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"Politics is the womb in which war is developed."

General Karl von Clausewitz,
On War


Ladislaus Skjorning frowned at his watch and re-scanned the sparsely-peopled late-night anteroom of Federation Hall, but there was no sign of Greuner. It was unlike him to be late, and, from the code phrase, his news was urgent, so where was he?

Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned slowly, one hand moving unobtrusively to the small slug thrower in the sleeve of his loose tunic of Beaufort seawool. A man faced him in the conservative informal dress of New Zurich's upper classes—but it wasn't Greuner. Greuner was a little man; this fellow rivaled Skjorning's own 202 centimeters, and, unlike many Corporate Worlders, he looked fit and mean. Ladislaus eyed him with hidden distaste, and the muzzle of the invisible slug gun settled on the newcomer's navel.

"Mister Skjorning?"

"Aye, I'm to be Skjorning." Ladislaus' deep voice sawed across the thin New Zurich accent like a doomwhale catcher through fog.

"Mister Greuner sends his regrets."

"Not to come?" Ladislaus asked slowly, broad face expressionless as scorn for his uncouth dialect flared in the Corporate Worlder's mocking eyes. He plowed on like an icebreaker, pandering to the man's contempt. "Would it chance he's to be sending a wording why not?"

"Illness, I believe." The Corporate Worlder's mouth was a thin slash of dislike as he eyed the bearded giant. Skjorning was a Titan for any world—especially a heavy grav planet, even one whose chill temperatures favored large people—but the one huge hand he could see was a laborer's, thick-knuckled and scarred by a childhood with the nets and a young manhood with the purse seines and harpoons.

"Not to be serious, I'm hoping," Ladislaus said sadly.

"I'm afraid it may be. In fact, I believe he's decided to return to New Zurich for . . . treatment."

"I'm to see. Well, grateful I'm to be for your wording, Mister—?"

"Fouchet," the tall man said briefly .

"Aye, Fouchet. Remembered to me you'll be, Mister Fouchet." Skjorning turned away with a bovine nod, and Fouchet watched him enter a deserted washroom. He started to follow, then stopped and turned on a scornful heel. Whatever Greuner might have thought, that thick-witted prole was no danger.

The washroom door eased slowly open behind him, and one brilliant blue eye followed his retreating back. The slug gun eased back into its sleeve clip regretfully, and Skjorning stepped out of the washroom.

"Aye, Mister Fouchet," he said softly, barely a trace of accent coloring his voice, "I'll remember you."

* * *

Fionna MacTaggart looked away from her terminal and rubbed her eyes wearily, then glanced at the clock and allowed herself a crooked grin. Old Terran days were tiresomely short for someone reared to the thirty-two hour Beaufort day. The air was bothersomely thin, and the gravity was irksomely low, but one could grow used to anything, including feeling tired at such a ridiculously early hour. She rose and poured a cup of Terran coffee, one of the only two things about the motherworld she would truly miss when she finally returned to Beaufort for good.

A chime sounded, and she crooked a speculative eyebrow and pressed the admittance key. The door hissed open, and Ladislaus Skjorning towered on the threshold, his blue eyes bright with annoyance.

"Damn it, Chief!" Mister Fouchet would never have recognized his tone. "You're still not checking IDs!"

"No, I'm not," Fionna said coolly. "Not inside our own enclave, anyway. Nor am I meeting guests at the door with a laser in my hand." She shook her head with mock severity. "Sometimes I think all this security nonsense is going to your head, Lad."

"Do you, now?" Ladislaus sank into one of the recliners, his anger ebbing, and closed his eyes wearily. Fionna's face tightened with sudden concern. "I wish our friend Greuner shared your opinion."

"He didn't show?" Fionna knelt on the recliner next to him and massaged one taut shoulder.

"No," he said softly.

"They got to him, is it?" she asked, equally softly.

"Aye. Hustled him back to New Zurich—I hope. But there's little to be putting past a Corporate Worlder who smells gelt, Chief." She felt him relaxing as her strong fingers dug the tension from him, then frowned and stopped massaging, leaning her forearms on his massively muscled shoulder.

"You're right, Lad. I just wish I knew what he had for us!"

"I feel the same," Ladislaus rumbled, allowing himself a frown, "but let's be grateful for what he already gave us. He turned from his own to be helping us because he thought it right; now I've the thinking he's to be paying for it soon and late."

"I know, Lad. I know." She patted his shoulder, smiling contritely, and he felt a surge of guilt. It was hard enough heading a Fringe World delegation without your own people snapping at you. Besides, Fionna was right to worry. The one clue they had to Greuner's message was the phrase "Gale Warning," and that was the code he and the little man had arranged to indicate a major Corporate World offensive against the Fringe.

"I did pick up something a mite useful," he proffered as a peace offering. "The name of the new New Zurich bully boy, I'm to be thinking. Fouchet. A tall, mean son-of-a sand-leech with a face like boiled blubber."

"He's their new security chief?" Fionna asked, eyes narrowing.

"Chief, you know they're not to be using such titles! They're not so crude as that—hell to be called Computerman's Syndic or some such. But, aye, he's the one. And had he just a little more curiosity or a little less brain—mind, I'm not sure which it was—it's squeezing Greuner's information from him I'd be the now."

"Lad," Fionna said sternly, "I've told you we can't operate that way! They already call us 'barbarians'. What do you think they'll call us if you start acting like that?"

"Aye? I don't have the thinking it's to mind me the much," Ladislaus said, laying the accent with a trowel. "It's maybe 'Corporate Worlder' they're to call me if I have the doing of their own against them. And where's the difference to lie? Yon Corporate Worlder flays his whales with money, Chief; I'm only after the doing of it by hand."

