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Chapter Forty-Two

Helen Zilwicki was still getting accustomed to the notion that, as Commodore Terekhov's flag lieutenant, her duty station when the ship went to battle stations was no longer on the bridge or manning a weapons console somewhere. Instead, it was on Quentin Saint-James' flag bridge, with the commodore. It was a strange sensation, and one she didn't care for very much...probably because she didn't really have anything to do. Oh, she helped to maintain and update the log, or went to "run and find out" through the ship's data system if he needed some odd bit of fact one of his staff officers didn't already have at her fingertips, and she was always available if the commodore decided he needed to send her somewhere, but that wasn't the same thing at all. Nor was it supposed to be. It was another of those on-the-job-training aspects of her position, putting her inside the flag officer decision-making loop like an observant little fly on the bulkhead, and she had to admit she found that part of her flag lieutenant assignment fascinating. It was just that she felt as if she ought to be doing something, contributing something other than her mere presence when her ship needed her.

At least they'd finally managed to fill the holes in the commodore's staff, so the flag bridge didn't seem quite so empty anymore. Helen suspected that the commodore had actually picked out the officers he planned to "requisition" when he got to Spindle long before the squadron ever departed from Manticore. He'd seemed to know exactly who he wanted after they arrived, at any rate, and given his new relationship with Admiral Khumalo, it probably wasn't surprising that he'd gotten his choices, although not everyone had been delighted at the prospect of surrendering them to him.

They were a good bunch, Helen thought, and they'd shaken down well with the commodore andQuentin Saint-James' officers. She particularly liked Commander Stillwell Lewis, the new ops officer, who rejoiced in the nickname of "Stilt," and Lieutenant Commander Mateuz Odegaard, the staff intelligence officer. Commander Lewis was a tall, rangy redheadfrom Gryphon, like Helen herselfwho got along well with Commander Lynch, and Odegaard reminded Helen in some ways of her father. Physically, the slightly built, fair-haired Odegaard couldn't have been less like Anton Zilwicki, but both of them had the same implacably patient, unremitting, logical concentration on the task in hand. Both of them seemed to know that in the battle between stone and water, water always won.

The other newcomers were Lieutenant Commander Mazal Inbari, the astrogator, and Lieutenant Atalante Montella, the communications officer. Both of them were far more than merely competent, and Helen liked both of them, but she hadn't yet warmed to them the way she had to Stillwell and Odegaard.

At the moment, however, that thought was far from foremost in her mind as she sat very quietly at her own terminal and watched the master plot at the forward end of the flag bridge. It wasn't configured for tactical or astrographic mode at the moment. Instead, it was configured as a view screen, and Vice Admiral Michelle Henke looked back out of it at Helen.

In point of fact, Helen knew, Admiral Gold Peak's image was on every view screen aboard every ship of Tenth Fleet as it swept through hyper-space towards the system of New Tuscany at an apparent velocity three thousand times that of light.

"Attention all hands," the voice of Lieutenant Commander Edwards, the admiral's staff com officer said quietly. It was probably the most unnecessary announcement in the history of the Royal Manticoran Navy, a corner of Helen's mind thought, but ninety-nine percent of her attention was focused on Gold Peak's stony expression.

"People," the admiral said without further preamble, "by this time, I'm sure, all of you have a fairly accurate idea of the content ofTristram's report. For any of you who are still wondering, I can confirm that Roland, Lancelot, and Galahad have been destroyed by Frontier Fleet units of the Solarian League navy under the command of Admiral Josef Byng.Tristram had been detached to observe events in New Tuscany through her remote platforms, and we have detailed records of the destruction of all three vessels. They were attacked without warning or challenge, without wedges and with no time to raise sidewalls, at pointblank range, by the massed energy fire of seventeen Solarian battlecruisers and eight destroyers. At this time, we have no evidence of any survivors. We will continue to hope, and the recovery of any of our people will be our highest priority. It is highly unlikely, based on Tristram's data, however, that there will be anyone to recover."

