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“Welcome aboard, Your Majesty.” Michelle Henke, Lester Tourville, Susan Hibson, and Cynthia Lecter had risen to greet the monarch of Torch. Now Henke gestured toward one of the chairs around the large table. “Please, have a seat.”

Next to her, Lecter coughed gently. Henke glanced at her, then back at the Queen of Torch, whose expression seemed a bit stiff, and realized she’d committed a breach of protocol.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I believe the correct form of address is ‘Your Mousety.’”

“Yes, thank you.” Queen Berry had quite a friendly smile. “I prefer it to, ah, the usual.”

A small troupe of people had followed the queen into the flag briefing room: Catherine Montaigne, Thandi Palane, Victor Cachat, and Web Du Havel, along with two men Michelle had never met before. She recognized one of them from holos she’d seen—the infamous, although now somewhat respectable Jeremy X. The other man was a complete stranger to her. All she’d been told was his name, Saburo X, and the fact that he was a close associate of Jeremy’s. Presumably the reason for his presence at the meeting would be explained in due time.

Michelle smiled back at Queen Berry, waited until she’d been seated, and then sat once again, herself.

“You’ve met my cousin Elizabeth, I believe?” she said.

“The Queen—no, I guess she’s the Empress now?”

“Only cousin Elizabeth I have.”

“Yes, several times.” Queen Berry nodded. “But that was back when I was just plain ‘Berry,’ before…” She waved her hand. “Before all the stuff that happened.”

“And before anyone was referring to you as ‘Your Mousety.’”

“Oh, long before,” Berry said, and Henke chuckled.

“Lord in Heaven, I would love to be a fly on the wall when you first get introduced in Landing that way. She’s quite a formidable woman, my cousin, but some things are too challenging for even her to overcome. One of them’s ‘proper protocol.’ She and Duchess Harrington have tried to…revamp it for years now, with an unfortunately uniform lack of success. But you—you’re a ‘foreign potentate’! So all of those propriety-obsessed protocolists are just going to have to suck it up. ‘Your Mousety.’ Ha! They’ll drop dead in droves!”

Web Du Havel shook his head.

“We tried to talk her out of it,” he said.

“We did talk her out of it,” Jeremy corrected the prime minister. Henke was struck by his voice. It was quite a bit higher pitched than she would have expected from someone with his fearsome reputation. She’d seen the imagery of the man, but never heard a recording of his voice.

Of course, that was hardly surprising. Unlike Montaigne, who was a noted orator, Jeremy X had been noted for killing people, not giving speeches.

“We did talk her out of it,” the former head of the Audubon Ballroom repeated. He gave Torch’s monarch a glare that seemed utterly insincere. “Much good it did us, too! Kept calling herself ‘Mousety’ until everyone gave in. The girl is as implacable as an iceberg. If I were you, I wouldn’t let her anywhere near Landing. Protocol’s all very well, but sooner or later, she’d have your poor, brutalized bureaucrats calling the Star Empire the Asteroid Empire.”

Victor Cachat cleared his throat.

“If we could dispense with terrorist jocularity, I believe we have business to deal with,” he said.

“Says Comrade Mayhem and Havoc,” Jeremy transferred his glare to the Havenite, although it didn’t seem to gain any more in the way of sincerity.

Cachat ignored that. He’d nodded respectfully to Tourville upon his arrival, but his attention was on Henke herself.

“I assume you have some remonstrances to raise with us, Admiral Gold Peak. Probably a long list of them. So we should get started.”

“I’m curious about the pronoun you just used, Officer Cachat. I wouldn’t think ‘us’ was appropriate. Given that, unlike these other folks, you are an officer of the Grand Alliance.”

“Good point. I shall correct that immediately.”

That statement struck Henke as being even less sincere than Jeremy’s earlier glare, and she smiled very slightly.

“I wouldn’t call the issues I wish to raise ‘remonstrances,’” she said after a moment. “They’re more in the way of…concerns.”

She shifted her gaze back to Berry and her expression turned much more serious.

