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Mission of Honor: Chapter Sixteen
Last updated: Friday, June 18, 2010 21:37 EDT
“I suppose the first thing to worry about is whether or not it’s true,” Sir Barnabas Kew said.
Kew sat with Baroness Selleck and Voitto Tuominen at the conference table behind Honor as she stood gazing out over the thundering cataract of Frontenac Falls. She stood with her hands clasped behind her, Nimitz sitting very still on her shoulder, and her brown eyes were bleak.
“It isn’t,” she said flatly.
Her Foreign Office advisors glanced at one another, then turned as one to look at that ramrod-straight spine, those calmly clasped hands.
“Your Grace, I’ll be the first to admit that neither Manpower nor Mesa have ever been noted for truth in advertising,” Tuominen said after a moment. “This seems a little audacious even for them to be manufacturing out of whole cloth, though, and –”
“It isn’t true,” she repeated in that same flat tone.
She turned away from the window, facing them. But for Nimitz’s slightly flattened ears and slowly twitching tail, the civilians might have made the mistake of assuming she was as calm as she looked, and she smiled sardonically as she tasted their emotions, sensed the way they were settling back into their chairs. Kew, especially, seemed to be searching for the most diplomatic possible way to point out that she couldn’t know that, and she looked directly at him.
“A lot of things could happen in the galaxy, Sir Barnabas,” she told him. “A lot of things I never would have expected. But one thing that isn’t going to happen — that couldn’t happen — would be for Anton Zilwicki to deliberately nuke a park full of kids in some sort of demented terrorist attack. Trust me. I know the man. Nimitz knows the man.” She reached up to caress the treecat’s ears gently. “And that man is utterly incapable of doing something like that.”
“But –” Baroness Selleck began, then stopped, and Honor snorted harshly.
“I don’t doubt he was on Mesa,” she said. “In fact, I have reason to believe he was. What it looks like to me — and I’d really like to be wrong about it — is that Mesa figured out he’d been on-planet and decided to add him to the mix when they came up with their cover story for whatever actually happened.”
She decided, again, not to mention the personal message from Catherine Montaigne which had accompanied the official dispatch from Mount Royal Palace. Or, even more to the point, that she’d already known Zilwicki and Victor Cachat were bound for Mesa even before the Battle of Lovat.
The other three glanced at one another, considering what she’d just said, then looked back at her.
“You think they captured him when he was there, Your Grace?” Selleck asked quietly, and Honor shook her head.
“No,” she said softly. “They didn’t capture him. If they had, they’d have produced him — or at least his body — to substantiate their charges instead of claiming he was ‘caught in his own explosions.’ But I don’t like the fact that no one’s heard from him since Green Pines. If he got off-planet at all, he should have been home, long since. So I am afraid they may finally have managed to kill him.”
Nimitz made a soft, protesting sound of pain, and she stroked his ears again. As she’d said, unlike the civilians sitting around the table, she’d known Anton Zilwicki. In fact, she’d come to know him and Cathy Montaigne very well, indeed, since their return to the Old Star Kingdom following the Manpower Affair in Old Chicago. She and George Reynolds, her staff intelligence officer, had worked closely — if very much under the table — with both of them, and her own credentials with the Audubon ballroom had been part of the reason Zilwicki had been so prepared to share information with her.
No wonder Cathy’s so worried, she thought now, her own emotions grim. She probably wondered if he’d been involved somehow in whatever happened in Green Pines ever since the news broke. I know I did. And then, with the days and weeks dragging past, and no word from him . . . it must’ve been a living hell for her. Then this . . . this travesty. But she knows Anton even better than I do. He may’ve been there, and whatever he was up to might have led to this somehow, but she knows he never would have signed off on nuking the park, no matter what. Which is going to be pretty cold comfort if she’s not only lost the man she loves but thinks she’s going to see him vilified as one of the galaxy’s worst “terrorists” when he’s not even around to defend himself.
“Excuse me, Your Grace, but would you happen to know why he was on Mesa?” Tuominen asked.
She cocked her head at him, and he shrugged.
“I don’t really expect Pritchart or most of the members of her Cabinet to be lining up to take Mesa’s word for what happened,” he said. “I can think of a few of her congressional ‘negotiators’ who’d be likely to believe anything — officially, at least — if they thought it would strengthen their bargaining position, though. Even without that, there’s the media to worry about, and Havenite newsies aren’t all that fond of the Star Empire to begin with. So if there’s another side to this, something we could lay out to buttress the notion that it wasn’t Zilwicki or Torch . . . ”
He let his voice trail off, and Honor snorted again, even more harshly than before.
