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COUNTERSTRIKE

The prisoners had departed and spring was turning into summer when the Orion courier craft emerged from the Zephrain-Rehfrak warp point.

The commander of the picket stationed there had explicit orders covering this rare occurrence, and a brief message was smoothly transferred before the Orions departed as quickly as they'd come. The message was beamed to TFNS Horatio Nelson in a high-speed squeal carried by a hair-thin laser, and Nelson's receiving dishes scooped it out of space and beamed it down to Government House with equal security, and Ian Trevayne called an emergency meeting of the Grand Council.

"The Orions are being even more uninformative than usual," he told them. "They say only that an emissary will be arriving here from Rehfrak in less than three standard weeks. Period." He shrugged. "This will be the first time an Orion has come to Zephrain since the war began-more than that; as far as I'm aware, it will be the first time a highly placed Orion official has paid an official call on any section of the Federation during that time. There's no hint as to the purpose of the visit, but I'll wager it's something big. Remember, the Orions don't prize prolixity the way we do. Among them, the more important an announcement is, the more terse it's likely to be." He hoped the implication wouldn't be lost on certain overly verbal persons, but he suspected it would be. "So," he concluded, "this emissary will probably be quite a high ranking Orion. Possibly even Leornak himself."

"Or someone even higher?" queried Barry de Parma.

"There is no one higher in this part of Orion space," Trevayne said flatly. "Only five Orion military officers outrank Leornak'zilshisdrow, but that's only part of it. Theoretically, the Khanate is an absolute monarchy, but the district governors are practically autonomous as long as they follow the Khan's policy guidelines. You might say Leornak has what we'd consider permanent emergency wartime powers, if only because of the sheer distance between him and the Khan. No, anyone higher than he would have to come all the way from New Valkha itself; and if we rate that kind of attention, God only knows what's afoot!

"At any rate, we have to decide on the nature of our welcome. I propose to greet the envoy aboard Nelson. It never hurts to impress the Orions-though, needless to say, I have no intention of inviting as knowledgeable an old cat as Leornak to examine our new weaponry!" They all nodded at that. "And I think we should have a high-powered political presence on board: Mister de Parma, Ms. Ortega, and Mister MacFarland."

Again, there was no demurral. De Parma, as titular head of the Grand Council, was an obvious choice. So was Bryan MacFarland, Grand Councilor for External Affairs. He'd always had little to do, inasmuch as the Provisional Government's only exchanges with other human polities had been restricted to nuclear warheads and the only nonhuman powers with whom the Rim had contact were the Orions and Crucians (whose official policy was one of non-intercourse for the duration) and the Tangri (whose permanent policy was that humans were simply an exceptionally dangerous species of prey). Now it seemed his hour might have arrived. Besides, Trevayne found him a refreshing personality. His world of Aotearoa, as its name suggested, had been settled initially by New Zealanders, but most of its subsequent immigrants had been from Australia. Now the Aotearoans were more Aussie than the Aussies-just listening to MacFarland reminded Trevayne of his tour at the Navy's strikefighter pilot program at Brisbane on Old Terra.

There was another, unspoken reason for including him, though. So far, the pressure of the war effort had kept the other Rim Worlds from resenting the disproportionate role played by Xandies in the Provisional Government, but it was only a matter of time. Trevayne intended to forestall it by involving as many non-Xandies as possible in high-level functions. Miriam, though a Xandy by adoption, wholeheartedly approved. She herself had no obvious business aboard Nelson, but no one questioned his decision to include her.

It was odd, he thought. In most times and places, a relationship like their never-acknowledged but widely known one would have damaged her politically. But it hadn't done so here. Perhaps, he thought wryly, it was because no matter how tightly allied they were, she never hesitated to disagree (sometimes violently) when she thought he was wrong-and her disagreements weren't always announced in private. No one could ever think Miriam Ortega's politics belonged to anyone but herself, and it showed even more strongly against the virtually unbroken deference her fellow Grand Councilors extended towards his policies.

Miriam looked up and hid a smile as his musing glance slid past her. She knew what he was thinking, just as she knew his habitual blind spot kept him from seeing the answer. Part of her fellows' acceptance came from the fact that she refused to be awed by their governor-general, but at least as much stemmed from the unique status their relationship had conferred upon her. In the eyes of the Rim population, Trevayne's standing was such that he was, quite simply, above resentment, and she, by close association with him, shared in the mana. Yet he would never understand the way it worked, she thought. He was too intimately acquainted with what he considered his weaknesses to accept that the Rim could see him-or her-in that light. And she'd be damned before she'd in any way suggest it to him.

The Orion cutter completed its docking sequence in Nelson's boatbay, where Trevayne stood before a group that included Vice Admiral Sonja Desai, Commodore Genji Yoshinaka, and Captain Lewis Mujabi of the Nelson in addition to the Grand Councilors. The officers (including Trevayne) wore full dress uniform for the occasion, and each left shoulder bore the distinctive patch which Trevayne had recently authorized for the Rim armed forces: a ring of stars (one for each Rim system) surrounding the planet-and-moon of the Federation. Miriam had suggested that the stars should encircle a human hand with the digitus impudicus upraised to express the true spirit of the Rim. Trevayne was privately convinced she was right, but he had-reluctantly-vetoed the suggestion.

