Book: The Barbarian Bride

The Barbarian Bride

The Barbarian Bride

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire

Book 3

Christopher Nuttall

Twilight Times Books

Kingsport Tennessee

The Barbarian Bride

This is a work of fiction. All concepts, characters and events portrayed in this book are used fictitiously and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 Christopher G. Nuttall

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, except brief extracts for the purpose of review, without the permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

Twilight Times Books

P O Box 3340

Kingsport TN 37664

First Edition, February 2016

Cover art by Malcolm McClinton

Published in the United States of America.

Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Interlude One

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Interlude Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty



When Rome fell to barbarian invaders, there were less than five hundred qualified Centurions. Not because Rome had fewer people but because it had fewer willing to make the sacrifices. And the last Centurions left their shields in the heather and took a barbarian bride…

—John Ringo, The Last Centurion


From: Marius Drake and Roman Garibaldi: Two Lives, Two Loves, One Empire (4502 A.D)

Ah, what is to be said of Marius Drake and Roman Garibaldi that hasn’t been said a thousand times already?

They were the two most famous men of their generation, perhaps the two most famous men since the "Band of Brothers" punched through the Asimov Point and won the final battle of the First Interstellar War. They are the subjects of countless biographies, ranging from works claiming that one was the true hero and the other was the villain to works suggesting they were both deeply corrupt, symptoms of the decline and fall of the Federation. There are works that suggest they were victims, helpless to do anything but play their roles, and works that suggest they were playing a game with each other that cost billions upon billions of innocent lives. And last, but far from least, there are works that suggest the two men were actually lovers and the final war between them was a tragedy on a far greater scale than Romeo and Juliet.

Indeed, history has truly hidden both men behind a shroud of nonsense.

That said, certain claims can be made with a fair degree of certainty.

The Federation was dying. Its government — the aristocratic and corrupt Grand Senate — was steadily sucking the lifeblood out of the countless innocent worlds in its thrall, destroying the economy that kept the Federation alive. Worse, the military had become deeply divided, with officers building little fiefdoms and patronage networks that were steadily corrupting the once-great Federation Navy. The purges that followed the Blue Star War only made it clear, to the smarter officers, that the only hope of permanent safety was in power. It should not have surprised the Grand Senate when one of them, Admiral Justinian, kicked off a civil war by mounting an attack on Earth.

Admiral Marius Drake rose to prominence during the attack, commanding the defense of Earth. Despite his own shabby treatment by the Grand Senate, Drake remained a noted Federation loyalist, a man who refused to accept the sundering of the Federation or the thought of claiming power for himself. His loyalties were noted; Drake was placed in command, eventually, of the fleet that would seek out and destroy Admiral Justinian’s little empire once and for all.

Less is known of Roman Garibaldi’s early life; it is known he was the sole survivor of an attack on an asteroid settlement, one who joined the Federation Navy and graduated from the Luna Academy with a First, but much else remains a mystery. It is clear, however, that he briefly took command of Enterprise during the ill-fated Operation Retribution and, in the aftermath, was recognized as an officer of rare promise. Indeed, like so many other youngsters in these troubled times, his rise up the ranks was rapid. War was no respecter of deadwood; hundreds of older officers, men who had gained their postings through patronage and connections rather than merit, had been killed in the early stages of the Justinian War. By the time Admiral Drake led his fleet into Justinian’s home system, Roman Garibaldi had assumed command of a starship.

Unknown to either Drake or Garibaldi, the Grand Senate had come to fear Drake as much as they had feared Admiral Justinian and his fellows. Accordingly, as soon as Drake defeated Admiral Justinian once and for all, they ordered an assassin, attached to Drake’s staff, to kill him. The assassin missed: Drake’s closest friend died saving his life. In his anger and rage, Admiral Drake led his fleet back to Earth, deposed the Grand Senate and took power for himself. After declaring himself Emperor Marius, he killed the final members of the Grand Senate personally. It was an unusual move that underscored just how different the new regime was to be.

It did not bring peace. Unknown to the Federation, a powerful alliance of humans and aliens was lurking just outside the Federation’s borders. The Outsider Federation had taken advantage of the Justinian War to lay its final plans for an offensive that would shatter the Federation, freeing hundreds of thousands of worlds from its grasp. As Roman Garibaldi assumed command of Fifth Fleet, the Outsiders moved, launching an invasion of Federation space.

Already weakened, the Federation reeled under their blows. The economy, pushed to the limits by the Grand Senate, started to collapse, despite everything an increasingly desperate Emperor Marius could do. Political unrest and strikes mushroomed through the Core Worlds, while thousands of out-worlds joined the Outsiders or declared independence. Indeed, given his example, there was no shortage of military personnel wondering if they could take power for themselves.

Hope shone, it seemed, when Admiral Garibaldi won the Battle of Boston, stopping the Outsider advance dead in its tracks. The Outsiders reeled in shock, contemplating — for the first time — that they might lose the war. Emperor Marius traveled to Boston, where he met Admiral Garibaldi; together, they led an offensive towards Nova Athena, homeworld of one of the Outsider Federation’s known leaders. But there, faced with defiance, Emperor Marius ordered the bombardment of the enemy world, threatening to exterminate uncounted billions of lives. Admiral Garibaldi moved to stop him...

... And the maddened Emperor opened fire on Garibaldi’s ships, then retreated.

The stage was set for the final confrontation between the two greatest men of their generation... and a war that would determine, once and for all, the future of the Federation.

Chapter One

In the end, personal loyalty proved to be more important to the Federation Navy than its ideals or the Federation Constitution. But then, perhaps that was not surprising. The only way to rise in the ranks was through joining a senior officer’s patronage network. Being promoted on merit was a thing of the past.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Nova Athena, 4101

The universe had turned upside down, once again.

“The Outsider shuttle is approaching, sir,” Lieutenant Sofia Thompson reported. She looked up from her console in the CIC. “They’ll land in the shuttlebay in five minutes.”

“Have the passengers scanned thoroughly before allowing them to enter the ship,” Admiral Roman Garibaldi ordered, numbly. “Once they’re cleared, bring them to the briefing compartment under guard.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. She frowned. “Sir... they might not like being scanned and searched.”

Roman laughed, harshly. “And I don’t like running the risk of someone bringing an antimatter bomb onto the ship,” he said. “We’re not going to take chances.”

He looked up at the console, watching grimly as the boxy shuttlecraft approached the massive superdreadnaught. No matter what he said, he doubted the Outsiders would try anything so stupid — Valiant was hardly the only superdreadnaught in Fifth Fleet — but he wouldn’t have believed that Emperor Marius would attempt to commit genocide either. A great many certainties had toppled since Admiral Justinian had launched his attack on Earth nine years ago, sparking off a series of increasingly-bitter civil wars. And the Outsiders, his enemies up until an hour ago, had to be almost as confused as he was.

The shuttle vanished from the display as it landed in the shuttlebay. Roman watched through the monitors as armed marines surrounded the craft, then motioned for the occupants to come out with their hands clearly visible. Everyone was jumpy, now that they were caught in the middle of yet another civil war. Roman had made a career out of knowing what to do at the right time, but he honestly wasn’t sure what to do now. He and his fleet were renegades, to all intents and purposes; he wondered, absently, just how many of his crewmen were considering burying a blade in his back. Bringing his head back to Earth would be certain to earn his assassin a rich reward.

Or a date with a firing squad, he thought, mordantly. The Emperor has become increasingly irrational.

He shuddered at the thought. Emperor Marius — Admiral Drake, as he’d been at the time — had seemed a strong leader, the sort of person Roman could follow into the fire without hesitation. Roman had wanted to be like him, even as he’d started to build a legend of his own. And he’d followed Admiral Drake until he’d been promoted and given command of Fifth Fleet. Even then, he’d wanted to make Emperor Marius proud of him. He would have done anything for his mentor...

Except commit genocide, he thought. In hindsight, there had been far too many worrying signs before Professor Kratman came to see him. God alone knew what had happened to the Outsider POWs, but after the Battle of Nova Athena he wouldn’t have bet money on them surviving for long. I couldn’t kill billions of humans on his command.

His intercom buzzed. “Admiral,” Elf said. His Marine CO — and his lover — sounded efficient, as always. “We have two guests: Senator Chang Li, the former Representative from Nova Athena and General Charlie Stuart. The remainder of the crew are the shuttle’s pilots.”

“Have the pilots held for the moment,” Roman ordered. “Is the shuttle itself safe?”

“Yes, Admiral,” Elf said. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a pair of fuel cells and a couple of pistols.”

Roman let out a breath. An antimatter warhead would be shrugged off by the ship’s shields, if it detonated outside the hull, but a bomb that detonated inside the ship would blow them all to atoms. The Outsiders had to know they’d lost the war — or that they had, before Emperor Marius opened fire on their world — and they might have taken advantage of the brief truce to destroy Valiant. What hope did they have, other than the vague prospect of clawing the Federation as they went down?

“Take Chang and the General to the briefing compartment,” he ordered, tiredly. He wanted — needed — a rest, but he knew he wasn’t going to get one. “I’ll join you there in a moment.”

He closed the channel, then looked at the display. Hundreds of icons were scattered around the system; Fifth Fleet, surrounded by a cloud of starfighters, kept its distance from the remaining Outsider ships and planetary defenses. God alone knew what would happen, if some jumpy idiot pushed a firing key. Roman knew, deep inside, that the only real hope for survival was an alliance. But even that wouldn’t be enough to save them, if Emperor Marius acted quickly. Roman knew, all too well, just how easy it would be for the Emperor to snatch the fleet train, then Boston itself. Losing the fleet base would doom his fleet to eventual irrelevance.

Unless the Outsiders can supply us, he thought. But they can barely supply themselves.

“Inform Captain Palter that he has tactical command of the fleet,” he ordered. “He is to hold position and wait for orders, unless we come under attack. If so, he is to break contact as fast as possible and head for the system limits.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman sighed, then rose and walked through the hatch, passing the armored marine who stood outside. The corridor beyond was deserted, the crew at their combat stations... he wondered, suddenly, just what would happen when the red alert finally came to an end and crewmen started to talk. There would be crewmen, he was sure, who would think nothing of genocide, who would care little for Outsider lives if their deaths ended a pitiless war. And some of them would be loyalists, loyal to Emperor Marius. A handful might even have been covertly inserted onto his crew to watch Roman himself.

His hand dropped to the sidearm at his belt as he walked down the empty corridor, even though he was sure he was alone. The crew was armed; they’d faced enemies intent on actually boarding starships several times in the past. If even a handful thought to mutiny against his authority, either in the Emperor’s name or merely to prevent another round of civil war, there was going to be a bloodbath. He wasn’t even sure he could count on the loyalty of the marines...

Elf will keep them in line, he thought. But where will she stand?

It was a bitter thought. The marines prided themselves on being loyal to the Federation, on standing up for its values even as everyone else abandoned them. He had no reason to doubt Elf’s loyalty to the Federation, but what would she make of it now, after Emperor Marius had tried to commit genocide? It wasn’t as if they’d fired on aliens!

She’d tell me if she thought I was wrong, he thought. They’d been lovers for almost a decade. I can trust her.

He paused outside the hatch, taking a moment to gather himself, then opened the hatch and stepped into the briefing compartment. Elf stood against the bulkhead, wearing her light combat armor and carrying a plasma rifle in one hand; two other marines, wearing heavier armor, stood against the far wall. Senator Chang Li and General Stuart sat at the table, both looking tired and wary. Roman couldn’t help thinking, as he cast his eyes over Stuart, that the Outsiders preferred far more practical uniforms than the Federation Navy. Stuart’s uniform looked to be almost completely devoid of fancy gold braid.

“Senator, General,” he said. “I am Admiral Garibaldi. Welcome onboard Valiant.”

He studied them both as they rose. Chang Li was shorter than he’d expected, from her file; her long dark hair framed a middle-aged Oriental face. She’d been a Senator on Earth, he recalled; she’d been the sole Senator from the out-worlds before Admiral Justinian had launched his attack on Earth. Roman reminded himself not to underestimate her or her people, even though the Federation Navy had won the engagement. The Outsiders had to have been plotting their campaign long before Admiral Justinian started a civil war.

And the Emperor had some inkling there were unfriendly alien races out beyond the Rim, he thought. It couldn’t have made it any easier to deal with the Outsiders when they finally showed themselves.

General Stuart was a complete unknown, according to the files; indeed, only a handful of data packets from deep-cover agents had provided any information at all. He’d been the enemy commander at Athena and Boston, putting Roman to flight in his first major engagement; the Outsiders, it seemed, hadn’t adopted the Grand Senate’s policy of shooting defeated admirals out of hand. It would give Stuart a chance to learn from the mistakes that had led to defeat at Boston, assuming the war didn’t end quickly. And Stuart looked reassuringly competent. Roman just hoped Stuart was competent enough to make up for his earlier mistakes.

“Admiral,” Chang Li said. “Thank you for receiving us.”

Roman shrugged, not entirely sure what to say. He’d assumed, prior to the battle, that he — or Emperor Marius — would be dictating surrender terms, hopefully ending the Outsider War once and for all. But instead... he was forced into an alliance with his former enemies, now that the Emperor had gone mad. Roman couldn’t help feeling torn between two competing loyalties; Marius Drake, the man who had sponsored him, and the ideals of the Federation, the ideals he’d upheld even as others had abandoned them.

And the Emperor did try to kill us, he thought, grimly. If it had been just him, he would have taken a starship and fled beyond the Rim, but he knew he wouldn’t be the only target of the Empire’s wrath. We don’t have any choice; we must fight.

“The Emperor has gone mad,” he said, bluntly. He had never been a diplomat. “He was prepared to fire on your homeworld.”

“I know,” Chang Li said. Her voice was oddly accented, something that surprised him. “I thank you for saving my people.”

“At the cost of putting my people into terrible danger,” Roman said. He had no illusions about their chances of success. Even if the Emperor didn’t take and hold Boston, forcing him into a direct offensive though the system’s Asimov Points, they’d have problems battering their way to Earth before the Federation’s superior industry took effect. “The Emperor has to be stopped.”

“We agree,” Chang Li said. She cocked her head, perhaps in recognition of his concerns. “I am prepared to offer your fleet all the support we can provide.”

“That would be useful,” Roman said. “But what can you provide?”

“Relatively little,” General Stuart said. His voice was gruff. “We lost too many ships at Boston, Admiral. I believe that was your work.”

Roman nodded, curtly. He wasn’t about to apologize for winning a battle, even though the consequences had come back to haunt him. He’d baited a trap and the Outsiders had fallen into it, giving him an excellent chance to tear their fleet apart. And he’d weakened them so badly that the counterattack hadn’t met any serious challenge until it had crossed the stardrive limits and attacked Nova Athena itself.

“There’s no point in dredging up the past,” Chang Li said. “We must look to the future.”

“Of course,” Roman said. “What can you offer us?”

“Right now, four battle squadrons and a few hundred smaller ships,” General Stuart told him, shortly. “Our fleet train, thankfully, remains largely intact.”

“Assuming the crews don’t desert when they realize just what they’re facing,” Chang Li added.

“The Federation is unlikely to show any mercy to independent freighters supporting the Outsiders,” Roman pointed out. “Tell them that all will be forgiven if they help us win.”

He sighed, inwardly. In hindsight, the Grand Senate’s policies — their semi-legal monopoly over interstellar shipping within the core worlds — had driven hundreds of thousands of independent shippers out to the Rim. They’d signed up with the Outsiders and started hauling supplies for them, while the Federation Navy was forced to depend on a badly weakened fleet train. The Grand Senate had chosen to concentrate on building warships, rather than the logistics the navy needed to support them. But then, until recently, the Federation Navy had been able to depend on a network of bases throughout explored and settled space.

“And what will happen,” General Stuart asked warily, “if we do win?”

Roman understood, just for a second, the maddening problem facing Emperor Marius. The Federation’s problems were impossibly vast, far too great for a single man to fix. And yet, tearing the Federation apart would be just as bad. Humanity hadn’t survived a number of alien threats by being disunited.

And, come to think of it, he thought, what do we do about their alien allies?

He cursed under his breath. Humanity had long since abandoned the curse of racism, at least against their fellow humans, but it was a rare human who would agree that aliens should have equal rights. The memories of the First Interstellar War ran deep, even though it had been almost two thousand years ago. Aliens weren’t welcome on human worlds; hell, they were rarely welcome on their own homeworlds. And the Outsiders had managed to drum up at least two alien races that were willing to fight alongside them against the Federation. It would be easy for Emperor Marius to turn the war into a crusade against aliens and their human dupes...

Of course he can, he thought, grimly. The process was already underway by the time we won the Battle of Boston.

“I think we should settle that after the fighting is over,” he said, flatly. He didn’t want to rule, but was there any choice? Sundering the Federation would be disastrous. “The Emperor still has a great many advantages. We may wind up merely prolonging the war.”

“Agreed,” Chang Li said. She shot her comrade an unreadable look. “We can determine how the future will look once we know we will have a future.”

Roman nodded in agreement, then leaned forward. “How quickly can you get your ships here?”

General Stuart looked uncomfortable, sweat prickling on his forehead as his eyes darted around the compartment. It couldn’t be easy, Roman knew, discussing classified information with someone who’d been on the other side until literally two hours ago. Hell, he didn’t find it easy. He just knew there was no choice; his crews would die unless they won the war and saved themselves. It crossed his mind, as he waited for Stuart to answer, that Admiral Drake had faced the same problem after the Grand Senate had tried to kill him.

And they did kill his closest friend, he thought. Emperor Marius had never been quite the same afterwards. Did losing Tobias push him off the deep end?

“We should be able to assemble most of the remaining ships within a month, perhaps less,” Stuart said, carefully. “But that will open up some of the systems we hold to counterattacks.”

“There’s less danger of that than you might think,” Roman assured him. “We massed most of the Federation ships in the sector at Boston for the counteroffensive.”

“Unless the Emperor sends out new orders on the way home,” Stuart pointed out.

Roman shrugged. There were hundreds of stage-one colony worlds along the Rim, dozens of which had changed hands several times since the war began. None of them were useful, save perhaps as a source of untrained manpower; there was little to be gained by wasting time and effort capturing them for the umpteenth time. The Asimov Points, on the other hand, would be useful, but the Emperor didn’t have the mobile forces — yet — to secure them.

He expended too many of the stockpiled fortresses to secure the routes to the core, he thought, darkly. It would be a headache he’d have to deal with, if he lived that long, but for the moment it was a blessing. We were planning to secure the other Asimov Points as we consolidated, after winning at Nova Athena.

“It shouldn’t matter,” he said, out loud. “The key to victory has been what it always has, ever since the First Interstellar War. The capture or destruction of the enemy’s productive capabilities.”

He looked straight at Chang Li. “How much can you produce, and how quickly?”

“Our missiles and ships are better, ton for ton, than their Federation counterparts,” Chang Li assured him. Roman nodded, impatiently. He’d been on the receiving end of Outsider technical ingenuity more than once. “However, we simply cannot match the Federation’s sheer weight of production. I’ll give you the complete figures, if you wish, but... well, we can only produce a tenth of the missiles they can produce in the same time period, even though our facilities are more efficient.”

“Assuming that their production nodes don’t suffer from more disruptions,” Stuart offered, ruefully. “There were a lot of strikes over the last two years.”

“Which were broken,” Chang Li reminded him.

“Even so, the workers weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the whole affair,” Stuart said. “I suspect their production has been quietly nose-diving for months.”

“They’ll do whatever it takes to get it back up again,” Roman said, quietly. “We need to move fast.”

He keyed a switch, displaying a starchart. “I’m going to take Fifth Fleet back to Spinner,” he added, after a moment. “If the Emperor has secured Boston, retaking the system will be an incredibly costly battle. I don’t dare give him the time to dig in.”

“Understood,” Stuart said.

“You two can return to the planet, then organize your ships to meet us at Spinner,” Roman said. “Assuming we can retake Boston, we can push onwards to Earth as quickly as possible, before the Emperor has a chance to rally his defenses.”

Chang Li blinked. “You intend to take the offensive so quickly?”

“There’s no choice,” Roman said. Stuart nodded in agreement. “If we don’t take the offensive now, he’ll take advantage of his production capabilities and crush us like bugs.”

Chapter Two

This tended to ensure that officers stayed with their patrons, even when their patrons threw themselves into rebellion against their superiors — or the Federation itself.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Von Doom System, 4101


He’d been betrayed.

Marius Drake, Emperor of the Federation, Chief Naval Officer of the Federation Navy, sat in his darkened cabin, brooding. He’d been betrayed. Roman Garibaldi, his protégé, the young man whose career he’d mentored until Garibaldi had finally reached flag rank, had betrayed him. And, in doing so, had saved the Outsiders from defeat. The chance to burn them out of existence, once and for all, had been lost. Garibaldi had ensured that the war would go on and on...

I thought I could trust him, Drake thought. He’d believed in the younger man’s loyalty to the Federation and Marius personally. God knew Garibaldi had been a mere cadet, if one of considerable promise, before the Justinian War had begun. Lacking connections, he should have put the Federation before political concerns. But instead he’d betrayed the Federation to its enemies. I thought I could trust him!

Raw, bitter anger welled up within Marius’s heart. The Federation’s unity was sacrosanct; human unity was all that stood between the human race and the hundreds of alien threats lurking beyond the Rim. He could not — he would not — tolerate any thought of sundering the Federation, of granting the Outsiders the independence they sought. It would only weaken humanity against the true threats. And indeed, had the Outsiders not made common cause with two alien races? In doing so, they had sold out the rest of the human race. They were beyond redemption!

They have to die, he thought, too tired to sit upright, let alone stand. It was hard, so hard, to muster the energy not to fall back into the darkness. He knew he should eat, get some proper sleep, but his thoughts were too agitated to allow himself to rise. They have to be destroyed before they destroy us.

He cursed under his breath, wrapped in a mixture of hatred and self-loathing. What had he been thinking when he’d made himself Emperor? Surely, he could have done something — anything — else, something that would have spared him the task of grappling with the falling Federation, of trying to save something from the ruins. But it wasn’t in his nature to abandon a task, once started; he knew he had no choice but to keep fighting. The Outsiders had been badly weakened, after all. Even the addition of Fifth Fleet to their forces wouldn’t save them in the long run.

Unless they have more allies out there, he thought. And unless Roman manages to pull off a miracle.

Drake shuddered in anger. Roman Garibaldi had a talent, a positive talent, for finding ways to get into and out of trouble. No doubt his talent would continue to work, even as he switched sides... had he wanted to be Emperor himself? Or had he been a covert Outsider sympathizer all along? He’d certainly raised doubts about taking the POWs back to Earth for interrogation, then public execution. Had he been working for the Outsiders even then?

It didn’t feel right, somehow, but it felt like hours before he reasoned it out. Roman couldn’t have been working for the Outsiders, not before the Battle of Boston. A talented admiral — and Marius knew Roman to be a talented admiral — would not have found it hard to lose the battle, perhaps even by surrendering remarkably easily. No, Roman wasn’t driven by love for the Outsiders, but a desire for power himself. No doubt he was already convincing the Outsiders to support him in his own bid for the throne.

The nasty part of Marius’s mind contemplated that thought with no little amusement. Marius had thought himself used to command — he’d been commanding starships and fleets for decades — but being Emperor had been very different. The Grand Senate had left the Federation in a terrible mess and, no matter what he tried, the economy continued to collapse. Perhaps, if he’d had time, he could have saved the Federation, but the Outsider War had put a stop to that. The irony was almost amusing. He’d taken power at least in part to stop the Grand Senate from destroying the rest of the Federation, only to have no choice but to use the same policies himself.

That was why I wanted to end it, he thought, grimly. Destroying Nova Athena and its population would have ended the war. Too many lives had already been lost, sacrifices to the greater good. A victory now would give us a chance to breathe.

He looked up, sharply, as a low chime rang through the cabin. Someone was on the other side of the hatch, someone he didn’t know... the marines wouldn’t let someone hostile into the cabin, would they? He thought not; he trusted the marines, but then he’d trusted Roman Garibaldi too. Tobias, his former Marine CO and closest friend, was dead... who knew which way the marines would jump, when push came to shove? They’d already balked at some of the grisly tasks necessary to get the economy back up and running, including a moderate purge of trouble-makers...

The hatch hissed open. Marius winced, a second later, as the lights brightened. If someone on the ship had decided to switch sides... he relaxed, very slightly, as Commander Ginny Lewis came into view. She already knew there was something wrong with him and hadn’t betrayed him, unlike so many others. But how long would that last?


Marius almost smiled at the alarm in her voice. The young redhead had shown rare promise — almost as much as the young Garibaldi — but it wouldn’t save her if she were blamed for his condition. Captain Watson wouldn’t hesitate to turn her into a scapegoat, although it wouldn’t save his hide either. God alone knew what would happen to the Federation once Marius was gone. It wasn’t as if there was a clear successor waiting in the wings. Marius had no children, and his wife, for all of her many talents, lacked the military skills to keep the fleet loyal to her. And the civilian government had been crippled decades before Marius’s birth.

“I’m alive,” Marius croaked. He forced himself to sit upright. If Ginny intended to kill him, he could at least meet it with some dignity. “Commander — status report?”

“You need to eat and drink something, if you won’t let me call the medics,” Ginny said, carefully. “Emperor... sir...”

“Not now,” Marius said, stiffly. He didn’t like anyone seeing him so weak; hell, he hated the thought of taking Ginny into his confidence. But there was no choice. “Status report?”

“We’ve just entered the Von Doom system,” Ginny said. “Captain Watson was wondering how you wished to enter Boston.”

“I’m sure he was,” Marius muttered.

He cursed under his breath. Captain Watson was a solid man, but completely lacking in imagination or initiative. Even in the midst of a war, with deadwood admirals and captains being killed at an unprecedented rate, his rise had been suspiciously slow. But then, he did need authorization in triplicate to go to the head, let alone take command of his superdreadnaught and set course for the nearest star. And to think he’d thought that a lack of imagination was an asset!

“Tell me,” he said. It was hard to think clearly, but he had no choice. “Have we detected any courier drones racing past us?”

“No, sir,” Ginny said. “Fifth Fleet hasn’t attempted to communicate with Boston.”

“Unless they sent the drones the other way,” Marius commented. There were two possible routes to Boston, after all, and Roman Garibaldi would have no trouble deducing which one Marius had taken. “And we have no way of knowing what we’ll encounter at Boston.”

He closed his eyes as a stab of pain burned through his head. Boston had been the linchpin of the Federation’s defenses in the sector. Fifth Fleet had been based there for much of the war and, by straining the already-tottering logistics network to the limits, the navy had built up a powerful network of fixed fortifications. If his fleet had to punch their way into the system, it was going to cost them dearly. They’d expended most of their assault missiles during the flight to Nova Athena.

And if Roman Garibaldi planned to betray me all along, he thought, whoever he left in command is likely to be ready and waiting for us.

There was no choice, of course. If he wanted to get back to Earth in less than five years, he had to use the Asimov Point network. And if he wanted to do that, he had to enter Boston and hope...

“Inform Captain Watson that we are to enter the system as normal, announcing a victory over the Outsiders,” he said. It was time to gamble. If the system’s defenders had no idea what had happened at Nova Athena, they’d hesitate to open fire on his ships. “I do not believe we will be fired upon. Once we’re in the system, head directly for the next Asimov Point.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said. “And the system itself?”

Marius took a moment to think. Boston had to remain in friendly hands, if it were at all possible, but he knew he didn’t have the firepower to impose his will on the system. If the local CO — who would be a Garibaldi loyalist, he was sure — put up a fight, all hell was likely to break loose. He dared not die, not now. The Federation he loved would not survive his death.

“Once we enter the system, detach Commodore Palin with orders to take command of the system’s defenses,” he said, carefully. Commodore Hassan Palin had a working brain, which put him ahead of Captain Watson; he should be smart enough to understand the dangers of trying to switch sides now the battle lines had been redrawn. “He is to send messages through the ICN... no, belay that. I’ll write the messages myself.”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. “There are gaps in the ICN, though.”

Marius nodded, impatiently. The Outsiders, damn them to hell, had targeted ICN platforms specifically, making it harder for the Federation to coordinate defensive operations on a galactic scale. They had the same problem, of course, but they’d been on the offensive and their homeworlds were largely unknown. The Federation could capture every world that had willingly joined the Outsiders, once the war had begun, and yet get no closer to final victory.

“The messages can also be relayed on the base’s courier boats,” he said, tartly. He tried to stand, but his body betrayed him and fell back into the chair. “They can take it to worlds and systems outside the network.”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. She held out a hand. “Should I help you up?”

“No,” Marius said. He gathered himself and tried to stand again. His legs felt weak, as if he was about to fall over at any second, but somehow he managed to remain balanced. “I’m not a cripple...”

“You should eat, sir,” Ginny said. “How long has it been since you ate or drank anything?”

Marius couldn’t remember. Hell, he wasn’t sure just how long he’d been in the cabin, just how long it had been since they’d blasted away from Nova Athena. The mere thought sent another jolt of pain stabbing though his head. His body had been enhanced thoroughly, first as a naval officer and then as an emperor, but he needed food and rest, perhaps not in that order. Ginny was right; he should go see the medics... yet he was too stubborn. The old distrust of starship doctors, the fear that they would relieve him of duty for not attending his physical exam, rose up in his mind. He knew he didn’t dare show weakness to anyone outside his trusted circle.

And how many of them, his own thoughts mocked him, can you trust?

He shuddered, almost losing his balance as he tottered over to the desk. He’d trusted Blake Raistlin and the young man had nearly killed him, on orders from his familial superiors. And he’d trusted Roman Garibaldi, who’d shared the same graduating class as Blake Raistlin. He made a mental note to check what had happened to the others from that class — given the attrition of two wars, there was a good chance that most of them were dead — and he sat down, feeling his legs buckle underneath him. It was unlikely he could have remained standing for much longer.

“I’ll find some food for you, sir,” Ginny said. “There’s normally something held in stasis...”

“Pass on the orders to Captain Watson first,” Marius ordered. He didn’t need food that quickly — besides, it would be a mistake to let the captain think he was incapable of command. Watson’s subordinates might have their own ideas about the future. “And then go fetch something to eat.”

He watched Ginny go, trying not to notice how her tight trousers showed off her behind. He was married, married to one of the few people he trusted... but could he trust her, really? If Tiffany was planning to betray him, too...

You have to trust someone, his own thoughts reminded him. And Tiffany could have betrayed you to her family years ago, if she’d wanted you dead.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Tiffany was only his because her family had pushed her into marrying him, since they believed he needed a link to the Grand Senate. They hadn’t realized that Tiffany and he would wind up in an alliance to survive, or fall in love, that their marriage would become far more than just another marriage of convenience. But now, if Roman Garibaldi had betrayed him, would Tiffany do the same?

I have to get back to Earth, he thought. It’s the only way to win.

Every instinct, honed by decades of fighting the Federation’s wars, told him to take command of Boston, replenish his ships and meet Roman Garibaldi’s offensive when it came. Roman knew the laws of interstellar combat as well as Drake did; Garibaldi would know the only hope for victory was to overrun the Federation before Marius could rebuild the economy and deploy newer and better weapons from the research stations. He had to move quickly if he wanted to survive...

But if he stayed at Boston, he risked losing control of his flank.

He cursed, savagely. His attention was required in too many places, too many for him to handle personally... and yet, he couldn’t delegate responsibility to anyone else. Who could he trust? He’d promoted Roman Garibaldi over the heads of officers with more seniority, more time in grade, because he’d trusted the younger man. Now, Roman had betrayed him and... and there were no others he dared trust. He’d have to double and triple-check his precautions, just to make sure no one else could stick a knife in his back...

It struck him, suddenly, that the Grand Senate must have felt the same way. The thought made him giggle, realizing that matters had come full circle. He was now playing the same role as the Grand Senate, trying to protect the status quo while young and ambitious officers sought to destroy it. And if Roman Garibaldi had his way, Marius would be removed, just like the Grand Senate.

And Roman might even shoot him in the head — personally.

The hatch hissed open again, revealing a harassed-looking Ginny carrying a tray. “The guards insisted on me tasting everything first,” she said, as she put the tray on the table and removed the cover. Marius’s stomach rumbled as he smelled the food. “Don’t they trust me?”

“They don’t trust anyone,” Marius said, as he picked up the fork. It was unlikely that anyone had managed to slip poison into his food, but too many unlikely things had happened recently. A toxin keyed to Marius personally, thankfully, would be well beyond the reach of most would-be assassins. “But with food like this, I wonder why anyone would bother adding poison.”

He smiled as he took a bite of the food. Naval rations had never been very good, thanks to the Grand Senate ordering foodstuffs from the lowest or most-favored bidder. Indeed, he’d heard of hundreds of crews that had been discontented, before the Justinian War, because their commanding officers had been selling off the rations and, somehow, buying even worse food supplies on the black market. That, at least, had been one thing he’d been able to fix once he’d assumed control of the Federation. Making sure that captains and flag officers had to eat the same food as the lowest of crewmen had probably helped.

But you did host a feast for your officers before you departed Boston, his own thoughts reminded him. Did you make sure the lower decks got the same food then?

“It’s a great improvement,” Ginny said, carefully. “Although I’m not exactly sure what it is.”

“As long as it’s edible and reasonably tasty, it doesn’t matter,” Marius said. He’d spent most of his adult life on one starship or another. Most spacers preferred to draw a veil over precisely where most recycled food came from. “All that matters is that it will help keep you alive.”

“I still think you should go to sickbay, sir,” Ginny said. “You’re not well.”

“I can’t afford to leave my post,” Marius said. He cursed under his breath. Captain Watson could handle a transit through an Asimov Point, but if even a handful of ships tried to bar their path... he doubted the captain could deal with it. “And I have too much work to do.”

He finished his meal, then reached for his console. “Inform me when we are two hours from the Boston Asimov Point,” he ordered. “Until then, I have planning to do.”

“You should sleep,” Ginny said. “Sir...”

Marius felt a hot flash of anger. “I don’t have time,” he snapped. “Dismissed.”

Ginny saluted, then hastily beat a retreat through the hatch. Marius watched her go, then reached into his uniform pocket for the packet of pills. There were dangers in using them too often, he knew all too well, but there was no choice. He needed to stay awake.

Popping a pill into his mouth, he tapped the console and started to work.

Chapter Three

When a senior officer was deserving of such loyalty, it worked in their favor — but, when they weren’t, it only made the problems facing the Federation worse.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Nova Athena, 4101

“You’re being very quiet,” Roman observed.

“I wish I had something to say,” Elf replied. They stood together in the CIC, looking up at the giant display. Fifth Fleet was reversing course and powering out towards the system limits, where it would slip into stardrive for the short jaunt to the nearest Asimov Point. “I wish I knew which way to jump.”

Roman cocked his head at her. “Could you accept attempted genocide?”

Elf shook her head. “There’s a difference between collateral damage, however unfortunate, and the deliberate slaughter of billions of innocents,” she said, firmly. “But I just worry about the future.”

Roman nodded, curtly. There was no point in trying to hide what they’d done. They’d gone into rebellion against the Federation, against the Emperor... just like Admiral Justinian and the other warlords. And if they didn’t succeed in defeating Emperor Marius, they would be hunted down and killed as the Federation’s vastly-greater war industry swamped them in production. He hadn’t had time to sit down and properly simulate the war, although experience had told him that simulations were rarely useful, but he had a feeling he knew what the predicted outcome would be. The Federation would win the war.

“And then there’s the Outsiders,” Elf said. “Do you really trust them?”

“I trust them to act in their own self-interest,” Roman said. It was easy to blame the Outsiders for kicking the Federation while it was down, but they’d probably suspected they would never have a better chance for outright victory. And they were probably right. “And what happens after the war...”

“You need a plan to determine what will happen afterwards, if we win,” Elf said curtly, as his words tailed off. “You need to decide what you want to happen before someone else decides it for you.”

Roman shook his head, although he knew she was right. He’d been a RockRat, then a Federation Navy officer... he wasn’t a politician or a planetary governor. He’d thought Emperor Marius could handle the task of reforming the Federation, but it had evidently driven the older man mad. There was no way he wanted to spend the rest of his life as emperor, trapped on Earth while trying to fix the damage of centuries of mismanagement and deliberate malice.

“You need to think about these details,” Elf pressed. “The Outsiders will certainly have a plan for the post-war universe.”

Marius had said, back during one of their private meetings, that the Federation’s great strength was its unity. They’d fought the Inheritance Wars to make it clear that the Federation was not going to be sundered. Indeed, even Admiral Justinian had moved to claim the seat of power, rather than separate his sector from the Federation... although, towards the end of the war, he might have had other ideas. But the Outsiders... they wanted to break the Federation up completely, even welcome aliens into the fold.

And we won’t know if we can trust the aliens, he thought, numbly. We would have another civil war over the issue.

“I can see why the problem drove Emperor Marius mad,” he said, finally. “How are we supposed to handle it ourselves?”

He cursed under his breath as he looked at the starchart, showing the quickest route back to Boston. There were no precautions in place to keep Marius from taking control of the base, then turning its formidable defenses against Fifth Fleet. Roman knew the defenses intimately — he’d designed the defense grid himself — and there was no easy way to push through the Asimov Point. It would be a brutal engagement that would cost him dearly, yet there was little choice. The cold equations that had pushed the Outsiders into attacking Boston, despite knowing they were slamming into the teeth of his defenses, applied to him too. If he wanted to break through into the Core Worlds, he needed Boston...

... And Emperor Marius would know it too.

“We may not survive long enough to discuss the future of the Federation,” he said, turning away from the display. “We can worry about the future after we win the war.”

“A mistake,” Elf said.

Roman nodded, ruefully. “We need to concentrate on winning the war first,” he said. “I can’t get distracted like Admiral Stilicho.”

“I suppose,” Elf said.

She looked doubtful, but he knew she understood. Admiral Stilicho had commanded the Federation Navy’s invasion force during the early stages of the Blue Star War, a war the Federation should have won easily. Indeed, Admiral Stilicho had been so confident of a walkover that he spent more time planning the victory parade on Earth and handing out patronage to his junior officers than preparing for the war. His masterstroke had turned into a military disaster on a scale unseen since the Battle of Spider Bite and, fortunately for him, he hadn’t survived the first engagement. Roman had no intention of repeating the same mistake.

Because Emperor Marius is a skilled officer who beat Admiral Justinian, even when taken by surprise, Roman thought. He won’t hesitate to take advantage of any of my mistakes.

“And that leads to another problem,” he said. “The loyalty of our crews.”

“I’ve stationed marines throughout the decks, ensuring the lockdown stays firmly in place,” Elf assured him. “I doubt anyone can put together a plan to mutiny before we’re halfway to Boston.”

Roman scowled. He hated the thought of enforcing loyalty at gunpoint. It would be easy, too easy, for his crewmen to work at a deliberate pace, even when the ship was under fire. He couldn’t allow it to risk their chances when push came to shove. Emperor Marius already held too many cards for it to be tolerated.

“I need to speak to them,” he said. He keyed a console. “Record.”

“Recording,” the console said.

Roman took a moment to gather his thoughts, then began. “This is Admiral Garibaldi,” he said, carefully. By now, lockdown or no lockdown, word of the brief and savage engagement would have spread through the fleet. There was no point in trying to lie. “Emperor Marius attempted to bombard Nova Athena with antimatter weapons, ensuring the destruction of all life on her surface. When I tried to talk him out of it, he opened fire on Fifth Fleet.”

He scowled at the thought. Three years of warfare against the Outsiders — and their alien allies — had worn down the fleet’s desire to remain true to the Federation’s ideals. It was quite likely that a large percentage of his crew, even a majority, would think that exterminating the entire population of Nova Athena was a good thing, even though it would be a monstrous act. They’d psyched themselves up for a final battle, one that would end the war...

But it wouldn’t. Even if Nova Athena had surrendered, even if Emperor Marius had accepted the surrender without bombarding the planet, the other Outsider worlds and bases were still a complete mystery. The war would have dragged on for years before every last Outsider was hunted down and killed.

“The Emperor has gone mad,” he said, picking his words carefully. “He has already declared us — all of us — outlaws. Our only hope, to save both our lives and something of the Federation, is to overthrow him as quickly as possible. Towards this end, I have forged an alliance with the Outsiders.”

He paused, again. There was no point in trying to hide the truth, but it was chancy. A crewman who would otherwise have supported him might think twice, after learning that he was meant to work with the alien-loving Outsiders. Or someone who had a more personal grudge... the Outsiders had killed hundreds of thousands of naval personnel in their war, all of whom would have left friends and family behind. And, with sidearms issued to all personnel, a bloody mutiny at the worst possible time might end the war.

“I know this won’t be easy to accept,” he added, “but I see no choice. The Emperor has to be stopped.

“Once we return to Boston, those of you who are unwilling to take up arms against the Emperor can make yourselves known to my officers. You will be shipped to Boston itself, to remain out of the fighting until the end of the war. If the Emperor wins, you will be held blameless” — he hoped that was true — “and can resume your duties. And, if we win, nothing more will be said about the matter.”

He took a long breath. “I know this won’t be easy for many of us,” he concluded. “Please make up your mind during the voyage to Boston, then let me know what you want to do.”

“Good enough,” Elf said, as he stopped the recording. “Maybe not the sweetest speech I’ve heard, but one from the heart.”

Roman nodded, curtly. He knew he’d have problems with manpower — far too many officers and crew thought the Emperor was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the Federation Navy — but he wasn’t about to force men to go into battle against their will.

“I’ll transmit it through the fleet,” he said. “Do you foresee any other problems?”

“There will be agents inserted into the fleet,” Elf said. “They’re not likely to bow out and stay on Boston.”

“I know,” Roman said. “Can you ID them?”

“Not easily,” Elf said. “Once, it would have been easy, but now... with so much manpower washing around the Federation...”

Roman winced. Manpower — skilled manpower — had been a major problem for years, thanks to the Grand Senate’s policies on education. Emperor Marius hadn’t even begun to fix the problems with the educational establishment, but at least he’d been able to ensure that skilled engineers and technicians were encouraged to train others in how to maintain starships. Even so, vast numbers of skilled officers had been moved from ship to ship, making it impossible for a counter-intelligence team to look for the signs of an infiltrator. There were just too many officers and men who fit the profile.

“Just keep an eye out for trouble,” he said. He wasn’t too worried about agitators — the chiefs would deal with them — but an operative who kept his head down while plotting trouble was far more dangerous. “And we’ll do what we can to encourage them to switch sides.”

He keyed the console, sending the recording into the communications network, then called Lieutenant Thompson back into the CIC. She looked refreshed — she’d managed to snatch a couple of hours of sleep, something that had eluded both Roman and Elf — and took her place at the console without hesitation. Elf nodded curtly to Roman and strode towards the hatch, which hissed open at her approach. Roman just hoped she found time to have a nap before they reached Boston.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “I have a full status report from the fleet.”

“Show me,” Roman ordered. “And then reshuffle our damaged ships to the rear.”

The display updated rapidly, showing him the remains of Fifth Fleet. It was an impressive collection of firepower — thanks to modern technology, it was more powerful than the mighty fleet that had been sent off on Operation Retribution — but it had taken a beating, thanks to the Emperor. Only five battle squadrons could claim to be at full readiness, the remainder no longer capable of flank speed or raising shields. Repair crews were already swarming over their hulls, but it would take weeks — at least — to get them ready to go back into the fire.

I don’t want to leave them here, with the Outsiders, he thought. He knew he didn’t dare trust the Outsiders completely, not when they were allied with aliens. We just have to hope we can move them back to Boston... and that we aren’t greeted with a hail of missiles.

“Captain Hammond and Captain Tromie both claim their ships are still capable of combat operations,” Lieutenant Thompson informed him. “However, their engineers disagree.”

“Tell them they’re assigned to protect the cripples,” Roman said, curtly. He didn’t want to send a damaged ship through a potentially-hostile Asimov Point, no matter what the commanding officer thought. “And make sure they can establish a combat datanet with the remaining ships. We need to maximize our advantages.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman sat back, thinking hard. He didn’t blame the captains for wanting to remain in the fight, even against ships that had been friendly a few hours ago. Far too many decent officers had been cashiered, or had their careers frozen, for not being aggressive enough in the eyes of their superiors. But there was aggression and then there was a foolhardy desire to take a crippled ship into the maelstrom of modern war. It could not be allowed.

He pushed the thought aside as he tapped his console. “Order nineteen courier boats readied for dispatch,” he said. “I’ll be recording a message for them personally, which they are to upload into what remains of the ICN as they pass through the sector.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“And make sure their commanders are aware of the importance of avoiding contact with Emperor Marius and his ships,” Roman added. “The last thing they want — or need — is to be caught by the Emperor.”

“Aye, sir,” Thompson said, again.

Roman bent over his console, trying to think how best to compose a message to the other fleet admirals scattered around the Federation. It was unlikely, to say the least, that any of them would declare war on Emperor Marius — he’d put most of them in command personally — but he had to try. Fifth Fleet was the most powerful formation in the Federation Navy — in raw tonnage, she was more powerful than Home Fleet — yet she was grossly outgunned. He hated to think of what it would cost him as he fought his way through one defended Asimov Point after another, bleeding his fleet white as he advanced slowly towards Earth. By the time he reached the Gateway, the Asimov Point that led to Earth, he’d have hardly any ships left.

And some of them may see value in attempting to revolt, he thought, grimly. They may even see what I’m doing as just another revolt.

He scowled at the thought. How trustworthy were the other fleet admirals? He’d only met a couple of them personally... Emperor Marius might have chosen them for loyalty, rather than competence. But then, Marius would have known the dangers of putting incompetents in command positions. He’d been the one who’d had to save the Retribution Fleet after Fleet Admiral Cuthbert Parkinson had led it into a trap. There was a war on, after all. He wouldn’t have repeated the Grand Senate’s mistake.

The Federation is at stake, he told himself. I have to try to make contact, even if it fails.

He tapped out a message on his console, reread it twice, then attached sensor records up to the moment Emperor Marius had swung his ships around and fled the system. There was nothing there, he was sure, that the Emperor wouldn’t already have, once his analysts went to work sifting through the vast fields of data collected by his starships during the battle. He briefly considered attaching a note of his intentions, then dismissed the thought. The courier boats might well be captured en route...

And yet he’ll know what you have in mind, he thought. The laws of interstellar combat leave me with few options and he knows it.

Roman scowled as another thought occurred to him. If they were lucky, the courier boats would beat the Emperor to Boston, even though the Emperor had a head start. And if that happened... he could warn his second, inform Commodore Sonia Yu that the Emperor’s ships had to be stopped. They could win in an instant, if they trapped or killed the Emperor himself. And yet, he knew it would cause a great deal of confusion. Sonia was a skilled logistics officer, but she was no fighter.

“Record,” he ordered. “Sonia, things have changed.”

He ran through a brief explanation of what had happened, then uploaded it to the courier boats before they made it out of communications range. It was a gamble — Sonia might side with the Emperor, or waffle long enough for the Emperor to take control of the defenses — but it had to be tried. He just had a nasty feeling the courier boat wouldn’t reach Boston in time to make a difference. The pilot wouldn’t be able to take a least time course if he or she encountered the Emperor’s fleet.

“Message sent, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, then forced himself to relax. There were no emergency alerts, nothing to suggest that his crews were on the verge of mutiny... perhaps, just perhaps, he’d managed to sway most of them to his side. Or, perhaps, they were waiting until the fleet was at Boston before deserting him. What would he do, he asked himself silently, if the fleet lost most of its crewmen? The war would come to an end before it had even fairly begun.

He shrugged, looking up at Nova Athena. The planet’s population knew just how close they’d come to total destruction, but would the rest of the Outsiders? How far could he trust them, too? They had to know he was their only hope for winning the war...

We just have to push on and hope, he told himself, firmly. Because if we stop, the Emperor will have his chance to secure his position and win the war.

Chapter Four

This was not, to be fair, a problem faced by the Outsiders. They handled the vast majority of their promotions purely on merit. Accordingly, their starship crews tended to be more efficient than their Federation counterparts.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Nova Athena, 4101

“I think I hate you,” Chang Li said.

She glared at General Stuart, who seemed unimpressed as she stepped into his stateroom, the hatch hissing closed behind her. Maybe it was a minor matter, given how sure they’d been that they were about to die, but she was still annoyed. He had defied her direct orders and, even though he’d been trying to save her life, there still had to be a reckoning.

“You had me kidnapped,” she snapped. “And then the shuttle’s power failed, midway through the flight. If the battle had gone differently...”

“I believed you would have died if you’d remained on Nova Athena,” General Stuart said, calmly. “Your death would certainly have upset the fragile coalition —”

“The Outsider Federation is bigger than one woman,” Li insisted. “My death would not have made a difference.”

Carefully, she placed firm controls on her temper. She didn’t like the thought of dying, even in a good cause, but she’d accepted it. Running from danger was bad enough; leaving hundreds of millions of others trapped on the planet’s surface was worse. She might have been the sole survivor of her homeworld, if the Federation had bombarded the planet’s surface. She’d certainly have been the only person to escape the battle.

“I believe your death would have been catastrophic,” General Stuart said. His voice gentled, slightly. “We lack the long history of the Federation, Li. Our defeat at Boston was bad enough to rattle everyone’s cage. We could easily have fragmented after losing you and your homeworld.”

Li scowled. He had a point, but she didn’t want to admit it. She certainly didn’t want to admit that the only reason she would have survived was because her orders had been disobeyed. And yet, she had to admit it had worked out in their favor. She’d been in space, close enough to link up with General Stuart and travel with him to Valiant. They now had hope when, only a few hours ago, they’d had none.

And yet, they also had one hell of a mess.

But at least we have hope, she reminded herself. I should cling to that.

She sighed inwardly, forcing herself to think. She’d been stunned throughout her stay on the shuttle, but she’d reviewed the files once she’d been awakened. The Federation Navy, on the direct command of their Emperor, had been poised to fire antimatter warheads at her homeworld. She’d have lost her entire family in a handful of seconds. And the only thing that had saved her homeworld from complete destruction had been a mutiny in the enemy’s ranks. Or something.

She honestly wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. And she didn’t really want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Very well,” she said. “Do you think we can trust Admiral Garibaldi?”

“I’ve never met him before this moment, not face-to-face,” General Stuart said. “I thought you were supposed to be the one who was good at reading people.”

Li said nothing, merely raising her eyebrows.

“I think he’s young and earnest,” General Stuart said, after a moment. “And I think he was honestly shocked after the Emperor tried to commit genocide. But he could be very good at masking his thoughts and feelings. Don’t forget, he was a serving officer during the days of the Grand Senate. He wouldn’t have risen in the ranks without the ability to dissemble.”

“Maybe,” Li said.

She scowled. There was frustratingly little in the files her intelligence staff had collected on Roman Garibaldi — and almost none of it had been gleaned from any method more complex than reading the Federation’s press releases. Ensign Roman Garibaldi had assumed command of Enterprise during Operation Retribution, suggesting either heavy casualties or very powerful connections. But his name didn’t suggest any strong ties to the Grand Senate; indeed, the only patron he had was Marius Drake.

Command of a cruiser at a surprisingly young age, she thought, mentally reviewing what she’d read. No doubt patronage had played a role, but Marius Drake wasn’t — hadn’t been — the type of man to value loyalty over competence. And then a commodore, commander of an entire fleet, and then an admiral. And he tricked us at Boston and kicked our asses right across the system.

“He is competent,” General Stuart said. “But politically... I don’t know what he is.”

Li shook her head. “Can he win the war?”

“With our support, perhaps,” General Stuart said. “Without it, probably not. And then... I don’t know what he’d want to do with the Federation.”

“True,” Li agreed.

She’d hoped, once upon a time, that the Federation could be reformed, that a modicum of justice and fairness could be restored to the system. But she’d found herself blocked at every turn, even when she’d beaten the Grand Senators at their own game and managed to get herself elected to the Grand Senate. She’d thought she’d won a great prize, yet it hadn’t taken her long to sort out just how badly the entire system was rigged. The collected voting power of the out-worlds was of no consequence, compared to the might of the core. And even the destruction of the Grand Senate hadn’t been enough to save the system.

The irony was chilling. She might not have met Roman Garibaldi before the Battle of Nova Athena, but she had met Marius Drake. He’d struck her as a grim bulldog, determined to burn his way through everything standing in his path, yet destruction was no way to reform the Federation. If the reports she’d read were correct, Drake — Emperor Marius — had become the monster he’d sought to kill. He’d found himself forced to destroy the Federation in order to save it.

And after we win the war, she asked herself, what then?

The Outsider Federation had settled on a federal structure for the post-Federation universe, an attempt to keep both human unity and grant hundreds of thousands of worlds autonomy, preventing them from becoming the victims of the federal government. But she knew, all too well, that not every Outsider supported the plan. They hated and feared Earth; they wanted, deep in their hearts, to burn the entire edifice to the ground. And there were times, far too many times, when she found herself agreeing with them. Earth was so far beyond salvation that destroying it was the only option.

But now, with the addition of Roman Garibaldi to their ranks, who knew where he would stand?

“I have a suggestion,” General Stuart said. “We need time — months, at least — to repair our damaged ships and bring the next generation of superdreadnaughts online. Admiral Garibaldi can use that time to secure Boston, hopefully securing his fleet train and the immense stockpile of supplies in the fleet base. It would also get him control of a number of pathways deeper into the Federation.”

Li nodded impatiently. Boston’s importance was no great surprise to her. They’d discussed the system’s role in the enemy’s defenses, back when she’d authorized the attack on Boston that had ended so badly. If Admiral Garibaldi failed to secure the system, all hope of an offensive deeper into enemy space would be lost.

“We provide him with what limited support we can, while waiting for the remainder of our fleet to come back online,” General Stuart added. “If his forces get worn down to a nub... that will make it easier, in the aftermath of the war, for us to determine the future of the Federation.”

“You mean, use his forces to soak up enemy fire,” Li said, flatly. “And turn him into a martyr, if necessary.”

“Yes,” General Stuart said. “He may be too dangerous to be allowed to live.”

Li felt her eyes narrow. She could see the cold-hearted logic of it. The Outsider Navy had been badly weakened after the Battle of Boston and, even with their technical advantages, the Federation Navy would still outgun them rather badly. And even if they won the war, they might just be trading one emperor for another. Worse, a potential Emperor Roman would know the Outsiders far better than Emperor Marius could ever hope to do. He would have had plenty of opportunity to locate every last production node, then send ships out to destroy them. Allowing Garibaldi to weaken himself battering against the enemy’s defenses might work in her favor.

But it was dishonorable.

She had no illusions of just how much Garibaldi had sacrificed, just to save her homeworld from genocide. He ran the risk of being knifed in the back by his own crew — or, perhaps, of being hunted down and shot like a dog. It was no favor, to such a man, to abandon him to the whims of his enemies. Or to use him, praise him, and discard him. She couldn’t allow it to stand.

And he will see what we are doing, too, she thought, bitterly. Nothing could be more certain to harden his heart against us.

“No,” she said. “We will treat him as a full ally, with all the rights and duties that that implies.”

General Stuart frowned. “The risks...”

Li cut him off. “If we lose the war, perhaps because we withheld reinforcements that might have swung the tide of battle in our favor, there will be no point in worrying about the future,” she said, firmly. “And if he believes we are deliberately sending him and his men out to die... well, he might have a very strong incentive to switch sides once again or declare himself an emperor in his own right. I don’t think he’s one of the bad guys.”

“He took our fleet on and beat it,” General Stuart said.

He took your fleet on, Li thought. General Stuart had been in command of the forces that had attacked Boston, only to be lured into an ambush and driven away from the system. It had to sting, losing a battle to a younger man... but then, the Outsiders had had almost no experience of full-scale fleet battles before the war, at least outside simulations. Are you arguing to expend Garibaldi because he’s dangerous or because of your injured pride?

“That doesn’t make him a bad guy,” she said, instead. “Besides, if we refuse to accept him, don’t we have to throw out all the former Federation Navy personnel who’ve joined our ranks?”

“That’s different,” General Stuart said.

Li met his eyes. “How?”

General Stuart took a long breath. “We recruited hundreds of thousands of former naval personnel — and mercenaries — before the war began,” he said. “In all such cases, the personnel were scattered amongst the fleet and, when they were being offered posts in sensitive locations, tested thoroughly for disloyalty or hidden programming. Their ability to cause problems was minimized. The handful of spies or deep-cover personalities we did find were unable to take any information back to their masters before they were... dealt with.”

He paused, significantly. “In this case, we have over a hundred thousand naval personnel, spread out over two hundred warships,” he added. “More, in fact, if Admiral Garibaldi convinces Boston to join us without a fight. They are, if you will pardon the expression, an indigestible bulk; they have a fleet, they are loyal to Admiral Garibaldi rather than the cause and, if push comes to shove, I imagine they will follow him, rather than us.

“In short, Admiral Garibaldi will be in a very good position to betray us and do some very real damage.”

“You don’t know that will happen,” Li pointed out.

“No, I don’t,” General Stuart agreed. He met her eyes evenly. “But it is my duty to make you aware of the dangers. There may come a time when you wish you expended his ships rather than have them hurling missiles at you.”

“Yes, there may,” Li said. “But we will not deliberately set out to betray him.”

She pressed her fingertips together as she turned to look up at the display. The Federation Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence — or whatever had replaced it, given how badly ONI had dropped the ball — would have sold its collective soul for a chance to inspect the display, knowing it showed a network of bases and settlements that were unknown to the Federation. If there had been more time, perhaps five or ten years, she was sure the Outsiders would have won the war easily. Their weapons research was easily two or three years ahead of the best the Federation could offer...

But it was not to be, she thought. Emperor Marius had already been planning survey missions deep beyond the Rim by the time the war had begun. And now, we have to depend on someone who risked everything to save my homeworld.

“He is not to learn of the bases,” she said, making a swift decision. “The information must not reach the Federation.”

“Understood,” General Stuart said.

“But otherwise, we will support him to the hilt,” she added. “I’ll discuss the future of the Federation with him, after he secures Boston.”

General Stuart frowned. “You intend to stay on the front lines?”

“It’s not quite the front lines,” Li corrected him. “But if we lose, we may as well start packing our bags and heading further into the Beyond.”

“Very well,” General Stuart said. “I must insist, though, on you having bodyguards with you at all times. You cannot, you must not, be risked.”

Li snorted, then nodded reluctantly.

“Very well,” she said. “I suppose those men you sent to kidnap me would be good for the job, wouldn’t they?”

“We’ll see,” General Stuart said. “Mercenaries are not always reliable.”

* * *

“Well,” Sanderson said, “I think we’re probably going to be sent to the ice mines somewhere.”

“Shut up,” Lieutenant Caleb Roebuck muttered. “I thought she was going to have us all executed at once.”

Uzi kept his amusement and frustration to himself as he studied the updates from the planetary defense network. His plan with the shuttle had been perfect, completely perfect; he’d kill the two Outsiders and signal for help, ensuring that the Federation Navy took Chang Li into custody before she recovered from the stun bolt...

... and then it had failed, simply because he hadn’t even begun to consider that Admiral Garibaldi would switch sides. He’d ruined everything.

For the first time in a long career, Uzi found himself seriously considering abandoning his mission and just retreating into the shadows. It would hardly be impossible to steal a courier boat or find passage on a freighter, even though it meant admitting defeat. Admiral Garibaldi had seen him, back when he’d been inserted on Hobson’s Choice; he’d know Uzi by sight if they encountered one another again. And even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be long before someone started asking questions about the shuttle’s power failure. That would be more than enough to reveal the presence of an infiltrator.

And yet, he was a loyalist. The Federation needed him. He didn’t want to just back out and escape when he still had a job to do.

“Uzi?” Roebuck asked. “What do you think they’ll do?”

Uzi glanced at the younger man. He’d practically been mentoring the Outsider, teaching him how to be a more effective commanding officer, all the while measuring Caleb Roebuck’s back for the knife. Roebuck had promise, he acknowledged inwardly; he wouldn’t have been too out of place in the Federation Marines, even if it was as just another stupid greenie lieutenant who had to be mentored before he got a bunch of men killed. And Roebuck was smart enough to ask for advice...

“We were ordered to stun the Senator and take her to the shuttle,” he said, simply. It had definitely been the oddest set of orders he’d been given, up to and including the orders to sneak into a planetary rebel’s office and kill his cats. “They can’t hold us accountable for what we were ordered to do.”

“She’s the boss,” Sanderson said, mournfully. “She can order us killed on the spot.”

“I don’t think she will,” Uzi said, as reassuringly as he could. In the Federation, during the days of the Grand Senate, being worried about getting the blame for following orders wouldn’t have been too bad a reaction. If a senior officer had made a mistake, his first instinct would be to search for a scapegoat. “She might be angry, but she’ll be angry with the person who issued the orders, not with us.”

“I hope you’re right,” Roebuck said. “But what do we do now?”

“We wait and see what our orders are,” Uzi said. They’d docked the shuttle on the space station, then been herded into a private compartment and told to wait. “I don’t know about the pair of you, but I could do with a nap.”

“Yeah,” Sanderson agreed, morosely. “And I bet the Senator thinks we should be taking a permanent nap.”

“I can stun you, if you’d like,” Uzi offered, only half in jest. Stunning them both would at least allow him to think in peace. He needed to do something about that shuttle before a technician took a close look at the drive failure. “You’d be sure of a good sleep.”

“And a banging headache the morning afterwards,” Sanderson said. “I’ll sleep the natural way.”

“Look on the bright side,” Uzi called, as Sanderson rose to his feet and headed for the bedroom. “You’ll have one hell of a story to tell the girls on Nova Athena.”

Sanderson gave him a one-fingered gesture and stepped through the hatch. Uzi smirked, then returned to his silent contemplations as Roebuck also headed for bed.

What the hell should he do now?

Chapter Five

This was not their only advantage. Indeed, thanks to a far superior educational model, the average Outsider crew might have two or three times the efficiency of its Federation counterpart.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Spinner/Boston, 4101

There was no way in hell, Marius had already decided, that he was going to miss watching from the CIC as his battle squadrons readied themselves to return to Boston. Commander Lewis had objected, of course, but he’d ignored her. If they were about to run into a blocking force, if they had to fight their way through, he was damned if he was lying in his cabin while Captain Watson directed the battle.

If only because we’d lose, he thought, as the final status reports flashed up in front of his display. The fleet’s engineers had done what they could to repair the damage his starships had taken, but they were still critically short in a number of areas. In hindsight, firing off so many missiles might have been a mistake. Punching our way into the system would be tricky even if we had a full weapons load.

“Send the drones through the Asimov Point,” he ordered. Commodore Yu hadn’t left anything on station on the near side of the point, as far as his sensors could tell, although that meant nothing. A cloaked starship could have noted his arrival in the system and jumped back through to Boston to prepare a hot reception. “And stand by to send the first ships through.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said. She peered down at her console. “Drones launching... now.”

She paused. “Sir, a courier boat has just come into sensor range, heading towards the Asimov Point,” she added. “Its IFF marks it as being attached to Fifth Fleet.”

Too late, Marius thought, vindictively. Unless, of course, another courier boat traveled the other chain of Asimov Points...

He pushed the thought aside, sharply. “Order her to shut down her drives and prepare to be boarded,” he said. There was no time for wool-gathering. “If she refuses to answer our hails, fire on her the moment she enters weapons range.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

Marius nodded to himself as the new icon flashed towards them. Courier boats were the fastest things in space, but their crews were still largely dependent on the Asimov Point to get from place to place. The courier boat Roman Garibaldi had dispatched could either surrender or reverse course and try to run back to Nova Athena, he thought; there was no way it could get through the Asimov Point without entering his engagement envelope. And a courier boat was practically defenseless.

“She’s altering course,” Ginny snapped. “Sir, Captain Angstrom is requesting permission to give chase.”

“Denied,” Marius said. The courier boat wasn’t a problem, as long as she didn’t have a chance to pop through the Asimov Point before it was too late. “Order Angstrom and his ships to hold position on this side of the point. If the courier boat returns, they are to blow her to atoms.”

He turned his attention back to the display as Ginny started to issue orders to the fleet. The drones had returned, telling him things he didn’t want to know about the brooding fortresses on the far side, but they did seem to be on standby, rather than ready to repel an offensive through the Asimov Point. No doubt, in the wake of the crushing defeat the Outsiders had suffered the last time they’d tried to punch their way into the system, the crews were taking the opportunity to do some maintenance while the threat of attack was very low. Unless it was all a trick...

No, he told himself, firmly. We have to go through the Asimov Point.

Ginny turned to look at him. “Your orders, sir?”

“Send the first elements through the Asimov Point as planned,” he ordered. It was a gamble, one hell of a gamble, but there was no choice. The only alternative was skulking around the Rim until they were finally run down and destroyed, if their ships lasted so long. “And ready the remaining assault pods for deployment.”

He tensed, despite himself, as the first starships approached the point and vanished. If the defenders did intend an ambush, they’d spring it... now. And his ships didn’t carry anything like enough assault pods to force their way into the system. His mind raced, considering hundreds of desperate attack plans, before the next set of drones popped back into existence on the near side of the point. The first starships had entered the system without trouble.

“Take the rest of the fleet through,” he ordered, curtly. “And stand by all weapons and defensive systems.”

His stomach gave a twinge of unease, just one, as the superdreadnaught passed through the Asimov Point and entered Boston. Hundreds of new icons flared to life on the display; twenty-one heavy fortresses, thirty-seven support cruisers, hundreds of starfighters and thousands of mines and automated weapons platforms. If Commodore Yu had wanted to block his path, he knew, she might well have succeeded. But his fleet was already through the Asimov Point and heading out of her engagement range...

“Picking up a signal from the command fortress, sir,” Ginny said. “They’re asking what happened at Nova Athena.”

Then Roman didn’t manage to get a message back in time, Marius thought. He felt a wave of relief, followed by a flicker of the old confidence. Sloppy work, young man.

He smirked to himself as he leaned forward. If Commodore Yu didn’t know what had happened, the prospect of violent resistance was minimal. But it would still be unwise to push her too far, particularly if she was loyal to Roman Garibaldi instead of the Federation Navy or Marius himself. He cursed the Grand Senate under his breath — they’d done so much to wear down the navy’s loyalty to the Federation — and keyed his console.

“Commodore Yu, this is Emperor Marius,” he said. He’d spent a great deal of time trying to decide what lie to tell her, knowing that his words would be spread across the Federation and — perhaps — used against him. “The fleet successfully secured Nova Athena. Admiral Garibaldi is currently preparing an offensive deeper into enemy space.”

He paused. “I’m detaching an officer to assume command of the system,” he added, “but the remainder of this fleet needs to return to Earth immediately. Dispatch every fleet replenishment unit you have to rendezvous with my battle squadrons prior to our transit through the Asimov Point. We’ll replenish while in transit.”

Tapping the console again, he sent the message to Boston. Commodore Yu was a logistics officer, according to her file; she wouldn’t be in command of any of the fortresses, regardless of tradition. And, hopefully, she’d send the replenishment ships without question. The thought of depriving Roman Garibaldi of the logistics he’d need to push onwards to Earth amused him, particularly as Roman wouldn’t be able to punish Commodore Yu for her actions without undermining his own position. She’d merely followed legitimate orders from her superior officer.

He leaned back in his chair, studying the system display. Roman and his officers had done a good job, he had to admit. Boston had always been in a good position for industrial development — there were no less than five Asimov Points in the system, three of them leading into new Asimov Point chains — but Roman had built the system up into a formidable fortress during the war. Hell, it looked as though the local industrial base was more efficient than the Core Worlds, although that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The planet’s inhabitants had no doubt their system was on the front lines of a war.

I should take them all back to Earth with me, he thought, sourly. They’d actually do good work, unlike the whining bastards on Luna.

It was tempting, very tempting, to try to just take control of the system himself and make a stand. Roman Garibaldi couldn’t be any better prepared for an Asimov Point assault than his own ships, even if he drew supplies from the Outsiders. They’d blown through their own supply of assault pods, he was sure, during their ill-fated attack on the system. But far too many officers and crew on the base would owe their careers to Roman Garibaldi. Their loyalties would be in doubt at the worst possible time.

Commodore Palin may not be able to hold the system, he told himself. Even though we sent him additional troopers, he’ll be trying to keep thousands of men under control while fighting off an Asimov Point attack

“Sir, we picked up an acknowledgement from Commodore Yu,” Ginny said. “She’s dispatching the replenishment units now, sir, and she’s requesting permission to dispatch additional supplies to Admiral Garibaldi.”

Marius smiled, rather coldly. It was a reasonable request, given what Commodore Yu knew, but not one he was inclined to grant. The only problem was that refusing permission, for whatever reason, might arouse her suspicions. As far as she knew, Roman Garibaldi was holding an enemy system after a battle that would have cost his ships hundreds of missiles...

“Tell her that Commodore Palin will handle such matters,” he said. Once Palin was in command of the Asimov Point, he could tell Yu the truth and force her to decide who she was going to support. “And add a private note. I want Professor Kratman found and returned to the fleet.”

Oddly, the thought cost him a twinge of pain. Captain Kratman had been his first commanding officer, back when the Matterhorn had led the charge that had sparked off the Blue Star War; Minister Kratman had been one of his first appointments to his cabinet. But there were too many unanswered questions about the Professor and the Brotherhood he served. Who knew what he’d said to Roman Garibaldi, back when Marius had brought him to the system...

And he taught Blake Raistlin, too, Marius thought. The Brotherhood had played a role in promoting him, back when the Grand Senate was still in power, but it had been surprisingly quiet since he’d become Emperor. And, in Marius’s experience, silence meant that someone was plotting something. How many other young men were seduced into serving the Brotherhood?

He scowled down at his hands as his fleet crawled across the system, a handful of new icons on the display showing the replenishment ships as they left the planet and headed towards the Asimov Point. Every Federation officer knew to develop a healthy dose of paranoia concerning their superiors — even paranoids had enemies; they knew their superiors wouldn’t hesitate to use them as scapegoats if necessary — and watch them carefully. And yet, he hadn’t thought Professor Kratman needed watching. He’d been one of the few superior officers Marius had genuinely trusted...

But I was an Ensign, he reminded himself. The idea of the captain bothering to actually notice me was absurd.

The thought made him smile. Very — very — few ensigns wanted to attract the captain’s attention. They certainly didn’t share downtime with their commanding officer. But he’d trusted Captain Kratman, even after he’d taken up a teaching post at the academy. And yet, now, who knew what he’d been doing? Two members of his class had betrayed Marius’s trust and turned on him.

“Sir,” Ginny said, nervously. “Professor Kratman is nowhere to be found.”

Marius blinked. They’d left the professor on Boston, hadn’t they? Had he somehow sneaked onboard Valiant, with or without her commander’s permission? Or had he taken a transport back into the Core Worlds? It was far from impossible, even though he would have needed permission from Commodore Yu to depart. A Brotherhood member in the right place and Commodore Yu wouldn’t have known anything about it. Or he might simply have gone underground. Boston was large enough for a careful man to hide indefinitely.

“Order her to put out an alert for him,” he said. There wasn’t any time to take the planet and organize a search, not when there was no certainty Professor Kratman was still on the surface instead of heading away from the system. “When he’s found, he is to be held in stasis and shipped back to Earth immediately.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

Marius scowled, making a mental note to have the remainder of the Brotherhood hunted down and arrested. He knew at least two others, back on Earth, and neither of them would be able to go on the run without surrendering their influence. Once they were caught, they could be interrogated, revealing the names of their comrades. Or, if they were treated to keep them from spilling the beans, they could become ONI’s test subjects in its endless attempts to break the conditioning and discover the truth.

He put the matter aside for the moment and turned his attention to the replenishment units, drawing closer to his ships. They’d have to accompany his ships through the Asimov Point — he hoped the crews would be loyal — and on the way to Earth. If they thought better of it, he wouldn’t hesitate to have the marines invade the ships and take control. There was just too much at stake for half-measures.

“Commander,” he said. “Have you readied the secure datapack?”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. “It’s ready for dispatch.”

“Order the base to launch four courier boats,” Marius said. “Once they’re nearly at the Asimov Point, send them the datapack on tight-beam and tell the crews to take it straight to Earth, priority-one. Make sure they have the right codes to get through all the defenses and chokepoints without being halted.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

Marius looked up at the display, silently calculating travel times. It would take at least three months for his fleet to return to Earth, three months during which time anything could happen. But if he sent a warning on ahead, via a courier boat, Tiffany would be alerted within two months, perhaps less if they redlined their drives. He briefly considered boarding a courier boat himself — he’d endured worse, as a young ensign — before dismissing the thought. There were too many opportunists who wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of his weakness, if he turned up in a courier boat rather than a superdreadnaught. And then there would be another civil war...

And then the Outsiders will just walk in and take over, he thought, darkly. How could so many people be so stupid?

