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Chapter Four

"I don't fucking believe this!"

More than one of the people seated around the conference table flinched at the venom in Secretary of War Esther McQueen's snarl. Not because they were afraid of her (although some of them were), but because no one who wasn't completely insane spoke to Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just that way.

Despite himself, Pierre felt a grin—more of a grimace, really—twitch the corners of his mouth. There were nine people at the table, including himself and Saint-Just. Among them, they represented the core membership of the most powerful group in the entire People's Republic. After better than eight T-years, the Committee of Public Safety still boasted a total membership of twenty-six, almost thirty percent of its original size. Of course, that was only another way of saying that it had been reduced by over seventy percent. And allowing for new appointments to replace those who'd disappeared in various purges, factional power struggles, and other assorted unpleasantnesses (and for the replacement of several of those replacements), the actual loss rate among the Committee's members had been well over two hundred percent. Of the original eighty-seven members, only Pierre himself, Saint-Just, and Angela Downey and Henri DuPres (both of whom were little more than well-cowed place-holders) remained. And of the current crop of twenty-six, only the nine in this room truly mattered.

And six of them are too terrified to breathe without my permission. Mine and Oscar's, at any rate. Which was what we thought we wanted. They're certainly not going to be hatching any plans to overthrow me . . . but I hadn't quite counted on how useless their gutlessness would make them when it hit the fan. 

Which—fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's viewpoint—is at least not something anyone would ever consider saying about McQueen. 

"I can understand your . . . unhappiness, Esther," he said aloud after a moment. "I'm not too happy myself," he added with gargantuan understatement. "Unfortunately, it seems to have happened, whether either one of us likes it or not."

"But—" McQueen started to snap back, then made herself stop. Her mouth clicked shut, and she reined in her temper with visible, nostril-flaring effort.

"You're right, Citizen Chairman," she said in the tone of a woman coming back on balance. "And I apologize for my reaction. However . . . surprising the news, it doesn't excuse such intemperate language. But I stand by my original sentiments. And while I imagine there will be time for proper recriminations later—" she glanced at one of the only two people at the table who were junior to her, and Leonard Boardman, Secretary of Public Information, wilted in his chair "—the immediate consequences are going to be catastrophic . . . and that's if we're lucky! If we're unlucky. . . ."

She let her voice trail off and shook her head, and Pierre wished he could disagree with her assessment.

"I'm afraid I have to concur with you there," he admitted, and it was his turn to shake his head.

Joan Huertes, Interstellar News Service's senior reporter and anchorwoman in the People's Republic of Haven, had commed Boardman directly, seeking his comment on the incredible reports coming out of the Manticoran Alliance. The good news, such as it was, was that Boardman had been smart enough to give her a remarkably composed (sounding, at any rate) "No comment," and then to contact Saint-Just immediately rather than sit around and dither over what the PR disaster might mean for him personally. Judging from his expression, he'd made up for the dithering since, but at least he'd gotten the information into the right hands quickly.

Equally to the good, Saint-Just hadn't even considered covering up or trying to sugarcoat the situation for Pierre. Some people, including some at this table, would have in his place, for it was Oscar's people who'd screwed the pooch. But he'd made no attempt to delay while he sought scapegoats. And, finally, they were at least fortunate that the story hadn't come at them completely without warning.

Citizen General Seth Chernock had opted to send his dispatch, with its preposterous conclusion that something must be very wrong in the Cerberus System, aboard a StateSec-crewed vessel in the name of security rather than using the first available dispatch boat. By his most pessimistic estimate, however, he ought to have arrived in Cerberus over two months ago, yet no report from him had reached Saint-Just. No one had worried about that at first. After all, Chernock was the StateSec CO of the sector in which Cerberus lay. That meant any decisions about how to deal with problems there were properly his, and he wasn't the sort to ask prior approval for his actions. Besides, what could possibly have happened to such a powerful force?

Yet as the silence dragged out, Saint-Just had begun to grow anxious at last, and last week he'd finally dispatched his own investigators—very quietly—to look into Chernock's ridiculous worries. None had reported back yet, and wouldn't for at least another three weeks, but at least he'd already begun the information-seeking process.

Unfortunately, that was all the good news there was . . .  and Pierre was grimly certain they'd scarcely even begun to hear the bad news.

"Excuse me, Citizen Chairman," Avram Turner, the thin, intense, dark-haired Secretary of the Treasury (and most junior member of the Committee), said after several seconds of silence, "but I'm still not clear on how any of this could have happened."

