Authors: B. V. Larson
Books by B. V. Larson:
Mech 0: The Dominant
Mech 3: The Empress
STAR FORCE SERIES
OTHER SF BOOKS
for more information.
(Imperium Series Novella)
B. V. Larson
Copyright © 2012 by the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.
Out along the rim of the galaxy hung a loose configuration of some sixty stars known as the
. This whorl of sparkling suns was rich in planets and occupied an irregular volume of space some twenty lightyears in diameter. From an external viewpoint, the Faustian Chain presented a colorful display of plasma-streams, luminous nebulae and sparkling pinpoints of light.
The human colonists who settled the Faustian Chain were aware the region had recently been populated by other species—beings that had all but vanished after waging devastating wars thousands of years in the past. Little was known of them, but certain areas in which their artifacts still persisted were proscribed by interstellar law.
As was often the case with any law, the proscriptions were only as strong as the government that enforced them. Hypothetically ruling the Chain was an organization known as the
. Originally set up by Earth colonists to provide a local government, Nexus authority quickly broke down due to the reality of stellar distances. The stars of the Faustian Chain were close siblings, but the best of ships could not reach a neighboring system in less than a year, and that was only after the call came crawling across space at the pathetically inadequate pace of light. No central government could exert its will over such a distance for long. Crises such as civil wars often raged for years before any response was possible, and thus the matter was usually decided long before aid could arrive from the Nexus.
As decades passed, the colonies soon became functionally independent, with only perfunctory words of obedience given to the Nexus by traditionalists. Isolated by time and space, extreme cases became the norm as colonized worlds took on cultural exaggerations that set each apart from all the rest.
Two such planets were known as Tranquility and her near neighbor Mendelia. Both worlds floated at the southern fringe of the Chain and fell into the familiar patterns of cultural separation. The two worlds diverged and grew further apart each year over a period of a century and a half. Tranquility was a warm, fertile world where life was relatively easy. Mendelia was colder and suffered from harsh tides and storms, due to an overabundance of moons. Over time Tranquility became a lazy, hedonistic society, while Mendelia grew militaristic and status-seeking.
After years with little contact, Mendelia had conquered a number of lesser colonies in her immediate vicinity. Finally, her leadership turned their eyes toward Tranquility and launched a flotilla of three cruisers. In response, the underfunded Space Service of Tranquility lofted their entire complement: a squadron of six poorly-equipped patrol boats. They were really rescue vessels, with mild enforcement capabilities sufficient only to perform a lax policing of smugglers from the local asteroids who sought to bring their mineral riches to the planet without paying tariffs.
Ensign Theller was second in command of
S. S. Redemption
, one of the ill-fated patrol boats, and he could not believe his misfortune. He was a tall man with hawkish features and overly-long limbs. He and every other member of
crew had been gathered by the captain onto the cramped ship’s prime deck.
Captain Beezel marched back and forth in front of her crew, berating and praising them in turns. Ensign Theller thought of Beezel as a tiny, attractive tyrant. Her blonde hair was cut severely short. Her big, blue eyes blazed when she spoke loudly—which was often the case. Theller listened to the captain’s speech with growing apprehension and disbelief.
“Crewmen,” she said. “Our mission today is not to achieve victory—because victory is impossible.”
As the captain spoke, Ensign Theller reflected on the dark idiocies of fate that had brought him to this point in time and space. He was a mummer by training, having studied drama at the Grand Academy on Tranquility. Like most of the inhabitants of his world he valued quiet learning and the arts above all else. Unfortunately, rare job openings in the dramatic arts went to those with appropriate connections. Theller had been born without chattel or title, and was lucky to be contracted into the unappreciated Space Service. He had told himself the arrangement was only temporary, and in time he would return to his true, higher calling. But now these blasted cruisers had arrived and he was expected to resist them. From his vantage point, his entire life had been a series of unjust disappointments. Really, this was the final straw. It was one thing to be sentenced to an ignoble post chasing tax-dodging miners, but it was quite another to be expected to die in the cold, unforgiving void above his homeworld fighting a fleet built by Mendelian psychopaths.
Theller’s gaze and thoughts drifted down again to the captain’s tight, shapely posterior as she marched by.
entire crew, all eight doomed souls, stood at attention on the prime deck of the patrol boat.
was perhaps something of a misnomer, as only Captain Beezel was short enough to stand fully erect in the ship due to the low, contoured ceilings. The rest of her crew were forced to bow their backs and press their heads up against the skin of the ship, such was the curvature and nearness of the hull.
“Our mission is to die well,” Captain Beezel continued. “A flotilla of cruisers from Mendelia can’t be stopped by our squadron. We all know that. In the end, our planet will be enslaved and our descendants will rattle their chains despondently, bemoaning their fate.”
