"Thank you for coming, Citizen Admiral. And you, too, Citizen Commissioner."
"You’re welcome, Citizen Secretary," Citizen Admiral Javier Giscard said, exactly as if he’d had any choice about accepting an "invitation" from the Republic’s Secretary of War. Eloise Pritchart, his dark-skinned, platinum-haired People’s Commissioner, limited herself to a silent nod. As the Committee of Public Safety’s personal representative ("spy" would have been much too rude—and accurate—a term) on Giscard’s staff, she was technically outside the military chain of command and reported directly to Oscar Saint-Just and State Security rather than to Esther McQueen. But McQueen’s star was clearly in the ascendant—for now, at least. Pritchart knew that as well as everyone else did, just as she knew McQueen’s reputation for pushing the limits of her personal authority, and her topaz-colored eyes were wary.
McQueen noted that wariness with interest as she waved her guests into chairs facing her desk and very carefully did not look at her own StateSec watchdog. Erasmus Fontein had been her political keeper almost since the Harris Assassination, and she’d come to realize in the last twelve months that he was infinitely more capable—and dangerous—than his apparently befuddled exterior suggested. She’d never really underestimated him, but—
No, that wasn’t true. She’d always known he had to be at least some better than he chose to appear, but she had underestimated the extent to which that was true. Only the fact that she made it a habit to always assume the worst and double— and triple-safe her lines of communication had kept that underestimation from proving fatal, too. Well, that and the fact that she truly was the best the People’s Republic had at her job. Then again, Fontein had discovered that she was more dangerous than he’d expected, so she supposed honors were about even. And it said a lot for Saint-Just’s faith in the man that he hadn’t replaced Fontein when the scope of his underestimation became evident.
Of course, if Fontein had recommended I be purged before that business with the Levelers, then there wouldn’t be a Committee of Public Safety right now. I wonder how the decision was made? Did he get points for not thinking I was dangerous when I proved my "loyalty" to the Committee? Or for supporting me when I moved against LaBoeuf’s lunatics? Or maybe it was just a wash?
She laughed silently. Maybe it was merely a matter of their sticking her with the person they figured knew her moves best on the assumption that having been fooled once, he would be harder to fool a second time. Not that it really mattered. She had plans for Citizen Commissioner Fontein when the time came... just as she was certain he had plans for her if she tipped her hand too soon.
Well, if the game were simple, anyone could play, and think how crowded that would get!
"The reason I asked you here, Citizen Admiral," she said once her guests were seated, "is to discuss a new operation with you. One I believe has the potential to exercise a major impact on the war."
She paused, eyes on Giscard to exclude Pritchart and Fontein. It was part of the game to pretend admirals were still fleet commanders, even though everyone knew command was actually exercised by committee these days. Of course, that was one of the things McQueen intended to change. But Giscard couldn’t know that, now could he? And even if he did, he might not believe she could pull it off.
He looked back at her now, without so much as a glance at Pritchart, and cocked his head. He was a tall man, just a hair over a hundred and ninety centimeters, but lean, with a bony face and a high-arched nose. That face made an excellent mask for his thoughts, but his hazel eyes were another matter. They considered McQueen alertly, watchfully, with the caution of a man who had already narrowly escaped disaster after being made the scapegoat for a failed operation that was also supposed to have had "a major impact on the war."
"One of the reasons you came to mind," McQueen went on after a heartbeat, "is your background as a commerce-raiding specialist. I realize operations in Silesia didn’t work out quite the way everyone had hoped, but that was scarcely your fault, and I have expressed my opinion to that effect to Citizen Chairman Pierre."
Something flickered in the backs of those hazel eyes at that, and McQueen hid a smile. What she’d said was the exact truth, because Giscard was entirely too good a commander to toss away over one busted operation. And it hadn’t been his fault; even his watchdog, Pritchart, had said as much. And perhaps there was some hope for the Republic still when a people’s commissioner was prepared to defend a fleet commander by pointing out that "his" failure had been the fault of the idiots who’d written his orders. Well, that and the Manty Q-ships no one had known existed. And, McQueen admitted to herself, both of those and Honor Harrington. But at least she’s out of the equation now... and Giscard is still here. Not a bad achievement for the misbegotten system he and I are stuck with.
"Thank you, Citizen Secretary," Giscard said after a moment.
"Don’t thank me for telling him the truth, Citizen Admiral," she told him, showing her teeth in a smile which held a hint of iron. "Just hit the ground running and show both of us that it was the truth."
"I’ll certainly try to, Ma’am," Giscard replied, then smiled wryly. "Of course, I’ll have a better chance of doing that when I at least know enough about this operation to know which way to run."
"I’m sure you will," McQueen agreed with a smile of her own, "and that’s exactly what I invited you—and, of course, Citizen Commissioner Pritchart—here to explain. Would you come with me, please?"
