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Lighting Out for the Territories

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January 798 U.C., Heinessen

Reinhard had been working in Trunicht’s department for a week now, and he was more frustrated than he had ever been in his life. This was because to describe it as working was an exaggeration.

Oh, he had been given an office in the fleet headquarters-- a nicer one than he deserved, by all accounts. And he had a shiny brass nameplate on his door, and when he introduced himself to the rest of the staff in Trunicht’s employ, he was greeted warmly and told that everyone on the staff was looking forward to working with him. It was unfortunate that Reinhard was not a man who could be content with pleasantries. He would have been happier in an office where everyone hated him.

The problem was that he had not been given a single thing to do or accomplish. He was a decorative ornament. As he had no direct superior other than Trunicht, and Trunicht did not want to see him, this meant that Reinhard had no ability to find work for himself. He made some enquiries about what the rest of the staff in the office were working on, and was told that they were in the process of reviewing budget proposals for the upcoming year. Reinhard said he would be happy to start taking a look at those, and he had been told politely, but very firmly, that Secretary Trunicht didn’t want to concern him with it.

If someone had invented a kind of eternal torture for Reinhard, this might have been it. He tried to spend his days gathering information about what Trunicht wanted to do with Phezzan, and eventually the Empire. He tried to keep abreast of what information was trickling in from the civil war over there. But it seemed like wherever he looked, he was met with a blank wall, and when he started writing down his own thoughts, he grew frustrated with the feeling that no matter what he wrote, it was going to be for nothing. Trunicht was making a point: during their meeting, Reinhard had gotten ahead of himself when he had proclaimed how much he wanted to accomplish.

By the end of that first week, he was ready to storm Trunicht’s office and demand an audience, and it was only the fact that Annerose would be disappointed if he ruined his career that stopped him. He came home scowling, and when Annerose saw his foul expression all through dinner, she finally sighed and put down her fork, crossing her arms and glaring at him. It was just the two of them eating together; Ingrid had gone off to an Earth Church service, with Julian as accompaniment. 

“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong, or are you going to grind your teeth until there’s nothing left of them?” Annerose asked.

“There’s nothing wrong.” Reinhard stabbed a brussel sprout from his plate, but the tines of his fork scraped along the ceramic, making a horrible sound that put goosebumps on Annerose’s bare arms.

“You’re not even a good liar when it comes to things like that.” She kept staring at him. “You’re stressing the rest of us out, you know. When you start glaring at everyone around the house it makes Ingrid nervous, and that makes Julian worried.”

“Sorry,” Reinhard said. He genuinely did feel bad about that; he hadn’t realized his mood was that obvious. But it was perhaps the bottling of it up at work that meant when he relaxed at home, it all came out at once, visible to the people who happened to be nearest.

“What is the issue? Out with it.”

“You’ll tell me it’s stupid.”

She sighed and said nothing, waiting for him to elaborate. Unfortunately, he couldn’t bear to have her stare at him in mild disapproval, so he finally dropped his fork to his plate and started talking.

“Trunicht kept his promise to put me in his office, but he doesn’t want to give me anything to do.”

“He knows you’ve arrived, right?”

“Of course he knows,” Reinhard said. “I’m sure this is actually some kind of message from him: don’t get ahead of myself and think that I’m important.”

Annerose silently raised her eyebrows and served herself some more of the creamed corn. Reinhard frowned and looked down at his plate.

“Are you going to do anything about it?” she asked after a second of letting him stew.

“I’m sure he wants an excuse to have nothing to do with me,” Reinhard said. “If I do something that looks volatile to him, he’ll trust me even less. He’s playing mind games with me.”

“And what would be the point of that?” Annerose asked. “He can’t possibly think that you’re actually going to cause him problems.”

Reinhard scowled. “He doesn’t like anybody to ever think that they have power over him.”

“And you think you do?”

“I could, if I wanted to.”

Annerose just laughed, which only made Reinhard’s expression more sour. “He’s going to decide you’ve gotten the message eventually,” Annerose said. “If he’s reminding you who’s boss, he still wants you as an employee. He could have just as easily kept you on the front and not called you back.”

“And how long is that going to take? I’m not going to wait forever, Annerose.” He paused, then said, “And I want him to know I’m serious.”

“Then do something about it.”

He gave her a questioning look.

“Fredrica’s planetside, and if I recall correctly, it was her boyfriend who cornered you in a bathroom and dragged you into this in the first place. Talk to him. He clearly has some sway in Trunicht’s camp.”

“It surprises me that you’re suggesting I get someone else involved.”

“It’s better than you storming Trunicht’s office, guns blazing, or requesting a new posting out of spite,” she said Annerose was silent for half a second, considering him. Reinhard waited, since she clearly wanted to say something else. “I hope you know that I am on your side, Reinhard. Whatever goals you have, I want you to achieve them.”

That did make him smile. “Even though you think I should be content?” He was teasing, though, and she knew it.

“I’d prefer you to be happy,” she said. “And if it takes making the Secretary of Defense listen to you, so be it.”

