Sample chapters: Frontiers of the Imperium

Frontiers of the Imperium

Jan Kotouč

Translated from the Czech by Isabel Stainsby

CONTENTS
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7

1.

Captain Alexander Golna did not like journalists.

He understood, of course, all those fine maxims about journalists being important for civilization and democracy; that an open society is a strong society, and all that jazz. He also read reports on the datanet, every day and from several different media outlets – because only idiots rely on just one source – and all those reports were written by journalists.

He understood all this. But that did not mean that he had to like them. He always had the impression that the dearest wish of journalists was to dig up dirt on someone, and, if they couldn’t find any, they would invent it.

But then Golna became an officer in the Central Imperial Navy, and as he climbed up the career ladder, it happened ever more frequently that he simply had to talk to journalists.

This had been doubly true in the last few months, after he had assumed the command and supervised the completion of the work on the ship Hermes, which had on board communications technology so revolutionary that it attracted the media’s interest. This interest was not declining even now, when the Imperium once again needed to deal with a military conflict.

So he had to play the part, as Lieutenant Sorban, the Navy’s PR attaché, was patiently explaining to him. This was also why he was currently wearing his best dress uniform and was marching through the bowels of the Hermes to his cabin, where the most recent specimen of the genus journalisticus vulgaris, Hila Eban, was already waiting for him.

Several officers and members of the crew saluted him as he passed. He did not encounter as many of them as he would on other vessels. The Hermes had just completed its space tests and two days previously she had been certified for service in the Navy, but did not yet have a full crew. The ship’s advanced automation, far more advanced than that of other ships, was another reason for the lack of people.

He reached his cabin, guarded as traditional by a marine, and went in.

Hila Eban, who was seated on the sofa in the living room of the captain’s cabin, looked up with a polite smile. Golna noticed that she had coffee and biscuits on the table in front of her, probably served by Franz, his personal robot-steward.

Eban was younger than he had been expecting. According to her file, she was 32. She was wearing a suit of the sort that had come back into fashion on Hub, Earth and other central planets. Her olive complexion nevertheless contrasted sharply with her blond hair that – judging from the dark roots – was dyed by some old-fashioned method. Golna briefly wondered why she took the trouble to do something like that in an age when medical science could change your hair pigment to any color you could possibly desire.

Most striking, however, were her dark eyes. She watched him like a cat lying in wait for a mouse. Her face might be smiling, but her eyes were guarded.

“Ms Eban, it is nice to meet you.”

Eban stood up and Golna shook her hand. Her grip was firm, confident.

“Likewise, Captain Golna.” Her smile widened a little and a small part of it reached her eyes.

“Please, sit down. I see that Franz has taken care of you. May I offer you anything else?”

“No, I’m good, Captain. Thank you for the nice welcome.”

“I apologize for the delay,” said Golna, sitting down on the sofa opposite her. “I had to go to the engine room. This is still a new ship and thousands of little things still need to be dealt with.”

“I understand, Captain, and I promise that I will not keep you for long. Your Lieutenant Sorban has already given me a guided tour of the ship and allowed me to conduct short interviews with several crewmembers. But no report would be complete without you. A ship is nothing without her captain, and a captain nothing without a ship. At least, that’s what they say in the Navy, isn’t it?”

Golna nodded. “Yes. Although it is also true that, the bigger the ship, the better she is able to manage herself and the ordinary crew members won’t even notice a change of captain.”

“I am sure that your crew would notice if it lost you.” She squinted at her notes. “Your career has been remarkable. Maybe we could start there? Please could you introduce yourself, briefly, for our audience?”

Golna was taken aback. “I’m sorry, are we already recording?”

She nodded and indicated the levitating ball hovering above her. The robot-camera-operative was staring directly at him.

“Yes, it began to run when you sat down. People behave more naturally if you don’t tell them that the recording has started.”

Golna swallowed a pointed comment and took a deep breath.

“My name is Alexander Golna and I was born on March 6, 2659, on Tombara. I joined the Navy after high school, in 2678. I studied at the Naval Academy in Port Royal, on Earth. I have been in the Navy for almost forty years. Weapons systems are my specialization. I did the follow-up course for commanding officers right here on Hub Central from 2690 to 2691.”

He fell silent and Eban raised her eyebrows. He had given her the inventory as if he were a cadet and she the Admiral on an inspection. After a few seconds she had collected her thoughts.

“Your career has been remarkable. You are spoken of as one of the most experienced captains in the Navy. This is your sixth FTL ship, if I am not mistaken?”

Of course she was not mistaken, she had it written down in front of her in her notes, in an archaic paper notebook.

“Yes. I commanded standard-speed patrol craft when I was still a lieutenant. During my career I have commanded the frigates Ross and Nikitin; the cruisers Mexico City and Luanda, and the battleship California. Of my other roles, I could mention Deputy Head of Tactics at the Port Royal Academy, member of the Astrographical Council board for mapping new systems and operations officer on the staff of the Third Fleet.

Another dry list. If Eban was annoyed, she didn’t show it.

“You are telling me numbers, dates and lists. But our viewers want to know something about you, Captain Golna. You are from Tombara, which is somewhat stigmatized as a planet where everything is permitted and some of our more conservative readers may call it a planet with low morals. What made you join the Navy?”

“I have always wanted to travel in space. Maybe I have inherited some of the magic of ancient explorers. Tombara was colonized by adventurers fleeing Papua New Guinea during the Great Tsunami. My name, Golna, is a corruption of Gona, which was a village in New Guinea, and my ancestors took it as their name. I wanted to be an explorer.”

“And do you consider yourself to be more of an explorer or more of a soldier?”

“I think that these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Was James Cook an explorer or a soldier? Then there are more controversial figures, such as Cortéz. Anyone travelling through space is something of an explorer, but at the same time we are soldiers and we protect what has been discovered, all the worlds of the Central Imperium.”

“Yet this dedication to defending your Imperium brought it into conflict sixteen years ago. Were you the captain of the Mexico City during the Tarlin incident?”

Again she was asking about something she knew very well to be the case. Golna suppressed a sigh. It was clear that this issue had haunted him for some time.

“Yes, during that incident, when Tarlin rebelled against the ruling… caste, let’s say. The Marines had to evacuate the palace and several dozen civilians died during the operation.”

“The Court Martial acquitted you of all charges, but one of your marines committed suicide. Maybe you didn’t know this?”

“I know exactly what Private Keith Sloan did,” said Golna, frowning. For the first time, Eban looked surprised that Golna should know the name of the marine who took his own life after obeying his orders. “It was a tragedy.”

“Undoubtedly…” Eban regarded him for a moment, and something interesting sparkled in her eyes. Then she quickly changed the subject. “After a turn in terrestrial services, you finally returned to space, and on the ship Luanda you got into difficult battles with the Ralgars during their Eleventh Incursion, is that right?”

“Yes, during that incursion we fought against the Ralgars in more than ten encounters. Then we defended the planet Mohawk, two squadrons of cruisers. We successfully defended Mohawk, but at the cost of half our ships. The Luanda was severely damaged and had to return to the base, where the decision was taken to scrap her. I became operations officer in the Third Fleet and from there I could watch the end of the Eleventh Incursion.”

“Do you have the impression that after what happened when you were commanding the Mexico City, the Luanda was a certain vindication? You were able to redeem your reputation there, when you defended the human colony against the incursion of aggressive aliens with your back to the wall. War cannot be more clear-cut than that. Was that a vindication for you?”

“I lost one hundred and twenty-four people on the Luanda. Believe me, it is quite definitely not a happy memory.”

Eban once again decided to change the subject.

“After all that, the subsequent terrestrial service and the command of the battleship California must have been an oasis of calm.”

“In the military, we say that success is when something does not happen. Service on the ground was quiet and those two-and-a-half years commanding the California went by with no major incidents and, crucially, without losses.”

Again she squinted at her notes.

“Nevertheless, you have now taken command of a ship which has been talked about for six months as a miracle of new technology. It is fifteen percent larger than a battleship, it has the firepower of several cruisers, but that is not where its strength lies. I think that the correct label for your new vessel is ‘communications ship’?”

Golna could have breathed a sigh of relief when they switched from the past to the present and began talking about what he had prepared to talk about.

“Yes. The Hermes is a prototype ship for facilitating communication between vessels in deep space. As you know, we already had the first FTL communications station during the time of the Protectorate. Even today we have them only on a handful of worlds, the energy demands and space required for a facility large enough to facilitate immediate communication between worlds are enormous. The Hermes is revolutionary. For the first time, FTL communication devices are small enough to fit on board a ship. Precisely this device occupies the majority of the space on the Hermes.”

“Can you use it to communicate in both directions?”

Another question for her readers, to which she herself already knew the answer.

“No, the constant is always the same. The communications station can, by manipulating Gertz space, connect with any receiver in range and communicate or send data in real time. However, the receiver is passive and must wait until the communications station connects to it, and only then can both sides communicate with each other.”

“So the receiver must wait until the communications station calls?”

A simplification for our simple viewers.

“Yes, you could put it like that. In the future, there will undoubtedly be many more ships like the Hermes and this will make it significantly easier to coordinate a fleet over interstellar distances. Commanding officers will not need to rely on planet-based communication stations. Communication ships have the potential to serve as the nerve center of the Navy’s operations over gigantic distances, just as command and control ships did on pre-space Earth.”

Eban nodded.

“The Central Imperium now faces another Ralgar Incursion, that would be the fifteenth, and directly here, at Hub Central, the entire Seventh Fleet was mobilizing to fight against the Ralgars, would that not be the ideal time to try out the Hermes under battle conditions? But my sources are telling me that the Hermes is not departing with the Seventh Fleet.”

“We have not received our orders yet,” answered Golna, a little curtly.

“Maybe, but I know that the Seventh Fleet departs in six days’ time and that the Hermes is not going with it. This is obvious just from the fact that all the vessels in the Seventh Fleet take priority for all supplies and equipment, where the Hermes takes her turn.”

“You are right in that, although we have not received any orders, we are not part of the Seventh Fleet,” said Golna, a little distantly. Interview or not, he was not happy about having to discuss military orders – least of all his own – with a civilian. Even if she was only trying to verify facts she had dug up herself.

He slowly breathed in. The woman was not a monster. Hila Eban specialized in military journalism. At the same time, she enjoyed digging up dirt anywhere on anyone. On the other hand, some of her reporting would definitely benefit the armed forces in the long term. Golna knew that, a year ago, she had been the one who exposed corruption in the tender for the purchase of new combat mechs for the Imperial Army. Six soldiers had died in a military exercise due to poor-quality equipment. Eban had dug like mad to uncover the secret and the result had been a new supplier for the army and the arrest of eleven people, including two generals, one senator and one deputy undersecretary.

“As someone who has fought the Ralgars and lost soldiers under their fire, don’t you feel left behind? The Fleet is flying into battle with them and you are here.”

“I have served in the Navy for nearly four decades, Ms. Eban. You get used to going where you’re sent.”

The journalist took another squint at her notes. “Your crew is only now beginning to report on board, and gradually, is that correct?”

“Yes, the space tests were performed with only a skeleton crew. A large number of other crew members, mostly from the communications and intelligence departments, will report very soon. Then we will be able to test our communication equipment in full.”

“As I understand, there is one Enhans among the new crew members?”

Golna bit his tongue. Yet again he was on thin ice. On the other hand, personnel transfers were not confidential, and she had undoubtedly known this for a long time.

“There are hundreds of Enhans in the Navy,” he reminded her. “And thousands, possibly tens of thousands in the Imperium. The members of the Eighty-Six Families are everywhere, not just the Imperial Parliament. I think that any prejudices are neither here nor there, and they certainly do not belong in the military.”

“Do you mean the prejudices of ‘normal’ people towards the Enhans, or the prejudices of the Enhans towards normals?”

“Both. The Enhans were created centuries ago by the Protectors. The gene is dominant, meaning that all their children are also Enhans.” Again he was explaining things for the viewers. Eban was still looking at him politely, as if inviting him to continue. “Whether this is good or bad is entirely beside the point. In addition to humans, six alien species also live in the Central Imperium and we have all had to learn to get along. I think that mistrust between two groups of people, one of which has been enhanced a little, is something we should have left behind long ago. In the course of my career, I have served under the command of Enhans, and I have also had Enhans under my command.”

Oh my God, I am spouting drivel like some sort of part-time activist writing statuses on the datanet from his mums basement. Think a little!

“You are probably right,” she said, almost reluctantly. She looked as if she would like to say more, but this was not what the interview was about. “Nevertheless, if I am not mistaken, this Enhans is a direct member of the Imperial family. His name is Daniel Hankerson from the ruling Hankerson family.”

“Yes, Lieutenant Daniel Hankerson is a distant relative of the Emperor. I don’t know how distant, but I understand that he is well on the way to a successful career in the Navy Intelligence.”

******

The Myriad Casino in the middle of Hub Central was very well air-conditioned, and Daniel Hankerson was grateful for this. The air was always fresh and refreshing – by the standards of a giant space station – and the musty, sweaty smell of the players’ despair was not evident.

Fresh air was not all that the Myriad offered; there was also the view. It was one of the most luxurious casinos on Hub Central. The extensive space with its towering columns was dominated by gigantic globes, in which live fish of all colors swam back and forth. Rays of light refracted through the globes, bathing the halls in shimmering rainbows. It would look like a nightclub, except that the casino was not gloomy; rather, it was brightly lit, and the colored light only added to the atmosphere.

There were eight separate halls in the casino and each had its own bar and willing waiting staff. While robots held waiting jobs in most of the Station, the Myriad prided itself on employing human waiters and waitresses. Daniel was convinced that at least half of them had undergone bioplastic surgery, because surely it was not possible to meet so many gorgeous people all at once?

The Myriad simply targeted clientele from the best society, so nobody was bothered by the presence of Daniel, an Enhans. Daniel had previously encountered minor prejudices in several casinos, where it did not make sense to explain that an Enhans’ chances of winning were no greater than anyone else’s. Enhans, often known colloquially as ‘Enners’, could boast faster reflexes, greater physical resistance, a faster metabolism and many other things including a higher average IQ, but even though the Protectors’ original design was intended to ameliorate brain capacity, no Enhans was automatically a mathematical genius able to count the cards of the other players.

Some people were still convinced that Enhans would definitely cheat, but Daniel wasn’t too worried by this; he had learned to live with it. He frequented various casinos, but the Myriad was his favorite.

Here there was a wide choice of games, from roulette and blackjack to a game adopted from the Gliesans, one of the alien species living in the Central Imperium. The game was quite entertaining, despite boasting the strange name of Naz-Bar-Bardam.

Nevertheless, Daniel Hankerson turned his attention, as usual, to one of his greatest casino passions.

“Mr. Bertold, you are big blind,” said the dealer, who could have walked into any beauty contest in the Imperium and walked off with the crown.

“Oh! Certainly,” said the player to Daniel’s left, and tossed a hundred chip onto the gaming table.  Daniel had small blind and raised him a fifty chip. Meanwhile, he glanced at Bertold, who could not take his eyes off the dealer. Hanz Bertold was an elegant man of around sixty, and obviously the sort of rich man who had started from nothing but wanted others to believe that he had been born into higher society, as if it mattered. He wore an extravagant suit and Daniel reckoned that Bertold used to be bald, but, judging from his hairstyle and just the way it looked, he had commissioned new genetic hair. At the same time, however, his new hair was too long and thick to look good on him.

People like him regularly visited the casino, largely to display that they could afford it, and because they thought that the rich were also frequent visitors. His image was helped by his attempt to speak with that same drawl that some Enhans also affected, as if it were a mark of success.

Grinning internally at this, Daniel looked at the two cards he held in his hand. The six of spades and the Jack of diamonds. Not a combination, but there was no need to hold off here either.

“Place your bets, please,” said the dealer, and placed the flop of three cards on the table.

The remaining two players called big blind. As small blind Daniel needed only to raise the half, but he decided otherwise.

He threw down two chips. “One hundred.”

His opponents were certainly trying to guess whether his hand was interesting, or whether he was just bluffing. This was what was important in this game, more so than in any other

Mr. Bertold was first in line, but he only raised fifty. “I call.”

“I call,” said the woman opposite Daniel. A lady of maybe forty, in a richly decorated red robe of the type worn on Wuwei, where there was a remarkable biracial population descended from colonists from mainland China and central Africa.

Wu Festian focused on the game through small, calculating eyes. Daniel concluded that she was the sort of person who precisely calculates the probability of each card and analyzes all the possible outcomes. He ventured to predict that Festian was also an excellent chess player. She gave the impression of having actually been born into higher society, and smiled at Daniel a few times, as if considering letting him win because he was the Emperor’s great nephew.

Reminding himself that he must not get carried away or over-analyze things, Daniel turned his attention to the third player. Here analysis was almost too easy.

Brigadier General Jean Flaubert had a face like a lump of granite. Unlike Daniel, who was wearing his own clothes, Flaubert had put on his most magnificent dress uniform and was proudly displaying all his medals, as if awaiting admiration. Daniel noticed that several of them were for combat deployment in anti-pirate patrols and in battles against the Ralgars. Although these battles had taken place many years ago, Flaubert was a warrior still; he stared at the card table with a cold, focused expression, as if a battle plan were lying there.

All three players called Daniel’s bet.

When the bets were in, the dealer turned over the first card of the flop.

Daniel settled down and concentrated on the game.

******

“Excuse me, Mr. Hankerson, there is a robot at the entrance claiming to be your servant.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow as the doorman bowed to him almost subserviently, but spoke with an expression suggesting that, clearly, such a noble sir could not possibly have a robot servant.

“Yes, that will be Kelwin. Let him come in,” he smiled. “If it isn’t a problem?”

“Of course not, sir, of course not.” The doorman swept off and Daniel cast an apologetic glance at his opponents.

“I do apologize. I don’t think it will be anything important.”

“Is it usual for people of your rank to have a robot servant, Lieutenant?” asked General Flaubert, a little resentfully. Daniel suspected that this guy still cleaned his own boots even now.

“The rules permit officers to have robot servants. I am merely taking advantage of them,” he said, haughtily. Robots were not cheap, of course, and Daniel could afford one, though the majority of officers could not. But when other people think you are a snob, they underestimate you. As an intelligence officer, this suited Daniel down to the ground.

And as a card-player.

“Servants are great, human and robot,” said Bertold, and chuckled. “But let’s play!”

They had already been playing for over two hours. Daniel’s heap of chips had grown considerably, but Bertold was also not faring badly. Fissures were appearing in Flaubert’s stony countenance as he watched his chips melt away. At this rate he would be out of the game within half an hour. Wu Festian stuck to her careful analysis, and sometimes it worked out for her, so she continued.

Daniel looked at his hand. A seven and a nine. Four cards were already face up on the table, another nine, a six, a four and a Queen. Festian tried to behave unobtrusively, but her right hand constantly caressed the little finger of her left. However, this seemed very artificial; maybe she was faking a nervous tic. Did she have a good card but wanted to pretend that she didn’t?

The doorman came towards them with Kelwin, Daniel’s servant.

“Fold,” said Daniel, and laid down his cards. “Please deal me out of the next round.”

General Flaubert cast a sullen glance at Kelwin and turned back to the cards.

Daniel stood up and moved a few steps away.

“Is this your robot, sir?” asked the doorman.

“Yes, thank you.”

“At your service, sir.”

But Daniel had already turned to face Kelwin.

“What’s up?”

