Back | Next


Robert Stanton Pierre eased the small, nondescript air car out of the main traffic pattern and turned his flight computer over to Hoskins Tower's approach control. He sat back in his seat, looking out and down at the twinkling oceans and mountains of light which were Nouveau Paris, capital city of the People's Republic, and his face wore the grim, harsh expression he did not allow himself in daylight.

There wasn't much traffic this late at night. In a way, Pierre wished there were; he could have used the rush and flow of other vehicles to hide his own. But his official schedule was too busy for him to slip away during the day, especially with Palmer-Levy's Security goons watching him like hawks.

Of course, they weren't very bright hawks. His tight mouth twitched wryly, despite the pain locked deep within him. If you showed them what they expected to see, you could count on them to see it—and to stop looking for anything else. That was why he'd made sure they knew about his meetings with the CRP. The Citizens Rights Party had been part of the system for so long its leadership, with a very few exceptions, couldn't find its ass with both hands, an incapacity which reduced it to little more than a convenient blind for his real activities. Not that the CRP wouldn't prove useful if—when—the time came. It just wouldn't be the CRP Palmer-Levy (or, for that matter, most of the present CRP's leaders) knew anything about.

Approach control nudged his air car closer to the pinnacle of the tower, and he turned his attention fully to it.

Hoskins Tower was just over four hundred stories tall and a kilometer in diameter—a huge, hollow hexagon of steel and ceramacrete, dotted with air traffic access points and thrusting up from the greenery so far below. There'd been a time when Nouveau Paris' towers, each a small city in its own right, were its pride, but Hoskins Tower's supposedly near-indestructible ceramacrete was already beginning to crack and scale after barely thirty years. Seen close at hand, the tower's skin was leprous with slap-dash patches and repairs, and though it wasn't evident from the outside, Pierre knew its upper twenty-three floors had been closed off and abandoned over five T-years ago because of massive plumbing failures. Hoskins was still on the waiting list for repair crews who, probably, would get around to its pipes someday. Assuming, of course, that the bureaucrats didn't end up diverting them to some more urgent "emergency" (like repairs to President Harris' swimming pool) . . . or that the repair crews didn't decide life would be easier on the Dole and simply quit.

Pierre didn't like Hoskins Tower. It reminded him of too many things from his own past, and the fact that even a Dolist Manager with his clout hadn't been able to get its plumbing fixed infuriated him. But this was "his" district of the capital. He controlled the votes of the people who lived in Hoskins, and it was to him they looked for their share of the welfare system's spoils. That made him a very important man to them—and gave him a security screen here that even Palmer-Levy couldn't match . . . or breach.

Pierre's lips curled back from his teeth as approach control inserted him into the tower's hollow top and his air car began drifting down the patchily lit bore. Despite the physical youth prolong conferred, he was ninety-one T-years old, and he remembered other days. Days when he'd fought his way off the Dole, before the rot had set so deep. There'd been a time when Hoskins Tower's plumbing would have been fixed within days—when the discovery that the bureaucrats in charge of its construction had used substandard materials and evaded building codes throughout the massive structure in order to pocket enormous profits would have led to indictments and prison time. Now, no one even cared.

He punched an inconspicuous button, and the air car withdrew itself from approach control's grip. It was illegal—and supposedly impossible—to do that, but like everything else in the People's Republic, there were ways around that for anyone with the money to buy them and the will to use them.

He slid the air car sideways, sidling up to an abandoned apartment on the three hundred and ninety-third floor, and settled it onto a terrace. The terrace hadn't been designed for such landings, but that was why the air car was so small and light.

It was time, Pierre thought as he powered down the systems, for someone to fix Hoskins Tower. Among other things.

* * *

Wallace Canning raised his head, the movement quick and nervous. Heels clacked sharply on the bare floor, echoing and resounding down the hollow, empty corridors until it seemed an entire, unseen legion was converging upon him, but he'd been to plenty of meetings like this over the last three years, if not any under quite such outré conditions. He was no longer prone to panic, and his pulse trickled back to normal as his ears sorted out the single pair of feet at the heart of the murmuring echoes and a patch of light appeared.

