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Chapter Three

Long experience had taught Petty Officer first-class Scott Smith to collect his battered locker from the heap outside the personnel shuttle's cargo tube, activate its counter-grav, and tow it safely out of the way before he did anything else. Only after accomplishing that did he look for the directions board. His searching eyes found it, and he crossed the concourse to it, then kept one hand resting lightly on the locker as he studied the flashing information. There it was: HMS Candice, the same name as on his transfer orders. He grimaced. He still didn't have the least damned idea what a "Candice" was, but he didn't like the ring of it.

Sounds like the candied-apple kind of name that should belong to some damned armed merchant escort, he snorted mentally. Or maybe a tender. A tug? He shrugged irritably. Hell of a name for a warship, anyway. And why the hell couldn't they just leave me aboard Leutzen? It took me three damned T-years to get that slot, and now they yank me out of it for God knows what.

He grimaced again, but orders were orders. He double-checked the display for the right color-coded guide strip and set glumly off through the bowels of Her Majesty's Space Station Weyland for his destination.


Lieutenant Michael Gearman watched the tallish, fair-haired PO 1/c walking down the color guide in front of him and cocked an eyebrow in speculation. He and the noncom had arrived on the same shuttle, and he wondered if they were headed for the same destination. It seemed probable, but Weyland was a big place—not as large as Vulcan or Hephaestus, but still the better part of thirty kilometers long. It was also tucked away orbiting Gryphon, otherwise known as Manticore-B-V, which had caused a few of Gearman's hospital buddies to groan in sympathy when they heard about his travel orders. Gryphon was the least Earth-like of the Manticore System's three habitable planets. It had required far more terraforming than Manticore or Sphinx, and its extreme axial tilt gave its weather an unenviable reputation among the inhabitants of its sister planets. Worse, from the viewpoint of certain Navy hotshots, its sparsely scattered population was noted for regarding the sissies who lived on the Star Kingdom's other worlds with a certain contempt. That attitude, unfortunately, carried over into the local civilians' attitude towards visiting military personnel in search of diversion and, coupled with the lack of anything like real cities, left those same military personnel with a limited selection of off-duty entertainment possibilities.

But that was all right with Gearman. After nineteen months of regen therapy, he'd had about all the leave he could stand. He was eager to get back to work, and whatever his commiserating friends might have to say about Manticore-B's being the armpit of the Manticore Binary System, he suspected his new assignment might be far more interesting than they expected. It had become traditional over the last twenty or thirty T-years for the Royal Navy to assign its more sensitive R&D prototypes to Weyland's technical support teams, mainly because the secondary component of the binary system saw so much less foreign shipping traffic. Manticore-B's massive asteroid belts supported a very heavy industrial presence, and huge freighters hauled both finished components and massive loads of raw materials from its orbital smelters to Manticore-A. But the main freight transshipment points for the Star Kingdom orbited either Manticore or Sphinx, and that was where the vast majority of the out-kingdom shipping stayed. For the most part, Gryphon was served even in peacetime by short-haul Manticoran-flag freighters which plied back and forth between it and the rest of the Star Kingdom, and the Navy had made the complete prohibition of non-Manticoran hulls in Manticore-B space official once the shooting started.

Which was why BuShips and BuWeaps liked building and testing prototypes at Weyland. The Office of Naval Intelligence still couldn't guarantee secrecy, but at least the Fleet didn't have to worry about which putatively neutral freighters in the area were actually spying for the Peeps. Not that Gearman had any hard evidence that his assignment was to any such hush-hush project. On the other hand, he'd checked the last available ship list when he got his new orders, and there was no "HMS Candice" on it. Of course, the names of new construction were pretty much classified since the war had begun, and someone of his rank hardly had access to the latest, most up-to-date information. But the fact that the name didn't appear on any of the prewar lists suggested that whatever else Candice was, she had to be less than eight years old. (Or, a corner of his mind insisted upon adding, a merchant conversion bought in after the war began. Bleh.) Add that to the fact that his orders had given him absolutely no hint of what his duties aboard her would be (which was, to say the least, unusual), and all sorts of interesting possibilities began to trickle through his mind.

He grinned at his own imagination and walked briskly onward.



PO Smith looked up in astonishment as someone shouted his nickname, and then he grinned widely as a familiar face blended out of the crowd. The short, hairy, apelike, amazingly ugly man looked as if he ought to walk on his knuckles. He also wore undress coveralls like Smith's own, with the same three chevrons on his sleeve, and the name patch above his breast pocket said "Maxwell, Richard."

