Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

We Few: Section One

       Last updated: Saturday, December 18, 2004 14:51 EST



    In primus, they nuked the spaceport.



    The one-kiloton kinetic energy weapon was a chunk of iron the size of a small aircar. He watched it burn on the view screens of the captured Saint special operations ship as it entered the upper atmosphere of the planet Marduk and tracked in perfectly. It exploded in a flash of light and plasma, and the mushroom cloud reached up into the atmosphere, spreading a cloud of dust over the nearer Krath villages.

    The spaceport was deserted at the moment it turned into plasma. Everything movable, which had turned out to be everything but the buildings and fixed installations, had been stripped from it. The Class One manufacturing facility, capable of making clothes and tools and small weapons, had been secreted at Voitan, along with most of the untrustworthy humans, including all of the surviving Saint Greenpeace commandos who had been captured with the ship. They could work in the Voitan mines, help rebuild the city, or, if they liked nature so much, they could feel free to escape into the jungles of Marduk, teeming with carnivores who would be more than happy to ingest them.

    Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock watched the explosion with a stony face, then turned to the small group gathered in the ship's control room, and nodded.

    "Okay, let's go."

    The prince was a shade under two meters tall, slim but muscular, with some of the compact strength usually associated with professional zero-G ball players. His long blond hair, pulled back in a ponytail, was almost white from sun bleaching, and his handsome, almost beautiful, classic European face was heavily tanned. It was also lined and hard, seeming far older than his twenty-two standard years. He had neither laughed nor smiled in two weeks, and as his long, mobile hand scratched at the neck of the two-meter black and red lizard standing pony-high by his side, Prince Roger's jade-green eyes were harder than his face.

    There were many reasons for the lines, for the early aging, for the hardness about his eyes and shoulders. Roger MacClintock -- Master Roger, behind his back, or simply The Prince -- had not been so lined and hard nine months before. When he, his chief of staff and valet, and a company of Marine bodyguards had been hustled out of Imperial City, thrust into a battered old assault ship, and sent packing on a totally nonessential political mission, he had taken its as just another sign of his mother's disapproval of her youngest son. He'd shown none of the diplomatic and bureaucratic expertise of his older brother, Prince John, the Heir Primus, nor of the military ability of his older sister the admiral, Princess Alexandra, Heir Secondary. Unlike them, Roger spent his time playing zero-G ball, hunting big game, and generally being the playboy, and he'd assumed that Mother had simply decided it was time for him to steady down and begin doing the Heir Tertiary's job.

    What he hadn't known at the time, hadn't known until months later, was that he was being hustled out of town in advance of a firestorm. The Empress had gotten wind, somehow, that the internal enemies of House MacClintock were preparing to move. He knew that now. What he still didn't know was whether she'd wanted him out of the way to protect him… or to keep the child whose loyalty she distrusted out of both the battle and temptation's way.

    What he did know was that the cabal behind the crisis his mother had foreseen had planned long and carefully for it. The sabotage of Charles DeGlopper, his transport, had been but the first step, although neither he nor any of the people responsible for keeping him alive had realized it at the time.

    What Roger had realized was that the entire crew of the DeGlopper had sacrificed their lives in hopeless battle against the Saint sublight cruisers they had discovered in the Marduk System when the crippled ship finally managed to limp into it. They'd taken those ships on, rather than even considering surrender, solely to cover Roger's own escape in DeGlopper's assault shuttles, and they'd succeeded.

    Roger had always known the Marines assigned to protect him regarded him with the same contempt as everyone else at Court, nor had DeGlopper's crew had any reason to regard him differently. Yet they'd died to protect him. They'd given up their lives in exchange for his, and they would not be the last to do it. As the men and women of Bravo Company, Bronze Battalion, The Empress' Own, had marched and fought their way across the planet they'd reached against such overwhelming odds, the young prince had seen far too many of them die. And as they died, the young fop learned, in the hardest possible school, to defend not simply himself, but the soldiers around him. Soldiers who had become more than guards, more than family, more than brothers and sisters.

    In the eight brutal months it had taken to cross the planet, making alliances, fighting battles, and at last, capturing the spaceport and the ship aboard which he stood at this very moment, that young fop had become a man. More than a man -- a hardened killer. A diplomat trained in a school where diplomacy and a bead pistol worked hand-in-hand. A leader who could command from the rear, or fight in the line, and keep his head when all about him was chaos.

    But that transformation had not come cheaply. It had cost the lives of over ninety percent of Bravo Company. It had cost the life of Kostas Matsugae, his valet and the only person who had ever seemed to give a single good goddamn for Roger MacClintock. Not Prince Roger. Not the Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man. Just Roger MacClintock.

    And it had cost the life of Bravo Company's commanding officer, Captain Armand Pahner.

    Pahner had treated his nominal commander first as a useless appendage to be protected, then as a decent junior officer, and, finally, as a warrior scion of House MacClintock. As a young man worthy to be Emperor, and to command Bronze Battalion. He had become more than a friend. He'd become the father Roger had never had, a mentor, almost a god. And in the end, Pahner had saved the mission and Roger's life by giving his own.

