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"Do you really think we can pull this off?" Everard Honeker asked very quietly. Lester Tourville almost gave a snort of laughter, but then he looked up with a much more serious expression as the people's commissioner's tone registered.

"That hardly sounds like the proper attitude for one of the New Order's forward-looking leaders of the People's vanguard," he said. His voice was more confident than the look in his eyes, and he watched Honeker closely, waiting for his reaction with an outward assurance he was far from feeling. He and his people's commissioner had been edging closer and closer to a true partnership for the better part of a T-year, yet this was the first time the citizen vice admiral had dared to expose his own contempt for his political masters quite so clearly.

It wasn't the best possible moment he could have picked, either, he reflected wryly. He'd retained Count Tilly as the flagship of Task Force 12.2 of the People's Navy, and Giscard's entire Twelfth Fleet had just departed the Secour System. In almost precisely twenty-four T-days, the various task forces would arrive simultaneously at their objectives and Operation Icarus would be on. Under the circumstances, this was scarcely a propitious moment to risk fracturing TF 12.2's command team. Then again, he'd been making a habit of doing things at less than optimum moments for quite some time now, and despite his apparent rehabilitation, he was hard pressed to think of a way he could dig his current hole much deeper. Besides, he was confident that Cordelia Ransom had disgusted Honeker just as much as she had disgusted Tourville himself.

The question, the citizen vice admiral thought, is whether or not his disgust with her is going to carry over to the rest of the Committee now that she's gone? It could be very... useful to me if it does. Maybe. Especially if Giscard and I are going to end up labeled as two of "McQueen's Men" whether we want to or not!

"Those of us in the vanguard of the People seem to spend a great deal of time looking over our shoulders to see who's following us," Honeker said after several silent seconds. Which, Tourville thought, could be taken several ways. The people's commissioner let him stew for a couple of more seconds, then produced a wintry smile. "Given the fact that some of those people tend to react just a little unreasonably where failure is concerned, my interest in the outcome of our assignment is more than simply academic, however. And, frankly, the thought of heading this deep into Manty space makes me nervous. Very nervous."

"Oh, well, if that's all that's worrying you, put your mind at ease, Citizen Commissioner," Tourville said with a broad grin, trying to hide his vast relief. "Unreasonably" wasn't a word people's commissioners were supposed to useor not, at least, in connection with their political superiorswhen speaking to the officers on whom they rode herd. Honeker's use of it constituted a major advance in the cautious dance they'd been dancing since Honor Harrington's capture, and hearing it made such things as the possibility of being blown to bits by the Manties seem almost minor.

"I'm sure I appreciate your display of confidence, Citizen Admiral," Honeker said dryly. "If it's all the same to you, however, I think I'd prefer something a little more detailed than 'put your mind at ease' when we're headed over two light-centuries into Alliance-held space to hit one of the Manties' allies' home systems with only thirty-six capital ships! If you'll pardon my saying so, this sounds entirely too much like what happened to Citizen Admiral Thurston at Yeltsin's Star, and I'd really rather not reprise his role there. As I recall, there were very few survivors from the first performance."

"There are some differences, Sir," Tourville said mildly, hiding raised mental eyebrows. Honeker's openness had just escalated his own probe by a few thousand percent, and he leaned back in his chair to consider how best to respond to it. The good news was that the two of them sat alone in Tourville's flag briefing room, and he had to assume Honeker would never have voiced his concerns unless he'd either disabled the bugs or else had complete confidence in his ability to control any access to the recordings.

Of course, the fact that he's confident wouldn't necessarily mean he has reason to be. And I suppose I still shouldn't overlook the possibility that he's trying to set me up, get me to say something he can use to nail my ass for StateSec. On the other hand, why wait this long or go to elaborate lengths when all he'd have had to do was remind someone back on Haven of just how splendidly Ransom and I had gotten along before her untimely departure? Besides, I've got to take some chances somewhere along the line.

The thoughts flicked through his brain in a heartbeat, and he smiled at Honeker.