He leaned back against the wall, watching the patch become a beam that swung from side to side as the walker picked his way down the steps from the mezzanine. Halfway down, the beam flicked up, pinning Canning to the wall while he screwed up his eyes against its intensity. It held on him for an instant, then swiveled back down to the bits and pieces of fallen ceiling littering the stairs. It reached their bottom at last and crossed to Canning, and then Rob Pierre shifted the light to his left hand and extended his right.

"Good to see you, Wallace," Pierre said, and Canning nodded with a smile that was no longer forced.

"Good to see you, too, Sir," he said. There'd been a time when saying "Sir" to a Prole, even one who was also a Dolist Manager, would have choked him. But those days were gone, for Wallace Canning had fallen from grace. His diplomatic career had ended in humiliation and failure, and not even his Legislaturalist family had been able to save him from the consequences. Worse, they hadn't even tried.

Canning had become an object lesson, a warning for those who failed. They'd stripped him of place and position, banished him into Prole housing like Hoskins Tower and into the monthly lines that gathered for their Basic Living Stipend checks. They'd turned him into a Dolist, but not like other Dolists. His accent and speech patterns, even the way he walked or looked at others, all singled him out as "different" in the eyes of his new fellows. Rejected by everyone he'd ever known, he'd found himself shunned by those whose equal he'd become, and it had seemed hate and self-pity were all that was left to him.

"Have the others arrived?" Pierre asked.

"Yes, Sir. Once I looked the site over, I decided to use the tennis court instead of the main concourse because the court doesn't have any skylights and I only had to black out two sections of windows."

"Good, Wallace." Pierre nodded and clapped the younger man on the shoulder. Quite a few of the so-called "leaders" Pierre was about to meet with tonight would have dithered for hours over something as simple as moving the meeting site a distance of forty or fifty meters. Canning had simply gone ahead and done it. It was a small thing, perhaps, but leadership and initiative were always made up of small things.

Canning turned to lead the way, but the hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned back to Pierre, and not even the strange shadows across the other man's bottom-lit face could hide his concern.

"Are you certain you're ready for this, Wallace?" His voice was soft, almost gentle, but there was urgency in it. "I can't completely guarantee all these people are exactly what they seem."

"I trust your judgment, Sir." It was hard for Canning to say that, and even harder to mean it, but it was also true. There were many points upon which he still differed with this man, but he trusted him implicitly, and he made himself grin. "After all, I know you caught at least one InSec plant. I'd like to think that means you caught all of them."

"I'm afraid there's only one way to find out," Pierre sighed, and laid his arm across the ex-Legislaturalist's shoulders. "Oh, well! Let's go do it."

Canning nodded and swept aside the thick sheet of fabric which had been hung across an out-sized arch. The arch gave access to a short, broad passage between turnstiles and ticket-taker's windows, and Pierre followed his guide down it to the matching fabric barrier hung at its far end.

Canning thrust it aside in turn, and the politician switched off his handlight as they stepped into dim illumination. Their feet were loud on the bare floor, and the air smelled of musty disuse and abandonment. It was as if the building were the corpse of some mighty tree, rotting from the inside out, but the wan glow of widely spaced light tubes guided them across the back of the echoing concourse, past the basketball court and swimming pools thick in dust, to the central element of the long-dead sports complex.

Canning pushed another draped cloth barrier aside, and Pierre blinked. Clearly Canning had managed to replace most of the overhead lights that had been scavenged by tenants since the tennis court was abandoned, and the result of his labors was all Pierre could have wished. The blacked-out windows confined the light, hiding it from any outside eye, but it transformed the spacious tennis court into an illuminated stage. There was a powerful symbolism in meeting in this decaying monument to mismanagement and corruption, but Canning's work crew had created a pocket of light and order in its midst. They'd even swept and mopped, dusted the spectators' seats and cleared away the cobwebs, and there was an equally powerful symbolism in that. Despite the risk every person in this chamber ran, there was no aura of furtive concealment, none of the paranoiac stealthiness with which other clandestine groups met.

To be sure, he reflected as they walked down a seat aisle to the level of the court, paranoia and stealth had their places, especially in an operation like this, but decisive moments required their own psychologies. If he brought this off tonight, it would be worth every risk he and Canning had run to establish the setting and mood to make that possible.

And if he didn't bring it off, of course, he and Canning would probably "disappear" very shortly.

