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Lighting Out for the Territories

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December 795 UC, Phezzan

Reinhard had always hated parties, and this one was no exception. He didn’t mind the stiff white dress uniform he was wearing, nor did he mind the food, or the music. It was simply the concept of being at a party, when he would rather be doing something productive. But as a newly appointed military attache at the FPA High Commissioner’s Office on Phezzan, he had been invited to a New Year’s party at the estate of the Landesherr, Adrian Rubinsky. 

The guest list at the party was as varied as the population of Phezzan itself. Most of the guests were dressed in the chic and slinky Phezzani fashion, with shiny, slick fabrics draped loosely over people’s bodies; bare arms and swooping necklines showcased elaborate jewelry. This fashion was almost gender neutral. As far as Reinhard could see, the only difference between a tunic and a dress was the presence of pants underneath. Of course, there were plenty of more staid fashion choices present. Many men were wearing simple suits of either the cuts fashionable in the Alliance or the Empire, and there were a scattering of women in the traditional imperial gowns, as well. Reinhard could even spot a few people in imperial fleet uniforms on the other side of the room, presumably Reinhard’s counterparts from the imperial embassy on Phezzan. After all, at this party hosted by the Landesherr, one group couldn't be invited without inviting the other. 

Reinhard’s commanding officer, a commodore by the name of Jeremiah Blackwell, sidled up to him as Reinhard lurked near the refreshments table. Blackwell was a stocky man, shorter than Reinhard by a few inches, and his nose looked like it had been mashed to a pulp several times in his adolescence, giving him an oddly pug-nosed appearance. His normally olive cheeks were flushed slightly; he was drunk already. “So, Müsel, how are you enjoying your first Phezzani party?”

“Am I supposed to be enjoying it, sir?”

“That would be the point of a party, Müsel.”

“It’s fine, sir. I’m not much of a party person.”

“You should go talk to people. There’s plenty of girls who would like to meet the resident celebrity.”

Reinhard wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know why I should be famous on Phezzan. I was under the impression that I was sent here in order to let my fame die down a little bit.”

Blackwell laughed, loudly, which caused several nearby party guests to turn and look at him. “No, of course not. There are many qualities required for a posting on Phezzan, and one of them is how good you look to the local populace. It’s a PR move to put you here, for sure.”

“I see.”

“So,” Blackwell said, nodding at one of the photographers who was circling the room like hawks, “it might be for the best if you get photographed speaking with someone interesting, rather than standing around the snacks all night.”

“Is that an order, sir?”

“There’s no orders at parties. It’s just a suggestion. But part of our duties here are to maintain positive relationships with Phezzan.”

“The Secretary of Defense may have made a mistake in assigning me here personally, then,” Reinhard said. “If the job is to go to parties, that’s never been a skill that I have cultivated.”

Blackwell laughed. “Where would you prefer to be posted?”

“On the front lines, sir. Ideally in the Sixth Fleet.”

“Why the Sixth Fleet in particular?”

“Lieutenant Commander Greenhill is posted there.”

“She your girl, eh?”

“No, sir. We just work very well together.”

Blackwell patted Reinhard on the shoulder, and he was luckily too drunk to notice Reinhard’s slight grimace. “You’ll get her someday, I’m sure.” He chuckled a little. “Though in the meantime, Phezzani girls are beautiful and liberated, if you know what I mean.”

Reinhard frowned. “I see.”

Blackwell pointed again. “Now, see, there’s a woman you should talk to.” He was indicating a tall redhead, dressed in black, with a circlet of diamonds tight around her neck that glittered in the party lights. She was standing by herself, holding a glass of wine but not drinking it.

“Who is she?”

“Dominique Saint-Pierre. You’ve probably heard of her before. She’s pretty famous.”

“I don’t believe I have, sir.”

“Well, she’s better known under her stage name, Primacy.”

“Oh, yeah.” Reinhard looked at her, and the weight of his gaze seemed to attract Dominique’s attention, because their eyes met across the room. “What’s a musician doing here?”

“Anybody who’s anybody comes to these events. But in particular, she’s involved with Rubinsky. I went to a party at her house, once.”

“Interesting,” Reinhard said.

“Speak of the devil,” Blackwell said. Dominique was walking towards them, still holding her wine delicately in her hand. “I’ll let you have a little chat.”

Reinhard frowned at Blackwell as he disappeared into the crowd, but he was quickly replaced with Dominique.

“So, you’re the celebrity,” Dominique said. Her voice was low for a woman’s, and somewhat sultry. Reinhard’s brain took a moment to adjust to what she was saying, since she was speaking in the pidgin that was the common language on Phezzan, half imperial language, half Alliance. When Reinhard had been on the planet as a child, he hadn’t minded it, because it meant that he could understand about half of spoken conversation, and the rest was meaningless. Now that he could speak both languages fluently, the way that the pidgin mixed them together grated on his ears. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to which words came from which tongue, and Reinhard felt like he was fumbling when he tried to compose a sentence. He would have preferred to pick one language and stick with it, not this messy conglomeration. Still, he replied as smoothly as he could.

“It’s my impression that there are many celebrities on Phezzan, and I have had only about five minutes of fame. Ms. Saint-Pierre, was it?”

“Just Dominique,” she said. “Being called ‘miss’ anything makes me feel like a schoolteacher.” She smiled. “But you’re…” She studied the pin on his collar. “Commander?”

“Lieutenant Commander,” Reinhard supplied.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Reinhard said. “I admit I’m surprised to find that I have such a reputation around here. You would think that after anything exciting I’d done was more than a year old, the news would have moved on and forgotten about me.”

“Hmm,” Dominique said. “Well, one thing that people don’t tend to do is forget a pretty face. And you certainly have one. It helps to have it attached to an intriguing personal story as well, I think.”

“Perhaps,” Reinhard said. “Though I would prefer to be defined first by what I am doing now, second by what I have done in the past, and not at all by things as superficial as looks. Besides, my sister is much nicer looking than I am.”

Dominique laughed. She reached out and touched Reinhard’s cheek with one finger. Reinhard pulled back immediately, and she dropped it with a raise of her eyebrow. “I’m afraid that you have it in rather the wrong order. First impressions matter quite a lot, and they’re usually based entirely on the superficial.”

“I’m afraid I’ve never made anything but a poor one.”

“No,” Dominique said. “I think you’ve made quite an interesting one on me.”

“I don’t know what basis you have to say such a thing.”

“A superficial one, Lieutenant Commander.” She smiled. “And based on what I know about your accomplishments. I have to ask: you’re not planning to do anything so dramatic while you’re here on our little planet, are you?”

“Fortunately, it’s unlikely that I will be put in dramatic circumstances. Phezzan is a peaceful place.”

“We like to think so, yes.” She glanced behind herself. “After all, where else can you find imperial and Alliance soldiers standing calmly in the same room together?”

“Do you know them well?” Reinhard asked, looking at the group of imperial soldiers, all dressed in their own formal uniforms. They looked approximately equivalent in number and rank to his own group.

“I’ve spoken to most of them,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I know them well. I’m sure you’ll get to know them better than I do.” She laughed a little.

“I wasn’t aware that I would be associating with them at all.”

“Oh, you probably won’t, though it’s my impression that some small matters are often conducted through the offices on Phezzan— prisoner exchanges and the like— but it’s longstanding tradition for your office to spy on theirs, and the other way around.”

“I see.”

“See, they’re already watching you.” The group of imperial soldiers were looking at Reinhard quite openly, now that he was speaking to Dominique, though he had felt their glances on him earlier in the party as well. There were a few particularly vitriolic expressions on their faces. Reinhard’s exact counterpart, a light- haired man wearing a lieutenant commander’s uniform, who was probably about the same age as Annerose, was studying him particularly intently.

“Should I be worried?” Reinhard asked.

“Probably not,” she said. “Though it’s a little unusual that they have reason to dislike you personally, rather than as just a member of the Alliance fleet.” Her lips turned upwards in a little bit of a sly expression. “Actually, hate you or not, they’ll probably try to recruit you.”

“Recruit me?” Reinhard asked, narrowing his eyes. “I thought it was well known that I am an imperial expatriate.”

“Certainly it is. And that’s why it would be an incredible propaganda move to lure you back to their side. It would make the crowd go wild.”

“They should give up on that idea.”

She laughed. “Never say never, Mr. von Müsel.”

“I can and I shall. Even if I did not hate the Goldenbaum dynasty to my core, the fact remains that the Secretary of Defense felt safe in posting me here because he knew that my own sister and mother are staying well inside the Alliance. I would never leave without them, which is to say that I will never leave.”

“Don’t be annoyed at me,” Dominique said. “I’m not saying that you would. I’m simply describing to you some of the possibilities.”

“Indeed.” 

“Did you pass through Phezzan when you left the Empire as a child?”

“I did.”

“Is there a reason you didn’t stay? Most imperial travellers do.”

“It didn’t make sense, financially speaking. My sister and I were too young to work, and my mother was in ill health. I don’t think you’ll be insulted for me to say that it’s far easier to be poor in the Alliance than it is to be poor on Phezzan.”

Dominique smiled. “There are no poor people on Phezzan.”

“I am aware that that is the party line.”

She laughed. “Is your impression of our little planet different now that you’re an adult?”

Reinhard thought for a second. “In some ways. When I was a child, I saw with the eyes of a child, as they say. I have a much better grasp on the working of things now.”

“The working of things?”

“I have some interest in economics,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, really? In what way?”

“I enjoy seeing how everything is interconnected. Economics is a way of explaining and controlling that interconnectedness.”

“You’re in the right place, then.”

“Well, I’ve always had more of an interest in the Alliance domestic policies than I had with Phezzan.”

“The two things are inextricably linked, aren’t they?”

Reinhard looked at Dominique carefully. “Yes, they are.”

“Are you planning to go into business when you retire from the fleet?”

“I have no intention to retire any time soon.”

“That’s not a yes or a no.”

“Business requires capital, which I rather lack,” Reinhard said. “And no, it doesn’t interest me.”

“Politics, then?”

He successfully resisted the urge to grimace. “No.”

“Then you’ll go back to school and become an academic?”

“Like I said, I have no interest in retiring from the fleet any time soon. It’s a career that I’m well suited for.”

She nodded. “You are young, though.”

“You seem very interested in me leaving the fleet.”

“You aren’t worried that you’ve already accomplished the greatest thing that you could? If I were in your shoes, I would spend every moment wondering if I shouldn’t get out, because this career is all downhill from where I was.”

Reinhard actually laughed at that. “You and I are very different people, then. There is always somewhere higher to climb. And in the grand scheme of things, what I have accomplished was flashy and exciting, but not particularly tactically relevant. The loss of one ship for the imperial fleet is nothing, and while the saving of four hundred Alliance soldiers may mean much to their families, in a war where battles regularly involve the lives and deaths of millions of people, it’s insignificant.”

“That’s an interesting way of thinking about things.”

“Is it?”

“You want to be in charge of the lives and deaths of millions?”

Reinhard’s smile showed teeth. “I would like to see the Goldenbaum dynasty destroyed,” he said. “And that is a goal that will involve a great many people, a far greater number than are on a single ship, or in a single fleet, even.”

Dominique studied him for a moment. “Well, it would be quite undiplomatic of me to wish you luck with that goal, so I shall have to wish you only good health.”

“Thank you,” Reinhard said.

“You’re an interesting man. I must invite you to my house sometime,” Dominique said. “Until then.” She wiggled her fingers in a kind of strange wave, and then vanished off into the party before Reinhard could even say goodbye. He shook his head a little, then returned to perusing the snack table. Even though he was no longer speaking with anyone, he could still feel eyes on him, and he looked over again at the group of imperial soldiers. His eyes met across the room with the lieutenant commander he had noticed before, and that man narrowed his eyes.

Hoping to perhaps overhear some of their names or conversation, Reinhard circled the room, moving slowly towards the imperial group, though he pretended like he was surveying the guests of the party in general. He saw Dominique had moved to talk to some older man, and she pointed at Reinhard, who nodded. The older man broke off from Dominique and headed towards Reinhard, which was annoying, because it prevented him from getting closer to the group of imperial soldiers. Still, just in case this man was important, Reinhard waited for him to arrive, and put a polite smile on his face.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel,” the man said. He was a slender man, with dark hair and a grim face. He was wearing some sort of robe, which Reinhard had first taken as regular Phezzan fashion, but then realized was Earth Church formal attire. “May I speak with you a minute?”

“Of course, Mister…?”

“Bishop Degsby,” he said. 

“Pleasure to meet you, Bishop.” They shook hands.

“Likewise,” Degsby said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Is that so?”

“I do keep in occasional touch with my counterparts in other parts of the galaxy. When I was informed that you were being stationed here, I asked if any of the bishops on Heinessen had ever met you.”

“Yes, I met Bishop Martine, once,” Reinhard said. “My mother is very involved with your church.”

“So I gather. Do you have any interest in religion?”

“Not in particular. I have always had much more concrete things to occupy my time and attention.”

Degsby smiled, a rather unpleasant expression. “You are not alone in that. However, I would say that matters of the spirit can be as concrete as matters of the body.”

“Is that so?”

“Ms. Saint-Pierre said that you have an interest in the way economies of money tie the galaxy together.”

“Yes.”

“Economies of spirit tie the galaxy together, as well. Ideology has moved more men and mountains than anything else.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Reinhard said. “At the root of it, most people are motivated by trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from. Ideology is a layer of abstraction on top of that.”

“You think there’s nothing deeper?”

“Look at the Goldenbaum dynasty,” Reinhard said. “They have mobilized more men in force than any other group before them, and I’d have to run the numbers, but I might even say that a proportionally higher number of their citizens are in their fleet than any other nation has had in their military. And yet what ideology do they have to speak of? The kaiser doesn’t even claim to have the mandate of heaven, just the blood of Rudolph, however many generations removed he is. All those people are fighting for the ideology of stability: the Goldenbaum dynasty has been making sure they’ve had food on the table, to a certain extent, for as long as they can remember, and they want that to continue.”

“And the Alliance?”

“Has a little more claim to ideology than the Empire does, and a little bit more claim to self-defense, since the fear that invading imperial soldiers would put civilians in prison camps is a justified one. But if liberty were the true motivator of people that the Alliance claims it is, the Goldenbaum dynasty would have ceased to exist long ago.”

“You have a bleak view of your homeland.”

Reinhard’s smile was cold. “The Alliance is my home, and I am grateful to it for all that it has given me, but I do not pretend that the reason I fled there as a child was out of some ideological purity. It was out of a simple desire to keep the ones I love safe. To say anything to the contrary would be the height of hypocrisy.”

“And yet you claim to hate the Goldenbaums?”

“Hatred is not ideology, Bishop. It’s personal.”

“I see, though I’m not entirely sure that I agree.”

“Oh?”

“If humans cared about nothing except for their next meal, as a species we would never have left the plains and jungles of ancient Earth. We would be no more than animals.”

“Well, you would be happy for that, wouldn’t you?” Reinahard asked. 

The bishop laughed, but it was cold. “No. I’m no luddite, just, as you say, an ideologue.”

“Humans have always had excess energy to put towards creating these layers of abstraction— certainly the amount of abstraction involved in, for example, buying a loaf of bread at the corner store makes it very far removed from the process of growing wheat, and even agriculture is a step removed from hunting and gathering. But despite every layer that is processing the food, shipping it around the planet, the act of laboring at a job to earn currency with which to purchase food, the complex web that controls the price— in the end, bread still ends up in someone’s hand. And the number one predictor of civil unrest and governmental collapse is just that: the cost and availability of bread.”

“These are views that any first year economics student could hold,” Degsby said.

“That doesn’t make them untrue. Furthering one’s education is just better understanding these layers of abstraction.”

“Perhaps.”

“And I’m not an economics student. I’m an officer in the Alliance fleet.”

Degsby chuckled again. “That, at least, is very true. I’m still not sure that you will be able to convince me that ideology is useless, though.”

“Trying to convince someone of that is a useless endeavor. I’m not disagreeing that it can provide people with a sense of meaning in their lives, like art or scientific advancement—“

“It provides many things. Meaning is one, community is another. The promise of something more than just an endless scramble for bread.”

“The circuses, then.”

“I prefer to think of it as the roses.”

“Indeed.”

“And there have been countless people in the universe who have given up their lives for the sake of the religion. People are motivated by many things.”

Reinhard’s voice was dry. “The proportion of people in a society who would gladly become martyrs is relatively small, and certainly an unstable base upon which to base a society.”

“But that type of person will always become an agitator in a society where they’re given no alternative. Ale Heinessen—”

“I do not think that Ale Heinessen would have joined the Earth Church,” Reinhard said.

“Perhaps not. And I don’t expect you to, either.”

“I’m glad.”

“But we’re not really at cross purposes,” Degsby said.

“That’s a dangerous thing to say in a place like this,” Reinhard said. “For you to show anything more than social politeness to the Alliance could jeopardize your standing within the Empire.”

“The branches of our church are relatively independent. But you are correct. I would like to speak with you again, at some other time.”

“On official business?”

“That is a difficult question to answer,” the bishop said. “I will let you know when.”

“Of course,” Reinhard said.

“Again, it was a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Likewise.”

The bishop headed off.

“What did he want?” Commodore Blackwell asked, coming up to Reinhard. “I see him around all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve ever spoken.”

Reinhard shook his head a little. “He said he has something to speak to me about later.”

“You as a private citizen?”

“No, it sounded more than that.”

“Interesting,” Blackwell said. He shook his head. “I hope it’s nothing too messy.”

“I wouldn’t know, sir.”

“Well, keep me updated.”

“I will. How much longer are we staying at this party?”

“It’s a New Year’s party and it’s not even midnight! Find someone more entertaining to talk to,” Blackwell said with a laugh. “Enjoy yourself.”

“I will try to, sir,” Reinhard said.

When Blackwell walked away, shaking his head, Reinhard noticed that he was still being watched by his imperial counterpart. Their eyes met across the room, and both of them glared at each other. Unfortunately, their little staring contest was interrupted by that man’s commanding officer wandering between them, and Reinhard took that moment to disappear away into the crowd of the party.

 


 

January 796 UC, Phezzan

The bishop did send Reinhard a message, requesting a meeting at a small, private residence outside the capital city limits. Reinhard drove there himself, though he did tell Blackwell about the meeting, getting his permission and keeping him in the loop. Reinhard didn’t like the fact that he had been singled out as the recipient for whatever message the Earth Church wanted to send. He wasn’t sure if it was because of his mother, or because of his fame, or, worst of all, if it was because the Earth Church thought that as someone young and inexperienced, he would make some kind of mistake. Reinhard was determined not to let that happen.

He parked the car in the driveway and walked up to the house to ring the bell. As he waited for someone to answer the door, Reinhard took a moment to admire the architecture. The building was bright white and attractive in the early morning light, and its odd curving roof contrasted with the geometric windows that glinted from its sides. The door opened as Reinhard was craning his neck to look at the colorful stained glass above the entryway.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?” a servant asked, startling him. Reinhard nodded, and he was let in to a clean and minimalist interior where he was offered coffee (which he accepted) while he waited for the bishop to arrive.

The bishop appeared a few moments later, dressed in a plain black suit, rather than the robe he had been wearing previously. If the bishop was trying to signal anything with his clothing choices, the only thing that came across was conservatism. Reinhard would have preferred him in the robes, because at least that was showing some intention. Reinhard stood to shake his hand.

“I’m glad you could make it, Lieutenant Commander,” Degsby said.

“Of course,” Reinhard said. “It didn’t seem like the type of invitation that I could refuse.”

The bishop chuckled. “Perhaps. Though, of course, if I could dictate policy to the Alliance, the galaxy would be a very different place.”

“I seem like an odd choice for discussing policy with,” Reinhard said. “I am the most junior member of the staff at the High Commissioner’s office.”

“But you have some qualities that the other members of your office lack.”

“I’m not sure what those could be,” Reinhard said. “The Alliance strives to have all of its officers reach a high level of competency.”

“I’m not talking about training, Lieutenant Commander. I’m talking about you, personally.”

Reinhard took a sip of his coffee. “But this is not personal business.”

“The tool that is chosen to complete a task is as important as the hand wielding it, is it not?”

Reinhard frowned. “So, what are these qualities that you think I have in particular?”

“You’re a former imperial, you hate the Goldenbaum dynasty in a very personal way, and you have at least some familiarity with the workings of my church.”

“And why would these qualities be advantageous for some Alliance official policy?”

“Calling it official policy might be a step too far,” the bishop said. “I will tell you, but you must swear that what you learn here will be kept secret.”

“I am going to tell my commanding officer.” Reinhard had no desire to get trapped in the machinations of the Earth Church.

“Of course,” the bishop said. “I mean primarily secret in that it will not reach the ears of the public, or the imperial embassy here.”

“We are not usually in the business of sharing information with them,” Reinhard said, voice dry.

“Voluntarily, no. Unwittingly, yes,” the bishop said. “I am just trying to impress on you the need for operational security.”

“And this room here is secure?”

“Yes,” the bishop said, though Reinhard didn’t doubt that his every action and word was being recorded by someone. “Do you swear, then?”

“I will share this information only with those in my direct chain of command,” Reinhard said. “Yes.”

The bishop stood and walked to the door. He opened it and called, “Ingrid, you can come in.”

A woman appeared in the doorway, maybe in her mid twenties, though her pale face looked somewhat weathered and sun-marked underneath her braided red hair. She was short and slender, though it was hard to see much of her figure under the brown Earth Church robes she was wearing. Her hands were clutching the fabric at her sides, and she seemed nervous. 

Reinhard stood, though he wasn’t sure if he should offer her his hand or not. The bishop switched to speaking entirely in imperial, not the Phezzani pidgin. “Lieutenant Commander von Müsel, this is Ingrid von Roscher. Ingrid, this is Reinhard von Müsel, of the Alliance fleet.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Fraulein,” Reinhard said. Ingrid didn’t offer her hand to shake, so Reinhard just nodded at her, and the three of them sat down.

“Are you aware of who Fraulein Roscher is?” the bishop asked.

“No,” Reinhard said.

Ingrid didn’t meet his eyes when the bishop said, “She is the former wife of Prince Ludwig von Goldenbaum, and the mother of one of the possible heirs to the kaiser’s throne, Erwin Josef.”

“I see,” Reinhard said. He could suddenly understand why this was a matter to be kept secret. While people fled the Empire through Phezzan all the time, it was rather rare for them to be as high profile as this.

“She has been living banished on Earth for the past several years, but with the kaiser’s health growing worse as of late, it was decided that she might be safer on a planet on the other side of the Phezzan corridor.”

Reinhard nodded. “Were you banished to Earth just so that you wouldn’t be an influence on your son, or was there some other reason?”

“There were several overlapping scandals involved in Ludwig’s murder,” the bishop said. “It was a combination of factors.”

Reinhard wondered what it was that the bishop was clearly ill-disposed to disclose. “I see. Are you looking to permanently live in the Alliance, or is this a temporary safety measure?”

“I would like to return to Earth someday,” Ingrid said, speaking with a very soft voice for the first time. Her eyes were downcast.

The bishop ignored her. “There may come a time when Fraulein von Roscher can return to the Empire, but at this junction, it is not clear when that time may be.”

“How old is Erwin Josef now?”

“Five,” the bishop said.

“Does he have a strong claim to the throne?”

“The young Elizabeth von Braunschweig and Sabine von Littenheim have equally strong competing claims. Sabine’s is slightly stronger, as her mother is the oldest of Kaiser Friedrich’s three children, though, of course, Erwin Josef is the only boy.”

Reinhard nodded. “It is unfortunate for the Goldenbaum dynasty that Ludwig died before the succession could be assured.” At the mention of Ludwig, Ingrid looked down and away. Odd.

“It benefits some people,” the bishop said.

“That much is obvious.” Reinhard paused for a second. “If I may be blunt, what benefit is it to the Alliance if Fraulein von Roscher were to take refuge with us?”

