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Santaclara (Iota Pegasi A IV), 4325 C.E.

The primary sun was breaking over the rim of the world below, flooding the observation bubble with light that banished the distant red-dwarf companion star. Corin Marshak stood silhouetted against that blaze as the steward cleared his throat.

"We've established orbit, sir. We can begin transposing passengers down shortly, and you have top priority."

"Thank you." Slowly, as though reluctant to take leave of the view, Corin turned around to face the steward. He stepped forward with the limp that had grown less pronounced in the course of the voyage. Away from the star-glare beyond the transparent armorplast, details emerged: a tall, slender, youngish man, dark of hair and complexion, prominent of nose. He wore his maroon civilian jumpsuit like a uniform.

"Thank you," he repeated a little less abstractedly. "I'll be ready shortly. Tell them not to delay anyone else's departure on my account."

"Very good, sir." The steward gave a small bow and departed. Corin looked around. People were drifting away, leaving only a few in the observation bubble. He turned back to the spectacle outside. They were approaching the terminator, and Santaclara's day side stood revealed. A hot young F5v star such as this had no business possessing a blue cloud-swirling life-bearing planet. . . .

"Think we'll see a Luon?"

He started at the voice and turned to look at its owner. He'd noticed the auburn-haired woman before, but had never been presented with an opportunity for self-introduction that met his rather exacting standards in such things. Now she herself had finally made the move, and was giving him a gaze of frank appraisal with clear blue eyes that suited a complexion fair enough to be potentially inconvenient under this sun. And, to his annoyance, he found himself struck most by the way she'd paralleled his own thoughts, which had been leading him by a natural chain of association to the ancient terraformers, now dying out, who had bequeathed worlds like Santaclara to their human successors.

"Probably not," he replied. "I've heard that some people here claim to have seen one, still alive in the mountains. But stories like that are usually just imagination and alcohol. Nobody sees the Luonli unless they want to be seen."

"You mean . . . the stories about them being mind-controllers?" Like a cloud shadow on a windy day, an uneasy frown crossed her face. Those features were too strongly marked for conventional prettiness, and too expressive to mask her feelings. Once seen, they lingered in the memory.

"That's probably a little strong. As I understand it, influencing the mind is about the extent of their telepathic capacity. And they've never shown any inclination to use it except to preserve their privacy as they quietly dwindle toward extinction." Corin decided he was waxing altogether too serious, and that self-introduction was in order. "By the way, I'm Commander Corin Marshak. I had to use civilian transportation for the last leg of my trip to this system because—"

"—the Fleet is swamped at this end of the Empire as a result of the preparations for the Emperor's visit to the Cassiopeia frontier," she finished for him. "Yes, I know. I'm Major Janille Dornay . . . sir."

Corin extended his hand. The Marine major returned his handshake with a grip whose strength didn't surprise him. It went with her lithe leanness. Still, civilian clothes looked better on her than on him. . . .

"So, Major, you must be in the same position I am."

"Yes . . . except that I haven't come nearly as far." She hesitated, unable to think of a graceful way to refer to his limp. "I've heard talk that you saw action against the Ch'axanthu—that you're only just back from there." She paused, inviting reminiscences.

"Yes." He realized the monosyllable had come out more curtly than he'd intended, and sought to perform conversational salvage. "Actually, I wasn't thinking of the Luonli just now," he lied, indicating the planetary panorama unfolding below. "I was thinking of all the history this world holds."

"History?" Her brow crinkled with puzzlement, then cleared. "Oh, yes. I remember now. Many centuries ago, the Iota Pegasi system was part of the New Human rebels' state, whatever it was called."

"The `People's Democratic Union,' " Corin supplied. "And it was four and a half standard centuries ago, to be exact. But I was thinking of what happened after that. This was where Basil Castellan declared himself Emperor."

Her eyes widened. "You mean . . . the Basil Castellan? And his friends Sonja Rady and Torval Bogdan?" Her eyes strayed to the planetscape of Santaclara. "Right here?"

He could understand her incredulous astonishment. The New Human rebellion against the old Solarian Empire was a matter of dry history, but the trio she had named belonged to the realm of legend, beyond any tedious fixity of time and place. He might as well have told her that Old King Cole had held court on the planet beneath them, or that the Argonauts had sailed its seas.

