"I feel like an idiot," the young woman half-snarled. Her dark-brown eyes flashed angrily, but the two men sitting across the private table from her in the busy, dimly lit restaurant bar didn't worry about that. Or, rather, they weren't worried that the anger was directed at them. Agnes Nordbrandt was furious about a lot of things lately. Which, after all, was what had brought them together.
"Better to feel like an idiot than to get snapped up by the graybacks," one of the men replied. The nickname referred to the Kornatian National Police's charcoal gray tunics.
"Maybe." Nordbrandt tugged irritably at the blond wig covering her own black hair. One of the others quirked an eyebrow, and she snorted. "Getting arrested might just give me a more visible platform!"
"For a day or two," the other man said. He was obviously the senior of the two, and his physical appearance-medium brown hair, medium brown eyes, average features, medium -complexion-was so eminently forgettable that Nordbrandt felt irritably certain he'd never bothered with a disguise in his life. "Possibly even for a few weeks. Hell, let's be generous and give it three months. Then they'll sentence you, send you off to do your time, and you'll vanish from the political equation. Is that what you really want?"
"Of course it isn't." Nordbrandt's eyes darted around the dim room.
A large part of her current irritation, as she was perfectly well aware, stemmed from her dislike for having a conversation like this in a public place. On the other hand, the man she knew only as "Firebrand" was probably right. Given the paucity of modern technology in the Talbott Cluster, the other patrons' background noise probably provided all the cover they needed. And there was something to be said for hiding in plain sight to avoid suspicion in the first place.
"I didn't think so," Firebrand said. "But if you have any inclinations that way, I'd really like to know now. Speaking for myself, I have no desire to see the inside of anybody's jail, whether it's right here on Kornati or in some Manty prison far, far away. Which means I'm not especially interested in working with anyone who might want a firsthand penology tour just so she can make a political statement."
"Don't worry," Nordbrandt grunted. "You're right. Letting them lock me up would be worse than pointless."
"I'm glad we agree. And do we agree on anything else?"
Nordbrandt looked at him across the steins of beer on the table between them, studying his expression as intently as the poor light permitted. Unlike many people living in the Verge-that vast, irregular belt of marginal worlds beyond the Solarian League's official borders-she was a prolong recipient. But she really was almost as young as she looked. Only the cruder, less effective first-generation prolong therapies were available here on Kornati. They halted the apparent aging process at a considerably later point in a recipient's life than the more recently developed second- and third-generation therapies. At thirty-three, Nordbrandt was a whippet-thin, dark-complexioned woman who seemed to vibrate with the unending internal tension of youth, anger, intensity, and commitment.
Even so, she hesitated. Then she gave her false golden curls a shake and took the plunge with a nod.
"Yes, we do," she said flatly. "I didn't spend my life fighting to keep those Frontier Security ljigavci off my world just to turn it over to someone else."
"We obviously agree with you, or we wouldn't be here," Firebrand's companion said. "But to give the Devil his due, there actually is a difference between OFS and the Manties."
"Not to me there isn't." Nordbrandt's voice was even flatter, and her eyes flashed. "Nobody's ever been interested in trading with us, or treating us like equals. And now that the galaxy's found out about the Lynx Terminus and all the money it represents to whoever controls it, you want me to think we suddenly have both the frigging Sollies and oh-so-noble Manticorans lining up to embrace us solely out of the goodness of their hearts?"
Her lips worked, as if she wanted to spit on the tabletop, and the man who'd spoken shrugged.
"That's true enough, but the Manties didn't even suggest we join them. It was our friends and neighbors' idea to ask them to annex us."
"I know all about the annexation vote," Nordbrandt replied bitterly. " And how my so-called 'political allies' deserted in droves when Tonkovic and that unmitigated bastard Van Dort started waving around promises of how rich we'd all be as good little Manty helots." She shook her head fiercely. "Those rich bastards figure they'll make out well enough, but the rest of us will just find ourselves screwed over by another layer of money-gouging overlords. So don't tell me about the vote! The fact that a bunch of stupid sheep voluntarily walk into a wolf's lair behind a Judas goat doesn't make the wolf any less of a carnivore."
"And you're prepared to back your views with more than just words and get-out-the-vote projects?" Firebrand asked quietly.
"Yes, I am. And not just me. As I'm sure you realized before you ever contacted me."
The man known as "Firebrand" nodded, and reminded himself not to let Nordbrandt's intensity and narrow focus fool him into underestimating her intelligence.
