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Captain Li Han, commanding officer of TFNS Longbow, shrugged as her tunic's seams slid back off the points of her shoulders and the dragonhead flash of her planet dipped low. She should have stood over that tailor with a club! He wasn't used to dealing with officers who massed just over twenty-six kilos, and it showed.

The intraship car slowed and Han banished her frown, squaring her cap on her sleek black hair. The trick, they'd explained at the Academy, was never to notice that anything was wrong. If you didn't, they didn't. Assuming, of course, that the Protocol Procedures profs were correct.

The door hissed open on the boatbay, and Han watched the side party snap to attention beside her cutter as the electronic bosun's pipe shrilled. There were few non-Oriental faces in Longbow; she was homeported on the Fringe World of Hangchow and her crew reflected her ethnicity, and even those few were from other Fringe Worlds. There was not a single Innerworlder in Longbow's complement, and Han sometimes wondered if any of her personnel ever guessed just how and why that had come to pass.

She hoped not. She hoped they would never have to know.

She shook herself mentally and stepped from the car. Hangchow ran to about ten percent more gravity than the one standard G all TFN ships maintained-enough to make the one-gravity field restful (and to produce a musculature which at least gave her a little more body mass, despite her height)-and Han moved with a dancer's grace, hiding a familiar wry smile as she passed through the side party. The top of her cap was below shoulder level on the sideboys, and she wondered if they found her small size amusing? Probably. Han's diminutive size dogged her career like a shadow. She'd probably always be remembered as the smallest midshipman ever to enter the Academy, rather than as the woman who graduated with the honor sword by her side, but the fact that she stood just under 119 centimeters hadn't kept her from showing the whole pack her heels, she thought cheerfully. And captain's rank in Battle Fleet at thirty-seven was no mean accomplishment, either.

She returned the salutes, and the cutter's hatch slid shut as she dropped into the cushioned chair. And so, she thought, off to another scintillating courtesy call . . . but this one might be more important than most.

The cutter idled clear of Longbow, and Han allowed herself a moment of pride as she studied her command through the port. The huge, ungainly bulk of Skywatch Three, the orbital headquarters of Galloway's World System Defense Command, made a perfect foil for the battlecruiser's elegance. Light from the system's G4 primary glittered on Longbow's graceful flanks and turned her recessed weapons bays into sooty ovals of shadow, hiding the deadly devices crouching within. Even the clutter of external ordnance hardpoints and the massive housings of her drive pods seemed graceful and balanced. Other ships carried heavier armaments, or more defense, but none matched the speed, maneuverability, and power blended in Longbow's sinister beauty.

Han sighed and looked away. Beautiful, yes, but still a killing machine. A weapon of war to engage and destroy humanity's enemies. It passed belief that Navy personnel might someday have to decide just which humans were enemies.

Air screamed past the cutter's hull as it skipped into Galloway's World's atmosphere, and the little boat banked gently as it headed for the Yard's landing pads. Han watched the Jamieson Archipelago grow, amused as always by the anomaly which left the Fleet's fourth largest shipyard the only Navy base in existence without a name. It was just "the Yard," as it had been since the First Interstellar War, when Galloway's World was the navy yard for the Federation-just as the sprawling kilometers of dependent housing around it were simply "the Reservation." There were larger bases now- Zephrain for one-but no other planet rivaled the sheer numbers of hulls which emerged from the military and civilian building slips of Galloway's World.

The cutter swooped over the innocent weather domes that hid the Yard's missile silos and projector pits. As a rule, the TFN preferred to defend inhabited planets with orbital forts, sparing civilians the incidental destruction attendant upon modern combat, but there was no point pretending about the Jamieson Archipelago. The Yard alone made the island chain a priority target for any enemy, and the Yard wasn't alone. It crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with the Taliaferro Yard; the Kreuger Space Works; Vickers-Mitsubishi-Galloway's World; General Dynamics of Terra; and a dozen other major building centers. Coupled with the orbital facilities where the ground-built components were assembled, the Archipelago represented the largest concentration of industrial might in the known galaxy.

