Ottweiler cocked his head to one side, his expression thoughtful as he presented the appearance of a man carefully considering what Hongbo had just said. From the Solarian’s position, it made perfectly good sense, of course. When he spoke of “the Ministry’s control,” he wasn’t talking about anything as unimportant or ephemeral as the current Solarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, whoever that might happen to be at the moment. What he was really talking about was the deeply entrenched bureaucracy which truly ran the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just as similar bureaucracies ran every other aspect of the League’s government and military. And although the bureaucrats in question were effectively free of any interference by their nominal political masters, the Solarian public’s occasional outbursts of indignation over government corruption could be unpleasant for all concerned. That was the real reason Governor Barregos — who had somehow acquired a towering reputation for efficiency and honesty — hadn’t been recalled from the Maya Sector long since. So it was hardly surprising that Hongbo’s superiors and Verrochio’s fellow commissioners and sector governors wanted this whole business to go away as quickly as possible so they could all climb back under their rocks and get on with business as usual.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated aloud after several seconds, “but I’m afraid my superiors are rather insistent in this case, Junyan.”
“Aren’t you listening to me?” Hongbo was beginning to sound exasperated. “There isn’t anything I can do!”
“But there is.” Ottweiler allowed a little deliberate patience to creep into his own tone. “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if there weren’t.”
“Valery –”
“Just listen for a minute, Junyan,” Ottweiler interrupted, and Hongbo’s eyes narrowed at the peremptory note in his voice. It was not the sort of note he was accustomed to hearing from anyone in his own office, and there was no mistaking the flare of anger in those dark, narrow eyes. But he throttled the anger, tightened his jaw, and nodded curtly.
“All right,” the Mesan said then. “Cards on the table time. The people I work for — and you know who they really are, as well as I do — aren’t happy. In fact, they’re very unhappy, and they intend to do something about it. That’s why I’m sitting here, and to be honest, I’m more than a little astonished myself at the resources they have available. Just for starters, did you really think it was a coincidence Admiral Byng wound up in command of the Frontier Fleet detachment they sent out here to bolster your position after Monica? Please!” He rolled his eyes. “Byng is one of those sanctimonious Battle Fleet pricks. He wouldn’t have wound up commanding a Frontier Fleet detachment without somebody making damned sure he did. And just who do you suppose that ‘somebody’ was?”
Hongbo’s eyes were even narrower than they had been, but speculation was beginning to replace — or supplement, at least — the anger which had filled them.
“Then there’s the little matter that Admiral Crandall has decided to conduct ‘training exercises’ at McIntosh.”
“What?” Hongbo straightened in his chair. “What are you talking about? Nobody’s told us anything about any exercises at McIntosh!”
“I’m afraid you may have failed to get the memo. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Crandall is Battle Fleet, not Frontier Fleet. Battle Fleet doesn’t really talk to you Frontier Security peasants very much, does it?”
“Battle Fleet,” Hongbo repeated. The depth of his surprise over that particular bit of information was obvious. It was even deep enough to distract him from the flick of Ottweiler’s whip as he emphasized Battle Fleet’s deep contempt for Frontier Fleet and Frontier Security.
“Yes,” the Mesan said, then shook his head. “Frankly, I didn’t know anything about it before Monica, but it would appear Admiral Crandall has selected McIntosh as the site for her latest fleet exercises.” He shrugged. “I know it’s a bit unusual for Battle Fleet to venture this far out into the Verge, but apparently Crandall wanted to exercise the Fleet Train, as well as the battle squadrons. According to my information, it’s been over ninety T-years since Battle Fleet has deployed more than a single squadron all the way out to the frontier, and there’s been some question as to whether or not it still has the logistics capacity to support its own operations outside the Old League’s established system of bases.”
“So am I supposed to infer that Admiral Crandall is exercising in greater strength than ‘a single squadron,’ then?” Hongbo asked slowly.
“As a matter of fact, I believe she has somewhere around a hundred of the wall,” Ottweiler said in an offhand sort of way, and Hongbo sat suddenly back, deep in his chair.
“What’s occurred to my superiors,” Ottweiler continued, “is that with three full squadrons of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, with screening elements, already attached to the Madras Sector to reinforce your own units, and with such a powerful Battle Fleet backup fortuitously so close at hand, it may be time for Commissioner Verrochio to repair the damage the League’s prestige has suffered out of this entire ugly situation in Monica. I’m sure I hardly need to point out to you how unfortunate it could be if other Verge systems began to take Frontier Security lightly or got the mistaken notion that OFS won’t take punitive measures if someone steps on your toes in public this way. And all of that exercised public opinion you’re so concerned about back home could certainly use pointing towards another target, don’t you think? A target like . . . oh, the proof that, whatever Manticore may have been saying, and however their mouthpieces back on Old Terra may have managed to spin events at Monica, the truth is that they’re just as imperialistic and exploitive as we’ve always known they are.”
“And we would accomplish this retargeting exactly how?” Hongbo asked.
“According to my latest information, the New Tuscany System Government is already experiencing severe problems with the Talbott Cluster’s new management,” Ottweiler replied. “Indeed, I expect it won’t be very much longer before you and Commissioner Verrochio receive a request for a Frontier Security investigation of Manticore’s systematic harassment of New Tuscany’s merchant shipping.”