House of Steel The Honorverse Companion
Author:David Weber

August 1850 PD

“SIR CASPER WAS TALKING about you just yesterday, Roger dear,” Samantha Winton, Queen Samantha II of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, said as she looked across the breakfast table at her son.

“I’ll just bet he was,” her daughter Caitrin said, rolling her eyes, and the treecat perched in the highchair beside Samantha made a soft sound that echoed his person’s mingled amusement and exasperation.

“Don’t encourage her, Magnus,” the Queen told him, and spared him a brief, quelling glance before she turned her gaze upon her younger offspring.

Almost twelve T-years younger than her brother, Caitrin looked absurdly young to someone her mother’s age, thanks in no small part to how youthful she’d been when prolong reached the Star Kingdom. She and Roger both had the Winton look—the dark complexion, the brown eyes, the strong chin—but neither of them were quite as dark as Samantha, who looked remarkably like a throwback to the days of King Roger I. Yet as similar as her children were to one another physically, there was an enormous difference in their personalities, the Queen reflected. Roger was the serious, thoughtful worrier—the sort who was constantly looking to the future, trying to anticipate oncoming storms and shape his course to deal with them. Caitrin wasn’t really the mental gadabout she often liked to portray, but there was no denying that she was far more inclined to take things as they came rather than rushing to meet them.

And she was far, far more . . . irreverent about the venerable traditions and responsibilities of the House of Winton. She took them seriously, but she refused to admit she did. Of course she wasn’t even thirty T-years old yet; there was time for her to grow properly stodgy, Samantha supposed.

Not that Roger showed any signs of stodginess, but he’d always been a serious little boy, and he’d grown into a serious man. One his mother rather liked, as a matter of fact. She often wondered how much of that would have happened anyway and how much was due to the fact that he’d known all his life he’d one day be king? She’d tried to keep that from overshadowing his childhood, just as her parents had tried to prevent the same thing in her own case.

And, like them, she’d failed.

“And what, may I ask,” Roger said now, delivering a quelling glance of his own to his unrepentant sister, “did your estimable Prime Minister have to say about your scapegrace eldest offspring, Mother? No, let me guess. He took the opportunity upon the occasion of my birthday to once more point out that it’s time I began producing an heir to the throne. Annnnnd”—he drew the word out, considering his mother through slitted eyes—“he also took the opportunity to suggest it’s time I stopped playing and settled down to a serious career in politics.”

“I see you know how Sir Casper’s mind works,” Samantha said dryly.

“You mean he knows which ruts the mind in question—such as it is and what there is of it—stays stuck in.”

Caitrin’s tone was far more acid than it had been, and her mother’s expression turned reproving. Not that she expected it to do much good. Sir Casper O’Grady, Earl of Mortenson, was not one of Caitrin Winton’s favorite people.

“Oh, don’t worry, Mom,” her daughter said now. “I promise to be polite—or moderately civil, at least—to him in public. But he keeps harping on that!”

“Yes, he does,” Samantha agreed, holding her daughter’s eyes. “Of course, he’s over seventy, isn’t he? And his attitudes were formed before prolong came along, too, weren’t they?”

Caitrin’s expression sobered. She looked back at her mother for a heartbeat or two, then nodded.

“Point taken, Mom,” she said much more quietly.

Roger sipped coffee, taking his time, letting the moment subside a bit before he lowered his cup again. Queen Samantha would be seventy in another T-year, herself . . . and she’d been far too old for prolong when it reached the Star Kingdom. It was as awkward as it was painful for any child to adjust to the thought that his parents had no more than ninety or a hundred years of life while he himself might well live twice or even three times that long. And it was awkward for the parents, too. Their attitudes and expectations had been shaped by the life expectancies they’d faced growing up. It was hard for many of them to stand back, realize how different their children’s perspectives had to be, and it was even worse in Mortenson’s case. He was a natural worrier, and Roger couldn’t remember the last time—or the first—he’d ever heard the Prime Minister crack a joke, but that might not be such a bad thing in a chief minister. Even if it was a pain in the ass to have Mortenson looking over his shoulder and pressing tactfully (or that was how the Prime Minister probably would have put it; Roger had rather a different perspective on it) now that he was forty-one T-years old—or would be tomorrow, at any rate—for him to “find a nice girl,” put aside his youthful enthusiasms like the Navy, and settle down to his real career in politics.

And while he was about it, produce an heir.

“I suppose I can’t really blame him,” Roger said now, setting his cup back on its saucer. “Hard to remember that, sometimes, but I do try, Mom. But I’m not really planning on becoming King for another—oh, thirty years or so, either—if it’s all right with you. And I’m not really interested in giving up the Navy just yet. Especially now.”

The atmosphere in the pleasant, sunlit dining room seemed to darken. Samantha sat back in her chair at the head of the table, and her treecat companion abandoned his own meal to flow down into her lap and croon to her softly.

“I’m doing all I can, Roger,” she said quietly.

“I know that, Mom.” Roger shook his head quickly. “And I know it might help in some ways to have me available to trot out for debates. But I’m not as good a horse trader yet as you are, and I think—at the moment, at least—that I can do more good arguing the case from inside the Service.” He made a face, then took a piece of bacon from his plate and offered it to Monroe, seated in his own treecat-sized highchair beside him. “If we’re really going to make the kinds of changes you and I both agree we’ve got to make, someone’s got to . . . convince the Navy’s senior officers it’s a good idea.”

“Have you tried a sledgehammer?” his sister asked more than a little bitterly. “It’s been six T-years since that first letter of yours in the Proceedings, Rog, and I haven’t noticed any radical realignments, have you?”

“At least some of them are starting to listen, Katie,” he replied, and watched her quick, involuntary smile as he used the nickname only he had ever applied to her. “I admit it’s an uphill fight, but since the Peeps finally started coming out into the open, a few of my seniors—and quite a few more of my contemporaries—are starting to actually think about it.” He smiled mirthlessly. “In some ways, the timing on Janacek’s response to that much-maligned letter of mine is working in our favor.”

Caitrin laughed. It was a harsh sound, but there was at least some genuine humor in it, her mother thought. And Roger had a point. In fact, he had a much better point than she might have preferred.

It was hard for a lot of people, even now, to accept what had happened to the Republic of Haven. Partly, she supposed, that was because it hadn’t happened overnight. In fact, it had been an agonizingly slow process, one drawn out for the better part of two T-centuries, long enough for it to turn into an accepted part of the backdrop of interstellar politics. And it had all been internal to the Republic, after all. If Havenite citizens wanted to reorder their political and economic systems, that was up to them and really wasn’t anyone else’s business. Unfortunately, the process—and its consequences—were no longer a purely internal matter. That minor change in the interstellar dynamic was (or should have been, anyway) becoming increasingly evident to anyone. Even her best analysts were still split over how and why it had happened, yet the consequences were clear enough for those who had eyes and were willing to use them. Unhappily, however, quite a few people weren’t willing to do that, and too many of those people wielded political power in the Star Kingdom.

In her more charitable moments—which were becoming steadily fewer and farther between—she actually sympathized with those who failed to see the danger. Haven a threat to interstellar peace? Clearly the entire notion was ridiculous! Why, for almost three T-centuries, the Republic of Haven had been the bright, shining light, the example every system in and out of the Haven Quadrant wanted to emulate. A vibrant, participatory democracy, a steadily burgeoning economy serving the most rapidly expanding cluster of colonies in the galaxy, and a growing, energetic star nation whose future seemed to hold no limits. That was how everyone, including the Star Kingdom of Manticore, had seen it for ten or twelve generations.

And then, somehow, it had all gone wrong.

