Stretching from fifty-five floors above ground level to eighty floors beneath it, located in the deciduous climatic zone of the northern hemisphere of Planet Heinessen, was the Free Planets Alliance Joint Operational Headquarters building. Positioned in orderly fashion all around it were buildings for Science and Technology Headquarters, Rear Service Headquarters, the Space Defense Command and Control Center, the military academy, and the Capital Defense Command Center. These buildings formed a zone that was the hub of military affairs, about one hundred kilometers away from the heart of the capital city of Heinessenpolis.
In an assembly hall that occupied space on four of the Joint Operational Headquarters building’s underground floors, a memorial service for those who had died in the Battle of Astarte was about to begin. It was a beautiful afternoon with clear blue skies, two days after the alliance force dispatched to the Astarte system had returned as an exhausted remnant, having lost 60 percent of its force strength.
The lane heading toward the hall was packed with crowds of attendees. The families of those lost were present, as were the related governmental and military personnel. Among them was also the figure of Yang Wen-Li.
As he made appropriate responses to the people who came to speak to him, Yang looked up at the vast spread of blue sky. Although he could not see them, countless military satellites soundlessly flew overhead in space above the many layers of atmosphere.
Among them were the twelve interceptor satellites that together formed “Artemis’s Necklace,” that giant engine of murder and destruction controlled by the Space Defense Command and Control Center, of which alliance military leaders were given to boast: “As long as we have this, Planet Heinessen is impregnable.” Every time he heard that, Yang would remember past history and how most fortresses dubbed “impregnable” had collapsed amid devouring flames of judgment. Did they really believe that being strong militarily was something to brag about?
Yang lightly slapped both cheeks with his hands. It felt like he wasn’t completely awake. He’d slept for sixteen hours straight but stayed awake for sixty hours before that.
He wasn’t eating right either. His stomach wasn’t feeling all that well, so all he had consumed was some vegetable soup that Julian had warmed up for him. He had collapsed into bed as soon as he had returned to the official housing, then left to come here not even an hour after waking, and now that he thought about it, he could not remember having had any decent conversation with the young boy whose guardian he had become.
Oh well, guess this makes me a failure as a parent …
As he was thus thinking, someone tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around, Rear Admiral Alex Caselnes, his upperclassman from the academy, was standing there, smiling.
“It looks like the hero of Astarte hasn’t completely woken up yet.”
“Who’s the hero?”
“The person standing in front of me. You probably haven’t had time to see the news yet, but that’s what the whole field of journalism is writing about you.”
“Me? I’m a defeated general.”
“That’s right,” said Caselnes. “The Alliance Navy was defeated. Which is why we need a hero. Though if we’d won big, I wouldn’t go so far as ‘need,’ you know? That’s because when we lose, we have to avert the public’s eyes from the big picture. It was probably the same thing with El Facil.”
The ironic tone was characteristic of Caselnes. A man of thirty-five, of middling height with a healthy-looking stoutness, he worked as top aide and second in command to Marshal Sidney Sitolet, director of the Alliance Military Joint Operational Headquarters. With more experience at desk work than frontline service, he was a man of great ability when it came to things like organizing projects and dealing with bureaucracy; there was little doubt that the director’s chair at Rear Service HQ lay in his future.
“Is it really okay for you to come over here, though?” asked Yang. “What with ‘top aide’ really meaning ‘errand boy,’ I figured you’d be busy, but …” Under light counterattack, the capable military bureaucrat returned a subtly formed smile.
“Well, this show is being run by the Bureau of Ceremonies. It’s not for the soldiers and not really even for the families. The one most excited for all this is His Excellency the Defense Committee Chairman. Because if I may say so, this whole thing is a political show for the chairman, as he is aiming to run the next administration.”
The face of Defense Committee Chairman Job Trünicht rose up in both of their recollections.
A tall, handsome, youthful politician of forty-one. An energetic, argumentative hard-liner against the empire. Half of those who knew him praised him as an eloquent orator. The other half loathed him for a sophist.
The alliance’s current head of state was Supreme Council Chairman Royal Sunford. An elderly politician who had risen out of political strife to play the role of moderator, he was in all things devoted to respect for precedent. Since he was somewhat lacking in vigor, the spotlight was beginning to shine on Trünicht as the leader of the next generation.
“But having to listen to that man’s tasteless rabble-rousing at length is worse than pulling an all-nighter,” Caselnes said disgustedly. Although he was in the military, he was in the minority opinion on this. A publicity hound Trünicht may have been, but he spoke passionately of providing ample facilities for the military and of crushing the empire, and among those whose affection he garnered, many were uniformed soldiers. Yang, too, was one of the minority.
The ceremony had begun in a conventional manner, and in a conventional manner it was proceeding. Chairman Sundford left the stage after an emotionless, monotone delivery of a script prepared by bureaucrats, then Defense Committee Chairman Trünicht stepped lightly onto the stage. At the mere appearance of the man, the air in the auditorium became charged, and a round of applause rose up, even louder than the one for Chairman Sundford.
Trünicht—who wasn’t holding a script—called out to the sixty thousand attendees in a rich and sonorous voice.
“Citizens and soldiers! What is the purpose for which we’ve all come rushing out to assemble in this place? It is to give comfort to the heroic spirits of those 1,500,000 who so valiantly gave their lives in the Astarte Stellar Region. For it was to protect the freedom and the peace of their country that they offered up their precious lives.”
He was only this far into the speech, and Yang was already wishing he could plug his ears. He wondered, had this situation—of listeners cringing at empty, flowery words, even as their speaker feels perfectly at ease rattling them off—been a part of humanity’s heritage since the days of ancient Greece?