"Neither are we—yet," Pierre replied. "Obviously no one saw it coming, or we would have acted to prevent it. And at this particular moment, all the information we have is what's coming to us from the Manties."

"With all due respect, Citizen Chairman, and while that may be true, it would have helped enormously if StateSec had informed the Navy when it first received Citizen General Chernock's initial dispatches," Esther McQueen said. "We couldn't have prevented what had already happened to Hades, and we couldn't have hoped to intercept Harrington en route to Trevor's Star, but you do realize that our frontier fleets and star systems are going to hear about this from the Manties and Sollies well before they hear anything about it from us." She twitched her shoulders. "I can't begin to estimate the impact it will have on Fleet morale and the loyalty of our more, um, fractious planetary populations, but I don't expect it to be good."

"I know." Pierre sighed, and ran the fingers of one hand through his hair. "Unfortunately, the communications lag really bit us on the ass on this one. I'm not defending my decision to keep Chernock's original report to myself, but be honest, Esther. Even if I'd shared his dispatch with you, what could we have done about it until we had confirmation of whether or not he was correct? And without sending a courier to Cerberus to see for yourself, would you have believed a completely unarmed group of prisoners, denied any technology above the level of windmill water pumps, the closest of them separated from our main on-planet base by over fifteen hundred kilometers of ocean, on a world whose native flora and fauna are totally inedible, could somehow have seized control of an entire star system? Of course Oscar and I thought Chernock had gone insane! And even if he hadn't, the force he took with him should have been capable of dealing easily with anything the prisoners could do to resist it."

He met McQueen's eyes levelly, and the small, slender Secretary of War had to nod. She didn't feel like agreeing, but she really had no choice. None of the fragmentary information so far available explained how the prisoners had seized the planet in the first place, far less how they could possibly have defeated the powerful force Chernock had put together to go and take it back again.

And the bastard had the good sense to ask for a regular Navy CO for his collection of Navy and SS units, she admitted to herself unhappily. Let's not point that little fact out just now, Esther. 

She pushed herself back in her chair, eyes closed for a moment, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Until their own couriers got back from Cerberus, they had only the fragments Huertes had used to prime the pump in her interview attempt with Boardman, and it was entirely possible Boardman had read too much into those bits and pieces. Unfortunately, it didn't feel that way to McQueen, and she'd learned to trust her instincts. And if Boardman hadn't overreacted—hell, if only a tenth of what he thought Huertes had meant was true—the disaster sounded pretty damned close to complete.

She puffed her lips in silent frustration and anger, wondering how in hell it could have happened. She'd never met Citizen Admiral Yearman, but she'd pulled his record within minutes of hearing from Saint-Just—finally!—about Chernock's dispatch. From what she could see, Yearman wasn't (or hadn't been; no one was certain at the moment if he or Chernock were still alive) an inspired strategist, but he was a sound tactician. If Chernock had been smart enough to realize he needed a professional to ride herd on his SS thug starship crews, then one had to assume he'd also been smart enough to let that professional run the show once they arrived in Cerberus. And whatever Yearman's weaknesses in the area of strategy, he certainly ought to have been able to deal with the orbital defenses guarding Hades, even if they'd been completely under the escapees' control. Particularly since Chernock had specifically informed Saint-Just that he was giving Yearman the full technical specs on those defenses.

But still . . .

"The fact that Harrington is still alive may actually be even more damaging than the escape itself," Turner pointed out, and, again, McQueen nodded. Privately, she was impressed by the other's nerve. His point was glaringly obvious, but making it in front of the two men who'd decided to have Public Information fake up the imagery of Harrington's execution took guts, especially for the most junior person present. On the other hand, as McQueen herself demonstrated, actual power within the Committee of Public Safety wasn't necessarily linked with how long one had been a member. Rob Pierre had handpicked Turner to take over the Treasury just over a T-year ago, when he decided to ram through a long-overdue package of fiscal reform, and whatever his other failings might be, the thin, aggressively energetic Turner had performed impressively in implementing those reforms. His star was definitely in the ascendant at the moment.

Then again, my star is "in the ascendant" . . . and I know perfectly well that Saint-Just would shoot me in a second if he thought he could dispense with my services. Hell, McQueen gave a mental snort of amusement, he'd probably shoot me anyway, just on general principles. Pierre's the one who's smart enough to know the Navy needs me running it. Saint-Just's just the one who's smart enough to know I'll shoot both of them the instant I think I can get away with it. 

