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Chapter Eight

“Oh-ho! This is interesting, Sir.”

Lieutenant Brandon Stiller looked down at the pair of uniformed legs visible—from ankles to just above the knee—protruding out of the guts of the fire control console.

“And what would ‘this’ be, Maggie?” he inquired. “It’s just a bit hard to see down inside there with you at the moment.”

“Oops. Sorry about that, Sir,” CPO Magdalena Grigoriv said. Her voice was rather muffled, but clear enough. “Just a sec.”

In fact, it was rather less than the specified second when the display on Stiller’s tablet flicked to life with the imagery from the visual pick up mounted beside the lamp on Grigoriv’s headset. He looked at it for a moment or two, rubbing his chin as he frowned thoughtfully, then shrugged.

“I give,” he said. “Other than another chunk of molycirc, I still don’t know what ‘this’ is. Any hints?”

“What this is, Sir, unless I’m badly mistaken, is a secondary backup of the tac log.”

“Is it now?” Stiller’s expression was suddenly intent. “I didn’t know they had one of those aboard these ships.”

“Yes, Sir. Gets more interesting every day, doesn’t it? But look here.”

Grigoriv’s hand entered the field of view, indicating a pair of connectors. It was a slender, fine boned hand, since she was barely a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, which was one of the reasons she was the one exploring the innards of the consoles on the command deck of MSN Remorseless (until recently BC-1003 Incomparable, late of the Solarian League Navy). Not only was Stiller an officer (if a rather junior one), but he was also twenty-five centimeters taller than she was and considerably broader. Of course, the fact that she’d demonstrated the best intuitive feel for the…idiosyncrasies of Solarian tech had more than a little to do with why she’d drawn the assignment, too. It would appear that for any possible technological issue there was a right solution, a wrong solution, and a Solly solution. There were times when Stiller had no idea what could have inspired the SLN to adopt the one they had.

“This one”—the fingernail on the index finger tapping the connector on the right had acquired more than a little dirt—“goes straight to the TO’s station, and this one here”—she tapped the second connector—“goes to the feed from CIC. But there’s no connector to anywhere else. It accepts input from both those sources, and it can output to the tactical officer’s station, but it’s pretty clearly a standalone data storage unit.”

“My, my, my,” Stiller murmured. “I wonder if they wiped this one, too? Assuming they knew about it, of course.”

“One way to find out, Sir.” Grigoriv’s other hand appeared in the field of view. Nimble fingers quickly attached a probe to the memory unit’s diagnostic panel, and she snorted. “Dunno exactly what’s in here, Sir, but there’s a lot of it! I mean, a whole big lot.”

“Well, in that case, Maggie, I suppose we ought to see about encouraging it to tell us about itself. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Copy that, Sir!”

* * *

“That was…careless of them,” Augustus Khumalo said as the intelligence summary ended. “I assume Admiral O’Malley and Ms. Corvisart already have copies of this?”

“Yes, Sir.” Commander Chandler nodded. “I’ve distributed it to everyone on the authorized list.”

“And all of this was in it?” Khumalo flicked a finger at the display in front of him, which currently displayed only the wallpaper of HMS Hercules. It was a purely rhetorical question, as his satisfied smile made clear, but Chandler nodded again.

“We downloaded through the TO’s station before we actually pulled the unit. I don’t think the Monicans realized they’d given us the complete access codes.”

“I think it’s more likely Captain Kurtz’s theory is correct, Sir,” Aivars Terekhov said.

He and Ginger Lewis had come aboard Hercules as Khumalo’s dinner guests just before Chandler delivered his latest intelligence prize. Now the admiral crooked an eyebrow at him, and Terekhov shrugged.

“I think she’s right, Sir. They didn’t know it was there any more than we did. If they’d known, they would’ve scrubbed it before we got hold of it.”

Khumalo nodded. The Monicans had used the interval between Terekhov’s destruction of their operational battlecruisers and his own arrival in-system to delete all manner of incriminating files. Unfortunately for them, the Manticoran cyber forensics teams had managed to recover a great many intact computer cores from the shattered military component of Eroica Station. But this was the first complete and undamaged download from one of the ex-Solarian battlecruisers’ log systems to fall into their hands. And, having scanned the output Chandler had already worked through, the admiral understood exactly why they’d scrubbed everything else they could get their hands on.

“I can understand the Monicans not realizing it was there,” he said after a moment. “But Technodyne must have known about it!”

“They should’ve known about it,” Terekhov agreed. “On the other hand, Technodyne’s an enormous operation, Sir, and all this was completely ‘black.’ I’d bet they compartmentalized like crazy when they set it up, and we’ve all seen examples of what can happen when someone does that. How many times has that kind of thing bitten us on the ass against the Peeps?”

“You’re thinking someone didn’t get the word about where these ships were going, so that someone didn’t bother to mention the backup to anyone else?”

