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Chapter Two

It was very late, and Leonard Boardman really should have been on his way home for a well-earned drink before supper. Instead, he leaned back in his comfortable chair and felt a fresh glow of pride as he watched the HD in his office replay Honor Harrington's execution yet again. It was, he admitted with becoming modesty, a true work of art—and well it should be, after over two weeks of fine-tuning by Public Information's best programmers. Boardman wouldn't have had a clue where to start on the technical aspects of building something like that, yet it had been his script and direction which the special effects experts had followed, and he was well-satisfied with his handiwork.

He watched it all the way through again, then switched off the HD with a small smile. Those few minutes of imagery not only filled him with a craftsman's satisfaction; they also represented a major victory over First Deputy Director of Public Information Eleanor Younger. Younger had wanted to seize the opportunity to attack Manty morale by having their computer-generated Harrington blubber, beg for mercy, and fight her executioners madly as she was dragged to the scaffold, but Boardman had held out against her arguments. They had plenty of file imagery of other executions to use as a basis, and they'd had stacks of HD chips of Harrington from the imagery Cordelia Ransom had shipped home to Haven before her unfortunate departure—in every sense of the word—for the Cerberus System. The techs had been confident that they could generate a virtual Harrington which would do anything Younger wanted and defy detection as a fake—after all, they'd produced enough "corrected" imagery over the last T-century—yet Boardman had been less certain. The Solarian news services had proven themselves too credulous to run checks on those corrections, but the Manties' were much more skeptical. And their computer capability was better across the board than the People's Republic's, so if they saw any reason to subject the imagery to intensive analysis, they were all too likely to realize it was a fraud. But by letting her die with dignity—with just enough physical evidence of terror to undermine her reputation as some sort of fearless superhero—Boardman had executed a much subtler attack on Manty morale . . . and given it that ring of reality which should preclude any analysis. After all, if someone was going to go to all the trouble of producing false imagery, then surely they would have taken the opportunity to make their victim look smaller and more contemptible, wouldn't they? But they hadn't. This imagery felt right, without heaping gratuitous belittlement on Harrington's memory, which meant it offered nothing to make anyone on the other side question or doubt it for a moment.

That was important to Boardman as a matter of pride in workmanship, but even more significantly, his victory over Younger had to have strengthened his chances of outmaneuvering her to succeed Cordelia Ransom as Secretary of Public Information. He didn't fool himself into believing Ransom's successor would also inherit the power she had wielded within the Committee of Public Safety, but just the ministry itself would enormously enhance Boardman's personal power . . . and, with it, his chance of surviving and even prospering in the snake pit atmosphere of the city of Nouveau Paris.

Of course, the additional responsibilities which that power and authority would entail would pose fresh perils of their own, but every member of the bureaucracy's upper echelons faced that sort of hazard every day. The Committee of Public Safety and, especially, the Office of State Security, had a nasty habit of removing those who disappointed them. . . permanently. It wasn't as bad as it was in the military (or had been, before Esther McQueen took over as Secretary of War), but everyone knew someone who had vanished into StateSec's clutches for lack of performance in the People's cause.

But blame flowed downhill, Boardman reminded himself. And it would be much easier for Citizen Secretary Boardman to divert blame to an underling—to, say First Deputy Assistant Younger—than it had been for Second Deputy Assistant Boardman to avoid the blame someone else wanted to divert to him.

He chuckled at the thought and decided he had time to watch the execution just one more time before he left for the night.


Esther McQueen was also working late.

As a concession to her new job description, she wore sober and severely tailored civilian clothing, not the admiral's uniform to which she was entitled, but the workload hadn't changed, and she pushed her chair back and rubbed her eyes wearily as she reached the end of the most recent report. There was another one awaiting her, and another after that, and another, in a paperwork queue which seemed to stretch all the way from her Octagan office here on Haven to the Barnett System. Just thinking about all those other reports made her feel even more fatigued, but she also felt something she had not felt very often in the last eight years: hope.

It remained a fragile thing, that hope, yet it was there. Not evident to everyone else, perhaps, and certainly not to her civilian overlords, but there for eyes that knew (and had access to all the data) to see.

The Manticoran Alliance's momentum had slowed . . . possibly even faltered, if that wasn't too strong a verb. It was as if they'd gathered all their resources for the final lunge at Trevor's Star but now, having taken that vitally important system away from the Republic, they'd shot their bolt. Before her recall to Haven, she had expected Admiral White Haven to keep right on coming and cut the Barnett System off at the ankles, but he hadn't. Indeed, current reports from the Naval Intelligence Section of StateSec had him still in Yeltsin trying to organize a brand-new fleet out of whatever odds and ends the Star Kingdom's allies could contribute. And given all the other reports she now had access to, she could see why.

