House of Steel The Honorverse Companion
Author:David Weber

February 1877 PD

“—so while no one can possibly fault His Majesty’s willpower, moral courage, and determination to do the right thing, I think it is legitimate to ask whether or not his commitment to confronting the People’s Republic militarily is the best option available to us.” Joseph Dunleavy looked into the pickup, his expression suitably serious and just a touch troubled. “Obviously, when a star nation has been expanding its borders by force of arms, as well as voluntary annexations, for so long, it’s necessary, as one Old Earth politician expressed it over two thousand T-years ago, to ‘Speak softly, but carry a big stick.’ My concern, and that of those who approach these things from the same perspective as I do, is that His Majesty is giving too much emphasis to the stick and not enough to speaking softly.”

“‘Speaking softly’ hasn’t done any of the rest of the Peeps’ victims a single bit of good, as far as I’m aware.”

Hillary Palin’s crisp Sphinixan accent was a sharp contract to Dunleavy’s cultured, uppercrust Landing accent. She sat across the table from him on the deliberately old-fashioned, face-to-face set of the recently created yet already incredibly popular syndicated Into the Fire. That set was designed to bring guests into direct physical proximity rather than through a safely insulated electronic format (which helped generate more than a few of the fireworks for which the program was already famous), and her expression was far more scornful than his had been.

“I’ll agree with you that a big stick is necessary to get the Peeps’ attention,” she went on, “but I’m pretty sure the two of us differ on whether the best negotiating ploy is to simply keep it handy or break their kneecaps with it.”

Dunleavy rolled his eyes. A onetime professor of political science at Landing University, he’d been associated with any number of liberal-leaning think tanks for over forty T-years and served as one of Sir Orwell Lebrun’s senior foreign policy advisers for the last decade or so. Palin, on the other hand, had exactly zero academic credentials in the social sciences. Instead, she’d been trained as a nano and materials engineer and founded an industrial application firm specializing in the development of advanced composites and (according to unconfirmed reports) radically advanced anti-energy weapon armors. No one had ever been able to prove the reports were true—the RMN was fiendishly good at protecting its technology, after all—but Palin, Holder, and Mitchell, Ltd., had sold its patents to the Navy for upwards of seven billion dollars almost twenty-five T-years ago, when she first stood for election to the House of Commons as the Liberal Party’s candidate for the Borough of South Thule on Sphinx. She’d won that election quite handily, but she’d never had a great deal of patience with ivory tower theorists who’d never won election to anything in their entire lives and refused to acknowledge inconvenient truths that clashed with their own preconceptions. That was quite enough to explain why she and Dunleavy had thoroughly detested one another from the moment they first met, and the fact that she’d shifted her membership from the Liberals to the Centrists eleven T-years ago over the Basilisk annexation—and won reelection quite handily two more times since, despite the change in party affiliation—only made her even more irritating to him.

Besides, if those rumors about the nature of her patents were true, he thought now, she had a vested interest—all that Navy money in her accounts—in supporting the knuckle-draggers who thought warheads were the answer to any problem whenever they demanded yet another superdreadnought.

“That’s precisely the sort of attitude which can be guaranteed to preclude the possibility of any rational resolution of the tensions which have been mounting between the People’s Republic and the Star Kingdom over the last twenty T-years, Hillary,” he more than half snapped now.

“Ah? Since His Majesty’s coronation, you mean?” Palin shot back in dulcet tones, and Dunleavy’s expression darkened.

Manticoran politicians always had to be careful about how they criticized the royal family. The Star Kingdom had a lively tradition of freedom of speech and even livelier political debate, and as the head of government as well as head of state, the monarch was expected to take his or her lumps along with everyone else. But there were limits to how those lumps could be administered. The sort of character assassination by innuendo and the politics of personal destruction which tended to rear their ugly heads from time to time in Parliamentary contests could not be applied to the reigning king or queen. Not unless the person foolish enough to make the attempt was prepared to kiss his own political career goodbye, at any rate. The Manticoran voting public was sufficiently cynical—or pragmatic, perhaps—to recognize the often sordid realities of political ambition, careerism, and what was still known as “spin doctoring,” and it put up with a great deal in the political arena, but there were some things it was not prepared to tolerate.

