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Prometheus (Sigma Draconis II), 3891 C.E.

"Now, then." Professor Gramont stroked his silvery goatee and surveyed the second-term Imperial History class with a benevolent gaze which fooled none of his students. "We have reached a period less than one and three-quarters standard century in the past. Which means that we have, in the eyes of a few purists such as myself, practically left history behind and emerged into the sordid realm of current events. Nevertheless, we must persevere.

"As a few of you may recall, when we last met we completed our discussion of the Empire's deterioration in the middle and late thirty-seventh century. To recapitulate: Armin II, a no-nonsense pragmatist disinclined to tolerate the inefficiencies and irrationalities of the Empire's traditional laissez-faire approach, had pursued a policy of centralization which his military successes seemed to validate. It was precisely that centralization which led to the decline following his death. Do you recall why . . . Cadet Castellan?"

As usual, Gramont had let his voice trail off soporifically before striking like an adder with the name of his current victim. But this was an easy question. Basil came to a seated position of attention, as they all unhesitatingly did for this elderly civilian. "Because, sir, it made the Empire's health more dependent on having a strong, capable emperor on the throne."

"Yes . . . and that happy eventuality was rare to the point of virtual nonexistence in the century following Armin's death."

Even this late in the course, there was a faint rustling sound of unease in the room at hearing the Empire's past treated with the irreverence that Gramont habitually displayed. But everyone admitted to the Academy was of unimpeachable loyalty, verified by registered psis. (The military was, as ever, an exception to certain fundamental rights.) So liberties could be permitted here which were unthinkable in the secondary school settings to which they were accustomed. And there was a persistent rumor that the urbane old man acted as a kind of agent provocateur to aid in the ruthless winnowing of the first- and second-term classes. Whatever the truth of that, he clearly enjoyed himself to the hilt.

"But now," he continued, "we've come to the final outcome of that period's trends: the Rajasthara Usurpation. You have, of course, completed the assigned reading and therefore are conversant with how Delmore Rajasthara, an Imperial minister, came to power and attempted to found his own dynasty. You are also aware that his fifteen-year reign was an uninterrupted disaster. You would be aware of that even if—nonsensical assumption!—you hadn't done the reading, for this is one of those rare instances where the popular perception of history is accurate. The question we must now consider is why Rajasthara was such an abject failure."

This time Gramont didn't pose the question to an individual but paused to invite volunteers. The cadets squirmed and exchanged nervous glances, for no one was quite sure what Gramont was up to. The answer was so self-evident that there had to be a trick lurking behind it. The silence stretched before a hand finally shot up. Gramont smiled. "Ah, I knew I could count on you, Cadet Rady."

Sonja Rady ignored the sarcasm. She swept her auburn hair back in a characteristic gesture and answered the question without preamble. "Because, sir, he was . . . he was a usurper! A damned traitor! He deposed the infant emperor for whom he was supposed to be acting as guardian. Then, when the legitimate successor vanished, he set out to loot the Empire for his own profit. The wonder is that it took as long as it did for a rebellion to break out against him. Everyone knows that." With the last words she glared at Gramont as though she found such an obvious question insulting.

There was a collective hiss of indrawn breath as the other cadets awaited thunderbolts and tried to pretend they were somewhere else. But Basil gave Rady a glance of admiration for her guts. He knew her by sight, as a fellow Nyjorder and for having a temperament as fiery as her hair. Now, though, he wondered if she might have gone too far. But Gramont only smiled.

"Brava, Cadet Rady! You have forcefully expressed the view of Rajasthara that practically all Imperial subjects take for granted. Indeed, it is so obvious to most that they find it difficult to put into words." He gave Rady's classmates an arch look. "Unfortunately, it is also quite wrong."

Rady started to open her mouth, but Gramont raised a forestalling hand. "Do not misunderstand me. Rajasthara was undeniably a usurper. But he was not an opportunistic adventurer looking only to line his own pockets. He was, in fact, something far more dangerous: an idealist. He firmly believed that the first two and a half centuries of the old Solarian Federation represented the high point of human history to date. He was, of course, hardly alone in this. The early Federation's success in keeping the peace caused those who lived in the war-torn centuries that followed to think better of that era than it perhaps deserved. By now, idealization of the period has fossilized into consensus. But Rajasthara went beyond idealization. He sought an actual return to the institutions of the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth centuries . . . as he conceived them. Those last four words are crucial, for he was an historical ignoramus. His notion of the early Federation actually bore a closer resemblance to its predecessor, the United Nations of Earth. Ah, you have a question, Cadet Bogdan?"

