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CHAPTER NINE

Dame Estelle Matsuko, Knight of the Order of King Roger and Resident Commissioner for Planetary Affairs on the planet Medusa in the name of Her Majesty Elizabeth III, Queen of Manticore and Defender of the Realm, rose behind her desk as her office door slid open. The tall naval commander who stepped through moved with the graceful stride of muscles accustomed to a gravity a great deal higher than Medusa's .85 g, and the treecat on her shoulder looked around with interested green eyes. Dame Estelle examined the pair of them with equal but hidden curiosity even as she extended a hand in welcome.


"Commander Harrington."


"Commissioner." The commander's crisp, clipped accent was as clear an indication of her birth world as the treecat or the way she moved, and her grip was firm but carefully metered. Dame Estelle had felt the same sort of handshake from other Sphinxians—and the few who'd absent-mindedly forgotten to watch what they were doing made her grateful for the ones who remembered.


"Won't you be seated?" Dame Estelle offered as the commander released her hand, and her brain was busy making mental notations.


Harrington carried herself with assurance, and Dame Estelle revised her original age estimate upward by five years. She was a striking woman, with a pale, strongly sculpted face and large, expressive eyes almost as dark as Dame Estelle's own. Her hair was clipped shorter than most men's under the white beret, and she wore an unmistakable air of competent professionalism. A far cry, the commissioner reflected, from the second-raters the Navy had been dumping on her, especially since Janacek took over the Admiralty. Yet there was a tension under Harrington's disciplined surface. An uneasiness. At first she'd thought it was her imagination, but a closer look at the commander's companion had disabused her of that notion. The treecat was curious about his surroundings, yes, but his long, slender body was taut and wary, and Dame Estelle had seen enough 'cats to recognize the protectiveness with which his tail wrapped about Harrington's throat.


"I must say, Commander, that I was somewhat surprised by Lord Young's sudden departure," Dame Estelle said, and almost blinked at her visitor's reaction. She'd meant the remark as simple small talk, yet its effect was profound. Harrington didn't actually move a muscle, but she didn't have to. Her eyes said it all, narrowing with a hard intensity that was almost frightening, and the treecat was far less restrained. He didn't—quite—hiss, but his flattened ears and half-bared fangs made his position clear, and Dame Estelle wondered what she'd said.


Then Harrington gave herself tiny shake. A hand reached up to gentle the 'cat, and she nodded courteously to the commissioner.


"I was a bit surprised myself, Commissioner." Her soprano was cool and uninflected, a deliberate dispassion that set Dame Estelle's mental antennae on edge. "I understand, however, that his refit requirements had become more urgent than anyone in Manticore realized when my own ship was dispatched here."


"I'm sure." Dame Estelle couldn't quite keep the sour amusement out of her own voice, and Harrington cocked her head slightly. Then she relaxed just a bit, and some of the treecat's tension eased, as well. So. It hadn't been so much what Dame Estelle had said as who she'd said it about. Well, anyone who disliked Pavel Young couldn't be all bad.


"I was also surprised—and pleased—by your willingness to visit my office, Commander," the commissioner went on. "I'm afraid we haven't had quite the close cooperation with the Navy I could have hoped for, particularly in the last three years or so."


Honor sat motionless but nodded mentally as Dame Estelle paused as if to invite a comment. "The last three years" just happened to coincide with Janacek's assumption of the First Lord's duties, and the slight, dark-skinned woman on the other side of the desk obviously wanted to discover how Honor herself viewed Basilisk's importance to the Kingdom. The right of a serving officer to criticize her superiors was limited, but her relationship with Dame Estelle could well prove critical to her own success or failure.


"I'm sorry to hear that, Dame Estelle," she said, choosing her words with care, "and I hope we can improve the situation. That's one reason for my visit. It's a courtesy call, of course, but my original orders to Basilisk assumed that Lord Young would be remaining as senior officer, and I'm afraid my background brief on current conditions here was pretty general. I'd hoped you could enlighten me further and tell me about any specific requirements you may have."


Dame Estelle inhaled deeply and sat back in her chair in obvious relief—tinged, Honor noted, with more than a trace of surprise. That surprise both gratified and embarrassed her. She couldn't resist a sense of justification at the commissioner's reaction to her explanation, yet what she'd asked for was the minimum possible requirement if she was to meet her responsibilities, and the implication that the Navy had failed so signally in its duties as to engender Matsuko's surprise shamed her.


