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Chapter Twenty-Two

Aldona Anisimovna had never expected to be back in the Talbott Cluster this quickly, and for more than one reason.

The mere thought of how disastrously the Monica operation had failed was enough to send cold chills down anyone's spine—even that of a Mesan alpha line. She'd been more than a little astonished that she and Isabel Bardasano had survived the catastrophic unraveling of the Strategy Council's carefully crafted plans.

But even allowing for her unanticipated survival, she wouldn't have imagined she could make the trip back to the Cluster so quickly. Then again, she hadn't known about the top-secret "streak drive," either. She was going to have to remember that it had taken her much longer—officially, at least—to make the voyage than it actually had.

And she supposed she might as well go ahead and admit there was another reason for her surprise; she'd never imagined it might be possible to mount a replacement for the disastrous failure in Monica this quickly.

It would have helped if Albrecht—and Isabel—had told me just what we'd really been supposed to achieve last time. Or how many resources were really available, for that matter, she thought as she and her new bodyguard rode the luxurious, if old-fashioned, elevator towards the upcoming meeting. Of course, I'm not sure exactly what else I could have done to make use of them, even if I'd known they were there. And I don't suppose they could tell me about them . . . not without telling me everything else, at least.

It was amazing how completely her galaxy had shifted with Albrecht's explanation of what was really going on. A part of her was absolutely stunned that the entire Mesan Strategy Council and all of its deep laid plans and machinations had really been only a part—and not the largest part—of the real strategy she'd served, albeit unknowingly, for so many decades. Another part of her was more than a little irked to discover just how much of what she'd thought she knew, even in an operational sense, had been less than complete or even deliberately falsified. Like the "fact" that the Congo Wormhole hadn't been properly surveyed before those Audubon Ballroom fanatics took the system away from Mesa, for example, or who'd really been in charge of "her" operation in Monica. Discovering that someone else could manage her puppet strings as well as she'd always prided herself on managing others' strings hadn't been especially reassuring. But her irritation over lack of complete information and need-to-know compartmentalization of knowledge was as nothing compared to the sheer shock of what was really happening. Aldona Anisimovna was a hardy soul, yet she was both awed and more than a little terrified by the grand, sweeping scope of the Mesan Alignment's true objectives and resources.

I thought it was just the usual dogfight over political power, she admitted to herself. And, to be honest, I always thought the political aspects were purely self-defense, a way to protect our operations and our economic power. I never dreamed anyone could be thinking on such a . . . grand scale.

Or that so much of the groundwork could already have been in place.

The elevator stopped. Kyrillos Taliadoros—the newly assigned bodyguard from the same gamma line which had produced Albrecht Detweiler's bodyguard—stepped through the opening doors first, glancing up and down the corridor. Taliadoros' physical senses had been sharply enhanced as part of his genotype's modifications, and Anisimovna knew additional odd bits and pieces of hardware had been surgically implanted to help suit him for his present function. She'd discovered that even Detweiler's bodyguard's fearsome reputation actually understated what he was capable of, and the same was true of Taliadoros. Which, in some ways, was almost as frightening as it was comforting.

Then again, a lot of the things she'd had to wrap her mind around in the past couple of weeks were almost as frightening as they were comforting.

She pushed that thought aside and followed Taliadoros out of the elevator when his tiny gesture indicated his satisfaction with their immediate surroundings. He fell back into his properly deferential position at her heels as she led the way down the short corridor, and the ornate secretary seated behind the desk at its far end looked up with a professional smile at her approach.

My, she's a pretty one, Anisimovna thought appreciatively, taking in the young woman's flowing raven hair, striking blue eyes, and near-perfect complexion. She'd almost do for one of the pleasure lines without any modification at all. Of course, there is that little mole. And I think her left eyebrow may be just a tad higher than the right. But in her case, that actually helps. I think she'd look . . . too perfect without those little flaws.

"Aldona Anisimovna," she said aloud. "I believe President Boutin is expecting me."