“I was under the impression that it was the Alliance’s avowed policy to take in all imperial refugees. A policy that you yourself benefitted from.”

“The circumstances are quite different,” Reinhard said.

“Are they? This was what Bishop Martine had to say, when I asked about you.” The bishop reached inside his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. In the Alliance language, he read, “The von Müsel family claims to have fled the Empire because the daughter, Annerose, was to be sold to the kaiser.”

Ingrid showed no signs of understanding this exchange. Reinhard’s face was hot. “There is a world of difference, Bishop, between a fifteen year old girl being sold into slavery, and a woman becomming the wife of the second most powerful man in the Empire.” He spoke in the Alliance language as well.

“It is naive of you to think that the son did not inherit the sins of the father,” the bishop said, voice clipped. He switched back to the imperial language. “Fraulein, how old were you when you met Prince Ludwig?”

“Fifteen, Your Holiness.”

“And when you married him?”

“Seventeen.”

“And when you had his child?”

“Seventeen still.”

“And was he kind to you?”

“No, Your Holiness.”

“Please describe to the Lieutenant Commander exactly how Prince Ludwig was unkind to you.”

Reinhard raised his hand. “No, don’t,” he said. “I get what you’re trying to do.”

“Then you see that this is a woman who is just as deserving of shelter in your country as your sister was.”

“That may be the case, and I certainly feel sympathy for you,” Reinhard said. “But usually we do not escort refugees off Phezzan. We simply allow them into our borders.”

“But you see how these circumstances are different.”

“Bishop, as I said, I have sympathy for your plight, but I am not at liberty to say anything other than what the Alliance’s official stance towards refugees is. I will need to discuss this with Commodore Blackwell.”

“I understand. If at all possible, I would like your response on this matter quickly.”

“Are you in danger here?”

“No,” the bishop said. “At least, not at this moment. But the longer she remains on Phezzan, the more difficult it will be to keep her undetected.”

“Does the imperial government know that you left Earth?”

“A significant amount of effort was spent in faking Fraulein Roscher’s death. I believe that this effort was not wasted, but it would be if news of her presence on Phezzan were to become public.”

Reinhard nodded. “I will present your case to my superiors,” Reinhard said.

“I chose to ask you because I suspected you would be able to present our case well,” the bishop said, and stood. Reinhard rose as well, and they shook hands. “I look forward to your response.”

“Goodday, Bishop, Fraulein,” Reinhard said, and then left the house as quickly as he could.

He certainly wasn’t going to phone his boss about this, for fear that the phones in the High Commissioner’s office were tapped, so he drove back quickly. As he drove, he noticed a rather nondescript blue car following behind him. It trailed him by a good distance, and often other cars moved in between, but it was definitely following him, and it hadn’t followed him to the bishop’s house earlier. 

To test his tail, Reinhard pulled off the main road onto a winding back road, and took several turns randomly, disobeying his navigation system. As he expected, the car that was following him, now with less traffic to hide behind, dropped back even further, to the point where Reinhard often lost sight of it behind trees and bends in the road. Still, it was following. Eventually, Reinhard came to a place in the road that looked like people used as the entrance to a hiking trail, where there were several other cars parked. He pulled into that patch of dirt and looked behind him at the road. The other car, moving too slowly, was forced to drive past. Reinhard tried to get a good look at the driver, but the windows were tinted, so he couldn’t. Annoyed, he waited a few minutes, then drove off again.

As he got back to the main road, he noticed that his tail had reappeared. Reinhard scowled into his rearview mirror. Apparently, his borrowed car was being tracked in some way other than purely visual. Still, it didn’t really matter, because Reinhard wasn’t headed anywhere except for back to the High Commissioner’s office.

When he got back, he found Blackwell in his office, a clean place whose one interesting feature was the large fishtank at the back, where a single goldfish swam in ponderous circles. 

“Von Müsel, how was your meeting with the bishop?” Blackwell asked cheerfully as Reinhard saluted and entered his office, shutting the door behind him.

“Very interesting, sir,” Reinhard replied, taking the offered seat in front of Blackwell’s desk.

“Tell me all about it.”

“Is this office secure, sir?”

Blackwell raised one thick eyebrow. “There’s of course no way to know that, but I believe it is, yes.”

Reinhard nodded, then explained the situation with Ingrid and what the bishop wanted. Blackwell was nodding and tapping his chin.

“And what’s your opinion of the situation, Müsel?”

“In what sense?”

“Any thoughts you have. I was told that you’re quite intelligent. I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

“This is obviously some sort of power play within the Empire’s domestic politics,” Reinhard said. “I don’t doubt that as soon as the kaiser dies, the Earth Church is going to try to produce her and set her up as a possible regent for their favored successor to the throne. It’s a pretty long-shot move, but this kind of opportunity to grab power is once in a generation, I would be shocked if they didn’t try to take advantage.”

“And what would the Earth church want with a kaiser in their pocket?”

“The same thing anyone would want with a kaiser in their pocket: advancing their own policies, favoring them economically, et cetera.”

“What would those policies be?”

“If we take the Earth Church at their own stated policy position of returning Earth to the political and spiritual center of the galaxy, a successful power grab might end up with, for example, moving the capital off of Odin and to Earth, or establishing Terra worship as the state religion.” Reinhard shrugged a little. “There’s many degrees of success that they could have, and if they’re truly playing the long game, they might want to disestablish the Goldenbaum monarchical rule and install their own brand of leadership.”

“An interesting theory.”

“That’s assuming that their stated goals align with their real goals, though.”

Blackwell nodded. “And do you think that this will be a positive or a negative, for us?”

“I don’t know,” Reinahard said. “In the short term, it might be a positive.”

“Why?”

“If there’s a succession struggle within the Empire, it leaves them very weak, possibly for a few years. There might even be a civil war, if things really go badly for them. Even if we do nothing during that time, that’s still time where we do not risk being attacked, or we could take advantage of that kind of opportunity.”

“I see.”

“And the Earth Church, if they do gain control, might attempt to sue for peace, at least initially.”

“Really?”

“In this scenario, we would have given their regent shelter and assistance when she needed it.”

“Hm. But in the long term?”

“In the long term, again, if their stated goal is to unite all of humanity under Earth’s banner once again, I highly doubt that can be accomplished in a purely peaceful way,” Reinhard said. “The peace wouldn’t last. They might even try to stage some kind of similar coup within our own borders— right now they’re demonstrating that they have the initiative to do such a thing.”

“So, you’re saying that we shouldn’t help them?”

“No, sir. I think we have little choice but to at least give von Roscher shelter.”

“Why is that?”

“It is our position to give shelter to imperial refugees. They could very publically turn that around on us if we didn’t, and it would probably be a bit of a blow to our image on Phezzan, and with any republican sentiments within the Empire itself.”

Blackwell nodded. “I can’t say I disagree. I don’t like it, though.”

“Neither do I,” Reinhard said. “They chose me to present this information to because they thought that they could manipulate me. I don’t appreciate that thought, or the thought that they could manipulate the Alliance government into strengthening their religion.”

“Why would you be easy to manipulate?”

“I am an imperial refugee, my mother is a member of their church, and I have some sympathy for women,” Reinhard said. “That’s all.”

“Sympathy for women?” Blackwell laughed. “Is this Roscher pretty?”

“I wasn’t exactly paying attention to that, sir,” Reinhard said.

Blackwell laughed at him again. “Maybe that’s for the best. It would make a pretty bad image if one of my staff got involved with her.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well,” Blackwell said with a sigh. “I think that we do have to help her. I’ll run this by my higher-ups, but I think I can say for sure that if this becomes, or has the potential to become, a publicity matter, it’s better to do the thing that makes us look good than whatever might need damage-control later on. And it’s not like there’s no precedent for this kind of thing. We’ve helped a good number of refugees across.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But while we’re waiting for this official word to come down, if you could, I would like you to do some digging.”

“Into the Earth Church?”

“Yes. See if you can find out any more concrete details on their plans, both short term and long term. Whatever resources you need, within reason, you can have.”

“I will get started right away, sir.”

“And remember, Müsel, discretion is the better part of valor.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great.”

He ushered Reinhard out of his office. Reinhard abruptly realized that he had forgotten to mention the car that had been chasing him, but decided that perhaps his first step in this espionage mission would be to go down into the garage and try to find where the tracking device was hidden on the fleet car. He could report it to Blackwell when he had found it.

Chapter Text

January 796 UC, Phezzan

Reinhard’s task of spying on the Earth Church was not a simple one. Although he had plenty of tools at his disposal, the High Commissioner’s office didn’t have a lot of staff, or at least staff that Reinhard trusted to take care of the kind of tasks that he wanted to assign.

Under ideal circumstances, he would have already had an “in” at the Earth Church, someone who had been infiltrating the organization for years. Of course, there was no such person, at least on the Alliance payroll. Religion, as a whole, was supremely uninteresting to the Alliance government, especially since the largest religion was the polytheistic, decentralized mishmash of the Empire’s state religion that was carried along to the Alliance in the general way that human migration carries religion across borders. There were a few holdover, even older religions, but their devouts were small and few in number. The Earth Church had perhaps only surpassed the largest of those in membership within the past decade or so. Since there had been no centralized religion until the rise of the Earth Church with hierarchy, growing membership, and staying power, the Alliance had never developed an instinct for distrusting them as challengers to state secular authority. Reinhard suspected that this had been a dangerous oversight, since the Earth Church clearly thought of itself as a political power player.

For lack of better options, and now out of simple curiosity, Reinhard decided to attend one of the Earth Church’s worship meetings. He dressed inconspicuously, in jeans and a light colorblock jacket, and picked a church that he figured the bishop would not be at, one that was on the other side of the capital city from the relatively large cathedral. He made sure to bring some cash, in case they asked for donations, tucked his sidearm into the hidden holster underneath his jacket, and left his Alliance identification at his small apartment. 

The church he had picked was a relatively simple building, and it looked like it had once belonged to maybe some kind of medium sized retail store: the exterior was plain brick, and the interior was one large room. He was greeted at the door by someone wearing a long Earth Church sash, and handed a well-thumbed booklet full of prayer songs. He found a seat on one of the rickety folding chairs arrayed in a kind of hemisphere facing the front of the room. He sat in the back, but since the room was large and there weren’t that many seats, it didn’t offer him as much anonymity as he had hoped. The room filled up decently well, with people dressed mostly in Phezzani street fashion, though some wore the white emblazoned sash over their clothes. 

He got a good chance to look around at people before the service began. Everyone was at least in their early twenties, though ages ranged up to people probably in their late fifties, and he wasn’t the only one who had come in by himself; it seemed that most people had trickled in one at a time, and no one was really talking to each other, just exchanging nods and knowing smiles. Aside from that, there seemed to be no unifying feature of the group. It was more women than men, but the ratio wasn’t so unbalanced that Reinhard considered it extraordinary.

 The already quiet assembly hushed further as the celebrant walked in at the front of the room, taking up a place at the little lectern there. Everyone stood, and the celebrant led the whole group in some sort of chant. Reinhard thumbed through the booklet he had been given, trying to find it. The woman next to him smiled and showed him her page number, and he flipped to it, joining in so as not to appear too suspicious.

All told, the celebration was extremely boring. There was a lot of chanting, interspersed with frequent breaks for meditative silence and individual prayer, and a long, long sermon that Reinhard reluctantly paid attention to.

“We are formed from the bones of the Earth,” the celebrant said, raising his arms in his robes. “And because of this, we carry Her with us wherever we go. You look outside— no matter how much concrete and steel and glass is used to build a city, we still shape every planet we settle on into Mother Earth’s image. Without this memory of Her that we carry with us, in our blood, we would be nothing. So how is it that people can deny Her? How is it that people can say that there is no centrality of Earth in our lives?” 

It went on, the celebrant becoming more and more agitated and fired up as the sermon went on, until he finally had to stop for breath and a drink of water that he pulled out from underneath the lectern.

The most interesting part of the service was near the end. The celebrant held up a rather ornate cup of water. “Blessed Mother Earth, from You come all the waters of life. From Your waters we come, and to Your waters we will someday return. We drink and remember You.” The cup, and several others like it, was then passed around the room from hand to hand, everyone taking a sip. When it got to Reinhard, he wrinkled his nose and took a sip, avoiding the place on the cup where one woman’s lipstick had smudged. The water was warm and metallic tasting. He hastily passed the cup to the woman next to him.

“Blessed Mother Earth, all sustenance and life comes from You. Your works nurture us all the days of our lives.” The celebrant held up a loaf of slightly burned looking bread. “We eat and remember You.” He passed it around, and everyone took a chunk of it to eat. Reinhard was ripped off a piece when it got to him, then passed it along. It was, as far as he could tell, ordinary risen whole grain bread, though it looked and smelled vaguely like it had been cooked in a wood burning stove.

After that, there was just a little bit more chanting and meditation, and then the service was over. Reinhard hoped to escape out quietly, but the woman next to him, the one who had shown him what page to look at in his booklet, got his attention, and he was then trapped.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Glad to be here,” Reinhard lied.

“What’s your name?”

“Kircheis,” he said, it being the first thought that came to his mind. “Siegfried Kircheis.”

She smiled. “Mary Castrelli,” she said, and extended her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Reinhard shook her hand. He was suddenly feeling unusually warm, and he wanted to take off his jacket. 

“This is your first time coming to one of our services, right?” Mary asked.

“Er, yes.”

“May I ask what made you decide to come?”

“Someone gave me a pamphlet,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, excellent,” she said. “Would you happen to remember what it looked like? I like to get a sense of what messaging is most effective.” She laughed a little, as though to excuse the ridiculousness of the statement. 

“It was blue,” Reinhard said. “That’s all I remember. Sorry.”

“Oh, that’s fine. Don’t worry about it— I’m just curious about that type of thing. My day job is in advertising, so it’s always something I’m on the lookout for.” Again, that laugh. Reinhard wanted to get out. “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you do?”

“I’m a student.”

“Oh, what do you study?”

“Economics.”

“At PNU?” That was the Phezzan National University, not too far from where they were now.

“Yeah.”

“Good school for it,” Mary said. “You know, we have a student chapter there. Is there any particular reason you didn’t choose to attend it?”

“I didn’t know,” Reinhard said. “I guess I could.”

“Not that we’re not happy to have you here,” she said. “Wherever you’re most comfortable, of course. But I’d be happy to send a message to them to let them know you’re coming.”

“No, thanks,” Reinhard said. “You don’t have to go to the trouble.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. Siegfried Kircheis, you said, in the economics department at PNU?” She tapped her head as she spoke, as if she was drilling the words into her memory.

“I should go,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, no, you should stay! We’ve got some snacks. It would be nice for you to meet the rest of the parish.” She smiled and pointed across the room, where someone had set up a table with donuts and coffee.

“I really have an exam I need to study for…” Reinhard said. It was too warm in this room.

“Well, at least say hi to Father Jacob, and take a snack for the road,” she said, pulling him along by the sleeve of his jacket towards the snack table. The celebrant was there, speaking with several of the parishioners, but he looked up and smiled at Mary as she dragged Reinhard over. “Father Jacob, this is Mr. Kircheis, he’s new.”

“Oh, I’m so glad to have you here. How did you enjoy the service?”

“It was interesting, Father,” Reinhard said. As he said this, Jacob nodded at Mary, and she vanished away to go speak with someone else, leaving Reinhard relatively alone with Father Jacob.

“Did you have any questions? I’d be happy to answer them, if you did.”

Reinhard had many questions, but most of them couldn’t actually be asked. So he settled on one. He pitched his voice in such a way as to sound merely curious and somewhat confused, rather than prying. “I really got what you were saying, earlier, about how we terraform most of the places we live to look as much like Earth as possible,” Reinhard began, “but I’m a little bit confused. Do you actually want everyone to go back to living on Earth? It doesn’t seem like we would all, you know, fit.”

Father Jacob laughed. “No, we’re well aware that it’s an impracticality. We do encourage everyone to make a pilgrimage to Earth once in their lives, at least. Just like religions of Ancient Earth used to have their followers go on pilgrimage to the cradle of civilization there. Our goal is for all of humanity to remember our shared history, our common brotherhood as children of our Mother, Earth. Recognizing our brotherhood, uniting humanity under one flag, that’s the way to bring peace and healing to human hearts, no matter how far we travel from home.”

“Peace?” Reinhard asked. “You think that the war will end?”

“There will be peace within our lifetime, Mr. Kircheis,” Father Jacob said. “I know it.”

“What makes you so sure?” Reinhard asked.

“Just a feeling. But a strong one. Human struggles like this war can’t last forever.” 

“I don’t know if there’s been a prolonged peace in all of human history,” Reinhard said. “But I hope you’re right.”

“There have been plenty of peaceful times. And it’s our duty to bring them about. There was peace during the time of Rudolph, and for many years after, for example.” Reinhard wasn’t sure if he was praising Rudolph because he expected Reinhard’s imperial-sounding name to make that a good ‘in’, or if Father Jacob simply thought what he was saying was true. Regardless, Reinhard was sure that his distaste for Rudolph and the entire Goldenbaum dynasty would show a little too much on his face if he let Jacob keep talking about that, so he changed the topic.

“You know,” Reinhard said, “in the days before the Earth-Sirius war, the galaxy was united under Earth’s banner. What makes you think bringing that back would bring peace?”

“In those days, humanity was looking too far outwards. We were too concerned with expansion, and the Sirius rebellion was brought about by people not acknowledging the importance and centrality of Earth.”

“An interesting theory.”

“Do you have a different one? I’m happy to listen.”

“Well, it seems like from everything I’ve read on the subject, the question was an economic one—”

Jacob laughed. “Oh, Phezzani through and through.”

Reinhard wasn’t going to correct him. “And Earth was trying to draw too much wealth from the colonies into itself.”

“That’s true,” Jacob said. “The government of that time was concerned very much with material riches, which are curses on the mind.”

“Is that so?” Reinhard’s tone was dry.

“That’s been the hardest thing about attracting people to our church here on Phezzan, you know,” Jacob said, with what seemed like a genuine sigh. “The people in those ancient days had nothing on the levels of debauchery that take place here. Material wealth is the center of so much.”

“What kind of debauchery are you talking about?”

“Prostitution, sodomy, debasing of the flesh, worship of money, that sort of thing.” Reinhard resisted the urge to turn and leave, but his hands clenched a little, and he shoved them into his pockets. He had known, of course, that in many ways the Earth Church was more regressive than even the Goldenbaums, but it was mildly shocking to hear it read off like something no more consequential than a grocery list. Still, his tone was light when he responded.

“You have to admit, though, that Phezzan’s economic policies have made it the axis around which the galaxy turns.”

“It would like to think of itself that way, yes,” Jacob said. “But like I said, money is a false idol, barely even real.”

“What is real, then?”

“Bread, and water, and the spirit within them,” Jacob said without hesitation. 

Reinhard shook his head, almost laughing a little. Hadn’t he used almost that exact line on Bishop Degsby? “Maybe. It’s been very interesting to talk to you, Father Jacob, but I really should be going.”

“I understand, I understand,” Jacob said. “Young people, always on the run. Will I see you again next week?”

“Maybe,” Reinhard said. “I’ll think about it.”

“Our doors are always open. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.” Jacob extended his hand, and Reinhard reluctantly shook it. “I hope I do see you again, Mr. Kircheis.”

Reinhard didn’t have a response to that, so he just nodded, and then turned and left before anyone else could trap him in conversation.

 


 

While his visit to the Earth Church had been interesting, to say the least,  it hadn’t really given Reinhard that much insight into how they operated, aside from giving him a sense of how devoted the church’s followers were. They seemed very devoted. He wondered exactly how much theological liberties each of the little churches took— were they united under a strict common doctrine? How much room was there for personal interpretation when delivering a sermon? Although he was curious, he was not inclined to continue attending Earth Church services until that question was answered.

Instead, he wanted to focus on the task at hand: finding out what the Earth Church was trying to gain by sending Ingrid to the Alliance specifically. He needed to know what their overall plan was within the Alliance. Even if their main goal was to install a favorable ruler within the Empire, there was no action within the Empire that did not also affect the Alliance, and the other way around. Despite the fact that the two sides were at war, there was a delicate balance within the galaxy, and while the eventual death of the kaiser would disrupt it, the idea of this third power attempting to manipulate the situation for their own gain put a bad taste in Reinhard’s mouth.

He had no love for the Goldenbaums and the machinations of the imperial court, but he at least felt that he understood them. 

Reinhard spent a while trying to pry into the church’s finances. Although he was on Phezzan, which was the place in the galaxy most concerned with finance, the Phezzani government was also far less concerned with recordkeeping than either the Alliance or the Empire. This was all by design, of course. The Phezzani government did not collect income tax, or keep records of its citizenry. It made enough money to function as a planetary government primarily through a flat sales tax on every transaction, rather steep property taxes, and, perhaps most importantly, by taking a cut every time currency was changed between Alliance dinars, Phezzani dollars, and Imperial marks. Of course, the government also loaned money to both sides of the conflict almost indiscriminately, but from what Reinhard understood of Alliance economics, it wasn’t as though Phezzan was making much actual money on those loans, and never really expected to be paid back— the Alliance could barely afford to service the debt— but it was more political insurance than anything. 

All of that was irrelevant to the fact that the church’s finances were completely obscure to Reinhard. He could estimate at least how liquid they were by checking how much they were paying to keep all their church buildings, but he had the suspicion that there was far more money than just that, which also meant that the money was coming from somewhere other than the pockets of their followers. Everyone at the service he had attended had given generously, but from Reinhard’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, even if the church was bleeding her followers dry, that wasn’t enough money to give them the kind of power-player confidence that Reinhard had felt they possessed. It could have been just confidence, or blind faith, but one didn’t end up with the mother of an heir to the Goldenbaum’s throne in their secret hands without real power. 

It was all extremely frustrating, and Reinhard found himself growing more annoyed with the whole task the more he poked into records that were designed to obscure the flow of money from one hand to another.

He decided to go back to the very basics, which was to watch who was coming and going from the church’s buildings. It was a simple enough matter to install tiny cameras on the street near the entrances to some of the most prominent church locations, and with that, he had a record of who was coming and going. He didn’t have names to match to faces immediately, but the High Commissioner’s Office had long been keeping record of who worked in high places on Phezzan, and so after a while, Reinhard began to notice some very suspicious patterns. For one thing, Bishop Degsby seemed able to come and go as he pleased from several government buildings, including the Landesherr’s office, which he visited several times. Second, a non-trivial number of low level employees of the Phezzan government seemed to be members of the church. They attended the weekly service, and many of them also attended nighttime meetings.

The third thing that Reinhard noticed was a familiar face, stopping very noticeably at the same bus stop in front of the church headquarters about once every few days, taking a seat in the shelter for a few minutes, and then getting on the bus. The man was young, with light colored hair and a friendly face, when he wasn’t glaring at Reinhard from across a party. He was never dressed in his imperial fleet uniform when he made these excursions, but Reinhard had a good memory for faces, and was sure it was the same man.

Reinhard asked around his office about the man.

“Oh, that’s Muller,” one of Reinhard’s coworkers, Sergeant Amanda Stalton, said. “Weird imperial first name. Neidhart, I think. He’s a lieutenant commander. Been here for years.”

“You’re familiar with him?”

She shrugged. “Sir, you get familiar with them. He’s been a fixture, though. I think this was his first post after getting out of their officer’s school. He started as a second lieutenant.”

“He’s been promoted decently, then.”

“Well, he’s pretty good at his job, I think,” she said. “Causes us a bit of trouble now and then.”

“Like what?”

“A few years ago there was a scuffle with someone trying to defect to us, with some sort of technology in hand. He made it very, very difficult.”

“How do you know it was him?”

“Because when we caught the ship that snuck into Alliance space through Iserlohn, trying to capture the ship the defector was on, the captain said that his nav routes had been sent by a junior officer on Phezzan. Process of elimination.”

