The sequel to Democracy’s Right …
“Transit complete, sir.”
Captain Saku Rautiainen sucked in his breath as Jupiter appeared on the viewscreen. Easily one of the largest gas giants known to mankind, it dominated the Sol System, the Great Red Spot blazing out in the interstellar darkness. Hundreds of installations orbited the gas giant, ranging from large industrial nodes and cloudscoops to a giant Class-III shipyard. Jupiter had powered humanity’s expansion into the galaxy ever since the human race had first started to reach into space. Its shipyards produced a tenth of all new human starships.
It was an impressive sight, Saku decided. Even knowing that most of the installations were owned by the Cicero Family, even knowing that they contributed mightily to humanity’s bondage, they were still impressive. He took one last look, then glanced down at his display, checking that the IFF codes had been accepted by the defences. If the Geeks had failed, the whole operation was about to come to a short and violent end.
“They accepted our codes,” Martin McKenzie said. “Don’t they know there’s a war on?”
Saku smirked. It had been seven months since the first mutiny, six months since word had finally been sent to Earth – and barely a week since it had arrived at the heart of the Empire. There were so many defences in orbit around Earth and the other planets in the Sol System that attack seemed inconceivable. Earth hadn’t been directly threatened for thousands of years, unless one counted the Empress’s suborning of Home Fleet. The mutinies had taken place thousands of light years away. It was unlikely that the defenders of Earth realised that they might be attacked within days of word reaching the planet.
“I don’t think they’ve realised it yet,” he said. “Take us in.”
He glanced over at his old friend and smiled. McKenzie had worked for one of the big shipping lines before suffering an accident that had damaged his legs, leaving him permanently stuck in a mover. The shipping line might have abandoned him, but he’d somehow managed to find work on an independent freighter, work that had eventually led him to the underground. He’d volunteered for the mission as soon as he’d heard about it, despite the near-certainty that they wouldn’t escape. Like Saku, McKenzie had scores to pay off.
The defences did nothing as the giant freighter inched closer and closer to the heart of the complex, the giant Class-III shipyard. There were only three such shipyards in the Empire, the only ones authorised to design and build superdreadnaughts. Not that the Empire had done much of that in the last two hundred years. The Empire’s monopoly on superdreadnaughts – and possession of the biggest hammer in the galaxy – had allowed the designers to slow down and stop trying to improve their work. Somehow, Saku had a feeling that they were going to regret it.
He smiled to himself. The Empire was stagnant; the Thousand Families, who ran the Empire, saw no reason to invest in Research and Development efforts which might change the status quo. After all, something might come up which would invalidate all of their monopolies and shatter their grip on power. But they were going to regret that too.
“Picking up a signal,” McKenzie said. “They want us to head for a specific access port and prepare to be boarded.”
“Too late,” Saku said. The Underground had obtained the access codes years ago, they’d just never had a good reason to use them. Even the Empire could adapt quickly if given a nasty poke. “Do you have proper targeting solutions?”
“Yes, sir,” McKenzie said. He sounded faintly offended by the question. “We might as well be at point-blank range.”
“Good,” Saku said. “Blow the hatches, then open fire.”
The underground had worked hard to turn the seemingly-harmless freighter into a q-ship. Her hull looked normal, until the hatches were removed, revealing the missile launchers hidden underneath. If someone was monitoring their progress, they’d know that something was badly wrong … but it was already too late. The giant freighter shuddered as she launched her missiles, targeted directly on the shipyard. It would be bare seconds before they struck their targets and wiped them from existence.
“Gunboats and assault shuttles incoming,” McKenzie warned. “I think they’ve spotted us.”
Saku barely heard him. The shipyard had been torn apart, shattered by the missiles. His ship’s automated systems were already firing a second salvo, targeting industrial nodes and smaller complexes the Empire might be able to use to repair the damage. A cold satisfaction flooded through his body as he watched the shipyard die. It was a symbol of the Empire’s oppression of the entire human race. Whatever happened, now that the galaxy was at war, the Empire’s monumental self-confidence would not survive.
“Thank you,” he said, softly.
Moments later, the gunboats tore the freighter apart.
The High City was considered the oddest city on Earth, with good reason. Unlike the rest of the planet’s inhabitants, the aristocrats lived in paradise. A thousand kilometres of land around the High City had been turned into a garden, allowing everything from gentle walks to hunting, fishing and hawking. At the edge of the garden, there was a security wall that prevented anyone from entering the High City without permission, keeping the aristocrats safe. Combined with Earth’s giant orbital defences and the looming presence of Home Fleet, it was the safest place in the Empire.
Lord Tiberius Cicero, Family Head of House Cicero, stood at the window and stared out over his family’s lands. A dozen mansions, gleaming in the sunlight, provided homes for the family’s members, while – beyond them – a handful of barracks housed the family’s advisors, servants and Household Troops. There were thousands of people who were part of House Cicero and billions more who worked for the family, directly or indirectly. And all of them acknowledged Tiberius as their master.
Unless they think they can get away with something, Tiberius thought, sourly. There were times when he seriously considered holding a cull. He was young, the only heir his father had had, so he’d won the position of Family Head by default. If he’d realised, at the time, that there was more to the position than just the title, he might have insisted that the Family Council pick another heir. Half of them want me dead – or at least out of their way.
He gritted his teeth as he caught sight of his own reflection. Unlike most of the family children, he had largely chosen to stay with the distinctive features his great-grandfather had engineered into the family line. Short brown hair, a strong rather than handsome face … and a nose too large to be elegant. He looked like a young man wearing his father’s body … which, in a sense, was true. The genetic modifications worked into the family line had ensured that the children were near-copies of their parents.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” he called, without turning round. There was no point in looking to see who was outside. The strict etiquette of the High City forbade any of his family enemies from visiting him without seeking permission first, which gave him an opportunity to deny them entry. And if the underground had successfully penetrated the complex, he and the entire family was dead.
“I have the latest reports from Jupiter, My Lord,” Sharon said. She was an older woman, although she had once been a beauty in her youth. “The shipyard has been rendered completely unusable.”
Destroyed, you mean, Tiberius thought. He’d been shocked, then angered, by the news. Now, all he could do was push his feelings aside and gird for war. The family will not be happy.
Sharon flinched at his expression. It wasn’t uncommon in the Empire for the messenger to be blamed for the message. Even he had been known to snap angrily at messengers, even though they could not logically be blamed for the content of the message. Sharon had been with him long enough to know that he never meant it, but still …
Tiberius shook his head as he turned to face her, taking the datapad and skimming it rapidly. It was traditional to hire a personal assistant who was beautiful, rather than intelligent, but Tiberius had rapidly learned that such assistants were largely useless. Sharon might not be a beauty – now, anyway – but she was brisk, efficient and knowledgeable. And she wasn’t a distraction from his work. It would have been easy to sink into a life of luxury and ignore the outside universe. There were times when he found himself seriously considering abandoning his responsibilities and walking away.
“The Families Council has called a meeting,” Sharon added, when Tiberius had finished scanning the datapad. “They want a full meet in thirty minutes.”
Tiberius wasn’t surprised. It had barely been a week since the first tidings from Sector 117 had arrived on Earth, carrying news of absolute disaster. The Thousand Families had been stunned and angered, then they’d started looking to see what advantage each of them could pull from the chaos. But they would eventually have to start working together, wouldn’t they? The rebels had managed the impossible and pulled together thousands of disparate factions, creating the largest single threat the Empire had faced since its foundation. It’s rulers would have to work together too.
“Tell them I’ll be there,” he said, turning away from the window and walking towards his desk. “Call me five minutes before the meeting is due to start.”
His grandfather had designed the office himself, Tiberius knew, which might be why he hated it. The old man had been a ruthless grasping bastard, always struggling to put the family ahead of everything else; his office had been designed to show off his wealth and power. Priceless artworks hung everywhere, clashing together in a display that showcased the family’s possessions – and their master’s lack of any real taste. Charm and elegance might dominate the rest of the mansion, but not in his grandfather’s office. Tiberius had seriously considered redecorating as soon as he moved in, before deciding that it wouldn’t be good to become too comfortable.
He read through the report twice, looking for hope. But there was nothing. The core of the Jupiter Shipyard had been destroyed, leaving the family with an immense bill for repairs at the worst possible time. Reading between the lines, Tiberius suspected that it would be cheaper to build a completely new shipyard. The weasel words written by the bureaucrat who’d signed off on the report hinted as much.
It could be worse, I suppose, he told himself. The Roosevelt Family is screwed.
Once, he would have taken a small amount of pleasure in watching a mighty family brought low. Lord Paul Roosevelt was just as much of a grasping bastard as Tiberius’s grandfather, without the virtue of belonging to the same family. His push to take sole control of Sector 117 – and Jackson’s Folly – had alienated most of the other families. Now, with the rebels in control of the family’s investment, the entire clan was tottering and threatening to collapse into rubble. It would be nice to watch Lord Paul humbled …
… But not if the fall of one family brought the entire Empire down too.
His intercom buzzed. “My Lord,” Sharon said, “the meeting will take place in five minutes.”
