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Chapter Twenty

"She's a gorgeous ship, Hamish," Lord William Alexander said as Lieutenant Robards, his older brother's Grayson flag lieutenant, ushered them into the admiral's day cabin aboard Benjamin the Great at the end of an extended tour. "And this isn't half bad, either," the younger Alexander observed as his eyes took in the huge, palatial compartment.

"No, it isn't," White Haven agreed. "Please, be seated, both of you," he invited, gesturing to the comfortable chairs facing his desk. Robards waited until they'd obeyed and White Haven had seated himself behind the desk, then pressed a com stud.

"Yes?" a soprano voice replied.

"We're back, Chief," the lieutenant said simply.

"Of course, Sir," the intercom said in answer, and another hatch opened almost instantly. This one led to the admiral's steward's pantry, and Senior Chief Steward Tatiana Jamieson stepped through it with a polished silver tray, four crystal wineglasses, and a dusty bottle. She set the tray on the end of White Haven's desk and carefully cracked the wax seal on the bottle, then deftly extracted the old-fashioned cork. She sniffed it, then smiled and poured the deep red wine into all four glasses, handed one to each of White Haven's guests, then to him, and finally to Robards, and then bowed and disappeared as unobtrusively as she'd come.

"So Chief Jamieson is still with you, is she?" William observed, holding his glass up and watching the light glow in its ruby heart. "It's been—what? Fourteen T-years now?"

"She is, and it has," White Haven agreed. "And you can stop hoping to lure her away. She's Navy to the core, and she is not interested in a civilian career in charge of your wine cellar." William produced an artfully injured look, and his brother snorted. "And you can stop considering the wine so suspiciously, too. I didn't pick it out; Jamieson selected it personally from a half dozen vintages the Protector sent up."

"Oh, in that case!" William said with a grin, and sipped. His eyes widened in surprised approval, and he took another, deeper sip. "That is good," he observed. "And it's a good thing a total ignoramus like you has a keeper like the Chief to watch out for you!"

"Unlike idle civilians, serving officers sometimes find themselves just a little too busy to develop epicurean snobbery to a fine art," the Earl said dryly, and looked at Caparelli. "Would you agree, Sir Thomas?"

"Not on your life, My Lord," the First Space Lord replied instantly, although the corners of his mouth twitched in an almost-grin. Sir Thomas Caparelli had never felt really comfortable with White Haven, and the two of them had never particularly liked one another, but much of their personal friction had been worn away over the last eight or nine years by the far harsher grit of war. There were white streaks in Caparelli's hair now, despite prolong, which had very little to do with age. The crushing responsibility for fighting the war with the PRH had carved new worry lines in his face, as well, and the Earl of White Haven had been his main sword arm against the People's Navy.

"Not a bad strategic decision," White Haven complimented him now, and took a sip from his own glass. Then he set it down and looked up at Lieutenant Robards. "Is Captain Albertson ready for that briefing, Nathan?"

"Yes, My Lord. At your convenience."

"Um." White Haven looked down into his glass for several seconds, then nodded at something no one else could see. "Would you go and tell him that we'll be—oh, another thirty or forty minutes or so?"

"Of course, My Lord." It was a moderately abrupt change in plans, but Robards' brown eyes didn't even flicker at his dismissal. He simply drained his own glass, bowed to his admiral's guests, and vanished almost as unobtrusively as Chief Jamieson had.

"A well-trained young man," William Alexander observed as the hatch closed behind him, then looked at his brother. "May I assume there was a reason you sent him on his way?"

"There was," White Haven agreed. He looked up from his wine and gazed at both his guests. "Actually, there were two, but the more pressing is my feeling that there have to be more reasons for the two of you to come out here than the official communique listed. I also have an unhappy suspicion about what one of those reasons might be. Under the circumstances, I thought I'd clear the decks, as it were, so we could discuss my suspicion from a purely Manticoran viewpoint."

"Ah?" William sipped wine once more, regarded his brother with a half-quizzical, half-wary expression, then crooked an eyebrow, inviting him to continue.

