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!"

Mother's Side


I was feeling dumb as an ox, which hurt me considerably... I spent a whole hour thinking over the Dark Mother's last words and studying a big guide on the genealogy of the highest families of the Empire, but never managed to find an answer. Sure, I already knew that my "mother," Crown Princess Elisa royl Clement ton Mesfelle-Lavaelle was the daughter of the ruler of the Antagonists. That relationship was always the reason for the heightened attention paid to her by all the Imperial secret services. Every one of her conversations were listened to and scrupulously studied, but not a single conversation had been deemed legally actionable in the last century and a half, even those with her own mother.
Now, Crown Princess Elisa was part of the Green House, which was much stronger than all the other Great Houses and allied Kingdoms, both militarily and economically. My mother, at present, was fifth in line to the Green House throne but, in reality, she had no chance of becoming Duchess, because the four Lavaelle Crown Princes ahead of her were a whole hundred years younger. Also, the head of the Green House would never allow the rights of his many relatives to be impinged on by allowing Crown Princess Elisa to inherit the throne before his own children and grandchildren.
In the events of three months ago, the head of the Green House, Duke Amelius royl Mast ton Lavaelle had seemed a completely sane person to me, who was perfectly satisfied with the role of "first boy in the village." He could pinch and tease the Emperor with glee, reducing his leader’s standing while demonstrating his own political independence. But the Duke had too much to gain from remaining loyal to the Empire, including the powerful political support of the Throne World and significant tax benefits, so I couldn’t see him wanting to start a suicidal game against Emperor August.

Standing change
Purple House (Empire) opinion of the Unatari State has worsened
Present Purple House (Empire) faction opinion of the Unatari State: -30 (hate)

Standing change
Green House (Empire) opinion of the Unatari State has worsened
Present Green House (Empire) faction opinion of the Unatari State: -56 (irreconcilable hate)

The messages jumped in unexpectedly, interrupting my prolonged thinking. What could be said? It was confirmation of the course both Great Houses were taking toward confrontation with my state. In recent time, such messages had been jumping in with fair stability, at least a few times every week, and I had already grown accustomed to them. It wasn't nice, of course, but I still didn't believe it was possible for the Purple House to sink to declaring war. The Unatari Space Fleet was twice as strong as that of the purples, which was to say nothing about my captains being much more experienced. So, the war would be sure to end in a quick defeat for the Purple House. But then the next message put me seriously on guard:

The Green House and the Purple House have concluded a military alliance

Yikes, none of that was good... The Green House thirsted for revenge three months ago, they had taken a very serious bump on the nose, losing their First Strike Fleet without a single shot fired. Now, the captured starships of their First Strike Fleet had joined my fleets, while twenty thousand officers and crew members from those ships had sworn loyalty to the Unatari State and were now my subjects. Naturally, my Truth Seekers had thoroughly checked all the newcomers and exposed all the potential traitors. It looked like the greens hadn't fully grasped that lesson, as they were now chomping at the bit for a confrontation...

