Saturday, 12 April 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Four

Caesuras could often be startling things, but not always intentionally so. Their occurrence was surprising even when they were expected. They were an oxymoronic confluence of nothing and something. In life, as an experiential representation of temporal variables, they lasted anywhere between a second and a million years or more, although that greatly depended on whether one was the viewer or the viewed. As with most things, their significance was entirely relative. At times they might have consisted of a baited breath before orgasm or death; at others they took the form of mass extinction events. But perhaps their most bemusing incarnation was the pause before deciding whether or not to kill. In that moment, time lines wove and unravelled themselves as entire sections of the multiverse were created or destroyed by fluctuating probabilities. Such a decision could govern the fate of a single life or the entirety of existence. Every action or inaction had consequences both minuscule and massive, some that were easily explained away and others that were utterly beyond comprehension. One path might have taken one to a field of wild flowers, another might have only ended in a grave yard.

It was just such a total juxtaposition of potentiality that confronted Alvin as he stood beneath the drop ship and felt its exhaust brush against his face like the wave of almost balmy air that heralds an oncoming explosion. He knew that the arrival of his contingent of troops would be cause for concern for those scrabbling in the dirt for the pieces of what used to be their lives. What he could not have predicted was that instead of being treated just like any other targets, his soldiers were greeted only with silence and stillness. Where only seconds ago there had been a carnage-cloaked demonstration of entropy at its most unwittingly savage there was only an eerie calm, the warriors all still and sullen, each one like a golem with its shem torn out. But that didn't last for long. Unfortunately. As the barrel of his pistol swayed slightly he saw signs of life returning to the people who had been killing each other before his eyes. Their limbs moved in spasmodic nervous twitches as though they were gargoyles waking from their stony slumber. They regained awareness of their surroundings and the gruesome purpose to which their lives had been forfeit.

None of those battling at the base of the tower fully understood what they were doing, they were killing and dying simply because they had been told to. Each side knew without any doubt that the other one was wrong because that was the narrative with which they had been supplied. To question the story would have been too uncomfortable, it was so much simpler just to follow it. Their awareness of the truth did not really extend beyond that, they couldn't have known they were doing more harm than good. He had to stop them, so before either side fully gathered the good sense to react, Alvin acted. 'Pacification rounds. Put them all down.'

Once the order was given the response was instantaneous. The ruddy glow of perdition's sulphurous flames that had bathed the courtyard was replaced by a flood of sapphire light that seemed to freeze the scene and in an instant transformed it into an exhibition of mankind's brutality preserved for eternity in a gemstone glacier. Each volley of stun slugs from Alvin's soldiers sent groups of men shuddering to the ground as their nervous systems were overloaded. They gibbered in the dirt as though their skeletons had mutated into monstrous vermin eating their way out through the flesh. But for every one of them that fell victim, as much to their own weakness of constitution as their natural vulnerability to intense electric current, several of Alvin's troops were pulped where they stood by stray shots and shrapnel. Something soggy and dense splashed against the back of his coat and it was all he could do to repress a reaction of cringing disgust. Not only at the idea of an internal organ bouncing off of him but also at the sight of Ralph creeping into the tower and up along staircases fragile as the ribs of an ivory exoskeleton as though he was some kind of scale preening parasite. Perfectly content to let his men suffer for his sake, paying no mind to their sacrifice as he pursued his own ends. Then again charging alone into an enemy stronghold, even if it just happened to also be his home, with nothing but a pistol to defend himself with was rather brave. Annoyingly so in all honesty. It wasn't wise to judge Ralph's kind too harshly or hold them to the same ethical standards as everyone else. They weren't used to dealing with the restrictions of normal day-to-day life so their every word, thought and deed was at a great remove from objective reality. Their hearts and minds were residents of some effluvial plane, divorced entirely from material concerns unless of course they involved power or money. Alvin wished he could have said he was as disconnected as he watched the last of the opposition sprawled upon the ground trying to reassure their bodies that they weren't paralysed forever. He wasn't alarmed by the pain he could inflict, but rather by his professional indifference to it. Perhaps he wasn't entirely unlike men such as Ralph. He shook that disturbing thought off as he dragged his foot out of a mud puddle and trudged towards the tower. Elliot and Lenham stumbled after him through a field of the dead and dying where limbs waved like wheat in a breeze composed of screams.

Gaius sat in state upon the throne. He was alone, just as he always had been even when surrounded by hundreds of adoring “subjects.” The loneliness gnawed at him and at any other time he would have summoned someone to divert him from staring into and being consumed by the deepest recesses of his soul. As the tower trembled from foundation to pinnacle he found he had no further need of his secretaries; no cause to listen to their endless chuntering or deal with their petty visitations. There were no more documents to sign, digi-slates to scroll through, edicts to issue or laws to amend. He need no longer listen to the prattling of politicians or the knock-kneed courtesies of silk-shrouded dignitaries who wouldn't have known dignity if it spat in their faces. All that was left to do, was wait. What a laughable concept, as if he had done anything else with his life. Of course, there were accomplishments that allowed him some small measure of pride but everything he had done was not for himself but rather in service to the future. Once it seemed so impossibly distant, like the hint of deception in a loved one's eyes, that he never imagined truly facing it. But as the hour drew nearer, swept onward by the hands of time ever closer to the precipice between past and present, he could see and feel it looming over him like a chronometric citadel built not with bricks and mortar or glass and steel but sculpted from the sands of Time itself. The numerical denomination of that fraction of existence cast its shadow far and wide about him. Its walls were etched by the winds of fate that swept across the quantum membrane of reality, carrying with them the sound of every whisper and every scream that ever had or ever would be given voice. Towers carved by swords of destiny topped a foundation of fortresses that housed every moment of his being. All the decisions he had made and the plans he had drawn condensed into a single structure with a single purpose.

A purpose that only came into shaper focus at the approach of his youngest son. The boy seemed so meaningless in that place. The vaulted domes of glass and gold like bubbles of imagination held in place by the collective will of their architects and builders made him seem like an insect crawling beneath a microscope. The half-finished king approached from the far side of the room with steps so light it was as if he floated on the words of a song in his heart. A song that echoed across cobbled streets and off the flanks of wooden houses and reverberated above the walls of prisons that were nothing more than constructs of the mind. It was the sound of tomorrow, something that started as a hum shaking the bones of ordinary men, but that grew into a chant every breath of which was from the war-worn lungs of people holding aloft an endless stream of banners daubed with blood. If he were in a more morbid mood then perhaps he would have laughed at the absurdity of it; then again perhaps it was the absurdity that he found so sobering.

Jerrin had forgotten how impressive his father was, even when his placid countenance was marred by a disquieting smile there was still something monumental about him. The lapse in recollection was not surprising given how rare it was to be in the same room as him. His gently admonishing brow bore a simple silver crown. His purple regalia matched the accents in the columns and steps that climbed to the throne and then stretched out beyond it for tens of thousands of light years to every imperial residence in the galaxy. Where others might have thought him to be weak because of his relative slightness of frame, Jerrin knew better. There was an incredible strength of will, an undaunted sense of self-determination concealed within that angular, surgery-supplemented frame. Then there were his eyes, or rather his ocular implants, orbs of cold granite veined with kintsugi as though they had been shattered and repaired after they glimpsed a fraction of some divine mystery. Portraits, statues and holograms of the old man might have been everywhere but they were just artificial echoes, poor imitations of the real thing. His advancing years had clearly been harshly punitive, for all mankind's progress there was nothing that could halt the inevitable march of cellular decay. Nanite regeneration was a fine preventative but all life lived to die. The nucleus of every cell might have been a powerhouse of genetic self-perpetuation but eventually boredom would set in, and like a man who spends decades stacking shelves the cells would self-destruct just to avoid the tedium. Sometimes though, it was wiser to put someone out of their misery earlier than nature might have otherwise intended. More convenient too.

'Finally got tired of waiting I see.' Gaius wondered when Jerrin would show his face. He thought it would have been sooner but perhaps it took longer than he imaged to work up the courage to slink away from the shadows like a fiend released at the onset of dusk. 'What do you want now?'

'Father dearest, you've given me so much already.' Jerrin cringed at his own tone. If he sounded that obsequious even to himself then he didn't want to know what his intentionally elaborate bow made him look like. 'There's only one more thing I want.' His crooning words slithered like stream water between stones as he drew closer to the throne.

'Yes. I know. Keir has told me all about it.'

That traitor! Still, he should have expected it and some part of him must have done otherwise that news would have come as more of a surprise. 'Ah.' Jerrin did not waver under his father's stare, although it took all of his effort not to do so. Over the course of the emperor's life those eyes had no doubt seen things that no mere man should have ever seen, and to become the sole object of their attention was not a wise move. 'How long have you known?'

'I have always known.' Gaius said that as if somehow it explained everything. Perhaps it did. On reflection it was all perfectly logical and in some way he was oddly comforted to know that his son was not entirely a disappointment. 'You needn't have bothered with all this.' He looked out at the fires flickering at the base of the tower and across the city-fortress. It had always been meant as a beacon, a bright light that all mankind could look towards and feel inspired not some self-contained fragment of a dun-coloured hell.

'What should I have done instead?' Jerrin was genuinely curious. Circumstances had left him precious few other choices and none of them were as appealing. Though he could not have said he was looking forward to what he was about to do. Not with any jot at least.

'Wait.' The desperate whispering echo that reached Gaius' ears sounded more like a plea than a command.

'Oh is that all?' Jerrin all but strutted backwards out of bemusement at such a banal suggestion. 'I've been waiting my entire life!' All that was missing was the foot stamp, but Jerrin's was no ordinary tantrum.

'Just as I've been waiting all of mine.' If only Jerrin could have understood what that felt like to spend decades in speculation as to what horrors and marvels were to come then maybe he wouldn't have been so inclined to play the martyr for his patience.