The cutter dropped quickly for its landing circle, and Han watched the ground rush up to meet them, but her thoughts were on her meeting with the Port Admiral. She drew a deep breath, concentrating on the mental discipline that calmed the pulse, and glanced at her watch. Right on the tick. Good.

"Good afternoon, Captain Li." The yeoman in the outer office smiled respectfully as the tiny captain entered. "Please have a seat. Admiral Rutgers' last appointment is running a little over."

Han settled in a comfortable chair and checked her watch again, hoping Admiral Rutgers wasn't going to be tied up long. She was due to ship out for Christophon in two hours, and there were always last-minute details to crowd a departure time. It was well known that Port Admirals' whims had much the same force as direct decrees from God, but that never seemed to help when the admiral at the other end wanted to know where you'd spent that extra hour or two.

The door slid open and Han glanced up-then came quickly to her feet at the sight of a vice admiral's sleeve braid. The tall, dark-faced man with the neat beard nodded to her.


"Admiral Trevayne."

"Another penitent here to see the Admiral, Captain Li?"

"No, sir." Han hid a smile. "Just a courtesy call before departure."

"Ah!" Trevayne nodded and turned away.

Li Han regarded his broad shoulders thoughtfully. Now what did that "Ah!" mean? There was something hidden behind it; she could almost taste it. Did he know something she didn't? Possibly. Quite possibly. Trevayne was a marked man in the service: the youngest man ever to command a monitor battlegroup, and no question that he was headed for CNO and possibly even Sky Marshal before he was done. If there was any loose information floating around, it would have come to his ears long since. Rumor credited the man with an uncanny ability to read the future. Was he reading it now?

Han didn't know him well enough to be certain, though she knew his son quite well. It was always easier to know one's juniors than one's seniors, but even if it hadn't been, Lieutenant Commander Colin Trevayne of the scout cruiser Ashanti was a highly . . . visible personality within the Fleet. Centuries of tradition decreed that the Federation's widely diverse military people must be nonpartisan. In a sense, accepting a TFN commission was to take a vow of political celibacy-or so it had been until very recently-and Ian Trevayne honored that tradition. Colin, however, was as fiery as his father was calm and controlled. His outspoken sympathy for the Fringe put him firmly in the "Young Turk" camp, and Han wondered if rumor exaggerated the rift between father and son.

The yeoman's panel beeped gently, and he spoke into his hushphone, then listened briefly.

"Admiral Trevayne, Captain Li; Admiral Rutgers would like to see you both, if you please," he said, and Han felt her eyebrows rise. There was something in the wind! She waited courteously for Trevayne to lead the way into the inner sanctum, and her nerves were strung to fever pitch.

Fleet Admiral William Rutgers was a bulky man of indeterminate ancestry, and Han smiled warmly as a paw like an Old Terran bear's enveloped her tiny hand in greeting. Rutgers, once her father's chief of staff, had been her own fifth-year tactical instructor almost fifteen years ago.

"Thank you both for being patient," he said, sitting back down and waving them to chairs. Han waited until Trevayne sat before she followed suit. It was just a little awkward to be so junior to the only other two people present . . . especially after coming straight from her own ship, where she was mistress after God and even that precedence was a bit blurred.

"Patient, Bill?" Trevayne chuckled. "Junior officers are always patient-or they bloody well better learn to pretend they are!"

"Except for the ones like you, Ian," Rutgers said, shaking his head in mock sadness.

Trevayne laughed easily. His elegant frame-no problems with his tailoring-was seated casually, almost carelessly, right ankle on left knee. To sit like that in the presence of an admiral, you had to be an admiral. But Trevayne had something else, something beyond even his membership in one of the "dynasties" of the Federation's Navy. His rapid rise wasn't due solely to birth or brilliance. Han's father had been an admiral before his retirement, and his father before him, yet she lacked that not-quite-arrogant "something else." Charisma, perhaps?

But from what source? He was a man who valued style and flair, and one who carried it off with ease, yet that wasn't explanation enough. It came to her suddenly that Trevayne had been reared to lead even as she had, but in a society which openly acknowledged and accepted such expectations. He expected to be a leader, and because he expected it of himself, others expected it of him, as well. His undoubted brilliance simply confirmed the wisdom of those mutual expectations.