Fionna started to reply tartly, then stopped. She and Ladislaus had grown up together on the cold and windy seas of Beaufort, and she knew it irked him to play the homespun fool for men like Fouchet—but she also knew he recognized the advantages of his role. During his time in the Federation's navy, Ladislaus had acquired a cosmopolitanism at odds with the Innerworld notion of a Fringer, though, like anyone, he tended to revert to the speech patterns of childhood under stress. The slow Beaufort accent had drawn attention even in the Fleet, where such idiosyncrasies were far from rare, and Lad had learned the hard way to speak excellent Standard English. But his sense of humor had stood him in good stead, and he'd also learned to ape the stereotype so well few of his victims ever realized they were being hoodwinked. He found his hayseed persona useful as head of security for the Beaufort delegation, and he usually enjoyed it. Yet it seemed this latest episode had cracked his normal shield of humor. He'd evidently become closer to Greuner than she'd thought . . . and he was right, damn it! The little banker had jeopardized his career, certainly, and possibly his life, to help worlds he'd never even visited—and now he'd pay for it. She felt a sudden hot stinging behind her own eyes, and her hands squeezed his shoulder in silence until she felt the new tension run slowly out of them both once more. . . .

* * *

A low, murmuring rumble filled the chamber, and Fionna MacTaggart looked across from her console at the tall podium in the center of the vast hemispherical room. It stood over two hundred meters from her seat in the center of the Beaufort delegation, separated from the ranked tiers of delegates by a floor of ebon marble shot with white veins like tangled skeins of stars. After twenty-five years in the Assembly—twenty of them as head of her planet's delegation—Fionna had learned the bitter, sordid realities of the Federation's government, but the Chamber of Worlds still took her breath away. She wished she could have seen it when the Assembly had lived up to its promise, but not even the gangrenous present of partisanship and exploitation could diminish the grandeur of the ideal this chamber had been built to enshrine.

Her eyes swept over upward-soaring walls hung with the flags and banners of scores of planetary systems, all dominated by the space-black Federation banner with its golden sunburst and the blue planet and white moon of the homeworld. The air stirred coolly against her skin as she adjusted her hushphone headset over her red hair. Ladislaus was going to be late if he didn't get a move on.

A tiny light glowed on her panel as the Sergeant at Arms warned her a member of her delegation was on his way, and she looked up, hiding a smile as Skjorning lumbered down the aisle. Thank God none of their constituents ever visited Old Terra! They'd have a fit if they ever saw the role Ladislaus had assumed so well.

The big man sidled bashfully through the crowd in a state of perpetual embarrassment, then sank gratefully into the chair at Fionna's left hand and leaned forward to fumble clumsily with his hushphone.

"Any clues, Lad?" she asked softly.

"No, Chief." Ladislaus' lips barely moved. "Only the code, and it's a seaharrower's own luck that much got to us."

Fionna frowned and nodded in agreement. She started to say something more, but the echo of a soft chime cut her short.

The Legislative Assembly of the Terran Federation was in session.

* * *

Fionna fidgeted uneasily as the opening formalities filtered past her. She could see the Galloway's World delegation from where she sat, and Simon Taliaferro wasn't in his usual place. The New Zurich delegation was less than ten meters away, and she noted sinkingly that Oskar Dieter wasn't with his fellows, either. Whatever Greuner had tried to warn them of, those two would be at the heart of it. Her fingers flew over her information console, keying their names and punching up a cross index of the committees on which they sat, for she'd learned long since that it was in the closed committee meetings that the Corporate Worlds wove their webs.

The screen lit, confirming her memory. Both men were from populous worlds; combined with their personal seniority in the Assembly and the "representative membership" committee rules the Corporate Worlds had rammed through twelve years ago, that gave them membership on dozens of committees . . . including shared membership on Foreign Relations and Military Oversight. She frowned. Not only was each a member of both, but Taliaferro chaired Foreign Relations and Dieter chaired Military Oversight. It was an ominous combination.

The Clerk finished the formalities of the last session's minutes and stepped aside for David Haley. By long tradition, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly was a citizen of Old Terra, and Fionna listened to his beautiful Standard English as he turned the Assembly to business, wishing his office still had the power it once had. Unlike most of his Heart World fellows, Haley had traveled to the Fringe; he knew the hostility and hatred for the Corporate Worlds festering on the Fringe Worlds—and what was happening under the false cordiality of the delegates' relations. Unfortunately, there was little he could do about it.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assembly," Haley said, "the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee has requested a closed session of the Assembly sitting as a committee of the whole. Are there any objections?"

Fionna keyed her console and saw Haley glance down as her light pulsed on his panel. Then he looked out over the sea of faces to the Beaufort delegation, and his face vanished from the giant screen behind the podium, replaced by Fionna's, though his image continued to stare up from the small screen before each delegate.

"The Chair recognizes the Honorable Assemblywoman for Beaufort," he said, and Fionna's headset beeped to indicate a live mike.

"Mister Speaker, this is highly irregular," she said quietly. "I would ask why the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee feels the need for a closed session? And why we were not informed in advance?"

The face on her console screen was clearly unhappy. Haley was too experienced to show his emotions openly, but the assemblymen were too experienced not to read him anyway.

"Ms. MacTaggart, I can only tell you that the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Minister of Foreign Affairs Assad jointly have requested the Assembly's attention to a matter of grave import. That is all the information I have. Do you wish to object to the request for closure?"

Fionna certainly did, but it would accomplish little, since she would know no more about Taliaferro's plans after blocking the secret session than she did now. Damn him! Despite the warning, he'd managed to keep her completely in the dark!

"No, Mister Speaker," she said softly. "I have no objection."

"Is there any debate?" Haley asked. There was none, and the Speaker gaveled the Assembly into secret session.

* * *

The chamber buzzed with side conversations as the Sergeant at Arms and his staff escorted the news people out. The great doors boomed softly shut, and sophisticated anti-snooping defenses were set in motion. There would be no way for the outside world to discover what was said or done here unless a delegate leaked the word. Such "accidental leaks" were far from uncommon these days, though they once had been. As the Fringer population base had slowly grown to challenge the Corporate Worlds' domination of the Assembly, the campaign of secret slander and counter-slander had taken on vicious overtones. Initially, the Outworlders had been at a considerable disadvantage, but Fionna was almost saddened by how well they'd learned to play the game since. Only this time, leaks wouldn't be enough. Greuner's disappearance proved that.

Two new figures appeared beside Haley. One was Oskar Dieter, though he was as careful as ever to stay in the background. The other was Simon Taliaferro, possibly the man the Fringers hated most of all.

