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Chapter Twenty-Four

"Sir, the Manty admiral is on the com," Captain Willard MaCuill said. "It's a Vice Admiral Gold Peak. She's asking to speak to you."

"Oh, she is, is she?" Admiral Josef Byng smiled sardonically as he turned his command chair to face his staff communications officer. "Took her long enough to get around to it, didn't it? I wonder why that was?"

"Probably took her that long to get back out of the head after she changed her underwear, Sir," Rear Admiral Karlotte Thim'ar, Byng's chief of staff, replied with a nasty chuckle. "Not quite like the last time one of their ships was here, after all."

"No, it isn't," Byng agreed, and glanced at the tactical display on SLNS Jean Bart's flag bridge.

He didn't quite curl his lip as he considered the flag bridge's old-fashioned instrumentation and cramped size. He understood that Frontier Fleet had a lower priority for the Fleet 2000 upgrades, after all, so he'd also known from the beginning that it was unrealistic to expect better, but he didn't exactly attempt to conceal his feelings, either. There was no need, since all of his staff officers had come over with him from Battle Fleet. All of them shared his awareness of the step down they'd been forced to take for this particular mission, although they did do their best to conceal their feelings whenever any of their Frontier Fleet "brothers in arms" were present.

Not that anyone on either side of that particular division was actually likely to fool anyone very much, he supposed.

Still, even though they were only battlecruisersand Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, at thatrather than the superdreadnought squadrons he should have had under command, Karlotte was undoubtedly correct about the Manties' reaction when they found seventeen Solarian League warships sitting here to greet them. Indeed, Byng's only real regret was that the Manty ships which had previously occupied the system had already withdrawn before his own command came over the hyper wall. He would've loved to see their reaction to his arrival. Or, for that matter, how they would respond when his third battlecruiser squadron arrived in a couple of T-weeks.

His eyes moved to the scarlet icons of the Manticoran ships, and this time his lip did curl ever so slightly as he considered CIC's data bars. Of course, it was a Frontier Fleet combat information center with a Frontier Fleet tactical crew, so one had to take its analyses with a grain of salt. Still, at this piddling little range, it was unlikely that even Frontier Fleet could get its sums wrong. Which meant the "battlecruisers" on his plot really did mass well over two million tons apiece.

Just like them and their so-called "navy," he thought contemptuously. No wonder the doomsayers have been whining and moaning about how "dangerous" Manty warships are all of a sudden. Hell, if we built "battlecruisers" twice the size of anyone else's, we could probably stick a lot of firepower into them, too! Sure, I'll bet they can take a lot of damage, too, but ONI's right. The real reason they're building them that damned big is the fact that they realize they couldn't go toe-to-toe with a real first-line navy without the tonnage advantage. And the biggest frigging "battlecruisers" in the galaxy won't help them if they ever come face to face with Battle Fleet!

Before deploying to command Task Group 3021, Byng had dutifully read through all of the intelligence appreciations. Not surprisingly, those from Frontier Fleet's analysts had been much more alarmist than anyone else's. Frontier Fleet had always had a tendency to jump at shadows, in large part because viewing with alarm was one way to try to twist the accountants' arms into diverting additional funding to it. Then too, one had to consider the quality of the officers making those reports.

Still, even Frontier Fleet's reports had sounded almost rational and reasonable compared to the ludicrous claims being made by some of the system-defense forces. God only knew why any of them had bothered to send observers to watch two batches of neobarbs five hundred light-years from nowhere in particular butchering each other with muzzle-loading cannon and cutlasses in the first place. Perhaps that was part of the explanation for the wild exaggerations some of those observers had included in their reports? Not even an SDF admiral was going to send a competent officer that far out to the back of beyond. No, he was going to send someone whose services could be easily dispensed with...and who wouldn't be missed for the weeks or months he'd spend in transit.

Oh, there was no doubt the Manties and their Havenite dance partners had managed to fall into at least some innovations as they stumbled about the dance floor with one another. For example, they obviously had improved their compensator performance to at least some extent, although clearly not to the level some of those "observers" were claiming. And even though it irritated him to admit it, fair was fair; that improvement in their compensators had sparked Solarian R&D efforts in the same direction. Given the difference between the basic capabilities of their respective scientific communities, however, there was no doubt that the Manties' advantagenever as great as those exaggerated reports had assertedhad already been pared away. He only had to look at the acceleration rate of those outsized "battlecruisers" to know that!

Oh, well, he thought. I suppose I'd better get this over with.

"Very well, Willard," he said, turning back from the plot. "Go ahead and put her through."

Well, so much for my hope that there were two Josef Byngs on the Solly officer list, Michelle thought as the Solarian admiral's face appeared on her display.

It had taken him long enough to get around to taking her call, but that had scarcely been surprising. A lot of Solarian naval officers liked to keep their inferiors waiting as a not-so-subtle way of emphasizing that inferiority.

"I'm Admiral Josef Byng, Solarian League Navy," the white-uniformed man on her display said. "To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?"

Michelle managed to keep her jaw from tightening. She'd never thought much of SLN officers' efficiency, but she rather suspected that Byng's subordinates had at least bothered to inform him of the identity of his caller. And she'd asked for him by name and rank, which made his self-introduction a deliberate and patronizing insult.

I can already see how this is going to go, she thought.

"Vice Admiral Gold Peak," she replied. "Royal Manticoran Navy," she added helpfully, just in case he hadn't recognized the uniform, and had the satisfaction of seeing his lips tighten ever so slightly.

"What can I do for you today...Admiral Gold Peak?" he inquired after a moment.

"I only screened to extend my respects. It's not often we see a full Frontier Fleet admiral this far out in the sticks."

