A hundred billion stars gleamed with a hundred billion lights. Those lights were weak, however, and the greater part of space’s infinite expanse was dominated by obsidian darkness.
A night with no end. An infinite void. Coldness to beggar the imagination. The universe did not reject the human race. It simply ignored humanity altogether. The universe was vast, though to humans there never seemed to be enough room. This was because space only had meaning to humans within the range that they could perceive and act in it.
Humans divided the universe up prosaically—into regions inhabitable and uninhabitable, into regions navigable and unnavigable. And those most hapless of humans—professional soldiers—divided all the stars and all of space into regions controlled by the enemy and controlled by allies, regions to be seized and to be defended, and regions where battle was easy and where it was difficult.
None of these divisions had names originally. To distinguish recognizable zones, minuscule humans spoke of them in symbols of their own devising.
There was a region of space called the Iserlohn Corridor—a long and narrow tunnel of safety running through an unnavigable stretch of galactic space. Through its interior there flew a solitary battleship. Under the light of a G0 star, its streamlined hull would probably have gleamed silverfish gray, and the inscription of its name, Ulysses, would have stood out in vivid clarity.
Ulysses. This ship, named for that hero of ancient legend, belonged to the Iserlohn Patrol Fleet of the Free Planets Alliance.
Six months prior, Ulysses had been a part of the Alliance Navy’s Eighth Fleet. That fleet had fought in the battle of the Amritsar Stellar Region—the largest-scale military clash in human history—where over 90 percent of its ships and personnel had been lost forever. With this defeat had come the dissolution of the fleet itself. Its scant survivors had been shuffled off to other fleets and bases.
Ulysses, hero of many a battle, had faced many life-or-death struggles and lived to tell the tale. The ship itself was such a hero. Its crew as well.
That said, the name of the battleship Ulysses was not so much an object of respect now as it was fodder for benign joking.
In the Battle of Amritsar, the damage taken by Ulysses had been light. All that had been destroyed was the bacterial wastewater treatment system, but that had resulted in the crew having to fight while ankle deep in regurgitated sewage.
Awaiting Ulysses upon its return was a most undesirable descriptor—“the battleship with the broken toilets.”
Lieutenant Commander Nilson, the ship’s captain, and his first officer, Sublieutenant Eda, had reeked to high heaven by the time they reached Iserlohn, and those who greeted them, saying “Good work” and the like, had done so in tones hardly suited to their sentiments. Still, in the face of a numbingly miserable defeat in which 70 percent of the thirty million deployed had been lost, perhaps people needed Ulysses—whether as the start of a conversation or the butt of a joke—in order to keep themselves from becoming mentally unhinged. Cold comfort though that might be for the crew, even assuming it were true.
At present, Ulysses was away from Iserlohn Fortress on patrol duty. These patrol missions had long served as training for the crew, but beyond this region of space—brimming with variable stars, red giants, and irregular gravitational fields—there waited a human danger even more vast. The territory of the Free Planets Alliance extended only so far as the region surrounding Iserlohn; beyond lay the vast spread of the Galactic Empire’s frontier. In times past, this region had on many occasions been witness to large-scale combat, and from time to time, fragments of spaceships destroyed centuries ago were still discovered here.
Captain Nilson’s hulking frame rose up from the command seat. An operator had reported the sighting of an unidentified spacecraft. Ulysses’s enemy detection system, like those of the other ships, consisted of radar, mass-detection sensors, energy-measuring devices, swarms of advance-surveillance satellites, and more—and all of them were responding. What they had detected was not a fleet but a single vessel.
“There aren’t any friendlies in this sector now, are there?”
“No, sir. At present, not a single friendly vessel in this sector.”
“Then process of elimination tells us it’s an enemy. All hands, alert level one!”
Alarms rang out, and the adrenaline levels of 140 crew members began to skyrocket. Voices shot back and forth from every department—Distance thirty-three light-seconds … Rail cannons condition green … Heat cannons ready … Viewscreen photoflux adjustments completed—and the captain, in a strikingly resonant voice, ordered that a transmission be sent giving the mutually understandable signal:
“Halt your vessel. If you fail to comply, we will attack.”
It was five minutes later that a reply came back to the tense, sweating crew. The communications officer who received it cocked his head in bewilderment as he handed his tablet to the captain. Written there was the following:
We’ve no desire to exchange blows. We seek negotiations and humbly entreat you to honor this request.
“Negotiations?” Captain Nilson murmured, as if seeking confirmation from himself. First officer Eda crossed his arms.
“It’s been a while since the last one, but I wonder if we might have ourselves a visitor.”
By which he meant “a defector.”
“In any case, the detailed examination comes later. Don’t stand down from battle stations yet. Tell them to stop engines and link up their comm screen.”
Captain Nilson took off his uniform beret, all black save for its white five-pointed star mark, and used it to fan his face. It would be best if a mutual slaughter could be avoided. After all, even if he won, his ship wouldn’t come away without casualties. He stared at the enemy vessel that had floated into sight on one of his viewscreens. It was not so different in appearance from Ulysses, and Captain Nilson wondered: Are the people in there also waiting on pins and needles, sweating just like we are?
It was equipped for every function that a strategic base required: offense, defense, resupply, R & R, maintenance, medical, communications, space traffic control, intelligence gathering. Its spaceport could berth twenty thousand vessels, and its repair shops could service four hundred simultaneously. Its hospitals had two hundred thousand beds. Its arsenals could manufacture 7,500 fusion missiles per hour.
The combined number of soldiers in the fortress and its patrol fleet rose to a total of two million, and an additional three million civilians were living inside it as well. The greater part of that number were family members of soldiers, though it also included those to whom the military had delegated the operation of lifestyle- and entertainment-related facilities. Among these were a number of establishments employing only women.
