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Original Work When The Bough Breaks

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jan 27, 2013.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi everyone

    When the Bough Breaks is set in the same universe as The Empire’s Corps and No Worse Enemy, but it is intended to be completely stand-alone; you shouldn't have to be familiar with the other books to read it. That said, you can download free samples of both books from http://www.chrishanger.net/Kindle/Theempirescorpsmain.html and http://www.chrishanger.net/Kindle/Noworseenemy.html.

    If you want a cameo, please PM me a name and I will insert you into the book.

    On a different note, my second published book is now out for electronic download – see http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/new-bookbookworm/ for details.

    All comments welcome.


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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    It started on Han, although few recognised what it was without the benefit of hindsight. A single cramped world, divided by political, ethnic, religious and sexual apartheid ... tearing itself apart in a rage that threatened to consume an entire planet. Han was the Empire in microcosm ... and the Empire’s peacekeepers found it impossible to cope with the chaos.

    In Han, the death throes of the Empire found an eerie reflection.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    “I think that’s him,” McQueen said.

    Belinda looked up from where she was crouched in the dumpster. This part of New Canton had been abandoned by the forces of law, order and civilisation years ago, leaving it to sink into a state that drove away even the gangsters who existed on the margins of civilised society. The Pathfinders had been lurking in the area for two days and it felt like an eternity. If it hadn’t been for the augmentation and bio-enhancement worked into their bodies, she couldn't help thinking that the stench alone would have driven them away hours ago.

    “You think it’s him,” she repeated. “Are you sure?”

    “There are no guarantees of anything,” McQueen reminded her, as he dropped back down into the dumpster. “But it does very much look like Target One.”

    Belinda nodded. The Han Civil Guard had managed to identify a handful of the rebel leaders before the shit had hit the fan, but it had been completely incapable of actually dealing with them. If they’d been more competent, perhaps Han would never have exploded into chaos ... but there was no profit in contemplating what might have been. Right now, nearly a million soldiers and Marines were battling to suppress the insurgency and finding it hard going. Han had been a powder keg waiting to explode for years.

    The Pathfinder platoon had been tasked with hunting down what few members of the rebel leaders had been identified and taking them alive, if possible. Admiral Valentine, the Imperial Navy officer in overall command of the operation, had been insistent that the rebels had to be taken alive, but Major General Dempsey – the Marine CO – had been more realistic. The Empire never showed mercy to rebels and the rebels knew it. They could be expected to fight to the death. And in Canton City, there were too many armed men ready to ambush an imperial force intent on raiding their territory.

    She opened the hatch at the bottom of the dumpster and dropped down into the hidden basement. The other three Pathfinders glanced up from where they were checking their weapons, their hands automatically reaching for the MAG pistols they’d left within easy reach. Missions had been blown before by a sharp-eyed local noticing something out of place and the Pathfinders might have been forced to fight their way out. The rebels had tried to take imperial bureaucrats hostage to use as bargaining chips, but they wouldn’t try to hold Pathfinders prisoner. They’d kill them all once they realised what their prisoners actually were.

    “Looks like him,” Doug grunted, once McQueen had shared the take from his optical implants. They hadn't risked scattering sensors and surveillance bugs near the nondescript house the rebels used as a base, for fear of tipping them off too soon. Han wasn’t a particularly high-tech world, but the rebels had managed to import a surprising amount of advanced weapons and armour to support their uprising. “None of the others look familiar, though.”

    “Everyone on this planet looks alike,” Pug grunted. He skimmed through the rest of the recording, before putting it aside. “That’s what you get for having a clone population.”

    Belinda shrugged as she donned the rest of her armour. Han’s founders had wanted to boost their population size as quickly as possible, so they’d used cloning tubes as well as volunteer host-mothers and advanced fertility treatments. They’d succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, which was at least partly why Han had a population problem comparable to Earth’s – and, for that matter, why there was an eerie uniformity binding the population together. The intrusion of genes from outside the restricted gene pool the founders had deemed acceptable had yet to spread throughout the world.

    “Signal the navy,” Doug ordered, once they were all checked out. “I want supporting elements on alert, ready to move, the moment we launch.”

    “We can handle it,” Nathan objected, more for form’s sake than anything else. Once they had the rebel leader in their clutches, they would need to get him out of the city – and the quickest way to do that was to have them picked up by a Raptor. Getting him out of the city on foot would be a nightmare. “Really, boss ...”

    “Get on with it,” Doug ordered. “And check everything.”

    Belinda smiled as she checked her armour and weapons, then allowed McQueen to check hers while she checked his. Pathfinders had access to the best equipment money could buy, but they knew better than to take anything for granted. Everything had to be checked out before they launched the mission, or it might fail – and knowing their luck, it would fail at the worst possible moment. The cloaking field didn't even have to fail completely to alert the enemy that something was wrong.

    She donned her helmet and moved over to the door, ready to climb up to the abandoned house they were using as a base. McQueen took point, weapon in hand, and crawled up the ladder, ready for anything. Belinda followed him, her augmented eyes automatically adjusting for the dimming light as the sun vanished beneath the horizon. Han’s moons wouldn't rise until much later. She caught sight of a rat scurrying across the floor, chased by a small army of cockroaches, and shook her head. The stench of death and decay seemed much stronger here.

    “Activate cloaking fields,” Doug ordered. “Move out.”

    Belinda’s first impression of Canton City had been that it was cramped. Thousands of buildings had been pressed close together, so close that walkways could be rigged up between them – and had been, as the population struggled to find more living space. There were hundreds of street children eking out an existence at ground level, while the richer part of the population avoided them like the plague. Signs advertising everything from soap powder to prostitutes were plastered everywhere, in both Imperial Standard and the local dialect of Chinese. Belinda had been told that the locals were kept deliberately ignorant of Imperial Standard, making it harder for them to find employment with interstellar corporations or the Empire’s military. Looking at the bilingual signs, she could well believe it.

    There was nothing distinguishing the rebel base from the rest of the neighbourhood, a wise precaution with the Imperial Navy high overhead, ready to drop KEWs on any rebels unwise enough to announce their presence. A handful of armed guards could be seen in position to intercept anyone who wanted to enter without permission, although that wasn't uncommon; anyone who could afford guards hired them. Besides, the rebels had converted a brothel into their headquarters. No one would question furtive-looking men heading into a brothel.

    There are innocents inside, Belinda reminded herself, as the Pathfinders took up position. Her upbringing on Greenway hadn't prepared her for the sheer ... hopelessness of parts of the Empire. The prostitutes had probably had no choice but to sell their bodies to survive; it was quite possible that some or all of them were actually underage. It was illegal, but what did legality matter when it was a choice between selling one’s body or starving to death?

    Doug sent a single order over the command network. “Go.”

    Belinda fired at once, targeting one of the guards and putting a bullet though his head before he even had time to realise that the base was under attack. The rest of the team engaged at the same time, wiping out the guards before they could fire a shot back. Even if they had time to react, they would have found it difficult to return fire; the Pathfinders were hidden behind their cloaking fields. The only real option would have been to spray the entire area with bullets and pray.

    “All down,” McQueen sent.

    “Inside,” Doug ordered “Pug, take point.”

    Pug ran forward and slapped a charge against the heavy wooden door. It exploded a moment later, reducing the door to splinters. Nathan threw a stun grenade through the door, triggering it as soon as it was inside the room. Belinda winced in sympathy as her implants picked up the detonation; anyone who wasn't wearing armour or had special enhancement would be on the ground, twitching, the moment they were struck by the blast. Pug dived into the room, his implants transmitting what he saw to his teammates. Belinda tracked him even as she moved up behind McQueen, ready to provide support.

    “Five guards, none of them listed,” Nathan reported. “One dead; I think the poor bastard caught a piece of flying wood. The others are stunned.”

    “Leave them,” Doug ordered. The sound of the breaching charge would have been heard for miles in the still air. They had to assume that the locals knew that they were there. “Search the rest of the complex.”

    The Pathfinders didn't take chances as they searched the building quickly and efficiently. Everyone they encountered was stunned and left to lie on the ground until they could be recovered, if there was time. Belinda pushed her personal feelings aside as she broke into the whores living quarters and stunned them, even though it was clear that most of the women were effectively prisoners. There was no sign of the rebel leader, she realised, as they compared notes over the command network. They might have missed him.

    She winced as she heard someone opening fire with a machine gun. The rebels were on the top floor and had managed to grab weapons, according to Pug and Nathan. Their leadership was probably making its escape over the rooftops while their guards sacrificed themselves to buy time. The Pathfinders launched high-explosive grenades up the stairs and scrambled up afterwards, determined not to give the rebels any time. Belinda brought up the rear as they burst into the rebel base and followed the ladder up to the rooftop.

    “Belinda, McQueen, run SIE,” Doug ordered. “Orbital says that there are mobs forming outside.”

    “Understood,” Belinda said, as she sat down in front of the rebel computers and started tearing it apart, searching for the memory chips. “We’re on it.”

    Organising a rebellion, she’d been amused to discover years ago, required a certain amount of bureaucracy – and a surprising number of rebel leaders had forgotten basic security precautions when it came to gathering data on their recruits. The Marines were experts in getting captured enemy records back to base and using them to locate other targets – or identifying rebels captured in counter-insurgency sweeps. Shaking her head, she dug out the chips and stowed them away in her webbing, under the armour. They’d be safe there – she hoped – until they got back to base.

    “Got some too,” McQueen reported. “I ...”

    He broke off as the building shook. “That’s the mob,” Belinda said. The brothel was almost completely sound-proofed, but audio-discrimination programs in her implants could pick out rebel yells and chants. “Grab everything and up onto the roof.”

    McQueen followed her up the ladder and onto the roof. Canton seemed to have come to life suddenly; she could see thousands of people thronging through the streets, shouting and screaming death to the imperial intruders. She wasn't too surprised that this part of the city would be solidly behind the rebels, but she pushed the thought aside. The team would attempt to avoid engaging the mob, if possible.

    “We caught him,” Doug sent, from where the other three had followed the rebel leader as he leapt from building to building. “We ...”

    The signal broke off as a colossal explosion shook the city. Belinda turned to see a giant fireball rising up into the air, shattering several city blocks. The mob howled in pain and anguish as flying debris slashed through the air, cutting through human flesh and bone as though it were made of paper. Belinda felt a burst of pain as three termination signals flashed up in her retina display, informing her that Doug, Pug and Nathan were dead. Even a Pathfinder couldn't survive such an explosion.

    Behind them, the mob fought its way up onto the roof. Belinda didn't hesitate; she turned and ran towards the edge of the roof, triggering the boosting implants that had been inserted into her body. There was a rush of energy as she leapt across the chasm between the brothel and the next building; she landed on her feet and kept running, McQueen close behind her. The entire mission had failed spectacularly and all they could do now was break contact and hope that the death of three of their teammates hadn't been entirely wasted. But it was hard to imagine that one rebel leader was worth the death of three Pathfinders.

    She landed on the third building and realised, instantly, that they’d made a mistake. A settlement of dispossessed workers perched on top of it, the workers throwing bricks and glass bottles towards the two Pathfinders. To her boosted mind, the projectiles appeared to be moving in slow motion, but they were still dangerous. She kept moving, ducking and weaving as best as she could, slamming into one particularly angry worker who tried to block their path physically. Belinda felt his arm snap like a twig as they collided. She left him falling to the rooftop as she jumped to another building, heading towards the city walls. Once they were in clear ground, she knew they could outrun any pursuit.

    The entire city seemed to have gone crazy. The mob down on the street below were growing larger, while more and more rooftops were suddenly crammed with people intent on intercepting the two escapees. Belinda exchanged brief messages with McQueen and then started to launch stun grenades towards the next rooftop. The armour and augmentation protected her, but not the locals. She saw a number – including a handful of kids who couldn't be even entering their teens – stagger over the edge and plummet to their deaths. But there were so many of them that the stun grenades couldn't stun them all ...

    She staggered as a local slammed into her, followed rapidly by others, their hands tearing away at her armour. Belinda stumbled and fell to the rooftop, grunting in pain as she struck the hard surface. Grimly, she boosted her strength again and started to lash out, her armoured hands tearing through her would-be captors with ease. Behind her, McQueen made it to his feet, his armour covered in blood. Belinda was no stranger to horror – she’d served on a WARCAT team, back when she’d been looking for a third MOS – but this was something new. It was something they’d done themselves.

    Her communications implant buzzed.

    “Devils, this is Alpha-Lead,” a voice said. “We’re inbound on your position.”

    “Understood,” Belinda said, brusquely. They couldn't stay on the rooftop and await rescue, not when the mob was still following them. “Get into position and be ready to fire suppression rounds.”

    “Ah ... strum gas is banned in urban areas,” the pilot said. “Orders from Fleet Command, don’t you know?”

    Not a Marine, Belinda realised, in surprise. The mission briefing had stated that the QRF was composed of Marines, but something had clearly changed between their departure and the actual operation being launched. Only Imperial Navy pilots worried so much about precise Rules of Engagement in the middle of an actual engagement. Even the Civil Guard wasn't that dumb.

    “We’re the bastards on the ground,” McQueen thundered. “Get that gas deployed now!”

    Belinda leapt to another building, then another. The Raptors were coming in over the city, drawing fire from the ground. She winced, wondering grimly if Intelligence’s claims that the rebels didn't have HVMs were about to be proven spectacularly wrong, before returning her attention to their escape. If they could stay ahead of the rest of the mob ...

    A colossal explosion thundered up behind them as they leapt to the next building. Belinda had no idea what had exploded, but the blast caught her and slammed her through a window and into a deserted room. Medical alerts flared up on her retina display as her leg snapped, painkiller drugs automatically entering her system. The armour went rigid, allowing her to try to walk ...

    “Deploying gas,” the pilot said, over the intercom.

    Belinda cursed as a fourth termination signal flashed up in her display. McQueen was dead, either killed by the mob or slammed into the ground too hard for his armour to protect him. She could hear the sound of people crashing their way into the building and heading upwards, right towards where she was lying. Desperately, she pulled herself to her feet and limped forward, looking around for something she could use as a crutch. The pilot’s cheerful voice in her ear didn’t help; the gas was spreading, but not fast enough to help her.

    Grimly, she switched her rifle from single-shot to full auto and opened fire as the mob burst into the room. They were thrown backwards as the bullets tore through them, but there were so many more pushing upwards that the dead and wounded were just thrown forwards. Belinda cursed out loud and started to launch her final grenades into the mob, even as new warnings began to flash up in her display. She was pushing herself too far ... the grenade exploded, setting fire to the building. Belinda saw the flames starting to spread, heard the mob howling in pain, smelled the stench of burning human flesh ...

    We failed, she thought, numbly. And we’re all dead.

    And then she blacked out completely.

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  3. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Off to a great start as usual...awesome 1st chapter Chris!
  4. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Off to a great start as usual...awesome 1st chapter Chris!
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    For those of us who live after the Fall of Earth and the end of the Empire, there is a sense of inevitability about its collapse. The Empire must fall. And yet, there seemed little reason for its citizens to realise the truth. The Empire had endured for three thousand years. Why should it not endure for three thousand more? To answer that question, we must delve into the history of the Empire itself.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    The glittering towers stretched as far as the eye could see.

    Major General Jeremy Damiani, Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, stood at his office window and stared out over Imperial City. It was an awe-inspiring view; tall skyscrapers punching the sky, massive towers belonging to the Grand Senators and the major interstellar corporations and – in the distance – the hive-like CityBlock structures where countless humans lived and died without ever leaving their blocks. Beyond that, he could see a thin thread reaching up to orbit, one of Earth’s six massive orbital towers allowing quick and easy access to low orbit. It was a testament to all that mankind could accomplish on Earth.

    “It all looks so safe and tranquil,” Hiram Green said. “You would never believe that there was anything wrong.”

    Jeremy shrugged. Earth’s land surface was covered in megacities, each one home to billions of human beings. Centuries of mistreatment had finally pushed the planet beyond salvation; the parts of the land that were not covered with metal were too badly poisoned to support human life. The oceans that had once fed countless humans were now dying, with thousands upon thousands of marine life forms rendered extinct. Even if the Imperial Reclamation Corps had been something other than another boondoggle to extract money from the government, it was hard to see how they could save the planet. Earth was dying.

    And yet the population still bred. Officially, Earth’s population was listed as forty billion; unofficially, it was at least sixty billion and Jeremy had his suspicions that the true figure was almost certainly much higher. The undercity warrens were crammed with people, living out their lives in darkness – unless they were deported from the planet or managed to sign up with a colony project. Earth expelled millions of people each month and yet they were only a drop in the bucket of the multitudes swarming over the planet.

    There were no visible signs of decay in Imperial City, but Jeremy knew that they were there. The infrastructure built up over centuries to feed the population, to provide light and heat and power, was finally starting to fail completely. There were just too many failure points and too few maintenance crews to fix them, even when the crews weren't diverted to attend to the whims of one Grand Senator or another. Sooner or later, and Jeremy knew in his heart that it would probably be sooner, there would be a cascading series of failures that would finally tip the planet over the edge and into darkness. And then? No one knew for sure, but Jeremy had a feeling that it would make Han look like a pillow fight between teenage children.

    His gaze drifted over to the Imperial Palace and, no less grand – the Grand Senate. The Grand Senators had no real understanding of the looming disaster threatening their positions – or they simply didn't care. Imperial City was insulated from the worst of the problems plaguing Earth, but it wouldn't be long before the systems started to fail there too. And then the shit would really hit the fan. Jeremy had moved his family from Earth to Safehouse long ago. Countless billions on the planet below didn't have that option.

    His communicator buzzed. “Commandant? Sebastian Cruz has broken orbit.”

    “Understood,” Jeremy said. He’d left orders that he was to be informed when the transport ship carrying Captain Stalker and his understrength force departed Earth. “Don’t interrupt us unless it’s something urgent.”

    He closed the channel and turned away from the window. The Commandant of the Marine Corps was entitled to a large office, if only because the other Joint Chiefs of the Imperial Military had their own large officers. Jeremy hadn't bothered to decorate it, beyond attaching a handful of medals and commendation papers to one wall. The only luxury item in the room was a desk that had been passed down from Commandant to Commandant for thousands of years. Jeremy knew that the Marines were probably the only people in the Empire who remembered where the desk had come from – and what it had once symbolised.

    There were two other people in the office, apart from himself and Green. Colonel Chung Myung-Hee served as the de facto Marine Intelligence Head of Station on Earth, although the Grand Senate would have been alarmed to discover that Marine Intelligence operated on the homeworld. A tall willowy woman with oval eyes and lightly-tinted skin, few would have believed that she was a Marine on first glance – or that she was one of the smartest people Jeremy had ever met. Beside her, Colonel Gerald Anderson seemed short, stocky and over-muscular. The CO of the 1st Marine Division had to look the part.

    “Report,” Jeremy ordered, as he took his seat behind the desk.

    “We have been given warning orders for sending three regiments of Marines to Albion,” Anderson said, shortly. “They are to be drawn from the 1st Marine Division.”

    Jeremy winced. The Grand Senate had been more parsimonious than usual over the last five years, using the Marine Corps as firemen while trying simultaneously to starve the Corps of the resources it needed to carry out its assignments. 1st Marine Division consisted – officially – of 20’000 Marines, the largest Marine force in the Empire. Unofficially, the division was badly understrength – and had been parcelled out to support the Civil Guard in keeping order on Earth. Losing three regiments would leave him with no more than 4000 Marines on Earth, all scattered over the planet. There were planets that could be held under control with 4000 Marines. Earth wasn't one of them.

    “The division has duties here,” Green pointed out. “They have to know ...”

    “The Civil Guard has been tasked with keeping Earth under control,” Chung said, tonelessly. “Their superiors have every faith in their ability to keep order.”

    Jeremy didn't bother to hide his disgust. The Civil Guard was notoriously corrupt and incompetent – and most of the units that were neither corrupt or incompetent developed local ties that made them untrustworthy. One of the reasons the Grand Senate had been pushing for a major deployment of soldiers – and Marines – to Albion was a suspicion that the Albion Civil Guard had grown too close to the population it was supposed to monitor and keep under control. Albion was simply too economically important to be allowed to assert even the local autonomy it was permitted under the Imperial Charter.

    “What’s more worrying is that the orders weren't sent through Marine HQ,” Anderson added. “They came directly to me from the Defence Department.”

    “I noticed,” Jeremy said. The Grand Senate always meddled in military operations. It wasn't unknown for them to activate or redeploy certain units without bringing along the supporting elements those units required to be effective. Marine units were meant to be self-sufficient, but the Imperial Army had more logistics officers than it had fighting men. “Luckily, we can use that to delay matters for a few weeks.”

    Green put their doubts into words. “And then ... what?”

    “Sir, we cannot go on like this,” Anderson said. “Right now, the division is the only thing keeping a lid on a thousand powder kegs. If I have to give up even one regiment ...”

    “I am aware of the dangers,” Jeremy said, coldly. He’d been in Anderson’s shoes himself, before he’d accepted promotion. “And it is going to get worse.”

    “It is,” Chung confirmed. “We know now who is going to take command of Home Fleet – and effective command of Earth’s defences. It’s Admiral Valentine.”

    “Son of a bitch,” Anderson exploded. “I ...”

    “As you were,” Jeremy snapped. He found it hard to be truly angry at his subordinate, even if speaking ill of a superior officer was a military offence. Instead, he looked over at Chung. “Why him?”

    “Political deals,” Chung said, simply. “His patrons are in the Grand Senate itself.”

    Jeremy nodded, unable to keep a sour expression off his face. The Imperial Navy had been promoting officers on the basis of political connections for thousands of years, pushing competence and dedication aside in favour of political reliability. Admiral Valentine had commanded precisely one major deployment – the operation on Han – and that had been a bloody disaster. By the time the military had restored order, millions of locals had died, either in the chaos or the reprisals that had followed the end of the fighting. If Jeremy had his way, Admiral Valentine would have spent the rest of his career on an asteroid mining station on the far side of the Empire. Instead, he’d been promoted.

    “Right,” Jeremy said, finally. “What do his patrons have in mind?”

    “I don’t know,” Chung admitted. “The Grand Senate spent months haggling over the position, which suggests that there was some heavy bargaining going on, but we don’t know the exact details. All we have is speculation.”

    “As always,” Anderson noted.

    Jeremy couldn't help agreeing. Chung, at least, was smart enough to understand the difference between speculation and actual hard fact, unlike some of the other intelligence officers Jeremy had worked with in the past. The disaster that had swept over Han had been so bad partly because the local intelligence services had been thoroughly subverted by the rebels and Imperial Intelligence had dropped the ball completely.

    “Leave that for the moment,” Jeremy ordered. “The important issue right now is the Childe Roland.”

    He smiled at their expressions. The Marine Corps was – legally – supposed to provide the guard for the Royal Family, but the Grand Senate had taken advantage of the Childe Roland’s minority to edge the Marines out, opening up a whole new field for patronage and political corruption. Jeremy had no idea what his predecessor had been thinking, but it had been a deadly mistake. The Childe Roland – the sixteen-year-old boy who was the Heir to the Empire – was utterly unprepared to rule. He’d been spoilt from birth, given everything he wanted ... while being carefully kept away from the reins of power. And once he took the throne, as he would when he turned seventeen, disaster would follow swiftly.

    “You plan to insert a bodyguard into his staff,” Chung said. “Will they let you?”

    “I wasn't planning to ask permission,” Jeremy said, mildly. “We still have the legal authority to take command of his protective force – and all we’re going to be doing is inserting an additional bodyguard.”

    “They won’t like it,” Anderson said. “Maybe we should just take him to the Slaughterhouse and make a man of him.”

    Jeremy snorted. By the time recruits reached the Slaughterhouse, ninety percent of them had failed or had been streamlined into another branch of the Empire’s military. The Slaughterhouse filtered out two-thirds of the remainder, assigning them to auxiliary units if they chose to continue working with the Marines. Only the best survived to complete the Crucible and be tabbed as Marines. Putting an unprepared Prince in the training program would be rather like dropping a cat into a blender.

    “I don’t think we’d be able to do that,” he said. He looked over at Green. “And Specialist Lawson?”

    Green frowned. “I confess that I would have grave doubts about inserting her back into a combat zone,” he admitted. “The physical wounds have healed; we were able to repair and even upgrade her augmentation in the process. But mentally ... she has a bad case of survivor’s guilt, as well as a burning hatred of intelligence officers. If she had shown the energy to leave the medical centre, I would have been worried for their safety.”

    Jeremy wasn't surprised. The official enquiry had concluded that the Pathfinders had been given bad intelligence, but Marine Intelligence had suspected that the team had been deliberately set up. They’d walked right into a trap that had been designed to kill the entire team. It had been sheer luck that had saved Specialist Belinda Lawson from following the rest of her team into the grave. He couldn't blame her for loathing every intelligence weenie she might encounter in future. But if she assaulted one, it would mean the end of her career.

    Lawson’s record was impressive, even for the Marines. She’d been born on Greenway, a planet along the frontier where the settlers had been forced to fight to survive. Her father, a retired Marine, had taught her how to hunt and shoot; she’d been winning prizes since she’d been old enough to hold a gun. And then she'd gone into Boot Camp at sixteen, the youngest Marine in her year, and graduated to the Slaughterhouse within two months. Her record there was remarkable; she’d come first in her class, a rarity for female recruits. The Drill Instructors had said that she would go far.

    She’d served as a Rifleman with Potter’s Pranksters and seen combat action on several worlds before being offered a chance to return to the Slaughterhouse and qualify as a Pathfinder. Her record made it clear that she’d been pushed right to the limit, like all of the other candidates, but she’d qualified and joined Team Six, under the command of Doug Adams. She’d fitted in well ... until Team Six had been effectively wiped out on Han.

    Marines were always close to one another –Marines were encouraged to regard one another as brothers and sisters - but Pathfinders were the closest of all. He couldn't blame Specialist Lawson for feeling guilty over having survived, when the rest of her team had died. And he knew that they couldn't risk sending her back to the Pathfinders, or even reassigning her to a standard Marine company. But using her as a close-protection operative – a bodyguard, in other words – brought its own risks.

    “She does need a new challenge,” Green said, as if he were reading his superior’s thoughts. “And I don’t think that she might go rogue ...”

    Jeremy grimaced. The media was fond of using rogue Marines as bad guys in countless entertainment flicks with the same plot – and actresses whose clothing was inversely proportional to their intelligence – but they were very rare in reality. Marines were tested extensively during their training; those that might break were gently eased out of training or streamlined into a different military branch. Someone who had gone to the Slaughterhouse – even if they hadn’t graduated – would do well in the regular military.

    “Good,” he said, flatly. “She’ll be on her own for most of the time. We won’t be able to provide her with a proper supporting element.”

    “Not least because we’re moving Marines to Albion,” Anderson grumbled. He scowled down at the table, then looked up. “Maybe we can keep a company on QRF near the Summer Palace. There would be no obvious connection between them and your Specialist unless the shit hit the fan, in which case no one would be able to complain ...”

    Chung coughed. “Have I told you how much I like your optimism?”

    Jeremy held up a hand. “See to it,” he ordered. Having a company of Marines nearby would be helpful, although they might have to work hard to come up with an excuse for their presence if the Grand Senate asked questions. Securing Imperial City was the responsibility of the Civil Guard. “Maybe we can work it in as a training exercise. God knows we don’t run enough joint exercises as it is.”

    “Yes, sir,” Anderson said. His face twitched into a bitter smile. “Of course, they'd find them upsetting and embarrassing. They might even be discomfited.

    Jeremy scowled. A military unit needed to be training and exercising when it wasn't actually on active deployment – and the Civil Guard barely trained to minimum acceptable standards. It was hard to blame their commanders when every last training exercise required a mountain of paperwork, but it was dangerous. Civil Guardsmen regularly made mistakes that got them killed in the field. Jeremy had once run a Civil Guard battalion though Ambush Alley – a training facility on the Slaughterhouse – and the entire unit had been wiped out. And that had been on the easy setting. A full regiment of Marines would have had problems running through the hard setting.

    “They’ll live,” he said, finally. He looked over at Chong. Marine Intelligence covered a great many programs that the Grand Senate knew nothing about. It would only have upset the Senators if they knew just how many programs Jeremy had started when he’d realised that the Empire was in serious trouble. “And the preparations for Safehouse?”

    “Going ahead, sir,” Chong said, unhappily. “I have a full report for you if you want it, but I can’t say I’m happy about it. It just feels too much like running away.”

    “It's a contingency plan,” Anderson said. He tapped the desktop, sharply. “We’re not going to run away. We are merely preparing fallback positions in case of disaster.”

    “Right,” Chong said. “Next time perhaps we could surrender and call it a tactical strike without arms.”

    Jeremy ignored her. Instead, he looked out towards the looming spires of Earth. Deep inside, he knew that Anderson was likely to be wrong. When Earth exploded into chaos, even the Marines wouldn't be able to keep order. The Nihilist attack that Captain Stalker and his men had defeated was merely the first sign of trouble. It would grow much worse in the future.

    For a long moment, he envied Captain Stalker and his men. They were well away from the doom looming over Earth. Jeremy and his allies would just have to do what they could to save the planet – or as much as they could of the Empire. If it could be saved ...
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    This is not an easy task. Generations of historians had struggled with the legacy of imperial propaganda, historical revisionism and outright falsification left behind by the Emperors and the Grand Senate. Indeed, the study of history was discouraged throughout the Empire's existence, with historians who wished to examine pre-imperial times often denied the funds or access they required to build up a comprehensive picture. The net result was a series of glaring contradictions in the official history that largely passed unnoticed.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    Belinda Lawson lay on her bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was white, but someone had drawn pictures of cartoon animals more suited for a children’s ward than a medical centre for recuperating Marines. One of the cartoons – a humanoid rabbit wearing a Marine uniform – had made her smile the first time she’d seen it, but it was hard to feel anything these days. All she could do was lie in bed and wait. But for what?

    They were dead. Doug was dead. Nathan was dead. Pug was dead. McQueen was dead. God knew they’d given her a hard time when she’d first been assigned to Team Six, but she couldn't hold that against them. They had to know if the FNG – the Fucking New Girl – could handle the pressure and had mercilessly poured it on until they’d carried out their first combat mission as a team. And then they’d accepted her ...

    And now they were dead.

    The thought tormented her. The medics had repaired her leg and mended the minor wounds she hadn't even noticed during the operation, but they hadn't been able to do anything for her soul. One doctor had tried to tell her that it hadn’t been her fault and she’d ordered him out of the room with as much venom as she’d been able to muster. An intelligence scumbag had come by and tried to make excuses for the screw-up that had dropped them into the middle of an armed mob, but he’d fled when Belinda had started to activate her combat implants. She was mildly surprised that he'd been brave enough to face her; intelligence officers, in her experience, preferred to stay well away from danger.

    But it wasn't entirely their fault, her mind yammered at her. She could have seen the signs, if she’d looked ... or maybe they would have realised that they were in trouble earlier, if they'd taken more time. But they hadn't had the time ... in the end, all that mattered was that her teammates were dead and she was the sole survivor. And she couldn't even get out of bed.

    She reached up and ran her hand through her blonde hair. Like all Pathfinders, she had been allowed to maintain a less-military appearance – Doug had called it slovenly – and she’d grown her hair out, although not enough to interfere with the helmet. Now, after six months of lying in bed, it was much longer and utterly unkempt. If it hadn't been for the nurses, she doubted that she would have bothered to wash herself. She couldn't be bothered doing anything. How could she when her teammates were dead.

    Bought the farm, she thought, savagely. McQueen’s body had been laid to rest on the Slaughterhouse in an unmarked grave, as per tradition for unmarried Marines. His Rifleman’s Tab had been transferred to the Crypt, where it would serve as an inspiration to other Marines. The other three bodies hadn't been recovered at all. Belinda blamed herself for that too, even though cold logic told her that they would have been savaged beyond recognition by the blast. At least she could have tried to look for them.

    There was a knock at the door. Belinda ignored it in the hopes that the visitor would go away, but she was disappointed. The door opened, revealing a young doctor in a white coat carrying a uniform set under his arm. Belinda scowled at him, trying to intimidate the doctor into leaving, but he ignored her. He’d been a medical corpsman as well as a Pathfinder, he’d told her when they’d first met, and it took a great deal to intimidate him.

    “You have a visitor,” the doctor said. “The Commandant is coming to visit you.”

    Belinda sat up in surprise, barely heeding her own nakedness. “The Commandant?”

    “Yes,” the doctor confirmed. He dropped the uniform on the bed and stepped backwards. “I suggest that you get dressed. Reporting to the Commandant naked would not make a good impression.”

    “Matter of opinion,” Belinda snarled at him waspishly. What would the Commandant want with her? Maybe he wanted to give her the discharge papers personally. “Who cares anyway?”

    “I do,” the doctor said. His voice hardened. “So I suggest that you get dressed or I’ll be forced to dress you myself.”

    Belinda looked at him, decided he probably wasn't bluffing and stood up. The doctor eyed her for a long moment and then walked away, leaving her to study her reflection in the mirror. Her body hadn't changed much, thanks to the improvements that had been sequenced into her genes, but she still looked absurdly young. Blonde hair framed a heart-shaped face and fell over muscular shoulders and arms. Her legs looked identical; it was impossible to tell that one of them had been broken and healed by the doctors.

    Slowly, she reached for the clothes and donned the white panties and bra, then pulled the uniform jacket over her chest, followed rapidly by the trousers. The doctor had given her a standard on-base uniform rather than dress blacks, a message she wasn't sure how to interpret. Her rank badge marked her out as a Specialist, a rank that concealed a great many sins in the Marine Corps. Almost all Pathfinders were Specialists, but outsiders rarely recognised them as being anything special. The rank could mean an officer’s driver in the Civil Guard.

    She pulled her hair back into a long ponytail and scowled at her reflection. Her blue eyes looked haunted; she couldn't help noticing that her hands were twitching slightly. Absently, she accessed her implants and ran a standard diagnostic, confirming that most of them were still shut down. The doctors had been reluctant to leave her with full control over her implants after she’d threatened the intelligence officer. Still, the implants she had left were enough to get by, at least for the moment. God alone knew what would happen if the Commandant intended to discharge her from the Corps personally. It wasn't as if the implants could be removed.

    “Very good,” the doctor said. “You clean up nicely.”

    Belinda glared at him, cursing her own sloppiness in the privacy of her own mind. She’d almost forgotten that he was there, something that could have proven lethal on deployment; how badly had she slipped over the last six months. His mocking smile reminded her of what she’d lost and she silently promised herself that she could get back in shape as quickly as possible. Besides, Doug had always claimed that heavy exercise had cheered him up.

    “The Commandant is heading to Room 101,” the doctor said. “If you will follow me ...”

    He marched out of the door before Belinda could reply, so she shrugged and followed him. Outside, the corridors were almost empty – and completely unmarked. Medical staff with the proper implants could find their way around, she reminded herself; patients would be advised to remain in their rooms without an escort. Like most Marine installations, there would be entire sections of the hospital that were inaccessible – and unknown – to most of the residents. She wondered, absently, where they were going, before a door hissed open and revealed a concealed room. Bracing herself, Belinda stepped inside. The Commandant, seated on a chair in the middle of the room, rose to his feet to greet her.

    She hadn't seen the Commandant since her graduation from the Slaughterhouse, where he’d worn dress uniform and talked to the newly-minted Marines of the traditions of the Terran Marine Corps. Now, wearing an informal uniform, he looked older – and tired, very tired. Few Marines were ever happy in a desk job and the Commandant, who had to deal with the politics, had to be the unhappiest of all. He looked up as she stopped in front of him and straightened to attention.

    “Specialist Belinda Lawson reporting, sir,” she said. At least she remembered how to do it. One of the other benefits of being a Pathfinder was even less formality than most Marine units enjoyed. “Team Six – detached duty.”

    “At ease,” the Commandant ordered, tightly. “Be seated.”

    Belinda relaxed – marginally – and sat down on the nearest seat. At ease might mean that she could relax, but it didn’t mean that she wasn’t in trouble. The Commandant certainly hadn't offered her coffee. He studied her for a long moment and then leaned forward, his expression unreadable.

    “How are you?” He asked, bluntly. “And don’t give me any bullshit. I need a honest answer.”

    “Down,” Belinda said, finally. One thing that had been hammered into her head more than once was that you couldn't lie to a superior officer. “Physically, I am a little out of shape; mentally ...”

    The Commandant listened as she stumbled through her explanation. “I have a mission that needs someone like you,” he said, finally. He held up a hand before she could say a word. “I will outline what we need from you and why. After that, if you want to refuse the mission, you may do so.”

    Belinda heard what he didn’t say. If she refused the mission, she would be shipped out to the Slaughterhouse, just in case she felt like sharing information with the media. She found that rather insulting, but she understood the Commandant’s concern. The media catching wind of a secret operation could be disastrous. There were plenty of examples throughout history of just what happened if the secret was blown too soon.

    “The Childe Roland is in grave danger,” the Commandant said. “He needs a close-protection operative right next to him at all times. I would like you to take on that mission.”

    Belinda asked the first question that came into her head. “Why me?”

    “Because you have experience in operating alone,” the Commandant explained. “Because you are capable of passing almost unnoticed in Roland’s retinue. Because you have experience at working with young men. Because you need something to occupy you.”

    “Oh,” Belinda said. She doubted that the Commandant had assigned her because he cared about her health. It was quite possible that he’d viewed her as a square peg who could be fitted in neatly to a square hole. And then she realised what he’d said. “Alone?”

    “The security surrounding the young prince is ... leaky,” the Commandant warned her. “If it were up to me, there would be a small army of Marines guarding the palace, with combat armour and heavy weapons. But it isn't up to me.”

    Belinda stared at him.

    “The external security is provided by the Civil Guard,” the Commandant said. His lips twitched into a faint sneer that vanished moments later. “The unit in charge of securing the Summer Palace is one of their best, but the CO has powerful patrons and his XO isn't much better. Marine Intelligence ran an operation against the guardsmen and pulled out enough information to plan an assassination attempt on Roland’s life.

    “Internal security is provided by Senate Security – they’re more focused around close-protection duties than the Civil Guard. It wouldn't be a bad choice, apart from the fact that they’re poorly equipped to deal with a major threat and they have few heavy weapons. A single Marine company could take the Summer Palace from both sets of guards ...”

    Belinda shook her head in disbelief. “Two sets of guards? Who’s in charge?”

    “There isn't an overall commander,” the Commandant admitted. “They are supposed to coordinate with each other, but no one is clearly in charge.”

    “That’s ...”

    She broke off, astonished. Everyone knew – well, everyone who had been to any military training centre, at least - that a disunited command was asking for trouble. Even with the best will in the world, two chains of command were likely to get tangled at the worst possible moment. A failure to coordinate could mean the Civil Guard firing on Senate Security or vice versa, both sides convinced that the other was actually terrorists. Offhand, she couldn't recall if there had ever been an example of two chains of command working perfectly. She rather doubted it.

    “It’s political,” the Commandant said, making the word a curse. “You – if you accept the mission – will be inserted into the Summer Palace, officially as Roland’s latest aide. He goes through them very quickly. Unofficially, you will be the last line of defence for the young prince. As his aide, you can be with him at every waking moment. Should he get into trouble ...”

    “Deal with it,” Belinda said. She had to admit that it sounded like a challenge – and also a chance to rebuild her life. Besides, Doug would have kicked her ass if she’d refused. “How many others will know what I am?”

    “That’s the problem,” the Commandant said. “We’re going to have to tell both of the security teams that you’re there, or your weapons and implants will set off the alarms. And they have to know that you’re more than just a decorative piece of fluff. Roland himself ... we probably should tell him, even though I don’t trust him to keep his mouth shut. He has too many friends who encourage him to be more self-important than he is already.”

    He scowled down at his hands. “Sergeant Glen Cheal, Civil Guard, will serve as your first point of contact,” he added. “Cheal failed the Slaughterhouse and went directly into the Civil Guard. Unlike his two superiors, he’s actually competent and can be trusted – he’ll do whatever he can to help you. Ideally, we should have some Marines nearby to help if necessary, but getting them into position might prove troublesome.”

    Belinda could imagine it. Flying Raptors through hostile airspace was one thing, but flying them through an area controlled by at least two different forces – three, if one counted the Imperial Navy’s ATC system – was another way to tempt Murphy. One force might not get the word in time and open fire on the Marines, adding to the chaos.

    Her implants reported that the Commandant’s implants were sending her a file. She accepted it and opened the file, scanning it quickly. It was a complete briefing on the Summer Palace, the men and women who worked there – and a highly-confidential file on Prince Roland. Belinda resolved to read it more thoroughly later, once she had reactivated her implants and run through some exercises to start getting her body back into shape, but what she saw in the summery didn't look promising. Calling Roland a spoilt brat was unkind to spoilt brats.

    “This is not going to be easy,” the Commandant said. “At seventeen, Roland will be crowned Emperor – and there is no shortage of people who might want him dead before then. Right now, he has little actual power, but that will change once he’s crowned. They will try to kill him – and it will be your task to keep him safe.”

    Belinda frowned. “The security arrangements aren't meant to keep him safe, are they?”

    “No,” the Commandant said. “We don’t think so.”

    The Slaughterhouse Drill Instructors had taught her never to ascribe to malice what could be ascribed to carelessness, incompetence or stupidity. On the other hand, they’d also taught her that the more unlikely the coincidence, the more unlikely the possibility that it was a coincidence. If Belinda had wanted to groom the Empire’s Prince for assassination – and she’d had the patience to play the long day – she couldn't think of how she could do it better. And most people looking at it from the outside would see nothing more than another power game ...

    He was right, she realised. This was not going to be easy.

    What are you complaining about, thingy? Pug’s voice demanded, from out of the past. The only easy day was yesterday!

    “I accept,” she said, simply. “I won’t let you down.”

    “Good,” the Commandant said. He stood up. “You have an appointment with the implantation crew in an hour, then another with the protocol officer – I suggest you get a protocol file off him and keep it in primary mode. There are far too many protocols surrounding the Empire’s Crown Prince and you will have to bear with them. He will probably suggest clothing as well as everything else.”