Which, in Joseph Dunleavy’s opinion, was completely irrational and gave people like Hillary Palin a grossly unfair advantage when it came to the reasoned debate of public policy issues. All she had to do was tar him by implication with attacking Roger III personally, and his argument was cut off at the knees so far as anyone but the Party’s fully committed base was concerned. And that, Dunleavy thought, was as unfortunate as it was unfair, given the fact that King Roger was clearly . . . significantly less than rational where the People’s Republic of Haven was concerned.

“His Majesty’s ascension to the Throne is scarcely the only thing that’s happened in the last twenty T-years, Hillary,” he said after a moment. “I believe his policy and his attitudes have clearly played a role in creating the . . . dynamic we face today, but they’re hardly the only factors involved. And I trust you’ll do me the courtesy of remembering that I’ve never argued the People’s Republic isn’t expansionist—or, for that matter, that its foreign policy isn’t being driven by its own militaristic clique. Obviously a star nation of that size and that power, with the military establishment virtually dictating to its civilian leadership, is a very, very serious threat to the interstellar community in general. I am not now and never have been one of those idealistic but unfortunately misguided souls who favor some sort of unilateral disarmament on our part as the best way to defuse the tension between Nouveau Paris and Landing. In the face of a major star nation with a powerful fleet and a clear commitment to using that fleet in the furtherance of its expansionist policies, discarding that ‘big stick’ I spoke of a moment ago would be the height of foolishness.”

“Then, forgive me, Mr. Dunleavy,” Patrick DuCain, one of Into the Fire’s cohosts, said, “but what exactly are the policy points on which you differ with Prime Minister Cromarty and Foreign Secretary Nageswar?”

Dunleavy showed his teeth for a moment. DuCain was the program’s conservative voice, whereas Minerva Prince, his cohost, provided its liberal viewpoint. Another thing that made their broadcasts so popular, however, was that neither DuCain nor Prince were ideologues. Both were actually registered independents, eschewing party labels (although Dunleavy suspected they both probably voted Centrist, though he was less certain in Prince’s case), and while DuCain was substantially more hardline on foreign policy issues, he was actually closer to the Liberals on many social issues than Prince. Of course, Prince made up for her foreign policy rationality by being somewhere to the right of Adam Smith on matters of fiscal policy, he thought resentfully.

And both of them had elevated their gift for choosing guests with . . . lively differences of opinion—and injecting plenty of blood into the political water when they did—to a fine art. That was yet another reason for their program’s high viewership.

“The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are, as I’m fully aware, intelligent, patriotic, and experienced servants of the Star Kingdom,” he said, wishing with all his heart that he dared to speak the truth. They weren’t servants of the Star Kingdom; they were servants of Roger Winton and his dangerously militant foreign policy. Could none of them see the holocaust—the millions of dead—which had to result from a headlong clash with the People’s Republic?

“Obviously, however, I and other members of the Liberal Party don’t see eye-to-eye with them on all matters,” he continued. “Specifically, in terms of foreign policy, we believe the Star Kingdom has a moral responsibility—to itself and to the galaxy at large—to go the extra kilometer in its efforts to avoid what would inevitably be the biggest, bloodiest, and most destructive war in the last millennium of human history. It’s entirely possible, little though any of us like to contemplate such an outcome, that war is inevitable. That the so-called ‘Big Navy’ advocates are correct, and that only the actual use of military force will be sufficient in the end to bring a halt to the People’s Republic’s expansion. Given that possibility, one cannot but be grateful for His Majesty’s unflagging efforts to build the military wherewithal which will be so sorely needed on that grim and terrible day.”

Dunleavy’s expression was sober, solemn, and he inhaled deeply.

