“Y-yes, milord. I mean, they’re calling themselves the Army of the League of Just Lords, but, naturally, we can’t put something like that in official documents. That said, if we use ‘the rebel forces,’ it doesn’t distinguish them from the so-called Free Planets Alliance. Even so, we have to decide on some kind of official name.”
Reinhard nodded and, pinching his well-formed chin with long, supple fingertips, thought about it for a moment. Before five seconds had elapsed, his fingers came away.
“Here’s a fitting term for their ilk: brigands and usurpers. Refer to them as such in official documents—brigands and usurpers. Understood?”
“Yes, milord. As you wish.”
“Publish it throughout the empire that it is thus ordained, and let those so named know exactly where they stand: ‘You are an army of brigands and usurpers.’ ”
Reinhard raised his voice in laughter. It was a cruel laugh, yet even so it resounded, beautiful and clear, like the ring of precious jewels against one another.
“As you seem to have no other business, I’ll be on my way. Don’t forget what I just told you.”
As Reinhard turned to go, his steps were as light as a man in free fall. Admirals von Oberstein, Mittermeier, von Reuentahl, Kempf, and Wittenfeld all followed along in his wake, and at last the deep-blue sky was all but blotted out by a great fleet of warships departing for the battlefield.
Vice Admiral Mort, commanding officer of the forces left behind, saluted as he saw them off with his aides.
Reinhard had left only a minimal force behind on Odin: just thirty thousand officers and soldiers, charged with protecting the emperor’s castle residence of Neue Sans Souci Palace, the admiralität and Ministry of Military Affairs, and the estate where he and his sister resided. Vice Admiral Mort, to whom this home guard had been entrusted, was already in late middle age. He was hardly the type to be called a master tactician, but he was loyal and a man who could be counted on.
The secretary, upon returning to the Ministry of Military Affairs, put Reinhard’s order into action right away. FTL transmissions leapt across the void to every quarter of the empire, repeating the phrase “brigands and usurpers.”
“Brigands and usurpers! They dare call us an army of brigands and usurpers!”
Indeed, that name dealt a stinging blow to the pride of the highborn nobles, who clung fast to the idea of themselves as a chosen people. Faces gone white with hatred and humiliation, they shattered their wineglasses against the floor, feeling renewed hostility toward the golden brat.
Though to hear the likes of Merkatz’s aide von Schneider tell it, the highborn nobles were badmouthing Reinhard as well, so didn’t this just make it even?
The nobles were driven by emotion even in small matters, and thus it was no surprise that the strategy meetings of their allied military were also constantly being swayed in one direction or another by their emotions.
Duke von Braunschweig had what for him passed as a tactical plan: He would build nine military strongholds along the route from the imperial capital of Odin to the confederacy’s home base—a fortress called Gaiesburg, or “Bald Eagle Castle”—positioning large forces at each to intercept Reinhard’s advancing fleet. While fighting their way past one stronghold after another, Reinhard’s forces would suffer no small losses in terms of lives and ships, and those that remained would be degraded by the time they got through. That was when he would launch an attack from Gaiesburg and crush them all in one fell swoop.
Merkatz was skeptical of how effective that would be. While it would be nice if Reinhard were kind enough to attack all nine strongholds one by one per special invitation of his enemies, what were they supposed to do if he didn’t? If Reinhard were to render each stronghold impotent by destroying its supply lines and communications grid, and then head straight to Gaiesburg for an all-out assault, von Braunschweig’s strategy would be proven useless. Worse than useless, actually, since positioning large forces at each stronghold would naturally leave Gaiesburg shorthanded.
When Merkatz expressed to Duke von Braunschweig his opinion on the matter, the duke’s face changed color dramatically. The transformation was as vivid as if captured with time-lapse photography.
At times such as these, his attendants would throw themselves to the ground and apologize, foreheads pressed against the floor as they begged their master’s forgiveness.
Merkatz, of course, did no such thing.
When at last Duke von Braunschweig wrung from his throat a reply—“Well then, what should we do?”—Merkatz explained, feigning unawareness of von Braunschweig’s state of mind.
While there was no need to abandon the idea of the nine strongholds, there was also no need to station large forces at them. Instead, each stronghold’s function should remain limited to reconnaissance and electronic surveillance of the enemy, with combat potential concentrated at Gaiesburg.
“So we drag the golden brat all the way to Gaiesburg for a decisive battle? Hmm, that way we go out to meet an enemy that’s far from home on a distant campaign and fight them at the peak of their exhaustion.”
Duke von Braunschweig said this to demonstrate he was not entirely ignorant of military tactical theory.
But at Merkatz’s terse reply, another voice spoke up, saying, “Actually, there’s an even more effective tactic we can use.”
It was Admiral Staden, who fancied himself an expert on strategic theory.
Previously, he had served under Reinhard at Astarte, but unlike Merkatz, he did not recognize Reinhard’s talents.
“And what would that be, Admiral Staden?”
“A partial revision of Commander in Chief Merkatz’s idea,” Staden said, with a sidelong glance at Merkatz.
The seasoned admiral frowned. He could easily guess what Staden was about to say. It was going to be the same idea that Merkatz had for a certain reason already abandoned.
“In short, we organize a large-scale second force and, after luring the golden brat to Gaiesburg, send them in the opposite direction to Odin, where they will capture a weakly defended capital and pledge our support to His Majesty the Emperor.”
“Then, once we’ve had him issue an imperial edict to the effect that Marquis von Lohengramm is the real rebel traitor, his and our positions will be reversed. The golden brat will become an orphan in space, with no home to go back to.”
That was exactly what Merkatz had expected. He looked down at his coffee, which still hadn’t touched his lips. Staden was a theorist but somehow lacked insight when it came to realities on the ground. It was certainly true that Marquis von Lohengramm had emptied out the imperial capital of Odin. And why had he done that? Because there was a reason he felt he could empty it so carelessly. If Staden would only think about that, he would realize that his proposal could have no realistic effectiveness.