 


 

It didn’t take that much convincing to get Fredrica on board with meeting up. Reinhard didn’t tell her that his intent was to pester Captain Fork, but when she said that the only time that she could possibly spare to see him was lunch on Sunday, but that Fork was meeting her right after, Reinhard said, “Well, why don’t you invite him to lunch, too? I’d love to meet him properly.”

Fredrica agreed.

It had been a long time since they had last seen each other. The last time they had spoken in person was when they graduated from the command academy. They had kept in constant communication the whole time-- their string of letters back and forth could have filled a book-- but Reinhard didn’t realize how much he had missed seeing her face to face until he spotted her sitting outside a pretty cafe not too far from fleet HQ. She had been his right hand for four years of school, and he had the sudden sense of how much more lonely and difficult everything had been without her at his side. He wondered if she felt the same way. 

Fredrica had her hands tucked under her chin, deep in thought, watching some birds peck at a discarded croissant on the sidewalk. She was alone; Fork was either late or not coming. Reinhard realized abruptly that he didn’t care if Fork showed up or not; he was happy just to see her.

“Greenhill!” he called as he walked closer. Her head snapped up, and she stood so quickly that she almost knocked her chair over, having to catch it.

“Reinhard!” She was smiling, painfully wide, and Reinhard couldn’t help but reciprocate. When he got close enough, she seemed unsure of what to do for a second, then reached out and hugged him. The list of people who could do that without him stiffening up was short, and she was on it. They could hardly not be comfortable with each other, after having spent several tense days hiding in a tiny closet on an enemy spaceship together, taking turns sleeping with their head on the other’s lap. She knew everything there was to know about him.

“Missed me, Fredrica?” he asked.

“Of course not,” she said. “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to think.”

He laughed, and they both sat down. “I’m glad you could make time for me,” he said. “I didn’t know if I ranked at the top of your priority list or not.”

“Top? Unfortunately, you’re not my CO or my dad, so I don’t think you will be at the top. But somewhere nicely in the middle, I think.”

“I’m pleased to hear it. How have you been?”

“Fine,” she said. “I suppose my life hasn’t been as exciting as yours has been.” She fingered the commander’s rank pin on her collar.

“You’ll be made captain soon enough, I’m sure. And you’ll have a ship of your own.”

“Maybe.” She studied him. “I don’t know if I’d want to be in command, though. I think I like being a staff officer.”

“I think it’s worth getting a taste of command at least once,” Reinhard said. “I almost regret that my time on the Constantinople was so short.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I think you have more of a natural hand at that kind of thing.”

He frowned. “I think you’d enjoy it.”

“Well,” she said as the waitress came over, “it’s not up to me.”

After he ordered a sandwich and a coffee, he propped his own hands on his chin and looked across at her. “How’s the Sixth Fleet retrofit going?”

“God,” she said. “Terrible. I don’t really want to think about it.” She sighed. “I understand why we’re in such a rush, but I wish we weren’t.”

“Really?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “Why are we in such a rush?”

“In case the new Kaiserine-- or her regent-- decides to assert her authority by rushing through the Iserlohn corridor, as soon as she’s had her cousin assassinated, or whatever it is that’s going to happen to the extra royal child.” She answered like this should have been obvious, but stopped when she saw the expression on his face. “What, is that not the reason?”

“How are things with Captain Fork?” Reinhard asked, dodging the question entirely.

She narrowed her eyes at him, but answered. “Good. Great, even. Not like we’re in the same place that often, but when we are--” She flushed and cut herself off. “You know, it’s nice.”

“I’m glad.”

“You don’t sound like it.”

“Can I be honest with you?”

“Of course.” She leaned forward, obviously a little alarmed.

“I’m here to ask Captain Fork for a favor,” Reinhard said. “I was wondering if he’s planning to show up.”

Fredrica rolled her eyes and sat back in her seat. “Of course you are. Nothing is ever personal with you.”

“It would be personal if you were less busy,” Reinhard protested. “I didn’t want to take you away from your urgent duties unless I had something very important to bother you with.”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Come on, Reinhard. I was kidding, before. Getting away from my urgent duties for a couple hours at a time is the only thing that’s been keeping me sane since I landed on the planet. Even I’m not that much of a workaholic that I can’t spare some time to catch up with my closest friend, whom I haven’t seen in years.”

“Don’t make me feel so guilty about it,” he said. He could feel his cheeks burning, and he hated it. “I’ve missed you.”

That put a triumphant smile on her face. “Good.”

He couldn’t help but ask: “But is Captain Fork coming?” 

“He’ll be here,” Fredrica said. “He said he was running a bit late.”

Reinhard nodded.

“What is it that you need him for? I wasn’t aware that you knew each other.”

“He didn’t tell you that we met?”

“You didn’t tell me, either.”

“It was not the kind of thing that could be put in a letter,” Reinhard said after a second. “Though I suppose you’ll find that a rather poor excuse. And I did say that I wanted to meet him properly .”

She raised her eyebrows. “Should I be concerned?”

