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Chapter Twenty-One

"Good evening, Senator."

Arnold Giancola pressed the hold key on the document viewer in his lap as one of his bodyguards opened the limousine door.

"Good evening, Giuseppe," Senator Jason Giancola said, nodding courteously to the security man as he slid in through the opened door to join his older brother in the luxurious passenger compartment.

Giuseppe Lauder closed the door behind him, gave the immediate vicinity a quick scan, then waved to the chase car and climbed into the front passenger seat beside the driver.

"Central, State One is departing for the Octagon," he said into his boom mike.

"Central copies, Giuseppe. State One departing the Residence for the Octagon at . . . eighteen-thirty-one hours."

The response wasn't exactly by The Book, but Camille Begin had the Central Dispatch watch this evening, and she and Lauder had worked together for over three years.

"Confirm, Central," Lauder said. He nodded to the driver, and the limo and its chase car lifted quietly into the evening.

* * *

"Just what's this 'emergency meeting' all about, Arnold?" Jason Giancola asked.

"You're asking me?" Arnold replied. "You're the one on the Naval Oversight Committee, Jason! And—" he smiled without much humor "—our good friend Thomas Theisman seems to've lost my personal com combination these days."

"Because he hates your guts," the younger Giancola said seriously. Arnold cocked an eyebrow at him, and Jason frowned. "I know you're the brains, Arnold. I've never pretended you weren't. But I'm telling you, that man is dangerous."

"I never thought he wasn't," Arnold said mildly. "On the other hand, he believes passionately in due process. Until—and unless—I do something illegal, he's not going to take the law into his own hands, however much he and I may . . . disagree."

"Maybe not," Jason conceded. "But getting back to my original question, I don't know any more about this meeting than you do. Except for the fact that I got my invitation as the ranking minority member of the Naval Committee. So whatever it is, it sounds like it's got a military dimension."

"What doesn't, these days?" Arnold said philosophically.

"Not much."

Jason glanced up to be certain the partition between the passenger compartment and the driver's compartment was closed, and that the privacy light on the intercom was illuminated. Then he looked very intently at his older brother.

"I don't know everything you've been doing, Arnold. But I do have my own sources, and according to one of them, someone inside the FIA is showing an awful lot of interest in Yves Gros-claude. I'm not going to ask you to tell me anything you don't want me to know, but the source who handed me that seems to think the interest in question has something to do with you, as well. Which, to be honest, is one reason I mentioned the fact that Theisman doesn't like you very much."

"Interest in Yves?"

Arnold blinked mildly at the Senator, his expression only moderately curious. After all, it wasn't as if Jason's warning was the first he'd heard about it. Jean-Claude Nesbitt had informed him four days ago that someone else had finally quietly—and quite illegally—accessed Grosclaude's documentary file. The information had produced a slight adrenaline jag, but mostly, what he'd felt was something very like relief.

"I don't have the least idea why anyone should be officially interested in Yves, Jason," he said after a moment, his gaze candid. "And if someone is, I don't see how it could possibly concern me."

* * *

His name was Axel Lacroix, and he was twenty-six T-years old. His family had been Dolists for three generations, until the First Manticoran War. He'd been only a child when that war began, but he'd grown to young adulthood against its backdrop. He'd seen his family move off the BLS at last, seen his parents regain their self-respect, despite the oppressive grip of the Committee of Public Safety and State Security. He'd seen the changes beginning in the educational system, seen the even greater changes his younger siblings had faced when they entered school. And he'd seen the restoration of the Constitution and the concepts of personal responsibility . . . and liberty.

He'd been too young to serve in the First War, and he knew his parents really would have preferred for him to remain a civilian. But he owed a debt for all of those changes, and so when the fighting resumed, he'd enlisted in the Republican Marines.

Because of his occupation—he was a trained shipyard worker—his induction had been delayed, but orders to report for duty had finally been delivered to his modest apartment the day before.

