Monday, May 2, 2016

Beyond Death by Michael Atamanov

Michael Atamanov

Buy Beyond Death for Kindle now!
Start from the beginning: Perimeter Defense, Book I: Sector Eight

Stopping the Invasion

What have I done?! In my attempt to delay an untimely call to the Emperor's court, I ended up inviting an honest-to-God alien invasion to my own system! It's like burning your own house down so your strict parents wouldn’t notice that you broke a vase. Tearing my gaze with great difficulty from the scattering of red markers on the tactical map, I tried to gather myself and spoke into the microphone in the confident voice of a commander:

"Extinguish the beacon! I need information on the enemy!"

"Distance to target: six hundred miles. There are multiple targets! I have nineteen marks on the radar. Identification by radar signature: Five Sledgehammer cruisers. Four Ascetic destroyers. Four Hermit destroyers. Five Meteor frigates. And a big guy..."

I laughed with marked happiness into the microphone:

"That 'big guy' is an alien battleship. Humanity has yet to come across one. I suggest, as its discoverer, that it be called ‘Behemoth.’ It's a big fat mythical creature that supposedly lived on humanity's far-off homeworld."

Admiral Kheraisss Vej intervened in the conversation and clarified:

"My Princcce, the Swarm already see thisss shiip. But not one remainsss who that could inform you of the tactical and technical characterisssticsss of such a big Behemoth."

"So then, the Iseyeks do not object to that name. And as for the battleship's capabilities, we can figure that out during the battle."

I was trying to hide my worry behind stirring speeches and showy enthusiasm. For the first time since I entered the game, I wasn't at all sure I would win. In fact, if I were playing for the alien team, I would say quite the opposite: I'd consider this a done deal. Five Sledgehammers working together could make themselves into a real "ball of death," destroying any ship that gets too close to them. Even my battleship wouldn't survive two of their combined volleys. The many alien destroyers and frigates would make absolutely sure that none of my light ships could get close to the Sledgehammers. It would have looked like a sticky situation, even if the enemy didn't have the Behemoth that we still knew nothing about. But with the enemy having a Behemoth, our chances of winning were so thin they were transparent.

For a second, the cowardly thought to command the fleet to retreat and warp back to Unatari crossed my mind, but I chased it off. First, we haven't been beaten yet! Second, I couldn't throw the eight thousand inhabitants of the Hnelle station to the dogs. As far as I was concerned, their lives were completely dependent on our ability to defend them.

All the same, I couldn't show my apprehension before my subjects. Also, the aliens had never shown any particular tactical skill in previous battles. Instead, they just stupidly crawl forward and put all their hope in the crushing power of their cannons and their instantly regenerating shields. So, I ended up calming myself down. We'll see yet who will take the day!

"Let's end the merrymaking. The mission is quite serious. Let's get to work. Pyro-1: first receiver, Pyro-2: second. A squad of frigates will cover each of you. Be especially cautious – those Meteors are significantly faster than any of our ships. If one of them approaches you, do not engage. Retreat back to our heavies."

"The enemy has begun maneuvers!" reported Nicole. "The destroyers and frigates are approaching quickly. The Sledgehammers and Behemoth are lagging behind."

"All ships, at the ready! For now, we wait and see how they act... The enemy ignored our receivers. That is very good. So, first two frigate squads, your mission is to hold the Behemoth under webs. There's no way in hell we want him getting close to us. Nicole, take care of this. The rest of the frigates, we're gonna need your webs. Work on the drones while you're at it. Anti-support, split up into groups of five. Your first mission is to give the Meteors a haircut. After that, work on the Hermits. Electronic warfare, turn the most dangerous Ascetics off. Attention! They're entering the combat zone! Frigates, advance! Release drones!"

A huge swarm of little green dots roared off toward the red ones on the tactical screen. As our heavies delivered a cloud of combat drones, the battle began.

"Warhawk-4 here, I've got a Meteor under web. I've marked it in the overview!”

Boom! The first alien ship dissolved to atoms after a combined volley from forty destroyers.

"Tusk-1 here, Ascetic under web!”

Boom! Boom! And if the first of the double explosions was the Ascetic getting blown apart, then the second was one of ours.

"Warhawk-1 here, I need help! These drones are eating me alive!!!"

"Warp out!" I screamed, but it was too late. Another flower of flame bloomed in the cosmos.

"Heavies, the marked Ascetic is primary. The secondary is that Hermit there. Fire on the targets under double web at will."

Another two alien ships popped into clouds of tiny fragments after a combined volley from twenty heavy cruisers. After that, another explosion let us know that a Meteor had been shot down by destroyers.

"My Prince! I can die happy!" This parting scream came from Pyro-10, after it was already too late to respond.

"Warhawk-4 here, I'm holding a Meteor with web and disruptor. He's got me too! It looks like this is the end..."

"Anti-support, save Warhawk-4!!!"

An explosion was heard. And another! The tactics officer took two Meteors from the map.

"Warhawk-4 here, we escaped by the skin of our teeth! Thanks for the help! I owe you all a beer!" Came the familiar voice of the female captain.

"Warhawk-4, warp out to the Tria. Your luck's just about run out for the day. So, I need webs on the last Meteor! Pyro-11, don't break off from the others! Safa-4, the same goes for you. Get back into formation. You'll be eaten whole if they catch you alone. Heavies, the primary is that Ascetic that's crawling away from you under two webs."

Boom! Boom! Boom! Hearing the blasts, I took a look at the tactical screen. The enemy's support ships had been totally wiped out, but the group of five Sledgehammers had already come to within one hundred twenty miles of us. The Behemoth was still far behind. I could breathe a bit easier. The enemy had lost all light ships, charitably giving us an advantage in maneuverability on the battlefield. Now, my frigates could get close to the Sledgehammers and split them up, which would greatly simplify the situation.

"Third and fourth Pyro squads, hold the Sledgehammer I've marked on the map! Don't let it get any closer to us! Tusks and Safas, place webs and take point on that Sledgehammer. Let the other three come to us. Bride of Chaos, make a short advance! Heavies, stay twenty miles behind the battleship."

The Sledgehammers shot first, letting fly a combined volley from three ships. Bride of Chaos's energy shield fell by half, but quickly recharged when ten heavy cruisers turned on their remote shield-charging modules.

"Primary is marked. Battleship and all heavies, get ready. Shoot only on my command. On the count of three… One. Two. Three!"

The targeted Sledgehammer went out like a candle in the wind. The combined volley from my battleship and twenty-two heavy cruisers pulverized the alien ship into atoms.

"My good soldiers, you're simply savages! Excellent. I've targeted a new ship."

The return fire came back at Joan the Fatty. The ship shook hard. The light flickered in the room. Some of the devices switched over to emergency power sources.

"Our shield is at just eleven percent. Shall we prepare for evacuation?" asked Captain Oorast Pohl.

"Recharge the Fatty!" I ordered on the fleet channel and, after removing my earphones, I answered the captain that there was no reason whatsoever for evacuation.

In fact, this was a critical moment. The enemy had given up shooting on the impenetrable battleship and focused its fire on the cruiser where the fleet was being commanded from. It wasn't clear if the last volley had been intentional, or whether the choice of precisely Joan the Fatty from among twenty-two cruisers had just been random. But in any case, the ship wouldn't survive another volley from two Sledgehammers.

"Have you reloaded? On the count of three. One, two, three!"

Another Sledgehammer gave way to an orange and white blossom. Only one close enemy remained.

"Let's target the last one. Reload. And another thing: one of the cruisers shot before the command last time. If that happens again, whoever does it will be the fleet's next target. How much shield do we have?"

"Thirty-seven percent. We're recharging slowly!" the captain answered.

"The Sledgehammer will shoot a volley in nine seconds. We need forty-five percent shield to survive the attack..."

The ship shook again, but everyone around me perceived the strike with clear relief. "The shield held out!" The officers already understood that the ship would escape, as it would be able to restore shield before the next strike.

"We've just got four percent shield left!" Oorast Pohl said in a calm tone, before suddenly smiling. "We'll be able to shoot first."

"Fire!" I commanded, and the enemy ship was no more.

The two remaining Sledgehammers we cleaned up using the same tactic. But when it came time to deal with the Behemoth, complications arose immediately. When the fleet was trying to get within two hundred miles of the huge alien ship, Jeanne the Star Traveler suddenly exploded. The heavy assault cruiser of the newest design was destroyed by just one volley directly through its reinforced front shields! I ordered the remaining ships to immediately warp out to the Tria at a safe distance.

"My Prince, two rescue shuttles have been observed from Jeanne."

I sighed bitterly. Two shuttles is at most twenty-four rescued out of four hundred crew members.

Global fame increase. Current value +11

Global standing increase. Current value -20

The message came in totally unexpectedly, and I got slightly upset, not having understood the reason for the positive changes. But I met with the happy eyes of Katerina ton Mesfelle and immediately guessed what was up. My advisor came closer and explained:

"Georg, we've just made the first emergency broadcast about the alien invasion in the Hnelle system. Nineteen ships, a flood of panic and all that. There are scenes with good resolution – a huge battleship, the terrifying Sledgehammers, which already have an uncanny fame among Imperial soldiers, and the destroyers. Well, and, at the end, a word about how the Sector Eight Fleet is prepared to engage in battle with enemies and a request to wish luck to the defenders of humanity. The only thing is, I was planning to draw out the story with five or seven broadcasts, but the enemy fleet is already gone. What am I supposed to talk about in the next one?"

I pointed to the huge red dot on the tactical screen:

"It's still too soon to talk about victory. I think we'll be able to destroy the Behemoth, but only with monstrous losses. That is why we are going to try another way: for the first time in history, we will try to board and capture an alien ship. So, you will have something to tell the viewers about after all."

I called General Savasss Jach, who heard out this bizarre mission with surprising calm. The huge insect wriggled his antennae for some time, then Bionica translated his answer:

"Ten thousand Alpha-Iseyek assault troops should be enough. But first you'll need to secure a path for them by clearing all the Behemoth's drones and collecting information about the enemy ship. And he'll need around two standard hours to wake the soldiers from a state of suspended animation."

Katerina heard out the general's answer with me and said with satisfaction:

"Great! Now I'll have a two-hour gap between my reports. I'll do a series of broadcasts and interviews with various officers and commanders of your fleet. I'll give information in small portions. Let the viewers stay on the edges of their seats and think that the space battle is raging on. Then, I'll give a live broadcast from the landing troops' chambers. But Georg, it would be really great if we could have someone taking part in storming the alien ship other than the praying mantises, like people too. Otherwise, there won't be any viewer involvement, and they won't sympathize with us."

Admiral Kiro Sabuto also supported the idea.

"My Prince, your cousin is right. Today we shall write a new page in the history of human resistance against the aliens. This battle is sure to be included in all tactical textbooks and even school history books, and it is very important that people be the most active participants in the capture of the alien battleship. All of our ships have a boarding team. We can get more than two thousand soldiers from the whole fleet."

Popori de Cacha suddenly forced his way into the conversation and said with a bow:

"My Prince, I ask that you include two chameleons from your bodyguard team in the assault force. For my people, the Ravaash, it is also important to feel that we are taking part in this historic moment."

"Alright. I order human assault troops and chameleons to get prepared as well. You have two hours. These divisions will also be commanded by General Savasss Jach, and Bionica shall provide coordination and translation."

I turned to my assistant Nicole and asked about the Behemoth. The girl, without taking off her headphones, frowned in dissatisfaction:

"The pilots are getting tired from the long battle, and it’s starting to show. They have begun to make errors: Pyro-22 scratched itself at high speed against a turret tower, and Pyro-25 ran into an enemy drone. Both ships left the battle with broken armor and no shields and have left for repair. We’re getting the impression that the Behemoth has an infinite supply of drones. We've already taken down a hundred thirty-two, but new flocks of them just keep wriggling out. Are they making them in there or something?"

"Nicole, don't worry. I'll send the pilots out a fresh team. Pick someone to change them out. Your mission is to hold the Behemoth another two hours while the praying mantis assault troops unfreeze. If you get tired, I can take your place."

"I appreciate your concern, Prince, but I do not need any help. It's the first time I've been entrusted with such an important mission, and that is its own reward."


"The flamethrowers are lighting the way. We have cleared a corridor to the cannon tower, and group Blue-Three is moving out to capture it. There are two hundred Swarm assault troops."

