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 Chapter Four

“Have you got a copy of that memo from Admiral Cheng?” Captain Daud ibn Mamoun al-Fanudahi asked, poking his head into Captain Irene Teague’s office.

Which memo?” Teague rolled her eyes in an expression she wouldn’t have let any other Battle Fleet officer see. In fact, she wouldn’t have let al-Fanudahi see it as recently as a month or so ago. Displaying contempt—or, at the very least, disrespect—for a flag officer was always risky, but even more so when the officer doing the displaying was from Frontier Fleet and the object of the display was from Battle Fleet. And especially when the flag officer in question was the Frontier Fleet officer in question’s CO.

Unfortunately, Irene Teague had concluded that al-Fanudahi had been right all along in his belief the “preposterous reports” of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s “super weapons” weren’t quite so preposterous after all. A point which, in her opinion, had been abundantly proved by what had happened to Josef Byng at New Tuscany. And a point which apparently continued to elude Cheng Hai-shwun, the commanding officer of the Office of Operational Analysis, to which she and al-Fanudahi happened to be assigned.

“The one about that briefing next week,” al-Fanudahi said. “The one for Kingsford and Thimár.”


Teague frowned, trying to remember which of her voluminous correspondence folders she’d stuffed that particular memo into. Half the crap she filed hadn’t even been opened, much less read. No one could possibly keep track of all of the memos, letters, conference reports, requests, and just plain garbage floating around the Navy Building and its annexes. Not that the originators of all that verbiage felt any compulsion to acknowledge that point. The real reason for most of it was simply to cover their own posteriors, after all, and the excuse that there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to read all of it cut no ice when they produced their file copy and waved it under one’s nose.

She tapped a command, checking an index. Then shrugged, tapped another, and snorted.

“Yeah. Here it is.” She looked up. “You need a copy?”

“Bang one over to my terminal,” al-Fanudahi replied with a slightly sheepish grin. “I don’t have a clue where I filed my copy. But what I really needed was to see if Polydorou or one of his reps is supposed to be there.”

“Just a sec.” Teague skimmed the memo, then shrugged. “No mention of it, if they are.”

“I didn’t remember one.” Al-Fanudahi grimaced. “Not exactly a good sign, wouldn’t you say?”

“Probably not,” Teague agreed, after a moment. “On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing. At least this way if they listen to you at all, he’ll have less warning to start covering his arse before someone starts asking him some pointed questions.”

“And just how likely do you really think that is?”

“Not very,” she admitted.

If Cheng had so far failed to grasp the nature of the sausage machine into which the SLN was about to poke its fingers, Admiral Martinos Polydorou, the commanding officer of Systems Development was in active denial. The SysDev CO had been one of the masterminds behind the “Fleet 2000” initiative, and he was even more convinced of the inevitability of Solarian technological superiority than the majority of his fellow officers.

In theory, it was SysDev’s responsibility to continually push the parameters, to search constantly for improved technologies and applications. Of course, in theory, it was also OpAn’s responsibility to analyze and interpret operational data which might identify potential threats. Given that al-Fanudahi’s career had been stalled for decades mostly because he’d tried to do exactly that, it probably wasn’t surprising Polydorou’s subordinates were unlikely to disagree with him. After all, Teague was one of the very few OpAn analysts who’d come to share al-Fanudahi’s concerns . . . ​and he’d specifically instructed her to keep her mouth shut about that minor fact.

“There might be a better chance of getting some of those questions asked if you’d let me sign off on your report, Daud,” she pointed out now.

“Not enough better to risk burning your credibility right alongside mine.” He shook his head. “No. It’s not time for you to come out into the open yet, Irene.”

“But, Daud—”

“No.” He interrupted her with another headshake. “There’s not really anything new in Sigbee’s dispatches. Aside from the confirmation their missiles have a range from rest of at least twenty-nine million kilometers, at any rate, and that’d already been confirmed at Monica, if anyone’d been interested in looking at the reports.” He shrugged. “Someone’s got to keep telling them about it, but they’re not going to believe it, no matter what we say, until one of our units gets hammered in a way that’s impossible even for someone like Cheng or Polydorou to deny. Everybody’s got too much of the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. And they don’t want to hear from anyone who disagrees with them.”

