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Chapter Forty-One

Abigail Hearns sat at her station on HMS Tristram's bridge and concentrated on radiating a sense of calm. It wasn't easy.

Abigail had never put much faith in the notion of some sort of intuition or "second sight." Not where she was concerned, at least; she'd seen and heard enough about Steadholder Harrington not to discount it in the Steadholder's case. Some other officers she'd served with, like Captain Oversteegen, had seemed to possess something very like those reputed psychic powers, as well, but Abigail Hearns' psychic antennae had always been absolutely devoid of any sort of warning signals. Which was why she felt particularly nervous today, because something was definitely twisting her nerves into a solid, singing knot of tension.

She didn't know why, couldn't have explained it to a soul, but it was true. And she wasn't the only one who felt it, either. She'd seen it in several of her fellow officers, both on the bridge and off it, and she knew all of them were trying to project the same calm she was...and wondering how well they were doing it.

She glanced away from her own displays for a moment, checking the master astrogation plot, and the internal tension she was working so hard to conceal ratcheted up another notch or two. It wouldn't be long now, she thought.

No, it won't, and thank the Intercessor we've had the extra time to drill, she told herself. I don't imagine I'm the only person aboard who wishes we'd gotten a handle on the situation with New Tuscany sooner, but I can't honestly say the time's been wasted.

Tristram's tactical department still wasn't as well-oiled and proficient as Hexapuma's had been on the eve of the Battle of Monica, but it was immeasurably better than it had been. In fact, she thought it was as good as the Nasty Kitty's had been at Nuncio, and she felt a warm glow of solid accomplishment as she contemplated that improvement and knew it for her own handiwork. Yet there was also something else to keep that satisfied glow company; a dangerous something she'd seen in many of the better tactical officers she'd served with and had discovered lived deep inside her, as well. Abigail Hearns had killed enough people in her youthful existence to feel no pressing need to kill still more of them, and yet she could not deny that faint, predatory stirring. That awareness of the lethality of the weapon lying ready to her hand, like a steadholder's blade. She didn't actually want to use it, and yet...and yet...

There's always that "yet," isn't there, Abigail? she thought, remembering a conversation in Nuncio with Ragnhild Pavletic. There's always that hunger to test yourself, to prove you're just that little bit better than the next person. Orlet's be honest herethan anyone else.

She glanced at the captain's chair, where Naomi Kaplan sat looking even calmer than any of her subordinates. Unlike anyone else on Tristram's bridge, however, Abigail had seen Commander Kaplan sitting in the tactical officer's chair. She'd seen Kaplan's pre-battle face before, and she knew what she was seeing now.

"Excuse me, Skipper," Lieutenant O'Reilly said. "We have a com request from the flagship. It's the Commodore for you, Ma'am."

"Put it on my display, Wanda," Kaplan responded. There was an almost infinitesimal delay, and then she smiled down at her small private com screen.

"Good afternoon, Commodore. What can I do for you?"

Commodore Ray Chatterjee, commanding officer, Destroyer Squadron 301, smiled back at her from the flag bridge of his flagship, HMS Roland. His smile might have been a little more tense than hers, but, then again, he was responsible for all four ships of his first division (Captain Jacob Zavala and Chatterjee's second division had been sent straight to Pequod to relieve Reprise when Lieutenant Commander Denton returned to Spindle to give Admiral Khumalo and Admiral Gold Peak his firsthand impressions of the situation in Pequod), whereas Kaplan had to worry about only Tristram.

"I've been thinking, Naomi," the commodore said, "and while that's always a somewhat risky occupation in my case, I think I may have hit on something this time. Specifically, I've just as soon keep at least one or two of our cards tucked firmly up my sleeve. Just as a precaution, you know."

"Sir, given what's been going on in Pequod, I'd be in favor of keeping a pulser or two tucked firmly up our sleeves. And preferably one in each boot, as well!"

"Well, that might be a little overkill," Chatterjee observed mildly. "After all, this is supposed to be a diplomatic mission. But I've been going over everything we have on New Tuscany, and one thing that struck me is that they don't really have any deep-space sensor arrays worth mentioning."