He couldn't say the prospect didn't worry him. It did. He wasn't an idiot, after all. But he also had no regrets. He'd spent most of yesterday with his family, and today it had been time for the "going away party" his buddies and fellow workers at the yard had put together for him. The alcohol had flowed freely, there'd been laughter, and some tears, but no one had really been surprised. And since he was under orders to report the next day, he'd decided it was time for him to turn in early and sleep off as much of the conviviality as he could.

"You're sure you're okay to drive, Axel?" Angelo Goldbach asked as they walked across the parking garage.

"Of course I am," Axel replied. "It's not very far, anyway."

"I could run you home," Angelo offered.

"Don't be silly. I'm fine, I tell you. Besides, if you did, we'd probably sit up late drinking, and I need the sleep. And Georgina would hunt me down and hurt me if I kept you out all night again."

"If you're sure," Angelo said.

They reached Angelo's parking stall, and he stood looking at his friend for a moment, then swept him into a quick, rough embrace.

"You watch your ass, Axel," he said, standing back and shaking Lacroix gently by the shoulders.

"Damn straight," Lacroix said jauntily, a little embarrassed by Goldbach's intensity. He smacked his friend on the upper arm, watched Goldbach climb into his car and pull out of the parking stall, then continued to his own vehicle.

The runabout wasn't very new, but personal vehicles of any sort were still relatively rare, especially here in the capital city, where most people relied on mass transit. For Lacroix, though, the slightly battered, jaunty little sports air car had always symbolized his and his family's success in proving they were more than simply one more clan of Dolist drones. Besides—he grinned as he unlocked the door and settled into the front seat—it might be old, but it was still fast, nimble, and downright fun to fly.

* * *

"Five minutes, Mr. Secretary."

"Thank you," Arnold Giancola acknowledged Giuseppe Lauder's warning and began sliding his document viewer and sheafs of record chips into his briefcase.

"Well, Jason," he said with a smile, "I imagine we'll be finding out shortly what all the mystery is about. And just between the two of us—"

"Ten o'clock!"

Giancola's head snapped up at Lauder's sudden shout. The limousine swerved wildly, yanking hard to the right, and the Secretary of State's head whipped around to the left.

He just had time to see the runabout coming.

* * *

"With your permission, Madam President, I'll have Admiral Lewis go ahead and begin the briefing," Secretary of War Thomas Theisman said.

Eloise Pritchart looked at him, then glanced at the two empty chairs at the conference table.

"I realize the situation is serious," she said, after a moment. "But I think we might give the Secretary of State a few more minutes."

There might have been just the tiniest hint of a reprimand in her voice, although only someone who knew her well would have recognized it as such. Theisman did, and he bobbed his head very slightly in acknowledgment. One or two of the other people seated around the table seemed to have some difficulty suppressing smiles as they observed the byplay. But Secretary of Technology Henrietta Barloi, one of Giancola's staunchest allies in the Cabinet, was not among them.

"I certainly agree, Madam President," she said frostily. "In fact—"

"Excuse me, Ma'am."

Pritchart turned her head, eyebrows rising in mild surprise at the interruption. Sheila Thiessen, the senior member of her security detachment, was a past mistress at being totally unobtrusive at high level, sensitive meetings. She also possessed a formidable degree of self-control—what Kevin Usher called a "poker face"—which made her present stunned expression almost frightening.

"Yes, Sheila?" Pritchart's voice was sharper than usual, sharper than she'd intended it to be. "What is it?"

"There's been an accident, Madam President. Secretary Giancola's limousine's been involved in a mid-air."

"What?" Pritchart stared at Thiessen. Shock seemed to paralyze her vocal cords for a moment, then she shook herself. "How bad is it? Was the Secretary injured?"

"I . . . don't have the details yet," Thiessen said, brushing her unobtrusive earbug with a fingertip as if to indicate the source of what she did know. "But it doesn't sound good." She cleared her throat. "The preliminary message said there appear to have been no survivors, Ma'am."

* * *

"Jesus. I did not need this on top of everything else."