    Roger MacClintock couldn't remember the names of all his dead. At first, they'd been faceless nonentities. Too many had been killed taking and holding Voitan, dying under the spears of the Kranolta, before he even learned their names. Too many had been killed by the atul, the low-slung hunting lizards of Marduk. Too many had been killed by the flar-ke, the wild dinosauroids related to the elephant-like flar-ta packbeasts. By vampire moths and their poisonous larva, the killerpillars. By the nomadic Boman, by sea monsters out of darkest nightmares, and by the swords and spears of the cannibalistic "civilized" Krath.

    But if he couldn't remember all of them, he remembered many. The young plasma gunner, Ima Hooker, killed by her own malfunctioning rifle in one of the first attacks. Damdin, the happy mountaineer from Sherpa, killed almost within sight of Ran Tai. Kostas, the single human being who'd ever thought he was worth a damn in those cold, old days before this nightmare, killed by an accursed damncroc while fetching water for his prince. Gronningen, the massive cannoneer, killed taking the bridge of this very ship.

    So many dead, and so far yet to go.



    The Saint ship for which they'd fought so hard showed how brutal the struggle to capture it had been. No one had suspected that the innocent tramp freighter was a covert, special operations ship, crewed by elite Saint commandos. The risk in capturing it had seemed minor, but since losing Roger would have made their entire epic march and all of their sacrifices in vain, he'd been left behind with their half-trained Mardukan allies when the surviving members of Bravo Company went up to take possession of the "freighter."

    The three-meter-tall, horned, four-armed, mucus-skinned natives of The Basik's Own had come from every conceivable pre-industrial level of technology. D'Nal Cord, his asi -- technically, his "slave," since Roger had saved his life without any obligation to do so, though anyone who made the mistake of treating the old shaman as a menial would never live long enough to recognize the enormity of his mistake -- and his nephew Denat had come from the X'Intai, the first, literally Stone Age tribe they had encountered. The Vasin, riders of the fierce, carnivorous civan, were former feudal lords whose city-state had been utterly destroyed by the rampaging Boman barbarians and who had provided The Basik's Own's cavalry. The core of its infantry had come from the city of Diaspra -- worshipers of the God of Waters, builders and laborers who had been trained into a disciplined force first of pikemen, and then of riflemen.

    The Basik's Own had followed Roger through the battles that destroyed the "invincible" Boman, then across demon-haunted waters to totally unknown lands. Under the banner of a basik, rampant, long teeth bared in a vicious grin, they'd battled the Krath cannibals and taken the spaceport. And in the end, when the Marines were unable to overcome the unexpected presence of Saint commandos on the ship, they'd been hurled into the fray again.

    Rearmed with modern weaponry -- hyper-velocity bead and plasma cannon normally used as crew-served weapons or as weapons for powered armor -- the big Mardukans had been thrown into the ship in a second wave and immediately charged into the battle. The Vasin cavalry had rushed from position to position, ambushing the bewildered commandos, who could not believe that "scummies" using cannon as personal weapons were really roaming all over their ship, opening shuttle bay doors to vacuum and generally causing as much havoc as they could. And while the… individualistic Vasin had been doing that, the Diaspran infantry had taken one hard-point after another, all of them heavily defended positions, by laying down plasma fire as if it were the rank-upon-rank musketry which was their specialty.

    And they'd paid a heavy price for their victory. In the end, the ship had been taken, but only at the cost of far too many more dead and horribly injured. And the ship itself had been largely gutted by the savage firefights. Modern tunnel ships were remarkably robust, but they weren't designed to survive the effect of five Mardukans abreast, packed bulkhead-to-bulkhead in a passage and volley-firing blast after blast of plasma.

    What was left of the ship was a job for a professional space dock, but that was out of question. Jackson Adoula, Prince of Kellerman, and Roger's despised father, the Earl of New Madrid, had made that impossible when they murdered his brother and sister and all of his brother's children, massacred the Empress' Own, and somehow gained total control of the Empress herself. Never in her wildest dreams would Alexandra MacClintock have closely associated herself with Jackson Adoula, whom she despised and distrusted. And far less would she ever have married New Madrid, whose treasonous tendencies she'd proven to her own satisfaction before Roger was ever born. Indeed, New Madrid's treason was the reason she'd never married him… and a large part of the explanation for her distrust of Roger himself. Yet according to the official news services, Adoula had become her trusted Navy Minister and closest Cabinet confidant, and this time she had announced she did intend to wed New Madrid. Which seemed only reasonable, the newsies pointed out, since they were the men responsible for somehow thwarting the coup attempt which had so nearly succeeded.

    The coup which, according to those same official news services, had been instigated by none other than Prince Roger… at the very instant that he'd been fighting for his life against ax-wielding Boman barbarians on sunny Marduk.

    Something, to say the least, was rotten in Imperial City. And whatever it was, it meant that instead of simply taking the spaceport and sending home a message "Mommy, come pick me up," the battered warriors at Roger's back now had the unenviable task of retaking the entire Empire from the traitors who were somehow controlling the Empress. The survivors of Bravo Company -- all twelve of them -- and the remaining two hundred and ninety members of The Basik's Own, pitted against one hundred and twenty star systems, with a population right at three-quarters of a trillion humans, and uncountable soldiers and ships. And just to make their task a bit more daunting, they had a time problem. Alexandra was "pregnant" -- a new scion had been popped into the uterine replicator, a full brother of Roger's, from his mother's and father's genetic material -- and under Imperial law, now that Roger had been officially attainted for treason, that fetus became the new Heir Primus as soon as he was born.

    Roger's advisers concurred that his mother's life would last about as long as spit on a hot griddle when that uterine replicator was opened.

