Leornak'zilshisdrow, Lord Sofald, Sixteenth Great Fang of the Khan, and District Governor of the Rehfrak Sector by proclamation of hirikolus, appeared on the Orion passenger liner's com screen, and Ian Trevayne looked for the first time at the being who had held his life in his hands thirty-one standard months before. Studying the tawny-furred, felinoid face, he noted admiringly that Leornak's whiskers were spectacular even by the standards of well-endowed Orion males. Rumor had it that the Orions approved of the current Terran fashion of growing beards; they felt it lent human faces a certain much-needed character.
Leornak smiled a fang-hidden carnivore's welcome and spoke, producing a series of sounds suggesting cats copulating to bagpipe music, then paused. Like many high-ranking Orions, the governor understood Standard English well, but the Orion vocal apparatus was poorly suited to produce humanlike sounds. The problem was mutual, of course, which was one reason humans persisted in calling Orions "Orions." The thoroughly inaccurate label-assigned by ONI when Terrans first learned of the three-star-system, fourteen-warp-point nexus near the Great Nebula in Orion which was the heart of the Khanate-was far easier to pronounce than Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee . . . and even that was but a crude approximation of what the Orions called themselves.
Trevayne shook the inconsequential thoughts aside as the translator on Leornak's jeweled harness used his ship's sophisticated computers to produce pedantically exact English, complete to properly interpreting Leornak's formal tone and nuance.
"Welcome to Rehfrak, Admiral Trevayne. I am glad for the opportunity to meet you in person-although you will understand that the welcome must be entirely unofficial. I trust you are not in quite so much of a hurry as you were on your last visit?"
Trevayne smiled back, careful to hide his own teeth as good manners demanded. As an Englishman, he could appreciate studied understatement.
"No, Governor, this time I'm not trying to make good an escape-which I managed only as a result of your good offices. But, as you so rightly point out, these proceedings are unofficial-and, in my case at least, clandestine. The sooner I can meet with my government's representative, the better for all concerned."
"Of course, Admiral. He has already arrived and is here aboard my flagship, Szolkir." With further exchanges of courtesies, arrangements were made for Trevayne to be picked up by one of Szolkir's cutters.
Trevayne watched Leornak's flagship gleam in the reflected orange light of the gas giant she orbited as the cutter approached her. Like all Khanate officers with sufficient pull, Leornak flew his lights aboard one of the Itzarin-class assault carriers. The Orions and the Terran rebels were as one in the prestige they accorded strikefighters and the starships which carried them, he thought dryly. In fact, for all their noisy anti-amalgamation invective, the Fringe Worlders were a lot like the whisker-twisters in many ways. Some twentieth-century wit had observed that the really great hatreds are between peoples that are alike and can't stand to admit it. Apparently that held as true between species as between human groups.
Trevayne gazed at the lovely killing machine and smiled faintly. After the next battle, the Khanate, as well as the "Terran Republic," would have some reassessing to do. He watched the cutter dock, and his mind slid back in time to the day, almost exactly a standard month before, when his journey had truly begun. . . .
Trevayne sat in a familiar conference room in Prescott City and looked around the table at the Grand Council of the Rim Provisional Government, which people were beginning to call the Rim Federation-though not in Trevayne's presence!
His Councilors were chosen by the Legislative Assembly from among its own members. Their function, in theory, was to advise the Governor-General; in practice, they governed the Rim when Trevayne was in deep space, which was often.
It was all very novel to these Outworlders, but Trevayne had read enough history to know he'd set in motion a reenactment of the birth of parliamentary government in his native England seven centuries before. In fact, this was what cabinet government was supposed to be like, for there were no structured parties in the Rim. That, he thought glumly, would come later, along with organized voting blocs, mass-media electioneering, and the rest. And would the people of the Rim, having tasted home rule, be willing to give it up when (the word "if" did not even cross his mind) the Federation won the war?
He looked at each Councilor, and at one in particular. To some extent Miriam Ortega owed her rise to the memory of her father, but that was only a part of it-and, after the early days, a small part, overshadowed by her own intelligence and force of personality.
