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Chapter Eighteen

"And come out of there, you worthless piece ofAh ha! "

Scooter Smith sat back on his haunches with a triumphant grin as the recalcitrant tracking drive of the LACs number three laser cluster finally yielded to his ministrations. He didnt know how the defective drive shaft had gotten past the myriad inspections which were supposed to spot such things, but that was less important than that it had. Well, that and the fact that its sub-spec materials had warped and jammed the clusters training gears solid at a most inopportune moment during yesterdays exercises. It had also managed to splinter and deform itself sufficiently to resist all removal efforts with sullen stolidity for the better part of two hours, and theyd had to strip the entire unit down much further than hed hoped, but they had it out now.

He tossed it to one of his techs and stood, rubbing the small of his back, then climbed down the side of the work stand.

One of the nicer things about HMS Minotaurs LAC bays was that someone had actually bothered to put some thought into servicing and ammunitioning requirements. Smiths last assignment had been as an assault shuttle section chief aboard HMS Leutzen, and, like every other shuttle maintenance specialist, it seemed as if hed spent about a third of his on-duty time in a skinsuit or a hardsuit floating around in the zero-gee vacuum of a boat bay while he pulled hull maintenance on one or another of the small craft under his care. In most ways, Minotaurs LACs were simply small craft writ large, and hed expected to face the same problem, only more so. And he was spending a good bit of time suited up... but nowhere near as much of it as hed anticipated.

Whoever had designed Minotaur had taken extraordinary pains to enhance crew efficiency. Even after five months on board, Smith was still a bit awed by the degree of automation she incorporated. Traditionally, warships had embarked crews which were enormously larger than any merchant ship of equivalent tonnage would have boasted. That was largely because merchant ships tended to be nothing more than huge, hollow spaces into which to stuff cargo, whereas warships were packed full of weapons, ammunition, defensive and offensive electronic warfare systems, sidewall generators, back up fusion plants, bigger Warshawski sails, more powerful beta nodes, and scores of other things merchantmen simply didnt carry and hence had no reason to provide crews for. But it was also true that merchies relied far more heavily than warships on automated and remote systems to reduce manpower requirements still further.

Men-of-war could have done the same thing, but they didnt. Or, at least, they hadnt. The official reason was that large crews provided redundancy. After all, if the fancy automation took a hit that fried it, you needed old-fashioned people with toolkits to fix it. And people were still the ultimate self-programming remotes. If a weapon mount or a critical support system was cut off from the central control net by battle damage, or if the central computers themselves crashed, a warship had the human resources to take over and run things in local control anyway.

That was the official reasoning. Personally, Smith had always suspected that tradition had as much to do with it. Warships always had had enormous crews for their tonnage; ergo they always would have enormous crews, and that was simply The Way It Was. Even in the Royal Manticoran Navy, hed long since discovered, the military mind liked things to stay nice and predictable.

But the Star Kingdom could no longer afford to hang onto tradition for traditions sake. Smith hadnt seen the figuresfirst-class engineering petty officers werent generally invited in by BuPers to study classified manpower numbersbut he didnt have to see them to know the Navy was increasingly strapped for crews. It was also common knowledge that the Navy and Marines between them now had something like twenty million people in uniform, and the Royal Armys appetite for manpower had turned increasingly voracious as the Navy picked off Peep planets and the Army had to provide garrisons. Altogether, there were probably close to thirty million Manticorans in uniform now, and that was the next best thing to one percent of the Star Kingdoms total population.

One percent didnt sound like a lot... until you subtracted it from the most productive portions of your economy just as you geared up to fight an interstellar war on a scale the galaxy hadnt seen in at least four hundred years. Then it became a very big thing indeed, and BuShips, under pressure from BuPers to do somethinganything to reduce manpower demands, had finally caved in on the automation front. Even with all the personnel for her LAC squadrons on board, Minotaur carried a total company of under two thousand, which was less than most battlecruisers a seventh her size. Of course, she didnt mount the normal broadside weapons of a ship of the wall, but Smith figured that even a conventional warships company could be cut by at least sixty percent if the same standards of automation and remotes were applied to her design. And that could have major consequences for the Navys front line strength.

