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Prologue

 


DEDICATION
For Richard Andrew Earnshaw,
1951-2005.
After forty years of shared laughter, love, and tears, it's hard to let go. But it's time. So, fly, Richard. Wherever you are, wherever God takes you, fly high. I love you.
 
And for Edward Ormondroyd,
purveyor of fine wonders for the young,
with deepest thanks.
 


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The big Aviary-class CLACs and their escorting battlecruisers crossed the Alpha wall into normal-space just outside the hyper limit. There were only three of the superdreadnought-sized vessels, but their LAC bays spat out almost six hundred light attack craft, and if the Republic of Haven's Cimeterre-class LACs were shorter-legged, more lightly armed, and nowhere near so capable as the Star Kingdom of Manticore's Shrikes and Ferrets, they were more than adequate for their current assignment.


They accelerated in-system, building vectors towards the industrial infrastructure of the Alizon System, and discovered an unanticipated bit of good fortune. A pair of lumbering freighters, both squawking Manticoran IDs and bumbling along on the same general flight plan, found themselves squarely in the path of the incoming storm and already within extreme missile range. They accelerated desperately, but the LACs had an overtake velocity of over a thousand KPS at the moment they were first detected, and the freighters' maximum acceleration rate was little more than two hundred gravities. The Cimeterres were capable of very nearly seven hundred, and they were armed . . . which the merchantmen weren't.


"Manticoran freighters, this is Captain Javits of the Republican Navy," a harsh, Haven-accented voice said over the civilian guard frequency. "You are instructed to kill your impellers and abandon ship immediately. Under the terms of applicable interstellar law, I formally inform you that we do not have the capacity to board and search your vessels or to take them as prizes. Therefore, I will open fire upon them and destroy them in twenty standard minutes from . . . now. Get your people off immediately. Javits, clear."


One of the two freighters killed her impellers immediately. The other skipper was more stubborn. He continued to accelerate, as if he thought he might somehow still save his ship, but he wasn't an idiot, either. It took him all of five minutes to realize—or, at least, to accept—that he had no chance, and his impellers, too, went abruptly cold.


Shuttles spilled from the two merchant ships, scuttling away from them at their maximum acceleration as if they expected the Havenite LACs to open fire upon them. But the Republic hewed scrupulously to the requirements of interstellar law. Its warships meticulously waited out the time limit Javits had stipulated, then, precisely on the tick, launched a single pair of missiles at each drifting freighter.


The old-fashioned nuclear warheads did the job just fine.


The Cimeterres sped onward, ignoring the dissipating balls of plasma which had once been somewhere in the vicinity of eight million tons of merchant shipping. Their destruction, after all, was a mere sideshow. Ahead of the Havenite units, a half-dozen destroyers and a division of RMN Star Knight-class CAs accelerated to meet them. The range was still too long for the Cimeterres to actually see the defenders, but the remote reconnaissance platforms spreading out ahead of the LACs were another matter, and Captain Bertrand Javits grimaced as he took note of the drones' relayed report of the defenders' acceleration rates.


"They're not killing themselves to come out and meet us, are they, Skip?" Lieutenant Constanza Sheffield, his executive officer observed.


"No, they aren't," Javits said, and gestured at the cramped, utilitarian LAC's bare-bones plot. "Which probably means Intelligence is right about what they've got covering the inner system," he told her.


"In that case, this is gonna hurt," she said.


"Yes, it is. If not quite as much as they hope it will," Javits agreed. Then he punched a new combination into his com panel. "All Wolverines, this is Wolverine One. From their acceleration rate, it looks like they've got to be towing pods. And from the fact that there's so few of them, I have to assume Intelligence is right about their defensive stance. So instead of walking obligingly into the inner system, we're shifting to Sierra Three. We'll change course at Point Victor-Able on my command in another forty-five minutes. Review your Sierra Three targeting queues and stand by for a defensive missile engagement. Wolverine One, clear."


The range continued to fall, and the recon platforms began to report widespread active sensor emissions. Some were probably search systems, but the primary search platforms for any star system were passive, not active. So the odds were high that most of those active emitters were tied into fire control systems of one sort or another.


