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Chapter Forty

"They're gone."

Valery Ottweiler looked up from the report he'd been reading and quirked one eyebrow at the man standing in his office doorway. Damien Harahap, late of the Solarian League Gendarmerie, was an eminently forgettable-looking mana quality of which had served him well during his time with his former employerbut Ottweiler had discovered that there was an extremely capable brain behind that unremarkable facade.

There was also someone who had an inordinate amount of good luck. Everything taken together, Harahap was extraordinarily fortunate to be alive, but Ottweiler knew he'd proved very useful to Aldona Anisimovna and Isabel Bardasano. Despite how spectacularly the Monica operation had crashed and burned, Harahap had performed his role in it almost flawlessly, and he'd been as ruthlessly honest in critiquing his own performance as he had when critiquing that of anyone else. He wasn't Mesan, but operatives of his professionalism and abilityand intelligencewere rare, and Bardasano, who had never had any prejudices against employing "outside talent" if it proved itself valuable and reliable, had hired him away from the Gendarmerie almost before the wreckage in Monica had finished glowing.

The fact that Harahap knew where all the bodies in the Madras Sector were buried had suggested he might be of particular value to Ottweiler, which was how he'd come to be a member of Ottweiler's staff here in Meyers. Of course, there were a few downsides to having him openly working for Ottweiler here on the capital world of his old stomping grounds. In fact, Hongbo Junyan had looked just a little askance at the relationship, but Ottweiler had already demonstrated who was in charge in that particular relationship, and any objections the vice-commissioner might have cherished had remained unspoken.

"I take it you're referring to the departure of the intrepid Admiral Byng?" Ottweiler said now, and Harahap nodded.

"Just translated out for New Tuscany," he said.

"And about time, too," Ottweiler muttered. Harahap didn't seem to notice, which was fresh proof of both his intelligence and his discretion, Ottweiler thought. Then the Mesan inhaled deeply and shrugged.

"Thank you, Damien," he said.

"Is there anything else you need me to do this afternoon?" Harahap asked.

"No, thank you. Well, not here, anyway. But, on second thought, it would probably be a good idea if you went and hit your Gendarmerie contacts again. Try to get a read on how the Sollies see what's going on in New Tuscany."

"Not a problem," Harahap replied, then left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Ottweiler gazed at that closed door for a moment, thinking of the man who had just passed through it and all he represented.

Damien Harahap had been one of the best field men the Solarian Gendarmerie had ever recruited and trained, but he'd never felt any intrinsic loyalty to the League. Born in the Verge himself, he'd managed to claw his way off of one of the planets Frontier Security had handed over to one of its multi-stellar corporate patrons to be squeezed and exploited. He'd done it by taking service with the very people who had stripped his home world of its freedom and its dignity, and Ottweiler suspected that that still ate at him at times. If so, it hadn't kept him from doing his job superlatively, but that stemmed more from his own pride of workmanship and refusal to perform at less than his best than from any vestige of devotion to his employers. He'd always seen himselfwith good reason, in Ottweiler's opinionmuch more as a foreign mercenary than as a citizen of the League.

And that was ultimately going to prove the Solarian League's Achilles' heel, Valery Ottweiler suspected. Too many of the people doing what had to be done to keep the machine up and running were like Damien Harahap. Skilled, capable, ambitious, often ruthless...and with no sense of loyalty to the League at all. They were simply playing the best game available to them, and if someone came along and offered to change the rules...

Ottweiler looked back at the report he'd been reading, but he didn't really see it. His mind was too busy with other things.

He was glad Byng had finally gotten underway, even if it had taken almost an entire T-month. That was longer than his instructions had specified as the maximum acceptable interval, but only by a day or two. Unless the people who'd written those instructions were far stupider than Ottweiler expected, they would have allowed for some slippage even in their "maximum acceptable" timing delays. And whether they had or not, it was the best Ottweiler had been able to do without coming a lot further into the open and squeezing Lorcan Verrochio a lot harderand a lot more obviouslythan his instructions from Isabel Bardasano permitted.