Taliaferro could have been prime minister, but his position as head of his delegation was more useful, and he would have been forced to resign it to accept the premiership. On the other hand, he could never have been president, for that largely gelded office was still decided by direct election. As heir to one of the shipbuilding dynasties which had used political power to cement its stranglehold on the Outworlds' commerce, he could never have carried enough of the popular vote. Ninety percent of all Federation cargo moved in hulls owned by Corporate World shipping magnates, yet over sixty percent of the Federation's systems lay in the Fringe and Rim. Which was why Taliaferro was hated . . . and why he was prepared to embrace any expedient to stave off the rapidly-approaching day when the Fringe's delegates would be numerous enough to demand an accounting for two centuries of economic exploitation.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Haley said, "the Chair recognizes the Honorable Simon Taliaferro, Delegate for Galloway's World and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Mister Taliaferro."

"Thank you, Mister Speaker." Taliaferro's dark face was incongruously jovial on the huge screen, and Fionna's lips curled with dislike. It was like a badly crafted disguise, she thought. A threadbare mask for the ruthless brilliance under that jolly exterior—yet the rules of the game required one to pretend his bonhomie was real.

"Members of the Assembly," Taliaferro said, "I bring you great news! After months of negotiation, I can now tell you that perhaps the most momentous departure in the history of the Galaxy has been proposed. President Zhi and Prime Minister Minh have received a direct communication from the Khan of the Orions, borne by a fully empowered plenipotentiary." He paused for effect, knowing he'd gathered the eyes and ears of every delegate. "The Khan proposes nothing less than the amalgamation of the Terran Federation and the Khanate of Orion!"

His voice rose steadily through the last sentence, but it was almost lost in the roar which burst forth at the word "amalgamation," and Fionna was on her feet, one fist clenched on the top of her console.

"No!" she shouted, but her voice was lost in the uproar. It was just as well, she realized a moment later. She was the leader of the Fringe Caucus. She must appear calm and reasonable. Above all, reasonable! Yet such a proposal would be intolerable to her constituents, and the Corporate Worlds knew it. In fact, only those fat-headed, liberal-minded, bureaucracy-worshiping Heart Worlders could be so blind as to think the Fringe wouldn't fight this!

Her eyes narrowed as she sank back into her seat. Of course the Corporate Worlds knew, and Taliaferro's obvious delight made cold, ugly sense. How was the huge population of the Khanate to fit into this new, amalgamated monster? Were the Orions suddenly to find themselves enfranchised to vote for the first time in their history? It had taken over a century of slow, painful population growth in the outworlds to earn the delegates to challenge the Corporate Worlds. With such a huge influx of votes, the Assembly would have no choice but to cut the representational basis . . . which would just coincidentally gerrymander the sparse Fringe population out of the representation it had finally gained.

Just who, she wondered, had proposed what to whom? Had the Orions conceived this on their own? Or had the Corporate Worlds suggested it to them? Or had they, perhaps, simply misled the Khan's ambassadors into thinking the proposal would be joyfully accepted throughout the Federation? There were too many possibilities and too few answers—yet.

She pressed her call button. Haley's panel must be bloody with scores of red attention lights, and she almost hoped Taliaferro would refuse to yield to her. But he would, if only to give her the opportunity to cut her own throat, and, in a way, it would be a relief to take a stand, whatever the outcome. She had no choice but to voice the Fringe's position . . . and it was time, part of her cried, to have done with careful maneuvering. It was time to speak from the heart.

"Mister Speaker," Taliaferro's amplified voice cut through the uproar, "I yield temporarily to the Honorable Assemblywoman for Beaufort!"

The background noise died instantly as Fionna appeared on the giant screen, and her green eyes flashed fire.

"Mister Speaker," her voice was clear and strong, "I must tell the Honorable Assemblyman for Galloway's World that he has made a grievous error if he expects every Federation citizen to greet this proposal with loud hosannas! No one in the Federation has more respect for the Orions than we of the Fringe. We have fought against them and beside them. We admire their courage, their fortitude, and their spirit. They have their own claims to greatness: the first race to hypothesize the possibility of warp travel; the first to create a stellar empire; and the first to recognize the inevitable end result of blind militarism and turn away from it. But, Mister Speaker, they are Orions—and we here represent the Terran Federation! We represent a society forged, in part, in combat against the Orions, one which has made for itself a place second to none in the known Galaxy. And, Mister Speaker—" her long anger and frustration burned in her throat as she hurled the final words at Taliaferro "—the Fringe will never consent to this so-called amalgamation!"

She sat down abruptly, and the Chamber of Worlds went berserk.

* * *

Soft, somehow mournful music swirled like the sea as Fionna stood at the head of the receiving line, smiling and gracious despite her exhaustion. The last week had been a nightmare, and only the extravagance of her personal exertions had held the Fringe bloc together. It wasn't that any delegation favored the proposed amalgamation; the reverse was true—they were angry with her for not taking a more extreme position.

But if twenty-five years in the Assembly had taught her anything, it was that the Heart Worlds didn't understand the Fringe. The Corporate Worlders knew their outworld cousins and enemies far better than the motherworld and its oldest colonies did, though she suspected not even the Corporate Worlds fully realized the fulminating anger they were fanning. But the Heart Worlds were too far removed from their own frontier days. They'd forgotten what it was like to know that any outside attack must come through their systems to reach the heart of empire. As they'd forgotten—if they'd ever known—what it was to have their commerce, the lifeblood of their societies, manipulated and exploited by predatory merchants with a yen for power.

And because they had forgotten or did not know, they were a terrible danger to the Fringe. Fionna had seen the "new liberalism" of her Heart World colleagues. The Heart Worlds had it too good, she thought bitterly; they were too content, too ultracivilized. The Corporate Worlds could convince them the Fringe really was peopled by uncouth barbarians but little removed from outright savagery. Worse, they could be convinced to do what was "best" for the Fringe—even if it killed the object of their kindness!

