“Thank you for joining us, Madam President,” Andrija Gazi said, smiling as Aleksandra Tonkovic walked regally into the hearing room and settled herself behind the long, polished witness’ table.
“The Planetary President is the servant of Parliament, Mr. Chairman,” Tonkovic replied, with a smile as gracious as Gazi’s own. “It’s my pleasure to appear before the committee and to provide any information it may require.”
“We appreciate that, Madam President. It makes a refreshing change from some chief executives with whom Parliament’s been forced to deal.”
Gazi’s smile was thinner this time, and Tonkovic was careful not to return it at all. Gazi was a member of her own Democratic Centralist Party, as well as Chairman of the Special Committee on Annexation. She’d taken pains to be certain Andrija wound up in that position, and she was glad now that she had. But she couldn’t appear publicly to support his barbed comments about the acting chief executive Parliament had been forced to deal with while she was in Spindle.
Twelve days had passed since she’d received the summons to return home. It felt both much longer and far shorter as she sat in the sunlight spilling through the conference room’s tall windows. From where she sat, she could see the Nemanja Building, surrounded by the scaffolding of repair work. She’d been surprised by how much that firsthand sight of the damage Nordbrandt had wreaked had shaken her, but she had no time to think about that right now. She’d spent three days of frenetic activity on Flax, doing her best to ensure the Constitutional Liberal Party’s effectiveness in her absence. Then she’d made the eight-and-a-half-day voyage home, studying her notes, thinking about her committee appearances, and-much though she hated to admit it-worrying. She’d arrived late the previous afternoon, and there simply hadn’t been time for her to touch bases with many of her allies. The DCP’s general secretary had given her the best briefing he could in the time available, and she’d had dinner with a dozen party leaders, but she was only too well aware of how long she’d been off-world. It was a good thing she was starting with Gazi’s committee. Under his management, she’d have a little more time to get her feet back under her before the more adversarial proceedings to come.
“For the most part,” Gazi continued, “this will be an informal examination. Unless the situation seems to require it, we’ll relax the full rigor of standard parliamentary procedure. We’ll invite you, Madam President, to make a brief report on the progress of the Constitutional Convention and its deliberations. Thereafter, each member of the Special Committee will be allocated fifteen minutes in which to inquire more fully into points of particular interest.
“I understand you’ll also be appearing before Deputy Krizanic’s committee this afternoon.” Gazi allowed the merest flicker of distaste to dance across his well-trained features, but his urbane voice went smoothly on. “We thought our own day’s business should be concluded by the noon hour, and that we would then break for lunch. In light of your appointment with Deputy Krizanic and her committee, we’re planning to adjourn for the day at that time in order to give you some time to refresh yourself and rest between committee appearances. We would, therefore, also request that you make time available to appear before us on Thursday, as well. At that time, the Special Committee’s members will each be allotted an additional thirty minutes in order to pursue more fully the points which particularly interest them. Would that be acceptable to you, Madam President?”
“Chairman Gazi, my time is Parliament’s. My only concern would be to prevent conflicts between the committees’ schedules. I feel confident I can rely on you and Chairwoman Krizanic to avoid that.”
“As always, Madam President, you are as gracious as you are diligent in our planet’s service,” Gazi said, beaming upon her in his best statesman’s fashion. She inclined her head with proper modesty, and he cleared his throat and rapped his gavel once, sharply, on the wooden block beside his microphone.
“In that case, the Committee will come to order.” The eight men and women behind the raised, horseshoe-shaped table at the head of the hearing room sat a bit straighter, and Gazi nodded to Tonkovic.
“If you’d care to begin, Madam President.”
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”
She took a sip of water and made a minor production out of arranging her old-fashioned notecards before her on the table. Then she looked up with a smile that was both confident and sober.
“Mr. Chairman, Ms. Vice Chairman, Honorable Members of the Committee. As you all know, following the plebiscite vote, it was decided by Parliament that the delegation to the Constitutional Convention on Flax should be headed by our own head of state. Accordingly, as Parliament had directed, I made arrangements to transfer authority to my Vice President and departed for the Spindle System. Once there-“
Gazi and the other members of the committee listened attentively, nodding occasionally, as she launched into her account of her stewardship of Kornati’s interests at the convention.
