"—so that just about takes care of the domestic side," Joachim Alquezar said, looking across the conference table at Dame Estelle Matsuko, Baroness Medusa. "I'm not entirely happy about the situation at Marian, but I think it's mostly a tempest in a teapot. Someone in the local planetary government with too big an opinion of what he's due feels like he got his toes stepped on, and he's pissing and moaning about it. No one's going to let him get away with it long enough for it to become a real problem, but I'm afraid this is hardly going to be the only place something like this is going to come up before all's said and done. So it might not be a bad idea for Samiha to send someone from her ministry out to read them the riot act just to make sure his own people step on him hard enough."
Alquezar, Medusa was pleased to note, showed no signs—as yet—of developing the sort of formality-craving sense of self-importance she'd seen out of altogether too many political leaders over the decades. Of course, there was plenty of time for that, she supposed, reminding herself not to let her hopes get too high.
After all, all of a pessimist's surprises are pleasant ones, she thought drily. Although I have to say, I think he's a lot less likely to go that way than some of the politicians I've seen back home! Than lotsof the politicos I've seen back home, actually . . . or than that poisonous little twerp Van Scheldt would likehim to be, for that matter.
She wondered—again—why Alquezar didn't just go ahead and fire Van Scheldt. The man was certainly efficient, but if there was anyone in the entire Alquezar Government whom she trusted less in the dark . . .
"As you say, Mr. Prime Minister," she said out loud after a moment, "this is a domestic matter for the Talbott Quadrant. It doesn't really come under my umbrella as the Imperial Governor unless things get so out of hand I need to step in and squash someone. So far, this doesn't strike me as even beginning to reach that level. Would you concur, Madam Secretary?"
"Oh, I'd say that was definitely the case, Madam Governor," Samiha Lababibi replied with a smile. "Joachim is absolutely right about what's going on, except that in this case, I'm fairly sure it's not a 'he' who's doing the pissing and moaning. I've got a pretty good idea exactly who it is, as a matter of fact, and if I'm right, it's a 'she.' It's not really that she got her toes stepped on, either; it's that she was hoping for a little better opportunity to line her own pockets off of the investment credits program." Lababibi shook her head. "I'm afraid a few people are still having a bit of difficulty realizing it isn't going to go on being business as usual. As Joachim says, it's not the last time something like this is going to come up, either. I can think of some people right here in Spindle—and not visitors to my fair home world, either, I'm afraid—who feel exactly the same way and may actually be stupid enough to try to do something similar."
And that's something pretty remarkable, too, Medusa thought with a sense of profound satisfaction. Back during the Constitutional Convention, it would never have occurred to Lababibi to say something like that. Not because she's ever been deliberately corrupt herself, but just because she's always been part of the topmost layer of the political and economic structures here in Spindle, with all of the insulation from everyone else's reality that comes with that. She might have sympathized intellectually with someone like Krietzmann, but she could never really have understood where Henri comes from. It was just too far outside her own experience. I wondered if putting her inside the Star Empire's fiscal policies as the Quadrant's treasurer would shake up her own comfortable little perceptions of the universe. I always knew she was smart enough for it to, at least, but smart doesn't necessarily equate to wise, and I'm glad to see it seems to be working out in this case, at least.
"In this case, though," Lababibi continued, blissfully unaware of the governor's thoughts, "I believe I can . . . reason with the culprit. If I point out, speaking as the Quadrant's Treasury Secretary, that the investment credits are being offered solely on a private citizen basis and that both the Alquezar Government and Her Majesty would look with . . . profound displeasure, shall we say, on any effort by local governments to interfere with that, I think she'll get the message."
