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The Barbarian Bride
cover art © Malcolm McClinton

 

 

The end is nigh ...

The Federation is collapsing into chaos. The maddened Emperor is determined to destroy his new enemies, whatever the cost. As his former friend and protégée Roman Garibaldi and his new allies rush to Earth, intent on unseating the dictator before he can tear the Federation apart, they have to face the possibility that it may be already too late ...

The conclusion to The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire series.

 

 

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The Barbarian Bride

science fiction

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

When Rome fell to barbarian invaders, there were less than five hundred qualified Centurions. Not because Rome had fewer people but because it had fewer willing to make the sacrifices. And the last Centurions left their shields in the heather and took a barbarian bride.

-John Ringo, The Last Centurion

 

Prologue

From: Marius Drake and Roman Garibaldi: Two Lives, Two Loves, One Empire (4502 A.D)

Ah, what is to be said of Marius Drake and Roman Garibaldi that hasn't been said a thousand times already?

They were the two most famous men of their generation, perhaps the two most famous men since the "Band of Brothers" punched through the Asimov Point and won the final battle of the First Interstellar War. They are the subjects of countless biographies, ranging from works claiming that one was the true hero and the other was the villain to works suggesting they were both deeply corrupt, symptoms of the decline and fall of the Federation. There are works that suggest they were victims, helpless to do anything but play their roles, and works that suggest they were playing a game with each other that cost billions upon billions of innocent lives. And last, but far from least, there are works that suggest the two men were actually lovers and the final war between them was a tragedy on a far greater scale than Romeo and Juliet.

Indeed, history has truly hidden both men behind a shroud of nonsense.

That said, certain claims can be made with a fair degree of certainty.

The Federation was dying. Its government - the aristocratic and corrupt Grand Senate - was steadily sucking the lifeblood out of the countless innocent worlds in its thrall, destroying the economy that kept the Federation alive. Worse, the military had become deeply divided, with officers building little fiefdoms and patronage networks that were steadily corrupting the once-great Federation Navy. The purges that followed the Blue Star War only made it clear, to the smarter officers, that the only hope of permanent safety was in power. It should not have surprised the Grand Senate when one of them, Admiral Justinian, kicked off a civil war by mounting an attack on Earth.

Admiral Marius Drake rose to prominence during the attack, commanding the defense of Earth. Despite his own shabby treatment by the Grand Senate, Drake remained a noted Federation loyalist, a man who refused to accept the sundering of the Federation or the thought of claiming power for himself. His loyalties were noted; Drake was placed in command, eventually, of the fleet that would seek out and destroy Admiral Justinian's little empire once and for all.

Less is known of Roman Garibaldi's early life; it is known he was the sole survivor of an attack on an asteroid settlement, one who joined the Federation Navy and graduated from the Luna Academy with a First, but much else remains a mystery. It is clear, however, that he briefly took command of Enterprise during the ill-fated Operation Retribution and, in the aftermath, was recognized as an officer of rare promise. Indeed, like so many other youngsters in these troubled times, his rise up the ranks was rapid. War was no respecter of deadwood; hundreds of older officers, men who had gained their postings through patronage and connections rather than merit, had been killed in the early stages of the Justinian War. By the time Admiral Drake led his fleet into Justinian's home system, Roman Garibaldi had assumed command of a starship.

Unknown to either Drake or Garibaldi, the Grand Senate had come to fear Drake as much as they had feared Admiral Justinian and his fellows. Accordingly, as soon as Drake defeated Admiral Justinian once and for all, they ordered an assassin, attached to Drake's staff, to kill him. The assassin missed: Drake's closest friend died saving his life. In his anger and rage, Admiral Drake led his fleet back to Earth, deposed the Grand Senate and took power for himself. After declaring himself Emperor Marius, he killed the final members of the Grand Senate personally. It was an unusual move that underscored just how different the new regime was to be.

It did not bring peace. Unknown to the Federation, a powerful alliance of humans and aliens was lurking just outside the Federation's borders. The Outsider Federation had taken advantage of the Justinian War to lay its final plans for an offensive that would shatter the Federation, freeing hundreds of thousands of worlds from its grasp. As Roman Garibaldi assumed command of Fifth Fleet, the Outsiders moved, launching an invasion of Federation space.

Already weakened, the Federation reeled under their blows. The economy, pushed to the limits by the Grand Senate, started to collapse, despite everything an increasingly desperate Emperor Marius could do. Political unrest and strikes mushroomed through the Core Worlds, while thousands of out-worlds joined the Outsiders or declared independence. Indeed, given his example, there was no shortage of military personnel wondering if they could take power for themselves.

Hope shone, it seemed, when Admiral Garibaldi won the Battle of Boston, stopping the Outsider advance dead in its tracks. The Outsiders reeled in shock, contemplating - for the first time - that they might lose the war. Emperor Marius traveled to Boston, where he met Admiral Garibaldi; together, they led an offensive towards Nova Athena, homeworld of one of the Outsider Federation's known leaders. But there, faced with defiance, Emperor Marius ordered the bombardment of the enemy world, threatening to exterminate uncounted billions of lives. Admiral Garibaldi moved to stop him...

... And the maddened Emperor opened fire on Garibaldi's ships, then retreated.

The stage was set for the final confrontation between the two greatest men of their generation... and a war that would determine, once and for all, the future of the Federation.

 

Chapter One

In the end, personal loyalty proved to be more important to the Federation Navy than its ideals or the Federation Constitution. But then, perhaps that was not surprising. The only way to rise in the ranks was through joining a senior officer's patronage network. Being promoted on merit was a thing of the past.

-The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Nova Athena, 4101

 

The universe had turned upside down, once again.

"The Outsider shuttle is approaching, sir," Lieutenant Sofia Thompson reported. She looked up from her console in the CIC. "They'll land in the shuttlebay in five minutes."

"Have the passengers scanned thoroughly before allowing them to enter the ship," Admiral Roman Garibaldi ordered, numbly. "Once they're cleared, bring them to the briefing compartment under guard."

"Aye, sir," Lieutenant Thompson said. She frowned. "Sir... they might not like being scanned and searched."

Roman laughed, harshly. "And I don't like running the risk of someone bringing an antimatter bomb onto the ship," he said. "We're not going to take chances."

He looked up at the console, watching grimly as the boxy shuttlecraft approached the massive superdreadnaught. No matter what he said, he doubted the Outsiders would try anything so stupid - Valiant was hardly the only superdreadnaught in Fifth Fleet - but he wouldn't have believed that Emperor Marius would attempt to commit genocide either. A great many certainties had toppled since Admiral Justinian had launched his attack on Earth nine years ago, sparking off a series of increasingly-bitter civil wars. And the Outsiders, his enemies up until an hour ago, had to be almost as confused as he was.

The shuttle vanished from the display as it landed in the shuttlebay. Roman watched through the monitors as armed marines surrounded the craft, then motioned for the occupants to come out with their hands clearly visible. Everyone was jumpy, now that they were caught in the middle of yet another civil war. Roman had made a career out of knowing what to do at the right time, but he honestly wasn't sure what to do now. He and his fleet were renegades, to all intents and purposes; he wondered, absently, just how many of his crewmen were considering burying a blade in his back. Bringing his head back to Earth would be certain to earn his assassin a rich reward.

Or a date with a firing squad, he thought, mordantly. The Emperor has become increasingly irrational.

He shuddered at the thought. Emperor Marius - Admiral Drake, as he'd been at the time - had seemed a strong leader, the sort of person Roman could follow into the fire without hesitation. Roman had wanted to be like him, even as he'd started to build a legend of his own. And he'd followed Admiral Drake until he'd been promoted and given command of Fifth Fleet. Even then, he'd wanted to make Emperor Marius proud of him. He would have done anything for his mentor...

Except commit genocide, he thought. In hindsight, there had been far too many worrying signs before Professor Kratman came to see him. God alone knew what had happened to the Outsider POWs, but after the Battle of Nova Athena he wouldn't have bet money on them surviving for long. I couldn't kill billions of humans on his command.

