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Mission of Honor: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Friday, April 9, 2010 07:01 EDT



    President Eloise Pritchart raked stray strands of platinum-colored hair impatiently from her forehead as she strode into the sub-basement command center. In contrast to her usual understated elegance, she wore a belted robe over her nightgown, and her face was bare of any cosmetics.

    The head of her personal security team, Sheila Thiessen, followed close behind her. Unlike the President, Thiessen had been on duty when the alert was sounded. Well, not precisely on duty, since her official shift had ended five hours earlier, but she’d still been on-site, wading through her unending paperwork, and she was her well-groomed, fully clothed, always poised normal self.

    Despite which, she thought, the hastily-dressed President still managed to make her look drab. In fact, the President always made everyone around her seem somehow smaller than life, especially at moments of crisis. It wasn’t anything Pritchart tried to do; it was simply what genetics, experience, and her own inherent presence did for her. Even here, even now, awakened from what had passed for a sound sleep in the months since the twin hammer blows of Javier Giscard’s death and the massive casualties the Republic of Haven had suffered in the Battle of Monica, despite the ghosts and sorrow which haunted those striking topaz eyes, that sense of unbreakable resolve and determination was like a cloak laid across her shoulders.

    Or maybe that’s just my imagination, Thiessen told herself. Maybe I just need for her to be unbreakable. Especially now.

    Pritchart crossed quickly to the comfortable chair before her personal command and communication console. She nodded to the only two members of her cabinet who’d so far been able to join her — Tony Nesbitt, the Secretary of Commerce, and Attorney General Denis LePic — then settled into her own seat as it adjusted to her body’s contours.

    Nesbitt and LePic both looked tense, worried. They’d been working late — the only reason they’d been able to make it to the command center this quickly — and both had that aura of end-of-a-really-long-day fatigue, but that didn’t explain their tight shoulders and facial muscles, the worry in their eyes. Nor were they alone in their tension. The command center’s uniformed personnel and the scattering of civilian intelligence analysts and aides threaded through their ranks were visibly anxious as they concentrated on their duties. There was something in the air — something just short of outright fear — and Thiessen’s bodyguard hackles tried to rise in response.

    Not that the anxiety level about her came as any sort of surprise. The entire Republic of Haven had been waiting with gnawing apprehension for almost half a T-year for exactly this moment.

    Pritchart didn’t greet her cabinet colleagues by name, only gave them that quick nod and smiled at them, yet her mere presence seemed to evoke some subtle easing of their tension. Thiessen could actually see them relaxing, see that same relaxation reaching out to the people around them, as the President took her place without haste then settled back, shoulders squared, and turned those topaz eyes to the uniformed man looking down from the huge smart wall display at one end of the large, cool room.

    “So, Thomas,” she said, sounding impossibly composed. “What’s this all about?”

    Admiral Thomas Theisman, Secretary of War and Chief of Naval Operations for the Republic of Haven, looked back at her from his own command center under the rebuilt Octagon, a few kilometers away. Given the late hour, Thiessen suspected that Theisman had been in bed until a very short time ago himself. If that was the case, however, no one would have guessed it from his faultless appearance and impeccable uniform.

    “Sorry to disturb you, Madam President,” he said. “And, to be honest, I don’t have any idea what it’s all about.”

    Pritchart raised one eyebrow.

    “I was under the impression we’d just issued a system-wide Red Alert,” she said, her tone noticeably more astringent than the one in which she normally addressed Theisman. “I’m assuming, Admiral, that you had a reason for that?”

    “Yes, Madam President, I did.” Theisman’s expression was peculiar, Thiessen thought. “Approximately” — the Secretary of War glanced to one side — “thirty-one minutes ago, a force of unidentified starships made their alpha translations ten light-minutes outside the system hyper limit. That puts them roughly twenty-two light-minutes from the planet. The gravitic arrays detected them when they reentered normal-space, and our original estimate, based on their hyper footprints, was that we were looking at forty-eight ships-of-the-wall and/or CLACs, escorted by a dozen or so battlecruisers, a half dozen CLACs, and fifteen or twenty destroyers. They appear to have brought along at least a dozen large freighters, as well — most likely ammunition ships.”

