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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2004 03:25 EST



    “You’re late, Damien.”

    “I know I am, Ma’am,” Damien Harahap, known to certain individuals in the Talbott Cluster as “Firebrand,” said crisply, his uniform cap tucked under his left arm as he came to a respectful stance of attention. It was probably a bit of overkill, but the sharpness in Major Eichbauer’s tone, coupled with her note’s instruction to come in full uniform, suggested there were appearances to maintain this afternoon.

    “There was an accident of some sort on the J-Line tramway,” he continued, and she grimaced. “I never did find out exactly what it was, but it took me almost twenty minutes to find a jitney.”

    “Well, I don’t suppose we can blame you for the vagaries of Estelle traffic,” she said. “Especially not Estelle traffic.” She waved for him to step the rest of the way into the anonymous looking office.

    There were a lot of offices like it here in Estelle, the capital city of the Republic of Monica, Harahap reflected. Monica specialized in anonymity as much as it did in bad civic engineering and the provision of mercenaries. Or volunteers for the Office of Frontier Security’s intervention battalions . . . if there was a difference.

    That thought carried him across the threshold, and then his brown eyes sharpened as he saw who else was sitting in the office, across the coffee table from Eichbauer’s borrowed desk. He wasn’t certain who the silver-eyed woman with the elaborate tattoos might be, but he recognized the beautiful, golden-haired woman sitting beside her from her file imagery. She wasn’t the sort of person someone like him was likely to come into contact with, but he made it a habit to be familiar with as many of the truly big sharks as he could.

    Now what, he wondered sardonically, is a sitting member of Manpower’s Board of Directors doing on a third-rate planet like Monica? And Ulrike wanted me in uniform. My, my, my.

    “Sit,” Eichbauer told him, pointing at a comfortable if utilitarian chair beside her desk.

    “Yes, Ma’am.” He sat, settling his cap in his lap, and waited attentively.

    “Damien, this is Ms. Aldona Anisimovna and Ms. Isabel Bardasano,” Eichbauer said. “Ladies, Captain Damien Harahap, Solarian Gendarmerie.”

    “Ms. Anisimovna, Ms. Bardasano,” Harahap acknowledged courteously. The fact that Eichbauer was using Anisimovna’s real name surprised him a bit, but it probably also indicated that Bardasano was a real name, as well. Interesting.

    Neither of the Mesans -- at least, he assumed from her tattoos and piercings that Bardasano was also a Mesan -- spoke, but both of them returned his acknowledgment with slight inclinations of their heads.

    “Ms. Anisimovna,” Eichbauer continued, “is here to discuss certain activities in the Talbott Cluster. She’s already broached the matter with Brigadier Yucel, and the Brigadier has instructed me to cooperate with her fully. Which I am now instructing you to do, as well.”

    “Of course, Major,” he said politely, while his mind raced. Eichbauer, he knew, despised Yucel. The tall, stocky major’s strong features and sharp green eyes hinted only too accurately at the shrewd brain hiding behind them. She was intelligent, efficient, and none too squeamish when it came to the pragmatic realities of her job, but Yucel’s taste for brutality was no part of her makeup.

    That might account for the chill formality she was displaying, if whatever was going on was one of Yucel’s brain children. But so might the fact that, like any Frontier Security officer with a brain, Eichbauer knew who OFS really worked for. It wasn’t often a mere major had the opportunity to work directly under the eye of one of the movers and shakers of Mesa. It could be either a definite career-enhancing opportunity, or the slippery lip of oblivion, depending upon outcomes, and an effective display of professionalism could help determine which.

    But why meet here? The Meyers System was less than a hundred and twenty light-years from Monica, barely two weeks hyper travel for the sort of modified dispatch boat someone like Anisimovna would use as her personal transport. And Meyers, unlike Monica, was a Frontier Security protectorate. They could have met under conditions of maximum security there, so why come to Monica? And why were he and the major both in uniform, of all damned things? Their particular branch of the Gendarmerie seldom advertised.

    “I need hardly explain to you, I’m sure, Damien, that Brigadier Yucel desires us to maintain the lowest possible profile,” Eichbauer continued, which only made him wonder about the uniforms even more. “In fact, one of the primary considerations of this . . . operation is deniability. There must be no traceable connection between the Gendarmerie or OFS and Ms. Anisimovna and Ms. Bardasano.”

    He nodded his understanding (of at least part of what she’d just said), and she rewarded him with a small smile.

    “Having said that, however, you’re going to be working very closely with these ladies. In fact, for all intents and purposes, you’ll be assigned full-time to this operation until its conclusion.” Despite himself, he felt his eyebrows trying to rise and instructed them firmly to stay put.

    “We understand we’re putting you in something of an awkward position, Captain Harahap,” Anisimovna said smoothly. “We regret that. And, of course, we’ll make a strenuous effort to . . . compensate you for any inconvenience or risk this operation may require you to assume.”

    “That’s very kind of you, Ma’am,” he murmured while his inner avarice began ringing up credit signs. Having a Director of Manpower in one’s debt, even if only slightly, wasn’t the sort of thing that hurt a man’s bank account. Especially not if one performed well enough to be remembered as a valuable resource for future needs, as well.

