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DISASTER

"Mister Speaker," Simon Taliaferro said somberly, "I take little pleasure in being vindicated in such fashion." He looked around the Chamber of Worlds and shook his head sadly. "We should have known it would come, I suppose, when so many Fringe World delegates resigned their seats to protest the 'severity' of a decision far more merciful than just. Barbarism, Mister Speaker-the acts of little, frightened minds which must not be allowed to destroy all the Terran Federation stands for."

Oskar Dieter sat quietly, listening to the beautifully trained voice, and wished he possessed some of the same histrionic ability. But he didn't; all he could do was tell the truth, and where was the appeal of truth when lies were so convincingly presented?

"I ask you, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly," Taliaferro went on, "where is the reason in this?" He waved his hard copy of the report which had originated this secret session. "Even if, as I do not for an instant believe, amalgamation is an unmeant threat to the Fringe Worlds' representation, is this the way to contest it? Where are the Fringe World delegates, ladies and gentlemen? Where are the petitions? We see none of them. Instead we see this!"

He crumpled the sheet of paper contemptuously, and Dieter winced as the theatrical gesture evoked a spatter of applause.

It was sadly scattered applause, for the Chamber of Worlds was sparsely populated, the blocks of assemblymen and women separated by the empty delegation boxes of Fringe Worlds no longer represented here.

The Fringer delegations had been small, but there were many Outworlds, and their absence cut great swathes through the larger, less numerous Innerworld delegations. And it was Simon Taliaferro and others like him who had created this absence, Dieter reminded himself, staring at the heavyset Gallowayan with a hatred it no longer shocked him to feel.

"They've made no effort to oppose amalgamation," Taliaferro went on. "They haven't even bothered to discover whether or not it has in fact been ratified! They have fastened upon it-fastened upon it as a cheat and a pretext for treason, and let us not delude ourselves, my friends! The act of the Kontravian Cluster is treason, and when Admiral Forsythe has brought these traitors to their knees, we must show them that the Federation is not prepared to brook such criminality."

Here it came, Dieter thought grimly. Taliaferro had spent forty years maneuvering for exactly this slash at the Fringe's jugular.

"My friends," Taliaferro said soberly, "we must face unpleasant facts. The Kontravian rebels are not the only treasonously inclined members of the Fringe. If we falter, if we show weakness or hesitation, the Federation will vanish into the ash heap of history. Only strength impresses the immature political mind. Only strength and the proven will to use it! We must demonstrate our will power, whatever it may cost us in anguish and grief. We must punish ruthlessly, so that a few salutary lessons will prevent the wholesale bloodshed which must assuredly follow weakness.

"I therefore move, ladies and gentlemen, that we draft special instructions to Fleet Admiral Forsythe and all other commanders, instructing them to declare martial law and empowering them to convene military courts to try and punish the authors of this treason. And, ladies and gentlemen, I move that we inform our commanders that the sentences of their courts martial stand approved in advance!"

Dieter was on his feet in a heartbeat, fists clenched in shocked outrage. He'd known Taliaferro was ruthless, prepared to provoke civil war to gain his own ends-but this was simple judicial murder!

His fury turned icy as the full implications registered. If one could only be as conscienceless as Taliaferro himself it was almost admirable. Killing the Beaufort "ringleaders" would, at one stroke, remove the Fringe leaders best able to oppose him, inflame the extremists on both sides, and stain the hands of the Assemblymen with blood. Even if their ardor cooled, even if they later realized Taliaferro had used them, they would be his captives. They would share his guilt, and so would perforce becomes his accomplices in future crimes, as well.

Dieter forced himself to use his anger, burning the fury from his system and replacing it with frozen calm. He must speak out, must inject an element of opposition and carry at least a minority with him, so that when the fit passed there would be someone free of Taliaferro's blood guilt.

He drew a deep breath and touched his attention button as David Haley opened debate on Taliaferro's motion.

"The Chair recognizes the Honorable Assemblyman for New Zurich," Haley said, and Dieter heard the relief in his voice.

"Thank you, Mister Speaker."