“He attended my inquest last year. And he asked me for a favor. I think it’s time for me to ask him one in return.”

“What did he want you to do?” She narrowed her eyes, not quite suspicious, but curious and wary.

Reinhard looked around. The cafe was on a busy street, but no one was paying the two of them much attention, and the tables nearest to them were empty. Even still, he lowered his voice. “He was passing on a message from Secretary Trunicht, who wanted me to convince the Committee for Public Defense that Phezzan was the party responsible for killing Castrop.”

Reinhard had always thought it was funny to watch Fredrica put the pieces of a puzzle together. She was good at it, and she wore her thoughts on her face. Her brow furrowed in annoyance, and she opened her mouth, likely preparing to say something about how it was ridiculous to frame Phezzan, but then she closed her mouth again, and her expression smoothed out into something more studious. “I assume you did convince them of that?”

“I didn’t say it in as many words, but Trunicht liked my performance.”

“It was a lie, right?”

“I have no idea who killed Castrop. I don’t particularly care. He was a flea.” It probably had been the Imperial government-- Muller was a competent man, and Reinhard was sure he could pull some sort of trick, if he had tried. He had promised not to send a ship after Castrop, and he hadn’t, but everything else had remained on the table.

She frowned. “ Trunicht didn’t-- you don’t think.”

Reinhard shook his head. “No, I doubt it. He would have preferred Castrop arrive back on Heinessen unharmed, I’m sure. But he was trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

“Phezzan, though?” she asked. “Why?”

“Even if Castrop had arrived unharmed back on Heinessen, he would have tried to use him to get leverage over Phezzan. I don’t know how much you followed the case--”

“Not much.”

Reinhard pointed to the sky with one finger, even as he lifted his coffee to his mouth. “Castrop had information about weaknesses in the Artemis Necklace. If we had gotten that information, Trunicht would have used it to say that Phezzan was holding the key to our destruction in its hands. If they wanted, they could have sold the shut-off key to the Necklace to the Empire at any time.”

Fredrica frowned. “My father always said the Artemis Necklace was our best defense. He thought we should put one around every planet, especially near the Iserlohn corridor.”

“It can be destroyed. Easily, too, from what I heard.”

“How?”

“That, I don’t know. But it only took one ship, apparently.”

Fredrica’s face had been growing pale as Reinhard spoke. She bit her lip, possibly to stifle a swear. “That’s…”

“There’s still the First Fleet,” Reinhard said. “They’re not likely to go too far away from Heinessen. We’re not going to get invaded.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“If it was going to happen, it likely would have happened before now,” Reinhard said. “No matter how talented the person who destroyed Castrop’s necklace is, I’m sure he’s not more talented than all the rest of the Imperial fleet put together. They either already knew how to destroy Castrop’s Necklace-- maybe they did learn its weaknesses from Phezzan-- or they would have figured it out had they chosen to invade us. The fact that they haven’t yet is what gives me peace of mind, on that front.”

Fredrica was silent for a second. “If my father had had his way…”

“I respect your father very much,” Reinhard said. “And I can understand why he, especially, would be looking for a guarantee to keep the outlying systems safe. It’s probably for the best that we’ve all had an illustration that there is no such thing as a guarantee.”

She nodded. “If you see him, please don’t bring it up with him.”

“I won’t,” Reinhard said. “Purchasing more Necklaces was a settled debate years ago. I don’t think there would ever be a reason to rub salt in that wound.”

She nodded. She was about to say something else, but her phone in her pocket started ringing. Apologetically, she took it out and looked at it. “Oh, it’s Andrew,” she said, then answered it. She greeted Fork warmly, and then had a brief conversation that ended with her standing up and walking towards the street, looking down it, and then waving frantically to get Fork’s attention. 

When Fork approached, Reinhard stood. There was a painfully awkward moment as he arrived, where Reinhard just stood there and watched Fredrica first embrace, then kiss, Fork. He wasn’t jealous, not really, but he was uncomfortable and unsure of what to do with himself. He stuck his hands in his pockets until they were done, and Fork noticed him.

“Oh, I see you’ve made captain, Müsel,” Fork said by way of greeting. His voice was more nasal and grating than Reinhard remembered it being, but he had only met the man once.

Reinhard offered his hand to shake. “I have.”

Fredrica looked between them. “I should be angry at the both of you for not mentioning that you had met before.”

“We hardly met,” Fork said, pulling out a chair to sit down at their table. “We just happened to run into each other at fleet HQ, and I took the time to introduce myself to the local celebrity.”

Fredrica pursed her lips, eyes flicking to Reinhard, who remained impassive, but said, “Considering I was in disgrace at the time, you’d think my celebrity wouldn’t mean much. I don’t think it does anymore.”

“Oh, I still hear plenty about the Hero of Condor Starzone over in HQ,” Fork said.

“I hope it’s not only because she’s Admiral Greenhill’s daughter,” Reinhard countered.

This made Fork laugh. “Fredrica did tell me you had a funny sense of humor.”

“Quite.” Reinhard picked his sandwich back up, and Fredrica flagged down the waiter so that Fork could order some lunch.