"Well, well! If it isn't the Man Who Dropped the Spanner!" Smith observed, reaching out to shake a hirsute paw, and Maxwell grimaced.

"Give me a break, Scooter! That was—what? Six damn T-years ago?"

"Really?" Smith's gray eyes glinted devilishly. "It seems like just yesterday. Maybe that was because the results were so . . . spectacular. And expensive. I don't get to see a drive room main bus bar short out everyday, you know."

"Oh, yeah? Well, one of these days I'm gonna be there when you screw the pooch, Scooter!"

"In your dreams, Silver Spanner. In your dreams."

"Pride goeth, buddy," Maxwell said darkly.

"Ha!" Smith deactivated his locker's counter-grav and let it sink to the deck, then looked around curiously. He'd expected the deck guide to lead him to Candice's slip; instead, it had deposited him in a cavernous boat bay gallery, which indicated his new ship wasn't currently docked with the space station, and he cocked an eyebrow at Maxwell.

"You got any idea what it is we're up to, Maxie?" he asked much more seriously. "I asked around, but the people I talked to knew zero-zip about it."

"Dunno," Maxwell admitted, removing his black beret to scratch the right side of his head. "Friend of mine in BuShips told me the Candice is a new, long-range repair ship—a high-speed job, like maybe she's designed to go in the fleet train for a cruiser raiding force or something. Aside from that, I don't know a damned thing. Hell, I don't even know what I'm gonna be doing once I get aboard!"

"You neither, huh?" Smith frowned. RMN personnel orders usually contained at least a brief section on the duty slot one was to be assigned to, not just a ship name with no additional information. Leaving that out of one set of orders could have been simple bureaucratic sloppiness; leaving it out of two started sounding a lot more like a deliberate security measure. But if Candice was only a repair ship, even some new, hot-shot model, then what was there to be secretive about? And if—

"Attention Personnel Draft Seven-Seven-Six-Two," the voice of the boat bay officer crackled suddenly from the gallery speakers. "First call for transportation to HMS Candice. The shuttle will depart in fifteen minutes from Personnel Tube Blue Four. Repeat. Transportation to HMS Candice will depart in fifteen minutes from Personnel Tube Blue Four."

"Guess we better get going," Maxwell observed, and the two of them set off down the gallery, towing their lockers behind them. Smith was in the lead as they approached the designated personnel tube, and he groaned aloud as he saw what rested in the docking buffers on the other side of the thick armorplast wall.

"What?" Maxwell asked, unable to see around his taller friend, and Smith sighed.

"It's a damned trash hauler," he said glumly. "Crap! You'd think they could at least give us a shuttle with windows!"

"A shuttle's a shuttle," Maxwell said with a dismissive shrug. "I don't need windows. I've already seen a space station, and I've already seen a repair ship. All I hope is the run over is long enough for me to get a little shuteye."

"Maxie, you're a cretin," Smith said sourly.

"'Course I am!" Maxwell agreed cheerfully, then frowned in sudden suspicion. "What's a cretin?" he demanded.



Captain Alice Truman watched the remote view on her briefing room display as the knife-edged command cut through the confused hum which had filled the gallery of HMS Minotaur's Boat Bay Three. The newest draft of enlisted and noncommissioned personnel for Project Anzio snapped to attention along the lines painted on the deck with spinal reflex suddenness, their speculations about their new assignments slashed off by the familiar command. The woman who had given it had three chevrons and three rockers on the sleeve of her immaculate uniform. The golden anchor of a boatswain's mate floated between them, instead of the star most branches used, and the uppermost rocker carried the embroidered crown which marked her as a senior master chief, the highest noncommissioned rank the RMN offered. Now she looked the block of silent men and women over with an utterly expressionless face, then folded her hands behind her and paced slowly down the length of the block's front row. She reached the end, paused rocking on her heels, then stalked back to the center of the row and smiled thinly.

"Welcome aboard your new ship," she told them in a pronounced Gryphon accent. "My name is McBride. Bosun McBride." Her audience was silent, digesting the fact that she had just announced that she was the senior noncommissioned member of their new ship's company and, as such, the direct designated representative of God, and she smiled once more. "For those of you who have not already figured this out, you are not aboard a repair ship. Nor will you be aboard a repair ship. No doubt this is deeply disturbing to you, and I know all you poor little lost lambs are confused and curious about what you're doing here. Well, I'm sure the Skipper feels nothing in the universe could possibly be more important than explaining it all to you. Unfortunately, she has a ship to run, and she's just a little busy at the moment, so I'm afraid you're going to have to make do with me, instead. Does anyone have a problem with that?"

