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Chapter Four

Vice Admiral Quentin O’Malley was several centimeters shorter than Captain Aivars Terekhov, but broad shouldered and muscular. His dark hair was cropped short, and his brown eyes looked out from under bushy, aggressive eyebrows on either side of a strong, straight blade of a nose. He looked like the bruising rugby player he’d been at Saganami Island, but his voice was a surprisingly smooth tenor.

He’d already greeted Terekhov, Commander Ginger Lewis, and Lieutenant Guthrie Bagwell, Hexapuma’s chief engineer (and acting XO) and electronic warfare officer, respectively, when they arrived aboard his flagship, Black Rose. Now he rose courteously as Rear Admiral Augustus Khumalo entered the briefing room with Vincenzo Terwilliger, Black Rose’s commander, trailed by Khumalo’s flag captain, Victoria Saunders, and Commander Ambrose Chandler and Commander Loretta Shoupe, his intelligence officer and chief of staff, respectively.

“Thank you for coming, Admiral,” he said, and Khumalo nodded.

“Pleased to be aboard, Admiral O’Malley,” he replied, shaking the vice admiral’s hand briefly but firmly. Then he turned to the single civilian who’d been seated at the conference table and extended his hand to her, as well. “Ms. Corvisart,” he said.

“Admiral,” she responded as her slim hand almost disappeared in his grip. She was a smallish woman, who looked even smaller beside Khumalo.

“Please, be seated, everyone,” O’Malley invited. He waited until everyone else had settled into his or her chair before sitting himself, then looked around at the attentive faces.

“I believe, Ms. Corvisart, that as the direct representative of Her Majesty and the Foreign Office, you’re the logical person to chair this meeting,” he said, raising one eyebrow at Khumalo. The circumstances were just a little complicated, because while O’Malley was senior to Khumalo, Khumalo was the Talbott Station Commander and—technically—O’Malley’s task force came under  Baroness Medusa, the Talbott Sector Governor, and thus Talbott Station’s command authority. So when wearing his Talbott Station hat and acting as Medusa’s senior naval officer within the Talbott Sector, Khumalo was senior, and it wasn’t entirely clear—yet—which hat was on whose head here in Monica.

“I concur entirely,” Khumalo said a bit more ponderously, and Corvisart inclined her head for just a moment. Then she leaned forward in her chair and folded her hands before her on the table.

“Thank you, Admiral O’Malley. And thank you, Admiral Khumalo. I realize that, as you say, I’m here as the direct civilian representative of Her Majesty’s Government. Under the strict rubric of my instructions, I’m also the senior representative of the Star Kingdom. However, let’s not play any games here. Admiral Khumalo, in my opinion, your and Captain Terekhov’s actions—and Monican involvement in the effort to destabilize Kornati and Montana—make this an extension of your command area. As such, I believe you’re Her Majesty’s proper representative. I realize I’m cutting a bit of a Gordian knot here, but I think leaving you as our formal representative will capitalize on the fact that you’ve already been acting in that capacity and also, insulate you, Admiral O’Malley,” she looked at the vice admiral, “from the political side and allow you to concentrate on the military aspects of our situation.” She waited until O’Malley had nodded in agreement, then looked back at Khumalo. “And while I’m on the subject, Admiral Khumalo, I’d like to take this opportunity to state my full and unqualified approval for the actions you and, especially, Captain Terekhov have taken in Monica.”

Some of the uniformed shoulders around that table relaxed ever so slightly, and she smiled faintly.

“I’m sure all of you realize there will be a formal board of inquiry in the fullness of time. Having read your reports and reviewed the preliminary take from your intelligence officers and the summaries Commander Bonifacio here”—she nodded her head in the direction of O’Malley’s chief of staff, Blake Bonifacio—“has put together for me, I don’t think you need to have any qualms about that board’s conclusions. For my part, I intend to conduct myself as if those conclusions had already been rendered and your actions approved at the highest level. I’m fairly certain”—her smile turned almost impish—“I won’t be sticking my neck out too far when I do.”

She paused for a moment, then sat back in her chair.

“I’m scheduled for my first face-to-face with President Tyler tomorrow morning. Before I meet with him, I’d like an opportunity to discuss several of the points in the intelligence packet Captain Terekhov and Commander Chandler have assembled for me. I think your work’s been commendably clear and unambiguous, given the short timeframe and how little access planet-side you’ve had, gentlemen, but I want every round in the magazine before I sit down with these people.” This time her smile was thin and extremely cold. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with an ancient gambler’s maxim the Foreign Office is rather fond of, Commander Chandler, but I suspect you know the one I’m talking about, Captain Terekhov?”

