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Chapter Thirty-One

"You wanted tosee me, Milady?"

"Yes." Baroness Medusa looked up and waved for Gregor O'Shaughnessy to step fully into her office. "I was afraid you'd already left the Residence," she added as he obeyed the gesture and settled into his favorite chair.

"Ambrose screened to say he was hung up in some force analysis discussion. We've moved our meeting schedule back a couple of hours."

"It's just possible you won't be having that particular meeting at all." O'Shaughnessy's mental ears pricked up at the governor's tone, and she produced an expression which was more grimace than smile as his eyebrows rose.

"Should I assume there's been some new development, Milady?" he asked after a moment.

"More like a new wrinkle on a development we were already worrying about," she replied. "I've just received a formal communication from Alesta Cardot."

"Ah?" O'Shaughnessy frowned. "Does this have anything to do with what's been going on in Pequod, Milady?"

"That's what I've always liked about you, Gregor," Medusa said with a snort of genuine amusement. "You're quick."

"A natural talent, Milady." O'Shaughnessy smiled briefly, then sobered. "And just what did New Tuscany's Foreign Minister have to say about her obstreperous merchant spacers?"

"Interestingly enough, she didn't have a thing to say about her spacers. Had quite a bit to say about the conduct of our naval personnel, on the other hand."

"Why am I not surprised?" O'Shaughnessy murmured. Then he leaned back in his chair and stretched his forearms out along the armrests, fingertips drumming while he considered.

Medusa left him alone for several seconds. Gregor O'Shaughnessy could be infuriating when he truly put his mind to it. Despite his best efforts, his innate streak of intellectual arrogance got loose from time to time, and he'd been known to treat colleagues with a sort of dismissive patience which could all too easily come across as condescension. For that matter, sometimes it was condescension, although he didn't seem to realize it. And there were times when condescension turned into something considerably uglier and more dismissive if he decided the object of his ire was being particularly stupid by not grasping what he was saying. But he had impressive strengths to set against such minor character flaws. For one thing, he was ruthlessly intellectually honest. For another, he was always prepared to admit he'd made a mistake, if someone could demonstrate that he had, and however scathing he might have been during the debate which led up to that demonstration, he didn't hold the fact that someone else had been right against the other person afterwards. And he was also very, very smart.

"I take it Cardot's position is that Commander Denton and his people aren't just loose warheads?" he said after a moment.

"Oh, on the contrary," Medusa said dryly. "She's taken exactly the position that they are loose warheads. In fact, she's taken it so elaborately that no one could possibly miss the fact that she considers it a polite diplomatic fiction she's offering so that we can use it as a political fig leaf. From the tone of her note, it's obvious she intends to give us an out by repudiating and reprimanding Denton, thus proving we would never have authorized, far less instigated, such 'a pervasive pattern of Manticoran harassment of New Tuscan merchant shipping in the peaceful pursuit of legitimate commercial interests.' "

"She actually said that?" O'Shaughnessy said, then blinked as Medusa nodded. "My, whatever they're up to, they don't mind being a bit blatant about it, do they?"

"No, and that worries me," the governor admitted. She tipped back her own chair and pinched the bridge of her nose between her right thumb and forefinger. "This is about as subtle as heaving a brick through an office window during business hours. Oh," she released her nose to wave her hand, "all of the proper diplomatese is in place. In fact, in a lot of ways, it's quite a smoothly composed note. But I doubt any genuinely impartial observer could possibly miss the fact that she's systematically building a case designed to justify some unfriendly action on New Tuscany's part by disguising it as self-defense."

"How exactly did she present it, Milady?"

"Essentially, it's a formal protest alleging that Commander Dentonand apparently the entire ship's company of HMSReprisehas systematically insulted, obstructed, and harassed New Tuscan merchant ships pursuing their lawful business in the Pequod System. She's enumerated all of the incidents Denton had reported to us, and added quite a few more. At least a couple of them occurredaccording to her, at leastafter Denton's dispatch to Admiral Khumalo, which presumably explains why we hadn't already heard about them. Others, though..." She shook her head. "Others, Gregor, have that 'manufactured out of whole cloth' feel to them. I've got the distinct feeling that they didn't really happen at all."

"Fictitious encounters tucked away in the underbrush of genuine ones, you mean?"