A falling pin would have sounded like an anvil in the silence that answered her, and her smile became something like a grin.

"I didn't think anyone would." She raised her right hand and snapped her fingers, and half a dozen petty officers stepped forward with memo boards under their arms. "When you hear your name called, answer to it and fall in behind whoever called it," she went on more briskly. "They'll get you 1logged into quarters and give you your slots on the watch bill. Don't drag ass about getting yourselves squared away, either, people! There will be an orientation briefing for all new personnel at twenty-one-hundred, and I will be checking attendance."

McBride gazed out over the newcomers for another ten seconds, then nodded, and a brawny senior chief stepped up beside her and keyed his board alive.

"Abramowitz, Carla!" he read.

"Yo!" A woman near the rear of the formation raised a hand and stepped forward with her locker while people moved apart in front of her to let her pass.

"Carter, Jonathan!" the senior chief read, and Truman switched off the display and looked up as her executive officer ushered two lieutenants, one a JG, and a lieutenant commander into her briefing room.

"Our new arrivals, Ma'am." Like the Bosun, Commander Haughton was from Gryphon, although his accent was less severe, and Truman cocked her golden-haired head as the three officers formed a line in front of the clear-topped briefing room conference table and came to attention. She could see burning curiosity in all three sets of eyes and hid a small, amused smile.

"Lieutenant Commander Barbara Stackowitz, reporting for duty, Ma'am!" the gray-eyed, brown-haired woman at the end of the line said crisply, and Truman nodded to her, then looked at the next officer in line.

"Lieutenant Michael Gearman, reporting for duty, Captain," he said. He was dark-haired and eyed, thin and just a little stooped looking, and there was an aura of intensity about him. Truman nodded once more and cocked an eyebrow at the final newcomer.

"Lieutenant Ernest Takahashi, reporting for duty, Ma'am!" Takahashi was small, even darker than Gearman, and wiry, with eyes so dark brown they looked black. He was also the most junior of the three new arrivals, and though his curiosity was as evident as that of the other two, there was a sort of relaxed confidence in his body language. Not complacency, but the look of someone who was used to getting things right the first time.

"At ease, people," Truman said after a moment, and watched their shoulders relax. She smiled and glanced at the exec. "Paperwork all in order, John?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Your yeoman has it now."

"Good." Truman smiled. "I feel confident that Chief Mantooth will dispose of it with all her customary efficiency." She looked back at the newcomers, then waved a hand at the chairs facing her from the far end of the table.

"Sit," she said, and they obeyed.

She tipped her own chair back and let herself consider them afresh while her mind went back over the personnel uploads she'd already studied.

Stackowitz was a tac branch officer who was supposed to be some sort of missile genius. The fact that she'd served a hitch as CO of a light attack craft was icing on the cake. She was earmarked for a slot on Captain (Junior-Grade) Jacquelyn Harmon's staff, but Truman planned to borrow her quite often. Her oval face was strong boned, with a firm mouth and level eyes. At the moment, she seemed a little tense, almost edgy, but that was understandable enough. Not one of these people had been given the slightest hint of what their new assignments were all about, and though the shuttle's lack of view ports had kept them from getting a glimpse of their new ship on approach, they had to have begun to realize they were aboard a most unusual vessel.

Gearman, on the other hand, was almost calm looking. He was clearly curious, but his intensity was a deeper thing, not a reflection of anxiety. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it focus, Truman mused. He was also deeply and darkly tanned—thanks, no doubt, to the rehab camp to which Bassingford Medical Center's physical therapists had sent him to complete his recovery. She'd watched him carefully when he walked into the office, and there was no limp at all to indicate the left leg he'd lost when Peep fire put the superdreadnought Ravensport permanently out of the war at First Nightingale. He'd been Ravensport's third engineer, but before that, as a JG, he'd spent almost a year as a LAC engineering officer.

And then there was Takahashi. Only a lieutenant (junior-grade), he was here because he'd graduated number one in his class from Kreskin Field Flight School (despite an awesome award of demerits over a certain incident concerning the Kreskin flight simulators) and then displayed a dazzling natural ability at the controls of every small craft he'd touched since leaving the Academy. His last post had been as an assault shuttle section leader aboard the big Marine attack transport Leutzen, where his piloting virtuosity had no doubt been properly appreciated. Under other circumstances, he would probably have stayed there for at least another year, but Truman and Project Anzio had first call on his talents.

