Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Perimeter Defense, Book III: New contract

by Michael Atamanov

A Frank Conversation

As I was undergoing another set of rehab procedures at my neighborhood clinic­, a call came in to my cellphone from an unknown number. After my return from Perimeter Defense, the fact that I was addicted to drugs and alcohol had become blatantly obvious and, even three months later, I was still going to the medical center three times a week for a glucose and vitamin drip to cleanse the liver and blood and ward off other ill effects. I can't even imagine how many unflattering epithets I mentally flung at Mr. G. I. on those days, sitting there with a needle in my arm. He had really managed to put my body through the wringer in the six short months he’d spent in it! With all the drinking he must have been doing, I imagine he was just hiccupping constantly.
"Yes?" I said, pressing the “Accept” button on the cell phone with my free hand.
"Ruslan, I have a serious proposal for you."
So much time had passed, but I still could pick that voice out from among a million others. Miya! I had long been mentally preparing for a conversation with my former employer, and had even begun actively trying to bump into him in order to tell that piece of trash exactly what I thought about him, man-to-man. But I was not ready for a conversation with his close companion, and I slightly lost my place. I wasn’t able to think up anything smart to say to her, so I just switched the phone off.
Millions of thoughts were spinning around in my head. Why was it Miya, and not Mr. G.I.? Was he so afraid of meeting me that he’d sent his girlfriend out in his place? It’d been so long... I guess they did need me, in the end.
"You're right," the Truth Seeker's voice rang out in my head. "Mr. G.I. will be waiting for you in the same place as last time, forty minutes from now."
I was having mixed feelings. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to dive head-first back into the fantasy world of Perimeter Defense. What can I say? It was the first place I ever felt I could really take a proper, deep breath and truly say I'd found my calling. It was there that I'd first experienced the intoxicating aroma of fame and glory. I had made history. My fleet's many starships had blotted out stars and caused anyone who got in our way to quiver in fear. I could have become co-ruler over billions of insects. I could have become Head of the Orange House. I could have become anyone I wanted. But, the main thing was that, in Perimeter Defense, I felt that humanity needed me. I was looked on as the savior of our whole race...
On the other hand, going back brought at least as many negatives as it did positives. My last experience had come at too high a price. The money I got in the first contract had barely been enough to pay all the fees and fines that Mr. G. I. had left in his wake. My friends had turned away from me, I had quarreled with relatives, and the girl I had been dating on-and-off for some time had left me, saying I'd become a degenerate drug addict. What was worse, there was a kernel of truth in her words. After the contract, I felt that I was in a body addled by hard drugs and alcoholic binges. It was like I had aged ten years in those six months. That all made waking up from the magical dream of Perimeter Defense and coming back to the real world an extremely bitter experience.
"After what you did to me last time, I don't even know what you could say to make me want to go back into Perimeter Defense! You’d just keep ruining my body!"
My unseen interlocutor kept silent for a few seconds, then said:
"The Alien Queen, at the head of a fleet of three thousand ships, has captured Hnelle. Your capital, Unatari, has been cut off from the Empire and is preparing for a hopeless battle. There is no chance for victory whatsoever. Everything you worked so painstakingly to create could be destroyed in one fell swoop, and all those close to you will die."
I thought there was no way she could hook me back in, but I was proven wrong. Miya had articulated everything I had been so severely lacking as of late. People need me again. They believe I can protect them, and hope for my return. I felt a thirst for activity boiling up in me after many weeks of extended apathy.
"This time, the contract is on my terms!" I declared decisively.
"I agree," Miya said, for some reason not even asking her master's opinion on the matter.
"Alright, I'll be there in ten minutes," I said, tearing the needle from my vein and heading for the exit.
"Hello there, Ruslan. Just where do you think you're going?" grumbled the young bouncer standing watch over the restaurant entrance, as he jerked me back by the shoulder.
I strained to hold back a string of unprintable words that were just begging to be let out. It was the same story all over again... Another loose end from the first contract. I was sure I was seeing this man for the first time; however, he, beyond all shadow of a doubt, knew me well and thought me a scoundrel. This unfortunate notoriety I had gained after my contract with Mr. G. I. infuriated me even more than my drugged-out body. With addiction, there were severe health consequences to be sure, but it was at least easy to work out how to recover from, which was not something that could be said of this strange renown.
 I often found girls I had never met before making eyes and smiling at me as if we were very well acquainted. A random passerby might take one look at my face, grow sullen with rage and, from out of nowhere, sock me right in the ear. Sometimes, women working in grocery stores refused to scan my purchases and called security to have me escorted out. And then, there were the night visitors. I'd had it up to here with them! Especially in the very first weeks after returning from Perimeter Defense! When my doorbell rang, I never knew what to expect. It could be a good-time girl who knew her way around my apartment surprisingly well, assuring me that my membership was paid-up through the end of the year. It could just as easily be glum criminal types twirling baseball bats and brass knuckles, demanding that I pay back a debt, which always came saddled with a run-up interest that was nothing to sneeze at either.
On my way to the meeting with my employer, I was very intent on reminding him of every such episode I’d endured and demanding full compensation for the damage done to my health and reputation. I was also preparing to demand a point be added to the new contract saying that such incidents were not to be repeated, or I would refuse to help him a second time. Unfortunately, I would first have to get into the restaurant to actually see Mr. G. I.
"I'm meeting someone here. He reserved a table," I replied to the vigilant doorkeeper in a tranquil tone.
He let go of my arm, called one of the managers over and whispered something to him, pointing at me.
"Under whose name is the table reserved?" the restaurant employee inquired, opening a notepad and studying the guests on it.
"Georgiy Innokentievich... uhh... Mesfelle," I guessed, which turned out to have been wrong. They had no reservation under that name today.
"Like I said, throw him out by the neck!" the mean old bouncer exclaimed at my failure, but I made a second attempt.
"Look for Miya Mesfelle. The table might be under her name."
By the disappointed look now on the old man’s face, I could tell that my second guess had been correct.
"But no funny business this time, Ruslan. Last time you had to pay for a lot of damage and broken furniture. Next time you won't get off so easy!" the vigilant bouncer threatened, finally letting me inside.
My last visit to this establishment was on an early winter’s morning, and the room had been empty. This time, however, the restaurant was full of people. All the same, it was no problem to pick Miya out of the crowd. The fashionable young woman with long red hair in a bright orange, knee-length dress stood out from the crowd and attracted the eye like a flame in the night. The Truth Seeker was sitting alone at a table in the very center of the large room. Before her was some kind of fruit mousse and a glass of orange juice.
"Take a seat, Ruslan," she said instead of greeting me, pointing me to an empty chair. "You've come early. Mr. G.I. isn't here yet. You'll have to wait. For now, order whatever you'd like."
A waiter came up and handed me a menu, then took my order. At the same time, the young man was looking at me anxiously, as if afraid that I might bite him.
"You seem to have quite the reputation here, Ruslan," Miya commented, also having noticed our waiter’s strange expression.
"And why do you think that might be?" I quipped, not able to hold back. "Before the half-year contract in Perimeter Defense, even my neighbors didn't recognize me. Now, every other person in the neighborhood wants to punch me in the face..."
"I suppose that means you should have celebrated the end of your contract with a bit more modesty," retorted the red-headed she-devil, making a clear demonstration of the fact that she too could mock.
I started choking on indignation. Were they seriously going to try to convince me that I was at fault for all this?! The accusation was so unexpected and inappropriate that I even lost my place. Miya started smiling, watching my reaction with curiosity.
"Ruslan, let's set some boundaries for this conversation so we don't have any misunderstandings. Your personal life outside of Perimeter Defense is of absolutely no interest to either me or Mr. G.I. What you may or may not have done, or why this or that neighbor grew to dislike you is neither here nor there, and has nothing whatsoever to do with these negotiations..."
Here the Truth Seeker had to stop her speech, as a waiter approached our table and placed an unordered bottle of champagne in front of Miya.
"This is a gift to you from the courageous young lads at that table," the waiter stated, pointing to a group of men from the Caucasus who were sharing a meal, one of whom was smiling at Miya and blowing kisses.
I noticed that she took a quick look around the room, before her gaze stopped on a group of college girls at the neighboring table. Miya carelessly waved her left hand in their direction, and the glassy-eyed waiter took the bottle and set it on the girls' table. After telling them the same story about the feisty troublemakers, the girls gave a happy giggle. They were very favorably disposed to the gift.
"Not the best possible place to negotiate," Miya said in dismay. "But, it's too late to change. We don't have very much time. So then, Ruslan, I repeat. We are now discussing only the terms of the future contract, and all your discontent and grievances you can air to Mr. G.I. in person, as soon as he arrives."
"What’s next? Do I have to swim to the other side of the river for a life jacket?" I laughed from the side of my mouth. "No, Miya, that's not how this works. After the last contract, I have a huge number of problems, and I am not signing up for any new adventures until I’ve discussed them with Mr. G.I."
Miya set her finished glass of juice aside and looked me right in the eyes.
"Ruslan, for some reason, you seem to be of the opinion that your employer should be thankful to you. You are gravely mistaken. This was nothing but a business contract. You did your job, and we paid you. There's nothing left connecting you with your employer after that. Any problems with your previous contract are off the table now. And if you think that your success was so impressive that your employer is burning with desire to give you extra tokens of gratitude, I'm afraid I have to disenchant you once again. No, that is not the case. In fact, Mr. G.I. was not at all happy with your term in Perimeter Defense, and was in no way planning to continue his relationship with you. He only agreed to even meet with you at all as a personal favor to me, in light of present circumstances. Your supposedly great achievements and success had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all."
"So you're saying that what I accomplished was nothing special?!" I exclaimed, not believing it could be true. "I increased the size of the Sector Eight Fleet more than anyone was expecting, including Mr. G.I., you, the Head of the Orange House, and even the Emperor himself. At the beginning of the contract I had sixteen light ships. Their crews were demoralized, and included a large number of Great House spies in their ranks. When my contract ended, I handed you the greatest fleet in the Empire with six battleships, twenty heavy cruisers, and a terrifying mothership; five hundred ships in total! And that’s to say nothing of the training given to the veterans of my raid through Alien space. Their level of competence, effectiveness, and loyalty was incommensurably higher than that of the unorganized goat herd I was handed at the beginning."
"Ruslan, let's not distort reality here!" she said, frowning in anger before motioning for the waiter.
Miya ordered another juice and returned to the topic at hand:
"And now, I'll tell you the facts as they look to me and Mr. G. I. When the contract ended, half of your fleet was made up of Iseyek ships, all of which returned to Swarm space. So don’t go telling me about any five hundred ships. In the best case scenario, you left Mr. G.I. with two hundred. And five of them were battleships, not six. Also, there were just fifteen heavy assault cruisers. To make matters worse, all the heavy ships, in our new admiral's words, were equipped in ‘an idiotic way,’ so we had to change all our ships back to normal, wasting a huge amount of the money you left for us in the process. And the most shocking thing of all was that you, without even so much as asking your boss, sold the luxurious yacht Queen of Sin. The Crown Prince had to buy it back from Roben at a cost of four battleships and some of your cruisers. These are the real facts, not fairytales like the ones you're trying to peddle. There's actually just one battleship left in the fleet, Crown Princess Likanna, and five heavy assault cruisers. The rest were just temporary and didn't belong to you anyway."
I couldn't believe my ears. Bride of Chaos, Princess Astra, Master of Tesse and Indigo Beauty, which had just returned to the fleet after a complete overhaul and modernization I had paid out the nose for in Sector Nine, were all gone. These idiots had given up four brand new battleships and ten assault cruisers in exchange for one measly yacht! Miya though, ignored my internal suffering and continued:
"No one disputes the fact that the fleet really did grow in strength in the six months you were in game. We did get a battleship and several heavy cruisers, after all. The thing is that Mr. G.I. and I are quite sure that these improvements would have happened with or without you. The Emperor and the Orange House Head gave you the money for the ships, at the end of the day. I even suppose that if the real owner of the account had been playing, he could have avoided the dispute with Duke Paolo and the waste of money that useless conflict became. In that case, the fleet would have been much stronger and larger than it is now."
Her speech was fairly convincing. I suspect that she was making active use of hypnosis to get me to believe in her words. For a few seconds, I even almost believed that I was just some untalented schmo who had messed everything up. And, if I wasn't totally convinced of the opposite from the beginning, it might have even worked. I gave my head a shake to dispel the illusion.
"If you're telling me that some yacht was more important to Mr. G.I. than four battleships, fully modernized and equipped as lavishly as possible, then it's impossible to imagine the fleet getting stronger all on its own in six months. Your companion would simply have pissed the money to the wind as he normally does. Those four battleships and ten heavy cruisers were worth at least two billion credits without the trained crews that came with them... So then, he traded all these riches for a yacht worth three million, if I'm being charitable?"
"That's not for you to judge, Ruslan! This is an issue of principle: Queen of Sin was a gift Crown Prince Georg gave to me. Or, to be more accurate, to us both. It was our flying palace. We spent some fifteen years living in it together! In all those years, Georg accumulated many decorations for our home, gathering all kinds of rarities and masterpieces. It became his favorite hobby. There was so much effort, time and hundreds of millions of credits put into Queen of Sin that no combat starship could come close to its value, not to speak of its comfort level. There were at least seven hundred million credits on the yacht just in sculptures by the great Veron ton Gep! Beyond that, there is also my nearly complete collection of the numbered Sivalla Emeralds, which were trophies from the great war with the Swarm. Those are simply priceless! And you sold all that luxury to Roben for a measly billion! Your brother had you wrapped around his finger, and you didn't even know it!"
My food arrived, and Miya had to take another break. The redheaded beauty took a look at the dishes brought to me and said in surprise:
"What is this, Ruslan? Are you trying to lose weight? Salad, mineral water... Where's the meat and side dish, Where’s the grilled fish, and, well, booze? Last time, you did not limit yourself.”
"Last time, I had a young, healthy body. But, after Mr. G.I. had a run with it, I was left with a body that hadn’t spent a second dry in six months, judging by the number of empty vodka bottles in my room! My liver is failing, my blood pressure jumps around like I've got hypertension, and my veins are shot to hell. Three times every week, I go to a clinic for drug rehab. That was the price of my first contract with you. That is why I'll be sticking to mineral water, and nothing stronger."
Miya closed her eyes for a few seconds, then shook her head, somewhat exhausted:
"Ruslan, I thought we had agreed on limits to this conversation. I just want you to understand that your life outside of Perimeter Defense is of absolutely no interest to Mr. G.I. right now. During the contract, your body was in a virtual reality capsule. It was well cared for. So, your words about alcohol abuse and damaged veins are clear fantasies, just like your attempt to project guilt for a fight with your neighbors onto someone else. You have no evidence, and there’s no way you could."
I dug around in my pockets and took out something I'd picked up from home on my way here: a transparent box with a shiny ball inside. I set it down on the table in front of her. Miya took the box, turned it around in her hands with curiosity, and put it back down. I felt that I had her back against a wall of irrefutable evidence.
"Weird... I wonder if this is from Mr. G.I.'s personal stash or those packs of crystals you took from the pirate base on Unatari?"
The Truth Seeker smiled happily in reply:
"Ruslan. That isn't crystals. Don't you think I'd know? It's probably a plastic souvenir. You must have ordered it to remind yourself of Perimeter Defense."
"Hmmm... Let's say that's true. But tell me then, Miya, how did you get my phone number?"
"You've become a really bad guy, Ruslan. So suspicious! I spent some time living in your apartment last winter, remember? Mr. G.I. told you! I simply saw your number printed on a bill and called it to save the number in case I needed it."
"That could all be, Miya, and I might even have believed you, but I've changed my number since then. I was sick of receiving threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. I've had it for less than a week. I've only told it to my mother and best friend. And I want to note for the future: when you call someone, make sure you’re actually talking. Don't just send your thoughts right into a person’s head. It was unsettling when I kept hearing your voice after the phone turned off..."
"Ruslan, you're saying some very strange things," she said, pursing her lips, upset. "Hearing voices in your head, talking on phones that are off... Have you considered getting looked at by a psychiatrist?"
I pushed my plate away decisively and stood from the table.
"Alright then, Miya. It seems I was mistaken. Constructive dialog between us is impossible. Send my greetings to your boss and, when you do, tell him I never want to see him again. I swear, if I do, I'll give that low-life a smack in the face!"
I turned toward the exit, and made two whole steps before two burly, athletically-built men, who had been sitting quietly and talking at the neighboring table until that point, stood up and blocked my path. One of them put my arm behind my back in a professional maneuver and slammed my face down on the table in front of Miya.
"Boss-lady didn't say you could leave!" The brute whispered into my ear.
Everyone around kept eating, as if nothing was happening. A waiter was carrying a tray literally two feet from me but, for some reason, none of the many restaurant visitors were interested in what was happening at our table. It was as if we weren't really there. Maybe if I scream, I'll get someone's attention.
"It won't work, Ruslan. They won't be able to hear you," Miya said with a voice full of inhuman, icy detachment as she watched my futile attempts to get out of the hold. "Not a very good time for you to remind me of my abilities as a Truth Seeker. That reminds me of another thing: I promised to kill you if we ever met in the real world. I do not make such promises lightly. And, as you're not prepared to work with me..."
