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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 20:50 EST



    “What are the odds your people will actually ratify this, do you think?” Elizabeth Winton asked almost whimsically.

    “Not as good as they would have been once upon a time,” Eloise Pritchart admitted from the other side of the small Mount Royal Palace conference table. “I’ve used up a lot of credit with Congress — and the voters, for that matter — in the last three T-years. And admitting our Secretary of State doctored the correspondence in the first place isn’t going to make our firebrands any happier.”

    “That’s what I thought, too. Pity. I was hoping you’d have a better chance with your legislative branch than I’m going to have with mine.”

    Elizabeth pursed her lips, looking at the document on the display in front of her. As treaty proposals went, it was about as bare bones as things got, she reflected. Neither she nor Pritchart had traded away their star nations’ sovereignty for a handful of beads, but she was sure critics and partisans on both sides were going to carry on as if they had. And little though she liked to admit it, there was still plenty of wiggle room. They hadn’t tried to nail things down in fully finished, set-in-stone form. Instead, they’d roughed out a list of absolutely essential points to be submitted to the Havenite Congress and Elizabeth’s own Parliament, coupled with a specific provision that other treaties would deal with the still-outstanding points a little thing like twenty years of bitter warfare were likely to have created.

    Still, if someone had told her she and Pritchart could accomplish this much, agree to this much, in only seven days, she would have suggested they be confined in a nice, safe cell. Yes, there were still huge gray areas, but what they’d gotten down in written form proved that knowing one was about to be hanged (or invaded by the Solarian League) truly did concentrate one’s mind wonderfully. This treaty, rough as it was, created an alliance between the Star Empire of Manticore and the Republic of Haven which committed each of them to the defense of the other. There hadn’t been time — with one exception — to consult with the Star Empire’s allies, but Eloise had been careful to bring every one of those allies’ ambassadors on board, and most of them had initialed the draft on their governments’ behalves. The Andermani ambassador hadn’t, yet that was hardly surprising, given the traditional Andermani realpolitik. By the same token (and for the same reasons), he hadn’t voiced any official opposition to it, either, though, and the Andermani Empire was an “associated power” rather than a full member of the Manticoran Alliance, anyway.

    The one ally there had been time to actually consult was the Protectorate of Grayson, three and a half T-days from the Manticore Binary System by dispatch boat. Elizabeth had sent Benjamin Mayhew word of Pritchart’s totally unexpected visit the day the president arrived, and Benjamin Mayhew, with a decisiveness and speed unusual even for him, had needed only hours to decide where he stood. He’d sent back his enthusiastic support…and his only brother as his personal envoy.

    Michael Mayhew had arrived yesterday, just in time to put his own signature on the draft as Grayson’s plenipotentiary. Which, given most Manticorans’ attitude towards their most constant ally, could only be a major plus. Not to mention demonstrating to all the Star Empire’s allies as conclusively as humanly possible that William Alexander and his government were not Michael Janvier and his government.

    So now all they had to do was submit it for the approval of the Manticoran Parliament and the Havenite Senate.

    “All,” she thought glumly. As in “all we have to do is find the philosopher’s stone and we can turn as much lead into gold as we want.” We can ask both of them to expedite on an emergency basis and point out that there’s no time to be sending drafts back and forth for revision, but how much good is that really going to do? However big the crisis, we’re talking about politicians, and that means any number of wannabe cooks can be counted on to shove their spoons in and start stirring, damn it.

    “Actually, I think you’re both being overly pessimistic,” another voice said, and two pairs of eyes, one brown and one topaz, swiveled towards the speaker.

    “I hate to point this out, Admiral,” Pritchart said with a lopsided smile, “but I suspect you’ve had a bit less experience dealing with legislative idiots than Her Majesty and I have.”

