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Chapter Sixteen

Citizen Admiral Giscard, CO Twelfth Fleet, stepped through the briefing room hatch aboard his new flagship and looked around the compartment at the equally new staff charged with helping him plan and execute Operation Icarus. Personally, he would have preferred to call it Operation Daedalus, since at least Daedalus had survived mankind's first flight, but no one had asked him.

Besides, I probably wouldn't worry about the "portents" of naming operations myself if the Manties hadn't kicked our asses so often.

He brushed that aside and crossed to the empty chair at the head of the briefing room table, trailed by Eloise Pritchart. She followed him like the silent, drifting eye of the Committee of Public Safety, her public, on-duty face as cold and emotionless as it always was, and slipped into her own seat at his right hand without a word.

By and large, he reflected, he was satisfied with both his flagship and his staff. PNS Salamis wasn't the youngest superdreadnought in the People's Navy's inventory, and she'd taken severe damage at the Third Battle of Nightingale. But she'd just completed repairs and a total overhaul, and she was all shiny and new inside at the moment. Even better, Citizen Captain Short, her CO, reported that her upgraded systems' reliability was at virtually a hundred percent. How long that would remain true remained to be seen, but Short seemed pleased with the quality of her Engineering Department, so perhaps they could anticipate better maintenance than usual.

He adjusted his chair comfortably and brought his terminal on-line while he let his mind run over the details about Salamis' readiness already neatly filed in his memory. Then he set them aside and turned his hazel eyes on the staffers sitting around the table.

Despite McQueen's promise of as free a hand "as possible" in their selection, he'd been unable to exercise anything approaching the degree of control an officer of his seniority would have wielded before the Harris Assassination. The only two he'd really insisted upon had been Citizen Commander Andrew MacIntosh, his new ops officer, and Citizen Commander Frances Tyler, his astrogator.

He'd never actually served with MacIntosh, but he expected good things from him. Most importantly, the black-haired, gray-eyed citizen commander had a reputation for energy and audacity. Both those qualities would be in high demand for Operation Icarus, and both had become unfortunately rare after the purges.

Tyler was another matter. "Franny" Tyler was only twenty-nine T-years old, young for her rank even in the post-Coup People's Navy, and Giscard had done his best to guide and guard her career over the last five or six years. There was a certain danger in that—for both of them—though Tyler probably didn't really realize the extent to which he'd acted as her patron. Given the vivacious young redhead's attractiveness, some might have assumed he had more than simply professional reasons for sheepdogging her career, but they would have been wrong. He'd seen something in her as a junior lieutenant—not just ability, though she certainly had that, but the willingness to take risks in the performance of her duty. Like MacIntosh, she not only accepted but actually seemed to relish the prospect of assuming additional responsibilities, almost as if (unlike the wiser and more wary of her contemporaries) she saw those responsibilities as opportunities and not simply more chances to fail and attract the ire of her superiors and StateSec. That sort of officer was more valuable than Detweiler rubies to any navy, but especially so to one like the People's Navy.

Physically, Citizen Captain Leander Joubert, Giscard's new chief of staff, closely resembled MacIntosh. He was taller—a hundred and eighty-five centimeters to MacIntosh's hundred and eighty-one—and had brown eyes instead of gray, but both had the same dark complexions and black hair, and they were within four T-years of one another. But physical resemblance aside, Joubert was nothing at all like MacIntosh or Tyler. At thirty-one, he was even younger for his rank than Tyler was for hers, and that would have been enough to pop warning flags in Giscard's mind under any circumstances. Not that the man wasn't good at his job. He was. It was just that when someone catapulted from lieutenant to captain in under four T-years, one had to wonder if there might not be reasons other than professional competence for his extraordinary rise. Add the fact that Joubert had been insisted upon—quite emphatically—by Citizen Commissioner Pritchart with the powerful support of unnamed individuals in State Security, and one no longer had to wonder. Giscard had protested as strongly as he dared, for no admiral could be expected to relish the thought of having a political informer as his chief of staff, but in truth, he was less unhappy with Joubert's presence than his complaints suggested. There were, after all, ways to neutralize one's superiors' spies . . . especially if one knew exactly who those spies were.

The rest of the staff were less known qualities. Citizen Lieutenant Commander Julia Lapisch, his staff com officer, seemed a competent sort, but she was very quiet. Only a couple of years older than Tyler, she appeared to be one of those officers who had found survival by remaining completely apolitical, and she seemed to emerge from her shell only to deal with professional matters. Coupled with the slender, delicate physique her low-gravity home world of Midsummer had produced, she had an almost elfin air of disassociation, like someone not quite completely in synch with the universe about her.