“Splendid!” cried a young noble, Count Alfred von Lansberg. His face was flushed with excitement. With one exclamation after another, he praised the grandness, the elegance, the aggressiveness of Staden’s proposed plan, easily encouraging it with an unselfish and childlike innocence.
“So,” he added, “who’s going to command the second force? It’ll be a great honor and responsibility.”
Then the room fell dead silent.
Count Alfred von Lansberg’s words had stirred the mire, releasing something akin to a miasma that had been lurking at the bottom.
Capture the imperial capital of Odin; steal away the young emperor. It was he who succeeded in doing that whose deeds would be the greatest and most highly distinguished in this civil war. The accomplishments of the one who lured Reinhard away to Gaiesburg would be lost in the glare of such an outstanding achievement, like asteroids passing in front of a star.
It went without saying that whoever marked the most distinguished accomplishments in the war would have the loudest voice in the postwar order. Most importantly, by becoming the emperor’s protector, one made an ally—even if only as a formality—of the highest authority in the empire, which would make it possible to monopolize position and power by invoking imperial decree.
Commander of the second force.
The shortest route to ultimate power.
Which must not be handed to anyone else.
In the eyes of Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim, there arose glares that shone like layers of oil on water.
Already, the discussion had moved away from strategy and tactics, and shifted to the dimension of political gamesmanship. They had barely looked at the forest, but already they were appraising the value of its black sables’ furs.
Merkatz had known this would happen. That was why he had abandoned this strategy in his mind, even though it might appear to be highly effective from a purely military point of view. It was a plan that could only be brought to fruition through highly unified will and organization. An unshakable, mutual trust between the commander of the main force and the commander of the secondary force must not be lacking.
And that did not exist in the military of the noble confederacy. That was exactly why Marquis von Lohengramm could feel so free to leave Odin lightly defended.
From the start, the noble confederation had been built on a foundation of hatred toward Reinhard for besting his betters. No consensus had been established on the question of who would inherit Reinhard’s position and authority should he be brought down. It was an easy thing to cause a crack in their solidarity.
And now Staden had caused exactly such a crack before the fighting had even started. In terms of results, it could be said he had just done the enemy an enormous favor. Now their phony solidarity had yielded its seat to raw avarice. Self-centered passions were rising like a volcano’s sulfurous fumes from Duke von Braunschweig, Marquis von Littenheim, and the other aristocrats, and Merkatz was taken with the feeling that he was suffocating.
Could he win against Reinhard like this?
And even if he could—for whose sake would he be winning?
For Merkatz, the word “operation” thereafter came to mean a futile choice between compromise and sticking to his guns while knowing full well he would be ignored.
At the time when he became commander in chief of the actual combat forces, the young aristocrats, eager for battle, had greeted him with a spirit of welcome, but the mood soon soured. Unused to being ordered around by others, they had found it extremely difficult—albeit not impossible—to hold their own egos in check. The older ones should have been guided by good sense equivalent to their years, but they were apt to stir up the radicalism of the youths in order to use it to their own advantage.
The first thing that Merkatz was forced to compromise on was sending out a vanguard under the command of Staden, who clearly viewed him as a competitor. Many young aristocrats, eager to quench their thirst for battle, were drawn in by his words:
“First, I’d like to test their mettle in combat.”
Do you also need to go out and get your nose bloodied? Merkatz thought. It wasn’t that, though; they needed to do it in order to be convinced for themselves.
The young aristocrats didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were preparing for battle, so information regarding the launch of the “brigand force” had reached even Reinhard’s desk.
“Call Mittermeier up here.”
When Admiral Wolfgang Mittermeier, rather small of build though quite agile in appearance, appeared before him, Reinhard asked: “I understand you learned tactical theory under Staden when you were in officers’ school.”
“I did, milord. If there’s anything the matter—”
“There’s word that Staden is leading the first wave of the noble—brigand—forces. It seems they intend to try their luck and go a round with us.”
“Ah, so it’s started at last,” the bold young admiral said calmly.
“How about it? Can you beat him?”
The hint of a smile that rose up in Mittermeier’s eyes was keen and indomitable.
“Instructor Staden had a wealth of knowledge, but when fact and theory were at odds, his tendency was to give priority to theory. As students, we used to badmouth him, calling him ‘Theory-Weary Staden’.”
“Very well, then. Here are your orders: lead your fleet out toward the Artena Stellar Region, and meet your former instructor there. In five days, I’ll come as well. You may engage him in battle before then or strengthen our defenses and wait. I leave full operational control to you.”
Mittermeier bowed and left the bridge of the flagship Brünhild with a definite spring in his step. Whatever else might be said, it was a warrior’s honor to stand at the head of the attack.
It was April 19, in the year 488 of the imperial calendar and 797 of the SE calendar.
This was how what came to be known as the Lippstadt War commenced.
The two forces came face-to-face in interstellar space near the Artena system. However, Mittermeier positioned six million fusion mines in front of his own forces to block the enemy’s path of attack, regrouped his fleet into a spherical formation, and then idled in place. A day went by, and then another, but he would not budge from that position.
Staden grew suspicious and fearful. Mittermeier’s keen intellect and swift ferocity had earned him the nickname of “Gale Wolf.” He had been given the honor of leading the vanguard. Yet here he was, just shoring up defenses while making no move to attack. What was Mittermeier up to? He had to be planning something—Staden couldn’t imagine it otherwise. But what was he planning?
This was how Staden also halted his advance.
As Staden was grappling with the situation, what he found most frustrating were the young aristocrats under his command. Beneficiaries since birth of countless privileges, they had walked through life on the feet of others, as it were, all but free of any impediment, and had grown up looking down on those who did not possess privilege themselves—to them, a desire was a thing to be realized without effort. If they decided they wanted to win, they should simply win. Staden’s behavior looked more craven than cautious to them, and there were even those among them who said so openly. They were possessed of a morbidly obese self-respect and were completely insensitive to the feelings of others.