And he was also relieved that Byng had, indeed, settled for taking only two of his three battlecruiser squadrons with him.

He tipped back in his chair, lips pursed while he whistled tunelessly. He wasn't supposed to know what was really going on. That much was obvious from the way his instructions had been written, the way Bardasano's directives had been phrased. But, like Damien Harahap, it was Valery Ottweiler's intelligence which made him so useful to his own employers. And that intelligence had been suggesting things lately which he had been very careful to keep discreetly to himself. Things which had given added point to his thoughts about the fundamental loyalty of people like Harahap.

And his own.

Nobody had told him exactly what was supposed to happen in New Tuscany, but it didn't take a hyper physicist to figure out that it wasn't what the New Tuscansor Admiral Byngwere expecting to happen. Especially after what had happened in Monica, and what that had demonstrated about Manticoran military capabilities, the only possibility Ottweiler could see was that someone wanted to reprise the Battle of Monica, but with Josef Byng in the role of the Monican Navy. No one as smart as Isabel Bardasano or Aldona Anisimovna could expect any other outcome, which meant that was the one they wanted. Which led inevitably to the question ofwhy they wanted it.

Ottweiler had asked himself that very question, and as he'd pondered it, a very disturbing thought had come to him. One which made him look at the actions of someone like Governor Barregos in the Maya Sector quite differently. One which made him wonder how someone as bright as he was could have missed the signs he saw so clearly now.

Which made him consider exactly what it was to which he'd truly given his own loyalty all these years and how much further it might turn out that the ambitions of his own employers extended than he'd ever guessed before.

And one which made him wonder how the Solarian League was going to react when it discovered the true disadvantage to hiring mercenaries to protect its life.

"You know, Father, when you first came up this brainstorm of yours, I actually found myself wondering about your contact with reality. In fact, I started to say just that, actually. But now..."

Benjamin Detweiler shook his head as he stood beside his father in the salon of a luxuriously furnished private yacht, gazing at the needle-sharp view screen.

"Really?" Albrecht gave his son a humorous glance. "Changed your mind, did you? You do remember that one of your responsibilities is to warn me if you think I'm going off the deep end, don't you?"

"Oh, certainly." Benjamin chuckled. "The problem is that no one else really knows all of the labyrinthinenot to say Machiavelliandetails rolling around inside your brain. Sometimes it's sort of hard for those of us on the outside to tell the difference between strokes of genius and wild hairs."

"Your filial respect overwhelms me," Albrecht said dryly, and Benjamin chuckled again. Although, Albrecht reflected, there was at least a tiny kernel of truth buried in his son's comments. There usually was, where Benjamin was concerned. Out of all of his "sons," Benjamin probably was the most likely to tell him if he thought he was going off at a dangerous tangent.

Probably because Benjamin's the most like me, when you come right down to it, Albrecht thought. Which is why I picked him to run the military side of things, after all. AndAlbrecht's eyes refocused on the view screenso far, he's done us all proud. Well, he and Daniel and Daniel's little shop of wonders.

Truth to tell, the view screen's images weren't all that exciting... unless, of course, one realized what one was seeing. There was no pressing need for Albrecht to be out here aboard Benjamin's yacht, watching it from such short range, either. He could have viewed exactly the same imagery from the security of his own office. But Albrecht did realize what he was seeing, and six hundred T-years of planning and effort, of sweat and toil, of enormous investment and even more enormous patience on the part of entire generations who couldn't be here with him, were rumbling through the marrow of his bones as he watched. He couldn't possibly have stayed away. He needed to be as physically close to the units of Oyster Bay as he could possibly be, and if that was illogical, he didn't really much care.

He watched the stupendous freighters getting underway. They weren't the largest freighters in the galaxy, by any stretch of the imagination, but they were still big, solid ships, all of them of at least four million tons, and they'd been carefully modified for their current role. Their cargo doors were considerably larger than usual, and the cargo holds behind those doors had been configured to provide secure nests for the roughly frigate-sizedGhost-class scout ships they concealed.

