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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, February 27, 2012 20:41 EST



May 1922 Post Diaspora

    “What the hell. I’ve always liked a challenge.”

– Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore

    “More coffee, Your Majesty?”

    Elizabeth Winton looked up at the murmured question, then smiled and extended her cup. James McGuiness poured, smiled back at her, and moved on around the table, refilling other cups, and she watched him go before she sipped. It was, as always, delicious, and she thought yet again what a pity it was that McGuiness made such splendid coffee when Honor couldn’t stand the beverage.

    The familiar reflection trickled through her brain, and she set the cup back down and gave herself a mental shake. No doubt her staff back at Mount Royal Palace had its hands full covering for her absence, but they were just going to have to go on coping for a while longer. Despite the grinding fatigue of far too many hours, far too much adrenaline, and far too many shocks to the universe she’d thought she understood, she knew she and Eloise Pritchart were still far from finished.

    She looked across the table in the admiral’s dining cabin aboard HMS Imperator at the president of the Republic of Haven, who had just finished a serving of McGuiness’ trademark eggs Benedict and picked up her own coffee cup. Despite a sleepless night, following a day even longer than Elizabeth’s had been, the other woman still looked improbably beautiful. And still radiated that formidable presence, as well. Elizabeth doubted anyone could have intentionally planned a greater physical contrast than the one between her own mahogany skin and dark eyes and Pritchart’s platinum and topaz, and they’d been produced by political and social systems which were at least as different as their appearances. Yet over the last day or so she’d come — unwillingly, almost kicking and screaming — to the conclusion that the two of them were very much alike under the surface.

    I wonder if I would have had the sheer nerve to sail straight into my worst enemy’s home system — especially after what those “mystery raiders” did to us — and admit my secretary of state doctored the correspondence that sent us back to war? After so long, so many deaths, because I got played, maneuvered into doing exactly what someone else wanted? Even having Simões’ story to back me up, selling that to someone with my reputation for carrying grudges to the grave and back again took more plain old-fashioned gall and guts than any three women ought to have. Especially after I’d proven this “Alignment” could play me just as thoroughly as it ever played her.

    Elizabeth’s mind flicked back over the last two Manticoran days. Even her formidable intelligence was having difficulty coping with the tectonic shock which had just rumbled through her entire known universe. It seemed impossible, preposterous on the very face of things, that a mere two days could have changed everything she’d thought she knew about two decades of bitter warfare and millions of deaths, yet it had. And it explained so much.

    “So,” she said, sitting back from the table she shared with only Honor, Pritchart, and Thomas Theisman, “is Simões telling the truth or not, Honor?”

    The two Havenites looked at Honor with slightly surprised expressions, and Honor smiled. Nimitz was sound asleep on his perch, and after the night which had just passed, she saw no point in waking him up.

    “There’s a reason Her Majesty’s asking me, instead of Nimitz or Ariel,” she told her guests. “As it happens, I’ve been hanging around with treecats long enough to have caught at least some of their abilities. I can’t read minds, but I can read emotions, and I know when someone’s lying.”

    It was astonishingly easy for her to make that admission to the leaders of the star nation she’d fought her entire adult life.

    Pritchart blinked at her, then those topaz eyes narrowed in thought, and the President began nodding — slowly, at first, then more rapidly.

    “So that’s why you make such a fiendishly effective diplomat!” she said with something very like an air of triumph. “I couldn’t believe how well a total novice was reading us. Now I know — you were cheating!

    The last word came out in something very like a laugh, and Honor nodded back.

    “Where diplomacy’s concerned, according to my mentors in the Foreign Office, there is no such thing as ‘cheating,’ Madam President. In fact, one of those mentors quoted an old axiom to me. Where diplomacy is involved, he said, if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying hard enough.”

    Elizabeth snorted in amusement, and Theisman shook his head.

    “In this instance, however,” Honor continued more seriously, “what Her Majesty is asking me is whether or not I can tell if Dr. Simões is telling the truth. I already informed her” — she looked directly at Pritchart — “that I knew you were, Madam President. On the other hand, I also assumed you would have expected from the beginning that Nimitz would have been able to tell me and that I would have passed his observations on to Her Majesty, so I didn’t feel any particular scruples about that.”

