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Chapter Thirty-Seven

"Good morning, Mr. Commissioner." Admiral Josef Byng bestowed his best gracious, depress-the-bureaucrat's-pretensions-without-stepping-on-him-too-hard smile on Lorcan Verrochio as he stepped into the Frontier Security commissioner's Meyers office. "How can the Navy be of assistance to you today?"

"Good morning, Admiral," Verrochio replied. "I appreciate your getting back to me so promptly."

Verrochio's smile was far less patronizing than Byng's, although not, perhaps, for the reasons the Battle Fleet admiral might have believed. That entrance was just like Byng, Verrochio thought. The man was a native of Old Earth herself, and like quite a few citizens of the ancient mother world, he gazed down from that lofty pinnacle upon all those smaller, inferior beings born of lesser planets as they clustered around his feet. And although Verrochio suspected Byng thought he was concealing it, the admiral's unmitigated Battle Fleet contempt for the bureaucratic plodders of OFS and the jumped up, bumptious policeman of Frontier Fleet followed him around like a second shadow.

But that was just fine with Lorcan Verrochio. In fact, the commissioner was delighted to see it, because he felt far more nervous about this entire arrangement than he'd let on to Hongbo Junyan.

He wanted his own back against Manticore—oh, yes, he wanted his own back! And he intended to have it. On the other hand, he'd come to the conclusion that Commodore Thurgood's warnings about the efficiency and effectiveness of the Royal Manticoran Navy were probably justified. None of the evidence he'd seen from Monica argued against the Frontier Fleet officer's conclusions, at any rate, and Verrochio wished he'd had the benefit of Thurgood's insights before Hongbo had convinced him to sign on for a return match.

Unfortunately, Thurgood's report had arrived on the commissioner's desk only after he'd embraced Manpower's new designs. At which point it had inspired a bit of rethinking on Verrochio's part. The size and power of the Battle Fleet formations Manpower had managed to manipulate into position to support its new operation were still reassuring, but much less so than they'd been before the commodore's damned memo. And, Verrochio admitted to himself, they were almost equally frightening. He'd been aware for years of how Mesa's tentacles in general—and Manpower's in particular—extended into and permeated Frontier Security's upper reaches. He hadn't realized until now that Manpower also had the pull to actually manipulate the deployment of such powerful Battle Fleet formations.

Oh, get a grip, Lorcan! he scolded himself yet again. Sure, it looks like a huge diversion of combat power to you, but that's because you're a Frontier Security commissioner, not a frigging admiral. You're used to seeing penny-packet squadrons of destroyers—a cruiser division or two, at most—from Frontier Fleet. All of Crandall and Byng's ships between them are hardly even a light task group for Battle Fleet!

That was undoubtedly true, but it still didn't change the fact that Manpower had somehow managed to gather up more firepower than ninety-five percent of the galaxy's formal navies could have massed and get it deployed to an out-of-the-way corner like Lorcan Verrochio's. Which suggested to him (although he'd been very careful not to mention it to Valery Ottweiler or Ottweiler's buddy Hongbo) that it was past time for him to reevaluate just how deep into the League's bureaucratic and political structures the various Mesan corporations really could reach . . . and what that meant for him.

In the meantime, however, that recognition of Manpower's reach was one of the reasons Verrochio was secretly delighted by Byng's attitude. He'd come to the conclusion that disappointing Manpower would be even less wise than he'd originally thought, which meant there was no going back on his quiet little agreement with them. And, to be honest, he didn't really want to. Or not as long as there was anyone else around to scapegoat if things went as badly as Thurgood's analysis suggested they might, at least. And that was where Verrochio's good friend Josef Byng came in.

Despite his own trepidation, Lorcan Verrochio sure as hell wasn't going to shed any tears if the Manties got reamed, and he wasn't going to lose any sleep over what happened to a Battle Fleet asshole like Josef Byng, either. In fact, in Verrochio's private best-case scenario, Byng would shoot up the Manties, providing the incident Manpower obviously wanted, and get his own ass shot off in the process. And the commissioner intended to be very careful about exactly what the official record indicated about just which fool had rushed in where the wiser and cooler-headed angels of Frontier Security and Frontier Fleet had declined to tread.

"Well, Mr. Commissioner," Byng said with another smile as Verrochio shook his hand and nodded welcomingly to Admiral Thim'ar, "your memo indicated you were concerned about something the Fleet might be able to assist with. So," he waved his free hand at his chief of staff, "here Admiral Thim'ar and I are."

