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Chapter Forty-Five

"Good morning, everyone," Eloise Pritchart said as she walked briskly into the sunlit chamber.

The Cabinet Room was on the eastern side of the President's official residence, and the tide of morning light which flooded in through the extensive windows on the room's outer wall gleamed on the expensive, polished conference table, inlaid with half a dozen exotic species of wood. The thick, natural fiber carpet was like a deep pool of cobalt water, with the Presidential Seal floating on it like a golden reflection. All of the chairs, except for Pritchart's own, were upholstered in black; hers was the same blue as the carpet, with the seal of her office emblazoned on its back. Glasses and expensive crystal carafes of ice water sat at each place, and optical pickups on the roof of the building fed the chamber's interior smart walls, which were configured to give a panoramic view of the city of Nouveau Paris and its morning traffic.

"Good morning, Madam President," Thomas Theisman, as her Cabinet's acknowledged senior member, replied for all of them.

According to the presidential succession established by the Constitution, Leslie Montreau, Arnold Giancola's successor as Secretary of State, was technically senior to Theisman, but no one in this room was under any misapprehensions. Theisman's devotion to the Constitution, and his personal determination to avoid the office of President, had been accepted by even the most cynical cabinet secretaries. In a way, however, that only enhanced his powerbase. They knew he had absolutely no personal ambitions and that he stood squarely behind Eloise Pritchart, the Republic's first elected president in three centuries.

And that the Republic's military stood squarely behind him.

Pritchart crossed to her chair, drew it out from the table, sat, and waited a moment while it adjusted to her body. Then she leaned forward very slightly and swept the members of her Cabinet with her eyes.

"I know you're all wondering what this unscheduled meeting is about," she began. "You're about to find out. You're also about to discover some things which only a few people in this room already knew. Those things are going to be shocking, and probably more than a little upsetting, to most of you. Despite that, I believe you'll understand why the details have been kept confidential, but I have a policy initiative in mind that's going to require the full—and fully informed—cooperation of every senior member of this Administration. I hope you'll give me that cooperation."

She had their full attention, she observed, and smiled almost whimsically.

"Denis," she looked at her Attorney General, "would you ask Kevin and Wilhelm to join us?"

"Of course, Madam President."

Denis LePic pressed a key on his terminal. A moment later, a door opened in the western wall, like a gap ripped from the heart of the living, breathing image of Nouveau Paris. Pritchart always found that particular image rather disturbing, and today it seemed more ominous than usual.

She nodded in greeting to them, then indicated the empty chairs provided to either side of LePic. They settled into them, and she returned her attention to her Cabinet, several of whose members were clearly perplexed . . . and not a little apprehensive.

"Kevin and Wilhelm are here to help explain things," she said. "In particular, Kevin is going to be briefing you on something which he brought to my attention almost six T-months ago. The short version of it, Ladies and Gentlemen, is that the High Ridge Government did not falsify our diplomatic correspondence."

The handful of people who'd already known that, like Rachel Hanriot, took it fairly calmly. The rest only stared at her, as if their minds simply weren't up to understanding what she'd said, for the first several seconds. After that, it was hard to say whether consternation, disbelief, or anger was the most predominant emotion. Whatever the emotional mix might have been, however, what it produced was something very like pandemonium.

She let them sputter and wave their hands for fifteen or twenty seconds, then rapped sharply on the table top. The crisp sound penetrated the upheaval, and people sank back in their chairs once again, still stunned-looking, but also more than a little embarrassed by their initial reactions.

"I don't blame you for being surprised," the President said into the renewed silence with generous understatement. "My own reaction when Kevin brought me his hypothesis was very similar. I'm going to ask him to brief you on a black investigation which I authorized. It was off the books, and, frankly, probably not particularly constitutional. Under the circumstances, however, I felt I had no choice but to green-light his efforts, just as I now have no choice but to bring all of you into it."

She looked at Usher.

"Kevin, if you would," she invited.

* * *

"So that's about the size of it," Pritchart said thirty minutes later.

Usher's actual briefing had taken less than ten minutes; the rest of the time had been occupied in answering questions—some incredulous, some hostile, most angry, and all worried—from the rest of the Cabinet.

"But it's all still just speculation," Tony Nesbitt, the Secretary of Commerce, objected. As one of Arnold Giancola's strongest allies in the Cabinet, he still seemed much inclined towards incredulity. "I mean, Director Usher just told us there's no proof."

"No, he didn't, Tony," Rachel Hanriot said.

Nesbitt looked at her, and she returned his gaze with one that was almost compassionate, although they'd generally found themselves on opposite sides of the power struggle between Pritchart and Giancola.

"What he said," she continued, "is that there's no way to prove who on our side did it, although given Arnold's position at State, it's impossible for me to believe he wasn't the prime mover. But even if the Grosclaude documents are forgeries, they're very convincing proof that somebody in the Republic's government falsified the correspondence. At any rate, they seem to me to clearly demonstrate that the Manties have been telling the exact, literal truth about their correspondence. Which strongly suggests they're also telling the truth about the correspondence they say they received from us. Which, again, points the finger squarely at Arnold."

"But . . . but my cousin Jean-Claude is—was—Arnold's security chief," Nesbitt protested. "I can't believe Arnold could've managed something like this without Jean-Claude at least suspecting." He looked at Montreau. "Leslie? Have you found anything at State to support all these allegations?"

Montreau looked acutely uncomfortable. Despite her position in the official hierarchy, she was the newest member of the Cabinet, and she cleared her throat a bit nervously.

"No, I haven't," she said. "On the other hand, Tony, it never would have occurred to me to look for any evidence of such . . . incredible criminal activities. I will say this, however," she added reluctantly. "The security measures in place at State may still be a bit too much like the ones the Legislaturalists and the Committee had in place."

"What do you mean?" Nesbitt asked.

"I mean too much control passes directly through the Secretary's hands," Montreau said bluntly. "I was frankly astonished when I found out how much access to and control of the Department's security processes goes directly through my office. It would never have occurred to me that Secretary Giancola might have done any such thing, but looking at the access I have, and assuming—as Director Usher does—that he had access to the Manties' Foreign Office validation codes, as well, he really could have done it. And I'm afraid that so far, at least, I can't think of anyone else who could have."

Nesbitt sat back in his chair, clearly dismayed. Pritchart regarded him thoughtfully, but as far as she could tell, he was at least as astonished as anyone else in the room. More to the point, he seemed horrified.

"Obviously," she said, after a moment, "I've had to proceed very cautiously where this entire incredible bucket of snakes is concerned. As Kevin and Denis have just explained in answer to your questions, we don't have—and probably never will have—the sort of smoking gun we'd need to convince Congress and the public that what we believe happened actually did. Without that sort of proof, going public would still be a highly risky decision, I believe."

"It may be the only option available to us, Madam President," Nesbitt said after a moment. Everyone looked at him, and he shrugged unhappily. "Don't think I like saying that. God knows if there's anyone in this room Arnold completely fooled, it's me, and I'm going to look like an utter idiot when the newsies finally get hold of this! But if you're right about what happened, then we're fighting a war we were maneuvered into by a member of our own administration." He shook his head. "We can't possibly justify not telling the truth."

"But the President's right," Henrietta Barloi, the Secretary of Technology, objected. "No one's going to believe us, and given what happened to Arnold, everyone is going to think we had him eliminated."

"But why would we have done that?" Nesbitt demanded.

"I'm afraid I can come up with several scenarios, Mr. Secretary," Kevin Usher said.

Everyone looked at him, and he shrugged.

"If I were a conspiracy theorist, or just someone with personal political ambitions or a desire to restore the old régime, my interpretation of what happened might well be that Secretary Giancola figured out what that arch traitor President Pritchart had done to justify seeking a declaration of war. When he learned the truth, she—and, by extension, all of you—ordered his execution. Now, however, we're afraid the truth is going to leak out, and so we're attempting to fasten the blame on the man who's safely dead because we murdered him. All of which demonstrates that our highflown principles and devotion to 'the rule of law' are so much crap. Which means this entire government—not just the administration—is a corrupt edifice built upon a Constitution which is nothing but yet another huge swindle perpetrated on the long-suffering people."

"That's insane," Nesbitt protested.

"Of course it is!" Usher snorted. "The best conspiracy theories usually are! How do you think Cordelia Ransom managed to stay in front of the Mob as long as she did? But if you don't like that one, here's another. Someone else, someone in the security area—probably me or Wilhelm, here—did all of this. Giancola found out, we killed him, and now through a sinister cabal, for reasons of our own, we're trying to bring the war to a less than fully successful conclusion and we've spun this whole theory of Giancola's responsibility as a way to do that. Or, if you don't like that one, it's all an attempt by someone—probably an alliance of some of the Cabinet secretaries and Wilhelm and me—to sabotage the President's fully justified and so far successful war against the evil Manties. Unfortunately, we've managed to pull the wool over her eyes, and she actually believes our preposterous tale about Giancola's doctoring the correspondence. Really, the Manties did it all along, and we murdered him because he was the one man who could have proved they had. Or—"

Nesbitt was looking more than a little cross-eyed by then, and Pritchart raised her hand at Usher.

"That's enough, Kevin," she said. Then she turned her attention fully to Nesbitt. "Kevin can't quite forget he used to be a spook, Tony. He's used to thinking in this kind of twisted, convoluted way. But the point he's making—that God only knows how this entire thing can be spun by power seekers or people simply hostile to the Constitution—is unfortunately valid. And don't any of you believe for a moment that there aren't people out there who fall into those categories. They're not just all ex-SS goons who've gone to earth, hoping for a change in the political climate more favorable to their objectives, either. Unless I'm very much mistaken, Arnold himself was one of the people who see themselves as players under the old Legislaturalist rules and would love to see the Constitution overturned, or at least gelded, so they can get on with it. There are more of them out there, and this situation could play directly into their hands."

"But if we can't go public, what can we do?" Nesbitt asked almost plaintively.

"And," Walter Sanderson, Secretary of the Interior, asked, his eyes narrow, "why tell us about it now? Some of us—like Tony and me—were very close to Arnold. You can't be certain none of us were involved in whatever he was up to. You also can't be certain we're not going to leave this room and immediately spill what you've just told us to the newsies."

"You're right." Pritchart nodded. "In fact, any or all of you could make an excellent case for having a constitutional responsibility to go public with it, whatever I ask you to do. There's no official investigation into it, yet, but I'm pretty sure a case could be made for my decisions to date amounting to an attempt to obstruct justice."

"So why tell us?" Sanderson pressed.

"Because we may have a window of opportunity to negotiate an end to the war," Pritchart told them all.

"What sort of window, Madam President?" Stan Gregory, the Secretary of Urban Affairs, asked, and several other people sat more upright, looking almost hopeful.

"According to Wilhelm and NavInt," Pritchart said, nodding towards Trajan, "the Manties are having serious problems in the Talbott Cluster. We don't have anything like complete information, you understand, but what we do have suggests they're looking at at least the possibility of a shooting confrontation with the League."

Someone inhaled audibly, and Pritchart gave a very thin smile.

The Solarian League was the galaxy's eight-kiloton gorilla. Although she strongly suspected that the League Navy had no idea what sort of vibro blade it would be reaching its fingers into if and when it tangled with the Royal Manticoran Navy, the possibility of the Star Kingdom's successfully standing up against such a towering monolith in the long term was remote, to say the least. No one wanted to take on the Sollies.

"This presents us with two separate possible opportunities," she continued. "On the one hand, if they do get into a war with the Solarian League, our problems, militarily speaking, are solved. They'd have to accept whatever peace terms we chose to offer if they were going to have any hope at all of resisting the League.

"On the other hand, if we offer to negotiate with them now, and let them know we're aware of the pressures they're under in Talbott, then they'll also be aware we aren't actively moving to take advantage of this diversion . . . but that we could, if we wanted to.

"So my idea is to propose a direct summit meeting, to be held at some mutually acceptable neutral site, between myself and Queen Elizabeth."

"Madam President, I don't think—"

"Wait, are you suggesting—?"

"But they'll feel like we're holding a pulser to their heads, and—"

"I think it could work, if—"

Pritchart rapped on the table top again, harder than before, until the babble subsided.

"I'm not suggesting this is going to be some sort of silver pulser dart," she said. "And, yes, Walter, I'm aware that they're going to know we're 'holding a pulser to their heads.' I don't say I expect them to be very happy about the idea, but if I can ever sit down across the table from Elizabeth Winton, I may have a chance of convincing her to agree to terms acceptable to both the Star Kingdom and to our own public."

"Excuse me, Madam President, but how much of that is realism, and how much is wishful thinking?" Nesbitt asked almost gently.

"Leslie?" Pritchart looked at the Secretary of State.

"That's very difficult to say, Madam President," Montreau said after a moment. "I take it you're thinking in terms of signing a peace treaty first, and then, after peace has had a chance to take hold, going public with our suspicions and holding an open investigation into them?"

"That's pretty much what I have in mind, yes."

"Well, it might actually work." Montreau frowned at the Nouveau Paris skyline, rubbing the tips of her right hand's fingers on her blotter.

"For one thing, you're right about the pressure the Manties are going to be under, assuming whatever's going on in Talbott is as serious as you're suggesting. They won't like that, but they'll have to be realistic, and in the final analysis, talking is less dangerous to them than shooting, especially if they're looking at the possibility of a two-front war.

"In addition," she continued with mounting enthusiasm, "a face-to-face meeting between the two of you would be such a dramatic departure that even if you came home with terms which might not be as good as our current military advantage could secure, the public would probably accept them. Which also means, of course, that you could go even further towards what the Manties consider acceptable than you've already offered."

"That's what I was thinking." Pritchart nodded. "And I'm also thinking, that if and when we do go public with this in the wake of a peace settlement, we candidly admit the way in which we allowed ourselves to be maneuvered and offer fairly hefty reparations to the Manties."

She started to go further, then stopped. This was no time to admit that she was seriously considering at least a partial admission of their current suspicions to the Manticoran Queen if the talks seemed to be going well. One or two of the people around the table looked outraged at the suggestion she'd already made, but she shook her head firmly.

"No," she said. "Think about it first. First, it's the right thing to do. Second, if we want any peace settlement with the Manties to stand up over the long haul, and if it turns out someone on our side was responsible for manipulating our correspondence with them, then we're going to have to make a substantial gesture towards them, especially since we're the ones who reinstituted hostilities. And finally, if we find what we all, I think, expect we'll find, it's going to do enormous diplomatic damage to us. By acknowledging our responsibility, and by offering to make amends as best we can, we'll have the best shot at damage control and rehabilitating ourselves in terms of interstellar diplomacy."

Most of the outrage faded, although several people still looked profoundly unhappy.

"May I make a suggestion, Madam President?" Thomas Theisman said formally.

"Of course you may."

"In that case, I'd suggest one additional point to include in your suggestion of a summit." Pritchart raised an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "I'd recommend that you specifically request Duchess Harrington's presence at the conference as a military adviser."

"Harrington? Why Harrington?" Sanderson asked.

"Several reasons," Theisman replied. "Including, in no particular order, the fact that our sources indicate she's consistently been a voice of political moderation, despite her position as one of their best fleet commanders. The fact that she's now married to the First Lord of their Admiralty, which also makes her a sister-in-law of their Prime Minister. The fact that although she and her Queen are clearly not in agreement where we're concerned, she remains one of Elizabeth's most trusted confidants, plus a Grayson Steadholder, and probably the one Benjamin Mayhew trusts most of all. The fact that she and I, and she and Lester Tourville, have met and, I think, established at least some sense of rapport. And the fact that all reports indicate she has a rather uncanny ability to tell when people are lying to her. Which suggests she can probably tell when they're telling the truth, as well. In short, I think she'd be a moderating influence on Elizabeth's temper, and the closest thing to a friend in court we're going to find."

"Madam President, I think that's an excellent idea," Montreau said. "It wouldn't have occurred to me, because I tend to think of her as a naval officer first, but Secretary Theisman's made some very telling points. I recommend you follow his advice."

"I agree, too, Madam President," Rachel Hanriot said.

"Very well, I think we can consider that a part of our suggestion." Pritchart looked around the table again. "And may I also assume we have a consensus that the summit ought to be pursued?"

"Yes," Nesbitt said, not without a certain obvious reluctance. Pritchart looked at him, and he shrugged. "I've invested so much in seeing the Manties beaten after what they did to us in the last war that a part of me just loathes the thought of letting them off the hook now. But if Arnold did what it looks like he did, we have no choice but to stop killing each other as quickly as we can. Just please don't expect me to ever like them."

"All right." Pritchart nodded. "And, as I'm sure I don't have to remind any of you, it's absolutely essential we keep our suspicions about all the rest of this to ourselves until after I've met with Elizabeth."

Vigorous nods responded, and she leaned back in her chair with a smile.

"Good. And since we're in agreement, I think I may have exactly the emissary to carry our offer to Manticore."


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