Her eyes met Trevayne's. They'd been lovers for over a year.
He looked away, sweeping the other Councilors with his gaze once more.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "I've called this meeting to confirm the rumor: we've received, through the Orions, a reply to our message to the Federation!"
He waited for the inevitable hubbub to die down. The Rim's only warp connection with the Innerworlds (other than those in rebel-held space) was the very circuitous one through the Khanate by which Trevayne's command had reached Zephrain. Afterwards, the Khan had closed his frontiers to all human entry. Even the raw materials purchased by the Innerworlds travelled only in Orion hulls, and only after a long and frustrating period of indirect negotiation had the Orions agreed to carry one message for Trevayne and to bring back one reply.
"All the Orions will say," he resumed, "is that the Federation is sending a representative to Rehfrak, which is as far as they'll let him come, in one standard month. They'll allow me to go to him-alone, secretly, in one of their own unarmed civilian craft. I'm frankly amazed that they're willing to violate their self-imposed neutrality even to that extent."
"Do I understand, sir, that you intend to accept this, uh, invitation?" Barry de Parma, chairman pro tem of the Grand Council, looked shocked at Trevayne's nod. "But the risk! You're indispensable-"
"The Orions," Miriam Ortega cut in, "favor the Federation. They're neutral only because they know overt help from them would give our side an 'alien' taint." She smiled wryly, knowing that much of the resentment felt by the rebelling Fringe Worlds was shared by the people of the Rim, including some in this room. The Corporate Worlds had been wrong to accuse the Fringers of "xenophobia," but there was no doubting the Outworlders' grim determination to remain independent of the Orions. She hid a sigh of impatience with her fellow Councilors, saying only, "They have no motive for treachery."
"Precisely," Trevayne agreed, "and as for my . . . classified knowledge," he added, knowing they all took his meaning, "I'm not a technician, and no hard information could be got out of me. Besides, we have no reason to think they know there's any to get."
He changed the subject before any cautious souls like de Parma could spot the gaping holes in his rationalization.
"Now, about security. Obviously, this jaunt can't be a matter of public knowledge." They all nodded, knowing how their people would react to the news that the Provisional Government was having any dealings whatsoever with the Tabbies. "Officially, I'll be on exercises with the Fleet, and all transfer operations will be in the hands of people I can trust."
"What if you're gone an unusually long time?" De Parma looked glum. "What if questions come up for debate in the Assembly?"
"Don't let them," Trevayne replied cheerfully. "You're here because together you can control the Assembly. As a countryman of mine named Disraeli, who had some small experience in these matters, once said, 'A majority is the best repartee.' "
Miriam gave him a glare beneath which a smile flickered. "You and your quotes! No one out here can ever be sure you're not making them up!"
He smiled at her. "Would that I were so creative!"
Trevayne came back to the present as the cutter's hatch opened. A proudly overconscientious young Cub of the Khan, whiskers almost visibly atwitch with curiosity, led him to what would have been called the wardroom in a human capital ship, but no military courtesies were exchanged. The wardroom was under heavy guard, but when Trevayne entered only two individuals rose to greet him. He recognized Leornak at once, and the human beside him looked vaguely familiar. Trevayne felt he ought to recognize the man, but he couldn't quite place him.
"Welcome to Szolkir, Admiral," Leornak greeted him.
"Thank you, Governor."
Trevayne watched Leornak's tufted ear twitch as his computer translated the Standard English into Orion. It was an impressive performance, but the Orions had always been exceptionally good with computers and cybernetics-not that they had all the answers. Like the Federation, they'd been persistently thwarted in their efforts to create an artificial intelligence which didn't go promptly insane on them. Still, they made much more use of voice-coded software, even aboard warships, than Terrans did.
