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Chapter Fifty-Eight

"How bad is it?" Eloise Pritchart asked flatly.

Thomas Theisman looked at her for a moment before he replied.

She looked . . . broken, he thought. Not in spirit, not in her determination to meet her responsibilities. But if those remained intact, something else, deep inside was a bleeding wound, and his own heart ached in sympathy. She wasn't just his President. She was his friend, just as Javier had been, and Javier's death, after all he and she been through, all they'd faced and survived under the Committee of Public Safety, was a bitter, bitter blow.

She returned his gaze across her desk, her eyes as flat and lifeless as her voice, and he knew she knew what he was thinking. But she said nothing more. She simply waited, motionless.

"It's very bad," he said finally. "Lovat, and all the LACs, support ships, and munitions we were building there, are simply gone. Harrington took them all out. Not to mention destroying thirty-two podnaughts, four CLACs, all twenty-four of Admiral Trask's older superdreadnoughts, and something like ten thousand LACs. I can't even begin to compute the straight economic cost. Rachel's people are still in a state of shock just looking at the preliminary numbers, but I think you can safely assume that they just at least doubled the total economic and industrial cost of all their previous raids combined." He shook his head. "Compared to this, what we did to Zanzibar was a love tap."

Pritchart's face had tightened with fresh pain as the litany of destruction rolled out.

"Fortunately, the loss of life was much lower than it might have been," Theisman continued. "Admiral Giovanni had the sense to order Trask to stand down his superdreadnoughts when Harrington started punching out her system defense missile pods with proximity warheads. He scuttled them himself, to prevent their capture, but all of his people got off alive first. We lost more of the LAC crews. They had to at least try, and no one can fault Giovanni for thinking there ought to have been enough of them to let them swarm Harrington's lead task force. Except that every single one of the LACs covering that task force was a Katana. Combined with their new counter-missiles and whatever they used on our wallers, they massacred our Cimeterres. Even the new Alpha birds."

"How did they do it?" she asked in that same flat, terrible voice.

"We're still evaluating the preliminary reports. From what we've seen so far, it looks like they used two new weapons on us. What makes it hurt worse is that both their new systems appear to be absolutely logical progressions from their damned Ghost Rider technology, and we never even saw them coming.

"We should have realized that sooner or later they were going to strap weapons onto their recon drones. They've demonstrated they can operate them deep inside our defended areas with virtual impunity, and they probably took a certain pleasure from applying a variant of the same technique Saint-Just used to destroy Elizabeth's yacht in Yeltsin. The bad news is how close they can get them; the good news—such as it is—is that, even so, they can't get them all the way into attack range in stealth. They still have to get into range to execute their attacks, and not even Manty stealth systems can hide them during the last hundred thousand kilometers or so of their runs. They don't have the sort of acceleration rates missiles do, either, and to be used properly, they have to attack virtually from rest, or else they can't loiter until the proper moment. So they have relatively low closing velocities when they come in, and they can be engaged by counter-missiles and standard point defense, now that we know they're out there. Our intercept probabilities won't be good, especially given how little warning we'll have between the moment their drives peak and the moment they reach attack range, but we can probably cope with the threat."

He paused for a moment, then shrugged.

"Actually, this part of it's largely my own personal fault," he said unflinchingly. "Shannon warned me from the beginning that the Moriarty platforms' stealth wouldn't be good enough to hide them if the Manties figured out what they should be looking for. She wanted to build them into purpose-built superdreadnoughts, or at least add them as strap-on components to larger, more heavily defended platforms. I overruled her because of the need to get Moriarty into service as quickly as possible. I shouldn't have. She was right."

"So were you. We did—do—need them. You didn't see some sort of invisible attack coming, but neither did anyone else. Don't second-guess yourself on this one."

Theisman bobbed his head, but he knew that was one presidential directive he wasn't going to be able to obey.

"The other new weapon they deployed is actually much more frightening," he continued. "The accuracy it demonstrated is bad enough, but what it did to our EW capabilities and counter—missiles may even have been worse. I'm trying very hard to remember we're looking at preliminary reports, but I'll be frank, Eloise. It's hard not to panic over this one.

"I've talked it over with Linda Trenis and Victor Lewis. Obviously, we haven't been able to get Shannon's input yet, but I'll be surprised if she reaches any different conclusions on the basis of the data we have so far.

