Chapter Twenty-Two

Aldona Anisimovna had never expected to be back in the Talbott Cluster this quickly, and for more than one reason.
The mere thought of how disastrously the Monica operation had failed was enough to send cold chills down anyone’s spine — even that of a Mesan alpha line. She’d been more than a little astonished that she and Isabel Bardasano had survived the catastrophic unraveling of the Strategy Council’s carefully crafted plans.

But even allowing for her unanticipated survival, she wouldn’t have imagined she could make the trip back to the Cluster so quickly. Then again, she hadn’t known about the top-secret “streak drive,” either. She was going to have to remember that it had taken her much longer — officially, at least — to make the voyage than it actually had.
And she supposed she might as well go ahead and admit there was another reason for her surprise; she’d never imagined it might be possible to mount a replacement for the disastrous failure in Monica this quickly.
It would have helped if Albrecht — and Isabel — had told me just what we’d really been supposed to achieve last time. Or how many resources were really available, for that matter, she thought as she and her new bodyguard rode the luxurious, if old-fashioned, elevator towards the upcoming meeting. Of course, I’m not sure exactly what else I could have done to make use of them, even if I’d known they were there. And I don’t suppose they could tell me about them . . . not without telling me everything else, at least.
It was amazing how completely her galaxy had shifted with Albrecht’s explanation of what was really going on. A part of her was absolutely stunned that the entire Mesan Strategy Council and all of its deep laid plans and machinations had really been only a part — and not the largest part — of the real strategy she’d served, albeit unknowingly, for so many decades. Another part of her was more than a little irked to discover just how much of what she’d thought she knew, even in an operational sense, had been less than complete or even deliberately falsified. Like the “fact” that the Congo Wormhole hadn’t been properly surveyed before those Audubon Ballroom fanatics took the system away from Mesa, for example, or who’d really been in charge of “her” operation in Monica. Discovering that someone else could manage her puppet strings as well as she’d always prided herself on managing others’ strings hadn’t been especially reassuring. But her irritation over lack of complete information and need-to-know compartmentalization of knowledge was as nothing compared to the sheer shock of what was really happening. Aldona Anisimovna was a hardy soul, yet she was both awed and more than a little terrified by the grand, sweeping scope of the Mesan Alignment’s true objectives and resources.
I thought it was just the usual dogfight over political power, she admitted to herself. And, to be honest, I always thought the political aspects were purely self-defense, a way to protect our operations and our economic power. I never dreamed anyone could be thinking on such a . . . grand scale.
Or that so much of the groundwork could already have been in place.
The elevator stopped. Kyrillos Taliadoros — the newly assigned bodyguard from the same gamma line which had produced Albrecht Detweiler’s bodyguard — stepped through the opening doors first, glancing up and down the corridor. Taliadoros’ physical senses had been sharply enhanced as part of his genotype’s modifications, and Anisimovna knew additional odd bits and pieces of hardware had been surgically implanted to help suit him for his present function. She’d discovered that even Detweiler’s bodyguard’s fearsome reputation actually understated what he was capable of, and the same was true of Taliadoros. Which, in some ways, was almost as frightening as it was comforting.
Then again, a lot of the things she’d had to wrap her mind around in the past couple of weeks were almost as frightening as they were comforting.
She pushed that thought aside and followed Taliadoros out of the elevator when his tiny gesture indicated his satisfaction with their immediate surroundings. He fell back into his properly deferential position at her heels as she led the way down the short corridor, and the ornate secretary seated behind the desk at its far end looked up with a professional smile at her approach.
My, she’s a pretty one, Anisimovna thought appreciatively, taking in the young woman’s flowing raven hair, striking blue eyes, and near-perfect complexion. She’d almost do for one of the pleasure lines without any modification at all. Of course, there is that little mole. And I think her left eyebrow may be just a tad higher than the right. But in her case, that actually helps. I think she’d look . . . too perfect without those little flaws.
“Aldona Anisimovna,” she said aloud. “I believe President Boutin is expecting me.”
“Of course, Ms. Anisimovna.” The secretary’s voice was exactly the right melodious contralto to match her striking appearance, Anisimovna thought appreciatively. “Just a moment.”
She pressed a button on her panel.
“Ms. Anisimovna is here, Mr. President,” she said, and listened to her earbug for a moment. “Yes, Sir,” she said then, and looked back up at Anisimovna. “President Boutin is ready to see you now, Ma’am.” She pressed another button and a rather splendidly decorated door slid open. “Right through that door, Ma’am.”
“Thank you.” Anisimovna smiled a bit more warmly than she normally smiled at servants, then nodded to Taliadoros and the two of them stepped through the open door.
“Excuse me a moment, Ma’am,” a broad shouldered young man said as they entered the anteroom of the luxurious office suite.
“Yes?” Anisimovna gave him a rather cool glance, and he smiled with just a touch of apology.
“I’m afraid some of your bodyguard’s implants have flashed several alarms on our security scans. I’m sorry, but security regulations prohibit allowing someone with unidentified implanted hardware into the President’s presence.”
“I see.” Anisimovna considered him for a moment, then turned to Taliadoros.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait here for me, Kyrillos,” she said.
“Ma’am, under the regulations, I’m not supposed –” he began, exactly as if they hadn’t already rehearsed this moment.
“I realize it’s against the rules,” her own tone mingled patience with just a touch of brusqueness, “but at the moment, we’re guests on someone else’s planet. It’s only polite of us to abide by their rules and customs.”
“I know that, Ma’am, but –”
“This discussion is finished, Kyrillos,” she said firmly, then smiled. “I’ll take full responsibility, but this time good manners trump the regulations. Anyway, I’m sure the President’s security team is up to the task of protecting me, right along with him, if it comes to that. And I really don’t expect anyone to try to assassinate me in the middle of a meeting with him, anyway.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Taliadoros said with manifest unwillingness, and Anisimovna turned back to the broad shouldered young man.
“I believe that’s settled,” she said crisply.
“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you for being so understanding. If you’ll follow me, please?”