I noted with complete surprise, that the two brutes that had attacked me looked as alike as two drops of water. Twins? Or...
"Par to nek Tuki-tuka-de-sa! Pori-la-navi!" (Let me go! Obey your Elder Female! At once!)
It was complete instinct, but it turned out to have been the right move. Both of the meat-heads jumped back from me immediately, bowed down on one knee and lowered their heads. How useful it turned out to have been, listening in on my Chameleon bodyguards' conversations. Though I didn't actually know the Ravaash language, I had managed to memorize ten or twenty sentences.
Proud of my small triumph, I gave Miya a whimsical salute and set off to leave the restaurant. Well, tried to at least. After walking a couple steps from the table, I started noticing a growing resistance. Every step was significantly harder than the one that came before it. I had enough strength for six steps, but found I couldn't go even one millimeter further. Alright, I'm not dumb, I get it. I didn't start banging my head on the wall. I turned to the table and sat down opposite Miya.
 "I guess that puts the score at one-one," the powerful Truth Seeker cackled raucously. "Alright, Ruslan. Now we can really have a frank conversation." ­
Miya was staring at the clock. A look of discontent, and even slight anxiety had crawled out onto her face.
"For some reason, your employer is late... That’s odd. Usually, Georgiy is quite punctual. Alright, we'll try to get on without him. Ruslan, I suggest the following: I promise to answer any three questions you have with complete honesty. Then, after the answers, so as not to waste time, we can discuss the next contract. You tell me your desires point by point, and I will decide whether it would be possible to fulfill them. If any issues remain, we can wait for Mr. G.I. and consult him. Agreed?"
I thought and nodded. This option was perfectly fine by me. Miya then sighed with obvious relief. It seemed she was not at all sure I was going to agree. The red-headed beauty relaxed a bit, and an insanely beautiful woman emerged from behind the mask of this deadly predator. In fact, she was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. Only Astra, with her well defined, yet frail beauty could rival this dangerous carnivore. I was reminded of a comparison once made by Florianna: "Astra is a snowflake, and Miya is a flame." A very astute observation. Miya suddenly began smiling for no apparent reason. She was probably reading my thoughts.
"It's unusual to see you without a huge belly. What'd you name the baby girl?" I asked, putting forth the first of the three questions allotted to me.
Miya looked at me in surprise, but quickly went back to smiling.
"That was the last question I was expecting you to ask, Ruslan. Though it is nice to hear, I won't hide that. Her name is Deia, Crown Princess Deianna royl Georg ton Mesfelle."
In that Miya's daughter had become a Crown Princess, it wasn't hard to guess that my substitute had already divorced Marta. I wonder what his ex-wife demanded in return for signing the divorce papers? Should I ask Miya about that? Alright, I shouldn't waste another question on this. I'll figure it out as the game goes on. All the more so, given that I had a much more interesting question to ask:
"After leaving Perimeter Defense, I spent a ton of time trying to find information on the game online. I also tried to find even one virtual reality capsule for sale that looked like the one I got out of. It was a wild goose chase. And though I could perhaps understand why a private game for the elite would want secrecy, why would anyone want to keep the virtual reality capsules a secret? Doesn't it make sense that the manufacturers would actually be doing everything in their power to advertise such a product? I’m getting the impression that this technology simply does not exist. Can you tell me about it?"
Miya gave another satisfied smile:
"You've finally started thinking with your head, not letting your emotions rule you. Great question, Ruslan. That's how you should have started this conversation, instead of wallowing in self-pity and complaining about rude neighbors. Everything you suppose is correct, but you have missed one important part. You saw a working virtual reality capsule in real life. That was a mass-produced model too, not some experimental prototype. I've given you enough hints. You can figure the rest out on your own. Let’s see if you have a working brain in that head of yours."
Miya sat back deep in the chair with a glass of juice in her hand, and began observing my intellectual strain, clearly not planning to help me or give any more information.
I tried feverishly to imagine how this could possibly be. Something mass-produced with nothing written about it? Some kind of strict military secret? Maybe for working out different scenarios in a virtual world instead of reality? Maybe for working in locations with high infectious disease rates, or under enemy fire. Or maybe it was to train soldiers to overcome fear of death. After a hundred virtual deaths, they wouldn’t be afraid anymore. Or perhaps it was for selecting the most suitable people for especially unusual missions, like a Mars landing or first contact with extraterrestrial life forms... Though that all sounded too outlandish.
"It is the right answer, though" Miya attested, clearly content. "It's good to see that you are not as closed-minded as the vast majority of people. You can think beyond what's common. Yes, it is for working out how to use future technology that is still under development. The game Perimeter Defense, and the equipment for it do really exist, though I am not aware of all the goals of this mass-scale experiment. And I also have no idea where former players go to after they get a game-over. Information about Perimeter Defense is not allowed to seep out beyond the laboratory walls. I hope very much that they are simply given new characters, though I cannot say I am sure of that. You have only one question left, Ruslan. Ask it, and we can get to work."
Easy for her to say... I was still in shock after getting an answer to the last question. Miya and Georgiy, it seemed, were participants in a mass-scale many-year experiment for an unknown secretive organization! Well I'll be damned! My thoughts started to get mixed up. The questions that seemed important just a minute earlier, now had utterly no purpose. Perimeter Defense is a future technology development simulator... Well, alright. Though it was hard to believe, it did explain a lot.
"And can I bring my own body into the game?" I wondered.
Miya's eyebrows curved inward in surprise and her lips puckered in dismay.
"A strange question, Ruslan. You have seriously let me down. You already know the answer to it. That would be impossible for a whole ton of reasons. How can you possibly imagine bringing a physical body into a computer game? It would be impossible to add even a single material object to the virtual world. Just as it would be impossible to remove anything material from Perimeter Defense. Only thoughts, minds, and knowledge. That thing there," she said, pointing at the box, "is nothing more than a Chinese souvenir. It is a plastic pearl. Georgiy saw it at a stand in the mall and bought it for me, because it really does look like the in-game object. All the rest are just illusions created by me. Perimeter Defense is used, among other things, for discovering and training people with latent psionic abilities. After many years of training, I learned to use these skills not only in the virtual world, but also outside of it."
Despite all my skepticism, I couldn't find any inconsistencies in the Truth Seeker's words. Although... I pointed to the two twins at the neighboring table.
"And who plays the nonhuman races and the Aliens? Why did they understand when I spoke Ravaash?"
Miya shook her head in reproach:
"Ruslan, that's no fair. You've already asked all three questions. Let's try to stay within the rules, as we agreed. I answered your three questions. I'm sure you'll find answers to the rest sooner or later. For now, I need a complete list of contract terms from you. Here's a pencil and a sheet of paper from my notebook. I'll give you a couple of minutes. I need to figure out why my companion is taking so long."
The red-headed beauty retrieved a miniscule cell phone inlaid with large shiny crystals, maybe even real gemstones, from her small purse and left the noisy room into the stairwell. My gaze was involuntarily drawn to the leather purse she had left behind. There was probably a ton of interesting stuff inside, maybe even some secret inventions that would cast some light on what was going on... But I shook my head, chasing off the criminal thoughts, and took the pencil. So, what do I want?
 Miya came back seven minutes later when my list of demands was already practically finished. The woman stood motionless for a few seconds, staring vacantly somewhere past me, then forcefully hurled her phone onto the floor. It broke into a great many pieces, and the precious stones scattered around the floor. You didn't have to have the wisdom of Solomon to figure out that she was very upset, and even enraged. I wonder who could have brought the Truth Seeker to such a state of white-hot fury?
"Mr. G.I. won't be coming to the meeting," Miya told me, somewhat coming back to her senses. "It seems that he, at the very last moment, had a change of heart and said that he doesn't want to meet with you personally because he suspects you might not be very happy to see him. What an egotistical narcissist!"
I could have been wrong, but it seemed I saw a deceitful glare in her teary eyes.
"Alright, Ruslan, seeing how Georgiy left me on the hook like this, I don't have any more reason to protect him. Yes, you're right. Georgiy was occupying your body the whole time you were playing Perimeter Defense. Don't act so surprised. One of the reasons the game was made was to improve human-consciousness-transfer technology. It can be done either via a special machine, or by strong human psionics like myself and Mr. G.I. If only you knew, Ruslan, how hard it will be for me to carry everything alone... If only I had the strength... There's no time. We're already seriously behind schedule. So, give me the paper. I'll take a look at what you wrote."
Miya practically ripped the piece of paper from my hands and quickly skimmed it.
"As far as the first point, sure, the money will be there. There definitely won't be a problem with that. But this one here is gonna be harder: 'While in my body, no drugs or alcohol.' For now, I can't give you a one-hundred-percent guarantee, but I'll definitely try to think something up. Same for the next point about antisocial behavior. Though... alright. We'll accept them both. I swear by my abilities and the life of my only daughter, that no one will commit antisocial acts or use narcotics while in your body. I hope that is good enough for you."
I nodded, somewhat shocked at the seriousness of what she had just sworn by. Miya then continued:
"The next points I don't get: 'Freedom to behave however I want in game. Guaranteed safety for all those close to me, etc.' Ruslan, let's put this in more concrete terms. What do you mean by freedom and safety here? And please hurry. Someone might notice that Mr. G.I. is missing from the game soon."
To be honest, I was expecting her to resist more forcefully on the last points, all the more so given that I had asked for a substantial amount of money, including a significant amount of moral and material compensation, both for the last contract, and as an advance for this one. That was why I was surprised and even somewhat confused by the levity with which my demands had been accepted. Also, the pressure Miya was putting on me to hurry was hampering my concentration.
"I don't want to make any reports on my activities in Perimeter Defense. I must have the ability to do what I consider right in a given situation. And I want a guarantee that no characters will suffer at your hands just because they have become important to me."
"Was there someone holding you back last time? And as for my actions... You can't seriously suppose that the third most powerful Truth Seeker has nothing more important to do than track down people close to you, right?" Miya asked, surprised.
"Remember when you paralyzed Florianna? Remember when you lashed out at Princess Astra in the submarine?"
Miya flared up in response:
"Ruslan, your relationship with these characters had no influence on my actions whatsoever! I simply had no choice but to shut that blabby little airhead up! I did that for both our sakes. If I hadn't, it would have been two days at most before the secret of your being in Mr. G.I.’s body was revealed, and everything ended in complete failure. I would also have seriously suffered. You can't even imagine how meticulous the administrators are about making sure that every Perimeter Defense character has only one player. A couple of misplaced sentences about the real world, and you're done. It's like the player was never even there! As for the second girl, it was just raw calculation. Her pregnancy got in the way of my plans. But you demanded I not touch her, and I agreed..."
"Miya, don't try to squirm out of answering. Your listing off things that already happened does nothing for me. I want a guarantee for the future."
Miya looked me right in the eyes and said, slowly and clearly:
"No one will hold you back, just as no one will forbid you from having friends, girlfriends, favorites and even lovers in Perimeter Defense. But the rules of the game remain as before: you cannot reveal the fact that you are in Crown Prince Georg's body, and you must hold out for six months while fighting back the Alien attacks. And another rule, just from me: you cannot divorce my character in game. You also cannot have more children, and you must defend the Unatari star system at any cost. These are crucial issues. Failing at any of them will result in in your contract being terminated with no pay. And, what's more, I would have no more reason to give even the tiniest shit about keeping you alive in the real world. Consider this both a warning and an official rule."
I frowned, though I did understand Miya’s reason for insisting on these demands. The last thing she needed was another player in a position to disrupt her schemes. Her demands were basically fair. I had nothing against them and only asked one clarification:
"Miya, I can easily understand the divorce part. In the game world, it would threaten the little Crown Princess Deia's position in society. I can also understand why no more children. Your daughter has no need for competition or other heirs. But what makes Unatari so special?"
Miya looked at me with something like pity, as if she was once again frustrated with my intellectual capabilities:
"Don't you know? Because, according to the game storyline, Deia should be sleeping soundly in her nursery on Unatari right now. And your mission is to protect your daughter from danger, no matter the price."
"Let's clarify the mission then. Do I need to protect Deia or the Unatari star system? If I take her out of Unatari to a safe location, will protecting Unatari remain a high-priority mission, as before?"
She considered it briefly, then said:
"Ruslan, of course, you are right to question this. The only problem is that, unfortunately, your bright idea came too late. You won't be able to get Deia out of Unatari. After all, I am not a normal player, but a Truth Seeker with terrifying abilities. The game admins trust me. My character can be away from Perimeter Defense for long stretches of time. For now, my daughter is serving as a beacon for me; I can always return to the game through her. That means I can slip into the game without the admins noticing. But there are technical nuances here that make doing that somewhat complex. I need that very exit point right where I left it. As briefly as possible, protecting the Unatari star system is of critical importance not only to me, but to you as well. If it is lost, you will not be able to leave Perimeter Defense and get back to the real world."
"Am I understanding correctly that you will not be with me in Perimeter Defense then?" I asked, clearing up an important point, which the redheaded beauty affirmed.
"Yes, that's true. In the game, I am too vulnerable to my master, so I don't want to risk being near you."
"You don't trust me?" I laughed.
"Of course not. I don't trust anyone at all. Not you, not Mr. G.I., and not the game admins. Do you think I could have lived this long in Perimeter Defense if I was the trusting type? I leave you the ability to call me three times for a short period, but only in extreme necessity. Making a jump between the game and the real world is very tiring, even to me. Do you understand my conditions?"
I responded with a silent nod.
"So then, we can consider the contract agreed upon. I see no reason to sign it. The last time that was done just for atmosphere, to make you sense the weight of your decision. You won't be able to take paper copies with you into the game anyway and, what's more, there's no time for such senselessness. Georgiy can barely wait. Alright then, you need to prepare your mind for the transfer."
"And how do I do that?" I wondered. Miya explained:
"You need to fall asleep or get very drunk. As we have very little time, I suggest the easy way: here's a sleeping pill. Take it."
Miya extended her hand, revealing a pair of unstamped pills in a yellow glossy packet. My whole life's experience, and all my cautious instincts were crying out at that moment that it was a bad idea to take unknown drugs from the hands of someone I barely knew, but I willed the voice of reason down to a dull whisper. I washed down the two semi-sweet pills with a swig of mineral water and started waiting.
I was already feeling it ten seconds later. The restaurant began swimming before my eyes. The two enforcers at the neighboring table took on the appearance of Ravaash soldiers. Miya's clothing changed from an orange dress into a set of brightly colored ribbons, and her straight red hair changed styles from down to up. I started feeling quite sure that I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.
"Pick up after us!" Miya said to the lizards in Imperial language, and both reptiles gave affirmative nods in reply.
The Truth Seeker looked at her watch, then at me.
"Ugh, Ruslan. Pray we won't be late, and that I have enough energy..."
The last thing I noticed, already losing consciousness, was Miya stretching out her hand to the Chinese souvenir lying on the table, carelessly popping the transparent package open and... tossing the "plastic pearl" right down her throat!
My body arched back in severe pain, and I pried open my eyes in horror. There was a blinding white light. There were some darkened figures bending over me. The voices were gurgling, as if speaking under water.
"His pulse is dropping again!"
I couldn't figure out what to even react to before another of the figures was bowing down over me. The defibrillator shock forced my body to buckle in again. I screamed. Actually, instead of a deafening scream, I was only able to squeeze out a barely audible whimper. There were tubes down my throat and an oxygen mask on my face getting in the way.
"We have a pulse!"
"His pupils are reacting to light!"
"I’m detecting brain activity!"
"Blood pressure: sixty over thirty and rising!"
"Give me two CC's of nanite-7. We need him to heal faster."
I felt a needle poke into my neck. I tried to concentrate and focus my eyes, but I couldn't. As before, I could only see the people as dark, blurry contours. My hearing, though, was stabilizing gradually.
"I’m seeing more arrhythmia," came a voice belonging to a young woman. "Pulse unstable: fifteen beats per minute. Should we give him another shock?"
"No, that won't be necessary. There should already be enough oxygen in the blood. His blood pressure is stabilizing,” replied another voice with a strange accent, sounding almost inhuman.
"Pulse is at twenty-eight and rising."
"Blood pressure is at seventy-five over forty. Brain activity is increasing."
"Patient conscious!" The joyful scream of the third figure rang in my ears.
One of them bent down over me. I tried to focus my vision and, with surprise, I saw Miya in surgeon's whites with a mask on her face. She was looking down at me with panic and suddenly locked eyes with mine.
"I can tell that you can hear and understand me. Ruslan, you scared the crap out of me! The transfer wasn't totally smooth. I don't really know why. Maybe, despite all my tricks, some automatic defense mechanisms from the admins detected the change in IP-address or ID-capsule. Your account was banned. In the game it looked like a sudden heart failure. You spent three minutes clinically dead. I spent practically all my energy trying to pull you back from the other side. But you were able to squeeze out. The character is unblocked, and that is all that matters.
Take care of yourself, get your strength back. For now, like I said, I'll have to leave you. There's no point in trying to call me into Perimeter Defense for the next month and a half or so. I just won't have the power for another jump. So, you'll have to deal on your own. The Unatari defense forces are waiting for you.
Good luck!"

