Lababibi nodded slowly, watching Van Dort carefully. While Joachim Alquezar was intimately familiar with the internal workings of the Rembrandt Trade Union, Bernardus Van Dort had virtually single-handedly created the Trade Union. In many ways, Lababibi had thought from the beginning that Van Dort would have made a far better treasury secretary than she herself had, since no one in the entire galaxy had a better feel for the economic realities of the Talbott Cluster. Unfortunately, he was still too polarizing a figure in too many eyes for him to have been handed that particular cabinet post. And, Lababibi admitted, not without a certain degree of reason. She herself trusted him completely, but the RTU had been too unpopular with too many of the Cluster’s inhabitants for far too long for Bernardus Van Dort to have been acceptable as the Quadrant’s chief treasury official.

“What you may not — yet — fully realize is what that means in terms of interstellar trade, though,” Van Dort continued. “I’d have to check with our central records back on Rembrandt to confirm this, but I’d be surprised if Pequod ever saw more than a couple of freighters a T-month prior to the discovery of the Lynx Terminus. And if you glance at a star map, the system is hardly on a direct approach to Lynx. There’s going to be a general upsurge in system visits by ships vectoring through the Terminus and looking for cargoes of opportunity, and Pequod will probably see at least some of it. But six ships from a single local star system in less than two T-weeks?” He shook his head. “No way. For that matter, the New Tuscan merchant marine isn’t particularly huge. Six hyper-capable freighters represent a hefty percentage of their total merchant fleet, and probably two-thirds of its ships are registered elsewhere for tax purposes. That’s what makes it significant that the Admiral mentioned New Tuscany-registered vessels, because there are only a relatively small handful of ships which are both owned and registered in New Tuscany. I can’t conceive of any sound business reason that would send that many ships, out of such a limited pool, to a system like Pequod.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Krietzmann half-muttered.
“You wouldn’t like the sound of anything coming out of New Tuscany, Henri,” Lababibi said rather tartly. But then she shook her own head. “On the other hand, in this case, I have to agree with you. Although I can’t begin to offer any explanation of what’s going on . . . or why.”
“Neither can I,” Baroness Medusa acknowledged. “I think, though, that given the . . . friction between the New Tuscan government and the Quadrant since New Tuscany’s withdrawal from the Constitutional Convention, we have to approach this situation with a bit of caution.”
“I can’t disagree with that, either, Madam Governor,” Lababibi said unhappily. “They’re still pressing for a ‘more equitable’ distribution of Manticoran investment in the region, and at least some members of their delegation have made it clear that — as individuals, at least — they feel our refusal to give it to them represents economic retaliation against them for declining to ratify the Constitution as members of the Star Empire.”
“Are you suggesting those delegation members and these merchant spacers miraculously appearing in such numbers in Pequod are part of some officially concerted effort?” Alquezar sounded even more unhappy than Lababibi, and she shrugged.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “On the one hand, it’s very tempting to conclude exactly that. But if I’m going to be honest, that’s at least partly because of how thoroughly I detest New Tuscany on a personal basis. There’s a part of me that would like to think that they’re Up To Something. On the other hand, the timing of it seems to me to argue against it. If they were going to set up some sort of concerted effort, as you put it, Joachim, then why did they wait so long to begin sending ships to Pequod? Their delegation’s been here in Spindle ever since the Constitutional Convention, and they’ve been whining and complaining about our ‘unfair’ efforts to restrict Manticoran investment in New Tuscany from the very beginning.”
She looked at Khumalo.
“What’s the dispatch boat flight time from Pequod to Spindle, Admiral?” she asked.
“Right on seventeen T-days, Madam Secretary.”
“Well, if we take this spike in their merchant ships’ appearances in Pequod and assume it extends back over only ten days before Commander Denton reported it to us, that’s still less than a T-month,” Lababibi pointed out. “It’s been over six T-months since the Constitution was voted out, and the next best thing to five months since Parliament and Her Majesty ratified it. So why would they have waited so long and then crammed so many ships into Pequod in such a short timeframe that it had to create this kind of spike?”
“You’re right.” Alquezar nodded. “If it were a concerted effort of some sort, they would have started cycling their ships through Pequod sooner, wouldn’t they? Done it in a way which wouldn’t be obvious when we started looking at it?”
“Maybe, and maybe not,” Van Dort said thoughtfully. The others looked at him, and he shrugged. “Without a better idea of what they’re up to — or what they may be up to, at any rate — we don’t have any solid basis for evaluating their tactics. And, frankly, at this point I don’t have any idea of what it is they could hope to accomplish in the end. Aside from thoroughly pissing off the Star Empire, of course, which would appear to be something of a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”
“I have to agree with that,” Medusa said, “and that’s the real reason I wanted to call this to the attention of the Quadrant’s government. When I can’t think of a reason for someone who I know doesn’t like me very much to be doing something, it makes me nervous.”
“I feel the same way,” Alquezar agreed.
“And while we’re all feeling nervous,” Krietzmann pointed out, “think about this. I have to agree with Samiha’s analysis that the original complaints from members of the New Tuscan trade delegation probably weren’t designed as part of a coherent strategy. Or, at least, not of a coherent strategy directly connected to what’s happening in Pequod right now. But the fact that they weren’t part of that kind of strategy then, doesn’t mean they aren’t part of that kind of strategy now. Or that whoever’s pulling the strings in Pequod didn’t choose to incorporate what was originally a totally unconnected situation into an entirely new strategy. I know New Tuscany is only a single star system, and one that’s not remotely in the Star Empire’s — or even the Star Kingdom’s — league. For that matter, they’re a small enough fish they ought to be nervous about pissing off just the folks here in the Quadrant, if they’re feeling rational about things. And I know I have a tendency to look under beds for plots by people like Andrieaux Yvernau, too. I admit it, and — no offense to anyone sitting around this table — I think Dresden’s experience with people like him justifies that tendency. In this case, though, I really don’t think it’s just a matter of lower-class paranoia. I think the bastards really are up to something, and much as I hate them I don’t really think they’re stupid enough to be pissing in our soup just because they don’t like us. If they are doing something, then there’s a method to their madness somewhere, and given the general situation after the Battle of Monica and how early it is in the process of integrating the Quadrant into the Star Empire, I think we’d damned well better figure out what it is.”