The tension in the air as darkness fell over the estate was so thick, Steward Joel thought as he paced the lines, that one could cut it with a knife.
Earth was gone. And so was the government that had protected the Forsakers against their enemies. Tarsus was still reeling after the news had finally arrived from Earth, its government trapped in endless debates over what should be done, but some of its population had already taken matters into their own hands. The attacks had begun almost at once, targeting isolated Forsakers on the streets and killing them. And the government had done nothing.
Of course they did nothing, Joel thought, bitterly. There’s no votes in protecting us.
He gritted his teeth as a cold wind blew over the estate. The Forsakers had never been popular, not on Tarsus. They’d been moved from world to world by the Empire, seeking out a home that had never materialised. Joel had no doubt his people could have made a go of it, if they’d been given land and support, but no one had been interested in actually helping them. Instead, they’d been shoved into an estate and told to stay there.
It was no place for a Forsaker community, he thought, as he turned to walk back towards the warehouse. The estate was grey and soulless, despite their best efforts. No amount of work could hide the fact that it wasn’t designed to hold people, not for long. The facilities were poor, privacy was very limited and opportunities for employment were non-existent. Some of the young men had tried to work, in hopes of earning enough money to buy land, but they’d been cheated and robbed by their employers. It was technically illegal, yet the government hadn’t given a damn even before the economy had collapsed. They might have been forced to take the Forsakers, but the government felt no obligation to make them welcome.
He stepped into the guardhouse, his eyes flickering over the five young men on watch. They were armed, but only with baseball bats and other improvised weapons. Tarsus had strict laws forbidding the private possession of firearms and the Elders had forbidden the Stewards from seeking out illicit weapons. They’d warned of the dangers of provoking the government, but Joel found it hard to care. The government had made its feelings on the matter quite clear. They wanted the Forsakers gone.
“My brother hasn’t returned,” Steward Joshua said. He sounded grim. “He and his wife never came back.”
Joel winced. Joshua’s brother hadn’t quite been Fallen – the Forsaker term for men who left their community – but he’d loudly argued that they’d reached the end of the line. He’d been beaten for his heresy, of course, yet no one knew just how many other Forsakers quietly agreed with him. And now he was gone. He might have been caught by a mob and killed …
… Or he might have decided to vanish into the planet’s population, forsaking his heritage in exchange for a safe place to live.
And his wife probably encouraged him, he thought, sourly. She never quite fitted in either.
“I’m sure he will be back,” he lied, smoothly. Joshua’s brother had taken his wife and left the community. It suggested he had no intention of returning. “And you can rebuke him then, if you wish.”
He kept his real thoughts to himself. The Forsakers didn’t look any different from the rest of the planet’s population, not really. Their clothes might have marked them as outsiders, but it wasn’t as if changing one’s outfit was difficult. And Tarsus was cosmopolitan enough to accept a newcomer if that worthy made a definite attempt to blend in. He closed his eyes in pain as he turned back to the door. Joshua’s brother was merely the latest Forsaker to forsake his heritage.
Traitor, he thought.
The attack began at midnight.
Joel had been sitting in the guardhouse when he heard the sound of several people moving outside. The patrol had only just gone out to sweep the edge of the estate. They shouldn’t have been back so soon. And yet … he grabbed for his baseball bat as the door burst open, a trio of black-clad men smashing into the room. He barely had a moment to recognise the stunners in their hands before there was a flare of blue-white light and his entire body jerked violently. His legs buckled beneath him and he hit the ground face-down, utterly unable to move.
“Clear,” a voice said. “Only one guard.”
Joel tried to struggle as he felt strong arms rolling him over, but his body felt as limp and powerless as a sack of potatoes. A man, his face hidden behind a mask, patted him down, then rolled him back over and cuffed his hands behind his back. Joel fought a wave of bitter helplessness as the men walked out of the room, leaving him there. No matter how desperately he struggled, he couldn’t move a muscle. His body was completely useless.
He heard shouts and screams, male and female, as the policemen worked their way through the estate. Rage flared through his mind at the violation of their most sacred spaces, but there was nothing he could do. His body was starting to twitch uncomfortably, a pins and needles sensation almost driving him insane … the stun blast was wearing off, he realised numbly. But his hands were still cuffed. It was hopeless.