The critical moment, she thought, hugging Magnus’ warm, comforting silkiness, had been the Havenite “Economic Bill of Rights” in 1680, with its declaration that all of the Republic’s citizens had an “unalienable right” to a relative standard of living to be defined and adjusted as inflation required by statute by the Havenite legislature. It had sounded like such a good idea. Who could possibly argue with it? Yet there’d been a subtext to it, an agreement struck between corrupt politicians, self-serving bureaucrats, an entrenched civil service, and the professional political operatives who controlled the “Dolist” voting blocs. One that gave those politicians a permanent grip on power, patronage, and office—and on all the wealth, graft, and special privileges that came with them—in return for giving the new class of “Dolist managers” the power to distribute that legally defined standard of living. What should have been—what had been sold to the Republic as—an exercise in political fairness had become a license to steal and to corrupt as the sprawling machinery of governmental bureaucracy turned into a machine that churned out money and personal license for the powerful and the politically connected.

The insidious rot of that corrupt bargain had overwhelmed Haven’s growing, energetic future and turned it into something ugly and dark and stagnant as an economic burden the Republic’s economy might have been able to bear under other circumstances turned into a fiscal black hole. Effective oversight of spending had become a bad joke as civil service posts became lucrative licenses to swill at the public trough, handed out to cronies and sycophants by lifetime officeholders in return for kickbacks and favorable, mutually back-scratching interpretations of an ever swelling mountain of regulations and rules. More and more of the ever-swelling government’s largess had been siphoned into fewer and fewer pockets through one bogus swindle after another even as that legally mandated standard of living required ever increasing expenditures, and deficit spending had become a way of life, gobbling up Haven’s legendary productivity as the Republic plunged steadily deeper and deeper into debt.

Perhaps the slide could have been arrested, the rot could have been cleaned away, but that would have required an open commitment to reform, a willingness to admit it wasn’t working. Unfortunately, those who’d come to depend on the existing system as the only game in town wouldn’t have liked that very much, and no one could predict where that sort of reaction might lead. And worse even than that, admitting it wasn’t working would inevitably have led to a public look into the reasons it wasn’t, and too many powerful people and families had had far too much to lose to let anything like that happen.

Which meant they’d had to find another solution to their problem.

The galaxy at large knew very little about the top-secret meeting between the leaders of the Legislaturalists, the Republic’s de facto hereditary political rulers, and the handful of most powerful Dolist managers at Nouveau Paris’ Plaza Falls Hotel in 1791. Even Samantha knew far less about it than she wished she did, and it had taken years for Manticoran intelligence to piece together what she did know. There’d been a time when she’d wanted desperately to believe her gloomier analysts’ fears had been paranoid fantasies, but everything which had happened since, especially in the last fifteen or twenty T-years, convinced her otherwise. In fact, she was coming to fear that even their gloomiest predictions had fallen short of the reality.

Twenty T-years ago, possibly as little as ten, she might have been able to convince herself that wasn’t so. But the Havenite “Constitutional Convention” of 1795 had radically rewritten the Republic’s Constitution, ostensibly to fix the government overreach which had produced the crumbling economy but actually to create the People’s Republic. The new constitution had maintained the façade of democracy even while it limited eligibility requirements, office qualifications, and the franchise—officially in order to reduce voter fraud and restrict the political clout of special interest groups—so severely it had become literally impossible to elect a representative who wasn’t a Legislaturalist. It had also just happened to abridge the old Republic’s once robust guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly, although that clause had been very carefully worded. The actual language only authorized the government to punish “hate speech” and language which “attacked another’s dignity on the basis of political, religious, or economic differences.” Of course, the courts had taken a rather broader view of the government’s authority in that regard than the letter of the constitution might have suggested, but it had really only been officially codifying what had gradually become the normal, accepted state of affairs over the previous T-century.

And then, with the new constitution safely in place to rescue the Republic from insolvency and ruin, the first budget passed under it had actually increased the deficits, raising them to a level which could only lead to outright collapse within the next fifty T-years. Everyone had believed that eventually the Legislaturalists would be forced to bite the bullet, to reform their system before it fell apart under them, but the Legislaturalists had had another solution in mind, and the reason for those increased deficits had become clear as the Peoples Navy’s tonnage began to increase steadily.

