For my readers – coming soon!
Dateline – Two Months After the Fall of Corinthian
Admiral Rani Singh hated to lose.
She’d worked her way up the ranks through sheer stubbornness and native ability, forsaking all the shortcuts lecherous older officers offered her. She’d taken pride in not surrendering herself to the temptations, even when she’d been assigned to Trafalgar Naval Base by a particularly vindictive superior after she’d declined his advances. She’d even managed to turn a position that should have killed her career into a springboard to supreme power when the Empire started to withdraw from the sector, turning herself into a military dictator and ruler of a small empire of her own.
But then she’d lost everything, but her life and a handful of starships.
In hindsight, she saw – all too clearly – where she’d gone wrong. She hadn’t taken the Commonwealth seriously, not at the time. It was a gathering of stars and human settlements towards the Rim, on the opposite side of her headquarters to Earth. The Commonwealth should not have been able to put together a challenge to her forces, not the sector fleet she’d snatched almost intact during the final chaotic days of the Empire’s rule. But the Commonwealth had sent its people to Corinthian and undermined her rule. And when the ghost fleet had turned up, she’d panicked and lost everything.
Oh, she’d had plenty of time to think, she recalled, as the remains of her fleet had crept from hiding place to hiding place, fearful of an encounter that could have drained their finite supplies still further. Smaller and older ships had been cannibalised to keep the bigger ones operational, although she knew that even a victorious engagement could cost her everything; her crews had grown more and more restless, their loyalty only assured by the looming presence of her security forces. One day, she’d known, they might rise up against her – and, if they took the ships, surrender them to the Commonwealth. She’d slept with a pistol under her pillow and armed guards at her hatch.
She’d known – she had never truly been able to lie to herself – that the situation was desperate. Battleships required constant maintenance and an endless supply of spare parts, which they no longer possessed. Sooner or later, she would have to abandon some of her crewmen or run out of life support. Maybe she could have found a world they could occupy – she did have far more firepower with her than the average Rim world could deploy in its own defence – but that would have been a form of surrender. And yet it had started to look like the only option. It had been then, when she’d been in the depths of despair, that they’d stumbled across the ship from Wolfbane.
Rani had known, vaguely, that another successor state was taking shape and form, coreward of Corinthian. She’d always known the value of good intelligence and her officials had interviewed the crews of every freighter that had made landfall within her territory. But she had always assumed that she would contact them from a position of strength, not weakness … not when weakness would invite attack. She knew that better than any of her former superiors, none of whom had realised the true scale of the looming disaster. And yet there was no choice.
She looked up from the screen as Wolfbane came into view, her ragtag fleet escorted by a handful of battleships. They weren’t – quite – pointing their weapons at her ships, but she knew it would be a matter of seconds between the decision to open fire and the ships actually firing on her. She’d come to Wolfbane, after sending a message through the captured ship’s crew, knowing that it could easily be a trap. But there was still no choice.
I do have cards to play, she thought, although she had no idea if they would be sufficient to win her a place on Wolfbane. I have ships – and I have intelligence. And I have a few tools I dare not share …
She gritted her teeth as the fleet finally entered high orbit. Wolfbane had been the most successful world in its sector, hence the Sector Government’s decision to base itself there. It was surrounded by orbital weapons platforms, industrial nodes and starships – hundreds of starships. The general economic decline that had presaged the Fall of the Empire, it seemed, no longer cast a shadow over the Wolfbane Sector. She couldn’t help feeling a flicker of envy – even her work on Corinthian hadn’t produced so much activity – which she thrust aside ruthlessly. There was no time to waste on self-recrimination.
Her wristcom buzzed. “Admiral,” Carolyn said, “the shuttle from Wolfbane is making its final approach.”
Rani nodded. Her aide was loyal – but she had no choice. Rani’s security officers had seen to that, conditioning Carolyn until she couldn’t even conceive of betraying her mistress. But the price for such conditioning was a reduction in the woman’s intelligence and ability to act without specific orders. Rani was all too aware of the weaknesses in the system, but she dared not take the risk of having her aide unconditioned. It would be far too dangerous.
