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"Mr. Hauptman, Sir Thomas."

Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Navy, rose with his very best effort at a smile of welcome as his yeoman ushered his guest into his huge office. He suspected it wasn't very convincing, but, then, Klaus Hauptman wasn't one of his favorite people.

"Sir Thomas." The dark-haired man with the dramatically white sideburns and bulldog jaw gave him a curt nod. He wasn't being especially rude; that was how he greeted almost everyone, and he held out his hand as if to soften his brusqueness. "Thank you for seeing me." He did not add "at last," but Sir Thomas heard it anyway and felt his smile become just a bit more fixed.

"Please have a seat." The burly admiral in whom one could still see the bruising soccer player who'd led the Academy to three system championships waved his guest politely into the comfortable chair facing his desk, then sat himself and nodded dismissal to the yeoman.

"Thank you," Hauptman repeated. He sat in the indicated chair—like, Caparelli thought, an emperor taking his throne—and cleared his throat. "I know you have many charges on your time, Sir Thomas, so I'll come straight to the point. And the point is that conditions in the Confederacy are becoming intolerable."

"I realize it's a bad situation, Mr. Hauptman," Caparelli began, "but the war front is—"

"Excuse me, Sir Thomas," Hauptman interrupted, "but I understand the situation at the front. Indeed, Admiral Cortez and Admiral Givens have—as I'm certain you instructed them to—explained it to me at considerable length. I realize you and the Navy are under tremendous pressure, but losses in Silesia are becoming catastrophic, and not just for the Hauptman Cartel."

Caparelli clenched his jaw and reminded himself to move carefully. Klaus Hauptman was arrogant, opinionated, and ruthless . . . and the wealthiest single individual in the entire Star Kingdom of Manticore. Which was saying quite a bit. Despite its limitation to a single star system, the Star Kingdom was the third wealthiest star nation in a five-hundred-light-year sphere in absolute terms. In per capita terms, not even the Solarian League matched Manticore. A great deal of that was fortuitous, the result of the Manticore Worm Hole Junction which made the Manticore Binary System the crossroads of eighty percent of the long-haul commerce of its sector. But almost as much of its wealth stemmed from what the Star Kingdom had done with the opportunity that presented, for generations of monarchs and parliaments had reinvested the Junction's wealth with care. Outside the Solarian League, no one in the known galaxy could match the Manticoran tech base or output per man-hour, and Manticore's universities challenged those of Old Earth herself. And, Caparelli admitted, Klaus Hauptman and his father and grandfather had had a great deal to do with building the infrastructure which made that possible.

Unfortunately, Hauptman knew it, and he sometimes—often, in Caparelli's view—acted as if the Star Kingdom belonged to him as a consequence.

"Mr. Hauptman," the admiral said after a moment, "I'm very sorry about the losses you and the other cartels are suffering. But your request, however reasonable it may seem, is simply impossible to grant at this time."

"With all due respect, Sir Thomas, the Navy had better make it possible." Hauptman's flat tone was just short of insulting, but he stopped himself, then drew a deep breath. "Excuse me," he said in the voice of one clearly unaccustomed to apologizing. "That was rude and confrontational. Nonetheless, there's also a kernel of truth in it. The war effort depends upon the strength of our economy. The shipping duties, transfer fees, and inventory taxes my colleagues and I pay are already three times what they were at the start of the war, and—" Caparelli opened his mouth, but Hauptman held up a hand. "Please. I'm not complaining about duties and taxes. We're at war with the second largest empire in known space, and someone has to pay the freight. My colleagues and I realize that. But you must realize that if losses continue climbing, we'll have no choice but to cut back or even entirely eliminate our shipping to Silesia. I leave it to you to estimate what that will mean for the Star Kingdom's revenues and war effort."

Caparelli's eyes narrowed, and Hauptman shook his head.

"That's not a threat; it's simply a fact of life. Insurance rates have already reached an all-time high, and they're still climbing; if they rise another twenty percent, we'll lose money on cargos which reach their destinations. And in addition to our financial losses, there's also the loss of life involved. Our people—my people, people who've worked for me for decades—are being killed, Sir Thomas."