The hatch opened, and the emissary emerged.

Trevayne said, simply, "No."

"But yes!" Kevin Sanders beamed, stepping down the short gangway ramp with a spryness that longevity technology alone couldn't explain. He was, as usual, clearly enjoying himself.

Trevayne stepped forward and bent slightly so he could speak softly into Sanders' ear. "You old sod! How the hell did you talk the Orions into letting you through? No, wait, let me guess: I daresay you had your spies dredge up something in Leornak's sex life to hold over him!"

"Admiral! I am cut to the quick! I'll have you know that I've never approved of blackmail. I much prefer bribery; greed is more dependable than fear. The fact is," Sanders grinned hugely, "I brought him a case of Jack Daniels. Been keeping him supplied since the war began."

Then he became, if not serious, at least sincere. "It was necessary for a cabinet-level official to come here, Admiral, and I pulled every string in sight to be the one. May I say that's it's a pleasure to see you again? As a token of my esteem, I've brought you a case of Glen Grant."

Trevayne's face was momentarily transfigured. Then he glared. "At least have the goodness to tell me what I'm being bribed to do."

"All in good time, Admiral," Sanders said with another of his disarming chuckles. "For now, let's not keep the reception committee waiting."

Trevayne introduced the Gray Eminence of Terran Intelligence to the officers and politicians. Sanders bowed over Miriam's hand with courtly grace, addressing her as "Madam Ortega" and, incredibly, leaving her almost flustered. The bugger plays the gentleman of the old school to the hilt, Trevayne thought dourly.

Then they all moved towards Nelson's wardroom, where Captain Mujabi had prepared to extend his ship's hospitality. Trevayne contrived to maneuver himself and Sanders into an otherwise empty intraship car, intending to grill the unexpected visitor. But as soon as they were alone, Sanders turned to him with an expression that was half-amused and half-abashed.

"Ahem . . . Admiral, do you recall the HV chips I gave you at Rehfrak?"

"Yes," Trevayne replied, caught off balance. "They've unaccountably disappeared, I'm afraid." Please, God, he thought quickly. Don't let the bastard have another set!

"I'd suspected that might happen. However, the series was such a resounding success that they've produced a sequel: Triumph at Zephrain. I had intended to arrange direct distribution rather than troubling you with the matter . . . thus minimizing the possibility of the sort of accident which befell the original."

He paused, gauging the visible effect of all this on Trevayne. Judging the risk of coronary arrest to be within acceptable limits, he resumed.

"But I've changed my mind after meeting Ms. Ortega. You see, she figures rather, ah, prominently in the sequel. And I can see now that the unknown actress who, for obscure reasons, was chosen to play her was badly miscast. She isn't endowed with the Grand Councilor's vivid personality and lively intelligence-however well-endowed she may be in certain other respects. So, Admiral, I think I'll let you be the judge of the production's suitability for public display in the Rim systems. Or, for that matter, private viewing by Ms. Ortega." He smiled beatifically.

Trevayne forced himself to recall a bit of folk wisdom from Sanders' part of Old Terra: He may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch. Suddenly he grinned. He might as well, he decided, give over trying to resist the man. It was hopeless, anyway.

"Very handsome of you," he said. "Glen Grant, is it? For God's sake, call me 'Ian,' you sodding Yank!"

"All right. Talk."

Trevayne and Sanders sat in the former's stateroom. Like all spacecraft living quarters, it was compact, but it was comfortable and laid out so efficiently its efficiency was barely noticeable. Captain Mujabi, who hadn't been expecting an extra passenger for the return to Xanadu, had assigned Sanders a similar compartment. Fortunately, the Nelson class was designed to house admirals and their staffs.

Trevayne watched Sanders' eyes twinkle. The evening's socializing (a nearby supernova would have been less of a novelty than a visitor direct from Old Terra) had been so intense that he'd managed to pry Sanders loose only by leaving Miriam to fight a rearguard action. He more than suspected that Sanders had enjoyed every moment of his notoriety-he certainly hadn't made any effort to assist in separating himself from it!

"Talk," Trevayne repeated. "I'll not get a wink of sleep until you tell me the news."

"Well, Ian," Sanders temporized, "there was more truth than poetry to the excuse you used to haul me out of the wardroom: I am a bit fatigued. After all, I'm not as young as I once was. . . ."

"You'll bury us all," Trevayne said flatly. "Stop playing games, for once, and tell me exactly what you're doing out here. You may as well face the fact that you're not getting out of this stateroom until I know!"

"Very well." Sanders sighed in mock resignation. "As you've no doubt gathered, your victory at Second Zephrain changed the entire complexion of the war. As I mentioned at Rehfrak, the rebels have been pressing us hard almost from the beginning, and to date, it's always been a matter of their taking choke points away from us, no matter what minor tactical successes we've had."