    “Let me sketch out a hypothetical scenario for you, Damien,” Eichbauer said, cocking her chair back slightly. He turned to look directly at her, watching the other two women unobtrusively out of the corner of a highly trained eye.

    “As you know,” she continued, “the Talbott Cluster has decided to dash headlong into the arms of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Obviously, some of the people who live in the Cluster have decided they’re in a position to cut some sort of favorable deal with Manticore. It’s unfortunate that these self-interested manipulators are selfishly dragging their fellow citizens into the maw of a reactionary monarchy. Especially one which is currently engaged in a losing war that’s entirely likely to drag the Cluster down in the event of its own defeat.”

    Harahap nodded, although he couldn’t quite suppress a small flicker of distaste. He came from a protectorate planet himself. He wasn’t going to shed any crocodile tears or pretend he hadn’t known exactly what he was doing when he signed up with Frontier Security as his ticket out of that poverty-ridden pesthole. But that didn’t make it any easier to forget how his parents had felt when OFS moved in to “protect” them from the horrible dangers of liberty.

    “In addition to the dangers the Manties’ war would pose to the Talbotters if this ill-considered annexation went through,” Eichbauer went on, “there’s the morally repugnant avarice and greed inherent in the Star Kingdom’s naked grab for the Lynx Terminus of the so-called ‘Manticore’ Wormhole Junction. Should it succeed, it will give the Manties a lock on an even larger percentage of the League’s shipping. Their shipping lines already carry far too much commerce which, for the League’s own security, should be moving in League hulls, not foreign registry vessels, without adding Lynx to the equation. And if the Star Kingdom manages to secure a foothold here in Talbott, it will almost certainly extend its policy of harassing legitimate Solarian shipping and mercantile interests into this portion of the Verge. Obviously, then, it would be in the interests of neither the Talbotters nor the Solarian League for this so-called voluntary annexation to go through, yes?”

    “I see your point, Ma’am,” he said obediently when she paused. Did you know this was coming when you sent me off to evaluate the various “resistance groups,” Ulrike? Or was it just another case of preparing for all contingencies?

    “I’m glad you do, Captain,” Anisimovna said, leaning forward in her chair with the slightest edge of a smile. “It was those concerns which first brought me into contact with Brigadier Yucel. Obviously, there’s an element of self-interest in it for me and for my business colleagues, but in this instance our financial interests run in parallel with those of the League . . . and, of course, Frontier Security.”

    “The big problem, Damien,” Eichbauer said a touch more briskly, as if to reassert control of what was clearly an operational briefing, “is that the Manties have managed to claim some sort of moral mandate on the basis of this supposed free vote in favor of annexation. It’s untrue, of course, but their representatives on Old Earth have managed to talk fast enough to fool a lot of people into believing otherwise. Some of those people have access to significant political influence, and they’ve chosen to endorse the Manticoran version of events, which officially ties OFS’ hands. But that doesn’t mean we’re blind to our responsibilities. So when Ms. Anisimovna and her colleagues approached us, we saw an opportunity to kill several birds with a single stone.”

    Harahap nodded. In some star nations, he knew, the sort of thing Eichbauer had just said would have constituted something very close to treason. In others, it would simply have led to an instant demand for her resignation. In the Solarian League, it was merely the way things were. The bureaucracies had been eluding civilian control for so long, in the name of keeping the system running, that the evasion of civilian oversight was as routine as brushing one’s teeth. And as openly accepted among those who did the evading.

    “We -- meaning, specifically, you and I -- have an intimate knowledge of the political and social dynamic of the Cluster,” the major continued. “We know who the players are, and what their motivations and strengths and weaknesses are. Frontier Security cannot become officially involved in any effort to organize overt resistance to the annexation. Perhaps even more importantly, we can’t involve ourselves in the funding, training, or equipping of any sort of guerrilla opposition.”

    “No, Ma’am. Of course not,” he agreed obediently, despite the huge number of times OFS had done precisely that.

    “Fortunately, private interests, represented in this instance by Ms. Anisimovna and Ms. Bardasano, have a greater freedom of action than we official representatives of the League. They’re prepared to provide funds and weapons to those Talbotters who stand ready to use them to resist this calculated, naked Manticoran imperialism . . . if they can identify those who require their aid. Which is where we come in.

    “As I say, Frontier Security can’t be openly involved. Both for the reasons I’ve already mentioned and -- “ she looked directly into his eyes “-- because of other, equally valid considerations. You, however, are sadly overdue for some leave. If you should happen to choose to take some of that accumulated leave in order to place your knowledge and contacts at the service of this completely unofficial effort to turn back Manticoran aggression, I would approve your request immediately.”

    “I understand, Major,” he said, although he wasn’t positive he actually did.

    The basic parameters were clear enough. Eichbauer wanted him to act as the Mesans’ contact and bagman with the lunatic fringe elements she’d had him evaluating for the past several months. He had few concerns about his ability to handle that part of the assignment. What he didn’t quite see yet was how it was going to help anyone if he did. If Frontier Security was going to assume the sort of hands-off approach Eichbauer had taken such pains to sketch out, then simply creating unrest in the Cluster didn’t seem to accomplish much. Talbotters like Nordbrandt, or even Westman, certainly weren’t going to actually defeat both their own law-enforcement agencies and the Star Kingdom. As he’d pointed out to his partner, they might be able to create a sufficiently nasty situation to convince the Manticorans to back off, but it was more likely simply to create the sort of bloodshed which could be used to justify intervention. That sort of induced anarchy had been Frontier Security’s passport often enough in the past, but if OFS wasn’t prepared to step in openly this time, then what was the point?