Caparelli sat back with an unwilling sense of agreement, for Hauptman was right. The Confederacy's weak central government had always made it a risky place, but its worlds were huge markets for the Star Kingdom's industrial products, machinery, and civilian technology transfers, not to mention an important source of raw materials. And however much Caparelli might personally dislike Hauptman, the magnate had every right to demand the Navy's help. It was, after all, one of the Navy's primary missions to protect Manticoran commerce and citizens, and prior to the present war, the Royal Manticoran Navy had done just that in Silesia.

Unfortunately, it had required a major fleet presence. Not of battle squadrons—using ships of the wall against pirates would have been like swatting flies with a sledgehammer—but of light combatants. And the critical needs of the RMN's war against the People's Republic of Haven had drawn those lighter units off. They were desperately needed to screen the heavy squadrons and for the countless patrols and scouting and convoy escorts the Fleet required for its very survival. There were never enough cruisers and destroyers to go around, and the overriding need for capital ships diverted yard space from building them in the necessary numbers.

The admiral sighed and rubbed his forehead. He wasn't the RMN's most brilliant flag officer. He knew his strengths—courage, integrity, and enough bullheaded stubbornness for any three people—but he also admitted his weaknesses. Officers like the Earl of White Haven or Lady Sonja Hemphill always made him uncomfortable, for he knew as well as they that they were his intellectual superiors. And White Haven, Caparelli admitted, had the infuriating gall to be not only a better strategist, but a better tactician, as well. Nonetheless, it was Sir Thomas Caparelli who'd been named First Space Lord just in time for the war to explode in his face. That made it his job to win the thing, and he was determined to do just that. Yet it was also his job to protect Manticoran civilians in the course of their legitimate commercial activities, and he was desperately conscious of how thin his Navy was stretched.

"I understand your concerns," he said finally, "and I can't disagree with anything you've said. The problem is that we're stretched right to the very limit. I can't—not won't, but literally cannot—withdraw additional warships from the front to reinforce our convoy escorts in Silesia."

"Well we have to do something." Hauptman spoke quietly, and Caparelli sensed the arrogant magnate's very real effort to match his own reasonable tone. "The convoy system helps during transits between sectors, of course. We haven't lost a single ship that was under escort, and, believe me, my colleagues and I all appreciate that. But the raiders realize as well as we do that they can't attack the convoys. They also know simple astrographics require us to route over two-thirds of our vessels independently after they reach their destination sectors . . . and that the available escorts simply can't cover us when we do."

Caparelli nodded somberly. No one was losing any ships in the convoys covering transit between Silesia's nodal sector administration centers, but the pirates more than made up for that by snapping up merchantmen after they had to leave the convoys to proceed to the individual worlds of the Confederacy.

"I'm not certain how much more we can do, Sir," the admiral said after a long, silent moment. "Admiral White Haven's returning to Manticore sometime next week. I'll confer with him then, see if there's any way we can reorganize and pry a few more escorts loose, but, frankly, until we can somehow take Trevor's Star, I'm not optimistic. In the meantime, I'll put my staff to work on an immediate study of anything—and I do mean anything, Mr. Hauptman—we can do to ease the situation. I assure you that this matter has the second highest priority, after Trevor's Star itself. I'll do everything possible to reduce your losses. You have my personal word on that."

Hauptman sat back in his chair, studying the admiral's face, then grunted. The sound was weary, irate, and just a little desperate, but he nodded grudgingly.

"I can ask no more than that, Sir Thomas," he said heavily. "I won't insult you by trying to insist on miracles, but the situation is very, very grave. I'm not certain we have another month . . . but I am certain we have no more than four, five at the most, before the cartels will be forced to suspend operations in Silesia."

"I understand," Caparelli repeated, rising to extend his hand. "I'll do what I can—and as quickly as I can—and I promise I'll personally brief you on the situation as soon as I've had a chance to confer with Admiral White Haven. With your permission, I'll have my yeoman set up another meeting with you for that purpose. Perhaps we can think of something at that time. Until then, please stay in touch. You and your colleagues may actually have a better feel for the situation than we do at the Admiralty, and any input you can offer my analysts and planning people will be greatly appreciated."

