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Chapter Twenty-One

"And thats the lead ship of our new SD class," High Admiral Wesley Matthews told his guests, waving with pardonable pride at the immense, virtually completed hull drifting beyond the armorplast view port. "Weve got nine more just like her building as follow-ons," he added, and William Alexander and Sir Thomas Caparelli nodded with deeply impressed expressions.

And well they should be impressed, White Haven thought, standing behind his brother and listening to Matthews description of the enormous activity going on here in Yeltsins Stars Blackbird Yard.

Of course, they havent seen the specs for the class yet, so they dont really know how impressed they ought to be, he reminded himself wryly. I wonder how Caparelli will react when he does find out?

The thought came and went, flickering through his brain almost like an automatic reflex without ever diverting his attention from the scene beyond the view port. Hed been here often over the last several months, yet the sights and energy of the place never failed to fascinate him, for Blackbird Yard was totally unlike the Star Kingdoms huge space stations.

For all the relative primitivism of its technology, Grayson had maintained a large-scale space presence for more than half a millennium. Not that it had been anything to boast about in the beginning. Theyd had the capabilitybarelyto exile the losing side of their Civil War to the neighboring system of Endicott, but that was a hop of less than four light-years. Even to accomplish that much had required them to reinvent a cruder form of the Pineau cryogenic process and virtually beggar the war torn planet just to get less than ten thousand "colonists" across the interstellar divide. The strain of it had been almost intolerable for the Civil Wars survivors, and it had probably set Graysons efforts to exploit its own star system back by at least fifty years. Yet it had also been the only way to get the defeated Faithful (and their "doomsday bomb") off the planet, and so Benjamin IV and his government had somehow made it all work.

But that had been six hundred years ago. Since then, and despite ups and downsand one eighty-year period when the Conclave of Steadholders had been forced to fight bitterly against three Protectors in a row who, with a dogmatism truly worthy of their Neo-Luddite ancestors, had preferred to concentrate on "practical" planet-side solutions to problems and turn their backs on the limitless possibilities of spacethe Graysons off-planet presence had grown prodigiously. By the time their world joined the Manticoran Alliance, the Grayson deep-space infrastructure, while almost all sublight and vastly more primitive than the Star Kingdoms, had actually been almost the size of Manticore-As, with a far larger work force (almost inevitably, given their manpower-intensive technology base), and they had their own notions about how things should be done.

"Excuse me, High Admiral," Caparelli asked in a suddenly very intense tone, "but is that?" He was leaning forward, his nose almost pressed against the armorplast, as he pointed at the all but finished hull, and Matthews nodded.

"Shes our equivalent of your Medusa class," he confirmed with the broad smile of a proud father.

"But how the devil did you get the design into production this quickly? " Caparelli demanded.

"Well, some of our Office of Shipbuilding people were in the Star Kingdom working on the new compensator and LAC projects when the Medusa was first contemplated," Matthews said. "Your BuShips involved a couple of themincluding Protector Benjamins brother, Lord Mayhewin the planning process when they started roughing out the power-to-mass numbers for her impellers and compensator, and they just sort of stayed involved. So we had the plans by the same time your people did, and, well" He shrugged.

"But we only finalized the design thirteen T-months ago!" Caparelli protested.

"Yes, Sir. And we laid this ship down a year ago. She should commission in another two months, and the other nine should all be completed within two or three months of her."

Caparelli started to say something more, then closed his mouth with a click and gave White Haven a fulminating glance. The Earl only smiled back blandly. Hed passed on the information when it came to his attention the better part of nine T-months ago, but it had been evident from several things Caparelli had said that no one had routed a copy of White Havens report to him. Well, that was hardly the Earls fault. Besides, the shock of discovering just how far advanced the Grayson Navy really was ought to be good for the First Space Lord, he thought, and returned to his consideration of the differences between Grayson and Manticoran approaches to shipbuilding

The biggest one, he thought as their pinnace drifted closer to the ship Matthews was still describing, was that Grayson yards were far more decentralized. The Star Kingdom preferred putting its building capacity into nodal concentrations with enormous, centralized, and highly sophisticated support structures, but the Graysons preferred to disperse them. No doubt that owed something to the crudity of their pre-Alliance tech base, he mused. Given how incredibly manpower-intensive Grayson shipbuilding had been (by Manticoran standards, at least), it had actually made sense to spread projects out (as long as one didnt get carried away about it) so that ones work force didnt crowd itself. And one thing any star system had plenty of was room in which to spread things out.