"Yes, sir." The rumbling basso came from the back of the room, where Torval Bogdan filled a desk. He was a heavy-planet type, thick of bone and muscle. But he wasn't short like most natives of such worlds, which meant his home must orbit far from its sun, where size had been an advantage in resisting cold. None of the other cadets were certain just where that home was, for none of them had gotten to know him well. He wasn't really hostile, but his size and obvious strength were somewhat inhibiting, as was the fact that he was several years older than the rest of them. A former enlisted Marine, he had a double row of decorations that contrasted with the others' virginal tunics. Quite simply, his classmates had little in common with him.

"I don't quite understand, sir," he continued. "Last term, we learned that the Federation arose in conscious opposition to the U.N."

"Quite so, Cadet. Nevertheless, the two had become an inextricable muddle in Rajasthara's mind. To him, the solution to the Empire's problems lay in the socialist economics which the U.N. had continued to espouse throughout its seven centuries of existence. In particular, he rummaged up an ancient sage named Marx whose version of socialism had been the intellectual community's established pseudo-religion in the twentieth century when the U.N. was founded."

Bogdan's face—wide across the cheekbones, as muscular as the rest of him—took on a frown, and his eyes became slits of concentration. "I gather, sir, that this Marx's economic philosophy had a historical record of success."

"Oh, no. It failed with awe-inspiring consistency. In fact, states based on it had begun to collapse even before the twentieth century was over, leaving the corpses of scores of millions of people they had found inconvenient, and the untold human wreckage of destroyed societies."

Bogdan shook his head slowly, like a man certain he must be missing something. "Then, sir . . . why was he a 'sage'?"

Gramont smiled benignly. "My dear Cadet Bogdan, you obviously have the good fortune to be unacquainted with the intellectual community—the 'herd of independent minds' as someone called it long ago. I, for my sins, know it from the inside. But a full explanation would take longer than I am allowed by the curriculum. For now, the point is that an ideology's catastrophic failure in the practical arena merely demonstrates its Higher Truth to its anointed. And, more importantly, the anointed's ability to perceive that Higher Truth proves—to their own satisfaction, at least—their moral and intellectual superiority to the common ruck which allows itself to be deceived by mere facts. Their right to control the lives of that common ruck—for its own good, of course—follows as a natural consequence."

"Like the New Humans," Rady said quietly.

Dead silence fell in the room, partly because they were supposed to avoid all mention of current politics (and especially of the conflict whose inevitability was still officially denied), but mostly because Rady had done the unforgivable by speaking without being recognized by the instructor. But Gramont only smiled his alarmingly gentle smile.

"That is outside the scope of this course," he said quietly. "I'll only leave you with this thought: I've often reflected that we might learn more from history if it didn't bore us to insensibility with its repetitiousness."

Then he proceeded briskly with his lecture. But Basil wasn't listening. He made eye contact with Sonja Rady across the room. It only lasted an instant, but in that silent instant he felt a sense of kinship that needed no words.

* * *

The moon Atlas was nearly full, and its red-infused light rippled on the darkened water as Basil crossed the footbridge into Oporto.

Ahead, the district that existed for the sole purpose of separating cadets from their money was a garish blaze of light. Its growth had kept pace with the Academy's over the past decade or so, as the Empire's traditionally modest military establishment had expanded. The Academy wasn't even the sole source of commissioned officers for the Deep Space Fleet any more, only the most prestigious. And the hereditary scions of the old professional officer class were now lost among the socially miscellaneous parvenus who swarmed among the new buildings that spread in circle after ever-more-characterless circle around the cluster of soaring towers, cloistered courtyards and spacious parade grounds which in the popular mind was the Academy.

Socially miscellaneous parvenus like me, Basil thought wryly. His academic record alone would not have sufficed to secure him this appointment. He still wasn't altogether sure what had sufficed, although he knew his mother's family had included Fleet officers a few generations back.

He quickened his step. Soon he was off the bridge and amid the gaudy raucousness of Oporto. Here, he reflected, was as good a place as any to feel rootless. The standardized nano-grown structures housing the bars, restaurants, gaming houses, "escort" agencies and all the rest disguised their sameness behind a diverse array of decors. But the staffs of all the establishments, however bogus-exotic their costumery, generally belonged to the local populace, whose diverse original genotypes had long since blended into a recognizable type. The cadets and other Fleet personnel thronging the streets showed a far greater variety of features and coloring above the collars of their uniforms, although two centuries of the Unification Wars and the Draconis Empire with their wholesale forced population transfers, followed by four centuries of freedom of movement, had pretty much robbed the old ethnic stereotypes of whatever resemblance to reality they had ever possessed.

