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Chapter One

Any dictionary editor stymied for an illustration of the word "paralyzed" would have pounced on him in an instant.

In fact, a disinterested observer might have wondered if Innokentiy Arsenovich Kolokoltsov, the Solarian League's Permanent Senior Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, was even breathing as he stared at the images on his display. Shock was part of that paralysis, but only part. And so was disbelief, except that disbelief was far too pale a word for what he was feeling at that moment.

He sat that way for over twenty seconds by Astrid Wang's personal chrono. Then he inhaled explosively, shook himself, and looked up at her.

"This is confirmed?"

"It's the original message from the Manticorans, Sir," Wang replied. "The Foreign Minister had the chip couriered straight over, along with the formal note, as soon as he'd viewed it."

"No, I mean is there any independent confirmation of what they're saying?"

Despite two decades' experience in the ways of the Solarian league's bureaucracy, which included as the Eleventh Commandment "Thou shalt never embarrass thy boss by word, deed, or expression," Wang actually blinked in surprise.

"Sir," she began a bit cautiously, "according to the Manties, this all happened at New Tuscany, and we still don't have independent confirmation of the first incident they say took place there. So—"

Kolokoltsov grimaced and cut her off with a wave of his hand. Of course it hadn't. In fact, independent confirmation of the first New Tuscany Incident—he could already hear the newsies capitalizing this one—would take almost another entire T-month, if Josef Byng had followed procedure. The damned Manties sat squarely inside the League's communications loop with the Talbott Sector. They could get word of events there to the Sol System in little more than three T-weeks, thanks to their never-to-be-sufficiently-damned wormhole junction, whereas any direct report from New Tuscany to Old Terra would take almost two months to make the journey by dispatch boat. And if it went through the Meyers System headquarters of the Office of Frontier Security, as regulations required, it would take over eleven T-weeks.

And assuming the Manties aren't lying and manufacturing all this evidence for some godforsaken reason, any report from Byng has to've been routed by way of Meyers, he thought. If he'd shortcut the regulations and sent it directly by way of Mesa and Visigoth—like any admiral with a functional brain would have!—it would've been here eight days ago.

He felt an uncharacteristic urge to rip the display unit from his desk and hurl it across the room. To watch it shatter and bounce back in broken bits and pieces. To curse at the top of his lungs in pure, unprocessed rage. But despite the fact that someone from pre-Diaspora Old Terra would have estimated his age at no more than forty, he was actually eighty-five T-years old. He'd spent almost seventy of those years working his way up to his present position, and now those decades of discipline, of learning how the game was played, came to his rescue. He remembered the Twelfth Commandment—"Thou shalt never admit the loss of thy composure before thine underlings"—and actually managed to smile at his chief of staff.

"That was a silly question, wasn't it, Astrid? I guess I'm not as immune to the effects of surprise as I'd always thought I was."

"No, Sir." Wang smiled back, but her own surprise—at the strength of his reaction, as much as at the news itself—still showed in her blue eyes. "I don't think anyone would be, under these circumstances."

"Maybe not, but there's going to be hell to pay over this one," he told her, completely unnecessarily. He wondered if he'd said it because he still hadn't recovered his mental balance.

"Get hold of Wodoslawski, Abruzzi, MacArtney, Quartermain, and Rajampet," he went on. "I want them here in Conference One in one hour."

"Sir, Admiral Rajampet is meeting with that delegation from the AG's office and—"

"I don't care who he's meeting with," Kolokoltsov said flatly. "Just tell him to be here."

"Yes, sir. Ah, may I tell him why the meeting is so urgent?"

"No." Kolokoltsov smiled thinly. "If the Manties are telling the truth, I don't want him turning up with any prepared comments. This one's too important for that kind of nonsense."

* * *

"So what's this all about, anyway?" Fleet Admiral Rajampet Kaushal Rajani demanded as he strode into the conference room. He was the last to arrive—a circumstance Kolokoltsov had taken some care to arrange.

Rajampet was a small, wiry man, with a dyspeptic personality, well suited to his almost painfully white hair and deeply wrinkled face. Although he remained physically spry and mentally alert, he was a hundred and twenty-three years old, which made him one of the oldest human beings alive. Indeed, when the original first-generation prolong therapy was initially developed, he'd missed being too old for it by less than five months.

He'd also been an officer in the Solarian League Navy since he was nineteen, although he hadn't held a space-going command in over half a T-century, and he was rather proud of the fact that he did not suffer fools gladly. (Of course, most of the rest of the human race was composed almost exclusively of fools, in his considered opinion, but Kolokoltsov could hardly quibble with him on that particular point.) Rajampet was also a formidable force within the Solarian League's all-powerful bureaucratic hierarchy, although he fell just short of the very uppermost niche. He knew all of the Navy's ins and outs, all of its senior admirals, the complex web of its family alliances and patronage, where all the bodies were buried . . . and precisely whose pockets were filled at the trough of the Navy's graft and corruption. After all, his own were prominent among them, and he personally controlled the spigots through which all the rest of it flowed.

Now if only the idiot knew what the hell his precious Navy was up to, Kolokoltsov thought coldly.

"It seems we have a small problem, Rajani," he said out loud, beckoning the gorgeously bemedaled admiral towards a chair at the table.

