"Sorry to keep you waiting, Ambassador. As you are well aware, matters of state are very time-consuming." Minister Hurma wasn't sorry in the least. Being late to a meeting with a great power's ambassador was a calculated slight, and well did the Arions deserve it. "What can the Velorian Enlightenment do to better foster relations with the Arion Empire?"
Ambassador Potta wasn't in the mood for pleasantries, apparently. "What assistance have you given the Terrans in their rebellion?"
"Assistance? I'm sorry, I don't know what you are talking about." Hurma genuinely didn't know. Co'ra'na Ky'zel hadn't dispatched her latest report yet.
"We have warned you repeatedly to remove your ambassador from Arion space."
"Ambassador Potta, we have discussed this before. Ambassador Shara'Lynn Besta is an ambassador-at-large, free to represent the Velorian Enlightenment as she sees fit, pending instructions from the Enlightenment itself. She..."
"And of course, the Enlightenment hasn't seen fit to instruct her to leave the system." Potta's temper was showing a little. Good. They'd lost this argument time and time again, and the repetitiveness of it was grating on Hurma. The interruption was also impolite.
"The Empire is so fond of reminding us that its affairs are its own business. Surely the Enlightenment's affairs are not a concern of the Empire, for precisely the same reason."
"It is a concern when the Enlightenment interferes in a purely domestic matter of the Empire."
"Ah, but it is not purely domestic, is it? These great bombs your 'rebels' have affect us all. You too, I imagine. We cannot ignore them. Perhaps the Empire knows something we do not, and can ignore these bombs' effects?"
Potta stood up. "I have tried to be reasonable, sir. Obviously you do not take us seriously. If we find any evidence that a Velorian citizen assisted the Terrans in any manner, we will not hold the Terrans responsible. We will hold the Velorian Enlightenment responsible."
There it was. The penultimate threat. Hurma carefully adopted a blank face. "That is your position, Ambassador? It is unnecessarily belligerent, as you yourself have found no signs of Velorian citizens involving themselves in this affair."
"It is the official position of my government and of the Emperor."
"I see. Is there anything else, Ambassador?"
Potta shook his head, and turned to leave.
"What do you mean, reconsider?"
"My crew is demanding hazard pay."
"Hazard pay? For a shipment of Vendorian steel?"
"It's not the shipment. It's the destination."
"You've been making the Riutian run for twenty years!"
"I haven't flown into a war zone for twenty years."
"The Riutian solar system is not a war zone."
"The planet is. Martial law."
"That's what I told the union. They're ready to strike."
Silence. Then, "I'll have to call corporate. What's the bill?"
"Crew of fifteen, hazard's a hundred a month. Sixteen hundred."
"What? I can't get paid for putting my neck on the line too?"
"You're the owner!"
"Write it off your taxes. Empire should give us an escort anyway."
"You hadn't heard?"
"Heh. Your next trip will be escorted. By a Prime."
"Bad news there..."
"Your crew will love her."
"That's why it's bad news."
"Don't worry about this one. She retired."
"A retired Prime. And I'm the Emperor."
"She just left Icroka. The Velorians never saw fit to kill her, so believe it or not, she lived long enough to take a pension. Pension's not enough for her, she's bored anyway, so the Imperials offered her a special contract."
"Those Primes are trouble, friend, at any age."
"Not my problem. Yours."
"Thanks a lot. I need the sixteen hundred before I go."
"Payment in advance? That's new."
"So's the fear."
A snort. "Of the Terrans, or of the Prime?"
"All right, all right... I'll be back in four hours, with an answer."
Footsteps, silence. Then, a shout. "That answer better be yes!"
No reply, just an offhand wave. And grumbling.
They had to search. They all did. Somewhere in the rubble of collapsed buildings were the children. Thousands of them in each city. Here in Parlika on the continent of East Riut, the situation was no different. No less desperate.
Six days now. Six days from the bombing. Six days from the destruction of everything they knew and held dear. Already that day, their team had found a dozen Betans crushed under the weight of the rubble. Hundreds more over the past few days. No one had been found alive in thirty-six hours. It was getting to them. Car'lila didn't know what to do. Neither did anyone else. Except keep looking.
The skies around them were still grey. Not from the clouds above. From the haze of all the dust in the air. Parlika's downtown was foggy with concrete dust. They couldn't see more than a hundred meters. The dust irritated their eyes, made a few of them cough.
It made others cough, too. Car'lila's head turned sharply, suddenly, looking down at a hole. She bent down to listen.
