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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Tuesday, March 16, 2004 03:05 EST



    Abigail Hearns watched Chief Steward Joanna Agnelli remove the dinner plates. The meal had been first rate, and so was the wine, although if the Captain had chosen it himself, his palate didn’t quite match that of Captain Oversteegen or Lady Harrington. But whatever his qualifications as a wine expert, he -- or someone -- had certainly shown excellent taste when it came to furnishing his quarters.

    The decksole was covered with gorgeous, hand-woven mats of velvety-soft, superbly dyed silk-sisal from her own home world -- probably from Esterhaus Steading, judging by their stylized lizard-hawk motif. She doubted anyone else in Hexapuma’s company had the knowledge to realize just how rare and expensive those mats were. Abigail did, because her nursery back home had been floored in them when she’d been a child, and just looking at their rich-toned patterns made her want to kick off her boots and run barefoot across them.

    The bulkheads bore a few paintings. All of them, from what she could see, were excellent. Most were holo-portraits, although there was one breathtaking original neo-oil of a red-haired woman with laughing green eyes. In some ways, she reminded Abigail of Commander Lewis, although this woman was probably older (always difficult to be certain in a prolong society), with a rounder face. It was an extraordinarily attractive face, too. Not beautiful, but brimming with life and character… and wisdom. Abigail thought she would have liked her.

    The rest of the day cabin carried that same combination of taste, quality, and comfort -- from the crystal decanters on the sideboard to the hand-rubbed polish of the ferran wood table and chairs. But despite its air of welcoming graciousness, there was also an edge of rawness. Newness. None of the furnishings had been with the Captain long enough to slot comfortably into the spaces of his life, she thought.

    Probably because everything he’d surrounded himself with before had been destroyed with HMS Defiant at the Battle of Hyacinth. She wondered how that must feel, when he looked at the new paintings, the new furniture.

    Abigail wasn’t certain what to make of the dinner itself, either. Terekhov wasn’t one of the RMN officers who followed the tradition of dining regularly with his officers. In Abigail’s native Grayson Space Navy, every captain was expected to follow that practice, a legacy of Lady Harrington’s indelible imprint upon their service, and Abigail had to admit it was the tradition she preferred. But Hexapuma’s Junction transit lay over two T-weeks behind them, and this was the first time Captain Terekhov had invited anyone -- aside from Commander FitzGerald and Commander Lewis -- to dine with him.



    When she’d learned of the dinner, and that she was on the guest list, Abigail had more than half-dreaded a boring evening, an ordeal to be suffered through while a captain who disliked parties pretended he didn’t. But Terekhov had fooled her. It might be true he didn’t care for parties, and he might not have been entirely comfortable at this one. But if that were the case, no one could have guessed it from watching him or listening to him. He’d remained the cool, slightly distant man he’d been from the beginning, yet he’d managed somehow to make every guest feel individually welcome. He’d been just as pleasant to Midshipman Kagiyama and Midshipwoman Pavletic as to Commander FitzGerald or Surgeon Commander Orban, even as he had maintained precisely the right distance from each of his juniors. In many respects, it had been a genuine tour de force, and yet that inner barrier, that sense of being one step removed from everyone about him, remained.

    Abigail couldn’t help wondering what hid behind that barrier. Strength, or weakness? Part of her was tempted to assume the former, yet she remembered only too well how drastically she had misjudged her own first captain. And so she remained undecided, feeling as if there were a shoe poised to drop somewhere just out of sight.

    All of the toasts had been drunk. Aikawa, as the junior officer present, had gotten through the loyalty toast to the Queen with admirable composure, and the Captain himself had called for the Protector’s Toast from Abigail. She’d appreciated that, just as she’d appreciated and admired the fashion in which he’d discharged all of his host’s responsibilities, and now she watched him lean towards Lieutenant Commander Kaplan at his left elbow. Abigail couldn’t hear what they were saying from her own place at almost exactly the other end of the table, but Kaplan grinned suddenly, then actually laughed out loud. Terekhov straightened back up with a small smile of his own, but then his expression sobered, and he picked up his knife and rapped gently on the side of his wineglass with the back of the blade.

