“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Junyan,” Valery Ottweiler said as he stepped into the sun filled office and the door closed silently behind him.
“Your message indicated that it was rather urgent,” Vice Commissioner Hongbo Junyan of the Office of Frontier Security replied, coming to his feet to shake Ottweiler’s hand. “And on a personal level, it’s always good to see you, Valery.”

The vice commissioner didn’t bother to lie very well in that last sentence, Ottweiler noted with a certain amusement. Given what had happened in Monica, he had to be one of the last people in the galaxy Hongbo Junyan actually wanted to see. Still, there were diplomatic niceties to be observed, even if the diplomats on both sides were fully aware of the total insincerity of the niceties in question. Unfortunately for Hongbo, he’d had no choice but to agree to this meeting. He’d been far too deep in Manpower’s pocket for far too long to refuse to see a diplomatic representative of Manpower’s home planet, since everyone knew the corporations of the Mesa effectively were the government the Mesa System.
“What is it I can do for you this morning?” Hongbo continued, waving his visitor into one of the office’s chairs. From his tone, it was apparent he didn’t intend to do one single thing more for Mesa — or Manpower — than he absolutely had to. And since both of them were fully aware of that state of affairs, Ottweiler saw no point in beating about the bush.
Especially since I’m probably going to have to twist his arm to the point of dislocation anyway before this is over, he thought.
“Actually,” he said out loud, “I’ve just received fresh instructions from home.”
“You have?” Ottweiler wasn’t particularly surprised that a certain wariness had crept into Hongbo’s voice. The man was no fool, after all.
“Yes. It seems that several powerful interests in my government — and in the Mesan business community, as well, if we’re going to be honest — aren’t at all happy about how that business in Monica was finally resolved.”
“Really? I can’t imagine why.” The sarcasm dripping from Hongbo’s response was a mark of his own unhappiness with “that business.” And also a pointed comment on just who he thought was to blame for its outcome.
“Please, Junyan.” Ottweiler shook his head wearily. “Can we just take it as a given that no one involved in that entire operation is very happy about it? There was plenty of egg to go around for everyone’s faces, I assure you.”
He held Hongbo’s eye for a moment until, finally, the Solarian nodded.
“Thank you,” Ottweiler said, and sat back in his chair.
“Having said that, however,” he continued, “the same considerations that inspired my government to become involved then continue to apply. A Manticoran presence in our area poses a significant threat not simply to our business community’s commercial interests, but to the security of the Mesa System itself. I’m sure you can understand that the failure of our sponsorship of Monica has led to a certain reevaluation of our options and requirements back home.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Hongbo acknowledged. “On the other hand, I’m not sure I see what sort of ‘options’ you have left at the moment. They’ve ratified their precious constitution, the Star Kingdom has officially expanded itself into this ‘Star Empire’ of theirs, and the beating you people — and us — have taken in the press back home doesn’t leave any of us very much room for maneuver, does it?”
“Yes . . . and no,” Ottweiler replied, and Hongbo stiffened behind the desk. That was obviously the last response he’d wanted to hear, Ottweiler reflected.
“Before you go any further, Valery,” the Solarian said, “let’s be clear about one thing, shall we? I’m prepared to do a great many things to accommodate you and your ‘government,’ and so is Lorcan, but there are distinct limits to what we can do. Especially after what happened in Monica. And, not to put too fine a point on it, assassinating Webster didn’t help any.”
“That wasn’t us,” Ottweiler said mildly. “I thought everyone knew it was the Republic of Haven.”
“Of course it was,” Hongbo snorted. “But whoever it was, it’s got the newsies all in a flutter back home, especially combined with what he was saying about you people’s modest efforts out here in Talbott. When a mess is this big and gets this much play in the Ì•faxes, even our public starts to get interested. And when that happens, the Justice Department can’t hush it up forever. The newsies demand show trials, so Justice has to give them exactly that. Hell, they’ve actually indicted half a dozen of Technodyne’s top people!”
“Yes, that was unfortunate,” Ottweiler said. “On the other hand, neither you nor I work for Technodyne, do we?”
“No, but Lorcan and I do work for the Office of Frontier Security,” Hongbo said tartly, “and we’re already hearing about this from the home office. So far, OFS has managed to stay out of the limelight, and that busybody Corvisart hasn’t been all that interested in pulling us into it. So far,” he repeated.
“Of course she hasn’t.” It was Ottweiler’s turn to snort. “You think the Manties want to take on the League Navy? Especially now that this summit thing has collapsed and they’ve got Haven back on their backs again?”
“Of course they don’t, but that’s not really my point.” Hongbo tilted back in his chair and tapped the desk blotter with one forefinger for emphasis. “While it would undoubtedly be very unfortunate for Manticore if they should find themselves in a direct shooting confrontation with the Navy, that could also be very unfortunate for whoever helped to . . . arrange that confrontation. Nobody in OFS wants to hand the newsies — or the Manties — even more ammunition to use against us. It’s bad enough that we look incompetent enough to have let this happen under are very noses, as it were. After all, the Manties are hardly your typical neobarbs. They have far better connections on Old Terra than most people do, as you people — oh, excuse me, I meant Haven — clearly recognized when the decision was made to eliminate Webster. The truth is, Valery, Lorcan and I have been told in no uncertain terms to lay off Manticore. Which, to be perfectly blunt, is exactly what I would have decided on my own.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ottweiler said calmly. “Unfortunately, my instructions are somewhat different.”
“That’s too bad, since there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Oh, but there is.”
“No,” Hongbo disagreed flatly, “there isn’t. You know as well as I do how OFS works, Valery. Yes, for the most part the commissioners have pretty much free rein to manage their own sectors. And everybody knows that means all of us have ‘special friends’ who get preferential treatment. But in the end, all of us are subject to the Ministry’s control, and I’m telling you the word’s gone out. No more bad press out of Talbott, at least until the current mess has had a chance to settle and recede in the public’s memory. Given the fact that the public in question has the attention span of a fruit fly, that shouldn’t impose too great a delay on whatever it is your superiors want to accomplish, but for right now, my hands are tied.”