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CHAPTER TWO: Forging the Sword

The VIP Navy shuttle drifted slowly through space. Although it was far larger than the cutters which normally played deep space taxi for the TFN's flag officers, it remained less than a minnow beside the looming bulk of the ship it had come here to see.

The trip wasn't really necessary, of course. Every one of the high-ranked officers aboard the shuttle, human, Orion, Ophiuchi, and Gorm alike, had seen the titanic hull time and again in holographic displays and on briefing room screens. By now, any one of them could have recited the design philosophy behind the vessel and even the major specifics of its armament. And yet, despite that, the trip had been necessary. These officers worked every day of their lives with electronically processed data, but there were still times when they had to see with their own eyes, touch with their own hands, to truly believe what the reports and briefings told them.

And this, Oscar Pederson told himself, is one of those times.

The shuttle was luxuriously equipped, as befitted the craft assigned to Pederson in his role as CO of Alpha Centauri Skywatch, but the quality of its fittings wasn't the reason it was here today. No, like the four other shuttles keeping formation upon it, it had been chosen for its passenger capacity. Even with all five of them, it was going to take at least six trips to transport all of the rubbernecking admirals (or their other-species equivalents) who wanted to see the gleaming alloy reality.

Horatio Spruance, the first monitor ever commissioned by the Terran Federation Navy, was a mountain beyond the transparent viewport. Pederson was no stranger to huge artificial constructions. The vast majority of the major space stations serving the Federation's inhabited planets were even larger. Of course, all but a tiny fraction of each of those space stations was devoted to commerce, freight, repairs, passenger transfers . . . anything and everything other than the deadly weapons of war. Still, the massive OWP from which he commanded the Centauri System's fixed defenses certainly was armed, and it was actually larger than Spruance. But there was a major difference even there, for that orbital weapons platform was designed to stay exactly where it was. It was, as its very name suggested, a fixed weapons platform, a fortress, armed and armored to fight to the death at need in defense of a specific planet or warp point.

Horatio Spruance wasn't. This menacing mountain of missile launchers and beam projectors was designed for mobility. It wasn't designed to defend, but rather to project power. It floated there, looming like a titan over the construction ships and the suited yard workers clustered about it like microbes as they worked around the clock to put the finishing touches upon it. And a titan was precisely what it was . . . or perhaps that hopelessly overused cliche 'juggernaut' truly applied in this case. Slow and cumbersome compared to any other warship ever built, even a superdreadnought, it was also twice as large and powerful as that same superdreadnought.

And she's also a more conservative design than I really would have liked, Pederson admitted to himself. Balancing long-range and short-range weaponry has saved the Navy's ass more than once. And there's definitely something to be said for having something to shoot at an enemy who manages to get to any range of your ship, instead of limiting yourself to one ideal "design" engagement range. But it may just be that this time the Bugs had a better idea what they were about than we do. A six-ship battlegroup of ships this size could throw down one hell of a weight of fire if they were all pure missile designs.

Of course, he could hardly complain that no one had asked his opinion, because BuShips had done just that. In fact, they'd solicited design suggestions from every Fortress Command system CO in the entire Federation, as well as the Battle Fleet flag officers who would actually take those designs into combat. And, to be perfectly fair, they'd incorporated quite a few of the Fortress Command suggestions. And, again, to be perfectly fair, even without a pure missile design, a battlegroup of Horatio Spruances would still be able to pump out an awesome quantity of missile fire.

It's just that, good as they are, they could have been so much better . . . if we'd only had time, he told himself.

He sighed quietly as the shuttle drifted around one flank of the behemoth he and his fellows had come to see. Lord Khiniak stood just to Pederson's left, and the Terran admiral smothered a smile as he heard a soft, rustling purr from the Tabby fleet commander. It wasn't easy to strangle that smile, either, because Pederson had become enough of a "Tabby expert" to recognize the Orion equivalent of his own sigh, and he knew exactly what had produced it.

Lord Khiniak, too, regretted the desperate haste with which the Spruance design-and that of her Orion counterparts-had been finalized. But not, of course, for quite the same reasons. It wasn't the missiles which could have been crammed into the design that he missed; it was the fighter bays.

Vanessa Murakuma had also heard Lord Khiniak's sigh, and she was actually forced to turn away to hide her own expression as she recognized Pederson's struggle not to smile. It would never do to give in to the most unprofessional giggle threatening her own self-control, but she knew precisely what the Fortress Command admiral was thinking. She hadn't personally discussed design concepts with Third Fleet's commander, but she didn't really need to, for Lord Khiniak was a regular contributor to the Heearnow Salkiarno Naushaanii.

