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ATROCITY

The furrows stretched out behind Fedor Kazin's lurching tractor-miles and miles of furrows, hungry for Terran wheat, waiting for spikeweed sprigs. The one to feed Innerworld bellies, he thought sourly, and the other to liven their dreams, and which did they value more, eh?

Yet whatever they paid him, it wouldn't be enough . . . again. Not with the shipping fees those Corporate World vlasti extorted from the Fringe. For thirty years he'd harvested his wheat and spikebalm, and still he was perpetually in debt to the shipping lines.

He glanced up at the clouds. His grandfather had always claimed Novaya Rodina's steppes were almost as beautiful as Old Russia's, but for the color of the sky. Fedor wouldn't know; he'd seen only recordings from the motherworld, and he'd always suspected they touched the things up a little-surely no sky could be that blue!-but he knew his own sky well. He only hoped he finished his plowing before the storm struck.

Thoughts of the weather turned his mind to the storm ripping through the entire Federation. He couldn't believe the tales coming out of Novaya Petersburg! Did those madmen think they were all back in the days of the tsar? That the Federation was run by Rasputin? And who were they, these men who called themselves 'Kadets' once more? Kerensky? Trotsky? Fedor had no more love for the Corporate Worlds than the next man, but the Federation was the Federation! It had risen from the flames of Old Terra's Great Eastern War and reached out to the stars, protecting its people as it placed them on worlds light-years from their birthworld. It was the Federation of Howard Anderson and Ivan Antonov. Four centuries it had stood-what were a hundred years or so of mistakes against that? And Novaya Rodinans were Russians: they knew a thing or two about endurance.

But these crazy Kadets-! Madness! Even if they succeeded, where would his wheat go? There had to be some form of foreign exchange-and who in the Fringe needed foodstuffs? What Fringe farming world could sell Novaya Rodina the manufactured goods she needed?

So Fedor plowed and sowed, for the day would come when the crazy men realized they couldn't succeed. It might be necessary to chastise them a little first, but in the end the Federation would take them back. And when it did, Fedor Kazin would have a crop ready, by God!

He looked up as thunder muttered and the squall line in the east swept closer. He wasn't going to finish today after all: best to stop at the end of this furrow and head home. 'Tasha would have supper waiting.

Pieter Tsuchevsky looked around the quiet room at his fellow Kadets. So this was how it felt to be a rebel. He'd never really wanted to be one. He doubted any of the others had. But it was inevitable for those who controlled the old government to call their opponents "rebels." He'd known that from the start, just as he'd known where his first public expressions of discontent might lead.

They'd led here-to the men and women who had declared themselves the new Duma of Novaya Rodina and stated their determination to withdraw from the Federation . . . not without fear and trembling. There was something almost holy about the Federation, but a government was only a government, and surely its function must be to make the lives of its people better, not worse. The purpose of an elective assembly couldn't be to murder its own members!

Pieter had never met Fionna MacTaggart, but he'd corresponded with her over the light-years, and even from her recorded messages he'd felt the intelligence and determination which had made her the Fringe's leader. Had she done her job too well? Was murder the fate small minds always reserved for great minds they could not silence? He didn't know, but from the morning the news arrived, he'd known the Federation was doomed. Anything that rotten at its core deserved to die, and die it would.

If only communications were less chaotic!

Novaya Rodina had been supplied with a relay system during the Fourth Interstellar War, but the system had been much more important to the rest of the Federation then. The planet's most famous son, Ivan Antonov, had commanded the Grand Alliance's fleets during the critical, early days of desperate resistance to the Arachnids, and a lot of Fringe systems had been tied into the net for purely military reasons. But the postwar Assembly had given maintaining the civilian relays a far lower precedence, especially after the Corporate Worlds began manipulating the Assembly so blatantly, and, one by one, the Fringer components had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Fleet communications continued to move with reasonable speed, but only the far slower courier drones remained to service the civilian-and political-needs of worlds like Novaya Rodina.

And even those drones had become notoriously unreliable since the Kontravian Mutiny. No doubt many nav beacons had been shut down or destroyed, but it went further than that. The Corporate Worlds handled a tremendous percentage of the total drone traffic, just as they monopolized the freight lanes. Almost certainly they were tampering with the drones to keep the "rebels" disorganized.

Well, if he were in their position, he would probably do the same. But in the meantime, it left him with the devil of a problem! He cleared his throat, and the eyes around the table returned to his face.