“But it’s only a matter of time before they find out you’ve been right all along,” she argued.

“Maybe. And when that happens, do you think they’re going to like having been proved wrong? What usually happens to someone like me—someone who’s insisted on telling them the sky is falling—is that if it turns out he was right, his superiors are even more strongly motivated to punish him. The last thing they want is to ask the advice of someone who’s told them they were idiots after the universe demonstrates they really were idiots. That’s why it’s important you stay clear of this. When the crap finally hits the fan, you’ll be the one who had access to all of my notes and my reports, who’s in the best position to be their ‘expert witness’ on that basis, but who hasn’t been pissing them off for as long as they can remember.”

“It’s not right,” she protested quietly.

“So?” Teague had seen lemons less tart than al-Fanudahi’s smile. “You were under the impression someone ever guaranteed life was fair?”

“No, but . . .”

Her voice trailed off, and she gave her head an unwilling little toss of understanding. Not agreement, really, but of acceptance.

“Well, now that that’s settled,” al-Fanudahi said more briskly, “I was wondering if you’d had any more thoughts on that question of mine about the difference between their missile pods and tube-launched missiles?”

“About the additional drive system, you mean?”

“Yeah. Or even about the additional drive systems, plural.”

“Daud, I’m on your side here, remember, and I’m willing to grant you that they might be able to squeeze one more drive into a missile body they could shoehorn into a pod, but even I don’t see how they could’ve put in three of the damned things!”

“Don’t forget our esteemed colleagues are still arguing they couldn’t fit in even two of them,” al-Fanudahi retorted, eye a-gleam with combined mischief, provocation, and genuine concern. “If they’re wrong about that, then why couldn’t you be wrong about drive system number three?”

“Because,” she replied with awful patience, “there are physical limits not even Manties can get around. Besides—”

Daud ibn Mamoun al-Fanudahi leaned his shoulders against the wall of her cubicle and smiled as he prepared to stretch the parameters of her mind once again.

Aldona Anisimovna walked briskly down the sumptuously decorated hallway. It wasn’t the first time she’d made this walk, but this time she was unaccompanied by the agitated butterflies which had polkaed around her midsection before. And not just because Kyrillos Taliadoros, her personal enhanced bodyguard, walked quietly behind her. His presence was one sign of how monumentally her universe had changed in the last six T-months, yet it was hardly the only one.

Then again, everyone else’s universe is about to change, too, isn’t it? she thought as they neared their destination. And they don’t even know it.

On the other hand, neither had she on that day six T-months ago when she and Isabel Bardasano walked into Albrecht Detweiler’s office and Anisimovna, for the first time in her life, learned the real truth.

They reached the door at the end of the hall, and it slid open at their approach. Another man, who looked like a cousin of Taliadoros’ (because, after all, he was one), considered them gravely for a moment, then stepped aside with a gracious little half-bow.

Anisimovna nodded back, but the true focus of her attention was the man sitting behind the large office’s desk. He was tall, with strong features, and the two younger men sitting at the opposite ends of his desk looked a great deal like him. Not surprisingly.

“Aldona!” Albrecht Detweiler smiled at her, standing behind the desk and holding out his hand. “I trust you had a pleasant voyage home?”

“Yes, thank you, Albrecht.” She shook his hand. “Captain Maddox took excellent care of us, and Bolide is a perfectly wonderful yacht. And”—she rolled her eyes drolly at him—“so speedy.”

Detweiler chuckled appreciatively, released her hand, and nodded at the chair in front of his desk. Taliadoros and Detweiler’s own bodyguard busied themselves pouring out cups of coffee with the same deftness they brought to certain more physical aspects of their duties. Then they withdrew, leaving her with Albrecht and his two sons.

“I’m glad you appreciate Bolide’s speed, Aldona.” Benjamin Detweiler set his cup back on its saucer and smiled slightly at her. “And we appreciate your using it to get home this quickly.”

