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Chapter Twenty-Three

"So it's confirmed, Your Grace?"


"As positively as it can be without tipping our hand, Reverend," Benjamin IX replied. "We can't use it in court until our own forensic people have duplicated Sky Domes' models, and we probably need to actually excavate the foundations, but no one who's seen the analysis doubts it. At this point, all contacts with Planetary Security have been restricted to a group Regent Clinkscales personally trusts to keep them quiet, but a senior engineer in Security's Building Safety Directorate has checked the Sky Domes material and completely endorses its conclusions, and we have positive confirmation of Harding's identity." The Protector shook his head. "It hasn't been 'proven' in the sense in which the courts use that verb, Reverend. But it will be when the time comes."


"I see." Reverend Hanks leaned back in his armchair, and distress and anger warred with relief in his eyes. Chancellor Prestwick sat beside the Reverend, and Benjamin wondered which of the three of them looked most exhausted. It would, he was sure, have been a very close call.


"I do not want to believe anyone who calls himself a man of God could conspire in the murder of children." Hanks' deep, resonant voice was dark and heavy with sorrow. "But given the speed with which Lord Burdette and Marchant reacted to the initial reports—"


The Reverend shook his head sadly, yet the anger in his eyes only grew. The spiritual head of the Church of Humanity Unchained was a gentle and compassionate man, but the Church, too, had borne a sword in its time.


"I agree, Reverend," Prestwick said soberly, "but, if you'll forgive me, the secular side is even more complicated. We have proof a Burdette steader was involved, but so far any evidence of collusion—even with Marchant—is entirely speculative. At the moment, Harding could have acted alone."


Benjamin looked at the Chancellor in disbelief, and Prestwick shrugged.


"If Lord Clinkscales and Security can identify the workmen who sabotaged the ceramacrete and we can link them to Harding, we'll have convincing proof of a conspiracy, Your Grace. But unless we can demonstrate a link between the conspirators and Lord Burdette, we won't have enough evidence to impeach him before the Keys. At this stage no one can predict whether or not we can ever make that linkage at all, but we do know we can't assemble the evidence which might demonstrate it without a formal investigation."


"And if I authorize a formal investigation," Benjamin sighed, "we'll have to bring in so many people Burdette is bound to get wind of it."


"I'm very much afraid so, Your Grace. Especially with his . . . historical links to Justice."


"And if he is guilty, he'll take steps to destroy the evidence we need before we get our hands on it," Benjamin said sourly. "And steadholder autonomy means he can probably stall the admission of any Sword investigation team to Burdette long enough to get away with it."


"Perhaps more to the point, Your Grace," Hanks pointed out, "the verdict of the court of public opinion may be delivered before the Ministry of Justice can set the official wheels in motion. The Sacristy has been firm in its instructions, but many of our priests—even those who neither distrusted nor feared Lady Harrington before the dome collapse—are ignoring those instructions. The nature of the disaster, the deaths of so many children—" He sighed and shook his head once more. "This sort of catastrophe produces the strongest reaction in the best of men. Their very goodness drives them to cry out against perceived injustice, and the evidence has been so outwardly damning that none of them question it. The situation is already badly inflamed, and it will only get worse until we can prove Lady Harrington is the blameless victim of someone else's conspiracy. Indeed, some of the damage may already be beyond repair, even if a court of law clears her. She is, after all, a Steadholder. Her enemies will be quick to circulate the rumor that she used her rank to engineer a coverup, that the court's verdict was a whitewash which you and Father Church supported out of political expediency, and some will believe it. Once people become sufficiently convinced of her guilt, a taint will always cling to her in some minds, and the longer we delay public revelation of the new evidence, the more convinced people will become."


"He's right, Your Grace." Prestwick rubbed his hands together in his lap, and his eyes were troubled. "We're already hearing charges that you're delaying the investigation to protect Lady Harrington, and we're also seeing incidents of organized vandalism against Sky Domes. Eight million austins worth of their equipment was fire-bombed in Surtees Steading the day after the collapse. Worse, three Sky Domes workers were attacked by a mob in Watson Steading last night. One of the victims may not live—he's in a coma, and the doctors aren't optimistic—and I have reports that almost equally ugly incidents are being directed against people just because they're from Harrington, whether they have any links to Sky Domes or not."


The Chancellor rubbed his aching eyes, then met his Protector's gaze squarely.


"Bad as all that is, Your Grace, it's only a symptom. The real outrage is aimed directly—and personally—at Lady Harrington, and it's assuming frightening proportions. I've received petitions from thirty-eight steadholders and over ninety members of the Conclave of Steaders for her immediate recall as an admiral and impeachment and formal trial for murder. If only six more steadholders endorse the impeachment petition, we'll have no choice but to implement it. And if that happens—"


He shrugged unhappily, and Benjamin nodded. The evidence Adam Gerrick had put together—and what a brilliant piece of reconstruction that had been, the Protector thought admiringly—was almost certain to defeat any impeachment. Unfortunately, the very process of clearing Honor before the Keys would expose their evidence to the man behind the entire plot. More than that, impeachment proceedings would be broadcast throughout the star system, which was only too likely to taint that evidence for later legal prosecutions. If Harding and his fellow murderers were ever brought to trial, their attorneys would undoubtedly argue that the evidence presented at the impeachment had prejudiced anyone who might be selected as a juror, and they might very well be right.


But how did he head that off? Reverend Hanks was right; this was precisely the sort of crime which evoked the most anger in the best of men, and aside from the people behind it, all of the Keys genuinely believed Honor was guilty of it. Their fury was completely understandable, yet it was virtually certain to generate the six additional signatures a writ of impeachment required. If that happened, not even he could quash the proceedings—and the true guilty parties might well escape as a consequence.


He tipped his chair back and frowned as he thought. He was the Protector of Grayson. It was his job to insure that anyone who committed a crime such as this did not escape, and he was coldly determined to do just that. But it was also his job to protect the innocent, and that meant he had to get a handle on the groundswell of violence building against Sky Domes and the steaders of Harrington, as well as Honor, and how in God's name did he do that without handing Gerrick's analysis to the Keys and the press?


"All right," he sighed finally. "This nest of snakes has too many heads; however we reach into it, we're going to get bitten somewhere, so the best we can do, I think, is try to minimize the consequences." Prestwick nodded unhappily, and Reverend Hanks looked grave.


"Henry," the Protector turned his gaze on the Chancellor, "I want you to sit down with Security. Take Councilman Sidemore with you." Prestwick nodded again; Aaron Sidemore was the Minister of Justice, and they had to bring him into this quickly. Fortunately, he was a new appointee, with none of the ties to the old patronage system which might have led to leaks to the Keys, and a man who took his responsibilities seriously.


"This has to be handled very carefully," Benjamin went on. "As of this moment, the Sword has made an official finding of the possibility of treason on the part of a steadholder. I'll give you written confirmation of that for Sidemore."


Prestwick nodded again, but his face was more tense than it had been, and Benjamin smiled grimly. No Protector had exerted his constitutional authority to police the Keys for over a T-century, and dusting off the old laws which governed that process was almost certain to provoke a constitutional crisis if any member of the Keys challenged them. But by invoking a Sword finding of possible treason, Benjamin could also empower Justice to investigate in absolute secrecy. By law, he could keep the investigation "black" for no more than three weeks; after that, he had to file formal charges against a specific steadholder, convince a majority of the Joint Steadholder-Steader Judiciary Committee that a continuation of the finding was justified, or else withdraw it, but at least they could get a running start on the case and probably not alert Burdette.


"In the meantime," the Protector mused, "we have to head off this impeachment talk or risk blowing the entire case against the real criminals." He gnawed his lower lip for a moment, then sighed. "I don't see any way to do that without giving Burdette at least a little warning. To stop the impeachment, I'll have to give the Keys at least some of what we suspect."


