Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Perimeter Defense, book 4: A Game With No Rules

Perimeter Defense
by Michael Atamanov

The book is up for preorder - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074MVPFGJ
release - October 11, 2017

Balance of Power

"How is she?" I asked Miya as she entered the small dining hall. I was sure that the Truth Seeker would be able to guess who I was asking about but, if she didn't, she could always read it from my thoughts.
I noticed that my wife was looking remarkably tired and poorly rested today. Even the very expensive cosmetics and clothing she wore were unable to hide the black circles under her eyes, drooping in exhaustion. Might that have been her age showing? Obviously, it was difficult to maintain the appearance of a young woman at her... how many years had Miya racked up at this point? One hundred thirty? One hundred fifty? Two hundred?
"Alright, alright, Georg. That's enough!" the red-headed beauty rushed to intervene, giving yet another confirmation that she read my mind all the time without a second thought. "I get the message. I'll try not to come to breakfast before putting myself in order first again. It's just that I really am tired. Talking with the Dark Mother has always been quite hard on me, and our last conversation sucked all the lifeforce out of me."

"How is she?" I asked, repeating my initial question.
"The Dark Mother is slowly fading, Georg. Her decrepit body is just giving up, wracked with a plethora of diseases of old age. She is confined to her bed, and no longer even hopes of standing. But she remains the strongest Truth Seeker in the galaxy, and can still use her mind to crush the skull of any person like a soft-boiled egg. After the discord with the Emperor, the Dark Mother lost her source of power and is now living on what she had saved up. Whether her reserves will last long is something neither I nor she knows. I'll admit, I still haven't figured out why the Dark Mother wanted to talk with me long distance. We didn't talk about what happened to her, nor did we discuss the Emperor. We didn't even get close to touching on political issues. It was simply a conversation with a frail old lady, mortally exhausted from a long life. However, after that half-hour conversation, I feel like a squeezed lemon. I have the sensation that I just took an important exam and it looks very much like I failed it."
Miya went silent, giving me the chance to think over her words. I pointed my spouse to her usual seat at the dining table, but Miya didn't sit down, instead heading toward a large mirror on the wall. It looked like the thoughts she'd overheard about her age showing had hurt the red-headed beauty, and she now wanted to make sure they weren't true. I was still thinking seriously over Miya's words. The Dark Mother had never been inclined to empty chatter. In fact, the most powerful of the Truth Seekers used to speak quite rarely, but each of her words were akin to a command, because everyone understood that the ruler of the Empire spoke through her mouth.
That all changed three months ago. I was one of the few who knew the true facts of the conflict between the Emperor and the Dark Mother. For the rest of the Empire, what happened was a real shock. It all started with a video clip depicting the Emperor's guard ruthlessly shooting down my bodyguards and cousin, Duchess Katerina ton Unatari, while the normally cool-headed Dark Mother screamed hysterically for my head.
The video of the utterly unprovoked attack on Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle the hero of the war with the aliens, ruler of the Unatari State, loyal subject of the Empire and one of the most popular commanders among the military caused a real stir, rattling society’s faith in the Emperor's infallibility. Many of the leading aristocrats and politicians expressed a negative opinion of that event, including the heads of the Blue, Purple, and Green Great Houses, as well as representatives of the Imperial Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, the harsh ultimatum I issued in response was perceived by the majority of Imperial citizens as justified.
But what happened after that was thought by many to be impossible, and caught even me quite by surprise. Emperor August royl Toll ton Akad backpedaled, and begged an official apology for the attack on the Unatari embassy, agreeing to also pay me five billion in compensation for the murder of my diplomats and destruction of my yacht Queen of Sin. The Emperor claimed the Dark Mother had initiated the bloodbath in the Silver Palace, explaining her treachery as being rooted in a very old panicked dread of nonhuman races, giving her an incorrect view of the situation. August claimed to have been an unwilling victim, blindly following the Dark Mother's reasoning, which he'd grown accustomed to trusting over their three long centuries together. In his address to the people, the Emperor announced that he had dismissed the Dark Mother with honors, while his new Truth Seeker would be Krista, who had worked until that point for the ruler of the Blue House, Duchess Ovella royl Stok ton Miro*.
*these events were described in the short story From the Life of Crown Princesses, which was released in a separate collection of short LitRPG stories.