"Good." Medusa smiled, then sobered slightly. "As I say, this does strike me as an internal matter for the Quadrant, and you're quite right, Samiha. This entire credit programis being offered to private citizens, which means that, aside from the tax credit portion of it, it's not properly a matter for government control or intrusion at all. You might want to deliver your message in a fashion which makes it clear my office and I are being kept in the loop, however. Let me do a little ominous looming in the background, but don't make me any sort of explicit big stick. Let them draw any inferences they want, but not only is it not my place to be interfering in a matter like this unless you or Joachim request it, I want everyone to understand both that I know it isn't and that the Quadrant government is all grown up and able to make its own decisions and do any hammering you people think is required."
Lababibi nodded, and Medusa nodded back with another flicker of satisfaction at how well the former president of the Split System was working out handling Treasury matters for the Quadrant. And not, this time, simply because of the shift in her attitude away from the "way things are" view of oligarchical privilege. Her awareness of the need to find the right balance between local decision and policy making—and enforcement—and imperial authority was another huge plus in Medusa's opinion.
The entire situation was still something of a two-headed monster for everyone involved, of course. Under the new constitution, Alquezar, as the Quadrant's Prime Minister, was the legal head of government for the Quadrant. That gave him and the rest of the Quadrant an enormous degree of local autonomy . . . and the accountability that went with it. However, the entire Quadrant was responsible for accommodating itself to the policies of the Star Empire of Manticore, represented and enunciated in this case by one Baroness Medusa. While she could not normally overrule specific policy decisions or acts of local legislation, she had complete authority—and the power of the veto—when it came to making certain those decisions and pieces of legislation fitted smoothly into imperial guidelines in those areas where the Empress' authority was paramount. Despite the Quadrant Constitution's neatly delimited articles and sections, actually implementing its provisions remained a work in progress, and that wasn't going to change anytime soon. It was going to take some time for the lot of them to work out exactly how and where the pragmatic limits of specified authority and responsibility fell, but so far things seemed to be headed in the right direction. At least all of the members of the Alquezar Government seemed determined to see to it that they did.
The investment credits program and how Alquezar's Cabinet approached it provided a case in point, in Medusa's opinion.
Empress Elizabeth had decided, long before the Constitutional Convention had finally voted out the provisions of the Quadrant's new constitution, that her newer subjects were not going to be taken to the financial cleaners by her older ones. At the same time, it was clearly imperative—for a lot of reasons—to push investment in the Talbott Cluster as hard and fast as possible. The Quadrant had a lot of people and a lot of star systems, but its seriously backward technology base urgently required updating and expansion, and investment capital was hard to come by locally. So Elizabeth and Prime Minister Grantville had decided that for the first ten T-years of operation, any new startup endeavor in the Quadrant would enjoy a reduction in taxation equal to the percentage of ownership held by citizens of the Quadrant. After ten T-years, the tax break would reduce by five percent per T-year for another ten T-years, then terminate completely in the twenty-first T-year. That gave tremendous incentive for investors from the Old Star Kingdom to seek out local partners, and all government really had to do was to keep track of that percentage of local ownership and administer the tax breaks. It most emphatically did not have any role in creating the partnerships in question.
Some of the local oligarchs appeared unable (or unwilling) to grasp that point. They'd expected to control ownership of the new enterprises much as they had dominated the pre-annexation financial structures of the Talbott Cluster. The smarter of them, on the other hand, had recognized early on that there were going to be enormous changes. They'd realized that they'd better adjust to the realization that elements of their populations who previously had been insignificant blips as far as local financial markets were concerned were about to find themselves highly attractive to Manticoran investment partners.
Which was exactly the way things were working out, much to the satisfaction of Elizabeth Winton. Many of the Star Kingdom's investors were allowing their newfound Talbott partners to finance their share of ownership as a percentage of the tax credits, which had the effect of tremendously reducing the amount of startup capital the Talbotters required. That was allowing people from far outside the ranks of the traditional oligarchies to become significant players, which was about to both expand and strengthen the overall economy of the Quadrant while simultaneously severely curtailing the "old guard's" control over that economy. Joachim Alquezar, his Cabinet, and his Constitutional Union Party (which held an outright majority of over eighteen percent in the Quadrant's new Parliament), all understood that, and they were working hard to push the process along.