"Again, I'd like to disagree, and I can't." Pierre sighed in response to Turner's observation. It was his turn to pinch the bridge of his nose, and he shook his head wearily, then managed a wan smile. "It seemed so simple at the time. She was already dead—we knew that—and whatever we said, the Manties and Sollies would never believe we hadn't killed her. At least this way we could pass it off as the end result of due process instead of leaving the impression that we'd just shot her out of hand and dumped her in a shallow grave. And we were hardly in a position to risk shaking public confidence by announcing Cordelia's death or what had really happened to Tepes, so—"

He shrugged, and no one in the conference room needed any maps to figure out what he'd left unsaid. None of them had been part of Cordelia Ransom's faction on the Committee. If they ever had been, they would not have been in this room . . . or any longer on the Committee. They all knew how useful Pierre and Saint-Just had found the delay in the official announcement of Ransom's death when it came time to purge her supporters. But still . . .

"That's the thing I find hardest to understand," Turner murmured with the air of a man thinking out loud. "How could she possibly have survived what happened to Tepes? And if she did, how could we not have known?"

"Esther?" Pierre glanced at McQueen. "Would you have any thoughts on those questions?"

Carefully, now, she thought. Let's speak very carefully, Esther. 

"I've had a lot of thoughts about them, Citizen Chairman," she said aloud, and that much at least was true. "I've gone back and pulled the scan records from Count Tilly's flag deck and combat information center, and I've had them analyzed to a fare-thee-well over at the Octagon." She reached inside her civilian jacket and extracted a thin chip folio, tossing it on the table so that it slid to a stop directly in front of Pierre. "That's the result of our analyses, and also the actual records of the explosion, and none of my people have been able to find anything to explain how Harrington and her people could have gotten off the ship and down to the planet before she blew. Or, for that matter, how Citizen Brigadier Tresca and his people groundside could possibly have missed something like that. Obviously they must have used some of Tepes' small craft, although how they could have taken control of them in the first place is beyond me. There were less than thirty of them aboard, and I can't even begin to imagine how so few people could fight their way through an entire ship's company to the boat bays. But even assuming they could pull that off, the only small craft anyone actually saw was the single assault shuttle that Camp Charon used the orbital defenses to destroy."

She paused, watching Pierre (and Saint-Just) as neutrally as possible. The chips she'd passed to the Citizen Chairman contained exactly what she'd said they did. What they did not contain was the footage from Count Tilly's flag deck immediately after Tepes had blown up. McQueen had been very specific about the time chops she'd assigned when she instructed the Navy experts to analyze the records. She still wasn't certain what Citizen Rear Admiral Tourville had been up to when he bent over his tac officer's console, and she had no intention of allowing anyone else to figure that out if there was anything at all she could do to prevent it. Lester Tourville was entirely too good a fighting officer to hand over to StateSec. And the fact that she'd covered for him, once she found a discreet way to let him know she had, ought to prove extremely useful as a loyalty enhancer down the road . . .

"The one thing I can suggest with some degree of confidence," she went on after a moment, "is that Harrington and her people must have used the temporary degradation of the Hades sensor net caused by the destruction of the known shuttle to slip their own small craft through to the surface without anyone groundside seeing them coming."

"Degradation?" Turner repeated, and she cocked an eyebrow at Pierre. The Citizen Chairman nodded almost imperceptibly, and she turned to Turner.

"The ground defense center at Camp Charon used high megaton-range orbital mines to destroy the Manties' escape shuttle—or what everyone had assumed was their escape shuttle—just before Tepes blew up. The blast and EMP from that, coupled with the effect of Tepes' own fusion plants when they let go, created a very brief window in which the sensor net was effectively 'blinded' and reduced to a fraction of its normal efficiency. That has to be when Harrington's people slipped through to the planet."

"Are you suggesting that they planned from the beginning to use our own response to open the way for them?"

"I think it's obvious that they must have," McQueen replied. "And we're talking about Honor Harrington here, Avram."

"Harrington is not some sort of boogeyman," Saint-Just said in frosty tones. Several people cringed, but McQueen met his cold eyes steadily.

"I didn't say she was," she said. "But it's obvious from her record that she's one of the best, if not the best, Manty officers of her generation. With the sole exception of what happened at Adler—where, I might add, she still succeeded in her primary mission of protecting the convoy under her command, despite atrociously bad luck—she's kicked the crap out of every commander we've put up against her, Navy and StateSec alike, apparently. All I'm saying here is that this is exactly the sort of maneuver I would expect from her." She raised a hand as Saint-Just's eyes narrowed and continued before he could speak. "And, no, I'm not saying that I would have anticipated something like this before the fact. I wouldn't have, and I have no doubt she would have taken me completely by surprise, as well. I'm simply saying that, looking back after the fact, I'm not in the least surprised that she managed to anticipate Camp Charon's logical response to an 'escaping' shuttle and found a way to use it brilliantly to her advantage. It's exactly the sort of thing she'd been doing to us for the last ten or twelve years now."