It hadn’t happened overnight. In fact, they’d managed to hide their increased military spending well enough no one had even noticed for the first ten or fifteen T-years, and once people did start to notice, they’d managed to pass it off as a means to “prime the economic pump” through government funded “jobs production” and “skill training programs.” Oh, there’d been “wild rumors” about huge numbers of Havenite battleships being secretly constructed, but no one had believed them.

Despite everything, Haven was still the golden image. Its economic and fiscal woes had to be only temporary, just until the Republic caught its breath and got its house back in order. It was impossible for it to work any other way, and despite any transitory fiscal dislocations, its laudable commitment to economic fairness remained the model everyone else wanted to emulate.

Several of the other star nations in the Haven Quadrant had done just that, following the Republic into statist economies and guaranteed standards of living. And to be fair, most of those other star nations’ governments had avoided the death spiral of the People’s Republic for the simple reason that they’d been relatively honest governments. They’d managed to provide their own equivalent of the Havenite Basic Living Stipend without completely destroying their economies’ competitiveness and productivity, and they’d managed to pay for their social programs without plunging themselves ever further into debt, but they’d done it only by radically changing their spending goals and policies. Unable to pay for everything without destroying their own economies, they’d cut back even further on military spending, relying for protection against outside aggression on Haven, the traditional guarantor of interstellar peace and order in the Haven Quadrant. In fact, many of them had actually been relieved by the expansion of the Peoples Navy, since its ability to protect them provided such a hefty “peace dividend” for the rest of their national budgets.

Until 1846, that was.

Less than eighteen T-months after Roger’s letter to the Proceedings, the rest of the Haven Quadrant—or as much of it as was willing to face reality, at least—had discovered the real reason for the People’s Republic’s military buildup.

In the last four T-years, the People’s Republic had “annexed” no fewer than eleven independent star systems. Most of them had been Havenite daughter colonies, and the majority of them had “spontaneously sought” inclusion in the new, greater, interstellar People’s Republic of Haven. The thing that amazed Samantha was that there were actually people—quite a lot of them, in fact—who accepted the “spontaneous” nature of those star systems’ eagerness to join the PRH. Obviously even the analysts who’d worried about the Havenite military buildup had missed the Legislaturalists’ accompanying investment in espionage and subversion, although they hadn’t really needed all that much subtlety in many cases. A quiet ultimatum here, a private conversation between the Havenite ambassador and a system president there, an offhand reference to the heavy task forces waiting to sweep in and take control by force of arms if an invitation wasn’t forthcoming in another case, had proved quite effective.

It wouldn’t take very much longer for all of Haven’s daughter colonies to be gathered to her bosom, Samantha Winton thought grimly, her mouth tightening despite Magnus’ comforting, buzzing purr. And if there was anyone in the entire galaxy who believed the People’s Republic would stop then, she had some magic beans she wanted to sell them.

“We’re running out of time, Roger,” she told her son quietly. Monroe stopped nibbling on his bacon and looked up, grass-green eyes dark, ears flattening as he, too, sensed Samantha’s emotions. “Our Navy’s bigger and stronger than anything else in the Quadrant, but it’s not big enough to stand off the entire Havenite fleet, and I can’t get those idiots in Parliament to realize it!”

“I know.” Roger nodded, and it was a sign of his mother’s distress, he thought, that she should be telling him, of all people, that. “But that’s why I have to stay where I am. I can’t wrangle politics the way you can. I don’t know how—yet—and I don’t know where enough of the political bodies are buried. Worse, I’m only the Heir. Nobody in the House of Lords has to take me seriously yet any more than those fossilized jackasses in uniform do.”

“Maybe not,” Samantha said. “But however much all of us may think Sir Casper isn’t the sharpest possible stylus in the box, he’s a good man, and he does understand what we’re up against. That’s one of the reasons he’s as worried as he is. And I think he does have a good point, as much as you’re going to hate hearing this, about assignments that deploy you outside the home system.”