    Which explained the still dwindling mushroom cloud. When the Saints came looking for their missing ship, or an Imperial carrier finally showed up to wonder why Old Earth hadn't heard from Marduk in so long, it would appear a pirate vessel had pillaged the facility and then vanished into the depths of space. What it would not look like was the first step in a counter coup intended to regain the Throne for House MacClintock.

    He took one last look at the view screens, then turned and led his staff off the bridge towards the ship's wardroom. Although the wardroom itself had escaped damage during the fighting, the route there was somewhat hazardous. The approaches to the bridge had taken tremendous damage -- indeed, the decks and bulkheads of the short security corridor outside the command deckhead been sublimed into gas by plasma fire from both sides. A narrow, flexing, carbon-fiber catwalk had been built as a temporary walkway, and they crossed it carefully, one at a time. The passageway beyond wasn't much better. Many of the holes in the deck had been repaired, but others were simply outlined in bright yellow paint, and in many places, the bulkheads reminded Roger forcibly of Old Earth Swiss cheese.

    He and his staffers picked their way around the unrepaired holes in the deck and finally reached the wardroom's dilating hatch, and Roger seated himself at the head of the table. He leaned back, apparently entirely at ease, as the lizard curled into a ball by his side. His calm demeanor fooled no one. He'd worked very hard on creating an image of complete sang-froid in any encounter. It was copied from the late Captain Pahner, but Roger lacked that soldier's years of experience. The tension, the energy, the anger, radiated off him in waves.

    He watched the others assume their places.



    D'Nal Cord squatted to the side of the lizard, behind Roger, silent as the shadow which in many ways he was, holding himself up with the long spear that doubled as a walking stick. Theirs was an interesting bonding. Although the laws of his people made him Roger's slave, the old shaman had quickly come to understand that Roger was a young nobleman, and a bratty one at that. Despite his official "slave" status, he'd taken it as his duty to chivvy the young brat into manhood, not to mention teaching him a bit more of the sword, a weapon Cord had studied as a young man in more civilized areas of Marduk.

    Cord's only clothing was a long skirt of locally made flax-silk. His people, the X'Intai, like most Mardukans the humans had met, had little use for clothing. But he'd donned the simple garment in Krath, where it was customary to be clothed, and continued to wear it, despite the barbarism of the custom, because humans set such store by it.

    Pedi Karuse, the young female Mardukan to his left (since there was no room for her behind him), was short by Mardukan standards, even for a woman. Her horns were polished and colored a light honey-gold, she wore a light robe of blue flax-silk, and two swords were crossed behind her back. The daughter of a Shin chieftain, her relationship with Cord was, if anything, even more "interesting" than Roger's.

    Her people shared many common societal customs with the X'Intai, and when Cord saved her from Krath slavers, those customs had made her the shaman's asi, just as he was Roger's. And since Roger had been squared away by that time, Cord had taken up the training of his new "slave," only to discover an entirely new set of headaches.

    Pedi was at least as headstrong as the prince, and a bit wilder, if that were possible. Worse, the very old shaman, whose wife and children were long dead, had found himself far more attracted to his "asi" than was proper in a society where relations between asi and master were absolutely forbidden. Unfortunately for Cord's honorable intentions, he'd taken a near-mortal wound battling the Krath at about the same time he entered his annual "heat," and Pedi had been in charge of nursing him. She'd recognized the signs and decided, on her own, that it was vital he be relieved of at least that pressure on his abused body.

    Cord, semi-conscious and delirious at the time, had remembered nothing about it. It had taken him some time to recognize what was changing about his asi, and he'd only been aware that he was going to be a father again for a handful of weeks.

    He was still adjusting to the knowledge, but in the meantime, Pedi's father had become one of Roger's strongest allies on the planet. After a futile protest on the shaman's part that he was far too old to be a suitable husband for Pedi, the two had been married in a Shin ceremony. If the other Shin had noticed that Pedi was showing signs of pregnancy -- developing "blisters" on her back to hold the growing fetuses -- they had politely ignored it.

    Despite the marriage, however, Pedi's honor as Cord’s asi still required her to guard the shaman's back (pregnant or no), just as he was required to guard Roger. So Roger found the two almost constantly following him around in a trail. He shook them off whenever he could, these days, but it wasn't easy.

    Eleanora O'Casey, Roger's chief of staff and the only surviving "civilian" from DeGlopper's passengers, settled into the seat to his right. Eleanorawas a slight woman, with brown hair and a pleasant face, who'd had no staff to chief when they landed on Marduk. She'd been given the job by the Empress in hopes that some of her noted academic skills -- she was a multi-degree historian and specialist in political theory -- would rub off on the wastrel son. She was a city girl, with the flat, nasal accent of Imperial City, and at the beginning of the march across the planet, Roger and everyone else had wondered how long she would last. As it had turned out, there was a good bit of steel under that mousy cover, and her knowledge of good old-fashioned city state politics had proven absolutely vital on more than one occasion.

    Eva Kosutic, Bravo Company's Sergeant Major and High Priestess of the Satanist Church of Armagh, took the chair across from Eleanor. She had a flat, chiseled face and dark brown, almost black hair. A deadly close-in warrior and a fine sergeant major, she now commanded Bravo Company's remnants -- about a squad in size -- and functioned as Roger's military aide.