“I’m sorry for being late, by the way,” Fork said. “I had a morning meeting.”

“It’s no problem,” Fredrica said. “We were just catching up.”

“A meeting on a Sunday?” Reinhard asked. “Admiral Greenhill must keep you on the run.”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t with him.” He said nothing else as the waiter brought him a coffee.

Fredrica tried to turn the stilted conversation around. “Reinhard was just telling me about his time in command of the Constantinople .”

“I had heard that you had been given a ship,” Fork said. “Anything noteworthy about her?”

“She was lucky,” Reinhard said.

“Everyone says that about any ship that hasn’t been shot to pieces.”

“It’s always true, up until that point.”

“It must have been difficult, working with junior officers older than you were. I assume they were older, anyway.”

“It wasn’t particularly difficult,” Reinhard said. “I had a good rapport with them, as well as the rest of my crew. There was never any trouble.”

“Perhaps it was your fame that did it.”

“I’m sure it was because he was a good commander,” Fredrica said. “And he was given command in difficult circumstances-- that earns respect.”

“Right, of course.”

“I was telling Greenhill,” Reinhard began, “I think she should have a command of her own.”

“Any reason why?”

“I think she’d be good at it,” Reinhard said. He looked at Fork with his piercing gaze. “Have you ever had a command?”

“No,” Fork said with a laugh. “I’ve been a staff officer my entire career. I will likely stay that way.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know why you sound surprised,” Fork said. “I thought you had come back to Heinessen because you understand that someone can be much more effective writing plans than on the bridge of a ship.”

“I wasn’t aware that we had the luxury of choosing our assignments,” Reinhard said. “Do you?”

Fork’s smile was thin. “No, of course not.”

“So, perhaps you’ll get a turn at the front, after all.”

“Maybe,” Fork said. “Do you like excitement, Müsel?”

“As you said, I like to get things done. That in itself is exciting.” He shrugged. “I liked my position on Phezzan well enough, and that was about the furthest one can get from the front.”

“Unfortunate that you were made to leave it.”

“It doesn’t matter. I take these things as they come.”

“How are you enjoying your position as Trunicht’s fleet liaison?”

“I’m getting settled,” Reinhard said. “What’s funny is that I haven’t seen Secretary Trunicht myself, yet. It seems like in order to be effective as his fleet liaison, I’d need to see him at some point.” He smiled. “But what do I know?”

“I’m sure he’s just giving you some time to adjust to your new position. He’s a busy man who doesn’t have time to handhold every new staff member in his office.”

“There is nothing I appreciate more than Secretary Trunicht’s busy schedule,” Reinhard said. “You see him often though, don’t you?”

“I don’t know what gave you that impression.”

Reinhard just smiled.

“You mention him often enough,” Fredrica said. “I think you talk about him more than you talk about my father, who you actually work under.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to bore you with talking about a person who sends you his own letters,” Fork said.

“Fair enough.” She laughed, but the tension hadn’t dissipated.

“If you do happen to see Secretary Trunicht any time soon,” Reinhard said, deciding to cut to the chase, “I would appreciate if you mentioned to him how much I’m looking forward to working with him.” He looked Fork directly in the eyes.

“I don’t know when I’ll next see him.” He paused, and broke eye contact. “I’ll be sure to mention it if I do see him before you, though.”

“Not like you have the best track record of telling people about meeting Reinhard,” Fredrica said.

“You can’t hold it over me too much,” Fork said. “It had honestly slipped my mind that it was worth mentioning.” He was a decent liar, but since Fredrica already knew the truth, her eyes narrowed, though Fork wasn’t looking at her. 

“Don’t let this,” Reinhard said.

A tense silence fell around the table. From the way that Fork looked over at Fredrica, it was clear that only her presence was what stopped Fork from saying something scathing to Reinhard. “I suppose I can pass your message on,” Fork said. “But I don’t exactly have a monopoly on Secretary Trunicht’s time, you understand.”

“Of course not.” Reinhard’s voice was back to pleasant. He glanced at Fredrica, who tried to smile, but didn’t quite succeed. “You know what? I think I’ve monopolized a little too much of your rare free time.” He wiped his hands on his napkin and put it back on the table, then fished around in his pocket for his wallet to leave some cash to pay for his meal.

“Oh, you’re going?” Fredrica asked, obviously disappointed.

“I shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your lunch with Captain Fork.” Reinhard said as he tucked the bills underneath his plate.

“I was hoping we could catch up for longer,” Fredrica said. The genuine disappointment in her voice did momentarily cause Reinhard to pause, but Fork’s curled lip convinced him that staying would be unwise, at best. He had no desire to annoy Fork enough that he would refuse to pass along his message.

“You know where to find me, Greenhill,” he said with a smile. He nodded a curt goodbye to Fork, then headed off down the street, resolving to text Fredrica an apology later.

As he went, he could hear Fork say, “You always talk about him in such a complimentary way. I didn’t know what I should be expecting.”

Reinhard was out of hearing distance before Fredrica could reply.