He reached the court itself and crossed to the small table Canning had set up at its center. Seventy-odd men and women looked back at him from the rows of seats facing it, and each face carried its own, unique blend of anxiety and excitement. The twelve people in the front row looked particularly tense, for they were the sole members of the CRP's eighty-person Central Committee whom he'd trusted enough to invite.

Pierre seated himself in the waiting chair, Canning standing behind him, and folded his hands on the tabletop. He sat silently, letting his eyes move slowly over all those faces, pausing briefly on each of them, until he reached the very end. Then he cleared his throat.

"Thank you for coming." His voice echoed in the huge chamber, and he smiled wryly. "I realize this isn't the most convenient possible spot, and I also recognize the risk in gathering all of us together in one place, yet I felt it was necessary. Some of you have never met before, but I assure you that I have met with each of the people you do not know. If I didn't trust them, they wouldn't be here. Of course, my judgment could be at fault, but—"

He shrugged, and one or two members of his audience managed to smile. But then he leaned forward, and all temptation to levity faded as his face hardened.

"The reason I invited you here tonight is simple. The time has come for us to stop talking about change and begin making it happen."

A soft sigh of indrawn breath answered him, and he nodded slowly.

"Each of us has his or her own reasons for being here. I warn you all now that not all of your fellows are motivated by altruism or principle—quite frankly, those qualities make poor revolutionaries." One or two people flinched at his choice of noun, and he smiled frostily. "To succeed at something like this requires an intense personal commitment. Principle is all very well, but something more is needed, and I've selected you because each of you has that something more. Whether it's personal outrage, anger over something done to you or yours, or simple ambition matters far less than that you have the strength of your motivation and the wit to make it effective. I believe all of you do."

He leaned back, hands still on the table, and let silence linger for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was cold and harsh.

"For the record, ladies and gentlemen, I won't pretend I felt noble or altruistic when I began my contacts with the CRP and CRU. Quite the contrary, in fact. I was looking to protect my own power base, and why shouldn't I have? I've spent sixty years securing my present position in the Quorum. It was only natural for me to look to my flanks, and I did.

"But that wasn't my entire motive. Anyone with eyes can see the PRH is in trouble. Our economy might as well not exist, our productivity's fallen steadily for over two T-centuries—we exist only as a parasite, drawing our sustenance from the star systems our 'government' conquers to fill the treasury. Yet the bigger we become, the more ramshackle we grow. The Legislaturalists are riddled by factions, each protecting its own little piece of turf, and the Navy is equally politicized. Our so-called 'leaders' are fighting over the choicest cuts of the pie while the Republic's infrastructure rots out from under them—like this very tower around us—and no one seems to care. Or, at least, no one seems to know how to stop it."

He fell silent, letting them listen to his words, then resumed in a quieter but somehow sharper voice.

"I'm older than most of you. I remember times when the government was accountable, at least to the People's Quorum. Now it isn't. I'm considered a power within the Quorum, and I tell you that it's become nothing more than a rubber stamp. We do what we're told, when we're told. In return, we get our own piece of the pie, and because we do, we let the Legislaturalists make plans and formulate policies shaped by their interests, not ours. Plans which are leading the entire Republic straight into disaster."

"Disaster, Mr. Pierre?"

He looked up at the question. It came from a petite, golden-haired woman in the first row of chairs. She wore the gaudy clothing of a Dolist, but there was something subtly less baroque than usual about its cut, and her face bore none of the exaggerated face paint currently in vogue.

"Disaster, Ms. Ransom," Pierre repeated quietly. "Look around you. As long as the government keeps the BLS ahead of inflation, people are happy, but look at the underlying structure. Buildings crumble, the utilities are less and less reliable, our education system is a shambles, gang violence is a daily fact of life in the Prole towers—and still the money goes to the BLS, public entertainments . . .  and Internal Security. It goes into keeping us all fat and happy and the Legislaturalists in power, not into reinvestment and repair.

"But even aside from the civilian economy, look at the military. The Navy sucks up an enormous percentage of our total budget, and the admirals are just as corrupt and self-seeking as our political lords and masters. Worse, they're incompetent."

The last sentence came out harsh and grating, and several people looked at one another as his hands fisted. But Ransom wasn't quite done.

"Are you suggesting that the solution is to dismantle the entire system?" she asked, and he snorted.

