"At ease, General Khoury. Please report," said Generalissima Corazón Aquiño, leader of the Spartan Federation. General Alice Khoury saluted and shifted to a slightly more comfortable but still military pose.
"With your permission, Your Toughness, I shall begin with a strategic overview of the factions on Chiron. Then I shall discuss the war between the Gaians and the alliance of the Deineirans and the Conclave of Believers."
Corazón Aquiño nodded and said, "Proceed, General." She did not object to reviewing that which she already knew. Generalissima Aquiño had the facts, but what was important was arranging them into a strategic perspective.
General Khoury pressed a button on her datek and a map appeared on the wallscreen, centered on Mount Planet and the Southeastern portion of Clausewitz continent.
"First on the agenda is Chairman Sheng-ji Yang's Human Hive, located in the vicinity of the volcanic island Mount Planet. Eventual war with Yang is inevitable, as Yang himself is certainly aware. But for the present he is comfortably distant and a useful trading partner.
"Yang is cautious, even paranoid. He builds his bases underground for defense. He wants first to ensure he hangs on to what he has. Strategically, he hopes that would-be conquerors will be sucked into Stalingrad-like battles of attrition when they attempt to seize his bases.
"The Human Hive is a totalitarian state. Yang can easily turn the entire efforts of his faction to war. His heavy industry, supported by the substantial natural resources of the Mount Planet region, will allow him to field the largest armies on planet. Fortunately his army, though large, is of mediocre quality. This, combined with his general contempt for the value of human life and his fear of uncertainty, will also lead him to seek a war of attrition.
"We cannot allow him to do this. Militarily, we are like the Israelis of the 20th century or the Singaporean Hegemony of the 21st. We have a good military, the best on Chiron, but it is not a big military. We need quick victories, complications where our superior troops and leadership will get full play, and we need to avoid set-piece battles.
"We cannot prevent Yang from colonizing the Southeastern part of Clausewitz continent. This will bring him into inevitable contact with us along a land border. Fortunately, our explorers have found that this portion of Clausewitz continent is barren and poor in resources. Until his population expands significantly, he will want to concentrate on exploiting the riches of Mount Planet.
"If Yang seeks to become a naval power, he will certainly plant sea colonies in the Geothermal Shallows area. This could bring him into conflict with Zakharov and possibly Lal, who are also positioned to exploit the region.
"Yang is already attempting subversion through propaganda released by the so-called Hive-Spartan Friendship Committee, but his society is so repellant to anyone who places the slightest value on freedom that his efforts are getting nowhere. Our people are Survivalists, not Communists or Fascists.
"The Hive is and will continue to be strategically inflexible. It is entirely a reflexion of the personality of Sheng-ji Yang, and if Sheng-ji Yang himself can be neutralized, the Hive will be neutralized also. The Hive will also always be rather weak in research, especially where research might come into conflict with Sheng-ji Yang thought. If the Hive receives no outside aid, it will be hopelessly backward by the time its population grows enough to be threatening. On the other hand, if he is fed tech by someone else, perhaps by Zakharov, he will be a mortal danger.
"In the short term the Hive alone is not a threat, but the Hive and the Gaians together are. If the Gaians attack us from the north or from the ocean, they will incite the Hive to open a second front in the Southeast."
"Thank you, General," said Corazón Aquiño. "I agree that the principal near-term threat from the Hive is as a second front in a war with the Gaians. But Yang cannot yet open a second front without relying on perilously long supply lines. We must encourage his cautious nature. However, we must not fall too easily into the assumption that Yang can attack us only from the southeast. He could also attack through or around the continent at the south pole."
"Pravin Lal's faction: the UN, or so-called Peacekeepers." General Alice Khoury fiddled with her datek and the wallscreen shifted to display a map centered on the long subcontinent extending southward from the continent the Spartans called Alexander.
