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The well-dressed man looked vaguely out of place in the luxurious office's comfortably cushioned chair and his civilian clothing, despite his expensive tailoring. His face was dark and lean, the sort of face which has been trained to say only what its owner wants it to say, and his eyes were hard as he accepted the chilled glass and sipped. Ice rattled like brittle music as he lowered the glass, and his host sank into a facing chair and tried not to look anxious.

"I was sorry to hear about your . . . unanticipated problems, Mr. Canning." The visitor's voice was deep and well-modulated, almost gentle, but his host shifted uncomfortably. "I trust," the visitor went on, "that they aren't of such a nature as to interfere with our timetable?"

Wallace Canning, the People's Republic of Haven's consul on the planet Medusa, felt sweat bead his forehead. His guest might be in civilian clothes, but every time Canning looked at him he saw the uniform he ought to have been wearing—the green and gray uniform of a rear admiral in the People's Navy with the hourglass and sword of Naval Intelligence.

"I can't say for certain," he said at length, picking his words with caution. "Everything is too up in the air and unsettled. Until we know what this Harrington is going to do next, the best we can do is guess and double-check our potential vulnerabilities."

"I see." The business-suited admiral leaned back in his chair, swirling his drink in his hand and listening to its icy tinkle, and pursed his lips. Canning tried not to twitch under his level regard.

"It seems to me," the admiral resumed after a moment, "that there's been some sloppy execution at this end, Mr. Consul. We were assured the situation was under control. Indeed, I expected this to be a routine visit to receive your final readiness report, and now I hear that you can only 'guess' about what the opposition is going to do next." He shook his head. "Any covert operation has a built-in risk factor, but we've put too much time into this one, and Operation Odysseus is too important for guesswork or field operations that can be completely overturned by a single new factor."

"It can't be helped, and it's no one person's fault, either here or in the field," Canning said, choosing to assume the role of a man defending his subordinates and not himself. "And the 'single factor' you refer to was a complete wild card no one saw coming, here or on Haven. We couldn't see it coming, Adm—Sir, because there was absolutely no way to predict that we'd get someone like this lunatic assigned to Basilisk Station after all these years."

"I am aware of that. In fact, Mr. Canning, I was the one who chose the original timing for Odysseus's activation when Pavel Young was assigned here."

"Yes. Well, things were moving exactly according to plan until she turned up. Since then—" Canning broke off and shrugged, raising one hand, palm uppermost.

"I understand the change in circumstances, Mr. Canning." The admiral spoke with the patience of one addressing a very small child, his eyes deceptively mild, and the consul writhed internally but knew better than to protest.

"Moreover, unlike you, I have a dossier on Commander Harrington," the admiral continued. "I'm sorry to say it isn't as extensive as I'd like. As you may know, NavInt seldom builds an in-depth package on anyone who hasn't yet made list, unless they come from a particularly prominent family. All we have on her are the standard clippings and her public record, but even those are enough to indicate that she's an entirely different proposition from an over-bred cretin like Young. And, all in all, I would be forced to agree that Harrington is scarcely the sort of officer one might reasonably have expected that oaf Janacek to assign to his own private little hellhole out here."

Canning relaxed a tiny bit, only to tense anew as his guest smiled thinly.

"Nonetheless, Mr. Canning, I can't escape the conclusion that you've taken your security too lightly. From the very beginning, you seem to have relied not on your own precautions but almost solely on the RMN's inefficiency. Granted," he waved a hand gently, "that inefficiency was part of our original planning, but you shouldn't have relied on its continuation. Certainly it should have been evident that your arrangements required a drastic reevaluation as soon as Harrington started shaking things up."

"I—" Canning stood and crossed abruptly to the liquor cabinet. He poured himself a martini with hands that trembled slightly, took a swallow, then turned back to the admiral.

"I have taken some precautions, Sir, whatever you may think. Admittedly, they were long-term, routine measures, and I'll concede I was slow to realize what was happening and adjust to Harrington's presence, as well. But I've been here over six local years, and this is the first Manticoran officer who's even bothered to check manifests against canister numbers in all that time."

"If that were all she were doing, Mr. Canning, or even if she were just arresting smugglers, I would be far less concerned," his guest said with deadly precision. "But that isn't all she's doing, is it? She's actively supporting Matsuko and the NPA. The local manpower she's released from customs and space control duties alone would constitute a major threat to operational security. When you add the overflights she's ordered to what your informants are reporting—" He shook his head sadly, and Canning took another long swallow of his drink.

"We're not exactly completely naked, Sir," he said. "I know it's only a matter of time before her recon flights hit pay dirt, but as I've said, and despite any overconfidence on my part, we do have a multi-level cover in place against exactly that eventuality. And despite her activities in space, she hasn't even come close to bothering Captain Coglin. As for the rest of her actions," he added a bit more defensively, "I've done everything I can to get her recalled. I've lodged over twenty individual protests, now, and I'm using my contacts with other off-world merchant factors to generate more of them. The Manticoran Admiralty has to be feeling the heat, particularly in light of the political ramifications."

"I know about the protests, Mr. Canning. But while you're no doubt correct about the pressure they're placing on their admiralty, have you considered the fact they've no doubt also given her superiors ample confirmation that she's doing something we don't like?"

Canning flushed, and the first slow flickers of anger burned through his anxiety. All very well for the admiral to waltz in here after the fact and criticize, but what else did he expect Canning to do? Damn it, protests were the only offensive weapons he had! And, he thought resentfully, if he hadn't lodged them, the admiral would be chopping his ears off for that!

"Well, so much for spilt milk." The admiral sighed, setting his glass on a small table and rising. "Why don't you tell me what's gone right, instead?"

He crossed to Canning's desk and bent over the unrolled map spread across the blotter. The paper chart was far less detailed and much more difficult to manipulate than a holo map would have been, but it had never entered the consulate's electronic data base, either. And, unlike an individual holo map reader, it could be rolled up and shoved into a vault with a thermal-destruct security system. Those were considerations that made any incidental inconvenience unimportant.

Now the admiral frowned down at the map, tracing terrain features with a fingertip. Unlike the majority of his naval contemporaries, he was as comfortable with planetary maps as with star charts, for his particular nameless branch of NavInt was more concerned with Trojan Horses than open warfare. Now he tapped the map and looked up at Canning.

"The lab here on the plateau. It has a direct up-link to our orbital collector?"

"No, Sir." Canning crossed to the desk and managed his first smile of the interview. "It relays through ground stations here and here—" he indicated two mountain peaks in the Outback "—and the initial ground station doesn't link to our collector at all." He met the admiral's inquiring gaze, and his smile turned into something like a grin. "We've been tapping into Dame Estelle's own backup collector."

"You mean you're drawing your power from the Manticoran grid?"

"No, Sir. It never enters the grid. This is their secondary collector, for use only if the main goes down for maintenance or repairs. Aside from their regular demand tests, we're the only station on it. Even if they find our tap, it won't tell them who set it up, and trying to figure out how it got there should point their attention in some very . . . interesting directions."

"I see." The admiral nodded with the first, faint signs of approval. "But, of course, if they do find it, they'll also find the ground station it feeds, won't they?"

"Yes, Sir, they will, but that's where the cover plan I mentioned comes in. Colonel Westerfeldt has operational responsibility for the field activities, and he's done an excellent job of hiding our tracks and planting red herrings. In fact, we want them to find the ground stations—and the lab—if they look hard enough."

The admiral raised his eyebrows, and Canning felt himself smile almost naturally as he continued.

"We've set up a fallback lab that uses its own hydro generators, and if they do find this one, it won't tell them much—unless they pick up some of our personnel, of course. But even if they do, none of the equipment was made in the Republic. In fact, most of it was built by . . . a certain Manticoran merchant cartel, shall we say?" He paused, and this time it was the admiral's turn to smile faintly in understanding. "More importantly, the local security man and the techs operating it are also Manticoran, and they have no idea they're working for us. They believe they're working for a domestic criminal syndicate. We've had to bring in some of our own people to operate the backup lab if it comes to that, but even there, almost all the equipment was manufactured in Manticore. Finally, we've had our Manticoran fall guys maintaining a meticulous set of books for their fictitious employers. If the NPA hits the lab, they'll find records the people working in the lab fully believe to be genuine and which point directly away from us."

"I see," the admiral repeated. His finger drew idle patterns on the map, and his smile faded as he frowned down at it. Then he tapped a spot far south of the vast plateau. "And the main site?"

"Completely secure, Sir," Canning said confidently. "Every bit of it's underground, and there's never been any direct contact between it and either of our lab facilities, even by air. Every shipment's routed through this staging area—" his own finger tapped a spot well to the west "—and shipped in from there on the ground using Stilty caravaneers. In addition, Colonel Westerfeldt's on-site personnel were all very carefully chosen for deniability, even if the NPA should stumble right over them. Unlike our backup lab techs, all of them are Manticorans with long criminal records, and none of them knows exactly whom the colonel is working for."

"Indeed." The admiral cocked his head, then allowed a fresh smile, much stronger than the first, to cross his own face. "I may, perhaps, have been overly pessimistic, Mr. Canning. You seem to have built in more security than I'd anticipated."

"It wasn't all my doing," Canning replied. "As I say, Colonel Westerfeldt's our field man here, and your own people, picked an excellent cover for Coglin's presence. And, of course, Ambassador Gowan has actually coordinated most of the operation from Manticore." He hid an inner smirk as the admiral nodded. Gowan was a very big fish, a retired Dolist manager with powerful friends back home on Haven. It never hurt to spread the credit (and any potential blame) over broader shoulders than one's own, and even NavInt would hesitate to antagonize Gowan.

"So," the admiral said after a moment, crossing back to his chair to reclaim his drink. He sipped thoughtfully, staring out the office windows into the night and the floodlit brightness of the consulate's grounds. "Your ground-side security is in better shape than I'd feared, but that still leaves the orbital side wide open, and that's where this Harrington can hurt us worst."

