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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Saturday, April 10, 2004 00:56 EDT



    “-- with the Honorable Delegate from Marian.” The heavyset speaker stood at the podium, looking out over the assembled delegates of the Constitutional Convention and shook his head. “I have no doubt of her sincerity, nor do I question the probity of her motives,” he continued gravely. “Yet the fact remains that she is proposing to barter away ancient, hard-won liberties in the name of political expediency. I cannot support such a proposal, and the delegation from New Tuscany regretfully votes in the negative.”

    Henri Krietzmann’s expression gave no hint of his emotions. That sort of impassivity didn’t come easily to him, but he’d had a crash course in it over the past endless weeks here on Flax. And he supposed Bernardus and Joachim were right. There was no point trying to hide what he felt when everyone here knew exactly why Dresden had sent him to the Convention, but it was a pragmatic necessity to appear impartial whenever he held the Convention’s gavel. And, perhaps even more to the point, he had a moral responsibility to be impartial in the fashion in which he exercised his authority on the Convention’s.

    He watched Andrieaux Yvernau leave the microphone and return to his own seat, and a corner of his mind noted the rebellious expressions on a couple of the other New Tuscany delegates. It would appear the delegation’s unanimity was less pronounced than Yvernau would have preferred. But far more so than Krietzmann liked. Unlike Dresden, where hardscrabble poverty was the great unifying condition, New Tuscany had its own exorbitantly wealthy (by Verge standards) upperclass, like Spindle and at least half of the Cluster’s other systems. Yvernau was probably almost as rich as Samiha Lababibi. As such, the delegation chief faced both enormous opportunity and great risk once the annexation went through, and he wanted all the safeguards he could get. A few of the other New Tuscan delegates, without his vast personal fortune to protect, were growing impatient with him. Unfortunately, the delegation, like the New Tuscan government itself, was overwhelmingly dominated by the local oligarchs. It was highly unlikely any of the others would openly break with Yvernau. In fact, they were under binding instructions to follow his directives, which had put New Tuscany firmly into Aleksandra Tonkovic’s political pocket.

    Krietzmann waited until Yvernau settled back into his chair, then looked at the Christmas tree of blinking attention lights on his display.

    “The Chair recognizes the Honorable Delegate from Tillerman,” he said, gesturing for the woman in question to take the microphone.

    “Thank you, Mr. President,” Yolanda Harper, the Tillerman System’s chief delegate said, standing up but never moving away from her seat, “but I’ll keep this brief, and I don’t think I’ll need a mike to make m’self understood.” The lanky, brown-haired, weathered woman turned to face the other delegations and threw up one callused, farmer’s hand in disgust. “That last was just about the biggest load of shit I’ve heard or seen since the last fertilizer shuttle arrived at my place this spring,” she said in her blunt, hard-syllabled voice. “The Tillerman delegation unanimously endorses the resolution, and --“

    The Chamber door flew open, and Krietzmann looked up in reflex outrage. The Convention’s closed sessions weren’t to be disturbed, and certainly not in such abrupt, unceremonious fashion! He opened his mouth to say something sharp, then paused. Maxwell Devereaux, the Convention Sergeant at Arms, wasn’t trying to prevent the interruption; he was hurrying down the aisle from the open door in front of the haggard-faced, uniformed messenger, and his expression sent a sudden icy chill through Krietzmann’s blood.

    “I’m sorry, Henri -- I mean, Mr. President,” Devereaux said hoarsely. “I know we’re not supposed to, but --“ He drew a deep breath, and shook himself, like a man who’d just been punched in the gut. “This is Major Toboc. He just arrived with a dispatch from Split. I… think you’d better view it.”



    It was hard to tell which of the faces in the private conference room was most ashen.

    Henri Krietzmann sat at the head of the table, with Samiha Lababibi at the opposite end. Joachim Alquezar sat to Krietzmann’s left, facing Aleksandra Tonkovic across the tabletop, and silence was a cold, leaden weight, crushing down on them all. Finally, Krietzmann cleared his throat.