"Lal's arrogance is obnoxious and out of proportion to the actual power of his faction," said Khoury. "He officially treats us as a rebellious unit of his silly United Nations, and pointedly refers to Your Toughness as Colonel, your former rank in the UN forces. He is currently confined to his subcontinent, which is neither especially poor nor especially rich in resources. His natural path of expansion is northward into the riches of the Monsoon Jungle, but the Conclave has forestalled him there. The Conclave has also seized the Planetneck isthmus, inhibiting his expansion to the northeast. He is far from ready to challenge the Conclave forces on his own, though he would doubtless be willing to open a second front if the Conclave is invaded elsewhere.
"Lal seems to be popular in his own faction, and the opportunities for probe teams from other factions to stir up trouble are limited, especially for us. The average citizen of the UN finds our ideals incomprehensible.
"Lal is officially neutral in the current conflict, and he trades opportunistically with both sides. However, his sympathies undoubtably lie with the Gaians. He knows that unless the Conclave is defeated, his future ambitions for expansion will be stymied. He regards us as his ultimate ideological enemies, but for the time being he poses no threat. He has hardly any navy, and thus no way of reaching us."
"It is unfortunate he is not closer," said Corazón Aquiño. "I would welcome the opportunity of crushing him."
General Alice Khoury again manipulated her datek, and the wallscreen now showed a map centered on the eastern regions of Garlandia continent. "Next is Prokhor Zakharov's faction of the so-called University of Planet. His faction is devoted to scientific research, which of course in practice means cooking up weapons that will pave his way to an ultimate conquest of the whole planet. He has been a useful trading partner, though of course he has kept us away from his most advanced technology. His attitude toward us has been neutral. He regards us as being too distant to be a near-term threat, and sees our ideology as being neither supportive of nor hostile to his own fanatical concentration on research.
"Zakharov is officially neutral in the current conflict, though he freely feeds technology to the Gaians, whose biological research he evidently admires. He hates the Conclave of the Believers, but doesn't feel ready to openly war on them yet. He even engages in limited trade with them.
"He also despises the Morganites, especially for their alliance with the Conclave, yet he trades with them too. It is the judgement of our analysts that he is waiting for the most opportune moment to join with the Gaians in this war.
"His admiration for Deirdre Skye is apparently genuine, and this is puzzling. He says she is his only intellectual equal on Chiron. Yet aboard the Unity, he treated her and her clique with utter contempt.
"Zakharov's great weakness is his vulnerability to espionage. We have been able to steal valuable technology despite our limited access. Large portions of his populace are disaffected, and the Conclave has been exploiting this with covert missionary efforts. Zakharov has responded with fierce persecution of the miscreants, but this has only increased the popularity of religion among the lower classes.
"A revolution is not yet possible, but it may happen in time. Zakharov might not recognize the danger until it is too late. He seems unable to imagine that anyone without an advanced degree could possibly be significant.
"Zakharov's military is mediocre and as yet limited in size. However, he makes up for basically weak troops and indifferent leadership with first-rate weaponry. In fighting him, we will have to seek tactical situations where advanced equipment is relatively unimportant but where first-rate troops and tactical brilliance count. This is not so easy, since in general conditions which favor good troops and good leadership also favor the most advanced equipment. Our war college should study the problem in depth, and our officers should be retrained accordingly.
"Though the University and the Gaians are currently very close, they may come into conflict as their populations increase. They share the same continent — an inherently uneasy state of affairs. They both must be eyeing the unexploited mineral wealth of Garland crater. But there seems no way to drive a wedge between them at the moment.
"In summary, Zakharov's research makes him highly dangerous on his own in the medium and long term. Allied with Deirdre Skye, he is also a short-term menace. If he and the Gaians succeed in extirpating the Deineirans and the Conclave, we will be their next target if they do not turn on each other, and Yang will be our only possible ally against them."
"Zakharov has always been my chief concern, next to the Gaians," said the Generalissima. "An alliance of the two is an existential threat, even if the alliance is not currently directed against us. But we are not yet in a position to strike against either of them."
General Alice Khoury again adjusted the wallscreen. It now showed a map centered on the western region of Alexander, north of Lal's territory. "Next is Miriam Godwinson's faction, the Conclave of the Believers. Formerly we considered that her distance from us rendered her innocuous in the short term, while her expected technological backwardness would make her insignificant in the long term. Her unexpected alliance with the Deineirans, who freely feed her all their most advanced technology, has changed that.