"That's exactly what I mean." Medusa's expression was grim. "It looks like they were recording all of our people's official shipboard visits, as well. According to them, they 'just happen' to have imagery available on a handful of inspections. No one was recording them on purpose, you understand. It was just a fortuitous coincidence that the internal systems of the ships in question were switched on at the critical moment. It's obvious they went through those recordings thoroughly before they very carefully picked the material Cardot included with her note, and I don't doubt for a moment that she's taken the remarks of our people even more carefully out of context, but they do have at least some imagery. Which is one reason I find the thought of fictitious incidents so disturbing. I mean, they have to know we'll realize they're lying about those...episodes, so who are they creating them to impress in the first place? It has to be a third party, and I think that also explains the imagery they're presenting, as well. You know how any imagery tends to substantiate even the most outrageous accusations for some people."

"Some people in this case being Frontier Security, do you think?"

"That's what I'm afraid of," she admitted. "And I'm even more afraid that they didn't hit on this notion, whatever it is, all on their own."

"You think Manpower could be behind it?" O'Shaughnessy asked as he recalled a certain seaside conversation with Ambrose Chandler, and Medusa shrugged unhappily.

"I don't know. If they are, though, they've been awfully damned quick off the mark. Even assuming New Tuscany was just sitting there like a ripe plum-apple, waiting to fall right into their hands, how the hell could they have gotten all of this up and running so quickly? And where in the name of God would even Manpower have gotten the chutzpah to try something like this after the hammering they took over Monica?" She shook her head. "What they ought to be doing is keeping their heads down and waiting for Monica to blow over, not playing with matches in something that could blow right up in their faces all over again. And even if they were too stupid to see that, I just don't see how they could have put it all together this rapidly. It's roughly three hundred and sixty-five light-years from Mesa to New Tuscany. Even for a dispatch boat, that's a forty-five-day trip, one way, and it's been barely three months since admiral Webster's assassination. For that matter, it's been barely five months since the Battle of Monica. With a three-month round-trip communications loop, how could they possibly have put something like this together this quickly?"

"Unless they were working the New Tuscany angle from the very beginning, Milady," O'Shaughnessy said slowly, his eyes thoughtful. "Do you think Andrieaux Yvernau might really have been trying to sabotage the Convention all along?"

"No." Medusa shook her head again, even more firmly. "I'm convinced Yvernau was just as big an idiot as he seemed at the time. Besides, I can't believe for a moment that someone like the New Tuscan oligarchs would be willing to work hand-in-glove with someone like Nordbrandt. Or even Westman, for that matter! They'd be far too terrified of the danger of Nordbrandt's example for their own domestic situation."

"They might have been being played," O'Shaughnessy pointed out. "You're right; there's no way they would have knowingly worked with someone like Nordbrandt. But if they didn't know they were working with Nordbrandt, the same way Westman didn't know, then all our analysis parameters shift."

"I suppose that's possible, in a remote sort of way." Medusa swung her chair gently from side to side, nibbling on her lower lip while she thought. "I still think it's unlikely, though. For one thing, I don't believe Yvernau is subtle enoughor smart enough, for that matterto have deliberately presented a platform the most reactionary oligarchs of the Cluster were going to sign on for. And he did, you know. I think that if his real orders had been to sabotage the Convention, he would've been more confrontational from the beginning instead of trying to oil his way into controlling the way the final Constitution would have been drafted. And let's face it, his demands were considerably less extreme than Tonkovic's. If he'd really wanted to kill the Convention, why not go ahead and sign up under her banner? Why present what was actually a more moderateand therefore more likely to be adopteddraft of his own?"

"I'm afraid you're right," O'Shaughnessy sighed. "He'd have to have been a lot smarter than we both know he really is to have tried to double-think his way into blowing up the Constitution that way. Unless someone else was pulling his puppet strings, at least."

"And there you come up against the time constraints again," Medusa pointed out. "You just can't move information across interstellar distances quickly enough to make something like that practical. Besides, if New Tuscany was in on the original plan, then why were they working so hard for a place at the feed trough? There's no question that the majority of the New Tuscan oligarchs wanted to get their own rice bowls out in front when the Star Kingdom started investing in the Cluster. That's why they supported the annexation in the first place, at least until they figured out how likely they were to lose control politically at home if it went through on Her Majesty's terms, instead of theirs."

"Then maybe they really are just pissed off enough over not getting their bowls filled that they're doing this on their own after all," O'Shaughnessy said with a shrug.

