Kevin Sanders hardly noticed the Marines guarding the prime minister's residence. He hadn't been on Old Terra many hours, and he was far more concerned with smelling unrecycled air and seeing more than a handful of faces in one place.
He glanced at his watch as the elevator whisked him to the penthouse. He was running slightly late, but political meetings, he'd learned long ago, were very like social gatherings; it was better to arrive late-even by a large margin-than early by the smallest.
The elevator doors opened, and he stepped out to be met by a tall, fair-haired young man.
"Evening, Heinz. I take it they're awaiting me with bated breath?"
"More or less, Admiral Sanders."
Sanders sighed. Heinz von Rathenau, Dieter's personal security head, was the only member of the New Zurich Delegation to follow him-officially, anyway-into the prime minister's residence, and he seemed incapable of forgetting the titles people had once acquired-or "earned," as he put it. Sanders suspected him of incurable romanticism.
"Shall I go on in, Heinz?"
"Of course, sir. Conference Room Two."
Four people sat around the polished crystal conference table. Sanders nodded pleasantly to Sky Marshal Witcinski and Chief of Naval Operations Rutgers and bestowed a special smile on Susan Krupskaya, his successor at ONI, then half-bowed to the prime minister.
Dieter was the least impressive of them all, physically speaking, but his was unquestionably the dominant presence. Which was no small trick, given the wealth of experience his military subordinates represented. Either Sanders' first impression of Dieter had been sadly mistaken, or else the man had somehow grown to meet his moment. He suspected the latter, but he was none too sure his suspicion didn't stem from his own dislike of admitting mistakes.
"Mister Sanders." Dieter did not rise, but his courteous greeting gave the impression he had. "I'm glad you were finally able to join us."
"Thank you, sir." Sanders hid a smile. "I'm sorry-I am running a bit late." He didn't mention that he'd walked rather than take a ground car.
"Quite all right," Dieter said. "Man must walk before he can run, I suppose." He smiled pleasantly. "But you're the man of the hour, after all-or, at least, the man who's met him." He leaned back and waved at a chair. "Let us hear your report, Mister Sanders. Please."
"Yes, sir." Sanders laid his briefcase on the table and snapped its security locks. Reinforced titanium sheathing gleamed dully on its inner surfaces as he extracted a folder of holo chips and laid them on the table.
"This is the official report, sir. But I gather you want an . . . ah, off-the-cuff summation?"
"Precisely, Mister Sanders. Your summations are always so enlivening."
"Thank you, sir. I strive to please."
"I'm sure." Dieter opened an inlaid cigar box and waited while Sanders selected and lit one. Then he cleared his throat gently. "Your summation?"
"Yes, sir. Frankly-" Sanders eyes swept the group, his customary levity absent "-we're damned lucky. I was prepared for a determined man, but not for the one I met. In my considered opinion, the Governor-General will hold the Rim Systems if any living man can do it."
"A strong endorsement, Kevin," Susan Krupskaya said quietly.
"Is it?" Sanders suddenly grinned impishly. "Let's just put it this way, Susan-he puts Lance Manly to shame."
"So you're confident he can hold Zephrain?" Witcinski asked somberly.
"I am. More importantly, he is. Mind you, we couldn't talk openly on board an Orion carrier, but when I asked him if he could, he answered with one word: 'Yes.' "
"That sounds like Ian," Rutgers said.
"Yes. The Governor-General does seem rather, ah, formidable," Sanders agreed. "And he clearly feels he has the firepower he needs . . . plus the locals' full-blooded support. At least," he chuckled dryly, "he defended them most vehemently against a few carefully dropped aspersions."
"That sounds like him, too," Rutgers said.
"And it brings up another point," Witcinski pressed. "Forgive me, Bill-I certainly don't wish to impugn the honor of an officer who's accomplished what he has-but there has to be some temptation towards empire-building in his position."
"I suppose so-for some," Sanders broke in before Rutgers' anger could find expression. "Sky Marshal, you no doubt know that Admiral Trevayne lost his wife and daughters on Galloway's World?"
"Yes," Witcinski agreed guardedly.
"Well, sir," Sanders said quietly, "he's lost his son now, too." He watched the sudden pain in Rutgers' broad face, then eyed Witcinski.
"I'm sorry to hear it, Mister Sanders," the Sky Marshal said gruffly, "but how does that answer my question?"
"His son," Sanders said very softly, "was aboard one of the ships BG 32 destroyed in the Battle of Zephrain." He kept his eyes on Witcinski as Rutgers gasped in dismay. "I submit, sir, that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else has the right to question his loyalty after that."
"No," Witcinski said slowly, "I don't suppose so."
There was no apology in his voice, only understanding, but Sanders was content. Witcinski was very like Trevayne-a little harder, perhaps, a little narrower . . . certainly less imaginative. But in one respect they were identical: neither ever apologized for doing what he felt was necessary.
"And your estimate of the military situation, Kevin?" Rutgers' voice was flat, its impersonality covering his own pain.