    “Well,” he said harshly, “I suppose we should all have seen this coming.”

    Tonkovic flinched, as if he’d slapped her. Then she stiffened in her chair, shoulders squaring, and glared at him.

    “What do you mean by that crack?” she demanded sharply.

    Krietzmann blinked at her in genuine surprise. For just a moment, he couldn’t imagine what might have set her off. Then he realized, and his own anger flickered at the thought that she could be so petty as to think that at a moment like this --!

    No, Henri, he told himself firmly. This isn’t the time. And whatever else may be going through her head, she has to be hurting right now. Of course she’s looking for someone to take some of that anger and pain out on. But, Jesus, I wish Bernardus were here!

    “Contrary to what you may think, Aleksandra,” he said, forcing his voice’s harshness back into a tone of reason by sheer willpower, “that wasn’t an attempt on my part to say ‘I told you so.’”

    “No?” She glowered at him. But then she scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, and her shoulders slumped once more. “No, I guess it wasn’t,” she said wearily. “It’s just --“ Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head, slowly.

    “Henri wasn’t saying he’d told you so, Aleksandra,” Alquezar said after a moment. “And neither am I. But it’s probably going to feel like we are.”

    She looked up at him, green eyes flashing, and it was his turn to shake his head.

    “Look, Aleksandra. All of us, including you, have been saying for months now that some degree of backlash was inevitable. And we’ve all been admitting there’s at least a lunatic fringe -- like Westman -- that was likely to take things into its own hands. But I don’t think anyone, including me or Henri, ever expected something like this. We should’ve at least allowed for the possibility, though, and there’s going to be a lot of recriminations -- and self-recrimination -- while we cope with the reality. Some of it’s going to hurt, and a lot of it’s going to be ugly. But here in this room, the four of us -- especially! -- have to be able to talk to each other as frankly as we possibly can.”

    She glared at him for a few more seconds, then nodded, manifestly unwillingly.

    “All right. I can see that.”

    “Thank you,” he said softly. Then he drew a deep breath. “But having said all that, Aleksandra, this is exactly the sort of incident I’ve been most afraid of. Oh, I never expected something this bloody, this… vicious, or on such a scale, so quickly. But I’ve been predicting violent acts of some sort, and I have to reiterate my position. The longer we drag out this Convention, the worse it’s going to get. And the worse it gets, the more likely the Star Kingdom is to rethink its willingness to accept the original plebiscite at all.”

    “Oh, nonsense!” Tonkovic said sharply. Yet it was evident she was throttling her own deep surge of anger and trying to maintain at least some detachment. “Of course this was a horrible, horrible act! I’ve always known Agnes Nordbrandt was an idiot, but I never guessed she was a lunatic, as well. The woman has to be insane -- she and her entire NRP! Not that an insanity defense’s going to help her when we apprehend her! But blaming her actions on the fact that the Convention hasn’t reported out a draft Constitution yet is ludicrous!”

    “I didn’t blame her actions on the delays. What I said is --“

    ”A moment, Joachim, please,” Lababibi interrupted gently, and he paused, looking at her.

    “Of course you’re not saying that somehow Aleksandra’s refusal to abandon her position created Nordbrandt or this ‘Freedom Alliance of Kornati’ nightmare of hers. But you are arguing that the extended debate here in Thimble helped create the opportunity for her to commit this atrocity. And that any failure to embrace your party’s platform will only make things worse. Not to mention your implication that if things do get worse, Manticore will probably decide to reject our annexation request, after all.”

    Alquezar’s jaw muscles clenched, and he glowered at her, his brown eyes hard. But then he flipped one hand in a gesture of unwilling assent -- or at least concession.

    “All right,” he acknowledged. “I suppose I am. But I also think that whether Aleksandra agrees with me or not, these are serious concerns which need to be addressed.”

