Iserlohn is fallen!
At the sound of this disastrous news, a shudder ran through all of the Galactic Empire.
“But Iserlohn was supposed to be impregnable …”
With pallid countenance, Marshal Ehrenberg, minister of military affairs, murmured those words and afterwards sat motionless at his desk.
“I can’t believe that. The report must be mistaken.”
Fleet Admiral Steinhof, supreme commander at Imperial Military Command Headquarters, gave a hoarse groan, and after verifying the facts, retreated into a fortress of silence.
Even Emperor Friedrich IV, known for having little interest in or energy for affairs of state, had through Minister of the Palace Interior Neuköln demanded an explanation from Marquis Lichtenlade, the minister of state.
“The empire’s territory must be sacred and inviolate to all external foes, and so in fact, it has ever been. Nevertheless, for our lack of foresight in having allowed such circumstances to trouble Your Majesty’s heart, the shame we feel today knows no bounds.”
Word reached the Lohengramm admiralität that the marquis had thus fearfully given answer.
“Something’s wrong with that line of reasoning, Kircheis,” Reinhard said to his trusted aide in his office. “Not an inch of imperial territory must be invaded by external foes, he says. But since when are the rebels an equal, external power? It’s because he doesn’t see things for what they are that he utters contradictions like that.”
Reinhard, having opened his admiralität and secured under his command half the ships of the Imperial Space Armada, was struggling daily with personnel arrangements.
In the recruiting of young officers, preference was as a fundamental policy being given to low-ranking aristocrats and those of common birth. The average age of frontline commanders had plummeted. Energetic, youthful officers such as Wolfgang Mittermeier, Oskar von Reuentahl, Karl Gustav Kempf, and Fritz Josef Wittenfeld were now newly minted admirals, and the admiralität had come alive with youthful energy and spirit.
Reinhard, however, had for these past few days been unable to shake a feeling of dissatisfaction. He had assembled frontline commanders who had courage and tactical skill to spare but had been unable to find people to fill his staff positions.
Reinhard expected little of highborn staff officers who had been honor students in officers’ school. He knew all too well that military skills were not something nurtured in the classroom. While natural-born soldiers were sometimes brilliant in their school days—as Reinhard himself had been—the opposite was never true.
He couldn’t put Kircheis on staff. Reinhard needed him to function as his representative and at times take command of some of the fleets. When they were together, he would have Kircheis looking at the big picture, making decisions with him. That was the duty one’s most trusted aide should perform.
Just a few days ago, Reinhard had dispatched Kircheis in place of himself to the Kastropf system on the occasion of the uprising there. This he had done to let Kircheis mark up some achievements of his own and make it clear to everyone that he was the Reinhard Corps’s vice commander.
Reinhard had put in a request with Marquis Lichtenlade, minister of state, for orders from the emperor to be handed down to Kircheis.
At first, Marquis Lichtenlade had not looked favorably on this idea. However, the marquis had a parliamentary aide named Waitz who had offered this opinion: “Why not let him? Rear Admiral Kircheis is the very closest of Count von Lohengramm’s close aides. If he should succeed in quelling Kastropf’s rebellion, rewarding him—and putting him in your debt—may turn out to be profitable down the road. And if he fails, the blame will lie with Count von Lohengramm for recommending him. All you’ll need do is again order the count to go subdue them, and if his subordinate has failed once already, he won’t be able to go around boasting of it when the matter is settled.”
“Hmm. That does make sense.”
Accepting this reasoning, the marquis had set about the procedure by which the order to subdue Kastropf would be handed down from the emperor to Kircheis. Reinhard sent a gift of money to Waitz privately; the marquis never knew that Reinhard had asked Waitz to advise him as he had.
In this manner, Kircheis received his orders from the emperor directly. This meant that he was going places as a soldier of the empire. In Reinhard’s admiralität, he leapt ahead of equivalently ranked colleagues, and it was recognized openly that he was now in the number two position. Naturally, this was nothing but a formality. In order to make it real, Kircheis needed some real military achievements.
It was in this way that the uprising in the Kastropf system had come about:
Earlier that year, the life of Duke Eugen von Kastropf had come to an unexpected end due to an accident aboard his private spacecraft.
As an aristocrat, he had held the right of taxation over his private domain and as a matter of course had boasted the power that came of plenteous wealth; also, as one of the chief vassals at court, he had served as minister of finance for roughly fifteen years. During his tenure, he had used the authority of that post to amass personal wealth, and had from time to time even been embroiled in shameful bribery scandals. When it came to the crimes of the aristocracy, however, the law’s netting was of a terribly frayed weave. When things had reached the point at which even those holes were too small for Duke von Kastropf to slip through, he had nonetheless continued to avoid the hands of punishment through skillful application of his wealth and power.
Count Ruge, minister of the judiciary at the time, had sardonically described his abuses as “splendid hocus-pocus,” from which it may be inferred that even in the eyes of highborn nobles like himself, the man had gone too far. As he was a pillar of the imperial government, they found it inconvenient that he would not follow the rules for public officials a little more closely. Public dissatisfaction with one chief vassal could easily grow into a distrust of the system as a whole.
Now, this duke of Kastropf had died. For the empire’s Ministries of Finance and the Judiciary, this was what could be called a welcome opportunity. “Best to go right ahead and flog the deceased,” was the general consensus. This was imperative in order to show the population that even the great noble families could not avoid the rule of law and also to rein in all the other innumerable little Kastropfs that existed within the aristocracy, thereby demonstrating the law of the empire and the strength of its public administration. Naturally, the public funds that Count von Kastropf had made his own and the bribes he had accepted amounted to a vast sum, and if that could be paid into the national treasury, the suffering of public coffers strained by military expenditures could, for a time at least, be eased.
Although there were some among the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance who spoke of taxing the aristocracy, that would mean changing a national policy in place since the days of Rudolf the Great and might also invite insurrections or a palace coup. If Duke von Kastropf were the sole target, however, there would be little opposition from the aristocracy.
Investigators from the Ministry of Public Finance were dispatched to Kastropf. And that was where the trouble began.
Duke von Kastropf had a son by the name of Maximilian, who, pending the emperor’s approval via the minister of state, was to inherit the title and property of his late father. Due to present circumstances, however, the minister of state, Marquis Lichtenlade, had elected to postpone the succession process and only recognize inheritance of the estate after the Ministry of Public Finance had concluded its investigation and deducted the portion that the prior duke, Eugen von Kastropf, had wrongly obtained.
Maximilian opposed this. The child of a chief vassal and high-ranking aristocrat, this self-centered young man, long pampered in wealth and privilege, lacked his late father’s political skills, even in the negative sense of the word. He quite literally set his hunting dogs loose on the investigators from the Ministry of Public Finance and then expelled them from his territory. These hunting dogs were “hornheads,” which through DNA processing had come to have conical horns on their heads—they were savage beasts and symbolic of the violent side of aristocratic authority.
This unimaginative young man had no idea that his actions had been a slap across the cheek of an imperial government that placed great importance on prestige and the appearance of dignity. The slapped party, however, was not about to quietly tolerate that insult.
When a second team of investigators was also illegally expelled, Minister of Finance Viscount Gerlach sent a request to the Minister of State that Maximilian be summoned to court.