The Throne World has lost sovereignty over the Anfey system

The Green House has gained sovereignty over the Anfey system

The Throne World has lost sovereignty over the Forepost-20 system

The Green House has gained sovereignty over the Forepost-20 system

The Throne World has lost sovereignty over the Natti system

The Purple House has gained sovereignty over the Natti system

It was good that I was sitting I'm not sure I would have managed to stay on my feet if I'd gotten that portion of unbelievable information otherwise. The Throne World was handing out Core systems??? What exactly was going on? I called up my foreign policy advisor and asked that question.
"Georg, aren’t you watching the news?" Katerina was extremely surprised and even annoyed at my poor grasp of current events. "A half hour ago, the Throne World officially announced the death of the Dark Mother after a severe and prolonged illness. A three-day mourning period has been declared for the whole Empire. Celebrations are forbidden for the duration. I am now busy composing a condolence message on behalf of the Unatari State no matter how you look at it, the Dark Mother was a distinguished figure and spent two hundred years guiding the politics of all humanity."
The news of the Dark Mother's death really knocked me off track after all, I had been conversing with the old lady just two hours ago! Sure, the Truth Seeker looked unwell, and had even spoken about her imminent death, but I still didn't suspect she had so little time left. The shocking news almost made me forget what I wanted to talk to my cousin about.
"To be honest, I’ve been focused on the mourning events, so I still haven't figured out why those systems changed hands," Katerina admitted. "But yesterday, there was a rumor that Emperor August was planning direct negotiations with the heads of the Great Houses today, and the topic was supposed to be optimization of logistics between the regions and decentralization."
"But what would make the Emperor want that?" I asked in surprise.
Katerina, lowering her voice to a whisper, as if someone really might overhear us, said:
"No one is talking about it openly, but there is a suggestion that August is hoping to make peace with the Great Houses to guarantee their loyalty ahead of the upcoming Antagonist invasion. And at the same time, he hopes it will stop the harsh propaganda that has been attacking him for the last three months. After all, what sins hasn't the Emperor been accused of by the media recently! Military misfortunes and the loss of Sector Fifteen, inveterate bureaucracy in the Throne World and ineffective rulership of star systems, corruption in the secretariat... The row with the Dark Mother also made him look guilty, as well as the attack on our embassy and lowering of standing of humanity among the extraterrestrial races. Clearly, August agreed to give up a few peripheral star systems in the Core to the Great Houses in order to placate the Dukes."
"Unatari couldn't happen to shake out a couple Core star systems under the pretext of decentralization and logistical simplification, could it?" I chuckled, then got more serious and asked my cousin what she thought about my mother. But Katerina was in no mood to talk:
"Georg, that's a very big topic. I can't answer in two words, and I really am extremely busy right now. How about, first, I finish publishing our condolences, tackle some more urgent business, then I come talk with you? I need around an hour of time and, after that, I will be totally at your disposal."
"Alright. As it happens, I have a planned medical check in my schedule right now anyway, then a half hour in the gym and sauna. So, we can talk after all that."
***
All tangled in wires and data transmitters, I was pedaling a stationary bicycle like a madman. My physician Nicosid Brandt was looking at data on a monitor and noting something to himself on a small tablet, periodically giving satisfied commentary:
"Blood pressure normal... The heart is working just great... Hemoglobin levels normal... Veins clear... Cholesterol normal... Muscles in good shape... Brain activity normal. Alright, that's enough for now. Crown Prince, stop and get on the scale. Height: six feet, weight: two hundred twenty-seven pounds... Your Majesty, I would set this as your target weight and just stay there. It really is optimal for your skeleton and muscle mass. Losing that couple extra pounds would take a lot more fuss."
 I turned to a big mirror on the wall and spun around, looking at my figure. What I saw really did make me happy the folds of excess fat on my chest and thighs were long gone. My stomach had sucked in and my arm and leg muscles were clearly visible. I wasn't Mr. Olympia, of course but, for a fifty-year old man, I would say I looked very, very good. But the biggest thing was that I felt wonderful and could easily handle the packed schedule of the monarch of a space government. I suppose I was prepared to agree with the physician that I didn't see such a serious necessity to continue the intensive weight loss.
"Now, about the crystals..." Nicosid Brandt went silent, looking at some graphs I couldn't make head or tail of. "The tests are looking good. Your physical dependence is already neutralized, and the psychological is also going down. I suppose it’s time to admit that I was overly pessimistic about the possibility of complete recovery. Oh, if only I didn't have to maintain doctor-patient confidentiality, I would publish a great treatise on how to cure a person of crystal dependence!"
"Well, go ahead and publish it. I won't mind," I allowed, but the old doctor got embarrassed for some reason and tried to stifle the topic:
"I cannot, Crown Prince, too much of your personal medical information would have to be made public. I’ll just have to get by without a scientific study. But now, I need to change out the microcapsules in your shoulder."
"What for?" I waved off the procedure as, to my eye, utterly unnecessary. "Just one month ago, you inserted new capsules, and said they'd last half a year!"
The old doctor's eyes started darting about nervously, while his voice started quavering suspiciously:
"Y-y-your Maj-jesty, I wa-as m-m-mistaken with the dose. I, uh, ass-ssumed th-the regeneration would go much worse."
Nicosid Brandt was a great doctor, but you'd never make him a decent actor. Saying that I simply got on guard after he tried to reassure me would be putting it lightly. There wasn't even a trace remaining of my calm and good-hearted mood. The hair all over my body was standing on end in near panic.
"Flora, Miya! I need you now!" I called mentally, and heard an answer just a second later from my wife:
"Flora is sleeping. I ordered her to take a crystal nap so we would stay on different phases, and one of us would constantly be with you... Woah! Don't let the doctor inject anything! Don't take any medicine! It's an attempt on your life!!! I'll be there in a second!"
That means my instinct didn't mislead me. I said clearly into emptiness:
"Seke-ti huma ('restrain this man' in the Ravaash language)."
A second later, the old doctor was lying spread-eagle on the metal floor of the medical room, immediately set upon by the trio of chameleons. Another second later, Nicosid Brandt's arms were pulled painfully back and had handcuffs clicked on. Meanwhile, Phobos and Rosss were standing over the dog-pile on the floor. The huge Alpha Iseyek had guns in their upper appendages, ready to shoot at any of the medic's assistants I pointed to.
I slowly bent down and picked up the injection gun the old doctor had dropped.
"Tell me, doctor, how many years have you been with me?" I asked him, looking at the harmless medical device, loaded with millimeter-diameter microcapsules.
Nicosid Brandt, pressed down by my bodyguards, rasped back with difficulty:
"Crown Prince, I was sent to you from the Throne World when you were just four months old..."
"I've known you my whole life, and trusted you completely... So, tell me, doctor, how much must one pay a person for them to forget fifty years of flawless service and wish death upon a man they've sworn to protect and provide medical treatment?"
The old man took a very long time to answer, just sitting in silence, before saying barely audibly:
"This has nothing to do with money... These capsules were sent to me from the Throne World medical center along with the latest shipment of medicine... People I've known for many years told me it was necessary for the good of the whole Empire... At one time, absolutely identical capsules were injected into you in a Throne World prison, but I removed them. Each capsule, along with the necessary dose of medicine, has an electric bug in it to track you and a micro ampule of poison that can be activated at any moment with a special command. I was told it had to be done to control your unpredictable nature. Someone in the Empire wants to make it impossible for Unatari to join our enemies..."
Miya entered the room decisively. The Queen of Unatari didn't ask any questions, just looked carefully at the tool lying on the table and held her gaze on Nicosid Brandt's assistants.
"His assistants didn't know anything about the assassination attempt. They're all afraid, but in general, don't feel guilty. They can be trusted."
"Let him go! Nicosid Brandt, I want you to call your old friend long distance right now, and tell him you couldn't carry out his plan. After that, you may go. I have no more need for your services, because I cannot trust you. Considering your half century of flawless service, I'll still write you a great recommendation, pay you a half-a-million-credit bonus and order you a ticket on the most comfortable express flight to the Throne World. You'll find a new employer there, if your age allows it, or you can collect an honorable pension and spend the rest of your life enjoying yourself."
I got dressed quickly and left the medical room, not wanting to be there while my former personal doctor talked with his co-conspirators. Miya remained with him. I didn't know a more reliable guarantee that all those guilty in the assassination attempt against me would get their comeuppance.
***
"My Prince, you look utterly crestfallen today..." said Bionica, looking gorgeous in nothing but a micro-G-string as she skillfully massaged my back and shoulders with her surprisingly strong fingers.
"Yeah, I've just had such an idiotic day. It was just packed! The news channels don't even know exactly where to begin their broadcasts. But I feel that my government and I have been shuffled to the edge of the story and written off... Look, Emperor August didn't even invite me to a conference of the heads of the Great Houses, even though the Unatari State is larger than the Purple House economically, militarily and physically."
I was forced to end my sniveling and outpouring of problems, because Bionica asked me to turn onto my back and started in on my stomach muscles. That part of my body could, thankfully, no longer be called a gut, but it was still quite far from being a six-pack. I clenched my teeth in pain it felt like the android's fingers were going nearly all the way to my spine.
"But only the Dukes of the Great Houses were at the conference. If the Emperor had invited any of the monarchs, even the most powerful, all the others would get offended. Otherwise, he’d have to have invited all the other kings, right down to the least important..."
"Maybe you're right, Bionica, but I'm still offended. And then there was the death of the Dark Mother and her last words, which just won't get out of my head... What connection could Crown Princess Elisa royl Clement ton Mesfelle-Lavaelle have to today's events? But the main upset, of course, was the assassination attempt by my personal doctor. Who in the galaxy can I trust if even those I've known my whole life are betraying me now?!"
"Crown Prince, you can always trust me," the pretty android girl chuckled and, playfully looking me right in the eyes, reached her fingers a bit below the laces of my swimsuit.
But I stopped Bionica, because I was very far from being in the right mood, and this also wasn't a good place. And it was good I did just a few minutes later, without knocking, Katerina ton Unatari came into the massage room, which was next to the pool, in her swimsuit. With a judgmental look at the barely-dressed Bionica, my cousin just walked right up to us and sat on the nearest seat:
"I'm already done with everything, Georg, so I decided to come talk with you now. The Blue House has accepted our offer of negotiations, and set a time and conditions: no more than three starships with our diplomatic mission, one heavy cruiser and two of a lower class."
I stopped Bionica kneading my leg muscles, and sat up on the bench:
"Three ships? According to protocol, up to seven ships are allowed to be part of a diplomatic delegation, right?"
"Yes, that is true," my advisor confirmed. "It looks like the 'blues' are worried that seven starships under the command of such a renowned fleet leader could capture the whole Blue House. If we agree to such conditions, we'll have to fly out in two hours to make it there."
"Alright, these negotiations are important for us, so we won't try to find fault with the conditions. Three it is. Our main ship will be the heavy assault cruiser Emperor August, the second will be one of the light cruisers like a Curse or Thrush, and third will be the Mechanoid."
"The Mechanoid?" my cousin asked in surprise.
"That's right. That way, we can mark out a path to the Blue House capital just in case it might come in handy in the future, if negotiations break down, and the blues decide to turn off their warp beacons."
I stood up from the massage table and walked over to the edge of the pool, preparing to jump into the water. But Katerina stopped me:
"Georg, maybe we should have One-Eyed Python as our second ship. My husband has long been growing bored with the lack of action. He's down in the dumps, and that's been getting on my nerves. Yesterday, Corwin got drunk and started a scandal again just because there was nothing better to do, accusing me of turning him from a combat captain into a 'marriage general' the Duke of a star system, who doesn't understand a thing in politics and just accompanies his wife everywhere."
"Alright. Our second ship for the flight to the Blue House will be the light cruiser One-Eyed Python. Beyond that, my retinue and I will fly on that very ship but, for safety's sake, we can place some Arites on Emperor August in disguise to look like us. Tell Corwin ton Unatari to prepare the cruiser. Will you come with me?"
"To be honest, cousin, I see no need for that. You can manage just fine without me. I already have a bunch of things to do here in Unatari, and Corwin and I could stand to take a break from each other."
I jumped into the cool dark blue water and swam to the other side of the pool without coming up once. When I did raise my head, I saw Miya standing no more than three feet from me in a long bright crimson dress, and even shuddered in surprise.
"Don't worry Georg, I'd have had enough tact not to come in if you decided to fool around with your synthetic masseuse. But I really have come here on business."
"Alright, go to Katerina and Bionica. I'm gonna swim another few minutes."
When I got up on the edge of the pool, Miya was lying with her face down on the massage table, wearing even less clothing than Bionica, who was zealously kneading her shoulders.
"This is so nice!" the Truth Seeker said good-heartedly, lying with her eyes closed. "I really shouldn't have neglected these traditional methods of restoring my health! To be honest, I was always afraid to let anyone get close to my body too many wish death on me and would joyfully tear off my head at the first chance. But it's much easier with androids... Georg, you wouldn't be opposed if I spent an hour a few times a week using your personal translator as a chiropractor?"
I had nothing against that, and Bionica didn't object either.
"Very well. But I actually did come on business," Miya continued, still not opening her eyes. "I really don't like the upcoming negotiations with the Blue House, or the terms they’ve laid out. It's not that I saw an unambiguous danger for the delegation, but the future is somehow worrying. I beg you not to take Duchess Katerina or Princess Astra with you it is precisely their presence, whether together or apart, that could set off a chain reaction of scandalous and even tragic events."
"This must be connected with my husband!" Katerina cut into the conversation. "The Duke has been flirting openly with girls lately. Two times I've literally had to kick made-up trollops out of Corwin's bedroom. I'm afraid that the presence of Astra on board One-Eyed Python could lead to potential conflicts."
Remembering Captain Corwin ton Ugar’s unhealthy interest of in my favorite Astra, I was forced to agree that those fears could have a basis.
"Alright, to keep everything copasetic, neither Astra nor Katerina can come. Anything else, Miya?"
"Yes. As everyone here is trustworthy, and this confidential information cannot get out of your innermost circle, I want to admit that I am very bad at checking peoples' loyalty, and even more at distinguishing the shaky boundary between loyalty to the Unatari State and loyalty to the Empire as a whole. For example, I unambiguously checked Nicosid Brandt, and didn't see anything dangerous in him, yet George just finished rubbing my nose in the fact he was really quite unreliable. I'm afraid that I'd never be able to check all Unatari's ten thousand officers, or million soldiers even in a hundred years. I cannot even confidently guarantee that no traitors have wormed in among the six hundred members of the Unatari diplomatic delegation. Perhaps, Florianna can do better than me, but she'll be sleeping at least another few days."
"What do you mean, Miya?" I asked in surprise. "After all, you're stronger than Flora!"
"Yes, that is true, Georg. Now, I am the second strongest Truth Seeker in the whole Empire after Krista, and Florianna is approximately eighteenth. But every Truth Seeker is specialized in something. The Dark Mother had the best understanding of mental defense. Marian Sabati is tricky and capable of hiding her actions, and can also heal people. Flora, from what I know, is the only one who can detect enemy ships. Also, in reading thoughts, she's got at least a hundred points on me. I meanwhile, am best of all at killing..."
My wife sharply opened her eyes, and I saw that her pupils were sparking with a dangerous orange light. Bionica cut into the conversation:
"But if even the very strongest Truth Seeker cannot manage this task alone, maybe we should try to get help from others? There are billions of people living in Perimeter Sectors Eight and Nine. Among them there are quite a few Truth Seekers their powers may be weak and unstable, but they have at least some mental abilities. Flora is an illustrative example she was weak, and was not taken seriously until gaining power. Now, she is respected in the Unatari Fleet to the point of near worship. We could gather others, train them, and assign them missions. Let them work! Or is there something I don't understand, and that's impossible?"
Miya closed her eyes again and laid down in silence for nearly a minute before answering:
"Well, it might work..."
My cousin immediately lit up, becoming a font of ideas:
"An official invitation must be broadcast on all state news channels to everyone who feels that they have psionic abilities. We'll have to pay for them to get to the Unatari star system. Yes, most will be impostors or simply confused, but it won't exactly be hard to pick them out. And the others, who really have even the most minimal Truth Seeker abilities, I suggest we give an official stipend or salary. We'll even have to create an official uniform..."
"And we can start a perfect analogue of the Truth Seeker school that was once led by Krista in the Throne World," Miya said, finishing the thought. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I personally would be ghastly displeased due to the ghoulish discipline and draconian measures. Alright, Duchess, send the invitation. I'll handle the teaching."