“Interesting,” Reinhard said. “So he’s good at information gathering?”

“I think he’s jack of all trades over there. But really, I wouldn’t know. It’s not like I’ve spoken to him,” she said with a bit of a laugh.

“You said he graduated from their officer school?” Reinhard asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Just curious when that was.”

“Probably 791,” she said, though the tone in her voice indicated she was very unsure. Reinhard thanked her and went to mull over what he had learned. It was good to be able to put a name to a face, and it was good to know that his counterpart was apparently fairly talented, so that Reinhard could be on the lookout.

The fact that this Muller was competent was a little messy, Reinhard thought, because it meant that he was probably not idly sitting outside the Earth Church for no reason. He was almost certainly picking up some sort of missive, which meant that the imperial fleet had an ‘in’ at the Earth Church.

Although this would probably be very bad for trying to sneak Ingrid off of Phezzan, it was a unique opportunity. The Alliance High Commissioner’s office had very little ability to see inside the Earth Church, or at least no infrastructure set up to do so, but they were well experienced at spying on the imperial fleet. Reinhard suspected that he might be able to get this Muller to do some of his work for him.

His first step was to figure out what type of information Muller was already getting from the Earth Church, during his visits to the bus stop. Reinhard went before Muller did, one of those days, and tried to see if there had been any cache left, but there wasn’t any that he could see. And Muller wasn’t ever meeting with anyone, either. He was always alone. 

Sitting inside the bus shelter, Reinhard looked around. There, across the street in the church headquarters building, on the third floor, there was a window cracked open just a hair. A bird had made its nest on the ledge, but there were no birds in it now. Something about it caught Reinhard’s attention though: something glittering just behind it, almost completely unnoticeable among the shine of the glass window. He squinted up at it, but then the bus was pulling up in its loud screeching way, and Reinhard got on, getting off a few stops later and walking back to the High Commissioner’s office. There must be some sort of transmitter hidden up there, he decided. Probably encrypted low-distance radio, something that wouldn’t be noticeable in among all the other signals whizzing around through the air, something that could only be picked up within the fifty meters or so between the window and the bus stop. 

Reinhard resolved to put up a listening device to catch the signals. Even if they were heavily encrypted and indecipherable, it would at least be confirmation of his theory. But that was not to be. When Reinhard did stick a receiving device in the shelter, Muller never showed up, and all his device heard was the normal chatter of internet signals and all the machines in the area going about their daily life. Because Muller hadn’t vanished from the imperial embassy (Reinhard checked) he realized that he had been found out. Muller had the area under surveillance just as much as Reinhard did, then, so of course he had noticed Reinhard snooping around his pick up point. Reinhard was caught between being annoyed at himself, annoyed at Muller, or vaguely amused at the situation.

It became less funny when Reinhard realized that he was being watched personally. He noticed cars parked on the street outside of his apartment that shouldn’t be there, and when he walked around the streets of the capital, he noticed that he had a tail more often than not. The tail was not Muller himself, though that would have been amusing; he was being stalked by a rotating cast of probably imperial enlisted men.

When he brought this up to his own CO, he was told not to worry about it, that the imperial people would get bored of him soon enough if he didn’t do anything to attract their interest further. This did somewhat put a damper on his communication with the Earth Church, though, and the situation with getting approval to bring Ingrid into the Alliance was dragging on, in a way that annoyed Reinhard. He was half tempted to write to his mother to see if she knew what the holdup was, but he obviously couldn’t do that.

Reinhard was feeling stymied by every route he went down. Financially, everything was an impenetrable mess. Politically, it was clear that the Earth Church had connections within the government of Phezzan, and designs on the imperial government (and probably the Alliance, though Reinhard had no proof of that). That was a whole lot of nothing. Speculation that left him no better off than when he had started.

The situation came to a boiling point one day when Reinhard left work early, his unit at the High Commissioner’s office having spent much of the day participating in a situational awareness training course that someone had come all the way from Heinessen to teach. It had been a waste of a day, and Reinhard had returned to his apartment in a bad mood. His mood only got worse when he found that his entire apartment had been ransacked while he was out. His personal computer was missing, and it was clear that the thief had left in a hurry, which meant that they had known Reinhard was returning home, which meant that it was not a thief but probably an imperial agent.

Reinhard stood with his hands on his hips in the middle of his studio, and addressed the room in the imperial language, using his general haughty tone, even though he had just had his apartment broken into, and he was somewhat disheveled from his day of training.

“Lieutenant Commander Muller,” he said. “I’m sure that you know by now that I do not keep anything other than my personal correspondence on my personal computer, and that my personal correspondence is of absolutely zero interest to you. Furthermore, you will notice that, although we share similar responsibilities, I have not, and do not intend to, break into your personal quarters. We may be enemies, but Phezzan would have you believe that we are living for the moment on a civilized planet, and I would hope that we can behave like civilized men. 

“In the interest of not causing too great of a disturbance to the detente which exists here on Phezzan, I will not elevate this issue if you would return my property to me. I will be at the park at 54th and Lexard tomorrow evening. I will see you there, Lieutenant Commander Muller.”

Then Reinhard packed a bag and left his apartment, getting a hotel room for the evening. 

True to his word, Reinhard did not tell his CO about the break in, though he probably should have. He waited at the park, sitting on a bench underneath a huge palm tree, looking keenly around the park. He was dressed in civilian clothing. After all, this was certainly not a sanctioned excursion. Still, he doubted he would get into any trouble about it.

He saw Muller before Muller saw him. Muller was also not dressed in his uniform, and was looking around warily, wearing a backpack and trying to pretend to be a student, though he was just a little too old for that to be convincing. He looked like he had come alone, though Reinhard was disinclined to believe that was actually the case. Reinhard let him stew for a moment before standing from his bench and raising his hand, attracting Muller’s attention.

Muller stiffened, then walked over. Reinhard sat back down before he got close, which was both a rude and less threatening posture. Muller was scowling when he arrived, and without speaking he held out the backpack to Reinhard as though it was covered in something repulsive. Reinhard raised an eyebrow.

“Let’s talk, Muller,” he said. “Take a seat.” He gestured to the bench beside him, and Muller hesitated, clearly wondering if it was some sort of trap. Reinhard didn’t take the offered backpack, so Muller finally did take a seat on the bench, sitting as far away from Reinhard as he could (which was not that far). He dropped the backpack on the ground in between them.

“What did you want to talk about?” Muller asked. “I hope you don’t think I’m stupid enough to tell you anything important.”

“No, I didn’t think that you were,” Reinhard said. He looked Muller over. Reinhard was much more comfortable in the situation than Muller was, which was amusing to him. They were on equal ground here, but Muller clearly felt that Reinhard was somehow in control. That suited Reinhard just fine. “If you were trying to recruit me, breaking into my house is a terrible way to go about it.”

“Recruit you?” Muller asked, sounding genuinely shocked and disgusted.

Reinhard looked at him, surprised. “I was told that you might try. For propaganda reasons.”

“Gods, no. You aren’t trying to re-defect, are you?” Muller asked, very wary.

Reinhard’s lips curled up in something that might have resembled a smile. “No.”

“Good.” Muller was relieved.

Reinhard raised an eyebrow in the hopes that Muller would elaborate. 

Muller did, seemingly unable to resist the urge to speak, filling the silence. “The amount of effort it took keeping your name OUT of the news means that there’s no propaganda value in it. Or not very much anyway. And I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you.”

“I did get the sense that re-defectors do not get much courtesy outside of their propaganda value. There was that man, Luneburg, a few years ago, wasn’t there?”

Muller shook his head. “You follow that sort of thing?”

“My sister is in the Rosenritter,” Reinhard said. “So that particular case was of interest to me.”

“Oh. Well, that was different.”

“Was it?”

“I would trust you even less than him.”

“Why?”

“You think I don’t know you’re an Earth Church puppet?” Muller asked.

This was so startling that Reinhard laughed. “I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t pretend you’re not in bed with them. They’re the ones who—“

“Who what?”

“They have a hand in all the newspapers here,” Muller said. “Your face was all over them in a way that sensationalism can’t explain, and when you get here, the first thing that you do is start meeting with them.” Muller shook his head. “I didn’t think you were stupid, but if you didn’t realize they’re manipulating you, then maybe you are.”

“I’m not being manipulated,” Reinhard said. “Besides, why would you care if the Earth Church has designs on Alliance officers?”

Muller narrowed his eyes. “I don’t,” he said, though he clearly did. Reinhard hadn’t expected an honest answer, so the fact that he had gotten anything out of Muller was a bonus.

“Well, if it makes you feel any better,” Reinhard said, “I am not a pawn of the Earth Church. I’m sure I don’t trust them any more than you do.”

“Sure.”

“Believe me or don’t,” Reinhard said, “but I have plenty of reason to be loyal to the Alliance, and none to be loyal to the Earth Church. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” Muller said. “This is me giving you back your personal property. Not some sort of information trade.”

“If we were having a real information trade, we would be meeting somewhere far less public than a park,” Reinhard said. “I assume there’s someone else watching us.”

Muller scowled. “No.”

“You’ll forgive me for not believing you.”

“And I didn’t put anything on your computer, either, if that’s your next question.”

“You will have to forgive me for not believing that one, either, since you clearly did bug my apartment.”

“You don’t have to believe me, but it’s true.”

“Did you enjoy going through my personal letters?”

“I apologize.”

Reinhard shrugged. “It’s not as though my mail isn’t already censored. But I had all my research on that computer, and I hadn’t backed it up in a while, so I’m grateful to have it back. Spares me some extra effort.”

“One of my coworkers is an avid reader of your website,” Muller said, somewhat amused. “I should tell him who writes it.”

“It’s funny,” Reinhard said, “I didn’t bother buying Phezzan net hosting for years, since it didn’t seem worth the expense, but now that I pay attention to my readership here, it seems like I should continue doing so.” Reinhard shook his head. “I suppose Phezzanis are interested in the Alliance economy perhaps more than the average Alliance citizen is. It makes sense.”

“Why do you write under a pen name?”

“Because I have no interest in making a name for myself as an economist,” Reinhard said. “It’s an open secret. I assumed you already had put that down in whatever little file you’re collecting on me.”

“And you use a woman’s name because…?”

“My sister suggested it.”

“That’s the kind of thing that does get a note jotted down in your file, I think,” Muller said.

“Then it’s lucky that what the imperial command thinks of me, a low level Alliance officer, has absolutely no bearing on my life,” Reinhard said. “I wouldn’t read too much into it, if I were you. It was a joke between a brother and sister when I was thirteen. If it was anything else, I wouldn’t be discussing it with you.”

“I see.”

“But now that you’ve pried into my personal life,” Reinhard said, “it’s only fair that I get to pry into yours.”

Muller frowned and didn’t say anything.

“You graduated from the Imperial Officers’ Academy in 791?”

“482.”

“So, yes.”

“Sure.”

“While you were there, did you know a Commander Leigh?”

Muller was startled. “Well, he was a lieutenant commander at the time, but yeah, I did. Why?”

“Just curious,” Reinhard said. “How did you know him?”

“I took an elective, Ancient Earth History, with him during my senior year.”

“Was he a good teacher?”

“I guess? Kinda weird, though.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I mean, he’s not… He’s not from the Empire.”

“Oh?”

“Like he would have been killed under Rudolph. Or at least sent to do labor.”

“Interesting.”

“You didn’t know that, but you’re asking about him?”

“I heard his name mentioned,” Reinhard said. “I am just curious.”

“Who mentioned him?”

“Commodore Reuenthal, when I was breaking into his ship, if you must know.”

Muller laughed. “Oh. Okay, then. He’s a rear admiral now, by the way.”

“Good for him. You know him?”

“Only by reputation. He graduated from the IOA before I got there.”

“Well,” Reinhard said, “if you should happen to run into your former teacher, please do tell him that Reinhard von Musel sends his regards to his favorite student.”

“His favorite student?” Muller asked. “Who’s that?”

“None of your business,” Reinhard said. “He’ll either know what to do with that message or he won’t.”

Muller frowned and looked about to say something else, but Reinhard was already done with the conversation. He picked up the backpack and stood. 

“Thank you for your time, Lieutenant Commander Muller. I doubt we will have the occasion to speak again.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Muller said, standing. 

Reinhard offered his hand to shake. Muller looked at him oddly for a second, and seemed about to refuse, then shook it.

 


 

More progress came a few days later, when Reinhard’s CO updated him on the situation with Ingrid. They had gotten permission to bring her to the Alliance, but the difficulty was in getting her there. There could be no military ships moving through the Phezzan corridor, aside from the tiny transport that brought new staff to the embassy and High Commissioner’s office, and that was heavily searched by the Phezzan police, for obvious reasons, going in both directions.

“You’ll have to put her on a merchant vessel,” Reinhard said, sitting in Blackwell’s office, eyeing the goldfish swimming around in the tank behind him.

“And just trust she reaches the Alliance unhindered?” Commodore Blackwell asked.

“Phezzani ships can be paid to keep her safe.”

“And somebody else could pay them more to not keep her safe.”

“True,” Reinhard said. Ingrid had been on Phezzan long enough that the idea that Muller had not yet found out about her was somewhat laughable. “Hire a merchant ship, replace the crew with our own.”

Blackwell raised an eyebrow. “And what type of crew do you think would make a good enough imitation of a bunch of Phezzani merchants?”

“When my sister was at the Academy, her roommate was from a merchant family. I’m sure you could find enough ex-merchants to put together a convincing crew.”

“Who would work well together, who would be able to keep Ms. von Roscher safe?”

Reinhard drummed his fingers on his leg for a second. “Do you know Rear Admiral Cazerne, on Heinessen?”

“Hah, we were in the same graduating class from the Academy,” Blackwell said. “Haven’t seen him in years.”

“He’s good at moving people around,” Reinhard said. “I think he’ll know who’s best for the job, if you can get him to take care of it.”

“You sound like you’re thinking of something.”

“Hunh? Oh, I suppose.”

“Tell me,” Blackwell demanded. “I’m curious.”

“When I spoke to Bishop Degsby, one of the reasons he said he had chosen me, was that Ingrid bore some small resemblance to my sister. I was simply thinking that it would be kind to her to be accompanied by people who were sensitive to her life situation, rather than total strangers.”

“Hunh,” Blackwell said. “Who is your sister again, remind me?”

“Lieutenant Commander Annerose von Müsel,” Reinhard said, which made Blackwell chuckle a little. “She’s the Rosenritter’s logistics officer.”

Blackwell raised an eyebrow at that. “The Rosenritter, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” Reinhard said.

“And you think that the Rosenritter would make a good accompaniment for her?”

“Well, at the very least, they all understand what it is like to flee the Empire. And they all speak the imperial language, which is all Roscher speaks.”

Blackwell nodded. “I’ll get in touch with Cazerne, though I’m not sure what strings he can actually pull. If he’s able, I’ll trust him to put together the best plan.”

“Yes, sir. I agree. And he is very good at pulling strings.”

“There will be some complications, though, no matter what we do,” Blackwell said, changing the topic with his tone of voice.

“Like what, sir?”

“The imperials have some sort of mole in the navigation office here on Phezzan. We found that out when they showed their hand trying to chase a defector a while ago. All merchant ships, and us too when we enter the Phezzan corridor, buy our nav routes from them. Whatever ship we use, they’ll know where we are, and that means the imperials will too.”

“What do you propose we do?”

“In an ideal world, I would say that we use our own mole within the nav office to plant false nav routes, and to get us untraced ones.”

“But we don’t live in an ideal world, I assume.”

“We do not. We don’t even have a mole within the nav office, much to my annoyance.”

“I see, sir.”

“So, we have a little bit of a problem.”

“I can ask the Earth Church to give us one of their routes,” Reinhard said. “They certainly pass through the corridor often enough, with pilgrims.”

“Don’t they usually use merchants and just book passage?”

“I believe they have a few ships of their own, or at least a few ships they call merchants but are really theirs.”

“I don’t know if I want to lean on them too much. Do you trust them?”

“Absolutely not, sir,” Reinhard said. “I trust that they do want Roscher in the Alliance, and would help us do that, but aside from that, not at all.”

“Good. I don’t either.”

“I hesitate to say this, because it feels very insecure, but I think we should just outright buy a few route options from the nav office, and pick one to use later. I don’t think it’s likely that the imperials will be willing to break through into Alliance space over this. They might know there’s a high status defector, but they haven’t made many moves thus far, so I don’t know if they’re going to.”

“If we can put soldiers in traders’ clothing, they can do the exact same thing and send a ship chasing ours.”

Reinhard bit his lip. “Then it would be one ship versus one ship, and if we fill our ship with competent people, I think it would be fine.”

“You would risk your sister doing that?”

“Sir, my sister is more competent than I am,” Reinhard said, which made Blackwell laugh.

“How generous of you to say.”

“I wouldn’t lie. At the very least, we are the same rank, and she is older and wiser than I am.”

“It’s good to hear that the youth aren’t discrediting age and experience.”

Reinhard’s smile was thin. “Yes, sir.”

“Still, I don’t love the idea of letting them chase us,” Blackwell said, getting back on topic.

“We probably have some time before we can actually muster a ship,” Reinhard said. “I’ll try to think of a solution.”

“You do that,” Blackwell said. “I’m glad you’re so willing to take responsibility for this problem you’ve dropped on our laps.”

Reinhard bit his lip in order to not respond to that.

 


Reinhard thought, very carefully, about how to get the imperial embassy off their scent. Of course, the imperials couldn’t track every ship coming in and out of Phezzan airspace going to the Alliance, there were hundreds, if not thousands, per day. But they would certainly take note of Ingrid the moment she traveled up the space elevator, as that was carefully watched, and since they probably already knew that there was someone trying to defect, they would probably have a ship at the ready. Reinhard would have liked to have put Ingrid on a shuttle and take off from the planet, but Phezzan was highly protective of their air quality, and hated all ships coming and leaving through the atmosphere, even the imperial types, which were designed to descend through the atmosphere.

What Reinhard wanted was some kind of huge distraction. He had a minor fantasy about burning the Phezzan Navigation Office to the ground, but it was nothing more than a fantasy. Instead, what he pried into, easier now that he was on Phezzan, was the situation in the Empire.

For all Reinhard had had trouble peeling apart the Earth Church’s finances, it was shockingly, almost laughably, easy to see what the major players in the Empire were investing in. Duke Braunschweig and Marquis Littenheim, the fathers of the two main prospects for the throne, were both quietly selling assets that they had been gathering. They were liquidating, trying to be prepared with cash, much of it in Phezzani dollars. He combed back through major merchant companies, saw those names disappear from their lists of major shareholders over the past several years. He saw a major weapons manufacturer’s stock price jump as they published that they had secured a major contract from an unnamed source. They would have named the source if it was an official purchase by either the Empire or the Alliance. He wondered what either of them were buying that went beyond what they had access to as high ranking members within the Empire’s fleet. Or, perhaps they were trying to supply private armies, drawn from the ranks of their own peasantry in their major holdings. Reinhard didn’t know, and couldn’t find out, but it was very, very clear that everyone in the Empire was holding their breath and waiting for a civil war.

Reinhard didn’t know who would come out on top, but he suspected that everyone in the imperial embassy would vastly, vastly prefer either Sabine von Littenheim or Elizabeth von Braunschweig to become kaiserin, backed by their fathers who were willing to play by the rules of the imperial court. The fact that the Earth Church was fostering a third contender was interesting, and bound to make the eventual power struggle that much bloodier. He didn’t know who was more vicious, the Braunschweigs or the Littenheims, but he figured that it was whichever one of them had been responsible for killing Prince Ludwig. That didn’t necessarily signal the winner of the conflict, but it was the opening salvo, and that person had shown, that they were not willing to play defensively. The eventual victor would probably come down to whoever gained the support of the fleet. 

It would be best for the Alliance if the Empire was embroiled in a long civil war, Reinhard thought. An open, honest contest for the crown would weaken the Empire against the Alliance, and internally. It would be a great opportunity, but one that would be lost if—

Reinhard made a decision. The next day, he went to see Bishop Degsby and Ingrid, to report the news. He had someone else arrange the meeting for him, and they met, not at Bishop Degsby’s residence, but at the large cathedral in the center of the capital. Reinhard had walked, and he didn’t think he had been followed. It was a cool evening, and the evening service was just letting out, so Reinhard had to push past and through the crowd of worshippers to get inside.

The inside of the cathedral was eerily dark, lit mostly by candlelight, and echoingly empty, now that the parishioners had gone. Ingrid was there, though she was wearing a black veil over her face to disguise her appearance, and she was kneeling in the front pew. There was no sign of Degsby.

Reinhard slid into the pew next to her, kneeling and draping his hands over the front of the pew. She didn’t turn to look at him, but she said, “Good evening, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Good evening, Fraulein,” Reinhard said. “Where is the bishop?”

“He had urgent business to attend to,” Ingrid said. “He might not be back.”

“I see.” Reinhard glanced around, trying to see if there were any hidden cameras or something, which he suspected there were, though he couldn’t see them through the gloom.

“You have news for me?”

“I do,” Reinhard said.

“Tell me.” She was a little more direct without the bishop present, which Reinhard thought was both interesting and an improvement.

“I’ve gotten permission to bring you into the Alliance,” he said. “We’re working out the details.”

“Oh.”

“You don’t sound excited.”

“I would prefer to return to Earth.”

“That isn’t exactly possible.”

“Through Her, all things are possible.”

Annoyed, Reinhard said, “Well, I’m not Mother Earth, so you’ll have to forgive—“

Ingrid laughed, a little bit of a bitter sound. “I am aware, Lieutenant Commander. I didn’t ask you to bring me to Earth. I am only saying what I prefer, because you asked.”

“Maybe someday you can go back.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Ingrid said. She looked up at the candle-lit altar. “You may look like a god, but you are only a man.”

Reinhard shook his head, too used to strange remarks about his appearance to be embarrassed. “I’ve never seen a god move anything in the world, so I would much prefer to be a man. Besides, my sister looks better than I do.”

“I should like to meet her.”

“If you’re lucky, you will,” Reinhard said. “I suggested that she and her regiment escort you off Phezzan.”

Ingrid nodded and was silent.

“May I ask you something personal?”

“Yes.”

Reinhard hesitated. “Who killed your husband? Was it Braunschweig or Littenheim?”

Ingrid laughed again, an even hollower note, and didn’t answer.

“Do you know who killed him?” Reinhard asked.

“Yes,” Ingrid said.

“Will you tell me?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“I might need to make a bargain to get you out of here,” Reinhard said. “I think it would be useful for me to know.”

Ingrid tilted her head back. “You won’t like the answer.”

“Did the Earth Church kill him?” Reinhard asked.

“No,” she said. “Though I would forgive you for thinking that they did.”

“Who killed him?”

“I did,” Ingrid said. She turned to Reinhard for the first time, reached out one finger, poked him in his chest, right above his heart. “I stabbed him. In our bedroom. With his own knife. Right there.” 

Reinhard was so shocked that he didn’t have a response for a second. This information put a completely different spin on the inevitable civil war. If both sides believed that the other was the one that had taken the opening strike, both sides would feel like they were fighting on the defensive. 

“And you lived,” Reinhard said. “And no one suspects you.”

Ingrid’s hand dropped back to clutch the pew. “Part of me lived. Part of me died. A very dear… friend… of mine sacrificed her standing to save me. The Earth Church protected me. I’m very grateful to their patronage.”

Reinhard nodded. “My sister will like you.”

Ingrid sounded a little less sad when she said, “Does that help you?”

“I don’t know,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. But be prepared to leave.”

“I have nothing to hold me here,” Ingrid said. “I’m a traveller, passing through.”

“That’s what everyone is on Phezzan,” Reinhard said.

“Perhaps,” Ingrid said.

“I don’t know if I will see you again, Fraulein,” Reinhard said. “But I’m glad I could speak with you.”