Another cough, echoing off the edges of the hole. Her eyes widened, and she called out, "Hey, we've got a live one down here!"
From despondency to alarm. Other team members scurried over, hardly caring about what was under them. Then again, the day before, one had taken a wrong step and put his weight where it couldn't hold him. He'd fallen a good five meters and had to be extricated from a pit of smoking ruins.
Down the hole, Car'lila cried, "Hello? Just stay with me, we're coming for you."
"Oh... okay," a boy's voice croaked back, very weakly. But she heard it all the same.
"Prime team's on the way," the team leader said. They were all Betans; they couldn't lift that debris off the boy. To Car'lila, he said, "How far down?" Neither of them knew, but he was asking for Car'lila's best guess.
Car'lila shook her head. Very quietly, she muttered back, "Ten, maybe fifteen meters."
Just then the Prime team showed up. One of them said loudly, "Everyone back. We'll handle this." The team of Betas moved off the immediate site, and once they were clear, the six Primes went to work, throwing concrete blocks up and away, hundreds of meters, to an area that had already been cleared.
They dug the hole very quickly. Car'lila was wrong: it was thirty-seven meters before a hand appeared. Miraculously, the hand was able to move the stuff around it. Twice, the hole they'd dug had tried to cave in, but two Primes were watching for that, and caught the stones and metal before it made the situation worse. Another meter or so, and the boy was fully exposed.
The boy was completely gray from the dust, barely one and a half meters in height, with thin legs and a fairly good-sized chest for his age. He looked to be about fourteen. Amazingly, he was uninjured. "Welcome back, son," the Prime standing above him said, reaching a hand out gently. The boy gripped it firmly, accepting the hand up, and nearly yanking the Prime off his balance.
"Good god Skietra," Car'lila whispered. "Look at the gonads on that one." The boy's shirt and pants were ripped, and there was no mistaking how oversized his body was for his head, in all respects. "A Prime." Sure enough, the boy looked unashamedly in Car'lila's direction, hearing every word. He knew by the voice who it was that found her.
Unable to fly yet, he instead calmly climbed up the side of the pit towards Car'lila. She trembled as he approached. The team of Primes were about to depart, but their leader signalled them to hold. They had to know how this boy would react to her. The rest of Car'lila's team watched the boy as well.
He stood before Car'lila uncertainly, his eyes blinking away the dust. This woman was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen. He took a couple steps closer to the taller woman. He squatted down to grasp her hands, then slowly stood up, pulling her to her feet. He opened his mouth to say something, perhaps "thank you," but it never came out. Instead he simply reached forth and hugged her with all his might.
It was lucky for her that he was still a teenager, nowhere near full maturity, or all his might would have crushed her to pieces. As it was, he was still strong enough to squeeze all the air out of her lungs. He truly didn't know how strong he was, or how strong he would eventually become. Still, his body offered one extremely pleasant way to thank her, and Car'lila -- having learned her boyfriend was dead three days ago -- could hardly refuse a man of such strength. She needed the release.
Call it love at first sight, call it gratitude, call it an hour of affirming life amongst the death of a city. Call it whatever you will, but Car'lila found herself bonded to the teenaged Prime very quickly. The boy's name was Ricol, no apostrophes to indicate stronger syllables.
As he grew over the years, his strength grew exponentially, and he learned to be gentle. When he was of age to formally enter Prime schooling, he took the unusual step of marrying Car'lila. It nearly got him tossed out of the Prime school, but his teachers understood. That sort of traumatic experience would've changed anybody, and the bombing itself had been traumatic to everyone on Riut.
The Betan and Prime recovery teams moved on, leaving Car'lila and Ricol alone. They had much more important work to do. There were still lives to save, people to dig out... and eventually, corpses to destroy and reconstruction to begin.
Skietra was about to jump into the Riutian system when she felt a mild disruption of her power. It wouldn't be enough to stop her from making the jump... but she knew that disruption, that tingling in her stomach, very well. The generator of that tingling could easily ramp up the jamming and prevent her from jumping entirely.
What is it? she broadcast telepathically. No one she could see, but she knew her opposites (one, a billion, whoever) heard her. Off to her left and eye-level, about ten meters away, something appeared. A brown with mottled red spots creature, half again her height and sporting ten arms. Four of them rested against its side, two of them holding data cards.
Skietra didn't recognize it, but she did recognize the species. It had no mouth and a pair of nostril-like ears at the center of its face, through which it normally ate. Each arm had two elbows, to allow a level of flexibility in its reach few other species had. It was almost a meter wide, and two meters from front to the back of its upper shell. The lower shell didn't extend quite that far. Maybe it had recently given birth, Skietra thought. Its main mass had certainly never been under the force of gravity.
