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Chapter Forty-Six

"You know, I'd really like to meet this Anisimovna one day," Michelle Henke said as she accepted a fresh cup of steaming black coffee from Chris Billingsley. She gave the steward a quick smile of thanks, and he continued around the table to her two guests with his coffee pot, refilling and topping off, then withdrew from the day cabin.

"I don't imagine you're alone in that, Ma'am," Aivars Terekhov said grimly. "I know I'd like an hour or two alone with her."

"She does seem to get around, doesn't she?" Bernardus Van Dort agreed. "Assuming this really is the same person Tyler claims to've met with."

"Same name, same description," Michelle pointed out. She sipped from her cup, then set it back down and leaned back in her chair. "I realize there are a lot of women in the galaxy, Bernardus, but how many gorgeous, man-eating blondes with Mesan accents, Manpower credit chips, Solly task groups in their back pockets, and a taste for slumming in the vicinity of the Talbott Cluster so they can arrange operations designed to break our kneecaps are there?"

"I admit, the evidence suggests she's the same person," Van Dort replied with unflappable calm. "Assuming she went all the way home to Mesa after Monica blew up in her face, though, she certainly got back out here in what must be close to record time. In fact, I'm inclined to wonder if they had the entire New Tuscany operation in mind from the very beginning, as well, if only as a backup. She can hardly have spent very much time at home on Mesa conferring or coming up with new strategies before they sent her back out."

"They did recover quickly, didn't they?" Michelle agreed thoughtfully, and Terekhov snorted.

"I don't think they so much 'recovered' as just 'reloaded,' " he said. "And I really don't like what V'ezien and the others had to say about how the late, unlamented Admiral Byng came to be in a position to pull something this incredibly stupid in the first place."

His remark was met by a brief silence as the other two thought about all of the implications of Prime Minister V'ezien's testimony. Then Michelle looked at Van Dort.

"Do you really think Baroness Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar are going to sign off on your agreement with V'ezien, Bernardus?"

"I think yes...probably." Van Dort smiled tightly. "I didn't really promise him all that much, you know. Basically just that the Royal Navy isn't going to come and dismantle his star system's entire orbital infrastructure as a reprisal."

"That and that New Tuscany wouldn't really be excluded from all Quadrant markets," Terekhov said in a chidingly correcting tone. Van Dort raised an eyebrow at him, and Terekhov snorted again. "That's a hell of a lot more than I would have given him, Bernardus! And, frankly, after what they tried to pull this time, I'm not sure it's a justifiable security risk, either."

He started to say something more, then broke off with a sound suspiciously like an "Oof!" as several kilos of cat launched themselves into his lap with absolutely no warning. Terekhov was one of Dicey's favorite people. Not only did his long legs give him a comfortably large lap, but Dicey's radar had an uncanny ability to differentiate the cat-lovers from those who merely tolerated a feline presence. Now he sat up, bumping his broad, scarred head against Terekhov's chin, and purred loudly to remind his admirer of what human hands had really been invented to do.

Michelle shook her head at the intrusion, but before she could call Billingsley to remove his thoroughly illegal pet, Terekhov's hands began obediently stroking the outsized beast, and she closed her mouth, instead. There was something irresistibly appealing about seeing the tough-as-nails victor of Monica firmly under the paw of a much battered and bedamned feline.

"As far as security risks go," she said after a moment, "they aren't going to risk pissing us off a second time anytime soon, Aivars, I don't think those issues are going to be a deal breaker, but I think the lack of reprisals could be. For that matter, I'm inclined to think it should be."

"Which is why we specifically left open the question of the amount of the reparations to be assessed," Van Dort pointed out. "Both sides know it's coming and that the price tag's going to be stiff, and if you'll notice, I specifically didn't rule out the possibility of reprisals against the New Tuscan industrial establishment if we can't come to a meeting of minds on that particular topic."

"I'm not too sure it's a meeting with their minds I'm concerned about," Michelle said with a wry smile. "I know the Queen a bit better than most people do, and I don't think she's going to be very happy with New Tuscany. It must've been bad enough when the initial report about what happened to Bear and his ships hit her desk a week or so ago. When she gets the one on what happened to Byng here in New Tsucany, it's going to be even worse. And when she gets our follow-up, including everything V'ezien and the others had to say about Ms. Anisimovna, I think she's going to be just a bit peeved with them."

