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Chapter Forty-Four

The silence in the conference room deep inside Mount Royal Palace was profound as the report from Augustus Khumalo and Estelle Matsuko ended and the holo display blanked. Simultaneity normally had very little meaning over interstellar distances, especially given how long it took simply to send dispatch boats back and forth, but this time that concept had a very real meaning. Given the distances involved, all of the watchers knew, Michelle Henke and Aivars Terekhov must even then be preparing for their alpha translation back into normal-space just outside the New Tuscany hyper limit. And that meant that even as they sat here, the Star Empire of Manticore might be firing its very first shots in the war no sane star nation could ever want to fight.

No one said anything for several seconds, and then, predictably, Queen Elizabeth III cleared her throat.

"You know," she said almost whimsically, "when you and the Admiralty sent Mike off to Talbott, Hamish, I thought we might be sending her to a relatively quiet little corner of the galaxy while she recuperated."

Hamish Alexander-Harrington, the Earl of White Haven and First Lord of Admiralty, produced a rather sour chuckle.

"We never said it was going to be a 'quiet little corner,' " he told his Queen. "On the other hand, given the way people seemed to be pulling in their horns after Monica, I never thought it was going to get quite this . . . interesting, either."

"No?" White Haven's younger brother, William Alexander, Baron Grantville and Prime Minister of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, clearly wasn't going to be producing any chuckles, sour or otherwise. His expression was profoundly unhappy, and he shook his head. " 'Interesting' isn't the word I'd choose, Ham. It doesn't even come close to what this little vest pocket nuke is going to do to us!"

"No, it doesn't, Willie," Honor Alexander-Harrington told her brother-in-law, and her expression was almost as unhappy as his. She reached up to stroke the ears of the cream and gray treecat stretched across the back of her chair. "In fact, I've got a really bad feeling about all this."

"Other than the fact that we've just lost three destroyers and their entire crews, you mean, I take it, Honor?" Elizabeth asked.

"That's exactly what I mean." Honor's mouth tightened, and she made a small throwing-away gesture with her right hand. "Don't take this wrongly, but after what happened to us—and to the Havenites—in the Battle of Manticore, the loss of life is of less concern to me than the future implications. I don't like saying that, and when I do, I'm not speaking as someone named Honor Alexander-Harrington; I'm speaking as Admiral Alexander-Harrington, the officer in command of Home Fleet."

"I understand," the Queen said, reaching out to lay one hand on Honor's left wrist. "And, to be honest, I agree with you one hundred percent. I think that may be one reason I'm making weak witticisms as a way to keep from looking at it squarely. But I suppose that's exactly what we need to do, isn't it?"

"To put it mildly," Grantville agreed.

He gazed at the backs of the hands folded on the tabletop in front of him for a second or two, then looked up at the other three people seated at the table. Sir Thomas Caparelli, the First Space Lord, sat to White Haven's right. Honor sat to her husband's left, between him and the Queen, and Second Space Lord Patricia Givens sat just to Grantville's immediate left, between him and Caparelli. Sir Anthony Langtry, the Star Kingdom's Foreign Secretary, completed the gathering, sitting between Grantville and the Queen.

"Anything new on that business in Torch, Pat?" the Prime Minister asked Givens, whose duties included command of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

"No, not really," she admitted. "All we know for certain at this point is that what looks like it must have been most of the StateSec 'refugee fleet' that had taken service with Manpower was committed to the attack. Rear Admiral Rozsak intercepted it, and it looks like he and Barregos got even more tech transfer from Erewhon than we'd thought. Or got the new stuff into production faster, at any rate. I'm sure that came as a really nasty surprise to the other side, but he still got hammered hard. Frankly, quite a few of my analysts—and I was one of them, for that matter—were surprised when he waded into them that way. I think it's the clearest evidence we've had to date that he and Governor Barregos take their treaty obligations seriously."

"But there's not much question Manpower was behind it?"

"No question at all, really," Givens agreed. "We've been aware ever since Terekhov took out Anhur in Nuncio that Manpower's been picking up every StateSec refugee it could. We never expected it to use them for something like this, but everything we already knew and interrogation of survivors all says Manpower was the mastermind behind the attack."

"I see where you're going with this, Willie," Honor said. "You're wondering if the timing is a coincidence or not, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am." Grantville snorted and shook his head at his sister-in-law. "Mind you, I'm not sure I'm not succumbing to terminal paranoia, but after what happened in the Quadrant and at Monica, having obvious Manpower proxies suddenly busy in our own backyard just at the same time things seem to be going to hell in New Tuscany strikes me as a particularly ominous coincidence."

"Are you seriously suggesting that Manpower's deliberately set out to embroil us in an all-out war with the Solarian League, Willie? That that's what they were really after in Monica?" Langtry asked, and Grantville shrugged.

"I don't know, Tony. For that matter, Manpower might simply have stumbled into all this. They may not have had any concerted plan from the get-go. For all I know, they've been improvising as they go along, and everything that's happening could be pure serendipity from their perspective. But whether they're behind what happened in New Tuscany or not—and the similarity to what happened at Monica does appear to be rather striking, doesn't it?—we're still faced with the consequences. I don't think anyone sitting at this table is likely to criticize Mike, Baroness Medusa, or Admiral Khumalo for their response to the destruction of Commodore Chatterjee's ships. I certainly don't, and I know Her Majesty doesn't. Under these circumstances, they're absolutely right; when that idiot Byng opened fire, it was an act of war."