"No, Henri's right about that. Yvernau may be an idiothe is an idiotbut there have to be at least some people on his planet and in his government who have IQs higher than a stewed prune's. By now, if nothing else, they'd have to realize Manpower had been playing them, as you put it. They'd be backing away from any kind of support for the people who turned Nordbrandt loose, I'd think. And especially with Nordbrandt's example to stir up their own underclass, they really, really wouldn't want to be ticking us off. Not unless they figured they had some powerful backingbacking powerful enough to keep us off their necks in retaliation and to help them keep their boots on the backs of their own underclass's necksfrom somewhere."

"Somewhere closer than Mesa. That's what you're really suggesting, isn't it, Milady?"

"Yes," Medusa admitted with a grimace. "Meyers is closer to New Tuscany than Mesa is, and Frontier Security has a lot more in the way of resources than Manpower. It's got a depressing amount of experience in helping less-than-desirable r'egimes stay in power by repressing hell out of their domestic opposition, too, I'm afraid. That might just make it more attractive to New Tuscany than our own corrupting example. Not to mention the fact that Frontier Security was far better tapped into the star systems here in and around the Quadrant than anyone from Manpower was likely to be. Everything Ambassador Corvisart's turned up in Monica suggests that OFS brokered the deal between Manpower and the Jessyk Combine and people like Nordbrandt and President Tyler. I don't think there's any reason to assume Commissioner Verrochio wouldn't be thoroughly capable of brokering deals for himself if he decided to. And if there's anyone around who's probably more ticked off than Manpower by how Terekhov blew their Monica operation right out of space, it's got to be Lorcan Verrochio."

"That's a nasty thought," O'Shaughnessy acknowledged, pursing his lips thoughtfully. But then he shook his head. "It's a nasty thought, and it's possible you're onto something, Milady. But it occurs to me that a lot of the time constraints you've pointed out where Mesa is concerned would also apply to Verrochio. The transit time for a dispatch boat between Meyers and New Tuscany would only be about a T-week less than the time between Mesa and New Tuscany. That only saves them half a T-month on the round trip."

"Agreed. But I'm thinking that Manpower probably wouldn't have started sniffing around New Tuscany until after they'd assassinated Admiral Webster. Or no sooner than that, at any rate. In that case, they wouldn't have had enough time even to get the suggestion of an alliance to New Tuscany before the New Tuscans started manufacturing these 'incidents' of theirs. But if Verrochio started in on this the instant he found out how Monica had blown up in everyone's faces, they'd have had time for two complete two-way exchanges of communication before the first genuine incident in Pequod. Even assuming Manpower had started at exactly the same time, they could only have managed one and a half two-way exchanges in the same timeframe. In addition to which, Verrochio wouldn't have needed to invest still more time in coordinating with OFS, the way Manpower would. He is OFS in this neck of space."

"I agree with your logic," O'Shaughnessy said. "But with all due respect, Milady, both of us are just speculating at this point. We don't begin to have enough information for any kind of informed analysis, and it's one of the first principles of analysis that"

"That if you start speculating too soon, with too little information, you predispose yourself to fit all later information into your initial hypotheses," Medusa interrupted, and gave him a remarkably urchinlike grin. "You see? I have been listening, Gregor."

"Yes, Milady, you have," he replied just the least bit repressively.

"I guess what I really wanted more than anything else was to get you brought up to speed with the information I've got and with the way my own thinking has been headed before we sit down with Khumalo and Chandler. I don't have any interest at all in double-teaming them into going along with my own brainstorms, but I figure it can't hurt to have that brain of yours already mulling over the info."

He nodded in understanding, and she glanced at the date-time readout in the corner of her desk display.

"And speaking about sitting down with Khumalo and Chandler, we're due to do that in about ninety minutes."

"All in all, Governor," Augustus Khumalo said the better part of three hours later, "I find myself substantially in agreement with you."

"Really?" Medusa smiled at him. "By this time, Augustus, I'm not sure what you're agreeing with!" She shook her head. "I've spun this around in my own mind so often that I'm half afraid I've forgotten my own theories!"

"Yes, I've noticed you can be easily distracted, Milady," Khumalo retorted with a level of comfort neither he nor Medusa would ever have predicted a few T-months earlier. "But allow me to summarize. Essentially, I think we're all in agreement that Minister of War Krietzmann's suspicions of New Tuscany would appear to have been soundly based in reality. I think we all also agree that they wouldn't have done this without some assurance of support to offset any retaliation we might be inclined to inflict on them. And that they wouldn't have gone to such pains to manufacture these so-called incidents of theirs if they weren't planning to use them as their 'evidence,' at least in the court of public opinion."

"And I think we should also add that our dispute with the Republic of Haven over the prewar correspondence is probably playing a part in the thinking of whatever mastermind's come up with all this," Amandine Corvisart put in.

