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Hereditary President Harris looked around the magnificently decorated dining room and tried not to show his worry. It was his birthday, and the glittering horde of well-wishers had gathered as it always did, but this time there was a difference. The soft clink and clatter of tableware sounded completely natural; the near total absence of conversation did not.

His mouth quirked mirthlessly, and he reached for his wineglass. Of course there was no conversation; no one wanted to talk about what all of them knew was true.

He drank deep of his wine, hardly noticing its exquisite bouquet, and let his eye run over the tables. As it did on every President's Day, the Republic's government had virtually shut down for the celebration, since anyone in government who mattered simply had to be here. Only Ron Bergren and Oscar Saint-Just were absent. The foreign secretary had departed for the Erewhon Wormhole Junction, en route to the Solarian League and a desperate (and probably futile) effort to convince the League that Manticore had started the war. Saint-Just, on the other hand, had been working eighteen-hour days ever since Constance's assassination—without getting any closer to her killers. But every other cabinet member was here, as were the heads of all of Haven's most prominent Legislaturalist clans and their immediate families.

Harris set the glass back down and stared into its tawny heart. Despite the forced air of festive normality there was a terrible, singing tension in this room, for the growing fear spawned by Constance's unexpected murder had been fanned by the disastrous reports from the frontiers.

They'd been mouse-trapped. Harris made himself admit that. They'd set their plans in motion, confident the game was theirs to direct as it always had been, only to discover that, after fifty years of conquest, they had finally met a foe even more cunning than they were.

He'd read the dispatches. Given what Admiral Rollins had known, Harris had to agree he'd had no choice but to move against the Hancock System, yet hindsight proved only too clearly that the Manties had known all about the "secret" Argus net. They'd used it to offer Rollins an irresistible bait by "withdrawing" their ships, and the result had been devastating. The arrival of the dreadnoughts which had compelled Admiral Chin to surrender would have been bad enough, but it hadn't been the end. Oh, no. Not the end.

Harris shuddered. The second jaw of the Manty trap had failed by the thinnest margin when the rest of Admiral Parks' "dispersed" task force dropped out of hyper barely thirty minutes too late to intercept Rollins before he hypered out, yet his escape hadn't saved him in the end. Reinforced to almost a third again of his prewar strength, Parks had moved instantly against Seaford Nine and Rollins' weakened task force. Seaford's defenders had destroyed a couple of ships of the wall and damaged others, but only three of their own capital ships had survived, and Rollins' flagship hadn't been one of them. PNS Barnett had blown up early in the action, killing Rollins and his entire staff, and the command confusion that followed had finished Seaford off.

And then Parks had left one battle squadron to hold Seaford and returned to Hancock . . . just in time to meet Admiral Coatsworth as he moved in, expecting to find Rollins in possession. At least Coatsworth had gotten most of his ships out, yet his lead squadrons had taken a terrible pounding, and without Seaford's repair facilities, he'd been driven clear back to Barnett with his damaged units while his courier boats reported the disaster to Haven.

Public Information had clamped down a total news blackout, but rumors had leaked. That was one reason Harris had gone ahead with his annual birthday celebration, as an effort to convince people of the government's "business as usual" confidence in the face of those rumors. Not, he thought bitterly, that he expected it to do any good. The only thing that could really calm the public would be the news that Admiral Parnell's attack on Yeltsin's Star had succeeded, and it would take at least another week for Parnell's report of victory to reach Haven.

Assuming, of course, that he had a victory to report.

Harris grimaced at his own gloomy thoughts and straightened in his chair. One thing that wouldn't help was for the President to look as if his best friend had just died, and—

His thoughts broke off as the head of his security detachment walked quickly across the room towards him. The security man's expression was neutral, but his body language communicated an entirely different message.

"What is it, Eric?" the President asked quietly.

"I'm not certain, Sir." The security man's New Geneva accent was more pronounced—and anxious—than usual. "Capital Traffic Control's just picked up half a dozen Navy shuttles entering city airspace without prior clearance."

"Without clearance?" Harris pushed his chair back and stood. "Where are they headed? What did they say when Control challenged them?"

"They say they're an unscheduled training mission authorized by Naval Security to test CIC's readiness states, Mr. President."

"A security test?" Harris wiped his mouth with his napkin and dropped it beside his plate. "Well, I suppose that makes a degree of sense, under the circumstances, but contact Secretary Saint-Just and get InSec to validate."

"We're trying, Sir, but Secretary Saint-Just is away from his com."

"Then screen Undersecretary Singh. Someone must know—"

The Presidential Security Force man stiffened, pressing his hand to his unobtrusive earbug, then paled. His tight hand seized the President by the sleeve, and Harris staggered as he was half-flung towards an exit.