"Yes and no, Sir." Canning moved up to stand at the admiral's shoulder and gaze out into the grounds. "It's too late for her to intercept any of the really critical shipments. Everything we need is already down and in place, except for the mekoha we're still manufacturing, and I canceled the last two off-world shipments on my own initiative when I realized what was happening. I'd really prefer to have them down here, but we can live without them, and having them spotted in transit would be far too revealing. As for Coglin, he should be completely secure as long as he just sits tight aboard ship. If there's no contact with the surface, Harrington will have neither cause nor justification for interfering with him at all."

"Good." The admiral sounded markedly less hostile, and Canning let himself relax a bit further. But then the admiral pursed his lips again. "Still, even if everything else goes perfectly, Fearless's mere presence in Medusa orbit could derail the entire operation when it kicks off. I don't like how tightly Harrington is integrating her own operations with the NPA. She's got the better part of a company of Manticoran Marines up there, with enough combat equipment to make a real difference."

"With all due respect, Sir, I think that's unlikely. They'd have to know what was coming and lay contingency plans ahead of time to affect the actual operation in any material way. Oh, I don't deny they can probably limit the damage, but I don't see any possible way that they could limit it enough to make a real difference. As long as they can't stop it entirely, we still have our opening, and not even a full company of Marines already in place in the enclaves can do that."

"Perhaps." The admiral rocked on his toes for a moment, rubbing the rim of his glass with a fingertip. "And perhaps not. What do your sources in Manticore have to say about Young?"

"He's got his ship at Hephaestus, and our network's a lot weaker on the military side, but all the indications are that he realizes he's screwed up. I'd guess—but it's only a guess, of course—that he's making every effort to get back here before Harrington makes him look any worse."

"It would be difficult," the admiral observed with a cynical smile, "for anyone to make Pavel Young look worse than he is."

He rocked in silent thought for a few more seconds, then nodded to himself.

"Find out how long he's going to be there, Mr. Canning. I have no doubt his first action on returning here will be to send Harrington as far away from Medusa as the limits of Basilisk Station permit, and I'd far rather have him in Medusa orbit when the penny drops. If he'll be back in less than—oh, another Manticoran month or so—I want the operation delayed until he returns."

"That may be difficult," Canning said cautiously. "We've got almost everything in place, and our shaman is primed. I'm not positive he can hold them in check that long. The actual H-hour has always been rather indeterminate, you know. Then, too, there's probably a limit to how long Coglin can sit up there without someone like Harrington getting suspicious."

"Perhaps. But, as I say, I don't want Harrington close to the planet when it kicks off. If at all possible, I want her several hours away, far enough for us to get the running start we need. As for Coglin, I think his cover will hold a while longer, and I can arrange to hold our other assets on station for up to three or four Manticoran months if I have to."

"I'll see what I can do, Sir." Canning still sounded doubtful, and the admiral smiled.

"I'm sure you will, Mr. Canning. And, in the meantime, I'll see what we can do to . . . redirect Commander Harrington's energies."

"I've pretty much exhausted the diplomatic options, Sir," Canning pointed out.

"No, Mr. Consul. You've exhausted Haven's diplomatic options." The admiral turned to face him with a much broader smile, and Canning's eyebrows rose.

"I'm not sure I see what you're driving at, Sir."

"Oh, come now! Haven't you just been telling me how hard you've worked to provide the Manticorans with a culprit closer to home? Well, what use is a cat's-paw if you don't use it?"

"You mean—?"

"Of course, Mr. Canning." The admiral actually chuckled. "I'm quite certain Harrington has irritated the Manticoran merchant cartels as badly as she has us. From what you've reported about her operations, she's already cost them a bundle, and that doesn't even consider the humiliation she's no doubt inflicted by catching them with their hands dirty. I suspect most of them are just as eager as we are to see her teeth pulled, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes," Canning agreed with a slow smile. "Yes, I imagine they are. But by the same token, Sir, doesn't it seem likely they've already put all the pressure they can on the Government and Admiralty?"

"Perhaps. But I was thinking about something a little more direct than that," the admiral said unpleasantly, "and I've been studying our dossier on Commander Harrington since I learned of the situation here. As I say, it's not as complete as I might wish, but it does offer some potentially useful information. For example, did you know that her father and mother are both doctors?" Canning shook his head. "Well, they are. In fact, they're both senior partners in Duvalier Medical Associates on Sphinx. It's an excellent outfit, with a high reputation in neural and genetic surgery . . . and it just happens that seventy percent of Duvalier Medical's public stock is held by Christy and Sons, which, in turn, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hauptman Cartel." The admiral smiled almost dreamily. "I always knew keeping an eye on Hauptman would be useful some day, even before this operation came up."

"But does Hauptman even realize it, Sir?"

"Perhaps not yet, but I'm sure we can call it to their attention—discreetly, of course. But, then, we've already called several items to Hauptman's attention, haven't we?"

"Yes, Sir, we have," Canning agreed. He furrowed his brow as he considered ways and means. "My regularly scheduled courier to Ambassador Gowan leaves tomorrow morning," he said thoughtfully.

"An excellent suggestion, Mr. Canning." The admiral nodded and raised his glass in a toast. "To Commander Harrington, may she have other things to concern herself with very shortly," he murmured.


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