"Of course, Ms. Anisimovna." The secretary's voice was exactly the right melodious contralto to match her striking appearance, Anisimovna thought appreciatively. "Just a moment."

She pressed a button on her panel.

"Ms. Anisimovna is here, Mr. President," she said, and listened to her earbug for a moment. "Yes, Sir," she said then, and looked back up at Anisimovna. "President Boutin is ready to see you now, Ma'am." She pressed another button and a rather splendidly decorated door slid open. "Right through that door, Ma'am."

"Thank you." Anisimovna smiled a bit more warmly than she normally smiled at servants, then nodded to Taliadoros and the two of them stepped through the open door.

"Excuse me a moment, Ma'am," a broad shouldered young man said as they entered the anteroom of the luxurious office suite.

"Yes?" Anisimovna gave him a rather cool glance, and he smiled with just a touch of apology.

"I'm afraid some of your bodyguard's implants have flashed several alarms on our security scans. I'm sorry, but security regulations prohibit allowing someone with unidentified implanted hardware into the President's presence."

"I see." Anisimovna considered him for a moment, then turned to Taliadoros.

"I'm afraid you're going to have to wait here for me, Kyrillos," she said.

"Ma'am, under the regulations, I'm not supposed—" he began, exactly as if they hadn't already rehearsed this moment.

"I realize it's against the rules," her own tone mingled patience with just a touch of brusqueness, "but at the moment, we're guests on someone else's planet. It's only polite of us to abide by their rules and customs."

"I know that, Ma'am, but—"

"This discussion is finished, Kyrillos," she said firmly, then smiled. "I'll take full responsibility, but this time good manners trump the regulations. Anyway, I'm sure the President's security team is up to the task of protecting me, right along with him, if it comes to that. And I really don't expect anyone to try to assassinate me in the middle of a meeting with him, anyway."

"Yes, Ma'am," Taliadoros said with manifest unwillingness, and Anisimovna turned back to the broad-shouldered young man.

"I believe that's settled," she said crisply.

"Yes, Ma'am. Thank you for being so understanding. If you'll follow me, please?"

Anisimovna followed him across the anteroom. She wasn't certain that little bit of theater had been necessary, but it wouldn't hurt to make her hosts aware of her own importance, especially since she was officially here as a private person. Of course, most private persons didn't travel in their personal hyper-capable yachts or come equipped with personal enhanced bodyguards. And Taliadoros' reference to "the regulations" should also neatly suggest that whether she was supposed to be a private person or not, she actually wasn't.

Which is fair enough, since I'm not, even if everyone is about to spend the next few hours pretending I am.

She stepped through yet another door into an absolutely magnificent office overlooking downtown Siena, the capital of the planet of New Tuscany. Several people were waiting for her.

President Alain Boutin, the official head of state of the New Tuscany System, stood in courteous greeting behind his shuttle-sized desk as she entered. System Prime Minister Maxime V'ezien, the real head of government, turned from the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the capital city of Livorno with a smile of welcome of his own, and Alesta Cardot, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Nicholas P'elisard, the Minister of War, turned from their quiet side conversation with Honorine Hupp'e, the Minister of Trade. Damien Dusserre, the New Tuscan Minister of Security, stood by himself by the bookcases lining one wall of the office, and his smile was much cooler—and less professional—than V'ezien's.

I wish there'd been time for a little more research, Anisimovna thought as she crossed the large room to the desk. There'd barely been time on the voyage here for her to fully absorb the in-depth briefing on New Tuscany's current state of affairs; there certainly hadn't been enough time for any sort of detailed historical study, and she had absolutely no idea, for example, why a planet named for a region of Old Terra's Italy should be inhabited by people with almost uniformly French names.

"Ms. Anisimovna!" Boutin offered his hand across the desk. When she took it, he raised her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across its back, and she smiled at him.

"It was most gracious of you to agree to see me, Mr. President. And especially on such short notice."

