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Chapter Eighteen

"Well, atleast word didn't get here in the middle of the night this time," Cindy Lecter observed sourly.

"That's straining awful hard to find a silver lining, Cindy," Michelle replied, and Lecter produced a wan smile.

"That's because it's awful hard to find one this time, Ma'am."

Cindy had that one right, Michelle reflected as she tipped back in her chair, closed her eyes, and squeezed the bridge of her nose wearily while she contemplated the dispatches which had occasioned this meeting. It was amazing how quicklyand drasticallythings could change in barely three T-days. The memory of that first dinner party, of how confidently she and Admiral Khumalo and Governor Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar had planned for the future, mocked her now, and she wondered what other surprises lay in store.

At least there's a little element of "I told you so," isn't there, Michelle? Of course, you didn't see this one coming any more than anyone else did, but at least you get brownie points for warning everyone that Beth...wasn't likely to react well if anything else went wrong.

She shook her head, remembering her "little get together" of the night before.

If I were the superstitious sort, I'd be wondering if I hadn't somehow provoked this, she reflected. One of those "If I say it, it will happen" sorts of things. Except, of course, for the minor fact that it all actually happened the better part of a T-month ago.

James Webster's assassination had been bad enough, but this latest newsthe news of the attack on Queen Berryhad been worse, far worse. Just as, if not for the sacrificial gallantry and quick thinking of Berry's bodyguards, the death toll would have been immeasurably worse than it actually had been. Including Michelle's own cousin, Princess Ruth.

And it has to have been another one of those programmed assassins, she thought grimly. It's the only possible answer. That poor son-of a bitch Tyler sure as hell didn't have any reason to try to kill Berryor Ruth. And I can't think of anything more "suicidal" than using an aerosol neurotoxin in your own briefcase! How in hell are they getting these people to do this kind of thing? And why?

Much as she hated to admit it, the attempt to murder Honor had made tactical and strategic sense. Honor was widely considered to be the Manticoran Alliance's best fleet commander, and the forces under her command had done, by any measure, the greatest damage to the Republic of Haven since the resumption of hostilities. For that matter, loathsome as Michelle found the technique of assassinationfor, what she admitted, were some highly personal reasonsany military commander had to be considered a legitimate target by the other side. And if the technique the Republic had used had also inevitably led to the death of another young officer and half a dozen other bridge personnel in her vicinity, killing Honor's flagship to get at her would have resulted in thousands of additional deaths, not just a handful. So she supposed there was actually a moral argument in favor of assassination, if it allowed you to inflict possibly decisive damage on the other side with a minimum possible number of casualties.

But this!

She released the bridge of her nose and opened her eyes, gazing up at the flag briefing room's overhead.

The thing that stuck in her mind most strongly, actually, wasn't the fact that Haven had come within an eyelash of murdering yet another member of her family. No, what stuck in her mind was that the Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore had always been the two star nations with the strongest record, outside that of Beowulf itself, for opposing Manpower and genetic slavery. Not only that, but the very existence of the Kingdom of Torch, and the only reason Queen Berry had been placed on its throne in the first place, with Ruth as her junior-spymaster-in-training, was that the Star Kingdom and the Republic had jointly sponsored the effort. In fact, support for Torch was the single foreign policy point they still had in common, the very reason Elizabeth had chosen that planet for the site of Pritchart's summit conference. So what could possibly have inspired the Republic of Haven to do its best to decapitate Torch now? It made absolutely no sense.

Yes, it does make sense, girl, a corner of her brain told her. There's one way it makes sense, although why they'd want to do that is another question all of its own.

The news of the deaths on Torchand despite everything, there'd been almost three hundred deadhad reached Manticore barely two T-days after news of Webster's assassination. Which, allowing for the transit time, meant they'd happened on the same T-day. Somehow, she didn't think the fact that the attacks had been synchronized that tightly had been an accident, either, which did give significant point to the theory Elizabeth had embraced. Both attacks had been carried out using the same techniquethe same still unknown techniquewhich, combined with their timing, certainly indicated that the same people had planned and executed them both. So far as Michelle could see, there were only two candidates when it came to propounding motives for the attackers.

As Baroness Medusa had pointed out in Webster's case, if it hadn't been for the similarity between the technique used against Honor and the technique used against him, Manpower would probably have been the first suspect on everyone's list, however stupid it might have been of them to carry out such an attack right in the middle of Chicago. And the same logic went double, or even triple, where an attack on Torch was concerned. No one else in the entire galaxy could have had a more logical motive to attempt to destabilize Torch. But Manpower, and to a lesser extent the other outlaw corporations based on Mesa and allied with Manpower, obviously had all the motives there were. The notion of an independent star system inhabited almost exclusively by ex-genetic slaves, its government heavily influenced (if not outright dominated) by the "reformed" terrorists of the anti-slavery Audubon Ballroom, could not be reassuring to Manpower or any corporate crony bedfellow. Add in the fact that the planet of Torch itself had been taken away from Manpower by force (and that several hundred of its more senior on-planet employees had been massacred, most of them in particularly hideous fashion, in the process), and Manpower's reasons for attempting to kill Berryand Ruth, and anyone else on the planet they could get tobecame screamingly obvious.