He ran a finger around the inside of his collar in a vain effort to reduce its discomfort. Prometheus was a coolish planet, but this was in its subtropics. With the onset of spring the uniforms' imprinted circuitry had turned them white and their memory fabric had rearranged itself into the more open weave that regulations prescribed for summer planetside wear. But this was a muggy night and he wished he could have worn civvies. Out of the question, of course, for an underclassman. Only now, in his second term, could he get liberty at all.

He walked a short distance along Fulgham Road, turned right, and entered the Friend in Need Pub of Gamma Pavonis ("Authentic Tandoori cuisine of Olde England"). He passed through the restaurant that fronted the street and ascended a short flight of steps to a bar paneled in what purported to be wood, where he ordered a pint of what purported to be "bitter." He waved away a professional hostess and looked around. The room's windows of many small panes overlooked the river with its reflected Atlas-light. Seated at the bar and the tables were a number of cadets; it was fairly early in the evening, but the Friend in Need had a reputation as a good place for preliminary lubrication before commencing serious slumming further up Fulgham Road. He wasn't sure he was in the mood for that—its novelties had worn thin earlier in the term. Indeed, he wasn't certain what had brought him over the footbridge tonight, beyond pure restlessness and the usual cadet conviction that it was somehow wrong to not take liberty when one had the chance. He chuckled to himself, tossed off his beer and ordered another as a couple to his right stood up and moved away from the bar.

"Well! I'd know a Nyjord accent anywhere."

He glanced sharply to the right, where Sonja Rady sat three stools away. He wondered how he could have missed her auburn head even in this dim light. "Right," he said, drawling out the word to indicate the accent. "Not many of us here. Mind if I join you?" He indicated the now-empty stool next to her.

"Suit yourself. The stool's empty." Her usual surliness seemed moderated a trifle. "Why not? Coming from a backwater like Nu Phoenicis, we'd better stick together." Her eyes narrowed as he shifted seats. "I know you. Castellan, from old Gramont's ImpHist."

"Right," he said again, certain that she'd really recognized him from the first. "I thought you'd gone over the line with him the other day."

She snorted and chugged at least half of her beer. "That supercilious old gasbag! I don't know why I let him get to me. Still, anybody who can keep me awake in a history class must be doing something right." She gave him another close look and changed the subject. "What part of Nyjord are you from? It took me a while to recognize your accent."

So she hadn't only just noticed him after all, he thought, inordinately pleased. "Central Vaasaland, the high plains just east of the Kraakens. And unless I miss my guess, you're from the Seabreak Islands."

"Not bad," she acknowledged. "Although my mother came from closer to your part of the planet, on the northwest coast of Vaasaland."

"Aha! That explains it. I thought you looked like you might be part Old Nyjorder. Not many of them in the Seabreaks."

"Small chance of anybody thinking that in your case," she said, eyeing him.

He acknowledged the point with a wry expression. In contrast to her auburn-haired, straight-featured, blue-eyed looks, he was dark olive of complexion, with wavy hair of a brown so dark as to be practically black. His eyes were little lighter than his hair, and he suspected that his nose was going to develop a decided hook as he got older. Only in his tallness did he resemble the Nyjorder of traditional popular image.

"A maternal great-grandfather of mine was from off-world," he explained. "His family were some kind of political refugees during the Rajasthara Usurpation."

"So that's why you were right off the mark with Gramont's first question the other day. He was talking family history for you. You must have gotten the inside story on it directly from your great-granddad."

"Hardly. I never met him. Besides, he was just an infant then. The rest of his family got killed in the fighting and he was adopted by the Marczalis, who didn't exactly belong to the original colonial stock themselves—any more than the Castellans did. But that's all right," he added with a grin. "By now we're more Nyjorder than the Nyjorders—even by the standards of the Vaasaland high plains!"

"Right! Where men are men, women are scarce, and sheep are nervous." She finished off the rest of her beer. "Let's get out of here. This dump is so close to the Academy it might as well be the Club. Hell, this whole part of Oporto is practically a Fleet franchise! Maybe things are a little more interesting further up Fulgham Road." Without waiting for a response, she inserted her credcard into the slot in front of her stool. Then she slid to her feet with a lithe motion and headed for the door without waiting to see if he was following.