"So I see, so I see."

Verrochio ushered his visitors to chairs which gave them an unimpeded view of Pine Mountain, then settled back down behind his desk once more and pressed the button to summon the servants who were primed and waiting. They appeared as if by magic with trays of coffee, tea, and snacks which they distributed with deft, courteous efficiency before they disappeared once more. Byng and Thim'ar ignored them as if they didn't even exist, of course.

"Vice-Commissioner Hongbo and I," Verrochio continued then, nodding to where Hongbo sat nursing his own cup of coffee, "have just been reviewing some rather . . . bothersome information, Admiral Byng. Information regarding a situation which may end up requiring action on the part of the League's official representatives in the region. We're not quite certain how best to proceed at this point, however, and we'd appreciate your input."

"Of course, Mr. Commissioner." Byng sipped tea a bit noisily, then patted his lips and mustache delicately with a linen napkin. "May I ask what sort of information is proving so bothersome?"

"Well," Verrochio replied with an air of troubled candor, "to be honest, it concerns the New Tuscany System and the Manticorans." Less experienced eyes might not have noticed the way Byng stiffened slightly in his chair, and the commissioner continued as if he hadn't noticed it, either. "Part of my problem, I think, is that, to be perfectly frank, I'm not really confident in my own mind that I can consider anything that concerns Manticore without prejudice at this point." He produced a crooked smile. "After what happened in Monica, and after all of the wild accusations they've been hurling about at everyone concerning that business in Split and Montana, I feel a certain undeniable amount of . . . automatic hostility, I suppose, where they're concerned."

He paused, his expression pensive, and Byng cleared his throat.

"Under the circumstances, Mr. Commissioner, I doubt anyone could reasonably be surprised by that," the admiral said after a moment. "Certainly I don't see how it could be any other way. After my own visit to Monica, I'm convinced the people back home who sent me out here—partly because of their concerns over Manticoran imperialism, although I'm not really supposed to admit that to just anyone—had a right to be concerned."

"Really?"

Verrochio put a carefully measured dose of worry into his one-word response, tempered by exactly the right amount of relief that someone whose opinion he respected didn't think he was jumping at shadows. He gazed at Byng for a second or two, just long enough for his expression to register, then twitched his shoulders in a small shrug.

"I've tried to put some of that same view before my own superiors, Admiral," he admitted. "I don't believe I've succeeded very well, however. In fact, given the replies and instructions I've received, I've had the impression more than once that the Ministry feels I'm jumping at shadows. In fact, that impression's been persistent enough for me to come to doubt my own evaluation of the situation, to some extent, at least. But if the Navy feels that way, perhaps I haven't been as alarmist as my own superiors appear to believe."

Hongbo Junyan took another sip from his own coffee cup to hide an involuntary smile. It was truly remarkable, he reflected. He'd made at least a third of his own career out of manipulating and steering Lorcan Verrochio, yet Verrochio himself was one of the most consummate manipulators Hongbo had ever seen in operation. Which, the vice-commissioner reminded himself, shouldn't really have come as that much of a surprise, perhaps. No one could rise to Verrochio's rank in Frontier Security without having learned how to play the seduction and manipulation game with the best of them. Unfortunately for someone like Lorcan Verrochio, guile and intelligence weren't necessarily the same thing. He'd acquired what was still called (for some reason Hongbo had never managed to pin down) the "apparatchik" skill set, but no one had been able to give him an infusion of brains to go with it. Which was how he'd wound up with the Madras Sector instead of something juicier.

Yet Hongbo was coming to the conclusion that Byng was even stupider than Verrochio. In fact, he seemed a lot stupider, which took some doing.

"Well, we in the Navy have had to endure more Manticoran arrogance and meddling in areas far outside their legitimate spheres of interest than most people," Byng responded to Verrochio, and his thin smile was considerably uglier than either of the Frontier Security bureaucrats suspected he thought it was. "That's probably given us a rather more . . . realistic appreciation for what they're really like than other people are in a position to gain."

He is stupider than Lorcan, Hongbo thought, then grimaced mentally at his own ability to leap to hasty judgments. Maybe not actually stupider, he thought. It doesn't seem to be a lack of native intelligence, at any rate. It's more like a mental blind spot that's so profound, so much a part of him, he doesn't even realize it's there. It's not that he couldn't think about it rationally if he wanted to. It's that it never even occurs to him to think about it at all, isn't it?

But whatever the reason for it, it was apparent to Hongbo that Josef Byng was almost eager to snap up the bait Lorcan Verrochio was trolling before him.

