IRONY OF POWER
Oskar Dieter blinked wearily and fingered the advance. The strains of a New Zurich waltz filled his office, but the soft music was at grim variance with the data on his screen, and he sighed and leaned back, pinching his nose and trying to shake himself back to a semblance of freshness.
It was hard. Catastrophe had followed disaster with monotonous regularity for months, and in his nightmares endless trains of courier drones whizzed towards Sol, packed with tidings of fresh calamity.
What was happening in the Fringe was bad enough, but affairs on Old Terra were little better. The Assembly had been stunned by the Taliaferro suicide, but not Dieter. His fellow Gallowayans might put it down to grief over the Jamieson Archipelago-which was a tragedy of staggering proportions-but Dieter knew better. Understanding, the terrible realization that the "game" had become real, had driven Simon's hand. Dieter almost pitied him . . . but only almost, and his face hardened as he wondered yet again how many others would die before the madness ended.
Yet Taliaferro's death only compounded the Federation's plight. His had been the dominating presence behind the Corporate World bloc for over thirty years, and now that superbly engineered machine was flailing itself to destruction . . . and threatening to take the Federation with it. The desperate survivors were haunted by guilt they could not admit even to themselves and terrified of its consequences. The succession battle was the most vicious Dieter had ever seen, yet whoever finally won would inherit only a corpse.
It wouldn't be very much longer before the ground swell of public opinion rolled over the politicos. Already the first combers were crashing through the Chamber of Worlds; a few more disasters, and it would become impossible for them to cling to power, and-
His communicator chimed, and he reached automatically for the button, eyes narrowing as he recognized the neatly groomed face of Oliver Fuchs, President Zhi's executive secretary.
"Good morning, Mister Dieter," Fuchs said politely. "Would it be convenient for you to meet with the President in his office this evening? At eighteen hundred, perhaps?"
"Why, of course, Mister Fuchs," Dieter replied slowly, and his thoughts raced. "Ah, might I ask what the President desires?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but he wishes to explain that to you himself," Fuchs said with a pleasantly diffident smile.
"I see," Dieter said even more slowly. "Very well, Mister Fuchs. I'll look forward to asking him in person."
"Thank you, sir. I'll tell him to expect you," Fuchs said, and the screen blanked.
Dieter sat and stared at it for a long, long time, and his mind was busy.
Fuchs was waiting in the Anderson House foyer when Dieter arrived at the presidential residence at 17:45. He whisked the visitor into an elevator with the skill of a veteran maitre d' and filled the short ascent with utterly inconsequential small talk, but Dieter noted a strange intensity in the secretary's eyes. Curiosity, or evaluation, perhaps. Whatever it was, it only added to the tension hovering within him.
The elevator deposited them outside Zhi's office, and Fuchs opened the old-fashioned manual doors and stood aside, waving him through, then closed them quietly behind him.
The office was a large room-huge, by Innerworld standards-furnished with all the sumptuous luxury due the Federation's head of state. To be sure, the power of the man who occupied it had waned over the decades, but the trappings of authority remained. And they weren't entirely a facade, Dieter reminded himself. Prime ministers came and went, but the president provided the state's stability, and he still represented the popular choice of the majority of the Federation's myriad citizens.
But Dieter had been here before, and his attention was not on the rich carpets and indirect lighting. It was drawn inevitably to the cluster of people sitting around the President's desk.
Zhi himself was a small man, shorter even than Dieter, though more sturdily built. He rose as Dieter approached, and his handclasp was firm, but his face bore the stigmata of strain.
"Mister Dieter," he said. "Thank you for coming."
"Mister President," Dieter returned noncommittally, glancing at the others, and Zhi smiled wryly.
"I believe you know most of these people, Mister Dieter," he murmured, and Dieter nodded, then bowed slightly to the group, his mind whirring with speculation.
Sky Marshal Lech Witcinski, commander-in-chief of the Terran military, responded with a curt nod, half-raising his burly body from his chair. His uniform was immaculate, and his blunt, hard features showed surprisingly little sign of the tremendous strain focused upon him.