He paused, letting that last sentence sink fully home, then shrugged.

"I know none of us really want to think about all the implications of that, but Mike, Medusa, and Khumalo had to do just that. And, frankly, I'm of the opinion that they've made the right call."

He glanced at the queen, who nodded her own agreement. She didn't look happy, but it was a very firm nod.

"Everything they've proposed is in strict accordance with our own existing, clearly enunciated policies and positions. More than that, it's all in strict accordance with interstellar law, as well. I'm quite sure that no one in the Solarian League ever thought for a moment that some 'neobarb navy' would ever have the sheer temerity to even contemplate applying that particular body of law to it, but that doesn't change the fact that the people responsible for deciding what to do about it have made the right choice. I suppose it's always possible that even Sollies will be able to recognize that, and, obviously, all of us hope the Solarian units in New Tuscany—assuming they're still there when our ships arrive—will comply with Mike's demands without any further loss of life. Unfortunately, we can't count on that.

"Even if they do, there are going to be plenty of Sollies who don't give a single solitary damn about what happened to our destroyers first," Langtry pointed out. "And for those people, whether any more shots are fired or not is going to be completely beside the point. We'll still be the 'neobarb navy' you were just talking about, Willie, and our 'arrogance' in daring to issue demands to them will constitute an act of war on our part, even if not a single one of their ships even has its paint scraped! After all, they're the Solarian League! They're important! Why, if the omnipotence of their Navy was ever challenged, it would be the end of civilized life as we know it! Assuming, of course, that the sheer impiety of anyone's having the audacity to even suggest that they should be held accountable for a minor thing like mass murder would probably bring about the end of the universe itself, given the fact that God is obviously a Solarian, too!"

There were times when it was easier than at others to remember that Sir Anthony Langtry had been an officer in the Royal Marines before he ever became a diplomat, Grantville reflected. The Foreign Secretary's sheer anger was bad enough, but the savage irony of his tone could have withered a Sphinxian picketwood forest. Which didn't change the fact that it was a masterful summation of exactly what the Solarian League's attitude was likely to be.

"You're right, of course," he conceded aloud. "And that means we're going to have to be careful exactly how we handle our protest to the League."

"At least we can get our diplomatic note in the first," his brother pointed out. "The message turnaround time from New Tuscany to Old Terra is only about twenty-five days by way of Manticore and the Junction. It's a lot longer for anyone trying to work around the outside of our communication loop. New Tuscany to Meyers is over five T-weeks for a dispatch boat, and it's over six T-weeks even for a message direct from New Tuscany to Mesa." White Haven grimaced, as if the system name physically tasted bad. "From there, it's another thirteen T-days or so to Old Terra by way of the Visigoth Junction and Beowulf. If they waste time following protocol and report to Meyers first, it'll take them right on eighty-six days—damned close to three T-months—just to get their first report back to Sol. Of course, assuming that we're right about Manpower's involvement, they probably will send dispatches directly by way of Mesa and Visigoth and get them there in only sixty-seven days or so, but even on that basis, our note will be there in less than half the time."

"I know," Grantville agreed. "But that leaves us with an interesting quandary."

"How public we want to go," Langtry said, and the Prime Minister nodded.

"Exactly. At this point, nobody else has a clue what's going on out there. Well, that something is going on out there, at any rate. I don't think any of us are really prepared to say exactly what's going on." He smiled thinly. "So do we make this a very quiet note to the Solly Foreign Ministry, or do we hand Tristram's sensor data directly over to the newsies?"

"What a wonderful set of options," Elizabeth said sourly, and her Prime Minister shrugged.

"I'm not incredibly happy about them myself, Your Majesty. Unfortunately, they're really the only two we've got. So do we try to handle this as quietly as we can in the faint hope that refraining from splashing egg all over the League's face will inspire the Solly powers-that-be to actually work with us, or do we go for maximum publicity? Launch our own offensive in the League's newsfaxes in hopes of pressuring them into being reasonable?"

No one said anything for several thoughtful seconds. Then Honor inhaled deeply and shook her head.

"Given how divorced the real decision-makers in the League are from anything remotely resembling the electoral process, I doubt that any sort of propaganda offensive is going to have much effect in the short term. At the same time, though, if we go public with it, we start backing those same decision-makers into a corner. Or that's how they're likely to see it, at any rate.

"As Hamish just pointed out, it's going to take a lot longer for any of their dispatches to get to Old Terra, unless Byng is smart enough to stand down and sends his own message traffic through the Junction. So I don't think there'd be any point in expecting the League to reach any final decisions on how it's going to respond very quickly even if it wanted to. And, frankly, I don't think it is going to want to. Sheer arrogance would take care of that, but as Tony's already suggested, they're also going to be thinking in terms of precedents. Of what's going to happen if they 'let us get away with this' sort of response. If we go ahead and start inflaming public opinion, that's only going to make them even stubborner about admitting for an instant that their man screwed up."

"All true," Elizabeth said. "On the other hand, I don't think anyone in this room really expects them to be anything but stubborn about admitting that they're at fault."

"No," Langtry said. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't appear as reasonable as possible, Your Majesty."