"Well, today I have good reason for being in a hurry," he said. "Tomorrow is Courtenay's birthday, and I haven't picked out a present yet. And your godson is shipping out tomorrow on Ashanti." His jaw clenched for an instant, as if with sudden hurt. "I'm supposed to have lunch with him . . . lunch and-" he added, looking straight at Rutgers "-a much-needed talk."

Han carefully did not take note of the pain in her senior's dark face.

"I'm sorry, Ian," Rutgers said, suddenly serious. "You'd better delegate the shopping to Natalya. As for Colin . . . I know things are touchy just now, and I'll try to leave you time for lunch, but I may not be able to. Your leave's been canceled."

Han sat straighter and felt her face become masklike. Vice admirals' leaves were not cut short on whims.

"I see." Trevayne's face was very calm as he studied the Port Admiral, Too calm. It was a mask, too, Han realized sadly; everyone wore masks these days, even in the Fleet. "And might one ask why, Admiral?"

"One might," Rutgers said grimly. He glanced over at Han for a moment. "I asked you two to come in together to save a little time; what I have to say will affect you both. On the other hand, I trust that I don't have to remind you both that what's said here stays here. Clear?"

Both his juniors nodded.

"All right. As you know, the Assembly's been in a furor ever since the MacTaggart assassination. And it didn't help a bit when Skjorning murdered Fouchet! I-"

He broke off and glanced at Han, then smiled unwillingly and shook his head.

"Captain, I seem to recall a certain midshipman's expression which generally indicated disagreement. Why am I seeing it now?"

"Disagreement, Admiral?" Han shook her head. "Not disagreement. It's just that I find it difficult to condemn Assemblyman Skjorning."

"Who said I condemned him? I only said it didn't help, which it didn't. Mind, I'm not saying the same thing wouldn't have happened if he'd held his hand; I think it would have, in fact. But it's happened now, and it's up to us to pick up the pieces."

"Yes, sir."

"What 'pieces' d'you mean, Bill?" Trevayne asked, his eyes narrowing.

"I wish I knew," Rutgers sighed, running a hand over his hair. "I take it you're both reasonably informed on events on Old Terra?" They nodded, and he continued. "Well, things are coming to a head. The Assembly has decided to impeach Skjorning."

"It's not as if they really have a choice, Bill," Trevayne pointed out, "but it doesn't automatically follow that the impeachment will be sustained."

"Oh, you're so right, Ian," Rutgers said softly, and pulled out a classified binder. He slapped it down on his blotter and pressed his thumb to the lock. Scanners considered for a moment, then released the latch, and he pulled out a sheaf of yellow security paper.

"This," he said, "is an ONI evaluation of the situation as of three weeks ago. It arrived today . . . by courier drone."

Han's inner tension clicked higher. Galloway's World was a Corporate World, tied into the communications net the Corporate Worlders had used to deadly effect against the Fringe for decades. No com beam could be driven through a warp point, but it was quite possible to build deep-space relay stations within star systems. All messages had to be physically carried through warp points aboard ships or small, unmanned courier drones, but once through, they could be transcribed and transmitted to the next warp point. Yet such systems took time to emplace, and they were incredibly expensive, both to build and maintain.

The Corporate Worlds had capitalized upon that. In the spirit of "generosity," their delegates had declared that it was only proper that each system should be responsible for its own relay networks rather than making them a charge upon any other system, and, since they controlled the Assembly, the Assembly had agreed. But the Fringe Worlds, of course, were too poor to build and extend the relay nets to their worlds. All of their messages must travel by ship or drone, which-just coincidentally-meant that it was far, far easier for Corporate World politicos to confer with their homeworlds. They could send a message and get a response in days; the same process took months for a Fringer delegation, and that explained a great deal about the smoothly oiled precision of the Taliaferro Machine.

But if ONI had sent this data by drone, it meant whoever had sent it didn't trust the relays. It wasn't all that unusual for classified data to be sent physically rather than risk interception, but Admiral Rutgers' tone and expression told her this drone was more important than most.

"Indications are that the Taliaferro crowd doesn't plan to challenge the Ortler precedent," the burly admiral continued grimly. "Rather than push for Skjorning's civil trial on Old Terra, they're going to expel him from the Assembly and send him back to the Kontravian Cluster under Lictor escort. As Taliaferro puts it-" he thumbed through the Naval Intelligence report for the passage he sought, and his voice was harsh as he read aloud "-'Let us send the barbarians among us back to the Fringe where they belong!' "

Han felt her face blanch. No wonder Trevayne's leave had been canceled! When the Fringe heard about this-!

Rutgers watched her calmly, and she returned his gaze levelly. He shook his head.

"Han, someday you may be able to keep me from guessing what you're thinking. Until that day comes, I wouldn't waste the effort, if I were you."


"You know precisely what I mean. This-" he tapped the piece of paper "-is probably the stupidest brilliant political maneuver in human history. And, my dear, you know it as well as I do."

"As the Admiral says," she said in a colorless voice.

"One day, Han," Rutgers mused, "you'll try the china doll trick once too often." Despite her concern, Han's lips twitched, and he grinned at her. Then he sobered.

"This is also-" he said slowly, tapping the paper again "-going to make a bad situation much, much worse. Amalgamation and reapportionment would be terribly hard for the Fringe to swallow under any circumstances, but when you add the MacTaggart assassination and what they're going to see as a calculated and contemptuous rejection of justice . . ."

"I should bloody well think so!" Trevayne said. "Talk about a cat among the pigeons!"

"I know, Ian. I know. But ONI thinks it's going to happen."

"But it hasn't happened yet, has it?"

"No, but it will, Ian. It's only a matter of time, and what matters to us right this minute are the Fleet orders which came in the same drone. They're the reason your leave's been canceled, and why you, Captain, aren't going to Christophon after all."

He pinched his nose wearily. "In all my days in the TFN, I have never received orders quite like these," he said soberly. "As of now, the Fleet's primary mission has been changed 'for the duration of the current political crisis,' as our instructions so neatly phrase it. Our new mission is to play fireman across the width and breadth of the Federation when this gets out."

"Good God, Bill," Trevayne said mildly. "They have to be out of their minds. They do realize the Federation is over fourteen hundred light-years across, don't they? How do they expect us to be everywhere we'll have to be?"

"They don't. Intelligence has identified a dozen critical systems and clusters with an exceptional potential for disaster. Our immediate concern is to place a battlegroup or two to cover each of them as a show of force."

"Against our own people, sir?" Han asked softly.

"Against anyone, Captain," Rutgers said heavily.

"If you'll pardon my saying so, Bill," Trevayne said quietly, "that's an excellent recipe for disaster if something does go wrong. Since you're talking to us, I assume you mean Battle Fleet units, not Frontier Fleet."

"I do," Rutgers said. "Frontier Fleet's spread too thin as it is-Frontier Fleet is always spread too thin." And, Han thought sadly, too many of Frontier Fleet's officers were too sympathetic to "their" sectors' needs to be "reliable." "So we're dispersing some of Battle Fleet to the trouble spots; a little less than half our active units, to be precise."

"And if the balloon goes up, we won't have concentration of force anywhere," Trevayne pointed out.

"I know that. You know that. Probably the Joint Chiefs know that. The Assembly, unfortunately, doesn't know it and doesn't want to know it. And we, as you may recall, work for the civilians."

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you. Now, Ian, your battlegroup is headed for Osterman's Star. I want you to ship out before nineteen hundred zulu today."

"Yes, sir."

"You, Captain Li, will sign for this binder. You will personally deliver it to Fleet Admiral Forsythe and attach your ship to his command. He'll give you further orders at that time."

"Yes, sir."

"All right." Rutgers rubbed the binder and drew a deep breath. "I'm going to say something I really shouldn't say. I'm going to tell you that I think the Assembly's lost its mind and that when-not if-the shit hits the fan, it's going to be up to us to scrape it off our faces and salvage something from the wreck. We're the Federation Navy, and the Federation Navy has never fired on Terran civilians. I'd like to keep it that way. But if it comes to it-" his eyes burned into Han's and then swivelled slowly to Trevayne "-remember that we are the Federation Navy."