His intercom buzzed. "Admiral," Elf said. His Marine CO - and his lover - sounded efficient, as always. "We have two guests: Senator Chang Li, the former Representative from Nova Athena and General Charlie Stuart. The remainder of the crew are the shuttle's pilots."

"Have the pilots held for the moment," Roman ordered. "Is the shuttle itself safe?"

"Yes, Admiral," Elf said. "There's nothing more dangerous than a pair of fuel cells and a couple of pistols."

Roman let out a breath. An antimatter warhead would be shrugged off by the ship's shields, if it detonated outside the hull, but a bomb that detonated inside the ship would blow them all to atoms. The Outsiders had to know they'd lost the war - or that they had, before Emperor Marius opened fire on their world - and they might have taken advantage of the brief truce to destroy Valiant. What hope did they have, other than the vague prospect of clawing the Federation as they went down?

"Take Chang and the General to the briefing compartment," he ordered, tiredly. He wanted - needed - a rest, but he knew he wasn't going to get one. "I'll join you there in a moment."

He closed the channel, then looked at the display. Hundreds of icons were scattered around the system; Fifth Fleet, surrounded by a cloud of starfighters, kept its distance from the remaining Outsider ships and planetary defenses. God alone knew what would happen, if some jumpy idiot pushed a firing key. Roman knew, deep inside, that the only real hope for survival was an alliance. But even that wouldn't be enough to save them, if Emperor Marius acted quickly. Roman knew, all too well, just how easy it would be for the Emperor to snatch the fleet train, then Boston itself. Losing the fleet base would doom his fleet to eventual irrelevance.

Unless the Outsiders can supply us, he thought. But they can barely supply themselves.

"Inform Captain Palter that he has tactical command of the fleet," he ordered. "He is to hold position and wait for orders, unless we come under attack. If so, he is to break contact as fast as possible and head for the system limits."

"Aye, sir," Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman sighed, then rose and walked through the hatch, passing the armored marine who stood outside. The corridor beyond was deserted, the crew at their combat stations... he wondered, suddenly, just what would happen when the red alert finally came to an end and crewmen started to talk. There would be crewmen, he was sure, who would think nothing of genocide, who would care little for Outsider lives if their deaths ended a pitiless war. And some of them would be loyalists, loyal to Emperor Marius. A handful might even have been covertly inserted onto his crew to watch Roman himself.

His hand dropped to the sidearm at his belt as he walked down the empty corridor, even though he was sure he was alone. The crew was armed; they'd faced enemies intent on actually boarding starships several times in the past. If even a handful thought to mutiny against his authority, either in the Emperor's name or merely to prevent another round of civil war, there was going to be a bloodbath. He wasn't even sure he could count on the loyalty of the marines...

Elf will keep them in line, he thought. But where will she stand?

It was a bitter thought. The marines prided themselves on being loyal to the Federation, on standing up for its values even as everyone else abandoned them. He had no reason to doubt Elf's loyalty to the Federation, but what would she make of it now, after Emperor Marius had tried to commit genocide? It wasn't as if they'd fired on aliens!

She'd tell me if she thought I was wrong, he thought. They'd been lovers for almost a decade. I can trust her.

He paused outside the hatch, taking a moment to gather himself, then opened the hatch and stepped into the briefing compartment. Elf stood against the bulkhead, wearing her light combat armor and carrying a plasma rifle in one hand; two other marines, wearing heavier armor, stood against the far wall. Senator Chang Li and General Stuart sat at the table, both looking tired and wary. Roman couldn't help thinking, as he cast his eyes over Stuart, that the Outsiders preferred far more practical uniforms than the Federation Navy. Stuart's uniform looked to be almost completely devoid of fancy gold braid.

"Senator, General," he said. "I am Admiral Garibaldi. Welcome onboard Valiant."

He studied them both as they rose. Chang Li was shorter than he'd expected, from her file; her long dark hair framed a middle-aged Oriental face. She'd been a Senator on Earth, he recalled; she'd been the sole Senator from the out-worlds before Admiral Justinian had launched his attack on Earth. Roman reminded himself not to underestimate her or her people, even though the Federation Navy had won the engagement. The Outsiders had to have been plotting their campaign long before Admiral Justinian started a civil war.

And the Emperor had some inkling there were unfriendly alien races out beyond the Rim, he thought. It couldn't have made it any easier to deal with the Outsiders when they finally showed themselves.

General Stuart was a complete unknown, according to the files; indeed, only a handful of data packets from deep-cover agents had provided any information at all. He'd been the enemy commander at Athena and Boston, putting Roman to flight in his first major engagement; the Outsiders, it seemed, hadn't adopted the Grand Senate's policy of shooting defeated admirals out of hand. It would give Stuart a chance to learn from the mistakes that had led to defeat at Boston, assuming the war didn't end quickly. And Stuart looked reassuringly competent. Roman just hoped Stuart was competent enough to make up for his earlier mistakes.

"Admiral," Chang Li said. "Thank you for receiving us."

Roman shrugged, not entirely sure what to say. He'd assumed, prior to the battle, that he - or Emperor Marius - would be dictating surrender terms, hopefully ending the Outsider War once and for all. But instead... he was forced into an alliance with his former enemies, now that the Emperor had gone mad. Roman couldn't help feeling torn between two competing loyalties; Marius Drake, the man who had sponsored him, and the ideals of the Federation, the ideals he'd upheld even as others had abandoned them.

And the Emperor did try to kill us, he thought, grimly. If it had been just him, he would have taken a starship and fled beyond the Rim, but he knew he wouldn't be the only target of the Empire's wrath. We don't have any choice; we must fight.

"The Emperor has gone mad," he said, bluntly. He had never been a diplomat. "He was prepared to fire on your homeworld."

"I know," Chang Li said. Her voice was oddly accented, something that surprised him. "I thank you for saving my people."

"At the cost of putting my people into terrible danger," Roman said. He had no illusions about their chances of success. Even if the Emperor didn't take and hold Boston, forcing him into a direct offensive though the system's Asimov Points, they'd have problems battering their way to Earth before the Federation's superior industry took effect. "The Emperor has to be stopped."

"We agree," Chang Li said. She cocked her head, perhaps in recognition of his concerns. "I am prepared to offer your fleet all the support we can provide."

"That would be useful," Roman said. "But what can you provide?"

"Relatively little," General Stuart said. His voice was gruff. "We lost too many ships at Boston, Admiral. I believe that was your work."

Roman nodded, curtly. He wasn't about to apologize for winning a battle, even though the consequences had come back to haunt him. He'd baited a trap and the Outsiders had fallen into it, giving him an excellent chance to tear their fleet apart. And he'd weakened them so badly that the counterattack hadn't met any serious challenge until it had crossed the stardrive limits and attacked Nova Athena itself.

"There's no point in dredging up the past," Chang Li said. "We must look to the future."

"Of course," Roman said. "What can you offer us?"

"Right now, four battle squadrons and a few hundred smaller ships," General Stuart told him, shortly. "Our fleet train, thankfully, remains largely intact."

"Assuming the crews don't desert when they realize just what they're facing," Chang Li added.

"The Federation is unlikely to show any mercy to independent freighters supporting the Outsiders," Roman pointed out. "Tell them that all will be forgiven if they help us win."

He sighed, inwardly. In hindsight, the Grand Senate's policies - their semi-legal monopoly over interstellar shipping within the core worlds - had driven hundreds of thousands of independent shippers out to the Rim. They'd signed up with the Outsiders and started hauling supplies for them, while the Federation Navy was forced to depend on a badly weakened fleet train. The Grand Senate had chosen to concentrate on building warships, rather than the logistics the navy needed to support them. But then, until recently, the Federation Navy had been able to depend on a network of bases throughout explored and settled space.

"And what will happen," General Stuart asked warily, "if we do win?"

Roman understood, just for a second, the maddening problem facing Emperor Marius. The Federation's problems were impossibly vast, far too great for a single man to fix. And yet, tearing the Federation apart would be just as bad. Humanity hadn't survived a number of alien threats by being disunited.

And, come to think of it, he thought, what do we do about their alien allies?

