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Chapter Thirty-Eight

"Mr. Baird."

Lord Mueller's voice was a bit cooler than usual as Buckeridge showed Baird and Kennedy into the office. It had been his own idea to establish closer communications with Baird and, for the most part, it had worked out quite well. But this time Baird had insisted Mueller see him, and the steadholder hadn't cared for that. Helpful as Baird and his organization had been, Samuel Mueller was still a steadholder, and no common steader had any business issuing demands to him, however politely phrased.

"My Lord. Thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice. I realize it must have been inconvenient, but I'm afraid it's quite important," Baird said.

Mueller nodded curtly, but he felt a flicker of wariness. The man's words were polite enough, but something about his tone bothered the steadholder. It held an . . . assertiveness that rang faint warning bells in the back of Mueller's brain, and he suddenly found himself missing Sergeant Hughes even more than usual.

Hughes' murder had shaken the entire Mueller Guard. His fellow armsmen had taken a grim pride in the fact that he'd managed to kill three of his assailants, even though it was obvious he'd been completely surprised by the attack. But no one had the least idea what had prompted his murder. Officially, it had been written off as a botched robbery attempt, although no one really believed that for a moment. There was little random street crime on Grayson, and no street thug in his right mind would choose to rob an armed, trained armsman when there had to be less dangerous prey available.

Unfortunately, no one had been able to come up with any other explanation. Mueller's own suspicion was that Hughes had inadvertently discovered something and been killed before he could act on it or warn Mueller and his superiors. The steadholder knew he was probably overly suspicious. That, after all, was an occupational hazard of conspirators the galaxy over. But still . . .

"What can I do for you, Mr. Baird?" he asked after a moment, his tone a bit less brusque and a little more wary, and glanced at Corporal Higgins. He'd chosen Higgins to replace Hughes at these meetings because of the corporal's doglike loyalty, but he suddenly found himself wishing he'd selected someone a bit brighter. Not that he really expected any sort of physical threat to suddenly emerge, but because . . . 

He didn't really know why, he admitted after a moment. It was pure instinct, and he tried, without success, to command his instincts to leave him the hell alone.

"My organization has become increasingly concerned by our inability to secure the proof we need of the Protector's plans to request annexation by the Manticorans," Baird said, apparently unaware of any uneasiness on Mueller's part.

"Perhaps that's because there isn't any proof," the steadholder pointed out. "My people have been looking just as hard as yours, and we haven't found a thing. While I certainly wouldn't put such a plan past Prestwick and Benjamin, it may be that in this case our suspicions are misplaced."

"We don't think so, My Lord," Baird said, flatly enough to make Mueller bristle. He wasn't accustomed to being contradicted so cavalierly. "We've heard too many 'rumors' from too many separate sources. And we find this state visit of Queen Elizabeth's most suspicious. Look at how public opinion is already responding to the news of it! What time could be better for the Sword to propose such an annexation, especially with the San Martin business going so smoothly. She and the Sword may well find themselves in a position to capitalize on the recent victory in Barnett and the public hysteria over her visit to ram an annexation proposal through the Keys. At the very least, they could use those advantages as a springboard for getting the idea a favorable hearing if they should decide to go public with it and present it in sufficiently seductive terms."

"Granted," Mueller agreed. "All I've said is that there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support the belief that they intend to do anything of the sort."

"Only because we haven't looked in the right places . . . or with the right determination," Baird said, and this time all of Mueller's hackles rose. There was a new note in Baird's voice. One not of simple confidence, but of triumph.

"We've looked as hard as we could," the steadholder said aloud, and anger glowed within him as he heard the temporizing note in his own voice.

"No, My Lord, we haven't," Baird disagreed, even more flatly than before. "But we will. That's why I asked to see you."

"What do you mean?" Mueller demanded, harshly enough that Corporal Higgins shifted position behind him and dropped one hand to his pulser.

"I mean, My Lord, that we require your help to obtain that proof."

"But I've already used every avenue and source I have!"

"We realize that. But we have a way to open an entirely new avenue. With your assistance, that is."

"What sort of avenue?" Mueller looked back and forth between Baird and Kennedy and felt tempted to order them to leave. He told himself it was because of their disrespectful attitudes, but there was something darker and more ominous beneath his pique. An edge, though he refused to admit it, of fear. But that was ridiculous. He was a steadholder, and they were guests in his home, present only on his sufferance.

