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Lighting Out for the Territories

Chapter Text

September 798 U.C., in orbit around Phezzan

The nerve center of the operation in orbit was on Bucock’s flagship. Reinhard was not directly involved, or he wasn’t supposed to be, but he was standing on the bridge, watching the action as reports poured in. His attention was split a hundred different ways, and the only way he could have felt more in his element would have been if he was in command and not standing on the sidelines as Trunicht’s chosen observer of the action. Still, it was thrilling to watch the plan he had put together, piece by painstaking piece, be put into action.

The predictable things went wrong with the operation almost immediately: someone had tipped off the Imperial embassy, so it was empty when Blumhart’s team of Rosenritter arrived; Rubinsky was nowhere to be found within the capitol building; and the teams at the Navigation Office and base of the elevator met such heavy resistance that their reports were scattered and stopped as soon as they entered their respective buildings. 

The operation at the top of the elevator went smoothly, at least. The Phezzani Port Authority, hearing of the chaos on the ground and apparently not wanting their precious elevator or port to be damaged in a way that could affect the prosperity of the planet, quickly surrendered and ordered all merchant ships to undock. They did, with haste, and although Reinhard protested that they shouldn’t let so many of them go running back to the Empire-- not least because with Admiral Greenhill’s massive fleet beginning to steam its way through the corridor, they wouldn’t make it very far without getting caught in a crossfire-- Bucock said that it was not worth the resources required to hold them, and that they weren’t in the business of holding civilians hostage anyway. He said this with the driest voice imaginable, and Reinhard shook his head and walked away to go watch the invasion progress reports that continued to pour in.

It was understandable, though frustrating, that Bucock’s flagship was not going to be among the first to dock at Phezzan’s port after the merchant ships had departed. Their ships carrying ground-troops and equipment needed first access to the elevator. It was an agonizingly slow dance to get the first ships in, have the port itself checked and cleared of danger, and then start docking in the hundreds of now-empty bay spaces.

Reinhard was half-tempted to requisition a shuttle to take himself over to the port and go down the elevator himself. He wanted to greet Annerose in the Landesherr’s office, congratulate her on her overwhelming success. But he knew if he made any sort of request like that, it would be denied.

At last, at the bottom of the elevator, Commander Linz reported that they had seized the ground control center. With the assurance that anyone who travelled down to Phezzan would not be met with an active battlezone, the soldiers waiting at the top loaded themselves as tightly as they could into as many cars as there were at the top spaceport. Hundreds of people could fit into each car, and there were hundreds of cars waiting to take the soldiers down.

In order to cross the vast distances in a timely fashion, the elevator cars used a smaller and cruder version of the gravity engines which powered starships, primarily to keep the passengers from being crushed to a pulp as the ship accelerated. They were guided along by the elevator cable. 

What happened to all of the elevator cars was at first not clear. 

The chatter on the bridge was normal as the cars began their descent, but as they dropped further down towards the planet, a strange hiss of static began sounding over the radios. The radio operator turned up the gain to compensate, and the unhurried conversations spilled out over the rush and hubbub of people working on the bridge.

“Alpha group, are you picking up radio interference?” the radio operator asked. “I’m having trouble reading you and ground.”

The answer came over thick static from one of the elevator car operators. “We’re having trouble picking up the ground as well. Some sort of RF blocker being deployed?”

The soldier at the next control panel over leaned forward and said, “Could be that Phezzanis or whoever are trying to slide out of the system undetected. If they’re jamming us--”

“This doesn’t sound like that kind of jamming,” the radio operator said. “You get a sense of it. Imperial jamming is crisp-- kinda mechanical.”

Barely audible over the hiss of static, the elevator operator radioed in again. “Control, we’re getting some strange vibrations here.”

“What kind of vibrations?” The radio operator asked, even as he flagged down a higher officer. Reinhard came over, though it wasn’t at all his prerogative.

“Is it normal for the car to shake?”

“This might be an attack on the elevator,” Reinhard said. “Order them to come back up.”

“Do you have the authority--”

The static was roaring out of the speakers now, and the tinny voice of the car operator could barely be heard. “There’s something wrong with the engine control--” And then his voice receded into nothingness, no matter how much the operator entered different parameters for gain and frequency.

“Come in, Alpha group,” the radio operator said, growing increasingly more frantic. “Come in.”

By this point, Bucock had been alerted that something had gone terribly wrong. He could hardly miss the wailing static that was now permeating the bridge. “Do we have eyes on the elevator?” he asked.