But he already knew the answer. People, particularly politicians, were stupid. They were so fixated on their own power, so insulated from the consequences of their decisions, that they put their own advantage ahead of the good of the Federation. He might have been able to nip the Outsiders in the bud, he was sure, if the Grand Senate had given him the firepower he needed and the authority to use it. Instead, they’d ignored a festering problem along the Rim until Admiral Justinian had forced them to fight for survival. And even then, they’d still put their own advantage first. They could have crushed Admiral Justinian like a bug if they hadn’t put a political admiral in command of the fleet.

He felt his head start to pound and rubbed it, silently grateful that there was only one other person in the CIC to see his weakness. It wasn’t something he could allow, during a major battle, but for the moment it would have to do. Thankfully, they should have more than enough warning if Commodore Yu decided to turn on them or reject Commodore Palin’s authority. But even then...

The hours crawled by, far too slowly, as they approached the Asimov Point. There was no further update from the planet, no assurance that Professor Kratman had been captured or his departure confirmed... Marius fretted over it, despite his best efforts. His old commanding officer was a sneaky devil. Who knew what he was doing? And who knew what he’d said to Roman Garibaldi, the night before the fleet had left Boston? Marius’s intelligence officers hadn’t been able to slip bugs into Roman’s superdreadnaught.

Because I trusted him, Marius thought, bitterly. I trusted him enough not to insist.

“Sir,” Ginny said, breaking into his thoughts. “We’re cleared to pass through the Asimov Point. The replenishment ships have fallen into formation, as per instructions.”

“Good,” Marius said. Unless, of course, the fortresses surrounding the Asimov Point — weaker here, as there was no real threat of attack from the far side — intended to fire on the ships when they entered point-blank range. “Take us through as planned.”

He looked up at the system display, silently calculating the odds. Commodore Palin would try to hold the system, he was sure, but would it be enough to stop the system’s former master? His crews might turn on him when they realized just who was attacking. But there was no choice. He had to let Commodore Palin do his job and pray it was enough. He braced himself as the ship entered the Asimov Point, gritting his teeth as he felt the gut-wrenching unease as they passed through the tear in space and time.

“Transit complete, sir,” Ginny said. There was nothing on the far side, save for a roving picket of gunboats. “The replenishment ships are asking for orders.”

“Continue on course towards Earth,” Marius ordered. “We’ll replenish along the way, as planned.”

He couldn’t help a sigh of relief as he rose. They’d made it through the bottleneck and, hopefully, delayed Roman Garibaldi. Even if he retook the system without a fight, he’d still have problems replacing the replenishment ships. It would take him months, probably, to adapt older freighters to do the job...

... And, in that time, Marius knew he would have plenty of time to prepare his own forces for the final battle.

Chapter Six

Unsurprisingly, questions regarding loyalty tended to dominate the Federation Navy’s concerns during the last years of the civil wars.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Spinner/Boston, 4101

“I just picked up a message from the courier boat,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “The Emperor’s fleet passed through two days ago, sir, and detailed a squadron of destroyers to cover the Asimov Point. There was no way to slip a message through to Boston.”

Roman cursed under his breath. Emperor Marius must have redlined his drives as soon as he entered the Asimov Point chain leading to Boston. Given how badly damaged some of the refugee ships had been, it was a considerable risk. Roman had hoped the courier boat would beat Marius Drake to Boston, but evidently it was not to be. And that meant... what? Who was in command of Boston? Commodore Yu, Emperor Marius... or someone else? If the latter, it would definitely be one of the Emperor’s loyalists. Somehow, Roman doubted he would be willing to let himself be talked out of making a stand.

He studied the tactical display for a long moment, thinking hard. It wouldn’t be impossible to sneak up on the destroyers, if they were just sitting atop the Asimov Point, but he rather doubted it would work. Almost all commanding officers had actual experience, these days; he had a feeling the enemy commander would have detailed half his squadron to run patrols while the other half stood ready to jump back to Boston. Hell, it was quite possible that a cloaked ship had observed their arrival at Spinner and a warning was already flickering back to Boston. It was what he would have done.

“Take us directly to the Asimov Point,” he ordered. There was no point in playing games, not when the enemy commander had to know where he was going. “Launch a shell of sensor drones and hold them in position around our formation, watching for cloaked ships. I don’t want to be caught by surprise.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman settled back in his chair as the fleet began the slow crawl towards the Asimov Point, contemplating his options. There were just too many unknowns for him to come up with any real plan, which meant he would probably have to improvise when they jumped into Boston and discovered what was lying in wait. All he could do was prepare for everything he could, up to and including a full-scale assault on the Asimov Point, even though it would be terrifyingly expensive. His fleet had expended most of its assault pods during the advance on Nova Athena.

And why not? he thought, bitterly. We weren’t expecting to continue the advance beyond there, were we?

Pushing the thought aside, he reached for the latest set of reports from the engineers and quickly skimmed through them. Most of his starships were combat-ready, but there were limits to what the engineers could do without a proper yard and some downtime. Roman hoped Emperor Marius hadn’t tried to destroy the facilities at Boston, although he knew it was a strong possibility. But then, the yards were necessary to rebuild the Federation as well as supporting the war effort. It was just possible that the Emperor had left them alone.

“Admiral, long-range sensors are picking up seven destroyers orbiting the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “I can’t get a positive ID on them at this distance.”

Seven destroyers, Roman thought. A standard destroyer squadron had nine ships. Had two of them cloaked to keep an eye on his fleet? Or had they jumped back through the Asimov Point to alert the defenders? Or had they been destroyed during the engagement, leaving the squadron understrength? And presumably not starships attached to Boston’s local defenses.

“Keep us on course,” he ordered. “Inform me the moment you get a positive ID.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. She paused. “One of the destroyers just jumped into the Asimov Point and vanished.”

“Understood,” Roman said. It was possible that someone was planning a clever ambush, but they’d stripped Boston clean of assault pods prior to departure. “Prepare to transmit the pre-recorded message as soon as we enter our long-range missile envelope.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman forced himself to relax. It was vanishingly unlikely that seven destroyers — six now — would put up a fight, not against the immensity of his fleet. They’d be incredibly lucky to score a single hit before they were blown to atoms. But if the ships were commanded by loyalists, they’d do anything for their Emperor. Roman himself would have done anything for Emperor Marius, once upon a time. Now...

The man you knew is gone, he told himself, sternly. And in his place, there’s a monster.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “We’re entering missile range.”

“Transmit the message,” Roman ordered. “And then prep the courier drones for launch.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman glanced at the fleet’s status display and braced himself. Fifth Fleet had been through hell under his command, building up a level of experience and esprit de corps that few other Federation formations could claim, but it had never really anticipated having to turn on the admiral who’d led the Federation Navy to victory over Admiral Justinian. Roman couldn’t help but think that they’d lost something of their innocence, even though he knew that the prospects for civil war had been looming before Admiral Justinian had attacked Earth. His crews had signed up to keep humanity safe, not fight wars against their fellow humans...

“The destroyers have jumped back through the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “They made no attempt to reply.”

Loyalists, then, Roman thought. He wouldn’t have deigned to reply, if he’d still been a loyalist himself. And that means we may have to fight our way into the system.

“Launch the drones,” he ordered. “And then take us straight towards the Asimov Point. It’s time to jump into the fire.”

And hope to hell we don’t get burned, he thought, grimly. Because even a successful assault on the system will cost us dearly.

* * *

Commodore Hassan Palin had the uneasy feeling he’d been staked out, like a goat, to lure a tiger into a trap. He and a handful of his men, scattered through the vast fortress, were the only men truly loyal to the Emperor in the system. Boston belonged to Admiral Garibaldi, he’d discovered in the two days he’d spent as system commander, and even though Garibaldi had been declared a traitor many were still loyal to him. He was grimly aware that stationing armored troopers throughout the station might be the only thing that was preventing a mutiny and keeping him alive.

I wish there was time to bring more crews up from the Core Worlds, he thought, although he knew reinforcements weren’t going to arrive before it was too late. Even if the Federation hadn’t concentrated on building starships and training their crews, there were just too many other demands on Fortress Command’s tiny reserve of trained manpower. And additional warships to ensure the system remains loyal.

Hassan sighed to himself as he sat back in his command chair in the CIC, watching the destroyers as they snapped back into existence. He’d done everything he could to ensure the defenders remained loyal — and that any who remained disloyal had no chance to interfere — but he knew it wasn’t good enough. The prospect of having a knife slipped into his back by one of his officers was all too real. Hell, it had been hard enough to disarm the majority of the crew before they did something stupid. Fortresses had been boarded before, during the war, and unarmed crewmen were just lambs to the slaughter. But again, there had been no choice.

“Commodore, the remaining destroyers have transited,” Lieutenant Commander Rollins said, quietly. She was young, so young he thought she should still be at the academy, but it wasn’t uncommon for talented youngsters to rise rapidly in the ranks these days. And her tone was barely on the right side of insubordination. “Fifth Fleet is approaching the Asimov Point.”

“Bring the defenders to red alert, stand by to engage,” Hassan ordered. If they triggered off the first shots, the crews would likely find themselves fighting desperately to save their lives, even if they were on Garibaldi’s side. “Slave the command datanet to this fortress and override commands from the other fortresses.”

“Aye, sir,” Rollins said. Her back was stiff, her tone resentful. “Command datanet engaged.”

Hassan glowered at her back. He could have her taken out and shot, yet that would almost certainly spark a mutiny. Unarmed the crews might be — although he suspected the sweep hadn’t found all the weapons — but they weren’t helpless. All he could do was hope to push them into the fight before they found a way to overthrow him.

He blinked in surprise as the first courier drones popped into existence, transmitting their message as soon as their systems recovered from the brief transit. A moment later, he realized what the enemy commander had in mind. He was deliberately signaling his loyalists, inviting them — begging them — to take a stand against the Emperor. It could not be tolerated.

“Order the CSP to take those drones out,” he snapped. There was no point in wasting single-shot automated weapons platforms on the drones. “Now!”

“Aye, sir,” Rollins said. Her hand danced over her console. “CSP has been informed...”

She broke off as red icons flickered onto the display, each one representing an enemy superdreadnaught. For a moment, Hassan could only stare in disbelief. Admiral Garibaldi was sending the superdreadnaughts through the Asimov Point too quickly, running the risk of two or more of his ships colliding or interpenetrating. He had to be out of his mind... even if the fortress crews refused to engage his ships, the automated weapons systems would have no such hesitation.

He keyed his console, ordering the automated systems and minefields to engage. Let Admiral Garibaldi get slapped back, let him come in shooting. Hassan’s crews would have no choice, but to fight to save their lives. He smiled, darkly, as the enemy superdreadnaughts began to vanish, their shields still too weak to save them from the bombardment. And yet, more and more of them were appearing... he might just win the new civil war in one fell swoop.

“Order the fortresses to open fire,” he ordered. The inner minefields had been almost completely expended, while the automated weapons platforms were recharging. And yet, the enemy were still sending superdreadnaughts though the Asimov Point. “Take them out...”

It struck him a second later, as yet another superdreadnaught blinked into existence. If he went by sensor records alone, his forces had killed over fifty superdreadnaughts, a loss rate that no sane commander could afford. And yet, he knew Admiral Garibaldi didn’t have more than seven squadrons of superdreadnaughts, assuming his engineering crews had worked miracles. Admiral Garibaldi had just thrown away over a hundred thousand lives...

... Or had he?

The Outsiders had produced a fleet, he suspected, that was nothing more than ECM drones... and Admiral Garibaldi had allied with the Outsiders. He checked the sensor readings himself, looking for the by-products of destroyed ships. There was nothing, nothing at all. It was possible, he supposed, that antimatter warheads simply hadn’t left very much for his sensors to detect, but there should have been some debris. They’d been conned.

He swore, savagely. Admiral Garibaldi had pulled a fast one...

... And now, his only reliable defense systems had been completely wasted.

* * *

“The drones have reported back, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “They’ve cleared the enemy minefields and automated defenses.”

Roman nodded, grimly. Using the ECM drones had been yet another gamble, but one he’d been fairly sure would work. The prospect of blowing apart a stream of superdreadnaughts, one by one, had been simply too great a chance to miss. And besides, only an idiot would risk allowing a superdreadnaught to start opening fire at what was, effectively, point-blank range. The enemy commander, whoever he was, had done everything by the book — and still been thoroughly screwed.

“The fortresses,” he said. “Have they opened fire?”

“Their fire is slack, apparently,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “But they may just have been relying on the automated weapons and the CSP.”

“All right,” Roman said. “Send in the first wave, Lieutenant.”

He took a breath. If the fortresses had decided to oppose him, most — perhaps all — of the first wave of actual starships were doomed, even if they were escorted by yet more ECM drones to soak up enemy fire. He’d briefed the crews carefully, warning them not to target any fortresses that didn’t fire on them first, but he knew it was asking for trouble. At point-blank range, a fortress could switch from friendly to unfriendly in a split second and the first his crews would know of it would be when the missiles started slamming into their shields. And the fortresses fired heavier missiles than anything smaller than a superdreadnaught...

Please, God, he thought, with a grim earnestness he hadn’t felt since he’d been a very small child. Please let this work.

* * *

“Another wave of starships has arrived,” Rollins said. “A number of superdreadnaughts, but also cruisers and destroyers.”

Hassan sucked in his breath. He was almost sure the superdreadnaughts were nothing more than sensor ghosts — according to the sensors, they’d destroyed Fifth Fleet’s entire superdreadnaught strength twice over — but if he was wrong...

“Target the cruisers and destroyers,” he ordered. They, too, might be there to do little more than soak up his fire, but he couldn’t afford to ignore them. “External racks only; I say again, external racks only.”

“Aye, sir,” Rollins said. “Firing now...”

There was a long pause. Only five fortresses opened fire.

Hassan came to his feet. “Report,” he snapped. He had an awful feeling that he already knew. “What happened?”

“The remaining fortresses have isolated themselves from the command network,” Rollins said. There was an edge of amusement in her voice as she glanced up at him. “They did not receive the command to fire.”

Or they chose to ignore it, Hassan thought. By isolating themselves from the datanet, the mutineers had crippled his defense plan. The chances of victory had gone downhill and crashed into rubble. The bastards...

He unsnapped his holster and drew his sidearm, pointing it straight at Rollins’s head. Her face paled, noticeably, as he made a show of clicking off the safety. She would have spent time in the shooting range, of course — naval regulations demanded that crewmen know how to clean and fire their weapons — but she probably wouldn’t have actually seen a weapon used in combat, let alone have one pointed right at her. Chances were, she still thought of warfare as something nicely bloodless. The blood and guts of an infantry battlefield would chill her to the bone.

“Target the treacherous fortresses,” he ordered. There was no hope of stopping Admiral Garibaldi now, nor was there any real chance of escape. All he could really do was claw the enemy good and proper before he was killed. “Target them or I’ll blow your head off, right here and now.”

Rollins stared at him, her mouth moving soundlessly. Hassan felt an odd flush of exhilaration, mixed with a strange horror that chilled him to the bone. What sort of monster had he become? What sort of monsters had they all become? He’d been in the navy for twenty years and he had never had to threaten one of his crewmembers with death before, even during the early stages of the Justinian War. But now, he saw no choice.

“Do it,” he hissed, willing her to believe. He was ready to kill her, if necessary. “Do...”

The power failed. Hassan watched in horror as the displays faded to darkness, the emergency lights coming on barely in time to keep the compartment from plunging into darkness. He clutched his pistol tightly as the artificial gravity failed, unsure what to do now that the entire battle had been lost. His troopers had clearly failed to prevent sabotage on a terrifying scale.

“It’s over, sir,” Rollins said. There was a hint of panic in her voice. Her face was pale as she clung to her seat, using one hand to strap herself down. Normally, few bothered to strap themselves into their chairs, no matter what regulations said. Now, with gravity gone, the logic behind the regs made sense. “Give up. I’m sure the Admiral won’t treat you badly.”

Hassan glared at her, but he knew she was right. Without main power, the fortress was a sitting duck. Even if reinforcements were dispatched from Boston, or the other Asimov Points, there was no hope of them arriving in time to save the day. All he could do was stand down and hope Admiral Garibaldi wasn’t feeling merciless. There was nothing to be gained by trying to fight any longer.

“Very well,” he said, snapping his pistol’s safety catch back on. The shock of the motion sent him drifting upwards. “I hope you have a way to contact him, though. How is he going to know we’ve surrendered?”

He felt a flicker of pride as he bounced off the overhead and pushed himself back to the deck. It had been years since he’d had to work in a null-gee environment. Gravity was often the last thing to fail, along with the internal compensators; normally, the ship taking such a beating meant certain destruction. But now... he just hoped the mutineers did have a way to raise Admiral Garibaldi. The shields were down, the point defense was offline... a handful of antimatter warheads would be more than enough to blow the station into atoms, armor or no armor.

“We do,” Rollins assured him. She watched him take a firm hold of the command chair, then produced a small marine-issue communicator from her belt. The mutiny had clearly been planned in advance. “And I’m sure he will be very relieved to hear from us.”

Hassan snorted. He didn’t know what Admiral Garibaldi might think, but he knew precisely what Marius Drake would think. There was no room for failures in his universe...

... And if Hassan fell into the Emperor’s hands, his life would be worth less than nothing.

Chapter Seven

And the wave of mutinies that ran through the Federation Navy, as the ties that bound crewmen to the Federation finally snapped, did a thorough job of ripping the fleet’s unity apart.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Boston, 4101

“The fortresses have been secured,” Elf reported, through the intercom. “We’ve taken seventy-five prisoners, all troopers and officers off-loaded from the 345th Battlecruiser Squadron. Commodore Palin has surrendered himself into our hands.”

“Have them moved to the superdreadnaughts and held for the moment,” Roman ordered. Thankfully, the fortress crews had mutinied. If they hadn’t, he knew things would have been a great deal harder. “Ask Palin if he’s willing to broadcast a stand-down signal to the rest of the system.”

“Palin has refused to talk,” Elf said. “But Lieutenant Rollins, one of the ringleaders of the mutiny, insists that the loyalists didn’t try to dominate the planet. They just didn’t have the manpower.”

“Understood,” Roman said. He was surprised the Emperor hadn’t tried to make a stand, although if he had the war would have ended very quickly. Or would he have been better at appealing to the loyalty of Roman’s crews? “What happened to the Emperor himself?”

“Left the system two days ago,” Elf said. “He took the replenishment ships with him.”

Roman swore. Emperor Marius hadn’t missed a trick. He’d taken the ships Roman needed to give pursuit. His ships would need to be repaired and replenished at Boston, rather than on the way to a final confrontation. The Emperor had won himself far too much time.

“Understood,” he said, again. “Have Lieutenant Rollins shipped over to Valiant, then see to it that the fortresses are secured. We may need to relocate them to the other Asimov Points.”

He closed the connection, then looked at Lieutenant Thompson. “Send the pre-planned signal to Boston and the other Asimov Point defenders,” he said. “And to the 345th Battlecruiser Squadron, too. Tell them to decide which side they’re on.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded. The 345th Battlecruiser Squadron would probably refuse to join him, but her new commander wouldn’t be able to run the gauntlet of the fortresses to pass through one of the other Asimov Points. Her only real hope of survival would be to head out beyond the system limits and drop into stardrive, rendering herself largely irrelevant for the foreseeable future. Unless, of course, her CO decided it would be better if he skulked around the edge of the system and awaited a chance to do the rebels some real harm. It would be a major headache for Roman if the enemy commander ever got the chance.

But, for the moment, a single squadron of battlecruisers was a very minor problem.

“Set course for Boston,” he ordered. “Best possible speed.”

He sucked in his breath sharply, cursing — not for the first time — the speed of light delay. At best, assuming she responded at once, it would be at least four hours before he received a reply from Commodore Yu. There was no way to be sure what he would encounter on the planet, no way to be certain that the Emperor’s goons hadn’t already started to prepare a trap... hell, there was no way to be sure that Yu hadn’t started to prepare a trap herself. Roman had been too young to be implicated in any of the Grand Senate’s witch-hunts, after Admiral Justinian had betrayed the Federation, but he thought he understood how they’d felt. It was impossible to know just who to trust.

Fighting the Outsiders was a great deal easier, he thought, as he forced himself to relax and study the display. Thankfully, it didn’t look as though the Emperor had bombarded the planet or its industries before fleeing through the Asimov Point... although trying would probably have doomed his entire fleet. Back then, we knew who was on what side.

“The 345th Battlecruiser Squadron has refused to respond to hails,” Lieutenant Thompson informed him. “They’re altering course and heading out of the system. The remainder of the system defense force has signaled that it wishes to join us.”

“Tell them to rendezvous with us at Boston,” Roman said. It didn’t look as though the Emperor had had time to turn a few of his officers, but it was impossible — again — to be entirely sure. Civil wars were nightmares. “And inform me if there’s a response from Commodore Yu.”

It took nearly four hours for a response to arrive. “Admiral Garibaldi, Commodore Palin informed me that you had turned traitor,” Commodore Yu’s recorded message said. “I did not believe him, but I was in no place to intervene in his plans to meet you when you returned to the system. I’m very relieved that you have successfully entered the system and wish to inform you that Boston is firmly under control. The repair yards remain intact and will be ready to work on your ships as soon as you arrive.”

Roman relaxed, slightly. It could still be a trick.

“Record,” he ordered. “Commodore Yu, this is Admiral Garibaldi. Thank you for your welcome to the system. We should enter orbit in” — he glanced at the console — “five hours from this message. Please have a full report ready for me when I arrive.”

He sent the message, then checked the datapacket Yu had sent along with the recorded message. There had been a handful of slow-downs on the planet’s surface, but other than that there had been almost no activity at all. The Emperor, it seemed, hadn’t bothered to land troops, although he’d had no reason to expect trouble. Boston knew it was on the front lines of a war.

And now it’s on the front lines of another war, he thought, as he looked up at the planet’s icon on the display. Who knows which way the planet’s population will jump?

* * *

“It’s good to see you again, Admiral,” Commodore Sonia Yu said, once she’d been welcomed onboard Valiant and shown into Roman’s quarters. “I must confess that the Emperor tricked me.”

“It’s understandable,” Roman assured her, as she took the seat he indicated. He poured them both a mug of coffee, then sat down facing her. “I suspect I would have done the same myself.”

It was hard to be so generous, but he had to admit that Commodore Yu had had no reason to suspect trouble, let alone refuse orders from her lawful superior. Losing the replenishment ships was a major headache, but one he’d have to cope with. She might expect to be relieved of her post, if not taken out and shot, but he was certainly not going to have her executed for a simple mistake. It would set a very bad precedent.

Commodore Yu relaxed, slightly. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “I didn’t expect to have to... to decide which side to support.”

“Nor did I,” Roman said. He looked up, meeting her eyes. “And are you sure you want to stay on my side? You could go into an internment camp on Boston, if you wish.”

“I want to stay with you, sir,” Commodore Yu said.

Roman wished, suddenly, that he could read minds. Did Commodore Yu feel loyalty to him and his fleet? Did she feel that genocide was beyond the pale? Did she think him the certain victor of the coming war? Or did she merely want to keep her power and position? It was the one question he knew he couldn’t ask.

“Very well,” he said. There hadn’t been any resistance on Boston when his fleet had arrived and the marines secured the orbital defenses, then the shipyards. “Give me a status report, please.”

“The Emperor took the replenishment ships, but he made no attempt to capture or destroy our shipyards and our vast stockpiles of spare parts,” Commodore Yu said. There was a hint of pride in her voice. She’d battled logistics problems on a scale unseen since the Inheritance Wars and done a very good job. “Our manpower levels remain untouched. I believe that repairing the majority of your ships will take no more than a month.”

She paused. “The bad news is that we stripped ourselves clean of assault pods and other such weapons, sir,” she added. “Replenishing them may take more than a couple of months, at best.”

Roman cursed the irony under his breath. He’d signed off on transferring all of the assault pods to the fleet, knowing they’d be necessary for the advance on Nova Athena. For once, they would have the Outsiders in a place where they would have to fight or give ground, allowing him to bring the sheer mass of Fifth Fleet to bear against them. But, given everything that had happened since, it had been a terrible mistake. Two months... what could the Emperor do in two months? His imagination provided too many answers.

And if it’s longer than two months, we may have some real problems, he thought. Our logistics are going to be fragile for a very long time to come.

“Then get started on replenishing the assault pods,” he ordered. It was annoying, but there was no point crying over spilt milk. “What about the picket forces?”

“None have been informed of the... changing situation,” Commodore Yu told him. “The 432nd Heavy Cruiser Squadron passed through two weeks ago for replenishment and then headed back to her patrol grounds.”

Roman shook his head in tired disbelief. Thanks to the crazed laws of interstellar war, forces nominally under his command might be attacking the Outsiders for weeks to come, even though he’d come to an agreement with the Outsiders. He hoped they’d be understanding, when the reports finally came in; they’d understand, wouldn’t they, that he couldn’t call his ships back at once?

“Send a handful of courier boats to alert them and order an immediate return to Boston,” he ordered. The Outsiders would have the same problem, but almost all of the systems that had changed hands in the last few years were useless, at least in the short term. They certainly couldn’t give their holder a new fleet of starships. “Tell them to avoid contact with the Outsiders as much as possible and, if they do get detected, break contact if they can.”

He winced at his own words. Cruiser commanders were taught to be aggressive, all the more so in the midst of a war. None of them would appreciate being told to avoid contact with the enemy, particularly when they’d been given orders to press their advantage where possible, but they’d obey. He hoped. It would be hard for many of them to accept an alliance with the Outsiders, yet it would be harder if there were a string of incidents that looked like mutual treachery and backstabbing...

“Yes, sir,” Commodore Yu said. She took a breath. “The majority of the fleet train remains intact, sir, but we are still quite short on freighters. Supplying the offensive pushed us to our limits.”

“We should be able to get more freighters from the Outsiders,” Roman said. He didn’t know if he could trust them completely, but he saw no other choice. “They won’t be configured for naval service, though.”

“We have workarounds in place, already,” Commodore Yu assured him. “I’ve been pressing captured freighters into service for years.”

Roman nodded, and turned to look at the strategic display. It was at least two months out of date — more, perhaps, given that Earth had been several months out of date when the information had been compiled — but it told a grim story. Emperor Marius, falling back towards Earth, could gather a formidable mobile force to challenge Roman, while using fixed defenses to slow his advance. There was no way to circumvent them either, no matter what Roman did. He’d committed himself to at least four assaults through Asimov Points he knew to be heavily defended.


He studied the display for a long moment, thinking hard. There was a way to avoid contact with those defended Asimov Points, but it would be risky. Risky as hell. He’d have to fight his way across half the Federation, just to find a place where he could cross interstellar space and attack Earth through the Dead End, Earth’s second Asimov Point. It was tempting, but the more he looked at it, the more he saw the weaknesses. His fleet would be running short on supplies by the time it finally reached its destination, while the Emperor would have plenty of time to prepare his defenses and cut Roman off at the knees. No, the only true hope of victory was to complete those assaults as fast as possible.


He blinked, remembering Commodore Yu. “Yes?”

“There’s one other detail that should be brought to your attention,” Commodore Yu said, carefully. “Before he left, the Emperor issued a search warrant for Professor Kratman, an APB demanding his arrest and extradition to Earth under federal law.”

Roman stared at her. “Professor Kratman?”

“He vanished — or, at least, there’s no trace of him on the planet’s surface from a point two weeks after the fleet’s departure,” Commodore Yu said. “The planetary police have been attempting to locate him, as per request, but without success. He’s dropped out of sight completely.”

“Then he took a ship out of the system,” Roman said.

“I don’t think so,” Commodore Yu said. “We did check, but there’s no trace of Professor Kratman passing through any of the orbital chokepoints before boarding an interstellar ship and departing the system. A smuggler might be better at getting him off the planet without passing through any of the chokepoints, yet it would have to be an incredibly brave smuggler...”

“True,” Roman agreed. Boston hadn’t quite entered lockdown, but all ships arriving and departing the planet had been carefully scrutinized. Quite a number had been caught with military-grade sensor suites they shouldn’t have had, unless they were spies. “You think he’s still here?”

“I believe so,” Commodore Yu said. “This isn’t an uninhabitable world, sir. A careful person could live off the grid, without being detected, for quite some time. There’s been a black market in everything from living goods to luxury items ever since the war began. I believe, sir, that farmers have been producing more foodstuffs than they’ve bothered to report and selling the surplus on the black market.”

Which is why I never liked living on a planetary surface, Roman thought. It’s so... disorganized.

He leaned forward. “Did the Emperor say why he wanted the Professor caught?”

“No, sir,” Commodore Yu said. “A federal warrant doesn’t need a reason.”

Roman nodded, thoughtfully. Professor Kratman had visited him, shortly before the fleet had departed Boston, warning Roman that the Emperor was no longer stable. And he’d been right, tragically right. The signs had been there for all to see, if they dared look.

“Put out a statement, inviting the professor to turn himself in,” he ordered, finally. The Emperor might have been acting out of vindictiveness — he had shot the remaining Grand Senators personally — but somehow Roman doubted it. Hadn’t Marius Drake once served under Captain Kratman? “And if he does, have him shipped to Valiant.”

Commodore Yu frowned. “Is that wise?”

“I think I’d like to know what the Emperor thinks he’s done,” Roman said. “And besides, he was a minister in the Emperor’s government. He probably knows a great deal we should know.”

“Aye, sir,” Commodore Yu said. “If he turns himself in, I’ll have him shipped back to you.”

Roman dismissed her, and turned back to the display. He’d have to send a courier boat back to Nova Athena, asking the Outsiders to bring their ships and supplies forward as quickly as possible, then send another group of courier boats to the other admirals. If they turned on the Emperor, it would shorten the war... he refused to think about the deaths it would cause, if the civil war expanded. There was no choice.

And put a set of pickets through each of the Asimov Points, he thought, tapping orders into the console. The enemy might just try to counterattack while we’re desperately preparing an offensive of our own.

He sat down, hastily reviewing Emperor Marius’s possible options. Any normal admiral would launch a counterattack as soon as possible, just to keep Roman from getting too comfortable, let alone launching a further attack. It was what he’d done, back when the Outsiders had announced their existence by attacking Athena. But Emperor Marius would have to worry about securing his rear, something Roman hadn’t needed to consider. He might just keep going until he had his fleet safely back at Earth.

But he can send other squadrons to counterattack, or harass my supply lines, Roman reminded himself. It was a fairly standard tactic. The Emperor wouldn’t need any real imagination to think of it. I need to worry about my rear now.

The hatch chimed. He keyed a switch, opening it. Elf stepped inside, looking tired.

Roman smiled, rising. “Welcome back to Boston.”

“It seems to be fairly stable,” Elf said, as she gave him a tight hug. “But there could easily be underground cells just waiting for the order to cause trouble.”

“I know,” Roman said. He’d ordered stay-behind cells to be formed, just in case Boston fell to the Outsiders. The irony of having one of those cells carry out an underground war against him was chilling, but he had to admit it could happen. “I have every confidence in your ability to secure the fleet.”

“I just wish it wasn’t another civil war,” Elf said. “It’s impossible to judge just where everyone’s loyalties lie.”

Roman opened his mouth to answer, but the intercom buzzed. “Admiral, this is Lieutenant Thompson,” a voice said. “We’ve just received a message from the planet. Professor Kratman has been located and is currently en route to the ship.”

Elf blinked. “That quick?”

“He just walked in and announced himself,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Admiral?”

“Inform me when he arrives,” Roman said. He closed the channel, then looked at Elf and smiled. “Answers, finally.”

“Yes,” Elf agreed. “Now tell me, do you know the questions?”

“I hope so,” Roman said.

Chapter Eight

Once scattered, the Federation Navy lost all contact with its long history, its long traditions and, eventually, its reason for existence.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Boston, 4101

Roman had first met Professor Kratman when he’d been a young cadet, struggling to earn high marks through nothing more than sheer merit. The Professor had never been dull; he’d opened their minds, taught them to think and, sometimes harshly, rebuked them for parroting what they learned in books and files. Roman had respected him deeply, even though he hadn’t always liked him. But the man before him now was a shadow of the professor Roman remembered. He looked thinner and paler, his white hair reduced to a faint wisp covering his head. Being on the run for several weeks had evidently not agreed with him.

“I can have food and drink brought in, if you wish,” he said, as the Professor took a seat in Roman’s quarters. He keyed his terminal, sending the food order. “What happened to you?”

“Suspected it would be better to absent myself for a while,” Kratman said. His voice, too, was raspier than Roman remembered. “Marius, I fear, was starting to suspect me. I’d acted too openly against him.”

Elf leaned forward from where she sat on the sofa. “In doing what?”

“Talking to you, for a start,” Kratman said. “The Emperor’s paranoia was growing stronger, much stronger. I believe it wouldn’t have been long before I was removed, on one pretext or another.”

He met Roman’s eyes, a hint of the old fire sparkling to life. “What happened at Nova Athena?”

“The Emperor attempted to commit genocide,” Roman said, bluntly. He ran through a brief explanation, ending with the return to Boston. “Why? Why did this happen?”

“I believe I explained the problem to you, the last time we met,” Kratman said. “The task of running a military is very different from the task of running an entire government, even without the stress of a major war. Marius Drake, sole ruler of the Federation, was cracking under the pressure. I suspected trouble a long time before I obtained proof that he was growing dangerously addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

Elf snorted. “What was he meant to do?”

“Not get addicted, for one,” Kratman said, shortly. “He knew the dangers; he was one of the smartest young officers I ever met...”

“And you helped put him in power,” Elf said.

“I wish I’d had a better solution,” Kratman admitted. “A period of military rule — ten years, as he promised us — seemed the ideal solution. We could streamline the regulations, pare the bureaucracy down to the bone and end the many — many — injustices perpetrated in the name of the Federation. We could loosen the bonds on our industries, making them more competitive and, at the same time, expand our industrial base. The conditions that allowed for the rise of the Grand Senate would take longer to re-emerge, I hoped.

“Instead, we had a major war to fight,” he added. “And the Emperor was utterly unwilling to compromise with the Outsiders. Instead of recovering, our industry has started to collapse; instead of growing, our economy has continued to decay. And the bureaucracy, the bane of billions upon billions of people, has actually managed to grow.”

“The Outsiders appeared at a very bad time,” Roman observed.

“Yes,” Kratman said, flatly. “They did.”

The hatch opened, revealing a pair of stewards carrying trays. Roman watched as they put the food on the table and retreated, then motioned to Kratman to eat. The Professor tucked in with considerable enthusiasm, suggesting he’d been going hungry for the last couple of weeks. Whatever he said, Roman doubted that dropping off the grid had been easy, even on a heavily-populated world like Boston. The war economy kept much of the planet under tight control. He nibbled companionably and waited, as patiently as he could, for Kratman to finish.

“Marius Drake is not a man accustomed to failure or frustration,” Kratman said, when he’d eaten half of the reconstituted scrambled eggs and bacon. “Indeed, I believe trouble was brewing, deep within his mind, as Operation Retribution set off on its ill-fated voyage. The... agreement... he reached with the Grand Senate may have helped, a little, but their attempt to kill Marius pushed him over the edge. Now, he is forced to come to terms with the limits of absolute power at the same time as he has to fight a major war. He simply can’t get blood from a stone.”

“It doesn’t matter how many orders he issues,” Elf said, quietly. “All that matters is how many of them can be obeyed.”

“Correct,” Kratman said. “He’s been taking drugs and drinking too much, sleeping too little and eating a very poor diet...

“And he’s been lashing out at people he sees as potential threats to his plans, apparently unable to see how his actions are counter-productive. The strikers, for example, were pushed to strike because their working conditions were intolerable. Marius, in crushing the strikes and making examples of the ringleaders, has only made matters worse for the economy. The workers may not be on strike, but they sure as hell aren’t working very hard.”

He shook his head. “And his new security apparatus is out of control,” he added. “I don’t know just how much Marius knows about what they’re doing, but they’ve been arresting journalists, commentators and generally casting a long shadow over public debate. Fear is spreading, Roman, and it’s destroying us.”

Elf shot Roman a sharp look. “Wasn’t that true of the Grand Senate?”

“The Grand Senate, for all of its flaws, enjoyed a certain legitimacy,” Kratman said. He shrugged. “If only because it remained in power for so long, no one could remember anything else. And, until the Imperialist Faction self-destructed, it did manage to do a fairly decent job of running the Federation.”

“There are many who would disagree with that,” Elf pointed out.

“Yes, there are,” Kratman agreed. “No system of government is perfect, Major. There has never been a time in human history where there weren’t discontented people of one stripe or another, people who had grudges against the system or merely thought they were the ones who should be in charge.”

“A fairly common delusion,” Elf noted.

Kratman nodded as he took another bite of his food. “Most of the problems facing the Grand Senate — and Marius Drake — came from the simple fact that the Federation is really too colossal to be micromanaged effectively. Marius, I suspect, really should have understood that from the start.”

“Because micromanaging a military operation across thousands of light years is simply impossible,” Roman said. He’d studied the problem at the academy a long time before he had to face it for himself. “By the time messages reach Earth and return with new orders, the situation has moved on.”

“Correct,” Kratman said. He tapped the table, meaningfully. “Lacking legitimacy, Marius needs to secure his power through other means. And those methods, Roman, are alienating the Core Worlds from him.”

“But if he didn’t,” Roman said, “he couldn’t fight the war.”

“I know,” Kratman agreed. “The timing was unfortunate. And now Marius Drake is going mad.”

“You could have stopped him,” Roman said. “You could have tried to warn him...”

“He didn’t listen to me,” Kratman said. “By the time I realized there was a major problem, Roman, he’d already concluded I wasn’t saying anything he wanted to hear.”

He shook his head. “It isn’t that he doesn’t understand the problems,” he added, after a moment. “It’s that he sees defeating the Outsiders as the ultimate priority, with everything else second to that goal. His loyalty to the Federation, the same loyalty that kept him from becoming a warlord in his own right, drives him forward on a single-minded crusade to restore the Federation’s unity. And anyone who stands in his way is, by definition, a traitor to the Federation.”

“And you can do anything to traitors,” Elf said.

“Exactly,” Kratman said. “I don’t think it will be long, Roman, before Marius starts using the military to force reform. And the results are likely to be disastrous. Earth, for example, requires patient handling, not dictatorship. Or, for that matter, being cut off from all government support and told to actually earn itself a living.”

Roman leaned forward. “Very well,” he said, tartly. “We’ve agreed the Emperor is a madman. We have to overthrow him before it’s too late.”

“Removing him from power isn’t the only issue,” Kratman said. “The question is what comes next? What do we put in his place?”

“There is Lady Tiffany,” Elf offered. “She’s the Empress, to all intents and purposes.”

Kratman shook his head. “She has no authority, no influence, that doesn’t come from Marius Drake,” he said. “She certainly doesn’t command any fleets in her own right. The best she can hope for is to be ignored by those who do.”

Roman nodded, reluctantly. After Admiral Justinian and Marius Drake, the only people with power were the ones who controlled military formations. Even if Lady Tiffany hadn’t been the last surviving member of the Grand Families — at least, the last one on Earth — she wouldn’t have any power herself. If something happened to her husband, she’d fall with him.

He sighed. No wonder Marius Drake had started to slide down the slippery slope.

“Shouldn’t we win the war first?” He asked. “This might all become academic if we wind up facing a firing squad.”

“Marius did not have a plan of transition,” Kratman said, frankly. “To my certain knowledge, Roman, he was making it up as he went along. He couldn’t have planned for the Outsiders, I know, but still... he had little more than good intentions. And the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“I don’t want to take power for myself,” Roman insisted.

“You may not have a choice,” Elf said. She gave him a sharp look. “Without a strong central authority, the Federation will not survive.”

Kratman looked up. “Should the Federation survive?”

Roman blinked in shock. He’d never been wedded to the concept of the Federation, not like Marius Drake, but he’d served it all his adult life. The idea of simply allowing the Federation to disintegrate into chaos was horrific. Billions upon billions of lives would be lost, through everything from starvation to military action, as galactic civilization crumbled into dust. The Outsiders would not hesitate to take advantage of the chaos, nor would rogue warlords intent on building up empires of their own. One colossal state would be replaced by dozens of others.

“At least, should it survive in its current form?” Kratman added. “The system the founders created was tailor-made for abuse. On one hand, the out-worlds had very little influence in federal policy; on the other hand, there were so many voters in the core that their votes were concentrated in a small number of hands. The rise of the Grand Senate, an aristocracy in all but name, was inevitable.

“Marius tried to reform the system from within and failed. The effort of trying drove him mad. You may need to replace the system with something else, something more durable, something that learns from the mistakes of the past.”

“And something that pushes the Core Worlds to become more than just parasites on the rest of the Federation,” Elf added. “A system that rewards actual work.”

Roman held up a hand. “Right now, I have to concentrate on preparing the fleet for our push towards the Core Worlds,” he said. “Professor, the Outsiders should be arriving within three weeks to a month, now we’ve secured the system. I want you to sit down with them and sort out an effective plan of transition, one that takes us to a successor state that will salvage human unity without creating another nightmare.”

“It might take longer than you think to hammer out something that will be moderately acceptable to everyone,” Kratman warned. “There are far too many issues that need to be addressed. For a start, Roman, what do we do about aliens?”

“Tricky one,” Elf said. She sounded darkly amused. “Keep them in bondage, risk uprisings and interstellar wars; let them have their freedom, risk having the Emperor declare a crusade against the alien-lovers. What do you think, Professor, that the Brotherhood will think of that?”

Kratman sighed. “The truth, Major, is that the Brotherhood may well be a spent force,” he said. “Our ability to influence events has been weakening over the last five years.”

Roman blinked. “I thought the Brotherhood was all-powerful?”

“Smoke and mirrors,” Kratman admitted. “Oh, we were in position to shape public opinion, even to influence decisions made at the very heart of the federal government. We had people emplaced in the bureaucracy, the media, the military... but our ability to take direct action was always very limited. It was better, we felt, to gently shape public discourse rather than put a dam in its path. And, as long as no one started a purge, we were able to punch well above our actual weight.”

“Because no one had any real idea of your true strengths and weaknesses,” Elf said. “They allowed themselves to be intimidated by you.”

“Yes,” Kratman said. “And, to be fair, they found us useful. We played a vital role in ensuring that aliens remained firmly under control.

“Now, though, the ruler of Earth is a man who won’t be intimidated, a man who pays no attention to public opinion or our spokesmen. I suspect, when he finally returns home, that the Emperor will take strong action against us. He knows we’re no longer on his side.”

“Brilliant,” Roman said, sarcastically.

He looked down at the table, fighting to keep the disbelief off his face. The Brotherhood had cast a long shadow over humanity ever since the First Interstellar War, when the newborn Federation Navy had discovered just what the Snakes did to their human prisoners. An anger had been awakened, matched with a steely determination to ensure that no alien race was ever in a position to threaten humanity ever again. And the Brotherhood, a secretive organization to push for human supremacy, had been born.

And yet, it had all been a bluff?

“For the moment, then, we will leave the alien problem off the table,” Roman said. He rubbed his forehead, wondering if Marius Drake had felt the same way when he’d contemplated the problem of reforming the Federation. “We...”

“The Outsiders have alien allies,” Kratman reminded him. “They’re unlikely to tolerate a continuation of the old policy.”

“You mean crushing all threats, keeping the aliens firmly under control and dropping KEWs at the slightest hint of trouble,” Elf said, flatly. “And exploiting alien labour on their own homeworlds.”

“Yes,” Kratman agreed.

Roman cursed under his breath. The problem hadn’t changed. If they supported alien freedom, even aliens confined to their homeworlds, they’d be handing Emperor Marius a guaranteed propaganda coup. There was nothing — nothing — that galvanised the great mass of public opinion in the Federation more than the prospect of aliens being granted even limited independence. The Brotherhood had played a major role in keeping public opinion firmly turned against the aliens.

And yet, not granting aliens rights and freedoms would alienate the Outsiders. Even if the human Outsiders accepted it, their alien allies would not. And then the civil war would only become worse.

Elf cleared her throat. “What does it actually matter?”

Kratman tossed her a sharp look. “What do you mean?”

“If some of the reports I’ve heard through the grapevine are accurate, the industrial workforce is having major problems keeping up with the Emperor’s demands,” Elf said. “You suggested as much yourself. So they get convinced we’re going to free the aliens, with scenes out of a bad low-budget movie... so what? Even if he were assured of total support, could the Emperor translate it into something effective?”

Roman had to smile. Elf was right. Public opinion, outside of the workforce, mattered very little. What were they going to do? Hold protests against alien rights? And even if the workforce suddenly became far more motivated, it wouldn’t slow the steady decline of the Federation’s industry. Hell, it might make it a great deal worse.

“It might also motivate his military personnel,” Kratman said. “How often do they watch those low-budget movies?”

“It may not matter,” Roman said. “The Emperor... the Emperor can be very inspiring, when he chooses to be.”

He looked back at the table. “We’ll agree to withdraw troops and fortifications from alien homeworlds, granting them independence,” he said. “Alien worlds that exist beyond the Rim will be left alone, provided they leave us alone; if they don’t leave us alone, we’ll smash their militaries and confine them to their homeworlds. And if they want to trade with us... maybe we’ll let them.”

“That won’t go down well with everyone,” Kratman warned.

Roman shrugged. “In my entire career, Professor, I’ve only ever seen a handful of living aliens, all from the same race,” he said. “How often does the average citizen see an alien? I don’t think there are any real aliens in any of those stupid movies.”

“There aren’t,” Kratman confirmed.

Roman looked at him, sharply. “Work out the basics for a post-victory Federation,” he said, “and have them ready to present to the Outsiders. I imagine they’ll want to haggle for hours over the details...”

“Days,” Kratman said. “If not months.”

“But if we lose, it won’t matter in the slightest,” Roman said. “And you’d better make it clear to them that Nova Athena was a human world... and the Emperor was willing to fire on it anyway. I rather doubt he’d hesitate to scorch an alien world clean of life.”

“It has been done before,” Kratman said. He rose, then hesitated. “I assume I have a cabin?”

“You’ll have plenty of space to work,” Roman assured him. He keyed his terminal, calling a steward. “The steward will show you to your cabin. I’d suggest a shower and sleep before you actually do anything.”

Kratman smiled. “In the words of a very old philosopher, Roman, when you get to my age, ‘look as good, you will not.’”

Elf smiled. “How did you survive so long on Boston without being caught?”

“Big world,” Kratman said. “And there’s always an underground, if you know where to look and have the money to convince them you’re worth helping.”

He shrugged, then followed the steward out of the compartment.

“It’s not going to end,” Roman said. “Is it?”

“Probably not,” Elf said. She leaned forward and patted his knee. “Nothing ever ends. All you can do is try your best.”

“I know,” Roman said. He sighed, wishing he had time to take her to bed. “And now I have to get my ships ready before the Outsiders arrive.”

“Or before the Emperor counterattacks,” Elf added. “That would put the cat amongst the mice.”

Chapter Nine

The Outsiders, by contrast, remained a reasonably united force even after the defeat at Boston and the near-defeat at Nova Athena.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Boston, 4101

Chang Li vaguely remembered passing through Boston, back when she’d left Earth after Admiral Justinian had started a civil war. She hadn’t stayed long, unsure of just which way the system’s commanding officer was planning to jump. He’d stayed loyal in the end, she recalled, but she’d had some nasty moments before she finally returned home. The Grand Senate, having granted itself colossal powers to ensure the security of the Federation, might well have sought to arrest her on trumped-up charges.

Now, she couldn’t help feeling oddly conflicted as the superdreadnaught Freedom transited through the Asimov Point and entered the Boston System. She had returned, but as a diplomatic envoy rather than a conqueror. And, no matter how she looked at it, there was no way to avoid the fact that she would have to convince the system’s population to join her, rather than taking their hatred of the Federation for granted. Boston had not only survived two rounds of war, it had prospered... and it was loyal to Admiral Garibaldi. If it hadn’t been, the war might have come within shouting distance of being lost.

“Fifth Fleet is currently holding position midway between Boston and Asimov Point One,” General Stuart said, as he stood beside her in the CIC. “It isn’t a bad choice, really. Gives Garibaldi a mix of possible options if the Feds show themselves.”

Li nodded and turned her attention back to the display. Boston was heavily industrialized, far more than ninety percent of the other systems along the Rim; it would have been a valuable prize, if her forces had taken it and its industry intact. Dozens of ore miners made their way through the asteroid belt, transporting raw materials to the industrial nodes orbiting Boston itself, while countless freighters headed to and from the Asimov Points or out into interstellar space. Throughout the system, powerful fortifications orbited the planet and guarded the Asimov Points. It was impossible to escape the impression that Admiral Garibaldi had an invulnerable fortress, if he chose to use it.

And yet, she knew that was an illusion. Given sufficient firepower, any system could be taken, either through direct assault or a careful campaign of isolation before dispatching a fleet across interstellar space to finish the job. The fortresses that dominated the display could be left to die, once they were cut off from their supply lines, while the planet itself was an immoveable target. If the Emperor had been willing to bombard Nova Athena, she asked herself, was there anything stopping him from targeting Boston? A single antimatter bomb would be more than enough to lay waste to the entire planet.

And I wonder, she thought, just how many of the people on the planet understand the risk?

“We’ve picked up a communication from the command fortress,” General Stuart said. “They want us to join the main body of the fleet for discussions.”

Li nodded. “Take us there,” she said. She wished, despite herself, that she knew more about Admiral Garibaldi. What would he want from the Outsiders — and what would he see as the ideal post-war universe? “I’ll be in my cabin. Please inform me when we reach shuttlecraft range.”

“Of course, Senator,” General Stuart said. He paused. “They are also asking for us to share classified information on our ships, so they can be slotted into their command network. The risks are quite high.”

“I know,” Li said. She looked back at the display, then shook her head. If Admiral Garibaldi had intended a trap, he’d have opened fire on her ships as they transited the Asimov Point and entered the system, one by one. “But the risks have to be borne.”

She nodded again, then strode through the hatch and down the corridor to her cabin. It was smaller, by far, than the stateroom she’d been allocated on the liner she’d taken to Earth, decades ago, but she didn’t mind. Her importance wasn’t measured by the size of her quarters or the quality of her food. She closed the hatch behind her, checked the timer and lay down on the bed. There should be more than enough time for a quick nap before she needed to board the shuttlecraft.

Her lips curved into a smile. General Stuart would have been surprised, she was sure, to know she was napping, but she’d reached a point where constant revision was more likely to harm than help. There was nothing to be gained by going over the talking points, again and again; it would just drive her mad when she needed to relax and center herself for the coming discussions. She closed her eyes and started to take deep breaths. All she could do now was wait and sleep.

* * *

“Welcome back, Senator,” Admiral Garibaldi said, as she and General Stuart were shown into his cabin. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Li said. Admiral Garibaldi wasn’t alone: he was flanked by the young female marine she recalled from their first meeting and an older man who looked to be in his late seventies, although that could be an illusion. A person with access to rejuvenation treatments might remain the same physical age even as they entered their third century. “I’m very relieved that you managed to secure the system.”

“So am I,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “And that most of my crews remained loyal.”

“I wanted to ask about that.” Li said. “Have you had any trouble?”

“A couple of thousand officers and men were shipped to internment camps on Boston,” Garibaldi said, as he motioned for them to sit down. “Most of them were reluctant to fight against the Emperor, either because they were loyal to him or felt that another round of civil war would shatter the Federation. They will, of course, remain unharmed.”

General Stuart leaned forward. “Can you be sure there are no sleeper agents still present on your ships?”

“No,” Admiral Garibaldi said, bluntly. He didn’t seem annoyed by the question, but Li would have been surprised if he wasn’t. “There’s no way to be sure of anything.”

Li winced. Spies were bad enough, but programmed sleeper agents were far worse. They could fool lie detectors because they didn’t know they were sleeper agents; they knew themselves to be loyal. And yet, they might be pushed into taking action by commands they didn’t know had been inserted into their brains, if the alternate personality didn’t simply wash the original personality aside.

“We don’t have time to brain-scan everyone who might have been turned into a sleeper agent,” Admiral Garibaldi said, flatly. “All we can do is take precautions and hope.”

He shook his head. “But that’s not what we’re here to discuss,” he said. “First, we need to decide on a plan of campaign; second, we need to discuss the future of the post-war universe.”

“That is correct,” Li agreed. “I was under the impression, however, that you wanted to win the war before haggling over the peace.”

“Professor Kratman insisted that I should have a plan for managing the transition,” Admiral Garibaldi said. He nodded to the older man. “You’ll be negotiating with him, later. For the moment...”

He keyed a switch. A starchart sprang to life, displaying the shortest route from Boston to Earth. Li, somewhat to her surprise, had no difficulty in understanding it, although — in hindsight — she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. The Outsider Navy had largely copied the Federation Navy’s protocols, just to make life easier for experienced officers who joined the cause. Or, for that matter, to command captured warships.

“There are thirteen Asimov Points between Boston and Earth,” Garibaldi said, “and two interstellar gulfs that will have to be crossed in FTL. Assuming we don’t have to do any actual fighting, it would take around three months to reach the Gateway and enter the Sol System. As it happens, there are formidable defenses emplaced at Ruthven, Marble, Tara Prime and the Gateway itself. The latter two, in particular, are formidable indeed.”

Li frowned. “None of the other Asimov Points are defended?”

“There were a handful of minefields and automated weapons platforms, as of the last set of updates,” Garibaldi said. “However, the defended Asimov Points are chokepoints; we have to go through them or spend years trying to reach our destination via stardrive. There are alternatives — we can go through a different Asimov Point at Astrid and enter Tara Prime through the New London Asimov Point — but we’d still have to tangle with formidable fixed defenses.”

He sucked in a breath. “Making matters more complicated, Senator, is the simple fact that the Tara Sector is controlled by Admiral Theodore Vincent,” he added. “I don’t know him, but he wouldn’t have been left in command of the sector if he hadn’t been regarded as both competent and loyal. I’m hoping he will switch sides, which will make getting through the Tara Prime chokepoint a great deal easier, but there’s no guarantee of anything. He might stay with the Emperor or he may declare independence as a rogue warlord.”

“I assume he has a file,” Li said, after a moment’s thought. She hadn’t met Admiral Vincent either. “Does it say anything useful?”

“Very little,” Professor Kratman said. “He left the Luna Academy ten years before the Justinian War and cut his way to a captaincy, purely on merit. His career stalled afterwards as he had no powerful connections; he only became a commodore after his superior officers were killed during the war. Marius must have known him, I suspect; Tara Prime is not exactly a place to park someone you don’t trust. But there’s no hint of where they actually met.”

Li’s eyes narrowed. “They didn’t serve together?”

“Captain Vincent’s ship was assigned to Operation Retribution and fought in the Battle of Boskone,” Admiral Garibaldi said, quietly. “They may have met in the aftermath, Senator. I certainly met the Admiral after Boskone. But they didn’t serve together after that, as far as we can tell.”

“Which means that the Emperor either made a snap judgement,” the female marine said, “or they worked together on something that wasn’t included in the files.”

“There’s no way to know,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “I’ve sent messages to Vincent, but he hasn’t had time to reply. We’re proceeding on the assumption he’s going to be hostile until proven otherwise.”

He tapped the display. “I intend to leave Boston and proceed to Ruthven within two weeks — ideally, as soon as we have the latest sets of assault pods loaded onto the ships,” he said, curtly. “The fleet train will have to work hard, unfortunately, as we will be forcing the Emperor’s ships to fall back on his own supply bases. Worse, we will have to proceed from Ruthven to Marble as soon as possible, forcing us into another engagement with a heavily-defended system.”

“Attacking Marble should be easier,” General Stuart pointed out. “You’d be attacking the defenses from the rear, instead of punching through an Asimov Point.”

“There are fortresses on both sides of the Asimov Point,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “I imagine one group of fortresses will rush to battlestations as the second group holds out as long as it can. I’m not sure what the planners were thinking...”

He shook his head. “We must assume that the Emperor has also detached forces to harass our supply shipments,” he added. “Convoying enough assault points to Maben to prepare for an attack on Tara Prime will be difficult, all the more so as Tara Prime would be a very good place for the Emperor to make a stand.”

“You mean it’s just like Boston,” General Stuart said. “Only you are faced with the task of taking the system, rather than defending it.”

“I’m afraid so,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “If you have any wonder weapons that can blow a fortress into atoms with a single hit... now would be an excellent time to produce them.”

“We don’t,” General Stuart said. “The Marsha have been quite happy to fly suicide missions, piloting cutters crammed with antimatter, but I suspect the Feds will be ready for such tricks.”

“I know,” Admiral Garibaldi agreed. “You used them on me.”

He took a moment to gather himself, then leaned forward. “I don’t think I need to tell you just how important it is that we preserve as much as possible of our mobile fighting power,” he warned. “Home Fleet is still the single most powerful fleet element in the entire Federation, Senator, and it is backed up by the immense fortifications surrounding the Gateway and Earth itself. We could punch our way through to Sol and still lose the war.”

“There is an alternative,” General Stuart suggested. “Once we secure Tara Prime, we could launch raids through the Core Worlds, devastating their industrial base. The Emperor’s ships would eventually grind to a halt through lack of maintenance and supplies.”

“We could try,” Admiral Garibaldi said, “but we’d have to tangle with dozens of other fixed defenses, wearing down our fleet too.”

He looked directly at Li. “How many additional ships can you supply?”

Li nodded to General Stuart, who cleared his throat. “Though the magic of actually streamlining the whole process, Admiral, it takes us around six months to turn out a whole new superdreadnaught. Add another month or two to work the ship up... overall, give us a few years and we can replace all of our superdreadnaught losses. Smaller ships take less time, as you might expect; we’ve managed to get destroyer build times down to a month, assuming all the parts are on hand.

“Crewing is, of course, a weakness,” he added. “Our training programs are far superior to the Federation’s” — Li winced, inwardly, at the gloating note in his voice — “but our manpower base is nowhere near as extensive. However, we are recruiting more crew from the stage-one and two colony worlds that have joined our union. I suspect we will be churning out double or triple the amount of trained manpower within the next two years.”

He paused, dramatically. “Right now, we have the battle squadrons we brought with us and several hundred smaller ships,” he concluded. “Give us a couple of years and we will have a far superior fighting force.”

“Except the Federation can still out-produce you,” Admiral Garibaldi said, carefully. “It may take them a full year, perhaps longer, to build a superdreadnaught, but they can lay down five or six times as many ships as you can.”

“It depends,” General Stuart admitted. “Our industrial base is weaker, but our manpower is far superior and we are willing to use considerably more automation in the construction yards. And one of our superdreadnaughts is worth two or three of yours... sorry, of theirs.”

“General,” Li said.

General Stuart had the grace to look abashed. “We are working on expanding our industrial base too,” he said. “Our projections show many different results, of course, but we believe that if the war lasts another five years, we should gain a decisive advantage. However, the Federation may solve some of its own problems in the same time. If they manage to improve their educational base by a mere twenty percent, they — not us — will gain a decisive advantage. We can’t risk giving them time to steady themselves and start work on improving their own systems.”

“Which would give the Emperor more time to consolidate his power and plot a counteroffensive,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “Marius Drake is not an idiot, General. He understands his military weaknesses very well.”

He nodded to the display. “Are you willing to commit your forces to this operational plan?”

“I see no alternative,” General Stuart said. “Leaving him in control of the Core Worlds will, at the very least, prolong the war.”

“Agreed,” Li said. She shuddered at the thought. The wars — the Justinian War, the Outsider War — had killed millions, perhaps billions, of humans. Merely trying to force their way into Boston had cost the Outsiders over a hundred thousand lives... and at least fifty thousand on the other side. “We have to end this war as soon as possible.”

“We’ll test your datalinks against ours,” Admiral Garibaldi said. He looked at General Stuart. “Will you serve as second-in-command of the fleet?”

“If you’ll have me,” General Stuart said. His lips quirked in wry amusement. “I lost the last two battles I fought.”

“You fought well,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “And your trick with the ECM was very well timed.”

“Yeah,” General Stuart said. “It drove the Emperor mad.”

“We’ll move to the ops room and discuss our options,” Admiral Garibaldi said. “Professor Kratman and the Senator can discuss the post-war universe. Assuming, of course, that we win the war. We could still lose.”

He opened the hatch and led General Stuart out of the compartment, followed by the female marine. Li watched him go, feeling an odd flicker of respect. Admiral Garibaldi hadn’t needed to invite General Stuart to serve as his second, even though Stuart commanded a sizable fleet in his own right. It was a diplomatic gesture that, she hoped, would go some distance towards integrating the two fleets.

And we’re going to need it, she thought. She’d seen the projections too, noting just how many people were going to die even if the war stayed relatively clean. If the Emperor started bombarding planets at random, and he’d already tried to cross the line once, billions of innocent civilians would be added to the death toll. This war isn’t for the future, not any longer. It’s for survival.

“Senator,” Professor Kratman said. “I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a set of proposals for our discussions.”

Li nodded and dragged her attention back to the here and now. “I look forward to them,” she said. “And I have some proposals of my own.”

Chapter Ten

No one really expected Lady Tiffany, born Tiffany Eleanor Diana Katherine d’Artagnan, to be a serious player on the galactic stage. It was why she was practically given away to Marius Drake, forming a blood tie between him and the Grand Senate. In hindsight, of course, that was a terrible mistake.

—The Woman in Black, 4199

Earth, 4101

It hadn’t been a comfortable night.

Lady Tiffany was loath to admit it, but she missed her husband. Marius Drake might be older than her — much older — yet he’d treated her as a person from the very start, rather than an unwanted wife or a nicely-shaped piece of meat. Tiffany hadn’t been able to keep herself from responding to his courtesy; she’d hated the very thought of being forced into a marriage with a much older man, but she had to admit that it had worked out. Marius Drake, she thought, was truly deserving of her loyalty.

And he’d trusted her. It felt wrong to be apart from him for nearly seven months, but she knew just how much power he’d placed into her hands when he’d appointed her as his second on Earth. He trusted her enough to take the risk of betrayal that she would turn on him, appoint her own people to powerful positions throughout the Federation and, eventually, declare herself Empress in his stead. But the thought had never crossed her mind. She was loyal to the man who’d made her more than an isolated member of a very minor family, so isolated that she could be given away at the whims of her seniors. And besides, she knew, Marius Drake commanded the loyalty of his cabinet, something she doubted she would ever have.

She sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes, unsure just what had woken her. Seven months of solitude would have seemed a dream come true, once upon a time, but now it felt odd. She was the ruler of Earth, to all intents and purposes; she could surround herself with people, if she wanted, yet they wouldn’t include the person she needed. Besides, she spent half of her working day answering petitions and listening to complaints from hundreds of people, all of whom insisted that their petty little problem was so urgent that it had to be dealt with immediately. Solitude at night seemed a welcome blessing.

The intercom buzzed, again. “My Lady, Thunderbird just passed through the Gateway,” Johan Carmichael said. She’d taken pains to get to know her husband’s staff, not just the men and women who tended the President’s House. “The Emperor is on his way home.”

Tiffany felt her heart leap, despite the foreboding she felt deep inside. A courier boat had arrived only a week ago, bearing grim tidings. The Battle of Nova Athena had been won, then lost, thanks to the treachery of Admiral Garibaldi. Tiffany had met the young man — he was only a few years her senior — during the final campaign against Admiral Justinian; she hadn’t considered him a potential traitor. But then, no one had considered Admiral Justinian a potential traitor, either. No wonder he’d gotten away with it for so long.

“Thank you,” she said. “When will he arrive?”

Thunderbird’s ETA in orbit is thirty-seven minutes,” Carmichael said, nervously. He had never seemed to be in awe of her birth, she’d noted with some amusement, but he definitely was in awe of her husband. “Assuming he boards a shuttle at once, My Lady, he’ll be on the ground twenty minutes afterwards.”

Tiffany grinned, feeling almost as giddy as a schoolgirl. “I’ll be at the shuttlepad to meet him,” she said, as she pulled back the covers and sat up in bed. “Please inform me when he is ten minutes from landing.”

“Of course, My Lady,” Carmichael said.

“And thank you,” Tiffany added.

She smiled as she swung her bare legs over the edge of the bed and stood. Too many of her fellow aristocrats, male or female, cared nothing for the men and women who served them. Tiffany had seen servants insulted, molested, or even beaten bloody by their masters, none of whom had really considered the servants to be human. Tiffany’s father, however, had told her to remember that the servants thought, and they could nurse resentments as well as any Grand Senator... and that they had a great deal more than merely losing a coveted trade deal to resent. She’d done her best to treat the servants kindly, even before she’d married Marius Drake...

... And, unlike so many others, she hadn’t been betrayed by her own servants when the Grand Senate finally fell.

The thought chilled her to the bone as she stepped into the bathroom and removed her robe, studying her reflection in the mirror. Long red hair splashed down around a heart-shaped face, just a little too imperfect to attract a young buck from the aristocracy. Not that any of them would have married her, she thought, even if they’d wanted her. Her family lacked the wealth and connections to be of interest, certainly not to the old folks who determined who married whom. She’d resigned herself to being a spinster long before the old bastards had turned out to have a use for her, after all. Had Marius Drake ever known he’d been attached to a family of little real value?

Not that it matters any longer, she reminded herself. The world has changed beyond repair.

She pushed the thought aside as she hurriedly washed and dried herself, then stepped back into the bedroom and hunted for a dress. Normally, she would wear a suit and tie her hair back to appear professional, but she wanted to look good for her husband. It took her several minutes to locate everything she needed and get dressed before sitting in front of the mirror starting to apply make-up to her face. The green dress, she felt, set her hair off, while hinting at her curves rather than revealing them for all to see. Thankfully, no one expected her to set fashions right across the Federation. That, at least, was something she’d been spared.

Smiling, she hurried out of the door and into the antechamber. Her bodyguards, two men who had worked for her father before being assigned to Tiffany herself, rose to their feet and followed her as she walked into the corridor. Their presence was more of a formality than anything else — the Presidential House was heavily defended by armored marines — but Marius had insisted, telling Tiffany that it would provide an extra layer of security for her. She couldn’t help being touched by his concern for her safety as she walked up the stairs, men and women in uniform saluting her as she passed. No one else, save for her father, had given much of a damn about her.

She stepped out onto the shuttlepad and frowned, in sudden discontent, as she saw General Standerton Thorne standing at the edge of the pad. What was he doing, waiting for her husband? She didn’t like General Thorne, if only because he gave her the creeps far worse than some of the aristocratic bucks she’d been supposed to mingle with at parties. They’d spent far too long drooling openly over her breasts, but Thorne gave her a very different impression. There was something in the way he looked at her, at everyone, that told her he wouldn’t give a damn if she lived or died — and, that if she got in his way, he’d kill her without a second thought. She knew such people were necessary, sometimes, but Thorne still scared her. And she had no idea why Thorne had been entrusted with Earth’s security.

A cold wind blew across the shuttlepad as the shuttle came into view, dropping rapidly towards the Presidential House. Tiffany was no expert, but it looked very much as though the pilot was expecting to run into trouble, as if there was something lurking just outside the security cordon with a HVM launcher. Her heart almost stopped at the thought, just as the shuttle came to a halt and hovered over the pad. Moments later, it lowered itself to the ground, a sudden flush of hot air causing Tiffany to take a step backwards. She caught herself and took a step forward as the hatch cracked open, revealing...

For a long moment, she didn’t recognize her husband. War — and the stress of being Emperor — had taken a toll on Marius Drake, but now he had changed so much that it took her several seconds to be sure she was looking at him. He looked to have aged decades in a mere handful of months! His hair had turned white, his skin was lined and he looked as though he was on the verge of collapse, held up only by sheer willpower. She took a step forward, wanting to take him in her arms, but he held up a hand, stopping her.

“General,” he said. Even his voice had changed! She fretted, just for a second, that he’d actually been replaced before reminding herself that a clone would never have made it through the security monitors. “Have the cabinet meet me in the conference room in ten minutes.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said.

“Commander Lewis has a chip for the processor,” Marius continued. “Escort her down to the conference room and wait with her.”

Tiffany felt her eyes narrow as Commander Lewis emerged from the hatch, looking downright nervous. A flicker of suspicion crossed her mind, which vanished as she read the signs of fear — if not outright terror — on the officer’s face. Tiffany prided herself on being a good reader of faces and there was something deeply, deeply wrong with the young woman. She was scared of something more than being caught having an affair, Tiffany was sure. It might be worth inviting the young officer for a chat, once things had settled down a little. But now, all she could do was watch as Commander Lewis followed General Thorne down the corridor and out of sight.

“Tiffany,” Marius rasped. “You’re looking well.”

“Thank you,” Tiffany managed. This wasn’t how she’d envisaged his homecoming. She’d planned a private dinner, then a night together, before they settled down to business. She didn’t want to ask what had happened, but she needed to know. “I...”

“I’ll discuss the keeping of Earth after this conference,” Marius said, cutting her off. “We have a great deal to discuss.”

“Of course,” Tiffany said, deeply hurt. Had he no time, even, to tell her he loved her? What had happened at Nova Athena to steal her husband and put this stranger in his place? “I will, of course, attend the conference.”

For a second, she thought Marius would object and started gathering arguments to convince him otherwise, but he merely nodded and swept off down the corridor. Tiffany trailed in his wake, fighting back the urge to cry. Once, he’d trusted her; he’d listened to her opinion and allowed her to change his mind. But now... what had happened to change her husband so much?

* * *

There was no time, as much as Marius would have liked it, for a pleasant homecoming with his wife. He’d downloaded the latest updates from Earth as soon as his fleet transited the Gateway and it was obvious, blindingly so, that rumors were already out and spreading across the Core Worlds. There was nothing he could do, he suspected, to keep the rumors under control. All he could do was make damn sure he showed no sign of actual weakness.

“Admiral Garibaldi betrayed us,” he said simply, as soon as the doors to the conference room were closed. His cabinet had assembled, save for Professor Kratman — another betrayal, although nowhere near as painful — and Commodore Arunika. The former Head of Intelligence’s Brotherhood ties would not be enough to save her from being taken into custody and interrogated. “He has almost certainly joined the Outsiders.”

He gave them no time to recover. “Worse, the Brotherhood was clearly involved,” he added, curtly. In hindsight, the chain of events was all too clear. “I have no idea what passed between Admiral Garibaldi and Professor Kratman, but the Professor vanished shortly after the fleet departed from Boston and, somehow, managed to evade one of Garibaldi’s hand-picked officers.

“We must face up to the fact that the war situation has taken a decided turn for the worse.

“I’ve spent the last three months running simulations and working my way through every last piece of data we collected over the past years of fighting,” he continued. “I believe that Roman Garibaldi intended to take power and present himself as the man who saved the Federation and the Outsiders. With the Outsiders almost whipped, gentlemen, they are in no state to dispute this version of events. Garibaldi, therefore, will bring his fleet back to Earth as quickly as possible. His goal will be to repeat my steps when I took the Grand Fleet to Earth after Tobias was shot.”

He felt a sudden stab of pain. Tobias Vaughn had deserved better than to die that way...

“But, in doing so, he will almost certainly shatter the Federation. We cannot allow it to succeed. We will not allow it to succeed.”

Marius allowed his voice to harden. “This is a bitter blow,” he warned. “I will not try to hide just how badly Admiral Garibaldi’s defection will shake the navy. We went through a long succession of purges after Admiral Justinian launched his offensive against Earth, people, and going through it again could destroy us. But we have no choice. The destiny of the human race cannot be put in the hands of either Admiral Garibaldi or the Outsiders.”

He swung around to look at General Thorne. “What’s the current situation on Earth?”

“Uneasy,” Thorne said. “All vital installations, industries and housing complexes have been secured, but large parts of the planet are restless. The parasites who suck at the government’s teat are still demanding the resumption of their support payments, rather than doing something useful with their lives. They, however, are not a serious problem.”

Marius felt a sudden stab of pain in his head. “And the truly serious problem?”

“There haven’t been any new strikes, Emperor,” General Thorne said. “However, our industrial production has been dropping sharply over the last four months. I believe a number of workforces are deliberately slowing down, after we crushed the strikes.”

“They’re suffering from worn-out equipment,” Tiffany said. “No matter how hard you push them, Marius, their ability to meet your demands is falling. It will take years to repair the damage we’ve inflicted on our own industry.”

“They can meet our demands long enough to win the war,” Marius said, dismissively. Hadn’t there been a time when he’d listened to Tiffany? Was she trying to take their side? “General?”

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“I want you to start conscripting additional personnel from Earth,” Marius said. He’d hated the Earthers, back when he’d grown up on Mars. Ninety percent of the population was useless, yet they controlled the destiny of half the galaxy. “Everyone is to be given the standard aptitude test, then assigned for training as workers, spacers or security personnel. No more objections, General, no more protests about the right to suckle at the government’s teat. I want all protests crushed with extreme force.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” General Thorne said.

He’d do it too, Marius knew. Thorne had no morality, no sense of right or wrong; he’d follow orders to the bitter end. And if he killed a few thousand people who were technically innocent... well, one couldn’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Admiral Garibaldi and the Outsiders had to be stopped.

“They’ll hate us,” Tiffany said. “Marius...”

“It has to be done,” Marius snapped. “There’s no choice!”

“I want a full media campaign,” he added, turning to Lawrence Tully. “Everyone is to know that Admiral Garibaldi has allied himself with the Outsiders, with aliens. He has to be stopped.”

Tully looked doubtful. “Your Majesty, we spent the last two years promoting Admiral Garibaldi...”

“The idiots who watch the slop the media puts out will believe anything,” Marius said. He shrugged, expressively. “Just make sure the story is convincing. Break out all the old propaganda and use it.”

He took a breath, wishing for a pill or a drink, then went on.

* * *

It took nearly three hours to bring the meeting to a close, Tiffany noted, three hours during which her husband proved he wasn’t the man she remembered any longer. Marius had always had a ruthless streak, but now... now he was giving orders to have protesters shot and families taken hostage, just to keep the industrial workers in line. She had no illusions just how bad things would become, once it became clear that the government had abandoned all pretense of respecting Earth’s long-held rights. There was going to be a nightmare.

She watched him, nervously, as they walked back to their bedroom. There were several new security guards outside, all wearing black uniforms copied from the original Blackshirts. It would have amused her, once upon a time, but it didn’t now. Marius — and General Thorne — had resurrected the Grand Senate’s security troops and put them to work.

“It’s going to be fine,” she said, as the hatch closed behind them. She wondered, suddenly, if she should light the candles or give him a massage. “What happened?”

Marius turned to look at her. There was something cold and dangerous in his gaze. For the first time since she’d met him, she couldn’t help feeling frightened.

“I was betrayed,” he snapped. He strode over to the drinks cabinet and opened it, removing a bottle of Caledonian Scotch. “Roman betrayed me. And Kratman.”

“But what happened?” Tiffany asked. She watched in alarm as Marius put the bottle to his lips and took a long swig. “I thought...”

“I thought he was loyal,” Marius hissed. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

Tiffany felt her heart break, just a little. She’d planned a romantic reunion, not... not being alone with a monster who wore her husband’s face. But what could she do?

Better think of something quick, her own thoughts mocked her, as Marius took another long swig and then reached for her. If this goes on, how long will it be before he comes to suspect you of treason?

Interlude One

From: The Chaos Years (5023)

Word spread across the Federation, carried by starships and courier boats, as Admiral Garibaldi and Emperor Marius struggled to rally support for their cause. The out-worlds, already caught in the middle of the Outsider War, hastened to pledge their support for the Outsiders and Admiral Garibaldi, while the inner worlds hesitated, unsure which way to jump. No one wanted to back a loser.

The Core Worlds, already restless under Emperor Marius’s rule, were deeply divided. Many feared losing control of the out-worlds, of what the Outsiders might do if they gained absolute power, while others deeply resented Emperor Marius’s measures to boost and diversify the economy. Earth itself, homeworld of the human race, teetered on the brink of civil war. Many of its inhabitants would have liked to enter the workforce, if there had been jobs for them. Others, though, feared for the future, regardless of who won the war. Marius might be bad, some said, but the Outsiders would be hell incarnate. They had no reason to treat Earth with anything, apart from scorn.

Both sides fought desperately to prepare their forces for a further round of war. Roman Garibaldi mustered a joint fleet of Federation and Outsider ships, while Emperor Marius struggled to reinforce Home Fleet and prepare ambushes along the bloody route to Tara Prime. And, caught in the middle, once-loyal officers wondered who they should support, if they should support anyone. Why not set up as an independent warlord? The Federation they’d served was long gone, but, in its death throes, it might take the galaxy down with it.

And so the stage was set for war.

Chapter Eleven

The complexities of an Asimov Point assault were, by 4101, well known to the Federation Navy. Indeed, barring the lucky discovery of an unknown Asimov Point chain that would allow a navy to slip a fleet into the enemy’s rear, they were still important despite the invention of the stardrive.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Hammond/Alexis, 4101

“We seem to be alone, Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “The system appears to be deserted.”

Roman nodded, although he knew better than to take that on faith. The Emperor might well have detached a handful of cloaked cruisers as his ships passed through Hammond, either to provide advance warning for the defenders of Alexis or ambush his supply lines as his battle squadrons inched away from their bases. It was, after all, a standard tactic, honed in the years before anyone had invented the continuous-displacement stardrive. Even an officer as unimaginative as Admiral Ness would have thought of it.

“Detach a squadron of battlecruisers and order them to race to the Alexis Point, as planned,” he ordered. He doubted he could surprise the defenders, but he could try. “If their CO sees an opportunity to destroy any picket ships, he is to take it.”

He sat back in his command chair and studied the display. Hammond had been classed as worthless, when the first survey ships had passed through the system; the later discovery of a third Asimov Point hadn’t changed the system’s ranking, as the third Asimov Point led to a dead end. Unsurprisingly, the handful of rocky planets and single gas giant hadn’t received much in the way of investment from the Federation. The system hadn’t even had a cloudscoop until Roman had provided one, as part of buttressing the defenses of Boston. He would have been surprised if the population of the system’s sole inhabited world knew what was happening beyond their thin atmosphere, or gave much of a damn if they did.

“Deploy an additional shell of recon drones,” he ordered, absently. “I want to know about it if anyone tries to sneak up on us.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded to himself. Earthers — and other planet-dwellers — found it hard to grasp the sheer vastness of interstellar space, but as an asteroid-born he understood all too well. The entire Federation Navy could be hidden somewhere within the system and his sensors wouldn’t see it, as long as her crews were relatively careful. Each superdreadnaught might be two kilometres long, yet they were grains of sand against the immensity of the interstellar desert. It was hard to escape the sense that he was leaving safety and security behind, heading out on a voyage that might lead him to rocky shoals. Part of his mind wanted to abort the mission and flee back to the warmth of Boston.

He smiled, dismissing the thought. He’d wanted to join the Survey Service, as a younger man, but the war had put a stop to such ambitions. Roman wondered, afterwards, if he’d be able to take command of a survey squadron and head out beyond the Rim, if only to see what was waiting for humanity in the darkness. He certainly met the qualifications required for survey officers now...

But the Outsiders may object to us poking through their territory, he thought, as his ships continued their stately crawl towards their destination. And they may wind up with their independence, if the war allows it.

Long hours passed before a new icon popped up in the display. “Admiral, the battlecruisers have detected an escort carrier sitting on the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Thompson reported, grimly. “She has a shell of fighters surrounding her.”

Roman cursed under his breath, although he knew he shouldn’t have expected the enemy to do something stupid. Escort carriers were largely defenseless — they were really nothing more than modified freighters — but with a fighter shell patroling local space there was no hope of getting his battlecruisers into missile range before the escort carrier detected them and launched drones back through the Asimov Point. The defenders would have ample warning of his arrival.

And they’ll pick up my ships when we enter sensor range, he thought. Even with ECM, they’ll have a good chance to assess our strength before popping back through the Asimov Point.

He shuddered, inwardly. The escort carrier was no treacherous warship serving a warlord, no Outsider or alien battleship that needed to be destroyed in open combat... her crew had been his allies, a mere three months ago. Who knew? If they understood what had happened, if they understood why Roman had realized the Emperor needed to be removed, they might agree with him. But the iron laws of interstellar combat decreed that the ship had to die, with as little warning as possible. There was no alternative.

“Order the battlecruisers to engage,” he ordered. Surprise was already gone, but perhaps he could keep the enemy in doubt as to his total strength. The Emperor would already have a good idea of Fifth Fleet’s total strength, but he would give a great deal, no doubt, to know just what the Outsiders had added to his fleet. “They are to kill her as quickly as possible.”

He kept his face impassive, fighting down the wave of disgust and guilt at his decision. A crew had been sentenced to death, just for being trapped on the wrong side. And the crew might already be dead. The time-delay between sending messages and receiving them meant that his battlecruiser commanders might already have had to engage, if one of the fighters came too close to their ship. And he wouldn’t know for at least two hours...

Damn you, Marius, he thought, bitterly. What have we become?

The hours crawled by, slowly, before the final update blinked up in front of him. Roman read it, quickly; the battlecruisers had killed the escort carrier, but she’d managed to get off her drones before she’d been blown to atoms. His commanders had had no choice; they’d had to engage at long-range. And that had ensured the escort carrier had had time to do her duty before she died.

“Order the fleet to increase speed,” he said. The enemy CO, trapped on the other side of the Asimov Point, would know about the battlecruisers, but hopefully he wouldn’t have any real idea of just what was bearing down on him. “And signal the battlecruisers. Anything that pokes its nose through the Asimov Point is to be slapped back, hard.”

He forced himself to relax as the Asimov Point appeared on the display, surrounded by his battlecruisers. The real-time update popped up in front of him; he breathed a sigh of relief as he realized the enemy CO had only launched drones through the point, rather than actual starships. Drones were hard to hit — the battlecruisers would have bare seconds to engage before they reversed course and plunged back through the Asimov Point — but most of their sensors were decidedly short-range. It was possible, reasonably possible, that the enemy CO had only seen the battlecruisers...

“Launch the first set of drones,” he ordered, as the fleet sorted itself into assault formation. “I want them summoned to surrender.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman gritted his teeth as the drones approached the Asimov Point and vanished. There had been three fortresses on the far side, according to the last update; Alexis hadn’t been deemed important enough for heavier defenses, not given the far greater defenses of Ruthven. He doubted that could have changed, not in the three months since the Battle of Nova Athena, but he knew better than to underestimate the Emperor. Marius Drake hadn’t had half the tactical flexibility Roman had enjoyed, simply by having access to new weapons systems, yet he’d been more than capable of using what he had in a creative manner.

The first set of drones popped back into existence, their numbers sharply reduced. Roman scowled — that almost certainly meant that the gunners and starfighter pilots on the far side were well-trained and experienced — and then frowned as their sensor records appeared in front of him. There were no additional fortresses, but the Asimov Point practically crawled with minefields and free-floating missile pods. It looked as through the enemy CO had actually started expanding his defenses long before the Battle of Nova Athena.

Smart guy, Roman thought. He’d checked the files, but there was no clue which way the CO would actually jump. He’d bleed us white if we weren’t ready for him.

“There was no response from the fortresses,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “They didn’t try to surrender.”

“Send through a second flight of drones,” Roman ordered. He wondered, absently, if the fortress commander was reluctant to surrender to a single squadron of battlecruisers. No sane battlecruiser commander would try to force an Asimov Point if there was any alternative. “I want them to have a chance to surrender.”

He watched the drones vanish, but none returned. The enemy CO, it seemed, hadn’t given any stand-down orders to his crews. Roman cursed under his breath — over fifteen thousand trained personnel were about to die — then keyed his console.

“Launch the assault pods,” he ordered. “And then ready the first assault squadrons.”

* * *

Commodore Leon Brinkman had no intention of surrendering. He’d made the mistake of allowing a sweet-talking superior officer to lure him into Fortress Command only to discover, too late, that Fortress Command was very much the despised ugly stepsister of the Federation Navy. He might reach flag rank, if he were lucky, but he would never command a fleet in action — and, because of that, he would never climb to the very highest ranks. The thought of surrendering without a fight to an officer a full four decades younger than he — and a traitor, to boot — was too much.

“Sir,” Commander Hadfield said. “Enemy assault pods are transiting the Asimov Point.”

“Order the CSP to engage,” Leon said, although he knew it was unnecessary. Everyone in the navy knew just how important it was to kill as many assault pods as possible before they could open fire. Indeed, no one, not even the most anal superior officer, would complain if the pilots opened fire without waiting for orders. “And stand by to repel attack...”

He braced himself as the remaining pods opened fire, unleashing a tidal wave of missiles on his fortresses. A handful were picked off by the CSP, but the remainder kept coming, automatically shifting into sprint mode as they closed in on their targets. Hundreds died as his point defense crews picked them off; dozens survived to slam into the fortress’s shields and detonate, shaking the fortress violently. Red icons flared up on the status display as the damage began to mount.

“Sir, we’ve lost four shield generators,” Lieutenant Redbird called. “They were antimatter warheads!”

“We have been at war for the last seven years,” Leon snapped. There was no time for surprise. Any reluctance to deploy antimatter warheads had vanished as soon as Admiral Justinian had attacked Earth, back in the mists of time. “Get repair crews on the task, now!”

He swore under his breath as a new cluster of red icons appeared on the display; destroyers, frigates and escort carriers, the latter already launching starfighters into the maelstrom. The former orientated themselves, then opened fire, launching mine-clearance missiles into the minefields as a second wave of assault pods materialized. Leon gritted his teeth as they started to launch, their warheads no doubt receiving updated tactical data from the rebel destroyers. It looked chaotic, but he was experienced enough to see a well-practiced team at work.

“Target the ships,” he snapped, as the wave of missiles roared towards his command. “And fire!”

The fortress barely shuddered as it unleashed the first spread of missiles. Not having to cram the hull with engines gave it a throw weight a superdreadnaught would envy — and shields a superdreadnaught commander would sell his soul to have wrapped about his ships. The escort carriers had already reversed course and plunged back into the Asimov Point, but the remaining ships were holding position, systematically sweeping the mines out of space. He had to admit their crews were very well trained...

... And yet, no destroyer could hope to stand up to capital shipkiller missiles.

“Four enemy destroyers have been destroyed,” Commander Hadfield reported. “Two more have been badly damaged...”

“The escort carriers have returned,” Lieutenant Robinson called. “They’re launching a second wave of fighters!”

“Commit the remainder of the CSP,” Leon ordered.

* * *

“The enemy position has been badly weakened, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “But their defenses are holding.”

“Send in the third wave of assault pods, then the first battle squadron,” Roman ordered. It was risky — the smaller ships had done an excellent job of clearing the minefields, yet there were hundreds of mines and automated weapons platforms still intact — but there was no choice. “Go!”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman cursed under his breath as the third set of assault pods popped through the Asimov Point and vanished from the display. He’d hoped to blow through the defenses, not get bogged down into a long drawn-out engagement. But the enemy CO had put up a brutal fight, rather than surrendering, with or without firing a handful of shots to uphold his honor first. He hadn’t thought too highly of the concept of sowing every Asimov Point with a handful of fortresses, when it had been proposed to him, but in hindsight it might just have been a good idea after all. If nothing else, it had certainly cost him three waves of assault pods. He’d have to slow his advance to resupply before he tried to force his way into Ruthven.

And the enemy will have plenty of time to prepare, he thought sourly. They’ll know what they’re facing.

“The first superdreadnaught is entering the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Good,” Roman answered. He wanted to be on that ship; he wanted to lead his crews into the fire personally, just to make it clear that he would share the dangers. But he knew he couldn’t risk his own life any more than strictly necessary. “Ready the second battle squadron to advance as soon as the first is deployed.”

He closed his eyes for a long bitter moment. How many of his people were about to die?

* * *

“Sir,” Commander Hadfield snapped. “An enemy superdreadnaught — unknown class — has just transited the Asimov Point!”

“Release all remaining weapons,” Leon ordered. An unknown class of superdreadnaught meant Outsiders... unless Roman Garibaldi had been secretly building up his own fleet at Boston. It wasn’t completely impossible — Admiral Justinian had certainly built up his own fleet — but ONI wouldn’t miss the signs of a second secretive build-up. “Fire at will.”

The enemy starship belched missiles at the same moment, without waiting for its tactical systems to recover from the shock of transit. Leon stared in disbelief, unsure quite what he was seeing. There was no way for anyone to be precisely sure just where a ship would appear, when it popped out of an Asimov Point; it took time, sometimes as long as a minute, for a ship to orientate itself, locate its enemies and open fire... and, in that time, the enemy had already had a free shot at its hull. But the Outsiders had opened fire at once...

They must have set up a dedicated tactical net, relayed through the destroyers, he thought, as another swarm of missiles roared towards the fortresses. They took their targeting data from the destroyers, rather than the superdreadnaught.

“Missiles away, sir,” Commander Hadfield said. He cursed as another red icon popped into existence. “Sir, another superdreadnaught...”

“I have eyes,” Leon said, cutting him off. The first superdreadnaught’s point defense was good, but she was almost certainly doomed... even so, her weapons had already swept far too many of his remaining defenses out of space. “Retarget the second missile barrage on the newcomer.”

“Aye, sir,” Commander Hadfield said. “I...”

He broke off as a green icon vanished from the display. “Sir, Fortress Two is gone,” he reported. “They took her out.”

Leon winced. The fortresses were designed to soak up damage, even after their shields failed, but the enemy had simply overwhelmed Fortress Two with antimatter missiles. It was a standard tactic. And his remaining fortresses were on the verge of losing their shields too, while three more enemy superdreadnaughts had crawled out of the Asimov Point to add their fire to the assault. No matter what he did, he couldn’t hope to hold out for much longer.

Resistance has become futile, he thought, bitterly. He hated the thought of surrendering, particularly after he’d put up such a savage fight. Who knew just how badly the rebels — and the Outsiders — would react to his attempt to surrender? But what other choice do I have?

He shook his head, swallowing his pride. There was no choice. The enemy were just piling on the pressure, accepting their own losses to wear him down... and they seemed to have an unlimited supply of assault pods. No matter what he did, he knew all he could really do was scratch them before they tore his fortresses apart. And the remainder of his crews would die for nothing.

“Launch courier drones to the Ruthven Asimov Point,” he ordered, “then transmit a complete copy of our tactical records to both Ruthven and Alexis itself.”

“Aye, sir,” Commander Hadfield said.

“And then cease fire,” Leon added. He felt a sudden vindictive glee as the first superdreadnaught blew apart, bare seconds before he would have had to let her go. “Inform the enemy CO that we’d like to surrender.”

He felt the shock running through the compartment at his words. The Federation Navy rarely surrendered, certainly not to alien-lovers. But they all knew the truth. Resistance had definitely become futile.

“And prep the databases for destruction,” he ordered. “I don’t want them drawing a scrap of information from our files.”

He sat back and waited. He’d done all he could, all he could think of, but right now his part in the war was over.

Chapter Twelve

In theory, prisoners taken by the Federation Navy were supposed to be well-treated. In reality, their treatment tended to be determined by circumstance. Pirates, rebels, traitors and aliens knew better than to expect mercy from the Federation’s officers.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Hammond/Alexis, 4101

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said from her console. “The remaining fortresses are requesting permission to surrender.”

Roman felt his eyes narrow. “Is this a trap?”

“They’ve deactivated everything but their shields and point defense,” Lieutenant Thompson assured him, calmly. “I don’t think they’re doing anything to hinder our advance.”

“Order the assault fleet to hold their fire, then inform the defenders that they are to shut down everything but emergency power,” Roman ordered. No matter what he did, it was unlikely he could completely pre-empt the prospect of treachery. “Have boarding parties assembled and launched to take possession of the fortresses. Once the control systems are secured, the prisoners are to be removed from the station and prepped for dispatch back to Boston.”

He scowled, inwardly. Emperor Marius had wanted to slaughter the Outsider prisoners, making it very clear to their comrades that they could expect no mercy. Roman knew he didn’t dare repeat that mistake, whatever else he did. He had to make it clear that surrendering to his ships wasn’t an automatic death sentence. And yet, he also had to guard against the prospect of a lone holdout condemning his comrades to death.

“Have the battlecruisers power past the fortresses and into the system,” he added. “One squadron is to approach Alexis and inspect the defenses, the other two are to be dispatched to the Asimov Points. The defenders of Asimov Point Three are to be invited to surrender; the defenders of the Ruthven Point are to be monitored from a safe distance.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “And the planet itself?”

Roman shrugged. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. Alexis was a stage-three colony; her industries were nowhere near ready to turn out starships, but she could certainly provide food and small components for the fleet. “As long as she doesn’t have independent starships of her own, she’s a very minor problem.”

He looked back at the display as the next battle squadron slowly made its way through the Asimov Point. His squadron would be going through next, hopefully in time to see the fortresses before they surrendered. The risk was minimal, but it gnawed at him to be watching from safety as young men and women fought on his behalf. He had no idea how Emperor Marius had handled it, back when he’d sent Roman and his fellows into the storm.

“I have a preliminary damage report,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “One superdreadnaught — Death to Tyrants — was destroyed outright, although a number of her crew managed to get to the lifepods before it was too late. Another superdreadnaught, the Freedom’s Call, will require at least a month in the yards before she’s fit for duty again. Two more superdreadnaughts took mild damage and will need basic repairs.”

Roman nodded. “And the smaller ships?”

“Twelve destroyers and four frigates were lost with all hands, along with fourteen starfighter pilots,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “Nine more small ships took varying levels of damage, sir; preliminary reports suggest two would be cheaper to scrap rather than try to repair. Their crews are currently being prepped for transfer back to the personnel pool.”

“See if they can find slots with the fleet first,” Roman ordered. They didn’t have time to send the crewmen to Boston, then have them brought all the way back to the fleet. “And have the fortress personnel checked for potential allies. We may pick up some new crewmen.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

* * *

Uzi couldn’t help feeling a flicker of déjà vu as the shuttle disconnected from the makeshift troopship and raced across the void of space towards the fortress. It was hardly his first assault on a Federation Navy fortress, although it was definitely the oddest assault. His worst nightmare might not have entirely come true, but it was pretty damn bad. There was almost no hope of getting a message out without risking his position...

“Prep your weapons,” he ordered, coolly. “And remember, you are not to fire unless fired upon.”

It was hard, so hard, to keep his amusement off his face. He’d been promoted in the wake of kidnapping Chang Li, an irony that made him want to forget himself and giggle insanely. They’d put him in charge of an assault squad instead of asking a number of very pointed questions! But then, he had managed to cover his tracks reasonably well. It would take a very paranoid engineer to go over the shuttle with a fine-toothed comb, then stake his reputation on the suggestion that it had failed due to sabotage, rather than a freak incident.

He looked at the armored men in the shuttle and felt an odd blend of kinship and contempt. They were Outsiders, sworn enemies of the Federation, yet they were also soldiers, preparing themselves for combat as soldiers had done since the very first days of organized warfare. He could practically read their minds and understand what was going through their heads; they were nervous, fearful of screwing up, terrified that one of their mistakes would lead to the deaths of a friend or a comrade. And to think, they had it lucky! The Federation’s officers had a habit of second-guessing their soldiers on the ground after the fighting was finally over.

“Remember, these people are to be treated with respect, provided they behave themselves,” he added. He’d given some thought to triggering an atrocity, but he hadn’t been able to think of a way of evading the blame. Besides, word would probably not be allowed to get out of the system. “Any one of you who abuses a prisoner will answer to me and my fists long before you face anyone higher up the food chain.”

He turned his attention back to the pilot as the shuttle closed in on the massive fortress, its armored hull pitted and scarred where the shields had failed, allowing the weapons fire to burn into the metal. The fortress could have survived worse, he was sure, but their position had been hopeless the moment the first superdreadnaught had joined the assault wave. He didn’t really blame them for surrendering, even though they could have taken a bite out of the assault force before they were blown to atoms. It would probably not have inflicted enough damage to make up for getting so many crewmen killed.

“Approaching the forward hatch,” the pilot said. “Docking in twenty seconds.”

Uzi checked his suit, making sure his HUD was showing the right fortress diagram. The Federation standardized everything; it was unlikely, very unlikely, that there were any major differences between the standard fortress and the one facing him. He made a mental note to check which sections had depressurized, if any, as soon as they boarded, then caught hold of the seat as the shuttle latched onto the airlock. As soon as the shuttle stabilized, he was on his feet and heading for the hatch. His men followed him, weapons in hand.

“Atmosphere match,” the pilot said, as the shuttle hatch hissed open. “No atmospheric contaminants.”

“Glad to hear it,” Uzi muttered. The fortress crew would have to be out of their minds to poison their own air — his men wore suits, making the whole exercise worse than pointless — but the prospect of fanatical resistance couldn’t be completely ignored. “Open the inner hatch.”

The hatch hissed open. Uzi stepped forward, feeling the gravity field shifting slightly as he stepped from the shuttle’s to the fortress’s, then smiled as he saw an older man wearing a commodore’s uniform waiting for him. The commodore had removed his belt completely, he noted, just to make it clear that he wasn’t carrying a sidearm. It would have been more impressive if Uzi hadn’t known a hundred different ways to carry a weapon without making it obvious.

“Welcome,” the man said, coldly. Uzi had no trouble hearing the bitter anger in the commodore’s voice. “I am Commodore Brinkman.”

“Thank you,” Uzi said. “I trust you have prepared your fortress for surrender?”

“I have ordered my crews to disarm and wait in the designated spaces, save for a number of injured and the medics, who are in sickbay,” Brinkman said. “The fortress is currently operating on emergency power and basic subroutines.”

Because you purged the databases before surrendering, Uzi thought.

He smiled to himself. It would annoy the Outsiders, but he found it hard to care. The Federation Navy would have put Brinkman in front of a court-martial if he’d allowed the fortress’s computer databases to fall into enemy hands. If nothing else, it would make it harder for them to put the fortress back into action in less than a month.

“Understood,” he said. “Once the fortress is secured, junior officers and crewmen will be transferred to Boston, where they will sit out the war. Senior officers will be held with the fleet and, if necessary, turned into couriers to carry messages back to Earth.”

Brinkman nodded, shortly.

“I am obliged to warn you that any resistance, any attempt to impede my men in the performance of their duties, will result in the application of lethal force,” Uzi added. “Please ensure that your personnel are kept under control.”

The commodore, thankfully, offered no resistance as the assault force searched the fortress from top to bottom. They’d taken quite a beating, he noted; ninety-seven crewmen had been badly injured in the fighting and a further seventy-four were either dead or lost somewhere in the ruined sections of the fortress. Once the station was secure, the prisoners were hurriedly loaded onboard a transport and sent back to Hammond, while the engineers searched the station for anything useful before shutting it down completely.

“They’ve wiped the missile warhead programming,” one of the engineers reported. “Firing the missiles will be impossible without some reprogramming.”

“Just be glad they didn’t turn off the containment chambers,” Uzi said dryly, as his squad explored the lower levels of the crew quarters. One distinct advantage of serving on a fortress was having larger cabins, even for the junior officers, although a civilian would probably have regarded them as impossibly cramped. “That would have really ruined our day.”

He smiled inwardly at the thought. Draining the antimatter into a new warhead would be tricky, but far from impossible. Or, if the engineers felt lucky, they could try reprogramming the old warheads from scratch. Hopefully, if they tried, he would be well away from the fortress.

“Picking up something interesting, sir,” one of his troopers offered. “It reads out as a low-level transmitter.”

“Odd,” Uzi said, checking the readings. It certainly looked like a transmitter, although whoever had set it up had been a little careless. The signal scatter was more than enough to lead them right to it. “Let’s go see what it is.”

He tensed as they passed through a pair of airlocks, into a small cabin on the outer hull. It was large enough to suggest it belonged to a senior officer, although Brinkman and his senior staff had all been housed near the command core. Indeed, whoever had lived in the cabin would have been thoroughly screwed if a missile had struck the hull near the transparent portal. If the blast didn’t get them, the radiation certainly would.

“This is odd,” the trooper said. “Sir, what is this?”

“Maybe it’s for senior officers they disliked,” Uzi speculated. He’d never actually served on a fortress, merely boarded them. “Or it could have been a privacy cabin. Making love can be quite romantic with the stars orbiting over your head.”

He stopped as he saw the transmitter, pulsing a laser signal through the transparent canopy and out into space. There would be a stealthed recon platform nearby, he was sure, relaying the signal to the forces protecting the Ruthven Asimov Point. It was too makeshift a device to have been set up in advance, he was sure. Brinkman certainly wouldn’t have known anything about it. Hell, if whoever had set it up had made even a tiny mistake with his calculations, the entire effort would be worse than useless.

A federal undercover agent, he thought, as he looked up. The Grand Senate had been fond of covert agents, monitoring their officers and men, and Emperor Marius had learned his lessons well. Someone like me.

“Go fetch the engineers,” he said, a plan forming in his head. “I’ll stay and guard the device.”

As soon as the hatch had closed behind the trooper, Uzi opened his internal datanodes and searched for a processor. Deep-cover agents weren’t full cyborgs — it tended to raise eyebrows when implants showed up on medical exams — but they might well have a basic neural link... he smiled to himself as one popped up, linked into the transmitter. Given how little time they’d had, whoever had set up the transmitter had done an excellent job. He uploaded a compressed and encrypted message into the transmitter, watched it flicker off into the ether, then primed the self-destruct system as he stepped backwards. The engineer was in for a nasty surprise when he tried to take the transmitter apart.

The hatch opened, revealing two engineers and his trooper. Uzi watched, dispassionately, as the engineer immediately tried to shut the transmitter down, only to have it disintegrate into dust. There would be no evidence of his transmission, let alone whatever his unknown counterpart had sent... the recon platform, unless he missed his guess, would have either altered position or self-destructed itself once the signal stopped. Assuming, of course, that there was a recon platform.

“Someone on the station must have set it up,” the engineer said. “This needed a skilled technician to assemble.”

Uzi didn’t — quite — roll his eyes. “Then we’ll have to be careful who we invite to join us,” he said, dryly. “This person was very clearly a watchdog.”

* * *

“The planetary government is none too pleased with us,” Roman commented, four hours later. “But they have reluctantly agreed to grant us control of their orbital defenses and surrender the industrial nodes to us.”

“They didn’t have much choice,” Elf pointed out. “If they hadn’t surrendered the orbital defenses, Roman, what would you have done with them?”

Roman frowned. “I’m glad I didn’t have to find out,” he said. “As it was...”

He allowed his voice to trail away. Taking the planet’s industries by force would have been easy enough, but actually putting them to work would have been a great deal harder. There might not have been any strikes, yet there would definitely have been slowdowns and production headaches, if not outright sabotage. And besides, he didn’t like the idea of forcing people to support him. The Outsiders would certainly have wondered if he was copying Emperor Marius.

But Alexis is going to wonder if the Emperor will mount a counterattack within days, he thought, grimly. It was hard to blame the planetary government for being worried about being too enthusiastic about supporting Roman and the Outsiders. They won’t want to be caught supporting the wrong side during a civil war.

“You won a fairly easy victory,” Elf said. “Congratulations.”

“It’s not over yet,” Roman said, shaking his head. The defenders of Asimov Point Three had surrendered without a fight, but the defenders of the Ruthven Asimov Point were evidently made of sterner stuff. They’d not only ignored all challenges to surrender, they’d fired long-range missiles at his battlecruisers whenever they’d come within range. “We need to take Ruthven before we can risk slowing the offensive.”

He cursed Commodore Brinkman under his breath. The man might have a chip on his shoulder the size of a superdreadnaught, but he’d fought a stubborn defense and cost Roman dearly. Losing a superdreadnaught was quite bad enough; losing the assault pods, irony of ironies, was far worse. By now, he suspected, whoever was in charge of Ruthven would be towing every fortress in their system into position to stand off an assault through the Asimov Point. Breaking through would be immensely costly...

... And it would take months to rebuild his forces to the point where he could cross the interstellar gulf and enter the Tara Sector.

“True,” Elf agreed. She rose and started to pace the cabin, turning her head to keep him in view. “When do you want to move?”

Roman sighed. “Ideally, I’d like two weeks to restock,” he said. Hell, he would have liked a month, just to make sure his fleet was as strong as possible. “But I think we’re going to have to move as soon as we get the next shipload of assault pods. Merely getting into a missile duel with the fortresses on this side of the Asimov Point will be quite bad enough.”

“The fortresses can’t dodge,” Elf pointed out, wryly. She stopped pacing and turned to face him. “And you have some other advantages.”

“We’re still going to be hurt badly,” Roman predicted. Outsider technology was all very well, yet they had yet to invent something that rendered the Federation Navy completely obsolete. He’d racked his brain for something — anything — that might save the lives of his crewmen, but nothing had come to mind. “Unless...”

He reached for the datapad and picked up the latest report from the engineers who’d inspected the fortresses. The databases were gone, they’d said, but reprogramming them wouldn’t be too hard. Indeed, they’d claimed they could have the fortresses up and running again within a week. Roman rather doubted it, but...

“If the fortresses are capable of even minimal operations,” he said, “I might just have an idea.”

“That sounds bad,” Elf said. “Is anyone going to like the idea?”

“Probably not,” Roman said. He keyed through the intelligence reports, checking that he’d read an earlier outline of the system’s assets correctly. “But at least, thanks to the Marsha, we have plenty of volunteers for what is effectively a suicide mission.”

Chapter Thirteen

One of the major problems facing the Federation Navy, as a result of the patronage system, was that few junior officers were willing to confront their seniors, even when their seniors behaved abominably. For example, Admiral Stevenson, despite being a known rapist, remained in position until 4098, where he was removed from his post and shot by the direct command of Marius Drake.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4101

Tiffany had never really believed that a person could change rapidly, certainly not over such a short period as seven months. She’d had few true friends in her life and none of them had changed so quickly, even when they’d married or set out to take control of their family’s interests. But her husband... he was distant, almost as if he was unaware of her existence, his moods shifting so suddenly that she was sure something was terrifyingly wrong.

She sat at her dressing table, methodically brushing her long red hair. Her mother, dead long before the rest of the Grand Senate, had taught her to brush her own hair when she was stressed, insisting it would help to calm her thoughts. Tiffany had thought her mother was being absurd until she’d realized just how few of her peers brushed their own hair. Why would they bother when they had maids to do it for them? But Tiffany had never seen the point...

I wish my mother was still alive, she thought, I could ask for her advice. She’d know what was wrong, what I needed to do.

It was a bitter thought. Her mother had given her a great deal of advice for the day Tiffany finally married, although she hadn’t expected very much. Tiffany didn’t know if her mother would have laughed or cried if she’d heard that Tiffany had married the Emperor, let alone had ruled the Sol System in his name. And almost none of her mother’s advice had proved remotely useful. But then, Tiffany had been expected to be nothing more than a decorative piece of arm candy when someone finally offered to marry her.

She scowled, brushing her hair time and time again. It would be better, almost, if she were being treated as a piece of arm candy. At least then, she was sure, her husband would show a little interest in her. As it was, he’d barely touched her in the week since his arrival at Earth, their love-making so perfunctory as to be nothing more than a joke. Her mother had told her that some men could be selfish, that some men cared nothing for the pleasure of their partners, but Marius hadn’t shown any interest in his own pleasure, let alone hers. He barely even kissed her any longer.

He’d always been a workaholic, but now it was worse. He barely slept. It was all she could do to keep him in bed for a couple of hours a night; his sleep was labored and broken. And he only ate enough to keep himself going, in-between reading reports, issuing orders, and supervising the revamping of the entire fleet. Tiffany was no military expert, but she couldn’t see how shifting thousands of officers and crewmen from ship to ship helped efficiency, nor how stationing Blackshirts on every ship ensured their loyalty. Hadn’t the Grand Senate put Blackshirts and Commissioners on its own starships, after the start of the war?

He’s going mad, she thought.

It wasn’t a thought she wanted to face. She loved him, more deeply and truly than she cared to admit. He’d been the one who’d raised her up and out of her existence, who’d treated her as a human being, who’d given her the chance to actually do something useful... of course she loved him! And yet...

She looked over towards the bed, towards the terminal she’d been allowed to keep. Her authority had vanished the moment Marius had returned, of course, but she still got the intelligence reports from Earth. Marius’s methods to get the population back to work were sparking off riots, each nastier than the last, yet he didn’t seem to give a damn. She’d tried to talk to him, but he hadn’t listened. He was so driven to extract revenge on Roman Garibaldi and everyone else who stood in his path that he didn’t care about anything else, not any longer. The man who’d taken power, who’d set out to save the Federation from itself, was gone.

The intercom chimed. “My Lady,” Operative Oslo said, “Commander Lewis is here, as you requested.”

Tiffany swallowed. She had never — never — before gone behind her husband’s back. None of her friends had been scared of their husbands, even if the marriages hadn’t worked; they’d known their families would support them if their husbands treated them too badly. And the husbands would face their own families if they pushed the marriage bonds too far. But there was no one to protect Tiffany if her husband turned on her.

And there’s no one to protect Commander Lewis, either, she thought. I shouldn’t have invited her...

Angrily, she pushed the thought aside. She had to do something. And finding out what was wrong — what was truly wrong — was the first step.

“Send her in,” she ordered. “And then hold my calls.”

She snorted at the thought. Her life had dried up when Marius had returned home, but she hadn’t welcomed the respite for long. Marius was trying to deal with everything, she saw; he simply didn’t have the time to handle everything, let alone study a situation long enough to be sure he knew what was actually happening. Chances were, he wouldn’t return to their suite until late at night, if at all. The staff had told her that they’d found him asleep at his desk, several times.

The door opened. Tiffany hesitated, unsure how to proceed, then put her hairbrush down and rose as Commander Ginny Lewis stepped into the room. She was a big girl, Tiffany noted, her red hair cropped close to her skull. The uniform she wore was surprisingly shapeless, but it clung close enough to her body to allow Tiffany to see she was almost mannish. Her file had made it clear that she was a tactical officer, not anything else. Tiffany wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or worried by the fact that Ginny wasn’t competition for her husband’s attentions.

“My Lady,” Ginny said. Her voice was quiet, but deeply worried. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, I did,” Tiffany confirmed. As if Ginny would have been let through the security checkpoint without an invitation! “I wanted to talk to you about many things.”

She led the way into the lounge, motioned for Ginny to take one of the comfortable seats and called the maid. She’d already been briefed; she stepped into the room carrying a tray, which she put down on the table. It was customary, in High Society, to begin any serious discussion with tea and cakes, but Tiffany had no idea how Ginny would react to it. Her file clearly stated that she’d been born on Mars.

Which might be why Marius trusts her, Tiffany thought, as she poured the tea rather than wait for the maid to do it. They grew up on the same world.

“I should tell you,” she said, as she passed one of the cups to Ginny, “that this room is completely secure. You may speak freely.”

Ginny gave her a long look. It wasn’t hard to see the fear in her eyes. “Are you sure?”

“My people scanned it only an hour ago,” Tiffany assured her. “And I won’t repeat anything you say to me.”

“There are bugs that are almost completely undetectable,” Ginny said. “And equipment can be programmed to miss bugs, if the bugs are emplaced by the owners.”

“My people are loyal,” Tiffany said. She hoped that was true. If not... who knew what her husband would do? “If there is trouble because of this, Ginny, I’ll try and make sure it all falls on me.”

Ginny’s eyes widened at Tiffany’s use of her first name. “I hope you’re right,” she said, finally. She took a sip of her tea, peering down into the brown liquid. “What do you want from me?”

Tiffany hesitated. She knew how to dance around a subject with a girl from High Society, but she had no idea how Ginny would react. Marius had certainly never shown the patience for an involved conversational dance. And besides, it might spook the girl more than she was already. She had a nasty feeling that Ginny was already considering just how far it was to the door.

“The truth,” she said. “What happened to my husband on Thunderbird?”

Ginny shuddered, suddenly. In relief? Or fear? Tiffany couldn’t tell.

“He made me swear not to tell,” Ginny said. Her file had stated that she was a tactical officer of rare promise, but she sounded like a scared little girl. “I gave him my word...”

“I’m his wife,” Tiffany said, gently. She needed Ginny to trust her, but how could she do that? They came from very different worlds. “Please. I want to help him.”

She studied Ginny for a long moment, trying to parse out the multitude of expressions flickering across her face. It spoke well of Ginny that she wanted to keep her word, but at the same time... there was a strong suggestion that she wanted to help, too. Tiffany forced herself to wait, praying silently that Ginny would talk herself into making the right choice. There was nothing else she could do.

“I’m not quite sure,” Ginny said, finally. She glanced at the walls nervously, then back at Tiffany. “We were two days out of Boston, My Lady, when he had an attack of some kind.”

Tiffany blinked. “An attack? What did the doctor say?”

“He didn’t go to the doctor,” Ginny said. “I tried to talk him into going, but he flatly refused and swore me to secrecy. He... he practically fell asleep on the command deck!”

“Oh,” Tiffany said. “Is that bad?”

Ginny gave her an odd look. “A captain would be quite within his rights to execute any of his crew who fell asleep while on duty,” she said. “It would, at the very least, be cause for instant demotion. The Emperor...”

She shook her head. “I helped him to his cabin and did what I could to make sure he ate, drank and slept normally,” she added. “He left control of the assaults in the hands of his captains, officially as a test of their skill. And... he was drinking heavily and... I think he was taking something else, too.”

Tiffany leaned forward. “Taking what?”

“I don’t know,” Ginny said. “He never let me see the packet, My Lady. It could have been anything from painkillers to illegal drugs.”

And a man in his position could have anything, just by ordering it sent to him, Tiffany thought. There had been quite a few young men, born to High Society, who’d been quietly encouraged to indulge themselves to death. Being addicted to hard drugs, or neural stimulation, or... or anything... would render a man unsuitable to assume a high position, after his parents died. And who knows what Marius is taking?

“I see,” she said. “How many did he take a day?”

“I don’t know,” Ginny said. “I only saw him take them a handful of times.”

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t times you didn’t see, Tiffany thought. It was clear, now, that her husband hadn’t lured — or forced — Ginny into his bed. What did it say about the whole situation that that would almost have been preferable? If he was taking those pills once a day...

“All right,” she said. “What — precisely — happened at Nova Athena?”

“We recombined the fleets, then advanced into the system,” Ginny said. “The Outsiders put up a brief fight, but we kicked their asses until another fleet arrived. Your husband ordered the bombardment of the planet; Admiral Garibaldi refused to carry out the order. And then we opened fire on his ships.”

Tiffany swore, aloud.

“He wasn’t the same on the long route home,” Ginny added quietly. “There were days when he was intensely focused on his task and days when he just sat in his cabin, staring into space. I think one of his guards must have found a still, because the Emperor was drinking heavily...”

“And now he’s mad,” Tiffany said, flatly.

“He’s not stable,” Ginny agreed. She glanced up at the ceiling, nervously. “And now I don’t know what he’ll do next.”

“We have to calm him down, somehow,” Tiffany said. “If we can get him off the drugs...”

“My Lady, you don’t know what he’s taking,” Ginny said. “If he’s already addicted to the pills, whatever they are, stopping them may merely make the situation worse. He may even have taken something that he cannot be weaned off from, no matter what we do. That’s how drug suppliers used to work on Mars.”

Tiffany nodded. It was rare for someone from High Society to encounter a drug he couldn’t shake, but it had happened in the past. The victims tended to be treated as pariahs: given access to the drug they needed, yet otherwise shut out of High Society. She had no idea how such matters were handled outside High Society, but she doubted it would be very pretty. A commoner had few rights where such dangerous drugs were involved.

“So we find out what he’s taking, first,” she said. “Where does he keep the pills?”

“In his uniform jacket,” Ginny said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without it.”

“Oh, goody,” Tiffany said, deadpan.

Ginny blinked, then flushed bright scarlet.

“I’ll have to get my hands on one of the pills,” Tiffany said. She scowled down at the cup in her hand. “How do you identify a pill?”

“If it’s from a legal supplier, there will be a mark on the pill you can check against the datanet,” Ginny said. “But if it’s from an illicit supplier, it will probably require a laboratory to identify it. Your guards should probably be able to find somewhere discreet that will handle the task.”

“You’ve been thinking about this,” Tiffany said, wryly.

“Drugs are a persistent problem on the lower decks,” Ginny said. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to have something strange identified, My Lady. If we were back on the ship, it would be easy.”

Tiffany nodded. “Why did he bring you down to the surface?”

Ginny paled. “I think I knew too much,” she said, after a moment. “He allowed me to tend to him while he was unwell, My Lady.”

“That should have been my job,” Tiffany said, without heat. She met the other woman’s eyes. “I want you to tell me, as soon as possible, if he suffers another attack.”

“If I can get free,” Ginny said. “It was hard enough to make time to come see you now.”

Tiffany lifted her eyebrows. “What does he have you doing?”

“Reviewing operational plans,” Ginny said, frankly. “He believes, reading between the lines, that the decisive battle will be fought in the Tara Sector. He’s been looking at ways to ensure a preponderance of force that will ensure his victory.”

“I see,” Tiffany said.

“It won’t be enough, My Lady,” Ginny added. “And I’ve tried to tell him so, but he won’t listen.”

Tiffany looked up, sharply. “It won’t be enough?”

“No,” Ginny said. “My Lady... how much do you know about the logistics of interstellar war?”

“Almost nothing,” Tiffany said, not entirely truthfully. She had picked up quite a bit, just by watching Marius, but she knew she was no expert. “What do you mean?”

“Space is vast,” Ginny said, flatly. “The Federation alone is unimaginably huge, My Lady, and the galaxy far larger.”

She placed her cup on the table and pointed to it. “If you imagine the cup as the Federation,” she said, “and the table as the rest of the galaxy, you start to get some idea of the scales involved.”

“I think I see,” Tiffany said.

“We blunted the Outsiders at Boston,” Ginny said. “If they’d had more ships, they would have sent them. They gain nothing from making a half-assed attempt at taking the system, even if—” she hesitated, noticeably “—the Emperor is starting to give vent to paranoid fantasies. ONI’s best guess — and it is a guess — is that the Outsiders cannot reinforce Fifth Fleet by more than two or three battle squadrons.

“But even if Fifth Fleet had remained loyal, we wouldn’t know where to target next,” she continued. “The Outsider shipyards were not located at Nova Athena. Finding them would have taken months, perhaps years, during which time the Outsiders would have hastily rebuilt their fleet and incorporated all the lessons of the last two years of war. Now, even if we smash Fifth Fleet to rubble at no cost to ourselves, which is not going to happen, we’d still have the same problem of locating the enemy shipyards.”

“And rebuilding our own ships,” Tiffany said.

“Correct,” Ginny said. “My Lady, we could win the coming battle and lose this war.”

“I think we need to help Marius, then,” Tiffany said, stiffly. “If I can find a pill, we can have it analyzed and then decide how best to proceed.”

“Understood,” Ginny said. She swallowed. “I’ll do my best to help, My Lady.”

“Call me Tiffany,” Tiffany said. “I think we’re too far gone to care about formalities, not now.”

“Yes, My... Tiffany,” Ginny said. She leaned forward, nervously. “But what are we going to do if we can’t help him?”

“I wish I knew,” Tiffany said. She loved Marius, really she did. The last thing she wanted to do was betray him. “Let us hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Chapter Fourteen

In the end, the Brotherhood had created a monster that eventually destroyed it.

—A True History of the Brotherhood, by the Sole Surviving Brother, 4200

Earth, 4101

“The prisoner is secure, sir,” the marine said. “Do you require an escort?”

“No,” Marius said, absently. Old memories rose up around him as he contemplated the detention block. “Once the door opens, shut down all monitors and recorders until I emerge.”

The marine blinked. “Sir, standing orders...”

“Are overridden,” Marius said. “You have new orders now.”

He stepped through the hatch, feeling a tingle run over his skin as he walked through the protective forcefields. Inside, a naked dark-skinned woman lay on a table, her hands and feet shackled to the cold metal and a pair of tubes attached between her legs. Thin wires, barely visible, ran down from the overhead processor and into her skull; another restraint was wrapped around her neck, keeping her almost completely immobile. Marius studied her dispassionately, even though he knew he would once have been horrified to watch someone — anyone — being prepped for a full interrogation. But now... anything he had to do to save the Federation was justified.

“Emperor,” General Thorne said. “She’s been quite uncooperative.”

Marius nodded, looking down at Commodore Arunika as she glared at him. He’d met her after the Battle of Earth, when she’d warned him that Admiral Justinian might well be stronger and better-prepared than the Grand Senate assumed. And then she’d become his intelligence officer, leveraging her Brotherhood connections to serve him. And now she was a prisoner, one of the few members of the Brotherhood to be captured alive. The others had either been killed while trying to escape or committed suicide when they discovered that escape was impossible.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “She was always stubborn.”

Arunika twisted her head. “Rot in hell,” she whispered, hoarsely. “Rot...”

Marius ignored her. “Can you defeat the suicide programming?”

General Thorne nodded to a technician, who looked doubtful. “It may be possible, sir,” he said, “but we will not have a chance to correct any mistakes.”

“They do prepare their people for the prospect of capture,” General Thorne added. “But I think we rounded up most of the known Brothers.”

Marius nodded, curtly. The Brotherhood had survived, he suspected, because its existence had suited the Grand Senate, but they’d always been careful. Like pirates, terrorists, and intelligence operatives, the Brotherhood had conditioned its senior members — the ones who knew more than just the members of their own cell — to make it impossible for them to talk, no matter what methods of interrogation were used. ONI tried, every time a conditioned pirate was captured, to break the conditioning, but it rarely worked. The pirate normally ended up dead on an operating table.

“We still haven’t managed to track down Grand Senator Rupert McGillivray,” General Thorne admitted. “He may well be the closest thing the Brotherhood had to a leader.”

“His mansion was destroyed,” Marius reminded him. Grand Senator Rupert McGillivray had been the last of the Imperialist Faction, their sole surviving representative in the Grand Senate. In hindsight, the Brotherhood might well have played a role in how he’d held on to power. “Are you sure he isn’t dead?”

He kept an eye on Arunika, wondering if she would react to the question, but her face barely changed.

“I’ve had teams sifting through the rubble for the past two weeks,” General Thorne said, walking around the table. “They have found no trace of his body. A man as paranoid as McGillivray would be sure to have a way out, even as the troops were storming his home.”

“Dead in his house,” Arunika said. Her voice was raspy, as if she’d screamed herself hoarse when the wires had been inserted into her skull. “He wouldn’t allow himself to be captured.”

“Ah, but we can’t be sure you’re telling the truth,” General Thorne said. There was a nasty glint in his eye as he looked down at the prone woman. “Allow us to de-condition you and...”

Marius cut him off. “You served me well, I thought,” he said. “Serve me one final time and you will be allowed to retire, perhaps to Paradise.”

Arunika laughed, harshly. “Is it so much a paradise, now?”

Marius shrugged. He’d sent the remaining members of the aristocracy there, after he’d taken Earth and shot their leadership personally. They’d been Tiffany’s relatives, after all, and they were harmless, without the money and patronage networks that had allowed them to rule the Federation. But would they survive without the hordes of servants who’d kept the terraformed planet in good shape? Marius neither knew nor cared. They had a better chance for survival than most of their victims.

“If we start drilling into your head,” he told her, “you may not survive, even if we do break the conditioning.”

“Fuck you,” Arunika said.

“Erudite as ever,” General Thorne murmured. “Emperor?”

“You won’t win,” Arunika said. She struggled to sit up, but the restraints kept her firmly pinned to the table. “And we will recover.”

“We will see,” Marius said. Her defiance was pointless. The Brotherhood’s power had been decisively broken. “General, you’re with me.”

“We’ve prepped a new way of accessing her memories,” General Thorne informed him, as they stepped through the door and walked to the elevator. “It’s impossible to be sure, of course, but we think we have a fairly good chance of downloading her brain before the conditioning kills her. Even if it doesn’t work completely, sir, we may get something.”

“Let me know if you succeed,” Marius said. “And McGillivray?”

“If he’s still alive, he’s gone into deep cover,” General Thorne said. “We’re probing through his finances now, but they’re a complete mess. He may well have obtained some accommodation on Earth and kept it completely off the books. My teams will dig him up eventually, sir...”

“If he’s still alive,” Marius repeated. McGillivray was an old man, but he’d never struck Marius as someone who would simply commit suicide. “There’s no way to be sure.”

“No, sir,” General Thorne said. “The self-destruct in his mansion might have been configured to wipe out DNA traces.”

Marius cursed under his breath. It was hard to see how McGillivray could cause problems — even if he were still alive, he was cut off from his fortune and most of his supporters — but there was no way to know for sure. A few precautions would ensure that McGillivray would still have access to hard cash and unregistered bank accounts. The thought nagged at his mind, mocking him. He’d been tormented by the Grand Senate for much of his adult life, even though he’d been one of their most capable servants, and even now, after the Grand Senate was gone, one of its members was still tormenting him.

He glanced at General Thorne, rather darkly. Thorne was unlikeable, a man with no conscience or morals; he’d switched sides very quickly when the Grand Senate had fallen, hoping to escape certain death in a purge of the former patronage networks. And yet, he was useful... Thorne, at least, would have no qualms about exterminating the Outsiders, root and branch, for daring to oppose the Federation.

“Then keep searching for McGillivray,” Marius ordered, although he knew it might be nothing more than a wild goose chase. Dead, McGillivray would be more of a headache than he’d been when he was alive. They’d never know for sure he was dead. “Leave no stone unturned.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said.

Marius nodded. It was nice to have someone ready to do as they were told, without backtalk or pointless quibbling. And Thorne was definitely useful...

“We have located a number of other potential Brothers,” Thorne added. “However, we would have to check their brains for conditioning before we knew for sure.”

“See to it,” Marius said, absently. The elevator door opened. “I’ll see you at the briefing tonight.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said.

Marius rubbed his forehead as the elevator door closed behind him. Useful or not, he didn’t dare show weakness in front of General Thorne, even though he doubted the man would be able to overthrow him and survive. Marius didn’t dare show weakness in front of anyone; he’d dragged Commander Lewis to Earth, without asking what she wanted, just to make sure she couldn’t talk out of turn. And she, too, was useful...

It was hard, so hard, to do nothing. He’d made a career out of going where the fire was hottest and taking command, but now... now all he could do was wait, read reports, and make plans, moving starships around the display and hoping — praying — that their movements in real life were as smooth. It was frustrating, yet he was starting to think he understood the Grand Senate’s habit of micromanaging everything, even though it had been irritating at best and actively dangerous at worst. They’d been forced to wait at home, knowing battles could have been fought and won — or lost — months before they heard anything.

He stepped past the guard and entered his office. The latest set of reports were already blinking up on the main display, as he’d ordered. He needed to know what was going on, even if it meant spending hours each day digesting the reports, rather than allowing his subordinates to handle them. He’d been betrayed too many times – by Roman Garibaldi, Commodore Arunika — to take his subordinates loyalty for granted. And yet, without being with the fleet himself, all he could do was assign commissioners, watchdogs, and spies in the desperate hope he could stop another mutiny.

Home Fleet shouldn’t mutiny, he thought as he sat down. They’re the most important military force in the Federation.

He keyed a switch, calling up a starchart. It was dominated by icons, each one representing a starship, an orbital fortress, or an industrial node, but the information was already badly out of date. Roman Garibaldi wouldn’t let the grass grow under his feet, Marius knew; he’d trained the younger man. By now, Garibaldi would have reached Ruthven, if he wasn’t already crossing the gulf of space between Ruthven and Marble. But then, Marius had picked the CO of Ruthven personally. He was sure she would have taken a bite out of the enemy fleet before being forced to surrender, if she didn’t fight to the last...

The door opened behind him. Marius jumped, one hand reaching for the pistol at his belt, before he remembered the only person who could enter his office without passing the marine on guard or being announced. He sighed inwardly — he didn’t have time for his wife — and turned around. Tiffany was wearing a short black dress that showed off her breasts and long bare legs.

“You need to rest,” Tiffany announced, firmly.

“I don’t have time,” Marius said. It was hard to keep his eyes off her. “There’s too much to do.”

Tiffany came forward and looked him in the eyes. “Is there anything, anything at all, that will not wait for a couple of hours?”

Marius hesitated — and was lost. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait, not even the revised deployment plans for the defense of a dozen sectors. They were already checked and rechecked; they didn’t need to be checked a third time before they were sent away to the various sector commanders. And the hunt for Rupert McGillivray would proceed with or without his supervision. He could leave that in General Thorne’s hands.

“I thought not,” Tiffany said. She stepped up to him, then started to massage his shoulders gently. “You really do need to relax, Marius. You’re far too tense.”

Marius lifted his head and kissed her on the lips. “There’s too much to do,” he protested, weakly. The frustration kept boiling up at the back of his mind, making it hard to think clearly. He honestly had no idea how the Grand Senators had found time to lead a life of debauchery while ruling the galaxy. “I’m...”

“Taking the rest of the day off,” Tiffany said. She pulled him to his feet, pressing her body against his. Marius was suddenly very aware of her heartbeat, of her firm breasts touching him, yet his body felt old and weak. “Come with me.”

She pulled him into the bedroom, her hands unsnapping his uniform buckles and dropping his clothes on the floor. Marius shivered — very slightly — as she pushed him onto the bed, straddled his back and started to massage the tension from his muscles. He had no idea where Tiffany had learned how to soothe his tormented mind, but it seemed to be working even if his body wasn’t responding properly. He yawned before he could stop himself — Tiffany giggled — and gave himself up to her ministrations.

I can always work late tonight, he reassured himself, as she helped him turn over. She’d removed her dress at some point, leaving her naked. And no one will care if I miss the nightly briefing...

* * *

Tiffany watched her husband as he slept, praying that he hadn’t picked up on her growing concern. Marius hadn’t been normal since he’d returned from Nova Athena, but all her instincts were telling her that something more was wrong. He’d been passionate when they’d first married, even after becoming Emperor; now... he’d been almost lethargic, as if his age was finally catching up with him. Tiffany had had to work hard, once she’d worked the kinks out of his muscles, to prepare him for sex.

Something was deeply wrong.

She sat upright carefully, willing herself not to make any noise. Marius had been jumpy too, ever since he’d returned; he’d once practically leapt out of bed when she’d accidentally kicked him at night. There wasn’t any weapon within reach, she thought, but she had no illusions about his strength. Indeed, his near-impotence was all the more worrying when she realized that he was still in good physical shape.

Because he’s been engineered to remain healthy until the end of his life, she thought, as she stood and padded over to the small pile of clothing. Marius’s jacket lay where she’d placed it, separate from the rest. What the hell is he taking?

Picking up the jacket, she stepped into the office, activated the sound-barriers and started to rummage through the jacket pockets. There was nothing in the outer pockets, save for a secure datachip, but she found a small bottle of liquid — it smelled like alcohol, although nothing like anything she’d smelled before — and a tiny packet of pills. One glance at the tiny grey pills was enough to tell her they weren’t standard; there were no markings stamped into the medicine, nothing to say what might have gone into the pills. She took one out and sniffed it, but smelled like nothing at all.

Placing the pill in a tiny packet she’d prepared already and hiding it in her lingerie drawer, she returned to the bedroom, placed the jacket back on the ground and climbed back into bed. Marius hadn’t moved at all, although his breathing seemed normal, certainly more relaxed than it had been for several weeks. Tiffany wondered, absently, just how much of that was due to her ministrations. Her aunts had taught her a great deal about looking after men — no one had expected her to inherit any real power — but she’d often wondered if they were just pulling her leg. God knew only one of the four women had ever actually married.

And the other three held men in absolute contempt, she recalled, as she wrapped her arms around Marius. I don’t know why they spent so much time chasing men when they hated them.

It was nearly four hours later when Marius finally stirred, sitting upright so sharply he nearly dislocated Tiffany’s arm. She jerked awake, yanking her arms back, then forced herself to relax as Marius started hunting around for his watch before remembering how to turn the display back on. Tiffany had taken the precaution of deactivating it before she’d slipped into his office and started to seduce him.

“It’s late,” he protested. “I need to be at the briefing...”

“Yes, but you need to bathe first,” Tiffany said. One of the few advantages of living in the Presidential House was a bath large enough to pass for a small swimming pool. They could share a bath, if they wanted. “And then you can get dressed properly.”

She watched, warily, as Marius picked up his jacket and belt, then hurried into the bathroom for a shower. Clearly, he didn’t think he had the time to bathe with her. She would have been offended if she hadn’t been so nervous, but Marius didn’t seem to notice that one of his pills was missing. Instead, he changed into a new uniform, donned the belt and jacket and headed for the door.

“I’ll have dinner sent to you,” Tiffany said. “And the stewards will have strict orders to make sure you eat.”

“Very well,” Marius said. “But I may not have time to eat everything.”

He left the room. Tiffany waited ten minutes, then slipped on a dressing gown and headed through the connecting door to her suite. Operative Oslo and his men were based there, waiting patiently for something to do now that Emperor Marius had returned home. Tiffany hoped Operative Oslo was right, when he said her rooms weren’t bugged. If he was wrong — and Ginny’s warnings hung in her mind — she was about to get into deep shit.

“Lady Tiffany,” Operative Oslo said, when she called him into the room. “What can we do for you?”

Tiffany held out the pill. “I want you to find out what this is and give me a full report,” she said. “You have to be completely discreet about it. No one, and I mean no one, is to know what you’re doing.”

Operative Oslo gave her a sharp look, then nodded. “It may take some time, My Lady,” he warned. “A discreet check always takes longer.”

“That’s fine,” Tiffany said. She’d hoped for an immediate answer, but she knew one was unlikely to come. “Please try and keep it between us.”

Chapter Fifteen

When an officer, like Marius Drake, could call on reserves of loyal subordinates, it ensured that the final spat of civil wars would be indefinitely prolonged.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Alexis, 4101

“This is a daring offensive,” General Stuart noted. “I would never have considered it.”

“I don’t think you ever attacked an Asimov Point that was defended on both sides,” Roman said. He had come to like General Stuart, but he had the sense that the older man didn’t return his regard. Perhaps it was simple annoyance — Roman was half his age, yet he’d soundly beaten him at Boston — or perhaps it was the awareness that the Outsiders had lost a superdreadnaught in the earlier battle. “This one poses a rather odd tactical problem.”

“One you will face again and again,” General Stuart said, “as you hammer your way towards Earth.”

Roman nodded. Ruthven was heavily defended, but her defenses were miniscule compared to the towering fortifications defending Earth. The Gateway was fortified on both sides, despite arguments — put forward by penny-pinching politicians — that there was no need to worry. And the thought of tackling those fortresses, even in a straight missile duel, was enough to make Roman shudder. The fleet was going to be crippled if they didn’t find another way to punch through the defenses and break into Sol.

Admiral Justinian must have been planning his offensive for years, he thought, as he turned back to the display. And we can’t repeat his feat without adding several months to our voyage.

He closed his eyes as he contemplated the tactical picture. In theory, a combination of long-range sniping and constant jamming should have made it impossible for the defenders to know what was coming at them, but there was no way to be absolutely certain they’d eliminated all of the stealthed platforms within the system. The more Roman contemplated the problem, the more he knew they were embarking on a desperate gamble. Only the awareness that the crews before him had volunteered for the mission, had literally begged to be allowed to go, kept his conscience from pestering him.

“Task Force 5.1 reports that it is ready to depart,” General Stuart said. “With your permission, Admiral, I’ll return to my flagship.”

“Granted,” Roman said. Keeping the fleet’s two most senior officers on the same ship was just asking for trouble. “I’ll see you on the far side.”

He sat back in his command chair, his eyes searching out the icons representing Task Force 5.1. If nothing else, he was sure the defenders were about to get one hell of a fright. It was impossible to build an actual warship much larger than a superdreadnaught, but their displays would show them five stupendous warships cruising towards them. He wondered, absently, just how long it would take them to realize that he’d pulled all of the captured fortresses off the other Asimov Points and turned them into makeshift assault vessels. The tugs, hidden behind their mighty armor, would keep them moving forward until they hit their targets or fell into the Asimov Point.

Which would be interesting to watch, from a safe distance, he thought. Can something so large transit safely?

“Admiral, the General’s shuttle has undocked,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Good,” Roman said. “Signal the fleet. We commence operations in twenty minutes.”

* * *

Commodore Tracy Rosslyn paced her fortress’s command deck, trying not to show her tension to the crew. Marius Drake himself had put her in command of Ruthven’s defenses, telling her that he needed a loyal and competent officer to control the sector capital. And, after Admiral Drake had saved her from the unwanted attentions of another senior officer with more money and connections than sense, there was very little Tracy wouldn’t do for him.

She scowled at her display, cursing the rebels in the privacy of her own head. Their ECM was good, alarmingly good, and their persistent jamming made it hard to be sure what lurked more than ten light-seconds from the Asimov Point. She’d assigned a handful of destroyers and patrol boats to sweep the outer edge of detection range, but after losing two starships to enemy ambushes she’d been forced to rethink that policy. Ruthven didn’t have a large mobile force covering it and she simply couldn’t afford to waste her ships.

Shouldn’t have sent so many ships forward, she thought, darkly. Admiral Garibaldi, back when he’d been a loyalist, had called many of her ships to Boston to stem the Outsider advance. And it had worked, at a terrifying cost. If they break through the Asimov Point, we will have no end of trouble stopping them.

“Commodore,” the tactical officer said. “I’m picking up something approaching from the direction of the planet.”

Tracy nodded as she strode over to his console. Perhaps it was just another probe, another long-range missile attack to keep her people off balance, but her instincts were suggesting otherwise. Federation Navy doctrine called for pressing the offensive as hard as possible and the Outsiders evidently agreed, knowing that allowing the enemy time to prepare their defenses was a deadly mistake. She’d been expecting an attack ever since the system had fallen to the rebels. Indeed, she was surprised it had taken so long.

“I see,” she said. There was a great deal of jamming, but not enough to cover the turbulence produced by dozens of starships. It looked almost as if the rebels weren’t trying to hide, merely to minimize the time between detection and weapons range. And yet, there was something very odd about the pattern. “Order all fortresses to red alert.”

“Aye, Commodore,” the officer said.

“And bring active sensors online,” Tracy added. There was no point in trying to hide the fortresses, not when the enemy had had ample time to draw a bead on them. It did run the risk of degrading her sensors, if she kept them active for more than a few days, but she had a feeling it wasn’t going to matter. “Let’s see what’s out there.”

The sensor officer swore. Tracy turned, opening her mouth to rebuke him, and froze as she saw the icons on the display. For a long moment, her mind simply refused to accept what she was seeing. There might be a handful of gigantic bulk freighters that were over ten kilometres long, but no one could produce a warship that size... and no one would build a warship with such a pathetic acceleration curve. Why, she could be outrun by a battleship from the First Interstellar War...

“Fortresses,” she said, as it dawned on her. No wonder the drive signature had been so odd. The rebels had taken all five surviving fortresses, assigned a dozen tugs to provide motive power and pointed them at the Asimov Point. “They’ve assigned fortresses to clear our defenses.”

She cursed under her breath. Two of the fortresses had been badly damaged — and, she hoped, shot themselves dry — in the first battle, but the other three hadn’t seen any action. She had four fortresses of her own, yet however she looked at it she was definitely outgunned. And even if she blew the fortresses apart, it would weaken her for the rest of the rebel fleet. She silently tipped her hat to Admiral Garibaldi, then turned to the tactical officer.

“Target the fortresses as soon as they enter engagement range,” she ordered. The fortresses would take a lot of killing... and she didn’t want them any closer to her fortresses than strictly necessary. “Launch the reserve starfighters, then order the CSP to engage the tugs. They are to try to slow the fortresses.”

“Aye, Commodore,” the tactical officer said.

Clever bastard, Tracy thought, with an unwilling flicker of admiration. She’d only met Admiral Garibaldi once, but he wouldn’t have been Emperor Marius’s protégé if he hadn’t been very good at his job. Unless she missed her guess, the intact fortresses would have their own starfighters... and the rebel carriers could be following close behind, ready to jump her starfighters when they ventured out to strike at the tugs. But what else could she do? Very clever bastard.

“The reserve starfighters are launching now,” the CAG reported.

“Good,” Tracy said. She glanced at the communications officer. “Send the drones through the Asimov Point. Inform Commodore Houseman that he is to prepare to defend his position — and that, if I don’t return, he is to assume command of the system defenses.”

“Aye, Commodore,” the communications officer said. She worked her console for a long moment. “Drones away.”

Tracy walked back to her command chair, bracing herself. She had rejected the first surrender demand, simply because she was loyal to Marius Drake. He was her patron, after all. And even if he hadn’t been, she refused to accept that rebellion against the Federation was the only answer. For all its flaws, and she knew it had many, the Federation was all that stood between humanity and threats from beyond the Rim. Alien-lovers were too dangerously naive to be allowed to dictate policy, not when the human race itself was at stake. If aliens refused to submit, they needed to be destroyed. Better them than all of humanity.

She sighed, inwardly, as the starfighters raced towards their targets. The enemy fortresses, as she’d expected, were already launching their own starfighters as they inched forward, slipping into missile range. It wouldn’t be long before they opened fire, weakening her position quite badly. No matter what she did, she had a nasty feeling her existence had narrowed down to killing as many rebels and traitors as she could before they killed her.

“Missiles locked on target, Commodore,” the tactical officer reported. “They are slipping into missile range.”

“Fire,” Tracy ordered.

She knew he didn’t approve of her tactics, even as he keyed the switch that launched the first salvo of missiles. They were wasteful. The flight time was nearly five minutes, more than long enough for the enemy point defense to work out a targeting solution and pick the missiles off before they reached their targets. Indeed, standard tactical doctrine called for her to hold fire until the enemy targets moved closer. But there was no choice. The enemy couldn’t be allowed to get their fortresses any closer to their targets than strictly necessary.

“Enemy starfighters are moving into attack position,” the CAG noted. “Our pilots are requesting reinforcements.”

“Denied,” Tracy said. She didn’t dare strip her fighter cover any further. “Tell them... tell them to do the best they can.”

* * *

“The enemy starfighters are moving in on attack vector,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “I think they’re targeting the fortresses.”

“They’re more likely to be targeting the tugs,” Roman said. Unless the defenders had some kind of weapon he’d never heard of, firing their plasma guns at the fortresses would be about as much use as shouting insults through a megaphone. “Order our starfighters to cover them.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. She paused. “The enemy fortresses have opened fire.”

Roman blinked in surprise. He’d expected the enemy fortresses to hold their fire until his fortresses got closer. It wasn’t as if the fortresses could dodge. Merely getting five fortresses moving in the right general direction had been quite hard enough. But the enemy CO might want to stop the fortresses as soon as she could, rather than risk letting them get any closer. It did make a certain kind of sense.

“Order the fortresses to open fire, but continue along their current course,” he said. If nothing else, convincing the enemy fortresses to shoot themselves dry would make taking the Asimov Point a great deal easier. “And prep the rest of the fleet to move up in support.”

* * *

“They’re coming for the tugs, boys and girls,” Commander Rogers said. “I want you to keep the bastards busy!”

Lieutenant Shanna Robertson gritted her teeth. She’d joined up a year before Admiral Justinian had attacked Earth and she was getting tired of civil wars, of never quite knowing which side she was supposed to be on. First, she’d fought Admiral Jackson and his rogue fleet, then she’d been assigned to Fifth Fleet just in time to fight the Outsiders and, now, she was allied with the Outsiders and waging war on the Federation. She’d actually given serious thought to leaving the fleet, back when the Admiral had offered to allow anyone to leave if they wanted, but she couldn’t leave her wingmates to fight alone.

“Here they come,” Commander Rogers snapped. “Go!”

Shanna gunned her engine and threw her starfighter forward, opening fire as she flew into the wave of enemy craft. They were flying the exact same starfighters as her squadron, part of her mind noted, but they didn’t have the experience she’d picked up in seven years of near-continuous fighting. Their reflexes were just a hair too slow for the task facing them... she smirked, despite herself, as enemy starfighters began to die. And then the loyalists altered course and started to dogfight. She swung her craft around, avoided a blaze of plasma fire that would have blown her to atoms and reversed course. There was barely a fraction of a second to note that her target had been trained to fight in an atmosphere before she blew him to dust.

“They’re closing in on the tugs,” Commander Rogers barked. “Intercept them.”

“On my way,” Shanna said, echoing her other wingmates. The fortresses were effectively indestructible, as far as the starfighters were concerned, but the tugs barely had any protection at all. “We’ll sweep them all clear.”

* * *

“We’ve lost one of the tugs,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “Another tug has taken heavy damage and may have to disengage.”

“Tell her to stay as long as she can,” Roman said. He didn’t like the idea of sending a human crew to their deaths, but there might be no choice. “And order the fortresses to keep firing.”

He allowed himself a moment of relief as the fighting grew hotter. Both sets of fortresses were switching to rapid fire, even though only one missile in ten was getting through the point defense to strike against the target’s shields. Starfighters were buzzing around desperately, often being picked off by the point defense when they flew in a predictable path for more than a few seconds. Roman hoped the IFFs held out long enough to prevent blue-on-blue strikes, when a starfighter was shot down by friendly fire, but there was no way to guarantee it. The loyalists had probably started trying to mimic rebel IFFs by now. It was what he would have done.

“Two more tugs gone, sir,” Lieutenant Thomas said. “Fortress Three has lost acceleration and is just coasting towards her target.”

Roman gritted his teeth. The enemy might not have known it, but Fortress Three was one of the intact fortresses. At least she was still in missile range. The remaining fortresses were inching towards their targets, soaking up fire as they forced their way forwards. He checked the sensor records, trying to determine just how close the enemy fortresses were to shooting themselves dry, but it was impossible to be sure. Chances were, the defenders had shipped additional supplies through the Asimov Point while Roman had hastily prepared his fortresses.

Or they might have done the opposite, he thought, grimly. Stripped the fortresses bare on this side to prepare a stronger defense on the far side.

He forced himself to watch, grimly, as the enemy starfighters broke off. Two-thirds of them had fallen to his starfighters, but it hadn’t been enough to keep them from picking off another tug. Indeed, if they’d had reinforcements, he suspected their offensive would have been rather more successful. But there was no time to allow them to rethink their operational deployments.

“Order the reserve starfighters to launch their attack,” he said. “And send in the gunboats!”

