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Chapter Thirty-Six

"I hopewe know what we're doing here, Junyan," Commissioner Lorcan Verrochio of the Office of Frontier Security said, giving his vice-commissioner a glance which was less than totally happy.

"So far everything's going exactly to plan," Hongbo Junyan pointed out.

"Refresh my memory, but wasn't everything 'going exactly to plan' last time right up until the very moment that son-of-a-bitch Terekhovwho'd somehow been left out of the planblew the entire Monica System straight to hell?" Verrochio inquired with a certain undeniable acerbity.

"Yes, it was." Hongbo tried very hard, and mostly successfully, to keep a note of over-tried patience out of his voice. "This time, however, instead of counting on a batch of battlecruisers manned by neobarbs who hadn't even managed to get more than three of them refitted and back into commission, much less trained up to any sort of real proficiency, we've got three squadrons of Frontier Fleet immediately on call. And then there's Admiral Crandall at McIntosh, as well. I'd say that's a significant difference in the balance of available forces, wouldn't you?"

Verrochio nodded, although it was evident he remained something short of completely enthralled by the current state of affairs.

It was odd, Hongbo reflected. He'd known Verrochio for more T-years than he really liked to contemplate, and the commissioner was hardly the most complex individual he'd ever met, yet the man could still surprise him upon occasion. He'd expected Verrochio to jump at the potential opportunity to pay Manticore back for the way the Star Kingdom had embarrassed him and damaged his powerbase among the only people who really mattered to him. And there was no doubt in Hongbo's mind that Verrochio did, indeed, want exactly that.

Yet Verrochio's initial ardor, the white-hot fury which had possessed him in the immediate wake of the Battle of Monica, had cooled noticeably. At the time, Hongbo had been entirely in favor of that change and had worked hard himself to encourage it. Unfortunately, his priorities had alteredor been alteredsomewhat since, and he was finding it considerably more difficult than he had anticipated to switch the commissioner's choler back on once again. In no small part, he thought grumpily, due to Commodore Francis Thurgood.

Hongbo was no expert on naval matters, but he knew Verrochio's senior Frontier Fleet officer had spent days interviewing Monicans who'd survived the engagement and several weeks analyzing the sketchy data available on exactly what had happened. The amount of information available was extremely limited, of course. In fact, when Hongbo thought about it, he supposed the only real surprisegiven how the Manties had blown the hell out of every military sensor platform in the systemwas that there'd been any data for Thurgood to examine.

The disturbing conclusions Thurgood had come to based on what was available, however, had produced a chilling effect on Verrochio which all the official intelligence analyses from the SLN hierarchy hadn't quite served to dispel. Hongbo didn't know whether or not Thurgood had shared his own analysis with Admiral Byng's staff. He was a conscientious officer, surprisingly so, even for Frontier Fleet, so Hongbo suspected that he had...not that anyone in Task Group 3021 was likely to have listened to him. Given Byng's boundless contempt for all things Frontier Fleet, any warning from Thurgood would most likely have been counterproductive. In fact, it would probably have convincedthat arrogant prick to believe exactly the opposite!

He'd definitely shared it with Verrochio, however, and as his report had pointed out, the Manties hadn't had a single ship bigger than a heavy cruiser, and they'd completely trashed Monica. In fact, Thurgood had suggested (although it was evident to Hongbo he hadn't much cared for his own conclusions), it was entirely possible that it wouldn't have mattered one bit whether Horster's battlecruisers had been manned by Monicans or Solarians.

Lorcan Verrochio hadn't liked the sound of that at all. For that matter, neither had Hongbo Junyan. In one sense, the vice-commissioner didn't really care how nasty the Manticoran navy might be. Even if every spacer in it was three meters tall, covered with long curly hair, immune to vacuum, and had to be killed with silver bullets, there couldn't possibly be enough of them to stand up to the Solarian League. Hongbo couldn't remember who it was back on Old Terra who'd said that "quantity has a quality all its own," but the clich'e still held true, especially when the quantitative difference was as vast as it was in this case. So Hongbo nurtured no fears about what would eventually happen to the Star Kingdom of Manticore if it got itself into a shooting war with the League.