"You may have a point, Admiral," Verrochio said earnestly, as if he'd if read Hongbo's thoughts and decided it was time to set the hook. "And what you've just said—about what the Navy's seen out of the Manticorans over the years—gives added point to my own current concerns, I'm afraid."

"How so, Mr. Commissioner?"

"As I say, we've been receiving information about the New Tuscans' situation vis-`a-vis this new 'Star Empire of Manticore' business," Verrochio said. "I'm not at liberty to disclose all of our sources—the Gendarmerie has its own rules about need-to-know, I'm afraid, and even I don't know where some of Brigadier Yucel's information comes from—but some of the reports causing me concern are based on communication directly from New Tuscany. It would appear to me after looking at all of those reports that Manticore has decided to retaliate against New Tuscany for its refusal to ratify the so-called constitution their 'convention' in Spindle voted out."

"In what way?" Byng's eyes had narrowed, and he leaned forward ever so slightly in his chair.

"The reports aren't really as comprehensive as I'd like, you understand," Verrochio cautioned with the air of a man trying to make certain his audience would bear in mind that there were still holes in his information. "From what we do have, however, Manticore started out by deliberately excluding New Tuscany from any access to the Manticoran investment starting to flow into the Cluster. Of course, if we're speaking government-funded investment, the Star Kingdom—excuse me, I meant the Star Empire—has every right to determine where to place its funds. No one could possibly dispute that. But my understanding is that this investment is primarily private in nature, and Manticore hasn't officially prohibited private investment in New Tuscany. Nor, for that matter, has it officially prohibited private New Tuscan investment in the Cluster. Not officially. Yet there seems little doubt that the Manticoran government isunofficially blocking any New Tuscan involvement.

"On a personal level, I would find that both regrettable and more than somewhat reprehensible," the commissioner continued a bit mournfully, clearly dismayed by the depths to which human pettiness could descend in the pursuit of vengeance, "but it would scarcely amount to a violation of New Tuscany's sovereignty or inherent rights as an independent star nation. Nor would it constitute any sort of unjustifiable or retaliatory barrier to trade. I think, though, that it's a clear indication of the way Manticore's policymakers—and policy enforcers—are thinking in New Tuscany's case. And that, Admiral, causes me considerable concern over reports that Manticoran warships are beginning to systematically harass New Tuscan merchant shipping."

Well, that was a bull's-eye, Hongbo thought from his position on the sidelines as Byng's mustache and goatee seemed to bristle suddenly. So far, at least, Ottweiler's private briefing on one Josef Byng and his attitude towards Manticore had clearly been right on the money.

"Harassing their merchant shipping," the admiral repeated. He sounded like a man trying very hard to project a much greater calm than he felt. "How . . . Mr. Commissioner?" he asked, remembering the title belatedly.

"Accounts are sketchy so far," Verrochio replied, "but it seems clear that they've been imposing additional 'inspections' and 'customs visits' targeted solely and specifically at New Tuscan freighters. Confidentially, I've received at least one official note from Foreign Minister Cardot on behalf of Prime Minister V'ezien's government about this matter. I'm not at liberty to tell you its specific contents, but coupled with other things we've been hearing, I'm very much afraid we're looking at an escalating pattern of incidents. They seem to be becoming both more frequent and more serious, which leads me to believe the Manticorans are gradually turning up the heat in a concerted campaign to push New Tuscany entirely out of the Talbott Cluster's internal markets."

He shook his head sadly again.

"I wish I could be positive in my own mind that I'm not reading more into this than I ought to. But, you know, that kind of manipulation and exclusionary control of the local economy was exactly the sort of thing this 'Rembrandt Trade Union' was doing well before Manticore ever started meddling—I mean, before Manticore became involved in Talbott's affairs. And it was the Trade Union that was really the moving force behind the initial annexation plebiscite. I've always had a few reservations about the legitimacy of that plebiscite, and I'm afraid my distrust for the Trade Union and its practices was a large part of the reason for those reservations. Now it looks to me as if Manticore is either allowing its policies to be manipulated by the Rembrandters, or—even worse—is simply picking up where Rembrandt left off."

"Mr. Commissioner," Hongbo said quietly, obediently picking up his own cue, "even if you're right about that—and, frankly, I think there's an excellent chance you are—there's not very much we can do about it." All of the others looked at him, and he gave an eloquently unhappy shrug. "Believe me, Sir, it doesn't make me any happier to mention that than it makes you to hear it, but the Ministry's policy guides are clear on this matter."

