House of Steel The Honorverse Companion
Author:David Weber

March 1855 PD



“I’M TELLING YOU, ROGER, she’s brilliant. We agree on that, all right?! But she knows she’s brilliant, and she has about as much tact as . . . as—”

Jonas Adcock shook his head, obviously unable to come up with the simile he wanted, then threw up both hands.

“Hell, she doesn’t have any tact! In fact, I don’t think she’s ever even heard the word!”

“Now, now, Jonas!” Roger shook his own head reprovingly. “You know perfectly well she has to have heard the word used at least in passing as much as, oh, two or three times just at the Island!”

“Then she sure as hell wasn’t paying attention,” Adcock growled.

“Should I assume from your obvious despair that she’s . . . stepped on someone’s toes again?”

“I’m astonished young Alexander didn’t wring her neck,” Adcock said bluntly. “Or that the two of them didn’t spend their lunch hour down at the dueling grounds, for that matter!”

“Oh? And what was the source of their . . . mutual discontent this time?”

“The usual,” Adcock sighed. “Mind you, this time it was all Sonja’s own fault. Not that she was prepared to admit it! She ran into him when he dropped by Section Thirteen to discuss the latest ‘burn’ settings on the Mark Ten.”

He paused, raising his eyebrows, and Roger nodded his understanding. Section Thirteen was internal Navy-speak for “Bureau of Weapons, Missile Development Command, Warhead Division,” which happened to be housed in Section 13-065-9 of HMSS Hephaestus, and the Mark Ten was the latest-generation heavy shipkiller warhead of the RMN. Like all such modern weapons, it could be used in “boom” or “burn” mode: as a contact nuke or as a sidewall “burner,” designed to take down that critical defense before warships closed for the decisive energy duel. The Mark Ten was a very advanced warhead—markedly superior to current-generation Solarian warheads, in fact—which had raised the standoff range in sidewall-burning mode to almost eleven thousand kilometers.

“Well, Sonja was over there to see Commander Mavroudis about something completely separate, but she overheard the question and made some remark about how ‘obsolescent dual mode warheads’ are becoming.”

He looked at Roger again, this time expressionlessly, and Roger groaned.

“Tell me she didn’t say anything about Python!” he begged.

“No,” Adcock said judiciously. “Not in so many words, anyway. But she’d said enough to make Alexander curious, and he asked her what she was talking about. At which point she realized she wasn’t supposed to be talking about Python to anyone—Mavroudis was doing everything but send her semaphore messages from behind Alexander’s back to shut up about it—and fell back on simply giving him a smug, Sonja, I-know-something-you-don’t-know look. Which convinced him she didn’t have a clue what she was talking about—that it was just Sonja being Sonja again—and he made a relatively scathing observation about people who happened to be obsessed with shiny toys and what a pity it was they couldn’t spend the same amount of mental effort on weapons, instead.”

“Oh, Lord.”

Roger’s tone was almost mild, his expression that of a man watching two ground cars slide unstoppably towards one another on a sheet of ice, and Adcock chuckled sourly.

Project Python was a top secret effort being pursued by Section Thirteen with very quiet, under-the-radar input from the Concept Development Office’s researchers. Based on the original, failed effort by Abreu and Harmon, a Solarian defense contractor, Python represented an attempt to develop a workable “laser head”: a weapon which would generate bomb-pumped X-ray lasers and punch them straight through sidewalls from far greater standoff ranges than any sidewall burner had yet attained. If it worked, it would enhance the lethality of missile combat enormously and offer the possibility of radically altering accepted tactics. Unfortunately, it was still a completely black program no one was supposed to know a thing about.

“Give her her due,” Adcock said after a moment. “She obviously realized she should never have opened her mouth about it, and she wasn’t about to breach security, even when Alexander whacked her up aside the head. But that doesn’t mean her temper was any better than usual. She let him have it right back, and they were off to the races in a bloodbath that didn’t have one single thing to do with hardware or weapon systems anymore. One of the little drawbacks of having known each other since they were weaned, I suppose.” He shook his head. “Mavroudis says it took him ten minutes to separate them . . . and it felt like ten hours! He also asked me if I could put her on a leash in the future.”

“Oof!”