Capital Encircled

It was hard for me to wake up. My panicked, disjointed dream just didn't want to let me go. Finally, I opened an eye and took a look around. On the walls and ceiling, there were gilded lamps in the shape of natural crystals. To my left, there was a huge bronze statue of an unknown creature with eight limbs. The room was familiar, but I simply couldn't imagine where I'd seen it before. Maybe it was that hotel in Turkey? But no, there was a huge picture window in that hotel. Just instinctively, I called up the interactive map to get my bearings. It wasn't the first time in the last few months I had tried to do so out of habit. I hadn’t actually succeeded, though, until this time. Before my eyes appeared a semitransparent map.

 Seventh dormitory wing of the space yacht, Queen of Sin

The last traces of my dream instantly left me. That’s right! I was in the game again! For a second, the previous day flashed before my eyes. The clinic, the call from an unknown number, negotiations with Miya, terrified doctors leaning over me... By the way, how did that story with the bungled character change end, and how was it affecting my health? I carefully moved my arms and legs, then felt my chest. On my body, under a layer of long underwear, I detected some flat, round stickers plastered on my skin, which clearly contained some kind of medical equipment. They didn't make me feel uncomfortable, or impede my movement, so I let them be. In fact, I forgot about them quickly, as my gaze was caught by something else: a huge gut that should not have been there. The starship echoed with my enraged scream. The only words that were not swearing were interjections.
All the success I had had improving his body, which had taken me six months of hard work to accomplish, had been undone by my replacement just like that! That... bad man, Mr. G.I., had once again put on some weight, returning his figure to its initial state. His body was once again swimming in flab! I needed to see this from another angle right away in order to evaluate the scale of the disaster.
I carefully set my bare feet on the ground and tried to stand. My head was spinning slightly, though it wasn't quite as bad as it could have been. And it definitely was better than what you could expect out of a body that had truly just lived through clinical death. I took a few steps and stopped in front of a huge mirror. The man in the mirror looking back at me was very fat, with a noticeable white spot in his dark hair. What's that then? When my last contract had ended, Crown Prince Georg had just a couple little gray hairs in his thick, dark mane. Astra had even experimented with trying to pluck them. The man looking back at me now had graying hair, and looked bulbous and old. And the shoulders... I even took the semitransparent white turtle-neck off to check with my eyes if the mirror was lying. The tattooed three-eyed skulls were gone. From my right shoulder, the little winged ass was smiling up at me once again, his eyes bulging out as if he was constipated. On my left forearm, there was a naked beauty with bright red hair lying in a seductive pose. The unknown artist of the sketch had perhaps exaggerated the roundness of the female form a bit, but it was easy to recognize who it was supposed to be.
So then, what else? My right eye, wounded once upon a time in combat with the Aliens had healed completely and was working as normal again. The web of scars on the Crown Prince's face had disappeared, probably removed with the help of good cosmetic surgeons. Georg had left just one thin white scar, clearly intentionally, which went from his eyebrow down along the right cheek to the lip, giving his face a visage of stern masculinity. The fact that a manly soldier's face did not make for a harmonious combination with his pear-shaped, bulky body, which undulated when he walked like a slab of bacon, probably had not occurred to Mr. G.I. His body looked somewhat comical, like a hastily glued-together Frankenstein made of two different men.
Yep. I'll have to deal with the body again. I already realize he’s been neglecting that, and I'll have to do all that hard work in the gym over again. But for now, it was much more important to me to understand what had happened with his characteristics. I took a look at my character's information:

Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle, Crown Prince of the Empire
Age: 48
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Aristocrat/Mystic
Achievements: Chameleon Elder Female, Discovered Arite Race, Alien Killer, Researcher of the Unknown, Imperial Conqueror, Ex-Fleet Commander for Sector Eight, Malingerer, Abandoned Friend, Denied Paternity
Fame: 31
Standing: -52

What??? My eyes rolled back into my head, both from the overabundance of new "achievements," as well as from my now utterly ruined standing. On a purely technical level, I had no idea how he had managed to let his character's standing fall by 100 points in just three mo... Wait a second! With confusion, I stared at the date in the corner of the interactive menu. Impossible. It hadn't been just three months since the end of the last contract, but a whole seven!!! How?!
Seven months! Princess Astra should already have given birth to my child! By the way... the indelible, shameful brand "Denied Paternity" was probably related precisely to that event. After all, it would seem that I had made no reaction when the legal deadlines for recognizing a child came and went, so the child not only did not become a Crown Prince, but did not even get a "ton" attached to its name, meaning it didn't even have confirmation of noble roots... Feeling vexed, I banged my fist on the fatass looking back at me in the mirror, as if the reflection was guilty for something.
Damn, I even bruised my hand! I shook my beat-up fist.
Miya! I'll strangle that bitch if I ever see her again!!! I recognized clearly now that she was a lying villain, and had tricked me. The red-headed lady's story about the game for the military didn't really click with my experience: the "souvenir" I brought ended up being real crystals, time was passing at different rates, and... if you think about it... there were two Chameleons, who had somehow gotten out of the game into the real world. I had been sold and, promising me the moon, popped right back into Perimeter Defense.
I sat down on the edge of the huge bed. Seven months had passed. The thought of it! And my fleet... Here I was struck by a cold sweat. Joan the Fatty and the ships with her! The crews had been sitting on their laurels with no pay for more than half a year. And, to top it all off, they were God-knows-where in Swarm territory! They must have run out of provisions long ago. The ships wouldn't have been able to pay for repair or technical service at Iseyek stations, nor even replace the fuel in their reactors. And I bet they're cursing their commander with every breath in their bodies!
I would have to fix this situation right away! I must transfer the funds to my ships! By the way, how was the money situation? I opened the internal finances interface... and closed it right away. There were just one-point-five million credits left in the account. But then what, I wonder, was Mr. G.I. able to spend the three hundred million I had left him with on? New sculptures for the yacht? I tried to figure out the transaction history from the account, but it had been very thoroughly cleared.
So then, I should think about what to do with the situation I'd inherited. I had a miserable amount of money, my fleet was God knows where, the fate of those close to me was unknown, and also there was the fact that the Mystic class had reappeared in my character information. This all bore eloquent witness to the fact that Georg had once again become very addicted to narcotic crystals. To be honest, my arms just sank...
I tried to call the Chameleons in hope of receiving an answer to my questions. All the same, no one came to my call. And that was also strange.
I calmed down a bit and went off to search for any kind of clothes. It isn't appropriate for a noble Imperial Crown Prince to promenade around in his underwear, even on his own yacht. Fortunately, I found a clothing cabinet in the very same room. I dug through the whole wardrobe but, for some reason, couldn't find even one military uniform. Not the Sector Eight Fleet Commander's one, and not even an Orange House uniform of any kind. What the hell? The only thing I could find were two frivolous flashy peacock outfits, a pair of multi-colored tights and bright pink or purple shoes. I even first supposed that I had accidentally gotten into my wife's closet, but what stopped me was the fact that the immeasurable swim trunks I found could fit four women Miya's size. Also, the size eleven pink shoes with magnetic fasteners would clearly have been a bit large for the Truth Seeker.
Having somehow gotten dressed, hoping that I didn't look too comical, I took another look around the room. Now, after calling up the interactive map, I really remembered: yes, I had been here before. It was a bedroom, one of the thirty that belonged to Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle on the luxurious yacht. At the very beginning of my time in Perimeter Defense, I had visited it a few times, but mostly chose to stay and rest in completely different rooms. I stood with difficulty and, simply for curiosity's sake, approached the many-armed bronze titan, which clearly served as the main decoration in this room.

"Ma-radgi, the last soldier," by Veron ton Gep

Its information dutifully popped up before me, telling me fairly sparsely about the figure. The inscription on the stand said the same thing.
The statue of a huge bronze octopus looked like a number of shaggy tentacles poking out through a crack in a rock face. Nothing in its form served to indicate that this creature was a fierce warrior, and not simply a hunter relaxing after a satisfying meal or a doting mother protecting her children. But I decided that the sculptor probably knew best, especially if that sculptor was the great Veron ton Gep, whose artistry had recently been praised by Miya. In my previous contract in Perimeter Defense, I had realized once and for all that I knew nothing about art, and so I didn't get at all upset by not understanding the sculptor's concept.
"Prince Georg, are you awake yet?" A resonant female voice rang out right behind me. I almost screamed in surprise.
I turned around, trying to put on a look somewhere between bored and lofty, as if walking around the starship in this flashy peacock getup was the most normal thing in the world for the Crown Prince. But I was, unfortunately, unable to pull off the high-and-mighty look with my stomach swaying side to side in inertia, making a gurgling sound as it jostled. I noticed a fleeting smile pass over the face of the young girl with short dark hair in an Orange House Fleet uniform.

Ayna Mentor, your personal assistant
Age: 24
Race: Human
Gender: Female
Class: Athlete
Achievements: Three-time Orange House Target-Shooting Champion. Former Nessi No-Rules-Fighting Champion. Approved to work with members of the upper aristocracy.
Fame: +1
Standing: +1
Presumed personal opinion of you: +13 (warm)

