A Rising Thunder – Snippet 31


May 1922 Post Diaspora


“What the hell. I’ve always liked a challenge.”

— Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore


Chapter Ten


“More coffee, Your Majesty?”


Elizabeth Winton looked up at the murmured question, then smiled and extended her cup. James McGuiness poured, smiled back at her, and moved on around the table, refilling other cups, and she watched him go before she sipped. It was, as always, delicious, and she thought yet again what a pity it was that McGuiness made such splendid coffee when Honor couldn’t stand the beverage.


The familiar reflection trickled through her brain, and she set the cup back down and gave herself a mental shake. No doubt her staff back at Mount Royal Palace had its hands full covering for her absence, but they were just going to have to go on coping for a while longer. Despite the grinding fatigue of far too many hours, far too much adrenaline, and far too many shocks to the universe she’d thought she understood, she knew she and Eloise Pritchart were still far from finished.


She looked across the table in the admiral’s dining cabin aboard HMS Imperator at the president of the Republic of Haven, who had just finished a serving of McGuiness’ trademark eggs Benedict and picked up her own coffee cup. Despite a sleepless night, following a day even longer than Elizabeth’s had been, the other woman still looked improbably beautiful. And still radiated that formidable presence, as well. Elizabeth doubted anyone could have intentionally planned a greater physical contrast than the one between her own mahogany skin and dark eyes and Pritchart’s platinum and topaz, and they’d been produced by political and social systems which were at least as different as their appearances. Yet over the last day or so she’d come — unwillingly, almost kicking and screaming — to the conclusion that the two of them were very much alike under the surface.


I wonder if I would have had the sheer nerve to sail straight into my worst enemy’s home system — especially after what those “mystery raiders” did to us — and admit my secretary of state doctored the correspondence that sent us back to war? After so long, so many deaths, because I got played, maneuvered into doing exactly what someone else wanted? Even having Simões’ story to back me up, selling that to someone with my reputation for carrying grudges to the grave and back again took more plain old-fashioned gall and guts than any three women ought to have. Especially after I’d proven this “Alignment” could play me just as thoroughly as it ever played her.


Elizabeth’s mind flicked back over the last two Manticoran days. Even her formidable intelligence was having difficulty coping with the tectonic shock which had just rumbled through her entire known universe. It seemed impossible, preposterous on the very face of things, that a mere two days could have changed everything she’d thought she knew about two decades of bitter warfare and millions of deaths, yet it had. And it explained so much.


“So,” she said, sitting back from the table she shared with only Honor, Pritchart, and Thomas Theisman, “is Simões telling the truth or not, Honor?”


The two Havenites looked at Honor with slightly surprised expressions, and Honor smiled. Nimitz was sound asleep on his perch, and after the night which had just passed, she saw no point in waking him up.


“There’s a reason Her Majesty’s asking me, instead of Nimitz or Ariel,” she told her guests. “As it happens, I’ve been hanging around with treecats long enough to have caught at least some of their abilities. I can’t read minds, but I can read emotions, and I know when someone’s lying.”


It was astonishingly easy for her to make that admission to the leaders of the star nation she’d fought her entire adult life.


Pritchart blinked at her, then those topaz eyes narrowed in thought, and the President began nodding — slowly, at first, then more rapidly.


“So that’s why you make such a fiendishly effective diplomat!” she said with something very like an air of triumph. “I couldn’t believe how well a total novice was reading us. Now I know — you were cheating!


The last word came out in something very like a laugh, and Honor nodded back.


“Where diplomacy’s concerned, according to my mentors in the Foreign Office, there is no such thing as ‘cheating,’ Madam President. In fact, one of those mentors quoted an old axiom to me. Where diplomacy is involved, he said, if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying hard enough.”


Elizabeth snorted in amusement, and Theisman shook his head.


“In this instance, however,” Honor continued more seriously, “what Her Majesty is asking me is whether or not I can tell if Dr. Simões is telling the truth. I already informed her” — she looked directly at Pritchart — “that I knew you were, Madam President. On the other hand, I also assumed you would have expected from the beginning that Nimitz would have been able to tell me and that I would have passed his observations on to Her Majesty, so I didn’t feel any particular scruples about that.”


