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Chapter Sixteen

Too many hours later for Michelle's taste, she found herself sitting in a pleasant study sipping an excellent local cognac from a large, tulip-shaped glass. She was thoroughly exhausted, and she had that stuffed-too-tightly feeling that all too often followed state dinners...and always made her envy Honor Harrington's genetically enhanced metabolism. But she also felt a sense of accomplishment. However little she liked formal political dinners, she felt reasonably confident she'd carried off her part in this one successfully.

She wasn't alone in the study. Baroness Medusa sat behind the desk, and Gregor O'Shaughnessy sat in a chair to her right, at the end of the desk. O'Shaughnessy, Medusa's senior intelligence analyst, was slightly built and a good ten centimeters shorter than Augustus Khumalo, with thinning gray hair. Khumalo, Alquezar, Van Dort, and the Quadrant's minister of war, Henri Krietzmann, sat in a semicircle with Michelle, facing the desk. Krietzmann was a short, compact, solid-looking man with brown hair and gray eyes. His left hand had been mangled in some long-ago accident, and although Michelle knew he was actually the youngest person in the room, he looked like the oldest, because prolong had been unavailable on his native planet of Dresden in his youth. In fact, it still wasn't generally available the way it ought to be.

"Well," Medusa tipped back in her chair, and Michelle strongly suspected that the baroness had just toed off her shoes underneath her desk. "I'm glad that's over. For tonight, at least."

"As are we all, I'm sure," Alquezar agreed, passing his own glass appreciatively back and forth under his nose.

"Not me," Krietzmann announced. He and Van Dort, unlike anyone else in the study, nursed moisture-beaded tankards of beer rather than some effete beverage like cognac. "I love evenings like tonight."

"Yes, but that's because of how much you enjoy pissing off people like Samiha Lababibi by putting on your crude, unlettered barbarian act," Alquezar said severely.

"Nonsense. Samiha's getting along with me just fine these days," Krietzmann shot back. "Now, there are a few other members of the political establishment..."

He let his voice trail off provocatively, and Van Dort snorted. Then he looked across Krietzmann at Michelle.

"Henri takes a certain perverse pleasure in irritating us oligarchs, Milady," he said. "Even the ones he's grudgingly willing to admit are on the side of the angels. That's why he got shuffled off to the War Ministry where he doesn't have to deal with other politicians as much."

"I wish," Krietzmann muttered. Then he twitched a smile. "In fact, Samiha and I are getting along," he said more seriously. "She's not the worst sort, you know. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when she resigned as the Spindle System President to take the Treasury Ministry. It seemed like an awfully big step down, prestige-wise. But she seems to be the right woman for the job, and unlike some of our other colleagues, she genuinely doesn't seem to mind working with an ex-factory hand from Dresden."

"Yes," Alquezar said, looking across at him. "I do know she isn't the worst sort. That's one reason I asked her to take Treasury. Unfortunately," he turned to Michelle, "she's off-world tonight, hosting a sort of local economic summit on Rembrandt."

"I imagine having all of your ministers here in Spindle at once is going to be the exception, not the rule, for at least the foreseeable future, Mr. Prime Minister," Michelle observed.

"That, unfortunately, is nothing but the truth," Alquezar agreed.

"Actually," Medusa said, "the entire process of creating the new government is going far more smoothly and efficiently than I think most of the people involved in doing the actual work realize. I have the advantage of a perspective none of the rest of you have, Joachim. Trust me, you're doing quite well."

"So far, at least," Van Dort murmured.

"Things can always change," Medusa acknowledged equably. "My distinct feeling at this moment, however, is that you're already past the most likely stumbling points, and the Quadrant's systems are showing a remarkable degree of mutual tolerance and internal cohesion. Don't forget how little a lot of these systems truly had in commonaside from astrographic location and the threat of OFSbefore the annexation proposal came along. That was certainly a factor while the annexation was getting organized, as I expect all of us remember rather better than we'd like to. In fact, there's being far less infighting than I would ever have anticipated after watching the gladiatorial combat of the Convention!"

"You can thank the Sollies for that, I suspect," Alquezar said sourly.

"I probably could...if I were willing to thank them for anything," Krietzmann responded with cold, biting bitterness.