Citizen Lieutenant Madison Thaddeus, his new intelligence officer, was another puzzle. At forty-two, he was the oldest member of Giscard's staff, despite his relatively junior rank. His efficiency reports were uniformly excellent, and he had a reputation as a skilled analyst, with an ability to get inside the opposition's head when it came to drafting enemy intentions analyses, yet he seemed stuck at lieutenant's rank. That probably indicated that somewhere in his StateSec file (which not even Pritchart had yet had the opportunity to peruse) someone had recorded doubts about his political reliability. No other explanation for his stalled promotion seemed likely, yet the fact that he hadn't been purged—or at least removed from so sensitive a slot as staff intelligence—would appear to indicate a rare triumph of ability over someone else's paranoia.

Citizen Lieutenant Jessica Challot, his logistics and supply officer, was in her mid-thirties—again, old for her rank in a navy where the enemy and StateSec had conspired to create so many vacancies in the senior grades. Unlike Thaddeus, however, Giscard had an unhappy suspicion that Challot's lack of promotion was merited on a professional basis. Her accounts were all in order, but she had a bean-counter mentality better suited to a shipyard somewhere than to a fleet duty assignment. Much as Giscard hated admitting it, those charged with overseeing the disbursement of supplies and spare parts at shipyards really did have a responsibility to insure that the materials they doled out were used as frugally as possible—consistent, of course, with efficiency. But it was a staff logistics officer's responsibility to see to it that his CO had everything he needed (and, if possible, a little more, just to be safe) to carry out his mission . . . and to do whatever it took to provide anything his CO didn't have. Challot, unfortunately, seemed to have no initiative whatsoever. She certainly wasn't going to stick her neck out by resorting to unofficial channels, and Giscard strongly doubted that she would take the lead in anticipating requirements, either. Well, he could live with that if he had to, he supposed. At the very least, she appeared to be a competent enough supply clerk. If Giscard or someone else—like MacIntosh, perhaps?—did the hard work by figuring out what was needed and where it might be found, she could probably be relied upon to do the paperwork to get it, anyway.

He realized his thoughts had drawn him into contemplative silence and shook himself. It was time to get down to business.

"Good morning, people," he said. "I realize this is the first opportunity we've all had to sit down together, and I wish we had more time to get to know one another before we jump into the deep end, but we don't. The units assigned to Operation Icarus are coming from all over the Republic; just assembling them is going to take better than two T-months. Minimum training and rehearsal time will eat up at least another month, and our orders are to commence operations at the earliest possible moment. That means getting the details and the compositions of our task forces worked out now, not waiting until our squadrons are concentrated."

He gazed around their faces, letting that sink in and noting their expressions while it did. No real surprises there, he decided.

"Citizen Commissioner Pritchart and I have worked together in the past with fair success," he went on after a moment. After all, any admiral who didn't acknowledge his watchdog's presence—and explicitly concede her authority—was unlikely to remain in command for long, despite any changes Esther McQueen might be engineering at the top. "I believe I speak for both of us when I say that we are more interested in initiative, industry, and suggestions than we are with complete observation of all nuances of proper military procedure. Citizen Commissioner?"

He glanced at Pritchart, his expression cool, and she nodded.

"I think that's a fair statement, Citizen Admiral," she said. "What matters, after all, is the defeat of our elitist opponents . . . and, of course, those domestic elements which might conspire against or fail the needs of the People."

A brief chill seemed to sweep the compartment, and Giscard let his mouth tighten. But that was the only expression of disagreement a prudent admiral would permit himself, and he cleared his throat and continued in determinedly normal tones.

"Over the next few days, we'll be taking the War Office's basic ops plan apart, looking at all the pieces, and then putting it back together again. Obviously, each of you will have his or her own spheres of responsibility and areas of expertise. I don't want anyone sitting on any thought or question which comes to mind just because it's not officially in 'his' area, however. The success of our mission matters a lot more than stepped-on toes, and I'd rather have officers who are willing to risk asking potentially dumb questions or make suggestions which may or may not work. Anyone can keep his mouth shut and look wise, citizens; only someone willing to appear foolish in the pursuit of his duty can actually be wise. Remember that, and I think we'll get along well."

He deliberately did not look at Pritchart this time. It wasn't precisely a challenge to the people's commissioner, but it was a clear statement of who he expected to exercise authority in the professional sphere.