The girl was fairly nice to look at, but just not to my taste. She was too tall, even making me look small in comparison. With her overly toned muscles, she also carried an air of grayness and forgettability. I suspect it was for that very reason that Miya had approved her for the position, or maybe had even handpicked her for the job. I wonder how I should behave around her? I gave her a good-natured smile and commented:
"I think the time has come for me to start taking better care of my body. What do you think, Ayna?"
It immediately became clear that I'd guessed wrong. The girl became noticeably afraid and stood at attention, extending her arms down her torso and lowering her eyes to the floor.
"Your Highness looks excellent as always," the girl said, keeping her gaze trained downward.
She was clearly afraid of me, and that was very strange. Fear of one's boss should pass with time but, above all else, I normally expected an entirely different manner from an assistant.
­"Ayna, remind me. For what qualities exactly did my spouse hire you? I can now say with certainty that honesty was not one of them."
The girl grew even more afraid. It seemed to me that she would collapse and faint at any moment.
"Mrs. Miya chose me exactly, above all else, for my quick reaction speed and ability to protect her spouse. And also because I'm hardworking, agreeable, and detail-oriented."
"A personal assistant is not typically required to provide security. That is a bodyguard's job. By the way... Ayna, remind me. Where have the invisible Chameleons gone?"
"Mrs. Miya fired them four months ago. She didn't like having invisible observers around."
"I see..." The news was, of course, strange, but I tried not to show my surprise. "Then here is a list of tasks. First, seek out Popori de Cacha, my former bodyguard head, and invite her back. She was on Unatari on the Chameleons’ island, though much time has passed since then. Second, figure out where my second cousin Katerina ton Mesfelle has gone. Third, compile a list of the most valuable luxury items on board Queen of Sin. Fourth, find whoever is responsible for the defense of Unatari, and bring him to me at once. I need a report on the current situation. Fifth, I need a fleet commander's uniform. This clownish getup is not cutting it..."
­"But, Prince Georg! When Duke Avalle royl Anjer threatened to formally accuse you of having incompatible professions, you quit your position as Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet Commander and ordered all clothing reminding you of your military past thrown out!"
I couldn't believe it. It turned out they had wanted to disgrace me, but I had fought with the new Duke and slammed the door behind myself on the way out... Yes, today was just a day of surprises.
"Ayna, I simply cannot believe that not even one of my military uniforms has remained on the yacht! If you really have to, take the yacht captain's jacket. By the way, please invite the captain to visit with me a bit later, as well. That's all for now. Go do your job... Although... Stop! Your sixth mission in number, but first in importance is to bring me some coffee... I mean, roast firo-nut beverage. Can you do that? Bring it right to my office. That's where I'll be."
"Yes, my Prince, of course." The girl snapped a brisk military salute and left the room.
God! How I'd missed all this! With a mug of the hot beverage in hand, I took a seat and kicked my legs up with pleasure in front of the data screen in the very same cabin I had once designated my office on Queen of Sin. Familiar furniture, familiar pictures on the walls. It's like I'm back home! And I had a better outfit. Someone had managed to dig up a dark blue fleet commander's uniform, though it was missing the golden epaulets and the words “Perimeter Sector Eight.” It was a shame, of course, but I was sure I would figure out something to take its place soon enough.
Miya and Mr. G.I. could think they'd tricked me all they wanted. Let them keep thinking that! I have more than six whole months left in this game — more than enough time to analyze the situation, consider my errors and figure out workable solutions. Back in that restaurant, I was extremely vulnerable to the Truth Seeker and constantly caught her shooting unkind, judgmental looks in my direction. As such, I had opted not to be rude and, after bargaining for better conditions, agreed. For some reason, I was sure that if I hadn't, I would never have left that restaurant alive. No matter what you say, Miya had not forgotten about the promise to kill me in the real world. Here, in the Perimeter Defense world, I didn't have to be afraid of my wife, and I could even use her has a magic genie who could grant me three wishes.
But first, I'd have to quench my thirst for information. I urgently needed news about what had happened in the last seven months. A cautious knock came on the door while I was sitting on my bed crying from what I read on screen. It was a letter from my daughter, in which she accused me of killing her mother, and it was very upsetting. Princess Marta royl Valesy ton Mesfelle-Kyle would rather have hung than divorce Crown Prince Georg. Death was the only way to preserve her daughter's right to inheritance, which Lika would have inevitably lost if her parents had gotten divorced.
Before sticking her head in a noose, Marta wrote a letter detailing Miya's blackmail, while her legal husband stood aside and even joined in. Copies of her incriminating suicide note were sent to the Kingdom of Fastel chancellery, the Orange House Capital, the Emperor's reception room in the Throne World, and also to Lika at school. That was six months ago. Since then, she had refused to ever talk with her father again, and had changed her name to Likanna royl Fastel, removing any reminders of the hated Crown Prince Georg and his family name from her title.
The bastards! I hate them so much!!! There was a lot in Miya's behavior that I could understand and forgive. And with time, I could even hypothetically learn to forgive Mr. G.I. for his careless treatment of my body (though not before giving him a shiner for the trouble he caused me). But for what they'd done to Likanna – my beloved daughter, the most important person in this world to me... I could never forgive them.
"Come in," I shouted, hurriedly drying the tears from my face.
"My Prince, I've been told that your Highness wanted to meet with me," stated the unfamiliar strong-looking dark-haired soldier in an Orange House Star Fleet Admiral's uniform.

Mike ton Akad, Unatari Fleet Admiral
Age: 48
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Class: Military
Achievements: Has combat medals for participation in interspecies conflicts
Fame: +5
Standing: +9
Presumed personal opinion of you: Unknown

I already knew that Admiral Kiro Sabuto had left Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle's circle three months ago and joined the Red House. I had even watched a video of Duke Claudius royl Mike ton Sid, head of the Red House, as he officially appointed Admiral Kiro Sabuto to the position of Perimeter Sector Fourteen Fleet Commander. As for now, I was sorely lacking a skilled admiral, and it wasn't at all clear yet how good a replacement Mike ton Akad would make.
"Take a seat, admiral," I said, pointing to the armchair beside mine. "And tell me right now: am I an ass or a bastard? I let all my affairs slip away on autopilot, and now the situation is totally out of hand."
"Prince Georg, you are both an ass and a bastard, and I could even add another set of stronger words that your Highness easily deserves as well," he agreed, sitting down in the armchair. "But we won't solve this situation with words and, as you've called me here, you must have had some ideas."
My first impression was very positive. I took a definite liking to the admiral for his directness and preparedness to hear me out, despite all the negativity that had built up.
"Before anything else, I have two questions, admiral. First: what makes you so sure that the Aliens will get through to Unatari? The warp beacon is turned off and, as far as I know, no Alien mobile-warp-beacon ships have been seen here."
The man was well prepared to tell me about the source of his information on Unatari's forthcoming demise. It would seem that Miya had announced it to a large crowd of people right after the information came in that the Aliens had captured the Hnelle star system. No matter how negative an opinion I may have had of my spouse, I had to give her her dues. She was a very strong Truth Seeker, and I didn't doubt her words for a second.
So... The sequence of events is becoming clear to me now. Mr. G.I. wasn't planning on inviting me back into the game at all. But then, the Aliens captured Hnelle, cutting the former pirate dead-end off from the Empire. Miya figured out that Unatari would soon fall and, for that very reason, called me into Perimeter Defense. Inexplicably, the Truth Seeker was quite sure that I would be able to manage. It was, of course, strange given the distribution of forces. But, if the Truth Seeker thought there was a chance of rescue, the situation couldn't be that hopeless. Alright, I'll figure that all out later.
 "Admiral, my second question is: why the hell did you order the heavy assault cruisers and Crown Princess Likanna re-equipped?! The original setup I had them in pretty much sold itself in battle with the Aliens. Recharging allied ship shields proved nearly unbeatable. Why break something that's working well?"
"Crown Prince, I have asked your Highness three times since I was hired to explain the idea behind the fleet, but I never got an answer. That was why I asked permission to replace the equipment with typical setups. I also did not receive an answer to any of my four requests to that effect. After that, I acted at my own peril."
What is wrong with you, Mr. G.I.?! It can't have been so hard to answer your subject just the one time! And now, I'm being put to the screws because of your laziness and indifference... I tried to make a face of measured surprise.
"Admiral, I would swear to anyone that I didn't see any of your requests. I really practically didn't look at incoming messages and gave an order not to have all my calls dismissed. It's hard to explain... Though alright, I'll tell you directly. In a crystal dream, I saw a new Alien invasion. I couldn't figure out when it would be, but I unmistakably saw the capture of Hnelle, Unatari, Tesse, and the Orange House Capital... Since then, I've been seeking out a way to change the situation, and haven't had much time to think about anything else. And now, that invasion has truly begun. Hnelle has already fallen. Next in line are Himora, Tesse, Unatari, the Orange House Capital and beyond, if we cannot change the situation."
"And how exactly can we change it?" The man’s eyes lit up with interest.
I shrugged my shoulders ambiguously.
"It would be impossible for us to defeat the Alien fleet currently in Hnelle with just the ships we have here. At the very least, I don't see any way of doing it. But I do see a way for us to emerge victorious from an extended stand-off. For that, our fleet needs to get out into the recently captured former Swarm systems. There should be reinforcements waiting there."
The admiral rubbed his chin with his fingers in thought.
"It won't look good. That's for sure! It'll look like we're throwing the people of Unatari to the wolves, as we ourselves flee. The people of Unatari are already quite afraid. Their mood is near panic, in fact. Several times I have heard conversations about how your Highness is supposedly planning to flee on Queen of Sin, leaving the rest to the hands of fate. And, if the fleet really does leave Unatari, I'm concerned that residents here would actually come to prefer it that way. There are even rumors that some government officials are buying themselves places on Queen of Sin in order to escape with your Highness."
I raised my eyebrows in surprise and asked him to explain everything he'd heard about that.
"Everyone knows that Queen of Sin can make two warp jumps in a row. Only a ship such as yours would be capable of escaping through the Alien-controlled Hnelle system. I've heard insistent rumors in recent days that yacht officers are trading places on the starship at prices of around one million credits per seat and up."
"Let’s get to the bottom of this at once!" I declared. I got on the loudspeaker and asked the yacht captain to come to my office.
A minute later the yacht captain arrived, and I recognized him right away. It was Tarik ton Miro, who had once been second assistant to Captain Oorast Pohl. He was one of the few people who had accompanied me the whole way, from my first day in the Perimeter Defense world, all the way to the end of the contract. It must have been that he had worked his way up to the rank of captain. I greeted my old acquaintance and asked a direct question about the veracity of the rumors that seats on my yacht were being sold.
"Many truly have come with such requests, your Highness. Especially Unatari government officials, but also Astorimma deputies, and people from other large cities here. More than fifty people in the past three days. Of course, I refused them all."
I considered it, then smiled an evil grin:
"Rats, all of them. The first thing they do is run, even though the capital can still be saved. They need to be taught a lesson! Here's how we’ll do it, captain. Order your weaslliest officers to get in touch with these people, and take their money for 'tickets.' A million credits a seat. I thinwek that will be enough. But be sure to warn them that this is all strictly illegal, and they will have to board as technicians, electricians, etc. Let them all think that the yacht will take off the day after tomorrow, but tell them they all must arrive by this evening. And when all these rotten characters have all arrived..."
"We give them the wall?" suggested Admiral Mike ton Akad with poorly hidden hope in his voice.
I put on a mocking flare up:
"Look at who I work with! And I'm the one they call cruel?! No, we don't need to execute anyone. We'll just scare them with execution, and kick them all off the ship after stripping them of their posts in the Unatari government! Captain, give ten percent of the money you collect to this brilliant officer, and transfer the rest to the fleet treasury."
"Will do, my Prince! It's great doing business with you, your Highness!" Tarik ton Miro began smiling with his whole mouth, having potentially become a millionaire today.

Standing change. Empire Military faction opinion of you has improved.
Present Empire Military faction opinion of you: +17 (warm)

Alright. It worked! Though it was somewhat unexpected to see the faction relationship change, despite the fact that the Unatari star system had technically been cut off from the Empire for eleven days. And also, I noticed that my relation with the military, though it had fallen in my absence, had still not reached such catastrophic levels as my own standing. Last time, I had to start from actually negative numbers, so +17 with the military at the very beginning was pretty cool!
When the captain had left, Admiral Mike ton Akad said thoughtfully:
"Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle was once considered a great master of unexpected solutions and improvisation. That is precisely why I hurried to occupy the vacant seat left after Kiro Sabuto's resignation. For a long time, I thought I had made a mistake. But today, I see glimmers of that very Crown Prince’s brilliance. I may see yet why they once said your fleet did not know the meaning of the word 'loss.'"
I did not have time to reply. A knock came on the door, and Ayna swiftly entered, holding a tablet computer.
"Prince Georg, I have found your cousin's location, composed a list of the most valuable objects on the yacht and... here," the girl stepped aside, letting a guest enter.
Into the office came... the one Chameleon I would recognize from among thousands of others. Popori de Cacha!!! I stood up and took a step forward to embrace my old friend. After a second of confusion, the huge bipedal gray lizard responded in kind and embraced me with her (or maybe his, hard to say with a Chameleon) flexible appendages.
"After your Highness fired the Chameleon bodyguard team, I tried to find work for myself and my subjects as bodyguards for the senior officers on Crown Princess Likanna. And now, I'm hearing that the Crown Prince wants to see me," explained Popori de Cacha, very quickly elucidating me on the circumstances of her arrival to the space yacht.
"I'll be brief, Popori de Cacha. I need my excellent bodyguard head back. And with her, I need six, or even just two more invisible guards."
The Chameleon smiled with two rows of sharp teeth:
"I am delighted, my Prince. I'll do it all to the best of my ability. But I am a ‘him’ again, not a ’her.’ After giving birth to my children, I changed back to my original gender."
The interactive character popup was showing that Popori de Cacha's loyalty was as high as possible, just like before. Here was something my substitute hadn't been able to mess up. Clearly Crown Prince Georg simply had no dealings with any Chameleons at all, and also Popori de Cacha had spent the last few months on a far-off island laying eggs and carrying for his tadpoles as they swam in their warm pools.
"Prince Georg, do you have any other orders?" My assistant wondered.
"Wait, let me see the list." I took the tablet and quickly skimmed it. "Ayna, I thought I asked you to be honest. Why didn't you bring me the whole list? I can say for certain that Miya's collection of numbered emeralds is here on the yacht, as well as a number of other valuable objects belonging to my wife. Where's all that in the list of valuables?!"
"But, your Highness..." the girl's voice began quavering in fear. "Mrs. Miya really doesn't like other people touching her things."
I closed my eyes and took a heavy sigh.
 "Ayna, I need a full account in one hour. Who will be giving it to me, you or your replacement, makes no difference to me. Miya won't be here for more than a month, and I don't have enough time to wait for my wife's return to ask her permission. So don't be afraid, you can blame it all on me. Say the Crown Prince ordered it. In the future, I really don't like it when information is hidden from me. I hope this will be the last time."
"My Prince, my mistake will not be repeated. I promise that I'll be as honest as possible with your Highness from now on."
"Alright. Then tell me, what instructions did Miya give you before her departure? I'm having a hard time believing that Miya and the child simply disappeared without a word."
Ayna looked at me like she was expecting a trick, then at the others in the room, after which she sighed and said, in a fairly faithful imitation of Miya's timbre:
"The Prince will wake up soon. Help him figure out what's going on. After crystals, sometimes a person doesn't remember where they are or how they got there right away. Partial amnesia is not rare. As such, don't be surprised if he asks you weird questions. It’s up to you to help Georg do everything. I also have a more specific request. My husband is a Mystic and should probably not have too much interest in the opposite sex. But that hound dog has figured out a way to chase skirts in spite of the crystals before. Your mission is not to allow that under any circumstances. If you see the Prince in an overly playful mood, dress yourself up, shake your ass and grab his attention..."
Admiral Mike ton Sid suddenly began whinnying like a mare. Ayna grew immediately embarrassed and kept quiet. I, though, tried to reassure my blushing assistant:
"At the very least, you were honest. Ayna, you are free to go. I expect a full account of the valuables on this ship."
The girl left, and I returned to the conversation with the admiral, wondering about the state of the fleet in Unatari. He frowned in dissatisfaction:
"The fleet ships have been sitting motionless at the docks for six months, which has taken a toll on the crews’ spirits. Combat officers, especially the most capable and active, have been resigning in the last months and going to other Imperial fleets that really are fighting the Aliens. The most popular destination is Sector Fourteen, which now has the most serious problems in the whole Perimeter."
The admiral let out a heavy sigh.
"I tried to keep them here, Prince. But even paying them bonuses didn't help. People kept resigning anyway. The only thing that could stop the epidemic flight of valuable staff was the Alien capture of the Hnelle system. It may seem strange and paradoxical, but the reaction of the Unatari military has been twofold: of course, they were scared at being trapped and outnumbered, but many were even glad that a reason to fight had finally come knocking. In general, we have staff shortages in the fleet, some ships are missing up to forty percent of their full crew. That’s why, a month ago, I retired the more outmoded ships: all the Tusk frigates and Curse cruisers. I transferred their crews to our more modern ships."
After the admiral's words, I gave a start. It was as if a red light had turned on in my brain. Error! Fighting the Aliens with my usual methods looked clearly incorrect, especially with the serious shortage of people. That was why I thought it would be the right moment to test out the light fleet concept I had thought up in the last days of my previous contract.
"Admiral, all our heavy ships would be doomed in the upcoming battle. The enemy has too much of an advantage in volley weight, so an 'honest' exchange of fire would simply lead to immediate defeat. We need the most mobile fleet we can muster; one capable of staying out of range of the enemy's largest guns while maneuvering and gunning down the little ships, as well as individual ship groups that get separated from the main armada."
The man heard me out with rapt attention and was clearly in no mood to argue. I saw a very positive sign in that. Despite all the disenchantment of the previous months, Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky's authority as a successful strategist was just as high as ever.
"Admiral, my order is for the heavy ships to be placed on the docks and for work to begin to return them to the setup that I had them in when I made the raid through Swarm space. As for the people from the battleship and the five heavy cruisers, use them to fully crew all the Thrush light electronic combat cruisers, all Curses, Flycatcher and Surgeon destroyers, and also the Pyro and Warhawk frigates. Also, check the preparedness of our cloaked bombers and load them with our most powerful warheads. Tomorrow, at ten in the morning, I will announce a big practice session. Together, we can train ships to work in this unusual, light formation."
"It will be done, my Prince!"
After Admiral Mike ton Sid left to arrange for a light fleet, I stayed in the office alone with my thoughts. It was very difficult not to fall into despondency and despair from the events, but I tried to look for the positive in our situation. Sure, a lot of staff had left the fleet. But the only thing at fault for the loss of so many talented officers from the Unatari fleet was the sharply changed behavior of Crown Prince Georg. Earlier, I had actually required that my employees have an earnest desire to fight for the future of humanity. It was my main criterion in choosing who to hire. There was nothing surprising in the fact that, after quitting his job as Sector Eight Fleet Commander and falling into a difficult-to-understand state of lethargy, Crown Prince Georg's subjects would gradually start to leave and move to wherever the most serious battles with the Aliens were happening.
That was why there was no reason to raise salaries, or use other methods to artificially plug up the leak. I would just have to show the soldiers that Prince Georg had awoken after a half a year’s nap and would be returning to fight once more. That was why I absolutely could not avoid battling the Aliens, as it would cause the fleet to fall apart once and for all. In fact, the battle for the Hnelle system would have to be done as showily as possible, to make sure all Imperial citizens remember that Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle can take on the Aliens and win.
"My Prince, may I enter?" Ayna peeked through the door apprehensively. "Your mission is complete. Here is the full list of all valuables on Queen of Sin."
I took the tablet, and pointed my assistant to the armchair next to mine, and the girl sat, crossing her legs.
"Ayna, prepare the first twenty items from the list for sale, excluding the trophy emeralds."
Ayna gaped in shock, as if considering objecting. After that, she made a bold move:
"My Prince, we'll hardly be likely to find buyers on Unatari who can afford these valuable pieces."
I smiled mysteriously.
"Did I say anything about Unatari? Ayna, you just prepare the auctions. Leave finding a way of telling the Empire about it up to me. I'll get around this blockade. Also, pick out something pretty to gift Katerina ton Mesfelle. I'm flying out today to personally apologize to my cousin. And choose anything you want from the list for yourself. That's my present to you. Think of it as compensation for all the trouble."
My new assistant's eyes immediately lit up. In any case, there were some really classy items in that list, which any girl would dream of owning. I couldn't hold back a smile. At the end of the day, women were the same everywhere, be they back home, or in Perimeter Defense. Not a one will refuse the temptation of taking a pretty piece of jewelry.
After looking actively through the catalog for a minute, Ayna pointed to one item:
"Prince Georg, may I choose this pair of ruby earrings?"
"Of course. I did say any item, didn't I?"
"I know, it's just that they're really expensive. The rubies are exceptionally pristine and large. They're worth seven hundred thousand credits!"