Not so the man seated beside him. David Haley had aged appreciably in the past weeks, but his smile of welcome was far warmer than it once had been.
Dieter returned it in kind, then raised an eyebrow at the sharp-eyed man at the Speaker's left. Kevin Sanders, he thought musingly. Admiral Kevin Sanders, retired, one-time head of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Now wasn't he an interesting addition to this gathering? Even seated, Sanders managed to exude a sense of mingled composure and agility, like a lean, gray tomcat, and his amused eyes gleamed as if he could read Dieter's mind. And perhaps he could. Far more esoteric powers had been ascribed to him during his career.
The single person Dieter didn't know wore the space-black and silver of a vice admiral, and he felt a stir of admiration as he looked at her. Long, platinum hair rippled over her shoulders, and her eyes were a deep, almost indigo blue. She was certainly the most attractive flag officer he'd ever seen, he thought wryly, and held out his hand to her.
"Good evening, Admiral-?"
"Krupskaya, Mister Dieter," she said in a soft, clear voice. "Susan Krupskaya."
"Enchanted," he murmured, raising her hand briefly to his lips, and her own lips quivered in an amused smile.
"Well, then," Zhi said briskly, reclaiming Dieter's attention and waving him to a chair, "to business."
"Of course, Mister President. My time is yours," Dieter said, seating himself, and Zhi's sardonic smile surprised him.
"In more ways than you may suspect, Mister Dieter," he said softly, and Dieter's eyebrows crooked politely.
"I beg your pardon?" he said, but Zhi didn't respond directly. Instead he nodded to David Haley.
"Mister Dieter-Oskar-" the Speaker said, "I'm afraid we have you at a bit of a disadvantage. You see, the Minh Government has resigned."
Dieter managed to hide his surprise-barely. The government had fallen? Why hadn't he already heard? And how in the Galaxy had they kept the press from finding out?
"It won't be announced at once," Haley continued, "because, under the circumstances, it seems vital to follow the news with the immediate announcement of the formation of a new government." Dieter nodded. The last thing they needed was a prolonged ministerial crisis.
"Which brings us to you, Mister Dieter." President Zhi took over once more. "You see, when I asked Prime Minister Minh and Speaker Haley to recommend a successor to form a new government, they both suggested the same man: you."
This time Dieter's surprise was too great. His jaw dropped, and he stared at Zhi in disbelief. Him? He was a pariah, repudiated by his own long-time allies! They couldn't be serious!
"Mister President," he said finally. "I-I don't know what to say. I'm honored, but-"
"Indulge me a moment, Mister Dieter," Zhi said quietly. "Officially, I'm not supposed to have opinions in these matters, but, to speak frankly, there are no other choices. You, more than most, are aware that the Minh Government has been totally discredited. Indeed, the situation is worse even than you know, but the critical point-politically speaking-is that anyone else is unacceptable. To put it bluntly, Simon Taliaferro's associates are all tainted by their support of his policies, yet they remain a very potent force in the Chamber of Worlds. If we're to find an alternative to one of them, it must be someone who can gather support from both the Assembly moderates and the public. Someone like you."
"But, Mister President! I-"
"Oskar," Haley cut back in, "think a moment. You're a Corporate Worlder, yet you openly opposed Taliaferro's excesses. The Corporate World moderates will follow your lead, and so will the Heart World liberals. That gives you a power base, and the Taliaferro crowd can't very well oppose you without refocusing attention on their own mistakes."
"And, Mister Dieter," Witcinski put in, "you enjoy the support of the military." Dieter looked at him in astonishment, and the sky marshal shrugged. "I know. That's not supposed to be a factor, but we all know it will be. Your position on the Military Oversight Committee gives you a background knowledge which may be invaluable. And, if I may speak completely candidly, the Fleet views you as a moderate. As Prime Minister, you'd be tremendously reassuring to the bulk of the officer corps."
"But," Zhi said warningly, "that same reputation is a two-edged sword. You are a moderate, and we need moderates, but we have a war on our hands. If you accept this office, you'll have to demonstrate that you're a war leader, as well."