“You did not return when you said you would,” said Kelwin, primly. He was a typical K-20 model robot from Ashur Robotics, deliberately designed to evoke the early illustrations of robots from the twentieth century. Kelwin was made entirely of metal alloys, with long, slim legs leading up to a sturdy torso, from which protruded arms that were only just wider than his legs. On the flat, smooth torso sat his equally flat, smooth head, but two blue eyes gleamed from it and beneath them was the reproductor, from which his voice could be heard.

His voice had been set to what Ashur Robotics called “Christopher Lee”, whoever that was.

“Yes, I didn’t return home on time. This is my last evening on the Station, Kelwin, and I stayed out to play cards. I’ll be playing for some time yet.”

“You said you would be back in your quarters by midnight.”

“Yes, I did, but I wasn’t.”

“I tried to call you and couldn’t.”

“Kelwin, I turned the comlink off. I wanted to be left alone. By everything and everyone.”

“Sir, how can I serve you when you don’t cooperate with me?!”

This was typical of this model. K-20s were English butlers to a T.

“Kelwin, you’re not my mother.”

“I would not dare to suggest that, Mr. Daniel. Of course I am not your mother, if only because I do not possess the reproductive apparatus to allow me to conceive a child. But I want to serve you faithfully.”

“OK, I understand. But I don’t need your help. I’m going to be here for some time, so you can just go back to the barracks.” The officers waiting to report aboard their ships had allocated quarters on Hub Central. Until recently they had been bursting at the seams, but most officers waiting to be attached to the Seventh Fleet were already on board their vessels and the Seventh Fleet would soon leave for the war. If there had been any activity anywhere this week, it had been in the bars and brothels of all price categories, where the officers and astronauts went for one last good time before flying off to war. The Myriad had had the same traffic as at any other time, mainly due to the fact that it was expensive.

“Please will you leave your comlink on, sir?” Kelwin tried again.

“Yes, OK, I will, and…” Daniel paused, struck by an idea. “Actually, given that you’re here, could you get me a drink from the bar?”

If Kelwin could smile, he would have done so now. His blue eyes certainly gleamed somewhat brighter.

“Of course, sir. My pleasure. What will you have?”

“A Tombara Sling,” said Daniel. “And make sure they mix it properly.”

“I’ll be right back!”

The robot scuttled away and Daniel returned to the table, where another game was just finishing. As he was expecting, Wu Festian had won.

Possibly Kelwin would distract their attention a little. It would certainly raise the hackles of the casino staff that he had sent his robot to get him a drink, rather than one of their beautiful waitresses. The other players at the table, mainly Flaubert, but probably also Bertold, inferred again that he was simply some loaded buck who liked to show off.

“Thank you for waiting for me,” he said, nonchalantly. “Who is big blind?”

The dealer gave an answer, but Daniel’s attention was suddenly distracted. Over her shoulder, he could see one of the casino’s entrances; four sturdy men were just coming in. They moved quickly, and their eyes flew over the entire hall in an instant. All were wearing thick jackets, even though the temperature was maintained at a pleasant eighteen degrees everywhere on the Station.

Their movements were confident, they knew where they were going and why they were here. Daniel suddenly realized that it was not to play cards.

One of the security guards at the door had realized this too, and was now running towards them. He opened his mouth to say something, but one of the men brutally punched him in the stomach, then delivered a second blow to his head. Then they all quickly drew weapons from their jackets, two pistols and two submachine guns.

A ray of light from one of the ceiling aquariums fell directly onto the face of the group leader.

“Nobody move, this is a stick up! We only want some money!” he yelled. Two of his cronies fired into the air.

The screams of guests reverberated round the casino. Some clutched their heads in panic, others hid under tables or lay on the floor. Others remained seated as if turned to stone.

So did Daniel. Armed robbery? Here? Hub Central was enormous, certainly big enough to have its own underworld, but a robbery here? Those people could have a maximum of a few minutes before the Station police arrived.

Did they want to shoot their way out?

One of them had already darted over to the armored door, where chips were exchanged for money, and was threatening the man behind the screen. Even now, chips could be exchanged for actual banknotes, and that was what they were after.

The remaining three looked around the hall again. Daniel noticed that his three opponents and the dealer had frozen. Keep calm. Just keep calm. Those meatheads would not get half a block from the casino before being caught. Playing the hero made no sense, even the casino staff understood that. Everything was insured, it made no sense to take any risks and…

“Hey, you!” shouted one of the thieves, and Daniel, astonished, saw that the thief was looking directly at him. He advanced, the light and shadows from the suspended aquarium illuminating his face, and Daniel saw mulishness there, and something else.

“I’ve seen photos of you! You’re an Enner! I fuckin’ hate Enners!”

He raised his sub-machine-gun and opened fire.

 

2.

The burst of fire from the sub-machine-gun thundered through the casino.

Daniel jumped away from the card table with a speed that probably surprised the shooter.

Another scream. This time the guests leapt to their feet in panic.

“Oh my God!” shrieked Bertold beside him, and dived under the table. Out of the corner of his eye, Daniel saw Flaubert pushing Festian and the dealer to the floor and immediately yelling with pain.

He didn’t know how serious it was, but Flaubert screamed and swore, so he knew it was not fatal, or at least not immediately fatal.

Keep calm. Keep calm. A small part of Daniel’s brain noted how quickly everything could change. A minute ago he was enjoying a peaceful evening, now…

He darted out of his hiding place, his reflexes and enhanced muscles helping him speed to the next table, which was empty. The attacker fired at him again, but the bullets went wide.

Keep calm. Keep calm. Daniel took several deep breaths. The attackers and their cronies came towards him, another round of bullets hit the table, which was protecting him so far. Daniel had no more than a few seconds before the gunman with the sub-machine-gun was right beside him.

He closed his eyes and, from behind the table, yelled at the entire hall:

“The golden keyboard loves leeks!”

The attacker was checked by this complete nonsense, so loud that drowned out the screams of the casino guests and the bark of the guns. But only for a fraction of a second. He began to move again almost immediately. Daniel could already see him standing above him. He aimed the sub-machine-gun, triumph in his eyes.

And at that moment, his head exploded.

This time nobody had the time to shout. The attacker stood there for a few endless seconds without his head, blood spraying from his neck, the sub-machine-gun hanging from his hands. Then his body collapsed onto the floor.

Kelwin was still standing at the bar. In his left hand he held the Tombara Sling he had been bringing to Daniel, his right hand stretched out in front of him, his robotic palm bent at ninety degrees. A barrel was sticking out of his uncovered arm. The robot’s eyes had also changed: instead of blue, they were now gleaming bright red.

“Your behavior is inappropriate in good society!”

He pointed the barrel at another attacker. All three were already staring at the robot.

“What the…”

“Kill it!”

They opened fire, but Kelwin fired from his arm again, hitting one of the men in the stomach. The gunfire from the sub-machine-gun hit him from behind; a few wounds in his head, torso and arms suddenly completely incapacitated the robot.

“Your behavior is highly inappropriate,” he said, before his reproductor failed and he fell lifelessly to the floor.

Daniel dashed out of his hiding place. The dead attacker with the sub-machine-gun was only a few meters away from him.

“Kill that bastard and let’s get out of here!” screamed one of the attackers.

Daniel sprang towards the sub-machine-gun, but it was clear to him that he could not just point it, and he was now in an open space, the attackers were running towards him, rays of light from the giant aquarium above flitted across them…

He didn’t even think, but seized the sub-machine-gun, rolled onto his back and fired a round into the air.

Directly into the giant aquarium sphere.

Hundreds of liters of water poured out, straight onto the remaining two attackers. A small tsunami washed through the casino.

One of the scoundrels managed to stay on his feet during the flood, waving his hands, terrified. The other lay somewhere on the ground. Daniel got up before the wave hit him. He fired at the standing man, then staggered. His clothes were soaked, the water was cold.

The final robber quickly picked himself up off the floor, also wet and disoriented, swearing in several languages.

Daniel fired.

The fourth corpse splashed into the water. All around him, colored fish were flapping helplessly.

Daniel dropped the sub-machine-gun and took several deep breaths. His heart was pounding and he was shaking from the adrenaline.

Keep calm. Above all, keep calm.  Breathe. Just breathe

Despite the water, he dropped to his knees and vomited.

******

“So, how did the interview go, Captain?”

Golna growled something and a smile split across the face of Commander Aleko Bossev, executive officer of the Hermes. Meanwhile his captain unbuttoned his dress uniform and growled again.

“About as well as I was expecting, XO.”

“Was it really that terrible?”

Bossev could see his captain’s expression. He had known Golna for only a few months, but he knew that his captain was not the ideal person to deal with public relations. Now the captain’s blond hair was almost grey.

“In principle it wasn’t that terrible, no, but… Ms. Eban is certainly very good at her craft. You know how, before every interview or presentation, you have that one question in your head that you hope nobody will ask you? Ms. Eban asks those questions almost exclusively.”

Bossev laughed as his captain dropped into the chair behind his desk. He placed the uniform jacket over the sofa.

“Yes, but we survived, and I assume that there won’t be a court martial?”

“You shouldn’t be so afraid of journalists, sir.”

“I know, XO. I just… well, I haven’t always had entirely good experiences with them, and they like to rub it in.”

“Like the incident at Tarlin?”

“Yes, exactly that. And of course Ms. Eban also asked about that.

“That’s the way it goes, sir.”

“Hmm… Well, in any event, did they deal with the faulty coil in the engine room?”

“Commander Rico has teamed up with some people on the station. Nobody will solve it this evening and the Seventh Fleet still takes priority over everything else, but we should have a new one within three days.”

“That should do. I also think that…” The buzzer on Golna’s desk sounded. The captain stretched out his hand and picked it up.

“Yes? Captain Golna.”

For a while he listened, then remained still, peering at the intercom.

“What?”

******

Police Inspector Cervi of Hub Central Security – HCS – squelched through the water on the casino floor. His face wore an expression of permanent curiosity. Daniel suspected that he had planned on spending his evening in another way.

“So, those men burst into the casino, demanded money, then one of them began to shoot at you and the others joined in?”

“Yes, Inspector.” Daniel was still soaked through; the towel given to him by one of the casino’s beautiful waitresses hadn’t fared any better.

The casino floor was covered by several centimeters of water. A group of coroners was putting the attackers’ corpses into body bags. All that was left were the dead fish. Probably nobody would be bothered about them, but Daniel had already seen a number of doormen and janitors gathering up live fish into pails.

“General Flaubert said that the one who started it all cast some racist slurs.”

“I’m not sure that you could call it racism, but he talked some crap about Enhans. I am an Enhans, but I don’t know how he recognized my face.”

“Um hmm.” Cervi made a note on his datapad. “And then? Your robot attacked him…” he squinted at his notes “with a rifle that was integrated into his arm?”

“Yes, inspector. But I had to activate him first.”

“Activate?”

“Yes.” Daniel glanced at the bar, where several police mechanics were handling Kelwin as if he were another of the victims. The repairs would be expensive, but Kelwin would soon be back at his post. Robots can withstand a great deal, and even though his core memory had been hit, his memory regularly uploaded to a backup disk.

“My robot is the personal bodyguard type. The standard K-20 robot, called the E model. It’s a limited edition. If I am threatened he will act to defend me, but I have to activate him first. I do that by shouting a password.”

Cervi looked at his notes again. “You shouted something like… The keyboard loves leeks, is that right? Was that it?”

“The golden keyboard loves leeks. Yes, I had to choose something I wouldn’t use in normal conversation as a password.”

“That… makes sense. I think. I assume that you have that robot legally?”

“Yes, I can send you all the purchase and ownership rights documents.”

“Please do. Not that I don’t believe you, but…” Cervi looked as if he would believe anything now. “What can you do to ensure that the robot does not kill anyone innocent?”

“Once he is activated, he will only attack anyone directly threatening me or him. All the attackers met these parameters. If not activated, he will defend me passively. That means that he will stand in the path of the bullet, throw me to the ground and the like.”

Cervi scratched his head. “I see… you were very lucky, Mr. Hankerson.”

“Yes, I was.” Daniel threw away the wet towel. “I was that. So was everyone else in the casino.”

“That is true. And indeed, I must thank you on behalf of HCS. If you and your robot had not intervened, a lot of people could have been injured.”

“Do people often rob casinos in this part of the Station?”

“Sometimes, but I don’t remember when the last time was. And they never start shooting at the guests. Prejudice against Enhans… Hhhmmm… did you know that there are more Enhans here than anywhere else in the Imperium?”

“Of course, my family lives down there, on the planet,” Daniel reminded him and Cervi nodded.

“You are related to the Emperor, yes? Hankerson. How closely? Should we expect an invasion of journalists?”

“Because of me? I doubt it. The Emperor is my great-uncle, which might sound cool, but I certainly could not be considered a member of the ‘Imperial family’.”

“Is it possible that that’s why they wanted to kill you?”

“It’s possible, but again, why should they?” Daniel tried to remember the attacker’s expression. Something in his posture, his voice, had been strange.

“I have the impression… but it all happened so quickly… I have the impression that he didn’t entirely mean what he shouted.”

“You mean he was only saying something he had rehearsed?”

“Yes, when someone shouts ‘I fucking hate Enners, I want to kill them’, they usually put more feeling into it. This one said it like he would say, ‘well, I’ve never lifted a fifty-kilo dumbbell, I’ll give it a try’.”

“Are you sure?”

“It was all over in a few seconds. Of course I’m not sure. It’s only a feeling… And even if I was, I don’t know what it means. Have you identified the bodies?”

“Yes, Lieutenant.” Cervi used Daniel’s rank for the first time, as if reminding himself that police records may be shared with members of the armed forces. “Two of the four already had records. Violence and attempted murder. We will know more later and…”

“Let me in!” echoed a voice from the entrance. “I have naval credentials. Let me through!”

Daniel raised his head. A powerfully-built man with a large beard came through the police cordon around the casino. His face wore the good-natured smile of a favorite uncle and his curly black hair trailed behind him. His eyes gleamed with the expression of a man who loves life in all its forms.

In addition to his sensational appearance, the man proudly wore the uniform of the Imperial Navy. On his collar, Daniel noticed the pips of a Lieutenant Commander and on his shoulder the badge of the Intelligence Service, just like the one on his own uniform.

Inspector Cervi also raised his head to look. “And you are?”

“Lieutenant Commander Graham Calvert,” the man introduced himself. “Intelligence Officer of the ship Hermes and Mr. Hankerson’s direct superior. Technically, I will be his superior only after he has formally reported aboard, but to hell with that.” He looked at Daniel. “Your new captain sent me here. I assume that you are all right?”

“You could put it that way.” Another member of casino staff came towards Daniel and gave him a new towel. “I was lucky.”

Inspector Cervi cleared his throat. “I will go and interview other witnesses,” he said, indicating Wu Festian, who was sitting with a towel over her shoulders and sipping some calming drink. Next to her sat General Flaubert and a medic was treating the wound on his shoulder. Mr. Bertold was still feeling convulsive and was surrounded by several medics, more than were treating Flaubert, even though Bertold had not been injured. “Then I will have to ask you to come to the station with me, for the records.”

“Certainly.”

Cervi left and Daniel remained alone with his new superior.

Calvert chuckled and looked at the devastation all around him.  “I see that you members of the Imperial family do things on a large scale. What a shame, it was a nice casino. I’ve been here a few times.”

“Maybe it will be again.”

“I hear that you vomited when it was all over. Are you all right?”

Daniel shrugged. “Just adrenaline and stress. Probably.”

“I also hear that you killed two of the intruders personally. Was that the first time you killed someone?”

“Yes.”

“If you would like it, there is a psychologist on board the ship. Perhaps you should ask for an appointment. Of course, there are tons of them on the Station, but given the circumstances, Captain Golna would prefer it if you came aboard immediately. Feelings of anxiety and depression are normal after the first kill. The second is supposed to be easier.”

“The second time I killed someone happened about three seconds after the first, so I haven’t really had the chance to analyze it.”

Calvert chuckled again. “Yes, that is understandable. However, I appreciate your caution. The robot. I’ve heard of the bodyguard models, but I haven’t ever seen one before. Together you have taken good care of yourselves and thanks to you there were no civilian casualties… If we don’t count the fish.” Again he looked up and shifted his weight, his black shoes still in a puddle of water. “It really was very nice casino.”

“Kelwin – my robot – is the one who is owed thanks.”

“How is he?”

“They shot him to smithereens, but he is repairable.”

“I also recommend that you bring him aboard immediately. Our engineers are bored out of their minds. They can take a look at him.”

Daniel nodded. “Can we go straight away?”

“We need to drop in at the police station, and when they are done with you, you can get your things from your cabin and we’ll go on board. Just between us, I would also recommend a dry uniform.”

“Yes, I am definitely counting on that. But why such haste?”

“Captain Golna is somewhat old-school in these matters. If something happens to a member of his crew, he wants that member near him immediately. And I think he’s afraid of a swarm of journalists. Who knows why, but today he’s very wound up about journalists.”

******

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“So, you failed.”

Norman Bandon pronounced the sentence as a statement, not a question. Breathing hurt him more than usual, but for this meeting he did not dare let the device he wore round his neck release the painkillers into his body. He needed a clear head and, in particular, he did not dare risk his own powers.

The woman sitting opposite him almost snorted.

“My people failed and all of them paid for it with their lives. But why did you somehow neglect to tell us that the mark had a combat robot?”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“They had to deal with the robot first, then they were liquidated by one unarmed man because an aquarium emptied itself over them.

“The guy was an Enhans!”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“He was a man who bleeds just like anyone else, he has no special training, he sat for hours at the table, playing cards and drinking. Do you mean to tell me that four of your meatheads with sub-machine-guns weren’t able to kill him?”

“According to your instructions we were to pretend it was a robbery.”

“And was that so complex a role that it used all the cognitive processes they had, was it?”

The woman glared at him, fire in her eyes. Bandon knew what she was thinking. Opposite her sat a man of unspecified age with dry, pale skin, whose jaw was clenched with pain. He had broad shoulders and looked like he worked out regularly, but his complexion, and the drug feeder attached to his neck led her to underestimate him. She, the boss of one of the better organized gangs on Hub Central, thought she was in control. Bandon had paid her a great deal of money for the attack on the casino, but she had probably concluded that the power was in her hands.

“Beware, Mr. Jones,” – she spoke his name ironically; they both knew that it was his alias, just as “Black Fatima” was not her real name. “Our services are expensive and you haven’t paid that much for them.”

He had paid a great deal, but she needed to play the tough queen. That was why she had invited him to an abandoned warehouse in the industrial quarter, so she could meet him in a public place. She thought that she would have the advantage there.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“I paid you to eliminate him. You failed.”

“We failed on the first attempt. Next time he won’t be so lucky.”

Bandon heaved a sigh, which was more painful than usual. Something of this was reflected in his face. Black Fatima only grimaced. He had, of course, grown used to this over the years. When you are one of the Chosen, trifles like sharp pain with each breath do not unsettle you. Actually, it reminded him of his powers. Each breath told him that he was something more. More than normal people, more than Enhans.

“The mark is already on board his ship and will depart in a few days. How do you plan your next attack? Will you shoot your way onto the ship and pretend you got the wrong door?”

“He will have to leave the ship at some point.”

“And you rely on this? What then? Will you pretend that it’s a random mugging? Twice in a row? You might as well go with a banner saying: ‘We’re going to kill Hankerson’.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

If looks could kill, he would be dead on the spot. “What happened, happened. Do you want us to return the money you paid in advance? You know it doesn’t work like that in this business.”

Bandon stood up slowly from the folding table that had been ready for him in the warehouse. Fatima raised her eyebrows.