At his command, the display board at the front of the bridge stopped showing the abstract positions of all their forces, and instead showed a distant view of the elevator. It should have been invisible against the black void of space, except where it crossed in front of Phezzan itself, but it was faintly illuminated, and hazy looking. If Reinhard hadn’t known that there was something deeply, dangerously wrong with it, the haze and light could have been mistaken for reflections of light from the planet, the sunrise just creeping around its edge now. But that dark haze, and the pale fire that struck the edges of the hair thin wire to the surface, that was the end of their easy occupation of Phezzan. Reinhard knew it.

Bucock knew it, too. “Evacuate the top of the elevator-- I want every ship away from that port. Now!”

“Sir, what about the cars?” the radio operator said, even as Bucock’s message was relayed out to every ship in the system.

“They’re already dead,” Reinhard said, but he wasn’t sure if anyone heard him. He ended up shuffled out of the way, out of Bucock’s line of sight, his eyes glued to the display as the ships pulled back and began to undock from the port.

Bucock had given the correct order, but it came too late to save the ships who were already docked, and even some of those who had not pulled away far enough were struck fatally by debris when the nuclear detonator hidden deep inside the port’s structure went off.

It was a momentary light brighter and closer than any star, swallowing the port briefly and spitting it back out at the waiting ships, half chewed. It was the second time that Reinhard had seen this exact thing happen, and he was struck by the deja vu as the outside view of the world from the bridge of Bucock’s flagship blacked out, all her cameras overwhelmed and her sensors unable to pick up anything but the overwhelming EM blast.

Reinhard clenched his fists so hard that his fingernails left claw marks on his palms. It felt like a personal failure, and he seethed and churned with anger as people on the bridge rushed around him, the one man with no job in the chaos. He should have been on the ansible with Trunicht, reporting the situation, trying to make a new plan, but he was frozen, watching the debris settle, listening to the horrified readjustment of everyone on the bridge of the ship as they tried to reestablish order among the lines of ships around Phezzan, tried to reestablish communications with the ground, tried to reestablish a course of action.

Reinhard caught Bucock’s eye across the bridge, almost by accident. The old man was leaning on the console, giving orders in a calm and professional voice. His shoulders were hunched forward, and his face was weary and resigned more than anything else. Bucock was a professional soldier, the kind of man who was all too used to accepting losses and turning his face towards a long haul. He finished his conversation and summoned Reinhard over to his side with a beckoning wave. Reinhard came, giving a sharp salute.

“Sir.”

Bucock looked him over. “Since this was your plan, Captain, I’d like your initial assessment of how much of it can be salvaged.”

It was exquisite self control that kept Reinhard from doing anything other than stiffening his back at the reminder that this was his fault. He hardly needed to be reminded. “That depends on what the situation on the ground is,” Reinhard said. “We won’t be able to find that out until we reestablish communications, and those might have to be by courier shuttle.” The cloud of debris that was surrounding the planet seemed unlikely to dissipate any time soon-- if it ever would.

“What do you predict the situation on the planet to be?”

“The elevator is Phezzan’s lifeblood,” Reinhard said. “I think that unless the Phezzani government cooperates with calming their population, we’ll have civilian unrest that the Rosenritter are unprepared to deal with. We--” It was difficult for him to say the admission aloud, but he grit his teeth. “We’ve lost a lot of our ground capabilities. If the Phezzani government does not cooperate with us, Phezzan is about to become a nightmare on the ground. And beyond the government, all the private entities that control the basic utilities, and planet-wide supply chains-- they’ll need to fall into line as well. If possible, without the use of excessive force.”

“Admiral Greenhill is still close enough to lend us strength that was intended for Odin.”

Reinhard shook his head. “He’s operating under political orders. Diverting resources back to Phezzan would look too much like an admission of defeat. If he was the only person making choices, he might, but he’s not.”

Bucock nodded. “And what are our choices?”

“We do have men and shuttles,” Reinhard said. “Not as many of them as anyone would like, especially not shuttles, but we have them. We need to start ferrying people and equipment down now, get a supply line set up.’

“That’s about the only thing we can do,” Bucock said. “Continue.”

“As far as acting as a depot point for resupplying the front, without the port, we’re just going to be passing material ship-to-ship. We’re going to need to authorize the construction of at least some sort of facility here, even something temporary. There’s no other depots close enough that we can use as an alternative.”

“The High Council won’t appreciate an expenditure like that.”

“I know,” Reinhard said. “But we’ll be too vulnerable here if we don’t get something put together quickly. I’ll stress that to Trunicht when I speak with him.”

“You’ll convince him, will you?”