    Sergeant Adib Julian, her lover and friend, sat next to her. The onetime armor had always been the definitive "happy warrior," a humorist and practical joker who got funnier and funnier as things looked worse and worse. But his laughing black eyes had been shadowed since the loss of his best friend and constant straight man, Gronningen.

    Across from Julian sat Sergeant Nimashet Despreaux. Taller than Kosutic or Julian, she had long brown hair and a face beautiful enough for a high-class fashion model. But where most models had submitted to extensive body-sculpting, Despreaux was all natural, from her high forehead to her long legs. She was as good a warrior as anyone at the table, but she never laughed these days. Every death, friend or enemy, weighed upon her soul, and the thousands of corpses they'd left behind showed in her shadowed eyes. So did her relationship with Roger. Despite her own stalwart resistance and more than a few "stumbles," she and Roger could no longer pretend -- even to themselves -- that they hadn’t fallen hard for each other. But Despreaux was a country girl, as lower-class as it was possible to be in the generally egalitarian Empire, and she'd flatly refused to marry an emperor. Which was what Roger was inevitably going to be one day, if they won.

    She glanced at him once, then crossed her arms and leaned back, her eyes narrowed and wary.

    Next to her, in one of the oversized station chairs manufactured to fit the Mardukans, sat Captain Krindi Fain. Despreaux was tall for human, but the Mardukan dwarfed her. The former quarryman wore a Diaspran infantryman's blue leather harness and the kilt the infantry had adopted in Krath. He, too, crossed his arms, all four of them, and leaned back at ease.

    Behind Fain, looming so high he had to squat so his horns didn’t brush the overhead, was Erkum Pol, Krindi's bodyguard, senior NCO, batman, and constant shadow. Not particularly overburdened intellectually, Erkum was huge, even by Mardukan standards, and "a good man with his hands" as long as the target was in reach of hand weapon. Hand him a gun, and the safest place to be was between him and the enemy.

    Rastar Komas Ta'Norton, once Prince of Therdan, sat across from Krindi, wearing the leathers of the Vasin cavalry. His horns were elaborately carved and bejeweled, as befitted a Prince of Therdan, and his harness bore four Mardukan-scaled bead pistols, as also befitted a Prince of Therdan who happened to be an ally of the Empire. He’d fought Roger once, and lost, then joined him and fought at his side any number of other times. He'd won all of those, and the bead pistols he wore were for more than show. He was probably the only person in the ship who was faster than Roger, despite the prince's Cobra-like reflexes.

    The outsized chair next to Rastar was occupied by his cousin, Honal, who’d escaped with him, cutting a path to safety for the only women and children to have survived when Therdan and the rest of the border states fell to the Boman. It was Honal who had christened their patched-together mixed force of humans and Mardukans "The Basik's Own." He'd chosen the name as a joke, a play on "The Empress' Own" to which the Bronze Battalion belonged. But Roger's troopers had made the name far more than a joke on a dozen battlefields and in innumerable small skirmishes. Short for a Mardukan, Honal was a fine rider, a deadly shot, and even better with a sword. He was also insane enough to win one of the battles for the ship by simply turning off the local gravity plates and venting the compartment -- and its defenders -- to vacuum. He was particularly fond of human aphorisms and proverbs, especially the ancient military maxim that "If it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid." Honal was crazy, not stupid.

    At the foot of the table, completing Roger's staff and command group, sat Special Agent Temu Jin of the Imperial Bureau of Investigation. One of the countless agents sent out to keep an eye on the far-flung bureaucracy of the Empire, he had been cut off from contact by the coup. His last message from his "control" in the IBI had warned that all was not as it appeared on Old Earth and that he was to consider himself "in the cold." He’d been the one who’d had to tell Roger what had happened to his family. After that, he'd been of enormous assistance to the prince when it came time to take the spaceport and the ship, and now he might well prove equally vital to regaining the Throne.

    Which was what this meeting was all about.



    "All right, Eleanor. Go," Roger said, and sat back to listen. He'd been so busy for the last month handling post-battle cleanup chores and the maskirova at the spaceport that he’d been unable to devote any time to planning what came next. That had been the job of his staff, and it was time to see what they'd come up with.

    "Okay, we're dealing with a number of problems here," Eleanora said, keying her pad and preparing to tick off points on it.

    "The first one is intelligence, or lack thereof. All we have in the way of information from Imperial City is the news bulletins and directives that came in on the last Imperial resupply ship. Those are nearly two months old, so we're dealing with an information vacuum on anything that's happened in the interim. We also have no data on conditions in the Navy, except for the announced command changes in Capital Fleet and the fact that Sixth Fleet, which is normally pretty efficient, was last seen apparently unable to get itself organized for a simple change of station move and hanging out in deep space. We have no hard reads on who we might be able to trust. Effectively, we're unable to trust anyone in the Navy, especially the various commanders who've been put in place post-coup.

    "The second problem is the security situation. We're all wanted in the Empire for helping you with this supposed coup. If any one of the DeGlopper's survivors goes through Imperial customs, or even a casual scan at a spaceport, alarm bells are going to ring from there to Imperial City. Adoula's faction has to believe you're long dead, which makes you the perfect bogeyman. Who better to be wanted for something he didn't do, covering up the fact that they were the real perps, than someone who's dead? But the point remains that without significant disguise mod, none of us can step foot on any Imperial planet, and we’re going to have real problems going anywhere else that's friendly with the Empire. Which means everywhere. Even the Saints would grab us, for any number of reasons we wouldn't like.