"All right," she said finally, breaking the silence before it became intimidating, "first, allow me to welcome all of you aboard the Minotaur." Stackowitz blinked, and Truman smiled crookedly. "There is indeed an HMS Candice," she assured them, "but I very much doubt any of you will ever set foot aboard her. She's also a prototype of sorts, but a repair ship, not a warship. She's currently assigned to Weyland for evaluation and to serve as the training vessel for similar follow-on units, but she's usually out swanning around somewhere else in the local system to give her trainees lots of practice. She also has a complement of around six thousand, which, coupled with her erratic movement schedule, makes her an excellent cover for us. People don't wonder why new drafts have to be shuttled out to her, and her crew's big enough—and transient enough—that we can cycle quite a lot of people through without anyone noticing it."

Truman let that sink in, and the three junior officers glanced at one another, eyes busy with speculation. She watched them calmly, comparing their reactions to those of all the other officers with whom she'd had this same discussion. So far, they were about standard.

"There really is a reason for all the secrecy, people," she told them quietly after a moment. "In a few minutes, Commander Haughton—" she nodded at the blond, brown-eyed exec, who had seated himself at her right hand "—will see to it that each of you gets introduced to your department heads, who will give you a more detailed description of what we're doing and what your specific duties will be. Given the nature of our job here, however, I prefer to handle my new officers' initial briefings myself, so make yourselves comfortable."

She smiled as they settled back in their chairs. Takahashi was the only one who looked anything like genuinely relaxed, but the other two made a good show of obeying her injunction, and she let her own chair come back upright and folded her hands on the table before her.

"Minotaur is the first unit of a new, experimental class," she told them. "I realize you didn't get a look at her before you came aboard, so here she is now." She pressed a button on the keyboard at her data terminal, and a razor-sharp holo image appeared above the table. Heads turned as her newest subordinates looked, and she saw Stackowitz's eyes narrow in surprise.

Truman didn't blame her, for no one had ever seen another ship quite like HMS Minotaur. She was obviously a warship—she had the telltale hammerhead ends—and she massed almost exactly six million tons. That put her in the upper third of the dreadnought range, yet even a casual glance was enough to tell anyone that whatever Minotaur might be, she was certainly no dreadnought. The rows of enormous hatches on her flanks were much too big to be normal broadside weapons bays, and they were arranged in a pattern whose like none of them had ever before seen.

"People," Truman said softly, "you have just become members of the crew of the first LAC-carrier of the Royal Manticoran Navy." Gearman's head whipped back around. He stared at her, and she smiled crookedly. "That's correct, Mr. Gearman. A LAC-carrier. May I assume you've at least heard rumors about the light attack craft our Q-ships have been using in Silesia?"

"Uh, yes, Ma'am," the lieutenant said after a brief glance at his fellow newcomers. "But 'rumors' are all I've heard. Nobody ever said anything about anything like . . . this." He gave a tiny wave towards the holo image, and Truman chuckled, but then her smile faded.

"If anyone had mentioned it to you, Mr. Gearman, he or she would have been in violation of the Official Secrets Act. A restriction, by the way, which now applies to each of you. You are now officially assigned to Project Anzio, and our job is to get Minotaur—and her LAC wing—on-line, and then to prove the concept. In order to even further safeguard security on this endeavor, we will be leaving for Hancock Station as soon as our first two squadrons of LACs have come on board. The fleet base there will support our efforts, and since ours are the only people with any interest in Hancock these days, sending us there should keep 'neutral' eyes from seeing us and running home to Nouveau Paris to tattle. Clear?"

Heads nodded, and she let her chair tip back once more.

"Good," she said, and waved at the holo image. "As you can see, Minotaur—and, by the way, none of you had better let me hear you refer to her as 'the Minnie'—is an unusual design. Originally, BuShips wanted to build a much smaller experimental model with which to prove the concept, but the projections always called for a dreadnought-sized hull for the final units, and Vice Admiral Adcock sold Admiral Danvers on building her full size. His exact words, I believe, were "The best scale for an experiment is ten millimeters to the centimeter!'" She smiled again. "So here we are.

"As I'm sure you've noticed," she went on in the tones of a Saganami Island lecturer as she stood and used an old-fashioned light-pointer to pick out details on the holo, "she has no broadside armament at all—aside from her LACs, of course. She masses just under six million tons, with an overall length of two-point-two klicks and a maximum beam of three hundred and sixty-seven meters. Our offensive shipboard armament is restricted to our chase mounts, which, however, are quite heavy: four grasers and nine missile tubes each, fore and aft. On the broadside, we mount only anti-missile defenses and the LAC bays, which—at the moment—are empty."

Lieutenant Commander Stackowitz frowned, and Truman chuckled. The tac officer looked up quickly at the sound, and the captain smiled at her.

"Don't worry, Commander. We do have a main battery . . . and the first part of it is almost ready to embark. But the Powers That Be felt—correctly, I think—that Minotaur needed a shakedown cruise of her own. That's what we've spent the last two T-months doing while the Hauptman and Jankowski cartels finished building our LACs at Hauptman's Unicorn Yard."

Understanding flickered in the eyes of all three newcomers. The Unicorn Belt was the innermost—and richest—of Manticore-B's three asteroid belts, and the Hauptman Cartel's Gryphon Minerals, Ltd., subsidiary owned about thirty percent of it outright, with long-term leases on another third. The cartel had built enormous extraction centers and smelters to service its mining operations, and there had been persistent rumors even before the war that Hauptman Yards, Ltd., the shipbuilding unit of the mighty cartel, had been using its Unicorn Yard to build experimental Navy units well away from prying eyes. And the Jankowski Cartel, though far smaller than Hauptman's, was highly specialized and a major player in the Navy's R&D operations in its own right.

In fact, Gearman thought, Jankowski's who handled the major share of R&D on adapting the Grayson compensator design for the Fleet, aren't they?

"Minotaur's core ship's company is only six hundred and fifty," Truman went on, and her new subordinates blinked, for that was barely seventy percent of the crew assigned to most heavy cruisers five percent her size. "We've managed this by building in a much higher degree of automation than BuShips was prepared to accept prewar, and, of course, by eliminating all broadside weapons. In addition, we carry only a single company of Marines instead of the battalion normally assigned to a DN or an SD. On the other hand, our current TO&E calls for us to embark approximately three hundred additional shipboard personnel to provide permanent engineering and tactical support to the LAC wing. That, Commander Stackowitz, is where you will come in."

The dark-haired woman cocked an eyebrow and Truman showed her teeth.

"You have a reputation as a real hotshot at missile tactics, Commander, and I understand you spent six months attached to Project Ghost Rider. Is that correct?"

Stackowitz hesitated a moment, then nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am, I did," she said. "But that entire project is very tightly classified. I don't know if I should, well—" She gestured apologetically to the other officers present, and Truman nodded back at her.

"Your caution is admirable, Commander, but these gentlemen will become quite familiar with Ghost Rider over the next few weeks. For our sins, we're slated to play test bed for the first fruits of that project, as well. That can wait until later, however. For the moment, what matters is that while you'll be an asset to Minotaur's own tactical department because of your, um, special knowledge, your primary duty assignment will be as Tac-One to the LAC wing."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"As for you, Lieutenant Gearman," Truman went on, turning to the tanned engineer, "you're slated for the squadron engineer's slot in Gold Squadron. That's the command element for the wing, and I imagine you'll be serving as Captain Harmon's engineer aboard Gold One, as well. That seems to be the way things are shaping up, at any rate."

"Yes, Ma'am." Gearman nodded sharply, thoughts already whirring behind his eyes as he contemplated his new, totally unexpected assignment.

"And as for you, Lieutenant Takahashi," Truman went on, fixing the junior-grade lieutenant with a stern eye, "you're slated as Gold One's helmsman. From what I've seen of your record, I expect you'll be playing a major part in setting up the basic software for the simulators, as well, and I strongly advise you not to incorporate any elements from that 'surprise scenario' you put together for Kreskin Field."

"Yes, Ma'am! I mean, no, Ma'am. Of course not!" Takahashi said quickly, but he also grinned hugely at the thought of the marvelous new toys the Navy was going to let him play with, and Truman glanced up at Commander Haughton. The exec only shook his head in resignation, and she laughed mentally at his expression as he contemplated the beatifically smiling young lieutenant.

"All right," Truman said more briskly, recapturing her audience's attention, "here's what our LACs will look like."

She punched more buttons, and Minotaur's holo vanished. A new image replaced it almost instantly—a sleek, lethal shape that looked as if it should have come from deep water with a mouth full of fangs—and all three of the junior officers straightened in their chair as its unconventionality registered.

The most immediately obvious point about it was that, except for the absence of anything remotely like an airfoil, the sharp-prowed vessel looked more like an enormously overgrown pinnace than a normal LAC, for it lacked the flared, hammerhead bow and stern of all impeller-drive warships. The next point to penetrate was that it had absolutely no broadside weapons bays—or point defense stations. But perhaps the most astounding point of all almost sneaked past unnoticed, for the vessel in that holo image had only half as many impeller nodes as it should have. No LAC was hyper-capable, so there had never been any need to fit them with the alpha nodes of true starships. But for over six centuries, a full strength drive ring for any impeller warship had mounted sixteen beta nodes. Everyone knew that.