“I have to try, sir,” Reinhard said. He looked over at the chaos on the display at the front of the bridge: all the ships remaining hurrying to rescue any survivors they could, clear out of the way of moving debris, and reorganize into something approaching a unified formation. “Trunicht knows he’s committed to this operation. It has to succeed. At the very least, we have to hold Phezzan, and make it clear to people back home that Phezzan was worth getting and worth holding.”

Bucock nodded. “I’ll have to go down to Phezzan. I would have liked to conduct this business primarily from orbit, but there needs to be leadership on the ground, now that communications are going to be more difficult.”

“Sir-- Phezzan is vulnerable from the outside, as well.”

Bucock sighed. “I appreciate your concern for our supply lines, Müsel-- you think like your sister-- but the humanitarian issues on the surface are going to be the government’s priority.”

“I understand that, sir, but--”

Bucock held up his hand. “If the Imperial fleet tries to attack our supply line, it’s likely to be further in. The line between here and Odin is going to be long-- and longer if we don’t get the Navigation Office data. Phezzan, even if the only ships we have protecting it are Commodore Attenborough’s wing of the fleet, is not the weakest point in the chain.”

“But it is going to be the place where a single blow would hit hardest. And if the Empire decides to take Phezzan, our fleet will be cut off.”

Bucock shook his head. “If they put a full invasion force in between here and our fleet going out into the Empire, they risk being surrounded themselves.”

“They wouldn’t necessarily--”

“Captain, all of this would have been a possibility even if Phezzan’s elevator was still operational, and everything had gone according to plan.” He looked at Reinhard steadily, and for once in his life, Reinhard’s skin crawled with the desire to slink away and escape Bucock’s gaze. He wasn’t reprimanding, not exactly, but that was worse. “We were never going to have a large fleet stationed permanently in this system-- you know that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Bucock looked out solemnly at the fleet on the display, the tiny images of ships coalescing slowly back into organized lines, the haze of debris that had interposed itself between them and the planet’s surface. “We had bad intel,” he said at last. “That’s put better men and better plans in worse positions than we’re in now. You bet that no Phezzani’d destroy their country’s own lifeblood-- you bet wrong.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And so did everyone else,” Bucock pointed out. “You may want the galaxy on your shoulders, son, but you don’t have it yet.”

Reinhard bristled, but Bucock wasn’t even looking at him. “Yes, sir.”

“Get on the ansible with Trunicht. Tell him whatever he needs to hear in order to get us whatever we need to have to make this work.”

“Yes, sir.”

“When I go down to Phezzan, you’ll remain with Commodore Attenborough.”

“Sir, I’d like to go down to the surface.”

Bucock shook his head. “With communications so limited, I will need you to bridge the gap between Heinessen and here. You understand Phezzan, and you understand Heinessen’s way of operating. That’s more valuable to this operation than anything else, and you’re the only person here who can fill that role.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Commodore Attenborough will appreciate any help you can give him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go,” Bucock said. “Talk to Trunicht.”

Reinhard saluted and went.

 


 

Reinhard’s initial report to Trunicht ended up being very perfunctory. Since there was still no information about the status of the operation of the ground, he could only report the successes they had had prior to the destruction of the space elevator, and the problems that had begun after it. Reinhard sketched out what he thought their most critical needs would be, and Trunicht had been extremely non-committal about the idea of providing more resources. He kept pivoting the conversation back to a list of things that had gone according to plan, and told Reinhard that was plenty to work with for now.

“Has Rubinsky surrendered?” Trunicht asked. “I’d like to be able to say that with a smiling face when I speak to the public.”

“He was not in the capitol building,” Reinhard said. “The Rosenritter will find him.”

“If they don’t, if he’s run, get somebody to sign something for me,” Trunicht said. “I don’t care who.”

“Yes, sir,” Reinhard said. “Bucock is going down to the surface to get the operation under control, as soon as we have more information.”

“Good. What’s the status of the Navigation Office?”

“Unknown, sir,” Reinhard said. “If they’ve been able to get any data, it will have to be brought up to us by courier shuttle, so it may be some time before we’re able to send anything to Admiral Greenhill.”

“But he’s still working his way through the corridor?”

“Yes, sir. He’s already long gone.”

“Good. I’ll say we’re making good progress on our entry into the Empire.” Through the ansible’s static, Trunicht looked almost bored. “Keep me updated.” And then he ended the call, quite abruptly. 

It was perhaps for the best that his talk with Trunicht had been so brief. When Reinhard emerged from the secure ansible broadcast room, he found an enlisted man waiting for him with a message. “Sir, there’s been a shuttle sent up with a message for you.”