    "The third problem is, of course, the actual mission. We're going to have to overthrow the current sitting government and capture your mother and the uterine replicator, without the bad guys making off with either. We're also going to have to prevent the Navy from interfering.

    "'Who holds the orbitals, holds the planet,'" Roger said.

    "Chiang O'Brien." Eleanora nodded. "You remembered that one."

    "Great Gran's former Dagger Lord daddy had a way with words," Roger said, then frowned. "He also said 'One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.'"

    "He cribbed that one from a much older source," Eleanora said. "But the point is valid. If Capital Fleet comes in on Adoula's side -- and with its current commander, that's a given -- we're not going to win, no matter who or what we hold. And that completely ignores the insane difficulty of actually capturing the Empress. The Palace isn't just a collection of buildings; it's the most heavily fortified collection of buildings outside Moonbase or Terran Defense Headquarters itself. It might look easy to penetrate, but it's not. And you can be sure Adoula's beefed up the Empress' Own with his own bully boys."

    "They won't be as good," Julian said.

    "Don't bet on it," Eleanora replied grimly. "The Empress may hate and detest Adoula, but her father didn't, and this isn't the first time he's been Navy Minister. He knows good soldiers from bad -- or damned well ought to -- and either he or someone else on his team managed to take out the rest of the Empress' Own when they seized the Palace in the first place. He'll rely on that same expertise when he brings in his replacements, and just because they work for a bad man, doesn't mean they'll be bad soldiers."

    "Cross that bridge when we come to it," Roger said. "I take it you're not just going to give me a litany of bad news I already know?"

    "No. But I want the bad to be absolutely clear. This isn't going to be easy, and it's not going to be guaranteed. But we do have some assets. And, more than that, our enemies do have problems. Nearly as many problems as we have, in fact, and nearly as large.

    "The news we have here is that there are already questions in Parliament about the Empress' continuing seclusion. The Prime Minister is still David Yang, and while Prince Jackson's Conservatives are part of his coalition, he and Adoula are anything but friends. I'd guess that a lot of the reason they seem to be hunting so frantically for you, Roger, is that Adoula is using the 'military threat' you represent as the leverage he needs as Navy Minister to balance Yang's power as Prime Minister within the Cabinet."

    "Maybe so," Roger said, with more than a trace of anger in his voice, "but Yang's also a lot closer to the Palace than we are, and we can tell what's going on. Yang may actually believe I'm dead, but he knows damned well who actually pulled off the coup. And who's controlling my mother. And he hasn't done one pocking thing about it."

    "Not that we know of, at any rate," Eleanor observed in a neutral tone. Roger's eyes flashed at her, but he grimaced and made a little gesture. It was clear his anger hadn't abated -- Prince Roger was angry a lot, these days -- but it was equally clear he was willing to accept his chief of staff's qualification.

    For the moment, at least.

    "On the purely military side," O'Casey continued after a moment, "it seems clear Adoula, despite his current position at the head of the Empire's military establishment, hasn't been able to replace all of the Navy's officers with safe cronies, either. Captain Kjerulf, for example, is in a very interesting position as Chief of Staff for Capital Fleet. I'd bet he's not exactly a yes-man for what's going on, but he's still there. And then there's Sixth Fleet, Admiral Helmut."

    "He's not going to take what's happening lying down," Julian predicted confidently. "We used to joke that Helmut got up every morning and prayed to the picture of the Empress over his bed. And he's, like, prescient or something. If there's any smell of a fish, he'll be digging his nose in; you can be sure of that. Sixth Fleet's going to be behind him, too. He's headed it for years. Way longer than he should have. It's like his personal fiefdom. Even if they send someone out to replace him, five gets you ten that the replacement has an 'accident' somewhere along the line."

    "Admiral Helmut was noted for some of those tendencies in reports I've seen," Temu Jin interjected. "Negatively, I might add. Also for, shall we say, zealous actions in ensuring that only officers who met his personal standards -- and not just in terms of military capability -- were appointed to his staff, the command of his carrier and cruiser squadrons, and even to senior ship commands. Personal fiefdoms are a constant concern for the IBI and the Inspectorate. It was only his clear loyalty to the Empress, and the Empire, that prevented his removal. But I concur in Sergeant Julian's estimate of him, based on IBI investigations."

    "And there’s one last possibility," Eleanora continued. Her voice was thoughtful, and her eyes were half-slitted in a calculating expression. "It’s the most… interesting of all, in a lot of ways. But it also depends on things we know the least about at this point.”

    She paused, and Roger snorted.

    “You don’t need the ‘cryptic seer’ look to impress me with your competence, Eleanora,” he said dryly. “So suppose you go ahead and spill this possibility for us?”



    “Um?” Eleanora blinked, then flashed him a grin. “Sorry. It’s just that a fair percentage of the Empress' Own tends to retire to Old Earth. Of course, a lot take colonization credits to distant systems, but a large core of them stays on-planet. After tours in the Empress' Own, I suppose backwaters look a bit less thrilling than they might to a regular Marine retiree. And the Empress' Own, active-duty or retired, are loyal beyond reason to the Empress. And they're also, well…" She gestured at Julian and Despreaux. "They're smart, and they have a worm's eye view of the politics in Imperial City. They're going to be making their own estimations. Even absent what we know, that Roger was on Marduk when he was supposedly carrying out this attempted coup, they're going to be suspicious."