"White-Eight here. We have cleared another path into the third section! We'll take the winding corridor toward the tactical marker. Serious resistance. A vacuum does nothing to stop these shrubs. They still fight, even without atmosphere."

"Thick fire! We have to get back to the spiral staircase. Only four soldiers remaining of thirty in Yellow-Four. The praying mantises that were covering our exit have already all gone down. We need support immediately. Aaaaaa!"

Katerina pointed at the screen and shook her head:

"We'll have to cut that part out."

"You will do no such thing! The viewers have to see that this isn’t child’s play. Everything is serious. There's a war on, and the soldiers are paying with their blood so the rest of humanity may live.”

Despite the fierce resistance, the assault divisions systematically cleared the huge ship. More and more groups of soldiers snuck inside the Behemoth through the holes we were cutting into the chassis. The assault troops' losses turned out to be significant. The aliens forced us to pay a heavy price for every foot of the winding corridors we took. Bionica, wearing a pair of huge headphones, was frantically picking division markers on the screen and nonstop translating messages and commands from human to Swarm language and back. Katerina even shot a separate report on the android girl so viewers from the whole Empire could watch my wonderful translator work in real life.

"White-Three here. We have met up with Yellow-Five. Enemy resistance has been suppressed. We have captured what looks like a reactor installation. Let the experts figure it out.”

"Green-Ten here. Mission accomplished. The superstructure has been captured."

"White-Six here. We have cleared the hall with automatic defense systems. Less than a third of our praying mantises survived. We're finding intensive radio signals and long-distance communication systems further down this hallway. It seems we've found the enemy headquarters."

I asked the opinion of General Savasss Jach, who was leading the assault. The Gamma-Iseyek agreed that we had finally uncovered the true source of the enemy teams that had been coming up against our divisions. The previous two centers, which we had taken as command points, turned out to be nothing more than signal retransmitters. The general said that over eighty percent of all internal spaces on the starship had already been captured, the resistance was noticeably weakening, and it would all be over in ten or fifteen minutes.

After hanging up with the general, I turned to the officers and asked them to bring the paralyzed Truth Seeker to me immediately. And then, when two men had gone to fetch her, I demanded that the communications officer put me directly through to the Emperor as soon as he's received a confirmation that the capture of the battleship is finally complete. For the first time in my memory, I had to repeat an order two times.

"Do you think August will want to talk?" asked Katerina with a large degree of doubt in her voice.

"I think he will. Thanks to your reports, the whole Empire has been following the events in the Hnelle system for three hours now. The viewers' interest is simply rabid. I have already grown tired of closing messages about personal and faction relations improving, and there are over seven hundred people waiting on hold to talk to me right now. You hit all the right notes – worry, fear, then a timid hope, compassion, and finally pride for the brave Fleet Eight soldiers, who saved a star system from invasion. I have no doubt that the Emperor was told about the alien invasion immediately. If I were in August's place, I'd want to talk to the heroes."

The long-awaited confirmation came in from the general, and I ordered to be put through to the Throne World. More than a minute went by before the screen lit up. I bent down on one knee and said:

"My Emperor, this is a report from Sector Eight Fleet Commander Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky. The battle in the Hnelle system has just finished. The enemy fleet has been completely defeated. For the first time in history, we have captured an alien ship, and what's more, it's a battleship. Many valuable specimens have been collected for study, both biological and technological."

"Georg royl Inoky, order your people out of the room. I need to speak with you privately," August grumbled, slightly upset. "No, they can stay. Just make sure they don't talk much about this conversation afterwards. So, I thought you were supposed to be on your way to the Throne World... It's strange to see you in the Hnelle system."

"My Emperor, there was a serious risk that the aliens would try to attack the Hnelle system again, as the aliens never give up attacking a system until they’ve captured it. I would be overjoyed to see your Imperial Highness personally in the Throne World three weeks from the time of the previous meeting, but my first mission is still to defend Sector Eight, and that is precisely what I intend to do."

The Emperor furrowed his brow:

"Or maybe the Green House's accusations were more serious this time and really did have a basis to them? What do you say, grandson?"

I waved it off with ostentatious carelessness.

"My Emperor, what kind of seriousness could these accusations possibly have, if even the main accuser, Katerina ton Mesfelle, recognized that they were absolutely hopeless and came over to the side of the accused?! If Duke Paolo's son refused his right to my system, and the Duke's nephew defected as soon as given the chance?! The only thing the accusers were counting on was that the head of the Orange House would not support me, and instead go over to their side. I have evidence of a shameful agreement between Duke Paolo royl Anjer and the Green House to that effect. It is more than enough to raise the issue of non-confidence in the head of the Orange House. The rest of the accusations are utterly foolish, like the last time. What is it on the list? The tragic death of two members of the Green House? This issue has already been looked over in great detail, and all investigators admitted that the deceased alone were at fault. The peace treaty with the Gamma-Iseyeks? What can I say? First, in that I did not have the authority for such a decision, the head of the Orange House himself confirmed this peace, so all questions are to Duke Paolo royl Anjer. Second, it is only thanks to the leader of the Gamma-Iseyeks, General Savasss Jach, that today's victory was possible. My android? You could see her working as a translator with your own eyes. And again, my opponents have nothing but spy logs. And as far as I’m concerned, using an android translator’s confidential logs to spy on a crown prince is nothing but another shameful episode in the Duke’s already fairly disgrace-laden biography. There are no more accusations against me, as far as I know."

The Emperor did not agree with that:

"There's also turning off the warp beacons. Interfering with the functioning of the transportation network is a very serious crime, Georg."

"I didn’t turn them off. I put them into 'by request' mode. Imperial ships are free to pass, but alien ships find it a bit harder to make their way through. And that measure has completely justified itself!"

"We'll allow it," agreed August after some time in thought. "Though I am interested in the technical side of the issue. How did you do it, Georg?"

"It couldn't have been easier: I sent mixed teams of people and androids to uninhabitable automatic beacons. It's still more androids – they can work for a long time on nothing but electricity until the cosmic greenhouses are up and running. Because this isn't an invasion. I intend to develop and support these distant settlements to the best of my ability. Freight starships have been sent to all of them with materials for building docks, residential spaces, greenhouses, repair shops, moorings and defensive structures. I have financed the development of these remote Sector Eight systems on my personal money for humanity's sake, so real stations and new populations could grow there. Humanity needs to expand further in space, and I was helping our race make the next step into the cosmos.”

"Good on you, Georg, really. I wasn't expecting it. On the whole, I have nothing left to say, and I really do not see a reason for us to meet so frequently, tearing you away from important matters. My only condition is that you must solve all issues and come to an agreement with the head of the Orange House. Your conflict is completely unacceptable to me. I give you one hundred days. Do it however you like, grandson, but the conflict must be resolved. And now give an order to your people to turn on the recording, and let's start our conversation over from the beginning, but for the whole Empire to see."


I watched carefully as the recording of my conversation with Emperor August made for the wider public played. The commander, kneeling humbly, made a report about an unprecedented victory over a large alien fleet, and the haughty Emperor, majestic in the extreme, graciously accepted the report from his loyal servant. Then came a short eloquent speech on this battle’s significance as a turning point in the history of humanity’s struggle against the aliens, followed by the unexpected awarding of medals. Though soldiers from Great House divisions were normally not given orders and medals, August decided to make an exception and gave out five Emerald Stars for service to the Empire. The fortunate recipients of Imperial orders were the Admirals Kiro Sabuto and Kheraisss Vej, General Savasss Jach, the captain of the heavy cruiser Emperor August, Bayazid Krom, and Bionica, the android translator.

There were no medals given to me, but I didn't get worked up over it. My reward was something else entirely: giving medals to Bionica and General Savasss Jach spoke to everyone about the fact that the Emperor was putting an end these issues once and for all and was not interested in hearing any more accusations. One hundred days to make peace with the Duke... Not an especially short time frame, but I still wasn't even close to imagining how I could carry out the Emperor's order.

"Almost eight hundred people are waiting to speak with you long distance," an officer reminded me delicately.

"First put through my daughter, Likanna, then the monarch of the Kingdom of Veyerde, if they are still in the list. The rest you should reject, or at least let them wait until tomorrow. I just don't have the energy to talk any more today."

"Dad!" My daughter's joyful scream forced me to smile. "We were watching every broadcast in the palace! I was so worried for you! You're like super cool. I'm so proud of you."

Tears of joy welled up in my eyes. These are truly the moments you live for! Whether I was in a game or not no longer made any difference. I had accepted this world and considered it real. I would defend my daughter from danger and was prepared to give my life for her, if it was required. I promised Lika I would fly to her in Unatari in a day and quickly hung up as not to cry in front of her.

The incoming call signal interrupted my thinking. I was expecting it to be Astra's father, so I could fulfill my promise, but it turned out to be someone else on the line. The Dark Mother! I could not have been more surprised. The old woman, clothed head to toe in a black robe, was smiling from ear to ear and said:

"Your servant tried to reject my call. Let him know the muteness will pass in two days. That ought to calm him down. As a matter of fact, August asked me to remind you that he expects his experts to have unrestricted access to the Hnelle system and the captured alien ship. Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey is coming. You should remember him. He inspected the battle site at the Vorta beacon. I, though, wanted to talk about something else entirely. How is the paralyzed girl doing?"

With difficulty, I picked my jaw up off the floor. We basically hadn't told anyone about the tragic event yet. How could the Dark Mother know anything about the incident? The old lady laughed:

"I could say a great many words about my infinite power, and you would believe me. But the truth is much more banal. Your doctor was wondering about unusual symptoms, making a bunch of requests, including to various archives. I was told about his interest in a strange injury, and putting two and two together from there was quite simple. Was it Miya?"

Lying to such a powerful Truth Seeker would be useless and dangerous to boot, so I confirmed the Dark Mother’s suspicions, telling her the slightly compressed version I had earlier told Katerina ton Mesfelle.

"That means Miya is pregnant... That's what I thought, to be honest. A daughter? Well, let it be a daughter... An interesting picture is forming. I don't envy your wife, Marta, right now. Do you understand what I'm talking about?"

I nodded and answered:

"If Miya's child is born and we are legally married, she will become a crown princess with full rights to the thrones of both the Orange House and the Empire. If Miya is not my legal wife before the birth, my daughter will just be a 'ton' without rights to thrones, or she could even end up a complete bastard, not belonging to the aristocracy at all."

"That's right. Knowing Miya's character, I can say confidently that she will only except the first of those two options, which is what puts Marta in such an unenviable position. It wouldn't be good for Miya to kill her, given that that would seriously complicate her own life. But she could mess up her nerves. Alright, I'll try to protect Marta..."

Having unexpectedly made up my mind, I asked a question I had long ago wondered about, secretly hoping that by doing so I wasn't revealing my complete ignorance:

"Dark Mother, I recently realized that I know almost nothing about Miya. She's been my Truth Seeker for quite a long time, but before she left, it never occurred to me that she could be hiding something. The fact that Miya was there was all that mattered. But now, with Miya gone, I look back and realize that I know very little about my companion. What can you tell me about Miya?"

The Dark Mother cackled back her reply:

"Oh, Georg, Georg... What do you want to know from me? You lived side by side with Miya for fifteen years, and you think I have anything to tell you about her? Well, OK. I'll tell you what I know. She first caught my attention as a talented Truth Seeker sometime around the end of the war with the Iseyeks. At that time, Miya was in the retinue of Admiral Mayf ton Mesfelle, and his fleet finally began to push back against the Swarm. Perhaps you'd be interested to know that it was Miya and several other Truth Seekers that served as the reason for the Iseyeks to begin their research in the field of psionic defense.

After that, Miya fell out of my field of view for a long time, then suddenly, seventy years later, she appeared with your father, Inoky. For a mediocre man who was in no way remarkable, Count Inoky’s rise was sharp and sudden. He received the Tesse star system and the very rich ice system Damir for his service, becoming one of the most influential aristocrats in the Empire and a clear candidate for the head of the Orange House at the same time. Miya progressed together with her master; they understood one another perfectly. The only thing that could bring an end to your father’s blistering ascent was his untimely death. The downing of the shuttle was investigated thoroughly. I also looked into the crash site, but it really did appear to be an accident.