“Understood,” she said. “I’m on my way.”
She straightened up and studied herself in the mirror. Long dark hair framed an oddly fragile face, her dark skin and darker eyes giving her a winsome appearance that belied her inner strength. Her dress uniform was perfectly tailored to her slender form, tight in all the right places. It should have been no surprise when her former superiors had tried to seduce her, she admitted bitterly. The recruiting officers had never mentioned that aspect of the military when they’d convinced her to join up. Nor had it been a problem, she had to admit, until she’d graduated from the Imperial Academy with the rank of Lieutenant.
Absently, she wondered what Governor Brown would make of her. There had been little in the files on him, including a note that he had strong ties to a dozen corporations that presumably no longer existed. That suggested flexibility, Rani knew. It was rare for an official to be beholden to more than one set of masters. But Brown had clearly managed it long enough to reach the post of Sector Governor. His word would have been law in the sector long before the Empire collapsed.
I’ll seduce him if I have to, she told herself. It was a bitter thought, one she resented after everything she’d done to avoid trading sex for favours, but she was damned if she was not using all the tools in her arsenal to claw her way back to power. And I will have my revenge.
If you start by reviewing a generalised (and highly sanitised) history of the three thousand years of the Empire’s existence, you could be forgiven for thinking that between the Unification Wars and the End of Empire there was no war. Certainly, no major conflict threatened the existence of the Empire. But was there peace?
– Professor Leo Caesius. War in a time of ‘Peace:’ The Empire’s Forgotten Military History.
Darkness wrapped the landscape in shadow, unbroken by the merest hint of mankind’s technology. The moon had yet to rise, leaving the stars as the only source of light. Pete Rzeminski sat on the edge of the clearing, looking up at the stars and waited, patiently, for his contacts to arrive. The darkness – and the sound of nocturnal wild animals coming to life now the sun was gone – didn’t bother him. He’d been in far worse spots when he’d been on active duty. But that had been a long time ago.
Pete wondered, absently, what his Drill Instructors would make of him now. Would they understand, he asked himself, or would they condemn him for making his choice? Once, he’d sworn an oath to the Empire that had defined his life and his service. It had once meant everything to him, even after he’d quit in disgust and retreated to Thule, where his family lived. But now the Empire was gone. What was the point, he asked himself, of swearing to something that no longer existed?
And yet, it had taken him years to take sides. In the end, only the death of his wife and family had convinced him to take up arms.
He wrapped the thermal cloak around him tightly as the temperature continued to fall, pushing his recollections aside. The youngsters had complained when he’d insisted on meeting the outsiders alone – not all of them trusted him – but Pete had been insistent. He did have training they lacked, training in escaping pursuit and – if necessary – in resisting interrogation. There was still the very real possibility that the entire operation was a loyalist trap. If so, it would be foolish to risk more than one life to make contact.
They called him the old man, he knew. And he was old, by their standards, even if he was in excellent shape for a fifty year old man. His hair was slowly turning grey, but his body was still strong, the result of exercise and genetic treatments he’d undergone in the past. And his wife had never complained about his performance before she’d died …
Memories rose up unbidden as he forced himself to relax, mocking him. There had been the Slaughterhouse, where he’d first known true companionship, and then a series of endless bloody battles, each one only a symptom of the Empire’s steady decline. And then there had been the final bloody cataclysm … and his departure from the Terran Marine Corps. In the end, he knew, he’d failed. He hadn’t been able to stay in the Marines, knowing that they’d become the Empire’s bully boys, the people responsible for fixing problems the Grand Senate caused for itself.
He pushed the self-pity aside as his ears picked up faint sounds, blown on the wind. High overhead, something was descending towards the clearing. Pete tensed, one hand reaching for the pistol at his belt, as his enhanced eyes finally picked up the shuttle. Despite himself, he was impressed. Thule was hardly a stage-one colony world, utterly incapable of detecting a starship in orbit or a shuttle passing through its atmosphere. Their contacts had managed to slip through a detection system that was rather more elaborate than anything Thule really needed. But then, the government had attempted to spend its way out of the financial crisis by investing in the local defence industry. It was just a shame that the crisis had proven well beyond the planet’s ability to surmount.