Javits watched his own platforms' telemetry as it streamed across his plot's sidebars. The far more capable computer support aboard the CLACs and battlecruisers which had launched the platforms could undoubtedly do more with the data they were acquiring, and he knew how the tech teams back at Bolthole would salivate when they got a look at it. All that was rather secondary to his own calculations, however, since those calculations were mostly concerned with how to keep as many as possible of his people alive through the next few hours.


"Looks like we've got four main nets of platforms on this side of the primary, Skipper," his XO said finally. "Two of them spread to cover the ecliptic, and one high and one low. Gives them pretty fair coverage of the entire sphere of the limit, but they're obviously concentrating on the ecliptic."


"The question, of course, Constanza," he replied dryly, "is how many pods each of those 'clusters' of yours represent."


"Well, that and how many pods they want us to think they have, Sir," Lieutenant Joseph Cook, Javits' tactical officer pointed out.


"That, too," Javits conceded. "Under the circumstances, though, I'm prepared to be fairly pessimistic on that particular point, Joe. And they've clearly gone ahead and deployed the sensor platforms to control the pods. Those're probably at least as expensive as the pods themselves would be, so I'd say there's a good chance they wouldn't have deployed them if they hadn't also deployed the pods for them to control."


"Yes, Sir."


Lieutenant Cook's expression and manner couldn't have been more respectful, but Javits knew what he was thinking. Given the totality of the surprise Operation Thunderbolt had achieved, and the equally total incompetence of the previous Manticoran government, it was entirely possible—even likely—that Alizon's defenses had not been significantly upgraded in the immediate run up to the resumption of hostilities. In which case the defenders might, indeed, be attempting to bluff Javits into believing they had more to work with than they really did. On the other hand, there'd been time since Thunderbolt for the Manties to ship a couple of freighter loads of their multi-drive missile pods out here. And however incompetent Prime Minister High Ridge might have been, the new Alexander Government knew its ass from a hole in the ground. If those additional missiles hadn't been shipped out and deployed, the recon platforms would have been reporting a far heavier system picket than they were actually seeing.


"We're coming up on course change, Skipper," Sheffield told him several minutes later, and he nodded.


"Range to the nearest active sensor platforms?" he asked.


"Closest approach, twelve seconds after we alter course, will be about sixty-four million kilometers," she replied.


"A million inside their maximum effective range from rest," Javits observed, and grimaced. "I wish there was another way to find out if Intelligence knows what it's talking about."


"You and me both, Skip," Sheffield agreed, but she also shrugged. "At least we're the ones calling the tune for the dance this time."


Javits nodded and watched the icon representing his massive flight of LACs sweeping closer and closer to the blinking green crosshair which represented Point Victor-Able. By this time, the Cimeterres had traveled almost thirty-three million kilometers and were up to a velocity of over twenty thousand kilometers per second. The Manty picket ships were still accelerating to meet them, but it was obvious that they had no intention of entering standard missile range of that many LACs. Well, Javits wouldn't have either, if he'd been towing pods stuffed full of multi-drive missiles with a standoff range of over three light-minutes. However good Manticoran combat systems might have been, six hundred-plus LACs would have swarmed over that handful of ships like hungry pseudo-piranha if they could get into range of their own weapons. If there'd been heavy defending units in-system, things might have been different, but in that case, Javits would never have come close enough for them to get a shot at him in the first place.


"Victor-Able, Sir," his astrogator reported suddenly.


"Very well. Order the course change, Constanza."


"Aye, Sir," Sheffield said in far more formal tones, and he heard the order go out.


The green beads representing friendly units on his display shifted course abruptly, arcing back out and away from the inner system on a course which would take them right through one of the more heavily developed and mined portions of the Alizon System's asteroid belt. For several seconds, nothing else changed on the display. And then, like a cascading eruption of scarlet curses, dozens—scores—of previously deployed MDM pods began to fire all along the outer edge of the inner system.