Sir Anthony Langtry, the Foreign Secretary for the Star Kingdom of Manticore, had found himself occupying the same office for the Star Empire of Manticore, since foreign policy was one of the areas reserved for the imperial government, rather than being subject to local autonomy. Corvisart had been one of the Foreign Office's senior troubleshooters for years, which was how she'd come to be assigned to deal with the hot potato of Aivars Terekhov's completely unauthorized invasion of the Monica System. When the orders for Quentin O'Malley's battlecruisers to return to the Lynx Terminus had reached Monica, she'd received fresh instructions of her own from Langtry which had assigned her permanently to Baroness Medusa's staff. One of O'Malley's dispatch boats had diverted from the shortest possible flight home to Spindle just long enough to drop her off, and the imperial governor had been delighted to have her.

"That's a good point, Amandine," Medusa said now. "One that hadn't occurred to me, to be honest, though it should have. The accusations and counteraccusations flying back and forth between Landing and Nouveau Paris are going to resonate with any dispute between us and New Tuscany, aren't they?"

"They will for the Sollies, Milady," Corvisart agreed. "By this time, the diplomatic waters are awfully murky as far as any Solly observer is likely to be concerned. Why should they believe us instead of New Tuscany if we find ourselves involved in yet another diplomatic wrangle? Especially if the New Tuscans have what purports to be recorded imagery that proves their claims? I doubt anyone else is going to be particularly impressed by their 'evidence,' but that doesn't really matter. And look at it from Verrochio's perspective. If he can spin this thing properly, we suddenly become the heavies of the piece...which just happens to tie back into the Solly suspicions about our 'imperialist' leanings that Nordbrandt's atrocities were busy fanning. Not only that, but if he can spin things to make it look as if he's riding to the rescue on a white horse in this instancewhich, as he'll make very sure the entire galaxy knows, is a totally separate incident with an obviously innocent third-partythen everything that came out of Monica becomes suspect by association."

"Which would let him rehabilitate himself in the Solly newsfaxes," O'Shaughnessy said, nodding slowly.

"While undoubtedly taking considerable pleasure out of planting one right square in our eye," Khumalo said sourly.

"Let's not get too carried away with conspiracy theories just yet," Medusa said bracingly. "As Gregor pointed out to me earlier today, we really don't have enough information at this point to justify drawing any firm conclusions."

"Well, if we can get the information, then I think we certainly should, Milady," Ambrose Chandler said with a lopsided smile.

"I agree with Commander Chandler," Corvisart said. "At the same time, I think we should bear in mind that if someone is trying to manipulate the situationand usso that we end up in a false position, the worst thing we could do in a lot of ways would probably be to try to get too proactive until we have that information. This looks to me like it's probably one of those cases where the best thing to do is nothing until we've got more pieces of the puzzle."

"You mean to do nothing in terms of officially responding to Cardot's note?" Khumalo asked with a moderately unhappy expression.

"Yes, Admiral. I don't mean to imply that we shouldn't do anything on other frontslike trying to get Commander Chandler's additional information. I just think it would be a mistake to present New Tuscany with any sort of official response they could take out of context or twist."

"I think that makes excellent sense," Medusa agreed. "Which brings us to the point of deciding how to go about getting that additional information. Suggestions, anyone?"

"My first thought is that we should get someone senior to Commander Denton into Pequod, Milady," Khumalo said after a moment. "Mind you, I'm not criticizing anything Denton's done. In fact, I think he's handled the situation remarkably well. But the fact is that he's only a commander, and Reprise is only a destroyerand one who's getting pretty long in the tooth, at that. This isn't like the situation in Split when we sent inHexapuma" he gave Medusa a wry smile "because we didn't have to worry about the Pequod system government's reaction, which meant we could afford to send in just enough ship to get the job done. In some ways, I'm starting to wish we'd given Pequod a higher priority when we started distributing the LACs, but Pequod's a lot less exposed than someplace like Nuncio or Howard, and, to be frank, the system is really capable of providing all of its own customs inspections, even with the legitimate increase in traffic in the area.Reprise is actually there more as a gesture of imperial support for the locals than anything else, when you come right down to it."

