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HOMECOMING

The wrenching stress of warp transit echoed in every inner ear aboard the starship Capricorn, though liners never transited warp points at the same speed as warships lest their delicate (and paying) passengers lose their breakfasts. The moment of indescribable tension passed into memory as Capricorn's momentarily addled electronic systems recovered, and her deck plates trembled gently as her powerful drive sang back up to maximum, for Capricorn was a fast ship, with a reputation to maintain.

Ladislaus Skjorning stepped out of his cabin into the carpeted passages of first class. After months of travel, he no longer bothered to glance over his shoulder at the calm, expressionless face of the Assembly lictor gliding a pace behind him. In all the long, dreary days of shipboard existence, Ladislaus had not even learned the man's name, not that it mattered. One lictor was very like another, he'd found; none permitted mere humanity to hamper the discharge of his duty.

He frowned at his own derisive thought, for he knew it was unfair. From the Lictor General down to the rawest first-year recruit, the lictors had no planetary loyalties and ground no partisan axes. They were servants of the Assembly, with Federation-wide citizenship so no single world could challenge their devotion to it. But fair or not, Ladislaus could see his anonymous shadow only as an extension of the Assembly.

A familiar throb of rage touched him as he recalled the farce the Assembly had called an "impeachment." He'd never attempted to deny his guilt; indeed, Wu Liang, Hangchow's chief delegate and Ladislaus' advocate, had based his entire defense on the Ortler Decision, claiming the same immunity for his client, and so underlined the defiant Fringe insistence that his act had been neither more nor less than an execution and thrown the Corporate Worlds' hypocrisy back into their teeth.

Ladislaus had known how thin a thread his life hung upon, but hatred had supported him, feeding on the vituperation the Corporate Worlds heaped upon him and stoked by his cold appreciation of the skill with which the Taliaferro Machine used the Fringe's own fury to destroy it. The decision to expel him like a pariah-to send him back to the Fringe as if that were the one proper dumping ground for "barbarians"-had cut like the flick of a whip, and it had driven the Fringe berserk. Delegate after delegate had risen to denounce the Corporate Worlds, and the Heart Worlds had heard only their incoherent fury. They had not chosen to recognize the manipulation which spawned that rage, and Ladislaus had watched the Innerworld delegations recoil from the Fringers' passion, accepting the damning Corporate World caricature as truth.

He'd seen it sound the death knell of compromise, and he'd felt only a grim eagerness to go back out among the sane worlds of the distant stars and begin what must be begun.

Yet he'd also felt a sort of admiration for the handful of moderates who had fought to stem the furious tide of history. It had been overshadowed by his own impatience, his own awareness that the dream they sought to preserve had already died, but it had been real. And he'd admired no one more than he had Oskar Dieter.

How many other delegates had felt his own astonishment when the slim New Zuricher begged for moderation and reason? When he, as head of Fouchet's own delegation, moved to drop all charges against Fouchet's killer? When he met Simon Taliaferro headlong in the furious debate, fighting with every ounce of parliamentary skill to save both Ladislaus and the Assembly? It had been a doomed battle, but he'd refused to surrender and a few-a tattered remnant-of the erstwhile moderates had rallied to his banner, as if they, like Ladislaus, recognized the true stakes. . . .

He shook free of the past and made his way into the lonely first-class lounge. He was Capricorn's last first-class passenger, for Beaufort was the end of her run-the last, ultimate end point of the Federation, in a sense. Many worlds lay still further out, but Beaufort was the end of the warp lines into the Kontravian Cluster, a lonely world, ignored by the magnates who moved and shook the Federation until the doomwhale had suddenly beckoned profit.

Ladislaus parked himself in a lounger under one of the magnifying screens as the ship swept towards the planet of his birth. Already he could make out the orbit port, tiny with distance as it waited with shuttles and cargo. Ships like Capricorn were creatures of the void, fated never to taste atmosphere, and before the days of doomwhaling there had been no orbit port at Beaufort. Only the tramp freighters, adapted for atmospheric travel, had come here then, gleaning a fragile profit in waters too shallow to attract the huge combines like the Taliaferro Line or even the chartered mail packets of the Mobius Corporation.