They were something entirely new in the annals of interstellar warfare, those scout ships, and he wished they had more of themhundreds of them. But they didn't. Their total inventory of the new spider-drive ships was extremely limited, and he'd committed virtually all of them to this operation. If they'd only had a few more monthsanother T-year or twoto prepare, he would have been much happier.

But we've got enough of them for this, he told himself almost fiercely, and let his eyes sweep across to the other half of Oyster Bay.

The Shark-class strike ships were much larger than Commodore Ostby's and Commodore Sung's scouts. Any pod-layer had to be, although these were still essentially prototype units in many ways, and they had only twenty-eight of them, divided between Admiral Topolev's Task Force One and Admiral Colenso's much smaller Task Force Two. Substantially larger units with far more magazine space were on the drawing board, designs based in no small part on the experience Benjamin and his crews had acquired working with the ships currently under Topolev's and Colenso's command. Some of those larger units were already entering the first phases of construction, for that matter. And, again, Albrecht wished they'd been able to wait until those larger ships were available in greater numbers. But the key to everything was timing, and the two admirals had enough combat power for their assigned mission.

Albrecht wasn't the military specialist Benjamin was, but even he could tell the Sharks looked subtly wrong. They were too far away for the naked eye to see, but the view screen's magnification brought them to what seemed like arm's-length and made it obvious that all of them lacked the traditional "hammerhead" design of a military starship. Indeed, the lines of their hulls were all wrong, in one way or another, as if their designers had been working to a completely different set of constraints from anyone else in the galaxy.

Which was precisely what they had been doing.

The strike ships turned slowly, and then, as one unit, they went loping away into the trackless depths of space. And that, too, was wrong. The light-warping power of a starship's impeller drive made the ship within it impossible to see, except from exactly the right angle. But there was no gravitic distortion around these ships, nothing to bend and blur light waves, because they didn't use impeller wedges.

And isn't that going to come as a nasty surprise for the Manties and their friends? Albrecht thought fiercely.

He watched for several more moments, then shook himself and inhaled deeply.

"Well," he said, "that's that. I'm proud of you, Ben." He reached out to squeeze his son's shoulder. "I sometimes think I forget to tell youand the other boys, for that matterthat as often as I ought to, but it's true. I know how much pressure I put on you when I decided to move Oyster Bay up this way. But I also knew that if anyone could get it organized and moving in that time frame, you were the one."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, Father," Benjamin said with a grin, but Albrecht could tell that his son recognized the sincerity behind his words. He gave the shoulder under his hand another squeeze, then shook his head.

"And now, I'd better get back to the house. I'm sure something else has crawled out of my in-basket while I was away, and your mom has something special planned for dinner tonight. She didn't tell me what, and I didn't ask. Sometimes I am a little afraid to ask her, actually. I'd hate to think she was getting her cookbooks mixed up with her lab notebooks!"

This time, Benjamin laughed out loud. Evelina Detweiler was one of the Mesan Alignment's top biosciences researchers, with a special expertise in bioweapons, working closely with Benjamin's brother Everett and Renzo Kyprianou. And unlike her husband, who was always sharply focused on the task in hand, Evelina was all too often the epitome of the "absent minded professor."

"Whatever it is she's planning on feeding me, though, you'd better be there too," Albrecht said now, glaring at the laughing Benjamin. "It's a special dinner to celebrate launching Oyster Bay, and I understand it's going to include seafood, somehow or other. So be there. Nineteen-thirty sharpand no excuses, young man!"

"Yes, Sir," Benjamin said meekly.

"Well," Augustus Khumalo said gloomily, "I could wish we'd been wrong at least this once."

"If it makes you feel better to be wrong, Augustus," Baroness Medusa said with a crooked smile, "don't get too worried. I'm sure we'll be able to make enough mistakes to satisfy you while we try to figure out what to do about it!"

"I know what I'd like to do about it," Henri Krietzmann muttered just loud enough to be heard, and Joachim Alquezar gave him a reproving glance.