A man strode into the room, caught hold of Joel by the scruff of the neck and hauled him to his feet. Joel stumbled, his legs still feeble, but somehow he managed to force himself to stagger out of the door. Outside, he saw a nightmare. Hundreds of men and women were sitting on the ground, their hands cuffed; dozens of armed policemen were watching them, weapons at the ready. And, right at the edge of the estate, a mob of angry locals, shouting and jeering as the police completed their task. Joel had no doubt of what would happen, if he somehow managed to get away. The mob would beat him to death, then dump his body in the gutter.
His cheeks burned with humiliation, for himself and his community, as he sat there, forced to watch as the estate was searched and their possessions confiscated. God alone knew what would happen to the tools, the motley collection of hand-powered devices they’d preserved ever since they’d been forced to leave their last home. They needed them, damn it! But the policemen didn’t seem to care …
It felt like hours before they were ordered to their feet and marched towards the lorries. The crowd’s jeering grew louder as they were pushed into the lorries, the doors slamming shut as soon as each vehicle was crammed. Joel heard the engine roar into life as he struggled to find a comfortable position, the lorry shaking as it turned and headed out of the estate. He wished he could see outside, but there were no windows. All he could do was wait.
“They’re going to kill us,” Joshua said. He sounded as though he was on the verge of outright panic. “They’re going to kill us!”
Joel found his voice. “They’re not,” he said, although he wasn’t sure of it himself. “They can’t kill us.”
But he wasn’t sure of that either. The Empire was gone. All the old certainties were falling everywhere. The Imperial Navy was fragmenting, planetary governments were bidding for independence … and Tarsus, which had resented the Forsakers from the moment they’d been ordered to take them, might have decided to rid themselves of a nuisance.
We should have fought, he thought, savagely. We could have learned to defend ourselves.
The lorry lurched to a halt. Moments later, the doors banged open and the Forsakers were pushed and prodded outside. Joel had half-expected a detention camp or a firing squad, but instead … it took him several moments to realise that he was looking at a spaceport. A dozen shuttles sat on landing pads, surrounded by heavily-armed guards. Behind them, there were more lorries and more guards … had the police rounded up every last Forsaker on Tarsus? It was starting to look like it …
He glanced at the nearest policeman. Experience had taught him that it was dangerous to talk to policemen, but there was no one else to ask. “What’s happening to us?”
The policeman’s face was hidden behind the mask, but there was a hint of heavy satisfaction in his voice. “You are being deported.”
Joel stared. “Deported? To where?”
But the policeman said nothing, merely nodded towards the shuttles.
Joel swallowed, hard. Tarsus hadn’t been a friendly place, but … but where would they wind up next? The entire community had just been uprooted without a fight, men, women and children yanked out of their beds and transported to the spaceport. And then …? Who knew where they were going next? Cold bitter rage throbbed in his breast as he watched the shuttle hatches opening. They looked like the gateways to hell.
Never again, he promised himself silently. He should never have listened to the Elders when they’d forbidden him to buy weapons. They could have fought. Whatever happens, never again.
In theory, unlike pre-space Earth, the Empire should have had no problems with ethnic, racial and cultural conflict. As a noted philosopher of the times pointed out, what cultures needed to learn to get along was distance and space – enough space for everyone. Naturally, it didn’t work out like that.
– Professor Leo Caesius. Ethnic Streaming and the End of Empire.
Premier William Randolph Huntsman cursed under his breath as he opened his eyes. He wasn’t sure how long he’d slept, but it felt as though he had barely closed his eyes when his butler stepped into the bedroom. It had been yet another late-night Cabinet meeting, debating precisely what – if anything – Arthur’s Seat could do about the news from Earth and the economic crisis it had brought in its wake. And, as always, nothing had been decided. They knew too little to make any long-term decisions.
He rubbed his eyes, sitting upright. The clock on the wall insisted that it was 0445, local time; 1445, Galactic Standard Time. Sykes, the butler, looked coolly professional, wearing a suit even though it was the middle of the night. William didn’t know how he did it, although he had a theory. Sykes, damn him, didn’t have to worry about anything, beyond serving the Premier. He’d serve William’s successor as well as he’d served William himself.
“Yeah,” he said, finally. “What is it?”
Sykes held out a mug of steaming coffee. “We have received an alert signal from the Orbital Guard, sir,” he said. “An Imperial Navy cruiser – ISS Harley – has dropped out of Phase Space and transmitted a text-only FTL message. Her commander wishes to speak with you as soon as his ship reaches communications range.”
