Mission Of Honor – Snippet 47

Her voice broke off, and Elizabeth’s felt her own eyes widen.

“You think they caught him,” she said gently.

“Yes. No!” Montaigne shook her head, her expression showing an uncertainty and misery she would never have allowed herself to display in public.

“I don’t know,” she admitted after a moment. “I haven’t spoken to him in almost six T-months — not since June. He and . . . someone else were headed for Mesa. I know they got there, because we got a report from them through a secure conduit in late August. But we haven’t heard a word from them since.”

“He was on Mesa?” Elizabeth stared at her, stunned by the notion that Zilwicki had voluntarily walked into that snake pit. “What in God’s name was he thinking?”

Montaigne drew a deep breath, visibly forcing herself back under control. Then she sat for several seconds, considering the queen with an edge of calculation.

“All right, Elizabeth — truth time,” she said finally. “Six months ago, you weren’t exactly . . . rational about the possibility that anyone besides Haven could have been behind Admiral Webster’s assassination or the attack on Torch. I’m sorry, but it’s true, and you know it. Don’t you?”

Brown eyes locked with blue, tension hovering between them for a dozen heart beats. Then Elizabeth nodded grudgingly.

“As a matter of fact, I’m still not convinced — not by a long chalk — that Haven wasn’t involved,” she acknowledged. “At the same time, I’ve been forced to admit there are other possibilities. For that matter, I’ve even been forced to concede my own anti-Haven prejudices probably help account for at least some of my suspicion where Pritchart is concerned.”

“Thank you.” Montaigne’s eyes softened. “I know you, Beth, so I know how hard it was for you to admit that. But at the time, Torch and the Ballroom had pretty compelling evidence that whatever might have been the case with Admiral Webster, Haven wasn’t involved in the attack on Berry and Torch. Which suggested someone else had to be, and that led in turn to their taking a very hard look at Mesa.

“You just admitted your ‘anti-Haven prejudices’ might predispose you to assume Pritchart was behind it. Well, fair’s fair, and I’ll admit that our prejudices naturally predispose us to feel the same way about Manpower. But there was more to it, and a lot of that ‘more’ came from Anton and Ruth, not the Ballroom.”

“What kind of ‘more’?” Elizabeth asked, frowning intently.

“Well, the first thing was that we knew — and I mean knew, Beth, with absolute, goldplated certainty — Haven hadn’t been involved in the Torch operation. And the more Ruth and Anton modeled Manpower’s behavior in Monica, the less its actions looked like those of any plausible transstellar — even of a renegade, outlaw transstellar. They were more like something a star nation would have been doing.”

Elizabeth nodded slowly, her eyes narrow. She recalled Michelle Henke’s suggestion to the same effect after she’d broken Josef Byng’s New Tuscany operation. It had seemed preposterous, but both ONI and SIS had come, at least tentatively, to the conclusion Michelle was onto something. As of yet, no one had any idea exactly what she was onto, unfortunately.

“Assuming it was Manpower — or Mesa, assuming there’s even as much difference between the two as we thought there was — the attacks seemed to fit in neatly with Manpower’s obvious ambitions in Talbott. In fact, they seemed to imply that everyone was still just scratching the surface of what those ambitions might really be. And, frankly, Torch’s position as an at least semi-official ally of the Star Empire, the Republic, Erewhon, and the Solarian League — or the Maya Sector, at least—had Anton and . . . Jeremy wondering just how many birds Manpower was trying to hit with a single stone.”

Now whose name, I wonder, did she’d just substitute Jeremy’s for? Elizabeth thought. She considered pressing the point, but not very hard.

“Under the circumstances, they decided someone needed to take a good, hard look at Manpower from inside the belly of the beast, as it were. They didn’t have a specific action plan, beyond getting inside Mesa’s reach. They wanted to be close enough to be hands-on, able to follow up leads directly instead of being weeks or even months of communications time from the investigation. I think they were probably thinking in terms of setting up a permanent surveillance op, if they could figure out a way to pull it off, but, mostly, they were looking for proof of Manpower’s involvement in Webster’s assassination and the attack on Berry.”

She paused, with the look of a woman deciding against mentioning something else, and despite her focused intensity, Elizabeth smiled ever so slightly.

Unwontedly tactful of you, Cathy. Don’t want to come right out and say ‘And they wanted that proof to be good enough it could convince even you to think logically about other candidates, Elizabeth,’ now do you?

“At any rate,” Montaigne went on more briskly, “the one thing they weren’t going to do was link up with any ‘official’ Ballroom cells on Mesa. We have reason to believe, especially in light of a few recent discoveries, that any Ballroom cell on the planet is likely to be compromised. So there’s zero possibility Anton or . . . any of his people were involved in any Ballroom operation against Green Pines. They were there expressly to keep a low profile; the information they were after — especially if it confirmed their suspicions — was far more important than any attack could have been; and they were avoiding contact with any known Ballroom operative.”

Elizabeth’s eyes had narrowed again. Now she leaned back and cocked her head to one side.

“Would it make this any simpler for you, Cathy,” she asked almost whimsically, “if you just went ahead and said ‘Anton and Agent Cachat’ instead of being so diplomatic?”

It was Montaigne’s eyes’ turn to narrow, and the queen chuckled, albeit a bit sourly.

“I assure you, I’ve read the reports on just exactly how Torch came into being with a certain closeness. And I’ve had direct reports from Ruth, too, you know. She’s done her best to be . . . tactful, let’s say, but it’s been obvious Agent Cachat’s still something of a fixture on Torch. And, for that matter, that he and Captain Zilwicki have formed some sort of at least semi-permanent partnership.”

“It would make it simpler, as a matter of fact,” Montaigne said slowly. “And since this seems to be cards-on-the-table time, I suppose I should go ahead and admit that the reason I hadn’t already brought Victor up is that I wasn’t certain it wouldn’t prejudice you against anything I had to say.”

“I’m a good and expert hater, Cathy,” Elizabeth said dryly. “Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, however, I’m not really clinically insane. I won’t pretend I’m happy to hear about shared skulduggery, hobnobbing, and mutual admiration societies between someone who used to be one of my own spies and someone who’s still currently spying for a star nation I happen to be at war with. But if politics makes strange bedfellows, I suppose it’s only reasonable wars should do the same. In fact, one of my closer associates made that point to me — a bit forcefully — not so long ago.”

“Really?” Montaigne’s eyebrows arched, and Elizabeth could almost see the wheels and the gears going around in her brain. But then the ex-countess gave herself a visible shake.

“Anyway,” she said, “Victor was the reason we knew Haven hadn’t ordered Torch attack. Or, at least, that no official Havenite intelligence organ was behind it, since he would have been the one tasked to carry it out if Pritchart had sanctioned it. And you’re right about the kind of partnership he and Anton have evolved. As a matter of fact, the way their abilities complement one another makes both of them even more effective. Victor has an absolute gift for improvisation, whereas Anton has a matching gift for methodical analysis and forethought. If anyone was going to be able to pry the truth out of that fucking cesspool, it was going to be them.”

Her nostrils flared. Then she paused again, lips tightening.

“But you haven’t heard from them in almost five months,” Elizabeth said gently.

“No,” Montaigne admitted softly. “We haven’t heard from them, we haven’t heard from the people responsible for transporting them in and out, and we haven’t heard from the Biological Survey Corps, either.”

“Whoa!” Elizabeth straightened suddenly in her chair. “Beowulf was involved in this, too?” She half-glared at Montaigne. “Tell me, was there anybody in the entire galaxy who wasn’t sneaking around behind my back to keep me from getting my dander up?”

“Well,” Montaigne admitted, smiling crookedly despite her own obvious deep concern, “actually, beyond a certain amount of Erewhonese assistance, that’s just about everybody. I think.”