He paused thoughtfully, face very intent. For just a moment, Trevayne realized, his mask was slipping.

"You know, Ian," he said slowly, "I think the Innerworlds were even less well prepared for this war than they've been thinking."

"How the bloody hell do you 'prepare' for something like this?" Trevayne asked quietly. "It can't be done."

"No, but there are . . . mindsets, call them, which can make or break your ability to cope when it comes," Sanders countered. "Look at it this way. Anyone who could count knew that the Fringe, with thirty percent of the people, provided sixty percent of the Fleet-but no one really seemed to think about the attitudes which sent so many Fringers into uniform. And not just the sheer numbers of them, either; the composition of the Fringer military should have given us pause."

"You mean all the female personnel?" Trevayne asked softly.

"Exactly." Sanders eyes lit as he realized Trevayne understood precisely what he meant. "Fringe Worlds are chary with the lives of their women, Ian. They have exactly the opposite problem from that of the Innerworlds; too few people and too much planet. So every potential mother is desperately needed, and they've acquired a whole new social status as a result. Fringer women tend to be protected as their planets' investment in the future, yet over forty percent of all Fringer military personnel are women. That bespeaks a culture which places a high premium on military responsibility . . . a higher premium, I'm afraid, than Innerworlders do."

"The old 'rich democracies are soft' argument?" Trevayne could have sounded mocking, but he didn't.

"In a sense. Not so much soft, though, as inexperienced. There haven't been any real penetrations of Innerworld space-except for Timor and the Alpha Centauri raid-in two centuries, Ian. Oh, there was plenty of panic during ISW Four-especially after Centauri. I was there to see it, and you're historian enough to know what I'm talking about. But the breakthrough everyone was afraid of never happened to us the way it did to the Tabbies, and once the Arachnids were history, the Innerworlds forgot their panic with indecent haste."

Sanders shook his head, old eyes staring at something only he could see, and, despite his impatience, Trevayne sat quietly, waiting until the older man inhaled sharply and shook himself.

"It never happened," he repeated. "Thank God. But because it didn't, it left the cocoon intact. Innerworlders have been insulated from the realities of warfare, and, frankly, they didn't have the initial personal commitment the Fringers had. Then they lost all those Fleet units and, as a result, all the early engagements. It shook them pretty badly. In fact, I'm afraid there was a lot of defeatism-or, no, not defeatism so much as fatalism. And, let's face it, public opinion's been divided on whether or not we should even be trying to hold the Fringe against its will since the shooting started. It's an . . . ambiguous war, in a lot of ways, without the sort of black-and-white, victory-or-extinction war aims and mindset of ISW Four. There was no fire in the Federation's belly for this war, if you'll pardon the purple prose."

He grinned, and the serious, analytical thinker vanished once more into the persona of the japester.

"But all that changed when First Zephrain convinced the Innerworlds we can win victories-and they don't even know about the new technology yet. So now the Corporate and Heart Worlds are feeling full of beans for the first time since this war began, and the rebels have been given a shock that puts them on the defensive for the first time. So . . ."

The light above the stateroom door flashed in a series of blinks Sanders suspected wasn't as random as it seemed. Trevayne touched the admittance stud, and Miriam Ortega stepped through the door as it slid open.

"Sorry I took so long," she said to Trevayne. There were only two chairs, so she perched on the edge of the bunk. "Barry can be long-winded at times. Hope I haven't missed too much."

Sanders cleared his throat and gave Trevayne a quizzical look, only to be answered with a bland smile.

"Ms. Ortega is cleared for 'Most Secret,' " he said. His smile broadened slightly as he added. "By me, under my emergency powers. I call your attention to the documents you gave me at Rehfrak. . . ."

"No problem with clearance, Ian," Sanders waved that point aside. "But while I don't wish to appear ungracious, Ms. Ortega, it's my duty to question your need to know."

"Ms. Ortega is my closest ally in the Provisional Government. Whatever it is you expect out of the Rim Systems, she's going to be instrumental in mobilizing political support for it. She'll have to know sooner or later." Trevayne's face showed a trace of exasperation. "It's as I told you at Rehfrak. D'you think the Rim puts out the kind of effort that won Second Zephrain because I stand over them with a whip? Not bloody likely!"

Sanders understood. He'd noted, without comment, the patch on Trevayne's left sleeve: hardly a standard TFN shoulder flash! Fleet flashes indicated individual planets, members of the Federation-not whole multi-system political units. He glanced over at Miriam, watching her busy herself lighting a cigarette as if to stand aside from the discussion. She felt his gaze and looked up with a flashing smile.

"Just think of me as part of the furniture, Mister Sanders. My application for a Beautiful Female Spy's license was turned down when I flunked the physical. And," she added, her smile turning into something suspiciously like a grin, "please call me Miriam."