    If Anisimovna had been an official representative of the Mesa System government, he might have believed Mesa was interested in moving in on the Cluster itself. But that sort of imperialistic expansion had never been part of the Mesan tradition. Simply destabilizing the area and getting Manticore, with its anti-slavery obsession, off Manpower’s back would probably be worthwhile from the interstellar corporation’s viewpoint. But that didn’t explain what Frontier Security was doing in the middle of it all.

    Unless there was a reason besides simple deniability and security for having this little meeting on Monica . . . .

    “I understand,” he repeated, “and you’re right, Ma’am -- I am overdue for a few months of leave. If in the process of taking it I can, purely coincidentally, of course, and strictly in my capacity as a private citizen, make myself useful to Ms. Anisimovna and the citizens of the Cluster, I’d be delighted to avail myself of the opportunity.”

    “I’m glad to hear it, Captain,” Anisimovna purred. “And, since that’s the case, might I suggest you return to your hotel, slip into something a bit less eye-catching than your uniform, and then check into the Estelle Arms? You’ll find a reservation there in your name. It’s quite a nice suite, just a few doors down from my own.”

    “Of course, Ma’am,” he said, and looked back at Eichbauer. “With your permission, Major?” he murmured.

    “It sounds like a fine idea to me, Damien,” she said, with only the faintest trace of warning in her tone. “I’ll handle the paperwork for your leave myself, as soon as I get back to the office. But you can consider yourself officially on leave, on my authority, from right now.”

    And you’re on your own, so watch your ass, her green eyes added.

    “Thank you, Ma’am,” he replied. “I will.”




    Roberto Tyler, the duly elected President of the Republic of Monica (just as his father and grandfather had been), stood gazing out his office window at the city of Estelle. The G3 system primary burned down out of a cloud-spotted blue sky on the city’s white and pastel ceramacrete towers. Its older, original buildings were much closer to the ground. Buiult out of native materials and old-fashioned concrete, they looked insignificant and toylike in the shadows of the looming towers which had become the norm since the planet finally reacquired counter-grav technology in the early years of his father’s presidency. It was unfortunate, he reflected, that even today the construction of those towers was in the hands of out-system technicians, not Monica’s own citizens. But there wasn’t much choice about it, given the ongoing limitations of the Monican educational system.

    He watched a native cloudcoaster, one of the furry, mammalian bird-analogues of Monica, sail past his two hundred and tenth-floor office window. There were more private air cars in the capital’s airspace than there’d been when he was younger, although still far fewer than there would have been in a city of the Shell, far less anywhere in the Old League. For that matter, there were fewer than in the skies of Vermeer, the capital of Rembrandt. He felt a familiar flicker of resentment at that thought, but that didn’t make it untrue. Unfortunately, Rembrandt and Monica had rather different export commodities.

    The admittance chime sounded, and he turned back towards his office door, folding his hands behind him. The door opened a moment later, and his secretary stepped through it.

    “Mr. President,” the well-groomed young man said, “Ms. Anisimovna is here.”

    The secretary stepped aside with a respectful bow, and perhaps the most beautiful woman Tyler had ever seen moved past him in a rustle of whispering silk. Tyler didn’t recognize the style of Aldona Anisimovna’s floor length gown, but he approved of the way its filmy folds draped her spectacular figure. And of its deeply plunging neckline and the hip-high vent on its left side that displayed the perfection of her equally spectacular legs. As he was undoubtedly supposed to. No doubt Anisimovna had a full file on his own preferences and hobbies.

    She was accompanied by three other people, all of whom Tyler recognized, although he’d actually met only one of them before. He knew the others’ faces from the pre-meeting briefing conducted by Alfonso Higgins, his Chief of Intelligence, however, and he came forward, extending his hands to Anisimovna.

    “Ms. Anisimovna!” he said with a broad smile. She held out her own right hand, and he shook it in both of his, still smiling. “This is a pleasure. A genuine pleasure,” he told her.

    “Why, thank you, Mr. President,” she replied with a smile of her own which showed teeth as perfect as all the rest of her. Reasonably enough; her family had been availing itself of the advanced genetic manipulation techniques of Manpower for three or four generations now. It would have been shocking if her teeth hadn’t been perfect.

    “And, as always, it’s a pleasure to see you, too, Junyan,” Tyler continued, turning to Vice-Commissioner Hongbo.

    “Mr. President,” Hongbo Junyan murmured, bending his head in a polite bow as he shook the President’s hand in turn. Tyler gripped it for another second, then turned to Anisimovna’s other two companions with politely raised eyebrows, as if he had no idea who they might be.

    “Mr. President,” the Manpower board member said, “allow me to present Isabel Bardasano, of the Jessyk Combine, and Mr. Izrok Levakonic, of Technodyne Industries.”