    Pritchart nodded again, and Honor shrugged.

    “What I can tell you about Simões is that his anger — his outrage — at this ‘Alignment’ is absolutely genuine. The pain inside that man is incredible.”

    She closed her eyes for a moment, and her nostrils flared.

    “Everything I can ‘taste’ about his ‘mind-glow’ tells me he’s telling us the truth, in so far as he knows the truth. Whether or not McBryde might have been passing along disinformation is more than I can say, of course. But, on balance, I think he was telling the truth, as well. It all fits together too well with what we’ve already seen, and with what Simões can tell us about their hardware.”

    “And there are still so damned many holes in it,” Elizabeth half-snarled.

    “Yes, there are,” Honor agreed. “On the other hand, I’d say the Star Empire knows infinitely more than we knew yesterday, Elizabeth…given that we didn’t know anything at that point.”

    Elizabeth nodded slowly, then looked at Pritchart.

    “So, I guess what it comes down to,” she said slowly, “it’s where we go from here. Whatever happens, I want you to know I’m enormously grateful for the information you’ve provided us. And I think we can both agree that the war between Haven and Manticore is over.”

    She shook her head, as if, even now, she couldn’t quite believe what she’d just said. Not because she didn’t want to, but because it seemed impossible, like something which couldn’t possibly be true because of how badly everyone wanted it to be true.

    “Mind you,” she continued, “I don’t expect everybody to be delighted about that. For that matter, a few days ago, I probably would have been one of the people who wasn’t delighted myself,” she admitted.

    “Trust me, there’s the odd couple of billion Havenites who probably feel exactly the same way,” Pritchard said dryly.

    “And that’s the sticking point, isn’t it?” Elizabeth asked softly. “Stopping shooting at each other — that much I’m sure we can manage. But it’s not enough. Not if Simões’ and McBryde’s story is true after all.”

    “No, it’s not,” Pritchart agreed quietly.

    “Well,” Elizabeth smiled with very little humor, “at least I can feel confident now that you’ll keep the Republican Navy off our backs long enough for us to deal with this Admiral Filareta.”

    “Actually,” Pritchard said, “I had something else in mind.”

    “Something else?” Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose.

    “Your Majesty — Elizabeth — the Mesan Alignment wants both of us destroyed, starting with the Star Empire. I don’t know if it honestly believes the SLN can do the job where you’re concerned, or if it was anticipating we’d do it when we recognized the opportunity it had given us. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Solarian attack on you is simply one more step in a strategy directed against both of us. So I think something a bit more pointed than simply stopping shooting at each other might be in order.”

    “Such as?” Elizabeth asked slowly, eyes slitted in concentration.

    “I understand your missile production facilities have been taken off-line,” Pritchard said. “Tom here tells me you’ve undoubtedly got enough of those ungodly super missiles in your magazines to thoroughly kick the ass of this Filareta if he really insists on following his orders. But that’s going to cut into your reserves, and given that the Alignment managed to rip the hell out of your home system, I think it would be a good idea for you to conserve as much ammunition as you can in hopes we’ll find someone a bit better suited to playing the role of target.”

    “And?” Elizabeth’s eyes were opening wider in speculation.

    “Well, it just happens that Thomas here has a modest little fleet — two or three hundred of the wall, I believe — waiting approximately eight hours from Trevor’s Star in hyper. If you’re willing to trust us in Manticoran space, perhaps we could help you encourage Filareta to see reason. And while I’m well aware our hardware isn’t as good as yours, every indication I’ve seen is that it’s one hell of a lot better than anything the Sollies have.”

    “Are you offering me a military alliance against the Solarian League?” Elizabeth asked very carefully.

    “If McBryde was right, there isn’t going to be much of a Solarian League very much longer,” Pritchart replied grimly. “And given the fact that the same bunch of murderous bastards who shot up your home system are also directly responsible for you and I having killed a couple of million of our own people, I think we could say we have a certain commonality of interest where they’re concerned. And it’s not a case of selfless altruism on my part, you know. We’re both on the Alignment’s list. Don’t you think it would be sort of stupid for either of us to let the other one go down and leave us all alone?”



    Brown eyes and topaz met across the table littered with the remnants of breakfast, and it was very, very quiet.

