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Pattern of Infinity - Part X - The Meaning of the World

By J. Kel
Page 2 of 19

To anyone else under any other circumstances, the fit of assignment to person might have seemed natural and comfortable, and Cally, ambassador-at-large for what was grandiosely termed the "Alliance", should have been more comfortable than she was. She had, after all, played a vital role in the rescue of President Sarkoff years before, so her assignment as emissary to the (true) Lindor Defense Forces (not the Federation puppet) was, or should have been, a perfect fit. In fact, not one other of the surviving original crew was in a position to assume the honor. Not Vila, and certainly not Avon. So here she was, on a shuttle docking with one of the largest ships of the Lindor Fleet. She should have felt a mixture of pride and triumph, but at this time she did not know what to feel.

For one thing, it had been altogether too difficult to contact the Lindor forces. The amount of pleading and cajoling that had gone into arranging an interview with Admiral Karlsyn, the de facto resistance leader, was nothing she wanted to talk about. For weeks it seemed every possible obstacle had been thrown in her path. Suspicions were assuaged; assurances, proof given, then all rejected again. But at one point apparently her appeal had made it directly to the Grand Admiral himself and at a stroke she was able to bypass the entrenched layers of opposition. He would see her. But as she read the message, the implication was that by doing so what she had gone through so far might well be the easy part.

She would have to find an enticement. And for that, she confidently told herself, all she had to do was meet the man; come to understand him, convince him to trust her. They were natural allies, were they not? And as she boarded his flagship, she could at least feel relief that an alliance was possible. There waiting for her were two junior officers who looked at her suspiciously at first, then curiously, as if some odd part of ancient history had materialized before them. She was as gracious as she could be with them and with the large armed escort they brought. She maintained a perfect pose of imperious reserve as they marched through the corridors. It was not among the more demanding tasks of her life. She was not insulted. She was a very important person, her manner and escort said as much. They would all (Listening, Tarrant?) do well to accept the fact and get down to the work at hand.

Occasionally, as they maneuvered through the long deck ways, she saw what appeared to be family groups. She was shocked at how undernourished, almost starving everyone looked. Then she realized they must have evacuated huge numbers of people during Lindor's defeat. The resources of the surviving ships, even if they did number in the hundreds, had to be stretched to limit.

Now as she waited outside Karlsyn's office, she tried to grasp the immensity of Lindor's disaster. The cries of children and the obvious sadness of the families moved her. It too was part of the unavoidable reality of the battle that was approaching. These people had been on the run for nearly a year and while they were still a cohesive force, they had had to frequently split up into sub groups to avoid being trapped en masse. There had been loses. She suspected morale was lower she had been told. So there might well be a reaction against even one who came as friend.

She should count herself lucky. This particular group remained under military discipline. That they did not act in concert with the other resistance bands and groups said something. She had been informed, several times, that professionalism required they keep their distance. They were always professionals, whatever the degree of their suffering. So here she was, having greater knowledge of guerrilla and partisan forces than anyone on this ship, wondering if her mission had been discounted before she had even started. Still, she had prevailed so far and would not leave empty handed. She had insisted on speaking to the highest levels, which may or may not have helped her cause and in the end was satisfied with this rendezvous near an obscure moon of a planetary system she had never heard of.

She had linked up with one band, they had transported her to another, and another . . . and now the moment was almost upon her.

With such swiftness and urgency had the approval come that that she could only wonder now what was really wanted. Certainly not to meet with one lone Auron embarked on a mission of mercy.

After she was searched and examined by the medics, the armed escort departed. Now she waited outside Karlsyn's office. They had at least given her that much respect. She would not be treated like a criminal as she walked the final distance. There were only a few staff people visible. It was almost as if most had been ordered to stay away. Nevertheless, those she saw looked ready for a fight, almost eager for one. Even the medics were armed.

In due course an orderly, a woman naval auxiliary she guessed, politely approached her and she was escorted into the Admiral's office. Permission to sit was requested and granted. For the next several minutes, Cally listened to the Admiral speak at length about how bad the situation was.

Well, she had to listen to it for the sake of courtesy and she was not unmoved, but time was wasting. She was starting to get anxious. It was almost as if the man did not even notice her. It was so irrelevant what he was saying! Everyone knew how bad it was. And then there was this annoying habit of scarcely even looking at her. Doggedly, she leaned forward, remaining the perfect sculptured image of astute attention.

