Mission Of Honor – Snippet 11

And exactly why anyone should be surprised by that eludes me, she thought. It’s not as if Haven hasn’t had plenty of experience in maintaining operational security. Of course they were going to make sure there was as little critical data as possible stored in the computers of ships heading into a battle like that one! Quite aside from any demands by arrogant, unreasonable flag officers for anyone who wanted to surrender, there was no way to be sure we wouldn’t capture one of their wrecks and find out the security failsafes hadn’t scrubbed the computers after all. And only drooling idiots — which, manifestly, Thomas Theisman, Eloise Pritchart, and Kevin Usher are not — would fail to realize just how critical Bolthole’s location is! It’s not as if we haven’t been trying to figure it out ever since the shooting started back up, after all. And I’m sure they know how hard we’ve been looking, even if we haven’t had much luck cracking their security. Of course, we’ve had better luck if we’d still been up against the Legislaturalists or the Committee of Public Safety. We don’t have anywhere near as many dissidents to work with, anymore.

“Bolthole?” Theisman repeated, then shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He didn’t bother trying to lie convincingly, since both of them knew he wouldn’t get away with it anyway, and the two of them exchanged wry smiles. Then Honor sobered a bit.

“To be honest,” she said, “I’m actually much more interested in any insight you can give me — or are willing to give me — into the Republic’s political leadership.”

“Excuse me?” Tourville frowned at her. They’d touched upon the political leaders of the Republic several times in their earlier conversations, but only glancingly. Enough for Honor to discover not only that Operation Beatrice had been planned and mounted only after Manticore had backed out of the summit talks Eloise Pritchart had proposed, but also that Tourville, like every other Havenite POW who’d been interrogated in the presence of a treecat, genuinely believed it was the Star Kingdom of Manticore which had tampered with their prewar diplomatic exchanges. The fact that all of them were firmly convinced that was the truth didn’t necessarily mean it was, of course, but the fact that someone as senior and as close to Thomas Theisman as Tourville believed it was a sobering indication of how closely the truth was being held on the other side.

In fact, they all believe it so strongly that there are times I’m inclined to wonder, she admitted to herself.

It wasn’t a topic she was prepared to discuss with most of her fellow Manticorans, even now, but she’d found herself reflecting on the fact that the correspondence in question had been generated by Elaine Descroix as Baron High Ridge’s foreign secretary. There wasn’t much Honor — or anyone else who’d ever met High Ridge — would have put past him, including forging the file copies of diplomatic correspondence to cover his backside, assuming there was any conceivable advantage for him in having been so inflammatory in the first place. Actually, if anyone had asked her as a hypothetical question whether someone with Eloise Pritchart’s reputation (and Thomas Theisman as a member of her administration) or the corrupt politicos of the High Ridge Government were more likely to have falsified the diplomatic exchanges which had been handed to the newsfaxes, she would have picked the High Ridge team every time.

But there are too many permanent undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries in the Foreign Office who actually saw the original messages. That’s what it keeps coming back to. I’ve been able to talk to them, too, and every one of them is just as convinced as every one of Lester’s people that it was the other side who falsified things.

“There are . . . things going on,” she told Tourville now. “I’m not prepared to discuss all of them with you. But there’s a pretty good chance that having the best feel I can get for the personalities of people like President Pritchart could be very important to both of our star nations.”

Lester Tourville sat very still, his eyes narrowing, and Honor tasted the racing speed of the thoughts she couldn’t read. She could taste the intensity of his speculation, and also a sudden spike of wary hope. She’d discovered the first time they’d met that the sharp, cool brain behind that bristling mustache was a poor match for the “cowboy” persona he’d cultivated for so long. Now she waited while he worked his way through the logic chains, and she felt the sudden cold icicle as he realized there were several reasons she might need a “feel” for the Republic’s senior political leaders and that not all of them were ones he might much care for. Reasons that contained words like “surrender demand,” for example.

“I’m not going to ask you to betray any confidences,” she went on unhurriedly. “And I’ll give you my word that anything you tell me will go no further than the two of us. I’m not interrogating you for anyone else at this point, Lester. This is purely for my own information, and I’ll also give you my word that my reason for asking for it is to prevent as much bloodshed — on either side — as I possibly can.”

He looked at her for several seconds, then inhaled deeply.

“Before I tell you anything, I have a question of my own.”

“Go ahead and ask,” she said calmly.

“When you demanded my surrender,” he said, gazing intensely into her eyes, “was it a bluff?”

“In what sense?” She tilted her head to one side.

“In two senses, I suppose.”

“Whether or not I would have fired if you hadn’t surrendered?”

“That’s one of them,” he admitted.

“All right. In that sense, I wasn’t bluffing at all,” she said levelly. “If you hadn’t surrendered, and accepted my terms in full, I would have opened fire on Second Fleet from beyond any range at which you could have effectively replied, and I would have gone right on firing until whoever was left in command surrendered or every single one of your ships was destroyed.”

Silence hovered between them for several moments that seemed oddly endless. It was a taut, singing silence — a mutual silence built of the understanding of two professional naval officers. And yet, despite its tension, there was no anger in it. Not anymore. The anger they’d both felt at the time had long since vanished into something else, and if she’d had to pick a single word to describe what the two of them felt now, it would have been “regret.”

“Well, that certainly answers my first question,” he said finally, smiling crookedly. “And I suppose I’m actually relieved to hear it.” Her eyebrows arched, and he snorted. “I’ve always thought I was a pretty good poker player. I would’ve hated to think I’d misread you quite that badly at the time.”

“I see.” She shook her head with a slight smile of her own. “But you said there were two senses?”

“Yes.” He leaned forward, propping his forearms on his thighs, and his eyes were very sharp. “The other ‘bluff’ I’ve been wondering about is whether or not you really could have done it from that range?”

Honor swung her chair from side to side in a small, thoughtful arc while she considered his question. Theoretically, what he was asking edged into territory covered by the Official Secrets Act. On the other hand, it wasn’t as if he was going to be e-mailing the information to the Octagon. Besides . . . .

“No,” she said after no more than two or three heartbeats. “I couldn’t have. Not from that range.”

“Ah.” He sat back once more, his crooked smile going even more crooked. Then he inhaled deeply. “Part of me really hated to hear that,” he told her. “Nobody likes finding out he was tricked into surrendering.”

She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, and he chuckled. It was a surprisingly genuine chuckle, and the amusement behind it was just as genuine, she realized. And it was also oddly gentle.

“You wanted my databases intact,” he said. “We both know that. But I know what else you were going to say, as well.”

“You do?” she asked when he paused.

“Yep. You were going to say you did it to save lives, but you were afraid I might not believe you, weren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say I thought you wouldn’t believe me,” she replied thoughtfully. “I guess the real reason was that I was afraid it would sound . . . self-serving. Or like some sort of self-justification, at least.”

“Maybe it would have, but that doesn’t change the fact that Second Fleet was completely and utterly screwed.” He grimaced. “There was no way we were going to get out of the resonance zone and make it into hyper before you were in range to finish us off. All that was going to happen in the meantime was that more people were going to get killed on both sides without changing the final outcome at all.”

Honor didn’t say anything. There was no need to, and he crossed his legs slowly, his expression thoughtful.

“All right,” he said. “With the stipulation that any classified information is off the table, I’ll answer your questions.”