"Citizen Saint-Just is here, Citizen Chairman," the secretary announced, and Rob Pierre looked up from behind his desk as his security chief was ushered in. It wasn't the desk in his official office, with all the proper HD props to make it look impressive. This was the one from which he actually ran the People's Republic, with the comfortably shabby furniture and working clutter only his closest allies were ever allowed to see.
And there were far fewer of those allies than there had been eight T-years before.
To the casual observer, Oscar Saint-Just would have looked just as bland, harmless, and unexcited as usual, but Pierre knew him too well. He recognized the acute unhappiness behind those outwardly dispassionate eyes, and he sighed at the sight of it. He'd been fairly certain of why Oscar had wanted to see him, but he'd also hoped that, just this once, he could be wrong.
Unfortunately, he wasn't.
He waved at one of the beat-up old chairs facing the desk and tipped his own chair back with a hidden grimace as Saint-Just sat. For just a moment, Pierre allowed himself to remember another office and another meeting with the man who had then been second-in-command of the Legislaturalists' Office of Internal Security. It provoked mixed emotions, that memory. On the one hand, it reminded him of all the things they had accomplished. On the other, it had been the first step which had landed Rob S. Pierre astride the hungry beast of the PRH, and had he known then what he knew now...
Had you known then, you still would have done it, his mind told him severely. Somebody had to. And be honest, Rob—you wanted to do it. You wouldn't be here if you hadn't decided to sit down at the table as a player, so quit whining about the cards you drew and get on with the job!
"What did you want to see me about, Oscar?" he asked, purely as a way to get things started.
"I just wanted to ask you one more time if you really want to do this," Saint-Just replied. He spoke as calmly as ever, but, then, he'd sounded calm even as LaBoeuf's maniacs fought their way towards the Committee floor by floor, too. Pierre sometimes wondered if some quirk of Evolution had simply omitted the standard connection between anxiety and voice pitch built into other people. Or if perhaps someone had foisted one of the mythical androids of prespace fiction writers off on him.
"I presume you mean the devaluation?"
"That's part of what I mean," Saint-Just said. "That part of it certainly worries me. But to be honest, Rob, it worries me a hell of a lot less than the free rein you're giving McQueen."
"We can squash McQueen any time we have to," Pierre retorted. "Hell, Oscar! You're the one who doctored her dossier to make it a slam-dunk in front of a People's Court!"
"I realize that," Saint-Just said calmly. "And I also realize that I'm the one who vetted her, and the one who countersigned Fontein's evaluation, and the one who's recording virtually every word she says. Under most circumstances, I'd feel perfectly confident about it. But these aren't 'most circumstances.' You know that as well as I do, and I don't like how... comfortable she and her senior officers are starting to sound with each other."
Pierre scowled and started to speak sharply, then made himself stop. Saint-Just's paranoia, both personal and institutional, was exactly what made him so valuable. He distrusted everybody, except— perhaps—Pierre. Actually, the Chairman wasn't too certain even about that. Yet paranoid or no, Saint-Just had given Pierre ample proof of the acuity of his perceptions... most of the time.
Unfortunately, Pierre had also had proof that the StateSec chief could occasionally go off on tangents all his own, and Oscar Saint-Just was not a great believer in moderation. He believed in playing safe... which, from his viewpoint, meant shooting anyone he suspected might even be contemplating treason. At least that way he could be sure he got any guilty parties, and if the occasional innocent got blotted out too, well, making an omelet was always hard on a few eggs.
Up to a point, that wasn't such a bad thing—except from the eggs' perspective, perhaps. A certain degree of unpredictability actually made a reign of terror more effective. But that was the point. If they were going to defeat the Manties, they had to begin moving away from outright terror tactics. Oscar himself had agreed with that when they first discussed McQueen's appointment as Secretary of War. The question was whether his present concerns were based in reality or were the result of another of his tangents.
"I don't have any military background myself, Oscar," the Chairman said after a moment. "You know that. But I do have some familiarity with how political figures work with their closest aides and subordinates, and I'd think a certain degree of 'comfort' in McQueen's relationships with her subordinates was actually a good sign. She's always been a leader, not a driver. I know!" He raised a hand before Saint-Just could interrupt. "That's one of the qualities which makes her dangerous to us. But it's the way her command style works, and her command style is what makes her dangerous to the Manties. I think we're just going to have to let her do things her way—as we told her we would—while you and your people go on keeping an eye on her. If she gets out of line, of course we'll have to remove her. But in the meantime, let's give her a chance to demonstrate that she can do what we brought her in to do for us."
"And if she can't?"
