“It looks so safe and tranquil.”
Major General Jeremy Damiani, Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, nodded in understanding. Imperial City stretched out below them, a shining network of towers surrounding the pyramid shapes of the Grand Senate and the Imperial Palace. From so high up, even enhanced eyesight had trouble picked out individuals swarming the roads below, or seeing the subtle signs of decay that the population chose to ignore. It would have been easy to believe that Earth, the heart of an empire that spanned a third of the galaxy, was as strong and powerful as it had been in the days after the Unification Wars. But Jeremy could not permit himself the luxury of self-deception.
“Yeah,” he grunted, finally. “And so does a dead body.”
Hiram Green, Surgeon-General of the Terran Marine Corps, tossed him a sharp look. Unlike the senior officers in almost every branch of the Empire’s military, he was an experienced soldier as well as a combat medic, earning his promotions on the battlefield. And, unlike Jeremy, he would go back to the battlefield when his term as Surgeon-General came to an end. He’d seen far too many dead bodies in his career.
“I have completed the assessment,” Green said, finally. One of the advantages on insisting on combat experience for senior officers as a precondition for promotion was that senior officers could actually do work without needing juniors and NCOs to help them. “Do you want the basic report or a complete outline?”
Jeremy shrugged, looking back down towards the distant towers. Green was right; Imperial City did look safe and tranquil. Successive Emperors and Grand Senators had lavished vast resources on the city, boosting their popularity as well as showing off their power. The population was certainly devoted to the Empire in response, more so than almost anywhere else. But it was an illusion.
Earth was dying.
It had taken thousands of years of mismanagement, but humanity’s homeworld was no longer truly capable of supporting life. The great megacities were effectively space stations in their own right, providing everything from food to atmosphere for their vast populations; they’d expanded until they covered the entire planet. Cropland, often poisoned or overworked by its owners, had been destroyed, leaving the population dependent upon the algae-based foodstuffs that were produced in the megacities. But few people truly liked the ration bars and soups produced by the automated systems. Earth drew on the production of hundreds of worlds to keep its citizens reasonably content.
But it wouldn’t last much longer, Jeremy knew. Earth’s infrastructure, easily the most complex life support system in the galaxy, was falling apart piece by piece. Every day, there were more and more failures, while the repair terms were utterly unable to keep up with the decay. The Empire’s educational programs had been focused more on keeping the citizens quiet rather than teaching them anything practical, like how to fix a broken air processor or replace a simple illuminator. Sooner or later, Earth would suffer a series of catastrophic failures that would kill most of the population.
Or perhaps civil unrest. As the infrastructure weakened, the undercity – the vast warren of untamed regions under the megacities – would expand. Imperial City was rich, but so much of Earth was desperately poor. The population below were sitting on a powder keg and most of them didn’t even begin to realise it. But how could they be blamed when the Empire’s media kept telling them that everything was fine?
There were times when Jeremy wondered if the population didn’t know, at least subconsciously. Some failures were easily noticeable to those who cared to look, as was the seeming inability of the repair crews to deal with the problems. And then there was the shortage of police officers…Earth had suffered hundreds of increasingly savage terrorist attacks over the last five years, each one threatening to set off the explosion. Earth was no longer safe. In truth, the whole planet was a disaster waiting to happen.
He pushed the thought aside as he turned to face Green. “Is she cleared for close-protection duty?”
“I would be reluctant to clear her completely for anything,” Green admitted. “Right now, she is physically healthy, but in some ways she’s lost the will to carry on. Even Marines break, Jeremy, and she went through hell. I just don’t know if she’s been broken permanently.”
He passed Jeremy a datapad. “You know as well as I do how difficult it is to get anything from a Pathfinder,” he added. “My honest advice would be to find someone else.”
Jeremy grimaced. The Terran Marine Corps was limited to one million active-duty personnel, which seemed a vast number until it was compared to the trillions of humans in the settled galaxy. He could play around with that figure to some extent – auxiliaries weren’t counted as full Marines – but the Grand Senate would hardly have let him unilaterally expand the corps. They were scared of the Marines, fearing that their oaths to the Emperor would one day outweigh their oaths to the Empire. Besides, it was growing harder to find people with the inner strength and determination to become Marines.
He looked up at Hiram. “Is she stable?”
“She knows how to fool the tests,” Green pointed out, sharply. “I honestly do not know if anything I have from her can be considered reliable.”
“And if you’re unsure,” Jeremy asked dryly, “what will the civilians make of it?”
He looked down at the datapad, skimming through the biographical details. Belinda Lawson, born twenty-five years ago on Balboa, a planet on the edge of the Inner Worlds. She’d shown remarkable promise from a very early age, mastering the basic skills very quickly and then going on to learn as much as she could. On Earth, she would probably have been broken by the educational system; on Balboa, she’d been allowed to rocket ahead. At sixteen, she’d gone to Boot Camp, graduating fifth in the class that would go to the Slaughterhouse. And she’d come first in her class at the Slaughterhouse.