Ensign Theller winced as the woman’s words clashed against his ears. The captain hadn’t a shred of human empathy. He found her directness, honesty and unrelenting bravado painful to endure. Couldn’t she at least
to the men? Couldn’t she give them false hope to die for?
“But,” Captain Beezel continued. “When our people grovel and die they will not be blaming
! They will know pride when they think of our sacrifice this day. It will never be said the Space Service did not fight the good fight!”
The men around Theller cheered. He looked at them, startled. His eyes swept from one face to the next. Every expression was resolute and not an eye in the cramped space was dry, save for the captain’s lovely artificial orbs and his own, which were wide with alarm.
“Are there any questions?” Captain Beezel asked, ringing out the words.
Theller could tell from her tone she did not want, nor expect, any questions. He could not help himself however, and lifted a thin finger to gain her attention.
Her eyes swung to meet his, and they narrowed. She nodded to him, giving him leave to speak.
“Captain,” he said. “As your second in command, I feel it is my duty to present alternative courses of action.”
Beezel slid her jaw to one side and back again, but she nodded, listening.
“Wouldn’t it be prudent instead to lure the enemy into a chase? While we can’t last long if we engage them, we have the speed to stay out of their grasp for days.”
“I’m well aware of that,
,” she said, emphasizing his rank and name as if she spat out sour seeds. “But our orders are clear. We are to stand and hold as long as we can.”
“If the goal is to give Home Defense more time, captain, then a chase would do exactly that,” Theller pressed in desperation.
“We will not run in the face of the enemy!”
“But if we could give Home Defense more time to—”
“And what would they do with more time?” she asked. “Dither and argue as they’ve done for years? Perhaps they will trim a budget or enjoy an iced caf!”
“Uh—they could dig in, they could arm—perhaps ships from the Nexus might arrive as they promised decades ago and aid in our defense.”
“Fantasies,” Captain Beezel snapped. She stepped close and looked up into his face.
Theller sputtered, shaken by her proximity. Her face was elfin, and her scent, even after a week aloft, was intoxicating. Her family was rich and eccentric. They’d bought their daughter the body and the title she craved. She was much older than she looked, this easily being her second century of life. He knew she was a mech in reality, a mass of polymers sculpted into an entrancing beauty, but he could not help finding her enticing nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Captain Beezel would never be his. She had made up her mind to end her long life here, in orbit over Tranquility at the tail end of the Faustian Chain. As far as she was concerned, this was to be her finest hour. Theller did not want to spoil that, but he didn’t want to die, either. If he were in command, he would have taken the ship out to the far planets to hide in the ice caves until it was all over. In his mind, fighting the invaders was a waste of a perfectly good spaceship and a perfectly good life—his.
“But the Nexus has the Fleet…”
“Ensign Theller,” she said tightly, “I would remind you we have not heard from the Nexus in nearly a decade. Trade ships don’t even come from that way, nor do we receive radio signals. The old Nexus must be presumed dead.”
Theller’s lips wormed on his face, but he couldn’t think of another good argument. He finally stopped trying. If she was hell-bent on suiciding
on a wall of cruisers, nothing he could say would change her mind. Captain Beezel had been called many things, but no one had ever accused her of being flexible.
“Everyone will return to their posts,” she ordered. “We will break out the sacrificial wine to quiet our chaotic thoughts. We will speak the words of Offering and bare our souls to the Ether. There isn’t time for a full pre-battle meditation period, but we will have to make do. In eleven hours, we must fly to the System Rim and join our sister ships. The Tranquility system will soon be invaded by the enemy fleet. We will stand resolutely in their path.”
Ensign Theller took his seat and strapped himself in along with the others. He paused, struggling with a frayed belt that didn’t want to come free of its catches. He looked at the glinting steel buckle. He wondered if he should even bother to fasten it. What was the point if he were going to die pointlessly in a few more hours?
Theller couldn’t even enjoy the wine, such was his agitation. When the plastic flask came around to his seat, he quietly applied a tiny amount to his lips. They were promptly stained a convincing purple. He then squirted a generous amount down the disposal tube at the base of his seat. Skipping his wine ration was against regulations, but he didn’t want his mind fogged with cheap narcotics now. He needed to take action.
While the others made their mumbled Offerings, Theller appeared to join in. He bowed his head and muttered with the rest of them. Internally, his mind seethed. He swore to himself that
would not fly up to her final battle when her crew awakened.
Mendelian inheritance was the driving force behind everything the people of Mendelia did. Every mother wanted a child that exceeded her and thus exemplified her. Every father wanted a child that put the rest in their places. As tools to achieve these ends, the people of Mendelia invested their energies in genetic sculpting of their offspring. Their reasoning went something like this: great things could only be achieved by great people, so the first step undeniably involved the creation of better beings.