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Mission of Honor: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Saturday, June 26, 2010 10:01 EDT



    “I have to agree with Duchess Harrington,” Thomas Theisman said as the imagery from Sheila Thiessen’s personal recorder came to an end. He tipped back in his chair, eyes pensive. “It would be a tragedy.”

    “Especially if she’s telling the truth,” Leslie Montreau agreed. “Of course, that’s one of the major rubs, isn’t it? Is she telling the truth?” The secretary of state shrugged. “It all hangs together, and I’m inclined to think she is, but you have to admit, Tom. It would be very convenient from her perspective if we bought into this notion that Mesa’s version of Green Pines is a completely fabricated effort at disinformation.”

    “You’re right,” Pritchart acknowledged, and looked at Denis LePic. The attorney general had been sitting there with a peculiar expression while the imagery replayed, and now she crooked an eyebrow at him.

    “Why is it, Denis,” she asked shrewdly, “that you don’t seem any more astonished than you do to hear Duchess Harrington’s version of one of your senior intelligence officer’s perambulations about the galaxy?”

    “Because I’m not,” LePic admitted in tones of profound resignation.

    “Wait a minute.” Theisman looked at the attorney general — who also ran the Republic’s civilian intelligence services — in obvious surprise. “You’re telling me you really didn’t even know where Cachat was? I mean, he really did take himself off to a Manty flagship in the middle of a war without even mentioning the possibility he might do something like that? Forgive me, but isn’t he the man in charge of all FIS operations in Erewhon and Congo?”

    “Yes,” LePic sighed. “And, no, he didn’t mention anything sort to me. Of course, I didn’t know we didn’t know where he was until this afternoon. Not until Eloise asked me to verify Duchess Harrington’s story, at any rate. For all I know — or all I can prove, anyway — he might’ve been ambushed and devoured by space hamsters!” The attorney general’s expression was that of a man whose patience had been profoundly tried. “And I’m fairly confident no one in Wilhelm’s shop’s been covering up for him, either. No one knew where he’d gone — not even Kevin.”

    Montreau had joined the secretary of war in looking at LePic in disbelief. Pritchart, on the other hand, only sat back in her chair with the air of a woman confronting the inevitable.

    “And how long has this state of affairs obtained?” Theisman asked politely. “I mean, in the Navy, we like to have our station commanders and our task force commanders report in occasionally. Just so we’ve got some notion of what they’re up to, you understand.”

    “Very funny,” LePic said sourly. Then he looked at Pritchart. “You know Kevin’s been rubbing off on Cachat from the very beginning. By now, I don’t know which of them is the bigger loose warhead! If it weren’t for the fact the two of them keep producing miracles, I’d fire both of them, if only to get rid of the anxiety quotient.”

    “I often felt that way about Kevin when we were in the Resistance,” Pritchart admitted. “But, as you say, both our pet lunatics have that annoying habit of coming through in the crunch. On the other hand, I believe you were about to tell Tom how long Cachat’s been incommunicado?”

    “Actually, I was trying to avoid telling him,” LePic admitted, and smiled even more sourly. “The truth is that it tracks entirely too well with what Alexander-Harrington’s had to say. Our last report from him is over six T-months old.”

    “What?” Montrose sat abruptly upright. “One of your station chiefs has been missing for six months, and you don’t have a clue where he’s gone?”

    “I know it sounds ridiculous,” LePic said more than a little defensively. “In fact, I asked Wilhelm very much that same question this afternoon. He says he hadn’t mentioned it to me because he couldn’t have told me anything very much, since he didn’t know very much. I’m inclined to believe that’s the truth, mostly. Actually, though, I think a lot of the reason he kept his mouth shut was that he was hoping Cachat would turn back up again before anyone asked where he was.” The attorney general shrugged. “In a lot of ways, I can’t fault Wilhelm’s thinking. After all, he’s the FIS’s director. Cachat reports to him, not me, and as a general rule, I don’t even try to keep up with Wilhelm’s operations unless they develop specific, important intelligence that’s brought to my attention. And as Wilhelm pointed out, it’s not as if this were the first time Cachat’s just dropped off the radar, and he’s always produced results when it’s happened in the past.”

    “But if someone else has gotten their hands on him, Denis, isn’t he in a position to do enormous damage?” Theisman asked very seriously.