"First of all, Sir, there are some substantial differences between Zanzibar and Yeltsin's Star. Zanzibar has a much larger population, but it's a largely agrarian world. The system's asteroid belts are richer than most, and it's developed a respectable extraction industry in the last thirty or so T-years, but it's primarily an exporter of raw materialsdefinitely still a third-tier economy. By this time, Yeltsin is at least second-tier, and I think an argument could be made for its rapidly approaching first-tier status. More to the point, the Zanzibar Navy is still essentially a sublight self-defense force which requires a substantial Manty picket for backup, whereas the Grayson Navy has turned Yeltsin into some kind of black hole for our ships."

He paused again, and Honeker nodded. But the people's commissioner still looked unconvinced, and Tourville couldn't really blame him.

"There are also differences between both the operational planning and the leadership of Dagger and Icarus," he went on, "and that's probably even more important than the inherent toughness of the objectives. I never served with Citizen Admiral Thurston, but I knew his reputation. He was a fairly good strategist on paper, but he was pretty much a headquarters type. A 'staff puke,' if you'll pardon the expression. Citizen Admiral Giscard is a shooter, not a chip-shuffler, and he and Citizen Secretary McQueen between them have avoided the weakest parts of Thurston's strategy for Yeltsin's Star."

"Which were?"

"Which were his elaborate maneuvers to draw the Manties and Graysons out of position prior to the attack," Tourville said without hesitation. "He got too clever and tried to manipulate themto suck them out of his way so as to give himself a virtually unopposed shot at his objective. Worse, he seems to have fallen in love with his own plan. When he finally hit Yeltsin, he'd spent so much time convincing himself his preliminary operations had worked perfectly that he came in fat, dumb, and happy. Granted, he was up against an opponent with better electronic warfare capabilities, which contributed materially to his misappreciation of the enemy's forces when he finally saw them, but the mindset to be misled was implicit in his entire approach. So he walked right into the concentrated firepower of six superdreadnoughts at minimum range."

The Citizen Vice Admiral shrugged and moved his hands as if he were tossing something into the air above the briefing room table.

"If he'd come in more cautiously, kept the range open, he still had more than enough missile power to take the system. His battleships were no match for SDs on a one-for-one basis, but he had thirty-six of them, with two dozen battlecruisers to back them up. If he'd held the range open and pounded the Graysons with missiles, he would've had an excellent chance of annihilating the defenders anyway, but he didn't."

"That was a tactical failure on his part once all the pieces were in play, but, frankly, any strategist who depends on convincing his adversaries to do what he wants has made the kind of mistake even amateurs should know enough to avoid. Oh, it's always worth trying to mislead the other side, convince him you're going to hit him at Point A when you actually intend to blow hell out of Point B, but you should nevereverset up a strategy under which the enemy has to do what you want if your own operations are going to succeed."

"But wasn't that what Thurston did? You just said he'd brought along enough firepower to win if he'd used it properly even when the enemy didn't do what he wanted."

"He did, but he lacked the will and preparedness to use it properly because his entire strategy had been built towards avoiding the need for a real fight. Frankly, he may have figured he had no option but to set it up that way if he was going to convince his superiors to let him try it. I once met Citizen Secretary Kline on a visit to the Octagon, and I hope you won't take this wrongly, Sir, but he was one of the worst arguments for civilian control of the military you could imagine."

He watched Honeker's eyes as he spoke, but the people's commissioner didn't even blink.

"Citizen Secretary Kline's biggest problem as a war minister," the citizen vice admiral went on after a moment, "was that he was too afraid of losing to let himself have a real shot at winning. To be fair, the Navy wasn't doing all that well in stand-up fights at the timewe were still reorganizing after the Harris Assassination, and we had a lot of people getting on-the-job trainingbut Kline's idea was to stand on the defensive and let the enemy come to us. I think he hoped that if we did that, the Manties would make the mistakes instead of us, but you may have noticed that they don't seem to make all that many mistakes. Besides, a primarily defensive strategy has to be a losing one when your operational area is two or three light-centuries across. You can't possibly picket every single star system in sufficient strength to defeat a determined attack, and trying to simply guarantees your opponent the right to pick his fights. Which, if he has a clue as to what he's doing, means he'll hit you in one of the places where you're too weak to stop him. If you hope to give yourself any kind of chance of actually winning a war, you simply have to take some chances in order to act offensively. I think some old wet-navy admiral from Old Earth said something along the lines of 'He who will not risk cannot win,' and it's still true today.

