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Chapter Forty-Three

Aldona Anisimovna reclined in a comfortable chair, eyes closed, while haunting strains of music filled the small, luxuriously appointed compartment. She didn't simply listen to the music; she absorbed it, as if all the skin on her body were one enormous receptor.

It was odd, a corner of her mind reflected dreamily. Of all the composers in the entire galaxy, it was a Manticoran who was her favorite. A Sphinxian, in fact. She'd never really understood why Hammerwell's skeins of melody spoke to her so strongly, yet they did, and there were times she needed that. Needed to let herself simply float upon the music, to empty herself of thoughts, of schemes and plans.

Of guilt.

Don't be silly, the part of her which hadn't been filled with woodwinds and the subtle interplay of brasses and strings scolded yet again. You're here as part of a strategy to provoke a war that's going to kill millionsprobably billionsand you're agonizing over killing forty thousand people? You're coming a little late to that particular party, aren't you, Aldona? It certainly didn't seem to bother you very much during the planning stages.

No, it hadn't. But that had been when she was considering it as an abstract strategy, part of a carefully crafted piece of superlative manipulation, of the grand design which was going to have the greatest, most powerful political entity in the history of mankind dancing to the Mesan Alignment's piping. From that perspective, it had been...exciting. Enthralling. The sheer intoxication of playing the Great Game at such stratospheric heights and for such unimaginable stakes was like some powerful drug. There was a compulsion to it, a sense of reaching out near-godlike hands to take the entire universe by the throat and force it to do her bidding.

No wonder Albrecht is so fascinated with ancient mythology, she thought. I know he says it's to remind him of how many blunders all those ancient gods made because they were so convinced of their own power and so jealous of their own prerogatives. So petty and capricious. So unwilling to work together. Given what we're trying to accomplish, I suppose he's right, we really do need to remember the dangers of convincing ourselves that we're gods. I'm sure all of that's true...but it's really about Prometheus for him. About daring to steal the forbidden fire, to raise his handour handagainst all the established power of the galaxy and make it change.

Seen on that scale, the men, women, and children who had died aboard Giselle were literally insignificant. Such a small casualty total would be lost to the simple rounding process when the statisticians began counting up the cost of the Alignment's magnificent vision.

But that would only be after the Alignment had won, and this was now. This was when those deaths were fresh and immediate...and hers. Not a consequence of one of her strategies at a dozen removes, but deaths which she had personally ordered, personally contrived. It wasn't a Nordbrandt being provided with weapons through deniable cutouts and conduits. It was Aldona Anisimovna personally giving the order.

She'd get over it. She already knew that, although a part of her wanted to pretend she didn't. Pretend there truly was some inner core of innocence that would resist the next time something like this came along. But she knew herself too well to fool herself for long, and so she didn't even try. She simply sat back in her chair aboard the palatially furnished, streak drive-equipped "yacht" which had delivered her to New Tuscany, and let the music fill her.

"This just keeps getting better and better," Lorcan Verrochio said moodily.

He sat with his elbows on the balcony table, looking out across Pine Mountain. A half-drained beer stein sat in front of him, accompanied by the remnants of a Reuben sandwich, an order of fries, and a tossed salad. Hongbo Junyan had just arrived, but he'd already eaten lunch, and he sat nursing a glass of iced tea.

"It's not exactly as if this should be coming as a great surprise, Lorcan," the vice-commissioner pointed out. "Something like this happening at a...convenient moment's been an inherent underpinning of everything we've done so far."

Verrochio gave him a moderately dirty look, but Hongbo only shrugged. Discussing something like this on an open balcony, without the protection of the anti-snooping systems installed in Verrochio's office, might constitute a moderate security risk. Unless the wheels came off, though, that wouldn't matter; and if the wheels did come off, there was already so much incriminating crap lying around in various files for any moderately competent investigator to dig up that any recordings of this conversation weren't going to matter.

Verrochio continued to eye him disapprovingly for several seconds, then seemed to think better of it himself, and reached for his beer. He took another healthy swallow, set the stein back on the table, and regarded Hongbo a touch less sourly.

"How much of this exploding freighter do you think is real?" he asked.

"About as much as you do," Hongbo returned with a humorless grin.

"That's what I thought you thought." Verrochio grimaced. "You know, this all seemed like a much better idea when this kind of crap was still somewhere off in the future."

"Whatever happens from here on out, our hands are clean." Hongbo gestured with his glass of tea. "Byng is off safely in someone else's hands, and all we have to do at this point is respond to whatever requests he makes. After all, he's the man on the scene now, isn't he? And he's a full admiral in Battle Fleet, as well. Given his attitude, I don't think Anisimovna will find it particularly difficult to manipulate him into committing the actions and making the reinforcement requests she wants. All we have to do is give him what he asks for, then stand back while the Manties take the fall."

"So you think it's Anisimovna out in New Tuscany?"