    "Prove I was out here, not anywhere near Sol…" Roger said.

    "And they're going to be livid," Eleanora said, nodding her head.

    "How many?" Roger asked.

    "The Empress's Own Association lists thirty-five hundred former members living on Old Earth," Julian replied. "The Association's directory lists them by age, rank on retirement or termination of service, and specialty. It also gives their mailing addresses and electronic contact information. Some are active members, some inactive, but they're all listed. And a lot of them are… pretty old for wet-work. But, then again, a lot ain't."

    "Anybody that anyone knows?" Roger asked.

    "A couple of former commanders and sergeants," Despreaux answered. "The Association's Regimental Sergeant Major is Thomas Catrone. No one in the Company really knew him when he was in. Some of us crossed paths, but that doesn't begin to count for something like this. But… Captain Pahner did. Tomcat was one of the Captain's basic training instructors."

    "Catrone's going to remember Pahner as some snot-nosed basic training enlistee, if he remembers him at all." Roger thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay, I doubt he was a snot-nose even then. It's hard to imagine, anyway. Any other assets?"

    "This," Eleanora said, gesturing at the overhead and, by extension, the entire ship. "It's a Saint insertion ship, and it’s got some facilities that are are, frankly, a bit unreal. Including some for bod-mods for spy missions. We can do the extensive bod-mods we're going to require for cover with those facilities."

    "I'm going to have to cut my hair, aren’t I?" Roger's mouth made a brief one-sided twitch that might have been construed as a grin.

    "There were some suggestions that went a bit beyond that." Eleanora made a moue and glanced at Julian. "It was suggested that to ensure nobody began to suspect it was you, and so you could keep your hair, you could change sex."

    "What?" Roger said in chorus with Despreaux.

    "Hey, I also suggested Nimashet change at the same time," Julian protested. "That way -- oomph!"

    He stopped as Kosutic elbowed him in the gut. Roger coughed and avoided Despreaux's eye, while she simply rolled a tongue in her cheek and glared at Julian.

    "We've come to an agreement, however," the chief of staff continued, also looking pointedly at Julian, "that that extreme level of change won't be necessary. The facilities are extensive, however, and we'll all be retroed with a nearly complete DNA mod. Skin, lungs, digestive tract, salivaries -- anything that can shed DNA or be tested in a casual scan. We can't do anything about height, but everything else will change. So there's no reason you can't keep the hair. Different coloration, but just as long."

    "The hair's not important," Roger said frowningly. "I'd considered cutting it, anyway. As a… gift. But the time was never right."

    Armand Pahner had cordially detested Roger's hair from first meeting. But the funeral had been a hurried affair in the midst of the chaos of trying to keep the ship spaceworthy and simultaneously clear the planet of any sign the Bronze Barbarians had ever been there.

    "But this way you can keep it." Eleanora kept her own tone light. "And if you didn't, how would we know it was you? At any rate, the body-mod problem is solved. And the ship has other assets. It's too bad we can't take it deep into Imperial space."

    "No way," Kosutic said, shaking her head sharply. "One good look at it by any reasonably competent customs officer, even if we could get it patched up, and he's going to know it's not just some tramp freighter."

    "So we’ll have to dump it -- trade it, rather -- with someone we can be sure won't be telling the Empire what they traded for."

    "Pirates?" Roger grimaced and glanced quickly at Despreaux. "I'd hate to support those scum in any way. And I wouldn't trust them a centimeter."

    "Again, considered and rejected," Eleanora replied. "For both of those reasons. And also because we're going to need a considerable amount of help pirates simply aren't going to be able to provide."

    "So who?"

    "Special Agent Jin now has the floor," the chief of staff said, rather than responding directly herself.

    "I've completed an analysis of the information that wasn't wiped from the ship's computers," Jin said, tapping his own pad. "We're not the only group the Saints have been messing with."

    "I'd think not," Roger snorted. "They're a pest."

    "This ship, in particular," Jin continued, "has been inserting agents, and some covert action teams, into Alphane territory."

    "Aha." Roger's eyes narrowed.

    "Into whose territory?" Krindi asked in Mardukan. Because the humans' personal computer implants could automatically translate, the meeting had been speaking the Diaspran dialect of Mardukan with which all the locals were familiar. "Sorry," the infantryman continued, "but I've been getting up to speed on most of your human terms, and this is a new one."

    "The Alphanes are the only non-human interstellar polity with which we have contact," Eleanora said, descending into lecture mode. "Or, rather, the only one which isn't predominately human. The Alphane Alliance consists of twelve planets, with the population about evenly split between humans, Altharis, and Phaenurs.

    "The Phaenurs are lizard-like creatures -- they look something like atul, but with only four legs and two arms, and they're scaly, like the flar-ta. They're also empaths -- which means they can read emotions -- and, among themselves, they're functional telepaths. Very shrewd bargainers, since it's virtually impossible to lie to them.

    "The Altharis are a warrior race that looks somewhat like large… Well, you don't have the referent, but they look like big koala bears. Very stoic and honorable. Females make up the bulk of their warriors, while males tend to be their engineers and workers. I've dealt with the Alphanes before, and the combination is… difficult. You have to lay all your cards on the table, because the Phaenurs can tell if you're lying, and the Altharis lose all respect for you if you do."