From the look in Byng's eyes, he appreciated being called a Frontier Fleet officer even less than Michelle had expected him to. That was nice.

"Well, it's not often we have the sort of...incident which occurred here in Monica, either, Admiral Gold Peak," Byng replied after a moment. "Given the Union of Monica's long-standing and friendly relations with the League, I'm sure you can understand why it seemed like a good idea to send someone of our own out here for a firsthand impression of events."

"I certainly can," Michelle agreed. "We felt a need to do the same thing after the unfortunate events here in Monica." She shook her head. "I'm sure all of us regret what happened after Captain Terekhov attempted to ascertain exactly what President Tyler's intentions were. According to our own investigations, those battlecruisers provided to him for his projected attack on the Lynx Terminus were supplied by Technodyne. Have your people been able to turn up anything more about that, Admiral?"

"No." Byng showed his teeth in something a professional diplomat might have described as a smile. "No, we haven't. In fact, according to the briefings I received when I was dispatched, we still haven't managed to confirm where they came from."

"Aside from the fact that they obviously came from the SLN. Originally, I mean." Michelle smiled, adding the carefully timed qualifier as Byng appeared to swell visibly. "Obviously, once ships are listed for disposal and handed over to private hands for scrapping, the Navy's responsibility for them is pretty much at an end. And the paper trail can easily become...obscured, as we all know. Especially if some criminaland civilian, of coursetype is doing his best to make it obscure."

"No doubt. My own experience in those areas is somewhat limited, however. I'm sure our own investigation will be looking very carefully at the recordkeeping of our various suppliers. No doubt Technodyne will be included in that process."

Michelle toyed with the notion of telling him about the indictments which had already been handed down against several of Technodyne's senior executives. Given the Beowulf Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, her own information loop from the Old League was far shorter than Byng's could possibly be. She strongly suspected that he must at least have known which way the wind was setting before he set out for Monica, and the possibility that she might be able to push his blood pressure up into stroke levels made the temptation to rub his nose in the evidence that Technodyne had been caught with its hand in the cookie jar clear to the elbow almost overwhelming.

Down, girl, she told herself, suppressing the desire right womanfully.

"I'm sure it will be," she said instead. "In the meantime, however, may I assume you're also here in something of the role of observer of the Talbott Quadrant's integration into the Star Empire?"

"Star Empire?" Byng repeated, raising his eyebrows in polite surprise. "Is that what you've decided to call it?" He gave her a small, almost apologetic wave of his hand. "I'm afraid I hadn't heard that before I was deployed."

His tone made his own opinion of the delusions of grandeur involved in calling something the size of Manticore's new star nation an "empire," and Michelle smiled sweetly at him.

"Well, we had to call it something, Admiral. And given the political arrangements the Talbotters came up with at their constitutional convention, the term sounded logical. Of course, it's early days yet, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." Byng smiled back at her, but his smile was considerably colder than hers had been. "I'm sure it's going to be interesting to see how...successfully your experiment works out."

"So far, it seems to be going quite well," Michelle said.

"So far," he agreed, with another of those smiles. "In answer to your question, however, yes. I have been instructed to observe events out here in the Talbott area. I'm sure you're aware the public back home was deeply interested in events out here. Especially after that unfortunate business on Kornati began to make it into the newsfaxes." He shook his head sadly. "Personally, I'm confident the entire affair was grossly exaggeratednewsies do need to sell subscriptions, after all. Still, the Foreign Ministry does feel a certain responsibility to get a firsthand impression of events there, as well as throughout the Cluster. I'm sure you can understand why that would be the case."

"Oh, believe me," Michelle assured him with deadly affability, "I can understand exactly why that would be the case, Admiral Byng. And, speaking for Her Majesty and Her Majesty's government, I'm sure all of the Star Empire's new member systems will be prepared to extend every possible courtesy to you."

"That's very welcome news, Admiral."

"And, while you're here, Admiral, if there's any way Her Majesty's Navy can assist youfor example, if you would care to set up joint anti-piracy or anti-slavery patrolsI'm sure Admiral Khumalo would be as delighted as I would to coordinate our operations with you."

"That's very kind of you." Byng smiled again. "Of course, unlike your new Star Empire, the League has no direct territorial interests in this region. Aside from the security of our own allies in the area, that is. And, of course, the securityand territorial integrityof those star systems which have been taken under the protection of the Office of Frontier Security. I believe we can see to those obligations out of our own resources. At least, it's difficult for me to conceive of a threat to those interests which we couldn't deal with out of our own resources."

"No doubt." Michelle smiled back at him. "Well, in that case, Admiral Byng, I won't keep you any longer. We won't be in Monica for very long. This was just in the nature of making certain our new allies here were secure, so I imagine we'll be on our way to Tillerman shortly. I need to pay a courtesy call on President Tyler first, however. Governor General Medusa has instructed me to inform him that the Star Empire is prepared to extend government-guaranteed loans to any of its citizens who might be interested in investing here." Her smile turned sweeter. "I believe Baroness Medusaand Her Majestybelieve it's the least we can do to help Monica recover from the consequences of that unfortunate event."

"That's remarkably generous of your Star Empire," Byng said.

"As I said, I'm sure everyone regrets what happened here, Admiral Byng. And Manticore's experience has been that extending a helping hand to ex-enemies and treating them as equals is one of the better ways to see to it that there's no repetition of all that unpleasantness."

"I see." Byng nodded. "Well, since you seem to have quite a lot that still needs doing, Admiral Gold Peak, I'll bid you good day."

"Thank you, Admiral. I hope your mission here is a successful one. Henke, clear."

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