There was a moment of silence, and Han felt something like guilt as she returned her old teacher's regard.

"Very well." Rutgers rose to signal the end of the interview and held out his hand again. "My yeoman has your orders. Pick them up and carry them out. And may God have mercy on us all."

Li Han reclined in lotus position in the center of her cabin carpet. By planet-side standards, her cabin was small and cramped; by Navy standards, it was luxuriously large; and by anyone's standards, a proud Hangchow government had furnished it with elegant taste. Her eyes drifted to the priceless fifth-century lacquered screen hiding her safe, and the thought of what lay within it undermined her ability to find tranquillity.

She sighed and rolled out of the lotus. There was no point pretending, and it was a bad habit to pretend to relax. She flowed to her feet and considered more stringent exercises, but activity wasn't the anodyne she needed now. Her doubts demanded resolution.

Yet there was nowhere for a captain to turn when troubled by doubt. Junior officers could discuss their fears; enlisted people could do the same. Even admirals could talk with other admirals, or at least their flag captains. But captains' absolute authority during their months-long voyages robbed them of that luxury. God was the only person to whom a wise skipper admitted her doubts. Infallibility. Her lips quirked at the thought. That was what a captain must radiate. Absolute confidence.

Han had never made any secret of her own apolitical loyalty to her homeworld, and though, like most Fringers, she'd studied politics closely, she wasn't a political person. Or, at least, she hadn't been a political person. Like every child of Hangchow, she'd learned at an early age that the Corporate Worlds controlled her people's economic destiny, yet she had always believed the Legislative Assembly would somehow safeguard their political rights . . . until she'd gained her fourth ring and become privy to the inner workings of the policies the Fleet sometimes enforced. Her first deployment as captain had based her ship on New Detroit, and, for the first time, she'd realized how totally the Corporate Worlds controlled the Assembly.

Even then, she'd believed time and demographics were on the side of the Fringe; now it seemed the Corporate Worlds were determined to turn back the clock and disenfranchise her people. They even had a precedent, for the Reapportionments of 2184 and 2240 had done exactly the same thing, if for somewhat different reasons.

Han had not been a political person, but she had been and still was a direct one. She never lied to herself. When the first doubt appeared, she'd dragged it ruthlessly into the open, examining it pitilessly.

To her surprise, the light of day did not kill it. Indeed, it thrived in the sunlight, and her suspicion-sharpened eyes saw things she'd never noticed before. And as a direct person who accepted the Fleet's admonition to be prepared, Han had begun to consider what she-Li Han the woman, as well as Li Han the captain-would do if the unthinkable happened. What was her duty? Where did her loyalty lie if the madmen on either side pushed the Federation beyond its strength? Her conclusions had shocked her, but she was what she was. She could be no other; and being what she was, she had acted.

Captain Li Han, TFN, woke frequently these nights-woke praying that the Federation she loved and served would survive the storm lashing across it. But if the day came when the Federation toppled under the hurricane, she also knew what she would do . . . what she would have to do.

"Challenge from the flagship, sir."

Han glanced at her executive officer and then at the plot displaying the might of Task Force Seventeen. Eight monitors, eight superdreadnoughts, six assault carriers, two fleet carriers, ten battlecruisers, dozens of cruisers, and scores of destroyers, Marine transports, repair ships, colliers . . . It made an imposing sight on the tactical display. More firepower than the TFN had committed to many campaigns of the Fourth Interstellar War-certainly more than had ever been deployed in a single battle since that war. And all this panoply of war, she thought sadly, was to overawe the citizens of the Federation, not to defeat their enemies in battle.

"Standard acknowledgment, Chang," she said.

"Yes, sir."

The message reached out across the emptiness to the task force. There was a communications lag of over two minutes at this range, even as Longbow loped towards Task Force Seventeen at ten percent of light speed.

