Chapter 1: Command A.D. 3017
"Admiral's compliments, and you're to come to his office right away," Midshipman Staley announced.
Commander Roderick Blaine looked frantically around the bridge. where his officers were directing repairs with low and urgent voices, surgeons assisting at a difficult operation. The gray steel compartment was a confusion of activities, each orderly by itself but the overall impression was of chaos. Screens above one helmsman's station showed the planet below and the other, ships in orbit near MacArthur, but everywhere else the panel covers had been removed from consoles, test instruments were clipped into their insides, and technicians stood by with color-coded electronic assemblies to replace everything that seemed doubtful. Thumps and whines sounded through the ship 89 somewhere aft the engineering crew worked on the hull.
The scars of battle showed everywhere, ugly bums where the ship's protective Langston Field had overloaded momentarily. An irregular hole larger than a man's fist was burned completely through one console, and now two technicians seemed permanently installed in the system by a web of cables. Rod Blaine looked at the black stains that had spread across his battle dress. A whiff of metal vapor and burned meat was still in his nostrils or in his brain, and again he saw fire and molten metal erupt from the and wash across his left side. His left arm was still bound across his chest by an elastic bandage, he could follow most of the previous week's activities by the stains it carried.
And I've only been aboard an hour! he thought. With the Captain ashore, and everything a mess. I can'tleave now! He turned to the midshipman. "Right away?"
"Yes, sir. The signal's marked urgent."
Nothing for it, then, and Rod would catch hell when the Captain came back aboard. First Lieutenant Cargill and Engineer Sinclair were competent men, but Rod was Exec and control was his responsibility, even if he'd been away MacArthur when she took most of the hits.
Rod's Marine orderly coughed discreetly and pointed to the stained uniform. "Sir, we've time to get you more decent?"
"Good thinking." Rod glanced at the status board to be sure. Yes, he had half an hour before he could take a boat down to the planet's surface. Leaving sooner wouldn't get him to the Admiral's office any quicker. It would be a relief to get out of these coveralls. He hadn't undressed since he was wounded.
They had to send for a surgeon's mate to undress him. The medic snipped at the armor cloth embedded in his left arm and muttered. "Hold still, sir. That arm's cooked good." His voice was disapproving. "You should have been in sick bay a week ago."
"Hardly possible," Rod answered. A week before, MacArthur had been in battle with a rebel warship, who'd spored more hits she ought to have before surrendering. After the victory Rod was prize master in the enemy vessel and there weren't facilities for proper treatment damage from there. As the armor came away he something worse than week-old sweat. Touch of gangrene, maybe.
"Yessir." A few more threads were cut away. The synthetic was as tough as steel. "Now it's gonna take surgery, Commander. Got to cut all that away before the regeneration stimulators can work. While we got you in sick bay we can fix that nose."
"I like my nose," Rod told him coldly. He fingered the slightly crooked appendage and recalled the battle when it was broken. Rod thought it made him look older, no bad thing at twenty-four standard years; and it was the badge of an earned, not inherited, success. Rod was proud of his family background, but there were times when the Blaine reputation was a bit hard to live up to.
Eventually the armor was cut loose and his arm smeared with Numbitol. The stewards helped him into a powder-blue uniform, red sash, gold braid, epaulettes; all wrinkled and crushed, but better than monofiber coveralls. The stiff jacket hurt his arm despite the anesthetic until be found that he could rest his forearm on the pistol butt.
When he was dressed he boarded the landing gig from MacArthur's hangar deck, and the coxswain let the boat drop through the big flight elevator doors without having the spin taken off the ship. It was a dangerous maneuver, but it saved time. Retros fired, and the little winged flyer plunged into atmosphere.
NEW CHICAGO: Inhabited world, Trans-Coalsack Sector, approximately 20 parsecs from Sector Capital. The primary is an F9 yellow star commonly referred to as Beta Hortensis.