Roger grinned. Commander Anders Mavroudis was one of the easiest-going officers in the Queen’s Navy. The fact that he’d made a request like that spoke volumes about how . . . interesting the discussion must have become.

“He commed me while she was still in transit,” Adcock continued, “so I took the opportunity to give her a few quality moments of my own time on her arrival and then sent her off to Sebastian for a refresher review on Security 101, and I’ll just let you guess how well she took that. For a minute there, I thought he was going to invite her out for a little pistol practice this afternoon!”

Adcock grimaced disgustedly. Despite a degree of patriotism which made the most fervent nativeborn Manticorans’ look positively anemic, there were some aspects of the Star Kingdom of which he’d never fully approved. One of those was the persistence of its Code Duello . . . which didn’t mean there weren’t times he could understand how useful people might find it in certain situations.

Roger chuckled, although he had to sympathize with his friend. Lieutenant Commander Sonja Hemphill, the granddaughter of Vice Admiral Robert Hemphill (who’d finally been forced into a long overdue retirement at BuShips), was just as brilliant as Adcock had suggested. And while she wasn’t quite as socially tone deaf as the other captain’s diatribe might suggest, she did have a pronounced gift (which she had obviously inherited from her grandfather) for stepping on toes. It didn’t help that she and Commander Sebastian D’Orville didn’t like each other very much, and the fact that she obviously thought D’Orville—who happened to be senior to her—was slightly denser than battle steel helped even less.

Lieutenant Commander Hamish Alexander, on the other hand, was just as smart and at least moderately more tactful than Hemphill. How someone with his mindset had ended up on Bethany Havinghurst’s staff over at BuPlan was one of life’s little mysteries, but Roger suspected Admiral White Haven (who happened to be Hamish’s father) had probably had a little something to do with it. And in this instance, little though Roger cared for the patronage game, he was prepared to admit it was a good thing, although he was also prepared to admit that Hamish’s occasional . . . lively disagreements with Edward Janacek probably helped explain his own approval in this instance. Fortunately for all concerned—except, of course, he reminded himself grimly, for the rest of the Star Kingdom—Janacek had become a professional intelligence specialist whereas Alexander remained firmly wedded to the tactical track which had always been the fast path to starship command and senior fleet command in the RMN. The good news was that Janacek was unlikely ever to command a fleet in battle and get a few thousand people killed; the bad news was that he had acquired sufficient seniority to be a serious obstacle to efforts to convince the Admiralty and, especially, Parliament that Manticore needed a true battle fleet.

The friction with Janacek was also driven by the fact that Alexander was advancing almost as rapidly towards Captain of the List and eventually flag rank as Janacek had . . . and doing it on the basis of proven ability in command positions, not just who he happened to know. The two men had never liked one another, and Roger forsaw the development of one of the Navy’s truly legendary personal feuds looming inevitably on the horizon. Given their family and political connections, it was likely to be a particularly messy and vicious one, as well. Especially if Janacek ever made the mistake of getting Alexander’s dander up in a public setting. Given the younger man’s rapid advancement, he was going to overtake Janacek’s rank sometime very soon, at which point Janacek was going to discover just how much interest he’d accrued on the numerous barbed, venomous comments he’d made about Alexander in “private conversations” he knew would be circulated through the officer corps. That sort of tactic was typical of his spiteful, coup-counting nature, especially since he could always claim he’d been misquoted or that the anonymous source who’d passed along the comment had garbled it or gotten it wrong. And since it hadn’t been made in any official setting or on the record, no one in the Navy could take official cognizance of it and call him to account.

Unfortunately, young Hamish had inherited the White Haven temper from his father in all its glory. The First Space Lord’s ability to totally demolish some unfortunate soul with a handful of carefully chosen, icily furious words was famous throughout the service. Hamish had the same gift, and one fine day, when Janacek could no longer hide behind the protective rampart of his superior rank and Article Twenty’s prohibition of actions or language “of an insubordinate nature, tending to undermine the authority of a superior officer,” Hamish Alexander was going to demonstrate that to him in full. Roger only wished he could be a fly on the wall when it happened.

Even more unfortunately, Hamish and Sonja were already equal in rank, which took Article Twenty off the table in her case. Worse, the two of them had known one another since childhood, and Roger was of the opinion that they’d probably had their first fight in a kindergarten sandbox.