"So there you have it, comrades," he said slowly. "The Federation has declared martial law and suspended habeas corpus . . . among other rights. And we-you and I, my friends-we are all rebels." He shrugged. "For myself, I realized this must come, but possibly some of you did not. So it is only fair that we reconsider what we have done, I think. We've made our gesture, voiced our protest. Is that all we wish to do? If so, we'd best dispatch a courier drone with apologies and renewed protestations of loyalty at once! But if we don't, if we continue as we've begun to follow the lead of the Kontravians, God alone knows where we shall end."

"Pieter," Magda Petrovna stroked her prematurely silvering hair, "you say you knew this would come. Do you think we were all fools, Pieter Petrovich?" She smiled in gentle mockery. "How noble of you to give us a choice! But tell us-what will you do when we all run crying home to babushka Terra?"

A soft laugh ran around the table, and Pieter smiled unwillingly; but he also shook his head.

"This is no laughing matter, Magda. This is life and death. Oh, we hold the cities and universities, but the farmers and ranchers think we're mad. They won't raise a hand if it comes to a fight-and we've little chance of defeating the Federation if they would!"

"Mega shit!"

The tart remark could come only from one man, and Pieter's eyes twinkled as he turned to Semyon Jakov, the single megaovis rancher in their Duma. The old man's blue eyes were fiery as he puffed his walrus mustache, looking as fierce as one of his huge, vaguely sheeplike herdbeasts.

"No way we could beat the Federation, no," he snapped, "but we won't be fighting the Federation-only an Innerworld rump, and well you know it, Pieter Petrovich Tsuchevsky! And they won't even have the full Navy. Damnation, man, the Kontravians took a task force-a task force-in one snap! D'you honestly think they haven't lost more ships? I wouldn't be surprised to hear they've lost half the Fleet by now, Pieter!"

"True, Semyon, but Novaya Rodina is no Navy base. There were no ships for us to seize; it was pure luck Skywatch supported us. They could've blown our leaky old tubs out of space-and those are still the best ships we can scare up. No, Semyon Illyich, whatever the Kontravians may have taken, we can't fight what the Federation can send here."

"But why send anything?" Tatiana Illyushina asked plaintively. "We're not exactly the richest of the Fringe Worlds!"

"No, Tatiana," Magda said gently, "but we are what the Fleet manuals call a 'choke point.' "

The others listened carefully. Semyon Jakov had been a Marine for fifteen years, but Magda had reached the rank of captain in Frontier Fleet before resigning in protest over the Assembly's policies.

"A choke point?" Tatiana asked.

"An especially valuable warp nexus," Magda explained. "The way the warp lines lie, some systems control access to several others. The Corporate Worlds are mostly on early choke points of the Federation. That's why they're so powerful; every ship to the Heart Worlds has to go through choke points they control."

Tatiana nodded. When it came to the economic implications of the Corporate Worlds' galactic position, every Fringe schoolchild understood.

"Well, the same thing makes choke points militarily important," Magda said "If Novaya Rodina goes over to the Kontravians, we'll block a whole section of the Fringe off from the Federation; they'll have to take this system before they can attack the others. But if we remain loyal to the Federation, the Fleet will have several possible avenues of attack into Fringe space to choose from, you see?"

"But . . . but in that case, they're certain to come here-aren't they?" Tatiana asked very quietly.

"They are," Pieter told her gently, "and soon, I think. They wouldn't have sent this-" he waved the official message form gently "-if they didn't mean to back it up. There's some pretty stiff language in here; if they planned on talking us back into the Federation, they'd've taken a more flexible initial position."

"I agree," Semyon said harshly, "and I say-fuck 'em! Let them come! There's twenty million people on this planet. It'd take half the Corps to hold us down!"

"Except that only eight million or so of them are actively on our side," Pieter begun, but Magda interrupted.

"It doesn't matter anyway, Semyon Illyich," she said with an affectionate smile. "Just because you grunts spend your time crawling around in the mud doesn't mean the Fleet does! They don't care about planets, only warp points and the normal space between them."

"So? They still need someplace to base ships!"

"Certainly," Magda nodded, "but what if a monitor drops into orbit and zeros a few missiles on Novaya Petersburg? Or Novaya Smolensk? You think we shouldn't surrender to keep them from firing?"

"Well . . ."

"Exactly, you old cossack!" Magda punched the old man's arm lightly.

"Are you saying we should just give up?" Jakov demanded incredulously.

