Chapter Two

Norway: 1400 hrs.

It was a slow process, to berth in so many ships: Pacific first, then Africa; Atlantic; India. Norway received clearance and Signy, from her vantage at the post central to the bridge, passed the order to Graff at controls. Norway moved in with impatient dispatch, having waited so long; was opening the ports of Pell dock crews to attach the umbilicals while Australia began its move; was completing secure-for-stay while the super-carrier Europe glided into dock, disdaining the pushed assist which station wanted to give.

“Doesn’t look like trouble here,” Graff said. “I’m getting an all-quiet on dockside. Stationmaster’s security is thick out there. No sign of panicked civs. They’ve got the lid on it.”

That was some comfort. Signy relaxed slightly, beginning to hope for sanity, at least while the Fleet sorted out its own business.

“Message,” com said then. “General hail from Pell station-master to Fleet at dock: welcome aboard and will you come to station council at earliest?”

Europe will respond,” she murmured, and in a moment Europe’s com officer did so, requesting a small delay.

“All captains,” she heard at last on the emergency channel she had been monitoring for hours, Mazian’s own low voice, “private conference in the briefing room at once. Leave all command decisions to your lieutenants and get over here.”

“Graff.” She hurled herself out of her cushion. “Take over. Di, get me ten men for escort, double-quick.”

Other orders were pouring over com from Europe, from the deployment of fifty troopers from each ship to dockside, full combat rig; for passing Fleet command to Australia’s second, Jan Meyis, for the interim; for riders of docked ships to apply to station control for approach instructions, to come in for reattachment. Coping with those details was Graff’s job now. Mazian had something to tell them, explanations, long-awaited.

She went to her office, delayed only to slip a pistol into her pocket, hastened to the lift and out into the access corridor amid the rush of troops Graff was ordering to the dockside… combat-rigged from the moment they had gone into station approach, headed for the hatch before the echoes of Graffs voice had died in Norway’s steel corridors. Di was with them, and her own escort sorted itself out and attached itself as she passed through.

The whole dock was theirs. They poured out at the same moment as troops from other ships hit the dockside, and station security faded back in confusion before the businesslike advance of armored troops who knew precisely the perimeter they wanted and established it. Dockworkers scrambled this way and that, uncertain where they were wanted: “Get to work!” Di Janz shouted. “Get those waterlines over here!” And they made up their minds at once… little threat from them, who were standing too close and too vulnerable compared to the troops. Signy’s eyes were for the armed security guards beyond the lines, at their attitude, and at the shadowed tangles of lines and gantries which might shelter a sniper. Her detachment surrounded her, with Bihan as officer. She swept them with her, moving rapidly, up the row of ship-berths, where a mob of umbilicals and gantries and ramps stretched as far as the eye could see up the ascending curve of the dock, like mirror reflections impeded only by the occasional arch of a section-seal and the upward horizon… merchanters docked beyond them. Troops made themselves a screen all along the route between Norway and Europe. She followed after Australia’s Tom Edger and his escort. The other captains would be at her back, coming as quickly as they could.

She overtook Edger on the ramp up to Europe’s access; they walked together. Keu of India caught them up when they had passed the ribbed tube and reached the lift, and Porey of Africa was hard on Keu’s heels. They said nothing, each of them gone silent, perhaps with the same thoughts and the same anger. No speculations. They took only a pair apiece of their guards, jammed the lift car and rode up in silence, walked down the main-level corridor to the council room, steps ringing hollowly up here, in corridors wider than Norway’s, everything larger-scaled. Deserted: only a few Europe troops stood rigid guard here.

The council room likewise was empty, no sign of Mazian, just the bright lights of the room ablaze to tell them that they were expected at that circular table. “Outside,” Signy bade her escort, as the others went. She and the others took their seats by precedence of seniority, Tom Edger first, herself, three vacancies, then Keu and Porey. Sung of Pacific arrived, ninth among the chairs. Atlantic’s Kreshov arrived, settled into the number four seat by Signy’s other side.