All right, Basil thought, so she needs to play the tough cookie. At least she took his mind off whatever it was that had been preying on it. He paid for his beer and quickly followed her out.

Things did indeed get, if not more interesting, then at least less phony as they proceeded along Fulgham Road. Fleet whites grew sparser, and the buildings grew older and more eccentric. Most had originally been homes, of a distinctive half-timbered style dating centuries back in this part of Prometheus, but had been converted to commercial use. As was typical in these latitudes, they were generally surrounded by flowering plants and trees of both local and imported gene-engineered Earth origin. (The Academy's schedule was based on the standard Earth year, but by sheer coincidence these waning days of the term corresponded to local spring.)

Sonja was unimpressed. "Here we are," she complained, "in the Sigma Draconis system itself, and they had to put the Academy next door to this piss-hole town!"

He knew what she meant. So towering was this system's role in human history that many people had difficulty remembering whether Homo sapiens had evolved under the light of Sol or that of Sigma Draconis. In the popular outworld imagination, Prometheus meant the apotheosis of technological civilization: exciting cities seemingly wrought of solidified light, awesome relics of a millennium and a half of history . . . and, at night, the blood-infused light of Atlas as a constant reminder of that history's grimmest pages.

But the last was all that the cadets generally got to see.

"Yes," he agreed, "this is about as out-of-the-way as you can get and still be on Prometheus. The closest we get to the interesting stuff is looking down at it when we arrive." He would never forget the moment when the orbit-to-surface shuttle had crossed the terminator from day to night, and all at once the continental outlines had become easier to pick out, for they were ablaze with light. "When we only get liberty for one day at a time—" (one of the 37.6-standard-hour local days, but still . . .) "—it's not worth the trip, and wouldn't be even if money was no object." He grinned. "Now if we just had a Sword Clans teleporter to flick us there instantaneously—"

"Don't tell me you believe in that shit! All my life I've heard about the super-powered technology the Sword Clans are supposed to have, out there wherever they live. You name it, they've got it!" She snorted. "I suspect they're really just one more bunch of ragged-assed Beyonders. But people need to believe in miracles."

"Well, the stories make a kind of sense," Basil argued as they emerged into a kind of square or plaza, surrounded by larger structures which mostly held restaurants and entertainment establishments. "I mean, if they've spent centuries locked in war with nonhumans who copied their own early-Federation-era technology, they've had a pretty good incentive to innovate. And, being outside the Empire, they're free of the Society's influence."

"That's another thing I wonder about. How much influence does the Society really have? Do people just need to believe that we'd be more advanced than we are if it wasn't for these sinister old men manipulating everything behind the scenes because they want us all to go back to our 'natural state' of being subsistence farmers? Maybe that and the Sword Clans crock are just variations on a theme: imaginary technological fixes for all our problems, lying either far out in space or in the realm of things that were prevented from happening." Unconsciously, but not unnoticed by Basil, she'd let her habitual rough-surfaced defensive shell slip, revealing the questing intelligence beneath. "Ever think about how our civilization is haunted by things we know very little about except that they exist? The Society, the Sword Clans—"

"The Luonli?" It was out of Basil's mouth before he had made a conscious decision to say it. The memories had almost blended into the mists of old dreams, and he wondered what power they could still have over his voice.

But Sonja stopped, turned toward him and gave him a level blue regard. Her mouth started to open. . . .

Then her eyes focused on something beyond him, and her parting lips formed the words, "Oh, shit!"

He turned around and followed her gaze. Streets debouched on the square from four directions, and from one of them a column of marching figures was emerging, carrying signs and torches. They all had the same close-cropped hair and wore the same plain gray garment of loose trousers and tunic, both designed to deemphasize the differences between genders and individuals.

"Shit," Sonja repeated. "I've heard that there were New Humans—or New Human imitators—even here in the Sigma Draconis system, but I assumed they were all in the big cities."

"Certainly not here in this Fleet town," Basil agreed. "Of course, these might be imported. . . ." He watched as the white-clad Fleet personnel in the square drew back in an angry wave. The demonstrators, sensing an advantage, pressed hard, waving fists and screaming slogans. Most of the local civilians in the square scattered, but a fair number clustered with the Fleet uniforms. The New Humans might not be unknown on this world, but they were far from popular.

Basil grabbed Sonja's upper arm. "Let's get out of here. This looks ugly, and you know what happens to cadets who're involved in any sort of politically-related brawling, regardless of who started it."

She gave a tense nod, glaring in the direction of the demonstrators, and let him pull her back the way they'd come. But then things began to get out of hand.