She paused, and Helen felt her jaw muscles tighten as she pictured what it must've been like aboard Commodore Chatterjee's destroyers. Unlike almost anyone else in Quentin Saint-James' company, Helen had been aboard a vessel after it had been taken totally unawares by heavy energy fire at point-blank range. In fact, she'd been there twice, little more than a T-year ago. She didn't need to imagine the carnage as men and women suddenly found their ships ripped open to space without warning, without any time to prepare before the howling tornado of escaping atmosphere plunged them into the deathly embrace of vacuum. She knew exactly what it must have been like as the destroyers' crewmen were torn apart by splinters and fragments of their own ships' hulls, as they had fleeting instants to realize no one was going to reach a life pod in time.

There might have been a handful of survivors, people who'd found themselves trapped in pockets of life-sustaining atmosphere behind blast doors or emergency hatches, but there couldn't have been many. Not aboard ships murdered as Commodore Chatterjee's destroyers had been.

"At this moment," Vice Admiral Gold Peak continued in that same level, unflinching voice, "we have no idea what we will find in New Tuscany when we arrive. To the best of our knowledge, neither the New Tuscans nor the Solarians even realize Tristram was there, far less that we have detailed knowledge of everything that happened. Since they presumably don't know Tristram got away to tell us about it, it seems entirely possible that they won't be expecting this prompt a response from us. That, in fact, is the reason for all the rush to get underway. If they don't expect us, we want to arrive while they're still sitting there fat, dumb, and happy with their thumbs up their asses."

For the first time, the admiral showed some expressiona thin, hungry, somehow feral smile.

"We know what happened in the sense of what was destroyed and who actually fired at whom," she went on. "What we do not know is the why. There had been no communication between the Solarian battlecruisers and our destroyers for well over two hours before Admiral Byng opened fire. According to the take from Tristram's ELINT platforms,Roland was in the act of opening a communications link with one of the battlecruisers at the time she was destroyed. It does not appear the link was ever established or that the two vessels were in communication at the moment the Solarians opened fire.

"According to the analysts, there is at least a possibility that the Solarians were responding to a perceived attack."

Helen could physically feel the wave of incredulity which swept through the flag bridge's occupants at that statement, and she shared fully. Three destroyers attacking seventeen battlecruisers plus their screen? The very idea was absurd!

"I'm not suggesting that any competent fleet commander would fall prey to such a...misperception," Gold Peak continued as if she'd heard Helen's very thoughts. "We know, however, that one of the New Tuscans' major space stations was completely destroyed immediately before the Solarians opened fire. That destruction was the result of a nuclear explosion. Analysis of its emissions signature makes it very clear that the explosion resulted from a relatively low yield nuclear warhead, probably in the vicinity of two hundred kilotons. It was not some bizarre sort of 'industrial accident,' but rather a deliberate action on someone's part. It is conceivable that, given the state of tension between the Star Empire and New Tuscany, Admiral Byng leapt to the conclusion that Commodore Chatterjee was responsible for the station's destruction."

She let her listeners digest that for a few moments, let them work through the implications.

If it wasn't usand I know damned well it wasn't, Helen thoughtthen it had to be someone else. And if the Sollies thought it was us, then it obviously wasn't them. Which only leaves...

"Our best estimate is that the New Tuscan death toll from this disaster was somewhere between forty and fifty thousand," Gold Peak said softly. "We can't be positive whether or not there was any crew aboard theH'el`ene Blondeau whenshe mysteriously blew up in Pequod, but we know positively that the space station in New Tuscany was fully manned and in normal operation at the time of its destruction. Which means whoever was responsible deliberately killed all of those people.

"Our intelligence people believe there is a distinct possibility that someone is attempting to maneuver the Solarian League into a shooting war with the Star Empire. I'm sure I need not remind any of you about last year's efforts in Split, Montana, and Monica. This mayI stress, maybe more of the same.

"Despite that, there is one enormously significant difference between the events leading up to Commodore Terekhov's visit to Monica and our own visit to New Tuscany. This time, Manticoran warshipsQueen's shipshave been destroyed, ruthlessly and without warning, and the finger that pushed the buttonfor whatever reasonwas Solarian. What this means, People, is that we are now effectively at war with the Solarian League Navy."

The marrow of Helen's bones seemed to freeze, and for the first time since she'd been a thirteen-year-old trapped in the lightless tunnels under Old Chicago, she felt like a small, furry creature fleeing from a hexapuma's claws. The mere thought of the League's enormous size, of the literally endless fleets it could build and man, was enough to strike terror into the hardiest soul.