    “I think Joachim has a point,” Krietzmann said in his most non-inflammatory tones. Despite his effort to avoid any appearance of additional provocation, Tonkovic glared at him. And, he noticed, Lababibi didn’t look especially happy, either.

    “First,” Tonkovic said, “let’s remember whose planet this happened on. I’m not just the Split System’s chief of delegation here at the Convention. I’m also the Planetary President of Kornati. Vuk Rajkovic is the acting head of state -- my deputy, while I’m here on Thimble. And those people who were killed in the Nemanja Building were colleagues of mine. They were my friends, damn it! People I’ve known for decades -- some of them literally all my life! And even the people I never met were my citizens, my people. Don’t you ever think, not for one fleeting second, that I don’t want Agnes Nordbrandt and every one of her butchering lunatics arrested, tried, and executed for this atrocity. And when the time comes, I’ll put my own name in the hat when the court draws the lots for the firing squad!

    “But you’ve seen the reports. I’m assuming you’ve read them as carefully as I did, and there’s nothing in any of them to indicate that this Freedom Alliance of hers is anything but a tiny, super-violent splinter group. Yes, they planted bombs all over the capital. And yes, they got away with it. But not because they have thousands of members lurking behind every hedge, every door, with bombs in their hands. They obviously planned this all very carefully, and before she went underground, Nordbrandt was a member of Parliament herself. She had access to all our security data, all our contingency plans. Of course she knew where the loopholes were -- where we were vulnerable! We should have completely overhauled all of our security arrangements as soon as she dropped out of sight. I admit that. And the responsibility for our failure to do so rests squarely on my shoulders. But they did it with homemade weapons. With commercially available blasting compound, and with timers and detonators any farmer on Kornati would have in the electronics bins in his barn. They planned it meticulously; they placed their bombs to inflict the maximum possible casualties and the psychological shock; and much as I hate them, they showed as much skill as ruthlessness in carrying it out. They’re obviously a serious threat, one we have to take seriously. But they’re not ten meters tall, and they can’t pour themselves through keyholes like vampires, and they damned sure aren’t werewolves we’re going to need silver pulser darts to kill!”

    She glowered around the conference table, her nostrils flared and her green eyes hard.

    “And your point?” Lababibi asked very gently.

    “My point is that I’m not going to let myself be panicked into doing exactly what Nordbrandt wants me to do. I was sent to this Convention by the voters of Kornati with a specific mandate. A mandate supported by a clear majority of those same voters. I’m not going to permit this madwoman and her insane followers to manipulate me into violating that mandate. I can think of nothing which would be more likely to produce exactly the sort of polarization she’s looking for. And to be brutally cold-blooded and honest about it, what’s happened doesn’t change a thing vis-a-vis the political realities of this annexation proposal. Not unless we permit it to, and I refuse to do that.”

    Krietzmann stared at her, unable to keep his incredulity completely out of his expression, and she glared defiantly at him.

    “Whatever it does domestically, in terms of the Cluster’s ‘political realities,’” Alquezar said after a moment, “its impact on the Manticoran political calculus is beyond our ability to affect by a sheer act of political will, Aleksandra. Queen Elizabeth’s fighting a war for her Star Kingdom’s survival. If a situation arises in the Cluster which causes her to believe she’d be forced to divert a significant military force here, to act in a morally repugnant suppressive role, she may very well decide that all she really needs is the Lynx Terminus. And if that happens, just how do you think Frontier Security is going to react to our efforts to avoid its embrace by courting Manticore?”

    “I think you may be overstating the potential consequences, Joachim.”

    Alquezar’s head snapped around in surprise, because the comment hadn’t come from Tonkovic. It had come from Lababibi.