Dieter's huge face stared out over the delegates, showing no sign of his inner turmoil. How should he address them? With fury, denouncing Taliaferro as a madman? Or would that merely brand him another hothead? Should he, then, try cold logic? Or would that stand a chance against the hysteria Taliaferro had been fanning for so many months? Derision, perhaps? Would mockery achieve what head-on opposition could not? He shook his thoughts aside, knowing he must play it by feel.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly," he heard his own stiffness and prayed no one else did. "Mister Taliaferro proposes to recognize the depth of this crisis by enacting extraordinary legislation. He argues-and rightly so-that this is a moment to show strength. The Federation has withstood many external threats, yet today we face an internal threat to our very existence. Indeed, Mister Taliaferro may well be too optimistic, for he overlooks the composition of our military. As chairman of the Military Oversight Committee, I can assure you there are enough Fringe Worlders in the military to make the ultimate loyalty of our own armed forces far from assured."

He felt the surprise as he admitted even a part of the Gallowayan's arguments. The Dieter-Taliaferro enmity had been a lively topic of Assembly gossip for months, and he knew the wagers in the anterooms were heavily against him. But they'd reckoned without the years of favors he'd desperately called in among the hierarchy of his homeworld. And without the recorder his briefcase had concealed during his final, parting-of-the-ways meeting with the Taliaferro Machine's leadership. He'd hung on, emerging as Taliaferro's only real opposition, and though his Assembly membership still hung by a thread, that thread grew steadily stronger as his warning penetrated deeper into the fundamentally conservative minds of the bankers who owned New Zurich.

His secretly made recording had helped immensely, for he knew some of the New Zurich syndics shared his private opinion that Taliaferro was no longer sane. They were willing to keep him on as a counterweight-at least until they knew whether the Gallowayan would succeed. And if Taliaferro did, Dieter knew, he would be the sacrificial lamb offered by the New Zurich leaders as they sought rapprochement with Galloway's World.

He shook such thoughts aside and forced his mind back to the present. His increasingly frequent woolgathering mental side-trips worried him.

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Mister Taliaferro is quite correct-and he is also entirely wrong. He would have you believe the only strong reaction is to crush the rebels, that the only strength is the iron fist of repression. Ladies and gentleman, there are more strengths than the whip hand! Let us acknowledge that this is an unprecedented crisis. Let us admit that what we face is mass treason-treason not of a single person, or a single clique, or even a single world, but of an entire cluster! And let us ask ourselves why eight star systems and eleven inhabited worlds and moons would simultaneously take such a drastic step! Has some mysterious madness gripped them all? Or is it, perhaps, much as we would hate to admit it, we who have driven them to it?"

He paused, feeling the hovering resentment like smoke. Some would hate him for opposing their carefully laid plans, and others for saying what they themselves had thought without admitting. Only a tragically small few would understand and support him. But it had to be enough. It must be.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly, I oppose this motion. I oppose the creation of kangaroo courts whose only possible verdict can be death. I oppose the institutionalization of the fracture lines splitting our polity at this critical moment. Let us demonstrate that we are strong enough to be reasonable and wise enough to be rational. Let us show the Fringe that we're willing to listen to grievances and, for a change, to act upon them. It is time for compromise, ladies and gentlemen, not for judicial murder."

He sat down abruptly, feeling his last two words ringing in a sudden silence that proved some, at least, had heard. But not enough, he thought grimly. Not enough.

Indeed, he was surprised only by the extent of his support, for as delegate after delegate rose to speak, almost a third supported him. He would have wagered on less than a quarter, and he was gratified to see so much sanity, even as he recognized his failure to stop Taliaferro.

The motion passed by slightly less than a two-thirds majority, and a license to kill was dispatched to the Federation's far-flung commanders.

Dieter prayed they would have the moral courage to ignore it.

"Chief! Mister Dieter! Wake up sir! Please wake up!"

The grip on Dieter's shoulder wrenched him awake, and his hand darted under the pillow to the pistol butt which had become so unhappily familiar in the past fourteen months. The weapon was out, safety catch released, before his sleep-dazed mind recognized Heinz von Rathenau, his security chief.

Rathenau stepped back quickly, and Dieter lowered the needler with a twisted grin and a shrug of apology. Since the first attempt on his life, he'd found himself uncomfortable without a weapon to hand.

"Yes, Heinz," he said. "What is it?"

He glanced at the clock and winced. Four A.M. He'd been asleep less than two hours.

"A priority message, sir." Rathenau looked desperately unhappy in the light of the bedside lamp. "From the Lictor General's office."

"The Lictor General?" Dieter rose quickly, shrugging into a robe even as he headed barefooted for the door. "What priority?"

"Priority One, sir."

"Oh, God! Not again!"

Dieter bit off further comment as he walked quickly down the hall beside Rathenau. The armed New Zurich Peaceforcers at the elevators snapped to attention as Dieter passed, and Rathenau noticed that his normally affable superior didn't even acknowledge the courtesy.

