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Chapter Fifty-Four

"We've got those plans for you, Eloise."

"Good . . . I think."

Eloise Pritchart smiled at Thomas Theisman and Arnaud Marquette without much humor as the Secretary of War and the Chief of the Naval Staff seated themselves at the table in the small conference room just off her office. Of late, she thought, she seemed to be spending a great many hours in rooms like this.

"As you requested, we've put together a range of possible options," Theisman continued. "In my opinion, two of them are most likely to meet your requirements. Arnaud and I have brought you summaries on all of them, but with your permission, I'd prefer to concentrate on the two I think are most likely: Beatrice and Camille."

"Well, the names sound nice, anyway," the President said wanly, and Theisman and Admiral Marquette showed their teeth in dutiful smiles. "All right, Tom. Go ahead."

"In that case, let's look at Camille first," Theisman said.

"Basically, Camille is intended for a situation in which the Manties attack one of our star systems, and we fight them off with relatively light losses on either side. The consequence of a sparring match, you might say, and not a death grapple.

"In that situation, as we understood your directive, what we want is an operation which will punish them, but without radically raising the stakes on either side. A declaration that we've absorbed and parried their blow, and that we're prepared to deliver similar blows of our own.

"The basic problem is that, despite the way they've been forced to divert battle squadrons to cover places like Zanzibar and Alizon, they have proportionately heavier system defense forces on most of their important targets than we do. They simply have fewer systems to defend, which lets them cover up in greater depth, despite their numerical inferiority. So even something we intend as a relatively minor attack is going to require a significant commitment of force on our side. We have the resources to do that; my only real concern is that using a task force or fleet of the size we need is likely to be perceived by the Manties as an escalation on our part, whether we want that or not.

"Bearing that in mind, what we propose under Camille is an attack on Alizon, similar to the one we launched against Zanzibar. We'd probably put Lester in command again, and we'd commit six battle squadrons—forty-eight podnaughts—with carrier support and screening elements. That's a significantly heavier force than the one we used against Zanzibar, but the Manties have shored up the Alizon defenses since then, and we'll need the additional firepower to break in.

"Assuming our force estimates are accurate, our six squadrons should be sufficient to get the job done, but their Office of Naval Intelligence has to have at least a fair notion of our current strength. They'll recognize that six battle squadrons represents only a small portion of our total deployable ships of the wall. Hopefully, they'll conclude from that that we're deliberately operating on a reduced scale, although they may not conclude that it's for the reasons we want them to think it is. In that case, we may require some diplomatic contact to underscore the point that we could have hit them harder. That's one reason we picked Alizon as our target. It's significant politically, diplomatically, and in terms of their public's morale; it's not especially significant any longer in terms of their actual war-fighting ability, though. What we hope is that taking out Alizon's military infrastructure will underscore our capabilities without being perceived as a mortal threat.

"Is that about what you wanted at this end of the spectrum?"

"It sounds like it," Pritchart replied. "I'll want to read your summary on it, and digest it further, of course, but it sounds like the sort of smack in the face that will get their attention without punching their lights out."

"That's about what we tried to design it to do. On the other hand," Theisman continued, "I hope you and Leslie are both remembering that using military operations as a way to shape a diplomatic climate is always problematical. It's much simpler—and more reliable, frankly—to think in terms of accomplishing specific military goals than it is to come up with ways to elicit specific desired political responses from your opponent. He's always going to find some way to screw up what it was you thought you were going to get, and any secretary of war or admiral who tells you differently is either a lunatic or a liar. In either of which cases, you should get rid of his sorry ass as quickly as possible."

"I'll . . . bear that in mind," Pritchart said, lips twitching as she womanfully resisted the temptation to smile.

"Good. In that case, let's look at Beatrice."

Theisman sat forward slightly in his chair, his palms on the tops of his thighs as he leaned towards the President, and his expression became very serious.

"Beatrice is no slap in the face, Madam President," he said quietly. "Beatrice is an all-out bid for outright military victory. You said you wanted one end of your spectrum of options to be the most powerful one we could put together. Beatrice is it."

Pritchart felt her own expression congealing into focused attention.