"In that case, the decision becomes simpler," Pierre said calmly. "If she doesn't produce in the field, then there's no reason to risk letting her build a personal support base in the officer corps."
In which case, he did not add aloud, she's yours, Oscar.
"All right," Saint-Just said after a long, thoughtful moment. "I won't pretend I'm happy about it, and Fontein and some of the other commissioners are even unhappier than I am. But I agreed with you about how badly we needed her in the first place, so I suppose bellyaching about it now is a bit childish of me."
"I wouldn't put it that way myself," Pierre told him, prepared to lavish a little stroking now that the decision was made. "You're my watchdog, Oscar. For the most part, I trust your instincts completely, and I know exactly how badly I need them. As for Fontein and the others, I'd be surprised if they weren't unhappy. McQueen's cut pretty deeply into their say-so in the operational sphere, and that's bound to have at least a little overlap into the political and policy sides, as well. They'd be more than human if they didn't resent a reduction in their authority."
"I know," Saint-Just agreed, "And in Fontein's case, I suspect a little of it may be overreaction to the way she blind-sided him before the Leveler business. But they're supposed to be suspicious of their military counterparts, and I don't want to undercut that. Or make them think I don't give their reports the attention they merit."
"And," Pierre said shrewdly, with just a hint of a twinkle, "you don't like who McQueen chose to head her Operation Icarus, either, now do you?"
"Well..." For once, Saint-Just seemed just a little hesitant. He even blushed slightly as he saw the gleam in his superior's eyes, and then he chuckled and shook his head.
"No, I don't like it," he admitted. " 'Rehabilitating' one flag officer is risky enough, but rehabilitating two of them just in time for the same operation seems to be rushing things just a little."
"Oh, come now!" Pierre chided. "You know what happened in Silesia wasn't really Giscard's fault! The only reason he had to be 'rehabilitated' at all was because Cordelia's handling of the situation meant we needed a scapegoat."
"Agreed. Agreed." Saint-Just waved both hands in the air. "And as a matter of fact, Eloise Pritchart is one of the few senior commissioners who isn't concerned that her charge is succumbing to McQueen's charm. Which, I have to admit, makes me feel a little better about the entire situation. Pritchart's always had a high opinion of his military ability, and she's commented favorably on his political reliability, but she really doesn't like him very much. It's like pulling teeth for her to say good things about him in her reports, so I take the fact that she's satisfied as a good sign."
"Well, then," Pierre said with a shrug, but Saint-Just shook his head.
"You're missing my point, Rob. I'm not saying Giscard deserved to be made a scapegoat. I'm just saying he was made one, and we still haven't invented a way to see inside somebody's head. Disaffection can begin in lots of ways, and being singled out for public blame and humiliation over something that wasn't your fault is certainly one of them. So however reliable he may have been in the past, I have to bear in mind that the possibility of future unreliability may have been planted in there to sprout later."
"But if he pulls this off, we'll slather him with all the praise and positive publicity a man could want. That should help repair any past damage."
"Maybe, and maybe not. But be that as it may, it's a chance I'm willing to take, especially with Pritchart keeping an eye on him. Actually, I'm more worried about Tourville than I am about Giscard."
"Tourville?" Pierre sat back in his chair and tried very hard not to sigh.
"Tourville," Saint-Just confirmed. "You and I both know Cordelia planned to have him purged when she got him back to Haven—probably for trying to protect Harrington from her."
"We know we think she wanted him purged," Pierre corrected, and Saint-Just snorted a laugh.
"Rob, let's be honest with each other here. I mean, Cordelia's gone—and a damned good thing, too—so we don't have to stroke her anymore. And you and I know better than anyone else that she took a personal pleasure out of eliminating anyone she thought was an enemy."
"Yes. Yes, she did." Pierre sighed. And, he reflected, that was the big difference between her and you, wasn't it, Oscar? You're ruthless as hell, and completely willing to eliminate anyone you think is even a potential threat. I imagine you sleep a hell of a lot better than I do, too... but you don't actually enjoy the killing, do you?
"Damn right she did," Saint-Just said, unaware of the Chairman's thoughts. "The only reason she would have dragged him all the way to Cerberus and then back here with her was to make a big, ugly, public show trial out of it, and you can bet your ass he knew it, too. That's the real reason I sat on him and his crew for so long."
"I know that," Pierre said with a trace of patience he couldn't quite hide.
"No, you don't." It was unusual for Saint-Just to correct him quite so flatly, and Pierre frowned. "I know I told you that I wanted him on ice until we publicly admitted Cordelia's death, but you thought my real reason was that I was being paranoid and trying to decide whether or not to have him eliminated, now didn't you?" the StateSec head asked.