Thomas Theisman leaned back in his chair, rubbing both eyes with the heels of his hands. The emergency meeting had been hastily adjourned while the President dealt with the stunning news that her Secretary of State and his brother were both dead. Theisman couldn't fault her priorities, especially not in light of the inevitable time delays in the transmission of any messages or orders over interstellar distances. It wasn't as if responding to what had prompted the meeting in the first place was as time-critical as dealing with the immediate consequences of what promised to be a fundamental shift in the Republic's domestic politics.

But now that everyone who needed to be informed had been told and Pritchart had released her official statement (which dutifully expressed her profound regrets over the unexpected demise of her valued colleague and longtime friend), the President and her closest advisers and allies—Theisman himself, Denis LePic, Rachel Hanriot, Kevin Usher, and Wilhelm Trajan—had assembled in the Secretary of War's Octagon office.

"Oh, we didn't need it in more ways than you know, Tom," Pritchart said wearily. The last three hours had been a hectic whirl, and even she looked a little frazzled around the edges.

"Especially not combined with the news of the Manties' raids," Hanriot said sourly. "What's that old saying about when it rains it pours?"

"I expect public opinion isn't going to take kindly to the news the Manties just bloodied our nose," Theisman agreed. "On the other hand, it's possible what happened to Giancola will actually distract the newsies. And let's be honest here—I don't think anyone in this room is especially going to miss him."

"You might be surprised." Pritchart's tone was bleak, and Theisman frowned at her.

"What do you mean, Eloise? You've been sounding semi-cryptic all evening."

"I know. I know!"

The President shook her head. But instead of explaining immediately, she looked at Usher.

"Have you heard from Abrioux, Kevin?"

"Yes, I have." Usher's voice was deeper than usual. "All the preliminary indications are that it was a genuine accident."

Theisman looked back and forth between the President and the FIA Director.

"And just why shouldn't it have been a 'genuine accident'?" he asked. "I admit I detested the man, but I promise I didn't have him killed!"

Nobody smiled, and his frown deepened.

"How did it happen?" Pritchart asked Usher. "I mean, a traffic accident less than five minutes from the Octagon!"

"According to the forensics team's preliminary, the other driver—an Axel Lacroix," Usher said, consulting his memo pad's display "—was well over the legal limit for blood-alcohol. Basically, he was simply flying on manual, rather than under traffic control, and he failed to yield and broadsided Giancola's limo at a high rate of speed."

"Flying on manual?" LePic repeated. "If his blood-alcohol was so high, why was he on manual?"

"We'll have to wait for the tech teams to complete their examination of the wreckage, but Lacroix was driving an older model runabout. Right off the top of my head, I'd guess the internal sensors weren't working properly. Hell, I suppose it's even possible he deliberately disconnected the safety overrides. It's against the law, of course, but a lot of people used to do it simply because traffic control was so spotty they didn't trust it in an emergency. At any rate, for some reason the overrides which should have locked someone in his condition out of manual control didn't do it."

"Oh, how perfectly fucking wonderful," Pritchart said bitterly, and Theisman leaned forward, both palms flat on his desk.

"All right," he said, his voice the flat, no-nonsense one of a flag officer accustomed to command, "suppose you just explain to me what the hell is going on here?"

If anyone in that room—with the possible exception of Hanriot—found his tone an inappropriate one in which to address the President of the Republic, they didn't say so.

"Tom," Pritchart said instead, her voice very serious, "this is going to open an incredible can of worms."

Theisman looked like a man in serious danger of spontaneously exploding, and she went on in the same flat, hard tone.

"Kevin's been conducting a black investigation of Giancola for almost a month now. Denis has known about it from the beginning, but I didn't tell you about it because, frankly, you're an even worse actor than Denis. You already hated Giancola, and I was afraid you'd have a hard time not making him suspicious that something was going on. I'd intended to bring you fully on board as soon as Kevin's team had anything concrete to report."

"Investigating him over what?" Theisman's eyes were intent, as were Trajan's. Hanriot's expression still showed more puzzlement than anything else, but alarm was beginning to show, as well.

