Norway: 1400 hrs.
It was a slow process, to berth in so many ships:
“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?”
“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
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
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
She overtook Edger on the ramp up to
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
“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 — ”
“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.
“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. “
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
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,
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.
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.
“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
“There won’t be any dissent,” Keu said.
“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.