"Risky, Your Grace," Prestwick pointed out. "Giving them enough to convince them this isn't just a political ploy—that you have substantive reason to believe the collapse was deliberately engineered by someone besides Lady Harrington—is going to require you to expose at least some of the critical evidence."


"I realize that, but we're damned if we do and damned if we don't, Henry. A formal impeachment will put all the evidence on the table. What I'm hoping is to play it by ear, reveal only a little of Gerrick's analysis and suggest that there's reason to reexamine the original findings of the site inspectors in light of it."


"They'll never accept that as sufficient, Your Grace," the Chancellor said flatly.


"You're probably right, and if I have to go further, I will. But I can at least try to limit the damage first."


"Well, yes, Your Grace. I suppose we can try," Prestwick agreed doubtfully.


"Your Grace," Reverend Hanks' tone was unusually formal, "the Church does not normally take a hand in the affairs of the Keys. In this instance, however, you have the support of my office, and, I believe, of the Sacristy at large. If you wish, I will appear before the Keys and appeal to them to accept your plea for a delay without divulgence of the evidence. If I inform them that I have seen the full body of evidence and endorse your conclusions, perhaps we can convince them not to push."


"Thank you, Reverend." Benjamin's voice and expression showed his profound gratitude for Hanks' offer. While the Reverend was correct about the Church's normal impartiality, it was also true that his position as Reverend gave him the legal standing of a steadholder. In fact, it made him a member both of the Protector's Council and of the Keys, and if he was willing to throw the Church's weight behind a plea to delay any formal impeachment proceedings, it might—might—turn the trick without revealing their evidence to Burdette.


"Your Grace, if there is the slightest possibility that even an ex-priest has involved himself in the murder of children, Father Church has no choice but to exert his full influence to see justice done," the gentle Reverend said sternly, and Benjamin nodded soberly.


"In that case, Henry, as soon as you and Sidemore have finished your preliminary discussions, I want you to transmit writs of summons for a special—and closed—session of the Keys. We'll try to keep this quiet enough the media doesn't get involved."


"Yes, Your Grace."


"Where's Gerrick now?" the Protector asked, and Prestwick frowned for a moment, then nodded to himself.


"I believe he's still aboard Terrible, Your Grace. Lord Clinkscales tells me he went up to explain his findings to Lady Harrington and Terrible's surgeon ordered him straight to bed after he'd done so."


"Wise of him, no doubt," Benjamin murmured, remembering the gray-faced, exhausted young man he'd seen on his own com screen—was it really only three hours ago? He shook his head, then brought his chair back upright.


"I think we should leave him there for now," he said slowly, then nodded. "In fact, let's announce where he is, Henry. Put together a press release to the effect that he's there to confer with Lady Harrington but without including any hint of what they're conferring about. Don't tell any lies; just stick to the bare facts of his presence and I feel sure the newsies will draw the conclusion we want."


"The conclusion we want, Your Grace?" Hanks repeated, and Benjamin smiled.


"Reverend, unless they already know about the Sky Domes analysis, the people really responsible for this must feel pretty confident just now, and I'm sure they figure Lady Harrington must be growing desperate. Well, I'd like to use that against them, and if we can convince them that she's summoned her chief engineer to a 'spin control' conference in an attempt to salvage something from the wreck, it should make them even more confident . . . and less wary. Besides, I'd just as soon have Gerrick out of reach of the media at least until after the special session's behind us."


"I think that's wise, Your Grace," Prestwick put in. "In fact, if you approve, I'll also contact Howard Clinkscales. Between the two of us, I'm sure we can concoct an absolutely truthful—and highly misleading—release to reinforce that image, and I'll also ask him to warn the rest of Sky Domes' engineers to keep a low profile."


"Good idea, Henry. Good idea." Benjamin pinched his nose and tried to think of what else they could do, but nothing occurred to his weary brain.