"While direct action has a certain primitive appeal, especially at moments like this, it isn't always the best course of action, Henri. Besides, there's a little thing called the Eridani Edict to worry about, so a nice saturation kinetic bombardment of New Tuscany is probably out of the question."

"Spoken like a true effete aristocrat," Krietzmann shot back with a twinkle, despite the tension of the moment, and Alquezar chuckled. But his momentary humor disappeared quickly, and he shook his head and looked at Medusa.

"I have to admit that I'm at a loss to even suggest what it is this was supposed to accomplish," he said, running one fingertip across the hardcopy printout of the diplomatic note lying on the conference table in front of him beside his copy of Commander Denton's report.

"I think at least part of it is fairly obvious, Mr. Prime Minister," Gregor O'Shaughnessy said. "I realize New Tuscany is actually five days closer to Spindle than Pequod is, but the fact that V'ezien's nastygram got here less than twenty-four hours after Commander Denton's report still says quite a lot. Even if this Captain S'eguin let the merchies make the trip on their own and went ahead of them in her light cruiser, she still burned the better part of five and a half days just getting home to New Tuscany. Which means they conducted this entire 'investigation' of V'ezien's, discussed how to respond, and got his damned note off to us in less than one T-day. How many governments do you know of that could have done that from a standing start?"

"None," Alquezar said grimly. "Or not at least if there really was any sort of an investigation involved."

"I think we can take it as a given that there was no need for any investigations," Michelle Henke put in from her place to Khumalo's right, and her husky contralto was far grimmer than usual.

Medusa glanced at her, and the baroness didn't exactly like what she saw. Michelle had been back in Spindle for less than a T-month, and it was obvious to Medusa that the horrendous casualties the Navy had suffered in the Battle of Manticore had hit her especially hard.

Well, of course they did! Medusa scolded herself. How many of those people did she know personally? How many close friends were killed? And even leaving all of that out of the equation, she's an officer in the Queen's Navy. The Navy that was supposed to keep anyone from ever doing something like that to the home system.

And even if none of the rest of that had been true, the baroness reflected, Michelle Henke was Tenth Fleet's commanding officer. That organization had been officially activated following the arrival of Aivars TerekhovSir Aivars Terekhov, she reminded herselfand his cruiser squadron at Spindle, and as Tenth Fleet's CO, Vice Admiral Gold Peak was only too well aware of how the savage losses the Royal Manticoran Navy had suffered were going to affect force availability here in Talbott, as well. It was entirely possibleindeed, almost inevitablethat many of the ships she'd been scheduled to receive were going to be delayed or even permanently diverted to other duties as the Admiralty tried frantically to fill all the holes the Battle of Manticore had blasted into its order of battle.

All of which made the timing on the New Tuscans' little operation, whatever it was, even more...inconvenient.

"It's almost like they already knew about what happened in Manticore, isn't it?" Terekhov mused out loud, like an eerie echo of Medusa's thoughts. He sat in a comfortable armchair at one corner of her desk, the new, blue-and-white ribbon of the POV heading the "fruit salad" on the breast of his tunic.

"Let's not get carried away giving them credit for arcane powers, Aivars," Michelle said.

"Oh, I'm not, Ma'am." Terekhov smiled briefly. "It's just particularly frustrating to have this happening right now."

"Now that's what I'd call a masterful piece of understatement, Sir Aivars," Bernardus Van Dort put in wryly.

"Put it down to my years of Foreign Office experience," Terekhov replied. "But while you're doing that, those same years of Foreign Office experience are ringing all kinds of alarm bells over this one. As Gregor just pointed out, this whole thing stinks to high heaven. It's got 'Put-Up Job!' painted all over it in great big, glowing letters, and I don't like any of the reasons I've been able to come up with for why that is. You and Joachim know these people a lot better than I do, Bernardus. Are they stupid enough to think we wouldn't even notice the timing involved in their ability to get their note to us this damned quickly?"

