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"Novaya Rodina, eh?" Ladislaus Skjorning watched the blue and white planet as the crew of the TFNS Howard Anderson brought their ship into orbit. "I take it you're finding this a strange spot for a convention of traitors, Admiral Ashigara?"

His eyes touched briefly upon the empty right cuff of the woman standing beside him. Analiese Ashigara was every bit as taciturn and unyielding as her severe exterior and precise Standard English suggested, but he felt a strange kinship for the hawk-faced woman with the almond eyes and white-streaked hair who'd given a hand for her beliefs.

"I would have expected the convention to convene on Beaufort," she said calmly. "Beaufort is, after all, the home of the rebellion." It was like her, Ladislaus thought wryly, that she never resorted to euphemisms.

"Aye, I can see why you might be thinking that, but Beaufort is too far from the frontiers. We've no command structure at all the now, and until we've had the creating of one, we're to need the shortest courier drone routes we can be finding. Novaya Rodina's well located for that."

"Yes, I can see that. But I think perhaps there is more to it than that, Mister Skjorning."

"Aye, there is. As you've said, Beaufort's to be a logical place-if it were a Kontravian rebellion we're after having. But we're after making this a Fringe-wide movement, so holding our convention somewhere else should be helping along a sense of unity, you see. I've the thinking it's Beaufort's to be the capitol of whatever it is we're to have the building of, but it's not the place to be declaring what we are."

"That seems sensible," Ashigara said, nodding slowly.

"Aye. But there's to be another reason. Have you had the hearing of the term 'bloody shirt,' Admiral Ashigara?"

" 'Bloody Shirt'? No, Mister Skjorning, I cannot say that I have."

"It's to be an old Terran political term, Admiral, and what it's to mean is appealing to emotions on the basis of lost lives and hatred." Ladislaus' face was grim. "It's not a tactic I'm proud to be using, but it works; and Novaya Rodina's after being the best place to be doing it."

Analiese Ashigara shook her head slowly. "I am more happy than ever to be a simple Fleet commander, Mister Skjorning. My mind does not work the way this business of creating a government appears to require."

"Don't be feeling any loss over it," Ladislaus said very quietly. "It's not to be something I ever thought to have the doing of, either."

He fell silent, watching the planet a moment longer, then left the bridge, and Admiral Ashigara turned her attention to the final approach maneuvers of her undermanned task force. No, she thought. She did not envy Ladislaus Skjorning at all.

The horde of delegates crowded the huge auditorium, their rumbling voices filling it like a solid presence, and the surviving Duma stood behind Ladislaus on the stage, surveying their visitors with slightly dazed eyes.

Magda Petrovna stood at his elbow, her mobile face quite still. Only Ladislaus knew she intended to resign from the Duma to accept a commission in whatever they were going to call their navy, and only Magda sensed how much he envied her freedom to do just that. But it wasn't freedom for her; it was flight.

She knew her own strengths: a flair for organization, levelheadedness, moral courage, and compassion. But she also knew her weaknesses: blunt-spokenness, a tendency towards autocracy with those unable to keep up with her thoughts, and a well-developed capacity for hatred, and she felt that hate within her now, though few of her friends saw it or recognized it as the inevitable by-product of her compassion.

She'd been able to accept her own sentence of death, but not the brutality of Pieter's murder. Not the cruelty which had nearly snapped Tatiana Illyushina's sanity. That had been too much, yet as long as she'd believed only Waldeck's madness was responsible, she'd maintained a degree of detachment.

But then the provisional government had found the special instructions from the Assembly in his safe.

Waldeck need not have acted on them, but giving men like him such an option was like giving a vicious child a charged laser, and she would never forget that the Assembly had done so. She would never be able to flush the hatred from her mind if ever she must deal with that government. Besides-she felt herself smile affectionately-there was a better choice to head the Duma now. Well, two, perhaps, but Fedor would kill himself first! No, only one person had emerged from the day of the riots as Pieter's true successor, and that person was Tatiana Illyushina.

Magda glanced at the slim young woman. Daughter of one of Novaya Rodina's very few wealthy families, Tatiana had never faced the hard side of life before the rebellion. Then the earthquake shocks had come hard and fast, but Tatiana, to her own unending surprise, had met them all. Her oval face was still as beautiful, she looked as much like a teenaged child as ever, but there was flint behind those blue eyes now. Flint and something else, something almost like Magda's own compassion, but not quite.

But now, as acting Duma President, Magda had been granted a unique moment in history, and she stepped up to the lectern at Ladislaus' tiny nod. She drew a deep breath, and her gavel cracked on the wooden rest under the microphone. The sound echoed through the auditorium.

"The first session of this convention of the provisional governments of the Fringe will come to order," she said.

"Well, Ladislaus, what do you think?" Magda refilled their vodka glasses and hid a smile as he picked his up cautiously. "Will it work?"

"Aye, I'm thinking it will." Ladislaus sipped his second glass far more slowly as Magda threw back her own in approved Novaya Rodinan fashion. "It's not as if any of us have the thinking we can go back again."