"I don't doubt it for a moment," Van Dort acknowledged, "and I'm not saying they should get off scot-free. But look at the way it worked out from their side for a moment. I don't have any great store of sympathy for V'ezien, Boutin, and the others, and I'm not going to shed any tears if they get kicked out on their blood-sucking, power-mongering, oligarchical asses. But New Tuscany as a star nation's already lost in the vicinity of forty-three thousand lives. That's a pretty hefty price to pay, and I'd say the V'ezien Government is just as furious at Manpower as it says it is. I'm sure that in time, he and his cabinet members will get over their current spasm of sanity and revert to type, but in the meantime why kick them any harder than we need to? We've got enough problems already without nurturing any ill will we don't absolutely have to."

"Well, that's certainly true," Michelle agreed glumly. "For the admiral who just handed the Solarian League Navy its first ever task group-level defeat, I'm not feeling all warm and fuzzy inside over my accomplishment."

Terekhov looked up from Dicey and chuckled with very little humor, and Michelle gave him a crooked smile.

After the destruction of Jean Bart, Rear Admiral Evelyn Sigbee, commanding the 112th Battlecruiser Squadron, had seen reason very quickly indeed. The fact that Michelle had made it clear she knew which ship was Sigbee's flagship might well have contributed to that, but it was obvious the woman was also considerably smarteror at least willing to actually use whatever intelligence she hadthan Byng had been. Michelle wondered how much of that was because she was Frontier Fleet, not Battle Fleet.

There'd been no survivors from Jean Bart, and the other ships of the Solarian task group had returned very promptly to their parking orbit around New Tuscany. Sigbee had been a little stickier about meekly transporting her personnel down to the planetary surface and handing her ships over to Michelle's boarding parties with their computers intact, but Michelle had held her battlecruisers and heavy cruisers well outside the Solarians' effective missile range while she sent just the destroyers in to be sure Sigbee was complying with her instructions. As she'd hoped, the memory of what had just happened toJean Bartand her obvious willingness to repeat the demonstrationhad carried the day.

The anchor watches who'd been left aboard had been no more cooperative than they had to be, but they'd displayed no overt resistance, either. Again, not too surprisingly, given the heavily armed Marines who'd accompanied the naval boarding parties. And once those boarding parties were aboard, it had quickly become evident that the Sollies' computer security was far inferior to that of Manticore. On the other hand, it was also inferior to some of the civilian-market Solarian software the navy computer techs had seen, so that didn't necessarily prove anything about the tech base available to the SLN; only about the tech base of which it had actually availed itself.

Once through the fences and into the data banks, it hadn't taken very long to determine that the Sollies own tactical recordings clearly demonstrated that Commodore Chatterjee's ships hadn't had a thing to do with the destruction of the New Tuscan space station. How much good that was going to do after more recent events in the star system was debatable, but Michelle's technicians had made complete copies of the original files.

For that matter, they had some of the actual computers in which those files had been stored, since she'd also chosen to take the battlecruisersResourceful andImpudent home with her.Resourceful was one of theIndefatigable class, like the ships captured in Monica, and she felt certain BuShips and BuWeaps would want to compare her electronics and weapons loadouts with that of the ships Technodyne had provided to President Tyler.Impudent, despite the letter with which her name began, was one of the newNevada-class ships. As such, she represented the very latest in deployed SLN technology, and Michelle knew how eagerly the engineers and analysts back home would greet her arrival.

Aside from those two units, she'd left the rest of Byng's ships in New Tuscany with Sigbee. She'd seen no reason to try to take any more of them with her, for several reasons, including the fact that the newer Manticoran designs didn't provide a lot of redundant personnel to make up passage crews for prize vessels. Besides that, she'd quickly come to the conclusion that there was no particular point in trying to refit them for Manticoran use. They were clearly inferior do anything presently in Alliance service, and the expense and effort to bring such manpower-intensive designs up to something like current standards could be far more profitably applied to other ends.