Roger stiffened. He’d finally attained lieutenant commander’s rank and command of his first hyper-capable ship. He was reasonably sure, despite his well-known attitude towards nepotism and “family interest,” that who he’d been born helped explain why that first hyper-capable command had been a modern destroyer instead of one of the RMN’s more elderly frigates, but he knew he’d done well in his two deployments to Silesia. Three pirates, one “privateer,” and two slave ships would cause no more harm thanks to Captain Winton and HMS Daimyo.

“I said you weren’t going to want to hear it,” his mother continued, holding his eyes levelly across Magnus’ prick-eared head, “but I’m afraid we don’t have a choice. And part of the reason for that is the fact that you don’t have an heir of your own, aside from Caitrin, of course. And since she hasn’t married anyone yet, either,” the Queen gave her daughter an only half-humorous glare, “Sir Casper’s quite right to be worried about what might happen to the succession if you . . . suffered a mischief in Silesia.”

Roger looked rebellious, and Monroe’s tail twitched, his ears flat, as he tasted his person’s emotions. But the crown prince kept his mouth firmly closed, and Samantha smiled at him, hoping he saw her gratitude.

“You’re right, Mom,” he said finally. “I don’t like it one bit, but I don’t suppose there’s much point my arguing about it, is there?”

“No, there isn’t,” Samantha said. “I’m sorry, but it’s one of those unpleasant consequences of the nice house and all the people so eager to take care of us.” She smiled just a bit crookedly. “And I’m not asking you to resign your commission, or even to go onto half-pay. We just need to find something—something worthwhile, not just make work—you can do here in the home system. And I’m afraid that while you’re doing it, Sir Casper’s going to insist on your being a bit more hands-on in the political arena, as well.”

“Wonderful,” Roger muttered, his tone dark, although it seemed to his mother that his heart wasn’t fully in it.

“I know you don’t want me speaking directly about this to Abner Laidlaw or Sir Frederick,” she went on, “but there’s no point pretending this is really a ‘routine’ personnel decision.”

“No, I suppose there isn’t,” he agreed, trying not to shudder at the thought of his mother talking to Sir Frederick Truman, the Star Kingdom of Manticore’s First Space Lord. The uniformed head of the Royal Manticoran Navy was one of the “fossils” he’d mentioned earlier. Well into his seventies and facing mandatory retirement within the next four T-years, Truman wasn’t fond of people who rocked the boat and threatened his own orderly plans for the expansion of the Navy’s mission in Silesia. He’d be simply delighted to suggest—with infinite respect, of course—that perhaps the simplest solution would be for Crown Prince Roger to leave active duty entirely.

Sir Abner Laidlaw, the Baron of Castle Rock, on the other hand, was the First Lord of Admiralty which, given the Navy’s primacy, made him the civilian cabinet officer responsible for the Star Kingdom’s overall military posture. He was two T-decades younger than Truman, and he’d been Queen Samantha’s choice for his present position for several reasons. She’d had to fight hard against entrenched opposition in the House of Lords, where an unlikely alliance of the Conservative Association and the Liberal Party had viewed him with dark suspicion. His earlier career as an intelligence officer, rising at last to head the Special Intelligence Service, would have been enough to make the Liberals distrust him. The fact that as a junior analyst he’d been one of the first to point out the shift in Havenite military spending only confirmed that distrust, and somehow people like Second Space Lord Havinghurst—who, as a far from junior analyst at ONI, had brushed off his “inconclusive and alarmist” analyses—weren’t all that fond of him either. Nor did the Conservative Association, whose members’ spinal reflex opposition to anything that threatened the stability of their own star nation—and their position within it—take kindly to the suggestion that it might be wise to start mucking about with that stability in the name of defensive preparedness. Besides, ships cost money. The Conservatives were against spending money on general principles, and the Liberals had all sorts of deserving social programs in direct competition with any increased military spending. The fact that quite a few of those deserving social programs had been inspired by progressive Havenite notions before the Republic’s fiscal wheels started coming off only made them even more mulishly opposed to building up the Navy in the face of a purported Havenite threat.