Beyond the orbit port loomed the vast, purple bulk of Beaufort, and he stared at it with hungry eyes. He could almost taste the iodine-rich wind, almost feel the heavy pull of gravity. Huge clouds covered half the visible planet, and he smiled. There was heavy weather in the Hellbore, and heavy weather on Beaufort was like heavy weather nowhere else in the Galaxy. Most of the planetary surface was water, the deep, purple, surging water of home. Except for the small southern continent of Grendelsbane, the limited habitable land masses were found only in the loose necklaces of islands threaded around the watery sphere. Some of the islands were huge, by Terran standards, but they were still islands, the peaks and plateaus of sunken mountains rearing sheer and indomitable from the cold, cold seas. Man had shaped those islands into homes for himself and his children, but Beaufort had shaped Man, too. The granite of its stony archipelagoes was in the Beaufort soul, and Ladislaus longed to touch the surface of his world, longed to draw the strength of that bedrock presence within himself once more.

Yet first he must face his failure. He'd gone to Old Terra as Chief of Security; he returned a broken man, derelict in his duty and expelled from the Assembly. And if the people of Beaufort were compassionate and understanding in ways which far outreached the Innerworlders on their safe, tamed planets, Beauforters also did their jobs. On a world where gravity, pressure, and the sea all conspired against the human intruder, there was only one fully acceptable excuse, and that was death. Ladislaus understood that side of his people, for it made them what they were even as it had made him what he was, and he dreaded their silent disapproval almost as much as he dreaded his own sense of failure.

He sat motionless for long hours as the orbit port grew and grew. They passed the bulk of Beaufort Skywatch, spartan and pure in the black and white blazonry of Fortress Command, and he watched a light cruiser slide past Capricorn, her white hull and blue Frontier Fleet markings gleaming under the distant light of Beaufort's sun. The stylized galactic lens of her service glistened like silver on her forward hull as she altered course and slashed away with all the arrogance of her greyhound breed, and Ladislaus wondered what so heavy a Fleet unit was doing here.

Beaufort's massive moon cleared the edge of the planet, looming huge and lovely in the sun's reflected light, for Beaufort's Bowditch was bigger than Old Terra's neighbor Mars, with a .5 G gravity and nearly enough atmosphere to support life. It was one of the universe's more bitter jokes that Beaufort-a planet almost too massive for Man-should possess a moon not quite massive enough for him. Ladislaus could still recall his initial shock upon seeing Old Terra's Luna and realizing what a miserable lump of rock had given birth to the white moon on the Federation's banners. And as for the ridiculous little ripples Old Terra called "tides"-!

Then Capricorn's drive died at last. The tractors of the orbit port reached out, and the liner shivered as they snubbed away her last motion and rolled her, aligning her with the huge, flexible docking tubes. Within minutes, she would be secured, her cargo and personnel ports open, and Ladislaus rose slowly. He turned and left the lounge, with the lictor like an expressionless ghost behind him.

The shuttle dropped away from Beaufort Orbit Port like a seashrike striking at nearcod, and Ladislaus sat silently, watching out a port. The shuttle's wings configured back, their leading edges glowing as the pilot skimmed atmosphere to dump orbital velocity. He watched them extend slowly as the shuttle's speed dropped, the orange glow fading as the heat bled away into Beaufort's cold air, and their speed dropped still further, until the engines took over, pushing them the last few hundred kilometers to the Beowulf Archipelago . . . and home.

The sprawling island of Kraki came into sight, the modest spaceport dead center in its star-shaped mass. It was a small port, by Innerworld standards, and few attempts had been made to gloss over the gaunt functionalism of early days. Beaufort wanted its spaceport grim and cold.

The shuttle touched down, and Ladislaus felt an icy pang of dread as he looked out at the unexpected throng awaiting him. They ringed the shuttle pad, coats and clothing whipped by the bitter wind of Beaufort's spring, hair flying in the near gale. The shuttle rocked uneasily until the grapples engaged, holding her against the wind, and only then did Ladislaus rise and walk towards the opening hatch. Cold air invaded the shuttle, and he shrugged into his seawool coat as the familiar wind whined beyond the hull.

The lictor followed, and Ladislaus eyed him curiously. He'd been guard and protector in one, his simple presence extending the protection of the Assembly over Ladislaus to shield him from arrest and extradition, but his had been a silent presence. No word of welcome, no word of condemnation or approval, had ever passed his lips, and Ladislaus wondered if he meant to change that now that his duty was discharged. But he merely followed Ladislaus silently to the hatch and stopped. From the moment Ladislaus' foot touched Beaufort soil, he would need no protection, and the lictor watched calmly, silently, as Ladislaus stepped through the hatch without a backward glance.

The damp cold of Beaufort's dense atmosphere slapped his bearded cheeks, and the heavy hand of gravity dragged at his bones. He hadn't been home in five years, and almost he had forgotten how it felt to be his proper weight. He walked down the gangway, moving carefully until muscles and reflexes could adjust to the thirty percent jump over Capricorn's artificial gravity, and the crowd pressed closer around the foot of the ramp. He saw his father and brother looming above the forest of heads like giants, and then his foot touched the soil of his homeworld, and for just an instant the shock of homecoming vibrated through him like an icicle of relief.

He turned towards his father and stopped. A slender woman stood before him, the colorful plaid of the Beaufort-circling MacTaggart Clan's chieftain blowing from her shoulders. Age had not dulled the flying red of Dame Penelope MacTaggart's hair, yet she looked frail and slight as the eternal Beaufort wind sang about her. She stood with all the dignity and strength of her authority, and Ladislaus stopped before her, feeling suddenly gross and huge as he confronted the calm, emerald eyes in which pride and composure glistened over a sea of sorrow.

"Dame Penelope," he said softly, his deep voice frayed by the wind.

"Lad," she said quietly.

"I-" He broke off and swallowed, feeling the familiar burning behind his eyes once more. "It's sorry I'm to be, Dame Penelope," he said humbly. "Warned I was, but too late. Gone she was, before I was knowing, but it's to be my fault. I owe a life."

His head bent and he felt the crowd stiffen as he spoke the formal acknowledgment of blood guilt. In a Beaufort court, such an admission was tantamount to accepting sentence of death. This was not a court of law, but Ladislaus had still given his life into Dame Penelope's hands, to do with as she willed. He sensed the shock of the crowd, yet even that admission was too little to express the depth of his guilt.

"Ladislaus Skjorning, I am hearing you," Dame Penelope's voice rang through the wind in formal response, and Ladislaus raised his eyes to her face, its graceful planes so like Fionna's. "But to be telling me this, Ladislaus Skjorning-was it not that both the killers died by her hand? And was it not that you it was caused her to be armed? Was it not that you had warned her? Was it not that you protected her for ten long years before they had the killing of her?"

Ladislaus' face was grim as her questions underscored his ultimate, unforgivable failure, but he nodded.

"Then, Ladislaus Skjorning, do not be telling me you owe a life!" Dame Penelope's voice cut the tension like a knife. "It's proud we're to be-proud of my daughter, who did not go alone to death, and of you, the man who made it so! There's to be no blood debt between you and the MacTaggarts, Ladislaus Skjorning, for it's one of our own you're to be, my son!"

Ladislaus' head came up, and tears tracked his bearded cheeks as Dame Penelope's strong arms reached around his waist and she laid her proud head on his massive chest, her last words burning in his heart like new hope. They were the formal words of adoption, and the foster tie she offered meant almost more than blood on cold, harsh Beaufort. His hands fluttered helplessly over her slight shoulders, feeling the strength of Beaufort in them, and he bent his head, his blond beard mingling with the windblown red of the MacTaggarts.

"It's a daughter you've lost, Mother Penny," he said softly, his great voice choked, "a debt no man can pay. But it's a mother you're to be to me, and I a son to-" His voice broke before he could complete the formal phrase, and Dame Penelope drew his face down against her shoulder, tears cutting her own cheeks before the crowd of her neighbors.

"Ah, Lad, my Lad," she murmured in his ear, stroking his heaving shoulders, "it's always a son you've been to me-did you not know it?" And she led him to his father's side.

Seapine burned on the huge hearth. The dried, treelike kelp glowed with a clear, blue flame, and Ladislaus was grateful for the rolling heat, for his blood was thin by Beaufort standards, and he was still shaken by the emotional catharsis he'd endured. Firelight flickered across the metal and stonework with which the people of Beaufort brightened their homes, and the dancing light rippled like sun off water. His father sat across the hearth, his craggy face, sculpted by sea and wind into a cliff of character, gilded by the fire. Ladislaus' brother Stanislaus sat behind him, even taller and broader than he in his seawool tunic with the crossed-harpoons shoulder badge of the master doomwhaler, and Dame Penelope sat beside Sven Skjorning.

Ladislaus let his eyes rest on her and remembered his own mother, Ireena Skjorning, thirty years dead, and her unborn daughter with her. Even with the best of medical science-which Beauforters had not been offered before the doomwhale brought them wealth-Beaufort's high gravity and hostile environment exacted a high price of its women. Beaufort weeded its people mercilessly; only the strong survived its unyielding harshness.

"It's to be good to be having you home, Lad. I was feared they were to have your life, as well." Sven Skjorning's voice was even deeper than his son's, and bitter with hate. He'd given a son to the Federation already, dead in the destruction of his heavy cruiser.

"I had the same thinking for long," Ladislaus agreed soberly, "but it's too smart they're to be for that, Father, and they're to place their harpoons with care. They let me go, because it's to suit their purpose to paint us as barbarians and themselves as 'civilized' men!"

His face twisted, and he felt the same fury simmering in his audience.

"Sven," Dame Penelope said into the silence, "it's too long we've been waiting." Her voice was cold as the Beaufort sea. "Too many have had the giving of too much, and what's it to be bringing us? Shame and oppression, Sven Skjorning!"

Ladislaus nodded unconsciously, watching his father with burning eyes. Sven Skjorning stared into the heart of the fire, and his face was hard.

"Aye," he said slowly, "you've the right of it, Penny-as always. Thirty years past I gave Ireena my word, but if she'd lived, it's to agree with you she'd be, I think."

Ladislaus straightened in his chair. His father stood high in Beaufort's sparse community, but for thirty-three years he'd honored his promise to his dying wife, throttling the hatred which had burned in his heart since the death of his eldest son. The heavy cruiser Fearless had died for one reason only: a Corporate World merchant prince had possessed the political power to demand her service as an escort for a "vital" cargo during the height of a Tangri raid.

"It's our children they're to be taking," he rumbled like slow-flowing magma. "Our wealth they cannot touch, our rights they've had the taking of long since-but no more of our children will they be having!" He looked up from the fire, and his eyes were as bright and blue as the flames. "A son from me, a daughter from you-enough! It's to be ending!"

His fist slammed the thick arm of his chair, and the expensive wood cracked under the blow.

"I've the same thinking, Father," Ladislaus said softly, "but it's to be careful we must. The Federation's arm is long, and it's the Corporate Worlds have the owning of that arm the now."

"And we're to do nothing?" Sven Skjorning demanded dangerously.

"No, Father. But it's to speak to others before the government I must. It's to be taking time, and when we strike, it's to be with care."

"You're to be talking treason," Stanislaus said softly.

"Aye," Ladislaus replied levelly, "and past time for it, too."

"No argument from me," Stanislaus said, "but to be thinking what it's to mean to Beaufort if you fail, Lad."

"I have," Ladislaus said bleakly. "Stanislaus, it's to be better to die than accept some things. There's no stomaching more-I'm not to be standing by any longer. Can you be seeing that?"

"Aye, Lad, of course," Stanislaus said simply, gripping his brother's shoulder, "but it's to be sure you do before you have the starting of a war upon your head. For you're to see it's you must have the doing of it here."

"I know," Ladislaus said softly. "God help me, I know."

The planetary government of Beaufort was not the sprawling bureaucracy that was the Federation, or, for that matter, any of the Innerworld governments. There were fewer than six million people on the planet, and the Beaufort Assembly reflected the sparseness of its population base. There were only fifty-six members, all told, and for the most part they were the elders of the great clans which had formed in the Years of Abandonment. The social and survival requirements of an environment humanity was never bred to face had created a paternalistic order, a semifeudalism, that carried over into its political processes, as well.

Yet Ladislaus had never felt more nervous in the Chamber of Worlds. The conference room didn't even hold the full Assembly-only its leaders sat around the rectangular table, their eyes calm and dispassionate upon him.

Three weeks of cautious, private conversations had brought him here. Despite his care not to involve the government in his discussions, it seemed the government had decided to involve itself. Now he gazed at the people in the room-President Bjorn Thessen, President Pro Tem Knute Halversen, crucial committee chairmen-and waited for the inquisition to begin.

"Ladislaus," President Thessen said finally, "you've been meeting with influential people in the short time you've been home. We're wondering why you haven't asked to meet with us."

Ladislaus tightened inwardly at Thessen's Standard English. Since the days of the Abandonment, the dialect of Beaufort had become a badge its people wore consciously. It was their declaration of defiance to the worlds which had ignored them in their hour of need, and while almost any Beauforter could speak barely accented Standard English, most would see themselves damned and in Hell before they would . . . except in official settings, where the planetary government's members felt they somehow stood in the presence of their Old Terran ancestors. So if Thessen chose to speak Standard English, it meant he spoke as President of the Beaufort Assembly . . . an officer charged to preserve and maintain the Federation.

"Forgive me, President Thessen," he said softly. "I wanted to sample public opinion before I spoke to you officially."

"And why was that?" Thessen wondered slowly. "Could you be thinking of seizing power from us, Ladislaus?"

"No!" Genuine horror sharpened his voice. "It was only-"

"Enough," Thessen said with a headshake. "Excuse our doubts, but we're a suspicious lot these days. Blame it on the times. At any rate," he added with a wintry smile, "we chose you for the Assembly because you've a quick mind and strong will, like your father. We can't very well complain because you act accordingly. But now that you're here . . ."

Thessen straightened, an age-spotted hand touching a document before him.

"You probably won't be surprised by this, Lad." He handed the single sheet over, and Ladislaus ran his eyes down it, then raised them to Thessen's face with renewed respect. As delegation security chief, he'd thought he knew all their avenues of information, but their intelligence network obviously reached further than he'd believed possible. What he held was a memo signed by Simon Taliaferro himself.

"It's no surprise, no," he said quietly.

"We've read your reports-and Fionna's. Is this memo accurate? Will the Amalgamation pass, do you think?"

"Like a doomwhale through nearcod," Ladislaus said flatly.

"Aye, I had the fearing of that." Thessen's Standard English lapsed briefly, then he shook himself.

"You should know, young Lad, that Capricorn brought a writ of extradition from Old Terra. I sent it back marked 'opened by mistake'-" a mutter of harsh laughter filled the room "-but you're right; Fionna's murder is but the beginning. I've viewed the chips of that 'impeachment.' " The old man's face wrinkled with disgust. "It's clear there's no reasoning with them. Except, perhaps, this man Dieter, of all people. How say you, Lad?"

"Dieter?" Ladislaus frowned. "I'm thinking he's a good enough man . . . but he's only one man. Aye, he insulted Fionna, but he was drugging, and . . . in a way, that may have been the making of him. But whether he's to be surviving . . ."