Knowing that, she also knew it was imperative to convince the Heart Worlds of the Fringe's maturity . . . or at least open-mindedness. The position she'd taken was the strongest she could take. The firebrands who longed to denounce the Corporate Worlds openly, to point the accusing finger where it so richly deserved to be pointed, would play straight into Taliaferro's and Dieter's hands, but only one Fringer could convince them of that. Fionna MacTaggart wasn't a vain woman, yet she knew no one else among the Fringe delegates had the prestige and power base she'd built against this very day.

Of all the Fringe Worlds, Beaufort, perhaps, most despised Corporate Worlders. Beaufort's heavy gravity had not been kind to its colonizers, despite their selection for high pressure tolerance, yet there had been fierce competition for space on the colony ships. The rebels of the Corporate Worlds, those who could no longer tolerate their roles as cogs in the vast machines, had seen in Beaufort a world poor enough and distant enough to be secure from manipulation and control. They'd gone to Beaufort to escape, and many had died there—so many BuCol actually closed the planet to immigration for almost sixty years.

Fionna's parents and grandparents had spoken of those bitter years. The gene pool was small; the environment was harsh; and BuCol's Corporate World bureaucrats had not gone out of their way to help. Those six decades of isolation had produced the dialect the Innerworlders mocked—and left a burning hatred in the hearts of the people who spoke it.

But then the unsuspected pharmaceutical potential of the Beaufort doomwhale had rocked Terran medical science, and suddenly the Corporate Worlds and the Assembly were filled with concern for the colony they had ignored for so long. The Corporate World combines had moved in, and the Corporate World nightmare had come for the people of Beaufort once more.

Yet cold, hostile Beaufort had trained them well, and the planetary government moved quickly to regulate doomwhaling and exclude the Corporate Worlds, unmoved by threats of economic reprisal. There was little anyone could do which the Corporate Worlds hadn't already done, and, for the first time in over a century and a half, Corporate World plutocrats were forced to dance to the economic piping of a Fringe World.

They had hated it, and it was Beaufort's successful resistance to their penetration which gave her delegation such prestige. Beaufort had proved the Corporate Worlds could be stopped; now it was time to prove they could be pushed back, and Fionna MacTaggart had dedicated her professional life to that goal. Yet there was only one of her, and she was tired . . . so very, very tired. Beyond each confrontation, another loomed, and she faced each a little more diminished, a little more weary.

She shook herself mentally, banishing the dark thoughts. It had been a bad day—perhaps that was why she felt so somber. Or perhaps it was this reception. It had been scheduled before Taliaferro dropped his bomb, and canceling it now was out of the question, but it was a strain to be polite to the Corporate Worlders as they arrived. Still, she thought with a sudden flicker of amusement, it might be equally hard on them.

She glanced at her watch. Another ten minutes and she could find herself a drink and begin to circulate. That might help. It was always easier to deal with people in small, intimate groups rather than in formal, antagonistic public forums. Then she looked back up and bit off a curse as Oskar Dieter entered with his now-constant shadow, Fouchet.

She felt Ladislaus materialize by her side. Dear Lad! He played the buffoon for the Innerworlders, but his fellow Beauforters knew his worth. Indeed, she sometimes wished she didn't know him quite so well. It would be nice to lose herself in an affair with someone with his strength and integrity, but any liaison with him would have felt incestuous.

Dieter paused at the head of the reception line, and his dark eyes glittered. Fionna didn't like Dieter; she never had, and she knew the feeling was mutual. Unlike Taliaferro, Dieter was a poor hand at hiding his emotions, and she'd flicked him on the raw often in debate. He resented that, and resented it all the more because she was a woman. The Constitution might outlaw sexual discrimination, but New Zurich's unwritten law enshrined it, and she suspected Dieter found her an insult to his prejudices as well as to his ambitions. Still, there were amenities to be observed, and she held out her hand with a smile.

"Mister Dieter."

"Ms. MacTaggart." He bowed slightly, ignoring her hand, and his voice was cold, his eyes scornful. Fionna's palm itched.

"A pleasure to see you, sir," she made herself lie. "I understand you will be taking a major role in tomorrow's debate?"

"Indeed," he said. "And so, I hear, will you. Playing your usual obstructionist role, I presume."

Conversation slackened, and Fionna felt Ladislaus tighten beside her. She touched his hand unobtrusively.

"I prefer, sir, to consider my role as that of a constructive advocate for the Fringe Worlds," she said, equally coldly. "We, too, have a right to present our point of view and to contend for our values and dreams."

"Values and dreams?! Fringe garbage!" Dieter flushed suddenly, his voice hissing, and Fionna's eyes widened. Good God, what ailed the man? One simply didn't say things like that at formal receptions!

"Yes, Mister Dieter," she heard herself say, "we, too, have our dreams and aspirations—or will the Corporate Worlds take even those from us?"

Ripples of silence raced outward. Fionna dared not turn to see the effect of the acid exchange, yet neither dared she retreat. It was one thing to appear reasonable; it was quite another to appear weak.

"We have no desire for them," Dieter sneered. "You speak very prettily in debate, for a Fringe Worlder, Madam, but the Assembly will not be blind to your barbarism and xenophobia forever. You and your kind have stood in the path of civilization too long!"

He almost spat the last words, and suddenly she smelled his breath. Reefgrubs! He was almost in orbit on New Athens mizir! How could he be so stupid as to meet her in this condition? But whatever madness possessed him wasn't her worry; responding to his attack was.

"We may be barbarians, sir," she said, and her voice rang clearly in the silence, "but at least we have the advantage of you in manners!"

Dieter's face twisted as the crowd murmured approval. Even through the haze of mizir fumes he could sense the incredible blunder he'd made. But recognizing it and retrieving it were two different things, and his fuddled brain was unequal to the task.

"Slut!" he hissed suddenly, thrusting his face close to hers. "You've aped your betters for too long! Get home to your stinking little ball of mud and make babies to play in the muck!"

Fionna and her guests froze. Enmity between political leaders was nothing new, but this—! No one could quite believe Dieter was so lost to self-control, yet his words hung in the supercharged air like a sub-critical mass of plutonium, and they waited breathlessly for the explosion.