'Waiting for Ralph to be ready no doubt.'

The boy's sneer was so predictable. 'Your brother is a good man. But being good isn't always enough.' Plenty of purely good people had tried to lead before; some were loved, others were respected but none of them understood treachery until they were betrayed. That's what resulted in their extinction, but perhaps there was a way to bring them back from the ageless abyss into which they had been cast by those with crueller minds. 'There are some decisions that only men like me, like you, are capable of making.'

'Such as?' Beneath his coat of grey and crimson Jerrin released his grip on the knife he had secreted away there. A few more moments of life for the old man, but only a few. Besides, he didn't want Ralph to miss the show.

'The choice you are preparing to make. The choice I've been preparing to allow you to make.' Gaius collapsed back onto the throne, the weight of over a century of responsibility bearing down upon him as though he were being crushed between the cogs of a gigantic machination.
Jerrin drew the knife, light glinted off its serrated edge as it did from his teeth as his face contorted with hate and regret. 'I don't have a choice.'

'Neither do I.' So it had come to pass at last. It was time. Not only to die but to show Jerrin what he had been working on for so many years. To offer him a reason for decades of neglect. He wasn't sorry. Not exactly. But it was a shame. As he pressed a button in the arm of his throne he hoped Jerrin would understand.

The air above their heads rippled, not from the heat or light of flames but as though the very atmosphere itself had become jittery with anticipation. Out of the air in a blink, or perhaps two, emerged swirling whirligigs of living colour like the essence of joy unleashed from its intangible bonds. At an unnerving pace they expanded and coalesced until the monstrously alluring chaos was replaced by the very definition of order, as though a pile of a toddler's building blocks had been used to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Numbers burst into being like the progenitor elements of the ancient universe, letters followed and surpassed them in their provision of true meaning. The very fabric of human reality in all of its infinitude had been encapsulated for a moment in one glorious burst of light. When it faded it seemed the walls of the world buckled leaving nothing in their place to support the structure of existence, but no they were not gone they were simply over-laid with endless strands of information that wove together into blocks of text that became the double helix of civilisation.

Jerrin's knife hand trembled. How could he kill a man capable of such an act? Because he must. Still he could not escape the fact his fear paled into nothingness next to his awe. 'What is all this?'

'My legacy. My gift to you. My final act for the people.'

There was no arrogance in those words. No megalomaniacal self-aggrandisement. They were uttered with such soft sincerity and humility that he could not believe his father was real. As Jerrin's mind became accustomed to the vision before him he began to grasp its full scope. 'This is everything, isn't it? Literally.'

'Yes, it is.' There was no point denying it or in being falsely modest. That would have been disingenuous. 'What you're looking at isn't just one man's opinion or perspective. This is history. Unedited, unabridged. Every birth, every death and every event of consequence. All that has happened officially or unofficially. It is us. All of us.'

Yes! Jerrin could see it. Over there hovering around a wall sconce was a recollection of the Thesauran Reformation. Off to the left by a door into a consultation chamber he could see a series of eye-witness accounts detailing the struggles of the very first terraformers on Hulari and the disaster that consumed that world from the inside out. On and on it went until just within reach, so close he could almost touch it, was a record of his own life. 'Why did you do all this?' Such a magnitude of information was baffling in the extreme. He felt as though he had been plunged into an ocean of madness where the dark gods of secrecy haunted the depths feeding on vast swarms of hidden knowledge.

'I haven't done anything. We've done it all.' Gaius gestured upward at the pictures of citizens that streamed across the ceiling and through the air as though their lives spun themselves from the primal void of nothingness that had birthed the universe itself. 'Unlike my predecessors I know what it truly means to rule. None of this is mine, just like it will not be yours. It belongs to everyone. But without a guiding hand to lead them on. That's what we're here for, to make sure they go the right way.'

'The right way?' Jerrin remembered himself and the knife in his hand.

'One that doesn't involve wiping themselves out.' The process had already begun in the streets below and elsewhere as well. The fires would spread. Everything would burn. 'For generations we've prided ourselves for overcoming the socio-economic barbarity of our ancestors. We believe there are no more poor, sick, needy people. But there are. Billions of them from one corner of the Empire to another and beyond. The crown you so eagerly seek was meant to be a symbol of our species' triumph, instead it is a mark of our utter failure. Here we are, in the middle of another war with our own kind, in our own home no less. For all the good we may have done, we have committed atrocities in equal measure.' The mists of history drifting around the room coagulated into a rapid succession of horrors. So much sorrow and pain that it seemed to take on a mockery of life, like a rot-skinned child fresh from the grave reaching for the living world out of curiosity and hunger. It was just his son getting closer. 'No more, Jerrin. It has to stop. It can with you.' Gaius touched Jerrin's face. He was still so innocent and yet...not.

Jerrin raised the dagger somewhat tremulous at the thought of an era ending and beginning. He took no pleasure in that fact. Truthfully, he didn't feel much of anything. 'I'm sorry.' That seemed like the right thing to say before stabbing someone.

'So am I.' Gaius did not flinch at the touch of the knife. He died as he had lived, with his eyes searching unflinchingly for the truth of the moment.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Three

When it happened, it did so quickly and without warning. The lights went out all at once as though artificial illumination had been deemed an affront to the stars and had to be purged from existence. A world of tinkling silver and gently chiming crystal was replaced by one where shadows shifted on the walls and whispers stalked along the corridors. Darkness was of course a completely natural thing, which is why men feared it. So much so in fact that throughout history they had burned entire forests to the ground and smashed the atom to keep it at bay. Somewhat genuine laughter and the sounds of people getting ready for bed turned to unsettled shouts and hysterical screams as the palace was plunged into premature darkness. It might have been a power cut, an accidental interruption of utility services due to some minor technical fault or an after effect of the storm that the complex had just floated through, but rational conclusions are never the first to be drawn at the onset of unexpected events. People couldn't be blamed for being concerned and confused; the lights might have been out but every monitor in every room displayed the same innocuous emergency message informing them to standby but without telling them what for. Then there was that insanity-inducing test tone that was enough to reduce otherwise stalwart souls to knee-cradling, tongue-swallowing morons. Thousands of centuries of horror and death had taught humanity to fear anything out of the ordinary so that even the slightest deviation from the norm, whether real or imagined, was capable of provoking the most violent and heinous of reactions. When people found their doors locked from the outside and the dungeon-darkness only broken by the all-seeing stares of searchlights they could not help but imagine that every conceivable vision of hell had been collected inside a snow globe, shaken violently and then left to languish beneath torrential downpours of blood directly outside their homes.

If Ralph had been given the time or opportunity then perhaps he would have been locked away in his chambers, shivering in the shadows and waiting for a terrible death that may or may not have been coming for him. Were there any loved ones in his life then he might have even enjoyed, after a fashion, spending his final moments with them. There weren't though. Love was as alien to him as it was to his brother, and his father. In another time and another place that might have been bizarre but as his neck chafed against the gorget-collar of his coat he wondered what use was love in a world where air that only hours before was severely cold and laden with the scent of sodden vegetation had been whisked into a boiling tornado of sulphurous dust by the thruster wakes of drop-ships and hover-props? No use at all he mused as he tapped his toe-caps against ground that once was sprinkled with pellets of stubborn hail which refused to melt but had lost all semblance of cohesion under the onslaught of boots and bullets and bombs. All that remained was a shallow reservoir of mud and fractured stone in which men would have found it easier to drown one another than make any efficient use of their weapons.

Only hours ago the situation had seemed favourable as he waited with Worfeld in a docking bay under the outer domestic plateau. Framed by clusters of oak growing out of the retaining wall the access hatch gaped like the entrance to a spriggan's lair. Guided in on beams of ruby light Karlo's troop transports landed gingerly on the decking as though they were the first bees of the year going about their work, vanguards of the harvest. Beneath their landing jets the silver floor turned to a pond of rippling fire in which it seemed could be seen the future of mankind. Ralph was not encouraged by the visions that flared within, but then cynics always saw the worst and generally failed to understand that terrible events often had remarkable benefits in the long term. Though as the soldiers disembarked and the admiral's face was split by a prideful sneer, he could not accept that to be the truth in that particular instance. Once men with guns became involved in a situation it usually proved very difficult convincing them to un-involve themselves. No words were exchanged, they all knew what they had to do but only Ralph was uncertain as to whether it was the right thing. When his mind returned to the present he needed no convincing.

Should anyone else have needed proof then all they needed to do was look out of the window at what had become of their floating castle city. Its lofty thoroughfares were piled high in some places with improvised barricades that jutted from the surface streets like rows of crooked teeth from broken jaws; in others they had been battered down so that chunks of metal and masonry rolled like marbles in bloody mockery of an innocent game. It looked as though someone had run through the streets desperate to block a flood even though the waters had already risen to waist height. The unquiet sky was marred not only by the tumorous accumulation of rainfall in the distance but also by plumes of smoke that stood for skin-crawling moments like mushroom clouds carved from stone only to topple madly in on and through themselves as they were whisked away by the wind. Along streets once lit only by the glow of lamps that asked the moon its pardon for mimicking it so shamelessly, there rushed and roared the rampant hazy shimmer of fires. His home had become a crucible in which all extraneous and irrelevant matter was being burned away. What would remain after the inferno had subsided he could not have said.