The atmosphere is very nearly Earth-normal and breath-able without aids or filters. Gravity is 1.08 standard. The planetary radius is 1.05, and mass Is 1.21 Earth-standard, indicating a planet of greater than normal density. New Chicago is inclined at 41 degrees with a semi-major axis of 1.06 AU, moderately eccentric. The resulting variations in sesonal temperature have confined the inhabited areas to a relatively narrow band in the south temperate zone.
There is one moon at normal distance, commonly called Evanston. The origin of the name is obscure.
New Chicago is 70 percent seas. Land area is mostly mountainous with continuing volcanic activity. The extensive metal industries of the First Empire period were nearly all destroyed in the Secession Wars; reconstruction of an industrial base has proceeded satisfactorily since New Chicago was admitted to the Second Empire in A.D. 2940.
Most inhabitants reside in a single city which bears the same name as the planet. Other population centers are widely scattered, with none having a population over 45,000. Total planet population was reported as 6.7 million in the census of 2990. There are iron mining towns in the mountains, and extensive agricultural settlements. The planet is self-sufficient in foodstuffs.
New Chicago possesses a growing merchant fleet, and is located at a convenient point to serve as a center of Trans-Coalsack interstellar trade. It is governed by a governor general and a council appointed by the Viceroy of Trans-Coalsack Sector, there is an elected assembly, and two delegates have been admitted to the Imperial Parliament.
Rod Blaine scowled at the words flowing across the screen of his pocket computer. The physical data were current but everything else was obsolete. The rebels had changed even the name of their world, from New Chicago to Dame Liberty. Her government would have to be built all over again. Certainly she'd lose her delegates; she might even lose the right to an elected assembly.
He put the instrument away and looked down. They were over mountainous country, and he saw no signs of war. There hadn't been any area bombardments, thank God.
It happened sometimes: a city fortress would hold out with the aid of satellite-based planetary defenses. The, Navy had no time for prolonged sieges. Imperial policy was to finish rebellions at the lowest possible cost in lives -- but to finish them. A holdout rebel planet might be reduced to glittering lava fields, with nothing surviving but a few cities lidded by the black domes of Langston Fields; and what then? There weren't enough ships to transport food across interstellar distances. Plague and famine would follow.
Yet, he thought, it was the only possible way. He had sworn the Oath on taking the Imperial commission. Humanity must be reunited into one government, by persuasion or by force, so that the hundreds of years of Secession Wars could never happen again. Every Imperial officer had seen what horrors those wars brought; that was why the academies were located on Earth instead of at the Capital.
As they neared the city he saw the first signs of battle. A ring of blasted lands, ruined outlying fortresses, broken concrete rails of the transportation system; then the almost untouched city which had been secure within the perfect circle of its Langston Field. The city had taken minor damage, but once the Field was off, effective resistance had ceased. Only fanatics fought on against the Imperial Marines.
They passed over the ruins of a tall building crumpled over by a falling landing boat. Someone must have fired on the Marines and the pilot hadn't wanted his death to be for nothing....
They circled the city, slowing to allow them to approach the landing docks without breaking out all the windows. The buildings were old, most built by hydrocarbon technology, Rod guessed, with strips torn out and replaced by more modern structures. Nothing remained of the First Empire city which had stood here.
When they dropped onto the port on top of Government House, Rod saw that slowing hadn't been required. Most city windows were, smashed already. Mobs milled in the streets, and the only moving vehicles were military convoys. Some people stood idly, others ran in and out of shops. Gray-coated Imperial Marines stood guard behind electrified ziot fences around Government House. The flyer landed.
Blaine was rushed down the elevator to the Governor General's floor. There wasn't a woman in the building, although Imperial government offices usually bristled with them, and Rod missed the girls. He'd been in space a long time. He gave his name to the ramrod-straight Marine at the receptionist's desk and waited.
