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CONFERENCE

"Thank God I have done my duty."

Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, Orlop Deck,

HMS Victory , Battle of Trafalgar


Oskar Dieter studied the strained faces of his Cabinet, remembering the day the first mutiny had been reported, and shuddered. This was almost worse. There'd been no treason this time, yet Fourth Fleet had lost more tonnage in two hours of close action than had been taken from Admiral Forsythe, and the shock cut deep. Even Amanda Sydon was gray-faced and stunned.

He sighed and tapped the crystal table with his knuckles.

"Ladies and gentlemen, for the record-" he looked at Sky Marshal Witcinski "-I should like to say that I concur entirely with Admiral Desai's actions." A rustling sigh ran around the table. "Even if she'd continued the action and won, it would have cost more than we can stand. Admiral Trevayne's-" his voice faltered briefly on the name "-ships are both our most powerful single striking force and our sole technical advantage. Had Admiral Desai won at the expense of crippling damage to Fourth Fleet, we would have been unable to follow up her 'victory.' Had she lost, the Terran Republic must inevitably have captured sufficient examples of the Rim's weaponry to duplicate it."

He felt his listeners' stab of surprise as he deliberately used the term "Terran Republic" instead of "rebels"-and their horror as they considered the consequences of the Republic's acquiring weapons in advance of anything they could produce.

"I would like to ask Sky Marshal Witcinski and Vice Admiral Krupskaya a few questions," Dieter went on quietly. "First the Sky Marshal. With Fourth Fleet halted, whether by a cease-fire or the destruction of its units, what are the chances for Operation Yellowbrick?"

"Nil," Witcinski said. His voice was like a gravel-crusher. "Whoever planned the rebels'-" he stressed the word deliberately-"tactics knew what he was doing. I still don't know how they guessed our plans, but they've put up a web of fortresses and fighters that's stopped us cold. I've suspended operations after taking only two of our target systems, Mister Prime Minister. We could still take the other three our ops plan calls for, but not and have anything left at the end.

"As for Fourth Fleet"-he shrugged-"I can only endorse your own estimate. Trevayne's ships are unique. Now that I've examined Vice Admiral Desai's report, I am even more convinced that they represent a qualitative breakthrough of the first magnitude. Trevayne and Admiral Desai managed to destroy almost fifty percent of the force engaged against them, but the rebel admiral knew the sort of action she had to fight. Trevayne's force lost at least as much as she did. As nearly as we can estimate, almost twelve million tonnes of shipping were destroyed-not damaged, destroyed. We don't know about the rebels, but Fourth Fleet lost over forty-one thousand dead. I think that's an effective answer as to whether it can carry out its part of the plan. Without the Rim to meet us more than halfway-"

He shrugged again.

"I see." Dieter turned to Susan Krupskaya. "Admiral Krupskaya, what are the odds of the Republic recognizing the futility of further operations on our part?"

"Excellent, sir," she said after a very brief glance at Sanders. "Analysis of our losses must tell them Operation Yellowbrick bled us white. They've been hurt, too-badly-but not as badly as we have."

"I see," Dieter repeated. "And how quickly can they duplicate Admiral Trevayne's weapons without actual samples?"

"It's hard to be precise, sir, but my analysts estimate eight months, maximum, before they have working models." Someone gasped, but Krupskaya plowed on. "We've been looking at the data Mister Sanders brought back, and they're very, very close to the variable focus beams, judging from their new primary. With that head start and the data they must have recorded during the Zapata engagement, they can have that weapon in three to five months. The HBM should take considerably longer-we've no evidence that they've begun experimenting with grav drivers-but their new shields offset that. And we," she smiled thinly, "have no way of obtaining hard data on their new systems, since they've carefully used them only against the Rim. It will take us much longer to duplicate them. And, Mister Prime Minister-" she paused and drew a breath "-it is my duty to point out that, judging from their order of battle at Zapata, our previous estimates of their construction rates may be as much as fifteen percent low, so even our numerical advantage is in question."

"Thank you, Admiral," Dieter said gravely, and looked back at his shaken colleagues. "Ladies and gentlemen, I already knew what Sky Marshal Witcinski and Admiral Krupskaya were going to say, and I had them plug that data into our computers. According to the new projections, we stand a sixty-five percent chance of losing the war within one year." The room was deathly silent. "If we hold out for another year, we have a seventy percent chance of final victory-but the computers project a war which will continue for another twelve to fifteen years. With losses," he finished quietly, "which will make the Battle of Zapata look like a children's picnic."