The door to her office hissed open, and she looked up with a wry smile as Ivan Bukato stepped through it with a folder of data chips under his arm. Under the old regime, Bukato would have been the People's Navy's chief of naval operations, but the CNO slot had been eradicated along with the other "elitist" trappings of the Legislaturalists. Under the New Order, he was simply Citizen Admiral Bukato, who happened to have all the duties and very few of the perks Chief of Naval Operations Bukato would have had.

He paused just inside the door, eyebrows rising as he found her still behind her desk. He wasn't really surprised, for like her other subordinates, he'd long since realized she routinely worked even longer and harder hours than she demanded of anyone else, but he shook his head chidingly.

"You really should think about going home occasionally, Citizen Secretary," he said in a mild voice. "Getting a good night's sleep every once in a while would probably do your energy levels a world of good."

"There's still too much crap to be hosed out of the stables," she told him wryly, and he shrugged.

"That's as may be, but I tend to doubt that you cut yourself this short on sleep at the front."

She grunted like a moderately irate boor in acknowledgment of a direct hit. But there were major differences between running the Republic's entire war office and commanding a front-line fleet. A fleet commander could never be positive when an enemy task force might suddenly appear out of hyper and come slashing in to attack her command area. She always had to be alert, ready for the possibility and with enough reserve energy in hand to deal with it. But a secretary of war was weeks behind the front line. By the time a decision was bucked all the way back to her, there was seldom any point in shaving a few minutes, or hours—or even days—off her response time. If the problem was that time-critical, then either the people at the front had already solved it, or else they were dead, and either way, there was damn-all she could do to reassemble Humpty-Dumpty from here. No, McQueen's job was to provide general direction, select officers she thought had the best shot at carrying out the missions assigned to them, pick the targets to aim them at, and then figure out how to keep those homicidal idiots at StateSec off their backs and get them the material support they needed while they got on with said missions. If she could figure out, in her copious free time, how to rebuild the Navy's morale, offset the technological inferiority of its weapon systems, magically replace the dozens of battle squadrons it had lost since the war began, and find a way to divert Manty attention from taking the rest of the Republic away from the Committee of Public Safety, that was simply an added benefit.

She smiled wryly at the thought, tipped her chair back, and folded her arms behind her head as she regarded Bukato with bright green eyes. She was still getting to know him—Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just hadn't been so foolish as to let her shake up the existing chain of command by handpicking her senior subordinates herself—but they worked well enough together. And as his teasing tone had just indicated, he appeared to have begun feeling reasonably comfortable with her as his boss. Not that anyone would be stupid enough to let any discomfort with a superior show in the current People's Republic. Especially when that boss was also a junior member of the Committee of Public Safety.

"I probably should try to keep more regular hours," she agreed, unfolding one arm long enough to run a hand over her dark hair. "But somehow or other, I've got to get a handle on all the problems my predecessor let grow like weeds."

"With all due respect, Citizen Secretary, you've already cut through more of the undergrowth than I would have believed possible a few months ago. That being the case, I'd just as soon not see you collapse from overwork and leave me with the job of breaking in still another Secretary of War."

"I'll try to bear that in mind," she said dryly, and smiled at him. Yet even as she smiled, that hidden part of her brain wondered where his personal loyalties lay. It was damnably hard to tell these days . . . and critically important. On the surface, he was as hardworking, loyal, and reliable a subordinate as a woman could ask for, but surface impressions were dangerous. In fact, his apparent loyalty actually made her uneasy, for she was perfectly well aware that most of the officer corps regarded her as dangerously ambitious. She didn't blame them for that—since she was ambitious—and she normally managed to win over her direct subordinates despite her reputation. But it usually took longer than this, and she couldn't help wondering how much of his seeming ease with her was genuine.

"In the meantime, however," she went on, letting her chair snap forward and reaching out to rest one hand on the heap of data chips on her desk, "I still have to get the overall situation and its parameters fixed in my mind. You know, I'm still more than a little amazed to discover how true it really is that the people at the sharp end of the stick are too close to the shooting to see the big picture."

"I know." Bukato nodded. "Of course, it's also true that the COs at the front usually do have a much better grasp of their own separate parts of the 'big picture.'"