But there was that one word, "eventually." That was why Thurgood's analysis worried him, as well as his nominal superior. "Eventually" wasn't going to do very much to save Lorcan Verrochioor Hongbo Junyanin the short term if it turned out Thurgood was right. And even if the Solarian League absorbed its losses andeventually squashed the "Star Empire of Manticore" like a bug, it wasn't going to forget who it was who'd managed to get the war in question started. Especially not if the war started with the sort of unmitigated disaster Thurgood was warning might well result.

Still, Thurgood doesn't know about Admiral Crandall, Hongbo told himself. I don't care how nasty the Manties' heavy cruisers or battlecruisers are; they aren't going to stand up very well to sixty or seventy of the wall!

"At any rate," Verrochio said, turning to look out his office windows at a panoramic view of the city of Pine Mountain as his voice pulled Hongbo back to the surface of his own thoughts, "at least it hasn't bitten us on the ass yet."

Hongbo didn't comment, since it was obvious Verrochio was actually speaking to himself.

Verrochio folded his hands behind him, gazing out across Pine Mountain. The city, the capital of the Kingdom of Meyers before the Office of Frontier Security had moved in and liberated the Kingdom's subjects from its obviously tyrannical rulers (they were all tyrannical rulers, after all, weren't they?), was the central node of his personal satrapy. There were well over two million people in that city, which might make it little more than a pinprick on a map somewhere in one of the League's venerable old Core systems but was still a more than merely respectable population out here in the Verge. Like any OFS commissioner, Lorcan Verrochio was always ambitious when it came to improving his position, but at this particular moment he was actually more aware of all he had to lose if things turned out as badly as Thurgood's analysis suggested they just might.

Oh, come on, Lorcan! he told himself bracingly. You know Thurgood is an old woman at heart. Do really think he'd still be just a commodore at his age if he had a clue about how things really work? They sent him out here to get rid of him, not because of his brilliance! And of course he's been running scared ever since Monica. Until Byng showed up, he was the one who'd have had to go up against the Manties, and the biggest thing he had under his command was a division of heavy cruisers. No wonder he didn't want to cross swords with the big, bad Manties!

"I take it," he continued to Hongbo, never removing his eyes from the pastel towers of Pine Mountain, "that your good friend Mr. Ottweiler is satisfied so far?"

"So far," Hongbo replied, noticing that Ottweiler had suddenly becomehis "good friend," despite the fact that Verrochio had actually known him considerably longer than Hongbo had.

"Should we consider briefing Byng at this point, do you think?"

"I don't see any particular need to do that, Lorcan." The commissioner turned his head at last, looking over his shoulder at Hongbo with one eyebrow arched, and the vice-commissioner shrugged. "Byng doesn't need any prompting from us to be thoroughly pissed off with any Manty unfortunate enough to cross his path. That much is pretty obvious, wouldn't you say?"

Verrochio considered for a moment, then nodded.

"Well, my 'good friend' as you've just described him, hasn't asked us to explain exactly what's going on to Admiral Byng," Hongbo pointed out. "I don't think he sees any need to do that, and my thought is that if he's comfortable with that, then that's where we should leave it. If things work out for him and his superiors, then they work out for us, too. And if they don't work out, if it all goes south on us, then it's occurred to me that not having anything on record that could possibly be construed as our pushing Byng is probably a good idea. If he's prepared to take unilateral action against the Manties already, then let him. If it works out for us, good. If it doesn't, then it's the Navy's fault, not ours."

Verrochio obviously thought about that for a moment, then nodded. In fact, his expression became considerably more cheerful than it had been.

"In that case," he said, turning away from the desk to pick up the hard copy of the first formal request from New Tuscany for Solarian assistance against Manticore's systematic harassment, "I suppose we should just file this for right now. No sense running off half-cocked, after all."

"No, Sir. No sense at all," Hongbo agreed.

No one familiar with the customary workings of the Office of Frontier Security was going to be fooled after the fact, of course, but that didn't really matter. The reason no one was going to be fooled was because tried and true tactics were the bestand safestones. The New Tuscan note was the first step in a familiar dance, and it would never do for the vast and impartial might of the Office of Frontier Security to allow itself to be pushed into premature, ill-considered action. It was necessary to build up the proper groundwork, first. Let several notes and requests from the current OFS proxy accumulate, thus emphasizing the serious and long-standing nature of the problem once they were released (or leaked) to the newsies, before Frontier Security acted. Given a sufficiently fat file, Frontier Security's spinmeisters could turn almost anything into a noble and selfless response to an intolerable situation.