" . . . So we scarcely ever work with the `irregulars' or independents or whatever, though that is a policy which could conceivably change. We do rely on them for intelligence, of course, and some of them are quite good, but for the most part we prefer to keep our distance. I am sure you understand." He then stopped and finally seemed to look at her closely. There was a stiff aspect about him, of a man who seemed obsessed with order. Everything was clean; nothing was out of place. Even the lamps seemed to be dimmed just right.

She waited. Having listened for so long she was unsure of what to say. Sorry things are going so badly? Happy battles?

"Forgive me, but you are an Auron, correct?" he asked. He leaned closer, his face angular and pointed, like the advancing prow of a ship.

Cally almost winced. Here we go. Again. "That is correct."

"I have nothing against Aurons myself," he said blandly leaning back, without a trace of irony. "I was an admirer of Lee Hahn, almost a friend." He made a passing glance to the portrait of President Sarkoff behind his desk. "I sympathize with you and your people, but many of the men under my command are less positively disposed towards Aurons. Many, unfortunately, blame them for the war, for what happened to Lindor. Nonsense, of course, but you surely are aware I must keep such opinions in mind -- as one factor among many -- when I am called upon to make a decision."

He had said nothing of her role in Blake's rescue of the Sarkoff when he was imprisoned. Very well; no special pleading. "I would never ask you to do other than to consider all factors," she said evenly.

"Good," he said, almost jovially. "So, getting back to my summary of the situation. The core strike force of the Federation Combined Fleet has something on the order of 1100 battleships, 800 carriers, and 2300 cruisers. That Fleet for the most part stays close to the Center, though elements can be lured away from time to time, if sufficient provocation is offered -- a tactic we have been able to employ with some measure of success. That total of 4200 ships, which alone outnumbers us 4 to 1, does not include the nearly 6,000 destroyers, patrol vessels, support ships and the like which bring the total strength of the Combined Fleet to slightly over 10,000. Against that enormous figure, what remains of the Lindor Defense Forces is zero battleships -- please note: none whatever -- 300 carriers, a third of which are badly damaged and barely serviceable, and 800 cruisers, along with some scattered support and hospital ships. And those ships for the most part are crammed with civilian refugees. They do not constitute and cannot be a significant fighting element. That is it; absolutely nothing in reserve. In short, a direct attack against the Combined Fleet is out of the question. " His posture remained rigid. "I do not lead suicide missions," he said flatly.

"As I say, from time to time we are able to draw some of them out and trap others but for the most part these are simply morale sustaining exercises. The enemy is arrogant, but not stupid. Neither are we. What was your name again?"

"Cally. I am currently . . ."

He smiled. "Yes, I know who you are. We had your background checked quite thoroughly. There are gaps in your record, significant ones in my estimation, yet there is no question you are who you claim to be."

"We believe," she interjected forcefully, "that local Federation strength may be less than it appears. There is evidence that the Combined Fleet is starting to deploy away from the Center, in a campaign apparently aimed to crush all opposition. It is possible, though this has yet to be confirmed, that at least three/fourths, perhaps all, of the main group may be involved in that campaign. If so, then Earth would only have its local defenses. An attack against it at the right moment . . . The balance of forces would be roughly at parity."

Despite having an air of someone who knew everything that was coming, for once the Grand Admiral shut up. He considered it, staring at her blankly. It was clear he had heard the rumors as well. For long seconds there was silence. Like Tarrant, in too many ways, he was a most irritating man. Finally he said. "You have told me what could be done, given a confluence of highly improbable circumstances. What I want to know is: why? Why should we do it? What do we have to gain? If, as you say, she is dispersing her forces and in so doing giving the appearance that the Center is vulnerable, have you considered that may only be an feint to draw us in?"

"We have considered that." Have we ever!

"By this 'we' you mean the Auron Community in Exile?"

"Among others. The file that I sent . . ."

"Yes, I read it. Several times." He was silent again, apparently not wanting to pursue the matter. He leaned back, almost looking at the ceiling. She wondered if he was trying to prompt or provoke her out of her wariness. What did he want? Then he looked at her coldly. "Forgive me," he said cautiously, "but in your file it stated that you were once with `Blake's Bandits' or 'Blake's Gang of Seven', or whatever they were called. I thought that man was more a myth than anything else, yet it says you actually served under him. Is that true?"

"The preferred name for our group was 'Blake's Seven'. We avoided banditry (most of us). Yes, I was with the group for nearly three years."

"And then you moved on," he said abruptly. "Disappeared. Rumors, then nothing. A wise decision considering. When I first received your request for an interview I thought the name `Cally' sounded familiar, but could not place it. 'Blake's Seven' you say . . . almost ten years since the last of them were believed killed . . . "

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