"Mr. Metcalf made it clear your business was urgent," Boutin replied. "And, to be frank, that you . . . unofficially represent, shall we say, import interests on Mesa."

"Yes, I suppose I do," she said with a whimsical smile. She rather wished that Valery Ottweiler, the Mesan attach'e who had been her official aide in Meyers when the Monica operation was first mounted, had been available here, as well. She'd found his competence both impressive and comforting. But he was still back in Meyers, where he had his own part to play, and Jansen Metcalf, the Mesan trade attach'e who had been upgraded into a full ambassador when New Tuscany withdrew from the Spindle Constitutional Convention, was supposed to be a competent type, as well. He wouldn't be present today, however, of course. The fact that Mesa's official representative was absent—and that he had emphasized her own "unofficial" status ahead of time—were two more of the little clues that, in fact, she not only did speak for the true rulers of Mesa but that what she had to say was very important indeed.

"Please, allow me to introduce my colleagues," Boutin said, and Anisimovna nodded pleasantly to each of the others in turn as the President murmured their names. Not that anyone in that room at that moment actually needed to be introduced to anyone else, she was quite certain.

Introductions completed, she settled into a comfortable chair, crossed her long legs, and leaned back. During her first visit to Roberto Tyler, Anisimovna had deliberately chosen a gown which emphasized the rich perfection of her own figure. Boutin and—even more importantly—V'ezien were far less likely to be swayed by any physical charms, however provocatively displayed, and so she had chosen a severely tailored outfit in midnight blue. And, while she had no qualms about using whatever tactics—or attributes—would get the job done, she had to admit that she much preferred not feeling like a gussied up pleasure slave.

"And now, Ms. Anisimovna, may we know what it is that brings you to New Tuscany?"

"To be totally frank, Mr. President, I'm here in no small part because of the rather disastrous occurrences in Monica," she said, and hid a smile at the shock in the New Tuscans' faces.

Didn't expect me to own right up to the fact that we were involved in that little catastrophe, did you? she thought sardonically. Well, I've got a few more surprises in store for you, as well.

"I'm sure you're all well aware of what happened to the Union of Monica," she continued calmly. "That regrettable state of affairs was the result of a combination of coincidences no one could have predicted, coupled with a certain degree of botched execution on the Monicans' part."

"We have had reports on those . . . events," Boutin said slowly, his eyes flickering sideways to Dusserre. "May I ask exactly what about them has brought you to speak to us?"

"Frankly, Mr. President, we have no interest in seeing the Manties expanding their control and influence into this region of space," she replied with an air of total candor. "I'm sure all of you are very well aware of the long-standing hostility between the business community of Mesa and the Star Kingdom of Manticore. And as Manticore has demonstrated quite often in the past—and very recently, in Monica—the 'Star Kingdom' has never been shy about resorting to the use of naked force in the pursuit of its policy objectives. It seems very evident to us in the Mesa System that the establishment of a Manticoran bridgehead here in Talbott will almost inevitably lead to further harassment of Mesa and, quite possibly, to actual Manticoran military operations against Mesa in the not-too-distant future. That, to be completely honest, was the reason for our initial contacts with President Tyler.

"Unfortunately, as all of you are also aware, the Constitutional Convention in Spindle has ratified this new constitution, turning virtually the entire Cluster into another lobe of the Star Kingdom. Which means, of course, that what we hoped to prevent as a measure of self-defense by means of our support for President Tyler has become an established fact."