“Yet, granting all of that, do we not have a responsibility—indeed, given the difference between our open, representative political system and the closed, military-dominated system which has plunged the once bright beacon of the Republic of Haven into darkness, do we not have a greater responsibility than Haven—to do all we can to prevent such a hugely destructive, bloody conflict? Whatever we may think of the People’s Republic’s leadership, we are an open system which believes in freedom, the worth of the individual, opportunity, the value of hard work and talent, and freedom of choice. As such, we owe the galaxy better than to simply abandon any hope of stopping short of war. It doesn’t matter what the People’s Republic does or doesn’t owe to itself or to anyone else; we owe ourselves the knowledge that we didn’t simply follow a brutish, militaristic, repressive regime into the maw of warfare without first making every possible effort to avert that outcome.”

“Ms. Palin?” DuCain looked at his other guest. “I have to say that doesn’t sound all that unreasonable. Surely Mr. Dunleavy is correct that every alternative should be considered before we resort to brute force.”

“No one’s advocating resorting to ‘brute force’ if any other alternative presents itself, Patrick.” Palin shook her head, her expression just as sober as Dunleavy’s. “The problem is that the Peeps—and I include their civilian leadership in this, as well as the military; Joe’s mistaken if he thinks there’s any actual difference between them—believe in the use of ‘brute force.’ And, on the face of it, it’s hard to argue with their view that it’s been working pretty well for them for the last thirty T-years or so. They’ve built an enormous military machine, and that military power and their acceptance that they have no choice but to expand or die—politically and economically speaking, at any rate—has developed a momentum that isn’t going to stop before it runs into something it can’t devour. I’m afraid that by this time the Legislaturalists are completely captive to the so-called ‘Duquesne Plan.’ I would love, more than anyone—including Joe—might be prepared to believe, for him to be right that it’s possible to stop the Peeps short of direct military conflict. Unfortunately, I’m no longer confident anyone can . . . or that it’s even possible for them to stop, which is why I shifted my party affiliation to the Centrists. That wasn’t an easy decision for me to make, but I believe I owe my constituents and the Star Kingdom as a whole support for the best available foreign and military policy.”

She looked directly across the table at Dunleavy, and this time there was nothing in her eyes but somber sincerity.

“I don’t say I think the Prime Minister’s policy options are good ones, Joe. I only say they’re the best of the bad options available to him. Don’t think for a moment that he likes them any better than you do, either. But we live in the same galaxy, and the same tiny part of it, as the Peeps, and Duke Cromarty would be grossly derelict in his responsibilities to the Star Kingdom if he didn’t prepare for the one argument he knows the Peeps will have to listen to if and when the time comes.”

“It sounds to me,” Minerva Prince said, “as if the disagreement here is more a matter of degree than kind.” She looked back and forth between Palin and Dunleavy. “Would the two of you agree with that?”

“Not without some significant qualifications, I’m afraid,” Dunleavy said heavily. “I have to agree with Hillary that if worse eventually comes to worst, the existence of the battle fleet Prime Minister Cromarty—and His Majesty—are committed to building is, indeed, an argument the People’s Republic will be forced to ‘listen to.’ As I’ve said from the beginning, the Star Kingdom must have a big stick in reserve if it expects soft speech to accomplish anything.

“But, with all due respect, Hillary, the very way in which you state your argument only underscores the extent to which Cromarty and the Centrists have already abandoned—ruled out—any ‘argument’ that isn’t based on raw force and brute firepower. Have you actually listened to yourself? I don’t believe I’ve heard you refer to the Havenites by anything other than the pejorative, jingoistic label of ‘Peep’ since this broadcast began. That kind of polarization reveals a demonization of our potential adversaries which is symptomatic of the Cromarty Government’s tunnel vision where the People’s Republic is concerned. It’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that the simplistic view of the PRH’s entire leadership as jackbooted thugs isn’t as invalid as I would like it to be. But at this time we have to find some means of engaging them in debate, some way to build a constructive dialogue that allows us to show them how much more valuable stable relations between our star nations would be. They can gain so much more by trading with us, by opening their borders to our technology and investment bankers, by relying on peaceful commerce rather than the inevitable cost in both blood and treasure war must exact from both of us! We need to find a way to convince them to take that path, demonstrate where their true self interest lies, rather than continuing blindly on the road of conquest and repression.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe we can do that simply by appealing to their better natures! For that matter, I’m not at all confident the current military-dominated clique running the People’s Republic has anything remotely like a ‘better nature.’ But rather than simply abandoning the effort, we have to choose an ‘all of the above’ approach to our foreign policy. We have to be willing to be at least modestly accommodating to them where opportunities for peaceful interaction present themselves. Without that willingness on our part, there genuinely is no hope for any sort of constructive engagement which might lead to something less cataclysmic than a head-on clash of arms.”