She nodded. “Go in peace,” she said.

Reinhard nodded and left, scooting out of the pew and walking back down the aisle of the church. He glanced back at her once, and she hadn’t moved at all, still staring contemplatively up at the altar. He shook his head and turned away.

He didn’t know why the bishop hadn’t come. Perhaps it was manipulation, of some sort. He could probably understand that Reinhard liked Ingrid better than him, and that Reinhard thought Ingrid was a merely a tool and not a dangerous actor in her own right. Removing the bishop from the equation might have Reinhard let his guard down. Reinhard would have agreed that he liked Ingrid significantly more than he liked Bishop Degsby, but he was intelligent enough to be aware that underestimating Ingrid von Roscher could be a fatal mistake. 


Reinhard had spoken to Commodore Blackwell, and had gotten permission for this excursion. He didn’t think that Blackwell had gotten permission from anyone, but Reinhard was going to turn a blind eye to that fact. It suited him fine, if the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan was able to operate a little bit independently.

Reinhard was going camping. He had made it very clear that that was what he was going to be doing. He had even posted on his blog about his weekend plans, on the bottom of a post that was designed to catch Lieutenant Commander Muller’s attention.

 

The birthday of a very good friend of mine is coming up soon, so to amuse her I’m taking a break from my more serious content, and discussing a subject that’s of personal interest to both of us. Many imperial expats live within the Alliance, and while life is undoubtedly better there, there are still some comforts of home that just aren’t quite the same on the other side of the galaxy. One’s favorite type of beer, or specialty sausage that you just can’t find within the Alliance. Because of this heavy demand, there exists quite a flourishing market for imitation goods, companies that manage to operate within both the Alliance and the Empire, and, of course, those expensive goods ferried directly from the Empire into the Alliance. Although imitation goods and cross-national brands are worthwhile discussions in their own right, today I’d like to talk about the complicated supply chain that can bring almost any type of product across the border. 

Let’s take, for example, a rather innocuous treat: the elderflower shortbread cookie, made by the brand Tennshausen.

[...]

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little exploration of the subject.

No new posts this week, because I’m going on a camping trip. Camping was one of my favorite things to do when I was a student, though of course the campsites on Phezzan are quite different from anywhere I’ve been before. I’m hoping a friend will meet me out there, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to get away from work. If not, I’ll just have a relaxing few days wandering around, talking to myself. Should be a peaceful vacation.

 

Reinhard suspected that Muller would understand very clearly that he was asking to meet. 

Reinhard had rented a cabin, something he normally wouldn’t do, but he didn’t want to buy all new camping gear for this particular, single excursion, and he was honestly glad that he had, because the weekend turned out to be a torrentially rainy one. Reinhard didn’t mind the rain, sitting under his cabin’s awning, but he was rather amused to see Muller pull up in an unmarked car, then get out and immediately get drenched. Reinhard couldn’t see if there was anyone else in the car with him, but he didn’t really care. Although this was a sanctioned expedition, Reinhard didn’t have any backup himself. Blackwell hadn’t wanted to commit that much.

Reinhard stood and waved Muller over, and he came, dashing through the puddles on the ground and getting muddy up to the ankles.

“You could have picked a more civilized place to meet,” Muller said. “What do you want?”

“Come in,” Reinhard said, holding the door of the cabin open. Muller looked at it with some suspicion. “All of Phezzan is a civilized place, in case you had forgotten.”

Reluctantly, Muller entered the building, and found its hewn wood interior to be exactly as bland and unthreatening as Reinhard had intended it to be. Reinhard sat down on the edge of the camp bed, waving for Muller to take a seat on one of the chairs near the stove.

“What do you want?” Muller asked again, crossing his arms.

“I believe we said that if we were going to exchange information, we’d do it in somewhere other than a public park.”

“So you’ve picked a national park instead of a city one,” Muller said. “I never agreed to exchange anything.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Reinhard said. “I’m trusting you here.”

Muller narrowed his eyes. “This feels like a trap.”

“If I was going to trap you, I’d be a lot more subtle about it.”

“Then please explain.”

“I’m not playing a fourth dimensional game,” Reinhard said. “I’m going to tell you something that you will want to hear, so that you do not cause me problems.”

Muller pursed his lips. “I make no promises.”

“I’m well aware.” Reinhard fiddled with his locket absentmindedly. “I know you have a mole in the Phezzan navigation office.”

“Do you expect me to confirm or deny that?”

“No,” Reinhard said. He didn’t look directly at Muller, looking instead out over his shoulder through the window, where the rain was coming down in sheets. “And I am sure that even without your mole in the nav office, somebody on your team pays very close attention when a shipping company pays for several different routes at once, on short notice. I’m sure that sets off a bunch of red flags in your system.”

Muller was silent.

“And I’m sure that you would usually ignore it, except for the fact that you are vaguely aware that there’s some sort of important person trying to sneak into the Alliance.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“I’m aware.” Reinhard paused for a second. “And I’m also aware that you have a merchant ship that arrived on the fastest possible route from Odin, one that has only ever visited Phezzan once in the last five years, and that has suddenly put in a bid for travel routes at the nav office. I’d hazard a guess that whatever nav routes that ship receives, they won’t actually use. They’ll be stalking my merchant ship. That is, if you don’t stop your imperial refugee before they even make it up the space elevator.”

“And so what?” Muller asked.

“So, Lieutenant Commander, we are at a bit of an impasse,” Reinhard said. “You are just as poised to try to stop my refugee as we are to get them safely into the Alliance.”

“Yes, that would be the point of this war,” Muller muttered. “To be ready for anything you do.”

Reinhard raised an eyebrow. “No, the point is to win. And I would guess that in this engagement, we would win.”

Muller was silent again, which made Reinhard smile a little grimly. It had been a bit of a bait to get Muller to reveal the capabilities of the ship they had sitting in orbit, but Muller was smart enough not to rise to the provocation.

“If you’re so sure of that, then why are you here?” Muller asked after a second of uncomfortable waiting.

“Because, on Phezzan, we are not at war,” Reinhard said. “We’re friendly neighbors. And if Phezzan finds out that there’s been armed conflict, soldiers passing back and forth on unmarked ships through their corridor, you and I would both be in far bigger trouble than one imperial refugee is worth.”

“Destroying your ship could be made to look like an accident.”

Reinhard raised an eyebrow. “Could it? Because if I were you, I don’t know if I’d be willing to play that game of chicken with the Alliance. We have enough evidence to condemn you.”

“That would be showing your hand.”

“No, our perfectly legitimate merchant ship, carrying no weapons— which any Phezzani investigator could determine based on the debris— was maliciously targeted by the imperial fleet in disguise, because they had a suspicion that this perfectly legitimate vessel was harboring a defector. And harboring defectors, and letting defectors pass through in both directions, are things that Phezzan allows— and even likes. It would not look good for you.”

“And if your ship destroyed ours?”

Reinhard smiled. “Well, I am not saying that we would, because it would be a headache, and, as I said, our perfectly legitimate merchant vessel is unarmed, but even if we did— a perfectly legitimate merchant vessel has the right to defend itself from pirates. And what looks more like a pirate than being stalked through the Phezzan corridor, by a ship that is very off their allotted course?”

“No one would believe a word of that.”

“Perhaps,” Reinhard said. He crossed his legs, the picture of nonchalance. Muller was still slightly damp from the rain, and very tense. “Perhaps not.”

“Just tell me what you want. I didn’t come all the way out here for you to dangle implications in front of me.”

“I want you to leave my refugee alone,” Reinhard said. “That’s all.”

“I’m not going to just say that I will,” Muller said.

“I know. Which is why I had you come all the way out here. I’ll give you something in exchange.”

“What?”

“Information,” Reinhard said.

“What kind?”

“First, I’ll tell you who our refugee is, which should hopefully convince you that they’re not worth bothering. Second, I’ll give you something I know about… Well, you told me once that I was an Earth Church puppet. Not that it matters what you think of me, but I have some information to share with you about them.”

“It’s not my job to care about the Earth Church.”

“It’s not?” Reinhard said, his voice flat, disbelieving Muller completely. “Yet you spent so much time trying to dig into their business. You even had a mole in their hierarchy. Impressive.”

“Not really,” Muller said, and there was a story there, but Reinhard knew he wasn’t going to get it. “Tell me who your defector is.”

“The wife of the late Prince Ludwig,” Reinhard said, which caused Muller to flinch back in surprise.

“She’s supposed to be dead.”

“She’s not. She’s on Phezzan, and has been for some time. I’m not sure how long. She’s been shuffled around between various church safehouses, I think.”

“Hunh. And what’s she doing trying to defect?”

“She’s a rather unwilling passenger,” Reinhard said. “Actually.”

“One doesn’t fake their own death and flee across the galaxy by happenstance,” Muller said.

“Oh, you’re right, but she would very much prefer to return to Earth, unless all her protestations are some kind of elaborate plot.”

“Then why don’t you let us take her and send her back to Earth?”

Reinhard fiddled with his locket for a second. “I get the feeling that the moment she becomes useless to the Earth Church is the moment she stops breathing,” Reinhard said.

“And why do you care?”

“The Earth Church was not wrong in picking me to be their little errand boy,” Reinhard said. He tugged on the chain of his locket and looked out the window. “They were correct in assuming that I would have enough sympathy for her situation to help her survive getting into the Alliance.”

“Why do you have sympathy for her?”

“None of your business,” Reinhard snapped. Muller was taken aback.

“Fine. And what does the Earth Church want with her?”

“The same thing that anyone would want from the mother of a child with a valid claim to the imperial throne,” Reinhard said. “She would make a fine puppet regent for her son, and then a fine influence on her son, once he came of age.”

Muller scoffed. “Erwin Joseph has about as much chance of becoming the kaiser as you do. If he becomes a contender, Duke Braunschweig will kill him.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He killed Ludwig.”

“You don’t believe it was Littenheim?”

“What do you know?” Muller asked, suddenly and rightfully suspicious.

“I’m just curious as to why you don’t think it was Littenheim.”

“I’ve met Duke Braunschweig, once. I think he’s… He’s just more likely, that’s all.”

“Interesting.” Reinhard leaned forward a little. “I’ll make a note that he’s favored, for when your eventual civil war comes.”

Muller scowled. “That’s just my opinion. You’re acting like you know something.”

“I do.”

“What?”

“Braunschweig didn’t kill Ludwig.”

“Who did?”

“The Earth Church,” Reinhard said. “Obviously.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“They’re going to let Braunschweig and Littenheim fight it out, and then when they have depleted both of their resources, the Earth Church is going to strike a deal with Phezzan, or something, that will give them the power to swoop in and restore their own brand of order to the Empire. I don’t have the details, but if you look into it you’ll see that it’s true. You have your mole in the church. You know as well as I do that they’re deep in with the Phezzan government.”

“Then why did they kill Ludwig, if they just want to put his son on the throne?”

Reinhard looked at Muller like he was stupid. “Because they need the Empire to be weak in order to seize it. They had to destroy the clear line of succession in order to do that. And Ludwig would have been impossible to use as a puppet the way his son can be.”

“Fuck,” Muller said. “Fuck.” He ran his hand through his hair, then dropped it to his lap. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

“Because I’m half hoping that you’ll tell me there’s some equivalent conspiracy within the Alliance that you’ve found out about,” Reinhard said, which made Muller laugh a little. Reinhard was lying, of course, but the core of truth was still there.

“I am not nearly so free with information.”

“It’s tactical for me to tell you this,” Reinhard said. “Even if you just look at it from a perspective to see where I benefit— the Empire being united with Phezzan against the Alliance would be extremely dangerous for us. I don’t want that to happen via the Earth Church’s machinations.”

“And what are you hoping I will do with this information?”

“For one thing, let us have Ingrid von Roscher. She’s harmless by herself, and she’s probably less trouble to you in the Alliance than she would be if you captured her and put her on trial.”

Muller nodded, though Reinhard could tell it was a thinking nod, rather than one of agreement. “And Braunschweig and Littenheim?”

“Internal imperial politics are not my problem. I hope the two of them kill each other and end the Goldenbaum line for good,” Reinhard said, which was something of a lie, since he would prefer to have a hand in their destruction. “I’ve given you the information; it’s your choice as to what to do with it.”

“And why did you decide to betray the Earth Church?”

“Because I don’t like them,” Reinhard said. “And I am not their puppet. I do hope you will keep my name out of your mouth when you share this information, however.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Muller said. He was thinking hard, distracted a little. “This will need to be handled delicately.”

“You seem competent enough.”

Muller frowned. “I don’t know what you have to gain by saying that.”

“It’s the truth,” Reinhard said. “You should defect to the Alliance before your civil war makes a mess of your fleet.”

Muller laughed. “Gods, you could be more subtle about it. I’m not going to do that.”

“You’re loyal to the Goldenbaums? Even to whichever child will end up on the throne in a few years?”

“It would be extremely stupid of me to say no.” Muller shook his head. “I have no reason to defect.”

“If you change your mind in a few years, I would be happy to have you work for me,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, right, I forgot you’re full of yourself, too,” Muller said. “Do you have anything else to say?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “Until next time, Muller.”

“I really hope there doesn’t need to be a next time, Müsel.”

Reinhard’s smile was somewhat predatory.

“By the way,” Muller said, reaching into his pocket. “I passed on that message for you.” He tossed a data stick to Reinhard, who caught it, his heart beating exceptionally fast. Muller saw the expression that was clear on his face. “There’s my half of the information trade. But don’t expect me to be a courier for you.”

Reinhard ignored him, and Muller left, the door of the cabin slamming shut in a gust of wind. Reinhard hastily plugged the data stick into his phone and opened the single file contained on it.

 

Dear Captain von Leigh,

I doubt you remember me, but I took your class on Ancient Earth History a few years back. It’s probably very strange for me to be contacting you, but I’ve been working in the Embassy on Phezzan since I graduated, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing your name mentioned a few times.

In particular, I met this man at a party who said that he had once been aboard Rear Admiral von Reuenthal’s flagship, and knew you, or knew of you, in any event. He asked me to tell you that he sends his regards to your favorite student. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch his name, but I’m hoping that you understand more of what he was talking about than I did.

I hear that you’ve left the IOA. I’m surprised— I thought you were a good teacher, at least. How is working for Duke Braunschweig? If I’m honest with you, that is not a staff posting that I would have chosen for myself haha. Congratulations on your promotion, though.

I hope you are doing well.

Very respectfully,

Lt. Cmdr. Neidhart Muller

IOA Class of 482, Strategic Warfare Division

 

Muller!

Of course I remember you. If I’m not mistaken, you wrote your final paper on the Spanish Civil War, which I quite enjoyed. Interesting choice of topic, though I believe I said that you could have used a narrower focus. I was too harsh in grading back then. Well, all water under the bridge.

I can’t believe people are talking about me on Phezzan. I would honestly prefer that to not be the case. Working in the Embassy must be an interesting position. I’m slightly jealous, though perhaps not if you’re busy around there, which I suspect you must be.

As far as the man you encountered at a party, yes, I do believe I know who you’re referring to. I… hope... that you do not have too many reasons to come into contact with him, but if you should see him again, you may let him know that his message was received very happily, and that, quote, “I’m doing what you said to.”

Speaking as your former teacher, Muller, I would advise you to stay out of it. For your own sake. I’m sure you understand very well the reasons why. I appreciate whatever instinct moved you to be a messenger, but— you know what? I have no room to talk.

I wish I had had you in my strats course, but you had already graduated by the time I started teaching it. I would have referred you to one of my core principles, which is to carefully choose what engagements you fight. The same principle can be broadly applied.

I’m still talking about it, aren’t I?

As for my promotion, some would say it’s undeserved, and some would say it’s long overdue. You’re right that I miss teaching at the IOA. I liked it. Braunschweig isn’t so bad, if you know how to deal with him, and I think his daughter is delightful. Takes after her mother rather than her father, which I think is something of a blessing.

I hope you are also doing well. Another piece of teacherly advice: Phezzan is a unique place; I’m sure you don’t need to be told to learn as much as you can while you’re there.

V/r,

Captain Hank von Leigh

Chapter Text

January 796 UC, Heinessen

Annerose settled in to her new posting with the Rosenritter with all of her usual dignity and grace. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Rosenritter were not typically a dignified or graceful bunch, and many of the senior officers teased her mercilessly for her brand of decorum. Annerose did not exactly give as well as she got, since she was not going to sink to their bawdy level, but she put up with what was good-natured and was sharp with what was not. And if anyone insinuated that she was less competent with an axe because of her shorter stature or smaller frame, she quickly set the record straight in practice. 

Still, when it came time for her to organize the regiment’s semi-annual axe competition, Annerose seeded herself near the bottom. When she presented the schedule to Schenkopp, he raised an eyebrow at her and said, “You’re giving yourself an unfair advantage in that low bracket. I didn’t think you’d need it.” She blushed furiously, reorganized the list to put herself a bit higher, and ended up not getting knocked out of the competition until the quarterfinals, which was a respectable showing, by all accounts.

Although Annerose liked the members of the Rosenritter, she found the day to day work almost excruciatingly dull compared to her previous posting under Cazerne. Rather than working to organize whole fleets’ worth of material and people to get where they needed to be, Annerose was stuck in the small Rosenritter division headquarters, a squat building near the Heinessenopolis airfield, signing paychecks and putting in maintenance requests for equipment. Her office was far less pleasant than her old one. It was small, and on the ground floor, and the single window looked out over the parking lot. Since her new duties involved interfacing directly with almost every member of the regiment at one point or another, Annerose left her door open whenever she was in the office.

Linz had rather kindly made her a sign that read, “If your question is about my personal life, the answer is ‘NO.’ If you have an actual question, please come in.” He had stuck it to her door after she had snappily said as much to him before seeing who it was, which had been embarrassing in the moment, but she appreciated the humor in it later.

It was this sign that caused her a fresh bit of embarrassment when, unexpectedly, there was a knock on her door. “Come in,” Annerose said, without looking up for a second, with a pen between her teeth, comparing the budget listed on her computer to the stack of discretionary spending receipts she had been handed. 

“I thought you were going to say ‘no’ to me,” Rear Admiral Cazerne’s voice said, “since I’m here to ask about your personal life.”

Annerose dropped the pen and stood, to salute immediately, her chair scraping back across the bare floor. “Rear Admiral! I didn’t expect to see you here!”

“I didn’t expect to find myself here, either, but I’m looking for your boss, and I can’t seem to find him.”

“Did you have a meeting scheduled with him?”

“I hope you’re not acting as his personal secretary,” Cazerne said. “That would be a waste of your talent.”

“No, sir,” Annerose said. “I just usually keep tabs on who’s where.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Of course. No, I didn’t have a meeting with him scheduled. I’m only here semi-officially. I’m trying to scope some things out.”

“Mind if I ask, sir? Or are you here to talk to me on personal business only?”

“No, it’s actually probably for the best I caught you here. Funnily enough, this is a mix of personal and work business.”

Annerose gestured at the chair. “Want any tea?” she asked. “I have a feeling you’re about to offer me a rather interesting story.”

“You know me too well,” Cazerne said. He shut the office door before he sat down. “But yes, I would love a cup of tea.”

One of the few amenities Annerose had in her office was an electric kettle, which she started boiling. As she pulled two mugs and teabags out of the bottom drawer of her desk, she asked, “How have you been coping without me?”

“Horribly,” Cazerne said. “I shouldn’t have told you to leave.”

Annerose laughed a little. “You can probably snag me back in a few years.”

“I doubt it. I suspect you’ll soon be too high up for me to have any sort of claim over you.”

“Flattery won’t get you anywhere with me, sir,” Annerose said.

“Of course not, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. How have you been liking your new posting?”

“It’s different,” Annerose said diplomatically. “Different style of doing things, different pace. Different.”

“You don’t need to be so cagey with me,” he said. “You miss saying ‘no’ to all the admirals of all the fleets.”

She laughed. “I liked saying ‘yes’ to them and getting them what they needed a lot better,” she said. “But you’re not wrong. I’m sure that when we get assigned to real deployments, things will be a lot more exciting.”

While she was pouring the tea, she asked, “So, what is this official, non-official, personal, impersonal business you want to talk to me or Captain Schenkopp about?”

“Now that you’re not working in headquarters anymore, you’re probably not as aware of all the gossip that passes back and forth between there and the capitol building.”

“I’m going to trust that this is something I actually should be hearing, and that you won’t have me dragged before a tribunal for not covering my ears for what you’re about to say.”

Cazerne laughed. “At this point, I’d consider this ‘need to know’ for you, at least.”

“Alright, I’m curious.”

“So, there’s been constant back and forth between HQ and the capitol that there is some sort of high status imperial defector hiding on Phezzan, who’s too scared to show their face to get over here.”

“High status in what way? Fleet?”

“I don’t think so,” Cazerne said. “But I don’t actually know. I don’t have that much information.”

“Oh,” Annerose said, keeping the disappointment at her stymied curiosity out of her voice. “Still, that’s interesting.”

“It is. I’ve heard that people have been debating back and forth on if we should even accept this person.”

“Could they be a criminal?”

“It’s plausible, though we’ve had plenty of fleeing imperial republicans welcomed with open arms, so probably not that kind of criminal. I don’t know. It’s hard to speculate. There haven’t been any high profile disappearances recently, as far as I know, so…” He shrugged. “Either way, it seems to me like we’re going to take them in. And they’re going to need an escort.”

“Too high profile to even trust merchants to secret them over?” 

“I don’t know what the specifics are,” Cazerne said. “But I had a very interesting letter from an old classmate of mine, Commodore Blackwell, who’s the head of our fleet forces in the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan.”

“I’m aware,” she said. “That’s Reinhard’s CO.”

“Precisely,” Cazerne said. “And I’m gratified to hear from him that the other Lieutenant Commander von Müsel has not been driving him slowly insane.”

“Were you worried that he would?”

“Oh, only the smallest amount,” Cazerne said. “But it does make me happy to hear he’s doing well.” 

“What did the letter say?”

“Now, this is laundered thirdhand, so who knows if it is entirely accurate, but from reading between the lines, it seems as though Reinhard is suggesting that I arrange things so that a group of Rosenritter disguise themselves as merchants en route to Phezzan, stop there, and pick up our little defector.”

Annerose laughed a little. “Of course he would suggest something like that.”

“It’s not a terrible suggestion, all told, even if he is doing it just because he thinks that any job that can’t be completed by himself is best passed off to you or Lieutenant Commander Greenhill.”

“Do you think his second suggestion would be to have the sixth fleet invade the Phezzan corridor?” Annerose asked, half smiling.

“You would know better than I.”

“Are you actually considering this proposal?” Annerose asked.

“Well, officially, this is not my problem. I don’t think I’m supposed to even know a problem exists. But unofficially, yes, I think it’s a fairly clean solution.” There was some hesitancy in his voice, though, which was usually so decisive.

“What’s your concern?”

“Please do not take this the wrong way, Müsel,” Cazerne said, “but I believe that sending a ship full of Rosenritter into the Phezzan corridor could get… messy.”

Annerose raised an eyebrow.

Cazerne held up his hands, a conciliatory gesture. “All I’m saying is that being on a ship with what looks like a valid reason to pass through Phezzan, carrying cargo that clearly the Empire would want to have back, it’s an opportunity for someone who misses their homeland, or who wants a little taste of fame, to make some very, very bad choices. When I bring this up, someone might even make the argument that you, personally, are headed to Phezzan in order to re-defect with your brother.”

Annerose’s anger flashed to the surface, briefly, and she almost spilled her tea as she sat her mug down on the table. “I would—“

“I am aware, Müsel,” Cazerne said. “If I thought that was a legitimate possibility, I would not be here having this conversation with you. Your brother has just forgotten some of how other people might perceive this.”

“I doubt he’s forgotten,” Annerose said. “But he probably does want to give me a chance to prove myself.”