It was his turn to study her thoughtfully. Agnes Nordbrandt had been one of the youngest members of the planetary parliament of Kornati, the sole inhabited world of the Split System, before the discovery of the Lynx Terminus had brought the Star Kingdom of Manticore into contact with Split. She'd won that position as the founder of the Kornatian National Redemption Party, whose extremist nationalist politics had resonated with the large percentage of Kornati's population which feared the eventual arrival of the Office of Frontier Security in Split. But those not unjustified fears couldn't explain her success by themselves. Although she'd been adopted as an infant and raised by a childless couple who'd been among the junior ranks of Kornati's oligarchical elite, she'd also reached out to the disenfranchised, the all-too-large Kornatian underclass who struggled daily to put food on the table and shoes on their children's feet.
Many of her political opponents had sneered at her for that. They'd mocked the National Redemption Party as a mismatched hodgepodge with no coherent platform. As for trying to build a political machine out of the underclass, the very idea was ridiculous! Ninety percent of them hadn't even registered to vote, so what sort of political base could they provide?
But Nordbrandt been a shrewder political animal than they'd recognized. She'd maneuvered with the best of them, building alliances between her NRP and less extreme politicians and political parties, like Vuk Rajkovic's Reconciliation Party. Perhaps the marginalized urban poor who supported her most enthusiastically didn't vote, but there'd been enough middle class voters whose fear of the Sollies had combined with their recognition that economic reform was essential to give her a surprising strength at the ballot box.
Until the temptation to stampede into Manticore's arms as a way to escape generations of debt peonage exploitation by Solly commercial interests under the auspices of OFS had reached Kornati, at least.
The Manticoran standard of living, despite over a decade of bitter warfare with the People's Republic of Haven, was one of the highest in the explored galaxy. The Star Kingdom might be small, but it was incredibly wealthy, and the extent of its wealth had lost nothing in the telling. Half of Kornati's people seemed to have believed that simply acquiring Manticoran citizenship would somehow make them instantly and incredibly wealthy, as well. Most of them had known better deep down inside, and, to their credit, the Manticorans never made any such promises. But any illusions the Kornatians might have cherished about Manticore hadn't changed the fact that they'd known exactly what to expect from OFS. Faced with the decision, seventy-eight percent of them had decided anything was better than that, and that permanently binding themselves to Manticore was the one way to avoid it.
Nordbrandt had disagreed, and she'd mounted a bitter, no-holds-barred political campaign to resist the annexation vote. But that decision had shattered the National Redemption Party. It had quickly become apparent that many of the NRP's erstwhile supporters' resistance to being gobbled up by Frontier Security had been fueled far more by fear than by the fiery nationalistic socialism which had inspired Nordbrandt. Her support base had crumbled quickly, and as it had, her rhetoric had become steadily more extreme. And now it appeared she was, indeed, prepared to take the next logical step.
"How many other people agree with you?" Firebrand asked bluntly after a moment.
"I'm not prepared to discuss specific numbers at this point," she replied, and leaned back slightly in her chair with a thin smile. "We hardly even know one another, and I'm not in the habit of getting intimate on a first date."
Firebrand chuckled appreciatively, although his smile barely touched his eyes.
"I don't blame you for being cautious," he said. "In fact, I'd be far less likely to risk any association with someone who wasn't cautious. But by the same token, you need to convince me that what you have to offer is sufficient to justify my willingness to risk trusting you."
"I understand that," she said. "And I agree. To be brutally frank, I wouldn't be risking contact with you unless I believed you could offer us something sufficiently valuable to justify taking some chances."
"I'm glad we understand one another. But my point still stands. What do you have to offer?"
"A real Kornatian," she said bluntly, and smiled at the involuntary flare of surprise-and alarm-in Firebrand's eyes.
"Your accent's quite good, actually," she told him. "Unfortunately for you, linguistics have always been something of a hobby of mine. I suppose it has something to do with a politician's ear. I always found it useful to be able to talk like a 'good old girl' when it came to politicking at the grass-roots level. And, as we say here on Kornati, 'You're not from around here, are you?'"
"That's a very dangerous conclusion, Ms. Nordbrandt," Firebrand said, his eyes narrow. His companion's hand had disappeared into the unsealed opening of his jacket, and Nordbrandt smiled.
"I trust neither of you thinks I came here by myself," she said gently. "I'm sure your friend here could kill me any time he wanted to, Mr. Firebrand. In that case, however, neither of you would get out of this bar alive afterward. Of course, I'm also sure all three of us would like to avoid that… messy outcome. Wouldn't we?"