Which brought Medusa back to the situation in Marian. Apparently one of the local oligarchs—and, like Lababibi, Medusa thought she could make a fairly accurate guess as to exactly who the oligarch in question might be—had decided she ought to receive a "commission" for brokering and expediting the formation of partnerships between Manticoran investors and their Talbott colleagues. Words like extortion, graft, and bribery came to mind whenever Medusa thought about it, and she almost hoped the culprit would prove less amenable to sweet reason than Alquezar and Lababibi expected. She couldn't remember exactly who it was back on Old Terra who'd been in favor of shooting a few people "to encourage the others," but in this case, Estelle Matsuko was prepared to pay for the ammunition herself.
Figuratively speaking, of course.
"All right," Alquezar said now, looking around the conference table, "does anyone have anything else we need to deal with before adjourning?"
Another sign of how new things still were, Medusa reflected. It wouldn't be all that much longer, she was sure, before things like ironbound agendas for meetings like this would become the rule. For now, things were still remarkably—and thankfully—flexible, however, and Alquezar looked in her direction when she cleared her throat.
"There is one matter Vice Admiral Khumalo tells me he'd like to bring to your attention, Mr. Prime Minister," she said. "I apologize for not having mentioned this to anyone ahead of this meeting, but the dispatch boat arrived only a few hours before we were scheduled to meet, and it took the admiral some time to digest the content of its messages and to share them with me."
"Of course, Madame Governor." Alquezar's voice didn't sharpen dramatically, but he'd obviously picked up on her own formality, and he raised one eyebrow at her slightly, before he turned his attention to the uniformed officer sitting to her right.
"Admiral?" he invited.
"Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister." Augustus Khumalo's voice was considerably deeper than Alquezar's. He nodded respectfully to the Prime Minister, then turned very slightly in his chair to glance around the rest of the conference table.
"What Baroness Medusa is referring to," he said, "is a dispatch from Lieutenant Commander Denton, the commanding officer of the destroyerReprise."
"Reprise?" Henri Krietzmann repeated, cocking his head thoughtfully. Then his eyes sharpened. "She's the picket in the Pequod System, isn't she, Admiral?"
"She is, Mr. Secretary," Khumalo acknowledged.
"And the significance of Commander Denton's dispatch is?" Alquezar inquired, his own eyes narrowing.
"Apparently, there's being some friction with New Tuscany-registry merchantships, Mr. Prime Minister."
Khumalo seemed to be choosing words with some care, Alquezar observed.
"What sort of 'friction'?" the Prime Minister asked.
"Well, that's the peculiar thing about it, Sir," Khumalo replied. "We haven't received any formal communication about this from anyone aside from Denton at this point, but his report makes interesting reading. Apparently, there's been more New Tuscan traffic into Pequod of late then there ever was before the annexation. In a lot of ways, that isn't too surprising, given Pequod's relative proximity to New Tuscany. It's less than a T-week even for a merchie between the two systems, after all. But as we all know, Pequod is scarcely what anyone might call a major hub of commercial activity, and most of the shipping in and out of the system has been dominated by the RTU for a long time."
Alquezar nodded. His own home star system of San Miguel was under a hundred and thirty light-years from New Tuscany, and it had been the first non-Rembrandt star system to affiliate itself with the Rembrandt Trade Union. For that matter, Alquezar and his family controlled twelve percent of the RTU's voting shares. If anyone had a firm grasp of the realities of interstellar shipping and commerce throughout the Talbott Cluster, it was Joachim Alquezar.
"Now, I fully realize that the new political and financial relationships being worked out are going to result in a major reconfiguration of local shipping conditions, especially in concert with all of the additional traffic being attracted to the Lynx Terminus," Khumalo continued. "As such it probably makes sense for local shippers to be prospecting. There probably aren't going to be many local cargoes available on spec yet, but there may well be a few, and establishing contacts for future reference has just become a lot more important for a lot of reasons.