He grimaced, obviously unhappy at the thought of playing the part of a moderating influence. Unfortunately, that responsibility came with his present job, and he buckled down to it.

"The fact that we're demanding the at least temporary surrender of their warships—and that our commander on the spot is authorized to use deadly force if they refuse—is going to infuriate them," he continued. "There's no way around that. The fact that we're willing to infuriate them, though—that we're willing to go eyeball-to-eyeball with them over this, which no one else has been gutsy or crazy enough to do literally for centuries—is going to make a pretty firm statement about how seriously we take this. I think we could probably afford to handle it in a way that suggests we don't want to publicly humiliate the League without looking irresolute."

"I think Tony and Honor have both made valid points, Your Majesty," Grantville said after a moment. "I'm inclined to recommend that we not go public at this point. In fact, I think we should specifically point out to them that we haven't handed the story over to the media when we draft our note to Foreign Minister Roelas y Valiente."

Elizabeth thought for a moment, then nodded.

"I think that makes sense," she said. "At the same time, though, I don't think we can afford to sit on it for too long, for several reasons."

"Which reasons are you thinking about?" Grantville asked just a little bit warily.

"The most important one to me personally is that we have a responsibility to inform our own citizens," the queen replied. "And that's not just coming from any moral sense of responsibility, either, Willie," she added a bit pointedly. "Sooner or later we're going to have to go public with this, and if we delay too long, people are going to wonder why we didn't tell them about it sooner, since it happens to involve the minor matter of the possibility of our ending up at war with the most powerful navy in the galaxy while we're already at war with the Republic of Haven. I think it's important that they understand why we're running this sort of risk, and exactly how important the principles involved really are."

Grantville winced slightly. Although he'd been Chancellor of the Exchequer in the the Duke of Cromarty's cabinet, he'd never fully agreed with Cromarty's news policies during the First Havenite War. Cromarty's position had been that things could be kept secret only so long, however hard people in positions of authority tried. Since unfortunate news items were going to leak anyway, he'd reasoned, a policy of openness and honesty would be the best way to increase the public's confidence in official statements when they did. Grantville—although he'd been only the Honorable William Alexander at the time—hadn't disagreed with either of those points. His problem had been his intense dislike (actually, he was prepared to admit without any particular apology, hatred would have been a better choice of noun) for the official news establishment of the Solarian League. Anything reported in Manticore would be reported on Old Terra within the week, and the Solly newsies had not, in his opinion, wasted very much effort trying to report it factually and without bias.

There'd been a time, before the initial Peep attacks at places like Hancock Station and Yeltsin's Star, when the Solarian press had covered the looming confrontation between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic with something approaching evenhandedness. In fact, a segment of the Solly news establishment had covered it from a pro-Manticore position, and the Star Kingdom's government and its well-established public relations organs in places like Beowulf, the Sol System, and Far Corners had deliberately played to the "plucky little Manticore" view of that portion of the press.

But the Solarian resentment of the Star Kingdom's dominant position in interstellar commerce had always been there in the background, and once the actual shooting began, it had started coming to the fore. "Plucky little Manticore" had been seen in quite a different light when the Royal Manticoran Navy was winning battle after battle after battle. The fact that it was winning those battles against heavy numerical odds only seemed to make many Solarians more inclined to see the Star Kingdom as the militarily superior side, and it was only a short hop (for many of them) to somehow transforming Manticore ("I never liked those pushy Manties, anyway. Always too greedy and sure of themselves for a bunch of neobarbs, if you ask me! IfI were Haven, I wouldn't much care for 'em either!") into the aggressor. And the Cromarty Government's success in getting the League to embargo tech transfers to the People's Republic had only irritated that traditional Solarian resentment.

Under those circumstances, it hadn't taken the Solarian media very long to switch to what Grantville, at least, had always regarded as a revoltingly pro-Peep stance. Even the least anti-Solly Manticoran had to concede that there'd been a definite bias against the Star Kingdom, and quite a few of them would have agreed with Grantville that there was an orchestrated anti-Manticore lobby within the Solarian press corps. Yet Cromarty had stuck to his policy of openness and agreed to modify it only on a case-by-case basis and only in the face of pressing operational requirements.

That didn't mean Cromarty had been blind to the realities of news coverage in the Solarian League. Indeed, in many ways he'd been just as bitter about slanted Solarian newsfaxes as Grantville himself. But Cromarty's policy had reflected his concern with the Alliance's media. He'd accepted that the Star Kingdom was going to get hammered in the League's reportage, whatever it did, and under his premiership, the Star Kingdom's PR had concentrated primarily on making sure that a contrarian view was also presented and the accurate information from both sides was at least available to Solarians in general. Manticore hadn't exactly tried to understate StateSec's brutality in the information it fed the League through its own conduits. Nor, for that matter, had Manticoran journalists and commentators been at all shy about pointing out the fact that whereas the Star Kingdom did not censor reporters, the People's Republic did . . . and that Solarian correspondents assigned to Haven never mentioned it because doing so would get them expelled from the People's Republic.

