Mission Of Honor – Snippet 57

“As in disappeared aboard a Manticoran flagship at Trevor’s Star with a suicide device in his pocket just in case, you mean? That sort of ‘disappeared’?”

“Yes, Madam President,” LePic said a bit more formally than was his wont.

Pritchart gazed at him for several seconds, swinging her chair gently from side to side. Then she snorted.

“My, my, my,” she murmured with a crooked smile. “Only Victor Cachat. Now that Kevin’s out of the field, anyway.”

“You’re telling us,” Montreau said, speaking with the careful precision of someone determined to make certain they really had heard correctly, “that one of FIS’s station chiefs really went, with a known Manticoran intelligence operative, to a star system the Manties have declared a closed military reservation, for a personal conversation with the commanding officer of their Eighth Fleet before the Battle of Lovat? And then went off on a completely unauthorized operation to Mesa? Which apparently ran right into the middle of whatever really happened at Green Pines?”

LePic only nodded, and Montreau sat back in her chair with an expression of utter disbelief.

“Actually, it makes sense, you know,” Theisman said thoughtfully after a moment.

“Makes sense?” Montreau repeated incredulously.

“From what I know of Cachat — although I hasten to admit it’s all second or third hand, since I’ve never met him personally — he spends a lot of time operating by intuition. In fact, any way you look at it, a huge part of those successes Denis was just talking about have resulted from a combination of that institution with the personal contacts and relationships he’s established And you’ve met Alexander-Harrington now, Leslie. If you were going to reach out to a highly placed member of an enemy star nation’s political and military establishment because you were convinced someone was trying to sabotage peace talks between us and them, could you think of a better person to risk contacting?”

Montreau started to reply, then stopped, visibly thought for a moment or two, and shook her head, almost against her will.

“I’m willing to bet that was pretty much Cachat’s analysis,” LePic agreed with a nod. “And, if it was, it obviously worked, given Duchess Harrington’s evident attitude towards the negotiations. Not only that, but it set up the situation in which she brought us her version of what really happened on Mesa.”

His three listeners looked at one another with suddenly thoughtful expressions.

“You know, Denis,” Theisman said in a gentler tone, “if he’s been out of contact this long, the most likely reason is that he and Zilwicki were both killed on Mesa.”

“I do know,” LePic admitted. “On the other hand, this is Victor Cachat we’re talking about. And he and Zilwicki are both — or at least were both — very competent operators. They almost certainly built firebreaks into and between their covers, whatever they were, on Mesa, not to mention multiple escape strategies. So it really is possible Zilwicki could have gone down without Mesa’s ever realizing Cachat was there. And if the two of them were deep enough under, especially somewhere as far away as the Mesa System, three or four months — or even longer — isn’t all that long a lag in communications. Not from a covert viewpoint, at least. I don’t know about Manticore or the Ballroom, but we don’t have any established conduits between here and Mesa, so his communications would have been circuitous at the very least, and probably a lot less than secure. And don’t forget — it’s been less than four months since Green Pines. If he did avoid capture, he might have been forced to lie low on the planet for quite a while before he could work out a way to get back out again. And if that’s the case, he damned well wouldn’t have trusted any conduit he could jury-rig to get reports back to us just so we wouldn’t worry about him! For all I know, he’s on his way home right this minute!”

Theisman looked doubtful, and Montreau looked downright skeptical. Pritchart, on the other hand, had considerably more hands-on experience in the worlds of espionage and covert operations than either of them did. Besides, she thought, LePic had a point. It was Victor Cachat they were talking about, and that young man had demonstrated a remarkable talent for survival even under the most unpromising circumstances.

“All right,” she said, leaning forward and folding her forearms on her desk, “I’m with you, Denis, in wishing we knew something about what happened to Cachat. There’s nothing we can do about that, though, and I think we’re pretty much in agreement that what we do know from our end effectively confirms what Duchess Harrington’s told us?”

She looked around at her advisers’ faces, and, one by one, they nodded.

“In that case,” the president continued, “I think it behooves us to pay close attention to her warning about Elizabeth’s patience and the . . . how did she put it? The ‘flexibility’ of Manticore’s options. I don’t know that I buy into the notion that this was deliberately aimed at Manticore and Haven alike, that Mesa wants Manticore to trash the Republic before the League trashes Manticore. I think it’s at least remotely possible, though. More to the point, it doesn’t matter if that’s what they’re trying to do if that’s what they end up doing, anyway. So I think it’s up to us to make sure our own problem children at the negotiating table don’t decide to try to take advantage of this.”

“And exactly how do you propose to do that, Madam President?” Theisman asked skeptically.

“Actually,” Pritchart said with a chilling smile, “I don’t plan to say a word to them about it.”

“No?” There was no disguising the anxiety in Denis LePic’s voice . . . nor any indication that the attorney general had tried very hard to disguise it.

“It’s called ‘plausible deniability,’ Denis,” she replied with that same shark-like smile. “I’d love to simply march all of them in at pulser point to sign on the dotted line, but I’m afraid if I tried that, Younger, at least, would call my bluff. So I can’t just shut him up every time he starts throwing up those roadblocks of his. That’s part of the political process, unfortunately, and we don’t need to be setting any iron-fist precedents for repressing political opponents. Despite that, however, I think I can bring myself to compromise my sense of political moral responsibility far enough to keep him from using this roadblock, at least.”

“How?” This time the question came from Theisman.

“By using our lunatic who hasn’t gone missing.” Pritchart chuckled coldly. “Everyone knows Kevin Usher is a total loose cannon. I’m pretty sure that if he called Younger and McGwire, let’s say, in for confidential in-depth briefings and was very careful to speak to both of them off the record, with no embarrassing recordings, and no inconvenient witnesses to misconstrue anything he might say, he could convince them it would be . . . unwise to use these unfortunate and obviously groundless allegations out of Mesa for partisan political advantage.”

“Threaten them with, ah, direct action, you mean?” Unlike LePic, Theisman seemed to have no particular qualms with the notion, and Pritchart’s smile turned almost seraphic.

“Oh, no, Tom!” She shook her head and clucked her tongue reprovingly. “Kevin never threatens. He only predicts probable outcomes from time to time.” The humor disappeared from her smile as the shark surfaced once more. “He doesn’t do it all that often, but when he does,” the president of the Republic of Haven finished, “he’s never wrong.”