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Chapter Forty-Eight

"What do you think the Sollies are going to do, Your Grace?" Rafe Cardones asked quietly.

He and Honor stood side by side in the lift, along with Mercedes Brigham, Andrea Jaruwalski, Frances Hirshfield, Andrew LaFollet, Spencer Hawke, and Sergeant Jefferson McClure, one of the two Harrington Steading armsmen Andrew LaFollet had finally chosen to reinforce Honor's personal detail. Nimitz rode on Honor's shoulder, and even the spacious lift car felt more than a little crowded.

"That's hard to say, Rafe," Honor replied, after a moment. The long-awaited courier from Aivars Terekhov and Augustus Khumalo had finally arrived the day before, with news of Terekhov's crushing victory over the Monican Navy. And of the horrific price his hastily organized squadron had paid for it.

"It's pretty obvious," she continued after a moment, "that at least some Sollies had to be in on this up to their necks. The Solarian Navy doesn't just 'lose' more than a dozen modern battlecruisers."

"You think the League Navy was directly involved?" Cardones was more than a little worried by the thought, and Honor didn't blame him.

"Not the Navy as such." She shook her head. "I'm more inclined to think it was some rogue element within the Navy, or else some private interest, one of their big builders, like Technodyne or General Industries of Terra. Either of them could have provided the ships, if they'd been willing to run some risks, although I'd bet on Technodyne, given their involvement with Mesa at Tiberian. We won't know who it was for certain for quite a while, though. Admiral O'Malley's detachment won't even get there for another four days, and until he arrives, Terekhov and Khumalo are going to have all they can do just to keep the system nailed down. They certainly aren't going to be able to start conducting any investigations."

Cardones nodded thoughtfully, and she gave a small shrug.

"On the other hand, Frontier Security must have signed off on this operation, at least unofficially," she pointed out. "Without assurance of OFS support, this President Tyler would never have run the level of risk he was prepared to court. Not only that, I can't see Mesa providing this kind of logistical and financial support unless they were pretty darn certain one of their pet Frontier Security commissioners was going to back their play.

"Probably the question comes down mainly to how quickly their OFS stooges can react. If they can get in before O'Malley gets there, they might have enough locally deployed firepower to force Khumalo and Terekhov out of Monica. If they can't get themselves organized quickly enough for that, though, I don't think they're going to want to tangle with his task force. And if they blink, the longer they delay a counterattack, the less likely they are to be able to mount one at all. So I'm actually reasonably confident that if they haven't hit us by the time O'Malley gets into position, they won't. Not unless somebody on their side screws up by the numbers."

Cardones nodded again.

"And what about this summit?" Honor didn't really need her empathic ability to feel the hope in his question. "You think it could really lead to something?"

"I think there's always that possibility, How likely it is I can't say. But like you, I spend a lot of time hoping."

The lift came to a halt, the doors slid open, and Honor stepped out, leading the way towards her flag briefing room and yet another conference with her senior officers.

"And the time I don't spend hoping," she said, just a bit grimly, "I spend planning for what we're going to do if it doesn't work out."

* * *

"Thank you for seeing me, Madam President."

Secretary of State Leslie Montreau shook Eloise Pritchart's hand as the President walked around her desk to greet her. Pritchart smiled, and waved for the Secretary to be seated in one of her office's armchairs, then sat herself, facing her guest.

"Given the general tenor of your message when you requested a meeting, Leslie, I was delighted to make room for you in this morning's schedule. I take it we've heard back?"

"Yes, Madam President."

Montreau opened her thin briefcase and extracted a sheaf of old-fashioned hard copy. There were several documents, each with the matching electronic document's chip attached, and she laid them out on the coffee table.

"Basically," she went on, "we've gotten a very favorable response, overall. This," she tapped one document, "is a personal letter from Queen Elizabeth to you. It's mainly polite formulas, but she does specifically thank you for the care our people have taken of our POWs, and for releasing her cousin, Admiral Henke, as your messenger.