He looked meaningfully around the small gathering of the Convention's crucial leaders.

"But it doesn't necessarily follow we can act together," Tatiana said. "Agreeing to hate the Corporate Worlds, yes." She smiled tightly. "But we're all so different! What else do we have in common?"

"Don't be underestimating the strength of hate, Ms. Illyushina." Ladislaus' answering smile was bleak. "But that's not all we're to be having. I'm thinking we're to have a better understanding of what the Federation is supposed to be than the Rump has. We're agreed in that."

"True." Magda's cold voice raised eyebrows, but she leashed her rage and leaned back. Then she laughed. "Has it occurred to anyone else that we're not the radicals? We're the conservatives-they're the ones who've played fast and loose with the Constitution for over a century!"

"Aye, so Fionna had the saying, often enough," Ladislaus nodded. "And we've no hope of building something really new-not in the time we're to have. So it's something old we must be building on."

"So that's why you brought this along," Li Kai-lun mused, tapping the sheets of facsimile on the table and nodding slowly. His reaction pleased Ladislaus. Hangchow's diminutive chief convention delegate was not only her planetary president but a retired admiral, as well. His support-political and military-would be literally priceless in the weeks ahead.

"Aye." Ladislaus ran a fingertip over the ancient lettering. "It's a federal system we're needing, Kai-lun. Centralization was the Corporate Worlds real error. It's to give the government the most power, but it's to concentrate too much authority in one place-and even with relays, slow communications are to make it clumsy in responding to crises . . . or people."

"Agreed," Li said, then smiled. "And at least this constitution's got a good track record. If I remember my history, the United States did quite well for itself before the Great Eastern War."

". . . and if fight we must, let it be under a common standard! I move to appoint a committee to select a suitable device for our battle flags."

The stocky delegate from Lancelot swirled the brilliant cloak of his hereditary rank and sat, and Magda sighed. She found the barons and earls of Durandel rather wearing, but he might have a point-even if he was inclined towards purple prose.

"Very well. It has been moved that we appoint a committee to design a flag for our new star nation," she said. "Is there a second?"

"I second the motion, Ms. Chairman." Magda blinked as Li Kai-lun spoke up. Now why was he supporting a motion which could only waste precious time and energy? She shrugged mentally. Undoubtedly he had a reason.

"Very well. It has been moved and seconded that we appoint a committee to design a flag. All those in favor?" A rumble of "Ayes" answered. "Opposed?" There was not a sound. "The motion is carried. Mister Li, would you be so kind as to take charge of the matter?"

"Of course, Ms. Chairman."

"Good. Now, to return to our agenda. . . ."

"But why, Ladislaus?" Tatiana demanded. "We have so many other things to do, why waste time designing a flag, of all things?"

"Well," Ladislaus rumbled, "you might be noticing who Kai-lun had the recruiting of for his committee."

"What? Who?" Tatiana asked, but Magda laughed suddenly.

"Now I understand! Very neat, Lad! And how did you put Baron de Bertholet up to it?"

"Jean de Bertholet isn't after being the worst sort, Magda. It's on our side he is, and he understands entirely."

"Well I don't," Tatiana said.

"You would if you'd seen the membership of that committee," Magda chuckled. "Between them, Lad and Kai-lun have shunted most of the 'noblemen' in the Convention off to a harmless flag-designing mission."

"Aye," Ladislaus nodded. "Not that I really think they're after creating a new hereditary aristocracy for us all, but it's not to be hurting a thing to be certain of it when the Constitution's debated, now is it?"

"Ladislaus," Tatiana said sternly, "you're an underhanded, devious man."

"Aye," Ladislaus agreed calmly. "That I am."

"Ladislaus," Magda said, "I'd like you to meet Rupert M'tana."

Ladislaus looked up from his paperwork and frowned at the dark-skinned officer. M'tana returned an equally measuring look, and Ladislaus propped one elbow on a chair arm.

"Captain M'tana," he rumbled thoughtfully, "you're to be the senior prisoner, I'm thinking?"

"Yes, sir. I was Admiral Waldeck's flag captain."

"I see." Ladislaus' lips twisted in distaste despite himself.

"Just a moment, Lad," Magda said quietly. "I think, perhaps, you don't entirely understand. At the time of Pieter's execution, Waldeck had placed Captain M'tana under close arrest."

"Aye?" Ladislaus' blue eyes returned to M'tana's face, even more thoughtful now. "And why might that have been, Captain?"

"I . . . disagreed with his decision, Mister Skjorning."

"I see," Ladislaus said in an entirely different tone. He waved at two chairs and M'tana and Magda sank into them. "I've memory enough of my time in the Fleet to be understanding how far you must have pushed him, Captain. But, if I may have the asking, what's to be bringing you here?"

"The captain has a suggestion, Lad-a good one, I think," Magda said. "He approached me with it because we're both Navy or ex-Navy and we've come to know one another pretty well."

