Chapter Ten

"Your title, madame?"

She smiled. The young man was elegantly dressed -- far too much so for her tastes. Whereas she was in a simple black jumpsuit. A good thing too. The heavier Arion gravity was making her work harder to stand up, and she'd already been sweating a bit. The sun was very bright today, and she kept her sunglasses on, not letting the young man see the strain in her eyes.

"Captain Barbara Peters, of the Terran Military Colony Three Rivers," she informed him proudly. Her ancestor had borne the same name in flight from Earth. Maybe now, Barbara thought, the Arions would see the light of day. Not likely, of course, but it had to be tried. Admiral Yevgeni had allowed them a week to contemplate the Chiang Kai-shek's attack on Riut. Peters also knew fully well she was walking into the viper's nest, and might not leave here alive. That bothered her little. Three Rivers was still in orbit, and had several microfusion bombs aboard to avenge her death, if necessary. It was the Arions' truce to violate. Her Asian-American complexion was a little disconcerting to the Arions as well, she noticed. Excellent. She wanted it as clear as possible that she was not one of them, but that she could speak their language as well as any Arion poet.

"Very good, madame. This way?" The aide didn't let her take the lead, but instead walked on away from the gig's landing pad and indoors. Walked on without making sure she was following. As if she was on a tight leash.

The diplomatic battle had already begun.

Peters removed her hat as she went indoors, tucking it under her left arm. She was rather disappointed by the long walk; though she had no way of proving it, she suspected there was official transportation for officials of her rank within the Arion Empire. Indeed, she found it insulting to spend a good fifteen minutes walking. Not to mention tiring under the planet's gravity.

Two guards, each bigger than the aide and Peters combined, stood outside the large heavy doors. With a hand signal from the aide, they slowly -- annoyingly slowly -- opened the doors. Peters glanced at one of them; the guard sneered back.

Okay, if that's how you boys want to play, I'm game...

"Captain Barbara Peters, of the Terran Military Colony Three Rivers," the aide's voice boomed out. The excessive volume was a nice touch, Peters thought. No sign of disrespect there. Of course, now she was in the Emperor's Court, and disrespect here probably meant the aide wouldn't be working here much longer. Two more guards, equally large but with blank faces and better posture, were inside the door. There were more guards in the Court, along the walls, every five meters or so. She nodded respectfully to them, giving them polite smiles. Not a smile big enough to be taken for arrogance, however. The jumpsuit helped to conceal how winded she was at the walk.

The Emperor sat lazily on his throne, a thin man, but middle-aged himself. By Arion standards, that probably meant he was around 400 years old. A much younger man, broader of shoulder and taller, stood to the side of the throne, hand on his ceremonial sword. They were clearly related, perhaps father and son. Both had short brown hair, the Emperor's thinning a bit perhaps. Then the Emperor spoke, his voice a little gravelly. "Isn't it a custom among your people to salute a superior?"

Peters grinned tightly. "Only when our heads are covered, sir, and that is only when we are outdoors."

"Ah." Then the Emperor launched his tirade. "Your people have seen fit to launch an unprovoked attack on the planet Riut. This attack, you are well aware, has devastated the entire planet. This is only the latest incident in a rebellion against the lawful authority of the Arion Empire, which went to great lengths to save your planet after your people foolishly wrecked half of it. The Empire has been most generous to the planet Terra, and how have we been repaid? By treachery and warfare on innocent civilians. I demand your surrender and the planet Earth take upon the full cost of restoring the planet Riut to health, immediately." The Emperor leaned back in his chair.

Peters tilted her head, amused. "Emperor D'ra'yan, you do not speak the entire truth," she replied just as forcefully. "The attack on Riut was far from unprovoked. It had been provoked less than 48 Earth hours earlier, when your military was caught red-handed sending an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, at 0.42 times the speed of light. Our forces clearly identified an Arion vessel guiding and pushing the asteroid towards its meeting. Furthermore, we have incontrovertible evidence that the Arion Empire has interfered in Earth's internal affairs before, in an incident which led directly to the Arion Empire's claiming rulership over the planet Earth. That incident was our planet's Fourth World War, in which nearly two billion people died. There is also the fact that the Arion Empire was paid for its services in restoring Earth -- after being responsible for wrecking it -- by enslaving thousands of humans and in many cases taking them off the planet to serve you here." Peters noticed how the Emperor's son (?) tightened his grip on his sword at that. "We find that state of affairs intolerable, and the people of Earth, by their own free will, have supported us in our finding." The demand for surrender she totally ignored, and she fell silent, allowing her opponent to respond.