"I've been trying to assemble Eighth Fleet for the better part of a T-year now," White Haven said flatly. "The process was supposed to be complete over nine standard months ago, and I still haven't received the strength my original orders specified. More to the point, perhaps, I have received the units I was promised by Grayson, Erewhon, and the other Allied navies. What I haven't seen have been the Manticoran units I was promised. I'm still better than two complete battle squadrons—seventeen ships of the wall—short on the RMN side, and nothing I've seen in my dispatches from the Star Kingdom suggests that those ships are going to turn up tomorrow. Should I assume that one reason Allen Summervale sent the second ranking member of his Government and the Admiralty's senior serving officer out here was to explain to myself—and possibly the Protector—just why that is?"

He paused, and Caparelli and William looked at one another, then turned back to him.

"You should," Caparelli said quietly after a moment, "and they aren't. Going to turn up tomorrow I mean, My Lord. We won't have them to send you for at least another two T-months."

"That's too long, My Lord," White Haven said in an equally quiet voice. "We've already waited too long. Have you seen last month's estimates on the Peep strength at Barnett?"

"I have," Caparelli admitted.

"Then you know Theisman's numbers are going up faster than mine are. We're giving them time—time to get their feet under them and catch their breath—and we can't afford that. Not with someone like Esther McQueen calling the shots on their side for a change."

"We don't know how free McQueen is to make her own calls," Caparelli pointed out. "Pat Givens is still working on that. Her analysts don't have a lot to go on, but they make it no more than a twenty-five percent chance that the Committee would give any naval officer the authority to build her own strategy. They're still too afraid of a military coup."

"With all due respect, Sir Thomas, Pat is wrong on this one," White Haven replied flatly. "I've fought McQueen, and in my personal opinion, she's the best CO they have left. I think they know that, too, but everything ONI has ever picked up on her has also emphasized her personal ambition. If we know about that, then Saint-Just and State Security know about it, as well. Given that, I can't see the Peeps picking her to head their war office unless they intended all along to give her at the very least a major role in determining their strategy."

"I don't quite see your logic, Ham," William said after a moment.

"Think it through, Willie. If you know someone is a threat to your regime, and you go ahead and put him—or, in this case, her—in a position of power anyway, then you have to have some overriding motive—something which you consider more important than the potential danger she represents. If the Committee of Public Safety called McQueen home and made her Secretary of War, it was because they figured their military situation was so screwed up they needed a professional . . . even if the professional in question might be tempted to try a coup."

White Haven shrugged.

"If they followed that logic, then they'd be not simply fools but stupid fools not to make every possible effort to avail themselves of her expertise. And that—" he turned back to Caparelli "—is why giving them this much time is a major, major mistake, Sir."

"I can't fault your reasoning," Caparelli admitted, rubbing a big, weary hand across his face and leaning back in his chair. "Pat's analysts have followed the same trail, and it may be that they're double-thinking themselves into mistakes. They share your opinion as to the reason the Committee recalled her to Haven; they just question whether or not a PRH run by the Committee of Public Safety and the Office of State Security is institutionally capable of making use of her expertise. It would require not simply a change but a major upheaval in the entire relationship between their people's commissioners and the officer corps."

"Maybe officially, but it's obvious some of their fleet commanders and commissioners have already made some informal changes," White Haven argued. "Theisman, for example. His tactics at Seabring—and, for that matter, his decision to release their version of the missile pod for use at Adler—all indicate that he, at least, figures he can count on his commissioner to back him up. That's dangerous, Sir. A divided Peep command structure works in our favor; one in which the political and military commanders work together and trust one another is another matter entirely. But the point where McQueen is concerned, is that the Committee may choose to allow an exception—another 'special relationship'—between her and her commissioner. Especially since she put down the Levelers for them." He made a face. "I'm not saying that wouldn't come around and bite them on the ass in time, but that doesn't mean they won't try it—especially if the military situation looks bad enough."

"You may be right, Ham," William said, "but there's only so much blood in the turnip. Whatever we'd like, we simply don't have the ships to send you right now. We're trying, but we're tapped out."

"But—" White Haven began, only to stop as Caparelli raised a hand.

"I know what you're going to say, My Lord, but Lord Alexander is right. We simply don't have them. Or, rather, we have too many other commitments and we ran our maintenance cycles too far into the red in the push to get as deep into Peep territory as we are now."