She stood, and by some sort of personal magic, everyone else in the room—including Erasmus Fontein—stood aside to let her walk around her desk and lead the way towards the door. She was the smallest person in the room by a considerable margin, a slender, slightly built woman a good fifteen centimeters shorter than Pritchart, yet she dominated all those about her with seeming effortlessness as she led them down a short hall.
I’m impressed, Giscard admitted to himself. He’d never actually served with McQueen, though their paths had crossed briefly a time or two before the Harris Assassination, and he didn’t know her well. Not on a personal level, at any rate; only an idiot would have failed to study her intensely since her elevation to Secretary of War. He could well believe the stories he’d heard about her ambition, but he hadn’t quite been prepared for the magnetism she radiated.
Of course, radiating it too openly could be a Bad Thing, he reflected. Somehow I don’t see StateSec being comfortable with the notion of a charismatic Secretary of War who also happens to boast an excellent war record.
They reached the end of the hall, and a Marine sentry came to attention as McQueen keyed a short security code into the panel beside an unmarked door. The door slid open silently, and Giscard and Pritchart followed McQueen and Fontein into a large, well-appointed briefing room. Citizen Admiral Ivan Bukato and half a dozen other officers, the most junior a citizen captain, sat waiting at the large conference table, and nameplates indicated the chairs Giscard and Pritchart were expected to take.
McQueen walked briskly to the head of the table and took her seat, her compact frame seeming even slighter in the comfortable grasp of her oversized, black-upholstered chair, and waved her companions to their own places. Fontein deposited himself in an equally impressive chair on her right, and Giscard found himself at her left hand, with Pritchart to his own left. Their chairs, however, were much less grand than the ones their betters had been assigned.
"Citizen Admiral Giscard, I believe you know Citizen Admiral Bukato?" McQueen said.
"Yes, Ma’am. The Citizen Admiral and I have met," Giscard admitted, nodding his head at People’s Navy’s de facto CNO.
"You’ll get to know the rest of these people quite well over the next month or so," McQueen went on, "but for now I want to concentrate on giving you a brief overview of what we have in mind. Citizen Admiral Bukato?"
"Thank you, Citizen Secretary." Bukato entered a command into the terminal in front of him, and the briefing room lights dimmed. An instant later, a complex hologram appeared above the huge table. The biggest part of it was a small-scale star map that showed the western quarter of the PRH, the war front, and the territory of the Manticoran Alliance clear to the Silesian border, but there were secondary displays, as well. Graphic representations, Giscard realized, of the comparative ship strengths of the opponents on a class-by-class basis, with sidebars showing the numbers of units sidelined for repairs or overhaul.
He sat back, studying the holo and feeling Citizen Commissioner Pritchart study it beside him. Unlike many officers of the People’s Navy, Giscard actually looked forward to hearing his citizen commissioner’s impressions and opinions. Partly, that was because Pritchart had one of the better minds he had ever met and frequently spotted things which a trained naval officer’s professional blinders might prevent him from considering, which helped explain what made her and Giscard one of the PN’s few smoothly functioning command teams. There were, however, other reasons he valued her input.
"As you can see, Citizen Admiral Giscard," Bukato said after a moment, "while the Manties have pushed deeply into our territory since the beginning of the war, they haven’t pushed very much further into it since taking Trevor’s Star. It is the opinion of our analysts that this reflects their need to pause, refit, catch their breath, replace losses, and generally consolidate their position before resuming offensive operations. In addition, a large minority opinion holds that they may be becoming rather less offensively minded now that they’ve added so much of our territory to their defensive commitments.
"Neither Citizen Secretary McQueen nor I believe that they contemplate voluntarily surrendering the initiative, however. We subscribe to the belief that they definitely plan to resume the offensive in the very near future, and that when they get around to it they will go after Barnett from Trevor’s Star. To that end, we have been continuing to reinforce Citizen Admiral Theisman. Citizen Secretary Kline’s intention—or perhaps I should say ‘hope’—was that Citizen Admiral Theisman would attract Manty attention to his command area and hold it there as long as possible in order to divert the enemy from deeper thrusts into the Republic. And, of course, he was to entice the enemy into a battle of attrition in hopes of costing the Alliance more tonnage than he himself lost. What he was not expected to do was to defend Barnett successfully."
Giscard managed not to sit sharply upright in his chair or otherwise draw attention to his reaction, but his eyes widened at the acid tone of Bukato’s last two sentences. Giscard had known Citizen Secretary Kline was unpopular with his uniformed subordinates—not surprisingly, since the man had been an incompetent political hack with a taste for humiliating any officer he decided was "an elitist recidivist" hungering to restore the officer corps to its old independence of action. But for Bukato to show contempt for even an ex-secretary so openly in front of both Pritchart and Fontein indicated that the changes at the top of the War Office must have been even more sweeping than most people suspected.
