Authors: Phil Geusz
The David Birkenhead Series
First Printing September 2012
Published by Legion Printing, Birmingham, AL
Copyright Phil Geusz, 2012
Cover Art by Octavius Cook, Copyright 2012
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without explicit permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
“…setting the course of a lifetime,” Captain Withers declared from the podium. “Choosing which star will guide your destinies…”
I wriggled my nose as the elderly navigator droned on, tapping a seemingly inexhaustible store of map-related references. The captain had been the fleet’s Chief Navigation Officer for four years before taking over the Bureau of Personnel. Lord Robert, seated just on the other side of James from me, claimed that the navy had never known a more conservative, insular, backstabbing politician in all its years. “That’s where your enemies will always be, David,” he’d counseled me over lunch just two hours ago. “Institutional bureaucracy draws limited minds just as powerfully as rotten meat draws flies. And limited souls as well. The fighting navy—and the fighting army as well, for that matter—tends to judge a man by what he can do. They at least give him a chance. But elsewhere…” He sighed and shook his head. “It’s all about titles, status, and butt-kissing. Especially for this… individual. We’ve crossed swords before.”
Well, I told myself as I sat and pretended to pay attention to the rambling, poorly-structured and unoriginal speech, at least I didn’t have to worry about
assignment. The others were all sweating like pigs, or at least most of them. The navy required a thousand different sorts of specialists in order to function; fleets were in some ways cities in space. Keeping them operational required everything from bakers to lawyers and astrogators to sanitation engineers. That was why we midshipman received only the most generic training at the Academy; our real skills would be learned on the job, as per ancient naval tradition. Our initial assignment, however, was the key to everything. Once we were trained as navigators, for example, it’d be extremely unlikely for us to ever specialize in anything else. Some fields—such as engineering—even had their own independent chains of command because the technology was so difficult to master. That was why I wasn’t worried. It was practically unheard-of for anyone as young as me to be qualified to stand watches as a ship’s engineer. It took most people
to earn their certification. But I already had, or close enough as made no difference. Another twenty-seven and a half hours of supervised duty was all I needed. So there was no doubt as to where
was headed. Everyone else in the room, however, was on pins and needles.
The Academy did almost everything in alphabetical order, which had benefitted me greatly during my time there. Being a ‘B’ had its advantages. But now I was a commissioned officer in the real navy, so things were done strictly by seniority. Oddly enough, the tradition was for the highest-ranked to go last, as was the case in entering a ship’s boat. Both James and I therefore had long waits ahead of us; he’d ranked number one, and I number two in our class. “Midshipman Heinrich von Schtolen!” the reverse roll-call began, and my good friend and fellow wargamer stood at rigid attention. “You’re assigned to the Royal Marine Corps,” Captain Withers announced.
Heinrich smiled despite himself—though he’d started out as the purest of rebels and graduated at the bottom of his class as a result, I knew that after meeting his Imperial opposites he craved a combat-arms assignment. And now he’d gotten it. “Sir!” he replied as an orderly-bunny handed him a stout canvas envelope containing his orders. “Thank you, sir!”
And so it went on and on. The Yans were assigned to Fleet Logistics, which raised a laugh even in this disciplined crowd. Everyone knew they’d been born to serve in Intelligence, and that was where they’d
gone. You could read it in their smiles. Jean Le Vorsage, who’d befriended me when few others would, was assigned to the Administrative Corps as an aide-in-training. This surprised me until I remembered that he was a superb natural politician, and highborn as well. Perhaps at least
of the bureaucrats might end up not being a total prig? And so it went as we new officers were assigned to all the various branches, every one of which required a flow of new professionals to keep things running for the good of all.
Then Captain Withers finally came to me. He paused and smiled—all the top graduates were given special attention in one form or another. “And now for our most
officer,” he said as I stood and waited to be named an engineer at last. “A past hero whose
talents and abilities
wishes to see utilized in the most effective manner possible for the navy.” His smile widened. “Midshipman David Birkenhead, you’re assigned to the most honorable Department of Graves Registration. Nothing is more important than honoring our dead heroes. And no branch of the service employs more Rabbits. Therefore, you’re a natural fit.”