Upon receipt of that harshly worded summons, Maximilian realized for the first time that his actions were being viewed as problematic. Lacking balanced judgment, he was then overcome by extreme terror. He was certain that if he traveled to Hauptplanet Odin, he would never see his home again.
In the family of Duke von Kastropf, he of course had many relatives and in-laws, and concerned about the situation, they interposed themselves and tried to mediate a solution. This, however, only exacerbated Maximilian’s suspicions.
When one of his relatives, Count Franz von Mariendorf—a man known for his mild and unassuming nature—went to try to reason with him, Maximilian had him thrown into prison, and all hope for a peaceful resolution faded. Maximilian, having taken complete leave of his senses, began assembling a private army that consisted mainly of duchy security forces. That was when the imperial government decided to send a force to put down his insurrection.
This fleet, commanded by Admiral Schmude, departed Odin at about the same time that the militaries of the empire and alliance were clashing in the Astarte Stellar Region. Schmude’s force was handily defeated.
Maximilian, failure though he was at responsible adulthood, still possessed a modicum of purely military talent, and the force sent against him had taken their opponent too lightly, engaging Maximilian in battle with little in the way of a strategy. While these were among the factors that had brought about defeat, the bottom line was that the force sent to restore order had been attacked just as it was landing, and Admiral Schmude had died in battle.
The second force sent to Kastropf had failed as well, and Maximilian, now getting carried away with himself, had proceeded to annex neighboring Mariendorf County and made plans to carve out a semi-independent fiefdom for himself in one corner of the empire. Although Franz, the head of Mariendorf’s ruling family, had been incarcerated by Maximilian, his family security forces put up a sustained fight against Maximilian’s invading army and appealed to Odin for aid.
That was where matters stood when Kircheis was ordered to go and quell the rebellion. It took him ten days to tame an uprising that had gone on for half a year.
First, Kircheis made a show of heading to the aid of Mariendorf County, and then he turned sharply and made for the Kastropf Duchy instead. A shocked Maximilian, not about to stand by and be robbed of his home base, broke his siege of Mariendorf County and rushed back toward Kastropf Duchy with all of his forces. With that, Kircheis had first rescued Mariendorf County from the danger it had been facing. Moreover, his making for the Kastropf Duchy had itself been nothing more than a diversionary tactic.
Maximilian, frantic over the threat to his main stronghold, was negligent in protecting his rear. Kircheis, having hidden his fleet in a treacherous region of an asteroid belt, let them go past, then launched a sudden assault on their undefended back side, delivering a devastating blow.
Maximilian withdrew from the field of battle, only to be murdered at the hands of subordinates hoping to lighten their own punishments. His remaining forces then surrendered.
Thus the Kastropf rebellion came to a swift ending. Though it was said to have taken ten days to quell, six of those days had been needed for the journey from Odin, and it had taken two to deal with the aftermath on Kastropf, so in fact only two days had been spent in actual combat.
The tactical ability Kircheis had displayed in this insurrection was extraordinary. Reinhard was satisfied, the admirals of his admiralität nodded their heads in approval, and the highborn nobles were astounded. It was one thing for Reinhard alone to possess such dazzling talent, but for his right-hand man to be similarly gifted was a bitter pill for them to swallow.
A military achievement, however, was still a military achievement. Kircheis was promoted to vice admiral and awarded a glittering, gold-colored zeitwing—a medal shaped like a two-headed eagle. In the capacity of acting imperial prime minister, Marquis Lichtenlade, minister of state, bestowed on Kircheis both the title and the medal, and praised his accomplishments, encouraging him to be grateful for His Imperial Highness’s favor and to seek even greater devotion to His Majesty.
Kircheis knew all about what had happened behind the scenes, so to him, the sucking up to which Waitz had egged on Marquis Lichtenlade was merely absurd, though of course he let nothing of such feelings come to the surface.
Nevertheless, Kircheis was thinking, You’re asking the impossible, telling me to devote myself to the emperor. Had it not been Emperor Friedrich IV himself who had kidnapped the object of his true devotion from before his very eyes and even now kept her all to himself? It wasn’t the empire, the imperial household, or the emperor that Kircheis was fighting for.
Sigfried Kircheis, this tall redheaded youth, was quite popular with the women of the palace, from the daughters of dukes up above to the page girls running errands down below. He was completely unaware of this himself, though, and would have only found it a bother had he realized.
It was while Reinhard and Kircheis were in this way securing their respective footholds that there appeared before them Captain von Oberstein with his half-silvered hair.
I want staff officers! Lately, this desire of Reinhard’s was growing stronger by the day.
But the sort of staff officers he was looking for were not necessarily specialists in military affairs. For that, Reinhard himself and Kircheis would suffice. Rather, he was looking for people with a strong aptitude for political maneuvering and plotting. Reinhard could foresee those sorts of struggles against the nobles at court—conspiracies and battles of wits, to put it bluntly—becoming ever more frequent from this point forward. Kircheis was unsuited to be Reinhard’s confidant in such matters. This was not a problem of intellect; it was a problem of character and thought processes.
Reinhard checked his mental name card of the man who had just left his blaster with the guard and stepped unarmed into his office. There was nothing about him written on it that said he should view the man favorably.
“Captain von Oberstein, is it? What business might you have with me?”
“First, I would like you to clear the room,” the uninvited guest requested, his attitude bordering on arrogance.
“There are only the three of us here.”
“True, Vice Admiral Kircheis is here as well. Which is why I’m asking you to clear the room.”
Both men stared at the visitor—Kircheis silently and Reinhard with a sharp gleam in his eye.
“Speaking with Vice Admiral Kircheis is the same as speaking with me. Did you not know that?”
“I am aware of that, sir.”
“So you have something to talk about that you absolutely don’t want him to hear. But when I tell him afterward, the end result will be the same.”
“Your Excellency is of course free to do that. The labors of a conqueror, however, are not achieved without talented people of all different types. I believe one should tell A what A needs to hear, give B duties suited to B, and so on …”
Kircheis glanced toward Reinhard, and reservedly said, “Your Excellency, perhaps it might be best if I waited in the next room …”
Reinhard nodded with a pensive expression. Kircheis took his leave, and von Oberstein finally delved into what he had come to talk about.
“To be honest, Your Excellency, I am in a bit of a awkward position at present. I believe you’re aware, but—”
“You’re the deserter from Iserlohn. It’s only natural that you be censured. This, despite word that Admiral von Seeckt died so heroically.”
Reinhard’s answer was cold. Von Oberstein, however, showed no sign of having been moved by it.
“To legions of commanding officers, I am a despicable deserter and nothing more. However, Excellency, I do have my own side of the story. I’d like you to hear it.”
“You’ve come to the wrong person. Make your case to the military tribunal, not to me.”
Von Oberstein, the sole survivor of the Iserlohn Fleet’s flagship, was facing a maximum sentence for a single count of having lived. He had failed to perform his duty to assist his commanding officer and keep him from committing errors, and furthermore had sought only his own safety—these were the grounds for the impeachment and the icy stares, though there was also the fact that the circumstances required the scapegoating of some suitable individual present at Iserlohn’s fall.