"We, however, have somewhat greater aspirations than to achieve another glorious defeat," Bukato continued. "We are reinforcing Theisman in hopes that he will actually hold Barnett—if possible, for use as a springboard to retake Trevor’s Star. That isn’t something we’ll be able to do next week, or even next month, but the time to stop giving ground every time the Manties hit us has come now."
A soft sound circled the table, and something inside Giscard shivered. It had been a long time since he’d heard that hungry growl of agreement from anyone but his own staff, and a part of him wondered how McQueen had put so much iron into her senior subordinates’ spines so quickly. No wonder she’s been so effective in combat, if she can do this, he thought. Then: And no wonder just thinking about her political ambitions scares the shit out of the people’s commissioners!
"Our data on the enemy’s currently available fleet strength are not as definite as we’d like," Bukato went on. "Our espionage operations in the Star Kingdom have taken a heavy hit since the war started. Indeed, we now suspect—" he glanced sidelong at Fontein and Pritchart "—that NavInt’s major prewar networks there had been compromised even before the start of hostilities. It looks like the Manties actually used our own spies to feed us fabricated information to draw us into false initial deployments."
Again, Giscard kept his face expressionless, but it was hard. Most of the PN’s new crop of senior officers must have speculated about that. Giscard certainly had, though, like all the others, he’d dared not say so aloud. But it made sense. Certainly something had caused Amos Parnell to radically realign his force structure on the very eve of the war, and no one really believed it had been part of some obscure plot the Legislaturalist officer corps had hatched to betray the People for enigmatic reasons of their own. But the official line had been that the disastrous opening phases of the war had been entirely the fault of that officer corps, and that "crime" had been the pretext for which the new political management had ordered most of its senior members to be shot. So if Bukato was openly saying that it might not have been Parnell’s fault—that the disgraced CNO had been snookered by Manty counterintelligence...
My God, things really are changing! he thought wonderingly, and looked over at Fontein. The Citizen Commissioner hadn’t even blinked. He simply sat there impassively, without as much as a frown, and that impassivity told Giscard even more than Bukato’s statement had.
"Despite our lack of hard data from covert sources, however," the Citizen Admiral continued, "we’ve been able to make some estimates based on known enemy deployments. One thing worth noting is that when Citizen Rear Admiral Tourville hit the Adler System, the Manties apparently had not deployed their usual FTL sensor network. From observation of their picket deployments and patrols around Trevor’s Star, we think they’re still short of a complete network even there, which suggests a production problem somewhere. Any such assumption has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it would appear to be consistent with the building rates we’ve observed. Their construction tempo has gone up steadily since the beginning of hostilities, but our best estimate is that their yard capacity is now saturated. What we seem to be seeing—not only with the FTL recon satellites around Adler and Trevor’s Star, but also in their reliance on Q-ships because of their apparent inability to free up battlecruiser and cruiser elements to police Silesia—is the end consequence of an all-out drive to maximize the production of new hulls. In other words, it looks as if they’ve overstrained their prewar industrial capacity. If so, then they’ll have to build additional yards before they can resume the upward curve in their fleet strength. And it would also help to explain their apparent passivity since taking Trevor’s Star."
He paused to take a sip of ice water and give his audience time to digest what he’d said so far. Then he cleared his throat.
"There are other indicators of a lowered tempo of offensive operations on their part," he resumed. "Among others, Admiral White Haven is still at Yeltsin’s Star attempting to assemble a new fleet out of Allied units, not simply RMN ships. Also, we’re beginning to pick up indications that some of the forward deployed Manty ships of the wall are in increasing need of overhaul. Their systems reliability would appear to be declining."
Well that was good news, Giscard thought wryly. The People’s Navy was perennially short of trained maintenance and repair techs, with the result that serviceability rates tended to remain uncomfortably low. The Manties, on the other hand, routinely turned in serviceability rates of well over ninety percent. But doing that relied on more than simply having excellent techs in your shipboard crews. It also required a comprehensive, highly capable, and well-organized base support system... and the time to hand ships over to that system when they required overhaul. If Manty systems reliability was dropping, it probably meant they were finding themselves unable to pull their capital ships off the front for scheduled rear area maintenance. And given that staying on top of overhaul needs was as basic an instinct for any Manty commander as topping off his hydrogen bunkers at every opportunity, it was also an even stronger indicator of increasing strain on their resources than anything else Bukato had said.
"Finally," the citizen admiral said, "we need to look at what may be happening a year or so down the road. On our side of the line, our training and manpower mobilization programs mean that we should have all of our presently unused yard capacity up and running, but we’re unlikely to have added much additional capacity or significantly improved on our present construction rates. Indications from the Manties’ side of the line are that they should have several new yard complexes coming on-line—like their new Blackbird shipyard facility at Yeltsin’s Star—and, perhaps more ominously, will have the manpower to crew their new hulls, courtesy of the forts they’re standing down now that they control all termini of the Manticore Wormhole Junction. So what we seem to have here is a window of opportunity in which their available resources are entirely committed and their basic strategic posture might be accurately described as overextended."