"Which is why she is a boogeyman." Pierre sighed. "Or why altogether too many of our people regard her as one. Not to mention the reason the Manties and their allies are so ecstatic about having her back." He showed his teeth in an almost-smile. "Bottom line, it doesn't really matter whether or not she's some sort of warrior demigoddess if that's what her people think she is."

"I wouldn't go quite that far, Sir," McQueen said judiciously. "What she actually manages to do to us is nothing to sneeze at. Still, you're essentially correct. She's much more dangerous to us, right this moment, as a symbol than as a naval officer."

"Especially given how badly shot up she seems to be," Turner agreed with a nod.

"I wouldn't count too heavily on her injuries to keep her out of action," McQueen cautioned. "None of them appear to have affected her command abilities. Or not," she added dryly, "to judge by the rather neat little operation she apparently just pulled off, at any rate. And it's entirely possible, if the situation turns nasty enough for them, for the Manties to send her back out, arm or no arm."

"On the other hand, that would appear, at the moment, to be one of the brighter spots of the situation," Pierre pointed out. "For right now, at least, your people are still pushing the Manties back, Esther. Are you in a position to keep on doing that?"

"Unless something changes without warning, yes," McQueen said. "But I caution you again, Sir, that my confidence is based on the situation as it now exists and that the situation in question is definitely open to change. In particular, we know from the Operation Icarus after-battle reports that the Manties hit us with something new in both Basilisk and Hancock, and we're still not certain exactly what it was in either case."

"I still believe you're reading too much into those reports." Saint-Just's tone was just a tiny bit too reasonable, and McQueen allowed her green eyes to harden as they met his. "We know they used LACs at Hancock," the StateSec CO went on, "but we've known ever since our commerce raiding operations went sour in Silesia that they had an improved light attack craft design. My understanding is that the analysts have concluded the Hancock LACs were simply more of the same."

"The civilian analysts have concluded that," McQueen replied so frostily several people winced.

McQueen and Saint-Just had clashed over this before, and their differences, however cloaked in outward propriety, had become ever more pointed over the last few months. McQueen wanted to resurrect the old Naval Intelligence Bureau as a Navy-run shop, staffed by Navy officers. Her official reason was that the military needed an in-house intelligence capability run by people who understood operational realities. Saint-Just was equally determined to retain the present arrangement, in which NavInt was merely one more section of State Security's sprawling intelligence apparatus. His official reason was that centralized control insured that all relevant information was available from a single set of data banks and eliminated redundancy and the inefficiency of turf wars. In fact, his real reason was that he suspected that her real reason was a desire to cut his own people out of the loop in order to give herself (and any personal adherents in the upper echelons of the Navy's command structure) a secure channel through which to intrigue against the Committee.

"I could wish for more complete and detailed data from Hancock," she went on after the briefest of pauses and in slightly less chill tones. "Only one of Citizen Admiral Kellet's cruisers got out, and every one of her surviving battleships took severe damage. And, of course, only six of them came home again."

She paused once more to let the numbers sink in, and her eyes surveyed her fellow Committee members cooly. I don't think I'll mention Citizen Admiral Porter again just now, she decided. I've made the point plainly enough to both Pierre and Saint-Just in the past, and it would be . . . untactful to make it again in front of the others. But, Christ! If the idiot hadn't panicked when he realized he was in command, if he'd only stayed concentrated for another thirty minutes, we'd've gotten a hell of a lot more battlewagons home. Kellet and Hall had them clear of the Manty SDs, and it's obvious the LACs were about to break off the action, but then the fucking idiot went and ordered his units to scatter and "proceed independently" to the hyper limit! He might as well have dropped fresh meat into the water for a bunch of Old Earth piranha! I know it, the rest of the Octagon staff knows it, and Saint-Just and Pierre know it, but the bastard's political credentials were so good Pierre let Saint-Just turn the entire board of inquiry into one gigantic whitewash. So there's still no open channel I can use to let the rest of the officer corps know what really happened, and that's making all of them even more nervous than they ought to be over whatever "secret weapons" the Manties are coming up with this time around. Thank God Diamato got back alive . . . but it took over two months for the medics to put him back together well enough for us to get anything coherent even out of him.  