"Ah?" Ladislaus cocked a bushy eyebrow. "And just what is it you and the captain are after cooking up here, Magda?"

"It's like this, Lad. Like Beaufort, we had a number of . . . friends in various places in the Innerworlds. We spent years cultivating that network, but now that actual fighting's begun, we're cut off from it."

"Aye," Ladislaus nodded. "We're to have the same problem at Beaufort."

"Right. Well, Captain M'tana may have come up with a way to put part of our network back on line."

"Have you, now?" Ladislaus bent a hard look on M'tana. The captain shifted slightly in his chair but met it unflinchingly.

"Yes, sir. Understand something, Mister Skjorning. I'm an Innerworlder-a Heart Worlder-but when my people settled Xhosa, they didn't exactly do so completely voluntarily. I think we knew something about oppression, then, but we've forgotten since. We should have remembered, and that means we have a responsibility here. I don't want to see the Federation torn apart; in that respect, at least, you and I will never agree. But what I want and what's going to happen are two different things. There's no way to paper over the cracks this time-too much blood's already been shed.

"So as I see it, I can either join my fellow prisoners in refusing to give you any aid while we wait hopefully for repatriation and-with luck-another chance to contribute to the killing, or I can help you people. Not because I love your rebellion-I don't-but because the sooner the Federation realizes it can't win even if it defeats you militarily, the better."

"I see." Ladislaus grinned slowly. "Captain, I've the thinking I'm to like you-and I'm betting that's not to matter a solitary damn to you. But you've the right. It has gone too far for healing. So how is it you're to be helping?"

"What Captain M'tana suggested to me," Magda said, "ties in with our plans to allow correspondence between prisoners and their families. We'll give him the codes and address of our contact on Xhosa and his 'letters home' will reopen our best conduit."

Ladislaus studied M'tana's face, seeking some sign of treachery, any intent to betray. He saw exactly nothing.

"You're to have the knowing, Captain," he said quietly, "of the penalty if the Federation is ever to be finding out about this?"

"I do," M'tana said flatly. "But I know-now-what the Assembly's done to you people, and my oath is to the Federation, not just its government. If I can help shorten the war and reduce the killing, I have to do it. Besides-" he looked uncomfortable "-I don't enjoy killing Terrans, Mister Skjorning, not even ones who are technically traitors."

"I see," Ladislaus said yet again. Then he added slowly. "Let's have the discussing of the details, then, Captain. . . ."

Stanislaus Skjorning waited patiently as the armed guard checked his ID. Some of the brand new Republic's citizens were already muttering darkly about "imperial trappings" and "new aristocracies," but for most, the memory of Fionna MacTaggart's assassination was still too recent, too raw. And here on Novaya Rodina, there was the Tsuchevsky murder, as well. Like Stanislaus, most people were more than willing to put up with armed security and ID checks to prevent still more murders.

"Thank you, Lieutenant." The guard handed his ID folio back. She wore the uniform of a Federation Peaceforcer, but the Federation patch had been removed from the right shoulder and replaced with the plain, unrelieved black shield Novaya Rondina had adopted in memory of Pieter Tsuchevsky. "The President is expecting you."

"Thank you, Sergeant." Although Stanislaus had left the Beaufort System only three times in his entire life before this trip, his deep voice carried only a hint of his older brother's famous accent. Of course, he had less need to make a statement about who he was than Lad did these days.

"The elevator is through the foyer and to your left," the Peaceforcer said helpfully, pressing the button to open the powered door. "And," she smiled faintly, "inside security's got us on visual now. You're cleared all the way through to the dining room."

"Thank you," he repeated with another smile, and stepped through the open door.

The elevator delivered him quickly and smoothly to the eighth floor of what had been Novaya Petersburg's best hotel. Of late, the Sherevenko Arms had been renamed "Convention Hall," and its suites were packed to the bursting point with delegates from other worlds. The staff had taken it in stride and was managing-somehow-to maintain the Sherevenko's reputation for attentive service, but he noticed raw fiber optic cable runs running along the tops of the corridors' panelled walls. The Constitutional Convention's technicians had been busy upgrading the hotel's communications systems for over two weeks now.

Another guard glanced at him alertly as he approached the dining room door, but the sentry only nodded as he stepped past, and Stanislaus' lips quirked in a wry smile. He wasn't exactly the hardest person in the galaxy to recognize, he supposed. Like Ladislaus, he had the Skjorning nose, and he was a good six centimeters taller than even his brother.

"Stanislaus!" Ladiuslaus Skjorning rose with a smile as his brother entered the private dining room. He walked around the table to shake hands, then threw both arms around Stanislaus in a bear hug. "Father wrote me you were to be coming, but his wording never said you were to be here this quickly!"

"My orders came through sooner than expected," Stanislaus said, hugging back. He clapped his older brother on the back, then stood back, hands on Ladislaus' shoulder and examined his face carefully.

"You're to be looking more worn than I'm liking, Lad," he said quietly.