"There's quite a lot of truth to that, I think, though, Henri," Van Dort said quietly. "What happened in Monicaand what was happening on Montana and Kornatireminded everyone OFS is still out there. And most of them think Verrochio and Hongbo would just love another shot at the Cluster."

"Do people really think that's likely, Minister?" Michelle asked.

" 'Bernardus,' please, Milady," he replied, then grimaced. "And in answer to your question, yes, there are quite a few people here in the Quadrant who think that's very likely, if Verrochio can figure out a new approach."

"Even after how badly he got his fingers burned this time...Bernardus?"

"Maybe even especially after getting his fingers burned." Van Dort shrugged. "First of all, we don't know how muchif any of thisis going to stick to him after Ambassador Corvisart gets done with her investigation in Monica. I'm not saying I don't think it will stick to him; I'm just saying we don't know how badly. Second, he's not exactly what someone might call a forgiving man. Even assuming he manages to squirm out without any official sanctions, he's undoubtedly been humiliated in front of the only people he really cares abouthis peers in Frontier Security. I'm quite sure his position in the OFS hierarchy's taken some severe damage out of this, and he's going to be looking for a chance to recoup his status and power base. When you factor in his temper and the fact that he's going to want revenge, I think you can safely say that if he sees the opportunity to do us a disservice, he'll seize it with both hands."

"The view back home on Manticore is that he's most likely to pull in his horns and try to cut his losses," Michelle said.

"I'm not surprised." Van Dort shook his head. "That would be the smart thing for him to do, after all. After getting his fingers caught in the cookie jar this way, the last thing he needs is to shove his whole hand in while the entire galaxy is watching. That's obvious to everyone else, and one would hope it would be obvious to him, as well. In fact, it probably is. But never underestimate the ability of human nature to ignore the obvious once the emotions are fully engaged. Especially when the human being in question is a fundamentally stupid, superficially clever, and incredibly arrogant man like Lorcan Verrochio. A corner of his mindsuch as it is, and what there is of itmust be thinking that if he can only get his hands on the Lynx Terminus after all, it would more than restore his pre-Monica position. After all, pulling that off after what looked like disaster would demonstrate his ability to adapt and overcome adversity, wouldn't it? As a matter of fact, I strongly suspect that if it weren't for Hongbo Junyan's ability to prevent him from throwing good money after bad, Verrochio might have responded to Aivars' attack on Monica by sending in a Frontier Fleet squadron with orders to do whatever it took to 'restore Monica's sovereignty.' "

"Which is why it's so important to keep that frontier strongly picketed," Baroness Medusa said. "I know you and Admiral Khumalo have already discussed that, Milady. And I know he and I are in fundamental agreement about the best use to make of our naval resources. But having both of you simultaneously here in Thimble, along with the Prime Minister and Mr. Krietzmann, presents entirely too good an opportunity to pass up. What I'd like for all of us to do is to kick around the basic strategic situation and get everyone's insight into what it is we're doing about it."

"I think that's an excellent idea, Madame Governor," Krietzmann said, sitting forward in his chair. "But part of our 'basic strategic situation' out here are the implications of the Old Star Kingdom's strategic situation closer to home. Specifically, I'm thinking about this summit meeting between Her Majesty and President Pritchart. How likely is that to lead to serious peace talks? And, short of serious peace talks, how long do we expect the cease-fire to last?"

"Those are two excellent questions, Mr. Krietzmann," Michelle said. "Unfortunately, the answer to the first one is that no one knows. Both sides have obvious reasons to want to stop shooting at one another, if we can. But, by the same token, both sides appear to have painted themselves into something of a corner where the question of 'war guilt' is concerned. I don't see how any sort of peace talks can succeed if we can't even agree on who falsified whose diplomatic correspondence before the war. The initiative came from the Havenites' side. If that means they're willing to make some genuine concessions, a serious effort towards establishingand admittingresponsibility for the forgeries, then I think the chance of 'serious peace talks' is at least pretty good.

"Short of that, I'd guess the cease-fire is going to last for a minimum of several months. It's going to take that long just to get all of the messages setting it up sent back and forth. Then BethI mean, Her Majestyand Pritchart are going to have to get to Torch for the actual summit. It's over a month's voyage for Pritchart, one way, and I doubt anyone is going to be willing to give up without spending at least a month or two proving to the other sideand to the galaxy at largethat however unreasonable the other fellows may be being,we're doing our dead level best to bring all this bloodshed to an end. And then you've got the voyage time home for Pritchart. Considering all of that, I'd say five T-months wouldn't be at all out of the question."