“I just said, ‘their precious lives.’ And truly, life is something that must always be respected. But, friends, they died to show those of us left behind that there exist things more precious still than the life of the individual. What are these? They are country and freedom! Their deaths were beautiful, precisely because they set aside themselves and gave their lives for the sake of a great and noble cause. They were good husbands. They were good fathers, good sons, and good boyfriends. They had a right to lead long, fulfilling lives. Yet casting that right aside, they departed for the field of battle and there laid down their lives! Citizens, if I may be so bold as to ask … why did 1,500,000 soldiers die?”
“ ’Cause the leaders’ operational command sucked,” Yang muttered, his voice a little loud for a private commentary. Shocked expressions appeared on the faces of a few of the people around him, and a young black-haired officer shot a glance his way. Yang’s eyes met that glance head-on, and its owner, flustered, quickly looked back toward the podium.
And from where he was looking, the defense committee chair’s speech was still dragging on. Trünicht’s face was flushed red, a gleam of self-intoxication in his eyes.
“Yes, I have said the answer already. It was in the defense of country and of freedom that they gave up their lives! Is there any death more worthy than this of the word ‘noble’? Is there anything else that speaks to us so eloquently of what a petty thing it is to live for oneself only, and die for oneself only? You must all remember that the country is what makes the individual possible. That is the thing that exceeds even life in importance. Bear that truth in mind! And what I want to say most loudly is this: that country and freedom are worth protecting, even at the cost of human lives. That our battle is a just one! To those of you who are self-styled pacifists, demanding that we make peace with the empire … to those of you who are self-styled idealists, thinking that it’s possible to coexist with tyrannical absolutism, I say, awaken from your delusions! Whatever your motivation for what you do, it results in a sapping of the alliance’s strength, and it benefits the empire. In the empire, antiwar and pacifist ideologies are suppressed. It’s because our alliance is a free nation that opposition to national policy is even permitted. Don’t just take advantage of that! There’s nothing easier than advocating for peace with words.”
There is one thing, thought Yang. Hiding in a safe place and advocating for war. Yang could feel the excitement of the surrounding crowd all over him, increasing by the moment like a rising river. He had had enough of it, but agitators, it seemed, were never wanting for support, no matter what the era or the times.
“If I may be so bold, all of those who oppose this righteous war to bring down the Galactic Empire’s tyrannical absolutism are undermining the country. They are unworthy of their citizenship in our proud alliance! Only those who fight fearlessly in the face of death to protect our free society and the national establishment that guarantees it are true citizens of the alliance. The cowards who lack that readiness shame these heroes’ spirits! This alliance was forged and built by our ancestors. We know the history. We know how our ancestors paid for their freedom in blood. Our homeland, with its grand history! Our free homeland! Will we not stand and fight to defend the one thing worth defending? Let us fight, now, for the homeland! Hail the alliance! Hail the republic! Down with the empire!”
With each shout of the defense committee chairman, the listeners’ reason was being blown away like chaff. Churning waves of exuberance lifted the bodies of sixty thousand people as they rose from their seats to join Trünicht in his hails, their mouths opened so wide he could probably see all the way back to their molars.
“Hail the alliance! Hail the republic! Down with the empire!”
A forest of arms beyond counting sent berets dancing high up into the air. There was a capriccio of applause and cheers.
In the midst of it, Yang remained silent, resolutely staying seated. His black eyes were fixed coldly on the warrior at the podium. Both of Trünicht’s arms were raised high in response to the excitement of the full auditorium, and then his gaze fell down to the front row of spectators.
For an instant, the gleam in his eye became hard, showing disgust, and the corners of his mouth drew tight. He had recognized that one young officer in his field of view who was still sitting. If Yang had been seated in the back, he probably wouldn’t have been noticed, but he was in the front row, a shameless rebel sitting right beneath the nose of sublime patriotism incarnate.
A jowly middle-aged officer shouted at Yang, “Officer, why aren’t you standing?!” He was wearing commodore’s insignia, same as Yang.
Shifting his gaze, Yang quietly answered. “This is a free country. I ought to be free to not stand up when I don’t want to. I’m just exercising that freedom.”
“Well then, why don’t you want to stand up?”
“Exercising my freedom not to answer.”
Yang knew that was a smart-aleck response, even for him. Caselnes would have probably laughed and said, That was rather awkward, even as a show of resistance. Yang, however, had no enthusiasm for behaving like a grown-up here. He didn’t want to stand up, he didn’t want to clap his hands, and he didn’t want to shout “Hail the alliance!” either. If not being moved by Trünicht’s speech was enough to merit criticism of his patriotism, what response could there be except, “Whatever you say”? The adults were never the ones to cry out that the emperor had no clothes; it was always a child.
“What are you trying to—”
Just as the middle-aged commodore was starting to yell at him again, Trünicht, at the podium, lowered his arms. He gestured lightly toward the crowd, both hands open, and as he did so, the level of excitement dropped off, and a quiet stillness began to smother all the noise. The people lowered their heads.
Even the middle-aged commodore who had been glaring at Yang took his seat, his thick, meaty cheeks trembling in discontent.
“Ladies and gentlemen?”
The defense committee chair opened his mouth again at the podium. Between his shouting and his long-winded speech, his mouth had dried out, leaving his melodious voice hoarse. After coughing once, he began to speak began.
“Our most powerful weapon is the unified will of all the people. With our free country and our democratically elected system of republican government, we cannot force on you any goal, no matter how noble. Every one of you has the freedom to oppose the state. But this much should be obvious to all conscientious people: true freedom means casting aside our petty egos, banding together, and advancing as one toward a common goal. Ladies and gentlemen …”
The reason that Trünicht closed his mouth at that point was not because of his dry mouth. It was because he had noticed a woman walking down the aisle toward the podium, alone. She was a young woman with light-brown hair, and pretty enough to probably turn the heads of half the men she passed on the street. From both sides of the aisle down which she strode, there arose low, suspicious stirrings of whispers, spreading outward through the crowd like ripples.