I'm sorry, miss, but the region of spacetime you wish to enter is under quarantine.
The thoughts were heavily accented by its brainwave patterns, and took Skietra a moment to decipher. It probably took the creature as long to understand Skietra's communications as it took her to understand its. But when the word "quarantine" got through, she was immediately angry.
Quarantine! I created those species! How by a black hole can they be under a quarantine that, one, I don't know about, and two, I can't handle?
The creature recoiled under her rage. I'm sorry, miss, he thought again, but I didn't make the ruling. You, your peers, your assistants, and the like are prohibited from entering this spacetime until called for.
I am their deity. I'm called for daily by the billions. I ignore most of those calls, but I can't ignore this one. I can't ignore what's just happened less than a week ago.
Nevertheless, you must. When you are truly called for, though, you will know.
Skietra wanted to really give it a piece of her mind, but she knew that was useless. Who gave the order?
I have no knowledge of that, but I do know it came from the Antreana Republic.
Which they were both members of, Skietra having recently graduated from college as a citizen of, less than two thousand years (by her self-timeline) before. Damn. What are the boundaries of the quarantine?
Within six light-years of any portion of Terran, Velorian, or Arion territory, eighty years prior to eighty years yet to come.
Eighty years. Damn again. If she went to the spacetime before the quarantine and tried to act on it, anything she learned would be worse than useless. Plus, she couldn't get close enough to do anything anyway. I'll have to talk to the Antreanas about this.
They're expecting you.
She didn't bother to reply. Of course they were.
If it helps any, the alien added, this quarantine did not please me either. I don't even perceive the reason for it. My superiors were not forthcoming with details, and I know very little more than you do.
What do you know?
Only that someone very high up in the Antreana Republic is paranoid about events happening under the quarantine. I do not know who.
That someone is not the only one.
Agreed, the creature replied. But only spacetime will tell what we need to know. We cannot interfere.
"... and in short, Prime Minister, the Arions think they can blame this whole Terran situation on us. But they don't have the hard proof yet they need to justify it."
Prime Minister Neb'ahzza looked back at his minister of state with amusement. Minister Hurma was a good man. He didn't apologize for State's position. He knew when he'd made a mistake, and when he hadn't. This time, he hadn't. The Arions were just being unreasonable. "I know, Hurma, and you're doing a good job. I'm getting mighty tired of their high-handed attitude. Therefore, here's the reply you are to deliver to Ambassador Potta the next time he raises the subject: if there is any evidence a Velorian citizen was attacked by an Arion warship or citizen, the Enlightenment will hold the Empire responsible."
Hurma blinked. Pleased as he was that their Prime Minister was growing some backbone, it didn't make a lot of sense. Velor could not afford another war with Aria, and Hurma said so.
"Aria can't afford another war with us, either, not after the Terrans hit Riut. They're overcommitted, Hurma. They've bitten off more than they can chew. Ambassador Besta was right: that was a war warning their Admiral Yevgeni delivered. Serves the Arions right. The Arions are bluffing, Hurma. They've bluffed for years, and their hand is being called."
Hurma considered that. Yes, Riut was a major blow to them, possibly one that could bring down the current leadership. But aside from ships in the Riutian system at the time, the Empire was hardly damaged at all. 90% of Riut's population survived the attack. That included 100% of Riut's Primes. Those Primes were busy doing the heavy lifting to clean up the place, but they weren't all needed there. Bluff or not, some of them would want to take on the Colonies, and now wouldn't have anything to tie them down to Riut. Hurma didn't know how many "some of them" could be. "Sir, I think this is a mistake. The attack on Riut has freed up a lot of Primes, and they'll be out for blood. They may not care whose blood they shed."
"Their economy is doomed for the next several years, and their Emperor's position is delicate. I tell you again, they're overcommitted. Their Primes are a threat, yes, but ultimately their Primes are military. The military can't do everything. They're rattled, Hurma, and they ought to be. And what have we done to help the Terrans? Why, we haven't even lifted a finger." Neb'ahzza was smugly confident. Yes, the arrogant bastards had it coming, and the whole Galaxy was seeing that. The whole Galaxy was seeing the damage to Arion prestige, to Aria's supposed invulnerability.
Neither of them, nor had anyone else on Velor, had heard about the asteroid attack on Earth. Co'ra'na Ky'zel was still in space, slowly burning off the radiation she'd picked up, and thus hadn't filed her report yet. Only Ambassador Shara'Lynn Besta had been able to communicate back to them, and then only to send the "All's well" codes. Her own codes as a Scribe had expired centuries before. When they did receive that report, they would be worried for a moment that they had indeed lifted a finger or two, but that was in the future. Right now, the Arions still knew nothing, only suspected.
"How many Protectors do we have, anyway?" Neb'ahzza asked.
"I don't know, Prime Minister. It's never been my purview."
Neb'ahzza smiled. "I do know, Hurma. It might interest you to know that we have about two-thirds as many Protectors as they have Primes, and about a tenth as many Viragoes. That is, if the census figures and our intelligence on the Empire are both accurate. If they decide to make some noise, they're in for a shock. Their Betas are far more numerous, and they pose a larger threat to us, true. But if a Prime can take on a Military Colony at Icroka and win, what can a Protector do to a Betan warship?"
That interested Hurma, all right. He had no idea the correlation of forces was that close. Then he smiled. The Velorian Enlightenment didn't like to fight, not at all, but if the need arose... they were ready.
The Arions weren't.
The Arions knew it, too. But the Emperor let the military and the state department worry about that. Keeping the Empire running -- particularly after Riut -- was hard enough on D'ra'yan and Edgar. Harder still to maintain their rule over the Empire, particularly after Riut. The rumors among the nobles had started. Rumors of discontent.
The concerns Edgar and D'ra'yan had shared a week ago occured to more people than just the two of them. The devastation Riut had suffered was common knowledge now, and just as they had feared, the Arion economy went into the jump point. More than one noble lord was calling for immediate and massive retaliation. More than one noble lord was also calling for devoting every resource they had to saving Riut. The two goals were mutually exclusive. The Empire could not do both. Several of the nobles didn't care about that little fact, though...
"Assholes," Edgar muttered, using the Gamman term. They were walking down a hallway towards the Imperial Gardens. "They aren't that stupid, they know we can't do everything. Skietra isn't on our side, and she's not exactly answering prayers for help."
"Now you're beginning to see what it's like to be Emperor, nephew. Now you have the bittersweet taste of power. Power that someone else will always try to take away from you, using whatever excuse -- sensible or not -- they can."
"It would've been easier if you executed that Ma'anda like I told you."
"Perhaps, but she's still useful to us. If I'd executed her, guess who I'd've sent to rule the planet instead?"
Edgar stopped in his tracks as D'ra'yan's words landed. D'ra'yan didn't miss a beat, but kept walking. Edgar had been there, had seen just how bad it was there. Whoever failed to repair the planet would die. Failure, though not an option, was inevitable there. In other words, if Ma'anda had been killed, Edgar would've taken her place and then died in her place for not delivering the results the Empire demanded.
As D'ra'yan was now several meters ahead, Edgar started walking much faster, his face pale. "I... hadn't thought of that, Uncle," he said in apology.
"That's why you're not the Emperor yet, Edgar. As Emperor, you have to think of these things. Plus, it would weaken me greatly to have you offplanet, especially with the Gammans and the Betans. I'd have hardly any allies left, particularly once those I did have left realized how weak I was."
Edgar couldn't say anything to that.
"As Emperor, you have to think of that, too," D'ra'yan went on, not seeing Edgar's thinking. "No, we rule a delicate coalition of great powers, Edgar. The question is, what's our next move?"
A runner's footsteps tap-tapped on the floor behind them. They turned, and a very young page -- probably seventeen, Edgar guessed -- immediately slowed to a more proper fast walk, and then stopped a meter away. "Your Highness, I beg your pardon, sir. Crown Prince. Sir, there's a Terran Military Colony ship entering the Arion solar system." Edgar's face turned to D'ra'yan in alarm. "It's calling us on a standard navigation frequency, requesting an orbital insertion and coming under flag of truce!"
"Truce?" the Emperor repeated, dumbfounded.
"Yes, sir. The ship's commanding officer wishes to speak with us, and states he has no intention of attacking us."
D'ra'yan drew a sharp breath. "It appears our next move has been determined, dear nephew! By our adversaries, no less. Let's go see what they want to talk about, shall we?" He stepped forth briskly back towards the throne room, Edgar alongside, the page walking much further behind them. The page, for his part, remembered little more than the stomping of their boots in unison.
Edgar had already forgotten the page, but not his uncle's words. There was an old aphorism, he knew, about not reacting to your enemy's moves, but making him react to yours... and the Arions were not doing that. The Terrans were.
Deep down, that really bothered him. It bothered him more that his uncle didn't see it.