It came. Ladislaus Skjorning's huge right hand lashed open-palmed across Dieter's face.

The New Zuricher rebounded from the blow, crashing into Fouchet, blood bursting from the corner of his mouth. He stared at Ladislaus for a moment of terror, then clawed himself upright, gobbling curses while Fouchet's hand darted inside his tunic. But Ladislaus wasn't yet done, and Fionna's world reeled about her as his quarterdeck rasp cut through Dieter's fury.

"You're to meet me for this," he grated.

Dieter's mouth snapped shut as a warning battered at the mizir. He was in the Beaufort enclave; the enclaves enjoyed extraterritoriality; and on Beaufort, dueling was an accepted fact of life. He stared at the giant before him, and for the first time he understood the difference between a patiently plodding ox and a charging bull.

"I—I—" He fought for words. "This is . . . is preposterous! Barbaric! You can't be—"

"Aye, we're to be called barbarians," Ladislaus agreed grimly, "but it's to meet me you'll be for all of that."

"I—I won't!" Dieter gasped desperately.

"No?" Ladislaus wrapped one hand in the New Zuricher's tunic, and muscles bred to a gravity a third again that of Old Terra's rippled as he lifted him from the floor. "You've the right to be calling barbarians, but not the guts to be facing one, have you? But it's on Beaufort soil you are the now! It's Beaufort law has the ruling of it here."

"Let him go, Skjorning!" It was Fouchet, his hand still inside his tunic, and Ladislaus' blue eyes moved coldly to the security man's tight face.

"Chief?" the big Fringer said softly.

"Mister Fouchet," Fionna's voice rang through the horrified room, "You are legally on the soil of Beaufort, and as chief of her delegation, I will thank you to remove your hand from your tunic—empty."

Fouchet eyed her contemptuously, then paled. Three grim-faced Assembly lictors stood behind her, stun batons in hand and a hard light in their eyes. He hadn't seen them appear, but he knew whose orders they would obey in this room.

His hand came out of his tunic—empty.

"Thank you," Fionna said icily, then touched Ladislaus lightly on the arm. "Put him down, Lad," she said quietly.

For a moment it seemed the towering blond giant might refuse, then he slammed Dieter back onto his feet, and the Corporate Worlder swayed. Fionna's eyes were emerald ice, but her voice was colder.

"Mister Dieter, you have been challenged to honorable combat by Ladislaus Skjorning. Do you accept the challenge?"

"I—No! Of course not! It's—"

"Be silent!" Fionna's voice whiplashed across his spluttering and shocked him into silence. "Very well. You have declined the challenge—as is your right. But as representative of Beaufort on Old Terra, it is my duty to inform you that you are no longer welcome on her soil. Leave. If you ever return, you will be forcibly ejected."

Dieter stared at her like a gaffed fish, the mottled red print of Ladislaus' hand the only color in his white face. He looked desperately around the circle of hostile faces, and he found no support. Not a man or woman present questioned Fionna's decision. He opened his mouth.

"One word, Mister Dieter," Fionna said softly, "and I will ask these lictors to escort you from the premises. Now leave!"

And Oskar Dieter turned to stumble away through the crowd.

* * *

Fionna couldn't fault Lad—except, perhaps, in that the challenge had rightfully been hers to give. Such behavior was not tolerated on Beaufort, nor most other Fringe Worlds. Sparse societies in alien environments tended to be armed, and insults carried a stiff price. Yet even if she couldn't question his act, she regretted the impact she expected it to have.

But the actual impact surprised her. The Corporate Worlds might have convinced the Heart Worlds the Fringe was uncouth, but not even they dared argue that a society's customs could be challenged with impunity. That sort of intolerance would have destroyed the Federation long since, and no Heart Worlder hesitated to condemn Dieter's behavior. Not even the excuse that he'd been drugging (acceptable on most Heart Worlds, though not in the Fringe) could mitigate his unforgivable boorishness. So far as the Heart Worlds were concerned, the whole focus of the Corporate-Fringe World debate had been shifted by a single instance of supremely bad manners.

The Fringers' reactions were even more startling. She'd expected a ground swell of anger she would never be able to control; instead, she got a tightening of ranks and an upwelling of ever stronger support. The hatred she'd expected was there, but it was controlled by respect for her and Ladislaus.

Dieter's stupidity had strengthened her prestige with Fringer and Heart Worlder alike, and the Corporate Worlds lost ground steadily in debate. The amalgamation issue was far from resolved, but under her leadership the Fringe had emerged as a moderate and reasonable entity, and as the days passed, she felt the pendulum swinging in her favor.

* * *

Simon Taliaferro's joviality was in abeyance, and his eyes were cold as Oskar Dieter and Francois Fouchet entered his office.

"You idiot!" he flared. "How could you be so stupid?!"

"I—I wasn't myself," Dieter muttered. "I was provoked!"

"Provoked, hell! You were glitter-dusted to the eyeballs, that's what you were! Look at these"—he slammed a fist on the sheaf of printouts on his desk—"and tell me it was worth it!"

"Mister Taliaferro," Fouchet's calm voice cut the superheated tension like an icicle, "we're prepared to stipulate an error was made, but fixing blame won't solve our difficulties. Clearly you have something to tell us; equally clearly it isn't something you much care for. Very well. Tell us, and let's see if we can't find a way to retrieve the situation."

Fouchet's coolness seemed to calm Taliaferro, and he drew a deep breath. Then he let it hiss out and squared his shoulders.

"You're right, Francois," he said finally. "I'll say no more about the . . . episode. But the consequences are out of all proportion, I assure you. These—" he thumped the printouts again "—tell it all. A week ago, we had them; today, they're rolling us up like a rug."

Dieter mopped his forehead with a tissue and said nothing. In one, terrible week he'd fallen from the Corporate Worlds' second most powerful leader into a sort of limbo. Every insider knew Fouchet spoke for New Zurich, and most expected Dieter to be recalled so Fouchet could replace him officially. He was ruined, and his eyes burned into Fouchet's back as he remembered who had encouraged him to glitter-dust that evening . . . and provided the drug that was so much more potent than he normally used.