Of course, their language and vocal apparatus gave them a considerable advantage there. There were no Orion homonyms, and Orion voice patterns were even more readily identifiable than human patterns, which made computer authentication much simpler. More importantly, perhaps, Orions tended to express strong emotions-like excitement and fear-with visual cues, not voice cues. To date, the Federation had been unable to devise a voice-coded software package which could cope with human stress patterns without requiring a prohibitive amount of storage space. Trevayne himself had been a gunnery officer aboard the superdreadnought Ranter the last time BuShips had tried to introduce voice-cuing into Fleet use, and he still shuddered at the memory of that fiasco.
Leornak reclaimed his attention with a graceful gesture at his human guest. "Allow me to present an old colleague and sometime opponent, Mister Kevin Sanders, representing the Prime Minister of the Terran Federation."
Of course! Trevayne shook hands with the tallish, slender man, whose sharp features and gray Vandyke gave him a foxy look. He was well over 120, Trevayne remembered; in an age before longevity treatments, he might have been a sprightly and well-preserved sixty. Like Trevayne, he wore conservative civilian clothing.
"Good to see you back on the active list, Admiral Sanders," Trevayne said after the initial greetings. "Last I heard, you were still engaged in ruining the image of retired officers."
Sanders' merry blue eyes twinkled upward into Trevayne's somber dark-brown ones, and he chuckled.
"Strictly speaking, I'm no longer an 'admiral.' True, I was dusted off and brought back to ONI after the insurrection-for some reason, there were quite a lot of early retirements about then. But I resigned my commission last year to become a minister without portfolio in the Dieter Government-a liaison of sorts between the Cabinet and the intelligence community."
He noted Trevayne's raised eyebrows at the words the Dieter Government, but he said nothing. Privately, he was impressed by how well Trevayne had controlled the surprise he must have felt.
"But," he concluded, "that's more than enough about me. It's a privilege to meet you, Admiral, and also a pleasure. For one thing, I once had the privilege of serving under your great-grandmother, when she was head of ONI. And for another, we're both members of a rare breed out here: I'm also from Old Terra."
"Yes," Trevayne said. "I know."
"Oh?" Sanders' gaze grew a trifle sharper. "How?"
Trevayne indulged himself. "I've always been fascinated by the variations with which we native English-speakers still manage to enliven what's become a universal trade language," he said with a professorial air Miriam would instantly have recognized. "You, sir, are a North American-from either the old Canadian Maritime Provinces or the Tidewater area of the old American states of Virginia and Maryland, I'd say. The two dialects are almost identical, you know."
Sanders managed to keep his aplomb, saying only, "The latter is correct." He wasn't at his best dealing with people as clever as himself, a deficiency he ascribed to lack of opportunity for practice.
Leornak's grin grew and his whiskers quivered slightly as he regarded the two humans. "Kevin," he said to Sanders, "I had a feeling this meeting would be a salutary experience for you. Unfortunately, I have duties to attend to and I must leave, as much as I am enjoying this. And you gentlemen doubtless need a degree of privacy-but I shall expect you for dinner afterwards."
Trevayne felt a momentary uneasiness at the invitation. Terran and Orion biochemistries were close enough to make such shared social events practical, but humans found some Orion culinary practices . . . disturbing. His queasiness died quickly as Leornak's slit-pupiled eyes laughed at him. Of course-a confirmed old cosmopolite like Leornak could be expected to defer to his guests' sensibilities by avoiding such customs as munching live specimens of that species which had always reminded Trevayne of hairless mice.
After the door closed behind Leornak, the Terrans sat at a low table on the cushions which served Orions in lieu of chairs, and Sanders poured from the bottle he and Leornak had been sampling. Bourbon, Trevayne thought dourly, had become so popular among upper-crust Orions that it was one of the Federation's major export items. Why the bloody hell hadn't the Tabbies had the common decency to take a liking to fine, malt Scotch?
He raised the glass, returning Sanders' brief salute, and drank. Then, somewhat fortified, he asked the question he had not cared to ask in Leornak's presence.
"Ah . . . correct me if I'm wrong, but did I understand you to refer to the Dieter government?"
"Why, yes," Sanders answered with a look of bland innocence. "I noticed you seemed surprised," he added. Damn the man!