Upon hearing Reinhard’s indifferent reply, von Oberstein unexpectedly touched his hand to his right eye. When he finally lowered that hand, a small, eerie hollow had appeared in one part of his face. The man with the half-silvered hair held a small object out to the young marshal—a tiny, almost spherical crystal resting in the palm of his right hand.
“Look at this, please, Your Excellency.”
Reinhard looked but said nothing.
“You’ll probably have heard from Vice Admiral Kircheis, but both my eyes are bionic like this one. If I had been born during the reign of Rudolf the Great, I would have been killed as a baby in accordance with the Genetic Inferiority Elimination Act.”
After fitting his detached bionic eye back into its socket, the gleam in von Oberstein’s gaze was directed at Reinhard head-on, seeming to bore right into the admiral’s own line of sight. “Do you understand?” he said. “I hate them all. Rudolf the Great, his descendants, everything they’ve brought forth … the Goldenbaum Dynasty, the Galactic Empire itself.”
“Those are bold words.”
For just one instant, the young imperial marshal was seized with a claustrophobic tightness of breath. Illogical suspicions were even aroused in him, as he wondered if the functionality of von Oberstein’s bionic eyes included the power to overwhelm the will of others or if perhaps he had activated some component that applied psychological pressure.
Though von Oberstein’s voice was low and the entire room was furnished with soundproofing devices, his words carried like an out-of-season peal of spring thunder.
“The Galactic Empire—by which I mean the Goldenbaum Dynasty—must be destroyed. If it were possible, I would destroy it with my own hands. However, I lack the acumen, the power. What I can do is assist in the rise of a new conqueror, that’s all. I’m speaking of you, Your Excellency: Imperial Marshal Reinhard von Lohengramm.”
Reinhard could practically hear the crackling of the electrified air.
As he rose from his seat, Reinhard called out for his friend and closest advisor. The wall opened up without a sound, and there appeared the tall figure of the redheaded youth. Reinhard’s finger was pointed at von Oberstein.
“Kircheis, arrest Captain von Oberstein. He’s spoken words of lawless rebellion against the empire. As a soldier of the empire, I cannot overlook it.”
Von Oberstein’s bionic eyes flashed intensely. The young redheaded officer had drawn his blaster faster than seemed humanly possible and taken aim at the center of von Oberstein’s chest. Since his days in military preparatory school, few had surpassed Kircheis in terms of shooting skill. Even if von Oberstein had been holding a pistol and had tried to resist, the effort would have been futile.
“So in the end, that’s your measure …” von Oberstein muttered. A bitter shadow of disappointment and self-reproach crept into a face that had had precious little color to begin with. “Very well, then—walk your narrow road with only Vice Admiral Kircheis to guide you.”
His words were partly performance and partly heartfelt. He shot a glance at Reinhard’s silent figure, then turned toward Kircheis.
“Vice Admiral Kircheis, can you shoot me? I’m unarmed, as you can see. Even so, can you fire?”
Though there was also the fact that Reinhard had issued no further orders, Kircheis—his aim still fixed on von Oberstein’s chest—had hesitated to put strength into his trigger finger.
“You can’t do it. That’s the sort of man you are. Deserving of respect, but you can’t claim that respect alone will see you through the work of conquest. Every light has a shadow that follows it … Does our young Count von Lohengramm still not see that?”
Still staring hard at von Oberstein, Reinhard motioned for Kircheis to put away his blaster. Ever so slightly, his expression was changing.
“You’re a man who speaks his mind.”
“I’m honored you should say so.”
“And Admiral von Seeckt … how he must have hated you! Am I wrong?”
“The admiral was not a man to inspire loyalty in his troops,” von Oberstein answered, not batting an eye. He knew in this moment that he had won his gamble.
“Very well, then. I’ll buy you from those nobles.”
The minister of military affairs, the secretary-general of Military Command Headquarters, and the commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada were known collectively as the three directors general of the Imperial Armed Forces. For an example of one man holding all three posts at once, one would need to go back nearly a century to the time of then crown prince Ottfried, the only man who had ever done so.
Ottfried had been imperial prime minister as well, but since that time, the ministers of state had come to be named as acting prime ministers, with the office itself never being officially filled—the reason being that vassals tended to avoid emulating any precedent set by that particular emperor.
In his days as crown prince, Ottfried had been a capable and promising young man, but after succeeding to the throne to become Emperor Ottfried III, he had found himself in a whirlpool of repeated palace conspiracies that nourished nothing but his suspicions. Four times he replaced his empress and five times his named successor, until at last a fear of death by poisoning caused him to abstain from food much of the time, and he died, emaciated, while only in his midforties.
The three directors general of the Imperial Armed Forces—Minister of Military Affairs Ehrenberg, Secretary-General of Military Command Headquarters Steinhof, and Commander in Chief of the Imperial Space Armada Mückenberger—submitted their resignations to the acting imperial prime minister, Marquis Lichtenlade, the minister of state. This they did in order to take responsibility for the loss of Iserlohn Fortress.
“You seek neither to avoid responsibility nor cling to position. I think your gracefulness in this matter is praiseworthy. However, were the posts of the three directors general to be vacated temporarily, that would probably mean at least one of them going to Count von Lohengramm. Surely you wouldn’t trouble yourselves to pave his way for advancement? All of you are quite comfortable financially, so how about giving up your salaries for the next year or so, instead?”
When the minister of state had thus spoken, an anguished expression rose up on the face of Marshal Steinhof, and he replied:
“It’s not that we haven’t considered that, but we are also soldiers. The regret would be too great if it were said of us that we clung to our positions and erred in staying when we should have resigned … So, please, accept these letters.”
Reluctantly, Marquis Lichtenlade headed to court and got Emperor Friedrich IV started on the resignation letters of the three directors general.
The emperor, who had been listening to the minister of state with the same apathy as always, gave instructions to his chamberlain to have Reinhard summoned from his admiralität. Going to the trouble of a direct summons when a visiphone call would have finished the task within minutes was just one of the formalities that the emperor’s conspicuous showing of power required.
When Reinhard appeared at the imperial palace, the emperor showed the young imperial marshal the three letters of resignation, and with the same intonation used when letting a child choose a toy, asked him which job he wanted. After a brief glance toward the minister of state, who was standing by unmoving with an unhappy look on his face, Reinhard answered.
“I can’t rob someone of his seat when it’s not for any achievement of my own. The loss of Iserlohn was due to the mistakes of Admirals von Seeckt and von Stockhausen. Also, Admiral von Seeckt has paid for his sins already with his life, and the other is in an enemy prison even as we speak. I don’t believe there’s anyone else deserving of blame. I humbly beg Your Highness to please not blame the three directors general.”
“Hmm. How magnanimous.”
The emperor looked back at the minister of state, who was surprised at this unexpected turn of events.
“The count has spoken. What say you?”
“Your humble vassal is struck by the count’s keen insight, far beyond tender years. The three directors general have done great things for the nation, and for my part, I too would like to ask that you deal with them graciously.”
“If that’s what the both of you have to say, then I won’t hand down any harsh punishments. At the same time, however, it won’t be possible to avoid punishing them altogether …”
“In that case, Your Highness, I wonder what you would say to having them give up their salaries for the next year and forwarding those funds to the Families of Fallen Soldiers Relief Foundation.”