"Right here," he affirmed. "They really did live, you know—even though they've been so mythologized by now that it's hard to separate the facts from the fables. After he broke with Yoshi Medina, Castellan established himself in former rebel space, where the people saw him as the hero who'd freed them from the New Humans. He only reigned a little while, before he was defeated by treachery."

"Is it true," Janille asked, eyes still on the planet that had suddenly taken on a whole new aspect for her, "that he and Rady disappeared afterwards? That their bodies were never found?"

"That's right. On the backwater worlds of these sectors, they still say that he never died, that he's in cryogenic suspension somewhere, and will return when the people need him."

She laughed nervously. "Cryo suspension for four hundred years? I don't think so. Besides, it's for damned sure he didn't come back to save the Empire from the Zyungen, or from the rabble of Beyonders who followed them." She couldn't quite sustain her scornful tone to the end of her last sentence. "I wonder," she resumed after a moment, as much to herself as to him, "what it was like to live in those days?"

"You mean Castellan's lifetime and the generation or so after it? The age of romantic high adventure?" Corin gave a short sound that held too little humor to be called a laugh. " `Adventure' has been defined as somebody else having a horrible time hundreds of years ago or dozens of light-years away. It was an age of nonstop civil war and murderous intrigue—just the kind of age that makes for great historical fiction." He gazed moodily through the transparent armorplast. "The real question is, what would Castellan think of our age?"

Somehow, he could feel her stiffen from across the few feet that separated them. "What do you mean? There's only one way he could see it. Why, within our lifetimes, the Empire has finally been reunified. The dream he gave his life for has come true!"

An idealist, Corin thought sadly. Like me, you grew up on the news stories of Armand Duschane's reconquest . . . no, more like `triumphal march' after he'd established the only real power base in Imperial space. And, like me, you went into the military to join the grand and glorious parade of the Renewed Empire. 

And, unlike me, you haven't just returned from the Ch'axanthu war. . . . 

His mind flashed back to his Academy days, and the words of wisdom Tristan LoBhutto, the class lady-killer, had condescendingly dispensed to his envious fellow cadets. "The object of a conversation with a woman is neither to enlighten nor to persuade. Nor is it to score debating points. It is to get laid." Of course, Corin had outgrown that sort of thing by now. Of course. Or perhaps he had simply reached the end of his ability to hold his bitterness inside.

"Yes, the Empire has been reunified. But it isn't the first time that's been done since Castellan's death. Medina's old military henchmen of the Marvell family did it when they kicked out his grandson and founded their own dynasty."

"But that dynasty's reunification was just a false start. It only lasted . . . how many years?"

"Less than forty. But it remains to be seen whether we'll do as well."

Her eyes flashed blue fire, but then they strayed involuntarily in the direction of Corin's left leg. And when she spoke she sounded almost contrite, remembering where he'd been. "Yes, I know—not as well as you, of course—that the Ch'axanthu have handed us a setback—"

"The third in as many standard years," Corin interrupted drily.

"—but they show no inclination or ability to follow up on it," she finished doggedly. "They can't bring us down like the Zyungen did the Marvell dynasty."

"You're right about that. I don't think aliens like the Ch'axanthu or Beyonders like the Tarakans are going to do us in. Actually, we're doing such a good job of it ourselves that it would be superfluous."

This time her stiffening was visible. Her blue eyes met his brown-black ones and silently asked the question she couldn't put to a superior officer: If you feel that way, then— 

"What am I doing in the Fleet?" he finished aloud for her. "Maybe I'm an idealist too, Major. Or, more likely, maybe I prefer anything to passivity—even futility."

"But . . . Look, I know there's a lot of unrest and resentment around, but—"

"I doubt if you know just how much." Corin thought of the Ursa Major frontier region from which he'd come, and which—as was always the case with the worlds nearest the seat of an interstellar war—had borne a disproportionate share of the burden. His convalescence had kept him out of the "police actions" as minor rebellions had flickered through those sectors. But some of the things he'd heard . . . "Or how justified they are."

A moment's silence passed as she visibly clamped control down on her features. "Excuse me, sir, but I need to prepare for departure." She turned on her heel and marched from the observation bubble.