Who is that woman? What’s she doing?
Yang, like the other listeners, looked toward the woman as well, figuring anything was better than looking at Trünicht’s face, but when he saw her he couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows slightly. It was a face he remembered all too well.
“Defense Committee Chairman?” she said, calling toward the podium in a mezzo-soprano voice that had a nice, lingering ring. “My name is Jessica Edwards. I am—or, I was—the fiancée of Jean Robert Lappe, a staff officer in the Sixth Fleet, who died in the Battle of Astarte.”
“Why, that’s …” The eloquent “leader of the new generation” found himself at a loss for words. “… that’s a terrible shame, ma’am, but …”
His words going nowhere, the defense committee chairman looked meaninglessly around the vast assembly hall. The crowd of sixty thousand listeners reciprocated with sixty thousand silences. All of them were holding their breath as they stared at this young woman, bereaved of her fiancé.
“I don’t need your consolation, Chairman, because my fiancé died a noble death defending his country.”
Jessica quietly calmed the chairman’s discomfiture, and an unguarded expression of relief rose up on Trünicht’s face.
“Is that so? Well then, you should be considered a role model for all the young women on the home front. Such a laudable spirit is sure to be rewarded richly.”
At this point, Yang wanted to shut his eyes on that shameless man. All he could think was, Nothing is impossible if you have no sense of shame.
Jessica, on the other hand, appeared composed.
“Thank you very much. I came here today because there’s a question—just one question—I’d like to have the chairman answer.”
“Oh? What kind of question might that be? I hope it’s one I can answer …”
“Where are you now?”
Trünicht blinked his eyes. So did most of the onlookers, unable to grasp the question’s intent.
“Ah, what did you say?”
“My fiancé went to the battlefield to protect his country, and now he isn’t anywhere at all in this world. Chairman, where are you now? You, with your praise of death, where are you?”
“Young lady …” The defense committee chairman appeared to be flinching from everyone’s gaze.
“Where is your family?” Jessica continued relentlessly. “I offered up my fiancé as a sacrifice. You, who preach the need for sacrifice to the people, where is your family? I don’t deny a single word you’ve said here today. But are you living it yourself?”
“Security!” Trünicht called out, looking toward the right and then the left. “This young lady is very upset. Escort her to another room. Conductor, my speech is over. National anthem! Play the national anthem.”
Someone took hold of Jessica’s arm. She was about to try to shake it off when she saw the man’s face and gave it up.
“Let’s go,” Yang Wen-li said quietly. “I don’t think this is a place you need to be …”
Stirring music, abounding in a sense of exaltation, was beginning to fill the assembly hall. It was “Freedom’s Flag, Freedom’s People,” the national anthem of the Free Planets Alliance.
My friends, someday, the oppressor we’ll o’erthrow,
And on liberated worlds,
We’ll raise freedom’s flag.
Now, we fight for a shining future;
Today, we fight for a fruitful tomorrow.
Friends, let us sing; the soul of freedom praise.
Friends, let us sing; the soul of freedom show.
The crowd began to sing along with the music. Unlike the chaotic cries of just moments ago, this was a unified and rich melody.
From beyond the darkness of tyranny,
With our own hands, let’s bring freedom’s dawn.
Backs turned on the podium, Yang and Jessica walked up the aisle toward the exit. Attendees glanced at the two of them as they passed, then immediately turn their gazes back toward the podium and continued singing. When the door that had opened silently before them had closed on their backs, they heard the final line of the national anthem:
Oh, we are freedom’s people,
Through eternity unconquered …
The last gleam of the setting sun faded, and all the land was covered in the cool air of a relaxing evening. The silvery blue light of gorgeous swarms of stars was beginning to shine. At this time of year, a constellation said to resemble a spiral belt of silk was particularly vivid.
The spaceport in Heinessenpolis was filled with hustle and bustle.
In its vast lobby, people of all sorts were crowded together. Those who had completed their journeys, those about to depart on them. Those who had come to see someone off, those who had come to pick someone up. Regular citizens wearing conventional suits, soldiers in black berets, technicians in their combination suits. Security officers standing still at strategic points and looking irate at the heavy crowds, overworked spaceport employees walking quickly, children running wild with excitement. Robot cars threaded their way like mice through gaps in the interposing walls of humans, carrying baggage.
“Yang,” Jessica Edwards said to the young man sitting by her side.
“You must have thought I was a horrible woman.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Most of those bereaved families were sitting there in silence, enduring their grief, but I went and caused a scene in front of all those people. It’s only natural you should take offense.”
There’s not a single example of things getting better thanks to silently enduring it, Yang thought. Somebody needs to criticize the leadership and hold them responsible. But when he opened his mouth to speak, all he said was, “No, not at all.”
The two of them were sitting side by side on one of the sofas in the spaceport lobby.
Jessica had said she was heading back to Heinessen’s neighboring world of Terneuzen on a liner leaving in about an hour. There she worked as an elementary school music teacher. If Lieutenant Commander Jean Robert Lappe had survived, she had planned to quit that job upon her marriage.
“You’ve really come a long way, haven’t you, Yang?” said Jessica, staring as a family of three passed by in front of her.
Yang didn’t answer.
“I heard all about what you did at Astarte. And your achievements before that … Jean Robert was always impressed. You’re the pride of his graduating class, he’d say.”
Jean Robert Lappe was a good man. Jessica made a wise decision in choosing him, Yang thought with just a touch of forlornness. Jessica Edwards: daughter of the Officers’ Academy purser, who had been attending music school. Now a music instructor who had lost her fiancé …
“Aside from you, the whole admiralty should be ashamed. Due to their incompetence, over a million people are dead from a single battle. Morally, too, they should be ashamed.”
That’s not quite right, Yang thought. Acts of barbarism such as truce breaking and the slaughtering of noncombatants aside, there was no fundamentally high or low ground morally between a great general and a stupid one. When a foolish general got a million allies killed, a great general killed a million enemies. That was the only difference, and if viewed from the standpoint of absolute pacifism—the kind that said, “I will not kill, even if it means being killed myself”—there was no difference between the two. Both were mass murderers.
What the stupid general had to be ashamed of was his lack of ability; the issue was utterly divorced from the concept of morality. This, however, was something Jessica was unlikely to understand even if Yang explained it, nor did Yang think it was something for which understanding should be sought.
The spaceport’s boarding announcements pulled Jessica up from the sofa. The departure of the liner she was on was growing near.
“Goodbye, Yang, and thank you for seeing me off.”
“Go as far as you can in the service, all right? And as far as Jean Robert could have gone, too.”
Yang watched intently as Jessica disappeared into the boarding gate.
Go far, eh? Wonder if she realizes that’s the same as telling me, “Go kill even more people.” Probably—no, definitely—not. That would also be the same as telling me to do to the empire’s women the same thing that was done to her. And when that happens, who will the empire’s women take out their sadness and anger on … ?
“Excuse me, but might you be Commodore Yang Wen-li?” said a voice. Yang slowly turned around, to find an elderly, refined-looking lady with a boy of five or six in tow.
“Um, that’s right, er …”
“Ah yes, I thought so. Here, Will, this man is the hero of Astarte. Say hello to him.”
Shyly, the boy hid behind the old lady’s back.
“I’m Mrs. Mayer. Both my husband and my son—my son was this boy’s father—were soldiers and died honorably in battle with the empire. I was very moved to hear of your exploits on the news, and to be able to meet you in a place like this is more than I could have hoped for.”
Yang had no idea what to say.
I wonder what in the world kind of look is on my face right now, he thought.
“This child also says he wants to be a soldier. That he’s going to beat the empire and avenge his daddy … Commodore Yang, I know it’s an impudent thing to ask, but I wonder if you might let him shake the hand of a hero? I think that shaking hands with you would be an encouragement for him for the future.”
Yang couldn’t look at the old lady straight on.
Perhaps taking his lack of an answer for assent, the old woman tried to push her grandson to stand before the young admiral. The boy, however, clung tight to his grandmother’s dress and wouldn’t let go, although he was looking at Yang in the face.
“What’s the matter, Will? You think you can become a brave soldier acting like that?”
“Mrs. Mayer,” said Yang, mentally wiping away sweat. “When Will becomes an adult, it’s going to be peacetime. There’s not going to be any need to make himself become a soldier … Take care, kid.”
With a slight bow, Yang turned on his heel and got out of that place, walking rapidly. In short, he fled. This was one retreat in which he saw no dishonor.
When Yang got back to his officer’s house on Block 24 Silver Bridge Street, his watch was showing 2000 Heinessen Standard Time. The whole area was a residential district for high-ranking officers who were either single or had small families, and the refreshing scent of natural chlorophyll drifted on the breeze.
Even so, the buildings and facilities could not necessarily be called new or luxurious. There was plenty of land and an abundance of green plants, but that was owing to a chronic lack of funds needed for new construction, additions, and renovation.
After getting off the low-speed sidewalk, Yang crossed a poorly kept common lawn. Creaking with complaints of overwork, the front gate, equipped with ID scanners, welcomed in the master of Officers’ Residence B-6.
It’s about time to have this thing replaced, even if I have to pay for it out of my own pocket, Yang thought. Even if I negotiated with Accounting, it wouldn’t get me anywhere.
“Welcome back, Commodore.” Young Julian Mintz came out to the porch to meet him. “I was wondering if you might not be coming back. Good thing you did, though. I’ve made that Irish stew you like.”
“Makes it worth coming home on an empty stomach. But why’d you think I wasn’t coming back?”
“Rear Admiral Caselnes contacted me,” the boy answered, taking Yang’s uniform beret. “ ‘That rascal ducked out in the middle of the ceremony hand in hand with a beautiful woman,’ he was saying.”
Yang grimaced as he stepped into the foyer. “Why, that son of a …”
Julian Mintz was fourteen years old and was Yang’s ward. He was of average height for his age, with flaxen hair, dark-brown eyes, and delicate features. Caselnes and others at times referred to him as “Yang’s page.”
Two years prior, Julian had come to live under Yang’s protection in accordance with the Law for Special Regulations Concerning Children of Soldiers. Commonly, this was called Travers’s Law, after the name of the statesman who had proposed it.
The Free Planets Alliance had been in a state of war with the Galactic Empire for a century and a half. This meant chronic generation of war dead and other victims of war. Travers’s Law had been conceived as one stone to kill the two birds of assisting war orphans with no next of kin and of procuring human resources.
Orphans were raised in the homes of soldiers. A set sum of money for child-rearing expenses was lent to their guardians by the government, and the orphans attended regular schools until fifteen years of age. Then it was up to them to choose their future course; however, if they volunteered for the military and became child soldiers, or enrolled in Officers’ Academy or some technical or other school with military affiliation, repayment of the child support fees would be waived.
For the military, even women were an indispensable human resource in the Rear Service, vital in resupply, accounting, transport, communications, space traffic control, intelligence processing, and facilities management.