Basil couldn't tell who had made the first move, for the scuffle in the middle distance was already under way when he first heard the change in the shouting's timbre. All at once, as though by some spontaneous chemical reaction, fights were breaking out all over the square. The demonstrators surged forward in a tide that pushed the figures in front of them back until he and Sonja found themselves in a press of struggling, screaming bodies.

A swung sign knocked Basil off balance and a gray-clad body crashed into him, breaking his hold on Sonja and grappling with him. Practiced mental exercises allowed his combat training to take over, directing his movements from a calm storm center. He freed his arms with a well-executed breaking technique and delivered a short punch to the side of his attacker's head. Then he looked around in the chaos until he spotted Sonja, just in time to see her deliver a viciously accurate kick to a demonstrator's crotch. He plowed through the crush toward her, and had almost reached her side when a female demonstrator appeared in his path, clawing for his face. He stopped to fend her off with a sweep of his arm. But the pause allowed a fresh knot of attackers to crash into him and Sonja, bowling the two of them over by sheer weight of numbers. He tried to go into fetal position, curling protectively around his vitals, but arched his back with a gasp of pain when someone punched him from behind in the kidneys. Then all he could see were the figures that covered him, and all he could feel were their blows. . . .

Suddenly, he could see the night sky over the square from where he lay, for two of his attackers had been pulled, no, lifted bodily off him. Then their heads were brought together with a definitive clunk. Torval Bogdan, who had been holding one with each hand, dropped them unceremoniously and turned his attention to another demonstrator. He parried a blow with his right arm and brought the left around to deliver a punch that drove his massive fist wrist-deep into the fellow's midriff. As the demonstrator doubled over with a whistling expulsion of air, Torval brought a knee up into his face, sending him flying over backwards trailing a spray of blood, to rebound from a wall and lie still.

Then two more demonstrators landed on Torval's back and started to topple him forward. Basil shook the pain and confusion out of his head and staggered to his feet. He grabbed one of Torval's attackers and swung him around until they were both off balance. He pivoted on his right heel and delivered a side-kick that sent the New Human staggering backward . . . into Sonja, who dropped him with a precise chop to the base of the neck from behind. Basil was thus able to get a good view as Torval heaved his second attacker up over his head and hurled him against the nearest wall.

It was enough for the remaining New Humans in the vicinity. They proceeded to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the massive heavy-planet man. Basil, Sonja and their rescuer were suddenly alone as the riot moved on. "Come on," Torval said in his bass rumble, motioning toward a side street. "The Patrol will be here any time, and they've got no sense of humor about a little light exercise like this."

As though on cue, a contra-grav personnel carrier dropped from the sky in a blaze of stroboscopic lights. Its wailing siren drowned out the protests of its overstressed impellers as they braked it to a halt just short of the pavement. Its sides fell open and impact-armored men sprang out, plying their weapons. Those weapons produced no sound, and no light except the pale flicker of laser guide beams, but people began to fall in swathes of immobile bodies.

"They're paralyzing everybody," Sonja gasped.

"Come on," Torval repeated, giving them each a shove in the direction of the side street. "I've got a slider parked down this way."

Cadets weren't supposed to have private vehicles, but Basil was in no mood to worry about that. He let Torval's push, which the other probably thought of as gentle, propel his battered body out of the square. "But," he blurted, "they'll be watching the approaches to the Academy . . ."

"Who said anything about going straight back? We'll get out of town and head downriver to a place I know. We can lie low there for the rest of the night and get back in time for morning muster. We can also get something to drink there. You two look like you could use it."

Basil and Sonja needed no further persuading. The three hurried along the narrow street, past an old building whose windows were curtained behind iron grates, muffling the sounds of music from within. The noise from the square diminished behind them.

"Up ahead." Torval pointed toward a battered-looking civilian slider parked under one of the street's inadequate lights.

It was at that moment that a harsh glare bathed them from above, and a whine of impellers announced a descending aircar.

"Shit!" Torval rumbled. "They must be sealing off the approaches to the square. Come on!" He turned to run.

"Stop." Basil didn't really raise his voice. But the massive ex-Marine stopped, so abruptly that Sonja, who had started to break into a run, bumped into him. "They must have already seen us. If we run, they'll just paralyze us with no questions asked."

Torval gave him an odd look. "They might just do that anyway."

"Maybe. But maybe we can brazen our way through this."

