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Chapter Sixty

"Well, that wasn't too bad, I hope?" Elizabeth Winton asked with a smile as she and Honor stepped into the Admiralty House conference room.

"Not too bad," Honor agreed.

"I did think about hanging some more medals on you," Elizabeth continued lightly as William Alexander and his older brother, Sir Thomas Caparelli, and Patricia Givens followed the two of them into the room. "I decided to settle for another Monarch's Thanks, instead. How many is that for you? A couple of dozen now?"

"Not quite," Honor said dryly.

Spencer Hawke, Tobias Stimson, and Colonel Shemais followed Givens. Hawke and Stimson positioned themselves behind their principals; Shemais took the place waiting for her at the conference table as Elizabeth's intelligence liaison.

It wasn't, Honor thought as the various treecats settled down in their people's laps or chair backs and the door closed, leaving Joshua Atkins, Clifford McGraw, and three troopers from the Queen's Own on guard in the hallway outside, as if there wasn't enough security in place without requiring the colonel's personal involvement.

The other participants in the meeting waited until Elizabeth and Honor were seated, then found their own seats.

"First," Caparelli said as they all turned their attention to him, "I'd like to add my own thanks—and that of everyone at Admiralty House—for a job very well done, Your Grace."

"We tried," Honor said.

"Quite successfully," Caparelli observed. "We're still analyzing your after-action report, but it's already obvious you hurt them much worse than they've hurt us anywhere since their opening offensive. The amount of damage you did, coupled with the demonstrated efficacy of Apollo and Mistletoe, has to have knocked them back on their heels."

"I'd like to think so," Honor said when he paused, inviting comment. "In fact, I'm inclined to think it has. I'd feel more comfortable about that if I didn't know how tough-minded Thomas Theisman is, though." She shook her head. "He was bad enough as a destroyer skipper at Blackbird; nothing I've seen indicates that he's turned into any more of a pushover since."

"Agreed." Caparelli nodded vigorously. "On the other hand, Pat and I have discussed this at some length with her analysts. Pat?"

"No one in my shop, with the possible exception of one or two very junior officers who haven't yet learned the limits of their own mortality, is prepared to make any unqualified predictions at this point, Your Grace," Givens said. "The consensus, however, is that Apollo's effectiveness, in particular, has to have come as a significant shock to their systems. In fact, it was more effective in action than we expected, even after your exercises, and it came at them completely cold. Given the way Sanskrit has to resonate with what happened to them in Buttercup," she nodded at Hamish, "they've got to be wondering if we're prepared to do the same thing to them all over again."

"I don't doubt that," Honor replied. "And don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to say the analysts are wrong. I'd just like everyone to remember that Thomas Theisman wasn't prepared to roll over and play dead when we introduced the missile pod, and they didn't have it. And when we introduced the SD(P) and MDM, he and Shannon Foraker simply sat down and came up with effective responses to both of them."

"We're remembering that," Caparelli assured her. "I assure you, no one in this building is ever likely to take Admiral Theisman lightly again."

"I'm glad to hear it," she said. "I wish, though, that we could at least find this 'Bolthole' of theirs. I know it's not likely to be as critical to their building capacity as it was, and it's got to be becoming steadily less so as the units under the construction in their other yards progress. But that seems to be where Admiral Foraker and her little brain trust are working on their various new weapons and doctrines, and that makes it a target well worth hitting any time."

"We all agree, Your Grace," Givens told her feelingly. "Unfortunately, we still haven't found it. Which leads me to suspect that our fundamental assumptions were in error."

"How?" Honor asked curiously.

"We assumed it was located in a Peep star system," Givens said simply, and Honor blinked.

"We assumed that for two reasons," Givens continued. "First, because it has to have a certain level of industrial capacity, which suggests a certain level of population to support it, which, in turn, suggests that it has to be an established star system. Second, we assumed that because we were too intellectually lazy to consider anything else."

"You're still being too hard on yourself, Pat," Caparelli put in, and Givens shrugged.

"I'm not staying up nights kicking myself, but it's ONI's job to think outside the box, as well as in it."

"I think I probably agree with Sir Thomas," Honor said. "What they've accomplished there obviously requires the capacity you were talking about."

"Yes, it does. But I've been going over some of our older intelligence summaries looking for clues. Some of those summaries date clear back to before the Pierre Coup, and a couple of very interesting ones came out of debriefs of some of the people you brought back from Cerberus, as well. On the basis of that, I'm beginning to suspect they didn't move into any star system's existing infrastructure, at all. I think they built it from the ground up in one where no one already lived."


"I also think I'd like to sit down and discuss it with Admiral Parnell," Givens told her with a crooked smile. "Unless I miss my guess, he's the one who actually started the project even before President Harris was assassinated. Some of the people you brought back from Cerberus have mentioned large labor drafts from the political prisoners there. There was always some of that going on, of course, but assuming their memory of the timing is accurate, we can't account for where quite a few of them might have gone. That's not conclusive; the People's Republic was a big place, and they always had 'black projects' of one sort or another going on somewhere. We couldn't possibly have identified or tracked all of them. But I'm beginning to think 'Bolthole' is actually a complete secret colony of theirs somewhere. One the Legislaturalists started. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find out that Pierre and the Committee took it and ran with it—probably on a scale Harris had never initially contemplated. But if I'm right, the reason we haven't found it despite all of our scouting efforts is because we don't have any idea where to look for it in the first place. It may even be outside the Republic's official borders!"