"Our plan is simple enough, My Lord," Baird told him. "And in an ironic sort of way, Queen Elizabeth's visit is what makes it workable."

"Get to the point, please," Mueller said testily, and Baird shrugged.

"Certainly. Our logic is straightforward. Assuming, as we do, that the Sword does intend to suggest we merge with and be absorbed by the Star Kingdom, this visit would be the ideal time for Prestwick and the Protector to discuss their plan with Elizabeth and the Duke of Cromarty—in person, with no intermediaries who might leak details of their discussions' true nature. The fact that she's bringing along her foreign secretary, as well, only strengthens our suspicions, as the Earl of Gold Peak would be deeply involved in any negotiations on such a point. Would you agree so far?"

He raised his eyebrows courteously, and the steadholder gave him a choppy nod. He'd come to the conclusion that Prestwick and Mayhew had no such plans, but if they had been planning such a move, Baird was obviously correct that this visit would be the perfect opportunity to finalize their strategy for it.

"We also believe," Baird continued, "as you and I have discussed several times, that the entire annexation plan is no more than a ruse, a cover for the Sword's true purpose, which is to further accelerate the Protector's 'reforms,' break the power of the Keys and the truly faithful among Grayson's steaders, and make us over in Manticore's image. If that is, indeed, true, then their private discussions are certain to touch upon their actual motives. And if we were able to record those discussions, they would give us the 'smoking gun' we've sought for so long now out of their own mouths, as it were."

"Record their discussions?" Mueller sat up straight, staring at Baird, then he laughed harshly. "Well, certainly, recording the Protector's private conversations with the Queen of Manticore would provide no end of useful information. I have no doubt of that at all! But there's no way to plant any sort of bug to pick up that kind of conversation!"

"You're wrong, My Lord," Baird said softly. "There is a way . . . and we need your help to make it work."

"What are you talking about?" Mueller snapped.

"Elizabeth and Cromarty will be invited to attend a session of the Keys when they arrive on Grayson." Baird showed no awareness of Mueller's growing impatience. "No doubt there will be all sorts of flowery speeches and public relations opportunities, and you, of course, will be present as the acknowledged leader of the loyal opposition. All we need you to do is to present Elizabeth and Cromarty each with a memory stone."

"A memory stone?" Mueller blinked at Baird, taken completely by surprise at the sudden turn of the conversation.

Memory stones were an ancient tradition. Despite the relative primitiveness of Grayson's pre-Alliance tech base, the planet had maintained a presence in space for longer than the entire Star Kingdom of Manticore had existed. The systematic and steadily increasing exploitation of their star system's extraplanetary resources was all that had permitted the Graysons to sustain their population and industry, and the huge investment they'd made in relatively crude infrastructure had been instrumental in allowing them to upgrade their technical and industrial base so rapidly once they allied themselves with Manticore.

But there had always been a price for that effort. Mueller had no idea how many Graysons had died in space, whether in industrial accidents or in the wars with Masada, but the number had to be large. He knew that, and Grayson had developed its own traditions and customs for honoring their memory.

Memory stones were lumps of unrefined asteroid iron or rock, carried constantly on their persons for six days by those who wished to honor the memory of the dead in space. On each of those days, the bearer of a stone prayed briefly and meditated on the debt the living owed to all those who had been lost in space. On the seventh day, the day upon which the Tester had rested, the stones were laid to rest, as well, by being released in space on a trajectory which would drop them into the system primary. They would never actually reach Yeltsin's star, of course, for the furious energy radiating outward from the star would consume them and blow their particles outward, as the souls of the Tester's children were forever borne upward and illuminated throughout eternity by the living presence of God. It was a religious custom which every element of Grayson, from the most conservative to the most liberal, honored and treasured, and it had become even more meaningful to them since the current war's casualties had begun to roll in.

But what, exactly, memory stones had to do with the Sword's inner councils was more than Samuel Mueller could—

His thoughts broke off, and his eyes widened. No! They couldn't possibly mean that!

"I trust," he said very carefully, "that you aren't proposing what I think you are. I have no doubt that you could produce a remote listening device sufficiently small to fit into a memory stone, but Planetary Security or the Manticorans would spot a transmission from something like that in an instant."

