Five men and three women sat in the luxurious conference room. Their clothing was perfectly suited to their surroundings, expensive and tailored in the latest Solarian styles, and their jewelry-understated, for the most part-was equally expensive. They were elegantly groomed, with the sort of sleek self-assurance that came with knowing they were masters of the worlds about them.
And, at the moment, they were not happy.
"Just who the fuck do these frigging neobarbs think they are?!" the man at the head of the table demanded. He was perhaps a bit overweight, but his face was normally quite handsome. At the moment, however, the anger blazing in his brown eyes and turning his jowls brick red made that easy to forget. "'The Star Kingdom of Manticore!' Pfehhh! " His lips worked, as if he were about to spit on the conference room's expensive carpet.
"I admit it's ridiculous, Commissioner Verrochio," one of the women said in a much calmer tone. Her gray eyes were just as angry as Verrochio's, but cold. Very cold. "Nonetheless, it's happening."
"Not while I can do anything about it, it isn't, Ms. Anisimovna!" Verrochio spat.
"The problem, Lorcan," one of the other men at the table said, "is that it's beginning to look as if there's not a great deal we can do. Openly, at least."
"That's ridiculous!" the commissioner snapped. "We're the Office of Frontier Security, and they're a jumped-up, Johnny-come-lately, neobarb 'kingdom' with delusions of grandeur! Hell, Old Sol alone has three or four times the population of their entire fucking 'star kingdom.' It's like a toenail threatening the entire rest of the body!"
"No, it isn't, Commissioner," the woman who'd already spoken said.
The commissioner glared at her, and Anisimovna shrugged. Her spectacularly beautiful face had profited from the finest biosculpt and genetic modifications money could buy, and at the moment, it was as calm and focused as Verrochio was choleric.
"It's not like that on two counts. The first is that the Manticorans aren't just any old 'neobarbs' as far as the League is concerned. Their home system is barely a week away from the Sol System itself, via the Beowulf terminus of their damned junction. And it's been settled for centuries-longer than some of the systems in the Old League itself. Certainly longer than several of the Shell systems! They get along fine with Beowulf and manage to stay on fairly good terms with Sol, unlike most neobarb kingdoms. They got hammered by the media during their first war with Haven, and most of the other systems of the League think of them as being isolated out on their little fringe of the explored galaxy, but they have remarkably good contacts on Old Earth. Which, of course, is the capital of the entire League. And they've had those contacts for over three T-centuries now, ever since the Manticore Junction was discovered and explored."
She shrugged, her voice and manner as calm as her expression, and paused, as if daring anyone to dispute what she'd just said. No one did, and she smiled ever so slightly.
"The second reason it's not like a toenail threatening the rest of the body is that, truthfully, the Manticorans haven't threatened anyone who's a citizen of the League," she pointed out. "And the way their ambassador is presenting matters to the Executive Council back on Old Earth, all they're doing here is accepting the results of a freely organized- self- organized-vote by the citizens of the Talbott Cluster. The results of the plebiscite were overwhelming, you know. Almost eighty percent in favor of requesting annexation by the Star Kingdom."
"And who cares about that, Aldona?" a very young, hazel-eyed man asked scornfully. "Plebiscites!" He snorted. "How many of them have we bought over the centuries?"
"Which, in many ways, is exactly what makes the current -situation so… problematical, Mr. Kalokainos," the dark-haired woman seated beside Anisimovna pointed out. Her eyes were as cold as Anisimovna's, but their irises were a peculiar metallic silver, and her artfully skimpy (although hideously expensive) outfit of Telluridian worm-silk revealed some truly extravagant tattoos and body piercings. "You might say that it's a case of being hoist by our own petard." She grimaced. "I always did wonder where that particular cliche came from, but it's apt enough in this case. We've told the precious voters about so many of our plebiscites, that they're preconditioned to accept anybody's plebiscite as justification for annexation. And those close connections with Old Earth which Ms. Anisimovna just pointed out the Manties have include 'connections' with some of the best lobbyist firms on the planet. They know how to make the Manty plebiscite look very good, especially with those sorts of raw numbers."