* * *

Tracy cursed, savagely, as the display blossomed with red lights. The enemy fortresses might not be inflicting much damage, but they were keeping her forces jumpy. Now, hundreds of additional starfighters and gunboats had joined the offensive. And their timing had been excellent. She’d had to recall her fighters to rearm, which meant they had to choose between turning and fighting or trying to rearm and return to the fray while the enemy craft were surrounding the fortresses.

“Order the starfighters to turn and engage with plasma guns,” she ordered. Their life support would hold out for a while longer, she thought. “And then direct the CSP to cover us as the gunboats close in.”

She forced herself not to lean forward as the two groups of starfighters converged. Her pilots were tired and it showed, while the enemy starfighters had clearly had plenty of time to prepare themselves for the mission. One by one, starfighters started to vanish from the display while the gunboats roared onwards, trying to get into position to launch missiles towards the fortresses. And then they started to spit missiles at the starfighters...

“Order the CSP to back off,” Tracy snapped, although she has a nasty feeling that it was already too late. “Now!”

“Antimatter warheads,” the tactical officer said, as dozens of green icons vanished from the display. “They’re using shipkillers against starfighters!”

“It seems to be working,” Tracy snarled. The gunboats had just swatted dozens of starfighters out of space, for nothing. And now they were swinging around to resume their charge at the fortresses. “Blow them out of space!”

Her eyes narrowed as the gunboats came closer, overloading their engines to give them an additional burst of speed. The radiation would be instantly lethal to humans, but aliens? She hadn’t seen any data on the aliens who’d joined the Outsiders... could they handle such radiation in small doses? Or were they just trying to get themselves killed...?

“Watch those ships,” she snapped, as they raced closer. She’d studied the reports from a hundred skirmishes with the Outsiders. “They’re trying to ram!”

Chapter Sixteen

The Marsha, it should be noted, were fighters, plain and simple. They had no conception of any victory that did not end with their foe being beaten into submission, nor could they escape the idea that retreat was something shameful. A glorious defeat was more to be feted, they thought, than a retreat that would allow them to fight again another day.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Alexis/Ruthven, 4101

“The ramming ships have entered attack range,” Lieutenant Juneau reported. “They’re closing in on their targets.”

General Charlie Stuart sat back in his command chair, fighting down a growing sense of respect for Admiral Garibaldi. It was easy to nurture a grudge against the officer who’d done so much to beat the Outsiders — and come alarmingly close to winning the war outright. And yet he had to admire someone who was willing to draw the line — and switch sides, if necessary — to prevent his former commander from committing genocide.

Who knew? Maybe there was hope for the alliance after all.

“Keep monitoring them,” he ordered. Sending the Marsha out to die no longer troubled him, not when they wanted to carry out the mission. And besides, weakening the Marsha might help in the long run. “And ready missiles for when we enter missile range.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Juneau said.

Charlie nodded, watching grimly as the Marsha gunboats closed in on their targets. Four gunboats were blasted out of space, the explosions wiping out five more, but the remainder slammed into their targets and detonated, removing two of the defending fortresses. The remaining three held together, barely; he couldn’t help noticing that the enemy shields had weakened and their fire had slacked badly. They had taken heavy damage.

“Signal the flag,” he said. “The missions were completed successfully.”

* * *

Tracy clung on to her command chair for dear life as the fortress shuddered around her. It was rare, vanishingly rare, for anything to shake a fortress, even when she fired a full salvo from her missile batteries. And to think, only one gunboat had made it through the point defense! It had to have been crammed to the gunwales with antimatter.

“Report,” she barked. Red lights were flaring over the system display, warning her that her command had taken heavy damage. “Status report!”

“We’ve lost all but two of our shield generators,” the engineering officer reported. “Major damage throughout the structure, including the loss of our command datanet. We’re isolated, Commodore! Point defense is down to thirty percent!”

Tracy looked down at her console, then back at the tactical display. The enemy fortresses were still crawling forward, save for one that appeared to have stalled; the enemy starfighters were regrouping, readying themselves for another offensive. And there was a formidable force of capital ships coming into range, no doubt readying themselves to add their missiles to the swarm closing in on her remaining fortresses. The defense of the near side of the Asimov Point had come to an end, but she had seven more fortresses on the other side, just waiting for the enemy to poke their nose into Ruthven.

“Pass the word,” she ordered. “We’re evacuating the fortresses.”

She took a breath. It wouldn’t be easy, not in the midst of a battle. Lifepods were taken for weapons all the time and swatted out of space before the shooter realized the mistake. She’d taken the precaution of evacuating as much of her crew as possible, once the rebels had invaded the system, but she still had over a thousand men and women to get through the Asimov Point to safety.

“Switch weapons to automated firing mode, designate the warships as primary targets,” she added. It was unlikely the enemy could get a fortress through the Asimov Point, although she wouldn’t put it past the rebels to try. They’d lose nothing worth mentioning if the fortress was torn apart by gravity tides. “Add the fortresses as secondary targets.”

“Aye, Commodore,” the tactical officer said.

Tracy nodded as she rose from her seat. There was the option of surrendering — she was fairly sure her crews would be treated decently, whatever propaganda said about how the Outsiders fed their prisoners to alien cannibals — but she knew her duty to Marius Drake. As long as there was a chance to delay the enemy, to wear the traitors down, she had to take it. She doubted the automated firing systems would do more than cost the rebels whatever it took to complete the destruction of her remaining fortresses, but at least it would cost them something.

And delay their advance to the Asimov Point, she added. That’s worth doing, I fancy.

“Send an updated drone to Commodore Houseman,” she ordered. “Tell him... tell him to prepare to receive refugees.”

* * *

“I think they’re evacuating the fortresses, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “They’re launching a number of shuttles into the Asimov Point.”

Roman nodded. The enemy fire had slackened, after the gunboats had rammed home, but even after they restored much of their firepower it lacked a certain something. Unless he was very wrong, the enemy had switched to automated firing systems to keep him busy while they fled through the Asimov Point. The Federation Navy’s computers were among the best of the galaxy — the Outsiders didn’t seem to have made any significant advances — but they lacked the initiative and insight of human intellect. After a handful of near-disasters, the human race had lost all interest in trying to manufacture a genuine AI.

“Contact the fortresses,” he ordered. “They are to continue firing at the enemy fortresses until they are destroyed. Our ships are to hold position here until the fortresses are crippled.”

Captain Yuma looked up. “Sir,” he said. “Wouldn’t that give them time to prepare an ambush on the far side?”

“I doubt it will matter,” Roman said. Captain Yuma — the Outsider liaison officer — had an irritating habit of questioning Roman’s decisions, although this was the first time he’d done it in the heat of battle. “They’ve had—” he glanced at the timer “—over two hours to get ready to meet an offensive. Very few tactical planners can count on having so much time.”

He considered, briefly, attempting to target the shuttles... and then damned himself to hell for losing perspective. There was no way he’d lose sleep over killing enemy spacers who were trying to kill him, but slaughtering helpless men and women would be a step down the slippery slope. Besides, he rather doubted any of them were important, certainly not to the Emperor’s war effort. Cold logic might argue that they should die, but cold logic could go take a flying leap out the airlock.

“We gain nothing by expending the missiles to destroy the fortresses quicker,” he added, as he settled back in his command chair. Belaboring the obvious got old very quickly. “And we risk losing the battle when we plunge onwards into Ruthven.”

Long minutes passed as the two groups of fortresses converged. Lacking a damage control team, along with human-directed point defense, the enemy fortresses started to take increasingly heavy damage until antimatter warheads were striking directly into their armored hulls. A human crew would have been trying to surrender at this point, unless they believed there was no hope of anything other than a quick execution, but the electronic loyalists kept firing until the stations were damaged well beyond any hope of repair. In the end, missiles detonated inside their hulls and completed their destruction.

“Take us to the Asimov Point,” Roman ordered. They had only minutes before the first of their fortresses sought to plunge into the Asimov Point. “And alert all ships to be ready for a coordinated assault.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “Starfighters are reloading, sir, but the remainder of the fleet reports that it’s ready to jump.”

“Good,” Roman said. He braced himself as the first of the fortresses reached the Asimov Point. “Let’s see what happens, shall we?”

* * *

“Commodore, I’m picking up major disturbances in the Asimov Point,” a sensor officer reported. “Something big is coming through!”

“They’re actually trying to plunge one of the fortresses into the Asimov Point,” Tracy said, torn between wonder and a kind of grim horror. She’d barely had time to board the battlestation on the far side before the enemy pushed the offensive through the point. “Stand at the ready.”

She sucked in her breath. An oversized bulk freighter, complete with a working drive, was hard enough to steer through an Asimov Point; a fortress, which had barely anything beyond manoeuvring thrusters, had to be an absolute nightmare. And yet, they were still trying to get the immense structure through in one piece. She hoped, absently, that the sensor records would be beamed to Ruthven and the courier boats before the fortresses were destroyed, if they failed to keep the enemy from gaining a toehold in the system. There was genuine, original science to be explored.

“Good grief,” Commodore Houseman said. He’d surrendered command to her without a fight the moment she’d disembarked from the shuttle. “They have to be out of their minds.”

Tracy couldn’t disagree as the fortress emerged from the Asimov Point. Its shields had failed, half of its hull seemed to have been mangled and the tugs that had pushed it into the Asimov Point were gone. Behind it, the gravity tides whirled in and out; she wondered, just for a second, if the fortress was going to be sucked back into the Asimov Point. And then the fortress opened fire with its remaining weapons.

“Kill it,” she snapped.

She shook her head in disbelief. The rebels, deliberately or not, had turned classic Asimov Point assault doctrine on its head. They’d sent a heavier unit through first, allowing its weapons a chance to sweep space clear of mines while gathering targeting data for the assault pods... no, she realized as a second fortress lumbered out of the Asimov Point, they’d sent two heavier units! And the cascade of debris that followed it suggested that the third fortress she’d seen hadn’t made it through the Asimov Point.

“Impossible,” Commodore Houseman muttered.

Tracy was tempted to agree. No one in their right mind would build a warship the same size as a fortress, yet she could see some advantages. Maybe, when peace returned to the galaxy, it would be time to consider the possibilities. If, of course, they could overcome the many problems in actually making such a warship...

And the bastards are even sucking in our mines, she thought. As tough as they were, the fortresses wouldn’t last forever, but it wouldn’t matter. Their mere presence was clearing the way for dedicated assault units. This battle may have been lost before it even began in earnest...

“The enemy fortresses are launching drones,” the tactical officer snapped.

“Warn all of our fortresses,” Tracy said. “Assault pods are about to start transiting the Asimov Point. Order the CSP to be ready to intercept.”

* * *

“That’s the enemy location,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “They’re holding a pretty strong position.”

Roman shrugged. “Signal all ships,” he ordered. “Download targeting instructions from the datanet, then deploy assault pods on my mark.”

“The assault pods are ready, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Deploy,” Roman snapped.

* * *

“Assault pods, unknown class!”

Tracy winced, unsurprised. The CSP was already rocketing forward, trying to kill as many of the assault pods as they could, but she knew their efforts wouldn’t be enough. There were just too many pods, spread out over too wide an area of space. And then the pods started to unload, launching hundreds of missiles towards their targets.

“Stand by point defense,” she ordered, grimly. Having knocked all her plans out of alignment, the enemy was now going to smother her in missiles. They could afford to fight a conventional war now. “Fire at will; I say again, fire at will.”

“A second bunch of assault pods have materialized,” the tactical officer warned. “They’re spawning already.”

“Engage the missiles when they come within firing range,” Tracy ordered. One of the two surviving fortresses was dying, its hull finally shattering as it was ripped apart by her missiles, but it hardly mattered. The damned fortress had done its job. “And...”

“Commodore,” the tactical officer interrupted. “A third wave of assault pods has transited the Asimov Point!”

“Send a full tactical download to Ruthven and the courier boats,” Tracy ordered. “And copy it to Commodore Ross. Tell him... tell him to prepare to assume tactical command.”

She turned back to the display as the wall of missiles raged towards her fortresses. Hundreds fell to her point defense, but hundreds survived to slam into their targets. She braced herself, knowing there was nowhere to run, as the missiles pounded the station, systematically weakening the shields. One by one, the shield generators started to fail...

“Commodore,” the tactical officer said. “They’re throwing another wave of assault pods through the Asimov Point!”

They must have found a way to use the first set of missiles to update the later waves, Tracy thought, numbly. And they seem to have unlimited reserves...

“Send a final download up the chain to Earth,” Tracy ordered.

“Incoming,” the tactical officer said. “Shields failing...”

Tracy closed her eyes. “It’s been an honor serving with you all,” she said. Survival was no longer possible. “I thank you.”

* * *

“Five of the seven fortresses have been destroyed,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “The remaining two have taken heavy damage.”

“Start sending through the first assault wave,” Roman ordered. Given the number of pods he’d deployed, more than enough to smother the defenses, he was surprised that two fortresses had survived. “And tell them to attempt to get the remaining fortresses to surrender, if they can.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman forced himself to wait as the first wave of ships vanished through the Asimov Point, wondering just how long the enemy would choose to hold out. They had to know their position was untenable, even though the Asimov Point had wiped out two of the four fortresses for them. But Ruthven was heavily defended in its own right. They might fear watching helplessly as the fortresses were turned against the planet they were supposed to defend.

“Admiral, the final Marsha fortress has been destroyed,” Lieutenant Thompson reported, shortly. “Neither of the enemy fortresses are responding to our hails.”

“Send through a final wave of assault pods,” Roman ordered. He studied the status display for a long moment, noting the hundreds of mines floating outside the enemy fortresses, and then made his choice. “And then move the first battle squadron through into the system.”

He settled back in his command chair as the assault pods vanished into the Asimov Point, completing the task of destroying the enemy fortresses. The minefields alone wouldn’t pose a major threat, not when they could be swept by starfighters or starship-mounted energy weapons. But the real question was just what had happened to the enemy ships. Ruthven didn’t have any superdreadnaughts — God knew he would have raided the system for superdreadnaughts during the early stages of the war — but she had a small fleet of battlecruisers, heavy cruisers and destroyers. Where were they?

“The first battle squadron has transited,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “They’re sweeping the mines now.”

“Order them to launch a full shell of recon drones,” Roman ordered. The time delay was irritating, but there was no way to avoid it until Valiant went through the Asimov Point herself. “And angle a number towards the planet. I want the starships found.”

He frowned as the next set of updates popped into view on the display. The records claimed that over forty ships had been assigned to Ruthven, but long-range scans hadn’t picked up anything apart from a handful of freighters heading into deep space and a number of asteroid miners. Not that that meant anything, he reminded himself. He’d kept his fleet concealed in Alexis for two weeks while preparing his attack on Ruthven. It didn’t take a particularly skilled commander to keep forty ships hidden while trying to decide what to do next.

If I were in command, I’d stay hidden and wait for a chance to hit the enemy supply lines, he thought. There were at least forty starships unaccounted for, but only four of them were battlecruisers — and none of them were any match for a single battle squadron. That would give me a chance to make an impact out of all proportion to my size. But would I be allowed to do that?

The thought nagged at his mind as Valiant slowly advanced forward and transited through the Asimov Point. He braced himself, half-expecting to be greeted by a swarm of missiles, then checked the display. The minefield had been destroyed, leaving nothing but chunks of dust and debris. A handful of enemy starfighters were trying to surrender, their pilots ejecting into space to make it impossible for them to launch a sneak attack. But there was still no sign of the enemy starships.

And they could have simply retreated back to Marble, he thought. If the Emperor left them in place...

“Send a signal to the planet,” he ordered. The enemy fleet would show itself eventually, he was sure, either by hitting his rear or linking up with a more powerful force. “Invite them to surrender.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman took a moment to assess his fleet’s position. Ammunition expenditure had been lower than expected, save for the assault pods. Thankfully, the fortresses had absorbed much of the enemy’s firepower before he had to send his ships into the maelstrom. The only downside was that he would have to detail starships to guard the Asimov Point or run the risk of the enemy using it to mount a counterattack.

And that is the problem of victory, he reproved himself, sharply. As bad as it had been, he knew very well that it could have been a great deal worse. How bad would it be if I were trying to cope with a defeat?

“Order the damaged ships to return to Alexis,” he said. They’d done well, but the battle wasn’t over yet. There would be time to mourn the dead on both sides later. “The remainder of the fleet is to form up on the flag and prepare to advance.”

Chapter Seventeen

The belief that planets were important, in some ways, was a millstone around the necks of naval planners. Very few planets were important unless they had formidable defenses or industrial bases.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Alexis/Ruthven, 4101

Commodore Theodore Ross was convinced, as he peered up at the battlecruiser Hammer’s tactical display, that he was seeing his worst nightmare unfolding in front of him. He had no illusions about his bravery — or about the simple fact that the Emperor had left him in place because everyone knew Theodore didn’t have the mindset to become a potential threat. Besides, Ruthven was a loyal planet. Theodore couldn’t have hoped to set up an empire of his own, even if his immediate superiors had somehow been removed — and he knew it. All he really wanted to do was see out the rest of his career in peace and quiet.

Then they stripped me of half my crew for the fortresses, he thought. Now I have to command the ship as well as the squadron.

The hell of it, he considered, was that he was in the perfect position for an ambush, if he’d had a handful of battle squadrons attached to his fleet. But the largest ship under his command was a battlecruiser and, even with external racks, he couldn’t hope to match the firepower of a single enemy battle squadron. It was frustrating: a long-range engagement would see his missiles expended for nothing, while a short-range engagement would get his ships torn to ribbons by the enemy. His precaution of taking the fleet into cloak once the enemy had started to push through the Asimov Point would have seemed a brilliant move, if he’d been able to capitalize on it.

“Commodore,” the tactical officer said. “The rebel fleet is advancing towards the planet.”

“Noted,” Theodore said, grimly. There were three Asimov Points in the system, but none of them were particularly important. The planet itself, on the other hand, was home to a growing industry that the rebels needed, desperately. “How badly did the fortresses hurt them?”

“I don’t think their battle squadrons were badly hurt, sir,” the tactical officer said. “It’s impossible to be sure, but they’re making a good clip towards the planet.”

Attacking a target they know I have to defend, Theodore thought. And they have to know I’m lurking somewhere within the system.

He cursed under his breath as he checked the latest update from the planet. The evacuation and demolition plan had run into snags, unsurprisingly; the workers didn’t want to leave their families or destroy the industrial plant they’d built up over the last decade. Theodore knew he should force them to leave, at gunpoint if necessary, before destroying the industrial plant, but he didn’t want to do either. The former would leave him with a mob of angry and resentful workers, while the latter would leave the planet’s population open to retaliation from the rebels. Ruthven might be loyalist, but there were limits.

“We’ll go with Plan Gamma,” he said, finally. “Send a signal to the planet, ordering them to speed up the evacuation, then take us into engagement range—” he tapped a location on the display “—here.”

“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said.

“And inform the remainder of the fleet,” Theodore added. “There are to be no heroics. I want to get into missile range, land a blow or two, and then get out.”

He kept his face expressionless as the fleet altered course, stealthily slipping into attack position. It was unlikely they’d manage to land a blow — or do anything, really, beyond giving the rebels a few nasty moments. The rebel point defense would probably be able to handle a full barrage from his ships, even if they were targeted on one or two superdreadnaughts. But at least he wouldn’t have abandoned the system without a fight. The Grand Senate had shot officers who’d surrendered star systems to warlords and, even though Emperor Marius had been a military officer himself, Theodore was unwilling to take the chance of just pulling out of the system and joining the defenses at Marble.

Not that we will be staying there, he thought. Forty smaller ships weren’t likely to tip the balance one way or the other, but they might make a difference if they were raiding behind the lines. Possession of Ruthven would give the rebels access to two new Asimov Point chains, which might make their logistics a little easier. We can sneak out and hit the enemy where they’re weakest.

“Entering extreme missile range, sir,” the tactical officer said. “Passive sensors are tracking the enemy ships. They’re not trying to hide.”

“Hold us steady,” Theodore ordered. Unless the rebels had some new piece of sensor gear — in which case the war was on the verge of being lost — it was unlikely they’d pick up his ships for a few minutes longer. Besides, the shorter the range, the greater the chance of scoring a hit. “Fire on my mark.”

He watched the display, feeling a churning unease in his gut. Rebels — Admiral Justinian as well as the Outsiders — had shown an alarming inventiveness, fueled, at least in part, by the imagination to actually rebel. The pace of change had slowed to a crawl, long before the war; military technology had practically frozen in place before Admiral Justinian had shown the Grand Senate just how many options remained for exploration. And now... he wondered, deep inside, if he had the mindset to adapt to an ever-changing universe.

Before the war, hitting one’s enemies would have been impossible at this distance, he thought. They’re still outside the pre-war engagement range.

“Stand by,” he ordered. The closer his ships came to the enemy, the greater the chance of detection... and the lower the odds of escaping in one piece. “Prepare to fire.”

“Missiles locked, sir,” the tactical officer said. “Ready to fire.”

Theodore braced himself. “Fire!”

Hammer shuddered, violently, as she emptied her external racks, then fired a full barrage from her missile tubes. Loading the external racks with antimatter warheads had been a gamble — it would never have been tolerated before the war — but it would give her some additional punch in the opening moves of the engagement. Theodore watched, grimly, as the other ships fired too, the smaller vessels launching a relative handful of missiles towards the enemy fleet. The rebels didn’t flinch, but it was evident they’d been caught by surprise; they weren’t in position to establish a full point defense formation. Even so, there was nothing wrong with their reactions.

“Enemy ships have opened fire,” the tactical officer reported. “They’re trying to lock on to us now.”

They must have improved their missile warheads, Theodore thought. But then, they wouldn’t have any difficulty tracking our missiles back to their launch tubes.

He shook his head in grim astonishment. He’d read the reports from the earlier engagements, but he hadn’t really believed them, even when the analysts had drawn his attention to the salient points. Now, it was clear the enemy had vastly improved their seeker heads and command datanet. The never-to-be-sufficiently-damned speed of light delay wasn’t such a problem for them any longer. And if they’d had five or ten more years before the war, part of his mind yammered, it might have been a walk-over.

“Fire the second barrage, then reverse course,” he ordered. There was no point in trying to go toe-to-toe with seven battle squadrons, not when he’d already thrown the heaviest punch he could. “Get us out of here.”

“Aye, sir,” the helmsman said. “Reversing course now.”

“Enemy ships are launching starfighters,” the tactical officer added. “They’re sweeping in behind the missiles.”

“Stand by point defense,” Theodore ordered, harshly. They might just get out of missile range before that barrage arrived, but they couldn’t hope to outrun the starfighters. “Engage the missiles as soon as they enter firing range.”

“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said.

Theodore felt a moment of hope, as a number of missiles started to burn out, but it flickered and faded as the remaining missiles kept coming. His point defense did what it could, burning hundreds of missiles out of space, yet hundreds more closed in on their targets and attacked. He watched, refusing to allow the pain to show on his face, as a dozen starships were blown to atoms, their point defense overloaded and their shields knocked down. A list of destroyed ships scrolled past him...

Hammer rang like a bell as two missiles made it through the point defense and slammed into the shields. The rebels had somehow managed to increase the quantity of antimatter crammed into their warheads, part of his mind noted; they’d hit his ship significantly harder than they should have been able to do. He worried at the problem for a few minutes, then dismissed it as he realized the missile bombardment had come to an end. But the starfighters were still coming.

“Enemy starfighters entering point defense range,” the tactical officer said. “They’re concentrating on our smaller ships.”

Theodore’s eyes narrowed. The standard tactic was to concentrate on the larger ships, although he wouldn’t complain if Hammer’s crew were allowed a chance to repair the damage the ship had taken before the starfighters turned their attention to her. But it made no sense... or did it? Destroyers, light cruisers... even heavy cruisers... they wouldn’t make much difference in the defense of Marble, let alone Tara Prime, but they could do real damage operating behind the lines. The rebels had to want to smash as many of the smaller ships as they could before they scattered and fled into interstellar space.

He found himself caught, suddenly, on the horns of a dilemma. If he kept the remainder of the fleet together, he could concentrate his point defense... at the risk of losing too many of his smaller ships to the rebel starfighters. But if he ordered the fleet to scatter, he’d lose a handful of ships at the risk of being unable to defend himself if the enemy warships came after him. Hell, the starfighters themselves would need to rearm, sooner or later.

And if we present a tempting target, the enemy ships might come after us, he thought.

He turned his attention to the display. It didn’t look as though he’d inflicted much — if any — damage on the rebel formation. Their jamming and ECM was first-rate, but they hadn’t slowed or altered course. It was possible, he supposed, that their CO had decided it wasn’t worth the effort to try to chase down his ships — his lighter units could outrace a battlecruiser, let alone a superdreadnaught — not when he needed to secure Ruthven as quickly as possible, before anyone could have any bright ideas about destroying the system’s industrial base. Or he might just be relying on the starfighters...

But if they’re not coming after us, he thought, there’s no point in trying to present a tempting target, not if they’re not going to take the bait.

“Send a signal to all ships,” he ordered, as the enemy starfighters pulled back. “All ships are to scatter, then proceed with contingency plan theta-one; I say again, all ships are to scatter and proceed with theta-one.”

“Aye, sir,” the communications officer said.

“Ramp up the drive to full power, then take us straight to the system limits,” Theodore ordered, tartly. “Launch one final set of tactical drones at the enemy formation and then link into the stealthed recon platforms. I want an up-to-date report when we leave the system.”

“Aye, sir,” the helmsman said. The tactical officer echoed him a second later. “We’ll cross the system limits in seven hours.”

Theodore nodded. It was risky, but better than losing his ships in a general engagement. And he, at least, needed to report to Marble. It was possible he’d be relieved of duty, even cashiered, but he’d done as much as he could. The remainder of the squadron would raid enemy shipping for as long as their supplies held out. He had no illusions about how long they’d last, even with a handful of pre-placed supply dumps, yet at least it was something.

And anything that delays the enemy can only be welcome, he thought. The Federation had taken a beating in two successive wars, despite the Grand Senate’s attempts to rebuild and expand its industrial base. This new war may bring us to our knees, even if we win.

He settled back in his command chair, watching the damage reports as they scrolled up in front of him. Seventeen ships destroyed outright, four more damaged so badly they’d need to be abandoned and scuttled... it was better than he’d dared hope, given the firepower on the other side. But he doubted he’d delayed the enemy long enough for it to matter. Making them expend a few thousand missiles hardly counted if there was nothing in place to take advantage of the shortfall.

They’ll need time to gather themselves before leaping across the Void to Marble, he told himself firmly. And, if nothing else, they will need to replace the missiles they fired.

“Continue on our present course,” he added, as the remaining enemy starfighters returned to their carriers. “And take us into stardrive as soon as we cross the system limits.”

“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said.

* * *

“The starfighters are rearming, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Do you wish to launch another strike?”

Roman shook his head. The enemy squadron had launched a brief attack, perhaps for the honor of the flag, then broken off. There didn’t seem to be any other motive; they’d fired thousands of missiles right into the teeth of his defenses, rather than trying to pick off one or two of his flanking units. Maybe the enemy CO hadn’t quite realized that Marius Drake was in command, rather than an ignorant lout from the Grand Senate. Emperor Marius would have no trouble recognizing that the enemy CO was badly outgunned, that he’d had no choice but to retreat instead of dying for nothing.

But it did force us to expend some of our missiles, he thought, as he studied the reports from the long-range probes. And it may cost us if we have to take the planet.

He cursed inwardly as his fleet advanced on the planet. Ruthven had five fortresses in high orbit, protecting dozens of industrial platforms and habitats as well as the planet itself. Someone had clearly been taking advantage of Emperor Marius’s incentives to develop new industries, he noted; in happier times, Ruthven would definitely be counted as a success story. But now, she was nothing more than a target. And one he had to take largely intact.

“Transmit the pre-recorded demand for surrender,” he ordered. He’d gone to some trouble to guarantee the lives and property of the planet’s residents, even though he had a nasty feeling there would be trouble once the Federation garrison surrendered. “And inform me the moment we receive a response.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman gritted his teeth. Attacking a planet was far simpler than attacking through an Asimov Point, but there was the considerable danger of accidentally striking the planet itself with an antimatter warhead. Killing billions of humans would give Emperor Marius a propaganda victory, if only because mass slaughter was generally believed to be the pastime of uncivilized aliens. The fact that Marius himself had attempted to commit genocide would probably go unmentioned.

And we could simply seal off the planet, if we didn’t need it, he thought. Having the ability to produce new missiles and assault pods hundreds of light years closer to their next target would be very helpful. Ruthven’s production rates were low, compared to Earth or the Outsider industrial nodes, but it hardly mattered. And they might have ships they could send out to harass us when our backs are turned.

“Picking up a signal from the planet,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “It’s a recorded message.”

Roman smiled. “No doubt they recorded it before we broke through the Asimov Point,” he said. With seven light minutes between the fleet and Ruthven, holding a real-time conversation would be impossible. “Put it on.”

He looked up as a face appeared in the display. “Admiral Garibaldi, this is Colonel Knox,” a voice said. A line of text below the screen confirmed his identity and noted, somewhat to Roman’s relief, that Knox was planetary militia rather than a Federation officer. “Please state your terms of surrender.”

“Record,” Roman ordered. “Colonel Knox, my terms are very simple. My forces will assume control of the orbital fortresses, industrial nodes and select locations on the planet to guarantee our security. Any Federation personnel on the planet are to be handed over for internment, although we will provide security forces for any internment camps. Your planetary militia is to disband and return home, at least for the moment. The future disposition of Ruthven will be considered after the war.”

“Message sent,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, hoping that Colonel Knox would be reasonable. His position was hopeless and he had to know it, but not putting up a fight would look bad if the Federation resumed control of the system. Besides, the Outsiders might be just as bad as the Grand Senate and try to suck the planet dry.

Goddamned civil war, he thought. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we were fighting aliens?

He had to wait another thirteen minutes for his reply. “Admiral, we are prepared to surrender on terms,” Colonel Knox said. “However, we cannot guarantee that all Federation personnel will be rounded up.”

“Understood,” Roman said. There would probably be a multitude of stay-behind agents in place, given that the defenders had had months to prepare. “My forces will assume control of the high orbitals shortly.”

He keyed a switch. “Elf? Did you get all that?”

“Yes, sir,” Elf said. On duty, she was all business. “I’m readying the landing force now.”

Chapter Eighteen

Ironically, one of the many problems of the pre-war Federation Navy — the rise of alcohol and drug abuse — was largely eliminated by the pressures of actual war.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4101

“I don’t know where you got that pill, My Lady,” Operative Oslo said, after she had walked into his office and closed the door. “But I sincerely hope you’re not planning to take them yourself.”

“I’m not,” Tiffany said. Oslo and his men had protected her since she was a little girl. She had no idea what they’d do if they thought she intended to damage herself. “What can you tell me about it?”

Oslo eyed her for a long moment, perhaps wondering just what was going on. “I took the pill to a chemist I know and had it analyzed,” he said. “I’ll give you the full report, if you wish, but it’s basically a combination of a very strong military-grade painkiller and a powerful antidepressant. The chemist noted that such combinations are, in fact, illegal, if only because of the dangers of two strong drugs interacting.”

Tiffany swallowed. “And if I took the pill now,” she said, “what would happen to me?”

“You’d go numb,” Oslo said. “The painkiller side of the pill, My Lady, is normally only found in military emergency kits. You could cut off your own arm and feel nothing, even as you are bleeding to death. Combined with the antidepressant, you might start bouncing off the walls or find it hard to think clearly. The chemist was at some pains to insist that the ultimate end result is dangerously unpredictable.”

He met her eyes, evenly. “The military insists that only one or two doses of such painkillers are to be handed out, regardless of the situation,” he added. “That’s because the painkillers are addictive. Three doses within a short period of time might well cause addiction, My Lady, and getting such pills outside the military is extremely difficult. The antidepressants, too, can get someone hooked on them. I should add that the military has a policy of rejecting any candidates who have used such drugs, even for a short period of time.”

“I see,” Tiffany said. Was Marius addicted? How many of the damned pills had he taken? “If someone were to be addicted... how could they be cured?”

“It would depend, according to the chemist, on just how badly they were hooked,” Oslo told her, flatly. “Eliminating the physical dependency would not be too difficult, I was told, but curing the mental dependency would be a great deal harder. Not to put too fine a point on it, My Lady: anyone who takes these pills more than once or twice in their lifetime is going to have some real problems breaking free.”

“Shit,” Tiffany said. She shook her head. “What else do they do?”

“The chemist wasn’t clear,” Oslo said. “Anyone hooked on the drugs may lose his appetite, his enthusiasm for life... even become impotent. These are not legal pills, My Lady; they’re not produced according to a standard recipe. The exact side effects may vary depending on the precise combination of painkiller and antidepressants. If you know someone who has been taking them, the chemist concluded, they need immediate medical help.”

He held out a folder. “This is the full report,” he added. “There’s a summary at the front, stripped of all the medical gibberish. I suggest you make sure it’s carefully hidden, if you don’t want to feed it into a shredder after you read it. Someone who found it could easily draw the wrong conclusion.”

Or the right one, Tiffany thought, as she waved him goodbye and settled down to read through the folder. Who’s giving Marius the pills, and why?

Her father had taught her, years ago, that bureaucrats and military officers liked burying bad news in the files, on the largely accurate assumption that their superiors rarely bothered to read more than the executive summary before signing off on the reports. Tiffany had pointed out, at the time, that reading a full report could take hours, hours she didn’t have; now, she opened the folder and started to read from the beginning. The chemist had loaded the report with medical jargon — she had to look some of the words up on her terminal — but, if anything, Oslo had understated the situation. Excessive use of the painkiller alone would lead to heart attacks, as well as a host of other problems.

The final section of the report was nothing more than a detailed plan for treating the addiction before it got out of hand. Tiffany read through it, unsure if she should laugh or cry; she rather doubted she could talk a doctor, even a military doctor, into committing the Emperor to a medical ward for a year. And yet, without it, Marius’s time was quite limited; he was running the risk of a massive heart attack or a stroke. He’d been an old man, despite rejuvenation treatments, long before the Justinian War had begun.

She closed the report and rose, looking around for a place to hide it. There was a safe in the suite, but Marius had the keycode; she didn’t dare leave it there. She briefly considered shredding it, before deciding — instead — to bury it in her underwear drawer. Marius was unlikely to go poking through, she thought, and no one else would dare. She’d made it quite clear, back when they moved into the Presidential House, that her drawers were off-limits to the household staff. She hated the thought of anyone digging through her clothes.

Her intercom beeped. “Tiffany, please come to the conference room,” Marius said. His voice was surprisingly strong. “We have much to discuss.”

Tiffany blinked, hastily hid the folder and hurried out of the room, hoping it would remain undisturbed until she’d had a chance to show it to Ginny. Perhaps she’d have an idea of what to do about it. A pair of guards nodded to her as she hurried into the conference room and sat next to Marius, who gave her a sidelong look as she sat down. She studied him closely, wondering just which of the symptoms she should be looking for. The chemist had openly stated, after all, that the side effects were definitely unpredictable.

“Gentlemen, be seated,” Marius said, once the last of the cabinet had entered the room and the doors were sealed. “Commander Lewis?”

Ginny rose to her feet, looking pale. Tiffany didn’t know much about the military, but she was fairly sure Ginny was being loaded with responsibilities that were well above her pay grade. She wasn’t sure if Marius was making a gesture of trust or if he found it too hard to care, these days, about military protocol. He could easily have arranged for Ginny to be promoted up a rank or two.

“Emperor,” Ginny said. She sounded nervous, too. “We have received the first major set of updates from Alexis. According to the reports, the system fell to a major offensive through the Asimov Point.”

Tiffany glanced at Marius. His left hand was shaking, slightly, but otherwise he showed no reaction. He would have known, she suspected, that the defenses of Alexis wouldn’t hold, when Admiral Garibaldi came knocking. He’d had months to prepare himself for a piece of bad news.

“I see,” he said, finally. “And the attackers have already invaded Ruthven?”

“We assume so, but we don’t have any updates from Ruthven,” Ginny said. “The last report stated that the enemy was sniping at the defenders while securing the planet.”

“We shall assume the worst,” Marius said. He cocked his head. “Is there any good news?”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. “Major Jackson?”

Major Jackson, Commodore Arunika’s successor, leaned forward. “We picked up a number of messages from the defenders as they were overwhelmed,” he said. “One of them was an encrypted message from a deep-cover agent within the Outsiders. It contained a short update on the situation, including confirmation that Roman Garibaldi and most of his crew have indeed joined the Outsiders.”

Marius’s face darkened, ominously. “And what have they been doing?”

“Attempting to batter out a post-war plan, apparently,” Jackson said. “There were few details, sir, but whatever it was seems to have been acceptable to both the Outsiders and Garibaldi himself.”

“He agreed to split the Federation,” Marius said, flatly.

“It’s possible, sir,” Jackson agreed. “We don’t have any updates from the front lines. I hope we will receive more messages, as the rebel fleet pushes its way towards us, but there’s no way to be certain.”

“They’ll certainly try to split us,” General Thorne commented. “The Outsider propaganda was surprisingly effective, even within the Core Worlds.”

Because the Grand Senate abused everyone who didn’t have a title, Tiffany thought. What was the point of slaving when the choice was between the Grand Senate and Admiral Justinian? But now, the Outsiders were offering the prospect of freedom, of living in a universe where there were no aristocrats. Who wouldn’t want to join the Outsiders?

“We must make ready to counter the next barrage of enemy propaganda,” Marius said. “They will be sneaking messages to their supporters, even now.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said. “My department is already preparing a media offensive that will overshadow their attempts to spread the word. We cannot deny that we lost Alexis, sir, but we can make it clear that we bled the enemy badly. And that it’s all part of a plan to force them to overextend themselves before we cut them off at the knees.”

Tiffany leaned forward. “Wouldn’t that be giving away the plan?”

General Thorne gave her a cold look that sent a chill running down her spine. “They will have no difficulty in deducing our plan, My Lady,” he said. “It is, after all, the same thing we did at Boskone and Boston.”

“And the time delay will make it harder for them to get word, even if they haven’t deduced our plan,” Marius added. “Where do we stand with reinforcements?”

General Yusuf Maringa, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked worried. “Sir, we have sent orders to a number of fleets to detach battle squadrons to reinforce the defenses of Earth and the Tara Sector,” he said. “However, we have run into considerable problems. Several of the fleets have not yet received their orders, cannot yet have received their orders, while others are proving reluctant to let go of their ships. And even if they do, we’re looking at months before we get any significant reinforcement in place.”

Marius clenched his fist. “Are the admirals I put in place turning on me?”

Maringa paled. “I... I don’t know, sir,” he said. “They do have good reason to be reluctant to let go of their ships.”

Because those ships are their only guarantee of remaining alive, Tiffany thought. Once, mutiny and rebellion would have been effectively unthinkable. Certainly, the Inheritance Wars had taught the Federation Navy a number of sharp lessons about making sure the crews were indoctrinated in Federation precepts. But Admiral Justinian let the genie out of the bottle and those admirals have to be wondering what will happen to them, if Marius’s protégé could turn on him.

She scowled, inwardly. Naval officer or not, she understood the time delay caused by the limitations on communications. An admiral on the other side of the Federation might not have received the message yet... and, even if he had, he might have problems of his own to worry about. And, by the time he dispatched the ships, orders for his arrest might already be racing out from Earth. They would probably send him into rebellion.

“So we are dependent on the forces we already have in place — and Home Fleet,” Marius said, coldly. “And we have very little in the pipeline to replace them?”

Larimore Hammond, Minister of Economics and Production, looked down at the table. “We have thirty-seven superdreadnaughts and nineteen fleet carriers under construction,” he said, keeping his voice tightly under control. “However, the problem of finding good workers and sourcing all the material we need is slowing production down, alarmingly. We are actually looking at ways to concentrate our efforts on a handful of ships, but that will only delay the others further. Worse, enemy propaganda is spreading amongst the crews...”

“Then crack down on it,” Marius snapped.

“The workforce understands the problems it’s facing,” Hammond said. “I’ve been hearing complaints for months, sir. Workers are putting in seventeen-hour shifts daily, making them tired and prone to mistakes... some of those mistakes have been quite serious. Over the last two weeks, twelve trained workers have been killed in accidents...”

“I don’t want a list of problems,” Marius said. “I want solutions!”

“There are none,” Hammond said, so quietly it was hard to hear his words. “I need more trained manpower, sir, but I can’t spare the workers to teach the recruits how to work in a shipyard. And I need to give my crews more rest time, sir, yet that too will slow down production. And morale is in the shitter, sir, because everyone knows they’re being worked to death. How many strikes do you want to have to break?

“That isn’t the only set of problems,” he added. “There are over ten thousand components to a superdreadnaught, everything from heavy armor to life support units and... well, everything. We have been having major delays in sourcing those parts, sir; we need additional production plants, but again we don’t have the time to set them up.”

Marius leaned forward. “Why the delay?”

“Some of the plants have been having their own problems,” Hammond said. “The same problems we’ve been having in the shipyards. Others... well, one plant had a foreman who supported the Outsiders. By the time we realized the problem, every last item produced by that plant was tainted by chaos software.”

“Then we need to tighten security,” General Thorne said.

“Security is too tight for any real good,” Hammond said. His voice grew louder. “Do you realize just how many man-hours we’re losing just through security measures alone?”

“It has to be done,” General Thorne snapped.

“Your trained apes don’t have the slightest idea how to comport themselves in an industrial plant,” Hammond snapped back. “Seventy-four security officers have died in the last three months, mostly through stupidity. This isn’t some nice safe city-block on Earth, General; stupid people die in space! And that doesn’t include the idiots who thought it would be a good idea to rape a couple of workers! We found them drifting out in space with their underpants nailed to their heads!”

“You let the murderers get away with it,” Thorne said with uncommon intensity. “They should be found...”

“They’re more valuable than your thugs,” Hammond said. “You have an infinite supply of idiots on Earth!”

Tiffany glanced at Marius, wondering if he would stop the argument. But Marius was just sitting there, looking between the two ministers with a slightly bemused expression on his face. Had he zoned out? Or was he allowing them to argue to keep them from taking sides against him? Or...

“Enough,” Marius said. “Have you found a trace of McGillivray?”

“No, sir,” General Thorne said. “There’s still no proof he survived the destruction of his home, let alone managed to find safety. He could well be dead.”

“A man like McGillivray will always have an escape plan,” Marius said. He scowled across the table. “And he will not be content with finding a safe place to die.”

Tiffany couldn’t really disagree. Last survivor of the Imperialists or not, McGillivray had cast a long shadow over the Grand Senate. She was sure, from what her father had said, that he’d played a role in arranging her marriage, just as the Brotherhood had played a role in turning Marius Drake into the Grand Senate’s last best hope for survival. Old he might be — he’d been in his seventies during the Blue Star War, nearly a century ago — but there was nothing wrong with his mind. And yet, if he were nearing two hundred years old, could he really survive on Earth?

It depends, she thought. Just how much of the Brotherhood survived the purge?

“I have located a number of other potential Brothers,” Thorne said. “Unfortunately, as we discussed before, actually proving it without a brain scan is impossible.”

“Have them checked,” Marius ordered. “If they happen to be innocent... well, we can release them without delay.”

“Sir,” Tully said. “Snatching innocent civilians on Earth will not go down well.”

Thorne snorted. “We’ve crushed riots before,” he said. “Give the scum a taste of the lash, Comptroller. I guarantee they’ll be better-behaved the rest of their lives.”

“It’s not like they can do much else with their lives,” Tiffany said, before she could stop herself. “Even if they all wanted jobs, General, where would they get them?”

“They can at least stay quiet as we conscript them,” Thorne said. “It’s high time we started sending more Earthers out to the colonies.”

“We don’t have the logistics,” Hammond snapped. “Our freighters are pushed to the limits already!”

“And even if we did,” Tully said, “how would the colonies absorb a bunch of useless workers who don’t have the slightest idea how to survive?”

“Whips and chains,” Thorne said. His face twisted into a leer. “The strong will survive and prosper, once all coddling is removed. As for the weak... let them die.”

Tiffany felt sick. Thorne... was Thorne the one supplying the pills? The report had made it clear, more than once, that no sane doctor would prescribe such pills. And any doctor Marius asked could have supplied proper pills. Thorne, on the other hand, might benefit if Marius slowly became dependent on the drugs.

“We can deal with that problem after the war,” Marius said. Tiffany was relieved to hear that he sounded almost like his old self. “For the moment, let us concentrate on preparing ourselves to meet Garibaldi and his traitors.”

And, on that note, the meeting came to an end.

Tiffany wanted to speak with Marius as the others left, but he swept out before she could say a word. She cursed under her breath, then headed back to their rooms. She needed time to think.

Chapter Nineteen

The perverse irony of the final war is that if more planets had been treated like Ruthven, if Emperor Marius had had more time to break down the former monopolies, the Outsiders would never have reached Boston. But then, if the Federation had approached the problem wisely, the war would never have begun in the first place.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Ruthven, 4101

Chang Li had thought herself used to a hostile crowd, but the stares from the locals as she was driven through the streets towards the Planetary Hall were far from pleasant, all the more so for being unforced. She’d tried to give speeches that were interrupted by hired rioters, men paid to disrupt her performance, yet here... the people watching her acted as though they were under occupation, their expressions sullen as they followed her car. It bothered her, more than she cared to admit; Ruthven, no matter how one looked at it, had had a pretty good decade. By boosting the planetary economy, Emperor Marius’s officers had done an excellent job of winning hearts and minds.

She braced herself as the car drove through the gates and came to a halt in front of the Planetary Hall. The President — democratically elected, as far as the analysts could tell — was standing there to greet her. She climbed out of the vehicle, shook his hand firmly and allowed him to show her into the Planetary Hall. Ruthven’s government was democratically elected, at least in part, because the system knew that loyalty to the Federation would be rewarded. She couldn’t help wondering, as she walked up to the podium, just how many of the assemblymen facing her knew what it was like to grow up along the Rim.

And they have three Asimov Points to play with, she thought. Who knows what they’ll become in a century, if they survive the war?

“Thank you for allowing me to speak,” she said, once the President introduced her. It was sincerely meant, although she knew there was no way they would have barred her with Admiral Garibaldi controlling the high orbitals. “I won’t keep you long.

“The Federation has been decaying for years. Authority and power were slipping towards Earth for centuries, even before the collapse of the Imperialist Faction. And, as the Grand Senate grew more powerful, it sucked the life out of the Rim even as it undermined the ideals of the Federation Navy. Admiral Justinian was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“You must see this, I think, from your own economic boom. It would not have taken place, I suspect, if the Grand Senate hadn’t been removed. But what took its place was, in many ways, far worse. Admiral Drake — Emperor Marius — is responsible for a whole string of crimes, up to and including attempted genocide. He came within minutes of ordering the antimatter bombardment of my homeworld. Nova Athena, a human world, would have died under his fire.

“We — the Outsiders — believe that the system needs radical and fundamental reform,” she continued. It was impossible to gauge the effect of her speech on her sullen and suspicious audience, but she plunged on regardless. “The Federation was never really designed to handle the problems of half the galaxy, or trillions of humans. Indeed, the system was badly sullied from the start because it gave too many advantages to those who based themselves on Earth. Unsurprisingly, they made rules that worked in their own favor, and to hell with the rest of us.”

A low titter ran through the room, but there was no other reaction.

Li smiled. “We have a plan for reform, if you will join us,” she finished. “And if you want to be left alone, we can abandon your world once the war is over and the Federation has fallen. All we ask, now, is that your government stays out of the war.”

It was a little more complex than that, she knew. The planetary industries would be used to support the war effort, but it would be very clear that the locals weren’t being offered a choice. Li had no idea just how far Admiral Drake had fallen from the man she remembered, yet she was sure he’d understand the problems facing the planetary government. They were, after all, powerless to keep the Outsiders from reducing their planet to rubble.

“Thank you for your time,” she concluded. “Details of our plan have been uploaded onto the planetary datanet. If you want to discuss membership in our Federation, you are more than welcome to do so.”

She nodded politely, then left the podium.

* * *

Uzi had been on more unfriendly worlds than he cared to count, ranging from planets caught in the grip of bitter civil wars to worlds that hated the Federation and would cheerfully set fire to the whole structure and piss on the ashes. And yet, there was something about Ruthven that perplexed him. The locals had to know they’d been lucky, that only a freak combination of events had kept them from being drained as dry as some of the worlds along the Rim... and that the destruction of the Grand Senate had powered their economic boom.

And yet they view us with hatred, he thought, as he stood outside the spaceport gates and watched the small crowd of protesters on the other side of the road. The higher-ups hadn’t bothered to listen to his suggestions about shutting down road and rail traffic, even near the spaceport and the handful of other occupied facilities. What did we do to deserve it?

He silently gathered information as he watched the protesters, knowing he’d have to make a report sooner or later. But how? He might be able to pass on a message when the fleet entered the Marble System — he’d done his best to ensure his unit would return to the ships when they departed — yet he knew it was a risk. It was quite possible that some records had survived the battle and that one of those records might contain a copy of the message he’d sent from Alexis. And then... the Outsiders would know they had a spy somewhere within their personnel. What would they do then?

A shuttle screeched overhead, coming to a halt over the spaceport and slowly dropping to the ground. More reinforcements, Uzi hoped; they weren’t trying to hold the entire planet, but they barely had enough mobile firepower to cover the spaceport and the handful of other installations. It was amusing — and yet distressing — to realize that the Outsiders had started to develop the same "sensitivity" that had plagued some of the Federation’s more controversial operations, the reluctance to deploy too many troops because it might be "provocative," even though high troop numbers were often better at keeping a lid on trouble. The stupidest insurgent could still tell the difference between a hundred soldiers and a thousand... and calculate that fighting the former was easier than the latter. But then, he had to admit, the Outsiders had good reason to be on their best behavior. Ruthven’s value wasn’t just measured in its location.

They’ll be going to Marble next, he thought. The defenders have to know they’ll be coming under attack soon.

He smiled at the thought. It was a logical assumption — and, indeed, the only way for the treacherous Admiral Garibaldi to win. Even in its weakened state, the Federation Navy possessed vastly more firepower than the Outsiders. Given time, Emperor Marius would assemble a fleet capable of kicking the Outsiders all the way back to Nova Athena — and there would be no traitors, this time, to keep the planetary population from getting what it deserved. No, Marble would be targeted next and then... and then, Tara Prime. But by the time the Outsiders reached that system, they would already be worn down.

“Outsiders out,” someone shouted. Others, moments later, took up the cry. “Outsiders out!”

Uzi gritted his teeth as the shouting grew louder, as if someone had flipped a switch. He had a nasty feeling someone probably had. A handful of stay-behind units could cause some real trouble by splashing money around, even if they did nothing else. No doubt someone had bused the first set of protesters to the spaceport, just to see how the Outsiders would respond. And now, it wouldn’t take much for an incident that would spark off a massacre.

And I have to stop it, he thought, ruefully. An... incident would help the Federation, but it would come at the cost of his career. And he needed to remain with the fleet. I don’t have a choice.

He keyed his radio. “This is Uzi,” he said. The dispatcher would know who he was — and, more importantly, where he was. “I need reinforcements at the North Gate, now!”

“Understood,” the dispatcher said. Another pair of shuttles screamed overhead, heading up to the fleet. Their passage seemed to drive the protesters wild with anger; they shouted and screamed at the shuttles, as if their bad temper could knock the craft out of the sky. “Do you require armored vehicles?”

“Probably not,” Uzi said. “Try and get the planetary police out here.”

He closed the connection and glanced at his men. The general confusion had seen him landed with command of ten new soldiers, rather than the squad he’d worked with from the moment he’d joined the Outsiders as a mercenary. They looked nervous, fingering their weapons as the howling mob grew louder. Even experienced soldiers feared mobs, Uzi knew from bitter experience; a mob could soak up machine gun fire and just keep coming, if it were mad enough to disregard its own safety.

“Stand at the ready,” he ordered, “but I’ll have the hide of anyone who fires without a specific order.”

He allowed his gaze to pass over them, then turned his attention back to the mob. Mobs were fickle things; they might shout themselves hoarse and do nothing else, or they might turn violent at any moment. A handful of protesters were already slipping out of the crowd, trying to sneak back into the city; clearly, he noted, they’d had enough of the prospect of sudden violence and death. But the remainder would be more focused on what they were doing.

“This is Overlook,” a new voice said. “I’ve got a set of buses making their way off the ring road and heading to the spaceport.”

“Keep them back,” Uzi said, cursing the planet’s government under his breath. If they’d bothered to install an automated traffic control system, those buses could have been redirected somewhere safer. Instead, they’d be on his position within minutes. “Do we have any word from the planetary police?”

“They’re refusing to budge,” the dispatcher said. “Half their policemen have reported sick!”

Uzi cursed, savagely. This was why planetary policemen couldn’t be trusted. They were too damn close to their populations to do what was necessary. As bad as the police would have been, his forces would be a great deal worse if they had to put down a riot. And he and his men were dangerously exposed.

He gambled. “Open the gates,” he ordered. “Once they’re open, we’ll move through the gates and slam them closed. Let them howl themselves silly outside.”

“Yes, sir,” the dispatcher said.

Uzi gritted his teeth as he heard the gates opening behind him. Showing weakness to a baying mob was a dangerous move, but he didn’t have any non-lethal weaponry. Some bright spark on the fleet had probably reasoned that it wouldn’t be necessary, that the planetary police would provide all the support the fleet could possibly need. And, thanks to that idiot — who he would have regarded with complete satisfaction if he hadn’t been on the front lines — he and his men were about to be attacked.

“Move,” he snapped. “And get those gates closed the moment the last of us is inside.”

He turned and ran through the gates, hearing the sound of footsteps behind him as the mob lunged forward. The gates were already closing, but the mob slammed into them with staggering force. Uzi turned, motioning for his men to form a skirmish line, as the gates hissed closed. He had a brief glimpse of a young man — it was always the young men — being crushed by the gates before he fell out of sight. Uzi had seen enough mobs to know that the poor bastard was probably already dead.

“If they push down the gates, open fire,” he ordered. He’d played the only card he could, but would it be enough? The gates were solid, yet he had a nasty feeling the mob would just keep pushing on them until something broke. “We can’t let them ransack the spaceport.”

A thought struck him as another shuttle zoomed overhead. “Ask the pilot to make a low pass over the crowd,” he added, calling the dispatcher. “It might disperse the idiots.”

He covered his ears as the shuttle reversed course and flew low, as low as the pilot dared. The sound was deafening, but did the trick; he watched, in relief, as the mob broke and ran. A handful of men and women were lying on the ground, moaning; they’d been injured in the crush and left to fend for themselves. A number of them looked dead.

“Get the medics over here,” he ordered, wearily. Who knew what the mob would do? It might just continue to break up, scattering as its individual members made their way home, or it might reform and return to the spaceport. “See what they can do for the poor bastards.”

He sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. They’d been promised reinforcements, troops raised in the Outsider worlds and dispatched through the captured Asimov Points, but he doubted they would arrive in time. The locals weren’t friendly, and that was the end of it, for the moment. And really, why was that a bad thing?

Because you have to play a role, he reminded himself. There were times, he was sure, when it would be easier just to put the mask aside, once and for all. And because you have to stay in that role until you can act decisively.

“Fifteen people injured, nine dead,” one of the medics called. “I’m moving the injured to the spaceport infirmary.”

Uzi nodded. It might make more sense, from a logistical point of view, to transfer the injured and dead to a local hospital, but it would only inflame public opinion. Quite why the planetary government permitted such free discourse was beyond him, yet he had to admit it was working nicely for the stay-behind agents. Either the Outsiders took care of the wounded themselves, wasting some of their resources, or they risked sparking off a second set of riots.

“Colonel Mooncalf is on his way,” the dispatcher said. “Once he arrives, you’re to report back to the shuttles.”

“Understood,” Uzi said. Maybe the Outsiders wanted a scapegoat. He had been the person on the spot, if nothing else. “I’ll be on my way once he arrives.”

* * *

“So,” Li said. “Just what happened?”

“According to the planetary police, a number of protesters tried to force the gates of the spaceport,” General Stuart said. “They were turned back when a quick-thinking officer had the presence of mind to order a shuttle to fly low over the crowd, driving them away from the spaceport. I believe the officer in question should be commended.”

“Indeed,” Li said. She’d make sure of it, personally if necessary. A massacre would have given their enemies a propaganda bonanza. “And how did the protesters get there?”

“The wounded say the protests were organized from start to finish,” General Stuart said. “I read their reports very carefully. They were paid to attend, forced to listen to long speeches on how we were going to take away their rights, and then herded into buses for the trip to the spaceport. The planetary police, so far, have turned up no leads. I suspect an enemy stay-behind force. Even a relative handful of people can cause some real trouble.”

Li nodded. “Is there anything we can do about it?”

“Probably not,” General Stuart said. “I’ve ordered the deployment of riot-control gear to the spaceport, but our troops aren’t really trained in handling riots. We assumed an opposed landing, not... not a riot on the surface.”

“Then we’ll just have to hope matters remain peaceful,” Li said. She scowled. She’d had some interest in joining the Outsiders from the planetary government, but it would be lost if their population turned on them. “Do you have anything to add?”

“Merely that you need better bodyguards,” General Stuart said. “The stay-behinds would definitely risk life and limb to get at you — and you’re down here, protected by the planetary police.”

“They take their jobs seriously,” Li protested.

“But they’re also caught in the middle,” General Stuart warned. “I think — I really think — that you need some additional bodyguards attached to you. They’ll stay out of your way...”

“Hah,” Li said. She hadn’t forgotten what the last set of bodyguards had done, even though they’d meant well. But General Stuart was right. Ruthven had yet to decide which side it was on. “If you feel it’s necessary, General, see to it. But I have no intention of treating this planet as hostile terrain.”

“There were collaborators even on the worst planets along the Rim,” General Stuart reminded her. “People who somehow benefited from kissing the Grand Senate’s ass. And here... well, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover there’s an Emperor Marius Fan Club. I want to make sure you’re well-protected for the remainder of your stay here.”

“Very well,” Li said. “But only when I’m on the ground. I don’t have anything to fear on the ships.”

Chapter Twenty

Throughout human history, logistics have been the bane of military operations. Thus the saying "amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics." This was unfortunately true for the Federation Navy, a problem made worse by poor contingency planning and excessive reliance on a network of bases rather than supply ships.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Ruthven, 4102

“Happy New Year,” Elf said.

Roman allowed himself a smile as she pinned him to the bed, pushing herself down on him as she leaned down and kissed his lips. The fleet couldn’t allow itself more than a brief pause for New Year — a holiday celebrated throughout the Federation — but he could, just for a few minutes, relax and enjoy himself. Their love-making was a reminder, in some ways, that there was a world beyond the war, even if they would never have been thrust together without it. How long had it been since they’d first met on Enterprise?

“Happy New Year to you too,” Roman said, as his head filled with all the problems and concerns that had bothered him over the last two weeks. He pushed them aside with an effort and smiled. “Do you have anything planned?”

Elf elbowed him, none too gently. “Only dinner with you and the... others,” she said. The fleet’s senior officers had planned a dinner, followed by a conference. “How about you?”

“Nothing too serious,” Roman said. He shook his head as he sat upright. “There are just too many things to do.”

“Supply problems still worrying you?”

“Just a little,” Roman said.

He scowled. Supply problems worried him a great deal, and she knew it. The enemy had had a remarkable stroke of luck when one of their battlecruisers intercepted a convoy running through Alexis and blown all four freighters into flaming debris, along with their escorts. Roman would have cheerfully strangled the convoy CO himself, if he hadn’t died in the brief engagement. The idiot could have avoided the encounter if he’d followed SOP and deployed drones to sweep space ahead of him for traps.

“We can’t go back on the offensive until we receive more assault pods,” he said. “The defenses around Marble are formidable, but the defenses around Tara Prime are worse.”

“True,” Elf agreed. “No wonder weapons on the way?”

Roman shook his head, then stood and hurried into the shower. There wasn’t enough time to chat with her, to relax... he cursed, inwardly, as he turned on the water. He was far too young to be an admiral, even if the wars had eliminated most of the deadwood in high command. There were just too many issues he had to handle on the fly.

At least I have a working staff, he thought. He’d picked his officers carefully, judging them by competence rather than loyalty. It was something, weirdly enough, that he’d picked up from Marius Drake. And we’re learning the ropes as we go along.

Elf joined him in the shower; Roman picked up a sponge and washed her back, then turned to allow her to return the favor. It felt wrong, somehow, to be enjoying himself with her, even though he knew it was unlikely that any of his crew who wanted companionship would be deprived. The last two months had seen thousands of his people rotated through the spaceport on Ruthven, allowing them to have at least some shore leave. Roman had fretted at the time, fearing kidnap or worse, but there had only been a handful of minor incidents, mainly over the value of their money. The Federation Credit had been declining in value over the last decade, and it showed. And no other currency was considered acceptable.

Because the Grand Senate refused to allow local systems to establish their own currencies, he thought, as he stepped back out of the shower. He didn’t pretend to understand economics — as a science, it seemed woefully imprecise — but it was easy enough to see the problems it caused. And because no one knows if Earth will pay its debts.

He dressed slowly, then checked the daily fleet update as he waited for Elf. There was nothing of great significance, save for a report from a starship patroling the edge of the system that it had detected another starship dropping out of stardrive and vanishing into cloak. Roman wasn’t too surprised. The Federation Navy’s raiders had been probing the edge of the system ever since he’d taken it, watching and waiting for a sign of weakness. It would be a long time coming.

Nothing to be done about it, he thought, nodding to Elf. She’d donned her dress blacks, accompanied by a medal she’d won during one of the more intensive battles of the Justinian War. All we can do is keep our guard up and wait for them to show themselves.

The ship’s cooks, he discovered as he entered the officer’s lounge, had outdone themselves in their efforts to make a proper dinner. Traditionally, New Year was celebrated with roast turkey and all the trimmings, which they’d sourced from the planet below and cooked in the galley. Roman nodded politely to Chang Li and General Stuart, then turned to greet his captains as they joined him. It was odd, and yet heartening, to realize that the Outsiders shared so many of the Federation’s customs.

“We are all human,” Chang Li said, when he commented on it. “And besides, New Year is a nice politically-correct holiday.”

“One we can all agree on,” General Stuart added. “Although, of course, we don’t agree on what date marks the turning of the year.”

Roman smiled, although he’d grappled with the problem himself as a young officer. The planetary year was different for each planet; Earth might have 365 days in the year, but Mars had 687. Just to complicate matters, the Martian day was longer than an Earth day, which meant that the Martians counted a year as 669 days. The Federation had solved the problem by decreeing that the galactic standards would take their cue from Earth, but even so there was a great deal of confusion. He was surprised the system had worked as well as it had.

I suppose the First Interstellar War showed us the value of having a united system, he thought, as the conversation turned to other matters. Having the Snakes breathing down our necks must have concentrated a few minds.

“The war won’t last forever,” Chang Li commented. “What do you plan to do, Admiral Garibaldi, after the war?”

Roman shrugged. “I’ve spent my entire adult life in the navy,” he said. It struck him, suddenly, that Marius Drake had done the same. “I don’t think I’d be comfortable anywhere else. Taking a survey ship and seeing what’s out there... maybe that’s what I’d want to do.”

He smiled. “How about yourself?”

“I always planned to retire to Nova Athena,” Chang Li said. “But someone really needs to be the ambassador at large for the Outsiders.”

“Speak for yourself,” General Stuart grunted, curtly. He took a sip of his wine as he leaned forward. “I plan to retire, after the war, and spend the rest of my life somewhere nicely isolated. The rest of the galaxy can go amuse itself without me.”

Roman blinked. “You’d be happier living on a planet?”

“I’d prefer not to live in a place where an air leak would be enough to kill me,” General Stuart said. “I can see the value of raising one’s children in such an environment, but I don’t agree with the logic.”

“He has a point,” Elf agreed. Roman gave her a surprised look. “Stupidity killing wouldn’t be so bad if it was only the stupid person who got killed.”

He did have a point, Roman conceded, reluctantly. Roman had grown up in an environment where the slightest mistake could get someone killed, teaching him what was important from a very early age. But his mistakes could easily get someone else killed along with him, no matter what precautions were worked into the system. It hardly seemed right. And yet, growing up in a cocoon of safety explained a great deal about the Grand Senate’s odder decisions. They were completely insulated from the reality of the universe surrounding them.

“I suppose,” he said, shortly.

They reached the end of the dinner without incident, although Roman was careful to avoid the traditional toast to the Grand Senate, the Federation Navy, and the Federation Constitution. One was gone, one was torn asunder and one had been used as nothing more than toilet paper for generations. Indeed, he had to admit that the Outsiders were more faithful to the Constitution than the Grand Senate. But then, they’d never had the opportunity to gain wealth and power by violating it.

“The supply problem has yet to be solved,” he said, once the stewards had cleared away the table and produced after-dinner drinks and chocolates. “We cannot advance towards Marble until we have a ready supply of assault pods.”

“I would have thought you had enough,” Chang Li commented.

“It isn’t just Marble that’s the problem,” General Stuart explained, quietly. “We’d need to press on to Tara Prime as quickly as possible, rather than wait for the freighters to bring us more assault pods.”

“And we’d need a huge reserve, just in case we run into something we can’t handle,” Roman added. “Astrid and Maben aren’t heavily defended — or weren’t, according to the last set of updates we received — but Tara Prime definitely is. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d received reinforcements by now. The Emperor knows his best chance to stop us short of the Gateway is at Tara Prime.”

“You youngsters have it easy,” Kratman observed. “In my day, we charged through Asimov Points, all guns blazing.”

“That would explain the high casualty rates,” Roman commented, mischievously. He wouldn’t have dared say that, back when they’d been professor and student. “How many people died during the Inheritance Wars?”

“Millions,” Kratman said, simply. Without assault pods, the only way to win was to send hundreds of small starships through the Asimov Points and tolerate truly staggering loss rates. “In sheer numbers, Roman, it beat every other war ever fought by humanity. But in frightfulness... the First Interstellar War still has the edge.”

Roman nodded in agreement. He was used to aliens — or, at least, he’d grown up in a universe where aliens were common. But for the humans who’d discovered the Graveyard, who’d eventually made first contact with the Snakes, it must have been a terrifying shock. And they’d believed, for reasons that had never made sense to him, that aliens had to be peaceful as well as civilized. Surely, a single look at humanity itself would have put the lie to that.

“This war may grow worse,” Chang Li said. “What happens if the Emperor starts scorching worlds at random?”

“I don’t think he will,” Roman said, although he wasn’t entirely sure he was right. No rational mind would start destroying entire worlds, if only because it would be terrifyingly easy for the Outsiders to retaliate in kind, but Emperor Marius had already tried to cross that line once. “There are officers who would mutiny rather than carry out such an order.”

“Don’t underestimate how easy it can be to convince someone to violate their morals,” Kratman warned, sternly. “Many of the worst people in history, Roman, didn’t see themselves as monsters. They came up with elaborate justifications for carrying out vile atrocities just to escape the awareness of what they’d done.”

He shrugged. “And there’s no shortage of sociopaths to be found on Earth,” he added. “I sometimes think the planet breeds them.”

“It’s easy to lose your concern for others if others show no concern for you,” Elf offered, darkly. “What sort of life does the average person on Earth lead?”

Roman shuddered. He’d heard stories, of course, although the only time he’d been to Earth had been after the end of the Justinian War. Earth was a nightmare, he’d been told, even though the Grand Senate had feted the planet as the cultural and industrial heart of the Federation. But then, he’d seen some of the art that came from Earth and it had turned his stomach. He liked to think of himself as a broad-minded man — growing up on an asteroid was a good way to learn to mind your own business — but some things were just disgusting.

He cleared his throat. “Be that as it may, we need to press forward as soon as possible,” he insisted. “We don’t, as yet, have any up-to-date intelligence on Tara Prime.”

Chang Li frowned. “There were no updates here?”

“The defenders purged their databases before retreating,” Roman said. It was understandable, but irritating. Officers had been put in front of a court martial board and then shot for allowing intact databases to fall into enemy hands. “The data we have is four months out of date.”

He scowled. The Federation’s vast stockpile of prefabricated fortresses had been drained by the demands of the war, but Emperor Marius should have had no problems moving the remainder to Tara Prime. Unless, of course, he had his doubts about Admiral Vincent. But if he had, Roman was sure, Marius would have removed Vincent by now. Indeed, he might have done so already, leaving someone else in his place. There was no way to know.

“We do have some tactical information from Marble, but nothing through the Asimov Points in the system,” he added. “There’s no way to know what’s lurking in the systems between Marble and Tara Prime. They may assume we will take the shortest route to Tara Prime... or they might be keeping ships in reserve at Tara Prime, ready to intercept us once they know our likely course.”

“Chancy,” General Stuart observed. “They’d be better off aiming to fight a decisive battle at Tara Prime.”

Roman nodded in agreement. Trying to be tactically clever was one thing, but trying to be clever on an interstellar scale — as had been drummed into him from his first day at the Academy — was quite another. Marius Drake — the Marius Drake he remembered — would know better than to over-commit himself. Better to force Roman to assault Tara Prime, where the defenders held most of the cards, than risk a running battle in the outer systems.

And yet...

“The Emperor may not agree with us, though,” he said. “It depends on just how far he trusts Admiral Vincent.”

Chang Li leaned forward. “He hasn’t sent you any reply?”

“None,” Roman said. “But then, there would be a very real risk of any message being intercepted.”

He wasn’t too surprised at the silence, as irritating as it was. The files hadn’t been too detailed, but Admiral Vincent wouldn’t have been appointed to Tara Prime if he hadn’t been considered reliable. Admiral Justinian had been given control of a similar system and he’d launched a rebellion that had nearly brought the Federation to its knees. If Emperor Marius had the slightest doubt over Vincent’s loyalty, Roman was sure, he would have been summoned home and brutally executed.

Unless he’s too strong to be cowed easily, Roman thought. Or...

He shook his head, dismissing the thought as he turned his attention to other matters. “If the most recent update holds true,” he said, “we should have a stockpile of assault pods by the end of next week. At that time, unless the situation changes, I intend to cross the interstellar gulf and attack Marble. We’ll proceed from there as the situation dictates.”

General Stuart snorted. “Do I assume you don’t intend to move down the shortest route to Tara Prime?”

“It depends on what we find when we get there,” Roman said, patiently. He closed his eyes for a long moment, recalling the starchart. “They may have rigged up defenses in Astrid or Maben, General. We may find it a better idea to proceed via an alternate route.”

Chang Li gave him a sharp look. “Do you believe they will have rigged up defenses?”

“We were bringing forts online at the rate of one per week, back when we were setting up the defenses of Boston,” Roman said. “Fortress Command is very experienced in unloading a freighter full of prefabricated components, then slotting them together and building a working fortress. They’re nowhere near as complex as starships, true, but still...”

He shrugged. “I expect minefields and automated weapons platforms, at the very least,” he added. “Anything they can do to slow us down and force us to expend assault pods will be considered worthwhile.”

“True,” General Stuart agreed. “But you might also get bogged down.”

“It’s a possibility,” Roman acknowledged, coolly. “But it’s also possible that we will get to our destination fast enough to beat the Emperor’s reinforcements.”

He keyed his console, activating the starchart. “There’s only one gulf between Tara Prime and Earth,” he said. “It won’t take longer than two weeks to get a message from Tara Prime to Earth, once we attack Marble. I imagine, General, that Emperor Marius will send reinforcements, if he hasn’t already. He may even come himself.”

The intercom chimed. “Admiral, this is Sanderson at Tactical,” a voice said. “A courier boat has just entered the system and announced itself. Her passenger is requesting permission to speak to you personally.”

Roman frowned. “Who is the passenger?”

“It doesn’t say,” Sanderson said. “But the courier boat’s IFF places it as one of the ships attached to Tara Prime.”

“Have the vessel boarded and searched,” Roman ordered, after a moment. A ship from Tara Prime could be very good news... or a potential disaster in the making. “Once it’s confirmed safe, have the passenger transhipped to Valiant.”

“Yes, sir,” Sanderson said.

Elf frowned as the connection broke. “Who could this be?”

“I don’t know,” Roman admitted. “But I think we’re about to find out.”

Chapter Twenty-One

Naturally, as respect for the ideals of the Federation decreased, individual officers started to look to their own power rather than their duty. Indeed, despite the lesson of Admiral Justinian, the lure of supreme power remained strong. Why not? Marius Drake had made himself Emperor.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Ruthven, 4102

Roman couldn’t help feeling an odd mixture of excitement and concern as the shuttle settled down to the deck. The marines, once they’d boarded the courier boat, had reported the name and identity of the passenger, Commodore Hannalore Vincent. Roman had glanced at her file, while waiting for the marines to transfer her to Valiant and noted that she was very definitely Admiral Vincent’s oldest daughter. Her father, it seemed, had smoothed her advancement through the navy.

And let’s hope she deserves it, Roman thought. The shuttle’s hatch hissed open, allowing two marines to step onto the deck. She might have no real talent of her own.