The political leaders stared at him in shock. The military leaders weren't surprised, but their expressions were those of people who'd just bitten into something spoiled. No one questioned his statements.

"I think, my friends," he said very, very softly, looking straight at Amanda Sydon and her "war party" adherents, "that under those circumstances, we cannot justify continuing this war if there is the least possibility of any other acceptable resolution. Even victory can cost too much at times."

Sydon glanced at her supporters, but they refused to meet her eyes. The glare she turned on Dieter was fulminating, yet she said nothing. There was nothing she could say, and the voice of protest came from another source.

"But, Mister Prime Minister!" Witcinski protested. "Victory is the only 'acceptable resolution!' Yellowback should have succeeded-would have succeeded if the rebels hadn't figured out what was coming and managed to ambush Admiral Trevayne. I'm not faulting him, sir-it was a brilliant ploy, obviously something they spent months arranging. But now that they've stopped us, they'll exploit. No strategist worth his salt would stop now!"

"Indeed, Sky Marshal? What do you think they'll do, then?"

"They'll leave their forces in the Zapata System exactly as they are," Witcinski predicted. "As far as we can tell, they committed less than ten percent of their assault carriers there-the others are still available for offensive strikes, backed up by their surviving Frontier Fleet fleet and light carriers, while we cut our defenses to the bone for Yellowbrick. They can achieve crushing local superiority wherever they choose, and they know it. They'll go on the offensive and chew us up, hoping for a knockout."

"That would certainly be their most logical course," Dieter said softly, "but they're not going to do it."

"Why not?" Witcinski demanded hotly, feeling his professional judgment called in question.

"I think because they don't want to destroy the Federation," Dieter said slowly.

"No?" Amanda Sydon laughed harshly. "They only went to war against it!"

"Agreed-but I think they just wish to be left alone," Dieter replied. Sydon stiffened angrily, and some of the others joined her, but he raised a hand and his voice was stern with hard-earned authority. "No, hear me out-all of you! From the beginning, the Fringers have been reacting to what they considered an intolerable situation. They reacted militarily because all political avenues seemed closed. They-" He shook his head firmly. "Enough. The point is that they never sought to conquer the Innerworlds. Arguably, they lacked the ability to do so, but it would seem that's no longer true-they have the ability to conquer us if they act promptly. The Sky Marshal's arguments are most cogent, but to succeed, they must act at once. Surely none of us is so foolish as to believe that their strategists are less competent than our own? They must know their advantage is fleeting-that they must act before we make good our losses. Yet they aren't going to do so.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have received a communication from Ladislaus Skjorning." The atmosphere in the conference room was so brittle it could have been chipped with a knife. "He offers"-his eyes bored into Sydon's-"an immediate armistice for the purpose of concluding a general peace." Some of the people at the table looked as if he'd just punched them; others suddenly sat straighter, their eyes bright with hope. He didn't try to estimate the numbers which felt either way. "His message is accompanied by an analysis almost identical to that we have just heard. But in pursuit of his armistice, he has ordered a two-month unilateral suspension of all offensive operations, pending our reply. In short, my friends, he has voluntarily given up his best chance for outright victory to prove he desires peace!"

Ladislaus Skjorning sat in the first-class lounge of TRS Prometheus and watched the blue and white planet grow. It had been six years since last he saw that world, and the sight stirred something within him.

It had been hard to induce the Republic to send most of its executive branch into Federation space aboard an unarmed passenger liner, but he'd done it. His Cabinet had been relatively easy to convince, but not Congress. Only the fact that the Federation had voluntarily offered a quarter of Battle Fleet as hostages for the safe conduct of their guests had outweighed congressional memories of Fionna's assassination.

Now Prometheus slipped into orbit around the motherworld, and Ladislaus hid a grin. One of the more ticklish decisions during the past several months had been choosing the site of the conference. But then he'd remembered that one spot on Old Terra herself was neutral; the tiny country of Switzerland, which had maintained its traditional independence for eleven centuries.

Some of the Federation representatives seemed to regard his suggestion as a subtle compliment, but others-like Dieter-recognized the second half of the message. It was possible to be good Terrans without belonging to the Federation.

A muted bell chimed, and Ladislaus rose, offering his arm to Tatiana Illyushina. The shuttle was waiting to carry them to the city of Geneva for the meeting which might end the dying.