“I’ve read ONI’s reports about the uprising on Torch,” she said somberly. “‘Verdant Vista,’ as it was called then. That was a bloody business.”

“It was horrible,” Berry said, and there was no trace of a smile on her face now. “We tried to stop it—did stop it, as fast as we could.”

“Yes, I know. My question is, could you do the same thing here?”

“There’s no chance of that happening here, Admiral,” Palane said. “First, if it had been going to happen, it already would have. Even General Hibson—” she nodded respectfully to the diminutive, dark-haired Marine “—and the rest of her ground troops would have had a hell of a time stopping a Verdant Vista scale mass uprising. But leaving everything else aside, the military conditions don’t exist. It would be even harder for us to break into the citizen quarters than it was for them to break into Neue Rostock. Unless you’d be willing to let us borrow…oh, I don’t know. Somewhere around five thousand tactical KEWs?”

Michelle shook her head with another smile.

“Tempting,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’ve got enough grief as it is.”

“Well, darn,” Palane said, with an answering smile.

Henke placed her hands on the table and sat up straighter.

“I’m not worried about any sort of pogroms right now, or in the near future. What concerns me is that the Grand Alliance has no desire at all to maintain a long occupation of Mesa. We’ve seen how well that usually works out, and we have no intention of replacing the Sollies’ Frontier Security with our own version of the same thing. That means we have to create a workable planetary government so we can pull the MMA back off-planet—or at least shift it into a secondary position, clearly acting in support of a legitimate, locally constituted government and not as an outside dictatorship—ASAP, and, given Mesa’s history, that’s going to be difficult. If whatever government we leave behind us doesn’t work out, sooner or later there’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. The animosities between Mesa’s full citizens—former full citizens—and everyone else are…intense.”

“‘Intense’ is putting it mildly,” Jeremy said. He didn’t say it with a snarl, though. In fact, his tone seemed almost insouciant. And so did his next words.

“But I really wouldn’t worry too much about it Admiral. You—we, I should say—have several things favoring us.”

“Which are?” Henke asked, and Jeremy nodded toward Web Du Havel.

“We’ve discussed it at some length, and I think it would be best for me to let the judicious scholar here explain it.” An impish grin flashed across his face. “I’m likely to put everything too…ah…”

“Too not judiciously,” Du Havel finished. He sat up straight himself, although he kept his hands in his lap. “The way we see it, Admiral, we have three factors working on our side. ‘Our side’ meaning that of the entire population of the planet, in this case.”

“I’m listening.”

“First, the former slaves are completely disorganized politically. The only significant group that exists in that respect is the Audubon Ballroom, and the Ballroom’s strength on Mesa was…how shall I put this—?”

“No need to be diplomatic about it, Web,” the man named Saburo X said.

His voice was a striking contrast to Jeremy’s: a baritone so deep it was almost an outright basso. Now he looked at Henke and shrugged.

“We never had much strength here, Admiral,” he said. “And even less once the scorpions launched their repression after Green Pines. The great majority of people they butchered and imprisoned were perfectly innocent, but willy-nilly they did sweep up some of our people in the process. Only two of the ones captured survived, and the scorpions didn’t bother capturing very many people in the first place.”

Scorpion was the term used by the Ballroom—and many slaves, for that matter—to refer to anyone working for Manpower or any institution associated with genetic slavery. The casual way, Saburo tossed it off was a good indication of just how…broadly the epithet was applied. Members of the Ballroom didn’t have a lot of use for the notion that anyone suspected of being a slaver in any way, shape, or form had to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Their attitude—certainly their operating philosophy—was more along the lines of kill them all and let God sort them out.

Yet what struck Henke most about Saburo’s use of the term—for that matter, everything he’d said—was that, like Jeremy, there didn’t seem to be any rage underneath it. He seemed quite dispassionate, in fact.

“The point Web is beating around the bush about,” he continued, nodding toward Du Havel, “is that those of us in the Ballroom—yes, I’m still a member, even if Jeremy’s resigned—are in no position to compete with Dusek and the other bosses for the political allegiance of even the former slaves, much less the seccies.”