"I see." White Haven sat back, drumming his fingers on the desk in narrow-eyed thought. As a fleet commander, he lacked access to the comprehensive, Navy-wide kind of data Caparelli saw regularly, but the availability numbers must be even worse than he'd thought.

"How bad is it?" he asked after a moment.

"Not good," Caparelli admitted. "As the officer who took Trevor's Star, you must have been aware of how we were deferring regular overhauls on the ships under your command to let you maintain the numbers to capture the system."

He paused, and White Haven nodded. Almost twenty percent of the ships he'd taken into the final engagement had been long overdue for regular maintenance refits . . . and it had shown in their readiness states.

"It hasn't gotten any better," the First Space Lord told him. "In fact, for your private information, we've had no choice but to pull in just over a quarter of our total ships of the wall."

"A quarter?" Despite himself, White Haven's surprise showed, and Caparelli nodded grimly. That was seventy-five percent higher than the fifteen percent of Fleet strength which was supposed to be down for refit at any given time.

"A quarter," Caparelli confirmed. "And if we could, I'd have made it thirty percent. We worked the Fleet too hard to get to where we are now, My Lord. We've got to take the battle fleet in hand—and not just for routine repairs, either. We've been refitting the new systems and weapons and compensators on an ad hoc basis since the war started, but over half our wall of battle units are at least two years behind the technology curve. That's seriously hurting our ability to make full use of the new hardware, especially the compensators, since our squadrons are no longer homogenous. It doesn't do us a lot of good to have three ships in a squadron capable of accelerating at five hundred and eighty gravities if the other five can only pull five-ten! We've got to get all the current upgrades into a higher percentage of the total wall."

"Um." White Haven played with his empty wineglass while his mind raced. The numbers were worse than he'd feared, yet he understood Caparelli's logic. And the First Space Lord was right. But he was also wrong. Or, rather, he was running dangerously low on "right" options.

"We're building up our fleet strength as quickly as we can, Ham," William told him, then grimaced. "Of course, that's not as quickly as I'd like. We're beginning to stress the economy pretty hard. I've even got permanent secretaries and undersecretaries in my department talking about a progressive income tax."

"You what?" That brought White Haven upright in his chair once more, and his eyes widened when his brother nodded. "But that's unconstitutional!"

"Not exactly," William said. "The Constitution specifies that any permanent income tax must be flat-rated, but it does make provision for temporary adjustments to the rate."

" 'Temporary'!" White Haven snorted.

"Temporary," William repeated firmly. "Any progressive taxes have to be enacted with a specific time limit, and they automatically terminate at the time of the first general election after enactment. And they can only be passed with a two-thirds super-majority of both houses in the first place."


"You always were a fiscal conservative, Hamish. And I won't say you're wrong. Hell, I'm a fiscal conservative! But we've already quadrupled the transit fees on the Junction and levied special duties on our own merchant shipping, as well—not to mention increasing import duties to a two-hundred-and-fifty-year high. So far, we've managed not to have to rob Peter to pay Paul—or at least not to resort to armed robbery with violence in the process. But without something like a progressive tax, we won't be able to keep that up much longer. We've already had to restrict cost of living increases in government pensions and assistance programs . . . and I'll let you imagine for yourself how Marisa Turner and her bunch reacted to that."

"Not well, I'm sure," White Haven grunted. Then his eyebrows rose. "You're not saying New Kiev went public about it, are you?"

"Not directly. She's been more nibbling around the edges—sort of testing the water. The Opposition hasn't come right out and criticized me and Allen over it yet; they're only at the 'we regret the harsh necessity' stage. But I can't guarantee they'll stay there." It was William's turn to snort. "They sure as hell aren't holding their fire on the basis of principle, Ham! They're afraid of what'll happen to them at the polls if they seem to be seeking partisan advantage in the middle of a war."

"Is it really that bad?" White Haven asked anxiously, and this time Caparelli responded before his brother could.

"It is and it isn't, My Lord," he said. "We're doing everything we can at the Admiralty to hold budgets down, and from a purely military perspective, there's lots of slack yet in our industrial capability. The problem Lord Alexander and Duke Cromarty are facing is how we can use that capability without crippling the civilian sector, and even there, we still have quite a lot of slack in fact. The problem is that politics is a game of perceptions, and the truth is that we are reaching the point of imposing some real sacrifices on our civilians."

