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Chapter Seven

The man behind the outsized desk was of medium height, thin-faced and dark-haired, and touches of white at his temples marked him as a first- or second-generation prolong recipient. There was nothing imposing about him—he might have been a businessman, or perhaps an academic—until one saw his eyes. Dark eyes, intense and focused and just a bit dangerous, as was only fitting in the most powerful single man in the People's Republic of Haven.

His name was Robert Stanton Pierre, and he was chairman of the Committee of Public Safety which had been formed after the assassination of Hereditary President Sidney Harris, his cabinet, and the heads of virtually every important Legislaturalist family. The Navy had killed them in an attempted military coup—everyone knew that . . . except for less than thirty people (still living, that was) who knew Pierre had arranged it all himself.

Now he leaned back in his chair, gazing out across the city of Nouveau Paris through the floor to ceiling window of his three-hundredth-floor office, and his narrowed eyes took on the cast of flint as he contemplated his achievements. He fully appreciated both the complexity and the staggering scope of the operation he'd carried off, yet something a bit more anxious, with a hint of what could almost have been desperation, flawed the flint in his gaze, and there was a reason for that. One he disliked admitting, even to himself.

Pierre couldn't have accomplished all he had without the rot spreading from the Legislaturalists' policies, yet the very thing which had made their overthrow possible also made it all but impossible to fundamentally change the system they'd spent two centuries building. They'd created a vast, permanently unemployed underclass, dependent upon the Republic's stupendous welfare machine for its very existence, and in so doing, they'd sown the seeds of their own destruction. No one could place two-thirds of a world's population on the Dole and keep them there forever without the entire system crashing . . . but how in hell did one get them off the Dole?

He sighed and walked over to the windows as darkness closed in on the capital and its lights blinked to life, and wondered yet again what had possessed the Dolist system's creators to birth such a monster. The enormous towers blazed alight, flaming against the gold and crimson of Haven's sunset, and a sense of his own mortality warred with his fierce determination. The system was so vast, the forces which drove it almost beyond calculation, and he was a product of the old regime, as well as its executioner. He was ninety-two T-years old, and he yearned for the days of his youthful certainty, when the system had worked—superficially, at least—even as a part of him knew it had been doomed long before his birth. That younger Pierre had bought into the lie that said the state could provide every citizen a guaranteed, ever higher standard of living, regardless of his own productivity or lack thereof, and that was what had so enraged him when he recognized its hollowness. It was rage which had fueled his ambition, driven him to claw his own way off the Dole and become the most powerful of Haven's Dolist managers, and he knew it. Just as he knew that same rage—that need to punish the system for its lies—was what had fused with the death of his only child to make him the hammer that smashed the system to splinters.

He laughed bitterly, without mirth. Smash the system. Oh, that was a good one! He'd done just that, wiped away the Legislaturalists in a thunderbolt of precision-guided bombs and colder, bloodier pogroms. He'd destroyed the old officer corps, Navy and Marine alike, crushed every source of organized opposition. The Legislaturalists' hydra-headed security organs had been ambushed, dissolved, merged into one, all-powerful Office of State Security responsible only to him. He'd achieved all that in less than a single T-year, at the cost of more thousands of lives than he dared remember . . . and "the system" sneered at his efforts.

There'd been a time when the Republic of Haven—not "the People's Republic," but simply "the Republic"—had inspired an entire quadrant. It had been a bright, burning beacon, a wealthy, vastly productive renaissance which had rivaled Old Earth herself as the cultural and intellectual touchstone of humanity. Yet that glorious promise had died. Not at the hands of foreign conquerors or barbarians from the marches, but in its sleep, victim of the best of motives. It had sacrificed itself upon the altar of equality. Not the equality of opportunity, but of outcomes. It had looked upon its own wealth and the inevitable inequities of any human society and decided to rectify them, and somehow the lunatics had taken over the asylum. They'd transformed the Republic into the People's Republic—a vast, crazed machine that promised everyone more and better of everything, regardless of their own contributions to the system. And, in the process, they'd built a bureaucratic Titan locked into a headlong voyage to self-destruction and capable of swallowing reformers like gnats.

Rob Pierre had challenged that Titan. He'd poured out the blood of the men and women who'd been supposed to run the machine like water, concentrated more power in his person than any Legislaturalist had ever dreamed of possessing, and it meant nothing, for, in truth, the machine had run them, and the machine remained. He was a fly, buzzing about the maggot-ridden corpse of a once great star nation. Oh, he had a sting, yet he could sting but one maggot at a time, and for each he destroyed, a dozen more hatched in its place.