"Very well," Hauptman sighed, standing in turn, and gripped the admiral's hand, then surprised Caparelli with a wry smile. "I realize I'm not the easiest man in the universe to get along with, Sir Thomas. I'm trying very hard not to be the proverbial bull in the china shop, and I genuinely appreciate both the difficulties you face and the efforts you're making on our behalf. I only hope that there's an answer somewhere."

"So do I, Mr. Hauptman," Caparelli said quietly, escorting his guest to the door. "So do I."

Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, wondered if he looked as weary as he felt. The earl was ninety T-years old, though in a pre-prolong society he would have been taken for no more than a very well preserved forty, and even that would have been only because of the white stranded through his black hair. But there were new lines around his ice-blue eyes, and he was only too well aware of his own fatigue.

He watched space's ebon black give way to deep indigo beyond the view port as his pinnace dropped towards the city of Landing and felt that weariness aching in his bones. The Star Kingdom—or, at least, the realistic part of it—had dreaded the inevitable war with the People's Republic for over fifty T-years, and the Navy (and Hamish Alexander) had spent those years preparing for it. Now that war was almost three years old . . . and proving just as brutal as he'd feared.

It wasn't that the Peeps were that good; it was just that they were so damned big. Despite the internal wounds the People's Republic had inflicted upon itself since Hereditary President Harris's assassination, despite its ramshackle economy and the pogroms which had cost the People's Navy its most experienced officers, despite even the indolence of the Republic's Dolists, it remained a juggernaut. Had its industrial plant been even half as efficient as the Star Kingdom's, the situation would have been hopeless. As it was, a combination of skill, determination, and more luck than any competent strategist would dare count on had allowed the RMN to hold its own so far.

But holding its own wasn't enough.

White Haven sighed and massaged his aching eyes. He hated leaving the front, but at least he'd been able to leave Admiral Theodosia Kuzak in command. He could count on Theodosia to hold things together in his absence. White Haven snorted at the thought. Hell, maybe she could actually take Trevor's Star. God knew he hadn't had much success in that department!

He lowered his hand from his eyes and gazed back out the view port while he took himself to task for that last thought. The truth was that he'd had a very "good" war to date. In the first year of operations, his Sixth Fleet had cut deep into the Republic, inflicting what would have been fatal losses for any smaller navy along the way. He and his fellow admirals had actually managed to equalize the daunting odds they'd faced at the start of the war, and taken no less than twenty-four star systems. But the second and third years had been different. The Peeps were back on balance, and Rob Pierre's Committee of Public Safety had initiated a reign of terror guaranteed to stiffen the spine of any Peep admiral. And if the destruction of the Legislaturalist dynasties which had ruled the old People's Republic had cost the PN its most experienced admirals, it had also destroyed the patronage system which had kept other officers from rising to the seniority their capabilities deserved. Now that the Legislaturalists were out of the way, some of those new admirals were proving very tough customers. Like Admiral Esther McQueen, the senior Peep officer at Trevor's Star.

White Haven grimaced at the view port. According to ONI, the people's commissioners the Committee of Public Safety had appointed to keep the People's Navy in line were the ones who really called the shots. If that was so, if political commissars truly were degrading the performance of officers like McQueen, White Haven could only be grateful. He'd begun getting a feel for the woman over the last few months, and he suspected he was a better strategist than she. But his edge, if in fact he had one, was far thinner than he would have liked, and she had ice water in her veins. She understood the strengths and weaknesses of her forces, knew her technology was more primitive and her officer corps less experienced, but she also knew sufficient numbers and an unflinching refusal to be bullied into mistakes could offset that. When one added the way Manticore's need to take Trevor's Star simplified the strategic equation for her, she was giving as good as she got. Losses had been very nearly even since she took over, and Manticore simply couldn't afford that. Not in a war that looked like it might well last for decades. And not, White Haven admitted, when every month increased the threat that the Republic would begin to figure out how to redress its technological and industrial disadvantages. If the Peeps ever reached a point where they could face the RMN from a position of qualitative equality, as well as quantitative superiority, the consequences would be disastrous.