 


 

Either Fork had passed along the message, or Trunicht had decided that Reinhard had had enough of his forced stillness, because it was Tuesday when Reinhard received a summons to Trunicht’s office. He presented himself, saluting at the door. The day was cloudy, unlike the last time he had been here, so Trunicht’s face was not so difficult to look at with his back to the window, and the dramatic effect was limited to what was conferred only by the height of the office, looking down at the city below.

“Well, Captain von Müsel,” Trunicht said. He didn’t stand up from his desk, but he steepled his hands in front of his lips. “It’s been a while.”

“It has, sir,” Reinhard said. “I hope you agree that I made the best of my time at the front.”

“I had no reason to doubt that the Hero of Condor Base would be able to succeed as part of a ship’s crew,” Trunicht said. “And I saw that you performed more adroitly than most others would, in the circumstances.”

“I appreciated that the circumstances allowed me a chance to be in command. It’s an opportunity that I might not have had otherwise.”

Trunicht nodded, though he didn’t seem particularly interested in Reinhard’s command ambitions. “You didn’t get yourself and your crew killed, at least. And that is the kind of thing that happens at the front.”

“May I speak plainly, sir?”

Trunicht considered him. “Let’s be very careful, Captain von Müsel.”

“It seems to me that you did not like that I asked for a posting on the front, rather than accept the post here on Heinessen.”

Trunicht tapped his fingers together for a moment, before composing his response. “If you are gracing me with candor, Captain, I will do the same. You’re correct: I thought it was a ridiculous pretension. You acted as though a posting on Heinessen would be a waste of your time and talents. I would not have wasted them entirely, during this past year, I assure you.”

“I appreciate that you had my best interests at heart, sir.”

“You might have even had a chance to gain leadership experience, if of a different kind than being in command of a ship.”

It took all of Reinhard’s self control not to ask if Trunicht was referring to his pet band of terrorists that Dusty had warned him about. He just nodded.

“But you wanted a chance to gain command at the front,” Trunicht said. “I can’t say I entirely understand.”

“You have been very generous to me in the past,” Reinhard said, though he wasn’t sure if that was the best way of describing Trunicht’s interest in him. “But in the ways that I can, I would like for my career to be my own.”

“You already have a name for yourself,” Trunicht said. “There’s nothing you could have done in command of the Constantinople that would have raised your stature in the public eye.”

“I know.” He paused, then said, “When I was first on Phezzan, one of their local celebrities-- Dominique Saint-Pierre-- said the same thing, or something like it. She said she would have quit the fleet, if she felt like she had already had the single moment that would define her life.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because I do not believe that it is the highest I can reach, just as I did not believe I would be killed at the front.”

“Nobody believes they will be killed at the front, Müsel. Not really.” Trunicht’s smile was grim. “I have a more practical view of things.”

“Yes, sir.” He took a breath. “It isn’t that I thought that a posting on Heinessen would be a waste. But if all things were equal, I am happier in space than behind a desk. I know it’s not equal, but when I asked to be posted to the front, I thought that the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.” He looked at Trunicht, who was silent, and so Reinhard continued. “I understand that decisions about the state of the war are not being made on the front,” Reinhard said. He tried to keep the derogatory tone out of his voice, keep things as statements of facts, rather than condemnation of Trunicht’s policies. “They’re being made here, on Heinessen. If that were not the case-- if the front line commanders were directing the war effort instead of being directed-- I would have preferred to stay on the front.”

Trunicht looked at him silently, the moment stretching on. Reinhard could hear the wind creak past the thick glass of the window. “You may have fared better as a commander if you had remained in the Empire as a boy,” Trunicht said finally. “If the Kaiser bestows decision making power on his admirals, they can use it at their discretion.” He smiled, a thin expression. “But in a democracy, the government is not at liberty to grant that kind of power.”

“Sir, there is no life that I ever would have preferred in the Empire.” He couldn’t keep the venom out of his tone. “I’m not talking about power for power’s sake.”

“No?” Trunicht drummed his fingers on his desk for a moment, letting Reinhard stand there in silence. “You’re an ambitious man, Captain von Müsel. That’s dangerous.”

“I hope to make myself useful to you, sir.”

“Take a seat,” Trunicht said, his tone changed. He pointed at the chair that was in front of his desk. Reinhard didn’t let his surprise show on his face. It seemed that Trunicht was done making Reinhard dance-- though Reinhard had been picking his steps as carefully as he could. “I do believe you will be useful to me.”

Reinhard sat, straight back, looking at Trunicht directly.

“What do you know about the civil war in the Empire?” Trunicht asked.

“As much as I can glean from the newspapers, which isn’t much.”

Trunicht nodded. “We have some more accurate information, thanks to certain agents within the Empire--”

“The Earth Church?”

Trunicht smiled. “Among others. It’s not as difficult as you might think to find people willing to be spies.”

“And you trust them?”

“It’s not my department that handles that kind of trust,” Trunicht said. “Suffice to say, I am given information, and it has generally proved reliable.”

Reinhard nodded. “What is really happening, if I may ask?”