Anisimovna nodded in acknowledgment. The “streak drive” was yet another thing she hadn’t known anything about six months ago. Nor, to be frank, was it something she would have expected out of Mesan researchers. Like most of the rest of the galaxy, although for rather different reasons, she’d been inclined to think of her home world’s R&D community primarily in terms of biological research. Intellectually, she’d known better than most of humanity that the planet of Mesa’s scientific and academic communities had never restricted themselves solely to genetics and the biosciences. But even for her, those aspects of Mesa had been far more visible, the things that defined Mesa, just as they defined Beowulf. Well, if it surprised me, I imagine that’s a pretty good indication of just how big a surprise it’s going to be for everyone else, too, she thought dryly. Which is going to be a very good thing over the next few years.

The streak drive represented a fundamental advance in interstellar travel, and there was no indication anyone else was even close to duplicating it. For centuries, the theta bands had represented an inviolable ceiling for hyper-capable ships. Everyone had known it was theoretically possible to go even higher, attain a still higher apparent normal-space velocity, yet no one had ever managed to design a ship which could crack the iota wall and survive. Incredible amounts of research had been invested in efforts to do just that, especially in the earlier days of hyper travel, but with a uniform lack of success. In the last few centuries, efforts to beat the iota barrier had waned, until the goal had been pretty much abandoned as one of those theoretically possible but practically unobtainable concepts.

But the Mesan Alignment hadn’t abandoned it, and finally, after the better part of a hundred T-years of dogged research, they’d found the answer. It was, in many ways, a brute force approach, and it wouldn’t have been possible even now without relatively recent advances (whose potential no one else seemed to have noticed) in related fields. And even with those other advances, it had almost doubled the size of conventional hyper generators. But it worked. Indeed, they’d broken not simply the iota wall, but the kappa wall, as well. Which meant the voyage from New Tuscany to Mesa, which would have taken anyone else the next best thing to forty-five T-days, had taken Anisimovna less than thirty-one.

“Now,” Albrecht said, drawing her attention back to him, “Benjamin, Collin, and I have skimmed your report. We’d like to hear it directly from you, though.”

“Of course,” she replied, “but—” She paused, then gave her head a tiny shake. “Excuse me, Albrecht, but I actually expected to be making this report to Isabel.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” It wasn’t Albrecht who answered her; it was Collin, and his voice was far harder and harsher than Albrecht’s or Benjamin’s had been. She looked at him, and he gave a sharp, angry shrug. “Isabel’s dead, Aldona. She was killed about three months ago . . . ​along with everyone else in the Gamma Center at the time.”

Anisimovna’s eyes widened in shock. Despite her recent admission to the Mesan Alignment’s innermost circles, she still had only the vaguest notion of what sort of research had been carried on in the Alignment’s various satellite centers. The only thing she’d known about the Gamma Center was that, unlike most of the others, it was right here in the Mesa System . . . ​which implied it was also more important than most.

“May I ask what happened?”

She more than half expected him to tell her no, since she presumably had no operational need to know. But Isabel had become more than just another of her professional colleagues, and Collin surprised her.

“We still don’t have all the pieces, actually,” he admitted. “In fact, we never will. We do know someone activated the self-destruct security protocols, and who it was. We’re still guessing at some of the events leading up to that, but given that Isabel was on her way to take him into custody, we’re pretty sure why he activated them.”

He paused, expression grim, and Anisimovna nodded. If she’d had a choice between pressing a self-destruct button and facing what would be euphemistically described as “rigorous questioning,” she would have chosen vaporization, too.

“What we still can’t prove is exactly what he was up to before Isabel became suspicious of him. We’re sure we’ve figured out his basic intentions, but we’ve had to do most of the figuring from secondary sources. There aren’t any primary sources or witnesses left on our side, aside from the one low-level agent who seems to be the only person to’ve done everything right. But there’s reason to believe the Ballroom was involved, at least peripherally.”

“The Ballroom knew about the Gamma Center?” Astonishment and a sudden pulse of panic startled the question out of her. If the ex-genetic slave terrorists of the Ballroom had discovered that much, who knew how much else they might have learned about the Alignment?

“We don’t think so.” Collin shook his head quickly. “We do have a few . . . ​witnesses from the other side, and based on their testimony and our own investigations, we’ve confirmed that Zilwicki and Cachat were here on Mesa and—almost certainly—that the Center’s head of security made contact with them.”