He swore softly and raised his fists above his head, planting them against the window, and leaned into the tough plastic. He pressed his face to it and closed his eyes and swore again, more viciously. The rot had gone too far. The Legislaturalists' parents and grandparents had taken too many workers out of the labor force in the name of "equality," debased the educational system too terribly in the name of "democratization." They'd taught the Dolists that their only responsibilities were to be born, to breathe, and to draw their Basic Living Stipends, and that the function of their schools was to offer students "validation"—whatever the hell that was—rather than education. And when the rulers realized they'd gutted their own economy, that its total collapse was only a few, inevitable decades away unless they could somehow undo their "reforms," they'd lacked the courage to face the consequences.

Perhaps they, unlike Pierre, actually could have repaired the damage, but they hadn't. Rather than face the political consequences of dismantling their vote-buying system of bread and circuses, they'd looked for another way to fill the welfare coffers, and so the People's Republic had turned conquistador. The Legislaturalists had engulfed their interstellar neighbors, looting other economies to transfuse life back into the corpse of the old Republic of Haven, and, for a time, it had seemed to work.

But appearances had been misleading, for they'd exported their own system to the worlds they conquered. They'd had no choice—it was the only one they knew—yet it had poisoned the captive economies as inexorably as their own. The need to squeeze those economies to prop up their own had only made them collapse sooner, and as the revenue sources dried up, they'd been forced to conquer still more worlds, and still more. Each victim provided a brief, illusory spurt of prosperity, but only until it, too, failed and became yet another burden rather than an asset. It had been like trying to outrun entropy, yet they'd left themselves no other option, and as conquest bloated the People's Republic, the forces needed to safeguard those conquests and add still more to them had grown, as well.

The galaxy at large had seen only the Republic's stupendous size, the massive power of its war machine, and Haven's neighbors had shivered in terror as the juggernaut bore down upon them. But how many of those neighbors, Pierre wondered, had seen the weakness at the juggernaut's heart? The ramshackle economy stumbling towards collapse, dragged down by the dead weight of the Dole and the crushing cost of its war machine? The Republic had become little more than an appetite, a parasite which must devour more and more hosts to survive. Yet there were only so many hosts to be devoured, and when all of them were drained, the parasite itself must perish.

Rob Pierre had looked below the surface. He'd seen the inevitable and tried to stop it, and he couldn't. He, too, was caught, like a blind aerialist forced to run along a high-wire while he juggled a dozen hand grenades. He controlled the machine, yet the machine had him in its jaws, as well, and he turned away from the window and returned to his desk while the dreadfully familiar cycle of his options churned through his brain.

At least he'd managed one thing no Legislaturalist ever had, he told himself bitterly. He'd actually awakened the Dolists from their apathy, but they'd waked ignorant. They'd been drones too long. They'd been taught that that was the way things were supposed to be, and their fury was directed not towards scrapping the old system and building anew, but to punishing those who had "betrayed" them by robbing them of their "economic birthright."

Perhaps it was his own fault for clutching at the familiar catchwords when he found himself straddling the vast, hungry beast that was the People's Republic. He'd punched the buttons of expediency in the name of survival, embracing the rhetoric of people like Cordelia Ransom because it was the language the mob understood and he'd feared the mob. He admitted it to himself. For all his contempt for the people who'd let things reach this pass, he, too, had been afraid. Afraid of failure. Of admitting to the mob that there were no quick fixes. Afraid the beast would turn upon him and devour him.

He'd meant to introduce genuine reforms, he thought wearily. He truly had. But the mob wanted simple solutions, uncomplicated answers, and it didn't care that the real world wasn't like that. Worse, it had tasted blood and discovered the pleasure of smashing its enemies, and it sensed—dimly, perhaps, yet sensed—its own immense, latent power. It was like a homicidal adolescent driven by urges it didn't understand, without the self-discipline that might have controlled those urges and unconcerned with consequences, and the only way to avoid becoming its target was to give it other targets.