The shuttle came to a hover over the clearing, then dropped down towards the ground. It was a boxy shape, coated in materials that absorbed or redirected sensor sweeps from both orbital and ground-based stations. The contacts had refused to discuss precisely how they intended to avoid the local defences, but Pete’s private guess was that they’d hidden the shuttle on one of the freighters in orbit. He’d taken a look at the listings and seen several dozen that could easily have carried the shuttle, hidden away in a cargo hold or even bolted to the hull. It wouldn’t be detected unless the inspection crew was very thorough.
Not that the government bothers to examine off-world ships unless they’re independent, he thought, feeling a twinge of bitterness. He hadn’t realised how closely he’d associated himself with Thule until after his extended family had been affected by the first political shockwaves sweeping across the planet. A system that had seemed logical – and a change from the Empire’s maddeningly hypocritical ideology – had shown its weaknesses as soon as the winds of change had begun. The Trade Federation would complain.
The shuttle touched down, a faint hissing sound reaching his ears as the warm hull touched damp grass. Pete hesitated, then stepped forward as the hatch opened. No light spilled out – it was impossible to be certain that an orbital satellite wasn’t looking for anything that stood out on the ground – but his eyes could pick out a figure standing in the hatch, carrying a rifle in both hands. The figure wore light body armour and goggles that enhanced his eyesight. A long moment passed, then the figure waved at Pete. Bracing himself, Pete walked up to the hatch.
“Alpha-Three-Preen,” he said.
“Beta-Four-Prime,” the contact replied. He stepped aside, inviting Pete into the shuttle. “And may I say what a relief it is to be dealing with professionals?”
Pete felt his lips quirk in silent amusement. The underground movements that had sprung up in the wake of the financial crisis – and mass unemployment, followed by disenfranchisement – had a cause, but no real experience. Most of their secret passwords and countersigns had come from books and entertainment programs, both of which sacrificed realism for drama. It had taken him years of effort to teach the youngsters about the virtues of the KISS principle. Maybe it lacked drama, but it was certainly one hell of a lot more effective.
Inside, the shuttle was dark, the interior illuminated only by the light from a single display monitoring the orbital situation. The hatch closed with a hiss, then the lights came on, revealing a handful of metal chairs and a single control stick. Pete felt a moment of nostalgia – it had been years since he’d ridden an infiltration shuttle down into hostile territory – which he pushed to one side. He couldn’t afford the distraction, not now.
“We have weapons for you, as per request,” the contact said. In the light, he was a bland young man, someone who could have passed unnoticed on any cosmopolitan world. Not too handsome and not too ugly. “And some intelligence as well.”
He paused, significantly. “You are aware, of course, that both the Commonwealth and the Trade Federation plan to expand their activities in this sector?”
Pete nodded. He’d heard rumours, some of them more reliable than others. Joining the Commonwealth had seemed the ticket to economic recovery, but the Commonwealth either couldn’t or wouldn’t buy most of the planet’s produce. He rather suspected the latter. The planetary development corporation – and then the elected government – had invested heavily in industrial production equipment, citing their belief that the sector would continue to grow and develop under the protection of the Empire. Now, Thule had more industrial production than she could use. Even throwing money into the planetary defences hadn’t solved the growing economic disaster.
“We would like to come to terms with you, after you take over the government,” the contact added. “Would that be acceptable to you?”
Pete kept his expression blank. No one did anything for nothing, not even the ivory tower intellectuals who’d provided the ideological base for the Empire’s growth, development and slow collapse. Long experience in the Marine Corps had taught him that anyone who supplied weapons to underground movements wanted something in return. Sometimes, it was cold hard cash, paid in advance, but at other times it was political influence or post-war alliances. He would have preferred to pay in advance, rather than have the terms left undetermined. But he knew the underground could not hope to purchase advanced weapons systems with cash in hand. The planet’s currency was almost definitely useless outside its star system.