Which, in many ways, had only made the self-appointed masters and mistresses of the Solarian Establishment even more bitterly anti-Manticore. They'd resented the Star Kingdom's and its surrogates' efforts to debunk their more outrageous misrepresentations, and the constant reminders that they uncritically repeated the Committee of Public Safety's propaganda rather than condemn PubIn's censorship had infuriated them . . . especially since they knew it was true. The fact that the Havenite propaganda had suited their own dislike of Manticore so much better than the truth, combined with their vindictive fury that anyone would dare to challenge their version of reality, had produced inevitable consequences, of course. Given the way their version of events played to stereotypical Solarian biases, the Star Kingdom's efforts had all been uphill, especially in light of the powerful vested interests in both the League's bureaucracy and its economic establishment with their own strong motives for blackening Manticore's image.

And then, of course, along had come the High Ridge Government, which couldn't have been more effective at reinforcing the most negative possible Solarian view of the Star Kingdom if it had been purposely designed for it. The demise of the People's Republic; the resurrection of the old Havenite Constitution; the resucitation of a functioning Havenite democracy; the High Ridge refusal to negotiate seriously (or to reduce the "wartime emergency" increases in transit fees on Solarian shipping); and the fact that neither High Ridge nor his Foreign Secretary, Elaine Descroix, had seen any need to "pander" to Solarian public opinion had produced predictably catastrophic results where the Solarian media's coverage of the Star Kingdom was concerned. Which was why one of Grantville's first priorities as Prime Minister had been to authorize heavy investments in rebuilding the PR organization High Ridge and Descroix had allowed to atrophy.

Unfortunately, the sudden fresh outbreak of fighting between the Republic and the Star Kingdom had made his rebuilding task much more difficult. And, he was forced to admit, the way in which the Star Kingdom had divided the Silesian Confederacy with the Andermani Empire, had given its Solarian press critics altogether too much fresh grist for its "Manticore As the Evil Empire" mill. Which had undoubtedly been a factor in the thinking of whoever had set out to destabilize the annexation of the Talbott Quadrant in the first place.

"Your Majesty," he said carefully, "I understand what you're saying, and I don't disagree with you. But Honor's point about not making the League's leadership feel we're trying to back it into a corner has a lot of merit. And, frankly, you know about the beating we've been taking in the Solarian media ever since Operation Thunderbolt." He paused, then snorted. "Excuse me, ever since that idiot High Ridge formed a government, I mean."

"I realize that, Willie." Elizabeth's tone was, in its way, as careful as Grantville's. Unlike her current Prime Minister, she'd always been firmly in agreement with the Duke of Cromarty's media policies. "And I don't disagree with Honor or with the point you and I both know you're making. But be that as it may, I'm still convinced that we need to avoid any appearance that we're trying to keep bad news hidden from our own people. In fact, I'm even more inclined to feel that way in the wake of the Battle of Manticore than I was before it. And I'm also firmly of the opinion that if we sit on this too long, we're likely to suggest to a bunch as arrogant as the Sollies that we're afraid to 'out them' for their actions. Not only that, but we give those bastards at Education and Information more time to decide how they're going to spin the news when it finally breaks."

Grantville had started to open his mouth. Now he closed it again, and nodded, almost against his will. The Solarian League's Department of Education and Information had very little to do with education and a very great deal to do with "information" these days. The bureaucratic structure which actually ran Education and Information (along with the rest of the League) had turned it into an extremely effective propaganda ministry.

"Those are both very valid points, your Majesty," he admitted. "I'd still really prefer to sit on this at least until the Sollies have had time to receive our note and respond to it. And at the same time, I think, we need to do some preliminary spadework of our own. I think we need to spend some time deciding exactly how we'll respond if the news leaks before we're ready to officially release it—the last thing we need is to get caught off balance, without having done our homework, when or if that happens—and also of deciding how we want to break it on our own terms, if that seems like the best policy. So could I suggest a compromise? We hold the news for the moment, but we quietly contact some of our own newspeople. We brief them in on what's happening in Talbott on a confidential basis in return for their agreement to sit on the story until we release it. And to sweeten the pot, as it were, we offer them official access in Spindle. We send their reporters out to talk to Khumalo, Medusa—even Mike, after she gets back—on the record, and we promise them as much freedom of access to all our information as operational security allows."

Elizabeth thought about it for several seconds, and then it was her turn to nod.

"All right," she said. "I think that makes sense. And it's not as if our own newsies aren't already accustomed to putting holds on specific stories because of those operational security concerns of yours. I don't want to hold this one any longer than we have to, though, Willie. The reason our newspeople respect the holds we do request is because they know we haven't abused the practice."

"I understand, Your Majesty," Grantville said, and glanced at Langtry. "How soon do you think you can have a draft of our note, Tony?"

"I can have a first draft by this afternoon. I imagine we'll want to kick it around between your office and mine—and Her Majesty, of course—through several iterations before we finally turn it loose."

"I'm sure you're right about that," Grantville agreed. "But while I'm willing to admit that you and Honor are probably on the right track, or as close to the 'right track' as anyone could be in a mess like this, let's not fool ourselves here. This is a situation which can slide totally out of control in the blink of an eye. In fact, depending on how stupid this Admiral Byng really is, it could very well be sliding totally out of control at New Tuscany before we finish this meeting."

He paused, and let the silence hiding in the corners of the conference room whisper to all of them, then turned his eyes to his brother.

"A few months ago, Hamish," the Prime Minister of Manticore said, "you gave us your evaluation of what would happen if we found ourselves in a shooting war with the Solarian League. Has that evaluation changed?"

"In the longer term, no." White Haven's prompt response—and grim expression—made it evident he'd been thinking about exactly the same question. "I'll want to look at the technical appendices of Khumalo's dispatches—just as I'm sure Tom and Pat will want to do—in case they tell us anything interesting, but everything BuWeaps has turned up from its examination of the Monica prizes has only strengthened my conviction that the SLN is several generations behind us in terms of applied military hardware. Obviously, there's no way of knowing exactly where they are in terms of research and development, and God only knows what they might have in the procurement pipeline, but even for the League, putting such fundamentally new weapons technologies into mass production and fitting them into an existing fleet structure is going to take time. Lots of time. God knows it took us long enough, and we had a life-or-death incentive to make the move. The League doesn't, and its political and military bureaucracies suffer from a lot more inherent inertia than ours ever did. In fact, I'll be very surprised if the bureaucratic bottlenecks and simple ingrained resistance to change and 'not invented here' prejudices don't double or triple the time requirement the purely physical constraints would impose.

"Assuming we do have the sort of technological edge BuWeaps is currently projecting, we'll rip the ass off of any Solarian force we run into, if you'll pardon my language, at least in the immediate future. Eventually, though, assuming they have the stomach for the kinds of casualty totals we can inflict on them, they'll suck up whatever we can do to them, develop the same weapons, and run right over us. Either that, or we'll hit some sort of 'negotiated peace,' and they'll go home and pull a Theisman on us. We'll wake up one fine morning and discover that the Solarian League Navy has a wall of battle just like ours only lots, lots bigger . . .  at which point, we're toast."

"For that matter, they've got another option, Hamish," Honor pointed out. "One that actually worries me more, in some ways."

"What option?" Elizabeth asked.

"They could just refuse to declare war at all," Honor said bleakly. Elizabeth looked confused, and Honor shrugged.

"If we get into a shooting war with the League and we're going to have any chance of achieving a military victory—or, for that matter, of inflicting the kind of casualty totals Hamish was just talking about, so that they settle for a negotiated peace—we're going to have to take the war to them. We're going to have to demonstrate everything we've learned about deep-area raids instead of system-by-system advances. We're going to have to go after their military infrastructure. Take out their more modern and larger system defense force components. Rip up their rear areas, wipe out their existing, obsolete fleet and its trained personnel, take out the shipyards they'd use to build new ships. In other words, we're going to have to go after them with everything we have, using every trick we've learned fighting Haven, and demonstrate that we can hurt them so badly that they have no choice but to sue for peace."

Elizabeth's face had hardened with understanding, and her brown eyes were grim as they met Honor's.

"But even that won't be enough," Honor continued. "We can blow up Solarian fleets every Tuesday for the next twenty years without delivering a genuine knockout blow to something the size of the League. The only way to actually defeat it—and to make sure that we've put a stake through its heart and it doesn't just go away, build a new fleet, and then come back for vengeance a few years down the road—is to destroy it."

Elizabeth's hard eyes widened in surprise, and Sir Anthony Langtry stiffened in his chair. Even White Haven looked shocked, and Honor shrugged again.

"Let's not fool ourselves here," she said flatly. "Destroying the League would be the only way for the Star Empire to survive in the long haul. And frankly, I, for one, think that might actually be a practical objective, under the right circumstances."

"Honor, with all due respect," Langtry said, "we're talking about the Solarian League."

"A point of which I'm well aware, Tony." Her smile was as bleak as her tone. "And I realize we're all accustomed to thinking of the League as the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful, most advanced, most anything-you-want-to-mention political unit in the history of humanity. Which means that right along with that, we think of it as some sort of indestructible juggernaut. But nothing is truly indestructible. Crack any history book, if you don't believe me. And I'm seeing quite a few signs that the League is at or very near—if, in fact, it isn't already past—the tipping point. It's too decadent, too corrupt, too totally assured of its invincibility and supremacy. Its internal decision-making is too unaccountable, too divorced from what the League's citizens really want—or, for that matter, think they're actually getting! We were just talking about Governor Barregos and Admiral Roszak. Hasn't it occurred to any of you that what's really happening in the Maya Sector is only the first leaf of autumn? That there are other sectors—not only in the Verge, but in the Shell, and even in the Old League itself—that are likely to entertain thoughts of breaking away if the League's veneer of inevitability ever cracks?"

They were all looking at her now, most of them with less shock and more speculation, and she shook her head.

"So if we get into an all-out war with the League, our strategy is going to have to have a very definite political element. We'll have to make it clear that the war wasn't our idea. We'll have to drive home the notion that we're not after any sort of punitive peace, that we're not trying to annex any additional territory, that we have no desire to conduct reprisals against people who don't want to fight us. We need to tell them, every step of the way, that what we really want is a negotiated settlement . . . and at the same time, we have to hit the League as a whole so hard that the fracture lines already there under the surface open right up. We have to split the League into separate sectors, into successor states, none of which have the sheer size and concentrated industrial power and manpower of the present league. Successor states that are our own size, or smaller. And we have to negotiate bilateral peace treaties with each of those successor states as they declare their willingness to opt out of the general conflict to get us to stop beating on their heads. And once we have those peace treaties, we have to not only honor them, but step beyond them. We need to use trade incentives, mutual defense pacts, educational assistance, every single thing we can think of to show them that we are—and to really be, not just pretend to be—the sort of neighbor and ally they'll want around. In other words, once we break the League militarily, once we splinter it into multiple, mutually independent star nations, we have to see to it that none of those star nations have any motive to fuse themselves back together and gang up on us all over again."