Can’t very well go around admitting their inspiration is in the process of turning Conquistador on them, can they? Roger thought with an edge of bitterness. Why, that would require them to engage in at least twenty or thirty seconds of actual critical thought! God only knows where that might end!

He knew he was being at least a little unfair, but he didn’t really care. Most members of the Conservative Association were a selfish, small-minded waste of perfectly good oxygen, as far as he was concerned. He had much more sympathy for the rank-and-file members of the Liberal Party, but their refusal to look beyond their own narrow political horizons was eroding that steadily. Marisa Turner, the Earl of New Kiev’s older daughter, was a case in point. The only thing wrong with her brain, in Roger’s opinion, was her refusal to actually use it, yet her birth, her wealth, and her father’s position in the party meant she was inevitably going to become one of the Liberals’ leaders over the next ten or fifteen T-years, and she flatly refused to admit Haven could possibly have any territorial interests outside its immediate astrographic neighborhood. Which was, after all the better part of three light-centuries from the Manticore Binary System!

“It’s going to be a little tricky, however we come at it,” he told his mother. “Truman would love to see me dirt-side and out of uniform. If you bring it up with him, he’ll jump at the opportunity to accomplish just that, and if we fight him on it, we’ll be just as guilty of using patronage to get what we want as someone like Janacek or Low Delhi. But if Laidlaw makes the suggestion, it’ll automatically put Truman’s back up as yet another example of ‘civilian interference’ in the Service’s internal affairs. He might go as far as making his opposition to that interference part of the public record. And even if he didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be surprised if he—or Havinghurst—leaked the fact that he and Spruance had been pressured by Laidlaw. At which point, the idiots in the Conservative Association and the Liberals who already don’t like Sir Abner will start demanding all sorts of Parliamentary inquiries into it.”

“Like everyone else isn’t using family pull to get what they want?” Caitrin demanded, and Roger shrugged.

“I’m not in Mom’s league as a politician yet, Katie, but since when has consistency dared to rear its ugly head where partisan politics are concerned? They don’t care what their friends and families may be doing, but they’ll scream to high heaven about Laidlaw’s seeming to do it in my case if it lets them embarrass him.”

“Roger’s right, Caitrin,” Samantha said, looking approvingly upon her son. “And don’t overlook the possibility of embarrassing me, at least indirectly, as well. They won’t come right out and say it, but anything they can use as an obstacle for those ‘alarmist’ policies I’m trying to ‘ram through’ without due respect for their own august views would be like manna from heaven.”

“There’s a reason I really, really don’t want to have anything more to do with politics than I have to,” Caitrin said sourly.

“Not an option, in our case, I’m afraid, Sis.”

Roger’s eyes were sympathetic, but his voice was firm before he turned back to their mother.

“Actually, I think the best way to do this might be to approach Sir William very quietly,” he said.

Samantha cocked her head, eyebrows rising inquisitively, and he shrugged.

“I’m not saying Sir William isn’t half convinced that I’m at least a third as much of an alarmist as Truman thinks I am, but he’s also at least a little more receptive. And the truth is, it would make a lot of sense for him to come to the same view Sir Casper’s come to. I think if he was properly approached he might be willing to claim ownership of the idea and play godfather for it.”

“Really?” Samantha sounded just a bit skeptical, and Roger smiled.

Rear Admiral of the Green Sir William Spruance was Fifth Space Lord, the head of the Bureau of Personnel. As such, he’d have to sign off on any reassignment, especially one which cut short a programmed tour of command for someone as . . . visible as a member of the Winton dynasty, no matter where the idea for it had come from. And if he proposed the change, it would be impossible for Truman—or anyone else—to blame it on Laidlaw.

“I have reason to believe he’s at least a bit more sympathetic to my wild-eyed lunacy than Sir Frederick,” Roger said. “Captain Wyeth’s his chief of staff these days. He’s been, ah, priming the pump a bit for me, I think. And if I very quietly suggested to Pablo that it might be a good idea to have the heir to the throne closer to hand, and if he suggested it to Sir William, and if Sir William suggested it to Truman, well—”

He shrugged, and his mother nodded. Slowly at first, then with increasing approval.