He sucked in his breath as Commodore Hannalore Vincent followed the marines out of the shuttle, feeling an unwanted flush of arousal. She was stunning, her long blonde hair falling in ringlets down to her shoulders, her uniform expertly tailored to show off her curves without revealing a hint of flesh below her collar. Her face was perfect, too perfect; Roman would have bet half his salary that she’d either been enhanced while in the womb or spent time in a bodyshop, once she’d grown old enough to decide what she wanted. She was thirty-three, according to the file, but she barely looked old enough to drink.

And that makes her dangerous, Roman reminded himself, sternly. He took a moment to compose himself, keeping his reactions under control. She’s smart enough to use her sexuality as a weapon.

“Admiral Garibaldi,” Hannalore said. Her voice was a rich, warm contralto. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Thank you,” Roman said. Elf, thankfully, was standing right next to him or he might have done something stupid. It was possible, he’d heard, to engineer pheromones into one’s body to enhance attractiveness... had Hannalore done something along those lines to herself? Or was he merely reacting to the presence of a beautiful girl? It was hard to be sure. “If you’ll come with me, Commodore, we can talk in the briefing room.”

Hannalore said nothing as they walked through the corridors, but her eyes kept flickering from side to side, taking in the giant superdreadnaught. Roman had a feeling she was looking for pieces of Outsider technology, but there was little of that inside Valiant. He couldn’t help noticing that Hannalore sucked in attention from the crew, their eyes following her as she strode past with nary a care in the world. There was definitely something about her that caught the eye.

“I’m glad you agreed to speak with me,” Hannalore said, once they were in a conference chamber and the hatch was firmly closed. “My father sent me with a message — and power to negotiate.”

“I guessed as much,” Roman said. These days, only a fool would rely on someone outside the family for sensitive negotiations. It explained a great deal about the Grand Senate, he felt. “I confess I don’t have much patience for bullshit, Commodore. Can we get right to the point?”

If Hannalore was surprised by his tone, she didn’t show it. “My father would like to make a deal with you,” she said, simply. “He wants to switch sides.”

“How... convenient,” Elf said, dryly.

“The Emperor is going insane,” Hannalore said. “My father feels the Federation will be much better off without him.”

Which is precisely what I want to hear, Roman thought. He found it easier to think when he wasn’t looking at Hannalore. So I should be wary.

“I’m glad your father has recognized the problem,” he said. “Can we rely on him to attach his forces to my command?”

“If we can come to an agreement,” Hannalore said. She gave him a brilliant smile. “As you said, let us cut through the bullshit.”

She leaned forward, her hair shimmering under the light. “My father has been in command of the Tara Sector for three years,” she said. “In that time, he has promoted the development of local industry, assisted the growth of a self-defense force and expanded the defenses quite considerably.”

“And made a hefty profit for himself into the bargain,” Elf commented.

Hannalore didn’t bother to deny it. “My father wishes to retain his position,” she said. “He doesn’t believe the Emperor will leave him alone permanently, regardless of his loyalty to the Federation. The price for him joining you — and bringing both fleet and industry to aid your war effort — is recognition of his permanent possession of the Tara Sector.”

“He wants to be king,” Roman said.

“Crude, but essentially accurate,” Hannalore said. “He wants a position akin to the monarchs of Albion.”

Roman forced himself to think. On one hand, Admiral Vincent commanded three battle squadrons, hundreds of smaller ships and over forty fortresses. Getting that force on his side was worth almost any price. But, on the other hand, it would be a betrayal of everything the Outsiders — and the Federation — stood for. Who knew what the local population thought of their Admiral, a man imposed on them by Earth. Did they love him... or were they just waiting for the Outsiders to arrive before they launched an uprising?

“Albion had a great deal to offer the Federation, back when they were integrated into the fold,” Elf said. “Does your father have enough to make the price worthwhile?”

Hannalore smirked. “Would you prefer to batter your way through the defenses of the sector?”

“Point,” Roman conceded.

He ignored her smile as he dug through his memory for what little he recalled of the monarchs of Albion. They’d set up a network of colonies of their own, funded without recourse to federal funds... the same funds the Federation used as its excuse for dominating the outer colonies. And they’d embedded themselves so thoroughly at the heart of their system that digging them out would ruin the economy completely. The Federation had agreed to recognize their position, if he recalled correctly, in exchange for Albion joining the Federation. Perhaps, on some level, the Grand Senate had recognized a set of kindred souls.

And they were largely autonomous, he thought, grimly. But then, they did enjoy a degree of popular support.

“Your father intends to set up a dynasty of his own,” Roman said.

“Correct,” Hannalore agreed. “He believes that the Federation failed because the Grand Senate, in the end, did not inspire love. The Emperor, by contrast, threw away his love as he turned into a tyrant. Father... has other ideas.”

“So did Marius Drake,” Roman commented. “And good intentions led him right into hell.”

He sighed, inwardly. There was no way he could avoid feeling out of his depth. His sole experience with interstellar politics, before the Battle of Nova Athena, had been Emperor Marius’s determination to reunite the Federation. There had been no need for negotiation with others, let alone an awareness that the Federation would be profoundly changed by the war. And now he had to negotiate, with Admiral Vincent as well as the Outsiders. The hell of it was that Vincent’s offer was extremely good.

“It will have to be discussed by the council,” he said. “Do you have anything else you wish to say?”

“Just this,” Hannalore said. “Father was very interested in sealing this alliance the old-fashioned way. He wishes to offer you the hand of his daughter, my hand, in marriage.”

Roman stared at her in disbelief. Admiral Drake had been forced to marry into the network of families that made up the Grand Senate, but it hadn’t saved him from an assassination attempt after Admiral Justinian’s death. He could see the logic, yet he found it repulsive. He wouldn’t be able to put down his burdens after the war if he had a family tie to the newest dynasty. And besides, there was Elf. He didn’t dare look at her, to see how she reacted, but he was damned if he was dumping her for political reasons.

And did your father send you in the hopes you would seduce me, Roman thought darkly, or is that merely a bonus?

He found it hard to grasp why anyone would arrange their daughter’s marriage. Or their son’s, for that matter. The parents weren’t the ones who would have to live with the unwanted spouse. But then, from what little he’d heard of the Grand Senate, some husbands and wives didn’t even live together. All that mattered was that they had children and that could be done in an exowomb.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said, firmly. “If we accept the offer, Commodore, we will stick with it.”

“My father believes a blood tie can only be beneficial,” Hannalore said.

“But we don’t,” Roman said. He bit down several nasty comments that came to mind. She’d be better off marrying someone from the Tara Sector, really. “I thank you for the offer, Commodore, but we won’t need a blood tie to make us keep our word.”

He couldn’t help feeling a stab of sympathy for Hannalore. Her father would have groomed her to be the perfect daughter, to marry well to help his career. It was one way of getting ahead, even though Roman found it sickening. But it was equally possible, he reminded himself, that she might be playing a role. There would be a definite advantage in being underestimated by her enemies.

“Assuming we do accept your father’s offer,” he said, “how do you plan to proceed?”

“You would need to take Marble,” Hannalore said. She reached into her jacket pocket and produced a datachip. “There are four Asimov Points within the system, three of which can start you off on your voyage to Tara Prime. My father suggests that you punch through the defenses covering the Yellowstone Point, then head via Folkestone and New Redeye to Tara Prime. He’s been establishing a blocking chokepoint at Maben.”

“I see,” Roman said. On paper, it was good... but leaving the other fortresses at Marble would allow them to send messages through the Asimov Points to Tara Prime. If the whole scheme was an elaborate trap. Admiral Vincent would know precisely where to find his fleet when the time came. “And then?”

“You enter Tara Prime and my father joins you,” Hannalore said, simply. “He has his loyalists on the entire fleet. Switching sides would be relatively simple. You’d then have ample time to restock, using the supplies at Tara Prime, before proceeding to Howarth and Maidstone.”

“And from there, proceed to the Gateway and Sol,” Roman mused. It was very tempting, he had to admit. Getting through Tara Prime without a fight, alone, would definitely be worth just about any price. But there were limits. “It will have to be discussed with the council.”

He rose. “I’ve taken the liberty of having a cabin prepared for you,” he said. “The marines will escort you there.”

“And you want me to remain there until you have an answer,” Hannalore said. She rose and smiled, cheekily. “I do understand.”

Roman nodded. It was possible that Hannalore was nothing more than what she seemed, but it was equally possible that she was a spy, that her father was trying to play both ends against the middle. Trying to play games with Marius Drake was risky, Roman knew, regardless of how much the Emperor valued audacity. But, just in case she’d earned the rank she carried, he’d take precautions to make sure she didn’t see anything that might offer the Emperor a tactical advantage.

“Interesting,” Elf said, once Hannalore was out of the compartment. Her voice was very cold. “Just what we’ve been waiting for.”

“Yeah,” Roman agreed. “I don’t trust her. And I definitely don’t have any interest in her.”

“Good,” Elf said.

Roman nodded. “It might be better to look this gift horse in the mouth.”

He looked up as the marines showed Chang Li and General Stuart into the compartment, then motioned for them to sit down.

“You’ll want to watch this,” he said, keying the console. “I took the precaution of recording the whole conversation.”

“Good grief,” Chang Li said, once the recording had finished. “Is she serious?”

General Stuart had a different question. “Is she really Admiral Vincent’s daughter?”

“Her DNA was checked against the code on file,” Elf said. “It checks, General. There are some ways to subvert the system, but they require massive genetic modification that would be instantly recognizable, if it was there. I had the marines do a very deep scan.”

Roman cleared his throat. “It is possible it could be a trap of some kind,” he said, flatly. “I don’t think we can afford to take her message on faith. Emperor Marius could be pulling the strings, making sure Admiral Vincent put forward the right offer.”

“He knows you,” Elf said, quietly. “He’d know how to make you an offer you couldn’t refuse.”

“True,” Roman agreed, feeling a stab of bitter pain. He’d trusted and respected the older man, even viewed him as a mentor. The thought of watching helplessly as his mentor prepared to kill billions of people still terrified him. Emperor Marius would definitely know how to tempt him. “And yes, this is an offer we can’t refuse.”

General Stuart smiled. “Does that mean you’re going to marry her?”

Roman shook his head. “No,” he said. Better to dismiss that idea before someone tried to talk him into it. “Do you want to marry her, General?”

Stuart snorted. “I think not,” he said.

“Hah,” Roman said. He cleared his throat, loudly. “But can we accept their offer?”

“We have recognized other autonomous governments before,” Chang Li said. “But can we allow him to dominate one of the richest sectors outside the Core Worlds?”

“Military necessity commits us to accepting his offer, once we’re sure it isn’t a trap,” General Stuart said, flatly. “The chance of getting through the Tara Sector without having to fight alone is too good to let pass.”

“At the price of condemning the local population to slavery,” Chang Li pointed out. Her voice was very cold. “We wouldn’t be liberating them from their ruler.”

“We don’t know he’s a bad ruler,” Roman said. He gestured towards the holographic image of Ruthven. “The Federation is still surprisingly popular on Ruthven.”

“We don’t know he’s a good ruler either,” Chang Li reminded him. “And whatever the merits of his rule, we built our federation on the principles of freedom and self-determination.”

“And, if we take those principles as fixed, we have to fight our way through Tara Prime,” General Stuart said. “Even if they haven’t done any improvements to the defenses since the last update, it’s still going to be a nightmare.”

“That’s true,” Roman agreed. “Our best simulations agree that we’ll lose at least a third of our battle line, merely entering the system.”

“And the local population might just overthrow him,” Elf said. She smiled as they looked at her in surprise. “You assert that your economic policies lead to economic booms.”

“They do,” Chang Li said. “It’s astonishing what people can do without interference from Earth.”

“Well, yes,” Elf said. She leaned forward. “If we win the war, because of this, Tara Prime will find itself surrounded by systems enjoying an economic boom, purely because of your lack of meddling. I suspect Admiral Vincent will find himself pressured to adopt a very similar political platform, purely out of expediency. And if he doesn’t... well, I imagine the best and brightest will soon start leaving the system for good.”

“Or we could simply stab him in the back once we win the war,” General Stuart added. He smiled, rather thinly. “It isn’t as if we owe him anything.”

“Keeping our word is important,” Chang Li said. “We’d be committed to whatever deal we made until Admiral Vincent is overthrown or otherwise compelled to change his ways.”

Roman hid a smile. Did General Stuart intend to discard him, too, after the end of the war? It would be hard to blame him, although Roman had no real intention of doing anything beyond taking a ship past the Rim and out into the Beyond. Marius Drake, after all, had turned himself into a monster by trying to run the Federation.

He put the matter aside as he looked down at his hands. “There’s no time to send word back to Boston, let alone Nova Athena,” he said. The remainder of the council couldn’t be consulted in less than two months, perhaps longer. “The decision rests with us. Do we accept or not?”

Chang Li frowned. “I have always hated the idea of making decisions because they’re expedient,” she said. “Because it’s easier to do what’s expedient than what’s right. But in this case, we don’t seem to have a choice. It’s take up the offer, while it’s on the table, or face a far harder struggle for the sector.”

“And perhaps weaken ourselves fatally,” General Stuart said. His face darkened as he contemplated the odds. “The Federation still outguns us.”

Roman nodded. He had no idea how long it would take Emperor Marius to muster the remaining border fleets — it would be dangerous to thin the naval patrols too much — but the Emperor wasn’t a man to let the grass grow under his feet. He’d be straining every sinew to reinforce the Tara Sector, to say nothing of Home Fleet and Earth. And time, in a sense, was on his side.

“So we accept,” he said. He made a mental note to demand pieces of information, either from Hannalore or her father, that would help prove their trustworthiness. It hadn’t escaped his attention that they wouldn’t be able to keep Hannalore as a hostage either. “And advance once the pods have arrived.”

“Just in case they’re planning something,” General Stuart said. “We’ll be watching carefully, I assume?”

“Of course,” Roman said. With the right IFF codes, he should be able to sneak a ship into Tara Prime before the main body of the fleet arrived. It would help detect any planned ambush before the jaws of the trap could swing closed. “And if this is a trap, we can make sure that Admiral Vincent regrets it.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Matters were not helped, in the final years of the Federation Navy, by a growing corps of spies, informers and political commissioners. The first two made it impossible for anyone to know when a remark would be taken out of context (and used as proof of disloyalty), while the latter ensured that military operations would be dictated by political concerns, often directed by commissioners whose actual military experience was minimal.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Ruthven, 4102

It had always struck Uzi as ironic, even as he slipped out of the spaceport’s shore leave facility and headed towards the city, that planetary cities were almost always the same, at least in general terms. There would be a section of the city that was populated solely by the rich and influential, a slightly-larger section that belonged to the middle-class and a handful of districts that were increasingly poor and crime-ridden. A decade of relative affluence hadn’t changed Ruthven’s criminal underground at all, Uzi was sure. It had merely driven parts of it underground.

Because humans are still humans, he thought, as he kept walking. And there’s always someone willing to make a fast buck out of someone else’s misery.

He braced himself as he reached the city’s boundaries and slipped into the streets, hoping he’d remain unnoticed. Ruthven had slowly come around to accepting the rebel presence, even though they hadn’t quite agreed to commit themselves to joining the Outsider Federation, but the prospect of running into a half-drunk mob wasn’t one to take lightly. A pair of idiots might recognize him as a rebel and attack, without thinking of the likely consequences. He’d changed into an unmarked shipsuit before leaving, yet — with interstellar traffic sharply reduced — it wouldn’t be hard for someone to deduce how he’d reached the planet. Cyborgs were relatively rare outside the military or the spacer community.

The trick, he reminded himself, was to find someone who could and would carry out his orders, without question. A smuggler would be ideal, but he doubted he would find any in the bars, not when a giant fleet was hovering over the planet. Admiral Garibaldi had a certain reputation along the Rim for being the commanding officer who’d sent a colossal fleet to Hobson’s Choice, years ago, just to clean up the wretched hive of scum and villainy. Smiling inwardly, he slipped into a bar, ordered a beer and settled back to listen to the surrounding crowd of spacers. His implants were very useful at recording their conversation and picking out important keywords. But even so, it took him thirty minutes to locate a possible candidate for his mission.

“Just remember, you have to be sober tomorrow,” a female voice said. “We’re leaving at 0900 sharp!”

Uzi turned, just enough so he could see the speaker. A middle-aged black woman, wearing a merchant captain’s uniform, was lecturing two younger men, both of whom looked to be barely out of their teens. Judging from their shared features, the young men were brothers — or perhaps half-brothers — and probably quite experienced spacers in their own right. Their ship would be a family enterprise, Uzi guessed. There were thousands of family-owned starships plying the shipping lanes between stars. He took a photograph of the captain with his implants, uploaded it to the local processor nodes and searched for a match. Seconds later, one came back. Captain Shanna Rollinson, freighter captain, proud wife of two husbands and mother of nine children. And also, according to a mark in her file, due to depart for New Moscow the following morning.

And nothing to suggest she might be a smuggler, Uzi thought. If I ask her to take a datachip for me, will she take it?

He kept one eye on the captain as he hastily scanned through the other spacers at the bar. It might be better to have two candidates, but who’d be the second? He didn’t have to speak to a captain, he knew, but in his experience freighter captains tended to get pissy if their subordinates accepted private commissions. It would add a complication he didn’t need.

“Now, go get your rocks hauled,” Captain Rollinson ordered. “And report back to the shuttle by 2330!”

“Yes, mother,” the young men said.

Uzi concealed his amusement as they rose and hurried towards the door at the far end of the bar. Spacer bars were all alike; there was drinking downstairs, an entertainment complex on the middle floor and a brothel on the top floor. Ruthven might be more prosperous than worlds where women entered prostitution en masse, but there was probably no shortage of fresh meat for the industry. He wondered, as he rose, if the government was supervising the prostitutes and decided it was highly likely. They wouldn’t be able to tax the brothels otherwise.

“Captain,” he said, approaching Rollinson. “May I take a seat?”

“It’s a free planet,” Rollinson grunted. Her voice suggested she was a native of Earth, although it was rather more likely she’d been born on one of the asteroid colonies. “What can I do for you?”

“My name is Jones, Spacer Christopher Jones,” Uzi lied. If she wanted ID, he had a couple of fakes he’d picked up from the Outsiders. “I need...”

“I don’t have any free billets,” Rollinson said, cutting him off. “I’m sorry for whatever got you dumped here, but I can’t take you away.”

Uzi allowed himself a moment of surprise, then relief. Someone who jumped to the wrong conclusion was often easier to manipulate than someone who reserved judgement, if only because they were too wedded to a particular theory.

“I don’t need passage out of here,” he said. “I need someone to take a datachip to an import office on Astrid. Are you passing through the system?”

He watched her for a long moment, silently gauging her reaction. A physical datachip, as opposed to an electronic packet, would almost certainly be something the sender wanted to keep concealed. And that suggested... what? A spy? Or a trader, trying to take advantage of changes in local prices? Spacers were paid commissions for up-to-date information on such matters, without risking the wrath of an orbiting fleet.

“We are passing through Astrid,” Rollinson said, slowly. “I wasn’t planning to stop.”

“I can make it worth your while,” Uzi said.

He waited, feeling his heart starting to race, as she considered it. Paying wasn’t a problem — he’d made sure to get his hands on unsecured cashchips — but there was a certain reluctance to divert her entire ship to Astrid, even though docking wouldn’t cost more than a hundred credits for a few hours. And she wouldn’t have to go down to the surface. The import-export office was on a station orbiting the planet.

“Two thousand credits,” she said, finally. She held up a hand. “And that’s the only offer you’ll get.”

“One thousand,” Uzi said, ignoring her last remark. A spacer who refused to bargain was a very odd spacer indeed. “And there may be another reward on the far side.”

“Oh,” Rollinson said. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Uzi said. “I cannot go in person, you see.”

He saw the flicker of greed on her face and smiled, inwardly. A message to an import-export office had to be something to do with trade prices... and such data was time-sensitive. She could demand another two thousand credits on Astrid and she’d be paid, too. But she didn’t know that the import-export company was a cover for ONI. The datachip, once scanned, would be immediately forwarded to Earth.

And she gets it all for herself, he thought. There’s no need to share with her crew.

“Very well,” she said. “Where do you want the message to go?”

Uzi gave her the address, then the first chip. “I should warn you that the encryption is unbreakable without the key,” he said. “Trying to access the data without permission will have... unfortunate consequences.”

“I will keep my word,” Rollinson said, stiffly. She might not get into legal trouble if she took his fee and didn’t keep her side of the bargain, but the spacer community would remember, and she’d find it harder to get charters in future. Or she would, if he was a genuine spacer. “And I trust that you’ll keep yours.”

Uzi passed her a pair of cashchips and waited as she checked the balance. The cashchips were almost completely untraceable, despite the best efforts of the Federation’s banking industry. There were too many small banks outside the Core Worlds. Uzi was privately surprised the system hadn’t fallen apart years ago.

“Thank you,” he said, rising. “My friends will be very relieved to get that data.”

And they would, he told himself, as he left the bar. They have to know about Admiral Vincent.

Uzi was no stranger to treachery. Betraying insurgent groups that had trusted him was his job, after all. But Admiral Vincent had no motive to betray the Federation, save his own wealth and power. It was disgusting.

And when the Emperor found out, Uzi was sure he’d make the bastard pay.

He wandered down the street, looking for his second target. Another captain was a possibility, but he would have preferred someone lower on the social scale. Like it or not, captains tended to draw a great deal of attention from planetary security forces. Rollinson should be fine, as long as she kept her mouth shut at the right time... he was just passing another bar when the door opened and a middle-aged man was thrown out into the street.

“Come back when you’ve got your stinking paycheck,” the bartender called after him, before slamming the door. “And not before.”

Uzi almost smiled as he wandered over to help the man to his feet. A spacer — the marks on his uniform identified him as a Spacer Second Class — without much hope of rising higher, not given the stench of booze wafting up from his mouth. It was possible he’d been abandoned on Ruthven — it wouldn’t be the first time a spacer was dumped when he proved unable to fit into the crew — but it was equally possible he was having one final bender before returning to his ship.

“You’re all right now,” he said, keeping one arm supporting the spacer before he could collapse. “Run out of cash?”

“Bastards won’t give me an advance on my pay,” the spacer said. His thick accent suggested he came from somewhere along the Rim. “Need more beer before we go.”

“Oh?” Uzi said. The spacer was so drunk he couldn’t think clearly, although he was definitely used to drinking his beer. “Where are you going?”

“Captain wants us to head to Riley before all hell breaks loose and we can’t get through the point,” the spacer slurred. “Fucking war getting in the way of our fucking profits.”

“Soldier boys just want to make everyone else unhappy,” Uzi agreed. He helped his newfound friend down the road towards a late-night cafe. A handful of people sat inside, drinking coffee and trying not to look miserable. “When are you going?”

“Two days,” the spacer managed to say, after a long period of thought that would have been comical if it hadn’t been annoying. “Got to leave before the grand offensive.”

Uzi smirked as he ordered two steaming mugs of coffee. The rebels would be unhappy to know that word of the planned offensive had already slipped out — although, to be fair, it didn’t take a genius to realize that the fleet couldn’t stay at Ruthven forever. Someone had probably gone to a bar, got drunk and bragged to an interested audience. He made a mental note not to mention it to the rebels, just to see who spilled the beans first, then watched as the spacer drank his coffee. As he’d expected, the warm liquid helped him sober up.

“There’s nothing at Riley for us,” he said, finally. “But the captain thinks we can go there.”

“I’m sure he has something in mind,” Uzi said. He checked his internal datanodes, just to be sure. Riley was a strongly conservative world, dedicated to one of the many religions that had established off-world colonies during the first expansion into space. No booze, no drugs, no casual sex... it sounded hellish. “Are you going to stop at Tara Prime along the way?”

“Probably,” the spacer said. “You want to come with us?”

Uzi considered it, very briefly. He’d smuggled himself onboard warships before, back when he’d been serving as a mercenary. It wasn’t hard, provided one took the right precautions... but it would take him away from his duty at the very time he needed to stay close to Senator Chang and General Stuart. The risk of being recognized by Admiral Garibaldi — and he’d done what he could to minimize the likelihood — was a small price to pay.

“No,” he said. “But I do have an offer for you.”

He produced a trio of cashchips from his pocket and dropped them on the table. “Yours, if you’ll do one thing for me,” he said. “Take a chip of mine to an office on Tara Prime.”

The spacer picked up the first cashchip and stared at it, lovingly. “You are really prepared to pay me a thousand credits?”

“There’ll be more at the far end,” Uzi said. He had a feeling the office’s staff might have something else in mind, but it hardly mattered. The message would reach its destination and that was all he cared about. “And don’t show it to anyone else, or you’ll have to split the bonus.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” the spacer sneered. “I’ve been on starships for years, you young bastard.”

Uzi shrugged. The spacer might be drunk as a lord, but he retained enough of his wits to understand the cost of opening his mouth at the wrong time. He wouldn’t want to share his unexpected windfall with anyone else, certainly not a commanding officer he disliked. Uzi suspected he wasn’t long for the universe, anyway, but again it didn’t matter. What was one life against the entire Federation?

“That’s good,” he said. He passed over the second datachip and a note of the address. A drunk — one who’d learned to function while drunk — shouldn’t have any real problems finding the office and reporting in. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” the spacer said. “You want to go find a girl and have some fun?”

“No, thank you,” Uzi said. “I have to get back to my ship. The captain’s a right asshole.”

“As long as he doesn’t kick you out the airlock, he’s a damn good man,” the spacer assured him, taking a final gulp of coffee. “Mine threw me out the airlock naked, but I was too drunk to notice, and eventually they reeled me back indoors.”

Uzi resisted — barely — the urge to snort. Unless the spacer was a cyborg, and there were none of the tell-tale signs, he wouldn’t survive more than a few minutes in space without protective gear. It sounded more like a drink-fueled hallucination than anything else; he knew, all too well, that some captains could be absolute monsters, but throwing crewmen out the airlock tended to lead to mutiny. Unless the rest of the crew hated the victim...

“You must have been very cold,” he said, dryly.

“I’ve had worse,” the spacer assured him. “And now I need to take a leak and then go find a girl.”

Uzi watched him stumble towards the toilets, crashing into a pair of empty seats on the way, then paid the waitress and headed for the door. The spacer would be fine, probably; he wouldn’t be fool enough to tell anyone about the cashchips or the datachip. And if he spent the next two days getting drunker, his memories would be unreliable anyway.

And now there are two chips on their way out to my superiors, he thought, as he walked through the door and down to the road. One of them will make it home.

He pushed the thought aside as he made his way up the road. A handful of drunken men were walking past on the other side, singing a song Uzi vaguely remembered as having been top of the charts ten years ago, before Admiral Justinian had kicked off the civil wars, but it was depressingly clear they didn’t know half the words or how to sing. Behind them, a set of women followed, almost certainly prostitutes plying their trade. A couple of spacers would probably wake up tomorrow in hotel rooms and discover, to their horror, that they’d been left with the bill. No one would give much of a damn if they complained.

A hand caught his arm and yanked him into an alleyway. “Give me all your money,” a voice hissed, “or I’ll cut you.”

Uzi almost laughed. The would-be mugger would be in deep shit if the planetary police laid hands on him. Charging thirsty spacers twice the going rate for beer, prostitutes, and whatever else caught their fancy was one thing, but openly mugging spacers was quite another. It would discourage other spacers from visiting, which would cut into the system’s tax revenue...

“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” he said. He yanked the knife out of the man’s hand, snapped it in two with augmented strength, and dropped the pieces in the gutter. “Go home and sleep it off.”

The mugger stared at him, then turned and fled. Uzi hesitated — for the sake of his own safety, he really should make sure the man was in no condition to talk — then let him go, rather than burying half the blade in his back. Maybe it was a mistake, but the mugger didn’t deserve to die.

And besides, he told himself, as he returned to the road, he may yet cause problems for the rebels.

Interlude Two

From: The Chaos Years (5023)

It had finally begun to happen.

In one sense, of course, Admiral Justinian was the first true Federation Navy officer to rebel against his rightful superiors. In another, Admiral Drake not only rebelled, but succeeded in putting himself into power. But both men believed passionately in the idea of the Federation, even if it was a Federation with themselves at the head.

Admiral Vincent — and many other admirals in the waning years — was more concerned with his own power and glory. He was willing to sell the remainder of the Federation to the Outsiders, if they agreed to leave him in control of his sector. There was no bid for supreme power, no attempt to take control of the entire Federation... his goals were strictly limited, even selfish. His rule might be better for his sector, but not for the rest of the galaxy.

But, even as the final cataclysm began to build, Emperor Marius had yet to run out of tricks.

Chapter Twenty-Three

It says something about Admiral Vincent that he underestimated the cunning of Emperor Marius, and overestimated the power of his own hand.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4102

The tiny apartment stank.

Rupert McGillivray, no longer a Grand Senator, sat on the bed as he fiddled with the terminal, trying to access the datanet. He’d spent quite a bit of time outside his mansion — his parents had often reprimanded him for leaving their community and wandering through the nearby cities — but he’d been younger at the time, young and healthy. Now, in his second century, his old bones ached and groaned whenever he lay on the bed. He didn’t want to think about what it might have been used for before he’d rented the apartment.

Too used to fucking servants, he thought, tiredly. If he’d known all hell was going to break loose, he would have taken more precautions. And too used to not looking after myself.

He cursed under his breath as the datanet connection broke. Earth was the one world in the Core Worlds where the datanet wasn’t smooth, at least outside the government buildings and richer residential areas. The network of datanodes that built up the system on every other developed world simply didn’t exist; instead, there was layer upon layer of older systems, going all the way back to the early space age. Rupert had heard, once, that there were even archivists who were constantly trying to track and store data that had been uploaded to the network over a thousand years ago. It was, he suspected, quite possible.

But it’s also possible they don’t want the proles revolting, he thought, darkly. Earth had been the one place, until comparatively recently, where the power of the Grand Senate could be challenged. The Grand Senate had supplied entertainments on one hand, to keep the masses quiet, and cracked down on any thought of political dissent on the other. Keeping them from organizing a mass movement would be the first step to keeping the proles firmly under control.

He reached for his pistol as he heard someone walking down the corridor outside, wondering if he’d have to sell his life dearly. The landlord had taken his money without demur, but Rupert was all too aware that the Emperor would have placed a price on his head. If the landlord recognized him, if the landlord wanted to ensure his rise out of the slums and into a far better place to live, he only had to call the police. And then, there was no shortage of human animals wandering the streets. He might be raped, killed, and eaten by someone who had no idea who he’d been.

And that might be better than what the Emperor has in mind for me, he thought. Marius Drake’s increasing instability had been obvious... and it was clear that, whatever Professor Kratman had said to Roman Garibaldi, that it had been enough to push Drake over the edge into full-blown paranoia and madness. He won’t be satisfied with my head if I fall into his hands.

He eyed the door as the footsteps grew closer, understanding — finally — the fear that gripped Earth. The door was nothing more than a sheet of plywood. A single kick would bring it down, allowing robbers, rapists and murderers to break into the apartment. Earth’s crime rates, based solely on reported crimes, were the highest in the Federation. He honestly didn’t understand why the emigration rate wasn’t higher. Life on a colony world might be hard, particularly if an immigrant didn’t have the money to pay his way to the new world, but it was still better than life on Earth. But, perhaps, the all-pervading fear explained it.

It was easy to pour scorn on the poor when I was in my mansion, he thought, relaxing — slightly — as the footsteps echoed away. They were nothing more than a voiceless mass.

It was a bitter thought, but he was too honest to refuse to face it. He’d believed, despite his explorations, that the poor were poor because they deserved to be poor, because they did nothing to better themselves. But the corrosive effects of life on Earth, of being dependent on the government and helpless against thugs, wore them down. They were helpless to control their lives. Indeed, they didn’t believe they could control their lives.

He put the terminal to one side — he’d have to try again later and hope the local processors were feeling more accommodating — and rose, staggering over to the window. His body had been enhanced, before and after his birth, but the cold was still seeping into his old bones, reminding him that winter was coming. He had a nasty feeling he wouldn’t survive the next few months, even if he remained hidden from the Emperor’s patrols. The cold would kill him as surely as a plasma pulse through the head.

Outside, night was falling over Chicago. Countless people thronged the streets, drained of life. Most of them were men; women tended to hide in their apartments or do what they could to keep themselves hidden. There were no children in sight. A handful of young men strode down the middle of the street, displaying a confidence that had everyone else scurrying for cover. Gangsters, Rupert thought; men who dominated the area, men who had no hesitation in taking what they wanted from the rest of the population. And yet, their lives were nasty, brutish and short. A gangster never knew when he’d be knifed by one of his comrades in a fight over a woman, or killed in one of the endless turf wars between street gangs.

And his life is as worthless to his leaders as the life of a woman on the streets, Rupert thought, morbidly. He couldn’t help recognizing the similarity between the Grand Senate and the gangsters. The leaders lived lives of luxury, or what passed for luxury on the streets, while their footsoldiers fought, bled and died on their behalf. They have nothing to live for, nothing but the certainty of death.

He wondered, as he stepped away from the window, just how much of the poverty below was the government’s fault. The Imperialist Faction had never really cared about Earth, beyond keeping the defenses strong; the Conservative Faction had merely wanted to maintain the status quo. Only the Socialists had given a damn, and most of their leaders had been more interested in power than actually helping. Indeed, in some ways, they’d made the problem worse. They simply hadn’t understood the beast they’d created.

And now, I may die here too, he thought, as he sat back down on the bed. The landlord had probably assumed that Rupert would die in the apartment, that he’d been kicked out by his family when he turned into a burden. Hell, he’d probably assumed that Rupert was only fifty years old, rather than well over a century. And if I die here, everything I have done will be for nothing.

It had been his decision to back Marius Drake, nine years ago. And it had been his decision to support Emperor Marius’s bid for power. But now... the warning signs had come too late for him to do something about the Emperor’s growing madness before the Brotherhood was crushed and broken. All he had been able to do was run and hide...

... And pray that he would still have the chance to make a difference.

* * *

There was paperwork, Marius had once known, and then there was paperwork. The reports and briefings he had to read contrasted with the reports and briefings that could be safely passed on to subordinates. But now he had to read everything, just to make sure he knew precisely what was going on. It was hard, almost impossible, to prioritize, even between intelligence reports from Tara Prime, logistics reports from AlphaCent and personnel management reports from Home Fleet. They all seemed important.

He felt his head starting to pound, again, as he reached for yet another report and skimmed it quickly, looking for the key words. Not one useful damned thing from the Cairngorms Industrial Complex, he noted rapidly, and over fifty pages to tell him so. Production rates were still falling, go-slows were becoming more common... it didn’t seem to matter what the workers were threatened with, they just kept slowing down. And the writer spent most of his time coming up with excuses for the slowdown rather than putting forward suggestions for solving the problem. Marius would happily have given him the authority to at least try to solve the problem if he’d come up with a possible solution.

I should have him shot, he thought, putting the datapad down. Bad news was one thing, but a lack of optimism was quite another. And tell his successor not to waste my time.

Gritting his teeth, he rubbed his forehead, then reached into his pocket and produced the small packet of pills. He needed them, he told himself, as he swallowed two of the grey pills and washed them down with a swig of coffee. The headaches were nothing more than a distraction, a distraction he couldn’t allow himself. But, even with the pills, the headaches were growing worse. Frantically, he searched through the small pile of datapads, each one crammed with reports, looking for good news. Surely, there had to be something going his way.

The doorbell chimed. He glanced up, irritated.

“Sir, General Thorne requests an immediate audience,” the marine guard said. “Do you have a moment to see him?”

Marius glanced at the reports, then nodded curtly. General Thorne, at least, brought him solutions as well as problems. They might not always be the best solutions, but at least he was trying, Everyone else seemed content to have Marius come up with the solutions, as if there was no one else with a spark of initiative. And he was tired of it. The date he could retire, the date Tiffany and he could walk off into the sunset together, seemed further and further away every time he looked.

“Send him in,” he ordered. His stomach rumbled. “And ask the steward to bring us fresh coffee.”

The door opened. General Thorne entered, looking surprisingly well turned out for someone who should have been awake for most of the day. Marius felt a stab of envy, remembering the days when he’d been on his command deck for over forty hours at a stretch, then reminded himself sharply that he was no longer a young man. Besides, the drugs and stimulants they’d taken during that battle had nasty side effects. They’d been useless for days after the battle had come to an end.

Pity, he thought. There just isn’t enough time in the world to sleep.

“Sir,” General Throne said. He pulled himself upright and saluted smartly. “I have interesting news.”

“Sit,” Marius ordered.

He rubbed his forehead, once again. His headache hadn’t faded, despite the pills. He cursed under his breath as the steward arrived, carrying a tray of fresh coffee and sandwiches. Tiffany again, he noted, with a flicker of mixed love and irritation. She’d been nagging him to eat — and making sure the staff nagged him too. But there was little time to eat. There were just too many goddamned reports to read, orders to issue...

“Very well,” he said, as he took his cup of coffee. “What’s the interesting news?”

“A courier boat arrived from Tara Prime,” General Thorne said. “It was chartered, specifically, by ONI.”

Marius lifted his eyebrows. “Go on.”

“The courier boat carried a datachip earmarked with a specific code, a code belonging to one of our deep-cover agents,” General Thorne continued. “Thankfully, the local branch of ONI couldn’t get past the priority codes, so they forwarded the chip to Earth. And there it was decrypted. It’s both bad and good news.”

“I see,” Marius said. “And what is the bad news?”

“Admiral Vincent has been cuddling up to Admiral Garibaldi,” General Throne said. “He approached Garibaldi on New Year’s Day with an offer of an alliance.”

Marius swore, running through a collection of words he’d learned on his first cruise from the formidable Chief Petty Officer. He’d trusted Admiral Vincent, at least as much as he trusted anyone with two battle squadrons under his command. But then, he’d trusted Admiral Garibaldi too, and Roman had turned on him. Why wouldn’t Vincent do the same?

“I see,” he said, again. He wanted to take Home Fleet and lay waste to Tara Prime, after snatching Admiral Vincent for cruel and unusual punishment, but caught himself before issuing orders. “And the good news?”

“He doesn’t know we know,” General Thorne said. “The deep-cover agent only found out through sheer luck.”

Marius closed his eyes in silent contemplation. If Admiral Vincent was trying to play both ends against the middle... it was possible, he had to admit. Roman Garibaldi had always been an idealist — Marius had admired that in him — but Admiral Vincent was more of an opportunist. No doubt he wanted something in exchange for switching sides, or he wouldn’t have risked opening negotiations. He could just have surrendered, rather easily, when the rebels flowed into Tara Prime.

“Which leads, I suppose, to the obvious question,” he mused. “What does he want?”

“Permanent control over the Tara Sector, apparently,” General Thorne said. “In exchange for his support, the rebels are to concede the sector to him as a permanent fiefdom. His heirs will inherit it and the will of the people, for what it’s worth, will count for nothing. Apparently, the rebel leadership were quite uncertain about accepting the offer.”

Marius snorted. In his experience, politicians and traitors saw nothing wrong with going back on their word — or stabbing a former friend in the back — as soon as their friend was no longer needed. Hadn’t the Grand Senate tried to kill him after he’d saved their collective ass from Admiral Justinian? The rebels, led by a bunch of turncoats, would probably turn on Admiral Vincent after they took Earth, no doubt claiming they were liberating the Tara Sector from a tyrant. Unless, of course, Admiral Vincent was savvy enough to take precautions...

He probably is, Marius thought. He’s not bidding for the whole shebang.

His face darkened as he contemplated the possibilities. Admiral Vincent had always struck him as an unimaginative sort, but that very lack of imagination might have saved Admiral Vincent from making a bid for empire. Instead of trying to grab Earth and declare himself Emperor — as Admiral Justinian had tried — he merely wanted a sector. Given enough time to dig in, Vincent might well make it impossible for anyone to dig him out without expending vast amounts of war material. The rebels might just concede the sector and allow Admiral Vincent his kingdom.

He won’t overextend himself, Marius added, mentally. And whoever wins the civil war will be too exhausted to fight for Tara Prime.

“He doesn’t know we know,” he said, out loud. “And we were planning to move reinforcements into the sector, to stage a decisive battle...”

He allowed his voice to trail away as he contemplated the possibilities. Admiral Vincent — like Roman Garibaldi — had had plenty of time to place his loyalists in key positions all over the sector and its defending fleet. It was unlikely Marius could count on a mutiny when Admiral Vincent came out in support of the rebels, even though there were a handful of deep-cover agents on the Admiral’s ships. At most, he suspected, there would be a great deal of confusion, which would render it impossible to defend the sector. The rebels might even take advantage of the chaos to put an end to Admiral Vincent there and then.

He’s sure he can get away with it, he thought. I don’t think he would have taken the risk otherwise.

“We could move Home Fleet forward, into the sector,” he mused. “And then shut Admiral Vincent down before it’s too late.”

“He might not surrender,” General Thorne pointed out.

Marius nodded in irritation. If Admiral Vincent knew — or suspected — that Marius knew what he’d been planning, he wouldn’t come quietly. His ships would put up a fight, depleting the supplies Marius needed to fight the Outsiders. And the rebels, presumably already inching down from Marble, would intervene before the shooting came to an end, capitalizing on dissent in his camp. No, Marius couldn’t afford to do anything too overt. But, at the same time, he couldn’t just allow Admiral Vincent to get away with treachery. Losing Tara Prime would make ultimate victory far harder to achieve.

Get the fleet to Tara Prime, he thought. Invite Admiral Vincent to board my flagship for dinner and grab him. Then take control of the planet and the system’s defenses...

“There is a possibility,” General Thorne said. “I took the liberty of reading Admiral Vincent’s file.”

Marius looked up, suspiciously. If there had been something in the files relating to possible treachery, he would have noticed. The Grand Senate would certainly not have tolerated a bottom-feeder like Admiral Vincent if it had a reason to doubt his loyalty. God knew they’d had enough problems with Justinian and his ilk. And Vincent, careful which cards he played, might prove a more dangerous threat.

“He had political ambitions, I believe,” General Thorne said. “His two eldest children have entered the navy, but his four youngest children were dispatched to Blyton Towers and remained there, despite the... upset.”

Marius blinked in surprise. Blyton Towers was, officially, a finishing school for young adults. In reality, it specialized in teaching the kind of manners and deportment favored by the aristocracy. Tiffany had told him that she’d been lucky to escape; the school, she’d said, specialized in turning brains into mush. Admiral Vincent must have hoped to marry his children into prominent families and use their new connections to further his career.

And now he’s planning to create his own kingdom, he thought, sourly. His children will be the highest in the land.

“We could grab the children,” General Thorne said. “It won’t be long before he recalls them, I suspect. And then we could use them...”

“Very true,” Marius agreed. He smiled, rather coldly. Everyone brought him problems, but only General Thorne brought him solutions. “Snatch the children now, before they can be recalled. And then we will see what use we can make of them.”

Tiffany would be appalled, part of his mind noted as General Thorne turned to leave. The thought cost him a pang, which he ruthlessly pushed aside. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was preserving the Federation and stopping the traitors before it was too late.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Like all elite groups, the Grand Senate — and the aristocracy that surrounded it — had developed its own manners, its own way of living, that was profoundly alien to the rest of the Federation. Newcomers to the group, be they as illustrious as Admiral Drake or rich as Director Hamilton (CEO of Falcone Corp), found themselves profoundly out of place, their etiquette marking them as newcomers. Even the wealthy, who traded social respect for money, were looked down upon by those born into the aristocracy.

Unsurprisingly, it proved harder for newcomers to replenish the Grand Senate than it should otherwise have been.

—The Grand Senate in Hindsight, 5123

Earth, 4102

“You know how much it costs to come here?” Lieutenant Gartrell asked. “More than I’ll make in a lifetime.”

Lieutenant Kevin Sanderson shrugged as the aircar approached Blyton Towers, its automated beacon already requesting and receiving permission to land. The school was halfway up a mountain in what had once been Switzerland, surrounded by white snow that cast an eerie sheen over the towering building. A hot zone at the rear puzzled him — his sensors could shed no light on it — until he realized it was a swimming pool. He couldn’t help thinking that the students, scions of some of the richest families in the system, had to have easy lives.

“I looked it up,” Gartrell added. “The fees for one term here, three months of schooling, are over two million credits. And five years ago, before the Emperor, they were over five million credits. None of the students here are worth less than ten billion apiece.”

“I shouldn’t worry about it,” Kevin said. He’d loathed the Grand Senate’s children as much as the next officer of Senate Security, but the Emperor had killed or exiled the worst of them before folding the survivors of Senate Security into Planetary Security. “The children here... now... are the families of men and women who actually earned their wealth.”

He tapped a switch on the console and the aircar began to descend towards the roof, where the landing pad was waiting for them. It was hard to be sure, but it looked as though there was no easy way to reach the school without using an aircar. There was certainly no road leading up to the walls, no way for the proles in the cities to get to Blyton Towers. Gartrell was right, at least in one respect. No one got anywhere near Blyton Towers without having a shitload of money and political connections.

But there was no point in getting angry, he reminded himself. He’d been lucky enough to escape the lower class ghetto he’d been born and raised in, lucky enough to earn a chance to attend a security training course. It still surprised him, at times, that Senate Security had hired him, but they’d been having a real problem with recruiting enough manpower to handle their duties. But that, at least, wasn’t a surprise. There was only so much abuse one could take without requesting reassignment to an easier station, signing up for a tour of duty on the Rim, or going mad and brutally murdering one’s charges. Indeed, he had a feeling he’d only won the position because he’d scored highly when he’d been assessed for self-control.

The little shits who tormented me are now on Paradise, he thought, as the aircar touched down on the landing pad. And now they have to work for themselves. They probably think they’re in hell.

He glanced back at his three officers. Lieutenant Gartrell was bitter and resentful; he’d bear watching, particularly once they entered the building. Lieutenant Fletcher wasn’t much better — she wasn’t pretty, but that hadn’t saved her from being molested — leaving Lieutenant Garcon as the sole truly reliable officer. He would have preferred to have taken longer to choose his back-up, but he hadn’t been given the time. Their orders allowed for no delay.

“I expect you to remember that most of the students in this place have powerful families,” he said. “The Grand Senate may be gone, but there’re a great many industrialists and military officers who’ve taken their place. Do not lose your temper, whatever they do. Our superiors will not be happy if there’s an... incident.”

“Little snots deserve it,” Gartrell muttered. He’d probably have snapped, sooner or later, if the Grand Senate hadn’t been toppled. “Really, sir...”

“These are not those little snots,” Kevin reminded him, sternly. He’d met a few men and women who’d married into quality, paying out vast sums of money in exchange for a name and an unwanted partner. They’d always struck him as deeply unhappy, as though they hadn’t belonged. “And we will not be protected if we slap a couple of them around. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Gartrell said, sullenly.

Kevin eyed him for a long moment, then opened the hatch. The cold struck him like a physical blow, but at least there was no snow on the landing pad. He stepped outside, feeling a low warmth emitting from the pad, and led the way towards a door. A wave of heat greeted them as he pushed the door open and stepped inside. Behind him, the others followed. Gartrell, bringing up the rear, closed the door firmly behind him.

“Greetings,” a snooty voice said. “Welcome to Blyton Towers.”

It was all Kevin could do to keep his face under control. He’d heard that snooty accent daily for five years and he’d grown to hate it. And then, when the Emperor had taken the planet, the accent had vanished. He hadn’t realized how deep an impact it had made until he heard it, once again, for the first time in years. The speaker, a man wearing a tailored suit, looked bland, utterly unassuming. Kevin couldn’t help noticing that he seemed to lack a chin.

“Thank you,” he said, reminding himself — firmly — that he no longer worked for the Grand Senate. He might be a small cog, but the Emperor was the unquestioned ruler of Earth — and their orders came directly from him. “Escort us to the headmistress, at once.”

“Of course, sir,” the man said. “It would be my pleasure.”

Kevin had spent more time than he cared to admit in the homes of the great and good — the former great and good. He’d expected Blyton Towers to be more of the same — and it was — but there was something indefinably different about it. He looked from side to side as they walked through the elaborately decorated corridors, paintings lining the walls and frowning disapprovingly at the proles who had dared to enter the building, yet he couldn’t put his finger on it. The handful of students he saw stared at the troopers in surprise, then hurried away as fast as they could. He smiled at their reaction — at least there was fear, if not respect — and then put it out of his mind. It hardly mattered.

“Heh,” Gartrell muttered.

Kevin followed his gaze, through a window that opened onto a beach. It was disturbingly lifelike, as if someone had plucked a beach from the tropics and planted it in the middle of the school, but that wasn’t what caught his eye. Lying on the beach, wearing nothing, were a dozen girls, sunning themselves in the artificial light. Their bodies were young, healthy, supple and thin; their hair shone under the yellow glow. They looked as though they didn’t have a care in the world.

Bitches, he thought, although he knew it was unfair. They have everything, and yet they’re satisfied with nothing.

He pushed the thought aside as their guide stopped in front of a larger wooden door and knocked, then opened it without waiting for a reply. The office inside looked like something out of the past; the walls were lined with wooden bookshelves, surrounding a real fire in the grate. A large wooden desk dominated the room, with a middle-aged woman sitting behind it and studying the newcomers with a gimlet eye. The dark dress she wore, with a golden broach placed just above her right breast, only added to the severity. Kevin felt a sudden stab of pity for the woman’s students, then straightened to attention. The office, he suspected, was probably designed to impress visitors, rather than serve as a workplace. There wasn’t a single computer terminal or datapad in sight.

“Good afternoon,” the woman said. “I am Madame Grey.”

“Lieutenant Sanderson,” Kevin said. “I’m here with a warrant from Planetary Security.”

Madame Grey’s mouth twisted, just for a second, as if she’d bitten into something nasty. She probably had. Blyton Towers had its own security force, according to the files. No outsiders, not even Senate Security, had been allowed to enter. But now there was nothing she could do to stop the intrusion, not when they were backed by the authority of the Emperor himself. If marines could clump through the mansions of the Grand Senators, what was stopping them from smashing down the gates of Blyton School?

“A warrant,” she repeated. “And may I ask who it’s for?”

“Talia, Kamala, Bill and Andrew Vincent,” Kevin said. He removed the datachip from his jacket and placed it on the desk, wondering if she’d bother to check. “Please have them summoned to the office immediately.”

Madame Grey opened a drawer, produced a standard datapad and inserted the chip, skimming through the warrant with a surprising amount of care and attention. Kevin wondered, absently, if she would try to find an excuse to deny it, but she had to know it wouldn’t get her anywhere. The Emperor had spoken, and that was that. His subjects had no choice but to obey.

“I will call them,” Madame Grey said. “Are they in trouble, themselves?”

“I do not believe so,” Kevin said, finally. They hadn’t been given specific orders to treat the kids as potential criminals, merely take them into custody. “But I don’t know for sure.”

“Then please don’t drag them through the school in cuffs,” Madame Grey said. “It would only humiliate them upon their return.”

Kevin bit down a hot flash of anger. Anyone arrested in his hometown would have been marched off in cuffs, even if it had been for non-payment of debts rather than “harmless” little pranks like rape, murder or child abuse. Indeed, anyone guilty of not paying their debts was more likely to be arrested than someone guilty of a far more serious crime. The little brats in the school didn’t deserve any special treatment. He could cuff all four of them and no one would give a damn...

But they were young, he reminded himself, and there was nowhere to run.

“As you wish,” he said. He wondered, absently, if Madame Grey would go so far as to have the corridors cleared, just to make sure no one knew what was happening. “Please call them now.”

Madame Grey tapped the broach on her chest. “Sophie, please call Talia, Kamala, Bill and Andrew Vincent to the office,” she said. “And then inform their housemothers that I will speak with them after classes.”

She tapped the broach again, then looked up. “Do you have any idea when they will be returned?”

“No,” Kevin said. “We’re just the messenger boys.”

He waited, counting the minutes in his head, until the door finally opened. He’d seen pictures of the four children, but he had to admit that Talia and Kamala — their father had named them after great naval heroes — looked prettier in person. Talia, at eighteen, still had the aura of innocence that so many slum children lost before they were legally adults, something her teachers would have tried to hone. But then, her father had presumably intended to marry her off to an older man. He didn’t seem to have realized that the universe had changed.

“Madame Grey,” Talia said. Her voice held the same damnable accent, but lacked the entitlement or self-righteousness of someone born into the very highest levels of the aristocracy. It was almost pleasant. “You summoned us?”

Kevin cleared his throat. “Talia, Kamala, Bill and Andrew Vincent,” he said. “By direct orders of the Emperor, we are taking the four of you into custody. I must inform you, here and now, that while you are not technically under arrest, you are obliged to cooperate with us until you reach your final destination. Should you misbehave or attempt to escape, we will use all necessary force to keep you under control. There will be no further warnings.”

Talia stared at him in shock. Beside her, Kamala’s eyes rolled upwards and she slumped to the floor in a faint. Kevin resisted, barely, the urge to kick her. He’d seen too many High Society girls pretend to faint to allow himself undue concern. The two boys looked equally stunned and angry, bunching their fists as if they wanted to throw themselves on the officers, even though they had to know it would be futile. None of the students were taught how to fight.

Wouldn’t want them fighting off their partners, he thought, coldly. No one cares about their happiness in marriage.

He knelt down and checked Kamala, then twisted her nose. She yelped in pain, then sat upright, her dark eyes burning with sullen resentment. Kevin snorted — it had been a pretty pathetic attempt to fake a fainting fit — and helped her to her feet. The look in her eyes told him he’d better keep a close eye on her.

“There isn’t anywhere to run,” he said, patiently. Better to make their position clear to them, regardless of their feelings, than run the risk of chasing them all over the school. “Please cooperate, or we’ll have to carry you through the building.”

He glanced at Madame Grey. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“The school’s lawyers will be in touch,” Madame Grey informed him, tightly. “We do not appreciate visits from outside security forces.”

“I would advise you to save your money,” Kevin said, “but I think you won’t listen to me.”

He glanced at the four children. “Come with us.”

Talia gave him a nasty look, then accompanied him through the door and down the long corridor. Kevin could hear her three siblings following them, with his officers bringing up the rear. The corridors were almost deserted, but as they passed a classroom all eyes turned to follow them. He couldn’t help thinking, as the students began to chatter in unison, that it would have been less striking if he’d cuffed all four of them and carried them out.

Maybe we should have insisted on the corridors being cleared, he thought, as more and more students appeared. It didn’t feel like a brewing riot — most of the students would be sheep, rather than wolves — but he tensed anyway. The Emperor would not be pleased if they accidentally hurt or killed the child of one of his supporters. We need to move faster.

Andrew bolted, suddenly. Kevin had no idea where he thought he could go — there was no way to leave the school and, if necessary, Kevin could have called for reinforcements and swept the school from top to bottom — but it hardly mattered. Lieutenant Fletcher gave chase, her legs pumping madly as she ran the teenage boy down and tackled him. Andrew hit the carpet, face-first; Kevin heard a crunching sound that suggested, very strongly, that he’d broken his nose. Lieutenant Fletcher produced a pair of cuffs from her belt, secured Andrew’s hands behind his back and yanked him to his feet. A trail of blood, dripping from a twisted nose, confirmed Kevin’s impressions.

“The silly bastard is in shock,” Lieutenant Fletcher said, as the students drew back. Anyone would think they hadn’t seen blood before. “You want to do something about his nose?”

“We’ll deal with it in the car,” Kevin said. “He’ll survive until then.”

He glanced at Gartrell and Garcon, who’d grabbed Kamala and Bill respectively. Judging from the look on Kamala’s face, Gartrell had taken advantage of the situation to cop a feel as well as keep her from running. Making a mental note to tear a strip off him later, Kevin led them the rest of the way towards the aircar. Thankfully, the remaining students kept their distance, staring in horror rather than doing anything stupid.

We’ll have to work hard to put a positive spin on this, Kevin thought, as they walked through the cold to the aircar. Andrew was shackled in the rear of the vehicle; the others, somewhat to his relief, showed no inclination to fight. Breaking someone’s nose would be meaningless down below, but here...

Talia cleared her throat as Kevin started the drives. “Sir... where are we going?”

“The Presidential House, at least at first,” Kevin said. It was annoying that Gartrell hadn’t realized the implications. The Emperor might be annoyed at his behavior. “And then... I don’t know.”

He took the stick and steered the aircar up into the sky, allowing the children to take one last look at the towers below. It was unlikely they’d ever be allowed to return, even if they were released tomorrow. Madame Grey clearly hadn’t liked the idea of anyone bringing political entanglements into her school.

“Why?” Talia asked. Her accent seemed to have vanished completely. “Why us?”

“A very good question,” Kevin said. He had a theory — the files had made it clear that the four children were related to Admiral Vincent — but he didn’t know for sure. As annoying as Andrew had been, there was no point in worrying them. “I dare say you’ll find out when you get to your destination.”

He checked the autopilot as the aircar picked up speed. They’d be there in a couple of hours, barring accidents. It was annoying — he would have preferred to switch to a bigger vehicle — but there was no room for ‘accidentally’ misinterpreting his orders. Someone clearly wanted to keep matters as quiet as possible.

Ours not to reason why, he thought, as he settled back in his chair. Ours merely to carry out orders and hope for the best.

Chapter Twenty-Five

In retrospect, Admiral Vincent’s power-grab seems to have been a catalyst for Emperor Marius’s final mental and physical decline.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4102

Tiffany wasn’t quite sure when Marius had returned to their suite. She’d waited up for him as long as she could, then climbed into bed, hoping he’d disturb her when he arrived from the office. He was always better, always more like his old self, after they made love... or even after a massage. But when she’d woken the following morning, he’d been lying on the couch in the living room. He hadn’t come to bed at all!

“You’ll have to eat something,” she said, as he sat up. She was wearing one of her special nightgowns, a wisp of silk that concealed nothing, but he wasn’t even looking at her. Hell, he hadn’t climbed into bed with her, now that he knew she was awake. “When did you last eat?”

Marius shrugged.

Tiffany eyed him for a long moment, then called the steward and ordered a full-sized breakfast for both of them. She expected an argument, she expected to have to practically force-feed him, but Marius ate with surprising gusto. His body knew it was hungry, even if his mind refused to bow to the necessities of living. Or, judging by the sudden change in behavior, something else was preoccupying him.

“There’s going to be a full meeting of the cabinet this morning,” Marius said, as he finished the last piece of bacon and wiped up the remains of the fried eggs. “You are, of course, expected to attend.”

Of course, Tiffany thought. She’d had the impression, over the last few months, that Marius didn’t care if she attended or not. He hadn’t forced her to leave, but he hadn’t solicited her opinion either. And what is this about?

She watched him carefully as they showered and dressed. Marius looked normal, suspiciously normal. She couldn’t help thinking he looked like a man who was patiently waiting for his opponent to discover the booby trap, even though she wasn’t sure just who he considered his enemy. Had he turned against her? She doubted it, although she suspected that Marius knew how to dissemble. He’d survived ninety years as a naval officer before becoming Emperor, after all.

“You look good,” Marius said, as she showed off her dress. The long green outfit clung to her body and showed off her hair to best advantage. “Shall we go?”

Tiffany smiled as she took his arm, though it bothered her. Marius had said she was beautiful when they’d become partners as well as husband and wife, but he hadn’t really seemed to notice her or anyone else when he’d returned from Nova Athena. Oslo had said the pills he was taking caused impotence, as well as a number of other side effects. Marius might not be quite impotent, but he wasn’t paying much attention either. She kept her worries to herself as they walked through the corridor and into the conference room. Somewhat to her surprise, there was fresh coffee and cakes on the table.

He’s acting more like his old self, she thought, as Marius let go of her arm and pulled a chair out for her. Why does that bother me?

She said nothing as the rest of the seats started to fill. General Thorne, looking like the cat that ate the cream; Comptroller Tully and Larimore Hammond, both looking worried; General Maringa and Admiral Singh, their expressions schooled into masks that revealed nothing. And, at the rear of the table, Ginny Lewis. Tiffany caught her eye and winked, even though she knew it was risky. They hadn’t been able to find much time to talk since New Year’s Day.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Marius said. He sounded like his old self too, but there was a harder edge that worried her. “This may turn out to be a long meeting, so feel free to eat, drink, and request breaks to go to the head.”

There were some smiles, but Tiffany couldn’t help thinking that too many members of the cabinet looked concerned. The only one who didn’t was General Thorne. He had regular private meetings with Marius, Tiffany knew all too well. What had the two of them cooked up together?

“Major Jackson,” Marius said. “Perhaps you could tell us what your agent reported?”

Major Jackson shot General Thorne an unreadable look, before leaning forward. “The basics of the report, sir, were that Admiral Vincent is planning to switch sides, in exchange for being recognized as the undisputed ruler of the Tara Sector. It would seem the rebel leadership is planning to accept this offer, assuming that Admiral Vincent keeps his word and allows them to pass into Tara Prime without delay. Our agent, sir, noted that the rebels would definitely prefer to avoid tangling with the defenses of Tara Prime.”

“So they would,” Marius agreed.

Tiffany stared at him. If the betrayal of Roman Garibaldi had been enough to tip Marius into a fit of rage, why wasn’t he so angry with Admiral Vincent? She knew enough about the military situation to understand that Admiral Vincent switching sides would open up a chink the defenses, allowing Roman Garibaldi to bring his fleet to AlphaCent before he encountered anything that could stop him from proceeding further. And yet Marius seemed almost amused.

“I think you can all understand why this has the potential to be massively disruptive,” Marius continued, after a long moment. “But ah... we know and he doesn’t know we know. We can turn this to our advantage.”

He sat back, pressing his fingertips together. “It is, I admit, a situation that could turn dangerous with frightening speed,” he added. “My first thought was to recall him, but without a valid reason, he was quite likely to smell a rat. And then I thought about sending out another fleet, yet his people would probably resist any attempt to winkle him out of his orbital fortress. The rebels might force their way into the system while we were fighting yet another civil war. It looked as though our best bet was to offer him a better bargain than the rebels.

“And then it struck me. Admiral Vincent has made one tiny, but fatal, error.”

His voice hardened. “His youngest children are still on Earth,” he said. “And, by all accounts, he loves them.”

Tiffany felt her blood run cold as all the pieces fell into place. Family ties were important. It was why she’d been married off to Marius in the first place, creating a blood tie that should have kept him from contemplating rebellion against the Grand Senate. And it would have worked, too, if the Grand Senate hadn’t decided he needed to die anyway. She knew very little about Admiral Vincent, but threatening a man’s children to get him to do as one wanted was horrific...

... And she knew them. She’d met his kids, back before Marius had left Earth for Nova Athena. She knew them...

She glanced at General Thorne and knew, with a sickening certainty, just who was responsible for the idea.

“Our original plan was to dispatch three battle squadrons from Home Fleet to reinforce the defenses of Tara Prime,” Marius was saying. Tiffany dragged her attention back to him with an effort. “Those forces would have been placed under Admiral Vincent’s command. I believe he would have delayed matters long enough for those squadrons to arrive, knowing it would give him a chance to capture an extra twenty-seven superdreadnaughts to strengthen his hand. Instead, I will dispatch seven battle squadrons and take command of them personally. We will not, of course, give Admiral Vincent advance notice of my coming.”

“Sir,” General Maringa said. “That will leave the defenses of Earth quite thin.”

“The remainder of Home Fleet can hold against any reasonable threat,” Marius assured him, kindly. “Right now, the major threat is the combination of the rebels and Admiral Vincent’s ships. They must not be allowed to pass through the Tara Sector unmolested!”

“Yes, sir,” General Maringa said, reluctantly.

“Once I arrive at Tara Prime, Admiral Vincent will be informed about his children and precisely what will happen to them if he refuses to do as I say. He will not be given any chance to come up with a plan to warn Garibaldi and the Outsiders, or to come up with a way to evade my orders. Instead, he will invite the rebels forward, as planned, and lure them directly into a trap. The rebel fleet will discover, too late, that they are facing ten battle squadrons and thousands of starfighters.”

Tiffany fought to keep her face impassive. She believed firmly in the Federation, she believed in the unity of the human race... but at what cost? Kidnapping children and using them as hostages...? What had her husband become? And how far would he go to accomplish his aims?

“They won’t be able to avoid an engagement,” General Maringa said.

“No, they won’t,” Marius agreed. “They will, in fact, be allowed to enter the system without being molested. The fortresses covering the Asimov Points will allow them in, as if they were friendly ships. And then the gate will slam closed behind them, trapping their ships at Tara Prime. Even if they set out at once for the system limits, they’ll still find it hard to avoid a missile duel.”

He smiled at them all. “Once the rebel fleet is smashed, I will detach five battle squadrons to fight their way back up the chain and reoccupy every system as far as Nova Athena. The loyalists will, of course, be rewarded for remaining loyal; the rebels will be put in front of a wall and shot. And once our survey units report the location of the Outsider worlds, we will send units to those systems and scorch the planets clean of life. The threat will come to an end, ladies and gentlemen, in less than a year.”

Tiffany couldn’t keep herself from shuddering. How many innocent people were about to die?

“Victory in the war,” Marius added, “will win us the time we need to rebuild our industrial base, put our economy on a sounder footing, and correct the mistakes of the past. The population of Earth, as riotous as always, will be brought under firm control, with mass emigration encouraged to thin the herd. The contraceptive program will be enhanced, ensuring that the birth rate will be cut sharply. And we will use similar programs, if necessary, to prevent the other Core Worlds from falling into the same trap.”

He paused. “Comments?”

Tiffany wanted to ask what he intended to do with Admiral Vincent and his children, once the coming battle was fought and won, but she didn’t quite dare. In truth, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Marius might understand the value of mercy, yet he’d watched helplessly as Roman Garibaldi betrayed him. He’d see Admiral Vincent as just another traitor, an asshole who turned on him at the worst possible moment. Admiral Vincent would be lucky if he and his family were merely banished to Paradise, rather than tortured to death and thrown out of the airlock.

“I have a question,” General Maringa said. “What happens if Admiral Vincent refuses to cooperate?”

“Then we overwhelm his command fortress as quickly as possible, before the rebels can intervene,” Marius said. “I doubt there are many rebel sympathizers amongst them, not when Admiral Vincent will have crammed their ranks with his own supporters. Once Vincent is dead, we’ll offer amnesty to any of his supporters who switches sides. After the war is over, they can be scattered amongst the navy or offered settlements on newly-opened colonies.”

“There is another concern,” Tully said. “My office has been fielding calls from various parents over the removal of Admiral Vincent’s children from Blyton Towers. The version of the story they heard was that the kids were brutally beaten, then dragged out of the building and into the snow by their hair.”

Tiffany blanched.

“That isn’t true,” General Thorne snapped.

“That may be immaterial,” Tully said. “What matters, General, is what people believe.”

“No one is going to give a shit about a bunch of rich kids getting a kick up the backside, let alone a beating,” General Thorne said. “I assure you that most of Earth’s population would cheer if we threw the little assholes into the arena and told them to fight for their lives.”

“But the percentage of the population that does believe it, General, happens to include men and women of ability and talent, men and women we happen to need,” Tully insisted. Beside him, Hammond nodded. “This is their children who reported the whole affair to them.”

“Then they should be told that good little children don’t tell lies,” General Thorne said, coldly. “I can send you the medical report, if you wish.”

Tiffany cleared her throat. “Why was there a medical report if there was nothing wrong with them?”

“All of our... clients are given a full medical examination when they enter our facilities,” General Thorne said. “It’s standard procedure. In this case, we have four little brats, aged fourteen to eighteen, one of whom hit the ground hard enough to bloody his nose. No significant damage, no reason to panic. And, as they’re not actually criminals, they’re being well treated. I dare say having a chance to drop that repulsive accent is doing wonders for their morale.”

“No doubt,” Marius agreed. “Is this likely to be a significant problem?”

“Of course not,” General Thorne said, before Tully could open his mouth. “Blyton School has outlived its usefulness. Any parent stupid enough to send his kids there deserves everything he gets.”

“An attitude they will not share,” Tully said. “Blyton School isn’t known for strict routine, harsh discipline, or anything beyond teaching children how to behave in High Society. There have been complaints about children being told that they’re not to do something, even if it’s something actively harmful — or criminal. Apparently, being told not to pick on others is traumatizing.”

He looked directly at Marius. “I can reassure them, as best as I can, but it would be better to keep the matter under wraps as much as possible,” he added. “The last thing we need is industrialists thinking they’re disposable.”

“Make sure they receive copies of the medical report,” Marius ordered. He cleared his throat, loudly. “Is there any other business?”

No one said a word. Tiffany looked at him and then around the table, wondering who would show the nerve to question his decision. But Thorne had probably thought of the idea in the first place, Jackson, Singh and Maringa understood the danger of Admiral Vincent switching sides, Tully and Hammond were too exposed to risk an open disagreement with a tyrant and Ginny was far too junior to open her mouth without a direct invitation to speak.

And I can’t disagree with him, not openly, she thought. Her father had made her attend enough classes on how to be a good wife. A man hates being contradicted by his wife in public.

“Then we will hold one final meeting before we depart,” Marius said. “Dismissed.”

He rose. Tiffany followed him, feeling numb. She understood the realities of the universe far better than many of the girls she’d known in High Society, but...

Dear God, she thought, as Marius led the way into their suite. I don’t love you anymore.

It was a chilling realization. She’d thrown her lot in with Marius, at least in part, because she had nowhere else to go. Her family had sold her to the Grand Senate for a pittance, for the confirmation that they were still important... Marius had been kind to her and she’d loved him for it. But now, he’d crossed the line. She wasn’t naïve enough to think that peace could come without bloodshed, that the Federation couldn’t be reunified without a fight, yet there were limits. Her husband — and General Thorne — were planning mass genocide. And while the millions who’d been casually sentenced to death had no faces, she could imagine the faces of Admiral Vincent’s children.

“We can win this,” Marius said, once the door was closed. He swung around, took her in his arms and kissed her with his old fire and passion. “The war can come to an end.”

Tiffany almost pushed him away. A day or two ago, she would have wanted it, demanded it... now, she hated the thought of touching him. And yet, she knew she had no choice. He might be hurt if she refused him, he might lash out... or he might ensure she had no chance to do something, anything, to stop his plans. She could kill him, she reminded herself as she pressed her lips against his, but the result would be chaos. The Federation needed someone in place to take control.

At least I was taught how to fake it, she thought with grim amusement. His hands tore at her dress, pulling it down and allowing her breasts to bob free. And he won’t be able to tell the difference.

Afterwards, she held him tightly as she contemplated her options. “Are you going to leave me on Earth?”

“Someone has to remain in charge of the planet,” Marius said. “And you did a good job before.”

Tiffany felt sour. She would have given anything, one day ago, for such honest praise.

“I would prefer to come with you,” she said. She’d been advised to be subtle — she’d been told it was better to manipulate a man into deciding to do whatever you wanted him to do — but she wasn’t sure how. “I’ve handled negotiations for you before and these... these will be the most complex and vital negotiations of your career. One mistake, and Admiral Vincent will turn on you.”

Marius gave her a long considering look. Tiffany held herself still. Marius was easily three times her age and an experienced naval officer, old enough to know how to read people. Did he suspect her loyalties, now? Or was he so short on trustworthy people that he couldn’t decide where to leave her?

“Very well,” Marius said, finally. “You’ll come with me.”

Tiffany kissed him, gently, and then headed for the shower...

... Trying, all the while, to think of a plan.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Timing was everything, of course. The cursed time-delay between systems, as always, messed up the very best of plans.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Marble, 4102

“The scouts have returned, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Download their readings and put them on the display,” Roman ordered.

He leaned forward as the Marble System appeared on the CIC’s display. Hannalore Vincent’s briefing hadn’t been inaccurate, he noted; the system’s defenders had established powerful defenses around the Astrid Point, as well as smaller defenses around the Yellowstone and Harper Points. The McQueen Point didn’t seem to have received anything like as much attention, but it was a cul-de-sac. There was little point in wasting resources guarding a system that had little worth taking, let alone no strategic value.

“They’re going to see us coming, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded in agreement, feeling oddly uncertain how to proceed. If Hannalore was telling the truth, if her father could be trusted, they could proceed through the Yellowstone Point to make their way to Tara Prime. And yet, every instinct called for him to go through the Astrid Point instead, shortening the journey down to two transits. Speed was vital, after all, particularly if Admiral Vincent wasn’t as trustworthy as they hoped. But, at the same time, he did know the defenses of Astrid and Maben were strong. Battering them down would cost his fleet dearly.

“And they’re going to have plenty of time to send an alert up the chain,” he agreed. “Are there any starships on duty?”

“A squadron of destroyers, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “There’s nothing else.”

“That you can see,” Roman reminded her, absently. Admiral Vincent could hide a thousand cloaked superdreadnaughts within the vastness of the system and, as long as their crews were careful, there’d be no hope of seeing them until it was too late. “But they’d be wary of making a fight for Marble.”