Kaplan nodded. Any moderately prosperous star nationor, at least, any moderately prosperous star nation which was concerned about military shenanigans in its vicinitymaintained deep-space sensor arrays. In the case of a star system like Manticore, those arrays could be literally thousands of kilometers across, with an exquisite sensitivity capable of picking up things like hyper-footprints and often even impeller signatures light-months out from the system primary, vastly beyond the range possible for any shipboard sensor.

But New Tuscany wasn't "moderately prosperous" by Manticoran standards. In fact, despite its oligarchs' often lavish lifestyles, New Tuscany was little more than a pocket of wretched poverty by the Old Star Kingdom's meter stick, and it didn't have anything remotely like modern deep-space arrays.

"These people are the next best thing to blind outside the hyper limit," Chatterjee pointed out. "I won't say they couldn't possibly see anything beyond that range, but the odds wouldn't be very good for them, and their resolution has to suck once you get out beyond twenty or twenty-five light-minutes from the primary."

"That's about what I'd estimate, yes, Sir," Kaplan agreed, yet there was an almost wary note in her voice, and he smiled again, thinly, as he realized she'd already guessed where he was headed. Well, in that case he supposed he might as well go ahead and confirm her suspicion.

"What I intend to do," he continued, "is to shift our formation to closeTristram up a little closer behindRoland and see if we can't use her footprint to screen yours. We'll make our translation at twenty-two light-minutesif they want to think our astrogation is shaky, that's all right with me, but that gives us an extra light-minute and a half to play with. As soon as we make our alpha translation, though, I want you to go to full stealth."

"Sir, with all due respect"

" 'With all due respect yada-yada-yada,' " Chatterjee interrupted with something that was much closer to a grin. "How did I know you were going to say that?"

Kaplan clamped her jaw tightly, although the gleam in her eyes communicated her unspoken thought quite well.

"Better," Chatterjee approved. Then his expression sobered.

"I'm not coming up with this brainstorm just to make your life hard, Naomi, I assure you. The problem is that nobody has a clue what the New Tuscans think they're going to accomplish, but we do know they've been fabricating incidents. In fact, we know they're willing to blow up one of their own freighterswhich I hope to hell didn'treally have a crew on board at the timeand blame it on us. I don't think they would've done that unless they felt they'd been able to cobble up at least some sort of 'sensor data' to support their claims, and Commander Denton, unfortunately, wasn't able to give us really conclusive counter evidence.

"I'm inclined to doubt that they're going to try anything with three Manticoran destroyers sitting right here, watching them like hawks, but I'm also not inclined to bet the farm on that. So what we're going to do is to use Roland, Lancelot, and Galahad to drop Ghost Rider platforms on our way in. We'll launch a few active platforms of our own to sweep ahead of us, but the others will be completely passive, won't even bring their drives up, and you'll be monitoring all of them from out beyond the hyper limit, using light-speed links so there aren't any unexplained grav pulses floating around the system. The New Tuscans won't know we're basically watching their entire star system and recording everything we see. If they try sneaking anything around outside our known sensor range, the covert platforms ought to nail them at it, which would probably strengthen Ambassador Crovisart's hand a lot if they are up to something and try to get shirty with her. So, in a way, I'd almost like for them to go ahead and try something if it let us catch them with their hand in the cookie jar. And you're the one who's going to be watching the cookies for us."

Kaplan was silent for a moment or two, and then she gave a barely perceptible sigh.

"Very well, Sir. I don't like it, but I understand the logic, and I guess somebody has to draw the duty. But the next time you come up with something like this, couldn't we cut cards, or shoot dice, or flip coins, or something to see who gets to play grandma rocking on the porch while the rest of the kids run out to play?"

"Goodness, Commander! I hadn't realized you had such a gift for imagery. But I suppose I can at least take your suggestion under advisement."

Chatterjee frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then grinned.

"Personally, I've always preferred paper, rock, scissors when it comes to serious command decisions, though."

"They've arrived, Ms. Anisimovna."

Aldona Anisimovna sat up quickly on the chaise lounge on the terrace of her temporary townhouse in Livorno. She'd been luxuriating in the warmth of New Tuscany's G3 primary like a big, blonde cat for almost an hour, and it took a moment or two for her sun-sodden brain to catch up with Kyrillos Taliadoros' announcement.

"The Manties?" she said, and he nodded in confirmation.

"According to our contacts, they turned up in a bit greater strength than we'd expected, Ma'am."