    “Yes and no,” LePic replied. “First of all, I think — as Duchess Harrington’s description of her conversation with him indicates — it would be extraordinarily difficult for someone to take him alive to start with. And, second, I doubt anyone would get anything out of Victor Cachat under duress even if they did manage to capture him. I don’t know if you’ve ever met the man, Tom, but, believe me, he’s about as scary as they come. Think of Kevin Usher with less of a sense of humor, just as much principle a lot closer to the surface, and even more focus.”

    Theisman obviously found that description more than a little disturbing, and this time LePic’s smile held a glimmer of amusement.

    “On the other hand, no one’s going to rely on even Cachat’s ability to resist rigorous interrogation forever. His assistant station chief in Erewhon is Special Officer Sharon Justice. She’s acting as special-officer-in-charge until Cachat gets back, and Wilhelm tells me that on Cachat’s specific instructions, one of her first acts as SOIC was to change all communication protocols. Somebody might be able to get the identities of at least some of his sources out of him — I doubt it, frankly, but anything is possible — but I don’t think anyone’s likely to be able to compromise his entire network with Justice in charge.”

    “Justice. She was one of the StateSec officers involved in that business at La Martine, wasn’t she?” Pritchart said thoughtfully.

    “She was,” LePic agreed.

    “Which means she’s going to feel a powerful sense of personal loyalty to Cachat,” Pritchart pointed out.

    “She does.” LePic nodded. “On the other hand, everything Cachat’s accomplished out there’s been done on the basis of personal relationships.” The attorney general shrugged. “I won’t pretend I don’t wish the man could operate at least a little more by The Book, but no one can argue with his results. Or the fact that he’s probably got more penetration — at secondhand, perhaps, but still penetration — into the Manties than anyone else we’ve got, given his relationship with Ruth Winton and Anton Zilwicki. Not to mention the fact that he’s damned near personally responsible for the existence of Torch.”

    “I know. That’s why I took him away from Kevin and gave him to Wilhelm,” Pritchart said. “On the other hand, it does sound like what little we do know corroborates Duchess Harrington’s version of events.”

    “I think so,” LePic agreed with the air of a man who didn’t really want to admit any such thing. “At any rate, Cachat’s last report did say he’d concluded that since we weren’t involved in the attempt on Queen Berry, it had to have been someone else, and that the someone else in question had motives which were obviously inimical to the Republic. He’d reached that conclusion, I might add, even before we’d learned here in Nouveau Paris that the attempt had been made. By the time his report reached Wilhelm, he’d already pulled the plug, handed over to Justice, and disappeared.”



    “As in disappeared aboard a Manticoran flagship at Trevor’s Star with a suicide device in his pocket just in case, you mean? That sort of ‘disappeared’?”

    “Yes, Madam President,” LePic said a bit more formally than was his wont.

    Pritchart gazed at him for several seconds, swinging her chair gently from side to side. Then she snorted.

    “My, my, my,” she murmured with a crooked smile. “Only Victor Cachat. Now that Kevin’s out of the field, anyway.”

    “You’re telling us,” Montreau said, speaking with the careful precision of someone determined to make certain they really had heard correctly, “that one of FIS’s station chiefs really went, with a known Manticoran intelligence operative, to a star system the Manties have declared a closed military reservation, for a personal conversation with the commanding officer of their Eighth Fleet before the Battle of Lovat? And then went off on a completely unauthorized operation to Mesa? Which apparently ran right into the middle of whatever really happened at Green Pines?”

    LePic only nodded, and Montreau sat back in her chair with an expression of utter disbelief.

    “Actually, it makes sense, you know,” Theisman said thoughtfully after a moment.

    “Makes sense?” Montreau repeated incredulously.

    “From what I know of Cachat — although I hasten to admit it’s all second or third hand, since I’ve never met him personally — he spends a lot of time operating by intuition. In fact, any way you look at it, a huge part of those successes Denis was just talking about have resulted from a combination of that institution with the personal contacts and relationships he’s established And you’ve met Alexander-Harrington now, Leslie. If you were going to reach out to a highly placed member of an enemy star nation’s political and military establishment because you were convinced someone was trying to sabotage peace talks between us and them, could you think of a better person to risk contacting?”

    Montreau started to reply, then stopped, visibly thought for a moment or two, and shook her head, almost against her will.

    “I’m willing to bet that was pretty much Cachat’s analysis,” LePic agreed with a nod. “And, if it was, it obviously worked, given Duchess Harrington’s evident attitude towards the negotiations. Not only that, but it set up the situation in which she brought us her version of what really happened on Mesa.”