"Because so few units got out, and because those who did had suffered so much damage to their sensor systems," and because you won't let me, "I've still been unable to reconstruct the events at Hancock with any higher degree of certainty and confidence than the official board managed immediately after the operation," she went on. "I've got a lot of theories and hypotheses, but very little hard data."

"I'm aware of that, Esther," Saint-Just said with ominous affability. "There doesn't seem to be much question but that Kellet allowed herself to be ambushed by LACs, however, does there?"

"It could certainly be described that way," McQueen agreed, showing her teeth in what not even the most charitable would have called a smile.

"Then my point stands." Saint-Just shrugged. "We've known for years that they have better LACs than we do, but they're still just LACs, when all's said and done. If it hadn't been for the circumstances under which they were allowed into range, they surely wouldn't have been any real threat."

"They weren't allowed into range, Citizen Secretary," McQueen said very precisely. "They utilized stealth systems far in advance of anything we have—and far more capable than any LAC should mount as onboard systems—to intercept before anyone could have detected them. And once in range, they used energy weapons of unprecedented power. Powerful enough to burn through a battleship's sidewall."

"Certainly they used their stealth systems effectively," Saint-Just conceded, his almost-smile as cold as her own had been. "But, as I already said, we've known for years that they were upgrading their LACs. And as you yourself just pointed out, our sensor data is scarcely what anyone could call reliable. My own analysts—civilians, to be sure, but most of them were consultants with the Office of Construction before the Harris Assassination—are uniformly of the opinion that the throughput figures some people are quoting for the grasers mounted by those LACs are almost certainly based on bad data." McQueen's face tightened, but he waved a hand in a tension-defusing gesture. "No one's arguing that the weapons weren't 'of unprecedented power,' because they clearly were. But you're talking about battleship sidewalls, attacked at absolutely minimal range, not ships of the wall, or even battleships or battlecruisers attacked at realistic ranges. The point my analysts are making is that no one could fit a graser of the power some people seem afraid of into something the size of a LAC. It's simply not technically feasible to build that sort of weapon, plus propulsive machinery, a fusion plant, and the sort of missile power they also displayed, into a hull under fifty thousand tons."

"It wouldn't be possible for us," McQueen agreed. "The Manties, however, have rather persistently done things we've been unable to duplicate. Even our pods are less sophisticated than theirs. We make up the differential by using larger pods, more missiles, and bigger missiles, because we can't match the degree of miniaturization they can. I see no reason to assume that the same doesn't hold true for their LACs."

"I see no reason to assume that it automatically does hold true, either," Saint-Just returned in the voice of one striving hard to be reasonable. "And the LACs they've been operating—still are operating, for that matter—in Silesia show no indication of the sort of massive, qualitative leap forward my analysts assure me would be necessary to build LACs as formidable as some people believe we're facing. Granted, it's the job of the Navy to err on the side of pessimism, and it's better, usually, to overestimate an enemy than to underestimate him. But at this level, we have a responsibility to question their conclusions and to remind ourselves they're only advisors. We're the ones who have to make the actual decisions, and we can't allow ourselves to be stampeded into timidity. As you pointed out yourself, quite rightly, when you proposed Icarus in the first place, we have to run some risks if we're to have any hope at all of winning this war."

"I haven't said we don't, and I haven't proposed sitting in place out of fear," McQueen said flatly. "What I have said is that the situation is unclear. And the LACs aren't the only thing we have to worry about. Citizen Commander Diamato was quite adamant about the range of the shipboard missiles used against Citizen Admiral Kellet's task force, and nothing we have in inventory can do what they did, either. And that doesn't even consider what happened to Citizen Admiral Darlington in Basilisk. Unless the Manties were in position to bring their entire Home Fleet through, or unless our intelligence on the terminus forts was completely wrong, something very unusual was used against him, and all any of the survivors can tell us is that there were one hell of a lot of missiles flying around."

"Of course there were. Both of us have pods, Esther, as you yourself just pointed out. Our intelligence on the numbers of forts was accurate, we simply underestimated the numbers of pods which had already been delivered to them. Besides, I just received a report from one of our sources in the Star Kingdom which suggests that the answer was probably White Haven and Eighth Fleet."

"We have?" McQueen cocked her head, and her eyes flashed. "And why haven't I heard anything about this report over at the Octagon?"