"How much greater?"

"Three of their newRoland-class destroyers," Taliadoros replied. "And according to their initial messages, they've sent no less than Amandine Corvisart to deliver their response to the Prime Minister's note."

"Really?" Anisimovna smiled nastily. Given the demolition job Corvisart had done at Monica, the opportunity to repay her for her efforts was an unanticipated bonus. She felt herself wanting to purr like a hunting lioness at the thought, yet even as she did, she felt her pulse beginning to speed. Not even a scion of a Mesan alpha line was immune to the effect of old-fashioned adrenaline. Or dread, she admitted, her smile fading just a bit. Or, for that matter, to a slight churning in her stomach as she contemplated the little detail she'd added to the plan without mentioning it to any of her allies here in New Tuscany.

Stop that! she told herself firmly. It's the first move in a damned war, you silly bitch! Of course it's going to be...messy. But it's going to work, too, and that's a hell of a lot more important!

"You said this was according to our contacts," she said out loud. "Should I assume from that that no one from V'ezien's office has passed us the official word yet?"

"No, Ma'am. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything." Taliadoros allowed himself a faint smile of complacency. "I'd be very surprised if our communications lines to the NTNand his own office, for that matteraren't actually shorteror at least fasterthan his are."

"Let's not let ourselves get overly confident here, Kyrillos," Anisimovna said just a bit quellingly, and her bodyguard's smile disappeared as he nodded in sober acknowledgment.

Not that he didn't have a point, Anisimovna conceded in the privacy of her own mind. Upon his arrival on New Tuscany, Jansen Metcalf had done what Mesan attach'es and ambassadors always did. Even before he'd finished unpacking, he'd gone about establishing "contacts" throughout the local political and economic structure. It was always easier on planets like New Tuscany, where graft, patronage, and corruption were accepted, everyday facts of life. Anisimovna sometimes wondered if it was the relative absence of that trinity of tools which explained Bardasano's failure to penetrate someplace like Manticoreor, for that matter, Thesiman's and Pritchart's new Republicthe way she'd managed to penetrate so many other star nations.

Whatever might have been true in Manticore's case, however, New Tuscany had offered fertile soil for the standard Mesan techniques, and until Manticore had become involved in the Talbott Cluster, Metcalf hadn't had anything more important to do than to polish his network. Which meant Taliadoros was almost certainly correctAnisimovna probably was better informed about what was happening throughout the New Tuscany System than Prime Minister V'ezien. Quite possibly even better informed than Damien Dusserre, for that matter, although she'd have been less willing to wager on that possibility.

"You're probably right, though," she continued out loud. "It's more likely that V'ezien is doublechecking his information before passing it on than it is that he's deliberately trying to keep us in the dark."

Taliadoros nodded again, and Anisimovna flowed to her feet. She padded barefoot to the terrace wall, gazing out across New Tuscany's capital for a few more moments of thought. Then she turned back to her bodyguard.

"I think it's time that I be very carefully sitting here doing absolutely nothing suspicious," she said. "And if I'm here, you have to be here. I think it would probably be a good idea to close down any private communications channels we might have open. I trust Lieutenant Rochefort has already received his instructions?"

"Yes, Ma'am. And Ambassador Metcalf has doublechecked the communications relay. Even if anyone detected it, there's no way it could be traced back to us."

"I like a positive mindset, Kyrillos, but my own recent experience leaves me disinclined to take anything for granted."

"Of course, Ma'am."

"All right, then," she said. "Go and make sure we aren't talking to anyone Mr. Dusserre's eavesdroppers can't listen in on. Wouldn't want him getting any nasty suspicions about why we might be trying to evade him, after all. And while you're doing that," she smiled, "I think I'll go have a shower and a pre-supper martini."

"I don't believe this shit," Commodore Ray Chatterjee muttered as he studied the icons on the plot being driven by the recon platforms he'd sent in-system ahead of himself. "How the hell did these people get here, and what the hell are they doing here?"

"I don't know, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Lori Olson, his operations officer, said quietly. "Right off the top of my head, though, I doubt it's anything we'd be happy about if we did know."

"You've got that right," Chatterjee agreed grimly.

He sat back in his command chair, his expression even grimmer than his tone had been, and thought hard.

