(Sten No. 8)
By Allan Cole and Chris Bunch
The ruins of the Imperial assault fleet fled through the “dark” between star clusters. There was one tacship carrier, two heavy cruisers, one light, their destroyer flotilla screens, and, in the center of the formation, auxiliaries and the troop transports carrying the battle-shattered remains of the First Imperial Guards Division.
Flanking and closing the formation was the huge battleship Victory.
On its bridge, Sten stared at a strategic battlescreen, not seeing either the glow “ahead” that represented the Empire . . . nor the symbols to the “rear” that were the anarchy-ripped Altaic Cluster.
Two E-days earlier:
Sten: Ambassador Plentipotentiary. Personal Emissary of the Eternal Emperor. Admiral. Medals and decorations beyond count, from the Galactic Cross down, including Grand Companion of the Emperor’s Household. Hero.
Sten: Traitor. Renegade. And, he thought, don’t forget Murderer.
Among the symbols representing what was “behind” the Victory was one marking where the Imperial Battleship Caligula, its Admiral Mason, and over three thousand loyal Imperial sailors had been. They’d been slaughtered by Sten for following a direct order to planetburst the Altaic’s capital world, an order issued in person by the Eternal Emperor.
Sten’s eyes - and mind - refocused. Alex Kilgour. Sten’s best friend, a rather roundish looking heavy-worlder who probably knew even more about death and destruction than Sten.
“GA.” Part of Sten’s mind, the part always removed from the hue and cry, found it funny both of them still used slang from their now-long-gone days in Mantis Section, the Emperor’s supersecret covert-operations unit. Go ahead.
“Giein’ thae y’ hae no ‘sperience a’ bein’t an outlaw, y’r entire life bein’t spent singin’ hymns an’ such, p’raps y’ dinnae ken Robbie Roy types hae noo time t’ be pausin’ an’ smellin’t th’ flowers i’ thae dinnae wan’ a halter an’ a neck-stretch.”
“Thank you, Mister Kilgour. I’ll get my thumb out.”
“Dinnae fash, lad. Any wee service, y’ hae but t’ snivel.”
Sten turned away from the screen. Around him, waiting, was the Victory’s bridgewatch. The top elements of his long-serving personal staff, who were in fact more Sten’s own private intelligence agency than striped-suiters.
Twenty-three Gurkhas - Nepalese mercenaries famous for serving only in the Emperor’s private bodyguard - but these had volunteered for special duties: guarding the life of their ex-CO, Sten.
Otho. Six other Bhor. Squat, shaggy monsters with long beards, yellow fangs, and ground-brushing knuckles. They seemed happiest either tearing an enemy in half the long way or else doing the same to his bank balance in a shrewd multiworld trade. They were also fond of eddaic-type poetry. There
were another hundred of them elsewhere on the Victory.
And, most important, left to last, their commander:
Cind: Human. Expert sniper. Descended from a now-obliterated warrior cult. A highly respected combat leader.
Beautiful. Sten’s friend and lover.
Enough bean counting, he thought. Kilgour had been right; a wolf could never chance lying in a sunny clearing listening to the bees buzz - not unless he’d suddenly decided on a new career as a fireside rug.
“Sir?” The young woman was waiting. The lieutenant’s name, Sten recollected, was Renzi.
“Bring your people back to general quarters. Commander Freston” - this was his longtime personal com officer - “I want - oh, clot. Cancel.”
Sten remembered. “Both of you,” he said, raising his voice. “And anyone else interested - listen up.
“Things have changed. I just declared war on the Emperor. Which makes me a traitor. Nobody’s required to obey my orders. No one who remains loyal to his oath will be harmed. We’ll -”
His words were interrupted by the ululation of the GC siren as the weapons officer obeyed Sten’s first command.
That was one answer.
Sten held up a palm for Freston to stand by.
“Weapons, I want all Kali and Goblin stations at full launch-readiness. Some of our Imperial friends might decide to bag a renegade. Plus there were four destroyers escorting the Caligula. If any ship begins an attack, put a Goblin in the vicinity and blow it off as a warning.”
“And if they keep coming?”