He cursed under his breath. Humanity had long since abandoned the curse of racism, at least against their fellow humans, but it was a rare human who would agree that aliens should have equal rights. The memories of the First Interstellar War ran deep, even though it had been almost two thousand years ago. Aliens weren't welcome on human worlds; hell, they were rarely welcome on their own homeworlds. And the Outsiders had managed to drum up at least two alien races that were willing to fight alongside them against the Federation. It would be easy for Emperor Marius to turn the war into a crusade against aliens and their human dupes...

Of course he can, he thought, grimly. The process was already underway by the time we won the Battle of Boston.

"I think we should settle that after the fighting is over," he said, flatly. He didn't want to rule, but was there any choice? Sundering the Federation would be disastrous. "The Emperor still has a great many advantages. We may wind up merely prolonging the war."

"Agreed," Chang Li said. She shot her comrade an unreadable look. "We can determine how the future will look once we know we will have a future."

Roman nodded in agreement, then leaned forward. "How quickly can you get your ships here?"

General Stuart looked uncomfortable, sweat prickling on his forehead as his eyes darted around the compartment. It couldn't be easy, Roman knew, discussing classified information with someone who'd been on the other side until literally two hours ago. Hell, he didn't find it easy. He just knew there was no choice; his crews would die unless they won the war and saved themselves. It crossed his mind, as he waited for Stuart to answer, that Admiral Drake had faced the same problem after the Grand Senate had tried to kill him.

And they did kill his closest friend, he thought. Emperor Marius had never been quite the same afterwards. Did losing Tobias push him off the deep end?

"We should be able to assemble most of the remaining ships within a month, perhaps less," Stuart said, carefully. "But that will open up some of the systems we hold to counterattacks."

"There's less danger of that than you might think," Roman assured him. "We massed most of the Federation ships in the sector at Boston for the counteroffensive."

"Unless the Emperor sends out new orders on the way home," Stuart pointed out.

Roman shrugged. There were hundreds of stage-one colony worlds along the Rim, dozens of which had changed hands several times since the war began. None of them were useful, save perhaps as a source of untrained manpower; there was little to be gained by wasting time and effort capturing them for the umpteenth time. The Asimov Points, on the other hand, would be useful, but the Emperor didn't have the mobile forces - yet - to secure them.

He expended too many of the stockpiled fortresses to secure the routes to the core, he thought, darkly. It would be a headache he'd have to deal with, if he lived that long, but for the moment it was a blessing. We were planning to secure the other Asimov Points as we consolidated, after winning at Nova Athena.

"It shouldn't matter," he said, out loud. "The key to victory has been what it always has, ever since the First Interstellar War. The capture or destruction of the enemy's productive capabilities."

He looked straight at Chang Li. "How much can you produce, and how quickly?"

"Our missiles and ships are better, ton for ton, than their Federation counterparts," Chang Li assured him. Roman nodded, impatiently. He'd been on the receiving end of Outsider technical ingenuity more than once. "However, we simply cannot match the Federation's sheer weight of production. I'll give you the complete figures, if you wish, but... well, we can only produce a tenth of the missiles they can produce in the same time period, even though our facilities are more efficient."

"Assuming that their production nodes don't suffer from more disruptions," Stuart offered, ruefully. "There were a lot of strikes over the last two years."

"Which were broken," Chang Li reminded him.

"Even so, the workers weren't exactly enthusiastic about the whole affair," Stuart said. "I suspect their production has been quietly nose-diving for months."

"They'll do whatever it takes to get it back up again," Roman said, quietly. "We need to move fast."

He keyed a switch, displaying a starchart. "I'm going to take Fifth Fleet back to Spinner," he added, after a moment. "If the Emperor has secured Boston, retaking the system will be an incredibly costly battle. I don't dare give him the time to dig in."

"Understood," Stuart said.

"You two can return to the planet, then organize your ships to meet us at Spinner," Roman said. "Assuming we can retake Boston, we can push onwards to Earth as quickly as possible, before the Emperor has a chance to rally his defenses."

Chang Li blinked. "You intend to take the offensive so quickly?"

"There's no choice," Roman said. Stuart nodded in agreement. "If we don't take the offensive now, he'll take advantage of his production capabilities and crush us like bugs."

 

Chapter Two

This tended to ensure that officers stayed with their patrons, even when their patrons threw themselves into rebellion against their superiors - or the Federation itself.

-The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Von Doom System, 4101

 

Betrayed.

He'd been betrayed.

Marius Drake, Emperor of the Federation, Chief Naval Officer of the Federation Navy, sat in his darkened cabin, brooding. He'd been betrayed. Roman Garibaldi, his protégé, the young man whose career he'd mentored until Garibaldi had finally reached flag rank, had betrayed him. And, in doing so, had saved the Outsiders from defeat. The chance to burn them out of existence, once and for all, had been lost. Garibaldi had ensured that the war would go on and on...

I thought I could trust him, Drake thought. He'd believed in the younger man's loyalty to the Federation and Marius personally. God knew Garibaldi had been a mere cadet, if one of considerable promise, before the Justinian War had begun. Lacking connections, he should have put the Federation before political concerns. But instead he'd betrayed the Federation to its enemies. I thought I could trust him!

Raw, bitter anger welled up within Marius's heart. The Federation's unity was sacrosanct; human unity was all that stood between the human race and the hundreds of alien threats lurking beyond the Rim. He could not - he would not - tolerate any thought of sundering the Federation, of granting the Outsiders the independence they sought. It would only weaken humanity against the true threats. And indeed, had the Outsiders not made common cause with two alien races? In doing so, they had sold out the rest of the human race. They were beyond redemption!

They have to die, he thought, too tired to sit upright, let alone stand. It was hard, so hard, to muster the energy not to fall back into the darkness. He knew he should eat, get some proper sleep, but his thoughts were too agitated to allow himself to rise. They have to be destroyed before they destroy us.

He cursed under his breath, wrapped in a mixture of hatred and self-loathing. What had he been thinking when he'd made himself Emperor? Surely, he could have done something - anything - else, something that would have spared him the task of grappling with the falling Federation, of trying to save something from the ruins. But it wasn't in his nature to abandon a task, once started; he knew he had no choice but to keep fighting. The Outsiders had been badly weakened, after all. Even the addition of Fifth Fleet to their forces wouldn't save them in the long run.

Unless they have more allies out there, he thought. And unless Roman manages to pull off a miracle.

Drake shuddered in anger. Roman Garibaldi had a talent, a positive talent, for finding ways to get into and out of trouble. No doubt his talent would continue to work, even as he switched sides... had he wanted to be Emperor himself? Or had he been a covert Outsider sympathizer all along? He'd certainly raised doubts about taking the POWs back to Earth for interrogation, then public execution. Had he been working for the Outsiders even then?

It didn't feel right, somehow, but it felt like hours before he reasoned it out. Roman couldn't have been working for the Outsiders, not before the Battle of Boston. A talented admiral - and Marius knew Roman to be a talented admiral - would not have found it hard to lose the battle, perhaps even by surrendering remarkably easily. No, Roman wasn't driven by love for the Outsiders, but a desire for power himself. No doubt he was already convincing the Outsiders to support him in his own bid for the throne.

The nasty part of Marius's mind contemplated that thought with no little amusement. Marius had thought himself used to command - he'd been commanding starships and fleets for decades - but being Emperor had been very different. The Grand Senate had left the Federation in a terrible mess and, no matter what he tried, the economy continued to collapse. Perhaps, if he'd had time, he could have saved the Federation, but the Outsider War had put a stop to that. The irony was almost amusing. He'd taken power at least in part to stop the Grand Senate from destroying the rest of the Federation, only to have no choice but to use the same policies himself.

That was why I wanted to end it, he thought, grimly. Destroying Nova Athena and its population would have ended the war. Too many lives had already been lost, sacrifices to the greater good. A victory now would give us a chance to breathe.