"Now, then," he said, looking at MacIntosh. "I wonder if you could begin by laying out the basic parameters of Fleet HQ's ops plan, Citizen Commander?"

"Yes, Citizen Admiral," MacIntosh said respectfully. He let his eyes sweep over the notes on his display for another instant, then looked up and met the gazes of his fellow staffers.

"In essence," he began, "Citizen Secretary McQueen and Citizen Admiral Bukato have decided that the Manties' current lack of activity offers us an opportunity to recapture the strategic initiative for the first time since the war began. Our present margin of superiority over the Manties, while still substantial in terms of total tonnage, is much lower than it was before the war, particularly in terms of ships of the wall. That means that scraping up the reserves to make Icarus possible will impose a considerable strain on other operational areas. Nor will the strength which can be committed to us allow us as much margin for error as we might wish. HQ stresses—quite rightly, I think—that we must employ our forces in the most economical possible fashion. Operational losses in pursuit of our objective are to be expected, and those resulting from calculated risks will not be held against us." And you can believe as much of that as you want to, Giscard thought wryly. "Indeed, Citizen Secretary McQueen specifically directs us to remember that audacity and surprise will be our most effective weapons. But for us to carry Icarus off, we must allocate our available strength very carefully."

He paused as if to let that sink in, then glanced back down at his notes again.

"At the present moment, our order of battle is slated to include the equivalent of two dreadnought and four superdreadnought squadrons—a total of forty-eight of the wall—supported by ten squadrons of battleships, for a total of a hundred and twenty-eight capital ships. Our battlecruiser element will consist of three squadron equivalents, for a total of twenty-four units, and Citizen Admiral Tourville will be joining us shortly aboard one of them to serve as Twelfth Fleet's second in command."

Several people looked up at that, and Giscard hid a smile at their expressions. Like Giscard himself, most of the officers in that briefing room were disgusted by Honor Harrington's judicial murder, but the fact that Tourville had captured her in the first place, coupled with his crushing victory in the Adler System, had further enhanced his already high professional stature. Of course, none of Giscard's staffers would find themselves required to ride herd on an officer whose reputation for tactical brilliance was matched only by his reputation as a flamboyant, guts-and-glory adolescent who refused to grow up. But they clearly regarded his assignment to their fleet command structure as a sign that Fleet HQ truly did consider Operation Icarus as vital as HQ said it did, and that wasn't always the case in the People's Navy.

Personally, Giscard had a few private reservations. Not about Tourville's capabilities, but about all the reasons for his assignment to Icarus. There had to have been a reason Tourville and his flagship had been detached from his previous command to escort Citizen Secretary Ransom to the Cerberus System, and he doubted somehow that it had been because Ransom wanted Tourville's opinion on what color to paint her quarters aboard Tepes. But no one would ever know for certain now. Giscard was one of only a tiny handful of Navy officers who knew what had happened to Tepes—and Citizen Secretary Ransom—and he knew only because he had certain avenues of information very few serving officers could match.

Ten months had passed since Tepes' destruction, and he often wondered when the official news of Ransom's long overdue demise would be made public (and exactly how the circumstances of her departing this mortal vale would be structured by PubIn for foreign and domestic consumption). But the people at the top had to realize she'd had a specific reason for dragging Tourville to Cerberus. So did the citizen admiral's continued existence, not to mention employment on a highly sensitive mission, indicate that Ransom's fellows on the Committee of Public Safety questioned her judgment and were less than devastated by her departure? Or that Esther McQueen had managed to protect him because she recognized his value? Or possibly that the success of Operation Icarus was not, in fact, regarded as being quite so vital as McQueen and Bukato had implied?

Any or all of those were certainly possible . . . and if Fleet HQ was setting Tourville up as a fall guy in case this Icarus also flew too close to the sun, might it not be doing the same thing with another officer who had only recently reemerged from the disgrace of a busted operation in Silesia?

"—with at least one light cruiser flotilla and a substantial but probably understrength destroyer screen," MacIntosh was continuing his listing of the resources committed to Icarus, and Giscard shook off thoughts about Tourville in order to concentrate on the ops officer's briefing once more. "All of those numbers are tentative at this point, which is going to make our planning even harder. I have been informed, however, that we may regard the superdreadnought, dreadnought, and battleship numbers as minimum figures. The Octagan will be trying to pry still more of each class loose for us. Given that they haven't said the same thing about battlecruisers and how strapped we are for them, I would suspect that BCs are where we're most likely to come up short," MacIntosh went on. "At the same time, however, we're as strapped for light forces as for ships of the wall right now, and pulling together our battleship component will only exacerbate that situation in some respects. The systems we pull them out of will have to be covered by someone—" for, he did not add, political reasons "—and it looks like HQ will be tapping tin cans and light cruisers for that, which will cut into what might have been made available to us.