Except that this LAC didn't. There were only eight nodes in each of its rings, although they looked a little larger than they should have been.

"This, people," Truman said, gesturing once more with the light-pointer, "is the lead unit of the Shrike-class. She masses twenty thousand tons, and, as I'm sure you've noticed," the pointer reached into the HD, "there have been some changes, including the omission of the standard hammerheads. That's because this vessel's primary energy armament is right here." The pointer touched the small ship's sleek prow. "A one-point-five-meter spinal mount equipped with the latest grav lenses," she told them, watching their eyes, "which permits her to carry a graser—not a laser—approximately as powerful as that mounted in our Homer-class battlecruisers."

Gearman sucked in sharply at that. Not surprisingly, Truman thought. Chase energy weapons were always among the most powerful any warship carried, but the graser she had just described had an aperture fifty-six percent greater than chasers mounted in most light cruisers twice her size. But she'd heard the same reaction from someone in almost every group she'd briefed on the new LACs, and she ignored the sound of surprise and continued in that same Saganami Island voice.

"The power of this weapon is made possible because it is the only offensive energy weapon she mounts, because her missile armament has been substantially downsized, because her impeller node mass has been cut by forty-seven percent, and because her crew is even smaller than that normally assigned to a LAC. Her entire complement will consist of only ten people, which allows a major reduction in life support tonnage. In addition, her normal reactor mass bunkerage has been omitted."

She paused, and Gearman looked at her with a very strange expression. She only waited, and finally he shook his head.

"Excuse me, Ma'am. Did you say her bunkerage had been omitted?"

"Aside from that required for her reaction thrusters, yes," Truman confirmed.

"But—" Gearman paused, then shrugged and took the plunge. "In that case, Ma'am, just what does she use to fuel her fusion plant?"

"She doesn't have one," Truman told him simply. "She uses a fission pile."

Three sets of eyebrows flew up as one, and Truman smiled thinly. Humanity had abandoned fission power as soon as reliable fusion plants became available. Not only had fusion posed less of a radiation danger, but hydrogen was one hell of a lot easier and safer (and cheaper) than fissionables to process. And, Truman knew, Old Earth's Neo-Luddite lunatics, who'd been doing their level best to abolish the very concept of technology as somehow inherently evil about the time fusion power first came along, had managed to brand fission power with the number of the beast as the emblem of all that was destructive and vile. Indeed, the rush to fusion had been something much more akin to a stampede, and unlike most of the claptrap the Neo-Luddites had spouted, fission power's evil reputation had stuck. Contemporary journalists had taken the negatives for granted at the time, since "everyone knew" they were true, and no popular historian had been particularly interested in reconsidering the evidence since, especially not when the technology was obsolete, anyway. So for most of the human race, the very concept of fission power was something out of a dark, primitive, vaguely dangerous, and only dimly remembered past.

"Yes, I said 'fission,'" Truman told them after giving them most of a minute to absorb it, "and it's another thing we've adapted from the Graysons. Unlike the rest of the galaxy, they still use fission plants, although they've reduced their reliance on them steadily for the last thirty or forty years. But Grayson—and, for that matter, Yeltsin's asteroid belts, as well—are lousy in heavy metals . . . and fissionables. They'd bootstrapped their way back to fission power by the time of their Civil War, and by the time the rest of us stumbled across them again and reintroduced them to fusion, they'd taken their fission technology to levels of efficiency no one else had ever attained. So when we added modern, lightweight antiradiation composites and rad fields to what they already had, we were able to produce a plant which was even smaller—and considerably more powerful—than anything they'd come up with on their own.

"I don't expect anyone to be installing them on any planetary surfaces any time soon. For that matter, I doubt we'll see too many of them being installed in capital ships. But one of the new plants handily provides all the power a Shrike needs, and despite all the bad-history bogeyman stories about fission, disposal of spent fuel elements and other waste won't be any particular problem. All our processing work is being done in deep space, and all we have to do with our waste is drop it into a handy star. And unlike a fusion plant, a fission pile doesn't require a supply of reactor mass. Our present estimate is that a Shrike's original power core should be good for about eighteen T-years, which means the only practical limitation on the class's endurance will be her life support."

Gearman pursed his lips in a silent whistle at that. One of a conventional LAC's several drawbacks was that its small size prevented it from cramming in anything like the bunkerage of regular warships. RMN battlecruisers could take on sufficient reactor mass for almost four months, but they were specifically designed for long-range, deep penetration raids as well as convoy protection. A light attack craft, on the other hand, was fortunate to be able to stow sufficient hydrogen for a three-week deployment, which made her dreadfully short-legged compared to her betters. But if she only had to refuel every eighteen years—!

