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Chapter Thirty-Six

"So much for the demise of the Freedom Alliance," Baroness Medusa said bitterly.

Gregor O'Shaughnessy simply nodded. There wasn't much else to do as he and the Provisional Governor watched the news clips which Colonel Basaricek had appended to her official report.

It was bad, he thought. Worse even than the Nemanja bombing. The casualty count was higher, the damage was spread across a wider area of the city and-especially in the area of that tank truck bomb-far more severe, and the sheer psychological shock effect after the extended false calm was equally severe. The commentary on the news clips Basaricek had included carried a new, harsher flavor than the reportage before Nordbrandt's assumed death had. Much of that anger was directed at the FAK, but a disturbing amount of it was aimed squarely at the Kornatian government this time.

"I don't like how critical they're being of Rajkovic and Basaricek," Dame Estelle said, as if she'd been reading his mind, and he nodded again.

"Hard to blame them, really, Milady. Oh, the newsies ought to know better. Probably do, really. But after the sense of euphoria, the belief the storm was over, this had to have a major psychological effect."

"Well, now we know why she didn't bother to disabuse us of the fond assumption that we'd actually managed to kill her. And while you're being so understanding about their reporters, Gregor, you might bear in mind that one reason those same reporters are hammering the government right now is to keep from admitting they were the ones-not Vice President Rajkovic or Colonel Basaricek-who announced that the lack of activity meant she had to be dead. Rajkovic was always careful to keep cautioning people that there was no proof of that."

"Granted, Milady. But it would be unrealistic to expect anything else out of them, really. And at least it proves Kornati really does have a free press, doesn't it?"

The baroness gave a sharp crack of laughter and shook her head.

"You're not usually the one looking for the silver lining, Gregor. Do I really sound like I need cheering up that badly?"

"I wouldn't put it quite that way, Milady." He smiled crookedly at her. "In fact, I think I may be the one who needs the cheering up this time."

They turned their attention back to the grim sights and sounds from the wounded city. It didn't take much longer to get to the end, and Dame Estelle turned off the HD with an almost vicious jab at the remote. She sat for a moment longer, still glowering at the blank unit, and then shook herself and turned back to O'Shaughnessy.

"The timing on this could have been better," she said with massive understatement. Twelve days had passed since Hexapuma had departed for Montana. Probably the cruiser was already in-system and decelerating towards the planet in the continued blissful belief that the situation in Split was under control.

"Yes, Milady," he agreed, "the timing could indeed be better. But however inconvenient it may be, my immediate impression is that this-" he gestured vaguely in the direction of the silent HD "-fundamentally changes our analysis of which flashpoint is the more dangerous. And the more deserving of our most effective intervention."

"No argument," Dame Estelle said. "Although there is the interesting question of exactly how well inclined towards Aleksandra Tonkovic I am at this particular moment. And, assuming we do put Split at the head of our list, there's also the question of whether or not we can afford to spend the time to hand it to Terekhov and Bernardus. It may be time for us to stop worrying about our 'storm trooper' image or whether or not we'll be seen as supporting suppression and just drop Colonel Gray's Marines in on Nordbrandt's head. Crush her as quickly as possible and then hope we can repair any damage once the shooting's stopped. And if we do that, we can send someone else-like Captain Anders and Warlock -like Khumalo wanted in the first place."

"Part of me's inclined to think it is time to reach for a hammer, Milady," O'Shaughnessy agreed. "But remember what Colonel Basaricek had to say about how well hidden Nordbrandt's cells are. We can't use a hammer unless we know where the nail is, and we don't. Without proper intelligence backup to tell him where to find the enemy, Colonel Gray can't really accomplish much more than the KNP. It's not a case of the Kornatians not having enough manpower or firepower; it's a case of their not being able to aim it properly."

"I know." Dame Estelle scrubbed her face with the palms of her hands, and grimaced. "It's probably as much sheer frustration as anything else," she admitted. "But I want these people, Gregor. I want them badly."

"We all do, Milady."

O'Shaughnessy thought for a moment, scratching one eyebrow as he pondered. Then he shrugged.

"The bottom line, I think, Milady, is still that the Kornatians do need the technical support Tonkovic has been requesting. I think it's probable they also need advice and a small, fast response strike force they can use as a precision instrument against identified targets. I know Ms. Tonkovic hasn't asked for those, but I think her planet needs both of them far more than they need us to simply dump modern weapons on their own security forces. And if we decide to intervene in support of the local government at all, the political equation still calls for us to make the strongest possible statement about the quality of the assistance we're prepared to offer our friends in the area. And for that, Hexapuma , especially with Mr. Van Dort on board, is still our biggest counter. Besides, Warlock isn't in Spindle any longer."

The Provisional Governor nodded. Warlock was on her way to Tillerman, at the far end of Rear Admiral Khumalo's southern patrol line. It would take almost three weeks just to get word to Captain Anders to take his ship to Split, and another twenty-six days for him to actually do it.

Too many fires and not enough ships to put them out with, she thought.

"Who is still available here in Spindle?" she asked after a moment.

"I'd have to screen Captain Shoupe to be certain, but I believe that aside from Hercules , there's only a destroyer or two and the service squadron ships."

"And a destroyer's too small to make the kind of statement we want to make, while a superdreadnought's too big, however ancient and decrepit she might be," Dame Estelle said gloomily.

"Probably, yes. The fact is, Milady, that if we immediately send orders to Hexapuma , she can be in Split in roughly twenty-eight days. And that's probably about as quickly as we could get anything else bigger than a destroyer there. Not to mention the fact that they'd have Mr. Van Dort along, as well."

"I know." Dame Estelle laid her palms on her desk and frowned thoughtfully down at the backs of her hands. "Whatever we're going to do, we ought to do it quickly. I have a meeting with Tonkovic scheduled for this afternoon. She requested it as soon as the reports arrived, but I didn't want to see her until I'd had a chance to view them myself. I believe it's time I spoke clearly to her, without ambiguity. I don't expect her to enjoy the conversation, and I think I'll just see what she has to say before I make any hard and fast decisions. But go ahead and prepare a full download for Terekhov and Van Dort. Whether or not we actually decide to send them to Split, they'll need to know what's going on there."

* * * | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *