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Chapter Fourteen

Augustus Khumalo was grayer than Michelle remembered.

He was some sort of distant cousin of hers, although she had only the vaguest idea of exactly how and through whom they were related, and she'd met him in passing half a dozen times. This was the first time she'd ever really spoken to him, though, and as she followed his chief of staff, Captain Loretta Shoupe, into his day cabin aboard HMS Hercules, she found herself looking into his eyes, searching for some sign of the moral courage he'd displayed when he received Aivars Terekhov's bombshell dispatch.

She didn't see it. Not surprisingly, perhaps. She'd discovered long since that people who looked like warriors too often proved to be Elvis Santinos or Pavel Youngs, while the most outwardly unprepossessing people frequently turned out to have nerves of steel.

I wonder if I'm looking so hard because I feel guilty about the way I've always dismissed him in the past?

"Vice Admiral Gold Peak, Sir," Shoupe announced quietly.

"Welcome to Spindle, Milady," Khumalo held out a large, rather beefy hand, and Michelle shook it firmly. The Talbott Station commander was a large man, with powerful shoulders and a middle which was beginning to thicken. His complexion was considerably lighter than Michelle's own—in fact, it was almost as light as the Queen's—but there was no mistaking the Winton chin. Michelle knew there wasn't; she had it herself, if in a thankfully somewhat more delicate version.

"Thank you, Sir," she replied, then released his hand to indicate the two officers who had accompanied her. "Captain Armstrong, my flag captain, Sir. And Lieutenant Archer, my flag lieutenant."

"Captain," Khumalo said, offering his hand to Armstrong in turn, and then nodded in Gervais Archer's direction. "Lieutenant."

"Admiral," Armstrong replied, shaking his hand, and Archer returned his nod with a respectful half-bow.

"Please," Khumalo said then, gesturing at the chairs arranged in a comfortable, conversational circle in front of his desk. "Find seats. I'm sure we've got quite a lot to talk about."

That, Michelle reflected, as she settled back into one of the indicated chairs, was undoubtedly one of the greater understatements she'd heard lately.

Archer waited until all of his seniors had seated themselves before he found a chair of his own, and Michelle watched out of the corner of her eye as her flag lieutenant touched his cased minicomp and raised one eyebrow at Shoupe. The chief of staff nodded permission, and Archer uncased the minicomp and configured it to record.

"We're due to dine with Baroness Medusa and Mr. Van Dort this evening, Milady," Khumalo said. "At that time, I have no doubt that she and Mr. O'Shaughnessy—and Commander Chandler, my intelligence officer—will be as eager as I am to hear everything you can tell us about the situation at home and this proposed summit meeting between Her Majesty and Pritchart. And I'm also confident that the baroness and Mr. O'Shaughnessy will have a rather more detailed briefing for you on the political side of events here in the Cluster. I mean, Quadrant."

His lips twitched sourly but briefly as he corrected himself, and Michelle smiled. No doubt the change in nomenclature was going to take some getting used to for everyone involved, but as she'd warned her own staff, it was important. Words had power of their own, and remembering to get it right was one way of helping to assure everyone out here in Talbott that they'd done the right thing when they requested annexation by the Star Kingdom.

Of course, it was probable that they'd envisioned things working out just a little differently than they actually had. Not that anyone in Talbott was likely to complain about the final outcome . . . assuming they'd thought annexation was a good idea in the first place, that was. Some of them, like that lunatic Nordbrandt in Kornati, obviously hadn't, and Michelle had no doubt that those Talbotters who continued to object were vociferously unhappy about that same "final outcome."

The entire annexation debate had posed serious domestic political questions for the Star Kingdom, as well, however, and the answers to those questions had dictated the conditions under which it could go forward. The original proposal hadn't been Manticore's in the first place, and more than one member of Parliament had thought it was a terrible idea. In many ways, Michelle had actually found herself in agreement with those who had objected to the entire concept. Although she'd always felt the advantages outweighed her concerns, she'd still had a high anxiety quotient where some aspects of the proposal were concerned.