The Throne World has lost sovereignty over the Lyghia system

The Green House has gained sovereignty over the Lyghia system

Katerina and I shuddered at the exact same time and exchanged glances. Miya, clearly having read the information from my head, got up on her elbows and said distractedly:
"Very bad news for the Empire. If this keeps going, there won't be any need for an Antagonist war the Imperial Core will simply be split up into parts, and they'll just come to an agreement with the Great Houses."
"It's even worse than that..." my cousin said thoughtfully, then turned to me: "Georg, you asked about my opinion of your mother. Well, although I don't have any undisputable facts, just tangential evidence, I wouldn't even doubt for a second that Crown Princess Elisa royl Clement ton Lavaelle has been working for the Gold House her whole life, and still does. Now, your mother is the very person determining the Green House's external politics. Your mother precisely will be advising Duke Amelius royl Mast ton Lavaelle on how the Green House, the strongest of all the Great Houses, should act."
I kept silent, because I didn't know anything about my mother's position in the Green House, and so I had nothing to judge the veracity of the information.
"That is true to the last word," Miya confirmed.
"And now, let's look at the bigger picture," Katerina continued. "Imagine a star map before your eyes. The Imperial Core has a hundred star systems. All around it are eighteen sectors, given to the Great Houses to control. So then, the leader of the Antagonists controls Perimeter Sectors Seventeen, Eighteen and One. Plus Sector Sixteen which is cut off from the Blue House, but does border on Gold territories. I have no doubt that the Antagonists already consider it theirs and have the situation firmly under control. Let's take this further. Elisa's daughter controls sectors Two, Three and Four. Her granddaughter, your twin sister Crown Princess Violetta determines the politics of the Purple House and controls sectors Five, Six and Seven. Meanwhile, her very own great-granddaughter, the Crown Princess Likanna will determine the Unatari State's policies, if something happens to you, giving her control over Sectors Eight and Nine, plus the whole Swarm, as well as the thirty systems liberated from the aliens... open your eyes, Georg the Antagonist invasion is already in full swing! And the Throne World refuses to see it and is trying to buy the loyalty of the Great Houses with gifts of Core star systems, thus actually strengthening the Antagonists!"
***
"Lika, have you talked with grandma Elisa recently?" I asked my eldest daughter at breakfast, as if in passing.
"Dad, me and her talk all the time. At least once a week. So what?" Likanna got a bit on guard, as if I should be getting mad at her for speaking with a close relative.
"It's just that her birthday is the day after tomorrow, and I feel the need to congratulate her somehow. For some reason, she won't talk to me, but at least say happy birthday to grandma from me."
Lika immediately grew calm and even started smiling:
"Well, sure! By the way, grandma has been saying I should come visit her palace on Oveyete-VII for a long time. But she says you won't let me go to Sector Three, because Unatari and the Green House are enemies."
"It's not that we're enemies... As a matter of fact, I have no problem with them. It's more that the Lavaelle family is dreaming of a way to bury me as soon as possible either they're up to something in the Throne World, or they'll declare war, or they'll falsely accuse me of all kinds of sins again. I mean, what am I telling you for? You've probably seen the messages about the Green House spoiling our relations every week. And as for you visiting Sector Three... tell your grandma that I am not opposed to letting you visit her for a few weeks, but not today. Such a trip must first be planned I cannot just send you on a simple passenger liner!"
"Come on! I’ve ridden an ore ship before, and you didn't even get that mad," my daughter reminded me, but still agreed with me that a Crown Princess of the Empire would find it more fitting on a more comfortable and safe starship.
Miya set her fork aside and started thinking, even closing her eyes in agitation.
"Likanna will definitely not be under threat in the Green House," the Truth Seeker told me confidently a minute later, then added a bit quieter. "But that's no guarantee that Lika will be allowed to come back. The Green House needs her as a tool to put political pressure on Unatari."
I frowned and said to my eldest daughter:
"Lika, in the next conversation, you tell grandma this condition: I'll let you visit the Green House, but only after I get an official guarantee that they will let you come back two weeks later. I wouldn't want you to become a hostage, if a bad political situation arises, even if you're kept in a golden cage."
"Alright, I'll go ask her right now!" My hyperactive little girl lit up and hurried to climb off her seat at the dining table. Standing in the doorway, Lika stopped and asked: "Dad, do you think Crown Princess Natalie and Astra could come with me?"
I considered it seriously. Natalie royl Cruz could go wherever she pleased, as harming a little Imperial Crown Princess was something no one would dare do the reaction from all parts of society would just be too negative. But the rule of absolute untouchability did not apply to Astra. Everyone in the galaxy knew about my warm feelings for my favorite, so sending Astra into the lair of a potential opponent was an obviously risky and short-sighted step.
Fortunately, I didn't have to refuse my daughter Astra wanted to stay home all on her own, pointing to the colicky state of her little son as his first teeth were coming in. That solved all the problems right away. I gave my agreement, and Lika ran into her bunk, squealing joyfully.
Queen Miya turned to my favorite and said quietly:
"Astra, little Georg is howling in the playroom again. Ayna cannot manage him, and my Deya has started to bawl as well, following his example. Seeing how you've already eaten, could you quick go to the playroom and calm your boy."
As soon as the doors closed behind Astra, Miya said distinctly:
"Georg, it's better to say this out loud, as the question is really extremely important and sensitive. Did I understand your thoughts correctly?"
"Yes, Miya, you understood perfectly. Instead of the Crown Princesses, I will send Arites to the Green House in disguise. Popori de Cacha, after Crown Princess Likanna goes now to talk with her grandma, make sure our communications center cannot establish a solid connection with the Green House for my daughter for the next few days. And if Lika tries to call, have one of the Arites imitate her granny Crown Princess Elisa royl Clement and tell my daughter that her visit had to be delayed for some believable reason."
The head of my guard appeared several feet from me and clarified:
"Tuki-tuka-de-sa, how long should I prevent your daughter from communicating with the Green House?"
"Two weeks at least, three would be better. That should be enough time for the Arites to gather evidence of my mother having links with the Antagonists."
My cousin and advisor Katerina, until that point silent and thoughtful, shuddered abruptly and spoke with unhidden horror in her voice:
"Georg, when Lika finds out about this, she’s gonna be outraged! And that’s to say nothing about the Green House. We'd be spitting right in their faces! All the negative consequences are hard to read. Are you sure you’ve thought this through, cousin?"
"Cousin, whether we want it or not, there is already an undeclared war between the Empire and the Antagonists underway. My mother's side of the family is gaining strength in silence, getting more and more territory under their thumb, and soon will become unstoppable. So, our first-order mission is to lead all the conspirators into clear water, even if that means sidestepping the rules of common decency. Yes, our spies may not succeed, and the consequences of their unmasking then could be rather unpredictable. But in any case, this is an attempt to sharply change the course of political life in the Empire away from one that is not acceptable to us. And I'll deal with my daughter somehow."
I called up the internal interface before my eyes and looked at the time. We had to go! A shuttle from One-Eyed Python already should have been docking on my flagship. Accompanied by Miya, Bionica and Popori de Cacha, I walked into the small ship hangar.
"Admit it, Georg, did my wife tattle on me?" asked Duke Corwin ton Unatari, who’d come to meet me near the shuttle. He then lowered the gangway and led me to his pilot’s seat. "Did she say I had started drinking uncontrollably, wasting family money in the casino, and snuggling young girls on the sly...?"