“What’s the message?” Reinhard asked as he followed the enlisted man.

“They’re waiting in Admiral Bucock’s wardroom.”

The wardroom was guarded by another enlisted man, who saluted Reinhard and let him in without question. “Is Admiral Bucock coming?” Reinhard asked, looking around the room. Even as he said that, his eyes landed on a familiar figure.

Dominique Saint-Pierre stood out, as she usually did. Her red hair coiled around her face and her thin black dress was completely out of place on a warship. Although her coloration reminded Reinhard of Ingrid-- his thoughts turning back to her for an instant-- the way Dominique held herself, her head high and her eyes sharp, was as different as possible from the quiet woman in Annerose’s house. She turned her attention on Reinhard as he entered the room, and her lips curled up into her practiced, charming smile. Reinhard paid it no mind. “Your sister told me to speak directly to you,” Dominique said. “I’m glad that you came, rather than Admiral Bucock.”

There were a few Rosenritter who had stood up to salute as Reinhard came in, and when he looked at them for confirmation of Dominique’s statement, they nodded. Reinhard shut the door behind himself, then motioned for everyone to sit at the table. Aside from the Rosenritter who he didn’t recognize except for the unit patches on their sleeves, there was one other unfamiliar face in the room: a slender man a few years older than himself, with dull, lanky hair that fell around his ears. He was dressed in a suit, but looked as though he had not slept in far too long.

“It’s unclear to me why Commander Müsel would have sent a pop star on a joy ride up to our warship,” Reinhard said. “If you would care to explain.”

Commander Müsel and I made a deal,” Dominique said, tossing her hair back over her shoulder, fingers trailing along her collarbone as she did.

“I’m afraid that neither she nor I have any kind of authority to make deals. If there’s something of importance that needs to be discussed, you should do it with Admiral Bucock.”

“But you aren’t going to get up and walk away, are you?” She smiled. “You’ll listen to what I have to say.”

“Then say it.”

Dominique turned towards the silent mystery man who was seated at her right hand. “Captain Müsel, this is Rupert Kesselink, secretary to Landesherr Rubinsky.”

“Pleasure, I’m sure,” Reinhard said. He made no move to shake Kesselink’s hand.

“Mr. Kesselink is very willing to sign Phezzan’s surrender for you, taking over the civilian administration of Phezzan, considering that the Landesherr has abandoned his post.”

“Abandoned his post?” Reinhard said. “He can’t have gone far.”

“He’s trying to,” Dominique said. “He’s the one who ordered the elevator destroyed, you know.”

“Is that so?”

“He’s the only one who had the power to do so. Very few people even knew about the failsafe embedded in it, and only the Landesherr had the key to activate it.”

“Then we will find Rubinsky and jail him,” Reinhard said.

“He also tipped off the Imperial Embassy,” Dominique said. “He found it would be far more profitable to align himself with them than it would be to remain as head of a failed state.”

“So, you’re offering me someone who will be willing to put his name to Phezzan’s surrender?” He studied the silent Kesselink for a second. “Are you the sacrificial lamb?” he asked.

“No, I don’t believe I am.”

Dominique interjected. “I offered your sister the location of the members of the Imperial Embassy who were attempting to flee, in exchange for putting Mr. Kesselink in charge of whatever civilian government is put in place on Phezzan. His first act, as a gesture of his cooperation, can be to sign the surrender, since Rubinsky is long gone.”

“On what authority?” Reinhard asked.

“Secretary to the Landesherr is a privileged position,” Dominique said. “Since Phezzan’s government is unelected, he’s as close to the top as you are likely to find. And, as I said to your sister--”

“She would say that authority comes from having a gun in your hand.”

“I wasn’t quite so direct.” Dominique smiled. “But she and I had an understanding, which is why she sent me to speak with you.”

“Commander Müsel should not have presumed I would share her understanding,” Reinhard said. A couple of the Rosenritter seated at the table smirked at that. Reinhard snapped his attention over to them. “What does Captain Schenkopp think about this?”

“We haven’t been able to contact Captain Schenkopp at all, sir,” one of the Rosenritter said. “At least not before we came up by shuttle.”

Reinhard frowned. “So, nothing from the Navigation Office to give to Admiral Greenhill.”

“Not yet, sir.”

“Who is in charge of the regiment, if Captain Schenkopp doesn’t report back?”

“Commander Linz would be, sir, but he’s injured. So Commander Blumhart would be interim commander.”

Reinhard nodded. “And Commander Blumhart--”

“Loaned Commander Müsel men to capture the Imperial soldiers.”

