“All right,” Alquezar said now, looking around the timetable, “does anyone have anything else we need to deal with before adjourning?”

Another sign of how new things still were, Medusa reflected. It wouldn’t be all that much longer, she was sure, before things like ironbound agendas for meetings like this would become the rule. For now, things were still remarkably — and thankfully — flexible, however, and Alquezar looked in her direction when she cleared her throat.
“There is one matter Vice Admiral Khumalo tells me he’d like to bring to your attention, Mr. Prime Minister,” she said. “I apologize for not having mentioned this to anyone ahead of this meeting, but the dispatch boat arrived only a few hours before we were scheduled to meet, and it took the Admiral some time to digest the content of its messages and to share them with me.”
“Of course, Madame Governor.” Alquezar’s voice didn’t sharpen dramatically, but he’d obviously picked up on her own formality, and he raised one eyebrow at her slightly, before he turned his attention to the uniformed officer sitting to her right.
“Admiral?” he invited.
“Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.” Augustus Khumalo’s voice was considerably deeper than Alquezar’s. He nodded respectfully to the prime minister, then turned very slightly in his chair to glance around the rest of the conference table.
“What Baroness Medusa is referring to,” he said, “is a dispatch from Lieutenant Commander Denton, the commanding officer of the destroyer Reprise.”
“Reprise?” Henri Krietzmann repeated, cocking his head thoughtfully. Then his eyes sharpened. “She’s the picket in the Pequod System, isn’t she, Admiral?”
“She is, Mr. Secretary,” Khumalo acknowledged.
“And the significance of Commander Denton’s dispatch is?” Alquezar inquired, his own eyes narrowing.
“Apparently, there’s being some friction with New Tuscany-registry merchantships, Mr. Prime Minister.”
Khumalo seemed to be choosing words with some care, Alquezar observed.
“What sort of ‘friction’?” the prime minister asked.
“Well, that’s the peculiar thing about it, Sir,” Khumalo replied. “We haven’t received any formal communication about this from anyone aside from Denton at this point, but his report makes interesting reading. Apparently, there’s been more New Tuscan traffic into Pequod of late then there ever was before the annexation. In a lot of ways, that isn’t too surprising, given Pequod’s relative proximity to New Tuscany. It’s less than a T-week even for a merchie between the two systems, after all. But as we all know, Pequod is scarcely what anyone might call a major hub of commercial activity, and most of the shipping in and out of the system has been dominated by the RTU for a long time.”
Alquezar nodded. His own home star system of San Miguel was under a hundred and thirty light-years from New Tuscany, and it had been the first non-Rembrandt star system to affiliate itself with the Rembrandt Trade Union. For that matter, Alquezar and his family controlled twelve percent of the RTU’s voting shares. If anyone had a firm grasp of the realities of interstellar shipping and commerce throughout the Talbott Cluster, it was Joachim Alquezar.
“Now, I fully realize that the new political and financial relationships being worked out are going to result in a major reconfiguration of local shipping conditions, especially in concert with all of the additional traffic being attracted to the Lynx Terminus,” Khumalo continued. “As such it probably makes sense for local shippers to be prospecting. There probably aren’t going to be many local cargoes available on spec yet, but there may well be a few, and establishing contacts for future reference has just become a lot more important for a lot of reasons.
“Despite that, however, it seems to me we’re seeing more New Tuscan ships in Pequod than the situation justifies. I wouldn’t have worried about that — in fact, I doubt very much that anyone on my staff even would have noticed it — if not for Commander Denton’s report about how the officers of some of those New Tuscan ships are conducting themselves.”
“In what way, Admiral?” Bernardus Van Dort asked, his blue eyes intent.
“They seem to be exceptionally . . . prickly,” Khumalo said. “They’re quick to take offense. In fact, it seems to Commander Denton that they’re actively looking for opportunities to do just that. Or even manufacturing such opportunities.”
“Allow me to interrupt for a moment before Admiral Khumalo goes any further,” Medusa said. Everyone looked at her, and she smiled without much humor. “I’m sure it’s going to occur to many of us that Commander Denton might just be sending us observations to that effect because he’s managed to give the New Tuscans legitimate cause to take offense. Neither Admiral Khumalo nor I believe that to be the case, however. I can’t say I know Commander Denton personally. I believe I was introduced to him on at least one occasion, shortly after Reprise was first assigned to Admiral Khumalo’s command, but, to be perfectly frank, I really don’t remember him very well at all. But I have perused his personnel file since the Admiral shared his dispatches with me. From his record, he doesn’t strike me as the sort of officer who would antagonize merchant service officers just for his own entertainment. And he definitely doesn’t strike me as the sort who would try to falsely imply that the New Tuscans were being hyper-sensitive as a means to cover himself against any sort of reasonable complaints they might make because of his own actions.”