“It’s going to be a bloody conflict,” Trunicht said. “Even with our more accurate information, I don’t have a good sense of who is going to come out on top.”

“That’s good for you, then, isn’t it?”

“Me?” Trunicht asked. “It’s good for all of humanity, I think.” 

“Protracted civil war is unlikely to be good for the common people of the Empire, but I understand what you mean.”

“By the time this is all over, they’ll be much better off than they are under Rudolph’s progeny.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But what this long stretch of civil war really gives us is time. There’s almost no chance that they’re going to make a break through the Iserlohn Corridor right now, and even after one of the two sides is able to take control of the government itself, they’re going to be trying to shore up that control.”

Reinhard smiled. “But you’ve been saying that we should be prepared for that eventuality anyway.”

“Of course.” Trunicht drummed his fingers on his desk. “We can’t simply say that we’re intending to invade through Phezzan, though I’ve done plenty to stir up resentment already, but this government, for all their other opinions, is reluctant to spend money on something so expensive and unpopular as an outright invasion. There has to be some sort of tipping point that will provide us with a convenient excuse, something that will make everyone understand that Phezzan needs to be our stepping stone to ending this war completely. And when we get that excuse, we need to be prepared for a full scale invasion.”

“What tipping point are you thinking of?”

Trunicht smiled. “Captain Müsel, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that this is the task I’m giving to you.”

Reinhard leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows. “Quite the responsibility.”

“Do you not want it?” Trunicht asked. “You have the skills I’m looking for: intimate familiarity with both Phezzan and the Earth Church.”

“It’s as though my career has been preparing me to perform this task.”

Trunicht smiled. “It would perhaps be easier for you to orchestrate if you were still in the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan,” he said. “But we can’t always have our druthers.”

“No,” Reinhard said. “But I will make the best of the situation here.”

“Good.” Trunicht steepled his fingers. “It’s the Earth Church that you will need to speak to. You should already have some familiarity with the contacts I will provide, and they know that you will be operating at my behest.” He looked Reinhard straight in the eye. “This is, as you said, quite the responsibility, to be acting in this capacity for the sake of the entire Alliance.”

“I understand.”

“You understand, and you will speak about this to no one except those who I direct you to speak with.”

“Is Captain Fork on that list, sir?”

“Each man has his own set of responsibilities, Captain Müsel. Don’t concern yourself with his.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If you need resources, I can procure them, within reason. If you need men for some task, I can provide some number of them.”

“Officially?”

“No, of course not,” Trunicht said. “This is something that will need to be done quietly. There will be no official word about it.”

“May I say something, sir?”

Trunicht waved his hand.

“When something does happen on Phezzan, something that looks perfectly calculated to cause us to retaliate will be fairly noticeable, won’t it?”

“I thought you were smarter than that, Captain.”

“Sir.”

“Whatever happens needs to come from Phezzan’s natural inclinations,” Trunicht said. “Phezzan is not in the business of declaring war. Not outright, at least. Nor are they in the habit of blatantly favoring the Empire.”

“I understand that,” Reinhard said. He modulated his tone, trying not to sound like he was lecturing Trunicht, or otherwise behaving like a child. “But there are only so many things that would be intolerable enough to force the High Council to approve an act of war against Phezzzan. And of those subset, something very quick and decisive will have” -- he hesitated for a second-- “the least overall effect on the Alliance itself.”

“You want them to offer haven to some unforgivable criminal, or something like that.”

“It couldn’t be their embassy selling secrets to the Empire. Everyone half suspects them of doing that anyway.”

That made Trunicht chuckle, chilling and false. “Certainly. And we wouldn’t want to confirm that in any way. We need to disrupt the status quo of how people think about Phezzan. Confirming their suspicions that they’re trading in our secrets would be annoying, but no more than that.”

Reinhard leaned forward. “The power that Phezzan has over us, the real power, the one that makes them a danger, is the hand they have in our economy.” He looked at Trunicht. “It’s invisible to the average person right now, because it has not impacted their lives. They don’t see it as a problem-- and why would they?”

“You’re correct.”

“In order for it to become something worth invading over, something that will make voting against invading Phezzan political suicide…” Reinhard trailed off. “I hesitate, because the human cost would be immense.”

“How high?” Trunicht certainly already knew the answer to this question, but he wanted to hear Reinhard say it.

“Phezzan has always had the power to completely collapse our economy, and once someone starts tugging those strings, I don’t know if it can easily be stopped.”

Trunicht stared at him. “It could be stopped if Phezzan was invaded, and all its industries nationalised. Once the situation gets settled, they could be sold off again.”

Reinhard struggled to find a reply. “There has never been an economic gamble on this scale before, in all of human history. I don’t know what the result would be, truthfully. I’m sure it would depend on the state of the war, more than almost anything else.”

“So, what are you saying, Müsel? Are you saying you don’t believe that this is what’s necessary?”

“I think that there are going to be some consequences that are difficult to foresee, and others that will be difficult to live with.”