White Haven blinked. The Thomas Caparelli he'd known for three-quarters of a century wouldn't have made that remark, because he wouldn't have understood the fine distinctions it implied. But it seemed his tenure as First Space Lord was stretching his mind in ways White Haven hadn't anticipated.

"Sir Thomas is right," William said before the Earl could follow that thought completely down. "Oh, we're not even close to talking about rationing yet, but we've got a real inflation problem for the first time in a hundred and sixty years, and that's only going to get worse as more and more of our total capacity gets shifted into direct support of the war at the same time as wartime wages put more money into the hands of our consumers. Again, this is for your private information, but I've been in closed-door negotiations with the heads of the major cartels to discuss centralized planning for the economy."

"We already have that," White Haven protested.

"No, we don't. I'm talking about true centralization, Hamish," his brother said very seriously. "Not just planning boards and purely military allocation boards. Complete control of all facets of the economy."

"My God, it'll never fly. You'll lose the Crown Loyalists for sure!"

"Maybe, and maybe not," William replied. "They're more fiscally conservative than we are, but remember that the centralization would be under Crown control. That would appeal to their core constituency's litmus test by actually strengthening the power of the Monarch. Where we'd get hurt would be with the independents we might lose, especially in the Lords . . . and the toe in the door it would offer the Liberals and Progressives." He shook his head with a worried frown. "It's definitely not something we're looking forward to, Ham. It's something we're afraid we may not have any choice but to embrace if we're going to make use of the industrial and economic slack Sir Thomas just mentioned."

"I see," White Haven said slowly, and rubbed his lower lip in thought. The Liberals and Progressives had always wanted more government interference in the Star Kingdom's economy, and Cromarty's Centrists had always fought that idea tooth and nail, especially since the People's Republic had begun its slide into fiscal ruin. The Centrists' view had been that a free market encouraged to run itself was the most productive economy available. Too much government tampering with it would be the case of killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden eggs, whereas the very productivity of an unregulated economy meant that even with lower tax rates, it would ultimately produce more total tax revenues in absolute terms. The Liberals and Progressives, on the other hand, had argued that unregulated capitalism was fundamentally unfair in its allocation of wealth and that it was government's proper function to regulate it and to formulate tax policies to influence the distribution of affluence in ways which would produce a more equitable balance. Intellectually, White Haven supposed both sides had their legitimate arguments. He knew which viewpoint he supported, of course, but he had to admit that his own heritage of wealth and power might have a little something to do with that.

Yet whatever one Hamish Alexander might think, Cromarty and William must truly be feeling the pressure to even contemplate unbottling that particular genie. Once the government had established tight centralized control of the economy for any reason, dismantling those controls later would be a Herculean task. There were always bureaucratic empire-builders who would fight to the death to maintain their own petty patches of power, and any government could always find places to spend all the money it could get its hands on. But even more to the point, the Liberals and their allies would be able—quite legitimately, in many ways—to argue that if the Star Kingdom had been willing to accept such control to fight a war, then surely it should be willing to accept less draconian peacetime measures in the fight against poverty and deprivation. Unless, that was, the fiscal conservatives wished to argue that it was somehow less moral or worthy to provide its citizens with what they needed when they weren't killing other people?

"We see some other alternatives—and some bright spots on the horizon," William said, breaking into his thoughts. "Don't think it's all doom and gloom from the home front. For one thing, people like the Graysons are taking up a lot more slack than we'd anticipated when the war began. And did you know that Zanzibar and Alizon are about to bring their own shipyards on-line?"

"Zanzibar is?" White Haven's eyebrows rose, and his brother nodded.

"Yep. It's sort of a junior version of the Graysons' Blackbird Yard, another joint venture with the Hauptman Cartel. It'll be limited to cruiser and maybe battlecruiser-range construction, at least for the first couple of years, but it'll be top of the line, and the same thing for Alizon. And the Graysons themselves are just phenomenal. Maybe it's because they've already had so many battles fought in their space, or maybe it's simply because their standard of living was so much lower than ours was before the war started, but these people are digging deep, Hamish . . . and their civilian economy is still expanding like a house on fire at the same time. I suppose part of the difference is that their civilian sector is still so far short of market saturation, whereas ours—" He shrugged. "And it's not helping a bit that we're still unable to provide the kind of security for our merchant shipping in Silesia that we'd like. Our trade with the Confederation is down by almost twenty-eight percent."