“If the last thirty T-years of the People’s Republic’s existence have demonstrated a single thing,” Palin said flatly, “it’s that anything remotely like ‘constructive engagement’ is seen as a sign of weakness, an opportunity to push for still more advantage before the hapless victim slides down the Peeps’ throat.”

She shook her head, and when she spoke again her tone was regretful, almost gentle.

“We’ve tried talking to them, Joe. For that matter, there was a time when we had a very close, cordial relationship with the Republic of Haven. When our naval units cooperated with theirs in the enforcement of the Cherwell Convention, for example. When we traded openly and freely with them. But that relationship is gone. Their markets are closed, sealed off by a combination of trade restrictions and punitive import duties, and the thought of Manticoran and Peep naval units cooperating to accomplish anything—short of one another’s destruction, at any rate!—is about as realistic as expecting a planet to reverse its rotation. It’s possible we may be able to talk them into stopping short of our own frontier, short of the Junction, but the only way we’ll convince them is by presenting an argument they can’t ignore. And that, Joe, is why the Cromarty Government is so focused on continuing the Navy’s buildup, stitching together an alliance of independent star systems in a collective security arrangement intended to give even the Peeps pause, and drawing an unmistakable line in the sand that tells them—tells them in terms clear enough, stark enough, not even they can misinterpret our resolve—that we are not simply another juicy target, bigger and richer than any of the others they’ve already engulfed. These people have persuaded themselves they have a manifest destiny to continue their expansion indefinitely, and they’ve built a military machine big enough and strong enough to convince them nothing short of the Solarian League itself could possibly stop them. And the truth is that, on the basis of their record to date, they’re right.”

She shook her head again, her expression grim.

“The most dangerous error a foreign policy maker can commit is to assume the people on the other side of a confrontation, whether it’s a peaceful competition or an active war, are ‘just like us.’ That, under the surface, they share the same basic values, the same view of the galaxy. And, even more dangerous, that they interpret events, relationships, and opportunities the same way we do. Because the truth is, Joe, that not everyone does . . . and the Peeps don’t. In more ways than I can count, they live in a completely different galaxy from ours simply because their starting position, their objectives, and the way they see events are so different from ours. They’re perfectly capable of doing things you and I would both agree—agree without any reservations at all—are insane, given the alternatives, the advantages of dealing openly and peacefully with their interstellar neighbors. And they’re capable of that because they’re starting from a different place and operating under a totally different set of constraints. Constraints and objectives—and beliefs—which make what you and I would agree are fundamentally irrational decisions completely rational, even inevitable.

“You’re right that it takes a big stick to allow someone to speak softly—and be heard—by a masked thug who makes his living through armed robbery. Unfortunately, you also have to convince the thug in question that you not only have a big stick, but that you’re prepared to use it. And sometimes, more often than you or I would like, the only way you can convince someone who’s willing to make a living through armed robbery and mayhem to worry about your stick is to actually hit him with it, because until you do, he won’t believe you’re willing to.”

“She’s doing quite well, I think,” Allen Summervale said judiciously as the broadcast went to commercial break. He looked across the comfortable sitting room at his monarch. “In fact, she’s doing better than I would, given the fact that I can’t stand Dunleavy.” The Prime Minister smiled without much humor. “Unlike a lot of his fellows, I think he’s completely sincere in his beliefs. Arrogant and closed-minded, perhaps, and totally convinced of his own rectitude, but sincere and genuinely concerned about how many people will get hurt in any war against the Peeps. He’s desperately determined to prevent that from happening—I have to give him credit for that, however irritating I personally find him. The problem is that he’s walled that sincerity of his in with so many preconceptions reality just can’t get through to him, and this in a man who’s been shaping the Liberals’ foreign policy for decades! Not to mention how damned supercilious he can be with anyone who dares to disagree with him, given his own indisputable brilliance. In his presence, I have a tendency to forget about our splendid traditions of freedom of speech and open, civil debate. In fact, I might as well admit he tends to make my pistol hand twitch.”