"No one's specifically said so," Hongbo admitted, "but I imagine it is. She certainly seemed more than enough hands-on where Monica was concerned, and if I were looking for someone to send, I'd probably pick someone who was reasonably familiar with the Cluster."

"Your friend Ottweiler hasn't said one way or the other?"

"You know him as well as I do, Lorcan," Hongbo said mildly, if not entirely accurately. "And I already said no one has specifically confirmed that she's handling the other end of this. I'd just be surprised if she wasn't. Although I suppose it could be Bardasano."

"And aren't they a pair," Verrochio muttered, then managed a rather off-center smile. "They played me like a violin before Monica. I guess I should go ahead and admit that much. So if one of themor even both of them, God help us all!is the other end of this operation, I imagine you're right about Byng's doing whatever they want him to. Which means we ought to be thinking about what we're likely to need to do, I guess."

"I've already been thinking about that, as a matter of fact," Hongbo said, without mentioning the fact that a lot of his thoughts on the subject had centered around Valery Ottweiler's directives. "It seems to me that the most reasonable thing for us to do, from all perspectives, is to pass this message along to McIntosh for Admiral Crandall's information. She's not remotely under your command, of course, but given the fact that Admiral Byng has already headed off for New Tuscanyon his own authority, of course, although as the local Frontier Security governor you obviously agreed that we ought to defer to his judgmentit would be only prudent and courteous of you to inform another Battle Fleet officer who just happens to be in the vicinity about his movements and the continuing deterioration of Manticoran-New Tuscan relations."

"And what do you think she'll do when we pass along this little tidbit?"

"That depends on her, I suppose," Hongbo said. And on what herinstructions from Manpower might be, he very carefully did not say out loud. "It's remotely possible she might head off immediately for New Tuscany herself, although I don't really see it as at all likely. You want my best guess?"

"That's the reason I asked the question," Verrochio said just a bit sarcastically.

"Well, I think her most likely course of action would be to move her command from McIntosh to Meyers. We don't have the facilities to support her task force here, but we're no worse off in that regard than McIntosh is, and the whole reason for her deployment is supposed to be a test of the Navy's ability to sustain itself without local support. And this is our administrative hub for the area, so she could rely on the best communications here. This is where any fresh messages from Byng would be directed, and it's where Admiral Nelson is supposed to hold the rest of Byng's battlecruisers. Bearing all of that in mind, I can't really see any other logical location for her."

"Wonderful." Verrochio drank some more beer, then twitched his shoulders. "I'm beginning to feel decidedly excess to requirements, but I suppose you're right. Go ahead and have the communications center relay the information to her."

"Any last-minute thoughts, anyone?" Michelle Henke asked quietly, looking around the cool, quiet, dimly lit expanse of HMS Artemis' flag deck. "Any last-minute suggestions?"

Cynthia Lecter did her own once-over examination of the rest of the staff, one eyebrow raised, then turned back to Michelle and shook her head.

"No, Ma'am," she said for all of them, and Michelle nodded.

She hadn't really expected any, although that hadn't kept her from spending last night fretting and worrying on her own. She'd often wondered how Honor could appear so calm just before some enormously important operation kicked off. Michelle had done her own worrying before each of Eighth Fleet's rear-area attacks, but she'd always been one of the subordinate commanders. And that, she realized now, was another of the reasons she'd resisted playing the patronage game to reach flag rank sooner. Her hatred for that sort of nepotism really had been the major component of her resistance, but she knew now that there'd been another factor, as well. One that was almostbut not quiteits own form of cowardice.

Michelle Henke admired Honor Harrington enormously, but she wasn't Honor, and she knew it. She knew hers was in many ways a less complex personality, and she'd never been plagued by the soul-searching that was so much a part of Honor. When it came down to it, she'd always been more...direct. More black-and-white, less inclined to empathize with an enemy or agonize over the consequences to an enemy. She was comfortable with the notion of "us" and "them," and she didn't like ambiguities that could cloud and confuse her decisions.

As a captain, or even a junior flag officer, that had worked just fine for her. She'd been concerned only with the part her ship or her squadron was supposed to play in an operation planned by, coordinated by, and the ultimate responsibility of someone else. But that wasn't true this time. No, this time that ultimate responsibility was hers and hers alone, and this time, despite the relatively small size of the forces involved, the stakes were probablyno, certainlyas high as any for which Honor had ever played.

Be honest, girl, she told herself tartly. That's what's really scaring the crap out of you. You're not afraid of getting killed. Well, not terrified of it, at any rate. What you're really afraid of is that you personallyyou, Michelle Henke, not just the Royal Navyare going to screw this one up. That this isn't really the right job for a woman who'd rather kill them all and let God sort them out, no matter how much an asshole like Byng deserves it. That the Star Kingdom is going to find itself fighting for its life against the Solarian League because the wrong woman was in the wrong spot and you screwed the pooch.