William blinked in surprise, torn between relief and shock. Arthur’s Seat had no real defences, save for a pair of destroyers so old he sometimes thought they predated the Empire itself. They certainly predated his homeworld! The ships were enough to deter pirates, but he had no illusions about their ability to stand off a real attack. If one of their neighbours decided to launch an invasion – and they might, now the Empire was gone – Arthur’s Seat’s ability to resist was almost non-existent. Commodore Charles Van Houlton had made the point very clear during the planning sessions, when he’d asked for more money for the Orbital Guard.
But we can’t build warships for ourselves, William thought. And no one is likely to sell them to us.
He pushed the thought aside, savagely. “Did Harley say why she’s here?”
“No, sir,” Sykes said. “Merely that it’s urgent.”
William contemplated the problem as he sipped his coffee. It was excellent, as always … and yet, it was growing increasingly rare. The Jamaica Blue blend came from Earth … and Earth was gone. Arthur’s Seat grew its own coffee beans, of course, yet it didn’t quite seem to live up to Jamaica Blue. But William suspected he would have to get used to drinking it soon, whatever happened. The price of anything from outside the star system had already skyrocketed. It wouldn’t be long before there wasn’t a single can of Jamaica Blue available for love or money.
“How long until she enters communications range?”
“Two hours, as of the last communication,” Sykes informed him. “She’s red-lining her drive.”
William gritted his teeth. He was no spacer, but even he knew that trained engineers and spare parts were in short supply. Harley’s commanding officer was taking a considerable risk in pushing his ship so hard. Whatever was going on – and his imagination provided too many possibilities – it had to be urgent. There was no way Arthur’s Seat could repair an Imperial Navy destroyer.
“Inform the Cabinet that I want an emergency meeting in three hours,” he said, finally. “And then prepare a breakfast for when they arrive.”
“Yes, sir,” Sykes said.
William finished his coffee, then swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood. His head swam for a long moment, reminding him that he hadn’t had anything like enough sleep. He glanced at the bedside cabinet, where he kept a small collection of painkillers and stimulants, then dismissed the thought. He had a feeling he’d need to keep his wits about him for the coming discussion and stimulants could be dangerous. Sykes fussed about him, wiping his face with a hot towel before producing a neatly-pressed suit and shirt. William shook his head in tired amusement as his butler helped him to dress, then peered into the mirror. As always, Sykes had ensured that there wasn’t a single hair out of place.
But I still look old, he thought. Too old.
He studied his reflection for a long moment, feeling a twinge of dismay. He’d been Premier for two years, elected just in time to face the decline and fall of the Empire … and it had changed him. His brown hair was now grey, his face was lined … he looked more like a bureaucrat or an accountant than a planetary leader. He honestly wasn’t sure he wanted to stand for re-election, even though he was midway through his first term. The job was taking a toll.
And if it does this to me, he thought, what does it to other Heads of State?
It was a bitter thought. Arthur’s Seat was not an important world and never would be. She lacked the economic and military base necessary to reach for greatness. And really, she didn’t want greatness. William had never dreamed of building an empire of his own, even though he knew that at least two of the neighbouring worlds were planning their own conquests. Arthur’s Seat was a quiet sleepy backwater …
… And yet, serving as her leader had drained him more than he cared to admit.
He pushed the thought aside as he walked through the door to his office and sat down at the desk, keying the terminal to bring up the latest briefing notes. His staff had done their usual efficient job, yet they had very little information to draw on. ISS Harley had been attached to the sector fleet, they’d noted, but there was little else about her in the files. Even her commander’s name was a mystery. William shook his head slowly, then started to write a quick letter to his ex-wife. If trouble was coming, he wanted her to be aware of it.
It was nearly two hours before the communications link came online, the terminal blinking up alerts and warnings that William had honestly never seen before, outside drills. The communications link was completely secure, isolated so completely that no one else could hope to intercept and eavesdrop. It struck William as needless paranoia, but if something was dangerously wrong …
And if this level of paranoia is justified, he thought grimly, just what is happening out there?
He straightened as a face appeared in the display. The officer – an Imperial Navy Commodore, if William was reading the rank badge correctly – could have stepped off a recruiting poster, save for the tiredness etched into every line of his face. William felt a shiver running down his spine as he studied the newcomer. This was a man, he realised slowly, who no longer cared.
“Premier,” the officer said. “I am Rear Admiral Carlow.”