They reached the communications room, and Rathenau stopped outside as Dieter stepped through the heavy security door. His predecessor would have walked through at Dieter's elbow with a calm assurance of his right to be there, but Rathenau felt no desire to appear even remotely akin to Francois Fouchet. Fouchet had mistaken Dieter's trustfulness for weakness . . . and paid for it, Rathenau thought with grim satisfaction. For himself, he would follow Oskar Dieter back to New Zurich without a murmur when the axe fell. It wasn't often a Corporate World security man found himself serving a chief worthy of personal loyalty.

Dieter shut the door without sparing Rathenau a thought. He had eyes only for the flashing red light on the panel, and his blood ran cold. The last time he'd seen that light had been three months ago to receive news of the Kontravian secession.

He presented his eye to the retinal scanners, automatically suppressing the blink reflex. It took thirty seconds to satisfy the brilliant lights; when he finally read the message, he wished it had taken thirty years.

He stared at the screen, his mind encased in ice. God, he thought. Please, God. Why are You letting this happen?

But there was no answer. There would be none.

He rose finally, like an old, old man, switching off the communicators and wishing he could switch off his mind as easily. He opened the door and saw young Rathenau's face tighten at his own expression.

"Chief?"

"Heinz-" Dieter's hands moved for a moment, as if trying to recapture something that was irretrievably shattered.

"What is it, Chief?" Rathenau's voice was much softer, almost gentle.

"Wake the others, Heinz." Dieter drew a deep breath, but the oxygen was little help. "Get everyone assembled in conference room one in-" he glanced at his watch "-twenty minutes. Tell them to forget dressing."

"Yes, sir. May I ask why, sir?"

"I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the briefing. There'll be an emergency session at 0600 hours, and I have calls to make."

"Yes, sir."

Rathenau watched Oskar Dieter move brokenly down the corridor, and his heart was cold within him.

The Chamber of Worlds was hushed, wrapped in a silence it had not known in decades-if ever. Dieter looked around the shocked faces and wondered if even the Battle of VX-134 had produced such an effect. Howard Anderson's battle had been Man's first with a rival stellar empire; this news was worse.

He glanced up as Taliaferro walked briskly to his seat. He wanted nothing else in the Galaxy so much as to see Taliaferro's expression, to read the emotions in the dark, arrogant face of the man who'd orchestrated this disaster. The man whom he, God help him, had helped create this catastrophe.

Taliaferro dropped into his chair almost as the chime struck, and Dieter understood. He'd timed his late arrival to preclude any buttonholing, but how would he deal with it? How would he manage this session?

"Ladies and Gentlemen." David Haley's voice sounded as if it had been pulverized and glued unskillfully back together. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly, the Legislative Assembly is in session."

He paused and cleared his throat, his face pale in the vast screen.

"I am certain all of you have been apprised of the reason for this emergency session. However . . . however, for those of you who may not be fully informed, I will summarize."

His hands trembled visibly as he adjusted his terminal, but Dieter was certain he didn't really need any notes. Like himself, he no doubt found the information burned into his quivering brain.

"On February 12, 2439, Terran Standard Reckoning," Haley said slowly, as if seeking protection in the formality of his phrasing, "Task Force Seventeen of the Terran Federation Navy Battle Fleet entered the system of Bigelow in the Kontravian Cluster for the purpose of suppressing the secessionist elements therein. It was hoped-" his voice broke, then steadied. "It was hoped this force was strong enough to overawe the rebels. It was not. The Kontravians refused to surrender, and, after the failure of lengthy negotiations, Fleet Admiral Forsythe moved against them."

He drew a deep breath, and a strange strength seemed to possess him, the strength which comes only to those who have faced the worst disaster they can conceive. When he continued, his voice was cold and clear.

"Task Force Seventeen," he said quietly, "no longer exists. Apparently-the message is not entirely clear, ladies and gentlemen-but apparently mutiny first broke out aboard the flagship. It spread. Within a very short space, virtually every ship was involved. Most-" he drew another breath "-went over to the Kontravians."

They'd known, but the shock which ran through his audience as the words were finally said was actually visible. Dieter looked away from Haley, fixing his gaze on Taliaferro, willing the man to show some reaction, but the Gallowayan had himself under inhuman control.

"There was some fighting between loyal and mutinous elements," Haley continued. "Our only information comes from a courier drone from the superdreadnought Pentelikon. The drone carried an Omega message." The chamber was utterly still; Code Omega was used only for the final communication from a doomed ship.