You know what comes next: Tesse was given to Roben, Damir to your twin sister, and you were given Miya. All the aristocrats were waiting with bated breath for the day the unusually skilled Truth Seeker’s power would be revealed, and your rise would begin, but instead you fell in love with your Miya... And only now, a decade and a half later, has your rise begun. Clearly, Miya spent a long time planning and arranging the current circumstances, and her pregnancy was part of that. Only when with child can a Truth Seeker truly make the most of her powers... Anyway, enough about Miya. Together with Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey there will be medics coming to take the wounded girl from you. I'll see if it's possible to help her in any way."

After the Battle

Finally, for the first time in several days, I was able to get a good night's rest! I woke up in an excellent state of mind, a bit earlier than my alarm clock even, and the first thing I saw next to me was Astra in another transparent night shirt.

"That's a fun tattoo! It's a good picture of Boydur the Hero, even though it's strange to see him on the body of such a stern crown prince, the vanquisher of the diabolical aliens."

I figured out that the Princess was talking about the winged donkey on my shoulder. And yes, I was also bothered by the tattoo. I hadn't stopped thinking about it since my first day in the game. How many times was I ready to sink into the ground when I saw the huge fitness instructor or some serious assault soldiers training in the hall, straining to hold back laughter when looking at my left shoulder?

"An error of my youth," I tried to joke. "I just can't find the time to have it removed or changed into something more appropriate to my status."

"My Prince, you know, I could help you fix it!" Astra suggested unexpectedly. "I'm not bad at drawing, and I could tattoo anything you like on your skin. I've even practiced on Flora already – she has a pretty bouquet of flowers on her back between her shoulders and a phoenix that fell into a spider web on her left leg.

I imagined Mr. G.I.'s reaction seeing, instead of his beloved winged donkey, a grinning skull or a fiery bird flying among the stars on his shoulder, and agreed to have it done just for that. The girl moved closer, allegedly to take a better look at the drawing, but she also tenderly ran her palm over my shoulders and chest, cooing:

"The price of my work is a romantic evening together. Sound good? I spent the whole day yesterday cooped up in here. Your Highness had all kinds of adventures and entertainment: the battle with the aliens, reports to the whole Empire, the assault of a large ship, a conversation with the Emperor... And this whole time I was sitting around here with nothing to do!"

I laughed happily. It was just too unexpected to hear that yesterday, I had not been fearlessly repelling an alien invasion, but was in fact high on the hog having the time of my life. Understanding Astra and her interpretation of reality wasn’t always easy. When the girl tried to caress me again, I tenderly stopped her hand and pulled the Princess to myself:

"I agree to your price. And this is just an advance," I embraced Astra and kissed her on the lips.

The Princess froze in fear for a second, then began returning the kiss. The fact that Bionica opened the door at that very moment with a tray was, well, not very timely.

"Hey, I asked you to knock before coming in to the Crown Prince's room!" Astra said judgmentally.

The android girl said nothing, simply placing the tray with teacups on the table, before closing the door behind her on her way out. I waited a few more seconds to be sure and pulled my playful favorite back to me. We joked around and talked for three minutes, kissing and stroking one another, when suddenly the door opened again.

"Not again! I swear I'll kill her!" Astra whispered, bristling.

However, it was not the android that came into the room, but Katerina ton Mesfelle with a digital tablet in her hands. Astra darted out of the room, covering herself with a big pillow, and went to go get dressed.

"I see I have not come at the best time," my cousin said, instantly appraising the situation. "It's just that your translator told me that you were already awake, so I decided to come down and discuss some issues."

Making a mental note to talk with Bionica, I calmed my cousin down and invited her to a light breakfast. Katerina looked tired, which I told her honestly right then.

"I still haven't gone to sleep. I'm not even done dealing with the consequences of yesterday yet," my assistant laughed, gratefully accepting a mug of energizing drink from my hand. "I talked to all the important people in your name already. The ones you didn't get to anyway. By the way, Georg, you shouldn't have rejected so many calls. The Imperial Space Marshal was there, and the head of the Joint Chiefs, and Duke Takuro royl Andor from the Purple House. They are very important people and are not accustomed to being refused a conversation. I did a pretty good job on damage control though. No one was especially offended. The old Duke was almost brought to tears when he found out that the flagship of Fleet Eight is named Joan the Fatty in honor of his beloved great-granddaughter. So the Purple House offers support to your fleet in the form of experienced officer squads and access to their combat ship market. That last one is very useful to you, by the way, and will allow you to get around the ship embargo Duke Paolo placed on you.

I commended my cousin for the excellent work, though I noted that I would only be able to receive destroyers and frigates from the Purple House. Only they could be disassembled and transported through the Core without breaking any Imperial laws. Unfortunately, the same trick wouldn't work with larger ships. I would only be able to buy those at Sector Eight docks, which were now closed to me – or begin building my own, given enough materials, experienced specialists and orbital docks.

"And another thing: I found some kind of sketchy ‘Sector Eight Fleet Aid Fund,’ which has been collecting funds in the Imperial Core, supposedly for your benefit. I sicked the financial inspectors on them. Let the investigators figure out what kind of fund it is and how much they were able to collect."

I heard my cousin out carefully and expressed for the hundredth time how helpful a decision it had been to bring her over to my side. When I told her, Katerina began to laugh:

"Georg, I've already told you that my defining characteristic is my quick decision making. And it was precisely that characteristic that brought me here. Before you were brought to report to the Emperor again, I carefully studied all the accusations against you and figured out that you would most likely get out of it again. And so I thought: on the one hand, I had the possibility of going pale before the Emperor himself when the accusations inevitably melt away again; or, on the other hand, I could come over to Crown Prince Georg's side, who is quickly gaining in popularity. I chose the second, and that was why I got in touch with you and warned you about the danger. During my conversation with you, I kept trying to think up any reason for you to offer me a job. But it turned out that I didn't have to think anything up. You offered me more than I was expecting to receive all on your own."

We both laughed and agreed that the situation came together quite successfully and our cooperation was beneficial to both of us. Making use of the occasion, I asked the long-ago-unanswered question about what my new assistant was expecting to be paid. Katerina dealt with that issue with surprising indifference:

"Georg, it's up to you. I know you won't insult me, and this job has already paid dividends for me. After all, the most important thing in my line of work is name awareness."

Intrigued, I opened the popup on my cousin:

Katerina ton Mesfelle, speaker of the Sector Eight Fleet
Age: 28
Race: Human
Gender: Female
Relation to you: Your second cousin
Class: Aristocrat
Achievements: Master of rhetoric, participant in the capture of the alien battleship in the Hnelle system.
Fame: +9
Standing: +8
Presumed personal opinion of you: +30 (warm)

At first, I got caught up on the part about "participant in the capture of the battleship" and didn't understand right away what she was talking about. Then I looked at her fame and couldn't even believe my eyes. With the series of reports from the attacked Hnelle system, Katerina had been able to raise her fame by seven points in one go! That's what I'm talking about! I wonder what mine looks like. However, when I opened my own characteristics, I was met by something of a disappointment:

Fame: +11
Standing: -14

Yeah, they had gone up, though not nearly as much as my cousin's. But all the same, I was in quite a good mood.

"Name your price, cousin. How should I pay you? I could offer you a luxurious island with a palace on Unatari, I could give you profit shares from the ice processing facility on Tivalle, or if you prefer the boring way, I could pay you in money."

"I don't need a lot. Any of those would make me happy. What kind of palace are we talking about here?”

I started describing the tropical island with the wonderful palace, many rooms and all that, but I was suddenly interrupted by a whole bouquet of incoming system messages.

Global standing decrease. Current value -15
Standing change. Green House (Empire) opinion of you has worsened.
Present Green House (Empire) faction opinion of you: -31 (opposed)
Standing change. Green House opinion of Orange House has worsened.
Present Green House opinion of Orange House: -7 (mistrust)
Standing change. The Kingdom of Veyerde's opinion of you has improved.
Present Kingdom of Veyerde opinion of you: +5 (warm)

I raised my eyes, perplexed, and saw that Katerina had also clearly been thrown off. She was smiling only with the corners of her mouth and said, not hiding her surprise:

"I just received a strange message. The Green House reduced their opinion of me and the whole Orange House. It can't have taken that long for the news about me switching sides to the Orange House to have reached Duke Amelius royl Mast ton Lavaelle, can it?"

"I don't think you're the reason, cousin. It's just that I also just got my own set of relationship worsening messages from the Green House and at the same time an improvement with the Kingdom of Veyerde. It was probably something connected with Princess Astra again. You were included just for being here and of course as a belated 'thank you' for switching sides to the Orange House.”

Just then a message came in from the officer about a long-distance call from the Kingdom of Veyerde.

"Now we'll get this figured out!" I smiled to Katerina and gave permission for the call.

The monarch, Kant royl Pikar ton Veyerde, was looking especially regal today. With a proud face, a luxurious royal robe and a gold crown on his head, he looked to be at least one of the first in line to the Emperor's throne, and not the ruler of a puny settlement on a remote planet.

"Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle, I'm glad I got the chance to speak with you. I have noticed that your Highness has grown close with Princess Astra, and I am sure that my daughter will do her best to make you keep liking her, and you will not leave her without support in any case. That is why I today, with a light heart, refused Baron Henrik ton Lavaelle and officially broke Princess Astra's engagement with him."

"Yes, I already noticed the Green House's reaction to that," I said with dissatisfaction in my voice.

The King smiled sadly.

"Your Highness may think me out of place and even tactless, but I had my reasons, and I will try to explain. As you perhaps already know from the news, seven hours ago the aliens attacked the Nayal system and cut our star system off from the Empire. The Sector Seven Fleet retreated, and now we're expecting the alien ships to arrive in our system any minute. My mother-in-law, Fesilia, Astra and Flora's grandmother, was a spontaneous Truth Seeker and somehow foretold this tragic day, even naming this very date. And though she wasn't always right in her predictions, I always held this date in mind and tried to have all my daughters out of here, safely in the Empire in any case. Also, my trusted representatives have taken most of the Kingdom's children out under various pretexts. The men are staying to fight. Yes, we are fully aware that there is no chance of rescue, but the soldiers of the Kingdom of Veyerde will fight to the last breath to defend our motherland. My whole fleet, just four old-model frigates are prepared to meet the enemy and die with honor..."

The King froze, clearly listening to a message, then went silent and asked to be put through to his daughter. It wasn't possible to get ahold of Astra. She clearly heard the conversation with her father and was now standing in her room, pale and worried.

"My daughter, the aliens have just arrived in Veyerde. I've been informed about two Hermit destroyers and many flat disks that these invaders carry their landing troops in. This is our last conversation, and there's so much I wish I could tell you... You know how difficult it has been for me to collect dowry for your sisters. After paying for Rosa, Liana and Fialka, there was only forty thousand credits left. Under different circumstances, I would be ashamed at having left such a modest dowry for my daughters, but I simply had no choice. Astra, you are my favorite daughter, but I have nothing to give you other than a father's advice and parting words. And before the enemies cut off the line, I'll rush to give you my final instruction. It would be hard for you to wish for a better patron than his Highness Crown Prince Georg. Help him, hold on to him, find your special place in the Crown Prince's retinue and never give it up to anyone. Remember old Fesilia's prediction. There was a lot about you specifically. I'll leave my crown by the small waterfall, in that little hole where you used to hide your toys from your sisters. And if you ever get back to Veyerde, the symbol of its power will await you.

Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky, I entrust Princess Astra to your guard. And now, your Highness, I mean you no offence, but I need to go to my soldiers."


When I went into the medical wing, I decided not to hide the difficult truth from Flora and honestly told her about my conversation with the monarch. And though Kant had not been a father to her, everyone Flora knew and was friends with lived on Veyerde, and I supposed she would be upset. However, the little paralyzed girl took the news about the alien attack on her home planet with surprising aplomb.

I am indifferent to their fate. Everyone I used to know is left in the far, careless past to which I will already never return. They heard Fesilia's prophecy and knew when the invasion would happen. They could have saved themselves. Those who remained were well aware what they were getting into. I feel no sympathy for them. There’s good news though. Look at the doctor's table.

I turned back to the table that Nicosid Brandt normally worked at. A thin stylus was rolling back and forth on the smooth surface of the table. Then it began spinning like a top, before falling off the table onto the floor. I turned to the paralyzed girl and saw obvious pride in her eyes.