"Reply from Flag, sir. We are to take position in company with Flintlock. Captain to report aboard Anderson as soon as convenient. One query: do we have dispatches on board?"

"Reply affirmative, Exec." She pressed a stud on her command chair arm console. "Boatbay," she said.

"Boatbay, aye," a voice replied in her mastoid battlephone.

"Chief Ling, this is the Captain. I need my cutter in twenty minutes."

"Yes, sir. She'll be ready to flit."

"Thank you, Chief."

She killed the circuit and returned her attention to the plot, watching the tiny blips blink from the red-ringed circles of unidentified ships to the green-ringed dots of known units as Longbow's computers sorted out their transponders. One dot was circled in gold-TFNS Howard Anderson, the monitor flagship-and it swung to the center of the plot as Longbow headed straight for her. Han studied it a moment, then punched up identities on the others, looking for familiar faces among their commanders.

Anderson's skipper she knew: Captain Willis Enwright, Fleet Admiral Forsythe's handpicked flag captain and one of the most brilliant of the many Fringe World officers in the Fleet. Nor was he the first such in his family-Anderson's sistership, the Lawrence Enwright, was named for one of his ancestors. Captain Simon Hodah had her, Han remembered with a warm smile. Simon was ten years her senior, but they'd been close friends since Han's middie cruise as his assistant astrogator. There were other names and faces out here to be remembered. Vice Admiral Traynor in command of one of the superdreadnought battlegroups; Vice Admiral Eric Hale, commanding the other. Vice Admiral Analiese Ashigara, a Fringe Worlder from Hokkaido, flying her lights aboard the assault carrier Basilisk. Vice Admiral Singh, Forsythe's second in command, flying his lights aboard Hodah's ship.

Meetings between this many Fleet units were rare, and it felt good to see the light codes, to remember the men and women in the tight-knit Navy community. They were professionals one and all; brothers and sisters of the sword, dedicated to the pure service of the Federation's ideals.

Or that was the idea. That was the Navy's credo, even if its members were merely human and often fell short of the ideal. Han's smile faded as she weighed herself against the standards of the Fleet, and she wondered how many of those others she knew were doing the same thing over there behind the weapons and armor, behind the armor of their eyes?

She shook her head and rose.

"You have the con, Exec," she said formally. "I'm going to my quarters for a quick shower before I report to the Admiral."

"Yes, sir."

Commander Tsing Chang took the command chair as the captain left the bridge. His eyes flicked over the readouts as the intraship car's doors hissed quietly shut. Only then did he allow himself a glance at the blank doors which had hidden his tiny captain. Did she really think no one else on board had guessed what she was thinking? He returned his attention to the tactical plot, his face expressionless, his mind busy behind his dark eyes.

"Greetings, Captain Li." Fleet Admiral Stepan Forsythe held out his hand, and Han could not help comparing his dry, frail grip with the firm, hairy clasp of the last fleet admiral she'd met. Stepan Forsythe was William Rutgers' physical opposite in every way, she thought. He was slender, stoop-shouldered, showing his advanced age in his lined face and thinning hair. Forsythe was a living link with the days of the Fourth Interstellar War, and Han knew he was due for retirement soon. His body was old and frail, for he was one of the rare individuals who responded poorly to the antiaging therapies, but keen intelligence and willpower glinted behind his gray eyes.

"Thank you, sir," she said, returning the clasp.

"You made a fast passage," Forsythe continued, waving her to a chair and touching the security binder on his desk as if to restrain a venomous serpent.

"We tried, sir."

"Yes. Well, would you like a drink while I glance through this?"

"No, sir. Thank you."

"Very well. If you'll excuse me?"

Han arranged her cap very precisely on her knees and sat quietly as the old admiral opened the binder and extracted the sheets of closely printed material. He read slowly, carefully, but no change of expression betrayed his thoughts. Perhaps the contents were less of a shock to him than they'd been to her. Perhaps he'd gone even further than she in analyzing the crisis, or perhaps he simply had access to more information than a mere captain.

Forsythe sighed and turned the final page at last, then jogged the sheets neatly back into order. He returned them to the binder and pressed a stud on his console, glancing into the screen as it lit.