Neither Torval nor Sonja said anything more, because it was too late to run. The Patrol aircar—smaller than the personnel carrier in the square—settled to the street between them and the slider. Its gull-wing doors swung upward, and its two occupants got out and advanced toward them.

Sonja and Torval looked silently at Basil. He wondered what they expected him to do. Execute your brilliant plan, of course, he gibed at himself. He fell into a stance of innocent nonchalance and called out to the Patrolmen in a voice he hoped sounded tipsily casual. "What's the matter? Trouble over in the square?"

The rating in charge didn't raise his weapon. He sounded bored. "All right, you three, get into the aircar. We're rounding up everybody involved in the riot."

"Huh? What're you talking about?" Basil shifted to righteous indignation. "What riot?"

"'What riot?'" the Patrolman echoed sarcastically. "Don't gimme that. We saw you coming from that direction."

"Uh. . . ." Basil's brain thrashed about frantically inside his skull. What am I supposed to say? What else is down there? Then an idea came, and his voice acted on it without waiting for his mind to fully formulate it. "Well," he said, shifting tone and expression to embarrassment, "actually, the truth is . . . we were at the house back there." He jerked his chin back the way they'd come, at the old house with the glowing, curtained windows." Hastily: "Yes, I know it's off limits, but everybody goes there!"

It was a pure shot in the dark. He didn't know for certain that the building was one of the whorehouses that catered to cadets of both genders. He held his breath until his head spun . . . then gradually released it as he realized that the Patrolman, who doubtless knew this district well, was thoughtfully silent.

"Hmm . . . I dunno. You look roughed up, like you've been in a fight."

"Hey," Basil protested, "have you seen some of those girls in there?"

The face inside the impact armor's open visor grinned briefly. Then the regulation police-issue expression was back in place. "Still, I'd probably better take you in. Come along quietly, and we won't have to paralyze you." This time the weapon-muzzle did rise slightly.

From behind him, Basil could hear the faint sounds of his companions shifting stance. Would the fiery woman or the combat-trained heavy-planet man try something crazy? Possibly. He stood a little straighter and looked the Patrolman directly in the eye. The fellow was pretty young, and only a second class petty officer.

"You have no probable cause to arrest us," Basil said in a quiet voice into which something new had entered. "And we don't require an escort back to our quarters. Let us pass."

For a moment, the tableau held. Cadets were technically in the fifth enlisted grade, but strictly for purposes of the pay scale. That was one of the first things made clear to them in their indoctrination—they weren't in anybody's chain of command, including and especially members of the Patrol. But the impact-armored figure stood silently, his face a battleground of conflicting emotions—resentment of educated young twits, apprehension bred of the knowledge that those twits would one day be commissioned officers, and . . . something else. Basil pressed what he hoped was an advantage. "Besides, you ought to hurry. They probably need your help in the square, rounding up the people really responsible: the New Humans."

All at once, Basil knew he'd won his gamble. The Patrolman's expression at the words "New Humans" suggested regret that he was armed with a non-lethal weapon. His eyes slid away from Basil's. "All right," he growled. "Just keep moving on out of this area. And—" a final face-saving assertion of authority "—stay away from places like that in the future. Come on." The last was addressed to his subordinate. The duo stalked off toward the square.

Basil turned to his companions. They were both looking at him with the same odd expression Torval's face had worn earlier. "Wait till they're out of sight," he cautioned. "Remember, the slider's non-reg."

"Right," the ex-Marine nodded. "Hope they hurry, though. Now I need a drink."

* * *

The slider soon left Oporto behind, its vectored impellers keeping it a few inches above the riverside road as it sped south. The river widened, residences thinned out and the mixed semitropical vegetation grew thicker before they entered a stretch of riverbank where fishing and recreational boats lay tied to docks, swaying gently in the Atlas-light. Soon they came to an arrogantly shabby building in the old local style, extending out over the water on pilings. A holo sign announced Peachy's Tavern in glowing midair letters.

This was unfamiliar territory to Basil, who had never gotten outside Oporto's Fleet district, and the lack of Fleet uniforms in the tavern did nothing to allay his unease. But there were no signs of hostility from the clientele as they entered, and Torval was obviously known here.

"Peachy is an ex-Marine," he explained after they'd been seated on the verandah that overlooked the river and were supplied with a bottle of good-quality local whisky (which meant good-quality anywhere) at an amazingly low price. "He and I went through a few things together. He got out, while I let my CO talk me into applying to the Academy. Peachy thinks the idea of me as an officer is a real knee-slapper. Gives me a hard time about it whenever I'm here." He gave a fatalistic shrug and raised his glass. "At least he doesn't water his booze."

