Michelle obeyed the polite command. The chair was just as comfortable as it had looked, and she leaned back into its embrace, looking back and forth between Theisman and Pritchart. The President returned her gaze for a few moments, then turned her head to look at the bodyguard standing behind her.

            "Turn off the recorders, Sheila," she said.

            "Madame President, the recorders have already –" the bodyguard began, but Pritchart shook her head with a smile.

            "Sheila," she said chidingly, "I know perfectly well that your personal recorder is still switched on." The bodyguard looked at her, and the President waved a gently admonishing finger in her direction. "I don't believe for a moment that you're a spy, Sheila," she said dryly. "But I do know SOP for the Detachment is to record everything that happens in my presence so there's a record just in case I happen to be killed by a stray micro-meteorite or some crazed, rampaging seagull manages to get past my intrepid guardians and hurl itself ferociously upon me. In this case, though, I think we'll dispense with that."

            "Yes, Ma'am," the bodyguard said after a moment, with manifest reluctance. She touched a spot on her lapel, then folded her hands behind her and settled into a position the military would have called parade rest.

            "Thank you," Pritchart said, and turned back to Michelle.

            "If your object was to make sure you have my full attention, Madame President, you've succeeded," Michelle said dryly.

            "That wasn't really the reason I did it, but I'm not going to complain if it had that effect," Pritchart replied.

            "Then may I ask exactly what this is all about?"

            "Certainly, but I'm afraid it's going to be just a little bit complicated."

            "Somehow, I'm not terribly surprised to hear that, Madame President."

            "No, I suppose you aren't." Pritchart settled back in her own chair, topaz-colored eyes intent while she gazed at Michelle for another few seconds, as if organizing her thoughts. Then she gave herself a little shake.

            "I hope you remember our conversation in your hospital room, Admiral," she began. "At the time, if you'll recall, I told you I'd like to think we might somehow find an end to the fighting short of one side killing everyone on the other side."

            She paused, and Michelle nodded.

            "Well, I think it may be possible for us to do that. Or that there's a chance we can do that, at least," the President said quietly.

            "I beg your pardon?" Michelle sat forward in her chair, her eyes suddenly very narrow.

            "Admiral Henke, we've recently received certain reports about events in the Talbott Cluster." Michelle's expression showed her confusion at Pritchart's apparent non sequitur, and the President shook her head. "Bear with me, Admiral. It's relevant, I assure you."

            "If you say so, of course, Madame President," Michelle responded a bit doubtfully.

            "As I say, we've received certain reports about events in the Talbott Cluster," Pritchart resumed. "I'm afraid they aren't exactly pleasant news, from your perspective, Admiral. I'm sure that, prior to your capture, you were far better aware than any of us of the so-called 'resistance movements' springing up on two or three of the planets in the Cluster. We've been doing our best to monitor the situation, of course, since anything that distracts your Star Kingdom's attention and resources has obvious benefits for us. It hasn't had the priority other intelligence-gathering activities have had, though, and we don't have complete information, by any stretch of the imagination. Our priorities have shifted rather dramatically in the last few days, however."

            "And that would be because –?" Michelle prompted obediently when the President paused.

            "That, Admiral, would be because according to the information sources we have been able to cultivate, one of your captains has uncovered evidence which he believes demonstrates that someone outside the Cluster has been manipulating and supplying those 'resistance movements.' Apparently, he believes the Union of Monica is directly implicated in that manipulation, and he's launched an unauthorized preemptive operation against Monica to bring it to an end."

            Michelle stared at the other woman, unable to conceal her astonishment.

            "Despite the fact that our information is so incomplete," Pritchart continued, "a few facts are quite clear to us. One, of course, is that Monica has a long history of acting as a proxy for the Office of Frontier Security, which strongly suggests OFS is also directly implicated in whatever is going on. Assuming, of course, that your captain's suspicions prove accurate, that is. And the second, I'm afraid, is that if, in fact, he launches some sort of preemptive strike against Monica, your Star Kingdom will find itself facing the very real prospect of a shooting incident with the Solarian League Navy."