"It sounds impressive, Ma'am," he said after a moment, "but I don't know a thing about fission power."

"Neither does anyone else off Grayson, Mr. Gearman—outside the teams which have been developing the new piles for us, that is. We only have fully trained crews for ten or twelve of our LACs; the others will be trained here aboard Minotaur and the Hancock Station fleet base, and we've been fully equipped with the necessary simulators. We also have a suitable training cadre from the Jankowski Cartel to help you engineering types ease into things. You'll have about three T-weeks between here and Hancock to get your toes wet, and current plans call for you and your fellow engineers to be properly familiarized with your new equipment within three months, at which time we will begin our actual hands-on training with the LACs." She shrugged. "Ass-backwards, I know. You should have been trained on the new plants before Minotaur's keel was even laid. But even though Project Anzio has been given the highest priority, certain, ah, hardware aspects of it have refused to cooperate as much as we might have wished. And to be honest, some of the security types were always happier with the idea that all the training would take place aboard Minotaur, well away from any prying eyes, and not in simulators aboard a shipyard somewhere."

She considered—briefly—mentioning the entrenched opposition of certain senior officers who saw the entire LAC concept as a useless diversion of resources and manpower from more practical (and traditional) weapons mixes. But the temptation was brief. None of this trio had the seniority to become involved in that kind of high-level internecine strife, and there was no point in worrying them over it.

"But if we're not checked out on the power plants, how—?" Gearman began, then cut himself off with a blush. A prudent lieutenant did not press a captain of the list for information she chose not to offer, but Truman only smiled once more.

"How will we get them aboard without power?" she asked, and he nodded. "We won't," she said simply. "We'll be taking eighteen of them aboard before we leave for Hancock; the remaining units of the wing have already departed for that system, tucked away in the cargo holds of half a dozen freighters. Does that answer your question?"

"Uh, yes, Ma'am."

"Good. Now, if you'll look back at the holo," Truman went on, "you'll notice these projections here." The pointer's light beam swept over a series of eight open-mouthed, elongated blisters, just aft of the forward impeller ring and placed so that they aligned with the spaces between the ring's nodes. "These are missile tubes," she told them. "These four—" the pointer tapped "—are anti-ship launchers, each equipped with a five-round 'revolver' magazine. The Shrike only has twenty shipkillers, but she can launch one from each tube every three seconds." It was Stackowitz's turn to purse her lips silently, and Truman's pointer indicated the other four tubes. "These are for counter-missiles, and the reduction in normal missile armament lets us fit in seventy-two of those. In addition, if you'll notice here—" the pointer touched the sleek prow again. "These are point defense laser clusters: six of them, in a ring around the graser emitter."

"Excuse me, Captain. May I ask a question?" It was Takahashi, apparently emboldened by her earlier response to Gearman, and she nodded to him. "Thank you, Ma'am." He paused for a moment, as if searching for exactly the right words, then spoke carefully. "What I'm seeing here seems to be a huge pinnace or assault shuttle, Ma'am, with all its armament fixed forward." She nodded again, and he shrugged. "Isn't it just a little, um . . . risky for something as small as a LAC to cross it's own 'T' whenever it fires at an enemy starship, Ma'am?"

"I'll let your department officers handle the nuts and bolts, Lieutenant," she said, "but in general terms, the answer is yes and no. As presently envisioned, doctrine calls for the Shrikes to approach regular warships at an oblique angle, denying the enemy anything like a down-the-throat or up-the-kilt shot. One reason they were designed with no broadside armament was to avoid weakening their sidewalls with gunports. In addition, I'm sure you've all noticed the reduced number of drive nodes."

She tapped the forward drive ring with the pointer, and three heads nodded as one.

"These are another innovation—for now we're calling them 'Beta-Squared' nodes—which are much more powerful than older nodes. In addition, they've been fitted with a new version of our FTL com—one with a much higher pulse repetition rate—which should make the Shrikes very useful as manned long-range scouts. I imagine we'll be seeing something like it in larger ships in the not too distant future. What matters for our present purposes, however, is that the new nodes are very nearly as powerful as old-style alpha nodes, and we've also built much heavier sidewall generators into the Shrike to go with them. The result is a sidewall which is about five times as tough as anything ever previously mounted in a LAC.