He wasn't looking forward to the coming interview, and spent the time glaring at blank walls. All the decorative paintings, the three-d star map with Imperial banners floating above the provinces, all the standard equipment of a governor general's office on a Class One planet, were gone, leaving ugly places on the walls.
The guard motioned him into the office. Admiral Sir Vladimir Richard George Plekhanov, Vice Admiral of the Black, Knight of St. Michael and St. George, was seated at the Governor General's desk. There was no sign of His Excellency Mr. Haruna, and for a moment Rod thought the Admiral was alone. Then he noticed Captain Cziller, his immediate superior as master of MacArthur, standing by the window. All the transparencies had been knocked out, and there were deep scratches in the paneled walls. The displays and furniture were gone. Even the Great Seal -- crown spaceship, eagle, sickle and haminer -- was missing from above the duralplast desk. There had never in Rod's memory been a duralplast desk in a governor general's office.
"Commander Blaine reporting as ordered, sir."
Plekhanov absently returned the salute. Cziller didn't look around from the window. Rod stood at stiff attention while the Admiral regarded with an unchanging expression. Finally: "Good morning, Commander."
"Good morning, sir."
"Not really. I suppose I haven't seen you since I last visited Crucis Court. How is the Marquis?"
"Well when I was last home, sir."
The Admiral nodded and continued to regard Blaine with a critical look. He hasn't changed, Rod thought. An enormously competent man, who fought a tendency to fat by exercising in high gravity. The Navy sent Plekhanov when hard was expected. He's never been known to excuse an officer, and there was a gun-room rumor that he'd had the Crown Prince -- now Emperor -- stretched over a mess table and whacked with a spatball paddle back when His Higness was serving as a midshipman in Plataea.
"I have your report here, Blaine. You had to fight your way to the rebel Field generator. You lost a company of Imperial Marines."
"Yes, sir." Fanatic rebel guardsmen had defended the generator station, and the battle had been fierce.
"And just what the devil were you doing in a ground action?" the Admiral demanded. "Cziller gave you that captured cruiser to escort our assault carrier. Did you have orders to go down with the boats?"
"I suppose you think the aristocracy isn't subject to Navy discipline?"
"Of course I don't think that, sir."
Plekhanov ignored him. "Then theres this deal you made with a rebel leader. What was his name?" Plekhanov glanced at the papers. "Stone. Jonas Stone. Immunity from arrest. Restoration of property. Damn you, do you imagine that every naval officer has authority to make deals with subjects in rebellion? Or do you hold some diplomatic commission I'm not aware of, Commander?"
"No, sir." Rod's lips were pressed tightly against his teeth. He wanted to shout, but be didn't. To hell with Navy tradition, he thought. I won the damned war.
"But you do have an explanation?" the Admiral demanded.
Rod spoke through tightening throat muscles. "Sir. While commanding the prize Defiant, I recieved a signal from the rebel city. At that time the city's Langston Field was intact, Captain Ckiller aboard MacArthur was fully engaged with the satellite planetary defenses, and the main body of the fleet was in general engagement with rebel forces. The message was signed by a rebel leader. Mr. Stone promised to admit Imperial forces into the city on condition that he obtain full immunity from prosecution and restoration of his personal property. He gave a time limit of one hour, and insisted on a member of the aristocracy as guarantor. If there were anything to his offer, the war would end once the Marines entered the city's Field generator house. There being no possibility of consultation with higher authority, I took the landing force down myself and gave Mr. Stone my personal word of honor."
Plekhanov frowned. "Your word. As Lord Blaine. Not as a Navy officer."
"It was the only way he'd discuss it, Admiral."
"I see." Plekhanov was thoughtful now. If he disavowed Blaines word, Rod would be through, in the Navy, in government, everywhere. On the other hand, Admiral Plepkhanov would have to explain to the House of Peers. "What made you think this offer was genuine?"
"Sir, it was in imperial code and countersigned by a Navy intelligence officer."