She shrugged, and Anisimovna nodded firmly.
"Isabel is right, Commissioner Verrochio. However honest or fixed the vote may have been, it was overwhelming. Which means this isn't a situation where we can use the iron fist. The problem is figuring out what version of silk glove we need to use instead."
"And what sort of knuckleduster we can put inside it?" the man seated at Verrochio's right elbow murmured.
"Exactly, Junyan," Anisimovna agreed.
"Excuse me, Vice-Commissioner Hongbo," Kalokainos said, "but the last thing I think we need to do is to lend this naked territorial grab any semblance of credibility. We ought to be taking a clear public stance. Denounce this so-called plebiscite for a fraud and a travesty, proclaim Frontier Security's overriding responsibility to protect the true right of self-determination of Talbott's citizens, and whistle up an SLN task force to kick the frigging Manties back where they belong!"
Aldona Anisimovna managed not to roll her eyes in exasperation, but it was difficult, even for someone with her decades of experience in double-speak. Kalokainos actually managed to sound as if he meant his own rhetoric. Not that there was any chance he really did. Although, unfortunately, he probably did mean the last little bit.
"Perhaps, Volkhart, you aren't fully aware of just what the Manticoran Navy is capable of these days?" He gave her an angry glance, but she met it with the same icy self-control she'd shown Verrochio. "I assure you that we are," she added.
"It really doesn't matter what they're capable of," Kalokainos shot back. "They're pipsqueaks. Oh," he waved one hand irritably, "I'll grant that they're pipsqueaks with long, sharp teeth. But they wouldn't stand the chance of a snowflake in hell against the League Navy. We'd plow them under like pygmies, however good their tech may be, if only by throwing sheer numbers at them. And they're smart enough to know it, too. They wouldn't dare go toe-to-toe with us-especially not now that they're actively at war with the Peeps again!"
His words were directed to Anisimovna, but his eyes , she noticed, kept sliding towards Verrochio, and her lips tightened almost imperceptibly. She had her own suspicions about Kalokainos' personal agenda, and it was beginning to look as if those suspicions were correct.
"Trying to predict what the Star Kingdom of Manticore will and won't do is a dangerous game, Volkhart. I speak from a certain painful personal experience, as you might care to recall." Unlike Kalokainos' eyes, hers stayed exactly where she told them to-on Kalokainos' face. But that didn't keep her from watching Verrochio's expression carefully. "Say what you will about the Manties, and I assure you that there are very few things we haven't said about them at Manpower over the centuries, they've already established that they're willing to run risks anyone else would consider insane in support of their precious 'principles.'" Her lips tightened with contempt, but she was too honest with herself to try to avoid the logical consequences of her own analysis. "If we push them too hard, there's no telling how they might respond. I certainly shouldn't have to remind you what sort of pressure they've chosen to exert in the past through their control of their damned wormhole junction."
Verrochio flinched. It was a tiny thing, little more than a half-seen tic at the corner of one eye, but it gave her a small spurt of satisfaction. Perhaps something was finally getting through the commissioner's self-important, self-centered rage.
"That was then, and this is now," Kalokainos retorted. "They've got their backs plastered to the wall this time. Their economy's running flat out, and they need every credit they can scare up. They're not going to risk a trade war with the Solarian League when they're desperately trying to build every warship they can!"
"I think you're wrong," she said flatly. "I'll remind you that their position was equally 'desperate' at the beginning of their first war with the Peeps, and they didn't hesitate to threaten to close the Manticoran Junction to all Solarian shipping then."
"Aldona has a point," Hongbo Junyan said, sliding smoothly back into the conversation with the skill he'd used to subtly direct his nominal superior for years. Kalokainos gave him an irritated glance. More importantly, as far as Anisimovna was concerned, Verrochio looked at him with automatic thoughtfulness.
"I'm not saying Mr. Kalokainos' argument isn't logical," the vice-commissioner continued. "The problem is that the Manties may not be feeling particularly logical. Hell," he allowed himself a snort and a grin, "if they were feeling logical , they never would've gotten themselves into a potential pissing match with Frontier Security at a time like this in the first place!