“The money does not matter. What is more important is that tracks are covered. Then I will have to resolve the matter with someone competent.”

“You are not thinking of trying some hotshot! I wasn’t born yesterday!”

A clicking sound was heard behind Bandon. He did not need to turn around. One of Black Fatima’s people was there. He knew that they were moving closer to him. He could feel it. But he could not put on much pressure, or the person would realize that he knew.

“I advise you to get out of here, Mr. Jones,” said Fatima. “Let’s both forget about what we have seen, then we will both be happy.”

“I fear that you do not realize what you have got into and what has begun,” smiled Bandon.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

He turned his head. A sturdy man with a pistol stood behind him. He would probably have defeated Bandon even without a weapon.

Or so he thought.

“Mr. Jones, do you know how many unidentifiable corpses there are on this station?” said Fatima. “I know that you have no allies for miles around. If we throw your body into the wastewater treatment plant, the acids will dissolve it and a nanoscanner will be needed to establish that you were ever alive.”

Bandon had to chuckle, and not even the subsequent sharp stab of pain bothered him.

“You really have no idea what you are playing with.”

The man behind him was already preparing to shoot, but all of a sudden, he could not.

Bandon stood there, calmly. He didn’t even move.

“Frank!” screamed Fatima.

The shooter roared and grasped at his head. Bandon could already feel his mind. A sudden agony, worse than the severest migraine that the man had ever experienced. And worse still, the fear, he did not know what was happening to him.

He clutched at his head, dropped the weapon and fell to his knees.

Fatima stepped forward, reaching for the weapon herself. She did not know what was happening but was just reacting.

She took two steps before grabbing her head, just like her bodyguard had.

Bandon continued to stand there, calmly, and read both minds. Mostly he got just random thoughts. If he had wanted a detailed interrogation, he would have to ask specific questions and then observe the answers, but fortunately, he did not have to.

Fatima had still not fallen to her knees. She was in robust health, although even she must feel as if an iron fist was squeezing her brain. She was no longer crying out. Tears streamed down her face. An almost animal terror was in her eyes, and her mind.

“As I was saying, you have no idea what – and who – you’re playing with,” said Bandon. His chest hurt, but he barely noticed it now. The pain of his two victims was stronger than any discomfort he felt.

It was time to stop.

He intensified his mental grip. Behind him he heard the blow as the bodyguard fell, unconscious. Fatima was still holding out, but her tears had been replaced by streams of blood flowing from her eyes, ears and nose.

One last effort, one last silent scream. Then her limp body hit the ground next to the bodyguard’s.

Bandon breathed in. Connecting with a dying man was always an interesting experience.

He took several deep breaths, resulting in piercing pain in his chest. He turned on the drug feeder on his neck and immediately felt the relief.

He had to get rid of the go-betweens, there was no other way. Unfortunately this had not solved his main problem. If Daniel Hankerson was already on board his ship, he would have to find another, discreet method of getting rid of him. But first of all he must find out where the ship was headed.

He ground his teeth. He would have extra work and in several months’ time their plans would enter the final phase. He had been preparing for this for two years.

He would find out where the ship was off to and then he would have to contact the Hammer Fleet. Communication out of plan was never pleasant, especially given that the commander of the Hammer Fleet was that bastard Wissien, but he had no choice.

He shook his head. This was not the first small crisis he had had to contend with over the years. They would manage.

It was time to get going.

 

3.

“Put your hand here.”

Daniel Hankerson obeyed and pushed his hand through the circular scanner hatch linking Hub Central with the Hermes. The entrance was guarded by a female marine and a bored male astronaut with the chevrons of a Petty Officer 1st Class. They were both acting as if they had been on guard for a long time. The marine had, however, instantly stood to attention when Daniel arrived, followed by Calvert, and looked straight ahead, as the regulations demanded.

The scanner detected the chip in his arm and compared his DNA with the naval database. This was necessary to prevent intruders from undergoing bioplastic surgery to resemble a crew member and then penetrating the ship. DNA cannot be so easily deceived.

When he went through the frame that performed a quick scan of the whole body, they would find the chip in his head. It was not just anybody who had such a chip. The technology used to create it was not available to the Navy, and in the whole of the Central Imperium, there were only a few dozen people with this chip. It was the Imperial Family implant, which allowed the Emperor to determine the exact position of his relatives through FTL communications stations and keep an overview of them. If anyone were to abduct a relative of the Emperor, they would not be able to hide from the implant. It could not be short-circuited and removing it surgically would require complex and advance neurosurgery, which would be beyond the powers of any abductors.

In addition, the Emperor also used the implant for other things. When, during the reign of Empress Ethereda I – the current Emperor’s grandmother – a number of Enhans threatened to revolt and take the Imperial Navy with them, Ethereda had ordered the creation of similar chips and they had been connected with the naval vessel systems. In Ethereda’s time, each ship already had advanced automation and the chip enabled access to the ship computers. In the event of an uprising, the emperor would personally be able to block certain ship functions and in theory the crew would not be able to do anything.

In the end, Ethereda suppressed the threat of rebellion by non-violent means, but the chip – the imperial implant – had persisted. Daniel was aware that it would be possible to circumvent the chip with a little effort. But there wasn’t usually any threat of rebellion in the Navy. The Central Imperium was in a similar situation to many monarchies on pre-space Earth: the emperor enjoyed popularity among people who did not otherwise trust nobles, or other Enhans. The Emperor and his family were, of course, also Enhans, but people trusted him. He was also popular in the Navy, whose members, moreover, swore an oath of allegiance directly to him.

The scan finished, and the astronaut, surprised, stared at Daniel. He probably had no idea of how to greet a relative of the Emperor, so finally he restricted himself to “That’s fine, sir.”

“Thank you.” Daniel went through into the tunnel and made way for Calvert, who also had to pass through the detector.

A few short steps later, and they were at the hermetic seal in the floor. It was not conspicuous in any way and gravity worked normally here, but it was the place where the connecting tube linked with the tube of the Hermes. Daniel went on board his new ship.

The hangar was just as he had imagined. When the ship was operating normally, it would probably be much busier, and part of the ship’s hull would open for landing shuttles. Now there were only a few vessels and the technicians surrounding them.

However, at the end of the hatchway, another astronaut was waiting, a woman with the pips of a Chief Petty Officer and a yellow band on her arm, which indicated that she worked as the hangar petty officer. Everyone coming on board was required to report to her.

“Welcome on board, sir,” she said.

“Lieutenant Daniel Hankerson, Intelligence Officer, reporting aboard,” he responded formally.

Clearly she had heard the gossip and had known he was coming. Not just because she was unimpressed by who or what he was, which most people were indifferent about. But she nodded with the expression of someone who has received exact instruction and is now just reciting them.

“Welcome. You are to report directly to the captain.”

“The captain?” Normal procedure was that a new officer reported to the person currently serving as deck officer, or to the executive officer. Or, where appropriate, to their direct superior, who was Calvert, just behind him.

“Lieutenant Commander Calvert, returning on board with our prodigal son.” He chuckled.

Internally, Daniel shook his head.

The higher NCO just welcomed Calvert formally, but turned again to Daniel.

“Yes, to the captain. He gave instructions.”

“I understand. Where is the captain’s cabin?”

“He is not in his cabin. You must go to him on the observation deck.” She smiled when she saw Daniel’s expression. “It’s a cabin with a huge panoramic window right on the bow of the ship. I can upload a map of the ship onto your datapad, so you can get to the captain easily.”

“Thank you, Chief… Abrams,” said Daniel. In the Navy, a Chief Petty Officer was traditionally addressed as “Chief” and Daniel had no wish to depart from tradition.

“You’d better go to him now. And then come and find me; we will also have things to talk about,” said Calvert, with a smile.

Daniel departed, still wondering what he should think of this man. And his smile.

******

The Hermes, although a prototype communications ship with revolutionary technology, offered even more in its own right.

Even after several months, Golna was still getting to know the ship, but he had fallen in love with one place at first sight: the observation deck.

The observation deck was a large cabin right on the bow of the ship, in the curved section of the hull. No normal cabin would fit into the space around the warehouses, but the designers had decided to set aside several square meters and create a space with a huge viewing window on the wall and ceiling. Golna told himself that, when the Hermes finally set sail, he would host a ceremony here, a celebration or anything else that would entertain the crew.

But so far, the ship had not launched and he had the observation deck all to himself.

It did not even matter that the Hermes was still docked at Hub Central. For Golna, this made it even more impressive. He did not have to look at the stars and sigh melancholically to feel small and insignificant. It was enough to look at the huge station and the hundreds of ships of all types, shapes and sizes around him to arouse in him an almost sacred reverence.

The official center of the Central Imperium was the planet Hub below them. But Hub Central was the true center of all traffic and trade, the main artery of the whole empire. Ships from the five different FTL gates connecting the entire Central Imperium were headed towards it. In the whole empire, there were twenty such gates, and five of them led here, almost a half of all connections. Although each ship had its own FTL drive, the gates enabled ships to transport themselves instantly from place to place over a distance that would mean months or even years of travel for a normal ship.

The gates were the masterpiece of the Protectors, extra-terrestrial beings who, centuries ago, had made contact with the human race, raised it up from the post-apocalyptic world after the Solar War and integrated it into the galactic community they called the Protectorate. Golna himself did not completely understand the Protectors’ motivation. In fact, nobody completely understood them. But Golna knew that the Protectors as a civilization were obsessed with control and were always uplifting other civilizations and integrating them into their empire. In this way they had raised five races, including the human race, and had made themselves responsible for their protection. None of the member races had been allowed their own militaries, but for that more money was invested in other things. The Gliesans were traders and mostly wanted to live in peace; the Lasians were an ant-like race who could build anything fast to order. Humans were also traders, transporters and cultivators. The Protectors had sent human colonizing expeditions to far-flung corners of the galaxies, where they had not yet established their network of gateways. Each colony was led by a number of modified people – the Enhans.

The Protectors wanted the colonies to be governed by someone with the correct genetic disposition, greater resistance, stronger reflexes. So the Enhans were created and thus also the nobility that the Protectors had formalized by allowing humanity to create the Commercial Empire led by the Emperor, who answered directly to the Protectors and whose position was inherited.

The Emperors and the Protectors lived on the planet Hub, but they mainly worked directly on Hub Central, which was the center of the empire and the place from where the Protectors oversaw the construction of the gates and built their empire, as if from a palace in the stars.

Building that empire required people in another way, which was one of the reasons why they had supported the settlement of new human colonies and their population explosion.

The gates, just like the FTL drive or communications stations, were based on the use of Gertz space; the theory underlying it had been described by Dr. Gertz in the time before Contact. While normal FTL drives allowed ships to cling to various “levels” of Gertz space and thus increase their relative speed, the gates, to maintain the connection allowing instant transit between two points, needed organic neurological material for the operation. Unlike drives or communications, the gates needed neurological tissue to create the connections and calculate data. The Protectors had resolved this issue in a very practical way and had used human brains. Nobody knew why, but human neurological tissue was crucial for the gates’ technology and it had been necessary to kill around two million people to create one gate. Therefore, four million, since two gates were needed. None of the other races ruled by the Protectors had sufficient numbers, or were not compatible. Not even tissue from captive Ralgars worked, and the Protectors were not the kind of beings who would look for an alternative solution when there was a functional one right in front of them.

Therefore the Protectors had supported the population explosion and the majority of courts routinely passed the sentence of “mandatory donation of neurological tissue”. And because demand exceeded supply – in the entire Commercial Empire there were no more than a few hundred executions of serious criminals annually – the Protectors had approached the acquisition of donors in various different ways, from lotteries to “dealing with homelessness”. Before long, even this was not enough, so they had started to send soldiers just to bring people in.

In this way they constructed twenty gates, before the Protectors vanished in the war with the rival Silmani race, and humanity took power back into its own hands. The Commercial Empire became the Central Imperium and Emperor Olaf II prohibited the construction of further gateways until the Imperial Academy of Science came up with a better way. However, this was one hundred and forty years ago and since that time no other method of gate construction had been discovered. In the Imperial Parliament, more and more voices were being raised in favor of overturning the Imperial ban. It was mainly Enhans proposing improvements in the Chamber, and even though Golna understood some of the arguments – such as that the organic material in the gates was gradually dying off and the oldest gates would stop functioning altogether within fifty years – he definitely did not agree that the solution was to find four million people somewhere and make them into two new gates.

Adrian III, the current Emperor, and his cabinet still shared that opinion, so no new gates were under construction.

So the Central Imperium, for its existence, used the gates built from mass murder and more of which its own laws forbade it to build. Yet it proudly used those already built.

Golna understood that too; quite simply, civilization needed to. But that did not change the hypocrisy. However, pragmatism was pragmatism.

Behind him a buzzer sounded, arousing Golna from his musings. No one from the port ever came into the observation deck, but it was not a secret that the Captain sometimes spent time there. Someone must have come to see him.

“Come in,” he called. The computer monitoring the room heard his order and opened the door.

Golna turned around and saw a dark-haired man in the uniform of a lieutenant. He came in and approached the Captain. Behind his brown eyes, Golna saw an analyst. He knew that the lieutenant was observing and assessing his captain. Golna had heard that Daniel Hankerson was good at appraising people… maybe because he so loved going to casinos.

“Captain. Lieutenant Hankerson reporting for duty.”

“At ease, Lieutenant. Welcome on board.” Golna beckoned to him to come and take the place beside him. Hankerson was relatively tall. He did not conceal his Scandinavian roots, just as his relationship with the ruling family was also apparent – the square face and relatively small nose were typical of the Hankerson lineage. The Lieutenant himself had rather broad shoulders and, even though he did not look like a great athlete, was clearly in good shape. Golna himself was taller by maybe 5 centimeters, but Golna was also thinner.

“I heard about the attack in the casino. Are you really all right?”

“Yes, sir. A little shaken, maybe.”

“Lieutenant Commander Calvert has already sent me a message and has also forwarded the police report.” If the attackers really were some sort of extremists, this would be unprecedented on Hub Central. Hankerson was extremely lucky. And also somewhat foresighted…

“That robot of yours really is an effective bodyguard. Did your family recommend it?”

“Actually yes, although… well, since Uncle Ardon died, nine months ago, someone in the family – maybe Prince Ronald, I’m not sure, recommended that it would be appropriate for even distant relatives to have a bodyguard. At the same time, they did not want much publicity, so that parliament did not make a noise about taxpayers’ money being used to protect the emperor’s great-nephew and cousin god-knows-how-many-times removed. So, entirely unofficially, the Emperor provided money from his own pocket and recommended that we buy robots from Ashur Robotics. My parents have one of their own each, my Uncle Haskel too, and my sister.”

“That is probably a good way of evading problems with parliament,” Golna had to admit. The ruler was obligated to protect the succession under the Imperial constitution. This meant that the Emperor and his direct heirs (meaning his children) all had compulsory bodyguards composed of members of the Imperial Guard, a small group of elite bodyguards, whose members were recruited mainly from the Imperial Army and sometimes even from the Imperial Marine Corps.

“My uncle sometimes has these flashes of brilliance, yes,” said Hankerson. “Kelwin – my robot – saved my life. Commander Calvert recommended that I bring him on board. He said you might be able to repair him.”

“Certainly, I agree,” said Golna, shaking his head. “I am still fascinated by the attack. Do you really believe it was because you are an Enhans?”

“Frankly, I don’t know. As I said to both Calvert and the police inspector, something doesn’t feel quite right.”

“I hear that you are a good analyst.”

“Possibly, but when someone is shooting at you, you don’t generally have the time to analyze all the details fully.”

“That is true. But I still don’t understand. Yesterday I gave an interview to a journalist and the subject of conflict between Enhans and normals came up. I honestly thought that we had left such prejudices behind.”

Hankerson shrugged. “It’s hard to say, sir. I’m not exactly up-to-date with the main news in the Imperium. I’ve just spent six months on Ferrel Kast on an advanced intelligence course. I am returning to Hub the day after tomorrow to celebrate Succession Day, but I have seen such prejudices on other planets, other worlds. To this day, the Enhans have a privileged position in the Imperial Parliament. The entire system is founded on government by the Enhans, including the Emperor. A lot of people off Hub – and on Earth – have the impression that the Enhans are somewhat privileged. And actually, they are right, it’s like the nobility in the old Earth kingdoms.”

“That was the case under the Protectors. But now it differs from planet to planet.”

“Yes, of course, sir, but if we think about it, the entire Central Imperium is actually just one big compromise.”

Golna frowned. What Hankerson was saying came dangerously close to criticism of the Imperium and of the Emperor, which was not something that you should discuss with your superior officer in the Imperial Navy. However, Golna broached the subject.

This is a strange way of welcoming a new officer aboard. Particularly when someone tried to kill him just a few hours ago.

“There are planets like Tarlin, where you and the Mexico City rescued the Enhans despot from his enraged subjects. The Emperor subsequently recognized the new “unenhanced” government of Tarlin and at the same time admitted the daughter of the former despot into the Imperial Parliament. It’s a mishmash. It’s a compromise. There are planets in the Imperium where Enhans may not hold public office; there are planets where non-Enhans may not hold public office, and the Emperor and his government try to play both sides against the middle. There is only the constitutional requirement that the Prime Minister must not be an Enhans. We have a huge empire, which is expanding whether we want it to or not.” He pointed out of the window, where a group of cargo vessels could be seen landing just a few hundred meters from the place where the Hermes was docked. “This is the legacy of the Protectors, which we are only just learning to live with now.”

“Um hmm…” Golna heaved a sigh. “Maybe you’re right. But the racist attack surprised me.”

“It really is surprising on Hub Central. It wouldn’t be unusual on planets like Tarlin or Marco Polo.”

“Maybe not. Perhaps I am too much of an idealist… And perhaps that journalist yesterday reminded me of some unpleasant memories. She also mentioned Tarlin and the Mexico City.” It really was strange to be talking in this way to so junior an officer, but this officer had had a difficult experience and also, he was not just any ordinary officer.

It was time to change the subject. He pointed through the window at the silhouette formed by the Seventh Fleet.

“Incidentally, the Mexico City is over there now. She’s part of the Seventh Fleet. Just like a lot of people I know.”

“A lot of intelligence officers I know fly with the Fleet. And of course, my uncle Ronald Hankerson. He commands a cruiser squadron. Sir, I have heard that we are not joining the Seventh Fleet?”

“It sets sail in a few days and we have not received orders yet, so, unfortunately not. But you are an analyst, Lieutenant. What do you think they will do with the Hermes?”

Hankerson took a moment to consider this seriously. “The Ralgars are the greatest threat facing the Imperium. It will definitely make use of options provided by ships like the Hermes. But the areas attacked by the Ralgars have plenty of communications stations on the planets. The Seventh and the Third Fleets can use them for communication. I think they will send us somewhere else. A long way away from the Ralgars.”

“Why do you think that?”

“The Imperium is large and the Admiralty will not want to give the impression that we only protect planets on the Ralgar frontier. Sending the newest ship to them could be a good political move.”

Golna chuckled. “Are you sure?”

“Of course not. But you wanted an analysis, Captain. Analysis is guessing, just a bit more sophisticated. If you guess correctly several times in a row, you gain the reputation of a successful analyst.”

“Is it the same when you play poker?”

“Yes, sir. Just bluffing is harder in analysis.”

“Well, we will see what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I am pleased that you are all right, Lieutenant. Welcome on board the Hermes.”