"So you risked your ship -- "
"Against the chance of ending the war without destroying the planet. Yes, sir. I might point out that Mr. Stone's message described the city prison camp where they were keeping the Imperial officers and citizens."
"I see." Plekhanov's hands moved in a sudden angry gesture. "All right. I've no use for traitors, even one who helps us. But I'll honor your bargain, and that means I have to give official approval to your going down with the landing boats. I don't have to like it, Blaine, and I don't. It was a damn fool stunt."
One that worked, Rod thought. He continued to stand at attention, but he felt the knot in his guts loosen.
The Admiral grunted. "Your father takes stupid chances. Almost got us both killed on Tanith. It's a bloody wonder your family's survived through eleven marquises, and it'll be a bigger one if you live to be twelfth. All right, sit down."
"Thank you, sir." Rod said stifily, his voice coldly polite.
The Admiral's face relaxed slightly. "Did I ever tell you your father was my commanding officer on Tanith?" Plekhanov asked conversationally.
"No, sir. He did." There was still no warmth in Rod's voice.
"He was also the best friend I ever had in the Navy, Commander. His influence put me in this seat, and he asked to have you under my command."
"Yes, sir." I knew that. Now I wonder why.
"You'd like to ask me what I expected you to do, wouldn't you, Commander?"
Rod twitched in surprise. "Yes, sir."
"What would have happened if that offer hadn't been genuine? If it had been a trap?"
"The rebels might have destroyed my command."
"Yes." Plekhanov's voice was steely calm. "But you thought it worth the risk because you had a chance to end the war with few casualties on either side. Right?"
"And if the Marines were killed, just what would my fleet have been able to do?" The Admiral slammed both fists against the desk. "I'd have had no choices at all!" he roared. "Every week I keep this fleet here is another chance for outies to hit one of our planets! There'd have been no time to send for another assault carrier and more Marines. If you'd lost your command, I'd have blasted this planet into the stone age, Blaine. Aristocrat or no, don't you ever put anyone in that position again! Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir..." He's right. But -- What good would the Marines have been with the city's Field intact? Rod's shoulders slumped. Something. He'd have done something. But what?
"It turned out well," Plekhanov said coldly. "Maybe you were right. Maybe you weren't. You do another stunt like that and I'll have your sword. Is that understood?" He lifted a printout of Rod's service career. "Is MacArthur ready for space?"
"Sir?" The question was asked in the same tone as the threat, and it took Rod a moment to shift mental gears. "For space, sir. Not a battle. And I wouldn't want to see her go far without a refit." In the frantic hour hed spent aboard, Rod had carried out a thorough inspection, which was one reason he needed a shave. Now he sat uncomfortably and wondered. MacArthur's captain stood at the window, obviously listening, but he hadn't said a word. Why didn't the Admiral ask him?
As Blaine wondered, Plekhanov made up his mind. "Well? Bruno, You're Fleet Captain. Make your recommendation."
Bruno Cziller turned from the window. Rod was startled: Cziller no longer wore the little silver replica of MacArthur that showed him to be her master. Instead the comet and sunburst of the Naval Staff shone on his breast, and Cziller wore the broad stripes of a brevet admiral.
"How are you, Commander?" Cziller asked formally. Then grinned. That twisted lopsided grin was famous through MacArthur. "You're looking all right. At least from the right profile you do. Well, you were aboard an hour. What damage did you find?"
Confused, Rod reported the present condition of MacArthur as he'd found her, and the repairs he'd ordered. Cziller nodded and asked questions. Finally: "And you conclude she's ready for space, but not war. Is that it?"
"Yes, sir. Not against a capital ship, anyway."
"It's true, too. Admiral, my recommendation. Commander Blaine is ready for promotion and we can give him MacArthur to take for refit to New Scotland, then on to the Capital. He can take Senator Fowlees niece with him."