Be fair, he scolded himself. The real problem is that he thinks she’s a “panacea merchant.” He’s not the only one, either, and the fact that she can’t tell him what’s really going on in Jonas’ shop isn’t making things any better. Whatever her other failings, she takes her security clearance and its restrictions seriously, God bless her ornery little soul, which forces her to talk in generalities, rather than specifics, in public. Her frustration quotient’s getting bigger, too, now that she sees all those tantalizing possibilities she can’t talk about, which is undermining whatever effort towards tactfulness she might otherwise make. In fact, that’s probably what set this one off, and in some ways I can’t really blame her. But if this keeps up, or gets even worse, a lot of people are going to start sharing Hamish’s opinion, and that really could be a problem farther down the line.

Lieutenant Commander Alexander was already recognized as one of the more capable—and sneakier—tacticians of his generation. Roger wasn’t certain he was going to develop into an equally good strategist, but he had hopes. In addition to one of the most beautiful and glamorous wives in the entire Star Kingdom, Alexander had a scalpel-sharp, analytical brain and a deep and abiding interest in history. It was abundantly clear that he was one of the Queen’s officers who recognized the long-term threat potential of the People’s Republic of Haven, as well, and there were still far fewer of those than Roger could have wished . . . especially on Havinghurst’s staff. He was too well aware of proper military discipline to publically voice his opinions of his nominal boss’s intelligence analyses, however, and fortunately he worked directly for Rear Admiral Trenton Shu at Planning and Development, responsible for analyzing, developing, and disseminating operational and tactical doctrine. That kept him out of Havinghurst’s hair (and vice-versa) on a daily basis and also insulated him and Janacek from one another at least somewhat.

Unfortunately, his very interest in history made him far more conservative than Hemphill where the potential for a true technological “equalizer” was concerned, especially without any access to the sorts of projects Adcock’s small, secretive command was contemplating. It wasn’t that Alexander opposed R&D; it was simply that he felt Hemphill had far too much faith in pie-in-the-sky future super weapons which threatened to prevent concentration on the improvement of existing technologies. He’d pointed out more than once that the best was the worst enemy of good enough, and argued that the Navy had to build innovative tactical and operational doctrines around hardware it knew was attainable if it was going to confront an opponent like the PRH. It couldn’t afford to depend on stumbling across some radical transformation of war-fighting technology which had somehow managed to elude the rest of the galaxy for the past couple of T-centuries; instead (as he’d told Sonja on more than one scathing occasion), the emphasis should be on improvement of known technologies. Pure, speculative R&D had a place in his view, but primary emphasis should be placed on applied research to provide the greatest possible qualitative edge in existing offensive and defensive systems.

The problem, Roger thought, is that we need both of them because both of them are making very valid arguments. Sonja really is too convinced she’s going to come up with a silver bullet if she just throws enough ideas at the bulkhead until one of them sticks. She’s not interested in how we get the best use out of the systems we’ve already got, because she’s so confident she’s going to be able to replace them with something so much better. And Hamish is too stubborn—and smart, and outside the loop of what we’re looking at over here—to pin his hopes on something that may well never materialize. No wonder the two of them are at each other’s throats! But at least he doesn’t think Sonja’s a cretin with delusions of godhood the way he sees Janacek. Or not yet, anyway. I suppose that’s always subject to change if this . . . spirited discussion of theirs goes on long enough.

“So what are you going to do about them?” he asked.

His tone darkened with the question. It was a small thing, but Adcock knew him well and gave him a sudden, sharp look. Roger saw it and shrugged with a crooked smile. There was a reason he’d asked Adcock what he was going to do about it instead of asking what they were going to do about it.

“There’s not much I can do about young Alexander, since he’s not under my command,” Adcock pointed out after a moment. “For that matter, I doubt he and I have even spoken to one another more than three or four times, so I can hardly sit him down and ‘reason’ with him on any personal basis.” He shrugged. “I have talked to Sonja . . . again. And she promises to behave better—hah! What she means is she’ll try to behave better for at least a couple of weeks, but then she’s going to get buried in something and step on somebody’s toes—again—without even realizing she’s done it. And I’m going to try to make the fact that we’re losing Sebastian back to fleet duty an advantage. I’ll have him sit down and ‘counsel’ her—bluntly—before he leaves. Maybe that’ll keep her on the straight and narrow at least long enough for Stovalt to settle in at his desk before he has to separate any fractious children!”