"Despite that, however, it seems to me we're seeing more New Tuscan ships in Pequod than the situation justifies. I wouldn't have worried about that—in fact, I doubt very much that anyone on my staff even would have noticed it—if not for Commander Denton's report about how the officers of some of those New Tuscan ships are conducting themselves."
"In what way, Admiral?" Bernardus Van Dort asked, his blue eyes intent.
"They seem to be exceptionally . . . prickly," Khumalo said. "They're quick to take offense. In fact, it seems to Commander Denton that they're actively looking for opportunities to do just that. Or even manufacturing such opportunities."
"Allow me to interrupt for a moment before Admiral Khumalo goes any further," Medusa said. Everyone looked at her, and she smiled without much humor. "I'm sure it's going to occur to many of us that Commander Denton might just be sending us observations to that effect because he's managed to give the New Tuscans legitimate cause to take offense. Neither Admiral Khumalo nor I believe that to be the case, however. I can't say I know Commander Denton personally. I believe I was introduced to him on at least one occasion, shortly afterReprise was first assigned to Admiral Khumalo's command, but, to be perfectly frank, I really don't remember him very well at all. But I have perused his personnel file since the Admiral shared his dispatches with me. From his record, he doesn't strike me as the sort of officer who would antagonize merchant service officers just for his own entertainment. And he definitely doesn't strike me as the sort who would try to falsely imply that the New Tuscans were being hyper-sensitive as a means to cover himself against any sort of reasonable complaints they might make because of his own actions."
"Governor Medusa's right about that," Khumalo rumbled. "I know Denton better than she does, of course, and I didn't deploy him to Pequod because he's stupid. He's not going to be going around stepping on anyone, and even if he'd been tempted to cover himself for some reason, he'd know any sort of deceptive reports would be bound to come unglued, which would only make things worse for him in the long run. In other words, I don't think he'd screw up in the first place, or be dumb enough to think he could cover it up if he had."
"If both you and the Governor feel that way, I'm certainly prepared to accept your judgment," Van Dort said. "Why does Commander Denton feel the New Tuscans are acting in this fashion?"
"If you're asking if he has any explanation for why they're being 'prickly,' as the Admiral put it," Medusa said, "he doesn't. But if you're asking what evidence of their prickliness he's presented, there's quite a bit of it, actually, Bernardus."
Van Dort's expression was an unspoken question, and Medusa gave Khumalo a small, inviting gesture.
"The Commander's attention was originally drawn to this matter by the report of one of his junior officers," the vice admiral told Van Dort. "After checking with others of his officers who have been conducting customs inspections and generally backstopping the Pequod System's local forces in managing the expansion of their traffic, he found that many of them acknowledged similar experiences, although most of them hadn't reported them at the time."
"And the Pequod System's customs agents," Alquezar said intently. "Do we have similar reports from them?"
"No, Mr. Prime Minister, we don't," Khumalo replied, his tone acknowledging the significance of Alquezar's question. "In fact, Commander Denton specifically inquired of his Pequod counterparts before he sent his dispatch to Spindle. They confirmed his own impression that New Tuscan traffic to Pequod is up very substantially, especially over the last few T-weeks before the Commander sent off his dispatch. None of them, however, have experienced the same degree of touchiness out of the New Tuscans."
Alquezar nodded slowly, his frown thoughtful.
"According to Commander Denton's inquiries, almost all of the New Tuscan ships which his personnel had boarded in the last ten local days prior to his dispatch had demonstrated the same pattern of behavior. The ships' officers were confrontational, acted as if they were highly suspicious of our personnel's motivations, cooperated as grudgingly as possible with requests for documentation and inspection, and generally appeared to be attempting to deliberately provoke naval personnel into some sort of open incident. Not only that, but Commander Denton suspects that in at least several of these cases the New Tuscans were using shipboard surveillance systems to record the entire episode.
