In Brandon Sanderson's riveting "Firstborn," a Tor.com Original short story, much glory is expected of the son of a High Duke of the interstellar Empire.
And expected. And still expected, despite endless proof that young Dennison Crestmar has no talent whatsoever for war. But the life Dennison is forced to live will have its surprising lessons to impart.
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By Brandon Sanderson, Donato
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
All rights reserved.
While safe aboard his flagship, there were two ways for Dennison to watch the battle.
The obvious method relied on the expansive battle hologram that dominated the bridge. The hologram was on at the moment, and it displayed an array of triangular blue blips representing fighters flying about waist-high. The much larger blue oval of Dennison's command ship hung a moderate distance above and behind the fighters. The massive and powerful but far less agile leviathan probably wouldn't see battle this day. The enemy's ships were too weak to damage its hull, but they were also too fast for it to catch. This would be a battle between the smaller fighters.
And Dennison would lead them. He rose from his command chair and walked a few steps to the hologram's edge, studying the enemy. Their red ships winked into existence as scanners located them amidst the rolling boulders of the asteroid field. Rebels in name but pirates in action, the group had thrived unhindered for far too long. It had been five years since his brother Varion had re-established His Majesty's law in this sector, and the rebellious elements should long since have been crushed.
Dennison stepped into the hologram, walking until he stood directly behind his ships. There were about two dozen of them — not a large force, by Fleet standards, but bigger than he deserved. He glanced to the side. Noncommissioned aides and lesser officers had paused in their duties, eyes turned toward their youthful commander. Though they offered no obvious disrespect, Dennison could see their true feelings in their eyes. They did not expect him to win.
Well, Dennison thought, wouldn't want to disappoint the good folks.
"Divide the squadrons," Dennison commanded. His order was transmitted directly to the various captains, and his small fleet broke into four smaller groups. Ahead, the pirates began to form up as well — though they stayed within their asteroid-cover.
Through the movement of their ships, Dennison could feel their battle strategy taking shape. At his disposal was all the formal military knowledge that came with a high-priced Academy education. Memories of lectures and textbooks mixed in his head, enhancing the practical experience he'd gained during a half-dozen years commanding simulations and, eventually, real battles.
Yes, he could see it. He could see what the enemy commanders were doing; he could sense their strategies. And he almost knew how to counter them.
"My lord?" an aide said, stepping forward. She bore a battle-visor in her hands. "Will you be needing this?"
The visor was the second way a commander could watch the battle. Each fighter bore a camera just inside its cockpit to relay a direct view. Varion always wore a battle-visor. Dennison, however, was not his brother. He seemed to be the only one who realized that fact.
"No," Dennison said, waving the aide away. The action caused a stir amongst the bridge team, and Dennison caught a glare from Brell, his XO.
"Send Squadron C to engage," Dennison commanded, ignoring Brell.
A group of four fighters broke off from the main fleet, streaking toward the asteroids. Blue met red, and the battle began in earnest.
Dennison strode through the hologram, watching, giving commands, and analyzing — just as he had been taught. Dogfighting ships zipped around his head; fist-sized asteroids shattered as he walked through their space, then reformed after he had passed. He moved like some ancient god of lore, presiding over a battlefield of miniature mortals who couldn't see him, but certainly felt his almighty hand.
Except, if Dennison was a god, his specialty certainly wasn't war.
His education kept him from making any disastrous mistakes, but before long, the battle had progressed to the point where it was no longer winnable. His complete lack of pride let him order the expected retreat. The Fleet ships limped away, reduced in numbers by more than half. From the statistics glowing into hovering, holographic existence before him, Dennison could see that his ships had barely managed to destroy a dozen enemy fighters.
Dennison stepped from the hologram, leaving the red ships victorious and the blue ships despondent. The hologram disappeared, its images shattering and dribbling to the command center's floor like shimmering dust, the pieces eventually burning away in the light. Crewmembers stood around the perimeter, their eyes showing the sickly shame of defeat.
Only Brell had the courage to speak what they were all thinking. "He really is an idiot," he muttered under his breath.
Dennison paused by the doorway. He turned with a raised eyebrow, and found Brell staring back unrepentantly. Another High Officer probably would have sent him to the brig for insubordination. Of course, another commander wouldn't have earned such disrespect in the first place. Dennison leaned back against the side of the doorway, arms folded in an un-militaristic posture. "I should probably punish you, Brell. I am a High Officer, after all."
This, at least, made the man look aside. Dennison lounged, letting Brell realize that — incompetent or not — Dennison had the power to destroy a man's career with a mere comm-call.