"As nearly as we can determine," Haley said into the hushed silence, "the entire task force-minus those units destroyed in the fighting-went over to the Kontravians or was subsequently captured. As of the time Pentelikon's drone was dispatched, the count of survivors was approximately as follows: eight monitors, six superdreadnoughts, seven carriers, eleven battlecruisers, twenty-one heavy and light cruisers, forty-one destroyers and escort destroyers, and virtually the entire fleet train. At least six destroyers, three light and heavy cruisers, one carrier, and two superdreadnoughts were destroyed in the fighting.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," the Speaker said very quietly, "this means, in effect, that there are no loyal survivors from the entire task force."

The silence grew, if possible, even more complete. Most of the delegates were staring at Haley's image in horror. Very few seemed capable of coherent thought-and that, Dieter thought, was what was desperately needed now.

He was reaching for his own attention button when the sound of another bell cut the air. Haley glanced down at his panel, and an edge of uncontrollable bitterness crossed his face, but when the Speaker spoke, his voice was as impersonal as ever.

"The Chair recognizes the Honorable Assemblyman for Galloway's World."

Dieter leaned back as Taliaferro appeared on the screen. His face was taut, but any sense of guilt was well hidden as he looked out over the depleted delegations for a long second, then spoke.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly," he said sadly, "this is the most horrible, damnable news ever to come before this Assembly. Not only have the traitors not been suppressed, but the madness has infected even our own Navy! The Terran Federation Navy, the most loyal, the most courageously dedicated fighting force in the history of Man, has been touched by the insanity of treason!"

He shook his head in eloquent disbelief.

"But we must not allow shock and shame to paralyze us," he continued after a brief, sorrowful pause. "However terrible the news, it is our responsibility to act and act promptly. Consider, my friends-the Kontravian traitors have acquired the equivalent of their own navy out of this. The ships of Task Force Seventeen will be turned against us, the legitimate government of the Federation. Threats of force and force itself may be used against us by these damnable traitors! Our defenses are strong; it is unlikely any rebel attack will penetrate Innerworld space, and our loyal commanders will surely move quickly to prevent the spread of this insidious rot, but we must accept that some additional fraction of the Fleet may join this contemptible attack upon us. I have said before-and this Assembly has agreed with me-that this is a time for strength, and so it is. Our only option, ladies and gentlemen, is to show our steel, our determination that this criminal conspiracy shall not succeed! We must mobilize the rest of Battle Fleet. We must call in every loyal ship, every loyal military man and woman. We must crush the heart out of the Fringe World conspiracy! We must show these barbarians that we-not they-are the representatives of civilized humanity! And with God's help, we will show them that! We will defeat them, and we will hunt down and execute every traitor who has dared to raise his hand against the might and dignity and justice of the Terran Federation!"

A roaring ovation sealed his words, and Dieter shuddered. Damn the man! Damn him to hell! This disaster demonstrated the fundamental, destructive insanity of his entire self-serving policy. It should have stunned him. Instead, with a few brief words and a simplistic appeal to patriotism and pride, he had the Assembly eating out of his hand! Bile rose in Dieter's throat and, for the first time, he allowed himself to wonder if such an Assembly was even worth saving.

He bowed over his hands in defeat. He'd tried. As God was his witness, he'd tried. But he'd failed, and the Taliaferros and Waldecks and Sydons had inherited the Federation . . . or whatever smoking ruins would be left. He felt hot tears behind his eyes and turned in his chair. He would have no more of it. He would resign his seat, leave them to their madness. . . .

A hand touched his shoulder, and the concern and desperate faith in Heinz von Rathenau's eyes stopped him. Of all the New Zurich delegation, Heinz saw most clearly. He understood, and as Dieter saw the faith in those green eyes, he could not leave it unanswered. He owed it to Heinz, to the Federation, and most of all-God help him-to Fionna MacTaggart.

"Chief?" Rathenau asked softly. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, Heinz." Dieter rested his hand on the fingers gripping his shoulder and squeezed gently. "Yes, I'm all right now. Thank You."

He saw Rathenau's confusion and hoped the young man would never realize just what that "thank you" meant. But whether young Heinz ever did or not, all that mattered now was the battle which must be fought. And as he thought of Heinz, as he thought of Fionna and of Taliaferro's greed, anger returned. He wasn't like Taliaferro, but for today, just for this morning, it was time to take a page from Taliaferro's book. His hand stabbed the button, and the attention bell chimed softly.

