Chapter Eight

Terran coffee, Ma'anda thought, and smiled. The sharp smell never failed to rouse her, and her coffee alarm clock never failed to start the drip. The odors wafted from her nightstand half a meter away.

No doubt about it, being governor of the Empire's second largest Arion population had its perks.

She rose from her bed, still in her nightgown, and headed for the kitchen, filled coffee mug in hand. The staff saw her coming, and upped the pace to make sure everything was ready for her.

Ma'anda was the Governor of Riut, a world Aria had landed on 600-odd years ago. Unlike most planets in the Empire, Riut had no native sentient species. The Arions moved in and made themselves at home.

What a home it was. Aria was a good planet, and its people had prospered... but Riut was better. More than one Emperor had wished absently that Riut were closer to Velor during the Exodus... but indeed that was wishful thinking. Fate and Skietra had not smiled on them that way. It mattered little now; Riut gave the Empire more Primes these days than Aria did. Which was no small task.

The smells of fresh bread and je'ne'bom fruit mixed with the coffee, making Ma'anda smile more. She entered the small dining hall and turned on the morning newscast. To the side, an aide lit the fireplace.

Riut might be thirty degrees Celsius warmer than Aria on average, but Ma'anda had always liked a good fire. She'd never seen one growing up. It was soothing, and the small crackling sounds were delightful and surprising.

The Riutian Scrumbles League was the top story. Ma'anda frowned. Her home team, the Kral Annihilators, had just lost a game they needed to win to make the postseason. The announcer reported their opponents, the Ramen Instigators, were the odds-on favorite to win the Omb'yard Cup. Damn.

She attacked the bread -- with that bit of depressing news she wanted to start plain and salty -- and was going over her day's itinerary when the newscast abruptly ended. Ma'anda blinked. The newscast hadn't just ended... it had stopped completely, in the middle of a sentence, she realized. The sudden silence jolted her, focusing her on the box. Several seconds passed.

Then the dead air was replaced with something that warned of an air of death. The emergency broadcast tone.

Ma'anda dropped her bread and reached for the phone. Calm, stay calm, she told herself, but that wasn't easy. Very few people could start an EBT without her approval unless it was a test, and this wasn't a test. She rang up her Chief of Staff, who didn't know anything either. She was about to chew her Chief out when a Lieutenant General appeared on the broadcast.

A coup? Ma'anda wondered. Well, she could deal with that! She wasn't Primal-born, not even close, but she'd served in the military 150 years before and she could defend herself against anyone who wasn't. Before her next thought, the words "SPACE RAID" crossed over the screen's subtitle.

Space Raid. The entire planet was in mortal danger!

Ma'anda rushed to the window, despite the broadcast's warnings. Who could it be? She saw nothing unusual. Maybe it was a coup. Then she kicked herself; if it was a space raid, it'd be too far away to see from the ground until the ships descended on top of her. That was the last thought she had before the blackness claimed her.

On Velor, Aria, and every other world a Homo Sapiens Supremis lived, the same disorientation that had overtaken them a week earlier returned. Aria felt it much worse than before, however. Edgar had been asleep, and coughed up his entire dinner in less than a minute.

Not bothering to do more than a cursory self-cleaning - he had servants for that - Edgar quickly threw on a cloak and headed for the Imperial Command Center. The place smelled of vomit, and several were holding onto machinery and chairs.

"Another microfusion bomb, your Highness," a general with red-rimmed eyes reported. "It has to be." The general's nose was dripping.

"Where?" Edgar croaked. By Skietra, his throat hurt.

"Don't... *cough* Don't know that yet, sir. Excuse me." The general's eyes weren't the only thing turning red.

Edgar cleared his throat, the taste of bile still irritating him. "Where's the Emperor?" he said, as he reached out a hand for the water fountain. A young lieutenant snapped forth ('Staggered' would be a better term for it, Edgar thought bitterly) with a cup of water for him.

"In the throne room, Crown Prince. He's unhurt."

"Incapacitated, like you and me?"

"Yes, sir," the general agreed hurriedly. At least Edgar recognized when they weren't at their best, and allowed for it.

"As soon as... *ulp* As soon as a ship is ready, dispatch it to check on our outposts. All of them."

"Already gave that order, sir." The general had drawn out a search pattern, assuming six ships. Six more ships would repeat the pattern in reverse.

"Good man."

An hour later, they had their answer... and why the bomb had affected them so strongly. Proximity. Simply being closer to the bomb than usual.

"It's Riut, sir. They detonated a large microfusion bomb high in her atmosphere. Every ship in the Riutian system is down, coasting on inertia or on automatic pilot if they were far enough away. Power is completely out on the continent of South Riut, and the planetary capital on East Riut is only now starting to respond..."

"Get every ship we have out there! Rescue operations. Start with the stations and ships in orbit and near the jump point." As hard hit as Riut was, the planet itself could still support life easily. The same could not be said for ships whose crews were knocked out in space.

"Aye, sir."

Edgar was right. Riut fended for itself well. Its population had almost all lived through the blast itself. The bomb had not been a direct hit.