A crowd waited beyond the hatch as Ladislaus stepped past the Marine honor guard. The major in command of that honor guard had insisted that his troopers be fully armed, and despite some personal misgivings, Ladislaus had chosen not to argue. He would have lost anyway, he suspected, even if the MacTaggart assasination hadn't remained so fresh in so many Republican minds. He usually did lose arguments with Stanislaus, after all. And this time, his brother's concern wasn't solely for the safety of the President of the Republic.

Ladislaus gazed out of the hatch and smiled, despite his tension, as he felt Tatiana craning her neck beside him. Before the war, she'd never before been off Novaya Rodina with its vast, endless plains, and the mountainous horizon must seem as strange to her as had her first sight of his own Beaufort. She stared out at them, then turned and flashed a slightly nervous, slightly appealing smile of her own at the expressionless Stanislaus, and Ladislaus chuckled in mental satisfaction. He knew they were under close scrutiny as his vice president gawked at the peaks, and he hoped wistfully that some might mistake her youthful fascination and natural nervousness for callow inexperience. He doubted they'd be so stupid, but . . .

A band struck up, but the music was neither the Republic's "Ad Astra" nor the Federation's "Suns of Splendor." It took a moment of frowning effort to place it, then he smiled and nodded. It was indeed ancient, he thought, but the venerable "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was a fitting selection for both sides.

He recognized Oskar Dieter and David Haley among the waiting officials. The big, solid-looking fellow in all the braid must be Sky Marshal Witcinski, and the fox-faced man beside him looked suspiciously like the briefing holos of Kevin Sanders.

Ladislaus squeezed Tatiana's elbow.

"Tatiana, my love, I'm thinking it's best you deal with yon Sky Marshal and leave the sharp-faced fellow to me."

"Yes, Lad," she agreed demurely, "and I promise not to sign away our claim to Novaya Rodina, either."

"Lass, I'm only worried about your inexperience," Ladislaus teased.

The Federation dignitaries halted at the foot of the pad, and Ladislaus started down through the Marine honor guard, with Stanislaus' comforting presence towering at his shoulder. He rather wished he'd brought Li Han or Magda Petrovna for the military discussions. Fleet Admiral Holbein was a good man, but he lacked their quick wits. Yet there could be no question of recalling either of them from Zapata until these discussions were concluded. He sighed and stepped off the last step.

"Mister Skjorning." Dieter bowed, carefully observing the agreed upon protocols and avoiding official titles. "Welcome to Old Terra."

"Thank you, Mister Dieter." Ladislaus gripped the Prime Minister's hand firmly and looked into the slender New Zuricher's face. "I'm glad to see you again, sir, and only sorry that it must be under such circumstances. I've said some hard things of you in the past. I would like to retract them now."

"Thank you." Dieter looked away for a moment. "That means a great deal to me in a very personal sense." He looked as if he meant to say more, then shook his head. "Allow me to introduce you to my colleagues, sir."

"It would be an honor," Ladislaus agreed, and the long round of introductions and reintroductions began. He watched their faces carefully as they shook hands or bowed to one another, comparing their responses to those predicted in his painstaking briefings. By the time he reached the end of the line, he knew the intelligence people had been right; Dieter's colleagues were almost evenly divided on the question of peace or war.

It remained to be seen whether he could bring them to decide for peace.

". . . quite impossible." Foreign Minister Roger Hadad shook his head firmly. "Even if we were prepared to stipulate that any planet which seceded-attempted to secede, rather-" he corrected hastily, remembering that the Federation had steadfastly denied the legality of secession "-is prima facie a member of your Terran Republic, we can't possibly concede that any world taken from the Federation by force of arms is a 'natural' member of your confederation. The simple fact that a planet was considered a 'Fringe World' before the rebelli-before the war, that is, is insufficient reason for us to resign all claim and abandon its citizens."

"Mister Hadad," Ladislaus rumbled semi-patiently, "that may be true. At the same time, it's to be plain there's no cause to be saying a world isn't a natural part of the Republic simply because it dared not secede because it was having a garrison dispatched to stop it." He fixed the dapper minister with a gimlet eye. "I'm not to have been getting off the produce shuttle yesterday, Mister Hadad. I'll not be accepting any argument which sets the ground for denying the legitimacy of any secession."