"In addition, these ships are fitted with very extensive ECM and a suite of decoys which cost almost as much as the main hull does. All our simulations say that they'll be very difficult missile targets even at relatively short ranges, and particularly if they're supported by additional decoy and jammer missiles. We're currently looking at whether it will be more effective to provide conventional warships to supply those missiles or whether it will make more sense to load them into the LACs' own tubes at the cost of reducing their load-outs on shipkillers.

"And finally, the R&D boffins have come up with something really nice for these ships." Truman smiled at her audience like a shark. "As we all know, it's impossible to close the bow or stern aspect of an impeller wedge with a sidewall, right?" Heads nodded once again. "And why is that, Lieutenant Takahashi?" she asked genially.

The lieutenant looked at her for a moment, with the expression of someone whose Saganami Island days were recent enough in memory to make him wary of leading questions. Unfortunately, she was a senior-grade captain and he was only a junior-grade lieutenant, which meant he had to answer her anyway.

"Because cutting off the stress bands' n-space pocket with a closed wedge prevents you from accelerating, decelerating, or using the wedge to change heading, Ma'am," he replied. "If you want the math—?"

"No, that's all right, Lieutenant," she said. "But suppose you don't want to accelerate or decelerate? Couldn't you generate a 'bow' sidewall then?"

"Well, yes, Ma'am, I suppose you could. But if you did you'd be unable to change—" Takahashi stopped speaking suddenly, and Lieutenant Commander Stackowitz gave a sharp, abrupt nod.

"Exactly," Truman told them both. "The idea is that LACs will attack single starships in sufficient numbers that it will always be possible for them to close obliquely. The new missile tubes, coupled with the recent improvements in seekers, molycircs that can handle higher-grav vector shifts, and a higher acceptable delay between launch and shipboard fire control's hand-off to the missile's on-board systems, will let them fire effectively at up to a hundred and twenty degrees off bore. That means the Shrikes can engage with missiles—and launch counter-missiles against incoming fire—even on an oblique approach. Once they reach energy range, however, they turn directly in towards their targets and bring up their 'bow' sidewall . . . which has only a single gunport, for the graser, and is twice as powerful as the broadside sidewalls. That makes it as tough as most dreadnought's sidewalls, people, and according to the Advanced Tactical Course's simulators, a target as small as a bow-on LAC should be much harder to hit than a larger warship engaging broadside-to-broadside even under normal circumstances. When you add the sort of electronic warfare capabilities these ships have, they turn into even harder targets, and the presence—and power—of their 'bow' sidewalls should make them harder to kill even if the bad guys do manage to lock them up."

She paused for a moment, then went on in a much more somber voice.

"Nonetheless, a good shot will hit even a difficult target, and if one of these LACs is hit by almost anything, it will be destroyed. So once we commit them to action, we will lose some of them, people. But even if we lose a dozen of them, that's only a hundred and twenty people—a third of a destroyer's crew and less than six percent of a Reliant-class battlecruiser's crew. And between them, those twelve LACs will have twenty-one percent more energy weapon firepower than a Reliant's broadside. Of course, they won't have a fraction of the battlecruiser's missile power, and they have to get to knife range to really hurt the enemy. No one is trying to say they can magically replace capital ships, but all the projections and studies say that they can be a major enhancement to a conventional wall of battle. They should also be able to provide us with a local defense capability that can stand up to raiding Peep squadrons and let us pull our regular capital ships off picket duty, and their range and endurance on station should also make them invaluable for raids behind the enemy's frontier."

Her three newest subordinates gazed at her, clearly still struggling to take in all the information she'd just dropped on them. But there was a glow in their eyes, as well, as they began to envision the possibilities she'd enumerated . . . and to wonder what else they could figure out to do with the new units.

"Captain?" Stackowitz half-raised a hand, asking permission to speak, and Truman nodded. "I was just wondering, Ma'am—how many LACs will Minotaur carry?"

"Allowing for docking buffers and umbilical service points, the total mass cost per LAC, including its own hull, is about thirty-two thousand tons," Truman said in an almost off-hand tone. "Which means we can only carry about a hundred of them."

"A hun—?" Stackowitz cut herself off, and Truman smiled.

"A hundred. The wing will probably be divided into twelve eight-LAC squadrons, and we'll carry the other four as backups," she said. "But I think you can see what kind of force multiplier we're talking about if a single carrier Minotaur's size can put that many of them into space."

"I certainly can, Ma'am," Stackowitz murmured, and the other two nodded firmly.

"Good!" Truman said again. "Because now, people, the trick is to make it all work out as nice and pretty as the planners and the sims say it should. And, of course," she bared her teeth at them, "as nice and pretty as I say it should, too."


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