve decided they don’t want them anymore.”

“But—” Edward broke off, sensing a babble coming and determined to cut it off before he sounded as stupid as he currently felt. Yes, he should have kept up with the reports, especially those that dealt with the Navy. But even so, what in the name of heaven were they all thinking?

“They want to just give them to Breakwater?”

“So they’ve told me,” Michael said. “And before you start wondering about their sanity, understand that no one’s making a spur-of-the-moment decision here. Breakwater may have thought he was blindsiding us with this proposal, but there’ve been hints coming out of the Exchequer’s office for a couple of weeks now. Calvingdell and Cazenestro have had plenty of time to think this through.”

“But why?” Edward persisted. “MPARS doesn’t need warships.”

“Perhaps not,” Michael said. “The more salient point is that the Navy doesn’t want to keep pumping resources into non-hyper-capable, under-armed, hundred-year-old ships. At the same time, it would be a shame to simply scrap them—they’re still useful, at least for certain duties. The obvious solution is to give them to Breakwater, where they’ll be eating at the MPARS lunch counter instead of the Navy’s. As an added bonus, the transfer will free up—what is it, forty-five?—forty-five spacers per ship for reassignment elsewhere.”

Edward suppressed a glower. Maybe on paper a corvette’s compliment was forty-five officers and spacers. In reality, each of them was having to make do with thirty. The whole Navy was undermanned, and that wasn’t going to change any time soon. Especially if Breakwater won out with his idea to poach spots in the rosters of the Navy’s training facilities.

“Furthermore, you have to admit that having a few small armed ships wandering around the asteroid belts isn’t a bad idea,” Michael continued. “An in-system raider looking for easy prey could do worse than a fat miner who’s loaded to the gills with high-grade ore and is hours away from any military assistance. There are also the extraction facilities outside the hyper limit, which usually have modules full of refined materials ripe for the picking. A harmless-looking rescue ship that suddenly shows herself capable of sending a missile down the pirates’ throats would be a highly unpleasant surprise.”

“I thought Winterfall agreed we weren’t going to arm them.”

“Not at the start,” Michael said. “But we all know that’s the direction Breakwater will eventually carry the discussion.”

“All right,” Edward said slowly. “But if everyone’s agreed, why are we fighting about it? If Calvingdell and Cazenestro want to give him the corvettes, why did we even have this meeting?”

“Because it’s never a bad idea to let Breakwater think he’s won a battle,” Michael said, a grim twinkle in his eye. “It’s an even better idea to make him think he owes the Navy a favor that can be called in somewhere down the line.”

“I’m not convinced Breakwater thinks that way.”

“Possibly not,” Michael conceded. “But I think Winterfall could be persuaded that direction. And even if Breakwater doesn’t give a damn about debts, there are times a politician—even our Sabrepike of a Lord Chancellor—has no choice but to pay up when the debt gets called publicly and under the right circumstances.” He smiled tiredly. “Besides, he likes to think of himself as a visionary whose name will resonate throughout Manticoran history. People like that sometimes have to act like statesmen, whether they want to or not.”

Edward wasn’t convinced of that, either. But it was clear that the decision had already been made, and made far above his own position. All he could do was accept it and deal with whatever consequences arose from it.

And he could also ask one final question. “So why exactly am I here?”

The twinkle faded from his father’s eye. “Because when it comes time to make that deal and call in that favor,” he said quietly, “you’ll probably be the one making it. Because you will be the king.”

Edward stared at his father, his earlier concerns about the older man’s health roaring back. “What are you saying?” he asked carefully.

“I’m saying it’s time for you to start looking to the future,” Michael said. “For years now you’ve been merely a naval officer.” He lifted a hand. “I know; that’s what you wanted, and there’s nothing mere about serving your kingdom. But that time is coming to an end. The Navy can no longer be allowed to completely fill your life. You’re the Crown Prince, and you need to live and act accordingly.”

“I understand that,” Edward said through stiff lips. “Can we back up a minute to the whole I’ll-be-making-the-deal bit? Is there something going on I should know about?”