The Star Kingdom of Manticore had been in existence for four hundred and fifty years, during which it had evolved and grown into its own unique identity and galactic position. It was incredibly wealthy, especially for a star nation with such a small population, but the point was that its population was small by the standards of any multisystem star nation. It was also politically stable, with a system which—despite its occasional blemishes, like the disastrous High Ridge Government, and monumentally nasty political infighting—enshrined the rule of law. Manticorans were no more likely to be candidates for sainthood than anyone else, and there were those—like High Ridge, Janacek, her own Cousin Freddy, or the Earls of North Hollow—who were perfectly willing to evade or even outright break the law in pursuit of their own ends. But when they got caught, they were just as accountable in the eyes of the law as anyone else, and the Star Kingdom enshrined both transparency and accountability in government. It also enshrined the orderly, legal exchange of power, even between the most bitter of political enemies, through the electoral process, and it possessed a highly educated, politically active electorate.

That was why the notion of adding more than a dozen additional star systems whose individual average populations at least matched that of the Manticore Binary System had been dismaying to Michelle, in many respects. Especially given how poor—and poorly educated (by Manticoran standards, at least)—all of those prospective new citizens were. Some Manticorans had been nervous enough about admitting San Martin, the inhabited world of Trevor's Star, to the Star Kingdom, and San Martin had been an entirely different kettle of fish, despite its years as a Havenite "protectorate" under the People's Republic. Its population was still that of a first-rank star nation, with decent educational, medical, and industrial bases, and it had always been Manticore's immediate astrographic neighbor. Manticorans and San Martinos had known each other for a long, long time; they'd known how one another's governments and societies worked, and shared many more similarities than they had differences. But the Talbott Cluster was typical of the Verge, that vast belt of sparsely settled, economically depressed, technically backward star systems which surrounded the slowly but inexorably expanding sphere of the Solarian League.

Michelle, like many people in the Star Kingdom, had found the idea of adding that many voters with absolutely no experience in the Star Kingdom's political traditions alarming. Some of those alarmed souls had been none too shy about calling the Talbotters "neobarbs," which Michelle, despite her own concerns, had found decidedly ironic, given the fact that Sollies routinely applied that pejorative to the same citizens of the Star Kingdom who were now using it about someone else. Yet even those who would never have dreamed of using that particular term, and who were prepared to accept that their new fellow citizens would have the best intentions in the universe, had to wonder if those new citizens would have time to absorb the instruction manual before they tried to take over the air car's controls. And, of course, there was always the concern—the legitimate concern, in Michelle's view—of what destination a bunch of voters from outside the Manticoran tradition might choose for all of them.

There'd been concerns on the Talbott side, as well, and not just from people like Nordbrandt. Or, for that matter, like Stephen Westman, although from what Michelle had heard so far, Westman seemed to have seen the light. Those with the deepest concerns appeared to have been worried about losing their own identity, although what many of them—especially among the Cluster's traditional power elites—had really meant when they'd said that was that they were worried about losing control.

In the end, however, the Constitutional Convention here on the planet Flax in the Spindle System had worked out an approach that actually seemed to satisfy just about everyone. Nothing could have satisfied absolutely everyone, of course, and some of the local potentates—like the oligarchs of New Tuscany—had opted out in the end and refused to ratify the new constitution. And, to be perfectly fair, it was unlikely that anyone was completely satisfied with the new arrangements. But that, after all, was the definition of a successful political compromise, wasn't it?

Of course it is, she thought. That's one reason I've never liked politics. Still, in this case I've got to admit it looks like something that will actually work.

For all intents and purposes, the approved constitution had established what bade fair to become a model for future annexations. For example, the political future of the systems which had fallen into the Star Kingdom's sphere in the now defunct Silesian Confederacy was going to have to be resolved eventually, and it looked like Talbott was going to be the example for that resolution, as well. Assuming, of course, that it actually worked in Talbott's case.

Instead of adding all of those systems, and all of those voters, directly to the Star Kingdom, the Flax Constitutional Convention had recognized that the sheer distance between the planets of the Cluster—not to mention the entire Cluster's distance from the Manticore Binary System—would have made that sort of close, seamless integration impossible. So the convention had proposed a more federal model for the new "Star Empire of Manticore."