After all, look how much practice they'd had.

"All right, then," Verrochio said, flipping the hard copy across the desk towards Hongbo. "Go ahead and open a file. Somehow," he smiled thinly despite a lingering trace of uneasiness, "I don't think this will be the last entry in it."

"Good afternoon, Valery," Hongbo Junyan said a couple of days later as his secretary ushered Valery Ottweiler into his own office.

Hongbo's office was marginally smaller than Verrochio's, and without quite as good a view of Pine Mountain, but it was still luxurious, and he crossed the enormous room to shake Ottweiler's hand, then escorted him to a pleasant conversational nook arranged around a stone coffee table. An insulated carafe of coffee, a teapot, and a tray of fresh croissants sat ready on the table, and Hongbo gestured for his visitor to be seated.

"Thank you, Junyan," Ottweiler responded.

The Mesan settled into the indicated chair, waited while Hongbo personally poured him a cup of tea, then watched the vice-commissioner pour coffee into a second cup for himself. It was a homey, domestic little scene, Ottweiler thought, and most people might well have been fooled by Hongbo's calm demeanor. Ottweiler, however, knew the Solarian much better than "most people" did, and he recognized the other man's inner core of nervousness.

"I was a little surprised by your request for a meeting," Hongbo said a few minutes later, sitting back with his coffee. "We received the first note from New Tuscany day before yesterday, you know. Under the circumstances, I would've thought that perhaps a...somewhat lower profile, perhaps, might have been indicated."

"I didn't exactly send any announcements to the 'faxes to tell them I was coming to visit you," Ottweiler pointed out with a slight smile. "And, let's be honest with one another here, Junyanis anyone who really knows what's going on in the galaxy going to be fooled if I try to maintain a 'lower profile'? For that matter, even if I weren't up to Mesa's and Manpower's normal nefarious machinations, everyone would assume I was, anyway. That being the case, why go to all the inconvenience and inefficiency of trying to creep around in the dark?"

Hongbo wasn't amused by his guest's apparent levity, but he only shrugged and sipped more coffee. Then he lowered the cup.

"I'm not going to pretend I agree with you completely about that," he said levelly. "On the other hand, there probably is something to it. And, in any case, here you are. So, what can I do for you?"

"I've just received a somewhat lengthy dispatch from home," Ottweiler said in a much more serious tone. He put his teacup back on its saucer and set the saucer in his lap.

"What sort of dispatch?" Hongbo's eyes had narrowed, and he couldn't quite suppress the note of tension in his voice. Ottweiler arched one eyebrow, and the vice-commissioner snorted harshly. "You wouldn't be telling me about it unless it was likely to affect our...arrangement, Valery. And somehow I rather doubt it's going to tell me something I'll like hearing."

"Well, it does affect our 'arrangement,' " Ottweiler conceded. "And I won't pretend I was entirely delighted with it myself, when it arrived. "

"In that case, why don't you just go ahead and tell me about it rather than look for some way to candy-coat it?"

"All right. Without candy-coating, I've been instructed to tell you that we need to move the schedule up."

"What?" Hongbo looked at him with something approaching incredulity.

"We need to move the schedule up," Ottweiler repeated.

"Why? And what makes you think I can just turn some kind of switch and pull that off?"

"They didn't tell me exactly why." Ottweiler seemed remarkably immune to the scathing sarcasm of Hongbo's last question. "They just told me what they want to happen. And, exactly as they instructed me to, I've just told you."

Hongbo half-glared at him for a moment, then made himself draw a deep breath and step back from his instant flare of anger.

"Sorry," he said. "I know you're only the messenger. But that doesn't change the realities, Valery. There's only so quickly we can move on something like this. You know that."

"Under normal conditions, I'm sure I'd agree with you. In this instance, though, that doesn't really matter. I'm not trying to deliberately provoke you by saying that, but the truth is that I have my instructions, and there's not any leeway in them this time."

"Be reasonable, Valery! You know how hard I had to work to get Lorcan on board for this in the first place! That idiot Thurgood has him scared half to death with all those bogeyman stories about the Manties' new super weapons. He's terrified that Byng is going to take significant casualties if it comes to an actual exchange of fire. Which, coupled with what already happened at Monica, isn't exactly going to be conducive to his future career prospects. Or, for that matter, mine. Under the circumstances, it's more important than ever to have all of the requests for assistance safely on file before we move."