Roger nodded, Commander Gerald Stovalt was Admiral Lomax’s hand-picked successor to Sebastian D’Orville. He was older than D’Orville, although young enough to have received prolong, and Dame Carrie obviously hoped his calmer personality would be an asset as Adcock’s executive officer. Roger didn’t think Hemphill was the only reason Lomax thought a calmer personality might be in order, but she had to be one of the reasons.

And at least Dame Carrie’s not going to have to play hide-the-pea about our shop much longer, he reminded himself, reaching up to scratch Monroe’s ears as the treecat leaned against the side of his neck. With Low Delhi gone at BuShips, Truman retired, and Havinghurst on her way out at ONI, the internal politics are going to be a lot smoother at Admiralty House. Now if only we could convince Parliament to at least open its damned eyes!

Unfortunately, not even the fact that the People’s Republic had acquired two new member star systems in the last half T-year alone, neither of whom had joined remotely voluntarily, seemed capable of getting through to the Star Kingdom’s career politicians. The intelligence reports Roger was seeing on the pacification measures adopted in the Rutgers System were enough to turn a man’s stomach, but that wasn’t enough to awaken Parliament’s sense of urgency. Oh, heavens, no! In his darker moments, he was beginning to wonder if anything could accomplish that miracle.

Well, that’s why we’re a monarchy, Rog, he told himself. I guess it’s going to be up to you to do the waking up, one way or the other. And, he thought more grimly, whatever it takes.

Monroe made a soft, distressed sound in his ear as he picked up the emotions which went with that thought, and Roger stroked the ’cat’s head gently.

“May I ask how your mother is?”

Adcock’s voice was quiet, and Roger looked at him sharply. The captain looked back, then twitched his head in Monroe’s direction.

Of course. Jonas has been around us long enough to read the two of us like a book, hasn’t he?

“Not good,” he admitted in an equally quiet voice. “We’re trying to keep it as quiet as we can, but she’s not responding well.” His jaw tightened. “Damn it, Jonas! She’s not even eighty, and we’ve got the best medical establishment in the damned galaxy just through the Junction at Beowulf!”

Adcock nodded silently, and Roger felt a flush of shame. Jonas was fifty-eight already, himself . . . and without prolong he had perhaps another forty years of life left to look forward to.

“I’m sure they are doing their best, Roger,” the other man said after a moment. “Sometimes that isn’t good enough, but it’s still the best they can do.”

“I know, and I shouldn’t complain, either. I know that, too.” Roger summoned a smile which was only slightly off center. “Knowing doesn’t help, sometimes, though.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Adcock agreed. “And from a purely selfish viewpoint, I’m going to really miss you around here.”

“I’m going to miss being around here.”

Roger looked around the small, cluttered office which still housed Adcock’s files and desk and very little else. At least they’d be able to move him and the rest of the shop into better quarters. Too bad Roger wasn’t going to get to make the move with them. Unfortunately . . .

“If I could figure out away to avoid it, I would,” he continued, looking back at Adcock. “But, as Mom’s always said, it comes with the nice house and all the servants.”

“I suppose it does.”

Adcock snorted gently, although the joke wasn’t as funny as it once had been—or as it was going to become in about another three planetary months, for that matter, when he started having to deal with those self-same servants any time he wanted to visit his sister. Still, little though he knew Roger would have enjoyed hearing it, there were upsides from his perspective to Roger’s effective retirement. He hated the fact that it was his mother’s failing health which was forcing the crown prince who’d also become one of the closest friends he’d ever had to take up his full-time political duties so soon, and he hated how much he knew Roger was going to miss active duty. Yet having an experienced naval officer, one who was fully committed to bolstering the Star Kingdom’s defensive posture, effectively running the government from Mount Royal Palace was going to have a salutary effect on the battle Jonas Adcock had been fighting for so long. And on a more personal level—

“And where,” he asked in a deliberately brisker voice, “is that gadabout sister of mine? I thought she was supposed to be dragging you off to lunch?”

“And so she is.” Roger checked his chrono. “I might point out, however, that while she isn’t quite as compulsive about clock-watching as you are, she still has over four full minutes before she’s late. The odds are that she’s—”

The opening door interrupted him, and he turned with a smile as Angelique Adcock and his sister Caitrin came through it.