"Well, obviously they were stupid enough to send Andrieaux Yvernau to the Constitutional Convention, which has to raise at least some questions, don't you think?" Van Dort pointed out. "If they really expected to get a constitution out of it, then that wasn't exactly what anyone would consider an inspired choice. But in answer to the question you're really asking, no, none of themexcept probably Yvernauis that stupid. They have to realize there's no way in the galaxy we're going to miss the timing on this. Which means they frankly don't care about that. The entire note isn't for our benefit at all; it's for someone else's."

"Exactly," Terekhov said, and his blue eyes swept the table for a moment before coming back to Joachim Alquezar and Baroness Medusa.

"It's Monica all over again," he said flatly. "I don't know exactly how all the pieces are supposed to fit together this time, but New Tuscany's the door knocker for someone else, exactly the same way Monica was. And as Bernardus says, the way these incidents are being stage-managed is for someone else. Does anyone in this room doubt who that someone else is?"

"Of course it's the Sollies, Commodore," Alquezar said. "Whatever else they have in mind, the New Tuscans are obviously planning on calling in some 'impartial outside power' to...mediate in the crisis which the Star Empire has clearly provoked for sinister reasons of its own."

"I'm beginning to wish now that we'd gone ahead and sent Chatterjee out to relieve Denton as soon as he got here with his Rolands," Khumalo said frankly, running the fingers of his right hand through his hair in an uncharacteristic, harassed gesture.

"I don't think it would have made any difference, Sir," Terekhov said.

Khumalo looked at him, and Terekhov raised one hand and made a little throwing away gesture with it.

"First of all, Sir, I don't see where you and Admiral Gold Peak had any choice but to freeze ship movements and deployments, at the very least until Admiral Gold Peak got back to Spindle, until you got a better feel for how what happened in Manticore is going to affect your force availabilities out here in the Quadrant. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don't think any other decision was possible. But, secondly, whatever it is these people are up to, it's obvious they've been working to a detailed game plan from the very beginning. I really don't see them doing anything different just because Commodore Chatterjee was sitting there with half a dozen Rolands instead of Commander Denton with a single over-the-hill tin-can."

"Unless having half a dozen Rolands sitting there would have convinced them of the unwisdom of their actions," Michelle pointed out.

"With all due respect, Ma'am," Terekhov said, "if they can count to twenty without taking their shoes off, they already know the New Tuscan Navy in all its glory does not want to piss off the RMN. Putting more destroyers in Pequod wouldn't have changed any perceptions of the real balance of force in New Tuscany."

Michelle nodded slowly. He was right, of course, and the fact that he was only made her even happier to have him and his judgment back here in the Quadrant. Not that she felt particularly "happy" about anything else at the moment.

"All right." Medusa looked around the conference table as her quietly firm tone gathered up everyone else's attention. "What I'm hearing is a consensus that New Tuscany is acting as a front man for some party or parties unknown, although I suspect we could all put a name on at least one of the aforementioned parties if we really tried. And I think we're all also in agreement that at the moment they have the advantage of knowing what the hell it is they're trying to do while we don't have a clue. Unfortunately, I see no option but to respond rather firmly to what they've already done."

"I'd like to insert a word of caution, Milady," O'Shaughnessy said. She nodded for him to go on, and he continued. "I can't disagree with anything you've just said, but I think we need to bear in mind that responding forcefully may be exactly what they want us to do."

"It may be," Medusa agreed. "On the other hand, I see no other choice. We certainly can't ignore it, when their prime minister is sending us formal notes accusing one of our pinnaces of having deliberately fired upon and destroyed a New Tuscan merchant ship with all handsand, by implication, accusing us of lying about it rather than admitting Commander Denton's responsibility. It's obvious from our analysis of the records that nothing of the sort happened, but nobody aside from us and the New Tuscans has any evidence to look at at all. Much as I hate it, that means this is going to be a battle for credibility, not something that can be resolved through the presentation of evidence in some sort of insterstellar court. And if that's the case, the last thing we can afford is to allow them to get their version of the facts established, unchallenged."