    “Ms. Bardasano. Mr. Levakonic.” Tyler shook two more hands, and his mind was busy.

    Despite the amount of business Monica and Monican interests -- including quite a few of the Tyler family’s enterprises -- did with Mesa, he personally knew very few Mesans. Nor was he particularly familiar with the internal dynamics of Mesan society. But Alfonso Higgins was another matter. According to him, Bardasano’s spectacular tattoos, and the dramatically cut garments which displayed a degree of body piercing that made Tyler want to wince, marked her as a member of one of the Mesan “young lodges.” There were at least a dozen “lodges,” all in bitter competition with one another for dominance, and all at odds with the older Mesan tradition of inconspicuousness. Secure in the wealth and power of their corporate hierarchy, they deliberately flaunted who and what they were, rather than attempting to blend into the “respectable” Solly business community. Given the track record of the Audubon Ballroom, Tyler doubted that he would have been quite so eager to mark himself out as a target. Perhaps Bardasano simply had an unreasonable degree of faith in her personal security arrangements.

    And perhaps, if she did, she had justification. One thing Higgins’ did know about Bardasano was that, despite her relatively junior status as a mere cadet member of the Jessyk board, she was considered a dangerous, dangerous woman. She’d come up through the clandestine side of Jessyk’s operations -- the ones no one was supposed to know about. According to the rumors Higgins had picked up, she favored a hands-on style, very different from the remote spymaster approach, with multiple layers of cutouts, others in her line of work preferred. And according to those same rumors, people who blew operations for which Bardasano was responsible tended to come to abrupt and nasty ends.

    As for Levakonic, even Higgins’ people knew very little about him. But they knew a great deal about Technodyne Industries of Yildun, and it was unlikely Technodyne would have sent a low-level flunky this far from home, and in the company of someone like Anisimovna.

    And, the president told himself, Anisimovna is the spokeswoman, not Hongbo. That’s interesting, too.

    “Please, be seated,” he invited, waving at the comfortable powered chairs scattered about his spacious office. They accepted the invitation, settling down in the main conversational nook, and well-trained servants -- scandalously expensive luxuries in the Old League, but easily come by here in the Verge -- padded in with trays of refreshments.

    Tyler accepted his own wineglass and leaned back in the office’s largest and most impressive chair, allowing himself a moment to savor the extraordinarily expensive hand-painted oils on its walls, the handwoven carpet, and the original DeKuleyere sculpture beside his desk. The constantly, subtly shifting sonics radiating from the light sculpture was almost imperceptible, yet he felt them caressing him like a lover.

    He knew nothing he could possibly do would make him anything except a Verge neobarb in his guests’ eyes, however courteously they might conceal that. But his father had had him educated on Old Earth itself. The experience hadn’t done anything to dull his contempt for the Old League’s gooey, saccharin attachment to its cult of the individual, but it had at least left him with an educated palate and an appreciation for the finer things in life.

    He waited until all his guests had been served and the servants had withdrawn. Then, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair and cupping his wineglass in both hands, he looked at Anisimovna and cocked one eyebrow.

    “I was intrigued when your local representative screened my appointments secretary, Ms. Anisimovna. It isn’t really customary for me to meet with people without at least some idea of why it is they want to see me. But in light of the business relationships between your corporation and so many of Monica’s prominent citizens, I was certain whatever you wished to see me about would scarcely be a waste of my time. And now I see you accompanied by my good friend Vice-Commissioner Hongbo, and Mr. Levakonic. I must admit, it piques my curiosity.”

    “I rather hoped it would, Mr. President,” she replied with a winsomely charming smile. He chuckled appreciatively, and she shrugged. “Actually, we’re here because my colleagues and I see a situation in which all of us, including you and your republic, face a difficult problem. One which it may be possible not only to solve, but to transform into an extremely profitable opportunity, instead.”


    “Oh, yes. Indeed,” she said. She leaned back, crossing her legs, and Tyler enjoyed the view as the clinging fabric molded itself to her trim, half-exposed thighs. It turned briefly invisible in intriguingly fleeting patches as it drew taut, too, he noted.

    “The difficult problem to which I refer, Mr. President,” she continued, “is the sudden, unwarranted and unwelcome intrusion of the Star Kingdom of Manticore into the Talbott Cluster.”

    Tyler’s appreciation of the scenery faded abruptly, and his eyes narrowed. “Unwelcome” was an extremely inadequate way to describe Manticore’s sudden arrival on his doorstep. The Cluster had never been particularly important to Monica (or anywhere else) before the Manties’ discovery of their damned terminus. Even the label “Talbott Cluster” was thoroughly inaccurate; the body of stars it defined was neither a cluster nor centered on the Talbott System. It was only a convenient label Solarian astrographers had hung on it because the wretchedly poor Talbott System had been the site of Frontier Security’s first observation post in the area. OFS had abandoned Talbott long since in favor of the Meyers System, but the name had stuck.

    But the Star Kingdom was here now, and its reputation preceded it. He hardly expected his relationships with people like Anisimovna to find favor in Manticoran eyes, nor did he look forward to the effect the nearby example of Manticoran ideas of personal liberty -- not to mention standards of living -- was likely to have upon his own citizenry.