Anisimovna knew her eyes were huge, but not even an alpha line could have helped that under these circumstances. Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat had been here on Mesa itself? This was getting better and better by the second, wasn’t it?

“None of the evidence suggests they’d come expressly looking for the Center,” Collin went on reassuringly. “We know how the traitor discovered they were here in the first place, so we’re confident they didn’t come looking to make contact with him, at any rate. It looks like he decided, for reasons of his own, that he wanted to defect and jumped at the chance when he realized they were here. In fact, we have imagery of him actually meeting Zilwicki—that’s what made Isabel suspicious in the first place. Zilwicki hadn’t been IDed from the imagery before she went looking for . . . ​the defector, but she did know that low-level agent I mentioned had already fingered him as a Ballroom peripheral. Unfortunately, the first person he reported that little fact to was the Center’s chief of security.”

He smiled thinly at Anisimovna’s grimace.

“Yes, that was convenient for him, wasn’t it?” he agreed. “We think that’s what triggered the decision to defect, and it also put him in a position to keep anyone higher up the chain from realizing Zilwicki was on-planet. The only thing that screwed him up was the original agent’s suspicions when one of his bugs caught them meeting in a seccy restaurant. We were just lucky as hell our man had the gumption and the balls to go directly to Isabel. Unfortunately, ‘lucky’ is a relative term in this case. Our man didn’t know his ‘Ballroom peripheral’ was Anton Zilwicki, so Isabel didn’t realize it either. If she had, she would have approached the whole thing differently, but she clearly had no idea how serious the security breach really was, and she decided to handle it personally, quickly, and, above all, quietly. Which, however reasonable it may’ve seemed, was a mistake in this case. When he realized Isabel was coming for him, the defector was able to trigger the charge under the Center. He took the whole damned place—and all of its on-site records and personnel—with him. Not to mention one of Green Pines’ larger commercial towers—and everyone inside it—when the charge went off in its sub-basement.”

Anisimovna inhaled suddenly, sharply. She might have known the Gamma Center was in the Mesa System, but she’d never guessed it might be located in one of the system capital’s bedroom suburbs!

“The only good points were that it was a Saturday and early, so most of the Center’s R&D personnel were safely at home, and the defector had apparently set up a fallback position to take out Zilwicki and Cachat in case they stiffed him. He used it, and we’re ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent sure he managed to kill both of them . . . ​even if it did take another nuke to do the job. So they’re both dead, at least. But not”—his jaw muscles tightened, and he eyes went terrifyingly cold—“without another Ballroom bastard using a nuke on Pine Valley Park. On a Saturday morning.”

Anisimovna’s stomach muscles clenched. She knew Collin’s family lived just outside Green Pines’ central park. His children played there almost every weekend, and—

“No,” he said more gently as he saw the shock in her eyes. “No, Alexis and the kids weren’t there, thank God. But most of their friends were. And on a more pragmatic level, we picked up two of the local seccies Zilwicki and Cachat used.” This time his smile was a terrible thing to see. “They’ve been dealt with, but not before they told us everything they ever knew in their lives, and, to give the devil his due, they both insisted Zilwicki and Cachat never intended to nuke the park. In fact, it wasn’t their idea, either. One of their fellow lunatics apparently went berserk and made the decision on his own.”

Anisimovna knew she looked shell-shocked, but that was all right. She was shell-shocked.

“On the other hand,” Collin continued, “having three separate nukes go off in Green Pines on a single day isn’t the sort of thing you can cover up. We took the position that we intended to conduct a very thorough investigation before we leveled any charges—which was true enough—but we knew we’d eventually have to go public with some explanation. No one wanted to admit the Ballroom could get through to pull something like this, but we decided that was the least of the evils available to us. In fact, once the seccies confessed, we decided we could charge that Zilwicki was the mastermind behind the whole thing. Which, in a way, he was after all.”