Several faces had tightened at her mention of the Constitutional Convention, and she concealed a mental smile of catlike satisfaction as she saw them. Frankly, she'd been flabbergasted—initially, at least—to learn that New Tuscany had, in fact, declined to ratify the new constitution. In their place, she would have been falling all over herself to get under the Manticoran security umbrella and share in the flood tide of commerce and investment which was likely to be coming the Cluster's way. Except, of course, for that other little problem they had. She'd already concluded, just in the short trip from the spaceport to this meeting, that Bardasano's analysis of the New Tuscan oligarchs and their motivations had been right on the money. In fact, the lid was screwed down even more tightly here on New Tuscany than she'd expected from Bardasano's briefings. Uniformed security forces had been a high-visibility part of the ground car drive from the shuttle pad, and she'd noticed an extraordinarily high number of extraordinarily obvious (for a planet with New Tuscany's tech base) security cameras on light standards and at intersections. No doubt there were other, far less obtrusive measures in place to monitor the situation without giving away their presence, but clearly the New Tuscan security forces wanted to do more than simply keep a close eye on things. They also wanted to make any potential troublemakers abundantly aware of the point that they were keeping that eye on things.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea, weren't you, Mr. President? Her mental tone was mocking, although she supposed it wasn't very funny from the New Tuscans' perspective. If you didn't ratify the constitution, you got left out in the cold where all that lovely investment and capital flow were involved. But if you did ratify it, you'd've had the Manties swarming all over New Tuscany, and they wouldn't have approved of your 'security measures' at all, would they?

Looked at from that perspective, she supposed the New Tuscan decision to opt out of the constitutional process when Manticore and their fellow Talbott delegates declined to give them the domestic security carte blanche they'd insisted upon actually made a degree of sense. The last thing any properly exploitative oligarchs could afford was for their social inferiors to get uppity notions, after all. Unfortunately for New Tuscany, the mere example of what was about to happen in the rest of the Cluster was virtually certain to contaminate their star system with those very notions. Their only real hope had been to siphon off enough of the increasing commerce and Manticoran investment to provide an at least modest but real improvement in the general New Tuscan standard of living. Frankly, the chance of their ever having been able to control the situation through any combination of carrot and stick had never been realistic, in Anisimovna's opinion, but it appeared to be the only one they'd been able to come up with.

Not surprisingly, since the only other approach would have been to recognize when they were beaten and try to make the best terms they could with the people they've been systematically pissing on—and pissing off—for the last two or three generations, she thought. Somehow, I don't think they would have enjoyed the only terms they could get.

"As you say, it would appear the organization of this 'Talbott Quadrant' is an accomplished fact, Ms. Anisimovna," Prime Minister V'ezien said. His tone was sour, but she noticed he was regarding her shrewdly. "Yet somehow I can't avoid the suspicion that you wouldn't have come to call on us—or been so . . . forthcoming, shall we say?—about your involvement with Monica unless you thought that state of affairs could somehow still be . . . rectified."

"I see you're as perceptive as my briefings suggested you were, Mr. Prime Minister. Yes, we do believe the situation can be rectified, which I'm sure you here in New Tuscany would find almost as welcome as we would in Mesa. And, to anticipate your next question, yes, again. I have come here to discuss ways in which the two of us could assist one another in bringing that rectification about."

"Forgive me for pointing this out, Ms. Anisimovna," Alesta Cardot said, "but the last star system you recruited for this no doubt laudable objective doesn't seem to have fared very well."

"And there's also the little matter of certain collateral damage inflicted by your previous efforts, if you'll pardon me for saying so," Dusserre added. The Security Minister met Anisimovna's eyes very levelly, and she nodded slightly in acknowledgment of his point.

"Madam Minister," she said to Cardot, "you're absolutely correct about what happened to Monica. As I've already said, however, that was due to a completely unpredictable coincidence of circumstances—circumstances which are unlikely, at the very least, to ever repeat themselves. Moreover, even if they—or something like them—did repeat, they would have no significant impact on the strategy we have in mind this time. And, Mr. Dusserre," she said, turning to face the Security Minister squarely, "I'm afraid we must plead guilty to supplying Agnes Nordbrandt and her fellow lunatics with the wherewithal for their campaign against the Kornatian authorities. I'm sure that's made subsequent difficulties for you here on New Tuscany, and my own reading of events suggests that it helped Alquezar and his allies force through the constitutional provisions they favored all along. I regret that, but, in fairness, I ought to point out that at the time we decided to supply Nordbrandt, our objectives revolved around Monica, not anyone here in the Cluster itself. The consequences here on New Tuscany are unfortunate, but to be brutally honest, at that time New Tuscany was completely secondary to our calculations and concerns."