"Basically, Beatrice is a direct attack on the Manticoran home system," Theisman told her. "There's not much finesse to it. We'll take forty-two battle squadrons—three hundred and thirty-six SD(P)s; equal to eighty-plus percent of their entire modern wall of battle, including the Andies, according to NavInt's current estimates—and we'll throw it straight at their toughest defenses and their most critical defensive objective. They'll have to fight to defend Manticore, and the system astrography is going to leave Sphinx especially exposed. Essentially, we'll be able to get at Sphinx quickly enough their Home Fleet will have no choice but to meet us head-on, however bad the odds are from their perspective. And the odds will be bad. Because they've had to deploy so much of their strength to cover other, secondary objectives, they'll be significantly outnumbered at the point of contact.

"We'll take along several thousand LACs. The attack force, which will be under Javier's command, with Lester as his second, will also be accompanied by a full press fleet train—repair ships, ammunition ships, hospital ships, everything. We'll be prepared to repeat Lester's Zanzibar tactics, complete to reloading our SD(P)s several times, if necessary.

"Even in the best-case scenario," he said soberly, "our losses will be heavy—very heavy. Don't think they won't. We'll be hitting very hard, well-prepared defenses—probably the toughest in the explored galaxy, at the moment—manned by highly motivated people, and they'll still have the technological advantage, even though we've narrowed it. Not only that, but we don't estimate we'll be able to hold the system against counterattack, even after we win. Certainly not indefinitely.

"At the moment, their Home Fleet consists of about fifty SD(P)s and the same number of older superdreadnoughts, according to NavInt. They have another fifty of the wall in Third Fleet, and Eighth Fleet has another twenty-four to thirty. Against Home Fleet alone, we'll have a better than three-to-one advantage in total hulls, and seven-to-one in SD(P)s. Their fixed defenses and the LACs they've deployed for home system defense will offset some of that advantage, but not as much as you might think. According to NavInt's latest reports, some of the dispositions they've been forced to make to protect Manticore-B and the Junction have forced compromises in Manticore-A we think we can make work for us.

"If both Third Fleet and Eighth Fleet are called in from Trevor's Star, the numerical odds will shift from seven-to-one in pod—layers to approximately four-to-one, but we don't really know how likely it is that both of them will be committed. They've got to worry about the fact that the force we're throwing at Manticore, big as it is, represents only a portion of our total wall of battle. That means they'll have to be worried about the possibility that we've got an additional fleet sitting in hyper waiting to pounce on Trevor's Star if they uncover it. They may dither at least a little and commit one of the Trevor's Star forces first, hoping it will be enough. In some ways, that would be good—it would bring them in in smaller packets, easier to defeat in detail. But one variant of Beatrice we're considering—Beatrice Bravo—would try to entice them to come through together.

"If they stay concentrated and commit both of them, our margin of superiority will be far tighter. It should still be enough, because most of Javier's force will go in concentrated, whereas their Home Fleet and Trevor's Star forces would have to rendezvous with one another before they can combine tactically. If Javier heads directly towards Sphinx, Home Fleet will have to honor the threat and move immediately to intercept him, which ought to let him engage that detachment on his own terms.

"After that, and if the Trevor's Star detachments come in together, he may have to break off the attack, if his own losses against Home Fleet and the fixed defenses have been significant. Otherwise, especially if we adopt the Bravo variant's deployment, he ought to be in a position to engage the remaining fleet elements in succession, utilizing his numerical advantage, or ignore the forces coming up behind him while he heads directly through the system, taking out industrial infrastructure—and especially their dispersed shipyards—as he goes. A lot will depend on how heavy his own losses were and whether or not he still has the firepower to deal with the inner defenses. Ammunition consumption is going to be an especially ticklish problem, I suspect.

"If he's able to inflict heavy damage on their infrastructure, Beatrice might not prove immediately fatal to the Manties, but the long term effects on the strategic balance would be clearly decisive. Without the Manticoran yards, their Alliance can't possibly match our construction ability, and they'll know it. Which means they'll have no choice but to surrender.

"It he's able to engage Third Fleet and Eighth Fleet in detail, after already trashing Home Fleet, he'll probably be able to completely destroy or cripple just under half the total modern Manty wall of battle and then take out the infrastructure. In that case, Beatrice would definitely be immediately decisive."

Theisman stopped speaking and sat back in his chair, and Pritchart gazed at him without speaking for what seemed an eternity. It was very quiet in the conference room.

Beatrice, she thought. Such a pretty name for something so hideous. Is this what it's really come to, Eloise? 

She wanted to say no, to reject the notion. Yet she couldn't. She'd done her dead level best to avoid this, and she prayed she would still be able to avoid Beatrice. But deep in the secret places of her soul, she was afraid. So afraid. Not of defeat, but of the price of the alternative.