    Thiessen felt the blood congeal in her veins. Those had to be Manty ships, and if they were, they had to be armed with the new missile systems which had broken the back of the Republic’s attack on the Manticore Binary System. The missiles which gave the Royal Manticoran Navy such an advantage in long-range accuracy that they could engage even the Haven System’s massive defenses with effective impunity. And which were undoubtedly loaded aboard those ammunition ships in enormous numbers.

    Well, we’ve wondered where they were ever since the Battle of Manticore, she thought grimly. Now we know.

    From the com display, Theisman looked levelly into Pritchart’s eyes.

    “Under the circumstances, there didn’t seem much doubt about who they belonged to or why they were here,” he said, “but it’s taken us a while to confirm our tentative IDs at this range. And it turns out our initial assessments weren’t quite correct.”

    “I beg your pardon?” Pritchart said when he paused.

    “Oh, we were right in at least one respect, Madam President — it is the Manties’ Eighth Fleet, and Admiral Harrington is in command. But there’s an additional ship, one we hadn’t counted on. It’s not a warship at all. In fact, it appears to be a private yacht, and it’s squawking the transponder code of the GS Paul Tankersley.”

    “A yacht?” Pritchart repeated in the careful tone someone used when she wasn’t entirely certain she wasn’t talking to a lunatic.

    “Yes, Ma’am. A yacht. A Grayson-registry yacht owned by Steadholder Harrington. According to the message she’s transmitted to us from one Captain George Hardy, the Tankersley’s skipper, Admiral Harrington is personally aboard her, not her fleet flagship. And, Madam President, Captain Hardy has requested permission for his ship to transport the Admiral to Nouveau Paris with a personal message to you from Queen Elizabeth.”

    Eloise Pritchart’s eyes widened, and Thiessen sucked in a deep breath of astonishment. She wasn’t alone in that reaction, either.

    “Admiral Harrington is coming here, to Nouveau Paris. Is that what you’re saying, Tom?” Pritchart asked after a moment.

    “Admiral Harrington is coming to Nouveau Paris aboard an unarmed private yacht without first demanding any assurances of safety from us, Ma’am,” Theisman replied. Then his lips twitched in what might have been a smile under other circumstances. “Although,” he continued, “I have to say having the rest of Eighth Fleet parked out there is probably intended as a pretty pointed suggestion that it would be a good idea if we didn’t let anything . . . untoward happen to her.”

    “No. No, I can see that,” Pritchart said slowly, and now her eyes were narrow as she frowned in intense speculation. She sat that way for several moments, then looked at LePic and Nesbitt.

    “Well,” she said with a mirthless smile, “this is unexpected.”

    “‘Unexpected’?” Nesbitt barked a laugh. “It’s a hell of a lot more than that as far as I’m concerned, Madam President! If you’ll pardon my language.”

    “I have to agree with Tony,” LePic said when Pritchart quirked an eyebrow in his direction. “After the Battle of Manticore, after everything else that’s happened . . . .”

    His voice trailed off, and he shook his head, his expression bemused.

    “Have we replied to Admiral Harrington’s request yet, Tom?” Pritchart asked, returning her attention to Theisman.

    “Not yet. We only received her message about five minutes ago.”

    “I see.”

    Pritchart sat for perhaps another ten seconds, her lips pursed, then inhaled deeply.

    “Under the circumstances,” she said then with a faint smile, “I’d really prefer not to be recording messages sitting here in my bathrobe. So, Tom, I think we’ll just let you handle this stage of things, since you look so bright-eyed and spiffy. No doubt we’ll need to get Leslie involved later, but for right now, let’s leave it a matter between uniformed military personnel.”



    “Inform her that the Republic of Haven is not only willing to allow her vessel to enter planetary orbit, but that I personally guarantee the safety of her ship, herself, and anyone aboard the — Tankersley, was it? — for the duration of her visit with us.”

    “Yes, Ma’am. And should I discuss those superdreadnoughts of hers?”

    “Let’s not be tacky, Admiral.” The president’s smile grew briefly broader. Then it vanished. “After all, from Admiral Chin’s report there’s not much we could do about them even if we wanted to, is there? Under the circumstances, if she’s prepared to refrain from flourishing them under our noses, I think we ought to be courteous enough to let her do just that.”

    “Yes, Ma’am. Understood.”