Although Iserlohn was a military fortress, it was also a huge city that boasted a population of five million. Among the galaxy’s inhabited worlds, not a few had populations that were smaller. Its societal infrastructure was also well-appointed. Schools it had had from the beginning, and in addition it was furnished with theaters, concert halls, a fifteen-floor sports center, maternity clinics, day cares, self-contained reservoir and drainage systems, hydrogen reactors doubling as freshwater recycling plants, vast botanical gardens that functioned as part of the oxygen supply system and as places for “forest therapy,” and hydroponics ranches that were primarily sources of vegetable protein and vitamins.
Serving as commander of both fortress and patrol fleet was the man ultimately responsible for this gargantuan city in space, the leader of its fighting forces, Free Planets Alliance Navy Admiral Yang Wen-li.
It was hard for most people to imagine Yang Wen-li as one of the top VIPs in the FPA military. First of all, he didn’t look like a military man, not even when in uniform.
He was not some thoughtful-looking old gentleman with perfect posture. Nor was he some huge muscle-bound giant. Neither did he have the appearance of a coolheaded genius or a pasty-faced young nobleman.
He was thirty years old, though he looked two or three years younger than he was. His hair and eyes were black, his height and build average, and while he wasn’t exactly not handsome, his looks certainly did not bespeak the value of the rare talent he possessed.
What was extraordinary about him was not what was outside his skull, but what was inside it. Last year, in SE 796, he had held a complete monopoly on the military successes of the Free Planets Alliance. He had stolen from the empire’s hands the fortress Iserlohn, whose impregnability had been renowned in song, and done so without spilling a single drop of his troops’ blood. In the Astarte and Amritsar Stellar Regions, the Alliance Armed Forces had suffered crushing defeats at the hands of the Imperial Navy Admiral Reinhard von Lohengramm, yet in both cases it had been Yang’s calm and ingenious operational command that had rescued his compatriots from complete obliteration.
Had he not been there, the Free Planets Alliance’s annals of war would have needed only one word to describe SE 796—defeat. That fact was admitted by all. It was for that reason that Yang had been promoted from commodore to full admiral in less than one year. The young admiral, however, had hardly been moved to tears by this exceptional advancement. For although he was a master of warfare whose like was nowhere else to be found, Yang himself had discovered nothing of value in the thing called war.
More than once he had dreamed of retiring from the military to become a civilian of no special note, but he as yet had been unable to do so.
That day, he was enjoying a game of 3-D chess in his private quarters.
“Check!” shouted Julian Mintz.
Yang, scratching his black head of hair, conceded defeat. For some reason, it didn’t look like he was ever going to be called a great admiral when it came to chess. “Oh well. So this makes seventeen straight losses?” He sighed, but there was neither frustration nor petulance in it.
“Eighteen,” corrected Julian, flashing a smile. Still right in the middle of boyhood, he was only half as old as Yang. With his dark-brown eyes and flaxen hair that had subtle, natural waves, all agreed he was a handsome young man.
Three years ago, Julian had been sent to live with Yang thanks to the application of what was called Travers’s Law, by which children of soldiers killed in action could be raised in the homes of other soldiers. He was a top student at school, the boys’ top scorer for the year in the sport of flyball, and since receiving a status equivalent to lance corporal as a civilian employee of the military, had displayed an outstanding knack for sharpshooting. While it was all just a little embarrassing for his guardian Yang, it was also a source of pride.
“Julian’s one flaw,” Alex Caselnes—Yang’s sharp-tongued upperclassman from Officers’ Academy—had once opined, “is that he worships the ground you walk on, Yang. Honestly, that’s just terrible taste. If not for that, I’d gladly give him my daughter’s hand in marriage.”
The thirty-six year-old Caselnes had two daughters, actually, the elder of whom was seven.
Yang, having still not learned his lesson, said, “One more game.”
“You really want to have a nineteen-game losing streak? Not that I mind, but …”
It had been Yang who had taught Julian to play 3-D chess, but it hadn’t taken the disciple even six months to surpass his master. Since then, the gap between their respective abilities had only widened. Still, whenever Julian described himself as being good at chess, it always stopped short of being anything more than a joke. This tendency wasn’t limited to chess, either, and trivial skills weren’t the issue; on a more fundamental level, Julian had it in his head that he could never come close to matching Yang in anything.
A soft chime sounded, and an attractive female officer with hazel eyes and golden-brown hair spoke from the visiphone screen. “Commander, this is Lieutenant Greenhill.” She had been working as Yang’s aide since last year and had recently been promoted.
“I’m kinda busy right now. What is it?” Yang’s tone sounded terribly unenthusiastic.
“An Imperial Navy battleship has arrived with an envoy. He wishes to see you on some urgent business.”
“Does he, now?”
Not sounding terribly surprised, Yang put the chess match on hold and stood up, but just as he was about to leave the room, Julian said, “Excellency, wait! You’ve forgotten your gun.” It was still lying on his desk where he’d tossed it earlier.
“Don’t need it, don’t need it,” the young admiral said irritably, waving away the suggestion.
“But going in unarmed is too—”
“Supposing I take a gun,” Yang said, “and supposing I fire it … Do you really think I’ll even hit the guy?”
“Er … no, sir.”
“Well then, there’s no point in my taking it, is there?”
Yang started walking immediately, and Julian, in a panic, followed after him.
It wasn’t that Yang was fearless and daring; he just saw human capability as a thing demarcated with sharp lines. He was the one who had caused impregnable Iserlohn to fall so easily, using a clever trick that not one other person had been able to anticipate. That had taught him all the more that there was no perfection where humans were concerned, and no absolute guarantees.
Yang—having never held the slightest intention of becoming a soldier, having aspired instead to the life of a historian—had learned through his studies that no matter how powerful a nation may be, it will eventually collapse without fail: that no matter how great the hero, after gaining power there comes a fall.