“Yes, something along those lines would be fine. I’ll leave the details to the minister of state. Is this all you need to talk about?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“In that case, the two of you may go. I have to get to the greenhouse to care for my roses.”
Both men withdrew.
Five minutes had not passed, however, before one of them secretly returned. Since the seventy-five year-old Marquis Lichtenlade had returned at a half run, he needed a moment to catch his breath, but by the time he was standing in the emperor’s rose garden, he had recovered his physical composure.
There, amid thick hedges of rose bushes that filled the greenhouse with wild, bounteous swirls of color and fragrance, the emperor stood unmoving, like a withered old tree. The aged aristocrat approached him and carefully eased himself down to his knees.
“If I may, Your Highness.”
“What is it?”
“I say this with awareness that it may earn me your displeasure, but …”
“Is it about Count von Lohengramm?”
The emperor’s voice was devoid of any edge, intensity, or passion. It was like the sound of windblown sand—the voice of a lifeless old man.
“You mean to say that I’m giving too much power and prestige to Annerose’s younger brother.”
“Your Highness knew that already?”
What also surprised the minister of state was how unexpectedly lucid the emperor’s delivery of those words had been.
“The man knows no fear, and so he might not stop at wielding the power of a chief vassal—perhaps he’ll get carried away and plot to usurp the throne. Is that what you’re thinking?”
“It is only with the greatest of reservations that I even let it cross my lips.”
“So what if he does?”
“It’s not as if the Goldenbaum Dynasty has been with humanity from its beginning. Just as there’s no such thing as an immortal man, there’s no such thing as an eternal state, either. There’s no reason the Galactic Empire mustn’t end in my generation.”
His low, parched laughter sent a shudder down the spine of the minister of state. The depths of the gaping void he had just glimpsed chilled his soul to its core.
“If it’s all going to be destroyed anyway, then its destruction should at least be spectacular …” The emperor’s voice trailed off like a comet’s ominous tail.
The three directors general had to admit, however reluctantly, that they owed Reinhard a favor, offensive to them as that was. It followed, then, that they were in no position to refuse when Reinhard contacted them the following day to request Captain Paul von Oberstein’s exemption from all responsibility regarding the loss of Iserlohn and his transfer to the Lohengramm admiralität. They could hardly take harsh measures against others while themselves basking in the grace of “the emperor’s generosity.” There was also the fact that they didn’t view the retention or dismissal of a single captain as being terribly important anyway. In any case, it was a satisfactory outcome for von Oberstein.
Regarding Reinhard having willingly declined the seat of a director general, opinion among the elite was split fifty-fifty between the favorable—“Surprisingly unselfish, isn’t he?”—and the negative—“He’s just trying to look good in front of people.”
Reinhard himself paid no mind to either evaluation. A directorship was his for the taking any time he liked. Until then, he was merely lending those positions out to feeble old men. Most importantly, that sort of position was nothing more than a stepping-stone as far as he was concerned.
On the day that Reinhard assumed that most noble of stations, there would be no satisfaction even in holding all three directorships at once.
“What is it, Kircheis? You look like you have something to say.”
“You’re not being very nice, are you? Pretending not to know what it is.”
“Don’t get upset. This is about von Oberstein, isn’t it? I was suspicious myself for a while that he might be a tool of the highborn. But he’s not the sort of man the aristocrats can handle. He’s got a sharp mind but too many peculiarities.”
“But can you handle him, Lord Reinhard?”
Reinhard tilted his head slightly. Whenever he did that, one lock of his brilliant, golden hair would slide to the other side.
“Hmm … I’m not expecting friendship or loyalty from that man. He’s only trying to use me in order to achieve his own goals.”
Reinhard stretched out his long, supple fingers and playfully tugged at his best friend’s hair, as red as if dyed with molten rubies. Reinhard would do this sort of thing from time to time when no one else was around. During his boyhood, he would describe Kircheis’s hair according to his whim: whenever they were quarreling—a state that never lasted very long—he would say mean things like, “What’s with that red hair? It looks like blood.” Then after they made up, he would praise it, calling it “really pretty, like a burning flame.”
“… So in the same way, I’m going to use him for his brain. His motives are irrelevant. If I can’t control a solitary man like that, I haven’t a prayer of holding sway over the entire universe. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Politics isn’t about processes or systems—it’s about the results, Reinhard believed.
Taking over the USG and making himself emperor wasn’t what made Rudolf the Great so unforgivable; it was that he had used his vast, newfound powers for that most asinine of purposes—self-deification. That was the true face of Rudolf: a hunger for power masquerading as heroism. What a boon he might have been to the advancement of civilization if he had only used those vast powers in the right way! Instead of wasting its energy on conflicts arising from political differences, humanity could have been leaving its footprints all across the galaxy. Today, humanity ruled only a fifth of this vast realm of stars, even when taking the rebel power into account.
Responsibility for this roadblock in the path of human history lay solely at the feet of Rudolf’s monomania. A “living god”? The best thing you could call the man was a plague-spreading devil.
Immense authority and power were necessary to destroy the old system and carve out a new order. But Reinhard would not make the same mistakes Rudolf had. Emperor he would become. However, he would not hand that title to his descendants.
Rudolf had been a blind believer in bloodlines and the gene. But genes were not to be trusted. Reinhard’s father had been neither a genius nor a great man. Lacking in both the ability and the will to live according to his own efforts, he’d been a good-for-nothing who had sold off his lovely daughter to the powerful in order to lead a life of comfort and self-indulgence. Seven years ago, when excessive drinking and carousing had culminated in his father’s sudden death, Reinhard hadn’t had in himself the tears he should have cried. Though it had cut him to the heart to see pellucid drops running down and falling from his sister’s porcelain cheeks, his grief and pain had been exclusively for his sister.
For an example of untrustworthy genes, one need look no further than the present state of the Goldenbaum imperial family. Who would imagine that even a milliliter of that giant Rudolf’s blood was flowing in the decrepit body of Friedrich IV? The blood of House Goldenbaum was already clouded beyond recognition.
Every last one of Friedrich IV’s nine brothers and sisters were dead. Starting with his empress, Friedrich IV had impregnated six women for a total of twenty-eight times, but there had been six miscarriages and nine stillbirths, and of the thirteen who had been born, four had died before their first birthday, five had died before reaching adulthood, and two had died as adults. Only two daughters yet remained: Marqesse Amalie von Braunschweig and Duchess Christine von Littenheim. Both were wed to powerful aristocrats from old families, and to both of them, one child had also been born, both of them girls. Aside from her, Crown Prince Ludwig, who had died in adulthood, had left one child behind. This was Erwin Josef, who was presently the only male child in the imperial family. As he had only just turned five, however, he was not even crown prince yet.
Emperor Friedrich IV, who had seemingly absorbed the whole of the palace’s decadence into his person, was to Reinhard nothing but an object of bitter hatred and derision—yet on two points only, Reinhard was able to approve.
The first was that the emperor, having been through the deaths of many mistresses in difficult past childbirths, feared losing Annerose and had never made her pregnant. Another factor in that decision was pressure from aristocrats concerned about the succession struggle that might ensue if Annerose were to give birth. From Reinhard’s standpoint, the thought of his sister bearing that emperor’s child was too disgusting to even contemplate.