"Because I just received it this morning. It came in through a purely civilian network, and I directed that it be forwarded to you immediately. I assume you'll find it in your message queue when you get back to your office." Saint-Just sounded completely reasonable, but no one in the room, least of all Esther McQueen, doubted for a moment that he'd saved this little tidbit until he could deliver it in person . . . and in front of Rob Pierre. "According to our source, who's a civilian employed in their Astographic Service, White Haven brought all or most of his fleet through from Trevor's Star in a very tight transit. I'm not conversant with all the technical terms, but I'm sure the report will make a great deal of sense to you and your analysts when you've had a chance to study it. The important point, however, is that what happened to Darlington was simply that he walked into several dozen superdreadnoughts who weren't supposed to be there and into the fire of a store of missile pods we thought hadn't been delivered."

He shrugged, and McQueen bit her tongue hard. She knew Pierre well enough by now to realize he understood exactly what Saint-Just had just done, and why . . . and that it had worked anyway. For herself, she had no doubt the report said exactly what he'd said it did. And it made sense, too. Indeed, she'd considered the possibility, but the Manties had played things awfully tight about exactly how they'd pulled off that little trick. Unfortunately, the rabbit he'd just produced about one thing the Manties had done lent added authority to his voice when he argued about other things the Manties had done. As he proceeded to demonstrate.

"I think my analysts are probably on the right general track about Hancock, too," he went on, as if his analysts had already suggested that Eighth Fleet had successfully rushed to the defense of Basilisk, as well. "The LACs in Hancock just happened to be there. No doubt they do represent an upgrade on what we've already seen in Silesia, and Hancock would be a reasonable place for them to work up and evaluate a new design. The logical answer is that they were already engaged in maneuvers of some sort when we turned up and they were able, by good luck for them and bad luck for us, to generate an intercept. Unless we want to stipulate that the Manties' R&D types are magicians in league with the devil, though, the worst-case evaluation of their capabilities is much too pessimistic. Probably there were more of them than any of Kellet's survivors believed and they made up the apparent jump in individual firepower with numbers. As for the missiles Diamato talked about, he's the only tac officer who seems even to have seen them, and none of his tactical data survived Schaumberg's destruction. We have no way to be sure his initial estimates of their performance weren't completely erroneous. It's far more likely there were additional ships back there, ships he never saw because of their stealth systems, and that the apparent performance of the missiles was so extraordinary because what he thought was terminal performance was actually a much earlier point in their launch envelope." He shrugged. "In either case, no one else has seen any signs of super LACs or missiles since, and until we do see some supporting evidence . . ."

He let his voice trail off and shrugged again, and McQueen drew a deep breath.

"That all sounds very reasonable, Oscar," she said in a very even tone. "But the fact that they haven't used whatever they used since might also suggest—to me, at least—the possibility that they've decided to hold off on using their new toys until they have enough of them, in their estimation, to make a real difference."

"Or until they're pushed so far back they have no choice but to use them," Saint-Just suggested a bit pointedly. "I agree with your basic analysis, Citizen Secretary, but it's been over a year since you launched Icarus, and you've hit them hard a half dozen times since then without seeing any sign of new hardware. Let's say for the sake of argument that they do have a new LAC and a new missile and that the performance of each falls somewhere between what your analysts think we actually saw and what my analysts believe is theoretically possible. In that case, where are those new weapons? Isn't it possible the Manties haven't used more of them because they don't have any more? That we ran into prototypes of a design they still haven't been able to debug sufficiently to put into series production? That being the case, they may still be months from any actual deployment. And the need to defeat them before they do get it into full production lends still more point to the importance of continuing to hit them as hard, frequently, and quickly as possible."

"That's certainly possible," McQueen agreed. "On the other hand, it has been over a year. My own thought is that even if they were prototypes, a year is more than long enough for the Manties to have put them into at least limited production. And we have been pushing the pace since Icarus. They know that at least as well as we do, and I would have expected to see them using their new weapons, even if they only had a relatively low number of them, in an effort to knock us back on our heels . . . unless they're deliberately holding off while they build up the numbers to hit us hard at a moment of their own choosing. They've lost nine star systems, but none were really vital, after all. While I hate to admit it, we're still at the stage of hitting them where we can hit them, not necessarily of attacking the targets I wish we could hit.

She paused for a moment, gazing levelly at Saint-Just, but it was Pierre she watched from the corner of her eye. The Citizen Chairman frowned, but he also nodded almost imperceptibly. McQueen doubted he even realized he had, but the tiny response was encouraging evidence that he, at least, was reading her reports and drawing the proper conclusions from them. More to the point, perhaps, it was an indication that even if Saint-Just had just scored points in his ongoing fight over the control of NavInt and his suspicion that she was deliberately slowing the operational pace to make herself appear even more irreplaceable, the Chairman still recognized what was going on.