Reinhard turned back to Dominique. “It’s not clear to me what you’re getting out of all of this.”

Dominique smiled even more hungrily. “Adrian decided to bet on the Imperial side in this war. Perhaps he thought it would retain his own independence for longer. Maybe he’s planning to turn on them, someday. I believed he was making a mistake.”

“That explains not following him,” Reinhard said. “Not all this.”

“It’s clear to me that Phezzan’s days of independence are over,” Dominique said. “And anyone who tries to bring them back will be wasting their time at best. But that doesn’t mean that Phezzan is going to be a useless pawn, and that her people will have no relevance for the future of the galaxy.”

“And you think you can play your cards right, to what end?” Reinhard asked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you at all, Ms. Saint-Pierre.”

“But you would understand Mr. Kesselink if he said the same thing.”

“He’s not saying it, Ms. Saint-Pierre, though. You are.”

“Then let me speak for myself,” Kesselink said. “For Ms. Saint-Pierre, this is an opportunity to profit in the same ways she has always profited. She was close with the Landesherr, and she will be close with me. And, as for myself, you’ll forgive me for seeing an opportunity to make my mark on the galaxy. It has always been difficult for Phezzanis to find true respect outside of Phezzan, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.”

“Will you find any true respect as a man who’s sold his own country?” Reinhard asked. “Because that’s what you’re offering to do.”

“It’s already gone,” Kesselink said. “If I’m offering anything, it’s my connections on Phezzan to smooth over some of the damage that’s been done. The people of Phezzan respect someone who can make deals. And I find I’ve always been good at making deals.”

Reinhard leaned back in his seat. “You said that you told Commander Müsel where to find the Imperial Embassy staff?”

“I did,” Dominique said.

“Do you expect her to find them?”

“Yes, though catching them might be another question.”

Reinhard was silent for a second. “You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Kesselink.”

“I know,” he said.

“I just spoke with Secretary Trunicht, and he ordered me to find someone to sign Phezzan’s official surrender. You’ll fit the bill as well as anyone else. If Commander Müsel is able to capture the Imperial Embassy, that is.”

“A fair deal, Captain,” Kesselink said. “I look forward to a long and fruitful collaboration.”

Reinhard smiled and did not respond.

“Captain,” Dominique said, “I should congratulate you on your own ambitions finally taking shape.”

“Have they?” Reinhard asked.

“You said you wished to destroy the Goldenbaum dynasty, last time we met. Here you are, a force rampaging through the galaxy, off to do that very thing.”

“I’m hardly at the helm.”

She smiled. “But here you are, making deals, regardless.”

“The circumstances permit it.”

“Humility doesn’t suit you,” she said. “Don’t pretend like it does.”

Reinhard’s expression hardened, and he snapped his tone back to businesslike. “You’ll stay on the flagship until Admiral Bucock says you can return to Phezzan. I’ll have to discuss how he wants Phezzan’s surrender to play out. Secretary Trunicht will like having a nice picture to show off back home.”

“They should put your sister in the frame,” Dominique said. “She’s extremely photogenic.”

 


 

It was another several hours before good news made its way up from the surface of Phezzan, and this was, in fact, good news. A shuttle carrying the status of Captain Schenkopp’s team and the first recovered pieces of data from the Navigation Office’s computers arrived first, and Reinhard’s voice was on the border between triumphant and relieved when he passed that news off to Secretary Trunicht. Even if it was only a partial recovery of data, since the Navigation Office had been trying to wipe all of their computers even as Schenkopp stormed the building, that was enough to get Admiral Greenhill’s ships moving faster through the corridor, and to Odin.

The second shuttle arrived not too long afterwards, and this one carried passengers, if unwilling ones. The captured members of the Imperial embassy were brought to the flagship and held. Since they were the only prisoners worth speaking of (any members of the Phezzani government were being held on Phezzan itself, and would be released as soon as Kesselink signed the planet’s surrender), they were given prompt medical treatment and a hot meal, though all of them were locked in one of the holding rooms with guards on the door.

Reinhard asked to speak to Muller, alone, and Muller was subsequently brought, in cuffs, to the small office that Reinhard had been given on board the ship. Reinhard thanked Muller’s escort, held the door of the office open so that Muller, glaring at him the whole time, could step inside, and then shut the door behind them both.

Muller slid halfway down his seat in the chair across from Reinhard, who steepled his fingers and smiled. There was something undeniably funny about the way Muller was glaring at him. If he could have crossed his arms in his cuffs, he would have.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” Reinhard finally said, nodding at the commander’s two stripes on Muller’s uniform. 