    “Joy,” Belinda said. Her father had never worried about what he wore – and neither had any of his children. Their mother had sometimes worried about them, but she’d tolerated it. Besides, it wasn't as if Greenway had a thriving social scene. “I guess I’ll just have to cope with it.”

    The Commandant grinned. “Good luck,” he said, as he opened the door. “And don’t fuck up.”

    He was gone before Belinda could think of a reply. Shaking her head, she sat back and started to study the file in more detail. Her first impression, she decided reluctantly, had been right. Someone was definitely setting Prince Roland up for assassination. And if his file was only half-right, there was a good chance that he deserved it.

    It isn't your job to decide who is right or wrong, Doug’s voice echoed in her head. He’d told her that when the team had finally accepted her. Merely yours to serve the Empire.

    The doctor opened the door and nodded politely to her. Pushing aside her doubts, Belinda stood up and allowed him to lead her back into the hospital. It was time to get ready for the mission. Maybe it wasn't a simple combat assignment, but it promised to be just as dangerous.

    And besides, for the first time in six months, she felt ready to return to duty.
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thank you!

  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    It is not hard to understand why the Empire worked to bury human history. Humanity has a bad habit of looking back to more idyllic times in the past, which would have logically included a time when a specific planet was independent ... And that would have encouraged independence movements. It could not be tolerated. However, by suppressing history, the Empire also made it impossible to learn lessons from past experience.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    Belinda sucked in her breath as the Summer Palace came into view. The building sat alone in the midst of a garden, one of the few gardens left on Earth’s polluted surface, utterly inaccessible to the public. She felt an odd flicker of homesickness as she took in the greenery and realised that the gardeners just allowed the plants to grow naturally, battling it out for supremacy, before she pushed it aside. The average resident of Earth would never know that the garden even existed. Those who did would only be able to envy Prince Roland from afar.

    The Civil Guard maintained a very visible cordon around the edge of the garden, according to the files. Belinda had no difficulty in spotting watchtowers and patrols roving around the walls, although the guardsmen weren't the main line of defence. Their role was simply to deter anyone who might want to break into the palace; the real line of defence were hidden weapons concealed within the garden and the palace’s walls. It looked to be built of wood and stone, seemingly fragile, but the files stated that it had been constructed of starship hullmetal and then covered in wood and stone. A nuke could go off near the palace and the inhabitants would be relatively safe.

    Assuming that they managed to batten down the hatches in time, she told herself as the aircar swooped down towards the landing pad. Her implants reported a series of sensor sweeps, each one more intrusive than the last. If her aircar hadn't had the proper ID codes, she would have been blown out of the air before she flew over the garden, but the guardsmen weren't taking chances. Obtaining codes that were shared with so many different organisations would be easy, particularly as the codes didn't seem to be changed on a regular basis. On one hand, it made sense; changing the codes made it far too likely that there would be a friendly fire incident, particularly if one group didn't get the word in time. But on the other, it was a major breach in security. The codes could be stolen weeks or months before a planned attack and still be valid.

    The aircar settled to the ground and Belinda stepped out, taking a moment to admire the Summer Palace. It reminded her of some of the temples on Han, the buildings that some local factions had used to store ammunition and other supplies in the hope that their protected status would save them from the occupation force. The insurgents had been wrong. The fighting had intensified until the CO had been willing to order extreme measures, destroying any compromised temple.

    Her implants reported that they were being interrogated as a handful of Civil Guardsmen appeared at the edge of the landing pad. Belinda studied them carefully, noting that they seemed to be more competent than she’d been led to expect, although they had exposed themselves to her. She could boost and take them all out ... and be gunned down by the automatic defences built into the palace. Shaking her head, she relaxed and allowed them to check her identity thoroughly. At least they weren't cutting corners here.

    “Welcome to the Summer Palace,” their leader said, when they had finally completed their checks. The security officers would have received a copy of Belinda’s file – suitably edited – but they needed to run their own checks. “I’m Sergeant Cheal.”

    Belinda shook his hand, taking a moment to study him. He was a tall man with short brown hair, wearing a Palace Guard uniform that had been expertly tailored to allow him to move without restriction. The Sergeant had a reassuring air of competence, although she thought she saw a flicker of envy in his eyes as he studied her. It wasn't uncommon for auxiliaries to resent fully-qualified Marines, she knew; what would someone who had left the Corps altogether think of the Marines?

    “Specialist Lawson,” she said finally.

    “There are other security checks that need to be performed,” Cheal said, as they walked into the palace itself. “After that, the two commanders wish to speak with you before you meet the prince.”

    “Understood,” Belinda said. Inside, her implants were reporting more aggressive security sweeps, directed at her and her companions. The Civil Guardsmen followed them as they passed through a solid metal door, their hands never far from their weapons. It wasn't very subtle, but it served its purpose. “How many more checks do you have to perform?”

    “We need a complete breakdown of your weapons and implants,” Cheal said, flatly. “I’m afraid that the security protocols insist on it.”

    Belinda nodded, tightly. The security scanners would sound the alert if they detected a weapon being used that hadn't been already cleared with the security officers. It was quite possible that she would be flagged up as an enemy infiltrator if she used a weapon they didn't know she carried. On the other hand, she would have preferred to keep some surprises to herself. The Civil Guard was corrupt and it was quite possible that one or more of the guardsmen might have been subverted by outside forces.

    The security checks were as thorough as she had feared. Some Pathfinder implants were designed to be very hard to detect, but the Palace’s scanners picked up almost all of them. Belinda kept one eye on the results as the Guardsmen scanned her again and again, realising that they’d picked up everything apart from one of the neural links. All of her implanted weaponry had been noted and logged. She made a mental note to raise the issue of security with the other Pathfinders when she reported back to the Corps. If this scanner tech became mainstream, Pathfinders might be identified by enemy soldiers before they could go into combat.

    Just think of this as another infiltration, she told herself, briskly. You’re here to play a role until you need to fight.

    “I didn't know you could hide a weapon there,” one of the guardsmen said. He didn't realise that Belinda could hear him, even though she had augmented ears as well as eyes. “And to think she looks so cute.”

    Belinda kept her face expressionless. She wore a black jacket and a short skirt that fell down to just above her knees, rather than a military uniform. Everyone looking at her would underestimate her, at least until it was far too late. She allowed herself a brief moment of satisfaction as the scanning finally came to an end. Someone who didn't have access to the scan results wouldn't realise that she was anything other than the Prince’s aide. It wasn't as if she was going to carry a weapon openly.

    “I need you to seal those records,” she said. “No one is to have access to them without being cleared by me personally.”

    Cheal scowled at her. “We do have to inform Senate Security ...”

    “Let me worry about that,” Belinda said, flatly. “I’m not here to be a visible guard. If those records fall into enemy hands ...”

    “Right,” Cheal said, tightly. He stood up and motioned for her to follow him. “I’ll see to it personally.”

    Once they were through the security office, the Palace corridors became luxurious. Belinda glanced from side to side, taking in the hundreds of paintings hanging from the walls, each one carefully displayed to best advantage. Tiny nameplates underneath the paintings identified their subjects as heroes of the Empire, although they didn't say what the heroes had actually done. Belinda recognised a couple of military figures from her studies on the Slaughterhouse, but the others were a complete mystery. She wondered if the staff knew who they were – they’d have to give tours to the Emperor and his family – before pushing the thought aside. It didn't matter.

    “You should have access to the basic housekeeping network,” Cheal said. “As you can see, you have clearance to enter every section of the Summer Palace - you have more clearance than me, as a matter of fact. I’m not allowed to enter Senate Security’s barracks, for example, any more than they are allowed to enter ours. Everyone in the palace has an implant that determines where they can and cannot go. Those who enter a forbidden zone are rendered comatose until they can be picked up and interrogated.”

    Belinda made a face. Implants that could be accessed and controlled from outside the carrier’s body were rare, not least because they were a security nightmare. But it was one of the requirements for serving in the Summer Palace or another high-security zone, according to the files. The staff had to be supervised at all times.

    “The cooks, for example, are restricted to the kitchens and their quarters,” Cheal continued. “They are under long-term contracts that keep them within the palace for six months, after which they are released with proper references from the Castellan. If you encounter a cook outside his permitted zone, he’s an infiltrator. Grab him.”

    “Clever,” Belinda said. She didn't relax as her implants attempted to link into the security networks. There was a moment’s delay as the system checked her ID, then allowed her to draw information from the nodes. “How many different networks do you have in the building?”

    “Five,” Cheal said. “You should have permission to access four of them. The fifth belongs to the Royal Family. No one else is permitted to access it.”

    Belinda scowled. She could understand keeping the housekeeping network separate from the security network, but having three other networks struck her as excessive. On the other hand, she told herself, a person who managed to take down one of the networks would still have to reckon with the other four. She tossed ideas around in her head; if she’d wanted to slip into the building, how would she have done it? Maybe the security staff were more competent than she’d assumed.

    They stopped outside another door. It appeared to be made of wood, but Belinda would have been surprised if it hadn't been another piece of hullmetal. Cheal knocked once and then waited for a long moment, before the door clicked open. He stepped into the room, nodding for Belinda to follow him. Two men – her implants identified them as Colonel Hicks and Captain Singh – were waiting for her inside the room.

    “Specialist Lawson, sir,” Cheal said.

    Belinda kept her face expressionless as the two men studied her, neither looking very impressed. Hicks was slightly overweight, suggesting that it had been quite some time since he had been on deployment – or a simple lack of concern about his appearance. His dark hair fell down around a face that was too handsome to be real. Cosmetic surgery was technically illegal for soldiers and guardsmen, but Hicks had enough political patrons to make that a non-issue. Beside him, the dark-skinned Singh seemed more competent, although he didn't seem too pleased to see Belinda. Senate Security was normally responsible for close-protection duties and it was possible that he saw Belinda’s presence as a unsubtle insult.

    “Thank you, Sergeant,” Hicks said, finally. His voice was surprisingly light for such a big man. “You may go.”

    Cheal nodded and left the room.

    “For the past fourteen months, we have guarded Prince Roland,” Hicks said, as soon as the door closed behind the Sergeant. Belinda’s implants reported a counter-surveillance field shimmering into existence. “Why do they suddenly feel that we are not up to the task?”

    Belinda could have given him several answers, just by looking at the two officers, but none of them would have been very helpful. Hicks had to be wondering just what had been decided in the Grand Senate about the Prince’s future – and just what it meant for him personally. If he hadn't built his career by making himself useful to his political masters, Belinda told herself, he might not have to worry so much about politics. But he probably wouldn't have reached a high rank without political support.

    “I was not involved in making the decision,” Belinda pointed out, instead. She was tempted to argue with them, to attempt to defend the Commandant, but she knew it would be pointless. Giving them the impression that she answered to them would be dangerous. “My responsibility is to be a final line of defence for Prince Roland. As you are no doubt aware, the number of threats against his life has been increasing over the past few months. I am there to ensure that no assassin manages to kill him.”

    Singh leaned forward. “Your file has been whitewashed,” he stated, bluntly. “Are you capable of protecting the young master?”

    Belinda silently awarded Singh some points in her head. Her Pathfinder file wouldn't have been given to anyone without some careful editing, not when so many details were highly-classified. The file they’d been sent contained little more than the highlights of her pre-Pathfinder career and a list of accomplishments, most of which were uninformative without the context. And that had not been supplied.

    “I served in a close-protection detail on several worlds,” she said, calmly. “That detail should have been included in my file.”

    “Yes, as part of a team of Marines,” Singh pointed out. “How often do Marines operate alone?”

    Rarely, Belinda thought. The average Marine platoon was ten men; even Pathfinder teams had five. But then, they had been trained to operate alone if necessary. It just didn’t happen very often.

    “I have operated undercover in the past,” she said, and left them to speculate. The file wouldn't have included those details, not when it might have touched on sensitive issues. “Officially, I am here to be Roland’s aide. I can play that role as long as necessary.”

    Hicks snickered. “If you can play that role for longer than three months,” he said, “you’ll be doing better than most of your predecessors.”

    Belinda scowled inwardly. The file on Prince Roland had detailed the growth of a spoilt brat, one who hadn't improved as he'd grown older. Several of his aides had quit after he’d made unwelcome advances towards them, even though he had a small harem of pleasure women in the Summer Palace. The file hinted that a number of maids had also been seduced by the young prince, if that counted as seduction. They might not have felt that they had a choice.

    “You will be under my command,” Singh said, more practically. “I ...”

    “No,” Belinda said.

    Singh blinked in surprise. “No?”

    “I have been assigned to serve as Prince Roland’s bodyguard,” Belinda said. “My sole priority is defending him. I am not part of Senate Security, nor am I under your direct command.”

    They locked eyes for a long moment. Singh looked away first.

    “I will expect you to understand precisely how the inner cordon works,” Singh said, reluctantly. “And you do not have authority to issue orders to my operatives. I want you to be clear on that detail.”

    “Of course,” Belinda said.

    “Now, see here,” Hicks said, sharply. “You cannot just come in and ...”

    “Yes, I can,” Belinda said. There was no point in trying to negotiate with someone like Hicks; give them an inch and they would take a mile. The only way to deal with them was to make it clear that you couldn't be bullied. “I have been charged with keeping the Prince safe. There are no other concerns for me. Do you understand?”

    Hicks flushed angrily, but he nodded.

    “I shall require advance notification of anything that might impinge on my duties,” Belinda continued. “If someone is visiting the Prince, I want to know about it in advance – and when they enter the palace I want to be alerted. I expect to be the first to hear about any changes in security protocols, or new officers being assigned to the protective detail. And I shall be making recommendations for revising the security arrangements surrounding the Summer Palace.”

    “Which are my responsibility,” Hicks said, coldly. “Your task is merely to bodyguard the Prince.”

    Belinda nodded. “Which is why I need to know about any possible problems,” she said, as sweetly as she could. The look Hicks gave her suggested that he wasn't impressed, so she allowed her voice to harden. “There’s something that you – both of you – need to understand.”

    She leaned forward, putting as much determination into her voice as she could. “I am not here to play political games,” she added. “I don’t have a patron to please. All that matters to me is protecting Prince Roland until he can assume the throne. You can work with me to protect him or you can try to impede me in my duty. And I assure you, if you try that, I will break your careers to the point where you will be lucky merely to be reassigned to Hellhole.”

    Hicks stared at her. “You can’t ...”

    “I can,” Belinda snapped. “Work with me or suffer the consequences.”

    She wanted to smile at their expressions. Hicks, at least, would believe that no one would make such statements unless they could back them up. And if he complained to his patron and word got out, his patron might drop him like a hot rock. Patronage might be the way forward, but the client had to be dependable ... and someone who failed so spectacularly was hardly dependable. The political embarrassment of having a client who didn't care for looking after the Prince would be devastating.

    “Good,” she said. She didn't care if they considered her a bitch, as long as they carried out their duties. “Now, take me to the Prince.”
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  9. goinpostal

    goinpostal Monkey+

    A great beginning as usual Chris!

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    What is universally accepted about the decades prior to the Empire is this: humanity arose from Earth, spread out across the galaxy - and promptly fell into war. We lack many of the details of those ancient wars, but we do know that the death toll was in the billions and that a number of planets were rendered lifeless. Eventually, an Earth-based movement began to attempt to unify humanity. It enjoyed wide popular support as the wars had been immensely destructive.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    The Summer Palace grew more luxurious as Belinda walked towards the upper levels, shaking her head at the tacky display of wealth. During the Unification Wars, the first Emperor had collected vast amounts of artwork, a collection that had come to encompass nearly a million pieces by the time he’d died. Copies had been placed in the Imperial Museum; the originals had been used to decorate the Emperor’s palaces. Every few meters, there was a pedestal with a piece of art placed on it, along with another nameplate. Belinda stopped to examine a silver and gold-plated BFG-4623 from Heinlein that had been given to the Emperor as a gift, before following the Castellan further into the building.

    “The Prince has been up since eleven,” the Castellan said, finally. He was a short man, but he somehow managed to look down his nose at Belinda. She hadn’t been able to decide if he had the general contempt for the military that had infected the Empire’s upper echelons or if he thought that she was too pretty to be a soldier. Too many senior officers had ‘aides’ who just happened to be beautiful women. “He will receive you now.”

    “Thank you,” Belinda said. “What sort of person is he?”

    The Castellan sniffed. His record was one of unbroken servitude to the Royal Family; his family had been bound to the Royal Family for centuries, with a legal right to provide at least five senior officials within the Imperial Household. It gave them a level of patronage that, Belinda was starting to realise, allowed them to produce a power base of their own. At least they didn't seem to be moving independently, even in the Childe Roland’s minority. It was a very small power base, after all.

    “His Highness is a Prince of the Royal Blood,” the Castellan said. “He is his father’s son.”

    Belinda rolled her eyes. There was little useful that could be pulled from that statement, certainly nothing she hadn't already known. But then, the Castellan knew nothing about her; for all he knew, Belinda might have been sent to spy on his loyalties. Indiscreet conversation could ruin a career, particularly when the speaker served a very powerful family. And if someone happened to be sacked in Imperial City, they tended to fall all the way down to the undercity. They rarely lasted long in that hellish environment.

    They stopped in front of a wooden door, her implants reporting more probes from the security network. She’d been probed every time they passed through a heavy door, marking the transition from one part of the palace to another. As Cheal had promised, the security network had allowed her to pass unmolested, although the probes were becoming annoying. If she’d actually had to work as a maid, Belinda suspected that she would start going mad inside the palace. Walking through the wrong door would mean a harsh interrogation by the security staff, after waking up with a headache.

    “Be professional,” the Castellan advised. There was a click as the door started to open. “And good luck.”

    Belinda stepped into the Prince’s chambers and looked around, unable to restrain her curiosity. The files hadn't included any details on how Prince Roland had arranged his quarters, an oversight that had puzzled her when she’d realised what was missing. Now, she realised that the file might have been out of date almost as soon as it was produced. The room was vast, luxurious – and crammed. A pile of toys and electronic devices lay on one table, including a set of model starships that actually flew. They’d been a craze for years, Belinda recalled, remembering her brother’s attempt to build a collection. Somehow, she doubted that Prince Roland had done any part-time jobs to raise money to buy his toys.

    A second table held a small section of drinks and snacks. Belinda glanced at the labels and winced inwardly; the drinks were heavily alcoholic. Prince Roland was the product of a considerable amount of genetic engineering, ensuring that alcohol and drugs wouldn't be able to inflict permanent harm on his body; he’d have to consume a great deal of alcohol before feeling any effects at all. Marines had their own countermeasures spliced into their genes – they couldn't get anything more than a pleasant buzz from alcohol – but then, few Marines had the temperament to become addicted to anything. Roland ... might not be so stubborn.

    She looked up and snorted as she saw one wall. It was covered in nude paintings of young women, including a handful she recognised from the files on the Grand Senate. The Castellan showed no reaction as Belinda recognised the daughters of several Grand Senators; God alone knew what the Grand Senators would think if they knew that Prince Roland had paintings of their unclothed daughters. Maybe they’d be horrified ... or maybe they’d see it as a chance to marry their daughters to the prince. Roland would have to marry one day, just to produce the next Emperor.

    The second room was larger, with a comfortable set of sofas perched around a holographic projector and a second table of drinks and snacks. Belinda had no difficulty in recognising the projector as military grade, which raised odd questions about just what Roland was doing with it. A quick probe of the room’s processor revealed a vast number of entertainment files, ranging from ancient movies – including many banned by the Grand Senate – to outright pornography. There were so many files that she doubted that Roland could watch them all, even if he devoted his entire lifetime to the task.

    She heard the Castellan clear his throat as they entered the third room. “Your Highness,” he said. His voice was tightly controlled. “I present to you Belinda Lawson.”

    Belinda followed him into the third room and saw Prince Roland for the first time. He was lying on a massive four-poster bed, easily large enough to hold five or six people without them being too friendly. Roland looked fit – the enhancements to his body wouldn't allow him to get too far out of shape – but there was an air of slovenliness around him that made him seem unhealthy. His ancestors had engineered themselves so that the Royal Family would have the same basic appearance – hawk-like cheekbones, brilliantly-blonde hair and bright blue eyes – but his face had turned puffy through overindulgence. And there was a dull look in the Prince’s blue eyes she didn't like at all. It reminded her of the drugged-up insurgents the Marines had fought on several worlds.

    She straightened to attention and saluted the Prince. Royal Protocol demanded that he returned the salute, but instead all he did was wave his hand in the air, as if he couldn't be bothered to form a proper salute. Or, she realised, as if he didn't know how to salute. The files had all agreed that no one was actually teaching him how to rule.

    But that makes sense, she thought, sourly. The Grand Senators don’t want an effective Emperor; they want someone who will sit in his palace and rubber-stamp their decrees ... and take all the blame if things go wrong.

    “Specialist Lawson is here to be your bodyguard,” the Castellan said, patiently. “You will be escorted by her everywhere, so you should get to know her and ...”

    The Prince snickered. “Does that include the toilet?”