"With your permission, Your Grace, I think I'll go up to Terrible, as well," Reverend Hanks said. Benjamin quirked an eyebrow, and Hanks shrugged. "I know Lady Harrington well enough to realize this must have been a terrible ordeal for her, Your Grace. I'd like the opportunity to speak with her, and I could also take her the writ of summons for the Conclave without putting it through official Navy channels or sending a Sword courier." The Reverend frowned thoughtfully, then nodded. "In fact, I'm sure Chancellor Prestwick will have the writs prepared by the time I've been able to speak with the Sacristy and explain what's happening to the Elders I can trust not to accidentally let something slip. In that case, she could return for the special session with me the following day. That would probably be the quickest—and most confidential—way to complete the arrangements."


"It would, indeed, Reverend, though I feel a bit uncomfortable using the head of Father Church as a mere courier!"


"There's nothing 'mere' about it, under the circumstances, Your Grace," Hanks replied, "and Father Church—and the people of Grayson—owe Lady Harrington any service we can legitimately perform for her."


"You're right, of course," Benjamin agreed, then looked back and forth between the two older men on the far side of his desk. "In that case, gentlemen, I think we should get things organized."


* * *


"Well, that was an . . . interesting disaster," Citizen Rear Admiral Theisman observed. His tone was so dry that even Citizen Commissioner LePic grinned, but there was a point to the comment. Task Group 14.2, Theisman's own command of twelve battleships and screening elements, had performed flawlessly in the latest sim. Unfortunately, Citizen Admiral Chernov's TG 14.3 had completely misunderstood its orders. He'd strayed badly out of position on the approach to Masada, and the computers ruled that the Grayson battlecruisers protecting Endicott had managed a successful interception. They'd taken heavy losses from Chernov's escorts, but not heavy enough to keep them from killing both his troop transports and four of his five freighters full of weapons.


Theisman sighed. He wasn't at all happy about arming a planet full of religious fanatics—especially when he knew from personal experience what they were capable of—but if he had to do it, he preferred to do it right. No doubt his fellow task group commander was getting an earful from Thurston and Preznikov at this very moment, but it really hadn't been Chernov's fault. This was a more complex op than even Theisman had fully suspected. Neither he nor Chernov had known, for example, that the entire task force was going to arrive in Yeltsin in a single body before detaching the Endicott attack force . . . for the very simple reason that it hadn't been part of the original plan. Theisman thought it an eminently sensible alteration—he'd never been happy about splitting the task force into two forces and having them go in completely independent of one another—but it would have been nice if he and the other task group COs had been informed of it a bit sooner. As it was, the entire maneuver had come at them almost cold, and it was hardly surprising that Chernov's astrogation had been off.


Still, he reflected, the whole purpose of a sim was to figure out what could go wrong and fix it. You never found all the problems, of course. The best you could do was disaster-proof your ops plan against the screwups you knew about and hope the others didn't bite you on the ass too hard.


"All right," he told his staff, "we had a little accident. These things happen. The idea is to keep them from happening the same way twice, so let's look over all our movement orders. Tomorrow's the last day of simulations we get, people. Five days from now, we have to get it right the first time, or we're going to be looking at something a damn sight more serious than data bits in a computer, right?"


"Right, Citizen Admiral," LePic said firmly, and the rest of the staff nodded.


"In that case," Theisman said, turning to his ops officer, "let's pull up the general operational schematic first, Megan. I want to see if we can't integrate Citizen Admiral Chernov's task group a bit more intimately with ours from the outset. If we'd had him inside our own com net, we'd have realized he was drifting off course before we went into hyper leaving Yeltsin."


"Yes, Citizen Admiral," the ops officer said, tapping commands into her terminal to summon the proper files. "In fact, Citizen Admiral, I was thinking that what we might want to do is—"


Thomas Theisman leaned back in his chair, listening to his staff tear into the problem, and hoped like hell that Yeltsin really was as bare as Thurston's intelligence appreciations suggested. Because if it wasn't, and if they didn't get a much larger percentage of the bugs exterminated before they got there, God alone knew how Operation Dagger was really going to end up.


 



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