    “I’ll agree that I’d love to see the Manties’ interference in Talbott swatted,” he said, after a moment. “And, if you’ll forgive me, I can well understand why Mesa and Manpower would also like to see them excluded from the region. I have to wonder, however, why you’re discussing this with me, when it’s apparent you’ve already discussed it with Mr. Hongbo. He, after all, represents the Solarian League and all it’s might; I’m simply the president of a single star-system.”

    “Yes, you are, Mr. President,” Bardasano put in. “At the moment.”

    “At the moment?” he repeated, and she shrugged.

    “Let me suggest a possible scenario,” she said. “What would happen to your economy, and to your military power, if, instead of Manticore, Monica controlled the Lynx Terminus?”

    “Are you serious?” He looked at her in disbelief, and she shrugged again.

    “Assume for the moment that I am,” she suggested. “I’m sure you’ve already observed the increased volume of shipping in the area. I’m something of a specialist in the area of the interstellar transportation of goods and people, Mr. President, and I can assure you, the volume will only grow with time. The new routing possibilities are still being worked out, and it will take a while for all of the hulls already in motion to settle down into the new patterns. And, of course, as the volume of the commerce increases, the need for transshipment points, warehouses, repair facilities, and all of the other paraphernalia associated with a wormhole terminus will increase along with it. As will the flow of transit fees, warehousing taxes, and so forth into the controlling power’s treasury. I took the liberty of analyzing Monica’s economic performance over the last ten T-years. By my most pessimistic estimate, possession of the Lynx Terminus would double your government’s revenue stream within three T-years. By the time the terminus hit its full stride, your gross system product would have risen by a factor of six . . . at least. In addition to which, of course, your position as gatekeeper to the rest of the galaxy, would make Monica the unquestioned dominant power in the Cluster.”

    “No doubt all of that is true, Ms. Bardasano,” Tyler said, trying to hide the spike of sheer, unadulterated avarice her word picture had sent through him. “Unfortunately, as I understand it, the Manties have a short way with people who try to control the termini of their wormhole junction. I seem to recall they hold sovereignty even to the Sigma Draconis Terminus in the League itself.”

    “Not precisely correct, Mr. President,” Hongbo said respectfully. “The Sigma Draconis Terminus lies outside the territorial limit of the star system. Nonetheless, the Manticorans were forced to make certain concessions to Sigma Draconis and the Beowulf planetary government. The Sigma Draconis Terminus, for example, isn’t fortified, and Sigma Draconis -- not Manticore -- is responsible for its security. In return for the protection afforded to the terminus by the Sigma Draconis System Defense Force, Beowulf receives a percentage of the use fees on that terminus. In addition, all Beowulf-registry freighters pay the same transit fees through all termini of the junction as Manticoran-registry ships. It would be more accurate to say, I think, that Manticore shares sovereignty over the terminus with Beowulf. And even that much is true only because Beowulf chose to accept the arrangement.”

    “Very well, Junyan,” Tyler said just a bit testily. “Let’s call it shared sovereignty, if you wish. Somehow, I don’t think Manticore is particularly interested in sharing sovereignty over this terminus. And unlike Beowulf, Monica possesses neither the fleet strength to insist that it do so, nor the protection of the Solarian League Navy to hide behind if we irritate the Royal Manticoran Navy.”

    “We’re aware of that, Mr. President,” Anisimovna said, leaning forward to lay one hand lightly on his knee . . . and show him an impressive bit of decolletage. “And I assure you,” she continued, “that we would never have asked to meet with you if we’d intended to put you at risk. Well,” she allowed herself another small smile as a she sat back and her chair once more, “perhaps that’s not quite entirely accurate. There will be an element of risk. There always is when one plays for truly high stakes. But in this instance, the risk is both manageable and much smaller than it might appear at first sight.”

    “Really?” He put an edge of coolness into his voice. “It sounds to me as if you intend to invite me to unilaterally proclaim Monican sovereignty over the Lynx Terminus. I fail to see how that could constitute a ‘manageable’ risk, when my entire fleet consists of less than one light task force, compared to the RMN. And while my own intelligence sources aren’t the equal of the SLN’s -- or even your own, I dare say -- they’re quite sufficient to tell me Manticore’s hardware is now much more dangerous than anything Monica has. Then, too, there’s the minor matter that the entire Manticoran Home Fleet is just sitting at the other end of the terminus.”

    “Mr. President,” Anisimovna said a bit reproachfully, “you’re getting ahead of our . . . proposal. Yes,” she raised one hand gracefully, “it’s perfectly understandable that you should see the physical threat represented by the Manty navy. In fact, it’s your responsibility as Monica’s head of state and military commander in chief to see exactly that. However, please consider that there would be absolutely no advantage to us in sacrificing your navy or your star nation. We’re prepared to make a substantial economic investment in your success in any operation or gambit we might suggest you undertake. As businesspeople, we would scarcely do such a thing unless we fully and confidently expected the venture to succeed.”

    Tyler considered her narrowly. The argument was logical enough, but he couldn’t quite ignore the fact that she was talking about the possible loss of a financial investment, one he was certain no corporation like Manpower would ever assume in the first place if it couldn’t afford to write it off in the event of disaster. He, on the other hand, would risk something just a bit more permanent than that.