    Belinda scowled at his tone. Prince Roland sounded petulant – and partly drunk. She could smell enough alcohol in the air to suggest that he had been drinking; glancing around, she saw a handful of bottles near the bed. How long had he been drinking? And, coming to think of it, what had he been drinking? Perhaps she would have to suggest – firmly – that he touched less alcohol in future.

    “If necessary,” the Castellan said. He bowed deeply. “I shall leave you to get to know her.”

    Belinda heard the door closing behind him as he left, but she didn't take her eyes off the Prince. Roland stared back at her, his eyes drifting all over her body. She scowled inwardly as a faint smile drifted over his face. The briefing files on the Prince hadn't been anything like detailed enough. And she made a mental note to get her hands on his medical file as quickly as possible. Colonel Hicks would have a copy in his files, she was sure. She would have to ask Sergeant Cheal for access.

    “You’re my bodyguard,” Roland said. “Is mine a body you’d like to guard?”

    “You need to get into shape,” Belinda said, already feeling tired. She stood up and glanced around the room. “What are you supposed to be doing today?”

    “Nothing,” the Prince said. His voice dropped, slightly. “I was going to visit the Arena later.”

    “Not in that state, you’re not,” Belinda snapped, allowing her irritation to enter her voice. The doctors had tried to interest her in a Drill Instructor post on the Slaughterhouse, but she didn't have the patience to deal with recruits. “Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”

    She walked over to the drinks cabinet and peered inside. The bottles were largely unmarked, suggesting that they were produced in the Summer Palace by the staff, rather than imported from outside. A couple were marked with the thistle and rose of Nova Scotia, identifying them as Scotch from a world that carefully regulated the number of bottles that left the planet every year. Just one of them cost more than most people in Imperial City earned in a year. Behind the bottles, there was a single injector tab containing sober-up. By law, they had to be included in every drinks cabinet on Earth, but she would have been surprised if any of the bureaucrats had dared to inspect the Prince’s quarters.

    Roland stared at her as she walked back to the bed. “What are you doing with that ... ?”

    “Injecting you,” Belinda said, tightly. The Prince started to move away from her, but she caught his arm and held it while she pushed the tab against his neck. There was a faint hiss as it shot the drug into his bloodstream. “That should make you feel better.”

    “You ... you ...”

    Roland’s voice broke off as he started to shake. Sober-up forced alcohol and other drugs out of the body as rapidly as possible. It wasn't a very pleasant process. Belinda helped him to his feet, feeling sweat already trickling down his arm, and escorted him into the massive bathroom. He barely made it to the toilet before he threw up into the bowl.

    “Let it all out,” Belinda said. “Don’t worry, just let it all out.”

    She’d heard of close-protection details who had ended up effectively serving as nursemaids, but she’d never had to do it until now. Roland didn't just need a bodyguard; he needed a nurse and a personal trainer. What if he’d damaged his brain by drinking so much alcohol? It should have been impossible, but genetic engineering didn't always live up to its promise.

    “That was disgusting,” Roland protested. He still sounded petulant, but at least the drunken haze was gone from his voice. “I’m going to have you sacked. And fired. And disembarked ...”

    “I think you mean disbarred,” Belinda said. Roland couldn't sack her, at least until he was Emperor. He could complain to the Commandant, she supposed, but the Commandant would probably take it as a sign she was doing her job properly. “Besides, you can't both sack and fire me. You can only have one.”

    Roland glared at her as he tried to work it out. Belinda took advantage of the silence to pour a glass of water from the sink and pass it to the Prince.

    “Drink,” she ordered. “You need rehydration.”

    Roland’s expression didn't change as he sipped the water. “I’ll have you fired,” he said, finally. He passed her the empty glass. “And then you won’t work again ...”

    “Believe me, that would be a relief,” Belinda said, as she refilled the glass. “Drink again, then we can find you something to eat.”

    The Prince blinked at her in surprise. “You want to be fired?”

    “When you are the Emperor, you can fire me and I will happily go into retirement,” Belinda told him. “Until then, you will have to put up with me.”

    She’d given some thought to retiring and going back to Greenway, or another world along the Rim. The corporations that founded colony worlds loved to hire retired Marines or experienced soldiers from the Imperial Army as colony marshals and other law-enforcement agents. She’d even looked at a few of the job offers, although most of them had come from corporations that seemed to specialise in causing problems for the Marines by mistreating their settlers.

    Pushing the thought aside, she escorted Roland out of his bathroom, through the bedroom and into the dining room. It was larger than she had expected, easily big enough to allow him to invite over a hundred guests to share his table. The table was massive, but only one place had been set at the near end. A menu had been placed between the knives and forks.

    “You need something healthy,” Belinda said, plucking up the menu before he could object and skimming through it. She’d been in fancy restaurants with less elaborate menus. Most of the options were unhealthy. Somehow, she doubted that any of the kitchen staff had been encouraged to prepare healthy food for the young man. “Let’s see now ...”

    “I’m not a child,” Roland objected, sharply. “I can make my own decisions ...”

    “Really?” Belinda asked, in the sweetest tone she could muster. “And what are you going to choose for breakfast?”

    Roland didn't glance at the menu. “Chocolate toast, half-boiled eggs on toast and fettered cheese,” he said. “Very healthy.”

    “Not even remotely healthy,” Belinda contradicted. She had to glance at the menu again to find out what fettered cheese actually was. Merely looking at the picture made her arteries feel as if they were clogging up. “We’ll compromise. You can have the half-boiled eggs if you also have cereal beforehand.”

    Roland smirked at her. “I could have cereal afterwards?”

    “I’ve been lied to by experts,” Belinda told him, dryly. She accessed the room’s processor through her implants and transmitted the order to the kitchens, after adding hot unsweetened coffee to the list. “You can eat the cereal first.”

    It took only five minutes before the serving maid arrived, carrying a bowl of cereal, a steaming mug of coffee and a small jug of milk. The maid was young – she couldn't have been more than sixteen, perhaps younger – and the way she looked at Roland when she thought no one was watching her told its own story. Belinda eyed the young prince as the maid set the food in front of him, daring him to do anything stupid, but he did nothing. Maybe he’d been in a drunken haze all the other times ... or maybe his eyes were doing all the feasting. The maid’s outfit left very little to the imagination.

    “Put some milk into the coffee,” she ordered, once the maid had left. “And then you can start eating.”

    Roland grimaced as soon as he tasted the coffee. “What sort of shit is this?”

    “Finest Arabian blend from Ramadan,” Belinda said. Like the Scotch, it had to be imported to Earth and cost more money than anyone outside the nobility could easily afford. “And it will give you an energy boost.”

    “I want alcohol,” Roland insisted, flatly. “Get me a glass of the pink one.”

    It doesn't have a name? Belinda thought. “No,” she said, out loud. “You’ve drunk far too much already today.”

    Roland ate his way through the cereal, grumbling all the time. Belinda ignored the grumbles, knowing that hunger – a side-effect of the sober-up – would encourage him to eat. She’d picked the brand carefully; it was reasonably healthy, but it also tasted better than the cereal they’d been fed at Boot Camp, back when she’d first signed up with the Marine Corps. Who knew? Maybe Roland could develop a taste for healthy foodstuffs. Stranger things had happened.

    The door opened again, revealing a different maid carrying a plate of sloppy eggs, toast and several tiny bottles of sauce. Unlike the first maid, this one seemed eager to attract Roland’s attention, as if they were almost welcome. Belinda puzzled over it for a long moment before realising that if Roland kept her in his quarters, her superiors could hardly complain. Besides, if she did start a long-term affair with the Prince, it might lead to social promotion for her. Several minor noble families had started with someone who had been the Emperor’s mistress for a time.

    Belinda motioned for the maid to leave before anything could happen and watched with mild disgust as Roland slurped the eggs. His table manners were worse than those of raw recruits, even though as Emperor he would be hosting formal dinners. Clearly, no one had even bothered to teach him how to be a good little puppet. Sooner or later, someone would realise that they didn't need Roland at all.

    “I’ll have to get you an etiquette tutor,” she said, once Roland had finished. She’d been briefed on fitting into society on Han and a couple of other worlds, but Imperial City was a universe unto itself. “For the moment, you have a lot of work to do.”

    The Prince looked appalled. “Bitch,” he muttered.

    “Quite right,” Belinda agreed. “But it’s Drill Sergeant Nasty to you.”
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    Thus began the Unification Wars, which pitted the newborn Empire against much of the settled galaxy. We lack many details of what happened in the wars, but we do know that the Empire scored many successes - and that each success made it stronger. Further, those planetary systems that submitted quickly were allowed a degree of internal autonomy, as long as they did not seek to regain their independence.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    “Mandy would have loved this, you know?”

    “Don’t mention her name here,” Twilight advised. “You never know who might be listening.”

    Amethyst Winston shot her best friend a sharp look. Mandy Caesius had been her friend – had been their friend – until her father, a professor at Imperial University, had been fired under mysterious circumstances. Since then, she hadn’t heard anything from Mandy – and rumour had it that she’d been banished completely from the planet. What had her father done?

    She dismissed the thought as she caught sight of a pair of handsome boys from Social Studies class and smiled at them. They smiled back, clearly impressed with the amount of effort Amethyst had put into her appearance; her long brown hair drew attention to the shape of her body and the tight shirt she wore over her chest. Her mother wouldn’t have approved of her decision to leave the apartment without a bra, but it had definitely paid off. If only she’d been able to convince Twilight to follow suit. Both of the boys were definitely hunks and members of a particular society she wanted to join.

    “I’ll have the beefy one,” she muttered, keeping her eyes on the boys. “You can have the other one.”

    “You wish,” Twilight said. She ran a dark hand through her white hair. “He’s clearly paying more attention to me.”

    A dull gong sounded in the distance, drawing their attention towards the man standing on the podium. Imperial University was a hotbed of student dissent, at least partly because the tutors encouraged the students to join protests to boost their grades. Amethyst liked to think that she was there because she had considered the issues personally and decided where best to place her political support. The planned deployment to Albion was going to be stunningly expensive and that money could be better spent on Earth. Imperial University was permanently short of funds. Why, some of the students had actually had to withdraw because they couldn’t keep up the payments on their student loans.

    “They plan to deploy our fighting men to Albion, where they will loot, rape and murder their way through the population,” the man bellowed. Loudspeakers picked up his words and rebroadcast them over the throng, drowning out the chatter from thousands of throats. “Not content with laying waste to Han, they intend to do the same to Albion. Do we want to tolerate it?”

    NO,” the crowd roared back.

    Amethyst couldn't disagree. She had never met a single soldier in her life – it wasn't a respectable career for someone from Imperial City – but she had watched the news reports from Han, particularly the ones that they’d been warned not to watch without permission from their parents. The reports had been gruesome; by the time the fighting had ended, millions of people were dead, wounded or displaced from their homes. Wouldn't it have been simpler to simply let them go? It would certainly have been cheaper.

    “They tell us that this is for the good of the Empire,” the speaker bellowed. “But it is really for the good of the interstellar corporations! Who else benefited from Han? Who will benefit when Albion is ground into the dirt, its men killed, its women raped, it’s children rendered homeless? Who benefits? The corporations!”

    This time, the shouting was even louder. Many of the students had read the illicit pamphlets passed around by some of their tutors and student body organisers, all lambasting the planned deployment to Albion. Amethyst couldn’t disagree with their conclusions either. Albion merely wanted to exist without having to pay back impossible levels of debt to interstellar corporations. The deployment was intended to force them to pay. But Han had been hammered into the ground, leaving it even more incapable of paying its debts. Who had really benefited from the war? Even the corporations hadn't really gained anything, beyond displaying their willingness to send in the troops if their victims refused to pay.

    “That guy is definitely interested in me,” Twilight muttered, as the protesters finally started to march. “Look! They’re coming over to us?”

    Amethyst primped her hair quickly as the two boys joined them. Up close, they were definitely hunky, although the shorter one had the telltale signs of cosmetic surgery. It was commonplace in Imperial University, paid for out of university funds to boost student self-esteem; there were very few students who hadn't taken advantage of it.

    “Hey,” the unenhanced boy said. “Didn't you used to be Mandy’s friends?”

    Amethyst blinked in surprise. She hadn't expected them to ask about Mandy. The unenhanced boy might have been one of her boyfriends ... but if he was, surely he would have been given her call-code. But Mandy was gone.

    “Yeah,” Twilight said. “Who are you?”

    “Very rude boys,” the enhanced boy said. He chuckled and, after a moment, the others joined in. “I’m Tom. This is Richard.”

    “Pleased to meet you,” Amethyst said, holding Richard’s hand just long enough to convey interest. “How do you know Mandy?”

    “Now, that’s a long story,” Richard said. “How much of it do you want to hear?”

    The press of the crowd forced them to start walking, following the rest of the protesters towards the Imperial Palace and the Grand Senate. Someone at the front started a chant and the protesters took it up, bellowing their horror at the thought of more fighting towards the politicians in the government buildings. Outside the protest lines, crowds were forming to watch as they marched by.

    “All of it,” Amethyst said. She had to shout to be heard over the racket of the crowd. “What happened?”

    “I used to study under her father,” Richard said. “And then he was given the sack.”

    “That isn't a very long story,” Amethyst objected. “What else is there?”

    “Think about it,” Richard urged her. “How many professors do you know who have been given the sack without a public reason?”

    Amethyst blinked in surprise. She’d been a student at the university for three years – she was midway through her final term – and several professors had been fired, but always for reasons that had been publically admitted. At least three professors had been sacked for demanding sexual favours from their students and one more had been sacked for embezzling money from university funds ... yet none of them had tenure before they left. And they’d all deserved to go. Everyone had agreed on that, even the students who had earned better grades on their knees rather than at their computer terminals.

    So why had Professor Caesius been fired?

    Amethyst had never attended any of his lectures, but she had met him when she’d visited Mandy’s apartment and he’d seemed a nice guy, if somewhat henpecked by his wife and elder daughter. She couldn't recall any of the students complaining about him, apart from the standard complaints that they were actually expected to turn in essays on time – and most students could obtain an extension if they actually filed the request before hitting the deadline. But if he had done something wrong, why hadn't it been discussed?

    “I know the answer to that,” Richard told her. He reached into his pocket and produced a strip of paper, displaying the name of a nightclub near the university, only a few kilometres from the apartment she shared with Twilight and four others. Beneath the name, there was a time and a date. “If you come tonight, you will hear all about it.”

    “Oh,” Amethyst said, looking down at the strip of paper. It looked like a standard advertisement for a nightclub, apart from the absence of any special offers for students. She knew the club, but she’d never been there. Still, it was in a safe part of Imperial City. “I suppose we could come.”

    Richard gave her a smile that turned her legs to jelly and then walked off, out of the protest march. Amethyst watched him go and then turned to give her friend the thumbs up as the protestors finally reached the gate to the Grand Senate Hall. A handful of students were already advancing past the line drawn by the Civil Guard, ready to be arrested by prior arrangement. Nothing bad actually happened to them, Amethyst had been told, but it played well in the student papers. She watched a handful of young men and women being cuffed and led off towards a hover-wagon and then relaxed as more speakers appeared in front of the Senate Hall. They were Junior Senators, looking for re-election, ready to speak to the crowd if it would garner them a few more votes. Amethyst didn't bother to wait to hear what they had to say. Instead, she slipped out of the crowd and started to walk back towards the university. She was just in time to see the arrested protestors being released and given a gentle push towards the university.

    “Frauds,” Twilight muttered. She looked up at Amethyst. “Are you going to go to the nightclub?”

    “I guess so,” Amethyst said. Richard had been handsome – and he’d piqued her curiosity by talking about Mandy and her father. “Come on. We’ll get something to eat and then go study in the library for a few hours. It isn't that long until seven o’clock.”

    Night was falling over Imperial City as they reached the nightclub. It had apparently been booked by a private party, but Amethyst showed the slip to the guard and he pointed the two girls towards a narrow staircase leading up to a higher floor. When they reached the top, Amethyst was surprised to see a large room filled with sound equipment – and a dozen other students, standing in a line in front of a set of lockers.

    “Hi,” Richard said, coming over to greet them. “If you have any electronic devices at all, take them off and drop them in the lockers. Anything at all – handcoms, locators, computers, recorders ... take them off and put them in the lockers.”

    Amethyst blinked in surprise. “Why?”

    “Security,” Richard said, which explained nothing. “Or you can go, if you don’t want to comply. There isn’t a choice, I’m afraid.”

    Amethyst exchanged a long look with Twilight and then obeyed, removing her handcom from her belt and dropping it into the locker. Thankfully, her parents had decided that she was old enough not to have to wear a personal locator bracelet any longer. It had made her feel such a dork when she'd been a first-year student, unable to go to any of the more risqué nightclubs because she'd known that her parents would be instantly informed of their daughter’s activities. Twilight had been much luckier. She’d been legally emancipated from her parents since she’d turned fourteen.

    They finished filling the locker and closed it. Amethyst took the key and pocketed it, feeling oddly naked without the handcom. She didn't have the slightest idea how it worked beyond a few generalities, but she could use it to call her parents – or anyone else – in the solar system, even if there was a time delay if she wanted to call someone on Mars. Without it, she was isolated in a city with millions of residents, completely alone.

    “In here,” Richard called, waving them through a door. “Don’t worry. Everything in the lockers will be safe.”

    Inside, there was more sound equipment – she could feel a faint vibration from the dance hall below through the floor – and a man she didn't recognise, carrying a silver wand in his hand. He waved it over Amethyst’s body before she could object, then motioned for her to pass into the room. Everyone was checked, she realised, before the door was closed and locked. A moment later, Richard touched a button and she heard a faint sound in her inner ear. Judging from the number of people rubbing their ears, she wasn't the only one to hear the maddeningly faint sound.

    “The sound you hear is a modified anti-surveillance system,” Richard said, as he sat down on top of a giant speaker. “It isn't quite perfect, but anyone who tries to spy on our meeting will have some problems listening to us. We can speak freely here.”

    “We can speak freely,” a male student Amethyst didn't recognise said. “Just what the fuck is going on, dick-head?”

    “I’d like to make one other thing clear before we continue,” Richard continued, ignoring the interruption. “You may want to go no further with this after we explain – and we will allow you to leave – but you have to keep your mouths shut. If you decide to tell anyone without our express permission, you will be killed.”

    Amethyst gasped. She wasn't the only one.

    “This is deadly serious,” Richard said. His voice echoed around the silent room. “Our lives are at stake. So is everything else. If you want to leave, you can leave – but if you breathe one word of it to anyone, you will die.”

    He smiled, thinly. “If anyone wants to leave now,” he concluded, “the door is over there.”

    There was a long pause.

    “No one, then,” Richard said. “Good.”

    He stood up and clasped his hands together. “You all knew Professor Caesius or his daughter Mandy,” he said. “You should also know that the Professor was sacked from the University and then exiled from Earth to the Rim. What you will not know is why the Professor was sacked – or, for that matter, why Cindy Jefferson was expelled from the University on grounds of drug abuse and returned to her homeworld.”

    Amethyst gritted her teeth. Drug abuse was technically an offense against university regulations, but if the staff had expelled every student who had experimented with drugs – or become an addict – they wouldn't have had anyone left to teach. Expelling someone for that was almost unheard of. She’d never met Cindy Jefferson – had never even heard of her until the meeting – but she felt a moment of pity for the girl.

    “The question you should really ask,” Richard continued, “is what connects the two departures from the university.”

    He paused to allow them to wonder. “Cindy Jefferson asked the Professor a set of awkward questions about the Empire,” he said. “He discovered that he couldn't answer them. Instead of referring her to the computer files, he started to conduct his own independent research program, intent on writing a book himself. That book was submitted nine months ago – and both of them were expelled within two weeks.

    “The poor girl – Cindy Jackson - comes from Montana, a very straight-laced planet in the Edo Sector. A charge of drug abuse would be enough to blight her life after returning from Earth in disgrace. Certainly, no one would pay close attention to her – which is what the university staff wanted. Professor Caesius, on the other hand ... he was harder for them to deal with. Eventually, they arranged his exile. The question we must now ask is why. Why did they go to all this trouble?”

    He paced over to a cupboard and opened it, revealing a small stack of loosely-bound books. “The interesting thing about the planetary datanet is that the controllers can erase almost anything from the files,” he said, as he picked up the books. “If you happened to have a copy of a banned book on your private terminal, it would be erased after you hooked it into the datanet. But they can't erase a printed book unless they destroy every copy in existence.”

    Amethyst took the copy he passed her automatically. “This is what destroyed my tutor’s career,” Richard said, flatly. “Cindy Jefferson asked him about the true state of the Empire; Professor Caesius researched it and decided that the situation was far worse than we were led to believe. He wrote this book ... and his career was destroyed. And if any of you are caught with the book, your career as students will be over. At best, you will be expelled; at worst, you will be transported to a new colony world as an indentured colonist – a slave, in all but name.”

    “I ...” Twilight coughed and started again. “I’ve only got a few months of study left. I don’t want to be expelled.”

    “I don’t think that Cindy Jefferson wanted to be expelled either,” Richard said, dryly. “But tell me something. What are you going to be when you grow up?”

    Twilight scowled at him. “A sociologist,” she said, proudly. “My tutors say that I have real promise ...”