Medusa nodded. Despite the priority in getting LACs deployed into the Quadrant, it could only be done so quickly. The limiting factor was coming up with not just the CLACs to transport them to their new stations, but also the depot ships necessary to support them after they got there. The Admiralty was providing more depot conversions as quickly as possible, and the Hauptman Cartel had begun delivering the first modular depot bases, designed for independent deployment after being transported to their assigned stations in standard freighter holds and bolted together in place. But all of that was still taking time, and Khumalo and Krietzmann had chosen to cover their more exposed points first. Pequod was close enough to the Rembrandt Trade Union that the RTU's home systems could dispatch units of their own navieswhich were considerably more powerful than those of any other Talbott star systemsto help cover it in an emergency, and that had given it a much lower priority under their original deployment plans.

"It would still be a good thing, though, I think," Khumalo continued, "to get at least a captain of the list into the system to take the heat off of Denton and with instructions to make it clear to New Tuscany that we know they're lying and don't intend to let them get away with it."

"I think I agree with you," Medusa said slowly. "But assuming we do that, who would you send, Admiral?"

"My current thought would be to send one of Commodore Onasis'Nikes," Khumalo replied. "I don't think I'd be in favor of sending Onasis herself. Not only would that mean depriving myself of her presence here in Spindle if something else comes up, but she'd be too senior, I think. We want to demonstrate resolution, not suggest that we're running scared."

Medusa nodded with a thoughtful frown. The events of the last seven months had clearly contributed to Khumalo's self-confidence. And she'd already decided that if she was going to be honest with herself, he'd always shown better instincts on the political and diplomatic side of his duties than she'd initially been prepared to recognize.

"Excuse me, Admiral, Governor," Captain Shoupe said in a careful tone of voice, and Medusa and Khumalo both looked at the admiral's chief of staff.

"Yes, Captain?" Medusa said.

"With all due respect, I'm not sure sending any of theCommodore's Nikes would be an...optimal response at this moment."

"Why not, Loretta?" Khumalo's question was genuine, not a dismissal phrased as a question, despite the fact that she'd just publicly indicated at least partial disagreement with one of her admiral's suggestions, Medusa realized.

"Two points occur to me, Sir," Shoupe replied. "First, I think sending a ship the size of aNike to a small, poverty-stricken star system like Pequod, to act as a glorified customs cutter, is going to look like an overreaction. Your point about showing resolution without looking like we're afraid comes to mind. And, second, at the moment Commodore Onasis' division is the only real concentrated firepower at your immediate disposal. I don't think sending off twenty-five percent of it, before we at least hear back from Admiral Gold Peak about how things went when she visited Monica, would be an ideal solution."

"Um." Medusa scratched the tip of her nose for a moment, then nodded. "Both excellent points, Captain. But if we're not going to send a battlecruiser, what do we send?"

"Well," Shoupe said after glancing at Khumalo and getting his nod of approval for her to continue, "I'm inclined to suggest that we pretty much sit tight until we get that first squadron ofRolands out here, Milady. We still haven't actually seen any of them, of course, and I realize the deployment schedules we've gotten so far are still provisional and subject to revision. But aRoland is bigger than a lot of light cruisers, and I doubt the Admiralty is choosing their skippers by just pulling names out of a hat."

"That's not a bad idea at all, Loretta," Khumalo said approvingly. "She'd be big enough to make the point that we're serious, but she'd still officially be 'only' a destroyer. And as you say, Admiral Cortez is going to be handpicking their COs. I doubt we'll be lucky enough to get another Terekhov out of the deal, but whoever we do get is definitely going to be first-string."

"And delaying until we get additional units from home would make it clear we're moving deliberately, not rushing around in some sort of panic," Medusa agreed.

"Not to mention the fact that Admiral Gold Peak would probably appreciate it if we didn't start chopping up her squadron into penny-packets before she even gets back here so we can at least discuss it with her," Khumalo added with a chuckle. "Not without a real emergency to justify it, at any rate!"

Vice Admiral Jessup Blaine tried not to feel too bored as he worked his way through the routine reports and paperwork. It was nice to have his own task group to command, and to have two full squadrons of pod-laying ships of the wall at his beck and call, as it were. And it was nice that Quentin O'Malley's battlecruisers had returned to him from Monica.

It was also boring. There simply wasn't very much for a fleet commander to do, assuming he had a competent staff (and Blaine did), when he was tied down to picket duty, however large or important the picket in question might be. He certainly couldn't go looking for trouble, and there were only so many wargames, simulations, and exercises which he could contrive. Exercises against the fortresses protecting the Lynx Terminus, two-thirds of which were now fully on-line, were actually more interesting, and he'd been impressed by the fortresses' capabilities. Aside from that, though, all he really had to do was to hover in the background, like a watching, distant presence, while his staff and his squadron and starship commanders got on with the interesting bits of training and administering their commands.

