Oskar Dieter stretched out on the recliner under the night sky and pondered the vagaries of fate. He, who had never expected to be more than Simon Taliaferro's shadow, was Prime Minister-of a diminished Federation, perhaps, but one once more at peace-and Simon was gone.
Now he studied the cold stars, trying to find Fionna MacTaggart, but she had left him. Search as he might, she was gone, and it worried him.
A throat cleared itself, and he looked up to see Kevin Sanders.
"Good evening, Mister Sanders."
"Good evening, Mister Prime Minister." Sanders' voice was gently mocking, but his smile was friendly.
"To what do I owe the honor?"
"Curiosity." Sanders' eyes narrowed slightly. "Tell me, Mister Dieter, did you realize I was tapping your conduit to the rebels?"
"Please, Mister Sanders! To the Republic, if you please."
"To be sure. The Republic." Sanders paused. "Did you?"
"Well . . ." Dieter cocked an eyebrow at his guest, and then, for the first time in Sanders' memory, he laughed out loud. He nodded slowly. "I did. I realized it before I asked you to leave ONI to join my government."
"You did?" Sanders looked briefly crestfallen, but he rallied gamely.
"Of course. Your silence convinced me you were a man of initiative and discretion. I needed you."
"You needed me because your foresaw this outcome from the beginning, didn't you?" Sanders made it a question, but both knew it was a statement.
"More or less."
"I hope you'll pardon my pointing this out, sir," Sanders said dryly, "but that's rather an odd thing for a wartime leader to admit."
"Is it?" Dieter chuckled again, softly. "I suppose so. But if you disagreed, you should have said so at the time, shouldn't you?"
"Agreed. Still, I wish you'd satisfy my curiosity in one more regard. As a return favor, as it were."
"Of course, if I can."
"Why?" Sanders asked, his humor suddenly gone.
"Because someone had to do it," Dieter said slowly. "And because I owed a debt."
"To Fionna MacTaggart?" Sanders' voice was soft.
"You are indeed a perceptive man, Mister Sanders," Dieter said quietly. "Yes, to Fionna. To all those people trapped in a war they didn't want but didn't know how to end, but especially to Fionna. I wonder if she approves?"
"Mister Dieter," Sanders looked down at the reclining prime minister, and a smile played around the corners of his mouth, "I'm sure she does. Fionna MacTaggart was a remarkable woman: understanding, intelligent, insightful . . . but that's not the reason I'm sure she approves."
"No, Mister Sanders? Then what is?"
"She also," Sanders said simply, "had a very lively sense of humor."
"Well, Lad," Tatiana raised her glass to Ladislaus as Prometheus' drives hurled the liner outward, "God knows how, but you did it. Even when I thought we'd never make it, you always hung on and kicked us in the backside till we made it work."
"Aye," Stanislaus agreed, raising his own glass. "Still and all, it's not to be that surprising Tatiana," he pointed out. "Lad's to be a Skjorning, when all's said. We've a way of getting whatever it is we're to be setting our minds to."
"Oh, you do, do you?" she demanded pertly. Stanislaus only grinned complacently and slipped his arm around her slim shoulders. "I'm tempted to kick you someplace strategic," she told him.
"Ah, but to be thinking what a sad waste that would be being later, love," he replied with a deep chuckle.
Tatiana laughed and shook her head wryly at him, and Ladislaus smiled gently at them both. After so much loss, so much devastation and death, watching the two of them together was like a promise for the future, and he treasured it deeply as he leaned back in his chair and savored the sensation of completion. It was not an unalloyed pleasure, but it was a vast relief.
"They're throwing a party in the Captain's Ballroom, Lad," Tatiana said, turning back to him with a winning smile made still warmer by the arm about her. "Sort of a rehearsal for the victory ball. Why don't you come?"
"No, lass." Ladislaus shook his head. "It's tired I am. I'll be staying here, I'm thinking. Here with my thoughts. You and Stanislaus go."
"All right, Lad." She accepted defeat and pecked him lightly on the cheek.
Stanislaus gazed at him for a moment, as if tempted to argue. But something in Ladislaus' eyes stopped him, and he only nodded and squeezed his older brother's shoulder firmly with his free hand.
"Get some rest," Tatiana told Laiduslaus. "You've earned it."
She and Stanislaus started for the cabin hatch, but she paused in the opening for a moment, looking back.
"Fionna would have been very proud of you, Lad," she said softly, then started to say something more, only to cut herself off with a tiny headshake. She and Stanislaus stepped through the hatch, and it sighed shut behind them.
Ladislaus waved his hand above the lighting control, dimming the cabin to comfortable twilight, and pulled a battered tri-di from his pocket. The flat representation was less perfect than a holo cube, but there was no mistaking the very young red-haired woman who stood laughing on the deck of a sloop with an equally young Ladislaus. He studied the print for long, silent moments, his smile bittersweet, then shook his head.