Crouched by the base of a broken statue he waited until an approaching group of soldiers howled like a contemptuous squall that matched, beat for arrhythmic beat, his fever-pitch pulse. Every thump of their boots on the cobble stones was echoed in the back of his skull by the lingering primitive urge to fight that defined all men. Or women for that matter. It was always there, every second of every day and threatened to find expression at each stubbed toe, accidental collision with a fellow pedestrian or other such minor inconvenience. It was an inbuilt defence mechanism, a subconscious call to arms from a time when anyone and anything was a threat to life itself. It called to him, demanded that he act. Of course, he knew he could not have remained cowering in the shadows forever so whether the time was right or not he forced himself out of cover, one hand on his gun whilst the other clawed backwards for the safety of the rubble he'd emerged from. Not knowing and not particularly caring if anyone was following him and heedless of what waited for him up ahead he pressed on anyway. With every step the world around him seemed to sway as though reality had been strapped to a rapidly descending pendulum. The only thing he could say for certain was that he was going towards a courtyard directly in front of the central spire, the rest was just a blur of melted-clock walls that collapsed around him and bile-coloured, corkscrewed faces begging him to end their torment.

His lonely dash through curtains of screeching metal and boiling spears of light did not last for long. Mere seconds after he set foot into the ragged no-man’s land that was once the site of garden parties and outdoor theatrical matinees, he felt the world lurch behind him as he was submerged entirely in the razor wire whirlpool of war. The air grew fat with bullets and mud. There was one last desperately short second of peace before a savage storm of shouts and screams raged upon the ground as flurries of agony and grief were flung up into the clouds where all pain was crudely muffled by the indifferent plucking of harp strings. Soldiers blinded by a grotty deluge of shrapnel stumbled through curtains of sludge in the hopes of finding somewhere to hide. Fighter ships had gathered over the tangled skyscraper ribs of the city like vermin around a corpse. Ralph turned away from a particularly violent explosion that left a mountain of dirt and the stench of singed flesh in its wake. His eardrums were rattling so much that he could not even hear the gurgles of a man beside him bleeding out from slashes across his throat and gut. A couple of meters further on from him, a fire team fanned out down what had been the hard-shoulder of a ground-car route. Every now and then his nostrils would fill with the reek of petroleum as they charged up their weapons and doused an enemy emplacement with gouts of adhesive flame. Enemies? If only they had been, that would made have it easier to tolerate listening to them burn alive. They were not foes elementally different to himself, they simply fought for another point of view and for that he was sending them to their graves.

Ralph saw the admiral emerge from a coiling cloud of smoke, the cloying fumes wrapped themselves around his limbs as though he were wrestling with a cephalopodic monstrosity from a realm of living nightmares. Having forced himself to stumble towards Karlo, Ralph dropped himself down the ground and crawled through a quagmire of ash and filth to where the old man had come to rest after his bout with the burning shadows. 'I don't remember this being part of the plan.' Words he thought were simply errant thoughts emerged from his mouth before he could stop them.

'Really? Could have sworn I mentioned it somewhere.' Karlo pressed himself against the smouldering remnants of an ornamental fountain and looked at Ralph as though he had misunderstood the most elementary aspects of reality.

'Trust me, I'd remember!' Part of a column vaporizing nearby necessitated the shouting, but not the attendant attitude. Although given the fact that things were either being smashed by bullets, incinerated by lasers or prised apart atom by atom all around him a certain lack of decorum could be excused.

A quick scan of the steps on the far side of the courtyard revealed a 'Well, you forgot how many soldiers your brother had in his employ!'

'I didn't know!' Ignorance in his case was not an excuse, it was a reason but he should have expected that Jerrin would have been prepared.

'And that's my fault?'

'No.' Ralph knew that the blame rested nowhere but with him. His brother may have been responsible but maybe he was only acting out in response to provocation.

'Then don't get snippy with me! Isn't this what you wanted?' Karlo jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the burning tower.

How could the admiral ask a question like that? 'This is nothing remotely like what I wanted.' The tableau of raving horror that twisted before him like a tapestry of flesh woven with burning wire could never be like anything that a sane mind could wish for.

'Not yet, but...'

'Let me guess you're about to tell me a story involving omelettes and eggs?' Ralph asked as he took a pot shot at a soldier. His left leg vanished and he collapsed to the floor like a tent with its poles ripped out.

'Omelettes?' Karlo had no idea what the prince was blathering on about. Shell shock had set in with unusual rapidity.

Ralph shrugged off the admiral's lack of culinary knowledge just as he did the clumps of soil that a laser blast had thrown up into the air. 'An old Earth dish.'

'Never was a fan of antique cuisine.'

'If we live through this I'll have to make some for you.'

'That could be interesting.' Oddly enough Karlo greatly appreciated that gesture. No one was ever above being offered a free meal. 'But at the moment, that's a pretty big if.'

Ralph couldn't help but feel comforted by the admiral's brusqueness. It was a quality he'd always admired in the man, it enabled him to cut through the nonsense and just get on with things. 'Don't worry, admiral, I have faith in you and your soldiers.'

What was left of an imperial soldier landed next to the wall. Karlo nodded at the shredded torso. 'Excellent because they're dying for their faith in you.'

The fighting spread from the courtyard up into the lower levels of the spire from which the affairs of mankind were managed and manipulated. Whole tiers of gardens were forests of flame, where leaves cascaded in a windfall of cinders through orchards of ash. Statues that had stood the onslaught of centuries upon centuries of foppish admiration fell to the ground and shattered, the eggshell dreams of the arrogant and self-absorbed trodden beneath the feet of men that self-appointed elites would have looked down upon with condescending sneers. But it was such men, regardless of the realities of their personal natures, who would determine the future of history. Just as they had done countless times before. The entire course of civilisation had been written with bootprints just as much as with a pen. As Ralph watched his own chapter write itself in front of his very eyes, he hoped that it would be the last time that blood was used instead of ink by men such as himself to make their mark in the name of everyone else. As he stepped through a red mist that had only seconds before been a huddled squad of soldiers he found himself haloed by a light from a place where light was there all was. Was it real or just the vagaries of his perception deforming, or rather reforming, a world falling to ruins all around him? It might just have been wishful thinking but the blast of illumination seemed to colour the atrocities occurring around him, first to retina-searing pastel shades as though everything was just an hallucination projected from a foreign mind but then they faded out almost completely until they were just shapes crawling behind a curtain. Then there was a sound like all his nerves fraying at once and it was only once he thought he was going to fall to knees and never be able to rise again that he realised there was a drop ship landing in the courtyard.

When the dust from its exhaust settled and its descent lights went out Ralph saw a man walking down an embarkation ramp. 'Admiral, who is that?'

Although Karlo really should not have allowed his attention to wander even for a moment he too was curious as to who had just arrived. He'd not scheduled any more troop deployments and it was only once he'd peered through the clouds of settling dirt that he realised he'd given one particular his orders quite some time ago. 'That's Captain Spader. He made it back.' He was more surprised than relieved.

The captain wasn't alone and those soldiers with him were not unarmed. Given the circumstances that wasn't unusual, but what worried Ralph was where they were aiming their weapons. 'In that case, why are his men pointing their guns at us?'  

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Two

Alvin's fingertips clawed at the padded armrests of his chair as though he were a dog scratching at the bottom of a locked door. The trip back to Earth had been unendurably long to the point that he wished he had never given the order to return. To make matters worse they had not encountered a single enemy ship for the entire duration of the journey. Under ordinary circumstances a safe voyage would have been considered blessed, or simply fortunate for those of a more rational persuasion. However, not-with-standing everything else that could be said about the war at least it made life a little bit more interesting. Space was never by any means an entirely safe place to make a life or career; at any given moment one could find themselves floating home in an escape pod no bigger than the average single bed after an attack by corsairs or an encounter with a spatial anomaly. As unpredictable as pirates could be and seeing as most dangerous phenomena were clearly marked, blasting along at full-pelt through the central traffic lanes meant that the Hermod only had to contend with the occasional over-zealous border patrols. They tended to quickly back down once they realised that by challenging the warship not only had they bitten off more than they could chew but more than they could swallow and digest. As a result there was little else for him and his crew to do other than contemplate the nature of their mission. That was never good for morale. As soldiers they had spent a lifetime being given orders and following them, going off-script was not one of their strong points.

He'd never been a huge fan of improvising either to be fair though. When not stepping in to prevent debates amongst his officers from turning into brawls he spent the rest of the time watching space scroll across the projectors on the bridge, the infinitude of emptiness maliciously mocked him like the glint of light off a shard of obsidian. Failing that he barricaded himself inside his quarters or office where he engaged in teeth-gnashing contemplation of the task at hand. What was the point of it? What did he really hope to accomplish by dragging his ship and crew across thousands of light years of space to a world that may or may not have needed to be rescued, if it even deserved to be, from its self-inflicted demise? One ship with one crew had never truly made a difference. There was no logical reason for him to assume that would be the case in the present situation, but like a psychiatrist transported to the grove of suicides by some means of astral summoning he would attempt to do his job regardless of how pointless it was. All heroes hoped to triumph against the odds, but Alvin had never claimed to be one nor would he want to be. There was too much work involved with heroism, not only in obtaining the status but in maintaining the reputation. It was one thing to emerge victorious from a fist fight in the mud whilst your opponent sunk into the grime with a crushed windpipe or shattered skull but quite another entirely to keep up the lie when common folk believed you had single-handedly left a thousand soldiers dead in the their trenches. He would do what his duty demanded of him, nothing less and definitely nothing more; that way he could avoid the temptation to become deluded enough to convince himself that he was something he was not.