"Special Minister Bernardus Van Dort is with me here on the flagship as the direct personal representative of Prime Minister Alquezar, Baroness Medusa, and Her Majesty," Gold Peak resumed after another brief pause, "and a special diplomatic mission has been dispatched to the Meyers System withTristram's sensor records to demand an explanation from the Office of Frontier Security. Obviously, we continue to hope it may be possible to nip this confrontation with the League in the bud, but for that to happen the situation here in the Quadrant must be prevented from getting further out of hand, all evidence must be preserved, there must be a thorough investigation into these events, and there must be accountability.

"Because of those considerations, our instructionsmy instructionsare to proceed to New Tuscany. When we reach that star system, I have been instructed to demand that Admiral Byng stand down his ships, that the New Tuscan System government stand down its defenses, and that both of them cooperate fully with our investigation until such time as a Manticoran court of inquiry has determined what actually transpired in New Tuscany eleven days ago. Mr. Van Dort will represent the Star Empire, and it will be he who presents our demands to the New Tuscan government, but it is Her Majesty's Navy which will see to it that those demands are complied with."

She paused again, her dark-skinned face boulder-hard, gazing levelly out of the scores of view screens aboard the ships of her command for what seemed to be endless seconds. Then she continued in a voice of measured, inflexible steel.

"To be honest, I am far from confident that Admiral Byng will willingly accede to our demands. I will attempt to give him every opportunity to do so, but I'm sure many of you have had your own personal experience of how Solarians are likely to react to such demands from 'neobarbs.' Make no mistake about this, however, Peopleif he does not willingly comply with our demands, then we will compel him to do so. It is one thing to be reasonable; it is another thing entirely to be weak, and we must know what happened in New Tuscanyand who was responsible for itif we are to have any hope at all of controlling this situation. Neither Baroness Medusa, nor Admiral Khumalo, nor Prime Minister Alquezar, nor Mr. Van Dort, nor I want a war against the Solarian League. But unless we can stop it here, stop it now, the first shots in that war have already been fired, and our orders are to act accordingly."

"We've just received another dispatch from New Tuscany, Valery," Hongbo Junyan said. "Something about a ship blowing up in Pequod."

"Really?" Valery Ottweiler's expression of courteous surprise could not have been bettered by the most experienced professional actor, and he raised one eyebrow as he gazed at the com display. "And when did this event take place?"

"Almost exactly six T-weeks ago," Hongbo replied, his own eyes narrow.

"I did tell you my dispatches from home indicated that fresh instructions have been sent to New Tuscany, as well," Ottweiler pointed out.

"Yes, you did," Hongbo acknowledged slowly. There were aspects of Manpower's apparent ability to coordinate message traffic over long distances that were beginning to puzzle the vice-commissioner. At the moment, however, he had other things to worry about.

"Lorcan is going to want a recommendation from me," he pointed out, and Ottweiler shrugged.

"I think it's fairly obvious that the situation is getting steadily uglier," he said. "If I were Commissioner Verrochio, I think I'd want to be certain I had an adequate force available if something untoward should happen while Admiral Byng is away."

"And you think you might find this 'adequate force' someplace like, say, McIntosh?"

"Actually, under the circumstances, I think that's exactly where I'd look first, Junyan," Ottweiler agreed. "Although it would probably be better to move it even closer sometime soon."

"I thought that might be your view." Hongbo smiled thinly. "Well, as always, it's been a pleasure talking to you, Valery. Thanks for the advice."

"Anytime, Junyan," Ottweiler said, reaching for the button to terminate the conversation. "Anytime at all."

"So they still don't have any better explanation at all, Karlotte?"

Admiral Josef Byng never turned away from the old-fashioned armorplast viewport on Jean Bart's observation deck. His hands were clasped behind him as he gazed out into the volume of space which had once contained a space station named Giselle...and three Manticoran destroyers.

"No, Sir," Rear Admiral Thim'ar admitted, looking at the admiral's back and wondering what thoughts were going through his mind.

"And may I assume Captain Mizawa remains his uncooperative self?"