He heard the pinnace's air-breathing turbines whine as it began its final approach to Landing and shook himself. Between them, he and Kuzak had finally evolved a plan which might—might—let them take Trevor's Star, and that was something they had to do. The system contained the only terminus of the Manticore Worm Hole Junction which Manticore did not already control, which made it a deadly potential threat to the Star Kingdom. But it was a two-edged sword for the Peeps. Its capture would not only eliminate the threat of direct invasion but give the RMN a secure bridgehead deep inside the Republic. Ships—warships, as well as supply vessels—could move between the RMN's most powerful fleet bases and the battle front virtually instantaneously, with no threat of interception. Capture of Trevor's Star—if it was ever captured—would both ease the Navy's logistics enormously and open a whole new range of strategic options, which made it the most valuable prize short of the Haven System itself. But even if White Haven's plan worked, it would take at least four more months, minimum, and from Caparelli's dispatches, maintaining the momentum that long wasn't going to be easy.

"So that's the situation," White Haven said quietly. "Theodosia and I think we can do it, but the preliminary operations are going to take time."

"Um." Admiral Caparelli nodded slowly, eyes still on the holographic star chart above his desk. White Haven's plan was no daring lightning stroke—except, perhaps, in its final stage—but the last ten months had been ample proof a lightning stroke wasn't going to work. In essence, the earl proposed to abandon the messy, inconclusive fighting of a direct approach and work around the perimeter of Trevor's Star. His plan called for crushing the systems which supported it one by one, simultaneously isolating his true objective and positioning himself to launch converging attacks upon it, and then bringing up Home Fleet itself in support. That part of the proposed operation was more than a bit daring—and risky. Three and a half full battle squadrons of Sir James Webster's Home Fleet could reach Trevor's Star from Manticore almost instantly via the Junction, despite the huge distance between the two systems. But the passage of that much tonnage would destabilize the Junction for over seventeen hours. If Home Fleet launched an attack and failed to achieve rapid and complete victory, half its total superdreadnought strength would be trapped, unable to retreat the way it had come.

The First Space Lord rubbed his lip and frowned. If the plan worked, it would be decisive; if it failed, Home Fleet—which was also the RMN's primary strategic reserve—would be crippled in an afternoon. In an odd way, that potential for disaster was one of the things which might make it work. No sane admiral would try it unless he was absolutely certain of success or had no other choice, so it was unlikely the Peeps would expect it. Oh, no doubt they'd drawn up contingency plans against such an attempt, but Caparelli had to agree with White Haven and Kuzak. Contingency plans or no, the PN would never really expect an attack like this, especially if White Haven's preparatory operations were such as to give him a realistic chance of victory without using the Junction. If he could draw their covering fleet out of position, convince them Sixth Fleet was the real threat, before he tried it . . . .

"Coordination," Caparelli murmured. "That's the real problem. How do we coordinate an operation like this over such distances?"

"Absolutely," White Haven agreed. "Theodosia and I have wracked our brains—and our staffs' brains—over that one, and we've been able to come up with only one possibility. We'll keep you as closely informed as we can by dispatch boat, but the transit delay's going to make actual coordination impossible. For it to work at all, we have to agree ahead of time when we'll make our move, and then Home Fleet is going to have to send a scout through to see if we've pulled it off."

"And if you haven't 'pulled it off'," Caparelli said frostily, "it's going to be a bit rough on whoever we send through from Manticore."

"Agreed." White Haven's voice didn't flinch, but his nod acknowledged Caparelli's point. The mass of a single vessel would destabilize the Junction for mere seconds, and if the Peep defenders had, in fact, been diverted as planned, a scout would be able to transit, make its scans, and turn and run back down the Junction before it could be engaged. But if the Peeps hadn't been diverted, Home Fleet would never even know what had killed its scout.

"I agree it's a risk," the earl said. "Unfortunately, I don't see an alternative. And if we're cold about it, risking a single ship is nothing beside the risk of letting operations continue to drag on. If I had to, I'd send an entire squadron through, even knowing I'd lose them all, if it let us pull this off. I don't like it, but compared to what we've already lost—what we're going to go on losing if we keep pounding away frontally—I think it's our best chance. And if it does work, we'll catch the defenders between two fires, with at least an even chance of taking them all out. Certainly it's chancy, but the potential prize is enormous."