    “I’m not saying you’re creating threats out of whole cloth,” the Spindle System President continued. Her voice and expression alike were troubled, as if she wasn’t entirely happy with what she was saying, yet she went on without hesitation. “But what we’re looking at at this moment is a single act of violence. Yes, a particularly -- no, let’s be honest; a horrifically atrocious act of violence. But it’s only one incident, and Manticore isn’t going to abandon the annexation process and risk the interstellar perception that it’s broken faith with us without far more justification than that.

    “Queen Elizabeth’s appointed a provisional governor. She’s authorized and sanctioned our Constitutional Convention. In fact, she’s insisted we tell her the terms upon which we seek annexation. She’s also made it clear that if the Star Kingdom’s Parliament finds our terms unreasonable, or unacceptable, they’ll be rejected. But those were the actions of a monarch who believes in the political process and who’s committed to making this annexation work. So as long as we’re confronted by the actions of what are obviously marginalized maniacs, frustrated by their irrelevance to mainstream political opinion, and as long as our own law enforcement agencies are rigorously pursuing both the investigation and the perpetrators, she isn’t about to pull the plug.”

    Krietzmann’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly at Lababibi’s argument. Intellectually, he was certain, the Spindalian head of state felt far closer to his own and Alquezar’s positions. But he’d always sensed a certain ambivalence in her support, and that ambivalence suddenly seemed far more pronounced.

    It’s the economic factor. The class factor. The thought came to him abruptly, sharply, with an almost audible click. That bit in Nordbrandt’s statement about “wealthy traitors” and selling the planet to the highest bidder and “obscene wealth.” Lababibi’s an oligarch. All of her friends and family, and all of her friends’ families -- hell, every significant member of the entire damned political establishment here on Flax! -- are oligarchs. It’s the reason she’s always been so much more comfortable with Joachim than with wretched, lower-class me.

    But now Nordbrandt’s put her view of the Cluster’s economic inequity squarely on the table alongside everything else, and Lababibi suddenly finds all those precious liberal convictions of hers cold comfort. Or, even worse, she can refuse to admit that -- can continue to embrace them and use them to justify switching her support openly to Tonkovic. After all, all she’s really doing is defending the traditional rights and freedoms of everyone in her star system. If it just happens that warping the entire Constitution around to protect that also protects the status quo -- and her family’s wealth and power -- well, these things happen….

    He’d started to open his mouth in instant, instinctive protest. But then he closed it and shot Alquezar a quick, warning glance, as well. He took a handful of seconds to organize his own thoughts, then let his gray eyes sweep coolly back and forth between Tonkovic and Lababibi.

    “I think you’re being overly optimistic, Samiha,” he said in a calm, level voice. “It’s possible, however, that my own convictions are overly pessimistic in that regard. I don’t think so, but I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility. I hope, though, that you’re willing to concede in turn that Joachim and I have a legitimate right to be concerned over the Manticoran reaction to this?”

    “Of course you do,” Lababibi said quickly, as if she was relieved that he, too, had obviously decided to help avoid any open breach. “My God, who wouldn’t react strongly to something like this?! At the very least, public opinion in the Star Kingdom is going to wonder what sort of neobarbs we are to let it happen.”

    “Which is one more reason to resist Nordbrandt’s efforts to stampede us into some sort of extreme reaction,” Tonkovic put in.

    Alquezar stirred in his chair, but Krietzmann stepped on his toe under the table. It was rather ironic, the Convention President thought, that he, the hotheaded proletarian, was suddenly playing the role of sweet reason and restraining the “cold-blooded” capitalist.

    “We may not be in total agreement about just who’s stampeding where, Aleksandra,” he said, allowing a tinge of coolness to color his voice, as well as his eyes. “But at this point, all we really have are the initial reports. I hope you’ll keep the entire Convention apprised of the status of your investigations back on Kornati?”

    “Of course we will! In fact, I think it would be a good idea for the Convention to appoint a liaison group and dispatch it to Kornati to ensure that the delegates get unbiased, complete reports on the exact extent of our progress.”