Corin turned back to the transparency, but this time he was looking at his own reflection in the armorplast. Ass, he thought dispassionately in its direction. Then he departed from the now-deserted dome.

* * *

"Well, Commander, your record speaks for itself." Vice Admiral Julius Tanzler-Yataghan looked up from the hardcopy and gazed across his desk at the newly arrived officer. "Yes, very impressive indeed. And you've certainly come quite a distance."

"I have that, sir," Corin replied. The Ursa Major frontier was on the far side of the Empire. It had been a journey of almost two months. "At least it gave me time to adjust to my new leg."

"Ah, yes. I would hardly have realized it was regrown if your record didn't describe the circumstances under which you lost it." The admiral indicated the citation which contained the description. Fleet uniform regulations prescribed that decorations be worn only with full dress. Corin was wearing the gray tunic and trousers of planetside service dress. So his chest was bare of the medal the citation had accompanied. "It must have been an appalling experience, Commander. You're certainly due for reassignment to a quiet sector like this one. Of course," he added with a little too much emphasis, "we here also do our part. We're not far from the Cassiopeia and Perseus regions, where the threat of a Tarakan incursion can never be ignored. Indeed, you might say we were standing guard against different aspects of the same threat. As His Imperial Majesty has explained, it is necessary to prevent the Ch'axanthu from joining forces with the Tarakans and presenting us with a . . . yes, a second front."

"Yes, sir." There wasn't much else Corin could say, for the admiral was reciting the official line. But his mind leaped across a light-century and contemplated the beings he'd fought: compact bipeds little more than half human-average height, with huge dark eyes. In addition to high intelligence, they had astonishingly dexterous hands with two mutually-opposable "thumbs" almost as long as the five "fingers," and it was unsurprising that they were master technologists. They had colonized several systems before humankind had left its homeworld. But those colonists had traveled at the slower-than-light rates permitted by ordinary physical laws, for by some fluke the Ch'axanthu had never discovered the time-distortion drive on their own. And, having acquired it from some Beyonders or other, they'd shown no interest in using it to expand their sphere much beyond its long-established limits. They'd merely consolidated their already-colonized systems—systems of which they'd made far more intensive use than humans would have.

And that was why three invasions by the incomparably larger Empire had failed so dismally.

Long before the first interstellar probe had departed from Earth, it had been recognized that Homo sapiens' muscles, bones and immune system would not allow indefinite relinquishment of weight. Until the advent of artificially generated gravity fields, long-range space voyaging had required dodges like spinning a portion of the ship to produce angular acceleration. But not even that had permitted realization of the old dreams of colonizing asteroids and deep-space habitats . . . for the colonists had lost interest in reproducing.

Humans, it seemed, had a psychological need for Earth or a planet like it—a need unsuspected by the early space-colonization enthusiasts. At a minimum, they needed such a planet floating huge and blue in their sky. They mined and garrisoned flying mountains, and had for millennia, but they never called them home.

The Ch'axanthu were different. They'd evolved on a planet more or less similar to Earth, but their bodies and minds could adapt to microgravity environments. And by now the great majority of them lived in a myriad such environments, spread throughout the systems they had made their own.

And that, Corin reflected (not for the first time), was the problem: their lack of vulnerability.

Humanity had learned what vulnerability was in the early fourth millennium, as the gentlemanly limited warfare of the Age of the Protectors had given way to the Unification Wars. When total, high-intensity war was waged with interstellar-level technology, the populations of Earthlike planets survived only by grace of their economic value to potential conquerors. And the few Ch'axanthu-inhabited planets were no more survivable in the face of antimatter warheads—and the far cheaper relativistic rocks—than human ones.

But the Ch'axanthu could afford the loss of those sitting-duck worlds. The habitats where most of them lived were too numerous, too scattered and too mobile for convenient destruction. And they could wage a kind of spaceborne guerrilla war that had never been possible for humans. It had taken three disastrous campaigns for the Empire to learn the lesson—still publicly unacknowledged—that the Ch'axanthu were, as a practical matter, unconquerable.

Equally belated, and equally unadmitted, was the realization that they'd never posed a threat in the first place. . . .