    “I bet they do,” Richard said. He tapped the book. “Have you looked at the employment figures – I mean, have you really looked at them?”

    He pressed on before Twilight could answer. “The figures have been carefully massaged,” he said. “The average employment rate for newly-qualified students is roughly five percent – that’s your chance of getting employed in any career. Even shitty jobs like working in bars and nightclubs – or even prostitution – are on the decline. And if you get lucky and you do get a job, you’ll lose eighty percent of what you earn in taxes and paying back your loan.”

    One of the other students interrupted. “And what if we don’t get a job?”

    “You sit in a shitty apartment eating shitty food and trying to die young,” Richard said. “And that’s the lucky outcome.”

    He looked around the room. “Take the books with you and read them,” he said. “Read it all; I’m afraid that there are no summaries, pre-written answers or anything other shortcuts for this book.” There were some nervous chuckles. “There’s a note in the back for how to leave us a message if you’re interested in joining us. If not ... well, no harm done, as long as you keep your mouths shut.”

    Amethyst felt her head spinning as they were gently urged out of the room. She wasn't sure what she’d expected, but it hadn't been what they’d received. Richard had made his speech, given them the book and then ... left them to decide what to do on their own. That wasn't common at Imperial University.

    There was only one thing for it, she decided, as she shoved the book into her bag. She’d have to read it for herself.
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    You're welcome!

  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    It might have remained stable indefinitely if the first Emperor hadn't made a dangerous mistake. Elections to the Senate were determined by population size: Earth, with a population in the billions, was entitled to elect no less than 100 Senator and 10 Grand Senators. Many of the other long-settled worlds were heavily populated themselves. The newer colony worlds, however, rarely qualified to have a Senator, let alone a Grand Senator. This left them at a major disadvantage in the political arena.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    “Remind me,” Colonel Chung Myung-Hee said, as she stepped up behind Jeremy. “Why are we supposed to defend these people again?”

    Jeremy gave her an icy look. Marines – and other military officers and men – couldn't question their responsibilities. Their duty was to defend the Empire and that included the ignorant young students thronging through the streets below, protesting the military’s planned deployment to Albion. It was clear from their own statements that they knew almost nothing about what was really going on, although their narrative did have the advantage of being simpler than the truth. Blaming everything on evil interstellar corporations seemed to make more sense than the fact that if Albion left the Empire, other protective parts of the interstellar economy would leave as well.

    The irony would have been amusing, if it hadn’t been so sad. He didn't want to send Marines to Albion, but for different reasons. And the negotiations with the Grand Senate had not been productive.

    “They have a right to protest,” he said, finally. But did they, really? All protests had to be cleared in advance with the Civil Guard and a protest that touched on a truly sensitive issue would never be allowed to get off the ground. If the protesters had started raging about the Grand Senate’s political leadership being firmly entrenched, with elections nothing more than a joke, he doubted it would have been long before the Civil Guard was ordered to move in and crush the protestors, exiling them to a newly-settled world as indents. Let them protest thousands of light years from Earth.

    “I’d be more impressed if they actually spent their time in university learning,” Chung said, tartly. “How many of those students down there are failing remedial arithmetic?”

    Jeremy shrugged. The Empire handed out handcoms and pocket terminals to its children, without seeming to demand anything in return. But using the devices left them ignorant of the basics of mathematics or handwriting – or, for that matter, how the devices actually worked. They were never taught how to produce their own, or even to repair them if they broke down. The students were kept in ignorance without ever truly realising it. Their tutors didn't help. If they couldn’t find the answers in a computer file, the answers might as well not exist.

    He wasn't being completely fair to the tutors, he knew, or to the students. Some of them did manage a fairly good education, if they had the drive to learn by the time they reached university. Most students were content to absorb their tutor’s words without bothering to actually think about them, or anything else. If the protestors down below had been capable of thinking critically, they might have noticed that their list of demands was contradictory and their own narrative was confusing as well as inaccurate.

    “I would hate to guess,” he said, and turned away from the window. The remainder of his inner council were already seated in front of his desk. “I was negotiating with the Grand Senate about the planned deployment.”

    “You poor bastard,” Colonel Gerald Anderson said. “What did they have to say for themselves?”

    Jeremy scowled at him. It was hard to blame anyone for speaking disrespectfully of the Grand Senate, but it was a bad habit as well as being bad for discipline. The Grand Senate were the lords and masters of the Empire, no matter how self-serving and grasping they were. And the Marine Corps was sworn to uphold the Empire.

    “They’ve agreed to cut the number of Marines redeployed from Earth to Albion,” Jeremy said. He couldn't help smiling at the look of relief on Anderson’s face. “However, they have insisted on making up the numbers by stripping Marine platoons out of Home Fleet and redeploying them to the expeditionary force.”

    There was a long pause as that sank in. One of their duties was to provide troops for capital starships who could serve as a boarding and internal security force – and a police force, if the shit hit the fan and the crew mutinied against their commander. Ideally, a platoon of Marines should be deployed to any ship heavier than a light cruiser, but there just weren’t enough Marines to go around. Home Fleet had over two thousand Marines scattered over five hundred starships. Other fleets and tasks forces had to make do with fewer Marines, if they had any at all.

    “That might not be a bad idea,” Anderson said, reluctantly. “It isn't as if Home Fleet is expected to go into battle any time soon.”

    Jeremy nodded. Home Fleet wasn't expected to do more than look intimidating – which was fortunate, as the fleet wasn't in good shape. The starships had been allowed to decay, while crewmen had been reassigned to other units – or encouraged not to waste money on basic maintenance. Officially, there was nothing wrong with Home Fleet and it was ready for deployment at a moment’s notice; unofficially, Jeremy would have been surprised if the fleet could have been redeployed in less than five years. The starship hulls were intact, but everything else had been allowed to wear down until it was no longer reliable.

    “But the crews are not happy,” Chung said, into the silence. “They’re spending half of their time drunk, or cursing the payment delays – when their superiors haven’t stolen their salaries outright. The fleet may need the Marines to help keep order.”

    “Civil Guard units will be redeployed to pick up the slack,” Jeremy said. “Or so I have been told.”

    Anderson barked a harsh humourless laugh. The Civil Guard provided military police units when troops and spacers were on shore leave, but they were very unpopular and tended to suffer accidents when no senior officers were looking. Even Marines sometimes joined in the contest to see how many helmets they could steal off the Civil Guardsmen who were supposed to be supervising them. And that was on the ground or a large orbital station. Putting the Civil Guard on starships was asking for trouble.

    Jeremy had been a Major during a deployment where Civil Guard units from one world had been rushed to another to provide additional numbers to keep the peace. The experience had been hellish; the Civil Guardsmen hadn't been trained for operations in space and several managed to kill themselves by accident. He still had nightmares about the officer who had proposed, in all seriousness, that opening both airlock doors at once would make disembarking much easier – and started directing engineering teams to do just that before Jeremy caught him. And that had been on a troopship. Who knew what would happen to the Civil Guard when they were deployed to a battleship?

    If there isn't a mutiny planned already, he thought, one will be planned once the crews realise that the Guardsmen are likely to get them all killed.

    Anderson put his thoughts into words. “How many crews are they prepared to lose?”

    “Apparently, the Guardsmen will be intensely supervised,” Jeremy admitted. He wouldn’t have put money on it succeeding. Civil Guard officers tended to treat everyone else as the enemy, even people who were trying to help them. “However, that isn't our problem.”

    “We need more Marines,” Anderson said. “Can we not launch another recruiting drive?”

    “We don’t have the funds,” Jeremy reminded him. Even if they had the funds, it wouldn't have been simple to expand the yearly intake of new recruits. Marine Boot Camps were the harshest in the Empire, deliberately so, and plenty of prospective candidates were weeded out before they were assigned to the Slaughterhouse. “And besides, we’d have to drop our standards to bring more recruits to the Slaughterhouse.”

    Anderson made a face. The Civil Guard’s standards were so low that they might as well not exist. Marine Intelligence had once conducted a survey and discovered that at least ten percent of Civil Guard recruits in any given year had criminal records, some of them quite serious. At least that wasn't a problem on Earth, where almost all criminals were exiled to a new colony world as soon as they were caught. Other recruits had drug problems, or medical conditions ... only a handful could really be considered decent recruits.

    The Imperial Navy and Army had the same problem. They were so desperate for recruits that standards had been allowed to slip. At least the Army had a hard core of NCOs who were capable of bashing young recruits into shape, if they were allowed to do their job. Failure to push enough recruits through the training camps would reflect badly on them and their superiors, who were little more than bureaucratic beancounters, wouldn't understand their position. How could they?

    “It is going to get worse,” he continued. “From what they were saying, both the Trafalgar and Midway fleet bases are going to be shut down within the next six months. The Empire will effectively abandon its authority over at least three sectors, simply because we don’t have the funds to maintain the bases.”

    “They want to preserve the more developed worlds,” Chung said. “I don't think it will work.”

    Jeremy couldn't disagree. The Core Worlds weren't in much better shape than Earth, while the Inner World’s deeply resented the Grand Senate’s economic dominance. Indeed, the underground economy was far more efficient than the official economy – and people were noticing. Marine Intelligence suggested that several entire sectors were slowly slipping out of the Grand Senate’s control. No wonder they were so determined to make an example out of Albion. Failure to keep one sector in the Empire would result in others slipping out of their grasp and forming their own economic alliances.

    And if the price for maintaining control over the productive worlds was abandoning the colonies along the Rim, well ... you couldn't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

    Jeremy could imagine the chaos spreading across the Rim as the Empire withdrew its remaining ships and men. HE3 supplies would come to a halt, forcing the colonists back on more primitive sources of power. Some of the luckier worlds would be able to set up their own cloudscoops, while others would have no choice but to become farming worlds. They’d survive – the standard settlement procedure was to ensure that each new colony could feed itself without needing food from outside – but life would become much harder for a very long time. Few colony worlds would be able to return to space in the lifetimes of anyone who remembered the Empire.

    But there would be other dangers. The Empire had driven thousands of discontented factions out of settled space, out beyond the Rim. Those factions would start probing back into the abandoned sectors, rapidly discovering that there was nothing left that could oppose them. They’d have a chance to build empires of their own ...

    He shook his head, pushing the thought aside. “I’ll have to send a message – and a promotion – to Captain Stalker,” he said, bitterly. “They didn't want to send a ship to Avalon.”

    “Sir ...” Anderson started to protest. “We don’t leave men behind!”

    “I know,” Jeremy said. Marines didn't leave their own behind – and if a Marine died on the battlefield, his brethren would do everything in their power to recover his body and transport it to the Slaughterhouse for burial. Abandoning an entire unit on a distant colony world went against everything the Marines stood for, but there was no choice. There wouldn't be any recovery mission to Avalon.

    “Surely we could just send one ship,” Green said. “It wouldn't even have to be a long mission ...”

    “Apparently not,” Jeremy said. He slapped the table before anyone else could speak. “I am aware of the ... betrayal and I have argued as strongly as I could with the planners. They are not going to arrange a starship to pick up Stalker’s Stalkers and that is final.”

    There were other considerations, he knew. Captain Stalker – he’d have to put the paperwork through to promote him to Colonel – had enough supplies to build Avalon into a first-rank world ... given enough time without interference. They'd have to beat the insurgents on Avalon first, but Jeremy had read the file carefully and concluded that at least half of the insurgency would be willing to come to an agreement with the Marines. Ironically, the Empire’s decision to abandon the sector would work in Stalker’s favour. The insurgents wouldn't find it so easy to blame their woes on distant Earth when the Grand Senate had washed its hands of them.

    “I think that we should re-examine the decision to pull Marines off the capital ships and away from Earth,” Chung said, changing the subject. “Marine Intelligence has been unable to follow all of the convoluted bargaining in the Senate, but it seems likely that some kind of deal was struck.”

    “Undoubtedly,” Jeremy said. He’d puzzled over that himself. Logically, the last place the Grand Senate should want any kind of major explosion was Earth. “But then, they do want to win quickly on Albion – if it comes down to a fight.”

    “It will,” Anderson predicted, grimly. “They have the choice between fighting or submitting to crushing economic demands from Earth, as well as rendering themselves helpless in the future. I think they’ll fight. And their Civil Guard is untrustworthy.”

    “You mean it may be loyal to Albion rather than to the Empire,” Chung said. She looked over at Jeremy. “Intelligence tends to agree, sir. The Albion Civil Guard will be on the opposite side, as will the planet’s defences. I don’t think that the deployment force will be allowed to land peacefully.”

    Jeremy nodded. Marines were hard to kill on the ground, but they were as vulnerable as anyone else on starships and assault shuttles. An entire platoon could be wiped out by a HVM that took out their shuttle, unless they managed to bail out in time. God knew that enough brave Marines had died during the hastily-improvised attack on Nova Taipei on Han, when there had been no time to soften up the enemy’s defences. Albion might not have the population of Han, but it did have the technology to be an order of magnitude worse for the newcomers. The invaders, as the locals would see them.

    Albion was required, like all of the Inner Worlds, to pay for its own defences and Civil Guard. Unsurprisingly, the planet’s defenders were loyal to the planet rather than the Empire – and why not, when the Empire had been draining their planet’s resources ever since day one? The Grand Senate’s persistent ‘clarifications’ of Imperial Law had made millions of enemies in the Inner Worlds, particularly when they blatantly overrode rights granted to the Inner Worlds by the First Emperor. Jeremy knew that the Grand Senate had sacrificed long-term stability in favour of short-term gain. He didn't know if the Grand Senate knew it too.

    “It is unlikely,” he said, finally. “And if the fighting does spread out of control, we might see other uprisings in the Inner Worlds. There just aren’t enough military units to run around on fireman duty.”

    He scowled as he looked down at the ancient desk. It was a simple rule of insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare that the longer it took to respond to an insurgency, the harder it was to put the insurgency down. The insurgents would have time to strengthen their position, recruit openly and link up with others who had the same complaints against the occupying power. If Albion inspired other Inner Worlds to rebel, the Empire would take months to respond ... and by then it might be too late. On paper, the Inner Worlds wouldn't stand a chance; they would be massively outgunned. In practice ...

    ... The fighting might tear the Empire apart.

    “Maybe they should redeploy Home Fleet,” Anderson suggested. “A few units in each of the Inner World systems might cool their tempers.”

    “Or it might push them into open revolt,” Chung countered. “Besides, how long would it take to redeploy Home Fleet?”

    Jeremy nodded. “That isn't our problem at the moment,” he said, standing up. “All we can do is try to keep the lid on and pray.”

    He watched them leave his office, then turned and walked back to the window. The protesters below were finally dispersing, having made their point – a point that Jeremy knew would be ignored. The Empire couldn't avoid responding to the crisis on Albion, no matter what the protesters thought. Besides, what did the Grand Senate care about the opinion of a bunch of ignorant students?

    Perhaps we should have recruited more on campus, he thought, sourly. It had certainly been proposed, years ago, but there was a ban on attempting to recruit students. They were allowed to walk into the recruiting offices and sign up, if they knew that the recruiting office even existed, yet they had to discover it on their own. The Marines weren't allowed to help them locate the office, let alone try to convince them that there was a genuine career in the military waiting for anyone with the determination to seize it.

    But it wasn't too surprising. After all, the Grand Senate didn't want the Civil Guard having too many connections to the students. One day, the Guard might have to crush them ... and they wouldn't want sentiment getting in the way.

    Bastards, Jeremy said, as he walked towards the door. His next appointment was in ninety minutes, just long enough for him to work off some frustration in the shooting range. Maybe then he’d feel better ...

    ... But the true condition of the Empire wouldn't just go away.
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    This combined with another major mistake to produce a highly dangerous situation. In order to fund the war, the Emperor had to make deals with various interstellar corporations, granting them future concessions that would be redeemed after the end of the war. These corporations allied with the Core Worlds and used their voting blocks to push through legislation that benefited them - and exploited the newer colonies.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    “This is torture,” Roland protested. “I’ll have you flogged! And then I’ll have you ...”

    Belinda rolled her eyes at the young prince as he lay on the examination table. A quick check had revealed that the medical staff assigned to the Summer Palace were not expected to do anything more than basic treatment, so she’d had to call in a specialist from the Marine Corps infirmary to examine Roland’s condition. It had taken days to convince Hicks and Singh to allow Doctor Thorn to enter the Summer Palace; both of them, for different reasons, had been reluctant to allow another outsider into their domain. Belinda had finally resorted to threatening to bring the whole matter to the attention of the Grand Senate, which had convinced them to change their minds.

    “You should see what young recruits go through,” she said, although – to be fair – the examination procedure for new recruits was fairly basic. Boot Camp took everyone who met the minimum requirements and then put them through hell. Those who were overweight were streamlined into sections where they would lose weight and bulk up their muscles before rejoining the other recruits. “This isn't so bad.”

    Roland’s face twisted unpleasantly. “You could at least hold my hand,” he said, crossly. “I can feel the machines inside me.”

    “I highly doubt it, young man,” Doctor Thorn said. He had been one of the finest medical corpsmen in the Marine Corps before he’d suffered a nasty injury that had taken him out of the front lines for good. Serving on Earth just wasn't the same, even if he was helping to develop the next generation of military medical facilities. “The nanites are so tiny that they can pass through the cells of your body without resistance.”

    “I can feel them,” Roland insisted. He sounded as though he were on the edge of panic. “They’re there!”

    Belinda wasn't too surprised. Other Marines had reported the same sensation, at least when they'd known that there were nanites pervading their bodies. It was psychometric, according to the headshrinkers, but that didn't stop it seeming real. Besides, her augmentation was designed to pick up on and counter unwanted intruders in her body.

    “Don’t worry about it,” she said, reaching out to squeeze his hand. In many ways, Roland was still an immature child, someone who needed a father figure in his life. But all he had were the Grand Senators, who wanted to use him, and servants who had to do as he said. It wasn't a healthy combination. “Besides, it will all be over soon.”

    Thorn held a scanner against Roland’s head for a long moment, then moved it down his chest, over the groin and down between his legs. “The procedure is nearly complete,” he assured the young prince. “And the rest of it won’t hurt at all.”

    “Good,” Roland said. “Can I sit up now?”

    “Just a few more moments,” Thorn said. “Let me recover the nanites first.”

    Belinda used her implants to call a maid and order a glass of orange juice for the prince as Thorn removed the nanomachines, then the sensors he had affixed to Roland’s body. The prince really didn't know how lucky he was, she considered. On the Slaughterhouse, the medical examinations were much more intrusive – and the process for inserting Pathfinder implants better left forgotten. Some recruits never woke up after the procedure, or so she had been told. It was quite possible that they’d been streamlined into units that the rest of the Corps didn't know existed.

    “All done,” Thorn said, cheerfully snapping a glove. “You can sit up now.”

    “And drink this,” Belinda said, passing Roland the glass of orange juice. “You may feel somewhat dehydrated.”

    Roland sipped it quickly, surprisingly.

    “I’ll process the results now,” Thorn said. He’d been warned that everything he needed to do would have to be done inside the Summer Palace. The complete medical records for the prince could not be allowed to become public. “I should have a breakdown for you in an hour.”

    “Good,” Belinda said. She took the glass back from Roland and placed it on a table for the maid to recover later. “Come on, Your Highness. You need a nap after that tiring experience.”

    Roland gave her a sharp look, probably suspecting – correctly – that he was being mocked, then stood up and followed her out of the medical centre. A handful of staff outside bowed low as soon as they saw him and remained that way until he had walked past them, something that made Belinda feel an eerie chill running down the back of her neck. What sort of person would Roland become if everyone prostrated themselves in front of him? She looked at the prince’s back and suspected that she knew the answer.

    His quarters had been cleaned by the maids in their absence, following orders that Belinda had given to them personally. The alcoholic drinks and drugged snacks had been removed and replaced by fresh juice and healthier energy snacks. Roland would no doubt complain about Slaughterhouse Chocolate – as the Marines called the energy bar – but he’d learn to like it. After all, the new recruits learned to like it too. The maids had also vacuumed the floor, scrubbed the walls and filtered the air. It no longer stank of drugged smoke.

    It can't be good for anyone breathing in that muck, she thought, as she watched Roland carefully. Would he even notice? Her own augmentations filtered out the smoke, but others wouldn't be so lucky. Even Roland wasn't immune to long-term exposure. We need to move him to a chamber with proper air circulation ...

    Roland yawned as soon as Belinda closed the door. “You’re right,” he said, as he walked over to the bedroom. “I do need a nap. Would you care to join me?”

    Belinda was only surprised that it had taken him so long to make the pass – and that it wasn’t particularly crude. But she couldn't go to bed with him, even if she had wanted to. If she was to do anything for him, she had to be his tutor as well as his bodyguard – and sex would destroy that relationship. And besides, she simply didn't find Roland attractive.

    “No,” she said, firmly. “You need to actually sleep.”

    “But you could at least tuck me in,” Roland whined, mischievously. “I’m only sixteen ...”

    “But mentally three,” Belinda said. She followed him into the bedroom and watched without surprise as he threw himself on the bed without bothering to undress. That was something else that would have to be cured, given time. Roland definitely needed an etiquette tutor if he was to start hosting dinners after his coronation. “Close your eyes and go to sleep.”