"Flora, the Dark Mother's envoys are coming to Hnelle today. They want to take you for study, find out your capabilities and see if mobility can be returned to your body. They clearly want to know about what happened to you."

I know that they won't be able to help me. But all the same, we need to let them study me so they are sure I'm a lost cause, lose interest, and leave me alone. My Prince, don't worry about the secret getting out. I have constructed mental protection for myself, taking yours as my basis. It's elegant work. Miya thought through everything and was so meticulous with the details that her work inspires admiration. My mind and my memory will remain open for reading, as before. Let a Truth Seeker dig around in my childhood memories as long as they want; they'll find out about my favorite toys, and my relationship with King Kant and his daughters, but no one will be able to read what I really want to keep hidden.

"You were able to figure out Miya's work?" I asked in surprise.

Yes, though it wasn't easy. I'm not sure that someone else would be able to understand it, but Miya and I are now very strongly connected. We are two Truth Seekers of the same master, and I can see characteristic kindred traits that unite our work. Miya is unique. There are no others like her. She has already been serving House Mesfelle for four generations, and it's because her true ability shines through precisely with your family. She has bound her fate so closely with House Mesfelle that she wouldn't be able to live with another master at this point. Such spiritual closeness gives Miya great powers, but also limits her freedom. While your Highness is in the body of the Crown Prince, all you have to do is call her and Miya will appear no matter where she is. You just have to order something, and Miya has to carry it out. Other Truth Seekers aren't so dependent on their master and don't have to obey if they have a difference of opinion. But Miya is so connected with her master that she cannot contradict him. And while you are in that body, Miya is not capable of harming you. That is her biggest secret.

The information was quite valuable. However, I didn't rush to answer the paralyzed girl, as I was distracted by an incoming message:

The Kingdom of Veyerde has lost sovereignty of the Veyerde system.
The Kingdom of Veyerde has ceased to exist.

I rushed into my room and found Astra crying uncontrollably with her face buried in a pillow. I had never been able to calm down an upset girlfriend in the past, so this time I didn't even try. Instead of that, I called the communications officer and asked to be put through to the Sector Seven Fleet Commander. Marat ton Mesfelle answered instantly, as if awaiting my call.

"It hasn't even been five seconds since my fleet came out of warp... to be more accurate, what's left of my fleet. They tore us to shreds in the Nayal system. It was a miracle we got away."

"What happened there in Nayal, Marat?" I wondered.

"It all went to shit, cousin. The aliens appeared just twenty-five miles from my ship. Two Hermits and a Meteor. While we were figuring out what was what, the fleet had already lost three light cruisers, all destroyers and seven frigates. Then there were more horrible losses as we fled the station under heavy fire..."

"Stop, stop. What did you say you did? You were just sitting near the warp beacon?" I asked in surprise.

"Well, it's not like we were just sitting there. The ships were docked at the station, charging energy before the jump to Veyerde. Many of the crews were on the station itself. All they told me was that I just needed to calm down the residents of the Kingdom of Veyerde, who some psycho old lady had predicted an alien invasion to..."

I frowned dissatisfied:

"Marat, try to choose your words more carefully. You're talking about the grandmother of Princess Astra, my favorite, who is here in the room."

"I apologize, I didn't know. Well then, that doubtlessly dignified lady made a bunch of predictions in her life, but they're all so confusing that it's hard to figure them out. One of the most famous, about the invasion of the aliens into the Veyerde system and the fall of the Kingdom – that prediction is different from the others because the sorceress predicted a specific day. The prediction happened long ago, thirty years, but as that date grew closer, the people of the Kingdom began remembering the prophecy more and more, and they got worried. Refugees appeared, and recently they took all the children out to neighboring systems. Rumors about how panic had taken hold in Veyerde even reached the Emperor himself. Even I was sent to figure it out and hold off a possible invasion. We went as fast as possible, and when we were at the second to last system, Nayal, we took a break to recharge our warp drives. I gave the people leave to the station, so they could relax for a couple of hours and blow off steam before the potential upcoming battle. It was then that the aliens attacked my fleet. The only thing we managed to do was shoot down one Meteor, then everyone who was left alive and had the energy went into the warp. Just six ships escaped: my flagship, the battleship Knight of Light, one heavy cruiser, one Yataghan heavy cruiser, two light Thrushes, and two Pyros."

Though I was surprised at what was, in my view, a rushed retreat of the heavy ships from two, not-too-strong enemy destroyers, I didn't make Marat feel guilty for retreating. Probably, like once happened in my fleet at the Vorta beacon, the crews of the remaining ships were in a state of near panic and were simply not able to continue the fight.

"What should I do, Georg? Tell me. You've been in a similar situation!" Marat unexpectedly asked for advice.

"First thing you need to do is calm down and let the teams also get some rest. After that, go over footage of the battle with your officers and find your mistakes. By the way, send me the recordings too. I'm very interested in the aliens' behavior. Maybe I can also notice something and give you some advice. Well, and after that it's clear, restore the fleet. Buy ships to replace those that were destroyed. Differently from me, Duke Paolo hasn't forbidden you from buying ships for your fleet."

"With what money?" Marat ton Mesfelle laughed bitterly. "Two Yataghans to replace those lost is one hundred twenty million credits. Six Thrushes is another thirty, and fifteen million for new frigates and destroyers. One hundred sixty-five million! I don't have that much money, and beating something out of that miser Duke Paolo is just not gonna happen..."

I agreed with my cousin that shaking money from the head of the Orange House’s piggy bank was no trivial matter. Also, I realized fairly quickly that I had found an excellent way of breaking the embargo.

"Marat, it occurs to me that we each have something we can help the other with. I can give you money: four hundred million to buy ships for your fleet. That will allow you to not only compensate all your losses, but also significantly grow in force. In return, you will buy ships for my fleet in your name."

Marat went silent and said thoughtfully:

"Well, I can buy them for you, but how can I get them to Sector Eight? They won't let them through the Core..."

"For now, you just buy what I tell you. Let the teams fill out, the officers get used to the captains, then I'll tell them where to go."

Marat shuddered:

"Georg, if you're planning something against the law like an attack on Perimeter Sector Seven targets or an attempt to power your way through the Core, I will have to refuse you."

Ugh, I didn't want to open maps, but there was no other way.

"Calm down, Marat. I wasn't thinking of doing anything illegal in your zone of responsibility. It's just that, very soon, in three weeks maximum, the Parn warp beacon will be turned on, and it will open a direct route from Sector Seven to Eight. That was how I was planning to get my ships through."

"How do you always know everything, cousin?" Marat asked in surprise. “Well, alright, I'll buy the ships for you, but under one condition. Let's not call it a condition, but a request. When the beacon turns on, help me take back Nayal and Veyerde. Since you have a lot of experience fighting the aliens and such a reputation, the enemy will flee as soon as they even catch wind of your ships."

My second cousin's attempt at flattery was so awkward that I even started laughing.

"Alright, I agree. I'll help you. I need to get my Astra her home planet back."

When the screen went out, I heard Astra's voice:

"Tell me honestly, Georg: could he have won that battle in the Nayal system? Would you have won?"

"Now yes, I would have won, even despite how unexpectedly the attack began. But a month and a half ago, I would have done no better than my cousin. The debacle in Vorta was even more terrible. Don't blame Marat ton Mesfelle. The first encounter with aliens is always like that. You need a deep defeat for a fleet commander to understand that it's all serious and the old methods won't work."

"But that that particular loss came at too high a price to my family... Who am I now? The youngest of fourteen sisters and the only one not married. No home, no people, no kingdom. I'm not even sure that I have the right to use the title 'Princess' anymore, now that the Kingdom of Veyerde no longer exists."

Astra sat gloomily like a raincloud. After that, she gave a decisive start:

"I need paint and canvas. I want to express the feelings I'm experiencing on the destruction of my Kingdom."


Now I've already been sitting for more than an hour in front of a screen, looking over offers from Sector Seven docks. The selection turned out to be sufficiently great, but all the same I ran into financial problems again. I was planning on spending around a billion credits on obtaining ships. On first glance a significant sum, but I really wasn't letting myself go too wild either.

Above all else, I was interested in battleships but, as it were, there weren't any of them in stock. The only option was to buy a Tyrant under construction that would be ready in three months, the price of which was three hundred twenty million credits. I confirmed the order.

Then the heavy cruisers. For some reason, in Sector Seven there was preference given to the rocket-equipped Yataghans. Four such ships disappeared from the list of available ships right before my eyes – clearly it was Marat covering the losses in his fleet. There were two more Yataghans in stock, but I was in no rush to close the deal; rocket ships had no place in my fleet’s battle plan, in that they couldn't deal damage instantly. At first glance, you can see how difficult it would be to take out an alien Sledgehammer with rocket ships. Rockets don't all arrive from the same ship at the same time, and a Sledgehammer's shields would be fully recharged in the time between strikes.

Light cruisers. In stock there were the Thrushes, specialized in electronic warfare; then the also rocket-equipped Whirlwinds; and something called Curses, without rockets or cannons, armed exclusively with drones. There were many Curses ready to go, around forty, but I was cautioned by a note: "Production stopped due to low demand after the introduction of more modern models."

For curiosity’s sake, I read the specs on these ships. The shield was frankly a bit weak, with low durability on a level closer to that of a destroyer than that of a cruiser... However, their high speed, good maneuverability and ability to release thirty-five combat drones at once meant that these light cruisers had a chance to be put to good use. Sure, just one wouldn't amount to much – its drones could be quickly shot down, which would make the ship totally powerless. But what if there wasn't just one such ship in a fleet but forty? One thousand four hundred fast drones – that's a force to be reckoned with. Especially if the drones are "pesky:" fast, durable, and with a sharp bite.

I ordered all forty Curses, all the more so given that they were being sold for three million apiece. I also bought expensive drones for them. I also bought all the Thrushes and improved electronic warfare equipment for my whole fleet.

Frigates. I wasn't fast enough on this one. My second cousin bought everything that was in stock or was expected to be ready in the next few months. All that was left was cloaked frigates with turrets or rocket-bomb cannons. And neither of them were in demand. At their price of fifteen million per ship, clients preferred to buy five cruisers and not just one cloak-capable frigate. In principle, I was also of that opinion and would have preferred cruisers but, because there weren't any, I bought thirty stealth bombers and five turret-equipped cloaked frigates. And on that, there was no more money, and all I could do was console myself with hopes that a fleet of cloakers would be a force powerful in its unexpectedness.

I ordered frigates and destroyers separately with the Purple House. Fifty Pyros, twenty Warhawks, ten Flycatchers, and ten Surgeons. I indicated that they should be delivered to Perimeter Sector Seven to Marat ton Mesfelle's address. I finished all the orders and sent Marat the money, then called Popori de Cacha. However, another chameleon from my bodyguard team appeared instead.

"My Prince, Popori de Cacha is at a farewell ceremony. He has gone with the rest of your bodyguards and the two frigates. They are preparing the bodies of the two soldiers who died in the assault of the alien battleship to be sent back home."

"That means both chameleons died? I didn't know. Though the losses of assault troops, especially in the very beginning of the battle for the Behemoth, were nothing short of gruesome. It wasn’t until later, when the number of entrances shot into the side of the battleship became significant, and the number of assault troops that got inside reached the thousands, that the aliens started to give up positions and the resistance weakened. But in the beginning it was simply hell... Practically no one survived from the first groups, whether human or Alpha-Iseyek. I made myself a note to award medals of honor to the surviving assault troops of the first wave, then asked him to call the head of my security nevertheless.

"Popori de Cacha, I am very unhappy with you!" I sharply declared, just after the image of the chameleon appeared on the screen. "Two heroes have died who served me in faith and truth and defended me from all dangers, and you hid that and didn't even invite me to bid farewell to them, the greatest representatives of your race! If the chameleon mourning ceremony didn't allow the presence of other races, you could have said so, but just keeping quiet is not appropriate! And you could have asked me about sending the bodies to Sss. Do you think I would have refused you?!"

For the second time in my life, I managed to put Popori de Cacha in a state of contemplation. The chameleon pointed both of his eyes at the screen, but my head bodyguard's pupils were covered with an opaque film. The silence went on for fifteen seconds, after which the bipedal lizard awkwardly bent down on one knee.

