Mission Of Honor – Snippet 23

Chapter Six

President Eloise Pritchart raked stray strands of platinum-colored hair impatiently from her forehead as she strode into the sub-basement command center. In contrast to her usual understated elegance, she wore a belted robe over her nightgown, and her face was bare of any cosmetics.

The head of her personal security team, Sheila Thiessen, followed close behind her. Unlike the President, Thiessen had been on duty when the alert was sounded. Well, not precisely on duty, since her official shift had ended five hours earlier, but she’d still been on-site, wading through her unending paperwork, and she was her well-groomed, fully clothed, always poised normal self.

Despite which, she thought, the hastily-dressed President still managed to make her look drab. In fact, the President always made everyone around her seem somehow smaller than life, especially at moments of crisis. It wasn’t anything Pritchart tried to do; it was simply what genetics, experience, and her own inherent presence did for her. Even here, even now, awakened from what had passed for a sound sleep in the months since the twin hammer blows of Javier Giscard’s death and the massive casualties the Republic of Haven had suffered in the Battle of Monica, despite the ghosts and sorrow which haunted those striking topaz eyes, that sense of unbreakable resolve and determination was like a cloak laid across her shoulders.

Or maybe that’s just my imagination, Thiessen told herself. Maybe I just need for her to be unbreakable. Especially now.

Pritchart crossed quickly to the comfortable chair before her personal command and communication console. She nodded to the only two members of her cabinet who’d so far been able to join her — Tony Nesbitt, the Secretary of Commerce, and Attorney General Denis LePic — then settled into her own seat as it adjusted to her body’s contours.

Nesbitt and LePic both looked tense, worried. They’d been working late — the only reason they’d been able to make it to the command center this quickly — and both had that aura of end-of-a-really-long-day fatigue, but that didn’t explain their tight shoulders and facial muscles, the worry in their eyes. Nor were they alone in their tension. The command center’s uniformed personnel and the scattering of civilian intelligence analysts and aides threaded through their ranks were visibly anxious as they concentrated on their duties. There was something in the air — something just short of outright fear — and Thiessen’s bodyguard hackles tried to rise in response.

Not that the anxiety level about her came as any sort of surprise. The entire Republic of Haven had been waiting with gnawing apprehension for almost half a T-year for exactly this moment.

Pritchart didn’t greet her cabinet colleagues by name, only gave them that quick nod and smiled at them, yet her mere presence seemed to evoke some subtle easing of their tension. Thiessen could actually see them relaxing, see that same relaxation reaching out to the people around them, as the President took her place without haste then settled back, shoulders squared, and turned those topaz eyes to the uniformed man looking down from the huge smart wall display at one end of the large, cool room.

“So, Thomas,” she said, sounding impossibly composed. “What’s this all about?”

Admiral Thomas Theisman, Secretary of War and Chief of Naval Operations for the Republic of Haven, looked back at her from his own command center under the rebuilt Octagon, a few kilometers away. Given the late hour, Thiessen suspected that Theisman had been in bed until a very short time ago himself. If that was the case, however, no one would have guessed it from his faultless appearance and impeccable uniform.

“Sorry to disturb you, Madam President,” he said. “And, to be honest, I don’t have any idea what it’s all about.”

Pritchart raised one eyebrow.

“I was under the impression we’d just issued a system-wide Red Alert,” she said, her tone noticeably more astringent than the one in which she normally addressed Theisman. “I’m assuming, Admiral, that you had a reason for that?”

“Yes, Madam President, I did.” Theisman’s expression was peculiar, Thiessen thought. “Approximately” — the Secretary of War glanced to one side — “thirty-one minutes ago, a force of unidentified starships made their alpha translations ten light-minutes outside the system hyper limit. That puts them roughly twenty-two light-minutes from the planet. The gravitic arrays detected them when they reentered normal-space, and our original estimate, based on their hyper footprints, was that we were looking at forty-eight ships-of-the-wall and/or CLACs, escorted by a dozen or so battlecruisers, a half dozen CLACs, and fifteen or twenty destroyers. They appear to have brought along at least a dozen large freighters, as well — most likely ammunition ships.”

Thiessen felt the blood congeal in her veins. Those had to be Manty ships, and if they were, they had to be armed with the new missile systems which had broken the back of the Republic’s attack on the Manticore Binary System. The missiles which gave the Royal Manticoran Navy such an advantage in long-range accuracy that they could engage even the Haven System’s massive defenses with effective impunity. And which were undoubtedly loaded aboard those ammunition ships in enormous numbers.

Well, we’ve wondered where they were ever since the Battle of Manticore, she thought grimly. Now we know.

From the com display, Theisman looked levelly into Pritchart’s eyes.

“Under the circumstances, there didn’t seem much doubt about who they belonged to or why they were here,” he said, “but it’s taken us a while to confirm our tentative IDs at this range. And it turns out our initial assessments weren’t quite correct.”

“I beg your pardon?” Pritchart said when he paused.

“Oh, we were right in at least one respect, Madam President — it is the Manties’ Eighth Fleet, and Admiral Harrington is in command. But there’s an additional ship, one we hadn’t counted on. It’s not a warship at all. In fact, it appears to be a private yacht, and it’s squawking the transponder code of the GS Paul Tankersley.”

“A yacht?” Pritchart repeated in the careful tone someone used when she wasn’t entirely certain she wasn’t talking to a lunatic.

“Yes, Ma’am. A yacht. A Grayson-registry yacht owned by Steadholder Harrington. According to the message she’s transmitted to us from one Captain George Hardy, the Tankersley’s skipper, Admiral Harrington is personally aboard her, not her fleet flagship. And, Madam President, Captain Hardy has requested permission for his ship to transport the Admiral to Nouveau Paris with a personal message to you from Queen Elizabeth.”

Eloise Pritchart’s eyes widened, and Thiessen sucked in a deep breath of astonishment. She wasn’t alone in that reaction, either.

“Admiral Harrington is coming here, to Nouveau Paris. Is that what you’re saying, Tom?” Pritchart asked after a moment.

“Admiral Harrington is coming to Nouveau Paris aboard an unarmed private yacht without first demanding any assurances of safety from us, Ma’am,” Theisman replied. Then his lips twitched in what might have been a smile under other circumstances. “Although,” he continued, “I have to say having the rest of Eighth Fleet parked out there is probably intended as a pretty pointed suggestion that it would be a good idea if we didn’t let anything . . . untoward happen to her.”

“No. No, I can see that,” Pritchart said slowly, and now her eyes were narrow as she frowned in intense speculation. She sat that way for several moments, then looked at LePic and Nesbitt.

“Well,” she said with a mirthless smile, “this is unexpected.”

“‘Unexpected’?” Nesbitt barked a laugh. “It’s a hell of a lot more than that as far as I’m concerned, Madam President! If you’ll pardon my language.”

“I have to agree with Tony,” LePic said when Pritchart quirked an eyebrow in his direction. “After the Battle of Manticore, after everything else that’s happened . . . .”

His voice trailed off, and he shook his head, his expression bemused.

“Have we replied to Admiral Harrington’s request yet, Tom?” Pritchart asked, returning her attention to Theisman.

“Not yet. We only received her message about five minutes ago.”

“I see.”

Pritchart sat for perhaps another ten seconds, her lips pursed, then inhaled deeply.

“Under the circumstances,” she said then with a faint smile, “I’d really prefer not to be recording messages sitting here in my bathrobe. So, Tom, I think we’ll just let you handle this stage of things, since you look so bright-eyed and spiffy. No doubt we’ll need to get Leslie involved later, but for right now, let’s leave it a matter between uniformed military personnel.”