Through a gap in his thoughts he caught sight of the blizzard of mechanical debris that was all that remained of mankind's earliest fumbling forays into space travel. It drifted in slowly swirling clouds, preserved for posterity as a monument to the former glories of the species. Various probes and satellites had of course escaped the limited confines of the solar system long before humans had ever stood erect in the light of a foreign star, their mechanical minds racked by computational lunacy as they travelled alone through the void until their power supplies were depleted and they drifted like leaves on a lake. But the bulk of it had been dragged out into the museum belt, where citizens went to gawp in wonder at the detritus humanity had left in its wake much the same way that the over-wealthy used to journey to ancient Aradubai to squander their riches in its fire-bright spires of gold and glass. He watched a mag-train, still attached to a length of suspensor-track that had once carried it between space stations, tumble beside the frosted corpses of an orbital power plant. It looked like a shatter-spined snake tossed off a mountain side, its feeble frame splintered as it bounced from boulder to boulder. Pods from ancient space stations span in stately twirls like Rembrandt's models flaunting their fleshy magnificence. Once they had housed thousands of intrepid colonists who dared to make the stars their home when the continents of the planet below them were still scolded by varieties of holocausts that eugenicists of the ancient world ,even in the grip of their most fevered madness, would have trembled to behold. The living rock itself was etched with an epitaph written in swathes of atomic fire that melted mountains and rivers of nano-mechanical plagues that drowned entire species as easily as a heartless man might have drowned a bag of cats. From their seats in the sky those people watched the world recover its equilibrium. Thousands of years later all that was left of their homes of glass and iron were vacuum desiccated compartments silent as any crypt, picked apart by scavenger droids just as corpses became fodder for the worms.

As the debris faded by the ship like shuriken sailing wide of their mark Alvin knew that his vessel was likewise whispering by the outer worlds of the solar system. He could not picture them from memory, not exactly as they were, even men with minds full of numbers who saw them as nothing more than spheres of gas and rock and metal could never hope to recall with perfect detail every nuance of their celestial construction. But their images were nonetheless engrained in his mind, as everywhere he looked from the day of his birth to that very moment in his office he saw them painted in gold on blue like the heads of a morning star swung by some divine avenger. How many soldiers like himself had clutched the emblem on their chest as though it were a saintly relic to ward off their inevitable early death only moments before it came to pass? How many citizens had cowered beneath the imperial banner crying out for Earth to protect them, unaware that was as much use as expecting a shadow to be bullet proof? A number beyond count, no doubt. Yet at that point he knew it was the Earth itself that needed such protection, as much from its own inhabitants as from any external threat. A situation repeated throughout history as though the entirety of human existence was the product of a focus-group hive-mind that bound by the constraints of its limited capabilities kept repeating the same suggestions over and over again until failure had become so engrained, so common place, that not only was it expected but also secretly hoped for. That had to change, but would it? Was there anyone alive capable of enacting such a dramatic shift in the paradigm of mankind's socio-economic continuity?

There were always more questions but Alvin could see that there was no point in asking them. He knew the answers anyway, everyone did. The Empire was too big to fail. That didn't stop it from repeatedly doing so though. Perhaps the problem was Earth itself. A corrupted and corrupting carbuncle, siphoning off the galaxy's bounty for itself while giving nothing back but a vague impression of its essential utility to society, that should have been carved from its fittings long ago. That was not a decision for one so lowly as he. Or maybe, just maybe, someone like him was uniquely qualified to make it. Those heretical thoughts made him shudder as though he'd just brushed against a wall of slugs, but no more so than the soft pop of the intercom activating and ending his introspective isolation.

'Captain, I think you should get out here.' Through the speakers Elliot's voice sounded clipped and mechanical as though a robot had stolen his vocal cords as part of some murderous homage to Pinocchio.

'What is it?' Alvin wanted nothing more than to be left alone, to be afforded the same luxury as any other man to shut himself away from the world and lament his woes; but he had responsibilities, duties and expectations to live up to. If he lived through the coming days perhaps he would ask for his old job back.

'You should see this for yourself, sir.'

Was the ensign being intentionally enigmatic? That was not the time for it. 'Fine...on my way.'

Alvin grabbed his coffee cup and held it slightly before him like a lantern to guide him along the crumbled crenellations of a storm-struck fortress. The vapour spewing forth from its contents seemed to waft about him, enlivening his sluggish steps and whilst his unwilling mind may have seen the floor as a treacherous conglomeration of slime-slick stone in reality his boots clomped on the metal decking like a sap on the back of a skull. What might have been a portcullis opened in front of him and the eyes of slumberous sentinels peered at him through murder-holes. With a sip of his beverage the fantasy cleared, his office door slid shut behind him and the bridge crew were attending to their allotted tasks.

Lenham chose to overlook Alvin's crumpled tunic and unpolished boots for the time being. He couldn't judge the captain too harshly, his own uniform wasn't exactly spotless and freshly pressed. 'We're coming up on the Saturnial defence perimeter.'

A long pause was broken only by the ruffling of a metallic foil paper pad on a nearby workstation. 'And?' There was nothing special about that, every ship that wanted to proceed to the inner solar system had to go through it. Surely no one imagined that was worth disturbing him for?

'On viewer.' The echo of Lenham's command was replaced by the fluorescent flickering of the holographic projectors as they scratched an image of the ship's surroundings into the air above his head.

At first it was a tangled mess of interconnected wire-frames that bled together until they resembled nothing more than the distant glow of an angler fish lure. Then as the readings stabilised and the computer adjusted to the strain, a swarm of ships emerged from the digital haze. Some seemed to be vast slabs of stone propped in place over sacred graves, light from their windows softening their dread façades like patches of luminescent lichen. In thrall to their monstrous bulk smaller vessels darted and drifted, their engines spouting contrails of plasma that carved through the absolute darkness of space. Behind that veil of mobile metal loomed the grandiloquent mass of Saturn itself, a sphere of gas turned the silver-mauve of a geriatric drunkard's cheeks. Its rings a flurry of shackled snow storms held in place by gravity's invisible chains, each individual wintry rock gathered by the planet's namesake god and kept in bondage far from where it could plunge mankind into relentless and unforgiving cold.

'That's a lot ships.' Alvin underplayed his astonishment. He had never seen so many vessels gathered in the same place, not even on naval manoeuvres. It seemed as though every ship of the line for ten thousand light years had congregated in one spot. For what purpose he could not say, but he doubted any good would come of it. 'Where are they going?'

Lenham looked up at the hovering cloud of ships like a farmer regarding the appearance of an indecisive plague of locusts. 'Nowhere, sir. They're just waiting.'

'Aren't we all?' Elliot forced himself to study a monitor so that he didn't have to turn and face his fate. He knew that eventually he would have to but like an embezzler unable to spend his ill-gotten gains he could not quite bring himself to admit it.

For all the boy's fear there was still an air of excitement to his words, like a virgin anticipating his first conquest. He shouldn't be so keen. Yes, he may have seen combat before but if Alvin's suspicions were correct then what he was about to go through was much worse. He gulped down his own throat-clogging trepidation. 'How long until we make terrestrial orbit?'

'Roughly five hours.'

'So soon.' Alvin considered reducing speed but all that would accomplish was to prolong the waiting. That was the most dangerous part of war. It was when men unable to comprehend the full magnitude of their future actions were free to lose their minds. Most could endure the horrors of battle in their own way, but the silence and boredom before hand were often enough to break the stoutest of hearts. It was at such times that ordinary men and women most sorely needed to witness the die-cast courage and suave indifference of their commanders so that their seeming lack of fear could dissuade the common soldiery from any thoughts of cowardice. But Alvin knew that anyone who was ever charged with desertion was guilty of no crime other than to be possessed of extraordinarily prescient common sense. He looked at the crew around him and hoped that he was competent enough to send them home alive. 'Go and get some rest, ensign. That goes for all of you. Commander Tresselian and I will take the watch until we reach Earth.'

No one needed to be told twice. The bridge emptied like a cattle pen after a cull and a ghastly quiet settled over it. Brief glances around the consoles confirmed that everything was operating within normal parameters. Alvin slumped back in his chair and channelled his thoughts into his steepled fingers. He didn't intend to act without more information. Ignorance in a situation like that could not only prove to be personally fatal but also disastrous for the ship. He doubted the engineers at the Novagrad shipyards would approve of him coming back, if he did at all, with nothing but apologies and reports of how admirably the Hermod had performed. They'd probably rather see his naked corpse dragged through the streets to be spat upon by all and sundry. To be honest, he wouldn't have blamed them. 'Lenham, patch us into the Lunar observation network.'

'Sir?' Caution was the defining attribute of Lenham's nature but it had its limits. That close to the imperial seat there was very little out of the ordinary that could have escaped the notice of the various systems of surveillance and coercion that monitored everyday life. But perhaps there was something specific that they might have overlooked, something that ordinarily they would not deem it necessary to see.

'Find out where the palace is going to be in five hours and plot an appropriate re-entry trajectory.' As he watched Lenham comply, Alvin could not help but wonder why he was willing to risk so much for so small a world, in a cosmologically insignificant solar system in a universally meaningless galaxy. No matter which way he looked at it knew it was because Earth was the cornerstone of a dream shared by people in their billions. A dream as wondrous as it was dreadful that had gone on since the first man dared put time into words and that would continue until the last woman sang a story to the final child. Without that shared vision to bind the disparate worlds of humanity together there was nothing but anarchy and horror, a tide of never-ebbing lunacy that would consume everything. The risk was worth it despite how much the reality was lacking compared to the fantasy.