"But we can't simply tell the citizens of a system like Cimmaron that we've abandoned them!" Hadad protested sharply.

"Cimmaron's folk," Ladislaus said implacably, "welcomed us with open arms, sir. In point of fact, they'll have the pitching of three kinds of fits if we offer to be handing them back to you."

"But-"

"Mister Dieter," Ladislaus turned to the Prime Minister, "this point must be settled. We'll not insist that anyone leave the Federation for the Republic-but it's to be plain we must insist that the Republic is a legitimate government. And if we're to be a government, we're after having the same responsibility to our citizens as the Federation to its."

"I agree, Mister Skjorning." Dieter nodded, and Ladislaus could have sworn he saw a half-wink from the eye away from Hadad. "Roger, we must accept that the Terran Republic exists, whether we like it or not. It follows that its Congress has a responsibility to its citizens. Now, we've already accepted in principle that the worlds which seceded are part of the Republic. The question is what to do with those which were added to the originally seceding worlds by force of arms, correct?"

"Well, yes," Hadad said in a tone of barely suppressed anguish. "But it's not that simple. There are matters of precedent, of-"

"There are no precedents," Dieter said, and Hadad stared at him as if he'd tried to sell him a skimmer of questionable pedigree. "Under Federation law as presently interpreted, secession is treason, but we're plainly contemplating turning a de facto situation into a de jure one. Mister Skjorning," he turned to Ladislaus, "I would suggest plebiscites for all non-seceding planets forcibly occupied by the Republic. Any which wish to remain with the Republic, however they came to be included therein, will be free to do so, but any planet which wishes to return to the Federation must be free to do that, as well. You will appreciate, I trust, that we aren't in a position to reciprocate on every planet currently occupied by Federation forces? With, of course, the exception of systems captured during the recent offensive?"

"I do, Mister Dieter," Ladislaus agreed gravely, not mentioning that aside from the systems Trevayne had taken, the Federation did not currently control any world which had shown an interest in joining the Republic.

"Thank you, sir. Roger?" Dieter leaned back in his chair beside Sanders, returning the session to Hadad's control. The Foreign Minister didn't seem particularly grateful, but strove to conceal his disgruntlement.

"Very well, Mister Skjorning," he said, scribbling on an old-fashioned pad. "We'll agree-tentatively, of course-to a plebiscite to determine the fates of the planets captured by the Republic. But that brings up another rather delicate point. You see-"

"You're to be worrying over access between the Rump and the Rim-excuse me, between the Innerworlds and the Rim Systems-across Republican space," Ladislaus said genially, and Hadad nodded. "Well, Mister Hadad, we're prepared to be offering free passage to unarmed vessels, with armed merchant vessels to be passing under bond and with our right of examination. Mail packets and courier drones will be having freedom of passage without censorship or examination. Warships are to be another matter, but we're to be being reasonable so long as you're to be consulting us beforehand. I'm hoping that's to be satisfactory?"

"Er . . . yes," Hadad nodded. In fact, it was rather more than he'd been prepared to settle for, and he felt a sudden, unexpected liking for the big Fringer before him. He smiled.

"Well, Mister Skjorning, I must say you're being reasonable." He seemed to regret the admission as soon as he made it and set his face more sternly. "But there remains the matter of repatriation and property losses."

"Yes and no, Mister Hadad," Ladislaus said, and turned to Tatiana, who looked for all the world like an adolescent observer as she sat next to him. She nodded and opened a memo touchpad, bringing the small screen alive.

"Mister Hadad," she began crisply, "you must be aware that there will be considerable dispute over how much is owed or, indeed, whether anything is owed, to compensate private citizens for wartime property losses."

Hadad glanced at Dieter, who returned his look expressionlessly, and then back to Tatiana.

"That goes without saying, Ms. Illyushina. However, we must insist that some clear understanding be reached."

"Naturally. We propose a joint offer of repatriation for any who desire it, this offer to include relocation of families and personal property only. The Republic is prepared to guarantee equitable liquidation of investments and real estate if the Federation will do likewise. Repatriation and relocation costs will be shared evenly by the two governments. Is that acceptable?"

"It will certainly do for a first presentation to the Assembly, ma'am. However, there remain the matters of sequestered property and war losses."

"War losses," Tatiana retorted, "are just that: war losses. If not covered by insurance, the injured party will, unfortunately, be unable to recover. On sequestered property-" she allowed herself a sharklike grin that turned Hadad's blood suddenly cold "-the Republic is willing to be reasonable. We're prepared to stipulate that the respective governments shall compensate their own nationals for their losses."

