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"All right, people! Now that's the way an op is supposed to go!" Jacquelyn Harmon smiled hugely at her assembled staff and squadron commandersincluding newly promoted Commander Stewart Ashford. The holo above the briefing room table was very different from the one which had shown the "dead" icons of Ashford's section six months earlier. Instead, it showed the spectacular (if simulated) wreckage of three battlecruisers, twelve destroyers, and all thirty-three of the merchantmen those warships had been escorting. A tabular sidebar showed the LAC wing's own losses: six ships destroyed, eight more damaged beyond Minotaur's on-board repair capability, and lighter damage to another thirteen. The tonnage ratio was appallingly in the LACs' favor: two hundred and eighty thousand tons of LACs lost or seriously damaged in return for the complete destruction of almost four million tons of warships and a staggering quarter of a billion tons of merchant shipping.

"The LAC concept certainly seems to have been proved... in sims, at least," Captain Truman observed. Minotaur's skipper had been invited to the wing debrief, and she, too, smiled at the exultant young LAC COs, but there was a note of warning in her voice.

"It certainly does, Ma'am," Commander McGyver replied. "I make it a tonnage ratio of just about eight hundred to one, and God only knows what the casualty ratio was!"

"Roughly a hundred-and-fifty-two-to-one," Barbara Stackowitz put in promptly. "We suffered one hundred and twelve casualties, ninety-three of them fatal, and they lost sixteen thousand nine hundred and fifty-one, but over eleven thousand of them were aboard the escorts."

"In a simulation," Rear Admiral of the Green George Holderman pointed out sourly. Unlike Truman, Holderman hadn't been invited to the debrief; he'd invited himself. That was something Manticoran flag officers simply didn't do, yet no one had possessed the seniority to tell him no, and his personality had done its best to put a damper on Minotaur's mood ever since his arrival. He was one of the officers who had fought the entire LAC-carrier concept from the beginning, and he continued to fight on with dogged persistence. His own battle record was good enough to give his opinions a solid weight, and he'd become one of the leading spokesmen for the "missile-deck admirals," as the traditionalist opponents of the LACs had been dubbed. He considered the idea a worthless diversion of desperately needed resources and everyone knew it. Yet despite Admiral Adcock's best efforts, he'd possessed sufficient seniorityand allies within the serviceto get himself named to head the special board empaneled to evaluate Minotaur's effectiveness.

"With all due respect, Admiral," Truman said flatly, "until the Admiralty is willing to turn a LAC wing loose on a live target, the only way we can test the concept is in simulations. Where, I might add, the LACs have won every engagement to date."

Holderman's beefy face darkened as the golden-haired captain looked him straight in the eye. She hadn't cared for the fashion in which he'd bulled his way into the debrief, and she didn't particularly care for him as a human being, either. Nor did she like the way he'd begun tinkering with the simulations, convincing the umpires to incorporate "more realistic" assumptions... all of which just happened to pare away at the LACs' advantages in speed, nimbleness, and smaller target size.

The rear admiral knew exactly what she was implying, and he didn't care for her tone of voice. Nor had he ever liked uppity juniors who expressed disagreement even privatelyfar less publiclywith flag officers, and anger sparkled in his eyes. But the Honorable Alice Truman was no ordinary uppity junior. She was a captain of the list with a reputationand allies (and patrons)of her own, and he knew she was on the next short list for rear admiral. It was unusual to jump an officer straight past commodore to rear admiral, even in wartime, and Holderman gritted his teeth as he wondered if she knew it was going to happen to her. That would certainly be one possible explanation for the challenge in her tone and eyes.

But whatever she might become in the future, she was only a captain at the moment, and he let himself lean towards her, using his twenty-centimeter height advantage to loom pugnaciously over her.

"Yes, it's all been in simulations, Captain" he said even more flatly than she'd spoken. "And it will stay that way until this board and the Admiralty are convinced the concept merits testing in action. And, frankly, the unrealistic assumptions so far applied to the operational parameters of the exercises have done very little to convince me to recommend approval."

