COUNCIL OF WAR
"My friends!" Simon Taliaferro raised his glass and beamed at the men and women seated around the conference table. "I give you victory!"
Agreement rumbled as glasses were lifted and drained, but Oskar Dieter left his on the table and felt dull, smoldering anger burn in the pit of his belly. His eyes were narrowed to knife-hard sharpness as they sought to strip away the false joviality which always shrouded Taliaferro's inner thoughts. How had he worked so long with him without realizing exactly what he was?
"Yes, my friends," Taliaferro continued, "much as I regret the death of Francois Fouchet, his murder-his martyrdom-has assured our victory. I received the latest projections this morning," He beamed at them like a fond uncle. "Within two months-three at the outside-our majority will be sufficient to assure approval of the Amalgamation!"
The rumble of approval was even louder, and Dieter felt a chill breeze whistle around the corners of his soul. The Amalgamation was but the first step of the plan he and Taliaferro had worked out years before, but Dieter had always regarded it as a theoretical exercise, a sort of "what if" in case the opportune moment ever arrived. He'd never really believed that they would succeed. Nor would they have . . . without murder.
He stared into his glass. The media, with its customary voracity for sensationalism, had arrived even before the medical examiner, and Dieter's heart chilled as he recalled the pathetic figure lying almost neatly in the wide, dark pool of blood. The assassins hadn't bled as much as she; men who die instantly bleed very little.
Dieter had watched those news shots with a sort of self-flagellating fascination. He'd tried to prevent it, but his efforts had been too little too late, and for all that he'd striven to stop it, it was also his unforgivable stupidity which had made the act inevitable . . . and stripped him of the power to forbid it.
He looked up from his glass with a bitter half-smile. Fouchet's death had restored him, however temporarily, to the ranks of the Corporate World autocrats on Old Terra. He lacked the power and prestige which had once been his, but there was no one else to speak for New Zurich, so his fellows had been forced to accept him once more, at least until the New Zurich oligarchs replaced him. Yet he was an outcast, now; more so even than they realized. He understood the dreadful attraction he held for them-the near hypnotic fascination of a tainted man whose career lay in wreckage. But they seemed unaware how deep the taint truly went.
"Of course, we all regret the terrible events which led to this," Taliaferro was saying smoothly, "but one cannot deny that the entire crisis is tailor-made for our needs."
"Maybe," Hector Waldeck rumbled. The chief delegate from Christophon was a choleric man, and his face flushed as he spoke. "No doubt the Amalgamation will pass, Simon, but what about Skjorning? The bastard's a damned savage! He ought to pay for what he did, by God!"
Dieter's mouth twisted behind his hand as others murmured agreement. They were all so sanctimonious about Skjorning's act-what about what they had done? They knew the truth about Fionna's death, yet Waldeck was so smugly self-righteous he could demand punishment for Skjorning!
He sighed, anger tempered by shame as he realized that once he would have shouted as loudly as any. He glanced around the angry, self-important faces, seeing them as they were at last, now that he was no longer part of them, and it was like looking into a terrible mirror. They were no more truly "evil" than he himself. Like him, they played by the only rules they knew, and they played the "game" well. That was the problem. For them, it was only a game, a vastly exciting contest for the wealth of a galaxy.
They were manipulators and users because it had never occurred to them to be anything else. The Legislative Assembly was no government; it was a tremendous, fascinating toy, a machine whose buttons and levers disgorged ever more wealth, ever more power, and ever more intoxicating triumphs. And the people who were crushed in the production of those triumphs weren't real to them, had no existence in the real world.
Sorrow filled him. The Corporate Worlds had spent trillions of credits and decades of political effort to master that machine, and when the growing Fringe population threatened their control, they'd moved ruthlessly to crush the opposition-all as part of "the game." For all the time and effort they spent plotting and planning, they were even blinder than the insulated Heart Worlders, for they saw Fringers only as obstacles, not as people, and certainly not as fellow citizens. They saw them as pawns, dupes-cartoon caricatures cruelly drawn by habitual contempt and denigration. As things, not people . . . and things were made to be broken and trampled underfoot if they got in the way.
"No, Hector," Taliaferro said firmly. "We don't want to punish him-though I certainly share your outrage!" He managed to sound quite sincere, Dieter thought bitterly, and revised his earlier estimate. Some of these people were evil, however you defined the term. "But despite what we feel, we must remember that Skjorning's accusations can be made to work for us rather than against us. We need to use him, not indict him."
