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Authors: M.K. Wren

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Shadow of the Swan (Book Two of the Phoenix Legacy) (9 page)

BOOK: Shadow of the Swan (Book Two of the Phoenix Legacy)
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The crucial moment passed and left Ballarat standing by helplessly. His Articles of Empire were never presented to the Council or Directorate. He wasn’t given an opportunity for that, even if he’d been naive enough at that point to try. He sent Hugh packing to the Home Estate and exercised his prerogatives as Chairman to call the Directorate into session, but at their first meeting he was unanimously voted into the newly created position of Chairman of the Dominions (that is, the conquered territories) Council, and voted
out
of the Chairmanship of the Directorate.

His successor was the Lord Paul Adalay, once one of his staunchest supporters, and apparently Adalay was chosen as a compromise candidate; Ballarat still had adherents among the Lords. The Directors could have done far worse, and although Ballarat retired to embittered isolation in the House’s Tasman estate and never came to terms with Adalay—or his own brothers, or even his wife and children—Adalay proved a far wiser Chairman than Ballarat ever gave him credit for.

It was Paul Adalay who drafted the Articles of the PanTerran Confederation (the appellation “Holy” was dropped with its acceptance), which retained many of the centralizing measures in Ballarat’s Articles of Union. The division of power between Houses and Confederation was precisely delineated, and the Houses retained unchallenged authority over their internal affairs, but the Confederation retained the rights of taxation and conscription based on House revenues, and the right to maintain armed forces as well as a civil police. The University system was taken out of the hands of the Church and made a part of the Confederation administration, with a separate medical research and practice division that later developed into Conmed. The Directorate was retained as the governing body of the Confederation, its members elected by a majority of the Council of Lords
or
—and that ultimately became a fateful alternative—by the Lords of the Directorate itself.

In comparison to the pre-Ballarat Holy Confederation, the PanTerran was highly centralized and a far more stable structure. That stability, as well as its new prosperity and the wider geographical and intellectual horizons opened to it, was a product of Ballarat’s twenty-seven-year campaign, and made possible the further technological advances that opened humankind’s way to the stars.

But Ballarat remained unimpressed. His lifespan of eighty-one years was too short for him to see a man set foot on Luna again after an interregnum of more than a thousand years. He only knew that Patric Eyre Ballarat had conquered a world only to end his years in impotent self-exile, his imperial vision smashed by what he called the “stubborn myopia of niggardly men who hoard personal power at the expense of the future of civilization.”

One wonders what the future of civilization would have been if Ballarat’s vision had been realized, and I can’t share his faith in it. On the other hand, I
can
share his antipathy for those shortsighted and “niggardly” men. Such men are always with us, of course, and conservatism serves a meaningful purpose in social equations. It’s a stabilizing factor, a check on uncontrolled change. But, like so many things, it can be regarded as “good” only in moderation. It’s unfortunate that conservative factors have throughout our history since Pilgram seemed to outweigh the innovative factors that admittedly can be dangerous, but that—also in moderation—are so necessary to social evolution.

CHAPTER IX
Januar 3258
1
.

The dream wasn’t a pleasant one. Predis Ussher stirred, then came awake, frowning at the glowing digits of the clock on the bedside table: 02:33. He jerked the thermblanket up over his shoulders and settled back again. He couldn’t even remember the dream, only its emotional feel.

It was just a dream, damn it, whatever it was about. He lay still, concentrating on clearing his mind for sleep. He would need a good night’s sleep. The Council meeting tomorrow. He must be at his best—

The room was suddenly flooded with light.

He cried out, thrashing to free himself from the blanket, reaching blindly for the table. The drawer; the X
2
in the drawer.

A hand closed on his wrist, forcing his arm against the sharp edge of the table. The pain shot up to his shoulder.

Venturi.

Ussher’s eyes were coming into focus now. Ben Venturi still in his SSB black.