"That's not a very reassuring thought," Honor remarked after a moment.

"Even if it's true, it doesn't actually make things that much worse, Your Grace," Caparelli said. "As you said, Bolthole as a physical production facility is becoming progressively less important to them. Mostly, it's just frustrating to think that the Peeps were thinking far enough ahead to do something like this that long ago."

"And," Givens added sourly, "from a professional viewpoint, it's a lot more than 'frustrating' to think about an intelligence failure on this scale. We ought to at least have known they were doing it, even if we didn't have a clue where!"

"Stop beating yourself up over it," Caparelli said, his tone just a bit sharper, and Givens nodded.

"Whether or not Pat's new theory about Bolthole is accurate, Your Grace," the First Space Lord continued, turning back to Honor, "your point about the Peeps' tough-mindedness in general, and Theisman's in particular, is well taken. In fact, we believe it's time to give Admiral Theisman another whack as quickly as possible. We need to drive home the fact of his tactical inferiority and, hopefully, confirm the Peeps' belief that we've deployed the new systems broadly across the fleet before he has the time he needs to plan and implement a revised offensive strategy of his own."

Honor regarded him thoughtfully. Emily's "no business talk when Honor's home" decree—and Hamish's efforts to avoid intruding into Caparelli's authority in the operational sphere—had foreclosed the sort of discussion she and Hamish might otherwise have had. But from the little he'd said, and the wisps of anxiety she'd tasted from him, she had a shrewd notion of where Caparelli was headed.

"Lovat," the First Space Lord continued, "was an important target, but secondary. It hurt them, no question of that, and it was a major escalation from the sorts of targets we'd been hitting. But as far as their economy and central war effort is concerned, it was still a peripheral target, in a lot of ways. The Strategy Board thinks it's time we went for a first-rank target, instead, and we think we've found one which may not be Bolthole but still ought to get their attention. Jouett."

He paused again, and despite her earlier suspicions, Honor's nostrils flared. The planet of Shadrach, in the Jouett System, was one of Haven's oldest daughter colonies. The system had been colonized from Haven less than fifty T-years after the colony ship Jason reached an uninhabited planet called Manticore, and the system's population was well up into the billions. It was also the site of the oldest of the Republican Navy's satellite shipyards, and its defenses were almost as heavy as those of the Haven System itself.

"Sir Thomas," she said, very carefully, into the waiting silence, "that's . . . a very audacious proposal. And I imagine it would certainly come under the category of 'whacking' them smartly. But Jouett's going to be a very, very tough target. We succeeded at Lovat in large part because they didn't have a clue what was coming. That won't be the case the next time we go in. Two things I think we're all agreed the new management in Nouveau Paris is demonstrating are resiliency and flexibility. My staff and I haven't looked at Jouett closely, since it never occurred to us to include it in our targeting list, given the parameters laid down for Cutworm and Sanskrit. Nonetheless, I'd be very surprised if its defenses haven't been upgraded much more comprehensively even than Solon's and Lovat's."

"We agree entirely," Caparelli said gravely. "And before you raise the point, yes, it's possible we're suffering from a degree of operational hubris here. We're trying to protect ourselves against that by being as skeptical as we can, and we're also determined to avoid pushing you and Eighth Fleet into a tactical situation you can't control."

"I'm certainly in favor of that," Honor said with a wry smile. Then her smile faded, and she shrugged. "Assuming it's possible, of course."

"Of course," Caparelli agreed. "First, we have no intention of sending you in without thoroughly scouting the system ahead of time.

"Second, we're getting a handle on the production bottlenecks we've been experiencing. We're going to have a lot more of the Mistletoe-modified drones available, starting in about three weeks, and production of the Apollo pods and control platforms is beginning to accelerate, as well. We've got enough now to completely re-ammunition your command and began establishing a modest stockpile to support your operations. The system-defense version is still lagging; we won't be able to begin deploying those pods for another couple of months. But things are definitely looking up on the offensive front.

"Third, we intend to support any attack on Jouett by shotgunning them with feints all over their inner perimeter. We're going to be scouting every system we can, and after what happened in Lovat, they aren't going to be able to disregard any scouting operation. Hopefully, that will induce them to spread their defenses thinner.

"Fourth, your battle plan will be designed from the beginning from the perspective of breaking off the attack and withdrawing if the opposition seems tougher than our threat analyses have projected. In other words, this won't be any sort of all-costs target, Your Grace. It's an operation we want to succeed; not one we need to succeed, and your instructions would reflect that."

He paused again, and Honor considered what he'd said carefully. All of it seemed to make sense, but she still couldn't shake the fear that they were overreaching themselves.

