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Chapter Fifty-Three

The senior members of Eloise Pritchart's cabinet sat around the conference table in stunned silence. Leslie Montreau had just finished reading the formal text of Elizabeth Winton's savage note aloud, and everyone in the room felt as if he or she had just been punched in the belly.

Except Pritchart. She'd experienced that sensation ninety minutes earlier, when Montreau delivered the note to her office. Now she inhaled deeply, tipped her chair slightly forward, and rested her forearms on the conference table in a posture which she hoped bespoke confidence.

"There you have it," she said simply.

"Is she insane?" Tony Nesbitt's question could have sounded furious; instead, it sounded plaintive. "Why in God's name does she think we did it? What possible motive could we have had?"

"They already blamed us for the attempt to kill Harrington," Pritchart replied. "And to be fair, if the situation were reversed, I'd be convinced of our guilt in that case, too. After all, Harrington would be such a logical target for us to remove, if we could.

"The fact that we know we didn't do it gives us a rather different perspective, of course. It's obvious to us that it had to have been someone else. That's not readily apparent to them in Harrington's case, though, and I can think of several logical reasons for us to have attempted to assassinate Webster, as well, if we were willing to use assassination in the first place. The evidence that we were directly involved in the Webster assassination is pretty damning, too, even if we do know it was all fabricated.

"So now they have this assassination attempt on Queen Berry and, apparently, Princess Ruth. Who else are they going to blame for it?"

"But we'd offered to discuss peace with them," Walter Sanderson said. "Why would we have done that and then deliberately sabotaged our own proposed peace conference? It just doesn't make sense!"

"Actually, Secretary Sanderson," Kevin Usher said, "I'm afraid that however angry Elizabeth may be being at this moment, her suspicions of us aren't as illogical—or unreasonable, at least—as I'd like them to be."

"Meaning what?" Sanderson demanded.

"Madam President?" Usher looked at Pritchart with a questioning expression, and she nodded.

"Go ahead, Kevin. Tell them."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Usher turned back to the rest of the Cabinet.

"Some months ago, I was going through some of the older State Security files. As you know, we seized so many secure files it's going to take literally years to sort our way through them all. These, though, carried maximum-security flags—from both InSec and StateSec. That was unusual enough to pique my curiosity, so I took a look. And it turns out we have an even longer history with the House of Winton than I thought we did."

Sanderson scowled, as if impatient for the Federal Investigative Agency's director to get on with it, and Usher smiled thinly.

"I'm sure we're all aware that Saint-Just organized the attempt to kill Elizabeth and Benjamin Mayhew in Yeltsin. I'm sure we're all also aware that while the Masadans missed Elizabeth and Benjamin, they did get the Manticoran prime minister and foreign secretary. And, of course, the foreign secretary in question, Anson Henke, was Elizabeth's uncle. Her first cousin was also killed, and she'd been very close, emotionally as well as politically, to the Duke of Cromarty literally from the day she first took the throne.

"That would be bad enough, but we might convince her to associate that only with StateSec. Except, of course, for the minor difficulty that we also had her father assassinated."

"What?" Thomas Theisman jerked upright in his chair, his expression thunderstruck, and Usher nodded grimly.

"King Roger was the primary moving force behind the original Manticoran buildup against the Legislaturalists' Duquesne Plan. They'd assumed all along that Manticore would be the toughest of their intended victims, but Roger's activities were making their projections look much worse, so they decided to decapitate the opposition. InSec already had its hooks into several Manty politicians, and it used them to kill the king. Elizabeth was still a minor at the time, and according to the InSec files, they hoped to influence the regency and 'redirect' Manticoran foreign-policy. At the very least, they figured putting someone as young and inexperienced as she was on the throne would hamstring opposition to them.