"Aye?" Ladislaus' smile went crooked, and he shrugged. "I've the hearing there's to be a lot of that going about these days. And will be, for quite a while, I'm to be thinking."

He started to say something else, then changed his mind with another shrug and turned Stanislaus to face the other two guests sitting at the table. "Stanislaus, be known to President Li Kai-lun of Hangchow and to Ms. Tatiana Illyushina, President of the Duma. Kai-lun, Tatiana, this is to be my baby brother."

"It must be something in the Beaufort water," President Li murmured, gazing up at Stanislaus' towering centimeters as he shook hands. "But how do you all avoid nosebleeds at that altitude, Ladislaus?"

"Pay no attention to him, Lieutenant Skjorning," Illyushina said sternly as she shook hands in turn. "He's been making sizeist remarks ever since he arrived."

"Has he, now?" Stanislaus' smile broadened as he took in the Duma president's blue-eyed beauty. "Well, it's used to it we are, the both of us. I've the thinking that envy can be an ugly thing."

Li laughed, and Ladislaus shook a finger at his brother.

"You'll not be setting my diplomatic efforts back that way, Stanislaus. Even if it is to be truthful you are!"

"That's all right, Lad," Li said, dark eyes glinting wickedly. "I know something the lieutenant doesn't. And, secure in my secret information, I intend to await his well-deserved comeuppance with gleeful anticipation."

"You do, do you?" Illyushina looked at Li speculatively. "And what sort of 'secret information' would that be?"

"If I told you, it wouldn't be secret anymore, would it?" Li said smugly.

"I tried, Lieutenant!" she told Stanislaus with a chuckle, "but I'm afraid he was too smart for us."

"Well, as to that," the corners of Stanislaus' eyes crinkled with amusement as he smiled down at her, "I wouldn't be so very sure he really is to know something I'm not." He shook his head, then looked back at Li. "I've already gotten my orders, Mr. President," he said, Beaufort accent vanishing completely.

"Drat," Li said comfortably.

"Orders?" Ladislaus repeated, looking at Stanislaus speculatively as he waved his brother into a chair between his own and Illyushina's.

"Aye." Stanislaus settled a bit carefully into the chair. Furniture on most worlds wasn't built with the bulk of a Skjorning in mind . . . as he had already rather abruptly discovered since his arrival on Novaya Rodina.

"What President Li meant," he continued as the chair creaked but stood up manfully to the strain, "is that I've been assigned to the Marine detachment aboard Longbow."

"You have?" Illyushina frowned. "But you just got here, didn't you?"

"This morning," Stanislaus agreed, unfolding his napkin and draping it across his lap. "From what they tell me, though, the Navy's been raiding the crews which came over more or less intact for cadre for other units. Which means they have to find replacements for the transfers somewhere."

"Then I'm thinking they'll just have to be making do with such as you, and a sad thing it's to be, too," Ladislaus sighed, but there was a twinkle in his eye.

In fact, Stanislaus had held a captain's commission in the Beaufort Peaceforce, and one of his few trips off world had been to spend eighteen months on active duty as a Federation Marine as part of his training. Where, as Laidislaus knew perfectly well, he had received glowing evaluations from all of his superiors and promises of rapid promotion if he would accept a regular Marine commission.

"Aye," Stanislaus agreed mournfully. "Still," he brightened visibly, "I understand Captain Li runs a taut ship. She won't let anyone pick on me, I'm sure."

"Oh, of course not!" President Li agreed.

"Well, if it's assigned so quickly you're to be, the more reason for us to be snatching what time together we can," Ladislaus said more seriously. "How long are you to be having before reporting?"

"Longbow's out on maneuvers at the moment," Stanislaus said. "I understand she's due back in sometime the day after tomorrow, and I'm to report on board when she enters orbit again."

"That isn't very long," Illyushina observed. Stanislaus looked at her, and she shrugged. "I mean, you won't have time to see much of my planet before they drag you back off it again, Lieutenant."

"Aye," Stanislaus said, and sighed gustily. "Still and all, I'm to be thinking as how, with time to be so short and all, it might be more of it I could be seeing with a local guide to be showing it to me." He looked earnestly at the head of Novaya Rodina's government. "Would you be knowing where I might be finding such, Ms. Illyushina?"

"Well, Chang?" Commodore Li Han tipped back her chair in Longbow's briefing room as she regarded her chief of staff. Commander Robert Tomanaga, her new battlegroup operations officer, sat beside Tsing, and the pair of them were flanked by Lieutenant Commander Esther Kane and Lieutenant David Reznick, Han's staff astrogator and electronics officer.

"Commander Tomanaga and I have gone over the Fleet ops plan, sir," Tsing replied. "We'll know better after we run it on the tac simulator, but for now, it looks solid."

"You agree, Commander?" Han turned her eyes to Tomanaga.

