TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 06:

Stephens frowned, and the lieutenant commander laughed.

“Nobody back home seems to have noticed the . . . tonnage inflation that’s been creeping into classes out here, Brent,” he pointed out. “By this time, Manty and Havenite ‘heavy cruisers’ are damned near the size of small battlecruisers, and some of their light cruisers are closing in on the tonnage ranges for Solarian heavy cruisers. The same thing’s been happening to their destroyers, too, for that matter. Well, obviously we have to be building ships that could face up to those outsized Manty and Havenite designs, don’t we? Of course we do! Still, if no one back on Old Earth has noticed that sizes are creeping up amongst the local neobarb navies, I don’t see any special reason why we have to tell them that ours are, do you?”

His smile looked remarkably like Rozsak’s, Stephens thought.

“Edie and I are already working up the reports and correspondence,” Rozsak said. “Officially, we’re going to be describing our new units as ‘modified Rampart-class destroyers,’ for example. We just aren’t going to get too specific about what the modifications consist of . . . or the fact that we’re talking about destroyers fifty or sixty percent bigger than the original Rampart. I’m pretty sure the geniuses back at OpNav are going to assume that any modifications will result in decreased capabilities, given their view of Manty and Havenite technical capabilities. A view which Jiri’s and my modest efforts have probably done just a bit to help shape. And since all of the official correspondence — governmental, as well as from the private builders and inspectors — from the Erewhon side is going to be understating tonnages by about, oh, forty or fifty percent, there’s not going to be anything to tell Old Chicago differently. And the beauty of it is that we’re not going to be falsifying any paperwork; we’re going to be sending them file copies of the actual, official correspondence from Erewhon.”

Stephens pursed his lips silently as he considered that. Rozsak was right about how it would help cover their own actions, but the industrialist wondered just exactly how the admiral had convinced Erewhon to run that kind of risk. Eventually, someone back on Old Earth was going to realize they’d been systematically deceived by the Erewhonese (and the League’s own official intelligence apparatus here in the Sector, of course), and the consequences of that could be severe — for Erewhon, not just Maya.

On the other hand, if that sort of situation arose, it would mean all the rest of their plans had failed disastrously, so there probably wasn’t a lot of point worrying about it. Although getting the Erewhonese to look at it that way must’ve taken some doing . . . .

“You said there were three things to consider,” he said to Watanapongse after a moment, and the commander nodded.

“The third thing, maybe the most important one of all,” he said, his expression much more somber, “is that four or five-T-year window between now and the delivery of our first wallers. Even after the SDs start coming out of the yards, it’s going to take a while for any sort of volume production to build up. We’ll hide as many of ‘our’ wallers as we can in the flow going to Erewhon, of course, but the odds are good that we’re going to have to start shooting at somebody before we have a real wall of battle of our own.”

Stephens felt a distinct stir of alarm, but Rozsak flashed him the lazy, white-toothed smile of a confident tiger.

“Even with a four or five-year delay to our own first waller, we’re going to be ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the League, Brent. A long way ahead of the curve. Trust me, the ‘not invented here’ syndrome is going to kick in back home even after they begin to figure out just how screwed any SLN ship is going to be going up against its Havenite—or, even worse, Manty — equivalent. So, what we’re really going to need to tide us over is something that can kick the shit out of anything Frontier Fleet’s likely to be sending out towards us with unfriendly intentions. Right?”

“With the proviso that I think we need to do a little worrying about the Battle Fleet units that might be sent along behind that first wave,” Stephens agreed a bit caustically.

“Well, of course.” Rozsak chuckled. “And it just happens we’ve come up with something that should let us do that, at least as long as nobody back on Old Earth is paying any attention to all of those ridiculous rumors about how Manticore and Haven have been sticking multiple drives into their missiles. Nonsense, of course! I’m sure those reports are just as exaggerated as Commander Watanapongse’s diligent staff has consistently reported they are! Still, it’s occurred to us that if someone were building multidrive missiles, and if they happened to have themselves a couple of dozen freighters — freighters that might happen to have military-grade drives, and maybe even sidewalls — that could carry, oh, I don’t know, three or four hundred missile pods at a time, then they could probably do a lot of damage to a fleet equipped only with single-drive missiles, don’t you think?”

Stephens’s eyes narrowed, and Rozsak chuckled again, more harshly.

“That’s one of the things Edie and I have been kicking around when we started thinking about doctrine and ship designs. And it’s the real reason we’re going to be building that extra tonnage into our light combatants. Most of it’s going into fire control, not extra weapons.”

“And the beauty of it,” Watanapongse said, “is that Carlucci already has a commercial design — they picked it up from some outfit in Silesia — for a freighter designed around plug-in cargo modules. It’s one of those ideas that sounds really good on paper, but it hasn’t worked out that well for the Sillies as a commercial proposition. It’s actually less flexible, it turns out, than what you can do reconfiguring a standard cargo hold’s interior. But that’s not something that’s going to be instantly evident looking at it from the outside, and the basic construction just happens to be something that’s going to lend itself well to a ‘merchantship’ pod-carrier design. The Sector government is going to be buying quite a few of them — several dozen, at least — as part of our move to broaden our investment base in Erewhon. We’ve got a lot of short domestic cargo routes of our own, just like the Sillies, so if it works for them, it ought to work for us, right? And even if it turns out they aren’t the most cost-efficient possible way to haul freight around, so what? It was still worth it just to get our toes further into the Erewhonese door.”

“And,” Rozsak said quietly, “if it just happens that our new ships’ plug-in cargo modules just happen to have exactly the same dimensions as the missile pods the Erewhonese Navy is going to be building for its own new ships-of-the-wall, well” — this time his smile could have liquefied helium — “it’s a big galaxy, and coincidences happen all the time.”