House of Steel The Honorverse Companion
Author:David Weber

September 1850 PD

“I’M SURE YOU CAN UNDERSTAND why I might have a few . . . reservations about this particular routine personnel transfer, Commander,” Dame Carrie Lomax said dryly. Lomax was in her early sixties, her red hair going steadily gray, and her blue eyes were shrewd as she contemplated the newest addition to her command. “I can understand why it might have seemed like a good idea to Earl Mortenson and even to Admiral Spruance. I’m not too sure it’s going to be a good idea from my perspective, however.”

“I beg your pardon, Ma’am?” Roger Winton said respectfully, standing in front of her desk with Monroe on his shoulder.

“Just between the two of us, it’s going to be difficult for most of my people to forget who your mother is, Commander Winton.” Lomax leaned back in her chair. “Speaking for myself, I find your insistence on being treated like any other Queen’s officer laudable, but I doubt there’s much point pretending that everyone around you is really going to think you’re just one more lieutenant commander. And that leads me to all of the waves I can’t help thinking you’re likely to send scudding across my own personal hot tub here at BuWeaps.”

“It’s not my intention to make waves, Ma’am. In fact—”

“Please.” She raised one hand, interrupting him. “I didn’t fall off the produce shuttle yesterday, Commander. And that wasn’t intended as a criticism, really. But I have read your letters in the Proceedings, as well as reviewing your file, and your performance reports, and the systems critiques and analyses in your end-of-commission reports. With all of that rattling around in the back of my mind, I can’t quite convince myself that Sir William just decided out of a clear blue sky that BuWeaps was the ideal place to put you. And that suggests to my naturally suspicious personality that someone else might have suggested to him. Which, Commander”—she eyed him very levelly—“brings me back to you.”

Roger Winton didn’t need the tip of the treecat’s tail brushing very gently against his lower back or the true-hand resting lightly on the top of his head for balance to realize he’d underestimated Admiral Lomax rather badly. He thought hard for a moment, then shrugged.

“I suppose there’s some fairness in your point, Ma’am.” He smiled briefly. “I didn’t call in any favors to get what I wanted, but I did . . . suggest BuWeaps to Sir William after the Prime Minister pointed out to my mother that the Star Kingdom can’t really have me gadding about the Confederacy any longer. And I’ll admit I had a bit of an ulterior motive.”

“Wonderful,” Lomax sighed. “Another one.”

“I beg your pardon, Ma’am?” Roger said a second time, but she only shook her head and punched a combination into her desktop com.

“Yes, Admiral?” a baritone voice with an obviously foreign accent said from the com.

“Come in here, Jonas. I’ve got someone you need to meet.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Lomax sat back once more, regarding Roger with a somewhat odd expression. A few moments later, her office door slid open and a tallish, dark-haired, gray-eyed commander—obviously at least a few years older than Roger, without prolong—stepped through it. He glanced at Roger without apparent recognition, then came briefly to attention before Lomax’s desk.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Commander Winton, I’d like you to meet Commander Adcock,” Lomax said a bit dryly. “I think you’re going to be working for him. Jonas, Commander Winton. I’m sure you’re likely to recognize him from the HD and the ’faxes, but we’re not supposed to know who he is. Or, since we actually have working brains, we’re supposed to pretend we don’t know who he is.”

Her expression was humorous, but something in her blue eyes made it plain she was serious, and Adcock nodded. Then he turned to Roger and extended his right hand.

“Welcome aboard . . . Commander Winton,” he said.

“Have a seat,” Adcock invited, waving at the two bare-bones chairs sitting in front of his equally bare-bones desk in his small cubicle of an office.

Roger inspected the chairs for a moment, carefully removed the box stuffed with chip folios from the less cluttered one, and settled into it. Monroe hopped down from his shoulder and started rummaging curiously through another box—this one full of discarded folios—and Adcock smiled.

“First time I’ve actually met a treecat,” he admitted. “He’s bigger than I expected.”

“Monroe’s one of the larger ’cats I’ve ever met myself, Sir,” Roger replied. “I hope there’s nothing critically important in that box, but he won’t damage them. He just likes to play with them. He’s got half a dozen sets of building blocks at home, too.”