The Talbott Quadrant was a political unit consisting of the sixteen Cluster star systems which had ratified the proposed constitution. It would have its own local Parliament, and after a certain degree of bloody infighting, it had been agreed that that Parliament would be located here on Flax, in the planetary capital of Thimble. And when it came to electing that Parliament's members, the Quadrant franchise would, at the insistence of Prime Minister Grantville's government (and Queen Elizabeth III), be granted on the same terms and conditions as the Star Kingdom's franchise, which had probably had quite a bit to do with New Tuscany's decision to go home and play with its own marbles.

The Quadrant and the Star Kingdom (which some people were already beginning to refer to as "the Old Star Kingdom," even though Trevor's Star and the Lynx System had scarcely been charter members of the original Star Kingdom) would both be units of a new realm known as the Star Empire of Manticore. Both would recognize Queen Elizabeth of Manticore as Empress, and both would send representatives to a new Imperial Parliament, which would be located on the planet of Manticore. An imperial governor would be appointed (and there'd never been any real doubt about who that would be) as the Empress' direct representative and viceroy here in the Quadrant. The armed forces, economic policy, and foreign policy of the Empire would be established and unified under the new imperial government. The imperial currency would be the existing Manticoran dollar, no internal economic trade barriers would be tolerated, and the citizens of the Talbott Quadrant and of the Star Kingdom would pay both local taxes and imperial taxes. The fundamental citizens' rights of the Star Kingdom would be extended to every citizen of the Talbott Quadrant, although the Quadrant's member planets were free to extend additional, purely local citizens' rights, if they so chose. The new imperial judiciary would be based upon the Star Kingdom's existing constitutional law, and its justices would be drawn, initially, at least, from the Star Kingdom, although the new constitution contained specific provisions for integrating justices from outside the Old Star Kingdom as quickly as possible, and local constitutional traditions within the Quadrant would be tolerated so long as they did not conflict with imperial ones. And every citizen of the Quadrant and the Old Star Kingdom would hold imperial citizenship.

Although the Star Kingdom of Manticore had always eschewed any sort of progressive income tax except under the most dire of emergency conditions, the Old Star Kingdom had agreed (not without a certain degree of domestic protest) that imperial taxation would be progressive at the federal level—that is, the degree of the imperial tax bill to be footed by each subunit of the Empire would be based upon that subunit's proportional share of the entire Empire's gross product. Everyone was perfectly well aware that that particular provision meant the Old Star Kingdom would be footing the lion's share of the imperial treasury's bills for the foreseeable future. In return for accepting that provision, however, the Star Kingdom had won agreement to a phased-in representation within the Imperial Parliament.

For the first fifteen years of the Empire's existence, the Star Kingdom would elect seventy-five percent of the Imperial Parliament's membership, and all other subunits of the Empire would elect the other twenty-five percent. For the next fifteen years, the Star Kingdom would elect sixty percent of Parliament's members. And for the next twenty-five years, the Star Kingdom would elect fifty percent. Thereafter, membership in the Imperial House of Commons would be directly proportional to each subunit's population. The theory was that that fifty-five T-years of dominance by the established political system of the Old Star Kingdom would give the citizens of the Quadrant time to master the instruction manual. It would also give them time for the stupendous potential industrial and economic power of the Quadrant to be developed. At the same time, the gradual phasing in of full parliamentary representation for the Quadrant (and, presumably, for the Silesian systems, as well, when it was their turn) would reassure the citizens of the Old Star Kingdom that Manticore wasn't going to find itself suddenly haring off in some totally bizarre direction. And the fact that the Imperial Constitution guaranteed local autonomy to each recognized subunit of the Empire ought to preserve the individual identities of the various worlds and societies which had agreed to unite under the imperial framework.