"Eric! What the hell—?!"

"Those shuttles just altered course, Mr. President! They're headed straight in our direction, and—"

The PSF man never finished his sentence, for seven assault shuttles of the People's Navy screamed over the People's Palace. Four five-thousand-kilo precision guided warheads scored direct hits on the Presidential Dining Room, and Sidney Harris, his wife, his three children, and his entire cabinet and all of his senior advisors, ceased to exist in a fireball of chemical explosives.

Five seconds later, the Palace itself was little more than flaming rubble strewn across the cratered horror of its once immaculate grounds.

* * *

"Ladies and gentlemen of the Quorum, I am appalled by the scale of this act of treason." Speaker Robert Stanton Pierre shook his head sadly as he gazed out over the stunned faces of the People's Quorum and spoke into the dead silence. For all intents and purposes, the entire government of the People's Republic of Haven had been annihilated along with the heads of every Legislaturalist family that really mattered, and the full impact of the disaster was still sinking into the Quorum's minds.

"The fact that Secretary Saint-Just's Internal Security personnel were able to intercept and annihilate the traitors cannot lessen the blow," Pierre went on sadly. "Not only have our leaders and their families been brutally murdered, but the traitors came out of our own military! Commodore Danton has confirmed that the shuttles which carried out the attack were covered by official orders—orders which would have been wiped from his data base by still other traitors if not for the prompt action of loyal members of his staff. I deeply regret the casualties those loyal men and women suffered in the gunfight which wrecked the Commodore's HQ, but the presence of the traitors who provoked it, coupled with their readiness to resort to violence when challenged, must raise the gravest suspicions. Under the circumstances, we have no option but to assume the worst, at least until the most thorough investigation can sift these horrible events in detail."

"Mr. Speaker!" A well-fed, beefy back-bencher stood, and Pierre nodded to him.

"The Chair recognizes Mr. Guzman."

"What do you mean 'assume the worst,' Mr. Speaker?"

"I mean that we face the gravest crisis in our history," Pierre said softly. "This attack was launched by Navy personnel on the heels of the worst defeat our fleet has ever suffered. We must ask ourselves who had the authority to order those shuttles out on their 'exercise.' We must ask ourselves who had reason to fear the government's reaction to their failure against the Hancock System and the loss of Seaford Nine."

"Surely you're not suggesting that senior Navy officers were responsible?!"

"I am suggesting only that until we know who was responsible, we must consider every possibility, however terrible," Pierre replied in a level voice. "I hope with all my heart that I am doing our military personnel a grave injustice by even suggesting such a thing, but until we can be certain of that, we owe it to the Republic to guard against the chance that I'm not."

"We owe it to the Republic?" someone else asked, without seeking recognition, and Pierre nodded grimly.

"The government has been destroyed, ladies and gentlemen. Secretary Saint-Just and Secretary Bergren are the cabinet's sole survivors, and only Secretary Saint-Just is currently on Haven. He's already informed me that, as no more than Secretary Palmer-Levy's acting successor, he feels neither qualified to nor capable of assuming the burden of government. Which means that we, the people's representatives, have no option but to assume emergency powers until such time as formal government can he reestablished."

"Us?" someone yelped, and Pierre nodded once more.

"I realize our experience is limited, but who else is there?" He looked at his fellows appealingly. "We are at war with the Star Kingdom of' Manticore and its lackeys. In a time of such peril, the Republic must not drift uncontrolled, and until we can know positively that the military is reliable, we dare not place ourselves at its mercy. In the face of those inescapable and overriding concerns, we have no choice but to face our responsibility to provide the stability we so desperately need by organizing ourselves as a committee of public safety to assume direction of the state."

The People's Quorum stared at its speaker in shock. After so many decades of rubber-stamp approval of someone else's policies, barely a fraction of them had the least idea how to wield effective power. The very thought of it terrified them, yet none of them could deny the force of Pierre's logic. Someone had to assume control, and if there was the chance of a full-scale military coup . . .

Pierre let the silence linger for long, endless moments, then cleared his throat.

"I have, on my own authority, discussed our critical situation with Secretary Saint-Just. He has already moved to secure control of the essential administrative centers here on Haven and assures me of the loyalty of his own InSec personnel, but he has no desire to impose any sort of one-man rule on the Republic. In fact, he's practically begged me to explain the realities of our plight to you so that we can move quickly to establish the broad-based committee required to reassure our own people and the galaxy at large that no coup will be permitted to overthrow the Republic." Pierre shrugged helplessly.

"I see no option but to honor his request, ladies and gentlemen, and organize ourselves as a caretaker government until public safety can be restored."


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