“I see.” Adcock studied him for a moment, then sighed. “I see you’re serious about military formality, too. I appreciate that, but I have to tell you I’m not entirely comfortable with your calling me ‘Sir.’ I know that’s been the tradition with your family for a long time, and I can appreciate it, but I didn’t grow up on Manticore. I’m finding it’s a bit difficult for me to pretend you aren’t a prince.”

“It’s a problem sometimes,” Roger acknowledged. “But the Navy’s a military hierarchy, Sir.” He emphasized the rank title very slightly. “That’s the seniority that has to be observed, at least on the Navy’s clock.”

“I see,” Adcock repeated, sitting back in his own chair. “Then I’ll just have to learn to live with it.” He smiled. It was a fleeting expression, but the twinkle in his eye seemed genuine to Roger. “I’m sure it won’t be any harder than some of the other things I’ve had to adapt to over the years.”

“I hope not, Sir. I don’t want it to be a problem for anyone, but my family’s found it’s best to get started on the right foot. If we don’t, then as sure as God made little green apples, we’re going to find an ass-kisser screwing everything up at some point.”

Adcock’s lips twitched and he shook his head.

“I don’t think you’ll have that particular problem in our shop, Commander. Since at the moment, ‘our shop’ consists of you, me, a young fellow named Sebastian D’Orville, and half a dozen enlisted personnel.”

Roger felt his lips tighten, and Monroe’s head came up, looking in his person’s direction. Adcock glanced at the treecat, then looked back at Roger with a shrewd expression.

“I’m guessing from your friend’s reaction that you were less than delighted to hear that, Commander. And I don’t really blame you. It does sound like one of those makework little offices that get attached like pre-space barnacles to every military organization. We’re not going to get much done with that short a personnel list, are we?”

“Well, since you ask, Sir, I’d have to say that, no, it doesn’t sound like we are,” Roger replied slowly. “On the other hand, I don’t think you would have asked if the answer was quite that simple.”

“Indeed not,” Adcock agreed. “You see, Commander Winton, I’ve been banished. I made a few too many noises about possible improvements in our hardware that no one wanted to hear—especially over at BuShips. I was coming along quite nicely as a yard dog before that happened; but then, somehow, I wasn’t getting the duty slots that would have moved me up within BuShips. And then I was ‘counseled’ by a representative from BuPers who suggested someone with my talents and mindset might be more comfortable over at BuWeaps. That was when Admiral Hewitt was Fourth Space Lord.”

He regarded Roger expressionlessly, and Roger stifled a wince. Adenauer Hewitt had been of the opinion that fire was still too radical an invention to be fully trusted. For all of Roger’s own disagreements with Sir Frederick Truman, he had to admit Truman’s decision to retire Hewitt had been a long overdue breath of fresh air at BuWeaps. Admittedly, he hadn’t thought Lomax was all that much of an improvement, but he was coming to the conclusion that there were several minor points he was going to have to reconsider carefully.

“Now, there are a few things I can tell you that Dame Carrie can’t,” Adcock continued, and his eyes were very intent. “On the other hand, and bearing in mind that title I’m not supposed to be calling you by, there’s a certain degree of . . . let’s not call it ‘risk,’ but that’s possibly a step in the right direction, in doing that. I don’t think she would have handed you over to me if she didn’t want me to brief you in fully, though.”

He paused, and Roger wondered if he was supposed to say something. Since he couldn’t think of anything especially brilliant, he kept his mouth shut, and Adcock snorted in what could have been amusement.

“Admiralty politics are as nasty as any politics in the known universe,” he said after a moment. “There are a lot of powerful egos involved; nobody gets to be a space lord without paying his or her dues, regardless of family connections, and they expect people to do things their way; and the stakes are whether or not we’re going to have an effective Navy, so people are disinclined to pull their punches. And I’ve been following your correspondence in the Proceedings. I imagine you’re as well aware as I am of just how . . . irritating your comments have been in certain senior quarters?”

“Something of the sort has been intimated to me,” Roger acknowledged. “Politely, of course, bearing in mind that title you’re not supposed to be calling me by.”

