Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 31

Chapter Eight

“You know,” Michelle Henke said thoughtfully, tipped back in her chair with her feet propped somewhat inelegantly on the coffee table, “these Sollies are beginning to severely piss me off.”

“No, really?” Captain Cynthia Lecter raised her eyebrows. “I find that difficult to believe, Ma’am.”

Michelle chuckled, although the sound was a bit sour, then glanced up as Chris Billingsley appeared with Lecter’s whiskey glass and Michelle’s own bottle of beer. Over the years, she’d developed a pronounced preference for Honor Harrington’s favorite Old Tillman. In fact, her friend had actually converted her to the barbarism of drinking it chilled, and she smiled as she accepted the cold bottle from her steward, then made a face as Dicey hopped up into her lap. The cat landed with a pronounced thump, butted her chest twice with his broad, scarred head, then settled down possessively with a deep, rumbling purr.

“This monster is your cat, isn’t it, Chris?” she demanded.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Billingsley acknowledged imperturbably.

“I just wondered,” she said, rubbing Dicey between the ears in token of abject surrender. “Thanks for clearing that up.”

“You’re welcome, Ma’am.” Billingsley smiled benignly and withdrew, and Michelle shook her head and returned her attention to Lecter.

“As I was saying, these Sollies are beginning to get on my nerves. And I wish to hell I understood what Dueñas thinks he’s going to accomplish with this.”

“Assuming our information about what he’s supposed to’ve done is correct, of course, Ma’am,” Lecter pointed out.

“I realize we have to keep our minds open to all possibilities, Cynthia, but say that again with a straight face,” Michelle challenged. “Just what mistake have the Sollies passed up making that would encourage that sort of optimism?”

“I can’t think of one right off hand,” Lecter acknowledged, “but that’s not to say they couldn’t have avoided at least one somewhere without our noticing.”

“Maybe so, but I’m not inclined to believe it was in Saltash.”

Michelle’s tone was darker, her expression less amused, and her chief of staff nodded in less than delighted agreement.

Michelle nodded back and sipped beer, continuing to rub Dicey’s head, as she contemplated the latest unpleasant decision to land on her desk.

I suppose we’re lucky Lörscher was on his way to Montana anyway and decided to share the news with us, she thought.

Michelle and her detachment of Tenth Fleet had arrived in Montana less than three days ago, and she was still in the process of settling down to her new duty station. She’d visited Montana before, on her initial swing through the Talbott Quadrant back before everything had gone to hell in a handbasket, but it had been a brief visit, little more than a quick look in. This time, unless (or, rather, until) something else went wrong, she’d be here for a while, and she’d plunged into a round of courtesy calls with the local system government and the local business sector. Along the way, she’d met — briefly — the infamous Stephen Westman. Abbreviated although their meeting had been, she’d recognized a kindred soul in Westman; they were both the sort of people who had a tendency to demolish obstacles with the handiest blunt instrument. Stubborn, too, the both of them.

She was also getting a better feel for the system’s economy, and she’d begun to understand why Montana had been one of the more affluent of the old Talbott Sector star systems. Montana beef was among the best Michelle had ever tasted, and the system’s location put it within a couple of hundred light years of over a dozen other star systems. For that matter, it was only two hundred and ten light-years from the Mesa Terminus which had given it direct access to the heart of the Solarian League and the Core Worlds’ spoiled, wealthy gourmands even before the Lynx Terminus’ discovery. Two light-centuries wasn’t all that far for the fast freighters which served the meat packing trade, and Montana shipped literally millions of tons of beef a month. None of which even considered the ranchers’ ability to penetrate new markets now that Lynx had been discovered.

Always assuming the entire explored galaxy didn’t decide to blow itself straight to hell, of course.

What mattered at the moment, however, was that it was Montana’s beef production which had brought Captain Li-hau Lörscher, of the Andermani freighter Angelika Thörnich to the star system. He hadn’t expected to see a full squadron of Manticoran ships-of-the-wall — not to mention battlecruisers, CLACs, cruisers, destroyers, and supply ships — waiting for him here, but he’d grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

“You know, Ma’am,” Lecter said after a moment, “it could all be misinformation.”

“I thought about that,” Michelle acknowledged, sipping more beer, but then she shrugged. “Lörscher seems to be exactly who he says he is, though. And he’s got a half dozen regular suppliers here in Montana who’re prepared to vouch for him.” She shook her head. “Someone who’s been on the same run for over ten T-years isn’t likely to be a plant, and he’s got a wife and family back in the Empire. It’s not as if he could just disappear afterward if he’d decided to sell us a bill of goods. Besides, I don’t think Emperor Gustav would be especially happy with him if it turned out he was deliberately passing us false information. It might land not only us but the Andermani in the middle of a fresh manipulated incident with the Sollies, and I sort of doubt Gustav’s going to be real eager about joining an anti-League crusade even if he is currently our ally against Haven. For that matter, there’s the question of who’d want to ‘misinform’ us about something like this. I agree healthy suspicion is indicated, especially given everything that’s already gone down out here, but still…”

She shrugged again, and her chief of staff nodded slowly. Lecter’s expression remained troubled, though, and her eyes were thoughtful as she took a sip of whiskey.

“I agree Lörscher’s probably exactly who he says he is, Ma’am, and I’ll agree that I wouldn’t want to be the Andermani merchant skipper who pissed off the Emperor by lying to his allies. That doesn’t automatically mean he isn’t, though. And what sticks in my mind is that if Manpower or Mesa really has been manipulating things out this way, feeding us something that would draw us into a potential — another potential — incident with the Sollies might suit their playbook just fine.”

“The thought had crossed my own mind,” Michelle agreed.

“Well, if that’s what this is, then Lörscher very probably could be telling us the truth…insofar as he knows it, that is. He could have been lied to and sent out to lie to us. though. For that matter, if the Saltash System governor’s in Mesa’s pocket like Verrocchio — or even like New Tuscany was, when you come down to it — Lörscher could be telling us the truth about what actually happened and it could still be a trap designed to draw us into yet another confrontation with the League.”

“Agreed.” Michelle nodded more grimly, but her tone was firm.

It was one of Lecter’s functions to look for the hidden hook inside any potential bait that came Tenth Fleet’s way. And God knew there’d been enough skullduggery over the last several months to turn anyone paranoid. In fact, the truth was that despite her own comment to Lecter, she could readily see how whoever was manipulating the situation might relish the possibility of piling another incident with the Solarian League onto the fire. Unfortunately…