The Marcus clan held a formal reception after the ceremony; since James and I had been absent for graduation the family had decided to celebrate assignment-day instead. So I had to smile and pretend that all was well even though I was seething with rage inside.
from the Academy was ever assigned to Graves Registration, not
! This wasn’t an exaggeration; while we didn’t quite have time to examine the entire database, James and I ran a quick search of previous graduates in the limo on the way to the penthouse. Meanwhile Lord Robert sat across from us and seethed. At least James was kind enough not to wear his new HMS
lapel-emblems, so that in turn I was free not to put on the tombstones-and-shovels that marked my new career. My friend had been assigned to the brand new battlecruiser as a deck officer. It was a dream assignment for someone like James, and for that matter almost anyone else. Unless the Imperials had something up their sleeve that we didn’t know about, she was the fastest and best-armed ship in the sky. In the event of war
would be detached as an independent raider to operate far behind Imperial lines and cause five thousand kinds of mayhem. Only the most capable and bluest-blooded officers need even apply for such a desirable billet; the competition was enormous. Once upon a time I’d dreamed that I might be lucky enough to serve in her beautiful, state-of-the-art engine room. But now…
We didn’t see much of Sir Robert at the reception; this was because he spent most of the affair down in his office, screaming obscenities into a telephone. In theory the guests were blissfully unaware of this; their ears weren’t nearly as sensitive as my own. But they knew. You could tell by the way that no one asked about him. It was rather touching, really, to hear Sir Robert throw one of his rare tantrums on my behalf. At first the Marcus family had taken me in at least partly because they saw it as an honorable duty. Since then, however, my relationship with them had grown into something more. It wasn’t just James, though we loved each other like brothers. Lord Robert could only be cursing on
account, not that of the family scion. After all, the Heir to the House of Marcus couldn’t have asked for a better outcome on his own account. Lord Robert’s anger was over
mistreatment, and there could be no better proof of my standing in his heart. Once, when no one was looking and his cursing hit a crescendo, I actually shed a tear of gratitude. At least
was on my side!
More than one some
, to be completely honest, though sometimes it was hard to tell. Despite my for-all-practical-purposes full adoption, I still didn’t fit in as well with the extended Marcus clan as I might’ve. This wasn’t deliberate on anyone’s part—if it had been, Lord Robert would’ve dealt with it instantly. Nor was it closed-mindedness. But I remained a Rabbit in a human world no matter how hard everyone worked at ignoring the fact. Even after all these years it was still a bit awkward, and l was an introvert by nature anyway. So it was natural that I spent most of my time sipping fruit juice alone in a quiet corner, while everyone else surrounded James in a happy, glowing circle.
“Congratulations, David!” a familiar voice declared from behind me as I stood and moped. “I’m
proud of you!”
“Mr. Banes!” I declared, spinning around so fast that I spilled half my juice. And just like that, I wasn’t moping anymore. “It’s so good to—“
But I didn’t get any further before my tutor cut me off with a long, tight hug. “I’m
proud of you!” he declared. “Of all my students, and all they’ve gone on to accomplish…” But the words died in his throat.
for getting me ready!” I answered back. “I was ahead of almost everyone! Except James, of course.”
“You did all the work,” he replied. When he pulled out of the hug and looked down at me I was surprised to see that he was crying. “And… Son, I think I’m the only one around here who knew your father at all well. So it’s up to me to tell you that, well… I think he’d have been mighty proud today too.”
And that was all it took; suddenly we were
weeping. Mr. Banes was a bit more experienced with this sort of thing than I was—he eased me down the nearest hallway and into an empty guest bedroom where we could both recover. “Well!” he said at last, putting away his handkerchief and straightening his tuxedo. “What ship were you assigned to, David? So that I can follow your adventures in the news, of course.”
Suddenly my ear-linings were bright red. “I…”
“He’s not assigned to
ship,” Lord Robert declared from behind my tutor—clearly he’d been waiting in the hall for a polite moment to interrupt.
Mr. Banes turned around and smiled. “Really? Perhaps they kept him on at the Academy as a mathematics instructor, then? He’d make a fine one.”
“No,” the family’s head replied, crossing his arms and scowling. “They’ve torpedoed him, Izzy! Despite the Sword, despite his proven capabilities… Even despite our influence!” His scowl intensified. “Or perhaps
Mr. Bane’s smile faded. “What… I mean…”
“Graves Registration,” I explained. “The most appropriate place possible for a career to die.”
The elderly tutor turned first red, then white. “I… I mean…”
“My sentiments exactly,” Sir Robert replied. “And what’s worse…” Then he sighed and shook his head. “At least James got a prime opportunity—he’s for the
have been!” Mr. Banes declared, waving a fist in emphasis. “If David’s not top-notch, I don’t know who is!” Then his eyes narrowed. “I presume that you…”
Lord Robert shook his head and sighed. “No, I’m afraid not. There’s not enough leverage to go around right now.” He nodded out towards the main room, where James was still surrounded by happy family members. “And our heir simply
take first priority just now.”
My tutor’s mouth formed a thin, hard line. “I see,” he replied. “Or at least I think I do,” Then his expression softened and he squeezed my shoulder. “But David’s earned better treatment than this, Robert! I have friends of my own in academic circles, you know. I’ve followed matters from afar.”
“Of course, old friend,” James’s uncle replied. “There was never any doubt.” He lowered his eyes to the floor. “I was just on my way to find him and explain.”