    She’d watched over her younger brother when she’d had trouble sleeping and, in some ways, Roland reminded her of her brother. But then, Grey had learned to take care of himself rapidly, just like the rest of her family. Farming, hunting, shooting, even basic education ... they’d learned it from their father. Roland had never had a real father figure in his life.

    Roland tossed and turned for several minutes before finally falling asleep. Belinda listened carefully to his breathing until she was convinced that he would remain sleeping for several hours – she’d had to crawl through occupied bedrooms in the past, back before Han – and then stood up, walking soundlessly out of the room. The Prince’s suite was completely soundproof, she’d discovered while reviewing the files. She carefully closed the door behind her, ordered the local processor to inform her if there were any problems, then started to walk back down towards the medical centre. Thorn was waiting for her there.

    “The good news,” he said, as soon as the door was locked and a counter-surveillance field was in place, “is that there isn't any permanent damage. The bad news is that he will have to work hard to reinvigorate his body.”

    Belinda sat down. “Give me the basics,” she said. She’d learned more about battlefield medicine than she’d ever wanted to know, but Roland’s condition was more subtle than bullet wounds and lost limbs. “What is happening to him?”

    “His bloodline was genetically enhanced from very early on,” Thorn said. “That was far from uncommon in the early days of the Empire; everyone who could afford it spliced basic improvements into their DNA, particularly the improved disease resistance that saved countless lives on various colony worlds. Much of the early work was hackwork by our standards, but it proved remarkably stable. And what didn’t prove stable was easily handled by later geneticists.”

    Belinda nodded. Genetic engineering tended to cause unintended consequences that manifested several generations down the line, no matter how much care was put into developing the procedure. There were always surprises when modified DNA interacted with unmodified DNA or DNA that had been modified in a different way. But most issues could be nipped in the bud before they caused real problems – or so she had been assured. Some planets were still suffering from unintended consequences that had gone too far to be stopped easily.

    “However, he really has been pushing his body too far,” Thorn continued. “Any unenhanced person who had drunk as much alcohol as him would be dead by now, probably of liver failure. That doesn't include the drugs, which would probably have had a similar effect – overall, he’s damn lucky to have had such limited side-effects. Right now, my very strong advice would be to prevent him from drinking alcohol or taking any more drugs at all, even for ... medical purposes.”

    Belinda narrowed her eyes. “Medical purposes?”

    “I found traces of Long Pole and Never End in his bloodstream,” Thorn said. “He overdosed on them too.”

    “Crap,” Belinda said. “Who prescribed them for him?”

    “His medical files are poorly maintained,” Thorn said. “I intend to have a few words with the doctors here, but for the moment I just don’t know.”

    Belinda cursed out loud, drawing up words she’d learned from the Drill Instructors who’d berated her and the other recruits on her first day. Long Pole and Never End were both designed to prolong and increase orgasm in men; as such, they were immensely popular, but also heavily restricted. Using them too often could produce nasty side effects, even assuming that the medicine had been produced properly. Earth’s productive facilities, she had been warned, had developed the habit of cutting corners where possible. God alone knew what was in some of the vials that were handed out to Earth’s citizens. Even the Grand Senators had to be careful – or import their medical supplies from off-world.

    “But he did make a pass at me,” she said, finally. “Erectile dysfunction doesn't seem to be one of his problems.”

    “It will be, if he keeps abusing the drugs,” Thorn told her, bluntly. “And it is quite possible that they will have affected his fertility. He may not be able to have children, at least not naturally. That ... will cause him problems when he is crowned Emperor.”

    “Yeah,” Belinda said. “It will.”

    There was no reason why the Empress – whoever she ended up being – couldn't transfer her child from her womb to an artificial birthing matrix, or even having the child conceived without ever having to have sex with the Emperor ... apart from tradition. The Crown Prince had always been grown in his mother’s womb. It was tradition and could therefore not be gainsaid by mere mortals. Belinda suspected that many of the upper-class girls who might have been considered suitable candidates for becoming Empress would become reluctant to marry Roland if they realised that they would be expected to carry their child to term personally. After all, that was what lower-class women did.

    And what would happen if the Emperor was impotent? Science could provide a solution, but would it be accepted by the Empire? Tradition was important, particularly when not adhering to tradition would give the Grand Senate an excuse to refuse to recognise the new son as Crown Prince. Had any other Emperors been impotent? Belinda couldn't remember, but suspected that the records would never have admitted the truth. The Royal Family wouldn't want anything to occur that called the legitimacy of their children into question.

    “Apart from that, most of his muscles have decayed to some extent,” Thorn said. “Thankfully, his enhancements prevented it from becoming too dangerous, but he will require a long program of physical exercise to get him back into an acceptable state of health. Right now, he gets tired easily and has problems concentrating on anything for more than a few minutes. Notice how quick he was to demand to be allowed to sit up.”

    Belinda sighed. “What about his state of mind?”

    “Spoilt brat,” Thorn said, shortly. “I’m surprised you needed me to tell you that.”

    He shrugged. “We generally find that Boot Camp sorts the men out from the boys,” he added, as Belinda scowled at him. “But in the Prince’s case, expelling him from the camp isn't an option. There isn’t another heir, is there?”

    Belinda shook her head. The Empire had run into problems when there were two competing princes who both wanted to be crowned Emperor. Eventually, the Royal Family had stopped having sons after the Crown Prince was born, although as women were not eligible for the throne there was no shortage of royal daughters – and their descendents. Right now, she had no idea who had the best claim to the throne after Roland – and the blood claim would probably be overridden by the Grand Senate when it chose the next candidate. It made her head hurt just thinking of it.

    “Overall, give him firm treatment and see how he responses,” Thorn advised. “If there’s something worth saving inside, he should respond well to common sense and discipline. If it’s too late to save him from the effects of his mistreatment, you might want to consider deserting and fleeing to the Rim.”

    Belinda snorted, rudely.

    “Health-wise, make sure he eats properly and gets plenty of exercise,” he continued. “You can probably encourage him to go onto the playing courts if you tried; most young men are intensely competitive if they think they can win. You’ll have to step down a level or two, but don’t just let him win.”

    “True,” Belinda said. If she couldn't beat Roland at any physical game, all of her expensive augmentation would have been thoroughly wasted. But Thorn was right. Roland would learn nothing from her steamrolling him into the ground every time they played tennis or badminton. She’d have to hold back without making it obvious that she was holding back. “Anything else?”

    “I’d recommend him having physical examinations at least once a month,” Thorn said. “I don’t think that he’s physically addicted to anything, but his system may have built up a need for the drugs anyway. If he shows anything more than very basic withdrawal symptoms, call me at once and make sure the guards know to let me through the perimeter at once.”

    “I’d prefer to keep you here,” Belinda admitted.

    “A fate worse than death,” Thorn countered. “Although I do want to have a few words with the doctors here ... and perhaps meet them out back with a baseball bat. Call themselves doctors? Ha!”

    “Have fun,” Belinda said. She could understand the doctors being reluctant to take responsibility for Roland’s welfare, not least because of all the drugs and alcohol, but it was their damn job. “If you have any other suggestions, feel free to send them to me.”

    “Watch your back,” Thorn advised. “I have a feeling that you’ve put quite a few noses out of joint already.”

    Belinda shrugged and stood up. “Send me a copy of your complete report,” she ordered, finally. “And make sure that no other copies leave the building.”

    “Then don’t give it to the Civil Guard,” Thorn said. “If you do, we might as well upload it to the datanet and save time.”

    Shaking her head, Belinda left the medical centre and walked back to the Prince’s suite, letting herself into the main room. A quick glance through the security sensors in the bedroom revealed that Roland was still asleep, although he had moved since she’d left. Sleeping so irregularly wasn't good for anyone, she reminded herself, even though she’d slept irregularly when she'd been on active duty.

    Silly girl, she thought she heard Doug said. You ARE on active duty and don’t you forget it.

    Sitting down in the chair, Belinda closed her eyes and started to access the security network, checking it out section by section. It seemed to have been programmed to keep out anyone without the proper codes, but it didn't take her long to find a handful of unlocked nodes, allowing someone to slip inside. Carelessness ... or malice? There was no way to know. At least there didn't seem to be any outside connections at all, even to the planetary datanet. An intruder would have to be inside the palace before he could use the unlocked nodes.

    They’ll have to be closed, she thought, and made a mental note to have the Civil Guard see to it. And then to check it herself, just in case. Hicks might decide to be obstructive. Again.

    Accessing the housekeeping part of the network, she started to issue orders. By the time Roland woke up, she would be ready for him. He wouldn't know what had hit him until it was too late to object.

    I’ll make a man of you yet, she thought, and settled down to rest.
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    Such a development should not have been surprising. Running for election on Earth was expensive. Corporations had the cash to buy prospective candidates - and, to a very large extent, controlled the media in the Core Worlds. Over hundreds of years, the political and corporate class merged together, creating a power and patronage bloc that was impossible to unseat legally. Independent candidates were mocked, pressured and had their private lives torn apart and used as ammunition. Those who were selected by the machine were cosseted and propelled into office. The true surprise is that a handful of independents did succeed in being elected.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    Roland woke up four hours after going to sleep, his fancy suit looking crumpled and worn after he’d slept in it. Belinda, alerted by the security sensors, was at his bedside before he was fully awake. If he believed that she’d been there all the time, so much the better.

    “What ... what time is it?”

    “Four o’clock in the afternoon,” Belinda said, patiently. “The maids have already prepared your lunch.”

    “I must have overslept,” Roland said.

    Belinda snorted in amusement and helped him to his feet, then followed him out of the bedroom into the dining room. Four sealed containers had been placed in front of the sole chair, which Belinda opened as Roland sat down. It had taken some arguing to convince the cooks to produce an extremely healthy as well as tasty meal, but she'd finally succeeded by threatening to bring in cooks from the Boot Camp on Mars. Book Camp cooks had a reputation for having the hardest MOS in the Empire. It must be; no one had ever passed the test at the end. Or so the Marines joked.

    “Oh,” Roland said. “What is it?”

    “Food,” Belinda said, dryly. The smell was better than she’d expected, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten for hours herself. Her augmentation could keep her going for days without food and drink, but that was never a very pleasant experience. “And an energy drink to build up your strength.”

    “You know you’re going to hate it when they won't tell you what it is,” Roland grumbled, as he lifted his fork and picked up some of the rice. “I thought the chefs knew what I liked to eat.”

    “And I told them to cook what you needed to eat,” Belinda said, bluntly. Honestly, it was like talking to a five-year-old kid. “Besides, you should try it before you throw it back in disgust.”

    She watched in some amusement as Roland took a bite – and then started shovelling it into his mouth as quickly as possible. The food was not only tasty, but laced with appetite enhancers to encourage the eaters to take as much as possible. She’d learned at Boot Camp that you could eat more food and like it – even if you normally hated it – as long as you were hungry enough. The food was also laced with supplements to help his body repair itself.

    “More juice,” he grumbled, as he opened the sealed bottle. “What happened to the glasses?”

    “I had no idea when you were going to wake up,” Belinda said. “So I ordered” – she stressed the word deliberately – “the cooks to prepare the meal and then leave it here for you to wake. And the juice is good for you too.”

    “I need a drink,” Roland said. He meant alcohol. “I really need a drink.”

    “You don’t need alcohol at all,” Belinda said, flatly. “Your health is not in a good state right now.”

    Roland glared at her. “And you know this because?”

    Belinda ticked off points on her fingers as she spoke. “First, you’re about twenty to thirty percent underweight for your size and age, which is worrying,” she said. “Second, you have been damaging your internal organs through excessive alcohol and drug use. Third, you have developed eating habits that have been utterly unhealthy for you. Fourth ...”

    She broke off and smiled at him. “Is there any need to go on?”

    “I’m going to be the Emperor,” Roland said. The absolute confidence in his voice was disturbing, even if it was partly justified. “Do I need to be healthy?”

    “Yes,” Belinda said, flatly. “As Emperor, you will be the number one target for every terrorist group in the entire Empire. I checked the records; hundreds of assassination plots have been stopped before they even penetrated the secure perimeter protecting you, but there were millions of threats. Your life is in danger – it started from the moment you were born.”

    “But I have you to look after me,” Roland whined. “And I have the guards ...”

    “I may be killed first,” Belinda said. “Or they may contrive to separate us. Besides, a healthy body will improve your life in other respects. You won’t need the Long Pole any longer.”

    Roland looked sullen. “How did you know about that?”

    “It showed up on the medical exam,” Belinda said, sarcastically. “And if you’re taking it in such quantities, you’re putting your life in danger. Live healthier and you won’t need it at your age.”

    She watched as he finished eating his food. The cooks had advised her that Roland rarely ate his plate clean, no matter how much food was wasted, but this time he’d finished everything, even the plain rice. He looked surprised at his own appetite, just like many other recruits, the ones who had to be taught to be careful how much they ate. Eating too much before physical exercise could be dangerous.

    “Come on,” she said, and led the way back into the bedroom, picking up the clothes the maids had produced as she passed through the living room. “You need to get dressed; I’ll get changed outside.”

    Roland stared at her. “What are we going to do?”

    “I believe that your family has a long tradition of playing tennis,” Belinda said. She'd looked it up and Roland’s great-great-great grandfather had actually rewarded anyone who could beat him with a thousand credits. He hadn't had to pay out very often; the files had stated that he could have played professionally, if he hadn't been Emperor. “You’re going to start playing with me.”

    “But ...”

    “No buts,” Belinda said, firmly. “It's time to take some exercise.”

    She walked out of the door, leaving the prince to get dressed. Her own shorts and shirt were waiting for her – the maids had produced them at her request – and she donned them quickly. She’d ordered something modest, she realised as she glanced in the mirror, but Imperial City’s definition of modest was clearly different to Greenway’s. Her shirt was alarmingly tight around her breasts and her shorts showed off too much of her legs.

    Maybe it will encourage him, she thought, sourly.

    Roland’s eyes went wide when she tapped on the door and let herself back into his bedroom. He’d changed quicker than she’d expected, she was relieved to see, although it was alarmingly clear that he wasn't healthy at all. His skin was alarmingly pale and his arms looked flaccid, with hardly any muscle tone at all. He was going to have to work hard to develop his potential, she reminded herself. She would have to keep pushing him until he developed the self-discipline to do it for himself.

    “You ... you’re beautiful,” he stammered.

    Belinda ignored him. “You know the way to the gardens,” she said. Unsurprisingly, the Prince had his own private passageway down to the gardens. “Lead the way.”

    She followed Roland down the passageway, carefully checking the security precautions as they passed. None of them seemed insecure, but the absence of live guards worried her, if only because she knew that a prepared infiltration team could spoof them, given enough advance preparation. On the other hand, live guards could be bribed or simply killed ...

    Maybe we should see if we could move Roland to the Slaughterhouse, she though, grimly. We have complete control there.

    But she knew that the Grand Senate would never agree.

    Bright sunlight struck her as they reached the end of the passageway and stepped out onto the grounds. A large tennis court, surprisingly simple even though it belonged to the Emperor, lay right in front of them, surrounded by trees that had been preserved even as the rest of Earth slowly died. Earth’s biosphere had proven stronger than almost every alien biosphere in the Empire, displacing or exterminating the natives on most settled worlds, but it was losing on Earth. Humanity’s carelessness had destroyed its own homeworld.

    “I used to look at that needle,” Roland said. For once, he didn't sound whiny or irritated. “I used to think that I could climb up it and escape.”

    Belinda nodded as she followed his gaze. The orbital tower was hundreds of miles away, visible only as a silvery thread that caught and reflected the light pouring down from high overhead. It was easy to forget that it was massive, nearly five kilometres in diameter, easily the largest engineering project in humanity’s history. No other world in the Empire boasted anything more complex than a space elevator or a skyhook.

    “Millions of people live there,” she said, softly. The lower levels were just like the megacities, she knew from experience, although they were considered to be better accommodation than anywhere outside Imperial City. After all, unlike the megacities, they were heavily policed by the Civil Guard. The Empire couldn't risk terrorists gaining control of one of the towers. “And millions more go up every day to escape Earth.”

    Roland gave her an oddly wistful look. “Do you think I could go, one day?”

    “I think so,” Belinda said, although she had her doubts. The last time an Emperor had left the solar system had been centuries ago. Roland’s ancestors had rarely gone anywhere further than Luna or Mars. The furthest any of them had gone had been Pluto, after it had been reconfirmed as a planet for the nineteenth time. “We can certainly try to arrange it.”

    She led the way over to the tennis court and found the rackets where the maids had left them at her request. They’d offered rackets fit for an Emperor that cost more than she made in a year, but she’d turned them down and ordered rackets that could be broken without breaking her credit account. Roland blinked in surprise as she passed him a racket and motioned for him to take one side of the court, then walked over and took up a stance that suggested that he was out of practice. Belinda wasn't surprised.

    “We will forget about the rules,” she said, as she took up position on the other side of the net. Marines rarely played tennis; Boot Camp and the Slaughterhouse had taught games that were intended to encourage young recruits to work together, like football, rugby and Slaughterhouse Jousting. She wondered what Roland would make of the latter, before pushing the thought aside. There were Marines who weren't prepared for jousting. “Just concentrate on trying to score against me.”

    Roland eyed her, his eyes clearly not on her face. “And what do I get if I win?”

    “Victory?” Belinda asked, dryly. She thought about reminding him of the health benefits, then decided against it. Too much nagging wasn't good for a young man – or prince. “You get to go to the Arena this Sunday. I hear they brought in a creature from Ripley.”

    “And then the Arena staff had to put it down before it could break out,” Roland said. His face twisted into a grin. “I love going to the Arena ...”

    “You win and you get to go,” Belinda said. She tossed the ball in the air and knocked it over the net as lightly as she could. “You lose and you get to try to beat me again tomorrow.”

    Roland lunged forward and managed to serve the ball back at her, just lightly enough so that it barely missed snagging in the net. Belinda had to hold herself back; her training insisted that she should boost, just to ensure that she actually won. Instead, she allowed the ball to hit the ground and twisted her face into a disappointed expression. Let Roland think he’d won the first round easily.

    “You can't stop me from going,” Roland said, as she prepared to launch the ball towards him again. “I have a Royal Box in the Arena and ...”

    “And I am your bodyguard with absolute authority over where we can and cannot go,” Belinda reminded him. She could understand Roland’s feelings – she doubted he was allowed to go more than a few places outside the Summer Palace – but she needed to make him work for his reward. “Besides, I need to have the Arena checked out before you can be allowed to go there.”

    She launched the ball at him before he could respond, pushing it – according to her tactical implants – into a trajectory that he could intercept, if he worked at it. Roland moved forward and barely managed to serve it back at her, but it was aimed right at her position and she had no difficulty launching it back towards him. The prince managed to hit it, yet it went right into the net and fell down.

    “I’ve been to the Arena hundreds of times,” Roland protested. His face was already shining with sweat. “I never had a problem.”

    “There’s always a first time,” Belinda said. She’d heard that there were a number of retired Marines working for the Arena staff, if only to ensure that there was absolutely no cheating. The gladiators who fought for the amusement of the crowds had to win fairly or not at all. “And besides, security precautions have to be checked and rethought from time to time, or someone will find a way through the holes.”

    “It’s the Arena,” Roland said, in horror. “Who would want to cheat?”

    Belinda grinned. “Everyone who has money on one of the gladiators?” She asked. “Now ... stop wasting time and serve the ball at me.”

    Roland flushed, but obeyed. Belinda tossed it back at him effortlessly and watched as he ran to intercept it, barely succeeding before the ball hit the ground. She held herself back and allowed the ball to land in her side of the court, giving Roland another point. Grinning to herself, she picked the ball up and launched it towards him. Roland had to run again to catch it before it was too late.

    The game lasted for nearly forty minutes before Belinda called a halt and pointed out, regretfully, that Roland had been beaten by five points. The prince seemed to want to keep playing, which was a good sign, even though he was clearly aching in pain. She remembered her own pain as she struggled through Boot Camp, pushing herself a little further every day, and felt an odd flash of sympathy. Roland wasn't entirely to blame for his own condition, she reminded himself. He’d been allowed to atrophy away while the Grand Senate ran the Empire.

    “Not too bad,” she said, as she held out her hand for Roland to shake. The prince seemed bemused at first, then realised what he had to do and shook her hand. “We’ll play again tomorrow?”

    “I’ll defeat you tomorrow,” Roland promised her. He hesitated, then asked the obvious question. “What happens if you beat me on the following day?”

    Belinda pretended to consider it. “You still get to go to the Arena, but you have to beat me again before you can go the following week,” she said, cheerfully. “And it will get harder, I’m afraid.”

    Roland ran his hand through his glistening hair. “Why don’t you sweat?”

    “Enhancement,” Belinda said, deadpan. She couldn't tell him that he hadn't pushed her very hard at all. Facing a fellow Pathfinder at tennis would be much more interesting, if alarming for anyone else who had to watch. “You’ll need to work harder in future.”

    “I ... ache,” Roland admitted. Now that he had stopped playing, he seemed to be having trouble walking. “I think I sprained something.”