She paused, and there was a new and different silence in the conference room. All of them, with the probable exception of Hamish Alexander-Harrington, were gazing at her in astonishment. Elizabeth looked less surprised than most of the others, but there was an edge almost of wonder in her expression.

Not a man or woman at that table would have questioned Duchess Harrington's military insight, or tactical or strategic ability . . . in the purely military arena. Yet most of them still tended to think of her as a fleet commander. Manticore's best fleet commander, perhaps, but still a fleet commander. As they'd listened to her, they'd come to realize how silly that was—and how foolish they'd been not to recognize their own silliness much earlier. In their defense, most of the insight she'd previously shown in the field of political strategy and analysis had focused on domestic concerns, or on the internal workings of the Manticoran Alliance. It hadn't occurred to them that she might have already focused that formidable ability on the Solarian League as the Star Empire's next great challenge, and that had been remarkably blind of them.

"I think you're right," Elizabeth said finally, and managed a half-humorous grimace. "I suppose I've been so fixated on how much I don't want to fight the League, how terrifying an opponent it would be, that I've been much more aware of our own weaknesses and disadvantages than I have of any weaknesses it might suffer from."

"You're not the only one who's been guilty of that, Your Majesty," Sir Thomas Caparelli said. "Over at Admiralty House, the Strategy Board has been aware for quite some time of the need to launch all-out operations against the League in the event of open hostilities. But we'd never been able to take our planning beyond the point of somehow beating the League to its knees, taking out its military infrastructure, and then committing the Star Empire to a multigeneration occupation policy. There's no way we could possibly hope to garrison or physically occupy every system of the League, or even just the more important industrial nodes. But what we could do is to picket the major systems. To require the League to renounce a large, modern navy after defeating its existing navy militarily, and then to post observers in all of the systems where a navy like that could be rebuilt in order to keep an eye on the shipyards and call in our own heavy units at the first sign of treaty violations in the form of new warship construction.

"But the problem with that kind of strategy is that it virtually assures that at some point someone in the League is going to emerge with a revanchist policy and the muscle to back it up. They're going to figure out a way to do a Thomas Theisman on us, and they're going to be able to build a fleet big enough to at least force us to pull our pickets out of the occupied systems to deal with it. At which point other systems that won't like us very much will join the fray and then, as Hamish so succinctly put it, we're toast.

"But if Honor is right—and, actually, I think there's a very good chance she is—about the probability of the League's being much more fragile than anyone is accustomed to believing, then there's another option. Her option. Instead of occupying the League for generations, we accept that it's already moribund, break it up, and make its successors our allies and trade partners, not our enemies."

" 'I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend,' " White Haven quoted softly.

"What?" His brother blinked at him, and the earl smiled.

"A quote from an Old Earth politician Honor's gotten me interested in, Willie. I think it has to do with her views on genetic slavery."

"What politician?" Grantville still looked puzzled.

"A president of the ancient United States of America named Abraham Lincoln said that," White Haven said. "And if I'm remembering correctly, he also said 'If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.' " He smiled again, this time at his wife, much more broadly. "I can see I haven't read him as carefully as Honor has, but you ought to take a look at him, too, now that I think about it. He was in a pretty sticky military situation himself."

"Well, maybe I've got a point, and maybe I don't," Honor said a bit more briskly, and her expression had turned bleak once again. "But assuming I do, then the most dangerous thing I can see the League doing is simply refusing to declare war on us and conducting whatever operations are going on in and around the Talbott Quadrant as a 'police action.' If they refuse to extend their operations beyond that area, no matter how intensive their operations are within that area, and if they consistently take the position that they're reacting defensively, then we can't expand the fighting into the other areas where we would need to take the war to them before they manage to duplicate our hardware advantages without becoming the aggressor in the eyes of all the rest of the League. And if we do that, our chances of breaking the League and 'destroying our enemy by making him our friend' probably go right out the airlock. Which means they get the time they need to build the steamroller they need to roll right over us."

"Wonderful," Elizabeth sighed.

"I'll admit it's worrisome." Despite his words, White Haven sounded quite a bit more cheerful than his wife had, "but I'm also inclined to think it's very unlikely the League's real leadership in the bureaucracies is truly going to recognize its danger soon enough to adopt a sensible policy like that. I realize that predicting what your enemy will do and then betting everything you have on the probability that your prediction is accurate is a really, really stupid thing to do. I'm not suggesting we do anything of the sort, either. But at the same time, I think there's a very real probability, not just a possibility, that as soon as OFS and the SLN realize just what sort of sausage machine they've shoved their fingers into, they're going to start screaming for all the help they can get. Whether they paint us as savage aggressors or themselves as liberators, they're going to take this a lot further than any mere 'police action.' "

"And they wouldn't be the only decision-makers involved in the process, either." Sir Anthony Langtry sounded much more thoughtful than he had a few moments before. "Whatever position they take, we'll always be able to edge at least a little further around their flank, push them a little more in the direction we want to go, without turning ourselves into Attila the Hun in starships in the eyes of the rest of the League. We'll have to be careful, but we've had plenty of experience dancing around the League in the past. As long as we coordinate our PR and diplomatic and military efforts carefully, I think we'll be able to shape the political and diplomatic side of the battleground much more effectively than you may have been allowing for, Honor. And it's not like we're not going to have allies inside the League, either—especially if Manpower's role in all of this becomes public knowledge. Beowulf carries a hell of a lot of prestige, and every one of her daughter colonies is going to follow her lead where anything having to do with genetic slavery is involved. I think we can count—no, I know we can count—on a powerful Solarian lobby on our side in any Mesa-engineered confrontation."