“Do you want such a chance?”

“The missions that the Rosenritter get assigned to are not my—“

“I probably have the sway to make this happen,” Cazerne said. “I think you would be well suited for it, and you were mentioned by name as having the right kind of touch, whatever that means. Aside from the way it looks, I have no problem with trying to get the Rosenritter assigned to this duty. I’m asking if you want me to try to give this to you.”

“Yes, then, if you need a one word answer. I, personally, would like to be involved. But you do need to talk to Captain Schenkopp—“

“I will,” Cazerne said. “Once it becomes official.” He stood, which made Annerose stand as well. “Thank you very much for the tea,” he said. “You should come over for dinner sometime.”

“Anytime, sir.” This felt like a very abrupt exit from Cazerne, and Annerose wondered if she had misstepped, but Cazerne smiled at her.

“I’m not officially supposed to be fixing this,” he said. “So let’s say I was here visiting you and having a quick personal chat about how Julian is doing, and leave it at that.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Would you mind if I spoke to Captain Schenkopp about this?”

He nodded. “Swear him to secrecy, though, will you?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Good. I’ll let you know when I hear anything else. And if your brother gets in contact with you—“

“I don’t think he will, sir. He would have told me directly if he was going to.”

“I’m glad he understands operational security.”

“He understands a lot of things,” Annerose said.

“Indeed. Well, have a nice night, Lieutenant Commander.”

“I will, thank you, sir.”

 


 

Annerose found Schenkopp at the gym later that day, after both of their official duty hours were over. He was alone, idly taking shots with a basketball from the three-point line, his uniform jacket tied around his waist, leaving him in only his undershirt. Annerose walked underneath the hoop and caught the ball when he sunk it. She tossed it back to him and he grinned at her. “Want to play?”

“I’m terrible at it, but sure.”

Schenkopp just made one of his funny faces at her, and started to dribble the ball away down the court. She ran after him, and had moderate success when she knocked it out of his hands as he tried to take a shot. Of course, when she tried to shoot, he blocked her almost completely, and when she eventually dodged sideways and tried to get the ball out of her hands as quickly as possible, she just bounced it off the backboard, which made her huff and Schenkopp grin as he ran to retrieve the ball. 

They played for a while, and Annerose did eventually score, but Schenkopp came out on top, as he usually did.

“So,” he said, when they mutually decided that they had exhausted the enjoyment of chasing each other around, and were just taking turns tossing the ball through the hoop. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“How did you know I have something to talk about? Aren’t I usually more to the point when I need something from you?”

His smile showed teeth. “Blumhart told me that he found you putting together a mysterious list of names this afternoon.”

“Is Blumhart spying on me for you now?”

“No,” Schenkopp said. “But if you make a mysterious list of people’s names, you can guarantee that everyone on the list will be offended at their inclusion, and everyone off the list will be offended by their exclusion.”

“Rear Admiral Cazerne came to see me today.”

“Trying to get you to adopt another kid?”

“No. He was looking for you, actually,” Annerose said. “But you were out.”

“He should have talked to Linz. I told him to hold down the fort.”

“I think he didn’t want the word to spread to too many people.”

“I see,” he said. “What did Cazerne have to say?”

“Have you heard any rumors of an imperial defector stuck on Phezzan?” Annerose asked.

“Can’t say I pay attention to things like that.” Schenkopp jumped a little and tossed the basketball through the hoop.

Annerose explained everything that Cazerne had told her. Schenkopp listened carefully, occasionally asking questions about specifics, most of which Annerose couldn’t answer.

“And he wants you to lead this little mission?” Schenkopp asked.

“Only because he knows me,” Annerose said. “I think.”

He was quiet for a second. “Okay,” he said. “You can have it. Blumhart said you left the top line of your list empty, go ahead and put yourself down.”

“You haven’t even seen the list,” Annerose said.

“Then send it to me,” he said.

“You don’t want to lead the mission yourself?”

He laughed a little. “Sometimes one can best demonstrate their loyalty by staying home and not volunteering to go to Phezzan. Too many eyebrows would be raised if I went. Besides, your brother is on Phezzan.”

“So?”

“He’d be unhappy if I showed up on his doorstep instead of you.”

“I don’t know why he would be.”

“He doesn’t like me, in case you had forgotten.”

“That was only because—“ She scowled a little bit. “It no longer applies.”

“You think he would be fine with me now that I’m your commanding officer, rather than your boyfriend?” Schenkopp was fine with being candid about this subject, but it was an unpleasantly sore one for Annerose. 

“I don’t know,” she said, trying to keep any of the weird tone out of her voice. “He’s not thirteen anymore.”

Schenkopp chuckled. “Very true. You know, I sometimes imagine what it would be like if he said he wanted to join the Rosenritter as well. I’d take him.”

“I think he has his sights set a little bit higher,” Annerose said, which was a significant but polite understatement.

“Well, maybe one von Müsel sibling is enough.” He sunk the basketball again, and Annerose ran to grab it. “And of the two, I’d rather have you.”

“Why is that?” Annerose asked, getting her hopes up that this was a flirtatious line.

“You’re much less likely to pick a fight with everyone else in the regiment,” he said with a smile, which was true, even if it wasn’t the answer Annerose had been hoping for. “And you’re not so ambitious that I’m worried about you stabbing me in the back.”

“Reinhard wouldn’t—“

Schenkopp laughed. “I’m joking, Müsel.” 

It was the use of her last name that startled her and caused her to miss her shot. She grit her teeth as the ball bounced off the rim of the basket, then dropped to the floor, the noise of it echoing through the empty gym.

“Well,” Schenkopp said, catching her frustration and deciding the conversation was over, “I look forward to getting official orders that I can assign to you.”

“Yeah,” Annerose said. Schenkopp retrieved the ball and tossed it into the open equipment storage closet, which he then kicked shut. “Headed home?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Schenkopp said. “The night is young yet. And I don’t have any responsibilities when I’m not on duty. Unlike some other people.”

“Julian is less like a responsibility and more like a very small, very sweet roommate. I don’t even have to cook, since he likes to.”

“Hunh,” Schenkopp said. “When I was his age, I was a handful.”

They headed outside, Shenkopp pulling his uniform shirt back into place over his head. It was a hot midsummer evening, and the clouds were rose red on the horizon. In the parking lot, Annerose’s car was closer to the building, and they both lingered at it before she opened the door. 

“You looking forward to your first command, then?” Schenkopp asked.

“Do you think I’ll do a good job?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t say that you could have it. I’d put Linz on it instead.”

“He won’t be upset that you’re giving it to me, right?”

“Nah,” Schenkopp said. “He likes you. And even if he didn’t, you need some chances to prove yourself. It’s been too long since we’ve seen actual use. Everyone’s getting a little antsy sitting around.”

“Yeah,” Annerose said. “I can tell.”

He laughed. “You’ve only been here for two months. You haven’t seen all the moods yet.”

“I look forward to learning them, then,” Annerose said.

“Well, some,” he said. He leaned on her car for a moment, the late light catching in his eyes. He was too much, Annerose thought. “Some aren’t so pleasant.”

She nodded. “Walter—“ she said, then cut herself off.

He smiled at her. “Hm?”

“I just hope that this mission will improve the mood,” Annerose said, which was a deflection. She shouldn’t have said anything.

“Certainly,” he said. He straightened up. “Well, have an excellent evening, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel.” His voice was humorously light.

“You as well, Captain Schenkopp.”

He gave her a bit of a jaunty wave as he headed off towards his own car.

 


 

February 796 UC, Heinessen

Annerose was packing a suitcase for the upcoming trip to Phezzan. Since she and the tiny group of Rosenritter she would be leading would all be in disguise, she had to pack her civilian clothing, and was hemming and hawing over what would be the most practical, easy to move in, and inconspicuous. Julian sat on her bed, watching her pick through her closet, his chin on his hands and his elbows on his knees, legs crossed.

“What about that blue skirt?” he asked. “It’s loose enough for you to run in.”

“Too distinctive,” Annerose said. “I embroidered the bottom of it. I don’t want anything that could attract attention.”

“I could go buy some pants for you tomorrow while you’re at work, if you write down your size.”

She wrinkled her nose. “No, thanks. I don’t need to acquire a whole costume wardrobe I’ll never wear again.” She sighed a little, holding up a green blouse. “This is probably all right, you think?”

“What’s wrong with pants?” Julian asked.

“I grew up wearing skirts. And I wear pants every day of the week for my uniform. I just don’t prefer them.”

“Everyone on Phezzan wears pants.”

“No, everyone on TV shows set on Phezzan but intended for an Alliance audience wears pants. People on Phezzan wear the strangest things imaginable.”

Julian laughed. 

“It’s true!” Annerose insisted. “For one thing, I’ve been there before. And when I was a kid in the Empire, you could have gotten me to swear that everyone on Phezzan wore these big hoop skirts—“ she gestured to indicate the size— “because Phezzan TV intended for an imperial audience caters its programming to what people in the Empire want to see.”

“Hunh,” Julian said. “But what do people on Phezzan watch?”

“I haven’t a clue,” Annerose said. “I was only there for a couple days last time, anyway. It’s a strange place.”

“I want to come with you,” Julian said.

“What? No.”

“Please…” He made a very endearing face at her, and Annerose tossed the shirt she was holding at him. He caught it, then neatly folded it and put it in her suitcase.

“I don’t know why you think that I could just let you come on a secret military mission,” Annerose said. “This isn’t vacation.”

“You said it wouldn’t be dangerous.”

“Sure, and I hope that’s true, but it’s still not appropriate.”

“But it would add to the realism of your disguise as merchants. All merchant ships have kids running around.”

“No,” Annerose said. “And don’t think that any amount of pleading will change my mind. I’m sorry, Julian, but really, you can’t expect that I would have ever said yes.”

“I would behave,” he said. “I promise. I would be helpful.”

“Look, I would love to have you, but it really isn’t reasonable. You understand this, right?”

He frowned a little and didn’t answer. Annerose leaned over and tousled his head. “You know what, maybe next year I’ll plan an actual Phezzan vacation. That would be fun.”

“The interesting part isn’t that it’s on Phezzan,” he grumbled. “It’s that you’re doing something useful.”

“It’s not that exciting,” Annerose said, trying to spin it so that Julian was less invested. “After all, it’s not like fleeing from the Empire isn’t something I haven’t already done before.”

Although this was the silliest downplaying of the upcoming mission possible, Julian seemed to accept it. He shifted on the bed and fiddled with the latches of her suitcase. “What am I going to do while you’re gone?”

“I told you that my mom is going to come here and stay with you,” she said. “I won’t be away that long.”

“What if something happens?”

“Nothing is going to happen,” Annerose said, very firmly, and put the last clothing into her suitcase. “Reinhard and I will both be on Phezzan, and I’m sure that he’s taking very good care of the situation.”

“He won’t be coming back with you, right?”

“No, he’s still assigned to the High Commissioner’s office there. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know,” Julian said. “Just wondering.”

“He’ll probably get reassigned soon enough. I don’t know how long Phezzan will be able to handle him for. He’s already neck deep in all of this.”

“That’s not his fault.”

“I’m sure when I talk to him, I’ll find out that it somehow is,” Annerose said. “Though I’m not sure if I’ll get the chance to see him while I’m there. We’re theoretically doing a very, very quick handoff.”

“Too bad.”

“It’s fine,” Annerose said. “Knowing he’s looking out for me is more than enough.”

“And you’re looking out for him.”

“It’s my job,” Annerose said with a smile.

“Still,” Julian said, with the slightly pleading tone back in his voice. “I want to help.”

“You know what?” Annerose said. “I think there is a way you could help.”

“Really?” Julian asked, leaning forward.

“This person we’re picking up,” Annerose said, “I’m told she comes to us through the Earth Church. My mom is a member of the Earth Church. While she’s staying with you, if she asks you to go with her, go and maybe see if you hear anything. She’s pretty involved. Maybe she’ll have some useful information.”

“You want me to spy on your mom?”

“Not spy…” Annerose said. She honestly just wanted to give Julian a task to make him feel important, and she highly doubted that her mother would allow Julian to overhear anything that he wasn’t supposed to hear, and she also somewhat doubted that her mother knew anything about the situation in the first place, but all the same, it didn’t hurt to have Julian listen. “Not exactly.”

“Do you not trust your mom?”

“I trust her,” she said. “Reinhard gave me a very bad report on one of the Earth Church’s bishops that she made him meet with once, though. So I don’t have any particular fondness for them. I’m not sure, really, what my mom is doing.” She shrugged. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear anything. My mom knows you’re pretty smart, so she probably…”

“Wouldn’t let anything slip in front of me?”

“Well, you know,” Annerose said. “Maybe I’m giving you the wrong picture. It’s not her I’m worried about. She would do anything for me, and for Reinhard. It’s just, everyone else around her. The organization itself is concerning.”

“You think she’s in danger?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you can give me some peace of mind and tell me if I should be worried about her or not.”

Julian nodded solemnly. “Okay. I will. I promise.”

Annerose smiled, actually a little relieved, some of the worry that she hadn’t known was lurking beneath the surface of her heart assuaged for a moment. “Be careful, though. Don’t let yourself get dragged into anything.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

 


 

February 796 UC, Phezzan Corridor

It was interesting that Annerose’s first outing as an official member of the Rosenritter was on a mission where they were doing everything in their power to not look like a group of highly trained Alliance soldiers. She felt very strange leading the group in civilian clothes, and when they had first boarded the ship, named the Mary Ellen Carter, Annerose developed a little bit of a tic of mentally counting all the Rosenritter that she had in her charge. She felt rather like a schoolteacher leading a bunch of unruly students on a field trip. 

The trip to Phezzan itself was completely unremarkable. The merchant ship they were traveling on was not designed to carry passengers, just huge shipping crates full of cargo, so the crew and living areas were rather smaller than Annerose expected. Being the commanding officer and the only woman on the trip, she was afforded her own room, though she would be sharing it with their guest on the return voyage, simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put her. The atmosphere was one of general camaraderie, and Annerose felt like she got to know her travel mates fairly well by time they reached the Phezzan corridor itself. 

Things grew tenser when they entered the corridor. Technically, Phezzan had the right to inspect any ship that requested to dock at the massive spaceport attop its elevator, though, in reality, they almost never did. When the pilot sent in their docking request, Annerose held her breath involuntarily, waiting for the clear signal. They got it, and docked.

To maintain the disguise as a merchant ship, the cargo bays were full of offgoing cargo, and would need to be loaded up with incoming wares, a process that would take over a day. One of the few actual members of the merchant ship’s crew would be handling all of that, but it did put some hard start and end times on when Annerose needed to be back on the Mary Ellen Carter, with her new charge and all of her Rosenritter in hand. Some of them would be remaining behind to guard the ship and ensure that nothing happened up at the top of the elevator, while the rest would be accompanying Annerose to the surface, where they were going to meet Ingrid von Roscher.

Annerose had been on the great space elevator before, twice, but it still awed her, its glittering spire looking like a spear through the heart of the planet from space, and a tower to heaven from the surface. The ride itself took several hours, but still required the use of a gravity engine to mitigate the extreme acceleration as they sped away from the port at the top and then slowed down on their approach to the surface.

Like most things on Phezzan, the trip aboard the elevator was a chance to be sold things. Since there was functionally nothing illegal to buy or sell on Phezzan, this meant that vendors were offering everything from food to currency exchange to sex to real estate (“Get Your Phezzani Citizenship NOW!!” ads proclaimed) to the widest variety of drugs that Annerose could possibly imagine. People coming to Phezzan had money to spend, and people leaving Phezzan wanted whatever they could take for the road. Although Annerose had told everyone not to purchase anything other than food, she was well aware that over the course of the trip, many of her Rosenritter slipped out of her sight, which meant that they were probably purchasing “souvenirs.” She glared at them when they came back, and only some of them had the decency to smile sheepishly. She made a mental note to search everyone’s bunks when they were on the return trip. She could flush any contraband out of the airlock without anyone needing to get in trouble on Heinessen.

The elevator was at least an enclosed space, and she didn’t have to worry about any of her team going missing, though, really, she wasn’t particularly worried about any of them vanishing. She had picked this group specifically because they were the least likely to defect, most of them having significant family ties on Heinessen.

She didn’t notice them being observed on the way down the elevator, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t being observed. After all, there were cameras strung up in visible places to deter shoplifters, and she could guarantee that there were even more that she couldn’t see. 

By the time they reached the bottom of the elevator, Annerose was thoroughly tired of the whole experience, and she was not looking forward at all to the return journey upwards.

She had dressed appropriately for the weather, at least, as they emerged out into cool and damp evening air. The space elevator was by necessity directly on the equator, but this was the rainy season in this part of Phezzan. As had been planned, there were cars waiting for them in the huge garage area, which had been left parked there by the staff at the High Commissioner’s office. Annerose’s team split off into three groups of four, taking different cars. They were going to pick up Roscher from the safehouse she was being kept in. Schenkopp had convinced her during planning that it was better to have more people in more cars, rather than just a small team in one, even if that would have been less conspicuous. Twelve was a compromise. A team of four were remaining behind at the bottom of the elevator, watching their return elevator car to make sure no imperial forces boarded it.

Annerose was tense during the drive, her fingers restlessly smoothing down the fabric of her skirt.

As they drove, she called to check in with the High Commissioner’s office. She was pleased, but not exactly surprised, that Reinhard answered the phone.

“We’re en route to the safehouse,” Annerose said. “Is there anything I should be aware of? Last minute changes?”

“I would have told you,” Reinhard said. “We’re keeping an eye on the imperials, on the ground and in the air. The ship they have parked in orbit hasn’t moved, and everyone at their embassy seems to be behaving normally.”

“Do they know we’re here?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “They seem to be evaluating the situation.”

“Evaluating?”

“I think there’s enough deterrents in place that they’ll let us have Roscher without trouble— they don’t have any use for her— but if they think we’re trying to sneak anything other than Roscher off planet, and using her as a decoy, or just trying to trick them about who we have, then they might act.”

“That would be stupid,” Annerose said, some of the stress of the moment forcing her to voice a truth she would have normally phrased more delicately.

Reinhard laughed on the other end of the line. She wished there was time for her to see him, but it was nice just to hear his voice. “There have been plenty of stupider things that people have done in this universe.”

Annerose couldn’t voice her anxiety in the car with her subordinates. Reinhard could always read her mind, though, and when she didn’t say anything, he said, “If it makes you feel any better, you probably won’t acquire a tail until after you pick her up. I suspect they’re watching you from the air. Drones, probably.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” She dropped the phone from her ear for a second, and craned her neck to talk to the two Rosenritter in the back. “Ashbaum, Jurgenson, you don’t see any drone above us, do you?”

The two of them rolled down the windows and looked up into the sky, reporting that no, they didn’t see any drones. But that didn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t one.

“We’ll keep an eye out for it,” Annerose said to Reinhard.

“Don’t bother trying to shoot it down,” he said. “No use causing a scene on Phezzan.”

“Since when have you been opposed to causing a scene?” Her facade of professionalism was crumbling, but her companions in the car just laughed.

She could hear the smile in Reinhard’s voice. “Since I became a responsible officer in the Alliance fleet.”

“We’re about fifteen minutes away from the safehouse,” Annerose said. “Call me back if anything changes.”

“I will, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel,” he said. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” she said, and hung up.

“Why isn’t he in the Rosenritter, too?” Ashbaum asked, grinning at Annerose wickedly.

“Because when he was thirteen he tried to murder Captain Schenkopp with an axe,” Annerose said, which was almost true.

Everyone in the car laughed. “I’d pay money to see a repeat of that.”

Annerose played along a little. “I’ll go up against him in our next tournament, and you can pretend like I’m my brother. We’re identical, except he’s just a little taller.”

“Pretty boy, is he?” Jurgenson said.

“And that is another reason he’s not in the regiment,” Annerose said shortly, any of the amused mood lost. “Keep your comments to yourself, Spaceman.”

“I was only joking.”

The scenery outside changed gradually from city to suburbs, and then they finally pulled up in front of a truly inconspicuous house, two stories, painted a pleasant shade of light green. One of her group’s cars moved further down the street, the other parked a little back from the house, while Annerose’s car pulled into the driveway of the house itself. She and the two Rosenritter in the back got out of the car, while the driver remained inside. 

The sun had set, and the whole scene was lit by the porch light on the front of the house, and by the streetlights that hummed and buzzed loudly on the road, along with the headlights of her own car behind her. Annerose marched up to the door, then rang the bell. There was a momentary pause, and she could feel eyes on her, even if she couldn’t see who was watching her, or from where. After a second, the door swung open.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?” a man asked, standing at the door. He was too young-looking to be the Bishop Degsby she had been warned about, so she had no idea who this man was.

“I am,” she said. “Where is Fraulein von Roscher?”

The man looked outside the door, saw the two Rosenritter standing outside the car. “They yours?”

“Yes,” Annerose said.

“She’s right in here,” the man said. He held the door open. Annerose glanced back at her men, gave them a hand signal behind her back— caution, don’t follow— then followed the man in, suddenly keenly aware of the sidearm tucked in an easily accessible spot just beneath her blouse.

The interior of the house was weirdly quiet, being cut off from the sounds of birds and wind outside, but otherwise unassuming and neat. It seemed that people actually lived here: there were family photos on the walls, and a bucket full of childrens’ toys in the corner of the living room where she was led.

It was there that Annerose laid eyes on Ingrid von Roscher for the first time. Ingrid was sitting on the couch, dressed in an outfit not dissimilar to Annerose’s own: a conservative black skirt and a jacket that disguised her shape. She had her hair covered by a white scarf, but the curly ends of it peeked out the bottom, showing that it was a vivid red. Unbidden, the immediate thought that came to mind was that Ingrid’s hair looked a lot like Siegfried Kircheis’. Ingrid might have been pretty, but Annerose couldn’t really tell. Her face was half in shadow, and the melancholy expression she wore didn’t give Annerose any sense of what she would look like when she smiled. 

“Fraulein von Roscher?” Annerose asked, voice coming out gentle rather than businesslike. 

Ingrid looked up at her, as though noticing her for the first time, and her expression shifted, eyebrows lifting, into something like a muted surprise. Her mouth moved as though she were going to say something, but no sound came out.

“I’m Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. I’m here to escort you to Heinessen,” Annerose said.

“You’re his sister?” she asked.

“I am,” Annerose said. “Are you ready to go? My team is waiting outside, and my ship is waiting in port.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ingrid said. Her eyes were slightly downcast.

“Do you have a suitcase, or anything you’re bringing with you?”

Ingrid picked up a duffel bag that Annerose hadn’t seen from behind the arm of the couch as she stood.

“Is there anything else you need from us?” the man asked.

“No, I’ll take things from here,” Annerose said. “Thank you for taking care of her.”

“The Church thanks you, and the Alliance.”

“Indeed,” Annerose said, voice dry. “Behind me, Fraulein,” Annerose said as they walked to the door. She didn’t want her team waiting outside to be alarmed by someone else exiting the house first. Ingrid followed her back down the hallway like a duckling following its mother.

Outside, Annerose held open the back door of the car for Ingrid, who looked at her hesitantly. Annerose wanted her in the middle, just so that, even with the tinted windows, there was less chance of her being seen, but Ingrid seemed slightly uncomfortable, so Annerose said, “Jurgenson, take the front seat,” and slid herself into the squished middle, next to Ashbaum, and let Ingrid take the outside seat.

As they began their drive, Annerose called Reinhard back.

“I have Fraulein von Roscher,” she said. “Any updates on your end?” Annerose peered nervously backwards out the window, feeling even more paranoid now that their precious cargo was squished up right beside her. She should have told Ashbaum to ride in one of the other cars.

“There’s some movement at the imperial embassy, but it’s around the time when a lot of their regular staff leave for the night,” Reinhard said. “How is Roscher?”