“Oh, fuck off,” Muller said. Although Reinhard had spoken in the Imperial language, Muller answered in the Phezzani argot. “My career’s over now that you’ve taken me prisoner, Captain. Even if I get sent back in a prisoner exchange--” He attempted to gesture, but then remembered his handcuffs, and his hands flopped back down into his lap. He scowled.

“Maybe that’s for the best,” Reinhard said, smiling. “Your country’s not going to last much longer in its current form.”

“Clearly time away from Phezzan hasn’t cured you of your ego.”

“I thought we parted as friends, Muller.”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Muller said. “It’s not very friendly for me to be your prisoner.”

“I told you I’d save you a nice spot in a POW camp.”

“Even back then, were you really thinking of invading Phezzan?” Muller asked. Some of the annoyance dropped out of his voice, and was replaced by a strange, sad contemplativeness. “Did you spend your whole time there plotting out the best way to capture the capital?”

Reinhard stared at him for a second. “You really did try to believe the line about there not being a war on Phezzan, didn’t you?”

Muller’s face pinched. “Do you have some kind of point?”

“No.”

“Alright then.”

They stared at each other in silence for a second. “Yes,” Reinhard finally said. “I was thinking of it. And the fact that everyone else wasn’t was shortsightedness, on their part.”

“Captain Müsel, singlehandedly going to win the war for the Alliance,” Muller said. “With his intimate knowledge of Phezzan as a weapon.”

Reinhard spread his hands. “I’m not in charge.”

“No, right.” Muller looked away. “You will be soon enough. You’re that kind of person.”

“What kind?”

“You’ve come out on top. You always will.”

“I can’t tell if you’re trying to pay me a compliment or not.”

“I’ll be honest, Captain, I liked our talks better when I wasn’t in handcuffs.”

Reinhard looked at him silently for a second, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the electronic key. He held out his hand. Muller met his eyes, then slowly held his hands out so that Reinhard could unlock the cuffs, holding his wrist steady to do so. When the cuffs fell away, he pulled his hands back and rubbed his wrist.

“That better?” Reinhard asked.

“It’s still an unavoidable fact that I’m your prisoner,” Muller said. “You think I’m naive for pretending that we could be friends on Phezzan-- you’re worse for pretending we can be friends here.”

“You don’t have to be my prisoner,” Reinhard said.

“You’re going to do me the favor of sneaking me onto a shuttle and back down to the ground?” Muller asked. “That won’t go over so well, even if I do make it back to Odin somehow.”

“No,” Reinhard said. “I’m offering you the chance to defect.”

“They don’t let POWs do that,” Muller said. “Sorta defeats the purpose.”

“I can get you out of it,” Reinhard said. “You can keep your rank, and work with me.”

Muller’s face twisted. “You’re really asking me to betray the Empire.”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

“There’s not going to be an Empire for much longer.”

“If you have anything to do with it, you mean.”

“And even if there was, you already said you wouldn’t do well in it as a repatriated POW.”

“You think I’d do better as a defector? Come on, Müsel, we know how defectors are treated.”

“I left the Empire.”

“Refugees are different.”

“I would make sure that you would be treated well. You’d have my trust, at the very least.”

That cracked something in Muller’s posture. What had been anger slumped down into mere pragmatism. “I don’t see how you could make this happen, Müsel.”

“I will explain that you have been working for me as a spy, since the days I was posted on Phezzan,” he said. “It could look true enough.”

“Besides the fact that I wasn’t a spy, not any more than you were-- nobody trusts anybody who smells like a double agent.” He jerked his head at Reinhard. “They don’t trust refugees that much.”

“You would really rather spend your time in a POW camp until this war is over?”

“Müsel-- I’m trying to look out for you, believe it or not,” Muller said. He crossed his arms. “I don’t understand why you’d stick your neck out for me-- your head’s liable to get cut right off.”

“I’m not going to be able to take down the Empire singlehandedly,” Reinhard said. “And it seems like a terrible shame to throw away talent.”

“Oh, I thought you were going to say something sentimental, for a moment there.”

“I told you, Muller. It doesn’t pay to be sentimental around here.”

“I don’t see what I can do for you,” Muller said. “Not enough to make it worth whatever capital you’d have to give in order to get me.”

“Really goes to show that you’ve been posted to Phezzan for too long, if you’re thinking about it as me paying something I won’t be able to get back.”

“And you don’t think you will be?”