When he and Ambassador Corvisart had been sent off to New Tuscany, no one had counted on this. So just what were the two of them supposed to do when they found seventeen Solarian battlecruisers and five of their destroyers parked in orbit around the planet?

This stinks to high heaven, he thought. The only question is whether or not the Sollies know they're part of whatever the New Tuscans are up to...and I've got a bad feeling about that. I suppose it's at least remotely possible the Sollies don't know, but they'd have to be dumber than rocks not to realize the New Tuscans were trying to play them. Not that I haven't known a few Sollies who were dumber than rocks. Strange how that's not a very comforting reflection at the moment.

"Contact the Ambassador, Jason," he said to Commander Jason Wright, his chief of staff. "Ask her to join us in my briefing room. Then get hold of Captain DesMoines and ask him to join you, me, and the Ambassador."

"Yes, Sir."

"Yes, Mr. Prime Minister?" Anisimovna said pleasantly, raising one eyebrow at the view screen while she swirled ice gently in her martini glass. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I thought you'd like to know that we've just been notified that three Manticoran destroyers or light cruisers have entered the system. They're headed for New Tuscany right now. We expect them to reach parking orbit within the next three hours."

"Indeed?" Anisimovna allowed her eyes to narrow with exactly the correct degree of sudden speculation as she leaned forward to set her glass on the edge of the coffee table in front of her. "I hardly expected them so soon, Mr. Prime Minister. Are all of our...special assets in place?"

"We're getting plenty of emissions and other data off them from the new platforms," V'ezien assured her, although she suspected he was rather less confident than he chose to appear. "Minister of War P'elisard is in contact with Admiral Gu'edon right now. She says she's confident of capturing enough data for us to...massage however we have to for the Sollies' consumption. My only concern is having Byng right here in-system already." He shook his head and allowed a hint of concern to creep into his expression. "I wish he hadn't been in such a tearing hurry to get here!"

"I understand, Mr. Prime Minister." Anisimovna gave him a wry smile. "I never expected Commissioner Verrochio to respond so promptly to our first note, either. After all, Sollies never do things in a hurrythat's one of the things the rest of us dislike about them so much. Does Admiral Gu'edon expect to be able to work around them?"

"Probably." V'ezien puffed his cheeks for a moment. "NicholasI mean, Minister P'elisardseems to feel fairly confident of that, at any rate. But if the Sollies make a close comparison between the data their own sensors are undoubtedly recording right this minute and the 'incidents' we're going to be sending them shortly, they could very well spot the stuff we're recording right now when they see it again later."

"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that, Mr. Prime Minister." Anisimovna's smile turned wolflike. "Admiral Byng is sufficiently unfond of the Manties to overlook any inconvenient little problems, and Commissioner Verrochio and his staff are already primed to do exactly that, as well. All we need is something that's remotely plausible for anyone who doesn't have access to the data you're capturing at the moment."

"What do you make of them, Ingeborg?" Josef Byng asked, standing with his hands clasped behind him as he studied the enormous master plot on SLNS Jean Bart's flag bridge.

"Preliminary reports are still coming in, Sir," Captain Ingeborg Aberu, Byng's operations officer, replied. She looked up from her own console for a moment and grimaced as her eyes met Byng's, as if to ask what else could be expected from a combat information center manned by Frontier Fleet personnel.

"From what we have so far, though," she continued, "it looks like three light cruisers. They're headed in-system. We believe they've already burst-transmitted to the local government, but they haven't squawked their transponders, so we don't have any definitive IDs just yet. Under the circumstances, though, I don't think there's much doubt who they belong to, Sir."

"Ballsy of them, Admiral," Karlotte Thim'ar observed. Byng looked at her, and the chief of staff shrugged. "I mean bringing it straight to New Tuscany this way. That's a bit of an escalation from harassing the New Tuscans' shipping in someplace like this Pequod System."

"From 'harassing,' maybe, Karlotte," Byng replied. "But from firing on and destroying an unarmed merchantship going about her lawful business?" His jaw muscles tightened. No one in Meyers before his departure for New Tuscany, not even he, had dreamed the situation could have escalated that rapidly out here, or that even the Manties would be that blatant about their behavior, and he felt a fresh wave of righteous anger go through him. "I think what we're seeing here is a direct progression of the kind of crap they've been pulling all along," he continued. "I think they've decided to come turn the screws on the New Tuscan government in its own backyard!"