"This one," she indicated another, thicker document, "is an official response to our proposal, drafted by their Foreign Office over Foreign Secretary Langtry's signature. There's quite a bit of diplomatic boilerplate in it, but what it boils down to is that they officially welcome our suggestion of a conference, and they accept our offer of a military standdown until after the summit, to begin twenty-four standard hours after the expected arrival time of their response here in Nouveau Paris. I think you'll want to read it for yourself, especially since there are a couple of passages which are just a bit testy. Most of them, I'm afraid, refer to our decision to launch Thunderbolt without formal notice we intended to resort to military action, but I think it's significant that they don't mention our dispute over who did what to the official diplomatic correspondence.

"In addition," she went on, in a slightly different tone, "they've responded to our request that they nominate a neutral site."

"Which is?" Pritchart asked as Montreau paused.

"Torch, Madam President," the Secretary said, and Pritchart sat back in her chair with a suddenly thoughtful expression.

"You know," she said, after a few seconds, "that really should have occurred to us. It's the one neutral port where we both have contacts." She chuckled suddenly. "Of course, if it had occurred to me, I probably wouldn't have suggested it anyway. I'd have figured they wouldn't want to risk their monarch anywhere near our half-tame lunatic, Cachat!"

"Then you feel the site's acceptable?" Montreau asked, and Pritchart cocked her head to one side.

"You don't?"

"I think it's very inconveniently placed for us, Madam President," the Secretary of State replied after a brief hesitation. "Their delegation could make the trip in less than a week, thanks to their Junction and the Erewhon Junction. It's going to take over a month for our delegation to make the trip from Haven. And it's going to take over three weeks for our acceptance and their acknowledgment of our acceptance to travel back and forth between here and Manticore. So the absolute earliest we could actually sit down with them is the next best thing to two months from today."

"That sort of time constraint's going to be part and parcel of any peace conference, Leslie," Pritchart pointed out. "It always takes time, and finding a suitable site we can both agree to is worth going a little out of our way. I suppose," she smiled thinly, "that we could always ask them to guarantee our safe conduct and take Haven One through their Junction. That would cut about a week off of our total transit time."

"And Thomas Theisman would have me shot at dawn if I proposed any such thing, Madam President."

"Probably not," Pritchart disagreed.

"If it's all the same to you, Madam President, I'd prefer not to find out."

"Wise of you, I suppose." Pritchart sat for another moment, studying the Secretary of State's expression, then frowned very slightly. "Somehow, though, Leslie, I don't think the time element is the only issue you have."

"Well," Montreau began, then stopped. She seemed uncomfortable, but finally she inhaled and started again.

"Madam President, I have to confess I'm just a little anxious about the notion of the President of the Republic attending a peace conference on a planet inhabited almost exclusively by freed genetic slaves. As far as I can tell, at least half of them have some connection with the Audubon Ballroom, and their Secretary of War is probably the galaxy's most notorious terrorist. Then there's the fact that they're a monarchy, with a queen who's the adopted daughter of one of Manticore's leading politicians and a man who used to be one of the Star Kingdom's best spies. And that same man is basically running Torch's intelligence community, with the Queen of Manticore's niece as his assistant."

She shook her head.

"Madam President, I question whether or not this planet can really be considered a 'neutral site,' and I have some fairly severe reservations about your personal security and safety on Torch."

"I see."

Pritchart leaned back in her chair, her own expression thoughtful, and considered what Montreau had said. Then she shrugged.

"I can see why you might be concerned," she said. "I think, though, that you're making a not unreasonable mistake by failing to recognize that Torch is something new and unique. Yes, Queen Berry is the daughter of Anton Zilwicki and Catherine Montaigne. She was born on Old Earth, though, not Manticore, and I'm quite confident her primary loyalty is to her new planet and her new subjects. I have . . . certain highly covert contacts within the Torch government which keep me quite well informed in that regard.