    His three listeners looked at one another with suddenly thoughtful expressions.

    “You know, Denis,” Theisman said in a gentler tone, “if he’s been out of contact this long, the most likely reason is that he and Zilwicki were both killed on Mesa.”

    “I do know,” LePic admitted. “On the other hand, this is Victor Cachat we’re talking about. And he and Zilwicki are both — or at least were both — very competent operators. They almost certainly built firebreaks into and between their covers, whatever they were, on Mesa, not to mention multiple escape strategies. So it really is possible Zilwicki could have gone down without Mesa’s ever realizing Cachat was there. And if the two of them were deep enough under, especially somewhere as far away as the Mesa System, three or four months — or even longer — isn’t all that long a lag in communications. Not from a covert viewpoint, at least. I don’t know about Manticore or the Ballroom, but we don’t have any established conduits between here and Mesa, so his communications would have been circuitous at the very least, and probably a lot less than secure. And don’t forget — it’s been less than four months since Green Pines. If he did avoid capture, he might have been forced to lie low on the planet for quite a while before he could work out a way to get back out again. And if that’s the case, he damned well wouldn’t have trusted any conduit he could jury-rig to get reports back to us just so we wouldn’t worry about him! For all I know, he’s on his way home right this minute!”

    Theisman looked doubtful, and Montreau looked downright skeptical. Pritchart, on the other hand, had considerably more hands-on experience in the worlds of espionage and covert operations than either of them did. Besides, she thought, LePic had a point. It was Victor Cachat they were talking about, and that young man had demonstrated a remarkable talent for survival even under the most unpromising circumstances.

    “All right,” she said, leaning forward and folding her forearms on her desk, “I’m with you, Denis, in wishing we knew something about what happened to Cachat. There’s nothing we can do about that, though, and I think we’re pretty much in agreement that what we do know from our end effectively confirms what Duchess Harrington’s told us?”

    She looked around at her advisers’ faces, and, one by one, they nodded.

    “In that case,” the president continued, “I think it behooves us to pay close attention to her warning about Elizabeth’s patience and the . . . how did she put it? The ‘flexibility’ of Manticore’s options. I don’t know that I buy into the notion that this was deliberately aimed at Manticore and Haven alike, that Mesa wants Manticore to trash the Republic before the League trashes Manticore. I think it’s at least remotely possible, though. More to the point, it doesn’t matter if that’s what they’re trying to do if that’s what they end up doing, anyway. So I think it’s up to us to make sure our own problem children at the negotiating table don’t decide to try to take advantage of this.”

    “And exactly how do you propose to do that, Madam President?” Theisman asked skeptically.

    “Actually,” Pritchart said with a chilling smile, “I don’t plan to say a word to them about it.”

    “No?” There was no disguising the anxiety in Denis LePic’s voice . . . nor any indication that the attorney general had tried very hard to disguise it.

    “It’s called ‘plausible deniability,’ Denis,” she replied with that same shark-like smile. “I’d love to simply march all of them in at pulser point to sign on the dotted line, but I’m afraid if I tried that, Younger, at least, would call my bluff. So I can’t just shut him up every time he starts throwing up those roadblocks of his. That’s part of the political process, unfortunately, and we don’t need to be setting any iron-fist precedents for repressing political opponents. Despite that, however, I think I can bring myself to compromise my sense of political moral responsibility far enough to keep him from using this roadblock, at least.”

    “How?” This time the question came from Theisman.

    “By using our lunatic who hasn’t gone missing.” Pritchart chuckled coldly. “Everyone knows Kevin Usher is a total loose cannon. I’m pretty sure that if he called Younger and McGwire, let’s say, in for confidential in-depth briefings and was very careful to speak to both of them off the record, with no embarrassing recordings, and no inconvenient witnesses to misconstrue anything he might say, he could convince them it would be . . . unwise to use these unfortunate and obviously groundless allegations out of Mesa for partisan political advantage.”

    “Threaten them with, ah, direct action, you mean?” Unlike LePic, Theisman seemed to have no particular qualms with the notion, and Pritchart’s smile turned almost seraphic.

    “Oh, no, Tom!” She shook her head and clucked her tongue reprovingly. “Kevin never threatens. He only predicts probable outcomes from time to time.” The humor disappeared from her smile as the shark surfaced once more. “He doesn’t do it all that often, but when he does,” the president of the Republic of Haven finished, “he’s never wrong.”

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