"She didn't not say those things," I replied, not denying it. "Katerina said you got bored, so naturally you can no longer sit calmly. My cousin wants her gallant space fleet officer back, not some effete nobleman, languishing in ennui. To be honest, I also prefer that brave war-dog, who was not afraid to argue with his commander. Reminds me of myself. And although the old you didn’t always make my job easy, your One-Eyed Python was twice recognized the best ship in the whole Unatari Fleet after training!"
Corwin turned and smiled. Small fires of interest lit in the captain's eyes.
"My Prince, One-Eyed Python can still serve as a touchstone military cruiser. My crew is unmatched in the whole fleet in their professionalism and combat readiness. I give my word as an officer that none of my people will besmirch the honor of the Unatari State on this diplomatic mission!"
***
It happened after crossing the Blue House border, when the ships of my diplomatic mission were charging up at the Forepost-22 station. Miya woke me up. The Truth Seeker was extremely troubled, and hadn't even changed out of her thin nighty (by the way, also red, like all Miya's outfits) into something more befitting of a queen. My wife's crimson hair was ridden with bedhead, her eyes flaring a bewitching flame of frightening orange.
"Georg, wake up! I sense mortal danger!"
As if in confirmation of the Queen of Unatari's words, the lights flickered, and the cruiser switched to emergency power. A siren howled out a prolonged wail.
"Tuki-tuka-de-sa! Strangers on the ship!" One of the chameleon-body guards appeared next to me. "There's been a break-in from the station! Our guard post at the airlock has been destroyed! Popori de Cacha is reporting that there is a heavy firefight in the corridor on the first deck. Our soldiers are taking losses and retreating to the freight elevators!"
Phobos, who normally sat like a motionless statue next to the doors, flew into action and leaned decisively with his flexible middle appendage on a scanning sensor on the wall. The wall panel moved silently aside, revealing a stand with firearms and a cabinet with light armored space suits. The Alpha Iseyek began handing out the laser assault rifles to the security guards and chameleon bodyguards, who appeared from invisibility, in a business-like manner. Miya refused the laser rifle offered to her she had a totally different strength when it came to killing.
The huge praying mantis himself took a heavy infantry resonator, giving another to Rosss. A resonator is a terrifying close combat weapon that breaks down the cell walls of an organism. In the hands of a competent soldier, it can turn any living opponent into a heap of pulsating protoplasm.
"My Princcce, must to wear," the giant Alpha Iseyek carefully took a silver helmeted suit from the stand and extended it to me.
I was going to walk up closer in order to take the hermetic suit with spherical helmet, but Bionica appeared in the doorway just then, panting, and shouted out in alarm:
"My Prince, I've detected an unsanctioned device attached to our cruiser's energy grid! There's an over ninety-eight percent probability that the device is a bomb!"
"There's no time to get dressed!" Miya pushed me fairly roughly through the door into the hall. "We have less than two minutes until the reactor explodes! Let's run to the shuttles!"
Accompanied by my guards, I hopped out into the corridor and dashed to the nearest elevator. But our whole group stopped sharply, because I heard intensive fire coming down the hall, then the muted sound of an explosion. The nearest door opened up, and Popori de Cacha jumped into our corridor in a puff of smoke with two pistols in his hands.
"Don't go that way!" shouted the head of my bodyguard, hurriedly locking the metal door behind him. "That corridor is full of assault soldiers in heavy armored suits."
Almost immediately, muted slamming could be heard from the other side of the armored door, then a burst from a high-caliber weapon where the shots landed, the metal started noticeably bulging out. Miya walked up to a console in the wall and, placing her hand on it, melted the plastic panel and its buttons.
"Now, the attackers will never get through! Let's go down into the service tunnel," the Truth Seeker said, pointing to a grate on the floor. "Faster! We have precious little time!" 
Bionica, showing surprising strength for a woman with such a delicate frame, ripped off the reinforced floor grate, revealing an access hole going vertically downward. The android set an example, diving down the service shaft. I went after her, climbing down the brackets in the semi-dark of the emergency lights past cables and pipes. It turned out to be a very short path just half a minute later, I found myself in the rescue shuttle berth. There were two shuttles waiting there, ready to take off.
"Faster! Faster!!!" Miya hurried everyone along, somehow having managed to clip a bag onto her shoulders with something round and heavy.
I threw myself to the nearest shuttle, where my bodyguards and chameleons were quickly filling the passenger seats. But the Truth Seeker quickly grabbed me by the shoulder and sharply turned to another shuttle:
"Georg, this way!"
In no position to disagree, I ran where she pointed. The shuttle Miya had refused closed its doors, turned on its engine and sharply burst from place, noisily humming down the tunnel to the airlock. There were very few in the second shuttle just the Alpha Iseyek Rosss, Miya, Bionica and me. Popori de Cacha sat down in the pilot's seat.
"Alright, chameleon, start it up!" Miya shouted, having lost her normal self-control in her alarmed state. "There's only a few seconds until the reactor blows!"
The shuttle abruptly started off. I hadn't managed to sit in the seat and buckle up yet, so I lost balance and somersaulted to the other end of the corridor, hitting my right shoulder painfully on a metal handle. My vision grew hazy. I felt like I'd broken something...
Rosss the Alpha Iseyek picked me up carefully, sat in place and buckled my safety belts. And then... even from my passenger seat, I went blind for a second from the bright flash through the side porthole, I saw perfectly as the One-Eyed Python we'd left bloomed into a blindingly white flower of flame. Fortunately, our shuttle managed to get out of the blast zone before it reached us.
"I don't see the first shuttle!" came a surprised shriek from Popori de Cacha. "It isn't on the radar! How is that possible? They took off before we did!"
Despite the searing pain in my shoulder, I found the strength in myself to turn and look at my wife. For some reason, I had no doubt that Miya knew something about the first shuttle.
"Yes, that shuttle has already been destroyed. I realized just in time that getting into it was an obvious mistake, just like staying on the ship. It would be just as much an error right now to dock on the Emperor August the cruiser is also doomed and will blow in a few seconds. We need to get out of here. Now!"
"Where should we go, Miya? We're in a hostile star system on an unarmed shuttle! We don’t even have a warp drive to get near the Mechanoid or even to jump away from the station."
"I don't know, Georg. But staying here next to the station is a mistake. I don't know why."
I looked out the viewport. I was not interested now in the cloud of shimmering debris where the light cruiser had been, nor even the station with the heavy assault cruiser Emperor August docked at it (which is where, by the way, Popori de Cacha was steering our shuttle). I wanted to see the nearest planet, around which the space station was orbiting. There it was: a shade of reddish brown, dark, obviously with an atmosphere not suitable for breathing. But it was not a gas giant, or a superheated ball of magma, and the gravitation on it should have been somewhat less than crushing, based on the size of the planet.
"Tuki-tuka-de-sa, there is a group of frigates on the near radar subscan! Five Claws with Blue House identifiers. They're headed our way!"
"Popori de Cacha, immediately get our shuttle to the nearest planet and dive into the atmosphere! We need to hide from the enemy in the thick cloud cover. Then, try to land our shuttle on the planet!"
The little ship staked a sharp curve and tore full speed into the thick, gloomy, opaque atmosphere of the planet. I saw one last thing before we entered the reddish black clouds as our shuttle sped into the atmosphere, rabidly shaking and heating up as we entered the reddish black clouds far behind us, next to the Forepost-22 station, there bloomed another bright flower of explosion.