Pritchart nodded again, and Honor shrugged.


“What I can tell you about Simões is that his anger — his outrage — at this ‘Alignment’ is absolutely genuine. The pain inside that man is incredible.”


She closed her eyes for a moment, and her nostrils flared.


“Everything I can ‘taste’ about his ‘mind-glow’ tells me he’s telling us the truth, in so far as he knows the truth. Whether or not McBryde might have been passing along disinformation is more than I can say, of course. But, on balance, I think he was telling the truth, as well. It all fits together too well with what we’ve already seen, and with what Simões can tell us about their hardware.”


“And there are still so damned many holes in it,” Elizabeth half-snarled.


“Yes, there are,” Honor agreed. “On the other hand, I’d say the Star Empire knows infinitely more than we knew yesterday, Elizabeth…given that we didn’t know anything at that point.”


Elizabeth nodded slowly, then looked at Pritchart.


“So, I guess what it comes down to,” she said slowly, “it’s where we go from here. Whatever happens, I want you to know I’m enormously grateful for the information you’ve provided us. And I think we can both agree that the war between Haven and Manticore is over.”


She shook her head, as if, even now, she couldn’t quite believe what she’d just said. Not because she didn’t want to, but because it seemed impossible, like something which couldn’t possibly be true because of how badly everyone wanted it to be true.


“Mind you,” she continued, “I don’t expect everybody to be delighted about that. For that matter, a few days ago, I probably would have been one of the people who wasn’t delighted myself,” she admitted.


“Trust me, there’s the odd couple of billion Havenites who probably feel exactly the same way,” Pritchard said dryly.


“And that’s the sticking point, isn’t it?” Elizabeth asked softly. “Stopping shooting at each other — that much I’m sure we can manage. But it’s not enough. Not if Simões’ and McBryde’s story is true after all.”


“No, it’s not,” Pritchart agreed quietly.


“Well,” Elizabeth smiled with very little humor, “at least I can feel confident now that you’ll keep the Republican Navy off our backs long enough for us to deal with this Admiral Filareta.”


“Actually,” Pritchard said, “I had something else in mind.”


“Something else?” Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose.


“Your Majesty — Elizabeth — the Mesan Alignment wants both of us destroyed, starting with the Star Empire. I don’t know if it honestly believes the SLN can do the job where you’re concerned, or if it was anticipating we’d do it when we recognized the opportunity it had given us. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Solarian attack on you is simply one more step in a strategy directed against both of us. So I think something a bit more pointed than simply stopping shooting at each other might be in order.”


“Such as?” Elizabeth asked slowly, eyes slitted in concentration.


“I understand your missile production facilities have been taken off-line,” Pritchard said. “Tom here tells me you’ve undoubtedly got enough of those ungodly super missiles in your magazines to thoroughly kick the ass of this Filareta if he really insists on following his orders. But that’s going to cut into your reserves, and given that the Alignment managed to rip the hell out of your home system, I think it would be a good idea for you to conserve as much ammunition as you can in hopes we’ll find someone a bit better suited to playing the role of target.”


“And?” Elizabeth’s eyes were opening wider in speculation.


“Well, it just happens that Thomas here has a modest little fleet — two or three hundred of the wall, I believe — waiting approximately eight hours from Trevor’s Star in hyper. If you’re willing to trust us in Manticoran space, perhaps we could help you encourage Filareta to see reason. And while I’m well aware our hardware isn’t as good as yours, every indication I’ve seen is that it’s one hell of a lot better than anything the Sollies have.”


“Are you offering me a military alliance against the Solarian League?” Elizabeth asked very carefully.


“If McBryde was right, there isn’t going to be much of a Solarian League very much longer,” Pritchart replied grimly. “And given the fact that the same bunch of murderous bastards who shot up your home system are also directly responsible for you and I having killed a couple of million of our own people, I think we could say we have a certain commonality of interest where they’re concerned. And it’s not a case of selfless altruism on my part, you know. We’re both on the Alignment’s list. Don’t you think it would be sort of stupid for either of us to let the other one go down and leave us all alone?”