Dieter knew mizir produced no delusions, that it couldn't make a man say what he didn't actually feel, yet his statements had shocked him even more, perhaps, than they had Fionna MacTaggart. They'd revealed a personal hatred he hadn't even known existed. But Fouchet had known. Fouchet had maneuvered him, yet accusing him would be worse than useless. If there was anything the Corporate Worlds had less use for than a fool, it was a dupe.

"Those projections are confirmed?" Fouchet asked, and Taliaferro nodded. "But, of course, they're based on certain givens, aren't they?"

"Any projection is, but there's not much room for change in the parameters. What it boils down to is that we've lost the high ground. In a straight debate over something as emotional as amalgamation, they'll probably beat us—even without the reapportionment issue. God! To think of a brainless lummox like Skjorning bumbling into the only thing that could hurt us this way!"

"I'm not so sure he is brainless," Dieter offered in a subdued voice.

"Of course you're not," Taliaferro sneered. "That'd make your little fiasco look better, wouldn't it?" Dieter wilted under the savage irony. "But he is a fool. He reacted with his muscles, the way he always does, and it just happened that this time it was the best thing he could do—or the worst, depending on your viewpoint!"

"But it comes down to Skjorning and MacTaggart, doesn't it?" Fouchet murmured thoughtfully, recapturing Taliaferro's attention.

"Eh? I suppose so—not that he's too important. It's MacTaggart. She's spent a quarter-century building a power base. She's got the best political brain in the whole Fringer crowd, and they know it—that's why they follow her lead—but her control was slipping. Another few days and I'd've moved the vote, and every projection said she'd lose the firebrands on the floor. Well, the hotheads are hotter than ever, but she's got more authority than ever. They'll never break with her now."

"No, I can see that," Fouchet said slowly, "but if there were some way to remove her from the equation?"

"Without MacTaggart, they'd attack us like wolves," Taliaferro said simply, "and that'd be just as good as their scattering like sheep. But we can't touch her. She can't be bought, she can't be blackmailed, she can't be intimidated, and she's headed the Fringe Caucus for fifteen years. After last week, she might as well be in God's hip pocket!"

"True," Fouchet said, his lips curving slowly, "but accidents do happen, don't they? And Granyork isn't like a colony world. Why, we're right in the middle of the Northeast Corridor Conurbation, and that's a sort of jungle Fringers aren't well equipped to deal with. . . ."

"What are you saying?" Dieter's horror cut the sudden silence like a saw. "You can't possibly suggest—"

"I didn't hear Mister Fouchet suggest a thing, Oskar," Taliaferro said coldly. "I only heard him speculating idly on matters totally beyond our control. And, of course, he's quite right. If Ms. MacTaggart were to suffer an . . . accident, it could only help us on the floor. Unless, of course, our enemies were able to . . . invent . . . a connection between her accident and us."

"Oh, of course," Fouchet agreed. "Of course."

* * *

Fionna MacTaggart considered the face in her mirror critically. It wasn't quite as young as she still liked to think of herself, and she'd never been—in her opinion—a beauty, but her image had nothing to apologize for. She nodded companionably to herself.

"Just you and me, girl," she said softly. "No one else has to know how hard we worked for that, do they?"

She chuckled and reached for her small evening bag. God, it felt good to be going somewhere besides to another floor fight! But the Corporate Worlds were on the defensive now. Now they were fighting to delay the vote, though she didn't really know what they hoped to achieve; delay only strengthened her hand at this point. No doubt they planned something devious, and equally no doubt Ladislaus or one of the others would figure it out if she didn't. But for now she felt younger than she had in weeks, and she looked forward eagerly to the night's entertainment. True, the thin Old Terran atmosphere detracted a bit from her enjoyment, but the strength of the performance more than compensated. Opera had been born on Old Terra, and in her opinion it still achieved its highest expression here.

She glanced into her bag at the snub-nosed and chunky two-millimeter needler and debated leaving it behind, for if it was small, it was still heavy. And it wasn't as if she were headed into the back islands. Granyork was the epicenter of the ultracivilized Heart Worlds. Still, she knew how Lad would react if she went unarmed . . . She sighed and closed the bag.

She keyed her bedside terminal and the screen lit briefly with an attention pattern, then with Ladislaus' face.

"All set, Lad," she told him cheerfully. "Would you have the car sent around, please?"

"Aye . . . if you're not leaving your little toy behind," he said suspiciously.

"Me?" She laughed and clunked the bag solidly against the terminal. "See, Daddy?"

"Laugh if you will," he said with a slight grin, "but I rest easier knowing you're armed, Fi."

"I know, Lad." She was touched by his use of her name, for Ladislaus was always careful to call her "Chief" to avoid any impression of taking advantage of their lifelong friendship. "I may think you're a little paranoid, but you're the man I chose for security chief. If you want me in a combat zoot with a grenade launcher, that's how I'll go."

"I know you mean it for a joke, but it's happier I'd be for it," he said, only half-humorously. "Still, it's the offalbirds are on the rocks the now, it's to be seeming. So go—have a good time, Chief!"

"Why, thank you, Lad," she cooed, batting her eyes. "I certainly shall." She touched the button again, and the terminal blanked.

* * *

Twenty minutes later, Ladislaus' terminal hummed once more, and he looked up from his report with a frown, for he'd left orders not to disturb him. Then he looked again, and his brow furrowed. It was an outside call on his priority number, and his eyes widened as he touched the acceptance key and Oskar Dieter's sweating face filled the screen.

"Please excuse the intrusion, Mister Skjorning!" Dieter took advantage of his shock, speaking quickly to wedge a toe in the door. "I had to call you. I have . . . have vitally important information for you."

"Do you, now?" Ladislaus' voice was cold, but his mind raced. Under Beaufort's code, Dieter no longer existed as far as he was concerned, and he could imagine nothing they might have to discuss. Yet the Corporate Worlder had to know he would feel that way, so it followed that there was something important here—but what?

"Yes. I—I don't know who else to give it to," Dieter sounded desperate, and Ladislaus suddenly noted how low-pitched his voice was. Was he afraid of being overheard?

"And what's that information to be?"