"They've obviously incorporated an FTL link into their missile telemetry. I'm guessing it has to be an entirely separate, dedicated platform—a roughly missile-sized bird they've managed to squeeze the grav-pulse com into—that serves as an advanced data processing node. Nobody ever considered doing anything like that before, because there really wasn't any point. Light-speed limitations were light-speed limitations, and using this sort of approach must tie all the missiles the command platform is controlling into a fairly tightly bunched cluster. That should make them more vulnerable to interception, and before the FTL com came along, any control platform would have been just as far from home and just as sluggish responding to telemetry commands as any other missile.

"But what they've done gives their missiles the next best thing to real-time command control input from their shipboard tac sections, Eloise. You aren't a professional naval officer, so you may not realize just what a huge advantage that is. Even with conventional single-drive missiles, there's always been a light-speed telemetry lag which makes it impossible to exert effective shipboard control at extended missile ranges. Or to get improved targeting data back from one set of your attack birds' sensors and use it to update the targeting of another set.

"But apparently that isn't true for the Manties anymore. They don't have to preprogram evasion maneuvers into their missiles. Don't have to launch with a locked-in attack profile, or even prepackaged EW profiles. They can use their shipboard computational ability to analyze counter-missile patterns, electronic warfare emissions, and then they can make changes on the fly, adjust everything as they get steadily closer, get steadily better data on the defenses they have to penetrate. They can command their electronic warfare missiles to activate at precisely the most effective moment—decided by the capabilities of a superdreadnought's tactical computers, not just what can be squeezed into a missile body. And on top of that, they can direct the flight of their attack missiles to take the greatest possible advantage of the holes their EW opens up.

"In short, their accuracy's going to be enormously greater than ours in any maximum-range engagement, and their missiles' ability to penetrate our defenses is going to be much higher, as well. So they're going to get through with more laser heads, and those laser heads are going to be much more accurate when they arrive."

"So our numerical superiority just evaporated," Pritchart said grimly.

"Not . . . necessarily," Theisman said, and for the first time since he'd entered her office, emotion flickered in her topaz eyes.

It was incredulity.

"You just said they can kill our ships—like they did Javier's—at ranges where we can't even hurt them," she said curtly.

"Yes, they can. With at least some of their ships."

"What do you mean?"

She cocked her head, eyes suddenly intent, and Theisman shrugged.

"Eloise, this is a new weapon, just deployed. Obviously, it's possible they've refitted with it across the board. I don't think they have, though."

"Why not?"

"Eighth Fleet's been their first team ever since they activated it. It's got their most modern ships, and what I believe is their best fleet commander. It's also been their primary offensive weapon. But Eighth Fleet obviously didn't have this capability at Solon, five and a half months ago. If they'd had it, they sure as hell would've used it when Javier blindsided them.

"For that matter, if they'd had it in general deployment two and a half months ago, when Elizabeth accepted your invitation to a summit, she probably wouldn't have accepted in the first place. You know how she feels about us, and why. Do you really think she would have agreed to sit down to negotiate if she'd had this broadly deployed and ready to go?" He snorted in harsh, bitter derision. "No, if this had been available to Elizabeth Winton on that sort of scale, she would have told us to pound sand. And then she would have gone onto the offensive, taken back every single thing we took away from them in Thunderbolt, and carried straight on through to punch out Haven and occupy Noveau Paris the way they should have at the end of the last war."

"Maybe she only accepted in the first place to buy time while they got it deployed," Pritchart countered.

"Possibly," Theisman conceded. "In fact, that's probably effectively what happened, at least on a small scale. But look at what they did with their new weapon. They swooped down on Lovat, which, admittedly, was a far more important target than anything they'd hit before. They came in, they mousetrapped and massacred the real defensive force when it came out of hyper," a part of his mind cursed himself for his choice of verb as fresh pain flashed through her eyes, but he continued steadily, "then headed in-system, wiped out the LACs and a batch of obsolete wallers, and wrecked the star system's industrial base. Right?"

"Yes," she said, her voice once again curt.

"Then why do it to Lovat?" he asked simply. "If they had enough ships capable of deploying and using this weapon, why not go directly for Haven? Hit us with their own version of Beatrice? Trust me, Eloise—Caparelli, White Haven, and Harrington are at least as good as strategists as anyone on our side. And if we had a weapon like this available in decisive quantities, or if we had any prospect of having it available in those quantities in the immediate future, we would never tell the other side we had it by taking out a secondary target, however attractive it might be. We'd save it, keep it completely under wraps, until we could use it in a single offensive which would end the war. Think about it. That's exactly what they did last time around, in Operation Buttercup—sat on their new ships and weapons until they were ready, then hammered us into scrap."

"So you're saying what they did at Lovat indicates they don't have it broadly deployed?"