Standing change. Ayna Mentor's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +28 (amicable)

A fifteen-point bump in personal opinion over nothing but a pair of, albeit expensive, earrings? A normal person might consider this a completely useless waste of money, but I was of a totally different opinion. The loyalty of my personal assistant was extremely important, in order that Ayna remain true even in hard times, despite all the temptations, threats and blackmail that she'd be sure to face. And if I could raise my assistant's loyalty with jewelry, then why not?
"Less than a million?" I made a showily wry mouth. "Then take the whole set. There's a ruby ring that goes with it. A gift from an Imperial Crown Prince must be fashionable, after all."

Standing change. Ayna Mentor's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +43 (friendship)

"Prince Georg, I'll never forget how nice you've been!" Ayna promised, as teardrops began shimmering up from her eyelashes.
"Now then... No need to cry! Accept the gift. Go prepare invitations to the auction. As soon as you're done, get me a line to the Sigur system warp beacon security team."
I suspect that my assistant did not understand the connection between my two last orders. And, by the way, it was quite a direct one. I was preparing to send the information about the valuables auction through the Forepost-12 beacon that became visible periodically from the Sigur system and, a day later, to receive the money from the buyers in the same fashion.
"Aw, to hell with her! I'll do it myself!" A golden statuette of a long-legged bird with sapphire eyes was sent flying into the far end of the plane's main cabin.
The shuttle was taking off rapidly and, over the dark restless ocean of Unatari, we were headed toward my palace. The conversation with Katerina ton Mesfelle did not go well from the very beginning. She was frightfully resentful of me. There were many reasons, but the main thing was that, four months earlier, Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky had completely ignored her marriage to Corwin ton Ugar.
The young couple were very hurt by my willful refusal to attend their wedding, and even the four months that had passed since then had done nothing to heal the bitter wound. Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar still gave a forced smile to his unexpected highborn guest, but Katerina ton Mesfelle told me her honest opinion right to my face, making no effort to restrict her language. I have never been good at bearing insults, so I started firing back with a volley of hurtful questions and remarks.
First of all, I was interested in how the ice-asteroid-rich Tivalle star system, which I long considered my property, had suddenly changed ownership to Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle, Katerina's former classmate. I had sent him only to manage the ice processing facilities but now he had somehow become owner, not only of the processing plants, but the star system itself! What was more, that all happened, I suspect, with Katerina's hand in the mix somewhere, given that she was in charge of keeping track of the output from the Tivalle system’s factories.
Having left some other manager in his place, Viscount Sivir had long been back in the Orange House Capital where, every month, he received a profit from the quickly growing rare-isotope-processing facilities of the Tivalle system. Speaking of that, increased demand for ice-processing equipment was the very reason the decision was made to turn the Hnelle warp beacon on permanently again, which is what led to the Alien invasion and the whole crisis I was now in.
To put it briefly, Katerina and I had a serious scrap, and I left her palace without even giving her the gift I'd brought. The whole three-hour flight to my island home, I couldn't relax or concentrate on my work. That’s just how upset I was after the botched meeting. Katerina ton Mesfelle, Master of Rhetoric had played an important role in my plans to repair my standing, which had been so screwed up by Mr. G.I. Because of that, I knew I would have to secure her support one way or another. But how could I make peace with her?
The plane arrived to my island when the sun was rising. In this time zone on Unatari, morning had come. I refused an early breakfast (or would it have been a late dinner?) and heard out a report from Ayna, who also had yet to sleep. Though here, everything had gone completely according to plan. In the short minute and a half that the Forepost-12 warp beacon was visible, a whole lot was able to be accomplished.
First, a prearranged encrypted message was sent to the Parn system for retransmission to Space Mutt. Crown Prince Georg had returned to actively playing Perimeter Defense, which was why the time had come for my close companions to leave their sanctuary. Astra, and our son; the paralyzed Florianna, and her overgrown cockroaches; the Arite; Phobos; and Valian could all make their way back to civilization now. The coast was clear.
Second, forty-five million credits collected from the "rats" who had tried to flee Unatari were successfully transferred to the Uukresh. In the accompanying message addressed to Captain Clay ton Avelle, I wrote: "Hold in there, boys! I'll send the rest of what you're due in a couple days." The transaction went through without a hitch, so the severity of the problem with the long-unprovisioned fleet, I hoped, had at least been somewhat reduced. To fully cover all the debts that had piled up, according to my calculations, I would need another one hundred seventy million credits. I was hoping to find this money through the sale of the valuables from Queen of Sin. The announcement of the twenty auctions also made it through to the Empire successfully.
Ah, and the most important thing was that after two days of communications blackout, a message went out to the Empire that the Unatari star system was holding out, and that Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle was back in command of his fleet.
"Ruslan, I need to talk to you quick and explain a whole bunch of stuff," Mr. G.I. stammered. As usual, he was interrupting my dream at a very bad time, just as I was trying to get a little rest after an action-packed day.
While I was struggling with the very strong temptation to send him down a footpath of erotic thoughts, Georgiy continued:
"I know that you are very unhappy with what happened during the first contract. Yes, I admit that I didn't always do right by your body. It's hard not giving into temptations and the many enticements when you find yourself thirty years younger. It's as if everything was suddenly in color again. Girls, dancing all night, free-flowing sex and alcohol... After so many years of health problems, these joys tore my roof clean off, and it was hard to keep myself in bounds..."
"Well then what were the drugs for?!" I screamed in reply, but he ignored my question, continuing his speech.
"I know that Miya offered you generous compensation for all my outings. I hope you're not bitter..."
I started boiling in rage and screamed with my full throat:
"Not bitter?! If I could, I would break your arms and legs right now, then claim that’s how I found you! You animal! Jackass! Bastard! You wrecked my body!"
"So then, I hope these old grievances can be considered fully settled." As if nothing had happened, totally ignoring my screams, Georgiy just continued droning on. "I'm not in your body now, so don't worry. It won't happen again. Now, I wanted to tell you why exactly seven months have gone by in Perimeter..."
The conversation ended abruptly in the middle of his sentence. I was awoken by someone shaking me hard by the shoulder. I opened my eyes.
"My Prince, you were screaming in your sleep!" Ayna was standing over my bed in pistachio-colored semi-transparent pajamas.
"I was having a bad dream," I explained, trying to calm her down and speak in a tranquil tone, though it wasn't easy.
Mr. G.I. clearly wanted to give me important information, which could have explained the rift in time. Ayna had woken me up at, of course, a very bad time. On the other hand, it was also good that she woke me up. I might have said something out loud. I smiled at my assistant:
"Thanks for your concern..." I wanted to finish the sentence and send the girl back to sleep, but my gaze got caught on some scary knobby stitches and scars on the girl's stomach.
Ayna followed my gaze and explained, giving a slanted smile:
"An old wound from my sporting days. After conquering the no-rules fighting and survival contests, I tried my hand at gladiator combat as part of a woman's team, The Ulia Valkyries. The draw at the eighth-finals had us already going against the former champions. The central attacker from The Tesse Killers, much to the fans' delight, disemboweled me with her trident. My entrails were strewn about the whole arena. They had to pick them up with a shovel... The medics saved me and sewed me up, though some of my internal organs are still damaged or even totally missing..."
"So that's why Miya isn't worried to leave you alone with her husband?" I guessed in a stroke of genius.
The girl nodded in silence and, after a bit of waiting, whispered, barely audibly:
"Yes. My womb and ovaries have been totally amputated. I can't have children, and no operations or money can help me now..."
Ayna kept silent and suddenly smiled, somewhat tortured:
"That made it easy to undergo the certification and get licensed to work with members of the upper aristocracy as a bodyguard or personal assistant."
"But for some reason, it doesn't look like that makes you too happy... Ayna, I don't yet know what can be done with you. But I assure you that if there is any way, I will help. You have my word as a Crown Prince!"

Standing change. Ayna Mentor's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +58 (trusting)

After seven months of absence, Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky was preparing to make his first speech to his fleet. There was a huge amount riding on how it would be received, which was why I was feeling very anxious, though I was trying not to show it. The small hall of the space station had been able to fit all the captains and senior officers from the Unatari Star Fleet, though it wasn't easy. On my way up to the platform, I saw that many of those gathered were wearing Black Stars on their Orange House uniforms. These people had lived through many battles with me, but now were in a fog. They had absolutely no idea what to expect from me, their unpredictable commander.
I greeted the officers and got a discordant mumble in reply. Off to a bad start! Once, their reply to the Prince had been an elated roar. Without showing that I was disheartened by the cold reception, I began my speech:
"The most recent intelligence from our cloaked frigates shows that the Alien fleet is still in the Hnelle system. Their reports indicate that the Aliens have one Queen; five Mammoths; one hundred seventy Behemoths; four hundred cruisers, both Sledgehammers and Chainsaws; and two thousand five hundred smaller starships. That means this must be the remnants of the very same Alien fleet we went up against in the Aysar Cluster. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good that the Aliens were not able to reinforce their heavy ship losses in the ten months that have passed. That means their resources are limited after all, and that they are not capable of replacing lost ships. What's bad is that this exact Alien fleet has already met with us in combat and demonstrated its ability to learn from mistakes. We won't be able to pull the same tricks as last time. That's why we're going to have to change tactics. Only light ships will be headed to the battle in the Hnelle system this time."
"But that's suicide!" Someone screamed from the depths of the hall.
The rest of the officers started grumbling and turned to see who had been bold enough to dispute the fleet commander's decision like that. Admiral Mike ton Akad, scrolling through a list on his palmtop computer, pointed me in the right direction:
"It's the captain of Curse-36, a total greenhorn. He graduated from the Space Military Academy just last year, and has only fought in one battle."
While I listened to the admiral speak, another two captains loudly voiced their objections:
"How will we survive the six hours needed to recharge our energy drives? That's plenty of time for the Aliens to make minced meat out of us!"
"Do you not understand that the Prince doesn't give a shit about us? We'll be there dying and distracting the Aliens, while Queen of Sin slips past the dangerous system to safety!"
The audience began buzzing in discontent. Here, the microphone was taken up by Tamara Vuzhek, the illustrious captain of Warhawk-4, her chest adorned with a number of military medals.
"I want to remind you all that this isn't the first time something like this has happened. Remember before the battle in the Nayal system? The Crown Prince explained clearly what is to be done with cowards," the girl exclaimed, reaching for her holster.
"Warhawk-4, stand down!" I hurried to interfere and calm my subject. "Let them talk. Everything will happen as it should!"
I saw on Tamara Vuzhek's face that she did not understand. Many other officers seemed to feel the same, which is why I immediately explained:
"The Alien Queen has one very unpleasant ability: she can attack people's minds. It seems that creature is trying to fill its potential victims with a feeling of dread, hopelessness, and futility. The strong of spirit will bear such a mental attack easily, but the weak will break and give in to its suggestions. They will start to believe that the Aliens will reward anyone who joins their side. During our raid through Alien-controlled Swarm space, we had a few officers come under the Queen's sway. Fortunately, our Truth Seeker detected it before they could betray us, and they were arrested in secrecy. Now, we have another meeting with the Queen ahead of us, so it's important to pick out all those who have already given up mentally before the battle. It's better to replace these people with more reliable officers than to have them stab us in the back later. So, ladies and gentlemen, who among you thinks this situation is hopeless? Who among you supposes that Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky has nothing better to do than send his most experienced and loyal people to their deaths?"
I took a close look at the silent crowd. No one was making a peep or voicing their doubts about the forthcoming battle. I could relax a bit. The rebellion was suppressed before it even got off its feet. The officers were listening to their commander with rapt attention once again. I continued my speech:
"And now, let's talk about what someone else said – that 'the Prince will flee on his yacht.' We won't point fingers now at the one who said it, but let him think long and hard on whether these thoughts truly belonged to him, or were inspired by the enemy. If I wanted to run, I could have done so long ago on a cloaked frigate. But, as you see, I remained here with you. And one more thing, I'll be going into battle on one of your ships, so I wouldn’t be able to flee even if I wanted to."