"But my point," his expression sobered, "is that they're probably forming their own estimate of the situation and the balance of power on a basis which includes their control of the Manticore Junction. And, I might point out, we'd find it very difficult to get at their home systems directly. Even if we managed to take Talbott entirely away from them with local forces, their fundamental territorial integrity-both at home and in Silesia-would be safe from us for months, at the very least. All they'd have to do would be to retreat back to the junction's central terminus, and we couldn't get at them at all. But they could certainly close the junction to all of our merchant shipping, at least until we managed to get a powerful fleet there through hyper. I'm sure that as the representative of Kalokainos Shipping, Mr. Kalokainos is actually in a better position than I am to estimate how many billions of credits that would cost League ship owners and corporations in the interval."
Verrochio was frowning intently now, and Kalokainos shrugged irritably.
"Of course they could hurt us economically if they were stupid enough," he said. "But if they did, even those idiots on the Executive Council would agree to full-scale military operations against them!"
Which, Anisimovna thought coldly, is precisely what you and your cronies would just love to see, isn't it, Volkhart?
"No doubt," Hongbo agreed, his dry tone in obvious agreement with Anisimovna's suspicions. "I doubt, however, that the Council would be particularly happy with the people who allowed that situation to arise in the first place."
"So do I," Verrochio said, his voice calmer and more thoughtful than it had been since the conference began. Kalokainos' grimace of anger wasn't quite as well concealed as he probably thought it was, but the commissioner was too intent on the horrific career consequences evoked by his assistant's last sentence to notice.
"No," he continued, shaking his head firmly. "I agree we have to respond-forcefully and effectively-to the Manties' intrusion into an area of the Verge where they have no business poking their noses. But we can't afford to let this escalate out of control. And much as I agree with you about the degree of insanity it would require for them to take on the entire Solarian League, Volkhart, Aldona and Junyan have made excellent points of their own. I'm not prepared to risk the possibility that Manticore is crazy enough to go to the mat with us."
"Obviously, it would be a suboptimal situation for all of us if they did," Kalokainos conceded almost gracefully.
"Which brings us back to the question of silk gloves," Anisimovna pointed out.
"Yes, it does," a fair-haired, blue-eyed man agreed. Kalokainos' expression showed a certain lack of surprise at the other's support for Anisimovna.
"And should we assume you have a suggestion, Mr. Ottweiler?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, I do," Ottweiler replied coolly. Several of the others looked at him speculatively, and he hid a smile. Aside from Verrochio and Hongbo-and, of course, Brigadier General Francisca Yucel-he was the only person in the room who legally represented a star nation. It might be only a single-system polity, but the Mesa System had far more clout than any single system normally wielded.
"With all due respect, Valery," the other man who hadn't yet spoken, Izrok Levakonic, Technodyne Industries of Yildun's representative, said mildly, "Mesa hasn't exactly been going from triumph to triumph where… managing the Manties is concerned."
"No, we haven't." It was obvious Ottweiler didn't like making the admission, but he did so without flinching. "I might point out, however, that Mesa, for several reasons," he carefully didn't look at Anisimovna or Isabel Bardasano, "is an openly declared enemy of the Star Kingdom. And however big and powerful the League may be, Mesa is only a single star system. We don't begin to have the advantage in resources which the League enjoys. And," he added, looking significantly at Verrochio and Hongbo, "in our last little fiasco at Verdant Vista, they had the backing of a sector governor. A Frontier Security sector governor, and the detachment of the SLN assigned to his sector."
"Don't blame us for that lunatic Barregos!" Verrochio snorted like an irate boar. "We'd have gotten rid of him in a heartbeat, if he hadn't made himself so politically unassailable over there in Maya."
"Of course you would have, Commissioner," Ottweiler agreed. "But that's actually part of my point. If you're not in a position to move openly against a governor in a sector which has been under OFS control for so long, then the degree of direct control we could reasonably expect you to exercise here in one of the Verge areas which hasn't yet received even protectorate status would have to be still lower."