To be honest, I had never believed in the sincerity of the Emperor's regret, not three months ago, and certainly not now. It was just that August royl Akad was not expecting to come up against such a severe reaction from society, and had certainly not foreseen that I would manage to avoid arrest and slip away from the Silver Palace. Confronted with a difficult dilemma: either have at least the Unatari State and Green House leave the Empire, or admit guilt, August chose a third option: trying to cordon himself off by naming the Dark Mother his scapegoat.
For a time, that really did dampen the dissatisfaction in the Empire, though the Great Houses’ trust in the Throne World never returned to its former level. For my part, I grew many times more suspicious, when the Throne World refused to pay me the five billion credits of indemnity not in cash, but combat starships and ship parts. And I also made another offer, which wouldn't have cost the Throne World a single credit, but would have affirmed the course to reconciliation instead of monetary compensation, I asked to have my son Georg added to the list of Imperial Crown Princes, but that was also refused by the Emperor.
Then, when my specialists tried to order heavy laser cannons and warp drives from manufacturing facilities in the Imperial Core for the new battleships and assault cruisers under construction at the Fia docks, they were refused everywhere without explanation. That all spoke to a restriction on selling high-tech military devices to the Unatari State that, while not officially declared, still did exist de facto. Of course, such steps by the Throne World did nothing to facilitate a reduction of existing tensions. Naturally, in such conditions, there could be no discussion of sending my daughter Likanna back to her preparatory school on the Throne World. So, both Crown Princess Likanna royl Georg ton Unatari and her closest friend Crown Princess Natalie royl Cruz ton Unatari had remained in Unatari space.
By the way, as for Likanna my daughter had come to breakfast in a set of warm pajamas, adorned with silly cartoon characters and a pair of huge fluffy slippers on her bare feet. I wanted to note to the young Princess that grown girls like her were supposed to get dressed for the day before coming to breakfast. But the words got stuck in my throat, because Princess Astra came into the small dining hall right after Lika, dressed in a near identical getup poufy white pajamas with pink frogs and little gray donkeys, plush slippers gaping up with huge eyes and a hood with long bunny ears on her head.
"Hi, dad!" said Lika, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek and sitting cross-legged on a high chair. "Have you heard the news? Astra is now owner of the studio that produces the cartoon Jeanne the Star Traveler! Do you remember a year and a half ago when we invested the money she got from her painting The Last Day of Veyerde into making a new season of the adventures of Jeanne the space frog? Well, it was enough for a whole ten new seasons, and they're amazing! The money we made selling them was enough to buy a controlling share in the studio!"
I looked at Astra, smiling happily with her snow-white teeth. Her light-colored wavy hair was still messy after waking up, and her eyes were sparkling in childlike wonder. Now, the Princess was happy and proud of herself, so I figured I shouldn’t make a comment about her appearance in this moment of triumph.
Astra was basically a fully-grown lady. The doting mother of a strong and healthy boy of seven months, she had received an excellent education and knew all the subtleties of courtly etiquette. But, all the same, I just couldn't bring myself to treat her like a grown person. Her personality had a bizarre combination of brilliance, naivete and simplicity. And the Princess was not acting or playing, either. She really did live in her own special little world where, if something was boring or didn’t concern her directly, it simply didn’t exist. I suspect that Astra didn't even know about my problems with the Emperor, because it was a political event, and didn't affect her directly, so she didn't care.
Three months ago, in order to avoid potential issues with Astra holding the title of Princess which, after the destruction of Veyerde, was no longer strictly accurate, I had made Astra a Swarm Princess and assigned her a holding in the Uyakh system. And the first thing Astra did in her role as ruler, instead of forming a group of economic, design and construction advisors, was to... start learning the Iseyek language. Although the language of the insects was considered rather simple due to its low number of words and grammar rules, the human throat was anatomically not adapted to pronouncing a significant portion of the high-frequency sounds it employed. All the same, that didn't stop Astra, despite all the warnings.
In principle, I didn't see anything wrong with the ruler of a star system wanting to understand her subjects directly without a translator, but Astra wanted more. Just a month later, considering her level of language knowledge sufficient, the Princess headed out on her own to the inter-galactic communications center on my flagship Joan the Fatty and demanded that the officers provide her a direct line to the Uyakh star system. At that time, I was in Sector Nine, busy with some major training exercises for my space fleet, so I didn't hear about my favorite's little adventure until the news came out...
Bionica and Phobos, struggling with Princess Astra's horrifying accent, translated my favorite's speech for me. To be honest, I buried my face in my hands when I heard it, not feeling capable of listening to the drivel Astra was issuing from the podium. My favorite was suggesting the planet Uyakh-IV be turned into a true heaven of comfort and also the very safest place in the whole Universe. She wanted to see parks and green everywhere. She suggested all the dirty factories be removed from the planet and that a great many museums of interplanetary art be erected in their place at once. And Astra also wanted the largest center of painting in the whole Empire built on her planet, where they could host artists from the whole galaxy and, with time, where her beautiful son would learn to paint...