"Aye, Tatiana, I did it," he whispered, and lifted the tri-di until the faint light fell on Fionna's smiling face. "I'm sorry, love," he said softly, and a single tear trickled down his bearded cheek. "I know it wasn't what you wanted-but it was all that I could do."
Magda Petrovna adjusted a lustily crying infant on her hip and poured more vodka. Jason sat beside her, beaming at their guest with a smile Magda knew was far more inebriated than he was as the tiny, immaculately uniformed woman raised the glass in shaky fingers and studied it owlishly.
"I," Fleet Admiral Li Han, Second Space Lord of the Terran Republic's Admiralty, said with great precision, "am drunk. I have never been drunk before."
"I know." Magda watched her drain the glass. As soon as Han set it down, she filled it again.
"I think you planned for me to get drunk," Han said plaintively.
"Hush, Han." Magda said. "Why would I do a thing like that?"
"Because," Han said carefully, "you think it's a good idea." She hiccuped solemnly. "You think I've been holding things inside too long, don't you-" she paused and gripped the edge of the table, eyes widening as her chair moved beneath her "-my round-eyed friend?"
"Well, it happens," Han said very slowly, "that you're quite perceptive for a round-eye." Her expression remained relaxed, but a large tear welled in each eye, sparkling on her lashes. "Have been holding it in," she went on vaguely. "Been holding it in ever since Cimmaron, I think." She blinked at her friends through her tears, and her face began to crumple at last.
She drew a deep breath. "All those people-dead. But not me. Funny, isn't it?" She laughed, an ugly sound, and pressed her face into her hands. "They're all dead, but I'm alive. Me, the silly bitch who got them all killed. All . . . those . . . people . . ." Her voice broke in a sob of pain. "Chang. Chung-hui. All of them . . . because I couldn't do my job . . ."
"Han, Han!" Magda hurried around the table and put her free arm around the slim shoulders, cradling the weeping woman against her. "That's not true! You know it isn't!"
"It is!" Han wailed, her voice desolate as the deeps between the stars.
"It isn't," Magda repeated gently, "but you had to say it. You had to let it out and face it so you can go on with your life. Remember them, Han, but don't let the past keep you from reaching out to the future."
"What future?" Han demanded bitterly. "There isn't any future!"
"Of course there is!" Magda laughed softly and pushed her daughter into her friend's arms. Han's grip tightened instinctively, and she blinked down into the small face. Dark eyes stared back up at her, and she smiled tremulously.
"You see, Han?" Magda asked gently. "There's always a future, isn't there?"
"Yes," Han whispered, hugging her goddaughter tightly. "Yes, there is, Magda. There really is!"
"I'm glad you agree," Jason said dryly, sitting on the other side and hugging her roughly. "And since you do," he went on in the voice of one bestowing a great gift, "this time you can change her!"
"I could make faster progress with this prosthetic leg," Joaquin Sandoval told his three visitors, "if the damned doctors would only let me! I'm strong enough by now to spend more time on my feet. . . . Yes, feet, plural!"
"Don't rush it," Sean Remko growled. For him and Yoshinaka, this was simply one of the calls they'd paid regularly since returning to Xanadu. For Sonja Desai it was something more-a farewell visit to the only three men in the Rim who knew she had a heart. She was returning to the Federation.
"Yes," she'd confirmed, seeing their thunderstruck faces. "The Federation-and this Terran-Orion 'Pan-Sentient Union'-recognizes all the field promotions conferred out here, and they say they want me." Her expression had turned uncharacteristically gentle. She'd actually smiled slightly. "And I've gotten homesick for Nova Terra. Besides-" she'd broken off and waved one hand in a curiously vulnerable little gesture.
Now her eyes met Sandoval's, and he, for once, knew when no words were needed.
The air in the chamber deep below the Prescott City Medical Center was so cold it seemed brittle. A thin film of frost covered the enclosed, coffinlike tank in the center of the room with its attendant machinery.
The door slid open, and Miriam Ortega entered, heavily cloaked against the chill she did not feel. She walked to the tank, and for a long, long time stood motionless and unspeaking, her breath white puffs of condensation in the air. After a moment, the tears no one had been allowed to see began finding their way down her cheeks, very slowly in the cold. But the silent communion was unbroken.
Finally, she extended a slightly trembling right hand and gently touched the cover of the tank with her fingertips. Only then did she draw a shaken breath and speak in a very quiet, steady voice.
"Ian, this morning I gaveled to order the constitutional convention of the Rim Federation. Forgive me."
She withdrew her hand slowly, leaving five streaks in the rime. Tiny drops trickled slowly down them, glittering like tears in the cold, still air. After a moment, she took another deep breath, squared her shoulders, turned, and left the chamber.
By the time the door closed, silently condensing moisture had already begun to cover the tiny streaks.