    The musical chime cut through the buzz of low-voiced after-dinner conversation, and all eyes turned towards him.

    “First, Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “allow me to thank you all for joining me tonight. It’s been an even more pleasant evening than I’d anticipated.”

    A low, inarticulate murmur answered him, and he smiled, ever so slightly. No doubt he was thinking exactly what Abigail was -- that only a complete lunatic would even contemplate trying to turn down a dinner invitation from her commanding officer.

    “And secondly,” Terekhov continued, “I must confess I had at least a minor ulterior motive in inviting you. Commander FitzGerald and I have discussed our orders at some length, and I have no doubt the ship’s grapevine has been buzzing with more or less garbled versions of those orders for weeks now. Since we’ll be arriving in the Spindle System in less than three T-days, I thought it would be as well to take this opportunity to give all of you the official version of our mission.”

    Abigail straightened in her chair, and a quiet stir flowed up either side of the long table as every other officer present did the same thing. Terekhov saw it, and his smile grew a bit broader.

    “There are no real mysteries here, Ladies and Gentlemen. I’d be surprised if the grapevine version of our orders isn’t at least mostly accurate. Basically, the Nasty Kitty has been assigned to Talbott Station, under the command of Rear Admiral Khumalo.”

    Abigail saw Ragnhild Pavletic and Aikawa Kagiyama go absolutely rigid. Their eyes were suddenly huge, and she rather thought they’d both forgotten to breathe. The Captain seemed totally unaware of their reaction, but Abigail saw the faint twinkle in his eyes and recognized Naomi Kaplan’s frantic effort not to erupt into laughter all over again. So that was what he’d been saying to the Tac Officer!

    Most of the others at the table seemed to take it in stride. Commander FitzGerald’s mouth twitched ever so slightly, and Commander Lewis grinned broadly. Most of the rest at least smiled, and Abigail felt herself doing the same as she realized the nickname had just been rendered official.

    “Admiral Khumalo’s primary mission,” the Captain continued, still without so much as a glance at the paralyzed snotties, “is to assist Baroness Medusa, Her Majesty’s Provisional Governor for Talbott, in overseeing the smooth integration of the Cluster into the Star Kingdom.”

    Then his smile faded, and his expression became very serious.

    “I know many of our people, including, no doubt, some of the officers in this room, have been disappointed by our assignment to Talbott. They believe, with reason, that every Queen’s ship is needed at the front. They believe that in some involuntary fashion we are shirking our duty to our Queen and the Star Kingdom by being assigned to a mere flag-showing mission six hundred light-years from home.

    “I understand why some of them -- some of you -- may feel that way. However, you are wrong if you think our mission here is unimportant to the future of the Star Kingdom. It is very important. Whether we like it or not, the Star Kingdom most of us have known and served all of our lives is changing. It’s growing. In the face of the renewed Havenite threat, Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Alexander, with the strong concurrence of Parliament, have determined that we have no choice but to expand. In Silesia, that expansion, sanctioned by treaty agreement with the Andermani Empire and approved by the sitting government of Silesia, will ultimately permit us to put an end to the pirate threat which has cost so many Manticoran ships and lives, including that of Commodore Edward Saganami, over the centuries. It will allow us to drastically reduce our anti-piracy efforts in that region, thus allowing us to retain a higher percentage of our ship strength for frontline deployments. And it will also bring an end to the ceaseless cycle of violence which has afflicted the people living on the planets of the Confederacy for far too long.

    “Some will disapprove of our annexation of Silesian territory, regardless of the. Undoubtedly, some of those who disapprove will be Silesians who suddenly find themselves living under Manticoran rule. Others will be outsiders -- some from the region, and some from outside it -- who will resent or fear the expansion of our borders and, ultimately, the strength of our Star Kingdom.