    “Good. And while you’re doing that, it’s time I went and got into shape to present a properly presidential appearance. And I suppose” — she smiled at Nesbitt and LePic — “it might not hurt to drag the rest of the Cabinet out of bed, either. If we have to be up, they might as well have to be, too!”



    Admiral Lady Dame Honor Alexander-Harrington kept her face calm and her eyes tranquil as she sat gazing out the viewport of the Havenite shuttle. Only those who knew her very well would have recognized her own anxiety in the slow, metronome-steady twitching of the very end of the tail of the cream and gray treecat draped across her lap.

    Captain Spencer Hawke, of the Harrington Steadholder’s Guard, Colonel Andrew LaFollet’s handpicked successor to command her personal security team, was one of those few people. He knew exactly what that twitching tail indicated, and he found himself in profound agreement with Nimitz. If Hawke had been allowed to do this his way, the Steadholder wouldn’t have come within three or four light-minutes of this planet. Failing that, her entire fleet would have been in orbit around it, and she would have been headed to its surface in an armored skinsuit aboard a Royal Manticoran Navy assault shuttle, accompanied not just by her three personal armsmen, but by a full company of battle armored Royal Manticoran Navy Marines.

    Preferably as the Manticoran Alliance’s military representative for the signing ceremony as she accepted the unconditional surrender of an abjectly defeated Havenite government amid the smoking ruins of the city of Nouveau Paris.

    Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — he also knew the Steadholder better than to suggest any such modest modification of her own plans. The Steadholder wasn’t one of those people who vented volcanic rage when she was displeased, but it would have taken a hardier soul than Hawke’s to willingly confront the ice which could core those almond-shaped brown eyes and the calm, reasonable scalpel of that soprano voice as she dissected whatever minor faux pas had drawn one to her attention.

    Nonsense! He told himself. I’d risk it in a minute if I thought it was really critical. He snorted. Yeah, sure I would! He shook his head. No wonder Colonel LaFollet was going gray.

    He glanced at Corporal Joshua Atkins and Sergeant Clifford McGraw, the other members of the Steadholder’s personal detachment. Oddly enough, neither of them looked particularly calm, either.

    There are times, he reflected, when I actually find myself envying one of those armsmen with a cowardly, stay-at-home steadholder to look after. It’s got to be easier on the adrenaline levels.



    Honor needed no physical clues to recognize the tension of her armsmen. Their emotions flooded into her through her empathic sense, and even if they hadn’t, she knew all three of them well enough to know what they had to be thinking at this moment. For that matter, she couldn’t find it in her to be as irritated with them this time as she’d been upon occasion, either. The fact that what was happening was her own idea didn’t make her feel any less nervous about it, herself.

    Oh, stop that, she told herself, caressing Nimitz’s ears with her flesh and blood right hand. Of course you’re nervous! But unless you wanted to come in shooting after all, what choice did you have? And at least Pritchart seems to be saying all the right things — or Thomas Theisman’s saying them for her, anyway — so far.

    That was a good sign. It had to be a good sign. And so she sat still in the comfortable seat, pretending she was unaware of the mesmerized gaze the Havenite flight engineer had turned upon her as he came face to face with the woman even the Havenite newsies called “the Salamander,” and hoped she’d been right about Pritchart and her administration.



    Eloise Pritchart stood on the shuttle landing pad on the roof of what had once again become Péricard Tower following Thomas Theisman’s restoration of the Republic.

    The massive, hundred and fifty year-old tower had borne several other names during People’s Republic of Haven’s lifetime, including The People’s Tower. Or, for that matter, the bitterly ironic one of “The Tower of Justice” . . . when it had housed the savagely repressive State Security which had supported the rule of Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just. No one truly knew how many people had vanished forever into State Sec’s basement interrogation rooms and holding cells. There’d been more than enough, however, and the grisly charges of torture and secret executions which the prosecutors had actually been able to prove had been sufficient to win a hundred and thirty-seven death sentences.

    A hundred and thirty-seven death sentences Eloise Pritchart had personally signed, one by one, without a single regret.

    Pierre himself had preferred other quarters and moved his personal living space to an entirely different location shortly after the Leveller Uprising. And, given the tower’s past associations, a large part of Eloise Pritchart had found herself in rare agreement with the “Citizen Chairman.” Yet in the end, and despite some fairly acute personal reservations — not to mention anxiety over possible public misperceptions — she’d decided to return the presidential residence to its traditional pre-Legislaturalist home on the upper floors of Péricard Tower.