"The Governor-General provided a force summary, but it's not exhaustive. We were both aware that Fang Leornak was certain to read his report-one way or another." Sanders shrugged and grinned again, dispelling much of the lingering solemnity. "Leornak and I are old friends, so I made his job a little easier by leaving the report on my desk when we went to supper."
"You did what?" Witcinski stared at him.
"Of course I did, Sky Marshal," Sanders said cheerfully. "It was only courteous."
"Courteous?!" Witcinski glared at him, and Sanders smiled.
"Please, Sky Marshall!" He waved an airy hand. "The Orions certainly know as much about Zephrain RDS as Admiral Krupskaya and I do about Valkha III. Which is to say each side knows the other has a facility where all that nasty weapons research has carefully not been carried out for the last sixty years. Leornak is a civilized old cat, by his lights, but if he thought he had any chance to discover the contents of Zephrain RDS, he'd have no option but to try-a point, by the way, of which the Governor-General seems well aware. As long as Leornak can tell the Khan there's no evidence of such data being transmitted, he can avoid the unpleasant and diplomatically catastrophic necessity of . . . acquiring it." He shrugged. "So I made it easier by giving him access to the recorded data, since I felt confident Admiral Trevayne was too wise to record anything incriminating. Now Leornak can assure the Khan that no sensitive data was transmitted . . . which meant, incidentally, that the Governor-General and I could leave his flagship."
"My God!" Witcinski shook his head. "I think you actually enjoyed it!"
"My dear Sky Marshal! Why else would anyone become a 'spook'?" Sanders permitted himself another chuckle.
"But you do have a strength estimate?" Rutgers pressed.
"Certainly. The full data is in the report. Fortunately, few capital ships were actually lost at Zephrain. His damaged units have been repaired, and apparently he's undertaken a program of new construction, as well. . . ."
Sanders' voice trailed off in deliberately tantalizing fashion.
"New construction?" Rutgers frowned at him. "What sort?"
"A new group of monitors-he says." Sanders' voice was quite neutral.
"Says?" Krupskaya asked sharply. Trust Susan to be the first to pounce, he thought wryly.
"Let's just say I think he finessed some clues past the Orions-which takes some doing with a wily old whisker-twister like Leornak."
"Clues, Mister Sanders? What sort of clues?"
"Just this, Sky Marshal-he's building only monitors, each of which is tying up the full capacity of a Terra-class space dock, and he's named the first of them Horatio Nelson."
"What? What sort of name is that for a monitor?"
"Precisely, Sky Marshal. Monitors are named for TFN heroes, yet this ship isn't. The Orions probably won't give it a thought-after all, our nomenclature is as confusing to them as theirs is to us-but a nonstandard name suggests a nonstandard class, no? Coupled with the building capacity devoted to each of them and the fact that he doesn't seem to feel the need for carriers-" Sanders raised one hand, palm up.
"I see." Witcinski scratched his chin. "I believe you have a point, Mister Sanders."
"So Admiral Trevayne has a sizable conventional force, plus whatever unorthodox vessels and weapons he may be building," Dieter mused. "And on that basis, he feels confident of defeating anything the rebels can throw at him." He nodded slowly. "My friends, I think that may be the best news since this whole sorry disaster began. If he's right-if he can hold-it may be time for us to consider Operation Yellowbrick." He glanced at his two senior military commanders. "Comments, gentlemen?"
"Really, Kevin," Susan Krupskaya chided as she poured scotch into his glass, "you should watch the way you talk to the Sky Marshal."
"Why?" Sanders yawned and stretched, looking briefly more catlike than an Orion. "Has he noticed something?"
"Kevin, you're a clever man, not to mention devious and underhanded, but the Sky Marshal is cleverer than you think. He may not waste time on decadent things like social amenities, but he's quite well aware you enjoy twitting him."
"Nonsense! That man's not 'well aware' of anything that doesn't mount shields, armor, and energy weapons!"
"Oh, no? That's not what his war diary says."
"War diary?" Sanders sat up and frowned at her. "You've been tapping the confidential war diary of the military commander-in-chief, Susan?"
"But, Kevin," she batted her eyelids demurely, "you always said that anything someone considers worth keeping a secret is probably worth knowing. Besides, he's a Fringer; it seemed like a good idea to check him."
"But if he catches you at it," Sanders said warningly, "not even Dieter's going to be able to save your shapely ass."
"No?" Krupskaya grinned a trifle crookedly. "Why do you think I warned you he's cleverer than you think? Here's my last intercept from his diary." She tossed him a sheet of facsimile.
"Ah?" Sanders glanced at the transcript and began to chuckle. After a moment, it became full-throated laughter, and he raised his glass ungrudgingly to the absent sky marshal. All it said was: "My Dear Vice Admiral. I trust you and Mister Sanders have enjoyed being on the 'inside.' L. Witcinski."
"And he accused me of enjoying it!"
"And he was right, you old reprobate!" Krupskaya shook her head wryly. "I'm still not certain how he caught me, but he thinks you put me up to it."
"Well, I suppose I did, in a sense," Sanders agreed lazily. "After all, I taught you everything you know."