    “The situation in Talbott is somewhat different. The decision to annex Silesia was made on the basis of military necessity, more than any other factor. The decision to annex Talbott stemmed from the spontaneously expressed will of the citizens of the Cluster. I don’t believe anyone ever anticipated that the discovery of the Junction’s seventh terminus would result in the admission of a multi-system cluster to the Star Kingdom. And aside from our obvious security concerns for the Lynx Terminus, there’s no pressing military need for us to acquire territory here. But when a locally organized plebiscite votes by such a wide majority to request annexation, Her Majesty has no choice but to consider that petition very carefully.”

    He paused to take a sip of water, then continued.

    “Ultimately, the Cluster will undoubtedly become of great economic and military importance to the Star Kingdom. Its population is many times the Star Kingdom’s pre-war population, and its star systems are for all intents and purposes undeveloped. There will be a huge internal market for our goods and services, not to mention vast opportunities for investment, and the mere existence of the Lynx Terminus can only continue to attract even more shipping both to Talbott and, via the Junction, to Manticore itself.

    “Yet all that lies in the future. What concerns us at this moment isn’t the potential advantages our Star Kingdom may reap from the annexation, but our responsibility to the people of these star systems and planets, who are in the process of voluntarily making themselves our fellow citizens and Her Majesty’s subjects. That’s why Admiral Khumalo is here, and the reason Hexapuma was assigned here.

    “And,” his smile had completely disappeared, and his expression was grim, “it is a mission which is fraught with peril.”

    Abigail felt one or two people stir, as if in disbelief or disagreement, but she herself felt no inclination to join them. Perhaps it was the Church of Humanity Unchained in her, her belief in the doctrine of the Test, but she’d never expected for a moment that the incorporation of Talbott into the Star Kingdom would go as smoothly as the optimists had predicted so confidently.

    “If there are those who resent and would, if they could, oppose our expansion into Silesia,” Terekhov continued, “there are many more who will resent -- and who will oppose -- our annexation of Talbott. I scarcely need to remind any of you of the existence of the Office of Frontier Security, or of the Mesa System, or of the many Solarian shipping lines which deeply resent our domination of the carrying trade around the periphery of the League. All of those elements will be most unhappy at the mere thought of finding a lobe of the Star Kingdom on the League’s very doorstep.

    “At the moment, Admiral Khumalo has made the Spindle System the central base for Talbott Station. Although Spindle may not be… ideally placed for the protection of the Lynx Terminus, it is the site of the Talbott Constitutional Convention, where delegates from every system are assembled to hammer out the constitutional provisions which will govern the admission of the Cluster to the Star Kingdom. As such, the security of that system must be assured.

    “But there are other security considerations, other systems which may be exposed to external threats, or even to the possibility of internal, domestic unrest. Such unrest is probably inevitable, no matter how great the majority in favor of annexation may have been, and it’s entirely possible we’ll find ourselves involved in suppressing outbursts of outright violence. If that should be the case, I want every man and woman in Hexapuma’s company to remember that the people reacting violently to our presence live here. They have been citizens of these star systems and these worlds all of their lives, and if they fear or resent the submergence of their systems and their worlds in the Star Kingdom, they have every right to do so. They may not have the right to resort to violence, but that’s another thing entirely. I will not have any of our people making the situation worse by using one iota more of force than is absolutely necessary to the accomplishment of our mission.”

    He looked around the dining cabin, his gaze sweeping slowly across the face of every officer seated around the table. Then he nodded ever so slightly, as if satisfied by what he’d found in their expressions.

    “As to any external threat to the security of the lives and property of the citizens of Talbott or to the interests and obligations of the Star Kingdom and Her Majesty’s Government, we will deal with those as they arise. Once again, tensions will be running high, especially among those economic and political interests who most resent our presence here. I will not tolerate any action or behavior likely to provoke an unnecessary incident, but neither do I intend for this ship or any member of her crew to back down in the face of threats. We have a job to do, Ladies and Gentlemen, and we cannot do it if we are unable or unwilling to act resolutely and swiftly to counter any threat to the Cluster, to the Star Kingdom, or to our ship.”

    He paused once again, and his smile reappeared once more.

    “I don’t automatically assume we’ll face a struggle to the death,” he told them wryly. “If we should encounter such a threat, I fully intend to see that any deaths will be suffered by the other side. But that doesn’t mean I’m anticipating the worst, and it’s my earnest hope this deployment will end up being just as boring and just as uneventful as those of us who feel guilty for not being at the front fear it will. Because if it is, Ladies and Gentlemen, it will mean we have accomplished the mission for which Her Majesty sent us here. And now -- “

    He picked up his wineglass, raising it until the deckhead lights turned its contents into a glowing ruby globe.

    “Ladies and Gentlemen of Hexapuma,” he said, “I give you duty, loyalty, and Sir Edward Saganami. The tradition lives!”

    “The tradition lives!” The response rumbled back as other glasses rose in answer.




    “Well, what do you think?” Aikawa asked.

    “About what?” Helen shot back. “About the Nasty Kitty thing?”

    They sat around the table in the Snotty Row commons area, nursing their beverages of choice -- Helen was enjoying a stein of Crown’s Own, one of the better Gryphon dark beers -- while Helen and Leo grilled Aikawa and Ragnhild., Those two had seemed to be in a state of semi-shock over the Captain’s casual use of their privately bestowed nickname, but they seemed to be bouncing back. Finally.

    That’s twice for Ragnhild, Helen thought around a bubble of mental laughter as she looked at the petite midshipwoman. She must have been ready to crawl under the table on the spot!

    “Not that,” Aikawa said with a grimace that was half a smile. Then his expression sobered. “What do you think about that line the Captain was handing out about how important it is that we’re assigned out here at the ass-end of nowhere.”

    “I don’t think it was ‘a line,’ Aikawa,” Ragnhild said, shaking off her own lingering echoes of the Captain’s smiling ambush and looking up with a frown of her own. “I think he meant every word of it. You don’t?”

    “Hunnf.” Aikawa pursed his lips and gazed up at the deckhead. Then he shrugged. “I’m not sure I do,” he admitted. “Oh,” he waved one hand in the air, “I don’t think he was lying to us, and there wasn’t a single thing he said I could really disagree with. I just can’t help wondering how much of the emphasis he was putting on it was because he has to believe it’s important we be assigned out here. I don’t mind telling you guys,” he looked around, his expression slightly troubled, “that I’ve had the occasional guilt attack ever since I found out where we were going. I mean, think of everyone we knew at the Island who wound up being sent straight to the front, or even Silesia, where there are real pirates to worry about. And here we are, assigned to ‘protect’ a bunch of people who’ve voluntarily asked to join the Star Kingdom!”

    He shook his head, his expression an odd mixture of emotions, including both guilt and frustration and more than a touch of relief.

    “Well, I wasn’t there,” Leo Stottmeister said slowly, “but every single word he said about how close we are to the League, and about Mesa, and about the shipping which is already moving through Lynx is absolutely true. And I may never have dealt with Frontier Security myself, but my Uncle Stefan’s ship pissed off an OFS paper-shuffler, once. They didn’t do anything wrong, but by the time the dust settled, that Solly bastard had condemned and confiscated their entire ship and its cargo. Uncle Stefan always figured the-son-of-a-bitch got a cut of the ship’s value, but he said the profit was just icing on the cake for him. Their ship’s real crime was that they’d snagged a profitable cargo out from under the nose of a Solly shipping line that had a sweetheart deal with Frontier Security.”

    The tall midshipman shrugged, his face unwontedly serious.

    “I know Ragnhild has relatives in the shipping industry, but I don’t know about any of the rest of you. I can tell you this, though -- Uncle Stefan isn’t the only person I’ve heard talk about how much some of the Solly freight lines hate us. And Frontier Security thinks of us as a bunch of neobarbs with delusions of grandeur. You mix that all up into a single ball of snakes, and God knows what you’ll get out of it! Just don’t expect it to be good.”

    “Leo’s got a point,” Ragnhild said, her expression more worried than it had been. “We’re used to thinking of the Star Kingdom as a star nation, a military and economic power, and it is. But compared to the League, we’re tiny. It wouldn’t take much for some overconfident, greedy, bigoted Solly -- wouldn’t even necessarily have to be an OFS stooge, either -- to do something outstandingly stupid.”