The other thing was that the number of claimants to the throne was so extremely small. There were only the emperor’s three grandchildren. All he had to do was eliminate those three. Or he could use the strategy of marrying one of the two granddaughters—albeit just for appearance’s sake.
Either way, von Oberstein would prove useful. With dark enthusiasm and tenacity, that man would envelop the aristocrats and imperial family with plots and schemes, and if it were necessary, would probably not hesitate to murder even a woman or child. It was likely because Kircheis had surmised this unconsciously that he loathed the man, but still, Reinhard had need of him.
He wondered if Annerose and Kircheis would look on him kindly now, having come to have need of a man like von Oberstein.
Yet still, this was something that he had to do.
Phezzan landesherr Rubinsky’s briefing on economic strategy was held at his official residence.
“Universe Finance—a dummy corporation in the Free Planets Alliance that is operated by our government—has secured excavation rights for the solid natural gas on the seventh and eighth planets of the Bharatpur system,” an aide said. “The total amount of extractable reserves comes to forty-eight million cubic kilometers, and they expect to be profitable within two years.”
Watching as Rubinsky nodded, the aide continued with his report.
“Also, regarding Santa Cruz Line, one of the largest interstellar transport companies in the alliance, our percentage of acquired stock has reached 41.9 percent. Ownership is divided among more than twenty people, so they haven’t realized what’s happening. Still, we’ve already surpassed the state-run investment trust that’s at the top of its shareholders list.”
“Well done. But don’t slack off until you’ve reached more than half.”
“Certainly. Meanwhile, in the empire, our equity participation has been approved for the agricultural development project in the Seventh Frontier Stellar Region. That’s the one we spoke of earlier—they say they’re going to transport two hundred quadrillion tons of water from Eisenherz II to eight arid worlds and increase production of foodstuffs enough to support five billion people.”
“What’s the breakdown of equity participation?”
“Our government’s three dummy companies together hold 84 percent, so we have de facto sole ownership. Now, on to the subject of Ingolstadt’s metallic radium factory …”
After Rubinsky had listened to the rest of the report, he sent the aide away for a time and gazed up at the scenery beyond the wall, which showed off the beauty of a bleak and desolate landscape.
At present, all was smooth sailing. In the empire and the alliance alike, the leadership seemed to believe warfare was just battleships firing subluminal-velocity missiles at one another in space. That meant that while obstinate dogmatists were caught up in murdering one another, the foundations of both countries’ socioeconomic systems would fall into Phezzan’s hands. Even now, nearly half of the war bonds being issued by both countries were purchased directly or indirectly by Phezzan.
In every corner of the universe where humanity’s foot trod, Phezzan ruled economically. One day, the governments of both the empire and the alliance would do nothing but generate economic gain for Phezzan and execute policies on its behalf. It would still take a little more time to reach that point, but when it happened, only a half step would yet remain before the final stage of their goal …
However, the political and military situation was not, of course, something that could be taken lightly. In short, should the empire and the alliance achieve political unification of their vast hegemonies, Phezzan’s special position would lose all meaning. In ancient times, trading cities on both land and sea had yielded before the military and political power of newly arisen, unified dynasties, and that history could probably repeat itself.
If that happened, the road that led to the attainment of Phezzan’s goal would be shut off permanently. The birth of something like a new Galactic Empire had to be prevented by any means necessary.
A new Galactic Empire …
The thought gave Rubinsky a fresh feeling of tension. The present Goldenbaum-dynasty Galactic Empire was already creaking with the degeneration of age, and to reinvigorate it was nearly impossible. Even if it split apart and turned into a cluster of little kingdoms, and even if a new order were to be born out of that, how many centuries would it take for it to happen?
The Free Planets Alliance, on the other hand, had lost the ideals of its founding and was drifting along on inertia. The stagnation in its economy and the lack of development in its society had given rise to discontent among the masses, and there was no end of hostility over economic inequalities among the various planets that made up the alliance. Unless one incredibly charismatic leader were to appear and reconstruct a system of centralized power, things would continue as they were with no exit in sight.
Five centuries earlier, a young Rudolf von Goldenbaum, his hulking body brimming with a lust for power, had taken over the political organization of the USG to become the sacred and inviolable emperor. Through legal means, a dictator had arisen. Would the day of his return ever come? If he were to take over the already-existing power structure, change was possible in a short period of time. Even if it wasn’t legal …
A coup d’état. For those who were near to the crux of political and military power, there was this classical yet effective method. For that reason alone, the idea had its attraction.
Rubinsky pressed a button on his console and called up his aide.
“The odds of a coup d’état happening in both countries?”
The landesherr’s question had surprised him.
“If that is your order, I’ll see to the research immediately, but … have you received some sort of urgent communiqué suggesting such a thing?”
“Nothing like that. The thought only occurred to me just now. Still, there’s nothing wrong with examining all kinds of possibilities.”
It’s offensive that those whose minds and spirits are so utterly corrupt can do as they please with power they don’t even deserve, thought the ruler of Phezzan. Still, there was a need for the political systems of the empire and alliance to continue in their present forms for now. At least until the day that the true aims of Phezzan, which neither the empire nor the alliance could fathom, were achieved.
The High Council of the Free Planets Alliance was made up of eleven councillors. The members included the council chair, the vice council chair who doubled as chair for the Domestic Affairs Committee, the clerk, the Defense Committee chair, the Finance Committee chair, the chair of the Committee for Law and Order, the Natural Resources Committee chair, the Human Resources Committee chair, the Economic Development Committee chair, the chair of the Committee for the Development of Regional Societies, and the Intelligence Traffic Committee chair. They were all gathered together in a meeting room within a magnificent building whose outer walls were the color of pearl.
The Decision Room had no windows and was surrounded on all four sides by thick walls and other rooms. These included the Anti Room, for communicating with people outside the alliance; the Chart Room, where reports and other materials were compiled; the Intelligence Room, for data processing; and the Operations Room, from which the mechanism of the alliance was controlled. In addition, these were surrounded on the outside by the security guards’ antechamber, which formed a doughnut shape around all of them.
Is this what you call the seat of open government? thought João Lebello, chairman of the Finance Committee, as he took his seat at a round table seven meters in diameter. This was not something he’d only just started thinking; every time he passed through all the infrared rays in the corridor to enter the Decision Room, that question preoccupied his thoughts.
That day, during the meeting of August 6, SE 796, one of the topics being taken up was the question of whether or not to approve or deny a troop-dispatch proposal that had been submitted by the military. This plan, to use occupied Iserlohn Fortress as a bridgehead for invading the empire, had been handed to the council in person by a group of young, high-ranking officers. To Lebello, this reeked of extremism.
The meeting began, and Lebello staked out a strong position against expansion of the war.
“It’s a strange way to put it, but up to this very day, the Galactic Empire and our alliance have continued the war just barely within the range that our finances will tolerate. However …”
Survivor annuities for the families of soldiers killed in the Battle of Astarte alone were going to require a yearly outlay of ten billion dinars. If the flames of war were to spread further, neither the nation’s finances nor the economy supporting them would be able to avoid fiscal collapse. Never mind that they were engaging in deficit spending even now.