And that was at the fact that the planet Uyakh-IV was one of the Swarm's main manufacturing centers, and the Princess's innovative ideas threatened to close thousands of factories and manufactories that made high-tech products necessary to the Swarm and the Unatari State as a whole. I was expecting dire consequences after Astra’s unpredictable speech and innovative ideas, but they never came. The fourteen billion inhabitants of the planet Uyakh-IV listened attentively to the speech of the new ruler of their star system, appreciated her care for them and noted it with a whirlwind of relationship improvements from all Swarm races. And that, essentially, was all that happened.
As I later heard from Admiral Kheraisss Vej, himself a native of Uyakh-IV, the White Queen, as Princess Astra was known in the Swarm, had gained a firm reputation as a kind but eccentric and foolish companion of their Ruler. Their job was to admire her, humor her idiosyncrasies, and protect her from her most foolhardy acts. Fulfilling her orders, though, was not even moderately necessary. So, the Iseyek were very skeptical of Princess Astra's announcements, and all factories of the manufacturing center continued to work just as before. As my sister Katerina put it somewhat rudely: "She set off their idiot sensors." The Iseyek were much more reasonable than we feared, and simply ignored her strange orders.
Yes, Astra was not too drawn to the role of a serious, respected politician. But at that, my favorite was madly adored by the denizens of Unatari, both insect and human. Everywhere she went, she was greeted with ovations and flowers. And that stood in sharp contrast to my legal spouse Miya the Red Queen in Swarm terminology, who was more respected and perhaps feared, than loved.
"Come on, Georg, that's enough! Do you think I like to hear comparisons like that?"
I just chuckled in reply to the Queen's annoyance. It was her own fault. She shouldn't have been reading my thoughts. She didn’t have to get this upset. But I didn't have particular complaints about my spouse the Queen was not in conflict with my favorite, because she didn't take Astra even remotely seriously as a rival. Astra then, after quickly figuring out that the Queen of Unatari, despite all her ghastly reputation, was not working to destroy her, accepted Miya more as a piece of furniture or yet another of the monarch's bodyguards. Insofar as I knew, the Queen and my favorite had a conversation three months ago, in which they had come to an understanding, laying down rules to help them coexist in peace. But I didn't really know the details.
"What do you even mean details?" my spouse cut into my thoughts yet again. "The Princess was utterly oblivious to my hints, so I told Astra directly that she had to go straight to the medical wing of the starship to senior doctor Nicosid Brandt and get the very best in contraceptives from him. I assured the Princess that she didn't have anything to fear from me, as long as she was taking the medicine prescribed by the physician. And if she decides to break that rule, then..."
Because Miya didn't finish that sentence, I made sure to clarify the possible consequences Astra might face.
"Georg, you know perfectly well that my arms and legs are bound by a promise I made to you and that I cannot do any harm to your favorite. But that didn't necessarily mean she had to know that. Astra is still abusing her impunity and has basically moved into your cabin. If it weren't for her son, with whom Astra spends lots of time in the playroom, the Princess would never leave your chambers."
I walked over to the Queen of Unatari, who was looking cantankerously at her reflection in the mirror and gave my wife a delicate hug. Then quietly, so Likanna and Astra wouldn't hear me, I said:
"Miya, you needn't get mad. Astra has lived that way since her first day in my retinue, so she considers such behavior normal and doesn't even suspect that it bothers you." 
My explanation was interrupted by an incoming call signal. The staff communications officer informed me:
"Your Majesty, incoming call from the Throne World. The Dark Mother would like to speak with your second Truth Seeker, Florianna ton Veyerde. Shall I put her through?"
It was a mere formality to ask such a question could one really refuse such a powerful Truth Seeker? So, of course, I gave my approval. After finishing her rejuvenation procedures, my spouse turned around. Alarm could be read on her now youthful and flawlessly beautiful face:
"I don't like this, Georg. The Dark Mother has obviously got something in mind, and I don't trust her. For the last few weeks, I have had a growing sense of danger, and it has now become unbearably keen. Someday soon, something irreversible will happen."