Verrochio nodded gravely, and Anisimovna hid a mental chuckle of appreciation. Although Ottweiler officially served a duly elected government, everyone with an IQ higher than a rock's knew perfectly well that the "government" of Mesa was a wholly owned subsidiary of the interstellar corporations headquartered there. Which meant that, in a very real sense, Valery Ottweiler was Aldona Anisimovna and Isabel Bardasano's flunky. Nonetheless, the man had a natural knack she could never have matched when it came to managing career League bureaucrats like Verrochio.
I suppose I just don't have the patience to pretend they're anything except exceptionally large hogs swilling at the trough we keep filled for them. Except, of course, that hogs are much more intelligent animals.
"So what would you recommend, Valery?" Bardasano asked, exactly as if the three of them hadn't decided on that well before this meeting ever took place.
"I think this is a situation which will require careful management and preparation," he replied. "As I see it, our problem is that the Manticorans have managed to secure the higher moral ground, from a public relations viewpoint, because of their plebiscite. In addition, they actually have at least as much physical access to Old Sol as we do, as well as much better access to the Talbott Cluster."
"Oh, come now!" Kalokainos protested. "They may have contacts with Old Earth lobbying firms and media outlets, but nowhere near the contacts we have!"
"There was a reason I specified physical access, Mr. Kalolkainos," Ottweiler said calmly. "Of course they can't exert the same sort of leverage we can. They've chosen to stay well away from -involvement in the League's political and bureaucratic structures, whereas we're intimately involved in both. And wealthy as they may be, they can't begin to match the resources which we, cumulatively, routinely devote to nurturing our relationships with the League's political leadership, media outlets, and civil service. They literally can't afford to, whereas we can't afford not to remain deeply and directly involved in our own economic and political system. All I said is that they have at least as much physical access as we do. We can't shut that access off, and we can't predict what they'll do with it-not with certainty. All of which implies that we have to do something to pull their political teeth before we make any open move to discredit the validity of their plebiscite.
"As far as Talbott is concerned," he continued in that same, reasonable tone, "they can move units back and forth to the Cluster almost instantly from their home system, whereas it would take us literally months to deploy any substantial additional fleet strength to the area. Assuming, of course, that we could convince the Navy to send us additional units in the first place. And on top of all of that, as we've just agreed, the Manticoran Wormhole Junction gives them a dangerous amount of economic leverage."
No one disagreed with his analysis. In fact, one or two people-noticeably Volkhart Kalokainos-nodded in obvious impatience at his recitation of well-worn facts.
"So," he continued, "it seems to me we have to find a way to offset as many of their advantages as possible. My own area of expertise is politics, so I'd like to address the problem from a political perspective. I'm sure some of the rest of you would be in a better position to comment on the strictly military and economic aspects of the situation."
He flashed a slight smile, and Verrochio nodded with an air of august approval.
"Obviously," Ottweiler continued, "as Isabel has already pointed out, we can't attack the plebiscite as a ploy on their part without some careful preparation, unless we're prepared to risk raising questions about our own use of plebiscites to legitimize Frontier Security's extension. No one would thank us for doing anything which would call the validity of our own previous plebiscites into dispute, after all.
"So any attack on the Manties' plebiscite has to be framed in terms of the honesty or dishonesty with which the votes were counted. In addition, it has to take into consideration the fact that the vote tallies have already been reported in the League 'faxes. The very fact that the totals have been reported at all is going to give the officially announced outcome a degree of legitimacy in the view of most League citizens. And unlike most neobarbs, the Manties can put their own talking heads onto Old Earth for the talk shows just as easily as we can, so we need to attack the results in a way which puts them firmly on the defensive from the outset."
"Agreed," Hongbo Junyan said when Ottweiler paused. "And just how do you propose to accomplish this notable feat?"
"Let's assume for the moment the votes actually were counted honestly," Ottweiler said. In fact, as everyone in the conference room knew, the count had been honest. "Even so, it wasn't unanimous. Saying eighty percent of the registered voters voted in favor of seeking annexation is just another way of saying twenty percent of them voted against it, now isn't it?"
Heads nodded, and he shrugged.