"I am very pleased to hear you say that, Commander," Dame Estelle said after a moment. She tilted her chair back and crossed her legs, folding her hands on her raised knee, and her voice was far less cautious. "I'll be delighted to tell you anything I can, but suppose you begin by telling me what you already know? That way I can fill in the holes without boring you."


Honor nodded and coaxed Nimitz down into her lap. The tension had flowed out of his wiry body, a clear sign he approved of Matsuko, and he curled in a contented circle and purred as she stroked him.


"I think I'm pretty well up to speed on the Junction operations, Ma'am, and I realize those aren't really your province, anyway. I'm much more concerned about my support and security duties here on Medusa. My data seem to be a bit out of date, judging from the number of freighters in orbit. I hadn't understood that there was so much trade with the planetary surface?"


"No, that's a fairly recent development." Dame Estelle frowned thoughtfully. "You know about the enclaves?"


"In a general sense. They're basically trading stations, aren't they?"


"Yes and no. Under the terms of the Act of Annexation, the Kingdom claimed the star system as a whole and established a protectorate over the Medusans but specifically renounced sovereignty over their planet. In effect, this entire planet is one huge reservation for the natives, with the exception of specific sites designated for off-worlder enclaves. That's not the normal procedure for establishing territoriality, but we were more concerned with the Junction terminus than planetary real estate, and the act attempted to make that distinction completely explicit. In fact, it obligates the Kingdom to grant the Medusans complete autonomy 'at the earliest practicable moment' just to make our lack of imperial ambitions crystal clear."


Dame Estelle's expression made her opinion of the Act of Annexation plain.


"As a direct result of the nobility of our motives," she continued, "the legal position might be considered something of a gray area. One or two nations—like Haven—argue that a protectorate without sovereignty is legally meaningless. Under that interpretation of interstellar law—which, I'm sorry to say, can be argued on the basis of some fairly strong precedents—Medusa is unclaimed territory, and I have no authority at all to issue instructions to off-worlders on its surface. That's the official position of the Havenite consul, by the way. Her Majesty's Government takes a different view, and as they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law, but the provisions of the Act of Annexation specifically delimit my powers.


"Under the terms of my commission, I have the authority to take any action necessary 'to prevent the exploitation of the indigenous race,' but I do not have the authority to tell other nations that they may or may not establish enclaves here. I've asked for it, and I think the Government would like to give it to me, but they haven't been able to get the necessary amendments through Parliament. So I can restrict other people's enclave locations, regulate their trade with the Medusans, and generally play policeman after they get here, but I can't deny them access."


Honor nodded. The Liberals had been so busy making certain Manticore couldn't exploit the "hapless natives" that they'd left the door wide open for less principled people to walk right through.


"All right." Dame Estelle swung her chair gently from side to side and frowned at the ceiling. "Initially, there were very few enclaves here on Medusa. As you no doubt know, the Medusans are somewhere in the equivalent of the late Bronze Age, and aside from some genuinely beautiful artifacts, they have very little of value in terms of interstellar trade. As a result, there was little pressure to open planetary markets, and the Native Protection Agency had the situation pretty well in hand.


"During my own tenure, however, that situation has changed, not so much because of trade with the Medusans as because of the growing volume of traffic through the terminus here. I suppose it was inevitable that an orbital warehousing and distribution network should spring up, particularly since cargoes can be transshipped here without paying the higher duties and wages incurred in Manticore. There are, of course, other incentives," she added dryly, and Honor's lips twitched unwillingly.


"At any rate, quite a few merchant houses started establishing local planet-side offices to manage their part of the network as it grew. That's where most of the enclaves came from, and most of what they need has to be shipped in from offworld, so a lot of the local space-to-surface activity is a matter of servicing those needs.


"At the same time, merchants being merchants, there's been growing pressure to establish trade with the Medusans as a sideline to help defray their operating expenses. It's mostly very small scale—precious stones, native art, tillik moss for the spice trade, an occasional bekhnor hide or ivory shipment, that sort of thing—but the Medusans' needs are so limited that trade goods can be extremely cheap. The Medusans are only just learning how to forge decent iron and wretched steel, so you can imagine how they value duralloy knives or axeheads, and modern textiles are equally prized. In fact, the poor devils are being robbed blind by most of the factors; they have no concept of how little the goods they're trading for cost the importers. Nor do they realize how easily they could become utterly dependent on those goods and the traders who supply them. We've tried to limit the dependency syndrome by slapping fairly tough ceilings on the levels of technology we'll let anyone introduce, but both the Medusans and the off-worlders resent our interference."