The range was incredibly long, even for Manticoran fire control, and one thing Thunderbolt had taught the Republican Navy was that as good as Manty technology was, it wasn't perfect. Hits at such extreme range, even against all-up, hyper-capable starships would have been hard come by. Against such small, elusive targets as LACs, they would be even harder to achieve.


But of course, Javits thought, hyper-capable units could take a lot more damage than we can. Anybody they do hit, is going to get reamed.


The missiles streaked outward at well over forty thousand gravities. Even at that stupendous rate of acceleration, it would take them the next best thing to nine minutes to reach his ships, and his missile defense crews began to track the incoming threat. It was hard—Manty ECM had always been hellishly good, and it had gotten even better since the last war—but Admiral Foraker's teams at Bolthole had compensated for that as much as they could. The Cimeterres' point defense and EW weren't in the same league as Manty LACs' systems, but they were much better than any previous Havenite LAC had ever possessed, and the extreme range worked in their favor.


At least three-quarters of the total Manticoran launch simply lost lock and wandered off course. The recon platforms reported the sudden spiteful flashes as the lost missiles detonated early, before they could become a threat to navigation here in the system. But the rest of the pursuing missiles continued to charge after his units.


"Approximately nine hundred still inbound," Lieutenant Cook announced in a voice which struck Javits as entirely too calm. "Allocating outer zone counter-missiles."


He paused for perhaps a pair of heart beats, then said one more word.


"Engaging."


The command Cimeterre quivered as the first counter-missiles blasted away from her. They were woefully outclassed by the missiles racing to kill her, but there were almost two-thirds as many LACs as there were attack missiles, and each LAC was firing dozens of counter-missiles.


Not all of them simultaneously. Admiral Foraker's staff, and especially Captain Clapp, her resident LAC tactical genius, had worked long and hard to develop improved missile defense doctrine for the Cimeterres, especially because of their small size and the technological imbalance between their capabilities and those of their opponents. They'd come up with a variant on the "layered defense" Admiral Foraker had devised for the wall of battle, a doctrine which relied less on sophistication than on sheer numbers and recognized that counter-missiles were far less expensive than LACs full of trained Navy personnel.


Now Javits watched the first waves of counter-missiles sweeping towards the incoming Manticoran fire. EW platforms seeded throughout the MDMs came on-line, using huge bursts of jamming in efforts to blind the counter-missiles' seekers. Other platforms produced entire shoals of false images, saturating the LACs' tracking systems with threats. But that had been accepted when the missile defense doctrine was evolved, and in some ways, the very inferiority of Havenite technology worked for Javits at this moment. His counter-missiles' onboard seekers were almost too simpleminded to be properly confused. They could "see" only the very strongest of targeting sources at the best of times, and they had been launched in such huge numbers that they could afford to waste much of their effort killing harmless decoys.


A second, almost equally heavy wave of counter-missiles followed the first one. Again, a Manticoran fleet wouldn't have fired the salvos that closely together. They would have waited, lest the second wave's impeller wedges interrupt their telemetry control links to the first wave's CMs. But Javits' crews knew that at this range, the relatively less capable onboard fire control systems of their LACs had nowhere near the reach and sensitivity of their Manticoran counterparts, anyway. Which didn't even consider the effectiveness of the Manty missiles' penetration aids and EW. Since they could barely see the damned things in the first place, they were giving up far less in terms of enhanced accuracy than a Manticoran formation would have sacrificed, and the larger number of counter-missiles they were putting into space more than compensated for any target discrimination they lost.


The Cimeterres' own EW did what it could, as well. The first-wave counter-missiles took out over three hundred of the Manticoran missiles. The second wave killed another two hundred. Perhaps another hundred fell prey to the LACs' electronic warfare systems, lost lock, and went wandering harmlessly astray. Another fifty or sixty lost lock initially, but managed to reacquire their targets or to find new ones, yet their need to quest for fresh victims delayed them, kicked them slightly behind the rest of the stream to make them easier point defense targets.


The third and final wave of counter-missiles killed over a hundred more of the incoming missiles, but over two hundred, in what were now effectively two slightly staggered salvos, burst through the inner counter-missile zone and charged down upon Javits' LACs.