“That’s absolutely true,” Du Havel said in a more serious tune. “And while it’s equally true that there are a lot of uncharitable things that could be said about Mesa’s criminal bosses, the one thing they are not—not one of them—is prone to recklessness. They are pragmatists from the top of whatever hair they have down to the soles of their feet. So long as they’re the effective leaders of the ex-slaves as well as the seccies, they’ll see to it that the peace is kept. Given the new dispensation, their personal situations—and fortunes—look very promising, and widespread violence is bad for business. The last thing they’ll tolerate is anyone upsetting apple carts just because they’re furious and seeking vengeance.”

That was…an interesting way of looking at the situation. Henke could recall very few times she’d ever heard anyone point to the virtues of criminals, when it came to government. The one enormous exception to that was Erewhon, of course. The onetime member of the Manticoran Alliance—and current charter member Oravil Barregos’s Mayan Autonomous Regional Sector—had been founded, long ago, by an association of criminal cartels. Its present system of government was no longer composed of outright criminals, but it retained much of the cartels’ original DNA, and it worked quite well.

“I may be a bit skeptical about that,” she said out loud, “but I can see your point. What are the other positive factors?”

“The second,” Du Havel said, “is that it is the perception of Mesa’s entire population—that includes the former full citizens—that the planet’s authorities got their asses handed to them by the seccies in the rebellion.”

“Interesting.” Henke sat back. “I happen to agree with you—and them—but aren’t you concerned that someone’s going to try to…re-shape the narrative? After all, someone is eventually going to point out that General Palane’s forces were on the verge of total defeat when Tenth Fleet entered the system.”

“Of course they were,” Cachat said. “I know; I was there myself, and I’d overseen the setting of our final suicide detonations. Neue Rostock was on the verge of being overrun by the Peaceforce. But Neue Rostock is only one of over a dozen seccy residential towers in Mendel alone. There are plenty more in every city on Mesa. And while the MPP would have taken Neue Rostock, we’d already gutted them—just like Bachue the Nose and her people in Hancock had already gutted the Misties. They’d have won a tactical victory, but only at the cost of placing themselves in a terrible strategic position.”

“I understand that.” Henke nodded. “That’s exactly my own and General Hibson’s analysis of the situation. My question is what’s going to keep someone from trying to deny it down the road, once the immediacy of the situation is past? God knows everyone in this briefing room has seen plenty of ‘narrative shaping’ that doesn’t have a single damned thing in common with reality!”

“Oh, you’re right about that, Admiral!” Palane said. “But this particular ‘narrative’ is going to be just a bit harder than most to reshape.” She shook her head. “Don’t think everyone on this planet doesn’t know the truth. Ask General Drescher. She’s no dummy.”

Henke had spoken to Drescher already. Multiple times, in fact. Not about this subject, granted, but she’d been impressed by the Mesan general’s judgment and good sense. Now she raised an eyebrow at Hibson.

“Gillian—I mean, General Drescher—and I have talked about this, Milady,” the MMA’s commander said. “She’s said exactly the same thing more than once.”

“But it’s not just the military who understands what happened—understands it deep down inside, where the nightmares live,” Palane continued. “Every one of those former free citizens of yours who’s sitting home right now with a pulser in her lap, ready to defend her tower if the seccies and slaves come for her family, knows it just as well as Drescher. That’s why she’s sitting there with that pulser. Because she knows there’s no organized military force between her and the seccies and ex-slaves except the Grand Alliance. And she knows—or she’s afraid she knows—exactly what would happen if the Grand Alliance pulled the MMA back offworld and left tomorrow. That kind of ‘knowing’ goes to the bone, Admiral.” Palane’s expression was one of grim satisfaction. “They aren’t going to forget it, no matter who tries to ‘reshape the narrative,’ for a long, long time.”

“I’ll grant your assessment, for now, at least,” Henke said. “But I’m still not sure exactly how the former full citizens’ understanding that they got their butts kicked is going to help you prevent pogroms from the people who did the kicking.”

She looked back and forth between Berry and Du Havel, and Du Havel spread his hands.