“First,” she said, “how I know he was on Mesa is privileged information. Information that has operational intelligence implications, for that matter. So, no, I don’t intend to whisper it into a newsies’s ear. Second, I’d think that if I suddenly announced to the media that I ‘just happen’ to know why Captain Zilwicki was on Mesa and that I promise it wasn’t to set off a nuclear device in a public park on Saturday morning, it’s going to sound just a little suspicious. Like the sort of thing someone trying desperately to discredit the truth might come up with on am especially stupid day. And, third, Voitto, I don’t think anyone willing to believe something like this coming from a source like Mesa in the first place is going to change her mind whatever anyone says. Or not, at least, without irrefutable physical proof that Mesa lied.”
“I can see that,” Tuominen acknowledged with a grimace. “Sorry, Your Grace. I guess I’m just looking for a straw to grasp.”
“I don’t blame you.” Honor turned back to the window, looking down on the boat-dotted estuary, wishing she were down there in one of her sloops herself. “And I don’t doubt this is going to complicate our job here in Nouveau Paris, as well. To be honest, though, I’m a lot more worried about its potential impact on Solly public opinion and what it may encourage Kolokoltsov and those other idiots in Old Chicago to do.”
Tuominen nodded unhappily behind her and wondered if one reason he himself was focusing so intensely on the situation here in the Republic of Haven was expressly to avoid thinking about how Old Chicago might have reacted to the same news. It was ironic that Manticore had received the reportage of the Mesan allegations about Green Pines before anyone on Old Earth had. By now, though, the sensational charges were racing outward to all the interstellar community of man, and God only knew how that was likely to impact on the Solarian public’s view of the Star Empire. The one thing Tuominen was prepared to bet on was that it wasn’t going to help.
“I agree that the way the League reacts to this is ultimately likely to be a lot more significant as far as the Star Empire’s concerned, Your Grace,” Selleck said. “Unfortunately, there’s not anything we can do about that. So I think Barnabas and Voitto are right to be considering anything we might be able to do to mitigate the impact here, in the Republic.”
“Voitto’s right about people like Younger and McGwire. I’ve been quietly developing some additional information sources since we got here, and the more I find out about Younger, the more revolting he turns out to be. I’m still not sure exactly how the internal dynamics of the New Conservatives lay out, but I’m coming to the conclusion he’s a much more important player than we’d assumed before we left Manticore. If there’s anyone on Pritchart’s side of the table who’s likely to try to use something like this, it’s Younger.”
“But how can he use it, Carissa?” Kew asked. “I realize the media’s going to have a field day, whatever we do. And God knows there’s enough ‘anti-Manty’ sentiment here in the Republic already for these allegations to generate even more public unhappiness with the fact that their government’s negotiating with us at all. But having said all of that, it’s the only game in town. The bottom line is that Pritchart and her people have to be even more determined than we are to keep us from blowing up their capital star system!”
“Really?” Honor turned her head, looking over her shoulder at him. “In that case, why don’t we already have an agreement?” she asked reasonably. “Carissa’s exactly right about Younger, and I wouldn’t be too sure McGwire doesn’t fall into the same category. But everything about Younger’s mind glow” — she reached up to Nimitz again, suggesting (not entirely accurately) where her certainty about the Havenite’s emotions came from — “suggests that he really doesn’t care what happens to the rest of the universe, as long as he gets what he wants. Or, to put it another way, he’s absolutely convinced he’s going to be able to make things come out the way he wants them to, and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that.” She grimaced. “His and McGwire’s obstructionism isn’t just about getting the best terms they possibly can for the Republic. They’re looking to cut their own domestic deals, improve their own positions here in Nouveau Paris, and Younger would blow up the negotiations in a heartbeat if he believed it would further his own political ambitions.”
“I’m less afraid of his managing to completely sabotage the talks, Your Grace,” Selleck said, “than I am about his stretching them out. Or trying to, at any rate. From what I’ve seen of him, I think he’s calculating that the worse things get between us and the Sollies, the more likely we are to accept his terms in order to get some kind of a treaty so we can deal with the League without worrying about having the Republic on our back.”
“That would be . . . fatally stupid of him,” Kew said.
“I don’t think he really believes the Queen — I mean, the Empress — is willing to pull the trigger on the entire Republic if we don’t get a formal treaty in time, Barnabas,” Tuominen said heavily.
“And even if he does believe we’ll do that in the end, he doesn’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow,” Honor agreed. “As far as he’s concerned, he’s still playing for time and the time’s still there to be played for. And let’s face it — to some extent, he’s right. Her Majesty’s not going to turn the Navy loose on Haven’s infrastructure any sooner than she thinks she absolutely has to. If she were going to do that, she wouldn’t have sent us to negotiate in the first place.”