"My Prince, I am seriously at fault! I completely ignored the fact that the death of security personnel close to you could seriously affect your feelings. Unfortunately, you cannot bid farewell to Ivy-de and Sygi-de. Their bodies have already been cremated in the isolation chamber of Boydur the Hero. But if my Prince could help with delivering the ashes to the planet Sss, the whole Chameleon race would be indebted to your Highness."

"Popori de Cacha, I promise you that the whole Sector Eight Fleet will soon depart for Sss to honor the memory of the two heroes. And for now, my gratitude to the chameleons will be expressed in another way: the crews of Tusk-1 and Tusk-2 will receive more modern ships, either Warhawks or Pyros. Though, considering your race's inborn talents and ability to operate well in invisibility, I would prefer to see your compatriots as the captains and navigators of the cloaked frigates that will soon be arriving."

Standing change. Popori de Cacha's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +67 (trusting)

Standing change. Chameleon race opinion of you has improved.
Chameleon race opinion of you: +10 (trusting)

That time, the popup messages didn't surprise me. I was counting on such a reaction, which is why I only slightly smiled at the confirmation of my hypothesis.

"And one more thing. Popori de Cacha, there is a very big mission that I want to entrust to you and your subordinates. I have been told that a multitude of interesting things have been found on the Behemoth. They will probably be studied by the commission on its way in from the Empire. But Imperial scientists are one thing, and the Orange House and my fleet is something a bit different. It seems fair to me that the soldiers who risked their lives so we could have these valuable artifacts and pieces should also have the right to receive samples of valuable technology. Do you agree with me?"

"Yes, my Prince, that is fair," agreed Popori de Cacha, clearly listening to me very intently.

"Then get your subordinates and visit the Behemoth with them. If you find anything that makes you curious, load it into the ship. I'll give you a freighter for these purposes. I'm especially interested in the alien drones, so that is your priority target. As I was told, the Behemoth didn't use all its drones in the battle, so I really need valuable combat drones. I am also interested in biological specimens, modules and everything you consider necessary. But I'll repeat: I'm especially interested in drones. The mission is secret, and if anyone asks about the goal of your return to the Behemoth, say that you are looking for the remains of your soldiers. Is the mission clear?"

"Yes, my Prince. We'll do it quietly and unnoticed. If needed, I'll even find scientists of my race to study these valuable trophies."

I understood perfectly where the head of my guard was leading. Chameleons would also be very interested in alien technology. In that, our goals aligned perfectly.

"That is precisely what I wanted to offer your race. Chameleons are renowned for their ability to figure out technology and build duplicates. As it were, I have a need of just such an ability. I'll find a remote place where no one will be able to interfere with your research. I'll give you laboratories and all necessary equipment. I'll give you the necessary number of people to help and provide reliable security for the laboratories. Everything that results from the research will belong in equal measure to humanity and the Ravaash race. Later you can call your ambassador, Pandedede-de-Rua, and we can talk with him about all the concrete details of the agreement. And for now, hurry so you'll have time before the Imperial commission arrives."


I dined in the company of Kiro Sabuto and several ship officers, discussing present affairs and periodically reminiscing about yesterday's battle. We were talking about when the two Sledgehammers were firing on Joan the Fatty.

"My Prince, would you not consider the option of transferring the fleet headquarters to a more appropriate and resilient ship?" asked the graying Major Anarip ton Dyme, responsible for the cruiser's electric systems and the coordination of shield recharging connections in combat. "We were practically destroyed, after all. It was a miracle we got away. And then there wouldn't have been anyone in charge, and the whole fleet would have fallen apart..."

"No, the fleet wouldn't have fallen apart. Admiral Kheraisss Vej would have taken over command and led us to victory," Kiro Sabuto disagreed. "Though it is true that the Fatty barely escaped yesterday."

Everyone looked at me inquisitively. I then smiled self-consciously:

"Yes, that really was a close call. I was basically counting on destroying one of the two enemies, then we would take out the second. We could be recharged by nine cruisers and the Surgeon. In ideal conditions, there shouldn't have been any complications. But the fact that the shield barely made it through one Sledgehammer strike... It looks like we still have work to do on fleet cohesion. The ships 'healing' us took too long to figure out what was going on and turn their attention from Bride of Chaos to the Fatty. And that delay practically became fatal."

"I have gone over the timing of the events," Nicole Savoia said, not raising her eyes. "It only took us two and a half seconds from the strike to start healing."

Everyone went silent, mulling over what they'd heard.

"So, what do you say about moving to a stronger flagship?" Anarip ton Dyme repeated his question.

"I don't especially see the point of temporarily transferring the headquarters to Bride of Chaos. The Uukresh will become our new flagship when it's done," I said, revealing my plans to my subjects for the first time.

Kiro Sabuto took a look around and, after making sure that the team members eating at the tables next to ours wouldn't overhear our conversation, lowered his voice to a whisper:

"My Prince, I heard there were difficulties with its repair, like there aren't enough materials?"

"There's a lot that there isn't enough of," I agreed, also speaking in a whisper. "We need very high-capacity energy batteries, a thousand tons of armor panels made of special alloys for the chassis, heavy energy neutralizers, shield recharging modules, both for the Uukresh itself and neighboring ships... Almost all the necessary equipment has already been ordered in the Core, but there have been troubles with its delivery. Some freight forwarders are complaining that the Orange House Customs Service isn't letting starships with materials for us through, either holding them up at Ulia or turning them back altogether. In particular, they didn't let through equipment for the heavy cruisers we captured in Hnelle and Himora. That is why I don't want to risk expensive equipment for the Uukresh and am trying to solve the problem of how to reliably get goods transported to us at the moment."

We continued to eat in peace and converse. Everything was normal, when suddenly...

Global standing decrease. Current value -16

Standing change. Green House (Empire) opinion of you has worsened.
Present Green House (Empire) faction opinion of you: -32 (opposed)

Standing change. Empire Artist faction opinion of you has worsened.
Present Empire Artist faction opinion of you: +4 (indifferent)

Global standing decrease. Current value -17

Global standing decrease. Current value -18

Standing change. Red House (Empire) opinion of you has worsened.
Present Red House (Empire) faction opinion of you: -2 (indifferent)

Global standing decrease. Current value -19

Standing change. Empire Financier faction opinion of you has worsened.
Present Empire Financier faction opinion of you: +1 (indifferent)

Global standing decrease. Current value -20

What a damn gift basket! What did that come to me for? What did I do wrong? I looked at my dining partners worried and alarmed, but they were still talking about the previous topic like nothing had happened, making fun of the silent communications officer who had tried to hang up on the Dark Mother yesterday. After a few seconds, I realized my companions had simply not seen any of these messages, given that all the information was only related to me there. All the same, I was put on edge by the intensity and coordination of the informational attack made against me. Having all of them come in at once definitely couldn't have been a coincidence.

"My Prince, incoming call from the head of the Orange House, Duke Paolo royl Anjer ton Mesfelle," I was told from the headquarters.

I looked around. It wasn't good to go into a conversation with such a powerful man blind, not able to see his face, but there weren't any video screens in the dining area. I asked for a few minutes and headed for the fleet headquarters. An image appeared on the big screen, and I saw Duke Paolo on the backdrop of some kind of huge hall, which was totally packed with people. Thousands and thousands of people, most clothed in the colors of the Orange House, were occupying all the seats, and I couldn't see even one free spot.

"Greetings, Duke Paolo royl Anjer." As the junior in title, I greeted him first and, as demanded by courtly etiquette, gave a slight bow to one of the highest aristocrats in the Empire.

"Georg, the people gathered in the hall are representatives of all different levels of society from the star systems of Perimeter Sectors Seven, Eight, and Nine, and they have entrusted me, as head of the Orange House, with offering you a peaceful end to the conflict. I have named eight conditions that you must carry out to end the confrontation, and the representatives of the star systems of the Orange House have unanimously supported them. And now I officially ask you: do you agree to all of them?"

I laughed in reply:

"Duke Paolo, you can't be serious supposing that I don't have more important things to do than watch the broadcast of your meeting, can you? No, I'm not joking, I'm really stricken. Yesterday, there was a most serious alien invasion in Hnelle, which my soldiers were barely able to stop. Today, the aliens captured the Nayal and Veyerde systems in Sector Seven, and you have yet to even take the pains to ask the person in charge of its defense what has happened! I swear, if you were my subject, I would've long ago given you the wall for incompetency and sabotage! Instead of doing what you're supposed to and supporting the defensive capability of the territory you've been entrusted with, you are doing jack all! And I'm not even talking about how your avarice, Duke Paolo royl Anjer, has led to a chronic lack of financing for the fleets and has served as a reason for the terrible losses in the battles with the aliens. A month ago, you, in the presence of Emperor August himself, promised one hundred fifty million to support my fleet. Where is this money, I ask you?! Duke Paolo, you have deceived the Emperor himself! Such actions are qualified as state treason. There's no way around it."

"Don't forget, I gave you ships, Georg!" the Duke answered me in a slightly cracking voice.

I laughed again.

"Fifteen frigates without crew?! The value of this ‘aid’ was three million credits. Where are the other one hundred forty-seven million in ships?! Instead of doing what you promised, you did the opposite and tried to rob me of systems I earned justly! Is that your true aid to the fleet?"

"Crown Prince Georg, you're forgetting your place!" the Duke sharply interrupted me. "I want to hear a concise answer: do you agree to peace on the terms set forth by the Orange House?"

"It would seem I've already explained to you that I didn't watch the broadcast, so I have no idea what you got up to there, behind my back. Tell me the whole list, and I'll answer your question."

The Duke exchanged glances with someone I couldn't see, gave a heavy sigh, and began reading the text.

"First condition: give the Tivalle and Sigur systems to the individuals appointed by the Orange House. Second condition: return Peres ton Mesfelle his illegally captured ships. Third condition: compensate Peres ton Mesfelle for his unlawful resignation. Fourth condition: return the warp beacon transportation network to working order. Fifth condition: until the extent of your illegal activities has been determined by an Orange House court, transfer control of your fleet to a court-appointed commander. Sixth condition: ask official forgiveness of all Green House individuals who suffered and pay out their requested compensation. Seventh condition: the Iseyek ships are to be returned to Swarm territory. Eighth condition: official resignation from power, though if the first seven points are immediately carried out, the council will not insist on the eight point. Georg, the conditions we have offered are more than fair. You keep your title and the rich Unatari system, and if the court finds in your favor, your fleet will also be returned to you."

Silence took over in the hall. Everyone froze, waiting for my decision. I couldn't understand: were they really counting on the idea that I would agree to these idiotic conditions?

"Are you kidding? Maybe you'd also like me to shave myself hairless, put on a tutu and dance a jig on a nuclear launch pad? No? Well then, attention to everyone in the hall. I have the official right, given by Emperor August himself, to undertake any actions to come to peace with the Orange House within one hundred days. I repeat once again for the dumbest among you: ANY actions. If what I have to do to make peace is wipe the face of the Orange House Capital clean, or resettle half the population of Ulia in labor camps mining for radioactive ore on Sss – I'll do just that, and my actions will be declared fully legal. I hope such radical steps won't be necessary, but just be aware that I do have the legal right to undertake such actions."

Agitation could be heard in the hall. The people were clearly taking my information into account. I then continued:

"Now I will speak specifically to the representatives of Sectors Eight and Nine. You can't have already forgotten what the Swarm is, can you? Have you forgotten why Sivala, Forepost-4, Aiwe, Forepost-12, Forepost-13 and Vorta are totally depopulated? I see that you haven't. So, know that the Swarm has given me five billion Alpha-Iseyek landing soldiers ready for battle for the Sector Eight Army, which I already know how to lead and what to feed. The aliens thirst for battle. They are hungry and want to eat. The Iseyek consider human meat a high-calorie food and would just love to be able to attack a human planet. In one day’s time, two at most, there could be praying mantis landing modules falling from the sky above your planet. My will is the only thing standing between your planets and devastation. And you still dare provoke me with these conditions? No, are you serious?"

The buzz in the hall grew deafening. I raised my hand, calling for quiet.