"The League's policy is to support the free and unimpeded flow of trade, Mr. Hongbo," Byng pointed out just a bit coldly, and Hongbo nodded. After all, that was the Solarian League's official policy . . . except where any soul with sufficient temerity to compete with its own major corporations was concerned, of course.

"Yes, Sir. Of course it is," he acknowledged. "But the Ministry's position has always been—and rightly so, I think—that the Office of Frontier Security isn't supposed to be making foreign policy or trade policy on its own. Unless someone with a legitimate interest in a region requests our assistance, there really isn't anything we can do."

"Has New Tuscany requested assistance, Mr. Commissioner?" Rear Admiral Thim'ar asked, speaking up for the first time, and Verrochio didn't even smile, although Hongbo could hear his mental "Gotcha!" quite clearly.

"Well,technically—" he drew the word out "—no. Not yet." He twitched his shoulders again. "Foreign Minister Cardot's note expresses Prime Minister V'ezien's concerns frankly, and I think from what she's said that he hopes we'll send an observer of our own to look into these matters. For that matter, I wouldn't be at all surprised if we were to find ourselves asked to launch an official investigation sometime in the next several T-months, but no one in New Tuscany's gone quite that far at this time." The commissioner smiled with a certain sad cynicism. "I think the Prime Minister is hoping—how realistically I couldn't say, of course—that if he's just patient, this will all blow over."

"Not bloody likely," Byng muttered, then shook himself.

"Excuse me, Mr. Commissioner," he said more clearly. "That was quite rude of me. I'm afraid I was simply . . . thinking out loud."

"And not reaching any conclusions I don't share, I'm afraid," Verrochio said heavily.

"Mr. Commissioner," Thim'ar said after a quick glance at her superior's profile, "may I ask exactly why you've shared this information with us?" Verrochio looked at her, and she smiled dryly. "I don't doubt that you genuinely wanted a second viewpoint, Sir," she said. "On the other hand, I do doubt that that's all you wanted, if you'll pardon my saying so."

"Guilty as charged, I'm afraid," Hongbo admitted. "What I'm really looking for, I think, is a way that we could encourage and reassure New Tuscany while simultaneously communicating our unhappiness to Manticore without violating the official limitations placed on what Frontier Security can legitimately do in a case like this."

"I see." Byng nodded, and smiled again himself. It was a noticeably colder smile than Thim'ar's, Hongbo noticed. "Admiral Thim'ar and I don't work for Frontier Security, however, do we?"

"Well, that's rather a gray area in your case, I suppose, Admiral." There was a conspiratorial gleam in Verrochio's eye. "You command a Frontier Fleet task group, and out here in the marches, Frontier Fleet does—nominally, at least—work for—or with, at any rate—Frontier Security. You, however, as a Battle Fleet officer, are outside the normal Frontier Fleet chain of command. I think that would give you a valuable difference of perspective in a case like this, but it does create a certain ambiguity when it comes to the notion of my giving you any sort of formal instructions."

What a crock, Hongbo thought rather admiringly. It doesn't matter where Byng comes from—not legally. He's commanding a Frontier Fleet task group, and the table of organization when he was sent out here clearly tasked him to support us in any way possible. If that's not tantamount to putting him under our orders, then I don't know what would be! But that's not the point, either. The point is that if Lorcan can maneuver him into suggesting that he isn't under our orders and get it into this meeting's official recording . . .

"I suppose that's true, Mr. Commissioner," Byng said. "On the other hand, whether you have the power to give me binding orders or not, my own superiors clearly wanted me to be aware of your concerns and to act to support you in any way I can. Perhaps I could make a suggestion?"

"By all means, Admiral. Please."

"Well, as you've just pointed out, as a Battle Fleet officer, I stand outside the normal Frontier Fleet chains of command, and I believe it would be entirely feasible for Battle Fleet to take a somewhat more . . . proactive stance than the Ministry's instructions might permit you to take."

"That sounds just a bit potentially . . . risky to me, Admiral," Verrochio said, allowing his tone to show a trace of cautious hesitancy now that he was completely confident the hook had been well and truly set.

"Oh, I don't really think so, Mr. Commissioner." Byng waved one hand. "It's not as if I were proposing any sort of preemptive military action like that Manticoran business in Monica, after all." He smiled thinly. "No, what I had in mind was more of a simple—and quite unexceptionable—flag-showing visit designed to demonstrate to both New Tuscany and Manticore that we consider amicable relations with independent star nations in this region important to the Solarian League's official foreign policy."