"Because of those suspicions, he arranged to surreptitiously record several of our inspection visits himself. Obviously, I haven't had the time yet to view those records in their entirety myself. I have, however, viewed several clips which he included with his official report, and he sent the full recordings with them. At the moment, Commander Chandler and Captain Shoupe are viewing those records but, to be honest, I don't expect the result of their examination to change my own impression, which is that Commander Denton has accurately summarized the situation. There's very little question in my mind that the New Tuscans, for whatever reason, are deliberately pushing our personnel—and specifically our naval personnel—in what I can only construe as an effort to provoke some sort of incident."
"Forgive me, Admiral," Lababibi put in, "but if this had only been happening for less than two T-weeks before the Commander became aware of it, how many such visits could there have been? I mean, I don't question your observations, I'm simply wondering how large a base we have for drawing conclusions?"
"As a matter of fact, Madam Secretary," it was obvious Khumalo hadn't taken any sort of offense from Lababibi's question, "that's one of the reasons I think Commander Denton may have put his finger on something important here. In the ten local days before he sent his dispatch, six New Tuscan-registered merchant ships visited Pequod."
"Six?" Bernardus Van Dort sat suddenly upright in his chair, and Khumalo nodded.
"Is that number significant, Bernardus?" Lababibi asked, looking at her colleague, and Van Dort snorted harshly.
"You might say that, Samiha," he replied. "I know we're all still in the process of really coming to have a good feel for the other star systems in the Quadrant with us, but, believe me, Pequod is not Spindle. As the Secretary of the Treasury, I'm sure you're aware that it's nowhere near as poverty-stricken as Nuncio, but it's a much, much poorer star system than Spindle. In fact, if Henri will forgive me, Pequod is probably almost as poor as Dresden was thirty or forty T-years ago."
Lababibi nodded slowly, watching Van Dort carefully. While Joachim Alquezar was intimately familiar with the internal workings of the Rembrandt Trade Union, Bernardus Van Dort had virtually single-handedly created the Trade Union. In many ways, Lababibi had thought from the beginning that Van Dort would have made a far better treasury secretary than she herself had, since no one in the entire galaxy had a better feel for the economic realities of the Talbott Cluster. Unfortunately, he was still too polarizing a figure in too many eyes for him to have been handed that particular cabinet post. And, Lababibi admitted, not without a certain degree of reason. She herself trusted him completely, but the RTU had been too unpopular with too many of the Cluster's inhabitants for far too long for Bernardus Van Dort to have been acceptable as the Quadrant's chief treasury official.
"What you may not—yet—fully realize is what that means in terms of interstellar trade, though," Van Dort continued. "I'd have to check with our central records back on Rembrandt to confirm this, but I'd be surprised if Pequod ever saw more than a couple of freighters a T-monthprior to the discovery of the Lynx Terminus. And if you glance at a star map, the system is hardly on a direct approach to Lynx. There's going to be a general upsurge in system visits by ships vectoring through the Terminus and looking for cargoes of opportunity, and Pequod will probably see at least some of it. But six ships from a single local star system in less than two T-weeks?" He shook his head. "No way. For that matter, the New Tuscan merchant marine isn't particularly huge. Six hyper-capable freighters represent a hefty percentage of their total merchant fleet, and probably two-thirds of its ships are registered elsewhere for tax purposes. That's what makes it significant that the Admiral mentioned New Tuscany-registered vessels, because there are only a relatively small handful of ships which are both owned and registered in New Tuscany. I can't conceive of any sound business reason that would send that many ships, out of such a limited pool, to a system like Pequod."
"I don't like the sound of that," Krietzmann half-muttered.
"You wouldn't like the sound of anything coming out of New Tuscany, Henri," Lababibi said rather tartly. But then she shook her own head. "On the other hand, in this case, I have to agree with you. Although I can't begin to offer any explanation of what's going on . . . or why."
"Neither can I," Baroness Medusa acknowledged. "I think, though, that given the . . . friction between the New Tuscan government and the Quadrant since New Tuscany's withdrawal from the Constitutional Convention, we have to approach this situation with a bit of caution."