"Well... yes, I suppose I did," Pierre admitted.
"Well, you were mostly right, but not entirely. Oh, it really was essential to keep his crew isolated until our version of Cordelia's glorious death hit the 'faxes, but neither of us anticipated initially how long that was going to take." He shook his head. "I never would have believed how useful she could be when we could use her reputation and status with the Mob but not have to put up with her tantrums!"
Saint-Just actually chuckled for a moment, then shook his head.
"But even though I know keeping him under virtual ship arrest has to have pissed him off even more than he was, I've never wanted to eliminate him, Rob; I've simply been afraid we had no choice. I realize what a tactical asset he is for the Navy, and I'd hate the thought of simply throwing that away when we need it so badly. But in a way, I regard him as a bigger danger than McQueen."
"You do?" Pierre's forehead furrowed in surprise.
"Yes. I've read his dossier and his commissioner's reports, and I've interviewed him myself at least a dozen times since Cerberus. There's a brain behind that cowboy exterior, Rob. He tries like hell to hide it, and he's been surprisingly successful with a lot of people, but he's sharp as a vibro blade. And Citizen Admiral Cowboy doesn't have a reputation for ambition like McQueen's. If he decides that his best long-term chance for survival lies in building some sort of cabal out of self-defense, his fellow officers are going to be a lot less wary of getting involved with him.
"So what do I see when I look at him? A man who, right this minute, is being grateful as hell that he dodged a pulser dart while deep inside he has to be wondering if he really did... or if he just thinks he did. He's been under a microscope for nine T-months, and he's got to know that we know that he knows Cordelia was going to have him killed. That means he also knows that we're going to be watching him very, very carefully, even if we have decided to release his flagship and staff for the moment. If he steps out of line again, we'll have no choice but to eliminate him, and he knows that, too. All of which means that he has to have at least considered the possibility of joining up with someone like a McQueen out of sheer self-defense. Or setting up a cabal of his own."
Pierre sat there for a moment, gazing at his security chief with a contemplative expression, then shook his head.
"I'm glad I have you to run StateSec, Oscar. I'd start foaming at the mouth if I had to spend much time concentrating on that kind of triple-think. Are you honestly telling me that you think Lester Tourville is going to take his task force over to the Manties or something like that?"
"Of course not," Saint-Just said with another of those unusual chuckles. "But it's my job, as you just pointed out, to think about the possibilities and then try to disaster-proof our position against them as much as possible. The odds are that Tourville is actually another Theisman. More extroverted and, um, colorful, but essentially nonpolitical and more concerned with getting the job done than he is with personal power. Mind you, I suspect he's even less fond of the Committee right now than I think Theisman is, and, frankly, with better reason. I'll want to keep a close eye on both of them, but we need them both against the Manties, and I know it."
"Well that's a relief!" Pierre said.
"I'm sure," Saint-Just agreed, but then he leaned back and gave the Chairman another sharp glance. "And now that I've aired my concerns about that, I want to ask you one more time if you're determined to carry through with the devaluation and the BLS cuts."
"I am," Pierre said flatly. Saint-Just started to open his mouth, but the Chairman went on before he could. "I realize it's a risk, but we've got to put our economic house into some kind of order. That's every bit as important as straightening out the purely military side of the war—and, damn it, it's the reason I went after this stinking job in the first place!"
Saint-Just blinked at the sudden passion in Pierre's voice. The SS chief knew, probably better than anyone else in the universe, how the inability to deal with the PRH's economic woes had eaten at Rob Pierre. And truth to tell, it was the probability of a Republic-wide financial collapse which had brought Saint-Just over to Pierre's side in the first place. As Oscar Saint-Just saw it, his real job was to preserve the power and stability of the state, as the source of authority which held the People's Republic together. In sober fact, he cared less about who exercised that authority than that it be exercised well, and the Legislaturalists had failed that critical test.
Yet Pierre's determination to tackle the economy now worried him. Too many things would be happening at once, creating too many potential flare-ups of the spontaneous combustion variety. And that was the hardest kind of trouble for a security officer to prepare against, because by the very nature of things, he seldom saw it coming before the flames actually burst out.
"I realize we have to deal with the fundamental problems eventually," he said now, his tone ever so slightly cautious. "I just have to wonder if this is the best time. We're already engaged in one experiment with McQueen and the War Office, after all."