"A flag-showing visit?" Verrochio repeated without a trace of triumph.

"Yes, Sir. I'm sure no one could possibly construe a simple port visit as any sort of unwarranted provocation, especially if the decision to make it originated with Battle Fleet, rather than anyone in your office. If, in the course of such a visit, I were to pass any private messages from you to Prime Minister V'ezien, I'm sure that would be quite unobjectionable, as well. But a visit by a division or two of Solarian battlecruisers is likely to have a bracing effect on New Tuscany. At the least, it should convince the New Tuscan people that they don't stand alone in the face of Manticoran retaliation against them. And if the Manticorans should learn of it, I can hardly see how it could fail to have at least some moderating impact on their ambitions."

"I'm not sure 'a division or two' would be sufficient, Admiral," Verrochio said. Byng looked at him with an unmistakable edge of incredulity, and the OFS commissioner grimaced. "Oh, I don't doubt that it ought to be sufficient, Admiral. Don't mistake me about that! But we've got the example of Monica in front of us, and I've reviewed that 'conversation' between you and that Manticoran Admiral—Henke, or Gold Peak, or whoever she is." He grimaced. "They are impressed with their own jumped up little aristocracy, aren't they? But reading between the lines of what she said—and how she said it, for that matter—and the reports which have reached me from Old Terra since their attack on Monica, it's apparent to me that the Manticorans are just as impressed with their own accomplishments as they are with their titles of 'nobility.' I've had some locally generated reports about the possibility that they've increased their combat effectiveness, as well, although that's scarcely my own area of expertise. Obviously, your judgment would be superior to my own where something like that is concerned. But my main concern is more with the way the Manticorans might be thinking, and we know they've sent at least some reinforcements to Talbott since the 'annexation' went through."

"And your point is, Mr. Commissioner?" Byng's voice was just a bit frosty, and Verrochio sighed.

"Admiral, I want the situation resolved, and I want New Tuscany's legitimate interests protected, both for New Tuscany's sake and to demonstrate to the local star nations that the Solarian League, at least, is a good neighbor. But we've already had recent and painful experience of what Manticoran high-handedness and readiness to resort to brute force can mean. I don't want anyone killed, not even Manticorans, and I'm simply concerned that they could get . . . carried away again, the way they did in Monica, unless it's painfully obvious even to them that the consequences would be disastrous for them."

"I believe the commissioner is suggesting that it would be better to arrange a somewhat greater show of force, Admiral Byng," Hongbo said almost apologetically. "Something powerful enough that not even a Manticoran could misread the odds badly enough—or be stupid enough—to try a repeat performance of something like Monica."

"Against the Solarian Navy?" Byng seemed to find it difficult to believe anyone could take such an absurd concept seriously.

"No one is suggesting that it would be particularly wise—or rational—of them to do anything of the sort, Admiral," Hongbo said earnestly. "The commissioner is simply suggesting that it's incumbent upon the League to go the extra kilometer and do everything in its power to prevent such a tragic . . . miscalculation, shall we say, on anyone's part from leading to a repeat of Monica."

"Any such 'miscalculation' would have a radically different outcome for Manticore than the 'Battle of Monica' did," Byng said coldly. "On the other hand, I suppose there's quite a bit of validity to your concern, Mr. Commissioner." He looked directly at Verrochio. "Mind you, it would take a particularly stupid neobarb to make that sort of 'miscalculation,' but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. We are talking about Manticorans, after all."

The admiral pursed his lips and thought for several seconds, then looked at Thim'ar.

"How long would it take to reassemble the entire task group here in Meyers, Karlotte? A month?"

"More like six T-weeks, Sir," Thim'ar said so promptly that it was apparent she'd been running the same calculations in her own mind. "Maybe even seven."

"Too long," Byng objected—an objection with which Hongbo earnestly agreed, given his own conversation with Valery Ottweiler.

"We could recall Sigbee's and Chang's squadrons sooner than that," Thim'ar replied. "In fact, we could probably get both of them reassembled here in less than your original one-month estimate. And we have at least half a dozen tin-cans available as a screen. For that matter, we could tap Thurgood, as well."

Verrochio started to open his mouth to protest. The last thing he wanted was for a naval force which was clearly and unambiguously under his command—and whose senior officer had reported such reservations about Manticoran capabilities—involved in something like this. Byng beat him to it, though.