    “I wouldn’t be too sure about that, actually, Eloise,” Elizabeth said, and grimaced when Pritchart looked back at her. “Don’t forget, she’s a steadholder. I realize steadholders have the sort of absolute power you and I only fantasize about, but she still has her own Chamber of Steaders to deal with, and she’s been pretty hands-on about the job. Whenever we’ve let her out of uniform, at least. For that matter, she’s a sitting member of the Conclave of Steadholders on Grayson and our House of Lords. She’s spent her time in the trenches, and she was front and center of the Opposition during our delightful interlude with that ass High Ridge. She knows a lot more about how it works than that innocent demeanor of hers might suggest.”

    “I suppose that’s true.” Pritchart cocked her head. “It’s hard to remember just how many hats you’ve worn, Your Grace.”

    “Her Majesty’s comments aside, I won’t pretend I’ve had as much legislative experience as you two,” Honor replied. “On the other hand, she’s right that I’m not a complete stranger to ugly political fights, and both of you are just about dead on your feet. My feeling is that both of you are so worn out from working on this thing that it’d be a miracle if you didn’t feel pessimistic. In fact, if I’d thought it would’ve done any good, I’d've chased you off to bed every night to make sure you got at least eight solid hours.”

    Pritchart considered her thoughtfully and decided she wasn’t really joking. And while the President of the Republic of Haven wasn’t accustomed to being “chased off to bed,” she rather suspected Honor Alexander-Harrington could manage it if she put her mind to it.

    “Interesting you should say that, Honor,” Elizabeth observed. “My beloved spouse was saying something rather similar last night. Or was it the night before?”

    “Probably the night before. Justin’s a lot better at making you rest than you are at remembering to rest.”

    “I don’t doubt he is,” Pritchart said. She kept her voice light, although she knew Honor, at least, had sensed the spike of pain which went through her as she remembered nights Javier Giscard had made her rest. “At the moment, though, I’m more interested in why you think our estimate is overly pessimistic, Admiral. I don’t doubt you’re right about how tired we both are, and I know how fatigue and worry affect people’s judgment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re wrong and you’re right.”

    “Of course not, Madam President.” Honor leaned back, sipping from a stein of Old Tillman and shrugged. “Despite that, though, I think you’re both underestimating the selling power of what each of you have gotten out of the other. Your offer to help us deal with Filareta when you didn’t have to do anything of the sort — when you had every reason not to, in fact — is going to buy you a lot of goodwill in the Star Empire. And Elizabeth’s renunciation of any reparations will smooth a lot of ruffled feathers in Nouveau Paris…not to mention cutting the legs right out from under that snot Younger.”

    She smiled almost dreamily at the thought.

    “Your own suggestion that we hand all of Second Fleet’s units back to the Republic won’t hurt, either, Honor,” Elizabeth pointed out, and this time Pritchart nodded.



    “It certainly won’t. And neither will Admiral Tourville’s glowing report on how well his people were treated after surrendering,” she agreed, then sighed. “I’ve always regretted ordering that attack, and the number of people who got killed — on both sides — because I did is always going to haunt me. But at least something good may come out of it in the end.”

    It was Honor’s turn to nod, although the good Pritchart was referring to hadn’t come solely out of the Battle of Manticore. Thomas Theisman’s determination that any prisoners his Republic took would be decently treated had gone a long way towards washing the taste of StateSec’s barbarisms out of the Star Empire’s mouth. And for that matter –

    “Your decision to bring all the tech people Admiral Griffith captured at Grendelsbane along with you is going to do even more from our side,” she said quietly. “Especially the fact that you brought them all home — made their repatriation a unilateral concession — without knowing whether or not we were even going to talk to you.”

    “That was a master stroke,” Elizabeth put in, her voice equally quiet, and shrugged when Pritchart looked back to her. “I’m not trying to suggest it was all political calculation, and neither is Honor. But once it sinks in that you’d decided to repatriate forty-two thousand Manticorans without any preconditions — and forty-two thousand trained and experienced shipyard workers, at that — one hell of a lot of entrenched ill feeling is going to take a shot on the chin. Especially given how desperately we need people like that after the Yawata Strike.”

    Pritchart shrugged a little uncomfortably.