“Where is he?” Kreshov asked finally, at the end of patience. Signy shrugged and folded her arms on the table, staring across at Sung without seeing him. Haste… and then wait. Pulled out of battle, kept in long silence… and now wait again to be told why. She focused on Sung’s face, on a classic aged mask which never admitted impatience; but the eyes were dark. Nerves, she reminded herself. They were exhausted, had been yanked out of combat, through jump, into this. Not a time to make profound or far-reaching judgments.

Mazian came in finally, quietly, passed them and took his place at the head of the table, face downcast, haggard as the rest of them. Defeat? Signy wondered, with a knot in the pit of her stomach, like something which would not digest. And then he looked up and she saw that small tautness about Mazian’s mouth and knew otherwise… sucked in her breath with a flare of anger. She recognized the little tension, a mask — Conrad Mazian played parts, staged his appearances as he staged ambushes and battles, played the elegant or the coarse by turns. This was humility, the falsest face of all, quiet dress, no show of brass; the hair, that silver of rejuv, was immaculate, the lean face, the tragic eyes… the eyes lied most of all, facile as an actor’s. She watched the play of expressions, the marvelous fluidity that would have seduced a saint. He prepared to maneuver them. Her lips drew tight

“You all right?” he asked them. “All of you — ”

Why were we pulled out?” she asked forthwith, surprised a direct contact from those eyes, a reflection of anger in return. “What can’t go over com?” She never questioned, had never objected to an order of Mazian’s in her whole career. She did now, and watched the expression go from anger to something like affection.

“All right,” he said. “All right.” He slid a glance around the room… again there were seats vacant They were nine, with two out on patrol. The glance centered on each of them in turn. “Something you have to hear,” Mazian said. “Something we have to reckon with.” He pushed buttons at the console before his seat, activated the screens on the four walls, identical. Signy looked up at the schematic they had last seen at Omicron Point, the taste of bile in her mouth, watched the area widen, familiar stars shrinking in wider scale. There was no more Company territory; it was not theirs any more; only Pell. On wider view, they could see the Hinder Stars. Not Sol. But that was in the reckoning too now. She knew well enough where it was, if the schematic kept widening. It froze, ceased to grow.

“What is this?” Kreshov asked.

Mazian only let them look.

Long.

“What is this?” Kreshov asked again.

Signy breathed; it took conscious effort in that silence. Time seemed at a halt, while Mazian showed them in dead silence what was graven in their minds already.

They had lost. They had ruled there once, and they had lost.

“From one living world,” Mazian said, almost a whisper, “from one living world of our beginning, humankind reached out as far as we’ve ever gone. One narrow reach of space here, thrust far back from what Union has… the Hinder Stars; Pell… and the Hinder Stars. Tenable, and with the personnel overloading Pell… possible.”

“And run again?” Porey asked.

A muscle jerked in Mazian’s jaw. Signy found her heart beating hard and her palms sweating. It was close to falling apart… all of it

“Listen,” Mazian hissed, mask dropped. “Listen!

He stabbed another button. A voice began to speak, distant, recorded. She knew it, knew the foreign inflection… knew it.

“Captain Conrad Mazian,” the recording began, “this is second secretary Segust Ayres of the Security Council, authorization code Omar series three, with authority of the Council and the Company; cease fire. Cease fire. Peace is being negotiated. As earnest of good faith require you cease all operations and await orders. This is a Company directive. All efforts are being made to guarantee safety of Company personnel, both civilian and military, during this negotiation. Repeat: Captain Conrad Mazian, this is second secretary Segust Ayres — ”

The voice died abruptly with the push of a key. Silence lingered after it. Faces were stark with dismay.

“War’s over,” Mazian whispered. “War’s over, do you understand?”

A chill ran through Signy’s blood. All about them was the image of what they had lost, the situation in which they were cast.

“Company’s finally showed up to do something,” Mazian “To hand them… this.” He lifted a hand to the screens, a gesture which included the universe. “I recorded that message relayed from the Union flagship, that message. From Seb Azov’s flagship. Do you understand? The code designation is valid. Mallory, those Company men who wanted passage… that’s what they’ve done to us.”