"I think that's exactly what it indicates. I think they showed it to us early because they know as well as we do what the tonnage numbers look like right now, and they're really sweating the possible Solarian threat. They're not just still trying to force us to redeploy, to fritter away our strength. They probably won't mind if they can convince us to waste time doing that while they carry out their refits, or iron out the production bottlenecks, or whatever it is they need to do to get this thing deployed throughout their wall of battle. But they'd really prefer for us to think they already have. They want this war over, before the Sollies horn in, and they're hoping we'll decide we're screwed and throw in the towel. And when they do get it deployed, we will be screwed, make no mistake about that."

"So what are you suggesting, Tom?"

"I'm saying we have three options. First, get them to agree to talk to us again and settle this thing without anyone else getting hurt on either side. Second, surrender before they get their new weapon fully into service and slaughter thousands more of our personnel the way they did in Buttercup. The way they did to Javier at Lovat. Third, go ahead and hit them with the Bravo variant of Beatrice before they can get it into full deployment."

"My God, Tom. You can't be serious!"

"Eloise, we're out of other options, and we're out of time." He shook his head. "You know how I've felt about this war from the beginning. I want the first option. I want to talk to them, to tell them about Arnold, to settle this thing across a conference table, not with broadsides and gutted star systems. But they've rejected that option. I know why we think they did it. I know somebody's manipulating what's going on. But if they won't even talk to us, we can't tell them that.

"So, it's either surrender, or go for outright victory."

"And which of those two options would you prefer?" she asked softly.

"In a lot of ways," he admitted, "I'd almost prefer surrender. I've been fighting the Manticorans for a long time now, Eloise. Hell, I started fighting them in Yeltsin, before the first war ever began! My emotions where they're concerned are probably as tangled up and knotted as those of anyone else in the Republic, but I'm tired of seeing men and women under my command, men and women who follow my orders because they trust me, killed. Especially when they're being killed because of a stupid fucking misunderstanding.

"But I'm an admiral; you're the politician. Is a surrender to them possible?"

"I don't know." She inhaled deeply, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "I just don't know. I could carry the Cabinet with me, but I don't see how I could possibly carry the Senate, even if I told them everything we suspect about Arnold at this point. And I don't have the power, as President, to declare war or conclude peace—or surrender—without the advice and consent of the Senate. God only knows what would happen if I tried. Our legal system and chains of authority are still so new, they might shatter outright if I ordered a surrender and Congress repudiated my orders. Everything we've worked for could collapse. Even your navy could come apart. A lot of it would probably obey the order if you endorsed it, but other parts might ignore it and try to keep prosecuting the war. We might even wind up with another round of civil war!"

"Can we send a private message to Elizabeth, then?" Theisman was almost pleading. "Can we tell her we want another cease-fire? A stand down in place of all units while we send a diplomatic mission direct to Manticore?"

"Do you really think they'd listen after all that's happened?" Pritchart said sadly. "That's exactly what I proposed before, Tom! And they're convinced it was only a ploy. That I set it up for some Machiavellian reason of my own, and then tried to murder two teenaged girls to sabotage my own summit. If I try it again now, they're going to see it as an exact replay of the way Saint-Just derailed their Buttercup offensive. It would only 'prove' to them that their new weapons have us panicked."

A single tear tracked down her cheek, and she shook her head.

"I want this war ended even more than you do, Tom. I'm the one Arnold got to with his goddamned forged correspondence. I'm the one who started this entire fucking mess. And now look at it. Hundreds of thousands of men and women dead, star systems wrecked from one end to another, and even Javier."

"Eloise, it wasn't just you." Theisman leaned forward, reaching across the desk, and captured her hand and gripped it fiercely. "Yes, he fooled you. Well, he fooled me, the rest of the Cabinet, and the entire goddamned Congress, as well! You just said it yourself—you didn't have the power to declare war without advice and consent, and you got both of them."

"But I asked for them. It was my policy," she said softly. "My administration."

"Maybe it was. But the way we got here doesn't change where we are, or the options we've got. So, if we can't negotiate, and we can't surrender, what can we do except launch Beatrice? It's an 'all-costs' situation, Eloise, and thanks to your preliminary authorization and the forward redeployments we've already carried out, we can launch it far sooner than the Manties probably expect any response to this. And Beatrice Bravo was specifically designed to take out Eighth Fleet, as well. If we manage that, we knock out the only force we know is equipped with the new missiles, but even that's pretty much beside the point if the main op succeeds. That's really what it comes down to, now. If we wait, we lose; if we attack and I'm wrong about their deployment status, we lose; but if we attack and I'm right, we'll almost certainly win. It's that simple."

He looked into her eyes once again, still holding her hand.

"So which way do we go, Madam President?"


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