And so he had. He'd pointed at the Legislaturalists as traitors who'd battened on the wealth that should have gone to the Dolists, denounced them as profiteers and grafters, and the undeniable wealth of the great Legislaturalist families had made it work, for they had siphoned off immense fortunes. But what he hadn't told the mob—what the mob hadn't wanted to hear—was that all the wealth of all the Legislaturalists of the PRH was meaningless against its debts. Nationalizing their fortunes had provided a temporary relief, a fleeting illusion of improvement, yet it could be no more than that, and so he'd given the mob the Legislaturalists themselves. He'd loosed Oscar Saint-Just's new Office of State Security upon them and watched the "People's Courts" condemn family after family to death for "treason against the people." And as the execution totals rose, he'd learned a terrible truth: bloodletting simply begat more bloodletting. The conviction that the mob had a right to vengeance upon its "betrayers" only fanned the frenzy with which that vengeance was demanded, and when the supply of victims ran short, new ones were required.

And when Pierre realized the impossibility of fulfilling even the modest promises of reform he'd made upon seizing power, he'd also realized that sooner or later, as the latest savior to fail the mob, he must become its victim unless, somehow, he could find someone else upon whom to fix the blame. And so, in desperation, he'd turned to Cordelia Ransom, the third member of the triumvirate which now ran the Republic.

Pierre was firmly placed as that triumvirate's senior member and master. He'd taken steps to stay that way and seen to it that both his associates knew it, yet he needed them, as well. He needed Ransom's ability as the new regime's propagandist . . . and he needed Saint-Just not simply to control the security forces but to watch Ransom, for there were times the golden-haired, blue-eyed Secretary of Public Information frightened Pierre almost more than the mob did.

She wasn't brilliant, but she had a quick, iron-nerved cleverness and an innate talent for intrigue which had made her invaluable when it came to staging the coup. But she was also utterly ruthless and a brilliant demagogue who actually enjoyed the bloodshed, as if it were some sort of drug. A proof of the power she wielded. Something dark and hungry at her core seemed to crave destruction for its own sake, however it might cloak itself in the rhetoric of "reform" and "rights" and "the service of the people."

Yet however much he might fear her, he'd seen no choice but to call on her ability to sway the mob. Not even she had been able to calm it—assuming she'd ever actually tried—but she spoke its language, and she understood the need to outrun its passions. To stay ahead of it by anticipating its next furious demand. And because she did, she'd been able to redirect its frenzy to an external target for its hate.

The Legislaturalists had been the people's enemies, elitist conspirators who'd stolen the people's birthright and squandered it in imperialist wars of aggrandizement. Never mind that those wars had been fought to shore up a collapsing economy and preserve the Dolists' own parasitic lifestyle. Never mind that expansion, once embraced, was part of a feeding cycle which couldn't be renounced. The mob didn't want to hear that, so Cordelia hadn't told it.

Instead, she'd offered it what it did want to hear. Her argument was so riddled with gaping inconsistencies that Pierre hadn't been able to believe anyone could accept it, but she'd sold it to the mob by pandering to its belief in its own rectitude. The mob wanted—needed—to believe it was more than a parasite, that it truly was entitled to all the "rights" it claimed by some sort of natural law, and it followed from that belief that only some vast conspiracy could deny it those rights. Cordelia had recognized its need to see itself as the victim of enemies working perpetually for its downfall rather than admit the system it demanded work couldn't work, and she'd given it those enemies.

Of course the people wanted only peace, asked no more than to be left alone in the enjoyment of the prosperity which was their basic right, for wasn't that peace and prosperity the natural order of things? But the traitors who'd filched away their rights had also committed them to a course of war from which the people could not turn aside. After all, the Manticoran Alliance had attacked them—hadn't the Office of Public Information told them so? Never mind that an attack by the Alliance was totally at odds with the notion of the Legislaturalists as warmongers. The Alliance was part of the same corrupt order of imperialist militarists. Its member systems were no more than puppets, controlled by the Star Kingdom of Manticore, which hungered for the Republic's destruction because it recognized the inevitable, natural enmity between itself and the people. The Star Kingdom wasn't even a republic, but a monarchy, ruled by a Queen and an overt aristocracy, and it didn't even pretend to respect the People's Republic's rights. It denied the Republic's citizens their prosperity by hoarding its vast wealth for the selfish ends of its own hereditary ruling class. That alone would have made it the people's mortal foe, but it also knew what would happen if its own subjects should realize the people were right, recognize how they had been victimized, as well. No wonder Manticore had attacked the Republic; it must destroy the PRH root and branch before the inexorable spread of the people's rightful demands brought about its own destruction.

The people had arisen in their just and terrible wrath to overthrow their plutocratic overlords only to find that they faced a still more heinous foe. A foreign foe whose overlords must be smashed in turn if the people were to be safe and secure. And so the mob had mobilized, with a fierce devotion to purpose which could have achieved almost anything if only there'd been a way to convert it to some constructive purpose.

