"I'm not happy about this, Maxime," Damien Dusserre said. "I'm not happy about it at all."
"I don't think you see me doing handsprings of joy about it, either, do you?" Prime Minister Maxime V'ezien shot back tartly.
"Damn it, I knew this whole thing looked too good to be true from the very beginning," Dusserre grumbled.
V'ezien felt a powerful urge to punch the security minister squarely in the nose, but he suppressed it easily enough. First, because the younger, larger, stronger, and physically much tougher Dusserre would probably have proceeded to remove the Prime Minister's limbs one at a time, with the maximum possible amount of discomfort. But secondly, and even more to the point, because Dusserre was, indeed, the one member of the V'ezien Government who had consistently voiced his reservations about the entire operation.
Which didn't keep him from going ahead and signing off on it, anyway, V'ezien thought rather snappishly. Maybe he didn't like it, but I didn't see him coming up with any better ideas!
Actually, as V'ezien was well aware in his calmer moments, one of the reasons he was so easily pissed off with his Security Minister these days was that Damien Dusserre was Andrieaux Yvernau's brother-in-law. It was Yvernau's brilliant strategy at the Constitutional Convention which had gotten the entire New Tuscany System into the Star Empire of Manticore's black books in the first place, and V'ezien couldn't quite suppress the ignoble urge to vent his frustration on Yvernau's relatives. And he could at least tell himself there was some justification in it, given the fact that it was Yvernau's family connections which had gotten him named to head the delegation to Spindle in the first place.
Yes, there is, he reflected. But the truth is, as you're perfectly well aware, Max, whether you want to admit it, that even though Yvernau is an idiot, not even a genius could have come up with a good strategy once those parliamentary bastards back in Manticore got up on their high horse and started bleating about "repressive local r'egimes" here in the Cluster. And having that bitch Medusa in the driver's seat didn't help one damned thing, either. If we'd only realized where all of this was going to go when that son-of-a-bitch Van Dort came around selling us on what a gold mine that whole damned annexation idea was going to be for everyone involved . . . !
"I know you've had reservations, Damien," he said out loud instead of the considerably more cutting (and satisfying) responses which flickered through his head. "Unfortunately, reservations or no, we're where we are, not where we might want to be. So why don't we both just go ahead and admit that neither of us is happy about the situation and then do what we can to make the best of it?"
Dusserre gave him a sour look, but then the Security Minister drew a deep breath and nodded.
"You're right," he acknowledged.
V'ezien tilted back in his comfortable chair and gazed up through the office's huge skylight. That skylight was one of the Prime Minister's favorite perks, one that offered refreshment and energy whenever the weight of his high political office crushed down upon him. It wasn't a view screen, wasn't an artificial image gathered from remote cameras. It was an actual, honest to God skylight, almost three meters on a side. Its thermal-barrier smart glass panes automatically configured themselves to filter sunlight, and then, under other conditions, seemed almost to disappear entirely. When it rained, the sound of the raindrops—from a gentle patter to a hard, driving rhythm—filled the office with a soothing sense of natural energy. When lightning rumbled about the heavens, he could watch God's artillery flashing in mist-walled valleys among cloudy mountains. And when it was night, he could look up through it to moon-struck cloud chasms or the clear, awesome vista of the distant stars burning so far above him.
At the moment, unfortunately, the sight of those stars was much less soothing than usual.
"Do you have the feeling, Damien," he asked slowly after several seconds, "that Ms. Anisimovna is privy to information the rest of us haven't received yet?"
"I've always felt she was working to an agenda and a set of instructions we didn't know anything about—and that she wasn't about to tell us anything about, either." Dusserre sounded almost surprised by the question, as if its answer was so painfully self-evident he couldn't quite believe the Prime Minister had asked it.
"That's not what I asked." V'ezien lowered his eyes from the skylight to gaze at the other man instead of the stars. "Of course we don't know what her real instructions are, and, of course, she's not going to tell us. We wouldn't tell her everything if our positions were reversed, either, would we? But what bothers me at the moment is that I have the oddest feeling that she knows more about a lot of things than we do." He frowned, seeking the words to more clearly explain what he was getting at. "I mean about things the rest of the galaxy is going to find out about in due time but doesn't know about yet," he said. "Things—news stories, events—that no one here on New Tuscany's even heard about yet that she's already factoring into her plans."
Dusserre looked back at him for several seconds, then snorted.
"I'll grant you the woman is fiendishly clever, Max. And I'll also point out that she's receiving regular messages via private dispatch boats from Mesa and God knows where else, whereas we're basically dependent on the news services—which don't exactly see us as one of their red-hot bureau depots—to find out what's going on anywhere else in the galaxy. So, yes, she probably does know quite a few things we haven't found out about yet. But let's not talk ourselves into thinking she's some kind of sorceress, all right? It's bad enough that we don't have much choice but to dance with her and let her lead without our deciding she somehow magically controls the orchestra's choice of music, as well!"