Tiberius nodded and stood, walking to a sealed door hidden behind a large portrait of a woman with an enigmatic smile. It opened, once the sensor had checked his DNA, revealing a comfortable chair and an empty table. Few of the Family Heads would choose to willingly enter another’s mansion, even for a top security meeting. Instead, they sat in their rooms and projected their images to the others. One by one, they flickered into existence, only a faint shimmer betraying their true nature. Tiberius sat upright as one of the automated systems placed a drink by his chair. He was younger than the others, easily the youngest Family Head in four centuries. It was important that he be taken seriously.
Everyone knew that there were a thousand aristocratic families in the Empire. What everyone didn’t know – but should have been able to guess – was that some of the Thousand Families were more important than the others. The eleven most powerful families formed the Families Council, which was intended to deal with problems outside the remit of a single family. Tiberius scowled as he realised that, counting himself, there were only ten Family Heads in the room. The family that would replace the Roosevelt Family had not yet been identified.
If we vote, we could be deadlocked, he thought. Traditionally, a vote taken by all eleven families was binding. But a deadlocked vote was effectively useless.
“The meeting will come to order,” Lady Madeline Hohenzollern said. She was over a hundred years old, yet looked young enough to pass for Tiberius’s sister. He knew better than to turn his back on her. “The subject in front of us is the mutiny in Sector 117 and subsequent events. I call upon Grand Admiral Joseph Porter to brief us.”
She lifted a hand. Grand Admiral Porter appeared at the other end of the table, looking uncomfortable. Unusually, he was neutral, without belonging to any of the Thousand Families; he only held his post because none of the families wished to hand so much power to another family. But it also meant that none of the families would defend him, if they started looking for a scapegoat. And it was certain, Tiberius knew, that they would start looking for someone to blame.
“My Lords and Ladies,” Porter said. His voice was perfect, too perfect. Tiberius guessed he was using a voder to appear calm, despite the breach in protocol. “The situation is grave.”
He paused for effect, then carried on. “The first mutinies took place on the Jackson’s Folly Observation Squadron,” he informed them. “Led by Commander Colin Walker, the mutineers seized the squadron – and then the superdreadnaughts that were intended to spearhead the … occupation of Jackson’s Folly. Once the superdreadnaughts were under their control, the mutineers captured or destroyed the Annual Fleet, then started a campaign intended to undermine our control of the sector. This culminated with an attack on Camelot, which ended with the rebels in firm control of the sector. An attempt to regain control three weeks later failed.”
Tiberius scowled. It took six months to get a message from Earth to Jackson’s Folly. By the time they’d received word of the first mutinies, Camelot had already fallen to the rebels and the Empire’s control had been shattered. Presumably, the rebels would advance towards Earth – they had to know that the Empire still maintained an immense advantage in industrial production – and the time delay would slip, but it would still be hard masterminding the war from Earth. But did they dare trust someone with enough firepower and independent authority to stop the rebels?
“The rebels also uploaded a message into the Interstellar Communications Network,” Porter continued. “The message, in short, incited mutiny among others outside Sector 117. By now, we have received reports of hundreds of mutinies and small uprisings on thousands of worlds. At worst, we could be looking at the loss of a third of our combat-capable units to the rebels.”
Tiberius heard someone swear out loud. He couldn’t blame him.
“Right now, we do not know how far the rebellion has spread,” Porter concluded. “We are persistently six months out of date. The last message we received suggested that rebel ships had reached Sector 69, which is on a direct line to Earth from Camelot. However, we do not have a comprehensive picture of their movements. They might easily have advanced closer to Earth.”
Tiberius had no illusions about the Empire’s popularity. It had none. The only saving grace had been that the different underground factions had been unable to unite into a coherent threat. Imperial Intelligence had worked hard to keep them at loggerheads, sometimes passing up on the opportunity to wipe them out just so the underground remained disunited and harmless. But now … the underground had a leader and hope. If a third of the Imperial Navy had fallen into rebel hands, the Thousand Families were staring defeat in the face.
He tapped the table for attention. “How many of those ships have fallen into rebel hands?”
“We don’t know,” Porter confessed. “There were mutinies that gutted the interiors of their ships, starships that were intercepted and destroyed before they could escape … and it will still take months for them to unite their fleets. Quite a few of them might have gone rogue and become pirates. We simply don’t know.”
“Very well,” Lady Madeline said. “How do we respond to this crisis?”
“War,” Lord Bernadotte said. “The rebels, by their own declaration, want our blood. I do not believe that we can compromise with them in any meaningful way.”
“But war would be immensely costly,” Lord Rothschild pointed out. “We are already facing the economic fallout from the Roosevelt Collapse” – he paused to peer at the empty space where Lord Paul Roosevelt should have sat – “and large expenditures now would be disastrous. If we lose a second or third family, we might lose the Empire.”