“In short, you can think of it like the apprentice system that’s been around since the Middle Ages. More vicious maybe, since it uses money to try and restrict people’s futures.”
Caselnes, who at the time was assigned to Rear Service Headquarters, had explained it to Yang like that, with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“In any case, people can’t live without being fed. That’s a fact, right? Which means we need a feeder. So come on—you can take in one at least.”
“I don’t even have a family of my own.”
“Exactly, which means you’re not fulfilling your societal obligation to support a wife and child. Look, the government even pays child support—it’d be a shame if we can’t even get you to take on this much. Right, you swinging bachelor, you?”
“Understood. But only one.”
“If you like, you can have two.”
“One is plenty.”
“Really? Well, in that case I’ll have to find you one who eats enough for two.”
Four days after that exchange had passed between them, the boy named Julian had appeared standing in the foyer of Yang’s home.
That very day, Julian had secured for himself his station in the Yang household. Given that the household’s erstwhile sole member was hardly what could be called a capable and industrious manager in the home, things were in a rather horrid state. Although Yang did own a handheld domcom, he always neglected to input the data needed to control his various household appliances; not only had it ended up a useless piece of junk, all his home tech had acquired a layer of dust as well.
For his own sake too, apparently, Julian had made up his mind to get the home’s physical environment into shape. Two days after becoming a resident of the Yang home, its young master had left on a short business trip. When he returned a week later, he found his home under occupation by a federated force of neatness and efficiency.
“I’ve arranged the data on your domcom into six categories,” the twelve-year-old commander of this occupying force had reported to the head of the house, who had stood there frozen with a stunned look on his face. “Let’s see, 1 is home management, 2 is appliance control, 3 is security, 4 is data collection, 5 is home study, and 6 is entertainment. Household accounting and daily menu selection are under 1; air-conditioning, cleaning devices, and the washing machine are under 2; the burglar alarm and fire extinguisher are under 3; and news, weather, and shopping information are under 4 … Please remember these, Captain.”
Yang had been a captain at the time. Wordlessly, he had sat down on the sofa in what doubled as his living room and dining room, wondering what he was going to say to this innocently smiling little invader.
“I went ahead and cleaned that, too. And the bedsheets are also washed. I, ah, think I’ve managed to get things shipshape indoors, but if there’s anything you’re not happy with, please tell me. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Can you get me a cup of tea?”
Yang had asked this because he was thinking, I’ll wet my whistle with my favorite tea, and then I’ll start with the griping, but the boy had hurried off to the kitchen and come back carrying a tea set that was now so clean it looked practically brand-new. Then, before his very eyes, Julian had brewed Shillong-grown tea with a startling dexterity.
Yang had taken one sip of the tea set out before him, and then he had decided to surrender to the young boy. That’s how good the aroma and flavor were. Julian said that his late father had been a lieutenant in the space armada. Being even more of a tea-ceremony aficionado than Yang, he had taught his son all about tea varieties and brewing.
Six months after Yang had accepted Julian-style housekeeping, Caselnes, who had come over for a game of 3-D chess, had looked around the room and thus opined: “This is the first time in recorded history that your place is clean, isn’t it? I guess it’s true what they say, that a child is as mature as his parents are incompetent.”
Yang had made no argument.
Another two years had gone by. Julian had grown more than ten centimeters taller and was starting to look just a little bit like a grown-up. His grades were apparently fine. “Apparently,” because his guardian had always said that as long as he wasn’t failing, he didn’t need to report every little thing, and also because his ward would from time to time come home with awards, medals, and the like. In Caselnes’s words, he was a “student who had surpassed his teacher.”
“Today at school, they asked me what I’d be doing from next year on.”
It was unusual for Julian to say something like that while Yang was eating. Yang’s spoon stopped moving in the midst of scooping up some stew, and he glanced at the boy.
“Graduation’s in June of next year, isn’t it?”
“There’s a system where you can gain credits and graduate six months early.”
“There is?” said his irresponsible guardian, impressed. “So, you plan on becoming a soldier?”
“Yes, I’m a soldier’s child, after all.”
“There isn’t any law saying a child has to continue in his parent’s career. Actually, my dad was a trader.”
“If there’s some other kind of work you want to do, you should do it,” Yang told him. He remembered the ingenuous face of Will, the boy he had met in the spaceport.
“But if I don’t enter the military, you’ll have to pay back all that child support …”
“So I’ll pay it back.”
“Don’t sell your legal guardian short here. I’ve got enough saved to cover that. Now, first of all, there’s no need for you to be graduating early. How about having a little fun instead?”
The young boy’s smooth cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “I couldn’t possibly leave you with such a burden.”
“Don’t talk back to me, kid. The thing about children is this: sponging off adults is how they grow.”
“Thank you very much, but still …”
“But what? You want to be a soldier that badly?”
Julian looked at Yang’s face suspiciously. “Somehow, you sound like you don’t like soldiers.”
Yang’s clear, concise reply bewildered the young man. “But, if that’s true, why did you become one?”
“Very simple. I had no talent for anything else.”
Yang finished his stew and wiped his mouth with his napkin. Julian cleared the table and used the domcom to turn on the dishwasher in the kitchen. Then he brought in the tea set and began brewing reddish tea from Shillong leaves.
“Anyway, think it over a little more before you decide. There’s nothing at all to be in a hurry over.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll do that. But, Commodore, they were saying on the news that Count von Lohengramm joined the military when he was fifteen.”
“That’s true, apparently.”
“They showed his face, and he was incredibly handsome. Did you know that?”
Yang had seen the face of Count Reinhard von Lohengramm any number of times—not directly, but in holograms and such. He had even heard rumors that the man was more popular than any officer in the Alliance Armed Forces among the female officers at Rear Service HQ. It seemed likely enough. Yang had never seen a young man with as handsome a face, either.