“Something like that. Then again, they may have known about it all along and just not told Monica because they didn’t care. They never thought we’d get our hands on these ships, Sir. They worried about changing emission signatures and cosmetic changes to weapons and sensor suites to disguise them on external scans, but they never expected our techs to actually take their hardware apart!”

“I suppose that’s true,” Khumalo said, forbearing to point out that any such expectations would have been amply justified if not for a certain Aivars Terekhov. “I imagine Ms. Corvisart and the Foreign Office will be very happy to get their hands on this, though.”

He tapped the display at his elbow, and Terekhov nodded. The download from the backup log covered every stage of Incomparable’s transformation into Remorseless. It was a complete record of the modifications to the ship’s systems, which had captured Technodyne technicians not only making modifications themselves but also running sims and instructing Monican personnel in the operation and maintenance of top-secret Solarian League Navy hardware. Worse, it had captured Technodyne supervisors discussing how the ships had been diverted to Monica’s use. Since that included specific mention of the Solarian League inspectors who’d signed off on the ships’ complete demolition by the reclamation crews, it was a particularly damning bit of evidence in the case Amandine Corvisart was building against Technodyne and the League in general.

“The newsies will salivate the instant they see it,” the admiral predicted, and Terekhov nodded once more.

“Did Stiller and Grigoriv document every stage of this, Ambrose?” the captain asked.

“Every bit of it,” Chandler confirmed. “Our crews are documenting everything, but as soon as Stiller realized what Grigoriv had turned up he brought in one of the Solly observers, as well.”

“Now that was a smart move,” Commander Lewis said. “Technodyne’s going to scream we fabricated all of it, but that’s going to be a harder sell with one of Ms. Corvisart’s pet newsies validating where we found it and how we downloaded its contents.”

“Never underestimate the power of money and corruption when it comes to the Solarian League legal system, Ginger,” Terekhov advised. “Of course, the court of public opinion’s a different venue. It probably will do some good there.”

“And it might do some good right here in Monica, too,” Khumalo pointed out. “However, I suspect dinner is about to be served. Before we sit down to it, Aivars, how are Hexapuma’s repairs coming?”

“Quite well, considering.” Terekhov waved in Lewis’ direction. “Ginger and her people are just about completely exhausted by now, but with Captain Kurtz’s people’s assistance, we should be ready to hyper out within a couple of weeks.”

“That’s a remarkable achievement,” Khumalo said sincerely, with an approving nod for Lewis. “I wouldn’t have believed anyone could put her back together when I first saw your damage report!”

“I’m not sure I would’ve argued with you, Sir,” Terekhov said. “Ginger never doubted, though.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far, Sir.” Lewis shook her head. “It was more a case of my not daring to tell you I cherished any doubts about my own peerless ability to glue the bits and pieces back into place.”

“Well, whatever you may’ve thought at the time, Commander, you’ve amply justified Captain Terekhov’s confidence in you since. In fact—”

A soft chime interrupted the admiral, and he checked his personal chrono.

“All right. Shop talk is now officially suspended until after dinner.” He slid back his float chair and stood. “If you’ll all come with me, I think the cooks have put together something fairly palatable.”

* * *

“No, Mister President.” Amandine Corvisart’s tone might be courteous, but it was also decidedly cool and about as far from affable as it was possible for a voice to be. “I’m afraid that point is not negotiable.”

Roberto Tyler stared at her across his desk, then glanced at the other two men seated in his private office.

Admiral Gregoire Bourmont wouldn’t meet his eyes, not that the president was especially surprised by that. Bourmont was a broken man, devastated on a personal as well as a professional level by the crushing defeat—the outright destruction—of his entire navy by what he’d since discovered was a scratch-built squadron composed primarily of second line Manticoran warships. He seemed like a man trapped in a nightmare from which he couldn’t awaken, and Tyler doubted that was going to change anytime soon…if ever.

Alfonso Higgins, the Republic of Monica’s chief of intelligence, was still functional, however, and he did meet his president’s gaze. In fact, he shrugged ever so slightly, and Tyler’s jaw tightened. Higgins had minced no bones about his conclusion that they had no choice but to accept the deal—any deal—Manticore was willing to offer at this point. His own intelligence reports and analyses made it abundantly clear that Tyler’s presidency hung by the proverbial thread. The Monican electorate understood exactly how the Republic’s political system worked, and by and large they’d been willing to accept that for the last several decades. Even more importantly, his fellow kleptocrats had stood firmly behind him as long as his policies continued to bring in the Solarian cash they needed to grease the wheels of their personal fortunes. But that was before Tyler had involved their star nation in one of the most colossal debacles—if not simply the most colossal debacle—in its history. Very few of those kleptocratic friends of his were all that fond of him at the moment. And if the Star Empire of Manticore so much as whispered the possibility of incorporating Monica into the newly annexed Talbott Sector into that electorate’s ear, any plebiscite would approve the notion by an overwhelming majority.