“We considered adding Cachat to the mix,” Albrecht said, “but he wasn’t the kind of public figure Zilwicki was after that expose of Yael Underwood’s ‘outed’ him a couple of years ago, and he managed to keep his involvement with Verdant Vista under the radar horizon. Nobody knows who the hell he was, and we couldn’t come up with a plausible way to explain how we knew, either. Under the circumstances, we decided that trying to link Haven to it as well would be too much for even the Solly public to take without asking questions—like what two agents from star nations at war with each other were doing on Mesa together—we’d rather not answer. Fortunately, no one in the League expects a bunch of Ballroom terrorists to act rationally, and we’ve been chiseling away at ‘Torch’s’ claim that it’s not really a Ballroom safe harbor ever since we lost the planet. That made Zilwicki’s involvement even jucier.”

His eyes glittered, and Anisimovna nodded. Once-in-a-lifetime propaganda opportunities like this one were gifts from heaven, and she understood the temptation to ride it as far as possible. At the same time, she was glad Albrecht had recognized that claiming it as a joint Manticoran-Havenite operation would have strained even the League public’s credulity to the breaking point.

Probably about the only thing that could do that, she thought, but under the circumstances...

“At any rate,” Collin said, resuming the narrator’s role, “we officially completed our investigation about a week ago, and since neither Zilwicki nor Cachat is around to dispute our version of events, we’ve announced Zilwicki was responsible for all three explosions. And that the nukes represented a deliberate terror attack launched by the Ballroom and the ‘Kingdom of Torch.’ The fact that Torch’s declared war on us made that easier, and our PR types—both here and in the League—are pounding away at how it proves any Torch claims to have disavowed terror are bullshit. Once a terrorist, always a terrorist, and this attack killed thousands of seccies and slaves, as well.”

He showed another flash of teeth.

“Actually, it only got a few hundred of them, but no one off Mesa knows that. And enough seccies disappeared when the regular security agencies came down on them after Zilwicki and Cachat’s little friends confessed that no one in the seccy or slave communities who does know better is going to say a word. That’s not going to help the Ballroom’s cause any even with other slaves. And as far as anyone else is concerned, the whole operation was a deliberate attack on a civilian target with weapons of mass destruction—multiple weapons of mass destruction. We’re going to hammer them in the Sollie faxes, and having a known agent of Manticore involved in it gives us another club to use on the Manties, as well.”

There was silence in the office for several seconds. Then Albrecht cleared his throat.

“I’m afraid that’s the reason you won’t be making your report to Isabel after all, Aldona,” he said.

“I see.”

Anisimovna considered asking about the nature of the research which had been carried out in the Gamma Center, yet she considered it neither very hard nor for very long. That was information she clearly had no need to know, but she was glad Isabel had caught the traitor before he’d managed to pass whatever it had been on to anyone else. For that matter, taking out Zilwicki and Cachat was going to hurt the other side badly down the road. And she could appreciate the way the disaster could be used as a public relations weapon against Torch and the Ballroom. But the price . . . 

“I’m sorry, Aldona.” She looked up, surprised by the gentleness in Albrecht’s voice. She was almost as surprised by that as she was to feel the tears hovering behind her eyes. “I know you and Isabel had grown quite close,” he said. “She was close to me, too. She had her sharp edges, but she was also a very clear thinking, intellectually honest person. I’m going to miss her, and not just on a professional level.”

She met his eyes for a second or two, then nodded and inhaled deeply.

“I imagine she’s not the only person we’re going to lose, now that everything is coming more or less into the open,” she said.

“I imagine not,” Albrecht agreed quietly. Then he gave himself a shake and smiled at her. “But in the meantime, we have a lot to do. Especially since, as you put it, ‘everything is coming more or less into the open.’ So, could you please go on with your report?”

“Of course.” She settled back in her chair, forcing her focus back on to the report she’d come here to give in the first place, and cleared her throat.

“Things went essentially as planned,” she began. “Byng reacted almost exactly as his profile had indicated he would, and the Manties cooperated by sending three of their destroyers, not just a single ship. When Giselle blew up, Byng instantly assumed the Manties had attacked the station and blew all three of them out of space. Personally, I suspect there may actually have been a fourth Manty out there, given how quickly Gold Peak responded. Someone must have told Khumalo and Medusa what happened, at any rate. The turnaround time suggests it had to be either a warship or a dispatch boat, and I’m inclined to wonder if a dispatch boat would’ve had the capability to monitor and control current-generation Manty recon platforms. No one in Byng’s task force or on New Tuscany ever saw any additional Manties, but Gold Peak arrived with detailed sensor information on the entire first incident, and someone must have provided it to her. Just as someone must have been there in order to get their response force back so fast.