"You're right there," she agreed feelingly, remembering her own mammoth frustration—and fury—with her superiors when she'd been the one fighting desperately to hang onto Trevor's Star. "But the thing that surprised me most was that the Manties aren't pushing any harder than they are. Until I got a chance to review these—" she tapped the data chips again "—and realized just how thinly stretched they are."

"I tried to make that same point to Citizen Secretary Kline before his, um, departure," Bukato said. "But he never seemed to grasp what I was trying to tell him."

He slid his own chip folio into her In basket, walked over to the chair facing her desk, and cocked an eyebrow in question, and McQueen nodded for him to be seated.

"Thank you, Citizen Secretary," he said, folding his long, lanky body into the chair, then leaned back and crossed his legs. "I have to admit," he went on in a much more serious tone, "that was one reason I was glad to see you replace him. Obviously, the civilian government has to retain the ultimate authority over the People's military forces, but Citizen Secretary Kline didn't have any military background at all, and sometimes that made it a bit difficult to explain things to him."

McQueen nodded. Privately, she was more than a little surprised by Bukato's willingness to say anything that could be taken as a criticism of the former citizen secretary. To be sure, Kline's removal from office was a sign he'd fallen out of favor, but Bukato had to be as aware as she was that StateSec must have bugged her office, and anything that even hinted that a senior officer harbored doubts about or contempt for a political superior could have dire consequences. Of course, he had covered himself with his pious observation about civilian authority, she reminded herself.

"I'd like to think that that's one difficulty you won't experience in our working relationship," she told him.

"I certainly don't expect to, Citizen Secretary. For one thing, as a serving officer in your own right, you know just how big the galaxy really is . . . and how much defensive depth we still have."

"I do. At the same time, however, I also know that we can't afford to keep on giving ground forever if we don't want morale to crumble," she pointed out. "And that applies to the civilians, as well as the military. The Fleet can't win this thing without the support of the civilian sector, and if the civilians decide there's no point in supporting people who just keep falling back—" She shrugged.

"Of course we can't," Bukato agreed. "But every system we lose is one more the Manties have to picket, and every light-year they advance inside the frontiers is another light-year of logistical strain."

"True. On the other hand, capturing Trevor's Star has already simplified their logistics immensely. Sooner or later, that's going to show up in their deployments."

"Um." It was Bukato's turn to grimace and nod. The capture of Trevor's Star had given the Manticoran Alliance possession of every terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction, which meant Manty freighters could now make the voyage from the Star Kingdom's home system to the front virtually instantaneously . . . and with no possibility of interception.

"No doubt it will show up eventually, Citizen Secretary," he said after a moment, "but for the moment, it's not going to help them a whole hell of a lot. They still have to cover the same defensive volume with the same number of available warships. Maybe even more importantly, they have to make certain they hold Trevor's Star after all the time and trouble they spent taking it in the first place. From my own reading of the intelligence reports, that's the real reason they sent White Haven off to organize an entirely new fleet at Yeltsin. They're keeping almost all of his old fleet right there at Trevor's Star to protect it."

"You're right," McQueen agreed. "For now, at least, it is distracting them from more offensive activities. But it's a dynamic situation, not a static one. By holding the system, they remove the threat of an invasion of the Manties' home system down the Junction. And that means they can start standing down those damned forts they built to cover the central terminus, which is going to free up one hell of a lot of trained manpower."

"But not immediately," Bukato countered with a smile, and McQueen smiled back. Neither of them had yet said anything astonishingly brilliant or insightful, but this sort of brainstorming had become a rarity in the current People's Navy. "Even if they shut the forts down tomorrow—or yesterday, for that matter—they can't actually use the fresh manpower against us until they build the ships for those people to crew."

"Exactly!" McQueen's eyes sparkled. "Of course, they can still build ships faster than we can. But we still have a lot more building slips than they do and our construction rates are going up. It may take us longer to build a given ship than it takes them, but as long as we can work on building more of them at the same time we've got a shot at matching their construction rate in total numbers of hulls. Add that to the fact that we can crew as many ships as we can build, whereas they have a hell of a lot smaller population base, and the 'big battalions' are still on our side . . . for now. But that infusion of additional crewmen from the forts is going to fuel one hell of a growth spurt in their front-line strength a year or so down the line. What we have to do is find a way to use the distraction aspect of their commitment at Trevor's Star against them before they can use the benefits of its possession against us."

"Ah?" Bukato cocked his head. "You sound as if you have a way to use it in mind," he observed slowly.