"There will be no transmission, My Lord. The memory stones will contain bugs—you're quite correct about that—but only simple recording devices. The public gift of memory stones to Elizabeth and Cromarty will leave them no choice but to honor our customs. That means they will accept the stones and keep them on their persons, as tradition requires, and the newsies would never allow the moment in which the stones were released to escape unreported. You know as well as I how long it will take them to travel all the way from Grayson orbit to the sun, which will be plenty of time for us to intercept them when no one is looking."

"Intercept them?" Mueller's incredulity showed, and Baird shrugged.

"If we know when and where they were released, generating an intercept solution won't be difficult. And while they won't transmit while they're actually recording data, each of them will be fitted with a location beacon which we can activate from a range of a few thousand kilometers, so collecting them should present no great difficulty."

"You're far more optimistic in that regard than I am." Mueller snorted, once again wishing Hughes were present. The sergeant's technical expertise would have stood him in good stead when it came to heading off this insane plan.

"Our people assure me it can be done," Baird said. "I don't say it will be easy, but it will be straightforward. Yet to make it work, the stones must be presented as publicly as possible . . . and by someone of sufficient stature to make it impossible for the newsies to ignore the occasion. As the acknowledged leader of the Opposition, you have that stature, and the Manticorans' visit to the Keys will give you the opportunity."

"I won't do it," Mueller told him. "I don't share your confidence in your ability to recover the recorders, in the first place. And in the second, I can't risk being caught up in such a scheme. As you say, I am the leader of the Opposition. Can't you see how disastrous it would be—not simply for me, but for all of us who oppose the systematic destruction of our way of life—if Planetary Security were to find listening devices hidden in 'gifts' which I, personally, had given to the Queen of Manticore and her Prime Minister? Tester, man! It would destroy my credibility, and that of the entire Opposition with it!" He shook his head firmly. "No. Not for something as speculative as rumors about possible plans being suggested by the Chancellor to the Protector."

"The chance of detection is minute, My Lord," Baird replied, apparently unmoved by his vehemence. "The recording devices have been constructed using the best molecular circuitry, and since they'll be completely passive, aside from the location beacons, which must be activated by an encrypted external signal, there will be no emissions to draw attention to them. Besides, memory stones are religious objects. Even infidels like the Manticorans will be forced to treat them with due respect lest they anger the very people they want to seduce into joining their Star Kingdom. And they'll be gifts from one of the most prominent and respected steadholders on Grayson. Why in the world would they be suspicious of such a gift in the first place?"

"No, I tell you! The potential return doesn't even come close to justifying the risk you're asking me to run!"

"I'm sorry you feel that way, My Lord. I'm afraid, however, that I must insist."

"Insist?" Mueller half-rose, and Higgins stepped forward behind him, but neither Baird nor Kennedy as much as turned a hair.

"Insist," Baird repeated, his tone cool but inflexible.

"This conversation is over," Mueller grated. "And if you insist on issuing such absurd demands, then so is our entire relationship! I am not accustomed to being dictated to, and I will not risk all I've striven for years to accomplish on your. . . your whim!"

"It is not a whim. And you have no choice, My Lord," Baird told him.

"Get out!" Mueller snapped, and gestured to Higgins. The corporal started forward, then stopped, more in shock than in fear, as Kennedy produced a small pulser and aimed it at his chest.

"Are you mad?" Mueller demanded, as shocked as his armsman and far too furious to feel frightened. "Don't you know the penalty for bringing a weapon into a steadholder's presence?!"

"Of course we do," Baird replied. "We refuse, however, to allow ourselves to be murdered as Steve Hughes was."

"What?" Mueller blinked at the complete non sequitur.

"Nicely done, My Lord, but your apparent surprise can't deceive us. We know you had Hughes murdered, just as we know why. I'll admit we were surprised you should do so in such a clumsy manner. Surely you knew that 'failed robbery' wouldn't fool us! But it wasn't totally unexpected."

"What are you talking about?" Mueller demanded. "He was my own armsman! Why in the Tester's name would I want him killed?"

"It would be much simpler if you'd stop pretending so we could get back to the business at hand, My Lord," Baird said wearily. "We were under no illusions about your trustworthiness before, or we would never have placed Hughes in your service. And while some of our people were outraged by his murder, the rest of us had anticipated the possibility all along. As he did, when he volunteered. But that doesn't mean we can no longer work together . . . as long as you remember that we know exactly the sort of man with whom we're actually dealing."

"You placed Hughes in my service?" Mueller stared at Baird for a moment, then shook his head. "That's a lie! Some sort of clumsy trick! And even if it weren't, I never ordered anyone to kill him, you lunatic!"