“I see your father was right when he said you’d learn plenty about politics and infighting with the Fleet.” She stopped nodding and smiled a bit bittersweetly, remembering her husband. Then she shook herself and her eyes narrowed as she contemplated her son. “On the other hand, why do I have the feeling you’re planning to hit more than one bird with that particular rock?”

“Because you know me so well.” His own smile was fleeting, but it was also much closer to a grin. “If I have to give up Daimyo, then I know what I want instead, and I think we can probably convince Sir William to give it to me.”

“And that would be what, precisely?”

“Well, I don’t want a dirt-side command, that’s for sure. And I’m sorry, Mom, but I’d cut my throat if they tried to stick me in BuPlan.”

His shudder was only partly feigned. Vice Admiral Bethany Havinghurst, as head of the Bureau of Planning, also headed ONI, which meant she was responsible for the intelligence analyses Admiral Truman used to justify his emphasis on Silesia, instead of worrying about “the remote possibility” that the People’s Republic might someday become a threat to the Star Kingdom. The possibility of becoming a staff weenie shuffling papers somewhere in the bowels of BuPlan—and with an idiot like Edward Janacek as his direct superior—held no appeal at all.

“That’s what you don’t want,” his mother observed. “What is it you do want, dear?”

“BuWeaps,” he said, and his voice was suddenly very, very serious. “Lomax isn’t who I’d have chosen to head BuWeaps, Mom, but she’s at least a little more open-minded than Truman or Havinghurst. I think she’s too conservative in her approach, under the circumstances, but she’s not part of the ‘old boy and girl network’ the way Truman and Low Delhi are. I’d like to get more hands-on experience with our R and D programs, and BuWeaps is small enough—way too small, in fact, given what’s going on—that a lieutenant commander would be at least a moderately middle-sized fish. I think I could actually do some good over there.”

“More than at BuShips?” Samantha asked shrewdly.

“Lots more than at BuShips.” Roger grimaced. “Low Delhi’s an idiot. Or his policy recommendations are idiotic, at any rate.”

That wasn’t something he could have said to a fellow Navy officer, of course, nor was it anything he’d ever say in public, but that didn’t make it untrue. Third Space Lord Robert Hemphill, the Baron of Low Delhi, headed the Bureau of Ships, responsible for the construction and maintenance of the Navy’s space stations and vessels, and he did not respond well to criticism, however constructive.

“In fairness, I don’t suppose he’s any more of an idiot than a few other senior officers I could name,” he continued. “The problem is he’s got too much invested on a personal and a professional level in the building policies Truman’s been driving for the last several T-years. He’s not going to recommend any radical changes, and BuShips is too damned big. I’d disappear into it and never be seen again—professionally speaking, that is—until my coronation!”

“And you really think you could have some influence with Lomax?”

“I think it’s at least possible,” Roger replied. “Like I say, Dame Carrie’s a little too conservative for my tastes, but I understand why she is. In fact, in some ways I have to agree with her.”

“Excuse me?” His mother sat back in her chair, and Magnus bleeked a laugh as he tasted her emotions. “You actually agree with one of the space lords?”

“I did say ‘in some ways,’” he pointed out with a smile. “And the truth is, Mom, none of them are malevolent, ill-intentioned manipulators. I’ll admit I don’t much like Truman, and I think Havinghurst is too much of a brown-noser where he’s concerned, but he’s absolutely sincere in what he believes the Navy’s requirements are. Low Delhi’s more concerned about keeping his skirts clean than I’d like—or than someone who’s attained his superiority needs to be, for that matter. I mean, my God, the man’s Third Space Lord! It’s not like his career’s going to turn into a dismal failure if he should slip up and do something innovative for a change. But despite that, I think his positions are sincere and I don’t doubt that he’d put patriotism above career if he were genuinely convinced the situation required it. The problem is that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the situation, and nobody’s going to be able to change his mind about it, as far as I can see.

