Michelle nodded. The Charleston Center was recognized as one of the galaxy's premier authorities on interstellar admiralty law. Its original reason for being when it was initially established a hundred and sixty T-years ago, had been to deal specifically with the military implications of the customary legal practices which had grown up over the centuries of the Diaspora. But despite the fact that it remained a Navy command, the sheer size of the Star Kingdom's merchant marine gave its decisions enormous impact where civilian interstellar traffic was concerned, as well.

            "Like any good lawyer, I went looking for the precedents most favorable to my client's case — the stronger and more specific the better — and I found what I was looking for in a decision from the old Greenbriar-Chanticleer War. In 1843, they agreed to submit a dispute over officers' paroles for Solarian League binding arbitration. The decision of the arbitrator was that any legally paroled officer could be utilized for any duty in which he or she was not personally and directly engaged against the enemy who had paroled him or her. Staff, logistic, and medical services assignments for any unit directly committed against the enemy who had paroled him or her were held to be unlawful, but service in another astrographic area, or against another opponent, was specifically held to be a lawful employment of paroled officer. In other words, Milady, as long as you aren't actively shooting at the Peeps or helping someone else do the same thing, the Admiralty can send you any where it wants."

            "Which is exactly what he told us, in considerable more detail, when he wrote the final decision that we can legally and honorably employ you in either Silesia or the Talbott Cluster, even if that does let us send some other rear admiral to go beat on Haven in your place," Cortez said. "And, frankly, it's a damned good thing we can, too, under the circumstances."

            "I understand, My Lord," Michelle said when he paused, and she did.

            It didn't seem possible that she'd been back in the Star Kingdom for the better part of two T-months. News of Captain Aivars Terekhov's stunning — and costly — victory at the Battle of Monica had arrived only nine days after she had, and the entire Star Kingdom had experienced a spasm of almost unendurable relief. The price his scratch-built squadron had paid might have been agonizing, but no one had any illusions about what would have happened if he'd failed to demolish the battlecruisers which had been supplied to the Union of Monica. Nor did anyone doubt that those ships had been supplied by someone who clearly did not have the Star Kingdom's best interests at heart, although just what the full ramifications of that "someone's" plans might have been was still being unraveled. Frankly, Michelle was one of those who doubted that even Patricia Givens would ever manage to dig all the bits and pieces of the plot out from under their concealing rocks. But the intelligence people reporting to Rear Admiral Khumalo, Vice Admiral O'Malley, and Special Minister Amandine Corivsart had already dug out enough to validate all of Terekhov's suspicions . . . and actions.

            Unfortunately, anyone who thought the Star Kingdom was out of the woods probably enjoyed only intermittent contact with reality, she thought grimly. True, the Monican Navy had been completely removed from the board, but Monica had never been the true threat, anyway. It had always been Monica's status as a client state of the Solarian League which posed the real danger, and it was still far too early to predict how the League was going to react. The government of Baron Grantville and the Navy's officer corps had always realized that, and over the last month, that same awareness had begun sinking in for the average woman-in-the-street, as well.

            It's a hell of a galaxy when Frontier Security can use a bunch of criminals like Manpower and come this damned close to getting us into war with the most powerful star nation in existence, she thought. And it's even more of a pain in the ass when we can't be certain they won't succeed in the end anyway, even after we've started turning over the rocks and exposing the slime underneath them. No wonder everyone's so relieved by the thought that we're at least going to be talking to Haven again!

            "I know you've been briefed by Admiral Givens and her people," Cortez continued. "Since they've brought you up to date on the basic political and deployment aspects of the overall situation, I'm going to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of our manning requirements and the problems directly related to them.

            "You may not be aware that the first wave of our emergency superdreadnought construction programs will be commissioning over the next several months," he said, and Michelle's eyes narrowed. He saw it, and snorted. "I see you weren't. Good. They've worked some not so minor miracles in the shipyards — and, to be frank, cut some corners in ways we would never have accepted in peacetime — to telescope construction times, and we're substantially ahead of schedule on most of the ships. We've done our best to conceal the extent to which that's true, and we sincerely hope Haven hasn't picked up on it yet, either. But, to be perfectly honest, that's one reason everyone here at Admiralty House heaved such a huge sigh of relief when Her Majesty agreed to meet with Pritchart and Theisman. Obviously, we'll all be delighted if some sort of peace settlement emerges from this summit. But, frankly, even if nothing at all comes of it in that regard, we should be able to string the talks out for at least a couple of months, even after Her Majesty and Pritchart reach Torch. And that doesn't even consider all the messages which are going to have to be sent back and forth to set something like this up in the first place. Just all of the physical coming and going involved is going to buy us time. Time enough for us to get a lot of those new wallers into service. And that, Admiral Gold Peak, coupled with the new weapons and control systems which are also coming into service, means the Republic's numerical advantage is going to be a lot less crushing than anyone in Nouveau Paris thinks it is."

            He smiled thinly at her, but then the smile vanished, and he shook his head.

            "That's all well and good where Haven is concerned, of course. But if we find ourselves at war with the Solarian League, it's going to be a very different story. As my mother always used to warn me, every silver lining has a cloud, and that's certainly true in this case. Given the situation vis-a-vis the League, we have no choice but to continue to tweak our recruiting, training, and building programs whenever and wherever we can, despite the summit and any respite it might offer on the Haven front. And despite all of the advances in automation and reductions in manpower requirements, crewing that much new construction is stretching our personnel strength right to the breaking point. For example, most of the new superdreadnoughts are close enough to completion at this point that we're already assembling cadre and assigning them to their new ships. Fortunately, we've been able to decommission many of the old-style ships of the wall we were forced to put back into service after Grendelsbane, and that's freed up a lot of trained manpower. And we've recovered from Janacek and High Ridge's build-down. But we're still short of all the people we need, and the situation is even worse for our lighter units. Like –" he gave her a sharp, level look "– the new battlecruisers."