Emergency Landing


Once upon a time, I had entered the atmosphere of the Throne World on a similar shuttle in emergency landing mode, and it wasn't the most pleasant sensation. But, as it turned out, that was just flowers in comparison with making an emergency landing blind on an unknown planet. With the high G-forces, ghastly turbulence and burning wings, there was also a nasty scraping and piercing wail, reminiscent of a circular saw. As Popori de Cacha informed us, the dark clouds seemed to be made of fine-grained highly abrasive silicon dioxide, while atmosphere of the planet consisted primarily of a mix of nitrogen oxides.
A toxic atmosphere, and fine sand in a high quantity? Not the best conditions for flying. I looked out the viewport and led my gaze over something massive and dark, flickering along the left side of the ship.
"What was that, Popori de Cacha?"
"Tuki-tuka-de-sa, that was a rock face. The instruments are showing that there are many-mile high peaks all around here. We're traveling along a mountain ridge. There is no flat surface to be found. And at that, the windspeed is outrageous. It's a real hurricane. Worst of all is that our positioning system is failing due to the clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Also, due to the bad visibility, I cannot see the obstacles fast enough."
The situation he painted was extremely unpleasant. It was only a matter of time before our shuttle would slam into the next unexpected barrier in the dark cloud. I didn't distract the pilot any further and looked for Miya. The Truth Seeker was sitting all green I didn't know my wife got nauseous from turbulence. Nevertheless, I needed her abilities.
"Go help the pilot! We need to land this shuttle!"
Miya undid her safety belt, stood up and clutched the wall handles, taking unconfident steps toward the pilot's cabin. With all the shaking, only her Truth Seeker abilities allowed her to foresee the shuttle's jerks and jumps far enough in advance to prepare. Finally, Miya reached the cabin and stood behind Popori de Cacha, placing her hands on the chameleon's shoulders.
"Turn sharply downward! Now!!!" the Truth Seeker brayed almost immediately, and the shuttle hooked a tight turn, trying to avoid a head-on collision with a sheer cliff that appeared a few seconds later right in front of us.
We didn't manage to totally avoid the collision our shuttle hit the obstacle, losing a large part of its wing. By some miracle, the pilot evened out our slight spiral and pointed the nose straight down. I saw a dark vertical wall in the viewport just ten feet to the right of our shuttle and, soon, an identical surface appeared to the left we had entered some sort of crevasse. But there's always a silver lining: it wasn't at all stormy down here, and the turbulence immediately dropped.
"There's been a breach in our air system! A crack in the hull at the right wing joint!" Bionica warned.
"Drop down and reduce speed! There is a small plateau where we can set down up there," I heard Miya's confident words, and Popori de Cacha led the shuttle to a landing.
The sound of the engines changed tonality, our shuttle landed as softly as conditions allowed, on a stone-strewn platform. I exhaled loudly we did it! With my good left hand, I tried to undo my safety belt, but it turned out harder than I had imagined.
"Don't rush, Crown Prince! I'll help," Bionica said, walking up to me and helping with the buckle.
"We cannot leave. The air is toxic, even to Iseyek," Rosss warned us all, turning his head and seeming to sniff.
I also sensed an unpleasant smell a few seconds later, but for now, it was barely perceptible. Nitrogen dioxide is a very unpleasant thing, causing suffocation and death in humans and, on contact with water, forming a mixture of nitrous and nitric acid.
"What are we gonna do?" Bionica asked. "We need to somehow fix the crack in the hull..."
I heard the chameleon's voice from the pilot's cabin:
"Every shuttle has emergency kits in a compartment in the wall near the tail with ten light spacesuits and three hours oxygen in each, along with a larger reserve oxygen tank. In the same place, you'll find MRE's, water, and communications devices. Also, the standard emergency kit of any rescue shuttle should have a tank of quick-dry sealant."
Rosss the Alpha Iseyek went to the end of the corridor and, pressing on red circles in the wall, opened both niches. It only took him a few seconds to look it over:
"My Princcce, there's no sealant or food here! Just an emergency beacon. And the cabinet has just one light spacesuit, made for one person!"
Well, that's it... And to think, the captain of this ship had just assured me it was the best one we had! Everyone went silent, taking into account the now critical situation. In the silence that descended, the poison gas seeping into the shuttle made a distinct hiss there was clearly more air pressure outside than in here. Popori de Cacha was first to speak:
"First of all, let's turn on the emergency beacon and send a message to our people about what happened. After that, close the airlock into the pilot cabin and turn off ventilation that way, we can isolate it from the seating area and stop the poison gas from seeping in. Yes, there won't be much air in there, but it should be enough for one person to hold out until help arrives. Beyond that, Georg will have a spacesuit and another three hours to wait. And the rest can wait for rescue in the passenger cabin and hope to survive... Yes, the chances are low, but the main thing is saving Crown Prince Georg!"
"Thank you, of course, for your readiness to sacrifice yourselves, but I won’t allow it!" I immediately refused. "I have a different suggestion. Bionica, disactivate yourself right now to save valuable air. We can place her body into the niche in the wall so the aggressive atmosphere won't run her skin. Rosss, how much time will it take you to go into an anabiotic state?"
The huge, semitransparent Alpha Iseyek, twitching his mandibles, answered that he needed about twenty minutes.
"Start going to sleep, but go into the pilot cabin first. You're too heavy for us to move your body, and I don't want the acid dissolving you. Popori de Cacha, you take the only spacesuit, lock yourself in the pilot cabin and start sending constant messages about what happened and our coordinates."
"But, tuki-tuka-de-sa, what about you?" my bodyguard asked, scared. I ordered him to be quiet and turned to Miya.
"Can you send us both to a safe place? Even if it's where you hid with our daughter and the chameleons?"
The extremely powerful Truth Seeker, somewhat awkward looking with the short nighty on her naked body, nodded in silence. She took a reddish stone sphere out of a bag thrown over her shoulder and explained.
"This is the gift Swarm Queen Nai Igir gave me in exchange for my collection of the numbered emeralds from Sivalla. It's a storage device full of energy, a dream for any psionic. So then, I should have enough energy to get us there, but there's another question do I have the power? Moving two consciousnesses together with their bodies is a very difficult task. The best way, Georg, would be putting you out temporarily either get drunk or fall asleep."
I looked at Bionica, already turned off, and the praying mantis Rosss sitting on the floor with his eyes tucked into his armor shell, and appendages folded up compact. After that, I moved my gaze onto Popori de Cacha. The chameleon nodded in comprehension and walked up to me. The head of my guard carefully placed his strong flexible fingers on my neck artery and asked:
"When will you return, Crown Prince?"
I didn't know the answer to that question, but the Queen of Unatari answered for me:
"You can count on three or four days. I'll first need to have a crystal nap to restore my strength before bringing us back. We'll come back in this very place, so make sure everything is ready breathable air and a sufficient number of soldiers to guard your sovereign."
"Yes Ma'am!" the chameleon promised and pressed on my carotid artery.
***
When I came to, I was sitting on a leather chair in an unfamiliar room. Next to me was a fold-out couch, already turned into a bed and made up with sheets, but Miya hadn't had the strength to drag my two-hundred-thirty-pound girth onto it. For clothing, I was wearing the same long underwear but, on my right forearm, I discovered a thick fabric sling not a bandage, not gauze, but some kind of thin many-layered porous polymer. My shoulder was blue and swollen, my arm was hurting quite badly, but I could move my fingers no problem. Of course, I was no doctor and, without an x-ray, it would be impossible to say for certain, but my sense was that it was just a bad contusion or a bone fracture, not a fully-fledged break.
I stood up and looked around the room with curiosity. There were no windows. The only lighting was a dim flat frosted fixture on the ceiling. I didn't discover any way to turn it off, down or up on the walls, nor with a remote. I wondered about the source of light and scooted the chair up, standing on it and looking closer. It looked like a crepe thin and flat, and not apparently hollow. It wasn't luminescent, nor light diode, without a filament, just some construction totally unfamiliar to me. And just as unfamiliar were the magnetic contacts. I had never seen a junction like that. The light's glass had some small symbols, but I didn’t recognize it as any language I’d ever seen before.
I twisted out the bulb haphazardly, and accidentally disconnected it from the contacts, immersing the room in darkness. I didn't get scared, though because, just then, I noticed light coming through from a corridor. I got down and went in that direction.
I recognized that place immediately. There was a large cupboard with children's toys and a canopied crib in the corner, which was now empty. In another corner of the room, on a small, unfolded folding couch, Miya was sleeping in semi-darkness. The Truth Seeker was lying totally naked, not even covered with a blanket or sheet. My spouse's long red hair was spread out in all directions, her skin glistening white. The woman's breathing was even and deep. Her perky breasts heaved with every breath. It took me a lot of effort to tear my gaze from the tempting forms of my beautiful wife and continue looking around the room.
Next to her on a round table, I noticed an empty box of crystalloquasimetal-cis-isomer valiarimic acid, her drug of choice. It wasn't very likely Miya had brought the crystals with her when fleeing the doomed ship. It was more probable that the Truth Seeker had stashed a secret dose of the drug here. On the floor, there was a canvas bag. Inside was the energy storage ball, now a pale pink. Its color had noticeably washed out since I had last seen it. Most likely, that meant Miya hadn't had enough of her own psionic energy to move us both here, and she had used the ball.