"Her troops are excellent, close to our own in fighting power. What they lack in skill, they make up for in guts. They are admirably aggressive, yet their leadership is good enough to keep them from wasting themselves pointlessly, unlike the Japanese in so many battles of World War II.
"Despite the logic of the alliance between the Conclave and the Deineirans, we had previously considered that the ideological gulf between them would keep them forever apart. There must be some factor our analysts missed. Perhaps Miriam Godwinson is far more pragmatic than we supposed. There are also rumors that a personal issue may have entered the equation."
Generalissima Corazón Aquiño raised a shapely eyebrow.
"Some informants have said that she was quite taken with the ambassador the Deineirans sent. It has even been suggested that she has fallen in love, unlikely as that may seem for such a dour religious fanatic."
"What do we know of this ambassador?" asked Corazón Aquiño.
"His name is Nwabudike Morgan, Your Toughness. He was a stowaway on the Unity. He was formerly the most prominent person on Deineira. He led their society in its early days, and he wrote the first draft of their constitution. Lately, however, he has returned to private life, though he has accepted a series of temporary appointments to relatively minor posts in his government."
"I remember Nwabudike," said Corazón Aquiño. "At first I was tempted to dismiss him as a clown. His glorification of wealth seemed to be a weakness. I had to admit his intelligence and vitality, but he was not a military man. Eventually, though, I saw a core of tough resilience beneath the surface bonhomie. I recognized that he was as much a natural leader as I am. If he had been 20 years younger, I might have fallen in love with him myself!"
General Alice Khoury looked aghast. Corazón Aquiño smiled and said, "That's a state secret, of course. But, as often as I myself forget it, I am still a woman. Also, Miriam Godwinson's beliefs do not allow casual sexual relief, so she had probably built up a substantial reserve of frustrated desires. I can easily see how this story of her falling in love with Nwabudike might be true."
General Khoury continued. "With Deineiran help, the Conclave has assembled a formidable navy. As far as the current strategic situation is concerned, the Conclave is what keeps Zakharov from entering this war. He faces immediate attack from them across the ocean when he does. Unlike the Gaians, the University is in easy striking distance from both the Conclave and from Deineira.
"The Gaians have made some attempts to subvert religious minorities in the Conclave. These attempts failed utterly as the Mormons, the Jews, and even the atheists seized upon the attempted subversion as an opportunity to prove their loyalty. Our original analysis expected exploitable divisions along religious lines in the Conclave, but these have not materialized.
"In contrast, pro-Zakharov and pro-Gaian parties have a tangible presence in Deineira. These are ostensibly political parties, and as such they have no chance of gaining power, but beyond their nuisance value, they could serve as recruiting grounds for spies and terrorists. It seems incredible that such treason would be tolerated in wartime, but the Deineirans are strange and foolish. It is this weakness at a moment when strength is most called for that leads me to believe that the Deineirans will lose this war."
"Perhaps you are right," said Corazón Aquiño. "Morgan has a hard core deep inside, but his people might be just what they seem: pleasure-seeking weaklings. Still, I would not be too hasty in interpreting the behavior of such an alien culture. Athens had a pro-Persian party on the eve of the battle of Marathon, yet they were not weak. And perhaps the Deineirans are playing a game of their own whose purpose we can not discern at this distance. Speak more of these treasonous parties in Deineira."
"Yes, my Generalissima," said General Khoury. "The larger party is the Academics for a Scientific Society, or ASS. They view Zakharov as a modern philosopher king, and openly advocate the incorporation of Deineira into Zakharov's faction. As might be expected, they are strongest in the University of Deineira, where they dominate the Academic Senate and the Consortium of Students, and they actually hold several seats in the Deineiran parliament. Though ASS claims to be a purely Deineiran party, our intelligence is reasonably certain that their inner circle gets its direction from abroad.