“That would depend,” he said carefully, “on just what those terms were.”
The youngsters, he knew, would have been horrified at his attempt to sound out the contact. They would have protested, perhaps rightly, that the underground did not enjoy the luxury of being able to debate terms and conditions. Without advanced weapons systems, the underground could not hope to prevail. If worst came to worst, they’d argue, they could always launch another uprising against the contact’s backers. Pete’s caution would not bode well with them.
He smiled, a little sadly. Some of the underground might have made good Marines, once upon a time, while others were the kind of people the Marine Corps existed to defend. Now, they were forced to fight or accept permanent subordination …
The contact didn’t sound offended. “We would like your political neutrality,” he said. “If you do not wish to associate yourselves with us, you may avoid commitment, but you may not side with any other interstellar power.”
Pete looked at him for a long thoughtful moment. He knew that the contact represented an interstellar power – no one else would be able to produce the weapons they’d offered – but he didn’t know who. But the insistence on political neutrality suggested Wolfbane. There was no one else who had any interest in Thule remaining uninvolved. It was vaguely possible, he supposed, that the Trade Federation was covertly sabotaging the Commonwealth’s operations, but it seemed unlikely. If nothing else, the Trade Federation benefited hugely from the current state of affairs. Why would they want to upset the applecart?
They wouldn’t, he thought. Everything he knew about the Trade Federation backed up its assertion that it was not interested in political power, at least not to the extent of the Commonwealth or the vanished Empire. No, they were interested in interstellar trade and little else. They didn’t benefit by upending the situation on Thule.
“Very well,” he said, finally. “I cannot speak on behalf of every underground organisation, but my group will accept your terms.”
“Good,” the contact said. He turned to the collection of metal boxes at the rear of the cabin. “Once we have unloaded these, I will depart and you can begin your war.”
Pete nodded. The youngsters couldn’t think in the long term, but he could … and he couldn’t help wondering if he’d just sold his soul along with the planet itself. But they had no alternative, no choice if they truly wanted to overthrow the government and create a new order. They needed outside support.
“Thank you,” he said.
First Speaker Daniel Krautman, elected Head of State only weeks prior to the first financial shockwaves that had devastated the planet’s economy, looked out of the Speaker’s Mansion and down towards the empty streets. Once, they had been bustling with life at all hours, a reflection of the economic success the planet had enjoyed under his predecessors. Now, they were empty, save for passing military and police patrols. The city was under martial law and had been so for months. Even the camps of unemployed workers and students who had been evicted from their homes were quiet.
He shook his head in bitter disbelief, wondering – again – just what he had done to deserve such turmoil on his watch. He’d told himself that running for First Speaker would be a chance to ensure that his name went down in the planet’s history, despite his comparative youth. He’d told himself that he would serve the fixed ten-year term, the economic boom would continue and he would retire to take up a place on a corporate board or simply write his memoirs. Instead, the bottom had dropped out of the economy only weeks after his election and nothing, no matter what he did, seemed to fix the problem.
Gritting his teeth, he swore under his breath as he caught sight of his reflection. He’d been middle-aged when he’d been elected, with black hair and a smile that charmed the lady voters – or so he’d been assured, by his focus groups. Now, he was almost an old man. His hair had turned white, his face was deathly pale and he walked like a cripple. The doctors swore blind that the constant pains in his chest were nothing more than the results of stress and there was nothing they could do, but he had his suspicions. There were political and corporate figures demanding a harsher response to the crisis and some of them might just have bribed the doctors to make his life miserable.
Or maybe he was just being paranoid, he told himself as he turned away from the window. He was lucky, compared to the men and women in the homeless camps, building what shelter they could from cardboard boxes and blankets supplied by charities. There, life was miserable and short; men struggled desperately to find a job while women sold themselves on street corners, trading sex for the food and warmth they needed to survive another few days. And the children … Daniel couldn’t help shuddering at the thought of children in the camps, even though there was nothing he could do. Anything he might have tried would have been ruthlessly blocked by the conservative factions in the Senate.