"Well, that's certainly frank enough, Ms. Anisimovna," Cardot said dryly.

"In this case, Madam Secretary," Anisimovna replied, "candor is clearly the best policy. And since that's the case, there's very little point in pretending that what I'm here to discuss is anything except a marriage of pragmatic self-interest. I'd be the first to admit you have a lovely planet here. Indeed, I quite enjoyed observing it from orbit and on the flight down, and the scenery around the spaceport is breathtaking. Nonetheless, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that Mesa has any intrinsic interest whatsoever in New Tuscany . . . aside from the fashion in which the two of us can assist one another in bringing about a state of affairs we both desire."

"I see." President Boutin folded his hands in front of him on his desk blotter and cocked his head to one side. "I think you're probably correct that there's no need for New Tuscany and Mesa to pretend they're bosom friends. At the same time, however, Alesta's point about what happened to Monica is entirely valid. I'm sure I speak for the rest of my colleagues when I say we have absolutely no interest in experiencing the same unfortunate consequences. And, to return candor for candor, Mesa's sheer distance from the Cluster, and your planet's habit of . . . acting from behind the scenes, shall we say, offers you quite a bit of protection which would not be available to us if we should arouse the Manties' ire. As you've already said, they have a pattern of using military force to achieve their policy ends, and please don't be offended, but I'd really prefer not to have the Royal Manticoran Navy do to us what it did to Monica."

"Mr. President, frankness is unlikely ever to offend me. And I entirely understand your feelings. However, I believe I can explain why what happened to Monica most definitely will not be happening to New Tuscany."

"Speaking for myself, as Minister of War, and, I'm sure, for all of us, I would be fascinated to hear that explanation," Nicholas P'elisard said, and his tone was even drier than Cardot's had been.

"The most important single difference between what we're envisioning this time around and the Monican operation is that we've decided our biggest mistake in Monica was attempting to maintain too great a degree of deniability. We stayed too far out of the loop—and relied too heavily on Monica to 'front' for us—when we arranged to supply President Tyler with the battlecruisers he required for his part of the operation."

"Which was?" Dusserre inquired mildly, and she looked at him. "We've heard several possible explanations. I was simply wondering which one—if any of them—was accurate?" the security minister added mildly, and he smiled.

It was cynical, that smile, but behind it she saw something else. Something not even his years of calculation and power could hide. Dusserre was a player, someone who gravitated as naturally to power—and to his own position as New Tuscany's chief policeman—as a moth gravitated towards an open flame, yet she wondered if he was truly aware of the fear she saw behind that smile. The sense that the entire power structure of his homeworld was sliding inexorably towards collapse . . . 

Albrecht and Isabel were right, Anisimovna thought. These people are desperate enough to save their little house of cards to be nicely receptive. What was it that Old Earth king said? Something about 'After me, the flood'? Well, these people already feel the water lapping around their ankles, don't they? That's good.

"The objective," she said aloud, looking him straight in the eye, "was for Tyler to secure control of the Lynx Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Commissioner Verrochio, of the Office of Frontier Security, was prepared to support his actions—completely impartially, of course—while the League arranged for a new plebiscite, under OFS supervision, to determine the validity of the original plebiscite returns in favor of seeking annexation by Manticore. I'm afraid the commissioner anticipated discovering widespread fraud in the Manticoran plebiscite." She shook her head sadly. "If that had turned out to be the case, then obviously Frontier Security would have had no choice but to set those flawed results aside in favor of the results of its own plebiscite. Which would undoubtedly have led to the endorsement of a Cluster-wide government under the leadership and protection of the Monican Navy and recognized by the Solarian League as the legitimate government of the Cluster."