"As for my personal security and safety among a bunch of ex-terrorists, you might want to recall just exactly what the Aprilists were." Her smile this time was thin and cold. "I was a senior member of the Aprilists, Leslie. I personally killed over a dozen men and women, and InSec labeled all of us 'terrorists.' I'm not going to worry all that much about my safety among people someone like Manpower's labeled terrorists simply because they chose to strike back violently at the butchers who made their lives living hells. And while Anton Zilwicki may head their intelligence services, I have complete and total faith in the young woman who commands their military."

Montreau looked at her. Pritchart suspected the Secretary wanted to press her objections, but she had the good sense not to.

"Very well, Madam President," she said instead. "If the site's acceptable to you, I'm not going to raise any more objections. Although, with your permission, I intend to discuss my specific concerns with the Attorney General and Presidential Security, as well as my own security people."

"Of course you have my permission, Leslie."

"Thank you."

The Secretary smiled, then tapped the last stack of hard copy.

"This was perhaps the most surprising part of the entire package," she said. "It includes a copy of two official messages to Erewhon. One is from Foreign Secretary Langtry, and the other's from Queen Elizabeth. They're proposing that both sides agree to bring no military units into the Congo System, aside from a single escort vessel for the ships transporting our delegations, and that the Erewhonese Navy assume responsibility for the system's security during the conference. They've requested that neither we nor the Star Kingdom announce the actual site of the conference. Instead, they've asked us to leave the announcement up to Erewhon, to be made only after the summit is officially agreed to and Erewhon is confident that it has all of its security arrangements in order. The official messages they've copied to us are requests to Erewhon to agree to undertake that role."

"Now that, Leslie, was a clever move on someone's part," Pritchart said almost admiringly. "High Ridge blotted Manticore's copybook so thoroughly with Erewhon that he almost drove them into our arms, and he managed it mainly because he was too stupid to understand how Erewhonese think. Obviously, whoever came up with this notion doesn't suffer from that particular form of blindness. Given that the Star Kingdom knows Erewhon provided us with significant technology transfers before hostilities resumed, this is Manticore's way of telling Erewhon the current government recognizes its predecessors' mistakes and that it trusts the Republic of Erewhon to keep its word. That it trusts Erewhon enough to put the life of its Queen into Erewhonese hands, even after what happened when Elizabeth visited Grayson. Or, for that matter, when Princess Ruth visited Erewhon."

She shook her head, smiling.

"Whatever comes of the peace conference, asking Erewhon to guarantee our security is going to move it almost all the way back to a truly neutral position between us and Manticore."

"Should we object to the suggestion, then?" Montreau asked, and Pritchart shook her head again, more violently.

"Certainly not! Objecting to the suggestion, especially after Elizabeth and Langtry have already issued their request, would be the same as saying we don't trust the Erewhonese to play the role of honest neutral. Right off hand, I can't think of anything that would be more destructive to our own relationship with them."

"Then I take it you're prepared to approve the Manticoran proposal?"

"Yes, I think I am. As you suggested, I'll want to read over the correspondence myself, and we'll have to have Cabinet approval before I take the entire notion officially to the Senate. Under the circumstances, though, I don't see anyone raising any objections if I'm agreeable."

"Frankly, I don't either, Madam President. So, with your permission," Montreau stood, "I'll get back to my office. Colonel Nesbitt and I need to begin considering our own security recommendations."

* * *

"So the President is really serious about this, Madam Secretary?" Jean-Claude Nesbitt asked.

"She certainly is, Colonel," Secretary of State Montreau replied. "And while I admit I have a few reservations about the site myself, this initiative of hers also strikes me as our best chance for a negotiated settlement."

"I see."

Nesbitt frowned, and Montreau looked at him questioningly. He saw her expression and gave himself an impatient little shake.