Sten hesitated. “If they do - contact me. No Kali launches will be made without my orders, and any launch will be controlled by either myself or Mister Kilgour.”
The Kali were operator-guided shipkillers.
“That’s not -”
“That is an order. Follow it.”
“Commander Freston. Patch me a secure link to General Sarsfield on whichever transport he’s riding.” Sarsfield was the Guards’ CO, and the next-ranking officer to Sten. Freston touched keys.
“One other thing,” Sten said. “You’ve been through C&S school?”
“Fine. They tell me pirates get promoted a lot before they get hanged. The Victory’s your ship, Mister.”
“Don’t thank me. That just means you’ll probably be next after Kilgour for the high jump. Mister Kilgour?”
“All offwatch personnel to the main hanger.”
And then Sten noticed Alex’s hand move away from the small of his back. He might have been fingering an old war wound around the caudal vertebra. Kilgour was not - his hand had been touching the butt of a miniwillygun, hidden in his waistband. Alex took no chances: loyalty to the Emperor in the abstract would be acceptable. But if anyone attempted to fulfill that promise to “defend the Empire and its welfare unto death,” they would be prime candidates for martyrdom. And most likely Kilgour would loudly admire their fidelity at the wake.
A screen cleared. Sarsfield.
“General, you’re aware of what’s happened?”
“Very well. In view of events, you are now the ranking officer of the fleet. Until you receive differing orders from the Empire, I would suggest you continue the present course toward the nearest Imperial worlds.
“I will advise you that, regretfully, any attempt to interfere with the Victory or its movements will be opposed with maximum force. However, none of your ships are in danger if they obey these instructions.”
The old soldier grimaced. He took a deep breath, and started to say something. Then he changed his mind.
“Your message is understood.”
The screen blanked. Sten wondered what Sarsfield had been about to say - that none of the Imperial ships had one-quarter the firepower of the Victory nor were they skippered by deathseekers? Or - and Sten cursed at himself for still having a bit of romance in him - Good luck? It didn’t matter.
“Turn out your people. I want them as flanking security.”
“Captain Cind, I’d also like your people dancing attendance?”
“They’re already drawing weapons,” Cind said.
“Commander - pardon, Captain Freston, have the captain’s personal boat ready for launch. We’ll steal you another one somewhere.” Interesting, Sten thought, how quickly one could lose that stifling straitjacket discipline the navy held so dear.
“Mister Kilgour? Shall we go draw the line with our saber and see if anybody’s in an Alamo kind of mood?”
“Sir, i’ y’ wish. But thae’s another wee matter . . . a matter o’ security . . . Ah think Ah’d best -”
Suddenly Sten remembered security. He had no idea what Alex was hesitating about - but Sten had recollected two trump cards of his own. If they still held value. He unsealed the front of his combat suit and lifted out the thin pouch that was hung on a tie around his neck. He removed two squares of plas.
“You people stand by,” he ordered.
Sten hurried across the bridge to the central computer station. He told the two operators to clear out of the cubicle, pulled a security screen around the station, and slid a keyboard out.
The station was one of the three on the Victory that could access ALL/UN - the central Imperial computer net that reached every Imperial command on every world and ship of the Empire.
Should, Sten thought, rather than could.
More likely the Victory had been cut out of any access to anything, just as the Eternal Emperor had cut Sten’s usual direct line into his quarters.
Weeks passed. Months. Decades. Sten knew his body could have been carbon-dated before the screen suddenly cleared and ALL/UN blinked at him, then vanished.
Sten input the Victory’s code.
Another long wait.
The next thing he would see would be the simulation of a stiffly extended human middle finger and STATION REJECTED.
Sten input the program on the first plas chip. Again, a wait, then, BORRUMBADA. Damn, he thought. They accepted it. Once again: ATELIER. The second chip was fed in. And again Imperial All Units accepted the program. Now we pray a lot, and hope both those little bastards work their magic.
The chips were a gift from Ian Mahoney, Sten’s former commander in Mantis, Fleet Admiral, and, for eons, the closest thing the Eternal Emperor had for a friend. But Mahoney was dead now -accused of treason by the Emperor and executed.