"The Chair," David Haley's amplified voice cut through the hum of excited conversation, "recognizes the Honorable Assemblyman for New Zurich."

Dieter stood in the ringing silence and knew the Chamber of Worlds was agog with curiosity. How would he respond? How could he possibly continue to oppose Taliaferro now that they faced a life and death struggle for survival itself? But he let his bitter eyes sweep over them for long, long seconds before he finally spoke, and when he did, his voice was a whip.

"You fools," he said coldly, and the Assembly recoiled, for no one spoke to them in that flat, bitingly contemptuous tone! Dieter felt their anger and let it feed his own as he leaned into the pickup.

"Can't you see what this means? Are you all so blind you can't recognize reality just because it happens to clash with your comfortable image of yourselves as the last bright hope of humanity? By God, you don't deserve to survive! Think of the date, you idiots! Task Force Seventeen mutinied three months ago! Who knows what's happened since?"

His words shattered the rising anger like a lightning bolt. They'd lived with the reality of the Fringe's slow communications all their lives, had learned to use their faster communications for ruthless advantage, yet until he threw the date in their faces, they hadn't even considered the time element. But now the implications were before them, and their palms were suddenly slick with fear.

"Yes," Dieter sneered. "It takes a long time for courier drones to come that far-and who knows where other drones were sent? We have one from a single unit of the task force. Do you seriously think that was the only drone launched? Do you seriously think other Fleet units haven't heard by now? Sixty percent of the Fleet is Fringer. Sixty percent. Can none of you understand what that means? We don't have the numerical advantage in the civil war you've provoked-they do!"

His words unleashed the ugly, snarling pandemonium of terror. For over a year, he'd hammered away, warning them, pleading with them, and all but a minority had ignored him. They controlled the Fleet. They spoke with their every word backed by the suppressive might of the Federation's military. And now, suddenly, they saw the nightmare at last, and the man who'd warned them, who'd earned their contempt for his weakness, had been right all along.

Dieter's voice thundered above the tumult.

"Yes! Yes, flog the Fringe! Ignore their legitimate complaints! Call them barbarians because they're more honest, more desperate than you are! And now see what you've created! God help me, I helped you do it-now I must bear the same guilt as you, and the thought makes me sick."

"But what are we going to do?" someone yelled. "My God, what are we going to do?"

"Do?" Dieter sneered down at him. "What do you think we're going to do? We're going to fight. We're going to fight to save what we can, because we have no choice, because the only alternative is the utter destruction of the Federation-that's what we're going to do. But understand this, all of you! The days of contempt for the Fringe are over. Fight them, yes. But never, never call them 'barbarians' again! Because, ladies and gentlemen, if they really are barbarians, we're doomed."

His words plunged them back into silence. A fearful, lingering silence.

"We're doomed because they have Task Force Seventeen, ladies and gentlemen, and by now they have other ships. By the time we can get our own courier drones to the Fringe, they may have all of Frontier Fleet-perhaps even the Zephrain Fleet base."

He felt the sudden whiplash of terror that thought woke in the delegates who knew what it meant, but he hammered the point mercilessly home.

"I know what that means, and so should you. Weapons research in the data base of Zephrain Research and Development Station. Research on weapons which may outclass anything this galaxy has ever seen-and it lies in the Fringe, ladies and gentlemen, not in the Innerworlds."

He glared at them, and his voice was cold.

"And if they act as what you've called them-if they truly are barbarians and choose to seek vengeance rather than relief-they will not use those ships and weapons in self-defense. Oh, no, ladies and gentlemen! If the Fringers are barbarians, you'll find those ships here, striking the Innerworlds, and you'll find those weapons turning your precious planets into cinders."

He hissed the last word, and its chill ran through his audience like a wind.

"So get down on your knees," he finished. "Get down on your knees and pray you were wrong."

He cut the connection with a contemptuous flick. Silence roared about him, and he was heartsick and frightened, yet he could almost feel Fionna at his shoulder, and knew he had finally paid the first installment on his debt.

A bell chimed.

Dieter looked up and saw what he'd known he would. Simon Taliaferro was pressing for recognition, his shoulders hunched, his face bitter. He had no choice but to respond, and Dieter knew that if his security showed the tiniest chink, he himself was a dead man.

"The Chair," Haley said, "recognizes the Assemblyman from Galloway's World."