Smith supposed it was inevitablehuman beings, being human beingsthat the new concept would have its critics, and some of the criticisms were no doubt valid. He did tend to get just a bit pissed off with the ones who caterwauled about what a heavy reliance the new design placed on the ships computers, though. Of course it put a heavy demand on them... and anyone but an idiot knew that had always been the case. Human beings could do many of the things their electronic minions normally took care of for them, but they could do very few of those things as wellor in anything like the same amount of timeas their computers could. And there were any number of things people couldnt do without computers. Like navigate a starship. Or run a fusion plant. Or any one of a zillion other absolutely essential, extremely complex, time-critical jobs that always needed doing aboard a warship. It probably made sense to minimize total dependency on the computers and AI loops as much as possible, but it simply couldnt be entirely eliminated. And as long as he had an intact electronics shop, with one machine shop to support it, and power, and life support, Scooter Smith could damned well build any replacement computer his ship might need. All of which meant he wished the whiners and nitpickers would get the hell out of his way so he could get on with enjoying all the marvelous new features the change in design philosophy had brought with it.

In Minotaurs case, those features meant, among other things, that better than eighty percent of the routine hull maintenance on the carriers LACs could be performed by cybernetic henchmen without ever requiring a suited human presence. Of course, some peoplelike "Silver Spanner" Maxwellcould break anything, if they put their minds to it, and Maxwell had done just that over on Bay Forty-Six. Smith had never quite understood how someone who was as fundamentally good at his job as Maxwell was could be such a walking disaster area, but there it was. It was almost as if he represented some natural force of chaos or the living personification of Murphys Law. He always did it by The Book... and it always ended up a disaster anyway. Smith only hoped his friends transfer from Minotaurs deck force to a new slot as LAC 01-001s assistant flight engineer would break the cycle at last, although he had to wonder just what Captain Harmon had been thinking to tap him for her personal bird.

But whatever happened to "Silver Spanner," Smith was delighted with the new remotes. They were almost as impressive as the support a shipyard might have boasted, and he was devoutly grateful to have them. But the designers had gone still further in simplifying his task by designing the LAC bays with outsized bow access tubes. Instead of the standard buffers and docking arms which held a small craft in its boat bay, the LACs mooring tractors drew them bow-first into a full length docking cradle. In the process, they aligned the little ships sharp noses with "personnel tubes" fifteen meters across that fitted down over their bows. Since that was where all of the LACs armamentdefensive and offensive alikewas mounted, it let Smith work on things like the jammed laser cluster without suiting up. And additional service tubes to the launchers meant missile reloads could be transported directly from Minotaurs main missile stowage, into the LACs rotary magazines.

All in all, Smith considered the design concept an enormous improvement over what hed had to put up with in Leutzen. The LACs outmassed the assault shuttles hed worked with there by a factor of around thirty-five, yet the six-ship section he had responsibility for here was actually easier to stay on top of than the six-shuttle section hed been assigned aboard Leutzen. Of course, the thought of what might happen to the ships hull integrity if some ill-intentioned Peep managed to land a hit on one of these nice, large, efficient, and vulnerable LAC bays hardly bore thinking on, but that was an inescapable consequence of Minotaurs designed role.

"Okay, Sandford. Youre on," he said as he stepped from the work stands last rung to the deck of the access tube. "Get the replacement in and let me know when youre ready to test it. Check?"

The bow of the LAC reared above them, and despite its minuscule size compared to a ship like Minotaur, it dwarfed his entire work party. Which put the rest of the ship into a sobering perspective for people who normally saw it only from the inside.

"Aye, PO." The tech whod caught the warped drive shaft waved it in acknowledgment. "Should take us about another fifty minutes, I guess."

"Sounds reasonable," Smith agreed, arching his shoulders and massaging his aching back again. Getting the damaged component out had been a major pain, but putting the replacement back in should be relatively straightforward. "Ill be around on Thirty-Six if you need me," he went on. "Caermon has something she wants to discuss about the main radar array."

"Gotcha," Sandford agreed, and Smith nodded and headed off. He did have one other little stop to make, but it was on the way to Bay Thirty-Six where Caermon waited for him, and he grinned as he tapped the data chip in his pocket. He liked Lieutenant Commander Ashford a lot, he really did, but there was something undeniably delicious about receiving not simply official sanction but actual orders to put one over on an officer.

Helps keep them humble, it does, he reflected cheerfully. And humble officers are more likely to remember just who really runs the Queens Navy. On the other hand, protection from on high or not, I hope to hell he never figures out I was the one who did it to him!

He grinned again and paused as he reached the access tube to Ashfords bird. The LAC sat there all alone, awaiting the service crews who would minister to it in time for the afternoons exercises, and he nodded to himself. He wouldnt get a better chance, he thought, and sauntered down the tube with a guileless expression.

Chapter Seventeen | Echoes Of Honor | * * *