But even though the Graysons now had access to modern technology, they showed no particular intention to copy the Manticoran model, and as White Haven could certainly attest from personal experiencenot to mention discussions with his brother, who ran the Star Kingdoms Exchequerthere were definite arguments in favor of their approach. For one thing, it was a hell of a lot cheaper, both financially and in terms of start-up time.

The Graysons hadnt bothered with formal slips, space docks, or any of dozens of other things Manticoran shipbuilders took for granted. They just floated the building materials out to the appropriate spot, which in this case was in easy commuting range of one of their huge asteroid mining central processing nodes. Then they built the minimal amount of scaffolding, to hold things together and give their workers something to anchor themselves to, and simply started putting the parts together. It was almost like something from back in the earliest days of the Diaspora, when the colony ships were built in Old Earth or Mars orbit, but it certainly worked.

There were drawbacks, of course. The Graysons had saved an enormous amount on front-end investment, but their efficiency on a man-hour basis was only about eighty percent that of the Star Kingdoms. That might not seem like a very big margin, but considering the billions upon billions of dollars of military construction involved, even small relative amounts added up into enormous totals. And their dispersed capacity was also far more vulnerable to the possibility of a quick Peep pounce on the system. The massive space stations of the Royal Manticoran Navy were at the heart of the Manticore Binary Systems fortifications and orbital defenses, with enormous amounts of firepower andespeciallyanti-missile capability to protect them. The Blackbird Yard depended entirely upon the protection of the star systems mobile forces, and the incomplete hulls would be hideously vulnerable to anyone who got into range to launch a missile spread in their direction. On the other hand, the Graysons and their allies had thus far successfully kept any Peeps from getting close enough to damage their yards, and the people of Yeltsins Star were willing to throw an incredible number of workers at the project, which more than compensated for their lower per-man-hour productivity.

"Thats an awfully impressive sight, High Admiral," Caparelli said. "And I dont mean just that youve gotten the new design into actual series production while we were still arguing about whether or not to build the thing at all! Im talking about the sheer activity level out there." He gestured at the view port. "I dont believe Ive ever seen that many people working on a single ship at once."

"We almost have to do it that way, Sir Thomas," Matthews replied. "We dont have all the mechanical support you have back in the Star Kingdom, but we do have lots of trained deep space construction crews. In fact, the old-fashioned nature of our pre-Alliance industry actually gives us more trained personnel than we might have had otherwise."

"Oh?" Caparelli turned to raise an eyebrow at White Haven. "Lucien Cortez said something like that to me last week, while I was getting ready to come out here, but I didnt have time to ask him what he meant," the First Space Lord admitted.

"Its simple enough, really," Matthews told him. "Even before the Alliance, we had an enormous commitment to our orbital farms, asteroid extraction industries, and the military presence we needed against those fanatics on Masada. It may not have been all that impressive on the Manticoran scale, but it was certainly more extensive than youd find in most star systems out this way. But the important point was that wed put that all together with an industrial base which was maybe twenty percent as efficient as yours. Which meant we needed four or five times the manpower to accomplish the same amount of work. But now were almost up to Manticoran standards, and its actually easier to trainor retrainpeople to use your hardware than it was to teach them to use ours in the first place. So we took all those people who used to do things the old-fashioned way, trained them to do them the new way, gave them the tools they needed to do it with, and then got out of their way." The High Admiral shrugged. "They took it from there."

"Somehow I dont think it was quite that simple, High Admiral," William Alexander said. "Ive certainly had enough experience of the sort of financial strain this level of activity" he waved a hand at the armorplast "would entail back home. Youve gotwhat? Three hundred billion Manticoran dollars worth of warships?building out there, Sir, and this is only one of your yards." He shook his head. "I would dearly love to know how you manage that."

"Actually, weve got closer to seven hundred billion dollars worth of tonnage under construction," Matthews said with quiet pride, "and that doesnt even count our ongoing investment in upgrading our orbital forts and expanding our yard facilities and other infrastructure. By the time you put it all together, we probably have something well over a couple of trillion of your dollars worth of construction underway right now, and the new budget just authorized expenditures which should increase that by about fifty percent in the next three T-years."

"My God," Caparelli said quietly. He turned to stare back out the view port for several seconds, then shook his head in turn. "Im even more impressed than I was a few moments ago, High Admiral. Youre talking a good chunk of the Royal Navys construction budget there."