“I’m afraid they were a little less polite to me,” Adcock said cheerfully. “And Dame Carrie’s too good at playing the game to tilt at any windmills. Sir Frederick made it abundantly clear what his spending priorities are—both in terms of platform procurement and in terms of R and D—when he helped kill the rest of the Samothrace program. Given his seniority and his current position, locking horns with him would be . . . counterproductive. At best, it’d end up wasting a lot of energy, burning a lot of political capital, and not accomplishing a hell of a lot. Understand me, that’s not because Sir Frederick has any ulterior motives; it’s just that he knows what he knows that he knows, and as the man responsible for calling the shots, he’s going to do it the way his own best judgment says he should. And God knows he was absolutely right about how many eighty thousand-ton cruisers we can build for every seven million-ton superdreadnought we don’t build. I may not fully agree with the decisions he makes, and I have to say that I’d just as soon not have my kneecaps broken by someone as good at political infighting as he is, but I understand why he feels the way he does and I can follow his logic, even if I think it’s flawed.

“So can Dame Carrie, and she’s not about to wreck her personal working relationship with him and create the kind of general disruption that fighting with him about R and D direction in public would produce. Especially not”—he shot Roger a very level look—“when Sir Frederick’s going to be retiring within the next three T-years. No one knows who’ll be tapped to replace him as First Space Lord at this point, but with Baron Castle Rock as First Lord, it seems likely that whoever it is will be more supportive of the baron’s policies. Which I presume must bear at least some faint resemblance to your mother’s policies, given how firmly she’s supported him.”

“I think that would be a not unreasonable assumption, Sir,” Roger said, picking his words slowly and carefully, and Adcock smiled crookedly.

“Well, what Dame Carrie’s done is to create what she’s rather grandiloquently dubbed the ‘Concept Development Office.’ Um, that’s us, Commander. You, me, Lieutenant D’Orville, and a batch of remarkably senior and closemouthed ratings and petty officers from the various technical branches. We don’t appear under that particular title on any of the BuWeaps organizational charts, and we don’t have an actual R and D budget, and no one’s letting us play with any hardware at the moment. But we do have direct access to Dame Carrie and quite a remarkable reach in terms of the information available to us. We’re not being allowed to do any development, but we’re doing one hell of a lot of research.”

“What sort of research, Sir?”

“We’re going through every technical report ONI’s generated in the last twenty T-years, Commander,” Adcock said flatly. “And we’re going through every report any of our reservists serving in the merchant fleet might happen to file between voyages. We’re also auditing every current R and D project BuWeaps is being allowed to pursue and looking back at all the ones BuWeaps wasn’t allowed to pursue, and we have subscriptions to all of the Manticoran—and Beowulfan—civilian technical journals, as well as the SLN’s Naval Quarterly. And the reason we’re doing that, Commander Winton, is because it’s our job to look at everything, whatever the source, and assume nothing about practicality or feasibility until we’ve put it under a microscope and looked at it molecule by molecule. For example, this”—he tapped the reader on his desk—“is Aberu and Harmon’s internal report on that ‘laser head’ they tested back in ’33. The Sollies turned it down, and I can see why, based on the tests. But we’re not going to simply take their word for how useless it was, because that’s our job: to come up with blue-sky ideas, concepts, possibilities—and they can be pretty screwy ones, I’ll grant you—for brand-new research projects. Off the books ideas and concepts that Dame Carrie doesn’t have to fight with Admiral Truman or Admiral Low Delhi about because none of them are official. I expect most of them to turn out to be just as impractical and unworkable as Admiral Truman would expect, but it’s just possible we might turn up a few worthwhile nuggets, while we’re at it. And I wouldn’t be so very surprised, actually, knowing Dame Carrie as well as I’ve come to know her, if she didn’t see your assignment to our little workshop as a way to generate friends in high places—possibly even very high places—when the time comes to dust off some of those more preposterous ideas and see what happens.”

He fell silent, swinging his chair gently through a back-and-forth arc while he allowed Roger to digest what he’d just said. Then he smiled again more crookedly than ever.

“So, tell me, Commander—does that sound like something you might be interested in?”