"Crap," Waldeck said harshly. "I want that murderous bastard stood up against a wall and shot! We need to teach these barbarians a lesson-especially the Beauforters!"
Dieter saw a few sardonic smiles. Christophon's medicinal combines had tried hard to move in on the doomwhaling industry, and Beaufort's government had slapped them down with a sort of savage delight. Waldeck's fellow oligarchs hadn't taken that well, nor had they cared for the loss of prestige they'd suffered.
"No, Hector," Taliaferro repeated more forcefully. "In fact, I intend to oppose any effort to try him on civil charges. We need him gone, true, but we can arrange that without a civil trial-and we damned well better after the insane charges he made in the Chamber! If we come down as hard as he deserves, his supporters will scream it's part of a cover-up, and some of the Heart Worlders might believe it. Besides, if we can send him home in disgrace, it'll undermine the Fringe far more effectively, not to mention the approval our forbearance will win from the liberals."
"Listen to me, Hector," Taliaferro said sharply. "All our projections say that as soon as Skjorning's gone, scores of Fringer delegates will resign in protest. They'll take themselves out of the picture and give us an absolute majority. But if we make him a martyr the Fringe'll close ranks to 'avenge' him. It'll be as bad as having MacTaggart back!"
"I don't like it," Waldeck grumbled.
"Nor do I, but the Amalgamation is what matters."
"Is it?" Dieter was more surprised than any of the others to hear himself speak. Eyes swivelled to him, filled with a sort of cold curiosity, but Taliaferro's eyes weren't cold. They were fiery with contempt.
"Of course it is, Oskar," the Gallowayan said, sweet reason sugarcoating the disdain in his voice. "You worked as hard as anyone else to arrange it." His tone added the unspoken qualifier "before you lost your touch," and Dieter flushed. But his chin lifted, and he looked around with a sort of calm defiance which was new to him.
"I did," he said quietly. "Before I saw what it's going to cost."
"What are you talking about?" Amanda Sydon's harsh-voweled New Detroit accent grated on Dieter's ears, and he eyed her with distaste. Sydon was a cobra, every bit Taliaferro's equal. And then he remembered his drugged insult to Fionna. Was his damned prejudice speaking again? But, no, there was no comparison between Fionna and Amanda Sydon. They both happened to be women, but Fionna had also happened to be human.
"You know what I'm talking about, if you'd care to accept the truth, Amanda," he said quietly.
"The truth," she sneered, "is that the Fringe won't even know what hit it for at least ten years-if they manage to figure it out then! With our majority, we'll control the post-amalgamation reapportionment. We'll gut them, and they'll stay gutted for fifty years!"
"Fifty?" Dieter allowed himself a chuckle. "Amanda, you obviously don't know as much about the demographics as you think." He felt spines stiffen as he threw his challenge into her teeth, filled with a courage based for a change on conviction rather than convenience. "It won't be fifty years, dear. If the Fringe population curves hold steady and the borders continue to expand, it'll be more like a hundred and fifty years."
He glanced at Taliaferro amid a hiss of indrawn breaths as the others heard the true figures for the first time, and the fury burning behind the fixed joviality amused him. So Simon hadn't wanted his minions to know the full extent of his ambition? Was he afraid even they might see the result?
"Dear me, Amanda-didn't Simon mention that?" Dieter's voice was harsh in the semisilence. "He should have, because the Fringers have waited two hundred years for their representation to match ours. They'll certainly run a worst-case projection and realize they're facing at least another century of powerlessness. How do you think they'll react to that?"
"How can they react?" Taliaferro scoffed. "They won't have the votes to stop it."
"Precisely," Dieter said flatly. He drew a deep breath and rose, his gaze burning over the faces around him. Guilt over Fionna's death and over the part he'd played-intentionally and unintentionally-in bringing the Federation to this pass supported him. It wasn't enough that he'd only played the game. Games were for children; adulthood carried the duties of adulthood. Angry self-loathing gave him a sort of visionary strength, and he suddenly knew how Cassandra must have felt. Yet he had to try, if only to prove to himself that once he'd had the right to sit in the same chamber as Fionna MacTaggart.
"Listen to me, all of you," he said softly. "We can do it. We can use Skjorning to break the Fringe and then ram reapportionment through whatever opposition is left, but are you all too blind to see what will happen then?"
"Tell us, Oskar, since you seem so prescient," Taliaferro sneered, no longer hiding his contempt.
"All right, Simon. I will tell you," Dieter said, his voice sad. "War."
