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Chapter Fifty-Two

"Not one word," Elizabeth Winton said flatly. "Not one word about why they might have done it, or who else might have wanted to do it."

Her Prime Minister and his Cabinet sat silently as she surveyed them with eyes of frozen brown ice. The different distances and travel times from the Sol System, via Beowulf, and Congo, via the Erewhon Junction, meant the messages had arrived just over twenty-four hours apart, and Queen Elizabeth was beyond fury now. She had entered a frozen realm, where hate burned colder then interstellar space.

"They killed Sir James and tried to kill Berry Zilwicki and my niece on the same damned day. All the available evidence from Old Terra says it was a Peep operation, and who else knew we were planning a summit meeting on Torch? The Peeps and the Erewhonese, and does anyone in this room believe the Erewhon honor code would have let them do something like this? Even assuming they'd had any conceivable reason to?"

Hamish Alexander-Harrington inhaled deeply and looked around the Cabinet Room. It was unusual for the monarch to come here instead of being attended upon at Mount Royal Palace by her chief minister and, perhaps, one of two of his colleagues. In fact, it had only happened seven times in the entire history of the Star Kingdom. Well, eight now. But Elizabeth hadn't wanted to speak only to her Prime Minister; she wanted all the members of his Cabinet to hear what she had to say.

He closed his eyes briefly, his face wrung with pain, and not just for his murdered friend. The heroic determination of Berry Zilwicki's bodyguard had saved her and Ruth Winton from certain death. The ex-slave who'd closed the door in the nick of time had literally dragged the two girls out of Berry's palace. He'd had to drag them; Berry had been hysterically trying to pry the door open with her bare hands.

Every individual in the throne room had died within fifteen seconds, and another two hundred and twenty-six other people had died as the neurotoxin spread beyond the throne room through other doors, windows, and the air conditioning system. And the death toll would have been at least three times that high if the security man who'd first noticed the assassin's briefcase hadn't sounded the alarm with his panic button. The almost immediate shutdown of the air conditioning had slowed the poison's spread long enough for the rest of the people in its path to evacuate. And the agent used was apparently as persistent as it had been fast-spreading. According to early reports, it was going to be simpler to simply burn the "palace" down and start over than to decontaminate it.

"I don't understand," Baroness Mourncreek, Grantville's Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in a troubled voice. "Why did they do it? I mean, what have they accomplished?"

"They've managed to kill our ambassador to the League," Elizabeth said coldly. "Admiral Webster was highly trusted by his contacts in the League. He'd become a relatively well known media figure from his appearances on various talk shows, as well, and he'd been very effective in moderating the more extremist newsies' versions of what's been going on in the Talbott Cluster ever since Nordbrandt started killing people. They probably figured he'd be equally effective in controlling the League's reaction to Terekhov's actions at Monica. By killing him, they intended to remove that possibility and increase the odds the League will take military action against us in Talbott."

"And what happened on Torch, Your Majesty?" Mourncreek said.

"They invited us—me—to a summit meeting. I don't think they actually expected me to accept. I think it was essentially planned as yet another of their damned diplomatic lies. They probably intended to publish the correspondence of their invitation and my refusal as proof that they're the 'reasonable party' in this war. It would have bolstered their claim that they've been telling the truth about our diplomatic correspondence from the beginning.

"But then I accepted their invitation, and we nominated Torch for the site and invited Erewhon to provide security, with the possibility of repairing the damage to our relations with the Erewhonese. They hadn't counted on that. And even though they'd probably never expected to sit down and negotiate seriously, they found themselves in a position where they might actually have to do that. Where it was even possible we'd sound like the voice of reason. So they decided to avoid the entire problem by killing Berry and Ruth—after all, what's the death of two more teenaged girls to bastards like Peeps? For that matter, if the girls' schedule hadn't slipped, they probably would have killed Thandi Palane and decapitated the Torch military, as well. Obviously, the confusion and chaos which would have resulted would have made Torch completely impossible as a conference site. And even if it hadn't, they could always point to their concern about security issues and the safety of their precious President Pritchart as reasons they couldn't possibly meet with me there. After, of course, sending me their lying condolences for my niece's death—just like Saint-Just did after he murdered Uncle Anson and Cal!"