"Um," Caparelli grunted again, and tipped his chair back while he pondered. It was ironic that White Haven should propose something like this, for it sounded much more like something Caparelli would have come up with—if, he conceded, he'd had the nerve to consider it in the first place. White Haven was a master of the indirect approach, with a sense for choosing the right moment to make an unexpected pounce or carve another few squadrons out of an enemy's fleet that amounted to near genius, and his hatred for "all or nothing" battle plans was legendary. The notion of risking the entire war on the turn of a single card, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, must be anathema to him.

Which, Caparelli admitted, was another reason it might just work. After all, the Peeps had studied the RMN's officer corps as closely as Manticore had studied the PN's. They knew something like this was completely atypical of White Haven's normal thinking, and they also knew it was White Haven who'd shaped the RMN's overall strategy to this point. Given that, they'd almost have to be looking the other way when he launched his sucker punch . . . assuming the timing worked.

"All right, My Lord," the First Lord said finally. "There are still quite a few questions I'll want answered before I commit myself either way, but I'll turn it over to Pat Givens, the War College, and my staff for evaluation. You're certainly right that we can't go on bleeding ourselves forever, and I don't like how effective McQueen is proving. If we take Trevor's Star away from her, maybe the Committee of Public Safety will shoot her pour encourager les autres."

"Maybe," White Haven agreed with a grimace Caparelli understood only too well. He didn't much like the notion that someone was willing to execute good officers who'd done their utmost simply because their best efforts failed to stop the enemy either, but the Star Kingdom was fighting for its life. If the People's Republic was obliging enough to eliminate its best commanders for him, Thomas Caparelli would accept the favor.

"The one thing about your plan which bothers me most—aside, of course," he couldn't quite resist the dig at the earl, "from the possibility of crippling Home Fleet—is the delay. For you to pull this off, we'll actually have to strengthen your light forces, not weaken them, and with the situation in Silesia—" He shrugged, and White Haven nodded in understanding.

"How badly will it really hurt us?" he asked, and Caparelli frowned.

"In absolute terms, we could survive even if we completely halted trade to Silesia," he said. "It wouldn't be pleasant, and Hauptman and the other cartels would scream bloody murder. Worse, they'd be justified. The disruption could literally ruin some of the smaller ones, and it wouldn't do the big fish like Hauptman and Dempsey any good, either. And I'm not sure what the political ramifications might be. I had a long talk with the First Lord yesterday, and she's already catching a lot of flak over this. You know her better than I do, but I got the impression she's under extreme pressure."

White Haven nodded thoughtfully. He did know Francine Maurier, Baroness Morncreek and First Lord of the Admiralty, better than Caparelli. And as the Crown minister with overall responsibility for the Navy, Morncreek was undoubtedly under just as much pressure as Caparelli suggested. Indeed, if she was letting it show, it was probably even worse than Caparelli thought.

"Add the fact that Hauptman's in bed with the Liberals and the Conservative Association, not to mention the Progressives, and we've really got a problem," the First Space Lord continued grimly. "If the Opposition decides to make a fight over the Navy's 'disinterest' in his problems, things could get messy. And that doesn't even consider the direct losses in import duties and transfer fees . . or lives."

"There's another point," White Haven said unwillingly, and Caparelli raised an eyebrow. "It's only a matter of time until someone like McQueen sees the possibilities," the earl explained. "If a bunch of pirates can hurt us this badly, think what would happen if the Peeps sent in a few squadrons of battlecruisers to help out. So far, we've kept them too far off balance to try anything like that, but, frankly, they're better able to cut light forces loose, given all those battleships they still have in reserve. And Silesia isn't the only place they could hurt us if they decided to get into commerce warfare in a big way."

White Haven, Caparelli thought sourly, did have a way of thinking up unpleasant scenarios.

"But if we can't free up the escorts we need," the First Lord began, "then how—"

He paused suddenly, eyes narrowing. White Haven cocked his head, but Caparelli ignored him and tapped a query into his terminal. He studied the data on his display for several seconds, then tugged at an ear lobe.

"Q-ships," he said, almost to himself. "By God, maybe that's the answer."

"Q-ships?" White Haven repeated. Caparelli didn't seem to hear for a moment, then he shook himself.

"What if we were to send some of the Trojans to Silesia?" he asked, and it was White Haven's turn to frown in thought.