"Yes, sir. Oh, we could use more weight of metal, but quality counts more than quantity." He grinned, and Han frowned mentally, bothered by his brashness and wondering if her worry was justified. Tomanaga was certainly qualified on paper; but all of her staff officers were qualified "on paper," with no real experience in their new positions. Nor did she have any, and with an inexperienced staff under a commodore who was herself as green as grass . . . She hid a shudder and nodded calmly.

"Run it down for us, Commander," she said.

"Yes, sir. First, I'd like to put our own operation in perspective to the overall situation. Our operational problems are complicated enough, but we think the Rump's are worse. So far, about seventy percent of Frontier Fleet has come over or been taken by our units, and it looks like we've got about twenty percent of Battle Fleet, too, but our forces are scattered all over the Fringe. With only drones for communication, concentrating them for operations is going to take time and, for the immediate future, our units here at Novaya Rodina constitute Admiral Ashigara's full disposable strength."

Han stifled an urge to hurry him up. There was time, and it was better to be sure her entire staff understood Fleet HQ's viewpoint.

"Admiral Ashigara's intelligence people estimate that the Rump has suffered losses we don't know about, and that fighter losses have probably been extremely high because so many fighter jocks were Fringers. That's a bit speculative, sir, but it matches our own experience. At any rate, the Rump is undoubtedly strapped for striking forces, but has the advantage of an intact command, better communications, and the interior position; they can move what they have from point to point faster than we can shift around the periphery.

"Our own immediate strategic need is to secure our frontiers before the Rump begins to recover, for which purpose Fleet plans a series of attacks on choke points. Our own operation against Cimmaron will cut off four separate Rump axes of attack,"

He touched his panel, and the briefing room lights died. A hologram appeared over the table, and light from the tangled warp lines glittered briefly in his eyes as he picked up a pointer.

"Here's Cimmaron," he touched a tiny light dot. "Only two transits away via Redwing, but Redwing's covered by The Line. The forts are cut off now, but Fleet prefers to isolate them rather than attack them."

Han felt a mental nod circle the table. No one wanted to tangle with those forts.

"So," Tomanaga went on, "we'll go from Novaya Rodina to Donwaltz-" his pointer hopped from star to star as he spoke "-to MXL-23 to Lassa to Aklumar to Cimmaron-a much longer route, but one we own as far as Aklumar. Because of its length, we're going in with only carriers, battlecruisers, and light units, since battle-line units would slow us by thirty percent. On the other hand, there are no fortifications at Aklumar-thanks to the Treaty of Tycho-and they won't know we're coming, so we ought to retain the advantage of surprise until the moment we hit Cimmaron."

He laid the pointer aside and brought the light back up.

"Our best analysis of the defense is a guess," he admitted, showing an edge of concern at last. "The Fleet base's fixed defenses are negligible, but Cimmaron Skywatch is quite heavy: eleven type-four orbital forts, three covering the Aklumar warp point. Before the mutinies, there was also a strong OWP-based fighter force, and despite Fleet's estimate, there's no guarantee they haven't brought their fighter strength back up. They must be as aware of Cimmaron's strategic value as we are, so the system undoubtedly has priority for reinforcements."

He paused to let the numbers sink in, then went on.

"What we have, after essential detachments, is two battlecruiser groups (ours and Commodore Petrovna's) and four carrier groups with approximately three hundred fighters embarked, plus escorts. The balance of force should be with us, but our edge is slim and we don't have any superdreadnoughts or monitors. Without them, the battlecruisers will have to keep Skywatch occupied until the carriers can stabilize their catapults and launch."

All of them knew what that meant. Type-four OWPs were big and powerful, stronger than most superdreadnoughts. It was statistically certain some of the battlecruisers wouldn't be around to see the fighters launch.

"That's the bare bones of the plan," Tomanaga continued after a moment. "We're transporting several hundred crated fighters to hold the system once we have it, because half the carriers will have to pull out for Bonaparte and the Zephrain operation while the rest move on Gastenhowe. Other attacks should clear up additional choke points at the same time, but Cimmaron and Zephrain are the really critical ones. We need more depth to protect Novaya Rodina, and Fleet wants to deal with the research station as soon as possible."

"Thank you Commander," Han said quietly as he finished, then looked around once more, evaluating reactions.

Captain Tsing looked merely thoughtful, but he was a bulky, impassive man, virtually incapable of revealing much emotion. He was always simply Tsing-unreadable, phlegmatic, and utterly reliable.

Tomanaga looked confident. It was, after all, an ops officer's job to exude confidence, and certainly one could not dispute the neatness of the plan . . . assuming one could subordinate one's own survival to the other objectives. It seemed Tomanaga could do that-which could be a flaw in an ops officer. Best to keep an eye on him.

Lieutenant Commander Kane's eyes were intent, her lips pursed as she toyed with a lock of short-cut chestnut hair. Han had watched her jotting notes as Tomanaga spoke; now her stylus ran down the pad, underscoring or striking through as she rechecked them. Han put a mental question mark beside Kane's name, but she was inclined to approve.

She turned finally to Lieutenant (junior grade) David Reznick, by far the youngest member of her staff, and perhaps the most brilliant of them all. At the moment, he was frowning.

"You have found a difficulty, Lieutenant?"

"Excuse me?" Reznick looked up and blinked, then flushed. "Could you repeat the question please, Commodore?"

Han hid a smile. It was difficult not to feel maternal towards the young man. "I asked if you'd found a difficulty,"

"Not with the ops plan, no, sir, but I'm a little worried about the electronics."

"Ah?" She regarded him thoughtfully.

"Er, yes, sir. Longbow wasn't designed as a command ship. We squeezed everything in by pulling those two heavy launchers, but the whole datalink setup is jury-rigged. It's put together with spit, prayers, and a lot of civilian components, sir, and we're spilling out of the electronics section. If we have to slam the pressure doors, we'll lose peripherals right and left."

"But the system does work?"

"Uh, well, yes, sir. Works fine. The thing is, if we start taking hits the whole shebang could go straight to shi-um, that is, the system could go down, sir."

Han couldn't quite hide her smile, and Reznick flamed brick red before his sense of humor rescued him. Then he grinned back, and Han's last real concern vanished as a chuckle ran around the table. The chemistry was good.

"Very well, David." She drew a pad and stylus toward her. "Give me a worst-case estimate and let's come up with ways around it."

"Yes, sir." He opened a thick ring binder and flipped pages. "First of all Commodore . . ."

"But, Lad, you got your Constitution adopted, and we're adopting your Declaration," Li Kai-lun said reproachfully. "The least you can do is endorse the flag you asked me to design for you!"

Ladislaus looked sourly at the sinuous, blood-red form coiled about the ebon banner's golden starburst. Except for the star-and the wings on the snakelike doomwhale-it looked remarkably like the Beaufort planetary flag.

"I'm thinking it won't be so very popular with the others," he rumbled.

"You round-eyes are always seeing difficulties," Kai-lun teased. "It's really childish of you. Why not just learn to accept your karma?"

"Because my 'karma's' probably to be a short rope when they see this, you old racist!"

"No, no!" Kai-lun disagreed. "It's only right that the symbol of Beaufort should adorn our banner, Ladislaus-the committee was unanimous on that. And for those who need a little symbolism, we've added the star and wings to indicate the sweep and power of our new star nation. You see?"

"Were you ever being a used-skimmer salesman?" Ladislaus asked his small ally suspiciously.


"Ah. I had the wondering." He thought for a moment, then grinned. "All right. It's glad I'll be to be seeing the old doomwhale, anyway."

"Good." Kai-lun rose and headed for the door, then stopped to smile over his shoulder. "Actually, you know, that-" he waved at the banner "-is a symbol of good fortune."

"Eh? I've never had the hearing of the doomwhale being that!"

"Ah, but when you put wings on it, it's not a doomwhale."

"No?" Ladislaus' suspicions surged afresh. "What's it to be, then?"

"Any child of Hangchow knows that, Lad." Kai-lun smiled. "It's a dragon, of course."

"Lieutenant Skjorning, reporting for duty, sir!"

Stanislaus Skjorning braced to attention-mindful of the overhead-in the tiny shipboard office assigned to Major Wang Chung-hui, CO of TRNS Longbow's Marine detachment.

"Stand easy, Mr. Skjorning," Wang said, and tipped his chair back as he contemplated the towering giant who had strayed into his office. Wang was tall for a Hangchowese, but he doubted his head would have reached as high as Skjorning's shoulder if they'd both been standing.

Stanislaus dropped into a stand easy position, hands folded behind him, and returned the major's scrutiny levelly. He'd already noticed that, despite the new Admiralty's raids on Longbow's crew, non-Oriental faces remained in a distinct minority in her company. And even without that, or his relationship to the Republic's President, his size would have made him a marked man aboard her. He was accustomed to that, but he wondered exactly how Wang was going to approach it.

"So, Lieutenant," Wang said after a moment, "you're our new platoon leader."

"Yes, sir," Stanislaus replied crisply.

"And I see from your records that you served eighteen months with the Five Three Ninety-Eighth. That would have been Colonel Howell, wouldn't it?"

"No, sir. Colonel Howell took the regiment just after I left. Colonel Jouvet had the command while I was with it."

"Charles Jouvet?" Wang asked. "From New Zurich?"

"Yes, sir."

"My, my." Wang smiled crookedly. "And how did you and the Colonel get along, Lieutenant?"

"As well as any Fringer got along with him, sir." Stanislaus gave a thin smile of his own. "I don't think he much cared for any of us, and it showed. But he had the same standards for everyone-Fringer, Corporate Worlder, or Heart Worlder."

"Yes, he did," Wang agreed. "And he apparently thought rather well of you, despite your origins. I see here that it was strongly recommended that you be offered a transfer to the Regulars. Which wouldn't have happened if your CO hadn't endorsed the notion."

"Colonel Jouvet did mention that he thought a regular commission would be a good opportunity for me, sir," Stanislaus replied. "I thanked him, but they needed me back on Beaufort."