With soothing words and flattery, Staden continued to dissuade them from reckless action, even as he bore the sting of their abuses. This required no small effort.
“It should be just about time now. Shall we pay Instructor Staden back for all his help years ago?”
It was near the end of the third day that Mittermeier gave orders to his men.
Did Mittermeier leak that intentionally? Staden wondered. However: If that intelligence is correct, I can understand why Mittermeier would take a firm defensive position and not try to attack. If that’s the case, could Mittermeier have deliberately leaked correct information?
Staden was perplexed. He could no longer see consistency in Mittermeier’s actions. Nevertheless, he gave orders to put the fleet on heightened alert, taking into consideration the threat of a sneak attack.
The indignation of the young nobles was right on the verge of exploding. What passivity! What indecisiveness! Wasn’t the whole point of coming to this stellar region to cross swords with the enemy, test their mettle, and crush their morale? “We can’t rely on our commander any further,” they said. “All we can depend on is ourselves.”
The young nobles took counsel with one another, arrived at a consensus, and then went to Staden to demand he launch an attack. Their demands sounded very close to threats. If he refused, they might well plunge the fleet into disorderly combat anyway, after throwing him in the brig.
At last, Staden gave in and authorized the attack. However, to try and control the young nobles insofar as it was possible, he did provide them with a battle plan. The entire force was to split toward starboard and port in order to detour around the minefield. After the port wing had clashed head-on with Mittermeier’s force, the starboard wing would circle around to the enemy’s rear, attack them on their flank and back side, and drive them into the minefield. By Staden’s standards, it was a rather sloppy plan, but it was clear to see that anything too elaborate would leave his comrades unable to act well in concert.
Staden was beginning to have regrets about taking charge of a force like this. However, there was nothing to do at this point except destroy Mittermeier as swiftly as possible, then pull back out before Reinhard’s main force arrived. He took personal command of the port wing of his regiment, gave command of the starboard wing to a young nobleman named Count Hildesheim, and commenced the operation.
Count Hildesheim hurried off with his fleet. Anxious to make a name for himself, he didn’t even try to suppress his boiling aggression. Eight thousand vessels did head off in the same direction, but they were unable to maintain an orderly formation as a group.
By that time, Mittermeier’s forces had of course moved away from their original position. They had relocated to a point far outside of the minefield. Viewed from directly overhead, this placed Hildesheim’s forces between the minefield and Mittermeier’s force.
“Energy waves and multiple missiles approaching from three o’clock!”
As panic was seizing operators aboard every ship in the Hildesheim force, there came a flash of white light from the first fusion explosion. Before it had time to fade, the second and third explosions followed. Energy beams, fusion missiles, and huge shells launched by rail guns swarmed in with a swiftness that left no spare time for anyone to take in what was happening and enveloped the cosmos in rainbow-hued beams. When the beams vanished, everything had returned to nothingness. Human bodies, incinerated or rent asunder, had been returned to their component atoms, which mingled with the interstellar dust. Perhaps in a few billion years that mixture might form the nucleus of a newborn star.
Count Hildesheim was killed in action before he himself could realize it. He was likely the first of the highborn to lose his life in the civil war.
After crushing the desperate and disorganized counterattack of the Hildesheim force, Mittermeier had his fleet continue to advance full speed ahead. This was so as to circle clockwise around the minefield and attack Staden’s main force from the rear. Attacking the back side of an enemy force reduced by half would position him well for certain victory. And who but the Gale Wolf could have done so?
While elements within both the empire and the alliance were still trying to outwit or murder one another, or both, the trading state known as the Phezzan Land Dominion was bursting with industrious energy. As it continued to evade the horrors and tragedies of the war, the workings of its greedy economy were sucking up every last bit of profit to be gained from it. To all of the factions they were selling all manner of merchandise—weapons, foodstuffs, ores, military uniforms, intelligence, and occasionally people in the form of mercenaries. They were striving to monopolize all the wealth in the universe.
De la Court, located not far from the capital’s spaceport, was a bar where independent merchants gathered—the kind who traveled all over the galaxy without an asset to their names except a single spaceship and a handful of clever businessmen.
Boris Konev, age twenty-eight, was one such free merchant and captain of the merchant ship Beryozka. Although he had spirit enough for several men, he was still known generally only as a small-time merchant. He was enjoying a black beer during his scant free time when another independent merchant of his acquaintance called out to him.
After exchanging two or three pleasantries, the merchant said, “By the way, I’ve heard a strange rumor.”
“Most rumors are strange.”
Konev finished off his black beer and asked him about the rumor.
“Well, basically, His Excellency, Landesherr Rubinsky, has apparently got something really big in the works.”
“That chrome dome?”
The face of Rubinsky sketched itself in the back of Konev’s mind, a far cry indeed from anything pure or refined, and while he listened to the other man tell his story, he became unable to suppress an ironic smirk.
“So he makes the two great powers—the empire and the alliance—wipe each other out, and then Phezzan comes along and picks up the pieces. That’s crazy, you know.”
“Well, I said it was a strange rumor, didn’t I? Don’t laugh like that—I’m not the one who suggested it.”
“Honestly, I wonder who does come up with that kind of thing.”
Konev reached out his hand for another black beer, unaware of the grimace on one side of his mouth. As far as heuristics went, “A rumor is strange, therefore it lacks credence” was not always useful. They said Rubinsky had always been a competent leader, but it was always possible that he was really a megalomaniac and nobody knew about it or that someday he might become mentally unstable.
Phezzan was a parasite, the young Konev believed. Without a host, it couldn’t live. If its hosts, the empire and the alliance, were to be destroyed, Phezzan would wilt and die itself. It shouldn’t mess around with things it wasn’t good at, such as military affairs and politics.