Roger snorted harshly, then tipped his chair back and shrugged.

“You’re right, she is doing well,” he agreed. “On the other hand, both of them are doing what Mom used to call preaching to the choir. I’d like to think Hillary’s going to convince at least a few more people to see reason, but I’m afraid most people have already chosen their positions on this issue.”

“Yes and no,” Cromarty disagreed. Roger looked at him, and the Prime Minister shrugged. “There’s a lot in what you’ve just said, but I don’t think opinion’s as set in ceramacrete as quite a few pundits predict. All our polling suggests there’s still an ongoing, gradual shift in our direction, and the Star Kingdom’s support for you personally is stronger than it’s ever been. Even those who’d be happier if we were ‘less confrontational’ trust you to make the right call in the end more than they trust Lebrun, or Summercross, or Macmillan, or any of the others. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction about how much the Fleet’s costing, and the tension between us and the Peeps has been growing long enough there’s a lot of fear and a lot of pessimism, but according to all our data, a clear majority—not a very big one, I’ll admit, but a majority—of registered voters agree with you.”

“Oh?” Roger cocked a sardonic eyebrow at his chief minister. “That’s why the treaty with Zanzibar sailed through so easily, is it?”

“There’s less support for building this ‘Manticoran Alliance’ of yours,” Cromarty conceded. “Rachel and I both told you there would be. An unfortunately large percentage of your subjects agree with the Conservative Association that entangling ourselves in defensive commitments to small star nations that could never hope to resist Peep aggression on their own is dangerously provocative and actually weakens our own position by burdening us with additional strategic commitments. And, of course, there’s another largish—although smaller—percentage that agrees with Dunleavy, at least where the Alliance is concerned. If we persist in drawing that ‘line in the sand’ Hillary mentioned, aren’t we simply daring the Peeps to step across it? Those who disapprove, disapprove for a whole host of different reasons, though. They may constitute the majority, but it’s an . . . incoherent majority, while a plurality—and a growing plurality, at that, according to all our tracking data—agrees with your reasoning on the Alliance.”

“Which isn’t helping us one bit where the Association and Liberals are concerned.”

“If the Liberals weren’t feeling the heat, Your Majesty, Lebrun wouldn’t have sent Dunleavy to carry water for him like this.” Cromarty waved at the HD, where the commercial break had just ended. “They have access to the same polling data we do. I think they’re interpreting some of it rather differently from the way I would, but they know their base in the Commons is continuing to erode on this issue. That’s why they’re arguing the point so passionately, and I expect Lebrun to try to make his opposition to the Alliance’s ‘dangerous entanglements’ the keynote of his foreign policy position in the next election. The Conservatives don’t care about public opinion, you’re right about that, because by this time they don’t have any representation to lose in the Commons, and peers don’t have to stand for election. But Macmillan and Sheridan can both see the writing on the wall as clearly as Lebrun can, and unlike him, they’re not willing to ride their Commons seats down in flames over a matter of doctrinaire ideology.”

“Maybe so,” Roger acknowledged after a moment. “But I don’t like the way Macmillan’s backing Lebrun over the notion of giving the Peeps ‘more access’ to Basilisk. And I’m not especially confident that the reason she is doesn’t have a little something to do with under the table outside encouragement.”

The King raised his right hand, rubbing thumb and first two fingers together in an ancient gesture Cromarty wished he could misinterpret. Or disagree with, for that matter.

“On the face of it, it’s not an unreasonable request on the Peeps’ part,” he observed in a carefully neutral tone. “They are sending a lot of freighters back and forth to the League through the Junction, even if they aren’t trading with us very much. And they probably do have a legitimate interest in the Silesian trade if they’re going to be passing through the Junction in the first place.”

