Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 32

“I think we have to assume Lörscher’s telling the truth,” she said. “And one of the reasons I’m inclined to think this isn’t deliberate misinformation on anyone’s part is that Montana’s where Lörscher was headed all along, but no one could’ve known we’d be here when he got here. He’d probably have passed the information along anyway, but it would’ve taken two weeks for a dispatch boat to get word back to Spindle even if Montana had one ready to go on zero notice. If they wanted to draw us into doing something unfortunate, I think they would have sent their messenger directly to either Spindle or Lynx, where they could’ve been sure of finding the Navy waiting for them and drawing a quicker response.”

“There is that, Ma’am,” Lecter acknowledged.

“And, frankly, the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter whether or not this is a set up,” Michelle said in a harsher tone. “Either Dueñas really has impounded one of our merchies, or he hasn’t. Whoever we send is going to have to mind his feet and be sure he doesn’t step on any tender Solly sensibilities if this is some sort of misinformation. But if it’s not — if Dueñas has done what Lörscher says he has — then I really don’t care who put him up to it.”

Lecter’s eyes widened in alarm, and Michelle chuckled coldly.

“I’m not going all berserk on you, Cynthia,” she said. “But the bottom line is that one of our primary missions ever since there’s been a Navy has always been the protection of Manticoran commerce. Nothing in any orders I’ve seen has changed that. And they haven’t put any limitations on who we’re supposed to protect our commerce and our merchant spacers from, either. I don’t know if this was Dueñas’ own brainstorm or if someone put him up to it, and it doesn’t matter, when you come down to it. Maybe it is an effort to create a deliberate provocation, but even if it is, it’s one we can’t ignore or back away from. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to, either.” She showed her teeth. “In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I haven’t already jumped on it. I wanted to make sure I had myself on a short enough leash to give some thought to it, first.”

“I’ve known you a while, Ma’am,” Lecter observed. “And if you’ll pardon my saying so, it sounds to me like you’ve done most of the thinking you intend to do.”

“Yep.” Michelle gave Dicey’s head another rub and nodded her own. “I think this should be right up Zavala’s alley. And a destroyer squadron — especially one that’s a little understrength — will be a lot less threatening than a division of battlecruisers.”

“Do you think five tincans will be enough to convince a Solly system governor to back down?”

“When they’re bigger than most Solly light cruisers, I think the odds are probably pretty damned good,” Michelle said. “And I’d prefer to tailor our response to the nature of the mission. I don’t want to use any bigger club than we have to, which is one reason I’m thinking Zavala would be a good choice. He won’t take any crap, but he’s not going to come in throwing around threats until he’s at least tried to get them to see reason. And, to be honest, I can’t really afford to start slicing off detachments of cruisers or battlecruisers — not when the whole notion is to maintain a concentrated force here in Montana.”

And not when I don’t know when the next Lörscher’s likely to turn up with somewhere else I need to send a detachment, she added silently.

“I follow your logic, Ma’am,” Lecter said, which wasn’t precisely the same thing as saying she agreed with it, Michelle noted. “Should I assume you want to speak to Zavala personally before we send him off?”

“I definitely do.” Michelle nodded firmly. “This isn’t something you send someone off to do without making damned sure she understands her orders, and that those orders are going to cover her backside if it all goes south on her.”

“Understood, Ma’am,” Lecter replied, although the chief of staff could think of quite a few flag officers she’d known who would’ve been more concerned with covering their own backsides than that of the officer they’d designated to carry out a mission like this one.

“Good.” Michelle took a final pull at her beer, then leaned forward and set the empty bottle on the coffee table. Dicey gave her a disgusted look as her lap moved under him, then relented and gave her a parting head butt of affection before he hopped down. She smiled as the cat meandered out, then looked back at Lecter. “I’d like to have him underway within the next twelve hours.”

“I’ll see to it, Ma’am.” The chief of staff tossed back the last of her whiskey and set the glass beside Michelle’s bottle. Then she rose, nodded respectfully to Michelle, and headed for the day cabin’s door.

Michelle watched her go, then she climbed out of her own chair and keyed the holo display above her desk, frowning at the steadily blinking icon of the star called Saltash.

I sure as hell hope it isn’t some kind of set up, Cynthia, she thought after her vanished chief of staff. I talk a good stiff upper lip and all that, but I really, really don’t want to step into it all over again with the damned Sollies.

It was like picking her way without a map through a waist-deep swamp she knew was filled with patches of quicksand and poorly fed alligators. There was so damned much treachery, so many crosscurrents of deception, so much Solarian arrogance and resentment, and so many things which could go disastrously wrong. The temptation was to fort up, go strictly onto the defensive to avoid the kind of mistakes which could only make the situation worse. But as she’d told Lecter, that wasn’t an option in this case. If Lörscher was right about what was going on in Saltash, Michelle had to act.

And I hope to hell this doesn’t go as badly for Zavala’s squadron as things went for it in New Tuscany, too, she thought.