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Chapter Thirty-Nine

Thomas Theisman watched through the viewport as the shuttle made its final approach to the stupendous superdreadnought. The Republic's Secretary of War and Chief of Naval Operations smiled as he remembered the last time he'd made this trip. His waiting host had been in a somewhat different mood that time.

The shuttle slowed to a halt relative to the superdreadnought, and the boat bay's docking tractors locked onto it. They snubbed away the remainder of its motion, then drew it smoothly into the bay. It settled into the docking arms, the personnel tube ran out, and Theisman and Captain Alenka Borderwijk, his senior naval aide, climbed out of their seats.

"Don't lose that, Alenka," Theisman said, tapping the case under Borderwijk's left arm.

"Don't worry, Sir," the captain replied. "The thought of being shot at dawn holds absolutely no attraction for me."

Theisman grinned at her, then turned to lead the way down the tube into Sovereign of Space's boat bay gallery.

"Chief of Naval Operations, arriving!" the announcement rang out, and Theisman smothered another grin.

Technically speaking, he should have been referred to as the Secretary of War, since the Secretary was the CNO's civilian superior. It was common knowledge throughout the Fleet, however, that he preferred to think of himself as still an honest admiral, not a politician, and he was always amused when the Navy's uniformed personnel chose to pander to that particular vanity of his.

"Welcome aboard, Sir," Captain Patrick Reumann said, stepping forward to greet him before he could request formal permission to board.

"Thank you, Pat." Theisman shook the tall captain's hand, then looked past him to Javier Giscard.

"Welcome aboard, Sir," Giscard said, echoing Reumann as they clasped hands.

"Thank you, Admiral." Theisman raised his voice slightly. "And while I'm at it, allow me to express my thanks—and the Republic's—to you and all the men and women under your command for a job very well done."

He still felt a bit silly playing the political leader, but he'd learned not to despise the role, and he saw the smiles on the faces of the officers and enlisted personnel in range of his voice. What he'd said would be relayed throughout the ship—and, later, throughout Giscard's entire command—with a speed which mocked the grav pulses of an FTL com. And although he knew Giscard understood what he was doing perfectly, he also saw the genuine pleasure in the other man's eyes as his ultimate service superior made certain his thanks had been publicly delivered.

"Thank you, Sir," Giscard said, after a moment. "That means a lot to me, just as I know it will to all our personnel."

"I'm glad." Theisman released Giscard's hand as Reumann finished greeting Alenka Borderwijk and she stepped forward to join him and Giscard. "And now, Admiral, you and I have a few things to discuss."

"Of course, Sir. If you'll accompany me to my flag briefing room?"

* * *

"I meant what I said, Javier," Theisman said, as the briefing room hatch closed behind them. "You and your people did a damned fine job. Combined with what Lester did to Zanzibar, the Manties have to be feeling as if they strayed in front of an out-of-control freight shuttle at the bottom of a gravity well."

"We aim to please, Tom," Giscard said, waving the CNO and his aide into chairs, then dropping into one himself. "Linda and Lewis are the ones who really made it possible by guessing right. Well, them and Shannon." He shook his head, his wry grimace less than amused. "If it had been just my mobile units, she'd have gotten away clean."

"I think that's a bit pessimistic," Theisman disagreed. "Based on the system sensor platforms' data, you got a hell of a good piece of one of the SDs before Moriarty ever got a shot at them."

"Yeah, and I shot six SD(P)s dry to do it," Giscard responded. "I'm not trying to denigrate what my people accomplished, and I'm not trying to poor mouth my own accomplishments. But that missile defense of theirs." He shook his head. "It's a bear, Tom. Really, really tough."

"Tell me about it!" Theisman snorted. "I know you haven't seen Lester's after-action report on Zanzibar yet, but he makes exactly the same point. In fact, he feels that the only reason he managed to carry through was the reloads he'd brought along for his superdreadnoughts. Basically, he ran them out of ammunition at extreme range, then closed in to almost single-drive missile range to get the best targeting solutions he could. And even then, he needed a superiority of three-to-one."

He shrugged.

"It's something we're going to have to deal with. The next-generation seekers are about ready to deploy—that should help some—and Shannon's already working on other solutions . . . in her copious free time." He and Giscard both chuckled at that one. "In the meantime, we're having to rethink our calculations over at the Bureau of Planning on the relative effectiveness of our units. At the moment, we're still confident we'll attain it, but it's beginning to look as if it will take longer than we'd anticipated."

"How much longer?" Giscard asked, his expression faintly alarmed.

"Obviously, I can't answer that definitively yet, but nothing we've seen so far indicates more than a few months slippage—six or seven at the outside—from our original schedule. We're not talking about requiring construction not already in the pipeline, only about needing more of that construction ready to go than we'd thought we would. And given that our margin of superiority was going to continue growing for a full year beyond our original target date, six or seven months is completely acceptable."

"I hope it doesn't run longer, but—" Giscard paused for a moment, then shrugged and continued. "The thing that concerns me, Tom, is that our projections are based on what they've already shown us and what we've been able to extrapolate on that basis. But we didn't correctly extrapolate the improvement in their defensive capability. We knew it was going to get better, but I think it's safe to say none of us anticipated the actual margin of improvement. Just like none of us anticipated this dogfighting missile of theirs. What if they do the same thing to us with their MDMs?"

"That's a completely valid point," Theisman said gravely, "and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't had the occasional qualm myself. I think, though, that what we've already seen with Moriarty and the steady improvement in our own FTL communication and coordination ability, indicates we're still making up ground faster than we're losing it. And at the moment, it appears both we and the Manties are up against a fairly hard limit on the accuracy of full-ranged MDM exchanges. Theirs is better than ours, but with improvements like the new seekers, ours is getting better faster than theirs is."

He tipped back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.

"I've got Linda and Op Research running every combat report through every analysis we can think of. We're charting the qualitative and quantitative improvements on both sides as accurately as we can, and we're constantly readjusting our projections. It's possible something will come along to overturn all our calculations. I don't think it will, and I hope it doesn't. But if it does, we ought to spot it in time to rethink both our options and our plans. And the bottom line is that I have no intention of committing the Navy to a decisive offensive operation unless I'm confident our calculations haven't been invalidated."

"And, with all due respect, Admiral Giscard," Alenka Borderwijk put in, "what you accomplished at Solon completely validated the Moriarty concept. We're moving ahead rapidly with deployment in other star systems, beginning with the most vital ones. On the basis of Solon, we believe our defensive doctrine and capabilities are sufficient to make it impossible for the Manties to accept the attritional losses major offensives of their own would entail."

"It certainly looks that way right now," Giscard agreed. "On the other hand, remember that at Solon we were up against only one task force, with only a single division of Invictuses. The missile defense of an entire Manty fleet would be much deeper and more resilient. I think you're right that Moriarty represents what's currently our best option for fixed system defenses, but it's going to have to be deployed in even greater depth than it was at Solon if it's going to stand up to a major Manty offensive."

"Granted," Theisman said, amused—and deeply pleased—by the confidence and persistence of Giscard's arguments. It was a far and welcome cry from the way Giscard had persisted in second-guessing—and blaming—himself after Thunderbolt.

"Granted," the CNO repeated. "And we're working on that. In addition, Shannon has the new system defense missiles almost ready to go into actual production. We still haven't been able to figure out a way to fit them into something an SD(P) can handle, but they ought to give the Manties fits when they run into them. That's the plan, anyway."

"So what you're saying is we ought to have a firm enough defensive capability to be able to take a few chances operating offensively," Giscard said.

"Within limits," Theisman agreed. "But only within limits. The one thing we can't afford is to shoot ourselves in the foot through sheer overconfidence. Even if," he grinned suddenly, "you did just thoroughly trounce 'the Salamander.'"

"Well," Giscard admitted with a grin of his own, "I have to admit it did feel good. I don't have anything personally against her, you understand, but as I'm sure Lester would agree, playing the part of her round-bottomed doll gets old in a hurry."

"I've been going back over the combat reports—my own included—from the last round," Theisman said thoughtfully. "It's a bit early, but I'm inclined to think she's even better than White Haven was, tactically at least. I know he gave us conniptions, and God knows their damned 'Buttercup' was a fucking disaster, but Harrington is sneaky. There are times I don't think she's even bothered to read The Book, much less pay any attention to it. Look at that insane trick she pulled at Cerberus, for God's sake! And then what she did to Lester at Sidemore."

"Personally, and speaking as someone who gleefully used her own ideas against her," Giscard said, "I'm wondering how much of what happened at Hancock was Sarnow's idea, and how much was hers? I know NavInt gave Sarnow the credit, and everything I've seen indicates he was good enough to've come up with it on his own, but it has all the Harrington fingerprints."

"Now that you mention it, it does," Theisman said. He frowned, then shrugged. "Well, she's only one woman, and as you just demonstrated, she's not invincible. Tough, and not someone I want to go up against without a substantial advantage, but not invincible. Which, by the way, the newsies have been playing up with joyous abandon ever since your dispatches arrived. I warn you, if you turn up in public anywhere on Haven, be prepared to be embarrassed within a centimeter of your life."

"Oh, God," Giscard muttered in disgusted tones. "Just what Eloise and I needed—smutsies."

Theisman laughed. He shouldn't have, and he knew it, but smutsies—the modern heirs of the old pre-space paparazzi—had always been a particularly virulent fact of life in the People's Republic. In fact, they'd been almost a semi-official adjunct of the Office of Public Information's propagandists. They'd been used to titillate—and divert—the Mob with all sorts of intrusive, sensationalized stories about entertainment figures, supposed enemies of the People, and, especially, political leaders of opposition star nations. Some of the stories about Elizabeth III and her alleged . . . relations with her treecat, for example, had been decidedly over the top. Not to mention, he felt sure, anatomically impossible.