"And how would I be expected to do that?" Dieter asked, eyes narrowing.
"By forming an all-parties cabinet," Haley said quietly, and Dieter nodded slowly.
Of course. Minh's government was associated solely with the extreme Corporate World interests, which was why it had to go. But its replacement must command broad support, and the only way to do that would be to combine all elements. Part of him quailed at the thought of exerting mastery over such a disparate gathering of interests, but he understood. And he was beginning to see why Zhi had turned to him.
"Mister President," he said finally, "why did the government resign at this particular moment? May I assume Admiral Sanders' presence has some bearing on that point?"
"You may," Zhi said heavily. He tugged at an earlobe and frowned. "I've asked Admiral Sanders to return from retirement and reassume direction of the Office of Naval Intelligence."
Dieter nodded mentally; he'd suspected as much. Whatever the immediate cause of the secession, the speed with which the Fringe had closed ranks behind the Kontravians spoke volumes for the degree of clandestine communication which must have been established long since among the Outworld governments. Yet no whisper of any of it had reached the Assembly, which pointed to a massive intelligence failure.
"I see." He regarded Sanders thoughtfully. "In that case, with your permission, Mister President, I'd like to ask Admiral Sanders a few questions before I give you my decision."
"I assumed you would. That's why I arranged to have the military represented," Zhi said dryly, waving a hand to proceed.
"Thank you. Admiral, I suspect the situation is even worse than most of my colleagues realize. Am I correct?"
"That depends, Mister Dieter," Sanders said carefully, "on just how bad they think it is. Off the cuff, however, I would have to say yes."
"Enlighten me, if you please."
"All right." Sanders eyed him measuringly. "Sky Marshal Witcinski could probably give you better figures on precise Fleet losses, but ONI estimates that in addition to TF Seventeen, at least fifteen percent of Battle Fleet has gone over to the rebels. Many additional units in Innerworld space have mutinied and attempted to join them, but we've been able to stop most of them. The cost in loyal units-" he met Dieter's eyes levelly, and Dieter felt an inner chill "-has been high.
"At the same time," he went on even more dispassionately, "we don't really know what's happened to Frontier Fleet. No drones are getting through to us from any of our bases in the Fringe, which, since the rebels control the intervening warp points and Fleet relays, may or may not mean they've changed sides. On a worst-case basis, we're estimating the loss of at least ninety percent of Frontier Fleet."
Dieter was staggered, though he tried to hide it.
"Fortunately," Sanders continued, "our large Innerworld bases have remained loyal and the rebels have to set up their command structure from scratch, which gives us time to activate the Reserve while they get themselves organized. On the whole, and given the greater mass of Battle Fleet's capital units, the tonnage balance probably favors the rebels by as much as thirty percent, but the ratio of firepower is a bit in our favor when Fortress Command is allowed for."
"I see. And Zephrain RDS?"
"Unknown, Mister Dieter," Sanders admitted. "The only hopeful news is that one of our Battle Fleet battlegroups may have gotten through to it."
"May?" Dieter asked sharply.
"May. Vice Admiral Trevayne's BG Thirty-Two was cut off at Osterman's Star when the mutinies began, and we've received an official Orion complaint of a TFN border violation at Sulzan, about four transits from there. In all probability, that was Trevayne, and if it was, and if he managed to avoid internment, and if the Orion district governor at Rehfrak was willing to let a force that powerful pass through his bailiwick, then he may have reached Zephrain. Unfortunately, the Orions have since closed their borders completely. Any sort of confirmation from them will be a long time coming."
Sanders shrugged, and Dieter nodded again. He'd met Ian Trevayne exactly once, when he appeared before the Oversight Committee, but the incisive man he remembered just might have taken a chance on violating Orion space . . . and he would have known exactly how important Zephrain was.
"But that's only the present situation," Witcinski said, breaking the brief silence. "It doesn't address the future."
"No," Sanders agreed, "and that's really Susan's area."