Taking refuge from the thought, Corin let his eyes stray to the virtual window behind the admiral's desk. This office was deep within the sector headquarters. Tanzler-Yataghan preferred a more picturesque view than a simple transparency would have afforded, and the holo image showed the suburbs of the city outside the base, as though seen from a tall building. It was spring in Santaclara's northern hemisphere, as—by sheerest coincidence—it also was on Old Earth, whose standard year was the ordinary measure of time, however ill-fitting it might be in terms of local seasons. Hills, cloaked in subtropical vegetation whose species had originated on Earth or the unknown Luonli homeworld, stretched away toward distant smoky-blue mountains. Among that bright-flowering greenery nestled villas in this world's traditional style, with red-tiled roofs and fountained courtyards. The classical Old Earth cultures the early interstellar colonizers had sought to preserve had been diluted beyond those colonizers' recognition by centuries of population movements—both the spectacular forced variety and the ongoing process of individuals "voting with their feet"—but they had left a legacy of distinctive planetary and regional styles. The element of Old Earth's heritage that the histories characterized as "Hispanic" hadn't totally failed to leave its imprint on Iota Pegasi and the other sectors of the old "People's Democratic Union." There had been so many such cultural forms and textures on the planet of humankind's birth. Too bad, what the Zyungen had done to it . . .

Corin dismissed the always-depressing thought and turned his attention back to his new commanding officer. His name advertised his descent from the Sword Clans—partial descent at any rate, for there were few unmixed ones left by now, almost two and a half centuries after their return from their doomed world. That ancestry doubtless hadn't hurt his Fleet career. But he certainly didn't fit the lean, hard-faced stereotype of the military aristocracy the Sword Clans had bred by intermarriage with the old Imperial elite. His expensively tailored uniform couldn't conceal his pudginess, and self-indulgence had left its marks on his face. Corin had heard rumors about the ways he'd augmented his personal fortune during his tenure as Sector Admiral of Iota Pegasi.

"Yes," the admiral was continuing, "this sector may seem out-of-the-way. But don't be deceived." He manipulated controls, and a multicolored display floated in midair between two holo plates set into the floor and the ceiling. Corin instantly recognized the very rough spheroid as a representation of the Empire, its sectors in bright translucent colors. As per convention, it was oriented in terms of Old Earth's ecliptic plane, just as regions were still described by the names of the mythological persons and beasts that some ancient Greek—doubtless after ingesting too much retsina—had thought to see among the stars.

Tanzler-Yataghan touched more controls, and two vaguely outlined expanses of sinister slate-gray appeared outside the bounds of the gaudy spheroid, like obscene growths. The smaller and less vague of them clung to the outer edge of the turquoise Xi Ursae Majoris Sector, beyond the bright beacon of Denebola, on the right of the display as viewed from where Corin sat and about a fourth of the way "north" from its equator. The larger and less sharply delineated one seemed to slouch against the crimson and yellow expanses of the Beta Cassiopeiae and Theta Persei Sectors, about forty percent of the way around the spheroid and considerably higher. Still further around to the left, but at the same "latitude" as the smaller gray blotch from which it was diametrically opposite, a blinking light indicated the position of Iota Pegasi, in the azure of the sector that bore its name.

"As you can see," the admiral intoned, pointing to a purple shape that lay between the azure and the crimson, "only the 85 Pegasi Sector separates us from the sectors directly threatened by the Tarakans." He glowered at the ill-defined gray smudge polluting his side of the display. "Naturally, that represents only the Inner Domain. We don't know enough about the Outer Domain's extent to accurately depict it. Anyway, it's the Inner Domain that's the immediate threat."

Corin wondered what the Tarakans themselves called the two Domains, each ruled by its own Araharl, into which they'd schismed shortly after the great Zhangula had unified them and made them masters of an unprecedentedly large expanse of extra-Imperial space. Almost certainly not the Empire-centered terms "Inner" and "Outer." But, he reflected, that had always been the problem. To its inhabitants, the Empire was by definition the sole source of civilization and political legitimacy in the human universe, the lawful trustee of Old Earth's legacy. The humans who occupied an unknown percentage of the galaxy outside its frontiers were simply "Beyonders"—dwellers in outer darkness, sometimes dangerous, sometimes to be employed as mercenaries, but never to be taken seriously. Curiously enough, this attitude had survived the Empire's reunification by descendants of the Sword Clans—technically Beyonders themselves—because by then those descendants had become more Imperial than the Imperials. For the really curious thing was that the Beyonders themselves mostly accepted the Empire's self-estimate, and sought to buy into the assumption of superiority it entailed.