"Willis? Would you come to my quarters, please?"

"Yes, sir."

Forsythe cut the circuit and smiled tautly at Han. "I realize you probably don't know any more than is contained in these documents, Captain Li, but I'd appreciate it if you'd give Captain Enwright and myself the benefit of your firsthand impressions. We're rather isolated out here, and neither of us has had any personal contact with the Innerworlds in almost a year."

"Of course, sir," Han said, hiding her discomfort.

"Thank you. We-ah! Here's the captain."

Han rose quickly as Willis Enwright entered the cabin with a hurried stride. That was one of the things she associated with Enwright-quickness, speed, almost haste. It was as if he resented the dawdling pace of time and wrestled with every second for the maximum utility he could wring from it. It made for a thorny personality, but it also made him a superb captain and would someday make him an equally outstanding admiral.

"Han!" He squeezed her hand warmly. "Good to see you again. How are your parents?"

"Mother is as beautiful as ever; Father is as handsome." Han smiled. "What else is there to say?"

"I suppose that does just about cover it," Enwright agreed with a grin. He dropped sloppily into a chair, and Han seated herself again, glancing at Forsythe for his reaction to Enwright's informality. The old admiral only smiled at his flag captain. Then his expression tightened.

"Willis, Captain Li has brought us some disturbing information." He slid the binder across the desk. "Want a look?"

"Why?" Enwright shrugged. "No doubt the Assembly's done something else foolish. They've specialized in that for years, or we wouldn't be out here, sir."

"Foolish or not, they're still the duly constituted government," Forsythe said, the slight edge in his voice suggesting that this wasn't the first time he and Enwright had struck sparks on the subject. "However-" Forsythe shook his head "-I have to agree that this time they really have been foolish. Look at this." He opened the binder and handed Enwright the top sheet, and the captain's face tightened.

"Foolish isn't the word, sir," he said quietly, his humor vanished. "My God, if this goes through the whole Fringe will go up in smoke . . . and I don't know as how I'll blame them, either." He read further, then whistled. "Jesus! If they do expel Lad Skjorning, the shit will really fly, Admiral!"

"Precisely," Forsythe said frostily. "And if, as you so quaintly put it, the shit does fly, whose job is it to quiet the situation back down?"

"Ours," Enwright said, his voice troubled.

"Ours, indeed, Captain." Forsythe turned back to Han. "Captain Li, is it your impression this evaluation is essentially accurate?"

"Well, sir," Han said carefully, "Admiral Rutgers certainly seemed to think so when he spoke to me." She shrugged. "But you probably know more about it from his dispatch."

"His dispatch, like many things these days, is written on many levels." For just an instant, Forsythe showed every year of his advanced age. "It seems we're afraid to be totally open even in secure communications."

"It's because no one wants to face it, Stepan," Enwright said. "But we have to. The Federation is on the verge of civil war."

It was the first time someone had come right out and said it in Han's presence-trust Willis to be the first. She watched Forsythe, but the old admiral had his expression well in hand.

"On the verge is not the same thing as actively at war, Willis," he said quietly. "It's our job to see it doesn't go that far."

"Agreed," Enwright nodded. "But what if it's a job we can't do, sir?"

"There is no job the Fleet can't do!"

"Sir, Fringers aren't Arachnids or Rigelians-or even Tangri or Orions. Dealing with aliens may come down to a matter of firepower more often than we like, but it doesn't bother the Fleet much. That's our job, after all. But firing on our own people?" Enwright shook his head sadly. "With all due respect, I'm not sure the crews could do it."

"It won't come to that," Forsythe said. "We'll make transit out immediately for routine maneuvers in Kontravian space. Not even the Beauforters are crazy enough to start something with a task force this size overhead."

"Probably not," Enwright said softly. "But what if it's already started, sir? I've served with Lad Skjorning. He's no hothead, but once he makes up his mind, not God nor the devil can change it."

"Skjorning is only one man, Willis."

"But if they send him home, he'll be the most important 'one man' in the entire Kontravian Cluster, sir. He's inherited all of Fionna MacTaggart's prestige, as well as his own, which was already pretty considerable."