"Unfortunately for them, the operation was blown somehow. InSec didn't have any idea how the Manties tumbled to it, but they were convinced they had. The plan to influence the regency went out the window when Elizabeth's Aunt Caitrin was named regent. Caitrin's as tough-minded as they come, and she pretty thoroughly fumigated their Foreign Office of anyone remotely sympathetic to the Legislaturalists. And Elizabeth—despite the fact that she must have known about InSec's involvement—settled for politically castrating the Manticoran politicos who actually did the dirty work. Which, if you think about it, proves she knew who was really behind it . . . and that, even then, she had the brains and self-discipline to not accuse the Legislaturalists before the Star Kingdom was ready for war."

"My God," Theisman said. "They killed King Roger because they expected Elizabeth to be weaker?" He barked a harsh laugh. "Well, that little brainstorm certainly fucked up!"

"I believe you could safely say that," Pritchart agreed. "But you see what Kevin's driving at, don't you? The Legislaturalists and Internal Security murdered her father. The Committee of Public Safety and State Security tried to murder her, and did murder her uncle, her cousin, and her prime minister. So if two totally different Havenite régimes were willing to murder members of her family, why shouldn't a third régime attempt to murder her niece? Is it any wonder she has to be thinking it's impossible for this particular leopard to ever change its spots?"

"I had no idea about King Roger's death." Sanderson shook his head, his expression reminiscent of that of a poleaxed steer. "I still can't think of any logical reason for us to have been behind what happened on Torch, but I suppose, under the circumstances, it really isn't—or shouldn't be—that surprising she's reacted this way."

"The thing I have to wonder, Mr. Secretary," Usher said, "is whether or not whoever did kill Webster and attempt to kill Berry Zilwicki and Ruth Winton also knew the truth about King Roger's death?"

He glanced at Wilhelm Trajan, and the Foreign Intelligence Service's chief shrugged unhappily.

"We're looking into that, Kevin," he said, then turned his attention to the Cabinet as a whole. "As Kevin knows, we have a very good man in Erewhon, with extraordinarily good contacts on Torch. Unfortunately, we haven't heard from him yet, and we won't for some time. Even if he was actually on Torch when it happened—which is unlikely, frankly, given how broad his area of responsibility is—it's still going to be at least a couple of weeks before a message from Torch or Erewhon reaches here.

"Having said that, it's glaringly obvious to us that someone else did know about the summit conference and didn't want it to happen. Kevin, have your people turned up anything more on Grosclaude's 'suicide'?"

"No," Usher admitted.

"I was afraid of that." Trajan sighed. "We've been collating reports and rumors over at FIS for some time now. We really started looking after the attempt to kill Harrington, since we knew we hadn't done it. It became apparent to us rather quickly that there were a lot of parallels between the attempt on her life and the Hofschulte affair in the Empire. In fact, it looks like whatever technique was used was identical in both cases. We haven't heard anything yet direct from Old Earth about the Webster assassination, but looking at the indictment Elizabeth attached to her note, it looks very much to me as if Ambassador DeClercq's driver may have been another application of the same technique. And the attack on Berry Zilwicki may have been yet another—notice that in all four cases, for example, the apparent assassin had no personal motive to kill his victims and no chance at all of surviving the mission.

"From the outside, and bearing in mind how little forensic evidence we have, it sounds as if the same technique was used on Grosclaude. Not to make him kill anyone else, but to make him kill himself."

"Where are you headed with this, Wilhelm?" Pritchart asked, regarding him intently.

"Grosclaude was almost certainly Giancola's tool," Trajan said. "Giancola was killed in what was clearly a genuine traffic accident, but Grosclaude was intentionally eliminated. And on the face of it, by the same unknown party who seems to have been wandering around the galaxy murdering people virtually at will. As Kevin's demonstrated, it's extremely likely Grosclaude's death and the forged files implicating Giancola were actually intended to convince us of Giancola's innocence. So our unknown party was looking out for the late, lamented Arnold's interests when he—or they—killed Grosclaude."

"Jesus!" Rachel Hanriot pursed her lips in a low, soft whistle. "You're suggesting Arnold was working for this 'unknown party' of yours from the beginning. That this entire war with the Manties was deliberately provoked by someone else?"

"I think it's a distinct possibility." Trajan nodded. "And if it is what happened, then obviously the people who wanted us shooting at the Manties in the first place are going to do anything they can to prevent us from stopping the shooting."

"But who?" Nesbitt demanded, his face screwed up in frustration. "Who does it help for us to be killing one another?"

"I don't know that," Trajan admitted. "Given the operation on Torch, I'd be tempted to point the finger at Mesa. After all, Mesa and Manpower don't much like us or the Manties, for a lot of reasons. But I'm not sure why they would have used Hofschulte to try and kill the Andy Emperor's younger brother. For that matter, the real culprits may have figured we'd automatically assume it was Mesa if they attacked the ruler of Torch. It could have been a bit of misdirection on their part, and aside from getting us both out of Manpower's hair—keeping us from inhibiting their slaving operations, at least in our respective sectors—I just don't see what sort of reason Mesa could have for committing the obvious time and resources necessary to set all of this up."

"Are you saying there isn't a reason?"

"No, Secretary Nesbitt. I'm saying that neither I nor any of my senior analysts can think of what that reason might be. And that we need to be careful not to allow the Torch component of what's happened to stampede us into running off after what may very well be a false scent. We can't afford to concentrate our attention solely on the Mesa/Manpower possibility without something more to go on than the physical location of the attack on Berry Zilwicki."

"All of this is fascinating," Thomas Theisman said. "I mean that sincerely, and I dearly want the answers to the questions that're being asked. Unfortunately, we have a more pressing problem before us. Specifically, Manticore's decision to resume hostilities."

"That's certainly true, Admiral," Leslie Montreau said. "From the phrasing, it's clear they intend to resume operations at the earliest possible moment. It's even possible they're attacking us somewhere even as we sit here. Under the strict letter of international law, they'd be thoroughly justified in asserting that they'd given us notice of their intentions before they violated the cease-fire, since our original agreement to the cease-fire didn't define what 'timely notice' would be."

"Do you think they are already hitting us, Tom?" Pritchart asked.

"From a diplomatic perspective, I couldn't begin to answer that one," Theisman replied. "From a military perspective, I'd be surprised if they could get an operation off the ground this quickly. I'm assuming they probably had operational plans in the works before the cease-fire, and that they've continued to do precautionary updates on their planning, but it's still going to take them some time to dust those plans off, bring their operational units up to speed, and then actually reach their targets. We've got possibly another week or so, from that perspective. I could be wrong, but I think that's the most probable scenario."

"There's got to be some way to dodge this pulser dart," Nesbitt argued urgently. "If Wilhelm's suspicions are remotely accurate, then both of us are playing into someone else's hands if we go back to war!"

"But if Tom's time estimate is accurate," Henrietta Barloi said harshly, "there's nothing we can do. If the Manties hit us as hard and as fast as the tone of that note suggests, we're going to get pounded somewhere before we could possibly get a note from Haven to Manticore. Even assuming Elizabeth were prepared to believe any of this—and I'm not at all sure she would be—there's no way to tell her about it before she pulls the trigger."

"And if she does 'pull the trigger,'" Pritchart said grimly, "then it's going to be harder than hell to convince anyone in Congress to try for a second summit agreement."

"In addition," Montreau pointed out unhappily, "we couldn't expect the Manties to take any such second proposal seriously unless we badly defeat whatever operation they mount."

Everyone looked at the Secretary of State, and she shrugged.

"Right now, Elizabeth's assuming we set this entire thing up for some unknown, underhanded, devious reason of our own. If they attack us successfully, inflict more damage, and get off unscathed, or with only minor damage of their own, then as far as she'll be concerned, we'll have even more reason to stall, or whatever the hell it is we were trying to accomplish. If we beat them severely, though, then send her another message, along with at least a partial explanation of Director Trajan's suspicions, we'll be speaking from a position of strength, tactically and psychologically. If we say to them 'Look, we just knocked the crap out of your last attack, and we're telling you we think someone else is manipulating both of us. So if you'll at least sit down and talk to us, we won't press our immediate advantage while you do it' they're a lot more likely to actually take this seriously."