    “Thank you. I think that’s an excellent idea. And I’m sure quite a few of the other delegations would be pleased if you made that proposal yourself at this afternoon’s emergency session.”

    “I will,” she promised.

    “Thank you,” he repeated. “And I’m also sure that if any of us can do anything at all to assist you, you have only to ask.”

    “At this point, we have no reason to believe this is anything except a purely domestic problem. If we turn up any evidence which even hints at the possibility of some sort of interstellar connection, we’ll bring it to the Convention’s attention and seek any appropriate coordination,” Tonkovic said. “And while I don’t agree with Joachim that Manticore is likely to back out of the annexation commitment, I intend to keep Baroness Medusa fully informed on our progress.”

    “I think that would also be an excellent idea,” Krietzmann approved, and she actually smiled at him, however thinly.

    “On that note,” he continued, “perhaps we should adjourn. I’m sure all of us are anxious to sit down with our own delegations. And I know all of us have to get this information, and the Convention’s reactions to it, reported to our own governments.”

    Tonkovic and Lababibi nodded. Alquezar didn’t, but neither did he protest, and Krietzmann slid back his chair and stood. They all shook hands, then Tonkovic and Lababibi went one way down the hall while Krietzmann and Alquezar went the other.

    The Dresdener could feel the towering San Miguel delegate’s frustration and bubbling anger, but at least Alquezar had kilotons of self-control. However furious he might be, he wasn’t going to vent that fury in public.

    In private, now, Krietzmann thought. That’s a different matter. But there’s no point burning any additional bridges sooner than we have to. And if we push Lababibi and the other oligarchs too hard, drive them into forting up under Tonkovic’s banner….

    He shook his head, his expression worried, and wished again that Van Dort were still on Flax.




    “What kind of maniac does something like this?” Rear Admiral Augustus Khumalo was visibly shaken, his face drawn, as the visual imagery of the carnage in Kornati’s capital flowed across the briefing room’s display.

    “The kind who thinks she doesn’t have anything left to lose, Admiral,” Dame Estelle Matsuko said harshly.

    “And the kind, if you’ll forgive me for pointing it out, Madam Governor,” Gregor O’Shaughnessy said, “who wants to provoke an extreme reaction from her political opposition.”

    Khumalo gave Medusa’s senior intelligence officer a cold look.

    “I think this --“ he jabbed an angry finger at the images of covered bodies, ambulances, fires, rubble, smoke, and ugly bloodstains that looked as if some lunatic had run amok with a bucket of red paint “-- is about as ‘extreme as it gets, Mr. O’Shaughnessy! Those are dead civilians. Civilians who ought to already be citizens of the Star Kingdom!”

    “No one’s trying to minimize what happened, Admiral.” O’Shaughnessy was ten centimeters shorter than the rear admiral, with thinning gray hair and a slight build. He’d come up through the civilian intelligence community, and there was a slight, almost imperceptible -- almost imperceptible -- edge of hostility between him and Medusa’s military subordinates. To his credit, O’Shaughnessy was aware of it, and usually tried to contain it. Like now. His tone was reasonable, nonconfrontational, as he faced the far more physically imposing Khumalo.

    “All I’m trying to say, Sir,” he continued, “is that classic terrorist strategy -- and let’s not fool ourselves, this was clearly a terroristic act -- is to create the maximum possible polarization. They want the authorities to appear oppressive, to appear to overreact. To clamp down hard enough to convince the undecided that the terrorists were right all along about the fundamental oppressiveness of the state.”

    “He’s right, Admiral,” Commander Ambrose Chandler put in. Chandler sat to Khumalo’s left while Captain Shoupe sat on the rear admiral’s other side. Khumalo’s staff intelligence officer was a good five centimeters taller than the rear admiral, although he was considerably less broad shouldered. He was also twenty-five years younger, and -- in O’Shaughnessy’s opinion -- he had a tendency to avoid irritating his boss, which sometimes undermined his own arguments. But he was generally conscientious about attempting to provide good analysis, and this time, he shook his head, meeting Khumalo’s glower squarely.