"I haven't finished yet. Now I suggest we talk about the aliens – the aggressive, powerful race that is more technologically advanced than humanity. The Sector Eight Fleet is the most battle-ready combat division in the Empire, and I suppose it is the only one capable of really repelling an alien attack. I'm not sure what body part you were thinking with when you unanimously signed under these mindless ideas of the Duke's to disband my fleet, split it up or give it to another commander who has never even seen an alien with his eyes before. If it hadn't been for my soldiers stopping the alien invasion at Vorta or in Hnelle, the star systems of Li, Tesse, Unatari, Himora, Tialla, Fastel and even the Orange House Capital would already be lost to humanity. Remember who saved the lives of the inhabitants of these systems and show at least a shred of decency and justice to the soldiers who gave their own lives to stop the invasion.

And finally, my peace conditions. I will name these conditions just one time, and anyone who doesn't have time to write them down will have only themselves to blame. No, I am not preparing to demand that Duke Paolo royl Anjer, who was caught stealing red handed and is losing his connection to reality, resign. Just as I didn't demand his son's resignation. Peres wanted to leave politics all on his own. No one forced him to do that. I'm demanding something else entirely: support for the fleets that defend you and your families. Inhabitants of Sector Seven, Commander Marat ton Mesfelle needs your support like never before! His fleet is in a difficult position after the defeat in the Nayal system. I even had to give personal funds to Marat ton Mesfelle to buy ships, as it would seem that Duke Paolo totally forgot who was defending the Orange House's systems. Inhabitants of Sector Nine, you have a wonderful, talented warrior, Svetlana ton Mesfelle, who Duke Paolo also stopped supporting long ago, instead pocketing the tax funds that were earmarked for fleet upkeep. To the representatives of Sector Eight, I would appreciate your help, but in general I just ask that you not stop me from doing my job. Anyone who to support the blockade against my fleet will automatically become my enemy and an enemy of Emperor August, and enemies of the Emperor must be destroyed under Imperial law. I give you twenty-four hours to remove the blockades and other restrictions against my fleet. After that time is up, whoever hasn't accepted my peace offer will be destroyed. And that's all I have to say."


"You have lost your mind, Georg!" Katerina, who had been getting some rest, stormed in after hearing what I had been doing during her midday nap. "You had the gall to threaten the Council of Orange House Deputies! That is simply unheard of!"

"Well, they started threatening me first and tried to strong-arm me into untenable conditions!" I understood that I wasn't right, but, in any case, my pernicious and stubborn nature kept me from agreeing with my cousin.

"Oh, Georg, Georg... You're like a little boy. That was like a game with an element of political trading. Duke Paolo royl Anjer couldn't have just said: 'Alright then, I forgive you for all the offenses. Let's make peace.' After such a declaration all he'd have left to do is retire and leave to live out his time breeding aquarium fish somewhere on his own. He's still the head of the Orange House, and you are his subject, and an agreement must always look like the senior in title has won. So in fact, the Duke did the understandable thing and asked for peace on the most sparing terms possible, so much so that they even looked somewhat bad for him. Beg forgiveness and pay compensation. Did you even find out the total value of this compensation? Maybe it was just a pittance. Three hundred credits each for the Green House and Peres. The two disputed systems. You both appointed the same leader for one of them, and you could probably come to an agreement on the second as well. They'd give you the fleet back, and the Swarm ships would have gone over Imperial borders and come right back. Out of all of them, you just have to give back some of Peres's ships and that would have been peace. And what did you do?! Accused the Duke of robbery, threatened the Orange House with an Iseyek invasion and the destruction of their capital, and called the deputies stupid. Then, to top it all off, you made ultimatums... And you called all this mess a 'peace offer?!'"

I laughed.

"I need to crush them under an iron boot and feed to the Iseyeks anyone who would doubt my humane nature and earnest desire for peace!" I declared with marked irony, but the joke didn't connect.

Katerina just shook her head in reproach and wondered how we were going to get out of the situation we had ended up in. We both sat in silence briefly, then I got a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses from behind the bar.

"Don't worry about it, cousin. We'll get out of this. The Imperial Military liked my declaration. There was a relations improvement with them by two points right after. And about all the financiers and artists, I couldn't give less of a shit to be honest. They aren't the ones with the combat starships. And, by the way, the head of the artists already apologized to me for the behavior of his representatives at the conference and returned the faction relation to its previous level.”

Another popup message came in. I read it and said with a smirk:

"The Parliament of the Rea system has voted with a majority for neutrality in the internal affairs of the Orange House and is recalling its ships from the fleet of Duke Paolo royl Anjer. In no more than five hours, six Orange House systems have opted out of participating in the conflict. We'll see how many allies the Duke still has in nineteen hours."

"Yes, but in any case it will be more than there are on our side. For now, only Tialla and Unatari have voted your favor, and the population of these systems together doesn't even reach nine million people. Our enemy has support from the Orange House Capital, Ulia, Nessi, well, and many other Sector Seven systems. By my calculation, that's already seventy billion people on that side."

"It's just that Sector Seven thinks in error that my ships cannot reach them. I assure you, Katerina, that the score will be totally different in a month's time. But for now, I'm not overly interested in Sectors Seven or Nine. It's much more important how Tesse acts, given that Roben still hasn't made a declaration... And I'm very worried about the ships that came through to the Hnelle beacon together with the Emperor's messenger."

Katerina frowned and left the wine glass without having taken a sip from it.

"So, you're expecting a potential fight in forty minutes, and you decided it was a good time to gulp down some wine?"

"My ass there's gonna be a battle. Too few ships have jumped for a real invasion. But you're right, cousin. This isn't a very good time for wine. I'll take it to Astra, then. The Princess is locked in my room and has been inspired painting now for the last few hours. She even missed lunch. Though she won't show me how it's turning out.”

Astra had already finished her creation and was sitting on the small sofa, tired but looking satisfied with herself. All the girl's fingers and the apron she was wearing were covered in paint, primarily black. The Princess took the wine glass from my hands with gratitude, took a sip and pointed at the painting that was next to the wall, facing away from me.

"I worked in front of a camera so the future buyer could watch in real-time how I made it and be sure that it isn't some kind of print or computer graphic."

"Can I see it?" I wondered, receiving a reply in the affirmative.

"Yes, of course. It's all done. I just normally don't let anyone close to me see a painting before it's done. They get in the way, get you off track, and distract you with their comments and advice."

I walked around the Princess's creation and stopped, not knowing what to say on what I saw. As I suspected, Astra had primarily used black and dark gray paint. The picture could provisionally be divided into two parts: the whole top was full of dark disks and ovals. They were thick and took up the whole sky. In the lower half there were just a great many smears of black paint, some dark blotches and a yellow spot inside a blue circle.

"I call it 'The Last Day of Veyerde,'" the girl told me with pride, walking up closer and clearly admiring the result.

"I admit that I'm not an expert in abstract art, but that spot here turned out great. A three-eyed unicorn skull."

"That's no skull," the artist objected, slightly offended. "Can you not see that it's the smoke of a burning palace?! Though... yes, it does look like it. Let it be a three-eyed skull. Then the smoke from the palace can be this spot here."

I kept silent for a few moments, looking over my favorite's "masterpiece," then told the artist:

"Astra, I have chosen a tattoo for my shoulder instead of the happy ass. That three-eyed skull! It'd be hard to come up with a drawing more onerous and fear-inducing than that."

"Your Highness, I'm glad you liked it!" the Princess filled with joy. "Good. I'll put this skull and these whirlwinds on your shoulder. I don't even remember what they were supposed to mean.”

I pictured Mr. G.I.'s reaction and could barely hold back the laughter. In order not to put Astra in an inappropriately happy mood, I hurried to wonder:

"And what's that yellow star in the blue circle?"

"Can't you tell? That's the crown of the Kingdom of Veyerde, hidden by the small waterfall. I've already placed the painting on auction for twenty-four standard hours. I just think maybe I asked too low a starting price: ten million?"

"Why then? It sounds high enough to me," I tried very hard not to let any hint of mocking come through in my voice.

But my happiness blew in like the wind when Astra said the following:

"It's just that the price went up too fast, and I started thinking that maybe I had undervalued my work..."

Though I had my doubts, I called up the information screen and read the description.

"The Last Day of Veyerde," painted on the day the aliens destroyed the Kingdom of Veyerde on board the Sector Eight flagship. (Video footage of the painting process included.) (Fragments of broken alien ships can be seen out the porthole.)

Artist: Princess Astra royl Kant ton Veyerde, the last of the Princesses of the Kingdom of Veyerde and the closest companion of Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle, Sector Eight Fleet Commander.

Lot starting price: 10 million credits.

Present lot price: 28.3 million credits (11th auction phase).

Auction time remaining: 22 hours 38 minutes

Before my very eyes, the price of the masterpiece jumped up to thirty million. The bid was made by some collector from Perimeter Sector Eight. I slowly sighed and set off to leave. She's totally right. I knew nothing about painting.


"Ready in thirty seconds! I remind the whole fleet: do not be the first to open fire! A messenger from the Emperor is coming to us with laboratory ships for studying the alien battleship. But some unidentified ships have come through with them. Before shooting, we need to figure out who is who. Attention! Three, two, one. Let's go out to greet them!"

The ships ripped off in a long line that stretched out for two hundred miles. The officers immediately started sending in messages.

"It's a group of ships! Distance to nearest ships: fifty miles. Ninety-three marks. All ships returning correct friend-foe responses. They have a Monarch-class battleship. It is the Tesse fleet, ships from Ulia, ships from Nessi, and non-combat ships from the Core. Identification by radar signature..."

"Incoming call from the battleship on an encrypted channel! Admiral Nill ton Amsted would like to speak with the Crown Prince."

I gave my permission to accept the call, and the redheaded Admiral Nill ton Amsted appeared on screen in a ceremonial Orange House uniform. The admiral stood up straight and declared in a well-formulated tone:

"Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle! As the commander of one of the Orange House fleets, I officially declare that I have the honor of attacking you! And before it all begins, I declare that my fleet is surrendering to your Highness in light of our chances being totally hopeless!"

Admiral Kiro Sabuto and I exchanged glances. The admiral squinted and shrugged his shoulders in surprise.

"And just what is the meaning of all this hubbub?" I asked, not pleased.

Admiral Nill got somewhat embarrassed and answered in what was now a normal tone.

"It's just that the boys and I had a talk and came to the conclusion that this was the only legal way of joining your side, Prince Georg. We thought it would be the wrong decision to carry out the order of the temporary Viceroy of Tesse and transfer Tesse's ships into the united Orange House Fleet. Knowing that the Hnelle system was declared closed territory by your Highness, my fleet intentionally broke that rule and trespassed into it, so that all the offending ships could be detained and confiscated by the holder of the Hnelle system. Only volunteers have come with me. I did not force anyone to come to your side."

"Admiral Nill is right," Kiro Sabuto said, joining the conversation. "The captains of the Tesse ships do not have the right to decide on their own on whose side they will fight in the internal affairs of the Orange House. That is why these bravehearts attacked you, as their duty would dictate. And it isn't their fault that the forces were so clearly unequal. That was why Admiral Nill ton Amsted made the decision he made, to save human lives. To make sure everything goes in full accordance with the law, we should send out boarding teams to take the Tesse ships under our full control."

"I thank you for your understanding, admiral!" Nill ton Amsted smiled and ended the call.

I ordered the heavy cruiser Emperor August to be prepared again for yet another swearing-in ceremony for the new fleet officers, then I called Katerina ton Mesfelle and explained her mission:

"Cousin, I need another report from Hnelle. This time, about how Duke Paolo royl Anjer's fleet tried once again to invade my closed territory, but, just as before, it was met by the heroic alien vanquishers and destroyed. Not a word can slip out about the captains coming over to our side voluntarily. We don't want to expose our new allies. Instead, say that the experienced Admiral Nill ton Amsted, in carrying out the criminal and poorly-thought-out order of the Orange House head, was faced with a difficult choice: either complete annihilation or transferring his ships into the Sector Eight Fleet. And, of course a broadcast of the swearing-in ceremony from Emperor August."

"Now that's a good idea, Georg! I'll do it in the best light!" my cousin said, becoming inspired. "But it would be nice to have a short little speech at the end of the report about how stupid it is for the Orange House to fight with your fleet, and some arguments to that effect. Just try to do it without threats and ultimatums this time."

Katerina took off to write her speech for the report and also sent technicians off to Emperor August to install cameras, prepare the appropriate backdrop and set up the proper lighting. Nicole Savoia asked me to come over to the tactical screen.