Annerose glanced at her charge, who was looking out the window with wide eyes. “Fine,” Annerose said. They were speaking in the Alliance language, which Annerose had been told that Ingrid didn’t speak, so she said to Reinhard, “I can’t blame her for being nervous.”

“Tell her I’m taking care of things.”

“Are you?”

“I have thus far,” Reinhard said. “I don’t think you’re going to have any problems. Oh, look, Muller just left their embassy.”

“Your counterpart, right?” Annerose had been given, and had dutifully memorized, a list of all the imperial embassy staff, should she need to identify any of them.

“Yeah. A little too smart for his own good.”

Annerose did not say that the exact same criticism could be levied against Reinhard. “Does he look like he’s going home?”

“I can’t tell. I don’t have his car tracked. But he’s making the same turn he usually does at night— ah, he just left my camera.”

“Do you have eyes elsewhere?”

“Not as many as I’d like,” Reinhard said.

“Too bad,” Annerose said. “We’re about forty-five minutes out from the elevator. A lot can change between then and now. Everyone reports that everything’s still quiet at our ship and at the elevator base.”

“Good,” Reinhard said. “Maybe I should meet you at the elevator.”

“What good would that do?”

“I just feel better being more physically involved.”

Annerose laughed. “Your turn to be stuck behind a desk. We’re all hoping that there won’t be any action, anyway, so there’s no point.”

There wasn’t much more to say, but Annerose kept Reinhard on the phone for a while, going over their simple plan to board the elevator, false documentation for all of them in hand, should they need it.

The elevator was very visible on the horizon, its spire lit from within, and they drove closer and closer, weaving through traffic, wanting to get to the base with time to spare before their elevator car departed.

They abandoned their cars in the garage, then made their way into the giant port building. Ingrid was clutching her duffel bag tightly in both hands, and Annerose was nervously counting her Rosenritter, making sure she had all of them, keeping her own hand on Ingrid’s arm to steer her in the right direction. The place was disorientingly crowded, which was surprising for how late at night it now was, but Phezzan as a planet never slept, so it shouldn’t have surprised her at all. It made walking through the throngs that much more difficult, and made her that much more nervous, though.

With her free hand, she signalled to her group to form up more closely, and they did. They moved faster through the crowd, their specific terminal annoyingly far from the port entrance.

As their terminal came into sight, so too did someone Annerose recognized from the briefing she had been given: Lieutenant Commander Muller. He was standing by himself, leaned against the wall near the entrance to the bathroom, dressed in civilian clothes. Being alone, he was probably not about to make much of a move, but he was scanning the crowd, watching. Annerose moved to put herself in between Muller and Ingrid. That movement caught his attention, and their eyes met.

The expression that flashed across Muller’s face started as recognition, then turned to confusion, then a weird, uninterpretable twist, and finally alarm as he seemed to realize or connect something. His mouth moved— they were too far away for Annerose to hear what he was saying over the noise of the crowd— but she could read his lips, “Rosenritter!”

Annerose’s lips curled up. Despite the seriousness of the situation, it was funny that their reputation preceded them enough to startle and alarm Muller. She and her team made it into the terminal, then hustled into the elevator car, rejoining the guards that she had left there.

She couldn’t call Reinhard, now that they were in public, but she texted him, while keeping an eye on her surroundings and a hand on Ingrid’s arm.

 

> Muller was at the elevator. I just saw him.

 

< That bastard.

 

> What is his deal? He didn’t do anything, but was acting very strangely.

 

< Like I said, he’s probably trying to decide if you’re worth sending a ship after. The one they have in orbit hasn’t moved.

< What do you mean by strangely?

 

> I think he thought I was you for a second.

> Then he recognized us as RR.

 

< Good. You’re a good deterrent. I doubt they’re going to do anything more than watch you, at this point.

 

> Hope you’re right.

 

< There isn’t going to be a shootout in the middle of the Phezzan spaceport.

< Muller knows that’s uncivilized.

 

Reinhard ended up being right. No imperial agents attempted to board their elevator car, and the ride to the top was incident free. Ingrid barely spoke a word the whole time. She didn’t sleep during the ride, either, though Annerose assured her that she could. Ingrid just nodded, and though she leaned slightly more against Annerose in her seat and closed her eyes, it was clear that she was still wide awake, from the way that no part of her relaxed for an instant.

Annerose couldn’t help but like this woman. She wasn’t sure what about her caused that reaction, but it was a genuine one. Even though she had barely said anything, something about the way that Ingrid looked at her, Annerose found sweet. She resolved to get to know Ingrid a little, over the trip, though not right now while they were in this public elevator car. 

She kept in contact with Reinhard throughout their journey. Right as they reached the top of the elevator, Reinhard said,

 

< Do me a favor. Ask her about what happened with her husband, at some point.

 

This had not been brought up before by anyone, and Annerose hadn’t thought there was really any doubt about what had happened to Prince Ludwig— he had been murdered by Duke Braunschweig— but Reinhard wouldn’t be saying to do so without a reason. Annerose didn’t respond, because then it was time to get all of her Rosenritter off the elevator and back onto the Mary Ellen Carter, which all went without incident, and they were able to launch. Everyone was accounted for, and all (with the exception of Ingrid) were in relatively good spirits.

Ingrid looked out the window as the Mary Ellen Carter undocked from the Phezzan port, firing her sublight engines to take them to the warp point that they had been assigned.

Once in space, they couldn’t communicate with the High Commissioner’s office anymore, so Annerose felt slightly anxious, like they were flying blind, but none of the ship’s instruments indicated that they were being followed, so after they arrived at their first assigned warp point, Annerose tried to relax and trust the crew of the Mary Ellen Carter to take them home.

She left the bridge, and Ingrid followed after her, even without having been told to do so. Annerose didn’t mind the company, and she found her way to the small communal kitchen on board the ship. She rifled through the fridge and brought out some sandwich ingredients. Without asking, she made one for herself and one for Ingrid, who accepted it with thanks, and then said a small prayer before she ate. Annerose watched her, curious.

“My mother’s a member of the Earth Church,” Annerose said after a minute. They were alone in the brightly lit, small room, so Annerose felt comfortable talking. She wondered if Ingrid would feel the same.

“I know,” Ingrid said. “That’s why they chose your brother.”

“Did you like Earth?”

“Yes.”

“What’s it like?”

“I didn’t live in the headquarters,” Ingrid said after a second. “They let me live further south, in the lowlands.” She nibbled at her sandwich. “It was cold in the winters, but the springs were nice.”

“You were there for a while, right?”

“Years,” she said.

“What did you do?”

“I worked on a farm in the summers. In the winter, we’d weave cloth, things like that. I lived in this big house with the other women in our camp.” She smiled a little, for the first time. “I wish I could go back.”

“Why?” Annerose asked.

Ingrid shook her head, eyes downcast. Annerose didn’t press the issue. They finished their meal in silence, and then Annerose went to sort out how her team was doing, then make preparations to sleep. Ingrid continued to follow her around like a shadow, even though Annerose had told her she had free rein to wander the ship, and had pointed out the room that they would be sharing, in case Ingrid wanted to sleep. 

“You must be exhausted,” Annerose said when she finally did decide that she could let the Mary Ellen Carter’s crew handle things, and wake her up if there was an emergency.

“I’m fine,” Ingrid said.

Annerose gave her an appraising look. “Sure. But I’m going to bed, and if you’re going to follow me around, you might as well too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize!” Annerose said, suddenly worried that her tone had been too strong. “I don’t mind— I understand. I trust my men to be well behaved, but I don’t blame you for not feeling the same.”

Ingrid shook her head slightly, as though that wasn’t the right reason, but didn’t say anything. The bedroom that they were sharing was tiny, and Annerose was surprised when Ingrid, seemingly without any concerns of modesty whatsoever, unzipped her duffel bag and began changing into her pyjamas. Maybe that was what things were like on Earth, but Annerose decided she would much prefer to change in the attached bathroom. It would have been one thing if Ingrid was Rosenritter, but she wasn’t. She was an odd guest.

Annerose fell asleep easily, but she found herself in the same dream she had had approximately once a week since she was fifteen. Even though the scene was so familiar that she was able to immediately recognize it as a dream, she was never able to shake herself out of the complete terror that accompanied it, change the narrative, or wake up. Someone was looming over her, and Annerose screamed—

No, wait, she never screamed in this dream. She was always silent.

Someone was screaming though.

Annerose woke up, jolting upright, her pyjamas slipping off her shoulder. In the dark, across from her, Ingrid was yelping and thrashing in her bed. Annerose knelt down next to Ingrid and shook her shoulder.

“Fraulein Roscher!” she said urgently but quietly. “Wake up!”

Ingrid’s eyes flew open, wide, like those of a panicked horse. She grabbed Annerose’s arm, fingers digging into her skin so deeply that Annerose was pretty sure she’d get a bruise. “Janie?” Ingrid gasped.

“No, Ingrid, I’m Lieutenant Commander von Müsel.” Annerose tugged herself away from Ingrid, though she didn’t let go, and flipped on the light so that Ingrid could see her better.

Ingrid flopped back onto the bed, covering her face with her free hand, though she was still holding Annerose’s arm with the other.

In the light, Annerose could see that Ingrid was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, and her hand was burning hot to the touch. “Are you okay, Fraulein?” Annerose asked.

Ingrid didn’t answer. Tentatively, Annerose put her hand on Ingrid’s forehead, checking her for fever, which she absolutely had. She felt like she was on fire. Unfortunately, there weren’t any sort of medical personnel on board. Annerose bit her lip. “I should get you some aspirin; you have a fever.”

“Won’t help,” Ingrid finally muttered. She took her hand off her face, and used it to take Annerose’s off her forehead. She seemed fascinated by Annerose’s hand for a second. “It will go away eventually.”

“What do you mean?” Annerose asked.

“It’s happened before,” Ingrid said. “It’s fine.” She let Annerose’s hand fall, and closed her eyes. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“You were having a nightmare.”

“I know.”

“Are you alright?”

“Nothing you can do about it.”

“Fraulein—“

“Just call me Ingrid,” she said. Her voice was strained. “Please.”

“If there is something I can do for you—“

“It’s withdrawal,” Ingrid said. “I’ll be fine eventually.”

“Withdrawal?”

“Thyoxin,” Ingrid murmured. “Small dose.”

Annerose couldn’t help but gasp. Thyoxin was a potent drug, illegal almost everywhere (except, of course, Phezzan), that was rumored to be secretly used by commanders in the imperial fleet to make their soldiers insensitive to pain and able to fight beyond their physical limits. It was also used recreationally. “Thyoxin?” she asked.

“We all took it,” Ingrid said. “Everyone on Earth, some on Phezzan.” She coughed a little. “They gave it to us.”

“The Earth Church?” Annerose asked, even though this was beyond obvious. “Why? How?”

“In the food.” That didn’t answer why.

“How do you know that’s what it is?”

Ingrid closed her eyes. “One of the women… Emma… She got pregnant, once. We all kept it hidden, and we thought, maybe we could give the baby to someone, down away from our compound, when it came out.” She coughed again. “But it came out early. Dead.”

“Gods,” Annerose said. “I’m sorry.”

“We buried it,” Ingrid said. “In the woods. Back to Mother Earth.”

“And that was because of the drug?” She knew the whole Earth had been irradiated, in the far distant past, so perhaps it was the lingering effects of that, rather than the Earth Church drugging its own followers. Or maybe just happenstance.

“I stopped eating,” Ingrid said, which felt like a non sequitur, but then she clarified, “Just to see what would happen.”

“And what happened?”

“I got sick, just like this, and Janie, she didn’t know, she brought the doctor to me. And the doctor said it’s a sin against the Mother to not eat the gifts she gives us, and so he made me eat, and I got better. And there were other things. I figured it out.”

Annerose bit her lip to keep from swearing. “But you said you want to go back there.”

“Yes,” Ingrid said, with a laugh that turned into a cough. She draped her arm over her face. “I do. I want to go home.”

“Why? Why would you want to, when they’re… poisoning you? Controlling you?”

Blindly, Ingrid’s hand found Annerose’s, curled up in a fist on the side of the bed. Ingrid uncurled her fingers gently, then linked their hands together. Her palm was sweaty, but Annerose didn’t mind. Ingrid didn’t answer the question for a moment, and when she did, her voice was almost desperate. “Because it was good there,” she said. “We say it’s a perfect place, and we believe it, because we don’t have to think about it. It’s good to have something like that to hold on to, to push out everything else. It’s mindless. It’s heaven. Don’t you understand, Fraulein von Müsel?”

“Annerose,” she said. “Call me Annerose.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” Ingrid said. When Annerose said nothing, Ingrid said, “It’s this place where time just passes. And you don’t have to be afraid of anything, because you know that everyone feels the same way as you. There’s no schemes. There’s no one who’s going to hit you. And they say, ‘You’re home! A home you never have to leave! Even when you die, you get to return to Mother Earth, and live forever in Her arms.’ You don’t have to think about the future. There’s just this… now… that takes up all the space in your head. I thought it would last forever. I really did.” She squeezed Annerose’s hand tightly. “Don’t you understand?”

“No,” Annerose said. “I don’t.”

“Good,” Ingrid said. She fell silent, except for her labored breathing, punctuated by coughing.

“Ingrid—“ Annerose said.

“Yes?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

“My brother, he told me to ask you about your husband.”

“What about him?”

“What happened to him?”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“He must be keeping it a secret for some reason.”

Ingrid laughed a little, weakly. “I don’t know why he would. It doesn’t matter now.”

“What happened to him?” Annerose asked.

“I killed him,” Ingrid said. “I stabbed him to death in our bedroom.” She lifted her hand, the one that was holding Annerose’s, turned it a little as though she was looking at it, even though her other arm was still draped over her eyes to block out the light. “There wasn’t as much blood as I had thought there might be.”

“Why?” Annerose asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe the blood got trapped in there, the way I left the knife,” she said.

“No, I mean, why did you kill him?”

“Because he would have killed me, eventually, I think. He might have that night. He was…” Her voice trailed off. 

“Oh.”

“You would do the same,” Ingrid said, but Annerose had to wonder if that was true. Despite being a member of the Rosenritter, and the fleet, Annerose had never killed anyone. She had never been tested like that. And she had always thought—

“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “Someone once told me that I’ve always been a little too good at enduring.”

Ingrid nodded. “You’re stronger than I am, then.”

“No,” Annerose said, emphatic. “Don’t say that.”

“Okay,” Ingrid said. She coughed some more, and her voice sounded quite strained. 

“Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep?” Annerose asked after a moment of silence, where she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I’m sorry for waking you up.”

“It’s fine,” Annerose said. “I was having a nightmare, anyway.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Are you sure that there’s nothing I can do to help you feel better?”

“Would you—“

“What?”

“Just stay with me?” Ingrid asked, voice slightly plaintive. “Please.”

“Of course,” Annerose said. “I wouldn’t leave. It’s my job to protect you.”

Ingrid shifted on the bed, pressing herself against the wall. She tugged on Annerose’s hand, an obvious invitation to share the bed.

“Is this what you did on Earth?” Annerose asked, hesitant.

“Janie did,” Ingrid said. “Whenever I was sick.”

Annerose relented, though it hadn’t taken that much convincing. She pitied Ingrid, who was clearly suffering, and if this would help, then she would help. She climbed into bed next to the other woman, and Ingrid leaned back against her, her headful of red hair ending up beneath Annerose’s nose. Ingrid hadn’t yet let go of her hand, and now she pulled it so that Annerose’s arm was over her side, tucked underneath her own arm. Ingrid was so warm, Annerose thought that a blanket would have been stifling. 

“I think you’ll be happier on Heinessen,” Annerose said, speaking very softly into Ingrid’s hair. “It’s a good place.”

“It’s not home.”

“It can be,” Annerose said. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

February 796 U.C., Heinessen

The journey back to Heinessen was trouble free, aside from Ingrid’s progressively more painful-looking withdrawal process, during which she could barely breathe from coughing so much. The imperial ship that had been poised to chase them had apparently been told that dealing with a ship full of Rosenritter was not worth the risk. This made Annerose’s first taste of command a success, but an anticlimactic one.

The trouble began, as it usually did, when they returned to Heinessen, and it found Annerose as soon as she climbed out of the shuttle at the Heinessenopolis spaceport, escorting Ingrid down the steep steps, her hand gently on Ingrid’s arm for support. Instead of the few people Annerose was expecting to find, there was a veritable crowd of media waiting on the tarmac, replete with big television cameras and microphones. Annerose had thought they were going to be meeting a doctor for Ingrid, Captain Schenkopp, and whatever case manager Ingrid had been assigned. It became abundantly and immediately clear, however, that the only one of these three people who had appeared was Captain Schenkopp, who was speaking happily to some woman reporter, with her microphone not pointing in his face, but instead held loosely at her side. Annerose frowned at that, which was, of course, the moment the photographer chose to take her and Ingrid’s picture.

Annerose placed herself in between Ingrid and the crowd of media. “Captain Schenkopp!” she called.

He looked up, grinned, and trotted over to her, abandoning his conversation with the reporter. “Glad to see you made it back in one piece. And this must be Fraulein von Roscher. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Ingrid could barely speak through her coughing. “Pleasure,” she managed.

“Where’s the doctor?” Annerose asked. “We were supposed to be meeting one here.”

“Pardon me, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel, isn’t it?” the reporter asked.

“Yes,” Annerose said, voice clipped.

“What is the matter with Mrs. Goldenbaum?”

“She goes by Ms. Roscher,” Annerose said. They were speaking in the Alliance language, so Ingrid couldn’t exactly speak up for herself. “And she will not be answering any questions at this time.”

“Lieutenant Commander—“ the reporter said, but Annerose was already trying to push forward, and her team of Rosenritter, on Schenkopp’s signal, helped clear a path.

The journalists cleared away, some more obediently than others, but one small group of people did not budge, and were blocking the way. 

Bishop Martine, whom Annerose had never met in person but had heard much about, was standing right in front of the doors into the airport. Martine looked like he was in his fifties, with a head full of curly hair that was still more black than grey, and dark eyes set against a sharp face. He was smiling, but Annerose was already predisposed to dislike him, and she stood between the bishop and Ingrid.

“Welcome to Heinessen, Fraulein Roscher,” Bishop Martine said. He spoke the imperial language somewhat clumsily. If Annerose had to guess, she would say that he had probably spent some time on Phezzan to pick it up. His cadences were Phezzani, rather than textbook. “I’m Bishop Martine.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Your Holiness,” Ingrid got out between little coughs.

“Lieutenant Commander, thank you very much for escorting Fraulein Roscher. I’m sure it was quite an imposition.”

Annerose was diplomatic when she spoke, even though she wanted to be doing anything other than speaking with the bishop. “As a refugee myself, it was no imposition to help someone else in the same position. I’m glad we are back safe on Heinessen.”

“Yes, I am very glad as well,” the bishop said. “But I’m sure Fraulein Roscher doesn’t want to stand here in the summer heat and be photographed, especially not with this bad cold she seems to have.”

Annerose narrowed her eyes at the bishop. “Yes, we were supposed to be meeting a doctor here,” she said. “If you don’t mind, Bishop…” she said, and tried to move forward.

“Well, I’m sure a doctor can meet Fraulein Roscher in her new home, if it’s as serious as all that.” Ingrid was coughing. The bishop turned to his assistant. “Could you give the lady something to drink? That might help with her dry throat, at least.”

The assistant dug through his bag and brought out a bottle of water and handed it to Ingrid. Annerose tried to stifle her horror as Ingrid drank a few sips, some of the water dribbling down her chin in between gulps. Schenkopp caught her discomfort and, by his side, made a hand signal asking for clarification.

Annerose signaled back, “STOP,” and twitched her fingers in the direction of the bishop. 

“Fraulein Roscher, if you’ll come with us, we have a car waiting to take you home,” the bishop said.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Schenkopp said, cutting in, switching to the Alliance language. “Ms. Roscher needs to—“

“Surely, whatever that is can wait, Captain,” the bishop said, voice somewhat cloying. “She looks exhausted. Any paperwork can be handled later, I assure you. It is not as though she is about to vanish.”

“Of course not. But it is my responsibility to ensure that we are taking care of our refugees properly. After all, that was why the Rosenritter were chosen for this mission. We all know what it is like to be in Ms. Roscher’s shoes.”

“And if you had family waiting here for you, you would have been unhappy to have been delayed from going home with them,” the bishop said.

Annerose was unable to stop herself from saying, “Pardon me, Bishop, but you are not Ms. Roscher’s family.”

“Perhaps we misjudged you, Lieutenant Commander,” the bishop said. “I thought you would understand that the Church has been Ms. Roscher’s family since the day she left Odin.”

Schenkopp must have realized the situation was deteriorating. He switched to the imperial language again. “Fraulein Roscher, would you prefer to go with the bishop, or come with Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?”

This was a gamble. For some reason, the question itself twisted something inside Annerose, and she was tense, waiting for Ingrid to make her answer. Ingrid looked back and forth between Annerose and the bishop, a wide eyed and uncomfortable expression on her face.

“Annerose,” Ingrid said after an uncomfortable second, punctuated by fits of coughing. “I want to go with Annerose.”

Annerose herself could have melted with relief. She was consumed by the thought that if they had lost Ingrid here, she might be gone forever, in some way or another, even if she was physically present.

Schenkopp raised an eyebrow at the first name basis they were apparently on, but he smiled triumphantly. The bishop couldn’t really argue without causing a scene, which would look very bad in front of the media people, who were still standing around watching this interaction.

“Excellent,” Schenkopp said. He flashed a hand signal to the Rosenritter, who all formed up around Annerose and Ingrid. “I’m sure we’ll be in contact with you later, Bishop Martine.”

“I’m sure,” the bishop said. “Goodday, then.” He couldn’t keep the sour note out of his voice, and he watched Annerose, rather than Ingrid, like a hawk as the whole group moved past him and finally made their way into the airport and then through and out to waiting cars.

Schenkopp, Ingrid, and Annerose got in one waiting car. Schenkopp sat in the driver’s seat, but Annerose slid into the back with Ingrid, which made Schenkopp raise his eyebrows again. As soon as they were in the car and buckled, Annerose pulled the water bottle out of Ingrid’s hand. Ingrid didn’t protest. Annerose tossed it into the front passenger seat next to Schenkopp.

“We’re going to need to find a drug testing kit for that,” she said. She spoke in the imperial language, not wanting Ingrid to feel left out.

“What?” Schenkopp asked.

“She’s in the middle of severe thyoxin withdrawal,” Annerose said. “The Earth Church has been poisoning her for years.”

The sound of Ingrid’s coughing was the only thing that punctuated the silence of the car. 

“Fuck,” Schenkopp said, finally.

“Yeah. I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done about it, other than waiting it out, but I wanted her to see a doctor. I asked for one to meet us at the airport. I’m not sure how that got derailed.”

“I have my guesses,” Schenkopp said shortly.

“As do I.”

“How are you, Fraulein Roscher?” Shenkopp asked, glancing at Ingrid in the rearview. “Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”

She shook her head and stared out the window. Annerose took her hand, which again caused Schenkopp to make a face. Annerose met his eyes in the mirror, and he shrugged a little and looked back at the road.

“I don’t want her to live anywhere the Earth Church can control,” Annerose said, briefly switching to the Alliance language. “They’re not good for her.”

“They’ll cause a fuss if we hide her. I don’t think we can.”

“I’m not saying that. I just don’t want her to be alone, because I think that’s dangerous.”

“What do you propose?”

Annerose bit her lip. “Is there any sort of refugee group housing that’s not run by the Earth church? Could she live with your grandmother?”

Schenkopp laughed. “Rear Admiral Cazerne making you adopt a child seems to have caused you to think that anyone would be willing to invite a stranger to live in their house.”

The problem was, the list of people whom Annerose trusted was quite short, and even in that list, she wasn’t sure who would be willing or able to take care of Ingrid. Most of the people she knew were in the fleet.