Touring the planet with its governor, one Ma'anda, Edgar saw it didn't have to be. He ran out of curses in two minutes, amazed at what he saw.

One of the side effects of a microfusion bomb in a solar system was a blast that hit every Homo Sapiens Supremis within the system in and past puberty. The blast couldn't be seen, heard, or measured, but it could be felt at the cellular level. O'mara and her colleagues had reported that from Terra at the onset of the Terra's Fourth World War.

The blast sent Arions and Velorians hurtling away from Space Zero at about 100 kilometers an hour, depending on how close you were to it. Combine that with typical Arion toughness and plentiful Primes, all physically invulnerable to anything short of a nuclear bomb or an antimatter weapon, and...

"The whole planet is smashed. Every city, every apartment, every industrial building... totally wrecked! A few died as a result of structural collapses, but no amount of insurance can cover the damages there," Edgar reported to his uncle upon their return. "Riut's been hit harder than Urba Minor, even than Terra." At least on Urba Minor, everyone died. On Terra, it was only a couple of continents hit, and most of them died, too. The living have needs. The sentient, desires.

D'ra'yan appeared to the court to ponder that, though his decision had already been made. The salvation of Terra from radioactive hell had been the most expensive project the Empire had ever tried. The Arion economy still hadn't fully recovered. If Riut was worse than that...

An entire planet, reduced to Terra's Dark Ages. The Empire, even Velor, had never seen the likes of it. In less time than it took to blink, the Arion Empire's economy nosedived... and only the Emperor's immediate staff knew about it so far. That wouldn't be secret for long. Even abandoning the shambles that was Riut would be hideously painful.

Ma'anda trembled before her Emperor, on her knees. Her life was forfeit, she knew. But for all her power her station gave her and demanded of her, she didn't have any idea how she could've prevented it. How much time had they had? The military? Less than half a minute, and then only for her top officers. The citizens, not even that long. Only the space traffic controllers had any warning, and they had barely a minute to confirm what their radars told them: that a ship had appeared out of nowhere almost in orbit of Riut. Of course, the logs couldn't back them up on that, since the logs were destroyed along with everything else...

"Rise, Governor," the Emperor intoned. Ma'anda closed her eyes, whispered a prayer to Skietra On High. Her eyes still closed, she stood up, head bowed, hands at her side.

"You will not be executed for failing to stop the attack," the Emperor went on. Ma'anda's eyes flew open, and her jaw dropped in shock. Mercy? A pardon? It was too much to hope for. Too much to bestow, also. "You will be executed if you do not restore Riut to her rightful place in the Empire." Ma'anda closed her mouth, but her eyes were still wide. Yes, that, that was justice, and she knew it.

She stammered, "How... how long?" The words barely squeaked out of her.

Edgar looked at his uncle, his face harder than stone. That's your decision, Uncle. I gave you my recommendation.

The Emperor chose his words carefully. "As long as the people you govern accept your leadership."

Ma'anda guffawed, disbelieving her fortune. I am the Governor! I am entitled to lead them, by the Emperor himself! I am the leader of the Empire's nobility on Riut. I am... Then his words penetrated. There were a lot less nobles on the planet than commoners, and not all the nobles loved her. Fewer would love her in the days to come, when they grumbled about not only their empty stomachs and empty pockets, but questioned the decisions she made for the good of all. There were hard times ahead. Harder than most people's tolerance for government.

"What help may I expect from the Empire?"

"Anything short of military force, you may call upon us to provide. We cannot provide troops because we are unfortunately at war. For that, you'll have to rely on your own resources entirely. Bear in mind it may take some time for transport ships to deliver the supplies you need."

Ma'anda's eyes narrowed in suspicion. She was being set up to take the fall after all. She cursed herself for laughing in the Emperor's face moments ago. But it was justice, she knew. If she fell, the... no, when she fell, the Empire wouldn't even need to send a firing squad. They'd move the troops in to restore order after she was dead.

She only had one alternative: to go on a rampage and die now, in the Emperor's court, equally dishonored now as she would later be. Her mouth clenched, and she almost opened it. But one did not curse the Emperor publicly unless one intended to either die or attack him and die anyway.

Instead, she nodded, turned on her heels and marched out of the Court, never to return.

When she pulled the heavy door shut by herself, not even waiting for the honor guard to do it, the door slammed noisily. That little breach of protocol was the biggest insult she could afford to get away with, and it wasn't very much, D'ra'yan thought. Being Emperor weighed heavily on his heart, but he did what he could to spare her a few more months of life. The Court, even his own nephew, had counseled him to drop her into a jump point by the most direct route. "Attend me, nephew."

Edgar came to his side and made a show of helping the Emperor to his feet. The suddenness and quickness of the attack worried him, for precisely the same reasons it had worried the Governor. Edgar didn't see any way to stop it. In D'ra'yan's ear, he whispered, "Riut's our closest neighbor. What if the Terrans simply missed?"

D'ra'yan shook his head and replied, just as quietly, "What if they didn't?"