V'ezien grimaced, but he also let the point drop. His initial question had been at least partly whimsical, after all. Still, though . . . Try as he might, he couldn't quite shake that feeling—that . . . intuition, perhaps—that Aldona Anisimovna was always at least a couple of jumps ahead of anyone else in the New Tuscany System, and he didn't much care for the sensation.
"Well, anyway," he said, waving aside his own question, "I suppose what really matters is whether or not we have the assets in place to actually do what she wants as quickly as she wants it done."
"That and the question of whether or not doing what she wants on this revised schedule of hers is also going to accomplish what we want," Dusserre replied. "And, while I'm perfectly ready to concede that you're right and we don't have much choice but to continue with this strategy, the timing on it really worries me, Max."
The security minister's tone was cold, sober, and—most worrisome of all—sincere, V'ezien thought. And, as usual, he had a damnably good point.
"We weren't supposed to be doing this for months yet," Dusserre continued, "and I damned well wish I hadn't told Anisimovna we'd been able to complete our arrangements for it this early."
"It wouldn't have made that much difference in the end," V'ezien said, offering what comfort he could. "The message turnaround time to Pequod is too short. Even if we hadn't done a single thing to get ready for it already, it wouldn't have taken more than a week or two to set it all up from scratch. And, frankly, a week or two either way isn't going to make that much difference."
"I know," Dusserre muttered, then puffed his cheeks out and sighed. "I know," he repeated more distinctly. "I suppose I'm just still looking for things to kick myself over because I'm scared enough to piss on my own shoes."
Despite himself, V'ezien felt himself warming at least briefly towards the security minister as Dusserre admitted to the same trepidation V'ezien felt.
"I know the Solly battlecruisers were supposed to already be here before we kicked off this phase of the operation," he said almost gently. "But we do have confirmation from other sources that Byng is in the Madras Sector. She's not lying to us about that. And hard as I've tried, I can't come up with any scenario where it would help Manpower in any conceivable way for her to have come clear out here and set us up to fall flat on our asses just so her people can get egg on their faces in all the Solly 'faxes all over again. There may be one, but I sure as hell can't figure out what it might be! And assuming she'd prefer for us all to succeed, I can't see why she'd lie to us about Manpower and Mesa's ability to bring Verrochio up to scratch and get Byng moving ahead of schedule. So we're just going to have to take her word that they can do that and act accordingly."
"Wonderful." Dusserre inhaled deeply. "Well, in that case we really need to be talking to Nicholas and Gu'edon. I know my people did most of the organizing and operational planning, and picking the merchant ship wasn't as difficult as I'd been afraid it would be. We've got all of that in place, but we didn't have the resources outside the home system to set something like this up at the other end, as well. We had to rely on the Navy for that, and we're pretty much completely outside the pipeline in that regard. We had to let them put it into place, and we're going to need their resources to actually pull the trigger, as well."
V'ezien nodded. He was right, of course, and it wouldn't be all that hard to get hold of Admiral Josette Gu'edon, the New Tuscan Navy's chief of naval operations. Getting hold of the Minister of War was going to be a bit tougher, though, since Nicholas P'elisard had chosen this particularly inconvenient moment for a vacation trip to visit family in the Selkirk System. He wouldn't be back for at least another week, and his Deputy Minister of War hadn't been briefed in on the operation. There'd seemed no particular need to do that—or, rather, it had seemed they had plenty of time to do it, just as P'elisard should've had plenty of time to complete his vacation trip. Besides, his deputy was a . . . less than stellar choice for the coordination of any covert operation.
"I don't want to bring Challon in on this, not without discussing it with Nicholas first, at least," the Prime Minister said after moment. "I'm not confident enough in his ability to keep a secret to feel comfortable doing that. But Gu'edon already knows what's supposed to happen, right?"
"I discussed it with her myself," Dusserre agreed. "I left it up to Nicholas to organize the nuts and bolts and get the ship properly rigged. He's the one with the connections for that side of things, after all. But I do know that he personally spoke to her directly about it, so she has to have been in the loop. In fact, knowing her, she probably wouldn't have trusted anyone outside her own office to arrange it."
"All right, then I'll take care of bringing her up to speed on the changes," V'ezien decided. "One of the nice things about being Prime Minister is that I can talk to anyone I need to just about any time I want to, and with Nicholas out of the system, I don't imagine anyone will be particularly surprised if I need to talk to the CNO directly."