"Unrealistic, Sir?" Truman's blue eyes were hard, and several of her juniors glanced apprehensively at one another as they felt the thunderheads gathering. "Unrealistic in what way, if I may ask?"

"In every way!" Holderman snapped. "The exercise parameters assumed none of the escort captains assigned to it had ever encountered one of the new LACs before. They were forced to engage them in total ignorance of their actual capabilities!"

"I see, Sir." Truman cocked her head and bared her teeth in a tight almost-smile. "May I ask if any of the captains involved actually did have any knowledge of the Shrike's capabilities?"

"Of course they didn't! How could they have when it's still on the Official Secrets List?" Holderman demanded.

"An excellent point, Sir," Truman shot back. "But unless I misread my own briefing from the umpires, that was the objective of the exercise: to see how a force which had never encountered them would fare against them. Was I, perhaps, in error in that interpretation?"

Holderman turned a dangerous shade of red. Truman's words were respectful enough, but the tone in which she'd delivered them was cold as a frozen razor. Worse, she was completely right about the simulation's purpose.

"Whatever the object of the simulated exercise," he grated, "the true test of the concept will be how it works in real space, in real time, against people who do know what's coming, Captain. Eventually someone on the other side is going to figure out what they can do, after all, and begin taking steps to attack their weaknesses, now aren't they? So don't you think it might be a good idea to try and figure out those weaknesses for ourselves before we throw lives away against the Peeps? The Fleet would like to use these vesselsand their crewsmore than once each, you know!"

"Certainly, Sir," Truman agreed. "I only point out that the object of this exercise was to determine how we can expect them to fare in their initial employments."

"'Initial employments'!" Holderman half-spat, and his lip curled. "Even granting that you're correct in this instance, Captain, no simulation is going to prove much until its assumptions bear at least some resemblance to reality. Obviously anyone can stack the odds in an exercise to favor one side or the other!"

"Indeed they can, Sir," Truman agreed in tones of deadly affability. "Of course, sometimes they fail to dictate the outcome they desire no matter how thoroughly they stack the odds, don't they, Sir?"

Holderman went puce, and someone sucked in air audibly, for everyone in the briefing room knew what she was referring to they just couldn't quite believe she'd had the nerve to do it.

Rear Admiral Holderman had convinced the umpires to alter the immediately previous exercise's ground rules by giving the officers assigned to command the simulated superdreadnought division opposed to Minotaur a detailed briefing on the Shrike and its capabilities. The briefing had been a major change from the original exercise plan approved by BuShips, Admiral Adcock's BuWeaps, and the Bureau of Training, and everyone knew it had been intended to give the SDs a clear advantage. Despite that, however, both ships of the wall had been destroyed, although they had managed to take thirty of Minotaur's LACs with them and damaged another eleven. It had been the carrier's worst losses to date... and had still cost the defenders seventeen million tons of capital ship in return for only six hundred thousand tons of LACs. Not to mention twelve thousand crewmen as opposed to only three hundred and thirty-two from the LAC wing.

"You may think these... these toy boats are warships, Captain, but they'll be worth damn all against an alert wall with its sensor and fire control net intact!" he snapped.

"I'm sure loss rates will climb against a prepared opponent, Sir," Truman conceded. "No one has ever claimed they wouldn't. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone ever suggested that 'these toy boats' can substitute in close action for properly handled ships of the wall. But so far they've met every challenge thrown at them and performed even better than expected in almost every case. I submit to you, Sir, that Captain Harmon and her people have amply proved the first-stage practicality of Anzio."

"You can submit whatever you like, Captain!" Holderman spat, and his eyes blazed dangerously. "Fortunately, the decision is the board's, not yours, and we'll continue testing the concept until my colleagues and I are convinced these things have some real value."

"I see." Truman regarded him with calm, cold dispassion, then shrugged. "Very well, Sir. I cannot, of course, fault your determination to do a full, complete, and impartial job of evaluating the concept." Her voice might be cold, but the vitriol dripping from it could easily have stripped paint off a bulkhead. "In the meantime, however, Captain Harmon and her officers have a great deal to do to prepare for tomorrow's exercises. May I suggest that you and I leave them to it?"