    “We’re still going to have those problems, you know,” Elizabeth said almost conversationally after a moment. “All those people on both sides who don’t like each other. All that legacy of suspicion.”

    “Of course.” Pritchart nodded.

    “And then there’s the little matter of figuring out where this Alignment’s real headquarters is, and who else is fronting for it, and what other weapons it has, and where else it has programmed assassins tucked away, and exactly what it’s got in mind for the Republic once the Star Empire’s been polished off.”


    “And, now that I think about it, there’s the question of how we’re going to rebuild our capabilities here, and how much technology sharing — and how quickly — we can convince our separate navies and our allies to put up with. You know there’s going to be heel-dragging and tantrum-throwing the minute I start suggesting anything like that!”

    “I’m sure there will be.”

    The two women looked at one another, and then, slowly, both of them began to smile.

    “What the hell,” Elizabeth Winton said. “I’ve always liked a challenge.”

    She extended her hand across the table.

    Pritchart took it.



    “You’re joking!”

    Chairman Chyang Benton-Ramirez looked incredulously at Fedosei Mikulin and Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou. The three men sat face-to-face in the Chairman’s high-security private briefing room, buried under the roots of the West Tower of the Executive Building in downtown Columbia. Benton-Ramirez had been more than a little irked when Mikulin insisted on meeting in person, rather than com-conferencing. He had plenty of other things he could spend time doing besides hiking clear over here and then taking the lift shaft down five hundred meters, but Mikulin was his most trusted advisor. That was why in addition to his at-large directorship he was Commissioner of Central Intelligence for the Republic of Beowulf.

    And why Benton-Ramirez had accepted his “invitation” to join him here despite the inconvenience.

    Benton-Ramirez y Chou, Third Director at Large of the Planetary Board of Directors (and one of the Chairman’s cousins), on the other hand enjoyed a carefully ill-defined relationship with Central Intelligence. That was because he was also the Planetary Board’s unofficial (very unofficial) liaison to the Audubon Ballroom. It would never have done for the Board (or — especially! — its intelligence services) to admit overt contact with the Ballroom, even here on Beowulf. If anyone had wondered why, the way Manticore had been hammered over the Green Pines Incident made the reasons crystal clear. Despite which, everyone knew that contact existed, and most people were pretty sure Benton-Ramirez y Chou, as the ex-chairman and current vice-chairman of the Anti-Slavery League, did the contacting. It was one of those “don’t ask, don’t tell” situations, and the fact that the customarily aggressive Beowulfan newsies had never once asked the question said volumes about how Beowulf in general regarded the genetic slave trade.

    That wasn’t why Benton-Ramirez y Chou was here today, though. No, he was here because another of the Chairman’s cousins was deeply involved in what Mikulin had just reported.

    “I’m absolutely not joking, Chyang,” Mikulin said now. “I realize we’re not supposed to spy on our friends, but everyone does, and I doubt anyone in Manticore smart enough to seal his own shoes doesn’t know we do. Although, to be fair, I’m not sure how happy they’d be to find out just how highly placed some of our…assets actually are.”

    “Your niece wouldn’t happen to be one of them, would she, Jacques?”

    “No, she would not.” Benton-Ramirez y Chou’s voice was considerably colder than the one in which he normally addressed the Chairman. Benton-Ramirez y Chou was a small man, with dark hair and sandalwood skin. He also had almond eyes, which he shared with his sister…and his rather more famous (or infamous) niece. “And if I’d ever been stupid enough to ask her to become any such thing, she would have told me to piss up a rope,” he added succinctly.

    “Oh, I doubt she would’ve put it that way,” Benton-Ramirez said with a chuckle which was oddly apologetic. “I’m sure Duchess Harrington would have been considerably less, um, earthy.”

    “Not if I’d asked her to spy on Elizabeth, she wouldn’t have been,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou smiled tartly. “In fact, what she’d probably have done is rip off my head for a soccer ball!”

    “All right, point taken,” the Chairman acknowledged. “But I assume from what you’re telling me, Fedosei, that whoever our informant is, we can place significant confidence in this report?”

    “Yes,” Mikulin said flatly.