It’s a great pity, Ian, Sten thought, you couldn’t come up with one of those for yourself - and deploy it before the Eternal Clot killed you. He caught himself. No time for that, either.
Sten pulled the security curtain aside and found Alex waiting. “Ah’m thankin’t you f’r warmin’t th’ chair frae me, boss. Noo, I’ y’ll get gone?”
“Yessir, Mister Kilgour, sir. Out of the way, sir, right away, sir. Can I have someone send in tea, sir?”
“Clottin’ liquid fit only t’ flow through th’ veins ae sassenachs. Ah’ll hae a dram in a wee.” And Kilgour pulled the curtain closed.
Sten started for one of the slideways connecting the bridge to the battleship’s central transit tube and thence to the hanger near the stern. Without orders, the Gurkhas, willyguns at the port, were trotting behind him.
Cind and her Bhor were waiting at a junction. She motioned them, and the Gurkhas, to move on ahead.
For a moment, she and Sten were alone at the bend of a corridor.
“Thanks,” she said, and kissed him.
“For not asking.”
“You are a clot,” she said.
“You mean -”
“But I never thought that you wouldn’t, I mean -”
“You’re right. I stay volunteered. Plus I never took any oath to any Emperor. Besides, I know how to pick a winner.”
Sten looked closely at her. She did not appear to be either making a joke or trying to build his morale.
“My ancestors were Jannissars,” she went on. “They served tyrants who hid behind the lie that they were the voice of a god they’d made up.
“I swore if I could become a soldier, I wouldn’t be like them. Matter of fact, the kind of soldiering I dreamed about was helping get rid of all those bastards like the Prophets. Or like Iskra. Or the Emperor.”
“Well,” Sten said, “you told me that before. And now I guess you’ll get your chance. Or at least a good shot at going down in noble flames.”
“Naah,” Cind disagreed. “We’re gonna kick his ass. Now come on. You’ve got a sermon to preach.”
Sten stood on the winglet of a tacship, looking down at the nearly two thousand beings - those sailors of the Victory not absolutely required at weapons stations or to keep the ship alive, plus the remainder of his embassy staff - spread out around him. He didn’t think he was doing a very good job of preaching tyrannicide. He tried not to look up at the hangar’s overhead catwalks where Bhor and Gurkha marksmen waited, in case someone planned any nonverbal objections.
“All right,” he finished. “That’s the situation. I shoved the Emperor’s face in it. There’s no way he can let me vanish and pretend nothing happened. Which I’m not going to do anyway.
“I won’t say what comes next. Because I don’t think any of you should volunteer to remain with me. If there’s anybody down there who’s good at running progs or who stayed awake in battle analysis, it’s easy to come up with a prediction.
“I’ve got the Victory, and maybe some beings somewhere who believe the same as I do. Which is, that it’s time to fight back. This, I plan to do.
“I’ve been serving the Emperor for most of my life. But things have gone nuts. Like the Altaics, for instance. All right, those poor beings were blood-crazed. And have been so for generations.
“But we’re the ones who made it fall apart. We’re the ones responsible for turning turmoil into bloody chaos.”
Sten caught himself. “No,” he said, his voice dropping so that those in the back had to listen hard. “I shouldn’t say ‘we.’ You, me, all of us, did our best.
“But our best wasn’t good enough. Because there was one being who was running his own program. The Emperor. We followed his orders - and look what it produced. And I was not going to let it be covered up with a planetbuster.
“That’s all I think I should say. We’ll have the captain’s own boat ready in a bit. It’ll cross-connect to the rest of the fleet. You’ve got about one ship-hour to collect your gear and board.
“Do it, people. You’ll live a lot longer if you stay with the Emperor, no matter what he is and no matter what he does. I have no other choices left. You do.
“One hour. Get yourselves out of the line of fire. Now. Anybody else, anybody who’s had enough of serving a madman who’s hellbent on turning the Empire into chaos, like the chaos we just left - move over against the hanger baffle.
“That’s it. Thanks for helping. Thanks for your service. And good luck to all of you, no matter what you choose. Dismissed.”