******

By the afternoon of the same day, Golna could be satisfied that Daniel Hankerson had not been far wrong.
“The orders have arrived, XO,” he told Bossev, when the executive officer arrived at the captain’s cabin. “Or at least, partial orders.” He tapped on the computer monitor, as if wanting to indicate where they had come from.
“Yes, sir?” asked Bossev, cautiously.
“Yes. We’re flying to the Konstantin Sector.”
“That’s completely the opposite direction from the Ralgars.” Bossev tried with all his strength not to look disappointed. Golna understood. They both knew that this was probably coming, and they wanted to leave with the Seventh Fleet at a time when the Central Imperium was facing another Ralgar Incursion, but Bossev also had more personal reasons. For Golna, only his former ship and several friends and acquaintances were leaving with the Fleet, but Bossev’s wife and the mother of his two children served on one of the ships. Bossev certainly hated the thought that he would be flying off in a completely different direction. All the more because the Konstantin Sector was the most recently settled and relatively backward.
But the Hankerson lad’s guess was rather good.
“Yes, it’s in the opposite direction, but we knew that it would come to this. The orders are not very detailed, I only know what our aim is, and something about a ‘PR mission’. I would say that the Admiralty just wants us to show the flag there.” He glanced at the orders. “At the same time, they inform us that we are not flying alone. The 35th Task Group will be formed around the Hermes, and tomorrow morning we are to welcome a commodore aboard…” he looked again at the name “Abiola Wabara. Do you know her?”
Bossev shook his head.
“Me neither.”
Bossev chuckled. “At least she will be able to use the cabin we have here.”
Golna laughed. Like the majority of spaceships, the Hermes did not have space to waste, but because it was expected that the communications ship would be used to transport commodores and admirals coordinating the Fleet, she had a luxury flag cabin.
“As well as Commodore Wabara, we will be joined by other ships, but the Admiralty is not yet able to tell us what, or how many. They only write that it will be a group of five to eight ships.”
“That doesn’t really tell us very much. When do we set sail?”
“On the twenty-second of this month.”
“That’s just ten days away!”
“Correct, XO. That’s why we need to get a move on.”

******

The archaic bosun’s whistle sounded in front of the tunnel linking the Hermes with Hub Central. Captain Golna, Commander Bossev, Lieutenant Commander Calvert and another half-dozen senior officers stood to attention.
“Commanding Officer of the 35th Task Group, on board!” announced the loud-speaker in the hangar.
Commodore Abiola Wabara was a small, stocky figure who was barely five feet tall. Her complexion was a shade lighter than her short, black, frizzy hair, and her eyes burned with the self-confidence of someone who knows what they are doing
Behind her marched a pale man with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He appeared quite young for his rank.
Golna took a step forward and saluted.
“Welcome on board the Hermes, Commodore.”
Wabara returned his salute. “Thank you, Captain.” She looked around the hangar and the assembled officers and astronauts. “I see that you have had plenty of time to train the crew.”
Golna was not sure if this was meant as praise.
“Yes, Commodore. The Hermes has already undergone her space test and is ready to set sail. The last crew members will arrive in the next two days.”
“Good, because in front of us we have a lot of work and very little time.” Wabara indicated the man with her. “This is Lieutenant-Commander McNee, my Staff Officer.”
There was a further round of greetings. Golna then introduced his officers.
“May I show you to your cabin, ma’am?”
“If you do not mind, Captain, I would rather go straight to the conference room and go through the orders with you, so we are all on the same page. Not that the orders are particularly detailed, so far.”
“Certainly, ma’am.”
Wabara took one last look around the hangar. “Good. I think we will soon know each other better. But we have a lot of work to do. Let’s get started.”

******

By the following day, everyone on the ship knew that the Commodore was on board. Daniel had no need to worry about this. Like on all ships, regular astronauts shuttled between their quarters, the mess and their post during normal service. As an officer, Daniel was in a slightly different position, and as his conversation with the Captain of the previous day had indicated, the command would probably sometimes be glad to know his views.
However, this did not change the fact that he was just not interested in whether there was a Commodore on board the Hermes or not.
He was wearing a clean work uniform when he went through the hatch to the on-board communication center. The entrance was guarded by two marines, which was more than normally took care of the Captain’s or Admiral’s cabin. It showed just how much the Imperial Navy valued its new toys.
The center looked like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard, just with the modern technology of the twenty-eighth century, but Daniel could not get out of his head the image of women in below-knee skirts, nylons and permed hair on which they balanced headphones. There were advanced computers here, about as many men as women and nobody was sticking wires into sockets in the machine. But the hustle and bustle, and operators seated beside each other and constantly connecting with someone were all similar, as were the supervisors walking among them and monitoring everything.
One of them registered Daniel’s arrival, and smiled.
Calvert.
“Welcome, Lieutenant. Are you rested and recovered?”
“Yes, sir, thank you.”
“No nightmares?”
It was difficult to tell if Calvert’s questions were meant honestly; if he was asking for something to say or if he was poking fun at the matter.
From his eyes, Daniel realized that he was partly sincerely interested, but hiding it at the same time. Calvert was someone who loved life and did not take it too serious, but simultaneously understood that the façade of a jolly butterball served him well as a cover and took good advantage of this.
He was the ideal spy. Daniel himself had also long since learned that, if you give people something they can fix on to, they will ignore everything else about you.
“No nightmares, sir,” he answered. A mere two days had passed since the attack. Ultimately, however, Calvert was right: the first night after the first killing was never pleasant. Daniel was able to justify it to himself and dared to say that he was recovering, but the first night had been complicated.
But now he was all right and able to engage in his duties.
“Good. Come with me, then.” Calvert moved off and Daniel followed him. “This is the communications center. The current shift supervisor is Lieutenant Chen there, she’s the small woman standing on the second floor, otherwise Commander Waykar is in charge. Part of the communications center is earmarked for us from Intelligence. This way, past the communications equipment.”
He led Daniel from the “switchboard” through two hatches – guarded by another four marines – and they found themselves in a hall where several technicians with Engineer badges, not communications specialists, were seated by a glass panel, behind which Daniel could see a giant ball, from which led dozens of pipes and all sorts of other apparatus that he did not understand. However, he recognized the communication coils and realized that they were huge.
Planet-based communications stations were as large as small towns, but this was in the middle of the Hermes, occupying space practically from one side of the hull to the other, but that sphere still had a radius of barely a few tens of meters.
When the government of the Protectors was already coming to an end, Dr. Anita Parekh, of the Research Institute in New Jaipur, had invented FTL communication, a lot was said about the largest purely human discovery. Progress cannot be stopped, however. The more advanced technology is, the smaller it becomes. Daniel briefly wondered if, one day, FTL communication apparatus would be part of a cellphone.
“Well, there it is,” said Calvert, grimacing. “The apparatus is reinforced with armor on all sides. We are actually here, in a large iron ball, which should survive even if the ship around us is shot to pieces…” He emphasized the word should. “And it is also not entirely safe if those coils are damaged, that will produce more radiation than a normal reactor, which will contaminate everything, quickly. That is why there are technicians inside the gallery, and there is also a set of repair robots. If it goes up, it shouldn’t take you out immediately.” Again, he smiled jovially. “You Enhans are more resistant, even against radiation, is that true?”
“Supposedly, yes, but I’ve never had the chance to try it out.”
Calvert took Daniel further. They reached a room that was considerably smaller. Astronauts with Intelligence badges were sitting at some twenty computers. Behind them loitered one more officer, wearing an expression that screamed “shift supervisor”. All young officers who were shift supervisors wore the same expression, which in principle meant “I want to look like a supervisor, and self-confident, and at the same time I’m scared that I will screw up.”
“And here is our awesome little Intelligence nest,” said Calvert. “Lieutenant Hankerson, this is Lieutenant Patricia Gabor, second shift Intelligence Officer. You will be responsible for the first shift.”
Daniel held out his hand. “Daniel. Nice to meet you.”
She pulled a face. “I know, you are the fish murderer.”
She was only half joking. So, an animal lover, then. He wondered what she would say if she knew that he had already negotiated permission to bring a rabbit from Hub on board.
He looked around the Intelligence Centre. “It’s busier here than I was expecting.”
“We are testing how it works, broadly speaking,” said Gabor. “Right now we are communicating with the Third Fleet and all our observation stations along the entire Ralgar frontier.”
Of course, the Fifteenth Ralgar Incursion was what interested everybody right now.
Gabor seemed to know he was interested too. She pressed several buttons and on one of the large wall screens there appeared a large map of the Central Imperium. The gates and trade routes were marked on it. To the galactic north – as the direction on the map was marked by convention, although realistically, the points of the compass did not exist in space – he could see the site of the invasion.
This Ralgar Incursion was the worst for several decades. There was always fighting at the borders, but the Ralgars as such did not have any clear military target, certainly not one that humans would understand. Of course, they targeted large habitable planets and this time it seemed that they would like to seize the Wuwei gates. Nonetheless, all this was random. It was as if wild clans were fighting.
And this, perhaps, was not so far from the truth. The Ralgars were lizards who behaved like barbarian hordes, and their military tactics usually consisted of sacrificing a small group of ships to lure the enemy from their position. Most battles were based on the actions of individual warriors.
Ralgar society was made up of a number of clans and super-clans, and they were more belligerent towards each other than humans were. They fought each other much more frequently than anybody else, but from time to time a few clans would unite and attack the Central Imperium. These wars were called Incursions, but between individual incursions there were dozens if not hundreds of smaller skirmishes.
This time, however, it was a proper Incursion, the fifteenth large enough to be counted as such. As Daniel looked at the map, he realized that this was one of the worst Incursions.
“A lot of clans must have united,” he muttered.
“Yeah,” agreed Gabor. “According to the most recent reports, they have a new chief, who has united a few of the larger super-clans. Brutally, I think, if I know the Ralgars. Well, he has now promised them a new victory in the war.” She indicated on the map. “Look how many of them are converging towards Rosario. Our most populous and advanced planet in the area. That’s where we are sending the Seventh Fleet. Most of the Third Fleet has to maintain position near the Wuwei gate, but the Ralgars are attacking along the entire frontier.”
“It’s probably a good thing that the Seventh Fleet is leaving soon,” said Daniel.
Calvert pointed at the map. “But they are going here, to the Rosarian gate. This will protect our planets in this region here, including Mohawk, Yaoundé and New Sydney. They aren’t going to form a united front with the Third Fleet.”
“At least they will split the Ralgars,” said Gabor. “Hell, horrible to be stranded here. Sir, is it true that we are flying in completely the opposite direction?”
Calvert shrugged. “We are flying where the Navy sends us.”
“Excellent.”
Calvert clapped Daniel on the shoulder. “Learn the ropes here, Lieutenant. Feel free to study the Ralgars and if you notice something, don’t be afraid to speak up. But our goal is elsewhere and soon we will have to concentrate on that.”

4.

 

For important live broadcasts, such as a sitting of the Imperial Parliament, a two-dimensional transmission worked better, so Daniel was now seated on the sofa in his parents’ house in Limburg, on Hub, sipping blackcurrant juice diluted with mineral water from a glass and, with his other hand, stroking the rabbit curled up on a blanket next to him, while watching the live streaming from the House of Families.
He was not entirely sure why he was subjecting himself to this unique variety of masochism, but Parliament traditionally sat in the morning of Succession Day and his mother regularly watched it – when not participating herself – and, like Daniel, she too enjoyed watching people.
And yes, even members of parliament could be considered people.
Sometimes.
“…I will say it again and again I repeat: I believe that a society claiming to be open should not consider any opinion taboo, and everything should be open to discussion.” One of the Enhans, Arian Lardon, of House Lardon, was currently speaking. Daniel recalled that Lardon’s brother was governor of one of those planets in the Central Imperium where Enhans still had privileged status. As a matter of fact, the Lardons were the ruling family there.
Something like the Hankersons across the whole Imperium.
“All of our Imperium, an entire civilization, was constructed on the FTL gates. Yes, it was the Protectors who built them; we served only as workers. Nevertheless, the fact remains that our society is founded on the gates and on rapid travel. We still use the gates today, more than a century and a half after the fall of the Protectors. I do not think that it is irrelevant to at least discuss the option of building new gates, even if it is not to the taste of the current government.”
He inclined his head towards the podium of the large chamber, where sat Prime Minister Marta Dolan with several of her ministers in the visitors’ box. The Prime Minister was traditionally invited to sittings of the House of Families and the House of Deputies, but Daniel could see how some Enhans regarded Dolan. By law, the Prime Minister had to be a “normal”, not an Enhans. For many of the Family representatives, mainly those from Lardon’s clique, this made her almost subhuman.
He recalled his conversation with Captain Golna of a few days ago. Prejudice of this sort worked both ways in the Imperium, though it differed from planet to planet, but the Parliament was a world in itself.
“Killing people to build gates goes against everything the Government stands for,” the Prime Minister responded. “The imperial decree of Emperor Olaf II is still in force. No people may be killed as material for the gates.”
“You are directing the debate away from the point, Prime Minister. I was not speaking of killing people. I was saying that we must consider constructing gates by any means possible.”
“How strange. A week ago I read your interview with the Westerland News and there you stated that the focus on research and creation of the artificial neurological tissue required for constructing gates is a waste of time because, and I quote, ‘the solution already exists and has existed for centuries.’ This ‘solution’ was mass murder to build gates during the Protectorate. Two million people per gate. Or were you thinking of another solution?”
A murmur began on the floor of the House, but Lardon quickly recovered himself.
“Yes. I have the impression that it is a waste of time, because no progress has been made in the last sixty years, even though the Emperor continues to throw state money at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. Yes, we can clone animal meat, we can clone artificial limbs, but we cannot clone neurological tissue.”
“Yet!” shouted someone in the chamber.
“Indeed. ‘Yet’ is the favorite word of those who refuse to face the facts. The neurological material in the current gates is gradually decomposing. Slowly, thanks to the chemical maintenance solutions, but the experts – from our own Academy of Sciences – are agreed that it will be no more than another seventy years before our two oldest gates cease to function and it will be necessary to top up their neurological material. Do you want the gate system to collapse completely?”
“No. Research is ongoing.”
“And what if the gates stopped functioning tomorrow? Will the government – and the Emperor – change their position?”
A new voice was raised in the chamber.
“Goddammit, Arian, talk in concrete terms and get to the point for once! The gates won’t stop working tomorrow. Research is being done as fast as it can be. Propose something specific! Or do you just want to kick your heels in opposition?”
Daniel chuckled and zoomed in on the speaker. The computer immediately displayed his name below his face.
Zhang Wei, a member of the Parliamentary Military Committee.
“Zhang is a good man,” said his mother, Erika Hankerson, next to him, and took a sip from her own glass. “He always speaks up when necessary.”
“Are parliamentary debates usually like this?”
“No… just once a month or so. Roughly. But Lardon wouldn’t miss the opportunity offered by Succession Day.”
“Dear Wei,” said Lardon, on the TV, with feigned familiarity. Daniel recalled that Zhang Wei had Chinese ancestry, meaning that Zhang was his last name and Wei his given name. “Is it really so inappropriate to think about all our futures? The gates are the foundation of all trade. Or do you wish the cargo ships spent sixteen months travelling to your planet from Hub, instead of two weeks? Not to mention that we would never be able to hold out against the Ralgars.
“Zhang is from Wuwei,” said Erika. “The Ralgars aren’t so far away from them.”
“Maybe, but perhaps I have no desire to murder four million of my fellow citizens to keep two gates in operation,” retorted Zhang.
“I am not talking of murder, necessarily; I am not talking about the construction of liquidation camps to process ‘materials’, as the Protectors called it. I am not talking about any such thing,” said Lardon, enhancing his performance with some theatrical outrage. Daniel zoomed in further on his face. Lardon wore exactly the expression of a politician playing his part; a politician who knows when to act outraged and when to see red. He also definitely knew when he should kiss babies and when steal their candy. But there was also an interesting gleam in his eyes. He was a man who did not need to think about what he was saying now. If Daniel had been playing poker with him, he would deduce that this man held the trump. He had higher cards than he was letting on.
Daniel was interested in what would come next.
“All I want is that we discuss the whole matter openly,” Lardon continued, as Daniel continued to observe him. “I just do not believe that any subject should be taboo. Of course, the Protectors’ practices were inappropriate for many reasons, but artificial cloning of neurological material quite simply does not work, or will not for many, many years. What else can we do? We can clone the entire human body and remove neurological tissue from it before birth.”
“Under Imperial law, a clone is an independent being. A clone is human like anyone else,” the Prime Minister reminded him.
“Yes, so this too is not possible. Unless the law is changed.” Lardon grimaced. He was deliberately being provocative, that was all. “A further option is to be practical. We cannot use monkeys, or any other animal, there are not enough of them and they are not compatible. Animal rights activists would also not thank us for this.” Another grimace. “What else can we do? On each of our worlds, there are criminals, murderers, rapists. Why not start with them? Last week, a man murdered his entire family including three children right here on Hub. If someone like that were to be killed and his brain and neurons used to construct gates, I for one would definitely be in favor. No sensible person would pity someone like this. Why should we not use convicts for the construction?
More murmurings.
“That’s definitely nothing new,” said Erika. “Similar ideas pop up from time to time. They always founder on the same issue.”
“Which is?” asked Daniel.
“Listen, and you’ll see.”
Indeed, Zhang was beginning to speak. “Arian, I think that you should do some simple arithmetic and indeed, more research. I found the relevant numbers on the datanet in a few seconds. During the last year, a total of three thousand two hundred and eighteen criminals were executed in the entire Central Imperium, all planets. If we used each executed person as material to build gates, it would take approximately six hundred and thirty years to complete one gate. Is it not worth waiting for our scientists to clone neurological material?”
“But every day, thousands – tens of thousands – of murderers are sitting in prison, rather than being punished in the way they should be. Your ancestors came from China. Wei, do not tell me that the idea of executing criminals seems so terrible.”
Zhang ignored this reference to his country of origin. “Do you want a medieval society? Shall we just execute anyone caught stealing an apple at the market?”
“All I am saying is that there are many people throughout the Central Imperium who have never in any way benefited society and even who have harmed it. Can we not at least debate using them to construct gates?”
“And who will choose these people, Mr. Lardon?” the Prime Minister asked again. “You? The Emperor? Some faceless bureaucrat? Or perhaps we should do it by lottery? Who will it be?”
“Yet again you put words into my mouth that I have not said.” Lardon shook his head, indignantly and, once again, a little theatrically. “All I am saying is that we need to consider all the options. Should the death penalty really not be applied for every rape also? For every threat to public safety? Maybe it would be enough if the death penalty was declared by Imperial law, instead of being a devolved matter for individual planets.”
“And if even these executions were not enough for the quotas to construct gates, then what?” asked Zhang. “Will you invent crimes? Or will you do what the Protectors used to at one stage of their reign? Will you invent a law that everybody violates a little, then choose who to prosecute?”
Lardon made a retort and the debate turned to a discussion of the death penalty and central laws in the Imperium.
Erika turned off the sound.
“Well, I definitely did not miss this on Ferrel Kast,” said Daniel. The rabbit next to him, responding to his gentle movement, jumped up and put its front paws on Daniel’s thigh, raising its nose as if expecting a reward.
“I did miss my bunny on Ferrel Kast. Yes I did.”
His old rabbit, Buzz, had died of old age during his time on Ferrel Kast. Erika had awaited her son’s return with a new one, called Jazz.
But his mother had turned back towards the screen again. “Sometimes it’s worse. Lardon only wanted to draw a little attention to himself. Succession Day is a good opportunity. We are commemorating Olaf II and the foundation of the Central Imperium, so he needs to agitate a bit about gate construction.”
“Honestly, I thought that he would come out with something different.”
His mother frowned. “What do you think?”
“I was watching him. That man has a trump of some sort, but he didn’t play it.” He waved at the display, where the debate continued soundlessly. “And he still hasn’t played it now. He’s allowed the discussion to go elsewhere. What’s his game?”
“Difficult to say. I noticed that too. Maybe he knew that something is planned…”
Daniel shrugged. His mother had spent most of her life in the diplomatic service. As the Emperor’s niece, she often travelled to resolve disputes throughout the Imperium. Disputes that needed to be resolved by someone close enough to the Emperor to be taken seriously, but at the same time unofficially. Daniel had gotten his people-watching ability from her.
However, he knew that he wasn’t nearly as good.
“I think that Lardon is going to come up with something fundamental, something that he, at least, sees as a trump card.”
“Any idea what it could be?”
“About twenty different ideas. I’ve been active in this field for a long time.” She smiled. “But no more politics.”
Daniel looked at the silent display for one last time and put down his glass. “Yes, no more politics. This will sound strange, and not bad-ass enough for a great interstellar agent, but I’m glad to be at home for a while.”
“Me too. I’m also glad that you weren’t hurt!”
“I wasn’t. It happened terribly quickly.”
He had talked to his mother from the Hermes about the attack. She knew what had happened and how. There was no reason to go over it again.
“It’s sad that things like this still happen. Even if you don’t know whether that really was the motive, just that it was used as a pretext is enough.”
“Yes. That’s how it is.” He shook his head. “Maybe it’s a penalty for the way the Imperium still plays both sides against the middle.”
“That’s politics. The Emperor bans the great extremes, but holding something as fragile as the Central Imperium together is pretty hard work.” She indicated the screen. “Lardon and his cronies are just the tip of the iceberg. On half of all planets there are demonstrations of people who want to remove all Enhans from all political activities. On other planets there are demonstrations of Enhans demanding greater autonomy. Some want absolute rule and others want their own planet. Two years ago I mediated in one such dispute.” She shook her head, sending a ripple through her long dark hair. Daniel knew that his mum still looked good. Longevity was a normal part of life for all people in the Imperium. She was over sixty but someone from pre-space Earth would have guessed her age to be thirty-five. Daniel was glad that he had inherited his looks from her. His father was an awesome guy, but he was certainly not a hunk. Nevertheless, he had enchanted Erika Hankerson in other ways.
“Some Enhans are afraid that they will lose their privileges on their planets. Others are afraid that they will lose their lives,” his mother continued. “In the House, there are representatives of the last eighty-six Enhans families. They remember very well that there were one hundred and thirty of them when the Protectors fell. On top of that, the Imperium has thousands of other problems and the Ralgars are far from being the only military one, even if they’re what we’re hearing about right now. There are problems with pirates in remote areas, and there is unrest on central planets, terrorism here and there, or attempted revolution. And just to keep us on our toes, we sometimes have characters here who don’t want the extra-terrestrial races in the Central Imperium to have any autonomy and who would love to enslave the Lasians, Gliesans and the others, or wipe them out.
“So it all looks like a giant house of cards,” Daniel concluded.
“More like a ship sailing with dozens of small holes. None of them will sink the ship alone, but all of them together… Well, and then it’s up to us, the diplomats, and you, the military, to bail out the water.”
“We’re trying, mom.”
Erika Hankerson got up and took Daniel’s glass. “But enough of that. I didn’t want to drag up thousands of domestic problems. Someone will probably throw them at you again this evening, when we go to the reception at the Palace.” She went into the kitchen, where she refilled both glasses.
“That’s okay. I’m almost used to thinking about such things,” said Daniel, pulling a face. “But you’re right. Let’s talk about something else. Where are Dad and Radana?”
“Dad is dealing with more procurement proceedings. Radana is with Ms. Gilbert, at registration.”
“Registration?”
His mother came back to the sofa and gave him a glass. “Yeah. You know that she wanted to go to preparatory school on Horgen? The O’Mayley Institute?”
“Yes.”
“Well, she got in. She’s still discussing the last fine details, but she should fly off next month.”
“That’s great news!” Daniel laughed. Radana had recently turned fifteen and was now as old as Daniel had been when she was born. His parents had been in no hurry to have a second child and he still saw her as his little sister. A little sister who had already reached puberty and even started to think about what she would do in life. She was more interested in science than her mother had been, and was gravitating towards the research work her father did. The O’Mayley prep school was an institute on Horgen that provided adolescents with an in-depth education in science and modern scientific discoveries. Graduates often went straight to university, including the most prestigious, like the Mehmed University that was also on Horgen.
“Radana must be thrilled.”
“Yes, she is, but she’s trying not to show it. You know how it is. She’s fifteen. She doesn’t care about anything, everyone is embarrassing.”
“She’ll get over it… maybe…”
“If she takes after you, we’ll have a few more difficult years. Fortunately the program on Horgen lasts for at least a year and a half…”
“And will you miss her?”
“Yes…” Erika shrugged. “You know how it is. I travel so much for work that I sometimes feel that Ms. Gilbert is more of a mother to her than I am. That’s normal for governesses. Radana will never admit it, of course. She always says that Ms. Gilbert annoys her and won’t leave her alone or give her any peace. But at the same time she would not countenance the thought of leaving Ms. Gilbert here, so she’s going to Horgen too.”
“So she can’t do without the embarrassing lady?”
“Definitely not!”