Although her tone deafness had always prevented her from understanding spoken Orion, she was completely fluent in the written forms of both High and Middle Orion-a fluency she'd acquired in no small part to follow the Khanate's military journals in their original forms. As a result, she knew that Lord Khiniak was a highly respected (despite a certain iconoclastic streak) commentator in the Heearnow Salkiarno Naushaanii's pages. Yet even though the functional equivalent of the Federation Naval Institute Journal could wax just as contentious on matters of strategy and force projection concepts as its Terran counterpart, the Heearnow's articles and editorials were far less fractious on an operational or tactical level, for the Orion Navy had no doubts at all about the proper tactical mix for its fleet units.

The arguments in favor of that tactical mix were impeccably logical and occasionally downright brilliant, yet in the end, all that rationality was the handmaid of cultural imperatives so deep-seated that they might as well be instinctual. That was as true for Terrans as for Tabbies, of course, but the Orion honor code of Farshalah'kiah-"the Warrior's Way"-required the individual warrior to risk his pelt in personal combat and had come over the centuries to enshrine an unhesitating commitment to the attack. Even when forced to assume the strategic defense, an Orion automatically looked for a way to seize the tactical offense. Cover your six was a Terran idiom that did not translate well into the Tongue of Tongues. When humans had first met them, the Tabbies had fought in swarms of dinky ships, although even then there'd been no technological barrier to constructing a smaller number of more capable and better protected ones-like the ships with which the unpleasantly hairless, severely outnumbered aliens from Terra had defeated them. In the end, they'd been forced to accept a similar design theory, even if they'd done so kicking and screaming the entire way. If they'd wanted a fleet which stood a chance in combat, they'd had no option but to match the combat capability of their opponents, because the disparity in effectiveness had meant that there'd simply been no other choice.

Until, that was, the Rigelians had introduced the single-seat strikefighter and restored individualism to space war. It might be going a bit far to argue, as some TFN officers occasionally did, that the Tabbies were actually grateful to the Rigelians (who, after all, had cherished their own genocidal notions where Orions and humans alike were concerned). Yet there was no denying that the KON had never been truly happy until the fighter gave its warriors back their souls. Ever since ISW 3, all their capital ships had featured integral fighter squadrons, despite the inefficiency involved in designing launch bays and all of their associated support hardware into ships that weren't purpose-built carriers. Show them a ship even bigger than the superdreadnoughts they'd never really liked anyway, and their reaction was totally predictable: By Valkha, imagine how many fighters something that size could carry! And they were disposed to see the bright side of whatever tactical models rationalized that predisposition.

Pederson, on the other hand, had never belonged to the TFN's strikefighter enthusiasts. His idea of a proper warp point assault ship leaned much more heavily towards missile launchers and beam weapons protected by the heaviest possible shields and armor, and he couldn't quite conceal his skepticism over the Tabby ideal, although the crusty old fire-eater was obviously doing his manful best.

"A most impressive vessel," Lord Khiniak said now, and despite her tone deafness, Murakuma thought she detected a certain sly amusement in the angle of the fang's ears and the tilt of his head as he glanced sidelong at Pederson. It was hard to be sure without the body language cues, especially since her earbug was tied into the translating software of the shipyard building Spruance, and this particular package had a particularly irritating, nasal atonality. "Of course, it will not be possible to realize the full potential of a military hull of this size until the carrier version reaches production. As a fighter platform capable of surviving long enough in a warp point assault to carry its fighters through and then launch them, it will make it possible for us to-"

"Yes," Pederson interrupted just a tad briskly. "We've all seen the specifications for your Shernaku class, Great Fang. Ninety-six fighters . . . very impressive. But it will be a while before it can be put into production." At least the Fortress Command admiral was too tactful to add, In Terran yards, although Murakuma suspected it had been a near thing. "And to be honest, there are some modifications I'd like to see in the Spruance design, myself. But we don't really have the latitude to experiment with the initial classes. You must admit that given the pressure to get our own monitors into production as quickly as possible, more conservative designs must have priority. In fact, you have admitted it, with the other two classes you've shown us. Those are balanced designs, and-"

"We don't need to go into that at the moment," Ellen MacGregor cut in.

As Sky Marshal she was completely familiar with the design features of all of the Allied monitor designs. Like Pederson, she would really have preferred a somewhat greater degree of specialization in the Terran designs, but the Fortress Command admiral was quite correct about the time pressure. BuShips had decided-with her own not entirely enthusiastic support-that it was more important to go with tried and proven hardware and weapons mixes which could be put into production in the shortest possible time rather than to waste months the Grand Alliance might well not have in trying to come up with the perfect design before they even laid the first ship down. In fact, the Spruance design had been frozen within three months of Pesthouse's disastrous conclusion, with construction commencing exactly fifty-nine days after the design was sealed.