“That’s actually the part of the operation I’m least satisfied with,” she said candidly. “I didn’t think there was anyone else out there at the time, either, and I’d hoped I’d have a little more time to work on tying New Tuscany more securely into our plans. I didn’t, so when the Manties did turn up, New Tuscany pretty much left Byng to sink or swim on his own.”

She shrugged.

“He managed to sink quite handily, actually, although I could wish Gold Peak had pushed him under a little more enthusiastically. She settled for blowing up just his flagship, and from everything I could see before Captain Maddox hypered out, it looked as if Sigbee was going to comply with all of Gold Peak’s demands without further resistance.”

“That’s exactly what happened,” Benjamin told her. Her eyebrows rose, and he chuckled grimly. “The Manties released their version of what happened at New Tuscany—both incidents—nine days ago. I’m sure it’s all over Old Terra by now. According to the Manties, they got everything from Sigbee’s secure databases.”

“Oh, my,” Anisimovna murmured, and it was Albrecht’s turn to chuckle.

“Exactly,” he said cheerfully. “Hopefully, this whole thing is going to spin out of the Manties’ and the Sollies’ control without any more direct interference on our part—aside from whatever we can milk out of Green Pines, that is. But, if it looks like it’s not, we can always start leaking some of that secure information ourselves, as well. So far, the Manties seem to be trying to respect the confidentiality of anything from the databases that doesn’t pertain directly to their own problems with the Sollies. I don’t know if those arrogant idiots in Old Chicago have even noticed that, but I’m sure they’ll notice if the ‘Manties’ suddenly start leaking all of those embarrassing contingency plans of theirs to the media.”

“That would be . . . ​discomfiting for everyone concerned, wouldn’t it?” Anisimovna observed with an almost blissful smile.

“It most certainly would. Of course, so far, it doesn’t look like we’re going to need to do very much more to fan that particular flame. At the moment, Kolokoltsov and his colleagues don’t seem to have missed very many things they could have done wrong.” Albrecht’s smile was evil. “And our good friend Rajampet is performing exactly as expected.”

“And Crandall?” Anisimovna asked.

“We can’t be positive yet,” Benjamin replied. “We couldn’t give Ottweiler a streak drive, so it’s going to be a while before we hear anything from him. I don’t think there’s much need to worry about her response, though. Even without our prompting, her own natural inclination would be to attack as soon and hard as possible. And”—his smile was remarkably like his father’s—“we happen to know her appreciation of the Manties’ technology is every bit as good as Byng’s was.”

“Good.” Anisimovna made no effort to hide her own satisfaction. Then she frowned. “The only other thing that still worries me is the fact that there was no way for me to hide my fingerprints. If New Tuscany’s looking for some way to appease Manticore, they’re damned well going to’ve told Gold Peak about our involvement. Or as much about it as they know, at any rate.”

“Unfortunately, you’re exactly right,” Albrecht agreed. “They did roll over on us, and the Manties have broadcast that fact to the galaxy at large. On the other hand”—he shrugged—“it was a given from the outset that they were going to find out in the end. No one could have done a better job of burying his tracks than you did, so don’t worry about it. Besides,” he grinned nastily, “our people on Old Terra were primed and waiting to heap scorn on the ‘fantastic allegations’ and ‘wild accusations’ coming out of Manticore. Obviously the Manties are trying to come up with some story—any story!—to justify their unprovoked attack on Admiral Byng.”

“And people are really going to buy that?” Anisimovna couldn’t help sounding a bit dubious, and Detweiller gave a crack of laughter.

“You’d be astonished how many Sollies will buy into that, at least long enough to meet our needs. They’re accustomed to accepting nonsense about what goes on in the Verge—OFS has been feeding it to them forever, and their newsies are used to swinging the spoon! Their media’s been so thoroughly coopted that at least half their reporters automatically follow the party line. It’s almost like some kind of involuntary reflex. And even if John Q. Solly doesn’t swallow it this time for some reason, it probably won’t matter as long as we just generate enough background noise to give the people making the important decisions the cover and official justification they need.” He shook his head again. “Like I say, don’t worry about it. I’m completely satisfied with your performance out there.”