"Well, as to that, Sir, I"

"Please, Karlotte!" Byng shook his head, still gazing out into space. "I doubt there are any bugs or listening devices here. So, let me ask it more directly. May I assume Captain Mizawa continues to deny access to the originals of his bridge logs?"

"Yes, Sir," Thim'ar admitted unhappily. "He's made it clear he's willing to provide us with certified copies of the logs, but not the originals."

"I see."

Byng's mind worked busily as he continued his study of the silent stars. He felt certain there was no more doubt in Thim'ar's mind than in his own that Captain Mizawa was doing more than simply covering his own ass in time-honored fashion. Despite the astronomical difference in their ranks, and despite the fact that Mizawa was only Frontier Fleet, while Byng was Battle Fleet, the captain wasn't even bothering to disguise his contempt. And in addition to the bridge logs, there was also the matter of those memos by that gutless little Lieutenant...Askew, was that the name? If Captain Mizawa was actually building up a file to be used against Byng, he probably saw those as additional logs on the fire. They were nonsense, of course, as both Karlotte and Ingeborg had amply demonstrated, but the fact that Byng had dismissed them so summarily as a classic example of GIGO might be construed as additional evidence of...hastiness on his part. Of a certain tendency to dismiss other viewpoints and advice, even from his flag captain, out of hand. Possibly even as evidence that he routinely acted before thinking.

Given what had happened here in New Tuscanyand howthat could be unfortunate, in many ways...unless it ended up being even more unfortunate for Captain Mizawa first, of course. That was one of the things friends in high places were good for.

Unfortunately, there was the matter of those bridge logs, and Byng cursed his own impetuousness. He had reacted too quickly this timehe admitted it, privately, at leastand Mizawa intended to hang him for it. The captain actually had the recording of his own voice telling Byng they'd detected no missile trace. Unless something happened to that recordingand according to Ingeborg, the captain clearly recognized that his ship's information systems were...less secure than he'd once thought and taken precautions accordinglythat was going to be a difficult point to tidy up in the report by the inevitable board of inquiry. Under the circumstances, given the mounting tension between New Tuscany and the Star Empire of Manticore, no reasonable board of experienced naval officers could possibly question Byng's overriding responsibility to ensure the security of his own command by neutralizing the threat those three Manticoran light cruisers had represented. The sudden, total destruction of a major space station, obviously as a consequence of hostile attack, had left him no choice but to act as he had. Any board would recognize that!

Unless some bleeding heart, or some Manty apologist, got his hands on a recording of Byng's own flag captain questioning whether or not it had been the consequence of a hostile attack at all before the order to fire was ever given.

I never should have kept him on after they gave me the task force, Byng thought darkly.I should've beached him, gotten myself a reliable Battle Fleet captain to take his place. Someone whose competenceand loyaltyI could have relied on. The bastard's resented having someone from Battle Fleet brought in from the very beginning. He's been waiting to stick a dagger in my back all alongthat's what those damned memos by what's-his-name were reallyall aboutand now the frigging Manties and the New Tuscans have handed him the knife!

He realized his jaw muscles were squeezing too tightly when his teeth began to ache again, and he forced himself to relax. Or to come as close to it as he could, at any rate. And, as he did, he wondered yet again just what the hell really had happened. He'd already written the rough draft of his official report, explaining what had to have happened, but that wasn't the same thing as what had actually happened.

Much as he'd come to hate Warden Mizawa, he'd been forced to admit that the flag captain had made at least one valid point. Whatever had happened toGiselle, the damage hadn't been inflicted by a warship's broadside energy weapons, nor had it been inflicted by a laser head. It had been an old-fashioned, contact nuke, and there was absolutely no indication of how it had been delivered to the station.

Mizawa, Byng knew, inclined to the theory that it had been an act of sabotage. The reason, according to him, that no one had been able to detect or track the delivery vector was that it had probably been hidden in a cargo container somewhere and smuggled aboard for either timed or command detonation.

Byng could follow his reasoning, but even Mizawa had no explanation for who might have done the smuggling, or why. Byng had no doubt that the New Tuscans might well have exaggerated the provocation the Manties had been offering. If he'd had to deal with those arrogant, neobarb pricks the way the New Tuscans had, he wouldn't exactly have wasted any effort trying to find the fairest possible light in which to view their actions when he reported them to someone else, either. But exaggerating things was a far cry from blowing things up, and he simply couldn't conceive of a planetary government which would be willing to murder forty-two thousand of its own citizens just to blacken the reputation of the other side in a trade war. He'd seen some cold, calculating cynicism in his time, but that was too much.