Unfortunately, the smutsies had survived the People's Republic's fall, and the new freedom of information and the press under the restored Constitution actually made them more intrusive, not less. So far, Giscard and President Pritchart had managed to keep their relationship more or less below the smutsies' radar horizon, and what the so-called "journalists" would do when they finally realized what they'd been missing formed the basis for the unofficial presidential couple's joint nightmares.

"Well," Theisman said, and held out his hand to Borderwijk, "I can understand why that would be a matter of some concern. And while I hate to do this, I'm afraid I may be going to make it just a bit worse."

"Worse?" Giscard regarded him suspiciously. "Just how are you going to make it worse? And don't bother telling me you regret it—I can see the gleam in your eye from here!"

"Well, it's just . . . this," Theisman said, opening the case Border-wijk handed him and extending it to Giscard.

The admiral took it with another suspicious glower, then glanced down into it. His expression changed instantly, and his eyes shot back up to Theisman's face.

"You're joking."

"No, Javier, I'm not." Theisman's smile had disappeared.

"I don't deserve it," Giscard said flatly. "This is what Jacques Griffith got for taking out Grendelsbane, for God's sake!"

"Yes, it is."

Theisman reached out to reclaim the case, and lifted the rather plain-looking silver medal out of it. It hung on a ribbon of simple blue cloth, and he held it up to catch the light. It was the Congressional Cross, a medal which had been abandoned a hundred and eighty T-years ago when the Legislaturalists "amended" the Constitution out of existence. It had been replaced, officially at least, by the Order of Valor, awarded to "Heroes of the People" under the People's Republic. But it had been resurrected, along with the Constitution, and so far, only two of them had been awarded.

Well, three of them, now.

"This is goddamned ridiculous!" Giscard was genuinely angry, Theisman saw. "I won one small engagement against a single task force, half of which got away, whereas Jacques took out their entire damned building program! And Lieutenant Haldane gave his life to save the lives of almost three hundred of his fellow crewmen!"

"Javier, I—"

"No, Tom! We can't demean it this way—not this soon! I'm telling you, and I'll tell Eloise, if I have to!"

"Eloise had nothing to do with it. Nor, for that matter, did I. Congress decides who gets this, not the President, and not the Navy."

"Well you tell Congress to shove it up—!"

"Javier!" Theisman cut the admiral off sharply, and Giscard settled back in his chair, mouth shut but eyes still angry.

"Better," Theisman said. "Now, by and large, I agree with everything you've just said. But, as I already pointed out, the decision is neither mine nor Eloise's. And, despite your personal feelings, there are some very valid arguments for your accepting this medal. Not least the public relations aspect of it. I know you don't want to hear that, but Harrington's raids have generated an enormous amount of anger. Not all of that anger's directed at the Manties, either, since the general view seems to be that we ought to be stopping her somehow. And her activities have also begun generating fear, as well. Now you've not only stopped one of her raids cold, but you've decisively defeated her, as well. All that pent-up frustration and anger—and fear—is now focused on what you've accomplished as satisfaction. To be frank, I'm certain that's a lot of the reason Congress decided in its infinite wisdom to award you the Cross."

"I don't care what its reasons were. I won't accept it. That's it. End of story."

"Javier—" Theisman began, then stopped and shook his head. "Damn, you're even more like 'the Salamander' than I thought!"

"Meaning what?" Giscard asked suspiciously.

"Meaning there are persistent rumors that she refused the Parliamentary Medal of Valor the first time they tried to give it to her."

"No, did she?" Giscard chuckled suddenly. "Good for her! And you can tell Congress that if they decide to offer me the Cross again, I may accept it. But not this time. Let them find something else, something that doesn't devalue the Cross. This is too important to the Navy we're trying to build to be turned into a political award."

Theisman sat there for several seconds, gazing at the admiral. Then he replaced the silver cross in the case, closed it, and sighed.

"You may be right. In fact, I'm inclined to agree. But the important point, I suppose, is that you genuinely intend to be stubborn about this."

"Count on it."

"Oh, I do." Theisman smiled without a great deal of humor. "You're going to put me and Eloise into a very difficult position with Congress."

"I'm genuinely and sincerely sorry about that. But I'm not going to change my mind. Not about this."

"All right. I'll go back to Congress—thank God the award hasn't been announced yet!—and suggest to them that your natural humility and overwhelming modesty make it impossible for you to accept it at this time. I'll further suggest that they might want to simply vote you the thanks of Congress. I trust that that won't be too highfalutin' for you?"

"As long as it's not the Cross. And—" Giscard's eyes gleamed as Theisman groaned at the qualifier "—as long as it includes thanks to all of my people, as well."

"That I think I can arrange." Theisman shook his head. "Jesus! Now I'm going to have to tell Lester about this."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you know how long and hard he worked on that out-of-control cowboy image of his before we got rid of Saint-Just. How do you think he's going to react to the fact that Congress wants to give him the Cross for Zanzibar? Especially now that you've opened the way to turning the damn thing down!"


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