"It bloody well better not be a 'small' problem," Rajampet muttered, only half under his breath, as he stalked across to the indicated chair.

"I beg your pardon?" Kolokoltsov said with the air of a man who hadn't quite heard what someone had said.

"I was in the middle of a meeting with the Attorney General's people," Rajampet replied, without apologizing for his earlier comment. "They still aren't done with all the indictments for those damned trials, which means we're only just now getting that whole business with Technodyne sorted out. I promised Omosupe and Agatá"—he twitched his head at Omosupe Quartermain, Permanent Senior Undersecretary of Commerce, and Permanent Senior Undersecretary of the Treasury Agatá Wodoslawski—"a recommendation on the restructuring by the end of the week. It's taken forever just to get everyone assembled so we could sit down and talk about it, and I don't appreciate being yanked away from something that important."

"I can understand why you'd resent being interrupted, Rajani," Kolokoltsov said coolly. "Unfortunately, this small matter's come up and it needs to be dealt with . . . immediately. And"—his dark eyes bored suddenly into Rajampet's across the table—"unless I'm seriously mistaken, it's rather closely related to what got Technodyne into trouble in the first place."

"What?" Rajampet settled the last couple of centimeters into his chair, and his expression was as perplexed as his voice. "What are you talking about?"

Despite his own irritation, Kolokoltsov could almost understand the admiral's confusion. The repercussions of the Battle of Monica were still wending their way through the Navy's labyrinthine bowels—and the gladiatorial circus of the courts was only just beginning, really—but the battle itself had been fought over ten T-months ago. Although the SLN hadn't been directly involved in the Royal Manticoran Navy's destruction of the Monican Navy, the consequences for Technodyne Industries had been profound. And Technodyne had been one of the Navy's major contractors for four hundred years. It was perfectly reasonable for Rajampet, as the chief of naval operations, to be deeply involved in trying to salvage something from the shipwreck of investigations, indictments, and show trials, and Kolokoltsov never doubted that the admiral's attention had been tightly focused on that task for the past several T-weeks.

Even if it would have been helpful if he'd been able to give a modicum of his attention to dealing with this other little problem, the diplomat thought grimly.

"I'm talking about the Talbott Cluster, Rajani," he said out loud, letting just a trace of over-tried patience into his voice. "I'm talking about that incident between your Admiral Byng and the Manties."

"What about it?" Rajampet's tone was suddenly a bit cautious, his eyes wary, as instincts honed by a T-century of bureaucratic infighting reared their heads.

"It would appear the Manties were just as pissed off as their original note indicated they were," Kolokoltsov told him.

"And?" Rajampet's eyes turned warier than ever and he seemed to settle back into his chair.

"And they weren't joking about sending their Admiral Gold Peak to inquire into matters on the ground in New Tuscany."

"They weren't?" The question came from Wodoslawski, not Rajampet, and Kolokoltsov glanced at her.

She was twenty-five T-years younger than he was—a third-gerneration prolong recipient with dark red hair, gray eyes, and quite an attractive figure. She was also fairly new to her position as the real head of the Treasury Department, and she'd received it, following her predecesor's demise, only as a compromise between the other permanent senior undersecretaries. She knew perfectly well that she'd been everyone else's second choice—that all her current colleagues had allies they would really have preferred to see in that slot. But she'd been there for over a decade, now, and she'd solidified her powerbase quite nicely.

She was no longer the junior probationary member of the quintet of permanent undersecretaries who truly ran the League from their personal fiefdoms in the Foreign Ministry, Commerce Department, Interior Department, Department of Education and Information, and Treasury Department. She was, however, the only one of them who'd been out-system and unavailable when the first Manticoran diplomatic note arrived. As such, she could make an excellent claim to bearing no responsibility for how that note had been handled, and from her expression, Kolokoltsov thought sourly, she was thoroughly aware of that minor fact.

"No, Agatá," he said, moving his gaze to her. "No, they weren't. And just over a T-month ago—on November the seventeenth, to be precise—Admiral Gold Peak arrived at New Tuscany . . . to find Admiral Byng still there."

"Oh, shit," Permanent Senior Undersecretary of the Interior Nathan MacArtney muttered. "Don't tell us Byng opened fire on her, too!"

"If he did, I'm sure it was only because she provoked it!" Rajampet said sharply.

"With all due respect, Rajani," Permanent Senior Undersecretary of Education and Information Malachai Abruzzi said tartly, "I wouldn't bet my life on that." Rajampet glared at him angrily, and Abruzzi shrugged. "As far as I can tell from the Manties' first note, none of their ships did a damned thing to provoke him the first time he killed several hundred of their spacers. That being so, is there any reason we ought to assume he wouldn't just as cheerfully kill a few thousand more for no particular reason?"

"I'll remind you," Rajampet said even more sharply, "that none of us were there, and the only 'evidence' we have of what truly happened was delivered to us, oh so generously, by the Manties. I see no reason to believe they'd be above tampering with the sensor data they provided to us. In fact, one of my people over at Operational Analysis commented at the time that the data seemed suspiciously good and detailed."