“That is the nature of life, Müsel. Perhaps you’re not old enough to realize that yet.”

He bristled. “I understand perfectly well, sir,” Reinhard said. “I’m just not sure that you are grasping the severity of what I’m saying.”

“I think I understand perfectly well,” Trunicht said. “If this was as easy as a little political scandal, I would much rather take that tack. But it’s not. Phezzan has been the one thing this galaxy has pointed to as a symbol of peace and prosperity: that is why it will be so hard for us to shake the council into acting, even if it is the only way to end this war once and for all. Nothing less than an act of war from Phezzan-- economic terrorism-- will compell us to move.” He stared at Reinhard, who did not back down. “Do you understand, Müsel? Are you willing to do what needs to be done?”

Did he have a choice? Trunicht was right-- there would be no easy breach of Iserlohn, so moving through Phezzan would be the only way to strike at the heart of the Empire, while they were weak. This was the one chance that they had of uniting the galaxy in a generation.

“More lives will be lost if the war continues indefinitely. Millions of soldiers,” Reinhard said after a second. “I understand that perfectly well.” He paused. “That is what being on the front teaches you.”

Trunicht smiled. “Good. Then I’m glad we understand each other.” He shifted in his seat and pulled a data stick from his pocket, which he handed to Reinhard. “This should be what you need to get started. We will probably not speak of this matter again, until things are much further advanced. It’s bad OpSec.”

“Yes, sir.” He stood, as that was a dismissal if he had ever heard one. “I am grateful for the trust you put in me,” Reinhard said.

“Trust, yes,” he said, though it sounded like there was less of that than there could be. “I expect that I will not be disappointed in you.”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said. “I hope not.”

 


 

Reinhard emerged from Bishop Martine’s office with a sick feeling in his gut. He wasn’t normally the type to shy away from action, but his four hour conference with the bishop had slowly made the scale of what they were about to do clearer in his head. He had known on an intellectual level that the Earth Church had its fingers everywhere on Phezzan, that they were getting money from somewhere more than just the pockets of their members, but he hadn’t realized the full scope. During the meeting, Reinhard would say something to Bishop Martine that would need to happen, expecting that it would need to be broken down into smaller pieces, that it would take time, but Martine would simply say, “That can be arranged,” and would make a note. If Reinhard asked the specifics, he was given answers that revealed enough to let him know that the Earth Church was not lying when they described what they could do. And he was sure that this was the Earth Church still hiding some of their true influence.

Phezzan’s government had always been a loose association of hazy financial entities. The planet’s charter, which allowed them to operate somewhat independently of the Empire, did not allow them to form much of an independent government. They circumvented this neatly by offloading most of the functioning of the planet into vast corporations, which regulated themselves and operated with little oversight. The Phezzani government exchanged money, collected sales tax, issued charters, and very little else. The real power on the planet came from every corporation that made its home there, and the Earth Church owned, or at least had a controlling stake, in a sizeable fraction of them.

It was only the fact that it had not been necessary to completely collapse the Alliance’s economy before now that had prevented them from doing so. Reinhard wasn’t sure if the same could be said for the Empire, an altogether less industrialized society, with more of its wealth and governing in the hands of its aristocratic class, but he suspected that the Earth Church could do some damage there, as well. Most likely, they already were doing that, trying to drain the coffers of each side of the civil war faster.

Things were going to happen slowly at first. Phezzani companies controlled by the Earth Church, ostensibly hurting from the economic devastation on the other side of the corridor, were going to start dumping twice as much of their product as usual into the Alliance’s markets, tanking the value of domestic goods. Phezzani loans, which held up far too much of the Alliance’s economy like a set of precarious stilts, would all start coming due. Phezzan, looking to protect its assets while the Empire was financially unavailable, would raise interest rates. Alliance businesses would begin to default on those loans, more and more, in a cascade that would begin in the mining sector, but would soon ripple out into every inch of the economy. After the Earth Church started it, the panic would be picked up by everyone, and it would spiral out of control. Reinhard only hoped that Trunicht was right, that the damage could be halted by the invasion of Phezzan.

The Earth Church was going to pay dearly for this scheme. It was a gamble. Though Reinhard had no doubt they were keeping plenty of power and resources in reserve should the plan fail, it was still an enormous outlay of resources for the potential prize of getting a puppet Kaiser on the throne. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity-- it was clear that even the most conservative actors couldn’t help but act, fearing that there would never be another chance.

Bishop Martine had been very professional during the discussion, but Reinhard still disliked him. Their brief previous meeting had not given Reinhard a very good impression, and what Annerose had told him of what had happened with Ingrid hadn’t improved his view of the man.

Reinhard’s mother had been waiting in an antechamber outside the bishop’s office the whole time, reading a book. She had come with Reinhard as a cover for why he would want to be at the church building, but had not even asked to be a part of the discussion happening inside. When he came out, she smiled at him.

“Did you have a good talk?” she asked, tucking the book underneath her arm and standing. “You look exhausted.”

“Let me just take you home, mom,” Reinhard said.

