"Essentially, Admiral Gold Peak," he began, "Apollo is a new step in missile command and control. It's a logical extension of other things we've already been doing, which marries the existing Ghost Rider technology with the Keyhole platforms and the MDM by using the newest generation of grav-pulse transceivers. What it does is to establish near-real-time control linkages for MDMs at extended ranges. At three light-minutes, the command and control transmission delay for Apollo is only three seconds, one-way, and it's turned out that we've been able to provide significantly more bandwidth than we'd projected as little as seven months ago. In fact, we have enough that we can actually reprogram electronic warfare birds and input new attack profiles on the fly. In effect, we have a reactive EW and target selection capability, managed by the full capability of a ship of the wall's computational capacity, with a shorter control loop than the shipboard systems trying to defeat it."

            Despite herself, Michelle's eyebrows rose. Unlike Bill Edwards, she was a trained and experienced tactical officer, and the possibilities Halstead seemed to be suggesting . . . .

            "Our initial projections were based on trying to install the new transceivers in each MDM," Halstead continued. "Originally, we saw no other option, and doing things that way would have made each MDM an individual unit, independent of any other missile, which seemed to offer us the most tactical flexibility and would have meant we could fire them from standard MDM launchers and the Mark 15 and Mark 17 pods. Unfortunately, putting independent links in each bird would have required us to remove one entire drive stage because of volume constraints. That would still have been worthwhile, given the increased accuracy and penetration ability we anticipated, but the development team's feeling was that we would be giving away too much range performance."

            "That was one of Bill's suggestions, Admiral," Hemphill said quietly.

            "Once we'd taken up ways to deal with that particular objection," Halstead went on, "it became evident that our only choices were to either strip the drive stage out of the birds, as we'd originally planned, or else to add a dedicated missile. One whose sole function would be to provide the FTL link between the firing ship and the attack birds. There were some potential drawbacks to that, but it allowed us not only to retain the full range of the MDM, but actually required very few modifications to the existing Mark 23. And, somewhat to the surprise of several members of our team, using a dedicated control missile actually increased tactical flexibility enormously. It let us put in a significantly more capable — and longer-ranged — transciever, and we were also able to fit in a much more capable data processing and AI node. The Mark 23s are slaved to the control bird — the real 'Apollo' missile — using their standard light-speed systems, reconfigured for maximum bandwidth rather than maximum sensitivity, and the Apollo's internal AI manages its slaved attack birds while simultaneously collecting and analyzing the data from all of their onboard sensors. It transmits the consolidated output from all of its slaved missiles to the firing vessel, which gives the ship's tactical department a real-time, close-up and personal view of the tactical environment.

            "It works the same way on the command side, as well. The firing vessel tells the Apollo what to do, based on the sensor data coming in from it, and the onboard AI decides how to tell its Mark 23s how to do it. That's the real reason our effective bandwidth's gone up so significantly; we're not trying to individually micromanage hundreds or even thousands of missiles. Instead, we're relying on a dispersed network of control nodes, each of which is far more capable of thinking for itself than any previous missile has been. In fact, if we lose the FTL link for any reason, the Apollo drops into autonomous mode, based on the prelaunch attack profiles loaded to it and the most recent commands it's received. It's actually capable of generating entirely new targeting and penetration commands on its own. They're not going to be as good as the ones a waller's tac department could generate for it if the link were still up, but we're estimating something like a forty-two percent increase in terminal performance at extreme range as compared to any previous missile or, for that matter, our own Mark 23s with purely sub-light telemetry links, even if the Apollo bird is operating entirely on its own."

            Michelle nodded, her eyes intent, and Halstead touched a button on his command chair's arm. A side-by-side schematic of two large — and one very- large — missiles appeared above the conference table, between Michelle and the simulator command deck, and he indicated one of them with a flashing cursor.

            "The Apollo itself is an almost entirely new design, but, as you can see, the only modifications the Mark 23 required were relatively minor and could be easily incorporated without any break in production schedules."

            The cursor moved to the very largest missile.

            "This is the system-defense variant, the Mark 23-D, for the moment, although it's probably going to end up redesignated the Mark 25. It's basically an elongated Mark 23 to accommodate both a fourth impeller drive and longer lasing rods with more powerful grav focusing to push the directed yield still higher. Aside from the grav units and laser rods, this is all off-the-shelf hardware, so production shouldn't be a problem, although at the moment the ship-launched system has priority."

            "With the Apollo missile itself — we've officially designated the ship-launched version the Mark 23-E, partly in an attempt to convince anyone who hears about it that it's only an attack bird upgrade–" the cursor moved to the third missile "– the situation's a bit more complicated. As I say, it's an entirely new design, and we're looking at some bottlenecks in getting it into volume production. The system-defense variant –the Mark 23-F — is another all-new design. Aside from the drives and the fusion bottle, we had to start with a blank piece of paper in each case, and we hit some snags getting the new transciever squared away. We're on top of those, now, but we're still only beginning to ramp up production. The 23-F is lagging behind the 23-E, mostly because we've tweaked the transciever's sensitivity even higher in light of the longer anticipated engagement ranges, which increased volume requirements more dramatically than we'd expected, but even the Echo model is coming off the lines more slowly than we'd like. When you factor in the need for  the original Keyhole control platforms to be refitted to the Keyhole-Two standard, this isn't something we're going to be able to put into fleet-wide deployment overnight. On the other hand –"