Holderman glared at her, but there was little he could say in reply. More to the point, she was Minotaur's captain, and he, despite the difference in their ranks, was only a visitor aboard her ship. If she chose to, she had the legal authority to order him out of the compartmentor entirely off the ship. It would be a suicidal career move, regardless of whatever sponsors or patrons she might have attracted, but the look in her eyes suggested she might not care a great deal just at the moment. Nor would being the subject of such an order do very much for Holderman's career. At the very least, it would make him a laughingstock. At worst, it might even convince people Truman was right about the LACs and that he was the one who'd been out of line. Which was ridiculous, of course, but not something he could afford to ignore.

"No doubt you're correct, Captain," he said, and if her tone could have stripped paint, his was a flat declaration that she'd just made a mortal enemy. "If you'll have my pinnace called away, I'll return to the orbital base to consult with the umpires about tomorrow's exercise."

"Of course, Sir. It will be my pleasure." Again, the words were harmless... and the tone in which they were delivered was deadly. He glared at her, then turned and stamped out of the compartment.

Truman watched the hatch close behind him, then turned to give her breathless juniors a crooked smile.

"If I could have one more moment of your time, Jackie?" she asked politely, and twitched her head at the hatch.

"Certainly, Ma'am," Harmon replied, and the two of them stepped out into the passage beyond the briefing room. Holderman had already vanished, and Truman smiled againmore nearly naturally at Minotaur's COLAC.

"I suppose I might have handled that just a bit more tactfully," she observed, "but the son of a bitch pissed me off."

"Me, too," Harmon agreed. "All the same"

"All the same, nothing we could possibly do could make him any more determined to scrub the entire project," Truman interrupted. "Although," she added judiciously, "I did do my best to inspire him to greater efforts."

"You?" Harmon blinked, then shook her head. "Would you care to explain that?"

"It's simple enough, Jackie," Truman said with a chuckle. "He and Commodore Paget are the board's senior officers, and they've been sitting on the sim results for months. You and your people have blown the other side out of space over and over again, but they're damned if they'll admit it. Surely you've noticed that?"

"Well, yes. Of course I have," Harmon admitted.

"Then what makes you think they'll stop sitting on the results?" Truman demanded. "Worse, the two of them will go right on tinkering with the sim parameters until they manage to come up with a way for the defenders to swat your people in droves. And they're not idiots. In fact, both of them are superior conventional tacticians, however stupidly they may be acting in this instance. They will find a way, and you and I know it, because they're right about how fragile your LACs are. Sooner or later, they'll devise a setup which will require you to accept catastrophic losses to accomplish your mission. It won't have to be a reasonable scenario, or a situation likely to recur in action. All it has to do is be theoretically plausible and inflict massive losses on the wing for minimal results. Because when they pull it off, that's the exercise they'll use as the baseline for their report to the Admiralty."

Harmon stared at her, and Truman sighed. The LAC wing's CO was a brilliant officer in her own iconoclastic way, but she came from a non-naval family. In many ways, she reminded Truman of Honor Harrington, for despite Alfred Harrington's career as a Navy surgeon, Honor had also come from a family with few or no naval ancestors and accomplished all she had on the basis of raw ability. Alice Truman, on the other hand, was the daughter of a vice admiral, the granddaughter of a captain and a rear admiral, and the great-granddaughter of a commodore, two rear admirals, and a first space lord. She understood the Byzantine feuds and machinations of the Royal Navy's great dynasties as Jacquelyn Harmon never would, and she knew exactly how Holderman and his fellows couldand wouldgo about killing or delaying Operation Anzio. She even understood that they'd do it because they honestly believed it to be their duty. The only problem was that she couldn't let them, for the Navy desperately needed the potential the Shrikes represented.