"You say we'd commit almost three hundred and fifty ships of the wall," she said, finally. "What does that leave us if things go wrong?"

"We'll have a total of just over six hundred and twenty SD(P)s in commission at that point," Theisman told her. "There'll be another three hundred or so older superdreadnoughts to support them, although by that point we'll be decommissioning the older ships steadily to provide crews for the new construction."

"Why not take more of them to Manticore, then?"

"For four main reasons. First, out of that total number of pod-layers, something like a hundred will still be working up. They won't be up to full efficiency, their ships companies won't be fully integrated. In short, they won't really be fully combat-effective units.

"Second, the force we're committing ought to be enough to do the job, and it's going to be the biggest fleet of superdreadnoughts ever committed to action in a single battle by anyone, including the Solarian League. Even under a worst-case scenario, it should be more than powerful enough to beat an organized retreat with minimum losses. I realize Murphy's still likely to put in an appearance, but there would have to be some truly radical shift in the basic operational parameters for the Manties to seriously threaten its ability to look after itself.

"Third, we simply can't be certain where their Eighth Fleet is going to be at the moment we launch Beatrice. Suppose, for example, that they've sortied from Trevor's Star on another raiding expedition. In that case, our margin of superiority at Manticore would be even greater, but we've got to cover our own absolutely essential rear areas—like Bolthole, although there's no indication they've figured out where Bolthole is yet—against whatever Eighth Fleet might be doing while we're trashing Manticore.

"Fourth, there's the Andermani. The Manties and Graysons have lost about twenty superdreadnoughts—twelve of them pod-layers—since Thunderbolt wrapped up. That's about seven percent of their total podnoughts. But the Andies are still out there somewhere, and so far, we've seen very few of their capital ships. There are at least a couple of squadrons of them assigned to the Manties' Home Fleet, but that's about it. By our estimates, they should have somewhere around a hundred and twenty pod-layers by now—just about a third of the Manticoran Alliance's total—and we haven't seen them yet. We know they aren't at Trevor's Star, and intelligence suggests there's still some technical problem with them. We know they were conducting a major refit program on the Andy wallers, and we're assuming that explains their continued absence. But it's possible more of them will come forward before we launch Beatrice. And whatever happens in Manticore, the Andy ships that aren't there can't be destroyed. So we've got to retain enough of our own forces uncommitted to provide a strategic reserve against the sudden appearance of the Andermani Navy."

Pritchart considered what he'd said for a moment, then nodded.

"How soon could you mount these operations?"

"Camille could go on very short notice," Theisman said. "Lester's already essentially positioned to mount and execute the operation. Beatrice is going to take longer. Frankly, we'll need at least seven to eight weeks to bring ourselves up to our stipulated force levels. It will take another three weeks or so for the designated units to combine and reach Manticore. So say we could hit Alizon within two weeks of the time you say go, and we could execute Beatrice anywhere from ten weeks to three months from today. If we begin making preliminary deployments for Beatrice now, we'd probably come out closer to the ten-week deadline."

"'From today,'" Pritchart repeated, with a forlorn smile. "You realize this is the day I was supposed to depart for Torch, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," Theisman said sadly.

"This wasn't a conversation I wanted to be having. Not today. Not ever."

"I know that, Madam President. But," he met her eyes unflinchingly, "if the diplomatic option isn't available, this is the logical consequence of going to war in the first place."

"You're right, of course," she sighed, massaging her temples with the fingertips of both hands. "And you tried to warn me before we did it. Before I did it."

"Madam President," he said quietly, "I could have stopped you. We both know that."

"No, you couldn't have," she disagreed. "I'd like to think you could, because then I could spread around some of the guilt I'm feeling right now. But you couldn't have stopped me without killing the Constitution, Tom, and you could no more do that than you could fly without counter-grav . . . or strangle your own child with your bare hands. We both know that."

He started to open his mouth, as if to continue arguing the point. Then he closed it, instead, and she smiled again.

"But however we got here, we're here now," she said, and inhaled sharply.

"All right, Tom, Arnaud. I'll review your summaries. On the basis of what you've said so far, I'm inclined to think you're probably right about the two we're most likely to be choosing between, unfortunately. I hope it will be Camille, but go ahead and assume the worst. Start deploying your units on the basis that Beatrice will be necessary."


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