Sanders smiled back. He wanted to play no power games with these people. In theory, he spoke with the voice of the Prime Minister. But that, he acknowledged wryly, was bullshit. If Trevayne didn't happen to like an order, he had every legal right to demand confirmation from the Cabinet-which was impossible. And then they'd be back at square one. So, he concluded happily, to hell with it.

"Believe me, Miriam," he said in his most winning voice, "you'll never be mistaken for part of the furniture. And I'm grateful to Ian for giving me an out for including you in the discussion. Now, where was I?

"Oh, yes, the effect of Second Zephrain on the Innerworlds. You see, the rebels were already on the defensive, but the Innerworlds didn't really realize it. The insiders knew, of course; why should the rebels come to us anymore? They already had everything they wanted in Innerworld space. So they reverted to a holding stance and turned their attention in your direction, and there wasn't a lot we could do about it, especially not now that the rebel yards appear to be keeping pace with their losses in everything but heavy battle-line units. Now, however, they've run slap into your new technologies, and it's clear the new developments give the Rim a tremendous combat advantage. But that advantage doesn't apply to the Innerworlds, because there's no way to send us the data through Orion space. Oh, our RD efforts have been spurred, of course-but so have the rebels', and, for that matter, the Orions'. In engineering matters, knowing for certain that a given thing can be done is half the battle. But even so, RD takes time.

"So the Cabinet and Admiralty have decided to make the time lag in development an asset rather than a liability. They've decided on a coordinated attack to open up a corridor between the Rim and the rest of the Federation now, while only the Rim has the new weapons. The purposes, of course, are manifold, but one of the obvious ones is to hit the rebels before they have time to develop the same weapons and, simultaneously, to get actual samples of the technology into Innerworld hands. Once we can apply Innerworld industrial capacity to turning out the new weapons you've already developed, we'll be able to put an end to this war.

"And that, to answer your question, is why I'm here: to coordinate this end of Operation Yellowback, the campaign to reunite the loyal segments of the Federation."

"But . . ." Miriam paused. "Excuse me. I may be a Navy brat, but I'm also about as unmilitary a person as you're ever likely to meet. Still, it occurs to me that there are a dozen rebel-held systems on the most direct warp line between Zephrain and the Innerworlds, aren't there? Short of moving through Orion space, of course."

"Thirteen, to be exact," Sanders replied. "The next closest is twice that long, through the Romulus Cluster. And, yes, I know that sounds like a lot of systems to blast your way through. But if we attack from both ends simultaneously . . . well, I've lost most of my initial skepticism now that I've seen this ship. I knew about her in a general way, but nothing I'd heard or read quite prepared me for the impact. How many Nelsons do you have?"

"Six. Four more in a month or so," Trevayne responded absently. He'd taken on a thoughtful, brooding look while the other man had been speaking.

Sanders' well-schooled features hid his astonishment. Ten of these leviathans, constructed and manned by a thinly populated region like the Rim?! Trevayne was right: these people were . . . formidable.

The other two, he could tell, were deep in their thoughts. Trevayne was at his most inscrutable. Miriam puffed on her cigarette and looked worried.

Abruptly Trevayne looked up, and the introspective look was gone.

"Yes," he said. "I agree. It can be done. And this damned deadlock is going to continue as long as the Federation is split into two parts, neither strong enough to scotch the rebellion. I have to say that the ambiguity you say Innerworld public opinion feels isn't very apparent out here, Kevin, but I can readily believe that it exists in the rest of the Federation. And if that's true, every month of delay will only create a greater subliminal acceptance of the status quo by everyone involved. So when is our offensive scheduled to begin?"

"The details are in my subconscious, to be retrieved under deep hypnosis by means of . . . a certain trigger word I'll tell you how to obtain later." Cautious habits die hard. "But it's about three standard months from now."

"Three months! Bloody hell, man! D'you realize what's involved? Nobody in history's ever tried to mount a sustained offensive through this many contested warp connections-not even Raymond Prescott during the Home Hive One campaign! The supply problem alone . . . we'll have to commandeer half the bleeding freighters in the Rim just to haul ammunition! And I don't suppose you have detailed information on the defenses we'll encounter along the way, now do you? I certainly don't! And no bloody way to get it, either-you can only send recon drones so far, you know."

"Ah, but think of the incentive you have: getting rid of me!" Sanders beamed innocently at them. "Not wishing to belabor the obvious, I haven't mentioned that I'm your permanent guest until we fight our way back to the Innerworlds. After all, it's out of the question for me to go back through Orion space now that they know approximately what your new weapons can do. I may be a technical near-illiterate, but I have seen some of what you've got at first hand. Leornak would hate it, but he'd have to arrange an 'accident' and go back to drinking domestic Orion booze!"

Trevayne laughed. Miriam smoked her cigarette and glanced back and forth between the two men, very thoughtfully.

There was little leisure for anyone after their arrival at Xanadu. The welter of details inundated them so completely that it was several days before Trevayne and Sanders could sit privately in Trevayne's office discussing his plans for a final fleet operational exercise.

"Are you sure you won't come along? I can promise you quite a show."

"Thank you, Ian, but the trip out here was all the spacing I can handle for a while at my age." Trevayne snorted. If Sanders had been much younger he wouldn't have left him on the same planet with Miriam.

"No, seriously," Sanders insisted. "I've been chronically fatigued lately. I think I'm still having trouble with this twenty-nine-hour day. One loses one's adaptability in such things, you know. Still, I wouldn't have missed this for the Galaxy. I was getting bored with Old Terra and the Cabinet, not necessarily in that order."

Trevayne was quiet for a moment, regarding his blotter with pursed lips as if the mention of the Cabinet had started a new train of thought. When he looked up, he spoke with some hesitancy.

"Kevin, if you don't mind my asking . . . how well do you know Prime Minister Dieter?"

"Personally? Hardly at all. He's not an easy man to know. Why?"

"Oh, I was just wondering what you think of him."

"Or," Sanders grinned, "put another way, how did the man responsible for the mess wind up as Prime Minister? Actually, it was pretty much a matter of elimination; every other Corporate World delegate was too discredited, and we're just damned lucky he was available. He's had to accept a pretty broad spectrum of ministers-all the way from Amanda Sydon as Treasury Minister to Roger Hadad from Old Terra as Foreign Minister-but he combined Defense with the premiership, and that gave him a leg up. By now, he's firmly in control and shaping up very nicely." Sanders shrugged.

"I'm relieved to hear you think so highly of him," Trevayne said slowly, "but I'm a bit concerned by this policy of what seems to be de facto recognition of the Terran Republic. Of course," he added, "this is all entirely off the record. Publicly, I've followed the government line to the letter. But privately . . . well, I can't help thinking that you've lost half the battle when you accept the other side's semantics. It was a mistake your ancestors and mine frequently made in the twentieth century."

"It wasn't an easy decision," Sanders acknowledged. "But there are difficulties in fighting a war when you don't recognize your opponent's legal existence. Some of them are amazing. It reminds me of the American Civil War, six centuries ago. The government of the old 'United States' never officially recognized the secessionist confederation as a separate nation, but in practice it treated it as a belligerent in a number of ways. For example, it declared a blockade, which is by definition something you do to a foreign power. The legally consistent approach would've been to simply declare the seceding states' ports closed to foreign commerce, but the only effect of that would've been to make the United States government a laughingstock."

"I know," Trevayne nodded, "but I never realized you were a history enthusiast, Kevin."

"I leave that to people like yourself." Sanders grinned with an eloquent, seated half-bow. "But there's been a lot of research into the civil wars of Old Terra lately. We don't have much recent experience to go by, so Dieter's had the archives turned upside-down for precedents."

He paused thoughtfully.

"That's one of his great strengths, you know: he's a detail man. And his other strength is his ability to face new realities squarely . . . not an easy thing to do, but, then, he's had a lot of experience since the MacTaggart assassination. Now that he's learned how, he's very much in the mainstream tradition of the Federation, of course. You know the Federation has never been a monolithic ideological state. Centralized, yes, but not monolithic; it couldn't have been, even when it was restricted to the Solar System. The rebels recognized that when they opted for such a loose, federalized system, but realists have always known the Federation could only function as a template on which diverse cultures and interests could interact and reach compromise accommodations." He stopped rather abruptly, his mischievous look suddenly returning. "Anyway, whatever else can be said of Dieter, he's unquestionably a superb judge of character. After all, he brought me out of retirement, didn't he?"

Sanders rose from his cluttered desk and stretched. He was the last one left in his offices in Government House-not surprisingly, at this hour of the night. The staff Trevayne had assigned to him had all gone home, leaving him to cope with the effects of Xandau's damned, long day as best he could. Ever since he'd arrived, he'd felt as if he'd stayed up far too late. Which, he decided, he really had in this case. He switched off the light and started to leave, but stopped on seeing the figure silhouetted in the door to the still-lighted outer office.

"Good evening, Kevin," Miriam Ortega said. "May I come in?"

"Certainly."

He turned on the desk lamp and waved at a chair, sitting back down himself. They sat on opposite sides of the bright pool of light, and Government House was quiet around them.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" he asked, thinking this was the first he'd seen of her since Trevayne had departed for the Fleet exercise. She got out a cigarette, and he automatically reached across with an antique desk lighter. The spill of light from the small flame glowed on her bold features as she puffed the tobacco alight. Blue smoke spiraled through the island of light and vanished into the surrounding darkness.

"Well," she said around the cigarette, "I was wondering if you were ready to tell me what you weren't telling us aboard the Nelson."

Sanders almost dropped the lighter.

"Whatever do you mean?" he asked warily. Miriam sat back and blew smoke in his direction with a gently malicious smile uncannily like that he sometimes saw in his mirror.