“Premier Huntsman,” William said, automatically. He’d never heard of a Rear Admiral Carlow, but that proved nothing. There were more crewmen and officers in the Imperial Navy than there were on some planets. He keyed his terminal, ordering his staff to check for the Admiral’s file, then leaned forward. “Welcome to Arthur’s Seat.”
“I’m afraid I can’t stay,” Carlow said. “I must inform you, Premier, that Arthur’s Seat is about to receive a number of refugees.”
William blinked in surprise. “What?”
“Tarsus has kicked a vast number of Forsakers into space,” Carlow said. “I’m in the position of having to find a new home for them. Their transports will be arriving within the next two days.”
“Impossible,” William said. Forsakers? Arthur’s Seat had a long history with the Forsakers, but that was all in the past. “Admiral, we cannot …”
“Under the terms of the Imperial Charter, you are obliged to take them,” Carlow said, cutting him off. “My legal staff will be quite happy to forward you a copy of their briefs, if you wish.”
“Please,” William said, stunned. “Admiral … why can’t they stay on Tarsus?”
“They are no longer welcome,” Carlow said. “But then, they never were.”
William cursed under his breath. Tarsus wasn’t anything like as powerful as Terra Nova or Kennedy, but her system defence force was powerful enough to give the Imperial Navy pause. A confrontation could only have one outcome – or would have done, before Earth had fallen – yet it would have cost the Imperial Navy dearly. And now, with Earth gone and the Empire steadily collapsing, Tarsus was powerful enough to bend the sector fleet to her will.
And us too, he thought, numbly.
“They need a home,” Carlow said. His voice was curiously flat. “And they do have a claim on Arthur’s Seat.”
“A claim that was dismissed by the Supreme Court,” William said, automatically. It hadn’t taken long. The planet’s original settlers had been conned by the man who’d sold them the settlement rights. “Admiral, are you planning to merely dump them here?”
“Yes,” Carlow said.
William stared at him in absolute disbelief, realising that protest would be futile. He’d met police officers and officers who enjoyed lording it over the weaker worlds, but he’d never met an officer who was just too tired to proceed. Carlow no longer believed in the Imperial Navy, let alone the Empire. He was trying to rid himself of one problem before a nastier one reared its ugly head.
“Once the convoy arrives, they will be transported down to the surface,” Carlow informed him. “And then they will be in your hands.”
“I see,” William hedged. “And how many people are we talking about, Admiral?”
“Around fifty thousand,” Carlow said. He hesitated, noticeably. It was clear he didn’t quite believe his own words. “Perhaps more. Tarsus is not the only world to consider forced relocations.”
I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t just kill the poor bastards, William thought. It would have been easy – and no one would have cared, not after eighty billion people died on Earth.
He kept his face as impassive as possible. “I will have to discuss the matter with my Cabinet,” he said. Fifty thousand? Were they coming in one convoy or several? He had no idea where they could be held, let alone how they could be integrated into the wider community. Arthur’s Seat had never attracted many immigrants. “I trust you can wait that long?”
“I can wait until the convoy actually arrives,” Carlow informed him. “But after that I need to empty the ships as quickly as possible.”
William nodded in understanding. Transport ships had been in short supply ever since the Grand Senate’s taxes and regulations had driven independent spacers out of business or sent them fleeing to the Rim. Carlow would need those freighters back as quickly as possible … and besides, the life support would be red-lined too. A small systems failure, harmless under normal circumstances, might be absolutely catastrophic. He didn’t want to imagine just how many people could die if the life support failed.
“Accordingly, I must demand that you put your shuttles at my disposal,” Carlow added, grimly. “Their crews will be required to serve under my authority. I can cite Imperial Law if necessary …”
“We don’t have many shuttles,” William said. He cursed under his breath. What were they going to do? “But those we have will be placed under your command.”
“Then I will contact you again, when the convoy arrives,” Carlow said. “Thank you for your time, Premier.”
His image vanished. William stared at the terminal for a long moment, then tapped the message that had just appeared in his inbox. Admiral Carlow’s file – which listed him as a commodore – was surprisingly detailed. Carlow’s family had close ties to the Grand Senate, which probably explained the promotion. But they were listed as living on Earth … they might be dead, if they hadn’t managed to get off the planet before the end. Carlow wouldn’t know, any more than William himself. Doubt and fear were no doubt already gnawing at his mind.
