A Rising Thunder – Snippet 32

 

Brown eyes and topaz met across the table littered with the remnants of breakfast, and it was very, very quiet.

 

“We’re still going to have those problems, you know,” Elizabeth said almost conversationally after a moment. “All those people on both sides who don’t like each other. All that legacy of suspicion.”

 

“Of course.” Pritchart nodded.

 

“And then there’s the little matter of figuring out where this Alignment’s real headquarters is, and who else is fronting for it, and what other weapons it has, and where else it has programmed assassins tucked away, and exactly what it’s got in mind for the Republic once the Star Empire’s been polished off.”

 

“True.”

 

“And, now that I think about it, there’s the question of how we’re going to rebuild our capabilities here, and how much technology sharing — and how quickly — we can convince our separate navies and our allies to put up with. You know there’s going to be heel-dragging and tantrum-throwing the minute I start suggesting anything like that!”

 

“I’m sure there will be.”

 

The two women looked at one another, and then, slowly, both of them began to smile.

 

“What the hell,” Elizabeth Winton said. “I’ve always liked a challenge.”

 

She extended her hand across the table.

 

Pritchart took it.

 

*   *   *

 

“You’re joking!”

 

Chairman Chyang Benton-Ramirez looked incredulously at Fedosei Mikulin and Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou. The three men sat face-to-face in the Chairman’s high-security private briefing room, buried under the roots of the West Tower of the Executive Building in downtown Columbia. Benton-Ramirez had been more than a little irked when Mikulin insisted on meeting in person, rather than com-conferencing. He had plenty of other things he could spend time doing besides hiking clear over here and then taking the lift shaft down five hundred meters, but Mikulin was his most trusted advisor. That was why in addition to his at-large directorship he was Commissioner of Central Intelligence for the Republic of Beowulf.

 

And why Benton-Ramirez had accepted his “invitation” to join him here despite the inconvenience.

 

Benton-Ramirez y Chou, Third Director at Large of the Planetary Board of Directors (and one of the Chairman’s cousins), on the other hand enjoyed a carefully ill-defined relationship with Central Intelligence. That was because he was also the Planetary Board’s unofficial (very unofficial) liaison to the Audubon Ballroom. It would never have done for the Board (or — especially! — its intelligence services) to admit overt contact with the Ballroom, even here on Beowulf. If anyone had wondered why, the way Manticore had been hammered over the Green Pines Incident made the reasons crystal clear. Despite which, everyone knew that contact existed, and most people were pretty sure Benton-Ramirez y Chou, as the ex-chairman and current vice-chairman of the Anti-Slavery League, did the contacting. It was one of those “don’t ask, don’t tell” situations, and the fact that the customarily aggressive Beowulfan newsies had never once asked the question said volumes about how Beowulf in general regarded the genetic slave trade.

 

That wasn’t why Benton-Ramirez y Chou was here today, though. No, he was here because another of the Chairman’s cousins was deeply involved in what Mikulin had just reported.

 

“I’m absolutely not joking, Chyang,” Mikulin said now. “I realize we’re not supposed to spy on our friends, but everyone does, and I doubt anyone in Manticore smart enough to seal his own shoes doesn’t know we do. Although, to be fair, I’m not sure how happy they’d be to find out just how highly placed some of our…assets actually are.”

 

“Your niece wouldn’t happen to be one of them, would she, Jacques?”

 

“No, she would not.” Benton-Ramirez y Chou’s voice was considerably colder than the one in which he normally addressed the Chairman. Benton-Ramirez y Chou was a small man, with dark hair and sandalwood skin. He also had almond eyes, which he shared with his sister…and his rather more famous (or infamous) niece. “And if I’d ever been stupid enough to ask her to become any such thing, she would have told me to piss up a rope,” he added succinctly.

 

“Oh, I doubt she would’ve put it that way,” Benton-Ramirez said with a chuckle which was oddly apologetic. “I’m sure Duchess Harrington would have been considerably less, um, earthy.”

 

“Not if I’d asked her to spy on Elizabeth, she wouldn’t have been,” Benton-Ramirez y Chou smiled tartly. “In fact, what she’d probably have done is rip off my head for a soccer ball!”

 

“All right, point taken,” the Chairman acknowledged. “But I assume from what you’re telling me, Fedosei, that whoever our informant is, we can place significant confidence in this report?”

