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Skimmers were no longer strictly military and emergency vehicles, for steady improvements in the low-powered version of the reactionless space drive had brought them within reach of the private sector. But on a relatively young and not-too-affluent Fringe World like Novaya Rodina, it was only official business that brought one of the vehicles swooping soundlessly across the sky.

Captain Midori Kozlov gazed through the transparency at that sky, whose tinge of orange she doubted she could ever have become used to. She knew all about the harmless airborne microorganisms that caused it, but it still seemed wrong. Her eyes strayed downwards to the plains, where endless fields evidenced a degree of agricultural inefficiency that she, child of the resolutely rationalized culture of Epsilon Eridani, found even harder to get used to than the sky's color. But that was fine with the colonists. Their grandparents had come here to preserve a bit of Russia, or of what Russia had once been, or might have been, or should have been, and no vision of Russia, however idealized, could ever include much in the way of efficiency.

All of which ruminations, Kozlov realized, merely served the purpose of distracting her from thinking about her mission here. Her belly annoyed her by tightening, and she felt an odd envy of her pre-space ancestors. They hadn't had to worry about meeting their legends in the flesh, for in those days people generally hadn't lived long enough to become legends before they were decently dead.

The skimmer went feet-wet over the Ozero KerenskyNovaya Rodina was a world-continent with landlocked seas, not a world-ocean with island-continents like most Earth-like planets. The waters sped beneath the skimmer for what seemed a short time as Kozlov tried to organize her thoughts. Then a coastline backed by low, villa-dotted hills appeared ahead and swiftly grew. The skimmer homed unerringly on a particular dacha and settled onto a landing area outside a gate in a low outer wall.

Kozlov thanked the pilot and emerged into the summer warmth, smoothing nonexistent imperfections out of her black-and-silver uniform. She looked around at the landscape, which she'd heard was about as similar as you could get on this planet to a peninsula of Old Terra called the Crimea. The smell of roses suffused the air; the man she'd come to visit had occupied his retirement with developing a subspecies that would grow in these latitudes of Novaya Rodina. She stood before the gate and let its security sensors scan a face that reflected more ethnic strains than just the Japanese and Russian that her name suggested.

"Identify yourself, please," the gate finally requested.

She cleared her throat and spoke with the clarity and distinctness that were advisable when addressing robots. "Captain Midori Kozlov to see the Sky Marshal." Though the dacha owner's permanent rank was that of Admiral of the Fleet, he was entitled to be addressed for life by the title he'd held at the time of his retirement. "I believe I'm expected."

A moment passed in silence, just long enough for the entirely human bass rumble to be startling. "For God's sake, don't call me by that damned title! Come on in. My secretary will meet you."

The gate swung silently open. In the absence of further instructions, Kozlov followed a graveled walkway around the left side of the dacha. A man stood waitingnot the man she'd come to see. This man looked late-middle-aged (she'd have to see him move before deciding whether his apparent age was natural or the result of antigerone treatments) and contrived to wear his entirely civilian clothes like a uniform. Kozlov recalled what she'd been told of a very senior enlisted man who'd followed his admiral into retirement, and the sense of walking into a historical novelwhich had been growing on her for some timeintensified.

"Good afternoon, Captain," the secretary said in faintly accented Standard English. "Please follow me."

They were rounding the rambling dacha when a man came stumping around a cornera white-bearded man whose massive solidity made him seem shorter than he was. He wore an anachronistic-looking smock and carried gardening tools in his big, grimy hands... and Kozlov felt her body, acting for her without orders, come to the position of attention.

Ivan Nikolayevich Antonov glared at her from under shaggy white eyebrows. That glare gave her an instant to take in more of his appearance. He was certainly in good shape for a man of one hundred and forty-five standard Terran years. But, she recalled, he'd committed himself by contract at a relatively early age to emigrate after retirement, and thus obtained access to the antigerone treatments long before he would have gotten them anyway by special act of the Legislative Assembly as victor of the Theban War. The Federation had a long-standing policy of encouraging colonization by providing colonists with the anti-aging technology that was available on the inner worlds only to those who somehow obligated society to them. And in a sudden flash of insight she wondered if the willingness of Heart Worlds like her own native Odin to be passive accomplices in the Corporate Worlds' political sodomizing of the Fringe Worlds might have less to do with all the well-known rationalizations than with simple, elemental, unadmitted envy.

Antonov's bass broke in on her uncomfortable thoughts. "Thank you, Kostya," he addressed the secretary in what Kozlov suspected was his very best attempt at a mild tone. "Please excuse us."

"Da, Nikolayevich," the man responded. Memories of grandfather Kozlov, combined with her orientation briefings, enabled her to recognize the "affection" and "respectful affection" modes of address in that exchange. The latter was old-fashioned, very uncommon, and not an automatic prerogative of superior military rank. But then Kostya was gone and the living legend turned his glare on her again.

"Well, I agreed to see you, so I suppose I have to be civil, even to a headquarters zalyotnik." She knew that the idiomliterally, "butterfly"wasn't exactly a flattering one. "So come inside and have a drink, Captain Kozlova."

She recalled the conversation she'd had with Hannah Avram just before departure, and the Sky Marshal's advice on how she must respond at this point. So she took a deep breath and commanded her voice to steadiness and her eyes to a level gaze. "Excuse me, Sir, but that's 'Captain Kozlov.' My Russian ancestorsI'm only one-eighth Russian, by the wayemigrated to Epsilon Eridani in the early twenty-second century. It's been generations since the family used the Russian language or Russian naming conventions, including feminine forms of surnames."