Hamish felt a protest hovering on the tip of his tongue. Not because he wasn't almost as certain of Haven's complicity as Elizabeth herself, but because it still didn't make sense to him. The way Haven had attempted to kill Honor certainly seemed to indicate they saw assassination as a perfectly legitimate tool, and that accorded with the traditional policies of the Legislaturalists and the Committee of Public Safety, as well. Not to mention the fact that Pritchart herself had been credited with more than one assassination during her revolutionary days.

Not only that, he could follow Elizabeth's reasoning where James Webster's death was concerned. Webster had been effective, and his death certainly wasn't going to help manage the crisis in the Talbott Cluster. Given how the threat of that crisis hung over the Star Kingdom, inhibiting Manticore's freedom of action, preventing its resolution had to be attractive to Haven.

But her theory about Haven's motives for what had happened on Torch . . . That he found much harder to accept. Or, at least, to understand.

There was no need for the Republic to resort to Machiavellian diplomatic maneuvering. If anyone knew that, it was Hamish Alexander-Harrington. The sheer scale of the Peeps' numerical advantage was terrifying, and it was going to get only worse. It was possible new innovations like Mistletoe and Apollo would go a long way towards equalizing those odds, but Pat Givens swore there was no way Haven could have penetrated the security screen around those projects. So as far as Thomas Theisman and Eloise Pritchart knew, the weapons mix wasn't about to change radically, which meant they should have been supremely confident their advantage in numbers would prove decisive.

So why worry about diplomacy? Why not simply issue an ultimatum: surrender now, or face an overwhelming offensive from our side at the same time you're confronting Frontier Security in Talbott.

And yet . . .

And yet, Elizabeth had put her finger on the single most damning point. Who else had a motive?

If not for the similarity of the technique employed in this attack, Webster's assassination, and the attack on Honor, he would have been inclined to wonder if the Torch attack had been a Mesan operation. After all, an attack on Berry Zilwicki might well have made perfectly good sense from a Mesan perspective, given the fact that Torch was the only planet which had openly declared war upon Mesa. And Manpower and Mesa could, conceivably, have wanted Webster dead for exactly the same reasons Elizabeth had just ascribed to Haven.

But was that his reason talking, or simply his desire to find someone else—anyone else—to blame if it would preserve the possibility of a negotiated peace settlement?

If only the three assassination attempts hadn't been so damned similar! Yet, there it was. Three separate attacks, each of them a clearly suicidal assault by someone with absolutely no personal reason to want the intended victim dead . . . and no chance of surviving his own attack. And if Mesa clearly had reasons to want Berry Zilwicki dead, and possibly had reasons to want Jim Webster dead, what reason did they have for the attack on Honor? Try as he might, he couldn't come up with an answer for that question.

Occam's razor, he thought. The simplest answer that covered all the observed facts was most likely to be the truth. And the simplest answer was that the same people had to be behind all three attacks. And given the timing on Webster's murder and the attempt to kill Berry, whoever it was must have wanted to derail the peace conference. But for them to do that, they had to know where the conference was to be held, and no one had known outside the Cabinet and the highest echelons of the Foreign Ministry; the Kingdom of Torch; the Erewhonese . . . and Eloise Pritchart's administration. Everyone had known the conference was to be held, but not where, and he simply couldn't believe Erewhon would have allowed the information to leak. Not when they knew how sensitive Manticoran sensibilities must remain in the wake of their transfer of so much technological information to Haven. Torch certainly wouldn't have leaked it, and there hadn't been so much as a whisper of it in the Star Kingdom's press.