Abruzzi only snorted, although Kolokoltsov suspected he was tempted to do something considerably more forceful. The vast majority of the Solarian League's member star systems looked after their own educational systems, which meant, despite its name, that Education and Information was primarily concerned with the information half of its theoretical responsibilities. Abruzzi's position thus made him, in effect, the Solarian League's chief propagandist. In that role, it had been his job to find a positive spin to put on Josef Byng's actions, and he'd been working on it ever since the Manties' first diplomatic note reached Old Chicago.

So far, he hadn't had a lot of success. Which wasn't too surprising, Kolokoltsov thought sourly. When a Solarian admiral commanding seventeen battlecruisers opened fire without warning on three destroyers who didn't even have their wedges and sidewalls up, it was going to be just a trifle difficult to convince even the Solarian public he'd been justified. Nor was there much chance that any reports or sensor data the Navy finally got around to providing were going to make things any better—not without an awful lot of "tweaking" first, at least! Rajampet could say whatever he liked about the data the Manties had provided, but Kolokoltsov agreed with Abruzzi's original analysis. The Manties would never have sent them falsified data. Not when they knew that eventually the League would be receiving accurate tactical data from its own people.

"All I'll say, Rajani," Abruzzi said after a moment, "is that I'm just glad the Manties haven't leaked this to the newsies . . . yet, at least. Because as hard as we've been trying, we haven't been able to find a way to make them look like the aggressors. And that means that when this does hit the 'faxes, we're going to find ourselves in a very difficult position. One where we'll probably have to apologize and actually offer to pay reparations."

"No, damn it!" Rajampet snapped, betrayed by anger into forgetting, at least briefly, his former wariness. "We can't establish that kind of precedent! If any pissant little neobarb navy decides the SLN can't tell it what to do, we're going to have a hell of a problem out in the Verge! And if Byng's been forced into another exchange of fire with them, we have to be even more careful about what sort of precedents we set!"

"I'm afraid you're entirely correct about that one, Rajani," Kolokoltsov said, and his frigid tone snapped everyone's eyes back to him. "And, unfortunately, I'm equally afraid Nathan's mistaken about the Manties' degree of discretion where the newsies are concerned."

"What the hell do you mean?" Rajampet demanded. "Go ahead—spit it out!"

"All right, Rajani. Approximately ninety minutes ago, we received a second note from the Manticorans. Under the circumstances, the fact that we decided to opt for a 'reasoned and deliberate' response to their original complaint—and refused to let anyone think we were allowing ourselves to be rushed by any Manticoran demands—may have been less optimal than we'd thought. I don't imagine getting our response to their first note a couple of days after they banged off their second note to us is going to amuse Queen Elizabeth and her prime minister very much.

"And the reason they've sent us this second note is that when Admiral Gold Peak arrived in New Tuscany she issued exactly the demands the Manties had warned us about in their first note. She demanded that Byng stand down his ships and permit Manticoran boarding parties to sequester and examine their sensor data relative to the destruction of three of her destroyers. She also informed him that the Star Empire of Manticore intended to insist upon an open examination of the facts and intended to hold the guilty parties responsible under the appropriate provisions of interstellar law for the unprovoked destruction of their ships and the deaths of their personnel. And"—Kolokoltsov allowed his eyes to flip sideways to Abruzzi for a moment—"it would appear it wasn't all part of some sort of propaganda maneuver on their part, after all."

"I don't—" Rajampet's wrinkled face was darken and his eyes glittered with fury. "I can't believe anyone—even Manties!—would be stupid enough to really issue demands to the Solarian Navy! They'd have to be out of—I mean, surely this Gold Peak couldn't possibly have thought she'd get away with that? If Byng blew her damned ships into orbital debris, the only person she's got to blame for it is—"

"Oh, he didn't blow up any of her ships, Rajani," Kolokoltsov said coldly. "Despite the fact that she had only six battlecruisers and he had seventeen, she blew his flagship into . . . what was it you called it? Ah, yes! Into 'orbital debris.'"

Rajampet froze in mid-tirade, staring at Kolokoltsov in disbelief.

"Oh, my God," Omosupe Quartermain said quietly.

Of everyone present, she and Rajampet probably personally disliked Manticorans the most. In Rajampet's case, that was because the Royal Manticoran Navy declined to kowtow satisfactorily to the Solarian League Navy's supremacy. In Quartermain's case, it was because of how deeply she resented Manticore's wormhole junction and its merchant marine's dominance of the League's carrying trade. Which meant, among other things, that she had a very clear idea of how much damage the Star Empire of Manticore could do the League's economy if it decided to retaliate economically for Solarian aggression.

"How many ships did the Manties lose this time?" she continued in a resigned tone, clearly already beginning to reckon up the restitution the Star Empire might find itself in a position to extort out of the League.

"Oh, they didn't lose any ships," Kolokoltsov replied.

"What?!" Rajampet exploded. "That's goddammed nonsense! No Solarian flag officer's going to roll over and take something like that without—!"

"In that case, Rajani, I recommend you read Admiral Sigbee's report yourself. She found herself in command after Admiral Byng's . . . demise, and the Manties were kind enough to forward her dispatches to us along with their note. According to our own security people, they didn't even open the file and read it, first. Apparently they saw no reason to."