He took a long sip of coffee and his innards quivered. He wanted to summon someone from the galley, but being presented with what could potentially have been his last meal was not an appealing prospect. Alternatively, he supposed, he could have locked himself inside an escape pod and vanish into the void but had he done so it would not have been long before he realised that there was nowhere to run to. The war was everywhere. Of course, he could have left the galaxy and humanity behind to live out the rest of his days in a place that represented the entire totality of what it meant to be alone. But what would be the point of living if there was nothing worth dying for? He remained seated as the ship thundered towards Earth and hoped that whether he lived or died that it would not be without good cause.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-One

Which was of course exactly what had happened, there was no way that such a conversation could ever go without being subject to some form of surveillance. It was the natural order of things that secrets, no matter how great or terrible, would always find their way into the light. They'd be dragged from their soft and silent dens on the lips of conspirators and hauled into the open where they would be hunted to extinction, their remains put on display for all to gawk at. Keir's lungs dragged in an unsettled breath as the circuits connecting his eardrums to receptors hidden in the serving drone withdrew into their fittings embedded in the surrounding flesh. The sensation only lasted for a second. Nevertheless it was unpleasant, like pulling a splinter from under a nail but the discomfort was worth it. Without the implants he would have had to be in the room himself, and there was nothing less conducive to an atmosphere of free-flowing conversation than the presence of someone like him. He was able to avoid detection if the mood so struck him but only in places where his kind was expected to be. If the soiree had been nothing more than an addendum to some practically interminable official function, then he might have got away with skulking around. Everyone knew that events like that were infested with his type so they paid them no mind; they floated at the edge of conversations gathering titbits of information like fish nibbling at pellets of food. But at a full-fledged social event, where they didn't have to pretend to tolerate people they didn't like to maintain their professional reputations someone like Keir was entirely out of place. They may have allowed him to live and work in their society but he was not part of it, or if he was then it was not a part that they cared to acknowledge like the core of a verruca that had finally fallen out. Granted, he could have entrusted one of Jerrin's more socially acceptable associates (for want of a better term) to keep an eye and an ear open for anything that might have been vaguely considered pertinent. Although, given their propensity for flights of fancy and general indolence he didn't want to risk it. Besides, this was no ordinary assignment and it certainly wasn't one that the prince would have approved of: least of all because he hadn't given it the go ahead and most of all because he was its intended target. Either one of those facts would have been enough to discount the prince's regular companions from participation, but both of them together meant that they were absolute non-entities as far as the mission was concerned.

Once he stopped wincing at the pain that crawled through the soft tissues of his ears he found that without the active augmentation to his hearing the world seemed dim and distant, less real to a certain extent like a voice from a dream echoing off a pillow. Not that that was entirely a bad thing, even he needed a break from reality every now and then. Especially now. He'd had nothing to do for months other than listen to Jerrin prattle on about his plans for the throne or relay the details of said plans to the emperor. Frankly, he was getting tired of it, exhausted by it even. So much so that he actually caught himself missing the sweet oblivion that lingered at the edge of his consciousness amongst the not-quite-memories from before he'd been flushed out of his incubation chamber. That didn't last for long of course but there were times when he convinced himself that non-existence would have been preferable to shepherding secrets back and forth along the palace corridors. If his life had been worth anything perhaps he might have considered throwing himself out of a window in the central spire to put an end to the tedium but they'd just scrape his remains off the pavement, grow another version of him, superimpose a transcription of his synaptic pathways onto a fresh brain and he'd have to go through it all over again. The only difference between his previous and present lives would be that he'd remember what it felt like in that split second when his body literally exploded. Such an unpleasant thought made him feel as though he was still in the ball room, where the laughter of aristocrats rebounded off the ceiling frescoes and made crystal candelabras vibrate in agonising repetition of their attempts to out guffaw one another.

The very thought of them made his stomach churn. Their faces flushed to a crushed strawberry red by their drink, lips slick with fowl fat and eyes glazed over as though iced pastries had been shoved into their skulls. There they were gathered together, a macabre assembly of profane icons dedicated to some gluttonous, murdering god set in place to guard a shrine that was little more than an offal pit covered with an igloo of gore-splattered granite. The familiar taste of bile creeping up the back of his throat brought him to his senses. Thankfully he had not been trapped in a limbo of silicone constructs and monuments of qubits, forced to observe them forever as they gorged. He was back in the world of flesh with a cup of ginger tea steaming on the trestle table beside him. He cracked his knuckles once or twice just to be certain of his physicality and the hollow smack of his cartilage bounced back to him from between the stacks of books that dominated the emperor's sanctuary. The air conditioners stirred streams of dust along the shadow-speckled aisles and sconces daubed the walls with fluorescent splashes. The continuous wheeze of computer coolant wafted towards him from the far end of the room where screens displayed collated data in a series of stuttering images as though with every blink of their inner eyes the machines beheld a succession of new realities. How long they had been working there was no way to tell, but Keir had not seen them ever cease not even for a moment. The emperor would not allow it, their task and his was not yet done. Speaking of which, where was the old man? He asked himself and cast a shifty glance this way and that as if he were demanding an answer from the studious silence itself. No sign of him. Where could he have gone?

'Is he planning to move against Jerrin?'

Behind him evidently. Keir turned in the chair and masked his surprise by pretending to still be adjusting back to normal hearing, tugging his earlobes as though he were a jack in the process of pulling himself out of the box. Although in truth he was only half-pretending. It still felt like he'd had his head in an airlock as the pressure seal broke. It took a rare talent to sneak up on Keir and he was repeatedly amazed at how adept the emperor had become at it. Such mastery of the shadowy arts took an unusual amount of dedication. Keir had been bred for it, every muscle fibre precisely tuned for optimum poise and precision which resulted in a form so delicate that it was both beautiful and monstrous at the same time. For his inherent skill to be matched by a normal human being was almost insulting. But then he supposed that the emperor was only normal in a relative sense. 'Yes.'

Gaius knew, in a way he had always known. Not that Jerrin sought the throne (well yes that too) but that Ralph would act first to safeguard his father's life and failing that, his legacy. He had always been the better son but not the best candidate to rule. 'As he should. He'd do anything to protect me.' For all the truly genuine affection in his voice he couldn't help but be disappointed. There was far more at stake than filial obligation but in some part of his heart that hadn't been hardened beyond redemption by decades of relentless duty he took comfort in the fact that at least one his children loved him, or at least respected him, enough to want to try and save his life.

'You raised him well.' Keir supposed that his tone was reassuring, at least he meant it to be. He wondered what it was like to grow up. He never had because he had never been a child and the closest thing he had to a father was the technician assigned to ensure that the training and information encoded in his mitochondria hadn't been corrupted during his gestation. It made for rather bleak, if refreshingly trauma free recollections of his early inter-personal relations. 'I don't mean to question you but-'

That was just nonsense. 'Of course you do!' Gaius regretted the harshness of his voice, not that Keir displayed any reaction other than a curious twitch of his left eyebrow. 'You wouldn't be any good to me if you didn't doubt me.' His lips curled in a smile but his eyes did not, could not, echo it. Their metallic surfaces twinkled with nothing other than the reflected light from the wall sconces, they gleamed like pebbles tossed in the surf.

'Quite.' Keir knew that made a certain amount of sense, no one in a position of power deserved their place if they were not willing to listen to the doubts of their counsellors. They didn't have to act on them and more often than not they didn't; either way they always paid the price in the end.

'You're concerned about my decision.' That was more than understandable. Gaius wasn't entirely sure he was happy about it either, but his personal gratification wasn't a priority. He had centuries upon centuries of progress and civilisation to protect and an equal amount of wrongs to set right. The books around him contained everything there was to know about all of it and it was with them that he would strike the final fatal blow against the tyrannical terror that his predecessors had ultimately failed to slay. He was living proof of that appalling truth. 'It is the only way.'

There was no need to be so fatalistic. 'Abdication is still a possibility.'

What? Abdicate and spend the rest of his life as a topic for mocking opinion pieces until he died and became the laughing stock of imperial history? 'No, that wouldn't be enough. Besides, I wouldn't want to live knowing that I'd failed so completely.'

'Failed? You've done more in one lifetime than any man could hope.' His taxation reforms alone had redefined the boundaries of society; the agricultural programmes he'd sponsored had made sure that no citizen ever went to bed on an empty stomach; his stewardship had forever cemented the fact that education was an inalienable civil right not just a box for people to tick when they applied for jobs they wouldn't get anyway because they weren't the “right” kind of person.

Gaius looked at Keir and through him saw every man, woman and child that lived in his dominion. It was true that he had done a lot but no matter how much he tried to tell himself that he knew, 'It's not enough. I should have done more. I could have done more.' Through his death and replacement he would do more.

'You still could. You needn't sit on the throne to be an asset to humanity.' Keir was almost pleading, if he'd been one prone to or capable of outbursts of emotion he may have been on his knees tugging at the emperor's sleeves begging him to reconsider like some hausfrau in a melodrama.

'Perhaps, but more drastic change is needed than that.' Gaius would have liked nothing more for there have been a quick fix to the problem, but a lifetime of work had proved conclusively that there wasn't one. Even his current plan, if he managed to carry it out, would not achieve full fruition until long after his death.
Silence filled the room. Even the sounds of the computers faded into nothingness as the two of them reflected on the truth of the matter. The emperor was right of course, but that didn't make any easier to accept. 'This probably will not mean anything coming from someone like me but I don't want to see you die.' Keir actually meant that, a fact which almost astonished him. The old man was nothing special to him, he held no sacred place in his heart. He was just the person he'd been designed to obey, yet there was something which made him feel as though the emperor truly mattered to him. He didn't really care who sat on the throne or who commanded the legions vast that kept mankind unified as it sprawled itself across the galaxy. At least he shouldn't have done.

A clone constructed for espionage and murder developing an appreciation for something other than carrying out his orders? Gaius would have found that hard to believe but in such strange days nothing was impossible. 'Coming from someone like you, that means more than you can know.' It seemed fitting to pat the spy on his shoulder. The knowledge that that might very well have been the last physical contact that he would ever have with another human being, even a fake one, made him wish that there was still time to find an alternative solution, but there wasn't. The void from which all life sprang and to which all life returned beckoned him. Somewhere in a place beyond the ken of science and mortal men a spectre, with eyes as sharp as a lethal injection needles and phantasmal skin that clung to musty bones like a veil made from trillions of last breaths, added his name to a list written in ink made from the powered hearts of every star that had ever died.

Keir did not approve of the touch but he appreciated the gesture all the same. He stood and tugged at the cuffs of his shirt before he made his way to the door to put the next phase of the plan into motion. Before he left he turned and said, 'Thank you.' It seemed appropriate. The emperor was one of the only men he knew who treated him like real person. Keir knew that Gaius didn't entirely believe he was one, but his thoughts were irrelevant. What mattered were his actions.