    “Very well,” he said. “Explain just what it is you have in mind.”

    “It’s actually not all that complicated, Mr. President,” Anisimovna told him. “We -- meaning my own business colleagues, not the League or Mr. Hongbo’s Frontier Security -- are prepared to provide your navy with a rather powerful reinforcement. At the moment, if my figures are correct, your fleet consists of five heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, nineteen destroyers, and several dozen LACs. Which comes to just over four million tons. Is that substantially correct?”

    “Yes, it is. I’m sure Admiral Bourmont could give you more complete figures, but four million tons will do, “ he said, still watching her intently, and refraining from pointing out that almost a half million tons of that consisted solely of sadly obsolete light attack craft. Or that the cruisers fell far short of cutting-edge technology themselves.

    “Very well,” she said. “We’re prepared to supply you with fourteen Solarian Indefatigable-class battlecruisers, each of approximately eight hundred and fifty thousand tons. That comes to twelve million tons, or a three thousand percent increase in your navy’s tonnage.”

    Roberto Tyler felt as if someone had just kicked him in the belly. His ears couldn’t have heard what he thought they just had. But if she meant it….

    “While the Indefatigables are being replaced in Solarian service by the Nevada-class ships, Mr. President,” Levakonic said, speaking up for the first time, “they served primarily with the frontier fleet elements. As I’m sure you’re aware, that means they were kept much more rigorously updated with refits than is traditionally the case for Solarian ships of the wall or battlecruisers attached to the Central Reserve. These vessels represent very nearly the latest word in SLN weaponry and EW capabilities. Ms. Anisimovna has pointed out that they would effectively quadruple your existing tonnage. In terms of actual effective combat strength, your navy’s capabilities would increase by a factor of well over a hundred.”

    “Yes. Yes, they would,” Tyler admitted after a moment, and he could hear the raw greed in his voice himself. “I fail to understand, however, just how private businesspeople like you and Ms. Anisimovna might happen to have access to such ships.” He resolutely refrained from looking at Hongbo.

    “As I just pointed out,” Levakonic said calmly, “the Indefatigables are being replaced by the Nevadas. The process is going to take years. It’s also going to be expensive, and Technodyne is one of the primary builders for the new class. To help defray construction costs, the Navy is disposing of some of the Indefatigables slated to be replaced by transferring them to us for scrapping and reclamation. Obviously, they have on-site inspectors to ensure that the hulls are stripped and broken up. As it happens, however,” his expression, Tyler noticed, remained completely innocent and bland, “some of those inspectors have developed a case of what used to be called myopia. A few of the older ships have somehow fallen through cracks and dropped off of the SLN tracking system. Under the right set of circumstances, fourteen of them could be here within, oh, about sixty T-days.”

    “I see.” Tyler was getting his imagination back under control, and he smiled crookedly at the Technodyne representative. “I imagine, though, that it might be a bit difficult for your employers if those ‘scrapped’ ships turned up intact in someone else’s navy.”

    “‘A bit difficult’ would be a fairly generous understatement, Mr. President,” Levakonic agreed. The small, wiry man smiled with what Tyler suspected was the first genuine amusement any of his visitors had displayed. “That’s why we ‘d have to insist that all of them be comprehensively refitted in your own yard here in Monica. We’d need more than just a simple change of transponder codes. We could reshape their emissions signatures significantly by changing out sidewall generators and the main active sensor arrays, but there are several other, smaller changes we’d want to make, as well. In combination, they should be more than enough to adequately disguise she ships’ origins. It wouldn’t stand up in the face of a physical boarding and examination, but that shouldn’t really be a factor.”

    “I suppose not,” Tyler said. But then he shook himself.

    “This is all extremely fascinating… and very tempting,” he said frankly. “But even with a reinforcement like that, the Monican Navy would disappear like water in a vacuum if the Manty Home Fleet came calling.” He shook his head. “However much I might like the notion of controlling the Lynx Terminus, and of keeping the Manticorans as far away from Monica as possible, I’m not prepared to commit suicide by challenging them to open combat.”

    “It wouldn’t work out that way,” Anisimovna predicted with what Tyler privately thought was a ludicrous degree of assurance.

    “Without wishing to seem discourteous, Ms. Anisimovna, I don’t believe I feel quite as confident of that as you appear to.”

    “Honesty is always welcome, Mr. President, even at the risk of discourtesy. And I’m not surprised you don’t share my confidence. The entire idea’s come at you cold, without the opportunity to consider all the ramifications. But I assure you that we have considered them quite carefully. And although I recognize we’re suggesting you assume a more immediate and larger degree of personal risk than we are, I might also point out that if this gambit fails, and your new battlecruisers are traced back to Mr. Levakonic or to myself, then the consequences for us and for our corporations will also be… extreme.”

    His eyes flared, and she smiled gently.

    “I’m not trying to equate our degrees of risk, Mr. President. I’m simply trying to make the point that we wouldn’t be recommending any such course of action to you if we didn’t honestly and completely expect it to succeed.”

    And I can believe is much of that as I want to, he thought sardonically. But, then again, my relationship with Manpower and Mesa is worth too much to jeopardize by being blunt. And it can’t do any harm to at least listen to whatever insanity she wants to propose.