" I certainly would," Firebrand agreed with a tight smile. His intent gaze never left Nordbrandt's face. It was possible she was lying, but he didn't think so. Not from what he saw in her eyes.
"Good." She picked up her beer stein and sipped appreciatively, then put it down again. "I had my suspicions the first time you and I spoke," she said, "but I wasn't positive until this meeting. You really are very good. Either you've made an intensive study of our version of Standard English, or else you've had a lot of contact with us. But in response to your question about what I have to offer, I think the fact that I've recognized you as an off-worlder and taken appropriate steps to cover myself before meeting you says something about my capabilities. And leaving all of that aside, it's obvious to me that you're looking for a Kornatian ally. Well-"
She gave a little shrug and raised her left hand in a palm-up gesture of presentation.
Firebrand picked up his own beer and drank from the stein. It was only a time-buying gesture, and he knew she knew it as well as he did. After a moment, he lowered the beer and cocked his head at her.
"You're right," he admitted. "I'm not from Kornati. But that doesn't mean I don't have the Split System's best interests at heart. After all, Split is part of the Cluster. If the Manty occupation goes down smoothly here, it's going to affect how all the rest of the Cluster reacts. And I am here looking for Kornatian allies."
"I thought so." Her voice was calm, but despite what Firebrand had come to realize was an even more impressive degree of self-control than he'd first thought, there was a flicker of eagerness in her eyes.
"Forgive me," he said, "but in light of your well known… patriotism, I have to be a little wary. After all, your position during the plebiscite debate was pretty clear. 'Kornati for Kornatians,' I believe you said."
"And I meant it," she told him, her voice level. "In fact, I want you to remember it. Because the first instant that I begin to suspect you have designs on Kornati, I'll turn on you in a heartbeat. But that doesn't mean I'm stupid enough to think I don't need allies of my own, at least as badly as you appear to.
"Oh," she waved her left hand between them, like someone fanning away smoke, "I can make things hard for the Manties and their rich-pig collaborationists here in Split. I can cause all kinds of trouble, at least in the short term. It's even theoretically possible I could topple Tonkovic and her cronies, which would put the Manties in an interesting quandary. If I were Planetary President, would they live up to all their promises about self-determination, or would they show their true colors and send in their Marines?
"But, realistically speaking, there's not much possibility of my followers and me being able to throw Tonkovic out using our own unassisted resources. And even if we succeeded, it would be much easier for the Manties to decide to resort to forcible suppression against a single 'outlaw' star system. No," she shook her head, "I'm prepared to fight them with only my own supporters, if that's the only alternative open to me. But the odds of actually achieving something would go up enormously if Split weren't the only system which rose up to throw the Manties out. And even if we can't manage the outright overthrow of the collaborationists, I think there's an excellent chance a unified, Cluster-wide resistance movement could convince the Manties they'd poked their noses into the wrong hornet nest. They're already at war. If we make it too expensive and difficult to hold us all down, they're likely to decide they have more important fish to fry closer to home."
Firebrand took another, longer sip of beer. Then he set the stein aside with a decisive air.
"You're right," he said simply. "Whatever you or I might like, the truth is that we're on the short end of the balance of political and military power at the moment. There's no way, realistically speaking, we could hope for wholesale changes of government throughout the Cluster. But you're also right that if we make the game too unpleasant, the price too high, the Manties probably will decide to take their marbles and go home. They can't afford to do anything else. And if we can manage to send them packing, we may just be able to convert the prestige and momentum of that into the ability to run the collaborationists out of town, after all."
He nodded slowly, his expression somber.
"I'll be honest with you, Ms. Nordbrandt. You aren't the only person here on Kornati we've considered contacting. There's Belostenic and Glavinic, for example. Or Dekleva. But I'm impressed. The combination of perceptiveness and pragmatism you've just demonstrated is exactly what I came looking for. I don't need dewy-eyed idealists, and I don't want raging fanatics. I want someone who can differentiate between fantasy and what's possible. But I still need to know how far you're prepared to go. Raging fanatics are one thing; people who aren't willing to do what's necessary are just as bad. So are you an ivory tower analyst, able to theorize with the best but unwilling to get your hands dirty… or bloody?"