"Trust me on this, Jackie," she said as gently as she could. "I don't say they can kill the concept outright, because I don't think they can. It makes too much sense, we need it too badly, and it's got too many supporters. But they can delay it by another year or even two, and we can't afford that."

"But how will pissing them off stop them?"

"Because unless I miss my guess, Holderman is so hot right this minute that he can hardly wait to get back to Hancock Base, call in the umpires, and start twisting tomorrow's exercise like a pretzel," Truman said cheerfully. "By the time he's done, the sim's outcome will be the worst disaster for your LAC wing since Amos Parnell left a month early for the Third Battle of Yeltsin."

"And that's a good thing?" Harmon demanded, her expression aghast, and Truman chuckled.

"It's a wonderful thing, Jackie, because I've already drafted a dispatch to Admiral Adcock's attention at BuWeapswith information copies to Admiral Caparelli, Vice Admiral Givens at BuPlan, Vice Admiral Danvers at BuShips, and Vice Admiral Tanith Hill at BuTrainexpressing my concern that the sims are being written unrealistically."

Harmon's eyes widened, for that was five of the Space Lords of the Board of Admiralty. In fact, it was all of them except for Admiral Cortez and Vice Admiral Mannock, the heads of BuPers and the Surgeon General, respectively. Truman saw her expression and smiled.

"Naturally I would never attribute intentional bias to anyone," she said piously, "but for whatever reason, I feel I've discerned a... failure to fully and fairly examine the capabilities of the LAC-carrier concept in the last few exercises. In fact, I'm afraid the problem is becoming more pronounced, and so I've brought it to the attention of all the relevant authorities, exactly as I'm supposed to. Unfortunately, Chief Mantooth somehow neglected to forward a copy to Admiral Holderman or any other member of the evaluation board here in Hancock. A terrible oversight, of course. Doubtless the board's copies simply got lost in transit someplace."

"You mean?" Harmon stared at her in something very like awe.

"I mean the Powers That Be are going to have ample reason to look very, very carefully at the parameters of the sims and how they came to be written as they are. And what they're going to find is a steady procession of successes by the LACs followedhopefully by a single, crushing, overwhelming failure. Which will cause them to look even more carefully at that particular exercise, talk to the umpires... and discover just how the parameters were changed, and by whom." Truman smiled nastily. "I suspect Admiral Holderman and Commodore Paget will have just a little explaining to do after that."

"Jesus, Alice," Harmon said. She was silent for several seconds, then she shook her head. "I see what you're up to, but what if he doesn't bite? What if he just bides his time? And what if he decides to get even with you down the line? He's a rear admiral, after all."

"First, I think he's too pissed offand too convinced he's rightto resist the bait," Truman replied. "Second, the seed is planted. Even if he waits another few daysor even longersooner or later he'll push a little too hard, and when he does, the trap will spring. And as for getting even with me" She shrugged. "If he reacts the way I expect him to, he'll cut his own throat. His career may survive it, but any move he ever makes to hit back at me will be seen as a vengeful senior trying to use his position to punish a junior who was simply doing her job when he made himself look like an idiot. Oh, sure, some people will figure out what really happenedand a few will probably realize it from the very beginningbut I'm not worried about them. The ones who figure it out will also know why I did it. They may not be exactly delighted by the spectacle of a captain helping a rear admiral shoot his own... foot off, and I could find myself in trouble at some point if one of them ends up on a promotion board evaluating me for my own flag, but I'll cross that bridge when I reach it. Besides, I figure most of them will have realized how valuable the LACs are long before that happens."

"And if you're wrong?" Harmon asked quietly.

"If I'm wrong, my career is going to be very disappointing, by my family's standards," Truman said much more lightly than she felt. "I won't like that, and neither will my parents. But they'll know why I did it, and that's enough for me. Besides," she smiled, this time completely naturally, "at least this way I'll still be able to sleep with myself... and I'll still get that asshole Holderman, whatever happens. Believe me, Jackiethat by itself would be almost enough to make the whole thing worth it!"

Chapter Thirty-One | Echoes Of Honor | Chapter Thirty-Two