Basil gave his own glass a slightly apprehensive look—Torval hadn't even ordered ice. But . . . he raised it, Torval gave a toast in what was presumably the native language of wherever he came from, and they all drank. Basil didn't choke, to his pleased surprise.

"Uh, it's a little belated, but thanks for your help back there in the square," he said.

"Think nothing of it. I recognized you two from ImpHist, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Besides . . . I've never had all that much use for New Humans."

"These tonight were just local twerps dressing up like them and mouthing their slogans," Sonja opined. "If suicide was currently chic, they'd be cutting their wrists." Her expression suggested that she wasn't convinced this would be an altogether bad idea.

"Probably. Still . . ." Torval's voice remained level, but his ruddy face clouded and he took another pull on his drink. "When the movement was just starting, they set up one of their communes on my homeworld. I saw what they were doing to people who dared to disagree with them . . . and the families of those people. I got mad enough to get in some trouble—I was just a kid then, you see. Anyway, things reached the point where it seemed like a good idea to leave. I knocked around awhile, then joined the Marines."

"Well," Sonja observed, "I guess you're the only one of us who has a good, sound, personal reason for hating the New Humans. With me, it's . . . well, just a feeling. A damned strong feeling—revulsion, in fact, at the whole notion that human individuality must be crushed out of existence because it doesn't fit some half-assed theory. But still, just a feeling. Same with you, I suppose," she added, turning to Basil.

He didn't reply at first, for he was recalling a dragon to whom he had poured forth his anger. Then he blinked away the awakened memories and smiled at Sonja. "Yes, I suppose so. But it's not just a gut reaction. History shows—"

"Oh, shit!" Sonja tossed off the rest of her drink and reached for the bottle. "Might have known we'd get a history lecture. Word is that old Gramont wants you for his honors program next term."

Basil refused to be distracted. He leaned forward and spoke with an intensity that got their attention. "But it's true. And here on this world, of all places, we can't ignore it. Not with that in the sky." And he pointed at the near-disc of Atlas in the sky, veined with red like a bloodshot eye in a pattern that nature had never wrought.

* * *

Atlas, like Old Earth's Luna, was technically not a moon at all but rather the lesser component of a binary planet system. But Atlas was more obvious about it, with its almost-half-Earth-standard gravity, its thin nitrogen-and-carbon-dioxide atmosphere and its feeble but measurable plate tectonics. In almost any system but Sigma Draconis it would have been a prime candidate for terraforming. But with the marvelously Earthlike world of Prometheus available, to say nothing of the system's fabulous asteroidal riches, why bother? By the time Prometheus had gotten crowded, its people had had much else to occupy their minds—like breaking free from, and then overthrowing, the U.N., and organizing the Solarian Federation.

Later, after Prometheus had felt the kiss of thermonuclear fire in the course of an attempted coup and the Federation had gone to Old Earth to grow old and then dissolve into a wraith, the governors-general of Sigma Draconis had dusted off old terraforming studies. Still later the founder of the Draconis Empire, whose name most people still could not bring themselves to pronounce without a conscious effort, had rushed their plans to completion. He had, after all, had unlimited resources. He'd also had a purpose: to build his capital city in the lighter gravity of Atlas which would, he had believed, remove restraints from his architectural fancies and extend his life span.

He'd been right about the first, but as for the second, the low gravity had proven as unavailing as the anagathic treatments to which he, like about six percent of the human race, had not been amenable. So the Founder had had a palace dwarfing most of history's cities in which to let the fear of death gnaw away at his vitals and finally kill him. And the intriguers who swirled around his feeble successor had wiped his recorded consciousness from the great computer into which it had been downloaded even before the rebels had arrived to sweep that successor into oblivion. Those rebels had then vented a decade and a half of rage on the world from which he had ruled. Their fleet had hung in orbit around Atlas, tearing at its surface with antimatter long after every living thing on it was dead, blasting its atmosphere into space, breaking open its crust in a cataclysm that had left its entire surface a pattern of cracks through which hellfire still glowed after four centuries. The stories about the number of days it had seemed to burn in the skies of Prometheus were doubtless exaggerated.

* * *

"Afterwards," Basil concluded, "four years of civil war among the rebel leaders was enough to remind people of why they'd once been willing to accept the unity the Draconis Empire had offered. But that had turned out to be a cure worse than the disease. And yet nobody really wanted a restoration of the old states; that would just have started the whole nightmare of the Unification Wars all over again, until some state or other wiped out all its rivals and founded another Draconis Empire. Unity was needed to prevent that—a unity that didn't try to impose any one pattern on the various societies and cultures. That's what the Solarian Empire is about. That's what the New Humans have forgotten."