Oh, stop whining,Jessup! he told himself severely. When you were a captain, you thought the XO had all the real fun. And when you were an XO, you thought it was the department heads. And when you were a department head, you thought it was the division officers. Which was probably pretty much true, now that I think about it.

His lips twitched in a smile at the thought, and he scrawled his electronic signature and thumbprint across the signature block of yet another fascinating report on the status of his attached repair ships' inventories of spare emitter heads for laser clusters. Precisely why he had to sign off on that was one of life's little mysteries.

I'll bet Admiral D'Orville doesn't sign off on parts inventories. Blaine took a certain perverse satisfaction from the thought. He's probably got some staff weenie hidden away down in the bowels of his flagship to take care of things like that. And well he should, too. In fact, I ought to take a look around and find someone Icould dump it

His thoughts broke off as a lurid priority icon flashed suddenly and shockingly in the corner of his display. He stared at it for perhaps a heartbeat or two. In his entire naval career, he had never seen that particular icon outside a training exercise or a drill, a tiny corner of his brain reflected, and his hand flashed out to stand the acceptance key.

"Blaine!" he snapped the instant his flagship's communications officer of the watch appeared on the display. The officer looking out of it at him looked absurdly young to hold senior lieutenant's rank, and her youthful face was paper-white.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Admiral," she said, speaking so rapidly the words blurred together at the edges. "We just received a priority message from the Admiralty. It's Code Zulu, Sir!"

For just a moment, Blaine felt the breath freeze in his chest. She had to be mistaken, a part of his mind tried to insist. Either that, or he must have misunderstood her. In naval use, Code Zulu had only one meaning: invasion imminent. But no one, not even the Peeps, could be crazy enough to take on the defenses of the Manticoran home system!

"Is there an enemy strength estimate attached, Lieutenant?"

Blaine was astounded by how calm his own voice sounded. It certainly wasn't because he felt particularly calm! In fact, he realized distantly, it was purely a reaction to the lieutenant's expression and the tension sputtering like a shorting power cable just under the surface of her voice.

"Yes, Sir, there is." The communications officer drew a deep breath, and despite everything, Blaine felt a flicker of amusement at her automatic response to the steadying influence of his own tone. But that amusement didn't last long.

"The Admiralty's initial assessment is a minimum of three hundred of the wall, Sir," she said. "Initial course projections indicate they're headed directly for Sphinx on a least-time approach."

Blaine felt as if someone had just slugged him in the belly. Three hundred of the wall? That was...that wasinsane. The one thing Thomas Theisman had persistently refused to do as the Republic of Haven's Secretary of War was to commit the men and women under his command to the sort of death-ride offensives the Committee of Public Safety had once demanded of them.

But maybe it isn't a death ride, Blaine thought around the icy wind blowing through the marrow of his bones.Three hundred wallers...probably towing max pod loads...and with D'Orville forced to position himself to cover the Junction, as well...

Jesus Christ, he realized suddenly, coldly. This could actually work for them! And if it does...

"Immediate signal to all squadron and divisional commanders," he heard his voice telling the lieutenant on his display.

"Yes, Sir." The young woman's relief as she found herself doing something comfortingly familiar was obvious. "Live mike, Sir," she said a moment later.

"People," Blaine told his pickup, "they need us back home. Activate Ops Plan Homecoming immediately. I want your impellers up and your ships moving in thirty minutes. Blaine, clear."

The lieutenant tapped a control, then looked back up at him.

"Clean copy, Sir," she confirmed.

"Attach the complete text of the Admiralty's dispatch," he instructed her.

"Yes, Sir!"

"Then get it sent, Lieutenant. Get it sent."

Blaine killed the connection, and as he started to punch in his chief of staff's com combination with the emergency priority code, his earlier thoughts about training exercises flickered through the back of his mind like summer sheet lightning on a distant horizon. At least they had exercised Plan Homecoming, the movement order for an emergency return to the home system. Not that anyone had ever truly expected to need it.

Like my father always used to say, you never do really need something important...until you need it bad. Funny. I always thought he was being overly pessimistic.

"Yes, Sir?" His chief of staff appeared on his display, dressed in a sweatsuit and mopping perspiration off his forehead and cheeks with a hand towel. Behind him, Blaine could just see a frozen basketball game.

"I'm afraid your game's just been canceled, Jack," Blaine told him. "It seems we have a little problem."

Chapter Thirty | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty-Two