Sten turned away. He pretended to be busy talking to Cind, but his ears were full of the low rumble of voices, and then the clatter of bootheels on the decking.
Cind’s eyes weren’t on him, but beyond, watching for a potential attacker.
Then the voices and movement stopped.
Sten made himself turn around. He blinked in astonishment. Before he could ask, Cind told him.
“The first people to move were your staffers. I’d say, maybe nine out of ten will stick. You’ve really corrupted them.”
“Hell,” was the best Sten could manage.
“No drakh,” Cind agreed. “Plus you have what I’d estimate is two-thirds of the swabs. I thought nobody in the navy ever volunteered. But I think you got a whole bunch of prospective rebels.”
Before Sten could do anything - like fall on his knees and thank a couple of the Bhor gods that the Victory had been blessed/cursed with over a thousand brain-damaged crewmen - a com blared:
“Sten to the bridge! Sten to the bridge!”
There was a slight note of emotion in the talker’s voice - which meant that almost certain and immediate catastrophe loomed.
“These six screens are patch-ins from the Bennington’s internal com. They came right after the first contact.”
Sten glanced at them - they showed weapons stations and missile-control consoles, all deserted.
“I am not assuming they’re realtime casts,” Freston continued.
Sten looked up at the main screen. On it was the Bennington, the tacship carrier that was the heaviest ship in Sarsfield’s fleet. Flanking it were two specks that a readout ID’d as destroyers. Headed directly toward the Victory at full drive. Either Sarsfield had ordered a suicide run, since there was zero possibility the carrier could play hitsies with a battlewagon, or else things were getting weird out there.
“I have,” Freston said, “six Kali stations manned, tracking and holding at four second short of launch.”
“Replay the first transmission from the Bennington.”
Freston brought the cast up on a secondary screen.
It showed the Bennington’s bridge, which looked as if it’d been the focal point for a bar brawl. The officer onscreen had a bandaged arm, and her uniform was torn.
“Victory, this is Bennington. Please respond, this freq, tightbeam. This is Commander Jeffries. I have assumed command of the Bennington. The officers and sailors of this ship have rejected Imperial authority, and are now under my orders. We wish to join you. Please respond.” The screen swirled, and the message repeated.
“We also,” Freston said, “have a cast from one of the DD’s - the Aoife. The other one’s the Aisling. They’re both Emer-class.” He indicated a projection from Jane’s on another screen, which Sten ignored.
“Their cast is shorter, and key-transmitted en clair. As follows: ‘Aoife and Aisling to join. Accept Sten command. Both ships homeworld Honjo Systems.’ Does that explain anything, sir?”
It did - barely. The Honjo were known as supertraders through the Empire. And they were cordially hated. They were ethnocentric to a ridiculous extreme, dedicated to the maximum profit, but absolutely loyal to whatever master they’d agreed to serve - as long as that loyalty was returned. They were also lethal, nearly to the point of race suicide, as the privy council had found out during the Interregnum when they tried to steal the Honjo’s AM2.
Sten had heard rumors that since the Emperor’s return the Honjo felt, with some degree of justification, they hadn’t been rewarded properly (which meant monetarily) for their loyalty to the Empire.
“Divert the Kali watch from those two ships. Contact them as soon as I finish, tell them message received and stand by for instructions,” Sten ordered. “We’ll find out how far they’re backing us in a bit. Get me through to this Jeffries on the Bennington.”
The connection was made quickly. And the conversation was short. The Bennington had, indeed, mutinied. The captain was dead; five officers and twenty men were in the sick bays. About thirty percent of the crew, now held under arms, had remained loyal to the Empire.
“Request orders, sir,” Jeffries finished.
“First,” Sten said, thinking fast, “welcome to my nightmare, and I think you’re all insane. Second, get all loyalists ready for transshipment. If you’ve got a supply lighter, use that. Otherwise, disarm enough tacships if that’s the only alternative. Third, keep your weapons stations unmanned. Sorry, but we’re not in a position to trust anyone.