She paused, and Honor nodded again.


"The really frustrating part of it," Dame Estelle went on more forcefully, "is that Manticoran merchants are specifically restricted by Act of Parliament from trading anything more advanced than muscle-powered technology to the natives lest we make them dependent upon us. Mind you, I think there's some wisdom to that, but it means our own people are at least as irked with us as some of the other off-worlders, possibly even more so, since our proximity would give them a major competitive edge. That makes it hard for us to get an accurate reading on the entire process. Not even Manticorans go out of their way to cooperate with us, so the NPA and I are virtually outsiders on a planet nominally under our protection. Worse, I'm pretty sure the 'native trade' is being used as a cover for covert exchanges of illegal goods between off-worlders—including Manticorans—but I can't stop it, I can't prove it, and I can't even seem to get the powers that be back home to care about it!"


She paused and unclenched the hands which had tightened on her knee, then gave a wry chuckle.


"Sorry, Commander. I think I just punched one of my own buttons."


"Don't apologize, Commissioner. It sounds like you're even more hamstrung than I thought you were."


"Oh, it's not really as bad as I sometimes feel it is," Dame Estelle said judiciously. "The physical restriction of the enclaves to a single central location here in the Delta, coupled with my authority to control the use of off-world transport outside them, limits the physical reach of the trade networks. It doesn't stop off-worlder-to-off-worlder smuggling, if in fact there is any, and it can't completely stop the flow of off-world goods to the Medusans, but it slows it and means that most of them trickle through native merchants before they reach more distant destinations. And, truth to tell, concerned as I am about the impact on the Medusans, I'm even more concerned—as the Crown's local representative—by what else may be going on under the surface."


"Oh?" Honor sat straighter, and Nimitz raised his head as she stopped stroking his ears.


"I've reported my suspicions—well, 'feelings' might be a more honest word for them—that there's more involved here than native trade, or even smuggling, to Countess New Kiev, but no one back home seems particularly concerned." Matsuko gave her a sharp glance, but Honor kept her face carefully expressionless. Countess Marisa of New Kiev was Minister for Medusan Affairs; she was also the leader of the Liberal Party.


Dame Estelle snorted softly, as if Honor's very lack of expression confirmed her own opinion of her superior, then sighed.


"I suppose I could be paranoid, Commander, but I just can't avoid the conclusion that . . . certain parties are much more concerned with their trading rights than the dollar value of the trade itself—legal and illegal alike—could possibly justify."


"Would those 'certain parties' happen to include the Republic of Haven?"Honor asked quietly, and the commissioner nodded.


"Exactly. Their consulate has an awfully large staff, in my opinion, and I don't think they need that many 'trade attaches.' Granted, a lot of their traffic passes through the terminus—the western third of the Republic is closer to Basilisk than it is to Trevor's Star, after all—but they keep pushing for more freedom to trade with the Medusans, as well. In fact, their consulate is officially accredited to one of the local Medusan city-states, not to Her Majesty's Government. Both the Government and Haven know that's a legal fiction under the circumstances, and I've been able to sit on them reasonably successfully so far, but it seems to me that what they're really after is more contact with the natives, a more active role in shaping the Medusans' relations with off-worlders generally."


"As a counter presence to our own?"


"Exactly!" Matsuko repeated even more enthusiastically. She produced her first genuine smile of the meeting and nodded firmly. "I think they're hoping the anti-annexationists back home may get their way after all. If that happens, Haven would be well-placed to move in and assert its own sovereignty, especially if they were already involved in native affairs. Lord knows they don't need any more motive than controlling the terminus, but they like to have 'moral justifications' for their propaganda machine to report to their own population and the Solarian League. That's why they're so stubborn about maintaining the official position that the terms of the Act of Annexation amount to a unilateral renunciation on our part of any legal claim in the first place. If we do pull out, they want the planet to fall into their laps like a ripe plumapple."


"And you think that's all it is?"Honor pressed.


"I . . . don't know," the commissioner said slowly. "I can't see any other advantage for them, but I can't quite shake the notion that there's something else going on. My people and I are keeping as close an eye on their consulate and factors as we can, and there certainly hasn't been anything concrete I could report to Countess New Kiev, but there's—call it an attitude on their part I don't like." She shook herself, and her smile turned wry. "Of course, I don't like them, either, and that may be coloring my perceptions."


