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Three of President Harris' bodyguards stepped out of the elevator to scan the corridor beyond, and he waited with the patience of long practice. To be born a Legislaturalist—and especially a Harris—meant one was surrounded by security people from birth. He'd never lived any other way, and the only changes when he inherited the presidency had been the intensity of the effort and who provided it, for the well-being of the People's Republic's presidents was too important to entrust to the Republic's citizens.

The Presidential Security Force's personnel were mercenaries, hired from the planet of New Geneva in regimental strength. New Geneva's soldiers and security personnel were professional, highly trained, and noted for their loyalty to their employers. That loyalty was their true stock in trade, the real reason governments paid their high fees rather than rely on their own citizenries—and the fact that they were regarded as outsiders, both by themselves and by the citizens of the PRH, neatly eliminated the possibility that any countervailing source of loyalty might turn the PSF against the president they were sworn to guard with their lives.

Unfortunately, it also meant the PSF wasn't especially popular with the PRH's homegrown military who believed (correctly) that the New Genevans' presence meant they weren't quite trusted by their own government.

The head of Harris' personal detachment listened to his earbug until his point men reported the corridor secure, then nodded his charge respectfully forward, and a Marine brigadier saluted as Harris emerged from the elevator. The brigadier's expression was courteous, but Harris felt his simmering subsurface dislike for the PSF people who'd invaded his domain. And, he supposed, the brigadier had a point. The towering black spire of The Octagon, the nerve center of the PRH's military operations, seemed an unlikely place for assassins to lurk. On the other hand, Harris could stand much worse than a single Marine officer's resentment, and, especially since the Frankel assassination, the PSF refused to leave anything to chance. Which didn't mean he needed to rub the man's nose in it; he reached out in a greeting handshake as the brigadier lowered his own hand from the salute.

"Welcome, Mr. President," the Marine said a bit stiffly.

"Thank you, Brigadier . . . Simpkins, isn't it?"

"Yes, Sir." Brigadier Simpkins smiled, pleased to be remembered by his head of state, and Harris smiled back. As if the PSF would have let him encounter, however casually, anyone he wasn't thoroughly briefed upon! But the gesture soothed Simpkins' resentment, and his invitation for Harris to accompany him down the corridor seemed much more natural.

"Admiral Parnell is waiting for you, Sir. If you'll come this way?"

"Of course, Brigadier. Lead on."

It was a short trip, and the door at the end didn't look exceptionally important—aside from the armed guards who flanked it. One of them opened the door for the President, and the people already gathered in the small conference room rose as he walked in.

He stopped his security people at the threshold with a small wave. They gave him the pained look they always did when he went anywhere without them, but they obeyed his silent order with the resignation of experience. As far as President Harris was concerned, any secret known to more than one person was automatically compromised, whether or not the enemy had discovered it yet, and he intended to compromise this information as little as possible. That was why there were only three other people in the room. The rest of the cabinet would no doubt be peeved when they discovered they'd been excluded, but that, too, was something he could live with.

"Mr. President," Admiral Parnell greeted him.

"Amos." Harris shook the CNO's hand, then glanced at his secretaries of war and foreign affairs. "Elaine. Ron. Good to see you all." His civilian colleagues returned his nod of greeting, and he looked back to Parnell. "My time's short, Amos. My appointments secretary's done a little creative scheduling to prove I'm somewhere else right now if anyone asks, but I have to resurface soon to make that stick, so let's get right to it."

"Of course, Sir." The admiral waved his guests into chairs and stood at the end of the conference table to face them.

"Actually, Mr. President, I can keep this extremely brief, since I can speak only in general terms, anyway. The distances involved mean that getting dispatches back and forth takes too long for me to try any sort of detailed coordination from here. That's why I need to relocate to Barnett."

Harris nodded in understanding. Haven was almost three hundred light-years from Manticore—and over a hundred and fifty from its own western border, for that matter. Even for courier boats, who routinely rode the risky upper edge of hyper-space's theta band, it would take something like sixteen days to get a message one-way between Haven and the Barnett fleet base across the hundred and twenty-seven light-years between them.

"I suppose I really just wanted to touch base before you go," he said.

"Of course, Sir." Parnell touched a control panel, and a huge holo map appeared above the table. Its volume was dotted with the tiny sparks of color-coded stars and other icons, but what drew the eye were the glaring red pinpricks all along the frontier between the PRH and the Manticoran Alliance.

"The red data codes indicate the sites of our intended provocations, Mr. President." He touched another button, and a few red dots were suddenly circled by green bands. "These are the systems in which we have confirmation initial operations have been successfully completed. We've scheduled follow-up intrusions in many cases, of course, so even an initial success doesn't guarantee something still won't go wrong, but so far things look very good. The time and money we've invested in the Argus net have paid off handsomely in the data our planners had to work with when we set things up. At the moment, we appear to be almost exactly on schedule, and we've suffered no reported losses. At the same time, Mr. President, it's important to remember that somewhere along the line we will get hurt, however good our intelligence and planning. That's inevitable, given the scale and scope of our operations."

"Understood, Amos." Harris studied the holo map, savoring the wide dispersion of incidents, then glanced at Ron Bergren. "Do we have any indications they're jumping the way we want, Ron?"

"Not really, Sid." Bergren gave a small shrug and stroked his mustache. "Our intelligence conduits have a lower data transmission speed than the Navy's dispatches, not to mention the fact that it's harder for spies to get the information we need than it is for an admiral to debrief his COs. I'm afraid Naval Intelligence and my own people were essentially correct when they pointed out that we couldn't count on independent confirmation, but it does appear the Manticoran media have begun to twig to the fact that something is going on. They don't know exactly what, which indicates a fairly severe government clampdown for someone with their press traditions. Given that and my own reading of Cromarty and his government, I'd say we've got a better than even chance that they are. A lot depends on what their military recommends."

The foreign secretary raised an eyebrow at Elaine Dumarest, and it was the secretary of war's turn to shrug.

"I can only repeat what NavInt said at the outset. Caparelli's replacement of Webster as their First Space Lord is a very hopeful sign. From his dossier, he's more of a bull in the china shop than Webster was. He's well thought of by his colleagues as a tactician, but he's both less capable of delegation than Webster and weaker on the analysis side. That makes him less likely to seek advice and more prone to prefer quick, direct solutions, which certainly suggests his recommendations will follow the general pattern we're hoping for."

"I'm afraid that's the best we can say at this point, Mr. President," Parnell said in respectful support of his superior. "We're showing him a bait we hope he'll take, but no one can guarantee he will. Left to his own devices, I'm almost certain of how he'd respond, but he doesn't work in a vacuum. There's always the possibility that someone—like their Admiral Givens, who, unfortunately, is very good at her job from all reports—will see something he didn't and convince him to take note of it. At the same time, they'll have to do some of what we want, whoever calls the shots on their side of the fence."

"I was afraid you were all going to insist on qualifiers." Harris' wry smile took the potential sting from his words, and he sighed. "That's what I hate most about my job. Things would be so much simpler if other people would just be nice and predictable all the time!"

His subordinates smiled dutifully, and he looked at his chrono.

"All right, I'm going to have to wrap this up fairly quickly. Amos," he gave the CNO a level look, "we're going to rely on you to handle the final timing from Barnett. Give us all the advance warning you can so we can tie up the final prep work at this end, but I realize there may not be time for you to check with us. That's why I'm authorizing you right now to activate the final phase when you think the situation is most ripe. Don't let us down."

"I'll give it everything I've got, Mr. President," Parnell promised.

"I know you will, Amos." Harris moved his eyes to Bergren. "Ron, double-check everything from your end. Once the shooting starts, our relations with neutral powers, especially the Solarian League, may be critical. We can't risk giving the show away, but do all the pump-priming you can—and once things actually break, use our ambassadors and attachés to be sure our version of what's going on reaches the neutral media before any of their damned correspondents get into the area for 'independent' reports. I'll bring Jessup into the picture next week so his people at Information can start putting together the initial releases for your embassy people to hand out."

Bergren nodded, and the President turned to Dumarest.

"You said you were still thinking over whether or not to accompany Amos to Barnett, Elaine. Have you made up your mind?"

"Yes." Dumarest plucked at her lower lip and frowned. "My emotions say I should go, but he doesn't really need me looking over his shoulder. And if both of us vanish, somebody's a lot more likely to wonder where we are and put two and two together. Under the circumstances, I think I'd better stay home."

"I was thinking the same thing myself," Harris agreed. "And I can certainly use you. Sit down with Jessup and Ron to help them put the right spin on our news releases. I want to restrict this to the cabinet level until we launch actual operations, so the release preparation time is going to be short. The more thought we can put into giving the writers detailed guidelines and official data when we dump it on them, the better."

"Of course, Mr. President."

"Then that's about it, I think. Except—" he turned his eyes back to Parnell "—for one other point."

"Another point, Mr. President?" Parnell sounded surprised, and Harris laughed without undue humor.

"It's not really about operations, Amos. It's about Rob Pierre."

"What about Mr. Pierre, Sir?" Parnell didn't quite succeed in keeping his distaste out of his voice, and Harris laughed again, more naturally.

"He can be a pain in the ass, can't he? Unfortunately, he's got too much Quorum influence for me to ignore him—and, I'm sorry to say, he knows it. At the moment, he's badgering me about several letters to his son which were returned undelivered by NavSec."

Parnell and Dumarest exchanged speaking glances, but there was a trace of unwilling sympathy in the admiral's eyes. People, even prominent people, had been known to vanish in the People's Republic, and relatives started sweating the instant they heard the word "security." Naval Security had a better reputation than most of the PRH's security organs (the Mental Hygiene Police had far and away the worst), but they were still security. And much though Parnell personally detested both Rob Pierre and his son Edward, the elder Pierre's love for his only child was as intense as it was well known.

But whatever sympathy Parnell might feel, he was still chief of naval operations, and Pierre the Younger was still an officer, officially like any other, under his command.

"I hadn't been informed of it, Mr. President," he said after a moment, "but Admiral Pierre's squadron is involved in our current operations, and we've clamped down a communications blackout to maintain operational security."

"I don't suppose you could make an exception in this case?" Harris asked, but his tone said he didn't intend to push it if Parnell turned him down, and the admiral shook his head with a clear conscience.

"I'd really prefer not to, Sir. First, because keeping this operation secret really is important, but secondly, if I may be completely honest, because there's already a great deal of resentment against Admiral Pierre over his father's blatant use of his influence to further his career. It's unfortunate, because while I personally dislike Admiral Pierre, he actually is a very competent officer, despite a certain hotheadedness and arrogance. But if I make a special exception in his case, it's going to cause resentment among our other officers."

Harris nodded without surprise. Legislaturalists might use influence to promote their children's careers, but they were jealous of that prerogative. The President was too much a part of the system to condemn it—after all, look what family interest had done for him—but he considered it a pity that it worked against even the most competent of outsiders. Still, he would shed no tears, not even crocodile ones, for Rob Pierre. The man was exactly what he'd called him: a monumental pain in the ass. Worse, Palmer-Levy's moles in the Citizens' Rights Union were picking up more and more rumbles that he was buttering both sides of his bread by cozying up to the CRU's leadership. He was being careful to limit his contacts to the "legitimate" CRP splinter in the People's Quorum, but the President rather looked forward, all things considered, to remorsefully informing him that "operational security considerations" made it impossible to meet his requests.

"All right, I'll tell him it's no go." Harris rose and extended his hand once more. "And on that note, I'll be going. Good luck, Amos. We're depending on you."

"Yes, Sir, Mr. President." Parnell took the proffered hand. "Thank you—both for the good wishes and your confidence."

Harris gave his cabinet secretaries another nod and turned back to the door and his waiting security people.


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