    “Damn.” Benton-Ramirez shook his head. “I know we were hoping they’d at least stop shooting at each other, especially after we warned both of them Filareta was coming, but I never expected this!

    “None of us did,” Mikulin agreed. “But, to be honest, the fact that Elizabeth and Pritchart have decided to bury the hatchet is actually a hell of a lot less important than the reason they decided to bury it.”

    There was something very odd about his voice, and the Chairman glanced at Benton-Ramirez y Chou. The other man’s expression was an interesting mix of agreement and something that looked like lingering shock, all backed by a white-hot, blazing fury. Despite the self-control he’d learned over the decades, Jacques Benton-Ramierz y Chou had always been a passionate man, yet Benton-Ramirez was more than a little taken aback by the deadly glitter in those dark-brown eyes.

    “What do you mean?” The Chairman sat back, eyes narrowed. The fact that Eloise Pritchart had gone unannounced to the Manticore Binary System and apparently agreed to some sort of alliance against the Solarian League, especially after how savagely the Star Empire had been weakened, struck him as one of the more fundamental power shifts in the history of mankind. So if Mikulin found something else even more significant…

    “I think the notion of a Manticore-Haven military alliance is going to be interesting enough to the rest of the universe, Fedosei,” he observed.

    “I’m sure it is,” Mikulin said grimly, “but what’s even more ‘interesting’ to me — and to the rest of Beowulf, I’m pretty damn sure — is that the reason Pritchart made this trip to Manticore is that Zilwicki and Cachat have resurfaced. And it turns out that where they’ve been all this time was either on the planet Mesa or on their way back from it.”

    Benton-Ramirez’s narrowed eyes widened, and Mikulin shrugged.

    “We only have very a preliminary report at this point, Chyang,” he pointed out, “and our source hasn’t been able to give us everything. Or even come close to everything, for that matter. But from the little bit we do have, it seems Zilwicki and Cachat were in Green Pines — both of them were there, together — about the time the explosions went off. And it sounds like they were involved, albeit peripherally, as well. Hopefully we’ll have better intelligence on that pretty soon, but the key point is that they brought out a Mesan with them, and the Mesan in question is providing all kinds of information. Information that, frankly, contradicts almost everything we’ve thought we knew about Mesa.”

    “I beg your pardon?”

    Benton-Ramirez’ tone sounded preposterously calm, but it wasn’t really his fault. It was simply that no one could process information like that without the equivalent of a massive mental hiccup. If there was a single star system in the entire galaxy upon which Beowulfan intelligence had expended more effort than Mesa, or about which it was better informed, he couldn’t imagine which one it might be. Ever since Leonard Detweiler and his malcontents had relocated to Mesa, the system had been Beowulf’s dark twin. The source of one of the galaxy’s most malignant cancers, and the undying shame of the society from which its founders had sprung.

    The possibility of errors in Beowulf’s intelligence appreciations of Mesa was one thing. In fact, Benton-Ramirez had always assumed there had to be such errors, since Mesa was painfully well aware of Beowulf’s interest in it and had always taken steps to blunt Central Intelligence’s operations there. But Mikulin clearly wasn’t suggesting mere “errors” — not in that tone of voice, or with that expression.

    “If what we’ve heard so far is any indication, most of what we thought we knew about Mesa isn’t just mistaken, it’s a deliberate fabrication on Mesa’s part,” Mikulin said now, his voice harsh. “I’m not ready to sign off on the reliability of what we’re hearing at this point. To be honest, there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to admit even the possibility that we might have been that far off, and the meeting between Elizabeth and Pritchart took place less than forty hours ago. All of this is still pretty damned preliminary, and God only knows how many holes there could be in it. But, assuming there’s any validity to it at all, Mesa’s had its own plans — plans that go a hell of a lot deeper than just making money off the genetic slave trade or even rubbing our collective nose in how much contempt they have for the Beowulf Code — literally for centuries. Not only that, but the Manties have been right all along in saying it’s behind what’s been happening in Talbott and the Yawata Strike, as well. And not just because Talbott brought the Star Empire’s borders too close to the Mesa System, either. Apparently, they’ve got plans of their own where the entire human race is involved, and I think we can be pretty sure that if they had plans for the Star Empire and the Republic of Haven, they’ve got to have a page or two for dealing with us, as well.”

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