Hongbo’s expression was a curious mixture of anticipation and unhappiness. Although his disposition was far less naturally choleric than Verrochio’s, he clearly hadn’t enjoyed his own humiliation after Monica. And Ottweiler’s point about the damage to Frontier Security’s reputation had also been well taken. OFS had worked hard to make sure no Verge system wanted to risk pissing Frontier Security off at it, and letting Manticore get away with what it had pulled off at Monica wasn’t the best way to shore up that perception. So, for a lot reasons, Hongbo obviously wanted some of his own back. But, equally obviously, he hadn’t forgotten how foolproof the Monica operation had been supposed to be, and he was leery of sticking his foot back into the bear trap. And he was also smart enough to realize — just as Ottweiler himself had — that Byng and Crandall’s involvement suggested that the interests in play were both much more powerful and even more ruthless than he’d first thought.

“I don’t know, Valery.” He shook his head slowly. “Everything you say may make perfectly good sense, and under normal circumstances, I’d be only too happy to help your superiors out. You know that. But the messages we’ve been getting through official channels have been what you might call brutally clear. Lorcan and I are supposed to sit here and behave like good little boys until the powers that be tell us differently. Besides, even if that weren’t the case, Lorcan is almost as scared as he is pissed off. What the Manties did to Monica’s battlecruisers shook him up badly.”
“I don’t blame him for that,” Ottweiler said frankly. “On the other hand, you can always point out to him that they were manned by Monicans, not Sollies. And that they didn’t have the entire SLN standing directly behind them. I’m sure the Manties are aware of those minor differences, at any rate, and with the resumption of operations against Haven, they aren’t going to have a lot of combat power to be diverting this way even if they were stupid enough to take the SLN on directly. Certainly not enough to pose any sort of significant threat in the face of Crandall’s presence.”
“But if they don’t know any more about Crandall’s presence than we did before you told me about her, then it’s not likely to exercise very much of a deterrent effect on their thinking, is it? Unless, of course, someone is going to make this minor fact known to them, as well.”
He was watching Ottweiler’s face very carefully, and the Mesan shrugged.
“I don’t have any official information on that either way,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s my strong impression that no one’s going to be going out of his way to tell the Manties a damned thing. Still, Commissioner Verrochio is a sector governor, himself. If he felt the need to request it, I’m sure Admiral Crandall would move her forces from McIntosh to Myers. Purely as a precautionary measure, you understand.”
Hongbo nodded slowly, his expression intent. Ottweiler could almost literally see the calculations working themselves out behind his eyes and wondered if the Solarian would reach the same conclusions he had.
“That all sounds very comforting,” Hongbo said finally. “But the fact remains that Lorcan isn’t going to want to do it. To be honest, that’s at least partly my fault. I didn’t have any idea something like this might be in the wind, so when we started getting word from the home office, I did my very best to sit on Lorcan’s temper, and that took some pretty firm sitting. You know how he is. I’m afraid I may have sat on it too hard. He’s swung from breathing fire and brimstone to worrying that he may give the Manty bogeyman another excuse to jump on him. It’s going to take time to turn that around.”
“Time is something we don’t have very much of,” Ottweiler said flatly. “Trust me, New Tuscany is going to be ready to start moving on this very soon.”
“You’re sure of that? New Tuscany’s three hundred and sixty light-years from here. How can you be so confident they’re going to play along when they’re over a month away even for a dispatch boat?”
“Trust me,” Ottweiler repeated. “The representative my superiors are sending to New Tuscany is very convincing, and what the New Tuscans stand to get out of this is going to be very attractive to them. They’ll come through for us.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I even believe you’re right. But Lorcan isn’t going to jump for something like this until he’s got confirmation of that. Even with that confirmation, he’s not going to be happy about it. I expect him to dig his heels in every centimeter of the way.”
“Then you’re just going to have to be even more convincing than usual,” Ottweiler told him. “Obviously, my superiors aren’t going to forget what they owe the two of you for pulling this off, so I’m certain you can expect to be extremely well compensated for your efforts.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that much, at least. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to have to bring him around to this gradually.”
“Our time window for this is too narrow for ‘gradually,'” Ottweiler said. “Even though Crandall’s set up for a lengthy deployment as part of her logistics test, she can’t stay on station here forever. We’ve got to get this rolling while she’s still around to back our play if it comes to that. That’s what restricts our timeframe so tightly, and I’m sure the Commissioner is going to want to know she’s around if he might need her. In any case, my instructions to get this all moving ASAP are about as firm as they get. So if you think you need a little more leverage with him, remind him of this. My superiors have records of all of their past transactions with him. And unlike him, they aren’t citizens of the League and aren’t subject to its laws.”
Hongbo stiffened, and not just because of the icy chill which had invaded Ottweiler’s voice. His eyes met the Mesan’s, and their unspoken message was abundantly clear. If they had records of their transactions with Verrochio, then they just as certainly had records of their transactions with him. And if they were prepared to feed Verrochio to the wolves if he failed to follow instructions, then they were equally prepared to feed him to the same hungry fangs.
Hongbo Junyan had always recognized that Manpower and the other Mesan corporations could be dangerous benefactors. The chance of exposure was virtually nonexistent under normal circumstances, and everyone knew everyone else did exactly the same things. It was the way the system worked, how business was done. Even if some unfortunate personal arrangement should inadvertently intrude into the light, it could be expected to disappear quickly into the “business as usual,” “everyone does it” basket. The rest of the system could be counted upon to make that happen smoothly and promptly.
But if Manpower chose to make his past dealings with them public knowledge, they could be counted upon to do it as loudly — and effectively — as possible. And after everything that had already gone wrong out here, the newsies would be just salivating for fresh, spectacular evidence of corruption and conspiracy. Which meant his fellows within the system would cheerfully throw both Verrochio and Hongbo to the howling mob. Indeed, his colleagues would probably lead the pack, shouting louder than anyone else as a way to prove their own innocence.
All of that was bad enough, but there was worse, because the Audubon Ballroom had made it abundantly clear over the years that bureaucrats and administrators who conspired and collaborated with Manpower when they were supposed to be working diligently to suppress the genetic slave trade were not among the Ballroom’s favorite people. In fact, they’d made a point of coming up with especially inventive ways of demonstrating that fact. Ways that were usually punctuated with showers of body parts.
“I don’t think the good Commissioner is likely to prove too difficult if you bring that little point to his attention, do you, Junyan?” Valery Ottweiler asked softly.