She leaned back cheerfully as a strangled sound came from Dieter's Minister of Finance, and Ladislaus hid a smile as Hadad's face fell, though it was difficult when he saw the toothy grin Sanders directed at Tatiana.

"B-b-b-but you've seized property worth well over nine trillion credits!" Amanda Sydon half-screamed. "The property sequestered by the Federation amounts to less than one percent of that figure!"

"In fact," Tatiana agreed sweetly, "the value of property seized by the Federation is approximately sixty-seven billion credits, while that expropriated by the Republic had a prewar tax value-" Dieter winced; given the sleight-of-hand Corporate World accountants had routinely perpetrated against Fringe World tax assessors, the tax value could be multiplied by at least two "-of nine trillion three hundred and seventy-two billion. The Republic, however, stated at its Constitutional Convention that no Federation citizen's property would be expropriated unless our nationals' property was seized." She shrugged pleasantly. "Since the Assembly was in possession of that declaration before passing the Sydon-Waldeck Expropriation Act, we can only assume that the Federation wished to embark on a policy of mutual expropriation. Therefore-"

Ladislaus and Sanders leaned back and smiled at one another as Tatiana and Sydon went after each other hammer and tongs, and Dieter sighed. Amanda was outmatched, he thought, watching Tatiana's cheerful face. Odd how capable the distaff half of the Fringe had proven . . . and how fitting for that capability to cost the Corporate Worlds a bundle.

"Well, Lad," Tatiana sighed and leaned back in her lounger, "I think we've done it." She chuckled. "The Corporate Worlds shrieked like a gelded megaovis over the economic clauses-they think its immoral to end a war without showing a profit-but they can't carry a majority on them. Dieter's really cut them down to size since the war began."

"Aye." Ladislaus nodded slowly from his own recliner. "It's a mortal long voyage we've had, but it's to seem we've reached port at last."

"Yes." Tatiana rose on an elbow. "Will you go to the vote?"

"No, lass. I swore to myself I'd never stand in that chamber again, and no more will I be doing it. You go; I'll have the watching of it on HV."

"But you're our President! If you don't go, none of us should."

"Tatiana," Ladislaus never opened his eyes, "it's an impertinent young thing you're after being. It's no matter of policy but a personal thing-one I can't have the changing of even for Oskar Dieter, who's to be deserving better of us. Go, lass."

His obvious exhaustion silenced her, and she studied his face, seeing the lines worn there by the past six years, the almost invisible gray creeping into his blond beard and hair. She felt a sudden tenderness for the huge man who'd carried the personal burden of the Fringe World's fight for so long.

"All right, Lad," she said after a moment. "But I wish-" She broke off. "Lad?"

He didn't respond. His massive chest rose and fell slowly, and Tatiana smiled gently as she rose and left silently.

They'd matured, David Haley thought, looking out over the quietly restive Chamber of Worlds with almost paternal pride. The delegates who'd stampeded this way and that in the early days of the crisis they'd created had won their adulthood the hard way, but they'd won it. Now they sat almost silently, waiting as the computers tabulated the vote.

The peace terms represented major concessions on almost every point, he reflected. The Republic had been careful not to humble the Federation's pride, except, perhaps-his lips quirked-on that matter of expropriations, but it had been firm, as well. The Fringers had come through fire and worse to reach this moment. They were no longer suppliants, and they would not retreat a centimeter. It only remained to see if the Assembly had been sufficiently tempered to recognize the essential fairness of the settlement before it.

A light flashed on his panel, and a small screen lit with the results of the vote. He studied them briefly, then rapped his ceremonial gavel sharply, and an electric tension filled the chamber.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly," Haley said clearly, "it is my duty to announce the result of your vote on the motion to ratify the peace terms presented by the foreign minister." He drew a deep breath. "The vote is 978 in favor; 453 opposed. The motion-" he paused for just an instant, quivering with relief "-is carried."

There was utter silence for a moment, then a soft stir of mounting conversation. There were no cheers, no shouts of victory. Reaching this moment had cost too many too much for that, but the relief was there. Haley felt it in the air about him as he turned to the Vice President of the Republic of Free Terrans and bent over her hand with a gallant flourish.

Only then did the applause begin.


* * * | Insurrection | LENVOI



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