"And there's still another side to all of this, Your Majesty," Patricia Givens pointed out. "Thanks to the wormhole network, we have an enormous degree of penetration into the League. If they try to shut the network down to cut off our trade, they'll cripple themselves just as badly—possibly even worse—by effectively destroying the carrying trade they rely on. For that matter, until they do manage to overcome the advantages of our hardware—for the foreseeable future, in other words—we should be able to keep all of the critical termini open with fairly light forces. All of which means we'll continue to have a lot of contact with the League and that we're actually likely to have considerably more economic clout with quite a few of the League's sectors than the League bureaucracy itself does. Which would mean one hell of a lot more clout than anything as ephemeral as an elected League politician could hope for. If we use that clout while bearing in mind the need to make our enemies into friends, rather than letting ourselves turn predatory in the short-term interests of survival, I think we could probably pry quite a few of the League's citizens loose from it."

There was silence again, and then Elizabeth inhaled deeply.

"Honor, I have to say you've pointed my mind in a direction that makes me feel much less pessimistic about the future. Mind you, there's still a huge difference between 'less pessimistic' and anything I'd call remotely 'optimistic,' but I think you've got me headed in the right direction."

She smiled at the other woman, but then her smile faded.

"In the short term, though, we have to think in terms of our immediate survival. And wherever we wind up going in the end, I think we're all in agreement that first we've got to accomplish Hamish's predictions about beating the crap out of them. Which brings me to another point, Sir Thomas." She looked at Caparelli. "What's the status on our new construction?"

"We're well ahead of projections." Caparelli shook himself. Despite the strategic insight Honor had just laid before him, his eyes were still weary looking. But if there was any defeat in those eyes, Elizabeth couldn't see it. "We've got the next best thing to two hundred brand new wallers either out of the yards or leaving them in the next month to six weeks," he continued, "and all of them have been fitted with Keyhole-Two, which makes them Apollo-capable. Coupled with what Honor has in Home Fleet, the new construction that's come forward from the Andermani, and what the Graysons have made available, that's going to give us somewhere in excess of three hundred and eighty ships-of-the-wall—almost all of them Apollo-capable—by the third week of February."

The Star Kingdom of Manticore officially ran on the Manticoran calendar, but Caparelli—like many people throughout the galaxy (and most in the Manticore Binary System)—thought in terms of T-years and the ancient calendar of Old Terra, despite the fact that all three of the home system's planetary days varied considerably in length from the standard T-day. It made things simpler than translating back and forth between multiple calendars, and given the fact that each of the Star Kingdom's three original planets had different years of different lengths, as well as days, Manticorans were more accustomed even than most to using the standard calendar. And the habit was undoubtedly going to get still more pronounced for the citizens of the new Star Empire of Manticore, given the numbers of planets—and the plethora of local calendars—which would be involved. By Manticoran reckoning, Caparelli was talking about Ninth Month of the year 294 After Landing. By the standard reckoning of the galaxy at large, he was talking about the month of February of the year 1922 Post Diaspora. And if he had been speaking to someone from before mankind had departed for the stars, he would have been talking about the year 4024 CE.

But all his listeners really needed to know was that he was talking about a period seventy or so T-days in the future.

"How long for them to work up to combat readiness?" Grantville hadn't been the brother of one of the Royal Navy's more senior officers for so long without learning a few hard-won realities along the way.

"That's more debatable," Caparelli acknowledged. "The Andies and Graysons should have finished working up by the time they get here, so we don't need to worry about that. And most of the new construction's going to be out of the yards by the end of January, so they'll be at least a couple of weeks into their training cycles by the time the Andies and Graysons show up. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that it's going to take longer for us to get our own people up to speed than anyone is going to like. We took a really heavy hit when the Havenites took out Home Fleet and Third Fleet. We already had cadres assigned to almost all of the new construction, and we had pretty close to complete crews assigned to the sixty or seventy ships closest to completion. All of those are out of the yard by now, and beginning to work up in Trevor's Star. Unfortunately, an awful lot of them are having the same 'teething problems' we've been seeing in the lighter units. We got them through the construction process in record time, but not without hitting more glitches than we'd like. Still, none of the problems we've identified so far are really critical, and I expect to have most of them ready for service within another thirty T-days. Call it the middle of January.

"After that, things get more difficult. We were expecting to find a lot of the personnel we're going to need from the old-style wallers assigned to Home Fleet. Obviously, that's not going to happen now."

His jaw tightened briefly and involuntarily as he remembered the carnage of the Battle of Manticore. Then his nostrils flared briefly, and he continued.