He broke off with a shrug.

"So no matter what he feels, there's little he can do, eh?"

"Aye. It's Taliaferro has them in his grip the now, and it's a mad seashrike with a mouthful of blood that man's to be. There's to be no stopping him!"

Ladislaus jerked himself to a stop, a little abashed by his own vehemence.

"Then, young Ladislaus," Thessen asked slowly, "what's to be done? Fionna spent twenty-five years seeking our rights. Was it all for naught?"

"Not for lack of trying," Ladislaus said grimly. "No one ever fought harder than Fionna. You know-you all know-she wanted no more than justice, no more than a transition. If even one Corporate World had reached out a hand to her-!"

"But fail we have?" Thessen pressed quietly.

"Aye, Mister President," Ladislaus said heavily. "We have."

"And it's that message you've been sharing with others, is it?" Thessen's old eyes were keen.

"Aye." Ladislaus looked up almost defiantly. "It's not to make any difference what wording I share, Mister President. You're to know that. And even if you're not to-" he drew a deep breath and committed himself "-it's to tell them I must."

"I see." Thessen's voice was very level. He glanced at his colleagues, and Ladislaus felt the tension. What he'd said was treason.

"Young Lad," Thessen said finally, "it's not quite fair we've been with you. This group-" he gestured around the table "-is more than just the leadership of the government. This-" he tapped the memo "-is no more than a part of what we've done. Are you, then, prepared to tell us the Federation is doomed? Is it to defy all of us you are? Knowing we're to have information even you're not to know?"

"Aye, Mister President. If so I must, then it's to defy you I will be doing! Fionna had the giving of her life for her dream, but her dream had no life of its own. I'm not to be seeing more! It's to be enough of our blood they've had the taking of! It's to be war they're waging, a war of 'laws' and 'writs' and 'reapportionments.' Well, to give them their war!" He was on his feet, blue eyes flashing, and his voice was rolling thunder in the chamber. "To give them a bellyful of war-and not with words!"

He choked himself off abruptly. Whatever he felt, whatever he thought, these were the leaders of his people. It was not proper to raise his voice to them, and his temerity shamed him. Yet he was resentful, too; resentful of their slowness, resentful that age and high position blinded them to what he saw so clearly.

He sank back into his chair, watching Thessen glance once more around the gathered faces. Here and there a head nodded slowly, wordlessly, and Ladislaus felt his heart sink at the slow confirmations.

"Ladislaus Skjorning," Thessen's voice was deeper and more powerful, his old face flushed, "it's to be too long you've had the living amongst Innerworlders!" The Beaufort dialect penetrated, and Ladislaus raised his head. He stared at Thessen's bearded face, and the old man smiled slowly. "Did you have the thinking it's to be only you to know these things, Lad?" The president shook his head. "We've had the thinking of such thoughts for long now, and we've had the preparing for it, as well. You're to make no rebellion against us, Lad Skjorning, for we're to be before you. Aye, young Lad-if it's to make war they are, then it's to make war we are, as well!"

Ladislaus gaped at the old man, and the pieces suddenly fell together. The copy of the memo, the channels of information, the persistent questioning-he'd come into this chamber convinced he alone saw what must be done, only to find they'd already seen it!

"We've had the making of our plans for long," Thessen said slowly, "yet we're to be old, Ladislaus. We're to be worn and tired-we're not to have the strength and youth for this. But it's to see you do. So to tell us, young Lad-will it be you who has the leading of us?"

"Aye," Ladislaus said softly. There was no hesitation in him, only the grim, cold certainty that it was for this moment he had been born and trained, and he looked around the circle of old faces, seeing the same bitter determination in the wise eyes and lined faces looking back at him. He nodded his head slowly, and when he spoke again, it was to swear an oath.

"Aye," he repeated. "It will be that!"


CHANGE OF ORDERS | Insurrection | SECESSION



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