“But even I can’t be all that bad-looking. Isn’t that right, Julian?”
“Would you like milk with your tea, or would you prefer brandy?”
That was when the security system’s lamp began to flash and make a nervous sound. Julian flipped on the monitor. Many human forms were displayed on its infrared-enhanced screen. All of them wore white hoods over their heads, with only their eyes exposed.
“Is there some kind of fad these days where clowns like that make home welfare visits en masse?”
“They’re the Patriotic Knight Corps.”
“I don’t know any circus by that name.”
“It’s an extremist group of nationalists. They do all kinds of things to harass people who say or do things against the country or the war. They’re pretty well-known lately … But this makes no sense—why would they come barging in here? You’ve even been praised by them. There’s no reason they should criticize you, is there?”
“How many are there?” asked Yang casually.
Julian read out a number in the corner of the screen. “Forty-two have come onto the premises. Ah, forty-three … and now forty-four.”
“Commodore Yang!” A loud voice blaring from a megaphone caused a wall of reinforced glass to vibrate slightly.
“Yeah, yeah, I heard ya …” Yang mumbled, though there was no way he could have been heard outside.
“We are the Patriotic Knight Corps—a band of people who truly love their country. We condemn you! You have displayed actions both disruptive to the unity of the military’s aims and harmful to its fighting spirit. Perhaps your military accomplishments have made you arrogant. I’m sure you know what we’re talking about.”
Yang could nearly feel the gaze of a surprised Julian landing on his cheek.
“Commodore Yang, you showed contempt for a sacred memorial service. When everyone in attendance answered the defense committee chairman’s passionate speech by vowing to bring down the empire, did not you, and you alone, by remaining seated assume an attitude of ridicule toward the determination of the entire nation? We condemn your arrogance! If you have anything to say for yourself, come out here and say it in front of us. I should mention that calling for security is useless. We have a way of disabling your communication system.”
I see, Yang acknowledged. Looks like that enchanting temptress of patriotism, His Excellency Trünicht, is lurking behind these Patriotic Knights or whatever it is they’re called. Both of their speeches are thinner than cheap consommé—and remarkably similar in their exaggerations alone.
“Did you really do that, Commodore?” asked Julian.
“Er, yeah, kinda.”
“Not again! Why do you—! Even if you’re against it in your mind, things like this wouldn’t happen if you’d just let them see you stand and clap! Strangers can only see the surface, you know.”
“You sound like Caselnes, kid.”
“You don’t have to bring Admiral Caselnes into this—even children have that much common sense.”
“What’s the matter?” called the voice from outside. “Not coming out? Still have a little shame left in your heart? But even if you do repent, we can’t acknowledge your sincerity unless you say so definitively in front of us.”
Yang clucked his tongue and was about to stand up when Julian pulled on his sleeve.
“Commodore, no matter how angry you are, you mustn’t use any weapons.”
“Stop jumping to conclusions like that, kid. First of all, what makes you think I don’t intend to have a talk with them?”
“But … you don’t.”
Yang didn’t have an answer for that.
At that moment, the window of reinforced glass cracked with a loud noise. This wasn’t the kind of glass that could be broken by throwing rocks at it. A moment later, a metal ball the size of a person’s head came flying into the room and slammed into a display shelf on the opposite wall, where it shattered several ceramic vessels lined up on it. The ball rolled off the shelf and fell to the floor with a heavy thump.
“Take cover! It’s still dangerous!”
As Yang cried out and Julian leapt lightly behind the sofa with the domcom in his hand, the metal sphere blew apart into shrapnel. Discordant sounds rang out simultaneously from every corner of the room as lighting fixtures, plates, and chairs were shattered.
Yang was left speechless. The Patriotic Knights had used a grenade launcher to fire the sort of powder-free bomb that military engineers used to flatten small-scale buildings when there was a fire hazard.
That there had been as little damage as there was meant it had been set to its lowest level of destructive power. Otherwise, everything in the room would have been reduced to heaps of wreckage. All that aside, what were civilians doing with that kind of military-grade equipment?
An idea occurred to Yang, and he snapped his fingers, though it didn’t make a very good sound.
“Julian, which one is the switch for the sprinkler system?”
“It’s 2-A-4. Are you fighting back?”
“I need to teach them a thing or two about manners.”
“How about it! Ready to talk to us now? If you don’t answer, we’ll send another—”
The increasingly forceful voice from outside suddenly turned into a shriek. The sprinklers, with their water pressure set to maximum, struck the white-masked men with thick lashes of water. Soaking wet, as though caught in an unexpected downpour, they ran to and fro through the curtains of water in all directions.
“Starting to see now why it’s a scary thing to get a gentleman pissed at you? You’re just relying on numbers, you hoodlums!”
As Yang grumbled to himself, the distinctive siren of the security police grew audible in the distance. Residents in the other officers’ houses had called it in, most likely.
Even so, the fact that the authorities had not mobilized until now might well mean that those self-styled, self-righteous Patriotic Knights were an unexpectedly powerful group. If Trünicht was indeed behind them, it would not be hard to imagine why.
The Patriotic Knights hurriedly dispersed. They probably wouldn’t be in the mood to sing any songs of victory tonight. The police officers, who finally arrived in their blue combination suits, afterward described the Patriotic Knights as a group of people with an ardent love for their country, to which Yang took offense.
“If they’re like you say they are, then why don’t they volunteer for military service? Is surrounding a house with a minor inside at night and raising a huge ruckus something patriots do? And besides all that, if what they’re doing is on the up-and-up, doesn’t hiding their faces in itself go against common sense?”