She arched one eyebrow across the table, and Terekhov nodded.

“I imagine you’re referring to the one about suckers and even breaks, Ma’am?”

“Indeed I am. Anyone stupid enough to sign off for even a tenth of what it looks like Tyler bought into in this case certainly qualifies as a ‘sucker,’ and after the price your people paid derailing this plot, the only break I’m interested in giving him would occur somewhere around the C4 vertebra. It’s entirely possible we’ll wind up cutting some sort of deal with him in the end, little as any of us might like that prospect, on the theory that he was only a front man. I have a strong suspicion that you and Commander Chandler are correct about that, too, in which case we have bigger fish to fry than one more tinpot dictator. But I have no intention of letting him get away scot free. There will be a reckoning for the good president, and I guarantee you he’ll give us everything we want before I sign off on any proposed settlement with him.”

She held Terekhov’s eyes for a heartbeat, then switched her gaze to Khumalo. Both officers looked back levelly, and she gave them a crisp nod, almost like a formal oath. Then she tapped the display in front of her, bringing it online.

“First, Captain Terekhov, I’d appreciate it if you could run back down the chain of events that brought the freighter Marianne—or Golden Butterfly—to your attention. I want to be particularly clear on its role in running arms to that butcher Nordbrandt and how that led you to Monica in the first place. I think I have the sequence of events clear, but I want to be certain of that before I confront Tyler with Captain Binyan’s testimony and the documentation from his computers. After that, Commander Chandler,” she shifted her attention to Khumalo’s intelligence officer, “I’d like you to run down your findings from the Indefatigables you’ve examined at Eroica Station. I’m not a naval officer, and I’m not technically trained myself, so I want you to put it into layman’s terms for me, as well as you can. In particular, I want you to be conversant with every detail that proves they came direct from the Solarian Navy and that Technodyne connived with the SLN’s own in-house inspectors to make that happen. I want to be able to rattle off those details with so much assurance he doesn’t even think about the possibility that I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about. I’d also like to ask your electronic warfare officer, Captain Terekhov—Lieutenant Bagwell, I believe?”

She raised her eyebrows again. Terekhov nodded to the lieutenant seated to his left, and she turned her attention to him.

“I find myself actually almost understanding nearly fifteen percent of your report, Lieutenant,” she said wryly. “Given my total ineptitude for things military, that says quite a bit for the clarity with which you set forth your conclusions. Nonetheless, I’d like you to try to simplify that even more for me after we’ve heard from Commander Chandler. And, if Captain Terekhov can spare you, I’d like for you to accompany me to my initial meeting with President Tyler. I want you along to give me the nod if he or any of his navy people who may be present start trying to hand me any horse shit.”

Several surprised chuckles greeted her last two words, and Bagwell nodded with a smile. Then she switched her attention back to his superiors, and her expression turned rather more serious.

“Given the somewhat…irregular nature of the Navy’s presence here in Monica, I think it would be best if Admiral Khumalo accompanied me as the senior naval representative at the table. As I say, that will leave you free to continue implementing your people’s control of the entire system infrastructure, Admiral O’Malley, with a degree of insulation from the political side of things. Frankly, Captain Terekhov, I’d really like to have you present, particularly in light of your own Foreign Office experience. Under the circumstances, though, I think it might be more, um, tactful to keep you and the senior Monican leadership as far apart as possible for the next little bit. Although, if they should be foolish enough to turn intractable, I have every intention of flourishing you over their heads. If there’s one officer who terrifies the entire Monican Navy, it’s probably you. For now, I’m prepared to try the silk glove approach, but if I need a knuckleduster to tuck inside it, that’s you.”

“Understood, Ma’am,” Terekhov said after a moment. It was only the briefest of hesitations, but Corvisart heard it anyway. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged ever so slightly.

“Frankly, Ma’am, I’m fully occupied right now trying to put Hexapuma back together. Captain Kurtz and Ericsson’s people are accomplishing more than I would have believed they could, but she’s a long way from ready to head home. If you need me dirtside, I’ll make myself available, of course. But the truth is, I’ve seen more than enough of Monica from orbit. I don’t feel the least bit slighted to not be at the table with you. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to keep me as far away from those people as you can.” Those blue eyes went cold and bleak. “I might find it a bit difficult to remain…civil.”