“Governor Medusa’s right about that,” Khumalo rumbled. “I know Denton better than she does, of course, and I didn’t deploy him to Pequod because he’s stupid. He’s not going to be going around stepping on anyone, and even if he’d been tempted to cover himself for some reason, he’d know any sort of deceptive reports would be bound to come unglued, which would only make things worse for him in the long run. In other words, I don’t think he’d screw up in the first place, or be dumb enough to think he could cover it up if he had.”
“If both you and the Governor feel that way, I’m certainly prepared to accept your judgment,” Van Dort said. “Why does Commander Denton feel the New Tuscans are acting in this fashion?”
“If you’re asking if he has any explanation for why they’re being ‘prickly,’ as the Admiral put it,” Medusa said, “he doesn’t. But if you’re asking what evidence of their prickliness he’s presented, there’s quite a bit of it, actually, Bernardus.”
Van Dort’s expression was an unspoken question, and Medusa gave Khumalo a small, inviting gesture.
“The Commander’s attention was originally drawn to this matter by the report of one of his junior officers,” the vice admiral told Van Dort. “After checking with others of his officers who have been conducting customs inspections and generally backstopping the Pequod System’s local forces in managing the expansion of their traffic, he found that many of them acknowledged similar experiences, although most of them hadn’t reported them at the time.”
“And the Pequod System’s customs agents,” Alquezar said intently. “Do we have similar reports from them?”
“No, Mr. Prime Minister, we don’t,” Khumalo replied, his tone acknowledging the significance of Alquezar’s question. “In fact, Commander Denton specifically inquired of his Pequod counterparts before he sent his dispatch to Spindle. They confirmed his own impression that New Tuscan traffic to Pequod is up very substantially, especially over the last few T-weeks before the Commander sent off his dispatch. None of them, however, have experienced the same degree of touchiness out of the New Tuscans.”
Alquezar nodded slowly, his frown thoughtful.
“According to Commander Denton’s inquiries, almost all of the New Tuscan ships which his personnel had boarded in the last ten local days prior to his dispatch had demonstrated the same pattern of behavior. The ships’ officers were confrontational, acted as if they were highly suspicious of our personnel’s motivations, cooperated as grudgingly as possible with requests for documentation and inspection, and generally appeared to be attempting to deliberately provoke naval personnel into some sort of open incident. Not only that, but Commander Denton suspects that in at least several of these cases the New Tuscans were using shipboard surveillance systems to record the entire episode.
“Because of those suspicions, he arranged to surreptitiously record several of our inspection visits himself. Obviously, I haven’t had the time yet to view those records in their entirety myself. I have, however, viewed several clips which he included with his official report, and he sent the full recordings with them. At the moment, Commander Chandler and Captain Shoupe are viewing those records but, to be honest, I don’t expect the result of their examination to change my own impression, which is that Commander Denton has accurately summarized the situation. There’s very little question in my mind that the New Tuscans, for whatever reason, are deliberately pushing our personnel — and specifically our naval personnel — in what I can only construe as an effort to provoke some sort of incident.”
“Forgive me, Admiral,” Lababibi put in, “but if this had only been happening for less than two T-weeks before the Commander became aware of it, how many such visits could there have been? I mean, I don’t question your observations, I’m simply wondering how large a base we have for drawing conclusions?”
“As a matter of fact, Madam Secretary,” it was obvious Khumalo hadn’t taken any sort of offense from Lababibi’s question, “that’s one of the reasons I think Commander Denton may have put his finger on something important here. In the ten local days before he sent his dispatch, six New Tuscan-registered merchant ships visited Pequod.”
“Six?” Bernardus Van Dort sat suddenly upright in his chair, and Khumalo nodded.
“Is that number significant, Bernardus?” Lababibi asked, looking at her colleague, and Van Dort snorted harshly.
“You might say that, Samiha,” he replied. “I know we’re all still in the process of really coming to have a good feel for the other star systems in the Quadrant with us, but, believe me, Pequod is not Spindle. As the Secretary of the Treasury, I’m sure you’re aware that it’s nowhere near as poverty-stricken as Nuncio, but it’s a much, much poorer star system than Spindle. In fact, if Henri will forgive me, Pequod is probably almost as poor as Dresden was thirty or forty T-years ago.”