All of the naval officers at the table nodded soberly. They'd run the sensor data Commander Denton had sent along with his report through their tactical computers and simulators, and those computers and simulators had been far more capable than anything aboard Reprise. Unfortunately, there were still limits. As Denton had warned, there was less of that data than they could have wished.Reprise was a single destroyer whose sensor platforms had been keeping an eye on an entire star system. Nothing had warned her that she needed to be keeping a closer watch overH'el`ene Blondeau, and none of her platforms had been looking in the right direction at the right moment. What they had was almost entirely from her shipboard sensors, and they hadn't been focusing their attention on the New Tuscan merchant ship, either.

Despite all of those disadvantages, however, it had become glaringly evident to the analysts that Denton had been correct.H'el`ene Blondeau had been destroyed by an internal explosion. Or, to be more precise, the freighter had been destroyed by a single explosive event consisting of eightnot the seven Denton had identifiedsimultaneous detonations equidistantly spaced throughout her volume. It hadn't been a sequence of explosions spreading, however rapidly, from a single initial site, which would have been the case with almost any conceivable "natural" catastrophe...and would definitely have been the case if they had been the result of energy fire or a missile strike impacting on the hull. The only way that so many detonations could have occurred simultaneously throughout the volume of a ship that size was as the result of very carefully placed scuttling charges. There was no question in the analysts' minds; the New Tuscans had blown up their own ship.

"I'm not about to go to the newsies and hand them our analysis," Medusa continued. "I have every confidence that it's accurate, but saying 'They did it themselves' isn't going to play well with the 'faxes. It's the kind of 'He said; she said' defense that sounds weak at the best of times, especially when it's based on the disputed analysis of sketchy information or data. And, frankly, whoever thought this up obviously realizes how our diplomatic squabbles with Havenwhich haven't gotten any better, now that we're accusing them of sabotaging the summit and they're denying they had anything to do with any assassination attemptsis going to make that particularly true in our case.

"Nonetheless, it's equally imperative that we clearly and unequivocally maintain that we were not in any way responsible for what happened. We can certainly provide our own sensor data, as well as the results of our own internal inquiry, to support our own innocence without necessarily making any allegations of guilt on anyone else's part. We need to do just that, to be sure our side of the story is presented as clearly and as forcefully as their version of events. And we also have to proceed in the way any innocent star nation acting in good faith would proceed. Which means we must respond directly to V'ezien's note."

"In what way, Milady?" Alquezar asked.

"By presenting a note to them in reply. One which makes it very clear that we reject their accusations, and one which describesin detail, using Commander Denton's recordings as corroboration of our descriptionwhat's really been going on in Pequod and demands an explanation for their increasingly provocative behavior."

"Are you thinking about sending it through normal diplomatic channels, Milady?" Michelle asked, and Medusa gave her a distinctly sharklike smile.

"They sent their official government dispatch boat all the way here to Spindle to make sure we got our mail, Admiral. The least we can do is to make sure they get our reply equally promptly. I think Amandine Corvisart would make an excellent representative, and I think Commodore Chatterjee would make an impressive postman."

"That could be viewed as a provocative action, Milady," O'Shaughnessy pointed out. Medusa looked at him, and he shrugged. "They sent a single unarmed dispatch boat. If we send an entire destroyer squadron, or even a single destroyer division, to deliver our response, it could easily be construed as some sort of 'gunboat diplomacy.' "

"A threat that they'd better shut up if they don't want us to blow their miserable little star system to pieces around their ears, Mr. O'Shaughnessy?" Khumalo said just a touch frostily. "Is that what you mean?"

"As a matter of fact, yes, Admiral," O'Shaughnessy replied unflinchingly. "I'm not slamming the Navy when I say that, either. As a matter of fact, I think gunboats or the occasional cruiseror even the occasional battlecruiser squadron," he added, smiling crookedly at Michelle "are legitimate diplomatic tools. I'm simply pointing out that in this particular case, we're looking at someone who's already obviously trying to provoke us. Someone who's presenting the destruction of one of their freighters as a consequence of our actions. If we appear to be overtly threatening them, we could be playing into their hands."