"We can't," he said, and sensed a wave of relaxation in his audience. "No one can. This system took over two centuries to evolve. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't possibly disassemble it overnight. The BLS is a fact of life; it must remain one for the foreseeable future. The need to loot other planets—and let's be honest; that's precisely what we do—to keep something in the treasury will be with us for decades, whatever changes we initiate in our economy. If we try pulling out too many bricks too quickly, the whole structure will come crashing down on us. This planet can't even feed itself without outside food sources! What do you think would happen if we suddenly found ourselves without the foreign exchange to buy that food?"

Silence answered him, and he nodded grimly.

"Exactly. Those of us who want radical reform had better understand right now that accomplishing it is going to be a long and difficult task. And those of us who are less interested in reform and more in power—and there are people like that in this room right now," he added with a thin smile, "had better understand that without at least some reform, there won't be anything to hold power in within another ten years. Reformers need power to act; power-seekers need reform to survive. Remember that, all of you. The time to fight over policy decisions will come after the Legislaturalists are toppled, not before. Is that understood?"

He swept them with cold eyes, and nodding murmurs of agreement came back to him.

"Very well." He pinched the bridge of his nose, then went on speaking past his raised hand. "No doubt you're all wondering why I called you together to say these things to you now. Well," he lowered his hand, and his eyes were hard, "there's a reason. All of you have heard reports about incidents between us and the Manties, right?" Heads nodded once more, and he snorted bitterly. "Of course you have. Public Information is playing them for all they're worth, drumming up a sense of crisis to keep people quiet. But what Information isn't telling you is that the Manties aren't responsible for them. We're deliberately orchestrating those incidents as the preliminary to an all-out attack on the Manticoran Alliance."

Someone gasped aloud, and Pierre nodded again.

"That's right, they're finally going to do it—after letting the Manties get stronger and stronger, dig in deeper and deeper. This isn't going to be like any of our other 'wars.' The Manties are too tough for that, and frankly, our own admirals are too gutless and incompetent." Pain wrenched at his expression, but he smoothed it back out and leaned over the table.

"The idiots in the Octagon have put together a 'campaign' and sold it to the cabinet. I don't have all the details, but even if it were the best plan ever written, I wouldn't trust our Navy to execute it. Not against someone as good as the Manties. And I do know that they've already had several disasters in the early phases—disasters they're concealing even from the Quorum."

He gazed grimly at his audience, and his voice was more than harsh when he resumed. It was ugly with hate, and his eyes blazed.

"Among those disasters was one that concerned me personally. My son and half his squadron were destroyed—annihilated—carrying out one of their 'minor provocations.' They were thrown away, wasted for no return at all, and the bastards refuse even to acknowledge that anything happened to them! If I didn't have my own sources in the military—"

He chopped himself off and glared down at the fists clenched on the table before him, and the room was deathly silent.

"So there you have my motive, ladies and gentlemen," he said finally, the depths of his voice cold and still. "The last thing needed to push me from planning and thinking into action. But however personal my reasons may be, they've neither invalidated anything I've said nor pushed me into a wild, reckless adventure. I want the bastards who killed my son for nothing to pay, and for that to happen, I have to succeed. Which means you all have to succeed with me. Are you interested?"

He raised his eyes to his listeners, watching their expressions as his challenge hit them. He saw their fear and anxiety—and their temptation—and knew he had them.

"Very well," he said softly, pushing the pain out of his voice. "Between us, and coupled with my other contacts, including those I've mentioned in the military, we have the ability to bring it off. Not immediately. We need the proper conditions, the right sequence of events, but they're coming. I can feel them coming. And when they do, we have an ace in the hole."

"An ace in the hole?" someone said, and Pierre snorted a laugh.

"Several of them, actually, but I had one particular ace in mind." He nodded to Canning, still standing at his shoulder. "Those of you who didn't know Mr. Canning before tonight have all met him now. What you don't know about him—and what he's agreed to let me tell you—is that he works for Constance Palmer-Levy as a spy for Internal Security."

A dozen people exploded to their feet in a sudden, babbling tumult of shock. Two people actually bolted for the exit, but Pierre's voice cracked across the confusion like a whip.

"Sit back down!" His sheer, cold authority stunned them back into stillness, and he glowered at them in the sudden hush.

"Do you think Wallace would've agreed to let me tell you if he meant to betray us? For that matter, do you think InSec wouldn't have been waiting when we arrived? For God's sake, he made all the arrangements for tonight!"

He held them with his glare, radiating contempt for their doubts, without mentioning that letting Canning make the arrangements had been his own final test of the ex-Legislaturalist's reliability.

The people who'd risen resumed their seats, and the two who'd bolted returned sheepishly to the others. Pierre waited until they were all seated once more, then nodded.

"Better. Of course he was inserted into the CRP as a mole. Can you blame him for agreeing to be? They took everything away from him, disgraced and humiliated him, then offered him a way to get it all back, and why should he have felt any loyalty to you? You were the enemy, weren't you? Traitors and troublemakers out to destroy the world he was raised in!

"But they hadn't counted on what might happen once he was in place." He looked up at Canning, seeing his tension and the hard set of his jaw. "He knew exactly how he was being manipulated, and they hadn't left him any reason to be loyal to them, either.

"So he listened and reported like a good little spy, but even while he did, he thought about what he was reporting—and who he was reporting it to. Not one of the people whose help he'd had a right to expect had lifted a finger for him. How do you think that made him feel about the system?"

Everyone was staring at Canning, and the ex-diplomat raised his chin, returning their gaze with fiery eyes.

"And then, one night, he saw me meet with two CRU cell leaders, and he didn't report it. I know he didn't report it, because I saw what he did report." He smiled thinly as one or two people looked at him in surprise. "Oh, yes. Wallace isn't my only InSec contact. So when he decided to tell me who—and what—he was, I knew he was telling the truth, at least about his relationship with InSec.

"That was over three T-years ago, ladies and gentlemen. In all that time, I've never caught him in a lie or a deception. Of course he knew he was being tested. No doubt if he had been a plant, he would have gone to great lengths to maintain his cover from me, but he couldn't have done it this long. Not with the prizes I've offered over the years to tempt him into betraying me. Like all of us, he has his own motives, but I have complete faith in him, and he's a large part of what can make this work."

"How?" someone asked, and Pierre shrugged.

"He's gotten deeper and closer to me and my contacts with the CRP than any other spy Palmer-Levy ever planted on me. As of last month, he's actually become one of my staff aides. They know he has the inside track on my actions, and we've been very careful to see to it that anything he reports to them is accurate. Of course," the thin smile flashed again, "they don't realize quite how much he doesn't report."

Someone laughed in sudden understanding, and Pierre nodded.

"Precisely. They have so much faith in him that they've made him their primary information source on me, and he's telling them precisely what I want them to hear. Not everyone who works for InSec is an idiot, and maintaining our own security will be as important as ever, but we have an invaluable resource here—and one with intimate personal knowledge of our 'government's' internal workings, as well. Now do you see why I called him an ace in the hole?"

A soft murmur of assent answered him. He let it fade, then leaned over the table once more, and his voice was soft.

"All right, it's time to commit ourselves. War with Manticore is coming. There's no way we could stop it even if we wanted to, but if the Navy continues to screw up, it's going to turn into a disaster. And disasters, ladies and gentlemen, are a revolution's opportunities. But if we're going to take advantage of them, we have to mobilize and plan now. Among you, and with the addition of my military and security contacts, you represent all the elements we need for success—if you all commit yourself to work with me from this moment on and mean it."

He reached into his jacket and extracted a sheet of paper. He unfolded it and looked at them with cold, challenging eyes.

"This is an oath to do just that, ladies and gentlemen." He held it up, letting them see the few neatly printed lines—and the two signatures beneath them—and bared his teeth.

"Wallace and I have already signed it," he said quietly. "If InSec gets hold of this, he and I are dead men, but it proves our commitment. Now it's time for you to prove yours." He laid the sheet of paper on the table and uncapped a stylus. "Once you sign this, there's no backing out. I have every reason to keep it safely concealed, and I assure you I will. But if one of us betrays the others—if one of us even screws up and accidentally leads InSec to us—it will be found. But by the same token, each of us will know we all know that. That we are committed to see it through to the end."

He laid the stylus on the document and leaned back, watching them silently. Sweat beaded more than one pale face, and the silence stretched out intolerably, but then a chair scraped on the bare floor.

Cordelia Ransom was the first to walk to the table and sign.


Back | Next