Ironically, even Yang had contributed to the financial woes. At Iserlohn, he had taken five million prisoners of war, and just keeping them fed was turning out to be a considerable undertaking.
“To shore up our finances, we have the same two choices we’ve always had: increase the issue of bonds or raise taxes. There’s no other way.”
“What about increasing the amount of paper money?” asked the vice chairman.
“Without the finances to back it? Several years down the line, we’d be trading it by weight instead of the amounts written on the bills. Personally, I have no desire to be remembered as the infamous financier who didn’t have a plan and ushered in an age of hyperinflation.”
“But unless we win the war, we can never be sure we have tomorrow, let alone years down the line.”
“Then in that case, we should put an end to the war itself.”
Lebello spoke those words in a powerful voice, and the room fell dead silent.
“Thanks to the strategy of one Admiral Yang, we now have Iserlohn. The empire has lost its forward base for invading the alliance. Don’t you think this is an excellent opportunity to conclude a peace treaty with them on favorable terms?”
“But this is a just war against absolute monarchy. We mustn’t inherit the stars together with the likes of them. Do you seriously think we can just stop just because it isn’t economical?”
Several people launched back with arguments of their own.
A just war? João Lebello, chairman of the Finance Committee for the government of the Free Planets Alliance, crossed his arms, dissatisfied.
Oceans of bloodshed, national bankruptcy, impoverished masses. If sacrifices such as these were essential to realizing justice, then Justice looked like a greedy god indeed, tirelessly demanding one sacrificial victim after another.
“Let’s recess for a little while …” he heard the Chairman say in a voice devoid of all luster.
After lunch, the meeting reconvened.
This time, it was Huang Rui—who as Human Resources Committee chair had administrative responsibilities involving education, employment, labor issues, and social security—who was taking a hard line. He was also in the antideployment camp.
“As Human Resources Committee chair, I must say—”
Huang was a small man, but he had a loud voice. With his ruddy complexion and his short but nimble-looking arms and legs, he gave the impression of a man who had energy to spare.
“To begin with, I can’t help feeling uneasy about the present situation: there are too many talented people who end up being used by the military when they should be used to help grow the economy and improve our society. It’s also troubling that the investments we make toward education and job training keep getting reduced. As evidence of laborers’ declining skill levels, I’d like to point out that the number of workplace accidents has increased by 30 percent over the last six-month period. In a transport-convoy accident that happened in the Lumbini system, over four hundred lives and fifty tons of metallic radium were lost. It’s plausible that shortened training periods for civilian astronauts had a lot to do with that. Moreover, astronauts are being overworked due to personnel shortages.”
He had a clear and brisk way of speaking.
“On this point, I have a proposal: of the technicians presently being forced to work for the military, I’d like to see four million of the transport and communications personnel returned to civilian life. At a minimum.”
Huang’s gaze swept across his fellow councillors, coming to a rest on the face of Defense Committee Chairman Trünicht. His eyebrows twitched as he responded.
“Please don’t make unreasonable demands. If we released that many from rear service work, the whole organization of the military would collapse like a house of cards.”
“So the Defense Committee chairman says, but at the rate we’re going, our society and economy will collapse before the military does. Do you know the current average age of an operator working in the capital’s Lifestyle Supply Distribution Center?”
“That doesn’t sound like an unusual figure to me …”
Huang pounded the table forcefully.
“Because it’s an illusion created by the real numbers! As many as 80 percent of them are either twenty and under or seventy and over. Average them, and you certainly do get forty-two, but in reality there is no backbone of experienced technicians in their thirties and forties. Throughout all the machinery of our society, there’s an ongoing weakening of the software that makes it run. I hope I can impress on all of our wise councillors just how terrifying a thing that is …”
Huang closed his mouth and looked around at everyone once again. Aside from Lebello, there was no one who met that gaze head-on. One had his eyes turned down, another casually averted his gaze, yet another looked up at the high ceiling.
Lebello took over for Huang.
“In short, now is the time to let the people rest and rebuild their strength. With Iserlohn Fortress now in our hands, the alliance should be able to put a stop to the empire’s invasions of its territory. And this situation should hold for the medium term. And that being the case, what possible need is there to willingly launch an attack from our side?”
Lebello made his appeal with fervor.
“To drive our citizens to even greater sacrifices than they’ve already made is to abandon even the basic principles of democracy. They cannot bear the burden.”
Voices of refutation rose up, starting with Intelligence Traffic Committee Chair Cornelia Windsor, the only woman among the councillors. She had just been sworn in a week ago.
“There’s no need to pander to the egotism of citizens who make no effort at understanding our great and noble purpose. And what great enterprise has ever succeeded without sacrifice?”
“Madam Windsor, the people are beginning to wonder if these sacrifices might be too great.” Lebello said this to counter an argument that came straight from a textbook, but his words had no effect.
“No matter how great the sacrifice—even if it were to mean death for every one of our citizens—we have something that we must do.”
“Th-that’s no longer a political argument.” Lebello had raised his voice without realizing it.
Casually ignoring him, Madam Windsor turned toward the attendees and in a strong voice that carried well through the chamber, began imparting her opinions.
“We have a noble duty. A duty to bring down the Galactic Empire and rescue all humanity from its oppression. How can you say we’re walking in the path of righteousness if we, intoxicated with cheap humanitarianism, forget that great purpose altogether?”
In her early forties, she was an attractive woman—graceful, with an intellectual sort of beauty—and in her voice there was a musical ring. That alone raised the danger Lebello sensed in her to another level. Was cheap heroism not clutching at her own ankles?
Just as Lebello was about to make another counterpoint, Chairman Sunford, who had remained silent till now, spoke up for the first time.
“Um … I have some materials here. Could everyone look at your terminal?”
Everyone was a little surprised, and for a moment all eyes focused on the chairman—he was oft said to cast “a thin shadow”—before turning to their terminals as instructed.
“This is the general public’s approval rating for this council. It definitely isn’t good.”
The value displayed—31.9 percent—was not far off from what the attendees expected. Not so many days had passed since Madam Windsor’s predecessor had fallen in a disgraceful bribery case, and as Lebello and Huang had pointed out, societal and economic stagnation was a very serious issue.
“And on the other hand, here is our disapproval rating.”
There were sighs at the value: 56.2 percent. It was not unexpected, but the disappointment was unavoidable.
Observing the reactions of all present, the chairman continued. “At this rate, it’s doubtful we can win in the elections early next year. I can see us being caught between the pacifist faction and the strongest hard-liners, and falling short of a majority. However …”
The chairman lowered his voice. Though it was hard to say whether this was intentional or not, it was greatly effective in drawing in the attention of his listeners.
“I’ve had the computer run some numbers, and it’s almost certain that if we can secure an epoch-making victory over the empire within the next one hundred days, our approval rating will rise 15 percent at minimum.”
There was a soft stir of voices in the room.
“Let’s take a vote on the military’s proposal,” said Madam Windsor. After a few seconds, several voices were raised in agreement. Everyone was thinking about keeping their committee chairmanships versus returning to the opposition in the event of electoral losses, and it was only during this interval that there was silence.
“Wait a minute.”
Lebello had half risen from his seat. Despite the fact that he was under a sunlamp, his cheeks were pale like an old man’s.
