Admiral Junayd passed through the security field and stepped into the conference room, careful to remove his cap as he bowed to the First Speaker and the Lord Cleric. They nodded in return, pressing their hands together in greeting, then motioned him to a chair at the round table. Junayd sat down and composed himself, despite the growing excitement running through his mind. The greatest military operation in the Theocracy’s history was about to begin. It was no time to allow his enthusiasm to overpower his common sense.
He looked up at the giant painting behind the First Speaker. Hundreds of men and women, some bound, others in chains, were making their way towards a giant starship, sitting on the ground like a common aircraft. It was a lie, he knew, a fanciful depiction of a carefully-planned exodus from Earth, but the essential truth shone through. The Believers had been forced into exile, forced to leave God’s chosen world. Many of the exiles had lost the will to live in horror at what had been done to them.
But others had understood. God would not have allowed His faithful to be removed from their homeworld without a reason. It would be safer for them to be elsewhere. And now Earth was scorched rubble, the great cities of Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca little more than blackened marks on a dead world. The religious leaders who had failed to realise their time was over were gone. And the United Nations, the force that had served as their enforcer, was gone too. The True Faith could begin its expansion into the galaxy – and no infidels would stand in their way.
He nodded in greeting as Inquisitor Samuilu stepped into the room, unable to avoid feeling a cold shiver running down his back as he met the Inquisitor’s eyes. Everyone was secretly guilty of something, the Inquisitors believed, and innocence was no defence if one caught their ever-roaming eye. Even a high-ranking Admiral was not immune to suspicion. The Inquisitors spent most of their time rooting out hearsay on the occupied worlds, but they had never relaxed their watch over the Believers.
And a word from them would be enough to condemn anyone to the stocks – or the gallows.
“Let us begin,” the First Speaker said.
He spoke the words of a very old prayer, echoed by the other three men in the room, then looked up at Junayd. “Admiral,” he said. “How fares our planning?”
Junayd took a long breath. “We will be ready to launch the offensive in six months, Your Holiness,” he began. “Planning has been completed for a short, sharp campaign that will bring the infidel Commonwealth to its knees. We will trap and destroy their border fleets, then advance towards their homeworlds before they know what has hit them. Victory will be assured.”
“Only God can assure one of victory,” the Lord Cleric said.
That, Junayd knew, was true. Other religions, the shadows of the True Faith, had believed that God granted victory to his followers without forcing them to work for it. But the True Believers knew that God only helped those who helped themselves. What was the point of victory – or redemption – if it was just handed out on silver platters? But he dared not seem uncertain, not now. There were no shortage of others who would take his place if he ran afoul of his superiors.
“We have been watching their deployments to Cadiz ever since they annexed the border world,” he said, instead. “Their readiness levels are at the lowest we have observed since we started monitoring them closely. The Admiral in command spends most of his time on the planet, training and exercising schedules are not followed and morale is incredibly low. We would not wish to wait long enough for the Commonwealth to appoint an effective commander to take Admiral Morrison’s place.”
The First Speaker smirked. “That would be inconvenient,” he agreed.
“We have allies on the planet’s surface,” Junayd continued. “They will be ready to go on the offensive when our fleet arrives in the system. Cadiz will be cut off from the StarCom network, her command and control systems crippled, allowing us to score a decisive victory before the infidels can mobilise. Their long-term potential is staggering.”
He kept his face impassive, refusing to admit how much that bothered him. The first conquests made by the Theocracy had been easy. They’d largely been primitive worlds, with no spacefaring capability at all. It had taken little more than a destroyer to crush formal resistance, then the Inquisitors had gone to work, digging all who would dare to resist their place in the Theocracy. But the Commonwealth was different. It was a multi-system political entity with a growing trading fleet as well as a formidable military machine.