Ussher hissed, “
Damn you
!”

The rage was as blinding as the light, and the low, mocking laugh that answered the expletive added fuel to it. The pain was excruciating.

Then suddenly it stopped. His arm was free.

He lunged for the drawer, fumbling, only asking himself why he’d been freed when he had the answer. The X
2
was gone.

“Relax, Predis. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

Ussher squinted up into the light, expecting to see the laser in Venturi’s hand. It wasn’t there, and his SSB gun was holstered at his side; his hands were empty.

A movement at the end of the bed distracted Ussher, and a moment later renewed the rage.

Erica Radek. Like a shadow somehow, even dressed in pale, light-catching blue, her silver hair glinting. Her eyes, those steel-colored eyes—they
made
shadows.

And she was relishing his confusion, his—yes,
fear
. It was normal enough, that fear. But she was enjoying it. Her face was expressionless, but he knew she was enjoying it, and he wouldn’t give her more satisfaction. He had himself under control now, and his eyes were adjusting to the light. He looked up at Venturi.

“How the hell did you get in here?”

“Through the door,” he replied, smiling faintly.

Ussher felt a chill. Hendrick had told him no one could even touch that door without setting off alarms. The fool; the stupid fool. Not only had the ’screens been unlocked, but Venturi and Radek were inside the room, his gun was gone. They could’ve killed him.

And that was exactly the point, obviously. They
could
have killed him. But they didn’t, and that was revealing.

Ussher started to throw the blanket back preparatory to rising, but Venturi’s flat, cold tone stopped him.

“Just stay put, Predis.” He didn’t make a threatening move; no move at all. “There are ways to immobilize you so you can still hear and talk. Save me the trouble and you a drug headache.”

Ussher smiled. Hear and talk. It was beginning to make sense. He propped the pillows behind him and sat up against the headboard, arms folded.

“Very well, Commander. Now, to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Venturi gave a short laugh as he drew up a chair by the bed and seated himself, perfectly relaxed, it would seem, but there was a ready tension in the curl of his big hands. It was Radek, still standing at the end of the bed, who answered the question.

“We thought it time the three of us had a private talk, simply to clarify the existing situation.”

Ussher glanced at Venturi. He was silent now, and his stony expression said he would remain silent. As usual, he’d let Radek do the talking while he waited like some sort of lackey, a trained guard jumping to the orders of a—a woman.

Radek walked slowly to the other side of the bed, drawing his eye away from Venturi.

“First of all,” she said, “we know your plans for tomorrow’s Council meeting. We know you intend to present your ‘evidence’ and charge Alex Ransom in absentia—or, rather, behind his back—with betraying Andreas to the SSB.”

Ussher frowned in spite of himself. He’d discussed that with no one but Rob Hendrick.

Radek gave a short laugh that set his teeth on edge.

“Don’t be concerned that you’ve been betrayed. It’s an obvious move, and I’ve been listening to the gossip. It’s a very effective ploy, Predis, but it has a disadvantage. It signals your moves well ahead of time.”

He said stiffly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A laugh from Venturi. Ussher glared at him, then back to Radek as she said, “The gossip making the rounds lately has it that Alex never did signal the Fina MT terminal for a trans when those SSB ’cars appeared so conveniently near Hallicourt, and that he was never arrested, that he is not now, and never has been in the Cliff.” Those eyes turned even colder and harder. “But you know he
is
there. Of course, that doesn’t worry you too much. He’s been there for twenty days, and we’ve never had anyone survive that long on Level 6. At this point you’ve had time to establish yourself as a leader in the minds of the members, and you’ve assumed you can safely consider Alex dead. But you still have a problem. You know who Alex Ransom really is, and you know the potentials he offers for Phase I would dwarf the Peladeen Alternative.”

She paused as if waiting for him to respond to that, but he only offered her a mocking smile. She was purposely trying to make him angry—did she think he didn’t know that?—and he wouldn’t let her manipulate him.