"My Lord, you're the only one who could possibly have had a motive," Baird said with an air of weary patience.

"What motive?" Mueller half-roared, and Baird sighed.

"When you discovered he was secretly recording every one of my conversations with you, you must have realized who he was working for." He shook his head. "Whatever else you may be, you're an intelligent man, My Lord. Must I really draw you a detailed picture of our logic?"

"Recording?" Mueller parroted. The other man's calm assurance gnawed away at the armor of the steadholder's rage, and he sagged back into his chair, staring at the men he'd been so confident he could effortlessly dominate.

"Of course." Baird allowed a hint of asperity to creep into his own voice for the first time. "Really, My Lord! Why do you insist on pretending this way?" He shook his head again, then shrugged. "But if you insist, we'll give you proof. Brian?"

Kennedy reached into his tunic once more, without ever letting his pulser's muzzle waver from Higgins, and tossed Baird a tiny holo projector. The older man held it on his palm and punched the play command, and Mueller swallowed as he saw the interior of his study, right here in Mueller House, while he and Baird discussed illegal contributions and the names of those through whom they could be routed.

Baird allowed it to play for several seconds, then switched it off once more and slipped it into his own pocket.

"You waited too long to murder him, My Lord. We have his recordings of every earlier meeting with you. I feel confident the Sword would be more than interested in proof of your illegal activities."

"You wouldn't dare!" Mueller snapped, but his mind reeled. He had no idea who'd actually killed Hughes, and the enormity of the dead sergeant's betrayal was stunning, but the recording was obvious proof the armsman had really been working for Baird's organization from the very beginning.

"Why not?" Baird asked calmly.

"Because you're just as guilty of any crimes as I might be!"

"First, My Lord," Baird said very precisely, "that presupposes that these are the only crimes of which we have evidence. In fact, they're not, nor was Hughes the only agent we've planted in . . . strategic spots, shall we say?" Mueller swallowed, and Baird smiled faintly. "We've been keeping an eye on you for quite some time. We're well aware of your activities and alliances—all of them, My Lord, from the beginning of your resistance to the 'Mayhew Restoration.' I trust you'll forgive me if I don't provide matching documentation of them right this moment, however. In this case—" he tapped the pocket which held the projector "—you obviously already identified and murdered our agent. We have no intention of giving you anything which might suggest the identities of our other agents to you. But we would have no compunction about sharing that information with the Sword if you forced our hand.

"Secondly, you assume we'd be afraid to admit our own complicity in your illegal campaign financing schemes." Baird allowed himself a small, cold smile. "Those schemes are the least of your worries, My Lord . . . and the greatest of ours. We have far less to lose than you even if we're arrested right alongside you. Which, by the way, would be rather more difficult for the Sword to accomplish than you appear to think. Surely you must realize that Mr. Kennedy and I have constructed in-depth covers rather than meet you under our own names and identities! Moreover, neither of us has ever appeared in Planetary Security's files. We have no records, and Security has no place to start in hunting us down. You, on the other hand, are just a little too prominent to elude their net, I think. And, finally, My Lord, we, unlike you, are truly ready to face arrest, trial, even conviction. If that should be our Test for serving God's will, then so be it."

Mueller swallowed again, harder. How long had they been spying on him? From Baird's total confidence, it had to have been a long time. Even—the steadholder shuddered—long enough for them to have picked up some scrap of evidence linking him to Burdette and the murder of Reverend Hanks. That certainly seemed to be what Baird was implying, and it would justify the other man's obvious assurance and confidence. If there was even the faintest possibility they could connect him to Burdette's treason . . .

"I did not have Hughes killed," he said firmly. "As for the rest of it, any 'crimes' I may or may not have committed were in the name of all of Grayson and of God Himself."

"I haven't said otherwise, My Lord," Baird said mildly. "Honesty requires me to say that I believe ambition has played a part in your actions, but only God can know what truly lies within any man's heart, and I might well be wrong. But the fact remains that however justified your actions may be in the Tester's eyes, in the eyes of the Sword, they remain crimes. Serious crimes, I fear, to which serious penalties attach."

"You're mad," Mueller said. "Think about what you're doing, man! Are you really willing to throw away all we've already accomplished this way?"