I had no basis to doubt the presentiments of such an experienced Truth Seeker. To be honest, I had observed a strange lull in the political life of the Empire in the last few days, and didn't quite feel right about it. Normally, something happened every day aristocrats would fight and make up, "eternal" alliances were formed and broken, reports came in from the fronts where the fleets of the Purple and Blue Houses were holding back the alien onslaught with varying levels of success. But now, it was like the calm before the storm.
I turned to the table, which my servants had just finished setting under the watchful eye of my butler Bryle. I had lost all my appetite for breakfast, though. I just spoke to no one in particular, knowing that my order would be heard and handed off where it needed to go:
"In four days, we've planned to carry out a conference of the Unatari fleet commanders on the production timelines for the new ships. Explain to all the participants that the timeline has been changed, and I expect them in forty minutes on Joan the Fatty. Miya, you'll be coming with me as it happens, there will be some work for you."
I was in a small circular room on my flagship, built to hold secret negotiations and conferences. It was totally blocked off from the outside world. No recording devices would work here, and all implants would be deactivated. My android secretary Bionica turned off instantly in this room as well, so the translator in this conversation, which would involve humans and Iseyek, was the head of my security team, the chameleon Popori de Cacha. I was normally accompanied by Flora, who checked the sincerity and loyalty of all those present but, today, my Truth Seeker was Miya. The Queen of Unatari was present at such a conference of military leaders for the first time and was looking with curiosity at a huge touch-screen in the middle of the room, over which there hovered a huge glowing hologram of the Imperial Star Systems with all Perimeter Sectors. The great number of variously colored markers were showing the position of all known fleets, including those of the Empire, Great Houses, allied kingdoms, and even aliens.
"Here, you can find the most up to date information on the position of all combat starships we've infiltrated. Even the Imperial Joint Chiefs don't have such accurate data," I said, unable to avoid bragging to my wife.
Miya didn't ask any questions, clearly reading all the information about my secret sources directly from my head. This tactical map was the true pride of the Unatari Fleet. It was kept up to date by tens of thousands of modest androids, who worked on military ships of the Empire and Great Houses as unnoticed housekeepers, haulers, mechanics, or even pleasure bots for the crews of the combat starships.
The number of android agents sympathetic to the Unatari cause had grown significantly. Bionica had long been swamped with all the encrypted data we were getting from all our agents. For that reason, two months ago, a special department of twenty robots was formed in my headquarters to receive the encrypted messages on service channels, check them for reliability, then place the data on the tactical map. As a rule, any messages about fleet movements were reaffirmed by dozens of independent sources, so any false information arriving to the headquarters would be immediately filtered out. But for now, as far as I knew, there hadn't yet been a single instance of unreliable information being sent, which gave me hope that no one in the Empire had yet figured out that I had the secret network of android spies.
An alternative source of information was the Arites the very same diplomatic servants "killed" on the Throne World, as well as a hundred other shapeshifting secret agents flying around the Empire and embedding themselves in headquarters, fleets and communication centers. It was still a mystery to me how the Arites could recognize one another and converse amongst themselves, as they were very reluctant to discuss this topic. But the fact remained the most valuable information about the Empire's secret docks, where giant supercarrier-class starships were being built, had been received from the Arite-Iseyek.
The Unatari State had plenty of normal spies, as well. My authority in military circles was already high but, after the first successful counterattack against the aliens in history, the defeat of the terrifying fleet of the Alien Queen and the liberation of nearly thirty star systems, the Imperial Military faction’s opinion of Crown Prince Georg had jumped to nearly +60. As far as I knew, that was the highest such number among all fleet leaders and aristocrats in the Galaxy. I could make use of that, but didn’t think it prudent to do so for simple data gathering. Florianna and Miya were quite good and exposing spies in my ranks, so it made sense to assume that the other sides' Truth Seekers would be capable of the same.
The doors opened, and the members of my secret council entered the room one after the other. They were veterans of a great many battles, and experts in their fields, whose great ability and loyalty I didn’t doubt in the slightest: Sector Nine Fleet Commander, Admiral Stefan Antri-Mesfelle; Sector Eight Fleet Commander, Space Major Nicole ton Savoia; First Unatari Fleet Commander, Admiral Mike ton Akad; Second Unatari Fleet Commander, Admiral Kiro Sabuto; Virho Heavy Fleet Commander, the Alpha Iseyek Admiral Masss Azhzh; Ayho Strike Fleet Commander, the Alpha Iseyek Admiral Kheraisss Vej; Swarm Landing Operations Commander, Marshal Savasss Jach; and my second cousin Duchess Katerina ton Unatari, my political advisor.