The agile little craft opened fire with every point defense laser cluster that would bear. Dozens of lasers stabbed at each incoming laser head, and as the attack missiles rolled in on their final approaches, the targeted Cimeterres rotated sharply, presenting only the bellies and roofs of their impenetrable impeller wedges to them. The targeted LACs' consorts continued to slam bolts of coherent light into the teeth of the Manticoran missiles. Over half of those missiles disappeared, torn apart by the defensive fire, but many of the others swerved at the last moment, either because they'd been executing deceptive attack runs to mask their true targets or else because they'd lost their initial targets and had to acquire new ones. Most of those got through; only a handful of the others did.


Vacuum blazed as the powerful Manticoran laser heads detonated in vicious, fusion-fueled chain-lightning, and immensely powerful X-ray lasers stabbed out of the explosions. Many of those lasers wasted their fury on the interposed wedges of their targets, but others ripped through the LACs' sidewalls as if they had not existed. These were capital missiles of the Royal Manticoran Navy, designed to blast through the almost inconceivably tough sidewalls and armor of ships of the wall. What one of them did to a tiny, completely unarmored light attack craft was cataclysmic.


More explosions speckled space as Cimeterres' fusion bottles failed. Almost three dozen of Javits' LACs were destroyed outright. Another four survived long enough for their remaining crewpeople to abandon ship.


"Wolverine Red Three, Wolverine One," he said harshly into his microphone. "You've got lifeguard. Pick up everyone you can. One, clear."


"Aye, Wolverine One. Red Three copies. Decelerating now."


Javits watched the designated squadron decelerate slightly—just enough to match vectors with the skinsuited crewmen who could no longer accelerate—and his eyes were hard. Under other circumstances, delaying to pick those people up would have represented an unacceptable risk. But at this range, and with the range already opening to the very edge of even Manticoran missiles' reach, it was a chance well worth taking.


And not just because of the "asset" those people represent, he thought. We left too many people too many places under the People's Republic. Not again—not on my watch. Not if there's any option at all.


He watched the plot's sidebars silently update themselves, listing his losses. They hurt. Thirty-eight ships represented over six percent of his total strength, and he'd known most of the four hundred people who'd been aboard them personally. But in the unforgiving calculus of war, that loss rate was not merely acceptable, it was low. Especially for LAC operations.


And we're outside their reach, now. We've confirmed what they're deploying for system defense, but they're not going to waste more missiles on us. Not at this range . . . and not when they can't be certain what else may be waiting to pounce if they fire off all their birds.


"Sir," Lieutenant Cook said. "We're beginning to pick up active emissions ahead of us." Javits looked across at him, and the lieutenant looked up from his own display to meet his CO's eyes. "The computers assess them as primarily point defense radar and lidar, Sir. There don't seem to be very many of them."


"Good," Javits grunted. "All Wolverines, Wolverine One. Stand by to launch on Sierra targets on my command."


He switched channels again, back to the civilian guard frequency.


"Alizon System Central, this is Captain Javits. I will be bringing your Tregarth Alpha facilities into my extreme missile range in twenty-seven minutes from . . . now. My vector will make it impossible for me to match velocity with the facilities or send across boarding parties, and I hereby inform you that I will open fire on them, and on any extraction vessels within my missile envelope, in twenty-nine minutes."


He looked down at his plot once more with a hard, fierce grin. Then keyed his mike once more.


"I advise you to begin evacuation procedures now," he said. "Javits, clear."


* * *

"So what's the best estimate of the results, Admiral?" President Eloise Pritchart asked.


The beautiful, platinum-haired President had come across to the Octagon, the Republic of Haven's military nerve center, for this meeting, and aside from one bodyguard, she was the single civilian in the enormous conference room. All eyes were on the huge holo display above the conference table, where the reproduced imagery from Bertrand Javits' tactical plot hovered in midair.


"Our best estimate from the recon platforms' data is that Captain Javits' raid destroyed about eight percent—probably a little less—of Alizon's total resource extraction capability, Madam President," Rear Admiral Victor Lewis, Director of Operational Research replied. Thanks to venerable traditions of uncertain origin, Naval Intelligence reported to Op Research, which, in turn, reported to Vice Admiral Linda Trenis' Bureau of Planning.