He looked up, sharply, as a low chime rang through the cabin. Someone was on the other side of the hatch, someone he didn't know... the marines wouldn't let someone hostile into the cabin, would they? He thought not; he trusted the marines, but then he'd trusted Roman Garibaldi too. Tobias, his former Marine CO and closest friend, was dead... who knew which way the marines would jump, when push came to shove? They'd already balked at some of the grisly tasks necessary to get the economy back up and running, including a moderate purge of trouble-makers...

The hatch hissed open. Marius winced, a second later, as the lights brightened. If someone on the ship had decided to switch sides... he relaxed, very slightly, as Commander Ginny Lewis came into view. She already knew there was something wrong with him and hadn't betrayed him, unlike so many others. But how long would that last?

"Emperor?"

Marius almost smiled at the alarm in her voice. The young redhead had shown rare promise - almost as much as the young Garibaldi - but it wouldn't save her if she were blamed for his condition. Captain Watson wouldn't hesitate to turn her into a scapegoat, although it wouldn't save his hide either. God alone knew what would happen to the Federation once Marius was gone. It wasn't as if there was a clear successor waiting in the wings. Marius had no children, and his wife, for all of her many talents, lacked the military skills to keep the fleet loyal to her. And the civilian government had been crippled decades before Marius's birth.

"I'm alive," Marius croaked. He forced himself to sit upright. If Ginny intended to kill him, he could at least meet it with some dignity. "Commander - status report?"

"You need to eat and drink something, if you won't let me call the medics," Ginny said, carefully. "Emperor... sir..."

"Not now," Marius said, stiffly. He didn't like anyone seeing him so weak; hell, he hated the thought of taking Ginny into his confidence. But there was no choice. "Status report?"

"We've just entered the Von Doom system," Ginny said. "Captain Watson was wondering how you wished to enter Boston."

"I'm sure he was," Marius muttered.

He cursed under his breath. Captain Watson was a solid man, but completely lacking in imagination or initiative. Even in the midst of a war, with deadwood admirals and captains being killed at an unprecedented rate, his rise had been suspiciously slow. But then, he did need authorization in triplicate to go to the head, let alone take command of his superdreadnaught and set course for the nearest star. And to think he'd thought that a lack of imagination was an asset!

"Tell me," he said. It was hard to think clearly, but he had no choice. "Have we detected any courier drones racing past us?"

"No, sir," Ginny said. "Fifth Fleet hasn't attempted to communicate with Boston."

"Unless they sent the drones the other way," Marius commented. There were two possible routes to Boston, after all, and Roman Garibaldi would have no trouble deducing which one Marius had taken. "And we have no way of knowing what we'll encounter at Boston."

He closed his eyes as a stab of pain burned through his head. Boston had been the linchpin of the Federation's defenses in the sector. Fifth Fleet had been based there for much of the war and, by straining the already-tottering logistics network to the limits, the navy had built up a powerful network of fixed fortifications. If his fleet had to punch their way into the system, it was going to cost them dearly. They'd expended most of their assault missiles during the flight to Nova Athena.

And if Roman Garibaldi planned to betray me all along, he thought, whoever he left in command is likely to be ready and waiting for us.

There was no choice, of course. If he wanted to get back to Earth in less than five years, he had to use the Asimov Point network. And if he wanted to do that, he had to enter Boston and hope...

"Inform Captain Watson that we are to enter the system as normal, announcing a victory over the Outsiders," he said. It was time to gamble. If the system's defenders had no idea what had happened at Nova Athena, they'd hesitate to open fire on his ships. "I do not believe we will be fired upon. Once we're in the system, head directly for the next Asimov Point."

"Aye, sir," Ginny said. "And the system itself?"

Marius took a moment to think. Boston had to remain in friendly hands, if it were at all possible, but he knew he didn't have the firepower to impose his will on the system. If the local CO - who would be a Garibaldi loyalist, he was sure - put up a fight, all hell was likely to break loose. He dared not die, not now. The Federation he loved would not survive his death.

"Once we enter the system, detach Commodore Palin with orders to take command of the system's defenses," he said, carefully. Commodore Hassan Palin had a working brain, which put him ahead of Captain Watson; he should be smart enough to understand the dangers of trying to switch sides now the battle lines had been redrawn. "He is to send messages through the ICN... no, belay that. I'll write the messages myself."

"Yes, sir," Ginny said. "There are gaps in the ICN, though."

Marius nodded, impatiently. The Outsiders, damn them to hell, had targeted ICN platforms specifically, making it harder for the Federation to coordinate defensive operations on a galactic scale. They had the same problem, of course, but they'd been on the offensive and their homeworlds were largely unknown. The Federation could capture every world that had willingly joined the Outsiders, once the war had begun, and yet get no closer to final victory.

"The messages can also be relayed on the base's courier boats," he said, tartly. He tried to stand, but his body betrayed him and fell back into the chair. "They can take it to worlds and systems outside the network."

"Yes, sir," Ginny said. She held out a hand. "Should I help you up?"

"No," Marius said. He gathered himself and tried to stand again. His legs felt weak, as if he was about to fall over at any second, but somehow he managed to remain balanced. "I'm not a cripple..."

"You should eat, sir," Ginny said. "How long has it been since you ate or drank anything?"

Marius couldn't remember. Hell, he wasn't sure just how long he'd been in the cabin, just how long it had been since they'd blasted away from Nova Athena. The mere thought sent another jolt of pain stabbing though his head. His body had been enhanced thoroughly, first as a naval officer and then as an emperor, but he needed food and rest, perhaps not in that order. Ginny was right; he should go see the medics... yet he was too stubborn. The old distrust of starship doctors, the fear that they would relieve him of duty for not attending his physical exam, rose up in his mind. He knew he didn't dare show weakness to anyone outside his trusted circle.

And how many of them, his own thoughts mocked him, can you trust?

He shuddered, almost losing his balance as he tottered over to the desk. He'd trusted Blake Raistlin and the young man had nearly killed him, on orders from his familial superiors. And he'd trusted Roman Garibaldi, who'd shared the same graduating class as Blake Raistlin. He made a mental note to check what had happened to the others from that class - given the attrition of two wars, there was a good chance that most of them were dead - and he sat down, feeling his legs buckle underneath him. It was unlikely he could have remained standing for much longer.

"I'll find some food for you, sir," Ginny said. "There's normally something held in stasis..."

"Pass on the orders to Captain Watson first," Marius ordered. He didn't need food that quickly - besides, it would be a mistake to let the captain think he was incapable of command. Watson's subordinates might have their own ideas about the future. "And then go fetch something to eat."

He watched Ginny go, trying not to notice how her tight trousers showed off her behind. He was married, married to one of the few people he trusted... but could he trust her, really? If Tiffany was planning to betray him, too...

You have to trust someone, his own thoughts reminded him. And Tiffany could have betrayed you to her family years ago, if she'd wanted you dead.

It wasn't a pleasant thought. Tiffany was only his because her family had pushed her into marrying him, since they believed he needed a link to the Grand Senate. They hadn't realized that Tiffany and he would wind up in an alliance to survive, or fall in love, that their marriage would become far more than just another marriage of convenience. But now, if Roman Garibaldi had betrayed him, would Tiffany do the same?

I have to get back to Earth, he thought. It's the only way to win.

Every instinct, honed by decades of fighting the Federation's wars, told him to take command of Boston, replenish his ships and meet Roman Garibaldi's offensive when it came. Roman knew the laws of interstellar combat as well as Drake did; Garibaldi would know the only hope for victory was to overrun the Federation before Marius could rebuild the economy and deploy newer and better weapons from the research stations. He had to move quickly if he wanted to survive...

But if he stayed at Boston, he risked losing control of his flank.

He cursed, savagely. His attention was required in too many places, too many for him to handle personally... and yet, he couldn't delegate responsibility to anyone else. Who could he trust? He'd promoted Roman Garibaldi over the heads of officers with more seniority, more time in grade, because he'd trusted the younger man. Now, Roman had betrayed him and... and there were no others he dared trust. He'd have to double and triple-check his precautions, just to make sure no one else could stick a knife in his back...