“Anyway,” Konev said, deciding to change the subject, “do you know what your next job’s gonna be?”
“Yeah, get this: I’m transporting thirty thousand members of some kind of Earth religion. Apparently, they’re on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”
“They mean Earth.”
“Huh. So Earth is the Holy Land?” The young captain laughed mockingly.
For him, religions and gods were nothing more than fodder for jokes—can an all-powerful god make a woman who won’t listen to him? If he can’t, then he’s not all-powerful, but if he does and then can’t make her listen, well, he’s not all-powerful in that case either …
Even so, it was a fact that the Terraist faith was swelling its membership with a surprising energy. As for Konev, he couldn’t judge whether this was a positive or a negative.
After draining his second beer, Konev parted from his acquaintance, left the bar, and headed for the spaceport building, where he was allotted a small office.
“Officer Marinesk, what’s my next job?”
Officer Marinesk was only four years older than the spaceship captain, although the difference looked more like ten.
Although he was still young, Marinesk had lost half his hair, was girded with unnecessary flab, and had a face lacking in good cheer and generosity—nothing could wipe away the impression he gave of a middle-aged man exhausted by life. However, without this man’s reliable office and accounting skills, the free merchant ship Beryozka would undoubtedly have been sold off to some big capitalist venture long ago.
“This time, the cargo is human.”
“The lovely young daughter of some billionaire?”
That was more a wish than a question.
“A group of pilgrims bound for Earth.”
An awkward silence followed.
His eyebrows drew together as he took the paperwork and flipped through its pages, and at last he shut the binder sullenly.
“If we go to a place like Earth, won’t the ship be empty on the way back? There’s not a speck of resources still left on that planet.”
“Just take on another group of pilgrims returning from Earth. I got them to pay their fares up front. Unless I make payments to three different vendors by tomorrow, Beryozka will be this close to the auction block.”
The young captain tsked and wondered aloud on what planet this so-called war boom was actually happening. Just once, he’d like to go flying from system to system, holds packed tight with liquid radium or raw diamonds, and then decorate his cabin with a trophy reading This Year’s Winner of the Sinbad Award.
Reliability, however, was the clothing that Marinesk wore each day, and, naturally, to hear him tell it, it was when one abandoned those dreams of making a fortune overnight that the path toward becoming a truly great merchant opened up.
In any case, Konev was in no position to be picky about the jobs he took. After all, he had not only himself but also his twenty-member crew to feed.
This was a fleet operating far apart from Reinhard, quelling resistance among the frontier stellar regions. Its commander was Siegfried Kircheis.
The face that appeared on the comm screen wore a mild expression, so, feeling relieved, Konev explained the situation.
“As you can see, the people I have with me are pilgrims. They aren’t soldiers. They’re mainly old folks, women, and children. I’ll understand if you want to board us and see for yourself, but …”
“No, there’ll be no need for that,” Kircheis said, shaking his head. There was sympathy in the blue eyes that gazed at the pilgrims standing near Konev. They certainly seemed poor. Sleeping in simple beds installed within the cargo vessel and taking their three meals from portable rations they had brought with them, they were enduring a journey that required a month just to get to their destination. Using a cargo vessel cost only a tenth of what a passenger ship would have. Legally, however, they were treated as cargo, and even in the event of an accident, compensation could not be paid for loss of life.
“Are you lacking anything in terms of foodstuffs or medical supplies?” Kircheis said, turning toward an elder of the pilgrim band. The old man nodded and answered that they were short of some things, such as milk for infants, artificial protein, and detergent for washing clothes. Kircheis gave instructions to his subordinate, Captain Horst Sinzer, that supplies should be sent over from the regiment’s stores.
To the old man’s stammered words of thanks, Kircheis smiled and told him to take care, and then cut off the transmission. Marinesk, impressed, was rubbing his palm back and forth across his bald scalp.
“He’s a really nice man, that Admiral Kircheis.”
“Yeah, a shame, isn’t it?”
“Huh? What’s a shame?”
“Nice people don’t live long, especially in times like these.”
Konev turned to look at Marinesk, but since he didn’t answer, he walked back toward his own seat.
Watching him from behind as he walked away, the office chief shook his head. He was thinking, If only our captain didn’t feel compelled to spout cool-sounding lines like that at inappropriate times …
It was still a long, long way to Earth.
Rentenberg Fortress, which Duke von Braunschweig had at first assumed would be his third military stronghold, occupied an asteroid in the Freya system. While it was no rival for Iserlohn in sheer scale, Rentenberg still had the capacity to hold soldiers by the millions and more than ten thousand ships, and was equipped for a wide variety of functions including combat, communications, resupply, and maintenance and repair. It also served as a hospital. As such, it was an important facility for the military of the aristocratic confederation.
Defeated by Mittermeier and set to flight by Reinhard’s main force, Staden, defended by the remnant of his forces, just barely escaped to this fortress, and there he rested his wounded body and spirit.
Had that been all, Reinhard might have ignored this fortress like a pebble by the roadside. However, Rentenberg housed a control center for various reconnaissance satellites and spaceborne radar devices, as well as an FTL transmission center, a communications jamming system, spaceship repair facilities, and more. Further, a large number of soldiers had been stationed there since before the battle had commenced. If he ignored it and drove on ahead, there was the danger that squirming insects might make designs upon his backside. Poisonous sprouts should be plucked early.
“We’ll assemble our full force and capture Rentenberg,” Reinhard decided. He summoned the admirals to the bridge of his flagship Brünhild and, with cross-sectional and planar maps of the fortress displayed on the screen, gave each of them their orders.
When he had taken the Ministry of Military Affairs on Odin, a vast number of top secret documents had also fallen into Reinhard’s hands. Blueprints for Rentenberg Fortress had been among them. Its strengths and its weaknesses were all in Reinhard’s hand, and the enemy had had no time to shore up its vulnerabilities.