"As I say, that's not going to happen, but despite that, Lucian and BuPers have managed to come up with most of the warm bodies we need. A lot of them are short on training and experience, of course, and that hits us hardest when it comes to officers and senior enlisted. We're looking at accelerating a lot of noncoms' promotions to fill the gaps there, and we're planning on cutting the current class at the Academy six months short and sending the midshipmen straight off to the fleet, without the traditional snotty cruise. We're probably looking at accelerating the next class the same way, and we've been forced to pull back on our LAC program simply because we need the officers we would have been sending off to command LACs. That's also why we're setting up quickie OCS courses—expanding on the ones we've always had outside the Academy for 'mustangs.' We expect a substantial return on that, as well, although it's going to cost us more of those senior enlisted when we 'suggest' that they become officers, instead. A couple of years down the road, we should be pretty much past this particular bottleneck. For that matter, once we've had a chance to run them through the appropriate remedial education, I imagine we'll be able to find a lot of enlisted and officers coming out of the Talbott Quadrant. That's going to take a while, though, and in the meantime, I have no doubt that any skipper unfortunate enough to go in for extensive yard work or overhaul is going to find his command structure picked clean by Lucian's vultures.

"By robbing Peter and Paul, though, Lucian's actually managing to fill most of the slots aboard most of the new ships as they come out of the yards. Frankly, I don't have any idea how he's doing it, and I'm afraid to ask. I also don't know how long he's going to be able to go on doing it, although the first flight of mass recalls of reservists from the merchant marine should be offering us at least some relief in the next couple of months. Even that has its downside, though. It's going to take time to run them through the necessary refresher courses, especially to update them on the new hardware. And just as bad, maybe, the merchant fleet needs them, too, and we need the merchant fleet to maintain our revenue flows."

Grantville nodded, and Caparelli shrugged.

"The bottom line is that with the lower manpower requirements of the new designs, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to support the manning requirements for the fleet we're talking about. Unfortunately, that's what we were doing when Tourville came along and destroyed something like half the entire Navy. It's going to take us time to recruit and recover from the huge hole that made, so I don't think we're going to be manning any more enormous expansion waves any time soon. In the shorter run, it means we've got the bodies we need—barely—but working up periods are simply going to have to be expanded. The prewar rule of thumb was that it took three to four months for a brand new waller's crew to shake down to a satisfactory, combat-ready level. During the First Havenite War, with experienced officers who'd been there and done that, we got it down to somewhere around two and half months. But with the situation we're in now, frankly, I'll be surprised if we can do it in less than four, and I won't be surprised if it takes as much as five months, given the fact that we're going to be correcting so many minor construction faults along the way. So for the immediate future, you'd better count on basically what Honor has now—here in Home Fleet and working up in Trevor's Star—plus, say, another sixty Apollo-capable podnoughts still in the yards. And the Andies' new construction and refits, of course . . . except for the fact that we don't know if Gustav will be willing to back us if we go up against the League."

"Is that going to be enough to stop whatever the Sollies can do to us during that same time period, Hamish?"

"Probably . . . if we could aim it all at them," Grantville's brother replied. He glanced at Caparelli, one eyebrow raised, and the First Space Lord nodded in agreement with his assessment.

"To be brutally honest," White Haven continued, "and at the risk of sounding a little complacent, the main problem we're probably going to face in any early engagements against the Sollies is going to be our ammunition supply. But for at least five or six months, assuming either that we fight close to home and our industrial base or that we have a decent logistics train to keep us supplied with missiles, we should be able to hold anything they can throw at us with that many podnoughts, even without the Andies. Unfortunately, we've still got that minor problem of the war with Haven to worry about."

"Maybe yes, and maybe no," Grantville said grimly, and swiveled his eyes to Langtry. "Her Majesty and I already discussed this briefly a couple of days ago, Tony," he said, "but we were only brainstorming at the time. Now it looks like we may have to put our brainstorm into practice."

"Why does that fill me with a sudden feeling of dread?" Langtry murmured.

"Experience, probably," Grantville replied with a brief, tight smile. The smile vanished as quickly as it had come, and the Prime Minister leaned intently towards the Foreign Minister.

"Given the strength estimate Sir Thomas has just presented, we probably have the capacity to punch out the Haven System itself," he said flatly. "To do to them what they tried to do to us. But we've got Apollo, and they don't, which means we don't have to enter their effective range at all. And that we could go right on doing it to every one of their systems with a single naval shipyard. We could pound every major developed system of the Republic back to the Stone Age."

It was very quiet around the conference table once more, and this time the quiet was tense, almost brittle.

"To be perfectly honest," Grantville continued, "that's precisely what I'd like to do, and I doubt I'm exactly alone in that sentiment. There's probably not a single family here in the home system who didn't lose someone in the Battle of Manticore, and that doesn't even consider all the deaths that came before that. So, yes, there's a part of me that would love to hammer the Peeps into rubble.

"But now we've got this situation with the Solarian League, and even if we didn't, brute vengeance, however tempting in the short term, is the worst possible basis for any sort of lasting peace. We're not Rome, and we can't plow Carthage up and sow the ground with salt. So, riddle me this, Mr. Foreign Secretary. If we demonstrate that we can blow the Peeps' Capital Fleet out of space, destroy the entire orbital infrastructure of Eloise Pritchart's capital system, and then tell her we're prepared to blow up however many additional systems it requires for her to see reason, what do you think she'll say?"

* * * | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Forty-Five