So one possible explanation was to assign both attacks to Manpower. Except, of course, for the unfortunate fact that the only people who had previously employed the same technique were Havenites. Whatever Pritchart might have said, no one else had any motive for that attack. Certainly Manpower hadn't had any reason to go after Honor at that time. For that matter, as far as Michelle could see, Manpower probably would have had every reason not to assassinate her. Manpower was at least as unfond of Manticore and Havenseparately and togetheras they were of it, and the notion of eliminating someone who was doing that much damage to Haven could scarcely have appealed to Manpower's board of directors.

Which led, little though Michelle wanted to admit it, to Elizabeth's theory.

Be fair, she told herself. It isn't justBeth's theory, and you know it. Yes, her temper's engaged, but Willie Alexander and a lot of other high-paid, high-powered types at the Foreign Ministry and in the intelligence services agree with her.

What was scariest about that particular analysis, in Michelle's opinion, was the possibility that the Republic might actually have had an at least plausible motive for killing off their own conference. Given the dispute over how the current war had started, Pritchart and her advisers would scarcely be likely to reinitiate operations in a way that openly sabotaged a peace conference she'd initiated. So if some inkling of the Star Kingdom's accelerated building programs orfar worsesome hint of Apollo's existence had somehow leaked to Nouveau Paris only after Pritchart had suggested her meeting with Elizabeth, and if Pritchart and Theisman had concluded that the newly discovered threat left them no option but to seek a decisive military victory before those ships or those new weapons could be added to the balance against them, then it was entirely possible that they would have been delighted if they could get Beth to kill the conference for them.

And if that was what lay behind this operation, whoever had planned it had shown a devastating grasp of Beth's psychology. The timing, and the technique, could not possibly have been better selected to drive Elizabeth Winton into an incandescent fury. Given the fact that the previous Havenite r'egime had already attempted to assassinate her and had succeeded in killing her uncle and cousinwho'd just happened to be Michelle's father and brotherand her beloved prime minister, expecting any other result would have been ludicrous. Not only that, but that assassination attempt had been planned and executed by Oscar Saint-Just for the express purpose of furthering a political strategy when he had no viable military strategy. So the theory that Pritchartor some rogue element in her security services, Michelle reminded herself almost desperatelyhad deliberately chosen to use a variant on the same theme as a means to sabotage the summit meeting for some reason of their own was nowhere near as insane as Michelle would have preferred for it to be. In fact, she couldn't think of a single other hypothesis for why someone would have carried out those two particular assassinations in that particular fashion on the same damned day.

And Beth and her advisers are also right about who knew about the summit, she thought bleakly. If someone was actually out to sabotage it, they had to know about it in the first place, and who could possibly have found out in time to put something like this together? Word would still have had to get to them somehow, and they would've had to get their assassination orders out in time, and Manpower is too far away for that. You simply can't get dispatch boats back and forth between Mesa and Torchor Nouveau Paris, for that matter!quickly enough for them to have found out what was happening, formulated a plan to stop it, and sent out the execution orders. Even if they're using the Junction and Trevor's Star under cover of some legitimate corporation or news organization or diplomatic boat, they're just plain too far outside the command and control loop to physically pass the needed orders. For that matter, everyoneis outside the command and control loop...except, of course, for one of the two star nations setting the damned thing up in the first place! And even if you assume someone else did find out about it, and had time to set it up, what possible motive could that "someone else" have had for sabotaging a summit meeting like this one?

Well, if that was what the mastermind behind the operation had wanted, he'd gotten it. The same dispatch boat which had brought news of the attack on Torch had brought with it a copy of Elizabeth's white-hot denunciatory note to Eloise Pritchart. The note which had informed Pritchart that the Star Kingdom of Manticore would be resuming military operations immediately. And as a part of the shift in deployment stances that implied, Vice Admiral Blaine and Vice Admiral O'Malley had been ordered to concentrate all of their Home Fleet forces at the Lynx Terminus as quickly as possible.

Which was what had so thoroughly destabilized the preliminary plans she, Khumalo, Medusa, and Krietzmann had been working out.

At least they'd been in a position last night to discuss a few contingencieslike the Star Kingdom's potential withdrawal from the peace conferencewithout drawing official attention to them. Which meant that, little as any of them had cared for the possibility, she actually knew how the government and Vice Admiral Khumalo were likely to respond now.

"All right."