"Sorry, Madam Secretary. I'm just thinking about all the things that could go wrong. And, if I'm going to be honest, I suppose I'm also thinking about the relative military positions. Given our current advantages, and the fact that the Manties appear to be tangled up with the Sollies in Talbott, I hope President Pritchart's planning on taking a fairly hard line."

"Our exact position at the summit is going to be up to the President's direction," Montreau's said just a bit coolly.

"Of course, Madam Secretary. I didn't mean to suggest it shouldn't be. It's just that, especially after Solon and Zanzibar, I'm afraid the man in the street's in a fairly bloodthirsty mood."

"I know. On the other hand, formulating long-term diplomatic policy on the basis of public opinion surveys isn't exactly a good idea."

"Of course, Madam Secretary," Nesbitt said again, bobbing his head with a pleasant smile. "In that case, suppose I go and pull everything we have on Torch? I'll request a full background download from Director Trajan over at FIS, as well. Let me spend a few days reviewing it with my senior people and possibly get a few of your senior staffers involved for input from their side of the aisle. After that, I'll be able to delineate specific areas of concern and formulate proposals for dealing with them."

"That sounds like the best way to proceed," Montreau agreed, and Nesbitt smiled again and climbed out of his chair.

"I'll go and get started, then. Good afternoon, Madam Secretary."

"Good afternoon, Colonel."

Nesbitt let himself out of the Secretary's office and started towards the building's lift shafts, then paused. He stood there a moment, then turned and crossed the hall to knock lightly on the frame of an open door.

"Oh. Good afternoon, Colonel," Alicia Hampton said, looking up from her workstation.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Hampton." Nesbitt stepped into the fairly spacious, comfortably furnished office. "I was just finishing up my meeting with Secretary Montreau, and I thought I'd poke my head in and see how you're getting along."

"Thank you Colonel. That's very thoughtful of you." Hampton smiled a bit tremulously. "It hasn't been easy. Secretary Montreau's a perfectly nice person, and she takes her job seriously, but she's just not Secretary Giancola." Her eyes were suspiciously bright, and she shook her head. "I still can hardly believe he's gone—him and his brother, both at once, just gone like that. It was all such . . . such a stupid waste."

"I know exactly what you mean," Nesbitt said feelingly, although not for quite the same reasons.

"And he was such a good man," Hampton continued.

"Well, Ms. Hampton—Alicia," Nesbitt said, "when we lose a good man, a leader, we just have to hope someone else can step into the gap. I think Secretary Montreau's going to try very hard, and I hope all of us can help her as she does."

"Oh, I certainly agree, Colonel! And it was so good of her to keep me on as her administrative assistant!"

"Please, I think we've known one another long enough now for you to call me Jean-Claude," he said with a pleasant smile. "And it was good of her to keep you on. Of course, it was also smart of her. Secretary Giancola often told me how much he relied on you to keep the Department running smoothly. Obviously, your background knowledge and experience must have been very valuable to Secretary Montreau during the transition."

"I like to think so, anyway . . . Jean-Claude," Hampton said, her eyes dropping shyly for just a moment. Then she looked back up at him and returned his smile. "I've tried. And she's beginning to delegate a little more than she was willing to when the Senate first confirmed her."

"Good!" Nesbitt nodded vigorously. "That's exactly what I was talking about, Alicia. And I hope you'll keep me in mind, as well. Secretary Giancola was more than just a boss to me, too, and I'd really like to see his work carried on. So if there's anything I can do for you or Secretary Montreau, any security or intelligence matter, or anything of that sort, please let me know. After all, part of my job is being able to intelligently anticipate what the Secretary's likely to need before she actually gets around to asking me."

"Of course, Jean-Claude. I'll bear that in mind."

"Fine. Well, I've got to be on my way now. I'll check back with you in a day or so, once this whole conference idea's had a chance to shake down a little more. Maybe we could discuss the Secretary's needs over lunch, down in the cafeteria."

"I think that would be a good idea . . . Jean-Claude," she said.


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