"That's about what Gregor I have been estimating from this end," Baroness Medusa said with a nod.

"And if it does last that long, what does it mean for us here in Talbott?" Krietzmann asked.

"The main thing it would mean, Henri," Khumalo said, "is that the majority of the emergency war program construction will have time to come into service. And that, in turn, means the Admiralty's plans to beef up our naval presence here in the Quadrant could proceed without worrying about diversions to meet unanticipated needs on the main front. Which means Vice Admiral Gold Peak's new fleet's order of battle would come forward more or less as scheduled, and that we ought to see the first light attack craft squadrons being deployed within the next month or so."

"Really?" Krietzmann looked as if he were more than half afraid to believe it. He obviously didn't think Khumalo was lying to him. It was more as if he found it difficult to believe the universe would allow things to go that smoothly.

"Really," Khumalo assured him. "In the long run, I think the LACs are going to be even more useful here in the Quadrant than Tenth Fleet. I doubt any Solly with Frontier Security or Frontier Fleet would consider them any sort of threat, so they aren't going to have any deterrence value for someone like Verrochio. That's what Tenth Fleet is for. But once we get two or three squadrons of them deployed to every one of the Quadrant's systems, we'll pretty much have knocked piracy on its head. And, to be honest, the LACs are going to be the best means for gradually integrating the personnel of the local system navies into the RMN."

"I certainly agree with that," Van Dort said firmly. "No pirate in his right mind is going to cross swords with a modern Manticoran LAC. Or, at least, not after the word gets around about what happens to the first couple of them to try it. And the LAC squadrons and their personnel are going to be seen by the locals as 'theirs' in a way hyper-capable ships aren't. They'll be the local police force, not the Navy that comes swinging through the vicinity to check on things every so often. And integrating local personnel into their complements is going to be the best way to start getting our people trained up on modern naval technology, as well."

"That's the Admiralty's thinking, Sir," Michelle agreed. "It won't be the same as running them all through basic training back home, but what they have in mind is more of an orientation mission. Each LAC detachment will have its own simulators for training, and running local personnel through them will give our people a chance to evaluate their general skill levels and basic competence, which aren't necessarily the same thing. Ultimately, BuPers is going to have to set up whatever remedial education is necessary in-house, since both the Admiralty and the PM have already made it clear that there are going to be Talbotters in the RMN and that they are not going to get stuck with some kind of second-class status. That means bringing their basic educational levels up to Manticoran standards, not trying to do some sort of rote training or 'enough to get by' training like the old Peep Navy used with its conscripts. That's going to require a lot out of them in terms of extra classroom studies, at least until we get the general education system out here up to Manticoran standards, but there's no way to avoid that, and I think the people who actually want to transfer to naval service will be willing to make the effort. In fact, that's probably going to be one of those Darwinian filters that help us recruit the cream of the crop.

"In the meantime, of course, the squadrons themselves will provide a defense in depth against the kind of...risk-averse scum who go into piracy as a career. And, frankly, there's another advantage to it from my perspective, given what you've just told me about Commissioner Verrochio. The quicker we can get the LACs up and running to deal with people like that, the quicker I can get my strength concentrated and pushed far enough forward to remind Mr. Verrochio to stay away from our cookies."

Michelle Henke finished toweling her hair vigorously, draped the towel around her neck, and settled into the chair in front of the terminal in her sleeping cabin. Her sadly worn-looking Academy sweats' fleecy lining was sinfully warm and sensual feeling against her just-showered skin, and she grinned as she looked down at her feet. Honor had given her her first pair of fluffy, violently purple treecat slippers as a joke several Christmases ago. Michelle had started wearing them as a joke of her own, but she'd kept wearing them because of how comfortable (if undignified) they were. The original pair had been lost with Ajax, but she'd insisted on finding time to buy a replacement pair before deploying with her new squadron, and they were finally getting properly broken in.

Chris Billingsley had left a carafe of hot coffee on a tray at her elbow, along with a single sugared doughnut, and she grimaced wryly at the sight. Unlike Honor, Michelle had discovered that it was distinctly necessary for her to keep an eye on her caloric intake. The majority of naval officers led relatively sedentary lives when they were aboard ship. Otherslike Honorverged on the fanatical when it came to physical fitness. Michelle was one of those who preferred to follow a middle-of-the-road path, with enough exercise to keep her reasonably fit, but without going overboard about it. And since every excess calorie seemed to go directly to her posterior, and since it was harder than ever for her to find the time for the amount of exercise she was prepared to tolerate, she had no choice but to watch what she was eating very carefully.

It had taken Billingsley a little while to realize that, but he'd caught on quickly. And Michelle was grateful to discover that as the immediacy of what had happened to Ajax receded into the past, the pain of losing Clarissa Arbuckle was easing. It would never go away, but like most naval officers of her generation, Michelle had acquired far too much experience in dealing with losses. In this case, the fact that Billingsley was so unlike Clarissa in so many ways actually helped, and she was glad it was so. He deserved to be taken on his own terms, without being measured against someone else's ghost. And, taken on his own terms, he was a gratifyingly competent force of nature who took no nonsense from his admiral where questions of her care and feeding were concerned. His style of bullying involved reproachful glances, deep sighs, and what Michelle privately thought of as "the Jewish mother" technique, which was very different from Clarissa's oh-so-polite insistence, but it was certainly...effective.

She chuckled at the thought, poured herself a cup of coffee, allowed herself a single (small) introductory bite of the doughnut, then brought the terminal on-line. She was just about to open the letter to her mother which she'd begun the evening before when something large, warm, and silky stroked luxuriously against her ankle. She looked down and found herself gazing directly into Dicey's large, green eyes. They blinked, then swivelled towards the doughnut before they tracked back to her face.

"Don't even think about it, you horrible creature," she told him severely. "You don't get enough exercise to be stacking up that kind of calories, either. Besides, I'm sure donuts are bad for cats."

Dicey looked up at her appealingly for several more seconds, doing his very best to look like a small, starving kitten. He wasn't noticeably successful, however, and she pointedly moved the plate farther away from him. Finally, he gave up with a mournful sigh, turned away, flipped his tail at her, and wandered off to see who else he might be able to mooch some desperately needed sustenance out of.

Michelle watched him go, then shook her head, finished opening the letter and ran forward through it, reviewing what she'd written previously while she sipped the rich, black coffee, savoring its touch of harshness after the doughnut's sweetness.

It was hard to believe the squadron had been here in Spindle for just over one T-week already. Despite the relentless schedule of training exercises and drills with which she and Victoria Armstrong had afflicted their personnel on the voyage here from the Lynx Terminus, those ten subjective days in transit looked positively soporific in retrospect. Or perhaps not. Perhaps that was only true for Michelle and her staff. The squadron's demanding training schedule hadn't relentedif anything, it had intensifiedbut while the rest of her people were grappling with that, Michelle, Cynthia Lecter, Augustus Khumalo, and Loretta Shoupe were engaged in an intensive analysis, along with Henri Krietzmann and his senior staffers, of the Quadrant's resources, as well as its needs, while they tried to formulate the most effective deployment plans.

So far, the main conclusion they'd been able to draw was that until more of Tenth Fleet's starships and the first of the LAC squadrons got forward, it was simply physically impossible for Michelle's ships to be everywhere they needed to be. Which was why she was due to leave Spindle the day after tomorrow and proceed with the squadron's first division to Tillerman. That would put her in position to pay a "courtesy call" on Monica about the time thatHexapuma and Warlock completed their repairs and O'Malley was withdrawing his Home Fleet battlecruisers from the system. At the same time, Commodore Onasis would split up her second division, and the individual ships would begin a sweep through the Quadrant's systems as visual reassurance of the Royal Navy's presence. Which, unfortunately, was about all Michelle could actually offer them until the rest of the Quadrant's assigned units put in their appearance.

And, of course, we'll all go right on training, she thought wryly.No wonder all my people love me so much!

She reached the end of her previous recording, which had covered Baroness Medusa's dinner party and the after dinner conversation, and straightened in her chair as she keyed the microphone.

"So I'm sure you and Honor are both going to sprain your elbows patting yourselves on the back and chanting 'We told you so!' in two-part harmony about my aversion for politics." She smiled and shook her head. "I knew I wouldn't be able to stay completely away from them once the Admiralty decided to send me out here, but I can't say I anticipated getting into them quite so deeply. At the same time, I have to admit it's actually pretty...exciting. These people are really fired up, Mom. Oh, there's still some opposition and unhappiness, but it looks to me like that's starting to fade. Nothing is going to convince someone like that maniac Nordbrandt to see reason, but I think anyone whose brain actually works has to realize everyone involved is doing her dead level best in a good-faith effort to work things out as quickly and equitably as possible. These people aren't saints, any more than our politicos back home are. Don't get me wrong about that. But I think most of them have a genuine sense that they're creating something greater than any of them. They know they're going into the history books, one way or the other, and I think most of them would prefer to get good reviews.

"I'm not too happy about what I'm hearing about New Tuscany, though." She grimaced. "Everyone warned me the New Tuscans were going to be a problem, but I'd really have preferred for them to be wrong about that. Unfortunately, I don't think they are. And, to be frank, I can't begin to get my head wrapped around wherever it is these people are coming from. They were the ones who decided to opt out of the Quadrant, but you wouldn't know that to listen to their trade representatives. Just yesterday one of them spent the entire afternoon in Minister Lababibi's office complaining about the fact that New Tuscany isn't going to be getting any of the tax incentives Beth is offering to people who invest in the Quadrant." Michelle shook her head. "Apparently, this guy was ranting and raving about how 'unfair' and 'discriminatory' that is! And if that's the way 'politics' work, Mom, I still don't want to get any deeper into them than I have to!

"On another front, though, I really wish you could try the cuisine out here. Thimble is right on the ocean, and the seafood they have here is incredible. They've got what they call 'lobsters,' even if they don't look anything like oursor like Old Earth's, for that matterand they broil them, then serve them with sauteed mushrooms and peppers, garnished with lemon juice and garlic butter, over a bed of one of their local grains. Delicious! And if I were only Honor, I could eat all of it I wanted to. Still"

She broke off as a red light blinked on the corner of her terminal. She looked at it for a couple of heartbeats, then punched another key, and Bill Edwards' face appeared before her.

"Yes, Bill?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am, but there's an urgent priority call."

"From whom?" Michelle asked with a frown.

"It's a conference call, Ma'amfrom Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa."

Despite herself, Michelle's eyes widened. It was an hour or two after local midnight in Thimble, and Khumalo's staff coordinated its work schedule with the governor's. So what had both of them up at this hour talking to her?

I don't think I'm going to like the answer to that question, she thought.

"Have they requested visual?" she asked Edwards, running one hand across her short, still damp hair and wondering how her voice could sound so calm.

"No, Ma'am. In fact, the governor isn't visual herself, and she specifically said it would be satisfactory for you to attend audio-only, as well."

"Good." Michelle twitched a smile. "Chris would kill me if I let anyone see me sitting around in sweats for a conference with another flag officer and an imperial governor. Either that, or give me that terminally reproachful look of his! Go ahead and put it through, please, Bill."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Edwards disappeared, replaced almost instantly by a split screen. One quadrant showed Augustus Khumalo's face while the other displayed the wallpaper of Baroness Medusa's coat of arms. Khumalo was still in uniform, although he'd shed his tunic, and Michelle knew both of them were seeing the shield and crossed arrows ofArtemis' wallpaper, overlaid with the two stars of her rank, instead of her.

"Good evening, Admiral. Good evening, Governor," she said.

" 'Good morning,' you mean, don't you, Milady?" Khumalo responded with a tense smile.

"I suppose I do, actually. Although we're still on Manticoran time aboard ship." Michelle smiled back, then cleared her throat. "I do have to wonder why the two of you are screening me this late in your day, however, Sir."

"Technically, I don't suppose we really had to," Baroness Medusa's voice replied. "In fact, I suppose the reason we didn't wait until tomorrow is at least partly a case of misery loving company."

"That sounds ominous," Michelle said cautiously.

"A dispatch boat came in from the Lynx Terminus about twenty minutes ago, Milady," Khumalo said. "It carried an urgent dispatch. It would appear that three T-weeks ago, Admiral Webster was assassinated on Old Earth."

Michelle inhaled abruptly. For a moment, it felt as if Khumalo had reached out of the terminal and slapped her. The shock was that sharp, that totally unexpected. And, on the heels of the shock, came the grief. The Webster and Henke families were closeher father's sister had married the present Duke of New Texasand James Bowie Webster had been an unofficial uncle of hers since she was a little girl. He was one of the ones who had actively encouraged her to make the Navy her career, and despite his monumental seniority, their relationship had remained close after her graduation from Saganami Island, although their different duties and assignments had forced them to stay in touch mostly by letter. And now

She blinked burning eyes and shook her head sharply. She didn't have time to think about the personal aspects of it.

"How did it happen?" she asked flatly.

"That's still under investigation." Khumalo looked like a man with a mouth full of sour persimmons. "What has been definitely established so far, though, is that he was shot at close range on a public sidewalkin front of the Opera House, in fact!by none other than the personal driver of the Havenite ambassador to the League."

"My God!" Michelle stared at Khumalo's image.

"Indeed," Medusa's voice said. "Gregor and I are still going over the official dispatch and the reports which accompanied it. From what we've seen so far, I have to wonder if this is another application of whatever it was they used to try to kill Duchess Harrington."

"May I ask why, Governor?" Michelle's voice had sharpened with her memory of Tim Meares and his death.

"Because the assassin shot him right in front of half a dozen security cameras, at least two or three policemen, and Admiral Webster's own bodyguard. If that doesn't constitute a suicide attack, then I don't know what would."

"But why would the Havenites want to assassinate the admiral?" Michelle heard the plaintiveness in her own voice.

"I don't have a clue why they might have done it," Medusa said.

"Neither do I," Khumalo agreed, and Michelle sat back, thinking furiously.

James Webster had been one of the most popular officers in the Navy, both with his fellow service personnel and with the Manticoran public. An ex-First Space Lord, he'd been instrumental in breaking the criminally stupid, politically inspired policies which had almost gotten Honor Harrington killed on Basilisk Station years ago. And he'd commanded Home Fleet throughout the first Havenite War, as well. For the last couple of T-years, he'd been the Star Kingdom's ambassador to the Solarian League, and from everything Michelle had heard, he'd done that job just as well as he'd done everything else.

"This doesn't make sense," she said finally. "Admiral Webster's an ambassador these days, not a serving officer. And Old Earth is about as far away from Haven as someone could get."

"Agreed," Medusa said. "In fact, if I'd had to look for someone to blame this onwithout the obvious Havenite connection, at leastmy first choice would have been Manpower."

"Manpower?" Michelle's eyes narrowed.

"They'd have to be uncommonly stupidor crazyto try something like this right in the middle of Chicago," Khumalo objected. "But," he continued, almost unwillingly, "if there's anyone in the galaxy Webster was beating up on, it was Manpower. Well, Manpower, the Jessyk Combine, and Technodyne. He's been giving them hell in the League media over their attempts to spin what happened in Monica, and my impression is that things were only going from bad to worse for them in that regard. I suppose it's at least remotely possible they got tired of having him bust their chops and decided to do something about it. Still stupid, especially in the long run, but possible. And to be fair, God knows Manpower's done other stupid things on occasionlike that raid on Catherine Montaigne's mansion, or that whole operation on Old Earth, when they kidnaped Zilwicki's daughter."

"That's what I'm thinking," the governor agreed. "And you're right that killing him would be a really stupid thing for an outlaw bunch like Manpower to do. Unless, of course, they felt completely confident no one would ever be able to prove they'd had anything to do with it."

"But" Michelle began, then cut herself off.

"But what, Milady?" Medusa asked.

"But it would be an equally stupid thing for Haven to do," Michelle pointed out. "Especially using their own ambassador's driver! Why would someone who had whatever it is they used to force Lieutenant Meares to try to kill Her Grace use it on their own ambassador's driver? What's the point in having a completely deniable assassination technique if you're going to hang a great big holo sign around your neck saying 'We did it!'?"

"That's one of those interesting questions, isn't it?" Medusa replied. "And, frankly, one of the reasons my own suspicion leans towards Manpower. Except, of course, for the fact that the only people who've demonstrated this particular capability are the Havenites."

"Maybe somebody did it just to drive us all crazy thinking and double-thinking the whole thing!" Khumalo rasped.

"No, Augustus. However crazy this looks, whoever did it had a reason," Medusa said. "A reason she thought justified taking all the risks inherent in assassinating an accredited ambassador in the middle of the Solarian League's capital city. From here, I can't imagine what that reason was, but it exists."