"On the logistical side," he nodded at Citizen Lieutenant Challot, who looked less than delighted to be brought center stage, "we'll be getting very heavy support. In addition to tankers and medical and repair ships, HQ is assigning two complete service squadrons of fast freighters for the specific purpose of assuring us an adequate supply of the new missile pods."

He bared his teeth in a fierce smile as several people around the table made pleased noises.

"The fact that we can finally match the Manties' capabilities in that area is certainly out of the bag by now—they could hardly miss knowing after the way Citizen Admiral Tourville kicked their ass at Adler—but this will be our first mass deployment of the system. In addition, we have upgraded recon drone capability courtesy of, ah, some technical assistance," even here, Giscard noted, MacIntosh was careful not to mention the Solarian League by name, "and our general electronic warfare capabilities will come much closer to matching the Manties' abilities in that area. I won't try to tell any of you that they won't still have a considerable edge, but it's going to be narrower than it's been in at least the last four years, and hopefully they won't even know we're coming. With that kind of surprise working for us, we should cut quite a swathe before they can redeploy their own units to slow us down."

There were more smiles around the table now. Even Citizen Captain Joubert got into the act, although Challot still seemed less enthralled by the prospect than her fellows.

"Now," MacIntosh went on, entering more commands into his terminal, "to look at our ops area. As you know, HQ wanted a zone where things have been rather quiet and the Manties have drawn down their forces to support front-line operations, but important enough to be sure we attract their attention. I think," he smiled and entered a final command, "they've found one."

A holo display flashed to life above the table, and Giscard saw Citizen Commander Tyler sit up straight in her chair as she saw their proposed operational area for the first time. Nor was her reaction unique. Only Giscard, Pritchart, Joubert, and MacIntosh had known where Operation Icarus was aimed before this moment, and eyes narrowed and faces tightened with mingled anticipation and worry as the rest of his staff discovered that information.

Stars were sparse in the holo, but the ones which floated there had a value out of all proportion to the density of the local stellar population. A thin rash of bright red light chips indicated naval bases or member systems of the Manticoran Alliance, but all of them were dominated by the bright purple glow of a single star: Basilisk, the terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction where the war had almost begun four T-years early.

"HQ is granting us quite a lot of flexibility in selecting and scheduling our precise targets in this area," MacIntosh went on, "but the basic plan calls for us to begin operations down here," a cursor flicked to life in the display, "and then head up in this general direction—"

The cursor crawled upward through the stars, heading steadily towards Basilisk, and Giscard leaned back in his chair to listen as closely as the most junior member of his staff.


"I need to speak with you, Citizen Admiral. Alone."

Citizen Commissioner Pritchart's flat voice cut through the sound of moving people as the staff meeting broke up two hours later. More than one of the naval officers flinched—not because she'd raised her voice, or because she'd said anything overtly threatening, but because she'd said so little during the meeting. People's commissioners weren't noted, as a rule, for reticence. Part of their job, after all, was to ensure that no one ever forgot the living, breathing presence of StateSec as the People's guardian. Which suggested at least the possibility that Citizen Admiral Giscard—or perhaps one of his officers—might have put a foot so far wrong that Citizen Commissioner Pritchart intended to chop the offending leg right off.

"Of course, Citizen Commissioner," Giscard replied after the briefest of hesitations. "Here?"

"No." Pritchart looked around the compartment, topaz eyes flicking over the officers calmly. "Your day cabin, perhaps," she suggested, and he shrugged.

"As you wish, Citizen Commissioner," he said, with an apparent calmness which woke mingled admiration and trepidation in some of his new subordinates. "Citizen Captain Joubert, I'll expect those reports from you and Citizen Commander MacIntosh and Citizen Lieutenant Thaddeus by fourteen hundred."

"Of course, Citizen Admiral." Joubert nodded respectfully, but his secretive eyes darted towards Pritchart for just a moment. The citizen commissioner did not acknowledge his glance, and he turned to address himself to MacIntosh as Giscard waved gently at the compartment hatch.

"After you, Citizen Commissioner," he said coolly.


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