She let her chair come back upright, then swiveled it to face Lecter, Commodore Shulamit Onasis, and Captain Jerome Conner, the senior officer of BatCruDiv 106.1, the 106th's first division. Gervais Archer sat quietly to one side, taking notes, as always, and Onasis had brought her own chief of staff, Lieutenant Commander Dabney McIver, who was just as much a Gryphon highlander as Ron Larson, while Conner was accompanied by his executive officer, Commander Frazier Houseman.

Houseman had come as a considerable surprise to Michelle, and she looked forward to the first time he came face-to-face with Rear Admiral Oversteegen. Or, for that matter, with Honor! Houseman was a first cousin of Reginald Houseman, who was probably the single Manticoran political figure who most loathed Honor Harrington...and vice versa, since Pavel Young was dead. Of course, the competition for which politico most hated her would undoubtedly have been fierce, but Houseman had the unique distinction of being the only surviving member of the Manticoran political establishment who had beenliterallyknocked on his wealthy, cowardly ass by Honor.

And of being loathed by the Navy in general almost as much as he was loathed by Honor.

His career and his influence alike had taken a powerful nosedive after that embarrassing little incident at Yeltsin's Star, although there were still members of his Liberal Party (such of it as survived, after its disastrous alliance with the Conservative Association in the High Ridge government) who continued to support him as a victim of "the Salamander's" notoriously brutal and vicious temperament. They were, however, noticeably thinner on the ground than they once had been. Perhaps that owed something to the fact that Houseman had accepted the position of Second Lord of Admiralty in the Janacek Admiralty. At the time, it had probably seemed like a good idea, since it had restored him to the first ranks of political power in the Star Kingdom and finally allowed him to do something about the "bloated and ridiculously over expensive" state of the Navy which he had decried for decades.

Unfortunately, it also meant he had been personally and directly responsible for planning and carrying out the Navy's deliberate build-down. Unlike Janacek, who had committed suicide when the enormity of his failure became obvious at the opening of the current war, Houseman had opted for the less drastic option of resigning his office in disgrace. And despite the investigation which had led directly to formal charges of corruption, malfeasance, bribery, and half a dozen other criminal activities on the part of Baron High Ridge, a dozen of his personal aides, eleven senior members of the Conservative Association in the House of Lords (including the current Earl of North Hollow), two Liberal Party peers, three unaligned peers, seventeen members of the Progressive Party's representation in the House of Commons, and over two dozen prominent members of the Manticoran business community, it appeared Houseman had at least not been guilty of any outright violations of the law.

Because of that, he had been able to retire into the safer, if far less prestigious (or remunerative), fields of academia. His sister, Jacqueline, had never been formally associated with the High Ridge Government, although her longtime position as one of Countess New Kiev's unofficial financial advisers had still managed to bring her into the outer radius of fallout when that government collapsed. Fortunately for New Kiev (and Jacqueline), New Kiev had probably been the only member of High Ridge's cabinet and inner circle who hadn't been personally party to any of his criminal activities.

Michelle found it difficult to believe the countess hadn't known anything about what was going on, however. Nor was she the only one. That very point had been raised quite broadly in the Star Kingdom's newsfaxes, and it had undoubtedly contributed to her disintegrating Liberal Party's decision to "regretfully accept her resignation" as its leader with indecent haste. Whether she'd actually known or not, she damned well ought to have known, in Michelle's opinion, but it truly did appear that her main offense (legally speaking, at least) had been terminal political stupidity. And it had been terminal. Her retirement as the Liberal Party's official leader had been followed by her virtual retirement from the House of Lords, as well, and it seemed obvious her political career was over. For that matter, despite the speed with which it had dumped her and sought to disassociate itself from the High Ridge "excesses," New Kiev's Liberal Party, which had been dominated by its aristocratic wing from its very inception, was also deceased for all intents and purposes. The new Liberal Party which had emerged under the leadership of the Honorable Catherine Montaigne, the ex-Countess of the Tor, was a very differentand much brawnier and less couthcreature than anything with which New Kiev had ever been associated, and the majority of its strength came from Montaigne's bloc in the House of Commons.

Personally, Michelle far preferred Montaigne's "Liberals" to New Kiev's "Liberals," and she always had.

But Jacqueline Houseman's associations had all been with the aristocratic old guard, and the fall of that old guard had pretty much cut off her access to the Manticoran political establishment, as well. Which hadn't exactly broken Michelle Henke's heart.