"I can understand that point of view completely," Ottweiler said soothingly, but his expression was inflexible. "And I'm sure bringing Commissioner Verrochio around isn't going to be the easiest thing you've ever managed to pull off. But I'm afraid it has to be done."

"I don't think it can be!" Hongbo waved one hand in frustration. "Even if Lorcan were prepared to move on this tomorrowwhich, I assure you, he isn'tByng's split up his battlecruisers and sent them haring off all over the sector and to visit half a dozen independent systems outside this new Talbott Quadrant on flag-showing missions. He's only got one division here in Meyers. There's no way in the galaxy, I don't care how urgent it is, that I'm going to be able to convince Lorcan Verrochio to send a single division off to New Tuscany after all of the horror stories Thurgood's been pouring into his ears. Especially not now that we know the Manties have deployed at least some modern battlecruisers to the Quadrant. If he was worried about heavy cruisers, he's terrified thinking about battlecruisers! He's not going to sign off on facing that kind of firepower unless he's confident that Byng has a significant numerical advantage to offset it. It's just not going to happen, Valery!"

"I didn't say we need to send Byng off today," Ottweiler replied. "But we do need to accelerate our preparations."

"I can't do it," Hongbo said flatly. "Not without more time to bring Lorcan around."

"Well, then you're just going to have to change that," Ottweiler said, equally flatly. Their eyes locked for a moment, and the Mesan continued. "New instructions have been sent to our people in New Tuscany, as well, Junyan. They're going to be accelerating the schedule from their end, whatever happens at your end."

"Then somebody should have asked me about how much accelerating I can do first!" Hongbo half-snarled back.

"There wasn't time, obviously," Ottweiler said, as if explaining something to a small child. "I don't know everything that's going on back home. Hell, I don't know half of what's going on back home! But I do know they're taking it very seriously, and they're obviously responding to something I don't know about yet. And they aren't going to be very happy with anyone who screws up their plans."

"Meaning what?" Hongbo's eyes were narrow again, and Ottweiler shrugged.

"Meaning I'm going to pass along their instructions, whatever they are, and that anyone they wind up being unhappy with isn't going to be me."

Hongbo glared at him, but at the same time, the vice-commissioner knew Ottweiler had a point. It wasn't as if the other man had thought all this up on his own just to screw up Hongbo's week. Which, unfortunately, also meant Valery Ottweiler wasn't the person whose potential wrathful reaction he had to worry about if he didn't produce like an obedient little pawn. He remembered certain reports about Isabel Bardasano and her attitude towards those who failed to comply with her instructions. Then he thought about Ottweiler's not-so-veiled references to the Audubon Ballroom when this whole fresh round of lunacy began, and a distinct chill ran through the magma of his anger.

"There are going to be limits to what I can do," he said finally. "Not to what I'm willing to do, but to what I can do. I'm telling you right now, it doesn't matter what kind of leverage you have with me, if I tell Lorcan he has to change his schedule, he's going to freak out. And if he does that, then your entire operation's going to go straight into the crapper, Valery. It won't matter what other pieces you have in place, it won't matter what happens to me or to Lorcan after the fact. The operation will be blown out of space."

"I see."

Ottweiler sat back in his chair, regarding Hongbo with rather more respect than usual. The vice-commissioner was obviously unhappy and equally obviously frightened, but that only gave added point to his observation. And he was probably right, Ottweiler conceded. In Ottweiler's own opinion, Lorcan Verrochio had always been the most likely failure point in the entire plan. Unfortunately, he was also the one man they couldn't work around. Or could they?

"Suppose," he said slowly, "that something were to happen to Commissioner Verrochio. What would happen then?"

A considerably deeper and darker chill ran through Hongbo Junyan. He looked at the Mesan for a moment, then shook his head.