“Sure they do.” Roger grimaced. “And for that matter, Summercross is right that every ship they send through the Junction pays us the transit fees we’re using to help build up the Navy against them. But you know as well as I do that one of the reasons they’re ‘passing through the Junction’ is to keep as close an eye as they can on what’s going on here in the Star Kingdom. For that matter, both ONI and SIS are sure they’re snagging data dumps from agents right here on Manticore in the process. And that doesn’t even consider how much they want to keep the San Martinos aware of their presence by routing a few billion tons of shipping through Trevor’s Star every year. Not to mention the fact that those freighters they’re sending back and forth to the League are basically payoffs to people like Technodyne in return for the technology they can’t produce anymore. They’re nervous about the R and D they know about, and they’d be a hell of a lot more nervous if they knew about Gram. That’s the reason they’re grabbing every bit of tech from Technodyne they can, whatever that asshole Kolokoltsov is saying. You know that as well as I do, too. Their so-called legitimate trade in Silesia’s a money loser for them, too, now isn’t it? In fact, it’s basically only a way for them to cover at least the majority of their information-gathering expenses as they go swanning through Manticoran space with those remarkably sensitive ‘civilian grade’ sensor suites their freighters mount!”

Cromarty was forced to nod. The People’s Republic was so short of interstellar currency reserves that it had resorted to what amounted to a barter relationship with several of the larger Solarian transstellars. As Roger had pointed out, Technodyne of Yildun was an excellent case in point. As one of the Solarian League Navy’s major contractors, Technodyne had access to virtually all of the SLN’s latest hardware. And, despite the League’s stringent controls on the export of first-line technology, even the “export” tech the SLN had signed off on was substantially better than anything the People’s Republic could have produced internally after so many decades of self-inflicted infrastructure damage.

And, unfortunately, the PRH seemed to be waking up—some, at least—to the fact that Manticore’s warfighting technology was better than its was. Manticoran intelligence, civilian and military alike, suggested the Peoples Navy still hadn’t figured out how far behind the RMN’s actually deployed hardware it was, far less how far behind Gram and the rest of the Star Kingdom’s “black” R&D it was, yet it was clearly making a push to improve its position.

Possibly the fact that the Andermani Empire had finally bought the Astral Energetics’ version of the laser head and put it into service in 1872 had something to do with that. All indications were that Astral’s weapon was markedly inferior to Section Thirteen’s latest variant, yet the mere fact that the Andermani possessed it at all represented a closing of their capability gap vis-à-vis the Star Kingdom. Fortunately, Emperor Gustav appeared to have little interest in distracting Manticore from its concentration on Haven, at least at the moment, but the IAN’s introduction of the weapon into open service had to have spurred Havenite interest in acquiring an equivalent capability. At the moment, there was no evidence Technodyne had a laser head design to sell, but like most Solarian transstellars, Technodyne had never worried all that much over abiding by export restrictions if the customer could meet its price. That being the case, there was no reason to think it would hesitate to acquire a licensed version of Astral’s design and happily sell it to the PRH, especially since the SLN didn’t even seem to have noticed its existence. The League certainly hadn’t made any move to prevent its proliferation, at any rate. Yet.

Even if that changed, Technodyne wouldn’t care as long as it didn’t get caught by someone it couldn’t buy off, and that sort of Solarian arms inspector no longer existed. And if the Peeps were short on hard currency, Technodyne could work with that, as well. After all, the Peeps had all those political prisoners to provide the labor force they needed, which meant they were actually able to deliver raw and semi-refined materials to Technodyne—via the Junction, of course—more cheaply than Technodyne could have purchased the same materials from a source in the League. All indications were that Technodyne was bleeding the Peeps’ ruthlessly, but it was a cost they could bear, at least for now.