Anisimovna smiled back at him and nodded in mingled relief and genuine pleasure. The assignment she’d been handed was one of the most complicated ones she’d ever confronted. It hadn’t come off perfectly, but it hadn’t had to come off perfectly, and from everything they’d said, it sounded as if the operation had accomplished its goals.

“And because I am satisfied,” Albrecht told her, “I’m probably going to be handing you some additional hot potatoes.” She looked at him, and he snorted. “That’s your reward for pulling this one off. Now that we know you can handle the hard ones, we’re not going to waste you on easy ones. And, frankly, the fact that we’ve lost Isabel is going to have us looking harder than ever for capable high level troubleshooters.”

“I see.” She put as much confidence and enthusiasm into her voice as she could, but Albrecht’s eyes twinkled at her.

“Actually,” he told her, “now that you’ve reached the center of the ‘onion,’ you’ll find that, in a lot of ways, my bark is worse than my bite.” He shook his head, the twinkle in his eyes fading. “Don’t misunderstand. There are still penalties for people who just plain fuck up. But, at the same time, we know the sorts of things we’re assigning people to do. And we also know that sometimes Murphy turns up, no matter how carefully you plan, or how well you execute. So we’re not going to automatically punish anyone for failure unless it’s abundantly obvious they’re the reason for the failure. And, judging from the way you’ve handled this assignment, I don’t think that’s likely to be happening in your case.”

“I hope not,” she replied. “And I’ll try to make sure it doesn’t.”

“I’m sure you will.” He smiled at her again, then leaned forward in his chair, crossing his forearms on the edge of the desk in front of him.

“Now, then,” he continued more briskly. “It’s going to be another couple of T-weeks before anyone can ‘officially’ get here from New Tuscany. That means the Manties are going to have that much more time to get their version of events out in front of the Sollies. Worse than that, from the Sollies’ perspective, it’s going to be leaking into the League’s media through the wormhole network faster than the government’s version of events can spread out from Old Terra. From our perspective, that’s a good thing . . . ​probably. It would take an old-fashioned miracle for those numbskulls in Old Chicago to do the smart thing and offer to negotiate with the Manties, so I think we can probably count on them to take the ball and run with it where . . . ​creative reinterpretation, shall we say? . . . ​of events in New Tuscany is concerned. Despite that, it’s entirely possible that there’s at least one—possibly even two—honest newsies on Old Terra. That could have unfortunate repercussions for the way we want to see this handled. Fortunately, we have people strategically placed throughout the League’s media, and especially on Old Terra.

“What I want you to do now, Aldona, is to sit down with Collin and Franklin. They’ll bring along some of our own newspeople, and the three of you will work with them to come up with the most effective way to spin what happened in New Tuscany to suit our needs. Given our allegations about Green Pines, a goodsized chunk of the Solly media is going to be salivating for anything that puts Manticore in a bad light, which should help a lot, and now that you’ve brought us all that raw sensor data from both incidents—not to mention those nice authentication codes—we can get started on a little creative reinterpretation of our own for the Sollies. I’ve got a few ideas on how best to go about that myself, but you’ve demonstrated a genuine talent for this sort of thing, so sit down and see what you can come up with on your own, first. Thanks to the streak drive, we’ve got two weeks to massage the story here on Mesa any way we have to before it could possibly get to us by any normal dispatch boat. I want to use that time as effectively as possible.”

“I understand.”

“Good. And, in the meantime, although you really don’t have the need to know this, there’s going to be another little news story in about two more T-months.”

“There is?” Anisimovna glanced around, puzzled by the sudden, predatory smiles of all three Detweilers.

“Oh, there certainly is!” Albrecht told her, then waved at Benjamin. “Tell her,” he said.

“Well, Aldona,” Benjamin said, “in about another two months, a little operation we’ve been working on for some time, one called Oyster Bay, is going to come to fruition. And when it does—”

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