    "But the critical point, for our purposes, is that we have information the Alphanes need," Jin continued, picking up the thread once more. "They need to know both the extent of Saint penetration -- which they're going to be somewhat surprised about, I suspect -- and the true nature of what's going on in the Empire."

    "Even if they do need to know that, and even if we tell them, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to help us," Roger pointed out.

    "No," Eleanora agreed with a frown. "But they can, and there are reasons they may. I won't say they will, but it's our best hope."

    "And do you have any suggestions about how we're going to penetrate the Empire?" Roger asked. "Assuming we can convince the Alphanes to help us, that is?"

    "Yes," Eleanora said, then shrugged. "It's not my idea, but I think it's a good one. I didn't at first, but it makes more sense than anything else we've come up with. Julian?"

    Roger looked at the noncom, and Julian grinned.

    "Restaurants," he said.

    "What?" Roger frowned blankly.

    "Kostas, may he rest in peace, gave me the idea."

    "What does Kostas have to do with it?" Roger demanded, almost angrily. The valet had been like a father to him, and the wound his death had left had yet to fully heal.

    "It was those incredible meals he'd summon up out of nothing but swamp water and day-old atul," Julian replied with another smile, this one of sad fondness and memory. "Man, I still can't believe some of those recipes he came up with! I was thinking about them, and it suddenly occurred to me that Old Earth is always looking for the 'new' thing. Restaurants spring up with some new, out-of-this-world -- literally! -- food all the time. It's going to require one helluva lot of funding, but that's going to be a problem for anything we do. So, what we do, is we come to Imperial City with a chain of the newest, most you've-got-to-try-this-new-place, most brassy possible restaurants serving 'authentic Mardukan food.'"

    "You've wanted to do this your whole life," Roger said, wonderingly. "Haven't you?"

    "No, listen," Julian said earnestly. "We don't just bring Mardukans and Mardukan food. We bring the whole schmeer. Atul in cages. Flar-ta. Basik. Tanks of col fish. Hell, bring Patty! We throw a grand opening for the new restaurant in Imperial City that's the talk of the whole planet. A parade of civan riders and the Diasprans bearing platters of atul and basik on beds of barleyrice. Rastar chopping the meat off the bone right there in the restaurant for everyone to watch. Impossible to miss."

    "The purloined letter approach," Kosutic said. "Don't hide it, flaunt it. They're looking for Prince Roger to come sneaking in? Heaven with that! We'll come in blowing trumpets."

    "And do you know how good a restaurant is for having meetings?" Julian asked. "Who thinks about a group of former Empress' Own having one of their get-togethers in the newest, hottest restaurant on the face of the planet?"

    "And we've got the whole Basik's Own right there in the heart of the capital," Roger said, almost wonderingly.

    "Bingo," Julian agreed with a chuckle.

    "Just one problem," Roger noted, with another of those quick, one-side-of-the-face smiles. "They're all lousy cooks."

    "It's haute cuisine," Julian said. "Who can tell the difference? Besides, we can scrounge up cooks on the planet. Ones that are either loyal to us, or don't know what's going on. Just that they were hired to go to another planet and cook. That place in K'Vaern's Cove, the one down by the water-- you know, the one Tor Flain's parents own. That's a whole family of expert cooks. Ones we can trust, come to think of it. And how many humans speak Mardukan? It was only your toot and Eleanora's that let us get by at first. Then there's Harvard."

    "Harvard?" Roger asked.

    "Yeah, Harvard. If you trust him," Julian said seriously.



    Roger thought about that for a long time. They'd discovered Harvard Mansul, a reporter for the Interstellar Astrographic Society in a cell in a Krath fortress the Marines had captured. He'd been almost pathetically grateful to be rescued, and to have his prized Zuiko tri-cam returned more or less unharmed. Since then, he'd been attached to Roger like a limpet. Not for safety, but because, as he'd frankly admitted, it was the story of all time. Marooned prince battles neo-barbarians and saves the Empire… assuming, of course, that any of them survived.

    But Mansul wasn't in it solely for the story. Roger felt confident about that. He was not, by any means, scatterbrained, and he was loyal to the Empire. And furious at what was happening at home.

    "I think I trust him," the prince said finally.


    "Because if we send Harvard back early, he thinks he can get a pretty good piece -- maybe a lead piece -- into the IAS Monthly. He's got good video, and Marduk is one of those 'I can't believe worlds like that still exist' places the IAS loves. If we hit right after the IAS piece, it'd make for that much better publicity, and he's willing, more than willing, to help. Obviously, he'll hold off on the big scoop. And he can do some other groundwork for us in advance. We're going to need that."

    "Why do I have the feeling Captain Pahner is watching us," Roger said with a crooked smile, "and clasping his head and shaking it. 'You're all insane. This isn't a plan; this is a catastrophe,'" he added in a slightly deeper voice.

    "Because it isn't a plan," Kosutic replied simply. "It's the germ of a plan, and it is insane, because the whole idea is insane. Twelve Marines, a couple of hundred Mardukans, and one scion of House MacClintock taking on the Empire? No plan that isn't insane will save your mother and the Empire."

    "Not quite," Eleanora said, carefully. "Well, there's one other approach that might do either of those. Government-in-exile."

    "Eleanora, we talked about this." Julian shook his head stubbornly. "It won't work."