Sonja looked troubled. "We also can't ignore what's happened to the Empire since then. The corruption, the waste, the growth of the Great Houses' power and wealth at the expense of everybody else, the influence of the synthetics at court . . ." Her two companions unconsciously winced at the last, for it was a very sore point. The Draconis Empire, with its super-soldiers and other specialized castes, had burned into the human soul an almost superstitious abhorrence of vat-grown artificial persons created from modified human genetic material. But over the centuries they had made a stealthy comeback, for they had their uses—especially as court functionaries. After all, no one had to worry about them as rivals for the Imperial title. But that, of course, left them with nothing to do except plot to wield power behind the throne from which they, like all such clones, were absolutely barred.

"All that," Sonja continued, "is what the New Humans claim their movement has arisen in opposition to. They couldn't have gotten as far as they have if there wasn't some grain of truth to it."

"Oh, yes," Basil said—absently, for he couldn't take his eyes off the face of Atlas, an ill-fitting puzzle through whose cracks the blood of the billions the Draconis Empire had exterminated seemed to ooze. Then he shook himself, took a gulp of whiskey and looked Sonja in the eye. "Nobody can deny that the Empire is corrupt. But even its corruption is a human thing. The Empire is the summation of human history—all the variety, all the glories . . . yes, and all the mistakes, which carry with them the opportunity to learn. The New Humans would wipe the slate clean of all that's been accomplished and learned in seven thousand years of recorded history, and leave only the scribblings of that half-educated neurotic Montrose! No matter how rotten the Empire has gotten, they can't replace it because it has . . . I know I'm not saying it very well, but it's got something real behind it and all they've got is a crazy dream!"

He stopped abruptly, conscious of the way they were looking at him, and once again he recalled a time he had faced a dragon and let his innermost feelings gush out. He half-opened his mouth to tell them about it . . . but the details were so hard to remember. Then Torval shifted in his chair, which creaked alarmingly.

"You two," he announced, "are half drunk. There's only one solution: you'll have to get completely drunk." He picked up the bottle, eyed the level of its contents critically, and bellowed for a waiter.

But Basil, oddly enough, didn't feel drunk in the least. What he did feel was a sense of something he couldn't put a name to, although the word immanence touched the surface of his mind. "No," he said slowly, "I don't think we are drunk. I think we're . . . Let's face it, the three of us are closet idealists." Sonja made a rude noise with her mouth—but only half-heartedly, as though she knew it was expected of her, and her eyes never left his. And he knew, without having to be told, that she felt the same indefinable thing he felt at that moment. "We all believe, very deeply, in the idea of the Empire, however tarnished the reality has become and however little we like to openly admit our belief."

Torval's eyes also made contact with theirs. "I don't know anything about history," he said, and if possible his voice seemed to have grown even deeper than its basso norm. "But I know that a war is coming. Never mind the official bullshit. Whenever one side's determined that it's going to have its way no matter what, there are only two possibilities: war, or surrender by the other side. And unless the Empire is even further gone than I think it is, it's not going to passively accept its own dissolution." He smiled slightly. "I think I know a little more than you two about times like those that are coming. And I'll tell you this: in bad times, you need people you can count on. I mean absolutely count on. Like family, but in times when your real family—if any—is nowhere around."

"And who better," Basil's voice seemed to speak for him, "than other people who know those times are coming, and why they're coming, and why they're worth enduring?" He took the bottle and emptied its meager contents into the three glasses equally. Then he rose in the blood-infused light of Atlas, which was about to vanish behind a cloudbank blowing in from the west. And he spoke in a voice he didn't recognize. "I have a feeling—don't ask me why—that in the years that are coming our fates are going to be closely tied together. And I want us to swear that we'll be true to each other. Because I also have a feeling that there are very few others we'll be able to count on."

Sonja stood up. "They say drunken talk is cheap. But . . . you know, I don't feel drunk at all."

"Neither do I," Basil said.

Torval rose to his full height, at least equal to Basil's and twice as broad and thick. "I'm with you," he said simply.

When the waiter arrived with the whiskey bottle Torval had ordered, the three of them were still standing. But they were no longer standing in the light of Atlas, for it had vanished behind the clouds.

No doubt about it, the waiter reflected. A storm is coming.


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