I already wanted to leave, but my gaze happened to catch on a small patch stuck behind my wife's ear, the same tone as her skin. Normally, her thick bright crimson hair covered it up but, now, the locks were brushed aside, revealing a small piece of scalp shaved bald. My interest piqued, I walked over and carefully pulled back the patch. There was a tattoo under it reading "No. 4734," then a date. It had apparently been made one hundred seventy-eight years ago in the Throne World Truth Seeker School, but no hair had grown back on that spot since. Before, I knew of only one tattoo on my wife on the small of her back, there was a fanciful design reading: "Mesfelle Family Plaything." It had been ordered by my father, Count Inoky royl Mesfelle forty years ago, long before I had entered Perimeter Defense. As it turned out, the woman's body also had another, older tattoo.
Miya really didn't like talking about her past, but the time when she had studied in the psionic school run by Krista on the Throne World was an especially strong taboo. I had only heard that it had been governed by extremely strict rules, and that the Truth Seeker school was closed after a series of student deaths. It hadn't been so long ago that I had accidentally figured out that my dearest wife had a direct hand in those murders, but I had opted against reopening her old mental wounds by delving into the details. And now as well, I carefully reattached the patch over the tattoo and readjusted her red hair.
What to do? Probably, I should look into the neighboring dark rooms and get to know a bit more about this place. For a start, walk down the corridor leading away from my room and figure out where it went.
"I don't recommend that," my wife's voice rang out in my head. "This is a totally unstable place. It isn't impossible that it exists only in my imagination, so you shouldn't stray too far from me."
"So, you aren't asleep?!" I asked in surprise.
"I am asleep. And I'll be asleep for quite a long time. But you were looking too stubbornly at my body and thinking about me, so I sensed the attention. All Truth Seekers are capable of sensing attention paid to them, even when in a crystal nap. In the next room, there is a mini-bar and, three times a day, there will be a hot meal delivered pneumatically. You'll find a trash incinerator in the same place. A bit further down the hallway is a shower room and laundry area. Georg, you need to find something to do for the next two or three days while I regain my strength. If you need anything, ask me mentally, and I'll try my best. But now, excuse me, I need my rest."
***
The food was unfamiliar, but tasty and nourishing. I still hadn't figured out what it was under the thick spicy sauce mushrooms or vegetables, although it may also have been seaweed. It didn't matter. What was important was that the food was nutritious and sated my hunger well. And as for the alcohol, I didn't touch it I needed a fresh mind. I just had too much to think about.
So then, the Blue House had tried to kill me. And at that, they nearly succeeded. If it weren't for Popori de Cacha's first class piloting abilities, and the help of Miya, the Unatari State would have just gotten a new ruler. Why did Duchess Ovella want that? Interesting question. After all, it was obvious that the young Crown Princess had nothing directly to gain from my death, but she was probably promised something important by those standing behind her back. For example, real military aid against her numerous rebelling systems.
Who had ordered my assassination? As they say in these situations, "cui bono?" Who benefits? But the problem was that my death was beneficial to too many people. For example, the Emperor, who would get a more manageable ruler of Unatari a very old regent, conducting politics in total accord with orders from the Throne World. But with time, after the marriage of my daughter Likanna to this or that Crown Prince, Unatari as an independent state would totally cease to exist, first after changing name to the Orange House, then after dissolving back into the Empire.
Also, my death could have been paid for by the Antagonists after all, that would mean the Empire would lose one of its most capable fleet leaders, with high popularity among the military. But weakened by internal strife and war with the aliens, the Blue House, disappointed with the support of the Throne World, would soon have been forced to seek out an alliance with the Gold House. That seemed a very probable scenario.
By the way, what did I know about the Antagonists? Crown Princess Eleonor, Emperor August's older sister, was older than her brother by a whole fifteen years. Now she would be... if I thought about it... three hundred fifty-five years old! You cannot trick the human body at such an age, even with the best medical treatment, and rejuvenating procedures of the most powerful Truth Seekers. It must have been hard enough without the intrigues and bloody battles. At her three hundred fifty years, the ruler of the Gold House should have been more worried about forgetting to change her diaper or taking her daily dose of medicine, not a meeting with generals or admirals. Maybe I was just exaggerating things of course but, still, the age of Crown Princess Eleonora would be quite significant and absolutely not appropriate for planning a military invasion with all the inevitable troubles and meetings with military experts, stretching far past midnight. I wonder why no one had thought about this before?
But... the Antagonist invasion was a fact that could not be disputed. No less than Miya had spoken about it at a recent meeting and sworn by her abilities as a Truth Seeker. But then who was leading the invasion, if not the head of the Gold House? Who would be next in line to their throne? I didn't know the answer to that question, but I imagined it would be the Antagonist leader's only daughter my mother. Was she in any way a bad candidate for the role of shadow ruler?! Perhaps, that was exactly what the Dark Mother meant when she had mentioned Crown Princess Elisa royl Clement ton Lavaelle. But if that was so, the Arites sent to the Green House would have the ability to bring it to light!
Although... my mother wasn't exactly young either. One hundred eighty-three years is a very respectable age for a person, even if they had been under the watchful eye of medics caring for their health from the day of their birth. So, she also didn't have the most appropriate physical condition to be military leader or brain center of the conspirators. But here, I unwillingly remembered Miya, despite her respectable age, no one would think a day older than twenty or twenty-two. And her physical abilities would never make you question that. But the Queen of Unatari was unique in that sense, as one of the strongest Truth Seekers in the Empire and could rejuvenate her own body. But, perhaps, my mother also had a Truth Seeker maintaining her physical condition. I knew nothing about that, but that didn't mean such a person didn't exist.
The very strongest argument against Crown Princess Elisa as shadow ruler of the Antagonists was the fact that my mother had been the subject of very stubborn observation by the Empire's secret services after the Gold House had left the Empire. I mean, come on the daughter of the head of the Antagonists! Everything she wrote was probably opened and inspected. All her contacts were checked carefully, all conversations recorded and poured over. In order to lead an invasion in such conditions, there would have to be a simply genius conspirator or... her role was to keep the elevated attention of the secret services on her, to distract from the true leader.
Alright, we'll leave Crown Princess Elisa as a suspect and look at all the other options. Her daughter, my twin sister Violetta royl Inoky ton Mesfelle-Damir. The Ice Princess, who had hammered together a huge income selling radioactive isotopes from her space ice processing facilities. A nebulous, utterly unprincipled figure, chasing after power by stepping the heads of all other claimants and ready to kill even her own brother just to get a bit closer to a throne. She associated with upper aristocrats and possessed colossal financial income, even by Imperial upper crust standards, and a personal space fleet more powerful than even the Perimeter Sector Seven Fleet. Was there any way she’d make a bad ruler of the Antagonists? Especially if I considered her subversive activity in the Purple House and her striving to drive a wedge between Imperial allies. Violetta was always close with our mother and probably worked side by side with her.
Who else had I overlooked as a suspect? I thought hard, running through known political and military leaders in my head, and wasn't able to hold back a smile from an outside perspective, the most appropriate candidate for role of military leader of the Antagonists was me. Come on the grandson of the ruler of the Antagonists, having proven himself time and again to be a capable commander. Also, I was currently in a feud with the Imperial authorities and possessed not only a massive space fleet with four and a half thousand starships, but also well-trained crews. Well then, that's probable exactly what the Empire thought, so I could look at the assassination attempt from that perspective as well...
***
Miya woke up on the third day. First of all, she limped over to the kitchen and spent a long time greedily drinking water from a glass bottle filled with small porous stones. After that, she walked over to the peeping pneumatic delivery box, took a bag of washing implements and locked herself in the bathroom for three hours. Only when she'd finished, did she come out to me, looking flawlessly beautiful, rested, smelling of her beloved violet perfume and again dressed in an incomprehensible, frivolous nothing of pink ribbons.
"I see you made good use of your time here," she said, turning her head in surprise, commenting on the walls I'd marked up with a lead pencil. "Georg, did you seriously draw out a whole star map of Unatari and the Blue House from memory?!"
"Except Sector Fifteen, yes. It's the farthest from us and occupied by the aliens, and I also didn't remember it well. I didn't draw Sector Sixteen at all it's cut off from the Blue House now and has no influence on current events. But at that, I did include a fragment of the Imperial Core the nearest star systems, which contain all the exits into the Perimeter."
"Well I'll be damned! And what is that?" Miya pointed at a carefully drawn web and lots of little markers placed on it. "No need to answer, I already get it."
"You didn't 'get it,' you read it in my thoughts," I corrected my wife strictly. "Yes, I was trying to figure out who will be in control of the Forepost-22 system three days after the attack on our ship, based on the Blue House and Unatari fleets located nearby, their military might and the time it would take to get there. It isn't the most reassuring picture. If our Yayho Border Fleet came to the help signal sent by Popori de Cacha, and the station warp beacon is not turned off, it will soon be destroyed by the Blue House Second Strike Fleet. And our main forces won't have time to get there. And then you and I would be returning right into the paws of our enemies, who will take us warm as soon as we arrive."
"That's in the best case," Miya noted gloomily. "There's also a completely realistic possibility that the help signal was never picked up, and no one will be there to meet us. Then, we'll come back to a shuttle filled with nitrous oxide gas, and I won't have time or power to send us back to a safe place."