******

On the giant hologram, several meters high, in the middle of the great hall, soared an image of Emperor Olaf II, the last emperor of the Commercial Empire and the first of the Central Imperium.
“I, Olaf Hankerson, hereby promise and vow that I will defend all citizens and residents of the Central Imperium. Our world is not ideal. We did not wish to live in subjection to the Protectors, but it happened. We did not wish to become the Commercial Empire, but it happened. We did not wish for war, but it happened. We did not wish for many things, but they happened. We do not know what the future will bring us, what awaits us, what threats and uncertainties we must face. The only thing that I can promise you is that you will not have to face them alone. We will be one whole, one law, one Central Imperium, and one Emperor. I, Olaf II, will always stand with all of you.”
There was muffled, half-hearted applause. This address was played at regular intervals during the course of Succession Day and had become routine. Many people perceived Succession Day itself as a dull routine. The Emperor’s words were majestic, but many had the impression that Olaf II did not mean them, and not just people like Lardon in the Parliament. The Emperor and his cabinet sometimes had to make tough decisions and address situations where any decision would harm someone. Despite this, Daniel was aware that House Hankerson – at least those in the direct line of succession – was the main adhesive holding the Empire together, whether the population knew it or not. Olaf’s address was interesting, and Daniel sometimes wondered how much courage and bluffing ability his distant ancestor must have had. The Protectorate had fallen, the entire Commercial Empire had been buffeted by chaos, many petty dictators had attempted to found their own small kingdoms and the Imperium did not have its own army. Despite this, Olaf had stood before the people and declared that he would stand with all and help to resolve all the problems fate dealt them.
And, by some miracle, he was successful. When his daughter ascended the throne, the Central Imperium had achieved all the goals it had set itself. It had a navy, a functioning constitution, a parliament, and political and economic stability.
I wouldn’t want to play poker with him!
He shook his head. But now he no longer wished to discuss politics and looked at his sister Radana, who was standing beside him.
“So you’re going to Horgen, then?” he asked. They were both wearing evening clothes, as appropriate for a gala reception at the Palace on Succession Day. Daniel was wearing his best dress uniform, including an insanely uncomfortable starched collar. Radana wore a beautiful, very cleverly draped robe of dark blue silk that flatteringly emphasized her curves. It was possibly not an entirely appropriate formal dress for a young woman of fifteen, but Daniel’s mother had probably thought it not worth a fight with a girl whom “nobody understands”.
“Yeah,” said Radana, as if it were the most boring thing in the universe.
His sister’s hair was lighter than his, or his mother’s; a probable throwback to the Scandinavian roots of House Hankerson. Nevertheless, all shades and hues played in her hair, as if it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. In addition, Radana had supposedly changed her hair color, or so his mother said.
“That’s awesome. They have great programs.”
“Yeah, it’s cool.” Radana unpeeled herself from the wall and together they headed for the center of the room. A robot waiter carrying glasses of champagne went past them. Radana reached out for a glass, but the robot took a step backwards to get out of range.
“I am sorry, madam, but the consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited for persons under the age of eighteen in the Central Imperium.”
Daniel giggled. Radana heaved a loud sigh.
“Where is Ms. Gilbert, exactly?”
“She went somewhere. She doesn’t have to follow me like a shadow all the time, does she?”
“I know. Don’t worry. I was just interested.”
“Of course, everyone’s interested in Ms. Gilbert. She’s everywhere.”
“I’m interested in you too. That’s why I asked about the O’Mayley Institute. Your answer didn’t tell me much.”
“I’m really interested in the research on those gates. The corporation working on it. I’ve heard they’ve got further than the Imperial Academy of Science.”
“That’s quite possible. And it will be good for the Imperium too, if a member of the Imperial family takes a look.”
“Well, I suppose, but I’m about as much Imperial Family as you. We just have a posh name and people treat me differently.” Daniel almost expected her to add that she would have liked a normal childhood, but her own governess and plenty of toys seemed to be things she did not particularly want to complain about.
“You’re right, but it will still interest them.”
“Yeah.”
Horgen, and the entire Barrando Sector surrounding it was not linked to Hub, but to another gate leading to the western part of the Imperium and financed by the Foster Group. The leisure industry flourished in that area, and the central planet in the Sector – also called Barrondo – was known as the planet of sin, but many excellent research institutes also worked there. Ashur Robotics, who had manufactured Kelwin and whose robots had a fifty-percent market share in the Central Imperium, came from Barrondo. Hex Research also focused on all types of research and the O’Mayley Institute on Horgen was located there too.
Laws in the Barrando Sector were a little more relaxed, and this suited many corporations. All the more because so much research teetered on the edge of ethics and morality. Despite this, the O’Mayley Institute had an excellent reputation.
Radana started to say something, but another man came their way. “Daniel! I heard that you had flown in!”
“Hi, uncle.”
Haskel Hankerson was technically their cousin, the son of the Emperor’s youngest brother, while Daniel’s mother was the daughter of his middle brother. He was one of the more politically active members of the family, even though he was further down in the succession than Daniel. Haskel sat on various committees and was interested in relations between “normals” and Enhans.
Among other things, he had learned in life to smile disarmingly – but artificially – at people, and Daniel and his sister were on the receiving end of such a smile right now.
“I heard about the terrible events on Hub Central. You have no idea how glad I am that you’re OK.”
“Of course, uncle, that’s the only thing I’ve heard all evening from everyone, and I’m also glad I’m OK. If possible, I don’t want to go over it again.”
Haskel laughed and went to talk to someone else.
Radana looked at her brother. “I hear you killed a lot of fish?”

******

Erika Hankerson watched Daniel and Radana from a distance and tried not to think about everything ahead of them.
Both her children were going away and she felt that type of fear that only a parent can feel when worrying about their children.
“They will be OK,” said Emperor Adrian III, beside her. Erika turned to her uncle, and he smiled. “You’ve never been able to hide what you’re thinking from me.”
“I know I haven’t.”
“You sometimes manage to hide it from me,” said her husband, on her other side. Oliver Hankerson, who had taken his wife’s surname, always tried to act as if moving among the elite he had married into was the most natural thing in the world, when in fact, the most natural thing in the world for him was sitting in a laboratory.
Erika looked in a different direction. The gigantic hall was full of the great and the good, including virtually all members of House Hankerson. Only Erika’s father, retired Lieutenant General David Hankerson, was missing. He was on his way to Camp McDuffy, a prestigious Imperial Army training center, where he was to address the graduates and spend a few months on the base as a kind of moral support for the troops.
Erika knew her father well and was aware of how much he had been looking forward to this.
In addition to her own children, another member who would depart soon was Prince Ronald, the Emperor’s younger son. Ronald was a rear admiral in the Imperial Navy and tomorrow he would leave with the Seventh Fleet. Now he was standing at the buffet with a plate of fruit in his hand, holding a heated discussion with his sister, Crown Princess Leonora.
All other Hankersons were here in Limburg, on Hub. This was the beating heart of the Imperium.
“What do you say to today’s performance in Parliament, Erika?” asked the Emperor, after hesitating for a moment.
“Difficult to say. Nothing unusual. I think that Dolan and Zhang dealt with it well enough.”
“Yes, but you know that this is not an isolated issue, of course?”
“Of course it isn’t. And I am right to reckon with being sent off somewhere again during the next few weeks, to smooth something over for you?”
“There seems to be some unrest on Arnhem, in the Bornholm Sector. The Silmani are mining some asteroids and there are plenty of local issues. Local transportation companies are making a noise about the Silmani cargo ships stealing their business and their opinion is that, as Emperor, I must regulate trade or something. But I think that the diplomatic service can get involved in a month or so.”
“Well, at least it’s not that far through the gate.”
Adrian III nodded and continued to watch the party. Erika knew that the Emperor was expected to circulate and make himself available to other guests. He was everybody’s Emperor. On such occasions he did not have much time for his niece.
“We will definitely have another chat about this,” he promised her. “But I think it would be a good idea if as many Hankersons as possible left Hub in the next few months. We need to be seen a bit more, fly the flag, show ourselves, et cetera.”
“Is that why you pulled strings and had Daniel transferred to the Hermes?”
Adrian stared at his niece and raised his grey eyebrows as high as they would go. “Excuse me?”
“Well, I wasn’t born yesterday. Daniel is departing on a PR mission on the other side of the Imperium to the front. To the Konstantin Sector, where voices are beginning to be raised, saying that they don’t give a damn about the Emperor.”
“Maybe you’re right, but you know very well that there is rarely only one reason for such things.”
Erika turned once more to look at Daniel and Radana, who were talking animatedly. “Yeah, I know.”

5.

 

Alexander Golna stood on the bridge of his ship and studied the main tactical display. The Hermes was still at Hub Central, but her sensors had been activated. The usual tangle of cargo ships surrounded the station, but Golna was looking at something else.
A group of green icons was approaching the square symbol representing a gate. All civilian traffic had been diverted and now only the 184 ships of the Seventh Fleet were heading for the Rosarian Gate. After weeks of preparation and meetings, the Fleet had finally been dispatched to fight the Ralgars.
Golna watched as the first vessels approached the gate and suddenly disappeared in the blink of an eye. He knew that they appeared at the same instant at another gate, 1470 light years away from Hub.
Suddenly the entire Fleet vanished. And everything on Hub was as it had been before. Traffic was restored, cargo ships continued to follow their courses.
The Hermes had remained behind.
“I still wish we had sailed with them,” said Bossev, behind Golna.
“So do we all.”
There were not just civilian ships and the Hermes around Hub, of course, and somewhere halfway between the planet and the cluster of gates a further set of icons floated, almost as large as the Seventh Fleet.
This was the Guardian Fleet, Hub’s main defense unit, and indeed, the core defense of the Central Imperium. When Golna had been commanding the California, he had been in the Guard Fleet the entire time. It was the strategic reserves protecting the intersection of the gates, and was also available to respond immediately, when it could fly through any gate and arrive quickly at the place of crisis before reinforcements arrived. Two Guardian Fleet Task Forces operated at Rosario, but they would return when the Seventh Fleet had replaced them.
The advantage of the intersection was that an Imperial fleet could quickly reach places not linked to Hub by gates; it had its own large naval base.
“Captain.”
Golna turned to the communications section. “Yes?”
“Commodore Wabara’s shuttle has left Hub’s atmosphere and should arrive on board in ten minutes.”
“Good. Is the guard of honor ready? I will go and meet her. Commander Bossev, come with me. Commander Linderholm, take over the watch.”
“Aye, aye, sir, I have the watch.”
Golna and Bossev took the starboard lift and arrived in the hangar within a few minutes. The Hermes was 3200 meters long, but thanks to a complex internal transportation system, Golna could get to the hangar very quickly.
The guard of honor, under the leadership of the bosun, was ready and waiting. The Hermes was docked to the starboard at the station, so the easiest way for the shuttle to connect was using the connection hatch to port. This being done, a green light went on above one of the airlocks after a while, and the hatch opened.
The bosun’s pipe sounded.
“Commanding Officer, Task Group 35, arriving!”
Wabara came through and smiled at Golna.
“Welcome back on board, ma’am. Was your meeting at the Admiralty helpful?”
“As usual, lots of detail at the last minute. For example, they now finally know what I am actually commanding. Apart from the Hermes, in the 35th Task Group we will have the cruisers Astana and Montevideo, two new Korolev-class drone cruisers and the troop carrier El Guettar. The problem is, of course, that none of these ships are yet ready to depart and the Montevideo and the El Guettar are not even in the system, but are expected to arrive within four days. The Astana is being repaired at the docks and still does not have a new captain.” She grimaced. “So, the Seventh Fleet had precedence in everything and now they quickly seek to synchronize the departure time with us. I don’t know which drone cruisers have been allocated to us, because they don’t yet know which ones the Guardian Fleet will send us. But, as I’m sure you also suspect, I doubt that any squadron leader will send their two best ships.”
“I understand, ma’am,” said Golna.
The composition of the Group was a hodgepodge, but if their task really was to impress the local population, this was understandable. But unfortunately, his expectation that the Navy would dig up ships from anywhere for their Task Group had been fully met. And they had to depart in seven days’ time.
Lieutenant Commander McNee emerged from behind Wabara, with an aide. Wabara indicated behind her.
“I gathered up some other travelers on Hub, such as Lieutenant Hankerson.”
Daniel Hankerson emerged from the connecting tunnel, carrying a large crate on his shoulders. Golna raised his eyebrows. He knew about this. The XO had mentioned that Hankerson had requested permission to bring an animal on board, and he had completed all authorizations and health documents, but he still thought it strange to see a small furry animal with long ears, short beige-and-black fur and a twitching nose in the crate.
His mental image of a good naval officer did not include bringing a rabbit on board.
“Reporting on board,” said Hankerson. He had probably expected that the captain would be waiting in the hangar when he got into the shuttle with the Commodore.
“And your plus one, I see,” said Golna.
“Yes, sir. His name is Jazz.”
“And where, may I ask, did you get hold of a rabbit?”
“I kept one before, but he died when I was on Ferrel Kast. My mother obtained this one for me on Hub, when I asked her to.”
Wabara giggled. “Well, the Hermes could do with a mascot. Why not?”
“Ma’am, a mascot is a dog or cat. I’m… not so sure about a rabbit.” He shook his head. “Well, you have permission, Mr. Hankerson. Report to the cabin.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Golna wanted to add something more, but his gaze caught the last person to emerge from the connecting tunnel. This figure was not in uniform; indeed, she was the only person in civilian dress. Golna’s jaw dropped.
“What are you doing here?”
“It’s nice to see you again too, Captain,” said Hila Eban. Unlike her first visit, she was not wearing a suit, but long pants, jackboots and a shirt. A single travel bag hung over her shoulder. “I have been assigned to you as correspondent.”
“The Seventh Fleet has just flown off into battle. Wouldn’t that be a better assignment for you?”
“Eight of my colleagues from the Imperial Digest and other papers are with the Seventh Fleet. But the editor-in-chief would like to know what’s going on in the Konstantin Sector and how the navy meets its obligations there. So he obtained permission from the Admiralty to send someone with you.” She smiled. “Do you want to see my orders? They’re your orders too.”
“That will not be necessary,” growled Golna.
It seemed that Wabara was enjoying the encounter.
Golna turned to his executive officer. “XO, please find a guide for Ms. Eban, and accommodation.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bossev.
“When you have finished here, Captain, please accompany me to the conference room,” said Wabara. “I would like to tell you the latest news from the Admiralty.”
“Certainly, ma’am.”
Internally, Golna shook his head. The Task Group, despite not having any ships yet, had on board a Commodore, a journalist, a member of the Imperial family, and a rabbit.
Something told him that this would be a more interesting trip than he had expected.