Respond he did, straightening up in his chair and letting anger show in his face. "The people of Terra are obviously ungrateful and unaware of the great expense of the services the Empire has provided Terra. I'm certain my secretaries can give you very detailed accounts of the costs. Literally, the cost of restoring the planet far exceeds the economic output of the planet over the years involved. There is nothing to dispute there. If you wish to talk about fairness, you will realize your entire planet is our property!"

"I'm sure that would comfort my great-great-great-grandmother very much," Peters replied. "She was chased out of Earth's orbit, a refugee of a war that didn't have to happen. A war your people planned, started, and guided almost to the end. You bought the planet at the price of our blood, later our sweat and our tears!"

"Nonetheless, we have bought it. The planet Terra is ours, it will remain ours, and it will answer to our needs!"

Peters's laughter echoed off the Court's walls and high ceilings. "If that's true, Emperor, then why am I not on my knees?"

The tall man spoke for the first time. "I'm sure we can accomodate you," he said dryly.

"You're welcome to try," Peters shot back. "Though you might want to think twice about that with a Military Colony hanging overhead and having this very palace in its targeting sights."

It was then that Peters got her first break. An aide walked in and whispered something into the Emperor's ear. He stood up and walked towards her, annoyed. "All right, Mrs. Peters, you can turn your transmitter off now."

"If I do that, my crew will assume that I have been captured or killed. It's designed to transmit on my heart beat, not to repeat what is being said here. If they do not receive that signal, they will assume the truce has been broken... and respond accordingly."

The Emperor pondered that. Peters heard some murmuring in the background. Good. She had them where she wanted them. She'd shown them the stick. Now it was time for the carrot. "I am not here to discuss any surrender. I am here to discuss a cease-fire, and possibly an end to this war."

The tall man smirked. "The only end to this rebellion we will accept is the..."

"Edgar!" the Emperor cut him off, turning to look at him. Edgar's chin tilted upward, defiantly, but the smirk was gone.

Turning back to Peters, the Emperor uttered one word, reluctantly. "Speak."

"Our offer is simple, Emperor. We want our independence from Arion rule. No Arion personnel or facilities will be tolerated in the Terran solar system, except those which come in unarmed and registered with the appropriate authorities on our end, to be determined at a later time. Reciprocity will apply; the Military Colonies will withdraw all forces from Arion space, and will not encroach upon Arion territory without notifying your appropriate authorities." She looked meaningfully at Edgar. "The matter of the slaves we are prepared to forgive."

Both Edgar and the Emperor appeared to think about that one, Peters thought. Slavery was a very touchy subject among Terrans. Even though they weren't slaves anymore -- had never been, really -- that was a large concession for the Terrans to make.

"And of reparations?" the Emperor asked.

"None, from either side. You were responsible for the wrecking of Earth; we were responsible for the wrecking of Riut. An unfortunate exchange, in war, but a fair one, nonetheless."

It was a very large carrot indeed. Peters felt they should have had it as their final offer, not their first and only offer. She resisted the temptation to say more.

The Emperor looked to Edgar. Edgar very slowly nodded. The Emperor turned to face her, his body facing the right wall, and repeated the slow nod.

She was delighted. She had won.

Just then the lights went out. There was still plenty of natural sunlight, so the Court wasn't plunged into total darkness. But it was not something she was prepared for. Nor were the heavy footsteps that rapidly approached her. Nor were the grim, unsurprised looks on the faces of the Emperor and Edgar at this.

"What is it? What's going on?" she asked.

"We're giving you our answer, Captain," the Emperor said. Just then her jumpsuit was ripped, torn off her, and she was in her sweaty, Military Colonies uniform alone. Then, just as suddenly, that was torn off her too. She was in her underwear and body armor.

"We were here under flag of truce!" she cried out, betrayal in her voice. "The Three Rivers will come for you!"

"Sorry, baby," Edgar answered her, "we already came for it!"

The body armor was ripped off too. "Why do you think the lights are out?" the Emperor asked calmly. She'd already figured that out. The ship was her backup. But what was the ship's backup?

Her eyes narrowed, and she turned to stare at Edgar. "You're part human," she said, the truth hitting her with a shock, just by the way he spoke, by the odd accent.

Edgar came forward, finally leaving his perch by the Emperor's throne. "Gamman, actually. My mother was a Betan, genetically a potential Prime, the Empress for many, many years." He gloated in the revelation spreading across her face. "My father? Born in a little place called Melbourne, Australia. And me?"

His hand shot out and grabbed her by the throat. He lifted her off the floor, at least thirty centimeters up. "I am the best of both!"

He squeezed.