Mission Of Honor – Snippet 25

The shuttle touched down in a smooth whine of power, and Pritchart suppressed an urge to scurry forward as the boarding ladder extended itself to the airlock hatch. Instead, she made herself stand very still, hands clasped behind her.

“You’re not the only one feeling nervous, you know,” a voice said very quietly in her right ear, and she glanced sideways at Thomas Theisman. The admiral’s brown eyes gleamed with the reflected glitter of the shuttle’s running lights, and his lips quirked in a brief smile.

“And what makes you think I’m feeling nervous?” she asked tartly, her voice equally quiet, almost lost in the cool, gusty darkness.

“The fact that I am, for one thing. And the fact that you’ve got your hands folded together behind you, for another.” He snorted softly. “You only do that when you can’t figure out what else to do with them, and that only happens when you’re nervous as hell about something.”

“Oh, thank you, Tom,” she said witheringly. “Now you’ve found a fresh way to make me feel awkward and bumptious! Just what I needed at a moment like this!”

“Well, if being pissed off at me helps divert you from worrying, then I’ve fulfilled one of your uniformed minions’ proper functions, haven’t I?”

His teeth gleamed in another brief smile, and Pritchart suppressed a burning desire to kick him in the right kneecap. Instead, she contented herself with a mental note to take care of that later, then gave him a topaz glare that promised retribution had merely been deferred and turned back to the shuttle.

Theisman’s diversion, she discovered, had come at precisely the right moment. Which, a corner of her mind reflected, had most certainly not been a simple coincidence. Maybe she’d rescind that broken kneecap after all. Their little side conversation had kept her distracted while the hatch opened and a very tall, broad shouldered woman in the uniform of a Manticoran admiral stepped through it. At a hundred and seventy-five centimeters, Pritchart was accustomed to being taller than the majority of the women she met, but Alexander-Harrington had to be a good seven or eight centimeters taller even than Sheila Thiessen, and Thiessen was five centimeters taller than the president she guarded.

The admiral paused for a moment, head raised as if she were scenting the breezy coolness of the early autumn night, and her right hand reached up to stroke the treecat riding her shoulder. Pritchart was no expert on treecats — as far as she knew, there were no Havenite experts on the telempathic arboreals –but she’d read everything she could get her hands on about them. Even if she hadn’t, she thought, she would have recognized the protectiveness in the way the ‘cat’s tail wrapped around the front of his person’s throat.

And if she’d happened to miss Nimitz’s attitude, no one could ever have missed the wary watchfulness of the trio of green-uniformed men following at Alexander-Harrington’s heels. Pritchart had read about them, too, and she could feel Sheila Thiessen’s disapproving tension at her back as her own bodyguard glared at their holstered pulsers.

Thiessen had pitched three kinds of fits when she found out President Pritchart proposed to allow armed retainers of an admiral in the service of a star nation with which the Republic of Haven happened to be at war into her presence. In fact, she’d flatly refused to allow it — refused so adamantly Pritchart had more than half-feared she and the rest of her detachment would place their own head of state under protective arrest to prevent it. In the end, it had taken a direct order from the Attorney General and Kevin Usher, the Director of the Federal Investigation Agency, to overcome her resistance.

Pritchart understood Thiessen’s reluctance. On the other hand, Alexander-Harrington had to be just as aware of how disastrous it would be for something to happen to Pritchart as Pritchart was of how disastrous it would be to allow something to happen to her.

What was it Thomas told me they used to call that back on Old Earth? ‘Mutually assured destruction,’ wasn’t it? Well, however stupid it may’ve sounded — hell, however stupid it may actually have been! — at least it worked well enough for us to last until we managed to get off the planet. Besides, Harrington’s got a pulser built into her left hand, for God’s sake! Is Sheila planning to make her check her prosthesis at the door? Leave it in the umbrella stand?

She snorted softly, amused by her own thoughts, and Alexander-Harrington’s head turned in her direction, almost as if the Manticoran had sensed that amusement from clear across the landing pad. For the first time, their eyes met directly in the floodlit night, and Pritchart inhaled deeply. She wondered if she would have had the courage to come all alone to the capital planet of a star nation whose fleet she’d shattered in combat barely six T-months in the past. Especially when she had very good reason to feel confident the star nation in question had done its level best to assassinate her a T-year before she’d added that particular log to the fire of its reasons to . . . dislike her. Pritchart liked to think she would have found the nerve, under the right circumstances, yet she knew she could never really know the answer to that question.

But whether she would have had the courage or not, Alexander-Harrington obviously did, and at a time when the Star Kingdom’s military advantage over the Republic was so devastating there was absolutely no need for her to do anything of the sort. Pritchart’s amusement faded into something very different, and she stepped forward, extending her hand, as Alexander-Harrington led her trio of bodyguards down the boarding stairs.

“This is an unexpected meeting, Admiral Alexander-Harrington.”

“I’m sure it is, Madam President.” Alexander-Harrington’s accent was crisp, her soprano surprisingly sweet for a woman of her size and formidable reputation, and Pritchart had the distinct impression that the hand gripping hers was being very careful about the way it did so.

Of course it is, she thought. It wouldn’t do for her to absentmindedly crush a few bones at a moment like this!

“I understand you have a message for me,” the president continued out loud. “Given the dramatic fashion in which you’ve come to deliver it, I’m prepared to assume it’s an important one.”

“Dramatic, Madam President?”

Despite herself, Pritchart’s eyebrows rose as she heard Alexander-Harrington’s unmistakable amusement. It wasn’t the most diplomatic possible reaction to the admiral’s innocent tone, but under the circumstances, Pritchart couldn’t reprimand herself for it too seriously. After all, the Manticorans were just as capable of calculating the local time of day here in Nouveau Paris as her own staffers would have been of calculating the local time in the City of Landing.

“Let’s just say, then, Admiral, that your timing’s gotten my attention,” she said dryly after a moment. “As, I feel certain, it was supposed to.”

“To be honest, I suppose it was, Madam President.” There might actually have been a hint of apology in Alexander-Harrington’s voice, although Pritchart wasn’t prepared to bet anything particularly valuable on that possibility. “And you’re right, of course. It is important.”

“Well, in that case, Admiral, why don’t you — and your armsmen, of course — accompany me to my office so you can tell me just what it is.”