Yes, that's exactly what I'm scared of, she replied to herself,and no wonder! I signed on to chase pirates, to fight battles, to defend my star nation. I never expected to have something like this dumped on my shoulders!

Well, you've got it now, the first voice told her, even more tartly. Last time I looked, it came with that black beret sitting on your head. So unless you want to admit this is all to much for itty-bitty you and give the nice hat back, I guess all you can really do is suck it up and get to it. And while you're at it, let's at least try to keep the body count within limits, shall we?

"Well, in that case, seeing as how no one seems to have spotted any t's we've left uncrossed or any i's we've left undotted," the Countess of Gold Peak said calmly, "I suppose we'd best be about it."

For the first time in his naval career, Josef Byng made his appearance on his flag bridge without his uniform tunic. He felt acutely out of place in just his shirt sleeves, but that thought was distant and unimportant as he came through the flag deck door at something just short of a run and slid to a halt, staring at the master plot.

Karlotte Thim'ar and Ingeborg Aberu were bent over the more detailed information CIC was channeling to the operations officer's console. The rest of Byng's staff was also present, aside from Captain Vladislava Jenkins, his logistics officer. Jenkins was aboard SLNSResourceful, where she'd gone to confer with Captain Sharon Yang about some problems with the battlecruiser's spares.

"What do we have on them?" he asked, eyes locked to the icons sweeping inward from the system's hyper limit.

"Not very much yet, Sir," Aberu acknowledged more than a bit unhappily, straightening and turning to face him. "All we really know is that we've got nineteen point sources. It looks like five of them are considerably smaller than the othersprobably destroyers or light cruisers. We're tracking their impeller signatures now, Sir, and I'm assuming that the larger contacts are probably battlecruisers. Under the circumstances, I think we have to assume they're Manties."

Byng nodded almost absently, but Aberu wasn't quite through. She cleared her throat quietly to attract his attention.

"Their current velocity relative to the primary is approximately six thousand KPS, Sir," she said when she knew she had his attention. "But their acceleration is right on six KPS squared."

"What was that acceleration?" he asked sharply.

"Six KPS squared, Sir," Aberu said even more unhappily. "That's one-point-three KPS more than they showed us at Monica. Call it a twenty-eight percent difference."

"They must be running at maximum military power, Sir," Thim'ar said, and Byng turned sharply to look at her. "That's over six hundred gravities," the chief of staff continued. "They've got to be redlining their compensators to crank that much accel!"

Byng only looked at her for several seconds, then he nodded. She had to be right. He couldn't think of any reason for the Manties to have gone to their maximum possible acceleration, with the attendant risk of someone's suffering compensator failure and the death of every man and woman aboard the ship involved. But a Solarian ship of that tonnage would have a maximum acceleration of less than four hundred and fifty gravities. For that matter, his own ships' maximum acceleration was less than four hundred and ninety gravities, despite the fact that they were less than half as massive. And if the Manties hadn't maxed out their compensators, if they had still more acceleration in reserve...

The ghost of that insufferable little lieutenant's ridiculous memos flickered through the back of his mind for just an instant, but he shook it off irritably to concentrate on the concrete details that mattered.

"Well, it seems they're a little faster than we thought," he observed as calmly as possible, and returned his attention to Aberu. "And what travel agenda do you project for our speedy friends, Ingeborg?"

"On their current heading and at that acceleration rate, assuming a zero-zero intercept with New Tuscany, they'll be here in about two hours and fifty-five minutes, Sir. That's about all we've got."

"I see." Byng nodded again, commanding his expression to be merely thoughtful, then glanced at his communications officer.

"How long until we could hear something from them, Willard?"

"They made translation just over six minutes ago, Sir," Captain MaCuill replied. "Current range is ten-point-six light-minutes, so it's going to be another three or four minutes, minimum."

"I see."

Byng folded his hands behind him and made himself take a deep, calming breath. Like Aberu, there wasn't much question in his mind as to who those icons belonged to, although he couldn't imagine what they were doing here this quickly. And, he admitted very privately, the acceleration they were displaying was...worrisome. It implied that they truly could have other surprises in store, and he didn't care for that possibility at all.

Especially, a tiny voice whispered,not if it gives Mizawa any more ammunition.

He shoved that thought aside, although it wasn't as easy as he would have liked it to be, and refocused his attention on the problem at hand. Even if they were Manties, there was no reason for all this unseemly haste on his own part, he told himself severely, suffused by a sense of chagrin as he realized just how thoroughly his rush to the bridge had underscored his own tension.

"Have someone drop by my quarters and collect my tunic from my steward, please, Karlotte." He made his voice come out drolly, as if amused by his own precipitousness, and he gave the chief of staff a smile. "If we've got a few minutes before we can talk to them anyway, I suppose I should be certain I'm properly dressed for the occasion."

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