“It wouldn’t be such a problem,” she went on, finally, “if you and Ben and I were the only ones in Fina who knew Alex’s identity, but John M’Kim, Marien Dyce, and Emeric Garris also know it, and you must also deal with the possibility that other members—all of them, conceivably—might learn Alex’s identity and its potential, and that they might resent the fact that you threw away that potential to protect yourself and the Peladeen Alternative. So your problem is to negate Alex. You’re confident he’s been negated literally by the SSB, but you still have to negate the Ransom Alternative for those who know his identity already or might learn of it in the future. Your course of action is obvious. You must make him a traitor, which will also provide a scapegoat for Andreas’s betrayal so you won’t have to worry about anyone considering
you
as his Judas.”

Ussher straightened, feeling acutely the awkwardness of his physical position, but saying with as much dignity as he could muster, “Dr. Radek! That accusation is patently absurd. How could you—”

She laughed. “Sparc me, Predis. Save that for your faithful sycophants. As I said, branding Alex a traitor is an obvious move; essential, in fact. Branding Ben and me accomplices to his treason is equally obvious. We’re a constant threat to you because we’re not only well aware of the Ransom Alternative, but we also know you betrayed Alex and Andreas, that you betrayed the Phoenix, and will continue to do so in order to fulfill your own ambitions.”

“Spare
me
, Dr. Radek,” Ussher said hotly. “Take your own advice and save that for
your
sycophants!”

“If necessary I will, Predis.”

Somehow she’d turned the thrust on him; her quiet rejoinder came back at him as a threat. Again, he started to rise, but at that Venturi leaned toward him. His hands were still empty, but Ussher, after a brief pause, sank back against the pillows.

She went on as if nothing had happened, “You intended to make a clean sweep at the Council meeting by including Ben and me in a conspiracy to betray Andreas. But now I’m sure you’ll admit that ploy might be rather risky, since we’re prepared for it.”

“Ah. And you’re preparing me for your counterthrust?”

“Warning you of it.”

“That’s rather an unusual approach, isn’t it?”

She raised an eyebrow, but ignored the question. “Predis, are you aware of how the members stand now where you’re concerned? I’ve been sampling and analyzing member reactions in Fina. I can’t get enough dependable data from the outside chapters, but I assume the data from Fina is applicable to the entire membership. Approximately fifty percent of them support you and your grandiose plans wholeheartedly, primarily because in Andreas and Alex’s absence they see no other alternative. Another twenty-five percent is undecided, and the remaining twenty-five percent is loyal to Andreas and Alex and totally opposed to you.”

He considered the figures, then gave a short laugh. “Very interesting.”

She glanced at Venturi with a knowing smile.

“We thought you’d find that interesting. But before you congratulate yourself too heartily on the fifty percent you can claim as converts, remember the remaining half that’s either undecided or totally opposed to you. At the present time, the members are still united simply because the rift hasn’t been brought out into the open. But if it is, if a true schism occurs, then both sides will lose because the Phoenix will disintegrate. You know the old axiom, divide and conquer; you use it constantly. But if it’s carried too far in this situation, the result will be divide and
destroy
.”

He studied her for a moment and almost laughed. He found all those statistics interesting primarily because she did. They had her scared.
He
had her scared.

“I assume, Dr. Radek, there’s a point to all this.”

Those cold, steel-colored eyes flickered briefly.

“Why else would Ben and I be losing sleep talking to you? The point is that all of us can agree that destroying the Phoenix is not desirable—for our own reasons.”

He shrugged. “That we can agree on.”

“Then this is the situation: if you try to dispose of Ben and me by branding us traitors or by killing us outright, then you’ll precipitate an open schism that will destroy the Phoenix.”

“Is that a prediction or a threat?”