"Not quite everything," she said dryly. "And before you start blowing your ego out your ears, I have something for you. Here." She handed him a sheaf of pages.
"Ah! An excellent job, Susan. Excellent!"
"Sure." She shook her head at him. "Kevin, what are you up to? Here's proof that Captain M'tana and Alistair Nomoruba are feeding information to the rebels, and you won't let me do a thing about it! Damn it, they've been doing it for over two years now!"
"So they have." Sanders finished the first sheet, nodded to himself and crumpled the paper, breaking the security coating, then tossed it into the ice-bucket at his elbow. The sheet touched melted ice-water and vanished as he turned to the second page.
"I've done a lot for you, Kevin," Admiral Krupskaya said sternly, "and I'll probably go right on doing it, but you owe me an explanation. I don't mind putting my career on the line, but sitting on this may violate my sworn oath as an officer."
"Sweet Susan," Sanders said soothingly, "the skill has not yet deserted these palsied old fingers. This old eye has not yet lost its keenness. This old ear has not yet-"
"Spare me a full catalog of decrepit organs that are still more or less functional," she interrupted rudely. "What you're saying-in your thankfully inimitable style-is that you know what you're doing?"
"Kevin," she said with unaccustomed severity, "I'm no longer a wet-nosed snotty in your operation on New Valkha. I have my own duties-and I've run about as for with this as I intend to without an explanation."
"Ah, but your baby fat made you such a charming ensign," he said gently. "Still-" he weighed the angry fondness flashing in her eyes and shrugged "-perhaps it is time for the wily old master to enlighten his round-eyed, admiring disciple."
"Pace, my dear!" His eyes still gleamed, but his voice was serious, and she settled back to listen. "Consider: I first tapped into this conduit less than a month after the POW letter exchanges began, correct?"
"Fine. And at the time, the information passing through it, while undoubtedly useful, wasn't precisely Galaxy-shaking. Correct again?"
"Well, as I taught you in the dim mists of your youth, my love, one never tampers with a conduit unless the information passing through it is of deadly importance. Instead, one monitors it, traces it, and, above all, makes certain it carries information in apparent security, thus preventing the ungodly from tinkering up something one doesn't know about to replace it. This is spook basic training manual stuff, is it not?"
"Yes, Kevin," she sighed. "But why not tell anyone about it?"
"My sweet, a secret is a secret when only one person knows it; anything else is simply more or less compromised information. Dear, toothsome Susan! I wouldn't have told you if you hadn't been moving into the worry seat at ONI!"
"And if you hadn't needed my help to stay tapped in!"
"That, too, of course," he admitted graciously.
"All right. I can accept that. But look at some of this stuff, Kevin! Details of the communications with the Orions to set up your trip. Or here-" she pointed at another sheet "-details of Cabinet meetings, for God's sake! We're talking heavy duty data, Kevin. This is no longer Assembly gossip!"
"And quite interesting it is, too," Sanders agreed brightly.
"Damn you, Kevin! Don't evade me! Why can't I even tell Heinz that someone inside the Cabinet is passing priceless data to the enemy?"
"Priceless?" Sanders finished the last page of the intercepts and watched it curl into nothingness in the ice-bucket. "Perhaps, and perhaps not."
He stirred the clear water and clinking ice with an idle forefinger.
"No 'perhaps' about it!" Krupskaya snorted.
"Actually, you know, there is," he corrected gently. "Consider this, my dear-everything you've picked up from the Cabinet is purely political. There hasn't been one scrap of military intelligence."
"That's true," she agreed slowly, her tone suddenly thoughtful.
"Now," Sanders purred, "who has access to all this-" he tapped the bland water in the ice-bucket "-but not to military data? The same Cabinet meeting which discussed sending me to the Orions also discussed our entire naval strategy, yet there's not a word of that in here. Surely that would be worth more to the rebels than, for example, Prime Minister Dieter's requests for opinions on granting the 'Republic' limited belligerent status?"
"Selective information," she said softly, nodding her head. "But why? You're right; it's valuable, but less valuable than military intelligence."
"Ah, but is it?"
"Damn you," she said without rancor. "Don't start your damned double-think on me now!"
"I'm not. But who does it have value for? The recipient . . . or the sender?"
"I don't pretend to understand that one-yet. But I will, I promise you!"
"I'm sure you will," he soothed, his smile taking the offense from his words. "You were always my best student, or you wouldn't be sitting where you are now. But unlike you, my love, I already know our mole's identity."
"And you don't intend to share it with me?" she said resignedly.
"No, Susan, I don't," he said, his suddenly flat tone contrasting sharply with his normal urbanity. Then he smiled again. "But it's a lovely game, my dear! I know-but does he know that I know? And if he does, does he know that I know that he knows that I know? Ad infinitum, of course."
"Kevin Sanders," she said acidly, "if I didn't trust you more than my own mirror, I'd have you in irons under babble juice therapy this second!"
"And, my dear," he purred, "if I didn't trust you-and know that you trust me-I would never have recommended you to run ONI, now would I?"
Susan Krupskaya laughed and shook her head. "Hold out your glass, you rotten old bastard," she said affectionately.