Since one of the Star Kingdom's basic citizens' rights was access to the prolong therapies, the fifty-five-T-year ramp up to full representation in the Imperial Parliament wasn't going to be quite the hardship for most of the Talbott Cluster's citizens that it might have been once upon a time. True, it would hit some member systems harder than others (which had required some serious horse trading at the Constitutional Convention), because their poverty-stricken economies hadn't already made prolong available. That meant any of their citizens more than twenty-five T-years old would never receive it . . . and that a sizable portion of their present electorate would die of old age, even with modern medical care, before the Quadrant received its full representation. No arrangement could be perfect, however, and the Star Kingdom had pledged to put those systems first on the list to receive the prolong therapies, while the Constitutional Convention had pledged some very hefty financial incentives to bring their economies up to the standards of their neighbors as quickly as possible.

With those arrangements to offset some of the representational sacrifice of those "graying" voters, most people were prepared to call the arrangement as fair as could be contrived. It offered a roadmap to a reasonably orderly transition, anyway. And just as the security umbrella of the Royal Manticoran Navy would discourage piracy, instability, and bloodshed in both Silesia and Talbott, the importance of annexing additional star systems—and the population and resources they represented—in order to bolster Manticore's economic, industrial, and military muscle had become evident to most Manticoran strategists. In light of which, it appeared to be fairly obvious to everyone involved that the tremendous advantages inherent in the new arrangement vastly outweighed any disadvantages.

One can hope so, at any rate, Michelle thought dryly. Although, given the Sollies' present antics, I suppose someone could be pardoned for wondering just how sound that logic actually is.

"Speaking purely from a naval perspective, Milady," Khumalo said, recalling Michelle's attention from the political ramifications of the creation of a brand-new Empire, "I am delighted to see you." He smiled more than a little crookedly. "I remember when Captain Terekhov first reported to Talbott—it doesn't seem possible that that was only eight T-months ago!—I was complaining to him about how few Queen's ships had been assigned to the Cluster. To be perfectly honest, I wish we could have found something just a little less traumatic than the Battle of Monica to convince the Admiralty to turn the tap on."

"I won't mention any squeaky wheels, Sir," Michelle said with an answering smile. "On the other hand, I think you can take it as a given that the 'tap' is going to be opened even wider in the next few months. Especially if anything comes of this summit meeting."

"According to my most recent dispatches from the Admiralty, at least," Khumalo agreed. "And frankly, even without the situation vis-à-vis the League and OFS, I'm sure I'll be able to make good use of every hull they can send me. I believe it's important to establish a naval presence in every one of the Quadrant's member star systems as quickly as possible. Her Majesty's new subjects have the right to call upon her navy's protection, and until they can get their local law enforcement organizations integrated into the new system, and until we can get on-call Marine or Army units into position to assist them in dealing locally with imperial problems, it's going to be up to the Navy to do that, too. Not to mention disaster relief, assistance to navigation, and all those other things we always find ourselves doing."

"I certainly can't argue with any of that, Sir," Michelle said soberly. "Still, I'm inclined to suspect that my position as the CO of Tenth Fleet, once we get organized, is bound to leave me whining and complaining about all the diversions you and Baroness Medusa want me to make. I know we have an absolute responsibility to do exactly what you've just described, but I'm afraid my own focus, for the foreseeable future at least, is probably going to be pretty thoroughly locked in on OFS and the League."

"Oh, that's a given, Milady," Khumalo told her with a genuine smile. "It always works that way. In fact, there'd probably be something seriously broken about the system if you weren't whining and complaining! Which doesn't mean the baroness and I are going to let you talk us out of doing it anyway, of course."

"Somehow, I find that depressingly easy to believe," Michelle observed, and Khumalo chuckled. It was, Michelle noticed, a very genuine chuckle.

Whatever else had happened in the last eight months, she reflected, Augustus Khumalo appeared to have found his niche. All of the reports from the Quadrant had emphasized how the general Talbotter opinion of Khumalo had changed in the wake of the Battle of Monica. As far as Michelle could tell, most Talbotters appeared to believe that the only reason Khumalo and Terekhov didn't routinely walk across swimming pools was because they didn't like wet shoes. To give him credit, Khumalo's aura of confidence and assurance didn't seem to owe itself to a head swelled by popular adulation, however. In fact, it appeared to Michelle that what had actually happened was that his own performance had surprised him as much as it had surprised so many other people. And, in the process, he'd grown into the full dimension of his responsibilities.

Which could, of course, just be my own way of pretending that he had to grow into them instead of just admitting that we'd all underestimated his abilities from the beginning.

"At the moment, Sir," she continued out loud, "my gravest concern is the readiness state of my units. The shipyards back home are pushing so hard, that—"

"There's no need to explain, Milady," Khumalo interrupted. "I've been kept updated. I know they rushed all of your battlecruisers out of the yard, and I also know what short notice you received when they handed you this particular hot potato. I'm not at all surprised if you have readiness problems, and we'll try to give you as much time as we can to deal with them. And, of course, all of the assistance we can. Speaking of which, is there anything we can do to help with your current problems?"

"At this point, I genuinely don't think so," Michelle said. "We deployed with almost eighty of Hephaestus' yard dogs on board, and over the last couple of weeks they've dealt with most of our hardware problems. We do have a couple of minor faults we haven't been able to deal with out of shipboard resources, but I'm confident your repair ships can set all of them right fairly quickly and easily. What no one else can do for us, though, is to bring our people's cohesiveness and training up to Fleet standards."

"How bad is it?" There was no impatience or condemnation in Khumalo's question, only understanding, and Michelle felt herself warming further towards him.

"Honestly, it's not good, Sir," she said frankly. "And it's not my captains' fault, either. We simply haven't had time to deal with the problems that normally get handled in a routine working-up period. We've got a few weak spots among our officers—more than I'd like, really, if I'm going to be honest—thanks to the manning pressures Admiral Cortez has to deal with. And some of our ratings are a lot greener than I'd really like. On the other hand, I've just come from a tour with Eighth Fleet, and that's probably enough to give me a jaundiced view of just about anybody else's training and experience. I don't think we have any problems that can't be set right by a few more weeks—a T-month, if I can get it—of good, hard drill. Well, that and, possibly, a little judicious personnel reassignment."

"A month we can probably give you," Khumalo said, glancing at Shoupe as he spoke. "I'm not sure how much more than that's going to be possible, though. Both Admiral Blaine and Admiral O'Malley are under pressure to get their commands concentrated at the Lynx Terminus as soon as possible, for reasons I'm sure you understand at least as well as I do. That puts us under pressure of our own to get O'Malley relieved down on the 'southern frontier.' At the moment, he's still at Monica, but we've redeployed a support squadron to Tillerman. That's close enough to Monica—and to Meyers—to keep an eye on the Sollies without staying any more obviously in their faces than we have to. So as soon as our damaged units at Monica have managed to complete enough repairs to get underway for home—which will probably take another six to eight T-weeks—and Ambassador Corvisart completes the . . . treaty negotiations, we'll be withdrawing our forces as far as Tillerman."

"I'm confident of the month, Sir," Captain Shoupe said, answering his unasked question. "And I think we can probably squeeze out at least a few more weeks. As you say, it's going to be at least another month or two before Admiral O'Malley is going to be able to withdraw from Monica, anyway."

"Should we think about deploying my squadron—or some of it, at least—forward to Monica to support O'Malley, Sir?" Michelle asked.

"As a show of force for the Sollies, you mean?" Khumalo raised an eyebrow, and Michelle nodded. "I don't think that's really imperative at this point, Milady," he said then. "Frankly, if two squadrons of modern battlecruisers aren't enough to deter Solarian thoughts of aggression, then I don't see how three squadrons would have that effect. Unfortunately, it's entirely possible that a dozen squadrons—of anything less than wallers, at least—wouldn't deter some of the idiots we've seen out here. Even Sollies ought to be beginning to figure out that they don't want to tangle with Her Majesty's Navy on anything like even terms, but I'd be disinclined to risk any money betting on that possibility." He grimaced. "You'd think what Terekhov did at Monica would begin hammering at least a little sense into their brains, but I've come to the conclusion that their skulls are better armored than their wallers are."

His expression was profoundly disgusted looking, and Captain Shoupe looked, if possible, even more disgusted than he was.

"Is it really that bad, Sir?"