Yet if it hadn't been the New Tuscans themselves, who had it been? That was the question he couldn't answer...unless, of course, it had been the Manties all along. There was no reason why they couldn't have chosen to smuggle the warhead aboard. For that matter, the space station had been a completely non-evading target, with neither sidewalls nor an impeller wedge to protect it. They could have launched a small, purely ballistic missile at any point during their approach to the planet. If it had come in without power, with no impeller signature to give it away, it could easily have struck the space station without anyoneincluding the oh-so-perfect Captain Mizawa's ham-fisted sensor techspicking it up at all. For that matter, anyone in the entire star system could have done the same thing!

Assuming they had a motive, at any rate.

He shook himself. This was accomplishing nothing, and he couldn't afford to accomplish nothing. If he wanted to preserve his own careerand to get to the bottom of what had really happened, while he was at ithe was going to have to figure out some way to turn the screws on Mizawa. Either that, or at least convince the New Tuscans to give him whatever domestic terrorist group might have been responsible for smuggling a weapon aboard the space station or launching his hypothetical ballistic missile.

Personally, he preferred the notion of squeezing Mizawa. An intense, mutual, and profound hatred would have been reason enough, he supposed, but there was also the precedent to be considered. Frontier Fleet captains could not be encouraged to go around screwing over Battle Fleet admirals. Even more importantly, however, if not for that whole inconvenient business about the failure to detect missile traces or weapons fire from the Manties, there was no doubt in his mind about how the conclusions of the board of inquiry would have been shaped. The best interests of the service would have played a part, of course, as would the natural desire of a panel of senior flag officers to protect the reputation and good name of a brother officer against undeserved slander and accusations. But most importantly of all, even if the Manties hadn't actually fired the missile or planted the smuggled nuke, all of this was still their fault. They were the ones who'd been systematically harassing the New Tuscans after extending their infernal, meddling interference with free trade into yet another volume of space where they had no legitimate business. If it hadn't been for the confrontation between their so-called Star Empire and New Tuscany, Commissioner Verrochio would never have suggested Byng's visit to New Tuscany, which would have deprived the perpetrators of this heinous act (whoever they were) of the charged circumstances which had led Byng to engage the Manticorans. So, ultimately, they were the ones to blame for what had happened to them.

He simply had to find a way to make that self-evident fact clear to people who hadn't been here at the time.

"All right, Karlotte," he said, still looking out through the viewport, "I think we may have to take the offensive with Prime Minister V'ezien and Mr. Dusserre. I don't want to make it an official confrontation or sound like I'm issuing any ultimatums, so what I want you to do is to contact Mr. Dusserre. Do it yourself. And when you do, tell himas one chief of staff to another, as it werethat you think I'm getting impatient. Remind them of how important to New Tuscany the Navy's and OFS' friendship really is, and then ask them if they don't have some local batch of dissidents who might have deliberately set out to provoke what happened by sabotaging the space station."

"Yes, Sir," Thim'ar said, but her unhappiness was evident, and Byng snorted.

"I don't say it's the ideal solution, Karlotte. And we need to go on working on Mizawa, as well. I'm sure we can finally find a suitable crowbar if we just keep looking long enough. But if it turns out that we can't get him to see the light, we're going to need a fallback position."

"Understood, Sir," Rear Admiral Thim'ar said.

Maitland Askew sat in his cramped, cubbyhole of a cabin aboard SLNS Restitution and worried. He'd been doing a lot of that over the last two or three weeks.

His exile to Restitution had been just as unpleasant as he'd anticipated. Admiral Sigbee had been distantly kind to him, although she'd also managed to make it clear (without saying so in so many words) that while she was prepared to do an old friend like Captain Mizawa a favor, she had no desire to get caught in the crossfire of any disputes between Mizawa and a Battle Fleet admiral. Askew wasn't even certain if she'd seen either of the memos he'd produced. He rather doubted that she would have told him, even if she had.