"Well, I'd be extremely surprised if somewhere in that twenty percent there aren't quite a few radical loonies prepared to resist annexation. Possibly even by force."
You actually managed to make it sound as if we hadn't already done our research, Valery, Anisimovna thought admiringly.
"I think you could safely rely upon that, Mr. Ottweiler," Brigadier Yucel said. As the commander of the Solarian Gendarmerie assigned to Commissioner Verrochio, Yucel was charged with intelligence operations in and around his area of responsibility.
"Actually," she continued, "there are several groups which are already coalescing into potential resistance movements." She grimaced. The Gendarmerie had been keeping an eye on those same groups because they were the ones which would have been most likely to resist an OFS occupation of the Cluster.
"If- speaking purely hypothetically, you understand-" Ottweiler said with a conspiratorial smile, " if those groups were to rise up in heroic resistance to the Manticoran imperialists who shamelessly rigged the vote, thus depriving them of their sacred right of self-determination, surely the Office of Frontier Security's mandate would require it to carefully examine the legitimacy of the original vote, just as it rigorously examines the results of its own plebiscites.
"And," his smile turned into something any shark might have envied, "if media reports of the Talbott fighting were properly framed by journalists attuned to the grim realities of the freedom fighters' struggle to reclaim their stolen independence, it could, ah, offset much of the advantage the Beowulf Terminus' proximity to Sol gives the Manties. Talking heads may be impressive, but the League's public is sophisticated enough-one might almost say cynical enough-to know official representatives spin the truth to suit their own ends. And body bags, burning buildings, and bombing attacks, all absolutely genuine and captured on HD for the evening news, are more impressive than any talking head ever seen. If the Talbott freedom fighters figure out how to get that message out, the League's citizenry might well begin to recognize the difference between our own scrupulously fair and painstakingly honest plebiscites and the crooked, put-up affair the Manticorans have attempted to get away with."
"You know, I rather like that," Izrok Levakonic mused. The small, wiry man had a darkly sardonic face, and his smile held an edge of true whimsy. "It sounds so… noble of us."
"Indeed," Verrochio said a bit repressively. The OFS commissioner felt more comfortable scuttling about on the undersides of bureaucratic rocks. People willing to stand in the open and admit they were dedicated to gaming the system made him uneasy.
"Of course," Yucel said thoughtfully, her dark eyes intent, "for those selfless patriots to make their resistance effective, they'd require access to weapons. Possibly even financial support." She looked across the conference table at Anisimovna and Bardasano, and the Manpower representative smiled gravely.
"I'm sure they would," she said, and Yucel nodded ever so slightly.
"And what if the Manties stomp all over these 'freedom fighters' of yours?" Kalokainos demanded. Of all of those around the table, only his expression might have been called sour.
"That would be… difficult," Yucel said. "Not impossible, mind you, Mr. Kalokainos. But difficult. They'd have to have both the political will and the physical means to do so. I'm not sure they would have the will in the first place, since they'd discover fairly quickly that they couldn't do the job without a certain amount of bloodshed. My impression is that Manties are more tough-minded than your typical Solly, but they don't have much experience with the inevitable unpleasant consequences of imperial expansion. The Andermani would probably be prepared to handle whatever had to be handled; I'm not sure Manties would be.
"Even if they were, though, they'd need the means , and given all their other current military commitments, I'd have to question whether or not they could free up the ships and troops to deal quickly and effectively with this sort of resistance."
Anisimovna nodded, although she wasn't certain she was prepared to trust Yucel's analysis completely. The Gendarmerie brigadier was undoubtedly intelligent-more so than Verrochio, certainly, and probably more so than Hongbo. But she was also willfully brutal. Manpower's private reports strongly suggested Yucel had been transferred to Verrochio's backwater because her penchant for sadism had acquired just a bit too much notoriety in her last posting.
Whether or not that was true, there wasn't much question that her idea of how to suppress resistance involved the maximum application of force at the earliest possible point in order to provide examples which would terrify any potential resistors into submission. Or that she thought anyone who didn't share her own approach was weak-willed and contemptible.