"It's probably worse, Milady," Khumalo growled. "I don't doubt you've had your own run-ins with League arrogance over the years. I don't know any serving officer who hasn't. But we've been rather more . . . irritating to them since the Talbotters applied for admission to the Star Kingdom. Or Star Empire, or whatever." He waved one hand. "I don't think there's much doubt Frontier Security was completely confident Talbott was just one more cluster they'd get around to gobbling up whenever they decided it was convenient. Instead, we turned up, and that really, really pissed them off. Which has only made them even more arrogant pains in the arse."

"You mentioned Ambassador Corvisart, Sir," Captain Armstrong observed quietly. "When we left the Star Kingdom, we were only beginning to get reports on what she was finding out there. May I assume she's dug a little deeper in the meantime?"

"Oh, yes, Captain." Khumalo showed his teeth in a tight smile. "I think you could safely say that. And the deeper she gets, the worse it smells."

"Was OFS directly involved, Sir?" Michelle asked.

"Of course it was, Milady." Khumalo snorted. "There's no need for any 'investigation' to tell us that! Proving it—especially to the satisfaction of the notoriously and scrupulously impartial League legal system—is something else, of course." The irony in his tone could have withered an entire forest of Sphinxian picket-wood. "Nothing happens in the Verge—nothing that could possibly have an impact on the League, at any rate—without Frontier Security's involvement. In this case, though, it's actually beginning to look like OFS wasn't the primary player."

"They weren't, Sir?" There was surprise in Michelle's voice, and Khumalo smiled again, grimly, as he heard it.

"That's what it's beginning to look like," he repeated. "As a matter of fact, most of the straws in the wind, including President Tyler's testimony, suggest that the prime mover was Manpower."

Michelle's eyes widened, and Khumalo shrugged.

"Commander Chandler and Mr. O'Shaughnessy will be able to give you a lot more detail on this than I can, Milady. But according to Ambassador Corvisart and her on-site investigators, our original theory that Manpower and the Jessyk Combine were being used as cat's-paws by Frontier Security had things reversed. We've known from the beginning that Commissioner Verrochio has a very . . . comfortable relationship with Manpower and several other Mesan 'corporations.' We assumed—wrongly, apparently—that it was him using that relationship to convince Manpower to serve as his deniable conduit to Nordbrandt and the other terrorist movements here in the Quadrant. From what Corvisart is turning up now, though, it looks like it was actually the other way around."

"Manpower wanted control of the Lynx Terminus?" Michelle shook her head. "I can understand why they'd want us as far away from their home system as they could get us. We've never made any secret of how we feel about the slave trade, after all. But my understanding was that the entire objective of the operation was for Monica to end up controlling the Cluster and the Lynx Terminus as a front for Frontier Security. That would suit Manpower a lot better than what's actually happening, of course, but going about it this way sounds awfully ambitious for a bunch of criminals."

" 'Ambitious' is actually a pretty severe understatement, Milady. They've tried a few other high-stakes maneuvers in the past, but right offhand, I can't think of another one that was this risky and 'ambitious' of them, either. Still, that's the way it's beginning to look. And, considered from one perspective, it's a perfectly logical extension of their usual mode of operation. Not only would it have pushed us six hundred-plus light-years farther away from their headquarters, but it would have given them another set of hooks, this time into Tyler and Monica. I'm sure they would have shown a substantial profit, over the long term, on their ability to manipulate traffic through the terminus, as well, and they didn't even have to come up with the battlecruisers they supplied. Those came from Technodyne."

"That's been confirmed, Sir?"

"It has." Khumalo nodded. "Apparently, they were officially stricken from the Sollies' shiplist to make room for the new Nevadas, and Technodyne saw a way to turn an extra profit on them. We've recovered some electronic records which make it pretty clear Technodyne, at least, has been paying some attention to the rumors about our new systems. It looks as if they expected to get the chance for a close look at our hardware when the unfinished terminus forts had to surrender to Tyler. And they were probably slated for their own share of the income Manpower expected to be raking off from Jessyk's manipulation of the terminus traffic."