"Investigating the possibility that he falsified our diplomatic correspondence, not the Manties," Pritchart sighed.

"That he what?" Theisman erupted to his feet. Trajan didn't even move, as if astonishment had frozen him, and Hanriot jerked back as if Pritchart had slapped her.

"Kevin," Pritchart said harshly. "Tell them."

All eyes swivelled to the FIA chief, and he sighed.

"It all started when I began asking myself a few questions I couldn't answer," he said. "And when I started trying to find the answers, it turned out that—"

* * *

"—so we finally hacked into Grosclaude's attorney's files four days ago," Usher concluded, several minutes later. "And when we did, we found Grosclaude had apparently tucked away evidence which incontrovertibly proved Giancola was responsible for altering both our own outgoing diplomatic correspondence and the incoming notes from the Manties."

"Let me get this straight," Theisman said in a dangerously calm voice. "You found this file four days ago, and this is the very first I'm hearing about it?"

"First," Pritchart said crisply, "you're the Secretary of War, Tom Theisman. You are not the Attorney General, you aren't a judge or magistrate, and you had no pressing 'need to know' until we'd been able to confirm things one way or the other."

Steely topaz eyes met angry eyes of brown, and it was the brown ones which looked away.

"Second," the President said slightly more mildly, "as I've already mentioned, your thespian abilities leave something to be desired in a politician operating at your level.

"Third, despite the fact that I very unofficially authorized Kevin's investigation, it's been totally black and, to be perfectly honest, operating outside the law. You wouldn't have been very happy to hear about that. And even if you'd been prepared to sing joyous hosannas, there was the minor problem that the only evidence we had was illegally obtained.

"And, fourth—" She gestured at Usher.

"And, fourth," Usher took over, "the evidence in the files was clearly fabricated."


Any number of people would have been prepared to testify that Thomas Theisman was a tough-minded individual, but he was beginning to sound undeniably shellshocked.

"There are at least three significant internal inconsistencies," Usher said. "They aren't at all obvious on a first read-through, but they become quite apparent when you analyze the entire file carefully."

"So Giancola didn't do it?"

"On the basis of the documentary evidence we currently possess, no," Usher said. "In fact, on the basis of the evidence, it looks very much as if Grosclaude did it and intended to frame Giancola if and when his actions were discovered."

"Why do I seem to hear a 'but' hovering in the background?"

"Because I'm pretty sure that somehow or other it was actually Giancola who fabricated the files we found and then planted them on Grosclaude. After having him murdered."

"In an 'air car accident,'" Theisman said.

"There seem to be a lot of those going around," Usher agreed with mordant humor.

"So you see our problem, Tom? And you, Rachel?" Pritchart said. "The only 'evidence' we've actually been able to turn up—illegally—is demonstrably falsified. Apparently, it was intended to implicate Giancola, which would undoubtedly be construed by a lot of people, especially his allies and supporters, as proof he was actually innocent. However, we have the fact that the person who supposedly falsified it was killed in what Kevin and I both consider to be a highly suspicious 'accident.' And now, unfortunately, our only other suspect has just been killed in yet another air car accident. Bearing in mind just how fond of similar 'accidents' both the Legislaturalists and StateSec were, how do you suppose public opinion—or Congress—is going to react if we lay this whole—What did you call it, Kevin? Oh, yes. If we lay this whole 'shit sandwich' out on the public information boards?"

"But if he did do it, then our entire justification for going back to war disappears." Theisman shook his head, his expression haunted.

"Yes, it does," Pritchart said unflinchingly. "I could argue—-convincingly, I think—that what the High Ridge Government actually did do would have justified our threatening to use force, or actually using it, to compel the Manties to negotiate in good faith. Unfortunately, that isn't what we did. We used force because we appeared to have evidence they were negotiating in bad faith, and we published the diplomatic correspondence they'd falsified to prove our point.