The Theocracy’s industrial base was geared to supporting the colossal war machine they intended to use to conquer the settled galaxy. It was limited, more limited that Junayd cared to admit, but they would never be able to relax some of the restrictions on economic and social development. But the Commonwealth didn’t have that problem. Somehow, the infidels had created an economy that was growing by leaps and bounds. It presented a formidable threat as well as a challenge.
And it wasn’t the only state to emerge from the ashes left by the Breakaway Wars. It was quite possible that the Commonwealth and the Theocracy could batter each other to pieces, then watch helplessly as another state moved in and took over. Or, for that matter, that they would block expansion of the True Faith. It could not be allowed.
“But nothing compared to ours,” the Lord Cleric said.
The First Speaker smiled. “Six months,” he mused. “Can you not attack earlier?”
“We would need to call up freighters to support the military offensive,” Junayd said. “It will take several months to assemble them without damaging our economy too far.”
He paused. “Besides, we would also need to place our forces in position on our side of the border,” he added. “And then place our agents in the right places to do harm.”
The First Speaker looked at the Lord Cleric, who nodded.
“You have permission to start assembling our forces,” he said, firmly. “And my God defend the right.”
“I thank you,” Junayd said. He stood, placing his hand on his heart. “And I pledge to you, Your Holiness, that the Commonwealth will be ours within a year.”
“The Hotel Magnificent, My Lady,” the shuttle pilot said. “I’ll drop down on the roof?”
“Yes, please,” Captain Lady Katherine Falcone said. She felt a tingle from her implants as security scanners swept the shuttle, confirming her presence. “I believe they should already have cleared us to land.”
She looked down as the shuttle dropped towards the landing pad. It had been four years since she’d seen Tyre City from the air, but it never failed to impress. The designers had covered everything, from the Royal Palace to the military barracks and giant apartment blocks, in white marble, creating a glittering haze in the air as aircars and shuttles flew overhead. Only the brooding presence of the giant planetary defence centre, carved into a nearby mountain, spoilt the impression of a city out of fantasy. But then, the Kings of Tyre had had the money to make their fantasies reality.
The shuttle touched down gently, allowing Kat to stand up and make her way through the hatch and out into the warm morning air. A pair of bodyguards stood there, their faces hidden behind black masks; her implants reported that she was being scanned, again, before they stepped aside and allowed her to walk through the door into the hotel. She sighed, inwardly, as they followed her, even though they knew who she was. It was the paranoia of living in a goldfish bowl, among many other things, that had caused her to seek out her own career, as far from her family as possible.
She caught sight of her own reflection in a mirrored door before it opened and tried not to wince. Her family had the very best enhancements sequences into their genes, ensuring that she had an estimated lifespan of over two hundred years, but she looked young, as if she was barely out of her teens. The long blonde hair she had refused to cut, despite years on various starships, fell around her heart-shaped face, drawing attention from everyone who looked at her. The black uniform she wore, complete with the golden star on her shoulder that designated starship command, fitted her perfectly. But then, her body was perfect too.
At least I’m not Candy, she thought, thankfully. Her older sister spent most of her life aping fashion, even to the point of changing her body or gender completely, just to fit in with her friends. But I could have turned out just like her.
“My Lady,” a voice said.
Kat looked up to see a thin dark-skinned girl, wearing a dress that left very little to the imagination. She sighed. One would have thought that the Hotel Magnificent could have dressed its maids and other staff in something more classy, rather than a dress that wouldn’t have been out of place in a pornographic VR sim. But she supposed the vast majority of the visitors probably appreciated the dresses. Besides, it was easy to underestimate someone who looked so harmless.
“Your father is waiting for you in the dining room,” the maid said. She curtseyed. “If you would care to accompany me …”
“Of course,” Kat said. Why would her father have chosen to meet her in the dining room? “I would be honoured.”