"Are there any theories about that 'reason' in the reports from home, Governor?" Michelle asked.

"As a matter of fact, there are," Medusa replied heavily. "Several of them, in factmost of which are mutually incompatible. Personally, I don't find any of them especially convincing, but at the moment, I'm afraid, suspicion back home is focusing on Haven, not Manpower. And the superficial evidence against Havenis very damning. I have to admit that. Especially since, as I say, Haven has already demonstrated the ability to compel someone to carry out suicidal attacks, and that points directly at Nouveau Paris, too."

"And their motive is supposed to be what?"

"That's a matter of some dispute. I don't want to try to read too much between the lines here, not this far away from Landing. Officially, the Star Kingdom's position is that the assassination was arranged by 'parties unknown.' I have no idea how unanimously that position is supported within the Government, however. If I had to guess, based on what I've seen so far and what I know about the personalities involved, I'd guess that whatever the official position, there's a lot of suspicion that it was Haven. As to why, beyond the evidence the Solly police have been able to put together so far, I really couldn't say. Especially not on the very eve of the summit Pritchart suggested."

"Unless the entire objective was to prevent the summit from happening," Khumalo said slowly.

"I can't see that, Sir," Michelle said quickly. "Pritchart and Theisman both want this summit to go forward. I was there; I saw their faces. I'm sure of that much."

"Even assumingwhich I'm perfectly willing to dothat your evaluation of them is accurate, Admiral," Medusa said, "the fact is that what you really know is that they did want the summit to go forward at the time they spoke to you. It's entirely possible that something we know nothing about has changed their thinking. In fact, derailing the summit is one of those 'theories' you asked about."

"But if that's all they wanted, why not simply withdraw their proposal?"

"Diplomacy is a game of perceptions," the governor replied. "There may be domestic or interstellar political considerations that make them unwilling to be the ones who kill the summit they originally proposed. This may be an effort to pushManticore into rejecting the summit. I don't say that makes a lot of sense from our perspective, but, unfortunately, we can't read Pritchart's mind from here, so we can't know what she may or may not have been thinking. Always assuming, of course, that Haven did carry out this assassination."

"Or assuming thePritchart Administration carried it out, at least," Michelle said slowly.

"You think it may have been a rogue operation?" Khumalo said with a frown.

"I think it's possible," Michelle said, still slowly, her eyes slitted in thought. "I know the People's Republic was fond of assassinations." Her jaw tightened as she recalled the murder of her father and her brother. "And I know Pritchart was a resistance fighter who's supposed to have carried out several assassinations personally. But I don't think she would have wanted to do anything to jeopardize her meeting with Elizabeth. Not as seriously as she talked to me when she issued the invitation. Which doesn't mean someone else in the present Havenite government or covert agencies, maybe someone who's nostalgic for 'the good old days' and doesn't want the shooting to stop, couldn't have done this without Pritchart's approval."

"Actually," Medusa said thoughtfully, "that comes closer than anything that's occurred to me yet to making sense of any explanation for why Haven might have been behind this."

"Maybe." Khumalo clearly felt that "Because they're Peeps" was sufficient explanation for just about anything Haven might decide to do. Which, Michelle reflected, probably summed up the attitude of a majority of Manticorans. After so many years of war, after the forged diplomatic correspondence, after the "sneak attack" of Operation Thunderbolt, there must be very little the average woman-in-the-street would put past the Machiavellian and malevolent Peeps.

"At any rate," Khumalo continued, "it's obvious to me that this is going to have serious implications for our own deployment plans. Trying to figure out what those implications are, however, isn't going to be easy. The one thing I can say is that until this whole thing settles down, Milady, I want your squadron right here in Spindle. There's no telling which way we may have to jump if the wheels come off the Torch summit after all, and I don't want to be forced to send dispatch boats racing off in every direction to get you back here if that happens."

"I understand, Sir."

"Good." Khumalo's nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply, then gave himself a shake. "And on that note, Baroness, with your permission, I think we've probably discussed this as thoroughly as we can at this point. That being the case, suppose you and I see if we can't get at least a few hours of sleep before we have to get up and start worrying about it again?"

Chapter Fifteen | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Seventeen