Chapter Eighteen


            "Well, at least word didn't get here in the middle of the night this time," Cindy Lecter observed sourly.

            "That's straining awful hard to find a silver lining, Cindy," Michelle replied, and Lecter produced a wan smile.

            "That's because it's awful hard to find one this time, Ma'am."

            Cindy had that one right, Michelle reflected as she tipped back in her chair, closed her eyes, and squeezed the bridge of her nose wearily while she contemplated the dispatches which had occasioned this meeting. It was amazing how quickly — and drastically — things could change in barely three T-days. The memory of that first dinner party, of how confidently she and Admiral Khumalo and Governor Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar had planned for the future, mocked her now, and she wondered what other surprises lay in store.

            At least there’s a little element of “I told you so,” isn’t there, Michelle? Of course, you didn’t see this one coming any more than anyone else did, but at least you get brownie points for warning everyone that Beth . . .  wasn’t likely to react well if anything else went wrong.

            She shook her head, remembering her “little get together” of the night before.

            If I were the superstitious sort, I’d be wondering if I hadn’t somehow provoked this, she reflected. One of those “If I say it, it will happen” sorts of things. Except, of course, for the minor fact that it all actually happened the better part of a T-month ago.

            James Webster's assassination had been bad enough, but this latest news — the news of the attack on Queen Berry — had been worse, far worse. Just as, if not for the sacrificial gallantry and quick thinking of Berry's bodyguards, the death toll would have been immeasurably worse than it actually had been. Including Michelle's own cousin, Princess Ruth.

            And it has to have been another one of those programmed assassins, she thought grimly. It's the only possible answer. That poor son-of a bitch Tyler sure as hell didn't have any reason to try to kill Berry — or Ruth. And I can't think of anything more "suicidal" than using an aerosol neurotoxin in your own briefcase! How in hell are they getting these people to do this kind of thing? And why?

            Much as she hated to admit it, the attempt to murder Honor had made tactical and strategic sense. Honor was widely considered to be the Manticoran Alliance's best fleet Commander, and the forces under her command had done, by any measure, the greatest damage to the Republic of Haven since the resumption of hostilities. For that matter, loathsome as Michelle found the technique of assassination — for, what she admitted, were some highly personal reasons — any military commander had to be considered a legitimate target by the other side. And if the technique the Republic had used had also inevitably led to the death of another young officer and half a dozen other bridge personnel in her vicinity, killing Honor's flagship to get at her would have resulted in thousands of additional deaths, not just a handful. So she supposed there was actually a moral argument in favor of assassination, if it allowed you to inflict possibly decisive damage on the other side with a minimum possible number of casualties.

            But this –!

            She released the bridge of her nose and opened her eyes, gazing up at the flag briefing room's overhead.

            The thing that stuck in her mind most strongly, actually, wasn't the fact that Haven had come within an eyelash of murdering yet another member of her family. No, what stuck in her mind was that the Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore had always been the two star nations with the strongest record, outside that of Beowulf itself, for opposing Manpower and genetic slavery. Not only that, but the very existence of the Kingdom of Torch, and the only reason Queen Berry had been placed on its throne in the first place, with Ruth as her junior-spymaster-in-training, was that the Star Kingdom and the Republic had jointly sponsored the effort. In fact, support for Torch was the single foreign policy point they still had in common, the very reason Elizabeth had chosen that planet for the site of Pritchart's summit conference. So what could possibly have inspired the Republic of Haven to do its best to decapitate Torch now? It made absolutely no sense.

            Yes, it does make sense, girl, a corner of her brain told her. There's one way it makes sense, although why they'd want to do that is another question all of its own.

            The news of the deaths on Torch — and despite everything, there'd been almost three hundred dead — had reached Manticore barely two T-days after news of Webster's assassination. Which, allowing for the transit time, meant they'd happened on the same T-day. Somehow, she didn't think the fact that the attacks had been synchronized that tightly had been an accident, either, which did give significant point to the theory Elizabeth had embraced. Both attacks had been carried out using the same technique — the same still unknown technique — which, combined with their timing, certainly indicated that the same people had planned and executed them both. So far as Michelle could see, there were only two candidates when it came to propounding motives for the attackers.

            As Baroness Medusa had pointed out in Webster's case, if it hadn't been for the similarity between the technique used against Honor and the technique used against him, Manpower would probably have been the first suspect on everyone's list, however stupid it might have been of them to carry out such an attack right in the middle of Chicago. And the same logic went double, or even triple, where an attack on Torch was concerned. No one else in the entire galaxy could have had a more logical motive to attempt to destabilize Torch. But Manpower, and to a lesser extent the other outlaw corporations based on Mesa and allied with Manpower, obviously had all the motives there were. The notion of an independent star system inhabited almost exclusively by ex-genetic slaves, its government heavily influenced (if not outright dominated) by the "reformed" terrorists of the anti-slavery Audubon Ballroom, could not be reassuring to Manpower or any corporate crony bedfellow. Add in the fact that the planet of Torch itself had been taken away from Manpower by force (and that several hundred of its more senior on-planet employees had been massacred, most of them in particularly hideous fashion, in the process), and Manpower's reasons for attempting to kill Berry — and Ruth, and anyone else on the planet they could get to — became screamingly obvious.

            So one possible explanation was to assign both attacks to Manpower. Except, of course, for the unfortunate fact that the only people who had previously employed the same technique were Havenites. Whatever Pritchart might have said, no one else had any motive for that attack. Certainly Manpower hadn't had any reason to go after Honor at that time. For that matter, as far as Michelle could see, Manpower probably would have had every reason not to assassinate her. Manpower was at least as unfond of Manticore and Haven – separately and together — as they were of it, and the notion of eliminating someone who was doing that much damage to Haven could scarcely have appealed to Manpower's board of directors.

            Which led, little though Michelle wanted to admit it, to Elizabeth's theory.

            Be fair, she told herself. It isn't just Beth's theory, and you know it. Yes, her temper's engaged, but Willie Alexander and a lot of other high-paid, high-powered types at the Foreign Ministry and in the intelligence services agree with her.