It struck him, suddenly, that the Grand Senate must have felt the same way. The thought made him giggle, realizing that matters had come full circle. He was now playing the same role as the Grand Senate, trying to protect the status quo while young and ambitious officers sought to destroy it. And if Roman Garibaldi had his way, Marius would be removed, just like the Grand Senate.

And Roman might even shoot him in the head - personally.

The hatch hissed open again, revealing a harassed-looking Ginny carrying a tray. "The guards insisted on me tasting everything first," she said, as she put the tray on the table and removed the cover. Marius's stomach rumbled as he smelled the food. "Don't they trust me?"

"They don't trust anyone," Marius said, as he picked up the fork. It was unlikely that anyone had managed to slip poison into his food, but too many unlikely things had happened recently. A toxin keyed to Marius personally, thankfully, would be well beyond the reach of most would-be assassins. "But with food like this, I wonder why anyone would bother adding poison."

He smiled as he took a bite of the food. Naval rations had never been very good, thanks to the Grand Senate ordering foodstuffs from the lowest or most-favored bidder. Indeed, he'd heard of hundreds of crews that had been discontented, before the Justinian War, because their commanding officers had been selling off the rations and, somehow, buying even worse food supplies on the black market. That, at least, had been one thing he'd been able to fix once he'd assumed control of the Federation. Making sure that captains and flag officers had to eat the same food as the lowest of crewmen had probably helped.

But you did host a feast for your officers before you departed Boston, his own thoughts reminded him. Did you make sure the lower decks got the same food then?

"It's a great improvement," Ginny said, carefully. "Although I'm not exactly sure what it is."

"As long as it's edible and reasonably tasty, it doesn't matter," Marius said. He'd spent most of his adult life on one starship or another. Most spacers preferred to draw a veil over precisely where most recycled food came from. "All that matters is that it will help keep you alive."

"I still think you should go to sickbay, sir," Ginny said. "You're not well."

"I can't afford to leave my post," Marius said. He cursed under his breath. Captain Watson could handle a transit through an Asimov Point, but if even a handful of ships tried to bar their path... he doubted the captain could deal with it. "And I have too much work to do."

He finished his meal, then reached for his console. "Inform me when we are two hours from the Boston Asimov Point," he ordered. "Until then, I have planning to do."

"You should sleep," Ginny said. "Sir..."

Marius felt a hot flash of anger. "I don't have time," he snapped. "Dismissed."

Ginny saluted, then hastily beat a retreat through the hatch. Marius watched her go, then reached into his uniform pocket for the packet of pills. There were dangers in using them too often, he knew all too well, but there was no choice. He needed to stay awake.

Popping a pill into his mouth, he tapped the console and started to work.

 

Chapter Three

When a senior officer was deserving of such loyalty, it worked in their favor - but, when they weren't, it only made the problems facing the Federation worse.

-The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Nova Athena, 4101

 

"You're being very quiet," Roman observed.

"I wish I had something to say," Elf replied. They stood together in the CIC, looking up at the giant display. Fifth Fleet was reversing course and powering out towards the system limits, where it would slip into stardrive for the short jaunt to the nearest Asimov Point. "I wish I knew which way to jump."

Roman cocked his head at her. "Could you accept attempted genocide?"

Elf shook her head. "There's a difference between collateral damage, however unfortunate, and the deliberate slaughter of billions of innocents," she said, firmly. "But I just worry about the future."

Roman nodded, curtly. There was no point in trying to hide what they'd done. They'd gone into rebellion against the Federation, against the Emperor... just like Admiral Justinian and the other warlords. And if they didn't succeed in defeating Emperor Marius, they would be hunted down and killed as the Federation's vastly-greater war industry swamped them in production. He hadn't had time to sit down and properly simulate the war, although experience had told him that simulations were rarely useful, but he had a feeling he knew what the predicted outcome would be. The Federation would win the war.

"And then there's the Outsiders," Elf said. "Do you really trust them?"

"I trust them to act in their own self-interest," Roman said. It was easy to blame the Outsiders for kicking the Federation while it was down, but they'd probably suspected they would never have a better chance for outright victory. And they were probably right. "And what happens after the war..."

"You need a plan to determine what will happen afterwards, if we win," Elf said curtly, as his words tailed off. "You need to decide what you want to happen before someone else decides it for you."

Roman shook his head, although he knew she was right. He'd been a RockRat, then a Federation Navy officer... he wasn't a politician or a planetary governor. He'd thought Emperor Marius could handle the task of reforming the Federation, but it had evidently driven the older man mad. There was no way he wanted to spend the rest of his life as emperor, trapped on Earth while trying to fix the damage of centuries of mismanagement and deliberate malice.

"You need to think about these details," Elf pressed. "The Outsiders will certainly have a plan for the post-war universe."

Marius had said, back during one of their private meetings, that the Federation's great strength was its unity. They'd fought the Inheritance Wars to make it clear that the Federation was not going to be sundered. Indeed, even Admiral Justinian had moved to claim the seat of power, rather than separate his sector from the Federation... although, towards the end of the war, he might have had other ideas. But the Outsiders... they wanted to break the Federation up completely, even welcome aliens into the fold.

And we won't know if we can trust the aliens, he thought, numbly. We would have another civil war over the issue.

"I can see why the problem drove Emperor Marius mad," he said, finally. "How are we supposed to handle it ourselves?"

He cursed under his breath as he looked at the starchart, showing the quickest route back to Boston. There were no precautions in place to keep Marius from taking control of the base, then turning its formidable defenses against Fifth Fleet. Roman knew the defenses intimately - he'd designed the defense grid himself - and there was no easy way to push through the Asimov Point. It would be a brutal engagement that would cost him dearly, yet there was little choice. The cold equations that had pushed the Outsiders into attacking Boston, despite knowing they were slamming into the teeth of his defenses, applied to him too. If he wanted to break through into the Core Worlds, he needed Boston...

... And Emperor Marius would know it too.

"We may not survive long enough to discuss the future of the Federation," he said, turning away from the display. "We can worry about the future after we win the war."

"A mistake," Elf said.

Roman nodded, ruefully. "We need to concentrate on winning the war first," he said. "I can't get distracted like Admiral Stilicho."

"I suppose," Elf said.

She looked doubtful, but he knew she understood. Admiral Stilicho had commanded the Federation Navy's invasion force during the early stages of the Blue Star War, a war the Federation should have won easily. Indeed, Admiral Stilicho had been so confident of a walkover that he spent more time planning the victory parade on Earth and handing out patronage to his junior officers than preparing for the war. His masterstroke had turned into a military disaster on a scale unseen since the Battle of Spider Bite and, fortunately for him, he hadn't survived the first engagement. Roman had no intention of repeating the same mistake.

Because Emperor Marius is a skilled officer who beat Admiral Justinian, even when taken by surprise, Roman thought. He won't hesitate to take advantage of any of my mistakes.

"And that leads to another problem," he said. "The loyalty of our crews."

"I've stationed marines throughout the decks, ensuring the lockdown stays firmly in place," Elf assured him. "I doubt anyone can put together a plan to mutiny before we're halfway to Boston."

Roman scowled. He hated the thought of enforcing loyalty at gunpoint. It would be easy, too easy, for his crewmen to work at a deliberate pace, even when the ship was under fire. He couldn't allow it to risk their chances when push came to shove. Emperor Marius already held too many cards for it to be tolerated.

"I need to speak to them," he said. He keyed a console. "Record."

"Recording," the console said.

Roman took a moment to gather his thoughts, then began. "This is Admiral Garibaldi," he said, carefully. By now, lockdown or no lockdown, word of the brief and savage engagement would have spread through the fleet. There was no point in trying to lie. "Emperor Marius attempted to bombard Nova Athena with antimatter weapons, ensuring the destruction of all life on her surface. When I tried to talk him out of it, he opened fire on Fifth Fleet."

He scowled at the thought. Three years of warfare against the Outsiders - and their alien allies - had worn down the fleet's desire to remain true to the Federation's ideals. It was quite likely that a large percentage of his crew, even a majority, would think that exterminating the entire population of Nova Athena was a good thing, even though it would be a monstrous act. They'd psyched themselves up for a final battle, one that would end the war...