    “Well, we’ll find out soon enough whether we’re being too pessimistic or Duchess Harrington’s being too optimistic, I suppose,” she said. “Especially when we go public about my presence here in the Star Empire.”

    She still wasn’t positive that was the best idea. They couldn’t keep her arrival a secret forever, of course — in fact, she was amazed it hadn’t already leaked, given the number of ambassadors who’d been consulted — but once Elizabeth handed the treaty over to Parliament, that little secret was going to be as thoroughly outed as any in the history of humanity. Nor was she blind to the PR advantages in publicizing her “daring mission.” Yet she was still the woman who’d ordered the resumption of hostilities almost three T-years ago…and the one who’d ordered Thomas Theisman to Launch Operation Beatrice against this very star system.

    “Oh, I’m not worried about that.” Elizabeth waved one hand.

    She and Pritchart had discussed the president’s concerns in detail, and the empress was convinced the other woman was worrying unduly. Yes, the Battle of Manticore had killed an enormous number of people, but far fewer than the Yawata Strike, and all of them had been military casualties. Unlike the people behind the Yawata Strike, the Republic had scrupulously avoided preventable civilian casualties. After fifteen T-years fighting the People’s Republic, even the most anti-Havenite Manticoran had been only too well aware of what a change that represented, and the contrast with the slaughter of the Yawata Strike only underscored the difference. Say what the most bigoted Manticoran might, the restored Republic had fought its war with honor, and the majority of Manticorans knew it.

    “To be honest, I’m more concerned about Simões,” Elizabeth went on. “We’ve got to go public with most of what Cachat and Zilwicki brought back from Mesa, or we’re never going to sell this to your Congress, Eloise. For that matter, there are enough diehard Haven-haters in the Star Empire to make it a hard sell here without that, even with Filareta bearing down on us! But the bottom line is that it’s still awfully thin for anyone who’s inclined to be skeptical about what we’ve been saying about Mesa — or Manpower, at least. And, frankly, with the best will in the universe, there’s only so much Simões can confirm.”

    Pritchart sighed heavily in agreement. Then she surprised both of the Manticorans — and herself — with a sudden snort of amusement.

    “What?” Elizabeth asked after a moment.

    “I was just thinking about a conversation Tom Theisman and I had on that very subject,” the President replied, and cocked her head at Honor. “I believe you’ve met Admiral Foraker, Your Grace?”

    “Yes, I have,” Honor agreed. “Why?”

    “Because I’ve turned out to be even more prophetic than I expected. Right after Cachat and Zilwicki brought Simões in, we were discussing the intelligence windfall he represented, and Tom was waxing pretty enthusiastic…until I asked how valuable an intelligence source he thought Shannon Foraker would have been outside her own specialty.”

    “Oh, my.” Honor gazed at her for a moment, then shook her head. “I hadn’t really thought of that comparison, but it does fit, doesn’t it?”

    “Too well, actually.”

    Pritchart smiled tartly, but the unfortunate truth was that Herlander Simões really was a male version of Shannon Foraker…and in more ways than one. Like Foraker, he’d been so immersed in his tightly focused researcher’s world that he’d been almost totally oblivious to the “big picture.” For that matter, the people responsible for the Mesan Alignment’s security had obviously taken pains to encourage his tunnel-vision. Also like Foraker, however, his apolitical disinterest in the system in which he’d lived had been shattered. Foraker’s awakening had led directly to the destruction of twenty-four State Security superdreadnoughts in a star system called Lovat, and while it was unlikely Simões was going to inflict anything that overtly dramatic upon the Alignment, the long-term effects of his defection were likely to be far worse, eventually. But that was the problem, because “eventually” might not offer a great deal of short-term benefit when it came to getting the draft treaty ratified.

    No one was ever going to get Simões back into obliviousness again, yet his fierce determination to do anything he could to smash the Alignment didn’t change the fact that he could offer virtually nothing concrete about the Alignment’s master strategy, its military resources, or exactly how the Mesa System’s open power structure fitted into the Alignment’s covert structure. None of those things had mattered to him before Francesca Simões’ death, and he hadn’t exactly been taking notes for a future defection after his daughter’s termination, either.