    “Very well,” he said. “Explain just why you believe I could get away with anything like this, please.”

    “Let’s consider this situation from the Manties’ side,” Anisimovna suggested reasonably. “Their intelligence on the Cluster can’t have been very complete before they first located the Lynx Terminus. After all, Lynx is over six hundred light-years from Manticore; Monica is another two hundred and seventy light-years from Lynx; and the Star Kingdom had absolutely no strategic interests in the area.

    “Things have changed, however, and I’m sure their intelligence services have been working overtime to secure as much information as possible about the Cluster and its immediate neighbors -- including Monica. And they’ve probably done an excellent job of analyzing the data they’ve been able to collect, especially now that Patricia Givens has returned to head their Office of Naval Intelligence.

    “Because of that, they know exactly -- or, at least, to within a fairly close margin -- how powerful your navy is. We may as well all be honest here and admit that Monica’s long-standing relationship with Frontier Security would make you of special interest to the Manties, so it’s virtually certain they’ve devoted an additional effort to collecting, collating, and analyzing information about you.”

    She paused, and Tyler nodded.

    “I’m sure you’re right, at least about the bit about their having a special interest in us. That’s why I’m confident their Admiralty must already have drawn up contingency plans for the unlikely event that we were foolish enough to get frisky and step on their toes.”

    “Of course. But,”Anisimovna’s gray eyes flashed with what certainly seemed to be genuine enthusiasm, “those plans are based on the ship strength they know you possess. If you were to suddenly appear before the terminus with no less than fourteen big, powerful, modern battlecruisers, they would have to realize there’d been some sort of sudden, radical change in the balance of military power in the Cluster. They won’t know where you got those ships, or who you got them from. Nor will they know how many other ships you may have acquired. The possibility that you got them directly from the League, or at least with the League’s official knowledge and approval, will have to cross their minds. And the fact that they’re already at war with the Republic of Haven, which has them stretched extremely tightly, will be another factor in their thinking.

    “I’m not going to suggest that anyone could guarantee they wouldn’t eventually move against you, assuming they concluded you were acting solely on your own. But they’ll hesitate, Mr. President. They have to. Given how close to desperate their military situation is right now, they can’t possibly unhesitatingly divert the strength to deal with your newly discovered battlecruisers -- and whoever might be backing you -- until they’ve had time to analyze the situation.”

    “And if they respond out of knee-jerk reaction by sending say, twenty or thirty of their own battlecruisers, or a single squadron of superdreadnoughts, through before they have time to realize all the reasons why they have to analyze the situation?” Tyler inquired.

    “Should they be stupid enough to do that, Mr. President,” Bardasano said, “I believe you’ll be able to present them with an argument against pressing any launch buttons after they get here.”

    “Indeed?” He looked at her skeptically. “Such as?”

    “After you’ve accepted the surrender of the Manty terminus picket, or blown it out of space, as the case may be,” she said calmly, “a dozen or so Monican freighters will begin emplacing mines. Actually, courtesy of Mr. Levakonic, they’ll be something new, something Technodyne developed out of the reverse flow of information from the previous Havenite regime.”

    Tyler looked at Levakonic, and the Technodyne rep smiled.

    “We call them ‘missile pods,’ Mr. President,” he said. “They have a great deal more standoff range than any conventional mine, and enough of them will blow any ship ever built out of space.”

    “And where do these ‘Monican freighters’ come from?”

    “Oh, I imagine I know someone who could loan them to you,” Bardasano said, gazing up at the ceiling.

    “And the cost of all of this generosity -- battlecruisers, freighters, missile pods . . .? I may not be Admiral Bourmont, but I have a pretty shrewd notion that what you’re talking about would cost considerably more than the next ten or fifteen years of our GSP.”

    “Certainly it would be expensive, Mr. President,” Anisimovna agreed. “But not any more than could be readily repaid by someone who had possession of a junction terminus. You could undoubtedly work quite a bit of it out by simply granting transit fee exemptions to Jessyk Combine shipping passing through.”

    “So.” Tyler let his gaze sweep over all of his visitors. “And how long are these missile pods good for? What’s their endurance?”

    “No more than two or three weeks,” Levakonic admitted. “A month, at most. After that, they have to be taken off-line for service and maintenance.”

    “But they’d be your hole card against an immediate, ill-conceived response from Manticore,” Anisimovna said quickly.

    “And while your freighters were placing the mines,” Bardasano said, “your navy would be sweeping up all of the merchantships which were present awaiting transit at the time of your arrival. And, of course, the additional ships coming in through hyper and unaware of the change in ownership. I’m sure you’d feel enormous remorse if you allowed any of those vessels to pass through the terminus before the situation with Manticore was fully resolved. After all, accidents happen, and it’s entirely possible that a merchantship coming through from Lynx might be mistaken for a hostile warship and destroyed by the Manties before they realized their error. It would therefore be your responsibility to hold all of those ships under the close, protective escort of your own naval units.”

    “Where,” Levakonic said softly, “any errors in targeting by attacking Manticoran warships might, regrettably, of course, kill hundreds of innocent merchant spacers. Solarian spacers, whose government would be… most unhappy over their deaths.”