“Fourth, stand by the receive visitors. Fifth, get your navcoms set up to slave to this ship’s command. We’re going to travel some, and you’ll convoy on us. That’s all.”
“Yessir. Will comply. Standing by for your personnel to board. And . . . thank you.”
Sten blanked the screen. He didn’t have time to wonder why another set of idiots were volunteering for the death chamber. He looked around for Alex and found him, sitting back from the main console, looking smug. Kilgour surreptitiously crooked a finger. Sten, wanting to growl, went over.
“Y’r pardon, boss, but afore we move on, Ah hae a report . . . We’re still rich, lad.”
Sten repressed the suicidal urge to kick Alex. What the hell did that have to do with -
“Since we’re in a hurry, Ah’ll keep th’ input short. While y’ were doin’t y’r usual job ae inspirin’ th’ idjiots, Ah hit our bank accounts.
“Another think a wee outlaw needs is liquid’ty. So all our assets Ah could lay th’ fast touch on, I dumped into an old laundry bank frae th’ Mantis days.”
Sten started to say something, but then realized Kilgour wasn’t being greedy - revolutions, like politics, are fueled by credits and fail for lack of same nearly as often as they do for not providing a proper alternative. Sten would need all the credits in the known universe if he was even to survive this war, let alone win.
And Kilgour had not exaggerated about their riches. Years earlier, when they were prisoners of war of the Tahn, their ex-Mantis companion Ida the Rom had pirated their accrued pay and pyramided it into vast riches. They were wealthy enough for Sten to have purchased his own planet, and for Kilgour to build half-a-dozen castles and surrounding estates on his home world of Edinburgh.
“Then, thinkin’t thae’ll prob’ly be someone followin’ that trail, Ah then rescrubbed th’ gelt t’ Ida, wi’ a wee message t’ stan’ by an’ expect th’ pleasure ae our company, fat cow thae she is. Ah think we’ll be needin’t th’ gypsies afore thae skreekin’t an’ scrawkin’t is o’er.
“Plus Ah drop’t a wee lin t’ our king ae th’ smugglers ae well, although Ah dinnae ken I’ Wild’s dropbox is still good.
“Thae’s all boss. Noo, y’ hae some work f’r me? Ah’m assumin’t we’re noo bein’t sensible an’ findin’ a badger’s den an’ pullin it in a’ter us.”
Alex was on his feet and at attention. Sten nodded appreciation.
“You’ve got that right. Besides, the Emperor would just send badger dogs after us. So we won’t bother. Grab about half of the Bhor and get over to the Bennington. Make sure they’re real sincere about things.”
“Do whatever seems right. But if it’s a trap, make them bleed, not us. I’ll keep two Kali stations launch-ready until you say otherwise, and I’ll keep one flight of tacships out on CAP.”
“Ah’m gone.” And Kilgour was.
Sten wanted to take a deep breath and come up with a plan - but there was not time to do anything other than react. He went back to Commander - now Captain - Freston.
“Okay, Captain. You heard what we’re doing. We’ll have all three ships slaved to the Victory. I want an irrational evasion pattern on the nav computer.”
“I want one flight of tacships out around the Bennington. And I want another flight . . . gimme a hotrod - whatsername, La Ciotat - in charge . . . one light-second back of the formation, also slaved to the Victory as rear guard.
“Every time we hyperjump, we’ll leave one of the Bennington’s Kalis behind, manned by one of Renzi’s officers. I don’t like being followed.”
“Now, get me double-ganged to those Honjo hardheads.”
“Aye, sir. Do we have a final destination?”
Sten didn’t answer.
Not because he hadn’t have an answer, but because one secret of being a live conspirator was never telling anyone anything until just before it happened. In fact, he had two, now that true miracles had happened and he had not just a ship, but the beginnings of a fleet.
The first one he hadn’t exactly decided on. But it would be close to center stage, since all good rebellions require some kind of Bastille-bashing to get started.
Mahoney had shouted “Go home,” as he was dragged off to his death.
And Sten had finally figured out exactly where Mahoney meant. Even if he still had not the slightest idea why or what.
Or so he hoped.
|Last Revised: January 29, 2011|