“I understand, Captain. I don’t have anything remotely like your personal history here, and it’s going to be difficult for me to remain—civil, I believe you said? However, I do have one bit of news that might make you feel a little better about what’s going to happen to the people behind this.”

“News, Ma’am?” Terekhov asked when she paused, and she chuckled nastily.

“When we left Manticore, we did it in company with a transport—chartered by the Crown—stuffed to the bulkheads with newsies. All sorts of newsies. In fact, at least seventy-five percent of them are Solarian newsies. This will be one of the most public—and most broadly publicized—inquiries in galactic history, Captain. It’s going to hit every news channel in the Solarian League, not just the Star Kingdom, and I intend to see to it that the Solly coverage comes from Solly reporters. No one’s going to be able to brush off those reports as partisan Manticoran reportage, and I can already tell there’ll be more than enough blood in the water to provoke a very satisfactory feeding frenzy over this one. I promise you, Captain Terekhov: the people who thought they could hide in the shadows while they hired someone else to slip the knife into your people’s back are about to find out just how spectacularly wrong they were.”

* * *

Damien Harahap looked up from his book reader as Rufino Chernyshev knocked courteously on the frame of the open door. While Harahap would never have called his current surroundings palatial, they were certainly much more comfortable than many he’d endured in the course of his career. And they had the inestimable advantage of being, so far as he could tell, completely off the Gendarmerie’s radar.

Of course there were two sides to that particular advantage. If not even his employers could find him, then it was unlikely the people who’d murdered Ulrike Eichbauer and ordered his own death could find him, either. That was the good part. The bad part was that if Chernyshev’s employers decided he was a liability rather than an asset, they’d find it remarkably easy to complete his traceless disappearance.

At least he’d had a chance to catch up on his reading in the last month or so, especially since Chernyshev had “requested” he remain off the net while they awaited instructions. Under the circumstances, it had seemed wiser to accede to the “request” gracefully. Besides, he’d been much too far behind on his history readings.

“Mind if I disturb you for a minute?” Chernyshev asked now, and Harahap gave him a crooked smile.

“My time is yours, Rufino,” he said, sweeping one hand around his small room’s plainly furnished comfort.

“Well, yes, but there are courtesies between professionals,” Chernyshev replied, stepping fully into the room. “I know this hasn’t been especially easy for you, and the truth is I’m grateful you’ve taken it as well as you have.”

“Would it have done me much good to take it any other way?”

“We both know keeping someone like you locked down against his will can get…complicated, Damien. I’m just saying that I appreciate your taking a professional attitude towards all of this.”

“You’re welcome,” Harahap said, touched—despite himself—by Chernyshev’s apparent sincerity. “I do hope you’re not soft-soaping me to sugarcoat some nasty bit of news, though?”

“No, no. Nothing like that! In fact, I’ve just heard back from my superiors. They’re very happy you’ve managed to stay alive—with, of course, my modest assistance. On the other hand, they’re sorry to hear about Major Eichbauer. My impression is that they’d really hoped to convince both of you to come to work for them. As it is, they’ve instructed me to ask you if you’d be prepared to accept an offer of employment.”

“Doing what, precisely?” Harahap leaned back in his chair. He wasn’t in the strongest bargaining position imaginable, but still…

“I don’t have a lot of details about that,” Chernyshev admitted. “My guess would be that they’d want you to continue doing essentially what you were doing in the Talbott Sector. I’d suspect they have a somewhat…broader canvas in mind, you understand, but all of that’s just my best guess. I’m sure they’ll explain everything to you when we get there.”

“And ‘there,’ presumably, is someplace other than Pine Mountain?”

“I think you can safely assume there’s a small interstellar cruise involved in the employment offer,” Chernyshev told him with a slight smile.

Harahap nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful. With all due modesty, he was one of the best at what he’d been “doing in the Talbott Sector,” but he’d had the advantage of years of familiarity with the area. If Chernyshev’s reference to broader canvases meant what he suspected it did, he’d be operating outside that comfort zone. On the other hand, it was what he did best. And he had the oddest suspicion that turning down the new career opportunity would not be the very smartest decision he’d ever made.

Besides, what else was he going to do with himself? The people who’d hired his services in the Talbott Sector were among the wealthiest individuals in the explored galaxy. Not very nice people, perhaps, but filthy, obscenely rich. If he was looking at a mandatory shift to the private sector, it made sense to find the employers with the deepest pockets when he did.

“I see,” he said, laying the book reader on his small desk and pushing back his chair to stand. “When do we leave?”

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