Project Trojan Horse had been Sonja Hemphill's idea, and that, the earl admitted, tended to prejudice him against it. He and Hemphill were old and bitter philosophical foes, and he distrusted her material-based strategic doctrine. But Trojan Horse hadn't involved any major diversion from the fighting, and it had offered enough possible benefits even if it failed in its main purpose to win his grudging support.

In essence, Hemphill proposed turning some of the RMN's standard Caravan-class freighters into armed merchant cruisers. The Caravans were big ships, over seven million tons, but they were slow and unarmored, with civilian-grade drives. Under normal circumstances, they'd be helpless against any proper warship, but Hemphill wanted to outfit them with the heaviest possible firepower and seed them into the Fleet Train convoys laboring to keep Sixth Fleet supplied. The idea was for them to look just like any other freighter until some unwary raider got close, at which point they were supposed to blow him out of space.

Personally, White Haven doubted the concept was workable in the long term. The Peeps had used Q-ships of their own to some effect against previous enemies, but the fundamental weakness of the tactic was that it was unlikely to work against a proper navy more than once or twice. Once an enemy figured out you were using them, he'd simply start blowing away anything that might be a Q-ship from the maximum possible range. Besides, the Peep Q-ships had been purpose built from the keel out. They'd been fitted with military-grade drives which had made them as fast as any warship their size, and their designs had incorporated internal armor, compartmentalization, and systems redundancy the Caravans completely lacked.

Now, however, Caparelli might have a point, because the raiders who plagued Silesian space didn't have proper warships . . . and they were no part of any proper navy. Most were independents, disposing of their plunder to "merchants"—fences, really—who bankrolled their operations and asked no embarrassing questions. Their ships tended to be lightly armed, and they normally operated in singletons, certainly not in groups of more than two or three. The normal unrest of the Confederacy, where star systems routinely attempted to secede from the central government, complicated things a bit, since the "liberation governments" were fond of issuing letters of marque and authorizing "privateers" to hit other people's commerce in the name of independence. Some of the privateers were heavily armed for their displacement, and a few were commanded by genuine patriots, willing to work together in small squadrons for their home system's cause. Even they, however, would tend to run from a properly handled Q-ship, and unlike operations against the Peeps, the strategy might become more effective, not less, once word of it got out. Pirates, after all, were in it for the money, and they were unlikely to risk losing the ships which represented their capital or settle for destroying potential prizes from stand-off ranges. Where a Peep commerce raider might be willing to accept the risk of encountering a Q-ship in order to simply destroy Manticoran shipping, a pirate would be looking to capture his victims and would be unlikely to hazard his ship against a merchant cruiser unless he anticipated a particularly luscious prize.

"It might help," the earl said after considering the notion carefully. "Unless we have an awful lot of them, they won't be able to destroy many raiders, of course. I'd have to say the effect would be more cosmetic than real in those terms, but the psychological impact could be worthwhile—both in Silesia and Parliament. But do we have any of them ready to commit? I thought we were still at least several months short of the target date."

"We are," Caparelli agreed. "According to this"—he tapped his terminal—"the first four ships could be ready sometime next month, but most of them are still a minimum of five months from completion. We haven't assigned any crews yet, either, and, frankly, our manpower's stretched tight enough to make that a problem, too. But we could at least make a start. And as you say, My Lord, a lot of the benefit will stem from purely psychological factors. The situation's worst in the Breslau Sector. If we put the first four in there and let the word get out that we had, we might be able to put a damper on losses in that area until the others are ready for deployment."

"We might." White Haven rubbed his chin, then shrugged. "It won't be more than a sop—not until the other ships are ready. And whoever you give it to will have a hell of a job on his hands with only four ships. But, as you say, at least we'll be able to tell Hauptman and his cronies we're doing something." And, he thought, doing it without diverting the ships I need in the process.

"True." Caparelli drummed on his desktop for two or three seconds. "It's only a thought at the moment. I'll run it by Pat this afternoon and see what BuPlan has to say about it." He considered a moment longer, then tossed his head. "In the meantime, let's look a bit closer at the nuts and bolts of this plan of yours. You say you'll need another two battle squadrons at Nightingale?" White Haven nodded. "Well, suppose we draw them from—"

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