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Chapter Forty-Four

"Well, that went pretty well, I thought, Your Grace."

Andrea Jaruwalski was trying very hard not to preen in satisfaction, and Honor smothered a smile. Jaruwalski, Brigham, Rafe Cardones, and Yolanda Harriman had joined her for dinner, and now they all sat back from the table, nursing after-dinner coffee—or cocoa, as the case might be.

"I suppose you could say that," Honor said slowly, pursing her lips with a dubious expression. "Of course, there were a few little glitches."

"There always are," Brigham pointed out. "Personally, Your Grace, I found myself wondering just who programmed the simulation to throw that extra squadron of superdreadnoughts at us."

She gave Honor an intensely speculative look, which Honor returned with one of total innocence. The chief of staff transferred her speculation to Commander Harriman, who suddenly seemed to find the bottom of her coffee cup extraordinarily interesting.

"It occurred to me, while I was wondering," Brigham continued, "that whoever might have decided to do it—and, I trust you'll note, I name no names—would have needed a minion somewhere in the flagship. Preferably, someone with access to the tactical computers. Of course, once that ignoble suspicion occurred to me, I womanfully put it behind me as one unworthy of our open and forthright command staff."

"Mac!" Honor called through the pantry hatch.

"Yes, Your Grace?"

"Bring me my hip-waders, would you? It's getting deep in here."

"Of course, Your Grace," MacGuiness replied with perfect aplomb. "Would you like your snorkel mask, as well?"

"I don't think it's going to get quite that deep," Honor said as her guests laughed.

"Very good, Your Grace," MacGuiness said as he stepped back out of the pantry and set a second serving of peach cobbler in front of Honor. She smiled her thanks and picked up her dessert fork again.

"Your Grace," Brigham said wistfully, watching Honor dig in, "there are times when I positively hate you and that metabolism of yours."

She patted her own reasonably flat stomach and shook her head sadly.

"You should try the downside of it sometime, Mercedes," Honor told her. "You may envy the way it lets me pander to my sweet tooth, but try waking up with the sort of middle-of-the-night munchies I got as, say, a twelve-year-old." She shuddered. "Trust me, as an adolescent, I seemed to spend all my time shoveling in food, not just half of it."

She felt a sudden jab of darker emotion from behind her and glanced over her shoulder.

Andrew LaFollet stood inside the dining cabin hatch. Before the attempt on Honor's life, he would have been content to stand his post outside the hatch, given the guest list. These days, that was out of the question as far as he was concerned, and she recognized the somberness radiating from him. He was remembering PNS Tepes and her own half-starved gauntness when he, Jamie Candless, and Robert Whitman broke her out of a StateSec holding cell.

She caught his eye long enough to smile gently at him, and he smiled back, shaking off his mood. Then she turned back to her guests, none of whom had picked up on that particular bit of byplay.

"Actually, Andrea, getting back to your original comment, I have to agree. Things did seem to go quite well, over all. I was especially pleased with the way Mistletoe worked."

"I was, too, Your Grace," Cardones said. "At the same time, I can't help worrying a little bit about the simulation's parameters. If it turns out Mistletoe doesn't work as well in practice—or, even worse, gets picked up early—we could be in a world of hurt against another missile attack like the one they threw at us at Solon."

"You're right, of course." Honor nodded. She forked up another bite of cobbler, chewed, and swallowed, then continued. "We deliberately used the more pessimistic set of assumptions from Admiral Hemphill's testing programs, but we won't know for certain until we test it against active Havenite defenses. For the most part, though, BuWeaps has done a pretty good job of simulating enemy threat levels for quite some time now."

"I didn't say my worries were all that reasonable, Your Grace," Cardones said with a smile. "I just said I had them."

"Personally, Skipper," Harriman told him, "I'm looking forward to seeing Apollo in action." Imperator's tactical officer smiled almost beatifically. "Their point defense better be really good if they expect to go home with a whole hide this time!"

"I only hope they don't figure out how few of the new pods we really have," Brigham said.

"Unless their spies have managed a lot better penetration than ONI thinks they have, they shouldn't realize that," Honor replied. "And if they do have that kind of penetration, we're in so much trouble already that it won't really matter if they figure out that particular point."

Brigham chuckled.

"You're right, Your Grace, I—"

"Excuse me, Your Grace."

Honor turned, eyebrows lowering, as MacGuiness stepped back out of his pantry.

"What is it, Mac?"

"Communications just buzzed. A special Admiralty courier boat just cleared the Junction. According to her captain, she has emergency dispatches onboard."

* * *

The levity and confidence of Honor's dinner guests was notable for its complete absence as she sat in her flag briefing room once again. Only Cardones, her staff, and Andrew LaFollet and Nimitz were physically present, but the huge com display above the conference table was divided into quadrants showing the faces of every squadron and divisional commander of her enlarged and more powerful Eighth Fleet.

The enlarged and more powerful fleet which wasn't going anywhere, after all, she thought grimly.

"I'm sorry to get you all up this late," she began. "Unfortunately, the Admiralty's news isn't good."

She saw no surprise on the tense faces in the display. That much, at least, they'd all obviously guessed.

"This afternoon, the Admiralty received an emergency dispatch from Admiral Khumalo in Talbott," she continued evenly. "A copy of that dispatch was included in the Admiralty download I received an hour ago. Commander Reynolds," she waved a hand at her intelligence officer, "will put together copies of most of the material and distribute it to all of you immediately after this conference. For the moment, to summarize, Admiral Khumalo's informed the Admiralty that Captain Aivars Terekhov has deduced that the apparently unrelated terrorist incidents in the Cluster have, in fact, been carefully orchestrated by outside elements. Specifically, the terrorist Nordbrandt and her 'Freedom Alliance of Kornati' are being armed with modern weapons by Mesa. The same apparently holds true for the terrorists operating in the Montana System, as well."

She clearly had everyone's attention, she noted with bitter amusement.

"Apparently, Captain Terekhov has physical proof of that part of his theory. He intercepted and captured a Jessyk Combine slaver being used to run in the weapons. Before he did so, however, it used a laser cluster to destroy one of his pinnaces and kill everyone aboard it."

She closed her eyes briefly in pain, recalling the bright promise and eagerness of Midshipwoman Ragnhild Pavletic. Then she opened them once more and continued.

"After interrogating the slaver's surviving crew and breaking into its computers, Terekhov concluded that the Republic of Monica is also involved. He believes the Monicans are being provided with modern warships in sufficient numbers to provoke a crisis in the Cluster. And he believes the Office of Frontier Security is also involved, and that OFS is prepared to commit Solly fleet units to 'restore order' in the Cluster after the Monicans have acted."

Every eye was riveted on her now, and she looked back steadily.

"At this moment, the last thing in the universe the Star Kingdom needs is a shooting incident with the Solarian League Navy. Captain Terekhov is clearly well aware of that, because, on his own initiative, he's assembled a small squadron of cruisers and destroyers and moved directly on Monica."

"He's what?" Alistair McKeon asked sharply. Honor looked at him on the display, and he shook his head. "He's launched an unauthorized invasion of a sovereign star nation in time of peace. Is that what you're saying, Your Grace?"

"It's exactly what I'm saying," Honor replied flatly. "His report was obviously written with an eye towards publication. He's very careful to make it clear he's operating solely on his own, without authorization from any superior. He doesn't say so, but it's clear he's deliberately setting himself up to be disavowed if necessary. At the same time, he intends to personally investigate the situation in Monica and, if his suspicions are confirmed, to . . . neutralize the threat by any means necessary."

There was total silence, and her eyes moved across the display, examining the face of each of her senior subordinates in turn.

"Admiral Khumalo," she continued after a moment, "dispatched a courier boat to Admiralty House as soon as he received Terekhov's report to him. In his own dispatches, he informed the Admiralty that he fully endorsed Terekhov's actions and was moving to support him with all available units."

She wondered how many of her officers were as surprised by that as she was, but she allowed no sign of the thought to show itself.

"Under the circumstances, Admiral Khumalo felt he had no option but to request immediate reinforcement. Since it's possible Terekhov, or Khumalo, or both of them may find themselves in a shooting incident with Solarian units, the Admiralty felt it had no option but to dispatch a significant reinforcement from Home Fleet. Those units are already on their way to Monica.

"Obviously, all of these moves have implications for us. The most immediate one is that Home Fleet is now going to be understrength, and one of the functions of Eighth Fleet, like Third Fleet, is to serve as a ready reserve for Home Fleet. There's also the possibility that the Star Kingdom is about to find itself engaged against Solarian units, and no one is prepared to predict the possible ramifications of that.

"Because the entire strategic situation's suddenly been thrown into such a state of flux, Admiralty House has ordered the temporary stand down of Operation Sanskrit. For now, we're postponing the execution date by three weeks. That should give us time to receive dispatches from Terekhov or Khumalo from Monica. Hopefully, those dispatches will confirm that Terekhov was either wrong or that he and Khumalo have managed to defuse the situation. In either of those cases, Sanskrit will be reactivated, although we'll probably face some delay because of our need to factor in intelligence on any changes which may occur in the meantime."

She sat very still, looking at her flag officers, and her face was grimmer than any of them remembered ever having seen it.

"People, in my judgment, the Star Kingdom is now facing the greatest danger we have ever faced," she said quietly. "It's entirely conceivable that we could find ourselves simultaneously at war with the Republic of Haven and the Solarian League. Should that occur, our strategic situation would be about as close to desperate as any I can conceive of. The next month to six weeks may very possibly determine the fate of our kingdom."

* * *

"You wanted to see me, Kevin?" Eloise Pritchart asked warily.

"I wouldn't put it exactly that way," Kevin Usher said almost whimsically. "I'd say I needed to see you."

"Which means you're about to tell me something I don't want to hear."

"Which means I'm about to tell you something you don't want to hear," Usher agreed. "Actually, Senior Inspector Abrioux is about to tell you."

"Senior Inspector?" the President turned to the petite FIA officer, and Danielle Abrioux returned her look with an unhappy expression.

"Madam President," she said, "I'm sorry, but the Director and I both feel we've hit a stone wall. We've tried everything we can think of, and we can't give you the smoking gun you need."

"Why not?" Pritchart shook her head quickly. "I'm sorry. That came out sounding almost accusatory, and I didn't mean it that way. What I meant was, why is it a stone wall?"

"Because both our original suspects are dead, and we haven't been able to identify a single additional damned accomplice," Usher replied for Abrioux. "Grosclaude still looks like a suicide, although Danny and I are both positive it was actually homicide. Giancola, damn his black soul to hell, was a genuine accident, but no one's going to believe it. And Grosclaude's so-called 'evidence' is an obvious, if fairly clever, forgery. Those, unfortunately, are the only hard facts we have. We've tried every avenue, short of opening a very public exhaustive investigation, without being able to move beyond those points. And, frankly, I don't think going public would let us turn up anything we haven't already found.

"My own theory, and I think Danny agrees with me," he glanced at Abrioux, who nodded vigorously, "is still that Giancola pulled the entire thing off basically on his own, and that he's responsible for the 'forgeries' in Grosclaude's personal files. He needed Gros-claude to make the substitutions, and I can't escape the suspicion that he had someone else helping him out at this end, as well—at least with the computer access he needed. Unfortunately, there's no clue as to who that someone may have been, assuming he actually existed at all and that he's not simply someone I desperately want to exist so I can find him and choke a confession out of him with my bare hands. But even if he existed, it was Giancola's show."

"And you're convinced he never meant it to go as far as it did?"

"I'm . . . not as certain of that as I was," Usher said slowly, and Pritchart straightened in her chair, looking at him intently.

"Why not? What's changed?"

"Danny pointed something out to me the other day," Usher replied. "The Manty lieutenant who tried to kill Harrington three months ago was apparently acting under some form of compulsion. From all the information available to us, he was very close to Harrington. He'd been with her for quite some time, and NavInt's dossier on her suggests that her inner circle is almost always intensely loyal and personally devoted to her. So whatever the compulsion was, it had to be powerful enough to overcome that sort of personal devotion and push him into committing what was ultimately a suicidal act. But the Manties—whose medical and forensic establishments, let's face it, are both better than our own—haven't been able to come up with any explanation for how he was compelled. Doesn't that sound like what happened to Grosclaude to you?"

"You think the same people who killed Grosclaude—or, at least, gave Arnold whatever he used to do the job—also tried to kill Harrington?"

"Let's just say I strongly suspect that whatever technique is being used came from the same source. Now, as the nasty and suspicious sort I am, it occurs to me that if it came from the same source, it's very possibly being used in support of some unified strategy. It's possible, I suppose, that it's simply a case of someone marketing the technology to whoever needs it and can afford it, but I'm beginning to doubt that's the case." Usher shook his head. "No, Eloise. There's a pattern here, I just haven't been able to figure out what it is yet. But what I have seen of it suggests that whoever is behind it doesn't much care for either us or the Manties."

"So now you're saying Arnold may have been actively working for someone else to provoke fresh hostilities between us and the Manties?" Pritchart wished she'd been able to sound more incredulous than she did.

"I think it's possible," Usher agreed. "But there are still way too many unanswered questions for me to suggest exactly why someone might want that. Did they have enough information on Bolthole to expect to us to roll right over the Manties for them? In that case, presumably Manticore is the primary target, and we're simply the blunt instrument. Or did they expect the Manties to roll over us, which would make us the primary target? Or do they, for some reason I can't currently envision, simply want the two of us shooting at one another again, which would make both of us the target of some third party with a completely unknown agenda of his own?"

"Jesus Christ, Kevin!" Pritchart stared at him in something very like horror. "That's so . . . so . . . so twisty just thinking about it makes my head hurt! What good could sending us back to war with Manticore do any hypothetical third party?"

"I just said I couldn't envision what their motives might be. If I could, I could make a pretty fair stab at figuring out who they were, as well. And it's entirely possible I'm totally out to lunch with the whole theory. It could be no more than my 'spook' experience making me see things because Danny and I have exhausted all of the potential domestic avenues we could see. I just don't know, Eloise. But I do know this—my instincts all tell me that so far all we've seen is the tip of an iceberg."


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