"And was that an acceptable return in light of our own losses?" the President asked.


"Yes," another voice said, and the President looked at the stocky, brown-haired admiral at the head of the table who'd spoken. Admiral Thomas Theisman, Secretary of War and Chief of Naval Operations, looked back at her steadily. "We lost about a third of the people we'd have lost aboard a single old-style cruiser, Madam President," he continued, speaking very formally in the presence of their subordinates. "In return, we confirmed NavInt's estimate of the system-defense doctrine the Manties appear to be adopting and acquired additional information on their fire control systems and current pod deployment patterns; destroyed eight million tons of hyper-capable merchant shipping, better than five times the combined tonnage of all the LACs Javits lost; and put a small but significant dent into the productivity of Alizon. More to the point, we hit one of the Manticoran Alliance's member's home system for what everyone will recognize as negligible losses, and this isn't the first time Alizon's been hit. That has to have an effect on the entire Alliance's morale, and it's almost certain to increase the pressure on the White Haven Admiralty to detach additional picket forces to cover the Star Kingdom's allies against similar attacks."


"I see." The President's topaz-colored eyes didn't look especially happy, but they didn't flinch away from Theisman's logic, either. She looked at him for a moment longer, then returned her attention to Rear Admiral Lewis.


"Please pardon the interruption, Admiral," she said. "Continue, if you would."


"Of course, Madam President." The rear admiral cleared his throat and punched a new command sequence into his terminal. The holo display shifted, and Javits' plot disappeared, replaced by a series of bar graphs.


"If you'll look at the first red column, Madam President," he began, "you'll see our losses to date in ships of the wall. The green column beside it represents SD(P)s currently undergoing trials or completing construction. The amber column . . ."


* * *

"Well, that was all extremely interesting, Tom," Eloise Pritchart said some hours later. "Unfortunately, I think we're into information overkill. In some ways, I think I know less about what's going on now than I did before I came over here!"


She made a face, and Theisman chuckled. He sat behind his desk, tipped back comfortably in his chair, and the Republic's President sat on the comfortable couch facing the desk. Her personal security detail was camped outside the door, giving her at least the illusion of privacy, her shoes lay on the carpet in front of her, and she had both bare feet tucked up under her while she nursed a steaming cup of coffee in slender hands. Theisman's own cup sat on his desk's blotter.


"You spent long enough as Javier's people's commissioner to have a better grasp of military realities than that, Eloise," he told her now.


"In a general sense, certainly." She shrugged. "On the other hand, I was never actually trained for the realities of the Navy, and there've been so many changes in such a short time that what I did know feels hopelessly out of date. I suppose what matters is that you're current. And confident."


Her tone was ever so slightly questioning on the last two words, and it was his turn to shrug.


"'Confident' is a slippery word. You know I was never happy about going back to war against the Manties." He raised one hand in a placating gesture. "I understand your logic, and I can't disagree with it. Besides, you're the President. But I have to admit that I never liked the idea. And that Thunderbolt's success has exceeded my own expectations. So far, at least."


"Even after what happened—or didn't happen—at Trevor's Star?"


"Javier made the right decision on the basis of everything we knew," Theisman said firmly. "None of us fully appreciated just how tough Shannon's 'layered defense' was going to be against long-range Manticoran missile fire. If we'd been able to project probable losses during the approach phase as accurately then as we could now, then, yes, he should have gone ahead and pressed the attack. But he didn't know that at the time any more than the rest of us did."


"I see." Pritchart sipped coffee, and Theisman watched her with a carefully hidden smile. That was about as close as the President was ever going to allow herself to come to "pulling strings" on Javier Giscard's behalf, lover or no lover.


"And Lewis' projections?" she continued after a moment. "Do you feel confident about them, too?"


"As far as the numbers from our own side go, absolutely," he said. "Manpower's going to be a problem for about the next seven months. After that, the training programs Linda and Shannon have in place should be producing most of the personnel we need. And a few months after that, we'll begin steadily mothballing the old-style wallers to crew the new construction as it comes out of the yards. We're still going to be stretched to come up with the officers we need—especially flag officers with experience—but we were able to build up a solid base between the Saint-Just cease-fire and Thunderbolt. I think we'll be all right on that side, too.