* * *
“Thank you, Madam President,” Gazi said the better part of an hour later. “You’ve been speaking for some time now. Would you like to take a short recess before we proceed?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Chairman.” She smiled again, a bit more impishly this time. “I’ve spent sufficient time in Parliament myself to develop my endurance as a speaker,” she added demurely.
A general chuckle ran around the hearing room, and several committee members actually allowed themselves to laugh. Gazi rationed himself to a decorous, appreciative chuckle and shook his head at her with an answering smile.
“Very well then, Madam President. In that case, we’ll proceed to the members’ allocated time. Deputy Ranjina?”
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” Tamara Ranjina said. “And thank you, Madam President, for that thorough presentation.”
Tonkovic inclined her head in a gracious nod. Anything more would have been too effusive, given that Ranjina was the ranking Reconciliation Party member of the Special Committee. Under Parliament’s rules, that made her Gazi’s Vice Chairwoman, although it was extremely unlikely Andrija had maintained anything closer than a politely frosty relationship with her. Personally, Tonkovic considered Ranjina a nonentity. It had always puzzled her why someone who’d once enjoyed a secure niche within the Social Moderate Party should have shifted her allegiance to the Reconciliationists.
“Madam President,” Ranjina continued now, her tone pleasant, “I listened with considerable interest to your account of your representation of Kornati at the Constitutional Convention. There are, however, one or two points upon which I still remain just a little bit confused. Perhaps you could illuminate my confusion for me?”
“I’ll certainly be happy to attempt to, Madam Vice Chairwoman.”
“Thank you. There was one minor element about your other-wise comprehensive report which struck me as a little odd, Madam President. I refer to the fact that Baroness Medusa, Queen Elizabeth’s Provisional Governor, repeatedly and specifically informed you that your delaying tactics at the Convention were threatening to derail not simply the Convention but the entire annexation effort and that you didn’t see fit to report that information to this committee. Could you possibly explain why that was?”
Ranjina’s pleasant voice never changed. The smile never left her face. Yet her question hit the hearing room like a hand grenade. Gazi’s face turned an alarming shade of puce. Two of the other committee members appeared as dumbfounded-and enraged-as their chairman, and a single heartbeat of silence hovered in the question’s wake. Then the stunned silence vanished into a rising turmoil of whispered agitation among the staffers sitting behind the committee members and those sitting behind Tonkovic herself.
For her own part, Tonkovic felt herself staring in sheer, incredulous shock at the woman on the other side of the horseshoe. She couldn’t believe Ranjina had possessed the unadulterated gall to make such an outrageous statement in an open committee hearing. It simply wasn’t done. One didn’t seek to ambush and humiliate the Planetary President! It was obvious from Gazi’s reaction that Ranjina had given him no hint of what she intended to say. Clearly the treacherous bitch had realized the chairman would have muzzled her-or, at the very least, warned Tonkovic-if he’d dreamed she was about to launch such a crude, bare-knuckled assault on the dignity of Tonkovic’s office.
It took the President several seconds to be certain she had control of her own temper. She bitterly begrudged the delay, the way it made her look unprepared and caught off guard, but she knew the one thing she couldn’t afford to do in front of the news services’ cameras was to give the impertinent bitch the tongue-lashing she so abundantly deserved.
“Madam Vice Chairwoman,” she said then, coldly, “Spindle is seven and a half days away from Split, even by dispatch boat. Given that communications delay-fifteen days, I would remind you, for two-way message transmission-it was my responsibility as Kornati’s representative to the Convention,
“Forgive me, Madam President,” Ranjina said calmly, apparently totally unaffected by the icy precision and coldly focused fury of Tonkovic’s reply, “but I didn’t ask you about responses to specific situations
“As I have just explained,” Tonkovic said, aware that she was biting off the edges of her words but unable to completely stop herself, “it requires fifteen days for a message to travel from Split to Spindle and back again. It wasn’t practical to, nor, I submit, would anyone have expected me to attempt to, communicate to Parliament every exchange between myself and members of other delegations or the Provisional Governor herself.”