But the attitude also carried a penalty: chronically wretched intelligence concerning the Beyonders. In normal times, this could be lived with. The innumerable Beyonder states, few of which comprised more than a single planetary system, seldom posed more than a localized threat. And whenever a larger political unity arose among them, it could be overawed by Imperial prestige, bought off by Imperial money and, eventually, broken up by Imperial diplomacy.

Only . . . the first, at least, didn't work with the Tarakans. Zhangula must have been more than a mere military genius. He'd been that far rarer thing, a lawgiver—the creator of a nation. No one knew from what scraps of human history or legend he had rummaged up his ideology. (Or was it a religion? And did the distinction mean anything?) The point was that the Tarakans, in their own minds, ruled their clutch of subject peoples by a right which was not conferred by the Solarian Emperor.

Shrewd old Armand Duschane had recognized that his reunified Empire faced something new under the suns. He'd made it his business to play the two Domains against each other. His instinct hadn't always been infallible; on at least one memorable occasion he'd outsmarted himself in a fashion that had necessitated an embarrassingly abrupt change of sides. But, like so many of Armand's initiatives, it had worked out well enough to leave his successor in an advantageous position.

Too bad that, in this as in so much else, Oleg Duschane had been congenitally unable to leave well enough alone. . . .

"No doubt the Emperor will set the Cassiopeia/Perseus frontier to rights when he arrives there," Corin said aloud.

"Of course. The expedition he's leading there has been in preparation for months." Preparations the Empire could ill afford after last year's expensive failure against the Ch'axanthu, Corin reflected. But Tanzler-Yataghan was hitting his sycophantic stride. "Still, no amount of tonnage and firepower can be as impressive as the Imperial presence itself—the fact that His Imperial Majesty himself is condescending to take personal command! It will be like his previous visit to those sectors, before . . . ahem!" The admiral hastily faked a cough to cover his narrow avoidance of a faux pas. Six or seven years before, Oleg had conducted a kind of Imperial progress through Cassiopeia and Perseus, a showing of the flag to a neighbor rendered complaisant if not precisely friendly by his father's patient maneuverings. Now he was coming to shore up a threatened frontier. But one couldn't very well verbalize that fact without opening the door to unsayable conclusions concerning the reasons for the change.

"Well, Commander," the admiral hastily changed the subject, "that's enough talk for now. I'm sure you're tired—always fatiguing to adjust to a new planet, isn't it? Take the rest of the day to settle into your quarters. Tomorrow will be soon enough to report to Captain Yuan, my chief of staff."

"Thank you, sir." Corin rose from his chair, came to attention, and turned on his heel to leave. He was halfway to the door when the admiral stopped him with a throat-clearing noise.

"Ah, Commander Marshak, I believe you weren't the only officer who arrived here aboard Canopus Argosy. A Marine officer was also en route here."

"Why, yes, Admiral. A Major Dornay."

"Indeed. She's already reported to Brigadier General Toda. But, as per routine procedure, I've seen her records. Including her picture." The tip of the admiral's tongue briefly appeared to lick his lips. "Since you and she were fellow passengers, I couldn't help wondering if you had . . . well, if you can give me any insights concerning her."

Corin knew precisely what sort of insights Tanzler-Yataghan had in mind. He kept his voice bland. "Sorry, sir. I only met her at the very end of the voyage. So it was a very brief and superficial acquaintance. My chief impression is that she's very strong-willed."

It was hard to tell from the admiral's expression if he'd taken the hint, or if he was merely disappointed that he wouldn't be getting any specific pointers as to technique. "Ah, well. I suppose it can't be helped. Dismissed, Commander."

"Sir." Corin departed. Outside, under the dazzling light of Iota Pegasi A, he took a deep breath of fresh air.


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