No doubt it would, Tyler thought resentfully, returning his attention to Corvisart. But the damned Manties have to watch their asses, too. Frontier Security may be willing to swallow a lot after how spectacularly Anisimovna and her frigging friends have screwed the pooch, but the outright forcible annexation—plebiscite or no plebiscite—of a League ally would be really pushing things. In fact, the Sollies might actually want the Manties to try it! If they can turn this into some sort of raw territorial grab on the Manties’ part they may be able to shout loud enough about that to keep their public from paying any attention to the evidence.

Personally, Tyler doubted OFS or its friends—and especially Technodyne—had a hope in hell of pulling that off. Fortunately for him, Manticore seemed unwilling to take that chance. Which, now that Tyler thought about it, might be wise of them, considering the general credulity of the Solly man in the street.

“Ms. Corvisart,” he said as reasonably as he could, “you’ve already acquired more than enough physical and documentary evidence to support or disprove your version of what happened here. Obviously, there’s nothing anyone in the Republic of Monica can do to prevent you from doing whatever you wish to do with that evidence. But surely you understand that a sovereign star nation can’t simply hand over its own raw diplomatic correspondence and intelligence data. There are some records whose confidentiality simply have to be preserved if a star nation hopes to have any credibility at all in sensitive interstellar negotiations. No one would just roll over and give you that sort of access! It’s out of the question!”

“Under normal circumstances, perhaps,” Corvisart said implacably. “The circumstances aren’t normal, however, Sir. In fact, they’re decidedly abnormal, and I’m afraid you and I both know how they came to be that way. The evidence we already possess was acquired by force of arms. In other words, it’s our legitimate prize by right of capture and, as you say, we can do whatever we wish with it. There are inevitably going to be those in the League who discount that evidence as fabricated by the Star Empire for some nefarious purpose of our own, however. That’s going to happen whatever else happens, and you know it as well as we do. But the Star Empire intends to make it as difficult as possible even for someone like Malachai Abruzzi to say that with a straight face. That brings us back to the point of today’s conversation, and, Mister President, without wishing to be unpleasant about this, you’re not really in the best position to tell us what’s acceptable and unacceptable at the moment.”

Tyler felt his face darken with anger, but he bit down on the furious response boiling behind his teeth. Corvisart had made her position amply clear. Either he handed over the records—all the records—she’d demanded, or else she, Augustus Khumalo, and Quentin O’Malley completely disarmed the Monican Navy, Army, and Internal Security Force. They probably wouldn’t be able to get all of those weapons out of Monican hands, especially the ISF’s small arms, but they’d be able to get enough to guarantee the overthrow of his presidency. The consequences of that would be highly unpleasant—probably fatal—for a significant percentage of the Tyler family and its supporters.

But if he caved to their demands, gave them what they wanted, Corvisart was prepared to sign a nonaggression pact between the Republic of Monica and the Star Empire of Manticore. What was left of his battered armed forces would remain intact and under his command, although he’d still have to deal with some highly restive elements within them, and the Republic would be left in one piece. In fact, she was prepared to sweeten the deal by offering to include Monica in the domestic trade zone being established in Talbott, which would make his currently unhappy kleptocrats almost as happy as if his effort to seize the Lynx Terminus had succeeded. The regime’s survival would remain problematic, perhaps, but by Alfonso Higgins’ calculations, the odds would be heavily in Tyler’s favor.

Domestically, at least. When the Solarian League finally got around to pulverizing Manticore for its effrontery, OFS might have a page or two in its plans for the client regime which had turned upon it.

But that will be then, and this is now, isn’t it? Tyler thought. There’s a certain…immediacy to the situation, and this bitch’s made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t plan to wait around forever. Time to crap or get off the pot, Roberto. Besides, it’s not like I owe those OFS or Technodyne bastards a damned thing after the shit pot they’ve landed me in!

“Very well, Ms. Corvisart. Understand that we are complying only under protest, but the records you demand will be made available to you.”

“Under the conditions specified?” Corvisart pressed, and his eyes flashed.

It wasn’t enough for her that his IT people hand over the documents. Oh, no! Her people had to have access to his central filing systems to extract the information themselves, making any redaction impossible. God only knew what else they might find while they were about it, either! And she’d have her damned representatives of the Solarian League press with her techs the whole way.

It was intolerable, and he hovered on the very brink of telling her exactly that. But then his nostrils flared, and he nodded.

“Under the conditions specified,” he grated, and Corvisart nodded as if she hadn’t just performed a double orchiectomy upon him.

“Thank you, Mister President,” she said courteously. “Commander Chandler and Commander Bonifacio will be in touch before the end of business today to arrange the details.”

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