He scowled as he studied the display. He’d been taught, time and time again, that trying to be clever was a good way to lose the battle. Admiral Vincent, assuming he was untrustworthy, would understand the dangers as well as himself. And if he was trustworthy, there was little to lose by following his suggestions. But then, Roman knew all too well, there was something to be said for trying to be clever, if only because the enemy wouldn’t expect any flexibility. Orthodox naval tactics really consisted of nothing more than finding a target the enemy had to defend and charging at it.

There’s no way to keep the alert from heading up the chain, he thought, grimly. And there are too many loyalists in Astrid and Maben who will try to make a fight of it. Or so we’ve been told.

He cursed, not for the first time, the true nature of a civil war. No one could be relied upon, not even the most loyal and faithful of crewmen. Admiral Vincent’s officers would fight to repel the Outsiders, he was sure, or a marauding alien fleet, but would they fight him? Or would they turn on their superior instead, when he tried to surrender? It was impossible to be sure which way people would jump when push turned to shove.

But if there’s no way to prevent them from sending a message up the chain, he added mentally, we have no choice but to live with it.

“Order the fleet to prepare to head for the Yellowstone Point,” he said. “The defenses of the other points can be left to die on the vine.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded to himself, slowly. Unless the defenders wanted to repeat his trick of pushing their fortresses through the Asimov Point — a trick that had cost him two out of four fortresses with the others heavily damaged by the stresses of transit — they’d be irrelevant to the overall war. There was nothing to be gained by killing thousands of crewmen who couldn’t harm him, no matter how loyal they were to the Emperor. And he would be damned if he allowed himself to turn into a mass murderer on the bloody road to Earth.

“We’ll depart in one hour,” he added. “Until then, continue to monitor the situation.”

He rose and stalked through the hatch, heading down to the guest suite. It was unlikely in the extreme that anything would happen, as the fleet hovered nearly half a light year from the primary star, well outside detection range, but it made sense to be careful. Roman had heard rumors about extreme long-range sensors for years, along with a host of other pieces of technology that had never come into general use. But then, Emperor Marius had once told him that the Grand Senate generally discouraged technological research. They already ruled the galaxy, he’d said. Why take the risk of accidentally inventing something that would completely destroy their power?

But the Outsiders didn’t come up with too many improvements, Roman thought, as he keyed the hatch. There was a low chime, then the hatch hissed open. The long-range missiles were the only real surprise and it didn’t take the Federation more than six months to duplicate them, once we knew it was possible.

“Admiral,” Hannalore Vincent said. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

Roman’s lips twitched. The Federation Navy, for some reason that was probably buried in the files, insisted on guests being given the very best of everything. Hannalore’s suite was huge, large enough for a game of zero-gee soccer. Roman would have killed, when he’d been an ensign, to have such lavish quarters. Or perhaps he would have found them a little disconcerting. During his last year as a cadet, he’d shared quarters with five other cadets and considered himself lucky that he wasn’t sharing a dorm with ten.

“We’re on the outskirts of Astrid now,” he said, choosing to forgo any pleasantries. “Are you ready to depart?”

Hannalore rose, the movement drawing his attention to her curves. “I can leave at any moment,” she said, cheerfully. “Are you proceeding through the Yellowstone Point?”

Roman nodded, silently giving her points for being ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It wasn’t common among aristocrats — or civilians. Maybe Hannalore had earned her rank after all. He’d looked her up, in the files, but they hadn’t been very enlightening. He’d privately concluded that Hannalore had been assigned to her father’s command as soon as she’d graduated, leaving her with no chance to carve out a career of her own.

“We’ll be leaving in an hour,” he said. “I trust that will give you enough time to make it through the Astrid Point?”

“It should, barring disaster,” Hannalore said. “The crews won’t bat an eyelid when I return from my inspection tour.”

Roman studied her for a long moment. He hadn’t met many aristocrats, save for Lady Tiffany and Blake Raistlin — and the latter, of course, had tried to kill Marius Drake. But Hannalore seemed remarkably composed for someone who’d stuck her head in the lion’s jaws. Perhaps she had definitely earned her rank after all.

“Good,” he said. She was her father’s oldest child, after all. She’d be his heir when the old bastard finally died. He had a feeling he’d be dealing with her several times in the future. “I thank you for coming.”

“I dare say my father will be pleased,” Hannalore said. “He’s quite interested in meeting you, Admiral.”

“I’ll try and make time to see him once we have the fleet moving through the Tara Prime system,” Roman said, as he led the way to the hatch. “But right now our concern is getting to Earth as quickly as possible.”

Hannalore followed him through the hatch and down to the airlock, where her courier boat was docked. Roman’s technicians had gone over the tiny craft with a fine-toothed comb, eventually concluding that there were no surprises, save for the fact that Hannalore had flown the craft herself, without assistance. It was an impressive feat, Roman had to admit. The couriers practically flew themselves, but being alone in such a tiny cabin could be terrifying.

He keyed his wristcom as Hannalore stepped through the airlock, which hissed closed behind her. “Bridge, this is the Admiral,” he said. “Prepare to release the courier boat.”

“Aye, sir,” Captain Lancelets said.

Roman waited until the courier boat had separated itself from the fleet, then slowly walked back to the CIC. The die was cast now, he knew; they’d be committed to making their slow way to Tara Prime through a route he knew to be predictable. But then, they’d lose the element of surprise the moment the other defenses within the system reported their arrival and transit through the Asimov Point. He considered, briefly, attacking the system’s defenses after all, but it wouldn’t give them any worthwhile advantage. Admiral Vincent would have New Redeye under observation as well as Maben.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “The courier boat has dropped into FTL.”

“Very good,” Roman said. He glanced at the display, silently calculating the vectors. It shouldn’t take Hannalore more than twenty minutes to reach the system limits, with another four hours to reach the Astrid Point. As long as she didn’t alter course, there shouldn’t be any real risk of accidentally running her down. “And the fleet?”

“All units report ready, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Tyrant’s Test reported an unexpected harmonic in her shield generators, but Captain O’Brian insists that his ship is fit for battle.”

Roman had to smile. No one questioned the bravery and competence of Federation Navy crews, not now that the Justinian War had burned away a great deal of deadwood, but the Outsiders were practically fanatics. But then, their ancestors had been driven away by the Federation, during the Inheritance Wars. They knew, all too well, that Emperor Marius intended to restart surveying and settling the Beyond once he had a few years of peace and quiet to rebuild the Federation. The Outsiders would have to choose between fleeing again, or submitting.

“As long as he’s sure,” he said. The Federation Navy gave a great deal of autonomy to starship captains, but the Outsiders gave more. “But keep an eye on her, just in case. We don’t want to take a superdreadnaught into battle with a faulty shield generator.”

He sat down in his command chair, then leaned forward. “Our course is set?”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Least-time course to the Astrid Point.”

“Then take the fleet into stardrive,” Roman ordered. “And drop us out at the system limits.”

Valiant shuddered, slightly, as her stardrive came online, pushing her into FTL. Roman forced himself to relax, even as the fleet dropped back out of FTL, reminding himself that the odds of being detected and ambushed were incredibly low. Even if Hannalore intended to betray them, she simply wouldn’t have the time to organize an ambush. Or so he hoped...

“No contacts, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Local space is clear.”

“Launch a shell of recon drones,” Roman ordered, as the fleet advanced into the system. “I want to know if a single atom of dust is out of place.”

He leaned back in his chair as the fleet slowly proceeded towards the Asimov Point. There was no attempt to hide — there was no hope of keeping the other Asimov Points from sounding the alert — and so he waited, as patiently as he could, until they slid into weapons range. The Asimov Point was defended by three fortresses and hundreds of mines, but the latter would be more effective against ships coming through from Astrid. He couldn’t help wondering if the defense planner was inexperienced, incompetent, or if there was something else involved. There was, after all, little worth fighting for at Marble.

A civilian might have thought the minefield to be a good idea, he thought, dryly. But an experienced officer would know it was a waste of resources.

“Send a surrender demand,” he ordered. “Inform the fortress crews that they will be treated honorably, if they surrender without a fight.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. There was a long pause. “No response, sir.”

An alarm sounded. “They’re locking weapons on our formation, sir,” she added. “I think they’re preparing to fight.”

“Idiots,” Roman muttered. The fortresses weren’t even the latest model — it certainly didn’t look as though they’d been refitted since the Justinian War — and even if they had been, they couldn’t have done more than delay him. “The Emperor isn’t going to be here to save them.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. She paused. “They may be hoping the minefield will suck up enough of our missiles to give them a fighting chance.”

“Then they’re idiots,” Roman said, firmly. It might have worked, if the fortresses had been mobile units, but no missile heads were going to be diverted when they knew where their targets were. The mines might soak up a few missiles, he figured, yet the remainder would definitely get through. “Signal the fleet. Open fire.”

Valiant shook, violently, as she unleashed a full broadside from her external racks, then her missile tubes. Roman wondered, as the other ships added their own weight to the barrage, if the enemy was trying to convince him to expend his missiles, but he had plenty of time to reload before proceeding through the Asimov Point. And, if there was something in the system big enough to fight him, he had more than enough space to evade it while making his way back to the system limits. It would be embarrassing, but better a retreat than a missile duel with a superior force.

He watched, grimly, as the missiles ploughed through the minefield as if it wasn’t there. As expected, the mines soaked up a handful of missiles, but the remainder kept going. The fortresses returned fire, of course, yet they weren’t shooting at fixed targets. And their missiles were definitely second-rate, dating all the way back to the Justinian War. It didn’t look as though they’d been refitted with the latest ECM, let alone replaced altogether.

Oh, you stupid bastard, Roman thought, wondering just who was in command of the fortresses. What did your men do to deserve having you as their commanding officer?

“Direct hits,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “Fortress One has taken heavy damage, sir; Fortress Two has lost power and is spewing lifepods...”

She paused as an icon vanished from the display. “Fortress One has been destroyed, sir,” she added, correcting herself. “The minefield is still active.”

“Launch minesweeper missiles,” Roman ordered, curtly. “And then dispatch shuttles to pick up the lifepods.”

He paused, considering. “Try to raise Fortress Two, if you can,” he added. “Offer to take their surviving crew off.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, then glanced at the status display. Missiles from the Justinian War had been deadly, once. But advances in defensive technology and point defense rendered them far less dangerous to starships. Hell, merely updating the fire control sensors had stripped the missiles of half their long-range effectiveness. He was surprised no one had seen fit to upgrade the fortresses, although Yellowstone was far less important than Astrid. It was quite possible they’d run into something far more dangerous before they reached Tara Prime.

Although not if Hannalore was telling the truth, he mused. Tara Prime is the chokepoint, after all. They might not choose to waste effort fortifying the side-systems.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “I have been unable to raise anyone on Fortress Two, but the marine shuttles are prepared to try to force a docking.”

Roman hesitated. Common humanity called for an attempt to save lives, despite the risk. If there was anyone still alive on the powerless hulk, they’d die when they ran out of air. But, at the same time, they might try to resist, violently, when his men came to rescue them. Who knew what they were thinking?

But they didn’t do any damage, beyond forcing us to waste our missiles, he thought. We’d have no reason to take revenge.

“Order them to try,” he said, finally. “And launch drones into the Asimov Point as soon as possible. I want a clear picture of everything awaiting us on the far side.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman settled back in his chair, quietly reviewing the contingency plans he’d made over the last week. Maybe Hannalore and her father were telling the truth, maybe everything would be sunshine and roses once they reached Tara Prime, but he dared not take it for granted. It was quite possible that one of their officers would overthrow them, either out of loyalty to the Emperor or a simple desire for promotion. And then all hell would break loose.

“The drones are returning, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “There’s nothing on the far side, beyond a minefield and a number of automated weapons platforms.”

“Odd,” Roman said, out loud. “No covering units?”

“There’re no active starships within the system at all, at least as far as the drones can tell,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “The minefield is just sitting there.”

“Dispatch a handful of assault pods to clear it,” Roman ordered. It was definitely odd. Every tactician knew that minefields were only reliable if covered by mobile units or fortresses, even when guarding an Asimov Point. “And then ready the first assault units to move through the point. I want the entire area swept for hidden surprises.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, grimly. It had been easier, far easier, when he’d known he could expect nothing but brutal resistance. Now... now there was no way to know who was on what side — and who might change sides, given the incentive. Admiral Vincent should have had more than enough time to pack Tara Prime with his loyalists, but what if he’d missed a handful of deep-cover agents?

And if the game was easy, he told himself, as the superdreadnaught inched through the Asimov Point, anyone could play.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

And so began a game of treachery, bluff and counter-bluff.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Tara Prime, 4102

Marius couldn’t keep himself from feeling a flicker of grim anticipation as he watched Admiral Vincent’s shuttle approaching Enterprise. The superdreadnaught, named for the now-defunct supercarrier that had once been the flagship of the Federation Navy, had entered the system through the Asimov Point, followed by sixty-two other superdreadnaughts and over two hundred smaller ships. He had to smirk at the shock the system’s defenders would have felt, when they saw the fleet... and, perhaps, the panic running through Admiral Vincent’s mind. Sixty-three superdreadnaughts were quite enough to lay waste to the system, particularly if the defenders were having a crisis of loyalty.

But at least he came, Marius thought, glancing at Tiffany. She’d been beside him for most of the voyage, providing what comfort and support she could. He doesn’t know that we know.

The thought almost made him laugh out loud. If Admiral Vincent knew what Marius knew, he would have boarded a shuttle and fled through the Maben Point in hopes of linking up with Admiral Garibaldi before it was too late. Not that it would have worked, of course; he’d have fled to the rebels with nothing, save for his own skin. Admiral Garibaldi would probably have interned him, rather than giving him a command. Unless, of course, he’d managed to take his battle squadrons with him.

“Sir,” Commander Lewis said. “The Admiral’s shuttle has landed.”

“Have him escorted to the briefing compartment,” Marius ordered, unable to keep the childlike glee from his voice. He was going to enjoy himself, by God. This time, the damnable traitor would dance to Marius’s tune. “I’ll meet him there soon.”

Normally, he would have been punctual. The Grand Senate’s custom of making someone wait to see you, just because you were more important than your guest, had never failed to annoy him. But this time he waited, knowing it would make Admiral Vincent more unsure of himself. He’d be fretting like a boy sent to see the headmaster, or an ensign facing the captain, before Marius chose to enter the compartment. His uncertainty would make him far easier to control.

He gave it twenty minutes before nodding to Tiffany and leading the way down to the briefing room. A pair of armed marines stood outside, wearing light combat armor and carrying plasma rifles. Marius rather doubted that Admiral Vincent would pose any threat — he was shockingly overweight in a universe where removing excess fat was hardly a problem — but their presence would add to the uncertainty. Admiral Vincent had to be wondering, right now, just what Marius knew, if anything. It was certainly unusual for someone to be summoned to the flagship and then made to wait under armed guard.

The hatch hissed open. Marius pasted a smile on his face as he entered, spying Admiral Vincent sitting at the far end of the table. He’d grown fatter since Marius had last laid eyes on him; Marius couldn’t help comparing Vincent to an overgrown walrus, complete with a moustache that had been fashionable years ago, back during the Blue Star War. His piggish eyes surveyed Marius nervously as he sat down, with Tiffany leaning against the rear bulkhead rather than sitting down herself.

“Your Majesty,” Admiral Vincent said. “Welcome to Tara Prime.”

Marius felt his smile grow sharper. No one called him ‘Your Majesty,’ save for people who were either trying to suck up or were desperately unsure of themselves. “Sir” was quite sufficient; besides, being addressed by any honorific would sound unnatural after nearly a century in naval service. And Admiral Vincent shouldn’t have any need to suck up.

“The rebels are approaching this system,” he said, watching Admiral Vincent closely. He’d be as experienced a dissembler as Marius himself, after years spent serving the Grand Senate, but there were limits. “I brought this fleet to meet them.”

“Very good, Your Majesty,” Admiral Vincent said. Marius could practically see the gears moving in his head. “I’m sure the rebels will be defeated.”

“And so am I,” Marius said. He briefly considered ending the game, then decided to play with Admiral Vincent for a moment longer. “Perhaps you could send a message to the rebels, Admiral. You could invite them into the system, perhaps...”

If he hadn’t been watching the admiral closely, he would have missed the sudden twitch of fear, the sudden horrified realization as everything fell into place, leading to a very simple and inescapable conclusion. Marius knew. And now, Marius could see, Admiral Vincent was trying desperately to think of a way out of the mess. He had no allies on Enterprise and he knew it.

“Oh, cheer up, Theodore,” Marius said, mockingly. “I’m not a bit angry.”

He leaned forward, allowing his teeth to show as the game got darker. “You invited the rebels to enter the system, in exchange for being recognized as king of the sector,” he said, flatly. “It was a brilliant move, no doubt, to lure them into missile range.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Admiral Vincent stammered. “I... I... wanted them to be lured into a false sense of security...”

“And you have succeeded brilliantly,” Marius said, lightly. “My, you even fooled me. Of course, I suppose, allowing the rebels to actually enter the system in battle array could easily have gone wrong. The rebels might have been trapped, but they could fight their way out or carry forward against Tara Prime itself. Still, I dare say seven additional battle squadrons will tip the balance in our favor.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Admiral Vincent said. “The rebels will be trapped, unable to advance or retreat.”

Marius allowed himself a moment to savor the dawning hope in Admiral Vincent’s eyes, then crushed it as sharply as he could. “Indeed, I was fooled so badly that I actually took your children out of school and brought them with me,” he added. “I do trust you’re not going to do anything foolish?”

Admiral Vincent stared at him. “My children...?”

“Oh, come now,” Marius said. “It was really very foolish of you to leave hostages in my grasp while you plotted against me. Did you send a message requesting their return to Tara Prime? Or are you so callous that you’re prepared to write off your four youngest children?”

Marius leaned back in his chair. “This is what you are going to do,” he said. “You’re going to keep in touch with the rebels and do everything you can to lure them into the system. You can even tell them that you’ll add your superdreadnaughts to theirs and accompany them to Earth, if you wish. And once they’re in the system, you are going to slam the door shut behind them while the battle squadrons move into position to attack.”

“Your Majesty...”

Marius ignored him. “If you cooperate, Admiral, you and your family can move to Paradise and remain there for the rest of your life,” he said. It was a lie. He didn’t really care about the children — let them go to an out-world, if they wished — but Admiral Vincent would suffer for trying to betray him. “If you refuse to cooperative... well, I imagine you can guess what will happen to your children.”

Admiral Vincent blanched. He knew, as well as Marius himself, just what the Grand Senate had done to Admiral Justinian’s relatives. And the relatives of the other warlords had been treated in the same way. There were limits to what Marius was prepared to condone, at least to innocent children, but there was no way for Admiral Vincent to know that. His imagination would fill in the blanks more effectively than any number of threats.

“You’ll go back to your ship now,” Marius said. “And you will do everything in your power to lure the rebels into this system.”

He paused. “Do bear in mind,” he added, “that your children are aboard this ship. If anything happens to Enterprise...

“Please send them back to Earth,” Admiral Vincent said. “I will cooperate...”

“I think not,” Marius said. “I want them within easy reach.”

He met Admiral Vincent’s eyes. “There will be no further betrayals, Admiral,” he said, sternly. “Fuck this up, and your children will pay the price.”

Admiral Vincent wilted. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. “I will do as you say.”

* * *

Tiffany trailed behind the two men as Marius led Admiral Vincent to the brig and allowed him, briefly, to speak to his children. Any doubts Admiral Vincent might have had about Marius’s willingness to carry out his threats were dispelled by the presence of a pair of Blackshirts eying the teenagers with open interest. Tiffany knew Marius had placed them there to convey the right impression, but it was still horrifying. If everything went as Marius had planned, the rebels would be lured right into a trap and butchered.

She watched as Admiral Vincent was escorted back to his shuttle, then returned to her quarters as Marius headed to the tactical section. Operative Oslo had scanned the compartment and assured her that there were no bugs, although he’d warned her that nothing could be taken for granted. But then, who would dare to spy on the Emperor and his wife? It was hard to imagine anyone, even General Thorne, having the nerve. She poured herself a cup of coffee — naval coffee tasted foul — and tapped her console. Minutes later, she was joined by Ginny Lewis and Oslo.

“I don’t have long,” Ginny said. She sounded nervous. Tiffany had sounded her out, as carefully as possible, during the long voyage, but the thought of betraying the Emperor scared her. “I’ll be expected back in the tactical compartment in less than an hour.”

Tiffany nodded. “How much time do we have?”

“The last update stated that the rebels had moved into the Yellowstone system,” Ginny said. “Assuming they don’t get slowed down by the defenses at New Redeye, they’ll be here in approximately three days. Admiral Vincent, it seems, was making a sincere offer to them.”

Oslo frowned. “How do you know?”

“The defenses at the Maben Point are considerably stronger than anywhere else in the system,” Ginny said. “They’d be much more effective in trapping the rebels than the defenses at the New Redeye Point.”

“I see,” Tiffany said. She looked at Oslo. “Can we get the children off the ship?”

“I believe so,” Oslo said. “But it will be chancy. The slightest advance warning, My Lady, and the marines would swarm us. And then there’s the risk of being blown out of space once we steal the courier boat.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Ginny said. “I can work a macro into the point defense datanet that will keep it from targeting the courier boat. But that won’t last long. Once they realize the problem, they’ll either set up the firing solution manually or order one of the other starships to take the boat out.”

Tiffany scowled. “You can’t order the datanet not to see the courier boat?”

“I’d need to reprogram far too many critical systems,” Ginny said. “And even if I did, the discrepancies would be noted. The datanet is designed to combine the viewpoints of hundreds of ships. They’d just assume the flagship couldn’t see the courier boat for some reason and target it anyway.”

“But if the datanet is linked together,” Tiffany mused, “couldn’t you block the courier boat out completely?”

“Not now, My Lady,” Ginny said. “It might have been possible before the Battle of Earth, but computer security was tightened sharply after Admiral Justinian exploited our weaknesses. The firewalls would notice if I tried to reprogram another ship remotely and sound the alarm. At that point...”

“They’d start trying to find out what was going on,” Tiffany finished. She nodded, slowly. “As long as you can give us a chance to break free, Ginny, it will be enough.”

Ginny nodded, looking pale. She’d said she thought she could remain undetected — with a little effort, the blame could be placed on a glitch rather than deliberate malice — but Tiffany didn’t envy her. Somehow, whatever Marius felt for Ginny, she doubted it would save her life if he knew she’d betrayed him. Or Tiffany herself, for that matter. If Marius was prepared to threaten the lives of innocent children to make their father do as he was told, she doubted he’d hesitate to kill her.

“We’d need to trigger the security alert too,” Oslo added. “It would slow the marines down, particularly as they wouldn’t know just what we were doing.”

“I can set up an override, if necessary,” Ginny agreed. “But the real danger lies in breaking the children out of prison. What if they don’t come with you?”

“Then we stun the brats and carry them,” Oslo said. He looked at Tiffany. “You will be coming with us, won’t you?”

“Yes,” Tiffany said, flatly. Marius wouldn’t have any trouble realizing that her bodyguards had carried out the operation. He’d know she was the one who’d given them their orders. No one else could have commanded Oslo to take such a risk. “I’ll be right behind you.”

She took a long breath. “You don’t want to try to move earlier?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Oslo said. “Courier boats are fast, My Lady, but we’d be lucky to get out of weapons range before someone puts the pieces together and opens fire.”

“And Admiral Vincent will be in no position to switch sides for real,” Ginny added. “The Emperor has a contingency plan to assume control of the system himself, if Admiral Vincent proves uncooperative. He might well succeed in beating Admiral Vincent, taking the system’s defenses and still beating the rebels. The only hope for victory lies with convincing Admiral Vincent to switch sides... and the only time he can do that effectively is when the rebels arrive.”

“Understood,” Tiffany said. “Are we ready to move on a moment’s notice?”

“Just about, My Lady,” Oslo said. “We should have some warning, shouldn’t we?”

“Yeah,” Ginny said. “But just how much is an open question.”

“I’ll speak to the girl,” Tiffany said. “Can you safeguard the interview compartment?”

“Not for long,” Ginny said. “I suggest you speak quickly.”

* * *

The suite was a prison cell in all but name.

Talia Vincent sat on her bed, trying not to think about what had happened to her and her younger siblings — and what would happen to them, if their father refused to cooperate. The black-clad guards who kept an eye on them hadn’t bothered to lie, when she’d asked; they’d made it clear that the best Admiral Vincent’s family could expect, if all hell broke loose, was involuntary transportation to a stage-one penal world where no one knew who their father had been.

And that was the best option. Talia didn’t want to think about the worst.

She looked up as the hatch hissed open, revealing two black-clad men. The guards always came in pairs, she’d noted, as if they were scared the children would somehow overpower a single guard and break free. Not that there was anywhere they could go, Talia was sure, even if they did. She knew nothing about superdreadnaughts, beyond the simple fact they were on one. Her brothers might talk of stealing a shuttlecraft and escaping back to their father, but none of them knew how to find the shuttlebay, let alone fly a shuttle.

“Talia,” one of the men grunted. None of them had bothered to share their names. “Come here, now.”

Talia sighed, rose to her feet and stalked over to the guards with all the dignity she could muster, despite the prison outfit she’d been given to wear. The guards looked her up and down, cuffed her hands behind her back and half-dragged her through the door. Talia rather doubted they thought she was a serious threat; instead, she suspected they cuffed her just to make it clear they were in charge. She held herself together, somehow, as they marched her through a pair of doors and into a small briefing room. The Emperor’s wife was waiting for them.

“Leave us,” she ordered, once the guards had plunked Talia down in a metal chair and snapped a cuff around her ankle. Talia found it hard not to smile bitterly. Escape, already impossible, was now even more impossible. “I’ll call you when I need you.”

Talia frowned as the guards retreated, closing the hatch behind them. The Emperor’s wife — Tiffany — had spoken to her a few times, but their conversations had been largely pointless. There was nothing she could do, it seemed, to make their stay more comfortable. Talia wasn’t even sure why the older woman bothered, unless it was through guilt or simple boredom. The hostages — the guards hadn’t bothered to hide what their status now was — were powerless.

“Listen closely, as I can’t stay long,” Tiffany said, intensely. “Soon, perhaps within two days, there will be a chance to break you and your siblings free and get you off the ship. When that happens... we need you to be ready to leave.”

Talia stared at her. “Really?”

Her mind raced. Was it a trap? But really, why bother? It wasn’t as if there was anything to be gained by manipulating her siblings into incriminating themselves. Their only value lay in who had fathered them, not in themselves...

“Yes, really,” Tiffany said. “There may be no time to warn you, either. Make sure your siblings are ready to go, but don’t say anything out loud. You’re being watched.”

Talia flinched. “Even in the bath?”

“Yes,” Tiffany said. “We can only talk here because my men have buggered the observation routines.”

She rose. “Be ready, but be careful,” she added. “One false move, and we’re all dead.”

Talia swallowed. How the hell was she meant to warn her siblings, without having one of them say something that would ruin the whole plan? But she didn’t have a choice...

“I understand,” she said. If nothing else, at least they had a chance. “Thank you.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The core problem with trying to be clever, as naval cadets have been taught since time out of mind, is that an unimaginative enemy tends to be better prepared than one gambling everything on a cunning plan. One doesn’t have to look any further than Admiral Baldric’s defeat at the Battle of New Wellington to grasp the principle that trying to be clever can sometimes be really stupid.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

New Redeye/Tara Prime, 4102

“You’ve been rather quiet, recently.”

Uzi groaned, inwardly. If there was one thing he’d noted about women, particularly after he’d been sleeping with them for a few weeks, it was that they wanted to talk about everything. Their problems, his problems, someone else’s problems... it never seemed to occur to them that there were times when all a man wanted was sex and sleep, perhaps not in that order. Honestly, how could someone who’d reached the rank of lieutenant in the Outsider Navy — where there was almost no nepotism to speak of — be so stupid?

“It’s just the new responsibilities,” he lied, as he rolled over. Cleo Pearlman should have been more understanding, now she’d been assigned to Valiant as one of the embedded tactical analysts. “I feel a little out of place.”

“You’re doing fine,” Cleo assured him. “The Senator hasn’t kicked you back to the infantry, has she?”

Uzi shook his head, crossly. In some ways, being sent back to the infantry would be a blessing. He’d done what he could to change his appearance, without making it obvious, but there was still a very good chance of being recognized by Admiral Garibaldi or his marine lover. The bitch had sparred with him, once or twice, back when they’d been on Midway; she might recall his face. Indeed, if he hadn’t been so keen to stay on the flagship, where there was a chance to do some real damage, he would have pulled strings and convinced General Stuart that a mercenary made a very poor bodyguard.

It’s not like the Mercenary’s Code is still in operation, he thought, mischievously. And if it was, who’s going to enforce it?

“Besides, you’re on a starship,” Cleo added. “What sort of threats does she face?”

“Incoming missiles,” Uzi said. He could have told tales about disloyal starship crews that would have turned Cleo’s hair white, but there was no point in giving her ideas. “And enemy starfighters.”

“Neither of which you can do anything about,” Cleo pointed out, seriously. “Why not just relax and enjoy yourself?”

“Because I feel I need to be doing something,” Uzi said, after a moment. It wasn’t entirely true, but it was part of his established personality. He’d worked hard to make it clear that he would keep working hard, that he needed to keep doing something all the time. “Just lying around doing nothing drives me insane.”

“You’re not doing nothing,” Cleo pointed out. She traced a line down from between her breasts to her legs. “You just made me very happy.”

“Glad to hear it,” Uzi said, stiffly.

“Tell me,” Cleo said. She rolled over and climbed on top of him, her bare breasts dangling over his face. “What do you want to do after the war?”

Uzi groaned inwardly, again. He felt nothing for her. How could he? His life amongst the Outsiders was a sham, a tissue of lies built to cover his presence as he waited for the chance to strike. He could kill her, as easily as one might step on an ant, without feeling the slightest shred of remorse. The idea that they might have a future together, after the shooting was done, was absurd. Even if the Federation died, he knew he’d never be able to settle down and relax.

“I don’t know,” he said. It was honest enough; besides, he knew the danger of telling too many lies. “I like to fight, you see. I was kicked out of the service for fighting.”

Cleo snickered. “And to think they paid you to fight.”

“They did,” Uzi confirmed. The cover story had held up to whatever scrutiny the Outsiders had focused on it, thankfully. He’d be dead if they had the slightest reason to suspect his true nature. “They just thought I wasn’t fighting the right people.”

He smiled, allowing her to see his teeth. His record, a carefully-crafted mixture of truth and lies, made it clear he’d been kicked out for picking fights with other service personnel. It was true enough, after all; it just didn’t mention that he’d been recruited by ONI, which had falsified the dismissal to ensure no one questioned why he’d become a mercenary.

“I’d probably go back to the Rim and find someone else to work for,” he added. It was what he’d done, after all, although in reality he’d taken control of resistance movements so they could be wiped out by the Federation Navy. “There are never any shortage of wars along the Rim.”

Cleo raised her eyebrows. “You don’t want to settle down?”

“I’d get bored,” Uzi said. “There’s nothing to do along the Rim, but farm, fuck, and raise a dozen children. I just don’t have the patience to settle down and have a family.”

He watched her, wondering absently just what she’d do. Slap him? Run off in tears? Or merely remind herself that neither of them had any guarantees of surviving the coming months? Whatever happened at Tara Prime wouldn’t put an end to the war. Even if Admiral Garibaldi and Admiral Vincent completed their betrayal of the Emperor, the fighting would go on until Earth lay in ruins.

“You might think better of it, after you’ve had your fill of killing,” Cleo said. “What do you fight for?”

Uzi pushed her off him, then rolled over and straddled her. “I’m a mercenary,” he said, smiling down at her. “I don’t fight for anything, but money and the thrill.”

He kissed her, feeling a flicker of amusement as she tried to regain control by pulling him closer. It was a diversion, after all, and one he needed. Losing control now, so close to his targets, would be a dangerous mistake. And he might well have said too much. Cleo might think she could change him, or she might find his mercenary status exciting... or she might start to wonder, deep inside, if he’d change sides on a whim.

Never get too involved, he reminded himself, as he spent himself inside her. It makes it harder to do the job.

Afterwards, he lay beside her, thinking hard. He hadn’t expected a reply from ONI, not given the way he’d sent them the encrypted datachips, but it was frustrating. There was no way to know what was happening on the other side of the Asimov Point. No one had tried to fight the fleet, either, as it passed through Yellowstone and Folkestone. Uzi couldn’t decide if Admiral Vincent had succeeded in his betrayal, which would be bad enough, or if the Emperor was setting a trap. There might just be enough time for the Emperor to do something about the treacherous bastard before it was too late.

And if it isn’t enough, I may have to do something on my own, he thought. And that will mean the end of my time here.

* * *

“No opposition,” Roman said. “The system appears to be undefended.”

He scowled, inwardly. A plan that worked well was one thing, but a plan that worked perfectly was suspicious. The defenses of Yellowstone had been wiped out within seconds, the pair of outdated fortresses covering the Folkestone Point had surrendered, without even trying to launch drones or send a message further up the chain to Tara Prime. And now the New Redeye system had surrendered the moment his fleet took possession of the Asimov Point.

“The records did say there were no defenses on this side of the Tara Prime Point,” General Stuart pointed out. “Were you expecting that to change?”

Roman frowned. New Redeye wasn’t Ruthven, let alone Tara Prime, but she did have a population of over two billion humans. Given the Outsider threat, reinforcing the defenses would have made a great deal of sense. But then, New Redeye might also have ideas about autonomy that Tara Prime wouldn’t want to encourage. How long had Admiral Vincent been planning his bid for independence?

“It just bugs me,” he said. He glanced up at the display. The fleet was advancing slowly towards the Tara Prime Point, where it would make the jump into Tara Prime itself. “It’s going too well.”

“The Admiral is meant to be clearing your way,” General Stuart said. “And who in their right mind would put up a fight with outdated fortresses?”

“The defenders of Marble,” Elf said. “Rock can beat laser, in the right situation.”

“True,” Roman agreed.

He scowled up at the display. There was nothing, as far as they could tell, barring their path to Tara Prime. And there had been nothing in either of the two preceding systems. It was possible, he supposed, that someone could race from Tara Prime to Marble, then follow them back through Folkestone to take them in the rear, but it would be a plan that relied on too much going perfectly. None of the other options he’d considered were any more workable, even when he’d discounted the normal limitations.

If there’s a trap, it’s waiting for us in Tara Prime, he thought. And if there isn’t a trap, we’re being paranoid.

“Detach two squadrons of battlecruisers with orders to probe the Asimov Point,” he ordered, carefully. “Once they report back, we’ll move the remainder of the fleet closer, secure the point, and then advance through as planned.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“And then, once we have secured the point, I want to leave the battlecruisers behind, along with a stockpile of assault pods,” Roman added. “It’s time to make sure we can take a few precautions.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, slowly. Maybe he was being paranoid, but even paranoids had enemies. If it was a trap, he promised himself silently, he’d make sure that Admiral Vincent would regret it. But then, what did Admiral Vincent gain? Emperor Marius would never condone the autonomy of an entire sector, certainly not one in such an important position. Albion had never been particularly important to the Grand Senate.

And are you reasoning like this, he asked himself, because you want to believe you can secure Tara Prime without fighting... or because you don’t want to believe you’re being lured into a trap?

“I want you on your superdreadnaught at least an hour before we reach the Asimov Point,” he said, addressing General Stuart. “You may need to take command if something goes wrong.”

“Aye, sir,” General Stuart said.

Roman looked at Chang Li, then shrugged inwardly. She’d flatly refused his suggestion that she should remain behind at Ruthven, despite the prospects for luring the planet into joining the Outsider Federation. Roman had to admit she had nerve, for a politician. Emperor Marius had commanded one half of the two-pronged attack on Nova Athena, but Marius Drake was an experienced naval officer. Chang Li, as far as Roman knew, had no real experience of combat, at least outside debates in the Grand Senate.

“I would advise you to remain at the rear,” he said, “but I don’t think you’d listen.”

“My being on your ship is a gesture of trust, Admiral,” Chang Li replied. “For you — and for Admiral Vincent. There’s no greater way to lose a man’s faith in you than to prove you don’t trust him.”

“Right now, I don’t,” Roman said, simply. “The Federation Navy is no longer a united force — we prove that, even if Admiral Vincent doesn’t. And I don’t know which way he’ll jump.”

* * *

“The drones confirm it, sir,” Lieutenant Lewis said. “The rebel fleet is within an hour of the Asimov Point.”

Marius allowed himself a moment of amusement. Whatever else could be said about the treacherous asshole, Admiral Vincent had done an admirable job at making sure the defenders of Astrid and Maben didn’t have to decide where their loyalties lay. Instead, they’d have no choice, but to accept the fait accompli once the rebel fleet was solidly in control of Tara Prime. Astrid and Maben weren’t exactly stage-one colonies, yet they couldn’t hope to supply the defenders with everything they needed to keep blocking the way to Marble... if, of course, the rebels didn’t simply keep outflanking them.

You must have been planning this for a while, he thought, looking at the icon of Admiral Vincent’s superdreadnaught. He’d behave, Marius was sure, as long as his children were alive and well. And yet, you didn’t have the intelligence to realize that someone might outflank you.

“Very well,” he said, dryly. “Inform Admiral Vincent that he may send the welcoming committee through the Asimov Point.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Lewis said.

Marius allowed his smile to grow wider. Admiral Justinian had pioneered the technique for using StarComs to coordinate fleets across interplanetary distances, but Marius and Roman Garibaldi had both copied the idea. Marius had even expanded it by putting StarComs into freighters, despite the attendant risks. They were nowhere near an effective FTL communications method, but they did allow him to coordinate his forces with far greater efficiency than Roman Garibaldi could hope to match.

And a good thing too, he thought. Admiral Stockholm is loyal enough, but his competence is somewhat questionable.

It was a bitter thought. Hadn’t there been a time when he’d put competence over loyalty, skill over connections? But he’d been betrayed too often by those he’d trusted. Roman Garibaldi had betrayed him, Admiral Vincent had betrayed him... his eyes slid back to the Admiral’s icon as cold hatred flowed through his heart. There was no real hope of getting his hands on Roman Garibaldi — the young man was too skilled to allow his ship to be boarded — but Admiral Vincent would never have a chance to escape. Marius would see to it that his suffering was prolonged indefinitely.

And his children will not have a fun time on a stage-one colony, he reminded himself. He’d thought to kill them, just to make their father suffer, but Tiffany had argued for mercy and it had pleased him to grant it. Besides, they knew nothing of value in the real world. Life as a farmer, if they were lucky enough to be assigned to a farm, would be an endless series of unpleasant learning experiences. No one will ever draw the connection between them and their father.

“The courier boat has jumped through the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Lewis reported. “The messenger is on his way.”

Marius nodded, curtly. He’d ordered Admiral Vincent to send his eldest daughter — again — but the bastard had argued that Hannalore knew too much, that she might reveal something to Admiral Garibaldi. Marius had been tempted to repeat his order — Hannalore would be sure to behave herself if her younger siblings were at risk — yet too much was at stake for his amusement. A junior officer, one unaware of the threat to the Admiral’s family, could carry the can.

And Hannalore will not survive the final battle, Marius told himself. She’s just too dangerous to keep alive.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He’d read the young officer’s transcripts from the academy, studying them with ninety years of experience in reading between the lines. Hannalore had been praised in glowing terms, of course, but there was enough solid evidence to make it clear she was a competent officer who’d graduated reasonably well. She might have made a very good officer, he considered, if her father hadn’t directed her life and career for his own purposes. As it was, she’d missed the seasoning she desperately needed. A skilled mentor would have made much of her, given time.

“The courier boat has returned, sir,” Lieutenant Lewis said, as more data appeared on the display. “The rebels are closing in on the Asimov Point.”

“Very good,” Marius said. He’d thought about mounting a defense of the Asimov Point itself, but Roman Garibaldi wasn’t hot-headed enough to refuse to back off when it was clear he was losing the battle. “And now... we wait.”

* * *

“A courier boat just transited the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “It’s transmitting a message.”

“Put it through,” Roman ordered.

He frowned as an image of Admiral Vincent appeared on the display. “Admiral Garibaldi, welcome to Tara Prime,” the recorded message said. Hannalore, it seemed, had not been returned to the fleet. “As per your requests, the defenses of the New Redeye Asimov Point have been placed in lockdown. Known loyalists have been rounded up and are currently being held under guard. I look forward to meeting you in person once you enter the system.”

Roman frowned. “Lieutenant,” he said, “do the drones confirm the message?”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the readings. “The fortresses appear to have been largely depowered.”

And now, we decide if we want to jump, Roman thought. The defenses of the New Redeye Point were puny, compared to the fortresses covering the Maben Point, but they were nothing to take lightly. And find out if we’re about to be greeted by the lady — or the tiger.

He sucked in his breath. “Inform the fleet that we’ll proceed with Plan Alpha,” he said. The formation would bring his heavy ships through first, just in case the defenses weren’t quite as defenseless as they seemed, but give him enough flexibility to break off if he ran into something he couldn’t handle. “It’s time to go into the fire.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. Her hands danced over the console, sending orders through the datanet. “Transition in ten minutes.”

Roman braced himself. One way or another, the uncertainty would all be over soon.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Perversely, the idea of using StarComs to improve tactical flexibility came too late to prove a decisive advantage. All it did was prove that the Federation, even in the latter stages of its decline and fall, could still innovate.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Tara Prime, 4102

Commander Ginny Lewis had never been so scared in her life.

She’d expected to spend a couple of years in the tactical section as she continued her steady climb to a captaincy of her own. Junior officers were supposed to know all they could about their ships, even if those on the command track rarely learned more than the basics of each department. Being assigned to work as the Emperor’s personal tactical aide should have been a badge of honor, a guaranteed jump up the promotions ladder.

Instead, it was like working next to a dangerous animal. There was no way to know when the animal would turn and bite you.

Ginny was no innocent. She knew that corruption had been rampant through the Federation Navy, and that officers like the late unlamented Admiral Stevenson had been fond of forcing junior officers into bed. The Emperor had put a stop to that, simply by making examples of a few of the worst offenders, but she would almost have preferred to be sexually harassed, rather than work with an increasingly maddened Emperor. One word out of place, she suspected, and it would be the end of her. The Emperor’s guards would be more than happy to put her out the airlock — or worse.

She flinched, inwardly, as the first enemy ship appeared on the display. The giant superdreadnaught lumbered out of the Asimov Point, its shields raised and its weapons at the ready. It looked as though the rebels were being careful; they might have forsaken the standard tactic of sending smaller and expendable units through the point first, but their ships weren’t lowering their guard. Another superdreadnaught appeared, followed rapidly by two more. They were transiting as fast as they could without running the risk of accidentally interpenetrating one another. Federation Navy officers would have hesitated to run such a risk unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Sir,” she said, “five rebel superdreadnaughts have made transit. They’re moving away from the point.”

“They wouldn’t want to stay near the fortresses,” the Emperor said. He sounded almost rational, surprisingly. “Can you get an ID on those superdreadnaughts?”

“Recon platforms class them as Outsider-Ones,” Ginny said, after a moment. “There’s no way to know what the Outsiders call them.”

“Something witty or defiant, no doubt,” the Emperor mused. Four more superdreadnaughts flickered into existence, then glided through the silent defenses to rendezvous with their companions. “See if you can identify Valiant when she makes her appearance.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

She rather doubted it would be possible, thankfully. The Emperor might have noticed if she’d found the ship, then lied. Roman Garibaldi might not switch his flag to another ship, but he’d certainly be smart enough to ensure his flagship couldn’t be picked out easily. He knew, just like every other cadet to pass through the academy, that having the flagship be the first starship blown out of space almost certainly guaranteed losing the battle.

“Five enemy battle squadrons have emerged, sir,” she said. Three of them were definitely composed of Federation Navy superdreadnaughts. “They’re sending through flanking units now.”

“Let them have time to build up their fleet,” the Emperor ordered. “We want them on this side of the point.”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said.

She sucked in her breath. Standard tactics called for holding the Asimov Point, by fighting to the death if necessary. It was the one place where the defenders would have a colossal advantage, where the enemy would need to spend assault pods and starships like water to punch through into the target system. Just letting the enemy slip through one’s defenses was the sort of tactic that would have earned an automatic fail at the academy, with the instructors pointing out that it nullified most of the advantages the defenders would have enjoyed. And yet, she could see the awful logic of the Emperor’s plan. Roman Garibaldi’s ships would be caught in a trap, unable to advance and unable to retreat. Even if he darted towards the system limits, he wouldn’t be able to evade the thousands of starfighters and gunboats under the Emperor’s command.

And it might just work, she thought. She cast her mind about for anything she could do, but there was nothing. Even if the Emperor were to suffer another attack of... whatever, his second would take over the battle. The rebels will certainly be a great deal more careful about accepting more turncoats.

The steady stream of smaller ships was replaced, suddenly, by yet another set of superdreadnaughts. Ginny closed her eyes for a long second, then opened them to see two more battle squadrons making their way to join the enemy fleet. A handful of carriers accompanied them, already launching starfighters to prowl the surrounding region of space for potential traps. It was unlikely that they’d pick up the jaws of the trap before they slammed closed. And even if they did, they’d be pushed into a close engagement with the fortresses while the two loyalist formations closed on the point.

It will be the sort of battle that never occurs outside simulations, she thought. Her tutors had told her, more than once, that real-life engagements tended to be messy. The one where the enemy manages to trap himself.

“I think that’s the last of them, sir,” she said, as the stream of red icons finally came to a halt. “They’re launching probes...”

“They shouldn’t be able to see us,” the Emperor grunted. He smiled as she looked up at him, sitting in his chair and admiring the display. His expression boded ill for any rebels unlucky enough to be taken alive. “Inform Admiral Vincent that he may send the welcoming signal.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

She had no real love for Admiral Vincent — the man gloried in his appetites, waddling around like a beached whale — but she couldn’t help feeling a flicker of sympathy. His children were hostages, after all; Ginny had no doubt the Emperor would have them killed if their father refused to cooperate. Treacherous asshole Admiral Vincent might well be — she suspected he would have turned on the rebels too, if it had proven expedient — but no one deserved to watch helplessly as his children were turned into pawns.

But they would already have been their father’s pawns, Ginny thought. She liked and respected Lady Tiffany, yet her life had been that of a pawn. It must sting to realize that she’d sided with her husband over her family, only to have her husband turn into a madman. Ginny had enjoyed more freedom than she, even as a junior officer or cadet. This time, they’re someone else’s pawns.

She shook her head as she studied the display. “They’re shaking down into a standard formation,” she reported. “It doesn’t look as though they’re planning to fight.”

“They’ll have been drilled into switching into an offensive or defensive posture if necessary,” the Emperor said. He sounded oddly wistful. “Roman Garibaldi, whatever his faults, is a firm believer in regular drills. I taught him that.”

Ginny felt an unexpected stab of sympathy. In so many ways, Marius Drake had been good for the Federation Navy... and not just because he’d had Admiral Stevenson summarily shot for abusing his subordinates. Getting rid of the remaining deadwood, of officers who had been promoted because of their connections rather than their ability... if he’d had more time to make reforms, the entire navy might have been saved.

But instead, the Outsiders had struck and the Emperor had started to go mad. He had to be removed.

“Yes sir,” she said, instead. She swallowed hard to get rid of the lump in her throat. “Time to engagement point, thirty-seven minutes at current speed.”

“Bring the fleet to battlestations in twenty minutes,” the Emperor ordered. “And inform Admiral Stockholm that he may start moving his ships into position.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

She couldn’t help feeling impressed. Timing was everything, particularly when the rebels needed to be caught in a position that forced them to choose between doubling back or making a run for the system limits. And there were so many things that could go wrong. If the rebels saw the looming trap before the jaws snapped shut...

They’d still find it hard to avoid engagement, she thought, grimly. The starfighters would catch them if they tried to run.

“And keep a weapons lock on Admiral Vincent,” the Emperor added. “We don’t want him having a sudden change of heart.”

* * *

Roman couldn’t help feeling nervous as Valiant slipped past the brooding fortresses and made her way into the system. There was something oddly unnatural about not clearing the way first, about merely being allowed to move through the defenses without being molested. He’d flown past dozens of fortresses, of course, when they’d been on the same side, but these fortresses were nominally held by the enemy. And yet, it looked as though Admiral Vincent had kept his promise. The fortresses were almost completely powered down.

“System scan,” he ordered. “What do you see?”

“The system’s in lockdown, I think,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “There’s a small fleet gathered at the pre-planned location, sir, but otherwise the system is unnaturally quiet. Even the asteroid miners appear to have been told to go dark.”

Roman nodded, curtly. Tara Prime had been industrialized for centuries, ever since the Inheritance War had opened up a whole new region of space for exploration. And the settlers, being based in a system with no less than five Asimov Points, had escaped the worst of the abuse that had made so many systems along the Rim throw their lot in with the Outsiders. Admiral Vincent, it seemed, had done a remarkable job of building up the system’s industry, although it had yet to match Admiral Justinian’s work.

Or the Outsiders, for that matter, Roman thought. But then, Admiral Vincent had good reason to worry about attracting attention.

“Keep us on course towards the RV point,” he ordered. Lieutenant Thompson was right. It was unnaturally quiet. But then, a single message escaping the system would alert the Emperor before the joint fleet reached Howarth, let alone AlphaCent. “And continue to deploy recon platforms and drones.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman settled back into his command chair, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling in his gut. It looked as though the plan was working perfectly. Too perfectly. And that bothered him... although, for all he knew, there were riots underway on Tara Prime. Or perhaps not; the locals shouldn’t have the slightest idea of what was going on outside their atmosphere, at least until Admiral Vincent made some kind of announcement. Absently, Roman wondered what the locals would think when their admiral told them he was now their king. If they knew what had almost happened to Nova Athena...

They’d worry about getting scorched themselves, he thought. Marius Drake had broken the taboo against indiscriminate planetary strikes, at least against human targets. It wasn’t that hard to imagine him doing the same to Tara Prime. Or merely losing contact with the industrial base near the Core Worlds.

“Picking up a compressed signal,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Put it on the display,” Roman ordered.

He leaned forward as Admiral Vincent’s face appeared in front of him. “Admiral Garibaldi, welcome to Tara Prime,” Admiral Vincent said. “I suggest we proceed jointly to the Macaque Point and secure it, then meet for dinner and future discussions.”

Roman frowned. It sounded reasonable enough, yet something was nagging at the back of his mind. Something important, something he’d missed...

Hannalore said he’d announce the system’s change in loyalties once the fleet arrived, he thought, as it dawned on him. And yet he hasn’t done anything of the sort...

“Launch another spread of recon probes,” he ordered. “And record a message.”

“Recording,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Admiral Vincent, thank you for your welcome,” Roman said. “I look forward to hearing your message to your people.”

He keyed his console. “Send it.”

“Sent,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

* * *

No battle plan, at least in Marius’s experience, had ever survived even the slightest contact with the enemy. War was a democracy, after all, and the enemy got a vote. But even so, he was pleasantly surprised by just how well the plan had gone. He would have made certain to have Admiral Vincent helpless before committing himself to entering the system.

Politics, he thought, as a new message blinked up on the display. Roman cannot afford to bully someone he desperately needs.

“Sir,” Ginny said. “There is a new message from Admiral Garibaldi, addressed to Admiral Vincent.”

“Play it,” Marius ordered.

He smiled, coldly, as he listened to the message. He’d specifically ordered Admiral Vincent not to broadcast anything to the population, if only to keep them quiet while their fate was decided in combat. But, naturally, the admiral’s reluctance to inform his people of the change in management had aroused Garibaldi’s suspicions. Marius would have been annoyed, and frustrated, if he hadn’t anticipated something more spectacular going wrong.

“No response,” he ordered. “Time to engagement point?”

“Seven minutes to optimal engagement range,” Ginny said. “Admiral Stockholm is advancing forward now.”

Marius allowed his smile to grow wider. Garibaldi was suspicious, but was he suspicious enough to try to break out of the trap? Marius had a healthy respect for his young protégé — Garibaldi would act decisively, if confronted by a real threat — yet he’d be torn between taking steps to save his command and overreacting to a non-existent danger. Doubt and indecision would work their will on his mind.

Which way would he jump? Or would he hesitate long enough for the jaws to spring closed?

“Inform the fleet,” he ordered. “Prepare to launch starfighters and engage the enemy.”

* * *

“There was no response?”

“None, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “If he’d replied at once, it would have reached us two minutes ago.”

Roman bit his lip, thinking hard. Admiral Vincent might have a perfectly good reason not to announce his kingship before the two fleets united. For all he knew, there were enough spies and informers on the planet and its defenses to make issuing any such claim a dangerous move. And yet, it looked very much as though something wasn’t quite right...

... But all he had to go on were his instincts. There was nothing he could point to, nothing he could say justified an immediate retreat. It was hard to know what to do.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “One of the recon platforms is picking up turbulence. Computer analysis says it’s a cloaking system.”

Roman swore. “Where?”

“Behind us, past the Asimov Point,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “But moving towards our rear.”

“Shit,” Roman said, as new icons appeared on the display. “Can you get an ID?”

His blood seemed to turn to ice. There was no legitimate reason for Admiral Vincent’s ships to be sneaking around behind him, particularly when everyone was feeling jumpy. And besides, Admiral Vincent’s ships were in front of him. It was hard to be sure at such range, but the Outsider-made sensors insisted those ships were real. And that meant that the ships behind him had come from somewhere else. Home Fleet?

“No, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “But judging by the displacement, there’s at least one battle squadron out there.”

“Bring active sensors to full power,” Roman ordered. If there were ships moving up behind him, under cloak, it was a trap. And he’d walked right into it. “Order the fleet to prepare to engage.”

* * *

“Sir,” Ginny said. “The enemy fleet has started to bring its active sensors online!”

“Noted,” Marius said. Roman hadn’t quite fallen into the trap, but he’d come far too close to escape. And there was no point in trying to hide any longer. “Drop the cloaks, then launch starfighters and commence firing!”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said. She keyed a switch, triggering the firing pattern she’d programmed when the rebels had made their appearance. “Firing... now!”

* * *

“New contacts,” Lieutenant Thompson snapped. “Two enemy forces...”

Roman gritted his teeth as yet more red icons popped into existence. Six superdreadnaught squadrons in front of him, four more to the rear... backed up by at least ten fleet carriers and hundreds of smaller ships. And they had him neatly pinned. If he continued the advance, Force Two would take him in the rear while he tried to overwhelm Force One; if he reversed course, Force Two would hold him while Force One caught up with the fleet. Either way, he’d be crushed. The only realistic option was to head for the system limits, but the enemy would overwhelm him with starfighters, gunboats and long-range missile fire. Unless...

“Reverse course,” he ordered. At least he had a contingency plan. It wasn’t much, not against what he was facing, but it might just give them a chance to escape. “Take us back to the Asimov Point!”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. She paused. “Sir, the fortresses are coming online!”

“I see,” Roman said. That explained why Force Two was weaker than Force One. Admiral Vincent — and the Emperor, given that Home Fleet was the only formation that could have sent so many superdreadnaughts to the system — had to have counted on the fleet being supported by the fortresses. “They’re slamming the door closed behind us.”

He took a breath. “Launch starfighters,” he ordered, as the display sparkled with deadly icons. Thankfully, the Outsider pilots had long since overcome the inexperience that had dogged them in the early battles. “Lock long-range missiles on Force One, then commence firing!”

Chapter Thirty

Of all wars, civil wars are the worst. They turn brother against brother, fathers against sons, wives against husbands... everyone needs to make a choice about where their duty truly lies when civil war breaks out. Friends can become enemies, enemies can become friends; nothing is ever truly what it seems. And, for some of them, the decisions they take can result in tragedy.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Tara Prime, 4102

“Now hear this,” the loudspeaker boomed. “Red alert; I say again, red alert. All hands to battlestations.”

Tiffany braced herself, sweat pouring down her back. She’d been in combat before, technically, but she’d never been anything more than a helpless bystander. If her ship had been destroyed — and Marius had been at some pains to point out that there was no guarantee that her ship wouldn’t be targeted — she would have died, alone and unremarked. All she’d been able to do was stay in her cabin, in one of the better-protected parts of the ship, and pray they survived. But now...

She glanced down at the weapon in her hand. Oslo had taught her how to shoot when she’d been young, claiming it was a useful skill for a girl. Tiffany couldn’t say she’d kept up with it, even though she couldn’t imagine Marius objecting if she’d wanted to use the shooting range on the superdreadnaught. However he saw her, it wasn’t as just an attractively shaped piece of meat. And besides, he knew the danger of being unarmed if the enemy chose to board the ship.

Which doesn’t change the fact that I’m about to commit treason, she thought, as she studied the terminal. Technically, freeing hostages held in defiance of Federation Law wasn’t treason, but she’d been raised to understand that the law really meant what the Grand Senate said it meant. Marius could call her a traitor and no one would disagree with him, at least not openly. I could die in the next few minutes.

Her palms felt sweaty, as if the weapon would slip from her hand. There were men and women guarding the hostages who knew how to fight, men and women who had been in real danger. Oslo and his team, at least, had some experience, but they’d never had to do their duty in earnest until now. No one had ever considered her worth assassinating until her husband had become Emperor, and by then it had been too late. She could die, if one of the guards shot her... or she could be captured, caught in the act of high treason.

Somehow, she doubted Marius would forgive her betrayal. He’d been betrayed far too many times.

“My Lady,” Oslo said. A dull shudder ran through the ship. Tiffany hoped that meant the ship was launching missiles, rather than taking incoming fire. “This is your last chance to change your mind.”

It was tempting. She could pretend that nothing had happened, that she hadn’t planned to liberate the prisoners and steal a courier boat. And if Talia Vincent said otherwise... well, Talia was the daughter of a traitor, trying to lie to sow trouble between the Emperor and his loyal wife. Ginny wouldn’t say a word. It would be so easy just to climb onto her bed and crawl under the covers, to pretend that she’d never been anywhere else.

I wouldn’t be able to live with myself any longer, she thought. The whole concept of threatening children to make their father cooperative was too much. Perhaps, in hindsight, she should have acted on her doubts sooner. And if I die here, at least I will have tried.

She took a breath. “I’m coming,” she said, firmly. “Please don’t try to stop me.”

Oslo gave her a long look, then nodded curtly. He must have been concerned for her safety, she figured; he wouldn’t have agreed to take the immense risk of liberating the hostages and fleeing the ship if he hadn’t felt she was in danger every day she spent with her husband. It was a depressing thought, but one she knew she had to face. Marius was no longer the man she’d married, the man she’d pledged herself to.

“Keep your weapon in your holster until we reach the guest quarters,” he reminded her, as the rest of the team checked their equipment. “We don’t want someone sounding the alert.”

Tiffany nodded, then glanced in the mirror. Her dress, the one Marius enjoyed, was gone, replaced by a form-fitting shipsuit that just had to have been designed by a man. It was so tight she almost felt naked. And yet, with her make-up scrubbed off and her hair tied up in a bun, it was unlikely that anyone would recognize her. Enterprise had over two thousand crewmen, after all. She hoped — she prayed — that they didn’t run into anyone who knew them all by name.

At least it’s not a miniskirt, she thought, as they headed for the hatch. I’d feel silly walking around in something so short.

She smiled at the thought, then braced herself as the hatch opened. There was no one outside, not even the marine guards. They’d been called away to their duty stations. She took a breath as she followed Oslo down the corridor towards the sealed airlock keeping the Emperor’s quarters separate from the rest of the ship. The superdreadnaught was in lockdown, she reminded herself. Each compartment was supposed to be sealed off, in case of a hull breach. Oslo checked the telltales, then pushed a datachip against the bulkhead-mounted scanner. The airlock hissed open, revealing another empty corridor.

“Too many airlocks, sir,” one of the bodyguards whispered.

“They need to keep the air trapped,” Oslo muttered. He didn’t sound nervous, merely focused on the task at hand. “If something happens to vent the air in the compartment beyond, the airlock won’t open no matter what overrides you have.”

And it will keep the marines from mounting an immediate response, Tiffany thought. Ginny had explained, in some detail, just how the system worked. The marines had overrides too, of course, but they’d still be slowed down as they opened and closed every hatch between Marine Country and the makeshift brig. Unless, of course, there’s a marine duty station closer than we know.

She shook her head as they passed through yet another airlock. It would be hellish to find themselves caught before they’d even gotten close to the prisoners. She wondered, absently, if there was any excuse she could give, but realized there was no way anyone could put an innocent spin on her actions. They’d armed themselves, donned shipsuits to make themselves look like crewmen, and left her quarters. Even Public Information, which had somehow managed to make the Grand Senate look good, couldn’t possibly have spun it into a believable story.

“This is the outer edge of the guest compartment,” Oslo warned, as they reached yet another airlock. “We may encounter resistance beyond this point.”

He glanced at Tiffany. “Stay in the rear.”

Tiffany nodded, bracing herself as the guards drew their weapons and opened the airlock. A Blackshirt stood outside the door, looking visibly nervous as low tremors ran through the entire ship. Oslo lifted his pistol and pulled the trigger. Tiffany stared in horror as a green plasma bolt struck the Blackshirt’s head and burned it clean off.

“You killed him!”

“Yes, I did,” Oslo said. “We don’t dare let anyone call for help.”

Tiffany couldn’t take her eyes off the body. She’d never seen anyone die so close to her before, not even Tobias Vaughn. Part of her wanted to kneel and beg the man’s forgiveness, even though she knew it would be useless. If he’d still been alive, he would have tried to stop them from taking the hostages. She glanced up, sharply, as the hatch opened, revealing the guest quarters. Two more guards, on the inside, were caught by surprise and blasted down before they could grab their own weapons.

“They may have rigged the room to set off an automatic alert if someone fires a weapon,” Oslo muttered. He nodded to the hostages, hidden behind the forcefield, as he started to work on the security systems. “But if we’re lucky, they didn’t have time.”

The forcefield snapped out of existence, leaving only a faint taste of ozone in the air. “You need to come with us,” Oslo snapped. “Don’t do anything to slow us down.”

Tiffany wanted to tell him he was being too sharp, but she was still stunned by the sudden violence. Three men were dead... and it was all her fault. She pushed her fear aside as Talia gave her a tight hug, tears streaming down her face. Meeting their father, if only briefly, had probably rammed home the seriousness of the situation in ways no words could hope to match.

“Come on,” Oslo hissed. “We need to get moving before they realize something’s wrong...”

A low hooting ran through the compartment. Oslo swore and hurried back into the corridor, just as an airlock started to hiss open at the far end. Tiffany followed him, hurrying the former hostages back the way they’d come. She glanced back, just in time to see a trio of Blackshirts behind the opening airlock. Oslo gunned them down, then threw a grenade down the corridor and into a side room. The resulting explosion almost deafened her.

“That’s the intruder alarm,” Oslo snapped. “One of the overrides must have failed.”

Tiffany nodded, clutching her pistol as they hurried through the next set of airlocks, closing them in hopes of slowing down the enemy. She wouldn’t have given the Blackshirts override keys, but the marines definitely would have overrides of their own. Maybe, just maybe, they’d assume the ship was being boarded and search for the hull breach... and yet, she knew it was too much to hope for.

Talia caught her arm. “Where are we going?”

“There’s a courier boat docked to the hull,” Tiffany gasped. She wasn’t used to running so hard. “It’s going to be cramped, but...”

She threw herself to the deck, dragging the younger girl with her, as the airlock behind them exploded with shattering force. Oslo and his men spun around, firing bolt after bolt of green plasma at the Blackshirts; Tiffany prayed, desperately, that they’d hold the enemy off long enough for the hostages to escape. She crawled forward as the guards held the line, pressing her override key against the scanner. The airlock hissed open, allowing them to make a break through the airlock and into the next section. Oslo threw another grenade down the corridor, then brought up the rear.

“Kenny and Sam didn’t make it,” he said, as the airlock hissed closed. “They’re both dead for sure.”

Tiffany felt as though she’d been punched in the gut. Kenny had been a sweet man, always ready to chat, while Sam had been engaged to a girl he’d planned to marry after completing his tour of duty. She’d liked them both. Hell, she’d intended to convince Marius to arrange for a sinecure for Sam, once his loyalties to her family were replaced by loyalties to his wife and children. But now she’d never have the chance. She wanted to slump against the bulkhead and cry...

“Come on,” Oslo snapped. He hauled her to her feet, and pushed her forward. “There’s no time to mourn!”

There was no sign of any resistance as they passed through the next set of compartments, but Tiffany could tell that Oslo was getting more and more concerned. The Blackshirts were a minor problem, compared to the marines, yet the marines hadn’t shown themselves. Where were they? Ginny had promised to do what she could to delay pursuit, but she’d made it very clear that there were limits. Compromising the internal communications datanet was one thing, yet the marines had communicators of their own. Once they realized there was a problem, they’d make the switch and that would be that.

She fought her way forward, desperately. “How much further?”

“Three more compartments,” Oslo said. “But do they know where we’re going?”

Tiffany blanched. There weren’t many ways to get off a superdreadnaught — and using the lifepods would guarantee recovery by the wrong side, if their pods didn’t get mistaken for weapons in the confusion and destroyed by one side or the other. The marines would think of the courier boat at once, believing it to be a better option than the shuttlebay. It was certainly closer to the guest quarters.

On the other hand, we’d need the right codes to fly the craft, Tiffany thought. Do they realize Ginny gave us the codes?

She felt a sudden stab of guilt as the next hatch opened, revealing nothing. Oslo led the way forward, then swore as the next hatch snapped upwards. He unhooked a grenade from his belt and hurled it forward, just as four armored men appeared ahead of them. Tiffany hit the ground again as it detonated, but two of the men kept coming forward. She stared, in horror, as Mike fell to the ground, his chest smoking from where a plasma bolt had struck him dead center. The other two marines were picked off by Oslo and Stuart before they had a chance to kill any of the others...

“They must not have had time to set up a proper ambush,” Oslo said. “I...”

He ducked backwards as another bolt of plasma fire burned through the air, striking Stuart in the head. Tiffany felt her gorge rise at the stench and swallowed hard. Oslo lunged forward and checked the next compartment, weapon in hand. Thankfully, there didn’t seem to be anyone blocking their way to the courier boat.

“Get the kids onto the ship,” Tiffany told him. “You’re the only one who can fly her.”

“I’m supposed to protect you,” Oslo snapped, as Talia urged her siblings through the hatch and into the courier boat. “My Lady...”

Tiffany turned, holding her pistol at the ready. “If you don’t get them off the ship, all of this will be for nothing,” she snapped back. “I...”

Something slammed into her body and picked her up, hurling her down the corridor and straight into a bulkhead. She was unconscious before her body hit the deck.

* * *

Oslo stared in shock, helplessly caught between two imperatives, as Tiffany was thrown away from him. On one hand, he was meant to protect Tiffany, the sole surviving member of the family he served. But on the other hand, he knew she was right. If he failed to get the hostages off the ship, the death of every other member of his team would be for nothing. He slammed the hatch closed, then ran to the console to start the flash-wake sequence. It would put a great deal of wear and tear on the courier boat’s systems, but he rather doubted it would matter. There was a very good chance they’d be blown out of space in the next five minutes.

“Strap yourselves in,” he barked at the former hostages. The older girl seemed to have a good head on her shoulders, but the other three were clearly panicking. “Don’t even think about getting up until I say otherwise.”

He disconnected the courier boat from the superdreadnaught, then triggered her thrusters and hurled her away from the mighty ship. If Ginny had succeeded, the targeting datanet should have problems locking onto the courier boat, at least long enough to give them a fighting chance to escape. But there was also the very real risk of being caught and killed by a rebel starfighter, the pilot merely seeing a loyalist courier boat fleeing to somewhere safe. Alarms sounded in the tiny compartment as he pushed the drives well past their safety limits, silently thanking the Emperor for overriding the Grand Senate’s decrees. It would kill the Emperor, Oslo thought, when he realized that the courier boat would probably not have escaped if she’d been forced to operate within the Grand Senate’s safety limitations.

“I need to speak to dad,” Talia said. “If we’re no longer hostages...”

Oslo hesitated. Emperor Marius had turned spiteful — it was why he hadn’t argued too strongly against risking Lady Tiffany. He doubted the Emperor would hesitate to blow the courier out of space, once Talia revealed that the game was up. And Tiffany wasn’t even on the ship!

“Do it,” he ordered, grimly. He picked up a headset and tossed it at her, barely taking his eyes off the controls. “Hurry!”

Talia swore. “Are you sure this will reach dad?”

“Stay on the emergency channel and everyone will hear it,” Oslo snapped. He had no idea which of the superdreadnaughts within range held Admiral Vincent; hell, he had no idea if Admiral Vincent was surrounded by Blackshirts or not. But they had to try. And everyone, according to regulations, was meant to monitor the emergency channel at all times. “And make it convincing!”

“Yes, sir,” Talia said. She started to speak into the headset. “Dad, it’s me. We got away from the Emperor...”

And let’s just hope that’s enough, Oslo thought. On the display, a trio of starfighters were turning towards the courier boat. He could have outrun them, if he’d had a head start, but as it was they’d catch him before he could make his escape. We might not survive the next few minutes.

He pulled back, studying the display. The Emperor’s ships were advancing towards the rebels, firing so rapidly they had to be burning through their magazines at a terrifying rate. But if it worked, if the rebels were trapped, it would be more than worth it. Oslo feared the Emperor, yet he also respected him. Emperor Marius still had a very good chance of winning the war.

“There’s no reply,” Talia said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Keep talking,” Oslo said. There was no point in trying to hide. “That’s all you can do.”

And hope we can rescue Lady Tiffany, he added, silently. Her husband will not be pleased with her.

Chapter Thirty-One

It is ironic indeed that one of the greatest battles of the final civil war was also the whole civil war in microcosm.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Tara Prime, 4102

“Force Two is opening fire,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “Force One’s missiles are entering point defense engagement range.”

“Order the point defense to engage at will,” Roman said. The missiles were a problem, but the tidal wave of starfighters and gunboats were a nightmare. If he ordered his starfighters to attack the enemy ships, the enemy starfighters would have a clear shot at his ships. “And order the CSP to cover our hulls.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Force One is impaling itself on our missiles.”

Roman shrugged. Emperor Marius — and he was sure he was matching wits with his former mentor — would have arranged his ships to ensure the smaller craft soaked up most of the missiles. The range was closing all the time, of course, but it probably wouldn’t matter now that he had to split his fire between two enemy fleets. And yet, there was a light in the darkness...

He left tactical control to the tactical staff and studied the overall situation. Force Two was reducing speed as it approached the fortresses, ready to combine its fire with the fixed defenses to overwhelm any incoming ships. It would be Roman who had to impale himself, if the battle played out the way Emperor Marius had clearly expected. Breaking through the Asimov Point was the only apparent hope of success, but it meant running a gauntlet of fire from Force Two and the fortresses, with Force One breathing down their necks.

Unless, of course, something happened to those ships first.

“Record a message for Commodore Hazelton,” he ordered. “Commodore, the tactical situation has taken a turn that is quite definitely not to our advantage. You are hereby ordered to reprogram your assault pods to the following coordinates—” his fingers danced across his console “—and launch them on my mark.”

“The courier boat we left at the Asimov Point is not responding,” Lieutenant Thompson warned. “She’s gone.”

Roman wasn’t surprised. The courier boat had been right next to the fortresses. She’d either popped through the Asimov Point as soon as she’d seen the trap or been blown to atoms at point-blank range. Either way, she was gone.

“Load the message onto a flight of courier drones,” he ordered. “And prepare to fire them, along with a full protective ECM shroud.”

Lieutenant Thompson started. “Sir,” she said, “I am obliged to warn you that regulations...”

“To hell with regulations,” Roman snarled. It meant giving up a barrage of missiles, but he didn’t dare rely on one or two courier drones. The fortresses would do whatever they could to keep him from signaling anything on the other side of the point. “Let’s live dangerously.”

He smiled, then gritted his teeth as the tidal wave of missiles broke over his command. The enemy had fired thousands — clearly, someone had been pushing Earth’s industrial base to the limits — and hundreds broke through, closing in on their targets. Roman forced himself to watch as dozens of ships were damaged or destroyed; the superdreadnaught Potemkin blown into radioactive debris by nearly a dozen antimatter warheads, the superdreadnaught John Paul Jones only narrowly avoiding the same fate when the battlecruiser Agrippa took four missiles that were meant for the larger ship. The superdreadnaught Sheridan drifted out of formation, atmosphere streaming out of a dozen hull breaches; Roman couldn’t help feeling a flicker of guilt at his own relief when her hulk absorbed five more missiles before she disintegrated into a fireball. At least some of her crew had made it off the doomed ship before it was too late.

“The courier drones are ready, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson stated.

Roman hesitated. Emperor Marius was no slouch. If he saw the drones, he’d guess at what was coming. And yet, timing was everything. There should be almost no time for him to respond before it was too late.