Which let us set a new all-time record for the speed with which any TFN ship has ever moved from concept to construction . . . much less something like this one, she reminded herself. And at least the designers had been given two additional months to work on the Howard Anderson class which was the command ship equivalent of the Horatio Spruances. That had paid substantial dividends in the final design, and without setting it back too badly.

And then there's the "escort" design, she thought in something very like a gloating mental tone. BuShips was still arguing internally over what class name to assign to the MTE design, but that was perfectly all right with MacGregor. The bookmakers were putting their money on the Hannah Avram class, but what mattered to the Sky Marshal was what the ships would be capable of, not what they would be named. She'd argued for years that it was a waste of fire control capacity to fill one or more of the datalink slots in a battlegroup with some little dipshit light cruiser. Using up that much command and control capacity on a dedicated anti-fighter/anti-missile platform that small (and lightly armed) had made absolutely no sense with battleship and superdreadnought battlegroups . . . and it made even less with these things. Stripping out the Spruance-class's capital missile launchers and heavy beam projectors had allowed the new design to cram in a huge number of standard missile launchers and point defense clusters. The clouds of counter missiles it could put out ought to put a crimp into any Bug missile salvo-even one from one of their own monitor battlegroups! And the first mob of Bug kamikazes which tried to swarm one of them was going to get a most unpleasant surprise, as well. Not to mention the fact that it would be a monster in ship-to-ship combat once the engagement range dropped into the standard missile envelope.

Satisfying as that thought was, however, MacGregor wasn't about to dwell on it at the moment. The MTE design, in particular, represented a triumph for BuShips and the Corporate World shipyards, which had not only produced it in record time, but had actually found ways to bring it to the construction stage without dislocating the building plans for the Spruance or Anderson class ships. No one else in the explored Galaxy could have pulled that off . . . and she wasn't about to trust Oscar's uncharacteristic attack of diplomacy to keep him from mentioning that the Orion "generalist" monitor designs were lower-tech than their Terran counterparts, or that their keels hadn't even been laid yet.

"The diversity of our design philosophies," she went on, with a carefully tight-lipped, tooth-hiding smile at Lord Khiniak, "is one of the Alliance's strengths. With our various races bringing their unique viewpoints and insights to bear on the problem, our chances of arriving at the optimal weapons mix are maximized."

Murakuma was impressed. Damn, but she's gotten good at that sort of thing since becoming Sky Marshal! Bet she's even learned how to deal with those svolochy in the Legislative Assembly. She smiled to herself, realizing she'd thought the Russian word for "scum"-one of Ivan Antonov's milder epithets for politicians. But then the smile quickly died. It was too painful, recalling the living legend who'd accompanied her as she'd blasted her way back into the Justin System. Hannah Avram, then Sky Marshal, had torn a strip off her for letting the Chairman of the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff put his superannuated ass at risk like that, and . . . But, no. That memory also hurt too much.

"Are there any other specific features of the design which any of you would like to observe more closely before we return to Nova Terra?" MacGregor asked, bringing her back to the present. No one replied, although one or two of the oh-so-senior flag officers aboard the shuttle gazed through the viewports with the wistful expressions of children hovering on the brink of playing hookey for just a little longer. If MacGregor noticed, she gave no sign, and the shuttle turned away from the drifting ship it had come to observe.

A quiet murmur of conversation filled the passenger compartment, but Murakuma leaned back in her comfortable seat and closed her eyes, projecting an unmistakable image of deep thoughtfulness. It wasn't really that she wanted to avoid the Ophiuchi vice admiral who was her seat mate. It was only that she had something else entirely on her mind, and-

A soft, musical chime sounded in her earbug, and she stiffened in her seat as she recognized the priority of the attention signal.

"Admiral Murakuma," a respectful voice from the shipyard com center told her over the private channel, "the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff extends his compliments and asks to see you in his office as soon as convenient upon your return to Nova Terra."

Murakuma's heart began to race a little faster as she pulled out her personal communicator and tapped in an acknowledgment of the politely phrased order. Then she leaned back once more, turning her head to gaze out the viewport at the glittering jewel box of the stars while her mind raced.

Already? I hadn't expected any action on it so soon. Is that a good sign, or a bad one?

It was a question she couldn't answer . . . not that she didn't keep trying to all the way back to the planet.

CHAPTER ONE: Gathering Stars | Shiva Option | * * *