She'd considered scuttling them, and under accepted interstellar law, she would have been entirely within her rights to do so. In the end, though, she'd decided that actually scuttling them might be a case of pouring unnecessary salt into a wound. Nothing she could do was going to make the SLN happy with her, but sailing off into the sunset with every one of their ships, or blowing them up in orbit, was only likely to piss them off even worse. Not that she was any too sure that what she'd ended up doing would make them any happier. Eighty percent of their ships and ninety-five percent of their personnel were still there, and both ships and people were pretty much physically intact, but before leaving, Michelle's boarding parties had deliberately triggered those ships' internal security charges...which had reduced all of the surviving battlecruisers' central computer nets to so much slagged molecular circuitry, as inert and useless as a solid block of granite. No one would be reprogramming those computers; it was going to take physical replacement if the Sollies ever wanted one of those ships to get underway under her own power again. That wouldn't necessarily take them permanently out of service, but it would take months to get a suitably equipped repair fleet all the way out to New Tuscany. In fact, it might actually be cheaper and faster in the long run to send out a fleet of tugs and tow them back to a Solarian shipyard.

And if they're not permanently out of service, at least they aren't going to be available to the other side any time soon, she reflected grimly. If this goes as far south as it could, that's not exactly anything to sneer at, I suppose.

"I wish we had a better feel for how the Sollies are going to react to all of this," Van Dort said, as if he'd been reading her mind. Not that it would have taken a genius to figure out what she was thinking.

"I wish the same thing," she said. "But what I wish even more was that we had some idea how any transstellareven one the size of Manpowercomes up with the juice to manipulate the SLN on this level. Battle Fleet admirals who just happen to hate all Manties in charge of Frontier Fleet task groups? Entire task forces of Battle Fleet superdreadnoughts on call, assuming Anisimovna wasn't just blowing smoke to the New Tuscans? I'd say this goes at least a little beyond most corporations' definition of 'business as usual.' "

Which, she added silently, is the reason I also handed complete copies of the depositions V'ezien, Dusserre, Cardot, and P'elisard gave us over to Sigbee for her to pass on to their ONI. I doubt it's likely to make them any less pissed off with us,but I don't have any problem at all with getting the League simultaneously pissed off enough at Manpowerto finally do something about it!

"You think V'ezien is right about Byng?" Terekhov asked.

"I don't know," Michelle said slowly. "If he is, I'm even more nervous than I was, I think. Bernardus, you know people out here better than Aivars and I do. Who do you think was closer to right, V'ezien or Dusserre?"

"Dusserre," Van Dort said promptly. "I don't like him, you understand, but for somebody stuck in a fundamentally unworkable position, he's probably the smartest of the lot. V'ezien may think Byng knew what was going on, but I don't. Your own intelligence dossier on him indicates that he's never been exactly the sharpest stylus in the box, and his prejudices against Manticore are glaringly obvious. I'd say they were obvious to Manpower, as well. And assuming Anisimovna really was responsible forGiselle's destruction, it looks to me as if they planned all along on putting him in a position where his anti-Manticore attitude would trigger a spinal-reflex reaction. I don't know if they anticipated that he'd go quite so far, give them such a blatantcausis belli, but they probably figured they could count on him to open fire on at least one Manticoran ship, somewhere along the way."

"I have trouble believing anyone could be that good a puppeteer," Terekhov objected. Van Dort looked at him, and the commodore shrugged.

"Your basic analysis sounds good, Bernardus, but I find it difficult to believe that anybody competent enough to put all of this together would rely on somehow maneuvering our ships close to Byng's right in the middle of the New Tuscany System, then blowing up a space station to get him to open fire. That's so far outside the KISS principle it isn't even funny!"

"I don't think that's what they did at all," Van Dort replied. "I think the 'puppeteers' relied on the fact that Anisimovna is an extremely talented andobviouslyextraordinarily ruthless operative. I think they told her what they wanted to happen, gave her the best tools for the job they could, and then sent her out to manipulate the situation however seemed best to her. From everything V'ezien and his crowd had to say, she obviously had them right in her pocket. And it must have been obviousto her, at leastthat even if we hadn't responded by sending Chatterjee to New Tuscany, we'd eventually have responded by doing something that would have put our ships in close proximity with Byng's. Either that, or she and the New Tuscans would have managed to manufacture an 'incident' sufficiently serious to send Byng looking for us with blood in his eye. What's that saying from Old Terra about Muhammad going to the mountain?"