But then there was Frazier Houseman, the only son of Reginald and Jacqueline's Uncle Jasper. Frazier, unfortunately, looked as much like Reginald Houseman as Michael Oversteegen looked like a younger edition of his uncle...Michael Janvier, also known as the Baron of High Ridge. The fact that Michael despised the uncle for whom he had been named and thought most of the Conservative Association's political leaders between them hadn't had the intelligence of a rutabaga, didn't mean he didn't share his family's conservative and aristocratic view of the universe. He was considerably smarter than most of the Conservative Association, and (in Michelle's opinion) possessed of vastly more integrity, not to mention a powerful sense of noblesse oblige, but that didn't precisely make him the champion of egalitarianism. And the fact that Frazier despised his cousin and had been known, upon occasion, to remark that if Reginald and Jacqueline's brains had been fissionable material, both of them in combination probably wouldn't have sufficed to blow a gnat's nose, didn't mean that he didn't share his family's liberal and aristocratic view of the universe. Which would undoubtedly make the two of them the proverbial oil and water in any political discussion.

Fortunatelyand this was the cause of Michelle's surpriseFrazier Houseman gave every appearance of being just as capable as an officer in Her Majesty's Navy as Michael Oversteegen was. Whether or not their mutual competence could overcome the inevitable political antipathy between them was another question, of course.

You have better things to do than think about Houseman's pedigree, she scolded herself. Besides, given the number of absolute idiots who have somehow ripened on your family tree over the centuries, you might want to be a little cautious about throwing first stones, even if you only do it inside your own head.

"I don't think our initial deployment plan is going to work anymore, Shulamit," she said out loud.

"I wish I could disagree with you, Ma'am," Onassis replied sourly. The commodore was a short, not particularly heavy but opulently curved brunette with what would probably have been called a "Mediterranean complexion" back on Old Terra. She was also quite attractive, despite her present thoughtful and unhappy scowl.

"At the same time, though, Admiral," Conner pointed out, "Admiral O'Malley's recall gives even more point to the necessity of getting someone out in the region of Monica to replace him ASAP."

"Agreed, Jerome. Agreed," Michelle said, nodding. "In fact, I think you and I are going to have to expedite the First Division's departure. I'm thinking now that we need to pay a 'courtesy visit' to Monica as quickly as possible, and then establish ourselvesor at least a couple of our shipspermanently at Tillerman. Where the main change is going to be necessary is in our original plans for Shulamit."

She swivelled her eyes back to Onassis.

"Instead of splitting your division up and sending it out to touch base with the various systems here in the Quadrant, I think we're going to need to keep you right here at Spindle, concentrated."

"I won't be accomplishing very much parked here in orbit, Ma'am," Onassis pointed out.

"Maybe not. But whether you'reactively accomplishing anything or not, you'll be doing something which has just become criticalkeeping a powerful, concentrated force right here under Admiral Khumalo's hand. I need to be out there at Monica, just in case. At the same time, though, Admiral Khumalo needs a powerful naval element he can use as a fire brigade if something goes wrong while I'm away. And you, for your sins, are the squadron's second-ranking officer. That means you draw the short straw. Clear?"

"Clear, Ma'am." Onassis smiled briefly and sourly. "I said I wished I could disagree with you, and I do. Wish that, I mean. Unfortunately, I can't."

"I know you'd rather be doing something...more active," Michelle said sympathetically. "Unfortunately, they also serve who wait in orbit, and that's what you're going to have to do right now. Hopefully, once Rear Admiral Oversteegen comes forward, I can shuffle this off onto him. After all," she smiled a bit nastily, "he'll be Tenth Fleet's second-ranking officer. Which will just happen to make him ideal for leaving here in a central position whenever I can find a good reason I have to be somewhere else, won't it?"

Onassis grinned, and Captain Lecter smothered a chuckle. But then Michelle's expression sobered.

"I'd really prefer not to have any additional surprises from back home while I'm away, Shulamit. That doesn't necessarily mean it isn't going to happen. If it does, I expect you to give Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa the full benefit of your own views and insights. Is that understood, as well?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Onassis nodded, and Michelle carefully did not nod back. That was about as close as she could come to telling Onassis that, despite her growing respect for Augustus Khumalo, she continued to cherish a few doubts where his purely military insight was concerned. She more than half-expected those doubts to die a natural death in the not too distant future, but until they did, it was one of her responsibilities to be sure he had the very best advice she could provide for him, whether she did the providing in person or by proxy.

"Very well," she said, checking the time display. "It's about time for lunch. I've asked Vicki and the other skippers and their XOs to join us, and I intend to make it a working meal. I also intend to tell all of them how pleased I am with the readiness state we've managed to attain. We still have a ways to go, but we're in far better shape than we were, and I expect that improvement to continue. And I am well aware that I owe everyone in this compartment a matching vote of thanks for that happy state of affairs. So, all of you, consider yourselves patted on the back."

Her subordinates smiled at her, and she smiled back, then braced both hands flat on the tabletop as she pushed herself to her feet.

"And on that note, I think I hear a Cobb salad calling my name. And since I do, it would only be courteous if I went and let it find me."

Chapter Seventeen | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Nineteen