"As far as the industrial side goes, I realize the economic strain of our present building plans is going to be heavy. Rachel Hanriot's made that clear enough on behalf of Treasury, but I didn't need her to tell me, and I deeply regret having to impose it. Especially given the high price we've all paid to start turning the economy around. But we don't have a lot of choice, unless we end up successfully negotiating a peace settlement."


He raised his eyebrows questioningly, and she gave her head a quick, irritable shake.


"I don't know where we are on that," she admitted, manifestly unhappily. "I'd have thought even Elizabeth Winton would be willing to sit down and talk after you, Javier, and the rest of the Navy finished kicking her navy's ass so thoroughly! So far, though, nothing. I'm becoming more and more convinced that Arnold's been right about the Manties' new taste for imperialism from the very beginning . . . damn him."


Theisman started to say something, then stopped. This wasn't the time to suggest that the Queen of Manticore might have very good reasons to not see things exactly as Eloise Pritchart did. Or to reiterate his own deep distrust and suspicion of anything emerging from the mouth of Secretary of State Arnold Giancola.


"Well," he said instead, "in the absence of a negotiated settlement, we don't really have any choice but to press for an outright military victory."


"And you genuinely believe we can achieve that?"


Theisman snorted in harsh amusement at her tone.


"I wish you wouldn't sound quite so . . . dubious," he said. "You're the commander-in-chief, after all. Does terrible things for the uniformed personnel's morale when you sound like you can't quite believe we can win."


"After what they did to us in the last war, and especially Buttercup, it's hard not to feel a little doubtful, Tom," she said a bit apologetically.


"I suppose it is," he conceded. "But in this case, yes, I do believe we can defeat the Star Kingdom and its allies if we have to. I really need to take you out to Bolthole to actually see what we're doing there, and discuss everything Shannon Foraker is up to. The short version, though, is that we hurt the Manties badly in Thunderbolt. Not just in the ships we destroyed, but in the unfinished construction Admiral Griffith took out at Grendels-bane. We gutted their entire second-generation podnought building program, Eloise. They're basically having to lay down new vessels from scratch, and while their building rates are still faster than ours are, even at Bolthole, they aren't fast enough to offset the jump we've gotten in ships already under construction and nearing completion. Our technology still isn't as good as theirs is, but the tech information Erewhon handed over, and the sensor data we recorded during Thunderbolt—plus the captured hardware we've been able to take apart and examine—is helping a lot in that regard, as well."


"Erewhon." Pritchart shook her head with a sigh, her expression unhappy. "I really regret the position we put Erewhon in with Thunderbolt."


"Frankly, I don't think the Erewhonese are exactly ecstatic over it, themselves," Theisman said dryly. "And I know they didn't anticipate that they were going to hand over their tech manuals on Alliance hardware just in time for us to go back to war. On the other hand, they know why we did it," why you did it, actually, Eloise, he carefully did not say aloud, "and they wouldn't have broken with Manticore in the first place if they hadn't had some pretty serious reservations of their own about the Manties' new foreign policy. And since the shooting started, we've been scrupulous about respecting the limitations built into the terms of our treaty relationship."


Pritchart nodded. The Republic's treaty with the Republic of Erewhon was one of mutual defense, and her administration had very carefully informed Erewhon—and the Manticorans—that since Haven had elected to resume open hostilities without being physically attacked by Manticore, she had no intention of attempting to invoke the military terms of the treaty.


"In any case," Theisman continued, "they at least gave us a look inside the Manties' military hardware. What they had was dated, and I could wish it were more current, but it's been extraordinarily useful to Shannon, anyway.


"The upshot is that Shannon's already working out new doctrine and some new pieces of hardware, especially in the LAC programs and our system-defense control systems, based on the combination of our information from Erewhon, examination of captured and wrecked Manticoran hardware, and analysis of operations to date. At the beginning of Thunderbolt, we'd estimated that one of our pod superdreadnoughts probably had about forty percent as much combat power as a Manticoran or Grayson SD(P). That estimate looks like it was fairly accurate at the time, but I believe we're steadily moving the ratio in our favor."