    Some of her advisers had urged against it, but she’d trusted her instincts more than their timidity. And, by and large, the citizens of the restored Republic had read her message correctly and remembered that Péricard Tower had been named for Michèle Péricard, the first President of the Republic of Haven. The woman whose personal vision and drive had led directly to the founding of the Republic. The woman whose guiding hand had written the constitution Eloise Pritchart, Thomas Theisman, and their allies had dedicated their lives to restoring.

    The well worn thoughts ran through her brain, flowing beneath the surface with a soothing familiarity, as she watched the Navy shuttle slide in to a touchdown. It was escorted by three more shuttles — assault shuttles, heavily laden with external ordnance — which went into a watchful counter-grav hover overhead, and even more atmospheric sting ships orbited alertly, closing all air space within fifteen kilometers of the tower to any civilian traffic as the passenger shuttle settled towards the pad with the crisp, professional assurance only to be expected from Thomas Theisman’s personal pilot. Lieutenant (JG) Andre Beaupré hadn’t been selected as the chief of naval operations’ full-time chauffeur at random, so he’d been the logical choice when Theisman decided he needed the very best pilot he could lay hands on to look after their unexpected visitor.

    And so Thomas damned well should have, given the fact that almost everybody thinks we already tried to assassinate her aboard her own flagship! Pritchart told herself tartly. And even though we know we didn’t do it, no one else does. Worse, there have to be enough lunatics in a city the size of Nouveau Paris for someone to make an unofficial effort to kill the woman who’s systematically kicked our Navy’s ass for as long as anyone can remember. No wonder Thomas opted for such overt security! God knows the last thing we could afford would be for something to happen to Harrington — Alexander-Harrington, I mean. No one in the entire galaxy would ever believe it was really an accident.

    Her mouth twitched sourly with the memory of another accident no one in the galaxy would ever believe had been genuine. The complications left by that particular mishap had a lot to do with why it was so vital to handle this visit with such exquisite care.

    And maybe — just maybe — actually bring an end to all this butchery, after all, she thought almost prayerfully.



    The shuttle touched down in a smooth whine of power, and Pritchart suppressed an urge to scurry forward as the boarding ladder extended itself to the airlock hatch. Instead, she made herself stand very still, hands clasped behind her.

    “You’re not the only one feeling nervous, you know,” a voice said very quietly in her right ear, and she glanced sideways at Thomas Theisman. The admiral’s brown eyes gleamed with the reflected glitter of the shuttle’s running lights, and his lips quirked in a brief smile.

    “And what makes you think I’m feeling nervous?” she asked tartly, her voice equally quiet, almost lost in the cool, gusty darkness.

    “The fact that I am, for one thing. And the fact that you’ve got your hands folded together behind you, for another.” He snorted softly. “You only do that when you can’t figure out what else to do with them, and that only happens when you’re nervous as hell about something.”

    “Oh, thank you, Tom,” she said witheringly. “Now you’ve found a fresh way to make me feel awkward and bumptious! Just what I needed at a moment like this!”

    “Well, if being pissed off at me helps divert you from worrying, then I’ve fulfilled one of your uniformed minions’ proper functions, haven’t I?”

    His teeth gleamed in another brief smile, and Pritchart suppressed a burning desire to kick him in the right kneecap. Instead, she contented herself with a mental note to take care of that later, then gave him a topaz glare that promised retribution had merely been deferred and turned back to the shuttle.

    Theisman’s diversion, she discovered, had come at precisely the right moment. Which, a corner of her mind reflected, had most certainly not been a simple coincidence. Maybe she’d rescind that broken kneecap after all. Their little side conversation had kept her distracted while the hatch opened and a very tall, broad shouldered woman in the uniform of a Manticoran admiral stepped through it. At a hundred and seventy-five centimeters, Pritchart was accustomed to being taller than the majority of the women she met, but Alexander-Harrington had to be a good seven or eight centimeters taller even than Sheila Thiessen, and Thiessen was five centimeters taller than the president she guarded.