The same applied to life as well. A hero who has survived many battles dies from complications of influenza. The last one standing after a bloody power struggle is felled by some unknown assassin. Former galactic emperor Ottfried III, afraid of being poisoned, eats next to nothing and finally wastes away.
“When your luck runs out, your luck runs out, even if you are being careful.”
Yang didn’t even take any guards. When he was first assigned to Iserlohn, he’d had four teams of twelve looking out for him in rotating shifts, but they had even been following him into the toilet, so he’d finally gotten fed up and dismissed them.
On the other hand, Yang did pay great attention to the workings of the fortress’s security system. Its control functions he divided among three different stations, putting them under mutual cross surveillance so that the system could not be hijacked without simultaneously gaining control of all three stations. In addition, he had devices added to the air-conditioning system that analyzed the local atmosphere’s component molecules to detect attempts at poisoning the fortress.
The security systems did not reflect Yang’s original intentions; there were military brass who wouldn’t shut up about them, as well as nervous subordinates, bureaucrats concerned that the budget wasn’t being spent, inspection-loving politicians, and journalists waiting with bated breath for something to go wrong. For these people, he had to do some PR so as to say, “See, the security system is perfect.”
“I can totally see how people’s thinking gets less and less pure as they rise higher and higher,” Yang had once grumbled to Julian.
Speaking like he was the grown-up in the room, Julian had replied, “If you understand that yourself, you won’t be swept along with them. As long as there aren’t unnecessary problems, don’t you think that’s good enough?” Then he had appended the following opinion: “What I worry about is that the higher you rise, the higher your alcohol intake is getting. Please try to lay off it a little.”
“Am I really drinking that much more?”
“At least five times what you did three years ago.”
“Five times? There’s no way it could be that much.”
Before Yang’s doubting eyes, Julian had produced three years’ worth of household expense data. The index of 100 applied to alcoholic beverage expenditures three years ago had risen to become 491. Since this number did not include the amount consumed outside the home, there had indeed been grounds for Julian’s insistence on an increase of fivefold or greater.
Unable to argue, Yang had promised to refrain from drinking, though both the promisor and promisee felt little confidence in how long he could keep it up.
The staff gathered around the table were as follows:
Rear Admiral Alex Caselnes, Fortress Administrative Director.
Commodore Walter von Schönkopf, Commander of Fortress Defenses.
Rear Admiral Fischer, Vice Commander of the Iserlohn Patrol Fleet.
Rear Admiral Murai, Chief of Staff.
Commodore Patrichev, Deputy Chief of Staff.
Captain Blood-Joe and Commander Lao, staff officers.
Lieutenant Frederica Greenhill, the commander’s top aide.
Also present were Lieutnant Commander Nilson, captain of the battleship Ulysses, and its first officer, Sublieutenant Commander Eda.
Yang made a conventional show of looking around at the assembled officers’ faces, then opened his mouth to speak. It wasn’t really him to speak in grave and solemn cadences; he sounded more like he was talking to friends over a cup of tea.
“I think you all know this already, but the Imperial Navy battleship Brocken has arrived as a military envoy with a rather interesting proposal. They want to do a prisoner swap of the two million POWs the empire and alliance are holding between them.”
“So they’re having a hard time feeding theirs, too,” Caselnes said sarcastically. Of average height and with a plump, healthy-looking build, he was more a military bureaucrat than a soldier, with far more experience in the rear service than on the front lines. A master of desk work, he was a specialist at running supply lines, operating organizations, and managing facilities. After the defeat at Amritsar, the blame for the failure of the supply plan had been dumped on him—although that disaster had in fact been due to the ingenious strategy of Imperial Marshal von Lohengramm—and he had been shuffled off to a remote outpost before being reassigned to Iserlohn at Yang’s request.
It was fair to say that Alex Caselnes was the de facto mayor of Iserlohn’s city of five million. His ability to handle public administration would likely have proven useful even in larger and more complex organizations.
“That’s probably part of it,” said Yang. “In any case, I’m half to blame as well.” When taking Iserlohn, Yang had acquired POWs in numbers equivalent to the vast city’s population.
Commodore von Schönkopf smiled at the exchange. Thirty-three years old and refined in appearance, he was the one credited with having successfully executed Yang’s plan. He was a man of noble birth, who had been brought as a small child from the empire to the alliance when his grandparents defected. He had both courage and intelligence to spare, and an indomitable spirit that was occasionally interpreted as dangerous. As for the man himself, he was ever calm, even in the face of suspicion and stares.
“Still, this really is no laughing matter,” said Yang. “The phrase ‘having a hard time feeding them’ carries with it a serious implication—that circumstances may be not far off when there’ll be no way for them to do so.”
“Put simply, we should view this as a sign that Reinhard von Lohengramm has finally decided to get into an armed conflict with the highborns’ confederacy.”
When Yang spoke the name of that blond-haired youth, which the Alliance Navy considered its greatest threat, a deathly quiet fell across the entire chamber.
For Reinhard to secure absolute power, he would have to destroy a powerful group of highborn nobles who viewed him as an enemy. That would probably involve the outbreak of full-scale civil war. The intelligence that Yang had was by no means bountiful, but it was enough to make it clear that Reinhard was moving steadily forward with preparations for exactly such a conflict.
The problem was that Reinhard was setting the board not only within the empire, but within the Free Planets Alliance as well. Reinhard was not about to stand by and let the aristocrats’ confederacy join hands with the FPA, or allow the Alliance Navy to strike both sides after they had exhausted themselves. The wounds that the Alliance Navy had suffered in its loss at Amritsar were still unhealed; they had nothing to spare for external campaigns, but Reinhard was apparently leaving nothing to chance.
So what should he do?