But it wouldn't. Even if Nova Athena had surrendered, even if Emperor Marius had accepted the surrender without bombarding the planet, the other Outsider worlds and bases were still a complete mystery. The war would have dragged on for years before every last Outsider was hunted down and killed.

"The Emperor has gone mad," he said, picking his words carefully. "He has already declared us - all of us - outlaws. Our only hope, to save both our lives and something of the Federation, is to overthrow him as quickly as possible. Towards this end, I have forged an alliance with the Outsiders."

He paused, again. There was no point in trying to hide the truth, but it was chancy. A crewman who would otherwise have supported him might think twice, after learning that he was meant to work with the alien-loving Outsiders. Or someone who had a more personal grudge... the Outsiders had killed hundreds of thousands of naval personnel in their war, all of whom would have left friends and family behind. And, with sidearms issued to all personnel, a bloody mutiny at the worst possible time might end the war.

"I know this won't be easy to accept," he added, "but I see no choice. The Emperor has to be stopped.

"Once we return to Boston, those of you who are unwilling to take up arms against the Emperor can make yourselves known to my officers. You will be shipped to Boston itself, to remain out of the fighting until the end of the war. If the Emperor wins, you will be held blameless" - he hoped that was true - "and can resume your duties. And, if we win, nothing more will be said about the matter."

He took a long breath. "I know this won't be easy for many of us," he concluded. "Please make up your mind during the voyage to Boston, then let me know what you want to do."

"Good enough," Elf said, as he stopped the recording. "Maybe not the sweetest speech I've heard, but one from the heart."

Roman nodded, curtly. He knew he'd have problems with manpower - far too many officers and crew thought the Emperor was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the Federation Navy - but he wasn't about to force men to go into battle against their will.

"I'll transmit it through the fleet," he said. "Do you foresee any other problems?"

"There will be agents inserted into the fleet," Elf said. "They're not likely to bow out and stay on Boston."

"I know," Roman said. "Can you ID them?"

"Not easily," Elf said. "Once, it would have been easy, but now... with so much manpower washing around the Federation..."

Roman winced. Manpower - skilled manpower - had been a major problem for years, thanks to the Grand Senate's policies on education. Emperor Marius hadn't even begun to fix the problems with the educational establishment, but at least he'd been able to ensure that skilled engineers and technicians were encouraged to train others in how to maintain starships. Even so, vast numbers of skilled officers had been moved from ship to ship, making it impossible for a counter-intelligence team to look for the signs of an infiltrator. There were just too many officers and men who fit the profile.

"Just keep an eye out for trouble," he said. He wasn't too worried about agitators - the chiefs would deal with them - but an operative who kept his head down while plotting trouble was far more dangerous. "And we'll do what we can to encourage them to switch sides."

He keyed the console, sending the recording into the communications network, then called Lieutenant Thompson back into the CIC. She looked refreshed - she'd managed to snatch a couple of hours of sleep, something that had eluded both Roman and Elf - and took her place at the console without hesitation. Elf nodded curtly to Roman and strode towards the hatch, which hissed open at her approach. Roman just hoped she found time to have a nap before they reached Boston.

"Admiral," Lieutenant Thompson said. "I have a full status report from the fleet."

"Show me," Roman ordered. "And then reshuffle our damaged ships to the rear."

The display updated rapidly, showing him the remains of Fifth Fleet. It was an impressive collection of firepower - thanks to modern technology, it was more powerful than the mighty fleet that had been sent off on Operation Retribution - but it had taken a beating, thanks to the Emperor. Only five battle squadrons could claim to be at full readiness, the remainder no longer capable of flank speed or raising shields. Repair crews were already swarming over their hulls, but it would take weeks - at least - to get them ready to go back into the fire.

I don't want to leave them here, with the Outsiders, he thought. He knew he didn't dare trust the Outsiders completely, not when they were allied with aliens. We just have to hope we can move them back to Boston... and that we aren't greeted with a hail of missiles.

"Captain Hammond and Captain Tromie both claim their ships are still capable of combat operations," Lieutenant Thompson informed him. "However, their engineers disagree."

"Tell them they're assigned to protect the cripples," Roman said, curtly. He didn't want to send a damaged ship through a potentially-hostile Asimov Point, no matter what the commanding officer thought. "And make sure they can establish a combat datanet with the remaining ships. We need to maximize our advantages."

"Aye, sir," Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman sat back, thinking hard. He didn't blame the captains for wanting to remain in the fight, even against ships that had been friendly a few hours ago. Far too many decent officers had been cashiered, or had their careers frozen, for not being aggressive enough in the eyes of their superiors. But there was aggression and then there was a foolhardy desire to take a crippled ship into the maelstrom of modern war. It could not be allowed.

He pushed the thought aside as he tapped his console. "Order nineteen courier boats readied for dispatch," he said. "I'll be recording a message for them personally, which they are to upload into what remains of the ICN as they pass through the sector."

"Aye, sir," Lieutenant Thompson said.

"And make sure their commanders are aware of the importance of avoiding contact with Emperor Marius and his ships," Roman added. "The last thing they want - or need - is to be caught by the Emperor."

"Aye, sir," Thompson said, again.

Roman bent over his console, trying to think how best to compose a message to the other fleet admirals scattered around the Federation. It was unlikely, to say the least, that any of them would declare war on Emperor Marius - he'd put most of them in command personally - but he had to try. Fifth Fleet was the most powerful formation in the Federation Navy - in raw tonnage, she was more powerful than Home Fleet - yet she was grossly outgunned. He hated to think of what it would cost him as he fought his way through one defended Asimov Point after another, bleeding his fleet white as he advanced slowly towards Earth. By the time he reached the Gateway, the Asimov Point that led to Earth, he'd have hardly any ships left.

And some of them may see value in attempting to revolt, he thought, grimly. They may even see what I'm doing as just another revolt.

He scowled at the thought. How trustworthy were the other fleet admirals? He'd only met a couple of them personally... Emperor Marius might have chosen them for loyalty, rather than competence. But then, Marius would have known the dangers of putting incompetents in command positions. He'd been the one who'd had to save the Retribution Fleet after Fleet Admiral Cuthbert Parkinson had led it into a trap. There was a war on, after all. He wouldn't have repeated the Grand Senate's mistake.

The Federation is at stake, he told himself. I have to try to make contact, even if it fails.

He tapped out a message on his console, reread it twice, then attached sensor records up to the moment Emperor Marius had swung his ships around and fled the system. There was nothing there, he was sure, that the Emperor wouldn't already have, once his analysts went to work sifting through the vast fields of data collected by his starships during the battle. He briefly considered attaching a note of his intentions, then dismissed the thought. The courier boats might well be captured en route...

And yet he'll know what you have in mind, he thought. The laws of interstellar combat leave me with few options and he knows it.

Roman scowled as another thought occurred to him. If they were lucky, the courier boats would beat the Emperor to Boston, even though the Emperor had a head start. And if that happened... he could warn his second, inform Commodore Sonia Yu that the Emperor's ships had to be stopped. They could win in an instant, if they trapped or killed the Emperor himself. And yet, he knew it would cause a great deal of confusion. Sonia was a skilled logistics officer, but she was no fighter.

"Record," he ordered. "Sonia, things have changed."

He ran through a brief explanation of what had happened, then uploaded it to the courier boats before they made it out of communications range. It was a gamble - Sonia might side with the Emperor, or waffle long enough for the Emperor to take control of the defenses - but it had to be tried. He just had a nasty feeling the courier boat wouldn't reach Boston in time to make a difference. The pilot wouldn't be able to take a least time course if he or she encountered the Emperor's fleet.

"Message sent, sir," Lieutenant Thompson said.

Roman nodded, then forced himself to relax. There were no emergency alerts, nothing to suggest that his crews were on the verge of mutiny... perhaps, just perhaps, he'd managed to sway most of them to his side. Or, perhaps, they were waiting until the fleet was at Boston before deserting him. What would he do, he asked himself silently, if the fleet lost most of its crewmen? The war would come to an end before it had even fairly begun.