"I feel sure the Manties' senior planners realize that as well as we do, Oscar," she went on. "It would take some gutsy decisions by their strategists to hold back at this point even if they do, of course, but if I were in their shoes and thought I could pick my moment, I'd certainly do it. And I'd do my best to keep my opponent from getting an early peek at my new systems until I was ready to use them, too. There's never been a weapon that couldn't be countered somehow, and I wouldn't want to give the other side a good enough look at my new weapons to begin figuring out a doctrine to offset them."

"You've both raised excellent points," Pierre said, intervening before Saint-Just could reply. He knew the StateSec commander was increasingly unhappy about the degree to which the Navy, and even a few of StateSec's shipboard commissioners, were beginning to venerate McQueen. Saint-Just was too disciplined and loyal to move against her without Pierre's authorization, but he was also more attuned by nature to the implications of internal threats than to those of external ones. In many ways, Pierre shared Saint-Just's evaluation of the domestic threat McQueen represented, but he was afraid the SS commander's legitimate concerns in those areas caused him to underestimate or even dismiss the severity of the danger still posed by the Manticoran Alliance's military forces. Quiescent and apparently defensive minded though they'd been since Icarus, Pierre was far from convinced that they were down for the count.

"For the moment, however," he continued, deliberately pulling the discussion back from the confrontation between his internal watchdog and his military commander, "our immediate emphasis ought to be on how we respond to the consequences of Harrington's escape. Our military operations have already been planned and set in motion, and there's not much we can do about them right this minute, but Huertes is still going to want a response from us, and we can't afford to let the Manties' version of what happened totally dominate the coverage in the Solarian League."

"I'm afraid I don't see how we can prevent that, Citizen Chairman," Leonard Boardman said. His voice was a bit hesitant, but firmer than McQueen would have expected, and he didn't cringe too badly under the daggered look Pierre shot him.

"Explain," the Citizen Chairman said flatly.

"Huertes came to us once the story got back to her, Sir," Boardman pointed out. "It didn't originate in the Republic; it originated with the Manties' announcements in Yeltsin and Manticore. There's no possible way it could've gotten back to us here until well after they'd already dumped it through Beowulf to the rest of the Solarian League."

He paused, and Pierre nodded, grudgingly and almost against his will. The Star Kingdom of Manticore's control of the Manticore Worm Hole Junction gave it an enormous advantage in terms of turnaround time on any message to the Solarian League, and on something like this, the Manties would have exploited it to the maximum.

"That means anything we do in the League will be playing catch-up," Boardman went on a bit more confidently. "Here in the Republic, we'll have the opportunity to put our spin on it—" and just how, Esther McQueen wondered, can anyone possibly put a good "spin" on something like this, Citizen Secretary? "—but in the League, we'll be trying to overcome the Manties' spin. And, quite frankly, Sir, I'm afraid Huertes already knows at least something we don't."

"Such as?" Saint-Just demanded, and McQueen hid a grimace. There didn't seem to be a great deal of sense in demanding an opinion about something when Boardman had just said they didn't know what that something was.

"I have no idea—yet," Boardman replied. "But from the tone of her questions, she knows more than she told us about. It's as if she's trying to get us to commit ourselves so she can catch us out."

"I don't much care for the sound of that," Wanda Farley, the Secretary of Technology, grunted. The heavy-set woman had been silent throughout, and especially during the debate on the technical feasibility of the new Manticoran LACs, but now she frowned like a dyspeptic buffalo. "Just who the hell does she think she is, playing some kind of game with us?"

Who she thinks she is, McQueen very carefully did not say aloud, is a real newsie trying to report the biggest human interest story of the entire war. I'm not surprised you're confused, after the way INS and the other services have let PubIn play them like violins for decades, but you idiots had better wake up pretty damned fast. They've caught us red-handed, with proof we fed them a special-effects chip and lied at the very highest level about Harrington's execution. Worse, they're not all cretins. Some of them see themselves as real reporters, with some sort of moral obligation to tell their viewers the truth. And even the ones who don't know that the folks back home know they let themselves be suckered. So they're pissed off at us for using them, and at the same time, they have to do something to win back their audience's confidence. So for the first time in fifty or sixty T-years, we're going to find ourselves with genuine investigative reporters climbing all over us right here at home, unless we decide to evict them all the way we did United Faxes Intergalactic. Which we can't do just this minute without convincing every Solly we've got things to hide. Which, of course, we do.  

Unfortunately, getting someone like Farley to understand how things worked in a society without officially sanctioned censorship was a hopeless cause.