"Which still brings you back to deciding what to do about Challon, doesn't it?" Dusserre asked. V'ezien glanced at him, and the security minister grimaced sourly. "I'm not that fond of Challon, Max. I'll admit it. But if I do, then you have to admit he's given me ample reason to be unfond of him. If he finds out you've been talking to Gu'edon without involving him when he's at least temporarily perched on the top of his own dung heap during Nicholas' absence, his vanity is going to demand that he figure out whatever secret you were obviously trying to keep from him. And, unfortunately, he's not a complete idiot. There's a damned good chance he'll be able to dig up enough to present a real problem if he starts blathering about it. And he will blab about it if he figures it out. Probably to a newsy he figures could make him look good, although God knows that's a challenge few mortals would care to embrace!"
That, unfortunately, was an all too likely scenario, V'ezien thought. Armand Challon was actually quite a bright fellow, in a lot of ways. In fact, he was very good at his job, which was one reason (if not the most important one) he was the Deputy Minister of War. But he had a shrewish, nastily vindictive nature and an inveterate need to bask in the admiration of others. It was important to him that he be perceived asimportant, and he had a penchant for dropping bits and pieces—what he fondly thought were "mysterious" hints—about all of the important things he was up to. They made for good gossip material at the sorts of parties he graced with his presence . . . and the newsies had learned ages ago to hover around him with suitably admiring expressions. Which was the very reason he was normally kept as far away as possible from any secret that was genuinely important.
Unfortunately, he was also the son of Victor Challon, and Victor controlled about twenty percent of the delegates to the System Parliament's upper chamber. Which was the most important reason Armand had been named Deputy War Minister in the first place.
There are times, V'ezien reflected, when I think it would actually be simpler—easier, at least—to let the Mob take over than it is to go on wading through this bottomless sea of cousins, in-laws, families, friends, and relations. Let them drain the pond and then shoot the fish flapping around in the mud. There'd have to be at least some gain in efficiency, wouldn't there?
"If I have to, I'll talk to Victor about it," he said out loud. "I don't want to, but at least he's smart enough to realize why we have to keep this completely black. And if he has to sit on Armand to keep his mouth shut, he'll do it. But let's not borrow any more trouble than we have to. Hopefully, that's one fire we won't have to put out in the first place."
"Hopefully," Dusserre agreed just a bit sourly.
"At any rate, I'll talk to Gu'edon tomorrow. Like you, I don't see how Nicholas could have set it up without involving her. If it turns out she's not directly hands-on with it, then I'll get back to you and we'll have to see about reorganizing things. At least the timing doesn't seem to be absolutely critical. We can hit a few days off in either direction without making Ms. Anisimovna unhappy."
"Oh, by all means," Dusserre said, and this time his tone was sour enough to curdle milk, "let's not do anything to make Ms. Anisimovna unhappy!"
Captain Gabrielle S'eguin did her best to look completely calm and poised as she tucked her uniform cap under her left arm and followed the youthful lieutenant into the chief of naval operations' private office.
The fact that there'd been absolutely no warning of this meeting until the order to report to Admiral Gu'edon's office arrived approximately fifty-three standard minutes ago was not calculated to make S'eguin confident. Admittedly, the light cruiser Camille was one of the New Tuscan Navy's most powerful and most modern units, and S'eguin would probably be looking at her own rear admiral's star at the end of this commission. It wasn't as if she were some junior lieutenant being called into the captain's day cabin to be reamed a new one, she told herself.
No, a stubborn part of her replied, it's got the potential to be a lot worse than that, and you know it.
That cheerful thought carried her through the door and through the ritual handshake of greeting. Then the lieutenant disappeared, and S'eguin was alone with Gu'edon.
Gu'edon was an older woman, a first-generation prolong recipient whose once-dark hair had gone gunmetal gray and whose face had developed well-defined lines. But she was still a tall, imposing figure, one who kept herself an excellent physical condition, and the stiff rings of golden braid on her uniform sleeves reached almost all the way from cuff to elbow.
"Sit down, Captain." Gu'edon's voice had a harsh edge, a slight rasp that wasn't exactly unpleasant but gave it a certain snap of command. S'eguin had always wondered whether that was her natural voice or if she'd carefully cultivated that whiff of harshness.
"Thank you, Ma'am." S'eguin obeyed the instruction, and Gu'edon came around to stand in front of her desk, folding her gold-braided arms in front of her while she leaned back against the edge of the desk.
"I realize you don't have a clue why I wanted to see you, Captain," Gu'edon said, coming to the point with all of her customary bluntness. "Well, I'm about to explain that to you. And when I'm finished, you're going to go back to your ship, and your ship is going to Pequod, and when you get to Pequod you're going to carry out a highly classified mission which the President and Cabinet have determined is vital to the interests and security of our star nation. You will not discuss this mission, its parameters, or its particulars, with anyone—ever—without my specific and personal authorization. You will not even think about this mission without my specific and personal authorization. But you will carry it out flawlessly, Captain, because, if you don't, there may not be a New Tuscany very much longer."
S'eguin felt herself turning into stone in the comfortable chair, and Gu'edon smiled thinly.
"Now that I presume I have your attention, Captain," she said, "here's what you're going to do . . ."