    “And if that happens,” Paulo d’Arezzo put in quietly, “it’s likely to have all sorts of ramifications.”

    All of them turned to look at him in surprise. After more than two months aboard, he was still the aloof, keep-to-himself denizen of Snotty Row. The fact that he’d been released from at least a part of the normal duties associated with a snotty cruise because of Lieutenant Bagwell’s need for an understudy had actually increased his isolation, and they were surprised to hear him speaking up now. But he only looked back at them and shook his head slowly.

    “If you were the captain of a Queen’s ship in Silesia, and a Manticoran merchant or merchant skipper told you he’d been robbed, or cheated, or mistreated, or threatened by a Confederate Navy captain, how would you react?”

    “But -- “ Aikawa began, only to be cut off by Helen.

    “Paulo’s right,” she said, although it irritated her to admit it. “The situations probably wouldn’t be at all the same, but that’s exactly the way it would seem to an SLN skipper. Because Leo’s right about how the Sollies think of us. I’ve been to Old Earth and seen it myself. In some ways, it’s even worse than for the ‘neobarbs’ who don’t have such close contact with Sol.” She grimaced. “You know my dad was still in uniform when we were there, right?”

    Heads nodded, and her grimace turned even sourer.

    “Well, we were at a party one night, and I overheard this woman -- I found out later she was a Solly assemblywoman, no less -- pointing Daddy out to one of her friends and saying ‘Look at that. He looks just like he belongs to a real navy, doesn’t he?’”

    “You’re shitting us,” Aikawa protested.

    “I wish I were,” she told him. “We just aren’t real to most of them, even people who damned well ought to know better. And Leo’s shipping lines and OFS flunkies aren’t all we have to worry about out here. Don’t forget how much closer we are to Mesa, because I’ll guarantee you they aren’t going to!”

    “You may be right,” Aikawa said, obviously unwillingly. But then he gave his head a little toss and grinned at her. “And while we’re on the subject of Mesa and your esteemed parent, Ms. Midshipwoman Princess Helen, suppose you finally tell all of us just what went down at Congo?”

    “Yes!” Leo agreed instantly. He jabbed an irate finger at Aikawa and Ragnhold. “I bet you already told your loyal henchmen all about it.”

    “Not all about it,” Ragnhild protested with a chuckle, “or Aikawa wouldn’t be asking.” She turned to look at Helen herself. “Actually, I’d like to hear all of it.”

    “There’s not really all that much to tell -- “ Helen began, but Aikawa laughed.

    “Sure there isn’t!” he said. “Now give!”

    She looked around the compartment for a second, wondering exactly how to respond, and felt their eyes on her. All of them were obviously intensely curious -- even d’Arezzo -- and she knew she was going to have to satisfy that curiosity eventually, whatever she wanted. On the other hand, there were some aspects of that entire business she didn’t fully understand herself, and others she did understand which were going to stay on a strictly Need to Know basis for a long, long time. On the other hand… .

    “Okay,” she said finally. “First, a couple of ground rules. There are some things I can’t tell anyone, not even you guys. So you’re going to have to settle for what I figure I can give you. No probing questions, and no little tricks to try and get more out of me. Agreed?”

    They looked back at her, their expressions slightly sobered, and then Aikawa nodded.

    “Agreed,” he said.

    “All right, here’s the short version. Back last Seventeenth Month, about six T-months before the shooting started back up with the Peeps, my dad -- you know, Mr. Super Spook -- and my sister Berry got tapped by the Queen to be her representatives at the Stein funeral on Erewhon. High Ridge and his stooges weren’t sending anyone, and Her Majesty was a bit irritated with them about that. I don’t think she really likes the Renaissance Association all that much, but they are the closest thing to a grass-roots reform party in the League, so she figured someone from the Star Kingdom should attend its leader’s funeral. Anyway, she decided to send her niece, Princess Ruth, as her personal representative, and she asked Daddy to go along, both to ride herd on the Princess and also because of his relationship with Cathy Montaigne and the Antislavery League. She figured that would make the point that she was putting her thumb into High Ridge’s eye even more strongly.”