    “You just pushed your muscles a little further,” Belinda reassured him. She smiled as she recalled one of her first Drill Instructor’s favourite sayings. “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

    Roland scowled at her. “Can’t I get an enhanced body from the body-shop?”

    “You’d still have to work to make it yours,” Belinda pointed out. Besides, body-shops were notoriously unreliable, although the Crown Prince could probably hire the best, and long-term results depended on the user keeping up with his exercise routines. If someone was prepared to go to all that effort, it would probably be cheaper to build up his natural body anyway. “And I think it wouldn’t be good for you either.”

    She picked up a towel, tossed it to Roland and watched as he wiped the sweat off his brow.

    “You can have a soak in the bath, then a massage that will help work some of the kinks out of your muscles, and then you can eat,” she continued. “After that, you will be ready for bed.”

    “It's only six o’clock,” Roland said, and then yawned. “It’s way too early to sleep.”

    Belinda grinned. “See how you feel after a bath and a meal,” she said. “Besides, you have to beat me tomorrow if you want to go to the Arena.”

    She allowed her smile to widen as Roland started to walk back towards the passageway. Maybe she would let him win tomorrow, once she’d checked out the Arena and contacted the guards. He did need to get out of the Summer Palace, after all. And by then, she had a feeling that she would be glad of the diversion too. She just had to be careful not to forget her mission – and make sure that Senate Security didn't forget it too.

    After all, people died at the Arena.
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  16. ssonb

    ssonb Confederate American

    Looks good..ho hum.....Wait a minute, who am I kidding Ya got me hooked already. I read your books Storming Heaven and Invasion now I am on Patriotic Treason... Dang it you are habit forming...
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    Why did the Senate allow it? Put simply, they needed money for one reasons: they wanted re-election. In order to gain re-election - and to keep Earth's population under control - it was necessary to provide an endless supply of bread and circuses. Looting the colonies provided the funds they needed to keep themselves in power indefinitely.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    Amethyst couldn't help a sense of relief as she returned to her apartment and threw her bag down on the bed. Art classes were tedious at the best of times, even though some of her fellow students saw them as an easy grade, as long as they could bullshit the teachers into believing that they had made a new breakthrough in art and design. Normally, she would have agreed with them, but now? She wondered just what the point of even trying was while she was at the university.

    She hadn't taken everything Richard had told her on faith, but it had taken several days to actually research his statements. Neither she nor Twilight had realised that they had never been taught how to do research properly, even though they were meant to carry out an investigation of their own for their final grade. All they’d been taught to do was look up the information in the computer files and regurgitate it for themselves, rather than doing something completely original. In hindsight, it made her wonder just how brilliant some of her earlier work had actually been. Should she have really been charged with plagiarism?

    The official figures stated that seventy percent of graduated students found jobs. It had been suspiciously difficult to draw specifics out of the university files, forcing her to resort to other methods – and what she’d found had been alarming. Very few graduated students found work suited to their degrees – and the remainder tended to have jobs that, at best, led nowhere. The official figures didn't seem to include the students who just went into their own apartments and vegetated, which made her wonder just how many other official figures she had been taking for granted. How much of what she had been told was a lie?

    Parsing out the other official statistics had been complicated and she wasn't at all sure that she’d succeeded. Most of their coursework came with handy answers for them – to prevent the students from thinking for themselves, she recognised now. She couldn't ask a tutor to look over her results and tell her if she was on the right track, not unless she wanted to be expelled from the university. Back in her parents’ apartment block, she’d known girls who were grandmothers at thirty. She’d told herself that going to Imperial University was a way out of that trap. In hindsight, perhaps she should have wondered a little more about why those girls became caught in the first place.

    I was a fool, she thought, savagely. The tiny apartment seemed to be closing in around her, just as her own life was being constrained. She was in a cage and she’d never even seen the bars! Angrily, she paced over to the small fridge, opened it up and removed a bottle Twilight had brought home from one of the local nightclubs. It smelled suspiciously like paint-stripper, but she took a swig anyway. What did it matter what it did to her? Her life was already over and yet it would never end.

    Shaking her head, she put the bottle back in the fridge and sat down on the bed. It was a simple bed, but special – because it was hers. Or was it, really? She’d rented the apartment from the university and she knew that it would go to another student after she left, but she’d taken it as a sign of her independence from her parents. But her independence – and that of all the other students – was a joke. Over the last few days, she had looked – really looked – at her fellow students. Very few of them could have survived in the university without the tutors doing much of their work for them. How would they get on outside the academic world?

    She reached under the bed and produced a secure box. By law, all children had to have at least one place where they could store things they didn't want their parents to see – it was a human right – but she rather doubted that it was as secure as the manufacturers claimed. Who knew how easy it would be for the university staff to open it – or simply demand that she opened it for them? But she hadn't had anywhere else to store Professor Caesius’s book, not when discovery might mean expulsion from the university. Opening it to a random page, she started to read the text. She'd read part of the book every night since meeting Richard.

    Professor Caesius didn't seem to have a very organised mind, she’d decided on the first night. The text jumped around, as if it had never had the services of an editor – or as if the writer hadn't wanted to look too closely at what he was writing. He also seemed to have had a man-crush on the Terran Marine Corps, although Amethyst wasn't sure why. She'd never met a Marine, or seen one outside the gory entertainment flicks that kept the boys amused when they weren't trying to get tickets to the Arena. Who knew if they were really as noble, brave and just plain superhuman as the Professor painted them? On the other hand, they were being compared to bureaucrats and Amethyst had enough experience with them to know that almost anyone else would be preferable.

    One section leapt out at her and she read it more carefully, slowly figuring out the difficult words.

    Student activists on Earth and the Core Worlds often partake in political protests, directed at influencing the Empire’s government. Such protests provide nothing more than a safety value to prevent the students from realising that they have almost no say in what the Empire actually does. The protests are planned by university staff, cleared with the Civil Guard and kept under firm control. Most student protesters never truly realise that their protest marches are little more than a way to blow off steam, at best.

    A quick survey of protest marches on Earth only confirms this. There were no less than seventy major protest marches against the fighting on Han, yet the Empire continued rushing troops to the planet with the avowed intent of putting down the rebellion. The only student protest march that can be said to have succeeded was a march demanding an increase in the Student Living Allowance, which won an official raise of seven percent. However, owing to the steadily-rising level of inflation, this was a rather dubious victory at best. The actual buying power of the SLA remained stable.

    Unfortunately, most students are utterly ignorant of the true state of affairs. The protestors against the war on Han were unaware of the mass slaughter being perpetrated by almost all of the rebel factions, let alone what would happen to the Empire’s economy if the rebels were allowed to succeed. As such, the Grand Senate simply ignored them, confident that the students could do nothing to interfere with their operations. Their confidence is well justified.
    Amethyst ground her teeth together as she closed the book. She’d marched against Han too, when the first reports had started to come in – and it had all been for nothing. They’d been told that their marches could influence the government, perhaps even convince a few Senators to vote against the war, but from what she’d read it was easy to see that it simply wouldn't matter what the lower-ranking Senators did. The Grand Senate held all the power and it could afford to ignore public opinion.

    Desperately, she reopened the book and flicked through a handful of other pages, looking for something hopeful. But there was nothing. The Professor had concluded that the Empire was doomed as long as the Grand Senate kept control over the reins of power. It had to be brought down before the entire structure collapsed. But how? She looked back at the paragraph and shuddered.

    The Empire is being strangled by the level of control exerted by the Grand Senate and the bureaucracy it has created. Put simply, the cost of doing business is skyrocketing because of the need to cope with the vast amount of red tape the bureaucrats use to justify their own existence. Because of this, the actual amount of tax revenue available to the Empire is shrinking rapidly, which forces it to increase the demands on the remaining sources of tax – which adds to their burden until they break. Right now, the only way to save the Empire would be to restructure the economy completely – and that would mean forcing the Grand Senate to give up its power. It is unlikely that they will peacefully accept oblivion.

    “So what,” Amethyst asked out loud, “can we do?”

    She reached for her handcom and fired off a message to the number Richard had given her, then placed the book back in her secure box. Normally, she would have gone to one of the eating places outside the apartment block, but she didn't feel like eating. Besides, she didn't really know where the money in her credit account really came from. The Professor had quite a few things to say about the credit system in his book as well as everything else.

    Her handcom vibrated a moment later, announcing the arrival of a new message. She glanced at it, noted the address and time – another nightclub, two hours later – and stood up, pulling off her clothes. There would be time to get dressed properly before she went to meet Richard. Maybe he had some idea of what they could do about the whole ungodly mess.

    Twilight hadn't returned by the time she had finished dressing – she’d chosen a long shirt and tight black trousers, which suited her mode perfectly – so she left a note for her roommate and walked out into the corridor, heading down towards the exit. She had lived in the apartment block for years, but she had never really realised just how many students were crammed into the massive construction – or just how many citizens lived in the megacities that covered much of Earth’s surface. The book had suggested that there were billions of unregistered humans on Earth, draining the planet’s once-considerable resources. Anyone who wanted to eat anything other than algae-based rations had to buy expensive imports from the orbital farms, or the Inner Worlds.

    The streets were thronging with students, most of them chattering about the upcoming gladiator duel in the Arena. Amethyst hated them all at that moment – how could they witter on about nothing when the Empire was slowly falling apart? But she’d been just as ignorant only a few short days ago? She looked back at the naive girl she'd been and cursed herself. In hindsight, the clues had been right in front of her nose and she hadn't seen them; she hadn't even looked for them. She’d been a fool.

    Imperial City was meant to be brightly illuminated, day and night. Looking around, she could see that a number of the street lamps had failed, without anyone trying to repair them. It was a minor sign, but a worrying one nonetheless; the book had warned that the Empire’s infrastructure was decaying so rapidly because there were so few people available to work on repairing it. She looked up towards the aircars flying overhead and wondered what would happen if the traffic control system failed, as it had on other parts of Earth. The results would be disastrous.

    Richard met her outside the nightclub. He smiled as he saw her, then motioned for her to follow him into an alleyway and then into a metal door set in the wall. Amethyst took a breath – she’d heard horror stories of what could happen in parts of the lower city – and stepped inside, wincing as the door slammed shut with a hideous clang. Richard motioned for her to take off her electronic devices, swept her body with a security sensor and then invited her into the next room. Feeling oddly isolated, Amethyst obeyed.

    There were seven others inside the room; three of them wearing masks and robes that concealed their features completely. Amethyst couldn't help noticing that they even wore gloves, presumably to prevent them from leaving fingerprints for the Civil Guard to find. A chill ran down her spine as she realised that this was deathly serious. If they were caught together, who knew what would happen?

    “Welcome,” Richard said, as he closed the door. “This room is secure. We can talk freely.”

    He nodded to the masked men. “The Civil Guard has authority to do whatever it feels necessary to get information that might lead to the arrest of our senior leadership,” he added. “Accordingly, they’re wearing masks to prevent you from knowing their identities. What you don’t know you can't betray.”

    “I wouldn't betray anyone,” a young male student said, hotly.

    “It is astonishing how easily someone can be convinced to talk,” one of the masked men said. His voice was flat, completely atonal. “There are drugs that will have you giving up everything you know, right down to your girlfriend’s bra size – if they feel like being sophisticated. They might just hook you up to a lie detector and beat you with sticks every time you told a lie. People break.”

    “Quite right,” Richard said. “It’s a simple precaution.”

    But they know who we are, Amethyst thought. She didn't say it out loud.

    “You’ve all read the book, I assume,” Richard said. “You know by now that nothing short o direct action is going to convince the Grand Senate to change its ways before it is too late. We intend to take that direct action. If any of you are not committed to the cause, if you do not feel that it is necessary, walk out that door” – he pointed – “and don’t come back.”

    Amethyst hesitated. She hadn't been told what would happen when she attended the meeting and there was no time to think about it, but ... she had read the book. And she couldn't disagree with Richard, even if she hadn't been so angry about so much of her life being wasted in useless studies. She’d looked at the requirements for leaving Earth completely and discovered that the only way someone as unqualified as her would be able to go would be though signing up with a colony corporation. She might as well have been an indent.

    “You are all welcome,” Richard said. No one had left. “Understand; from now on, you keep your mouths shut outside the secure rooms. If you talk to anyone, you will be killed. Some of you will have friends you will want to bring into the group. Do not bring them inside without my permission. We have to check out all possible recruits before accepting them into the brotherhood.”

    He sat down on a chair and motioned for the others to sit down too. “I will be providing you all with some training, but we don’t have much time before we have to take direct action,” he added. “For the moment ...”

    He reached under the chair and produced a box, which he opened by pressing his thumb against a sensor. It clicked open, revealing a gun. Amethyst felt her heartbeat starting to race as she stared at it, unable to look away. She’d rarely seen guns outside the ones carried by Civil Guardsmen – and she’d certainly never been allowed to touch one. Guns just weren’t available on Earth, at least not in Imperial City. The book she’d been given had suggested that Earth actually had the largest number of illegal guns in the Empire, but she didn't have the slightest idea where to find one. Maybe in the Undercity, she assumed ...

    “They say that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” Richard said. His voice was very calm, very controlled. “And yet the population of Earth is largely disarmed. I wonder why that is?”

    It was a rhetorical question, Amethyst realised. The gun was almost hypnotic; she found herself reaching for it before she could stop herself. Richard smiled as her hand closed around the barrel and lifted it out of the case. It was heavier than she’d expected, forcing her to grab it with her other hand just to hold it safely. She reached for the trigger and then stopped. What if she fired the gun by accident? All of the flicks she’d seen had included scenes where a gun had been triggered by a mere touch ...

    ... And yet she felt a strange excitement touching the weapon. If the Civil Guard caught her, she’d be indentured for sure ... and yet she was excited.

    “It’s unloaded,” Richard said. He seemed amused at her reaction. The masked men leaned forward to peer at her, although she couldn't tell if they were amused or merely interested in her thoughts. “Most of what you have been told about guns is nonsense, I’m afraid.”

    He took it back from her and passed it to the next recruit, who handed it with the same mixture of awe and fear that Amethyst had felt. Her palms felt sweaty and she wiped them on her trousers, unable to understand her own feelings. The gun was power ... wasn't it? Her heartbeat was still racing in her chest ...

    “We will be learning how to use these weapons over the next few days,” Richard said, softly. “Whatever the flicks say, you can learn to use most of these weapons easily – you don’t need years of training to fire a gun safely. And then we will start teaching the Grand Senate that they can no longer push us around.”
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  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    This naturally led to the growth of the Empire's bureaucracy. Administering the vast new territories and enforcing the Senate's laws required an equally vast army of civil servants, who would carry out orders from appointed governors. Naturally, this civil service grew stronger and stronger as the years went by, a trend encouraged by senior managers, governors and even Senators. Once embedded, the civil servants could not be removed ...
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    “See?” Roland said. “The Arena is fantastic!”

    Belinda shrugged as the aircar convoy descended towards the complex. Roland definitely deserved a treat – and she had made him work for it. It had only been yesterday that he'd finally managed to beat her at tennis, although it had been a matter of losing to him convincingly rather than actually being beaten. But he was getting better as his body repaired itself under the new treatment Belinda was enforcing. Given time, he would definitely return to full health.

    The Arena was over a hundred square miles of land to the south of Imperial City, surrounded by a massive wall that ensured that only people who’d bought tickets were allowed to enter. According to the retired Marines she’d contacted, the security guards were permitted to use jangle-pulses on anyone stupid enough to try to climb over the wall, just to ensure that the monopoly on tickets remained intact. The crowds down at the main gates were being heckled by touts, some of whom were offering tickets at grossly-inflated prices. Belinda wasn't too surprised. The Arena was the greatest attraction on Earth.

    Six massive domes dominated the heart of the complex. One of them was specifically for matches between different wild animals, captured on far-off worlds and brought to Earth to fight and die for the entertainment of the crowds. The remaining domes were for the gladiators, volunteers willing to fight publically and soak up the cheers of the audience. There was no shortage of volunteers – anyone could walk into the Arena and start fighting – despite the short lifespan of a gladiator. Those who survived long enough to reach the top 100 were feted as celebrities, at least as long as they survived. Belinda had heard that a dead gladiator had no fans. The merchandise was thrown out and replaced by something else.

    “I have a box in all six domes,” Roland said. “And I have even ordered a chair for you!”

    It was a status symbol; there were only a limited number of private boxes and most of them belonged to the richest and most powerful families in the Empire. The few that went on the market every decade were fought over savagely by everyone who wanted another sign of wealth and power. Belinda’s contacts had told her that the Imperial Navy could buy a whole new cruiser for the cost of a simple box in the Arena. It wasn't difficult to believe.

    “Thank you,” Belinda said. Did that mean Roland was learning to think of other people as more than servants or that he was trying to put her in debt to him? It was unlikely that she’d ever be able to afford the better seating in the Arena on her salary. “Still, stay in the aircar until we have checked out the security arrangements.”

    The Arena had a good reputation for security, she’d been relieved to discover; most of the staff were retired military and the complex itself was largely sealed from the outside world. Most of the gladiators lived in tiny rooms buried below the ground, unless they happened to be famous enough to deserve one of the apartments at the edge of the complex. All of the animals, particularly the man-killers, were held in secure compounds, trapped in holographic representations of their homeworlds. The entire system was remarkably secure, or so she had been informed. No one could even walk through the Arena without a ticket bracelet strapped to their wrist – and if they took it off, the alarms would sound.

    She braced herself as the aircar dropped to the ground. If there was an ambush waiting for them it would be sprung now. Roland was inside a heavily-armoured aircar, but a single direct hit with an HVM would blow it to atoms, along with his bodyguard. She watched as the Senate Security staff spread out of their aircars and checked the area quickly, before sending the all-clear back to Belinda. The aircar door hissed open at her command and they stepped out onto the landing pad.

    There was a faint scent of blood in the air, something that brought back unhappy memories from Han and a dozen other worlds. She glanced at Roland and saw, to her alarm, that he seemed almost excited by the smell, as if the air was slightly drugged. Her implants ran a quick analysis, but found nothing apart from the scent itself. She dragged her attention away from him as a gorgeously-robed man appeared at one edge of the pad and bowed low to Roland.

    “Your Highness,” he said. “Your Royal Box awaits your presence.”

    “We are pleased,” Roland said, in a rather high-pitched tone. “Lead us to the box.”

    Belinda scowled inwardly as the man turned and led the way into the dome, down a long flight of stairs. The plans she’d downloaded into her implants revealed that the Royal Box was actually quite small, barely large enough for five or six people, something that puzzled her until she realised just how limited space in the Arena actually was. She heard the noise of the crowd cheering in the distance, even though the hullmetal walls, and shook her head. The Arena might have enjoyed real blood and guts, but it was not war. No one who had seen Han could have seen the Arena as anything more than a travesty.

    They walked through a set of wooden doors and into the Royal Box. As Roland had promised, there were two chairs, both set up so the spectators could use binoculars if necessary. Belinda was surprised that they didn't use magnifying fields, but apparently the binoculars were part of the experience. Besides, it was tradition, like so much else. Roland took his seat and smiled as he stared out over the sands. Two gladiators were bashing away at each other with swords and little else.

    “I shall have your regular drinks brought to your box,” the guide said.

    “No,” Belinda said, quickly. She accessed the box’s processor, skimmed through a menu and placed her own orders. “Bring juice and biscuits, but nothing else.”

    The guide stared at her, then at Roland, then back at her, clearly puzzled over what was going on. Belinda’s eyes never left his and, eventually, he bowed and headed off to carry out his orders. She expected Roland to argue, but he seemed captivated by the gladiators on the field below. Belinda was much less impressed; sword fights were hardly part of modern military training, but it was evident that the gladiators didn't have the slightest idea of what they were doing. She could have beaten both of them with one hand tied behind her back. Or both hands, given how careless they were. It would have been simple to manipulate them into killing each other.

    She accessed the processor and downloaded a copy of the programme. Unsurprisingly, the warm-up acts considered of complete amateurs, men and women who had walked into the Arena’s office and signed up to fight. Most of them wouldn't last the week, she decided, but those that did would start the long crawl up towards superstardom. But if there were thousands of newcomers and only a hundred gladiators allowed to stay at the top ... she pushed the thought aside, tiredly, as one of the gladiators finally managed to stab the other properly. His victim staggered and fell forward, tearing the blade from his opponent’s hands as he hit the ground. If there had been a third gladiator, Belinda decided, both of the others would have been killed.

    The crowd showed no enthusiasm as the victor held up his hands, clearly expecting cheers and rewards. He looked rather downcast as the cleaning crew came onto the field, picked up the dead body and carried it and the weapons over to the exit, leaving the blood behind to stain the sand. Belinda rolled her eyes; the crowd, clearly jaded, didn’t care about the first battles. The only people who were applauding were the blood junkies in the first row.

    She stood up and spun around as someone new entered the box. A young man, carrying a tray of drinks, blinked at her in surprise, then retreated the moment she took the tray from him and put it down on the small table. Roland had been complaining less about the healthier drinks she'd been serving him, suggesting that he was slowly coming to like the more natural juices. Or maybe he’d just realised that bitching wasn't going to get him anywhere.