******

The Captain, the Commodore and that Hankerson cub disappeared from the hangar. Hila remained there with Commander Bossev, who was summoning a member of the enlisted to take charge of her over his transmitter.
If he was surprised that she had not come on board in a business suit and pumps, he didn’t show it. Meanwhile Hila wondered about the young Hankerson. She had imagined a scion of the most privileged family in the Imperium rather differently. A small, honest piece of her mind had to admit that this was probably her own prejudices talking. During her career as an investigative journalist, she had had plenty of opportunities to get to know Enhans and the thrust of her work had always led her to the very worst examples in society. Daniel Hankerson might be an asshole; she hadn’t yet had the chance to assess this. She had sat at the back of the shuttle with some of the enlisted but had had a good enough view of him to admit that he was easy on the eye.
Yeah, but that’s also true of most deviants from better families. Anyone can get a pretty face with bioplastic surgery…
“Have you already travelled anywhere as war correspondent, Ms. Eban?” asked Bossev. It was clear from his expression that this was a rhetorical question. From her clothes, from the fact that she had brought all her things in only one bag, he had judged that she already had some experience.
“Yes, just not in the Navy. A few years ago I went with the 146th Mechanized Regiment of the Army to cover the Fourteenth Incursion. The campaign was mostly a clean-up. The regiment didn’t suffer any losses.”
“Lots of things are different in the Navy,” Bossev told her. “Chief Petty Officer Williams will show you everything. I think we will put you in the navigator’s cabin. Commander Linderholm will be your roommate.”
“If you don’t mind, I would rather be with the enlisted,” Hila interrupted him. “I learned this when travelling with the Army. I will pick up a lot of what is going on aboard the ship from the enlisted. I’m sure I will come across the officers many times during the journey. At the Admiralty they told me that I could attend the unclassified briefings.”
“Certainly. As soon as we set out, a pre-brief for the crew will be held, a preparatory briefing on the operational field.”
“Yes, I know what a pre-brief is,” she smiled. She started to say something else, but a group of technicians pulled two large cases on anti-grav lifters out of their shuttle. Each case was clearly marked with a yellow stripe.
More interesting was that this was overseen by a group of armed marines, who Hila clearly recognized due to their dark-green uniforms, as opposed to the classic gray and teal of the Navy.
Bossev noticed where her eyes were fixed.
“That’s part of the everyday equipment of a flagship.”
“It looks like an ammunition box, but it’s too small, even though they’re behaving as if it were. But those aren’t the usual missiles for a ship like the Hermes, are they? The Hermes has the same rockets as Hubei-class battleships. As far as I know.”
Bossev nodded. “Yes, but we have caliber 5 beam weapons, like cruisers. We don’t use offensive missiles.”
“So what is that?”
“That’s equipment for the bridge, to control the gravitational supports.”
“Gravitational supports? Doesn’t every ship have them? Why are they making such a fuss about them, and why are the marines there?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the technicians load the cases into the service elevator.
“Every ship has some sort of gravitational support for normal use. Those are the supports that are sometimes called ejectors. That means they are strategic weapons.”
“Strategic?!”
“Yes. They also have non-military applications, but this support-ejector can shoot a projectile at almost ten percent of the speed of light.”
“But what is it for? Will such a projectile stop the deterrents of enemy ships?”
Bossev nodded his head appreciatively. He had not expected her to be familiar with the rules governing space battles. The Gertz drive created deterrent fields around itself, so a moving ship would deflect all projectiles and could therefore limit the battle to energy weapons.
“Yes, it has no use in a space battle. But at that speed it could cause huge damage to a planet. You could do that with a normal support too, by just throwing down a piece of rubbish. But at ten percent of the speed of light you could crack a planet open like a nut.”
“Fuck.”
“Precisely. Furthermore, the Admiralty has ruled that only an officer who holds the rank of at least commodore may decide to fire these things. That’s why we only have them on flagships. And even a commodore can’t give the order alone, he or she must agree with the captain and the executive officer of the ship. This is all done so that an overeager admiral cannot fire from sudden panic in the heat of battle and blow up the planet beneath them…” He stopped short. “You’re not going to quote me on this, are you?”
“Please. I do have some standards, you know.”
Bossev was evidently reassured by this. A woman in enlisted overalls with the pips of a Chief Petty Officer came into the hangar.
Bossev smiled. “Chief Petty Officer Williams, this is Hila Eban, of the Imperial Digest. She’s sailing with us. Please could you find her accommodation with the enlisted, and help her when she needs it?”
“Yes, sir,” said the woman, with an expression that indicated that she had won the prize of cleaning toilets.
Hila was used to this and not at all bothered by it. She turned her best journalist’s smile on the woman, though she didn’t like doing it. “Nice to meet you, Chief.”
They were both pleased to discover that the journalist knew to address a Chief Petty Officer as “Chief”, familiar though the title was.
Bossev cleared his throat. “Ms. Eban, I must go. Welcome on board.”

******

Daniel’s roommate in the small cabin on the Hermes was a junior lieutenant, the rank that Daniel had held until recently, before he had become a full lieutenant at the end of his course on Ferrel Kast. He explained to his roommate, emphatically, that there was no need to address him as “sir”.
His name was Ray Keto. He worked on board in Supplies and most of the time he came over as a good laugh. He was a tall, thin Asian with intelligent eyes, making Daniel think of an owl with a Ph.D. Currently, with great suspicion, those eyes were watching the rabbit, who was cowering terrified in a corner of the cage that Daniel had attached to the wall of their cabin.
“Do you really have permission for this?” he asked, for maybe the sixth time.
“Yes,” Daniel assured him. “Here, read it through.”
“I believe you,” said Keto, cautiously.
“You know that, if you’re allergic, you can request a change of cabin under the regulations, and the command has to comply with that?”
“Yes, I know, but that’s not the problem, I’m not allergic to anything.” He spoke as if the very idea that he was allergic to something, or had any other weakness, was insulting. “I just like peace and quiet. How much of a ruckus do rabbits make?”
“That depends on the rabbit. Jazz is a good boy. Usually. There’s only a problem if he gets bored at night and wants to go out.” Daniel tapped on the bars. “This is soundproof material. Even if he gnaws on the bars, we shouldn’t hear it.”
“Shouldn’t?!”
“Well, nothing’s perfect, humanity has been trying to find a way of preventing rabbits from making a ruckus for eight hundred years now.”
“And he does that mainly at night?”
“Yeah, at night. And this little lowlife knows when it’s night even aboard ship. He can probably see that we’re trying to sleep.”
“Hmm…” Keto ran his tongue over his lips. “Maybe I’ll request the night shift.”

******

Every new crew member was required to report for a standard examination by the ship’s doctor. Whether they were a third-class astronaut or an admiral was irrelevant. The ship was one huge health risk full of thousands of small health risks.
Civilians could not escape it either, so Hila Eban now found herself in the ship’s hospital, where the doctor, whose name was Olgarmi, was examining her.
Olgarmi came over as someone who had seen everything. Or so he thought.
“So, you are that journalist they palmed off on us, yes?” he asked, without getting up.
“That’s how it is.”
“Hmm… and I have to examine you, then. I hope you don’t mind being examined by a guy.”
“Why should I mind?”
“The last female journalist I met was from New Canaan, and the local mores there forbid men from touching a woman they’re not married to. They can’t even shake hands. I had to leave and call a female colleague.”
“New Canaan? I don’t even know where that is.”
“The Bornholm Sector. It’s a new colony of prudes and creeps, but my last ship made a port call there.”
“So, the planet was the problem, not the profession, unless I misunderstand you?”
“I like to jump to conclusions,” growled the doctor, and squinted at the computer. “And if I can change my opinion when I encounter the facts, I keep my brain busy.” He smiled. “And now I can see that I can change one opinion. You were in the Imperial Army?”
“Just for a while, as a reserve in Supply. After eight months they discharged me, but they paid for part of my journalism studies. It’s certainly nothing worth mentioning.”
“You know that better than me,” said Olgarmi, chuckling. “Well, fine, let’s start the examination. An attractive woman like yourself must be used to hearing this, but please undress.”
Of course, what a hoot.
She began to unbutton her blouse. Olgarmi, like most doctors, had seen so many naked bodies in his life that he found them as erotic as the apple core on his desk.
“Before we proceed to the examination, I would like to take advantage of the fact that you are bound by medical confidentiality.”
Olgarmi scowled at her. “What sort of question is that? Of course I am.” He indicated the monitor. “I have already seen your records. Do you want to make sure that I won’t blab to anyone that you have a birthmark?”
“My records are… incomplete, unless you enter into the system the password that I’m about to give you. My health status is a bit complex.”

******

Daniel was trying not to interfere when two engineers from one of the ship’s workshops were finishing the last of the repairs to Kelwin. Behind them stood a balding chief petty officer who looked much more like a professional IT worker than a mechanic, but was watching his two charges with cool competence and Daniel knew that he was ready to intervene if anything went wrong.
Not that anything should, at this stage. The technicians were just fixing the external plating to Kelwin’s torso. His memory had only been partly damaged and Daniel had uploaded the backup. Kelwin would have blanks in his memory in some cases.
His robot servant was lying on his back on the table as if in an operating theater and the technicians were doing the equivalent of stitching up the patient.
“That gun in his arm is a good thing, sir,” the chief petty officer said approvingly. The name on his badge read P. Garrett.
“Thanks.”
“Is this standard equipment for the Imperial family, sir?”
“Something like that. It has proved its worth.”
Garret looked at the supine robot. “He was pretty nearly destroyed. He didn’t hold out for long.”
Daniel couldn’t argue with that. “Yeah, but he still managed to save my life. That has to be taken into account.”
“I know, sir. But, with your permission, I would like to give him some additional armor. We have some spare plate here and our technicians would be very happy to make something that will fit your Kelwin. He won’t know anything about it, but they will be very pleased to do so, believe me.”
Daniel thought for a moment. “Yes, why not.”
“Maybe it would be as well to think about a tactical program too.”
“Tactical?”
“Yes, sir. Your robot basically just stood there and fired. I understand that he can also move when doing that, but he can’t cover himself properly. He doesn’t know how. Ashur Robotics now produces tactical programs for their battle robots. It’s not entirely legal, but… well, we know how it is.”
Daniel grinned. Garrett was the sort of petty officer who knew that completing the task sometimes means deviating from established procedures.
“What will the tactical program do?”
Garrett squinted at the prostrated Kelwin. “It will teach your robot to dodge, take cover, cover sectors of fire… In fact, it will load a whole set of manuals for moving infantry and battle tactics, from the Napoleonic army to combat mechs. Allegedly it will then master psychological warfare too, even though I don’t know how exactly that would work in a robot.”
Daniel nodded slowly. “Of course not. But meanwhile it relies on surprise. We don’t expect him to advance with an infantry squad.”
“Of course not, sir. This program is not yet available on Hub Central, but I could get hold of it for you through… my contacts, if you were interested.”
Daniel considered for a moment, but finally shook his head.
“Thanks, Chief, but I think we already have enough work. You shouldn’t have to worry about this now too. I’m just so glad that Kelwin will be OK.”
“Of course, sir.” Garrett looked at his two technicians, who were just moving the robot into a sitting position. “Do you want to breathe life into him?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Breathe life into him. Activate him. That’s what we call it.”
Daniel wondered what these technicians would call other things, like sex. Maybe he didn’t want to know.
“Why not?” He bent over Kelwin, lifted the cover in the plating on his back, and pressed the button to turn on the main hardware. A robot was never switched off unless being serviced.
For several seconds, nothing happened. Modern fibers and electrics do not make a sound. Finally, Kelwin’s eyes lit up. In the “peaceful” blue.
“Good morning, Mr. Daniel… I apologize, but I do not know how I find myself here and… what’s wrong with my voice?”
Kelwin’s voice was awful, a squeaky rasp and Daniel immediately realized what the problem was. The factory settings. During the repairs, all the robot’s functions had been re-set to the standard settings with which K-20 robots are normally sold; settings that nobody with any sense would use. At least, Daniel did not know anyone who would use the original voice, called “Justin Bieber”. He thought it was a marketing ploy on the part of Ashur Robotics, so anyone who bought a new robot would also buy the voice database package.
“Kelwin, settings: file, voices and diction, change to ‘Christopher Lee’.”
“Understood, Mr. Daniel…” and the voice suddenly changed. “Done.”
“Excellent. Regarding your first question: what is the last thing you remember?”
“The Myriad Casino, you sent me to get a drink. A Tombara sling. After that there is a gap in my memory.”
“Yes, the casino was invaded by some attackers and I had to activate my bodyguard. You saved my life.”
“Really? Unfortunately I remember nothing of this. You are saying that I was successful?”
“Well, here I am. I’m alive, aren’t I?”
“And how did I get here?”
One of the technicians sniggered. Daniel glared at him.
“Well, you know… Kelwin, you were injured in the fight.”
“Shot to shit, you mean,” Garrett suggested.
“Well, something like that.”
The computational capacity of Kelwin’s hard disk was several orders of magnitude higher than that of a human brain, but despite this, it seemed to Daniel that this information was taking some time to process.
“That is very interesting, Mr. Daniel. That means that I failed. My task is to survive, so I can continue to serve you.”
“That’s what you did.”
“But I was out of your service for… five days, seventeen hours and four minutes!”
Behind Daniel, Garrett whistled. “Good, he’s connected to the ship’s system and synchronized the time. What a whizz!”
“What’s important is that you are OK,” said Daniel.
Kelwin stood up and moved toward the door.
“Hang on, where are you going?”
“You ordered a Tombara sling, five days, seventeen hours and four minutes ago. It’s very late!”
“We’re on the ship now. I don’t think they sell them in the bar here.”
The gears in Kelwin’s brain ground again for a moment.
“Yes… failure… what a strange feeling. Leaving a task uncompleted.”
“You achieved your task. I am alive.”
“Yes, but with nothing to drink!”

******

It had been hectic, and astronauts and officers were dropping with exhaustion, but eventually the Hermes set sail according to plan, and with her, the ships of the 35th Task Group, commanded from the Hermes by Commodore Wabara.
She was now standing on the bridge of the communication ship, away from all the activity, while under the careful supervision of Captain Golna, the helmsman and navigator maneuvered away from Hub Central.
Golna sat in the captain’s chair and watched the tactical display as their distance from the station grew. The Hermes was still sailing using the reactive jets necessary for docking and starting at a station. However, this would not last long.
“Forty thousand kilometers from the station, Captain,” the navigator reported.
“Good, increase to the first level.”
“Aye aye, Captain, first level.”
“Set course for the rendezvous point.”
“Course set for the rendezvous point.”
The first level of Gertz drive was the standard level at which a ship in a non-combat situation moved around a solar system. As with FTL travel, the drive used space deformation and the ship was thus able to travel through space reactionlessly, at a speed of 0.02 c. At the moment the Gertz drive was deactivated, the ship’s speed returned to exactly what it had been before the motor had been activated; there was no need for it to slow down. At the second level of Gertz drive, she flew at a speed of 0.15 c and the higher levels were faster than light.
A ship with an activated Gertz drive could not receive any other vessel; no shuttle or craft could connect with her. The Gertz field around the ship created a deterrence that pushed any objects in range approximately five thousand meters away from the ship. Therefore it was not possible to fire missiles at such ships, and beam weapons were used in space battles.
While Golna ruminated on the drive, the Hermes had already reached the rendezvous point, where the other five ships of the 35th Task Group were waiting.
“All vessels report that they are ready, ma’am,” the communications officer said, directing this report at Wabara. She could watch everything from the excellent operations room – a communications ship like the Hermes had the best of the best – but Wabara had only a small staff of a few people, and she was not expected to coordinate the flotilla’s movement through several systems.
“Excellent, let them take up the standard formation around the flagship,” she ordered.
Golna watched as the vessels arranged themselves around his ship.
The Hermes, a colossus over three thousand meters long, the majority of which was taken up by the communication station, sailed like an arrowhead in the center of the formation. The two cruisers, Montevideo and Astana, flew on either side. They were both of the latest Nairobi class, much more sophisticated and advanced than the old Port Moresby class, to which both cruisers Golna had previously commanded belonged. The Astana’s repairs had officially been completed just twelve hours ago, and her new captain had reported on board two days previously.
Two drone cruisers sailed at the rear of the formation. While a conventional cruiser was between seven and eight hundred meters long, a drone cruiser was only four hundred and was much less robust. Their purpose in battle was not direct confrontation with the enemy, but to send out controlled drones from a distance. The controlled drones carried gigantic laser guns, similar to those on battleships. This allowed greater flexibility, and the drones were better able to penetrate the enemy defenses than a large ship. However, the whole concept was new; there were only a few dozen such Korolev-class cruisers, as they were called, in the entire Imperial Navy. The Guardian Fleet had only two squadrons of these ships, and two had been transferred to Wabara’s command. She had officially reported on the previous day.
An eight-hundred-meter long gigantic troop carrier, the El Guettar, completed the formation. She was carrying the 195th Mechanized Regiment of the Imperial Army. The Group’s composition indicated to Golna that the Admiralty wanted to show off all its newest toys in the most backward part of the Imperium.
“The whole Group will head to the Konstantin Gate,” said the Commodore, and Golna issued instructions.
Around the cluster of five gates there were several space transport control stations. When operating normally, the traffic took turns to move in each direction. The vessels travelled for an hour to reach one side, then an hour on the other. Military relocations always had priority, however, and Golna’s communications officer had already negotiated this with transport control management for the 35th Group.
So Golna watched as their ships sailed rapidly towards the cluster of gates in this largest thoroughfare of the known universe.
A single gate was over thirty kilometers in diameter. During the rule of the Protectors, smaller gates were technologically more difficult to build, and needed the same number of human victims as larger ones did. Golna did not fully understand the technology, but he knew a big gate when he saw one.
In the center of the giant ring, that functioned like a circus hoop for a tiger to jump through, there was only darkness. Golna knew that the astronauts on their first voyage on board the Hermes were likely to be disappointed. They had expected some colorful sparks, ripples in space, a giant glowing tunnel, something. Instead there was just black nothingness in the middle of the universe.
“Twenty seconds to transit,” reported the helmsman. “Activating the reactive drive.”
The Task Group was still in formation. Space was cleared, the tower gave permission. The reactive jets were used once more for fly-through.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…”
Another disappointment for the novices. No disorientation, no sudden nausea, no unnatural sensations. The Hermes was simply at one moment in the Hub System and, a second later, appeared in the Konstantin System, thirteen hundred light years away.
“Transit completed,” reported the navigator, formally. “Position confirmed.”
“The Task Group is here too,” reported another officer.
“We are sending call signals to the Konstantin Traffic Control,” said a third.
Commodore Wabara approached the captain’s chair. “Excellent, Captain. Run the diagnostics and move away from the gate. Use your own judgment. When the entire Group is far away enough from the gate, switch to the reactive drive so the captains of the individual ships can come on board. The Army commander on the El Guettar can come too. I think that it is high time we all sat down together and discussed what awaits us.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
She looked at the display. “Welcome to the Konstantin Sector.”