He shrugged, looking up at Nova Athena. The planet's population knew just how close they'd come to total destruction, but would the rest of the Outsiders? How far could he trust them, too? They had to know he was their only hope for winning the war...

We just have to push on and hope, he told himself, firmly. Because if we stop, the Emperor will have his chance to secure his position and win the war.

 

Chapter Four

This was not, to be fair, a problem faced by the Outsiders. They handled the vast majority of their promotions purely on merit. Accordingly, their starship crews tended to be more efficient than their Federation counterparts.

-The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Nova Athena, 4101

 

"I think I hate you," Chang Li said.

She glared at General Stuart, who seemed unimpressed as she stepped into his stateroom, the hatch hissing closed behind her. Maybe it was a minor matter, given how sure they'd been that they were about to die, but she was still annoyed. He had defied her direct orders and, even though he'd been trying to save her life, there still had to be a reckoning.

"You had me kidnapped," she snapped. "And then the shuttle's power failed, midway through the flight. If the battle had gone differently..."

"I believed you would have died if you'd remained on Nova Athena," General Stuart said, calmly. "Your death would certainly have upset the fragile coalition -"

"The Outsider Federation is bigger than one woman," Li insisted. "My death would not have made a difference."

Carefully, she placed firm controls on her temper. She didn't like the thought of dying, even in a good cause, but she'd accepted it. Running from danger was bad enough; leaving hundreds of millions of others trapped on the planet's surface was worse. She might have been the sole survivor of her homeworld, if the Federation had bombarded the planet's surface. She'd certainly have been the only person to escape the battle.

"I believe your death would have been catastrophic," General Stuart said. His voice gentled, slightly. "We lack the long history of the Federation, Li. Our defeat at Boston was bad enough to rattle everyone's cage. We could easily have fragmented after losing you and your homeworld."

Li scowled. He had a point, but she didn't want to admit it. She certainly didn't want to admit that the only reason she would have survived was because her orders had been disobeyed. And yet, she had to admit it had worked out in their favor. She'd been in space, close enough to link up with General Stuart and travel with him to Valiant. They now had hope when, only a few hours ago, they'd had none.

And yet, they also had one hell of a mess.

But at least we have hope, she reminded herself. I should cling to that.

She sighed inwardly, forcing herself to think. She'd been stunned throughout her stay on the shuttle, but she'd reviewed the files once she'd been awakened. The Federation Navy, on the direct command of their Emperor, had been poised to fire antimatter warheads at her homeworld. She'd have lost her entire family in a handful of seconds. And the only thing that had saved her homeworld from complete destruction had been a mutiny in the enemy's ranks. Or something.

She honestly wasn't entirely sure what had happened. And she didn't really want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"Very well," she said. "Do you think we can trust Admiral Garibaldi?"

"I've never met him before this moment, not face-to-face," General Stuart said. "I thought you were supposed to be the one who was good at reading people."

Li said nothing, merely raising her eyebrows.

"I think he's young and earnest," General Stuart said, after a moment. "And I think he was honestly shocked after the Emperor tried to commit genocide. But he could be very good at masking his thoughts and feelings. Don't forget, he was a serving officer during the days of the Grand Senate. He wouldn't have risen in the ranks without the ability to dissemble."

"Maybe," Li said.

She scowled. There was frustratingly little in the files her intelligence staff had collected on Roman Garibaldi - and almost none of it had been gleaned from any method more complex than reading the Federation's press releases. Ensign Roman Garibaldi had assumed command of Enterprise during Operation Retribution, suggesting either heavy casualties or very powerful connections. But his name didn't suggest any strong ties to the Grand Senate; indeed, the only patron he had was Marius Drake.

Command of a cruiser at a surprisingly young age, she thought, mentally reviewing what she'd read. No doubt patronage had played a role, but Marius Drake wasn't - hadn't been - the type of man to value loyalty over competence. And then a commodore, commander of an entire fleet, and then an admiral. And he tricked us at Boston and kicked our asses right across the system.

"He is competent," General Stuart said. "But politically... I don't know what he is."

Li shook her head. "Can he win the war?"

"With our support, perhaps," General Stuart said. "Without it, probably not. And then... I don't know what he'd want to do with the Federation."

"True," Li agreed.

She'd hoped, once upon a time, that the Federation could be reformed, that a modicum of justice and fairness could be restored to the system. But she'd found herself blocked at every turn, even when she'd beaten the Grand Senators at their own game and managed to get herself elected to the Grand Senate. She'd thought she'd won a great prize, yet it hadn't taken her long to sort out just how badly the entire system was rigged. The collected voting power of the out-worlds was of no consequence, compared to the might of the core. And even the destruction of the Grand Senate hadn't been enough to save the system.

The irony was chilling. She might not have met Roman Garibaldi before the Battle of Nova Athena, but she had met Marius Drake. He'd struck her as a grim bulldog, determined to burn his way through everything standing in his path, yet destruction was no way to reform the Federation. If the reports she'd read were correct, Drake - Emperor Marius - had become the monster he'd sought to kill. He'd found himself forced to destroy the Federation in order to save it.

And after we win the war, she asked herself, what then?

The Outsider Federation had settled on a federal structure for the post-Federation universe, an attempt to keep both human unity and grant hundreds of thousands of worlds autonomy, preventing them from becoming the victims of the federal government. But she knew, all too well, that not every Outsider supported the plan. They hated and feared Earth; they wanted, deep in their hearts, to burn the entire edifice to the ground. And there were times, far too many times, when she found herself agreeing with them. Earth was so far beyond salvation that destroying it was the only option.

But now, with the addition of Roman Garibaldi to their ranks, who knew where he would stand?

"I have a suggestion," General Stuart said. "We need time - months, at least - to repair our damaged ships and bring the next generation of superdreadnaughts online. Admiral Garibaldi can use that time to secure Boston, hopefully securing his fleet train and the immense stockpile of supplies in the fleet base. It would also get him control of a number of pathways deeper into the Federation."

Li nodded impatiently. Boston's importance was no great surprise to her. They'd discussed the system's role in the enemy's defenses, back when she'd authorized the attack on Boston that had ended so badly. If Admiral Garibaldi failed to secure the system, all hope of an offensive deeper into enemy space would be lost.

"We provide him with what limited support we can, while waiting for the remainder of our fleet to come back online," General Stuart added. "If his forces get worn down to a nub... that will make it easier, in the aftermath of the war, for us to determine the future of the Federation."

"You mean, use his forces to soak up enemy fire," Li said, flatly. "And turn him into a martyr, if necessary."

"Yes," General Stuart said. "He may be too dangerous to be allowed to live."

Li felt her eyes narrow. She could see the cold-hearted logic of it. The Outsider Navy had been badly weakened after the Battle of Boston and, even with their technical advantages, the Federation Navy would still outgun them rather badly. And even if they won the war, they might just be trading one emperor for another. Worse, a potential Emperor Roman would know the Outsiders far better than Emperor Marius could ever hope to do. He would have had plenty of opportunity to locate every last production node, then send ships out to destroy them. Allowing Garibaldi to weaken himself battering against the enemy's defenses might work in her favor.

But it was dishonorable.

She had no illusions of just how much Garibaldi had sacrificed, just to save her homeworld from genocide. He ran the risk of being knifed in the back by his own crew - or, perhaps, of being hunted down and shot like a dog. It was no favor, to such a man, to abandon him to the whims of his enemies. Or to use him, praise him, and discard him. She couldn't allow it to stand.

And he will see what we are doing, too, she thought, bitterly. Nothing could be more certain to harden his heart against us.

"No," she said. "We will treat him as a full ally, with all the rights and duties that that implies."

General Stuart frowned. "The risks..."

Li cut him off. "If we lose the war, perhaps because we withheld reinforcements that might have swung the tide of battle in our favor, there will be no point in worrying about the future," she said, firmly. "And if he believes we are deliberately sending him and his men out to die... well, he might have a very strong incentive to switch sides once again or declare himself an emperor in his own right. I don't think he's one of the bad guys."

"He took our fleet on and beat it," General Stuart said.