Yang tried analyzing the circumstances into which Reinhard had been thrust. There were certain limitations that Reinhard was saddled with, and there was no question he would make his plans in accordance with them.
Analyzed and arranged, the results looked like this:
1. Reinhard’s forces would have their hands full just fighting against the confederacy of highborn nobles.
2. Opening a two-front operation would therefore be an impossibility.
3. Due to conditions 1 and 2, the thing to do was strike the FPA through subterfuge rather than military force.
4. To divide the enemy and set them against one another was the essence of conspiracy.
With Reinhard having advanced to this stage, Yang could guess what move was coming next: he would find some way to tear the Alliance Armed Forces apart from within!
That was what Reinhard would do. That was what he had to do. Even if Yang were standing in Reinhard’s own shoes, he wouldn’t be able to come up with anything else. If factions of the alliance military were fighting one another, Reinhard would be free to do battle with the highborn, without fear of being struck from behind.
Well then, what will he do specifically … By the time Yang’s thoughts had advanced to that point, he had arrived at a conclusion.
Maybe I’m overthinking this, Yang couldn’t help wondering. He wasn’t really as full of confidence as others thought he was.
Still, the work he was engaged in was not about the pursuit of truth and humanity. It wasn’t about chasing some absolute value. It was win or lose. It was competition. Winning and losing were merely relative terms, so if he got one step ahead of his opponent—if he got one leg up on the enemy—then his job was done. That made it sound like it was easy, but getting a leg up on a genius like Marquis Reinhard von Lohengramm was extremely hard business.
For Yang, there was one little thing he regretted.
During the battle at Amritsar last year, Yang had given a combat performance that no one else had been able to match, but he couldn’t necessarily say he had done his best in the operations meeting that had come before. Even if it had ended up turning into a wrestling match, shouldn’t he have tried to block the irresponsible, aggressive rhetoric of the ultra-hard-liners?
Of course, I’d have just ended up losing even if I had grappled with them, Yang reflected with a grimace.
In any case, a proposal for a prisoner swap had arrived from the empire, and Yang needed to report it to the alliance’s capital of Heinessen, the planet named for the nation’s founding father. The government would likely accept the proposal gladly. POWs did not enjoy suffrage, but returning soldiers did. That amounted to two million votes plus the votes of their families. An empty but grand celebration would no doubt be held.
“Hey, Julian, it’s been a while, but it looks like we might be able to go back to Heinessen.”
His voice was cheerful, which Julian felt was a little strange. Heinessen would be full of ceremonies, parties, speeches, and all kinds of things Yang hated.
But now there was a reason that Yang needed to go to Heinessen.
The prisoner exchange was not carried out under the auspices of the two governments involved. Both nations held themselves to be humanity’s sole legitimate governing authority, and as such did not give official recognition to the other’s existence. That being the case, there was no way diplomatic relations could be established.
If such foolish hardheadedness had existed between a pair of individuals, people would probably have laughed at it with scorn. Between two nations, however, people accepted all manner of corruption in the name of dignity and authority.
On February 19 of that year, the prisoner exchange ceremony was carried out at Iserlohn Fortress. Representatives from both militaries came forward, exchanged lists, and signed certificates.
The Galactic Imperial Navy and the Free Planets Alliance Navy, in accordance with the principles of military regulation, do hereby determine to return all captured officers and soldiers to their respective homelands, and upon their honor shall do so.
Space Era 797, February 19. Admiral Yang Wen-li, Free Planets Alliance Navy Representative.
When Yang had finished signing, Kircheis turned toward him with a youthful smile.
“The formalities may be necessary, but at the same time, there’s something rather absurd about them, don’t you think, Admiral Yang?”
Yang observed Kircheis. Yang was young himself, but Kircheis was even younger—still only twenty-one. He was a handsome young man—hair as red as if dyed in dissolved rubies, pleasant-looking blue eyes, unusually tall of stature—and although he was known to be one of the empire’s boldest and most powerful admirals, he seemed to have made a favorable impression on the women of Iserlohn. Yang had engaged him in direct combat at Amritsar, knew that he was the right hand of Marquis Reinhard von Lohengramm—and yet even so found the young man difficult to dislike.
It seemed that Kircheis had formed a similar impression of Yang. His handshake as they parted was more than just perfunctory.
Afterward, Julian expressed his impression: “Likable fellow, isn’t he?”
Yang nodded, but when he thought about it, it struck him as odd to feel more favor toward an enemy commander than he did toward the politicians on his own side. Of course, there was nothing unusual about the enemy in front being vastly more forthright than those scheming behind one’s back, and also, it wasn’t as though the present enemy-ally configuration were set in stone for all eternity.
In any case, the welcome ceremony for the returning soldiers had provided Yang with the public excuse he needed to make a temporary return to Heinessen.
Four weeks after departing Iserlohn, Yang and Julian arrived in the capital of Heinessen. Having avoided the central spaceport, which had become murderously choked by two million returning soldiers, the family members come to greet them, and huge throngs of journalists, they arrived by way of Spaceport 3—which exclusively served the local passenger and cargo lines—and immediately headed for the officers’ houses in a driverless taxi. As they were passing by the warehouses and working-class apartments on Hutchison Street, however, they encountered a roadblock. Police officers were sweating hard as they directed large crowds of people. It looked like they were trying to physically do the job of the malfunctioning central control system for ground traffic, but Yang and Julian couldn’t see why the road was closed. Yang got out of the taxi and approached an inexperienced-looking young officer.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “Why can’t we go through?”
“It’s nothing. Please don’t come any closer—it’s dangerous.”
Speaking contradictions, the officer pushed Yang back, a tense expression on his face. Yang was in his civilian clothes, and the young officer apparently didn’t recognize who he was. For an instant, Yang felt a slight temptation to reveal his name and find out what was going on, but in the end he remained silent and went back to the taxi. His disgust for the exercise of privilege outweighed his curiosity.