She drew in her breath. All warmth had fled. “If I’d taken them aboard…”

“You couldn’t have stopped them, you understand. Company men don’t make solitary decisions. It was already decided elsewhere. If you’d shot them on the spot, you couldn’t have stopped it… only delayed it.”

“Until we’d drawn a different line,” she replied. She stared into Mazian’s pale eyes and recalled every word she had spoken with Ayres, every move, every intonation. She had let the man go, to do this.

“So they got their passage somehow,” Mazian said. “The question is, what agreement they’ve made first, at Pell — and just how much they’ve signed over to Union. There’s the possibility too that those so-named negotiators aren’t intact. Mind-wiped, they’d sign and say right into Union’s anxious fingers, knowing the company signal codes — and no knowing what else they spilled, no knowing what codes, what information, what was compromised, how much of everything they’ve handed over; our internal codes, no, but we don’t know what of the Pell codes went… all the kind of thing that would let them come right in here. That’s why the abort. Months of planning; yes; stations gone; ships and friends gone; vast human suffering — all of that, for nothing. But I had to make a fast decision. The Fleet is intact; so is Pell; we’ve got that much, right or wrong. We could have won at Viking; and gotten ourselves pinned there, lost Pell… all source of supply. That’s why we pulled out.”

There was not a sound, not a move. It suddenly made full sense.

“That’s what I didn’t want on com,” Mazian said. “It’s your choice. We’re at Pell, where we have a choice. Do we assume it’s Company men who sent that… in their right minds? Unforced? That Earth still backs us — ? It’s in question. But — old friends, does that really matter?”

“How, matter?” Sung asked.

“Look at the map, old friends, look at it again. Here… here is a world. Pell. And does a power survive without it. What is Earth… but that? You have your choice here: follow what may be Company orders, or we hold here, gather resources, take action. Europe’s staying regardless of orders. If enough do, we can make Union think twice about putting its nose in here. They don’t have crews that can fight our style of fight; we’ve got supply here; we have resources. But make up your minds — I won’t stop you — or you can stay and do what I think you might do. And when history writes what happened to the Company out here, it can write what it likes about Conrad Mazian. I made my choice.”

“Two of us,” Edger said.

“Three,” Signy said, no faster than the murmur from the others. Mazian passed a slow glance from one to the other, nodded.

“Then we hold here, but we have to take it. Maybe we’ll have cooperation here and maybe we won’t. We’re going to find out. — And we’re not all in on this yet. Sung, I want you personally to go out to North Pole and Tibet and put it to them. Explain it any way you like. And if there’s any large number of dissenters in any crew, or among the troops, well give them our blessing and let them go, take one of the merchanter ships here and ship them out I leave it to individual captains to handle that.”

“There won’t be any dissent,” Keu said.

If there are,” Mazian said. “The station, now — we move out and disperse our own security throughout, put our own personnel in key spots. Half an hour is enough for you to break this to your own commands. Whatever they ultimately decide to do, there’s no question that we need to hold Pell securely before we can take any action, either to clear a ship for some to leave, or to hold onto it.”

“Go?” Kreshov asked when silence lingered.

“Go,” Mazian said softly, dismissing them.

Signy pushed back and moved, first after Sung, past Mazian’s own security at the door, gathered her two-man escort and went, aware of others hard at her heels. Uncertainty still weighted her conscience. She had been Company all her life — cursed it, hated its policies and its blindness — but she felt suddenly naked, standing outside it.

Timidity, she reasoned with herself. She was a student of history, valued the lessons of it. The worst atrocities began with half-measures, with apologies, compromising with the wrong side, shrinking from what had to be done. The Deep and its demands were absolutes; and the compromise the Company had come to the Beyond to try would not hold longer than the convenience of the stronger… and that was Union.

They served Earth, she persuaded herself, better by what they did than the Company agents did by what they traded away.

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