"And that, however much we may regret it, and however we got there, is the point we have to begin from now. We're in a war. A popular war, with powerful political support. And all we have is a theory, evidence we can't use (and which was probably manufactured), and two dead governmental officials, who we'll never be able to convince the public died in genuine accidents. And on top of that, we've got the news of these raids by Harrington."

She shook her head.

"How bad were the raids?" Hanriot asked. Theisman looked at her, and the Treasury Secretary grimaced. "Look, part of this is probably a case of my looking for anything to distract me from this little vest pocket nuke Eloise and Kevin have just dropped on us. On the other hand, I really do need to know—both as the head of the Treasury Department and if I'm going to be able to offer any opinion on how news of them would combine with all the rest of this."

"Um." Theisman frowned, then shrugged. "All right, I see your point, Rachel."

He tipped his chair back again, clearly marshaling his thoughts.

"To put it bluntly," he said, after a moment, "Harrington just gave us an object lesson in how rear area raids ought to be conducted. She hit Gaston, Tambourin, Squalus, Hera, and Hallman, and there's not a damned bit of orbital industry left in any of them."

"You're joking." Hanriot sounded shocked.

"No," Theisman said in a tone of massive self-restraint, "I'm not. They took out everything. And, in the process, they also destroyed our defensive forces in all five systems."

"How much did you lose?" Pritchart asked.

"Two battleships, seven battlecruisers, four old cruisers, three destroyers, and over a thousand LACs," Theisman said flatly. "And before anyone says anything else," he continued, "as depressing as those numbers are, remember the pickets were spread across five separate star systems. None of the system commanders had anything like the forces he would've required to stand off an attack planned this carefully and executed in such force. And all of that is a direct consequence of the deployment patterns I authorized."

"But if they took out everything," Hanriot said, "then the economic consequences are—"

"The economic damage is going to be bad," Theisman said. "But in the final analysis, all five of the systems were effectively noncontributors to the war effort. And, for that matter, to the economy as a whole."

Hanriot started to bristle, but Theisman shook his head.

"Rachel, that's based on your own department's analysis. Remember the one you and Tony Nesbitt put together before Thunderbolt?"

Hanriot settled back in her chair and nodded slowly. After two T-years of hard, unremitting labor, her analysts, in conjunction with Nesbitt's Commerce Department, had completed the first really honest, comprehensive survey of the Republic's economic status in better than a century barely six months before the shooting had started back up.

"All these systems were listed in the 'break even' category," the Secretary of War continued. "At best, they were second-tier systems, and Gaston and Hallman, in particular, had been money-losing propositions under the Legislaturalists. That was turning around, but they were still barely contributing to our positive cash flow. The destruction in the star systems is going to have a net negative effect, I'm sure—your analysts will be able to evaluate that better than I'm in any position to do—because the damage to the local civilian infrastructure means we'll be forced to commit federal relief funds and resources on an emergency basis. But none of them were particularly critical. Which is, frankly, the reason they weren't more heavily defended. We can't be strong everywhere, and the systems we've left most weakly covered are the ones we can most readily survive losing."

"Granted," Pritchart said after a moment. "But what we can afford in cold-blooded economic and industrial terms and what we can afford in terms of public opinion may not be exactly the same thing."

"They almost certainly aren't the same thing, and the Manties clearly understand that," Theisman replied. "Whoever selected their targets did a damned good job. Harrington was able to use relatively limited forces and still attain crushing local superiority. She took virtually no losses of her own, cost us sixteen hyper-capable units in addition to all those LACs, and scored the Manties' first clear-cut offensive victory of the war. And, to be perfectly honest, the fact that they did it under Honor Harrington's command is also going to have an impact. She's something of our own personal bogeyman, after all.

"So, completely exclusive of any physical damage she's done to us," he continued, "this is inevitably going to have an impact in Congress. I've already got the General Staff considering how we're going to respond when the senators and representatives from every system which hasn't been raided yet start demanding we strengthen their covering forces."

"I'm afraid you're absolutely right about what they're going to demand," Pritchart said. "And it's going to be hard to explain why they can't have it."