The matter only became clear after they had made a wide detour and returned to the house on Silver Bridge Street, empty these past four months.
No sooner had they selected the all-news channel on the solivision than that scene came leaping into their living room.
“… At present, the outbreak of crimes committed by returning soldiers is ongoing. Also today, tragedy struck on Hutchison Street, and even now, the situation remains unresolved. At least three have been killed …”
The expression on the mournful-looking announcer’s face was at odds with the lively cadence of his voice.
Soldiers who used hallucinogens and stimulants to escape from the fear of death on the battlefield would often become addicts and then return to civilian life. One day, they would just explode. Fear and madness became an unseen magma that eventually overflowed, burning up everything around them.
A thought occurred to Yang. He called Julian and had him pull up and forward some materials related to crime statistics from the Data Service. He would have done it himself, except that he didn’t know how to search the databases very well; he wasn’t deliberately trying to push everything off on Julian.
It was just as Yang had expected. Criminal cases were up 65 percent compared to five years ago. On the other hand, arrest rates had fallen by 22 percent. As the ruin of the human heart progressed, the quality of law enforcement declined as well.
Over the course of this long war, there had been millions of fatalities. The military filled the vacancies that were left behind. As a result, human resource shortages had appeared in every field in society. Doctors, educators, police officers, systems administrators, computer technicians … the numbers of seasoned workers had decreased across the board, their seats either filled by the inexperienced or simply left vacant. In this way, the military’s support structure—society itself—was being weakened. A weak society inevitably weakened the military, and a weakened military again lost soldiers and sought replacements from society …
One could say that this vicious cycle was an accumulation of contradictions woven together by the spinning wheel that was, in a sense, war. I’d like to show this to all those prowar cheerleaders who say, “The corruption that comes from peace scares me more than the destruction that comes from war,” thought Yang. What would they insist they were fighting to protect as they urged on the collapse of society?
What was all this to protect?
Tossing aside the materials he’d obtained, Yang turned over and lay faceup on his sofa. After mulling the question over, he couldn’t help wondering what meaning there was in what he himself was doing. For Yang, it did not fill the heart with cheer to think that it all might be meaningless.
“I feel like I used up a lifetime’s worth of patience in those two hours,” Yang grumbled to the waiting Julian when he came out of the auditorium.
He really did hold it in well this time, thought Julian. In the past, Yang had displayed bald-faced antagonism at such ceremonies and had even remained seated when everyone else in the auditorium rose to their feet. This time, he had gone no further than murmuring “What are you even talking about? That’s ridiculous!” too low for anyone else to hear.
Yang breathed out a heavy sigh, as if venting poisonous vapors absorbed in the auditorium, and then noticed a group of about one hundred marching down the road ahead. They were wearing long white robes with red fringes and chanting something as they held aloft placards that read The Holy Land, in Our Hands as they walked leisurely along.
“Who are they?” Yang asked a young officer standing next to him.
“Oh, those are followers of the Church of Terra.”
“The Church of Terra?”
“You haven’t heard? It’s a religion that’s growing like crazy these days. Its ‘object of worship,’ if that’s the right term … is Earth itself.”
“Earth … ?”
“Earth, humanity’s birthplace, is in a sense the ultimate holy land. Right now, it’s under the control of the Galactic Empire. They want to take it back militarily and build a cathedral there to guide the souls of all humanity. To join in a holy war for that purpose, no matter what sacrifices might have to be made …”
Yang couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
“They can’t be serious. Something like that is utterly impossible.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Julian said, turning on him with unexpected vehemence. “We have righteousness on our side, and above all, Admiral Yang, we have a great warrior like you, so we can destroy the tyrannical Galactic Empire, and we can even recover Earth. Am I wrong?”
“I don’t know …” Yang replied, taking care not to let his ill mood come to the surface. “Nothing’s ever that easy, you know.”
The seeds of fanaticism existed in every generation. Even so, this latest iteration sounded exceptionally bad.
Earth was indeed mother to the whole human race. However, to put it in extreme terms, it was nothing more than an object of sentimentalism now. Eight centuries ago, Earth had ceased being the center of human society. When a civilization’s reach expanded, its center shifted. History had proven this.
Where had they gotten the idea that they could spill the blood of millions just to take back a worn-out old frontier world?
“Now that you mention it,” Yang said, “they remind me of another group. What’re the Patriotic Knights up to these days?”
“I don’t really know, though I hear quite a few of their members have joined the Church of Terra. At any rate, their ideas mesh rather closely, so it doesn’t strike me as unnatural.”
“Wonder if they’ve got the same backer,” Yang said, in a voice so low that the officer didn’t seem to have heard.
Yang, having decided to rest at home until it was time for the party that evening, got into a driverless cab with Julian and fell into a deep reverie.
Long, long ago, there had been people called crusaders on Earth. They had declared they would take back the Holy Land, and using God’s name, invaded other countries—laying their cities to waste, plundering their treasures, and slaughtering their people. Far from feeling shame for those inhuman acts, they had actually prided themselves on their achievements in persecuting unbelievers.
It was a stain on the historical record, brought about by ignorance, fanaticism, self-intoxication, and intolerance, and was bitter proof of the fact that those who believed, without doubting, in God and in justice could become the most brutal, the most violent of all people. Were these Terraists trying to re-create on a galactic scale a folly more than 2,400 years in the past?
There was a proverb that said, “He who works virtue does so in solitude, but he who works folly seeks companions.” Grief awaited anyone who followed after such people.
But was this movement to recapture Earth really nothing more than the foolishness it appeared to be on the surface?
Behind the Crusades, there had been seafaring merchants in Venice and Genoa who planned to weaken the influence of the unbelievers and monopolize trade between the East and the West. Ambition backed by cold calculation had been supporting that fanaticism. Supposing that bit of history were to repeat itself as well …
Could the third power, Phezzan, be behind this?