“How big of a fuss would people make if she stayed with me?”

“You’re running a boardinghouse now,” Schenkopp said. “Officer housing isn’t that big.”

“She can have Reinhard’s room. He’s staying on Phezzan for the foreseeable future, anyway. I’m not asking about if it’s physically possible. I’m asking if there’s anyone in the government who would complain.”

“People can find anything to complain about. Look, Müsel, it’s her choice where she lives, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You seem attached.”

“I’m just trying to protect her,” Annerose said. “There’s no point in bringing her through all of this if she’s going to be in just as much danger on Heinessen as she was on Odin, or Earth, or Phezzan, for that matter. She’s spent the last five years or however long having every independent thought poisoned out of her!” Annerose shook her head, frowning. Ingrid glanced over at her, concerned, and Annerose smiled, a little grimly.

They were pulling into the parking lot of the medical center now. “I won’t say anything against it,” Schenkopp said. He shrugged. “But let’s keep it professional, Müsel.”

She had no idea what he meant by that.

 


 

The doctors at the medical center took one look at Ingrid and declared that she was not going anywhere, with anyone, for any reason, until her condition improved. Annerose couldn’t exactly argue with that, since Ingrid had barely been able to breathe, in a way that scared her. Her fingertips had been blue, and she had been unable to sleep.

Still, Annerose felt bad about leaving her with the doctors, especially since Ingrid looked at her with such a sad expression on her face when Annerose explained to her, translating for the doctor, that Ingrid had to stay, while Annerose had to leave. 

Schenkopp called in several Rosenritter and posted them to keep watch over Ingrid. She wished they weren’t both feeling so paranoid, but she couldn’t help it.

It was late by the time she arrived back at her house, and Julian and her mom were both eating dinner when she walked in the door.

“Annerose,” her mother said, standing with a smile as Annerose hung up her keys on the hook near the door. 

“Welcome home!” Julian exclaimed.

“Hi, Mom, Julian,” Annerose said, smiling tiredly at them both. It had been a long day. The smell of food— a deliciously spicy curry— made Annerose’s stomach grumble, but it also made her bite her lip as she looked across the room at her mother. Thyoxin. Could she be sure she hadn’t just left her mother here to feed Julian thyoxin?

Julian looked as healthy as ever, though, and he had leapt up from the table to get Annerose a plate. 

“How was Phezzan? What’s Ms. Roscher like? Did you see Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?” Julian asked, the questions coming out very quickly, as soon as he was facing her again, sliding the plate of rice and chicken in front of her.

“Phezzan was fine,” Annerose said. Julian sat down and looked at her with an enraptured expression on his face. “I didn’t stay there for very long.”

“And Ms. Roscher?” Caribelle asked. The question seemed far from innocent. Caribelle’s tone was mild, but she was looking across the table at Annerose with an expression that made it clear that this was an interrogation, of sorts.

Annerose steepled her fingers. The steam rising up from her meal was killing her, but she was not going to eat yet. She looked directly at her mother, and switched to speaking in the imperial language, which Julian did not understand.

“Mama,” Annerose said. Her voice was as steady as she could make it. “I love you, and I know in your heart of hearts, you want what’s best for me and Reinhard. But I am going to ask you a question, and I need you to answer it honestly.”

“Of course,” her mother said, though her hands twitched a little as she wiped her fingers on the napkin. Julian looked back and forth between the two women, clearly annoyed and worried at being cut out of the conversation.

Annerose flicked her eyes down at her food. “Is there thyoxin in this?” Although the name of the drug was the same in both languages, it was clear that Julian didn’t recognize it. Good.

“No,” her mother said. Her voice was strong and clear. “You learned about that?”

“I couldn’t help but learn about it when Fraulein Roscher could barely breathe from coughing so much,” Annerose said. Her voice came out colder than expected when she said, “It’s a miracle that she could string together a coherent thought, after how much she’s been given.”

“The dose they give is very low,” her mother said. 

“Every day. Every meal. For years,” Annerose hissed. “You KNEW about this?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re still a part of their church?”

“Yes.” Her mother was perfectly willing to look her in the eye when she said this, but Annerose was disgusted. She couldn’t imagine what would compel her mother to stay with these people, knowing about this. Maybe there was one explanation, but Annerose didn’t like it.

“Are you addicted to thyoxin?”

“No,” her mother said. “I’ve taken it, but not recently.”

On one hand, this was a little bit of a relief, since she had no desire to see her mother go through what Ingrid was suffering, but on the other hand, this made her mother a willing collaborator, something that couldn’t just be explained away by drug-induced loyalty. 

Annerose rubbed her temples. “Fuck.” She said that in the Alliance language, which made Julian gasp. “Why?”

“Because it’s a mark of loyalty. A test.” her mother said. She was speaking the alliance language again. “Just like how when you went to school, they shaved your head. It brings you closer together.”

“That is not the same, and you know it.”

Caribelle nodded a little, though the look on her face indicated that she didn’t quite agree. “It wouldn’t be practical to do it here the same way it’s done on Earth,” she finally said. “You don’t have to worry.”

“They would have done it to her again. They tried. They were going to take her away.”

“Special circumstances, maybe,” her mother said. “She’s important.”

“She’s a human being,” Annerose said, barely able to keep herself from yelling. Her voice was low and bitter.. “Not a tool. I thought you would understand that.” Annerose had never been this angry at her mother before. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she had ever been this angry at anyone before. The calm and falsely reasonable tone in her mother’s voice made Annerose even more upset, like her mother could just sit there and pretend that this was all fine. None of this was fine.

“I do understand that,” her mother said. “Which is why I suggested that Reinhard be contacted in the first place.”

This brought Annerose up short. “You set this up?”

“No.” Her mother stood and began picking up her own and Julian’s empty plates and putting them in the dishwasher. “But I’ve told you, I know more about what’s going on than you might expect. I know how to say the right things, to the right people.”

“How?”

“I’ve demonstrated my loyalty. And I will continue to do so.”

“Why? Why would you stay?”

“Because I believe in the church,” her mother said. “It really— sometimes it is that simple. You could ask Ms. Roscher, and she would say the same thing.”

Again, Annerose spoke in the imperial language again, so that Julian wouldn’t understand. “Only because she’s been drugged into believing in it! You can’t give someone a drug that takes away their free will, their ability to think for themselves, and call that true belief!”

“She came to the church willingly, just like I did. Even if you don’t like what happened after that, you can’t take that away from her.”

Annerose scowled. “I don’t know what was happening to her on Odin. You don’t, either. There might not have been anything willing about it.”

Her mother finished loading the dishwasher. “You should eat,” she said. “Your food’s going to get cold.” 

“I’m not hungry,” Annerose said, but her stomach betrayed her by grumbling.

“Liar,” Julian muttered. He seemed annoyed at this conversation that he couldn’t follow, and Annerose shot him an apologetic glance.

“Did you cook?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Just you?”

His eyes widened, but he said, “Just me.”

Still, Annerose hesitated before poking at the curry. But then she took a bite, because she didn’t have much of an alternative, and it was delicious, and she cleared her plate before speaking again. Her mother sat back down with a glass of tap water and just watched her eat.

Annerose returned to the imperial language when she said, “It’s very hard for me to trust you, mama.” Her anger had cooled slightly, and she was feeling more rational with food in her stomach, for whatever that was worth. Still, when she looked at her mother, her stomach twisted.

“And that’s why you had your ward—“ she avoided looking at Julian directly— “spy on me?”

Annerose scowled. “No, that was because I wanted to give him something to feel useful. I guess he took his duties very seriously.”

“A child who has had no interest in religion suddenly asking to tag along everywhere I go is very suspicious. But he did a good job playing dumb when I was speaking to Bishop Martine. I’ll grant you that. He’s a smart boy.”

Annerose narrowed her eyes. “And you let him listen in?”

“Nothing of importance was discussed. But yes, I did.”

"Why? You’re acting like— on one hand you’re cooperating with them, but on the other, you’re telling me that you’re playing your own game. I don’t get it, mama. And I don’t like it.”

“I am also a human being, and not a tool,” her mother said. “And someday, the Earth Church might be useful to you or Reinhard. I am just trying to make smooth the path.”

“Everybody wants to think they’re not being used,” Annerose said.

“No,” her mother said. “Not necessarily. Some people just want to be used in the right way.”

Annerose frowned. Her mother always said things that hit a little too close to home. Perhaps it was a reminder that they were related, after all. 

When Annerose didn’t say anything else, her mother said, “I heard that you had a fight with Bishop Martine.” Her voice was back to the businesslike tone she had used before, some of the personal nature stripped out of it.

“It wasn’t a fight.”

“An argument, then. Which you think you won.” 

“I don’t like the way you phrased that.” Again, the anger was building up in Annerose, and she bit her lip. She wanted to shake her mother’s shoulders and demand she pick a side: the Earth Church, or her daughter. One or the other. She couldn’t have both. This wasn’t a game.

“It’s an argument you could win,” her mother said. “But you have to be willing to play the game of give and take.”

“It’s not a game!” Annerose said. “Whatever you’re trying to manipulate me into doing, stop. I don’t want anybody to put their hands on that woman.”

“I know,” her mother said. “Which is why you have to work with me here.” Annerose was silent, hands clenched into fists beneath the table, so her mother continued. “You’re going to keep in contact with her, I assume. I can work this situation with the bishop. I can make it so as long as just one person is keeping an eye on her, making sure she’s just living a quiet life until she’s needed, they won’t bother her.”

“You want to spy on her.” The words came out vicious and bitter. How her mother could pretend to be so poised, Annerose didn’t know. Ten years ago, she never would have been like this. Annerose couldn’t help but think of the way her mother had acted, the night that they had decided to leave Odin. The Earth Church had changed her mother, somehow, in some way that Annerose was only discovering the extent of now.

“It’s better than any alternative. I am trying to give you space to keep her safe. I’m on your side, and hers.”

”You can’t be on both.”

Her mother frowned. “I can try.”

“Look at yourself, mom,” Annerose said, leaning forward, trying to get her to understand. “You can’t be on her side if you’re helping the people who did this to her. If you’re spying on her for them.”

“If they think they have her where they need her to be, they won’t do anything else,” her mother said. “Think about it like harm reduction.”

“I could take her away.”

“No, you couldn’t.” Her mother’s voice was firm, as though Annerose had been acting like a petulant child. “You know this.”

“Why not?”

“Because there are more people involved with this than just Bishop Martine. This is a matter for the whole Alliance government, now. They have vested interest in keeping her safe and in the right place, too.”

“You’re saying the Earth Church has the whole of the Alliance under its thumb.”

“No, I’m not saying that. You’re not listening to me.”

“I am, I just don’t like what I’m hearing.”

“The Alliance has decided that it’s willing to cooperate with the Earth Church, if it means bringing about the end of the war. I think that’s a good thing. You should, too.”

“And if I was her, mom? Would you say the same thing, if this was all happening to me? Would you tell me that this is all for my own good?”

Her mother’s face pinched a little, the professional facade broken for the first time. “I protected you.”

“And now I want to protect her, and you’re telling me that I can’t.”

“I’m not saying that. I’m trying to help you. But sometimes the best way to protect someone is—“

“I don’t think I’m interested in what you think is best, at this point, since it seems to involve all of this.” Annerose waved her hand. “What good is the Earth Church doing, really?”

“They rescued her from where she was before.”

“And brought her someplace worse!”

“And this might end the war,” her mother said. “You should want that.”

“I do, but not like this!”

Despite Annerose’s indignation, her mother smiled a little. “You think I don’t know that your brother has dreams of riding a ship into Odin as some kind of triumphant conqueror? I understand the impulse, but if the universe was going to find peace through that route, it would have happened a long time ago.”

Annerose shook her head vehemently. “This isn’t better.”

“But it’s what we have.”

Annerose bit her lip. “It doesn’t have to be.”

“I should get going,” her mother said. “I can see that you’re not going to agree with me right now, but I’ll do my best to smooth this over for you, anyway.”. She stood, then squeezed Annerose’s shoulder briefly, which made Annerose tense up. “It was a pleasure to stay with you, Julian.”

Julian looked at her, obviously confused by what had passed between Annerose and Caribelle over his head. He looked to Annerose for direction, and she gave him a weak smile and slight nod.

“It was nice to have you over, Mrs. von Müsel,” he said. “I had a good time.”

“I’m glad,” she said with a smile. “I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“Do you need a ride to the train?” Annerose asked, standing.

“The bus isn’t far,” her mother said. “And it’s a fine night. I can walk.”

“If you’re sure.”

Her mother nodded. “Goodnight, Annerose. I love you.”

“Yeah,” Annerose said. Her mother gathered up her packed bag, already sitting near the door, and with one last smile at her daughter and Julian, headed out into the night.

When she had left, Annerose let out a heavy sigh and leaned back in her chair.

“What was that about?” Julian asked. “Is everything okay?”

“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “It’s complicated.”

Julian nodded solemnly. “I understand.”

“I’m sorry for making you feel left out,” Annerose said. “I promise I’ll tell you about it later. Just— not right this second.”

“Okay,” Julian said. “As long as you’re all right.”

“Me? I’m fine.”

“You look unhappy.”

“There’s just a lot going on.”

He nodded again, then got up and went to the freezer, pulling out two ice cream sandwiches. He handed one to Annerose, and she took it. Her hand shook slightly as she unwrapped the paper. It didn’t look tampered with. She wasn’t going to throw out all the food in her house, though she had half a mind to.

“I think Ms. Roscher is going to come stay with us,” Annerose said after a minute. “Just for a little while.”

Julian’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Why are you so surprised by that?”

“She’s a princess.”

Annerose scowled. “Do me a favor, Julian. Don’t mention that when she’s around, unless she brings it up.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Why is she going to stay with us?”

“Because I’m not sure I trust her to live alone, and I’m not sure where else she can go. Well, I mean, I trust her, but I don’t trust other people not to bother her.”

She ate the ice cream sandwich, the cold giving her something to focus on, something to calm her mind.

“What’s she like?”

“I don’t know,” Annerose said, which was the truth. “She’s been very sick.”

“Is she okay?”

“I hope she will be.” Annerose hesitated for a second. “Julian…” she said.

“Yes, Lieutenant Commander?” The use of the title made her smile. He was such a funny kid. She loved him.

“When she’s here, can you… Just… Do me a favor?”

“What?”

“Just make sure she’s safe,” Annerose said. “I trust you.”

“I will,” Julian said. “I promise.”

“Thanks,” Annerose said, and it was actually a relief.

 


 

Ingrid stayed at the medical center for over a week. Annerose visited her daily, and Ingrid’s eyes always lit up when she came. Being trapped in the medical area was clearly not doing Ingrid any good, for all that she was being treated well and given plenty of books to read and tv to watch in the imperial language. 

Annerose was on her way into the medical center, after her duty hours at work were over, bearing a small box containing a fruit tart for Ingrid. She was stopped in the hallway before she arrived at Ingrid’s room, though, by one of the Rosenritter guards, Spaceman Leitner.

“Lieutenant Commander,” he said. “She has a guest right now.”

“You didn’t let an Earth Church person in, did you?” she asked, annoyed already.

“No, ma’m. It’s—“

Annerose didn’t have to find out from Leitner who was visiting Ingrid, because the door to her room swung open, and out stepped, of all people, the secretary of defense, Job Trunicht.

Annerose and Leitner both snapped to attention and saluted.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel!” Trunicht said, a slick smile on his face. “I was told you come around here, I’m glad to catch you.”

“Sir,” Annerose said. “I wasn’t aware that you were looking for me.”

“Well, looking would be a strong word for it. But it’s good to have a chance to speak with you.” He gestured for her to follow him, and she did, with a bit of reluctance, glancing back at Ingrid’s door.

“First of all,” Trunicht said, “I’d like to thank you for the excellent job you did bringing Ms. Roscher through Phezzan.”

“I think my brother is the one you should give most of the credit to,” Annerose said. “He was the one who—“

“Your brother is a fine young man, but you are still the one who deserves the credit here.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ve done an excellent job protecting her. She thinks the world of you, you know.”

“I’m glad to hear it?” Annerose said, unable to keep the confusion out of her voice.

“Yes, it seems you’ve gone above and beyond in the line of duty.” They were walking out the doors of the medical center now, heading towards the street, where Trunicht’s car was parked (illegally, Annerose noted) on the side of the road. 

“I’m just trying to treat her with the decency that every person deserves,” Annerose said. “She’s been through a lot.”

“Certainly, certainly. I understand exactly how you feel, and I think it’s an admirable trait.”

Annerose could hear the ‘but’ on the end of his sentence, so she stayed silent.

“I also think that you are in a wonderful position to help Ms. Rocher in the future,” Trunicht said.

“Yes, sir?”

“You see, Lieutenant Commander,” Trunicht said, “Ms. Roscher is in a very interesting position. I believe that, in the future, there may come a time when she can return to her homeland, and help restore peace to the galaxy.”

Annerose bit her lip. “Ms. Roscher considers Earth her home.”

Trunicht sighed. “Yes,” he said. “But I do not think that anyone believes that Ms. Roscher will be returning to Earth any time soon. It’s a wasteland, from what I’ve heard, anyway.”

“I wouldn’t know, sir.”

“Yes. Well, in any case, it seems as though there may come a time within the next few years when Ms. Roscher may be called upon to do us some service.”

“I understand,” Annerose said, though she didn’t like it. “But what are you telling me for?” She had her suspicions, but perhaps it was better to play slightly dumb with Trunicht. He seemed the type to underestimate her. Annerose could usually tell that, from the tone in people’s voices when they addressed her. She had heard it often enough, after all.

“Because, Lieutenant Commander, since Ms. Roscher seems to trust you, your gentle touch may be required to help direct her.”

“I see, sir.”

“And you’re willing to take on this duty?”

“Is it an official one, sir?”

He waved his hand. “Oh, no, no, nothing like that. You’re happy with your Rosenritter posting; I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. I just mean as Ms. Roscher’s personal friend. Her protector, as it were. What do you say to that?”

Annerose didn’t smile. She didn’t have much of a choice in what to say here, but she suspected that if the type of situation that Trunicht wanted actually came to pass, she would not hesitate to forget her promise to Trunicht immediately. “I’d be happy to, sir.”

“Excellent!” 

They were lingering by his car now. “I’m glad I could be of help, sir,” Annerose said finally, since it seemed like he wanted a reply.

“Yes, yes,” he said. He was opening his car door. “And, of course, we’ll be happy to support you in whatever you need to keep Ms. Roscher happy.”

She nodded. “Can I ask one question, sir?”

He paused. “Of course.” His smile was sickening.

“The Earth Church,” she said. “Do you think they’re a danger to her?”

“A danger?” He continued to smile. “No, of course not. What in the world gave you that idea? Ms. Roscher should be free to practice her religion, of course. We are a free country, after all, and they helped us get her out of the Empire.”

“Of course, sir,” Annerose said. “Thank you for clearing that up.”

“Not a problem,” Trunicht said. “You let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, Ms. von Müsel.”

Lieutenant Commander, Annerose thought, but Trunicht had already shut the car door in her face, and was starting the engine, a loud, roaring thing. She watched him drive away, then turned to go back in to talk to Ingrid, feeling disgusted and bitter with the world and herself.

 


 

Technically, Ingrid had her own apartment. Annerose brought her to it and they stood in it for a minute, the sink dripping a little in the kitchen, the sound echoing cavernously around the completely unfurnished rooms and bare walls. Ingrid looked around, shoulders slumping a little bit, and Annerose ran her finger over the dust accumulated on the windowsill, looking down about ten floors to the street outside.

Hesitantly, Annerose asked, “I know this is your house, Ingrid, but if you want, you’re welcome to stay with me for a while, until everything gets figured out.”

“Really?” Ingrid asked.

The fact that this had been sanctioned by everyone from her mother to Trunicht, so long as Annerose kept allowing Ingrid to be a tool, did make Annerose feel less pleasant about it, but she nodded. “Of course,” she said with a smile.

The look of relief on Ingrid’s face made it worth it.

Julian loved Ingrid immediately, of course. It didn’t even matter that they didn’t actually share a language in common, and therefore couldn’t communicate except for in hand gestures and facial expressions.

For her part, Ingrid looked at Julian with a rather wistful expression, and said to Annerose, very quietly one night, “I hope that Erwin is as sweet as your boy is.”

Annerose had no idea how to respond to that, except that it broke her heart a little.

She had always known just how lucky she was, to have her mother and brother who had given up everything that they had ever known to keep her safe. Annerose, for all that she had been on the brink of utter destruction, had escaped it, and had found a new life where she could be happy. Julian and Ingrid, though, had lost everything. It was unfair. It burned her.

Annerose had understood, on an intellectual level, Reinhard’s hatred of the Goldenbaums, and his desire to destroy them. She had thought his protectiveness of her was sweet, and she had wanted to support him because she loved him, and thought that he had the potential to do good in the world. But since the harm the Goldenbaum dynasty had done to their family had been directed at her, and she had been, perhaps not willing, but ready to accept it, she didn’t share his passion. Now, though, she felt that almost nothing would give her greater satisfaction than sweeping through the halls of Neue Sanssouci and stealing the young Erwin Josef away.

Reinhard’s few possessions that he kept in her house had been moved out of his room and into a closet so that Ingrid could have some space, but on the first night that she stayed at Annerose’s house, she woke Annerose in the middle of the night, making so much noise in the kitchen that Annerose had to get up to investigate.

Annerose stumbled out into the bright lights of the kitchen, finding that Ingrid had dropped a whole tray of ice all over the floor. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, then bent down to help Ingrid pick up all the scattered ice cubes, tossing them into the sink.

“You alright?” Annerose asked.

Ingrid’s face was sallow in the fluorescent lights, and her hair was frizzing out in a red cloud. She looked frail in the borrowed nightgown that Annerose had given her, though since they were the same size, this was probably more due to her posture than anything else. She stood with her arms wrapped around her stomach, shoulders hunched protectively. “Just couldn’t sleep,” she said. “It’s alright.”

“Is there anything I can do? Hot milk or something?” She thought maybe she had some allergy medicine in the cabinet that she could give her, but then decided that the last thing that would be appropriate would be to start giving Ingrid random drugs.

Ingrid shook her head a little. She picked up the glass of water that she had been trying to put ice in and drank from it.

“You’re okay with being here, right?” Annerose asked. “You don’t want to go back to your own place, do you?”

“No,” Ingrid said. “I’m glad you asked me to stay here.”

Annerose smiled, then rubbed Ingrid’s shoulder a little. “Good. I’m glad to have you.”

“Annerose…” Ingrid began.

“Yes?”

“Can I stay with you?” Since Ingrid was already living in Annerose’s house, this question obviously meant something other than that, and Annerose knew what she meant. She hadn’t known if Ingrid would continue to want to stay in her bed, which they had done for the entire trip back from Phezzan. Annerose had thought maybe that was just the special circumstance of Ingrid being very sick.

And, furthermore, Annerose wasn’t sure if she should say yes. There was a part of her that liked being so close to Ingrid, but there was another part of her that said, very strongly, that it was not normal or appropriate. She may have shared Jessica’s bed once or twice when she visited her, but that was not the same. She knew it wasn’t the same, though the idea of putting words to why made her bite her lip.

Still, she looked at Ingrid, and thought that the expression that Ingrid would wear should she say no would be too painful to look at, so Annerose smiled and said, “Of course.”

Ingrid laughed a little, a relieved sound. Annerose did not want to think about why Ingrid was relieved now, and would have been heartbroken if she had refused, so she just didn’t.

After all, it was very easy not to think of anything, when she was laying in the dark with Ingrid, her chin tucked against Ingrid’s shoulder, their knees crooked together, and Annerose’s arm held over Ingrid’s warm side. 