Maybe he got promoted as an emergency measure, William thought, as he finished reading the file. Or maybe he promoted himself.
He shook his head, mentally. Carlow hadn’t struck him as the type of vainglorious fool who would promote himself, let alone invent a whole new title just for himself. But it hardly mattered. All that mattered was that Carlow’s solution to his problem had created a whole new problem for William. Arthur’s Seat had enough problems without adding one more.
“And this will give the Opposition all the excuse they need to push for a vote of no-confidence, if they want it,” he muttered as he rose. He raised his voice. “Sykes?”
The door opened. “Yes, sir?”
“Inform the cabinet that the meeting is now being held immediately,” William ordered, grimly. None of them would be pleased at being dragged out of bed, not even his political allies, but there was no choice. Carlow had seen to that, damn him. “And ask the kitchen staff to hold breakfast until after the meeting.”
Sykes looked doubtful. “They will need to eat, sir.”
“I know,” William said. Sykes had always insisted that politicians – and everyone else – should take the time to eat before making any final decisions. A good meal made people feel better. “Have biscuits sent in with the coffee, but nothing else.”
“Yes, sir,” Sykes said. He didn’t sound approving, but William knew Sykes would do as he was told. “I’ll see to it at once.”
William nodded, then walked through the door into the conference room and strode towards the window. Lothian – the capital city – seemed to glow in the darkness, streetlights marking out roads that seemed to twist and turn at random. Visitors to Arthur’s Seat had often commented on the randomness, William recalled, but there was something about the twisting streets that looked more natural than the straight lines and planned communities so common on many other worlds. Arthur’s Seat had never planned its own growth, beyond the bare minimum. The government had allowed the planet to evolve naturally.
For better or worse, he thought, morbidly.
He shook his head, slowly, as he picked out patches of darkness. Arthur’s Seat wasn’t heavily dependent on interstellar trade, unlike some of their neighbours, but his homeworld hadn’t been able to escape some dependence. A number of businesses had already failed, as economic shockwaves rolled over the planet; others, too, would fail as the full impact finally became clear. The cabinet had been debating ways to relieve the pressure on surviving businesses, but hours of argument hadn’t led to any conclusion. Arthur’s Seat simply wasn’t rich enough to buy what it needed, even if anyone was selling.
And no one is selling now, he thought. Not now they have a pressing need for such supplies themselves.
His eyes sought out the Parliament building, positioned on the other side of the city from Government House. The Empire Loyalists had ended up with egg on their face after the Empire collapsed, but so far the Opposition hadn’t made a big issue of it. William rather suspected they didn’t want to take responsibility for solving the problems themselves. If they managed to get a vote of no-confidence through Parliament, they might just win the General Election. And if that happened, they’d find themselves caught in the same bind facing William and his allies.
And if they could do a better job, William told himself, they’d have tried to remove me from office by now.
He saw a faint glimmer on the horizon and shivered. Dawn was breaking, the sun rising over a planet that no longer quite knew what was going on. Thousands of people had already lost their jobs; thousands more knew their own jobs were on the line. And, no matter what the Freeholders said, not everyone was qualified to run a farm or work in the planet’s very limited industrial base. Arthur’s Seat couldn’t just batten down the hatches and avoid the interstellar turmoil washing through the galaxy. But his homeworld couldn’t play a major role on the galactic stage either.
Sykes entered the room, his measured tread echoing in the quiet air. “Sir,” he said. “The Cabinet members are on their way. The staff are already deflecting calls from their aides, asking for background briefings and suchlike.”
He hesitated. “The media has already caught wind of something.”
William nodded, never taking his eyes off the city below. Someone in the Orbital Guard would have talked, of course. It wasn’t as if they had a professional military. An Imperial Navy starship racing towards Arthur’s Seat like a bat out of hell? Of course someone would have talked! And the Cabinet being summoned so early in the morning? The media on Arthur’s Seat wasn’t anything like as intrusive as the media of a dozen other worlds, but they did keep an eye on the government. They knew something was up.
Centuries of galactic peace coming to an end, he thought. It still stunned – and terrified – him. The Empire had been omnipresent for over a thousand years. Dominos falling everywhere. And everyone wondering just when the next blow is going to fall.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, quietly. There was no point in making a fuss about it, not now. “Have the Cabinet shown into the conference room, then serve the coffee. The rest of the world will know soon enough.”
“Yes, sir,” Sykes said.