The one problem in taking it was Corridor Six. The fortress had been built by hollowing out an asteroid, and at its center was a fusion reactor that supplied energy to the entire facility. Corridor Six formed the shortest route between the outer wall and the fusion reactor, and if they could get through it and capture the reactor, they would have the power of life and death over the fortress. However, concentrating their firepower invited the danger of a secondary explosion caused by a direct hit on the reactor core.
That being the case, the only way through was hand-to-hand combat.
Three days later, Reinhard’s forces, having closed in on Rentenberg Fortress, launched an all-out attack. Von Reuentahl and Mittermeier were put in charge of combat operations.
Following close on the heels of the first exchange of cannon fire, the fleet stationed there came racing out of the fortress, challenging Reinhard’s fleet in ship-to-ship combat. Reinhard’s forces, however, blocked their way with a long wall of battleships that boasted superior firepower and attacked them on both flanks with high-speed cruisers. Crisscrossing missiles and energy beams wove a web of death, and chained fireballs crafted works of exquisite jewelry in the black void.
After less than an hour of combat, the enemy, reduced to half its original force strength, retreated into the fortress. Von Reuentahl and Mittermeier followed hot on their heels, and while the fortress gunners’ timing was off—they were fearful of shooting allies—they ducked into a blind spot of the giant cannons whose presence they had calculated from the blueprints.
Military engineers dressed in space suits broke through the wall using a laser-triggered hydrogen bomb, at which point an assault landing craft moving in sync with the fortress’s rotation attached itself and disgorged row after row of infantry in power armor. Mittermeier and von Reuentahl had created a temporary command center inside that one ship attached to the fortress wall and, observing via surveillance camera the state of the combat, carried out command of the operation from the front line.
It was thought that the fortress’s fall would be only a matter of time. However, both of the young admirals were very nervous. This was because they knew that the man commanding the defense of Corridor Six was Ofresser, Commissioner of the Armored Grenadier Corps.
Senior Admiral Ofresser was a huge man in his late forties, with firm, powerful muscles enveloping a sturdy frame. Like a bull when challenged by a matador, he was a man bursting with both physical power and the will to use it.
Around his left cheekbone there was a vivid purple scar. It was a symbol of what a ferocious admiral he was. Once, when in battle with the forces of the Free Planets Alliance, an enemy soldier had shot him with a laser, cutting through skin, muscle, and even a part of his skull. Of course, he had repaid that soldier for the favor—by crushing his skull with one swing of his giant tomahawk battle-ax.
The tomahawks used in hand-to-hand combat were made using diamond-hard carbon crystals. The standard type had a length of eighty-five centimeters, weighed six kilograms, and was swung with one hand. Ofresser’s ax, however, was 150 centimeters long, weighed 9.5 kilograms, and was wielded with both hands. When a weapon of this gigantic size was combined with Ofresser’s outstanding strength and fighting prowess, its destructive power became unimaginable. Even if helmets and power armor could withstand one of his blows, the human inside could not. Even if the soldier still lived within the armored suit, a broken breastbone and ruptured organs would rob him of the capacity to keep fighting.
“If you meet Ofresser in a one-on-one fight, what will you do?” said von Reuentahl.
“Run for my life,” replied Mittermeier.
“I feel the same way. A man like that must have been born for the sole purpose of pounding people to death.”
In everything from marksmanship to hand-to-hand combat, both of the young admirals were first-rate warriors, but they knew just how inhuman the ferocity of Ofresser was. Some would surely say there was no shame in fleeing an opponent like him—and failure to recognize that was either impetuous or idiotic.
That said, present circumstances did not allow them to turn to the men and say, “We really don’t mind if you run away from him.” They had to take Corridor Six without destroying it. Power armor was equipped with air filters, so even if they gassed the halls, it would have no effect. Hand to hand was the only way.
There in Corridor Six, the soldiers of Reinhard’s forces were likely to become a river of blood choked with corpses, thanks to Ofresser and his squadron. An order had to be given, which even for Mittermeier, and even for von Reuentahl, was a little depressing:
“No matter the cost, secure Corridor Six.”
In this manner, the eruption in Corridor Six of combat primitive and brutal became inevitable.
Charge and retreat.
During the space of eight hours, Reinhard’s armored grenadiers charged nine times into Corridor Six and nine times were beaten back.
Among the high-ranking officers of the imperial military, including both pro- and anti-Reinhard factions, no man had killed as many people with his own hands as Ofresser. Born a low-ranking aristocrat, this man had reached the highest echelons of the imperial military not through political power, and not through tactical wizardry, but simply through the sheer amount of rebel blood he had spilled. This man had flooded Corridor Six with the gaseous explosive known as Seffl particles, denying his opponents, and his allies, the use of even light firearms. Determinedly using only his body and his physical strength, he kept on fighting to send one more, just one more opponent, to death.
His tomahawk, as though making its own the gruesome desires of its owner, smashed the bodies of Reinhard’s men, reducing them to blood-splattered chunks of meat.
Both Mittermeier and von Reuentahl were men far removed from what might be called squeamishness. Even they, however, could not help averting their eyes from the scene as a soldier with one leg chopped off at the knee was trying desperately to drag himself away with both hands, and Ofresser simply walked up to him and smashed in his head with his giant, blood-fouled tomahawk.
In Ofresser’s eyes, just visible through his full-face helmet, there rippled waves of brutal laughter. What held Mittermeier and von Reuentahl back from unequivocal praise of the man was that brutality, which transcended the bounds of bravery, inspiring physiological reactions of disgust.
Regardless of how they felt about him, it was an unassailable fact that the mission had stalled, with Corridor Six still unclaimed because of this lone, bestial man. Their anger toward Ofresser was doubled by that fact.