"So if I thought that what had actually happened was that Thurston had structured his proposals to understate the probability of a real fight in order to, um, entice the Octagon and the Committee into letting him try it despite the fact that he actually planned on fighting a serious battle, I'd have a lot more respect for him. Citizen Admiral Theisman or Citizen Admiral Giscardor Citizen Secretary McQueenmight have done that. But if they had, they also would have carried through even if they knew their official diversionary strategy hadn't completely succeeded. Unfortunately, I think what happened was that Thurston really came up with a bad operational conceptor a weak one, at leastwhich simply happened to fit the profile of the 'low risk' counterattack for which his superiors were searching. He wasn't looking for a fight; he genuinely believed he could avoid onehave his cake and eat it too, if you willand put his foot straight into it.

"The difference here is that Citizen Secretary McQueen isn't particularly interested in tricking the enemy into doing anything. Instead, she intends to take advantage of things the enemy's already done. And unlike Thurston or Citizen Secretary Kline, she's willing to take a few risks to win. So she expects us to actually do some serious fighting when we reach our objectives, but she's picked those objectives to give us the best shot of achieving our mission goals anyway."

"But Zanzibar has been a Manty ally for almost ten T-years now," Honeker pointed out. "That's why the Alliance put its new shipyard there, and they've picketed it since before Parks took Seaforth Nine away from us."

"They certainly have," Tourville agreed, "but at the moment, they're in very much the position we were in when Thurston launched Operation Dagger, if for rather different reasons. They've got an awful big chunk of their wall of battle in for overhaul at the very moment when they're strategically overextended by their successes. That means they can't possibly be strong everywherejust as we couldn'tbecause they simply don't have the ships for it. And that means that someplace like Zanzibar, which is so far behind the front, and where there have been no active operations by either side for over eight years, is going to be lightly covered. They'll have enough firepower on call to deal with a raiding battlecruiser squadron or two... but that's why we have three battleship squadrons along for support."

Tourville paused once more, watching Honeker's eyes, then shrugged.

"Frankly," he said, "this is something we should have done years ago, Sir. We lost a lot of battleships trying to stop the Manties short of Trevor's Star, but we've still got over two hundred of them, and our superdreadnought strength has been rising again for the last T-year or so. That means we ought to be using the battleships as aggressively as possible. Since they aren't suitable for the wall of battleand since our growing SD strength means we can finally stop putting them into it anywaythey should be committed to a strategy of deep raids. They've got the accel to run away from SDs and dreadnoughts and the firepower to squash battlecruisers. That makes them pretty damned close to the ideal tool to keep the Manties thinking about the security of their rear areas. And every ship of the wall we can force them to divert to guarding a star twenty or thirty light-years behind the front is just as much out of action as one we've blown apart. That's what Icarus is all about. What we'd prefer to do is to actually gain the initiative for the first time since the war began, but even if we don't, we should at least take the initiative away from the Manties. And that, Citizen Commissioner, is a damned sight better than anything we've managed yet!"

"So you actually have confidence in the ops plan?" Honeker sounded almost surprised, and Tourville gave a short, sharp bark of a laugh.

"I've got a hell of a lot of confidence in the plan, Sir," he said. "I think we'll probably lose some shipsthe Manties may be out of position, but anyone who's ever fought them knows they won't go easybut their forces are too light to stop us from getting in and doing one hell of a lot of damage. We'll take out more of their ships than they'll knock out of ours, and that doesn't even count the potential damage to their infrastructure... or their morale." He shook his head. "If this succeeds even half as well as Citizen Secretary McQueen hopes, it will have a tremendous effect on the future course of the war."

And, he added silently, McQueen is also avoiding the other two mistakes Thurston made. She's staying the hell away from Yeltsin's Star... and she's not sending us up against Honor Harrington.

"I hope you're right, Citizen Admiral," Honeker said quietly. He still looked anxious, but he seemed less so than he had, and Tourville decided not to broach the subject of whether or not the people's commissioner's superiors might decide to consider the two of them members of any "McQueen Faction" if it came to fresh purges.

Let the poor bastard worry about one thing at a time, the Citizen Vice Admiral thought.

"Well, Sir, we'll know one way or the other in about three T-weeks," he said instead, and he smiled.

Chapter Thirty | Echoes Of Honor | Chapter Thirty-One