This time, Rajampet was clearly bereft of speech. He just sat there, staring at Kolokoltsov, and the diplomat shrugged.

"According to the synopsis of Admiral Sigbee's report, the Manties destroyed Admiral Byng's flagship, the Jean Bart, with a single missile salvo launched from far beyond our own ships' effective range. His flagship was completely destroyed, Rajani. There were no survivors at all. Under the circumstances, and since Admiral Gold Peak—who, I suppose I might also mention, turns out to be none other than Queen Elizabeth's first cousin and fifth in line for the Manticoran throne—had made it crystal clear that she'd destroy all of Byng's ships if her demands were not met, Admiral Sigbee—under protest, I need hardly add—complied with them."

"She—?" Rajampet couldn't get the complete sentence out, but Kolokoltsov nodded anyway.

"She surrendered, Rajani," he said in a marginally gentler voice, and the admiral closed his mouth with a snap.

He wasn't the only one staring at Kolokoltsov in horrified disbelief now. All the others seemed struck equally dumb, and Kolokoltsov took a certain satisfaction from seeing the reflection of his own stunned reaction in their expressions. Which, he admitted, was the only satisfaction he was likely to be feeling today.

On the face of it, the loss of a single ship and the surrender of twenty or so others, counting Byng's screening destroyers, could hardly be considered a catastrophe for the Solarian League Navy. The SLN was the biggest fleet in the galaxy. Counting active duty and reserve squadrons, it boasted almost eleven thousand superdreadnoughts, and that didn't even count the thousands upon thousands of battlecruisers, cruisers, and destroyers of Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet . . . or the thousands of ships in the various system-defense forces maintained for local security by several of the League's wealthier member systems. Against that kind of firepower, against such a massive preponderance of tonnage, the destruction of a single battlecruiser and the two thousand or so people aboard it, was less than a flea bite. It was certainly a far, far smaller relative loss, in terms of both tonnage and personnel, than the Manticorans had suffered when Byng blew three of their newest destroyers out of space with absolutely no warning.

But it was the first Solarian warship destroyed by hostile action in centuries, and no Solarian League admiral had ever surrendered his command.

Until now.

And that was what truly had the others worried, Kolokoltsov thought coldly. Just as it had him worried. The omnipotence of the Solarian League Navy was the fundamental bedrock upon which the entire League stood. The whole purpose of the League was to maintain interstellar order, protect and nurture the interactions, prosperity, and sovereignty of its member systems. There'd been times—more times than Kolokoltsov could count, really—when Rajampet and his predecessors had found themselves fighting tooth and nail for funding, given the fact that it was so obvious that no one conceivable hostile star nation, or combination of them, could truly threaten the League's security. Yet while they might have had to fight for the funding they wanted, they'd never come close to not getting the funding they actually needed. In fact, their fellow bureaucrats had never seriously considered cutting off or even drastically curtailing expenditures on the Navy.

Partly, that was because no matter how big Frontier Fleet was, it would never have enough ships to be everywhere it needed to be to carry out its mandate as the League's neighborhood cop and enforcer. Battle Fleet would have been a much more reasonable area for cost reductions, except that it had more prestige and was even more deeply entrenched in the League's bureaucratic structure than Frontier Fleet, not to mention having so many more allies in the industrial sector, given how lucrative superdreadnought building contracts were. But even the most fanatical expenditure-cutting reformer (assuming that any such mythical being existed anywhere in the Solarian League) would have found very few allies if he'd set his sights on the Navy's budget. Supporting the fleet was too important to the economy as a whole, and all the patronage that went with the disbursement of such enormous amounts was far too valuable to be surrendered. And, after all, making certain everyone else was as well aware as they were of the Navy's invincibility was an essential element of the clout wielded by the League in general and by the Office of Frontier Security, in particular.

But now that invincibility had been challenged. Worse, although Kolokoltsov was no expert on naval matters, even the synopsis of Sigbee's dispatches had made her shock at the effective range—and deadliness—of the Manticoran missiles abundantly clear even to him.

"She surrendered," Permanent Senior Undersecretary of the Interior Nathan MacArtney repeated very carefully after a moment, clearly making certain he hadn't misunderstood.

Kolokoltsov was actually surprised anyone had recovered that quickly, especially MacArtney. The Office of Frontier Security came under the control of the Department of the Interior, and after Rajampet himself, it was MacArtney whose responsibilities and . . . arrangements were most likely to suffer if the rest of the galaxy began to question just how invincible the Solarian Navy truly was.

"She did," Kolokoltsov confirmed. "And the Manties did board her ships, and they did take possession of their computers—their fully operable computers, with intact databases. At the time she was 'permitted' to include her dispatches along with Admiral Gold Peak's so we could receive her report as promptly as possible, she had no idea what ultimate disposition the Manties intend to make where her ships are concerned."

"My God," Quartermain said again, shaking her head.

"Sigbee didn't even dump her data cores?" MacArtney demanded incredulously.

"Given that Gold Peak had just finished blowing one of her ships into tiny pieces, I think the Admiral was justified in concluding the Manties might really go ahead and pull the trigger if they discovered she'd dumped her data cores," Kolokoltsov replied.

"But if they got all their data, including the secure sections . . . ."

MacArtney's voice trailed off, and Kolokoltsov smiled thinly.