“We can’t let that monster live,” Mittermeier said in a low voice. Yet in spite of his tone and the intense look in his eyes, his words were somehow lacking in punch. The ability to lead massive fleets of ships through the vastness of space put these two men in the top class of the whole human race, yet with conditions as they were and an environment this limiting, they felt helpless in the face of Ofresser’s primitive fighting spirit and brute strength.
And yet, what was it that was holding Ofresser and his team physically and mentally together in the face of Reinhard’s forces’ repeated waves of attack? They kept on fighting and repelling them, even with no fresh troops to relieve them.
Normally, it would be unthinkable to fight uninterrupted in power armor for as long a period as eight hours.
Power armor was completely insulated, and even the absolute zero cold of outer space would have no effect on the human inside. But by the same token, the heat released by the human body had nowhere to go, so a soldier in the hard-to-endure temperatures of a suit used too long would very quickly lose his physical strength. A temperature-control device small enough to pose no obstacle to combat could just barely lower the temperature to 7 or 8 degrees centigrade lower than that of the human body.
So even driven mad with hatred and hostility toward Reinhard, the high temperature and various other unpleasant elements—sweat, itchiness, excretory troubles, feelings of despair—should have become unbearable after two hours. For them to have held out for eight …
“They’re using drugs.”
There was no other conclusion. It was only by using stimulants to keep themselves excited and awake that they could perform this superhuman labor. Just then, there was a transmission from Reinhard asking for a report on the status of the battle, and both of them briefly pulled back from the front line of the fight.
“Ofresser is a hero,” Reinhard opined with a hint of a cold smile after hearing their report. “But he’s a hero of the Stone Age.”
He was not going to dress down his two humiliated admirals, though.
“Leaving him alive serves no purpose, and most importantly, survival is not something that man is wishing for himself. Kill him as spectacularly as you are able.”
“Wait just a moment,” a third voice cut in. It was the chief of staff, von Oberstein. “I’d like to take him alive. Allow me to show Your Excellency how he may be of use.”
“You think that a man that obstinate could be of use to me?”
“It’s not a matter of his being willing.”
Reinhard’s brows drew together at those words.
“Brainwash him, you mean?” Reinhard could not muster favorable feelings toward chemical or neuro-electrical brainwashing.
His chief of staff only smiled and for a moment said not a word. “I’ll do nothing so uncouth as that,” von Oberstein said at last. “Please, just leave everything to me. Then you can watch as I sow a seed of mutual distrust among the nobles …”
“Very well, then, I leave it in your hands.”
As Reinhard spoke, a report came in from a communications officer.
Ofresser, the officer said, had appeared on the comm screen. At the news that he was triumphantly shouting something, Reinhard had him patch the feed through to his viewscreen.
“Is the golden brat brave enough to look me in the eye—even through a viewscreen?”
Ofresser was still wearing the helmet and took up the whole of the screen with his huge frame. His armor was darkly stained with human blood, and there were even bits of flesh stuck to it here and there. Around Reinhard, there were growls of anger and gasps of fear.
That was how the bestial giant looked as he began hurling insults at Reinhard through his armor’s comm system. After calling him a traitor who had trampled on the favor of the imperial family, a coward, an immoral monster, and an inexperienced whelp who had just gotten lucky, he added, “And you and your sister both used sex to deceive our prior emperor—”
It was in that instant that the cool reason in Reinhard’s graceful features went flying to the wayside, yielding its seat to an explosive anger. Lightning flashed in those ice-blue eyes, and the sound of grinding teeth slipped from between his finely shaped lips.
“Von Reuentahl! Mittermeier!”
“Drag that obscene oaf before me. Alive. Even if you have to rip off his arms and his legs, do not kill him. I am going to tear his filthy mouth to shreds with my own two hands!”
The two admirals exchanged a glance. That was going to be a tall order. Too late, they realized for certain that Reinhard was just another creature of emotion.
The grenadiers of Reinhard’s force were about to assay their tenth charge. A barricade of corpses had been erected in their way, and Ofresser’s squadron, tipsy under the influence of the drugs and the bloodshed, glared at the enemy with glistening eyes.
“If you’re gonna come, you cowardly mice, then hurry up and come!”
His ferocious cries tore through the air.
“I’m gonna throw your bodies in a pot and make me a big mess of fricassee! Though I can imagine how bad the meat from the lowly birthed will taste. Still, you can’t be picky on the battlefield.”
“Barbarian,” von Reuentahl spat. “Like the supreme commander said, he’s a hero from the Stone Age. He was just born twenty thousand years too late.”
“And that means we’re going to have a pretty rough time of it twenty thousand years later,” Mittermeier added bitterly. He summoned his aide and ordered him to bring two suits of power armor.
“Admiral, you’re not both thinking of facing him yourselves?!”
“We’re going to be the bait,” said von Reuentahl. “That makes a certain trap more complete … How are preparations coming for your charge?”
“I think we’re just about ready, sir. But there’s nothing Your Excellencies need do yourselves.”
“The two of us are both full admirals,” said von Reuentahl. “That beast Ofresser’s a senior admiral. It would be nice if that made things even.”
How would Ofresser react when Mittermeier and von Reuentahl appeared together before him? Judging by his apparent state of mind, there should be no way he would let anyone else have such valuable prey. It was clear he would come running forward eager for single combat—a part of humanity’s heritage handed down since the Stone Age.
For their trick to succeed, bait was essential, and that bait had to be delicious.
If it were Reinhard himself, the conditions would be perfect, but as that might actually end up making the mechanism a little too obvious, it was the two of them who were most appropriate.
They got into their power armor, and as soon as they stepped into the corridor, excited whispers escaped from among Ofresser’s men. As the bravery of von Reuentahl and Mittermeier was widely known, there would be great honor for the man who took their lives. After silencing them, the giant glared at the two admirals.
“He thinks you can win by coming at me together? Is that the extent of the brat’s wit?”