    Tyler looked at them again, shaken by the ruthlessness they were prepared to employ.

    “All right,” he said finally. “I’ll concede that everything you’ve said so far is at least possible. But it’s all ultimately short term. Simply manning that many battlecruisers would stretch my trained manpower to the limit. I don’t even know if it would be possible out of our current manpower. Even if it were, I don’t have the trained technicians to provide the maintenance your missile pods are going to require, and I doubt very much that you could afford to provide me with enough of them. Not to mention the fact that even if you were able to do so, it would only make it painfully clear where ‘my’ ships and missile pods actually came from. And I can’t hold dozens of merchantships indefinitely, either. The Solarian shipping lines would be screaming for my head within weeks, months at the outside, and then I’d find the SLN and the RMN coming after me.”

    “No, you wouldn’t.” It was the first time Hongbo had spoken in several minutes, and Tyler’s eyes snapped over to the Frontier Security official.

    “Why not?” he asked tautly.

    “Because, Mr. President,” Anisimovna said, “you will have contacted the Office of Frontier Security through its offices in the Meyers System before you dispatch your naval units to the Lynx Terminus. You’ll explain to OFS that you can no longer sit by and watch the deteriorating situation in the Cluster. Obviously, the citizens of the Cluster’s star systems are violently opposed to their annexation by the Star Kingdom of Manticore. You, as the head of state of the most powerful local star nation, with your legitimate interests -- humanitarian, as well as those related to your own security -- have seen no option but to intervene. And, as the first step in ending the bloodshed and restoring domestic tranquility and local self-government, you have seized control of the Lynx Terminus in order to avoid further destabilization by outside interests.”

    “‘Deteriorating situation’? ‘Bloodshed’?” Tyler shook his head. “What deteriorating situation?”

    “I have it on the best of authority that violent resistance to the imposition of Manticoran rule is already brewing,” Anisimovna said somberly. “The freedom-loving citizens of the Cluster are awakening to the cynical way in which the plebiscite vote was manipulated to create the appearance of an overwhelming mandate for annexation by the Star Kingdom. And as they awake, they are preparing themselves for an armed struggle against the interlopers and their local collaborators.”

    Tyler felt his eyes trying to boggle. That was the most preposterous load of --

    Wait, he thought. Wait! That report from Alfonzo. Anisimovna and Bardasano met with Eichbauer and some Gendarmerie captain right here in Estelle. And Eichbauer and what’s-his-name were in uniform. Which means Anisimovna wanted me to know about the meeting. But Hongbo hasn’t said a thing about it. So there’s something here that officially isn’t happening but Hongbo knows about anyway, and they want me to know he does.

    “I see,” he said, very slowly, after a moment. “And, of course, Frontier Security would share my concern over the bloodshed and unrest in the Cluster.”

    “We’d have no choice but to examine your allegations most carefully, Mr. President,” Hongbo agreed gravely. “After all, our fundamental mandate is to prevent exactly this sort of imperialistic adventurism on the frontiers of the Solarian League. And, of course, to safeguard the personal liberties of the citizens living in the regions under our protection.”

    “And how -- hypothetically speaking, of course -- do you believe Frontier Security would eventually rule in this case?” Tyler asked, watching Hongbo’s expression very carefully.

    “Well, you understand, Mr. President, that anything I was to say at this point would have to be just that -- hypothetical?” Hongbo looked at Tyler until the Monican nodded. “On that basis, then, I should think Commissioner Verrochio’s first action would be to dispatch an SLN task force to stabilize the situation at Lynx. The task force’s commander’s orders would undoubtedly be to take control of the terminus in the League’s name until such time as the competing claims to it could be adjudged. Your ships would, of course, be required to withdraw from the area, as would any Manticoran military units. Anyone who attempted to defy his instructions would find himself -- briefly -- at war with the Solarian League.

    “Once that situation was stabilized, our investigation and verification teams would spread out through the Cluster. We’d interview all parties, including the freedom fighters, in order to make a determination on the true representativeness of the annexation vote.

    “I must confess that I personally harbor some fairly profound personal reservations about the validity of that vote.” He met Tyler’s gaze levelly and allowed himself a thin, fleeting smile. “Obviously, though, we’d have to wait for our careful and painstaking investigation to confirm those reservations. If, however, they found what I suspect they might, I don’t believe we’d have any choice but to set aside the sadly flawed initial annexation vote and hold a second plebiscite, under strict League supervision and poll monitoring, to determine the true desires of the Cluster’s citizens.”

    “And if it should happen that this new plebiscite disavows the original vote?”

    “In that case, Mr. President, one of the options which would be presented on the new plebiscite’s ballot, I’m sure, would be a request for temporary Frontier Security protection while a constitution was drafted to unify the systems of the Talbott Cluster into a new, autonomous sector under the leadership of an enlightened local power. The… Monica Sector, perhaps.”

    “With, of course,” Bardasano almost purred, “sovereignty over the junction terminus which would be the new sector’s most valuable natural resource.”

    Roberto Tyler sat back in his chair, gazing at the glittering vista they had stretched out before him. He raised his wineglass and sipped, then lowered it again and smiled.


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