Michelle nodded slowly. What Khumalo had just said made plenty of sense, but the notion was going to take some getting used to.

It does hang together, though, she reflected. And poking the Star Kingdom in the eye really isn't as risky for them as it would be for someone else. After all, we're already effectively at war with them over the slave trade. I suppose that from their perspective it was a question of how much worse it could get. And looked at that way, running even a fairly substantial risk to keep our frontiers from moving six hundred light-years closer to them would have an awful lot to recommend it.

"Well, whoever was really in charge, and wherever they were really headed," Khumalo continued, "I'm sure Ambassador Corvisart is going to uncover quite a few more things our good friend Commissioner Verrochio would just as soon stayed buried. But Monica and the Solarian League aren't our sole concerns here in the Quadrant, Milady."

He leaned back in his chair, his expression intent.

"As Captain Terekhov discovered during his brief tour with us before he went trotting off to Monica," Khumalo's smile was quirky, "the new influx of merchant shipping being attracted into the Quadrant by the Lynx Terminus is attracting pirates right along with it. We need to make it clear that this isn't going to be a healthy place for them to operate. That's going to get easier when those light attack craft everyone keeps promising me actually get here, of course. A couple of squadrons of LACs will keep just about any pirate I can imagine out of the star system they're patrolling, at any rate. And having 'their' LAC groups assigned to each new member system will help them realize we're really serious about integrating them into a Cluster-wide security system.

"At the same time, there are threats LACs alone aren't going to be able to deter, and we have to be aware of other potential flash points, whether with OFS or with one of the other single-system star nations out here. Her Majesty has made it quite clear that we're supposed to convince the locals that the Star Empire is going to be a good neighbor. I think she's right that, over time, quite a few more of the local star systems are going to recognize a good thing when they see it and seek admission to the Quadrant. That's for the future, though. For right now, it's our job to make it plain to them that while we're perfectly willing to assist them in dealing with mutual problems—like piracy—we aren't using that assistance as a way to wedge our foot into their doors so we can gobble them up more easily.

"And, of course, there are our equally good friends on New Tuscany."

"I gathered from Admiral Givens' briefings that New Tuscany wasn't exactly likely to be very happy with us," Michelle said.

"No, they aren't. And the fact that Joachim Alquezar's Constitutional Union Party has a clear majority in the new Quadrant Parliament isn't making them any happier. Andrieaux Yvernau hates his guts, and vice versa. In fact, probably the only person in the entire cluster Yvernau hates more than he hates Alquezar is Bernardus Van Dort . . . and the first thing Prime Minister Alquezar did was to name Van Dort a special minister without portfolio as soon as he got back from Monica aboard Hercules."

"I have to admit that I'm more than a little surprised Yvernau could have survived politically after the Convention repudiated his position so thoroughly, Sir," Michelle said cautiously, venturing warily into the political waters she normally kept her toes well clear of.

"I wouldn't say he came through it unscathed, Milady," Khumalo replied. "He didn't get hammered as badly as Tonkovic, of course, but he probably burned twenty or thirty T-years worth of political favors salvaging his position back home."

Shoupe stirred in her chair, and Khumalo glanced at her.

"I know that expression, Loretta," he said. "I take it you disagree?"

"Not entirely, Sir," his chief of staff replied. "I think O'Shaughnessy has a point, though. The real reason Yvernau's political career didn't come to a screeching halt is that a majority of his friends and neighbors back home agree with him."

Shoupe looked at Michelle.

"It's evident that Yvernau and those who think like him decided the citizens' rights provisions of the new constitution would upset their self-serving little applecart on New Tuscany. They aren't prepared to have that happen, so they opted out of the annexation. But one of the reasons they did that was because they figure they'll share in any general economic improvement in the Cluster due to simple proximity, and that our mere presence will protect them from Frontier Security whether that's what we're setting out to do, or not."

"I know that's what Yvernau thought, and I suppose I can't really dispute O'Shaughnessy's belief that quite a few of his fellow oligarchs think the same way," Khumalo said. It was obvious to Michelle that he was discussing the situation with Shoupe, and the fact that she seemed comfortable maintaining a contrary viewpoint—and that he wasn't hammering her for it—said good things about their working relationship, in her opinion.