Standing change. Empire Military faction opinion of you has improved.
Present Empire Military faction opinion of you: +18 (warm)

Oh! Better already. I was on the right path. Now was the time to build on my success.
"No one in the Empire has such rich experience fighting with Aliens as the veterans gathered in this hall. Sure, we may no longer be named the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet, but that doesn't make our experience worth any less! We have defeated the Aliens in Hnelle two times before. We have met with the Queen, and come up against even larger enemy armadas in the past. If anyone can take the Aliens in Hnelle, we can! We've never been defeated! The whole Unatari star system has placed their hopes on us. The lives of sixty-three million people are hanging in the balance. It’s our job to save them. My mission is to figure out how we can do that. Your mission is to practice our new approaches and tactics over the next two days until they become second nature. They are what will help us survive the forthcoming battle. Notice here that I didn't say 'win,' as I myself do not yet know how to destroy the Queen. But I did say 'survive.' We are capable of not dying and thinning out the Alien fleet a good deal. That much I promise you!!!"

Standing change. Empire Military faction opinion of you has improved.
Present Empire Military faction opinion of you: +19 (warm)

Global standing increase. Current value: -51

"Crown Prince and fleet officers, I beg my and Captain Corwin's forgiveness for our tardiness!" Katerina ton Mesfelle and her husband were panting as they flew into the hall. "Georg, we've been under way since early morning. We wanted to apologize for yesterday. We went to the palace, but they said you were gone. It was no simple task finding another shuttle that could take us into orbit. But we listened to your speech. The first assistant from One-Eyed Python arranged for us to watch remotely. Cousin, I beg of you, take me with you into battle! I miss real action so bad! I promise to make my report on the battle so riveting that viewers the Empire over will be nervously biting their nails with their eyes peeled and their faces smushed into the screen!"
I smiled and, slowing down a bit, nodded in agreement. My cousin gave a joyous yelp and threw herself at me, hanging off my shoulders. Based on the laughter that rang out in the hall, no one even remembered the atmosphere of dread that had been here before. The officers perceived the appearance of the familiar war correspondent very positively. At that time, Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar approached me with a goose step, and bent down on one knee:
"Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky, it would be a great honor to me if your Highness were to choose One-Eyed Python as a flagship for the upcoming battle!"
"I gratefully accept your offer, Captain Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar!"
I extended my hand, helping the captain to his feet. I looked around at the applauding crowd and said into the microphone:
"Now this is how we should be feeling before an encounter with the Aliens! Friends, we have just two days to prepare, so let's get to practicing, so we can show the Queen just how serious a mistake she made bringing her troops to our system!"

The Sector Eight Fleet

"Georg, it’s not my fault that the Viscount got his hands on the Tivalle system!" Katerina ton Mesfelle broke the silence that had been ruling over the captain's bridge on One-Eyed Python.
At that moment, I was sitting immersed in my thoughts, so I gave a surprised shudder before turning to look at my cousin. She repeated:
"That’s right, cousin. I had nothing to do with it. Duke Avalle royl Anjer jumped on the tasty morsel as soon as he saw the chance. Asteroid ice processing plants are quite the gold mine. The Head of the Orange House appointed his only son Sivir holder of the Tivalle star system and, simultaneously, Viscount Sivir, in his capacity as manager, confirmed his own appointment. To be honest, you and I both overlooked this eventuality. The right way to have done it would have been to remove Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle from his post in Tivalle right after his father became Orange House Head, and put someone else there to manage it..."
"Yes, I agree, we were clearly asleep at the wheel there. By the way, where is the Viscount now?"
Katerina looked at me somehow strangely, as if expecting me to crack up and say I was joking. But I remained silent, and my cousin shook her head in reproach:
"Georg, you must have stopped paying attention to politics completely. Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle was appointed Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet Commander right after you resigned."
I started cracking up:
"Sivir is the Sector Eight Fleet Commander?! You've got to be kidding me! I've never seen a worse commander in my life! Last time he was entrusted to lead a group of ships, his mission was to simply bring them to the Hnelle system. But even that primitive assignment was too much for him. His own subordinates started rioting because he was such an incompetent commander. What's the deal? It seems like a strange and illogical choice."
"Don't say that, Georg. There's a logic to this, and it's fairly elementary. Just look at the bigger picture. Notice who is first in line to the Orange House Throne. Crown Princess Inessa royl George ton Mesfelle has yet to be declared Countess, though seven months have passed. That is very strange, and there can only be one explanation: Duke Avalle royl Anjer wants to make his own son Count, despite the fact that it circumvents the traditional order. After all, the title Viscount, in essence, means the oldest son of a Count. And if the position of Count is vacant, the previous one's oldest son can become the new Count under specific circumstances, jumping many positions ahead in the line of succession in the process. To do that, this decision must be approved by the Orange House and the Emperor. Let's say the Duke is able to put this decision through the Orange House. The deputies loyal to him would vote how they're supposed to, after all. A problem arises with the Emperor's approval, though. In the many-century history of the Empire, I found just eleven times when this had happened and, every time the Viscount became Count, circumventing the other heirs, it was as a result of impressive military feats. Knowing that, Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle has taken the bull by the horns in his new position as Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet Commander. For him, it's a quick way to the top. All he has to do is prove himself a talented Fleet Commander in the eyes of the Emperor."
"Then why has Viscount Sivir made no attempts to liberate the Alien-controlled Hnelle system?" I snorted. "If he took down the Alien armada, even I would be impressed with his talent as a leader, to say nothing of the Emperor."
Katerina smiled.
"Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle may not be an expert in military matters, but that doesn't make him an idiot. He only wants to use the fleet as an elevator to the top. The Viscount has no desire to risk his own life in a hopeless battle with the Aliens."
My cousin went silent as a whole horde of people flooded into the captain's cabin. It was Captain Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar returning from lunch, accompanied by his senior officers. Shortly after he took his seat, the captain donned a brightly colored helmet with a microphone and began giving orders:
"Ten minutes to warp tunnel exit. Ladies and gentlemen, let's get cracking! Take your seats. Systems check. Communications, setup a common fleet channel as soon as we enter the Hnelle system. Tactics, wait for the Crown Prince's orders."
Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar turned back toward me and smiled with two rows of ideally even white teeth:
"Crown Prince, this is my first time going into such an uneven battle. They have fifteen ships to every one of ours, and their firepower surpasses ours by two hundred to one. The most surprising thing, though, is that I am not feeling even an ounce of fear, nor doubt in the outcome! And the rest of the guys say the very same – they're in a place of surprising calm and absolute faith in your Highness's abilities."
"Thank you for your faith, Corwin! But as for the ship ratios, I think it'll all be a bit easier than that. Thirty seconds before our fleet comes out of the warp tunnel, two divisions of Surprises should be bombing the Alien armada. We dug the most powerful bombs out of the Unatari Fleet arsenal just for the occasion: eight thermonuclear bombs at fifty megatons a piece, plus another twelve tenners. So, there won't be many Alien small ships around on the battle field. I'm thinking the Meteors, at least, should be totally obliterated. These Alien frigates are the only ships in their fleet capable of overtaking us if it comes to a chase. That means, if the Aliens don't have any Meteors, we'll basically be uncatchable."
"Awesome. But don't let the stealth bombers take them all down. Leave some enemies for us," he joked, his worried expression fading into a satisfied smile.
I decided not to reply, as not to upset my new family member. Calculations we made back in the Aysar Cluster showed that the large Alien ships would survive, so the Queen, Mammoths and Behemoths would absolutely be there to meet us. But as for the Alien cruisers, destroyers and frigates, there shouldn't be many left.
I called the tactics officer, and set about explaining to him what I wanted to see on the tactics map: a grid centered on the Hnelle station, markers for all types of ships with an overlaid number showing distance to One-Eyed Python. I wanted groups of starships be circled with different colors. Finally, I told him not to depict any trash, like debris or abandoned drones.
"One minute to warp exit," reported our navigator.
All the officers began taking their places. I put my hand on the control console, closed my eyes and tried to calm down.
"Ten seconds to warp exit. Five, four, three, two, one, we're here!" "Haa-ooooo!" Corwin screamed happily.
I didn't let him know, but his happiness was a bit misplaced. The screens were still dark, but I needed to figure out everything right away. The light cruiser gave a slight shake, then the happiness flew off the captain's face, its place taken by incomprehension.
"Thrusters desynchronized. Energy shields have fallen to fourteen percent. I have no idea what's going on."
"Where's the tactical grid, you assholes?!" I shouted to the tactics officer, but he could only shrug his shoulders and punch buttons cluelessly on his nonworking console.
"We're experiencing some technical problems. Some of our external equipment has failed," reported a technician over the loud speaker. "It looks like we need new external antennas. It'll be three or four minutes of repair."
Fortunately, messages started pouring in from other fleet ships, so, even blind, I had a general picture, and was starting to more or less understand the situation.
"We came out of warp one thousand miles from the Queen! Severe background radiation detected!"
"This is Thrush-15. We were caught in the blast. Our forward shields have fallen by a third."
"Warhawk-11, our light-sensitive equipment has been damaged! Our LIDAR isn't working."
"This is Curse-4. I confirm damage taken. Our shields have fallen by forty percent. I'm seeing large debris next to the Queen. I think it's fragments of a Behemoth."
I took the microphone and said in a commanding voice:
"All ships, attention! All messages related to systems failures or ship damage should be sent over the reserve channel. The main one is getting crowded. Some of our equipment on the flagship was also damaged and is out of order. We're basically blind, and we need a few minutes to fix it. Until the technical failures are fixed, fleet command is transferred to Admiral Mike ton Akad on Curse-7. Can any other ships confirm the presence of Behemoth debris? And where are our observers? Ghosts, where are you?"
"Commander, this is Ghost-2. I'm in position. I can see your ships twenty-five hundred miles from my location. The Surprises completed their mission. Their bombs landed in the very thick of the Alien fleet. After that, we weren't even able remove the armored panels from our light-sensitive equipment before one of the Behemoths burst into shards. Then, there was a whole series of powerful explosions in the center of the cloud of wreckage, and a few seconds later, you showed up on the battlefield."
"I see. Ghost-2, what are your coordinates? All ships, warp at one hundred to Ghost-2. We can repair there and evaluate the situation."
I signed off and took a look around. There were officers scurrying around nearby. On one of the screens, I could see a group of technicians putting space suits on, preparing to go out into space. Katerina was already making a report. She was also vigorously signaling to me, asking for video of the bomb attack on the Alien armada. When suddenly...
"SO THAT'S WHERE YOU GOT OFF TO!!!" I suddenly felt a horrible burden pressing down on me. The hate-filled voice impressed itself into my brain with every word, as if stepping down into it with a high heeled shoe. "THERE'S NO ESCAPE THIS TIME. YOU WILL DIE IN THIS SYSTEM."
"You again... I thought I already explained to you once that these kind of things won't work with me. You cannot control me, nor force me to do anything!"
"You're repeating yourself," I laughed through the pain. "You'd think you might have learned by now that your methods don't work on me."
At that, the initial wave of pressure rolled back, and I returned to my senses. Maybe the mental protection once put in by Miya was kicking in, or maybe I was able to overcome the psychological onslaught, but the intensity of the attack fell quickly.
"That's enough of that, now get lost! I didn't come all the way here to run away. My goal is to destroy your fleet, and I have enough ships with me to make that happen. You know that's true. I can sense your fear. You still haven't forgotten the damage I did to your fleet in the Aysar Cluster. The same will happen here."
I could only laugh and shake my head, chasing off the ringing in my ears. Katerina ton Mesfelle was standing next to me. There was fear on her face.
"Georg, what happened?! Your nose is bleeding!"
I ran my hand over my face, and my palm came back wet and red.
"Nothing dangerous. The Queen was just trying to scare me," I laughed, demonstrating to my cousin that everything was fine. "You'd better find me some cotton balls to stop the bleeding."
Just then, the screens in the room finally turned on, and I rushed to familiarize myself with the situation. The Alien fleet was three thousand miles from us and was composed of a huge disk-shaped starship, encrusted with clusters of smaller ships. I suspect that the Queen's shields had protected some of the frigates and destroyers from the explosions, otherwise it was hard to explain how several hundred small-class ships had survived the attack of my twenty cloaked bombers. Before my very eyes, Behemoths from all sides started creeping in and docking on the five huge Mammoths. Either they were there for repair, energy charging, or perhaps they just wanted to protect themselves from further attacks behind the carriers' shields. Just one group, around eighty Meteors, was quickly coming in my fleet's direction.
"Attention, fleet! The enemy is approaching us. Their frigates are marked on the map. Advance toward the fourth planet. Tactics officer, number the targets. Electronic fighters, divvy up the frigates. As soon as they get near, blind them. Do not wait for my command. Warhawks and Pyros, stand by. Do not move away from our ships. Break off into pairs. When the enemy approaches, I want two webs and warp disruptors on every Meteor. Admiral Mike ton Akad, destroyers are yours to command. Put them in groups of five, shooting on your command at targets under double web. After you shoot one down, switch right to the next target. Thrushes, do the same. Fire all together at targets under double stasis web. Surgeons, get back a bit. I need you behind all the other ships as insurance. Curses, stand by. Release drones only after the battle begins. We don’t need to spook the enemy!"
"Tuki-tuka-de-sa, bomb attack complete. Nineteen bombers came out next to the seventh planet." the voice of the Chameleon female from Surprise-1 could be heard on the fleet channel. "We lost Surprise-19. It didn't make it into the warp and ended up stranded within striking range."
"Great work, de-sa. Load up the ten megatonners. First division, to the flagship at sixty. Second, approach the station at two hundred and wait for my command. For now, the small ships and cruisers that survived are hiding in fear under the Queen's shield. If they risk crawling out, we'll have to give them another spanking until they learn their lesson."
Someone started laughing on the common channel. After that, one of the captains let fly a greasy little joke about giving the Queen herself a spanking, causing raucous laughter on the fleet channel. In general, I am of the opinion that the fleet channel should not be used for extraneous information, but I made no move to interrupt the merry-making now. My crew came to the Hnelle system ready to die, perfectly understanding the balance of forces. Now, I felt that my subjects were just blowing off steam, to lessen their stress and fear. They looked to be finally coming to life. Some even started smiling.
"Attention! This is the first assistant from Pyro-45. I've just sustained an attack from the Queen! Strange thoughts came into my head, like everything was lost, and we should give up right away! I quickly realized that they weren't my thoughts, and had been planted there by these bushes, I mean Aliens. In response I imagined a weed-whacker giving a bush a haircut, and the attack on my brain immediately ended..."
The officer's last words were drowned out in raucous laughter. I couldn't hold back a smile either, and took the microphone:
"This is Fleet Commander Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle. I confirm Pyro-45's statement; it is possible they will try to attack our minds. The Queen also tried to attack me already. I'll tell you this: it isn't fun, but it's nothing you can't handle. The Queen doesn't have the power for a prolonged attack, so just wait a bit, and she'll stop. Or, feel free to use the weed-whacker method suggested by Pyro-45. For now, get yourselves together. I don't want any unnecessary talking on the combat channel. The first group of Alien Meteors is getting close. Frigates, advance! Curses, release drones!"
God damn is that a beautiful sight! On the tactical map, a thick cloud of green markers emerged from my cruisers and swallowed up the herd of enemy frigates.
"Warhawk-11, here. I need help. I've got two of them on me! Ow. Thanks, guys!"
"Pyro-6, here. Target hit!!! My first time downing an Alien!"
­"Flycatcher-2, you're shooting at the wrong target! That one was for Pyro-11 and us!"
"Thank you, Surgeons, you charged me back up. This is Thrush-23. Friends, I owe you one."
"I can’t believe it’s already over. It hasn't even been thirty seconds..."
The red markers in the attack group really had disappeared from the map. I took a closer look at the screen, trying to determine how many of our ships had been shot down. I had requested debris not be displayed on the tactical map, so it was no simple task to figure out how the battle had ended. Not being able to find the answer myself, I gave the assignment to my subjects:
"Admiral, I need a loss report."
After a few seconds of silence, Admiral Mike ton Akad's answer rang out:
"Crown Prince, it would seem there were no losses on our side. Eighty-three Meteors were destroyed, but they practically weren't shooting back. Our electronic warfare ships did a good job. They turned most of the enemy frigates off right away. And after that, our drones and antisupport ate them up. A clean victory! I've never seen this in real life, only in old reports on the Sector Eight Fleet! Great job, guys!"
The elated roar of hundreds of throats carried through into my headphones. At the same time, messages on personal relationship improvements started pouring in from subjects. On the backdrop of the great number of flashing lines, I was able to follow the most important changes, though it was hard:

Global fame increase. Current value: +32

Global standing increase. Current value: -48

Standing change. Empire Military faction opinion of you has improved.
Present Empire Military faction opinion of you: +21 (trusting)

Standing change. Katerina ton Mesfelle's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +100 (completely trusting)

Global standing increase. Current value: -47

Standing change. Mike ton Akad's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +34 (respect)

I was sitting at the console with a stupid ear-to-ear smile, straining to hold back tears of joy. How sorely I had been lacking all this over the three long months I was gone! How I had missed times like these! And it didn't matter now if what was around me was a game or not. It was these exact moments that made life worth living. For some reason, I was reminded of the fact that Florianna should have been at my side. The stream of adulation now coming in was necessary for my Truth Seeker's abilities to grow. Ugh. I wonder how Flora is doing right now...?
I breathed a heavy sigh. The prearranged signal to the Parn system had been successfully sent two days earlier, but the agreed-upon response had not followed, not a day later, nor even two. That made me very worried. Some very bad thoughts were coming to mind. For example, that Miya had managed to track down the runaways and strike down the competition for her and her daughter. Or that the captain of Star Mutt had changed his mind and was refusing to release my people from his scout ship. Or maybe my former companions had seen the constant barrage of mud being hurled at Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky on the news, and simply decided not to return...
But as for the fleet I had hidden from Georgiy in Swarm space, it was not all as bad as I was worrying. The forty-five million credits I'd sent were very welcome, and smoothed over the financing problem, at least temporarily. I had already received an answer from Clay ton Avelle, in which the captain of my flagship thanked me for the money and added, "this financial aid came just in the nick of time. The crews are inspired and prepared to hold out for another few months."
"My Prince, the Aliens have really dug in under the large ship shields." The voice of Admiral Mike ton Akad brought me back to reality. "They've been there for seven minutes already without budging. Maybe we should give them a nudge with the bombers again?"
"There's no point. The bombs are what they're hiding from," I disagreed. "By the way, they’ve taken an interesting tack. They're joining several ships' shields together into one. I'll have to put our scientists and engineers up to the task of thinking up something similar for us to use. It's a good ability to have in battle. But for now, let's try to provoke the Aliens a bit, and see if we can get them to move."
The standoff had been going on for five hours. My guys came just short of mooning the Aliens out their portholes in their attempts to draw the enemy ships out from under the shields of the Mammoths and Queen. We tried absolutely everything. Several times we "accidentally" passed near Alien ship debris, inviting the enemy starships to make a jump into our fleet. We also made a fake attack on the Hnelle station. My Pyros cut circles around the Mammoths and strafed the Queen's shields. We tried to get in touch with the Aliens at various radio frequencies for negotiations. Nothing helped.
Just one time, a few hours earlier, a single Sledgehammer had made a timid outing, but it immediately went back under the shared shield before my ships had almost any time to go in its direction. And another eight times, the Queen made attempts to mentally control various soldiers of my fleet, but it was always unsuccessful. All members of the Unatari Fleet crew had been warned of the threat, knew the false nature of the enemy promises and could only laugh at the pitiful attempts to control them. Also, the "weed-whacker method," as it was being called in the fleet, worked without fail and brought her mental attacks to an immediate halt.
"Georg, the viewers are hungry for action!" Katerina ton Mesfelle grumbled, referring to the prolonged lull that had taken hold after all the action of the initial phase of battle. "I told them three hours ago about the six huge bubbles the Aliens were hiding in. Since then, nothing has changed, though sharp-tonged soldiers from your fleet are competing to compose the best joke about the Queen of the shrubs. What should I show in the next report?"
"Show how afraid they are of us. Or make it look like they're expecting something," the captain of One-Eyed Python was also clearly growing bored and yawning.
Thinking that I couldn’t see his screen, Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar minimized the cruiser stats window and opened a graphical editing program where he was drawing a snow-white rhinoceros in a flower-covered field. It was a pretty good picture, too.
"They're waiting for us to make a mistake," I posited as I distractedly built a pyramid out of empty energy-drink cans on my console. "They're figuring out that if they move at all, we’ll just run away, returning us to the status quo, with them hiding under their energy shields. That's why they're in no rush, just watching us get more and more bold, and waiting for the moment we get too eager and slip up."
The empty-can pyramid collapsed. I collected the scattered containers and threw them into the trash incinerator.
"Alright, I've had enough. We aren't some mere court jesters to entertain the Queen and her host. If the Alien fleet doesn't make a move in the next hour, our ships will return to Unatari."
Just then, as if answering my words, the admiral's alarmed scream rang out:
"Warning! The enemy has started maneuvers en masse!"
Just as he said, the red dots really did start to move all at once on the tactical map. I turned on the microphone and screamed:
"All ships, warp out immediately to Pyro-1! Get out. Everyone out. Thrush-12, don't sleep! Flycatcher-4, you get out too!"
All of my ships warped out smoothly to the first receiver and were now about six hundred miles from the enemy, watching their strange scheme take shape. The Alien starships also regrouped and stretched out into a long line. The Behemoths and Hermits began releasing all their drones. I was first to figure out what the enemy was doing by extrapolating their formation in a straight line from the warp beacon. They were aimed at the Tesse system.
"They're realigning to greet some guests from Tesse!" That was it! Clearly, there was an invisible Alien observer in Tesse that had detected a jump to Hnelle from there.
A great many comments came in from captains of my fleet in response:
"What an idiot!"
"Jumping into an Alien-controlled system is a pretty perverse way of committing suicide!"
"Well, what can you say? That dumbass is in for some shit."
The three comments reproduced above were actually the most appropriate of the bunch. In general, the comments on the mental capacity of the unknown captain were quite vulgar in content. For some reason, I thought about Princess Astra at that moment. Such an act would have been in my former favorite's spirit. A ship could easily reach Tesse from the Parn system in three days so, time-wise, it added up...
"My dear officers, we'll have to try to rescue this lame duck and distract the Aliens. Attention! Our target is the Alien ship group nearest to the station. There's a Behemoth and two Sledgehammers there that are a bit too far from the others. Once you're ready, jump to one hundred twenty miles from the station. We'll be just eighteen from the enemy. I remind you to travel as fast as possible along a curved trajectory to avoid getting one-shotted by a Behemoth. Frigates, I need webs and disruptors on all three ships. Also, start shooting down drones right away. Electros, you can totally ignore the Behemoth. It won't be able to hit us with its stationary cannons no matter what it does. Your target is the two Sledgehammers. Thirty electronic fighters on the two targets is more than enough. If I see even one of the Sledgehammers getting a shot off, you'll all be cleaning the decks of my yacht after the battle! Now, Curses, your mission is to needle that Sledgehammer there with your drones. I've marked it here. After you're done, move on to number two. Energy neutralizers should be on the Behemoth the whole time. Forty energy neutralizers is nothing to sneeze at. We'll see if the Alien battleship is ready for such an attack, and how much energy it has left. Flycatchers, shoot the Behemoth's drones down. Surgeons, you're our safety net. So then, off toward the station. Countdown to jump: ten seconds!"
Despite the gravitation compensators, I felt that I was being pushed down into the chair. The starship accelerated fervently toward the Alien-controlled Hnelle station. Katerina couldn't stay on her feet, falling with a squeal and crawling quickly over to her seat to buckle in.
­"Three, two, one. WARP!!!"
One-Eyed Python made it out just fine. We were at twelve miles from the Behemoth and six from the Sledgehammers. Our boost thrusters immediately hummed into action, giving the cruiser extra acceleration. Staying still near those battleship cannons was begging to die.
"Both Sledgehammers have been switched all the way off," reported the young lieutenant in charge of active jamming.
"Very nice," I smiled.
The nearest Alien cruiser was hard to see due to the mass of combat drones now swarming it. On the tactical screen, I saw the shields of the Sledgehammer restore back up to maximum a few times, but then they finally went down to nothing and stayed there. Four seconds later, five at most, the Alien ship was no more. One thousand six hundred enhanced drones from the Curses, each of which could do as much damage as a frigate, started darting off to their next target.
"The Behemoth's energy shield is down!" the tactics officer told me with no small amount of surprise in his voice.
Our forty energy neutralizers sucked all the power out of the Behemoth in twenty seconds. The enemy didn't have enough energy left to keep up their shields up. Now the defenseless giant had to be taken down.
"Attention! The Meteors are pouncing!" Admiral Mike ton Akad pointed to a group of thirty Alien frigates and a few destroyers that were rushing to help their ships that had fallen into this catastrophe.
It's not clear what the Aliens were hoping to achieve with the attack. We had already mowed down eighty frigates without a single loss, so we would definitely be able to take down another thirty. If the Queen wanted to chase us off, she'd have sent a much more serious force, but no other Alien ships came in our direction.
"This is your fleet commander speaking! All ships remain in place. Let's get the second Sledgehammer. No one leave! If anyone leaves the battlefield now, I'll shoot them myself! Electros and Flycatchers, get ready to intercept the small Alien ships. Keep a close eye on the other enemy ships to make sure none of them start coming for us. And destroy the Sledgehammer wreckage next to our ships. There's no reason to give the enemy the coordinates to our fleet."
Just then, a flash of light erupted! We’d just lost a ship. One of the battleship's rounds found its mark.
"Do not reduce speed. Orbit the battleship! Well... step on it some more... We've got the second Sledgehammer! All drones to the Behemoth. Thrushes, get to work on it with the cannons. No, cancel! Call off the drones. Send them out for the Meteors. Warhawks, stand by! Head off to intercept the frigates. I remind you: two webs per enemy. Warhawk-4, where are you going to without order?! Tamara Vuzhek, come back! I need you alive. Yes, go with everyone else. Electros, it's up to you now. Our priority is to turn off the Hermits. All the rest, head for the frigates."
"Reinforcements in system!" The tactics officer's scream forced me to shudder.
At four hundred miles from our fleet, a large number of starships appeared. On the tactical map, they were colored gray for a few seconds, but then they were automatically determined to be allies by the friend-foe system.
"Alright! It's the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet!" exclaimed the captain with surprise in his voice. "There's almost six hundred ships! They've shown up in the very center of the Alien armada!"
I groaned in impotence. Ugh. What an idiot you are, Sivir ton Mesfelle! I already knew that he wasn't the most capable fleet commander out there, but just handing your ships to the Aliens like that... I could've strangled him with my bare hands, which is why I couldn't hold back. The sentence that ripped out of me, I suspect, rang a bit too true, as even Corwin ton Mesfelle-Ugar gave a respectful whistle, and Katerina reminded me that we were, after all, broadcasting live to the whole Empire.
"My apologies, cousin, but I think we’d all be better off if Duke Avalle royl Anjer had been better acquainted with the proper use of contraceptives. Because of Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle's idiocy, the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet is going to be completely wiped out. Eleven battleships, and thirty heavy assault cruisers! The Viscount seems to have dragged a heavy fleet from the whole Sector out here just to die! Communications officer, I need the frequency of their channel right away! I might be able to save some of them yet!"
"The enemy Meteors did not accept combat. They are turning around and retreating!" Admiral Mike ton Akad's voice reminded me that the Unatari Fleet was still in battle.
A horde of fast-moving red dots on the screen was rushing into the big cloud of green ones. The enemy frigates did not, in fact, engage with my ships, preferring to attack the new enemy that had appeared on the battle field. It became clear that the thirty frigates had just been faking an attack and were not coming for another one-sided slaughter.
"Do not give chase! All Unatari ships, focus on the Behemoth! Communications officers, I need the Sector Eight Fleet's channel."
"My Prince, of course this is none of my business," Corwin nodded to the window, beyond which a large section of our view was being obscured by the Behemoth, "but isn't that gonna explode? Our whole fleet will be killed here and now if the battleship's antimatter undergoes an annihilation reaction."
I considered it. There was a kernel of rationality in the captain's words. The old scar on my face, which I’d received in just such a Behemoth explosion, started to itch immediately.
"It will not explode," said my bodyguard, Popori de Cacha, revealing himself. "A group of Chameleons studied the Alien battleship's systems the first time we captured one. The automatic gravity compensation in the warhead storage units is autonomous and not connected with the battleship's main systems. If you don't purposely turn off the power circuit, or break the hermetic seal on the hangars, there is no danger. But to be completely sure, it'd be better to concentrate fire on the forward parts of the Behemoth. The reactor is there, as well as the thruster control systems, but nothing related to the dangerous antimatter."
I hurried to send this information to the fleet.
"My Prince, I've got the line open! Button three," one of the communications officers reported, and I switched to channel three.
My ears were instantly stabbed with shouts of despair and mostly senseless yammering. The Sector Eight Fleet captains were reporting to the commander on warp disruptors and stasis webs placed on their ships. Some had their energy shields shot through, and others had already been downed by the Aliens. But, due to the overwhelming mass of messages piled on top of one another, there was complete chaos on the channel, and it was impossible to figure out what was going on. Trying to get the situation under control, I spoke loudly and clearly:
"Complete radio silence! Sector Eight Fleet, attention! This is Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky speaking! Do not reduce your speed. Continue your trajectory toward the Hnelle station! Stand by for warp coordinates. Whoever has the ability, immediately warp out! I repeat, warp out to the coordinates we send, if at all possible!"
"Georg, keep your nose out of my business! This fleet is not yours to command!" I recognized Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle's voice. He sounded annoyed. "I order my ships to stay and fight!"
"Shut up, idiot! You've already lost half your fleet in the one minute you’ve been here, and have yet to realize it! I order anyone left alive to jump to the coordinates provided. My ships will try to protect you. Immediately after warp exit, get to action and attack the Behemoth we have caught!"
The Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet Commander was still trying to give commands in his incomprehensible manner. For example, he ordered his ships to attack one of the Mammoths, but no one was listening to the Viscount anymore. Green dots were joining my ships on the tactical map one after the other. Unfortunately, it was primarily small ships that were able to escape. All of the Sector Eight Fleet's big guns were already completely held down by the Aliens. A few seconds later, the only ships left in the center of the ball of Aliens were some warp-disrupted, motionless battleships and around fifty heavy and light cruisers. They had just minutes left to live, if not seconds. More and more Alien starships were pouring into the battle zone and immediately beginning the effort to destroy the human ships.
"This is Master of Tesse speaking. I have fifty warp disruptors on me. My energy shields are going down quick. Requesting permission to evacuate crew." I recognized Oorast Pohl's voice with astonishment.
"Old friend, hold out for thirty seconds!" I shouted to my former associate. "All ships that were not able to leave, I order to cover sensitive equipment and be prepared to warp out immediately after the bombs go off! Surprises, drop your bombs right on top of the Sector Eight ships!"
"My Prince, this is Surprise-1. I ask your Highness to give permission to make this attack alone. It's too dicey to risk so many ships. There's no suitable object for a timely warp out. There's also a lot of moving debris. The chance of failure is too high."
"You have my permission! Just go fast before they all die! All ships, stand by!"
I pressed my nose right up against the screen. The seconds ticked by. The number of green markers inside the red ball was falling fast. But then, a new green marker flickered in, and a bomb came out of it. But why wasn’t the frigate leaving?!
"Well, that's it. I'm caught with warp disruptor." There was neither fear nor resignation in the voice of the Surprise-1's captain. She was just stating a fact. "Forgive me, frie..."
The end of the sentence was cut off by a bright spark. The thermonuclear warhead exploded in the very center between the Sector Eight Fleet's battleships. Another second later, fifteen green markers, everyone left alive, ­moved over to my ships.
"Surprise-1 did not survive the explosion." Popori de Cacha's horror-laden voice rang out above my ear. My bodyguard was looking at the screen, and was even falling out of camouflage in shock. "The greatest warrior my kind has ever known is no more... I dreamt of fighting for her in the next tournament on Sss... This celebrated representative of the Ravaash race paid with her life to save tens of thousands of people. I hope, Crown Prince, that your race will never forget that deed," Popori de Cacha trained both of his mobile eyes on me, expecting an answer.
"A menace to the Aliens. She has thousands of destroyed enemy ships on her account. The most valuable soldier in my fleet. I swear that I will do everything in my power to make sure the memory of the captain of Surprise-1 will live through the ages! You have my word as an Imperial Crown Prince!"