"Well, if that's what they're thinking, Sir," Commander Lennox Wysoki, Byng's intelligence officer, said with an evil chuckle, "they'll probably be really unhappy when they finally realize we're sitting right here in orbit!"

"I agree that it's unfortunate, Commodore," Amandine Corvisart said. "And I won't pretend I'm happy about it, eitherfor a lot of reasons. But I don't see how we can allow it to interfere with our mission. We certainly can't just turn around and go home as if the mere presence of Solarian warships scared us off!"

"I think the Ambassador's right, Sir," Commander John DesMoines,Roland's CO and Chatterjee's flag captain, said somberly, and Chatterjee snorted.

"Of course she is, Jack! First, because she's the Ambassador and we're the people who are supposed to be supporting her mission, which makes it her call. And, second, because I happen to agree with her. What I'm trying to do is to get a feel for how we want to handle it. Do we just ignore the Sollies? Pretend they aren't even here unless they decide to talk to us? Or do we treat this as a normal port call and follow the protocols for exchanges between friendly powers meeting in a neutral port?"

"I don't think there's any point being too disingenuous about it," Corvisart said after a moment. Chatterjee waggled one hand in a gesture which invited her to continue, and she shrugged. "There's no way this many Solarian warships would just happen to be parked in an out-of-the-way star system like New Tuscany unless they'd been invited. And the only thing that could have gotten them all the way here from the Madras Sector would have been a fairly urgent invitation. Something accompanied by a note about all of those nasty Manticoran depredations against innocent New Tuscan merchantships, for example. So I think we have to assume the Sollies aren't here by accident, that they're predisposed to be hostile to us, and that we'll have to put up with quite a bit of unpleasantness from them while we're here."

"Well, at least that won't be anything we don't have experience with!" Lori Olson's muttered comment was just low-voiced enough for Chatterjee to pretend he hadn't heard it. Not that he didn't agree with it wholeheartedly.

"On the other hand," Corvisart continued, "they're still at least technically neutral and impartial bystanders. Our business is with the New Tuscan government, not with the Solarian League Navy, and that's the way we ought to approach it. If the senior Solarian officer chooses to insert himself into the process, I'll have to deal with it as it occurs. But until and unless that happens, I'm going to ignore them completelyafter all, I'm a civilian here to deal with other civilianswhile you and your staff make the normal courtesies of one navy to another."

"My," Chatterjee said dryly. "Won't that be fun."

Several hours later, Commodore Chatterjee found himself still on Roland's flag bridge.

There were really two reasons for the Rolands' huge size compared to other destroyers. One was the fact that they were the only destroyers in the galaxy equipped to fire the Mark 16 dual-drive missile. Squeezing in that capabilityand giving them twelve tubeshad required a substantial modification to the Mod 9-c launcher mounted in the Saganami-C class. The Rolands' Mod 9-e was essentially the tube from the 9-c, but stripped of the support equipment normally associated with a standalone missile tube. Instead, a sextet of the new launchers were shoehorned together, combining the necessary supports for all six tubes in the cluster. Roland mounted one cluster each in her fore and aft hammerheads, the traditional locations for a ship's chase energy weapons. Given the Manticoran ability to fire off-bore, all twelve tubes could be brought to bear on any target, but it did make the class's weapons more vulnerable. A single hit could take out half of her total missile armament, which was scarcely something Chatterjee liked to think about. But destroyers had never been intended to take the kind of hammering wallers could take, anyway, and he was willing to accept Roland's vulnerabilities in return for her overwhelming advantage in missile combat.

The other reason for her size (aside from the need to squeeze in magazine space for her launchers) was that every member of the class had been fitted with flagship capability. The Royal Manticoran Navy had been caught short of suitable flagships for cruiser and destroyer service during the First Havenite War, and the Rolands were also an attempt to address that shortage. Big enough and tough enough to serve with light cruisers, and with a substantial long-range punch of their own, they were also supposed to be produced in sufficient numbers to provide plenty of flag decks this time around. They weren't anywhere near as big or opulently equipped as those of a battlecruiser or a waller, but they were big enough for the job and, even more important, they'd be there when they were needed.