It was an unenviable perspective, but I still saw no alternative to our returning we couldn't just sit forever in this isolated and unstable part of space. Miya nodded in agreement:
"And I wasn't suggesting we stay here forever. This is merely a temporary shelter. I have no sources of fresh energy, and my strength will slowly decrease here. And also, I cannot leave Deya without me, our little daughter is doomed, because she’s a problem for too many aristocrats."
"For example?" I asked, immediately on guard, as the information about threats to my young daughter was very important.
Miya stayed silent for a bit, then moved her gaze away from me and said quietly:
"Well, at least the ones who are in line for the throne right behind your children the Duke and Duchess of Unatari. And don't interrupt me, Georg, first listen. You have a perfect basis to trust your second cousin Katerina and her husband Corwin, as well as your former father-in-law Valesy and Duchess Silva. They all owe you a lot and will not betray you under any circumstances, I am absolutely sure of that as a Truth Seeker. But all their loyalty only applies to you, not your children. So, if you suddenly disappear without a trace, a harsh struggle for power will begin, and the part of your children will be unenviable. But let's hope it doesn't come to that, and the signal reached our friends, and they have taken measures."
My spouse was clearly not happy with herself for starting this conversation, and tried somewhat awkwardly to change the topic. But I, on the other hand, tried to immediately figure out all the details so I wouldn't have to return to this sensitive issue later. Looking Miya right in the eyes, I asked a direct question:
"Tell me, was Duke Corwin ton Unatari on One-Eyed Python during the explosion?"
The redheaded beauty, not taking her eyes off me, nodded in silence.
"And he died?"
Another silent nod. One of those who Miya considered a potential threat to her daughter had died in the cruiser explosion. Wasn't that just too nice a coincidence? Shamelessly taking advantage of the fact that the Truth Seeker was unable to openly lie to a question I asked her directly, I inquired:
"Tell me why you neglected to inform the cruiser captain of the threat."
Miya finally took her gaze away and spent a long time in silence before giving an honest answer:
"Okay, Georg. I really did purposely not wake the sleeping captain to tell him about the enemy forces storming the cruiser. I already knew by then that the ship was doomed, and that everyone remaining on board would die. It may have been possible to save Duke Corwin, but I didn't do that. Why? It isn't so much because of a personal dislike of him, although my opinion of the Duke did have an impact, I won't hide that. The important thing is that, at that time, I was actively working to read all the possible options of how to save myself, and you as well, so everything else was of secondary concern. Do you judge me for that, Georg?"
I shook my head in the negative. How can you judge a person for the fact that, above all else, they wanted to save themselves and their dearest? Miya had done the right thing, managing in a critical situation to articulate the most important mission and save us both from a huge catastrophe. But it would be for the best if my cousin Duchess Katerina didn't find out...
"Alright, let your sister think that her husband Corwin died in a firefight with the Blue House assault troops in the cruiser corridors, heroically holding back the onslaught of attackers on his One-Eyed Python."
"I agree, that would be best for everyone. But let's leave the poetry for later. Miya, are you ready to send us back?"
The Truth Seeker gave a wry laugh:
"Georg, I've been ready for a while, but you haven't. Your consciousness is too active, and that will complicate the procedure. So, we'll have to think up another way to put you under. I cannot do harm to you, so the simple and effective method used by Popori de Cacha is right out, as is simply smacking you on the head with something heavy. So, it's up to you either we wait patiently for you to get tired and go to bed, or we try to get you drunk until you're slurring. The booze here is perfectly good for our purposes, but it causes quite the hangover."
It didn't take me long to decide I had just woken up and was energetic and full of strength, so it would be some time before I'd be ready to sleep again. As such, I picked the second option.
"Alright then!" my redheaded beauty lit up, digging in the mini-bar and pulling out a few bottles of wine along with a dark bottle of brandy. "There's no particular reason for us to hurry, Georg, we’ve got five hours until anyone’s expecting us, so I suggest a romantic candle-lit dinner. I'm gonna be feasting after a three-day fast, but you try to stick to the booze."
Despite the inevitable anxiety before stepping into the dangerous unknown, I couldn't stop myself from laughing at the paradoxical nature of the moment:
"Most wives try to make sure their husbands don't get too drunk. But you, on the other hand, have set a mission to get me drunk."
"Well, I've gotta rouse my husband somehow," the redheaded beauty laughed craftily. "I mean, seeing your wife lying naked for three whole days didn't even catch your eye..."
Seeing the embarrassment on my face, Miya laughed happily:
"I know, Georg, I know. You're not like that. That's one way you're different from the other Mesfelles my helpless state in crystal naps didn't stop them one bit... it was more the opposite, in fact. But let's not dig up painful memories. It's been a long time since we've had such a great opportunity to spend time alone, just us two, so let's not waste it..."
***
"The Crown Prince is awake!" came a loud cry, making me wince in pain.
Why scream like that? Didn't they know that sharp movements and loud sounds were like harsh torture for me right now? Oh, how my head is splitting! With massive effort, I peeled back my eyelids and tried to focus my vision. A shadowy figure was quickly approaching me, forcing a cup of something into my hand.
"Drink this Georg, it will make it better," I recognized the voice of my cousin Katerina.
What the heck was she doing here? And where the heck was I?! I took a sip of the bitter, slightly salty bubbling drink and led my gaze over the room, already feeling more sensible. I could be sure this wasn't the shuttle we'd made the emergency landing in. It was a well-lit room with walls of plastic. As if reading my mind, Katerina answered my unasked question:
"This is a rescue camp deployed on top of a mountain on the second planet in the Forepost-22 system. But the Unatari rescue team really had to work to get to your shuttle at the bottom of that two-mile deep ravine! How you had the presence of mind to fly down there on a space shuttle and not hit any cliffs is beyond my understanding! The emergency signal couldn’t even make it out of those depths, although our Yayho border fleet was already in the system, called by the Mechanoid. You should thank the chameleon Popori de Cacha for your rescue. He had to climb up a practically vertical cliff to a plateau, which is where he managed to establish contact with our ships!"
So, there it was! I hadn't even considered the risk that the emergency signal might not be heard from down there. It turned out that my life had been hanging from an even finer thread than I suspected.
"I will have to thank Popori de Cacha then. Where is he now?"
"The chameleon was sent to a burn ward in Sector Nine he's got abrasions all over his skin from the nitrous acid. The human space suit turned out to be too narrow for a creature of the Ravaash race, and also, the chameleon needed his feet and hands free to climb up the rocks. So, Popori de Cacha took only the helmet and oxygen tanks, leaving his body unprotected against the aggressive chemical."
Seeing the fear on my face, Katerina rushed to reassure me:
"The medics say that he has very serious burns, and that the outer layers of tissue were deeply injured and necrotized, but his recovery prognosis isn't all that bad. Your bodyguard leader is sure to survive, and after molting again, will even be able to go invisible as well. But Popori de Cacha will have to spend a few months in a clinic."
To my great shame, I only then noted Katerina's appearance she was wearing a black dress with a ribbon of mourning in her hair. I apologized for my callousness and expressed sympathy to my cousin. Katerina nodded distantly:
"After the reactor explosion, the remains of Duke Corwin and the other crew members from One-Eyed Python and Emperor August could only be identified by DNA. Yesterday was their funeral with military honors. Five hundred forty airtight coffins were sent on a final flight into the nearest star... Another group of bodies were discovered earlier, orbiting the first planet in a shot-down rescue shuttle. There were six people there from your bodyguard, four chameleons and the praying mantis Phobos."
What happened at that critical moment when our shuttle had left the bomb-laden cruiser finally reached me:
"That shuttle was the first to take off from the doomed One-Eyed Python, noticed a threat near the station and went into a warp jump to the first planet, leading the Blue House frigates after it. Our second shuttle only escaped because of that. The group of Blue House Claws went off to chase the defenseless victim, we saw the enemy frigates only on the locator."
"Those bastards shot high-speed cannons at an unarmed rescue shuttle, and before that, made a foul attack on ships on a diplomatic mission docked on a space station, and killed my husband. Georg, while you were gone, I took responsibility and, in the name of the Unatari State, declared war on the Blue House. The day before yesterday, there was a space battle in the Forepost-22 system our Yayho Border Fleet was totally destroyed by the Blue House Second Fleet but after that, the Ayho Strike Fleet and Virho Heavy Fleet changed the situation, and the enemy retreated."
I shook my head in dismay how could they have allowed a firefight between the Yayho Border Fleet, consisting of only one hundred fifty light ships, against an enemy fleet of more than a thousand?! My cousin, seeing my vexation and understanding that I would never have allowed such losses, rushed to tell me more positive news:
"The neighboring star systems of Paada and Boti have already been captured by our ships. The battleships of Admirals Kheraisss Vej and Masss Azhzh are taking down the planetary defense systems, while thirteen Trias are leading a mass landing of Alpha Iseyek. Unatari's remaining forces are already on the way the Sector Nine Fleet will arrive to the Forepost-22 system in eight hours, and the Second Unatari Fleet will be here the day after tomorrow. The Sector Eight Fleet and our First Fleet are also underway. Now, our main military leader and monarch alive and well, I am glad to pass the reins of government back to you. Georg, crush these lowlifes! The Blue House must be destroyed!"



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.

    ReplyDelete