"I scarcely think that's going to be necessary, Karlotte," he half-sneered. Then he seemed to remember where he was and who Thurgood currently worked for, and he glanced at Verrochio. "What I mean, Mr. Commissioner," he said just a bit hastily, "is that adding Commodore Thurgood's forces to the one Admiral Thim'ar is already talking about would scarcely constitute a significant increase in its combat power. In addition, of course, if I were to take the Commodore or any significant portion of his order of battle with me, it would leave you with no quick response force ready to hand if something should come up while I was away."

"I see." Verrochio looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. "That's certainly sounds logical to me, Admiral. And, as I've said before, this is scarcely my area of expertise. I believe you're a much better judge of these matters than I am. By all means, make whatever arrangements seen best to you. I'll leave all of this in your capable hands."

Michelle Henke felt a wave of profound satisfaction as HMS Artemis and HMS Horatius made their alpha translations just outside the Spindle System's hyper limit the better part of four T-months after departing for Monica. Although she'd hated being gone so long, and dumping so much responsibility on Shulamit Onasis while she was away, she hadn't exactly been sitting on her own hands all that time, and she also savored a sense of solid achievement. She'd completed her visit to Monica, placed that insufferable twit Byng on notice (in the most pleasant possible way, of course), gotten the new picket station at Tillerman up and running to her own satisfaction—well, as close to her satisfaction as she could, under the circumstances—and made port visits to Talbott, Scarlet, Marian, Dresden (where she'd discovered that Khumalo, at Henri Krietzmann's suggestion, had diverted one of the newly arrived LAC wings to Tillerman), and Montana on her way back to Spindle.

By now, those LACs are already in Tillerman, setting up house to support Conner, she thought cheerfully, leaning back in her command chair.That ought to come as quite a surprise to any pirates who haven't gotten the word yet. And it should go a long way towards beefing up his missile defenses if Byng really is stupid enough to try something, too. Which, unfortunately, he probably is, at least under the wrong circumstances. In fact, he's the only really unpleasant surprise of the entire trip. Why couldn't even Battle Fleet have sent us an admiral with an IQ higher than his hat size? They have to have at least oneflag officer with a functional brain! Don't they?

She shook her head at the thought, comforting herself with the reflection that even though Byng might be an idiot, she'd at least been able to quietly brief the system presidents in the vicinity—and their senior military officers—about him. And most of those presidents and officers had seemed reassuringly competent and tough-minded too. She'd been particularly impressed by the Montanans, and she'd also been glad of the opportunity to meet the formidable and reformed (if that was the proper word for it) Stephen Westman.

Thank goodness Terekhov and Van Dort got him on our side, at least, she thought, then looked across the flag bridge to Dominica Adenauer's station and the tallish, brown-haired lieutenant commander sitting at her side. Maxwell Tersteeg had been waiting at Dresden along with the dispatches informing Michelle about the LAC deployment to Tillerman. Augustus Khumalo had sent him forward as a candidate to fill the electronic warfare officer's hole on her staff, and so far he appeared to be working out quite well. Most importantly, he was good at his job, but he also got along well with both Adenauer and Edwards, and he was a good "fit" for the staff's chemistry. He had a sly, quiet sense of humor and his pleasantly plain face was remarkably mobile and expressive . . . when he chose for it to be. In fact, when he wanted to, those brown eyes could effortlessly project a soulful "Aren't I pitiful?" air as good (and apparently guileless) as Dicey's food mooching expression at its best.

I think he's going to do just fine, she thought. And he pretty much fills all the gaps . . . aside from an intelligence officer. She grimaced mentally at the thought. Still, Cindy's doing well with that. It's not fair to dump it on top of her along with everything else she already has on her plate, but I haven't heard any complaints out of her. In fact, I think she likes the duty. And I know she's enjoyed "mentoring" Gwen. By now, she's got him trained up as a pretty fair deputy, really.

Michelle sometimes found herself suspecting that she'd worked hard to convince herself that Lecter was satisfied with the situation because things seemed to be working out so well. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" was one of the more fundamental aspects of her professional philosophy, after all. And all justifications on her own part aside, it wasn't hurting young Lieutenant Archer one bit to have his own professional resume extended.

She glanced over her shoulder at the thought, to where Archer stood attentively just behind her command chair, hands clasped lightly behind him, gazing into the main plot.