Gaius understood what was going to happen next and that his remaining days on Earth were literally numbered in the single digits. 'You will take care of them when I'm gone won't you, Keir? The boys.' Obviously they were old enough to handle their own personal affairs but it never hurt to have someone like agent Olesk in the background steering them in the right direction. The not-too-distant future was going to be very trying for Ralph more than anyone else, the last thing he wanted was for his eldest son to feel like his father had abandoned him...again.

That wasn't exactly included Keir's job description, but hand-holding Jerrin through his recent schemes had been the latest in a long line of tasks hastily added to his remit. Ralph had always been more independently steadfast, his sense of self adequately adjusted to the role selected for him so he didn't imagine he would pose much of a challenge to his patience. 'I'll try.' What else could he have said?

Jerrin's plan had thus far been so excellently orchestrated that no one suspected him. If he hadn't been himself then not even he would have been able to guess what he was up to. On the off chance that anyone had actually become suspicious of him then they had no proof of his activities, and those who were in possession of such evidence had too much to lose from his failure to bother running to the custodians. If the impossible happened and he was discovered then he would just have to accelerate his timetable; he was not about to unweave his tangled web after he had spent so long constructing it thread by thread until when he closed his eyes he could trace its extent from one side of the galaxy to the other. As if nervous physical activity would force the space time continuum to yield victory to him before it was due he alternated between tapping his feet impatiently and pacing like a lunatic convinced that if he stopped then the world would fly off its axis. But for the moment it span on just as it always had and reflected in his eyes as he glanced out of the window was the crack-toothed sawblade skyline of a half-finished city on the coast of what had once been a continent so barren and ruinous that its landscape looked as though it had been blanketed with the hyperkeratotic skin of harlequin babies. Long ago in a time almost beyond memory it had been the city of pearls; a place with such wealth and power that its inhabitants controlled the destiny of the entire southern hemisphere.

From its central transportation hubs vast titanium anacondas slithered along the tracks of trans-tectonic railways and its harbours and shipyards were the spawning grounds for leviathans of steel that turned the ocean to foam in their wake. But since its integration into the global economy post-unification of humanity it had never quite regained its status as a planetary hub, which is why although it wasn't abandoned many of its more ambitious projects had been. Once buildings had reached a certain height they tapered out into the set-aside dreams of over-confident architects, left in a state of near-completion that tantalised the minds of onlookers with fantasies of what might have been. But for all the shabbiness that marred the marvels of the city Jerrin knew that it could not be discounted for much longer. Its fortunes were about to change for the better along with those of every other citizen of the empire. Once the old man was gone so too would be the haze of relentless desiccation that had penetrated right to the very heart of the Empire. No longer would the course of civilisation be determined by the pace-making stupidity of the administrative and noble houses. He would give back to humanity what it had lost. Its spirit of bold adventure, its thirst for knowledge, its lust for conquest and its drive for eventual peace.

His reflection watched its corporeal counterpart practising rhetorical gestures; if it had been capable of expressing anything of its own accord then it might have found the sight bordering on hilarious but as it was it merely mimicked the sneer of self-satisfied braggadocio splattered across his face. Jerrin paused after lowering imaginary laurels onto his head and for a moment considered peace. Every ruler worth their salt knew that it could only be obtained by preparing for war and he had done nothing but that. The beauty of it was that the war didn't even have to be real for it to take its toll. The convoys of refugee ships that arrived in greater numbers week upon week made it more than obvious that the colonies were in uproar: it didn't matter whether their home worlds were actually under attack or not, it was the fear that drove them to the brink of madness. One couldn't turn on a local newsvid without being confronted with constant torrent of strategic speculation, tactical analyses, exaggerated casualty figures and dire economic projections. That was nothing unusual to be honest, good news was not interesting or entertaining news, nor was there anything out of the ordinary about the cloying smiles the reporters tried to hide when they spouted regurgitated factoids as though they'd been the ones to invent them. It was all so charmingly amateurish that he couldn't help admire them for trying. Not a day went by that he wasn't bombarded with reports, official or otherwise, provided by soldiers and civilians who were beyond the scope of traditionally “reliable” sources. They varied in content dramatically but regardless of whatever empirical exposition they held, each and every one of them only served to confirm that the situation was becoming utterly untenable. What was the government doing about it? Without reliable interstellar communications there was no way to really know. People were crying out for strong leadership. His leadership. He knew that there would be those who would accuse him of grabbing power simply for his own ends, but that assumption could not have been further from the truth. The people’s grief was something he took to bed with him every single night and the first thing that crossed his mind upon waking. Granted, he had played no small part in causing it but that was irrelevant. He could put an end to it, that was all that mattered.

In the musty gloom of his chambers he pondered the varifocal layers of mist and smog that had draped themselves over the shattered-spear spires along the coast like clouds of lung-clogging cotton. He squinted through the fog to see if he could make out any details when a rectangle of dull yellow light appeared in the mist-wall. It had such an ethereal quality that he allowed himself to believe, if only for one gloriously ecstatic moment that his golden age had already dawned, like a Lowry landscape sculpted in gold he saw the world he would make. There would be no more killing, no more murder, an end to all war and pain. His line would rule the Empire in peace and prosperity for endless generations. But no, his optimism vanished in the blink of his heavy-lidded eyes as Keir emerged from the wash of amber light as though an emissary from some distant time had returned with dire portents of doom. It seemed that things were not to be so simple and the present was not an unfortunate memory but rather something that he would be forced to endure, if only for a while longer. But even that was too long for his taste.

'You're late.' Jerrin pulled the curtains closed with a wave of his hands. The room brightened when lamps activated themselves in response to the further diminished light, insects that began to glow as if darkness itself was their only predator.

'Good evening to you too.' To Keir the room was in an unnatural state of disarray. Jerrin had never been especially fastidious in his domestic habits but at that present moment his quarters looked like the forward camp of some scatterbrained general from one of mankind's mytho-historical pasts unsure of which barbarian tribe to subjugate next.

'Do you have anything for me?'

Keir attempted to find somewhere to sit and failed. Not a single chair, bench or other suitable perch was clear of maps, digi-slates or crumpled clothing. He resigned to remain standing, hands clasped behind his back like a disapproving prefect. 'Your brother just had a rather interesting conversation.

That was not news to Jerrin. 'My brother has many interesting conversations.' Over the years he'd listened to his brother on many occasions; it never hurt to know exactly what his older sibling thought of him. Well, maybe it hurt a little. Ralph wasn't always kind. He had quite the vicious streak when provoked. It was surprising and just a tad encouraging. Maybe they weren't so different at heart after all.

'This one was about you.' Keir dangled that fact out before the prince, waiting for him to lunge for it like a puppy catching a scrap of meat.

'Most of them are, but then all things considered I can't say I blame him for that.' How could he? Jerrin had made it his business to actively involve himself in Ralph's, after all nothing was more heartbreaking than brothers estranged.

'You probably shouldn't have given the game away so early.' Under the circumstances, and given Jerrin's propensity for not-exactly subtle innuendo, it was a miracle that Ralph hadn't moved to counter his brother's efforts long before. He had demonstrated more patience than anyone in his place could generally have claimed to. Thankfully, otherwise his father may not have had time to finalise his own designs.

'I gave him nothing more than he didn't already know or suspect. He's a lot smarter than you give him credit for.'

'That's my point.' Not only was Ralph intelligent, he'd also proven quite adept at the art of deception. The pair really were the emperor's sons, of that there could be no doubt.

'One moment please.' Jerrin gave his immediate and full attention to a computer screen as he responded to its shrill demands for interaction. He scanned the information briefly at fist expecting nothing more than some hint of rumour or intriguing speculation. What he saw instead was far more troubling; like a bluffer working his way through a repertoire of poker faces Jerrin announced, 'There was just a heavy exchange of communication chatter between the surface and several ships in lunar orbit. Admiral Worfeld has been busy it seems.'

'I was just about to inform you of that.' Keir felt unexpectedly affronted by the computer's interruption, as though in some way it believed that it could ever possibly replace him. Robots dominating heavy manufacturing, transportation and the service industries was understandable but for them to usurp his unique position was unthinkable!

'You're getting slow.' Jerrin smirked, the light from the console bathed his face with an unhallowed glow as though he were a necromancer brooding over the consequences of his latest monstrous endeavour.

'Well, it was my idea to infiltrate his personal transmission terminals.'

That struck a dim cord. 'Was it?' But Jerrin shrugged off the recollection, knowing full well that Keir was right he decided to make it sound like he was doing the spy a favour by admitting, 'That seems like something you'd think of so you're probably right.'

'I know I'm right.' Keir was careful not to place any stress on his words. Utter passivity was often the best way to respond to Jerrin when he was in one of his more antagonistic moods.

Jerrin snapped his attention away from the screen, tired of the repartee when it turned against him. 'Yes well, moving on. Is everything ready?' As the screen switched off the room grew darker, its contents sporadically illuminated by ever-growingly distant lashes of lightning that made them seem as though they were the last material fragments of the living world a drowning man saw just before infinity smothered him.

'The guests are about to leave, once they're safely away I'll issue the lock down orders.' Keir could see them know, flocking back to their burrows of marble and gold. They put mirrors everywhere of course, ostensibly to catch the light but in reality each one was placed to reflect them as the centre of their own personal universes.

'Good, if we can do this with minimum collateral damage so much the better.' Judging by the lip-curling disdain on Keir's face that might not have been possible.

'Does your brother count?'

Jerrin wouldn't even dignify that with a response. He reached for a nearby digi-slate, sat behind his desk and began to read. The back-light threw his face into stop-motion life as without so much as flicking his eyes upwards he drawled in Keir's general direction, 'It's been a pleasure as always.'