    The president thought once more of the tragedy of Jack McBryde’s death. Most of what they “knew” about the Alignment came from the information he’d produced to convince Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki to help him and Simões defect. Kevin Usher’s Federal Investigation Agency had turned up forensic evidence which strongly corroborated at least some of McBryde’s allegations, and Pritchart was thankful they had even that much, but without McBryde himself to be debriefed in detail (and trotted out to testify before Congress and Parliament), they still had far more questions than answers. Questions whose answers almost certainly would have helped enormously with the ratification fight she expected.

    And let’s face it, Eloise, she told herself, McBryde would’ve been a lot more convincing than Simões as a “talking head” in front of the media, too. I believe everything Simões has told us, and God knows the man’s got motivation by the megaton! But he simply doesn’t know enough — not firsthand, not in the areas that really matter — to sell a determined skeptic our version of The Truth. And, bless him, but the man is a geek of truly Forakerian proportions.

    She shuddered at the memory of the last time Foraker had testified before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. Even today, her inability to translate her own technical expertise into political-speak was awesome to behold. In the end, Theisman had been forced to trot out Linda Trenis to interpret for his pet tech witch.

    “You know a lot of people, and not just Mesans or Sollies, are going to say this whole thing is one huge fabrication,” she went on out loud.



    “Of course they are, even if no one with a functional cortex is going to be able to come up with a reason why we fabricated it.” Elizabeth’s voice was a growl of disgust. “I mean, obviously it’s hugely to the Republic’s advantage to make it all up as a way to justify stepping into the ring against something the size of the Solarian League beside the star nation it’s been fighting for the last twenty years! The fact that I can’t imagine why you did that isn’t going to keep idiots from figuring there has to be a reason. Not that they’re going to be able to suggest one that holds water, either!”

    “Well, at least the ‘cats will vouch for Simões’ truthfulness,” Honor pointed out, stroking Nimitz, who lay curled in her lap. The treecat raised his head with an unmistakably complacent purr, and Ariel added a bleeking laugh of his own from the back of Elizabeth’s chair. The two of them looked so smug Honor laughed and gave one of Nimitz’s ears a tug.

    “As I was saying,” she continued, “and at the risk of overinflating — further overinflating, I should say — two unnamed furry egos, the ‘cats can confirm he’s telling the truth, and a lot of people here on Manticore will trust their judgment. That may not cut much ice anywhere else, but nothing we could say would convince someone like Kolokoltsov to just take our word for it, anyway. And while I could wish he’d been involved in developing this ‘spider drive’ of theirs, instead of the ‘streak drive,’ the stuff he’s already given Admiral Hemphill makes it obvious he knows what he’s talking about. And what he does know about the ‘spider drive’ dovetails entirely too neatly with what happened to us for him to be some delusional nut. Not to mention” — her voice hardened — “pretty thoroughly demonstrating that Mesa must have been behind the attack, since no one else could’ve close enough to hit us that way.”

    Something icy flickered in her eyes, and Nimitz’s purr cut off abruptly as he half-rose with a sudden snarl. It was very quiet for a heartbeat or two, but then she gave herself a shake, touched the back of the ‘cat’s head gently, and smiled apologetically at the other two women.

    “You’re right about all of that, of course, Admiral.” Pritchart agreed in a tone which diplomatically failed to notice the anger and pain which were seldom far from Honor’s surface these days. “And it may convince us, and probably even Congress or your Parliament. But it isn’t going to change the woman-in-the-street’s mind if she’s not already inclined to go along with it. And no conspiracy theorist worth her paranoia badge is going to buy it for a heartbeat.”

    “The best we can do is the best we can do, Madam President,” Honor replied in something much closer to a normal tone. She smiled her thanks for the Havenite head of state’s tact, then glanced at her chrono. “And assuming the news got released on schedule, we’ll be finding out in the next couple of hours just how the Manticoran public, at least, is going to react.”