            The President paused, crossed her legs, and sat back, head cocked to one side, obviously giving Michelle time to get past the worst of her initial shock and absorb the implications of what she'd just said, and Michelle forced herself not to swallow as those implications went through her. She couldn't imagine what sort of evidence chain could have sent any reasonably sane captain in the Royal Manticoran Navy into what could so readily turn into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the most powerful navy in the history of mankind.

            Well, the biggest, at any rate, a stubborn little voice said in the back of her mind. ONI's reports all insist the SLN still doesn't have the new compensators, FTL coms, decent missile pods or pod-layers, or — especially — MDMs. But what they do have is something like sixteen hundred superdreadnoughts in active commission, a reserve fleet at least two or three times that size, the biggest industrial and technological base in existence . . . and something like two thousand fully developed star systems. Plus, of course, the entire Verge to exploit at will.

            She was well aware that some of the RMN's more . . . overenthusiastic tactical thinkers had been arguing for years that the advances in military technology produced by the Star Kingdom's half-century and more of arms race and open warfare with Haven had rendered the entire League Navy hopelessly obsolete. Personally, she was less confident than the manjority of those enthusiasts that Manticore's clear advantages in many areas translated into advantages in all areas. Even so, she was entirely confident that any Manticoran task force or fleet could handily polish off any comparable Solarian force, probably without even breaking a sweat. Unlike those enthusiasts, however, she strongly doubted (to put it mildly) that all of Manticore's tactical advantages put together could possibly overcome the enormous strategic disadvantage of the difference between the Manticoran and Solarian populations and resource and industrial  bases.

            There's nothing wrong with the Sollies' general tech base, either. We probably have a slight edge overall, thanks to the way the war's pressurized every area of R&D for the last fifty years or so, but if we do, it's fingernail-thin. And once their navy wakes up and smells the coffee, they've got lots of people to put to work closing the gap. Not to mention the building capacity, if they ever get organized. For that matter, some of the League members' system defense forces have been a lot more innovative than the SLN's senior officer corps for as long as anyone can remember. There's no telling what some of them have been up to, or how quickly any little surprises one of them may have developed for us could be gotten into general service once we bloodied the SLN's nose a time or two. And some of the SDFs are damned near as big — or bigger — in their own right than our entire Navy was before King Roger started his buildup.

            She felt herself coming back on balance as the first shock of Pritchart's information began to ease just a bit. Still, what sort of lunatic –?

            "Excuse me, Madame President," she said after a moment, "but you said one of our captains was involved in this. Would you happen to know which captain?"

            "Thomas?" Pritchart looked at Theisman, one eyebrow arched, and the Secretary of War smiled a bit tartly.

            "According to our reports, Admiral, I suspect it's a name you'll recognize as well as I did. It's Terekhov — Aivars Terekhov."

            Despite herself, Michelle felt her eyes widen once again. She'd never actually met Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov, but she certainly did recognize the name. And she wasn't a bit surprised Theisman had, either, given Terekhov's performance in the Battle of Hyacinth and the Secretary of War's personal apology for the atrocities State Security had perpetrated against Terekhov's surviving personnel after their capture. But what could possibly have possessed a man with Terekhov's record and experience to court active hostilities with the Solarian League?

            "I think, given the fact that it's Captain Terekhov," Theisman continued, as if he'd read her mind, "we have to assume first, that he thinks his evidence is absolutely conclusive, and, second, that his assessment of that evidence has convinced him that only quick, decisive action — presumably intended to nip whatever is happening in the bud — can prevent something even worse. From your perspective, that is."

            Oh, thank you for that little qualifier, Mr. Secretary! Michelle thought tartly.

            Pritchart gave Theisman a moderately severe glance, as if rebuking him for the boorishness of his last sentence. Or, Michelle thought, as if she wanted her "guest" to think she was rebuking the Secretary of War for a carefully preplanned comment. None of which affected the accuracy of anything he'd said, assuming they were both telling her the truth. And any questions about their pre-war diplomatic exchanges aside, she couldn't imagine any possible advantage they might see in lying to a prisoner of war.