"McQueen is what's made this the best time," Pierre replied sharply. "When she took out the Levelers for us, she eliminated by far the most radical element of the Mob." And, he added mentally, you and I used the coup attempt as our pretext to remove some of the more troublesome "moderates" just in case, didn't we, Oscar? "In the process, she taught the other potential radicals what happens to people who try to overthrow the Committee. And she made it quite clear in the public mind that the military supports us." He smiled thinly. "Even if she's actually trying to build her own power base, the Mob doesn't know that, so it has to assume that if we tell her to go out and kill another million or so of them, she will. Not only that, but the moderate elements of Nouveau Paris' population have had a lesson in what a real insurrection costs everyone in the vicinity, even the innocent bystanders. They don't want to see another one, and the radicals sure as hell don't want 'Admiral Cluster Bomb' dropping by to pay them another visit. So if we're going to introduce a policy which risks public repercussions, this is the best possible time for us to do it."
"I understand the reasoning, and I don't question the need to do something" Saint-Just said. "The timing does worry me, but that would probably be true whenever we decided to implement reforms. I guess part of it is the notion of deflating the currency and cutting the BLS simultaneously."
"Better to put all the medicine down them in one nasty-tasting dose than to string it out," Pierre disagreed. "Inflation was bad enough under the old regime; it's gotten even worse in the last few years, and it's hurting what foreign trade we've been able to maintain in Silesia and with the Sollies. As I see it, we have two options: we can go whole hog and completely nationalize the economy on the old prespace totalitarian model, or we can begin gradually phasing a true free market back in, but this half-assed socialism-by-regulation is killing us."
"No argument there," Saint-Just agreed when he paused.
"Well, I think we've pretty much demonstrated that the bureaucrats are almost as bad at running the economy under us as they were under the Legislaturalists," Pierre pointed out. "Given their dismal track record, I'm not particularly enamored of the idea of giving them still more control. Which only leaves the free market route, and for that to work we've got to have a stable currency—with at least a passing relationship to its real purchasing power—and a work force motivated to get out there and actually work. Most of the out-planets are in better shape for that than Haven is—they never had the percentage of Dolists we had here to begin with—and even the Nouveau Paris Mob has been reacquiring the habit of work since the war started. If we deflate the currency and reduce the BLS, we'll drag more of them into the non-military labor force, as well. And, as I say, this is probably the best time to make the attempt. I know it's risky. I simply don't see how we can avoid this particular risk."
"All right." Saint-Just sighed. "You're right. It's just that knowing how much of it is going to land on my plate if it goes sour makes me... anxious. We're playing with several different kinds of fire here, Rob. I only hope I've got enough firemen to deal with things if they get out of hand."
"I realize how much I'm dumping on you," Pierre acknowledged, "and I wish I saw a way to avoid it. Unfortunately, I don't. But the good news is that my analysts' projections suggest that if we get through the next twelve to eighteen T-months more or less intact, we'll actually have turned the corner on the reforms. So if McQueen can just generate some good news on the military front, on the one hand, while the threat of turning her pinnaces loose on the Mob again helps scare the remaining radicals into good behavior and you keep an eye on everyone else, we may actually pull this off."
"And if we don't?" Saint-Just asked very quietly.
"If we don't, then we'll lose the war in the end, anyway," Pierre said just as quietly, his eyes suddenly distant, as if he looked at something Saint-Just couldn't see, "and that will probably be the end of you, me, and the Committee. But you know, Oscar, that might not be such a tragedy. And it certainly wouldn't be undeserved, now would it? Because if we can't manage reform that's even this basic, then we'll have failed ourselves and the Republic. Everything we've done—and all the people we've killed—since the Coup will have been for nothing. And if it was all for nothing, Oscar, then we'll deserve whatever happens to us."
Saint-Just stared at the Chairman while an icy splash of shock went through him. He'd seen Pierre grow more and more brooding as the war dragged on, but this was the first time he'd ever heard him say something like that. Yet the shock wasn't as great as it should have been, he realized. Perhaps a part of him had seen this coming all along. And it wasn't as if he had a lot of choice, even if he hadn't seen it. For better or for worse, he had given his loyalty to Rob Pierre. Not the institutional loyalty he had sworn to the Legislaturalists and then betrayed, but his personal fealty. Pierre was his chieftain, because only Pierre had possessed the vision and the guts to try to save the Republic.
It was time to remember that, Saint-Just told himself. Time to remember how mad most people would have thought Pierre before the Coup, how impossible it had seemed that they could come this far. If anyone in the galaxy could pull the rest of it off, then Rob Pierre was that man. And if he couldn't...
Oscar Saint-Just decided not to think about that, and nodded to the man behind the desk.
"If it's all the same to you, Rob, I'll just try to keep anything like that from happening," he said dryly.