 

“Yes,” Mikulin said flatly.

 

“Damn.” Benton-Ramirez shook his head. “I know we were hoping they’d at least stop shooting at each other, especially after we warned both of them Filareta was coming, but I never expected this!

 

“None of us did,” Mikulin agreed. “But, to be honest, the fact that Elizabeth and Pritchart have decided to bury the hatchet is actually a hell of a lot less important than the reason they decided to bury it.”

 

There was something very odd about his voice, and the Chairman glanced at Benton-Ramirez y Chou. The other man’s expression was an interesting mix of agreement and something that looked like lingering shock, all backed by a white-hot, blazing fury. Despite the self-control he’d learned over the decades, Jacques Benton-Ramierz y Chou had always been a passionate man, yet Benton-Ramirez was more than a little taken aback by the deadly glitter in those dark-brown eyes.

 

“What do you mean?” The Chairman sat back, eyes narrowed. The fact that Eloise Pritchart had gone unannounced to the Manticore Binary System and apparently agreed to some sort of alliance against the Solarian League, especially after how savagely the Star Empire had been weakened, struck him as one of the more fundamental power shifts in the history of mankind. So if Mikulin found something else even more significant…

 

“I think the notion of a Manticore-Haven military alliance is going to be interesting enough to the rest of the universe, Fedosei,” he observed.

 

“I’m sure it is,” Mikulin said grimly, “but what’s even more ‘interesting’ to me — and to the rest of Beowulf, I’m pretty damn sure — is that the reason Pritchart made this trip to Manticore is that Zilwicki and Cachat have resurfaced. And it turns out that where they’ve been all this time was either on the planet Mesa or on their way back from it.”

 

Benton-Ramirez’s narrowed eyes widened, and Mikulin shrugged.

 

“We only have very a preliminary report at this point, Chyang,” he pointed out, “and our source hasn’t been able to give us everything. Or even come close to everything, for that matter. But from the little bit we do have, it seems Zilwicki and Cachat were in Green Pines — both of them were there, together — about the time the explosions went off. And it sounds like they were involved, albeit peripherally, as well. Hopefully we’ll have better intelligence on that pretty soon, but the key point is that they brought out a Mesan with them, and the Mesan in question is providing all kinds of information. Information that, frankly, contradicts almost everything we’ve thought we knew about Mesa.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

Benton-Ramirez’ tone sounded preposterously calm, but it wasn’t really his fault. It was simply that no one could process information like that without the equivalent of a massive mental hiccup. If there was a single star system in the entire galaxy upon which Beowulfan intelligence had expended more effort than Mesa, or about which it was better informed, he couldn’t imagine which one it might be. Ever since Leonard Detweiler and his malcontents had relocated to Mesa, the system had been Beowulf’s dark twin. The source of one of the galaxy’s most malignant cancers, and the undying shame of the society from which its founders had sprung.

 

The possibility of errors in Beowulf’s intelligence appreciations of Mesa was one thing. In fact, Benton-Ramirez had always assumed there had to be such errors, since Mesa was painfully well aware of Beowulf’s interest in it and had always taken steps to blunt Central Intelligence’s operations there. But Mikulin clearly wasn’t suggesting mere “errors” — not in that tone of voice, or with that expression.

 

“If what we’ve heard so far is any indication, most of what we thought we knew about Mesa isn’t just mistaken, it’s a deliberate fabrication on Mesa’s part,” Mikulin said now, his voice harsh. “I’m not ready to sign off on the reliability of what we’re hearing at this point. To be honest, there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to admit even the possibility that we might have been that far off, and the meeting between Elizabeth and Pritchart took place less than forty hours ago. All of this is still pretty damned preliminary, and God only knows how many holes there could be in it. But, assuming there’s any validity to it at all, Mesa’s had its own plans — plans that go a hell of a lot deeper than just making money off the genetic slave trade or even rubbing our collective nose in how much contempt they have for the Beowulf Code — literally for centuries. Not only that, but the Manties have been right all along in saying it’s behind what’s been happening in Talbott and the Yawata Strike, as well. And not just because Talbott brought the Star Empire’s borders too close to the Mesa System, either. Apparently, they’ve got plans of their own where the entire human race is involved, and I think we can be pretty sure that if they had plans for the Star Empire and the Republic of Haven, they’ve got to have a page or two for dealing with us, as well.”