Yang was stunned at the thought as it came to him in a flash in the back of his mind. In the seat of the narrow taxi, he moved so suddenly that Julian’s eyes snapped open wide, and he asked him what was the matter. After giving him a vague answer, Yang sank into thought again.
From Phezzan’s standpoint, it would be most welcome for the empire and alliance to reach new levels of mutual hatred and killing in a dispute over Earth. That much he could see. However, if both sides were to fall, and there were a complete collapse of order, wouldn’t it be Phezzan—a nation dependent on commerce—that would be most distressed? Unless the activity were limited to a range that could be controlled by Phezzan’s will and calculations, fomenting something like this would be meaningless. And it was safe to say that the energy of a fanatical spirit would inevitably break free of control and explode. There was no way that Phezzan didn’t know that.
He couldn’t believe that they were seriously aiming to recapture Earth militarily and restore its lost glory, but …
“I just don’t understand it,” Yang murmured with an unintentional grimace. “What is Phezzan thinking?” Then, amused at himself, he thought ruefully, I’m worrying too much over nothing—it’s hardly certain that Phezzan has anything to do with this Terraism movement at all.
They arrived back at Yang’s official residence, and wanting a drink to help clear his exhaustion, Yang called out to Julian.
“Can you get me a brandy?”
“We’ve got some vegetable juice, but …”
After a pause, Yang said, “Now listen here, you think inspiration comes from vegetable juice?”
“What matters is how hard you’re trying.”
“Gah! Where’d you pick up an expression like that?”
“Everyone on Iserlohn is my teacher.”
Yang growled as the faces of the venom-tongued Caselnes and von Schönkopf rose up in his mind.
“I should’ve given your boyhood educational environment a little more thought.”
Julian smiled and reminded Yang it was “just one glass” as he brought him his brandy.
The party was an improvement, at least when compared to the ceremony that had preceded it.
Although the humorless, rambling speeches from politicians, financiers, and high-ranking bureaucrats continued, there was predictably little hysterical content here.
At Iserlohn as well, parties were held for the purpose of military-civilian relations, but as the one ultimately responsible for them, Yang insisted on doing things in his own personal style. When asked to give a speech, he would say, “Everyone, please enjoy the party,” and with that be done with it. In both the military and the private sector, there were many notable persons who loved giving speeches, but when Yang did that, the other dignitaries had no choice but to shorten their speeches as well.
“Admiral Yang’s two-second speech” had become an Iserlohn specialty.
The black-haired admiral, having become a hero of legend while yet young and alive, was even at this party an object of curiosity to certain ladies of celebrity and was forced to use his mouth for purposes other than eating and drinking all evening.
“Admiral Yang, why don’t you wear your medals?”
“Well, those things are heavy, so when I’m wearing them, I end up tilting forward when I walk.”
“Oh my, oh my!”
“My ward tells me I look like an old man walking around with my spine crooked, so …”
The ladies laughed pleasantly, but the one who was telling them this was not having such a great time. He was merely making a compromise because this was part of what he was paid for.
In a corner of a ballroom spacious to excess, Julian had found himself a seat, and with nothing else to do, was watching the crowd as people walked back and forth. All of the ten thousand in attendance were people of renown, and if it were called a magnificent sight, a magnificent sight was what it was.
The alliance’s head of state, High Council Chairman Trünicht, was there. Renowned as a master of flowery rhetoric, Yang hated the man so deeply that he would turn off the solivision whenever he appeared on it. Perhaps wisely, Trünicht seemed to be avoiding Yang as well.
Eventually, Yang slipped out of the ring of ladies and walked quickly toward Julian.
“Julian, I think it’s about time we snuck out of here.”
“Yes, sir, Admiral.”
All of the preparations had been laid out in advance. Julian went to get a bag that had been left with the attendant at the front desk, while Yang went to the bathroom and changed into some nondescript civilian clothes. His dress uniform went into the bag, and then the two of them walked right out of the building, with no one the wiser.
Poor couples with little of anything except youth and dreams would come there to buy food and drink, and then sit talking on benches beneath the security light. It was that kind of place.
When things were busy, the hardworking Mikhailov—who even in his military days had been a cook—didn’t pay attention to the faces of each and every customer. So when the peculiar combination of an old man, a young man, and a boy came to his counter—there was also the fact that the lighting was dim—he paid them no mind either.
The three of them ordered fried fish, fried potatoes, quiche, and milk tea, then sat down together, occupying one of the benches fully, and began to eat and drink. It was a three-generation picnic. After all, none of the three had eaten very much at the party …
“Whew, it’s a pain in the neck to have to sneak off to a place like this just to talk without being seen,” said the eldest of the three.
“I enjoyed myself quite a bit,” said Yang. “Took me back to my days in Officers’ Academy. We’d rack our brains back then coming up with new ways to break curfew.”
If they had realized that the old man was Admiral Bucock, commander in chief of the FPA’s space armada, and the young man was Admiral Yang Wen-li, commander of Iserlohn Fortress, both the proprietor Mikhailov and the other customers would have been speechless. The two military leaders had ducked out of the party separately in order to meet up in this place.
There was something about a light meal of fish and chips that stirred feelings akin to homesickness. In his days at Officers’ Academy, Yang would sometimes slip out of the dormitory with his partner in crime Jean Robert Lappe to sate their adolescent appetites with cheap, delicious food from stalls like this one.
Oh man, I shoulda called it quits after the wine, he’d been thinking. Yang had ordered schnapps, and no sooner had he stepped out of the bar than he’d taken a hard fall on the sidewalk and found himself unable to move. The proprietor had called Jessica for him, and she had rushed over and dragged him into the back of the bar, so as not to be seen by their stern instructors. She had treated his injuries there.