"I think we can take it as a given that any resistance movements which acquired significant amounts of outside financial support and weapons would, at the very least, be expensive and bloody to suppress," Anisimovna said. "And all we'd really need to bring the legitimacy of the plebiscite into question would be enough violence to let us put the proper spin on our investigation."
"You may be right," Kalokainos conceded, manifestly against his will. "Even so, though, it would take something more than a mere guerrilla war to turn public opinion around. Especially given all those Manty contacts with Old Earth we've just been talking about."
"We don't have to completely turn it around," Ottweiler replied. "All we really need is to create enough skepticism to turn the Talbott Cluster into just one more batch of Verge neobarbs being taken over by another batch of neobarbs. The Manties may've been able to present a civilized facade, but that's already taken a major hit because of their confrontation with Haven. The media's been all over the Peeps'-excuse me, the Havenites' reform efforts. And those idiots in the High Ridge Government ignored Old Earth almost as completely as they did Haven itself. They made no effort to prevent the Havenite reformers from becoming very well regarded by the Solly public, and the Alexander Government has embarked on a clear policy of imperialist expansion in Silesia. The same thing's clearly happening in Talbott, obviously against the will of a significant percentage of the Cluster's citizens. Civilized facade or no, that sort of raw aggression against star systems too weak to defend themselves amply demonstrates Manticore itself is a neobarb nation. What else could you expect from an outright monarchy, after all?" He shrugged. "Once the situation is framed in those terms, Frontier Security would almost be expected to intervene."
"Which doesn't magically overcome the point you yourself made a few minutes ago about the Manties' military advantages," Kalokainos argued. "We may be able to create-I beg your pardon, discover- a situation which would let us justify military intervention in public relations terms. But getting the actual firepower to do it with, or convincing the Manties to back down, is another matter entirely."
Anisimovna quirked a sardonic eyebrow at him, and he flushed.
"I stand by my original analysis," he said defensively. "I still think it would be insane of the Manties to take on the League Navy. But certain other people at this conference have gone to some lengths to argue we can't count on their agreeing with me about that. So I'm simply pointing out that if we can't count on it, we still need to find a way to neutralize the possibility, however remote it might be."
"I think Valery's proposals would radically shift the parameters of the situation," Anisimovna replied in a reasonable voice. "And I think Brigadier Yucel's suggestion that the Star Kingdom's citizens might lack the stomach for what effective suppression of this sort of resistance would entail also has merit. But even if both of them are wrong and Manticore is prepared to deploy the warships and Marines required to crush the resistance and to forcibly resist any effort by Frontier Security to… stabilize the situation, what do we lose? How are we any worse off then, than we are right now? After all, there's no law of nature which would force us to push matters to an actual military confrontation if we chose not to."
Kalokainos started to say something, then paused, and Anisimovna could almost see the light click on behind his eyes.
Well, about time! she thought.
"I see," he said, instead of whatever he'd been about to say. "I hadn't fully considered the fact that the decision as to how far we want to push is completely in our own hands."
"Still," Verrochio said thoughtfully, "it wouldn't hurt to see about quietly requesting reinforcements to the Navy units assigned to me."
"I think we could probably justify asking for at least a few more destroyers, even without any upswing in violence in the Cluster, Sir," Hongbo agreed. "The mere fact that a star nation currently involved in a shooting war has suddenly turned up on our doorstep would probably justify that much."
"And as Mr. Ottweiler says, pointing out the way the Manties and Andermani have just cold-bloodedly divided Silesia between them wouldn't hurt, either," Kalokainos observed.
"No, it wouldn't. Not one bit," Anisimovna agreed. She looked around the conference table. "It sounds to me as if we have the beginnings of a strategy here," she said, and if it seemed odd that the representative of a mere multistellar corporation should be summing up the sense of their meeting rather than Commissioner Verrochio, no one remarked upon it. "Obviously, it's only a beginning, and I'm sure we can all offer suggestions to refine it. If I may, I'd suggest we adjourn for the moment. Let's discuss this informally among ourselves for a day or two, then sit down together again to see where we are."