"I see what you mean." Pritchart nodded, and cocked her head at Theisman. "Tom, how likely an outcome is that?"

"That depends on far too many imponderables for me to even guesstimate," Theisman said frankly. "It depends on what they decide to do, where they decide to do it, and what's waiting for them when they do. We've managed to cover almost all of the star systems we've been able to identify as possible candidates for their targeting list with the new pods and control systems. During the period of the cease-fire, I also redeployed a fair percentage of our capital ship strength to cover the more valuable of those systems. The subunits I used were able to continue their training and working up on their new stations while giving us more defensive depth.

"All intelligence indications are that they've been working hard to reinforce their Eighth Fleet. On the basis of that, they ought to be able to attack in greater strength. They may choose to attack a greater number of targets, but personally, I think it's more likely they'll concentrate on one, especially after what happened at Solon. So I'm betting on a heavy attack on one, or at most two, of the more valuable target systems.

"Assuming I'm right, and assuming we've guessed correctly about their likely targets, and assuming they pick one of the ones I've assigned fleet units to and that they haven't come up with some new doctrine or hardware, we ought to hammer them. But please notice how many assumptions went into that statement."

He shook his head and met his colleagues' gazes levelly.

"I'd be lying if I told you flatly that they can't punch out whatever system they pick. I expect they'll get hurt, wherever they hit us, but I can't guarantee they'll be repulsed, with or without significant losses on their part."

"Understood." Pritchart nodded again, unhappily this time, and sat in obvious thought for several seconds. Then her nostrils flared, and she straightened slightly in her chair.

"All right. Personally, I think you're onto something, Wilhelm. I want all your resources committed to trying to figure out what the hell is going on and who's behind it."

"Yes, Madam President."

"Leslie, I think you're onto something about the circumstances we need before we can share our suspicions with the Manties. All the same, I want you to begin working now on a message we might send them if we can find or create the right conditions. We can't afford to sound weak, or as if their present intransigence is driving our policy—not if we expect to convince them we're telling the truth. At the same time, we need to be as persuasive as we can, so I want you and Kevin to sit down together. I want you as intimately familiar with his investigation as you can possibly be, since you're the one who's going to be drafting an explanation of it for the Manties. Do the same thing with Wilhelm. I want a preliminary draft of the note on my desk within the next five days."

"Yes, Madam President."

"Tom," Pritchart turned to Theisman, "I'm sorry to say that at this point it looks like it all comes down to you and your people. Leslie's right. We need a victory before we hand this bucket of snakes to the Manties. I need you to give me one."

"Madam President—"

"I know you just said you can't guarantee to defeat their next attack," Pritchart interrupted. "I understand why that is, and I accept your analysis. On the other hand, we may kick their ass, after all, in which case we can immediately send them Leslie's note. But if they kick our ass, then we need to stage an immediate and powerful comeback. So I need you to go back to the Octagon and sit down with Admiral Marquette and Admiral Trenis. Get back to me with an analysis of possible offensive actions on our part. I want a spectrum of options, ranging from the heaviest blow we can launch to a more graduated response we might use if they attack us and we drive them off without either side getting badly hurt."

"Yes, Madam President." Theisman was manifestly unhappily, but his voice and expression were both unflinching.

"I don't like our situation," Pritchart said grimly. "I don't like it one little bit, and I like it even less every time I realize that whoever's doing the manipulating Wilhelm's suggested got me personally to do exactly what they wanted. Unfortunately, at this moment, they've done exactly the same thing with Elizabeth Winton, as well, and given her obvious attitude, there's no prospect of explaining that to her. So the only option we have is to hit her hard enough to convince her she has to listen to us, however ridiculous our claims sound."


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