As far as the other officers on her staffor assigned to Restitution's ship's companywere concerned, he must have screwed up in some truly monumental fashion to have been so summarily reassigned to his present duties. Captain Breshnikov, Restitution's CO, appeared to share that view of things, as well. That hurt, since Askew was aware that Adolf Breshnikov and Captain Mizawa had been friends for many years. Although Breshnikov hadn't gone out of his way to personally step on Askew, it was apparent that he took a particularly dim view of an officer who could so thoroughly have pissed off someone like Mizawa as to be kicked off of Mizawa's ship.

Yet bad as all that was, it wasn't the worst. No, the worst was the fact that he was the only person aboard Restitution who knew that the idiot wearing an admiral's uniformthe one who'd murdered the entire companies of three Manticoran destroyers in a fit of unreasoning panicnot only didn't know but didn't want to know just how nasty a surprise the Manties might have for him when they came sailing over the hyper limit with blood in their eyes.

"I'm telling you, Max, it was that crazy bitch Anisimovna!"

"Calm down, Damien!" Prime Minister V'ezien said sharply.

" 'Calmdown?' " Damien Dusserre repeated incredulously. "I'm telling you that our so-called good friend and ally killed forty-two thousand-plus of our citizens, including President Boutin's second cousin, and you're telling me to 'calm down'?"

"Yes," V'ezien said flatly. "And stop pacing around like some kind of wild animal and sit down, too," he added.

Dusserre stared at him for a moment, then obeyed, settling into an armchair. Actually, he settled onto it, and he seemed to be crouched there, ready to launch himself back to his feet on an instant's notice.

"Now," V'ezien said, "take a deep breath, count to fifty, and tell me if you really want me to inform Admiral Byng that the Manpower operative we've been using to maneuver the Solarian League into attacking the Manticoranswhich, I might add, he's just finished doingwas responsible for blowing upGiselle and getting him to do it in the first place?"

Dusserre glowered and opened his mouth, but then he closed it again, and the Prime Minister nodded.

"That's what I thought."

"Maybe telling Byng about Anisimovna isn't the best idea in the entire galaxy," Dusserre said stubbornly, "but sooner or later we're going to have to tell him and the newsiessomething, Max."

"Of course we are...sooner or later. But in the meantime, there are a couple of things I'd like you to consider. First, are you any closer to demonstrating how Anisimovnaor anyone elsemight have done it?"

"No," Dusserre growled. "We're still looking, but however she did it, and whatever conduit she used for it, it's buried deep. Really deep. To be honest, given that we haven't found anything more than we have in the first ten days, I don't think we'll ever be able to prove any of it."

"All right, that brings me to my second point. Can you think of anyone besides Anisimovna who might have done it?"

"No," Dusserre said again, but there was less certainty in his tone this time, and V'ezien chuckled harshly.

"No?" the Prime Minister shook his head. "Weren't you the one in here just a few months ago presenting that beautifully detailed briefing on our home grown 'liberation fronts' and general insurrectionary lunatics?"

"Yes, but"

"Ah-ah!" V'ezien waved an admonishing index finger. "I'm simply making the point that there are possible suspects other than Ms. Anisimovna. And, to be honest, the fact that you had all of her communications links tapped both before and during the Manties' visit actually gives her a better alibi."

"Maybe it does, but that still doesn't change the fact that I'm positive, and so are a solid majority of my top analysts, that she and Manpower did it to force exactly the response she actually got out of that idiot Byng."

"To be completely honest with you, I'm inclined to the same conclusion," V'ezien admitted finally, his expression bleak.

"What?" Dusserre blinked at him, then shook himself angrily. "If that's what you think, then why the hell have you been putting me through this whole dog and pony show for the last three weeks?!"

"Because it doesn't matter," V'ezien said heavily. Dusserre looked at him in disbelief, and the Prime Minister shrugged.

"Look, Damien," he said. "We can't bring back the people who are dead, and we can't undo the destruction of those three Manty warships. Those are the two ugly points we're stuck with and can't change, however hard we try. So whatever we do from this point on, it has to take those two things as givens.