That was a remarkable achievement. Despite enhancement, despite implants, men still had an advantage over women in military training. Anyone who graduated from the Slaughterhouse was a top-notch soldier, but Jeremy could count on the fingers of one hand the number of women who had come first in their class. She’d shown no sign of slowing down, either; once she’d earned her Rifleman’s Tab, she’d served in two different wars and had been earmarked for promotion to Lieutenant and a probably Captaincy. Instead, she’d gone back to the Slaughterhouse and qualified as a Pathfinder.
The Marines were elite – and the Pathfinders were the elite of the elite. Belinda had made it through the training program and had been assigned to a specialist team, carrying out missions that even regular Marines would have thought impossible. And then, on Han, their shuttle had been blown out of the sky and her teammates had been killed. Pathfinder teams were close, closer than even standard platoons. Losing them had to hurt.
“I think they’d be impressed by what parts of her file they were allowed to read,” Green said, flatly. “But I think they’d be a little scared of her.”
“Good,” Jeremy said, equally flatly. “Scared is good.”
He looked back towards the looming shape of the Imperial Palace. The Childe Roland lived there, climbing towards his majority – and the moment he could assume the throne. Jeremy knew that those in the know were laying bets that the prince wouldn’t live long enough to be crowned, not least because a new Emperor would upset everyone’s calculations. On the other hand, the Childe Roland had been allowed to indulge himself ever since his father had been assassinated, when he’d been a child. He had been the very model of a spoilt brat and none of the reports Jeremy had seen had suggested that he’d improved since then.
It was possible that the Childe Roland would keep indulging himself until the day the sky fell in, even after he was crowned Emperor. Or he might seek to assert himself, forcing the Grand Senators to push back. Or…it might have been kinder, Jeremy knew, to take the prince elsewhere and hide him from his heritage. But that wasn’t really an option. He was all the Empire had.
And it was the duty of the Terran Marine Corps to protect him.
“I think it’s time I talked to her,” he said. “Thank you for your time, doctor.”
After Green had left, Jeremy looked over at the small display of medals on the wall. None of them had simply been given to him; they’d all been awarded for bravery under fire. One reminded him of his first company command, when they’d been ambushed by insurgents and had to fight their way out of a killing zone; another was a memento of the savage fighting the Terran Marines had endured on Farnham’s Freehold. There were no medals in the Marine Corps for sitting at a desk, pushing paperwork around, or for dealing with politicians.
Shaking his head, Jeremy called for his car. There should be a medal for dealing with politicians, he told himself. He would have preferred to be back in the field.
But there was no choice. Someone had to fight for the corps.
Belinda Lawson lay on her bed, looking up at the ceiling. It was hard, so hard, to summon up the motivation to actually do anything, even to pick up a datapad and read a book. Once, she would have rebelled against being trapped in bed, or used it as a chance to catch up on her reading and learn more about the universe. Now, she couldn’t even muster the energy to climb out of bed and get dressed. The doctors hadn’t been quite sure what to make of her.
Physically, she was unharmed; the wounds she’d suffered on Han had been quickly repaired. Mentally…that was the question, wasn’t it? She was skilled at reading people and the uncertainty that lurked in their eyes when they questioned her was obvious. Marines going rogue was the stock background of a thousand lousy movies – most of them intended as anti-military propaganda – but it did happen, if rarely. And pulling the very expensive implants out of her body would almost certainly kill her in the process. There were times when she wondered if that wouldn’t be a mercy.
There was a tap at the door. Belinda seriously considered refusing to answer, before the door opened anyway, revealing that the doctors had her under constant observation. They had little choice. Belinda had been trained to react instinctively and someone entering her room at night, while she was trying to sleep, was unlikely to survive the experience. A civilian would probably have been horrified at the thought of being constantly watched, but Belinda was used to it. The Slaughterhouse didn’t encourage body modesty.
She felt her eyes widening as she recognised the Commandant. They had never met, but every Marine knew his name and face. He looked shorter than she had expected, his eyes shadowed by a worry that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to anyone else. Belinda felt her body jerking into life automatically, snapping off a salute. He returned it and then sat down beside her bed, studying her thoughtfully.
“There is a job to do,” he said, without preamble. “Have you had enough time in bed?”
Belinda scowled at him, feeling an odd flash of shame at her appearance. Normally, she kept her hair shaved close to her scalp, but six months in bed had allowed it to grow out to the point where it almost reached her ass. It looked thoroughly unprofessional, even though part of a Pathfinder’s career might include looking unprofessional. She’d enjoyed her life until her four brothers had been killed in the war.