I also had one new member, my Beta Iseyek First Advisor, Apasss Ugu. He crawled into the room last on his many little legs. He had previously been an advisor to Queen Nai Igir. After introducing myself to him, I spent a long time unable to believe my luck the unique insect had a phenomenal intellect and memory, and knew absolutely everything about all Swarm systems. Apasss Ugu could instantly provide information on ships under construction at all my docks, how long they would take to finish, material reserves, and the necessary number of transports to sustain every garrison. Such valuable staff had to be taken care of even on the massive scales of the Swarm, such genius was exceedingly rare. So, in one of my very first orders as ruler of the Iseyek, I awarded my First Advisor a blue stripe on his abdomen, which indicated absolute untouchability.
And so, all the participants in today's private conference had arrived. I nodded at Popori de Cacha, and the head of my guard ordered a subordinate to close the door and activate the electronics suppression system. I knew when the electromagnetic cocoon that protected the room turned on, because my electronic implants turned off. The only electronic device that did work in the room was a huge tactical screen, which had been designed with electric shielding for this very purpose.
"So then, let's begin," I said, walking over to the glowing hologram in the middle of the room. "I don't think my wife Miya needs any introduction. Because the topic of today's conference is extremely serious, the Queen of Unatari herself will be serving as Truth Seeker. Miya will make sure you all remain honest all the time. She will also be blocking all mind reading until the end of the meeting."
The council members started making a din they didn't all like the idea of blocking mind reading. But no firm objections followed, so I continued:
"I remind you of one more rule here, we speak as frankly as possible, not afraid to hurt the others with our remarks or suggestions. The restrictions of external laws or morals do not apply to those in this room. We consider all possibilities, regardless of the fact that some of them may not be met with approval in the outside world. So then, I want to give the first word to the Queen of Unatari, so she can share her thoughts and suspicions."
Despite the spontaneity of the speech, Miya held herself excellently. I suspect that my spouse had been made to give speeches to the public a number of times in her long life. I already knew she’d attended special rhetoric courses, and that experience was a major help. Miya didn't speak very loud, but each of her words imprinted in my brain as the infallible truth, like a dogma, to which doubts did not apply.
The Queen of Unatari told us she sensed a growing threat with her Truth Seeker abilities, and had even determined its source: The Antagonists were ready to invade. The Empire knew about our age-old enemy’s plans, so a collision of the two most powerful forces was unavoidable. And it was not a question of the far or even middle-term future, but the very nearest days or even hours. No matter who got the upper hand in the squabble, the victor's plans did not make room for an independent Unatari State. The Queen finished her speech with the following words:
"I don't see us in the future. None of those present. That means that, if no actions are taken and things are left to go on autopilot, everyone in this room is doomed, even me. We have a year and a half at most."
To be honest, the Truth Seeker's words left me with a ghastly feeling. That feeling of alarm was shared between all participants. I directly felt the tightening grip of the future she described. When the Queen finished her speech, silence took over the room. The first to come to his senses was Admiral Masss Azhzh:
"I don't have the slightest doubt in the abilities of the Red Queen, but I really cannot understand how we have so little time left. Unatari has a powerful space fleet and would be able to withstand the attack of any enemy. And if our opponent is too strong, we can always turn off the warp beacons."
"Turning off the warp beacons will only prolong our agony, but it will not change the result," Miya parried instantly.
My cousin Duchess Katerina came forward. She greeted those gathered, and started speaking, glancing at the tactical map:
"The risk of a Gold House invasion is clear, although I don't see any signs of the Imperial Fleets being redeployed to the Core peripheries. I am surprised by something else, though. If you break it down, the brewing war between the Empire and the Antagonists is a struggle for the throne between Emperor August and his sister Eleonora. So, I suggest we all think about the following question: why have the Antagonists not yet reached out to the ruler of Unatari? Because, if you look at the question from a purely technical perspective, Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle is the grandson of the ruler of the Antagonists, and the most logical thing for him would be to join his closest relative, not someone from a totally different branch of the genealogical tree. So then, why has the Gold House not offered us such an alliance?"
Kiro Sabuto sharply stood from place. The ethnically East Asian admiral, glancing severely at my cousin, started speaking in a none-too pleased tone: 
"Duchess, I hope very much that your suggestion that the Unatari State join forces with the Antagonists was just a hypothetical. As with the majority of Unatari Fleet officers, I have spent my whole life serving the Empire in faith and truth, and I remain true to it. It was one thing three months ago when Crown Prince Georg was vilely attacked in the Throne World. I and all my officers would have stood to the defense of our commander without hesitation then, even if that meant going against the whole Empire. But it is another thing entirely to fight against the Empire for money or political calculations. That would mean going against friends and brothers in arms, of whom we all have a great many in the other Imperial fleets. The Unatari military would be deeply perturbed by such a thing."