Well, however stupid Byng may be, at least Gwen's been one of the more pleasant surprises of this entire deployment,and not just because of how well he's "subbing" for Cindy on the intelligence front, she thought, turning her own attention back to the plot. Honor had been entirely correct about his basic ability when she'd recommended him, and although Michelle still sometimes caught the shadow of a ghost behind those green eyes, it was obvious he'd come to grips with the memories and doubts which had afflicted him the day they first met. Not that those memories or doubts had ever been permitted to affect the apparently effortless efficiency with which he performed his duties. Nor was he particularly shy about prodding his admiral—ever so respectfully, of course—when she needed prodding. As a matter of fact, he and Chris Billingsley got along with one another remarkably well for two people with such disparate backgrounds . . . and Michelle had discovered early on that they were prepared to double-team her unscrupulously. As long, of course, as whatever they wanted was for her own good.

Honor told me she was going to be looking for good nannies for Raoul. If she doesn't mind corrupting influences—and the fact that she puts up with Nimitz clearly proves that she doesn't—I know where she could find twoof them!

She chuckled at the thought, and Gervais raised one eyebrow.

"Ma'am?"

"Oh, nothing really important, Gwen," she told him. "I was just thinking." She started to wave one hand dismissively, but then she paused, arrested, as the imp of her evil side whispered in her ear.

"Thinking about what, Ma'am?" Gervais asked when she clearly stopped in mid-thought, and she smiled wickedly at him.

"I was just thinking about the fact that we're going to be reporting in to Admiral Khumalo and Minister Krietzmann shortly," she said. "I hope you and Ms. Boltitz are prepared to be your usual . . . efficient selves in organizing our meetings. We all really appreciated the long, hard hours you two put in, even outside regular business hours, slaving away to make our conferences a success, you know."

You know, Gwen, she thought, watching his admirably grave expression, one of the things I really love about your complexion is how easily you color up when I score a direct hit. You may be able to keep a straight face, but . . .

"I mean, I understand that you actually subjected yourselves to the hardship of dining at Sigourney's just so you could set up that 'dinner party' of mine." Her eyes radiated soulful gratitude as she gazed at him. "I do hope that we're not going to be forced to demand any equally painful sacrifices out of you this time around."

"I—" Gervais began, then stopped, his color brighter than ever, and shrugged.

"You got me, Ma'am," he acknowledged. "Direct hit, center of mass. What can I say?"

"Nothing at all, Gwen." Michelle reached out a repentant hand and patted his forearm. "I shouldn't be teasing you about it, really."

"Is it really that obvious, Ma'am?"

"Probably not to someone who doesn't see as much of you as I do," she said reassuringly.

"I'm not sure it's obvious to her yet." He shook his head, his expression wry. "She's just the least little bit skittish where people from 'aristocratic' backgrounds are concerned."

"Hard to blame her, I suppose," Michelle said. "Dresden's no Garden of Eden, you know. And it's still awfully early in the day for any of the Talbotters to have a real feel for how the Star Kingdom differs from their local landlords."

"Calling Dresden 'no Garden of Eden' is one hell of an understatement, if you'll pardon my saying so, Ma'am." Gervais' expression was suddenly darker, his voice grim. "I'm glad I got to see it firsthand. There've been times I thought Helga must have been exaggerating conditions there. Now I know better."

"Welcome to Frontier Security's 'benign neglect,' Lieutenant," Michelle half-growled. "If those useless bastards would spend a tenth of the budget they spend on fur-lined toilet seats for their commissioners' heads on the Verge planets they're supposed to be looking out for—"

She cut herself off with a quick, curt headshake.

"Let's not get me started on that one," she said in a more conversational tone, and smiled at him again. "In the meantime, I hope your campaign with Ms. Boltitz succeeds, Gwen. If, ah, you should require any . . . senior support to communicate the honorable nature of your intentions to her, shall we say—?"

She allowed her voice to trail off suggestively, and Gervais felt his face heating again.

"That's quite all right, Ma'am," he said with the utmost sincerity, eyes steadfastly locked once again upon the main plot. "Really."

"We're picking up additional transponders, Ma'am," Dominica Adenauer reported.

"Really?" Michelle turned her chair towards the operations officer. She'd expected more ships to have arrived during her absence, but it was nice to find that her expectations had been realized. "What kind of transponders?"

"It looks like a full squadron of Saganami-Cs, Ma'am. And a squadron ofRolands, as well."

"Outstanding!" Michelle smiled hugely. "I assume one of the Saganami-Cs is squawking a flagship code?"

"Yes, Ma'am. She's theQuentin Saint-James."

"Really?" Michelle quirked one eyebrow in surprise at the name. I wonder what happened to the last one of those, she wondered, then turned to Lieutenant Commander Edwards.