"We have no desire to throw anything away," Baird said in that same mild tone. "We see no reason we can't continue to cooperate in the future as in the past, unless you foolishly force us to hand our information to the Sword. And before you ask, My Lord, yes. We do think securing proof of the Protector's annexation plans justifies the risk that you might force us to do just that. Besides—" Baird allowed himself a thin smile "—some of us believe the public furor which would be generated by going public with our evidence would actually give us the platform we require to force the steaders of Grayson to recognize what the Sword truly intends. In which case—" he shrugged "—we accomplish as much as we could hope to accomplish with the recordings we need your help to obtain."

Mueller sat motionless, staring at the other man, and his heart was a stone. Baird meant it, he realized sickly. He and his allies were genuinely ready to throw away everything, including the life and future of Samuel Mueller, on the off chance that their recording devices could be smuggled past Planetary Security and the Manticorans, capture something incriminating, and be recovered in a deep-space interception afterward. And the fact that they were insane to even contemplate such an operation meant nothing. They had the blackmail evidence to force him to go along with them.

At least they're only recorders, he told himself, trying to pretend he didn't know he was grasping at straws. Even if they're found, and tied to me, all the Sword would have would be an attempt to obtain privileged information. That's serious, but nowhere near evidence of complicity in murder! And I am a steadholder. And the leader of the Opposition. Under the circumstances, they probably wouldn't even want to go public with the charges. 

The man who called himself Anthony Baird gazed into Samuel Mueller's eyes and watched the defiance run out of them like water.


"Thank Tester, he actually fell for it."

"Why, 'Brian,' " James Shackleton said, his voice gently mocking. "How could you possibly have doubted me?"

"I didn't doubt you, Jim. I just had trouble believing he'd cave in with so little proof we had the goods on him." Angus Stone, whom Samuel Mueller knew as Brian Kennedy, shook his head.

" 'The guilty flee where no man pursueth,' " Shackleton quoted. "The only real question was whether or not Hughes was actually working for him. That was always a possibility . . . up until we got our hands on that camera button. Hughes must have been on his way to deliver it to someone else. If he'd been working for Mueller, he would've handed it over before he left Mueller House that night. And we were lucky there were several days worth of imagery stored on the chip. If Mueller'd insisted on more proof, we could have shown him some of that footage without starting him wondering why the only evidence we had was recorded the night Hughes died." Shackleton shrugged. "Once we convinced him we had any evidence, his reaction was completely predictable, Angus. After all, he had to be guilty of things we didn't know a thing about."

"Um." Stone leaned back in the passenger seat of the air car, gazing out at the night sky, and frowned. "I wish we knew who Hughes had been working for."

"If it wasn't us, and it wasn't Mueller, then it almost has to have been Planetary Security," Baird said equably, "though I suppose it might be one of his fellow Keys. From all I've heard, Harrington would certainly be capable of taking direct action against him if she suspected the sort of action he was contemplating against her or Benjamin. It doesn't really matter in either case, though. The man's been dead for months. If whoever he was working for felt they had sufficient evidence to nail Mueller, they would certainly have acted by now. And if they don't have sufficient evidence to charge him, then they have no choice but to pretend nothing's happened at all."

"And do you really think this is going to work?" Stone asked much more quietly.

"Yes, I do," Shackleton replied, his own eyes on the instrument panel. "I wasn't especially confident to begin with. The whole thing seemed like such an outside shot that I was afraid to let myself hope for too much. But whatever anyone may suspect about Mueller, it would never cross Palace Security's mind that such a prominent member of the Keys would risk trying to plant electronic devices on the Protector's guests. If they do—" he shrugged "—all we lose is Mueller."

"And the opportunity to strike."

"And this opportunity to strike," Shackleton corrected. "And I don't think we will lose it. When Donizetti came through with the weapons, I began to think it might succeed. And when he came up with the molycircs for the memory stones as well—"

He shrugged once more.

"I only wish we weren't so reliant on Donizetti in the first place." Stone sighed.

"He's an infidel and a mercenary," Shackleton agreed, "and I'm sure he's taken a bigger 'commission' off the top than he says he has. But he's also managed to come up with everything we needed. Not as quickly as I might have wished, especially on the memory stones, but he got it all in the end, and we couldn't have done it without him. And the bottom line, Anson, is that we have to remember we're about God's work. He won't let us fail Him as long as we trust in His guidance and protection."

"I know." Stone drew a deep breath and nodded. "This world is God's," he said softly, and Shackleton nodded back.

"This world is God's," he promised.


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