The admiral was supported by Sector Eight Fleet Commander, Space Major Nicole ton Savoia:
"Forgive me if this is too harsh, but he speaks the pure truth. I have been entrusted to lead the Perimeter Sector Eight Fleet, and we would never fight with the Antagonists against the Empire. I would consider such a turn treachery, as would all my officers. And as for Duchess Katerina ton Unatari’s question, I know the answer. It's just that none of the sides in the conflict wants to make any promises they are not planning to keep to Crown Prince Georg, as not to provoke a strong reaction. In my time with the Imperial Joint Chiefs, I managed to familiarize myself with the ruler of Unatari's personal record, and got a strong impression from one very accurate entry on psychological characteristics: 'Certain to reject any attempt to impinge on his interests. Simply goes off the chain if someone tries to appropriate property which the Crown Prince considers his. Also, has no understanding of concepts like equivalent or appropriate retaliation. The ruler of Unatari is the kind of person who would bite of somebody's entire arm for accidentally flicking him on the nose.'"
Miya thought it over and closed her eyes.
"Yes, that is true," the Truth Seeker agreed. "Power over a united Empire is not the sort of prize that can be shared or promised to a potential ally. So, I'm a bit confused about why such an offer has come in from Emperor August. I don't sense any trickery there, either the Emperor really is prepared to give up his throne, if Unatari can defeat the Antagonists."
"But August also has a son, Duke Julius royl August ton Akad, who is first in line to the Imperial Throne," Katerina noted reasonably. "And what is stopping August from stepping down not long before victory over the Antagonists, thus passing his throne to his successor, who has not promised a thing to the ruler of Unatari?"
Kiro Sabuto shook his head:
"That would make war between Unatari and the Empire inevitable. I have a hard time believing Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle would agree to forgive such trickery, and he has enough proof and influence to get a large portion of the Imperial Military to stand on his side. The Emperor's son would lose, and lose everything at that."
Everyone in the hall went silent. I found the moment appropriate to voice my thoughts:
"Let's take it as a given that sitting on the sidelines will be impossible and that, somehow, Unatari will be forced to act. But I really don't like the idea of sliding into a conflict between two of the most powerful armada's in the galaxy, not knowing all behind-the-scenes understandings and positions of the other players. For example, the Green House has a colossal fleet of almost fifteen thousand starships. The Greens are still formally part of the Empire. Will they simply stay aside in the big squabble, or go against the Antagonists no matter what? What has the Emperor promised them for such support? And how would the Green House Fleet behave if it found itself in the same star system as one of our fleets? Would they perhaps stab us in the back?"
"The Green House will never be an ally of Unatari, there are too many old grievances," Duchess Katerina said. "The Lavaelle family will never forgive the ruler of Unatari for the killing of two of their Crown Princes and the shameful capitulation of their First Strike Fleet. They would certainly try to destroy our ships."
Unfortunately, I was in complete agreement with my cousin's appraisal. Since my very first days in Perimeter Defense, my relationship with the Lavaelle family had only grown worse, having now reached the level of irreconcilable hatred. Although the Unatari State and the Green House were both part of the Empire, I certainly did not consider us allies.
And my relationship with the Purple House had grown significantly worse after swallowing Sector Seven as well. My twin sister Violetta royl Inoky ton Mesfelle-Damir was angry at me, and she had been aiming Purple House policies toward severing diplomatic relations with the Unatari State. For some reason, the head of the Purple House, Duke Takuro royl Andor had not taken any actions to check Crown Princess Violetta, which meant he had agreed to sacrifice our good relationship for some end I didn't understand.
The Blue House... Here, it was very complicated and confusing. Perimeter Sectors Fourteen and Fifteen were totally under alien control. Sector Sixteen was cut off from the rest of Blue House territory, and that was where separatism had grown the strongest de facto, the Sector Sixteen systems were no longer under central government control. In sectors Nine, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, the young Duchess Ovella royl Stok ton Miro was waging a heavy war of attrition on two fronts one against the invading alien armadas and another against the massive opposition, which had whipped itself up quickly after the Truth Seeker Krista had left to the Throne World. Duchess Ovella was supported in the war against the aliens by the Imperial Fleet, but the Emperor's ships would not be intervening in the internal political struggles of the Blue House on principle.