She saw the answer as soon as the maid led her into the giant room. It was immense, large enough for nearly fifty tables … and they were all completely empty, save one. Kat felt an odd mixture of embarrassment and shame as she saw her father, realising that he’d spent millions of crowns merely to hire the room and ensure that everyone else who might have had a reservation was paid off. It was a display of power that she couldn’t help feeling was a little vulgar. But one truth she’d learned as a child was that if you were rich enough, it didn’t matter what sort of person you were. Everyone would want to be your friend.
Her father, Duke Lucas Falcone, rose to his feet as she approached. He was a tall man, his hair starting to go grey after years of serving as CEO of the Falcone Consortium. Kat didn’t envy him his position, even though she knew there was almost no chance of her inheriting anything more than a trust account and some stocks and shares. She’d seen enough of how her older siblings were prepared to take his place to know she didn’t want it for herself.
“Father,” she said, carefully. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”
“I was in the city,” her father said, gravely. “It was no hassle to see my youngest daughter.”
He motioned for Kat to take a seat, then sat down facing her. Two maids appeared, as if from nowhere, each one carrying a menu in her delicate hands. Kat took one and placed it on the table in front of her, rolling her eyes at the sheer assortment of cutlery and glasses in front of her. The knives and forks alone could have fed a poorer family for several weeks.
“Please tell me you don’t roll your eyes like a teenager on your command deck,” her father said, tiredly. “I don’t think your crew would be very impressed.”
Kat felt her face heat. She was twenty-nine years old and he still made her feel like a child, the few times they met in person. He’d rarely had time for her or any of her nine siblings when they’d been children, leaving them in the care of the household staff. There were times when she understood precisely why Candy was intent on blowing through her trust fund as rapidly as possible. She wanted attention from her parents – and they’d only really paid attention when she’d done something shocking or scandalous. Kat had felt the same way as she’d grown into adulthood. But she’d joined the navy instead of becoming a trust fund brat.
“I imagine they wouldn’t be,” she said, tartly. “I need to talk to you.”
“Order your food first,” her father advised. “This place does an excellent caviar and chutney …”
“Fish and chips, please,” Kat said to the maid. Her father looked impassive, but she knew him well enough to tell he’d probably swallowed a disparaging comment. Fish and chips was a plebeian dish and they both knew it. “And a glass of water.”
Her father ordered – something both expensive and unpronounceable – and then waited for the maids to leave, before leaning forward to face her. “You wanted to talk to me,” he said, flatly. “Talk.”
“I have been promoted to command a heavy cruiser,” Kat said, tapping the golden badge on her shoulder. “What did you have to do with my promotion?”
“Congratulations would seem to be in order,” her father mused. “Perhaps Champaign …”
“Father,” Kat snapped.
She took a breath, forcing herself to calm down. “I am too young and inexperienced to take command of a heavy cruiser,” she said. “And there were at least forty other officers, some with previous command experience, ahead of me. I should not have been placed in command.”
Her father smiled. “You doubt your own abilities? What happened to the girl who broke her arm climbing up the trees on the estate?”
Kat met his eyes, willing him to understand just how serious this was. “I should not have been offered command,” she said. “Why did you pull strings to ensure I received the ship?”
“Because it was necessary,” her father said.
“Necessary?” Kat repeated.
“Command of a heavy cruiser at such a young age,” her father mused. “It will look good on your service record, won’t it?”
Kat stared at him, angrily. She’d been haunted by the Falcone name ever since she’d been old enough to realise that not everyone lived in a vast estate, nor had almost everything they desired as soon as they desired it. Going into the Royal Tyre Navy had seemed like a chance to escape her name, to earn fame and promotion on her own merits. But she was still haunted by her family’s name …
“Every single officer in the service will know you ensured I would get command,” she said, finally. “I will never be taken seriously again.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” her father said, after a long moment, “but wasn’t it you who was decorated for heroism when raiders attacked your ship?”
“It won’t matter,” Kat said. “I did well at Piker’s Peak – and I didn’t come first – but this is going to stink like limburger.”