"I can't disagree with that, either, Madam Governor," Lababibi said unhappily. "They're still pressing for a 'more equitable' distribution of Manticoran investment in the region, and at least some members of their delegation have made it clear that—as individuals, at least—they feel our refusal to give it to them represents economic retaliation against them for declining to ratify the Constitution as members of the Star Empire."
"Are you suggesting those delegation members and these merchant spacers miraculously appearing in such numbers in Pequod are part of some officially concerted effort?" Alquezar sounded even more unhappy than Lababibi, and she shrugged.
"I don't know," she admitted. "On the one hand, it's very tempting to conclude exactly that. But if I'm going to be honest, that's at least partly because of how thoroughly I detest New Tuscany on a personal basis. There's a part of me that would like to think that they're Up To Something. On the other hand, the timing of it seems to me to argue against it. If they were going to set up some sort of concerted effort, as you put it, Joachim, then why did they wait so long to begin sending ships to Pequod? Their delegation's been here in Spindle ever since the Constitutional Convention, and they've been whining and complaining about our 'unfair' efforts to restrict Manticoran investment in New Tuscany from the very beginning."
She looked at Khumalo.
"What's the dispatch boat flight time from Pequod to Spindle, Admiral?" she asked.
"Right on seventeen T-days, Madam Secretary."
"Well, if we take this spike in their merchant ships' appearances in Pequod and assume it extends back over only ten days before Commander Denton reported it to us, that's still less than a T-month," Lababibi pointed out. "It's been over six T-months since the Constitution was voted out, and the next best thing to five months since Parliament and Her Majesty ratified it. So why would they have waited so long and then crammed so many ships into Pequod in such a short timeframe that it had to create this kind of spike?"
"You're right." Alquezar nodded. "If it were a concerted effort of some sort, they would have started cycling their ships through Pequod sooner, wouldn't they? Done it in a way which wouldn't be obvious when we started looking at it?"
"Maybe, and maybe not," Van Dort said thoughtfully. The others looked at him, and he shrugged. "Without a better idea of what they're up to—or what they may be up to, at any rate—we don't have any solid basis for evaluating their tactics. And, frankly, at this point I don't have any idea of what it is they could hope to accomplish in the end. Aside from thoroughly pissing off the Star Empire, of course, which would appear to be something of a case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face."
"I have to agree with that," Medusa said, "and that's the real reason I wanted to call this to the attention of the Quadrant's government. When I can't think of a reason for someone who I know doesn't like me very much to be doing something, it makes me nervous."
"I feel the same way," Alquezar agreed.
"And while we're all feeling nervous," Krietzmann pointed out, "think about this. I have to agree with Samiha's analysis that the original complaints from members of the New Tuscan trade delegation probably weren't designed as part of a coherent strategy. Or, at least, not of a coherent strategy directly connected to what's happening in Pequod right now. But the fact that they weren't part of that kind of strategythen, doesn't mean they aren't part of that kind of strategy now. Or that whoever's pulling the strings in Pequod didn't choose to incorporate what was originally a totally unconnected situation into an entirely new strategy. I know New Tuscany is only a single star system, and one that's not remotely in the Star Empire's—or even the Star Kingdom's—league. For that matter, they're a small enough fish they ought to be nervous about pissing off just the folks here in the Quadrant, if they're feeling rational about things. And I know I have a tendency to look under beds for plots by people like Andrieaux Yvernau, too. I admit it, and—no offense to anyone sitting around this table—I think Dresden's experience with people like him justifies that tendency. In this case, though, I really don't think it's just a matter of lower-class paranoia. I think the bastards really are up to something, and much as I hate them I don't really think they're stupid enough to be pissing in our soup just because they don't like us. If they are doing something, then there's a method to their madness somewhere, and given the general situation after the Battle of Monica and how early it is in the process of integrating the Quadrant into the Star Empire, I think we'd damned well better figure out what it is."