Taliaferro appeared on the screen, and his face shocked Dieter. The compelling strength had waned, and the arrogance was mixed with desperation. It struck him suddenly that Taliaferro had actually never considered this possibility. That he, too, had missed the significance of the drone's date. That he'd brushed aside Dieter's warnings about the Fleet simply because his blind, overweening confidence had never considered the chance of failure.

But though Dieter might hate him, Simon Taliaferro had cut his way to power with courage as well as conspiracy, and he gathered his shaken will to respond.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly," he began, his formal courtesy somehow pathetic after Dieter's contempt. "My friends. The Assemblyman for New Zurich-" he drew a deep breath. "The Assemblyman for New Zurich may be right. Perhaps we have lost more Fleet units since the . . . mutiny. But it changes nothing. Nothing!"

He shouted the last word, and suddenly he seemed to find fresh strength. Dieter recognized the signs. Like himself, Taliaferro was unleashing his anger, letting fury sustain him.

"We are still the Federation, and they are still barbarians! Even if they have every ship in Frontier Fleet, even if they have every dispersed unit of Battle Fleet-even if they have the Zephrain Fleet base itself!-what of it? Before they can injure us, they must come to us, ladies and gentlemen! They must fight their way through Fortress Command. They must deal with the remaining strength of Battle Fleet. They must deal with the Reserve, ladies and gentlemen. Fifty percent of Battle Fleet-fifty percent-is in mothballs! How will they deal with that when we mobilize it? Even if they have Zephrain, surely the base personnel-personnel rigorously screened for loyalty and integrity-destroyed the facilities before they could be taken! And what will they use for shipyards? They have only a few, scattered repair bases and small civilian yards. We hold the Fleet shipyards! We hold the major construction facilities!"

Dieter felt the shaken Assembly take courage from Taliaferro's words. Couldn't they recognize the counsel of despair when they heard it?

"Let them come against us, ladies and gentlemen! It will prove I was right-that we were right-when we called them barbarians! Driven to it? Poppycock! This is a coldly calculated act of treason. This is-must be-the end product of a long and careful conspiracy! We've driven them to nothing-but we will drive them. We will drive them to destruction and retribution! Our worlds are safe behind our fortifications, their worlds will lie open to our attack when the Fleet is fully mobilized! Let us teach them the true meaning of war, my friends! Let us cauterize this cancer of conspiracy in the only way they understand-with the flames of war and iron determination!"

It took all Dieter's strength to keep his dismay from his face. He'd shaken Taliaferro, but the Gallowayan was rallying his forces, and without the Outworlds not even a unified bloc of Heart Worlds and the few Corporate World moderates could fight the political steamroller Taliaferro controlled.

"And if it's a long war, what of it?" Taliaferro demanded hotly. "We've fought long wars before and come back to victory. We will do it again! We have the strength to crush these traitors-it's only a matter of mobilizing that strength! My friends! As chief of delegation for Galloway's World, I place the combined building capacity of the Jamieson Archipelago-the greatest concentration of industrial might in the Galaxy-unreservedly at the service of the Terran Federation! Let us see how the rebels like that!"

A roar greeted his words-the desperate roar of a panicked crowd which suddenly sees salvation. Dieter hammered his call button, but Taliaferro ignored him as he ignored Speaker Haley's urgent, amplified pleas for calm, smiling fiercely out at the shouting, clapping delegates. He'd done it. He'd salvaged victory and his career from the very teeth of disaster.

And in that moment of heady political triumph, the sealed doors flew open and the Sergeant at Arms raced down the aisle, followed by the red cloak of the Lictor General. A shockwave of quiet fanned out from them, and Taliaferro's fierce grin faded as he saw them.

The two men hurled themselves up the steps to Haley's side, and only later did Dieter come to recognize the blind providence-or the brilliance of David Haley-which had left the Speaker's mike open. Every ear in the Chamber of Worlds heard the message the Lictor General gasped into Haley's ear.

"A message from Galloway's World, sir! It-it's terrible! Skywatch HQ is gone! A dozen destroyers blown apart! At least a quarter of the mothballed units wiped out! And the Jamieson Archipelago!"

"What about the Archipelago?" Haley's question was sharp.

"Gone, sir! The yards, the Fleet base, half the Reservation-just . . . gone, sir. It was a nuclear strike. . . ."

The Lictor General's voice trailed off as he realized the microphone at his elbow was live, but no one noticed. Every eye was on Simon Taliaferro as he swayed, his swarthy face pale, his eyes blank, and stumbled silently away.


* * * | Insurrection | ATROCITY



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