But there wasn't. Insane as it seemed, the coup Rob Pierre had staged in no small part to stem the military's drain on the economy had become a crusade. He'd meant only to use the immediate crisis of the Manticoran War to distract the mob and stifle dissent until he was firmly in control, but Cordelia's rhetoric had imbued that war with a life of its own. After half a T-century of total apathy and disinterest in whoever the Republic was conquering this month, the mob was willing—even eager—to defer demands for a higher BLS in order to finance the destruction of Manticore and all its works. The Committee of Public Safety couldn't renounce the war, lest the Dolists it had awakened turn upon it for its apostasy. Its only salvation, and the only hope for the reforms of which Pierre once had dreamed, was to win the war, for that and that alone might give it the moral authority to make genuine reforms.

And for now, at least, the mob was willing to sacrifice. It was actually willing to set aside its comfortable, nonproductive lifestyle and report for military training, even to learn useful skills and labor in the shipyards to replace the ships which had been destroyed. It was even possible it would reacquire the habit of working, that there would be enough skilled workers when the war ended to turn their hands to rebuilding the PRH's threadbare infrastructure. Stranger things had happened, Pierre told himself, and tried to pretend he was doing something more than clutching at straws.

But for any of that to happen, the war must be won, and in return for its own sacrifices, the mob demanded that the Navy—and the Committee of Public Safety—do just that. The extremism that possessed the Republic like a blood fever demanded proof of its leaders' commitment, and since the Navy had been branded with responsibility for the Harris Assassination, the Navy must prove its worthiness by winning victories. Any who failed the people in their time of trial must be punished, both for their own crimes and as a warning to others, and so Pierre had embraced a public policy of collective responsibility. The officers of the Navy were all on trial; any who failed in their duties must know that not just they but their entire families would suffer for it, for somehow this had become a war of extermination, and no quarter could be given to enemies—foreign or internal—when the stakes were victory or annihilation.

It wasn't the revolution Pierre had wanted, but it was the one he had. And at least the reign of terror he'd unleashed had stiffened the Navy's spine, so perhaps the mob had a point. Perhaps it was possible to find at least some simple solutions if a man was willing to kill enough people in the search.

He scrubbed his face with his hands, then keyed his terminal to view the top secret file once more. The old Naval Intelligence Branch had been merged with the Office of State Security along with every other intelligence organ of the PRH. The bulk of the precoup Navy's strategists had vanished in the purges, yet the core of analysts who'd served them had not only survived but learned what would happen if they failed to produce. Their analyses contained too many qualifiers and reservations, no doubt in an effort to cover their own backs, but they were generating an immense amount of raw data, and a handful of new strategists were emerging to use that data. They were ambitious, those strategists. They sensed the opportunities for personal power that hid in the Republic's barely restrained chaos. Too many were loyal to the Committee of Public Safety only because they dared not be anything else—yet—and Pierre suspected Admiral Thurston, the author of the plan on his terminal, was one of those. But for now, at least, the men and women like Thurston knew their own success—and survival—depended upon the Committee's survival.

They also knew the Navy needed a victory. As an absolute minimum, it had to stop the Manties' advance into the People's Republic, yet that would be the least desirable option. No doubt Cordelia's ministry could turn that into a decisive triumph, but how much better if it could win an offensive victory. And, from a strategic viewpoint, the People's Navy desperately needed something to divert Manty strength from the front-line systems. That front was stabilizing, but it was far from certain that it would stay stabilized . . . unless the RMN's strategists could somehow be distracted from fresh offensives.

It was the purpose of the operations outlined on Pierre's terminal to provide that distraction, and despite his weariness, he felt his own interest rousing as he reread the file. It could work, he thought, and even if it failed, it would cost little that truly mattered. The People's Navy had immense reserves of battleships, units that were too weak to face the shock of combat in the wall of battle but which, properly utilized, could nonetheless exert a tremendous influence on the course of the war.

He sat back, gazing at the data on his terminal, and nodded slowly. The time had come to put those battleships to use, and Thurston's plan was not only the most audacious suggestion of how to do that but also offered the richest prize if it succeeded.

He nodded once more and picked up an electronic stylus. He dashed it across the scanner pad and watched a brief, handwritten memo blink into life on the display.

"Operation Stalking Horse and Operation Dagger approved, by order of Rob S. Pierre, Chairman, Committee of Public Safety. Activate immediately," it said.


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