“It’s all right, Edward,” Michael soothed. “Come, now—don’t look so serious.”

“Don’t give me that,” Edward countered. “Anyway, you started it. What’s going on?”

“Nothing you need concern yourself with right now,” Michael said. “If that changes you’ll be the first to know.”

“No, no, you don’t get off that easy,” Edward insisted. “I’m the Crown Prince, remember? Everything is my concern. You just said so.”

“Easy there, hexapuma,” the King chided, a hint of the earlier twinkle coming back into his eye. “Even a crown prince isn’t allowed to badger his king. I’m pretty sure that’s in the rules someplace.”

“I’m not a prince badgering his king,” Edward said quietly. “I’m a son worried about his father.”

“And I appreciate your concern,” Michael said. “But for now I need to keep this quiet. And I need you to keep what you know quiet, as well.”

“That won’t be hard,” Edward growled. “Given I don’t actually know anything.”

“See?” Michael said with a smile. “You’re already learning how this politics thing works.”

“Hooray for our side,” Edward said, trying hard to read his father’s expression. Was he ill? Tired? Depressed?

Was he somehow being pushed out of office?

The thought chilled Edward right down to the bone. Could Breakwater have amassed so much power in Parliament that he could actually force the king himself from the throne? Was that what this whole corvette transfer was about, that Cazenestro and Calvingdell were acceding to the Chancellor’s demands because they literally had no choice?

It seemed absurd on the face of it. But maybe it wasn’t. The Constitution provided for the removal of a monarch by a three-quarters vote of both houses of Parliament, but that was normally only for “high crimes or misdemeanors,” which would be a ludicrous allegation in King Michael’s case.

But he could also be removed for incapacitation. And that one was not nearly as unthinkable.

Could the King’s health be much worse than he was admitting? Could Breakwater have learned something about Michael’s medical condition which he’d so far managed to keep secret?

Even from his own son? If so, Edward wasn’t just a crown prince. He was one half of a constitutional crisis, the like of which the Star Kingdom of Manticore hadn’t seen since its formation. And he might also be a son with a father he was likely to lose far sooner than he’d dreamed.

But his father clearly didn’t want to talk about it. And Edward knew from long experience that a King Michael who didn’t want to be moved, wasn’t. At all.

“Good,” Michael said, some of the darkness fading from his tone. “And really, don’t look so worried. We have very good briefing officers, even if you haven’t had the time to spend with them.” The King’s smile might have held just a bit of a bite, Edward thought. “You’ll have time to get up to speed before it becomes necessary.”

He stood up. “And now, I believe that matters of state have taken enough of your planned family time. Get yourself home, and be sure to hug Cynthia and Sophie for me. How’s Richard doing at the Academy?”

“Very well,” Edward assured him as he also stood up. “But he’s still not too old to hug.”

“I should hope not,” Michael said with a smile. “Give him a hug from me, as well. Oh, and if you get a chance, you might try to touch base with your sister before she leaves.”

Half-sister, Edward’s brain made the automatic edit. Elizabeth was eleven years his junior, the offspring of his father and his father’s second wife, and Edward had been wrangling with the little upstart ever since she was old enough to understand what wrangling was. He’d occasionally thought that one of the minor perks of being in the Navy was the fact that it put him out of reach of her honed and entirely too opinionated tongue.

Still, in the five years since she’d married Carmichael de Quieroz, Baron New Madrid, and set up housekeeping with the widower and his three children, Edward had heard that some of her rougher edges had smoothed a bit. It would probably be worth the time and effort to check that out for himself. “Where is she off to this time?”

“Sphinx,” Michael told him. “They’re joining a peak bear hunting party.”

“I hope they’re not bringing the children.”

“Your sister may be headstrong, but she’s not stupid,” Michael said with a fond smile. “Mary and I will be watching them.”

“So trading off a potential mauling versus guaranteed and unabashed spoiling?”

“Something like that,” Michael said. “Enjoy your time with your family.”

“I will,” Edward promised.

And he did.

But before that, before even leaving the room, he made sure to first hug his father.

Back | Next