While Yang was refuting the police officers, Julian had cut off the sprinklers and was starting to clean up the terrible mess inside.
“I’ll help, too,” said Yang, after he had ushered the useless policemen out.
Julian shooed him away with his hand. “No, you’ll just get in the way. I know—sit on top of that table, please.”
“On top of the table?”
“I’ll be finished in no time.”
“What should I do on the table?”
“Well, I’m going to put on some tea, so please just drink it.”
Yang, grumbling to himself, climbed up on the table, crossed his legs, and sat—but soon grew indignant when he saw Julian pick up a ceramic potsherd.
“That’s red Wanli porcelain. The only piece in my dad’s things that was real.”
“Hey there, kid, can you put that guardian of yours on for me?”
“He’s over there.”
Julian pointed at the table, where the head of the Yang household was sitting cross-legged, sipping his tea. Caselnes stared at this scene for about five seconds, then slowly asked, “Sitting on tabletops was a custom in your house, wasn’t it?”
“Only on certain days of the week,” Yang answered from the top of the table, making Caselnes grimace.
“Well, whatever. A pressing matter’s come up—I’d like you to come over to Joint Operational Headquarters right away. A landcar’s been sent to pick you up. It should be there any minute.”
“The order comes straight from Director Sitolet.”
When Yang returned his teacup to its saucer, the clink was just a little louder than usual. Julian was frozen to the spot for a moment, but then he came to himself and hurried off to fetch Yang’s uniform.
“What’s the director want with me?”
“All I know is that it’s urgent. I’ll see you soon at headquarters.”
Caselnes ended the call. Yang crossed his arms and sank into thought for a short while. When he turned around, Julian was standing there holding Yang’s dress uniform in both hands. While he was changing, the official car from HQ arrived. Yang couldn’t help thinking that this was a busy night in several respects.
As he was about to leave the foyer, Yang glanced back at Julian. “I’m probably gonna be pretty late. Don’t wait up.”
“Yes, sir, Commodore,” replied Julian, though Yang somehow got the feeling that the boy wasn’t going to do as he was told.
“Julian, what happened tonight is probably going to be something we laugh about eventually. But in the short term, maybe not. Little by little, it looks like we’re heading into some pretty bad times.”
Yang himself didn’t consciously understand why he had said such a thing so suddenly. Julian looked straight back at the young admiral.
“Commodore, I … I say a lot of things that may be uncalled for, but please don’t worry about things like that. I want you to walk the path you think is right. I believe, more than anyone else, that you’re right.”
Yang stared at the young boy, and though he wanted to say something, in the end he just silently tousled the boy’s flaxen hair. Then he turned his back and set off walking toward the landcar. Julian didn’t move from the porch until the vehicle’s tail lamps had melted into the womb of night.
Marshal Sidney Sitolet, director of the Free Planets Alliance Military Joint Operational Headquarters, was a middle-aged black man who was nearly two meters tall. Though he was not the type whose talents were immediately evident, he was reliably capable both as a manager of military organizations and as a strategist, and people trusted in his plain but dignified character. While not wildly popular, he enjoyed wide support.
Director of Joint Operational Headquarters was the highest peak to which men and women in uniform could aspire, and in wartime the individual who held this position was also given the title of deputy commander in chief of Alliance Armed Forces. The commander in chief was the chair of the High Council, who was the head of state. Under him, the chair of the Defense Committee was in charge of military administration, and the director of Joint Operational Headquarters oversaw military command.
Unfortunately, in the Free Planets Alliance these two were not necessarily on good terms. The head of military administration and the head of military command had to cooperate with one another. Unless they did so, it was impossible to make the wheels of the military turn smoothly. Even so, their personalities clashed, and with nothing to be done about the fact that they just didn’t like each other, the relationship between Trünicht and Sitolet was often described as one of armed neutrality.
When Yang stepped into his office, Marshal Sitolet greeted him with a nostalgic smile. Back when Yang was a student at Officers’ Academy, the marshal had been headmaster.
“Have a seat, Rear Admiral Yang.”
Yang did as Sitolet said without reservation. The marshal delved straight into the matter at hand. “I had you come in because there’s something I need to inform you of. Your letter of appointment will be formally issued tomorrow, but you’re about to be promoted to rear admiral. This is not an unofficial offer—it’s already decided. You know the reason you’re being promoted, I take it?”
“Because I lost?”
Yang’s answer made the middle-aged marshal crack a pained smile. “Well, you haven’t changed a bit since old times. A mild expression and a sharp tongue. You were like that when you were at Officers’ Academy, too.”
“But that’s a fact, though, isn’t it, Headmas—I mean, Director?”
“I wonder why you think so?”
“There’s an ancient military treatise that says showering someone with rewards is proof that you’re in dire straits. Apparently because there’s a need to divert the people’s eyes from defeat.”
Yang spoke without a hint of apology and made the marshal grimace again. He crossed his arms and looked intently at his former student.
“In a sense, you are correct. We have suffered a huge defeat, as has not been seen in recent years, and military and civilians alike are very upset. In order to soothe them, a hero is necessary. In other words, you, Rear Admiral Yang.”
Yang gave a little smile, but he didn’t look at all pleased.
“You probably don’t like it, becoming an artificial hero. But for a soldier, this is also a sort of mission. Besides that, your achievements really do make you suitable for promotion. If in spite of that we didn’t promote you, it would call into question whether Joint Operational HQ and the Defense Committee really do reward success and punish failure.”
“About the Defense Committee, what are Chairman Trünicht’s wishes?”
“His wishes as an individual, in this case, present no problem. Even if he is the committee chairman, he has his position as a public figure to think about.”