He cursed under his breath as the starfighters and gunboats closed in, the latter launching three or four shipkiller missiles from practically point-blank range. Home Fleet’s pilots lacked the practiced skill of Fifth Fleet’s, but they’d clearly been training hard in the simulators. And there were a lot of them. Roman had a nasty suspicion they were staging starfighters from Tara Prime itself, rearming them in the carriers and then throwing the tiny craft straight into the battle. Clearly, Admiral Vincent had thought better of his attempted betrayal.

“Launch the drones,” he ordered.

* * *

“The enemy ships have just launched a cloud of drones,” Ginny reported. Emperor Marius was barely paying attention to her — he was watching the crisis unfolding inside his ship — but he snapped back at her words. “They’re aimed at the point.”

“There’s nowhere else they would be going,” the Emperor snarled. One hand was toying with the flap of his holster, as if he intended to draw his pistol and shoot the next person who brought him bad news. “They have to have hidden additional forces behind the Asimov Point!”

He thumped the display, sharply. “Order the fortresses to shoot down the drones!”

It was too late, Ginny knew. Even with StarComs, the time-delay would ensure that the fortresses would engage — or not — on their own, without orders. And she had no idea just how trustworthy Admiral Vincent’s people were. Their Admiral might have ordered them to stand beside Home Fleet and fight to the last, but how many of them knew his original plan?

“Aye, sir,” she said, anyway. There was no point in arguing. “Message sent.”

The Emperor nodded curtly, then returned to following the reports from below decks. It sounded, very much, as though a small mutiny had broken out, but the Emperor didn’t seem particularly impressed. The reports made the mutineers sound incompetent or ignorant. Taking control of a ship was easy enough, provided one snatched the bridge, engineering, and life support sections before anyone realized a mutiny was underway. But he hadn’t yet realized that the mutineers had taken the hostages...

And none of his cronies have dared to tell him the truth, Ginny thought. Thankfully, the programs she’d inserted into the starship’s datanet were making it harder for him to get a picture of the overall situation. They know their lives are at stake.

* * *

“The fortresses killed seventy of the ninety drones,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “I think the remainder made it through the Asimov Point.”

“Understood,” Roman said. Statistically, at least ten of the remaining drones would survive transit through the point and start transmitting their message. And then... he glanced at the timer, trying to estimate just how long it would take Commodore Hazelton to reprogram the missile pods. “Continue firing.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman forced himself to relax as a missile crashed against the starship’s shields, sending shockwaves running through the hull. He wasn’t blind to the dangers of trying to turn on Force Two, but if he were lucky his ace in the hole should make life interesting for the enemy personnel. Besides, it did give him the best chance of escaping through the Asimov Point, if he didn’t think he could beat Force One...

Unless we kill him, he’ll be able to build up a whole new fleet, Roman thought. And if we do kill him, here and now, the power vacuum will plunge the remainder of the Federation into chaos.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Missile pods are transiting the point!”

* * *

Commander Sven Kristopher knew it wasn’t his place to question his superiors. He’d been put in command of the New Redeye Point defenders precisely because he knew better than to question his superiors. Admiral Vincent was his sole source of patronage, after all; anyone foolish enough to question one of his orders would be lucky if they were merely assigned to a garbage scow or some isolated asteroid mining shithole. But the orders he’d received over the last week had been the oddest he’d ever seen. First, he’d been ordered to shut his fortresses down, allowing the rebels to enter the system without a fight. It had looked, very much, as though Admiral Vincent intended to switch sides.

And then, the orders had been changed. He was still to let the rebels into the system, but then slam the door shut behind them. It just made no sense. Which side were they actually on?

He scowled down at his display as the rebel fleet slowly made its way back to the point, right into the teeth of his fire. Which way did Admiral Vincent really want him to jump? Should he fire on the rebel ships, or not? He’d already shot at their drones, but there had been too many to guarantee their complete destruction before they plunged into the Asimov Point and vanished. Was that what he was meant to do?

“Commander,” the tactical officer barked. “Missile pods! I say again, missile pods!”

Sven stared in horror. Missile pods, over a thousand of them, were materializing from the Asimov Point. A number interpenetrated and exploded, of course, but the survivors were already unleashing their deadly cargo. And they were all aimed at Home Fleet’s superdreadnaughts!

He hesitated. What was he supposed to do?

“Switch point defense to alpha mode,” he ordered. There was just enough confusion for that to seem a reasonable order. “And then open fire.”

“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said.

* * *

Roman allowed himself a moment of glee as the missile pods flickered into the system and opened fire, launching thousands of missiles directly at Force Two. The massive superdreadnaughts seemed to flinch on the display as they realized just how badly they were screwed, then their point defense opened fire with practiced efficiency. But they were too late to keep the missiles from raining havoc on their formation.

Shouldn’t have stayed so close to the Asimov Point, he thought. Emperor Marius had clearly intended to tempt him with the prospect of crushing Force Two, then Force One, but it had been wasted effort. Even if he hadn’t had to contend with the fortresses, he’d still have been mouse-trapped by Force One. But you didn’t want to risk me escaping, either.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “There are some odd patterns appearing in the data.”

Roman frowned. “In what way?”

“The fortresses didn’t engage the missile pods,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “They didn’t shoot at anything that didn’t pose a threat to them.”

That was odd, Roman admitted privately. It was possible the fortress crews had been surprised, but their electronic servants should have reacted instantly. No one in their right mind would let someone shovel a thousand missile pods through the Asimov Point without doing everything in their power to thin the herd before it was too late. His missile pods could have engaged the fortresses as easily as they’d engaged the superdreadnaughts...

“Keep an eye on them,” he ordered. There was no way to know what it actually meant — and he was damned if he was trusting Admiral Vincent’s people any longer. “How badly did we hurt Force Two?”

“We killed at least seventeen superdreadnaughts,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “I don’t think there’s an undamaged ship left in the formation.”

Roman studied the display as the data rolled up in front of him. Force Two hadn’t been defeated, but it was unlikely that it could put up a fight. But the fortresses were still a dangerous unknown. Had someone on the fortresses believed the original plan was still valid? Or did they have an ally they didn’t know? Or...

And we might still run into real trouble if we have to force our way past the fortresses, he thought. He hated not knowing which way the enemy formations would jump, when push came to shove. That only leaves us with one real option.

“Alter course,” he ordered. “Bring us about to face Force One.”

* * *

Marius stared in disbelief. “What... what happened?”

“They rammed missile pods through the point,” Ginny said. She sounded as stunned as he felt. “They destroyed over seventeen superdreadnaughts! Admiral Stockholm is among the dead.”

“Shit,” Marius said. All of a sudden, things had changed — and changed badly. The rebels had been hurt, but the battle was suddenly a far more even contest. And Garibaldi, damn the man, knew it. “Order all ships to continue firing.”

Ginny nodded. “Aye, sir,” she said. “And...”

Marius glanced at his console as an emergency message appeared in front of him. “Sir,” Lieutenant Rain said. “They got away!”

“Who got away?” Marius demanded. “And how?”

“They snatched the courier boat, sir,” Rain said. He sounded panicked. “The brats, sir; they snatched the courier boat and fled!”

Marius rounded on Ginny. “Find that damned boat!”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny squeaked.

“It’s worse, sir,” Rain said. “Sir, we recovered...”

“Spit it out,” Marius ordered.

“Sir, we found your wife near the courier boat’s airlock,” Rain said. “Her security team was involved in the attack!”

Marius, just for a second, found himself utterly unable to move. The first reports hadn’t been very clear, suggesting a minor outbreak of fighting amongst the crew rather than anything more serious. And the internal sensors hadn’t reported a major incursion. He’d assumed it was minor, even if it was alarmingly close to the guest quarters. But now... if Tiffany’s security team had been involved, they could have overridden the internal sensor network. They could have taken the hostages and made their way to the courier boat without being stopped...

... And Tiffany had been with them. She’d betrayed him.

She’d betrayed...

“Admiral,” Ginny said. “I...”

“Shut up,” Marius roared, shocked out of his trance. His head was pounding so hard he thought his brain would explode. “Shut up...”

The entire superdreadnaught rocked. Marius caught hold of his command chair, unsure if something had genuinely gone wrong or if he was imagining it. His vision was dimming, but red icons were flashing up on the display...

“Sir,” Ginny said, “Admiral Vincent’s ships have opened fire on us!”

Another betrayer! The wave of cold hatred, mingled with fiery rage, was enough to force Marius to pull himself back together. “Target his ship,” he growled. “Blow it apart!”

“Sir,” Ginny said, “the rebels are altering course and...”

“Target Admiral Vincent’s ship and kill it,” Marius ordered. His head was splitting open, but he was damned if he was letting Vincent get away with everything. There should be just enough time to kill him before they had to run. “And then...”

He forced himself to think, despite the pain. Admiral Stockholm was dead, along with far too many ships and men. Admiral Vincent’s crews were unreliable, even if their commanding officer died. And Roman Garibaldi, the betrayer-in-chief, held an unbeatable advantage. His ships had been hurt, but not badly enough to keep him from finishing the war here and now.

“Alter course,” he ordered. He’d lost the battle — he conceded as much — but he hadn’t lost the war. “All loyalist ships are to head for the Macaque Point.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said. She sounded nervous, but still in control of herself. “Admiral Vincent’s ship is taking heavy fire...”

Marius nodded, watching with cold glee as the superdreadnaught was blown into atoms. It wasn’t the revenge he wanted — nothing short of a year of prolonged torture would have repaid the betrayer for his crimes — but it would have to do. At least Tiffany was in his hands. If she’d been seduced into betraying him...

“Take us to the point, best possible speed,” he ordered. Admiral Vincent’s ships would be confused, he hoped; they certainly didn’t seem to have found a new leader. They’d solve that problem eventually, but by that time the loyalists would be gone. “And send a specific message to Judgement. Condition Black. I say again, Condition Black.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

* * *

Tara Prime wasn’t a bad-looking world, Captain Gilbert Cole thought. Four days of lying doggo in orbit, pretending to be an ordinary merchantman, had convinced him that Admiral Vincent understood the secret of economic success. There were none of the regulations that made visiting Earth or AlphaCent such a pain, none of the constant attempts by suppliers to screw every last credit from spacers that needed to use the planet’s facilities. Indeed, under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed his time at Tara Prime.

But he knew his duty.

“Activate the missile launch codes,” he ordered. Rebels could not be tolerated. And if a single large example needed to be made... well, it had to be made. “And prepare to fire.”

“Aye, sir,” his first officer said. “Missiles ready to launch.”

There were no objections from the rest of the crew, but only three people on the ship knew the targets. Everyone else thought their mission was to attack the planet’s orbital infrastructure. He couldn’t help wondering if some of his crewmen had actually inferred the truth, given how few questions they’d asked. Spacers were naturally curious and nothing less than threats would normally keep them from trying to work out what was going on.

Gilbert didn’t hesitate. “Fire!”

His ship didn’t have any real targeting systems. A military-grade sensor system on the hull would have given them away to even the most cursory of inspections. By any reasonable standards, they shouldn’t have been able to hit anything...

... But then, a planet was a very big target.

* * *

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “We just picked up... my God!”

“Report,” Roman snapped. He’d never heard that note of horror in her voice, even when they’d been trapped. “What happened?”

“Antimatter detonations, multiple antimatter detonations,” Lieutenant Thompson said, her voice shaking in horror. “The Emperor just scorched Tara Prime!”

Chapter Thirty-Two

It is no exaggeration to say that the destruction of Tara Prime, with an estimated death toll of well over four billion lives, was the act that finally shattered Emperor Marius’s government beyond repair.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Tara Prime, 4102

Roman was speechless.

The horror before him was almost beyond his ability to grasp. Tara Prime was a blackened wasteland. The ground had been scorched clean of life by the firestorms, which had in turn faded away as the atmosphere was burnt to nothingness. Dead ground surrounded them; there was no proof, ever, that there had been a city where they were standing. And yet, Roman only had to check his hardsuit’s HUD to confirm that they were standing in the middle of Willow City, center of administration for an entire sector. The city was completely gone.

He swallowed hard, feeling his body start to shake. It was hard, so hard, to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the devastation. He’d been told, years ago, that one death was a tragedy while one million was a statistic, yet he hadn’t really understood what it meant until he’d watched Tara Prime die. Four billion humans — men, women and children — had lived on the now-lifeless rock, living their lives as if what happened in the galaxy beyond didn’t matter in the slightest. And now they were dead, wiped from existence so completely that there was no proof they’d ever existed. It was impossible for him to grasp just how vile a crime had been committed.

Four billion? He couldn’t imagine that many people.

“The radioactivity is picking up,” Elf said, softly. “And the planet itself is unstable.”

Roman nodded, tears prickling at the corner of his eyes. In all of human history, antimatter had been used once, only once, to scorch a planet clean of life. And the inhabitants of that world hadn’t been human. Few had mourned for the Snakes after they’d butchered millions of humans during the First Interstellar War, but humanity — common humanity — had insisted on a taboo against using antimatter warheads against planetary surfaces. Emperor Marius had broken that taboo and condemned billions of people to death.

He tried to do it to Nova Athena, he reminded himself, sharply. Why wouldn’t he do it here?

In hindsight, it was obvious. Nova Athena was — had been — an enemy world. Roman had never considered the attempted genocide as anything other than a desperation measure, even though he’d refused to sit back and allow it to take place. But Tara Prime had been friendly... Roman still had no idea what Admiral Vincent had been plotting, yet he had allied himself with the Emperor to lure Roman’s fleet into a trap. There should have been no reason to exterminate an entire world. And yet it had been done.

He caught his footing as the ground trembled below his feet. The hammer blows that had struck the planet had triggered off earthquakes and worse, threatening to complete the destruction of human civilization. Not that it really mattered, Roman suspected; if there were any survivors, they were in underground bunkers deep below the surface. The screech of static that had greeted the fleet’s hails, when they’d finally entered orbit, suggested that no one had survived. Even the deepest of bunkers might not be able to survive earthquakes on a global scale. All the old certainties about which areas were safe and which weren’t no longer applied.

“Roman,” Elf said. “We can’t stay here.”

“I know,” Roman said. “I’m coming.”

He took one last look at the devastation and then turned to follow her back to the shuttle. His hardsuit blinked up more alerts, warning him that the wind — what little wind there was, now that most of the atmosphere was gone — was blowing radioactive fallout towards him. If any survivors, by some miracle, managed to emerge from hidden bunkers, they’d be poisoned before they realized it was already too late. Four billion people...

“The hatch is opening,” Elf told him, as they reached the shuttle. “The shuttle can take off while we decontaminate.”

Roman didn’t argue as they stepped through the hatch. Water cascaded down, sweeping radioactive particles off the hardsuits; he watched, grimly, as the radiation counters continued to tick upwards. They were in no danger — the hardsuits were meant for even worse environments — but he still felt a shiver of fear running down his back. He was a brave man — he’d proved it often enough — yet the thought of being killed by invisible dangers was terrifying. One couldn’t fight back against radiation poisoning.

He felt the shuttle take off as they entered the next compartment, where they removed the suits and scurried into the decontamination chamber. Elf picked up a portable scanner and waved it over his body, then did the same for herself while Roman showered, keeping his eyes closed against the chemicals in the water. He’d made fun of the whole process as an immature cadet — jokes about decontamination chambers had run through the whole installation — but he knew it wasn’t funny. And there was nothing sexual about worrying if they were going to die of poisoning.

“Clean, sir,” the doctor said, once he stepped out of the shower and into the final compartment. “You shouldn’t be in any danger, I think.”

“Thank you,” Roman said. He removed his sodden shipsuit and dumped it down the recycler, where it would be broken down to its component atoms. Normally, it would be washed and returned to him, but there was no point in taking chances. “And Elf?”

“The Brigadier should be fine too, I think,” the doctor said, as Elf followed him into the final compartment. “But neither of you would have lasted five minutes on the surface without hardsuits, sir.”

“Yeah,” Roman agreed. He’d wanted to launch rescue missions, but the radioactivity in the planet’s remaining atmosphere had made it clear that trying would be futile. The level was so high that every living thing on the planet would be dead, if the firestorms hadn’t already killed them. “The entire planet is dead.”

He changed into a clean shipsuit, then stepped into the lounge as the shuttle continued its steady flight towards the orbiting superdreadnaughts. The remainder of Admiral Vincent’s formation had surrendered, as soon as the Emperor’s ships had broken and run, but he had no idea if they could be trusted. And yet, they’d just watched their planet die. How many of them, Roman asked himself, had had family and friends on the surface? They’d want revenge, wouldn’t they?

But who, he asked himself, will they blame?

His wristcom buzzed. “Admiral, we received a priority message from John Stuart,” the pilot said. “They boarded Admiral Petty, sir, and captured Hannalore Vincent. She wishes to speak to you.”

“I bet she does,” Roman muttered. He cleared his throat. “Order them to have her transhipped to Valiant.”

“Aye, sir,” the pilot said. “They’re also reporting that they picked up a number of the admiral’s relatives and their rescuer.”

“Have them transhipped too,” Roman ordered. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he’d find out. “And then send a signal to Senator Chang and General Stuart. We need to decide on our next step.”

Roman settled back into his seat, trying to think. Could they have averted the disaster? He didn’t see how, save for unconditional surrender... and even then, he had a nasty feeling that Emperor Marius would still destroy Nova Athena. His former mentor knew how to bear a grudge, after all; he’d kept Governor Barony’s criminal greed and outright treachery in mind for over five years before dealing with him at the first possible opportunity. Roman wouldn’t have bet any of his once-princely salary on Nova Athena surviving, even if the Outsiders surrendered unconditionally.

“We have to carry on the fight,” he said. News of the atrocity would spread through the Federation, but how would people respond? How many of them could truly comprehend what was at stake? “We can’t let him get away with murdering so many people.”

“No,” Elf agreed, practically. “But we also have to keep him from murdering billions more.”

Roman shuddered. Earth had a population numbered in the high billions and AlphaCent wasn’t too far behind, while there was hardly a Core World that didn’t have at least five or six billion humans on the surface. All of them were at risk, if their populations or their leaders chose to revolt against the Emperor... or even if the Emperor wanted to keep them out of Outsider hands. Was Emperor Marius willing to destroy the Federation in order to save it?

The thought nagged at his mind as the shuttle returned to Valiant and docked at the nearest airlock. Shuttles were coming and going in a flurry of activity as the system was secured, logistics experts counting stockpiles while engineers inspected the remaining starships and starfighters, trying to determine what could be repaired and put back into service and what needed to be broken down and cannibalized for spare parts. Roman glanced at the ship’s log, noted to his relief that nothing had happened that demanded his immediate attention, then led the way to the briefing compartment. Elf followed him, muttering into her mouthpiece as she checked in with the rest of the marines. Her once-proud force was scattered across the system, trying to secure every last fortification before someone decided to do something stupid.

“They’ve been searched, but they’re not restrained,” Elf noted, as they approached the solid hatch. Two marines stood on duty outside, wearing light combat armor. “Do you want to change that before you meet them?”

Roman shrugged. “Why bother?”

He keyed the hatch, which hissed open to reveal Hannalore Vincent and four teenagers sitting at the conference table. Hannalore looked as though she was trying to keep her face as immobile as possible — a sure sign of tension — but the youngsters looked terrified, as though they’d been put through too much too quickly. It was easy, judging by their faces, to tell they were probably related. They all had the same eyes and chins. Behind them, a grim-faced man in his early forties, wearing a shipsuit, leaned against the bulkhead. He looked tired and worn.

“Admiral,” Hannalore said. Her face was a mask, but Roman had no trouble hearing the fear in her voice. “My father was blackmailed.”

Roman sat down at the far end of the table. “Explain.”

He listened, without saying a word, as Hannalore explained. It was hard to believe that Admiral Vincent had made such an elementary mistake, leaving his children where his enemy could grab them without any real effort, but it did fit the facts. Admiral Vincent’s ships had turned on the Emperor, engaging his ships at point-blank range. And they’d done a great deal of damage before they’d been blasted out of space.

“And now your father is dead,” he said, when she’d finished. Oslo had added a few comments, but he’d need to be debriefed properly later. “I don’t bear a grudge against you.”

Hannalore relaxed, visibly. She’d played a role in luring the rebels forward, after all, even if she hadn’t known that her father would be unable to keep his side of the bargain. It would be human, very human, for Roman to take everything out on her, if not her siblings. But she’d been an innocent dupe and her siblings pawns in a political game...

He shook his head. “Your mother was on the planet’s surface,” he said, shortly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hannalore said. “We — the remaining survivors of the fleet — want to join you. There’s nothing else for us.”

Roman studied her for a long moment. He was quite prepared to ransack Tara Prime’s orbiting stockpiles for missiles and spare parts for his ships, but he was much less eager to add the remaining personnel to his fleet. There was too great a chance of accepting a sleeper agent or an outright loyalist — if, indeed, they remained loyal after watching a planet die. And yet, who was he to deny the survivors their chance at revenge? They had little else to live for.

“If we do, your crews will be split up and newcomers will be assigned to your ships,” he hedged. “I trust that will be acceptable?”

“It will be more than suitable, if we can just strike back at the bastard,” Hannalore said. “He would have had my siblings raped and killed.”

“Killed, certainly,” Roman agreed. The Marius Drake he’d known would have hesitated, surely, before ordering a young girl to be raped. But he’d changed so much in the last three years that Roman honestly wasn’t sure if he’d stop at anything now. “I’m sorry your father’s dreams have come to an end.”

“I just want revenge,” Hannalore assured him.

“Very well,” Roman said. “You’ll have your chance. For starters, you can help convince the fortifications in Maben and Astrid to surrender without a fight.”

He called the marines, gave orders for the former hostages to be treated as honored guests, and installed in a guest suite on Valiant as Chang Li, General Stuart and Professor Kratman were escorted into the compartment.

“Lady Tiffany helped them break free?” Elf asked. “I wouldn’t have thought she had it in her.”

“That’s what Oslo said,” Roman said.

He shook his head. “She’s a strong-minded person,” he added. He’d only met Lady Tiffany a handful of times and they hadn’t really had a chance to chat, but she had allied herself with Marius Drake rather than remain with her family. “And maybe there were limits to what she was prepared to condone.”

“She’s also either dead or a prisoner,” General Stuart said, curtly. “I don’t think she’s going to be in position to do much of anything in the future.”

“Probably,” Roman agreed. He cleared his throat. “Going by the preliminary reports from the fleet’s engineers, we should be rearmed and ready to move in less than a week. I intend to press onwards to Macaque — if we can, I want to move sooner. Macaque is not heavily defended.”

“You intend to push on to Earth,” Chang Li said.

“I think we have no choice,” Roman said.

“There will be people who will want revenge,” General Stuart pointed out. “They’ll want us to destroy one of his worlds.”

“It would be pointless,” Roman said, flatly.

“It might convince the Emperor not to commit another slaughter,” General Stuart said.

“I doubt it,” Professor Kratman said. “Marius... has committed genocide once. He’ll find it easier to do it again.”

“I will not be responsible for the mass slaughter of men, women and children who are powerless to affect the course of the war,” Roman said, raising his voice just loud enough to make the point clear. He understood the General’s reasoning, but he knew he couldn’t step over the line. “And burning Earth or AlphaCent until the land is blackened or broken won’t affect the Emperor’s ability to make war.”

He closed his eyes in pain, wondering just what had become of his mentor. In his place, Roman would have fired on the stockpiles, crippling Tara Prime’s ability to resupply his ships and forcing Roman to wait while the fleet train hauled more supplies from Boston or Ruthven. It hadn’t escaped his notice that they were putting more and more pressure on the fleet train, the further they moved from their home bases. Surely, an officer as experienced as Marius Drake could see the potentials? Roman himself had hacked away at Outsider supply lines during the middle stages of the war.

“Agreed,” Chang Li said. She glanced at her companion, then nodded. “We will not be responsible for more atrocities.”

“We’ll probably get the blame for it anyway,” General Stuart warned. “The Emperor’s lie departments will be working overtime, just to convince the sheep that we, not the Emperor, burned Tara Prime to ashes. Admiral Vincent will probably be turned into a hero who died bravely, clearing the way for the Emperor to escape, and we destroyed his world in retaliation.”

“No one will believe that,” Roman objected.

“They might,” Chang Li said. “The Grand Senate built up quite an infrastructure for lying to the population.”

“I can try to slip a message back to Earth,” Professor Kratman offered. “I don’t know if there are any Brothers left, but if there are one or two still undiscovered... well, it might be possible to get the word out.”

“They wouldn’t be believed,” Chang Li objected.

“They might be,” Professor Kratman said.

He leaned forward. “You see, hardly anyone really believes a word put out by Public Information,” he added. “The media largely exists in an echo chamber, where they tell themselves that they’re important and the Grand Senators believe them, because if they weren’t telling the truth it would be on the news. But if we can get out an alternate story, it will sound more believable because there’s already a strong reservoir of distrust.”

“I’m not sure that makes any sense,” Roman said.

“You’re an asteroid brat,” Kratman reminded him. “You have to have a firm grasp of objective reality. The people on Earth... not so much. Convince them that the Emperor killed Tara Prime — and he might do the same to Earth — and the Emperor will have riots on his hands.”

“Which he’ll crush,” Roman said.

“And that will only make the riots worse,” Kratman said. “What’s he going to do if every worker across the system puts down his tools?”

“Very well,” Roman said. “Send the message, Professor, and hope it reaches someone who can make something of it.”

He sighed, tiredly. “But right now we need to press on as hard as we can,” he added. “We have a minimum of four more systems to crawl through before we reach Earth — and the Gateway is heavily defended. Getting there may mean accepting horrendous losses.”

“We could try to sneak around the defenses,” Chang Li said. “It worked for Admiral Justinian.”

“Admiral Justinian had all the time in the world,” Roman said. “We have none.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

A strong man might have been able to turn the tide. But Emperor Marius, like so many other tyrants, was strong because he had allowed no one else to be strong. His insanity only made it impossible for him to get a proper grip on the situation.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Howarth, 4102

Tiffany fought her way back to consciousness through a haze of pain.

“I think she’s coming out of it,” a voice said. She was barely aware of the speaker, standing on the verge of her awareness. “The damage wasn’t severe, but she took quite a blow. I can give her something for the pain, if you like.”

“No,” another voice said. It was a very familiar voice. “Leave her to cope on her own.”

Tiffany felt a shock as she realized the second speaker was her husband. He’d never hurt her — he would never hurt her... memory returned and she realized, to her horror, that while Oslo and the former hostages might have escaped, she hadn’t. She opened her eyes and found herself staring up at a blaze of white lights. The sight sent a stabbing pain through her head and she hastily closed her eyes again.

“You can open your eyes now,” the first voice said. “I’ve dimmed the lights.”

Tiffany did as she was told, despite the growing headache. Marius stood alongside her, his cold eyes boring into her skull, while an older man wearing a doctor’s uniform was holding a scanner against her arm. Her hands, she discovered when she attempted to sit up, were restrained, and someone had also wrapped a cloth tie around her neck and ankles, making it impossible to move. And, as cold air blew across her body, she realized she was naked.

“You banged your head pretty badly,” the doctor said. There was a hint of warmth in his tone, although it was clear she was a prisoner. “Your left arm was also broken, thankfully after you blacked out. I’ve repaired the damage, but you’re probably still in for a few rough days.”

“Thank you,” Tiffany rasped. Her voice sounded odd in her ears, as if she could no longer talk properly. “Water?”

“Here,” the doctor said. He picked up a tube and held it to her lips. “You shouldn’t need to eat for a while, but when you do, we’ll do it through a tube, rather than ask you to eat lying down.”

So I won’t be allowed to sit up, Tiffany thought, as she swallowed the water. It tasted curiously flat. And escape is impossible.

“Thank you, doctor,” Marius said. There was no warmth in his voice at all. “You may leave us.”

“She’s fragile,” the doctor said. “Sir...”

“Leave us,” Marius repeated.

Tiffany wanted to close her eyes as the doctor turned and headed for the hatch, but she knew there was no point. Marius’s eyes followed the doctor as he stepped through the hatch, then, as soon as the doctor was gone, snapped back to Tiffany. She had to fight the urge to look away or try to cover herself. The man staring down at her might wear her husband’s face, but he wasn’t the man she loved. That man was long gone.

“Over twenty thousand crewmen dead,” Marius hissed. “Forty-seven superdreadnaughts and two hundred and seven smaller ships damaged or destroyed. An entire planet wiped clean of life. Was it worth it?”

Tiffany felt her eyes widen in horror. “An entire planet?”

“Tara Prime,” Marius confirmed. There was so much certainty in his voice that it never occurred to her to doubt him. “Burned to a crisp for treachery.”

“You... you killed an entire planet?”

“I destroyed a wretched hive of treachery,” Marius said. “By now, everyone on the planet will be dead or wishing they were.”

His voice hardened. “We could have beaten the rebels,” he snarled. “We could have won the battle and restored the Federation. Instead... we lost. We had to retreat, leaving the battlefield to the traitors. And that was all your fault.”

“Marius,” Tiffany said. “I...”

Marius slapped her face, hard. Tiffany cried out in pain. She’d been raised in the aristocracy, where she’d never had to experience pain or discomfort. The shock of being struck was almost worse than the pain. No one had ever struck her before.

“We could lose this war,” Marius said. “And all thanks to you!”

He slapped her again. Tiffany tasted blood in her mouth. Marius cocked his fist, pulling it back as if he intended to slam it right into her head, then relaxed very slightly. Somehow, Tiffany didn’t think it was good news. Part of her almost hoped that Marius would kill her and finish the job.

“A planet is dead, Tiffany,” he said. “And what will happen when the rebels storm the Gateway?”

“You have to listen to me,” Tiffany said, despite the throbbing pain. “Marius, the Federation can’t be held together by force...”

He slammed his fist into her chest, hard enough to make her retch. “What do you know about it? Spoilt little brat, raised by the Grand Senate... I had to work to earn my title, only to see everything I did thrown away by stupid little men who had never heard a shot fired in anger or arrived — too late — on the scene of a pirate raid. I could have saved millions of lives if I’d been given the power and responsibility I needed. Instead, they tried to kill me!”

Tiffany stared at him, hopelessly, as he started to pace the compartment. There didn’t seem to be any point in appealing to logic and reason, not now. Marius had been betrayed so many times that he’d lost the ability to consider if the betrayer had a point. But then, so many of his betrayers had no point. The Grand Senate hadn’t been in danger until it had tried to kill him. They’d created the monster that had destroyed them and was burning the Federation to the ground.

She tried, hard, to imagine what would happen as word spread through the Asimov Points, no matter what the Emperor did to stop it. Entire worlds would quake in fear — or rise up against the Emperor, taking control of their own defenses and desperately preparing to resist his starships when they arrived. The glue that held the Federation together, already weakening, would melt for the final time. And nothing Marius could do would keep the Federation from shattering.

“Marius,” she said, hoping she could get through to him one final time, “what would Tobias think of this?”

Marius whirled around and lunged at her, his hand coming down and grasping her neck, threatening to choke the life out of her. Tiffany tried to struggle free, but the restraints were too strong. She gasped, fighting for breath, as his grip tightened, unable to avoid staring up into his maddened eyes. He’d kill her with his bare hands...

“Don’t mention his name,” he snarled, as he let go. Tiffany wanted to rub her aching throat, but she couldn’t move. “Don’t you fucking mention his name!”

He stepped backwards, angrily, but when he spoke his voice was almost calm. “I haven’t decided what’s to happen to you yet,” he said. “But I assure you that you will never be in a position to cause any more harm.”

Tiffany watched, helplessly, as he strode through the hatch and out into the corridor, leaving her alone. She tested the restraints, once again, but no matter what she did she couldn’t pull free. At least the hostages were free, she reminded herself, even though it had been no part of her plan to remain behind. Whatever happened now...

She closed her eyes as the darkness rose up again, threatening to overwhelm her. Part of her wanted to remain awake, but she knew there was no point. Deep inside, she knew she had come to the end of the line.

* * *

Marius poured himself a glass of whiskey and swallowed it in one gulp, then poured himself another glass as he sat down on the sofa in his office. He hadn’t been able to go back to his suite, not when it held far too many reminders of Tiffany... it was hard, so hard, to keep the anger under control whenever he remembered his wife. The final betrayal... and, perhaps, the one that hurt the most. He’d trusted Tiffany, even though she was from an aristocratic family. He’d even left Earth in her care when he’d gone to Nova Athena...

And maybe that is why there were so many problems, he thought, as he stared at the golden liquid. Tiffany was sabotaging me all along.

He scowled as all the pieces fell into place. Her clingy insistence on being close to him, her determination to make love every day... she’d been keeping him away from his work and ensuring the Federation would collapse into ruin. And she’d insisted on coming with him to Tara Prime purely to ensure that Admiral Vincent’s plan to betray him succeeded. At least that bastard was dead, along with his homeworld and maybe even his family. It wasn’t what he’d wanted to do to Admiral Vincent, but it would have to do. One of the betrayers had paid with his life — and the lives of everyone he’d ever cared about.

And Tiffany will pay too, he thought. How many times had she been next to him, curled up beside him in bed? Had she been betraying him all along? She could have been Blake Raistlin’s handler, the one who passed the order to assassinate Marius before he could turn into a threat. Did she only want power for herself or for her family?

He looked up as the doorbell chimed. For a moment, he considered merely ignoring it — there shouldn’t be any problems Captain Watson couldn’t handle before they reached the Gateway — but duty overrode the temptation to just sit in his suite and wallow. He snapped out a command and the hatch hissed open, revealing Ginny Lewis. Marius glared at her, then felt an odd flicker of shame as she flinched. Ginny, at least, had never betrayed him. She’d merely done her duty.

“Come in,” he grunted. “Sit.”

Ginny obeyed, looking nervous. Her uniform looked rumpled too, something that puzzled Marius until he remembered that he’d ordered the Blackshirts to search everyone who wanted to enter his office. No doubt Ginny had been groped quite thoroughly before she’d been allowed through the first checkpoint. If she’d been carrying anything that might have been a weapon, they’d have carted her off to the brig before she could say a word in protest.

“We just transited into the Howarth System, sir,” Ginny said. “They know.”

Marius looked at her. “Know what?”

“That Tara Prime has been destroyed,” Ginny said. “And that we did it.”

“Someone must have sent a message,” Marius muttered. It wasn’t impossible, even though he’d tried to keep a lid on the Macaque Point. Someone — probably someone still working for Admiral Vincent — would have snapped a courier drone through the Asimov Point and the secret would be out and spreading. “What do they know?”

“That we destroyed Tara Prime,” Ginny said. “There was no attempt to bar us from entering the system, but they’re clearly ready to engage if we try to approach the planet.”

Marius considered, briefly, turning to flatten the planet’s defenses, just to make it clear that resistance to legitimate authority was futile, before dismissing the thought. They had to return to Earth. God alone knew what problems General Thorne was facing, thanks to Tiffany and whatever remained of the Brotherhood. Howarth wasn’t important, particularly not when an Outsider fleet was breathing down his neck. There would be time to teach the planet a lesson later.

“We proceed to the system limits,” he said. “Do you have an updated status report?”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. “We have barely two active squadrons of superdreadnaughts and flanking units. It will take at least two months, according to the engineers, to fix the damaged ships.”

Marius breathed a curse. He’d taken seven squadrons of superdreadnaughts to Tara Prime, but losses had been heavy. Admiral Vincent’s attack, at point-blank range, had done almost as much damage as the rebels, in far less time. He’d paid for it, but still...

“We need to return to Earth,” he said. “Has word gone ahead of us?”

“Probably, sir,” Ginny said. “If a ship happened to be leaving Howarth for Maidstone...”

“Then the Gateway defenders may know,” Marius snarled. He’d picked the officers in command carefully, but he knew just how quickly a mind could turn to treachery. He certainly hadn’t suspected Tiffany until it was far too late. “And they may try to bar our passage back to Earth.”

Ginny blanched. “They wouldn’t...”

“They might,” Marius said. Her naiveté would have been amusing, if it hadn’t been so serious. It was easy to forget she’d only been in the navy for five years. “And Home Fleet has been badly weakened.”

He ran his hands through his hair. “And I never suspected Tiffany,” he added. “Who knows what she might have done to the fortresses?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Ginny said.

Marius shook his head. “Inform Captain Watson that he is to maintain our best possible speed towards Earth,” he ordered. “And then start going through the reports from the tactical analysts. I’ll want your analysis this evening.”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. She rose. “And I’m sorry about your wife, sir...”

“Do your duty,” Marius growled, too tired to be angry. He wanted to sleep, but he wasn’t sure he dared. “And don’t come back until this evening.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

Marius watched her go, feeling only a trace of guilt for admiring her buttocks in her tight uniform. Ginny was too young, too innocent, to be treacherous — and she was a navy brat, not an entitled officer who happened to be related to a Grand Senator. She’d be a better wife than Tiffany, he was sure, but he had no time to consider remarrying. He certainly couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by sex when there was too much else to do.

He yawned, then leaned backwards onto the sofa. Perhaps he’d take a very short nap...

* * *

Ginny couldn’t help feeling, as the hatch hissed closed behind her, that she’d just escaped by the skin of her teeth. The Emperor had looked a mess, his face purple and his hands twitching constantly... Ginny had no idea what he’d been drinking, or if he’d been taking more of those damnable pills, but he was clearly in a state. He needed a long rest and detoxification, not more stress...

And he doesn’t suspect me, she thought, as the Blackshirts closed in. If he did, I’d be dead by now.

“Arms and legs apart, then stand still,” the lead Blackshirt ordered. Ginny had no idea where the Emperor — or General Thorne — had found them, but the Blackshirts seemed to enjoy harassing crewmen, male as well as female. There was no logic in searching her after she’d left the Emperor’s office, yet they didn’t let that stop them. “Let’s see what you’re hiding.”

She gritted her teeth as they ran their hands over her body, lingering over her breasts and buttocks, before finally sending her on her way with a casual slap to her behind. Their touch made her feel dirty; she’d endured searches before, back in the academy, but they’d never been so thoroughly vile. It didn’t seem to have occurred to the Emperor, or General Thorne either, that the Blackshirts would probably wind up provoking a mutiny. Their predecessors had certainly done the same thing, back before the Grand Senate had fallen.

They’re not doing it because they’re searching for guns or bombs, she thought. They’re doing it to make it clear they’re in charge.

Captain Watson turned to face her as she stepped onto the bridge, an odd look of respect in his eyes. He outranked her, but she was the Emperor’s tactical aide. A word from her in the emperor’s ears, when he was in a receptive mood, might put an end to the captain’s career. She felt a flicker of sympathy for the man, but pushed it aside. Captain Watson had sat on the bridge and done nothing while the Emperor killed an entire world.

“The Emperor wants you to proceed to the Gateway as fast as possible,” she said. “And he wants to keep the entire fleet in lockdown.”

He didn’t look surprised, she noted, but the orders wouldn’t be particularly surprising. It wasn’t as if they could make a stand before the Gateway. Maidstone had some defenses, but they were largely emplaced around the planet itself, rather than the Asimov Point.

“As the Emperor commands,” Captain Watson said. “When will he grace us with his presence?”

Ginny hoped that was sarcasm. The Emperor, she’d learned, had little patience for flattery, let alone senior officers fighting over who had the right to kiss his buttocks. But Captain Watson hadn’t survived so long without a sense for who best to flatter and who best to cut dead. His career certainly hadn’t been based on tactical acumen.

“He has much work to do,” she temporized. Captain Watson could be relied upon to carry out his orders and little else. There certainly wouldn’t be any unexpected surprises from him. “I believe he feels that matters can be safely left in your hands.”

She saluted, then walked back through the hatch and into the tactical compartment. The analysts were still hard at work, assessing every last moment of the engagement. Ginny picked up a datapad, downloaded a copy of the raw data, and started to go through it personally. It would take time, but she knew the Emperor wanted her assessment...

... And, while she worked, she contemplated ways to betray him.

Chapter Thirty-Four

And, because of the Emperor’s clear madness, those who would have been his allies chose to turn on him.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Macaque, 4102

“We’re picking up a signal from the planet, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “They want to surrender.”

Roman lifted his eyebrows. The fleet had only transited the Asimov Point a few scant hours ago — indeed, Macaque must have decided to surrender within seconds of receiving the news, although the defenses surrounding the Asimov Point hadn’t put up a fight. It looked, very much, as though the system had heard what had happened to Tara Prime and wanted to switch sides. By now, five days after an entire planet died, word had to be spreading through the Core Worlds.

“Inform them that we accept their surrender and will be taking possession of the defenses of the Howarth Point,” he ordered. “If they have any warships, they are to be handed over; everything else can remain with them until we figure out the shape of the post-war galaxy.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, and turned his attention to the display. Howarth’s Asimov Points had never been heavily fortified, not when the system’s only real attraction was being too close to Maidstone in realspace; they shouldn’t have any difficulty breaking into the system and setting course for the system limits. Howarth itself was quite heavily defended, but Roman had no intention of attacking the planet. Like Macaque, the defenders could be safely left alone until the war was over.

Unless we happen to need something from them, he thought. But what is there that we need?

He frowned in contemplation. The latest update, secured from Tara Prime, insisted that the defenses of AlphaCent and the Gateway itself had been heavily updated, which was no surprise; the only real question was just how loyal those defenses would be to the Emperor. AlphaCent was perhaps the most loyal planet in the galaxy, at least to the Grand Senate, but would even they turn on a rogue Emperor? Or would they fight to keep his ships from entering the system?

They’ll certainly know we’ve entered the Maidstone System, he reminded himself. And by now, the Emperor might well have had a chance to make sure that any weaklings are removed from power before it’s too late.

He pushed the thought aside. He’d just have to see what happened when the fleet reached the system.

“Ask Senator Li and General Stuart if we can have a private chat after the diplomatic dinner,” he ordered, instead. One advantage of holding Tara Prime, quite apart from the chance to resupply, was making contact with a number of worlds that weren’t quite Core Worlds, but were certainly important enough to be worth courting. A number of diplomats had insisted on accompanying the fleet. “We have much to discuss.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

* * *

Uzi had honestly expected to die when the superdreadnaught had lumbered into Tara Prime... and straight into a trap. He’d thought himself prepared to make certain Chang Li, if no one else, didn’t survive, only to recoil in horror as Admiral Vincent turned his coat for the second time and threw victory to Admiral Garibaldi. The destruction of Tara Prime didn’t bother him, no matter how many times he’d faked crocodile tears for his comrades, but losing the battle the loyalists should have won nagged at him.

And now, utter disaster was staring the Federation in the face.

Macaque’s surrender was a minor matter, but the arrival of diplomats from a dozen other worlds was far more serious. Some of them would have been primed by Admiral Vincent, he thought; others, perhaps the ones from richer worlds, had come on their own. And by choosing to throw their weight behind the rebels, they made Admiral Garibaldi’s momentum almost unstoppable. Even if the fleet was destroyed, and it was still possible, the Federation was doomed. The Outsiders would win.

“It’s a wonderful time,” Cleo said, hugging him as they made their way back to their shared cabin. “Everything is finally falling into place.”

“I suppose,” Uzi mumbled.

He was barely paying attention to her as he contemplated the problem. Something would have to be done. He’d been out of place to assassinate either Chang Li or Admiral Garibaldi — and he’d received no orders — but his overall briefing included permission to act on his own initiative if there was no other option... and he saw none.

What should he do? Wait until the fleet hit the Gateway? Even if the Gateway held, even if the fleet died, it wasn’t likely that the Federation could be restored.

No. The twin problems of Admiral Garibaldi and Senator Li had to be resolved as soon as possible.

“There’s going to be a larger meeting tonight, after dinner,” Cleo said. “Will you be attending?”

“I think I’ll be on the outside,” Uzi said. The idea of having a dinner that included junior officers was alien to him, at least when the junior officers were commoners, but the Outsiders were ruthlessly meritocratic. Besides, he had to admit it was a good way to gauge crew morale. “I’m a bodyguard, not her advisor.”

Cleo glanced at him as she opened the hatch. “Don’t you ever get asked for advice?”

Uzi shrugged. “What sort of advice could I give?”

He eyed Cleo’s back, silently contemplating the most efficient way to kill her. She couldn’t be allowed to sound the alert, not when he was going to be organizing his weapons for the assassination attempt. Playing with her had been fun, even if she had become annoyingly clingy, but time was now up.

“We do have time for some fun,” he said, as he stepped up behind her. “And now...”

He pressed one hand over her mouth, using the other to snap her neck. She grunted in surprise, then went limp. Uzi held her in place until he was sure the life had drained out of her body, just in case she had some enhancements she’d never mentioned. Once he was sure, he placed her body in the corner of the tiny cabin, covered it with the blanket and opened his bag. One definite advantage to working along the Rim, or with the Outsiders, was that no one ever questioned why anyone would want to carry a small arsenal. You never knew when you might have to fight.

There was no time for a real plan, he told himself, as he removed a handful of explosive packs and buried them under his uniform. He’d have to cause an emergency, then take advantage of the chaos to carry out his mission. Survival was very unlikely — after Admiral Vincent’s bastards had escaped, Admiral Garibaldi would have learned from the Emperor’s mistake and the courier boats and shuttles would be guarded — but he’d just have to take his chances.

And no one will ever know what I did, he thought. He remembered, morbidly, just how much he’d done in the name of the Federation. But perhaps that’s for the best.

* * *

“It could have gone worse,” Chang Li said, as she entered the small dining room and sat down next to Admiral Garibaldi. “They want independence, rather than membership in a new federation.”

“You may find that it’s impossible to convince them to slip all the way to join you,” Garibaldi commented. “They’re the ones who watched in horror as Tara Prime died.”

Li nodded in grim agreement. The Federation had started life as nothing more than an overarching federal government, intended to coordinate humanity’s ongoing expansion into space. But it had claimed more and more power until the Core Worlds had little in the way of true independence and the Rim became helpless to keep the Grand Senate from draining it dry. And now, after Tara Prime, it would be a long time before anyone willingly surrendered political power again.

She leaned back in her seat and watched the diners as they started to eat, chatting all the while. A number of the diplomats looked shocked by the sheer lack of formality, but willing to play along; a couple looked as though they were on the verge of being led to their own executions. Li smiled at their frustration, even though she understood their feelings. The rules they knew, the rules that had taught them how to act in every given situation, simply didn’t apply.

No one cares which fork you use to eat the starter, she thought, remembering the etiquette lessons she’d had to endure when she’d become a Grand Senator. From what Talia Vincent has said, Blyton Towers was still teaching children how to pass for aristocrats even after the Grand Senate had fallen. All that matters is that you know what you’re doing.

She sighed, inwardly. She’d never really believed the Emperor would commit genocide, even after he’d tried to destroy her homeworld. Tara Prime had been one of his worlds, after all; it certainly hadn’t deserved to die for Admiral Vincent’s crimes. But she knew, now, that the Emperor was no longer sane. He might start turning antimatter weapons on AlphaCent — or even Earth itself — if he could no longer rule the Federation.

And that’s why we have to win, she told herself. We can fight over who gets to put the pieces back together afterwards.

* * *

It was lucky, Uzi knew, that Admiral Garibaldi had decided to continue flying his flag on Valiant, rather than transferring to one of the Outsider ships. The Federation had made great strides in computer security, ever since Admiral Justinian had rubbed the Grand Senate’s collective nose in its own weaknesses, but there were still gaps in the defenses. It wasn’t enough to allow him to trigger the self-destruct system or detonate a warhead — that only happened in bad movies — yet he could still move around the ship relatively unmolested and spy on her crew.

They’re at the High Table, he thought, as he slipped into the internal tubes and started to crawl towards the hatch. Civilians never grasped just how many hidden passageways there were through a superdreadnaught, let alone how easy it was to crawl between the bridge and engineering without being seen. He’d planned to kill anyone he met, but it hadn’t been necessary. And I can catch them by surprise.

He reached his destination, a hatch right above the dining compartment, and glanced down at his terminal. There was no sign of a security alert, no sense that anyone knew he was in place to strike a major blow for the Federation. It was a relief, but still... part of him found it a little annoying. He keyed a security code into the terminal, and sent the signal.

Seconds later, the superdreadnaught rocked as a small explosive detonated just down the corridor. No one should be hurt, but it would be just big enough to put the entire ship into lockdown while the bridge crew scrambled to figure out what had happened.

He wondered, absently, just what they’d conclude, then opened the hatch and dropped down.

* * *

Roman hadn’t been enjoying the dinner, although he’d kept a smile pasted on his face as he’d chatted to a number of diplomats. Some were good people, but others were more interested in their own personal power than the survival of the Federation and the defeat of the Emperor. He’d lost count of just how many of them had promised reinforcements in exchange for post-war concessions, when there was no guarantee of actually winning the war. Emperor Marius might still find a way to take the Federation down with him.

And then the entire ship shook, a dull rumble echoing through her hull.

He jumped to his feet as panic flickered through the compartment. It wasn’t a missile hit, he was sure. Even if a cloaked ship had managed to get close enough to launch a missile without being detected, it just felt wrong. An internal explosion... but what? A single warhead would have done a great deal of damage, perhaps smashing the antimatter containment fields as it exploded and blowing the entire ship into atoms. Or...

“Get down,” Elf snapped. She caught his arm and yanked him forward, throwing him facedown to the deck. “Stay down!”

And then the shooting started.

* * *

He’d messed up, Uzi noted, as he hurled a pair of grenades towards the stunned diplomats and junior officers. The hatch hadn’t been quite where he’d expected it to be, although he had managed to land on the high table. He swung around, looking for his targets, and smirked nastily when he laid eyes on Chang Li. The treacherous senator hadn’t any real combat experience, despite commanding one side of a galaxy-spanning war; he put four shots into her, just to make sure she was dead. He jumped down as the grenades exploded, ducking low in case someone returned fire. The Outsiders, after all, refused to surrender their weapons to anyone.

Smart move, he thought, as he killed a diplomat and a uniformed officer he didn’t recognize while hunting for his other target. They know they’re being hunted.

He turned... and the hammer of God slammed into his body. A woman stood there, pistol in hand; it took him a second, a second too long, to recognize Brigadier Tanager. She might not have recognized him, but she’d probably realized, just from the speed he was moving, that he’d been enhanced. Uzi tried to lift his rifle, yet it was already too late. Five more bullets slammed into his body.

He crashed to the deck. Red icons flared up in front of him, warning him that he’d been too badly hurt to continue the fight. The bitch knew precisely how to kill him.

At least one of the targets is dead, he thought. Chang Li had held the Outsiders together, despite a war they’d been on the verge of losing before Nova Athena. General Stuart was a military man, not a diplomat; he’d be unable to hold the federation together. And...

Darkness came.

* * *

“He’s dead, I think,” Elf said. “It would be better to evacuate this compartment.”

Roman pulled himself to his feet, then swore. Chang Li’s body lay on the deck, blood pooling beneath her. It was clear, even to his inexperienced eye, that there was no hope of resurrection. One of the bullets had gone right through her head and out the rear of her skull, leaving her brains leaking out onto the deck. Beside her, the assassin was a mangled ruin of a man, cyborg implants sticking out of his chest and head.

“Take everyone still alive out of the room,” Elf ordered. “I’ll make sure the body remains untouched — and immobile.”

It didn’t look as though the assassin could move, Roman thought, but he knew better than to take it for granted. Being promoted to admiral had given him access to a number of secret files, including ones covering enhanced soldiers. Marines weren’t enhanced, yet if they could perform miracles... what could an enhanced soldier do? He looked at the bloody remains of a dozen officers, where the grenades had exploded, and felt sick. Starship combat was clean and tidy, unless one’s ship was hit. This... this was something worse.

“Clear the compartment,” he ordered, as the marines and medics burst into the chamber. “If you’re injured, tell us now.”

And hope we can survive this, he thought, privately. Without Chang Li...

* * *

“The assassin was one of the mercenaries assigned to the senator as a bodyguard,” General Stuart said, an hour later. “He killed his girlfriend, it seems, just before he set off on his final mission. His background was fully vetted, we thought, when we accepted him. And he served us well over the last three years. There was never any suggestion he might turn on us.”

“He was an enhanced mercenary,” Roman said. He’d seen some enhanced cyborgs when he’d been in command of Midway, years ago. In fact, he had a nasty feeling he’d seen this particular cyborg some time ago. “The Federation might have paid for his implants in exchange for loyalty.”

“Or programmed it into his skull,” General Stuart said. “He might not have had a choice.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Roman said. He looked down at the blood splattered across his uniform, then up at the General. The mercenary might have acted out of his own free will or not, but it was irrelevant. All that mattered was what he’d done. “We have to carry on.”

“She would have wanted it that way,” General Stuart agreed. He shook his head, slowly, suddenly seeming much older. They’d been friends, Roman realized, perhaps more than friends. They’d certainly worked closely together for decades. “But... will there be anything left of us, either?”

Roman considered his answer for a long moment. “I think the Emperor still has to be stopped,” he said. Had Emperor Marius issued the orders to kill Chang Li personally? It was possible, but unlikely. Surely, if there had been direct communication between the mercenary and the Emperor, the orders would have been to assassinate Roman on his own bridge. “And afterwards... well, we’ll worry about that afterwards.”

“Everything’s falling apart,” General Stuart said. “I don’t know what will happen when word gets home.”

“We’ll have won or lost by then,” Roman said. There was no way to keep word of Chang Li’s death from spreading, but most of the Federation’s citizens wouldn’t know how vital she’d been to the Outsiders. “And the Emperor will never have the chance to dance on her grave.”

He turned to look at the display. “We’ll clear up the mess and continue our course towards Howarth — and the Gateway. And then we can put an end to this whole damned war!”

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chang Li’s death, while unfortunate, came too late to make any real difference. The news of Tara Prime’s destruction had already spread too far to be stopped.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4102

“Emperor,” General Thorne said, as he entered Marius’s office. “Are you not returning to the Presidential House?”

“I prefer to remain on Enterprise,” Marius said, stiffly. He’d done what he could to keep himself busy, but the nightmares refused to fade, despite the alcohol and the drugs. “It makes it easier to coordinate the fleet.”

“Understood,” General Thorne said. “Rumors have been spreading through Earth, but most of them have been gravely exaggerated. I do not think they are being believed.”

“Good,” Marius said. “It will not be long before Admiral Garibaldi challenges the Gateway.”

General Thorne rocked back in surprise. “The defenders of AlphaCent won’t stop him?”

“I believe he will punch his way into AlphaCent and make a beeline for the Gateway,” Marius said. It was a bitter thought, but one that had to be faced. “I intend to greet him with a full-scale defense. He will not pass.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said.

“There is another matter,” Marius added, after a moment. A pang of bitter grief and guilt ran through him. Was there no one who could be trusted completely? “My wife committed treachery.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said, neutrally.

“I want you to find out if she acted alone,” Marius added. “And if she was assisted by others, I want their names.”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said. “Do I have your permission for extreme measures?”

Marius hesitated. He wanted Tiffany to suffer for betraying him... and yet, he didn’t want to go too far. She needed to look reasonably intact for her trial. This time, there would be no games; this time, her guilt would be conclusively proven for all to see.

“No,” he said. “She needs to remain healthy for her trial.”

“Sir,” General Throne said. “Does she need a trial?”

Marius felt a hot flash of anger. “The universe has to see her guilt,” he snapped. “They have to understand just what she did, General, and they have to understand why she was wrong!”

“Yes, sir,” General Thorne said, bowing low. “I will see to it personally.”

Marius watched him go, feeling an odd flicker of affection. Thorne, at least, hadn’t betrayed him — and he’d kept Earth under control while Marius had been at Tara Prime. Maybe some of the rumors would be believed — Marius knew just how fast rumors could spread from one end of the Federation to the other — but everyone knew he was still in control. Given time, he could turn the Gateway into an impregnable fortress and crush Admiral Garibaldi when he tried to force his way into the system. And then he could link up with the remaining admirals and drive the Outsiders back into the Beyond.

He sighed, then keyed the intercom, calling for Ginny. They had much work to do.

* * *

Tiffany hadn’t been too sure what to expect, after Marius half-strangled her before walking out and leaving her with the doctors, but she hadn’t expected boredom. They’d kept her tied to the bed and fed her through tubes, ignoring her when she tried to strike up a conversation or request something — anything — to do. She’d begged for a computer terminal or an entertainment console, like the ones used to keep the proles occupied, but all she’d been allowed to do was lie there. They hadn’t even drugged her back to sleep!

And how long have I been lying here, she asked herself, for the umpteenth time. It felt as if she’d been lying on the bed, practically immobilized, for years, but there was no way to know. The lighting never changed. If they’ve been drugging me, I could have been lying here for months.

She heard the hatch open and twisted her head, as far as she could, to see who had entered the small compartment. Her blood ran cold, a second later, as she recognized General Thorne, a man who’d been left behind on Earth. If he was here, they had to be back in the Sol System... she’d been on the bed for two weeks, then. Oddly, the thought gave her a feeling of bitter satisfaction. At least she now knew something they’d wanted to keep from her.

“Lady Tiffany,” General Thorne said. “I must say you’re looking well.”

“Fuck off,” Tiffany said. Her etiquette tutors would have been horrified, but she rather doubted her marital prospects mattered any longer. Besides, she’d been naked for too long to care about him seeing her nude body. “You twisted bastard...”

“There, there,” General Thorne mocked. He patted her forehead, as one might pet a dog. “Is that any way to speak to the man who’s going to save your life?”

“You’re not here to save my life,” Tiffany said, grimly. Ginny was the only person she knew she could trust on the ship... and she hadn’t seen Ginny since they’d freed the hostages. Had she been caught? Marius would have killed her, mercilessly, if she had. “What do you want?”

“Now, that is a far better question,” General Thorne said. He made a show of looking up and down her body, his eyes crawling over her skin. “What do you think I want?”

“I think you’re so pathetic that you have to wait for a woman to be tied down so you can have your way with her.” Tiffany sneered. She knew she couldn’t stop him, if he wanted to climb on top and force his way into her, but she could at least lash out at his ego. And maybe she could pinch him too. Or urinate on him. He’d have to remove the tubes if he wanted to rape her anyway. “And forcing yourself on me won’t change the fact you have a very small penis!”

“Such crude manners from one of High Society,” General Thorne observed. “No wonder you were never married off until they decided they needed to keep the Emperor under control.”

He smiled and went on before Tiffany could think of a rejoinder. “I’ve never had any trouble getting the girls and boys into bed, Lady Tiffany. They are lured to me by power, willing to do anything, no matter how degrading, in exchange for a scrap of influence. It’s always interesting to watch just how many people are willing to compromise their principles, when there is power and prestige at stake.”

“No doubt,” Tiffany said. She’d expected torture, but hearing General Thorne prattle on was worse. “I’m sure you know all about it.”

“Let me tell you a joke,” General Thorne said. “There’s this beautiful virgin, a nineteen-year-old society beauty who’s the living image of female rectitude. Everyone wants her, but she’s too demure to let them have her. And then a very rich man comes along and offers her a million credits in exchange for sleeping with him. She thinks about it; she doesn’t want to open her legs for some old bastard with a penis transplant, but a million credits is a million credits. So she says yes.”

“And then the old bastard offers her a single credit,” Tiffany finished, sharply. “And when she protests, demanding to know what he thinks she is, he tells her that they’ve already established that she’s a whore and they’re just haggling over the price. I know the joke, General. It was hammered into my head as a child. My father taught it to me.”

“Then he did you a great service,” General Thorne said. “Not all of us are so lucky with our parents.”

“And you’re the old bastard who delights in making people compromise themselves,” Tiffany said. Understanding clicked. “You’re the person who gave Marius those pills, aren’t you?”

“I may have had something to do with it,” General Thorne said. “Although, to be fair, the stresses of running the Federation were getting to your husband long before I clawed my way into his confidence.”

“And you enjoyed watching him compromise his principles,” Tiffany snapped.

“I don’t think he really compromised anything,” General Thorne said, after a moment of apparent thought. “It’s evident that he always had the mindset to be a dictator, to do whatever he felt necessary to uphold the Federation... which also happened to uphold his power base. But, at the same time, he lacks the pragmatism of Admiral Vincent. The idealism of an idealistic man can lead him to commit far more atrocities than a selfish bastard more interested in his own power than anything else.”

“He wanted to remain an admiral,” Tiffany said.

“And what do you think an admiral is?” General Thorne asked. “An absolute dictator, in command of hundreds of ships and thousands of spacers.”

Tiffany sighed. “What is your point, General?”

“The recorders are off,” General Thorne said. “I’ve gone to some trouble to make sure that we will be unheard.”

“How kind of you,” Tiffany said, snidely. “I didn’t think I could get into worse trouble.”

“Marry me,” General Thorne said.

Tiffany blinked in shock. “What?”

“The Emperor is mad,” General Thorne said, flatly. “I think you know it as well as I do, Lady Tiffany. And trying to ally myself with Admiral Garibaldi would be a dangerous gamble. There’s always a need for someone like me, someone who can do the dirty work without those inconvenient moral scruples, but Admiral Garibaldi probably has his own set of enforcers by now.”

“Or he might just decide he has no use for you,” Tiffany pointed out.

“There’s always a need for someone like me,” General Thorne repeated. “But you’re the Empress, to all intents and purposes. Marry me, and I will free you and overthrow your former husband. And together we will rule Earth.”

Tiffany fought down an insane urge to giggle. She knew — she knew — that General Thorne was being sincere, even though it seemed laughable. He might just be able to overthrow Marius, then declare himself the new Emperor. And, with Tiffany by his side, he might just be able to make it stick. Unless, of course, Admiral Garibaldi unseated both of them when he attacked Sol...

“You do realize that Admiral Garibaldi is unlikely to be impressed,” she said. “What do you plan to do about him?”

“I don’t ask for much,” General Thorne said. “I — we — will remain in possession of Sol, perhaps AlphaCent and a handful of other Core Worlds. If Garibaldi was willing to make a similar deal with Admiral Vincent, he should be willing to make one with me. And your name will add a certain credit to my regime.”

Tiffany shuddered. She wanted to be free, she wanted to escape Marius’s grasp, but she knew she couldn’t trust General Thorne. She’d exchange captivity in sickbay for a gilded cage, at best; she’d be lucky to have any freedom at all, if he didn’t just implant her to ensure that she was an obedient wife. And even if he treated her as an equal, she doubted Admiral Garibaldi would leave Sol in the hands of a ruthless bastard. Earth was the homeworld of humanity, after all.

“No,” she said, flatly.

General Thorne cocked his head. “You do realize there’s no other way out?”

Tiffany shrugged.

“I’m serious,” General Thorne warned. “You’ll be interrogated, over the next few days, until you spill everything you know. And then you’ll be put on trial, in front of a carefully-selected jury, and found guilty. And then you will be put to death. Or, if your husband is feeling sadistic, dumped on a penal world. What do you think would happen to a young woman like you, dumped amid thieves and murderers and rapists?”

“It would be better than lying with you,” Tiffany said. “And what is to stop me telling everyone about your little ploy?”

General Thorne smirked. “You know the interesting thing about direct brain induction? A subject can have all sorts of hallucinations, without ever being entirely certain what is real and what isn’t. You might become convinced that aliens are eating your brain, Lady Tiffany, or that your father was actually a wizard with magical powers. And you’d tell the world those lies with total conviction. No one will believe a word of the truth.”

“Then go to the devil,” Tiffany said, tiredly. Marrying General Thorne, even if he could overthrow Marius, was too high a price to pay for freedom. And even if they did get her to tell them about Ginny... well, maybe they’d discount it as yet another hallucination. It wasn’t much, but she clung to the thought anyway. “Get on with it.”

“As you wish,” General Thorne said. He patted her left breast, affectionately. “The next few days are going to be really interesting.”

“Only for you,” Tiffany said.

“Oh, for you too,” General Thorne said. “Quite a few people learn interesting things about themselves just by seeing what hallucinations their minds produce.”

* * *

It was growing colder.

There was no thermostat in the tiny apartment, nothing to suggest what the temperature actually was, but Rupert McGillivray had no trouble realizing that it was getting colder and colder. It was so cold that he was having trouble sleeping. His bones ached and creaked as he struggled to keep himself busy. The landlord hadn’t bothered to install heating elements, despite a number of governmental regulations insisting on keeping the building warm at all times. It wasn’t as if anyone gave a damn, after all.

He poured himself a cup of powdered soup as he sat down at the table and inspected — again — the terminal. It was hard to maintain any sort of link to the planetary database, even though he’d spent the last month trying to access some of the hidden accounts buried deep within the banking system. It was galling to know he could have moved himself to a far superior apartment within hours, if he hadn’t been sure it would attract attention. The Emperor’s goons would be watching for him. And even if they weren’t, it would be too easy to fall into bad habits.

Cursing under his breath — even buying food was tricky, in the slums — he logged into one of the message accounts and blinked in surprise. A message was waiting for him, marked with a code that only a couple of Brothers knew. Rupert hesitated — he’d assumed that Professor Kratman had been killed by the Emperor — and then opened the message. If someone had tracked it through the datanet, the mere act of logging into the account would reveal his location.

Assuming they can track me back through all the datanodes, he reminded himself. ONI was good — he had a healthy respect for their WebHeads — but Earth’s datanet was a shambolic mess. He’d voted to repair or rebuild the network, or perhaps just install a new one, yet he’d always been outvoted. For once, his political isolation had actually worked in his favor, making it harder for the Emperor to track him down. And even if they can...

He opened the message and swore as he realized there were a whole series of attachments accompanying the text. Tara Prime had been destroyed — by the Emperor. For a long second, Rupert’s heart skipped a beat. The Brotherhood had backed Marius Drake, using its influence to ensure the Grand Senate couldn’t simply marginalize him, but for what? If Tara Prime had been destroyed, and it had, it was impossible to escape the conclusion that they’d allowed a monster to take control of the Federation.

And when he opened the attachments, he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Emperor was mad.

He shivered. If the Emperor was willing to butcher over four billion humans, what was he not willing to do? Destroy Earth? Or AlphaCent? Or resist to the last when — if — the rebels came to depose him? How many more people were going to die?

Rupert felt his hands shaking in shock. How much of the whole affair was his fault? He’d been the one to propose, to insist, that the Brotherhood use Marius Drake. And now the Brotherhood was effectively gone and Tara Prime was dead.

I can’t stay in hiding any longer, he told himself. There were a handful of contacts left, he hoped, men and women who’d remained undiscovered because he was the only one who’d known their names and faces. Contacting them was a risk — the Emperor would redouble his efforts to find him — but he owed it to his conscience to take the chance. I have to get the word out.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Like all Grand Senators, he’d feared the mob, even as he’d sought to placate it. But the Emperor would act to crush it, if the mob rioted on Earth after it learned what had happened to Tara Prime. Hundreds of thousands of people would die...

... And yet, they’d die too if the Outsiders retaliated in kind.

Gritting his teeth, he downloaded the last of the attachments to his terminal and went to work, putting together a news broadcast. There were censors in the news offices, he knew, but his contacts could circumvent them, if they tried. The government would act at once, of course, to stop the broadcasts, yet it would be too late. Word would be out and spreading.

God help us, he thought. He shivered, again. It was hard to escape the feeling that he wasn’t long for the world, whatever happened. The cold was seeping into his bones. Millions of others, though, would be putting their lives at risk if they rioted against the Emperor. But at least they’ll have a fighting chance.

Praying he was right, he tapped the terminal and sent the message.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Riots on Earth were not, in and of themselves, a major problem. Riots spreading to the industrial nodes, on the other hand, were a serious headache.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4102

“Emperor,” Lawrence Tully said. “I think we have a problem.”

Marius snarled at him. He had too many problems. His wife was a traitor, his former protégé was advancing on AlphaCent, and his other admirals were clearly showing signs of treachery themselves. Starships and personnel that he’d ordered back to Earth, to stand in defense of the homeworld, had yet to appear. It was clear some of the admirals he’d appointed were considering becoming warlords.

And now Tully had a problem? “What problem?”

Tully looked nervous, but stood his ground. “A broadcast just started to go out from all of the major entertainment companies,” he said. “The same broadcast. They’re showing images of the destruction of Tara Prime, sir, and blaming it on us.”

Marius stared at him. “How?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Tully said. “The censors should have stopped the program getting out, but it’s on all the major channels and it’s spreading through the datanet. It’ll be halfway to Mars by now!”

“I see,” Marius said. He fought to control his temper. Someone — someone else — had betrayed him and they would pay, in time. But, for the moment, he had to cope with the disaster they’d unleashed. “Is the broadcast still going out?”

“Yes, sir,” Tully said. “The media companies say they can’t stop it.”

Marius snarled in frustration. “Order the troops to take the broadcasting headquarters, then shut the transmission down by any means necessary,” he said. “And then tighten up planetary security. I want the people responsible caught.”

“Yes, sir,” Tully said.

It was the surviving Brothers, Marius thought, as Tully scurried off to do his bidding. They had always known how to steer the media, and it was quite likely they’d embedded commands and hidden programming into the broadcasting networks. ONI was still picking apart the network of shell companies and corporations that masked the Brotherhood’s activities, but it was clear that many of them did business with the media companies. No doubt they’d supplied software to the companies that had backdoors worked into the programming. And if the software itself had gone rogue, nothing short of physically destroying the transmitters would be enough to stop the broadcasts going out.

He closed his eyes as his head began to pound. Someone had betrayed him; someone had downloaded footage from the fleet and passed it to the Brotherhood. But who? Or... the timing was just about right for a message forwarded from Admiral Garibaldi, who was accompanied by the traitor Kratman. Marius had practically sealed the Gateway, but even he couldn’t keep Earth isolated from the rest of the Federation indefinitely. The bonds holding the Federation together were already far too weak.

A new alert popped up in front of him. He swore, bitterly, when he read through the handful of words. Crowds were already gathering on Earth, outside the media companies, government installations, and dozens of other public places. He’d banned public gatherings, but the bastards didn’t seem to care. Hell, he was sure the universities were already fueling the fire by dispatching agitators to make the crowds angrier...

He tapped his terminal, feeling another flicker of bitter rage. Earth had betrayed him, just like everyone else. And it would pay.

“General Thorne,” he said, once the channel had opened. “You are ordered to use all necessary measures to keep the planet under control.”

“Aye, sir,” General Thorne said. “I’ll see to it at once.”

* * *

Lieutenant Kevin Sanderson gritted his teeth as the aircar dropped towards the giant complex on the outskirts of London, followed by a dozen more. Planetary Security had been hailing the media bastards ever since the first broadcast had gone out, but the directors of the complex hadn’t bothered to answer, no doubt considering the greatest ratings of their career to be worth more than the lives of millions of people. The lies they were spreading — and Kevin’s CO had made it clear they were lies — would get thousands of people killed in London alone.

“There are crowds gathering outside the complex,” Lieutenant Gartrell reported. “Just look at the scum.”

Kevin nodded. London was just like every other city on Earth; a handful of hard-working people, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of worthless leeches who did nothing beyond turning out the next generation of worthless leeches. It made his blood boil to think about just how many idiots were wasting their lives, while the taxpayers — men like himself — worked frantically to keep their heads above water. They preferred to drown themselves in drink or drug themselves into a stupor, rather than actually work to escape the horrors of their lives. It wasn’t as if it was hard to sign up with a colonization firm or even join the military...

“We’ll have to put ourselves down at the outskirts of the crowd,” he said. It was possible the crowd would disperse when they realized the security forces had arrived, but he had a nasty suspicion that they’d stand their ground. Crowds were only ever as smart as the stupidest person in them, and most of the workshy were very stupid indeed. “Make sure you keep your weapons in your hands at all times.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Gartrell said.

Kevin checked his own weapon as the small flight of aircars dropped to the ground. Some of the crowd took the opportunity to run, but thousands more were pouring onto the streets to join them. Dozens of alerts flashed in front of him, warning the security forces that criminals were taking advantage of the chaos to loot. He shook his head in sardonic amusement, knowing that the only people who would suffer were the Londoners themselves. Who would build a business in the city when it could be torn down and destroyed at any moment?

Children, he thought, dismissively.

He opened the hatch and led the way out, weapon at the ready. The crowd turned to face him, hundreds of faces blurring into a mass of seething hatred. He almost flinched, despite himself. Planetary Security wasn’t popular — they’d had to clean up messes during the earlier set of strikes — but he’d never seen such hatred written on so many faces. He clutched his rifle tighter as the other aircars unloaded their troops. Ideally, he’d set up barricades and force the crowds away from the complex, but there was no time. One didn’t advance in Planetary Security by creatively reinterpreting one’s orders.


The crowd murmured angrily, but didn’t move. Kevin felt his chest contract in fear as the anger grew stronger, fighting down the urge to run or open fire. He didn’t want to open fire, he didn’t want to kill so many people... and yet it was starting to look as though he had no choice. Gritting his teeth, he took a step forward, but the crowd stood its ground. The remainder of the troopers followed him, moving too slowly for the crowd to believe they were trying to be intimidating. It was all too clear that they were nervous...

Someone threw a rock. Kevin barely had a second to register it before it struck Trooper Powell, sending him to his knees. Lieutenant Gartrell opened fire, aiming his rifle right into the heart of the crowd. Kevin opened fire himself, spraying bullets into the crowd. It flinched, then roared with anger and lunged forward. All of a sudden, Kevin was knocked onto his back, and there was nowhere to run. Hands tore at his uniform, feet stamped on his chest...