"The other treasonous force is the pro-Gaian People's Ecological Party, or PEP. PEP existed before the war as an expression of anticapitalist romanticism, adolescent rebellion, and avowed love of the beauties of nature, despite the lack of actual natural beauty on Chiron. The war caused their membership to drop precipitously, and at the same time their central committee was taken over by pro-Gaian fanatics. The new PEP is generally despised, even by former members, but it has impressive financial backing from inside Deineira itself. Clearly, some very wealthy Deineirans are bankrolling PEP, and our intelligence analysts are mystified as to what the Gaians could have offered them. They already have wealth and power, and this wealth and power would be jeopardized by a Gaian victory."
Corazón Aquiño tossed her head and said, "I know what it is. The Gaians have a secret weapon. One far greater than their mindworms. A weapon that fools would not even recognize as a weapon. An unprecedented weapon that attacks a universal human weakness."
Alice Khoury said, "Your Toughness, may I be permitted to know—"
"Yes, of course," said the Spartan leader. "That's part of why you are here, though I do value your strategic insight. I realize also that you had very little time to prepare your report, so you relied on intelligence summaries. Still, there is no substitute for looking with your own eyes at the data before the analysts have distilled it."
"Yes, my Generalissima," said General Alice Khoury, much chastened.
Corazón Aquiño typed a command into her datek, and a diagram appeared on the wallscreen. "This is a portion of an organization chart of secret Gaian research labs," she said.
"Yes, your Toughness. I recognize it," General Khoury responded.
"Notice how the same man appears at the head of four critical research groups," said the Generalissima. "These are secret groups, so it would not make sense for the post to be a merely honorary one. And indeed, this man, Alfred Pak, had a distinguished career on Earth. So distinguished that he was allowed on the Unity despite his already advanced age. Today, not counting cold-sleep, Alfred Pak is 86 years old. Elsewhere it is mentioned that he has fathered two children in the past three years. He's an impressive old geezer, isn't he?"
Alice Khoury nodded mutely.
The Spartan leader typed another command in her datek, and the wallscreen generated a dynamic hologram of Prokhor Zakharov. "This is a holo of Zakharov addressing a scientific conference," she said. "There is sound for the hologram as well, but we have no need of it. It's all incomprehensible scientific jargon anyway. Just observe him, and tell me what you think."
Alice Khoury watched for a while and then said, "He is unkempt, almost ostentatiously unmilitary in his appearance. He is energetic and enthusiastic about his subject. He's younger than I expected. Somehow I had thought of him as a much older man."
"Just so," said Corazón Aquiño. "He looks no older than he was when the Unity launched."
"Perhaps the holo has undergone cosmetic processing," Khoury suggested.
"Does he look like a man concerned with his appearance?" the Generalissima asked.
"No, but maybe his propaganda department wants him to look younger."
"If so, I would expect them to do something about those untrimmed nose hairs," Corazón Aquiño remarked dryly. "This holo shows him presenting what I am told is a critical theoretical breakthrough, which he achieved on his own. Original scientific research is normally a young person's game, yet here he is making an important discovery despite his age and despite the burdens that leading his faction must place on his time. He should be getting old, but he looks like he is in early middle age, and he behaves like a still younger man."
"But if he is really getting younger…."
"I see, Alice, that you yourself are thinking what it would be like to be young again. I believe this is what Deirdre Skye has to offer those who would collaborate with her. Fear is a powerful motivation, and fear of the ravages of age is universal. Time is an enemy that defeats us all. We have only a few recent images of Deirdre Skye, but they all show her to be a young woman. At first I dismissed this as cosmetic image processing or perhaps the diversion of biological science to make her appear younger. But now I think that she really is younger.
"If, as I believe, Deirdre Skye controls the secret of eternal youth, she will never lack for allies, despite her crimes and despite her cruelty. She will have the ability to create a fifth column anywhere, even here in the Spartan Confederation where we had considered ourselves immune to subversion.
"That old, fat fool, Ponce de Leon, sought the Fountain of Youth. Had he actually found it, he would have had not merely youth for himself, but ultimate power over the whole world. Everyone would have had to come to him for youth and unlimited life. This is the power that Deirdre Skye has today."