She nodded, and they headed out to the car in the dark and nearly empty parking lot, the air muggy and the overhead lights hazy and golden in the humidity. It was Annerose’s car-- Reinhard had borrowed it for the night. Reinhard drove in near silence for a while, and his mother seemed content to let him have that, but Reinhard, for the first time in a long time, wondered what she was thinking.

“You know what I was doing in there, don’t you?” he asked.

“I know enough,” she said. “You’re making plans for how to put Ingrid’s son on the throne.”

Reinhard didn’t take his eyes off the road, the red tail-lights of other cars blinking in and out of sight around them. “We’re going to destroy the Alliance’s economy,” he said. “To give us a pretext to invade Phezzan.” He tried to harden his voice, but he couldn’t quite do it. “I’ve tried to come up with a plan that won’t kill too many people, but--”

“How bad is it going to be?”

“The fleet pension funds are tied to the Phezzani economy,” Reinhard said. “Because of the way they’re designed-- it’s a stupid system, anybody can see that it’s vulnerable to interference-- but it’s too late to change it. All of that is going to crash. And that’s-- a quarter of the population is eligible to draw from those funds in their lifetime, to some degree.” Reinhard shook his head. “And that’s just part of it. It’s-- anybody who has a loan for anything-- banks are going to fail, industries…” He trailed off.

“I see.”

“The Alliance doesn’t have the cash reserves to bail this out. Not something of this scale. It’s going to be bad, mom.”

“But it needs to happen,” she said.

“You really believe that?”

“You helped put this in motion,” she said. “And I don’t think you would do something like this without good reason.”

“You have a lot of faith,” Reinhard said dismissively.

“I do.” She looked over at him. “Do you not believe this is necessary?”

“I don’t know what necessary is, mom,” he said. “This does have the best chance of getting us through into the Empire, better than throwing ourselves at Iserlohn over and over.” He shook his head. “It’s something Trunicht would have done with or without me, so maybe it doesn’t matter. I did my best to mitigate the damage.” The silence stretched on between them. “The people who are going to hurt the most from this are people with the least control over the situation,” Reinhard said eventually. “That is what I hate. It would be one thing if we could have confined this to just a government problem. But it’s Job Trunicht who’s going to come out on top of this, in the end, and your next door neighbors who are going to suffer.”

“And you, Reinhard?”

“I always come out on top, mom.”

“Good.”

He laughed, but it was a hard and hollow sound. “I guess that’s the price of ambition,” he said. “It’s always a price that somebody else has to pay.” He dropped one hand from the steering wheel, and found his locket, heavy and cold, underneath his shirt. Kircheis would have hated this plan, he was sure. But it was also the only way he could see that was a path to seeing Kircheis again. Through Phezzan, into the Empire. His fingers twisted through the golden chain.

He couldn’t ask Kircheis what he thought, but he could ask his mother. “Do you think that’s wrong of me?”

Caribelle didn’t answer for a second. “Reinhard, I think my answer as your mother is biased in a way that you won’t like to hear.”

“And as a member of the Earth Church.”

“I’m sorry that this is a reluctant partnership, on your part, but it pleases me that the two halves of my life fit together so neatly.”

“If you say so.”

“The Church is a force for good in this universe,” she said. “I think that whatever you and the Church do together, it’s for the good of all mankind. I can’t ever think that’s wrong.”

Reinhard was silent for a second. “Don’t tell Annerose about this.”

“I won’t.”

“I don’t think she’d understand.”

“She loves you, and will support you regardless.”

“I know,” Reinhard said. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“What do you mean?”

He took his eyes off the road for a second to look over at his mother. “Forgive me for saying so, but I can talk to you about this because you’ve already made your position clear. It doesn’t change the way I see you.”

“Are you ashamed of me, Reinhard?”

“No,” he said. “Not really. I love you.” 

“I know you do. In your way.” She smiled at him. “But Annerose?”

“I know this is a crime, or your church would call it a sin. And I’m going to go through with it anyway. I don’t want-- Annerose doesn’t need the stain of it on her.”

“Are you trying to protect her, or yourself?” she asked. It was an astute question. “She won’t like you keeping secrets from her, especially not for that reason. Especially not secrets where Ms. Roscher is concerned.”

Reinhard scowled. “Just don’t tell her, mom.”

“She’s going to find out.”

“I know. And I’ll deal with that when it happens.”

“If you say so. But she’d rather hear it from you than thirdhand from Julian’s eavesdropping.”

“You should stop letting him do that. I don’t want him to be wrapped up in this either.”

“He certainly doesn’t want your protection.”

“Mom.”

“All I’m saying is that you do not need to stand alone in this.”

“I would prefer to.”

“Well,” she said. They were pulling up to the front of her Wrightsville apartment, the tiny place where Reinhard had spent so much of his childhood, its crumbling brick and windows thrown open to let the cooler night air in. “You have me, at least,” she said.

“I know, mom.” He smiled at her, though it was difficult, and she reached out and caressed his cheek. He stayed still under her touch until she dropped her hand. “I’ll see you later.”

“Have a safe drive home.”