“We are already risking the loss of the Empire,” Lord Bernadotte snapped. “The rebels want us dead. They are not likely to agree to stay in Sector 117, leaving the rest of the human-settled galaxy to us. At the very least, they would demand the end of the Thousand Families and our control over the Empire.”
There was a long pause as the assembled Family Heads considered the matter. Their ancestors had been the men and women who had built and funded the Empire. In exchange, they had assured themselves – and their descendents – of control over the structure they had built. They might have argued constantly over the exact direction of the Empire, but they had never allowed outsiders into power. Indeed, they’d started even refusing to allow outsiders to marry into the families. In hindsight, Tiberius suspected, that had been a mistake.
If the rebels broke the Thousand Families and their monopoly on power, no one had any illusions about what would happen next. At best, their family-owned corporations would be outmatched and destroyed by free competition; at worst, there would be a purge, with their relatives killed or dumped on penal worlds. There would be no hope of rebuilding their position after a rebel defeat. Lord Bernadotte was right.
But Tiberius knew that Lord Rothschild was also right. War would be costly. The Empire might win the war, only to lose itself when the economy collapsed.
“War, then,” Lady Madeline said, after the vote was taken. Seven out of ten voted for war, leaving three doves isolated at the table. “Admiral … how can we win?”
Tiberius listened absently as Admiral Porter droned on about activating starships from the reserves and conscripting officers and men from civilian life. He was no space combat expert – and besides, he was grimly aware that Admiral Porter was no expert either. A past master at bureaucratic infighting, skilful enough to maintain his position despite a lack of powerful patrons … but no expert in actual combat. He had never even stood on the command deck of a starship, let alone taken her into action.
“I have tactical officers currently analysing the entire situation,” Porter said. “In addition, we have the testimony of Captain Quick, who was brought back to us by … intelligence officers.”
Tiberius smiled. One of his people had had the wit to take Captain Quick from Camelot before the planet fell to the rebels. Tiberius had rewarded and promoted the man, then handed Captain Quick over to Imperial Intelligence and ONI. There was no point in trying to seek advantage from holding her, not with the Empire at risk …
He tapped the table as Admiral Porter began to wind down. “There remains one final issue,” he said. There was no need to involve himself – or the rest of the Family Heads – in the precise details of the mobilisation. Admiral Porter was trying to smoother them in minutia. “Who do we place in command of the fleet?”
A rustle ran around the table. They all had clients within the Imperial Navy, officers they patronised and promoted in exchange for obedience and support. Patronage networks underlined the Navy, ensuring that no one family gained control of sufficient firepower to take out the rest of the aristocracy. After the Empress, the question of control had pervaded all of their discussions. Whoever they put in command of the defence against the rebels had to be someone completely loyal …
… And no such paragon existed. How could he when there were so many masters?
But there was one person who was loyal to the Imperial Navy. He would have to do.
“We need unity of command,” Tiberius said. Having a dozen officers, each one loyal to a different family, would be disastrous. Political infighting was acceptable under normal conditions, but this was war. The rebels would not hesitate to take advantage of fractures within the Imperial Navy. “I propose that we appoint Admiral Wachter to command the fleet.”
“Oh,” Lord Rothschild said. It was impossible to tell if he approved or not. The Rothschild Family had fewer connections to the Imperial Navy than most of the others. “And why him, specifically?”
Tiberius smiled. “We can’t assign anyone from our families,” he said. Even he would be tempted, if he controlled so much firepower. “But we don’t dare appoint someone who isn’t from the aristocracy. Admiral Wachter is skilful, loyal and devoted to the Imperial Navy. If he had wanted to be disloyal, he had plenty of chances before he was … retired from the service.”
He felt his smile grow wider. Admiral Wachter had alienated too many members of the aristocracy and their clients, including Admiral Percival. But Percival was dead or wishing he was, while the Roosevelt Family was collapsing into nothingness. There was a window of opportunity to rehabilitate Admiral Wachter and Tiberius intended to take it. Once there was someone reliable in command, the combination of superior firepower and superior industrial production would ensure that the rebels were stopped.
There was a long debate, unsurprisingly, but there was no real opposition. Tiberius accessed his personal communication channel and asked Sharon to invite Admiral Wachter to the mansion, then started laying additional plans of his own. Stopping the rebels was important, yes, but it was equally important to safeguard the family. Opening secret lines of communication might only benefit both sides. The other families would object, of course, if it became public …
Tiberius shook his head. They would be doing the same thing too.
And besides, he added, in the privacy of his own head, the Cicero Family had an unfair advantage. All it required was the right messenger …