“Jean Robert Lappe! Yang Wen-li! Wake up! Sit up straight! Who knows what’ll happen if we’re not back in the dorms by sunrise!”
The coffee that Jessica had brewed for the two hungover youths, in spite of being black, had tasted oddly sweet …
That same Jean Robert Lappe had been killed in action last year in the Battle of Astarte. Jessica Edwards, who had been engaged to marry him, had since been elected as a delegate for the Planet Terneuzen electoral district and occupied a seat in the National Assembly, where she was now in the vanguard of the antiwar peace faction.
Everything changed. As time continued to march onward, children became adults, adults grew old, and the things that could never be undone only multiplied.
The voice of the old admiral interrupted Yang’s reverie.
“Well, nobody is going to recognize us here. Let’s hear what you have to say.”
“All right, then,” Yang said slowly, after washing down his umpteenth fried fish stick with milk tea. “It’s possible we just might see a coup d’état in this country before long.”
He spoke in a nonchalant tone, but it was enough to bring the old admiral’s fingers to a sudden midair halt en route to his mouth.
That was the conclusion Yang had reached. He explained plainly, but in great detail, his insight regarding Marquis Reinhard von Lohengramm’s intentions, as well as the fact that whoever ended up starting it would probably not realize they were being manipulated by Marquis von Lohengramm. Bucock acknowledged his points and nodded.
“I see. Quite logical. But does Marquis von Lohengramm really believe a coup can succeed?”
“Even if it fails, that’s fine with him. Because from his standpoint, all that matters is that our military be divided.”
“I see.” The old admiral crushed his empty paper cup in his hand.
“Still,” Yang continued, “Before you can foment a coup, you need to convince the ones doing it that they can succeed. That means coming up with a detailed plan to show them—one that at a glance seems highly doable.”
“A localized rebellion, unless it was quite large-scale and accompanied by a chain reaction affecting other regions, wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of shaking the central authorities. The most efficient method would be to seize the capital from within. Especially if they can take the authorities hostage as well.”
“That’s certainly true.”
“But the bottleneck there is that the center of political power is also the center of military power. If an uprising is faced with a stronger, better-organized military force at the moment it breaks out, it’s going to fail. Any success it did have would be short-lived.”
Yang tossed the last hunk of fried potato into his mouth before continuing.
“Which creates a need to organically combine the seizure of the political hub in the capital with localized rebellion.”
Sitting at Yang’s side, Julian’s eyes were gleaming as the young commander’s theory unfolded before him. This was the result of mental wrangling that had gone on in his head for months.
“In short,” said Bucock, “they have to scatter the capital’s military forces. To do that, they’ll sow rebellion on the frontier. There’ll be no choice but to mobilize the military to put it down. But their real aim will be taking the capital while we’re gone. Hmm. If all went well, it’d come off pretty as a picture.”
“As I said before, though, it doesn’t have to succeed as far as Marquis von Lohengramm is concerned. As long as the alliance is filled with division and turmoil—and can’t interfere in the empire’s internal conflict—he will be able to achieve his objectives.”
“He thinks up the most troublesome ideas.”
“For the ones who actually execute them, yes. But it’s not like a lot of labor’s required of the one making them.”
To that indomitable golden-haired youth, Yang figured this kind of thing was nothing more than a game played after meals to help ease his digestion.
“I don’t suppose you can tell me who’s involved in this plot, can you?” said Bucock.
“That’s what you call a no can do.”
“So in short, a coup d’état will probably break out shortly, and you’re saying I have to stop it before it starts.”
“Once it’s broken out, you’ll need a lot of military force and a lot of time to put it down, and that will leave scars. But if you can stop it before it starts, the whole thing can be settled with a single company of MPs.”
“I see. That’s a heavy responsibility.”
“And there’s one other thing I’d like to ask.”
Yang unconsciously lowered his voice, drawing the old admiral in.
Seated just a little removed from them, young Julian couldn’t hear what was said. He felt a little disappointed, but if it was something that was all right for him to hear, Yang was sure to tell him eventually. What he had heard thus far was enough by itself to set his heart racing.
“All right,” said Bucock, nodding firmly. “I’ll see that it reaches you before you depart Heinessen. Of course, it’s best if something like that doesn’t come in handy.”
Yang blew into the empty paper bag that the fries had come in, inflating it, and then slapped it with his hand. It burst with a loud pop, startling the people nearby.
“Sorry for all the trouble, but with things as they are, I can’t just carelessly take this to others.”
Yang tossed away the wadded-up paper bag, and a hemispherical robocleaner zoomed off after it, trailing the melody of a song that had been popular twenty years ago. Bucock tossed his bag toward the robocleaner too, rubbed his slightly protruding jaw, and stood up.
“I guess that’s it, then. Let’s leave separately. Take care.”
After the old admiral had disappeared into the city night, Yang and Julian also got up.
A thought suddenly occurred to Julian as he was walking next to Yang toward the taxi stand. Were the people plotting this coup d’état meeting somewhere out of sight right now, discussing their plans in secret?
When Julian mentioned that to Yang, Yang smiled with amusement.
“You bet they are. With better food than we’ve got and a lot more serious looks on their faces.”
It was a windowless, spartan room, devoid of any furnishings expressive of its owner’s personality. The illumination was dimmed to the point that the faces of the ten or so men sitting around the meeting table were indistinct.
“All right, let’s go over it one more time. On April 3 of the standard calendar.”
A red point shone in the lower-right-hand quadrant of the star chart. Soft whispers were exchanged among the men.
“The distance from Heinessen is 1,880 light-years. It’s located in the middle of the Fourth Frontier District and has a spaceport, a supply collection center, and an interstellar transmissions base. April 3, don’t forget. The leader of the uprising in this sector will be Mr. Herbay …”
The dark silhouette of the man whose name had been spoken nodded slowly.