“We won’t ever know unless we try,” Mittermeier shot back. Taking that as a disrespectful challenge, Ofresser stepped over the barricade of dead bodies and came out to approach them. He walked with large strides. Even through his armor, the energy of his ferocious desire to kill overwhelmed the place. Eyes shining with bloodthirstiness, he sprung toward the two men—
And in that instant, Ofresser’s towering form grew shorter. Although his stature came to nearly 200 centimeters, his head was suddenly far lower than that of the 184-centimeter von Reuentahl or the 172-centimeter Mittermeier. Enemy and ally alike swallowed their breath as if they had just witnessed magic. Could what they had seen have really just happened?
The floor had subsided beneath him. Ofresser had sunk into the floor up to his chest, and his arms had just barely stopped him from sinking farther. The two-handed tomahawk that was his other self had fallen to the floor about one meter away.
It was a pitfall, a hole gouged out of a floor made from compound crystalline fibers. Or more precisely, irradiation by inverted populations of hydrogen and fluoride had been carried out over a period of three hours from the level underneath the sixth corridor, weakening the fibers’ molecular bonds so they could not withstand the shock of Ofresser’s weight and actions.
Mittermeier leapt forward and kicked the tomahawk out of Ofresser’s reach. Ofresser’s face, stunned at this unexpected reversal, turned a reddish purple inside his helmet as he realized his circumstances.
“We have Ofresser!” shouted von Reuentahl. “And we’ve no use for the rest of them. All armored grenadiers: charge!”
Von Reuentahl picked up the tomahawk that his colleague had kicked away and favored his prey with a cold smile.
“I thought we’d need a trap to catch a wild beast, and you’ve fallen into it splendidly. A cheap trap that no one but you would get caught in.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
A stream of charging soldiers brushed against his side as they
Having lost their commander, Ofresser’s men drew back from the charge of Reinhard’s invigorated forces. Perhaps when they lost their daring commander their fighting spirit had dried up like a puddle under the blazing sun.
Reinhard’s vengefully rampaging forces closed in on Ofresser’s men and, with swings of their tomahawk battle-axes, set to the slaughter. Twice, waves of a counterattack rolled against them, and twice, they crushed them.
Corridor Six had been secured—and painted red.
Bound with two sets of handcuffs, wearing an electric helmet used in executions, and with as many as a dozen guns pointed at him, Ofresser was dragged in front of the comm screen.
Faced with the gleaming flames of Reinhard’s fury and hatred, as well as nearly certain death, Ofresser kept his head raised haughtily. Whatever the man’s shortcomings, it was certain that he was no coward.
However, the comm screen was shut down right away. On the flagship Brünhild, the chief of staff was trying to change his commander’s mind.
“Killing him is easy, but Ofresser has no fear of death. Not only that, killing him now would elevate his reputation, make him an indomitable hero—a martyr for the Goldenbaum Dynasty. Surely that’s not what you wish.”
Reinhard didn’t answer.
The storm that was raging inside him was clear to see in his ice-blue eyes. At last, his tightly clenched lips parted as he pushed out a brief question.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“Send him back to the nobles’ home base. Unharmed, of course.”
It was Mittermeier who had shouted. His young countenance was flushed with anger and alarm.
“After all that hard work … after letting all those soldiers die, we finally caught that wild animal! And you say you’re going to set him free? No matter how generously he might be treated, that tomahawk of his will still spill a lot of our people’s blood on the next battlefield. You can bet on it—not that there’s anything to be gained even if you win that bet. I acknowledge no reason to keep him alive. We should execute him immediately.”
“Agreed,” said von Reuentahl, succinctly but in a strong tone of voice. What was von Oberstein doing, turning an untamable beast loose in the field? He demanded that very answer, but the chief of staff remained unmoved.
“When the nobles see Ofresser returned unharmed, what do you think they’ll believe?” he said. “They’ve always been a suspicious lot—and we have executed sixteen of the top leaders among Ofresser’s subordinates, scenes of which even the nobles have been made aware of by FTL. If Ofresser returns, alone and unharmed, after that …”
“All right,” Reinhard said, cutting off von Oberstein. The light in his eyes was changing to that of fierce but suppressed emotion. He looked at his two hardworking and dissatisfied subordinates. “You have to recognize that, too. I want to let von Oberstein handle this. Any objections?”
“None, milord. As Your Excellency wishes.”
Von Reuentahl and Mittermeier answered as one. They, too, had realized what von Oberstein intended. The slight bitterness in their expressions was probably because it wasn’t to their tastes.
Ofresser was released, and even given a shuttle with FTL capability. Modest words of gratitude were not exactly forthcoming from his lips, but it was a fact that he was dumbfounded. Head tilted in bewilderment, he boarded the shuttle and departed the fortress.
Sixteen of Ofresser’s colleagues and subordinates had been publicly disposed of by firing squad. Staden had been taken prisoner still lying in his hospital bed. The young imperial marshal had seen no need to meet with him.
While Ofresser had not set his hopes so high as to expect a hero’s welcome and cheers of adulation, the circumstances that greeted him upon his arrival at the confederated military’s home base of Gaiesburg were nonetheless outside his expectations.
When he sent the transmission telling of his safe return, the comm officer had reacted with utter shock, and when the shuttle put into port, it was immediately surrounded—not by beautiful women carrying bouquets of flowers, but by heavily armed soldiers.
“And you would be Senior Admiral Ofresser, who fought so valiantly at Rentenberg?” The man speaking in these affected tones was Commodore Ansbach, architect of the plan to escape Odin and said to be Duke von Braunschweig’s right-hand man.
“Can’t you tell by looking?” Ofresser said, irritated.
“I’m only making sure. Our leader awaits, so please, come this way.”
From there, the hero of Rentenberg was conducted to a wide and spacious auditorium. Rows of officers and soldiers who were seated there turned their gazes toward him, but there was no warmth to be found in any of their eyes.