Standing change. Chameleon race opinion of you has improved.
Chameleon race opinion of you: +33 (respect)

Standing change. Empire Military faction opinion of you has improved.
Present Empire Military faction opinion of you: +23 (trusting)

Popori de Cacha and I stayed silent for some time before Corwin ton Ugar sidled in with a message:
"Commander, the nearest Behemoth has been shot to pieces! It really didn't explode"
I just waved it off. One battleship more or less made no difference. The Aliens wouldn’t feel it. In comparison with the loss of Surprise-1, this was totally irrelevant. Nevertheless, it was not at all the time for despondency. A great number of red markers were approaching the cloud of green spots on the tactical map. I took the microphone:
"Attention, all ships! Collect drones, and go out to a faraway spot. Ghost-3, send coordinates over the fleet channel. We all need a breather to take stock of losses and get ourselves back together."
"Ghost-2, keep up observation of the enemy. Other ships, don't just stand around. Begin acceleration toward Unatari."
To my surprise, a small cohort of the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet ships started moving along with mine. Orange Majesty remained motionless, as did the majority of their ships, but around twenty followed my order. Katerina and I exchanged glances.
"It would seem these captains trust you more than their own fleet commander. They look to be trying to demonstrate that fact to the Viscount."
I shrugged my shoulders. The very fact of having another fleet's ships in my active combat zone was something that left me fundamentally dismayed. The dilemma the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet captains were facing was unavoidable: they could either continue serving the Viscount, who had psychotically doomed his own ships to die, or obey the orders of a more experienced commander. And now, all of the captains were making their own choice.
"Ghost-2 here. The Aliens have destroyed the wreckage of the Behemoth. The antimatter exploded. It was very powerful, as always. The Alien ships are making a move. They're all accelerating, but I can't tell where to."
My heart was pounding. Had they managed to pinpoint our fleet’s location? Theoretically, it wouldn’t have been too hard. Hiding ships as huge as battleships from the enemy radars was impossible. If they were scanning from different points in the star system, it was only a matter of time before their on-board computers calculated our coordinates.
"My Prince, the Alien ships are accelerating toward Unatari!"
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. What a twist! The Aliens hadn't yet calculated the coordinates of my fleet, but they had managed to get a cloaked frigate in, and it had determined the trajectory of my ships! And, if I ordered the Unatari warp beacon turned on now, even for just a second, as I was preparing to do initially, we would be inviting one thousand five hundred Alien ships to my capital behind us! That would be the end of Unatari, and the end of my contract with Mr. G.I....
The communications officer broke in at that moment and said, without removing his headphones:
"Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle proposes that Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle make a visit to the flagship of the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet, Orange Majesty and discuss the present situation."
"What is there to discuss?" I muttered, not comprehending. "The Sector Eight Fleet Commander slipped up and fell in a puddle, and I helped him up. Everyone in the fleet understands that Viscount Sivir is only still alive because of my ships and the self-sacrifice made by Surprise-1."
"Would you like me to come with you?" my cousin offered. "I've known Sivir a long time, and I might be able to help you smooth over your issues without all the pomp and circumstance."
"Alright, let's go together. But first, I need to make sure the Viscount isn’t about to make an even bigger mess. Communications officer, I need a line opened to my brother Roben royl Inoky."
Around a minute went by, and a middle-aged servant appeared on screen.
"Crown Prince Georg, I beg your apologies most sincerely, but your brother is not available at the moment. He is very tired, and needed some rest."
"So, Roben’s wasted again, is he?" I guessed.
The servant did not answer, but he also made no effort to deny it.
"Alright, we can get by without Roben, this time. I have an important message. The huge Alien fleet in the Hnelle system is ready to jump to Tesse at a moment’s notice, so don't turn your warp beacon on, even for a second. In fact, I categorically recommend you not activate the beacon for the next two standard days, no matter who asks, be it Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle, or the Emperor himself. I'll try to lead the threat away to a different star system but, until that time, I officially warn you once again: if the Tesse beacon turns on, you will all die."
"I am very grateful for the warning, Crown Prince Georg," the servant gave a deep bow. "Your Highness, you can be sure that I will send your message to all relevant parties. The Tesse warp beacon will be blocked."
I breathed out with relief. After all, the Viscount was clearly dumb enough to simply return to Tesse, bringing death to the six billion inhabitants of the densely populated star system in his wake. The only thing left now was to warn the Tialla and Unatari beacon teams to make sure the Alien fleet doesn't get through behind the escaping Sector Eight Fleet ships. The two remaining options for escape from the Hnelle system were the automatic warp beacon in Forepost-11 or the low-population Himora station. Both of them looked like perfectly reasonable choices.
"My Prince, incoming call from Bride of Chaos. Shall I put them through?" My communications officer asked, and I gave my permission.
The harrier-gray battleship-captain appeared on screen. His ceremonial Orange House Star Fleet uniform was adorned with a Black Star and a Silver Brooch with the number eleven inside. A veteran who had fought in eleven battles with me.
"Crown Prince Georg," the soldier bowed respectfully. "I made the decision to warn your Highness that Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle is planning to arrest you as soon as you arrive to the flagship. He is accusing you of 'inciting mutiny, and causing undue loss of life.' The arrest has already been agreed on with the Head of the Orange House, and now the fleet commander is trying to secure himself the support of all Sector Eight Fleet captains."
"Thank you for the warning, my friend. I will not forget this," I bowed in response the captain, but he answered:
"Don't thank me, Prince. This is ­the least I could do after so many battles together. Not to mention what happened today. All of our officers know what the captain of Surprise-1 did for us, and this is an expression of my gratitude to your Highness and the Chameleon race as a whole."
The gray-haired captain signed off. My cousin and I exchanged glances. Katerina ton Mesfelle didn't know what to say about it. In the silence that came over the room, the communications officer's voice rang out like a shot:
"My Prince, there are twenty-six people on the line waiting to talk with you. They are captains and senior officers from Sector Eight starships."
"Get a conference call together for all of them at once," I requested and, a few seconds later, said on the separate channel:
"Friends, I know what you want to say to me. I'm already aware of the base act of ingratitude being planned behind my back. Do not do anything yourself. I'll be dealing with this betrayal myself. Thank you, I will not forget your warning."
I signed off and began thinking intensively. If it weren't for my good relationship with the Imperial Military, I wouldn't have gotten that warning, and would have been caught. What to do? I spent five minutes in contemplation, staring at the metal wall, then asked to be put through to Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle. A second later, my former plant manager was looking back from the screen. His dark blue Fleet Commander's uniform had gold epaulets, and he was wearing a huge pilot’s cap over his close-cropped hair.
"Viscount, I didn't think it very reasonable for us to meet here in the Hnelle system. The Aliens are scanning the cosmos, and could attack our ships at any moment. Both you and I need to remain at our posts. I think we should first take our ships out of Hnelle to the Himora system, so we can calmly discuss everything on the station there."
"Why Himora? I'm planning on taking my fleet back to Tesse!"
I tried to not show any emotions on my face but, inside, I was positively seething. That cretin really was planning to retreat to Tesse! If it hadn't been for my warning, the Aliens would have been destroying the pearl of Sector Eight a few hours from now!!!
"Of course, we could also speak in Tesse, but then my brother Crown Prince Roben royl Inoky ton Mesfelle and his military advisors will want to join in. I do not know how necessary their presence would be. The conversation could breach some fairly confidential topics, after all."
"Yes, you are right, Georg. The Himora station really is more convenient. No one will bother us there!" he reveled. "My heavy ships need almost six more hours to recharge energy for a warp jump. So, you keep track of the Aliens and warn me if they try to attack! I'll rest for now. Commanding a fleet is such a hassle!"
"Agreed!" I smiled and signed off.
I remained sitting for three minutes, then demanded to be put through to the Himora station. A man I knew fairly well appeared on screen. He had once been a Brotherhood of the Stars pirate, and was now my agent in Himora.
"Your Highness! I'm glad to see you in good health!"
I greeted him in reply and wondered how many people were living on the Himora station now. The answer he gave was so positive, I’d have been hard pressed to think of a better one:
"There are just sixty people left on the station. When the Aliens captured Hnelle, most of our crew fled. Even the head of the station ducked out to Tesse. I was left here as temporary leader. Everyone else is sitting on their suitcases so they can take off at the first sign of danger. We have a ship ready to warp out at any moment permanently docked here. I'd only need three minutes, and there'd be no one left in the system!"
"Great. I have a very important proposition, then. It would also be very well paid. In six hours, you will receive a signal from Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle demanding that you turn on your warp beacon to let the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet out of the Hnelle system. Turn the beacon on for four seconds, then wait for my message. I'll tell you what to do from there. If you don't get any more messages, evacuate the station in two hours!"
I signed off, then, another minute later, I called Ghost-3, and sent a secret order ­to go five hours away from my ships toward the Himora station. After that, they were to stop, not reveal themselves, and send us their coordinates.
Now all that was left was to wait...
"You are speaking with the Sector Eight Fleet Commander Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle. Listen carefully! This is a message for my ships, as well as Georg’s. Head toward the Himora system. There is no beacon there now but, in five minutes, the Himora system warp beacon will be turned on. Well, they promised it would, at least. We all need to jump to that system while the beacon is on for us. Make sure to do it in good time. That is an order!"
I covered my face with my palm. I mean, who talks like that?! He could have said the same thing with half as many words, and it would have been twice as intelligible. What made it worse was that the Viscount's voice was extremely grating. If you're gonna give commands, you need to speak clearly, loudly, and distinctly, without mumbling.
­"Ghost-2, what are the Aliens doing?"
"My Prince, all the Alien starships are turning! They are changing their trajectory!"
"Toward Himora?" I clarified, receiving a positive answer.
Everything became clear. Our ships were, in fact, being observed. I turned on my fleet channel.
"Complete radio silence! Accelerate toward Himora. Accept jump coordinates. When the Viscount commands you to jump to Himora, all ships in my fleet must warp to zero at the coordinates I'm sending now. I repeat again: complete radio silence. If anyone says even one word in the next five minutes, they will be punished for exposing a military secret."
Three minutes remained until the Himora warp beacon would turn on. Two... One...
"Communications officer, stand by in thirty seconds. Repeat my order once again, out loud."
"In thirty seconds, arrange a group call with all ships on the list prepared by your Highness. It's all been ready for a while. I just have to press the call button."
"Yes, that's exactly right. Ten seconds... Three, two, one, GO!"
The screen lit up with several windows showing the confused faces of Sector Eight Fleet captains. They clearly didn't understand what was happening.
"Attention, everyone! After the warp beacon is turned on, don't jump to the Himora system right away! You must wait ten seconds! Your very survival depends on it!!! And, before you jump, cover sensitive external equipment. That is also very important! That is all. Good luck!"
The last seconds ticked by. The time had come!
"I see a new beacon!" screamed the navigator of One-Eyed Python, and our light cruiser left into the warp tunnel at that very second.
It wasn't a long flight. In just ten seconds, my ships came out at a different point in the Hnelle star system.
"My Prince, Ghost-5 here. The bombers have hit the remaining Sector Eight Fleet heavy ships. We uncovered an Alien cloaker! Warhawk-4 and Flycatcher-15 have already captured it and are working on shooting it down. That is all. I await further orders! It was a beautiful tactic, if you don’t mind me saying. They bought the fake jump to Himora hook, line and sinker!"
"Ghost-2 here. The Alien fleet has completely left the Hnelle system. They're on the way to Himora!"
A dismayed voice rang out on the common channel:
"Oorast Pohl here, captain of Master of Tesse. Prince Georg, I don't understand a damn thing. The beacon turned off too fast. We weren't able to follow our fleet out, then your bombers blasted us. What was that? And when will the Himora beacon turn back on?"
"My old friend, what you just saw happen was me not allowing you all to die by carrying out the Viscount's idiotic order. The Queen just went to Himora with her fleet of one thousand five hundred ships. If you had gone to the beacon, you would have died."
Silence took over. Everyone was digesting the new information.
"What have you done, Georg!?" My cousin was looking at me, her eyes wide in horror. "Strictly speaking, you have just destroyed the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet and killed its commander!"
I turned sharply to Katerina ton Mesfelle. There were lightning bolts in my eyes.
"No, cousin. That is not how I see it at all! No one dragged the Sector Eight Fleet Commander here to fight, nor did anyone force him to warp to Himora. He led his own fleet to their death, and there was no way I could have stopped him. All I did was save his fleet's most valuable ships for the Empire's sake, though I had absolutely no obligation to do so. And that is what your report should say! The main reason for the disaster is Viscount Sivir ton Mesfelle, who, despite not even having the minimum fleet leadership ability, wanted to achieve military glory in order to earn the title of Count. But now, screw him. Let him show his abilities as a Fleet Commander in Himora! He'll have ample opportunity! All the same, I will not allow the Viscount's stupidity to kill my old friends! And now, your mission is to think up a legal basis to include the rescued ships in my fleet!"
Katerina shook her head with hesitation. My cousin did not argue with me, but was showing clearly that I had not convinced her. Alright, we'll have plenty of time to discuss the unforeseen consequences of that step later. For now, we had more important missions. I switched the microphone over to the common channel and issued a command:

"Master of Tesse, Bride of Chaos, Princess Astra, Indigo Beauty, and all fleet cruisers, prepare your boarding teams! We've only got six hours before the Aliens get to Himora. We need to capture the Hnelle station and turn off the warp beacon before they get there! And another thing... Welcome back, old friends!"

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