She had the satisfaction of seeing even Dusserre's eyes widen slightly as she admitted the breadth and scope of the original plan. She'd thought it was an audacious but workable plan herself, when she sold it to Roberto Tyler in the first place. Of course, she hadn't realized then what the Alignment's real objective was. And she had absolutely no intention of explaining that real objective to these people, either.

"I don't think New Tuscany would have liked that very much, Ms. Anisimovna," Honorine Hupp'e said after a moment, and Anisimovna chuckled.

"I don't imagine you would have, Madam Minister. Of course, that wasn't exactly foremost in our thinking when we formulated the plan. And, for that matter, New Tuscany's unhappiness would all have been a matter of perspective, wouldn't it?" She smiled winsomely as several of the New Tuscans bridled. "After all, the perspective is always different, depending upon who's on the bottom and who's on the top."

Boutin had been about to say something. Now the President paused, his expression arrested, and closed his mouth slowly.

"Are we to understand, Ms. Anisimovna," Cardot asked just a bit caustically, "that you now propose to take us to the mountaintop and show us the same vista you offered to President Tyler?"

"In general terms, yes," Anisimovna told the foreign minister calmly. "Except for a couple of minor changes."

"What sort of 'minor changes'?" V'ezien asked.

"Instead of striking directly for the Lynx Terminus and using its disputed possession—plus, of course, the brutal repression of patriotic resistance groups spontaneously arising in reaction to the corrupt plebiscite—as the opening wedge for inviting Frontier Security to intervene to prevent additional bloodshed, we intend to demonstrate Manticoran vengefulness and arrogant imperialism to the galaxy at large," Anisimovna replied. "In particular, we're well aware of the fashion in which Baroness Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar are already attempting to freeze New Tuscany out of the Cluster's new economic order. Alas, we have reason to believe this is only the first step in Manticore's attempt to punish New Tuscany for its principled stand against that bogus Constitutional Convention from which you withdrew your delegates. Worse, we feel confident, is still to come."

"What sort of 'worse'?" Hupp'e asked, her dark eyes narrow.

"Harassment of your shipping, violations of your territory, that sort of thing," Anisimovna replied with a sigh. "Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that they've already been harassing your merchant shipping, trying to squeeze you out of the Cluster's markets."

"And assuming we could provide you with documentation of such harassment, just what would you do with it?" P'elisard asked.

"Why, we wouldn't do anything with it." Anisimovna widened her eyes innocently. "I'm sure, however, that if you were to draw these weighty matters to the attention of Commissioner Verrochio, he would feel constrained to take them most seriously. Especially after the fashion in which Manticore brutally assaulted the Union of Monica in time of peace. Under the circumstances, I feel positive that he would dispatch a significant force here to New Tuscany to fully investigate matters. And, should it transpire that your allegations of harassment are justified, that same significant force would be under orders to protect you from further infringements of your territoriality."

"Forgive me for pointing this out," P'elisard said, "but the naval resources Commissioner Verrochio personally controls are quite limited. I'm afraid a handful of destroyers, or even a cruiser division or two, would scarcely constitute a significant deterrent to the Manticoran Navy."

"No, they wouldn't," Anisimovna agreed. "However, a full squadron or two of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers would, I suspect."

"A squadron or two?" P'elisard blinked.

"Or even three," she said calmly. "I just happen to know that a Frontier Fleet task force has been dispatched to the Madras Sector to reinforce Commissioner Verrochio's OFS naval detachment. It's under the command of an Admiral Byng, I understand. And it just happens I have a small file on him with me." She extracted a data chip folio from her slender purse and laid it on the corner of Boutin's desk. "It's fascinating viewing, actually. Or I think so, at least. Admiral Byng would appear to be the sort of League officer who recognizes Manticoran arrogance and imperialism for what they are. The sort of officer who would be naturally disposed to at least listen to the complaints of some single-system star nation which finds itself being bullied and harassed by the 'Star Kingdom.' If Commissioner Verrochio—or, for that matter, your own government—were to request him to send a detachment here to New Tuscany to investigate matters personally, I feel confident he would agree."