The political map of the Blue House was like a quilt. It was now colored with dozens of mismatching groups, both those who had openly declared their opposition to the Blue House, and those who remained guardedly loyal with certain conditions. Mercenaries, anarchists, armed rebels, political marginals... Most planets even had local conflicts and civil wars of some kind. Both large and small cities changed hands regularly.
Forces loyal to Duchess Ovella now controlled less than thirty percent of Blue House space. However, due to her greater organization and better equipment, alongside the disunity of her opponents, they not only successfully deflected the attacks, but were even gradually squeezing their opponents out. At the last such military council, we had discussed the Blue House’s internal conflict in detail, and my advisors had predicted that Duchess Ovella would emerge victorious in three or four years, as long as the aliens didn't destroy the Blue House first. And now, that looked to be the single most likely scenario, if the Empire removed its flotilla from the Blue House to fight against the Antagonists.
I increased the scale of the map and selected Blue House space.
"The only big political player who really does not want a faceoff between the Empire and the Antagonists they need to solve their own problems. And what's more, they're the most vulnerable if the Empire removes its fleet, the Blue House will quickly be destroyed by the alien incursion. I think the time has come to have a conversation with the blues and offer them our help. Not for free, of course protection comes at a steep cost in these troublesome times."
"Is Your Majesty planning to go to war only against the aliens, or also to intervene in the civil war?" Marshal Savasss Jach asked.
All the participants froze, awaiting my decision. And I didn't hurry to answer, looking over the star map and thinking in agitation. It's easy to say: "Only the aliens." As if that was so easy that it wouldn't even require discussion. And by the way, remnants of the alien Queen’s armada we had beaten so handily had been spotted in Sector Fifteen, which confirmed the theory that all three types of aliens were working together. The arrival of the five Mammoths and twenty Behemoths in addition to the alien starships already there had decisively changed the balance of forces and caused a real panic in the defenders. Due to the disorganization that took hold, they started to retreat, which caused Sector Fifteen to be lost in a matter of weeks. According to reconnaissance data, the captured human battleship Orange Majesty was also noted in Sector Fifteen.
Everyone was silent, waiting for my answer, but I was still silent. Finally, I came to a decision:
"It is not possible to effectively make war when chaos and anarchy are overtaking your supply lines. So before fighting the aliens, we will put an end to the civil war in the Blue House. I suggest we demand all of Sector Ten from the ruler of the Blue House for our peacekeeping mission. It seems to me that, after the initial shock of that impudence passes, we will find understanding from Duchess Ovella and will manage to come to an agreement. The Blue House will get its long-desired peace and protection from the aliens, and we can reinforce our position. And if it proves impossible to negotiate with the Duchess... Well, I see more than twenty other participants in the Blue House civil war. I'm sure we can find some who will agree to our terms."
"The Blue House is part of the Empire," Katerina ton Unatari reminded me. "If we are planning to go against the legal authorities, we will need a very significant pretext to justify our actions so the Unatari State won't be declared the aggressor."
"Cousin, that's just a hypothetical at this point. For now, tell the Blue House about our desire to send them a diplomatic mission to negotiate on military cooperation. But if Duchess Ovella is not compliant, we really will have an iron-clad casus belli (Latin, cause for war), so no one in the galaxy will doubt our right to send ships into Blue House space. One option would be starting a media campaign in favor of putting Crown Princess Natalie royl Cruz ton Unatari on her rightful throne. Our Crown Princess still has quite a few allies in the Blue House, so we would be working on the side of a legal claimant."
Duchess Katerina ton Unatari cringed, dismayed:
"Young Natalie has signed an official renunciation of her claim to the Blue House Throne. She even received a significant payoff from Duchess Ovella in return. Although... we could try to declare that the Crown Princess only agreed because her life was in danger. It's a fairly weak position, but I'm just looking through our potential options."
"Another point of reinforcement was hinted to me in the Throne World by the Emperor and Dark Mother. They were afraid that the Swarm might eventually manage to grow so powerful that it would hold sway over two dozen nonhuman races. I suggest we probe over that option. Invite diplomats in fifteen days from all nonhuman vassal races of the Empire to a large reception in the Dekeye capital system."
First Advisor Apasss Ugu shuddered:
"Are you sure Dekeye? Not Unatari? It's just that, if I may be so bold, Your Majesty has a tough time with the elevated gravitation on the capital planet." 