    "Maybe not, but it still needs to be laid on the table," Roger said. "A staff's job is to give its boss options. So let me hear this option."

    "We go to the Alphanes and lay out everything we know," Eleanora said, licking her lips. "Then we make a full spectacle of it. Tell the whole story to anyone who'll listen, especially the representatives of other polities. On the side, we dump them the data we got from the ship, by the way. There are already questions in Parliament about your mother's condition -- we all know that. This would make it much harder for her to conveniently die of 'remnant trauma from her ordeal.' We've got Harvard, who's a known member of the Imperial press, to start the ball rolling, and others. will come to us to follow it up. That much I can absolutely guarantee; the story's a natural."

    "And what we'll have is a civil war," Julian said. "Adoula's faction's in too deep to back out, and they're not going to go down smiling. They also control a substantial fraction of the Navy and the Corps, and they own the current Empress' Own. We do this, and Adoula either sits tight on Imperial City, declaring a state of martial law in the Sol System while the various fleets have internal squabbles and duke it out in space. Or, maybe even worse, he runs back to his sector with the baby, your mother being dead, and we end up in a civil war between two pretenders to the Throne."

    "He's going to get some portion of the Navy, no matter what we do," Eleanora argued.

    "Not if we capture the king," Julian countered.

    "This isn't a chess game," Eleanora said mulishly.

    "Wait." Roger held up his hand. "Jin?"

    The agent raised an eyebrow and then shrugged.

    "I agree with both," he said simply. "All of it. Civil war and all the rest. Which will mean, of course, the Saints will be busy snapping up as many planetary systems as they can manage. The flip side, which, curiously, neither of them mentioned, is that it means all of us will be relatively safe. Adoula wouldn't be able to touch us if we were under the Alphanes' protection. And if they offer it, it will be full force. They're very serious about such things. You can live a full life, whether Adoula is pushed out or not."

    "They didn't mention it because it's not part of the equation," Roger said, his face hard. "Sure, it's tempting. But there are too many lives on the trail for any of us to ever think about turning aside from our duty because it's 'safer.' The only question that matters here is where our duty lies? So how do you evaluate that question?"

    "As one with too many imponderables for a definite answer," Jin replied. "We don't have enough information to know if the insertion and counter-coup plan is even remotely feasible." He paused and shrugged. "If we find that it's impossible to checkmate Adoula, and we're still undetected, we can back out. Go back to the Alphanes -- this all assumes their support -- and go for Plan B. And if we're caught, which is highly likely given that the IBI is not stupid, the Alphanes will be authorized to release the entire story. It won't help us, or your mother, most likely, but it will severely damage Adoula."

    "No," Roger said. "One condition we'll have to have on their help will be that if we fail, we fail."

    "Why?" Julian asked.

    "Getting Adoula out of power, rescuing Mother -- those are both important things," Roger said. "I'll even admit I'd like to live through accomplishing them. But what's the most important part of this mission?"

    He looked around at them, and shook his head as all of them looked back in greater or lesser degrees of confusion.

    "I'm surprised at you," he said. "Captain Pahner would have been able to answer that in a second."

    "The safety of the Empire," Julian said then, nodding his head. "Sorry."

    "I've contemplated not trying to retake the Throne at all," Roger said, looking at all of them intently. "The only reason I intend to try is because I agree with Mother that Adoula's long-term policies will be more detrimental to the Empire than another coup or even a minor civil war. Give Adoula enough time, and he'll break the Constitution for personal power. That's what we're fighting to prevent. But the long-term good of the Empire is the pre-eminent mission. Much, much more important than just making sure there's a MacClintock on the Throne. If we fail, there will be no one except Adoula who can possibly safeguard the Empire. He won't do a good job, but that's better than the Empire breaking up into small pieces, ripe for plucking by the Saints or Raiden-Winterhowe, or whoever else moves into the power vacuum. We're talking about the good of three-quarters of a trillion lives. A major civil war, with the half-dozen factions that will fall out, would make the Dagger Years looked like a pocking picnic. No. If we fail, then we fail, and our deaths will be as unremarked as any in history. It's not heroic, it's not pretty, but it is the best thing for the Empire… and it will be done. Clear?"

    "Clear," Julian said, swallowing.

    Roger leaned his elbow on the station chair's arm and rubbed his forehead furiously, his eyes closed.

    "So we go to the Alphanes, get them to switch out the ship for one that's less conspicuous --"

    "And a bunch of money," Julian interjected. "There's some technology on here I don't think they have yet."

    "And a bunch of money," Roger agreed, still rubbing. "Then we take the Basik's Own, and Patty, and a bunch of atul and basiks and what have you --"

    "And several tons of barleyrice," Julian said.

    "And we go start a chain of restaurants, or at least a couple," Roger said.

    "A chain would be better," Julian pointed out. "But at least one in Imperial City. Maybe near the old river; they were gentrifying that area when we left."

    "And then we somehow parlay that into taking the Palace, checkmating Capital Fleet, and preventing Adoula from killing my mother," Roger finished, looking up and gesturing with an open palm. "Is that what we have as a plan?"

    "Yes," Eleanora said in an uncharacteristically small voice, looking down at the tabletop.

    Roger gazed up at the overhead, as if seeking guidance. Then he shrugged, reached back to straighten his ponytail, pulled each hair carefully into place, and looked around the compartment.

    "Okay," he said. "Let's go."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image