    “– most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, Patrick!” Kiefer Mallory snorted several hours later. The tall, handsome political columnist was one of the Star Empire’s more sought after talking heads, and he knew it. Now his dark eyes glittered as he waved both hands in a gesture of frustration. “Mind you, we’re all aware of the threat the Star Empire in general — and this star system in particular — faces. And I won’t pretend I wouldn’t be delighted to find someone prepared to support us. But really –!” He shook his head. “I know I’m not the only one who finds all of this suspiciously convenient for the people who got us into this mess in the first place!”

    “Oh?” Jephthah Alverson, a longtime Liberal MP who’d thrown his allegiance to Catherine Montaigne following the High Ridge Government’s implosion, leaned forward to look down the HD set’s conference table and raise a sardonic eyebrow. “Let me see, now…That would be Baron High Ridge and Elaine Descroix, wouldn’t it?”

    Mallory, who’d been associated with the Progressive Party for at least three decades (and who’d served as one of the now-vanished Descroix’s public spokesmen, before her spectacular downfall), flushed angrily.



    “My, he didn’t take that one well, did he?” Emily Alexander-Harrington observed.

    “No, he didn’t,” Honor agreed. Which, she thought, stretched out on the comfortable couch in Emily’s private suite, was remarkably foolish of him. Nimitz was comfortably ensconced on her chest, and she tasted his agreement. Even a complete novice should’ve seen that one coming!

    “That’s because, despite any surface slickness, he comes from the shallow — very shallow, in his case — end of the gene pool…intellectually speaking, that is,” Emily replied from the life-support chair parked at the head of the couch. She’d followed Honor’s thought almost as easily as the ‘cat, and the two of them glanced at each other with matching smiles.

    Hamish was stuck in Landing, submerged in the latest deluge of Admiralty business, but Honor had decided she deserved at least one day at home at White Haven after her participation in the Elizabeth-Pritchart political marathon. She’d spent most of that day with her parents and her younger brother and sister, and her family’s still sharp-edged grief, especially her father’s, had taken their toll on her and Nimitz. At least Alfred Harrington was finally beginning to develop the emotional scar tissue he needed to survive, yet Honor was grateful to have this time with Emily to herself. She needed the older woman’s serenity at moments like this, and there wasn’t a more insightful political strategist in the entire Star Empire.

    Which may be even more useful than usual over the next few weeks, she thought, watching the broadcast as Mallory responded to Alverson.



    “There’s a limit to how long the Grantville Government can go on blaming High Ridge for its own current problems.” Mallory’s tone could have melted lead, but at least he’d paused long enough to be sure he had his temper on a tight leash. “No one’s trying to pretend mistakes weren’t made on High Ridge’s watch, although some of us continue to question the wisdom of sentencing an ex-prime minister to prison for the actions of his government. I know that’s not a popular position, but the precedent of criminalizing political opponents is likely to produce all kinds of ugly fallout down the road. And dragging out the ‘usual suspects’ to wave like some red herring whenever someone criticizes the current government’s policies is scarcely a reasoned response to the criticism, Mr. Alverson!”

    “Really?” Madeleine Richter asked. “I was under the impression he was convicted of bribery, vote-buying, perjury, extortion, and obstruction of justice, not the actions of his government. Did I read the news accounts incorrectly. Kiefer?” She smiled brightly. “As for Jephthah’s point, while I’ll agree it’s not an extraordinarily polished response, in this instance it does have the virtue of cutting to the heart of the matter. And it’s not like your criticism was exactly nuanced and carefully thought out, either.”

    Mallory’s flush darkened and Rosalinda Davidson shook her head. Richter, the sitting MP for East Tannerton, was a senior member of the Centrist Party. As such, her support of the Grantville Government was as much a given as Mallory’s opposition to it. Davidson, on the other hand, had been a Liberal Party MP until she got washed out of office in the post-High Ridge tsunami. Since then, she’d earned her living as a columnist and lecturer, and although she and Mallory weren’t exactly bosom buddies, they were united in their distaste for the current government.