Which was why Ray Chatterjee came to have such spacious comfort in which to sit while he stewed.

I didn't really expect this to go smoothly, he thought. I didn't expect it to be quite this complicated, either, though.

He could hardly say he was surprised the New Tuscans were stonewalling to avoid making any sort of meaningful response to the note Ambassador Corvisart had delivered. They could scarcely acknowledge the note's accuracy, after all, so he supposed simply refusing to accept it was their best move at the moment, although he was a little surprised they hadn't already appealed to the Sollies to intervene on their side, at least as a friendly neutral.

Probably means they don't have all of their falsified data in place yet, the commodore reflected. Even a prick like this Byng probably wouldn't be very amused if they handed him something too crude. I wonder if they even knew he was coming this soon?

Whatever the New Tuscans' attitude towards Amandine Corvisart might be, though, there was no question about Admiral Josef Byng's attitude towards the Star Empire of Manticore. The New Tuscans' senior traffic control officer had looked and sounded as if someone had inserted a broom handle into a certain orifice, in Chatterjee's opinion. He'd been just barely on the stiffly correct side of outright incivility, although Chatterjee hadn't been able to decide whether that was because he knew exactly what was going on and was part of it, or whether it was because he didn't know what was going on and genuinely believed his own government's horror stories about vicious Manticoran harassment. There hadn't been much doubt about what Byng believed, though.

"So long as the New Tuscan system government is prepared to tolerate your presence, 'Commodore,' " Byng had said, biting off each word is if it had been a shard of ice, "then so shall I. I will also do you the courtesyfor now, at leastof assuming that you, personally, have not been party to the gross abuse of New Tuscan neutral rights here in the Cluster. The Solarian League, however, does not look kindly upon the infringement of those neutral rights, and especially not upon the destruction of unarmed merchant vessels and their entire crews. I have no doubt you are under orders not to discuss these matters with me, 'Commodore,' and I will not press you on them at this time. Eventually, however, what's been happening out here will be...sufficiently clarified, shall we say, for my government to take an official position on it. I look forward to that day, at which time, perhaps, we will have that discussion after all. Good day, 'Commodore.' "

It had not been an exchangeif the icy, one-way tirade could be called an "exchange"designed to set Chatterjee's mind at ease. Nor was his mind particularly comforted by the Solarian battlecruisers' actions. None of them had their wedges or sidewalls up, but close visual observationand at a range of under five thousand kilometers it was possible to make a very close visual inspection, even without resorting to deployable reconnaissance platformsmade it evident that their energy batteries were manned. Sensors detected active radar and lidar, as well, which CIC identified as missile-defense fire control systems. Technically, that meant they were defensive systems, not offensive ones, but that was a meaningless distinction at this piddling range. Those battlecruisers knew exactly where every one of Chatterjee's ships were, and at this distance, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for them to miss.

Stop that, he told himself sternly. Byng is an asshole, but he's not a crazy asshole...I hope. And only someone who was crazy would start a war just because he's feeling pissed off. Corvisart is going to finish her discussions with V'ezien and Cardot one way or the other within the next day or so, at which point we can get the hell out of here. In the meantime, all we really need is for everyone on our side to stay cool. That's all we need.

He told himself that very firmly, and the reasoning part of his brain knew it was a logical, convincing analysis of the situation.

Still, he was just as happy he'd left Naomi Kaplan andTristram to watch his back.

"I'm liking this less and less by the minute, Skipper," Lieutenant Commander Alvin Tallman murmured.

"I suppose that's because you have a functional brain, Alvin," Naomi Kaplan replied, looking up at her executive officer. "I can't think of any other reason you wouldn't like it, at any rate."

Tallman's lips twitched in a brief smile, but it never touched his eyes, and Kaplan understood perfectly. The tension must be bad enough aboard the other three ships of the division, but in its own way, the tension aboardTristram was even worse, because Kaplan's ship was over ten light-minutes from New Tuscany. Thanks to the Ghost Rider platforms, they could see exactly what was happeningor, at the moment, not happeningin the volume immediately around the planet, even if the data and imagery was ten minutes old when they got it. Even with Mark 16s, though, there wasn't anything they could do about whatever might happen that far away, and their own safely insulating distance from the Solarian ships only made them feel perversely guilty over their helpless inviolability.