"Now, we can push for a big, fancy investigation if we want to. In the end, it's going to have to conclude one of two things, though. EitherGiselle was blown up by 'parties unknown,' who we still haven't been able to identify, or else it was blown up on Anisimovna's orders. If we name some domestic group as the culprits, then we're also admitting a bunch of our home grown lunatics managed to blow up an entire space station and kill the next best thing to fifty thousand New Tuscans. Do you really want to give the lunatic fringe that kind of encouragement? Personally, I'd just as soon not have our own Nordbrandt running around blowing the planet up.

"But if we conclude it was Anisimovna, and if we go public with that, then we have to explain just why she might have wanted to do such a thing. I don't think we'd have a lot of success painting her as some sort of psychotic serial mass murderer who simply picked New Tuscany at random as the place to slaughter her next few thousand victims. In fact, the most likely scenario I can come up with would be that we wind up blowing the whistle on ourselves, expose all the sordid little details of our agreement with her and with Manpower, and end up becoming at least indirectly responsible for all of those deaths in the public's eye. And in Manticore's eyes, as well. Somehow, I don't think that would be conducive to domestic tranquility, either, and you know as well as I do what the standard Manty response to attacks on Manticoran warships has been for the last T-century. I don't think a visit from a squadron or two of Manty wallers would do a whole lot to help our system infrastructure recover from Giselle's loss, and it for damned sure wouldn't do anything for your career, or mine."

"So what are you suggesting, instead?" Dusserre was watching the Prime Minister very closely. He was pretty sure he already knew exactly where V'ezien was going with this, but some things had to be explicitly spoken.

"I'm suggesting that from our perspective the best possible explanation is still that the Manties did it. We take the readings we got from the sensor platforms on their way in, and we go ahead and massage them to show a possible missile trace from one of the Manties to the station. We were already planning something along those lines, anyway; now we've got no choice but to go ahead and do it right here. You can be pissed off at Anisimovna all you want. In fact, I'll help you be pissed off at her, and if the opportunity should arise a few years down the road, I'd be entirely in favor of your Ministry terminating her with as much prejudice as humanly possible. At the moment, though, she's got the only life pod in sight. We've got Byng sitting right here in the system, and he's got a strong vested interest in the Manties' having been responsible for what happened to Giselle, as well. We work on himsubtly, of courseto make sure we're all still on the same page and he's ready to sign off on our Manty missile trace, and then we announce our findings that the Manties were, in fact, responsible. At that point, the entire plan is back on schedule."

Dusserre looked like a man who'd bitten into one of his favorite fruits, only to discover half a worm. He opened his mouth, obviously to protest, then closed it again.

"And if Manpower screws us over again somewhere down the road?" he asked sourly.

"Then we get screwed again. But at least this time we'll be looking for it, and I don't know about you, but considering the alternatives, my willingness to consider possible screwings by our Mesan friends just got enormously expanded. On the other hand, if we get Byng on board and the League comes in like it's supposed to, gives them what they've wanted out of this all along, I honestly don't see any reason for them to shaft us again."

Dusserre sat and chewed on that for a while, and the Prime Minister found himself wondering how much of the Security Minister's frustrated anger stemmed from the fact that they'd been out-thought (or at least out-betrayed) by Manpower, and how much stemmed from the massive loss of life aboard Giselle.

Personally, V'ezien wanted nothing more than to strangle Anisimovna with his bare hands. He'd never signed on to have his own citizens slaughtered for mere political window dressing or to force the Sollies' hand, and he'd been dead serious about having her killed later. Indeed, he was rather looking forward to it as a simple act of justice. Yet at the moment, she had them well and truly over the proverbial barrel. They were almost certain they knew who'd done it, yet they couldn't charge her with the mass murder without disastrous political and military consequences, both domestic and foreign.

"I don't like it," Dusserre said finally, almost conversationally, admitting defeat, and V'ezien barked a laugh.

"You don't like it? How d'you think I feel about it? If you'll recall, Nicholas and I were Anisimovna's strongest supporters in the Cabinet when she first brought this idea to us. I'll bet you she was thinking about doing something like this if it seemed advisable from the very beginning, and I never even noticed. Trust me, there's nothing I'd like better than to shoot the bitch myself, or just 'disappear' her into one of the reeducation camps up north and let her rot there for a decade or three. But we can't. Right this minute, she's got us by the short and curlies, and there's nothing we can do about it without making matters even worse."

Chapter Forty-One | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Forty-Three