"But the Manties have as much operational data as we do, don't they? Aren't they going to be improving their capabilities right along with ours?"


"Yes and no. Actually, except for what happened to Lester at Marsh, they didn't retain possession of a single star system where we engaged them, and none of Lester's modern hyper-capable types were taken intact. We, on the other hand, effectively destroyed virtually every one of their pickets we hit, so those pickets didn't have much opportunity to pass on any observations they might have made.


"In addition, we captured examples of a lot of their hardware. Their security protocols worked damned effectively on most of their classified mollycircs, and quite a bit of what we did get we can't really use yet. Shannon says it's a case of basic differences in the capabilities of our infrastructure. For all intents and purposes, we've got to build the tools, to build the tools, to build the tools we need to reproduce a lot of Manticore's cutting edge technology. But we've still picked up a lot, and, frankly, our starting point was so far behind theirs that our relative capabilities are climbing more rapidly than theirs are.


"As I say, we'd estimated pre-Thunderbolt that each of their modern wallers was about twice as combat-effective as one of ours. On the basis of changes we've already made in doctrine and tactics, and allowing for how much more capable our missile defenses turned out to be, we've upped that estimate to set one of their SD(P)s as equal to about one and a half of our podnoughts. On the basis of the current rate of change in our basic capabilities, within another eight months or a year, the ratio should drop from its original two-to-one to about one-point-three-to-one. Given the difference in the numbers of ships of the wall we can anticipate commissioning over the next T-year and a half or so, and especially bearing in mind how much more strategic depth we have, that equates to a solid military superiority on our part."


"But the Legislaturalists had a solid military superiority when they started this entire cycle of war," Pritchart pointed out. "And, like the one you're talking about, it depended on 'strategic depth' and offsetting the Manties' tech edge with numbers."


"Granted," Theisman acknowledged. "And I'll also grant you that the Manties aren't going to be letting any grass grow under them. They know as well as we do that their big equalizer has always been their superior technology, so they're going to be doing whatever they can do increase their tech edge. And as someone who had far more experience than I ever wanted working with the bits and pieces of assistance we were able to get from the Solarian League back in the bad old days under Pierre and Saint-Just, I sometimes suspect that even the Manties don't realize just how good their hardware really is. It's certainly better than anything the Sollies actually have deployed. Or had deployed as of two or three T-years ago, at least. And if NavInt's right, they haven't done a thing to change that situation since.


"But the bottom line, Eloise, is that they simply can't match or overcome our building edge over the next two T-years or so. Even then, the sheer numbers of hulls we can lay down and man—assuming the economy holds—should be great enough to allow us to more than maintain parity in newly commissioned units. But for those two years, at a bare minimum, they simply won't have the platforms to mount whatever new weapons or defenses they introduce. And one thing both we and the Manties learned the last time around is that strategic hesitation is deadly."


"What do you mean?"


"Eloise, no one else in the history of the galaxy has ever fought a war on the scale on which we and the Manties are operating. The Solarian League never had to; it was simply so big no one could fight it, and everyone knew it. But we and the Manties have hammered away at each other with navies with literally hundreds of ships of the wall for most of the last twenty T-years now. And the one thing the Manties made perfectly clear in the last war is that wars like this can be fought to a successful military conclusion. They couldn't do it until they managed to assemble their Eighth Fleet for 'Operation Buttercup,' but once they did, they drove us to the brink of military collapse in just a few months. So, if they won't negotiate, and if we have a time window of, say, two T-years in which we enjoy a potentially decisive advantage, then this is no time to be dancing around the edges."


He looked her straight in the eye, and his voice was deep and hard.


"If we can't achieve our war objectives and an acceptable peace before our advantage in combat power erodes out from under us, then it's time for us to use that advantage while we still have it and force them to admit defeat. Even if that requires us to dictate peace terms in Mount Royal Palace on Manticore itself."


 


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