    And, she thought, because the Queen and Ruth decided between them that the House of Winton needed a resident spook of its own, and they wanted the best teacher for Ruth they could find. Which happened to be my own dear Daddy.

    “Everything seemed to be going pretty much to plan, when Daddy got called away to Smoking Frog.”

    She saw a sudden additional curiosity in several of her listeners’ eyes, but she had no intention of explaining what that particular bit of business had been about. The Star Kingdom was still buzzing with speculation about the mysterious disappearance of Countess North Hollow, and she intended for it to stay that way.

    “While he was gone, as I’m sure you all know from the ‘faxes, a bunch of Masadan lunatics tried to abduct the Princess when she was aboard the main Erewhonese civilian space station.”

    Where she was disguised as Berry, while Berry was disguised as her, which is how they got the wrong person, which is how the entire ridiculous situation came about in the first place.

    “They managed to get her, but her security detachment killed most of the terrorists before they went down, and the surviving terrorists got themselves pinned down aboard the space station.”

    Which is almost accurate. We’ll just leave out any mention of Havenite secret agents, Ballroom terrorist gunmen, and Solarian League Marine officers.

    “Not all the Masadans had been involved in the actual abduction; another batch of them had managed to hijack a Jessyk Combine transport that happened to have an entire consignment of genetic slaves on board, and they threatened to blow up the freighter, with those thousands of slaves, unless their surviving buddies and the Princess were delivered to them. Unfortunately, by that time all of their buddies were already dead, although they didn’t know that. So the Princess -- “ meaning my sister, the little idiot! “-- decided it was her responsibility to hand herself over to them. Which she did.”

    Accompanied only by what sounds like the scariest son-of-a-bitch in the entire Havenite secret service.

    “But it was actually all a trick. While the surviving terrorists were congratulating themselves on getting their hands on Princess Ruth, a boarding party -- “ and let’s not even get started on where it came from “-- got aboard the transport undetected. They managed to take out the terrorists, and handed the ship over to the slaves.

    “But by that time, someone had come up with the bright idea of using the ship -- which everyone else thought was still in the terrorists’ possession -- as a sort of Trojan horse against Congo. Which was probably the only thing in the universe we, the Erewhonese, and the Sollies -- “ and the Havenite secret service “-- could possibly have agreed upon at that point, given how our relations with Erewhon had gone into the crapper. By the time Daddy got back from Smoking Frog and found out everything that had been going on while he was away, most of the decisions had already been taken. And somehow Berry got involved as a sort of liaison between the slaves and everybody else. Probably -- “ we’ll just brush through this part as quickly as we can “-- because for all practical purposes we’re both Lady Montaigne’s daughters (even if she and Daddy’ve never bothered to get married), and that made her someone the ASL and the Ballroom felt they could trust.

    “Anyway, Princess Ruth got Captain Oversteegen and the Gauntlet involved, and, along with some Solly Navy types who had their own axes to grind, got the transport to Congo, along with an assault force made up mainly out of the liberated slaves and some Ballroom ‘terrorists’ Daddy just happened to know how to find, which boarded Manpower’s space station and captured it.”

    She shrugged, her face suddenly grim.

    “Without the space station to back them up with orbital fire support, the Manpower goons and the slave overseers on the planet didn’t stand a chance. It was… pretty ugly. Lots of atrocities and lots of payback. And it would’ve been a lot worse without Berry. She managed to put the brakes on the worst of the massacres, and along the way, somehow, and I still don’t understand exactly how it all worked, she got drafted to be their Queen.”

    She shrugged again, this time helplessly, and raised her hands, palms uppermost. She really didn’t understand how it had all worked, even though Berry had done her best to explain it in her letters. All she knew was that the brutalized waif she’d rescued from the subterranean labyrinths of Old Chicago had become the reigning monarch of the planet Torch and a kingdom full of liberated slaves fanatically devoted to the destruction of Manpower and all things Mesan. With an ex-Solarian Marine lieutenant as her military commander in chief, a princess of Manticore as her chief of intelligence, the local Havenite intelligence service’s chief of station as her conduit to the Republic of Haven, and a precarious balance of support from both Manticore and the Republic which seemed to be standing up despite the resumption of hostilities. And, of course, her very own wormhole junction.