"And if it happened when he did that there was a . . . confrontation between him and the Manties . . ." P'elisard's voice trailed off, and Anisimovna nodded.

"Of course, by far the most likely outcome would be for the Manticorans to back down," she said. "They may have been willing enough to take on Solarian battlecruisers in Monican hands—after all, the Monican Navy had neither the experience to make full use of them nor the industrial power to replace them if they were damaged or destroyed—but I suspect they'd be far more leery of facing battlecruisers crewed by the Solarian Navy. And if they were foolish enough to do anything of the sort, I'm sure the SLN would make short work of them."

P'elisard looked less than confident of that last sentence's accuracy. On the other hand, Anisimovna thought, he had to be aware of the enormous imbalance between the Solarian League's resources and those of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Ultimately, no other star nation had the wherewithal to resist the juggernaut might of the League. Which meant . . .

She could almost see the gears turning inside his head as he worked his way through the implications of what she'd just said. She could tell the exact moment when he reached the end of the process, because his eyes narrowed suddenly and he looked at her very intently.

"In some ways, it would almost be a pity if they did back down, wouldn't it?" he observed slowly.

"Well, it would mean the situation would remain . . . unresolved," Anisimovna agreed. "It's sometimes necessary to lance a boil to drain its poisons. It's seldom a pleasant experience, but that doesn't make it any less necessary in the long run. So, yes, it would be . . . suboptimal."

"But if their local commander chose to be imprudent," P'elisard said even more slowly, "and if there happened to be some sort of shooting incident, then this Admiral Byng you've mentioned would almost be forced to take steps."

"Not just a minute, Nicholas!" Dusserre said sharply. " 'Shooting incidents' are all very well, I suppose. But I'm not at all happy about the thought of having one of them right here in New Tuscany!"

"I don't blame you a bit, Mr. Dusserre," Anisimovna said calmly. "I wouldn't much care for the thought of having something like that happen in my star system, either. As I say, though, it would be unlikely for anything of the sort to happen if Admiral Byng were present in strength. I'm thinking—as I'm sure Mr. P'elisard was—more of an incident which occurs somewhere else. One that could be . . . suitably tweaked, shall we say, to demonstrate the ruthlessness and viciousness of the Manticorans. Say, one of your warships, badly damaged or even destroyed by an unprovoked Manty attack. The trick would be to time the incident properly. Ideally, we'd have Admiral Byng already in the vicinity when we complain about this atrocity to Commissioner Verrochio."

"At which point he would presumably move that detachment you referred to to New Tuscany immediately," P'elisard said. "With orders not to allow any further Manticoran aggression. In fact, he'd probably sail straight to Spindle to demand an explanation, wouldn't he?"

"Oh, I feel confident he would." Anisimovna smiled. "And I imagine the odds of an unfortunate confrontation between him and the Manties would be considerably enhanced when he did. Oh, and I suppose I should also mention that my sources tell me a sizable force fromBattle Fleet is also in this general neck of the galaxy. Carrying out training exercises in the McIntosh System, I believe."

It was very, very quiet in President Boutin's office. The McIntosh System was barely fifty light-years from Meyers, and Meyers was only a very little over three hundred light-years from New Tuscany. Which meant any task group carrying out exercises at McIntosh could reach New Tuscany in as little as thirty-two T-days.

"Given McIntosh's proximity to Meyers, I strongly suspect Commissioner Verrochio would send the Battle Fleet senior officer there a message, requesting her assistance, at the same time as he dispatched Admiral Byng—or one of the admiral's squadrons, at least—to New Tuscany to investigate your allegations. Which would mean, of course, that even if some Manticoran officer were foolish enough to fire upon New Tuscan units or anything of the sort, Admiral Byng would have ample forces in close proximity which he could call upon to . . . stabilize the situation once more."

The quiet was more intense than ever, and as Aldona Anisimovna listened to it, she knew she had their complete attention.

Chapter Twenty-One | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Twenty-Three