“We have no such right. To launch a needless invasion just to maintain political power … no such right has been given to us …”
His voice trembled and cracked.
“My, you say such pretty things.”
Madam Windsor’s cold, brilliant laughter rang out. Lebello was at a loss for words as he looked on, stunned at the sight of policy makers about to pollute the spirit of democratic government with their own bloody hands.
From his seat some distance away, Huang was looking at the anguished figure of Lebello.
“I’m begging you, please don’t lose your temper,” he whispered, and stretched a thick finger toward the voting button.
Six in favor, three opposed, two abstaining. A two-thirds majority of valid votes cast was required for approval, and the yes votes had that number; it had just been decided to invade imperial territory.
However, the results of the vote shocked the councillors—not because the mobilization had passed but because one of the three votes against it had been cast by Defense Committee Chairman Trünicht.
The other two votes, cast by Finance Committee Chairman Lebello and Human Resources Committee Chair Huang, had been expected. But wasn’t Trünicht acknowledged by all as a hard-line hawk?
“I’m a patriot. But that doesn’t mean I stand for going to war in every case. I want you all to remember that I was against this mobilization.”
That was the answer he gave to those who questioned him.
The very same day, Joint Operational Headquarters officially rejected the letter of resignation that Rear Admiral Yang Wen-li had submitted, issuing instead his letter of appointment to the rank of vice admiral.
“What you’re saying is you want to quit, right?”
Marshal Sitolet’s response when Yang had submitted his letter of resignation had not been a terribly creative one. Yang, however, hadn’t exactly expected him to take the letter in one hand while with a flourish of the other handing him his retirement allowance and pension card, so he gave him the friendliest nod he could manage.
“But you’re still just thirty years old.”
“Twenty-nine.” Yang put special emphasis on the twenty.
“But at any rate, you’re not even up to a third of your average life span. Don’t you think it’s a little early to be putting your life behind you?”
“Your Excellency, that’s not what I’m doing,” objected the young admiral. He wasn’t abandoning his life; he was getting it back on track. Everything up till now had been a detour forced on him against his will. From the start, he had wanted to be an observer of history, not a creator of it.
Marshal Sitolet laced the fingers of both hands and rested his sturdy-looking chin on top of them.
“What our military needs is not your erudition as a historian but your competence and capability as a tactician. And we need it desperately.”
Haven’t I indulged your flattery once already? Yang shot back in his heart. Any way he looked at it, he had to be doing some serious overlending in his credit-debit relationship with the military. Just for taking Iserlohn, I think I ought to have a little change coming my way, Yang thought. Director Sitolet’s assault was two-pronged, however.
“What’s to become of the Thirteenth Fleet?”
At this offhanded but effective question, Yang’s mouth opened just slightly.
“That’s your fleet, and it’s only just been formed. If you resign, what happens to them?”
“Well, they’ll …”
To have forgotten about that could only be described as a careless mistake. He’d screwed up the operation, he had to admit. Once you got tangled up in something, getting loose again was no easy matter.
In the end, Yang withdrew from the director’s office, leaving his letter of resignation with him, though it was clear as day it was not going to be approved. Indignant, he headed downstairs by way of a gravitational lift.
Sitting on a waiting room sofa, Julian Mintz had been glancing disinterestedly at the uniformed people passing this way and that, but when he spotted Yang at a distance, he rose energetically to his feet. Yang had told him to come by headquarters on his way home from school that day. “Why not eat out once in a while? Besides, I’ve got something I want to tell you.” That had been all he had said to the boy. He had wanted to surprise him: “Actually, I just quit the military. From now on, it’s the carefree life of a pensioner.”
But now, however, his plans were still up in the air, so that blissful dream had vanished in a single puff of reality’s bitter exhalation. Well, what do I tell him now? Unconsciously relaxing his pace, Yang was trying to come up with something when a voice from the side called out to him.
Captain Walter von Schönkopf was saluting him. Due to his recent exploits, von Schönkopf was now scheduled for promotion to commodore.
“I saw you coming out of the director’s office, Excellency. Did you perhaps come in to tender your resignation?”
“I sure did. No question it’ll be turned down, though.”
“I should say so. There’s no way the service is going to let you go.” The captain, once a citizen of the empire, was looking at Yang with an amused expression. “In all seriousness, though, I do want to see people like you staying in, sir. You’re always on target in your appraisal of the situation, and you’re lucky as well. Serving under you, I might not ever distinguish myself in battle, but at least the odds of survival seem high.”
Von Schönkopf was calmly rattling off an evaluation of a superior officer right in front of the man.
“I’ve made up my mind to close the curtains on my life by dying of old age. I want to live to be 150, turn into a doddering old man, and then as I breathe my last breath, hear my grandchildren and great-grandchildren weeping happy tears to finally be rid of me. I have no interest in going out in a blaze of glory. Please keep me alive long enough to do that.”
Having said his piece, the captain saluted again and smiled at Yang, who returned the salute with a demoralized demeanor.
“I’m sorry to have taken up your time. Look here, the boy can hardly wait for you.”
Caselnes and von Schönkopf alike possessed no small capacity for sarcastic barbs, but it made no difference when Julian was around; maybe there was something about him that made them simply supportive instead.
As Yang and Julian walked side by side, Yang glanced over at the boy, unable to suppress a degree of embarrassed bewilderment in his heart. It was such a strange thing … To experience emotions like those of a father, even without having ever been married.
“I’m terribly sorry, but we’re filled to capacity.”
So they were solemnly informed by an elderly waiter abounding in dignity, physique, and beautiful sideburns. Yang took in the restaurant’s smallish interior with a glance, and it was clear right away that the waiter wasn’t lying in order to angle for tips. Under the dim illumination, the glow of candlelight was flickering rhythmically on all of the tables. Candles were not lit for tables without customers.
“Oh well. Want to try somewhere else?”
As Yang scratched his head thoughtfully, someone stood up from one of the tables by the wall with movements so refined as to be called elegant. It was a woman. Her pearl-white dress shone in the candlelight, appealing to Yang’s eye with a dreamlike effect.
When she called him, Yang unconsciously froze where he stood. His aide, Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill, responded with a light smile.
“Even I have civilian clothes. My father says he’d like you to come join us, if you don’t mind.”
While she was speaking, her father rose and stood behind her.
“Well, good evening, Vice Admiral Yang.”
In a friendly voice, Senior Admiral Dwight Greenhill, deputy director of Joint Operational Headquarters, called out to him. Inside, Yang felt a bit uneasy about sitting down with a superior officer, but at this point there was no refusing the invitation.
“It’s rear admiral, Your Excellency,” Yang said while saluting.
“You’ll make vice admiral by next week at the latest. You may as well go ahead and get used to the new title, right?”
“That’s wonderful! Is that what you wanted to talk about?” Julian’s eyes shone. “I’d expected that much, but still, that’s really wonderful news, isn’t it?”
“Ha, ha, ha …” With a simple laugh, Yang distracted himself from extremely complex emotions, pulled himself together, and introduced his ward to Greenhill and his daughter.
“I see, so you’re the famous honor student, are you? And you also won the gold medal for most points scored in the flyball junior division. Doing well in the classroom and the dome alike.”