"Admiral," Han said diffidently, "Captain Enwright has a point. I don't know if you realize just how critical Skjorning has become. If the Assembly expels him, hundreds of Fringer delegates will resign in protest."

"Then they're fools!" Forsythe snorted. "They should stay and fight!"

"That's easy for us to say, sir," Enwright pointed out gently. "We've been safely isolated here in the Fleet. We're more like one of the old monastic fighting orders than a representative segment of our society, and we certainly haven't personally faced the Corporate World political machine. Its manipulation of the Assembly has become so blatant no Fringer delegate had any doubts left even before MacTaggart was murdered. Now the writing's on the wall, as far as they're concerned. They're tired of fighting within a system that won't let them win, sir."

"But if they persist in this madness they'll force an open break! They're playing right into the hands of this sort of manipulation." Forsythe tapped the binder. "Don't they see that?"

"With respect, Admiral," Han said, "they're too angry to care."

"And do you share their anger, Captain Li?" Forsythe asked softly.

"Yes, sir, I do." It was the first time a superior had asked her that, and Han found it almost a relief to answer openly.

"Stepan," Enwright's quiet voice drew the admiral's eyes away from her, "most of the Outworlders in the Fleet share Captain Li's feelings. You're not a Fringer, so maybe you don't see it that way, but the Fringers do. That's why I'm so concerned about this 'show of force' business. If it comes to a real confrontation, there's no telling how the Fleet will react. More than sixty percent of our personnel are Fringers, Stepan."

"They are also sworn members of the Federation's armed forces," Forsythe said levelly. "If the time comes, they'll remember that." He waved a hand briskly, as if to dispel the tension which had sprung up. "But we're going to the Kontravian Cluster to make certain it never comes to that."

"Yes, sir," Enwright said, leaning forward in his chair, "and with the admiral's permission, I'd like to make a suggestion."

"Of course." Forsythe watched Enwright thoughtfully.

"You're absolutely right on at least one point, sir; the best way to make sure nothing happens is to create a Fleet presence in Kontravian space before any explosion. I suggest that we detach Admiral Ashigara's carrier group and the battlecruisers and send them on ahead. They're fifty percent faster than the monitors. At flank speed, they could reach the Kontravian Cluster almost three months before the rest of the task force. That'd give us that much more time before the Kontravians can do anything rash."

Forsythe swivelled his chair slowly back and forth, considering, and Han watched him closely. Willis was right. The sooner they got warships into the cluster, the better. Even the most fervent Fringe sympathizer in the Fleet would be willing to nip trouble in the bud before it reached shooting proportions.

"No, Willis," Forsythe said finally. Enwright looked prepared to argue, but Forsythe waved a hand gently. "I'm glad you're thinking in terms of prevention, but if we send a detachment ahead the whole idea of a routine visit goes out the airlock. And I think you overestimate the depth of feeling in the Cluster. I don't question your reading of the Fringe leadership, but there's a deep reservoir of loyalty to Old Terra among the population. We'll get there before their leaders push them into anything truly rash."

"Stepan," Enwright said, "please don't equate loyalty to the motherworld with loyalty to the Assembly! Fringers see them as two separate entities."

"Perhaps," Forsythe said testily, "but there's enough overlap to offset any rashness, I think. And the last thing we can afford is to look as if we expect a break. No, Willis. We'll do it my way."

Han held her breath and wondered if Enwright would push it. She glanced at the captain, reading the worry in his face, but he held his tongue.

"That's settled, then," Forsythe said with the same finality. He glanced at his desk chronometer. "I see it's just about time for dinner, Captain Li. Will you dine with us?"

"I'd be honored, Admiral," she said, accepting the change of subject, and rose to follow her superiors from the cabin, glancing back at the sealed security binder on the desk as they left.

A cold breeze blew through her bones as she passed the Marine guard and the cabin hatch closed behind them. Admiral Forsythe was a good man, a loyal man-one who cared about all the Federation's citizens. Yet she had a premonition that a terrible mistake had just been made.