"That is true, but my health now is much better than it was during the reception with Queen Nai Igir. I'm certain that I can bare an hour-long meeting with the ambassadors quite easily. But if I am overestimating my physical abilities, we could hold the meeting on my flagship Joan the Fatty, which is still in the Dekeye system. In any case, I want to invite ambassadors to Dekeye, because that is the very system the whole galaxy associates with the center of the Swarm. And we'll have to, as if by coincidence, demonstrate all five of our carriers and our no less than fifty battleships. Just show them our combat starships. Let them make their own conclusions about our military might."
Admiral Stefan Antri-Mesfelle stood from his place and suggested with a smile:
"If the mission is to impress people, maybe we should wait another month. Then, we'll be able to show the ambassadors a working Mammoth. I'm sure the effect caused by such a giant would be far greater than that of all five carriers."
I thought it over and was forced to refuse the tempting suggestion.
"No, the time has not yet come to reveal the Mammoth, or the Queen, which is also still under repair. Their very existence is still a secret to most participants in the game of politics. Let's keep our trump cards breasted until the best possible moment."
We spent around another hour discussing the affairs of the fleets entrusted to the admirals. They were suggesting methods of getting around the embargo on heavy cannon installations and warp drives. We also decided what to do with the giant ships in Dekeye, which had been built to evacuate the Iseyek eggs, given that they were no longer necessary. Finally, I declared the council over.
As soon as the electromagnetic defenses were shut off, I got a message from the communications officer: 
"Your Majesty, the Dark Mother has been waiting to talk with you for some time. She's been on the line for forty minutes already, and refuses to let the conversation wait."
I glanced at Miya, but my spouse just shrugged her shoulders in surprise. Then, suddenly, she said with a strange uncertainty:
"Georg, I don't know what this is, but the Dark Mother has grown noticeably weaker in the last few hours... For the first time in my life, I am stronger than her. Much stronger. Go talk to the old bat. There's certainly no danger, I can sense that. What's more, I could now protect you. Florianna could probably also manage." 
Florianna's voice rang out in my head to explain what was going on:
"During my talk, the Dark Mother just asked a few questions about how I was doing, after which she poured a whole ocean of energy into me, healing my damaged vocal cords and nerve endings. She tried very hard and very nearly lost consciousness from nausea."
I ordered to immediately be put through to the Throne World and for a picture to be brought up on the nearest monitor. The screen lit up. The Dark Mother, her eyes closed, was lying on a hospital bed with an oxygen mask on her face. All around her, there were doctors fussing about. I overheard one of them say her blood pressure was critically low. So, I was very surprised when the old lady said something, muffled by the mask:
"Everyone out of the room! Now!"
A few seconds later, the Dark Mother was alone. Without opening an eye, the Truth Seeker removed her oxygen mask and spoke in a creaky, barely audible voice:
"Georg, I am dying... but I still have a few more things I must do in this life. First of all, I must give you one piece of advice: it doesn't matter how strong your government becomes, if it falls without a battle because its leader is dead. Among the people you trust, too many are loyal to the Empire and August. Keep that in mind always because, all the Emperor has to do is get rid of one person, and your whole state, together with all your territories and space fleets would be left to whoever your oldest daughter marries... My second piece of advice: do not align yourself with the Empire, or the Antagonists, because both would be equivalent to death for you. Believe me, I've seen the future and know what I'm talking about. Remain an independent third party, concerned with saving the whole human race while all this untimely squabble for the united throne is underway. You are the last defender of humanity, and there is nothing more important than saving our species. Don’t let anything stand in your way."
The old lady, after giving such a long monologue, started coughing and put her oxygen mask back on. While she was breathing greedily, like a fish tossed on shore, I asked a question that had been bothering me:
"When and how will the Antagonists attack the Empire?"
The Dark Mother smiled through her weakness and said barely audibly:
"Oh Georg, you're still Ruslan inside... Everything has to be explained to you... You don't know a single important detail from the Crown Prince's childhood, which is why you have such a poor grasp of this situation. Just know this: your mother never loved you. Think that over, and everything will become clear. If you cannot figure it out on your own, ask your advisor Katerina. She's a smart cookie and will be able to clear it up for you. Now, I've said everything I wanted. Put me through with the Truth Seeker of your daughter Likanna, little Milena. I want to transfer the rest of my power into her, because your daughter will never survive this harsh world without strong protection. Farewell, Ruslan!"

The book is up for preorder - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074MVPFGJ
release - October 11, 2017

1 comment :

  1. I love Perimeter Defense, I already preordered book 4 and can't wait to finally read it.