Honor nodded slowly, leaning back in her own chair and pursing her lips in thought. Dame Estelle did not strike her as a woman who leapt to conclusions, whatever her prejudices might be.


"At any rate," Matsuko said more briskly, "that's the basic off-worlder situation here on Medusa. As far as the natives themselves are concerned, my NPA people are spread too thin and too overworked to provide the kind of coverage I'd prefer, but our relations with the Medusans have been remarkably good ever since our arrival—far better than seems to be usual when such disparate cultures come into contact. Some of the clan chiefs want the restrictions on higher-tech imports lifted, which is causing some strain, but by and large we're in pretty good shape, especially with the city-states here in the Delta. We do have a few problems in more remote areas of the Outback, but the thing that I find most worrisome just now is that we've been picking up hints of an upsurge in the Medusans' use of mekoha over the last year or so."


Honor raised an eyebrow, and Dame Estelle shrugged.


"Mekoha is an indigenous drug. It's difficult to refine, by local standards, and I don't like the effect it has on its users, but it's nothing new. I suppose it bothers me because one of the first signs of a self-destructing aboriginal culture always seems to be an increase in the use of drugs and intoxicants, and I'd hate to see the Medusans go that route. My predecessor, Baron Hightower, and I have adopted the position that the original Medusan culture is inevitably doomed by our mere presence and the technological temptation we offer, but I'd like to think we can replace it with a fusion of their original values with more advanced technology—do it without their losing themselves, if you will. That's why both Baron Hightower and I have devoted our efforts to controlling the rate of change as much as we can. I'm afraid it's also why I rather resent the amount of effort I have to divert from that goal to keeping an eye on off-worlders, but that's part and parcel of the basic effort to keep from destroying the Medusans' cultural integrity."


"So your major requirement from me will be to assist in managing the comings and goings between the enclaves and orbital traffic?"


"I'd say that was pretty much correct," Dame Estelle agreed. "I'd like to be able to call on your Marine complement in the case of any emergency down here, but, as I say, we seem to be pretty well covered so far. If you could take over the inspection of ship-to-surface shuttles and general traffic control, it would free up a lot of my NPA personnel."


"You mean Young didn't even—?" Honor shut her mouth with a click before she said something even more revealing, and the commissioner coughed into her hand to hide a laugh.


"Very well, Commissioner, I think we can handle that. Give me a day or two to work out the details, and I'll have a pair of cutters on permanent standby for shuttle inspection. If you can spare me whoever you've had managing the situation from your end, I'd like a chance to pick their brains before we set it up."


"Done," Dame Estelle said promptly.


"I'd also like to set up some sort of permanent liaison officer," Honor went on thoughtfully. "I had to detach almost ten percent of my naval personnel to provide customs parties and security personnel for Basilisk Control—" she ignored the commissioner's raised eyebrows "—and that leaves me more understrength than I'd like. I imagine it's going to get worse when we start controlling and inspecting shuttle traffic, too. Do you have someone you could assign to me to coordinate with your office?"


"I not only can provide you a liaison officer, Commander, but I will be delighted to do so. And I think I have just the man for you. Major Barney Isvarian is my senior NPA field man, but he was a Marine sergeant before he retired and moved over to my side of the street. I wouldn't want him off-planet on any long-term basis, but I could certainly lend him to you for a few days. He's a good man and an old Medusa hand, and he's been involved in our own shuttle inspection efforts. How does that sound?"


"It sounds just fine, Commissioner," Honor said with a smile. She rose, extending her hand once more while Nimitz flowed back up to her shoulder. "Thank you. And thank you for the background, as well. I won't tie up any more of your time, but please feel free to screen me if there's anything I can do for you or if there's anything you feel should be called to my attention."


"I certainly will, Commander." Dame Estelle stood to grasp her hand once more, and her eyes were warm. "And thank you." She didn't specify exactly what she was thanking her for, and Honor suppressed a wry snort of amusement.


The commissioner walked around her desk to escort her to the door and paused for another handshake before she left. The door slid shut, and Dame Estelle returned to her chair with a bemused expression. She sat and pressed a button on her communications panel.


"George, get hold of Barney Isvarian, would you? I've got a new job for him."


"Right," her executive assistant said laconically, then paused. "How'd it go, boss?" he asked after a moment.


"It went well, George. In fact, I think it went very well," Dame Estelle said, and released the button with a smile.


 


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