Give him MacArthur? Rod heard him dimly, wonderingly. He was afraid to believe it, but here was the chance to show Plekhanov and everyone else.
"He's young. Never be allowed to keep that ship as a first command," Plekhanov said. "Still and all, it's probably the best way. He can't get in too much trouble going to Sparta by way of New Caledonia. She's yours, Captain. When Rod said nothing, Plekbanov barked at him. "You. Blaine. You're promoted to captain and command of MacArthur. My writer will have your orders in half an hour." Cziller grinned one-sided. "Say something," he suggested.
"Thank you, sir. I -- I thought you didn't approve of me."
"Not sure I do," Plekhanov said. "If I had any choice you'd be somebody's exec. You'll probably make a good marquis, but you don't have the Navy temperament. I don't suppose it matters, the Navy's not your career anyway."
"Not any more, sir," Rod said carefully.
It still hurt inside. Big George, who filled a room with barbells when he was twelve and was built like a wedge before he was sixteen -- his brother George was dead in a battle halfway across the Empire. Rod would be planning his future, or thinking wistfully about home, and the memory would come as if someone had pricked his soul with a needle. Dead. George?
George should have inherited the estates and tides. Rod had wanted nothing more than a Navy career and the chance to become Grand Admiral someday. Now -- less than ten years and he'd have to take his place in Parliament.
"You'll have two passengers," Cziller said. "One you've met. You do know Lady Sandra Bright Fowler, don't you? Senator Fowler's niece."
"Yes, sir. I hadn't seen her for years, but her uncle dines at Crucis Court quite often...then I found her in the prison camp. How is she?"
"Not very good," Cziller said. His grin vanished. "We're packing her home, and I don't have to tell you to handle with care. She'll be with you as far as New Scotland, and all the way to the Capital if she wants. That's up to her. Your other passenger, though, that's a different matter."
Rod looked up attentively. Cziller looked to Plekhanov, got a nod, and continued, "His Excellency, Trader Horace Hussein Bury, Magnate, Chairman of the Board of Imperial Autonetics, and something big in the Imperial Traders Association. He stays with you all the way to Sputa, and I mean he stays aboard your ship, do you understand?"
"Well, not exactly, sir," Rod answered.
Plekhanov sniffed. "Cziller made it clear enough. We think Bury was behind this rebellion, but there's not enough evidence to put him in preventive detention. He'd appeal to the Emperor. All right, we'll send him to Sparta to make his appeal. As Navy's guest. But who do I send him with, Blaine? He's worth millions. More. How many men would turn down a whole Planet for a bribe? Bury could offer one."
"I -- yes, sir," Rod said.
"And don't look so damned shocked," Plekhanov barked. "I haven't accused any of my officers of corruption. But the fact is, you're richer than Bury. He can't even tempt you. It's my main reason for giving you command of MacArthur, so I don't have to worry about our wealthy friend."
"I see. Thank you anyway, sir." And I will show you it was no mistake.
Plekhanov nodded as if reading Blaines thoughts. "You might make a good Navy officer. Here's your chance. I need Cziller to help govern this planet. The rebels killed the Governor General."
"Killed Mr. Haruna?" Rod was stunned. He remembered the wrinkled old gentleman, well over a hundred when he came to Rod's home -- "He's an old friend of my father's."
"He wasn't the only one they killed. They had the heads strung up on pikes outside Government House. Somebody thought that'd make the people fight on longer. Make 'em, afraid to surrender to us. Well, they have reason to be afraid now. Your deal with Stone. Any other conditions?"
"Yes, sir. It's off if he refuses to cooperate with Intelligence. He has to name all the conspirators."
Plekhanov looked significantly at Cziller. "Get your men on that, Bruno. It's a start. All right, Blaine, get your ship fixed up and scoot." The Admiral stood; the interview was over. "You'll have a lot to do, Captain. Get to it."
Copyright © 1974 by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle