Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 12

“All right, then,” she said, “as Duchess Harrington would say, ‘let’s be about it.'” She smiled tightly. “What certain unnamed senior parties would like to know is whether or not I think there’s any truth in the reports that my father and his lunatic terrorist cronies were responsible for detonating multiple nuclear devices — probably with the Star Empire’s knowledge and direct connivance — in the town of Green Pines. Nuclear devices which, according to the Mesan authorities, killed thousands of people, and one of which was detonated in the middle of a crowded park on a Saturday morning, incinerating every child present. Is that about the gist of it?”

Gervais winced internally. Helen Zilwicki had one of the sturdiest personalities he’d ever met, and that acid tone was very unlike her.

“More or less.” He sighed. “That’s not exactly the way anyone put it, of course. And I don’t think it’s the way anyone would describe it if they were asked to. What I think they’re really interested in is any insight you might give them as to why the Mesans might’ve gone about it the way they did. Claiming your father was involved, I mean.”

“I’d think that was pretty obvious!” Helen planted her forearms on the table and leaned forward over them. “Daddy’s been a pain in their ass ever since Manpower kidnapped me in Old Chicago when I was thirteen. Trust me, you do not want my dad pissed at you — not the way that pissed him off — and having him get together with Cathy Montaigne only made bad even worse from Mesa’s perspective. Then there was that little business on Torch. You remember — the one where my sister wound up queen of a planet populated by liberated slaves, every single one of whom hates Mesa and Manpower on a — you should pardon the expression — genetic level? If there’s anyone in the entire galaxy whose reputation they’d like to blacken more than his, I don’t know who it might be! And if you throw in the opportunity to saddle Torch with responsibility for something like this, and then claim Daddy’s involvement means the Star Empire was behind it, as well, it can only get even better from their viewpoint. Just look how they’re using it to undercut our credibility when we claim they’ve been involved in everything that’s been going on out here in the Quadrant! Obviously we’ve invented all those nasty, untruthful allegations out of whole cloth as another prong of whatever iniquitous plot we’ve hatched against them! Doesn’t the fact that we’re enabling Ballroom terrorists to nuke their civilian population prove we’re only targeting them as a way to distract all right-thinking Sollies’ attention from our own evil, imperialist agenda?”

The anger in her tone wasn’t directed at Gervais, and he knew it. It wasn’t even directed at the “unnamed senior parties” who’d asked him to have this conversation with her. It was, however, an indication that she was more worried — and hurting worse — than she wanted anyone to suspect. And it didn’t do a thing to make him feel any better about dragging her into this conversation in the first place, either.

“I think they’ve already figured that part out,” he said after a moment. “What they’re really asking about is whether or not you have any idea what really happened. What could have transpired to suggest the idea of blaming your father and the Ballroom to them in the first place.”

“You mean they’re wondering what Daddy could’ve been doing that might’ve gotten him involved in whatever happened, whether he was responsible for it or not, don’t you?”

“I think that’s probably a fair enough way to put it,” he agreed.

“Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you out with any specifics,” she said a bit tightly. “Daddy understands operational security pretty well, you know. And he’s always been careful not to put me in an awkward position by telling me things a Queen’s officer ought to be reporting to ONI. If he had been up to something, he wouldn’t have discussed it with me — definitely not before the fact, anyway. And there’s no way he would have sent me any letters that said ‘Oh, by the way, I’m off to Mesa to nuke a city park.'”

Her scorn was withering.

“Helen, I don’t think anyone thinks you’ve been deliberately ‘holding back’ anything that could help them get a handle on this. And I’m sure everyone’s fully aware your father wouldn’t be sending you chatty messages about clandestine operations, whether they were his or the Ballroom’s or Torch’s. They’re looking for…deep background, I guess you’d say.”

“I don’t have a lot of that for them, either,” she said in a more normal tone. “Anything they don’t already have available, I mean. That exposé Yael Underwood did on him a while back did a pretty good job of blowing his cover and pasting a great big target on his back. Underwood did get most of his facts right, though, and I doubt I could add a lot to his history. The short version is that ever since he resigned his commission after he tangled with Manpower for the first time, he’s been directly involved with the Ballroom. He’s never made any secret of that, or of the way he’s been directly involved with Torch, as well, ever since its liberation. He’s more of an analyst than a ‘direct action’ specialist, and I don’t doubt he’s helped the Ballroom plan the occasional operation. I’m not saying he’s not capable of a more…hands-on approach when it seems appropriate, either, because he damned well is. But I think pretty much everyone realizes that’s not really what you might call the ‘best and highest use’ of his talents. Of course, that’s subject to change if you go after somebody he cares about. When that happens, he gets very hands-on.”

She paused, looking steadily into Gervais’ and Helga’s eyes across the table, then shrugged.