"B—before I say any more, you have to promise to keep its source confidential," Dieter said feverishly, wiping his brow.

"I'm to be but a simple fellow. What's—"

"Please, Mister Skjorning! You may have convinced the others—indeed, you play the part very well—but must we continue to pretend?"

Ladislaus' eyes narrowed. So a Corporate Worlder had finally bothered to pierce his mask. Yet it seemed Dieter had little interest in sharing his deductions with his fellows . . . not if he was honestly seeking to impart some sort of sensitive information. . . .

"All right, Mister Dieter," he said. "You have my word."

"Thank you, Mister Skjorning!" Dieter drooped with relief, yet now that he had Ladislaus' promise, he seemed to find it difficult to go on. Ladislaus could almost feel the painful physical effort with which he screwed up his courage.

"Mister Skjorning, I—I made a fool of myself the other night. I know it and you know it, but I swear to God I had no idea where it would lead!"

"What are you talking about?" Ladislaus' brows knitted. Could the man be drugging even now?

"I wrecked a lot of plans," Dieter said in a fast, frantic monotone. "I'm sure you know what I mean. But I never realized just how . . . how desperate some of my colleagues have become! They're going to kill her, Mister Skjorning!"

Dieter seemed to sag, as if simply voicing the words lifted a great weight from his shoulders, but Ladislaus was totally at a loss for an instant. Then it penetrated.

"Are you serious? They're going to assassinate Assemblywoman MacTaggart!"

"Yes! That is—I think so." Dieter squirmed in fresh uncertainty. "All I really know is that there was a lot of talk. You know—hypothetical discussion about how 'convenient' it would be if something happened to her. I—I tried to oppose it, but I don't have the influence I had. . . ."

"Who's going to do it and when?" Ladislaus snapped.

"I'm not even positive they are going to do it," Dieter said anxiously. "I think . . . I think it's Francois Fouchet's project. I don't know when or how."

"Is that all you have for me?"

"Yes. Except . . . except Francois said something about how dangerous Granyork can be."

"My God!" Ladislaus paled and reached for the disconnect, then paused, his eyes on the wretched man before him. "Mister Dieter, I thank you. What was between us is no more." Dieter's miserable expression lightened slightly as he recognized the formal renunciation of challenge.

"Thank you," he whispered. "And for God's sake, don't let them kill her! I never dreamed—" He stopped and chopped his hand at the pickup. For a moment, he became the man he once had been. "Enough! Protect her, Mister Skjorning. And tell her . . . tell her I'm sorry."

"I will. Good night."

Ladislaus cut the circuit and immediately punched for another, staring at his watch. With any luck and normal Granyork traffic, Fionna had not yet reached the Met.

* * *

"Goodness, Chris, I don't believe we've ever made such good time," Fionna remarked as the ground car slowed.

"I think you're right, Chief," the young security man agreed, his eyes flickering over the smartly dressed crowd before the opera house.

"Good. I hate finding my seat after the house lights go down."

Chris Felderman opened her door and she stepped out, picking her way through the crowd towards the huge front doors behind him.

"Stop, thief!"

Fionna and Felderman swung to face the shout as a running man suddenly burst from the crowd and snatched at the purse of the wife of Hangchow's chief delegate. His course carried him close to Fionna, and she punched her bodyguard's shoulder sharply.

"Stop him, Chris! That's Madam Wu's purse!"

"Yes, ma'am!" Felderman lunged after the thief, his long legs gaining ground quickly, and Fionna watched for an instant, then felt something like a chill on the nape of her neck. She turned, and her eyes widened as she saw two men approaching her. She'd never seen them before, but something in their purposeful expressions woke a warning deep inside her. She felt an instant of helpless panic as a terrible premonition struck—replaced in an instant with icy calm.

She knew better than to turn and run. There was no time to resummon Chris. The thoughts flicked through her brain like lightning, yet her reactions were even faster. Her hand darted into her bag. Her fingers found the butt of the needler. She didn't try to draw the weapon; she simply raised the bag and pistol together.

The killers were from the world of Shiloh. They hadn't expected their target to be armed; still less had they allowed for the reaction speed a high-grav planet instills. But they could not mistake her movements, and they were the best money could buy.

The thunder of two compact machine pistols buried the high, shrill whine of the needler.

* * *

Fionna was lying on the sidewalk. It hurt—God, how it hurt!—and she whimpered a little at the terrible pain. She lay in a puddle of something hot, and she felt a gentle hand under her head, raising it to slip some sort of cushion behind it.

She opened her eyes. It was Chris Felderman leaning over her, she thought confusedly. But why was he crying?

"Chris?" The voice was hers, but she'd never heard herself sound so weak. Something dribbled down her chin, and she realized it was blood. She felt only a distant curiosity at the thought.

"D—Don't try to talk, Fionna. Please! The medics are coming."

"M—medics?" She blinked at him. A mist was rising from the pavement, obscuring her vision, and the temperature had fallen. Then she understood, and she managed a weak smile. "Don't think . . . it'll matter . . . much," she whispered.

"It will! It will!" Chris sobbed, as if saying it could make it so.

"May—maybe." She knew better, but it struck her oddly detached brain as needlessly cruel to tell him so. "What about—?"

"Dead!" he whispered fiercely. "You got 'em both, Chief!"

"G—good." The mist was much thicker, and she was much, much colder. Yet the darkness beyond the mist seemed suddenly warm and inviting. It wouldn't hurt so much there . . . but she had something left to say, didn't she? She cudgeled her fading brain, then her bloody mouth smiled up at Chris. Two police floaters screamed to a halt, but she ignored them as she gripped his hand.

"G—give . . . Lad . . . my love," she murmured. "And . . . tell him . . . tell him . . . I got them b—"

The light went out of her universe forever.

* * *

Ladislaus Skjorning sat in the Chamber of Worlds like a boulder of Beaufort granite, and the black-draped seat beside him was less empty than his soul.

He had failed. He'd failed his planet and himself, but, far worse, he had failed Fionna. Chris Felderman thought the failure was his, but Ladislaus knew. The entire surviving Beaufort delegation was in shock, but the others had managed somehow to keep going. Not Ladislaus.