"Than they've got an enormous amount of our secure technical data," he agreed. "Even worse, these were Frontier Fleet ships."

MacArtney looked physically ill. He was even better aware then Kolokoltsov of how the rest of the galaxy might react if some of the official, highly secret contingency plans stored in the computers of Frontier Fleet flagships were to be leaked.

There was another moment of sickly silence, then Wodoslawski cleared her throat.

"What did they say in their note, Innokentiy?" she asked.

"They say the data they've recovered from Byng's computers completely supports the data they already sent to us. They say they've recovered Sigbee's copy of Byng's order to open fire on the Manticoran destroyers. They've appended her copy of the message traffic between Gold Peak and Byng, as well, and pointed out that Gold Peak repeatedly warned Byng not only that she would fire if he failed to comply with her instructions but that she had the capability to destroy his ships from beyond his effective range. And, by the way, Sigbee's attested the accuracy of the copies from her communications section.

"In other words, they've told us their original interpretation of what happened to their destroyers has been confirmed, and that the admiral responsible for that incident has now been killed, along with the destruction of his flagship and its entire crew, because he rejected their demands. And they've pointed out, in case any of us might miss it, that Byng's original actions at New Tuscany constitute an act of war under interstellar law and that under that same interstellar law, Admiral Gold Peak was completely justified in the actions she took. Indeed," he showed his teeth in something no one would ever mistake for a smile, "they've pointed out how restrained Gold Peak was, under the circumstances, since Byng's entire task force was entirely at her mercy and she gave him at least three separate opportunities to comply with their demands without bloodshed."

"They've declared war on the Solarian League?" Abruzzi seemed unable to wrap his mind around the thought. Which was particularly ironic, Kolokoltsov thought, given his original breezy assurance that the Manticorans were only posturing, seeking an entirely cosmetic confrontation with the League in an effort to rally their battered domestic morale.

"No, they haven't declared war on the League," the diplomat replied out loud. "In fact, they've refrained from declaring war . . . so far, at least. I wouldn't say there's any give in their note—in fact, it's the most belligerent diplomatic communication I've ever seen directed to the League, and they've made no bones about observing that a de facto state of war already exists between us because of our flag officer's actions—but they've made it clear they aren't prepared to foreclose all possibility of a diplomatic resolution."

"Diplomatic resolution?!" Rajampet exploded. He slammed one fist down on the conference table. "Fuck them and their 'diplomatic resolutions'! They've destroyed a Solarian warship, killed Solarian naval personnel! I don't care whether they want a war or not—they've got one!"

"Don't you think it might be a good idea to at least look at Sigbee's messages and the data the Manties have sent along, Rajani?" MacArtney demanded tartly. The admiral glared at him, and MacArtney glared right back. "Didn't you hear what Innokentiy just said? Gold Peak took out Jean Bart from outside Byng's effective missile range! If they outrange us that badly, then—"

"Then it doesn't goddammed matter!" Rajampet shot back. "We're talking about frigging battlecruisers, Nathan. Battlecruisers—and Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, at that. They don't begin to have the antimissile defenses a ship-of-the-wall does, and no battlecruiser can take the kind of damage a waller can take! I don't care how many fancy missiles they've got, there's no way they can stop Battle Fleet if we throw four or five hundred superdreadnoughts straight at them, especially after the losses they've already taken in their damned Battle of Manticore."

"I might find that thought just a little more reassuring if not for the fact that all reports indicate they apparently just finished taking out something like three or four hundred Havenite SDs in the same battle," MacArtney pointed out even more acidly.

"So what," Rajampet more than half-sneered. "One damned batch of barbarians beating on another one. What's that got to do with us?"

MacArtney stared at him, as if he literally couldn't comprehend what Rajampet was saying, and Kolokoltsov didn't blame MacArtney at all. Even allowing for the fact that all of this had come at the CNO cold . . . .

"Excuse me, Rajani," the diplomat said, "but don't our ships-of-the-wall and our battlecruisers have the same effective missile range?" Rajampet glowered at him, then nodded. "Then I think we have to assume their ships-of-the-wall have at least the same effective missile range as their battlecruisers, which means they outrange us, too. And given the fact that the Republic of Haven has been fighting them for something like, oh, twenty T-years, and is still in existence, I think we have to assume they can match Manticore's combat range, since they'd have been forced to surrender quite some time ago if they couldn't. So if the Manties managed to destroy or capture three or four hundred Havenite superdreadnoughts, despite the fact that they had equivalent weapon ranges, what makes you think they couldn't stop five hundred of our ships if they outrange us significantly? At least the Havenites could shoot back, you know!"

"So we send a thousand," Rajampet said. "Or, hell, we send twice that many! We've got over two thousand in full commission, another three hundred in the yards for regular overhaul and refit cycles, and over eight thousand in reserve. They may've beaten the crap out of the Havenites, but they got the shit shot out of them, too, from all reports. They can't have more than a hundred of the wall left! And however long-ranged their missiles may be, it takes hundreds of laser heads to take out a single superdreadnought. Against the kind of counter missile fire and decoys five or six hundred of our wallers can throw out, they'd need a hell of a lot more missiles than anything they've got left could possibly throw!"