"Are the Andermani picking up what we've lost?" White Haven asked.

"It looks more like it's the Sollies," William said with another shrug. "We're seeing more and more market penetration by them out this way . . . which may help explain why certain elements in the League are willing to export military technology to the Peeps."

"Wonderful." White Haven massaged his temples wearily, then looked back at Caparelli and dragged the conversation back to his original concern. "But the operative point for Eighth Fleet is that it looks like another couple of months before I'll see my other battle squadrons, right?"

"Yes," Caparelli said. "We had to make a choice between you and keeping Trevor's Star up to strength, and, frankly, what happened at Adler is still having repercussions. We're managing to ride them out so far, but the sheer scope of our defeat there has everyone—and especially the smaller members of the Alliance—running more than a little scared. I'm doing my level best to gather back the ships we were forced to disperse in even more penny-packet pickets for political reasons, but Trevor's Star is another matter. If I were the Peeps, that system—and the Junction terminus there—would be absolutely my number one targeting priority, and I have to assume they're at least as smart as I am."

"Um." White Haven considered that, then nodded slowly. If he were Esther McQueen and he had the strength for it, he'd retake Trevor's Star in a heartbeat. Of course, he wasn't Esther McQueen, and so far as he knew, she didn't have the strength to retake the system, but he understood why Caparelli was determined to make sure she didn't get the chance. Not that understanding made the implications for his own command area any better.

"All right," he said finally. "I understand what's happening, and I can see why we're where we are on the priorities list. But I hope you and the rest of the Admiralty understand, Sir Thomas, when I say that I'm not trying to set up any sort of preexisting excuses for future failure by saying that I have very deep concerns over our ability to execute our original mission if those ships are delayed for as long as you're suggesting is likely. At the rate they seem to be reinforcing Barnett, what should have given us a very comfortable margin of superiority is likely to provide little more than parity when we actually move. And everything I've seen out of Citizen Admiral Theisman suggests that giving him parity is not the way to go about winning a battle."

"I understand, My Lord." Caparelli sighed. "And all we can ask you to do is the best that you can do. I assure you that everyone at the Admiralty understands that, and no one regrets the delay in your buildup more than I do. I'll see what I can do to expedite matters on my return."

"At least the construction rates are still climbing," William observed in the tone of someone looking hard for a silver lining. "And manning requirements should be dropping, if the reports the Exchequer's been getting from BuShips and BuPers hold up."

"That's true enough," Caparelli agreed, "and if Project Anzio—" He cut himself off, then grinned at White Haven. "Let's just say that we've got the possibility for some real force multiplication, My Lord. If the bastards will only give me another four months or so, I think we'll be ready to resume the offensive."

"Remember what Napoleon said about time," White Haven cautioned, and the First Space Lord nodded.

"Point taken, My Lord. But no one's fought a war on this scale in at least three hundred T-years, and even then the distance scale was much lower. We're sort of making up the rules for strategic deployments as we go, and so are the Peeps. For that matter, we know what our problems are, but let's not make the mistake of assuming the bad guys don't have problems of their own to offset ours."

"Fair enough," White Haven agreed. He tipped his chair back again and sipped wine, frowning as he digested what he'd just been told. His brother watched him for several seconds; then he cleared his throat, and White Haven looked up questioningly.

"You said you had two things you wanted to discuss with us," William reminded him. "Did we already cover the other one, as well?"

"Hm?" White Haven frowned, but then his expression cleared, and he shook his head. "No. No, we didn't actually." He brought his chair back upright and set his wineglass back on the desk. "I wanted to get the official Government impression of the consequences of Ransom's death."

"Ha! You and me both, brother mine," William replied sourly.

"I take it from your response that the whole thing smelled as fishy to you people back home as it did to me?"

"To put it mildly, yes." William glanced at Caparelli, then looked back at his brother. "ONI and Special Intelligence both agree that something about it wasn't kosher, but of course they don't agree on what that something was."