Keir's scoff was suppressed by the sound of the door panels retracting on their runners but his words were not. 'For you perhaps.'

Not even remotely. 'Let's just get this done.' A glare sent the spy scurrying off to follow his orders. When the doors closed in Keir's wake, Jerrin was left alone in the light unleashed by the receding storm front and waited for his future to begin.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty

Karlo stood by patiently for the waiter to top up his glass. The crystal stem trembled between his thumb and forefinger as though in anticipation or fear of some momentous event. Images of men and women in various traditions of ballroom regalia flittered through the foliage of a ceiling-height bamboo plant potted as the centre piece of a four-tiered mobile rock garden. It tottered from one end of the room to the other, bounced between tables and hobbled through gaps between meandering groups of dancers like the cross-bred creation of a maniacal horticulturist with a side-speciality in tortoise genetics and cybernetics. Holding that thought he wasn't entirely sure if he was on his fourth or fifth flute of the evening, either way he knew it would not be his last. Back on Novagrad he managed to find enough distractions to moderate his habit and he was usually able to cloister himself away in his office after hours sipping from a tumbler of Imperial Red sherry. But he had flown back to the nest, to Earth, and his office had no doubt long since been reduced to a heap of rubble. On the home world, in the palace no less, he was exposed and vulnerable like a man undergoing brain surgery. Every twitch or twinge was the result of someone stood over his trepanated skull prodding and poking his cortices with electro-static rods. There was only so much mixing and mingling he could stomach whilst sober and it seemed that was all he had done since he'd arrived on Earth several months ago.

As his tongue probed his back teeth for crumbs of canapés he glanced around the room at a host of dignitaries stifled as much by their frumpy finery as they were by their own sense of self-importance. Only a handful of them had actually earned their place, fewer of them deserved such elevated rank by merit of their talents alone but the vast majority of them were there simply because they had been born to it. For most of them a silk shirt and a dish of caviar were just as much inherent essentials of everyday life as bread and water were to more garden variety folks. They preened and strutted their way across a gold inlaid parquet floor made from the heartwood of extinct trees, and admired their reflections in crystal lampshades that glittered as though they'd enslaved the stars themselves. He overheard scraps of their conversations, if indeed they could so be called. To him they were nothing more than obnoxiously condescending guffawing, sour-mash intoxicated braying, preposterously self-involved masturbatory ping-pong rallies of words and phrases that had absolutely no connection to one another except to give the impression of reciprocal chattering. It was a good thing he'd not been allowed to wear his weapons, he couldn't have vouched for his own good conduct if they were still slung tantalisingly on his belt.

Decades of sacrifice and subservience had granted him the right to wear the cluster of golden stars on his collar, his rank and titles were meagre rewards for his willingness to leave behind a normal life The server raised an eyebrow when the admiral didn't say “when” so used his best professional judgement to determine when to stop. It was only when a trickle of bubbles ran over the lip of the glass and spattered onto the admiral's boots that he stopped. He did his best to look sheepish and shocked so as to mollify the forthcoming rage but the expected tirade never occurred. Instead the admiral simply waved him away and dried his toecap on the tassels of a nearby rug. As a member of the palace hospitality staff he'd seen more than his fair share of heavy drinkers. Some did it because they genuinely enjoyed it, others because it was expected of them on such occasions. Then there were those like the admiral who didn't take any joy from it nor did they require it as a social lubrication. They had their own reasons, grim and unfathomable though they may have been, to use it as a palliative to mask the pain of all the choices they had and hadn't made. Other members of the kitchen staff roamed through the crowd of immaculately dressed guests, running between their tightly-knit ranks as easily and as silently as a piece of paper slipping under a door. A bartender mixed drinks on request, his face locked in a perpetual grin as though his skin had been stapled, and tried to be politely interested in what his patrons had to say for themselves without showing any genuine concern; casual familiarity was frowned upon. Every now and then he cast his eyes over the labours of a newly installed dispensing drone to make sure its liquor ratios had been properly calibrated. It had done a decent job so far and he only had to step in when it began to hose a nearby mirror with soda water after failing to recognise that it was looking at a reflection of a glass in the mirrors on the back of the bar rather than at an actual glass. The bartender let out the kind of sigh that service sector workers all knew was simply part of the job, it was a badge of office held by everyone like them from industry veterans to new recruits at the end of their first day. He flashed a false smile at his customers as they moved off to rejoin the festivities being held for, well for no particular reason as far as he was concerned, then brimming with ire he rounded on the dispenser and unleashed the full wrath of his dish cloth on its unfeeling flanks. The waiter gave a shrug of sympathy as he stooped to uncork another bottle as though he was offering to shoulder Atlas' burden.

That and almost everything else going on in the room was just peripheral nonsense to Karlo, like the overlooked details in the background of a famous portrait, as he ambled over to a window mumbling apologies when he stepped on the trailing hems of dresses and coats. The walls of pale cream laced with threads of silver were a winter landscape glimpsed from the carriage of a locomotive, nothing more than a blinding blur of vaguely textured light like the reported impenetrable barrier of alternative consciousness that was mankind's only reliable recollection from beyond the grave. As sailors being drawn into the maw of Charybdis so did the merrymakers swirl and spiral amongst and around each other. Distractedly stroking a curtain the way a pensive intellectual might have caressed a beard, Karlo's fingertips read the stitching of the fabric as though he were trying to comprehend the meaning of some ancient parchment of Braille. It was good work, if he was still alive by the end of the war then he'd have to see if their creator wouldn't mind designing the drapes for whatever office he ended up sitting in. He sipped his champagne and watched isolated scraps of land drift beneath the palace like fallen leaves on the surface of a pond. The Australasian Oceanarchy had existed in one form or another since before emergent Imperial authority had began to purge all traces of the failed world order that had plunged humanity into depths of squalor and misery unknown since the first Dark Ages. Throughout history it had been a small chain of glorified package holiday resorts, a bargaining chip in strategic energy reserve disputes and eco-regeneration initiatives, and even a late 22nd naval powerhouse. But in time it was eventually incorporated into man's newest dominion, just like the rest of the galaxy. Well, most of it.

A faint rain fell on what little natural landmass left, save for a few scraps of coal-coloured beaches and pockets of palm trees, everything that remained had been extensively augmented by artificial islands and anchored platforms until from orbit it seemed as if an intergalactic craftsman had paused to take a break from building a suit of armour for the Earth. He stopped before sipping from his glass, frozen in an instant of pure terror. The liquid tilted in that pixie-wing delicate tube of glass lost its golden lustre and the gloom beyond the window condensed itself into a solid sphere of shadow through which he somehow dared himself to see great vengeful leviathans, bone-white monstrosities summoned from the menageries of a sunken realm, drifted between the islands as though to remind their human occupants that not all the myths were dead. Their backs were humped and overgrown with pale-limbed trees that waved with a semblance of life or pitted by barnacle-rimmed holes that blasted water into the sky as though they spat the essence of their contemptuous souls back at the firmamental residence of their absentee creators. They certainly hadn't been there last time. Or had they? A break in the jittering gusts of wind cleared the view long enough to make it clear that his memory hadn't failed and that maybe he'd had more to drink than he thought. Those monsters were nothing more than mobile wind farms and ship-based cloud reflectivity modification stations, typical sights on any world in the throes of an environmental reclamation scheme. Closer at hand, just below the ballroom, were several command staff shuttles cocooned in a courtyard under bivouacs of rain resistant cloth as if the ground teams were afraid the rain would erode paint that had withstood bombardment by brutally fatal cosmic rays. Guards circled them restlessly like ants patrolling a larder of puss-coloured grubs. Their boots splashed weakly through puddles as they shuffled their feet along routes that even the soles of their shoes had memorised, and self-heating uniforms created shrouds of steam around their rain-slickers that made them as intangible as wraiths. One of them looked up at the shadow hovering in the window and gave a salute, not necessarily out of respect or recognition but because it was expected of him. Karlo returned the gesture and chuckled to himself for fearing what waited out there in the dark.

Ralph had concealed himself inside a cushioned nook hidden from view by a screen of decorative holographic ferns with leaves that glitched from time to time leaving him visible for fractions of a second like an overly fashion conscious mime trapped inside an actual glass box. He wasn't hiding for any particular reason and on any other occasion he might have been out amongst the milling throngs of idle-handed merry-makers putting his best foot forward for the crown, ensuring that in the ongoing absence of the Emperor during that especially troubling time there was an appropriate level of royal prominence to keep the people inspired. That was all very well and good, something he'd been doing in one way or another since he was old enough to talk, but the self-important posing and incessant ear-bending, as people attempted to convince him to provide endorsement for various endeavours charitable or otherwise, had driven him to seek seclusion. Not to leave entirely, of course, that would have been a poor show but no on was going to tell him that he couldn't sit by himself for a few moments to refresh himself. He twisted one of the buttons in the collar of his tunic, an ornamented disc of gold embossed with either lengths of rope or links of chain he couldn't quite tell, and the entire garment loosened to accommodate his more informal posture. There were times when he lamented having the contents of his wardrobe dictated to him by his domestic staff and that evening was definitely one of them. He was swaddled from head to foot in a pale ochre suit patterned with chaotic knots of loam-coloured thread that when compared to the garish attire of the guests and residents made him seem like an autumn tree displaced in time, marooned in the middle of a summer that had forgotten it should have ended.