"Well," Trevayne said carefully, "my last news from the Innerworlds was just before the mutinies. You must admit, at that time Mister Dieter's political star wasn't exactly in the ascendant." The single time he'd met Dieter, the man had struck him as a typical, blindly avaricious Corporate World political hack. "It's just seems a trifle . . . odd, from my perspective out here."
"Admiral, never underestimate Oskar Dieter," Sanders said. "Simon Taliaferro did, and it cost him."
Trevayne blinked at the other's sudden seriousness. Clearly there had been some changes in the Innerworlds!
"But," Sanders went on more lightly, "the Admiralty's briefing chips will bring you up to date on background events and time is short, so allow me to discharge myself of my instructions and deal with the present and future."
He set his glass aside to open an old-fashioned briefcase with an extremely modern security system.
"And so to business, Admiral . . . all of it pleasant business for you. You're now a Fleet Admiral, and all the field promotions you've made are retroactively confirmed. As is your assumption of the title 'Governor-General.' In fact, I should have greeted you as 'Your Excellency,' which is how the protocol experts have decided a governor-general should be addressed."
Trevayne gave the older man what he hoped was a quelling glare, but it was difficult to tune up the full voltage against a man more than twice his age. And he suspected that even at full bore, his expression would have had little effect on Sanders, who only grinned and continued as flippantly as before.
"There was a little more trouble about this Rim Legislative Assembly of yours. No provision for it in the Constitution, after all . . ."
"There's also nothing in the Constitution about an insurrection that isolates part of the Federation from Old Terra," Trevayne cut in. "These people remained loyal when all the rest of the Fringe revolted-and, I might add, despite their systematic abuse by the Corporate Worlds. Their loyalty is a priceless resource-we'd be wasting it if we hadn't involved them in their own defense!"
"Pace, Admiral!" Sanders raised a hand. "All was ratified. Oh, a few politicos are afraid you're setting up as an autonomous warlord out here, but of course they keep quiet about it. They want to stay in office!" He chuckled, then paused at Trevayne's puzzled look, but understanding dawned quickly.
"Of course! How could you know? The fact is, you've become something of a legend, Admiral. The original reports of your flight from Osterman's Star into Orion space captured the public imagination, especially since no one even knew if you'd survived. Then when the news broke that you were not only alive but had rallied the Rim and given the Rebels a bloody nose, to boot-well, I can hardly overstate the reaction. The Federation has produced precious few victories and even fewer victorious commanders. When an authentic hero turned up, there was no shortage of Corporate World money to publicize him."
Sanders' eyes danced. He'd watched happily as Trevayne's embarrassment grew visibly. Now he gently administered the coup de grace.
"You'll be pleased to know, Admiral, that you're the subject of a lavishly financed, hugely successful holodrama mini-series entitled Escape to Zephrain. You were played by Lance Manly, only slightly aged for the role."
He sat back and listened with pure pleasure while Trevayne swore in six languages for a full minute without repeating himself. He waited until the new fleet admiral had run out of breath, if not obscenities, before he continued with a toothy grin.
"I've brought chips of the entire series, Admiral. The government feels it will enhance civilian morale in the Rim. . . ."
But Trevayne's habitual self-control had reasserted itself. "I'll take personal custody of those chips, if you don't mind." And cycle them through an airlock at the first opportunity! "But don't keep me in suspense any longer, damn you! How is the war going?"
Sanders was suddenly serious. "Not well. The rebels have gained control of all the choke points connecting their systems to the Innerworlds-without, I'm sorry to say, very much hindrance. You may not realize how extraordinary Admiral Ortega's and your success in holding your forces together really was, Admiral. The government put the Navy in an incredibly vulnerable position, and when the shooting started, the Fleet simply disintegrated before our eyes. Before we got the news about Zephrain, we'd estimated that ninety percent of Frontier Fleet had gone over-now we've revised that to just over eighty percent. But what really hurt was losing over fifty percent of Battle Fleet's active units."
"Fifty percent!" Even this man could be rocked by some revelations, Sanders noted. "Sweet mother of God, man!"