Her father smiled. “You could always decline the command.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Kat snapped. Declining promotion was technically permitted, within regulations, but it ensured that promotion would never be offered again. Her father should have understood … or perhaps he didn’t. The corporate world was nothing like the military, no matter what management fads said. “Father …”
Her father, oddly, reached out and placed his hand on top of hers. It was a curiously intimate gesture from someone who had always been very reserved, when he’d bothered to pay attention to her at all. The last time they’d spoken alone had been just after Kat had applied to join the navy. He’d seen it, perhaps, as a cry for attention rather than a serious attempt to escape the family name.
“I understand how you feel,” he said, softly. “But I also know that the family needs you.”
Kat felt her temper flare. “What do I owe the family?”
“Your life,” her father said. He ticked points off on his fingers as he spoke. “Your expensive education. Your exclusive implants. Your looks and genetic legacy. And the safety bubble that protected you as you grew into adulthood.”
He paused. “And are you going to keep acting like a teenager?”
Kat felt her face heat. What was it about her father that made her act like a child?
“There were reasons for my decision,” her father said, when Kat said nothing. “And, if you will listen, I will enlighten you.”
He paused as the maids returned, carrying two large plates of food. Kat wasn’t surprised to see that the chef had done his best to make the fish and chips look expensive, rather than the greasy food she remembered from the cafe near Piker’s Peak. The senior cadets had gone there on weekend passes, just for the pleasure of eating something that wasn’t navy rations, while having a drink or two with friends. And then most of the young men had headed to the brothel.
“Your ship is being assigned to Cadiz,” her father said, once they’d eaten enough to satisfy the hunger pangs. “And I have some reason to believe the situation is dire.”
Kat leaned forward, puzzled. “Father?”
“I haven’t been able to find much hard evidence,” her father confessed. “Even me, even with my connections; there’s little evidence to find. But there are alarming whispers coming out of Cadiz Naval Base, while some of my … operations on Cadiz itself have been disrupted by the insurgency. And then there’s the decision to appoint Admiral Morrison to command the 7th Fleet. Do you know him?”
“No,” Kat said. It wasn’t as if Admirals made a habit of socialising with lesser beings, even those who happened to have aristocratic families. She made a mental note to read his file – the parts of it she could access, at any rate – as soon as possible. “I’ve never even heard of him.”
“Probably for the best,” her father said. “Admiral Morrison was a compromise choice, Katherine. The Hawks wanted someone more … aggressive; the Doves wanted something who wasn’t inclined to make waves. Morrison seemed the best of a bad bunch. But, with war looming, choosing him to command the fleet might have been a deadly mistake.”
Kat nodded. Everyone knew war was coming. Ever since the Commonwealth had encountered the Theocracy – and the first refugees had started streaming across the border – everyone had known that there would be war. Everyone … apart from a number of politicians who believed the galaxy was big enough for both the Commonwealth and the Theocracy. It sounded idiotic. Nothing anyone had seen had suggested the Theocracy was interested in peace.
“Local politics,” her father said, when Kat voiced her thoughts. “The Opposition feels that the King and his Loyalists pushed the Cadiz Annexation through on false pretences. They’re not inclined to pay much heed to suggestions that storm clouds are gathering on the horizon when Cadiz was such a costly disaster. But, right now, their refusal to admit there may be war looming is costing us badly.”
He took a breath, then sighed. “Admiral Morrison’s position is almost impossible to assault right now,” he added, grimly. “We need hard evidence to propose to the Privy Council that the Inspectorate General be ordered to inspect Cadiz. But the only way to get that hard evidence is to send in the IG. Which we can’t do without due cause …”
“Or a report from me,” Kat said. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“Among other things,” her father said. “I believe you will have ample opportunity to observe Admiral Morrison at close range.”
Kat didn’t bother to hide her distaste. Naval tradition insisted that naval officers were not meant to criticise other officers to civilians, let alone spy on them. There was no shortage of officers who had been promoted through serving as someone’s eyes and ears within the service, but she had never wanted to be one of them. The fact she’d been promoted so rapidly, she realised numbly, would convince a great many officers that that was precisely what she was.
