Back | Next

Chapter Three

“Just a second, Gwen,” Captain Loretta Shoupe said as she followed Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer out of Admiral Augustus Khumalo’s office space aboard HMS Hercules.

Gervais had just finished delivering a late-hour briefing to Khumalo and Shoupe, his chief of staff. There’d been a lot of those briefings over the last three weeks, and it didn’t look like getting better anytime soon. The entire Spindle System was still somewhere between astonishment and euphoria over the devastating defeat Admiral Gold Peak’s Tenth Fleet had inflicted on the Solarian League Navy, but the Navy remained too busy to celebrate as it scrambled frantically to deal with the enormous flood of POWs it had so suddenly and unexpectedly acquired. Despite which—or perhaps because of which, given the exhaustion quotient of her crew—the ancient superdreadnought flagship of the recently created Talbott Station was quiet around them.

“Yes, Ma’am?” Gervais replied, turning to face her.

“You know Ensign Zilwicki pretty well, don’t you, Gwen?” Shoupe’s tone made the question a statement, Gervais thought, and wondered where she was headed.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said again. Despite the monumental rank disparity between a mere ensign and a senior-grade lieutenant, he’d come to know young Zilwicki, Sir Aivars Terekhov’s flag lieutenant, very well, as a matter of fact.

“I thought you did,” Shoupe said now. She actually looked a bit uncomfortable, but she went on steadily. “The reason I ask is that—like everyone else, I suppose—Commander Chandler and I are trying to get some kind of handle on this story coming out of Mesa. I don’t want to intrude on her or pressure her, but the truth is that we really need any insight she could give us about this.”

Gervais nodded respectfully, despite a quick flare of anger. Commander Ambrose Chandler was Khumalo’s staff intelligence officer, and like Captain Shoupe, he was usually on Gervais’ list of good people. And Gervais even understood exactly why they were looking for any “insight” they could get. The horrendous ’fax stories about what the Solly newsies had dubbed the “Green Pines Atrocity” had reached Spindle the day after the battle—less than nineteen hours after Admiral O’Cleary’s surrender, in fact—and he didn’t envy Admiral Khumalo or Baroness Medusa (or, for that matter, Lady Gold Peak) when it came to dealing with this one’s implications. None of which made him any happier about where he was pretty sure Shoupe was headed.

“Yes, Ma’am?” he said in as neutral a voice as he could manage.

“I don’t want you to grill her, Gwen,” Shoupe replied with an edge of sharpness. “But it’s obvious just from what we’ve heard from home that this story’s already making problems—big problems—where Solly public opinion is concerned. For that matter, the local Solly newsies are starting to ask the Governor and the Prime Minister for their reactions to ‘Manticoran involvement in the atrocity,’ as if anyone out here would have a clue even if the Star Empire had been behind something like that!” She snorted in disgust. “What makes them think we could know more than they do, given the communications loop, or that we’d’ve been briefed in on a black op like this—assuming anyone back home could’ve been stupid enough to sanction it—completely eludes me, but there it is.”

She shrugged. It was an angry, frustrated gesture, Gervais noted.

“On top of that, we’re less than two hundred and sixty light-years from Mesa,” she went on. “No one expects the Mesans to launch some kind of retaliatory strike at us, but they’re for damned straight going to play it for all it’s worth in the League. And given how far they’ve already gone to destabilize the Quadrant, there’s no telling how else they might try to capitalize on it. For one thing, I think we can be pretty damned sure they’re going to be flogging their version of what happened to every independent star system in hopes of keeping any more of them from siding with us or being ‘neutral’ in the Star Empire’s favor. It looks like the Solly newsies are fully prepared to help them do it, too, to be honest, and we need to be able to knock that on the head. While I doubt Ensign Zilwicki’s in a position to shed any light on what actually happened in Green Pines, any window into what her father might have been doing—really doing, I mean—to lead Mesa to make this kind of claim could be extraordinarily useful.”

“I haven’t discussed it with her, Ma’am,” Gervais said. “I haven’t seen her face-to-face since the story hit Spindle, and, to be honest, it wasn’t something I wanted to discuss with her over the com. My understanding is that it’s been months since she actually saw her father, though, and frankly, I doubt she’d be able to add anything much to what we already know.”