    “At the moment, Sir,” he continued, “the overwhelming reaction in Split has to be one of revulsion, outrage, and fury. Right now, the vast majority of Kornatians want nothing more than to see Nordbrandt and her accomplices arrested, tried, and convicted. And that reaction is going to persist, for a time, at least. Would you agree, Gregor?”

    “In the short term? Oh, certainly! In the longer term, however….” O’Shaughnessy raised his right hand, palm uppermost, and tipped it back and forth.

    “How could anyone feel anything but outrage?” Khumalo demanded with harsh incredulity.

    “There’s probably at least a tiny minority which actually agrees with them,” O’Shaughnessy said, obviously picking his words with care. “The majority, as Ambrose says, almost certainly don’t, but the Kornatian economy’s in worse shape than almost any of the Cluster’s other economies. There really is serious poverty and economic hardship, and the people who’ve been stepped on hardest by the existing social structure are likely to feel at least some sympathy for her announced motives, however much they deplore her methods. And the majority that don’t support her, the ones who’re horrified by what’s happened, are going to want two things, Sir. First, they’ll want the perpetrators apprehended. Second, they’ll want their government to do the apprehending without becoming some sort of police state.”

    He shrugged, his normally warm brown eyes cold and thoughtful.

    “So the terrorists’ objectives are going to be first, to remain un-apprehended, and, second, to provoke the Kornatian government into appearing extremist. At the very least, they want the government to appear ineffectual. At best, they want the government to appear both ineffectual and oppressive and corrupt.”

    “I simply can’t believe that anything could overcome the repugnance and hatred for those responsible that something like this generates,” Khumalo argued, shaking his head and waving his hand at the bloodsoaked imagery once again.

    “Trust me, Admiral,” Medusa said quietly. “Gregor’s right about the Kornatian economy, and the political dynamic in a situation like this one is complicated and fluid enough for almost anything to happen. Especially if those in authority stumble and botch things. The Kornatians are going to want firm, decisive action, but they also have a tradition of the fierce defense of individual civil liberties. Whether Tonkovic’s position here at the Convention is based on genuine principle or just a huge dose of self-interest, there are plenty of people in the Split System who do have firm political principles that would be outraged by any sort of police state mentality. So any action the government takes to crush Nordbrandt and her lunatics is going to be a potentially double-edged sword. “

    Khumalo shook his head again, his job clamped stubbornly. But he appeared unwilling to disagree openly with his civilian superior.

    “One other thing of which we ought to be aware,” O’Shaughnessy said. All eyes swiveled to him, and he smiled, with absolutely no humor. “According to my carefully cultivated sources, Henri Krietzmann is meeting at this very moment with Joachim Alquezar, Aleksandra Tonkovic, and Samiha.”

    “Do you have any prediction of what will come out of their meeting?” the provisional governor asked.

    “No, Milady. There are far too many variables for me to even hazard guesses at this point. I hope to have at least some information about that for you by this evening, however.”

    “Good.” Medusa grimaced. “Oh, how I wish Van Dort were still here on Flax! Drat the man’s timing!”

    “I wasn’t aware he’d left, Milady,” Khumalo said in some surprise.

    “Oh, yes. He’s been gone for almost a T-week. He left the day after Hexapuma sailed.”

    “Then I have to agree that his sense of timing was… unfortunate,” the portly rear admiral said.

    “Well, he obviously didn’t know this was going to happen,” Medusa sighed. “He was afraid his image as a, ‘moneygrubbing capitalist’ hovering about the fringes of the debate like a vulture or a spider was exacerbating the situation. He told me he felt like the ghost at the banquet and said he wanted to get out of the spotlight because he thought his presence was hampering the Convention’s deliberations.”

