“Well, this is a fine kettle of fish,” Michelle murmured an hour later as she gazed at the data codes on the master plot.

Achilles’ combat information center had analyzed the (slowly) arriving sublight transmissions from the recon probes, and it was apparent that there had, indeed, been some changes since Vice Admiral Khumalo had received Vice Admiral O’Malley’s latest update. The absence of any Manticoran units was scarcely a surprise, and while she couldn’t precisely call the arrival of a visiting squadron of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers a surprise, the number of ships present was certainly unpleasant.
“CIC makes these eight their new Nevada-class, Ma’am,” Dominica Adenauer said, highlighting the icons in question. “The other nine battlecruisers are Indefatigables. The IDs on the destroyers are a lot more tentative than that. CIC thinks they’re all Rampart-class, but they can’t guarantee it.” She grimaced. “Frontier Fleet’s modified and refitted so many of the Ramparts that no two of their emission signatures really match one another.”
“I don’t suppose the tin-cans really matter all that much,” Michelle replied, still gazing at the icons. Then she turned and glanced at Edwards. “Still no communications from them, Bill?”
“No, Ma’am.” Edwards’ tone could not have been more respectful, but it was undeniably . . . patient, and a smile flitted across Michelle’s lips.
Guess I must be a little more nervous than I’m trying to pretend. If anybody over there had wanted to talk to us, Bill would have told me. Maybe I need to ask less obviously time-killing questions if I want to look suitably imperturbable during these little moments of stress?
Still, she supposed she could forgive herself for feeling just a little tense, under the circumstances. Finding seventeen Solarian battlecruisers in orbit around the planet Monica constituted a rather significant escalation in potential threat levels. Whatever else might be happening, she had an unpleasant suspicion that their presence was evidence the Solarian League wasn’t planning on pulling in its horns quietly after all.
Don’t borrow trouble, she scolded herself. It could be as simple as a reassuring gesture to a longtime “ally” like President Tyler. Frontier Security wouldn’t like the perception that it’s prepared to abandon its stooges at the drop of a hat to get around, after all. For that matter, they could just be here to show the flag and shore up the League’s prestige in the area after the hammering Monica took.
The problem with both of those comforting theories was that it didn’t really require two full squadrons of battlecruisers to make either of those points. And the fact that no one had taken the slightest notice of the arrival of her own four ships struck her as ominous. Either they really hadn’t noticed her, which seemed . . . unlikely, or else they were deliberately ignoring her as if she were unworthy of their attention. Which was precisely the sort of dismissive arrogance all too many Manticoran officers had experienced from Sollies in the past.
And if they did send these people out to make some kind of statement, and if the officer in command of them really is a typically arrogant, pompous twit, things could get messy, she thought grimly.
“Do you want to open communications with them, Ma’am?” Cynthia Lecter asked quietly.
“Eventually, one of us is going to have to talk to the other one,” Michelle replied wryly. “But while I don’t really want to get into some sort of stare-the-other-fellow-down pissing contest about it, I’ll be damned if we’re going to be the whiny, nervous little kid begging the great big bully to take notice of us, either.”
Lecter nodded, although Michelle thought she detected at least a faint shadow of concern behind the chief of staff’s eyes. If so, she wasn’t exactly surprised. One of a good chief of staff’s jobs was to worry about the mistakes her boss might be making rather than play yes-woman.
“We’re still two and a half hours out of Monica orbit,” Michelle observed, “and they’re the people already in orbit. Besides, we’re squawking our transponders, and technically this is still Monican space.”
Lecter nodded again. The accepted interstellar convention was that the fleet in possession of a star system or a planet initiated contact with any newcomers. If contact wasn’t initiated, if no challenge was offered, it indicated the fleet in possession wasn’t planning on shooting at anyone who got too close. Besides, as Michelle had just pointed out, the Union of Monica was not a member system of the Solarian League, which made any Solarian units in Monican space at least as much visitors as the First Division. No doubt everyone understood perfectly well that Monica’s sovereignty — such as it was, and what there was of it — currently existed only on sufferance, but there were still appearances to maintain. Which meant that unless the Sollies had, in fact, occupied the star system, any contact — or challenges — should be coming from Monican traffic control, not from the Sollies.
Or, for that matter, from Manticore.
“Somehow, I think this is going to be an interesting port call, Ma’am,” Lecter said quietly.
“Oh, I think you could safely put the odd thousand-dollar bet on that one, Cindy.”