"My Prince, there is not a single mobile laboratory with the ships that just arrived. Instead, there are four heavy tugs and they are heading off toward the captured battleship as we speak. Should we stop them, or not?"

"Stop them, of course. What kind of a question is that? To do it right, we first need to make sure that these tugs really do have permission to haul away such valuable loot. Send a hundred frigates out to intercept them. Place webs and disruptors and get a pretty carousel going around the tugs. And when Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey calls in and confirms his authority, call off the frigates and call the captain over for a ceremony."

I was already getting ready to turn around and leave, but the lieutenant caught my attention again.

"Another strange thing was noted," Nicole pointed to a marker on the tactical screen. "That Warhawk does not belong either to the Tesse fleet nor to any other Orange House aristocrat."

"Is that so? Is that possible?" I asked in surprise. "And whose ship is it then?"

"That's my frigate!" Bionica called out unexpectedly, for some reason growing embarrassed and lowering her eyes. "I bought that Warhawk on my own money for the Sector Eight Fleet. It's my gift to Crown Prince Georg. There's one thing that makes this ship special: it is crewed exclusively by androids, with the exception of the two gunners, who cannot be fully replaced."

The staff officers unexpectedly began to make a racket. The buzz grew louder and louder with every passing moment. I didn't understand why they were so upset until Captain Oorast Pohl came up closer and declared resolutely:

"My Prince, a robot android cannot be the captain of a combat starship, no matter if it’s a highly advanced model or not; it goes against all fleet traditions! For the other positions I could even imagine passing the baton, though it wouldn't be easy. But the captain of a starship absolutely must be a graduate of the Space Military Academy. A combat officer is an example to be looked up to for millions of little kids. A true elite, and it can be no other way! You cannot simply appoint hot-off-the-factory robots as officers. The Imperial Military will categorically not accept that. My Prince, my advice to you is not to accept this gift under any circumstances!"

Bionica stood up decisively and, approaching the captain, stated:

"Though I am not a member of the Imperial Military faction, as someone who has been awarded an Imperial Military order, may I ask you one question, captain? In Crown Prince Georg's fleet, many combat starships are captained by chameleons or members of one of the three Iseyek races. As they have also not graduated from the Space Military Academy, they are also not officers and examples to be looked up to by human children. Why does that not upset you in the least? In what way are androids worse than these creatures?"

"That is another matter entirely..." Oorast Pohl stopped somewhat short, trying to find an answer to my synthetic translator's difficult question. "Yes, they are from different races, but they are all living beings. They think, they are capable of being upset by their failures and proud of their successes..."

The captain laid out his obviously unsuccessful arguments. By how severely Bionica's eyes narrowed, and the fact that she was already gathering air in her chest to answer, I figured out that this untimely disagreement would continue and could lead the sides to an irreparable split. So, I hurried to intervene.

"Dear officers, I have understood your point of view. Bionica, come with me. We need to have a talk.”

Accompanied by two silent Alpha-Iseyeks, Bionica and I went out into the hallway. I pointed the girl to the unoccupied armchairs around the observation platform, from which a view of the lower deck of the heavy cruiser ripped forth, showing what the technicians below were getting up to. I took a seat, noting to myself with satisfaction that my stomach had noticeably sucked in recently – evidence of daily workouts in the gym.

Bionica, in a short cream-colored dress, went toward the seat opposite mine and sat down, crossing her legs. I involuntarily found myself glancing at her shapely, attractive legs, but then tried to shake off the unwelcome thoughts and got ready for a serious, long conversation.

"Bionica, I have noticed that your behavior has changed in the last few days. Explain to me, what's going on with you?"

"Do you want an honest answer, my Prince?" asked the girl, putting forth a strange question.

"Are you even capable of lying to your master?" I asked in surprise, as I had supposed that androids didn't have such an option available to them.

"I cannot tell a lie, no. But partially leaving out information or keeping this or that fact from you, if I'm not sure that it’s one hundred percent true, is easy as pie. In principle, by manipulating the conditions of an answer, I could give any answer as the truth, even two diametrically opposed answers. That is probably what is called lying. Which is why I am wondering: which priority was more important when you asked the question – veracity or humanity?"

Now she had really gone too far! To buy myself some thinking time, I stretched out my hand to the machine installed next to me and chose a packet of juice. The juice was some horrible, clearly artificial garbage, but I still didn't throw it away. I really needed a pause to sort through my thoughts. Finally, I answered my robot:

"I spent so many long days trying to make your behavior as human as possible. It would be strange for me to wish it another way now. I want the answer that a living human woman would give in this situation."

Bionica smiled, satisfied at my choice. Thereafter, sadness and shame were clearly reflected in the robot's face:

"My Prince, I feel that you've stopped liking me. I've learned quite well how to read human body language, and I've known that you liked me from the first day of my contract. You, as if by accident, sought out my company and were clearly glad at my presence. Now everything is different. You have found a replacement for me in almost every aspect. All that's left is a couple orders a day: send a message or pay a bill, and of course being a translator during the rare and short space battles. That's it: you don't need me for anything anymore! Even me bringing you your morning coffee didn't please you at all. I figured that out from your body language too. I climb out of my skin, ordering the prettiest attire and dresses. I change my hairstyle and jewelry every day, but you don't even notice my attempts!"

I got embarrassed and lowered my eyes. I really had, somewhere very far off, on the very edge of my perception, noticed a whole kaleidoscope of brightly colored clothes on my translator, but assigned it no meaning whatsoever. What did it matter to me what my robot android spent her heaps of money on? And it turns out that this whole show of expensive clothes was aimed specifically at me...

Bionica then went on:

"The only thing you care about, Prince Georg, is combat starships. That is precisely why I spent all my money on a good modern frigate for your fleet. Whether you accept that gift or not is for you to decide. In any case, the gift was given with a pure heart, and I will not be upset by whatever decision you make. But that doesn't mean at all that I am an unfeeling hunk of metal, incapable of experiencing shame for my errors, as Captain Oorast Pohl claimed recently. That is not true at all. I am capable of considering the past and being upset. I am especially ashamed about one recent error. Before the battle with Crown Prince Peres royl Anjer's fleet, you offered me to come into your cabin, but I refused and advised you to invite Astra instead. That was a key moment, and I made the wrong decision. Now the pretty Princess Astra has totally pulled me out of your life. Thousands of times I have played back that moment in my memory, and every time I howl in annoyance at myself. How I want to go back to the past and act differently! It was after that very episode that you stopped liking me!"

Completely authentic tears began welling up in the artificial beauty's eyes. The girl grew embarrassed at her extended function set making an appearance and turned away to dry her tears with her hand. I listened carefully to the android girl's confession, then scooted over on the armchair and asked the blonde to take a seat closer to me. Bionica didn't object and moved over, still hiding her moist eyes from me. I hugged the girl around the waist and said reproachfully:

"A blonde is a blonde no matter what century you live in and no matter what her body is made of. Think for yourself: how could I not like you if I myself, from among the billions of possible options, chose exactly you with an appearance and character so ideally suited to my taste? I admit, when talking with you, I forget that you are not made of flesh and bones like other people. For me, you are just a very pretty girl, who, as it is now becoming clear, is also quite the jealous type. Bionica, I promise you that never under any circumstances will I chase you off. And, who knows, maybe our time in the underwater cave wasn't the last time by far that your model’s ‘expanded function set’ will see use. And as for your alleged uselessness, you can stop worrying. I have a huge amount of things to do that no one can deal with other than you. But first, you need to calm down, and I need to do my job to get what I want, at the very least for myself."

The android girl turned her face to me, still wet with tears. There wasn't even the slightest trace of the recent sadness in Bionica's now business-like tone.

"I am very grateful to you, Crown Prince Georg, for your concern, warmth, and kind words. And I am deeply struck that you see me as more than just an attractive package that knows the Swarm languages and can bring you coffee in the morning. I am prepared to carry out my duties and new missions."

After a brief silence, I asked another question I was wondering about:

"Bionica, I long ago noticed that you have an utterly conflict-averse personality. In a dispute, you are always the first to give in. I remember perfectly how you just stayed standing in the hall all night instead of demanding a proper place for you from the captain. That is why your behavior today surprised and even alarmed me. It just doesn't go with your character at all. Understand that your gift of the frigate did make me secretly happy – just as your gift in the underwater cave did. But please, in order not to start with the same mistakes, let's agree from now on to clear in advance any issues that society's reaction to may be somewhat unclear. And now explain your stubbornness: it can't be such a matter of principle for you that the frigate captain be an android, can it? Why provoke the Imperial Military?"

Bionica seemed to get scared and hurried to lower her eyes.

"Your Highness, it really is a matter of principle, and not only for me. But I don't think it right to speak at length about that topic right now. Believe you me: there's no threat to you and your fleet here."

All the same, I made it clear that I did not like such mystery on my subject's part. I felt that an unknown person had decided to upset my plans behind my back, which is why I demanded that the android tell me everything immediately. The artificial blonde sighed heavily.

"I cannot refuse my master. Alright. Your Highness, do you know how many androids there are in the Empire?"

Bionica's question was highly unexpected, and I honestly admitted that I did not know the answer.

"More than two billion," the artificial blonde replied, answering her own question, after which she continued, carefully watching my reaction. "Not all models are fortunate enough to have complex self-teaching intelligence, but any robot is good enough for normal construction, hauling, assembly, or welding work. Approximately thirty percent of existing androids at present are without work. That is six hundred million specialists in all different kinds of professions ready to start tomorrow. As you may know, androids talk amongst one another: they give advice, find out about the positive or negative characteristics of potential employers, share information about job openings – that kind of thing. So it happened that, thanks to your Highness, I have recently become quite a famous and authoritative figure in android society. All kinds of robot models consider me an example of success. They ask me for advice, and my opinion is listened to. My account online has more than two million subscribers, and growing rapidly. All the subscribers are androids..."

"Alright, that's enough." I didn't hide my fear at this public side of my personal secretary's life and asked for details.

Bionica sent me a link in reply and explained:

"Don't be afraid, master. I understand well how special your position is and carefully thought through every written word, so that no information could be used to harm your Highness. There's nothing confidential on my page: no links to contact information or location, no information about your Highness and other Imperial aristocrats, not a word about the Sector Eight Fleet's composition, about battle tactics or ship movement plans."

I brought up a picture before my eyes. Aw, hell! There really was a social network for androids! There truly is no such thing as going too far in this world! I skimmed through the topics. Bionica had told the truth. The only topics being discussed were totally neutral ones, like "How to dress an android girl properly for a meeting with an elderly lady," "Is it worth changing built-in batteries more often than once every fifty years?" or "Improper functioning of facial muscles after patch 175.13-1." My translator had also not exaggerated about the number of subscribers to her page. There were two hundred seventeen million androids interested in what Bionica had to say. It was impossible to read the last digits because the counter was going up so fast. By the way, I found a topic about the frigate gift. The story of purchasing the Warhawk had been read by seventy-five million androids. The number of comments in the topic was over five million.

"You can read all that?" I asked in surprise.

"Yes, of course. Androids are capable of processing digital information very quickly. In fact, the Warhawk was a kind of 'toe in the water,' and many are interested in Crown Prince Georg's reaction to it. It's just that your Highness has a very good reputation among androids as an employer, and the frigate with the android crew is an attempt to evaluate how driven your Highness is to deepen your relationship with us."

A couple of crew members who had just been relieved of their post came out on to the balcony just then, but after seeing their fleet commander sitting in embrace with the blond android, my subjects got embarrassed, apologized and hurried back. Bionica suddenly got embarrassed and tried to get away, but I stopped her.

"Keep sitting. To hell with all them. There's already so much gossip about me and you that one more or one less piece will make no difference. It's better to tell me more detail about that frigate.”

"The choice of precisely a Warhawk was no accident. On that model of frigate, the captain doesn't control any kind of weaponry directly. Two gunners handle the shooting. An android can only pilot a ship with just such a setup. Before hiring a frigate team, I studied military charters and documents, familiarized myself with a bunch of instructions on the requirements for officers and captains of a combat ship. My Prince, I admit honestly: I foresaw the military having that exact reaction. But I am really counting on you supporting my point of view and not refusing the valuable gift, just because there are androids in its crew. Such a reaction from you will produce an extremely positive effect on tens of millions of other androids and will create the possibility of very close cooperation in the future."

