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Chapter Seventeen

"All right, Kevin. What's all the mystery this time?"


President Eloise Pritchart's striking, topaz-colored eyes tracked slowly from the FIA director's face to that of the petite, dark-haired woman with him. Presidential Security was never happy when she met alone with anyone, even in her private office, out from under their protective oversight, although at least in this case the person she was meeting with was their ultimate boss. Which, she thought, had undoubtedly helped with Kevin's insistence that this meeting had to be completely off the record. Her personal detachment had made no more than pro forma protests before withdrawing and shutting down the various covert surveillance systems which normally let them discreetly monitor while remaining out of sight but ready to respond instantly. And Kevin's position meant they probably really had turned them off this time, which meant she was enjoying a novel sense of freedom for at least the next little bit.


Of course, she was always more than a bit nervous about anything Kevin wanted kept black.


"Thank you for clearing the time for us," Usher said, and Pritchart's eyebrows rose at his unwontedly formal—and somber—tone. "This, by the way," he indicated her other visitor, "is Special Senior Inspector Danielle Abrioux. Danny is one of my top troubleshooters."


"And why am I seeing the two of you without the additional presence of the Attorney General?" Pritchart leaned back in her comfortable chair. "If I remember correctly, Denis is not simply your direct superior, but also a member of my Cabinet."


"Yes, he is," Usher agreed. "On the other hand, much as I like Denis, and as much as I respect him, he's very much a connect-all-the-dots, follow procedure kind of guy."


"Which is why he's Attorney General, and why the wild cowboy, seat-of-the-pants kind of guy works for him. Correct?"


"Granted. In this case, however, I think you need to know about this before we decide exactly how to bring him into it officially. His principles are just as cast-in-battle-steel as Tom Theisman's. And in this particular instance, his own dislikes and distrust might push him into a more . . . confrontational stance than we can afford at this particular moment."


"Kevin," Pritchart said, with very little humor, "you're starting to really worry me. What the hell is all this about?"


The woman with him—Abrioux, Pritchart reminded herself—looked decidedly nervous as the President glared at the FIA Director. Usher, however, only settled deeper into his chair, herculean shoulders tensing as if under a massive weight.


"It's about the diplomatic correspondence the Manties altered," he said.


"What about it?"


"Actually, what I ought to have said," Usher replied, "is that it's about the diplomatic correspondence the Manties are alleged to have altered."


For an instant, Pritchart felt only puzzled by his choice of words. Then an icy dagger seemed to run down her spine.


"What do you mean 'alleged'?" she demanded harshly. "I saw the originals. I know they were altered."


"Oh, they certainly were," Usher agreed grimly. "Unfortunately, I've begun to have some serious questions about just who did the altering."


"My God." Pritchart knew her face had gone white. "Please, Kevin. Please don't tell me what it sounds like you're about to tell me."


"I'm sorry, Eloise," he said gently. "At first, I thought it was just because of how much I disliked Giancola. It seemed preposterous, even for him. And, for that matter, it seemed outright impossible. But I couldn't shake the suspicion. I kept picking at it. And a few weeks ago, I put Danny here on it, very, very quietly. It's not only possible, I'm pretty damn sure it happened."


"Sweet Jesus." Pritchart stared at him, more flattened—more horrified—than she'd been even by the knowledge that Oscar Saint-Just fully intended to have Javier Giscard shot. In which case, he would inevitably have discovered just how she had been covering for Javier for so long.


"How could he possibly have done such a thing?" she asked finally. "Not why did he do it—if he did—but how?"


"Assuming the right accomplice in the right position, and assuming the sheer big brass balls to try it in the first place, it really wouldn't have been all that technically difficult to make the substitutions," Usher said. "I'd pretty much worked out how he could have done it before I ever brought Danny into it, and she's pretty much confirmed that it could have been—and almost certainly was—done that way. She can give you the technical details, if you want them. Basically, though, he could send out whatever version of your agreed-upon diplomatic notes he wanted to. After all, he's Secretary of State. And as long as the fellow playing mailman for him didn't blow the whistle on them, there'd be no way for anyone at this end to know he'd departed from the planned script. And we've also figured out how he could have had access to the Manties' Foreign Office validation key, which would have let him change the incoming correspondence, as well."