    The admiral paused for a moment, head raised as if she were scenting the breezy coolness of the early autumn night, and her right hand reached up to stroke the treecat riding her shoulder. Pritchart was no expert on treecats — as far as she knew, there were no Havenite experts on the telempathic arboreals –but she’d read everything she could get her hands on about them. Even if she hadn’t, she thought, she would have recognized the protectiveness in the way the ‘cat’s tail wrapped around the front of his person’s throat.

    And if she’d happened to miss Nimitz’s attitude, no one could ever have missed the wary watchfulness of the trio of green-uniformed men following at Alexander-Harrington’s heels. Pritchart had read about them, too, and she could feel Sheila Thiessen’s disapproving tension at her back as her own bodyguard glared at their holstered pulsers.

    Thiessen had pitched three kinds of fits when she found out President Pritchart proposed to allow armed retainers of an admiral in the service of a star nation with which the Republic of Haven happened to be at war into her presence. In fact, she’d flatly refused to allow it — refused so adamantly Pritchart had more than half-feared she and the rest of her detachment would place their own head of state under protective arrest to prevent it. In the end, it had taken a direct order from the Attorney General and Kevin Usher, the Director of the Federal Investigation Agency, to overcome her resistance.

    Pritchart understood Thiessen’s reluctance. On the other hand, Alexander-Harrington had to be just as aware of how disastrous it would be for something to happen to Pritchart as Pritchart was of how disastrous it would be to allow something to happen to her.

    What was it Thomas told me they used to call that back on Old Earth? ‘Mutually assured destruction,’ wasn’t it? Well, however stupid it may’ve sounded — hell, however stupid it may actually have been! — at least it worked well enough for us to last until we managed to get off the planet. Besides, Harrington’s got a pulser built into her left hand, for God’s sake! Is Sheila planning to make her check her prosthesis at the door? Leave it in the umbrella stand?

    She snorted softly, amused by her own thoughts, and Alexander-Harrington’s head turned in her direction, almost as if the Manticoran had sensed that amusement from clear across the landing pad. For the first time, their eyes met directly in the floodlit night, and Pritchart inhaled deeply. She wondered if she would have had the courage to come all alone to the capital planet of a star nation whose fleet she’d shattered in combat barely six T-months in the past. Especially when she had very good reason to feel confident the star nation in question had done its level best to assassinate her a T-year before she’d added that particular log to the fire of its reasons to . . . dislike her. Pritchart liked to think she would have found the nerve, under the right circumstances, yet she knew she could never really know the answer to that question.

    But whether she would have had the courage or not, Alexander-Harrington obviously did, and at a time when the Star Kingdom’s military advantage over the Republic was so devastating there was absolutely no need for her to do anything of the sort. Pritchart’s amusement faded into something very different, and she stepped forward, extending her hand, as Alexander-Harrington led her trio of bodyguards down the boarding stairs.

    “This is an unexpected meeting, Admiral Alexander-Harrington.”

    “I’m sure it is, Madam President.” Alexander-Harrington’s accent was crisp, her soprano surprisingly sweet for a woman of her size and formidable reputation, and Pritchart had the distinct impression that the hand gripping hers was being very careful about the way it did so.

    Of course it is, she thought. It wouldn’t do for her to absentmindedly crush a few bones at a moment like this!

    “I understand you have a message for me,” the president continued out loud. “Given the dramatic fashion in which you’ve come to deliver it, I’m prepared to assume it’s an important one.”

    “Dramatic, Madam President?”

    Despite herself, Pritchart’s eyebrows rose as she heard Alexander-Harrington’s unmistakable amusement. It wasn’t the most diplomatic possible reaction to the admiral’s innocent tone, but under the circumstances, Pritchart couldn’t reprimand herself for it too seriously. After all, the Manticorans were just as capable of calculating the local time of day here in Nouveau Paris as her own staffers would have been of calculating the local time in the City of Landing.

    “Let’s just say, then, Admiral, that your timing’s gotten my attention,” she said dryly after a moment. “As, I feel certain, it was supposed to.”

    “To be honest, I suppose it was, Madam President.” There might actually have been a hint of apology in Alexander-Harrington’s voice, although Pritchart wasn’t prepared to bet anything particularly valuable on that possibility. “And you’re right, of course. It is important.”

    “Well, in that case, Admiral, why don’t you — and your armsmen, of course — accompany me to my office so you can tell me just what it is.”

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