“I work for Secretary Trunicht right now,” Reinhard said. “That gives me a lot of wiggle room. I don’t think getting you would cost me an unrecoverable amount, especially if you do turn out to be loyal to the Alliance.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Are you asking me because you want me to be loyal to the Alliance, or loyal to you?”

“What do you want the answer to be to that question?” Reinhard asked.

Muller looked away. “You’d better be careful,” he said. “People notice when an ambitious person starts collecting loyal subordinates. Job Trunicht, from what I’ve read about him, isn’t the kind of man who’d let you do that forever.”

“And if I said I wanted you to be my friend, rather than my subordinate?”

“It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d say, if I’m being honest with you, Müsel. You pronounce the word like it has a different meaning than the one the rest of us understand.”

“On Phezzan, you were still my enemy. Here, you’re my prisoner. I’m offering you--”

“Yes,” Muller said suddenly, cutting him off. “Fine. You win, Müsel.”

Reinhard raised his eyebrows. “What changed your mind?”

“I don’t think I could stand to make you beg for me, really,” Muller said, and he smiled for the first time. “But it’s nice to see you want me so badly.”

“I don’t think you could make me do anything, Muller.” But he grinned, despite himself, and offered Muller his hand. “But I’m glad to have you.”

They shook on it.

 


 

Two weeks later, the situation around Phezzan remained the kind of semi-organized chaos that made everyone feel their lack of sleep acutely. Admiral Bucock had gone down to the surface of Phezzan, along with all of the remaining ground troops, in order to keep the peace on the planet. With the space elevator destroyed, various supply shortages were quickly becoming dire, though Bucock, in his letters reporting his status couriered up on shuttles daily, said things were progressing about as well as expected. Reinhard believed him; he wasn’t the type to lie. Still, it was his responsibility to massage the news to Trunicht and the High Council, in order to be able to report a positive situation to the rest of the Alliance, to justify the invasion, while simultaneously making it clear exactly what Bucock needed to keep things going as smoothly as possible on Phezzan.

Only time would tell if Reinhard’s efforts on that front would really bear fruit. Things tended to move slowly in the High Council, where money was concerned, anyway, and Reinhard was asking for a lot of money. And with Phezzan’s elevator destroyed, taking control of their economy had done less to help the Alliance’s immediate financial burden than everyone had been hoping.

Commodore Dusty Attenborough had taken command of the fleet in Phezzan’s star system, since Bucock was on the ground. All things considered, it was a tiny fleet-- barely three thousand ships-- but it was a busy one. They monitored the Phezzan corridor, ferried supplies down to the surface on an endless stream of shuttles, and had begun to clear some of the most dangerous debris from its orbit around the planet. 

Dusty was enjoying the responsibility, though he was also walking around with an egregious amount of stubble on his cheeks, and bags under his eyes. They made him look much older than the Alliance’s youngest flag officer.

Currently, Dusty was standing on the bridge, peering sadly into his empty cup of coffee as he listened to a report on what progress was being made selecting a suitable asteroid that they could drag into position to form the new basis of a port station in Phezzan’s orbit. Reinhard was listening as well, trying to think of ways to phrase the report as a strong encouragement for the High Council to authorize the shipment of supplies and personnel it would take to construct such a base. He thought that, if Dusty ordered the most viable candidate to be dragged into position, Reinhard could present the whole thing as a done deal. A base under construction would play a lot better with the voting public than a stalled endeavor, with all the citizens of Phezzan, and the troops at the front, suffering because the supply lines were dysfunctional.

Even as he listened to the report, Reinhard’s attention strayed to the operational display at the front of the bridge. It showed the positions of the ships in the fleet, the swarm darting around Phezzan like a colony of ants, each ship intent on its own task. He studied it as the officer giving the asteroid report finished, and was still looking when Dusty turned to him.

“So, are you going to earn your passage aboard my flagship and get me that engineering corps?” Dusty asked, nudging Reinhard with his elbow to break him out of his reverie. 

“I wasn’t aware you were about to start charging me room and board.”

“I should, especially for the Imperial you’ve insisted on making me house.”

“Not an Imperial anymore.”

“Well, until his papers go through, he’s not anything,” Dusty pointed out. “I probably should have insisted he get shipped back to Heinessen.”

“I don’t think you have that authority,” Reinhard said.

“It’s not really clear you have the authority to keep him here, either.”

“It’s nice to be a man with an ambiguous role and undefined responsibilities,” Reinhard said, which made Dusty laugh.

“I wouldn’t trade with you.”

“I would,” Reinhard said.

“I can’t tell if jealousy is a good look on you or not,” Dusty said with a grin.