Dennison finally sighed, standing up and walking forward. "But, you know, I've never really believed in disciplining men for speaking the truth. Yes, Brell. I, Dennison Crestmar — brother of the Great Varion Crestmar, cousin to kings and commander of fleets — am an idiot. Just like all of you have heard."
Dennison paused, stopping right in front of Brell, then reached out and tapped the man's chest right in the center of his High Imperial Emblem. "But think of this," Dennison continued with a light smile. "If I'm an idiot, then you must be pretty damn incompetent yourself; otherwise they would never have wasted you by sending you to serve under me."
Brell's face flared red at the insult, but he showed uncharacteristic restraint by holding his tongue. Dennison turned and strolled from the room. "Prepare my speeder for my return to the Point," he commanded. "I'm due for dinner with my father tomorrow."
* * *
He missed dinner. However, it wasn't his fault, considering he had to travel half the length of the High Empire. Dennison's father, High Duke Sennion Crestmar, was waiting for him in the spaceport when he arrived.
Sennion didn't say a word as Dennison left the airlock and approached. The High Duke was a tall man — proud, broad shouldered, with a noble face. He was the epitome of what a High Officer should be. At least Dennison had inherited the height.
The High Duke turned, Dennison fell into step beside him, and the two strode down the Officer's Walk — a pathway with a deep red carpet, trimmed with gold. It was reserved for High Officers, uncluttered by the civilians and lower ranks who bustled against each other on either side. There were no vehicles or moving walkways on the Officer's Walk. High Officers carried themselves. There was strength in walking — or so Dennison's father always said. The High Duke was rather fond of self-congratulatory mottoes.
"Well?" Sennion finally asked, eyes forward.
Dennison shrugged. "I really tried this time, if it makes any difference."
"If you had 'tried,'" Sennion said flatly, "you would have won. You had superior ships, superior men, and superior training."
Dennison didn't bother trying to argue with Sennion. He had given up on that particular waste of sanity years ago.
"The High Emperor assumed that you simply needed practical experience," Sennion said, almost to himself. "He thought that simulations and school games weren't realistic enough to engage you."
"Even emperors can be wrong, father," Dennison said.
Sennion didn't even favor him with a glare.
Here it comes, Dennison thought. He's finally going to admit it. He's finally going to let me go. Dennison wasn't certain what he'd do once he was released from military command — but whatever he chose to do, he couldn't possibly be any worse at it.
"I have arranged a new commission for you," Sennion finally said.
Dennison started. Then, he closed his eyes, barely suppressing a sigh. How many failures would the High Duke need to see before he gave up?
"It's aboard The Stormwind."
Dennison froze in place.
Sennion stopped, finally turning to regard his son. People streamed to either side on the lower walks, ignoring the two men in fine uniforms standing on the crimson carpet.
Dumbfounded, it took Dennison a moment to begin to respond. "But ..."
"It's a fine ship — a good place to learn. You will serve as an adjutant and Squadron-commander for High Admiral Kern."
"I know it's a 'fine ship,'" Dennison said through clenched teeth. "Father, that is a real command on an Imperial flagship, not some idle playing in the Reaches. It's bad enough when I lose a dozen men fighting pirates. Need I be responsible for the deaths of thousands in the Reunification War as well?"
"I know Admiral Kern," Sennion said, ignoring his son's objections. "He is an excellent tactician. Perhaps he will be able to help you with your ... problems."
"Problems?" Dennison demanded quietly. "Problems, father? Has it never even occurred to you that I'm just not any good at this? It isn't dishonorable for the son of a High Duke to seek another profession, once he's proven himself unsuited to command. Goodness knows, I've certainly satisfied that particular requirement."
Sennion stepped forward, grabbing Dennison by the shoulders. "You will not speak that way," he commanded. "You are not like other officers. The High Empire expects more. The High Empire demands more!"
Dennison was taken aback by his father's lack of formality, and some of the passers by stopped to regard the strange sight of a High Duke acting with such passion. Dennison stood within his father's stiff grasp, reading the man's eyes. It isn't the High Emperor, is it, father? Dennison thought. It's you. One genius son isn't enough. For you, one success and one failure simply cancel each other out.
"Go prepare yourself," Sennion said, releasing him. "The Stormwind is expecting your speeder in three days, and it's a seventy-hour trip."
* * *
"With permission, Your Majesty, I don't think this is the command for me," Dennison said, kneeling before the speeder's wallscreen.
The High Emperor was a middle-aged man with a firm chin and a full face. He was balding in a time when most men got scalp rejuvenations, but his refusal to enhance his appearance lent him a weight of ... authenticity. He frowned at Dennison's comment. "It is an enviable post, Dennison. Most young High Officers would consider it an amazing opportunity."
"I am hardly like most young officers, Your Majesty," Dennison noted.