And I think I just won’t mention how hard it was to bring her to that position, Honor added mentally.
“The problem is that no matter how much time he thinks he has, we don’t have an unlimited supply of it, and this is only going to make that worse. So what I’m really worried about is that he’s going to miscalculate with . . . unhappy consequences for everyone involved.”
“I agree.” Selleck nodded firmly. “The question is how we keep him from doing that.”
“I don’t know we can do anything directly with him,” Honor replied. “On the other hand, President Pritchart’s obviously had a lot of experience dealing with him domestically. So I think the logical move is for me to have a private little conversation with her to make her aware of our concerns.”
“Good afternoon, Admiral Alexander-Harrington.”
Eloise Pritchart stood, reaching across her desk to shake Honor’s hand as Angela Rousseau escorted her into the presidential office.
“Good afternoon, Madam President,” Honor replied, and suppressed a smile as Sheila Thiessen nodded a bit brusquely to Spencer Hawke. After two a half weeks, the two bodyguards and paranoiacs-in-chief had achieved a firm mutual respect. In fact, they were actually beginning to like one another — a little, at least — although neither of them would have been willing to admit it to a living soul.
“Thank you for making time for me so promptly,” she continued out loud as she settled into what had become her customary chair here in Pritchart’s office. Nimitz flowed down into her lap and curled up there, grass-green eyes watching the president alertly, and Pritchart smiled.
“Right off the top of my head, Admiral, I can’t think of anyone who has a higher priority where ‘making time’ is concerned,” she said dryly.
“I suppose not,” Honor acknowledged with a faint, answering smile.
“Now that you’re here, can I offer you some refreshment?” the president inquired. “Mr. Belardinelli has some more of those chocolate chip cookies you like so much hidden away in his desk drawer, you know.”
She smiled conspiratorially, and Honored chuckled. But she also shook her head, smile fading, and Pritchart let her chair come fully back upright.
“Well, in that case,” the president said, “I believe you said you had something confidential you needed to discuss?”
“That’s true, Madam President.” Honor glanced at Thiessen, then back at the Pritchart. “I’m going to assume Ms. Thiessen is as deeply in your confidence as Captain Hawke is in mine.”
Her tone made the statement a polite question, and Pritchart nodded.
“I thought so,” Honor said. “On the other hand, you might want to switch off the recorders for this conversation.” She smiled again, thinly. “I’m sure your office has to be at least as thoroughly wired for sound as Queen Elizabeth’s. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me, but what I’m here to discuss has intelligence operational implications. Implications for your operations, not Manticore’s.”
Pritchart’s eyebrows arched. Then she glanced at Thiessen. Her senior bodyguard looked less than enthralled by Honor’s request, but she made no overt objection.
“Leave your personal recorder on, Sheila,” the president directed. “If it turns out we need to make this part of the official record after the fact, we can download it from yours.” She looked back at Honor. “Would that be satisfactory, Admiral?”
“Perfectly satisfactory from my perspective, Madam President.” Honor shrugged. “I doubt very much that anything I’m about to tell you is going to have repercussions for the Star Empire’s intel operations.”
“I have to admit you’ve managed to pique my interest,” Pritchart said as Thiessen quietly shut down all of the other pickups in her office.
“And I suppose I should admit that piquing your interest was at least partly what I was after,” Honor acknowledged.
“So now that you’ve done it, what was it you wanted to say?”
The president’s mind glow was tinged with rather more wariness than was evident in her expression or her tone, Honor noted.
“I wanted to address the allegations coming out of Mesa about the Green Pines atrocity,” Honor said, and tasted Pritchart’s surprise. Obviously, the president hadn’t expected her to go there.
“Specifically,” Honor continued, “the charges that Captain Zilwicki was on Mesa as a ballroom operative specifically to set up the explosions as an act of terrorism. Or, at least, as an act of what they call ‘asymmetrical warfare’ against someone he and the Kingdom of Torch believed were planning a genocidal attack on Congo. I realize there’s a certain surface persuasiveness to their version of what happened, especially given the Captain’s long term relationship with Catherine Montaigne, his daughter’s status as Queen of torch, and the fact that he’s made very little secret of his sympathy for the Ballroom. Despite that, I’m absolutely confident that Mesa’s version of what happened is a complete fabrication.”
She paused, and Pritchart frowned.
“I’m no more likely than the next woman to believe anything Mesa says, Admiral,” the president said. “Nonetheless, I’m a little at a loss as to how this has operational implications for our intelligence.”
“In that case, Madam President, I think you should probably sit down with Director Trajan and ask him where Special Officer Cachat is right now.”
Despite decades of political and clandestine experience, Pritchart stiffened visibly, and Honor tasted the spike of surprise tinged with apprehension (and what tasted for all the world like a hint of exasperation) which went through the president.
“Special Officer . . . Cachat, did you say?” From Pritchart’s tone, it was clear she was simply playing the game as the rules required, rather than that she actually expected Honor to be diverted.
“Yes, Madam President. Special Officer Cachat. You know — the Havenite agent who’s probably more responsible than anyone else for the fact of Torch’s independence in the first place? The fellow who’s been hobnobbing with Captain Zilwicki, Queen Berry, and Ruth Winton for the last couple of years? The one who’s your agent in charge for the Erewhon sector? That Special Officer Cachat.”
Pritchart winced ever so slightly, then sighed.
“I suppose I should be getting used to having you trot out things like that, Admiral,” she said resignedly. “On the other hand, aside from the evidence that you know far more about our intelligence community than I really wish you did, I still don’t see exactly how this ties in with Green Pines.”
“Actually, it’s fairly simple,” Honor replied. “According to Mesa, Captain Zilwicki went to Green Pines as a Ballroom operative for the specific purpose of using nuclear explosives against civilian targets. I’m sure your own analysts can tell you that Anton Zilwicki was probably the last person in the galaxy who would have signed off on that sort of operation, no matter what justification he thought he had. In addition, however, you should be aware that before Captain Zilwicki departed for Mesa — and, yes, he was on-planet — he stopped by my flagship at Trevor’s Star to discuss the Webster assassination and the attack on Torch with me. At which time” — her eyes bored suddenly into Pritchart’s across the president’s desk — “he was accompanied by Special Officer Cachat.”
This time astonishment startled the question out of Pritchart, and Sheila Thiessen stiffened in shock behind the president. Both women stared at Honor for several seconds before Pritchart shook herself.
“Let me get this straight,” she said in an odd, half-exasperated, half-resigned tone, raising her right hand, index finger extended. “You’re telling me the intelligence officer in charge of all of my spying operations in the Erewhon sector entered a closed Manticoran star system and actually went aboard a Manticoran admiral’s flagship?”
“Yes.” Honor smiled. “I had the impression Special Officer Cachat’s methods are just a bit . . . unorthodox, perhaps.”
“A bit?” Pritchart snorted and rolled her eyes. “Since you’ve had the dubious pleasure of meeting him, Admiral, I might as well admit I’m usually undecided between pinning a medal on him and shooting him. And I see I am going to have to have a little discussion with Director Trajan about his current whereabouts. Although, to be fair to the Director, I doubt very much that Cachat bothered to inform him about his agenda before he went haring off to Trevor’s Star. Not, mind you, that anyone’s disapproval of his travel plans would have slowed him down for a minute.”
“I see you have met him personally,” Honor observed dryly.
“Oh, yes, Admiral. Oh, yes! I have indeed had that . . . pleasure.”
“I’m glad, since that probably means you’re going to be readier to believe what I’m about to tell you.”
“Where Victor Cachat is concerned? Please, Admiral! I’m prepared to believe just about anything when he’s involved!”
“Well,” Honor said, suppressing an urge to chuckle, “as I say, he and Captain Zilwicki came to visit me back in April. In fact, they came for the specific purpose of assuring me that they — both of them — were certain the Republic was not involved in the attack on Queen Berry and Princess Ruth.”
Her tone had become far more serious, and Pritchart’s nostrils flared.
“Given the flavor of Special Officer Cachat’s mind glow,” Honor continued, stroking Nimitz, “I had no choice but to accept that he genuinely believed that. In fact, I have to admit I was deeply impressed by his personal courage in coming to tell me so.” She looked into Pritchart’s eyes again. “He was fully prepared to suicide, Madam President. Indeed, he expected to suicide after delivering his message to me, because he was pretty sure I wasn’t going to allow him off my flagship afterward.”
“But you did,” Pritchart said softly, and it wasn’t a question.
“Yes, I did,” Honor acknowledged, and gave her head a little toss. “To be honest, it never occurred to me not to. He . . . deserved better. And, even more importantly, perhaps, I not only believed he was telling me the truth, I agreed with his analysis of what had probably happened.”
Thiessen’s eyes narrowed, but Pritchart only cocked her head.
“And that analysis was –?”
“That, barring the possibility of some sort of unauthorized rogue operation, the Republic had had nothing to do with the Torch attack,” Honor said flatly. “And, by extension, that Admiral Webster’s assassination almost certainly hadn’t been sanctioned by your Administration, either. Which, in my opinion, made Manpower the most likely culprit.”
