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Chapter Thirty-One

"Here we are ... at last."

Earl White Haven knew the words sounded almost petulant, but he couldn't help himself. Admiral Caparelli's two-month delivery time for Eighth Fleet's Manticoran superdreadnoughts had turned into five, which meant White Haven was almost exactly fifteen months late assembling his assigned striking force. Or would be, when the last two RMN SDs actually arrived the day after tomorrow.

And I wouldn't be up to strength now if the GSN hadn't anted up three more of its SDs to replace Manticoran ships which won't be arriving at all, he thought, looking at the staffers assembled around the briefing room table. Well, I suppose I should be grateful for small favors. At least it means I got the Harrington and one of her sisters.

He glanced at the plot of his assembled fleet displayed on his terminal, eyes automatically seeking out the icons of the Grayson contingent. The GSN had worked like demons to get the Harrington ready to christen on schedule. There had been a delay in the fabrication of her beta nodes, and they'd had to divert half a dozen from one of her sisters to meet their deadline, but they'd met it ... and a noticeably pregnant Allison Harrington had pressed the button that detonated the champagne bottle affixed to the ship's prow on the first anniversary, to the minute, of Grayson's receipt of INS's broadcast of Honor Harrington's execution.

I doubt the symbolism was lost on anyone, White Haven reflected with an edge of grimness. It certainly wasn't lost on me, at any rate, or on Judah Yanakov when he chose the Harrington as his flagship. But I'm delighted to have her. And I might as well admit I'm eager to see how the concept actually works out in action.

The corners of his mouth quirked wryly at the last thought, but he banished any hint of a smile instantly. Not that any of his staff would have noticed. They were all still busy looking down at the table rather than meet his eyes.

Hmm . . . maybe I let myself sound just a bit too petulant there. Or could it be that I've been acting just a little more like a hexapuma with a sore tooth than I thought I had? Possible. Entirely possible. Even probable.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen," he said in a much lighter tone. "They say late is better than never, so let's just see if we can't put some teeth into that old cliche. Jenny, what's the status of Barnett?"

"Our last scouting report is a week old, Sir, but the numbers hadn't changed since the probe before it."

Jennifer O'Brien, White Haven's intelligence officer, was a red-haired, blue-eyed native of Manticore. She was also only a senior-grade lieutenant and a third-generation prolong recipient. At thirty-one, the slender lieutenant looked like a pre-prolong seventeen-year-old, but despite her youth and junior rank, White Haven had specifically requested her for his staff. Just before the First Battle of Seabring, then Ensign O'Brien had strongly dissented from the enemy forces appreciation of the full commander who'd been White Haven's intelligence officer at the time. As it happened, she'd been right and the commander had been wrong . . . and Thomas Theisman had inflicted enough damage on the task force White Haven had sent to take Seabring to force its humiliating retreat. White Haven hadn't blamed his intelligence officer—he'd seen the same reports and drawn the same conclusions—but neither had he forgotten that O'Brien had been right when both of them had been wrong. And that she'd had the nerve to disagree with both her own immediate superior and the commander of an entire fleet.

"Run back over it for us again, please," he requested now, and O'Brien keyed her terminal.

"Our current strength estimate gives him twenty-six of the wall, twenty-eight battleships, twenty battlecruisers, thirty to forty heavy cruisers, thirty-five to forty light cruisers, and at least forty destroyers. We don't know how many LACs he may have, but Enki and DuQuesne Base were very heavily fortified prior to the war, and we have to assume they'll use missile pods to thicken their orbital launch capability. Call it a hundred and ninety hyper-capable units and six or seven times that amount of firepower in fixed defenses and/or LACs." She made a small face. "I'm sorry we can't be any closer to precise on that latter figure, Sir, but we simply don't know the present condition of their fortifications. We know they've had their own maintenance problems, and it's always possible a goodly percentage of their fixed weapons are down, but I wouldn't count on it. My own view is that if they were willing to reinforce him this heavily m mobile units, they would also have made every effort to put his permanent defenses on-line, and they've got the techs for that if they're willing to take them away from other, less important systems."

"Um." White Haven turned that over in his mind. He was inclined to agree with her, but he looked at his chief of staff. "Alyson?"

"I agree with Jenny," Captain (Junior Grade) Lady Alyson Granston-Henley said firmly. "All our sources confirm that McQueen has been sweeping with a new broom ever since she took over their war office, and she has to know Theisman is one of her best fleet commanders. Whatever Kline might have done, there's no way McQueen will stick him out at the end of a limb and saw it off behind him. She has to have made a major push to put his forts on-line. If she hadn't, she certainly would have sent him more mobile units—and heavier ones—to make up the difference. Either that, or reduced his strength still further to make it hurt less when we punch the system out."

White Haven nodded slowly and glanced around the table, seeing agreement on most of his other officers' faces. Commander Yerensky, his RMN astrogator, seemed a little doubtful, and Commander Yanakov, his Grayson logistics officer, appeared to share Yerensky's reservations.

"What's your feeling, Trev?" he asked his operations officer, Commander Trevor Haggerston of the Erewhon Navy. The heavyset commander scratched an eyebrow for a moment, then shrugged and grinned crookedly.

"I think Jenny and Captain G are both right," he said. "God knows we've taken long enough to assemble Eighth Fleet, and McQueen can't be certain we're not planning on diverting additional units to it from Third Fleet before we move on Barnett. And while Theisman has fifty-four capital ships to our forty-nine, twenty-eight of his are only battleships. We've got a fifteen-percent tonnage edge in capital ships—exclusive of battlecruisers—and a forty-seven-percent edge in genuine ships of the wall. We could just about double those numbers with diversions from Third Fleet, and he and McQueen must know it. Under the circumstances, someone as cagey as McQueen would have been pulling ships out of Barnett before we killed them—or at least replacing SDs and dreadnoughts with battleships she could better afford to lose—unless she figured his fixed defenses were good enough to even the odds."