White Haven swallowed a snort of laughter at William's expression. The Office of Naval Intelligence and its civilian counterpart had a history of disagreeing with one another, and the turf battles when their areas of expertise intersected could be spectacular.

"Would you care to elaborate on that?" he invited after a moment.

"Well," William leaned back and crossed his legs, "they both agree she must have been dead for some time before the announcement. That 'killed by enemy action while touring the front on Committee business' is pure crap. We know exactly when and where we've knocked out Peep battlecruisers, and none of the dates we have match the one they've given. It's a little more sophisticated than those 'air car accidents' the Peeps' have always favored to explain away disappearances, especially when they've got some reason to want to obscure the exact time they disappeared someone, but it's still a crock, and we know it. As for when she really died, as far as any of our analysts can determine, she hasn't been seen in public in months, and with that as a starting point, we've taken a very close look at the more recent HD imagery of her, as well. At least some of it was faked—and faked very well, I might add—but the earliest example we've been able to positively identify is only a couple of T-months old. She may have been dead longer than that, but we can't be positive."

"At least we know she was alive recently enough to murder Lady Harrington," Caparelli put in, and the raw, grating anger in his tone snapped White Haven's eyes to him. The earl gazed at his superior for a handful of silent seconds, then nodded without any expression whatever and looked back to his brother.

"Should I take it that the disagreement between ONI and SIS is over the reason the Peeps delayed admitting her death?" he asked.

"You should," William agreed. "SIS thinks she was zapped as part of a personal power struggle between her and Saint-Just or, perhaps, her and the combination of Saint-Just and Pierre. Some of their more . . . creative analysts have actually raised the possibility that she was the senior inside member of the Leveler conspiracy and Saint-Just found out about it and had her popped. I personally find that a little hard to swallow, but it's certainly not impossible, especially when you consider the sort of rhetoric she routinely pumped out. But if that was the case, or if it was simply a case of settling a personal rivalry, the Committee may have wanted to keep it quiet until the winners were confident that they'd IDed—and purged—any of her adherents.

"ONI, on the other hand, is less certain about that. They agree that Ransom was a loose warhead and that deep down inside, at least, Pierre has to be mightily relieved that she's gone. But they don't think it was a personal power struggle or that Ransom had anything to do with the Leveler coup attempt. They think it was part of the same process which brought McQueen in as Secretary of War. Everyone knows how bitterly Ransom distrusted the Peep military, and McQueen's reputation for personal ambition would practically make her a poster girl for Ransom's paranoia. So the theory is that Pierre and Saint-Just had decided they absolutely needed a professional to run the military—as you suggested earlier, Hamish—and that McQueen's suppression of the Levelers made her seem an attractive choice . . . to them. But not to Ransom. So either she tried something from the inside to stop the appointment, or else her 'friends' on the Committee figured she might decide to try something and chose to play safe by removing her."

William paused and shrugged.

"Either way, the Committee wouldn't have wanted to let the word leak until what they considered the optimum time, hence the delay in announcing her death. As for its supposed circumstances, that's clearly an attempt to paper over whatever intramural conflict led to her removal in the first place and simultaneously gain a little propaganda support for the war. ONI and SIS agree on that, as well, especially given Ransom's continuing popularity with the Mob."

"I see." White Haven rubbed his chin for a moment, then sighed. "I can't say I was sorry to hear about her death," he admitted. In fact, I was goddamned delighted after what she did to Honor! "But I rather regret the potential consequences." William cocked his head questioningly, and the earl shrugged. "Remember what I said earlier about divided command structures, Willie. Saint-Just and StateSec were only part of the grit in their military machinery, and, frankly, Ransom was a lot bigger problem for them. Whether they recognized that and killed her to remove an obstruction or whether it was purely fortuitous, the fact remains that it's going to make it a hell of a lot easier for McQueen to do whatever she was brought in to do. And that isn't good from our viewpoint."

He brooded pensively down at his blotter for another long moment, then shook himself and climbed out of his chair with a wry smile.

"Well, I suppose that answers my questions, one way or another. But now, gentlemen, my staff and flag captain are waiting to brief you on Eighth Fleet's status. I don't suppose we should keep them waiting any longer than we have to, so if you'll just accompany me?"

He stepped around his desk and led the way from his day cabin.


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