"But even if that's what Yvernau and some of the others think," the vice admiral continued, "it's not what all of them think. Some of them are royally pissed that the Convention didn't do things Yvernau's way in the first place. Quite a few of them blame us—well, Baroness Medusa, at least—just as much as they do Alquezar and Van Dort. And for a lot of the others, the danger the example of the Quadrant and the Star Empire poses is going to far outweigh any trade advantages or protection against OFS. Nordbrandt's terror campaign against her own oligarchs on Kornati scares the stuffing out of that crew. What they're going to see is that their own lower class is going to be watching the example of what's happening to their counterparts here in the Quadrant. Which isn't exactly likely to contribute to the oligarchs' efforts to keep the lid screwed down."

"Which means exactly what for us, Sir?" Michelle asked, and he snorted.

"If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't need to work for a living. I'd just sit around picking winners in the local air car races! I know the baroness, Mr. O'Shaughnessy, Prime Minister Alquezar, and Mr. Van Dort—all of whom, frankly, are much better than I am at political analysis—are all thinking hard about that same question, and I don't believe they've come up with an answer for it yet, either. The thing I can't quite get out of my own mind, though, is that Yvernau and his crew were stupid enough to cut off their noses to spite their own faces when they couldn't get the Convention to swallow their line. I'm afraid I'm not prepared to put anything past anyone who's that stupid, and we're not exactly the favorite people on their list, either. So I just can't shake the suspicion that they're going to be looking for anything they can do to cause problems. The only real question in my mind where that's concerned is how much risk they're willing to run in the process. How far are they actually prepared to push us in order to demonstrate that we don't scare them?"

Michelle nodded again. If she'd been one of the chief crooks in one of the local kleptocracies, she would have been doing everything she could to avoid ticking off Manticore, whether it was the Old Star Kingdom or this newfangled Star Empire. The last thing she'd have done would be to risk goading it into some sort of unfortunately permanent reaction. Then again, she wasn't one of the chief crooks, and even if she had been, she wouldn't have been stupid enough to have embraced Andrieaux Yvernau's political strategy in the first place. Which meant she had no idea how valid Khumalo's concerns might be.

"Even if my concerns prove totally unfounded," the Talbott Station CO continued, "and, to be honest, nothing would please me more than to see exactly that happen, New Tuscany is still going to be one of our more potentially sensitive concerns. The disappearance of the various protective tariffs and other trade barriers here in the Quadrant is going to have a significant impact on local shipping patterns, and New Tuscany is probably going to be one of the major outside players in those patterns, at least in local terms. We're going to have to be careful about how we handle New Tuscan-registry merchant vessels, and I won't be a bit surprised if we encounter all kinds of customs disputes. So we're going to require at least some naval presence permanently in the vicinity of New Tuscany, Marian, Scarlet, and Pequod."

"Yes, Sir," Michelle agreed.

Khumalo started to say something more, but Shoupe cleared her throat quietly. He glanced at her, and she tapped one fingertip on her chrono.

"Point taken, Loretta," he said with a smile, and returned his attention to Michelle.

"What Captain Shoupe has just tactfully reminded me of is that dinner engagement with Baroness Medusa I mentioned to you. She's expecting us in Thimble in about three hours, and I imagine you and Captain Armstrong would like to return to Artemis to prepare. Mess dress, I'm afraid, since Prime Minister Alquezar will also be present. And the baroness also asked me to extend an invitation to all of your captains and their senior officers."

"That's rather a large number of people Sir," Michelle pointed out diffidently, and he chuckled.

"Believe me, Milady, Baroness Medusa is aware of that. She has rather a large banquet room in her official residence, and I believe she visualizes this as an opportunity for the Prime Minister and several other important local political figures to meet your personnel. She sees it as a major first step in fostering their confidence in us, and I think she has a point."

"That makes perfectly good sense to me, Sir. As long as she's got that large banquet room to fit us all into."

"I believe we'll manage, Admiral Gold Peak," Khumalo assured her.

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