"I know," Matthews agreed, "and Im certainly not going to tell you that its easy, but we do have some offsetting advantages. For one thing, your civilian standard of living and the economic and industrial commitment required to sustain it are much higher than ours." He waved a hand with a crooked smile. "Im not saying your people are softer, or that ours wouldnt love to have the same standard of living yours do. But the fact is that we never had it before, and we dont have it now. Were working on bringing ours up, but our people understand about making sacrifices to defend themselveswe had enough practice against Masadaand weve deliberately chosen to expand our military capacity at several times the rate at which weve expanded our civilian capacity. Even at the rate of civilian expansion weve allowed, our peoples standard of living has gone up by something on the order of thirty percentthats a planet-wide averagein just the last six years, so were not hearing a lot of complaints.

"In the meantime," he flashed a smile at Caparelli, "were actually showing a profit selling warships and components to the Star Kingdom!"

"You are?" Caparelli blinked, then looked sharply at Alexander, who shrugged.

"I havent looked at the figures lately, Sir Thomas. I do know that whether Grayson is showing a profit or not, were saving something like fifteen percent on the hardware we buy from them."

"Im sure you are, Lord Alexander," Matthews said. "But when you crank our lower wages into the equation, our production costs are also much lower than yours. In fact, one of the reasons Lady Harrington was able to interest your Hauptman Cartel in investing in Blackbird was to get us more deeply involved in civilian construction, as well." He nodded at the view port again. "You cant see it from here, but over on the other side of the yard, were building half a dozen Argonaut class freighters for Hauptman. We happen to be building them at costas the down payment on a process which will end up allowing Grayson and Sky Domes to buy out Hauptmans share of the yardbut if it works out half as well as we expect it to, we should see orders start to come in from the other cartels over the next T-year or two."

"Youre building all this and civilian ships too? " Caparelli demanded.

"Why not?" Matthews shrugged. "Were close to the limit of what the government can afford on our current warship programs, but thanks to Hauptmans initial investmentand Lady Harringtons, of courseour total building capacity is considerably higher than that. So we divert some of our labor force to civilian construction and build the ships for about sixty percent of what it would cost to build them in the Star Kingdomassuming that any of your major builders could find the free yard capacity for themand then Hauptman gets brand new freighters from us for eighty percent of what they would have paid a Manticoran builder. The cartels actual out-of-pocket cost is only forty percentthe other forty percent goes towards retiring their investment in the yardbut thats enough to cover Blackbirds actual expenses, since the Sword has exempted the transaction from taxes in order to accelerate the buy-out. Meanwhile, the workers wages go into the system economy, and everyones happy."

"Except, perhaps, the Manticoran builders who arent building the ships," Alexander observed in slightly frosty tones.

"My Lord, if you could find the free civilian building slips back home, then you might have a point," Matthews said without apology.

"Hes got you there, Willie," White Haven observed with a smile. "Besides, isnt it still Her Majestys Governments policy to help grow Grayson industrial capacity?"

"Yes. Yes, it is," Alexander said after a moment. "If I sounded as if I meant otherwise, I apologize, High Admiral. You simply surprised me."

"We know how much we owe the Star Kingdom, Lord Alexander," Matthews said seriously, "and we have no desire whatsoever to gouge you or suck your financial blood. But our economic starting point was so far behind yours that it provides us with opportunities wed be fools not to exploit. And for the foreseeable future, it works in both of our favors. The volume of our interstellar trade has risen by several thousand percent in less than a decade, which has produced a boom economy for us despite the cost of the war effort. At the same time, and even allowing for all the loans and trade incentives your government extended to us at the time of the Alliance, youre actually saving money by buying ships and components from us. And speaking strictly for the Grayson Navy," the high admirals grin bared even white teeth, "Id like to think that our increased presence adds a little something to the military security of both our nations."

"Id say theres not much doubt of that, at any rate," White Haven observed, and both Alexander and Caparelli nodded in grave agreement.

And, the Earl thought, it doesnt even mention thingslike the new inertial compensators and the fission piles for the new LACswhich we would never have had without the Graysons. Or the way their habit of charging ahead with things like their own Medusas keep pushing us a little harder than wed push ourselves. No, he folded his hands behind him and gazed at the enormous superdreadnought, now less than ten kilometers away, it doesnt matter how much weve invested in Yeltsins Star. Whatever the final total, weve already gotten one hell of a lot more than our moneys worth back on it!

Chapter Twenty | Echoes Of Honor | * * *