He did not add that his decision to return home had been influenced by his oldest brother's death in action and his father's determination to give no more of his children's lives to the Federation.

"Well, if Martinet Charlie thought that highly of a Fringer, you must have been something else, Lieutenant," Wang observed. "So I suppose we should be glad to have you."

"I'll certainly try to pull my weight, sir," Stanislaus said, "but I've spent over ten years as a reservist. There are bound to be some rusty spots. And just looking over the manuals, I've already noticed several equipment mods and upgrades that never made it out to Beaufort."

"It's like riding a bicycle, Mr. Skjorning," Wang told him. "I'm sure it will all come back to you quickly. And if it doesn't, I'm positive we can find someone to, ah . . . mentor you until it does."

Stanislaus managed not to wince. From what he'd already seen of Wang, he was sure the major's confidence wasn't misplaced. Which, given the number of "rusty spots" he knew needed buffing up, meant his next few weeks were going to be interesting ones.

Wang smiled again, as if he'd read the thoughts passing through Stanislaus' mind, and pressed a button on his com.

"Sir?" a voice responded almost instantly.

"Sergeant, Third Platoon's new CO has graced us with his presence. Would you ask Captain Ju to join us in my office?"

"Aye, sir," the voice replied.

No more than forty seconds passed, and then the office hatch slid open once more and a compact, immaculately uniformed Marine stepped through it.

"You wanted me, sir?" he said to Wang, and the major nodded.

"Ju Chang, meet Stanislaus Skjorning. He's Lieutenant Shang's replacement. Lieutenant Skjorning, Ju Chang. He has Able Company, but we're shorthanded enough that he's wearing two hats. He's commanding First Platoon, as well as the Company, and he's been holding down Third, too, pending your arrival. Which makes him the man to get you settled in and up to speed ASAP. Yes?"

"Yes, sir!" Stanislaus braced back to attention, and Wang nodded.

"Very well, gentlemen. Go do something useful," he said, and nodded at the door.

" . . . and this is where you'll bunk," Captain Ju said, and rapped twice on the attention pad beside the hatch.

"It's open," a voice said over the speaker beside the pad, and Ju hit the admittance button. The hatch slid open, and a slim, dark-haired young man in a lieutenant's uniform turned the swivelled station chair at a small, cluttered desk to face the opening.

"Lieutenant Bao Jai-shu, meet Lieutenant Skjorning," Ju said dryly. "He's your new bunkie."

"Jesus," Bao said, climbing out of the chair with an easy smile and craning his neck to peer up at Stanislaus. "Tell you what, Lieutenant. I just decided you get the bottom bunk. I'd rather climb a ladder every night than risk having you fall on me!"

Stanislaus smiled back down at him, and Bao held out a hand. The big Beauforter gripped it, careful not to break anything, and Bao chuckled.

"Jai-shu has Second Platoon," Ju explained. "They never leave the ship-they man Point Defense Two at Battle Stations-so don't let him fool you into thinking he's a real Marine."

"You cut me to the quick yet again, sir," Bao said reproachfully, giving Stanislaus a toothy grin.

"Sure I do," Ju told him, shaking his head. Then went on. "Stanislaus is taking over the Third," he said. "Major Wang turned him over to me, and I want to take him around myself, but I've got a meeting scheduled in about four minutes with Gunny Malthus. How about getting him settled in here until I can get back and pick him up again?"

"Can do, Skipper," Bao agreed cheerfully. "In fact, they already delivered his gear."

He waved at the locker and field ruck placed neatly at the foot of the unmade bunk against the cabin's after bulkhead.

"Is that everything, Lieutenant?" Ju asked, arching an eyebrow at Stanislaus, and the big Beauforter shrugged.

"I brought along my own vac suit and zoot, sir. Somehow people seem to find it a bit difficult to fit me out of standard equipment." Stanislaus kept his expression deadpan, but Ju chuckled in understanding. "They told me the Armorer wanted to check out the zoot-it's an older model, not really standard issue-before he cleared it, so I'm guessing it's down in the shop somewhere. And Engineering's doing the same for the vac gear. But this is everything else."

"You do travel light, don't you?" Ju said.

"Back home, I spend most of my time on a doomwhale catcher, sir." Stanislaus shrugged. "Compared to a cuddy on the boats, this-" he gestured at the cramped cabin "-is a palace. So doomwhalers learn to travel light, if they don't want their crewmates tossing their gear over the side some dark night to clear deck space."

"Well, don't let this 'crewmate' take advantage of you," Ju said, jerking a thumb at Bao. "He'll spread out and fill the entire cabin if you let him, but half this palatial space is yours."

"Oh, I'm minded that there's not to be a problem," Stanislaus said slowly, grinning as he dropped briefly out of Standard English. "It's fine we'll be getting along, the Lieutenant and me, I'm sure."

He laced his fingers together in front of him, flexed massive shoulders, and cracked his knuckles loudly.

"Won't we, Lieutenant?" he finished genially.