But they might be right, he thought, numbly. The founders set out to avoid creating a dependent society, like Earth.
He shook his head, angrily. What good did it do to tell the unemployed to go get a job when there were no jobs to be had? What good did it do to insist that the government should create jobs when there was no money to pay the additional workers? What good did it to do to cling to the letter of the constitution when a crisis was upon them that had never been anticipated by the founders? But the hawks were adamantly opposed to any changes while the doves couldn’t agree on how to proceed. And he was caught in the middle.
Daniel stepped over to his desk and looked down at the report his secretary had placed there before going to bed. It seemed that the only growth industry, even after contact with the Commonwealth and the Trade Federation, was government bureaucracy, as bureaucrats struggled to prove they were actually necessary. The report told him, in exhaustive detail, just how many men, women and children had been arrested at the most recent protest march, the one that had turned into yet another riot. Daniel glanced at the executive summary, then picked up the sheaf of papers and threw it across the room and into the fire. Maybe he should have offered it to the homeless, he told himself, a moment too late. They could have burnt the papers for heat.
There was a tap on the door. Daniel keyed a switch, opening it.
“First Speaker,” General Erwin Adalbert said. “I apologise for disturbing you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Daniel said. He trusted the General, insofar as he trusted anyone these days. There were times when he suspected the only thing preventing a military coup was the simple fact that the military would have to solve the crisis itself. “What can I do for you?”
“We received an intelligence package from one of our agents in the underground,” Adalbert said. “I’m afraid our worst nightmare has come to pass.”
Daniel smiled, humourlessly. Protest marches, even riots, weren’t a major problem. The various underground groups spent more time fighting each other and arguing over the plans to repair the economy – or nationalise it, or send everyone to the farms – than they did plotting to overthrow the government. His real nightmare was the underground groups burying their differences and uniting against him.
“They’ve definitely received some help from off-world,” Adalbert continued. “There have been several weapons shipments already and more are apparently on the way.”
“Oh,” Daniel said. “Who from?”
“Intelligence believes that there is only one real suspect,” Adalbert admitted. “Wolfbane.”
Daniel couldn’t disagree. The Commonwealth had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by empowering underground movements intent on overthrowing the local government and reshaping the face of politics on Thule. Wolfbane, on the other hand, might well see advantage in trying to covertly knock Thule out of the Commonwealth. Given that the closest Wolfbane-controlled world was only nine light years away, they certainly had an interest … and probably the capability to do real damage.
“I see,” he said.
“We can expect the various underground groups to start working together now,” Adalbert added, softly. “Their suppliers will certainly insist on unity in exchange for weapons.”
He paused. “First Speaker, we need to ask for assistance.”
Daniel looked up, sharply. “Remind me,” he said coldly, “just how much of our budget is spent on the military?”
Adalbert had the grace to look embarrassed. “We spent most of the money on upgrading and expanding our orbital defences,” he said. “It provided more jobs than expanding troop numbers on the ground. We can expand our recruiting efforts, but we’re already having problems training our current intake …”
“And we don’t know how far we can trust the new recruits,” Daniel finished.
“Yes, sir,” Adalbert said. “And most of our new recruits are trained for policing duties, not all-out war. But that’s what the underground is going to give us.”
Daniel stared down at his desk. He’d wanted to go down in history, but not like this, not as the First Speaker who had invited outsiders to intervene in his planet’s civil unrest. The Senate would crucify him, safe in the knowledge that they didn’t have to deal with the situation. They’d voted him emergency powers, enough to call for assistance, but not enough to actually come to grips with the situation.
Damn them, he thought.
“Summon the Commonwealth representative,” he said, finally. He honestly wasn’t sure if the Commonwealth could legally help Thule. This was an internal problem, not an external threat. But there was no choice. “We will ask for help.”