"Fifty percent," Sanders confirmed grimly, "but that doesn't mean the rebels got all we lost."
His face suddenly looked every day of its age, and Trevayne leaned back against his cushions.
Of course. It had to have been like that, or those Battle Fleet monitors already would have taken Zephrain away from him. He closed his eyes in brief pain as he contemplated the grim scenes that must have occurred within the Federation as scattered, mutinous battle-line units went down under the fire of their own service-and took their share of loyal ships and crews with them.
"So they had both the time and strength to grab their choke points," Sanders went on after a moment. "Not only that, but by now they've had time to set up a few yards of their own. So far we haven't seen any heavy capital ships among their new construction . . . but give them time. They'll get to it. They got too much breathing space, and crushing them is going to be long and bloody. And, of course, there's always someone waiting to step in as soon as there's an opening. Like the Tangri. I noticed in your report that you've had a few brushes with them out along the Rim?"
"One or two," Trevayne agreed calmly. "Not very many, though. I adopted an argument they understood, and they've left us alone since."
"Really? I've had some experience of the Tangri myself, Admiral. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with an 'argument' they pay any attention to."
"Oh, but you are, Mister Sanders." Trevayne chuckled dryly. "As a matter of fact, I believe you were present in the Lyonesse System when the same argument was propounded once before." His better nature triumphed just before he added, "That was before my time," and he ended with a simple, "I estimate three percent of their raiding force got home."
"Ah!" Sanders nodded. "It's a pity the Federation has always been too easygoing to use that argument more often. Still, I suppose the plutocrats have been more concerned with squeezing the Fringers. And they have other worries now. There was even some wild talk about bringing Battle Fleet home to 'stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of the homeworld!' But, of course, that was before they really understood the Fringe's objectives. The rebels want to secede, and for that they only have to hold what they've already got, not add more stars to it. Except-" he looked sharply at Trevayne "-for the Rim. They want that. And now they feel they can take it."
He patted the briefcase. "I've brought ONI's analysis for your perusal. The prognosis is: you can expect a really massive attack on Zephrain within sixty standard days. The question is: can you hold?"
Their eyes locked as Sanders silently asked the question that could not be asked aloud aboard an Orion warship. Have your people managed to transmute the theoretical data at Zephrain RDS into the kind of hardware that will even the odds you'll face?
Trevayne understood. And he knew that if Leornak had any conception of what was truly at stake, all the possible "diplomatic repercussions" in the Galaxy would not assure his own safety. Leornak would have to try, even though torture was notoriously unreliable, even though all TFN officers were immunized to truth-extracting drugs, and even though the limitations of hypnosis were still essentially what they had been in Franz Mesmer's day.
So he answered simply, "Yes."
They settled back on their cushions and sipped their bourbon, two men who understood one another perfectly, and Sanders smiled his impish smile again.
"Well, Admiral, I'm confirmed in my view that the government acted wisely in ratifying your actions. That's the one advantage of a plutocracy: it can sometimes be frightened into doing the sensible thing." He caught Trevayne's disapproving look and deliberately misinterpreted it. "Oh, yes, of course the good Leornak is bugging us . . . but only for his private amusement and the edification of his own superiors. And while those superiors would rather do business with us, they don't have much emotional investment in this war. Not like those of us who're out to avenge the blood of kith and kin, as it were."
He stopped suddenly, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable.
"Apologies, Admiral. That was an inappropriate thing to say. Of course I know about your family."
But Trevayne hardly heard him, for in the corridors of his memory, a long-shut door swung open.
It had been sixteen years before, with his younger daughter Ludmilla newly born. He'd taken his family to Old Terra for the first time. They'd visited England, of course, and Moscow. And like all human visitors to the birthworld, they'd journeyed to Africa where the Temple of Man exploded up over Olduvai Gorge in arches and spires that soared towards infinity while homo erectus, captured forever in the masterpiece of the twenty-second century sculptor Xentos, gazed at the lights in the night sky and wondered. . . .