Commodore Petrovna looked very calm in her new uniform, but she knew every officer of the new Republican Navy could see her on the all-ships hookup, and her warm voice was hushed with a sense of history.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Fleet, I introduce to you the President of the Republic of Free Terrans, Ladislaus Skjorning."

She vanished, and Ladislaus Skjorning appeared on the screen. His face was composed, but his blue eyes were bright-and hard. He sat behind a plain desk, and the crossed flags of the newborn Terran Republic covered the wall behind him.

"Ladies and gentlemen," his deep voice was measured, his famed Beaufort accent in complete abeyance, "fourteen years ago, I, too, was a serving officer in the Fleet of the Terran Federation. As one who once wore that uniform, I know what it has cost each of you to stand where you now stand, and I share your anguish. But I also share your determination and outrage. We have not come here lightly, but we have taken our stand, and we cannot and shall not retreat from it."

He paused, picturing the officers and ratings-including his brother-watching his image, hearing his voice, and for just a moment it seemed that he stood or sat beside each and every one of them. It was a moment of empathic awareness such as he had never imagined, and it showed in his voice when he continued.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is you who will fight for our new nation; many of you will die for it. It's not necessary for me to say more on that head, for whatever else history may say of you, it will record that you were men and women who understood the concept of duty and served that concept to the very best of your ability. However, since it is you who will bear the shock of combat, it is only just that you know and understand exactly why we are fighting and what we are fighting for. It is for this reason I asked Admiral Ashigara for this all-ships hookup tonight.

"I am about to record our first official message to the Federation's Assembly, and I wish you to witness this communication as it is recorded. I suppose-" he permitted himself a bleak smile "-that this is an historic moment, but that isn't why I wish to share it with you. I wish to share it because of who you are and what you will shortly be called upon to do.

"We represent many worlds and many ways of life. We spring from a single planet, but the diversity among us is great. We do not even agree upon the nature of God or the ultimate ends of our ongoing evolution. Yet we agree upon this: what has been done to us is intolerable, the systematic looting and manipulation of our economies and ways of life by others is not to be endured, and no government has the right to abuse its citizens as the government of the Federation has abused us. And if that agreement is all we share, it is enough. It's more than enough-as your presence in your ships, as your willingness to wear the uniform you wear, demonstrates. We may not share the same view of God, but before whatever God there is, I am proud to speak these words for you, and humbled by the commitment you and your worlds have made to support them."

He looked down at the concealed terminal built into his desk-not that he needed it; what he was to say was written in his heart and mind as surely as in the memory of his computer-then glanced up once more.

"Some of you will recognize the source of these words. Many may not, but, I think, no one has ever said it better-and their use may help the Federation's citizens to understand our motives despite their present government's self-serving misrepresentation."

He drew a deep breath and faced the pickup squarely, forcing his shoulders to relax. When he spoke once more, he appeared completely calm. Only those who knew him well saw the anguish which possessed him.

"To the Legislative Assembly of the Terran Federation," he began calmly, "from Ladislaus Skjorning, President of the Republic of Free Terrans, for and in the name of the Congress of the Republic of Free Terrans.

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Galaxy the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and the usages of justice entitle them, a decent respect for the opinion of all races requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

He drew another deep breath, his voice rumbling up out of his chest, powerful and proud and defiant, yet somehow reverent as he spoke the fierce old words, newly adapted to changing circumstances.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all sentient beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. . . ."

The survivors of the coming battles might see that recording many times in the course of their lives, yet never again would they see and hear it as it was made. They were joined with Ladislaus Skjorning, floating in the heart of a crystal moment, temporarily outside the bounds of space and time. Never before had so many men and women so intimately charged with the defense of a cause been joined in the moment of its annunciation; perhaps it would never happen again. Yet for all that they shared it as it happened, few could ever recall hearing the exact words Ladislaus spoke. What they remembered was the strength of his deep voice, the emotional communion as he forged words to hold their anger and frustration and their inarticulate love for the government they could no longer obey. They heard the list of abuses not with their ears, but with their souls-and they knew, knew now in their very bones, that the breach was forever. They could never return to what they had been, and in that instant of unbearable loss and political birth, the Terran Republic's Navy was forged on the anvil of history as few military organizations have ever been.

". . . We must, therefore," Ladislaus went on, drawing to the close of his message, "acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our separation, and hold you, as we hold the whole of the sentient races of the Galaxy, enemies in war, in peace friends.

"Now, therefore, the representatives of the Republic of Free Terrans, in general congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the Universe for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and authority of the good people of these worlds, solemnly publish and declare that these united worlds are, and of right ought to be, a free and independent nation; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the Legislative Assembly of the Terran Federation, and that all political connection between them and the Terran Federation is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as a free and independent state, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do."

He stared into the pickup, his face carved from stone, and behind his eyes he saw the crumpled body of Fionna MacTaggart-the final, unforgivable indignity to which the Fringe Worlds had been subjected-and the closing words rumbled and crashed from his thick throat like denouncing thunder.

"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."