“Then why didn’t you –” Pritchart began with an obviously involuntary flash of anger.
“I did.” Honor’s voice was even flatter. “I discussed my meeting, and my conclusions, with — Well, let’s say at the highest level of the Government. Unfortunately, by then events were already in motion. And, frankly, all I could really tell anyone was that Special Officer Cachat believed the Republic hadn’t been involved. I think you’ll agree that despite my own belief that he was right, that scarcely constituted proof.”
Prichard settled back, gazing at Honor for several seconds, then drew a deep breath.
“No,” she acknowledged. “No, I don’t suppose it did. But, oh, Admiral, how I wish someone had listened to you!”
“I do, too, Madam President,” Honor said softly. Brown eyes met platinum, both dark with sorrow for all the men and women who had died after that meeting.
“I do, too,” Honor repeated, more briskly, after a moment. “But the real reason I’ve brought this up at this point is that Captain Zilwicki and Special Officer Cachat did believe Manpower — and possibly even the Mesan system government — were directly implicated in the attacks. In addition, our own intelligence agencies have been steadily turning up evidence that there’s more going on where Manpower and Mesa are concerned than anyone’s previously assumed. Captain Zilwicki and Special Officer Cachat intended to find out what that something ‘more’ was, and according to what I believe to be an unimpeachable source — Catherine Montaigne, in point of fact — the two of them, jointly, were headed for Mesa.”
“Together?” Pritchart, Honor noted, didn’t sound particularly incredulous.
“Together.” Honor nodded. “Which means that while Captain Zilwicki was on Mesa, a point of which the Mesans obviously became aware, he was definitely not there on a Ballroom terrorist operation. Given the various . . . peculiarities where Torch is concerned, I think it’s very likely the Ballroom was involved in getting them onto Mesa in the first place. And it’s entirely possible that what happened in Green Pines was actually a Ballroom operation, or the result of one. The last thing Captain Zilwicki or Special Officer Cachat would have wanted would have been to compromise their own mission by becoming involved in a major terrorist strike, however, so any involvement they may have had must have been peripheral. Accidental, really.”
“I can see that.” Pritchart nodded slowly, and Honor reminded herself that, unlike most heads of state, the president had once been a senior commander in a clandestine resistance movement. That undoubtedly helped when it came to grasping the underlying logic of covert operations.
“I don’t know for certain why Mesa’s made no mention of Special Officer Cachat,” Honor said. “It may be they aren’t aware he was even present. More probably, the Star Empire’s who they really want to damage with this at the moment. Explaining that intelligence operatives of two star nations who’ve been at war with one another for over twenty years just decided on a whim to join forces with the Ballroom would probably be a bit much even for the Sollies public’s credulity. The best-case possibility, of course, would be that they weren’t aware of his presence and that he actually managed, somehow, to escape.”
“And Captain Zilwicki?” Prichard asked gently.
“And I very much doubt Captain Zilwicki did.” Honor made no effort to hide her pain at that thought. “They wouldn’t have handed this to the media — especially not with the assertion that he was killed in one of ‘his own’ explosions — unless they knew he was dead.”
“I’m deeply and sincerely sorry to hear that,” Pritchart said, and Honor tasted the truth of her statement in her mind glow.
“The important point, Madam President,” Honor said, “is that I think you can see from what I’ve just told you that everything Mesa’s claiming is a fabrication. There are probably nuggets of truth buried in it, but I doubt we’ll ever know what they actually were. From my perspective, the immediate and critical point is to keep this from sidetracking our negotiations. I don’t doubt it presents opportunities for self-interested parties to go fishing in troubled waters,” she carefully did not mention any specific names, “but it would be very unfortunate if someone managed to derail these talks. In particular, if Mesa’s allegations play into the situation between the Star Empire and the Solarian League in a way that heightens tensions still farther or even leads to additional military action, Queen Elizabeth’s flexibility where a negotiated settlement is concerned is likely to be compromised.”
She saw the understanding in Pritchart’s eyes, tasted it in the president’s mind glow, but she knew it had to be said out loud, as well.
“It may well be that at least part of Mesa’s objective is to do just that, Madam President. Manpower certainly has as much reason to hate the Republic as it does to hate the Star Empire. I could readily believe that someone in Mendel saw this as an opportunity to force the Star Empire’s hand where military operations against the Republic are concerned as well as a means to provoke an open war between us and the League. And I think” — she gazed into Pritchart’s eyes again — “that it would be a tragedy if they succeeded.”
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