"That doesn't really matter, Wanda." Pierre sighed. "What matters are the consequences."

"I think our best bet is to be as cautious as we can without completely clamming up, Sir," Boardman said. "There's no point in our denying, to the Sollies, at least, that something happened at Cerberus and that at least some prisoners apparently managed to escape. At the same time, we can say, honestly, that we haven't yet heard back from the forces we'd already dispatched to Cerberus in response to concerns previously raised by StateSec personnel. That will indicate that we were as well informed as possible, given the communications lag, before Huertes came to us. And it will also buy us a little more time. We'll obviously have to ascertain the facts for ourselves before we can offer any comment, and we can respectfully decline to engage in useless speculation until we have ascertained the facts."

"And then?" Saint-Just prodded.

"Sir, it will depend on what the facts are, how bad they are, and how we want to approach them," Boardman said frankly. "If nothing else, however, I feel confident Huertes will have dropped the other shoe by then. Or, for that matter, we'll have direct reports from our own sources in Manticore. We can at least buy enough time for that to happen, and for us to decide on the best angle from which to spin the story."

"And domestically?" Pierre asked.

"Domestically, we can put whatever spin we like on it, Sir, at least in the short term. Whatever they may want to do for their home audiences, I doubt very much that any of the services is going to risk being tossed out of the Republic just to dispute Public Information's reportage locally. And if they try, we've got the mechanisms in place to stop them cold. In the short term. In the long term, at least a garbled version of the Manties' version is bound to leak out here at home, but that will take months at the very least. By the time it does get out, it will have lost a lot of its immediacy. I don't expect the greatest impact to be here at home, unless we really drop the ball. It's the consequences in the League that I worry about."

"And me," McQueen said quietly. "It's largely the Solly tech transfers which have let us get within shouting distance of the Manties' naval hardware. If this story is going to jeopardize that technology pipeline, we could have a very serious problem."

"Unless we finish the Manties off before it becomes 'serious,' " Saint-Just observed with a wintery smile.

"With all due respect, that isn't going to happen anytime soon," McQueen replied firmly. "Oh, it's always possible we'll get lucky or their morale will suddenly crack, but they've redeployed to cover their core areas in too much depth. We're punching away mainly at systems they took away from us, Oscar. If they let us hang onto the initiative, we'll wear them down eventually. That's the great weakness of a purely defensive strategy; it lets your opponent choose her time and place and achieve the sort of concentrations that grind you away. But we're still a long way from reaching any of the Alliance's vitals—except, of course, for what happened in Basilisk. Raids on places like Zanzibar and Alizon may have profound morale effects, but they don't really hurt the Manties' physical war-fighting capability very much, and now that they realize we're on the offensive, the systems where we really could hurt them, like Manticore, Grayson, Erewhon, and Grendlesbane, are far too heavily protected for us to break into without taking prohibitive losses."

Saint-Just looked stubborn, and Pierre hid a sigh. Then he rubbed his nose again and squared his shoulders.

"All right, Leonard. I don't like it, but I think you're right. Draft a statement for me on the basis you've suggested, then com Huertes and offer her an exclusive interview with me. I'll want to be briefed very carefully, and you'll inform her that certain areas will be off-limits for reasons of military security, but I want to come across as open and forthcoming. Maybe I can coax her into letting that other shoe fall . . . or bait her into trying to mousetrap me with it, at any rate. But what I really want is to remind her and her colleagues how valuable access to my office is. Maybe then they'll think two or three times before they do something that might piss us off enough to deny them that access.

"In the meantime, Esther—" he turned to McQueen "—I want you to expedite operations. In particular, I want you to put Operation Scylla on-line as soon as possible. If we're going to take a black eye over Cerberus, then it's going to be up to you to win us some countervailing talking points by kicking some more Manticoran butt in the field."

"Sir, as I told you yesterday, we—"

"I know you're not ready yet," Pierre said just a bit impatiently. "I'm not asking for miracles, Esther. I said 'expedite,' not charge off half-cocked. But you've demonstrated you can beat the Manties, and we need it done again as soon as you possibly can."

He held her eyes, and his message was clear. He was willing to back her military judgment against Saint-Just's—mostly, at least, and for the moment—but he needed a miracle, and the sooner the better. And if he didn't get one, he might just rethink his faith in her . . . and his decision to restrain Saint-Just from purging her.

"Understood, Citizen Chairman," she said, her tone resolute but not cocky. "If you want some Manticoran butt kicked, then we'll just have to kick it for you, won't we?"


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