But the image that haunted him still was from the Mediterranean island of Corfu, whose mountains meet the sea to subdivide beaches into ancient coves where squinting, sun-dazzled eyes can sometimes momentarily glimpse Odysseus' galley rounding a headland. Until the day of his death, he would never be able to think of his older daughter Courtenay without seeing a four-year-old girl on the beach at Corfu, the brilliant sun conjuring reddish glints in her chestnut hair . . . followed swiftly by the dissipating radioactive dust which, for a little while after the missiles struck, must have colored the dawns and sunsets of Galloway's World.
He allowed himself five twenty-nine hour Xandy days in Prescott City after his return from Rehfrak. On the sixth day, he awoke and walked to the open window to gaze out into the high summer of Xanadu's northern hemisphere. Imported elms mingled with native featherleaf and falsepine across a well-tended lawn crystalline with dew, and creatures that weren't quite furry birds flew overhead in the early morning light of a sun just too yellow to be Sol. He sniffed the cool air, already sensing the heat the day would bring, and there was a strange stillness in his heart.
He heard a stirring behind him as Miriam reached for him in her sleep and, finding his side of the bed empty, awoke. She smiled sleepily.
"For God's sake, Ian," she murmured. "Put some clothes on if you're going to stand at the window. At least spare what little's left of my reputation."
He smiled. Their affair was the worst-kept secret in the Zephrain System, if not the entire Rim. In fact, he'd been considerably relieved when he viewed the mischievous Sanders' wildly overdone HV chips (which had since mysteriously vanished) and found no mention of Miriam. He sat down on the bed and kissed her forehead gently.
"Go back to sleep," he whispered. "No need for you to get up yet. But I have to leave."
She was fully awake now, and her smile departed. "I suppose it's useless to tell you again that any of your new-minted admirals-Desai, Remko, any of the rest-are competent to act as your in-space commander? Or to remind you of your importance to the Rim?" She caught herself before saying "the Rim Federation."
He thought ruefully of his last conversation with her father. "My 'importance' ends the day the rebels break through," he answered grimly. "The Rim lives or dies with the Fleet. I may as well do the same."
"Ian," she smiled again, "you're full of shit, as usual. I'm a Navy brat, remember? I know the real reason you're going."
Of course they both knew the unwritten (and therefore unbreakable) rule that required any TFN commander who could manage it to be in space with his personnel in battle. Howard Anderson had been aboard one of those twenty-third century battlewagons, now so quaint-seeming, at Aklumar. Ivan Antonov and Raymond Prescott had ridden their flagships into the meat-grinders of Lorelei, Pesthouse, and Home Hive III. And Sergei Ortega had flown his lights to the end in Krait at the Battle of the Gateway. . . .
Miriam looked up at the swarthy, invulnerable face and ran her fingers through the close-trimmed, slightly graying beard. Few who knew him saw any reason to dispute the common judgment that he was "complex" and "inscrutable"-some might even add "sinister." She alone had come to know his face lied, that his complexity, seen whole, resolved itself into concentric rings of defense around the dull hurt at the center of him.
Miriam's lovemaking was no more passive than anything else about her, and she pulled him down to her, kissing him. "You don't have to leave just yet," she said softly, "and God knows how long you'll be gone. . . ." And, for a time, nothing existed for either of them except the other.
Afterwards, she sat on the bed among the tangled sheets, hugging her knees and smoking as she watched him dress and groom himself meticulously. Yes, she thought, even the surprising personal vanity fits the pattern. It was a part of the fortifications.
What she did not know, what she would never know, was that without her he was alone with his hurt.
Then he turned back to her, totally familiar and yet almost a stranger in his uniform. They kissed once more, lingeringly, and it was time for him to go.
"You realize, of course," she said with mock severity, "that while you're gone, in addition to being miserably horny, I'm going to have the Devil of a time keeping the Grand Council in harness."
He paused at the door and grinned innocently. "Well," he began, "in the words of a noted pre-space Chinese philosopher . . ."
He managed to beat the hurled pillow through the door.