"Did I say that? Certainly not! We've already sent off our own drones, so the rest of the Fringe knows what's happening. I'm only saying that if it comes down to ultimatums, we'd better decide what we'll do ahead of time. I don't want to believe a TFN commander would fire on civilians; it goes against all we've been taught. But he might. And I want us to know now what we're going to say to him to keep any itchy finger off the button."

"So what you're saying, Magda," Pieter cut in pacifically, "is that we should continue as we have, possibly even to fighting in space, but that if it's a choice between bombardment and surrender, we should surrender?"

"Exactly." Magda's face was unusually grim. "I don't like it any more than you do, Pieter-or you Semyon. But what alternative do we have?"

"But what'll happen to us if we surrender?" Tatiana asked. "I don't mean the rest of our people, I mean us, right here in this room?"

"Hard to say," Magda said with a shrug. "There's never been a case like this, and it's not as if we're the only planet to secede. I'd think the government would have to follow a fairly lenient policy-especially with any of us 'rebels' who surrender-if they have any hope of ever healing the break. Unfortunately, we can't depend on that."

"They might execute us?" Tatiana asked faintly.

"They might," Magda agreed calmly. "Of course, even under martial law, any death sentence has to be confirmed by the civilian authorities. I'd think that confirmation would be unlikely."

"All right," Pieter said suddenly. "I propose a vote. All those in favor of declaring our immediate surrender?" There was no response, although several uneasy glances were exchanged. "All those in favor of continuing as we have but surrendering to avoid bombardment?" A chorus of affirmatives ran round the table. "Very well, the ayes have it."

Fedor Kazin watched the fields soak. Another day, at least, before he could resume plowing. Well, there were advantages to bad weather. Such as sitting with 'Tasha on a spring morning instead of bouncing around in his poorly sprung tractor. If only it weren't for those crazies in Novaya Petersburg! He had half a mind to go talk to them himself.

He frowned and glanced over at his wife. Maybe he should. After all, here he was cursing their stupidity, but had he done anything to change their minds? They might just not realize how others felt. And old Semyon Jakov was one of them . . . and Andrei Petrov's girl, Magda. They were good people. Maybe he could make them see reason?

Of course, 'Tasha would have a fit if he took himself off to the city and left her and the boys alone with the planting. On the other hand, if this madness wasn't settled, there wouldn't be a market come harvest, now would there? He filled his pipe with Orion tobacco (his one true luxury), and the pungent smoke curled up around his ears. Yes, the idea of going to Novaya Petersburg to confront the Duma . . . it definitely bore thinking on. . . .

Admiral Jason Waldeck, of the Chartiphon Waldecks, regarded his subordinates so coldly they shifted uneasily under his glare.

"I don't want to hear any more crap about poor misunderstood Fringers!" he snapped. "They're mutineers and traitors-and that's all! That bastard Skjorning should've been shot. Might've nipped the whole damned thing in the bud!"

His officers remained prudently silent. Admiral Waldeck had never been a good man to cross, and it was far more dangerous now. News of the Kontravian Mutiny was still threading its way through the Fleet, but one consequence of it was already clear: moderation was not in great demand among TFN commanders. Indeed, any "softness" might well be construed as treason by the angry (and frightened) cliques of "reliable" Innerworld admirals.

"I don't give a good goddamn why they're doing what they're doing," he grated. "We've got to stop them, and Fleet's shorthanded as hell after the mutinies, especially in capital units and carriers. Hell, we've lost so many pilots there won't even be fighter cover for most operations! So it's up to us-understood?"

"Yes, sir," his juniors murmured.

"Good. Now, I don't expect these hayseeds to put up much resistance, but if they try, I want some examples made."

" 'Examples,' sir?" one officer asked carefully.

"Yes, Captain Sherman-examples. If anyone wants to fight, let 'em. Don't give them a chance to surrender till you've burned a few bastards down."

"But, sir . . . why?"

"Because these traitors have to learn the hard way," Waldeck said grimly. "The Assembly's finally gotten its head out of its ass, and we're under military law now. That means my law. And I'm going to teach these proles a little lesson in obedience. Is that clear, gentlemen?"

It was clear. They might not much like it, but it was clear.

"All right, then, Commodore Hunter, here's your first objective."

The cursor in the chart tank settled on a warp nexus, and Commodore Hunter squinted at the tiny letters. "Novaya Rodina," they said.



DISASTER | Insurrection | * * *



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