The fact that the state owned every Havenite freighter in existence helped hold down costs, as well, he supposed. But Roger was right about the capability of the sensor suites built into the Peep freighters passing through the Junction or trundling about the Manticoran Binary System itself to deliver or pick up cargoes. They were spy ships, plain and simple, and their presence only underscored Roger’s wisdom in setting up Project Gram on Weyland, where those sensor suites never got a peek at any of the hardware Jonas Adcock and his people were beginning to surreptitiously test in the Unicorn Belt.

And it helps that Klaus Hauptman’s such a stiff-necked bastard, too, Cromarty reflected. The man holds grudges like a Gryphon Highlander, and he absolutely loathes Summercross and Lebrun. Doesn’t stop him from doing business with Summercross, or even North Hollow, but that’s just business, and he doesn’t trust any of them any farther than he could jump without counter-grav. The man might as well have the Star Kingdom’s coat of arms tattooed across his backside when it comes to national security, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before anybody in the Association or the Liberal Party hears a single word out of him about the toys he’s been building for Gram over the last couple of T-years.

“You’re probably right, Your Majesty,” he acknowledged out loud. “But unless we’re prepared to call Nouveau Paris on it, it’s going to be hard to make a case for denying them the access they’re asking for. We don’t have to give them favored-star nation status, but we’re going to need something more than ‘because you’re rotten people’ if we’re not going to give them at least the same degree of access we give everyone else.”

“Oh, we’ll give it to them, all right,” Roger said with an unpleasant smile. “But I’ll have my kilo of flesh from Summercross and Lebrun first.”

“Your Majesty?” Cromarty’s expression was wary, and Roger’s smile turned still colder.

“I should never have accepted all the stipulations and restrictions the two of them insisted on when we annexed the terminus,” he said, and it was Cromarty’s turn to grimace in agreement.

Roger had been right about the Opposition’s inability to stop him from making his infant daughter the Duchess of Basilisk, but they’d held out for a generous grab bag of concessions before they’d agreed to acquiesce and make Parliament’s approval unanimous. The offer to make that approval unanimous in return for those selfsame face-saving concessions had been more than Roger and his ministers had been able to resist, given the emphatic way it had countersigned the Crown’s new policy where control of the Junction’s termini was concerned. Unfortunately, no one had repealed the law of unintended consequences, and the restrictions which had resulted had grown steadily more irksome over the past decade.

“The infrastructure in Basilisk—in the system itself, especially in Medusa orbit, not just on the terminus—is growing even faster than I expected,” Roger continued. “It’s more valuable to our economy and more tempting to someone like the Peeps—or Gustav—than I anticipated, too, and thanks to the way we pussyfooted around with Summercross and Lebrun, we don’t have the wherewithal in-system to look after it properly. So I think it’s time we stamp the entire terminus with a big, shiny Manticore.”

“In what way, Your Majesty?”

“I’m going to create a formal naval station in Basilisk. It’s going to be a standing naval presence.” Cromarty looked faintly alarmed, and the King shook his head quickly. “Oh, I’m not going to renege on our promise not to fortify the terminus, Allen! Not that I wouldn’t like to, you understand, but there’s only so much blood in the turnip, and if I have to choose between a few more ships-of-the-wall and fortifying the Basilisk Terminus, I’m afraid I’m going to have to opt for the wallers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t permanently station a division of cruisers and a squadron of destroyers or so in Basilisk to keep an eye on things. And on any ‘civilian Peep freighters’ that happen to pass through. And if people like Summercross and Lebrun happen to get the message that we’re through rolling over for the Peeps because we’re somehow responsible for being the ‘reasonable’ ones, I’m just fine with that, too.”

Cromarty managed not to wince, but it was hard as he contemplated the screams of protest bound to come at him from both left and right when he announced this little decision. On the face of it, it should have been a complete nonissue, but both the Conservatives and the Liberals were going to recognize Roger’s challenge, his warning that he was through deferring to their sensibilities, and that was going to guarantee an ugly reception. But over the past twenty T-years, he’d learned to recognize when there was no point trying to talk Roger Winton out of something.

Besides, he thought, he’s right. It is time we made that message of his crystal clear, and not just to the Peeps.

“Very well, Your Majesty,” he said aloud, “I’ll have a word about it with Abner and Admiral Styler this afternoon.”

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