For a moment, Antonov's brows drew together and almost met, and Kozlov was reminded of fissionable material reaching critical mass. But she wouldn't let herself flinch. Then, all of a sudden, the bearlike former Sky Marshal expelled a bark of laughter, rather like a volcano venting its force harmlessly. The chuckles that followed were like seismic aftershocks.

"Well, that's the first time since the Theban War, when Angelique Timoshenko..." Antonov shook his head and chuckled again. "I see you don't frighten easily, Captain. That's good. Maybe you're not a complete butterfly after all. Let's get that drink."

It was early in the day for her, but she quoted platitudes about Rome and the Romans to herself. "Very well, Sky Marshal."

"I thought I told you not to call me that!" Antonov's scowl was back as he led the way into the glass-walled loggia that faced the sea. "I'm Ivan Nikolayevich." He stomped over to the bar. "Vodka?"

She detested the stuff, but"Certainly, Sk... Ivan Nikolayevich."

"Better," Antonov rumbled as he brought the drinks and waved her towards a leather-bound armchair. He then settled into the chair's mate and raised his glass. "Za vashe zdorovye." He tossed back his vodka with a rapidity that made Kozlov's stomach lurch at the mere sight of it.

"So," he said after a moment, "you come from Hannah Avram. How is she?"

"She's well, Sir. Although, of course, the situation now"

"Yes, yes; I've been following it." He reached for the vodka bottle and refilled his glass. He scowled at Kozlov's glass, at which she'd been sipping. "Ty chto mumu yebyosh?" he growled. Then he suddenly seemed to remember himself, and the broad muscular face wore an incongruous expression of embarrassment. "Er, it means 'Drink up,' " he explained. Then he intensified his scowl as though to make up for his lapse. "Well, this new war is Hannah's problem. She was fool enough to accept that damned 'Sky Marshal' title they dreamed up for me after the Theban War. By now she must have found out what it really means: having to deal day in and day out with those tarakani in the Legislative Assembly. Well, she can have it! I'm retired. You couldn't pay me enough to dive back into that cesspit! 'Reactivating my commission,' eh? Well, you can tell them I said to take my reactivated commission, complete with the stiffest shoulder boards they can find, and shove it up their"

"Oh, I think you misunderstand about your reactivation, Sir." Antonov stopped and gave her the look of a man unused to being interrupted. She hurried on. "You're not being recalled as Sky Marshal. As you yourself pointed out, that's a special rank, invented for the military commander-in-chief of the Fleet. You'll be back on the active list under your permanent rank of Admiral of the Fleet, as the Terran member of the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff."

For a heartbeat of utter silence, Antonov seemed to expand slightly, as though building up to an explosion. "You mean," he said in a tone whose quietness wasn't even meant to be deceptive, "I'd be subordinate to Hannah Avram?"

"Well, Sir, that might be an oversimplification of the relationship. After all, you'd be functioning outside the normal TFN command structure, on the Joint Chiefs of which you..." Kozlov paused. She'd been about to say, "Of which you will undoubtedly be chairman," but she had a pretty good idea of how this man would react to anything that even smelled like flattery. So she fell back and regrouped. "On which you will be serving with Kthaara'zarthan, among others."

The air seemed to go out of Antonov. "What? You're telling me that Kthaara Kornazhovich is the Khan's representative on this Grand Allied boondoggle?"

"Yes, Ivan Nikolayevich. Your vilkshatha brother is on Old Terra even now." She smiled inwardly, for Hannah Avram had told her of the bastard Orion-Russian patronymic Antonov had bestowed on the Orion who'd admitted him to the oath of vilkshatha that made two warriors members of each others' familiesthe first non-Orion in history to be so admitted. It annoyed Kthaara almost as much as the even more bastardized diminutive "Kthaasha." Aloud, she continued in a neutral tone. "In fact, I spoke with Lord Talphon before my departure. He sends his best regards. Also, in connection with your reluctance to accept the reactivation of your commission, he asked me to memorize a certain Russian phrase and convey it to you." Her brow creased with puzzlement. "Oddly enough, it was the same one you translated a few minutes ago as 'Drink up.' But according to him, it means 'Why are you fucking a cow?' "

For an anxious moment, she thought Antonov was going to have a stroke. But then she saw that he was really struggling to contain a gargantuan guffaw. He finally released it as a kind of gasping cough. "Well, er... you see, that's the literal translation," he explained when he'd gotten his breath. "It can be used in any context to mean 'get a move on' or 'get the lead out.' " He shook his head and chuckled. "Old Kthaasha... ! Well, I suppose this wouldn't be the worst foolishness I've ever gone along with." He deployed his scowl again. "All right, maybe I'll do it... but on one condition. I want you on my staff."

Kozlov almost spilled her still half-full vodka glass. "Sir?"

"Yes. You've got baer, guts. I like that. I'll need an Intelligence officerI'm not so old I can't read your insignia. And Winnie Trevayne is too damned senior now," he added, naming the Director of Naval Intelligencewho, Kozlov recalled, had been his staff spook in the Theban War. "Well?" he barked.

She tossed off the remainder of her vodka. It felt like an expanding sun going down her gullet. She hardly noticed until she tried to speak. "Ah... of course Sir, if... well, Sky Marshal Avram would have to approve my going on detached duty from her staff... ."

"Oh, Hannah will come around," Antonov rumbled. He reached out and refilled her glass. "And now, unless I'm mistaken, you have a classified briefing for me. All I know is the news any other old muzhik can get."

"Yes, Sir," she said, still wheezing a little and gazing with dismay at the refilled glass.

"Good." Antonov topped off his own glass and raised it. "Nalivay!"



CHAPTER ELEVEN | The Stars at War | CHAPTER TWELVE