... And then there was nothing but darkness.

* * *

Tadd had never had any real ambitions in life, beyond surviving as long as possible. He’d left school at sixteen with a useless set of grades, then spent the next four years of his life drifting in and out of the gangs while drinking, whoring and taking drugs. Indeed, he couldn’t be said to have any political ideas at all. He’d only joined the crowd because it looked like a good chance to do some pick-pocketing while shouting his disdain at the government’s officers. The meddling scum deserved everything they got...

... And then the shooting had started.

Left to his own devices, Tadd would have run. He knew himself to be a coward; brave men died on the streets of London, trying to prove their manhood even as the last breath drained from their bodies. But the crowd pushed him forward, fueling his anger towards the security forces and everyone else who’d meddled with his life. He slammed into one of the troopers, knocked him to the ground and stamped on his throat. Behind him, the crowd roared as it tore the troopers apart and then headed for the aircars. They were on fire before it occurred to anyone, even Tadd, that they might have been gainfully sold for beer money.

“To the streets,” someone shouted. “Death to the pigs!”

The crowd lunged onwards. Tadd, somehow, managed to get to the edge of the street and drop down, curling up into a ball as the crowd raged around him. The shouting was terrifyingly powerful, a lure that threatened to pull him into the maelstrom; he covered his ears, trying hard to keep from surrendering to the call. He’d never been a gangster, not really; he’d never been committed to anything. And yet, the call reached for him, pulling him towards the crowd. It was all he could do to keep himself low until the crowd raged off towards the nearest police station.

He uncurled, slowly, and looked around. The street was littered with dead bodies; men, women and children, lying where they’d fallen. Tadd had gloried in watching the violent broadcasts on the entertainment channels, where gladiators died on the bloody sands to please their viewers, but this was something different. He looked down at a body and shuddered, fighting down the urge to vomit. The body was so badly mangled that it was impossible to tell if it was male or female, young or old. He looked away, then shuddered as he saw a young woman taking her final breath. The entire lower half of her body was missing.

Shit, he thought, numbly. It was impossible to avoid the sense that he was in hell. What happened?

Somehow, he managed to stumble forward. The sound of rioting in the distance was growing stronger, but there was another sound, someone pleading, much closer. He peered into the dark alleyway and winced as he saw a female trooper struggling desperately against two thugs ripping off her uniform. A third was already removing his trousers, preparing to rape her. Tadd found himself torn between an unholy desire to watch as one of the hated bitches was taught a lesson and the urge to flee. The gangsters wouldn’t hesitate to kill him if they knew he’d seen their faces...

He glanced up as a pair of helicopters flew overhead, then started to hurry away from the alley and down the street. It didn’t look as though there would be any safety for the next few hours, not after so many troopers had been killed. They’d want revenge, he knew; there was nothing more certain to upset the natural order than a trooper or two being killed. And there had been at least forty in the group that had been overwhelmed and battered to pieces by the mob.

Shit, he thought again. He’d seen enough movies to know how it would go down. The troopers would secure the area, then move in and arrest everyone. They’d all be sent to a colony world along the Rim, if they were lucky. Now what do I do?

* * *

“The mob is attacking the police station, sir,” Lieutenant Ruth Davis said. She peered down from the helicopter as it wheeled over London. Hundreds of thousands of people were swarming around the police station, trying to break through the defenses. It didn’t look as though they were having much luck, but it was only a matter of time. “I can’t see any surviving troopers on the ground.”

Sweat trickled down her back as she wheeled the craft around, hoping the noise of the rotor blades would scare off the crowd. She wasn’t trained for this, damn it; she was a pilot, not a riot control specialist. But when she’d dared object, her CO had bawled her out in front of everyone before ordering her into the helicopter. There was an emergency, he’d said, and all hands were required on deck. And he was right, except Ruth wasn’t remotely sure what to do. Her helicopter was armed...

“Check again,” the CO ordered. “They can’t all be dead?”

“I can see bodies,” Ruth said, flatly. She guided the helicopter to where the riot had started and peered down, again. Six or seven aircars were burning, surrounded by hundreds of bodies, both civilian and military. “But none of them appear to be moving.”

“Very well,” the CO said. “You are authorized to open fire on the crowd.”

Ruth felt her mouth fall open in shock. “Sir...?”

“You are authorized to open fire on the crowd,” the CO repeated. “That is a direct order, which you may have in writing if you wish.”

“Sir...” Ruth said again. “I...”

She swallowed, hard. She’d been a trooper long enough to know that no one, absolutely no one, requested or received orders in writing. Her superiors had no interest in creating a paper trail that might be used against them and anyone foolish enough to request written orders could kiss their careers goodbye. And yet... and yet, if her CO was actually offering written orders.

“They killed over a hundred troopers,” the CO snarled. “They deserve to die.”

“Acknowledged, sir,” Ruth said. She tapped a switch, deactivating the safety, as she brought the helicopter back to the police station. The crowd hurled sticks and stones at her, but they might as well have been hurling spit-balls for all the good they did. “Weapons online...”

She gritted her teeth. Her comrades were dead and she wanted to avenge them, yet... yet she knew she was about to commit mass murder. But what choice did she have? Her career would be in the shitter if she failed to follow orders, no matter what the orders were. There was no room for whiners, naggers and shirkers in Planetary Security. And to think she’d thought it was an easy billet when she’d signed up.

“Targets locked,” she said. She tapped a switch. “Firing now.”

Her machine guns opened fire, yammering loudly as they flailed the crowd with thousands of bullets. She saw hundreds of people knocked to the ground, a handful of bodies disintegrating under the impact, then swore as her threat receiver pinged an alert. She’d flown low, without taking precautions, because she’d known she wasn’t in any real danger...

She swore as she saw the missile — where the hell had that come from? — and yanked her helicopter up, too late. The missile slammed into the helicopter, sending the craft crashing towards the ground...

... And slamming down hard enough to explode in a colossal fireball.

* * *

“It’s gotten worse, sir,” Tully said. “General Thorne’s measures have not succeeded. We now have fighting in half a dozen cities.”

He paused. “And there’s some quite heavy weaponry involved,” he added. “We’ve lost four helicopters and a dozen drones to MANPADs.”

Marius sucked in his breath. “Order in reinforcements,” he said. There was no longer any time for half-measures. Admiral Garibaldi was less than a week from Sol, unless he failed to force his way into AlphaCent. “I want those cities crushed.”

“Yes, sir,” Tully said. He looked doubtful. “Do you wish to pass the orders to General Thorne in person?”

Marius nodded. “Concentrate on keeping the riots from spreading to the asteroids or the moon,” he said. By now, word would have reached the Gateway and jumped through to AlphaCent. The damned message packet that had started all the trouble might have bootstrapped itself into AlphaCent’s datanet. “Earth itself is immaterial.”

* * *

Rupert McGillivray would have been excited, if he hadn’t known the Emperor still held most of the cards. The media broadcasts had been taken off the air, but the original broadcast was still moving through the datanet, well ahead of any attempt to erase it once and for all. And shutting down the media had only made things worse — huge crowds had thronged onto the streets after their favorite programs had been cancelled — and rumors were spreading widely. A population that hadn’t really cared when an entire planet died had turned to rioting after their entertainment had been cut off...

... But the Emperor could still crush the rioters.

It would be easy, Rupert knew. There were millions of illicit weapons in the cities, but the Emperor controlled the high orbitals and the fleet. He could bombard the cities into submission, one at a time, or simply destroy the entire planet. Rupert had no doubt Marius Drake could rationalize it to himself, if he tried. Sol might have a huge industrial base, despite centuries of mismanagement, but Earth herself was nothing but trouble. Why not let the population die?

I have to get a message back to the rebels, he thought. He wasn’t an expert, but he had a fair idea just how long it would take for the rebels to reach Earth. And tell them we need them here as soon as possible.

Gritting his teeth, he went to work.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

In some ways, AlphaCent was more important to the Federation than Sol. Nine Asimov Points circled the star, allowing messages to be slipped up the chains faster than they could be dispatched from Earth. And the planet’s population was often much more industrious than Earth’s. Indeed, it was generally believed that losing AlphaCent would cost the Federation everything.

And, as it turned out, they were right.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

AlphaCent/Earth, 4102

“The drones are returning, Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. She sounded rather perplexed. “The remaining fortresses are surrendering.”

Roman frowned. “They are?”

“They’re signaling surrender, Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “Four of them aren’t even damaged yet!”

“Odd,” Roman muttered.

It made no sense. There had been twelve fortresses covering the Maidstone Point, backed up by hundreds of automated weapons platforms and thousands of mines. He’d launched two salvos of assault pods through the point, but he’d assumed that he’d need to fire off at least five more before he could start sending smaller ships into the fray. Instead, the seven surviving fortresses were trying to surrender, even though they could still have forced him to expend dozens of ships destroying them.

“Send the first attack ships through the point, then have them ready to send marines to secure the fortresses,” he ordered, finally. Was it a trap? Maybe, but if they were faking a surrender to lure him in close, he’d have every legal right to slaughter every last one of them — and they knew it. “And ready a third flight of assault pods.”

He waited, feeling the seconds ticking away, until the next set of courier drones popped out of the Asimov Point. “They surrendered,” Lieutenant Thompson said, in disbelief. “The marines are on the fortresses, the minefield has been deactivated, and the crews are ready to be transferred to internment camps.”

“Take us through the point,” Roman ordered. He’d expected to have to fight to break into AlphaCent, let alone Earth itself. “What the hell is going on?”

There was no answer until the fleet secured the Asimov Point and started the long crawl towards the Gateway. “There’s a civil war going on,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “If some of the transmissions are to be believed, AlphaCent has risen against the Emperor. And there’s another war going on in the Sol System.”

“Shit,” Roman said. He studied the display for a long moment. It looked as though AlphaCent’s massive orbital defenses had turned on themselves. Fortresses were hurling missiles at other fortresses, rather than attacking starships. “Why?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson admitted. “I can ask the marines to interview the prisoners, if you like?”

“Do it,” Roman ordered. “And keep us well away from any local forces. I don’t want to get tangled up in their civil war.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

The picture grew clearer as more data flowed into the starship’s sensors, accompanied by hundreds of messages from various factions on the planet’s surface. There had been riots on Earth, sparked off by a message about the destruction of Tara Prime... and rumors had spread, rapidly, that AlphaCent would be scorched clean of life too. Desperate men had bonded together, planned mutinies and launched them, in isolation. Now, AlphaCent was torn apart by fighting, while there was little keeping Roman from making his way across the system to the Gateway. It was, definitely, something of a relief.

“I picked up a message tagged for me,” Professor Kratman said. “Rupert — Grand Senator McGillivray — is urging you to hurry.”

Roman swore, inwardly. “Is it a trap?”

“I don’t think so,” Kratman said. “It looks very much as though Earth, too, has risen against the Emperor.”

“They can’t hold out for long,” Elf said. “Not if the Emperor is willing to flatten the entire planet.”

“We still have to punch our way through the Gateway,” Roman said. He’d broadcast offers to accept surrender at the fortresses on the near side of the Gateway, but there had been no response. Maybe they just hadn’t had time to reply... or maybe they were still loyal to the Emperor. “We can’t speed up any further.”

“They may let us pass through without delay,” Kratman suggested.

Roman met his eyes. “Can you guarantee it?”

“No,” Kratman said. “You know I can’t.”

“Then Earth will have to take care of itself until we can force our way through the Gateway,” Roman said. He didn’t have the ties to Earth that Kratman and Elf shared — they’d both been born on Earth — but he understood their feelings. And yet, he didn’t want to risk any more of his ships than strictly necessary. “If they surrender, well and good; if not... we’ll have to fight.”

“Understood,” Kratman said.

Roman glanced at the display. “We’ll be within weapons range in seventeen hours, Professor,” he added. “The alpha crews will need to get some sleep before then.”

“So do you,” Elf said, firmly.

“Understood,” Roman said.

He was tempted, very tempted, to invite her to bed. The Gateway was a formidable obstacle, the most heavily-defended Asimov Point in the galaxy. There was no way Marius Drake would have put anything, but the most trustworthy of loyalists in command of the defenses, with strict orders to hold against all comers. They might be dead by the end of the day, no matter what happened to the battle...

... But she had work to do, as did he.

“I’ll see you on the far side,” he said, instead.

* * *

Ginny braced herself as she stepped into the Emperor’s cabin, feeling dirty after the mandatory groping session. The Blackshirts had only grown more paranoid after the uprisings on Earth, and she was grimly aware that large parts of the crew were on the verge of mutiny. Only the simple fact that they’d been stripped of all weapons, she suspected, had prevented a mutiny from already taking place. No one liked to be poked and prodded by leering men, even if it was in the name of security.

The Emperor was sitting on his sofa, watching the images from Earth. Entire cities were burning, his soldiers advancing through the rubble and massacring anyone who dared to put up a fight. The datanet was crumbling, with rogue reporters broadcasting brief snapshots of violence from the heart of the inferno, snapshots that the Emperor seemed to enjoy watching even as they made the violence worse. It was almost as if the population knew it was the end, that Earth would never rule the galaxy again.

“Ginny,” the Emperor said. He wore a bathrobe, rather than his uniform; his face was unshaven. A faint smell hung in the air, something she didn’t want to identify. “What do you have for me?”

“A report from AlphaCent,” Ginny said. She hated being the bearer of bad news. He hadn’t had her thrown out of the airlock yet, but he’d banned Tully from his presence after the Comptroller had urged him to take a more merciful approach to the rebels on Earth. “The rebels have entered the system.”

The Emperor looked up at her. “And they are on their way to the Gateway?”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. “The last report stated that they’d be challenging the defenses in less than twelve hours.”

“At last,” the Emperor said. He stood; Ginny looked away as the bathrobe yawned open. “A final chance to win.”

Ginny had her doubts. Nothing had been said overtly, but she’d grown practiced in reading between the lines and... well, it was clear that the defenders of the Maidstone Point had surrendered rather easily. With civil war on AlphaCent and communications between Earth and the rest of the Federation cut, it might be too late to save anything. And who knew if the defenders of the Gateway would feel the same way too?

The Emperor stepped into the bathroom, his voice echoing back to her. “Have the fleet moved to support the Gateway,” he said. “We’ll fight a conventional defense.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said, as she heard the shower coming to life. At least she hadn’t been ordered to join him. “A classic pattern, or a modified one?”

“The classics are always the best,” the Emperor said. “Besides, they can’t refuse battle, not this time.”

He was right, Ginny knew. The rebels had to punch through the Gateway if they wanted to win, particularly if they wanted to save something from Earth. Going the long way around might work, but it would also give the Emperor time to organize a stronger defense.

No, they couldn’t afford to back off. The defenses would tear them to shreds, assuming the crews remained loyal, but giving the Emperor time would be a dangerous mistake. And if they didn’t...

“I’ll see you on the CIC before battle,” the Emperor told her. “Now, go organize the fleet movements.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said.

* * *

“There’s still no response to our hails,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “I’m not even sure they’re hearing us.”

“They must be hearing us,” Roman said, curtly. There were seventeen fortresses defending the near side of the Asimov Point, enough firepower to give him pause. But he had no choice. He had to clear them from his path if they refused to surrender. “Send one final demand, then prepare to fire.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. There was a long pause. “No response...”

The display flickered with red icons. “They’re opening fire, sir,” she said. “Long-range missiles, Mark-IIIs by my count.”

Roman nodded. It didn’t look as though the defenders had Mark-IVs, unless they were just trying to lure him into a false sense of overconfidence. But all of the Mark-IVs had been earmarked for Fifth Fleet and Home Fleet, not the defenses of a system everyone had known to be secure. And production rates had been terrifyingly low right up until the Battle of Nova Athena.

“Order point defense to engage the missiles as soon as they enter range,” he ordered. “And return fire.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman gritted his teeth as the enemy missiles moved into his engagement envelope and started to vanish, one by one. He’d have preferred to close the range, but he didn’t dare risk having one of the enemy missiles set off a chain reaction on a superdreadnaught’s external racks, blowing the ship to atoms. The good news, as far as he could tell, was that the enemy hadn’t had time to upgrade their sensors and ECM. Fifth Fleet’s ECM was superior and the Outsider ECM better still. Hundreds of missiles were suckered away from their targets even though they made it through the point defense network.

“The fortresses are continuing to fire,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “The Marsha are offering to launch a suicide charge.”

“Denied,” Roman snapped. Aiming antimatter-packed shuttles at the fortresses, with the fortresses having plenty of time to realize the danger, was just asking for trouble. It would be better to hurl the shuttles through the Asimov Point and into the teeth of the Gateway’s defenses. “Continue the missile engagement.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman leaned back in his chair and watched, grimly, as the damage mounted. The superdreadnaught Pashing took several hits and drifted out of formation; the battlecruisers Runner and Coyote exploded into fireballs as their defenses were overwhelmed... but otherwise the fortresses seemed to be splitting their fire. It puzzled him, until he realized that Emperor Marius would want to weaken his fleet before they faced the true challenge. The tactic might even work.

“They’re not launching fighters,” he mused. The fortresses were taking damage, but otherwise holding firm. “Why not?”

“They may be trying to shield the fighters,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “The commander might not be very experienced...”

Roman shook his head. He’d been on Enterprise long enough to understand the danger of trying to keep the fighters in their launch tubes as long as possible, no matter the conditions outside the hull. One of the many — many — reasons the First Battle of Sapphire had gone pear-shaped was that the CO had tried to keep his fighters safely on the carriers, only to have the carriers caught in the ambush and destroyed before they could launch more than a handful of their starfighters. No CO worth his rank badges would try to keep his crews safe when they had a far better chance of surviving in their craft.

“I doubt it,” he said. “They may not be carrying starfighters.”

Or the starfighter crews are unreliable, he thought. They might turn on the fortresses instead of our ships.

It was plausible. Starfighter jocks tended to be among the most individualistic of officers, at least partly because they knew death could come at any time. Someone could have started a mutiny, or flatly refused to fight... he pushed the thought to one side as the fortresses belched another wave of missiles. It was what he wanted to believe, after all, and self-deceit was among the most dangerous mistakes a commander could make.

“Continue firing,” he ordered. Four of the fortresses had taken heavy damage, but were still trying to fight. “Batter their shields down.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

* * *

“Sir, the far side of the Gateway is under heavy attack,” Ginny reported, as Marius stumbled onto the command deck. “They’re taking missile fire so far, but it could get worse at any moment.”

“Or better,” Marius noted. He sat down before his legs gave out from under him. Clearly, drinking so much had been a mistake — and taking the sober-up even worse. “They won’t want to expend too much firepower on the outer defenses.”

He studied the display, feeling an odd sense of exultation. Here, at last, was an enemy he could fight. No cowardly traitors, waiting to bury a knife in his back; no faceless rebels, lurking in the shadows; no numberless insurgents, where the dead were replaced as quickly as they fell. Nothing, but starships meeting for one final time in honorable combat.

He checked his fleet’s formation, noting with satisfaction that Ginny had deployed them in a standard pattern. The invaders would clear their way through the fortresses, if they had enough firepower, only to run into the teeth of his fire.

And I won’t need to worry about burning half of Earth, he thought. It had been hard, at first, to give the order to launch KEWs; now, he hardly cared what happened, as long as he wasn’t bothered. And yet, watching Earth burn had been almost relaxing. Maybe it’s time the planet was finally put to rest.

“There’s a new update coming in, sir,” Ginny said. “Two more fortresses have been destroyed.”

“Tell the remaining fortresses to fight to the last,” Marius ordered.

He didn’t know if the order would be carried out, but — in all honesty — he didn’t much care, not since the uprisings on AlphaCent. He’d already had to strip the fortresses of their starfighter pilots after the grinning bastards had started to mutter about pretending to be sick, as if they were too important to be punished for attempted mutiny. All that really mattered, right now, was greeting Garibaldi when he poked his nose through the Gateway. There would be one final battle, and that would be the end.

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said. She paused. “I’m picking up a communication from Earth...”

“Ignore it,” Marius said. He had every confidence in General Thorne... and besides, if the General failed, it hardly mattered. Earth could burn. He no longer cared. “Concentrate on the impending battle.”

He ran through the calculations in his mind. Roman would need at least thirty minutes to deploy enough assault pods to do real damage to the Gateway, unless he’d mounted the weapons on minelayers and used them to emplace the pods. And he’d also need to reload his external racks... it was a pity, really, that there wasn’t any way to ambush his fleet while he was replenishing himself. But Marius no longer trusted anyone on AlphaCent.

“The last of the fortresses has been destroyed, sir,” Ginny reported. “None of them tried to surrender.”

“Good,” Marius grunted. He cleared his throat. “And now to make sure their deaths count for something.”

* * *

Roman watched the last fortress die with bittersweet feelings. Nineteen thousand men and women had died, unless the crews had been stripped just prior to the battle. It was possible, he supposed, but unlikely. Emperor Marius was no longer the father to his men that Roman recalled; he spent them freely, like water, as long as he thought he could win.

“There are no lifepods,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “They never even tried to escape.”

Someone must have deactivated them, Roman thought. It was rare, vanishingly rare, for a fortress to be lost with all hands. They tended to survive long enough for the crew to jump to the pods, even if they were quite definitely doomed. The bastards wanted the crews to die with their fortresses.

He pushed the thought away, savagely. “Are the missile ships ready to go?”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “And the Marsha shuttles are ready to follow up.”

Roman took a breath. This was it, the final battle. Either they broke into the Sol System, which would be the end of the war, or they were crushed.

There was no middle ground, not any longer. Either they won or they died.

“Signal the fleet,” he ordered.

He tried to think of something to say, something that would inspire the crew, but nothing came to mind. He’d have to think of something later, something that could be added to the history books. It struck him, in a moment of amusement, that all the other admirals might have done the same thing. How many of the dramatic statements they’d been forced to memorise had really been made up on the spot?

“Signal the fleet,” he repeated. “We’re going home.”

He took a breath. “Commence attack pattern delta,” he added. “I say again, commence attack pattern delta.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

And so everything came down to one final battle...

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

AlphaCent/Earth, 4102

“Admiral,” Ginny said. “We have assault pods transiting the gateway... and shuttles.”

Marius leaned forward, surprised. So quickly?

“Order the CSP to intercept,” he snapped, although he knew it was wasted breath. The starfighters would swoop in to take out as many of the pods as possible before they opened fire, although the shuttles were an odd step. More suicide shuttles? Or... what? “And warn the forts to brace for attack.”

He cursed under his breath as the pods opened fire, spewing an endless stream of short-range missiles into space. Their targeting sensors had clearly been improved, part of his mind noted; they’d orientated themselves far faster than he would have believed possible. He wondered, absently, if the Outsiders had managed to get a clear look at the forts before the system went into lockdown, but decided it was unlikely. Even if they had, the forts had shifted position before the attack began in earnest.

Should have kept our own pods, he thought, grimly. He’d thrust Earth’s stockpile of assault pods forward for the drive on Nova Athena, then ordered the industrial node to focus on producing long-range missiles. In hindsight, it had been a mistake. Given them a taste of their own medicine.

“The shuttles are crammed with antimatter,” Ginny reported, as one of the shuttles vanished in a blinding white flash. “They must have stuffed containment chambers into every last square inch of their hulls.”

Marius frowned as the display fuzzed for a long moment, then came back into focus, informing him that a number of starfighters, mines and automated weapons platforms had been wiped out by the blast. It was no consolation to note that the blast had also wiped out a number of enemy missiles. Roman Garibaldi wouldn’t have challenged the Gateway without a massive stockpile of assault missiles at his disposal. Hell, he might have been able to obtain more at Tara Prime. Admiral Vincent might have intended to secure control of a handful of other junctions by force.

“Or they just reengineered the craft with a single vast containment chamber,” Marius observed. The part of him that still enjoyed puzzles toyed with it for a long moment — it wasn’t as if a suicide craft needed anything more than engines and a simple control system — before putting the matter aside. “Order the fortresses to target the shuttles with long-range missiles.”

He cursed as a second wave of assault pods materialized through the Asimov Point, followed by a flight of shuttles and gunboats. The shuttles flew off in all directions, some aiming at the fortresses while others seemed to be flying into empty space, as the gunboats opened fire on the CSP. Marius gritted his teeth, helplessly, as he realized what his former protégé was trying to do. The starfighters had to wipe out the assault pods before they could open fire, but the gunboats were making it difficult. And the first wave of missiles was approaching its target...

“Gateway Three is reporting heavy damage, sir,” Ginny said. “Gateway Five has lost communications. Gateway Six has lost her outermost shield generators...”

“Tell them to keep firing,” Marius snapped.

His head started to pound, again, as wave after wave of assault pods transited the Gateway, throwing thousands of missiles against the defenses. Hundreds were wasted, picked off by the point defense or simply lost in the ongoing sea of electromagnetic distortion, but hundreds more found their targets. They were followed by shuttles, trying desperately to ram their hulls into the fortress shields. A single shuttle struck an almost-undamaged fortress and exploded so violently that the fortress was completely crippled. Another shuttle, hot on its tail, completed the destruction before a single crewman could escape.

“Gateway Nine has been destroyed,” Ginny reported. “Gateway Six has taken heavy damage...”

Marius cursed, yet again. Those damnable shuttles hadn’t just been aimed at his fortresses, they’d been aimed at his minefields and automated weapons platforms. Each antimatter blast had cleared great reaches of space, ensuring that Garibaldi would have plenty of room to manoeuvre his ships once he finally began the main offensive. Marius knew he’d come, unless the Gateway held; Garibaldi had no choice.

This was the battle.

He rubbed at his forehead, then reached for the packet of pills and popped two into his mouth. No matter what happened, he needed a clear head for the next hour or two. After that... depending on the outcome of the battle, it was unlikely to matter.

“Another wave of assault pods has just transited the gateway,” Ginny reported. “They’re accompanied by over a hundred shuttles.”

Marius nodded, shortly. “Order the fortresses to attempt to engage,” he said, as the shuttles picked up speed and flashed away from the Asimov Point. There was no point in trying to direct the CSP to handle the shuttles, not when it would mean mutual destruction. “And then send a message to Home Fleet. The enemy will make their appearance soon.”

* * *

Roman silently tallied up the latest set of reports with a profound feeling of dissatisfaction. He’d expended hundreds of assault pods and thousands of missiles — along with over five hundred shuttles and gunboats — but the Gateway was still formidable, despite the staggering damage it had taken. Earth’s gateway to the galaxy was defended by no less than twenty-four fortresses and innumerable automated defenses; he knew, based upon the reports, that they had destroyed or crippled only seven of them. And he was running out of assault pods.

And we can’t withdraw, he thought, numbly. We have to go on.

“Order the first wave to commence attack,” he said. “And tell them they’re authorized to deploy the latest ECM.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman forced himself to watch as the next wave of icons reached the Asimov Point and vanished, accompanied by a swarm of assault pods, gunboats and shuttles. It was a shame the latest Outsider ECM couldn’t be fitted to the pods, although there had been so many sensors surrounding the Gateway that the ECM would probably not have been as effective as the designers had promised.

And many of those young men and women are going to die, he thought. And I’m not there with them.

* * *

“The next wave of attackers has transited the Gateway,” Ginny reported. “Sir, they’re accompanied by smaller ships!”

Marius bared his teeth. This was it! The real attack had finally begun.

“Send in the reserves,” he ordered, as the enemy assault pods began to spew yet more missiles. “Tell them they may fire at will.”

“Aye, sir,” Ginny said. “I...”

She broke off. Marius leaned forward in disbelief as the missiles on the display doubled, then tripled; hundreds of thousands of missiles, according to his sensors, were advancing on the remaining fortresses, an avalanche of missiles that could not possibly be stopped. For a moment, his heart seemed to freeze in his chest; he found it terrifyingly difficult to breathe...

“Sensor decoys,” he choked out. “They have to be decoys...”

Ginny spun around to face him. “Sir...”

Marius forced himself, somehow, to breathe, despite his fading vision. “Tell the fortresses that they have to be decoys,” he said. “Sensor illusions...”

He clutched hold of his command chair, feeling his heartbeat start to stutter erratically. They had to be ECM decoys — and, with the Gateway’s sensor net so badly degraded by the earlier attacks, it would be impossible to separate the real missiles from the decoys. No wonder the rebels had seemed so unconcerned about the fate of their shuttles. They hadn’t been trying to inflict damage so much as blind his sensors, in preparation for this moment.

“I’m calling the doctor,” Ginny said.

“No,” Marius said. On the display, the reserve starfighters were already racing towards the enemy ships. “I’m staying on the bridge...”

“You’re going to collapse,” Ginny said. “I need to get you to sickbay...”

“You’re dismissed,” Marius rasped. Had even she betrayed him at the end? “Go fetch Lieutenant Hashimoto. He can take over as tactical assistant.”

Ginny stared at him for a long moment. Marius stared back at her with morbid fascination, wondering just what she’d do. Call the medics anyway, against his orders, or summon a replacement before leaving the CIC? Perhaps it had been a mistake to have only the two of them in the compartment, but he’d trusted her...

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said, finally. “I’ll have Lieutenant Hashimoto sent in at once.”

She saluted, then left the compartment. Marius barely noticed as he switched tactical control to his console. It was far from ideal, but it would hold long enough for Lieutenant Hashimoto to arrive. On the display, the fortresses were reeling under repeated hammer blows; their defenses hadn’t been able to cope with the sudden multiplication of threats. Five more had been destroyed, while the remainder were badly damaged. And wave after wave of enemy ships were slipping through the Gateway, their carriers spitting out starfighters before hastily reversing course and vanishing back through the Asimov Point.

I taught him this, Marius thought, feeling an odd flicker of pride. He’d never had children, even though — as a man who’d married into the aristocracy — he’d been expected to have children. Tiffany and he had talked about it, but he’d known he wouldn’t be a good father to a young baby. Roman Garibaldi was the closest thing he had to a son. And look what’s become of us.

A new set of icons appeared on the display, one by one. Marius knew, long before the sensors identified them, that the newcomers were superdreadnaughts. Roman Garibaldi was sending them through in a tight stream, taking the risk of a collision in stride just to ensure he had plenty of firepower through the Gateway before Home Fleet or the remaining fortresses could intervene. They were accompanied by yet more shuttles, racing off to throw themselves at the fortresses. Marius wondered, absently, just how they could kill themselves so casually, then pushed the thought aside. Both sides knew there would be no second chance at total victory.

His console beeped. He opened his mouth to order the message displayed before remembering that he was alone. Where was Lieutenant Hashimoto? He keyed the switch, then blinked in surprise as General Thorne’s face popped up in front of him. Somehow, he was sure it wasn’t good news. Whatever had gone wrong, thanks to the curse of time-delayed communications, had taken place hours ago.

“Emperor,” General Thorne said. “There have been a string of mutinies among the orbital defenses of Earth. Fighting has broken out on a dozen settlements on Luna and Mars. My forces on Earth have even been targeted from orbit...”

Marius clutched his chest as the full weight of the message sank in. He’d lost. Even if he stopped the rebels from taking the Gateway, there was no hope of rebuilding Earth’s industry before a rebel admiral punched through the remains of the defenses and secured the system, destroying the Federation once and for all. And then another admiral would boot him out, and then another, and then another...

He’d lost. Everything he’d done had been for nothing. He’d...

His vision blurred. Darkness howled at the corner of his mind. He fought to remain conscious, but it was no longer possible...

* * *

“Home Fleet is advancing to reinforce the Gateway,” Lieutenant Thompson reported.

Roman nodded, curtly. Home Fleet had been badly weakened at Tara Prime, but there were still four squadrons of superdreadnaughts and thousands of starfighters. It looked as though Emperor Marius had commandeered every last ship in the system too, bolting weapons onto freighter hulls as if it would turn them into warships. Roman wondered just how enthusiastic the crews were about their missions, then decided it probably didn’t matter. If Emperor Marius was prepared to take Admiral Vincent’s children as hostages, he probably wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to freighter crews.

The economy is going to be fucked, he thought, numbly. There were freighters... but also ore miners, worker bees and hundreds of other civilian craft. Replacing them all would take years, even with an intact industrial base. He’s throwing everything he has at us, just in the hopes that some of those vessels will take a missile aimed at a superdreadnaught.

“Start transmitting the surrender demand,” Roman said. “And order all ships to assume attack formation.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

* * *

If there was one advantage to being the Emperor’s most trusted tactical aide when the shit was about to hit the fan, it was the right to keep her sidearm when no one else was allowed such an advantage. Ginny hadn’t let the weapon leave her side since the news from AlphaCent had arrived, despite angry mutterings from the Blackshirts. Who knew what would happen when — if — the superdreadnaught was boarded?

She gripped the weapon in her sweaty palms as she paused outside the brig, then keyed open the hatch and stepped into the compartment. A Blackshirt was on guard, sitting on a stool and reading a datapad. Ginny lifted her weapon and shot him before he had a chance to register her presence. She watched the body carefully for a long moment — she’d practiced extensively in the shooting range, but she knew she wasn’t a natural — then hurried over to the sealed compartment. The hatch opened at her command, allowing her to step inside. Lady Tiffany was naked, lying on a bed, her hands and feet secured to keep her immobile.

“Ginny,” Tiffany said. She sounded weak, but at least she was alive. “What’s happening?”

“I’m getting you out of here,” Ginny said. She was tempted to try to run — the shuttlecraft might be guarded, but stealing a lifeboat wouldn’t be hard — yet she knew she had to try to do something to stop the coming slaughter. “Your husband has snapped completely.”

Tiffany sat upright the moment Ginny removed the band covering her throat. “Just completely?”

“The rebels are attacking the Gateway,” Ginny said, ignoring the comment. “And even if we win, we lose.”

She hoped Tiffany knew what to do, even though she’d been a helpless prisoner for the last two weeks. Because... she didn’t know what to do. Because she knew hardly anyone would listen to her. She was the Emperor’s favorite, after all. She might as well have been the teacher’s pet.

“Take me to him,” Tiffany said.

* * *

“There’s no response to our surrender demand,” Lieutenant Thompson reported. “However, a handful of fortresses have stopped firing on us.”

Roman frowned. Surrendering... disabled... or playing possum?

“Keep us well clear of them,” he ordered, flatly. The fleet was already sweeping the remainder of the minefields out of space, while bracing itself to withstand Home Fleet’s final charge. “I take it Home Fleet has not responded?”

“No, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Then inform the fleet,” Roman said. “We will open fire once Home Fleet enters attack range.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

* * *

Tiffany could feel her heartbeat racing as she stumbled through the maze of corridors, silently grateful that she’d had a chance to snatch a pair of trousers and a jacket even if they had come from a dead man. She had no doubt he would have killed Ginny and herself, if given the chance; General Thorne might well have issued orders to make sure Tiffany was never allowed to talk to her husband one final time. Who knew? Maybe she’d succeed in convincing him that Thorne was a snake in the grass.

“I didn’t call another aide,” Ginny said, as they approached the tactical compartment. “He should be alone.”

There was no one on duty outside the hatch, somewhat to Tiffany’s surprise. But then, her husband’s paranoia had just been growing stronger and stronger. He’d probably decided to ensure that the entire crew, save for combat-essential personnel, were kept in their quarters, where they couldn’t harm anyone. The fact that they couldn’t escape, either, wouldn’t bother him.

The hatch hissed open, revealing a darkened compartment, illuminated only by a giant tactical display. Ginny muttered a curse under her breath as she glanced at the display, then started to look around. Tiffany sucked in her breath as she saw her husband, lying on the deck; Ginny hurried to the tactical console while Tiffany stepped over to kneel down beside Marius. He was still alive, somehow, but his face was flushed and his breathing was erratic.

“The fleet is requesting orders,” Ginny said. “There’s no one who can take the Emperor’s place.”

Tiffany looked up. “There’s no second-in-command?”

“None was appointed,” Ginny confirmed. “We’re currently closing in on the main body of the rebel fleet. In two minutes, perhaps less, we’ll be in firing range. And the winner will be the person who has one or two ships left.”

Tiffany took a breath. “Can you issue orders?”

“Yes,” Ginny said. “They’d think they’d come straight from the emperor.”

“Then tell the fleet to stand down and surrender,” Tiffany said. She cradled her husband’s head in her arms. It would be easy to let him die, but she found herself unable to just walk away. “And then call the medics.”

This could be a mistake, her thoughts warned her. She’d never anticipated Roman Garibaldi turning on her husband, although she had to admit she understood why he’d switched sides and dedicated himself to overthrowing Marius. The Outsiders may want revenge for everything the Grand Senate did to them.

But at least the war will be over, she told herself. And there are no other aristocrats left on the Sol System.

“The rebels have accepted our surrender,” Ginny said. “They’re insisting that we cut all drives and lower our shields in preparation to be boarded.”

“Do it,” Tiffany ordered. “Where are those medics?”

“On their way,” Ginny said.

Tiffany nodded. She just hoped they arrived in time.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

What did Marius Drake and Roman Garibaldi say to one another, when they met for the final time? No one knows... but generations of historians, writers and politicians have speculated endlessly.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4102

“You do realize this could be a trap?”

Roman nodded, shortly. Elf was right; it could be a trap. Lady Tiffany inviting — practically begging — him to meet her husband one final time, before his death, hadn’t been on the list of things he’d anticipated. And the confusion gripping the system would make it easy for someone to carry out an assassination, if that was what they wanted to do. Home Fleet was barely under control, the remaining fortresses still menaced passage through the Gateway...

... And Earth, Mars and Luna were consumed with civil war.

And we now know that five admirals and over a hundred major systems have declared independence, he thought, darkly. We can’t stay here indefinitely or we’ll be cut off from Boston and the Rim.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, as the shuttle made its slow way towards Enterprise. “But I have to see him. I have to know.”

Elf gave him a sharp look. “Know what?”

“I wish I knew,” Roman admitted. What could he expect from Marius Drake? And why did he expect anything? He’d respected the man, even seen him as a father-figure, but those feelings were long gone. Marius Drake had attempted to commit genocide months before he’d slaughtered billions on Tara Prime. “I just think I want closure.”

“Hah,” Elf said. She settled back into her seat, crossing her arms under her breasts. “You just want everything neatly wrapped up with a bow.”

Roman wanted to deny it, but he had a feeling she was right. He scowled inwardly, then peered out of the portal as the superdreadnaught came into view. Seeing the superdreadnaught gave him an odd pang, if only because he still had no idea what had happened to the original Enterprise. The giant supercarrier had been his first command, although not one he’d been expected to hold for long. He’d only become her commander because everyone above him in the chain of command had been killed.

I could check the records when we reach Earth, if there’s anything left by then, he thought, wryly. Or simply chalk it up as a permanently unsolved mystery.

He braced himself as the shuttle docked, a dull thud echoing through the tiny craft as she matched gravity fields with the superdreadnaught. There was a platoon of marines already onboard, carrying an antimatter mine just in case the crew intended to do something stupid, but it didn’t make him feel safe.

Elf was right. If Marius Drake intended to launch an ambush, out of hatred or rage or a bitter determination to see the galaxy burn, the marines were unlikely to be able to help. They’d all die together.

But I have to know, he thought, as the hatch hissed open. He rose, allowing Elf to lead the way through the hatch. Even if it kills me, I have to know.

A young redheaded woman wearing a commander’s uniform met him as he stepped out of the hatch. “Admiral Garibaldi, I am Commander Ginny Lewis,” she said. “The Emperor is currently held in a private compartment. He has expressed a wish to speak with you.”

“Understood,” Roman said. Marius Drake was no longer emperor, but there was no point in arguing over titles with a junior officer. “Please take us to him.”

“Yes, sir,” Ginny said. She turned to lead the way up the corridor. “The doctors say he doesn’t have long to live, no matter what they do. Please don’t push him too hard.”

Roman heard Elf snort rudely, behind him, as they made their way through a set of sealed hatches. The entire ship was in lockdown and would remain so until the Blackshirts had been disarmed and the crew marched off to an internment camp, if they didn’t volunteer to join his fleet. God alone knew what would happen afterwards, Roman thought. Reports of increasing frightfulness had been filtering in through AlphaCent as word of the battle and its outcome spread. To all intents and purposes, the once-mighty Federation no longer existed.

He closed his eyes for a long moment, wondering just what shape the post-Federation galaxy would take. The Core Worlds could no longer compete on even terms, but they still had a great deal of industry, even though Marius Drake had worked it half to death. He suspected that hundreds of warlords would fight to take control of the infrastructure, or head out to the Rim where there was a chance to build something new. The old economy was doomed. It would take decades, perhaps centuries, before interstellar trade returned to its pre-war heights.

“I’ll wait outside,” Elf said, as they entered the outer compartment. Lady Tiffany sat there, her face pale and wan. She looked up and gave Roman an unreadable smile, then returned to her thoughts. “You can go in whenever you’re ready.”

Roman nodded, slowly. He knew himself to be brave — he’d led assaults through Asimov Points and defied senior officers — but the thought of stepping through the hatch and meeting Marius Drake for the final time was terrifying. His mentor, his friend... his enemy... what could they say to one another before death separated them once and for all? And yet, he knew, all too well, that if he backed out now he’d wonder, for the rest of his life, what would have happened if he had taken the risk. Gritting his teeth, he stepped up to the hatch. It hissed open and he walked through.

The light was dim, inside. A handful of medical displays glowed on the far bulkhead, but Roman only had eyes for the bed in the center of the compartment. Marius Drake was there, a handful of tubes running down from high overhead and into his body. Roman frowned, wondering, just for a second, if he’d stepped into the wrong compartment. The profile was correct, but the face was flushed and bloated. He stepped closer, trying to see what had happened to the man he’d respected and admired... but that man was gone.

Marius Drake opened his mouth. “Roman,” he rasped. He sounded as if he had to remember how to speak. “You came.”

“Yes, sir,” Roman said. “I came.”

“You betrayed me,” Marius Drake said. There was no anger in his voice, just a simple statement of fact. “You turned on me.”

“You would have killed billions of people,” Roman said. He felt a stab of guilt, mixed with anger. “You did kill billions of people.”

“I needed to preserve the Federation,” Marius Drake said. “The Outsiders would have destroyed it, given a chance.”

“Perhaps they would have,” Roman conceded. “But they didn’t slaughter billions of humans.”

“The aliens will, given half a chance,” Marius Drake rasped. “Humanity is strong because humanity is united.”

“And what did that unity get us?” Roman asked. “A Grand Senate so deeply corrupt that it was sucking the lifeblood out of the galaxy, a military where ambitious officers were plotting coups, a thousand colonies with desperate natives plotting hopeless rebellions against the Federation, because the alternative was to wind up dead. And now the Federation is coming apart at the seams!”

“You mustn’t let it come apart,” Marius Drake whispered. “I took care of the Grand Senate for you, Roman. You must deal with the other threats. Human unity must be preserved.”

“It can’t be preserved,” Roman said. “Who trusts us any longer?”

“You can make them trust you,” Marius Drake urged. His breathing grew louder as he tried to sit upright. “The war is over now. You can rebuild in peace.”

He sagged back on the bed. “Would have won, if the Outsiders hadn’t appeared,” he said. “We could have saved the Federation, we could have rebuilt the economy. But they came and the war swallowed up all my work.”

“I know,” Roman said, gently. “But the war is over now.”

“Don’t let everything go to waste,” Marius Drake pleaded. “Please!”

Roman looked down at him for a long moment, unable to untangle his feelings. Marius Drake had been his mentor, his friend, and yet he’d also been a monster who’d killed billions and slaughtered the Grand Senate personally, a man who’d triggered uprisings, civil wars and breakaways that had ripped the Federation he loved apart. Roman had no illusions about the difficulty of the task facing anyone who wanted to rebuild the Federation. The once-proud Federation Navy had been shattered, while Fortress Command and various system defense forces had declared independence. Putting it back together would require a war on the same scale as the Inheritance War, with far fewer resources at his command.

And what would it do to him, if he tried?

Marius Drake had started with good intentions. Everyone knew that, even his enemies. He’d killed the Grand Senate and started to work to restore freedom and rebuild the economy, only to be confronted with a war crisis that had destroyed all of his work. And the stresses of fighting the war had driven him mad. The decision to destroy Nova Athena, Roman suspected, had been impelled by a desire to just put an end to the war.

“I won’t,” he said. The lessons of the war — the endless conflicts from Admiral Justinian to the Outsiders and Roman himself — wouldn’t go to waste. “Marius...”

“I used to think I could do everything without resorting to brute force,” Marius said. He sounded distant, as if he no longer knew where he was. “And now... look what’s become of us.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Roman said. He’d hoped for answers, but he knew — now — he’d never get them. Or perhaps he had. The Federation was Marius Drake’s religion, after all; he’d been quite happy to do anything in her name. “I wish...”

“Don’t wish,” Marius said, sternly. Just for a second, he sounded like his old self. “Do your duty. Tobias died doing his duty.”

And what, Roman asked himself, would Tobias think of you now?

He sighed, inwardly. He’d never believed in life after death — religion had never really been a big part of his life, before or after the attack that had left him the sole survivor of his asteroid settlement. Asteroid dwellers rarely believed in any form of life after death; indeed, he’d been astonished when he discovered just how many of his comrades at the academy prayed heavily before taking their exams.

Life was neither fair nor unfair, he’d thought; it simply was. And what you got in life depended on what you made of it.

But if Marius did believe in an afterlife, who knew who he’d meet? His friend, the man who’d died saving his life, or the billions who’d died on Tara Prime?

“I couldn’t allow you to kill billions of people,” he said. “It would have been horrific.”

Marius, absurdly, smiled. “I always liked your idealism,” he said. “Mine was lost along the Rim, Roman, lost when I had to struggle to keep the pirates from tearing the colonies apart. I could have saved millions of lives if I’d had the resources to patrol the sector properly. I could have done so much.”

You’ve done more than enough, Roman thought. But it would be cruel to tell you that now.

“I did what I thought I needed to do,” Marius said. His breathing grew ragged again; Roman winced as an alarm echoed through the compartment. “But everything I did only created new problems. I thought I could take the bull by the horns...”

He gasped, his entire body shaking. Roman looked around, wondering where the hell the doctors had gone, then realized they had been banished from the compartment. Marius Drake — or Lady Tiffany — had ordered them to stay out. Was Marius Drake lucid enough to realize he didn’t want to live any longer? Or had his wife quietly arranged matters so he could die with some dignity?

“Save the Federation,” Marius said. “And don’t give up.”

He shuddered, one final time, then fell still. The alarm shut off; the displays on the far side of the compartment went blank. He was dead, dead beyond all hope of resurrection.

Roman stared down at the body for a long moment, feeling oddly conflicted. Part of him knew he should be relieved — alive, Marius Drake would be dangerous, even if it was only as a figurehead — and yet he felt saddened. Marius Drake had been a great man, once upon a time; if things had been different, he might have died a great man.

If Tobias Vaughn had survived, Roman thought. Or if I’d stayed on Earth...

He shook his head. There was no way to know what would have happened if something had been different. The Grand Senate had been tearing the Federation apart ever since the Blue Star War, their inherent greed and conservatism destroying all faith in the once-great society and ruining countless lives in its wake. Admiral Justinian hadn’t been the only warlord, after all; he’d merely been the one who’d struck first. And it would have made very little difference, Roman suspected, if Admiral Justinian had taken Earth, so many years ago.

He sighed, once. And then he reached down and gently closed Marius Drake’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said, softly. “Goodbye, Admiral.”

Turning, he strode back through the hatch and into the outer chamber. Ginny was gone, but Elf and Lady Tiffany were waiting patiently, the former calm and composed while the latter was clearly worried. Roman wondered what, if anything, she’d said to her husband before the latter’s death. She had had time, perhaps... or had she felt that Roman should be the only person to speak to him? Their marriage had been arranged, but it was clear she’d had strong feelings for him — and vice versa, as she’d survived the purge of the Grand Senate.

“He’s gone,” he said, flatly.

Lady Tiffany bowed her head for a long moment. Elf merely nodded.

“He would have wanted to be buried amidst the stars, I suspect,” Roman added. It was customary among long-serving navy officers and he couldn’t imagine Marius Drake being any different. “We will have his body prepared for burial, then conduct the ceremony before we leave the system.”

Tiffany looked up. “You’re leaving? The system is in chaos!”

“The strain of trying to hold the Federation together drove Emperor Marius mad,” Roman said, “and the tools at his disposal were far greater than those at mine. I don’t think we can hold the Federation together any longer.”

“Millions of people will die on Earth,” Tiffany protested.

“They’ll die anyway,” Elf said, coldly. Roman understood; she knew she couldn’t do much, save perhaps rescuing some of her remaining family. “There’s no way we can feed the entire planet, now the food production and distribution networks have been destroyed. I don’t even believe we can save a tiny percentage of the population.”

“There are far too many systems declaring independence and leaving the Federation,” Roman added. “Trying to force them back into the alliance will spark off another long and bloody — and futile — war. I doubt the Outsiders will assist us in reuniting the Federation.”

“Of course not,” Tiffany said. “They’ll just start snapping up worlds for the Outsider Federation.”

“Would that be a bad thing?” Roman asked. “They are planning to offer autonomy to worlds, merely adhesion to a mutual defense and trade pact. It wouldn’t be anything like as unpleasant as the Grand Senate.”

He paused. “And even if it did evolve into something worse,” he added, “at least they will have tried. The Federation failed. Rebuilding a failed structure would be nothing more than a waste of time.”

“I hope you’re right,” Tiffany said. She looked up at him, meeting his eyes. “What now?”

“We will offer to take the trained personnel to Boston with us, when we leave,” Roman said. He had no idea how many others would want to leave the Sol System, but with at least two warlords sniffing around he suspected millions of people would want to go. Boston would make a good place to build up a whole new civilization, then either join the Outsiders or remain independent. “And you too, if you wish to come with us. Or we can transfer you to Paradise...”

“It won’t be a paradise for long,” Tiffany said, shaking her head. “Even if the aristocrats survived their first year on the planet, one or more of the warlords would target them for revenge. I don’t think they’ll be left unmolested.”

“Probably,” Roman agreed. He was surprised that Marius Drake had left them unmolested, although they’d been out of his sight and mind. “Is there anyone there you want to save?”

“They never considered me one of them,” Tiffany said. She shook her head. “Let them survive or fall, Admiral. I have nothing in common with them.”

Roman nodded in understanding. “Elf and I will head back to Valiant and complete our work,” he said. “Once you bid farewell to your husband, you are more than welcome to join us. I believe your surviving bodyguard and the hostages you freed are hoping to meet you again.”

“Thank you,” Tiffany said. She looked oddly pleased, then resigned. “Nothing is ever going to be the same again, is it?”

“Probably not,” Roman said. He was used to change, but Tiffany — and Marius Drake — had been used to a stable universe. “Change is a universal constant.”

Tiffany nodded, once.

“You were in there for twenty minutes,” Elf said, once they were back in the shuttle. “What did he say to you?”

Roman hesitated. In truth, he wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss it with anyone, even Elf.

“He told me to make sure his death wasn’t in vain,” he said, finally. “And I will make sure of it, personally. We’ll never forget what giving one man absolute power can do.”

Chapter Forty

It is funny, really, just how much effort has been wasted trying to determine the last resting place of Marius Drake. In the years since the fall of the Federation, hundreds of missions have been mounted in the hopes of locating his coffin and recovering his body, some dispatched by cultists and others sent by organizations who want to make sure the former Emperor is definitely dead. But none have ever located the corpse.

—The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4102

General Charlie Stuart couldn’t help feeling an odd mixture of emotions as the fleet prepared for departure, for a voyage that would take them back through AlphaCent and Tara Prime until they finally reached Boston. On one hand, the Federation had been broken and Earth itself was consumed by civil war. But, on the other hand, Chang Li was dead and the Outsider Federation had yet to recover from her loss.

She wouldn’t have wanted to see Earth burn, Charlie told himself, as he stood in his office and studied the reports. And she would have wanted to save as many souls as we could.

The planet’s security forces had died or scattered, leaving an increasingly desperate mob battling over the remaining scraps of food. Who would have thought Earth was so close to a complete breakdown?

He looked up as the hatch chime sounded. “Enter.”

The hatch hissed open. Professor Kratman stepped through the hatch, looking surprisingly dapper in a civilian suit and tie rather than a shipsuit. Charlie’s eyes narrowed in suspicion; Kratman was Brotherhood, perhaps the sole surviving Brother. And the Brotherhood had never been keen on the idea of sundering the Federation, let alone embracing aliens as allies and... brothers.

“Professor,” he said, stiffly. “What do you want?”

Kratman didn’t appear to be fazed by the rudeness. “A few moments of your time, General.”

Charlie hesitated. It was tempting, very tempting, to tell the professor to go away. He didn’t have the time to listen to sob stories, let alone political manipulation. And yet, he was curious. Kratman had to know the Brotherhood wouldn’t be considered welcome in the Outsider Federation, so why was he here?

“Take a seat,” he said. He deliberately did not summon the steward to provide tea or coffee, something that was more insulting to the Federation than the Outsiders. Kratman could not fail to miss the unsubtle implication that he was far from welcome. “What can I do for you?”

“To the best of my knowledge, I am the last surviving member of the Brotherhood,” Kratman said, without preamble. Charlie was almost relieved. “There has been no communication from Grand Senator McGillivray since the fleet entered the Sol System. I believe, under the circumstances, that he is almost certainly dead.”

“Rendering the Imperialist Faction extinct as well as the Brotherhood,” Charlie observed, tartly. “I trust you won’t object if I don’t weep crocodile tears?”

Kratman leaned forward. “The Federation I swore to defend is gone,” he said, simply. “That’s a fact. There may be some warlords who dream of rebuilding the Federation in their own image, of converting their vest-pocket empires into something greater, but I doubt any of them have the resources to turn their dreams into reality. Even Roman, who commands the single largest force known to remain active, probably couldn’t do it.”

“He doesn’t want to do it,” Charlie said. It had been a relief. The Outsiders didn’t need another war while they sorted out the issue of just who succeeded Chang Li as Speaker. “I don’t see any reason to question his judgement.”

“The bonds that held the Federation together have snapped,” Kratman agreed, shortly. “And putting it back together is impossible.”

He leaned forward. “But that does leave us with the problem of determining what happens after the Federation.”

Charlie frowned. “I dare say we’re looking at a number of warlord states,” he said. “And us, of course.”

“And you,” Kratman agreed. A flicker crossed his face. “And your alien allies.”

“Most aliens didn’t start out hating us,” Charlie pointed out. “They only turned into human-haters after they met the Federation.”

“Something that was hardly true of the Snakes,” Kratman said. “They shot first.”

“Yes, they did,” Charlie said. “But the crimes of one alien race can hardly be rested on another, totally separate alien race.”

Kratman bowed his head. “Whatever happens afterwards... well, that’s a young man’s game,” he said. “I’m well over fifteen decades old, General, and I would be surprised if I see out one more decade. But I have a gift for you, of sorts.”

He reached into his jacket and produced a datachip, which he dropped onto the desk. “I never really expected to go into history,” he admitted. “Studying history has always been quietly discouraged in the Federation, even when I could mine history for examples I could introduce to my cadets. The Grand Senate preferred the peons to believe that the Federation had always stood, that nothing had changed from the birth of the universe till now.”

“Very few people would believe that,” Charlie sneered.

“You might be surprised,” Kratman said. “It’s astonishing what people can be convinced to believe, if they have no reliable intellectual framework with which to assess new data.”

He shrugged. “That—” he tapped the datachip “—is one of two copies of my own private historical research. The book would have been banned, without hesitation, if I’d submitted it for publication, so I chose not to make the attempt. It’s an attempt to assess the last five thousand years of political history and draw lessons for the future.”

Charlie frowned. “The last five thousand years?”

“History may not repeat itself, General, but it does rhyme,” Kratman told him, flatly. “I suggest you and the Outsiders seek to learn before it’s too late in order to avoid repeating some of the Federation’s mistakes.”

“The Federation tolerated the Brotherhood,” Charlie said, as Kratman rose. “That was a mistake.”

“Perhaps,” Kratman said. He didn’t sound offended. “The other copy, for what it’s worth, is going to Roman Garibaldi. Maybe he will draw some interesting lessons from it, too.”

* * *

“Is it wrong of me,” Tiffany asked, “to feel that I betrayed him?”

Ginny shrugged as they stood together in Valiant’s observation blister. “I don’t think you had a choice,” she said. “The Federation would have fallen far harder if Emperor Marius had remained in command. You know that to be true.”

Tiffany nodded. Two weeks after the Fall of Earth, with Admiral Garibaldi preparing to leave, a warlord had seized control of AlphaCent and threatened to deny passage back through the Asimov Point to Maidstone. It hadn’t lasted — the warlord had realized that Admiral Garibaldi outgunned him four to one — but it had been a sign that the future would be far from peaceful. If Marius had been in command, the warlord would have been obliterated instead of merely pushed out of the system.

“And yet, I feel like I did the wrong thing,” she said. “Like I could have stopped him...”

“I don’t think you could have,” Ginny said. She reached out and rested a hand on Tiffany’s shoulder. “He wasn’t listening to anyone who tried to talk him down, me included. The drugs made sure of it, too.”

“I know,” Tiffany said. She’d wanted to murder General Thorne personally, but the mob on Earth had taken care of it for her. She still had no idea why General Thorne had moved his command center to Earth, yet she found it hard to care. All that really mattered was that General Thorne had been brutally murdered when the defenses failed and the mob had stormed the building. “But I did love him.”

“Yes, you did,” Ginny said. “And I think he loved you, too. But in the end, his love for you was outweighed by his love for the Federation.”

Tiffany touched her chest, lightly. She’d thought long and hard, but she’d eventually ordered the doctor to preserve some of Marius Drake’s sperm while he was unconscious. It would be easy, when she reached Boston, to have herself impregnated with his seed, even though she had no idea what her life would be like. It wasn’t as if she had any skills the out-worlds would find useful. Maybe she could write a book about being married to the one and only emperor.

“I don’t know if we did the right thing,” Ginny said. “But all we can really do is give thanks that we’re alive.”

“I know,” Tiffany said. She peered into the endless darkness of interstellar space, the shadows broken by the light of countless stars. “And his body is out there, somewhere.”

“No one will ever find it,” Ginny assured her. “And if there is an afterlife, maybe you’ll see him again.”

Tiffany shrugged. She’d hated and resented her fellow aristocrats for looking down on her family, so abandoning them and throwing her lot in with Marius Drake had been an easy decision. He’d taken her seriously, and he’d treated her kindly when he could have easily consummated the wedding and then never seen her again. She would always love him for that...

... And, at the same time, he was a mass murderer who’d committed genocide on a planetary scale.

And someone who might be indirectly responsible for more genocides, she thought. Now the taboo has been broken, who knows what’s going to happen next?

She wrapped an arm around Ginny as the starships slowly made their way towards the Asimov Point and watched, numbly, as Sol faded in the background. It was unlikely she’d ever return, and even if she did, everything would be different. All she could do was look to the future and try to build a whole new life.

“Goodbye, Marius,” she muttered. “And farewell.”

* * *

Roman studied the display, thoughtfully, as the fleet slowly made its way towards the Gateway. There were thousands of ships, ranging from the remains of Home Fleet to countless freighters crammed with people who wanted to leave Sol and build a better life along the Rim. Roman had stripped the system of as much infrastructure as he could, including artefacts from Naval HQ and the Luna Academy, but he knew there was still a great deal to attract raiders. It wouldn’t be long before the warlords started fighting over the Sol System — and AlphaCent — in earnest.

“Admiral,” Lieutenant Thompson said. “We picked up a message from Lieutenant Ricer. He states that the special orders have been carried out.”

“Good,” Roman said. He’d given orders to have Marius Drake’s coffin quietly aimed at the Dead End, Sol’s other Asimov Points. Lacking either a drive field or sufficient mass, it would be ripped to atoms by the gravity tides and lost forever. No one would find the body, either as a cult relic or to gloat over his mortal remains. “Have them return to the ships and then we proceed through the Gateway.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman turned his attention to the system display. Earth was still wrapped in a brutal civil war as the planet’s inhabitants came to grips with the simple fact that they couldn’t feed themselves without outside support, while Mars and Luna were still skirmishing. It wouldn’t matter long, Roman thought; the warlords would probably put a stop to it when they took the system and started to loot in earnest. He wondered, absently, if they’d do anything about Earth.

But they can’t, he told himself. And nor can we.

It was a bitter thought. He’d been raised to believe that there was always an option, while the academy had taught him to have the right attitude. And yet, and yet, there was no point in wasting the fleet’s resources on Earth. He could put everyone on the fleet to work, discarding all other priorities, and it wouldn’t be enough to feed even a tiny percentage of Earth’s population. The nightmare gripping the planet was the end result of the Grand Senate’s policies, policies that Marius Drake had been unable to undo before the war overwhelmed him. There was nothing Roman could do...

... And yet it felt as though he was running away.

Marius Drake went mad trying to hold the Federation together, he reminded himself. And I will go mad if I try.

He looked at Lieutenant Thompson. “Has Lieutenant Ricer returned to the fleet?”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson said.

“Then signal the fleet,” Roman ordered. “Take us to the Gateway. It’s time to go home.”

He picked up a datapad as the fleet picked up speed and inserted the chip Professor Kratman had given him, and started to read. It wasn’t professional to read while on duty, but he was fairly sure the journey home would be uneventful. The warlords knew better than to mess with his ships, particularly as they were abandoning Sol anyway. They could wait, like the petty scavengers they were, until the system was defenseless.

The problem with history, he read, is that people who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. But it is also true that people who do learn from history are condemned to watch as the first group of people repeat it...


From: The Fall of the Federation (4502 A.D)

It is generally agreed, amongst historians, that the Federation fell in 4102, ending an era that began in 2051. Historians have alternately praised Marius Drake as the last of the great men and cursed him for a usurper who ensured that the decline and fall of the Federation became inevitable, but there is little real argument over the date. However, there is a great deal of disagreement over the why. Why did the Federation fall?

The roots of the Federation’s slow decline into civil war can be traced all the way to the Inheritance Wars, even though the wars ended in 3114. On one hand, the Inheritance Wars answered the question of whether a planet or an alliance of planets could leave the Federation — the answer was no — while, on the other hand, the Inheritance Wars made the Grand Senate, and the Federation as a whole, more authoritarian and less inclined to take concerns from the out-worlds seriously. The rise of the political triad that dominated the Federation until 4029 — the Conservative, Imperialist and Socialist Factions — only strengthened disturbingly illiberal trends in government. In short, the Conservatives wanted everything to remain frozen in place; the Imperialists wanted to control the entire galaxy and the Socialists wanted to fundamentally reform the Federation itself (although not, it should be noted, at the expense of their power).

Even before the Blue Star War, which discredited and destroyed the Imperialist Faction, the seeds of disintegration were sown. The Grand Senate wrote the rules to suit themselves, which inevitably ensured that the out-worlds were marginalized and ambitious but unconnected officers and officials were denied promotions and ranks they’d earned. Furthermore, the vast bureaucracy the Grand Senate created to run the Federation only made matters worse; it was impossible for smaller businesses to meet their reporting obligations, which had the unexpected consequence of ensuring that most industries were soon owned by only a handful of wealthy families. Finally, the educational infrastructure was allowed to decay; the students produced, particularly those without the drive to educate themselves, were barely good for anything. Unsurprisingly, the Federation’s overall infrastructure began to decay — and a crash was only a matter of time.

These destructive trends only grew stronger after the Blue Star War. Peons, on Earth and the out-worlds, might have enjoyed the humiliation of the Imperialist Faction, but its fall removed the last restraints on the other two factions. Their grab for power — for more power — only made the growing crisis worse. Military officers fumed at being held back and plotted escape; colonials, their ranks swelled by able men who saw no future on Earth, plotted revolution. By the time Admiral Justinian made his own bid for power, it was clear that a final reckoning could not be long delayed.

And, by the time the Grand Senate fell, it was simply too late to recover.

Marius Drake was a great man, all agree. But the Federation had too many problems for any one man to fix, even with supreme power. The Outsider War only made matters worse, in that it offered a chance for freedom to men and women who had no reason to trust either the Grand Senate or Marius Drake. It is generally agreed that there was nothing Marius Drake could do that would save the Federation, without destroying it. The story might have had a different plot, but the ending would be the same.

The Federation had simply declined too far to be saved. And if those who replaced it had not learned from its fall, they too might have fallen into the shadow of the past.

The End


I don’t think Bob won that election legally. I can’t believe a convicted felon would get so many votes and another convicted felon would get so few.

—Lisa Simpson, Sideshow Bob Roberts

Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The question is more complicated than it seems because there were, in Roman history, two separate political entities (three, perhaps, if you include Byzantium), both of which eventually fell. On one hand, you have the Roman Republic and on the other, you have the Roman Empire itself. Just to complicate matters, it isn’t actually easy to say when the Republic became the Empire. Was it in 83/82BC, when Sulla won the first civil war; 49/44BC, when Julius Caesar won the second civil war, only to be assassinated himself; 31/30BC, when Augustus Caesar defeated Antony and Cleopatra... or 14AD, when Tiberius Caesar succeeded Augustus as Emperor? The Romans did not, you see, point to a single moment when the Republic was finally dead, even in hindsight. They still thought of themselves as a republic long after Augustus became the first true Emperor.

To us, that may sound paradoxical. However, Augustus, learning from Julius Caesar’s mistake, was careful not to portray himself as a dictator, even though he was practically unassailable. He consulted regularly with the Senate, worked hard to pose as a simple citizen and generally did what he could to keep the appearance of republican rule in place for as long as possible. His dominance was considered far more acceptable, therefore, than the dictatorships of either Sulla or Julius Caesar. For all of his genius, however, Augustus suffered from a run of bad luck when it came to his family. His sole practical successor was the dour Tiberius and, for all of his virtues, Tiberius was ill-suited to be Emperor. Not the least amongst his flaws was a simple failure to understand that the republic was beyond recovery.

And his successors — Caligula, Claudius and Nero — were far from great.

The Roman Republic fell, in short, because the governing system Rome had evolved was simply ill-suited to the task of governing an immense empire. Rome was ruled by stiff-necked aristocrats who preferred to allow problems to fester, rather than allow someone else to claim the credit for solving them. The system produced many larger than life figures — Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Cato and Julius Caesar — but it also tried to restrain them. A man who grew too powerful would be pulled down by the combined work of his peers back in Rome — a dangerous thing to do, when the Romans had been breeding men who were prepared to fight to the last over a point of pride. Julius Caesar was quite right when he asserted he’d been forced into war. Put in a position where he had to submit or fight, he chose to fight — and, upon reaching supreme power, was assassinated. However, by this point, the death of the dictator was not enough to automatically restore the republic. Too much damage had been done.

Largely thanks to Augustus, the early years of the Roman Empire showed a considerable amount of promise and even bad emperors — Nero in particular — were not enough to bring the structure toppling down. The civil wars of 69AD, which saw four emperors crowned in rapid succession, weren’t fatal. However, as time wore on, successive problems began to emerge which rotted away at the heart of the empire. By the time the barbarians stormed Rome itself and dethroned Romulus Augustus in 476AD, Rome had weakened to the point where, again, recovery was no longer possible.

The principle causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire were many; in essence, however, I believe the core of the problem was that the Romans themselves no longer considered Rome to be worth fighting for. This should not have been surprising. The empire’s citizens were no longer honored, but treated as serfs by their overlords. Taxed savagely, unable to meet their obligations, vast numbers of civilians were forced into debt-peonage or crushed under the immense weight of bureaucracy. Fairness and justice were no longer evident; runaway peasants were forced into banditry to survive. The Emperors themselves were so isolated from their own people that their attempts to come to grips with the scale of the crisis, when they bothered to take note, were largely ineffectual.

And, in the end, the Roman Empire died. It committed suicide.

It has always struck me as odd that Westerners, mainly Americans, have looked to Rome as a source of inspiration for their politics. George Washington, for example, held up Cato as an example of what a man should be. And yet, such comparisons are often misleading. A counterpart of Cato in 1777 would not be George Washington, but Lord North; a counterpart of Julius Caesar, Benedict Arnold. The Roman World was not the world of 1777 any more than it is our own.

But that shouldn’t stop us learning from the mistakes of the past.

[People interested in a short look at the empire’s failings would be well-advised to read The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Michael Grant. The best modern narrative history of the decline and fall of Rome is The Fall of the West, by Adrian Goldsworthy.]

* * *

The problem facing the West today is centered around what has been generally called the "political class," men and women who have rarely been uninvolved in politics and very rarely have any experience outside politics and its related fields. Like the aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France, the political class has little in common with the people it rules, to the point where it doesn’t have any real understanding of the problems they face. Existing in an echo chamber, they find more in common with politicians who are nominally on the other side of the political divide than non-politicians. It is hard for them to hear any dissenting voices and, when they do, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the dissenters don’t have any legitimate concerns.

This may seem paradoxical. Unlike the aristocracy of every state from Rome to the British Empire, the political class has no legal existence. A democratic state is not supposed to have an aristocracy with an inherent right to rule. However, the political class controls a great deal of the political establishment, giving it the ability to promote its selected candidates over candidates who may be favored by the rank and file. The existence of political dynasties like the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons — and their ability to push their children forward as their successors has been limiting the influx of new blood into the political arena. Indeed, given how savagely newcomers have been attacked by the establishment, it is easy to see how so many newcomers choose not to take part in politics.

Unsurprisingly, the results have been disastrous. A number of people who have no experience of anything outside politics — and a very specific kind of politics at that — are incapable of doing their job in anything like a reasonable fashion. Senators who don’t understand the lives of the people they purport to rule are unlikely to pass legislation that actually helps the general population. Congressmen who have no contact with their constituents are hardly likely to understand their concerns. And Presidents who have never served in the military are unlikely to grasp what it can and cannot do. The real world rarely operates on political timescales.

And when the political class uses its power to escape the consequences of its actions, or to evade laws that apply to everyone else, it merely sows the seeds of destruction.

The political class, in a very real sense, is merely the tip of an iceberg that threatens to sink the ship of state. It is buttressed by a media establishment (the mainstream media) that supports its candidates uncritically, while hammering any outsider with charges that are simply inaccurate and yet maddeningly difficult to refute. A favored candidate can expect to have any problems in his life smoothed over — Obama’s sheer lack of experience, for example, or questions raised about his academic standing or even nationality — while anyone who raises these issues gets attacked sharply. But a candidate who is unfavored can expect to be brutally attacked for even the tiniest of gaffes.

This too has been disastrous. President George W. Bush embarked upon a long and dangerous endeavour, but the media expected results at once. Small failures were treated as immense disasters, forcing Bush to play keep-up instead of merely learning from the problems and pushing forward. Much of Bush’s early reputation was shaped by the media choosing to present a very unfavorable picture to the world. (A problem made worse by the media rarely understanding the issues.) Obama, on the other hand, was treated so favorably by the media that he developed a truly staggering level of narcissism. His policies have been disastrous because he appears to believe that his involvement is enough to make them successful.

As I write these words (February 2016), the race for the American presidential nomination is in full swing. It has already taken on the veneer of a revolt against the elites, with the Republican base eying Trump and the Democratic base considering Bernie Sanders while the elite tries to promote Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton. Neither of the latter two are really appealing to voters, in times of trouble. They have been part of the political class for decades. (So has Bernie Sanders, to a quite considerable extent.) Indeed, Donald Trump’s coarseness — his willingness to say what he thinks and his complete refusal to apologize for anything — has made him astonishingly popular, because he appears to be standing up to the elites.

This does not mean that Trump would make a good President. But the skills needed to be a good President are not the skills needed to get elected.

The Roman Empire died, at least in part, because it rotted away from within. Our society is facing the same problems. The rise of the bureaucratic nanny-state is sapping our virility; the rise of unchallenged and unchallengeable political consensuses is stripping common sense from our world; the slow decline of education is turning our young men and women into morons; the cuts in our military make it harder for us to fight; political correctness is making it impossible to stand up and say, bluntly, that the emperor has no clothes.

And we are also facing many of the same exterior problems. Russia and China are both growing stronger, while we are at war against an Islamic ideology that seeks the complete destruction of every opposing ideology. The global economy is on very rocky ground, thanks largely to the carelessness of politicians who thought the good times would never stop. And economic migrants are flooding our borders, bringing with them ideas and cultures that cannot be tolerated, while our politicians do nothing. The situation is dire.

We are not Rome. We don’t have to go the same way. But time is short.

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2016

About the author

Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-one years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five when someone introduced him to children’s SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester… before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.

Current and forthcoming titles published by Twilight Times Books:

Schooled in Magic YA fantasy series

Schooled in Magic — book 1

Lessons in Etiquette — book 2

A Study in Slaughter — book 3

Work Experience — book 4

The School of Hard Knocks — book 5

Love’s Labor’s Won — book 6

Trial By Fire — book 7

Wedding Hells — book 8

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire military SF series

Barbarians at the Gates — book 1

The Shadow of Cincinnatus — book 2

The Barbarian Bride — book 3

Chris has also produced The Empire’s Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo’s famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.




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