    “I suppose I can understand that,” Khumalo agreed with a frown. “Like you, Milady, I wish he hadn’t chosen this particular moment to disappear, though.”

    “He may return to Spindle when as he hears about this,” Medusa said, then gave her head a little toss. “But whatever he may do, we have to decide what we’re going to do.”

    “With all due respect, Milday,” O’Shaughnessy said, “I think that’s going to have to depend in large part on how the Talbotters react. At the moment, I’d say there’s probably a seventy-thirty chance President Tonkovic is going to officially request assistance from us. I don’t know if she’ll want to, but if she hesitates, there’ll be a lot of pressure on her from other delegates who want us involved.”

    “I’d be cautious there, Governor,” Chandler said. She looked at him, and he shrugged. “At the moment, this is purely an internal affair of Kornati. We’re involved, but only at one remove -- as the supposed justification for the criminals’ actions, not as an actual presence on the planet. And, as you just pointed out, they have that deeply-ingrained civil libertarian tradition, crossed with a genuine sense of economic inequality from much of their lower class. So if we suddenly start landing Marines on the planet at the upper classes’ request to kick down primarily lower class doors, we run the risk of lending credibility to Nordbrandt’s allegations. The fact that our assistance was requested by the legally elected local authorities won’t be much protection once her adherents start twisting and spinning the story.”

    “Ambrose has a legitimate point, Dame Estelle,” O’Shaughnessy said. He gave the commander a rare look of unqualified approval. “In fact, to be blunt, Nordbrandt does have some valid points about the political system. It’s thoroughly skewed in the favor of a relatively tiny number of wealthy families… like Tonkovic’s. Some of those families will want to keep us far, far away -- or at least to minimalize our ‘interference’ on their world -- lest we contaminate the situation with our off-world notions. But others are going to press for immediate, powerful intervention on our part. They’re going to want us to come in and stamp out the flames for them right now, immediately, before they get burned any worse. So I’m afraid you may find you’re going to have to walk a fine line between giving Tonkovic the assistance she asks for -- assuming she does ask -- and avoiding the appearance of sending in some sort of… imperial storm troopers.”

    “Oh, marvelous,” Medusa muttered. Then she produced a wan but genuine smile. “Well, Her Majesty never promised me it was going to be easy!”

    She drummed on the table, thinking hard for several seconds, then looked back up at Khumalo.

    “Admiral, I want you and Captain Shoupe to begin contingency planning. We can’t make any hard and fast decisions at this point, but I want to know exactly what our resources and capabilities are if, in fact, President Tonkovic does ask for help. I’d also like recommendations from you and Commander Chandler, Gregor, on what levels of support we want to offer if it’s requested. I want the best appreciations the two of you can put together of the most effective kinds and levels of assistance we could offer. And I want your best estimates as to how the Kornatian public’s liable to react to each of the different levels. And the same for the Kornatian political leadership. I know any ‘estimate’ you put together at the moment can’t be more than a guesstimate. But get started now, and integrate any additional information as it comes in.”

    She paused, and her expression turned bleak and hard.

    “Understand me, People,” she said then, in a voice just as cold and focused as her expression. “I don’t want to escalate anything that doesn’t have to be escalated. And I certainly don’t want us to look like -- what did you call them, Gregor? Imperial storm troopers?” Her mouth twisted on the words, but she didn’t flinch. “Our job isn’t to support, or to give the appearance of supporting, repressive local regimes. But if the legitimate government of any star system in the Cluster requests our assistance, we will provide it. We may make our own judgments about the most effective way to do so, but we have a moral obligation to support the legally elected governments who’ve requested that we take them under the Queen’s protection… and, especially, their citizens. And if it turns out we have to land Marines and kick down doors to do that, then we’ll land Marines with great big nasty boots. Is that clear?”

    She was the smallest person at the table by a considerable margin, but every head nodded very quickly indeed.

    “Good,” Dame Estelle Matsuko said quietly.

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