Kaplan glanced around her bridge, considering her watch officers thoughtfully. She'd had time to get to know them by now, although she still knew Abigail better than any of the othersincluding Tallman, for that matter. That was changing, though, and she'd become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, aware of the way those qualities must be blended together so that strength was reinforced and weakness was compensated for.

For example, there was O'Reilly's continuing, festering resentment of Abigail's position. She'd managed to keep it sufficiently in check that Kaplan and Tallman hadn't been forced to take official noticeor, at any rate, any additional official noticeof it, but she wasn't convinced things were going to stay that way. At the same time, she'd found that despite O'Reilly's unpleasant personality, she was actually quite good in her own specialty. It might have taken Tallman's kick in the pants to get her off her ass to prove it, but she'd turned the com department around quite nicely since. In fact, it irritated Kaplan that the lieutenant had managed it, although she recognized that it was rather foolish of her to want the other woman to be bad at her job just because she couldn't warm to her.

And then there were the others. Lieutenant Hosea Simpkins, her Grayson-born astrogator. Lieutenant Sherilyn Jeffers, her electronic warfare officer, as Manticoran and secular as anyone was ever likely to get who nonetheless had formed a smoothly functioning partnership with Abigail...unlike O'Reilly. Lieutenant Fonzarelli in Engineering, Chief Warrant Officer Zagorski, her logistics officer...They were like the strands of steel layered through one of those swords a Grayson swordsmith hammered out so patiently. They weren't perfect. In fact, they remained far short of that forever unattainable goal. But they were good, one of the best groups of ship's officers she'd ever served with. If she managed to screw up, it would be her fault, not theirs.

Now there's a cheerful way to look at things, Naomi, she told herself tartly. Any moredoom and gloom you'd like to rain on yourself this afternoon?

Her lips hovered briefly on the brink of a smile for a moment, but then she drew a deep breath and returned her attention to the silent, glittering data codes on her plot.

Lieutenant L'eopold Rochefort checked his chrono unobtrusively for no more than the five hundredth time since receiving the activation code and wished his palms didn't feel quite so damp.

This had all seemed very simple when it was first described to him. After all, Rochefort was one of the small handful of New Tuscan officers who knew what was actually going on, since his older brother was Admiral Gu'edon's senior communications officer. So he knew, whether he was supposed to or not, that what he'd been asked to do was only another facet of the master plan. The fact that someone was prepared to pay him so handsomely to do something which could only contribute to his own government's objectives was merely icing on the cake.

That was how it had seemed when he was originally recruited, at any rate. He'd discovered, however, that now that the moment was here, it no longer seemed quite so simple. He was operating outside the normal naval chain of command, after all, which meant there would be no official cover for him if he managed to screw this up. On the other hand, he was acting under the direct authority of Minister of Security Dusserre. That ought to give him at least some protection it things went wrong.

But they aren't going to go wrong, he told himself firmly...again. After all, how badly can I screw this up?

Remembering certain events in his career as a junior officer, he decided it would probably be better if he didn't dwell too deeply on that last question.

He looked away from his chrono, glancing around the compartment. Rochefort was an assistant communications officer aboard the space station Giselle, the primary communications and traffic control platform of the New Tuscany System, as well as a major industrial node in her own right. As the inspector from Security had explained to him, that meant Giselle was the logical place from which to insert the "Manticoran" worm into the system's astrogation computers. Rochefort had wondered why they'd chosen to use the com section rather than someone actually inside traffic control, but the nameless, anonymous inspector had explained it willingly enough. Obviously, for the Manties to be responsible for the attack on the computers, it had to come from outside. It had to be inserted into the system through a com channel, since the Manties would have had no physical access to the computers. So what would happen would be that Rochefort would send it from his station to a com satellite near the Manties' position and parking orbit, and the satellite would relay it back to Traffic Control, where it would faithfully attack the computers.

From Rochefort's perspective, it seemed like an unlikely thing for the Manties to do. Fortunately, perhaps, it wasn't his job to critique the strategy he'd been ordered to execute, and presumably those who were in charge of that strategy had come up with some way to make it seem like a logical move on the Manties' part.

And speaking of the Manties...

It was time, he realized, and reached out to punch the function key he'd set up weeks ago.