“It gets worse,” her father said. He didn’t bother with any insincere condolences. “Are you aware that there’s been an upswing in raider activity over the past four months?”
“… No,” Kat said, alarmed. “It’s been covered up?”
“More or less,” her father said. “Most of the media is owned by the big family corporations and none of them are eager to do anything that might drive confidence down and insurance rates up. Proportionally, losses are a small fraction of our overall merchant marine, but it’s rapidly growing to alarming proportions. I believe the Admiralty is already assigning starships to serve as convoy escorts.”
“Which reduces the number of hulls available for border patrol and screening duties,” Kat said, slowly. “I’d bet that isn’t a coincidence.”
“Me neither,” her father said. “Raiders have been a problem since the Breakaway Wars, but this is on a considerably greater scale.”
He took a breath. “And then there’s trade with the Theocracy itself,” he added. “They’ve layered whole new security precautions on our ships entering their space.”
Kat gave him a sharp look. “You’re trading with the enemy?”
“Certain … factions within the Houses of Parliament believe that trade will eventually cause the Theocracy to moderate its territorial expansion and concentrate on economic growth,” her father said. “Others think its a good chance to gather intelligence. And still others believe that trade will convince the Theocracy that they don’t have to be scared of us – and our expansion.”
Kat couldn’t help herself. She snorted.
“They’re politicians,” her father pointed out, dryly. “A good grip on reality isn’t part of the job description.”
He shrugged. “Quite a few voters think the bastards have a point, though,” he added. “If the Theocracy had been the ones to grab Cadiz, instead of us, wouldn’t we be worried about what they would do with it?”
Kat considered it, reluctantly. She didn’t want to admit it, but the politicians had a point. The Commonwealth had expanded peacefully until Cadiz, when they’d annexed a world by force, even if they did have the best of intentions. It had cost the Commonwealth a great deal of goodwill among the other independent worlds. And was it worth it? By almost any measure, Cadiz was a net drain on the Commonwealth’s resources.
Her father cleared his throat. “In any case, our crews have been completely isolated while their ships have been in Theocratic space,” he said. “It doesn’t bode well for the future.”
“I see,” Kat said.
“So we need you out there to report back to us,” her father said. “We need an accurate report of just what is going on.”
“Yes, sir,” Kat said. “But if I see evidence that you’re wrong, I won’t hesitate to bring it to your attention.”
Her father nodded, then reached into his pocket and retrieved a Secure Storage Datachip, which he dropped on the table in front of her. “There’s a contact code here that will allow you to access the StarCom,” he said, “along with a number of personnel files and other pieces of information you might need. You should review it on your flight to Cadiz.”
Kat nodded, wordlessly.
“Tell me,” her father said, straightening up. “How is your relationship with Davidson?”
Kat felt her face turn bright red. One of the other reasons she’d been so quick to abandon her family estate was the simple lack of privacy. Everyone knew what she was doing, almost all the time. She knew, just from listening to Candy’s complaints, that the family security division vetted all of her friends and romantic entanglements, making sure that none of them posed any danger to the family. There was no privacy at Piker’s Peak either, but at least everyone was in the same boat.
“We’re just friends,” she said, tartly. She shouldn’t be surprised her father knew. They’d been lovers, once upon a time, but the call of duty had separated them and so they’d parted as friends. “Why?”
“I’m having him assigned to your ship too,” her father said. “If you need support, it will be good to have a Marine you can trust behind you.”
“Thank you,” Kat said, icily. “And are you going to be making any other decisions for me today?”
“No,” her father said.
He looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’d like to believe I’m wrong,” he admitted. “Wars are chancy things, as you would know better than I. But I don’t think I’m wrong. And if the Theocracy does come over the border … you might have a chance to prove you belong in a command chair sooner than you might think.”