“As for Countess Mailey, she’s doing an excellent job at BuMed. I don’t think anyone could complain about her. Earl Three Pines is too much in lockstep with Truman over at the BuTrain, but that’s inevitable. The First Space Lord has the overriding voice when it comes to formulating operational and strategic doctrine, and that’s the way it ought to be, however . . . inconvenient I personally may find it at the moment. And I actually like Sir William.”

“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Samantha said dryly. “But what’s this business about agreeing with Lomax?”

“Mom,” Roger’s voice turned suddenly very serious, “you know how much I’ve been thinking about this ever since the intelligence types started warning us about Haven. And the truth is that just like I said in that first letter to the Proceedings, we can’t go toe-to-toe with the kind of navy Nouveau Paris can build if it really puts its mind to it. We’re a hell of a lot richer on a per-capita basis than almost anyone else in the galaxy, but we just not big enough, and unless we want to start conquering people ourselves, there’s no way we’re going to get big enough in the time I’m afraid we’ve got.”

His mouth twisted as if he’d bitten into something sour.

“We’ve got what’s probably the biggest, most efficient single-system shipbuilding infrastructure in known space, but it’s overwhelmingly oriented around building civilian ships for private owners. Hephaestus and Vulcan can churn out freighters like nobody’s business, but we don’t have the scale of military building capacity Haven’s already built up, and all of your reports suggest they’re still increasing that capacity when we haven’t even started increasing ours yet. And even if that weren’t true, they’re getting bigger with every system they gobble up. Even with the BLS’ drain on their economy, they’ll probably be able to lay down at least twice as many ships as we’ll be able to, especially when we’re stuck with peacetime budgetary constraints and they’re already operating on a wartime footing.”

Samantha’s expression had darkened with every word her son said. Not because she disagreed with him, but because she couldn’t disagree with him.

“I absolutely agree with what you and Sir Abner are trying to do,” he continued. “We’ve got to build up our wall of battle, but even if Parliament was willing to give you the budgets you’re asking for, we still couldn’t match the Peoples’ Navy’s numbers. That means we’ve got to have qualitative superiority, and enough of it to offset their numerical superiority. I realize that’s why Sir Abner’s pushing for superdreadnoughts, although I don’t think he’s going to get them yet. Not with Truman still arguing about the need for increasing numbers of medium-weight platforms for Silesia and commerce protection and the Conservatives and Liberals denying Haven poses any sort of credible threat. So as far as I can see, we’ve got to find a way besides sheer tonnage to give us that qualitative edge, which is why I say Dame Carrie’s more conservative than I’d really like. I think we need to be pushing the envelope, working to find some kind of technological equalizer, and she’s not really in favor of blue-sky concepts.

“But I understand why she isn’t, and it’s hard to blame her. The Proceedings did an interview with her a few months back, talking about the Samothrace’s weapons suite, and she said something very interesting. ‘A ship-of-the-wall is too important, too big a financial investment and too big a piece of our Navy’s combat potential, to be an experiment.’” He looked at his mother across the table. “She’s not about to go haring off after some elusive, technological silver bullet. Some sort of . . . of panacea, I suppose. Not unless and until she’s convinced it’s going to be a significant improvement on what she’s already got, at any rate. With the Star Kingdom’s military security at risk, it’s her job to avoid buying into a fleet mix that turns out not to work, and she takes that seriously. But she’s also still wedded to the notion that one lonely little star system can’t possibly be capable of pushing R and D farther and faster than something like the Solarian League. That’s why she’s continuing the policy—the long-standing policy, to be fair; she’s not the one who originated it—of emulating the SLN instead of pushing the envelope right here at home.”

“And you seriously think we could push ‘farther and faster’ than the League?” Samantha asked.

“I think we damned well better find out whether or not we can, Mom,” Roger said grimly. “I think we need to increase BuWeaps’ R and D funding. I think we need to find the best talent we can to look at every conceivable way we can improve our war-fighting capability. I think we need to keep it as ‘black’ as possible while we do it. And I think that if we can’t come up with some kind of ‘equalizer,’ then in the end, we’re screwed, no matter what happens.”