"I think you're right about that," Michelle said, "and, to be honest, that troubles me almost as much as anything else that's happened."

The others looked at her, and she waved her coffee cup in the air and grimaced. Then she set the cup down in front of her, folded her forearms on the edge of the table, and leaned forward over them, her expression serious.

"Look, we've always known Manpower hated the Star Kingdom's guts. Well, that's fair enough, because we've reciprocated. But we've also always thought of Manpower as a bunch of arrogant, money hungry, amoral bastards. They don't care about anything except money, and their arrogance leads them to do things like that business in Old Chicago when they kidnapped young Zilwicki. Or that idiotic attack on Catherine Montaigne's townhouse. Or the blatant stupidity of using slave labor, of all damned things, on Torch before the Ballroom took it away from them. Ruthless, yes. And rich, and unscrupulous as hell, but not really all that smart. Not...sophisticated."

"I might quibble with some of your terminology, Ma'am," Terekhov said thoughtfully. "I never really thought of them as stupid, but I guess I'd have to admit that the quality I associated with them was more...cunning, let's say, than intelligence."

"And their operations in the pastor the ones we've known about, at leasthave all been related to the bottom-line somehow," Michelle pointed out. "Sometimes the connection's seemed a little strained, but it's always been there if we looked close enough. And they've never used major military forcestheir own, or anyone else's. Even when they tried for Montaigne, they used mercenaries. And that business of yours in Nuncio, Aivarsthat was using orphaned StateSec units, which was effectively just another batch of mercenaries. But this time, neither of those things is true."

She shook her head, her eyes unwontedly worried.

"Arguably, I suppose, you could say both the Monicans and the New Tuscans were more 'mercenaries,' whether they realized it or not, but what about Byng? What about the connections it took to get him assigned to a Frontier Fleet command and then sent out here? And what about this Battle Fleet task force Anisimovna claimed was stationed at McIntosh? That's a huge escalation in force levels from anything we've ever seen out of them in the past. I suppose Battle Fleet's corrupt enough that they could conceivably have managed it with only a few people in key spots in their pockets, but even so, it shows a degree of hubris that strikes me as almost insane. And look at the timing on it. They had to have the McIntosh deployment and Byng's appointment already in the pipeline before you hit Monica, Aivars. They literally couldn't have gotten the ships out here so quickly, if they hadn't already arranged for it. So either they really were already looking at New Tuscanyor something like itor else they'd decided to arrange it all as a second string to their bow if Monica failed. Either way, that's a sort of multilayered strategy I don't think any of us would have expected out of them. And if we're going to talk about escalations, think of everything else they've risked here. They're headquartered on an independent planet which isn't even part of the League, but they're deeply involved in the League's economy. They depend on that involvement, and they've always relied on their connections in the League's bureaucracy and Assembly to deter any Solarian action against them. But now they start throwing Battle Fleet admirals and task forces around? Even the League is going to reactand react hardif it figures out a single outlaw corporationa foreign outlaw corporationis sending entire fleets of its wallers around the galaxy!

"And even leaving that risk aside, look at the financial side of it. They have to have lost a fortune on that fiasco in Monica, but they didn't even slow down. Instead, they switched right over to this New Tuscany operation, and I'll guarantee you it didn't come cheap, either. I'll concede that they've got every reason in the world to keep us as far away from the Mesa System as they can, but after taking the hit to the bank account Monica must've represented, shouldn't simple financial pain have made them at least a little slower out of the launch tube for New Tuscany? And after such an obvious failure, and all the bad PR it's gotten them from the League newsies, I'd have expected them to keep a low profile, at least for a little while. Which, obviously, they didn't do, if they're actually manipulating major SLN command appointments and fleet movements. And to top it all off, the person they sent out to coordinate it is also the person who coordinated the Monica operation, and before Monica, we'd never even heard of her. Which wouldn't worry me as much as it does if she didn't seem to be so damned capable. If they've had her tucked away in their forward magazine all this time, why haven't we seen heror her handiwork, at leastbefore? Where did this rogue corporation suddenly come up with an operative of her caliber? And why is it acting like it thinks it's a star nation, not just a criminal business enterprise?"

The other two looked back at her, and no one said another word for quite a long time.

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