At the top of the steps leading up to the stage was a gorgeously fashioned chair, in which Duke von Braunschweig was sitting. He wore a haughty demeanor, although there was also something awkward about it, as though he were some sort of emperor in training.
“It’s good to see you’ve returned alive and well, Ofresser.” The tone was clearly one reserved for interrogations. “Those who were chief among your subordinates have, to the last man, been publicly executed. So why have you alone returned here alive?”
Ofresser’s mouth fell open wide. His jaws were filled with false teeth; just like the scar on his cheek, they were proof of a fighter who had lived through the purgatory of hand-to-hand combat. Angry shouts mingled with mocking sarcasm hit the face of the dumbfounded, slack-jawed senior admiral.
“You boneheaded oaf! Take a look at this!”
Video footage began to play on a screen on the wall. Ofresser gave a low growl. Familiar faces were lined up in a row. This was the scene of their public execution by Reinhard’s forces at Rentenberg Fortress. Overwhelming emotions of terror and defeat showed in those faces—faces that one by one became empty holes in the instant the laser beams pierced their brains.
“How about it, Ofresser? Have you nothing to say for yourself?”
But Ofresser was still speechless.
“I think that you alone have returned to us alive because you’ve betrayed us and sold your conscience to the golden brat. Shameless dog! What did you promise him? To bring him my head?”
Across Ofresser’s craggy countenance, there suddenly spread an expression of fury and understanding, and he opened his mouth once again.
“A trap! This is a trap! You idiots! Can’t you see that?”
It was less a cry that a roar. The officers and soldiers who had been forming a human wall around him jumped backward as though pressed by some unseen energy. Several hands reflexively reached for the blasters on their belts.
“Shoot him!” cried von Braunschweig. “Shoot him dead!”
That order summoned chaos instead of calm. Although blasters were quickly drawn, everyone knew the danger of firing in the middle of a crowd.
The flash of a monstrous fist caught one of the soldiers on the jaw. With a grotesque sound, his lower jaw broke, and the soldier went flying through the air.
The rampaging giant roared the words “This is a trap!” again and again as he charged toward Duke von Braunschweig, who was seated at the top of the stairs. Even if he had only meant to get the man to listen, it certainly didn’t look that way to others. Commodore Ansbach’s orders rang out, and a few dozen soldiers moved to stand between the duke and Ofresser. Blocking his way forward, they swung the barrels of their laser rifles down on the bare-handed giant. It was a literal beatdown. Skin split, blood splattered, and the sounds of new depression fractures rang out. A normal man would have collapsed, or possibly even died on the spot. But Ofresser’s charge wasn’t even slowed. Knocked off their feet, crying out in pain, soldiers tumbled down the stairs in an avalanche.
Spitting saliva mixed with blood onto the floor, Commodore Ansbach got back to his feet. He had been one of the ones knocked down. Smoothing his disheveled hair with one hand, he drew his blaster with the other.
The commodore approached Ofresser, steadying his breathing, though there was no unsteadiness in his footsteps. The senior admiral-turned-blood-splattered colossus leveled the dull light of his gaze upon this new enemy, and then, with a growl, reached out for him with thick, massive arms. With a light backstep, the commodore dodged out of the way, then quickly pressed the barrel of his sidearm against his opponent’s ear. He pulled the trigger.
Accompanied by a flash of light, blood burst out from the ear on the other side of Ofresser’s head.
Rippling convulsions ran through Ofresser’s huge form. When they subsided, that huge, lifeless mass of muscle stood unmoving for a few seconds, as though supported by the hands of some unseen god, but at last fell forward onto the stairs. When his forehead struck the corner of a step, a hollow sound rang out, the final chord of a gruesome capriccio. As they surrounded the body, no one said a word for a time.
At last Duke von Braunschweig began slinging invective in a loud voice, though a thin veil of terror yet clung to his face.
“He gave himself away in the end—how dare that rabid dog try to harm me …”
Commodore Ansbach cleared his throat. “So you say, but did he really intend to betray us?”
“It’s a little late to be asking that. If that’s what you think, why did you shoot him?”
Ansbach shook his head, again messing up his just-straightened hair.
“That was to protect the life of Your Excellency the Duke. Still, it’s possible, isn’t it, that he rampaged out of shock at finding himself under suspicion and because he realized—as he himself said—that he was caught in a trap.”
“Possibly. But what of it if he did? He’s dead now, and will never carry a tomahawk again. Even if he did it because he’d betrayed us, even if he was trying to do me harm, drawing distinctions at this point is meaningless.”
“Understood. In that case, then, how do you wish to explain this incident? I mean, we’re talking about Senior Admiral Ofresser’s cause of death …”
A series of riots would, to the order and discipline of the confederated noble military, have been highly ignominious, and so Ansbach, wondering aloud, asked indirectly if it might be best to smooth things over with a story about him dying of illness.
Duke von Braunschweig rose from his chair. Displeasure was plain to see in his face and in his movements. His nerves had always had little elasticity, and now it looked like they were ready to snap at any moment.
“Even if we did ‘smooth things over,’ that doesn’t mean we could get away with hiding this. Ofresser was executed for the crime of betraying his comrades. Transmit that to all forces.”
Their leader departed, his every step a kick against the floor, and when he was gone, Ansbach shrugged one shoulder and ordered the soldiers to carry away the body of that giant who in life had been praised for his daring and feared for his brutality. The vacant eyes of the dead man seemed to glare at Ansbach. In a tired-sounding voice, he murmured, “Don’t give me that resentful look … I don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow, either. It may well be you will give thanks in Valhalla that you could die before today was over.”
The commodore shuddered. He himself had heard an oddly prophetic ring in those words.
The aftereffects of this incident were great. Ofresser was supposed to have been at the head of the pack in despising Reinhard. If even he had turned traitor, who was there among them who could be as faithful and unwavering to the very end? As the nobles exchanged untrusting stares with one another, some of them even began losing faith in themselves …