Yet as much as it seemed the sun would never set, a constant nervous chatter had set in around the palace like the trembling of leaves about to fall. It remained loud enough at all times to drown out the thudding of jackboots along corridors, the squeal of battle drill sirens in the outer defence bulwarks and the sounds of servants being stopped and searched. Ralph was no stranger to the sight of soldiers, some of the palace guards had been his protectors since he was a child and some of them were still his friends although perhaps that was because he paid their wages and they daren't even frown at him for fear of being sent to shepherd mining robots through the sedimentary innards of some lonely lump of rock. Was that a peril or a perk of power? A bit of both he decided as he nibbled the corner of a pasty. For the festivities a temporary wall had been built in the room, either side of it adorned with mosaics comprised of animated matter that shifted through an assortment of classical Euromerican post-industrial motifs (definitely an acquired taste.) The artist was on site to supervise the installation and whilst she was respected and had been given several accolades for her services to galactic culture, she was not allowed to give her true name or admit to anyone that the rumours of what it was were true. Not out of any sense of self-imposed hipsteristic obscurity but because of what it represented. She was the last in a long and much reviled line; her patrilineage tied her to a family that had been blacklisted since the end of the last era of woe on Earth, and it was only by virtue of her maternal line that she had even been allowed to live beyond birth. Ralph wasn't entirely certain if that had been a good idea but her work was undoubtedly impressive and for that he was grateful that the census bureau clerks that had observed her emergence into the world had decided to show her leniency. Although perhaps it would have been a greater mercy to have extinguished her infant life, for then no matter how brief it was her mother would have been able to call her by an honest name. But then having said that she wasn't having much trouble ingratiating herself into the upper echelons of society, only as a temporary guest though. Amongst company that consisted of military officials with more uniforms in their wardrobes than campaigns under their belts; senior managers from collecorporate endeavours across the galaxy and civil servants who became incredibly agitated when you asked them to do their jobs and actually serve the citizenry no one would have tolerated her as anything else.

As another cycle of symbols spread across the partition like the silent sounds of a subtitler drowning in their own blood, Ralph could not help but notice Worfeld on the far side of the room. The admiral may not have been anything other than a stark shape against the window, a monolithic slab illuminated by starlight on the horizon, but it was more than obvious that he was staring into his drink, his face shifting from concern to cautious optimism as though he were nursing a sick puppy. That wasn't the first time he'd seen the admiral since his arrival, they'd been in many briefings and debates together but it was the first opportunity Ralph had for a private conference. He intended to seize it. However, it was important that he not be seen singling out the admiral for dedicated attention otherwise tongues would start wagging, eyes rolling and ears burning among the palace's administrative inhabitants. Not that it was any of their business who he chose to confer with, but that wouldn't have stopped them from speculating about what a prince wanted with a comparatively lowly functionary. As much as he might have wanted to he couldn't blame them; with the trans-galactic news networks reduced to sending bulletins between the stars by courier and local reporters left with nothing to do other than regurgitate the same few human interest stories over and over again, there was little else to talk about. Still he would have preferred that they concern themselves with getting on with their jobs and making sure that the solar system didn't tear itself apart out of paranoia. From the Science Directorate's astronomical academy embedded in the nitrogen frost fields of Pluto, where silent minds considered the heavens and marvelled at the magnificence of mankind's dominion just as they jealously regarded worlds that were yet unclaimed, all the way to the radiation syphon stations of Mercury on which men and women lived in awe and terror of the biennial dawn, there had been violent outbreaks of panic. Reports of mass civil disobedience, looting and murder filtered back to the palace through the Sol-system communication relays like a scream heard from the far end of a dark alley. It grated on Ralph having to listen to such news without being able to do anything about it except let local law enforcement deal with the situation as best they could. For all his power and influence he was just as helpless in the face of fear as everyone else across the first nine of mankind's worlds, although living inside a floating fortress was probably a distinct advantage in his favour.

He watched Karlo closely, but not so close as to be obvious. He might not have had as much of a taste for intrigue as Jerrin but he was more than capable of surveying a room without drawing attention to himself. Well, no more than a man of his standing ordinarily attracted. As he began to walk, the flocks of dancers and clusters of idle chatterers became hyper-animated in his presence as though they were nothing more but fantastical elements lingering at the edge of a dream only coming into full existence as his unconscious vision brought them into focus. Their squeamish smiles, batted eyelids and elaborate bows were easy to feign acknowledgement of as he surreptitiously continued his surveillance. Nothing would seem out of the ordinary as long as they received the customary nod or gentle wave, but should he have failed to be so honour them then Ralph would have found himself under the same savage scrutiny as a Freudian slip. To avoid any further attempts to engage him, he picked a petal from an orchid sculpted in gold and made a great show of studying the intricacy of the mimicry. He twiddled the sliver of burnished blossom between his fingers and in it caught a glimpse of his own reflection, dull and distorted but rimmed with a luminous lustre like a bald monk lost in the burrows of a library seeking out divine truth.

Ralph sidled towards Karlo and dropped the petal. It hit the floor with a pulled-punch thud like the footsteps of an assassin who had got clumsy at the last second. The old man turned around and looked directly at him without even the merest hint of surprise or shock. Of course, no doubt he had been expecting such a bumbling attempt at subterfuge and was well prepared for that moment of apparently accidental contact. Ralph felt utterly absurd, like a spy waiting at a train station for a man with a pink carnation in his lapel. He did his best to hide his embarrassment as he muttered, 'Admiral.'

Karlo raised his glass in greeting. 'Highness.' The honorific came out of his mouth through the after taste of champagne, cloying and somewhat bitter on the tongue.

'I didn't expect to see you here this evening.'

The prince's sham smile was more convincing than expected. Perhaps he was genuinely pleased, or relieved, to see him. At any rate Karlo couldn't hide his frustration. Well, he could have done but what would have been the point? 'I hadn't planned on it, but what else is there for me to do? With the Xeli array still offline it's not as though I can issue any orders.'

'Or contact any of your ships.' Ralph made that sound like the typically jingoistic concern for his boys in uniform that a man in his position was expected and required to convey. It was not an entirely disingenuous sentiment but they both knew what he was really talking about.

'Precisely, and since the moratorium on outbound traffic from Earth I can't even dispatch scouts. All we have to go on is rumours and scraps of testimony from refugees.'

Ralph waved away a serving drone that hovered about chest height and offered him a selection of delectable treats, each one ringed by an ouroboros of pale yellow letters projected from within the silver surface of the tray detailing its ingredients and calorific content. 'So you've heard nothing of our mutual friend then?' He asked the question with a hint of suspicion as he could have sworn the machine had stopped only a few paces away to eavesdrop. His fears were allayed however when he heard several cursory grunts of “thank you” from other more peckish guests.

'Unfortunately not.'

A savage gust of wind flattened the entirety of the storm against the window. The sky churned like a cauldron of boiling pitch being gradually upturned, its contents set to fall upon the world in some hellish variation of water torture.

Ralph peered through the raindrops as though each one were a star and his vision had pierced the heavens in search of the Hermod. 'Do you think he's still alive?'

Karlo too turned his eyes to the sky but saw nothing more than his own doubts hurled back at him by the clouds in an infinite deluge of crystalline drops like shrapnel from the battlefields of his nightmares. 'There's no way to tell. But I'd say so.'


'He struck me as the lucky type.' What else was there to say about a man who was promoted to captain as soon as he landed on Novagrad?

'He'll need more than luck.' As would everyone else.

'No doubt.' Karlo drained his glass but instead of summoning the waiter for another refill, he set it aside. 'I've been meaning to apologise, for not keeping you better informed about this matter but I'm sure you can understand that given the circumstances...' Perhaps he had indeed had one too many.

'That's no bother, Karlo, after all there's no need for you to keep me informed of every single decision you make.' Ralph made a show of nonchalance as a bevy of merry-makers tottered towards an octagon of couches. Once they passed he lowered his voice lowered to a whisper, 'Besides, it might have been for the best.'

The admiral caught Ralph glancing at the group as they took their seats and began to spread themselves out like some unctuous ooze squeezed from a handful of soggy bank notes. They were all known associates of Jerrin. Karlo took Ralph's meaning with ease. 'Your brother?' He twisted his worry about the other prince knowing things the galaxy was better off without him knowing into a seemingly legitimate query about the younger sibling's health, 'How is he?'

With a gentle tug on the admiral's elbow, Ralph guided him away from ears that were too curious for their own good. 'Worse than we thought.' The prince's voice was little more than a hiss but he needn't have bothered to disguise his words as several guests made fools of themselves by fighting each other with streamers of champagne foam.

'That could prove problematic.' That was putting it mildly. 'Have you told your father?' For all the good that would have done...

'I don't have the heart.' Ralph craned his neck to get a better look as palace custodians rushed in from some discreet enclave a little way down the hall and began to put a stop to the rambunctious shenanigans that had begun to encroach on the personal space of those who did not wish to be soaked in fizzy wine. 'In truth though, I think he already knows.'

That would explain why the old man had been absent from most of the staff meetings. 'I'll send word to my ships in orbit.'

The situation became more serious as a mock punch landed rather too firmly. Retaliation came in the form of a lobbed basket of apples and Ralph had to remind himself where his attention should have been directed. He turned back to the admiral even as he smirked at the ongoing display of buffoonery. 'What for?'

'We have to be prepared. For any eventuality.' Karlo didn't want to say it.

He didn't have to, his meaning was obvious. 'Perhaps you're right. I just hope it doesn't come to that.'

'As do I, but as servants of the throne we might not be given a choice.' Karlo flinched as a baton came down on a wrist with a vicious crack in the distance. Well, it had either been that or the sound of a girdle buckling. 'Sometimes the worst case scenario is the best one, the only one.' Just as it had been tens of centuries ago.

'Very well, but do it quietly. The last thing we need right now is a panic over a coup.' As the crowd began to disperse once the rough-housing drunkards had been separated Ralph made sure to blend back into the party so as not to arouse any further suspicion. He latched onto the first person to stray too near and wandered off, his entire physical form seemingly given over to magnanimous exuberance. 'Chancellor Hughes, where have you been hiding yourself?'

With that the conversation was over and the admiral excused himself from the festivities to go about his business, hoping that Agent Olesk had heard every word.