“I understand your feelings, Gwen.” Shoupe’s tone was a bit cooler. “I’m afraid this comes under the heading of doing my job, however. In fact, there’s a part of me that’s inclined to invite her in to personally discuss anything she might know, think, or suspect in my office. I’m trying to avoid turning this into some sort of formal interrogation because I don’t doubt for a moment that she’s even more worried—and with a lot better personal reasons—than anyone else in the Quadrant.”

Gervais looked at her for a moment longer, then sighed mentally.

“It’s only about twenty-one hundred local in Thimble, Ma’am, and I was planning on having a late dinner. I suppose I could see if she’d be free to join me.”

* * *

Ensign Helen Zilwicki followed the waiter across the mostly empty restaurant with an expression she hoped gave no sign of her inner feelings. Gwen Archer’s last-minute, late-notice invitation had come at a good time, in many ways. Commodore Terekhov had been keeping her busy, but there was a limit to how many hours of legitimate duty time even the most inventive flag officer could find for his aide. And, unfortunately, she’d gotten too efficient. She kept running out of things to do before she ran out of hours to sit around and think about the hideous lies about her father.

At the same time, she suspected Gwen’s invitation hadn’t simply materialized out of thin air. Countess Gold Peak was keeping him even busier than Commodore Terekhov was keeping Helen, and she doubted he had a lot of time to visit groundside. Given his druthers, he would have been spending any time he did have with Helga Boltitz, too, which suggested someone further up the military food chain had asked him to get her take on Green Pines.

She couldn’t blame him for that, and she was grateful, if her suspicions were correct, that he’d at least picked as comfortable a venue as possible.

She’d never eaten in this restaurant, and she wondered if that, too, was something Gwen had deliberately arranged. The food smelled good, and the subdued lighting projected a welcome she found soothing despite the nature of the conversation she expected. Still, she was a little surprised when the waiter led her not toward the main dining area but into a smaller room which contained only half a dozen tables. Only one of those tables was occupied—by Lieutenant Archer and the beautiful, golden-haired Helga Boltitz, Minister of War Henri Krietzmann’s personal assistant.


Both of them stood as the waiter led Helen to the table, and Helga stepped around to give her a brief, tight hug. The embrace took Helen slightly by surprise—Helga wasn’t usually that demonstrative in public—but she hugged the other woman back, then looked at Gervais.

“Gwen,” she said in greeting, and smiled faintly. “I appreciate the invitation . . . even if Helga is thinking of me as a third wheel!”

“Never,” Helga said firmly. Her sharp-edged Dresdener accent gave her Standard English a harsh edge, but her tone was firm and she shook her head for added emphasis.

“Helga, I love you,” Helen replied, “but you shouldn’t go around telling whoppers like that one!” Her smile flashed into a grin for a moment. “I know how busy Gwen’s been, and I don’t imagine it’s been any calmer in Minister Krietzmann’s office.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t like to have more time with him. I only said I’d never think of you as a ‘third wheel,’” Helga pointed out.

“Yeah, I heard you. But you hang out with all those diplomats and politicians now,” Helen observed. “I think it’s corrupting that Dresden directness of yours.”

Helga chuckled and shook her head, and Helen turned back to Gervais.

“But however gracious and diplomatic our Helga’s become, Gwen, I have to say I’ve nurtured a few suspicions about just how you happen to have time free to invite me to dinner. Especially when you could have been spending that time doing . . . something else.”

She let her eyes flip sideways to Helga for a moment, and both of the others chuckled. Then Gervais’ expression sobered.

“Unfortunately, you’ve got a point,” he said. He waved the waiter aside, pulled out her chair, and held it. “And I’m not going to try to pretend this is the purely social occasion I’d prefer for it to be. Both of us really are glad to see you, though.”

“I know.”

Helen allowed him to seat her, despite the difference in their ranks, then turned and accepted the menu from the waiter and gave him her initial drink order. She watched him disappear before she turned her attention back to Gervais.

“I know you’re glad to see me,” she repeated. “And I’m pretty sure I know who suggested you and I have a little talk. All the same, I don’t expect the conversation to do wonders for my appetite.”

“It wasn’t Admiral Gold Peak, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Gervais replied, and she shook her head.

“Didn’t think it was. She’s a pretty direct person, and she’s had the opportunity to talk to me about it herself if she wanted to. For that matter, she probably would’ve gone through Sir Aivars if she was the one asking the questions. Same for Captain Lecter. Nobody on Admiral Khumalo’s staff, on the other hand, really knows me or enjoys the opportunity to just slip questions into a casual conversation. Which leaves us with ‘the usual suspects,’ doesn’t it?”