"I considered that, Gregor," Medusa said before Khumalo could respond, "and you may well have a point. On the other hand, I think this is one of those occasions when a small show of force is indicated. I'm sure Commodore Chatterjee will be professional and nonconfrontational, and I know Amandine will be firm without descending into overt threats. But there's no way we or any other genuine interstellar power wouldn't accompany the delivery of this sort of note with at least a modest show of force. However we choose to phrase it, we're accusing them of deliberately provoking an incident between our star nations, and if they seriously claim we destroyed their freighter and killed its entire crew, they're accusing us of an overt act of war against New Tuscany. If we don't respond with enough force to warn them there's a line they'd better not cross, then we're stepping outside those normaland acceptedparameters of a major power's response in a case like this."

"And if their 'game plan,' as Commodore Terekhov described it, was designed on the assumption that we'd react within those normal and accepted parameters, Milady?"

"I can't read their minds, Gregor," the imperial governor said. "So if I'm not simply going to sit here and let myself be paralyzed by double-think and triple-think, I'm just going to have to do the best we can. And as long as we're operating within those normal and accepted parameters, without waving great big clubs around, on the one hand, or letting ourselves look like we're running scared, on the other, we'll be in the best position we can be in if and when this thing finally goes to the court of public opinion. That may not be much, but to be brutally honest, it's about the best we can do. If they're determined to go on pushing this, we can't stop them. And if it comes to some kind of genuine violent incident as a result, then it's going to come to some kind of violent incident, and we'd best all accept that now. In the meantime, we'll conduct ourselves as a civilized star nation dealing with a preposterous allegation. It certainly can't hurt anything, and, who knows, it might even help."

"I think you're right, Milady," Michelle said, and her expression hardened. "I don't want any kind of 'violent incident' with New Tuscany, and God knows the last thing we need is some sort of replay of Monica!" She quirked a taut smile at Terekhov and Khumalo. "I think the two of you did remarkably well at Monicadon't get me wrong about that. But I think all of us also know how ugly things would have gotten if a Frontier Fleet task force had come translating into Monica with blood in its eye. That would have been bad enough before Haven hit the home system. Now, when we're so completely off-balance strategically, the term 'disastrous' comes to mind.

"Despite that, though, or maybe even because of it, I think we need to make it very clear to the New Tuscans that, as the governor says, there's a line they don't want to step over. It might not be a bad idea to remind them that no matter how badly a 'second Monica' might work out for us in the long term, it would work out one hell of a lot worse for them in the short term! And I think it's equally important that we make it clear to the Sollies that we intend to be the mistress of our own house. Let's not forget that all of these incidents they're accusing us of fomenting are taking place in Pequod, and Pequod is part of the Star Empire of Manticore, the last time I looked. They inserted one of their warships into sovereign Manticoran territory, and they're informing us of the conclusions of a New Tuscan court of inquiry held on events occurring in a Manticoran star system, and one at which none of our witnesses or investigators were even present. That's a clear infringement of our sovereignty, on several levels, and I don't believe we can let that stand. Especially if whoever is orchestrating this thing has Frontier Security lurking in the background."

"I think those are both very good points, Admiral," Medusa said. "Of course, that may be because they'd already occurred to me! At any rate, that's how I want to proceed. I'll leave it up to you and Admiral Khumalo to structure Commodore Chatterjee's orders. That's your area of expertise, not mine. I would like a briefing on his instructions before he departs for New Tuscany, however. In the meantime, I'll sit down with Amandine. I don't intend to be overtly confrontational in my note to V'ezien, but I do intend to make the pointfirmlythat New Tuscany is dealing with the Star Empire of Manticore, not with the independent star system of Pequod, and not with some problematical political entity which may come into existence at some point in the future. He's dealing with something that already exists, and something he really, really doesn't want to turn into an overt enemy."

Chapter Thirty-Nine | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Forty-One