"I do . . . maybe," McQueen admitted. "One of the things I've just been reading over was the availability numbers on our battleships." Bukato grimaced before he could stop himself, and she chuckled. "I know—I know! Every single time someone's come up with a brilliant idea about how to use them, we've ended up with less battleships when the wreckage cooled. And, frankly, we lost an awful lot of them in the run up to Trevor's Star simply because we had no choice but to commit them to defensive actions against dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts. But I was surprised to see how many we have left. If we strip the eastern sectors down to bedrock, we could assemble quite a fleet of them to support a core of real ships of the wall."

"You're thinking in terms of a counterattack," Bukato said quietly.

"I am," McQueen agreed. It was the first time she'd said a word about it to anyone, and intense interest flickered in Bukato's dark, deepset eyes. "I'm going to keep the exact point where I want to launch it my own little secret for a while longer," she told him, "but one of the jobs Citizen Chairman Pierre gave me was to improve the Fleet's morale. Well, if we can knock the damn Manties back on their heels at a place of our own choosing, even if it's only briefly, we should make a running start on that particular chore. It wouldn't hurt civilian morale, either, and that doesn't even count what it would do to Manty morale . . . or their future deployment considerations."

"I'd certainly have to agree with that, Citizen Secretary," Bukato said. "The tech transfers from the Solarian League have helped shake some of our people loose from their sense of inferiority, but most of them are still too defensive minded for my taste. We need more admirals like Tourville and Theisman, and we need to give them the support they require, then turn them loose."

"Um." McQueen nodded, but she couldn't hide a frown of displeasure as mention of Lester Tourville and Thomas Theisman reminded her of the whole Honor Harrington episode. She saw a flicker of concern flash across Bukato's face as her expression altered and quickly banished the grimace before he could decide it was directed at him for some reason.

And it's not as if the affair was a total disaster, she reminded herself. You know damned well Ransom was going to purge Tourville and his entire staff—if not Theisman as well—for trying to protect Harrington from StateSec. At least the paranoid bitch managed to get her worthless ass killed before she did any more damage to the Fleet! And it also means I don't have to fight her tooth and nail over every tiny move I make, either. On the other hand, StateSec is treating Tourville and his people as if they were the ones who killed her! Count Tilly's been back from Cerberus for almost four months now, and her entire crew's still sequestered while Saint-Just's security goons "investigate" the episode. Idiots!

"I realize Citizen Admiral Theisman is still a bit . . . old-fashioned," Bukato said, responding to her frown, "but his record in combat is exemplary, Citizen Secretary, and the same is true of Tourville. I hope you don't intend to let any rumors or partial reports keep you from—"

"Relax, Citizen Admiral," McQueen said, waving a hand in the air between them, and he shut his mouth quickly. "You don't have to sell me on Tourville or Tom Theisman—not as fleet commanders, anyway. And I have no intention of making them any sort of fall guys for what happened to Citizen Secretary Ransom. Whatever anyone else might think, I know—and I've seen to it that Citizen Chairman Pierre and Citizen Secretary Saint-Just know, as well—that none of what happened was their fault." Or I think I've made certain of that, at any rate. Saint-Just says he's more worried about keeping Tilly's crew "out of the public eye until we make Cordelia's death official," at least. Whether he actually means it or not, though . . .

She studied Bukato a moment, then shrugged mentally. She was doing all she could for Tourville, and it wasn't the very smartest thing she could discuss with Bukato. But perhaps the time had come to test the waters with him in a different way.

"I only wish I could have convinced the Committee to countermand Citizen Secretary Ransom's plans for Harrington," she said. "We might have avoided the entire mess if she'd been willing to let the Navy have custody of Harrington instead of dragging her off to Camp Charon to hang her!"

Bukato's eyes widened at the genuine vitriol in the last sentence. The new Secretary of War was taking a major chance in offering a subordinate access to her inner thoughts—especially if those thoughts were critical of the Committee of Public Safety or any of its members, present or past. Of course, it could also be—in fact, it almost certainly was—a test of him as well. The problem was that he didn't know exactly what he was being tested for. Loyalty to the Committee, which might be demonstrated by denouncing her? Or loyalty to the Navy and his service superior (assuming that those weren't actually two quite different things), which might be demonstrated by keeping his mouth shut?

"I wasn't privy to that decision, Citizen Secretary," he said very slowly, choosing his words with exquisite care. Then he decided to throw out a feeler of his own. "Nonetheless, it did seem . . . questionable to me."