“Madam President, I’m afraid you’re either missing my point or deliberately seeking to evade it.” This time Ranjina’s own voice had become the blade of a frozen knife. “You were informed over four T-months ago by Baroness Medusa that the continued deadlock in the Constitutional Convention-which all reports available to me suggest stemmed primarily from the deliberate efforts of the Constitutional Liberal Party, which you organized in Spindle-was threatening the annexation effort. You were informed by Baroness Medusa three T-months ago that the Star Kingdom of Manticore would no longer consider itself bound to honor its agreement to annex the Talbott Cluster if a draft constitution wasn’t voted out of the Convention within a reasonable time. And you were informed two T-months ago that a hard and fast time limit of one hundred fifty standard days existed, after which, in the absence of a draft Constitution, Queen Elizabeth’s Government would either withdraw the offer of annexation in its entirety or else submit a list of star systems which the Star Kingdom would exclude from any future annexation, and that the Split System would appear on that list.”
The whispered exchanges which had been provoked by Ranjina’s initial assault had vanished into a rising tide of consternation as the Vice Chairwoman’s ice-cold voice rolled on. Tonkovic’s expression was mottled with the ivory-white of shock and the deep crimson of rage. She couldn’t believe it. She could
She glared at Gazi, her blazing green eyes demanding that he call Ranjina to heel, but the committee chairman appeared as stunned as Tonkovic herself. He was dazed, trying to think of a way to derail Ranjina, but obviously without success. He didn’t know how to deal with it, because this sort of brutal frontal attack simply wasn’t done by a member of the Kornatian political establishment. He reached for his gavel, yet he hesitated, trying to find an acceptable pretext for shutting her up. But there wasn’t one. However crude, however vicious, her attack, she’d remained totally within her right to use her allocated time in any fashion she chose. And she wasn’t finished yet
“It’s all very well to talk about delegated authority and communications delays, Madam President. But by your own admission, the maximum delay for an exchange of views was only fifteen days. Not one hundred forty days, not ninety-two days, not even sixty-one days-
Tonkovic’s jaw dropped in sheer disbelief. That wasn’t a question, wasn’t even a disguised policy position statement on Ranjina’s part. It was an indictment. One delivered in an ambush such as no Planetary President of Kornati had walked into in well over two hundred T-years.
The hubbub behind her rose to a confused roar, and Gazi’s gavel was finally hammering, pounding thunderously. But it was too late. The damage was done, and Aleksandra Tonkovic watched the solemn hearing disintegrate into a shouting match between her allies and her enemies within the Special Committee while the cameras watched every detail of the fiasco.
* * *
“Captain Terekhov, Mr. Van Dort, the Montana System owes the two of you a debt which I doubt we’ll ever be able to repay,” President Warren Suttles said. The President was a politician, but just this once, at least, there was nothing but sincerity in his face and voice. “Stephen Westman and the entire rank and file of the Montana Independence Movement have agreed to surrender to the Marshals Service and to turn in all their heavy weapons. The threat of guerrilla warfare and insurrection on this planet, with all of the damage and deaths that might have entailed, has just been removed thanks to your efforts.”
Terekhov, Van Dort, and a still-subdued Helen Zilwicki sat in the President’s office along with Chief Marshal Bannister. The captain waved one deprecating hand, but the President shook his head.
“No. You can’t just wave it off, Captain. We do owe you an enormous debt. I wish there were something we could do to at least begin paying down some of the interest!”
“Actually, Mr. President,” Terekhov said diffidently, “there
“Anything!” Suttles said expansively, and Bannister closed his eyes in momentary pain. He’d helped craft this particular ambush himself, but it still hurt to see its intended prey walk into it with such utter innocence.
“Well, Mr. President,” Terekhov said, “there’s a Solarian-registry freighter, the
“My God, Aivars! What we just did to that poor man!” Van Dort shook his head, trying hard-and unsuccessfully-not to laugh as their pinnace returned to
“What?” Terekhov replied innocently. “He