6.

 

Stefan Clairwell stretched in front of his computer and forced himself to drag his eyes back to the monitor again.
There were moments – and not a few of them – when he was aware of his incredible luck: he was here, at the Robinson Observatory, at the edge of the known universe. Every year thousands of doctoral students from the entire Imperium applied here, and every year only thirty were selected. He could consider this the apex of his career, even at twenty-eight. When he returned home and finished his thesis, he was practically assured of a research post at one of the leading astrophysical universities.
But, as so often happens, the work was slow-paced and routine, and working with a technological miracle didn’t make it less so.
With an effort, he watched the monitor, where remote sensors based on Gertz space recorded the collision of two stars eighteen light years away. At the same time, he monitored this through two classical telescopes. They would see what he was watching live only eighteen years later, but in greater detail. FTL sensors resembled radar more closely than telescopes.
Of course, it probably wasn’t an actual collision, as such. The probability of distant stars colliding was practically zero. Even when galaxies collided, stars didn’t; just the galaxies were torn apart by gravity. This was more a merging of two stars in the same system.
This did not change the fact that too often, the routine was boring, and…
Stefan shook his head and took a mouthful of his energy drink. He knew that it was not even a matter of routine, but of cabin fever. The Robinson Observatory was located on a small asteroid in the Tsiolkovsky System at the far south of the Konstantin Sector, right on the frontier of the Central Imperium. Telescopes and remote sensors monitored the great unknown. However, the station was not over-large and the supply ship came only once in several months. Thirty doctoral students, several professors and associate professors, and a further dozen support staff were all that was here, and they were all here for the year. It was enough to make you claw at the walls.
And Stefan had not even been here for six months yet.
The door opened and he turned his head.
“Hey, you’re somehow done quickly, then?” he said with a smile.
“Screw you, Stef,” said Bonita Moffe, and Stefan laughed.
“I’m only asking because your evening relaxation sessions before you’re on shift usually last for an hour longer. Is Nila not trying hard enough?”
“You don’t have to be so obviously jealous!”
Bonita Moffe was also a Ph.D. student, a small smiley brunette who behaved like a typical geek. Their colleague, Nila Novant, was, by contrast, the almost stereotypical beauty that Stefan had been dreaming of since puberty. When they met for the first time at Robinson, he had hit on her, just like all the other guys at the observatory. Unfortunately for them, Nila had somewhat different tastes, and she had gotten together with Bonita. He was a little surprised at Bonita, who studied on Earth at the Vatican University, which was still rather prudish in matters of sexuality. However, Nila came from the Galaron University on Tombara, where there were absolutely no sexual taboos. Maybe it was just proof that opposites attract.
“What, isn’t your watch enough?” Bonita teased, as she sat down next to him. Stefan snorted.
Bonita and Nila had given him a watch last week. A classic standard-issue watch, of the type made at the station. They had said that it wasn’t much, but – they insisted – they wanted to fulfil his wishes. That had been their reaction when, a week previously, he had said “I wanna watch.”
“Yes, it’s enough, you don’t need to give me another. But I can still fantasize, can’t I?”
“Fantasize away.” She looked at the monitor. “Anything new?”
“I have more accurate estimates of the mass of those two stars. They are both approximately five times heavier than the Sun. Otherwise nothing much, and…” He frowned at the monitor. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?”
“Some signal in segment 16.” At the observatory, they divided the unexplored universe into segments. Stefan zoomed in on the segment and directed some of the sensors there. On one of the monitors he suddenly saw a cluster of signals.
“Can you see that too?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Bonita leaned closer and began to press the zoom buttons herself. “It looks like a cluster of small contacts. Not planets.”
“Could be an asteroid belt, but why didn’t we pick it up sooner?”
The fatigue and boredom of the everyday routine suddenly fell away. This was one of those moments when Stefan loved his work.
“That’s not asteroids,” said Bonita decisively.
“How can you be sure?”
“Look how quickly it’s moving. Whatever it is, it’s moving faster than light. In Gertz space.”
Stefan felt a chill run down his back. Fuck, she was right.
This was not just a new astrophysical experience. If something was flying toward them faster than the speed of light, that meant it was something intelligent.
First contact with an alien civilization. Throughout history, humankind had encountered only ten advanced alien races. This must be number eleven.
“We should call the associate prof,” he suggested.
“Yeah, we should. When do we next connect with Madras?”
Like all worlds, the Robinson had several receivers for FTL communication on board, and the communication station on the planet Madras – the only one in the Konstantin Sector – connected with them every other day.
“Tomorrow at four.”
“I think it will be an interesting transmission. Fuck, that’s an FTL civilization.”
Bonita was clearly trying to keep her feet on the ground, but Stefan could see that she was as excited as he was.
“They may not be aliens,” she said carefully. “During the Protectorate, a lot of human colonizing expeditions set out into deep space that we know nothing about. Maybe this is one of them.”
“Maybe,” admitted Stefan, but his elation was not mitigated in any way. An alien civilization or a lost human colony, either way this was a historic event, and he would be there!

******

“So, you failed.”
Prince Norman Bandon was present at the oval table only as an FTL holographic transmission, meaning he had a clear disadvantage compared to the other seven members, who were all physically present. Nevertheless, he reacted to the poisonous remark with the same zeal, as if they were not divided by thousands of light years.
“Failed? Is that all you have to say on the matter? For once, can you not concentrate on your work rather than your games?”
Six heads around the table turned to the man at the head. Kurt Wissien was a prince, like his seven associates. All of them were also Chosen.
“Your task was to kill Daniel Hankerson. Hankerson is alive, and therefore it follows that you failed.”
Wissien’s booming voice resounded from the mouthpiece attached to his face. His superordinate sign was skin that gradually dried out and fell off. Regenerative treatments and healing creams helped, but could not restore. Even his lips had been destroyed, so he had decided years ago that it would be better to use a mechanical aid. Authority was easier to establish when part of his face was covered and his voice resounded.
Bandon, of course, was immune to his voice.
“I have been working in the middle of the Central Imperium for over three years! I made agreements, prepared the ground, paid bribes, eliminated obstacles and opposition, and arranged the collapse of the entire Imperium, while you were putting your shoes on. Hankerson was one link, and he isn’t very important. We can kill him next time.”
“Yes,” acknowledge Wissien, smiling under his mask when he how Bandon twitched almost imperceptibly with each breath. He was trying to conceal the pain he felt when he breathed.
Wissien’s superordinate sign was not pleasant, but he definitely wished Bandon’s on him.
“Yes,” he repeated. “But how successful you were in your other activities has yet to be revealed. Meanwhile we only have your word, and your personal observations stating that the Central Imperium is poised to fall. Our plan is entering a critical phase and we cannot allow any errors. Such as the error committed when you failed to kill one single Enhans, which should have been child’s play.”
Brandon’s face distorted, first with anger, then with pain.
“Beware, Wissien,” he said. “You may be First Among Equals, but we all serve Tribune Ran-Danor. Yes, it’s entering the critical phase. I hope that your fleet can fulfil its task.”
“Yes, it can, and will.”
“So it really shouldn’t be a problem for you to undertake some child’s play.”
Brandon grimaced when he quoted Wissien’s words, and the First Among Equals frowned.
“What are you talking about?”
“Because our beloved Daniel Hankerson is currently flying to you, to the Konstantin Sector. He’s on board the Hermes.”
The Council of Eight began to mutter among themselves.
“The Hermes is only a prototype Imperial communications ship, is that right?” princess MacDougal asked. A slight woman who was staring at the hologram of Bandon. “Like our Controller and Sovereign.”
“Yes, exactly. The Imperial Navy launched her and she is flying to the Konstantin Sector on a PR mission. I have obtained a full flight plan and list of the vessels accompanying her.” He grimaced. “So, if our awesome First Among Equals is capable of so much, killing Daniel Hankerson will certainly give him no problems.”
Wissien frowned. Especially when he noticed Janus and Viralli giggling. Princess Trigar did not usually show such sentiments, but he could see her eyes were sparkling.
Bandon wished to play, to issue a challenge. Wissien was not surprised. Among the Chosen there was always the question of who of the eight princes in the Council of Eight would be First Among Equals. Ran-Danor had finally decided to send Bandon to the Central Imperium as the vanguard, to prepare the ground. Maybe it was the most prestigious job that could be done only by the most reliable prince. But at the same time, he had cleared a place for Wissien, who consequently became the leader of the whole Hammer Fleet, which had spent the last three-and-a-half years sailing to the Central Imperium. Bandon could not do it; he was too far away from the action, so Wissien had become leader of the crusade expedition.
Bandon did not like this, and Wissien knew well that several other Council members would have much preferred Bandon.
But that did not matter. What was important were results. Maybe Bandon had done a decent job during the preparations, but Wissien commanded the largest fleet. It would encounter the forces of the Central Imperium, and it would be the victor in battle. In the end, the winner’s prestige was at stake. History was kinder to generals than to spies. In addition, Wissien was First Among Equals. He commanded everything.
Bandon, however, had issued an indirect challenge to him.
“Yes, Hankerson is a dead man walking, just like all other Hankersons.”
“I am glad to hear that,” said Bandon. “How long before the Imperials detect you?”
“The remote sensors of their observatory on Robinson should have picked us up two days ago. They do not yet know what we are. We are still seven weeks’ flight away from objective Alpha.”
“Good. Maybe it would be appropriate to earmark a small group to dispose of Hankerson. Directly, without any complicated quibbles.”
“Complicated quibbles that you created? Yes, indeed, I know what I have to do.” Wissien grimaced under his mask. “Just send those data.”
“I have already sent them.”
“In that case, we are settled for today, are we not?”
He closed the connection before Bandon could react and the prince’s holographic image transmitted by the communication ship Controller, in the distant Hub System, vanished.
In the conference room, where gloom reigned, the physical presence of only seven noble members of the Council of Eight remained.
Wissien arose from the oval table and stood at one of the enormous windows dominating the hall on three sides. They gave beautiful views of the stars deep in interstellar space, and of the Hammer Fleet under Wissien’s command. Hundreds of ships waited for his orders.
The designers of his flagship, the Dominance, had not understood this, and had argued that such halls weaken the hull. They could not understand it; they were ordinary.
In this room, Wissien was always fully aware that he was Chosen; he was aware of the power he held in his hands.
He turned to his six associates. He well remembered who his allies were, and who was still hesitating between him and Bandon, and turned to princess MacDougal, his greatest champion.
“Claire, who did we sent to the Robinson Observatory?”
“Count Ferro. He went there with six fast light cruisers.”
“Please summon High Admiral Pappas and develop a plan to catch Hankerson. If anyone is in the Konstantin Sector, we’ll get him.”
“Yes, Kurt.”
MacDougal smiled, and Wissien nodded.
“Does anyone have anything else? If not, I think that it is high time you returned to your ships.”

******

Associate Professor Fibiger was a stereotypical university professor, with long white hair and a jacket that had been out of fashion for three generations. He was the sort of professor who sees everything as new knowledge to be analyzed.
He was now looking at the hole growing in his chest with the same mildly detached expression.
Sirens sounded throughout the station, but even these were drowned out by Stefan’s screams.
Fibiger had first fallen to his knees, then his lifeless body had crumpled to the ground. Behind him in the canteen, the bodies of two members of the support staff and three doctoral students lay on the floor. Stefan’s friends.
“Noooo!”
“Run! Get away!” someone behind him shouted, and Stefan did not need to be spurred on when more masked figures swarmed into the canteen. They were human, or at least they looked it. He could not see their faces.
“They’re everywhere!”
He recognized that voice when he rushed into the corridor. Nila Novant. He ran after her.
Professor Fibiger knew that a contact group was approaching them from the larger group, and had left his charges leafing through the comprehensive edition of First Contact Protocols, in case this really was an alien civilization.
But they were human, or at least they behaved as if they were. They must have known exactly where on the Robinson base the receivers for FTL communication were, because they had destroyed them in one blow from orbit. Then they had quickly disembarked on the station.
The routine and, in places, amazing life of the doctoral students from astrophysics universities was transformed into a nightmare.
They asked for nothing, said nothing. They only advanced and shot. Stefan could see from the cameras that they had taken several people alive, but he had no idea why, and…
In front of him, Nila suddenly fell, with blood spouting from her chest. Beside her, Dominic Hernández collapsed. He and Stefan had always argued over who would get the night shift.
“Noooo!”
Bonita Moffe appeared from somewhere, running, sweating, screaming.
Stefan grabbed her hand. “No, we have to get away! We have to!”
Bonita ran to her lover, but further masked figures entered the corridor behind her.
Stefan could bear it no longer and his knees gave way under him. Shock, horror and exhaustion exacted their toll.
He let Bonita go and she knelt down by Nila’s body.
“No! Please, no!” Stefan gasped, but the masked figures did not shoot. They made way for another masked man. He was not wearing military combat overalls, but brown clothing, the sort you would probably wear for a country walk. He wore a strange mask on his face. An irrational memory of a boring elective first-year course on the art of pre-space earth flashed through Stefan’s mind. They had exhibited similar masks from ancient China.
He was looking directly at Stefan and the young doctoral student suddenly felt incredible pain in his head, as if someone had put his brain in a vice and was tightening it.
He roared.
“Stefan!” squealed Bonita beside him, then she too began to roar with agony, clutching at her head.
Tears flowed down Stefan’s cheeks, he shuddered, and lost control of his bladder. He had the impression that the pain was shooting from his brain to all his nerve endings.
“When did you last sent a message from the base?”
“Don’t tell them anything!” screeched Bonita, in her last show of defiance before bursting into uncontrollable sobs.
In all the horror, Stefan was probably not capable of putting a rational sentence together. But if he told them what they wanted to know, that agonizing pain might let up.
The answer to the question flashed through his head. That terrible figure continued to loom over them. They had communicated yesterday, they had reported the contacts on the remote sensors, and…
“Thank you,” said the masked man.
What? I didn’t even say anything and…
Further agony left him incapable of thought.
“When will your next transmission be?”
Again the answer flashed through his head. The pain eased a little, but only for a moment.
Had that man pulled the information from his head?
“How many are there of you here?”
He enquired further in this way. To Stefan it seemed to take forever.
“He probably knows no more than that,” said another figure next to the man. Stefan was no longer able even to see it.
“Good.”
Stefan thought that greater agony could not be possible. He was wrong.

******

Albert Ferro smiled underneath his mask when the boy and girl began to scream again, and shudder, as he intensified his mental grip.
Blood began to flow from their eyes, nose and ears; their bodies convulsed in spasms.
And then, quiet. Both young people were dead, lying on the floor, joining the bodies of their friends shot by Ferro’s units.
Ferro kept on smiling.
This was real power. He was the best executor serving the Council of Eight, he held the title of count and this was the moment he had been waiting for during the long years when the Hammer Fleet sailed across interstellar space. He had trained for this. This was real power!
He had no interest in becoming a prince one day and sitting in the Council of Eight, ruling entire planets. That was for people like Wissien or Bandon. This was what he loved; real power. Power over one specific person, knowing everything about them, pulling out of their mind everything they had ever known. And then sending them to eternity.
This power was virtually narcotic.
“Prepare a report for the Dominance and inform Prince Wissien that the Robinson station has been neutralized.” He smiled. The Central Imperium would soon receive a surprise.
“Yes, sir.”
Young baroness Svorban, the newest member of the Chosen, was already standing beside him. Unlike most of the Chosen, she had no significantly visible superordinate sign; the skin problems experienced by a good third of the Chosen had passed her by, along with other visible consequences. Ferro knew that it was an illusion, that Svorban had many internal problems; nevertheless, almost in mockery of other Chosen she had decided to accentuate her undamaged face even further. Before each battle she sat in front of her mirror with lipstick, powder and mascara. Ferro knew that other Chosen could not tolerate such vanity, but he just laughed at it.
He knew that his mask, concealing his greying skin, had a psychological effect on his enemies, such as the two students lying at his feet. But when a beautiful woman, painted like a Ukrainian model, kills you with her mind, that, maybe, is even more frightening.
Svorban now nodded at them. “We have already picked up a signal from the Dominance, they are still on the line. Prince Wissien wishes you to know that, as soon as our mission on Robinson is complete, we are to continue to the heart of the Konstantin Sector. Apparently there is someone special there who needs to be disposed of.”
Ferro pulled a face under his mask. Directly to the heart of the Sector. Originally they were to sail there only when the main fleet arrived.
He had received another task. Another target.
He was going to enjoy this.

7.

 