“Both. A prediction because Ben and I have loyal followings of our own, and we also serve as surrogates for Alex and Andreas among their loyals. It’s a threat because Ben has provided us with a sort of insurance which is also designed to stop you from branding Alex a traitor and making him the scapegoat for Andreas’s betrayal. It consistes of microspeakers that are presently hidden not only in every part of Fina, but in every chapter HQ in both Systems. They number in the thousands, and it would be futile for you to try to find them all.” She walked around behind Venturi to the bedside table. “They can be activated by any one of several hundred loyal members, and it would be equally futile for you to try to identify and kill all of them.”

“And why am I supposed to be so concerned about these ’speakers, that I’d bother to search them out, much less kill to keep them from being activated?” Hendrick; he’d have to talk to Hendrick. There must be some way to detect microspeakers, even when they weren’t activated.

She opened her hand and let him see the tape spool in her palm, then dropped it on the table.

“This will answer your question, Predis. Listen to it. This is what the members will hear from those ’speakers: an outline of the Ransom Alternative—including Alex Ransom’s identity, of course—along with excerpts from recordings we’ve acquired in our little war of monitors, primarily conversations between you and Rob Hendrick, which will explain certain recent arrests of members, as well as several ‘accidental’ deaths. If any member hearing one of these tapes can still maintain any faith in you, then the Phoenix is made up of fools, and you aren’t fool enough to believe that.”

Ussher felt the rush of blood to his face, the pounding behind his eyes. His fists thumped impotently into the bed.

“Lies! You think you can—all
lies
! It’s—”

“Predis, be quiet and listen!” Venturi was on his feet, slitted eyes glittering.

Ussher subsided. He couldn’t lose control. That’s what they wanted, and he had to think this out. It could be a bluff, a bluff he might be willing to call. And, given enough time, he could make the name of Alex Ransom so despised, those microspeakers wouldn’t mean a damn thing. He didn’t need to bring it up in the Council, either. Gossip. Yes, Radek was right; it
was
an effective ploy. It had always worked. Time was the important thing. All he needed was enough time.

“Very well, Commander, I’m listening.”

It was Radek who replied, “We’re well aware that you may not take our predictions or threats seriously, but I’d advise you to do so. If you don’t, you’ll risk destroying the Phoenix, and you need it.”

“And what about you? Aren’t you taking that risk with those microspeakers?”

“True, but they won’t be activated unless something happens to Ben or me, or unless you carry out your plans to make Alex your scapegoat.”

“I see. In other words, you don’t care what happens to the Phoenix if you’re not around to try to run it your way.”

Her chin came up slightly. “Yes, Predis, we do care; that’s why we’ll see the Phoenix destroyed rather than leave it to you.”

He only smiled at that. She might talk about saving the Phoenix, but the real issue here was clear. She was afraid, and she was here to bargain—to bargain for her life, hers and her trained lackey’s. Ussher leaned back, crossing one leg over the other.

“All right, Dr. Radek, I’ll bargain with you. I’ll give you and Venturi your lives. And Ransom. You can have his good name untarnished. For now, anyway.”

“What do you mean by ‘for now’?”

He laughed, enjoying it. “What do you expect? A date written into a contract? For
now
. For as long as I feel like standing by the bargain.”

She smiled, and there was something incomprehensible about it, an incredible
satisfaction
.

“Then we’ll also stand by the bargain . . . for now.”

She reached into the pocket of her slacsuit and took out an X
2
and handed it to him. It was his own gun.

“Sleep well, Predis.”

Then she turned and left the room, with Venturi following silently behind her.

Ussher looked down at the gun. It was at full charge with the safety off.

Sleep well
. . . .

Damn her!

2
.

The sun in Helen wasn’t yet at zenith, but the pavement sent up shimmers of heat. Adrien Eliseer wore a wide-brimmed hat to augment her eyeshades, but both were as much to hide her face as to protect it. She was too preoccupied to control her expression now.

BOOK: Shadow of the Swan (Book Two of the Phoenix Legacy)
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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