"War!" Taliaferro's laugh was harsh. "With whom, Oskar? That penniless bunch of ragged-assed barbarians? Hell, man, the Taliaferro Yards alone can build more hulls than all the Fringe Worlds put together! Not even Fringers could be stupid enough to buck that much firepower!"
"Can't they? Simon, I chair Military Oversight. I know what I'm talking about. They can fight, and they will. They'll be ready enough if you only railroad Skjorning out of the Assembly-" he saw frowns of distaste at his deliberately honest choice of verb "-but that isn't all you'll be doing. This amalgamation is an antimatter warhead, man! The mere threat of enfranchising the Orions will drive them berserk. And it won't be 'barbarian xenophobia,' whatever you tell the Heart Worlds. It'll be a cold sober appreciation of what adding that many non-Terran voters will do to their representation."
"So what?" Taliaferro shot back. "Let some of them try to secede! We'll squash them like bugs, and it'll prove they're barbarians! The Heart Worlds'll be as eager as we are to expel them from the Assembly-for good!"
Cold shock knifed through Dieter. Not surprise, really; perhaps he'd guessed Taliaferro's real intent all along and simply chosen not to face it.
"My God," he said softly. "You want a war."
"Nonsense!" The denial was just a bit too quick, a touch too offhand. Some of the others were clearly shaken by Dieter's charge, and Taliaferro made himself smile. "It won't come to a war, no matter what you think. The absolute worst may be a police action or two, and we've had those before, haven't we, Hector?" He winked at the Christophon delegate, and the reminder of the food riots on Christophon, three hundred years past, woke a rumble of nervous laughter. "But nobody's left the Federation after a police action," Taliaferro went on persuasively, "and that's all it can be. The Fringers don't have a fleet or the means to build one; we have both. All I'm saying is that if they're that stupid, it'll only strengthen our position in the long run."
Dieter saw Taliaferro's words sink home. They were the words his allies wanted to hear, the ones that told them everything was fine, that they still controlled "the game." He'd jolted them, but not enough to break Taliaferro's hold. They would follow him despite anything a political has-been said, and Dieter swallowed an angry rebuttal.
"You're wrong, Simon," he said. "Even assuming all we get is a 'police action or two,' the damage will be done. You've all forgotten that the Federation exists only because its citizens want it to exist. When enough of them stop wanting it to live, it will die."
He shook his head, feeling their disbelief and rejection.
"No doubt you'll all do exactly as you wish," he said heavily, "but I warn you now-I'll oppose you, both here and on the floor."
The tension in the room suddenly doubled.
"Go ahead!" Taliaferro snarled, his face dark with rage. "If not for your stupidity, we'd already have carried the amalgamation vote! So go on, damn you! We'll still be here when you're a memory-and you know it!"
"Perhaps so, Simon," Dieter said sadly across the immense breach between them. "And you're probably right about whether or not I can stop you. But when you turn the Federation into armed camps which can never live in peace again-" his eyes were live coals as they swept the silent room "-remember I told you it would happen. And when it does, I'll be able to say I tried to stop it . . . What will you be able to say?"
"You're almost as eloquent as Skjorning," Taliaferro sneered.
"No, Simon," Dieter's quiet voice sliced back through the silence, "I'm nowhere near as eloquent as he is-but I'm just as accurate."
Taliaferro made a contemptuous gesture, but even under his anger there might have been just a trace of uncertainty. Dieter didn't know, but if Taliaferro did feel any lack of confidence, it wasn't enough. Dieter looked at the stony faces and knew he'd failed. He'd tried to convince them, but they refused to hear; now he could only fight them.
He closed his briefcase, the sound loud in the breathless hush, and walked to the door through the silence, and hostile eyes burned his back. He knew he'd just sealed his political fate, but what mattered was that he would make his fight on the Assembly floor . . . and lose.
He closed the door gently behind him, and the corridor was as empty as his future as he walked slowly to the elevators. He felt the approaching defeat in his bones, but he'd forfeited his career the night he insulted Fionna and discovered he was not the man he'd thought himself to be, and the floor fight would be his Gethsemane. His self-destruction could never expiate his guilt, but perhaps it would let him face Fionna's memory with a sense of having done his best. With a sense of having stood up on his hind legs and said "I am a man-with a man's duties and a man's right to destroy myself for what I know is right."
Oskar Dieter stepped out into the night of Old Terra under a blanket of stars-a man without a future, but one who held his chin high again at last.