“Yes?”
“Captain here, ma’am. The officers are already assembled. You wanted to be informed.”
“Yes, thank you. I’m on my way.”
Golna stood respectfully outside the luxury flag cabin until the door opened and Commodore Wabara came out. The tiny woman’s uniform was a perfect fit. Lieutenant Commander McNee, her main aide, followed her.
“Good. Let’s go.”
Golna accompanied her to the elevator and the capsule began to move through the bowels of the Hermes. In the silence of the capsule, the ship’s captain had the opportunity to observe his superior officer. Since she had come on board, they had seen each other only for formal and rapid discussions, because the ship needed to set sail as soon as possible. Golna had, of course, read her file. He knew that she had spent the majority of her career on cruisers, and during the last Ralgar Incursion, she had even got into battle. Certainly he had the impression that the 35th Task Group was not the command she had dreamed of, and…
“Just ask, Captain,” she said aloud, and a smile appeared on her face. “You are interested in something, and I haven’t been too companionable so far. Do you have any questions?”
“Well, yes. I was interested in when you found out that you would be commanding this Task Group, ma’am.”
“Probably just a few hours before you did.” Another smile. “Possibly you have the impression that I am something of a grump. For six months I prepared to take over the command of the 96th Cruiser Squadron. And then the orders changed at the last minute. You know how it is.”
“I am afraid that I do,” said Golna. “The 96th is with the Seventh Fleet, is that right?”
“Yes, it’s probably fighting the Ralgars right now under the command of another commodore, who came to that command entirely unprepared. Just as I did to this one. No offence.”
“None taken. I had the impression that the Admiralty dispatched us here very hastily and I don’t know why.”
“Maybe it’s because of the unexpected conflict with the Ralgars,” McNee piped up behind them. “The Fleet had to leave quickly and was given priority. Then the Admiralty needed to resolve other things in a rush.”
“But usually the preparations for such PR missions go on for much longer.” Wabara shrugged. “Maybe that had nothing to do with why they sent us here.”
“We can’t all have the duties we want, ma’am,” said Golna.
“I know. I served for one year on the meteorological station on Arnhem. I know we can’t always choose. It’s just that… When they were giving me my orders at the Admiralty, I had the strangest impression that this order – and our entire mission – did not come from them. But from somewhere higher up.”
“Higher up than the Admiralty?”
“Higher than the Bureau of Personnel, higher than Naval High Command…”
“Only the Ministry of Defense is higher, and…” said Golna, astonished. Suddenly they both knew.
The Emperor.
Could Adrian III personally have proposed that the Hermes and other ships be sent here, to the middle of nowhere? But why? Because his great-nephew was serving on the ship? He had any number of great-nephews throughout the Imperium.
Wabara understood what Golna was thinking, and nodded. “Yes, that was my impression. But I could be wrong.”
It flashed through Golna’s mind that, if she had had Daniel Hankerson with her, maybe he could tell her more about what the admirals were thinking when they gave her the orders…
The capsule arrived and Golna stood back so the commodore could get out first.
“Do you know any of these captains?” she asked him.
“No, ma’am. Do you?”
“I know Captain Iversen from the Montevideo. We served together as lieutenants on the old Port Moresby.” She smiled again. “I must be careful not to leave you alone together. Iversen would be delighted to tell you all about my bad habits.”
“So what? He’s a former colleague, not a lover.”
For the fraction of a second, Wabara was taken aback by Golna’s comment, and the captain grinned internally. Had there been something more?
They arrived in the conference room, where Commander Bossev and six other officers were already waiting.
“Attention on deck!” commanded the executive officer of the Hermes.
The officers began to get up, but Wabara waved her hand at them.
“Sit down, for goodness’ sake, sit down.”
She took the chair at the head of the table. Golna and McNee sat down next to her, on either side.
“Thank you for coming,” she said to the captains. “I am sorry that we have not been able to meet all of us together during our crazy preparations for departure. I have at least tried to meet with you all personally, although I know that this has not always been successful,” she continued, nodding at Commander Wilde from the Lovell, “and you are all undoubtedly familiar with our orders. However I would still like to discuss them with you here, so that we are all on the same page.
“A classic PR mission awaits us in the Konstantin Sector. We are to show the flag before all potential troublemakers, demonstrate to local leaders that the Imperial Navy is willing to protect them, and at the same time, show off our latest technology. That is one of the reasons why the Hermes is here.” She nodded at Golna. “Captain Golna has, of course, a schedule of testing for the ship to undergo, particularly with the communications equipment. The media circus will swarm around us, because we have a member of the royal family on board, who is going to try and connect through the Hermes with his uncle, Prince Ronald, in the Seventh Fleet. Journalists will naturally be present.
“The Hermes, however, is not our only amenity. The drone cruisers are still very new and should impress the locals.” She nodded again at Commander Wilde, and at Commander Goldberg, who commanded the Ride. “Or at least we hope that they will be impressed. If not, maybe we can at least convince some local elements that the Imperium is not to be toyed with.”
“How great a danger is that?” asked Captain Valentin from the Astana. His smoothly shaven head gleamed in the artificial lighting, making him look like a saint with a halo. “Our orders are a bit hazy on this.”
“From Admiral Murabin’s briefing, I mainly learned that the local corporations, principally Xerxes Combine, are beginning to do whatever they want in the Konstantin Sector on occasion, including assuming responsibility for the Imperial Army and Navy. Our objective is to show them that the Central Imperium intends to honor its commitments.”
“Is it true that corporations in Konstantin are hiring mercenaries?” asked the last of the ships’ commanders, Captain Gabriela Tyson from the El Guettar. Her ship had the smallest fire-power and had never been designed to take part in battle. Despite this, Tyson was the most senior officer present after Golna and Iversen. Her ship could not compete with drone cruisers like the Ride and the Lovell, but the Navy considered that supporting Army troops from orbit was a more responsible task than coordinating fire with dozens of other ships from a drone cruiser. Therefore troop carriers were commanded by an officer with the rank of captain, as were large cruisers and battleships, while drone cruisers were a post for commanders, and a captain commanded a division or squadron of drone cruisers.
Wabara answered the question, interrupting the flow of Golna’s thoughts.
“Yes, some mercenary groups work in partnership on anti-piracy patrols, including the Silmani.”
Commander Goldberg had clearly not read the intelligence briefing very attentively and now his eyes widened. “The Silmani?”
“Yes, what was left of them after they and the Protectors wiped each other out. Now they are mostly interstellar mercenaries. Good ones.”
“I know that, ma’am, but I had no idea that they were active in large numbers in Konstantin.”
“Actually, in the last few years they have barely been active anywhere else. Now we have to display the Emperor’s willingness to defend his subjects.”
She looked at the only person in the room not wearing the Navy’s olive-grey uniform. Colonel Arun Sarkar wore the dark-green uniform of the Imperial Army and commanded the 195th Mechanized Regiment, also known as the Highlanders’ Regiment. Sarkar did not conceal his Indian roots and Golna knew that he had been born on New Jaipur, but membership of the elite Highlanders had gone to his head a little. His hair and bushy moustache were colored ginger, contrasting interestingly with his dark skin. Golna had also seen photo of Sarkar wearing a kilt at some formal reception, which nobody other than a member of the Highlanders would do.
“Colonel Sarkar, your people will then parade on the ground. Expect military shows, army presentations, the whole classic merry-go-round. Maybe it won’t seem like much to you, for an elite unit like yours, but we all have our own responsibilities.”
“I know, ma’am,” said Sarkar. “Of course I would prefer to be on the battlefield, but so, I think, would we all.”
“I will certainly deploy you when it comes to occupying pirate settlements. Which it possibly will.”
“I understand, ma’am.”
“Public displays will not, of course, be a matter only for our Army colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,” Wabara reminded them. “You can expect groups of civilians to come on board for tours when we are in port. Only a small number, and the final decision will be made by each individual captain, but I would like people to have the opportunity to see our ships up close and see where their taxes go. Security must come first, of course, but I really do not expect you to let a terrorist with an atomic bomb in a rucksack into the engine room.”
Several captains laughed. Golna was not one of them. In his head he had the list of everything he had to arrange personally before allowing civilians on board. He did not like journalists, and even less did he like these crazy interactions with the public.
“As for the journey, our itinerary of visits is up to us to a large extent. As you know, there are fourteen populated planets with full Imperium member status in Konstantin, plus small mining bases, observatories and the like. The route is up to us, but our first goal is the station Madras, where we will report to the Sector’s military commander. Madras is also a transport node, in fact the only one in Konstantin, so our astronauts can go out on leave there – meaning that the locals can also see our people in the flesh, and earn some money from them when they head to the bars and pubs.”
And the brothels, Golna added silently.
“From Madras we can head to several different places. These are the options…”

******

“You’re the Hankerson, aren’t you?”
Daniel stopped at the door to one of the auditoriums, of which the Hermes had several. The woman who addressed him was wearing civilian clothes, although they were better suited for moving round a ship than flirting at a ball. Dark blond hair slicked into a bob, olive skin and a small, slightly pointed nose; all these were things that Daniel registered quickly. Mostly, however, he focused on her dark eyes. They were watching him, waiting. She had asked him a simple thing, but was observing him as if she had thrust at him in fencing class and was waiting for a counter-attack.
“Yes, I am Lieutenant Daniel Hankerson.” He smiled. “And you are the journalist who travelled with us on the shuttle, aren’t you? Ms. Eban?”
She was still watching him guardedly, but something within her gave permission. “Yes, Hila Eban, of the Imperial Digest. I am surprised that you remember.”
“There aren’t too many civilians on board.”
Again, that watchfulness.
“So I’m just a civilian?”
“You are an unexpected element.” He smiled. “How do you like it aboard, so far?”
“It’s good. I had seen the Hermes in great detail before we departed. Now I’m more interested in the people.”
“The human face of the armed forces?”
“Something like that. Would you be interested in giving me an interview?”
“Me? What’s so special about me?”
This time she looked like someone preparing another thrust.
“Everything is special about you, even if you aren’t aware of it – or you’re pretending not to be. You’re not just an Enner, but also a member of the imperial family. You’re interesting, whether you want to be or not.”
“OK, I accept that. What do you want to ask me about? What slippers my great-uncle the Emperor wears in the bedroom? I don’t know.”
“I don’t think many people will care about that… not to mention that fact that every second article in Hub Today worries about it. We do serious journalism. I’m interested in a lot of things, such as: how does an Enner and member of the Imperial family become an intelligence officer? Why aren’t you reclining in some luxurious resort, covered in gold and surrounded by half-naked concubines?”
“Oh, they’re a lot of work. I prefer something simpler, like analyzing reports and information. In addition, my parents don’t give me an allowance.”
“You still have more than most people.”
Daniel smiled at her. She wasn’t attacking him, exactly, or trying to pretend that her comments were exaggerated, but somewhere in between.
This woman had secrets. Unpleasant experiences with Enhans? Possibly. He remembered how oddballs like Lardon behaved in parliament. He certainly could not be surprised if someone extrapolated this to all Enhans. He had long given up objecting to it. He would never convince anyone by getting offended.
“Well, yes, maybe I do. That’s why my family supports many charitable foundations throughout the Imperium.”
“I heard that someone attempted to kill you on Hub Central.”
“Yes, allegedly because I’m an Enner.”
“Allegedly?”
“I don’t believe this was the real reason, but that doesn’t matter. If you want an interview, we’ll think of something.” He indicated the door. “Are you coming here, too?”
“Yes, Captain Golna has given me permission to attend preparatory briefings.”
Daniel laughed. “You mean you’re going voluntarily?”
For the first time, she looked confused. “I don’t think I know what you mean.”
“Well, Ms. Eban, preparatory briefings, or pre-briefs, also called sleepers, are not known for being particularly riveting. They’re really not, believe me.”
“So you don’t consider it important to find out about the place we’re traveling to?”
“I do, yeah… but let’s just say that whoever puts these briefings together thrives on fine detail. We get most of our information from the ship’s system or the datanet.” He gestured to the door with his arm. “Shall we?”
She went in first, he followed.
The theater was already full of at least one hundred and fifty astronauts. There were 1082 people in the crew of the Hermes, so another eight briefings were still to take place. Each would be given by one of the senior officers. Today it was the turn of Daniel’s own boss, Lieutenant Commander Calvert.
Hila Eban sat down. Daniel thought for a moment, considered the pros and cons, then sat down next to her.
A glance at her eyes suggested that she was thinking whether to attack again, or go on the defensive.
Why does she fight her way through life?
Graham Calvert appeared on the podium. The good-humored officer stood in front of a large screen and tapped on the lapel of his shirt that contained a miniature microphone.
“Can you hear me? Even you poor unfortunates at the back?”
His answer was a positive noise.
“Excellent, especially for you at the back, because I’m going to keep my eyes on you. No one will be able to sneak out.”
Several astronauts laughed.
“Welcome to the preparatory briefing. I will try not to send you to sleep and keep to the point, but you know very well that there are points I must cover… and that we officers, from lieutenant commanders up, have undergone the mandatory lobotomy, so please try to bear with me.”
“That was originally an Army joke,” said Eban, next to Daniel, noting something down on her datapad. “They tell it about majors.”
“I think there’s something like this in every unit. Do you know the Army?”
“I was embedded with the 146th Mechanized Regiment during the Fourteenth Incursion.”
Daniel shook his head. “But you were in the Army yourself, weren’t you?”
For an instant she was taken aback. “Only for a short time. Nothing interesting. How did you know?”
“Something about your posture. And how you move. You don’t waste time, as if each movement had a clear plan and objective. It comes over as a military exercise or a traumatic time in the Imperial scouts.”
“Are all Enners this observant?”
“No, but my immediate family are. My mother’s a diplomat, she taught me to read people. And poker taught me the rest.”
“Poker? The card game?”
“Yes, exactly.”
Calvert’s voice drowned him out.
“Come on, let’s get going. Maybe you could all look at me, for a change… Yes, Compton, you too,” he said to someone in the front row. “Drang, that means you as well, yes, I know that you have sudoku on your datapad, very interesting, but you can get by without it for a while, can’t you?”
He pressed several buttons on the podium and the wall-mounted monitor behind him came to life. The first image was a map of the Central Imperium. Daniel recognized Hub and five gate openings. Several other gates formed independent “bridges” with no intersections, and to the galactic west of Hub lay Davenport with three further gates.
“Our destination is the Konstantin Sector. Right now we are at the system’s gate, which is – wait for it! – also called Konstantin, but our first port of call is the Madras station in the Tamil Nadu system. This is the sector’s commercial junction, even though there isn’t too much traffic here. Definitely nothing you metropolitans used to Hub would call traffic.
“Konstantin was the last sector to be settled during the rule of the Protectors. Actually, that planet below us was populated. It’s also called Konstantin, in case anyone was in any doubt, but if you take a good look at it, you will see that it is uninhabitable. The entire population was wiped out during the war between the Protectors and the Silmani. So, boys and girls, what do you know about the war between the Protectors and the Silmani? A clue: it is known as the Final War.”
Someone at the back belched loudly.
“Yes, thank you for your contribution. Anyone else?”
One astronaut plucked up some courage. “It was the war in which the Protectors and the Silmani wiped each other out.”
“After which the Central Imperium emerged,” another added.
“Correct. And now, the thirty-six-billion-dollar question, what was the original relationship between humans and Protectors?”
Some responses, both willing and reluctant, such as “vassals”, “slaves” and “whores”.
Calvert raised his hands. “Yes, thank you. In formal terms, we call it a ‘client state’ or a “protectorate”, and that is also what the Protectors called their empire. On the other hand, the human race did okay under the Protectors, so long as they were not among the poor souls whose brains were torn out of their heads to build gates. The Protectors helped to create enhanced people, the Enhans, and turned the human race into the Commercial Empire… the forerunner of the Central Imperium. The human race was forbidden to make weapons or raise an army; only the Protectors had that right, so that was what happened.”
Eban leaned towards Daniel. “So you actually owe your life to the Protectors. They created the Enners.”
“Yes, just as you owe your life to thousands of years of war and genocide that created the accident by which your parents met.”
“You’ve got a point.”
“Under the Protectorate, the human race lived with the Gliesans, the Lasians and other races. The Protectors created the Enhans to lead colonizing expeditions, among other reasons. They considered that more robust individuals with a higher IQ would be ideal leaders for colonies.”
“Do Enners really have higher IQs?” Eban asked again.
Daniel shrugged. “Today there are about thirty different ways of measuring human intelligence. Some concede that Enners are better endowed mentally, others don’t find any difference. If we take the old IQ scale, then yes, the average intelligence of an Enner is about fifteen points higher than the average IQ of a normal. But that’s an average. There are genius Enners and idiot Enners, same as in the normal population. Instead, the enhancements give us faster visual perception, better hearing, better eyesight, a better sense of smell, faster metabolism, greater disease resistance, speed…”
“Okay, okay, you’re simply perfect.”
Calvert was still talking. “Well, why am I telling you this? It’s to do with the history of Konstantin, because it was here that the Protectors’ cute little toybox was overturned a bit. Here they met the Silmani, specifically in 2530.”
Someone in the audience threw a paper airplane at the podium.
Where the hell did they get the paper from?
Calvert nimbly threw out a hand in front of him and caught it, crumpled it up and flung the paper ball back into the audience. This won him a round of applause.
He’s a butterball, but he’s more agile than you would have thought.
“The Silmani were less proficient in genetics than the Protectors, but they had numbers on their side, and better technology. Before long they were fighting and today we call this the Final War. The colonies on Konstantin and two other planets in this sector were razed to the ground, then the war spread to other places. The war went on for fifteen years. On the whole, both sides left human planets largely in peace. The Silmani did not want to destroy the source of money and the economy, they wanted that for themselves. The Protectors used genetically created soldiers with enhanced human DNA, and automated ships, but they were outnumbered by the Silmani. Does anybody know, anybody at all, how many Protectors there were when the Protectorate was at the apex of its power?”
Silence engulfed the hall.
“Don’t you know?” asked Eban, next to Daniel.
“I do, but I don’t want to spoil his fun. Calvert evidently likes asking quiz questions.”
“And he likes the sound of his own voice. Have you noticed that he hasn’t yet told us what the objective of your mission is?”
“Of course, but he has another two hours…”
Nobody else answered and Calvert heaved a theatrical sigh. “OK then. Because it’s you, I have a picture with the numbers.”
On the display there appeared a photo of a Protector, like a giant caterpillar with no clear face, five eyes, tactile antennae and a mouth on one of the two ends of the body. Beside it there was a graph showing the figures.
“Protectors live for up to fifteen hundred years and reproduce very rarely and slowly. They are hermaphrodites, but come into season only once in a very long time. When the Protectorate was at the height of its glory, there were around twenty thousand of them. They mostly kept to themselves and managed their dominions through intermediaries. They controlled the Commercial Empire through the ruling Hankerson family, for example.”
Daniel had no idea whether Calvert could see him in the hall, but the Lieutenant Commander nodded almost directly at him.
“Nevertheless, after fifteen years of war, the Protectors created a biological weapon that they launched at the Silmani. Effectively, it sterilized them. They can’t reproduce now. Anyone who is interested can find out the details themselves. At the same time, the Protectors began to destroy the atmosphere of Silmani planets using biological weapons, but it was the sterility virus that really broke them. The Protectors live for fifteen hundred years, the Silmani for fifty. They simply had to outlive them. The Silmani civilization collapsed, but, unfortunately for the Protectors, not before the last few Silmani fleets decided to carry out kamikaze attacks on virtually all Protector citadels. The Protectors’ habit of isolating themselves in space citadels had played right into the Silmani’s hands. The Silmani had learned the locations of all citadels from spies – probably human spies – and had destroyed most of them in one great attack. There were only twenty thousand Protectors, of which only a few dozen survived. They disappeared somewhere beyond the frontier; their instinct for self-preservation – that is, preserving themselves as a living species – was greater than their obsession with control, so they disappeared. The Silmani as an empire also collapsed, humans filled the power vacuum this created and the Commercial Empire became the Central Imperium of Emperor Olaf II.”
Someone in the audience let out a very loud pretend snore.
“And since then we have lived happily ever after,” someone else shouted.
There was a ripple of laughter.
“OK, maybe I should get on to why I’m telling you this, then?” Calvert laughed. “Who is for? Who is against?”
Both his questions were answered by silence. After that speech, nobody had any strength left for responding… or rather clowning.
“Good. To the point, then. Konstantin has long been a neglected sector. After the war, there were only a few isolated colonies remaining, and the Central Imperium had a great many other, more important, problems. New settlements in the sector were not founded until sometime around seventy years ago, and that only with a great deal of support from corporations, headed by Xerxes Combine. These corporations negotiated very advantageous mining rights with the government, and most of the new worlds in recent years have come into being as mining colonies. A few of them also focus on agricultural production, especially if the planets have rare plants, timbers and the like. The corporations also have mercenary units, but by and large they make use of Silmani support. After their defeat, the Silmani attempted to survive by cloning themselves. They acquired a third-hand cloning facility from somewhere and this practically ruined them, economically speaking. Their worlds had been destroyed and now they are cosmic nomads, traders and mercenaries. In any event, they have a rather good mercenary fleet and Xerxes Combine makes plenty of use of their services.
“Our intelligence service fears, among other things, that Xerxes also engages in unfair practices and uses mercenaries against rebellious populations. The Emperor would not like this. Among other things, our aim is to show the locals that the Emperor takes their protection very serious, and wishes to win their – what’s the phrase, again? – hearts and minds. We must show them that we are willing to stand with our citizens even when the Ralgars are invading the opposite end of the Imperium.
“And now we come to the bit that you are all so eagerly waiting for. Our first stop will be the station Madras in the Tamil Nadu system. We won’t be visiting the planet of Tamil Nadu itself, we will continue further. However, local customs in Tamil Nadu are, surprise surprise, quite similar to those at the heart of the Imperium. It’s not Tombara, not even Hub, so if you go to a swimming pool, take your swimsuit, and do not ask random passers-by for directions to the robot brothel.”
“Nooooo!” shouted someone in the hall.
“Yes, I know that’s a knife to your heart. The population are a relatively ordinary ethnic mix, the dominant religion is, surprisingly, Buddhism, but then again there are also plenty of agnostics and atheists, so you probably can make religious jokes, those of you who really must, that is. As you probably know, you must go out on leave in pairs at the very least, both on the station, and there…”
Daniel shifted in his seat to a more comfortable position, switched his brain onto auto-pilot to receive and store information, and let his consciousness flow freely.
This was going to be a long afternoon.