And the Peeps are the only people I can think of who'd want Honor dead, as well. For that matter, even if the Mesans might somehow have discovered the location, could they have found out in time to mount an operation like this? Besides, despite any delusions of grandeur on Manpower's part, Mesa is nothing more than a semi-legitimizing front for little more than common criminals. And would even Manpower be stupid enough to assassinate the Star Kingdom's accredited ambassador to the Solarian League on Old Earth itself at the very moment proof of Mesan involvement in Talbott is starting to come out?  

No. There was a hell of a lot more involved here than just Manpower's failed operation in Talbott. And the only people who could have known when and where the summit was to be held and had a reason to want Honor dead were the Peeps. Elizabeth's theory as to why they might want to sabotage their own peace conference might not be completely logical, yet no other plausible theory offered itself at all.

"I suppose," William Alexander said heavily, "that the real question before us isn't whether or not we hold the Peeps responsible for their actions, but what we do about it.

"Hamish," he turned to his brother, "what are our military options?"

"Essentially what they were before Pritchart's invitation," Hamish replied. "One thing that's changed is that Eighth Fleet's had longer to receive munitions and train with them. We've got a few new wrinkles we think are going to make our ships considerably more effective, and the additional training time will stand Eighth Fleet in good stead. However, at this time, Eighth Fleet is the only formation we've got which is fully trained with the new weapons. It's also the only formation that's equipped with the new weapons, because only the Invictuses and the Graysons' late-flight Harringtons—" he smiled wryly at the class name, despite his somber mood "—can operate them without refitting."

"Why is that?" Grantville asked. "I thought the pods were the same dimensions?"

"They are, but only the ships built with Keyhole capability from the outset can handle the Mark Two platforms, and they're essential to making the new missiles work. We can refit with Keyhole II—in fact, the decision to build that in is part of what's delayed the Andermani refits—but it requires placing the ship in yard hands for at least eight to ten weeks. And, frankly, we can't stand down our existing ships that long when we're this tightly strapped. All our new construction is being altered on the ways to be Keyhole II-capable, and when it starts coming into commission, we can probably start pulling the older ships back for refit.

"But at the moment, only Eighth Fleet is really equipped to handle them, and even they have only partial loadouts on the new pods. We're attempting to get into full production on them as quickly as possible, but we've hit some bottlenecks, and security issues have restricted the number of production facilities we could commit to them."

"But Eighth Fleet could resume active operations immediately?"

"Yes," Hamish said firmly, trying to ignore the icy shiver which went through him at the thought of Honor going back into combat when he'd allowed himself to hope so hard for a diplomatic solution. And trying not to think about her bitter disappointment—and Emily's—if she found herself unable to be there for their daughter's birth after all.

"And what does our defensive posture look like?"

"That, too, is essentially what it was, but there are improvements on the horizon. We're pressing ahead with the system defense version of Apollo, and we ought to be able to begin deploying it very soon. We're still looking at some production bottlenecks, but once we get the system-defense pods deployed in numbers, we'll have much greater security at home.

"We're in a little better shape in Talbott, as well, because O'Malley's on station at Monica now. Given ONI's current estimates of Solarian capabilities, and bearing in mind Terekhov's after-action report on the performance of the Solly battlecruisers the Monicans used, O'Malley can almost certainly destroy anything Verrochio could assemble to throw at him for at least the next two to four months. In fact, Verrochio would have to be heavily reinforced before he'd have any chance at all of evicting us from Monica, much less the Cluster as a whole.

"As far as direct action against the home system by the League is concerned, sheer distance would work in our favor. They aren't going to invade us successfully through the Junction, not with the number of missile pods we've got covering the central nexus. That means they've got to do it the hard way, which leaves them with something on the order of a six-month voyage just to get here. Which doesn't even take into consideration the fact that they're going to have to mobilize, bring together, and logistically support a fleet with overwhelming numerical superiority if they expect to offset our tactical and technological advantages.

"To be honest, I'm reminded of something a wet-navy admiral from Old Earth once said. For eighteen months to two years, possibly even twice that long, we'd run wild. It's unlikely the Sollies recognize just how much things have changed in the last five to ten T-years, which probably means they'd commit grossly inadequate force levels, at least initially. Eventually, they'd realize what was happening, though. And if they had the stomach for it, they could use their sheer size to soak up whatever we did to them while they got their own R and D to work on matching weapons and cranked up their own building capacity.