"Bill," she turned to Lieutenant Commander Edwards, "see if you can raise Quentin Saint-James. I'd like to speak to the squadron commander . . . whoever he turns out to be!"

"Yes, Ma'am," her com officer replied with a smile of his own, and began entering commands. Given the way dispatches tended to chase fleet detachments around without ever quite catching up, little uncertainties like that were far from uncommon. And the Star Empire's current scramble to reallocate its Navy in response to events here in the Quadrant were only making that even worse, Michelle reminded herself.

As my own recent perambulations handily illustrate, she reflected, feeling her sense of accomplishment fade just a bit. It all needed doing, but I wish to hell I could've done it faster!

She heard the soft mutter of Edwards' voice, as well, transmitting her own communications request to Quentin Saint-James, but at the moment,Artemis was still a good nine light-minutes from the heavy cruiser, and even the grav-pulse com wasn't really instantaneous. Faster than light, yes; instantaneous, no. There was a delay of almost seventeen and a half seconds built into any two-way conversation at this distance, and it took a few minutes for Edwards to get through to his counterpart in the heavy cruiser squadron.

"Ma'am," he said then, "I have that connection you asked for."

"Really?" Michelle said again, raising one eyebrow at what sounded suspiciously like a note of pleasure in Edwards' voice.

"Yes, Ma'am. I have the senior officer of CruRon Ninety-Four on the com. A . . . Commodore Terekhov, I believe."

Michelle's eyes widened, and then she smiled even more hugely than before.

Jesus, she thought,they must have stuck an impeller node up his . . . um, backside and fired him back out our way before Hexapuma ever got as far in-system as Hephaestus! Poor bastard probably didn't even have time to kiss his wife first! But they couldn't have found anyone better to give the squadron to.

"Switch it to my display, Bill," she directed.

"Yes, Ma'am."

Aivars Terekhov's face appeared on the com display deployed from her command chair just at knee level, and she smiled down at it.

"Commodore Terekhov!" she said. "It's good to see you . . . and to hear about your promotion. No one told me that was in the works when they sent me off to Talbott, but everything I saw at Monica tells me it was well-deserved. And, to be honest, having your squadron here is at least equally welcome."

Michelle waited the seventeen seconds it took for the transmission to make the round-trip, and then Terekhov smiled.

"Thank you, Milady," he said. "I won't pretend I wouldn't have preferred a little bit more time at home, but the promotion is nice, and they gave me a brand-new squadron to play with to go with it. And I have to admit that I feel a certain proprietary interest in the Quadrant that makes it feel good to be back."

Michelle's eyes narrowed. The words—as words—were just fine, almost exactly what she would have expected. But something about the tone, and about the quality of that smile . . .

Strain, she thought. He's worried—even frightened—about something and trying like hell not to show it.

Her sudden, irrational suspicion was ridiculous, and she knew it. But she also knew that she couldn't shake it, and an icy wind seemed to blow through her bones at the thought. She knew exactly what this man had done, and not just in Monica. Anything that could frighten him . . .

"Commodore," she said slowly, "is there something I ought to know?"

Seventeen more seconds passed, and then the arctic blue eyes on her com display widened ever so slightly, as if in surprise. Then they narrowed again, and he nodded.

"Yes, Milady, I suppose there is," he said quietly. "I'd rather assumed you'd have received Admiral Khumalo's dispatches about it, though. I suppose they must have passed you in transit."

He paused, clearly suggesting that perhaps the vice admiral would prefer to tell her about whatever it was in person, and Michelle snorted. If he thought she was going to sit around on her posterior waiting for the penny to drop after an introduction like that, he had another think coming!

"I'm sure Admiral Khumalo and I will be discussing a lot of things, Commodore," she said just a bit tartly."In the meantime, however, why don't you go ahead and tell me about it?"

"Yes, Milady," he said again, seventeen seconds later, and drew a visible breath and squared his shoulders ever so slightly. "I'm afraid we received dispatches from the home system just over three T-weeks ago. The news isn't good. According to Admiral Caparelli, the Havenites attacked in overwhelming strength. From all appearances, Theisman and Pritchart must have decided to put everything on one throw of the dice after what happened to the Havenites at Lovett and go for an outright knockout blow before we could get Apollo into full deployment. We stopped them, but we got—both sides got—hit really hard. According to the follow-up reports we've received since, it looks like—"


Chapter Thirty-Six | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Thirty-Eight



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