“I guess it does.” Gervais leaned back in his chair, regarding her across the table. “Frankly, though, I think the reason they asked me to talk to you about it was that they figured it’d be less stressful for you. Less of a formal inquisition, you might say.”

Helen snorted, but it made at least some sense. And she supposed she was grateful they were trying to avoid stepping on her feelings.

“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.

“He’s pretty tight with the Royals, too, since that business with Princess Ruth, although he’s been a lot more focused on Torch and the Congo System since Berry got crowned Queen. And he and”—the hesitation was so slight that only someone who knew her as well as Gervais did would have realized she’d changed what she’d been about to say—“the Torches have certainly been looking for every way they could possibly hurt Mesa. Hell, Torch has declared war on them! And let’s not forget what those bastards tried to do to the entire planet five months ago.

“So, on the surface, there’s a certain plausibility to Mesa’s claims. He hates Manpower’s guts; they’ve tried more than once to kill him—or me, or Berry, or Cathy; and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d managed to turn up at least some evidence Manpower was about to use those StateSec stumblebums to hit Torch. Trust me, if he’d seen that coming, he would’ve done anything he could to prevent it. But he wouldn’t have tried this way. If nothing else, he’d’ve known it wouldn’t work, and he’s spent enough time with Cathy to know exactly how disastrous something like this could be politically—not just for Torch, but for the abolitionist movement in general.”

“Not even if he thought the attack on Torch was going to work?” Helga asked quietly, and Helen looked at her. “I mean, if he found out about the attack and didn’t know Admiral Rozsak would be able to stop it? If he figured your sister and all his friends on Torch were going to be killed?”

“No way.” Helen shook her head firmly. “Daddy doesn’t think that way. Oh, I’m not saying he wouldn’t have made Mesa and Manpower pay big-time if they’d managed to pull something like that off, but he wouldn’t have done it before he knew they’d pulled it off. And he wouldn’t have gone about it this way even if they’d managed to turn Torch into a cue ball. It’s not the way he thinks, not the sort of thing he’d involve himself with.”

“Grief and hatred can make someone do terrible things,” Gervais pointed out gently, and Helen surprised him with a snort of laughter.

“You don’t have to tell me that. Remember what happened to me on Old Terra? Or what happened to my mom? Or the way I met Berry and Lars, for that matter? But Daddy is a very . . . guided weapon, Gwen. He’s got really good target discrimination, and he’s just as good at holding down the collateral damage. Besides, nuking a park? A park full of kids?” She shook her head. “He’d die first. Or, for that matter, kill anybody else who thought that would be a good idea! I’m not saying my daddy’s a saint, because he’s not. I love him, but nobody who knows him would ever claim he’s an angel. Or, if he is, he’s one of those avenging angels with a really sooty halo, anyway. And I could see him not worrying a whole lot about the tender sensibilities of a bunch of slave-trading Mesans. I could even see him using a nuke against some kind of hard target, the kind that wouldn’t kill a stack of civilians when it disappeared in a mushroom cloud. But not this. Never a park.”

“You’re sure?”

“Gwen, I’m damned sure Daddy didn’t plan and carry out this strike. I don’t know where he is, and I don’t know why he hasn’t spoken up yet. And, yeah, I’ll admit that scares the shit out of me. He’s got to know how Mesa’s using Green Pines as a club to beat both the Star Empire and the Ballroom, and he’d never let them go on doing it if he could do anything—like surfacing to refute their version—to stop it. But it’s not his style. Oh, yeah, if they’d actually managed to genocide Torch, then he might’ve gone after them on Mesa. He wouldn’t have done it until he knew they’d gotten through to Torch, though, and he wouldn’t have done it this way even then. He’d’ve been looking for another target, and when he was done, there wouldn’t be any question about who’d been responsible for it.”

“Why not?” Helga asked, her tone one of fascination despite the topic of the conversation, and Helen gave another, harsher snort of laughter.

“Because if my daddy had gone after a target on Mesa, he wouldn’t have wasted his time on Green Pines. If he was in city-killing mode, he’d’ve gone after Mendel and their entire system government, not some lousy bedroom community. And, trust me, the hole would’ve been a hell of a lot deeper!”

Back | Next