"All of that sounds good, Sir Thomas," she said after moment. "But whatever we do to prepare for and support the operation, there's still the question of force levels. I'm as impressed as anyone by what Apollo accomplished at Lovat, but at the moment, my entire order of battle is less than a hundred ships, and only fifteen of them can operate the new pods. And while it's true the effectiveness of each shot in their magazines has just gone up, it's also true that we've just taken a twenty-five percent hit on our total magazine capacity. In other words, my fifteen SD(P)s only have as many rounds onboard as eleven ships with standard pods."

"Understood." Caparelli nodded vigorously. "In fact, we've taken that into consideration in our preliminary brainstorming. And before we continue, I should have mentioned from the outset that all we've done so far is to consider this from a conceptual standpoint. Any actual operation against Jouett would be mounted only after the Strategy Board—and your own staff—have had an opportunity to look at the nuts and bolts very carefully. As I said, this is a desirable operation, not an essential one. We're not going to commit to it unless we're confident—unless we're all confident—that it's practical and that the risks are manageable, or, at least, acceptable."

Honor felt an undeniable sense of relief. If the operation was practical, it would obviously be worthwhile. She had no qualms on that point—except, perhaps, for concern over the continuing level of escalation it represented. Beyond that single qualification, though, it was only a question of whether or not it was practical, and what she tasted in Caparelli's and Givens' mind-glows was vastly reassuring. The First Space Lord meant it. As much as he wanted this operation, he had no intention of charging ahead in an excess of blind enthusiasm.

"And speaking of nuts and bolts, and although we haven't put together hard numbers yet," Caparelli continued, "we already know we'll be able to reinforce Eighth Fleet more strongly than we'd anticipated."

Honor felt her right eyebrow rise, and Caparelli chuckled.

"Your old friend Herzog von Rabenstrange contacted me a couple of weeks ago, just after you'd sortied for Sanskrit. Apparently the Emperor decided a month or two before that to express his displeasure at how long their refit programs seem to be dragging out. Apparently, he expressed it rather vigorously, and his navy decided they ought to take him seriously and reallocated their efforts. Basically, they pulled their yard dogs off of about a third of the total number of ships they'd been working on—the ones farthest from completion at this point—and concentrated the additional effort on the units which were already most advanced."

The First Space Lord shrugged.

"That decision has its downsides, of course. Among other things, it means the ships they were pulled off of are going to be even later in completing, and their concentration only covered about a quarter of their total SD(P) strength. Still, it means that somewhere between twenty-five and forty additional pod-layers, all refitted to handle the Keyhole II platforms and the flat-pack pods, are going to be coming forward over the next month and a half or so. Our intention at the moment is to assign all of them to Eighth Fleet. Which will just happen to finally make your command the biggest and most powerful we have. That's what we're planning to commit to Sanskrit II."

Honor sat back in her chair. The tardiness of the Andermani wallers' refits had led her to forget almost completely about them. But if they really were going to come forward in such numbers, double or triple the number of Apollo-capable ships under her command, then suddenly Jouett became a much more attractive target.

"How firm are the Andermani numbers?" she asked after a moment.

"At present, they look very good. Obviously, there's room for slippage—we've already seen that. Again, however, if the proposed reinforcements aren't forthcoming, then the operation doesn't go in. It's predicated on providing you with the strength you need."

"We'd have to pretty much stand down until they do arrive," she said thoughtfully. "I don't really like that. We'll be taking the pressure off of them. But if we're going to hit a target as hard as Jouett, I can't afford any avoidable losses in the interim. It won't do us much good to reinforce if I've lost offsetting numbers. And we'll need to train hard with the Andies if we're going to integrate them properly."

"The Strategy Board came to the same conclusion," Caparelli replied. "We don't believe you could plan on launching the operation for at least another seven to eight weeks. And you're absolutely right about the need to train with the Andies as they come forward. Fortunately, Trevor's Star is well suited for all our purposes. With the entire star system under military control, it's as secure a place to exercise and work up new units as we've got. You can conduct training operations on just about any scale you want, without worrying about anyone reporting what you're doing to the Peeps. At the same time, you'll be well placed for us to recall you and your Apollo-capable ships quickly to the home system if we start picking up any indications that Theisman is still feeling frisky. And, of course, you're still closer to your potential targets in the Republic than any of the Peeps' forward bases are to the home system or Yeltsin's Star.

"While you're getting your new Andy units worked up to operational standards, we'll try to keep the pressure on them by continuing your previous strategy of scouting their systems. As I said, that's been part of our preliminary strategy concept from the beginning."

"In that case, I think it's doable," she said. "I'd be less than honest if I said I wasn't a little nervous at the prospect of attacking a target that heavily defended. But given a monopoly on Apollo and the force levels you're suggesting, I think we can do it."

"Good!" Caparelli beamed.

In fact, everyone around the conference table smiled . . . except for Hamish Alexander-Harrington. Honor tasted his concern—his fear for her—and wanted to reach out and take his hand. Which would scarcely have comported with proper naval professionalism.

"Again," Caparelli stressed, "we're not going to commit to Sanskrit II until we've got a detailed plan, based on hard numbers and the most recent intelligence and scouting reports on Jouett. With that proviso, however, Your Grace, you're officially directed to begin preliminary planning immediately for the operation. Your tentative execution date will be sixty days from today."


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