“But it is also nice to be half the galaxy away from my direct superior,” Reinhard said.

“Exactly. Speaking of, you see Bucock’s report this morning?”

“I did.”

“You think you’ll be able to do anything about his civilian problem?”

Reinhard frowned. “It’s not a problem with authorizing people to travel back to the Alliance,” he said. “Nobody has to pass a bill to say that Phezzani citizens, or Alliance citizens who were stranded on Phezzan when the elevator went down, have the legal right to travel. The problem is just ships. Passenger ships were meant to dock at the elevator, and they don’t have much of an alternate mode of operation. And we need every shuttle we have for important supplies, not for people trying to evacuate.”

“Could you get maybe a couple passenger liners to come by? I could earmark a few shuttles for bringing people up and down.”

“There is also the issue of precedent. If we allow people to start leaving, Bucock might have the beginnings of a real exodus on his hands, or at least an attempted one.”

“True.” Dusty sighed. “We have got to get this port project moving as quickly as possible.”

“You don’t have to make me promise that I’m working on it. You know I am.” He looked again at the options that had been presented for asteroids to use as potential port sites. “Which one of these are you going to pick?”

“In an ideal world, I’d like to pick one that’s heavy enough to use as a basis for a new elevator,” Dusty said. “But Phezzan’s old elevator base used to be a moon of theirs. I don’t know if we’d be able to haul anything that size-- and I want to have someone who knows more about it than I do look at it before we try. I need those engineers.”

“I feel like I’d have an easier time getting them if the project was already underway.”

“A better-to-ask-forgiveness type thing?”

“More like sunk cost,” Reinhard said. “People are more likely to throw money at projects that already exist.”

“I’ll think about it,” Dusty said. “But the last thing I want is to haul something into the right orbit and then need to switch it up later. Or worse, give Phezzan a useless new moon.”

“There’s one other thing you could do for me,” Reinhard said.

“Shoot, though I’m not going to say yes.”

Reinhard pointed at the display. “You don’t have any kind of organized defense of the planet.”

“You think we’re going to be attacked?” Dusty raised his eyebrows. “Greenhill’s hit resistance, but they haven’t made it around him yet. And I doubt they’re going to.”

“They don’t have to come from that side of the corridor,” Reinhard said.

“Jesus, Müsel, you’re paranoid. If they were going to loop out here through Iserlohn, they would have had to have started the day we invaded, and they would have had to have evaded every patrol we have out there.”

“We don’t have many patrols out there,” Reinhard said. “Most of our strength is with Greenhill.”

“The Iserlohn stationed fleet is not that big,” Dusty said.

“It’s more than three thousand ships.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“My advice would be to group up and move away from the planet. I’d rather us be further out in the system and able to act as a block.”

“You understand that I’m not just spread out like this for fun, right? We’re doing things here.”

“I understand,” Reinhard said. “And you’re the fleet commander. But I would rather be prepared for the worst than get caught with no way to fight back.”

Dusty stared at the display for a long minute. “You’re telling me this now because this would be the time that a fleet does start arriving, if they left right after we took Phezzan?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said.

“Do you really think that’s likely?”

“Muller told me that his most recent update was that Duke Braunschweig himself was on Iserlohn,” Reinhard said. “From what I know about him-- it would be a bold move to run out here immediately, but he’s been making nothing but bold moves in this civil war. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“And you trust Mr. Muller’s intel?”

“Yeah,” Reinhard said. “I do.”

Dusty rubbed his chin. It was a habit he had picked up from Bucock, but it looked funnier on him than it did on the old man. “This isn’t going to make the situation on Phezzan any better.”

Reinhard had already won the argument. “Neither will the planet being taken over by the Empire.”

“Well,” Dusty said. “You can have fun explaining to Bucock why everything is going to have to travel like, a couple hundred times as far to get to him, once I move everything out of orbit. And to your boss why I’m having my fleet act like it’s run by the most paranoid man in the galaxy.”

“Don’t worry,” Reinhard said. “I’ll tell them you were taking orders from a captain with no defined role or responsibility.”

Dusty snickered. “Now that’s a good way to get yourself dragged back to Heinessen. You’d better be careful about what boundaries you’re pushing.”

“People keep saying that to me,” Reinhard said.

“But you’re not going to listen.”

Reinhard just smiled. “Move those ships, Commodore.”

Dusty just rolled his eyes. “When you actually outrank me, I’ll cry.”

“I look forward to it.”

 


 

Four days later, scouts reported a fleet of Imperial ships moving at top speed through the Alliance side of the Phezzan corridor.