    “You know,” she said, a bit pointedly, “bashing people for past or present political affiliations isn’t the reason we’re here tonight, Madeline. Or I was under the impression it wasn’t, at any rate. Minerva?”

    She turned to Minerva Prince, who with Patrick DuCain, co-hosted the awesomely popular and long-running Into the Fire. The syndicated show was only one of the flood of programs trying to cope with the bombshell revelation of Eloise Pritchart’s presence in the Manticore Binary System, but it had the highest viewership of them all.

    “You’re right, of course, Rosalinda,” Prince replied. “On the other hand, you know Patrick and I usually let our guests have at least some voice in where the discussion goes.”




    “That’s true enough,” Emily agreed, smiling more broadly at Honor. “All that blood in the water’s just what their ratings need!”

    “I remember,” Honor said feelingly, recalling her own Into the Fire appearance, when she’d been beached by the Janacek Admiralty. “And they’re not above steering their guests’ ‘voices’ when the water isn’t sufficiently chummed, either.”



    “At the risk of undermining my own reputation as a troublemaker,” Abraham Spencer said from the HD, “I suggest we all hang up our partisan political axes for the moment and concentrate on our official topic.” The photogenic (and incredibly wealthy) financier smiled charmingly. “I know no one’s really going to believe I’m not hiding in the underbrush to bash someone over the head myself when the moment’s ripe, but in the meantime, there is this little matter of the Empress’s proposed treaty with Haven. And that other minor revelation about the ‘Mesan Alignment.’”

    “You mean that so-called revelation, don’t you?” Mallory snorted. “It’s not as if anyone’s offering the kind of evidence we could take to court!”

    “Whether the allegations are accurate or not, there’s not much question about their explosiveness, Kiefer,” DuCain pointed out.

    “Assuming anyone in the entire galaxy — outside the Star Empire, at least — is going to believe in this vast interstellar conspiracy for a moment,” Davidson riposted. She gave Alverson a scathing look. “Especially given the open ties between certain members of Parliament and the Audubon Ballroom.”

    It was Alverson’s eyes’ turn to narrow dangerously at the obvious shot at Catherine Montaigne, but Richter intervened before he could fire back.

    “You might be surprised how many people will believe it, Rosalinda,” she said coldly, reaching up to stroke her dark blue hair. That hair hadn’t been dyed or artificially colored; it was the legacy of a grandparent who’d been designed to the special order of a wealthy Solarian with idiosyncratic tastes in “body servants.”

    “I won’t say the devil is beyond blackening,” she continued, “but I will say that anyone who looks at Mesa with an open mind has to admit the entire star system, not just Manpower, has never given a single, solitary damn what the rest of ‘the entire explored galaxy’ thinks of it.”

    “You know my own feelings where the Ballroom is concerned, Rosalinda,” Spencer put in, his expression turning hard. “No matter how much I sympathize with genetic slaves and detest the entire loathsome institution, I’ve never sanctioned the sort of outright terrorism to which the Ballroom’s resorted far too often. I’ve never made any secret of my feelings on that subject. Indeed, you may recall that little spat Klaus Hauptman and I had on the subject following the liberation of Torch.”

    One or two of the guests snorted out loud at that. The “little spat” had taken place right here on Into the Fire, and the clash of two such powerful (and wealthy) titans had assumed epic proportions.

    “But having said that,” he continued, “and even conceding that this information appears to have reached us at least partially through the Ballroom’s auspices, I believe it. A lot of odd mysteries and unexplained ‘coincidences’ suddenly make a lot more sense. And as Madeline says, if any star system in the galaxy is corrupt enough to have given birth to something like this, it’s sure as hell Mesa!”