"I'm prepared to go as far as it takes," she told him flatly, her wiry body coiled about its tension as she met his eyes steadily. "I'm not in love with the concept of violence, if that's what you mean by 'raging fanatics.' But I'm not afraid of it, either. Politics and political power are all upheld by force and the readiness to shed blood, in the final analysis, and the independence of my star system is important enough to justify anything I have to do to protect it."
"Good," Firebrand said softly. "Very good. At the moment, it's still a matter of putting the pieces into place. Just as I'm here on Kornati, I have colleagues having similar conversations on other planets across the entire Cluster. Within a few weeks, a couple of months at the outside, we should be in a position to begin making concrete plans."
"So all of this, all your talk about what 'I need,' is only a hypothetical exercise?" Nordbrandt's eyes were suddenly cold, but Firebrand only shook his head calmly.
"Not in the least. It's just still at a very early stage. Do you really think I'm in a position to make spur-of-the-moment decisions for my entire organization, solely on the basis of a single firsthand conversation? Would you want to have anything to do with me if you thought that was the case?"
He held her eyes until she shook her head slowly, then shrugged.
"I'll take my report back to our central committee. I'll recommend strongly that we establish a formal alliance with you and your people here on Kornati. And as we find similar allies on other planets, we'll either coordinate operations for you, or possibly even put you into direct contact with one another, as well as with us. In the end, what we hope to accomplish is the creation of a central coordinating body-one on which you would almost certainly hold a voting seat-to organize and support a Cluster-wide resistance movement. But building that, especially if we want to prevent the local authorities, like your President Tonkovic, from infiltrating us and taking us out before we can accomplish anything, is going to take some time."
She nodded, obviously unwillingly. Her eyes were hot with disappointment, with the frustrated desire to do something now , but there was discipline behind the frustration. And an awareness that what he'd said made sense.
"In the meantime," he continued, "I may be in a position to begin providing a strictly limited amount of financial and material support. Eventually, obviously, my people hope to provide more substantial assistance, including access to weapons and intelligence. If we manage to create the central coordinating structure we're trying to put into place, we ought to be in a position to receive intelligence from all of our planetary members without jeopardizing the security of any of them. We'll be able to put all the pieces anyone gives us together into a single, coherent whole which ought to allow all of us to formulate more effective strategies. And we also hope to pool our financial resources. Speaking of which, I hope you realize it may be necessary for us to do some things none of us would really like to do in order to finance our operations?"
"That's understood." Nordbrandt's voice carried more than a touch of distaste, but, once again, her eyes were unflinching. "I'm not looking forward to it, but resistance movements can't exactly send out Revenue Service agents to collect income tax."
"I'm glad you understand that," Firebrand said gravely. "To begin with, though, it looks as if we're going to be able to secure at least the seed money we need through a little judicious electronic manipulation."
"Oh?" Nordbrandt perked up visibly.
"Oh, yes," Firebrand said with a nasty smile. "I'm obviously not at liberty to give you any details. For that matter, I don't have many details to give, at this point. But come the end of the current fiscal quarter, Bernardus Van Dort is going to discover that the Trade Union is running an unanticipated deficit."
Nordbrandt clapped a hand over her mouth to smother a delighted peal of laughter, and her brown eyes danced devilishly. Firebrand grinned back like a little boy who'd just gotten away with cutting an entire week of school without being caught. He'd thought she'd like the notion of pilfering from the coffers of the powerful, theoretically nonpolitical trade organization which had taken the lead in organizing the annexation plebiscite in the first place.
"There is a certain poetic justice involved, isn't there?" he said after a moment, and she nodded enthusiastically.
"As I say, I don't know any details," he continued, "but if the operation comes off half as well as I've been led to expect, we ought to be able to begin providing some discreet additional funding to you and your organization in the next couple of months. Possibly even a bit sooner, though I don't think you should count on that. Of course, before we can do that, we're going to have to have some idea of just how large and how active your own organization is likely to be.
"I'm not going to ask for any details," he went on quickly, one hand waving the thought aside. "But obviously we're going to have to have some idea of the relative needs and capabilities of the various organizations we hope to bring together if we're going to make the best use of what are inevitably going to be limited resources."
"I can see that," she agreed. "But I'm obviously going to have to discuss this with my people before I can commit them to anything."
"Naturally." Firebrand grinned again. "I'm sure it's going to seem like it's taking forever for us to get this up and running. But I truly believe that once we have it in place, it's going to make the difference between success or failure for the entire Cluster."
"Then let's hope we do get it organized," Agnes Nordbrandt said, and raised her beer stein in salute to her new allies.