That was likely true regarding his public face. But it looked to Yang like Trünicht’s personal side had encouraged the Patriotic Knights to mobilize against him.
“By the way, on a different subject, that operations plan you submitted to Vice Admiral Paetta before the start of combat … I wonder, do you think our forces could have won if it’d been executed?”
“Yeah, probably.” Yang answered as modestly as he could.
Marshal Sitolet pinched his chin as though deep in thought. “But it’s possible, isn’t it, that we can use that plan on another occasion. And when that time comes, we can get back at Count von Lohengramm.”
“That would be up to Count von Lohengramm. If his successes this time were to make him cocky, if he couldn’t resist the temptation of trying to beat a large force with a small one again, then that plan could probably be revived. However …”
“However, I don’t think anything like that is going to happen. Defeating a large force with a small one, at first glance, certainly looks spectacular, but it’s out of step with tactical orthodoxy and really more in the realm of magic tricks than military strategy. I find it hard to believe Count von Lohengramm doesn’t know that. The next time he comes to attack, he’ll probably be leading an overwhelmingly large force.”
“That’s true—putting together a larger force than your enemy’s is the foundation of military tactics. Amateurs, however, are more welcoming of what you call magic tricks—they’ll think you’re incompetent if you can’t destroy a large force with a small one. So when you’ve lost big to an enemy half your size …”
Yang could perceive anguish in the marshal’s dark features. Regardless of how Yang himself might be perceived, it was only natural that the government and the citizenry were taking a dim view of the military as a whole right now.
“Rear Admiral Yang, if you think about it, our forces made no mistake in terms of the tactical fundamentals. We sent double the enemy’s force strength to the battlefield. Why did we lose so disastrously in spite of that?”
“Because we screwed up the application of that force strength.” Yang’s answer was simple and to the point. “In spite of preparing superior numbers, we failed to make the most of that advantage. We probably felt secure in the size of the force.”
“Excluding the age of so-called push-button warfare and that period of freakish development in radar electronics, there have always been two fixed principles for the use of troops on the battlefield: concentrate your force, and move it quickly. Both of these. To sum it up in one sentence, ‘Never create an unnecessary force.’ Count von Lohengramm practiced that to perfection.”
“On the other hand, look at our forces,” Yang continued. “While the Fourth Fleet was being crushed by the enemy, the other two were wasting time sticking to the initial plan. Reconnaissance of the enemy’s movements and the analysis of that intelligence were also insufficient. All three fleets had to fight the enemy alone and without reinforcement. That’s what happens when you forget the principles of force concentration and rapid mobilization.”
Yang shut his mouth. For him to become so talkative was, lately, a rarity. Was it because he was feeling a little bit jittery?
“I see. And I see your powers of discernment.” The marshal nodded repeatedly. “However, there’s one other thing, and this one is not decided—it’s an offer. Some organizational changes are going to be made in parts of the military. New forces will be added to the remnants of the Fourth and Sixth Fleets to create the Thirteenth Fleet. And you are to be appointed as its first fleet commander.”
Yang cocked his head to one side. “Don’t appointments to fleet commander come with vice admiralships?”
“The new fleet is about half the size of a normal one. Around 6,400 vessels and seven hundred thousand personnel. And the first mission of the Thirteenth Fleet is the capture of Iserlohn Fortress.”
The director’s tone of voice was utterly casual.
After a moment, Yang slowly opened his mouth to confirm what he’d just heard. “With half a fleet, you’re telling me to go take Iserlohn?”
“Do you believe that’s possible?”
“I believe that if you can’t do it, it’s impossible for anyone else.”
“I believe in you.” “You can do it.” The old traditional clinchers, thought Yang. There was no telling how many people had had their egos tickled by that sweet whisper and ended up ruining their lives attempting the impossible. The ones who did the sweet-talking were never held responsible, either.
Yang remained silent.
“You’re not feeling confident, I take it?”
When the director said that, Yang was all the more unable to answer. If he were lacking confidence, he would have said so right away. But Yang had both confidence and a hope of success. If he had been in command of the assaults on Iserlohn, the Alliance Armed Forces would surely not have borne the dishonor of being beaten back six times in the past and of losing so many men. The reason that he couldn’t answer in spite of that was that he didn’t like being played by Marshal Sitolet.
“If you were to achieve the outstanding feat of leading the new fleet and capturing Iserlohn Fortress,” Director Sitolet said, looking intently, almost suggestively, at Yang’s face, “then regardless of what he may think of you personally, even Defense Committee Chairman Trünicht will have no choice but to acknowledge your ability to get things done.”
Which meant that Director Sitolet’s position would be strengthened with respect to the chairman. What was going on was evidently more within the realm of political than military strategy. He was a crafty fox, the director!
“I’ll do what little I can,” Yang replied after quite a long pause.
“Really? You’ll do it?” Director Sitolet nodded, looking satisfied. “Well, then, give orders to Caselnes to hurry up and get the new fleet organized and equipped. If there are supplies that you need, requisition them from him, whatever they are. I’ll help you out as much as I possibly can.”
When do we leave for the battlefield, I wonder, thought Yang. The director must have another seventy days or so left in his term. And being that he’s aiming for reappointment, that means the operation to take Iserlohn will have to be completed before then. If we assume thirty days needed for the operation itself, then it looks like we’ll be leaving Heinessen in forty days at the latest.
Trünicht was unlikely to oppose these personnel decisions for the operation. This was because surely there was no way to take Iserlohn with only half a fleet, and when the mission ended in failure, he would be able to dispose of both Sitolet and Yang publicly. He might even raise a toast, saying that Yang and the others had dug their own graves.
Once again, Yang was going to be unable to drink tea brewed by Julian for a while. For him, that was a bit of a shame.