“You cheated!” Adcock said indignantly, standing to greet the two women and bowing respectfully to Princess Caitrin. “Security told you they were on the way up, didn’t they?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Roger’s innocent expression would have done justice to any lawyer, con man, politician, newsie, or other professional liar. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite hold it when Monroe plucked the almost invisible earbug out of his right ear and held it up for all to see.

“Traitor!” he told the treecat as Monroe bleeked in amusement, and Angelique hit him on the ’cat-less shoulder.

“You did so cheat,” she told him firmly. “And you promised me all those security people wouldn’t spy on me for you!”

“They didn’t,” he said virtuously, putting his arm around her and kissing her firmly. “They were spying on Caitrin!” He shook his head, brown eyes gleaming at his sister. “They’ve been spying on her for us ever since she discovered boys.”

Angelique laughed, but there was an edge to the laughter, and he hugged her a bit tighter in acknowledgment. She still wasn’t really comfortable with the notion of becoming his queen, given all the monumental changes it would demand of her. She was one of Gryphon’s most respected forestry experts, in constant demand for the forest regeneration and management concerns of the planet’s huge (and hugely profitable) ski resorts, and she was never happier than when she was outdoors doing something in wind and weather. Which was probably a good thing for him, he admitted. He’d always enjoyed sports, but he’d spent far too much of his life in artificial environments since graduating from Saganami Island. Angelique had dragged his sorry butt back out into the open air, though, and he’d shared his rediscovered youthful passion for grav skiing with her, while she’d shown him the joys of forest hikes, camping trips, and whitewater kayaks.

Of course, the two of them couldn’t enjoy those camping trips as much as they might have, given who he was and the intense watchfulness of Palace Security and the Queen’s Own, and Angelique wasn’t quite able to hide her awareness of that, however gamely she tried. And that, he conceded unhappily, was a problem which wasn’t going away. The knowledge that the position of Queen Consort of Manticore was a full-time job that would leave no time or space for the career she’d built and loved was a heavy price to pay, and he knew it. In fact, he hated asking her to pay it almost as much as she did the thought of paying it . . . just as he knew the pervasive presence of her own security detail was part of her discomfort with the entire notion. It underscored the monumental change which would envelop her—and which would never release her, for the remainder of her life—when she married him in one hundred and three days.

“Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading their reports, brother mine,” Caitrin told him now. “And I hope you realize Mom was keeping an eye on you, too. Of course, she’d never’ve shared those reports with me. But I always was a better hacker than you, wasn’t I?”

She smiled sweetly, and Roger reached out his other arm to give her a hug, as well. She and Angelique had become fast friends, and he knew he owed a lot of Angelique’s eventual willingness to accept his proposal of marriage to that friendship. Despite the decade-plus difference in their ages—Angelique was actually a T-year older than Roger—Caitrin had been her sponsor, confidante, mentor, and bulwark as she found herself thrust into the very highest levels of Manticoran society. And whether or not Angelique would ever admit it to Roger—or any other member of the human race—she was deeply grateful Caitrin had agreed to delay her own marriage to Edward Henke, the Earl of Gold Peak for over six T-months. The Star Kingdom of Manticore wasn’t accustomed to double weddings in the royal family, but they weren’t unheard of, either, and Roger knew Angelique would take enormous comfort from having Caitrin endure the ordeal right beside her.

Of course, “ordeal” is hardly the right word for how Katie’s going to be feeling about it, Roger thought with a grin.

Palace Security most emphatically did not report to him on his sister’s love life, although he was depressingly well aware that Security knew everything about everyone in the royal family, including who was sleeping with whom. On the other hand, he knew his sister well. Unlike Angelique, Caitrin thrived on social events and affairs, and she would be delighted to . . . regularize her relationship with young Gold Peak, too.

“Well,” he said out loud, turning back to Adcock with a smug expression as he extended one elbow to each of the women, “it would seem there are some advantages to becoming an idle civilian, after all.” He elevated his nose and sniffed loudly. “Unlike those uniformed menials whose ranks I shall soon be departing, I am free to go take a long, slow, luxurious lunch break.” He smiled sweetly. “Should we bring you the leftovers, Sir?”