He nodded to Krupskaya, and her dark blue eyes met Dieter's as she took her cue.
"As you know," she said, "the Innerworlds have a tremendous industrial advantage over the Fringe, but more than seventy percent of all our warships came from Galloway's World."
Dieter felt his nerves tighten. He'd known this was coming, but that made it no more palatable.
"The Jamieson Archipelago attack may have been a mistake, politically speaking," Krupskaya continued, "since its 'barbarism' has generated such widespread shock and repugnance among the Innerworlds, but militarily it was brilliant. They knocked out more than ninety percent of the civilian yards as well as the Yard and all Reserve units mothballed there. We estimate that it would take two or three years for the rebels to set up any substantial yard capacity of their own, but we need time to rebuild Galloway's World. We can put the facilities there back into service faster than we could build new yards and their infrastructure on other planets, but it will be at least eighteen months-more probably two years-before we can even begin laying down new ships there.
"Which means, Mister Dieter, that-assuming the rebels have seized most of our bases in the Fringe-our current building capacity gives us no more than a twenty percent advantage over them. We believe we can expand existing yards faster than they can build new ones, but for the foreseeable future we're going to have to be very, very careful about risking losses, particularly, in light of their long construction times, among our heavy units."
"I see," Dieter said again, and another silence fell. God, it was even worse than he'd feared.
"But you asked why the government resigned," Zhi said finally. "Beyond the obvious erosion of its majority-of which, I'm sure, you are aware-and general military situation, we've suffered yet another reverse."
Dieter wondered if he really wanted to hear any more bad news, but he nodded for Zhi to continue. Yet it was Witcinski who took over again.
"This morning, we received a message from Admiral Pritzcowitski at Cimmaron," he said. "He and Admiral Waldeck had initiated local operations to suppress the rebellion in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, their first effort, directed against Novaya Rodina with light units, was badly defeated by some sort of jury-rigged defensive force. Admiral Waldeck proceeded at once with his entire task force to retrieve the situation. As of the time Admiral Pritzcowitzki's message was dispatched, Admiral Waldeck's next scheduled report was seventy-two hours overdue."
Dieter closed his eyes. It got worse and worse. No wonder Minh had resigned! When the Assembly learned all that he'd just learned, Minh would be lucky to escape impeachment.
"So that's the situation, Oskar," Haley said quietly. "We've had our differences, but I hope you know how much I've admired you in the past few months-and that I hate to ask this of you. But we need you."
Dieter didn't even open his eyes, and behind his lids he saw every agonizing step which had led him and the Federation to this pass. The military position was grimmer than even he had feared, and he knew how the Assembly would react when they discovered the truth. The existing fury over the "sneak attack" and "massacre" at Galloway's World would mix with panic. The war fervor which already gripped the Innerworlds would intensify rather than ease as they drew together in the face of danger-and so would the extremity of the Federation's war aims.
If he accepted Zhi's request and formed a government, it would be a war government. It could be nothing else, and he would have to prove his own determination to achieve victory or go the way Minh had already gone. It would be the final, bitter irony of the political odyssey he'd begun when he broke with Simon. He, who had thrown away his career in an effort to preserve the peace, would be elevated to the highest office of the Assembly and charged with fighting the very war he'd tried to prevent!
"I realize we're asking you to make bricks with a very limited supply of straw, Mister Dieter," Zhi said, even more quietly than Haley, "but Speaker Haley is right. We need you. The Federation needs you-as the one man who may be able to form a stable government and as the one prime minister who may be able to control the extremism already rampant in the Assembly."
Dieter winced, for that was the argument he'd most feared to face. Zhi's violation of the president's traditional neutrality in such matters only underscored the point; if any of Taliaferro's old associates took the premiership, any chance for moderation would vanish . . . and he still had not paid his debt to Fionna.
He drew a deep breath. His wildest dreams had never included becoming prime minister-and certainly never like this! And yet, ironic as it was, he had no choice. He opened his eyes and looked at President Zhi.
"Very well, Mister President," he sighed. "I'll try."