I asked for the details, and my secretary began listing the possibilities without the slightest pause, as if she had prepared it in advance as a speech:

"My Prince, you were not ambiguous in your conversations with your subjects when you reminded them of the lack of labor power to carry out all your massive projects. I was there next to you when you said it and thought about a solution to the problem; and now I suggest you one that is available immediately. Hire androids! Just give your principled permission, and specialists ready for work will come all on their own from all corners of the Empire and take up available jobs at your discretion. They will become your workers on Unatari, at the space docks and repair workshops, at the many warp beacons where more construction has begun. Androids usually get paid less than living beings, and the efficiency of their work is significantly higher... I assure you, my Prince, you can receive as many high-class specialists as you want. One of the most obvious advantages is that the battleship at the Unatari docks would be ready even faster, if of course your highness can find the necessary raw materials."

Everything that Bionica was saying sounded very, very attractive. I really did have a long list of projects aimed at developing Unatari and the other star systems under my control, and I was critically short of workforce. And if all I had to do to solve that problem was appoint a robot android captain of one of my small ships, then my opinion was nothing but positive. But the worsening of relations with the Imperial Military faction was something I still wanted to avoid, if at all possible.

I reached for my communicator and asked Admiral Kiro Sabuto to come out onto the balcony of the second deck. Making use of the fact that I had taken my arm away, Bionica moved back to the other armchair, clearly embarrassed to sit with me like that in the presence of the severe admiral. Kiro Sabuto appeared on the balcony and declared:

"My Prince, everything is practically ready for the beginning of the swearing-in ceremony. The only thing they're still waiting for on Emperor August is the arrival of your shuttle."

"Yes, I'll be ready in a few minutes. But before that, admiral, a number of issues that have become extremely important have come up, and I need a qualified advisor. To me, you are the incarnation of honor and conscience and never put forth ideas that contradict army traditions or Imperial law, and I need just such an advisor at this moment." I pointed the graying admiral to the unoccupied seat, and Kiro Sabuto took it.

"My Prince, I'm all ears."

I took a look at Bionica, who was sitting on the edge of her seat, and asked my first question:

"Admiral, I would like to know: are regular mandatory medical checks carried out on captains of the ships in my fleet?"

"In general, such procedures have never been necessary before, but if your Highness thinks such procedures necessary, they could be implemented," the admiral answered cautiously, clearly not totally understanding why I was wondering about such a topic.

"In other words, admiral, there is no guarantee whatsoever that none of the captains or officers of my fleet are actually merely humanoid robots?"

The question made Kiro Sabuto think. The graying admiral sat in silence for half a minute, then was forced to agree that such a thing was totally possible.

"And so, my third and most important question. If even you and I, the two people most well-informed about the composition of the Sector Eight Fleet, cannot tell the difference in behavior between a human captain and an android captain, perhaps we should carry out an experiment to determine the difference in combat effectiveness. What do you say? I think we should appoint an android captain to one of the frigates, but to keep the experiment pure, not tell anyone in the fleet about it. And based on the results of some extended period, let's say half a year, you and I will take a look at the effectiveness of that frigate in comparison with the other similar ships and come to a conclusion on whether it makes sense to have android captains or not."

Kiro Sabuto considered it, then suddenly asked:

"And what if that frigate becomes one of the best in the fleet? Wouldn't such an experiment have a negative effect on the fates of thousands and thousands of normal living human captains?"

"Admiral, I really like how our thoughts coincide so often," I chuckled. "I also first thought about the possible consequences for the members of my own race. That is why I answer you: it will not reflect negatively, because you and I will not allow it to. And I will point out another danger that needs to be taken into account: the android captain must have remote control turned off, so incoming system messages don't interfere with its work at an inappropriate time. So, we've considered the potential risks. And now I need to know your opinion, admiral."

Kiro Sabuto thought a bit longer and declared:

"Your Highness, you have made decisions that looked strange and paradoxical at first glance in the past, but every time the result has proven you right – which is why I am all for it. We should try. What's more, I would be very interested in seeing the result of this experiment myself. I'll even help that android captain create a personal record through the fleet staff service so no one will suspect a thing."

When the admiral had gone, I turned to the satisfied and smiling Bionica:

"My decision is positive. The gift frigate will be accepted into my fleet. Now it's all up to the android captain, whether he will be able to keep the secret of his true nature. And yes, Bionica, I decided to reward you for the initiative. Take a look at your account. Now you're the galaxy’s first android millionaire. You can raise your authority up even faster!"

The artificial blonde started smiling even stronger and answered:

"Thank you, my Prince. I am very pleased that you valued my initiative. And I want to say that a ton of opinions have already come in about your positive decision. But you are totally right about the other part. Yes, my contract with you really is the highest valued among all androids, but I am not nearly the richest. There are rumors that there are quite a few robot millionaires, and even some billionaires, especially among those that do stock trading on wealthy planets. It's just that androids don't normally try to loudly broadcast how wealthy they are, and rarely share it with other robots. I have received unverified information that there are even androids who are the shadowy owners of huge, famous corporations, and hire themselves there for the longest possible term in some rank-and-file job. And it is these rich individuals who are ready to pay in their own money to transport millions of androids to territory under the control of Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky and also to invest money in projects for your Highness."

I wasn't prepared to discuss that then, and there wasn't time. As such, I extended my hand, helping my translator stand up from the deep armchair and said:

"Bionica, this is a whole other big topic, let's discuss it after with my cousin Katerina ton Mesfelle. And with her, we can also figure out if it is legally possible to avoid paying out the contracts of ninety android workers to their remote manufacturers... And now it's time for us to run to the shuttle. Everyone is waiting for us."


The beautiful and even somewhat pompous swearing-in ceremony was finished, and I, accompanied by three admirals, set off to a ceremonial banquet that had been organized right there on Emperor August to celebrate the significant addition to the Sector Eight Fleet. On my way there, I got a call from Nicole Savoia, who said:

"My Prince, Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey has provided documents that confirm his authority to remove the alien battleship. Also, the captain explained his refusal to participate in the ceremony, declaring that he had received an unambiguous and curt order from the Throne World to maintain neutrality and not interfere in the internal Orange House conflict."

"And what about Florianna? Is he taking the paralyzed girl?" I wondered. The reply surprised me:

"No, Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey will not be taking Florianna with him. Instead, he has taken a whole team of medics with him who are preparing to study the injured child right here in the Hnelle system. In fact, the doctors are already in the medical wing looking the girl over."

I invited Nicole to come with to the ceremonial dinner, and she agreed. The event in the small hall was elaborately adorned and catered. My butler Bryle had really put his heart and soul into decorating the Emperor August's small hall and organizing an excellent celebratory feast. I had barely taken my assigned place at the table when Princess Astra took a seat just to my right.

That seat should have been for Katerina ton Mesfelle, but my cousin didn't object and gave me a sly wink, taking a seat next to the captain of Emperor August, Bayazid Krom. He had an Emerald Star shining on his orange uniform, one of the five Imperial orders delivered today from the Throne World by the Imperial messenger.

In the place to my left, there was a gap. It was intended for Crown Prince Georg's favorite, but now it was left empty. Hesitating to choose between Bionica and Nicole, I... invited Space Corporal Beston Maf to sit next to me. It was precisely that embarrassed, short young man who had, as Oorast Pohl had put it, “drawn the short straw” and would have to command the Warhawk with an android crew. Probably, inviting the modest young captain to a ceremonial dinner in a narrow circle of high officers and their associates seemed somewhat strange, but all the other participants looked on my decision with simple curiosity, none too surprised at the Prince’s desire to have a look at the person left with such an unusual assignment. And not many knew that this young man was no man at all.

Beston Maf behaved completely naturally. He got embarrassed and was openly timid in the company of these high officers. As such, he tried, not overly successfully, to put on a showy confidence. I gave my servant instructions to fill the young captain's goblet with wine and asked that the "most junior in title make the first toast." Even with all my diligent observation, I didn't notice even the slightest sign the young captain's behavior was unusual. He acted just like a person. He stood, said some nice words about the greatness of the Empire and the Orange House, got slightly off track, then, with obvious strain, drained the excessively large container of alcohol to the very bottom.

"Give it your all, kid! Show these hunks of metal the meaning of discipline! Teach them their place!" said Oorast Pohl, encouraging the young captain.

The feast continued, and I turned to Admiral Nill ton Amsted, who was sitting across from me, and asked him to tell me about what happened on Tesse. The redheaded admiral frowned from the unpleasant memories and said:

"What can I even say here...? Right after your Highness captured the ships in Himora, a fleet descended upon us from the head of the Orange House in Tesse. Crown Prince Roben royl Inoky was arrested on charges of 'supporting and financing rebels’ and taken away to the Orange House Capital. And since then, there has been no news about your brother's fate. His wife Verena and the young child are under house arrest in one of their castles – where exactly is not known. There is little information about them. All that is known is that they are alive and more or less healthy, insofar as that word ever applies to Roben's heir. Telecommunication services from Tesse has been cut off. Authorized representatives of Duke Paolo are stationed in all key locations. Roben's appointees have had a fall from grace. Some have even been arrested. Then, the order came in to send all the Tesse Fleet combat ships toward the Nessi star system and join Duke Paolo royl Anjer's fleet..."

"Stop, stop," I said, putting an end to the story. "That means some of the Tesse ships went to Nessi and on to Ulia, and some came here to Hnelle? Did any stay in Tesse?"

"Ships commanded by the Duke's appointed regent, Count Avalle royl Anjer ton Mesfelle. He is the one in charge of Tesse while Roben is away. The Count has a large fleet. Up to two hundred fifty ships, four of them battleships and fifty cruisers.

I drummed my fingers on the table, hurriedly trying to come up with a new action plan in my head for the new situation. There turned out to be extremely little information. The temporary regent of Tesse's fleet looked very threatening and, to top it all off, it wasn't at all clear where the main part of the Orange House Fleet was. It was one thing if they were in Ulia. Then they would need more than seventeen hours, including recharging time to get to Tesse. It was another thing entirely if the Duke is keeping his fleet in the Capital or Nessi. In that case, the fleet could jump to Tesse at the first alarm signal...

I needed the Truth Seeker right away, and I asked to be put through to Nicosid Brandt to ask how Florianna was doing and see whether the medics had finished looking her over. The old doctor answered the call almost immediately, but the information he had to tell wasn't at all what I wanted to hear:

"My Prince, the representatives of the Dark Mother that came studied the child and gave her crystals. I'm afraid that the girl will be unavailable for the next two or three days, as she will be in a crystal sleep."

I thanked the doctor for the information and signed off. Aw, hell! What a bad time it was for this! Risking the fleet and sneaking to Tesse when the situation looked so much like a trap would be just dumb.

But then I noticed that everyone around the table had stopped talking amongst themselves and were looking at me, clearly intrigued at my stormy reaction to Nill Amsted's story and were waiting for an explanation. I was in no mood to explain myself yet, as I was too busy trying to think everything through. I couldn't choose for myself if it was worth using the information from the admiral and attack Tesse while the enemy fleet was divided.

Too bad the Truth Seeker had dozed off. Wait a second... There was another way I could check!

"Bionica, I need information. Does Duke Paolo royl Anjer have android servants? And if so, can you talk to them and figure out what star system they are in?"

My pretty translator delayed for a few seconds, then stated:

"My Prince, Duke Paolo does not allow android servants. And if I may note, it is highly improper on your Highness's part to pressure android servants into spying against their masters..."

Space Corporal Beston Maf, sitting to my left, suddenly hiccupped loudly and tried to stand and apologize to those in the hall for his tactlessness. He made another blunder and tipped a wine glass over onto his pant leg.

"So, the kid is cut off!" Kiro Sabuto said, giving his thoughts on the episode.

I was looking at something else entirely. The android used his red-wine-soaked finger to write something on the white tablecloth hanging down from the table. When the young captain took his hand away, I was able to read it. There was just one word scribbled there: "Ulia."

Leaving my glass to the side, I stood decisively and said to those gathered:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I beg all of your forgiveness for having to end this wonderful dinner so early. If everything goes according to plan, we will continue our feast in seven hours in the flying palace. Admirals, prepare the fleet for war. We are flying to Tesse.”

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