"The bottom line is that my current estimate is that we could do enormous damage to them—far more, I'm certain, then any of their strategists or politicians would imagine was possible. But quantity has a quality all its own, and we simply aren't big enough to militarily defeat the Solarian League if it's prepared to buckle down and pay the cost to beat us. We don't have the ships or the manpower to occupy the number of star systems we'd have to occupy if we wanted to achieve military victory. They, on the other hand, have effectively unlimited manpower and productive capacity. In the end, that would tell. And even if that weren't true, it overlooks the fact that the Peeps already have—or soon will have—enough wallers with broadly equivalent capabilities to pound us under. Especially if we're distracted by dealing with the League."

"But what I seem to hear you saying," Grantville said intently, "is that whatever the League ultimately does, nothing it can do in the next, say, six months is going to have a significant impact on us?"

"That time estimate's probably a bit optimistic, assuming we take any heavy losses against Haven," Hamish replied. "Overall, though, that's fairly accurate."

"Then it seems to me we've got to take the position that that six months—or whatever shorter period we actually have—-represents our window for dealing with the Peeps," the Prime Minister said.

"Except for the fact that by the end of that window, their numerical advantage in SD(P)s will be on the order of three-to-one or even higher," Hamish said.

"Nothing we can do will change that," Elizabeth said flatly. "We're building as quickly as we can; they're doing the same thing. The threat zone until the ships we've laid down can equalize the numbers is beyond our control . . . unless we can do something to whittle the Peeps down."

"You're thinking about Sanskrit," Hamish said, equally flatly.

Most of the people in the Cabinet Room had no idea what Sanskrit was. Grantville, Hamish, the Queen, and Sir Anthony Langtry did, and Elizabeth nodded.

"You just said Eighth Fleet has the new weapons. If we use them, if we can convince the Peeps we've got more of them—that we've reequipped with them across the board—that's got to affect their strategic thinking. It may force them to do what we wanted all along and fritter away their wall of battle defending rear area systems. Or it may even convince them they've gotten their sums wrong and they don't have sufficient numbers to offset our individual superiority. In which case, the bastards may actually have to sit down and talk to us after all."

"It's possible," Hamish agreed. "I can't predict how probable it might be. A lot would depend on how their analysts evaluate the situation after they run into Mistletoe and Apollo. They might not draw the conclusions we'd expect them to, since they won't have the same information we have about the systems' capabilities and availability. And I don't think anyone at Admiralty House would be prepared to predict exactly what their military reaction might be."

"That's a given," Elizabeth said, nodding. "But you say we'll be deploying the system-defense Apollos shortly. That would bolster our rear area security, wouldn't it?"

"Considerably," Hamish replied. "But we don't have them deployed yet."

"Still, Eighth Fleet already has Apollo, and it's part of Home Fleet's strategic reserve, isn't it, Ham?" Grantville asked.

"Yes it is, but it can only be in one place at a time," Hamish pointed out. "If it's out raiding Peep star systems, then it can't be here, defending the home system."

"But if we launch Sanskrit, then immediately bring Eighth Fleet home to Trevor's Star, it would be back in its covering position before Theisman could react to the new weapons systems, wouldn't it? I mean, one of the advantages of basing Eighth Fleet at Trevor's Star is that it's ninety light-years closer to Haven than Manticore is. So even if we hit a target like Lovat, Eighth Fleet can be back in position to cover the home system a good three weeks before Theisman could get a fleet here to attack us, even if he sent it straight from Haven the instant he heard about Sanskrit, right?"

"That's the theory," Hamish agreed, with a silent curse for the Admiralty contingency studies his brother had clearly been reading a bit too closely. Then he gave himself a mental shake. Willie and Elizabeth were right. The possibility of a direct confrontation with the Solarian League was a far more deadly strategic threat to the Star Kingdom than the Republic of Haven's possible reaction to the new weapons systems.

"We don't have enough time to waste any more of it trying to talk to these . . . people," Elizabeth said flatly. "We've just had fresh proof of the fact that we can't trust them, and given the situation in Talbott, we have to allow for a worst-case scenario. That means we have to make our plans with the understanding that we could be at war with the Solarian League at any time, and that, as Hamish says, they could have a fleet in the Talbott Cluster in weeks, and another all the way out here in six months. Not only that, but if the war drags on, then somebody like Verrochio is more likely to push when he shouldn't, on the theory that we'll be too distracted by the threat closer to home to respond forcefully to something far away, in a place like Talbott. We can't afford that possibility, and the only way to avoid it is to achieve a decision quickly. Do you see any approach—any military approach—which would give us a better chance of attaining that decision, Hamish?"

"No." Hamish shook his head. "Hitting them hard with Sanskrit and Apollo will have to make them stop and think. And even if they wanted to counterattack immediately, it would take them weeks, at least, to plan, deploy for, and mount an attack heavy enough to break the defenses covering our critical star systems. Their losses would be massive, even against our existing defenses, and we've seen no evidence that Theisman is prepared to launch some sort of do-or-die kamikaze attack or throw his people's lives away on forlorn hopes. I'm not saying that that couldn't change, but, as Willie's suggested, there's still the time factor involved. We'd have at least a month, probably two, to get the system-defense Apollo pods into initial deployment, while he organized any attack in response to Sanskrit. And Willie's right. We'd have Eighth Fleet back in its covering position at Trevor's Star long before any such attack could come through."

He looked around the conference room, his face grim.

"I'm not going to pretend that we aren't running a risk launching Sanskrit," he said. "But unless Theisman is prepared to lose literally hundreds of superdreadnoughts, there won't be a lot he can do even against the defenses we already have in position. Against the defenses we can have in place in another couple of months, his losses would be even higher. My own preference would be to wait at least another month to six weeks before we launch Sanskrit, just to give ourselves a little longer to get Apollo fully into production, bring at least a few more Apollo-capable wallers forward, and get the Apollo-capable system-defense pods into initial deployment. But if we're going to decide we can't wait that long because of the potential for an incident—or maybe I should say another incident—with the Sollies, then Sanskrit represents our best option."

"Very well." Elizabeth surveyed her ministers one more time, then nodded sharply, decisively.

"Willie, I'm going to draft a note to Pritchart. It's not going to be pretty. I'm going to officially and publicly denounce her actions and notify her that I have no intention of meeting anywhere with someone who uses assassination as a routine tool. And I'm also going to notify her that we intend to resume active military operations immediately."

Grantville nodded.

Technically, he might have rejected Elizabeth's policy decisions. In fact, it was clear from her attitude that the only way he could have opposed them would have been by resigning rather than accepting them. And he had absolutely no doubt that if the Queen explained to her subjects what had happened, and why she'd made the decisions she had, those decisions would enjoy overwhelming support and approval. She could readily have found another Prime Minister to put them into effect.

All that was true enough, but ultimately beside the point. Because the critical point was that he agreed with her.

"Tony," Elizabeth continued, turning to the Foreign Secretary, "I want our notice that we're going back to active operations very clearly stated. Unlike them, we're not going to be launching attacks without declaring hostilities first, and I want that point made to the galaxy at large by publishing our note in the 'faxes at the same time we send it. There's not going to be any room for anyone to accuse us of altering correspondence after the fact this time. Clear?"

"Clear, Your Majesty," Langtry said, and the Queen turned back to Hamish.

"Hamish, I want orders cut to Eighth Fleet immediately. Operation Sanskrit is reactivated, as of now. I want active planning to begin immediately, and I want Sanskrit to hit the Peeps as soon as physically possible."

The smile she produced was one a hexapuma might have worn.

"We'll give them their formal notice," she said grimly, "and I hope the bastards choke on it!"


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