    With termini whose locations none of her people, so far, knew the least thing about, since Manpower either hadn’t explored them itself or had managed to destroy the data before it lost Congo.

    She shook off the familiar thought with a grimace, and looked up to see five sets of eyes looking at her in various stages of bogglement.

    “Anyway,” she said again, “that’s the simple version of it.”

    “Excuse me,” d’Arezzo gave her one of his rare smiles, yet there was something in his eyes that she couldn’t quite identify, “but if that’s the simple version, I’m glad I missed the complicated one!”

    “You and me both,” Leo agreed, nodding emphatically. Ragnhild only looked at Helen thoughtfully, but Aikawa leaned back and folded his arms.

    “I know we all agreed not to try to drag any more out of you, so I’ll just content myself with pointing out that your little explanation left quite a few loose ends floating around.” She met his gaze with her best innocent expression, and he snorted. “Leaving aside any more questions about how the change in management was engineered, can you tell us if there’s any truth to the rumors your sister’s new planet has officially declared war on Manpower and Mesa?”

    “Oh, sure. That’s no secret,” Helen replied. “What did you expect a planet inhabited almost exclusively by freed genetic slaves to do?”

    “And they’re using those frigates your father and mother -- I mean, your father and Lady Montaigne -- had built for the ASL for their fleet?” d’Arezzo asked, his expression intent.

    “As the nucleus for it. At the same time, I understand they’re negotiating with both us and the Peeps for heavier ships. Even ‘obsolete’ Allied designs are as good as anything Mesa or Manpower might have. And everyone on Torch figures it’s only a matter of time until Manpower decides it’s found a way to regain possession of Congo somehow. So building up a big enough fleet to discourage temptations is pretty high on the priority lists of ‘Queen Berry’s’ senior advisers.”

    “I can see why it might be,” Leo said dryly. “But, tell me, how does your dad think Mesa feels about the Star Kingdom’s part in what happened to Congo?”

    “He thinks Mesa’s probably pissed off as hell,” Helen said with a smile. “After all, Oversteegen and Gauntlet escorted the ‘hijacked’ Trojan horse to Congo in the first place. By now, they have to know Princess Ruth -- the Queen’s own niece -- was involved in the entire thing up to her ears, too. Then there’s the fact that it was Oversteegen who initially faced down the Mesan task group sent in to retake the system. Not to mention the fact that we’ve basically been at war with Manpower ourselves for the better part of four hundred T-years.”

    “And, like the Captain said,” Leo murmured slowly, “the Cluster’s only a couple of hundred light-years from Mesa.”

    “Exactly,” D’Arezzo said. “We’re one of the few Navies that actually enforce the Cherwell Convention like we mean it, and the Star Kingdom and Mesa have been locking horns for centuries now. Even when we were the better part of a thousand light-years apart.”

    “Damn straight.” Ragnhild nodded. “Manpower’s going to be pretty unhappy to suddenly find us with secure fleet bases that close to its home system. Which is why I think the Captain has a definite point about just how nasty things could turn. We’ve always had a tendency back home in the Star Kingdom to think of Manpower and Mesa as two separate entities -- sort of like the Star Kingdom and the Hauptman Cartel, or Grayson and Sky Domes. But it doesn’t really work that way. Manpower and a handful of other huge companies own Mesa, and Mesa has its own navy. Not too big compared to our Navy, maybe, but nothing to sneeze at, and equipped with modern Solly designs. Plus most of the companies headquartered there have at least some armed ships of their own. With us as distracted by Silesia and the front as we are, they’d almost have to be tempted to use that military capability in an effort to destabilize our annexation of the Cluster.”

    “And Frontier Security would be just absolutely delighted to help them do it,” Leo agreed grimly.

    “You know,” Aikawa said thoughtfully, “this deployment may not turn out to be quite so boring as I figured it would.”

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