Flyball was a sport played in a dome where the gravity was set to 0.15 Gs. It was a simple sport in which the goal was to throw a ball into a basket that would at irregular intervals move at high speed along the wall. However, the same sort of charm also seen in dance could be seen in the figures that fought over the ball in midair, handling it as it slowly revolved.
“Julian, is that true?”
Julian’s irresponsible guardian looked at the boy, surprised, and the boy nodded, flushing slightly in the cheeks.
“The admiral must be the only one who didn’t know,” Frederica said in a lightly teasing tone that made Yang blush. “Julian’s something of a celebrity in this town.”
They placed their orders. With three glasses of a 670 vintage red wine and one of ginger ale, they toasted Julian Mintz’s award for scoring the most goals, and then the food was brought out. It was after many plates had been brought to their table that Senior Admiral Greenhill brought up an entirely unexpected topic.
“By the way, Yang, you still don’t have any plans about getting married, do you?”
Yang’s and Frederica’s knives both screeched against their plates simultaneously, and the elderly waiter, an aficionado of traditional chinaware, raised his eyebrows unconsciously.
“That’s right. When peace arrives, I’ll think about it.”
Saying nothing, Frederica was sawing away with her still-downturned knife and fork. There was an ever-so-slight element of violence in her handling of them. Julian was looking at his guardian with deep interest.
“I had a friend who died and left behind a fiancée. When I think about that, I just can’t … not right now …”
He spoke of Lieutenant Commander Lappe, who had died at the Battle of Astarte. Senior Admiral Greenhill nodded and then changed the subject again.
“You know Jessica Edwards, don’t you? She was voted in as a representative in last week’s special election. For the Planet Terneuzen electoral district.”
As with Marshal Sitolet, colorful, multipronged ambushes were also a strong suit of Senior Admiral Greenhill’s, it seemed.
“Oh? I can imagine the support she must’ve gotten from the antiwar faction.”
“That’s right. And there were naturally attacks from the prowar side …”
“Such as from, say, the Patriotic Knights Corps?”
“The Patriotic Knights Corps? Listen, now, those guys are idiots. They’ve never even been worth talking about. You agree, right? … Mmm, this jelly salad’s fantastic.”
“I agree,” said Yang, in reference to the jelly salad.
That the Patriotic Knights were idiots Yang was willing to allow, but one couldn’t say with certainty that their exaggerated and caricatured actions were not the result of skillfully planned direction. After all, hadn’t the young generation that had fanatically supported one Rudolf von Goldenbaum been greeted early on with grimaces and smiles of pity by the intelligentsia of the Galactic Federation?
Perhaps in the shadow of a thick curtain, outside the sight of the spectator seats, someone was wearing a satisfied smile even now.
On the way back home, Yang was thinking about Jessica Edwards in the seat of a self-driving taxi.
“I want to keep going, to always continue asking those who hold authority: ‘Where are you? When you are sending our soldiers into the jaws of death, where are you? What are you doing … ?’ ”
That had apparently been the climax of Jessica’s speech. Yang couldn’t help remembering the scene at the memorial service held after the defeat at Astarte. Not even Defense Committee Chair Trünicht, who prided himself on his eloquence, had been able to resist in the face of her accusations. That alone must have been enough to make her the focus of all the hatred and hostility of the prowar faction. One thing was certain: the path she had chosen would be a road more treacherous than the Iserlohn Corridor.
The taxi screeched to a sudden halt. Normally, this should have never happened. Cars never moved in such a way as to let inertia exert unnecessary force on the human body—at least as long as the control system was running. Something very out of the ordinary had just happened.
Opening the door manually, Yang stepped out into the street. A police officer in a blue uniform came running up, his massive body swaying ponderously. He recognized Yang’s face, and after expressing at length how moved he was to be able to meet a national hero, explained the situation.
“An anomaly’s occurred in the traffic-control computer at the Municipal Traffic Control Center,” he said.
“I don’t know the details—apparently it was simple human error that occurred during data entry. Anyway, just about every workplace is short on experienced people these days, so this sort of thing’s nothing unusual.”
The police officer laughed, but then, faced with Julian’s direct and unfriendly stare, forced himself to pull together a solemn expression.
“Ah, ahem, but this is no time to be laughing about it. Because of this, every public transportation system in this district is going to be stopped for the next three hours. Even the slidewalks and maglev roads are at a total standstill.”
From the officer’s attitude, it almost seemed like he was proud of it. Although Yang found it humorous, this was no laughing matter. This accident and the officer’s words added up to something that sent a chill through his heart. The system that was controlling and running their society had grown alarmingly weak. The war’s negative influence was steadily eroding their society, more softly and yet more surely than the devil’s footfalls.
From his side, Julian looked up at Yang. “What shall we do, Admiral?”
“Nothing else we can do—let’s walk,” Yang said, and so it was decided. “It’s nice to do this every once in a while. On foot, we’ll get back in an hour. It’ll be good exercise.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
The policeman’s eyes opened wide at this. “Oh, I couldn’t let you do that! Making the hero of Iserlohn walk home on his own two feet? I’ll send for a landcar or an aircar. Please use that instead.”
“I can’t let you do that just for me.”
“Please, don’t be shy about it.”
“No, I think I’m gonna be shy about it,” Yang said.
It took a bit of an effort to keep his displeasure from showing in his face or voice.
“Let’s go, Julian.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
With that cheerful answer, the boy started out at a nimble skip, then came to a sudden halt. Yang looked back at him suspiciously.
“What’s the matter, Julian? You don’t like walking?”
Perhaps his voice was just a little sharp from his residual displeasure.
“No, it isn’t that.”
“Well then, why aren’t you coming?”
“That’s … the wrong direction.”
Yang turned on his heel without a word. As long as a space fleet commander doesn’t get the fleet’s heading wrong, there’s nothing to worry about. He considered saying that, or something similarly unsporting, then decided against it. Truth be told, his confidence even failed him on that point from time to time. That was why Yang prized the precision-tuned fleet management of Vice Commander Fischer so highly.
Long rows of stopped maglev cars stretched out to form long walls on the streets, and people who could do nothing about it were walking aimlessly around. Yang and Julian calmly threaded their way between them.
“The stars are really beautiful tonight, Admiral,” said Julian, lifting up his gaze to the starry sky above. The gleaming lights of countless stars formed patterns too complex to take in, testifying with their continual twinkling to the existence of the planet’s atmosphere.
Yang was unable to completely clear his mind of ill feelings.
Everyone was reaching up toward that night sky, trying to grasp the star that was given them. But people who knew their own star’s exact position were few and far between. And what about me—Yang Wen-li? Have I clearly determined where my own star is? Swept along by circumstance, have I lost sight of it? Or could I have been wrong all along about which one is mine?
“Admiral?” said Julian in a crystal clear voice.
“What is it?”
“Just now, you and I were both looking at the same star. Look, that big blue one.”
“Hmm, that star is …”
“What’s it called?”
“It’s on the tip of my tongue …” Yang said.
If he had started tracing back that thread of a memory, surely he could have arrived at the answer, but Yang didn’t feel like forcing himself to do it. There’s not even the slightest need for this boy at my side to look up at the same star as me, Yang thought.
A man should grab hold of a star that’s for him and him alone. No matter how unlucky a star it may be.