There were five operatives in any Pathfinder team, pushed together by the Drill Instructors after careful tests designed to see who could form a successful team. They’d been close, living in each other’s pockets, sharing everything, a relationship that had been – in some ways – closer than husband and wife. She had depended on them and they had depended on her, right up until the day she’d lived when they’d died. It would have been understandable if they’d been killed in a firefight, but a single HVM…
“I don’t know,” she admitted, finally. The regular Marines had restrained her once they’d realised who and what she was, either out of fear that she would turn on them or that she’d throw her life away in a suicidal attack on the rebels. After that, the doctors had watched her carefully, unsure of her stability. “What do you want me to do?”
The Commandant looked rather irked by her response, although it would have been impossible for most people to read it. “The Childe Roland needs a bodyguard,” he said, calmly. “You would be a good candidate.”
Belinda felt surprise washing though her system, pushing aside the listlessness that had gripped her since Han. “Me? Why me?”
“It’s complicated,” the Commandant admitted. “Originally, we were meant to provide the layers of security around the Emperor, but the Grand Senate managed to put some of those layers into the hands of Senate Security and others into the hands of the Civil Guard. But we still get to nominate his close-protection officers…”
Belinda stared at him. She’d served in combat, after all, and she’d seen what could happen, even with the best will in the world, when there were several different branches of the military involved with running the same operation. At the very least, there was always an argument over who was in overall command. Three different forces guarding the Childe Roland was just asking for someone to exploit that weakness and slip through the protection…
A nasty thought struck her. “They want him dead, don’t they?”
“Suffice it to say that certain factions would be happier without the prospect of a new Emperor,” the Commandant said. “It hasn’t been that long since the Tyrant Emperor.”
He shook his head. “I have tried to convince the Grand Senate to allow us to resume sole responsibility, but they didn’t agree,” he added. “In fact, there’s a strong sense that other parties should be allowed to join the protective force. We’re looking at a disaster in the making, Specialist.”
“I see,” Belinda said. Specialist was a rare rank within the Marines, although it was very common in the Imperial Navy and the regular army. A Marine who heard her rank would know what she was; an outsider would probably let it slip past would realising the significance. “It’s been a long time since I did any close-protection duties, sir.”
“I know,” the Commandant said. “And there are considerations here that are simply not covered in Slaughterhouse drills. The politics, for one thing.”
Belinda nodded. “What is he like? The Childe Roland, I mean. What is he like?”
“He’s grown up with everyone indulging his every wish, apart from actual power,” the Commandant admitted. “Food, drink, fantastic vacations, sexual partners…a remarkable collection of toys and games. A spoilt brat, in every sense; he certainly isn’t another Roger the Terrible. He was supposed to be taught how to rule, but the Grand Senate vetoed every suggestion put forward by the Protocol Office. They want someone to rubber-stamp their decisions rather than anyone who might actually think for himself.”
“Right,” Belinda said. “Because that would be disastrous for them, right?”
She hadn’t spent much time studying politics, but she understood why the Grand Senate might have wanted to keep the Childe Roland from learning anything useful. In theory, power in the Empire was supposed to be balanced between the Emperor, the Grand Senate and the Civil Service. After three thousand years of political infighting, the Grand Senate had reached a position of absolute mastery, as long as they remained united. The last thing they wanted was an Emperor who might be able to break up their coalition.
But that was probably what they needed. Belinda had spent most of her career fighting rebels – and most of those rebels had rebelled because they literally had nothing more to lose. The Grand Senate was passing laws for its own advantage, and the advantage of its corporate allies, with no concern for the long-term impact of its legislation. Belinda had seen entire planets turned into paupers because of new laws, small businesses wiped out as the giant interstellar corporations moved in. Why should they not rebel?
“I need an answer soon,” the Commandant said. “If you’re unwilling to take on this job, I’ll have to find someone else.” He looked into her eyes. “I understand what it means to lose someone close to you, but you have to pick up the pieces and move on.”
Belinda pulled herself to her feet and stared into the mirror. Her body was as muscular as ever – the genetic enhancements spliced into her DNA had seen to that, even when she wasn’t taking care of herself – but she looked oddly gaunt, almost wasted. Or maybe a civilian would have noticed nothing odd about her at all. Absently, she wondered just how the Childe Roland would respond to her. Would he take a young-looking girl seriously, or would he make an unsubtle pass at her? The close-protection drills they’d run through at the Slaughterhouse had included both scenarios.
And was she really up to it?
She’d never really doubted herself before. As a child, she had been smarter and more capable than anyone else. Boot Camp had been a breeze. The Slaughterhouse had been the first time she’d really been tested, yet she’d graduated with flying colours. And they’d trained so hard that the combat seemed easy. But now she was questioning herself. How far had she fallen?”
“I’ll do it,” she said, suddenly. Her brothers would not have forgiven her for simply surrendering to listlessness forever. They were probably waiting for her to die just so they could kick her ass for giving up. “When do I start?”
“As soon as possible,” the Commandant said. “And I’m afraid that there will be briefings. Lots and lots of briefings.”
“Oh,” Belinda said. Briefings were always tedious, but usually worthwhile. “I’ll get dressed and then we can start.”