    “And on that basis we’re supposed to believe there’s some kind of centuries-long conspiracy aimed at us and the Republic of Haven out there?” Davidson rolled her eyes. “Please, Abraham! I’m entirely prepared to admit the Mesans are terrible people and genetic slavery is a horrible perversion, but they’re basically nothing more than examples of the evils of unbridled capitalism. And, no, I’m not saying capitalism automatically produces evil ends. I’m simply saying that where Manpower is concerned — and looking at all the other transstellars headquartered in Mesa with it — we’re talking about something that makes the worst robber barons of Old Terra’s history seem like pikers. People like that don’t try to destabilize something like the Solarian League when they’re doing so well swimming around in the corruption of its sewers!”

    “Then why do you think President Pritchart made this unprecedented, dramatic voyage to Manticore?” Prince asked, and Davidson turned back to the hostess with a shrug.

    “There could be any number of reasons. It’s even possible — however unlikely I think it is — that she genuinely believes Mesa is after both of us. On the other hand, I think it’s also possible she and her intelligence types, possibly with the cooperation of the Audubon Ballroom and its … allies” — she pointedly avoided looking in Alverson’s direction — “concocted the entire story. Or least embroidered it, shall we say?”

    “For what possible reason?” Spencer demanded. Davidson looked at him, and it was his turn to shrug. “As Kiefer himself pointed out a moment ago, the Republic’s standing with us against the Solarian League. Could you possibly suggest any logical motive for people we’ve been fighting for twenty years to suddenly decide, completely out of the blue, to get between us and something the size of the Sollies at a moment when we’re more vulnerable than we’ve been in over a decade? Forgive me if I seem obtuse, Rosalinda, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why any Machiavellian worth his — or in this case, her — ‘I-am-devious’ Evil Overlord’s badge would do something that stupid!”



    “I believe Abraham, to use Hamish’s delightful phrase, is about ready to rip someone a new anal orifice,” Emily observed.

    “Odd,” Honor said, “I don’t seem to recall his using those two words.”

    “That’s because he doesn’t,” Emily replied with a smile, then elevated her nose with a sniff. “I, on the other hand, am far more genteel than he is.”

    “That’s one way to describe it.”

    “Hush!” Emily smacked Honor on the head with her working hand. “I want to see if Rosalinda has a stroke on system-wide HD.”

    “You wish,” Honor muttered.



    “I just acknowledged that Pritchart might genuinely believe all this,” Davidson told Spencer tightly. “I think there are other possibilities, as well — convincing us we’re both on someone else’s ‘hit list’ in order to extort such favorable peace terms out of us comes to mind, for example — but of course she could really believe it. Which doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t sold her a fabricated bill of goods and used her to sell it to us. You just mentioned the Ballroom. Surely if it would benefit anyone in the galaxy for us and the Republic to turn on the Mesa System with everything we’ve got, it would have to be the Ballroom and its ideological allies, don’t you think?”

    “That’s the most paranoid thing I’ve ever heard!” Alverson snapped. “And I can’t believe the mental hoops you’re willing to jump through to avoid admitting even the possibility that this McBryde might conceivably’ve been telling the truth! For that matter, the treecats verify that Dr. Simões, at least, definitely is telling the truth. Which means –”

    “If you’re prepared to take the treecats’ word,” Mallory interrupted. Several of the others looked at him incredulously, and he scowled. “What I mean is that we’ve had plenty of experience with people who’ve been brainwashed — or simply misled — into genuinely believing something that’s demonstrably false. So far as I’m aware, not even the treecats’ most fervent champions have claimed they can know when that’s the case. Suppose for a moment Rosalinda’s right about someone like the Ballroom wanting to fabricate a story like this. I’m not saying that’s necessarily what happened; I’m just asking you to consider the possibility. In that case, knowing you were going to have to sell your story to the Star Empire, wouldn’t it make sense to brainwash your ‘star witness’ into absolutely — and honestly — believing what you’ve primed him to tell us?”

    “Oh, for the love of –!” Richter began.

    “And, on that note, we have to go to break,” Prince interrupted, smiling brightly at the camera while DuCain struggled mightily not to laugh. “Don’t go away! Into the Fire will be back in just a few moments to continue this…lively exchange.”

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