"When you and Ian discussed this offensive, I couldn't help noticing a slight discrepancy between what he said and what you said," she said. "He took it for granted that reopening contact with the Innerworlds was the first step in a final campaign to force the rebels back into the fold. And you never corrected him. But-" she gave him the same smile once more "-you never actually said that, did you? The closest you came was . . . oh, how did you phrase it . . . 'putting an end to this war.' And it also occurred to me that you were touching just a shade emphatically on the 'ambiguous' nature of public opinion on this war. At the time, I thought it might just be the nit-picking lawyer in me, which was one reason I didn't mention it. But now I've gotten to know you better than that, Kevin. No matter how glib and charming you may be, you never say anything-or leave anything out-without a damned good reason."

Sanders savored a number of unaccustomed sensations and stalled while he collected his thoughts.

"Why else have you waited so long to mention this?"

"I've been waiting for a chance to talk to you alone. I have a strong sense that, underneath all your game-playing, you wish Ian well. So I'm giving you a chance to explain your reasons for letting him jump to a false conclusion. Especially one which is going to hurt him so badly when he finds out it's false. And," she finished pointedly, "you're still stalling."

He capitulated. "You know, Miriam, I've see enough since I've been here to realize who the real power in the Provisional Government is. Now I begin to see why. Very well, I'll make a clean breast. What I said aboard Nelson was absolutely true, so far as it went. The offensive will begin on schedule, and its objective is to open up a warp connection between the Innerworlds and the Rim. But once that's done, Prime Minister Dieter plans to offer the rebels a peace settlement based on acceptance of the status quo. The result will be a Terran Republic consisting of all the Fringe Worlds-except those we'll have seized to serve as the corridor we need-and a Federation shaped rather like a dumbbell." (He was speaking in terms of the layout of the warp network. If the Federation he described had been charted in actual three-dimensional space, it would have resembled a geometrician's opium dream. But she understood.) "And they'll accept it. What I said about the combined military potential of the two loyal segments of the Federation was also true."

"How do you know all this?"

"I don't-not officially. But I've worked closely enough with the PM to learn how his mind works. Also," he added with his most impish grin, "I have my own sources. Deviousness, my dear, has its uses."

"Of course," she observed dryly.

She was a strong woman, he thought. Despite her suspicions, confirmation of exactly what he'd been holding back must have been quite a shock, yet she was adapting nicely. He folded his hands neatly on his blotter and awaited her response with interest.

Miriam sat back to digest his words. As always with Sanders, it was wheels within wheels. She doubted that she could ever fully understand this sophisticated old man from a sophisticated old planet. But her instincts continued to tell her that he was fundamentally a friend to Ian, which made him at least an ally of hers.

She noticed that her cigarette had burned low and stubbed it out, selecting another one. She glared down at it for a moment. She really ought to cut back on the damned things . . . to hell with it. She lit up.

"Kevin, you must know that Ian and I are . . . close. What makes you think I won't tell him all this?"

Sanders leaned forward into the pool of light. His blue eyes were disconcertingly sharp.

"You won't tell him for the same reasons I haven't. Our mutual friend is an idealist in the truest sense. He also thinks in straight lines, something I've forgotten how to do, if I ever knew how in the first place. He can imagine no conclusion to the war except the triumphant restoration of the Terran Federation, and the truth would be . . . unacceptable to him. You're right, I have deliberately brought up the divided public opinion back home . . . and it's sailed right past him. He simply can't conceive of any war aim short of a total victory that will reinvigorate the ideal of the Federation the Corporate Worlds killed long ago."

Sanders shook his head sadly, and Miriam suddenly wondered what it must have been like for someone his age, with his brilliant, incisive mind and all the advantages of his place in the intelligence community, to watch the long, slow destruction of Howard Anderson's Federation. He'd seen literally a century of it, and she suspected that there'd been more than a little of the idealist in him, once upon a time. Perhaps there still was, yet that idealism had been tempered and alloyed by experience and pragmatism, and his eyes moved back to her face and focused once more.

"Accepting any other outcome would, I think, be something even you would have to bring him around to seeing only slowly. And we don't have time to do things slowly, Miriam; not if we're going to strike before the rebels find an answer to his new weapons." His eyes grew even sharper. "Since we don't have that time, he's going to be risking his life in this campaign very shortly. You have even better reason than I for not telling him anything that might impair his effectiveness!"

She glared at him. "Don't you ever get tired of manipulating people?"

"Miriam, it would take a far bigger man than me to manipulate either you or Ian. The fact is that you know I'm right. You also knew Dieter is right. The Federation simply won't work on any basis but a consensual one, and that's gone now, as far as the Fringe is concerned. Maybe they're even right to pull away before the hate that's built up curdles us all internally. The most we can hope for is an Innerworld/Rim unity with the Corporate World arrogance knocked out of us."

She puffed thoughtfully. "You may have a point. But unless Dieter is prepared to give up the whole idea of an Orion amalgamation, that issue is still going to be with us. I can tell you the idea doesn't sit well with the Rim-and that's just one aspect of a broader issue. You say Ian's an idealist, and God knows that's true. It's one of the reasons I love him, but it's also one of the things which makes the Rim so fanatically loyal to him. He doesn't recognize that himself, but it's there . . . and it's because we're all idealists out here, in a way. You've got to understand that people out here are passionately loyal to the idea of the Federation. But they're also passionately attached to self-government, and they see no contradiction between the two."