He took your fleet on, Li thought. General Stuart had been in command of the forces that had attacked Boston, only to be lured into an ambush and driven away from the system. It had to sting, losing a battle to a younger man... but then, the Outsiders had had almost no experience of full-scale fleet battles before the war, at least outside simulations. Are you arguing to expend Garibaldi because he's dangerous or because of your injured pride?

"That doesn't make him a bad guy," she said, instead. "Besides, if we refuse to accept him, don't we have to throw out all the former Federation Navy personnel who've joined our ranks?"

"That's different," General Stuart said.

Li met his eyes. "How?"

General Stuart took a long breath. "We recruited hundreds of thousands of former naval personnel - and mercenaries - before the war began," he said. "In all such cases, the personnel were scattered amongst the fleet and, when they were being offered posts in sensitive locations, tested thoroughly for disloyalty or hidden programming. Their ability to cause problems was minimized. The handful of spies or deep-cover personalities we did find were unable to take any information back to their masters before they were... dealt with."

He paused, significantly. "In this case, we have over a hundred thousand naval personnel, spread out over two hundred warships," he added. "More, in fact, if Admiral Garibaldi convinces Boston to join us without a fight. They are, if you will pardon the expression, an indigestible bulk; they have a fleet, they are loyal to Admiral Garibaldi rather than the cause and, if push comes to shove, I imagine they will follow him, rather than us.

"In short, Admiral Garibaldi will be in a very good position to betray us and do some very real damage."

"You don't know that will happen," Li pointed out.

"No, I don't," General Stuart agreed. He met her eyes evenly. "But it is my duty to make you aware of the dangers. There may come a time when you wish you expended his ships rather than have them hurling missiles at you."

"Yes, there may," Li said. "But we will not deliberately set out to betray him."

She pressed her fingertips together as she turned to look up at the display. The Federation Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence - or whatever had replaced it, given how badly ONI had dropped the ball - would have sold its collective soul for a chance to inspect the display, knowing it showed a network of bases and settlements that were unknown to the Federation. If there had been more time, perhaps five or ten years, she was sure the Outsiders would have won the war easily. Their weapons research was easily two or three years ahead of the best the Federation could offer...

But it was not to be, she thought. Emperor Marius had already been planning survey missions deep beyond the Rim by the time the war had begun. And now, we have to depend on someone who risked everything to save my homeworld.

"He is not to learn of the bases," she said, making a swift decision. "The information must not reach the Federation."

"Understood," General Stuart said.

"But otherwise, we will support him to the hilt," she added. "I'll discuss the future of the Federation with him, after he secures Boston."

General Stuart frowned. "You intend to stay on the front lines?"

"It's not quite the front lines," Li corrected him. "But if we lose, we may as well start packing our bags and heading further into the Beyond."

"Very well," General Stuart said. "I must insist, though, on you having bodyguards with you at all times. You cannot, you must not, be risked."

Li snorted, then nodded reluctantly.

"Very well," she said. "I suppose those men you sent to kidnap me would be good for the job, wouldn't they?"

"We'll see," General Stuart said. "Mercenaries are not always reliable."

* * *

"Well," Sanderson said, "I think we're probably going to be sent to the ice mines somewhere."

"Shut up," Lieutenant Caleb Roebuck muttered. "I thought she was going to have us all executed at once."

Uzi kept his amusement and frustration to himself as he studied the updates from the planetary defense network. His plan with the shuttle had been perfect, completely perfect; he'd kill the two Outsiders and signal for help, ensuring that the Federation Navy took Chang Li into custody before she recovered from the stun bolt...

... and then it had failed, simply because he hadn't even begun to consider that Admiral Garibaldi would switch sides. He'd ruined everything.

For the first time in a long career, Uzi found himself seriously considering abandoning his mission and just retreating into the shadows. It would hardly be impossible to steal a courier boat or find passage on a freighter, even though it meant admitting defeat. Admiral Garibaldi had seen him, back when he'd been inserted on Hobson's Choice; he'd know Uzi by sight if they encountered one another again. And even if he didn't, it wouldn't be long before someone started asking questions about the shuttle's power failure. That would be more than enough to reveal the presence of an infiltrator.

And yet, he was a loyalist. The Federation needed him. He didn't want to just back out and escape when he still had a job to do.

"Uzi?" Roebuck asked. "What do you think they'll do?"

Uzi glanced at the younger man. He'd practically been mentoring the Outsider, teaching him how to be a more effective commanding officer, all the while measuring Caleb Roebuck's back for the knife. Roebuck had promise, he acknowledged inwardly; he wouldn't have been too out of place in the Federation Marines, even if it was as just another stupid greenie lieutenant who had to be mentored before he got a bunch of men killed. And Roebuck was smart enough to ask for advice...

"We were ordered to stun the Senator and take her to the shuttle," he said, simply. It had definitely been the oddest set of orders he'd been given, up to and including the orders to sneak into a planetary rebel's office and kill his cats. "They can't hold us accountable for what we were ordered to do."

"She's the boss," Sanderson said, mournfully. "She can order us killed on the spot."

"I don't think she will," Uzi said, as reassuringly as he could. In the Federation, during the days of the Grand Senate, being worried about getting the blame for following orders wouldn't have been too bad a reaction. If a senior officer had made a mistake, his first instinct would be to search for a scapegoat. "She might be angry, but she'll be angry with the person who issued the orders, not with us."

"I hope you're right," Roebuck said. "But what do we do now?"

"We wait and see what our orders are," Uzi said. They'd docked the shuttle on the space station, then been herded into a private compartment and told to wait. "I don't know about the pair of you, but I could do with a nap."

"Yeah," Sanderson agreed, morosely. "And I bet the Senator thinks we should be taking a permanent nap."

"I can stun you, if you'd like," Uzi offered, only half in jest. Stunning them both would at least allow him to think in peace. He needed to do something about that shuttle before a technician took a close look at the drive failure. "You'd be sure of a good sleep."

"And a banging headache the morning afterwards," Sanderson said. "I'll sleep the natural way."

"Look on the bright side," Uzi called, as Sanderson rose to his feet and headed for the bedroom. "You'll have one hell of a story to tell the girls on Nova Athena."

Sanderson gave him a one-fingered gesture and stepped through the hatch. Uzi smirked, then returned to his silent contemplations as Roebuck also headed for bed.

What the hell should he do now?

 

 

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Author Bio

Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to children's SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester ... before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.

Chris has been involved in the online Alternate History community since 1998; in particular, he was the original founder of Changing The Times, an online alternate history website that brought in submissions from all over the community. Later, Chris took up writing and eventually became a full-time writer.

Chris has produced The Empire's Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo's famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.

Website: http://www.chrishanger.net/
Blog: http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall

TTB titles:

Schooled in Magic fantasy series
  Schooled in Magic  book 1
  Lessons in Etiquette  book 2
  Study in Slaughter  book 3
  Work Experience  book 4
  The School of Hard Knocks  book 5
  Love's Labor's Won  book 6
  Trial By Fire  book 7
  Wedding Hells  book 8
  Infinite Regress  book 9
  Past Tense  book 10
  The Sergeant's Apprentice  book 11
  Fists of Justice  book 12
  The Gordian Knot  book 13

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire military SF series
  Barbarians at the Gates  book 1
  The Shadow of Cincinnatus  book 2
  The Barbarian Bride  book 3

Author web site.

 

###

 

The Barbarian Bride Copyright © 2016. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- via Amazon Kindle; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; Kobo Books
List Price: $6.50 USD

 

  Author News

"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
Author interview on
Blogcritics

"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Author interview on Blogger News

Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books

"Deconstructing Emily" blog post

"Schooled in Magic is a fantasy book, but it draws extensively from real history."
Guest post on As the Page Turns

"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on Review From Here

"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on The Story Behind the Book

"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful.
I think they were hoping I'd know some great secret to success that I could tell them."
Guest post on The Writer's Life eMagazine

"No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Author Christopher G. Nuttall discusses The Decline & Fall
of the Galactic Empire novels in an interview with Edinburgh49

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book

 

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