"Officially, if...something happened to Lorcan, I'd take over from him until the Ministry could get a replacement out here." He looked at Ottweiler, trying to conceal his icy tingle of dread at what the other man was obviously suggesting. "The problem is that everyone would know I was only a temporary replacement, and nobody would want to piss off whoever eventually wound up as the new commissioner. Which doesn't even mention the people who'd be opposed to what you want for reasons of their own. Thurgood, for example, would drag his heels just as hard as he could, and I don't begin to have Lorcan's personal contactsnot officially, at any ratewith the Gendarmerie and the intelligence community. I might be able to pull it off, but I'd say the odds were actually better that the wheels would come off completely."

Ottweiler eyed him thoughtfully, and Hongbo looked back as steadily as he could. What he'd just said was true, and he hoped Ottweiler was smart enough to accept that.

"All right," the Mesan said finally. "I can see that, I suppose. But in that case, we still have the problem of...properly motivating him. What would happen if I were to apply a little more direct pressure, shall we say?"

"I honestly don't know," Hongbo replied. There wasn't much doubt in the vice-commissioner's mind what Ottweiler meant. Especially not in light of the pressure which had been brought to bear upon him in the first place.

"So far," he continued, "he's done more or less what you wanted because I've been able to convince him it was in his own best interests and that, ultimately, he'd find it was more profitable to have Manpower owing him a favor than the reverse. If we start threatening him at this point, there's no telling how he'll respond, but there's at least a significant chance he'd panic and do something neither one of us would want to see."

"All right," Ottweiler said again, this time with a sigh. "You say there are limits. Tell me just what you can do in that case."

"The one thing I can't do is go to him and tell him we're changing the rules he thinks he knows about. In other words, I'm going to have to find a way to get him to do the things we need him to do without his realizing why I'm doing it."

"And you think you can actually pull this off?" Ottweiler looked skeptical, and Hongbo didn't blame him. Despite that, though, and despite his own serious misgivings, the vice-commissioner actually smiled.

"I've been managing him that way at need for a long time," he said. "I can't absolutely promise I can steer him into doing exactly what you want, but I think I can probably nudge him into doing mostly what you want."

"The biggest thing of all is that we have to be positioned as quickly as possible," Ottweiler said. "I know the original plan was to wait for at least a couple of more 'spontaneous complaints' from New Tuscany. Unfortunately, the timetable I got with my latest set of instructions is that the key incident is going to occur within less than one month."

"Less than one month?!" Hongbo stared at him. "What the hell happened to our six-month schedule?"

"I don't know. I told you I've been instructed to accelerate things, and that's all I do know. So, what do we do?"

"And we're still not going to tell Byng what's really going on?" Hongbo asked, watching Ottweiler's eyes very closely.

"No, we're not. My instructions are very clear on that point," the Mesan replied, and Hongbo nodded internally. Ottweiler's eyes said he was being honest with himon this point, at least, and to the best of his own knowledge. Which meant...

"In that case, I think all we can do is to move Byng to New Tuscany ahead of schedule and hope his attitude towards Manties is as...unforgiving as you seem to think it is. I can probably convince Lorcan to send Byng out early as long as he's convinced we're still on that famous six-month timetable you gave me initially." Hongbo showed his teeth in a thin smile. "I'll sell it to him as an opportunity to get Byng's toes into the water in New Tuscany, as it wereestablish Byng's contacts with the locals, that sort of thing. Lorcan will see it as more pump-priming."

"That might actually work," Ottweiler said slowly, his mind racing while he considered possibilities.

Byng's rabid anti-Manticore attitude was the reason he'd been maneuvered into his present assignment in the first place. If he were on-station when the critical incident occurred, he'd probably react the way Ottweiler's superiors wanted all on his own. He'd better, anyway, since there was no way Verrochio was going to explicitly tell him what was really going on or even give him the sort of firm "take no-nonsense" instructions the original plan called for. Not if the commissioner thought he still had months to go before anyone actually pushed the button.

"If we go ahead and send him out, though, we need to make sure he has enough of his task group available to bolster his confidence," the Mesan said, thinking out loud now. "I know what his attitude is going to be, but if he should actually find himself outnumbered, he might decide to back down after all."

"That's what I was thinking myself," Hongbo agreed. "Which means we can't send him out tomorrow. But we can still get him there a hell of a lot sooner than the original schedule called for. And, frankly, I think that's the best we can possibly hope for under the circumstances. So, tell me, Valery." He looked at Ottweiler very levelly. "Bearing in mind that practical limitation, do you have a better idea?"

* * * | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty-Seven