Mission Of Honor – Snippet 53

Chapter Sixteen

“I suppose the first thing to worry about is whether or not it’s true,” Sir Barnabas Kew said.

Kew sat with Baroness Selleck and Voitto Tuominen at the conference table behind Honor as she stood gazing out over the thundering cataract of Frontenac Falls. She stood with her hands clasped behind her, Nimitz sitting very still on her shoulder, and her brown eyes were bleak.

“It isn’t,” she said flatly.

Her Foreign Office advisors glanced at one another, then turned as one to look at that ramrod-straight spine, those calmly clasped hands.

“Your Grace, I’ll be the first to admit that neither Manpower nor Mesa have ever been noted for truth in advertising,” Tuominen said after a moment. “This seems a little audacious even for them to be manufacturing out of whole cloth, though, and –”

“It isn’t true,” she repeated in that same flat tone.

She turned away from the window, facing them. But for Nimitz’s slightly flattened ears and slowly twitching tail, the civilians might have made the mistake of assuming she was as calm as she looked, and she smiled sardonically as she tasted their emotions, sensed the way they were settling back into their chairs. Kew, especially, seemed to be searching for the most diplomatic possible way to point out that she couldn’t know that, and she looked directly at him.

“A lot of things could happen in the galaxy, Sir Barnabas,” she told him. “A lot of things I never would have expected. But one thing that isn’t going to happen — that couldn’t happen — would be for Anton Zilwicki to deliberately nuke a park full of kids in some sort of demented terrorist attack. Trust me. I know the man. Nimitz knows the man.” She reached up to caress the treecat’s ears gently. “And that man is utterly incapable of doing something like that.”

“But –” Baroness Selleck began, then stopped, and Honor snorted harshly.

“I don’t doubt he was on Mesa,” she said. “In fact, I have reason to believe he was. What it looks like to me — and I’d really like to be wrong about it — is that Mesa figured out he’d been on-planet and decided to add him to the mix when they came up with their cover story for whatever actually happened.”

She decided, again, not to mention the personal message from Catherine Montaigne which had accompanied the official dispatch from Mount Royal Palace. Or, even more to the point, that she’d already known Zilwicki and Victor Cachat were bound for Mesa even before the Battle of Lovat.

The other three glanced at one another, considering what she’d just said, then looked back at her.

“You think they captured him when he was there, Your Grace?” Selleck asked quietly, and Honor shook her head.

“No,” she said softly. “They didn’t capture him. If they had, they’d have produced him — or at least his body — to substantiate their charges instead of claiming he was ‘caught in his own explosions.’ But I don’t like the fact that no one’s heard from him since Green Pines. If he got off-planet at all, he should have been home, long since. So I am afraid they may finally have managed to kill him.”

Nimitz made a soft, protesting sound of pain, and she stroked his ears again. As she’d said, unlike the civilians sitting around the table, she’d known Anton Zilwicki. In fact, she’d come to know him and Cathy Montaigne very well, indeed, since their return to the Old Star Kingdom following the Manpower Affair in Old Chicago. She and George Reynolds, her staff intelligence officer, had worked closely — if very much under the table — with both of them, and her own credentials with the Audubon ballroom had been part of the reason Zilwicki had been so prepared to share information with her.

No wonder Cathy’s so worried, she thought now, her own emotions grim. She probably wondered if he’d been involved somehow in whatever happened in Green Pines ever since the news broke. I know I did. And then, with the days and weeks dragging past, and no word from him . . . it must’ve been a living hell for her. Then this . . . this travesty. But she knows Anton even better than I do. He may’ve been there, and whatever he was up to might have led to this somehow, but she knows he never would have signed off on nuking the park, no matter what. Which is going to be pretty cold comfort if she’s not only lost the man she loves but thinks she’s going to see him vilified as one of the galaxy’s worst “terrorists” when he’s not even around to defend himself.

“Excuse me, Your Grace, but would you happen to know why he was on Mesa?” Tuominen asked.

She cocked her head at him, and he shrugged.

“I don’t really expect Pritchart or most of the members of her Cabinet to be lining up to take Mesa’s word for what happened,” he said. “I can think of a few of her congressional ‘negotiators’ who’d be likely to believe anything — officially, at least — if they thought it would strengthen their bargaining position, though. Even without that, there’s the media to worry about, and Havenite newsies aren’t all that fond of the Star Empire to begin with. So if there’s another side to this, something we could lay out to buttress the notion that it wasn’t Zilwicki or Torch . . . ”

He let his voice trail off, and Honor snorted again, even more harshly than before.

“First,” she said, “how I know he was on Mesa is privileged information. Information that has operational intelligence implications, for that matter. So, no, I don’t intend to whisper it into a newsies’s ear. Second, I’d think that if I suddenly announced to the media that I ‘just happen’ to know why Captain Zilwicki was on Mesa and that I promise it wasn’t to set off a nuclear device in a public park on Saturday morning, it’s going to sound just a little suspicious. Like the sort of thing someone trying desperately to discredit the truth might come up with on am especially stupid day. And, third, Voitto, I don’t think anyone willing to believe something like this coming from a source like Mesa in the first place is going to change her mind whatever anyone says. Or not, at least, without irrefutable physical proof that Mesa lied.”

“I can see that,” Tuominen acknowledged with a grimace. “Sorry, Your Grace. I guess I’m just looking for a straw to grasp.”

“I don’t blame you.” Honor turned back to the window, looking down on the boat-dotted estuary, wishing she were down there in one of her sloops herself. “And I don’t doubt this is going to complicate our job here in Nouveau Paris, as well. To be honest, though, I’m a lot more worried about its potential impact on Solly public opinion and what it may encourage Kolokoltsov and those other idiots in Old Chicago to do.”

Tuominen nodded unhappily behind her and wondered if one reason he himself was focusing so intensely on the situation here in the Republic of Haven was expressly to avoid thinking about how Old Chicago might have reacted to the same news. It was ironic that Manticore had received the reportage of the Mesan allegations about Green Pines before anyone on Old Earth had. By now, though, the sensational charges were racing outward to all the interstellar community of man, and God only knew how that was likely to impact on the Solarian public’s view of the Star Empire. The one thing Tuominen was prepared to bet on was that it wasn’t going to help.

“I agree that the way the League reacts to this is ultimately likely to be a lot more significant as far as the Star Empire’s concerned, Your Grace,” Selleck said. “Unfortunately, there’s not anything we can do about that. So I think Barnabas and Voitto are right to be considering anything we might be able to do to mitigate the impact here, in the Republic.”

She shrugged.

“Voitto’s right about people like Younger and McGwire. I’ve been quietly developing some additional information sources since we got here, and the more I find out about Younger, the more revolting he turns out to be. I’m still not sure exactly how the internal dynamics of the New Conservatives lay out, but I’m coming to the conclusion he’s a much more important player than we’d assumed before we left Manticore. If there’s anyone on Pritchart’s side of the table who’s likely to try to use something like this, it’s Younger.”

“But how can he use it, Carissa?” Kew asked. “I realize the media’s going to have a field day, whatever we do. And God knows there’s enough ‘anti-Manty’ sentiment here in the Republic already for these allegations to generate even more public unhappiness with the fact that their government’s negotiating with us at all. But having said all of that, it’s the only game in town. The bottom line is that Pritchart and her people have to be even more determined than we are to keep us from blowing up their capital star system!”