"Not to me," McQueen snorted. She saw a flash of anxiety in his eyes and grinned tightly. "It seemed goddamned stupid to me," she said, "and I told Citizen Chairman Pierre and Citizen Secretary Saint-Just as much at the time."

Surprised respect showed in Bukato's expression, and she hid a chuckle. She hadn't expressed herself quite that candidly to them, but she'd come close to it. If StateSec listened to the audio chips she was sure they were making, her version would be near enough to Saint-Just's recollections (or the chips he might have made of that meeting, assuming he was sufficiently paranoid for that—and he was) to stay on the safe side of accurate. And from the look on Bukato's face, her willingness to be candid with him on such a topic had just raised her stock with him considerably.

"Mind you, it wasn't their idea, and I don't think they cared for it, either," she went on, always conscious of those hidden microphones. "But she was a member of the Committee, and she'd already dumped the story and her intention to execute Harrington into the Solly news feeds. And that whole Leveler business was barely four T-months old at the time. I don't have to tell you how that had shaken things up, and they felt their only choice was to back her up rather than risk having the rest of the galaxy think we had potentially serious divisions at the top or invite another coup attempt from our domestic enemies. Which is also why they had Public Information fake up that whole hanging scene."

"I have to admit, I didn't quite understand the reasoning behind that," Bukato said. "I hope you'll pardon me for saying this, but it seemed gratuitous to me."

"'Gratuitous,'" McQueen snorted. "In some ways, that's not a bad word for it, I suppose. And I imagine it will motivate at least some of the Manties to seek revenge. But the decision was made over at Public Information, and I'd have to say that PubIn was the proper place for it to be made. They're in a better position to judge its effect on civilian and neutral opinion than those of us in the Navy are."

Somehow the bitter twist of her mouth didn't quite match her thoughtful, serious tone, and Bukato was surprised by the sparkle of laughter he felt deep inside. No doubt anyone listening to the chips would hear exactly what she wanted them to, but she did have a way of getting her actual meaning across anyway.

And I suppose there was a little rationality in faking Harrington's execution, he thought. At least this way we don't have to admit that—what? thirty?—POWs staging an unsuccessful jail break managed to completely destroy an entire battlecruiser all by themselves! God only knows what making that public knowledge would do to our morale, even if it was only a StateSec ship. Not to mention what the damage to StateSec's reputation for invincibility might do the next time they got ready to suppress some poor bastards. And whether we hanged her or not, she's still dead. We couldn't bring her back even if we wanted to, so I guess we might as well get a little propaganda mileage out of it if we can. And assuming it was the sort of mileage we wanted in the first place. If it was.

He shook free of his thoughts and looked at the new Secretary of War again, trying to read what was going on behind those green eyes of hers. He knew her reputation, of course. Everyone did. But so far he'd seen remarkably little evidence of her famed political ambition, and she'd accomplished more to straighten out the Navy's mess in the bare six T-months since being officially named Secretary of War than Kline had managed in over four T-years. The professional naval officer in Ivan Bukato couldn't help admiring—and appreciating that—yet he sensed a crossroads looming in his own future. She hadn't just happened to come out of her shell tonight. She really was testing him, and if he let himself be drawn into a feeling of loyalty to her, the consequences could prove . . . unfortunate. Even fatal.

And yet . . .

"I understand, Ma'am," he said quietly, and saw her eyes flicker. It was the first time he'd used the traditional, "elitist" courtesy instead of calling her "Citizen Secretary." Technically, she was entitled to it as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, but staying away from the form of address the Navy had been denied among its own ever since the Harris Assassination had seemed the better part of valor.

"I'm glad you do, Ivan," she said after a moment, and saw the answering understanding in his eyes as she used his given name for the very first time. The first step of the intricate dance had been accomplished. Neither of them could be certain yet where the dance would end, but the first step was always the most important one. Yet it was also time to cover her backside just a little more, and she smiled sardonically at Bukato even as she made her voice come out seriously and thoughtfully. "We're going to have to make some pretty tough decisions of our own when it comes to recommending purely military policy. I realize political and diplomatic decisions are going to have an impact on the military equation, but frankly, until we get our own shop up and running properly, I'm delighted that I don't have to concern myself with nonmilitary policy. Time enough to worry about fine-tuning our coordination with the diplomats once we're confident we can hold the Manty bastards where they are!"

"Of course, Ma'am," Bukato agreed, and the two of them smiled thinly at one another.


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