"Federation member planets have always had local self-government. . . ."

"Maybe so, but it's beyond that, now. The Rim is no longer a gaggle of unrelated planets. We've acquired a sense of identity-almost nationhood-by successfully defending ourselves. And the provisional government Ian's organized has given us a Rim-wide forum. You've probably heard people out here use the phrase 'the Rim Federation.' " She paused thoughtfully.

"Ironic, isn't it?" she went on with an odd half-smile. "Nobody talks about the 'Rim Federation' around Ian! The whole concept is anathema to him. As far as he's concerned, he's simply holding the Rim for the Federation-and he may be the only man in the Galaxy who could have done it." She leaned forward, and her eyes glowed as they caught the light. "But in the process of doing what's necessary-militarily and politically-for that, he's fathered a new nation! The Federation's going to have to take account of the rights, interests, and, yes, prejudices of the Rim. Otherwise, Dieter's policy will fall flat on its ass. And besides . . . I think we've earned it!"

Her voice had become a harsh clang of pride. After its echoes died away, Sanders remembered to breathe.

"I agree," he said quietly. "The postwar astrographical realities will necessitate some form of special autonomy for the Rim within the Federation. I tell you quite frankly-I'm rapidly learning better than to try to bullshit you-that the Amalgamation will come. There's been too much public commitment to it and too many Innerworld voters see it as a symbol of victory for Dieter to resist it even if he wanted to. But home rule should shield the Rim from most of the things people out here find repugnant about it. No doubt if our friend were here he'd find all sorts of historical precedents for it-from his own ancestors' commonwealth period, perhaps."

His eyes took on a faraway look.

"You know, this may turn out for the best. Amalgamation opens up fascinating possibilities for interspecies cultural interaction, which probably means it's the wave of the future. But at the same time, human-dominated societies will continue to have something to offer. And the Terran Republic is . . . immature. It may be that your own 'Rim Federation' will incorporate the best of both worlds, especially if it can avoid the mistakes of either."

Miriam realized anew that she would never know quite where she stood with this man. There was something almost inhuman about that long a view. She wanted to ask him if he still had any parochial loyalties, any passionate attachments, any fundamental beliefs of any kind. But that wasn't how the question came out.

"Kevin, were you ever young?"

"Miriam," he suddenly flashed his toothiest grin and chuckled, "you wouldn't have believed me as a junior officer!"

"Attention on deck!"

The men and women in Nelson's staff briefing room rose to attention as Trevayne strode in.

"Carry on, ladies and gentlemen," he said briskly, moving towards the head of the U-shaped table, and they immediately resumed their seats. He took his own place and came directly to the point. "I want to congratulate all of you on the results of the exercise. Even Commodore Yoshinaka could find little to criticize." A rueful chuckle went around the table. "I won't ask you to congratulate your personnel for me, because I plan to do so personally on the fleet-wide communication hookup at 2100 hours."

He paused, his eyes sweeping his officers. They were a mixture of his handpicked people from BG 32 and Sergei Ortega's best subordinates, welded into a team in the fires of battle. He allowed himself to consider them one by one, as if in a final testing for weak links in the chain of command.

Sonja Desai, now a vice admiral, commanded his second supermonitor battlegroup. (Trevayne himself commanded the first, in addition to holding overall command, and Vice Admiral Frederick Shespar commanded the third.) Rear Admiral Remko, now commanding the battlecruisers and their supporting craft, sat beside her. Ever since he'd received his new appointment, Trevayne thought with an inner smile, Sean had worn the look of a man who was once again in his element.

Genji Yoshinaka sat quietly at Trevayne's elbow, as he always did. Their link had grown even stronger since the Second Battle of Zephrain. Neither of them ever mentioned the incident which had caused it, but their shared understanding needed no statement. Trevayne had persuaded him to accept promotion to commodore only by agreeing to let him stay on as chief of staff, though a captain might have filled the billet.

Vice Admiral Shespar sat at his other elbow, a dark-visaged, competent man with hard eyes who'd been Sergei's second in command before BG 32's arrival. Beyond him was Commander Joaquin Sandoval y Belhambre, another of Ortega's people, and one of the few actually born in the Rim. A fighter pilot who'd distinguished himself in the Battle of the Gateway and against the Tangri, he'd shown an unexpected gift for operational planning as a carrier group ops officer, in which position he'd caught Genji's eye.

Sandoval had brought along his intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Lavrenti Kirilenko, who was widely regarded as a man to be watched. Though young, he had the kind of face which, Trevayne thought, lady novelists used to call "saturnine." He also had a sardonic sense of humor, but there was a kind of purity about his approach to his profession: the amoral fascination of a chessmaster. Trevayne suspected that he had the potential to develop into another Kevin Sanders. If so, the great difference in their ages was just as well; one per century was enough.