"No, that you certainly are not," the emperor said. "However, I would think that this post's near proximity to your brother would interest you."
Dennison shrugged. "To be honest, Your Majesty, I don't know Varion. I'm curious about him, but no more so than another person might be. I maintain my Petition to be released from this commission."
The emperor's frown deepened. "You need to show more initiative, young Crestmar. Your pessimism has been a great annoyance to the High Throne."
Dennison glanced down — it was always bad when the emperor switched to the third person. "Your Majesty," he said. "I really have tried — I've tried all my life. But I received near-failing marks at the Academy, I never managed to even place in the games, and I've bungled every command given me. I'm just not any good."
"You have it in you," the emperor said. "You just have to try a little harder."
Dennison groaned softly. The emperor had obviously been speaking with his father again. "How can you be so sure, Your Majesty?"
"I just am. Your Petition is denied. Is there anything else?"
Dennison shook his head.
* * *
Admiral Kern was not waiting for Dennison in the docking bay when he left the speeder, but that wasn't unusual. Though a High Officer, Dennison was still a junior one, and Kern was one of the most powerful admirals in the Fleet.
Dennison followed an aide through the flagship's passageways. They were surprisingly well-decorated for a warship, adorned with the twelve seals of the High Empire. This was an Imperial Flagship, designed to impress inside and out. The aide led him to a large, circular chamber with a battle hologram at its center. Though the air sparkled with miniature ships, only one man stood in the room — this wasn't the bridge, but a simulation chamber very similar to the ones Dennison had used at the Academy.
High Admiral Kern was young for one of his rank; he had a square face and thick dark hair. He was large enough that one could imagine him as some ancient general with a horse and broadsword, yet he had the typical reserved mien of an imperial nobleman. He didn't look away from his battle as Dennison entered. The edges of the room were dim, the only illumination coming from the illusory ships and the glowing ring that marked the hologram's edge. Kern stood at the center, not directing the progress, just observing. The aid left, closing the door.
"Do you recognize this battle?" the admiral suddenly asked.
Dennison walked forward. "Yes, sir," he said, realizing with surprise that he did. "It's the battle of Seapress."
Kern nodded, face lit from below, still watching the flitting ships. "Your brother's first battle," he said quietly. "The beginning of the Reunification War." He watched for a moment longer, then waved his hand, freezing ships in the air. Finally, he turned eyes on Dennison, who gave a perfunctory salute — really more a wave of the hand. Might as well establish what he was like from the beginning.
Kern didn't frown at the sloppy greeting. He folded his arms, regarding Dennison with a curious look. "Dennison Crestmar. I hear you have something of a smart mouth."
"It's the only part of me blessed with such virtue, I'm afraid."
Kern actually smiled — an expression rarely seen on a High Officer's lips. "I suspect that was why your father sent you to me."
"He has great respect for you, sir," Dennison noted.
Kern snorted. "He can't stand me. He thinks I'm undignified."
Dennison raised an eyebrow. When Kern said nothing more, he continued. "I feel that I must warn you, sir, that I am poorly suited to this commission. I doubt that I will fulfill your expectations of a squadron leader."
"Oh, I don't intend to put you in charge of any ships," Kern said, laughing. "Forgive me, but I've seen your records. The only question is whether you're a worse strategist or tactician."
Dennison sighed in relief. "Then what are you going to do with me?"
Kern waved him forward. "Come," he said, motioning with his other hand and restarting the hologram.
Dennison stepped into the hologram. He'd seen the battle before — one couldn't graduate from the Academy without taking several courses on the mighty Varion Crestmar. Varion's ships were outlined in white. He had two command vessels — one a simple merchant ship, the other his imperial longship — and he controlled only four dozen fighters. Fewer ships, even, than Dennison had been given to waste fighting pirates.
"Tell me about him," Kern requested, watching Varion's longship as it approached the battle.
Dennison raised an eyebrow. "Varion? He's more than twenty years older than I. I've never even met him."
"I'm not a parlor visitor, asking about your family, Dennison. I'm your commander. Tell me about Varion the warrior."
Dennison hesitated. Varion's longship, the famous Voidhawk, slid forward. Varion's forces were laughably small compared to those of his enemy — the rogue planet of Seapress had boasted a fleet of five massive battleships and nearly a hundred fighters. Two decades ago, at the nadir of imperial power, such a fleet had been impressive indeed.
The Seapress ships, however, didn't form up to attack Varion. They simply waited.
"Varion is ..." Dennison said quietly. "Varion is perfect."
Kern raised an eyebrow. "In what way?"
Excerpted from Firstborn by Brandon Sanderson, Donato. Copyright © 2008 Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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