"That—" Pritchart paused and drew a deep breath. "That doesn't sound good, Kevin. Especially given how black you wanted this meeting. If you've figured all that out, and you're not ready to seek an indictment or make open accusations, then there's got to be a boot in the works somewhere. Right?"


"Right," he said grimly, and waved one hand at Abrioux. "Danny?" he invited.


"Madam President," Abrioux said, her expression more than a little nervous, "I wasn't too sure Kevin—the Director, I mean—hadn't stripped a gear when he sprang all of this on me. I've known him a long time, though, and he is my boss, so I had to take the possibility seriously. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized it really could have been done exactly the way he'd hypothesized. But the key element, as he and I both recognized from the beginning, was that Giancola couldn't have acted alone, couldn't have done it all by simply manipulating the electronic message traffic. He had to have at least one flesh-and-blood accomplice. Someone who could cover for him at the other end and conceal the true content of our actual outgoing correspondence and the Manties' incoming traffic from anyone else in the Republic.


"And as soon as we'd come to that conclusion, it was obvious who his accomplice—if he'd had one—had to have been: Yves Grosclaude."


"Our 'Special Representative,'" Pritchart said, nodding her head grimly.


"Exactly." Abrioux nodded back. "The fact that he had an accomplice was, frankly, the one real chink I could see in his armor. I'm sure there has to be other physical evidence, but we're up against the need to show probable cause before we can go looking for it. If I could pull Grosclaude in and sweat him a little, put a little pressure on him, he might give Giancola up. Or, he might at least provide me with something concrete to lend at least some credence to the rather preposterous scenario the Director had come up with. On the other hand, I needed to approach him a bit cautiously, hopefully without Giancola figuring out I was interested in him at all.


"Unfortunately, either I wasn't cautious enough, or else Giancola's had his own plans for Grosclaude all along."


"Meaning what?" Pritchart demanded when she paused with a chagrined expression.


"Meaning Mr. Grosclaude was killed in a single-air car accident four nights ago," Usher said flatly.


"Oh, shit," Pritchart said with soft yet deadly feeling. "An air car accident?"


"I know. I know!" Usher shook his head. "It's like some sort of bad joke, isn't it? After all the inconvenient people StateSec disappeared in mysterious one-air car accidents, this is going to be just peachy keen when we have to go public, isn't it?"


"Unless we can prove it wasn't one," Pritchart said, eyes slitted in intense thought. "Before, it was always the state claiming it had been an accident. If we claim it wasn't an accident—and if we can prove it—we might actually turn that around and use it in our favor."


"If there is any way to turn this 'in our favor' you may have a point," Usher said. "Honestly, though, the more I've looked at this thing, the less sure I've become there is such a way. And even if there is, I'm afraid that so far it doesn't look as if we're going to be able to prove any such thing."


"Why not?"


"I've tapped very quietly into the investigation of his death, Madam President," Abrioux replied for Usher. "I've kept my interest in it entirely black, which has required calling in quite a few old markers. But the crash investigation team has been through the wreckage of his air car—which, by the way, was reduced to very small pieces—very, very carefully without finding any indication of any sort of mechanical or electronic sabotage. The black boxes came through more or less intact, and they all agree that for some unknown reason, Grosclaude suddenly disengaged his autopilot, put the throttle right through the gate, and flew straight into a near vertical cliff. He impacted at a speed somewhere around Mach one."


"He did what?" Pritchart sat up straight and frowned at the senior inspector.


"There's no question, Madam President. And there's also no explanation. That's one reason the Director and I didn't come to you sooner; we kept hoping we'd find something significantly bogus. But the weather was clear, visibility was good, and there was no other traffic on or near his flight path at the time; the crash team's pulled the air traffic satellite records to confirm that. There's no sign anyone tampered with his vehicle in any way, and there's absolutely no indication of any external factor which could have inspired him to do what he did. At the moment, to be perfectly honest, the crash team is leaning towards the theory that it was a suicide."


"Oh, that's just wonderful!" Pritchart snarled, fear and the sudden cold suspicion that she'd gone back to war because of a lie driving her into an uncharacteristically savage fury. "So now we're not even claiming it was an 'accident.' Now we're going to tell the galaxy our suspect fucking committed suicide! That's going to give us a lot more credibility when we try to pin anything on him!"


"I suppose it's possible it really was suicide," Usher pointed out. Pritchart glared at him, and he shrugged. "Just playing devil's advocate, Eloise. But it really is possible, you know. An awful lot of people have been killed since the shooting started again, and more are going to be killed, whatever else happens. If he was involved in anything with Giancola, he might well have been feeling a lot of guilt over all those deaths. Or, conversely, he may have wanted to come forward but been afraid Giancola would eliminate him if he tried. In that case, he might have seen this as his only way out."


"And if you believe that fairy tale for a moment, I've got some bottom land I want to sell you," Pritchart said caustically. "Just don't ask me what it's on the bottom of."


"I didn't say I believed it," Usher responded mildly. "I just said it's possible, and it is."


"Bullshit," Pritchart said bluntly. "Much as I'd like to believe you're completely off the beam with this one, Kevin, you're not. God knows it would be better if you were, but Grosclaude's death—especially this way, at this time—is just too damned coincidental. And too damned convenient for Giancola. No." She shook her head. "I don't know how he did it, but somehow he got to Grosclaude."


"So you believe he did alter the correspondence?"


"I don't want to," she admitted heavily, "but you said it would take big brass balls. Well, that's one thing Arnold has. And he's not overly burdened with scruples, either. Certainly not burdened enough to offset his ambition. I doubt he wanted it to go this far, but . . ."


She shook her head again.


"There is one odd thing about Grosclaude's death, Madam President," Abrioux said after a moment.


The President's topaz eyes swung back to the senior inspector, and she twitched the fingers of one hand in a "tell me" gesture.


"Given the . . . peculiar circumstances of the 'accident,'" Abrioux said, "the crash team's lead investigator requested a complete toxicology screen and blood workup as part of the autopsy. Given the nature of the impact, the doctors didn't have a whole lot to work with, you understand. There was more than enough to make a genetic identification of the remains they could find, but nowhere near what they needed for any sort of regular autopsy.


"The medical examiner, however, did note that there appeared to be 'unidentifiable organic traces and DNA markers' in one of the blood samples."


"Meaning what?" Pritchart's expression was intent.


"Meaning we don't know what the hell what," Usher replied. "When he says 'unidentifiable,' that's exactly what he means. All the organic elements he's picked up on could be explained away by a simple case of the flu, except that there's no indication of it in any of the other samples. If you really want to wade through his report, I can get you a copy of it, but I doubt it will mean anything more to you than it did to me. The key element, though, seems to be the DNA he turned up. There's been some speculation in Solarian medical literature for a while now about the possibility of viral nanotech."


"Are they insane?" Pritchart demanded incredulously. "Didn't those lunatics learn anything from the Final War?"


"I don't know. It's not my field, by two or three light-years. But apparently the people doing the speculating believe it should be at least theoretically possible to control their viruses and prevent unwanted mutations. After all, we've managed the same sort of thing with nanotech for centuries now."


"Because the damned things don't have DNA and don't reproduce even in medical applications!" Pritchart said snappishly.


"I didn't say I thought it was a good idea, Eloise," Usher said. "I just said there's been some Solly speculation about the possibilities. As far as I'm aware, and I've done some judicious research on the subject since Danny brought me the blood workup results, it's all purely theoretical at the moment. And even if the Sollies can do it, there's no one here in the Republic who could. So assuming these highly ambiguous results—found, I remind you, in only one of the blood samples—mean Grosclaude was murdered using that sort of technology, where the hell did Giancola get access to it?"


"You're just full of sunshine this evening, aren't you?"


"If a shit storm's on the horizon, it's good to know far enough ahead you can at least bring along an umbrella," Usher said philosophically, and she grimaced at him. Then she sat thinking hard for several endless seconds.


"All right, Kevin," she said finally. "You've had longer to think about this than I have, and I doubt very much, knowing you, that you asked for this meeting without at least some idea of how we might proceed."


"As I see it," Usher said after a moment, "there are four basic dimensions to this problem. First, there's the war itself and just why in hell we're fighting the damned thing. Second, there's the constitutional implications of treason on this level by a cabinet secretary. Not to mention the fact that I'm not even certain what he did—assuming we're right, and he did actually do it—falls under the Constitution's definition of 'treason' in the first place. Abuse of office, conspiracy, malfeasance, high crimes and misdemeanors; I'm sure we could get him on any of those. But treason is a rather specific crime. Third, after the constitutional aspects, there are the purely political ones. Not in terms of interstellar diplomacy and wars, but in terms of whether or not our system is strong enough yet to survive something like this. And, of course, the question of just how effective your administration can be if it turns out one of your own cabinet secretaries manipulated us into going to war. And, fourth, there's the question of just how we proceed with this investigation, bearing all those other aspects of this particular can of worms in mind."


He looked at the President, one eyebrow raised, and she nodded in glum agreement with his analysis.


"I'm not in any sort of position to comment on the first point," he said then. "That's your bailiwick—yours and Admiral Theisman's. On the constitutional implications, Denis would probably be a much better authority than me. My gut reaction is that the Constitution probably gives us the scope we need to carry out an investigation and, if it turns out the bastard did it, to bring the hammer of God down on him with a vengeance. However, that brings us to the political aspects. Specifically, I'm worried as hell that we haven't had the Constitution back up and running long enough to weather this kind of crisis."


He met the President's eyes, his strong-featured face as grim as she recalled ever having seen it.


"I've played fast and loose around the margins more than once, Eloise. You know that. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's one of the reasons you wanted me for this job. But I really do believe in the Constitution. I believe the only cure, the only preventative, for the sorts of outright insanity the Republic's been prey to is a powerful consensus on the absolute sanctity of the rule of law. If we pursue this, then it's more than possible, in my estimation, that we could wind up pulling the pillars of the temple down on our own heads.


"If we're going to accuse Arnold Giancola of what I'm almost certain he did, we've got to have proof. Not suspicions, however profound. Not hypotheses, however convincing. Proof. Without that, he and his partisans—and he has a lot of them, as we all know—are going to scream we're simply pulling a StateSec. We're concocting ludicrous charges against a political adversary as a pretext for purging your opposition. Anyone who actually knows you would realize how preposterous that was, but by the time the spin masters on both sides get done with it, no one outside your immediate circle is going to be sure of that. Which means we might just find Giancola and his supporters seeking to topple your administration on the basis that they're the ones protecting the Constitution from abuse and manipulation. And if he can generate enough confusion, drum up enough support, the consequences for everything we've been trying to accomplish could be very, very ugly."


"It's probably even worse than you're thinking," Pritchart said unhappily. "This war's incredibly popular at the moment. I hadn't realized how much public opinion wants to get our own back against the Manties for the way they kicked our ass in the last round. And at the moment, there's absolutely no question in Congress that the Manties manipulated the diplomatic exchanges. Why should there be? I personally certified that there wasn't!


"So what happens if I suddenly go before Congress and announce that we're the guilty parties after all? Suppose I tell the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee we went back to war—with Congress' enthusiastic support—on the basis of a lie told not by the Manties, but by our own Secretary of State?"


"I have absolutely no idea," Usher admitted frankly. Abrioux shook her head, as well. Unlike Usher, however, her expression was that of someone who was entirely certain she was involved with something way, way above her pay grade.


"The first thing that's going to happen," Pritchart told him with absolute certainty, "is that they're going to refuse to believe it. Even with the sort of proof you've already pointed out we need, it would take time—probably quite a bit of it—to convince a majority of Congress of what really happened. And that assumes a majority of Congress is willing to be open-minded enough to even entertain the possibility. Don't forget how many friends Arnold has over there.


"But even if Congress buys our version of it, we're winning the damned war. At least, that's the way it looks right now, and Congress as a whole is absolutely convinced we are. So even if it turns out the shooting started because one of our own cabinet officers deliberately manipulated, falsified, and forged diplomatic notes, there's going to be a sizable number of senators and representatives who don't care. What they're going to see is that this time it's the Manties on the ropes, and there's no way in hell they're going to be willing for us to drop an e-mail to Elizabeth Winton saying 'Oops. Sorry about the misunderstanding. Let's all make nice now.' Especially not if that means—as it damned well ought to, if Arnold's done what you—we—think he has—that the Republic publicly acknowledges its war guilt. And if we make what we believe happened public knowledge, we've got to acknowledge our guilt if we're ever going to convince the rest of the galaxy we're not still the People's Republic of Haven."


Her beautiful face was drawn, her topaz eyes shadowed, and Usher nodded slowly.


"I knew it was going to be a shit bucket, whatever happened," he said. "I didn't follow through to realize just how bad it really would be, though."


"It's not your job to worry about the political consequences. It's mine. And if you can come up with concrete proof—proof I can take in front of a judge, proof I could lay in front of an interstellar arbitration panel, or use to convince even our Congress—then I've got no option but to make that proof public and try to survive whatever the political, diplomatic, and constitutional consequences may be. If you give me that proof, then I will by God do it, too."


"Eloise—"


"No, Kevin. This isn't something we can avoid, or dance around. We can't afford to open it up in public at all without proof. But if that proof exists, we can't afford not to open it up. Sooner or later, if it really happened, and if there's proof it did, then it's going to become public knowledge whatever we do. And I won't—I can't—let the Constitution prove to be something built on foundations of sand. If we're ever going to put the old power games behind us once and for all, then you're right, it has to be done on the basis of the rule of law. And that means we have to follow the law wherever it leads us, whether we want to go there or not."


"All right, Madam President," Usher said with unusual formality, his eyes dark with mingled concern and respect. "That's your call. Whatever you decide, however you decide to handle it, you know I'll back your decision."


"Yes, I do," she said softly, topaz eyes softening.


"But that brings us to the final consideration. And, frankly, to the reason I did an end run around Denis for this meeting. You say we need proof. I don't know for a fact we're going to be able to find it, even if I'm a hundred percent correct in my suspicions. But before I can find it, if it exists at all, we need to decide how I'm going to go about looking for it. Under a strict interpretation of the law, I need to inform the Attorney General of my suspicions. He, in turn, needs to inform you, and you need to inform the Foreign Affairs and Judicial Oversight Committees of both houses, at the very least, because of their oversight role. And there are probably at least a couple of other committees which also ought to be brought on-line. Plus, an official investigation ought to be opened by the Attorney General, through the FIA, under a finding of probable cause from a magistrate. Unfortunately, all of that requires bringing dozens, almost certainly hundreds, of other people into the investigation.


"If we do that, it's going to leak. At the very least, word of it will get to Giancola from one of his friends. More probably, it'll hit the info boards within a matter of hours. In which case—"


He shrugged, and Pritchart bit her lip and nodded.


"The worst of all worlds," she acknowledged. "Especially if Arnold decides his best defense is to mount a strong offense before the investigation really gets rolling."


"And particularly if he decides not to restrict himself to due process when he does," Usher pointed out.


"Absolutely."


She drummed nervously on her desktop with her fingertips, then shook herself.


"I notice you said all of that was what would follow from a strict interpretation of the law. I'm almost afraid to ask this. No, I am afraid to ask it." She grimaced. "Unfortunately, I don't have much of an option. So, tell me, Kevin. Just how un-strict do you suggest we be?"


"Believe it or not, Eloise, I wish to hell we could do this one one hundred percent by The Book. If we don't, and if the wheels come off, it's going to be at least as bad as anything you've just described. In fact, it's probably going to be worse.


"Even so," he continued implacably, "I don't see any way we can. You're going to have to decide who else you can trust to bring in on this. I think you're going to have to tell Theisman, and God knows how he's going to react. And even though I'm the one who deliberately cut him out of the loop for this meeting, I really want to bring Denis in on it. Not only does he have both a right and a constitutional responsibility to know what we're doing, but if he doesn't know, we're a lot more likely to have someone step on his own reproductive equipment if I'm running some sort of clandestine op he doesn't know about. Especially if he finds out I'm up to something without knowing what that 'something' is.


"But after you've decided who else needs to know, everything else has to be blacker than black until we either have the proof in hand or know with absolute certainty where that proof is and how to get our hands on it. I don't like it, it's dangerous, but it's the least dangerous option I see under the circumstances."


"I wish you were wrong. Dear God, how I wish you were wrong."


Pritchart closed her eyes for a moment, rubbing her forehead, then exhaled noisily.


"Unfortunately, you aren't," she said. "All right. I hereby authorize you to pursue your black investigation. But be very, very careful, Kevin. This one could destroy everything you and I—and Tom Theisman and Javier—have fought for for decades. I'll have to think long and hard about who else to tell, and how, but at least if someone has to be finding our way through the minefield, I'm glad it's you."


"Gee, thanks." Usher made a face, and the President chuckled. There wasn't much humor in the sound, but perhaps it was at least a beginning.


"How are you going to start?" she asked.


"With Danny here." Usher nodded at the senior inspector. "She's already on board, and she's already black. I'll just keep her that way. However," he looked Pritchart straight in the eyes, "before she makes a single additional move, I want a presidential pardon, signed and in her hand, for any laws she happens to break doing what we're asking her to do."


"You always were loyal to your people in the Resistance," Pritchart said with a smile, and looked at Abrioux. "As a matter of fact, Inspector Abrioux, so was I." She looked back at Kevin. "The senior inspector will have her letter of pardon within the hour," she promised.


"Good. And as far as where we begin, Danny is going to have to put together her own team, one we can cut completely out of normal Agency operations. I think she's already got the people she wants in mind, and I'm pretty sure I can do a little creative paperwork on their assignments to make them available to her. And once that's out of the way, we'll probably start by putting the entire life of the late Yves Grosclaude under an electron microscope. If he really was Giancola's accomplice, and the fact that he's dead would seem to suggest very strongly that he was, then he may have been careless and left us something. For that matter, he may have had an insurance file stashed away somewhere. We're not going to get any legal search warrants without proving probable cause, which we've just agreed we can't do without going public, but if Danny and her people can figure out where what we need is, I can probably finagle some semiplausible way to get possession of it in a way which won't irreparably taint it in an evidentiary sense."


Pritchart's nostrils flared, and he shrugged again.


"I'm going to have to do some dancing in the shadows to make this one work, Eloise. You know I am."


"Then I probably need a pardon for you, too," she said.


"No, you specifically don't need a pardon for me," he disagreed. "I'm the cutout. The rogue, working without any authorization from you because of my personal antipathy for Secretary Giancola."


"Kevin—" she began in automatic protest, but he shook his head.


"You've got to have deniability on this one," he said flatly. "If news of what we're doing leaks and we haven't found the proof we need, you're going to need someone to throw off the sleigh. If you don't have it, the consequences are going to be worse than our having gone public from the get-go would have been. And I'm the only logical candidate."


She looked at him, seeing her fellow revolutionary, her longtime friend and sometime lover, and she wanted desperately to disagree with him. She wanted it as badly as she'd ever wanted anything in her life. But—


"You're right," President Eloise Pritchart said. She hesitated only a heartbeat longer, then nodded sharply.


"Do it," she said.


 


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