"No," Theisman disagreed. "It's going to be very easy to explain we can't possibly be strong everywhere, and especially not without frittering away our offensive capability, exactly as the Manties want us to do. What's going to be hard is convincing frightened men and women to listen to the explanation."

"Not just members of Congress, either," LePic said heavily. "It's going to be just as hard to explain to the general public."

"Actually," Pritchart said, "I'm less concerned about explaining that to them, or even explaining how we 'let this happen,' than I am about the impact on public support for the war. It isn't going to undermine it—not at this point, at least. What it's going to do is further inflame public opinion."

"I admit it could have that effect," Trajan said, "but—"

"No, Wilhelm. She's right," Hanriot interrupted. "Public opinion has been riding a sustained emotional high since Thunderbolt. As far as the woman in the street's concerned, we cleaned the Manties' clock everywhere except at Sidemore, and there's a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, of having rehabilitated ourselves as a major military power. I think it would be impossible to overestimate the degree to which our sense of national pride has rebounded with the restoration of the Constitution, the turnaround in the economy, and now the successful reconquest of the occupied systems, coupled with the enormous losses we've inflicted on the Manties' navy. So far, this has got to have been the most popular war in our history.

"And what's happened now?" She shrugged. "The Manties have punched us back. They've hurt us, and they've demonstrated that they may be able to do it again. But our actual naval losses, however painful they may be, are literally nothing compared to the losses we inflicted on them in Thunderbolt. So what's going to happen, at least in the short term, is that public opinion's going to demand we go out and whack the Manties back, harder, to demonstrate to them that they don't want to piss us off. There's going to be some panic, some shouting about reinforcing to protect our more vulnerable star systems, but mostly, people are going to figure the best way to do that is to finish Manticore off, once and for all."

"I'm afraid Rachel's right, Wilhelm," Pritchart said. "And that's one reason I wish to hell Arnold hadn't gotten his goddamned traitorous ass killed this evening. If I'm ever going to go public with all this, this would be the best time to do it—now, immediately. The longer we wait, the more suspect the theory's going to look for anyone who's not already inclined to believe it. But there's absolutely nothing concrete we can give the newsies, Congress, or anybody else, only theories and suspicions we can't prove. If I did what I really ought to do—ordered a standstill of our own forces, told the Manties what we think happened, and asked for an immediate cease-fire—I'd probably be impeached, even assuming anyone in Congress, or any of Arnold's allies in the Cabinet, were prepared to believe us for a moment. And, frankly, I don't know if the Constitution could survive the kind of dogfight this would turn into."

Silence hung heavily in the office for at least two minutes. Then Theisman shook himself.

"Bottom line time, Madam President," he said. "As I see it, we have two options. One is to do what you 'really ought to do' on the basis of what we think happened. The other is to vigorously pursue military victory, or at least our efforts to attain a sufficiently powerful position of military advantage to force the Manties to accept our original, fairly limited objectives. What I don't think we can do is try to accomplish both of those at once."

"Not without some sort of proof of what happened," Hanriot agreed.

"At the moment, I think it's entirely possible we'll never have that sort of proof," Usher cautioned. "These are awfully muddy waters, and the only two people who really knew what happened—Grosclaude and Giancola—are both dead."

"Sooner or later we're going to have to get to the bottom of it, and it's going to have to be done publicly," Pritchart said. "There's no other way for an open society which believes in the rule of law to handle it. And if we don't do it now, then when we finally get around to it, all of us—and especially me, as President—are going to be castigated for delaying open disclosure. Our personal reputations, and quite possibly everything we've accomplished, are going to come under attack, and a lot of it's going to be vicious and ugly. And, to be perfectly honest, we'll deserve it."

She looked around the office, her shoulders squared.

"Unfortunately," she said into the silence, "at this moment, I don't see any choice. Kevin, keep looking. Find us something. But until he does," she swept the office once again with her eyes, "I see no option but to keep our suspicions to ourselves and get on with winning my goddamned war."


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