    Belinda shook her head as she surveyed the crowd. Everyone who considered themselves important had splashed out thousands of credits for a seat in the upper or middle section of the Arena, where they were seated in their gaudy clothes, watching the fighting. The lower section was assigned to citizens from outside the higher families, although it wasn't uncommon for the buyers to then sell them onwards to people willing to pay through their nose for a seat, even if it was among the commoners. None of them looked very happy to be seated there, but the alternative was not going to the Arena at all.

    Rolling her eyes, she looked up at the other boxes. A handful of Grand Senators and their families sat in their boxes, although she was surprised to see that several boxes were actually empty. Another way of showing their wealth and power, she decided, as she saw several Senators looking back at her. The Grand Senators could afford to purchase a box at the Arena and then leave it empty. Anyone who owned a box could have reclaimed the expense just by hiring it out to someone else. Leaving it empty was more than mere conspicuous consumption.

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed, silencing the chattering crowd. “Put your hands together for the Female Furies!”

    The crowd suddenly roared with delight as the doors opened and the next set of gladiators marched into the pit. There were nine of them, all women wearing nothing more than chainmail briefs around their thighs, their breasts bouncing free as they walked forward. Their skin glistened under the spotlights as they reached the centre of the sands and raised their swords in salute to the crowds. Roland leaned forward, pressing his binoculars to his eyes, as the women lined up, ready for their first bout.

    “And their opponents,” the voice bellowed. “The Barbarians!”

    Belinda’s eyes widened as a second door opened, revealing four men carrying whips. They wore leather loincloths to conceal their groins and nothing else, suggesting warrior barbarians from one of the colony worlds that had lost all technology during the first expansion from Earth and slipped back into barbarism. The crowds cheered even louder as the men swaggered forwards, cracking their whips towards the women, who sneered at them. Belinda watched them carefully, recognising the discipline half-masked by their absurd postures. Having proved that they were killers in the early bouts, the gladiators would have been snapped up by talent spotters and offered proper training ... and a chance to fight as part of a team.

    The two sides glared at one another as the crowd’s cheers slowly faded away, replaced by an intense anticipation that made Belinda feel uncomfortable. Roland seemed unable to take his eyes off the women, who were brandishing their swords towards the men. Belinda couldn't help feeling that the women, despite carrying the better weapons, were outmatched. They didn't seem to have the same level of training as the men.

    A whistle blew ... and the women lunged forward, swords in hand. The men cracked out with their whips, aiming for eyes – or for the weapons the women were carrying. One woman stumbled backwards, only to be kicked to the ground by her opponent; another lost her sword, only to have it snatched up by the man and used to behead her. The women looked good, Belinda realised, but not much else. All four of the men were working as a team.

    One of the men was stabbed by a woman and sent falling to the ground, but the other three rapidly overcame the other women. Once they had acquired the upper hand, they used fists and whips rather than the captured swords, lashing the women and driving them back towards the exit. The crowds went wild as blood glittered on their skins where they’d been cut by the whip, howling obscene suggestions towards the male gladiators. Belinda watched as the surviving women were beaten out of sight, their male opponents winning the match, then looked at Roland. There was a thoroughly unpleasant look on his face, his mouth twisted into a sickening leer.

    The roar only grew louder as the staff walked back onto the sands, picked up the bodies and carried them towards the exit. Belinda had no difficulty in imagining just what they thought the male gladiators would do to the female gladiators. Who knew – maybe it wouldn't be long before the whole act, from start to finish, took place under the spotlights. Or perhaps it didn’t, the women taken away to allow the crowd to assume that they had been raped. It would be comforting to believe that.

    Depraved, she thought, and shuddered again. What did it say about Earth’s current state that mass slaughter constituted entertainment?

    The next set of matches were more even, she realised, as she sat back in her chair and tried to watch. Most of the gladiators seemed to have equal levels of training and equipment, although a couple of the pairings had the gladiators wielding very different sets of weaponry against each other. A large holographic scoreboard appeared at the side of the Royal Box, allowing her to track each gladiator as they climbed upwards in the rankings towards the top 100. She honestly couldn't understand why most of the gladiators fought. The rewards were vast, true, but they were very hard to reach. Statistically, she estimated, the odds were massively against anyone reaching the top.

    She looked over at Roland and asked a question. “Can the gladiators retire?”

    “Of course,” Roland said. “But they never do.”

    Belinda considered checking that, before deciding that it wasn't her concern. It would be simple enough for a new gladiator, all flushed from winning his first fight, to get into debt with a backer and then discover that he had to keep fighting until he'd paid back his loan. Perpetual debt was an old way of controlling people – it was a favourite trick of corporations operating along the Rim – and there was no reason why it couldn't be used against a gladiator. Weapons and training were grossly expensive, particularly on Earth.

    The crowd roared again as a woman wearing a long red dress and carrying a sword strode into the pit, raising her sword to the Royal Box. Belinda found herself staring at the woman, seeing the easy confidence with which she carried her sword. Another warrior, she realised, even if the woman did have a china-doll face that made her look childlike. Her opponent, another swordsman, appeared at the far end of the pit and advanced towards her. Sparks flew as their swords clashed together, before they separated and circled each other, probing for weaknesses.

    Roland leaned forward in glee as the two gladiators clashed again and again, his face displaying naked excitement. Belinda silently studied the two gladiators and realised that her first impressions had been right. Both of them had some proper training and plenty of experience. The red dress didn't seem to hamper the woman at all as she lunged forward, only to be stabbed in the side by her opponent. For a long moment, Belinda thought that the woman had lost, before she pulled herself along the blade and swung her sword, beheading her opponent with a single stroke. She’d seen Marines show similar pain tolerance in the field, but they had augmentation to help. The Arena’s rules banned any form of tech enhancement.

    “She won,” Roland yelled, his voice lost in the cheers from the crowd. “She always wins!”

    “Impressive,” Belinda conceded.

    The woman had slumped to the ground as the medical team raced towards her. She had to be someone important, she decided, or a good investment for her backers; no one else had received the attention of a medical team on the field. Maybe she'd recover without problems, Belinda told herself. Medical science could heal almost any wound as long as it wasn't fatal.

    Roland elbowed her. “Could you do that?”

    Belinda hesitated, then nodded slowly. In fact, if she’d used boosting implants, she would have been able to best both of the gladiators without being touched herself. But if she had been unenhanced ... it would have been an ugly fight, she decided. It wasn’t something she wanted to try.

    She checked the programme and discovered that the woman was called the Scarlet Witch and, apparently, had never been defeated in her field. Injuries were common, it seemed, but she’d been back on the sands within weeks at most. Belinda wondered if she’d had some bio-enhancement, before deciding that it didn't matter. The Arena was still a mockery of war.

    “See,” Roland said. “I told you that you would enjoy it.”

    “Yeah,” Belinda growled, deciding not to argue. There was another two hours of blood and guts and death to go before they could go back to the Summer Palace. “But you’re going to have to beat me again to come next week.”

    “I will,” Roland assured her.

    You won’t, Belinda thought, quietly. You shouldn't be here at all.
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    ... But the effects were disastrous. Each civil servant cost very little, but there were millions of them. Their pay alone ate up a staggering portion of the Empire's budget. So too, less directly, did the other costs they imposed. Put simply, the endless regulations they invented to justify their existence. The smaller businesses couldn't afford to keep up with them and went out of business. This, unsurprisingly, ate away at the Empire's tax base. The big corporations, naturally, had already written themselves exemptions, or simply paid fines that would destroy their smaller competitors.
    -Professor LEO Caesius, The End of Empire

    The next few days passed very slowly. Belinda kept Roland worked at his physical education program and watched as he slowly grew healthier. Every day, they played tennis until Roland was pushed to the limit, although Belinda didn't let him win again. She knew that he found it frustrating to push so close, but never to actually win – but there was no choice. He had to keep flexing his muscles to widen his limits.

    Organising an etiquette teacher hadn’t been easy. No one would have accused the average Marine of having High Society etiquette and the handful that had come from the Grand Senate families had been deployed well away from Earth, separating them from those who might seek to influence their futures. Eventually, she’d had to kick the question upstairs to the Commandant, who had selected someone who owed him and the Marine Corps a favour or two. Belinda was sure that there was a story in there somewhere, but there was no time to ask questions. Her mornings were spent learning the finer points of etiquette.

    “I don’t see why I have to do this,” Roland protested, one morning. “I’m the Crown Prince!”

    “You have to make people think that you care about them,” Belinda pointed out, as Mr. Harris – the only name she’d been given for the tutor – organised the dining table. “Think of it as a disguise.”

    “I could pretend to be a very rude prince,” Roland said, with a faint smile. “That would be easy.”

    “You have to convince them that you are not a very rude prince,” Belinda countered. “That’s a little harder.” She grinned at him. “But think of all the time you can spend laughing at them without them knowing it.”

    Roland listened as she told him about some of her experiences as a Pathfinder. Standard Marines wore uniforms and fought as part of a team; Pathfinders were often expected to go undercover on enemy worlds, wearing enemy uniforms and blending in with their surroundings. Belinda herself had been a peasant woman on Han – that hadn't been a pleasant experience – and a trader queen with her own starship, both roles that were very different to her everyday life. Pretending to be someone else was challenging, particularly when dealing with sexist pigs and bureaucracy, but it had also been fun. Roland, she suspected, would appreciate it.

    “So I can pretend to like someone,” Roland said, “and laugh afterwards. I can do that.”

    “Glad to hear it,” Mr. Harris said. His voice was calm, the product of impeccable breeding or intensive study. “Now, young sir, you are going to greet the daughter of a Grand Senator when she walks through the door.”

    He motioned for Belinda to take up position behind him, then step forward with a grand expression on her face. A Grand Senator’s daughter, even one far enough down the family tree to miss out in inheriting anything important, would still have a sense of entitlement larger than a planet. She would lack for nothing; she would have few restraints on her behaviour, as long as she didn't call the family’s position into question. Belinda summoned the right mindset – snooty, arrogant and demanding – and stepped forward. On cue, Roland rose to his feet.

    “Lady Acosta,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it lightly. “It is a great pleasure to see you.”

    Belinda curtseyed, then stepped past him.

    “Good,” Mr. Harris said. “You will be expected to greet all of the senior personages at your coronation. Should you miss a step, they will remember and it will be used against you later.”

    Roland rubbed his forehead. “Why can't I have a memory implant and a live feed from the network?”

    “Because live feeds have been known to jam,” Mr. Harris reminded him. “It isn't uncommon for someone to deliberately try to jam the local communications links just to see if the victim can still remember the names of all of those you have to greet. Consider yourself fortunate; there are none who are socially superior to the Emperor. A Senator would have to bow to you, but accept a bow from a Guildmaster.”

    “Oh,” Roland said. “And what if one of those daughters wants to spend more time with me?”

    “She won't say so, of course,” Mr. Harris said. “You will never meet a potential marriage partner alone, young sir. Her mother will always be present in the room. Should her mother have passed on, her closest female relation will be expected to carry out the duty. However, the decision on who you marry will not be made by yourself.”

    Belinda felt a flicker of sympathy as Roland scowled. The Grand Senate would approve the Princess Consort – and then the Empress – and just about every family with a daughter in the right age bracket would want to put her name forward. There would be years of horse-trading before a suitable candidate was placed into Roland’s bed. He’d be expected to take lovers, of course, but none of them could become his bride. Or, for that matter, bear his children.

    “This is all stupid,” Roland grumbled. “Who cares what fork I use to eat with?”

    “Your throne is based largely on your personal prestige,” Mr. Harris said. “You will strengthen or weaken it with every move you make. In this case” – he tapped the table – “you are showing that you are one of them by sharing their manners. Suggesting that you are not one of them will have consequences down the line.”

    “Right,” Roland growled. “But I don’t have any prestige, do I?”

    He stood up and ran for the bedroom door. Belinda started forward, but she was too late to catch him before he slammed the door closed and locked it. A moment later, the security network sounded an alert as he opened the passageway leading down to the grounds and ran down outside the palace. Cursing under her breath, Belinda motioned for Mr. Harris to stay where he was and headed out of the other door. There was no point in trying to break into the Prince’s room without heavy weapons or cutting tools. The designers of the palace had even built the doors out of hullmetal.

    Obsessive paranoid bastards, she thought, as she ran. What the fuck is he doing now?

    Her implants reported pings from the Senate Security staff as she ran through the main doors and out into the gardens, but she ignored them. They knew who she was, even if they didn't know just what she was doing. She ran around the building, drawing on boosted speed, and reached the tennis court. There was no sign of Roland. Cursing again, Belinda drew on tracking skills she hadn't had to use for years and saw a faint trail leading into the thickly-packed part of the garden. Belinda followed him, realising that Roland hadn’t been really trying to hide – or perhaps he simply wasn't very good at it. There were too many places where his passage had snapped branches off plants and crushed small flowers under his feet.

    The gardeners hadn’t done any proper gardening in this part of the gardens, according to the guidebook she’d been given; they’d merely dropped countless seeds from thousands of worlds and waited to see which ones would win the ensuring contest. They’d produced a tangle of plants as Earth-native fauna fought with imported fauna, creating an environment that smelt almost alien. Belinda ignored the scent as best as she could as she tracked Roland, finally locating a treehouse hidden in the midst of the greenery. On her homeworld, her family had built one using their own hands and manual tools. Here, it was obvious that technology had been used to build and steady the treehouse.

    She heard Roland sobbing as she climbed up the ladder and peered through the hatch. The Prince was curled up in the far corner, pretending to be unaware that she was there. Belinda sighed inwardly and pulled herself all the way into the treehouse, then stepped over to him and reached out to take his shoulder. He shook his head angrily and tried to crawl away.

    Idiot, Belinda thought. No one would act like that on the Slaughterhouse. Boot Camp perhaps ... but a recruit who discovered that the military life wasn't for him could always just request dismissal from the camp. Roland couldn’t run away from his position unless he was prepared to abdicate completely – and it was possible that the Grand Senate wouldn't even allow him to do that. If he’d been one of her brothers, failing to carry out his household chores, her father would have given him a good strapping. Absently, she wondered if that would be a good idea before pushing it aside for the moment. There were other things she could try first.

    “You shouldn't have run,” she said, pulling him towards her. He’d put on weight, thanks to the course of appetite enhancers and supplements she'd ordered for him, but he was still alarmingly slim. “It wouldn't have made it easy to protect you.”

    “I don't want your protection,” Roland howled, tears streaming down his face. “I wish I was dead.”

    “Death is permanent,” Belinda said, unsure of how seriously to take him. A couple of the brats she'd babysat while trying to make some money as a teenager had said the same thing, although they hadn't really meant it. “Do you really want to die?”

    “I don’t have a life,” Roland said, pushing at her as he tried to pull free. “I’m just ... just a puppet!”

    Belinda frowned. That showed more self-awareness than she’d realised, although Roland hadn't really been shielded from the truth behind his position. Or one of his few friends had pointed it out during a drinking session. Or maybe one of the servants had told him ... there were too many possibilities, none of them good.

    “The Grand Senators want me to look good, marry one of their bitches and bless all their laws,” Roland said. “You want to control my life! You say it is for my own good, but you control me and control me and control me ...”

    Belinda shook her head, tiredly. Perhaps she had come on too strong, but there had been no choice. Not that she could really explain it to Roland, at least not yet. Teenage boys lacked any sense of long-term planning, particularly when they’d been raised to get more or less whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. The more drink and drugs he took, the harder it would be for his body to repair itself afterwards. Maybe she should have removed the drugs first, then banished the alcohol later.

    “They all laugh at me,” Roland screamed. “They call me a child! I’m sixteen and they call me a child!”

    “You are growing up,” Belinda said, as reassuringly as she could. None of her brothers had acted like Roland – but then, none of them had been raised to think that the world was their oyster. “You’re doing much better on the tennis court ...”

    “It's not good enough,” Roland said. “It’s never good enough.”

    “You should see some of my failures,” Belinda said. She'd known that she was good when she went to Boot Camp, but the Drill Instructors had been masters at showing her just how little she really knew. “You’re getting much better.”

    “But for what?” Roland demanded. “What do I have to live for?”

    Belinda hesitated. In truth, Roland was right; the best he could hope for in life would be to wind up as a constitutional monarch, rubber-stamping bills the Grand Senate had passed after endless debate and political horse-trading. And Roland would get the blame for everything that went wrong with the Empire ... she’d wondered why the Grand Senate hadn't taken advantage of the situation, before realising that having someone to blame could be very useful for them. Most of the Empire’s population didn't understand politics at all, even without the Grand Senate muddying the waters. All they’d grasp was that someone called the Emperor was at the top.

    “See,” Roland demanded. “I don’t have anything to live for.”

    He lashed out at her, his fist cracking into her jaw. Belinda moved on instinct and avoided the worst of the blow, although she’d had worse during basic training. Her implants automatically adjusted and compensated for the pain, leaving her feeling nothing more than a faint numbness that quickly faded away to nothing. She caught her hand before he could do that again and pulled him around to face her.

    “You don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said, remembering how she’d talked to the children she’d babysat. Most of them hadn’t thought past the night either. “You’re going to be Emperor. Whatever the Grand Senate may say, you will have some formidable emergency powers. With a little time and patience – and determination – you will have a chance to carve out a place for yourself where you can operate independently.”

    Roland stared at her. “The Grand Senate would never allow it,” he protested. “They don't want me ...”

    Belinda sighed and spoke over him. “The Grand Senate is itself divided,” she pointed out, dryly. “You could do all sorts of things with a little care and forethought.”

    She sighed again, louder this time. “The Grand Senate has been arranging for you to stay here and drink yourself to death,” she added. “Why do you think they haven’t stopped you from destroying your own life? They want you to sit in the Imperial Palace, keep blasting your brain into the next dimension and maybe sign one or two papers for them.”

    “They won’t let you keep working on me,” Roland said, after a long moment. “If you’re making me healthy ...”

    “They can't sack me,” Belinda said. She grinned at him, inviting the prince to share the joke. “The Marine Corps has responsibility for your safety, at least on paper. They couldn't sack me; they’d have to pressure my superiors and my superiors are feeling stubborn. You could sack me, once you were Emperor, but they couldn't make you sack me.”

    Roland laughed. It came out as a choking sound. Belinda patted his back and then pulled him into a hug. “Listen to me,” she said, before he could start sobbing again. “You can make something of your life if you try. I can help you get healthy and get ready to become Emperor, if you let me. Or you can go back to drinking and injecting yourself with drugs and waste away day by day. The choice is yours.”

    She leaned forward until her lips were almost touching his ears. “Do you really want to let the bastards win?”

    “No,” Roland said, slowly. He looked up at her through tearstained eyes. “Are you going to be with me?”

    “I’ll be with you as long as you need me,” Belinda promised. Absently, she wondered just how long that would be. She’d always assumed that it wouldn't last much longer after the Coronation. “I ...”

    “I looked it up,” Roland said, before she could continue. “I can have oath-sworn liegemen, if I take their oaths personally. Even a Crown Prince can have liegemen. Will you swear to me?”

    Belinda hesitated, just long enough to think quickly. Marines weren't supposed to swear to anyone personally, only the Empire itself. It created a conflict of interest that might be impossible to resolve. By swearing to be Roland’s liegeman, she would be opening up a whole new can of worms, both for her career and the young prince. At the very least, it was unlikely that she would ever be able to go back to active duty. Offhand, she couldn't recall any Marines who’d been oath-sworn to anyone.

    But if it meant that he trusted her, that he would be willing to listen to her, it would be worth it ...

    Still, she told herself, I can always go out to the Rim and retire there.

    She should have run it past the Commandant first, but she knew that Roland needed an immediate answer. Anything else would destroy his fragile trust in her.

    “I will,” she said, and meant it. She took his hands in hers and tried to remember the words. They'd been mentioned in a briefing on military protocol, but she'd long-since buried them at the back of her mind. “I, Belinda Lawson, swear loyalty to Crown Prince Roland for as long as I live ...”

    She stumbled through the rest of the words and then pulled the Prince to his feet. “Come on,” she said, seriously. “You have to clean up and then face me on the tennis court again.”

    “I can order you to lose now,” Roland pointed out, dryly.

    Belinda snorted. “And what would you actually learn from that?”

    Surprisingly, Roland didn't argue any further. Having an ally made him feel better, Belinda decided; it wasn't an uncommon pattern among young men who’d been abused. And the way Roland had been brought up had been abuse, even if it hadn't been physical torture. Having everything he wanted from an early age would have left different scars on his soul.

    Shaking her head, she allowed him to lead her down the ladder and back towards the palace, where he could get a shower and change his clothes. After that, they could get back to work.
    techsar, kom78, ssonb and 3 others like this.
  20. Pezz

    Pezz Monkey+


    I like how you're slipping in issues that are common between the US and the Empire.

    Since the prince can have liegemen is Belinda going to arrange for more Marines to become liegemen to the prince? I'm also looking forward to seeing how the Amethyst and her friends fit in. Will the prince end up siding with them, or will they be a major threat? It could be interesting if the story is really about Belinda and Amethyst and the prince gets killed shortly.

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