“The second attack will be on Planet Kaffah, on April 5. That’s 2,092 light-years from Heinessen, located in the Ninth Frontier District …”
The third attack was to take place on Planet Palmerend, on April 8, and the fourth on Planet Shanpool, on April 10. The man explained how the four uprisings were located at points near the surface of an imaginary sphere with Heinessen as its center, and showed on the star chart how they were all far removed from one another. The government would have to dispatch forces to suppress these rebellions, and each of them lay in entirely different directions.
“This alone will be enough to empty Heinessen of military power. With a small number of troops, we’ll be able to take control of its vital points.”
The High Council, the National Assembly, Joint Operational Headquarters, the Military Transmissions Trafficking Center, and other targets to be occupied were named, and the times for the assaults, the names of the commanders, and the numbers involved were all reiterated. However, these things had already been discussed in meetings more than ten times already, and the attendees were all fully aware of the whole plan and the roles they themselves would play in it.
The attendees shared a common understanding and sense of crisis that if things kept going the way they were, the Free Planets Alliance would be destroyed. Setting aside the scale of the blow suffered last year at the Battle of Amritsar, the rapid advance of political corruption and the weakening of the economy and of society at large was spurring on this sense of crisis.
These problems could under no circumstances be left to the current crop of politicians, who traded in political power like poker players laying down chips. That entire lot needed to be purged.
The man at the head of the table looked around at all of those present. “With our own hands, we must purify our homeland of this mobocracy that has spat upon our ideals and reached the pinnacle of corruption. This is a just battle, and one we can’t avoid in order to renew our nation.”
His voice was fully controlled, with something about it that drew a line, distinguishing the speaker from the kind of fanatic merely drunk on himself. To display their confidence in him, all present nodded with equal enthusiasm.
“Now, at present, there’s an individual who is going to be a problem.”
The man’s speech grew more formal, and the other men straightened their posture just a bit.
“That man is Admiral Yang Wen-li, commander of Iselohn Fortress. It’s partly because he hasn’t been in the capital that I haven’t made him one of our compatriots, but if there are any opinions on the matter …”
When the man finished speaking, an argument broke out.
“Are we not in a position to win him over? His mind and popularity would prove extremely useful. We can’t ignore the strategic value of Iserlohn, either.”
“If he did throw in with us, we could take control of all the territory from Heinessen to Iserlohn.”
“It’s the end of March, and you think we can make time to try to convince him?”
“We don’t need to lure a man like that into joining us.”
The voice that spoke those words was the youngest of those present, but it was an oddly sullen voice—one lacking in spirit. There was a slight mismatch between the forcefully assertive tone and the voice’s quality. Seeing the mood of the other attendees dampened, the man at the head of the table opened his mouth to speak reprovingly.
“It’s best not to let your feelings run away with you. However, it’s also true that we’ve no time for trying to win him over. Instead, I’d like to consider this again after the uprising. Taking the astrographical situation into account, it should be Yang who gets tasked with putting down the Shanpool uprising …”
Even using pulse-warp navigation at maximum combat speed, it would take five days to reach Shanpool from Iserlohn. Even if he departed Shanpool immediately and raced to the capital the moment reports of the coup d’état there reached him, a minimum of twenty-five days would be necessary. Thirty days total. In that span of time, they could gain complete control of the capital, and most importantly, as long as they controlled Artemis’s Necklace—a fearsome space defense system consisting of twelve linked combat satellites—taking back Heinessen would be no easy task. Even “Miracle Yang” would be stymied.
“If we can negotiate with Yang under those circumstances, we may be able to convince him more easily than we might otherwise expect. For now, we should act according to plan, and once the seat of power is in our hands, the authority of our new order will be magnified.”
“I’d like to make a proposal …” Just as before, the youthful yet gloomy voice drew all the eyes in the room. “We should send one of our comrades to Iserlohn and have him keep Yang under surveillance. If he starts to take any action that would put us at a disadvantage, he should be eliminated.”
There was a moment of silence, after which voices of agreement rose up from several of the figures. Factors that endangered success should be eliminated.
“Those opposed? Very well, then—proposal is adopted. Let’s expedite the selection of our agent.”
However, there was reluctance in the voice of the leader.
A man who was sitting in the corner, not saying a word, let out a heavy sigh. A sigh that reeked of alcohol. A bottle of Rotherham whiskey was in his hand, and its contents had decreased by about half since the meeting began.
His name was Arthur Lynch.
Malicious grumblings came to the surface of Lynch’s heart like bubbles in beer. Dance, dance, dance … everybody dance like crazy in the palm of fate’s hand. Whether you lose your footing and fall along the way, or keep on dancing till the day you die, it’s all up to every man’s skill.
Whether he was hoping for the coup’s success or its failure was something even Lynch wasn’t entirely sure of. He had the feeling that ever since that day nine years ago, not even his own future could be of any interest to him.
Until that day, Lynch’s life had never been particularly tragic. He had marked moderate successes in frontline duty and desk work alike, and had made rear admiral right at age forty. People had called him “Excellency.” But then he had made one little misstep. When he had fought the empire in the El Facil system, he had been seized with strange terrors, and after abandoning the civilians in an attempt to flee, he had become a prisoner of the empire. Still alive, he’d become the shame of the navy, and from that day forward had been branded a coward.
Well now, how will things turn out?
Lynch closed his eyes. Beyond a heavy curtain woven of alcohol and ennui, a single planet showed its vague outline.
Back on Odin, capital of the Galactic Empire, separated from this place by ten thousand light-years of empty space, the man who had given him this mission—Reinhard, the young Marquis von Lohengramm—must be gazing into the vast sea of stars, with the keen light of ambition gleaming in his eyes.