He remembered their childhood on windy, purple seas under the orange Beaufort sun. Remembered sailing and fishing, the first time she stood for office as a seaforcer, the day she convinced him to seek the new Assembly seat. "I need someone to watch my back, Lad," she'd said, and for ten years he'd done just that—until he let her go out onto a street on the birthworld of Man to be gunned down in her blood like an animal.

His teeth ground together on the agony of memory, and suddenly a single, clear thought stabbed through his brain like an ice pick.

The Federation wasn't worth Fionna's life.

Four and a half centuries of human history had come down to this, he thought bitterly, looking at the banner-hung walls and marble floors. To this holodrama showpiece, this mausoleum dedicated to dead ideals and housing a government whose members connived at murder.

His broad face went grim. Fionna was gone, and with her went her dream. There would be no transition, no gradual change. Without her, the Fringe bloc was leaderless, headless, already splintering in rage as the local authorities sought uselessly to link the dead assassins to someone—anyone—but the tracks were well buried.

The killers had been Fringers, not Innerworlders, but the Outworlds knew who had hired them. Ladislaus had Dieter's confirmation, though his oath meant he couldn't use it. His fellows didn't need it, for the Fringe knew its enemies well. Yet there was no proof, and without proof, there was no guilt. Without guilt, there was no punishment; and without punishment, the Fringe would shatter in incoherent fury and be swept aside by the Corporate World machine. He saw it coming, and he was glad. Glad! 

He rose and pressed his attention button, and there was a moment of silence as the delegate from Xanadu looked down from the giant screen and recognized who sought recognition.

"Mister Speaker," the delegate said slowly, "I yield to the Honorable Assemblyman for Beaufort."

Ladislaus Skjorning's grim face appeared on the master screen, and the chamber fell silent. In ten years, he had never sought the floor.

"Mister Speaker!" His voice was harsh, with little trace of his habitual accent, and he felt a stir around him as he put aside his mask at last. "I would like clarification on a point of law, Mister Speaker."

"Certainly, Mister Skjorning," Haley said, his face compassionate.

"Mister Speaker, am I not correct in believing that many years ago—in 2357—Winston Ortler of Galloway's World was accused of murdering his Old Terran mistress?" A silent gasp rippled through the Assembly, and Simon Taliaferro's face twisted in fury while Haley stared at Ladislaus in shock.

"Am I not correct, Mister Speaker?"

"Yes . . . yes, you are. But no formal charges were ever filed—"

"Precisely, Mister Speaker." Ladislaus' face was bleak. "No formal charges were filed—just as no formal charges have been filed over the death—the assassination—of Fionna MacTaggart. But in the earlier case, I believe, there was substantial evidence of guilt, was there not? Is it not true that his colleagues ruled that, as an assemblyman, he was immune from prosecution for any crime under the Constitution?"

"Yes, Mister Skjorning," Haley said softly. "I am very much afraid that was the case." He drew a deep breath and gripped the dilemma by its horns. "May I ask the purpose of your questions, sir?"

"You may." Ladislaus drew himself up to his full height, towering over the other assemblymen like an angry Titan. "It is only this, sir; just as there was no prosecution then, there will be none now. Because the men who murdered Fionna MacTaggart are in this very chamber!"

The Chamber of Worlds exploded as the words were spoken at last. The Speaker's gavel pounded, but Ladislaus grabbed the volume control on his console and wrenched it to full gain. His mighty bass roared through the tumult, battering the delegates' ears.

"Fionna MacTaggart was murdered by the political machine headed by Simon Taliaferro!" Confused shouts of outrage and approval echoed from the floor, but Ladislaus thundered on. "Fringe World fingers pulled those triggers, but Corporate World money bought them! It may never be 'proved,' but Francois Fouchet planned her murder because she stood in the Taliaferro machine's way!"

His savage words shocked the Assembly into silence at last, but for a handful of shouted denials from the Corporate World seats, and Ladislaus slowly turned down the volume.

"But let it pass," he said very softly, his amplified voice echoing in the silence. "We of the Fringe have learned our lessons well. We cannot turn to this Assembly for justice; the Assembly is the tool which took our rights. But let that pass, too. Let all of it pass. It doesn't really matter any more, because when you killed Fionna—" his eyes burned across at the New Galloway delegation "—and when these other Innerworlders let you kill her, and demanded no accounting, you also killed this Assembly. You're dead men's shadows in a hall of ghosts, and you will wake one morning to find that you are all alone here. . . ."

His voice trailed off, and an icy hush hovered as he started to turn away. But then he paused. His fists clenched at his sides, and when he turned back to the pickup the muscles in his cheeks stood out like lumps of iron in a face reduced to elemental hatred by loss and rage.

"But happen to be one last service this putrid Constitution have the doing of for Fionna," he said thickly. "Happen to be a Fringe Worlder can claim a Corporate Worlder's protection!"

They were still staring at him in confusion as he vaulted the low railing of his delegation's box. Members surged to their feet as his long legs flew over ten meters of marble to the New Zurich box.

Fouchet saw him coming and lunged up, his hand snaking into his coat, but Ladislaus was too fast. Muscles trained in a gravity thirty percent greater than Old Terra's—almost forty percent greater than New Zurich's—hurled him into the New Zurich delegation, and his right hand locked on Fouchet's wrist. His fingers closed like a vise, twisting, and Fouchet screamed as his wrist shattered like crushed gravel.

Ladislaus jerked the moaning Corporate Worlder to the front of the box, his left hand scything a New Zurich aide contemptuously aside, and his bull voice roared through the tumult.

"Happen to be"—he shouted, tears streaming down his bearded cheeks—"even a Fringe Worlder can find justice if he make it for himself!" His left hand gripped the back of Fouchet's neck while the entire Assembly rose to its feet in disbelief. Two lictors raced towards the box, but they were a lifetime too late. Fouchet shrieked as steely fingers tightened, but Ladislaus' bull-throated roar battered through all opposition. "Happen to be your stinking Constitution give me immunity for this!"

And he snapped Fouchet's neck like a stick.



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