"With all due respect, Admiral, that assumes McQueen is in a position to act on her judgment," Commander Yanakov put in. The sandy-haired Grayson officer was thirty-one, young enough that he'd received the first-generation prolong treatments shortly after Grayson joined the Alliance. He was a third cousin of Admiral Yanakov's, and he also had remarkably handsome features and intriguing, gold-flecked brown eyes which had cut a devastating swath through the female Allied officers who'd crossed his path.

"I think we have to assume she is, Commander," O'Brien said quietly. She, at least, seemed impervious to his looks and undeniable charm, although, to do the Grayson officer credit, he himself seemed unaware of his attractiveness.

"I realize all the analyses point that way," Yanakov said calmly, "and they may very well be accurate. In fact, I think they are. But we have to remain open to the possibility that they aren't. Giving her the authority to call the shots without civilian interference represents a major departure from the Peeps' established policies. I believe we ought to allow for the chance that they haven't changed directions as completely as we believe. At the very least, we have to be cautious about making operational assumptions based on an unquestioning belief that they have."

"Your point's well taken, Zack," White Haven agreed. "However, I believe ONI and SIS are correct about the extent of McQueen's authority."

"As I said, Sir, I'm inclined to think that myself," Yanakov said with deferential stubbornness. "But assuming she is in charge of their deployments, why hasn't she reinforced Theisman even more heavily? ONI's lost track of at least three squadrons of their SDs, not to mention all those other battleships. If I were McQueen and I was serious about holding Barnett, some of those missing ships would have turned up down here months ago. They haven't."

He shrugged and held out his hands, palm uppermost.

"The Commander has a point, Sir," Lieutenant O'Brien admitted. "I've asked myself that question. As you know, I've also asked Captain Leahy—" Leahy was Third Fleet's senior intelligence officer "—and both Grayson and Manticoran naval intelligence for their views. Unfortunately, the only answer they've been able to give me is that they don't know." It was her turn to shrug unhappily. "The only thing we know so far is that they haven't turned up anywhere else, either, and ONI's best estimate is that the SDs have probably been recalled for refit. Given the fact that Solarian League technology seems to be continuing to leak through the embargo to them, it would make sense for them to upgrade their ships of the wall in rotation to take advantage of whatever they've gotten. And, frankly, we've been so busy consolidating our own positions for the last eighteen months or so that we've given them the opportunity to do just that."

"I know, Jenny." White Haven rubbed his chin and glanced at the hologram floating above the briefing room table. It was a split image: a chart of the Trevor's Star System juxtaposed to an actual repeat of the flag bridge's main visual display, and the visual was even more impressive, in some ways, than the plot on his terminal.

Eighth Fleet floated before him—two hundred ships in all, headed by thirty-seven Manticoran and Grayson SDs and twelve Erewhonese dreadnoughts—maintaining station forty-five light-seconds off the Trevor's Star terminus of the Manticore Junction while White Haven awaited the arrival of the last of his superdreadnoughts via the Junction. The massed, massive firepower of the fleet gleamed in the display like tiny, fiery sparks of reflected sunlight, nuzzling relatively close (in deep-space terms) to the terminus, but the star chart showed what else they shared the system with. Third Fleet's fifty-five SDs hung in San Martin orbit, permanently on guard to protect the system and the thick clutch of half-complete deep-space fortresses being assembled under their watchful eye. Eventually, half those forts would be left to cover San Martin while the other half were towed out to cover the terminus directly. They could have been finished long ago if the Peeps had done even a tiny bit less effective job of destroying San Martin's orbital industry before they gave up the system. As it was, the Alliance had been forced to ship in the equipment to build the facilities needed to assemble the prefabricated components of the bases. It was taking far longer than it should have, but current projections called for the first group of forts to be finished within six or seven T-months—at which point everyone would no doubt heave a sigh of profound relief. But for now the solid ranks of capital units held their watchful orbit, proudly protecting what had been won at such terrible cost in lives and ships, and White Haven let his eyes rest upon their icons.

He hated the sight. Not that he didn't feel a deep sense of pride whenever he saw them and remembered the savage fighting which had finally taken the system. Nor did he have anything but respect for Theodosia Kuzak, who had replaced him as CO 3 FLT on the new Trevor's Star Station. No, what he hated was the way the terminus acted as an anchor on Third Fleet. The idea had been for the conquest of Trevor's Star to free up fighting power, not glue it in place, but until the forts were ready, the Admiralty refused to reduce Third Fleet in any way.

No, that's not fair, he reminded himself. In fact, Kuzak's command had already been reduced by over twenty ships of the wall, but those units had all been returned to the RMN's central dockyards for desperately needed maintenance. None had been released for operations elsewhere . . . and none of Theodosia's remaining units would be detached to Eighth Fleet, either. Trevor's Star was the prize for which the RMN had fought for over three years, and no risk of surrendering it back to the Peeps could even be contemplated.

It'll be all right, he told himself. We're about to take the offensive again, and whatever McQueen and Theisman are thinking about, they've waited too long. Theisman doesn't have the mobile firepower to stop us—not with our advantages in EW and missiles, even if he does have their own version of the pods. Once we punch out Barnett, anything else they may be thinking about will have to be rethought in reaction to Eighth Fleet's operations. We've taken far too long about it, but it looks like we've preempted them after all.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But how will pissing them off stop them?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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