Unfortunately for Lieutenant Rochefort, he had never actually been approached by a member of the Ministry of Security. Or, rather, not by a current member of the Ministry of Security. The man who had passed himself off as a Security inspector had been an employee of Dusserre's ministry some years ago, but he'd been far better paid by Ambassador Metcalf and his new Mesan employers for the last couple of T-years.

Like Lieutenant Rochefort, the bogus inspector had wondered just how Manpower was going to convince anyone to accept that the Star Empire of Manticore had wasted its time trying to insert a worm into the traffic control computers of a third-rank star system like New Tuscany. Also like Lieutenant Rochefort, however, he had decided the answer to that particular question lay at a level well beyond even his current pay grade. So he'd passed on his instructions and provided the lieutenant with the necessary prerecorded transmission and the activation code which would tell him it was time for him to do his bit for New Tuscany's national interests.

Promptly after which, he had met with a fatal accident named Kyrillos Taliadoros and quietly and completely disappeared.

That meant there was no one who could possibly have tied Lieutenant Rochefort to Manpower or Mesa before he pressed that function key.

And no one could possibly tie the lieutenant to anyone after that, since the message he transmitted was actually the detonation command for the two-hundred-kiloton device hidden inside a cargo container a Jessyk Combine freighter had transshipped to Giselle a month before...and which was now stored in a cargo bay approximately one hundred and twelve meters forward and three hundred meters down from Lieutenant Rochefort's compartment.

Ray Chatterjee was sipping from a coffee mug when he heard an odd sound. It took him a moment to realize it was the sound of someone sucking in air for an explosive grunt of surprise, and he was turning towards the sound, his brain still trying to identify it, when he realized it had come from Lieutenant Commander Olson. Then her head came up, and she turned towards him.

"Sir! The space stationGiselleit's just blown up!"


Despite his own earlier thoughts, for just an instant, it completely failed to register and he simply stared at the ops officer. He'd been focused on the Solarian ships, worrying about the future, trying to figure out the past....None of that had prepared his mind for the possibility that a space station the better part of ten kilometers in length should just suddenly blow up.

His eyes whipped around to the visual display, and he froze as he saw the awesome spectacle. Sheer shock and disbelief held him there, staring at it, trying to wrap his mind around the unexpected enormity of it all. It was more than he could do as the seconds dragged past, but then, suddenly

"Communications!" he snapped. "Raise Admiral Byng immediately!"

"What the!"

Josef Byng was watching the visual display, not the tactical plot, at the moment Giselle blew up. The sudden eruption of light and fury that wiped away the forty-two thousand men and women aboard the space station took him totally by surprise. The view screen polarized instantly, protecting his eyes from the blinding flash, but it was so close, so powerful that he flinched back from it involuntarily.

"Sir!" Captain Aberu half-shouted. "Sir! The New Tuscan space station's just blown up!"

"The Manties!" Byng snapped, and whipped around to punch a priority key on his com. Captain Warden Mizawa,Jean Bart's commanding officer, appeared on his display almost instantly.

"Case Yellow, Captain! The Manties have just"

"Sir, I know the station's been destroyed," the captain said, speaking quickly and urgently, "but it was definitely a nuclear explosiona contact explosion; CIC sets the yield at at least two hundred kilotonsand not an energy weapon. But we didn't pick up any missile trace, so"

"Goddamn it, I just gave you a fucking order, Captain!" Byng snarled, absolutely infuriated that a mere Frontier Fleet captain would dare to interrupt him with arguments at a moment like this. "I don't care what you did or didn't pick up! We're sitting here bare-assed naked, without even sidewalls, and just who the hell else d'you think would have done something like this?"

"But, Sir, it couldn't've been a missile if we didn't detec"

"Don't you fucking argue with me!" Byng bellowed while panic pulsed through him. However the Manties had done it, they couldn't afford any witnesses, and with their wedges down even friggng destroyers could

"But, Sir, if they'd"

"Shut the hell up and execute your goddamned orders, Captain, or I swear to God I'll have you shot this very afternoon!"

For one fleeting moment, Warden Mizawa hovered on the brink of defiance. But then the moment passed.

"Yes, Sir," he grated. "Case Yellow, you said." He gave Byng one last, searing look, then turned away from the com to his own tactical officer.

"Open fire," he told Commander Ursula Zeiss harshly.

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