"And you think they wouldn't still be able to kill a lot of our ships and a lot of our spacers?" Wodoslawski demanded skeptically.

"Oh, they could hurt us," Rajampet conceded. "There's no way in the universe they could stop us, but I don't doubt we'd get hurt worse than the Navy's ever been hurt before. But that's beside the point, Agatá."

Her eyebrows arched skeptically, and he barked a short, sharp—and ugly—laugh.

"Of course it's beside the point!" he said. "The point of this is that a jumped up neobarb Navy's opened fire on the SLN, destroyed one of our warships, and captured an entire Solarian task group. We can't let that stand. No matter what it costs, we have to establish that no one—no one—fucks with the Solarian Navy. If we don't make that point right here, right now, who else is likely to suddenly decide he can issue ultimatums to the fleet?" He turned his glower on MacArtney. "You should understand that if anyone can Nathan!"

"All right," MacArtney replied, manifestly unhappily. "I take your point." He looked around the conference table at his civilian colleagues. "The truth is," he told them, "that big as it is, Frontier Fleet can't possibly be everywhere it needs to be—not in any sort of strength. It manages to maintain nodes of concentrated strength at the various sector HQs and support bases, but even they get stretched pretty thin from time to time. And most of the time, we send a single ship—at most a division or two—to deal with troublespots as they turn hot because we can't afford to weaken those concentrated nodes by diverting more units from them. And what Rajani's saying is that because we're spread so thinly, there are a lot of times when we don't actually have the firepower on the spot to enforce our policies. But what we do have on the spot is a representative of the entire Navy. Under the wrong circumstances, an unfriendly power may well have enough combat power to destroy whatever detachment we've sent out to show it the error of its ways. But they don't, because they know that if they do, the rest of the Navy—however much of it it takes—is going to turn up and destroy them."

"Exactly," Rajampet agreed, nodding vigorously. "That's exactly the point. I don't care how damned justified the Manties may have thought they were. For that matter, I don't care how 'justified' they may actually have been, and I don't give a damn whether or not they were operating within the letter of interstellar war. What I care about is the fact that we have to make an example out of them if we don't want to suddenly find ourselves eyeball-to-eyeball with other neobarbs, all over the galaxy, who suddenly think they can screw around with the Solarian League, too."

"Wait." Malachai Abruzzi shook himself, then looked at Kolokoltsov. "Before we go any further, what did you mean about their 'discretion' where the newsies were concerned, Innokentiy?"

"I mean they officially released the news of Byng's attack on their destroyers—and their response to it—the same day they sent us this note," Kolokoltsov said flatly. Abruzzi stared at him in obvious disbelief, and Kolokoltsov smiled thinly. "I imagine we should be hearing about it shortly," he continued, "since, according to their note, they intended to release the news to their own media six hours after their dispatch boat cleared the Junction headed for Old Terra."

"They've already released the news?" Abruzzi seemed stunned in a way even the news of Jean Bart's destruction had failed to achieve.

"That's what they tell us." Kolokoltsov shrugged."When you get right down to it, they may not have a lot of choice. It's been two months since the first incident, and the communications loop from New Tuscany to Manticore's only about three weeks. Word of something this big was bound to leak to their newsies pretty damned quickly after Byng managed to get himself blown away." Rajampet's eyes glittered at his choice of words, but Kolokoltsov didn't especially care. "Under the circumstances, they probably figured they couldn't keep it under wraps much longer even if they tried, so they'd damned well better get their version of it out first—especially to their own people."

"Then the bastards really have painted us all into a corner," Rajampet snarled. "If they've gone ahead and broadcast this thing to the entire galaxy, we've got even less choice about how hard we respond."

"Just hold on, Rajani!" Abruzzi said sharply. The admiral glared at him, and he glared right back. "We don't have any idea at this point how they've positioned themselves on this. Until we've at least had a chance to see the spin they put on it, we aren't in any position to decide how we want to spin our own response to it! And trust me on this one—we're going to have to handle it very, very carefully."

"Why?" Rajampet snapped.

"Because the truth is that your idiot admiral was in the wrong, at least the first time around," Abruzzi replied coldly, meeting the admiral's eyes glare-for-glare. "We can't debate this on their terms without conceding that point. And if public opinion decides he was wrong and they were right, and if we handle this even slightly wrong, the hullabaloo you're still dealing with over Technodyne and Monica's going to look like a pillow fight."

"If it does, it does," Rajampet said flatly.

"You do remember the Constitution gives every single member system veto power, don't you?" Abruzzi inquired. Rajampet glared at him, and he shrugged. "If you wind up needing a formal declaration of war, don't you think it would be a good thing if nobody out there—like, oh, Beowulf, for example—decided to exercise that power?"

"We don't need any frigging declarations of war! This is a clear-cut case of self-defense, of responding to an actual attack on our ships and personnel, and the judiciary's interpretation of Article Seven has always supported the Navy's authority to respond to that kind of attack in whatever strength is necessary."

Kolokoltsov started to respond to that statement, then made himself pause. Rajampet had a point about the judiciary's interpretation of Article Seven of the League Constitution . . . historically, at least. The third section of that particular article had been specifically drafted to permit the SLN to respond to emergency situations without waiting weeks or months for reports to trickle back to the capital and for the ponderous political mechanism to issue formal declarations of war. It had not, however, been intended by the Constitution's drafters as a blank check, and if Rajampet wanted to move the Navy to an actual war footing—to begin mobilizing additional superdreadnoughts from the Reserve, for example—someone was going to point out that he needed the authorization of that same formal declaration. At which point someone else was going to support Rajampet's position.

At which point we'll wind up with a constitutional crisis, as well as a military one, Kolokoltsov thought grimly. Wonderful.

He wondered how many of his colleagues grasped the true gravity of the threat they faced. If Rajampet was able to crush Manticore quickly after all, this would almost certainly blow over, as many another tempest had over the course of the League's long history. But if the Navy couldn't crush Manticore quickly, if this turned into a succession of bloody fiascoes, not even the most resounding ultimate victory would be enough to prevent seismic shockwaves throughout the entire tissue of bureaucratic fiefdoms which held the League together.

He suspected from Abruzzi's attitude that Malachai, if no one else, had at least an inkling of just how dangerous this could turn out to be. Wodoslawski probably did, too, although it was harder to tell in her case. Rajampet obviously wasn't thinking that far ahead, and Kolokoltsov honestly didn't have a clue whether or not MacArtney and Quartermain were able to see beyond the immediate potential consequences for their own departments.

"I agree with you about the historical interpretation of Article Seven, Rajani," he said out loud, finally. "I think you'd be well advised to consult with Brangwen about the precedents, though. And to make sure the rest of her people over at Justice are onboard with you for this one."

"Of course I'll check with her," Rajampet replied a bit more calmly. "In the meantime, though, I'm confident I've got the authority to respond by taking prudent military precautions." He smiled thinly. "And there's always the old saying about the best defense being a strong offense."

"Maybe there is," Abruzzi said. "And I'll even agree that apologizing later is usually easier than getting permission first. But I'd also like to point out that this one's quite a bit different from 'usually'. So if you intend to sell that to the Assembly in a way that's going to keep some of the busybodies over there from demanding all sorts of inquiries and holding all kinds of hearings, we're going to have to prepare the ground for it carefully, anyway. Some of those people over there think they really ought to be in charge, you know, and the ones who think that way are likely to try to use this. As long as there's no strong public support for them, they aren't going to accomplish much—all the inertia in the system's against them. But if we want to deny them that public support, we're going to have to show everyone that you not only have that authority but that we're in the right in this particular confrontation."

"Despite what you just said about my 'idiot admiral'?" Anger crackled in Rajampet's voice.

"If the adjective offends you, I'm sorry." Abruzzi didn't waste a lot of effort on the sincerity of his tone. "But the fact remains that he was in the wrong."

"Then how in hell do you think we're going to convince that 'public support' of yours we're in the right if we smash the Manties like they deserve?" Rajampet sneered.

"We lie." Abruzzi shrugged. "It's not like we haven't done it before. And, in the end, the truth is what the winner says it is. But in order to rebut the Manties' version effectively, I have to know what it is, first. And we can't make any military moves until after I've had a chance to do the preliminary spadework."

"Spadework." This time, Rajampet's sneer was marginally more restrained. Then he snorted harshly. "Fine. You do your 'spadework'. In the end, it's going to be my superdreadnoughts that make it stand up, though."

Abruzzi started to shoot something back, but Omosupe Quartermain interrupted him.

"Let's not get carried away," she said. The others looked at her, and she shrugged. "No matter what's happened, let's not just automatically assume we've got to move immediately to some sort of military response. You say they haven't ruled out the possibility of a diplomatic settlement, Innokentiy. Well, I'm sure the settlement they have in mind is us making apologies and offering them reparations. But what if we turned the tables? Even the Manties have to be capable of doing the same math Rajani just did for us. They have to know that if push comes to shove, any qualitative advantage they might have can't possibly stand up to our quantitative advantage. So what if we were to tell them we're outraged by their high-handedness, their unilateral escalation of the confrontation before they even had our response to their first note? What if we tell them it's our position that, because of that escalation, all the additional bloodshed at New Tuscany was their responsibility, regardless of how Byng may have responded to their ultimatum? And what if we tell them we demand apologies and reparations from them on pain of an official declaration of war and the destruction of their entire 'Star Empire'?"

"You mean we hammer them hard enough over the negotiating table, demand a big enough kilo of flesh for leaving them intact, to make sure no one else is ever stupid enough to try this same kind of stunt?" Abruzzi said thoughtfully.

"I don't know." Wodoslawski shook her head. "From what you said about the tone of their note and what they've already done, don't we have to assume they'd be willing to go ahead and risk exactly that? Would they have gone this far if they weren't prepared to go farther?"

"It's easy to be brave before the other fellow actually aims his pulser at you," Rajampet pointed out.

Several of the others looked at him with combined skepticism and surprise, and he grunted.

"I don't really like it," he admitted. "And I stand by what I said earlier—we can't let this pass, can't let them get away with it. But that doesn't mean Omosupe's idea isn't worth trying, first. If they apologize abjectly enough, and if they're willing to throw this Gold Peak to the wolves, and if they're ready to cough up a big enough reparation, then we'll be in the position of graciously restraining ourselves instead of hammering their pathetic little 'Star Empire' flat. And if they're still too stupid to accept the inevitable," he shrugged, "we send in however much of Battle Fleet it takes and squash them like a bug."

It was obvious how he expected it to work out in the end, Kolokoltsov thought. And the hell of it was that even though Quartermain's idea was probably worth trying, Rajampet was even more probably right. Wodoslawski was obviously thinking the same thing.

"I think we ought to do some risk-benefit analysis before we go embracing any military options," she said. "Omosupe, you're probably in a better position over at Commerce to come up with what kind of impact it would have if Manticore closed down our shipping through the wormholes they control. For that matter, just pulling their merchantships off the League's cargo routes would probably hit our economy pretty damned hard. But whether that's true or not, I can tell you even without looking at the numbers that our financial markets will take a significant hit if the Manties disrupt interstellar financial transactions as badly as they could."

"So we take an economic downtick." Rajampet shrugged. "That's happened before, even without the Manties getting behind and pushing it, and it's never been more than a short-term problem. I'm willing to concede this one could be worse, but even if it were, we'd still survive it. And don't forget this, either, Agatá—if we go all the way, then when the smoke clears, the Manticoran Wormhole Junction will belong to the Solarian League, not the Manties. That ought to save your shippers a pretty penny in transit fees over at Commerce, Omosupe! And even if it doesn't," he smiled avariciously, "all those fees would be coming to the League, not Manticore. Relatively speaking, it probably wouldn't mean all that much compared to our overall gross interstellar product, but it sure as hell ought to be enough to pay for whatever the war costs! And it would be an ongoing revenue source that brings in a nice piece of pocket change every year."

"And it would get the Manties out of our hair in the Verge, too," MacArtney said slowly. "It's worst over around Talbott right now, but I don't like the way they've been sniffing around the Maya Sector, either."

"Slow down, everybody," Kolokoltsov said firmly. They all looked at him, and he shook his head. "Whatever we do or don't do, we're not going to make our mind up sitting around this conference table this afternoon. That's pretty much what we did with their first note, isn't it? Correct me if I'm wrong, but that doesn't seem to have worked out all that well, does it? And, for that matter, Malachai's right on the money about the way we have to handle this for public consumption. I want to see how the Manties are spinning this in the 'faxes, and before we start suggesting any policies, I want us to think about it this time. I want all the data we have analyzed. I want the best possible models of what they've really got militarily, and I want a realistic estimate on how long military operations against the Manties would take. I'm talking about one that uses the most pessimistic assumptions, Rajani. I want any errors to be on the side of caution, not overconfidence. And I want to see some kind of numbers from you and Agatá, Omosupe, about what a full scale war with Manticore could really cost us in economic and financial terms."

There was silence around the table—a silence that was just a bit sullen on Rajampet's part, Kolokoltsov thought. But it was also thoughtful, and he saw a high degree of agreement as he surveyed his fellow civilians' faces.

"At this moment, I'm strongly inclined to agree with Rajampet's reasoning," Nathan MacArtney said after several seconds. "But I also agree with you and Agatá about looking before we leap, Innokentiy. And with Malachai about doing the spadework ahead of time, as well. For that matter, if the Manties have taken out Byng's task force, there can't be much left in-sector for us to be launching any offensives with. I know for damn sure that Lorcan Verrochio isn't going to be authorizing any additional action by the handful of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers and cruisers he's got left in the Madras Sector, at any rate! And I don't think the Manties are going to go looking for yet another incident while this one's hanging over their heads."

"I doubt they are either," Kolokoltsov agreed. "On the other hand, I think we need to put together a new note pretty quickly. One that makes the fact that we're distinctly unhappy with them abundantly clear but adopts a 'coolheaded reason' attitude. We'll tell them we'll get back to them as soon as we've had an opportunity to study the available information, but I think we need to get that done more quickly than we did last time around. Unless there are any objections, I'll 'recommend' to the Foreign Minister that we get a stern but reasonable note off no later than tomorrow morning."

"Suit yourself," Rajampet said, and there might have been just a flicker of something in his eyes that Kolokoltsov didn't really care for. "I think it's going to come down to shooting in the end, but I'm more than willing to go along with the attempt to avoid it first."

"And there won't be any unilateral decisions on your part to send reinforcements to Meyers?" Kolokoltsov pressed, trying hard not to sound overtly suspicious.

"I'm not planning on sending any reinforcements to Meyers," Rajampet replied. "Mind you, I'm not going to just sit here on my arse, either! I'm going to be looking very hard at everything we can scrape up to throw at Manticore if it comes to that, and I'm probably going to start activating and manning at least a little of the Reserve Fleet, as well. But until we all agree a different policy's in order, I'll leave the balance of forces in the Talbott area just where it is." He shrugged. "There's damn-all we can do about it right now, anyway, given the communications lag."

Kolokoltsov still wasn't fully satisfied, and he still didn't care for that eye-flicker of whatever it had been, but there was nothing concrete he could find fault with, and so he only nodded.

"All right," he said then, and glanced at his chrono. "I'll have full copies of the Manties' note, Sigbee's report, and the accompanying technical data distributed to all of you by fourteen-hundred."


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