Opposite Trevayne sat Flag Captain Lewis Mujabi, an even rarer bird than Sandoval in many respects-a Fringer whose native planet had seceded without him. In an era when more and more of the human race was blending into a nice, even shade of brown, Mujabi was so black he was, in some lights, almost purple. His people, predominantly African to begin with, had settled Kashiji, a planet near the inner edge of the liquid-water zone of a class F2 sun. Natural selection, abetted by some modest genetic engineering, had taken its inevitable course.

BG 32 itself was now commanded by Rear Admiral Maria Kim, originally one of its ship captains. Another, Commodore Khalid Khan, led another battlegroup built around monitors captured at Second Zephrain (two of which had also been added to Shespar's BG 3 to round out its lower supermonitor strength). Rear Admiral Carl Stoner, who'd commanded Ortega's Frontier Fleet carriers, filled the same billet under Trevayne.

Looking around the crowded room at these officers and the others who comprised Fourth Fleet's brain, Trevayne could barely repress a thrill of pride. He abandoned himself to the reverie for just a moment longer before he cleared his throat and continued.

"Turning to the classified folders before you, I would ask you to open them now." There was a crackle of breaking seals. "Commander Sandoval will briefly summarize."

He had stressed the adverb slightly, and there were grins around the table (not least from Sandoval himself), for the ops officer had earned a reputation as a raconteur of hilarious but lengthy anecdotes.

"Yes, sir. I'll keep it brief, sir."

There might have been just a suspicion of irony in his voice. It was hard to tell, but Genji Yoshinaka had recommended Sandoval for the job partly because he was a brilliant, irreverent soul who refused to be completely in awe of anyone or anything, including admirals. Now the dark, wiry commander, very young for his job, rose and switched on a holographic star display.

"First, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to point out that although the joint operation we are about to undertake is called 'Operation Yellowback,' we are concerned only with that portion of it called 'Operation Reunion.' "

There was a chuckle at that, and Trevayne hid his own smile. Sanders had tended towards a sort of scandalized chagrin when Trevayne had announced the change in operational designations. Sandoval and he had stood to their guns, however. Trevayne had argued that there were innumerable precedents for renaming subsections of campaign plans and that the new name had more positive morale connotations. But what had really floored the Old Terran was Sandoval's irreverently point-blank refusal to lead men and women into battle under an operational code name from a five-hundred-year-old children's story-and, no, Sandoval wasn't impressed by the fact that the story in question had always been one of Admiral Sanders' favorites.

"This operation is relatively straightforward," Sandoval went on, "although it may or may not be simple. Our only really difficult strategic decision was whether to make our breakout through the Gateway or the Back Door. Either would take us to the Purdah System, meeting the bare-bones ops plan the Joint Chiefs sent us via Admiral Sanders, but the Gateway route does so in only three transits. The Back Door takes four, and would almost certainly meet stiffer resistance, since that route leads into the Bonaparte System"-a star blinked on the display-"which contains the major rebel base from which Second Zephrain was launched. Drone probes and raids have given us pretty good intelligence on our home warp points, and based on that data, we decided on the Gateway. It'll be rough, but not as rough as Bonaparte.

"After the breakout, we hope to proceed rapidly. Our axis of advance will be through these systems." A net of warp lines lit in red as he touched a button. "There are two main problems in an offensive like this. One, of course, is supplies, especially of depletable munitions. The fleet train is accordingly of the first importance, and guarding it is going to be essential. This will become especially true as we advance, because we'll open 'sally ports' on our flanks as we bypass warp points to other rebel-held systems. It's also possible, as we all know, for commerce raiders to operate for a time within a single system, even if cut off from outside support. We consider the risk to the fleet train will not become critical, however, until we reach the Zapata System, the first major choke point on our planned route.

"And that brings us to the second major risk to our momentum: lack of intelligence. To be perfectly frank, we have no idea what system defenses we'll face after our initial breakout. Until we control more warp points, we can't even use drones, much less scouting squadrons, so we're going in blind. On the other hand, we know the rebels must have been committing the majority of their industrial capacity to shipbuilding, judging by what they used at Second Zephrain and the enemy deployment data Admiral Sanders brought us. Presumably, that means they can't have built a lot of fortifications out here, at least not behind the immediate 'front line' systems. As for Fleet units-" he shrugged slightly "-we think they were badly hurt at Second Zephrain, and we've demonstrated the efficiency of our weapons. Unless they have a radically higher number of hulls than ONI estimates, they shouldn't be strong enough to stop both us and the forces attacking to meet us."

He stopped and seated himself.

"Thank you, Commander, "Trevayne said, rising. "That's about all that can be said at this stage-and it was admirably brief." He allowed himself a slight smile as his staff chuckled. "We'll meet again tomorrow, after you've had a chance to study the plan and formulate questions. In the meantime, remember the com hook-up at 2100. I want every man and woman in the Fleet to hear me."

He strode out. The room seemed to get bigger, as rooms tended to when Trevayne left them. . . .



* * * | Insurrection | * * *



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