He paused once more, and Citizen Secretary McQueen tipped her chair forward. She leaned her forearms on the table and looked sideways at Giscard with a smile that was simultaneously a challenge, a warning, and somehow... impish. As if she were inviting him to share a joke... or risk his life beside her on a quixotic quest to save their star nation. And as he saw that smile, he realized there wasn’t that much difference between those invitations after all... and that some dangerous dynamism within her made him want to accept them.
"And that, Citizen Admiral Giscard," she said to him, "is where you come in. We do, indeed, intend to reinforce Barnett, and I have every confidence that Citizen Admiral Theisman will make the most effective possible use of the forces we send him. But I have no intention of simply holding what we already have until the Manties catch their breath and decide where they’re going to hit us next. We still have the numerical advantage in hulls and tonnage—not by anywhere near as much as we did at the start of the war, of course, but we still have it, and I intend to make use of it.
"One reason the Manties have been able to beat up on us so far has been a fundamental flaw in our own strategy. For whatever reason—" even now she did not look at Fontein, Giscard noticed "—our approach has been to try to hold everything, to be strong everywhere, with the result that we’ve been unable to stop the Manties cold anywhere. We have to take some risks, uncover some less vital areas, to free up the strength we need to take the offensive to them for a change, and that’s precisely what I propose to do."
Whoa! Giscard thought. "Uncover less vital areas"? She knows as well as I do that what we’ve really been covering some of those "less vital areas" against has been domestic unrest. Is she saying she’s talked the Committee into—?
"We will be amassing a strike force and organizing a new fleet," she went on levelly, confirming that she had talked the Committee into it. "Its wall of battle will be composed primarily of battleships withdrawn from picket duties in less vulnerable, less exposed, and frankly, less valuable areas. We do not make those withdrawals lightly, and it will be imperative that, having made them, we use the forces thus freed up effectively. That will be your job, Citizen Admiral."
"I see, Ma’am," he said, and the calmness of his own voice surprised him. She was offering him the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to command a powerful force at a potentially decisive point in the war, and patriotism, professionalism, and ambition of his own churned within him at the thought. Yet she was also offering him the chance to fail, and if he did fail, no power in the universe could save him from the people who currently ran the People’s Republic of Haven.
"I believe you do, Citizen Admiral," she said softly, still smiling that smile while her green eyes bored into his as if she could actually see the brain behind them. "We’ll give you every possible support from this end. You—and, of course, Citizen Commissioner Pritchart," she added, with a nod at the people’s commissioner "—will have as close to a free hand in picking your staff and subordinate flag officers as we can possibly give you. Citizen Admiral Bukato and his staff will work with you to plan and coordinate your operations so as to allow the rest of the Fleet to give you the highest possible degree of support. But it will be your operation, Citizen Admiral. You will be responsible for driving it through to a successful conclusion."
And I’ll give you the best command team I can to pull it off, she thought, including Tourville, if I can finally pry him loose from Saint-Just! "Investigation"— ha! I suppose I should be grateful he’s been willing to settle for keeping Tilly’s crew sequestered so they can’t tell anyone what really happened to the bitch, but I need Tourville, damn it! And ten months is frigging well long enough for him to sit in orbit and rot!
"Yes, Ma’am," Giscard said. "And my objective?"
"We’ll get to the territorial objectives in a minute," she told him, neither voice nor expression showing a hint of her frustration with Saint-Just’s foot-dragging. "But what matters far more than any star system you may raid or capture is your moral objective. So far in this war, we’ve danced to the Manties’ piping. I know that’s not the official line, but here in this briefing room, we simply cannot afford to ignore objective realities."
This time she did glance at Fontein, but her people’s commissioner only looked back at her without a word, and she returned her own gaze to Giscard.
"That stops now, Javier," she told him softly, using his first name for the very first time. "We must assert at least some control over our own strategic fate by forcing them to dance to our tune for a change, and you’re the man we’ve picked to play the music. Are you up for it?"
Damn, but she’s good, a small voice mused in the back of Giscard’s brain. He felt the siren call of her personality, the enthusiasm and hope she’d fanned by the apparently simple yet ultimately profound fact of speaking the truth openly... and inviting him to follow her. And I want to, he marveled. Even with all I’ve ever heard about her, even knowing the dangers of even looking like I’ve committed to "her faction," I want to follow her.
"Yes, Ma’am," he heard his voice say. "I’m up for it."
"Good," she said, and her smile was fiercer... and welcoming. "In that case, Citizen Admiral Giscard, welcome to command of Operation Icarus."