“After a victory, especially one as overwhelming as this one, people are generally more willing to let bygones be bygones,” he said. “To a degree, at least. Not always, of course, but it’s our assessment that that’s the situation here. That’s not just the result of the fighting, either. Regardless of who they think is responsible—you, or the Alignment, or unknown persons—what’s obvious to everyone is that the former full citizens suffered most of the casualties in the wave of nuclear detonations, and the casualties themselves ran into the millions. Most people’s appetite for vengeance only goes so far, Admiral.

“On top of that, there are simply too many full citizens for that sort of pogrom. They’re a third of the population, and there are the next best thing to twelve billion people in the Mesa System. Even the most vengeful ex-slaves would get pretty tired before they’d slaughtered four billion of their vile oppressors, Milady.

“Besides, relations between slaveowners and slaves are always more complicated than either the slavers themselves or—” he glanced at Jeremy “—abolitionists like to think they are. Even on Torch, there are plenty of accounts of slaves helping to rescue full citizens after the butchery—even during it, when it was at its height. More, actually, than there are of slaves finishing anyone off.”

Saburo grunted in agreement.

“Quite a bit more,” he said, and a very thin smile crossed his face. “I’d call it deplorable slackness except the truth is that by now even my blood thirstiness has been assuaged.”

“All right.” Henke looked back at Du Havel. “I’ll accept that assessment, too, at least provisionally. Anything else?”

“Well…” Du Havel glanced at Saburo. “Well…”

“God save us from diplomats,” Jeremy said. “What Web’s hemming-and-hawing about, Admiral, is that the best way to make sure there’s no unfortunate trouble is to create a new police force. General Hibson’s ground forces have done a good job, better than I would have thought they could, this far. But they’re still obviously foreign troops, and they can’t have the sort of…neighborhood presence a community force needs. That means we need to replace them with a new one, one whose legitimacy is at least acceptable to all parties, as soon as we can.

“OPS and MISD have to go, entirely and completely. All of us know that. But all of us also understand—or I hope to God all of us understand—that you can’t simply junk the existing police forces unless you’re ready to stand up something else to fill the power vacuum. That’s what we need here, and you’ve already said that the Grand Alliance has no desire to provide one on any long-term basis. So, what does that leave?” He shrugged. “It leaves a new police force. One positioned to monitor the situation and nip anything in the bud.”

He paused, watching Henke’s expression, and she nodded gravely, hoping he wouldn’t realize just how indecently pleased she was by what she was fairly certain he was headed toward.

And that Susan Hibson wouldn’t have to suggest it, after all.

“Well,” he continued, “who better to put in charge of such a force than someone who’s proven his own aptitude for troublemaking and won’t have anything to prove to the sixty percent of this planet’s population that used to be enslaved? Seeing as how I doubt if any thousand ex-slaves on Mesa put together could match Saburo’s body count when it comes to scorpions. I think I could myself, but it would be nip and tuck.

“Not—” he smiled just as thinly as Saburo had done “—that anyone was keeping score, you understand. We’re not barbarians.”

Henke raised a hand to hide her smile, but inside she felt only exultation. True, she hadn’t considered Saburo to head the new police force. She’d been afraid it was something else that was going to end up on Palane’s plate. But now that she’d met the man, heard Jeremy’s analysis of his suitability, she had to admit that it sounded good to her, as well.

“Well,” she began, lowering her hand, “that all sounds—”

A soft chime from the briefing room hatch interrupted her, and she frowned. But none of her officers would have interrupted a meeting like this unless it was important, and she pressed the com key.

“Enter,” she said.

The hatch opened, and Lieutenant Archer, her red-haired flag lieutenant, stuck his head through it.

“Yes, Gwen?”

“Pardon me, Milady. Mr. Zilwicki is here and wishes to speak to you as soon as possible.”

“He’s here?”

“Standing right behind him, Milady,” Anton’s unmistakable rumbling basso replied.

“Sweetie!” Catherine Montaigne exclaimed.

“Daddy!” was Queen Berry’s contribution.

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