Life returned to some kind of normal for a while. They fell into a new and easy routine, and Annerose was able to avoid thinking about whatever looming manipulations the Earth Church and he secretary of defense might want from her. She even tried to pretend not to care that her mother and Ingrid went together to Earth Church services at least once a week. Julian tagged along, taking his duty to both spy on Annerose’s mother and protect Ingrid very seriously. Perhaps because of Julian’s presence, nothing ever happened. Julian, though, was bored out of his mind. Annerose was grateful that he, at least, was not interested in joining the Earth Church.

It was on a peaceful Friday that Annerose stepped into Schenkopp’s office to discuss some minor point about duty schedules. Schenkopp was not doing anything productive when she arrived: he was attempting to balance a plastic water bottle on the tip of his knife. Annerose watched him perform this stupid activity for about thirty seconds before the water bottle wiggled off the knife and fell to the ground. While she waited for him to pick it up, she looked at the now slightly faded tapestry hung on the wall next to his desk— the one she had given him as a parting gift years ago. Every time she saw it, she was not only surprised that he had kept it, but that he had hung it up in such a place of honor.

“I’m waiting for you to shut the door, Müsel, you know,” Schenkopp said, water bottle back in hand.

Surprised, Annerose closed the door, and Schenkopp waved at her to take a seat. 

“I have the new duty schedules—“ Annerose began, pulling out a memory stick from her pocket and handing it over to him. He took it, then dropped it into his drawer.

“How often do you talk to your brother?” Schenkopp asked.

“I write him once a week, usually. Why do you ask?”

“Does he ever talk about work?”

“No, of course not,” Annerose said. “He wouldn’t write anything in a letter.”

“Too bad,” Schenkopp said. “I was hoping he would have some information for me.”

“About?”

Schenkopp turned his computer screen around so that she could see it. “Take a look at that.”

What was displayed there was a message from fleet command, informing Schenkopp that the Rosenritter should prepare for deployment to some star system Annerose had never heard of, and more specifically, a planet that didn’t even have a name, just the designation of its star system, Cahokia-3. There was no date given, but Annerose felt a thrill of excitement rising up in her regardless.

“Is this all the information you have?” she asked, scrolling through the message until she came upon the starmap detailing the planet’s location. It wasn’t ‘inside’ the Iserlohn corridor, not exactly. It was off to the side, as though the delicate threads of navigable space through the corridor had branched slightly, just inside the Alliance side “mouth” of the corridor. “Does this lead anywhere?”

“I have a little more information,” he said. “It connects back up with the corridor further in, here—“ he pointed at the map— “but it’s still before the fortress, so it’s useless in that respect.”

Annerose nodded. “Then what are we being sent there for?”

“Well,” Schenkopp said. “I think there’s a few reasons.”

“Which are?”

Schenkopp grinned at her. “Come on, Müsel, let me draw out the suspense.”

She rolled her eyes. “Are we going to build a fortress of our own?”

“Hah, no. I don’t think so.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “At least, not now. I think having a base inside the mouth of the Iserlohn corridor is probably an eventual goal, but I get the feeling that no one wants to say that out loud.”

“Why not?”

“Money,” Schenkopp said. “It’s expensive. Building a fortress even more so than putting a base on a planet.”

“Then what are we doing?”

“Well, everyone is looking for an excuse, something that they could use to say that they’re recouping their investment. As it turns out, this planet, Cahokia-3, has huge wolframite deposits, readily accessible ones.”

Annerose nodded. Tungsten, which was extracted from that mineral, was a vital component in shipbuilding, among other things. 

“So, they want to put a mine there.”

“Depends on the ‘they’ you’re talking about. Fleet command isn’t typically in the business of building mines.”

“But we do on Kapche-Lanka—”

Schenkopp laughed. “No, not really, but it’s an apt comparison. The mines there are run and owned by corporate interests, but there’s an exclusive contract in place— Nevermind. It really doesn’t matter.”

“It seems like it does.”

“Just like on Kapche-Lanka, they want fleet assets to protect the corporate investments in the mine. In this case, the mine doesn’t exist yet, so we’re going to provide some feet on the ground during construction.”

“Once it’s built?”

“They’ll probably send us home once they have something actually nice set up,” Schenkopp said with a smile. “You haven’t yet experienced the kind of hospitality we sometimes get. Anyway, I don’t mind that. Being stuck somewhere permanently is a drag.”

“Sure.” Annerose looked at the map again. “And what does this have to do with Reinhard?”

“You’ve said he pays attention to economics. And he’s on Phezzan.” Annerose nodded. “Like I said, this isn’t entirely a fleet venture. It’s got money behind it. Investments. Phezzan has its fingers in every major corporation on both sides of the galaxy.”

“That’s an exaggeration, I’m sure,” Annerose said.

“You’d have to ask your brother. But— look— if there’s money to be made, Phezzan is going to know about it sooner, rather than later. And if there’s money being made this close to Iserlohn fortress, looking half like a mining enterprise and half like an excuse to set up a forward base for attack, that’s dangerous. Even if all of this is kept under the strictest secrecy, ships travelling into the corridor without a convoy, one at a time so that they’re not detected, nobody saying anything about this— somebody is going to notice all this money changing hands. And when they do, I want to know who’s noticing.”

Annerose nodded slowly. “You think my brother would spot it?”

“I don’t know how closely he pays attention to the price of raw tungsten,” Schenkopp said. “It’s not exactly the thing I have an alert set up on my phone for. But he works in the High Commissioner’s office. This whole Roscher thing— he has ways of getting information on what the Empire is doing, I’m sure. I just want to see if there’s a way that he can be a watchdog for us.”

“Even if he finds something out, would he be able to do anything about it? Especially if we’re already there. A ground force without space support— that’s what we’ll be, right?”

“During construction, anyway, yes.”

“We’ll be sitting ducks.”

“They wouldn’t blast the planet to slag,” Schenkopp said. “We can be sure of that, at least. Just like on Kapche-Lanka, the Empire has just as much use for this stuff as we do, and they would be perfectly happy setting up their own forward base just that much further onto our side of the corridor.”

“True. But we’ll be out of contact with everyone.”

“Even if we had forewarning of anything, we won’t be able to do anything about it. But I want your brother to be on the lookout, so he can yell for help. People listen to information coming out of the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan. He’s in a good spot.”

“If I tell him about this, he’ll be jealous that I’m about to be on the front lines.”

“Obviously, you can’t tell him,” Schenkopp said. “Not the specifics, anyway. You need to hint to him about it. Get him to pay attention.”

“Okay. I will.” Annerose drummed her fingers on Schenkopp’s desk for a moment and asked, “If we are attacked while we’re there, what kind of force will we be looking at facing?”

“Good question.” Schenkopp closed his eyes for a moment. “They’d want a ground force, in order to be able to take over the actual base we’ve built, save themselves some trouble. If we’re unlucky, they’ll send someone important to deal with us— I don’t think that one or two regiments and a construction crew will be enough for them to get their really big guns out, but I think…” He chuckled. “I think it depends entirely on which noble clan has the kaiser’s favor at the moment.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, just like we’ve granted these mining contracts to corporations, the Empire does the same thing, except it’s granting land rights to noble families. It’s a big thing. It would have to be someone relatively powerful, a family that already has mining experience that they could move, and probably one who has command of their own section of the imperial fleet, so that they would protect their assets.”

“Ah,” Annerose said. “I see.” The machinations of the imperial court were somewhat obscure to her. It was never anything she had paid attention to, even when she was living in the Empire; it was so far outside the normal scope of her daily life that it barely even registered.

“But we can hope it doesn’t get to that point. I don’t doubt they’ll find out eventually. We might be able to make it so that they only find out after there’s plenty of ships guarding the area, so that it’s less likely to be a ground conflict.”

“Any idea why we’ve been picked for this?” Annerose asked.

“I think they saw some of our usefulness for protecting stationary assets on Van-Fleet,” Schenkopp said. “Either that, or someone has just decided we’re too annoying sitting around on Heinessen, and they wanted to give us something to do.”

In the back of her head, Annerose had a tiny, sudden thought that perhaps the Rosenritter were being assigned to the very front of the front lines in order to specifically get her away from Ingrid. But that was too paranoid of a thought, even for her. 

“Will the fleet come to our defense if there is some sort of conflict?” Annerose asked, after a second. “Or will we we be trapped?”

“Good question,” Schenkopp said. “I recommend you write your will, Müsel.”

“Thanks,” she muttered, but he was smiling at her. “Do we know anything about what this planet is like?”

“Garbage,” Schenkopp said. “Atmosphere’s completely unbreathable., Half the gravity of Heinessen. Four hour day. Apparently the temperature’s miserable, too, but we’ll be in suits all the time, so it probably won’t affect us that much.”

“Miserable in what direction?”

“Hot,” Schenkopp said. “Not ‘kill you instantly’ hot, but ‘pushing the acceptable temperature range of a bunch of our equipment’ hot.”

“Great.”

“Come on, Müsel, sound happier that we’re going to get out and do things. I’m tired of sitting around here.”

“I am,” she said, which wasn’t a lie. “I’m just already going through what type of supplies I’m going to need to requisition.”

He laughed. “Glad to have you here,” he said.

They talked about the details for a while longer, though Schenkopp unfortunately didn’t have much in the way of information yet. They got lost in it, especially when Linz and Blumhart stuck their heads into the office to get the rundown. By the time that Annerose and Schenkopp finished talking, the sun had gone down, and Annerose glanced at the time and frowned. “I should have told Julian not to wait on me for dinner,” she said. “Rude of me to stay so late.”

“I’m sure he’ll understand,” Schenkopp said. “Though you might want to apologize to Ms. Roscher.”

Annerose waved her hand distractedly, gathering up some of the papers that she had been scribbling notes on. “She understands how work goes. Besides, Julian is the one who cooks.”

“I see,” Schenkopp said.

Annerose glanced up at him. Thinking his tone sounded weirdly disappointed, which surprised her, she said, “Would you like to join us for dinner?” she asked. “Julian always makes plenty extra so we can pack lunches.”

An unreadable expression flashed across his face, his cheek twitching in something that might have been a stifled smile, but his eyebrows furrowed a little. He hesitated before saying, “If Ms. Roscher and Julian don’t mind.”

“Of course they won’t mind,” Annerose said. She smiled a little. “I’ll call Julian and let him know that you’re coming.”

He nodded, and Annerose slipped out of his office.

They took separate cars back to Annerose’s house, and Schenkopp arrived a few minutes after Annerose did, giving her time to change out of her uniform and into casual clothes. She apologized again to Julian for her lateness and the presence of a guest.

“It’s no problem at all,” Julian said. “I am excited to meet Captain Schenkopp.”

“You’ll love him,” Annerose said. “Well, except we’ll probably have to talk in imperial, for Ingrid’s sake…” she muttered.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m getting better.”

Annerose tousled his hair, which made him blush and duck out from under her hand. 

The doorbell rang. “Oh, there he is,” Annerose said. She checked her reflection in the mirror one last time, then headed back out to find Schenkopp.

She discovered the reason he was late. Although he was still in his uniform, he had apparently stopped somewhere to buy a little bouquet of flowers, which he presented to her with a grin. “For the lovely ladies of Lieutenant Commander von Müsel’s household.”

Annerose laughed. “Thank you, Captain Schenkopp. Please, come in.”

Ingrid was hovering in the door between the kitchen and the hallway. “Good evening, Ms. von Roscher,” Schenkopp said, giving her a funny little bow. “I hope my logistics officer has been treating you well.”

“Very well, Captain,” Ingrid said. “Thank you.”

“Glad to hear it,” Schenkopp said. 

“Walter,” Annerose said, getting his attention. “This is my ward, Julian Minci. Julian, Captain Schenkopp.”

“The last thirteen year old boy that Lieutenant Commander Müsel introduced me to gave his best attempt to detach my neck from my shoulders with an axe. Do I need to be worried that you’ll do the same thing, Julian?”

“No, sir!” Julian said, eyes wide. “Er, Mr. Lieutenant Commander von Müsel did that?”

Schenkopp laughed. “Only a little, though I’m a little afraid that if I see him again, he’ll try for a second time, and be better at it, now that he’s not so young anymore. You’ve met him, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think of him?” 

Julian seemed conflicted, unwilling to praise Reinhard when Schenkopp, whom he clearly immediately respected, had his own opinions. “I think he’s done some very impressive things, sir,” Julian said, which made Schenkopp grin widely.

“Very true. The von Müsels are an impressive bunch. You could do with far worse for a guardian, I know that for sure.”

Julian nodded. 

The whole group settled in to eat dinner, which turned out to be lasagna. The atmosphere of the meal was quite light and friendly. Julian hung on to Schenkopp’s every word, clearly impressed by him. Ingrid even seemed to relax a little, and Schenkopp was nothing but absolutely polite to both her and Annerose. In fact, she wouldn’t have minded in the least if he had acted even the tiniest bit more interested in her. But, aside from the flowers, which he had said were for both her and Ingrid, there was absolutely nothing flirtatious about his manner, aside from his usual infuriating charm.

They couldn’t even talk more about the upcoming deployment, because it was very much a secret. 

Even with these frustrations, it was a very pleasant meal. At the end of it, she was wondering if Schenkopp might linger, but he didn’t seem inclined to. While Ingrid and Julian cleaned up the meal, Annerose walked him outside.

He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, offering another to her.

“No, thanks,” Annerose said. “I didn’t even know you smoked.”

“Occasional treat,” he said. “I’m aware it’s bad for me.”

“Won’t be allowed to smoke when we’re in somewhere with a kept atmosphere,” she said.

“I know.” He grinned. “That’s why I’m getting it in now. When are you going to tell them we’re going?”

She twirled a lock of her hair. “I don’t know. When we pin down an actual date for our deployment, I guess. There’s no need to make them worry about it before they need to.”

“I’m glad to see that you and Ms. Roscher are happy together.”

“Well, I hope she’s happy here on Heinessen. It will be a relief to have her be able to stay with Julian instead of needing my mom to come here. Though I suppose I don’t know if she wants that kind of responsibility.” Annerose laughed a little. “Rear Admiral Cazerne should not have given me a kid— I’m just passing him off to everybody around me.”

Shenkopp shook his head. “No, you’re good for him.”

“Thanks.”

They both were leaning on the railing of her little patio. The smoke from Schenkopp’s cigarette drifted away in the warm, late summer breeze. 

“Are you excited to go out?” Annerose asked after a moment of silence.

“Of course,” he said. “Beats sitting around here.”

“Yeah.” She hesitated. “Walter—“

He turned to look at her, the lit tip of his cigarette dancing in between his fingers. “Yeah?”

“I’m glad to be going with you. That’s all.”

He nudged her with his elbow. “I’m glad to have you.” She decided to be a little bold and lean against him. He chuckled. “You’d better be careful, or Ms. Roscher will get jealous.”

“Jealous?”

He shrugged. “Well, it’s not my business.”

“What if I want it to be your business?”

Schenkopp raised both of his eyebrows. “That would be very interesting indeed.” He flicked some ash off the end of his cigarette. “But that’s a different thing altogether.”

“If you say so.”

He looked down at her. “Can I ask, exactly, what is going on here?”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem very close with her. I’m just trying to figure out the nature of it.”

Annerose leaned on the railing and looked out over her yard, at the streetlights and the house lights, and the stars barely visible above. “I don’t know,” she said. “Is it strange, that I look at her, and I have this, I don’t know, need to protect her? It’s not even like she’s fragile. She’s been through more than I ever have. But she feels like my responsibility.”

This clearly didn’t answer the question that Schenkopp was trying to ask. “Is it just responsibility?”

“As opposed to what?”

“It’s clearly gone beyond the professional if you’re living together.”

“I just didn’t want anybody else to— you know what I mean. She’s vulnerable.”

“Sure.” He was quiet for a second, taking a drag from his cigarette. “You know I don’t care, right? I’m not going to report you for indecent behavior.”

Annerose stiffened. “You think this is—“

He raised both hands, backing off at her tone. “Like I said, not my business, if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“I’m not a homosexual.”

“I never said you were.”

“You implied it.”

“No,” he said. “I was just wondering. I don’t know if one dalliance a homosexual makes, anyway.” He shrugged.

“What does make one, then?” Annerose asked, voice strained.

“Oh, I don’t know.” He stubbed his cigarette out on the railing. “I’ll take you at your word, though.”

“Good,” Annerose said. “I wouldn’t want you to think…”

He tilted his head to look at her, “Think what?”

She bit her lip. “Something unkind about me.”

“It wounds me that you think I’m capable of thinking something unkind about you,” Schenkopp said with a smile.

“Oh,” she said. Again, she felt like she had no idea where she stood with him, and it frustrated her.

He smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then, Annerose.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

March 796 U.C., Phezzan

Reinhard puzzled over the package he had received in the mail. By all accounts, it was an innocuous thing. Annerose had sent it, going to great lengths to purchase this thing from a Phezzani vendor and have it sent to Reinhard. It wasn’t so surprising that she would send him something: it was his birthday, after all, but he had no idea why she would send this .

The object in question was a small cube of tungsten, about five centimeters on each side. For all that it was small enough to easily hold in his palm, it weighed an incredible amount, almost two and a half kilograms. He tossed it up and down as he read the letter that accompanied it.

 

Dear Reinhard,

Happy birthday! I wish that either you were on Heinessen, or I was on Phezzan, so that we could celebrate together, but we really have not been in the same place for your birthday for far too long. You’ll have to make do with my virtual well wishes this year.

I hope you enjoy your gift. I know it’s a bit unusual, but you know I’m always stumped on what to give you, especially since interplanetary physical mail would cost me more than I really could afford, so I had to get you something that is readily available to buy on Phezzan. Otherwise I might have mailed you something homemade.

As for why this particular thing, well, Blumhart (one of my fellow officers in the regiment) has one of these cubes that he keeps on his desk to use as a paperweight, and I’ve always been so fascinated by it. When I was on one of my summer internships, I did spend some time ordering tungsten materials for shipbuilding, but I never actually got to handle any up close. I know that was the LEAST interesting thing that happened to you when you were at Condor, but did you ever feel how heavy all of this was? Maybe if you did, you were in 0G, and a giant sheet of metal floating in space loses some of the visceral realness and surprising density that a smaller piece has.

It’s nice to hold something real, isn’t it? A piece of metal in your hand is realer than futures, realer than I feel like, half the galaxy away.

It’s gauche to talk about how much a gift costs, and given the fact that I did spend time ordering shipbuilding supplies, I really should KNOW how much raw tungsten costs, but I was still surprised at the price. If I had planned ahead, I would have tried to see if the price went down or something. Well, too late now.

I hope you enjoy this very silly gift. If you don’t, feel free to throw it at my head when we get back in the same place (New Year’s? Please tell me you’ll have leave someday…)

Please stay safe and well on Phezzan. I don’t know if we’ll be able to talk much. The Rosenritter are being deployed and I don’t know when I’ll be back on Heinessen. Luckily, my new friend is staying with me, so she can take care of Julian while I’m gone. Or he can take care of her. It’s somewhat unclear who will be taking care of who, sometimes.

But I won’t bore you with any more personal details. Happy birthday again! I love you more than I could ever explain!

Your sister,

Annerose

 

There was something very, very strange about the letter. For one thing, even though Annerose had supplied a bit of a personal explanation for why she might enjoy a tungsten cube paperweight, it still seemed that a paperweight was an impersonal gift. It was also very unlike Annerose to discuss the price of anything she bought as a gift— a remnant of their  frugal childhood. Bills were discussed, gifts were not. The fact that she was calling attention to the price, and calling attention to the fact that she normally wouldn’t, it felt like a message.

Reinhard fished around in his desk drawer for a pen, and read the letter over, circling things that stuck out to him. 

“Realer than futures” was another incredibly strange line. If Annerose was just being poetic, she probably would have said that it was realer than THE future. This weird line, combined with her talking about trying to find it cheaper, being aware of the price of it when used for shipbuilding… 

It was all screaming out to Reinhard that Annerose wanted him to look at the price of tungsten. Why? Although he made a decent salary now— they both did— it wasn’t as though he was making enough to invest in stocks. (His interest in economics was purely from a governmental standpoint. The idea of actually attempting to play the market annoyed him.) 

What did Annerose know? And why was she both so concerned that Reinhard know it, and that it be kept secret, coded as it were in this innocuous seeming message?

Reinhard spent some time looking at the historical trend prices of tungsten. Overall, the prices seemed relatively steady, jumping only when either side of the conflict announced that they were building a glut of ships (or a fortress, for the imperial side.) This usually happened after battles where huge numbers of ships had been lost, which hadn’t happened too recently, so the price now was quite stable. Was this Annerose telling him to expect a large battle soon? It wasn’t as though she could know if the Empire was about to build a new fortress. And even if they were, unless they were planning to antagonize Phezzan with it, it seemed unlikely to be relevant to the broader conflict. The Empire wasted money building fortresses inside their own territory, just in case certain nobles got a little too many ideas. 

Reinhard bit his finger. It seemed somewhat unlikely that she was trying to tell him that there would be a battle. Annerose would have found a better way of telling him that. After all, the jump in price of shipbuilding supplies in the year or so after a major conflict was well understood, and also not really something that Annerose would have cared about paying attention to. It was such an obscure connection that Reinhard though it was too weak. It wasn’t as though Annerose had any particular interest in economics. 

Maybe it was her lack of understanding that was the key here. She might be oversimplifying things. She wanted him to watch the price of tungsten. Going up? No, she said she had wanted to see if it would get cheaper.

Decreased demand would lower the price, but Reinhard suspected that there wasn’t some breakthrough in ship engineering waiting just around the corner that would remove the need for tungsten.

Increased supply might lower the price.

But why would she be cagey about some new mine opening somewhere? And what did it have to do with her?

He narrowed his eyes. There would only be a few reasons why someone would need to keep tungsten mining secret, and all of them had to do with the location of the mine. If it was a little too close to imperial territory, that would make it uniquely vulnerable to attack, just like the shipbuilding facility at Condor Base had been. Annerose must have brought that up for a reason, too. Condor Base was right outside the Iserlohn corridor, and it had been attacked. But it wasn’t secret. It hadn’t even been secret during its construction. So something must be closer to the Empire even than that.

It couldn’t be within the Phezzan corridor, or Annerose wouldn’t have mentioned the distance between them. So. Someone was building a new tungsten mine in the Iserlohn corridor, and the Rosenritter were heading there. To do what, exactly, Reinhard didn’t know.

He felt like he needed to confirm his suspicions. The price of tungsten hadn’t moved, but he wondered what kind of equipment was involved in the mining of tungsten, and if an increased demand for that had raised the price by a noticeable amount. Reinhard did some digging.

Unsurprisingly, the prices of highly specialized industrial equipment were not things that were publicly available, which meant that no historical price data was available either. This was frustrating, but not entirely unexpected.

Still, he wasn’t deterred in his investigations. He focused on the most specialized, largest parts. He wished he had more information from Annerose about what type of environment this mining would be happening in, because it could help him tailor his search.

Actually, he figured he could do the reverse. He looked around at existing tungsten mining operations, in the Alliance and in the Empire (this information was readily available on Phezzan, of course) and picked out some representative planets: hot ones, cold ones, ones with high gravity, ones with low, those with toxic atmospheres, those where the mines were under a kilometer of water, ones where the difference between the day and night wreaked havoc on the surface temperature…

Over the next few days, Reinhard called up the customer service line of various Phezzani equipment suppliers, pretending to be working for one of the existing mining companies, and inquiring about the lead times for replacing large pieces of equipment. He made a pretty convincing prospective customer, and was charming on the phone with the sales representatives, enough that he was able to get all the information that he wanted.

The average lead time for one of the huge ore processing machines was four months from order to delivery. The average lead time for giant mining machines was five, but that didn’t count the time it would take to charter a large ship for delivery of the machine to the target planet. All of these seemed like reasonable numbers. But when Reinhard called up vendors that specialized in high temperature mining equipment, he suddenly found that the lead times were shockingly long. More than double the average, as though someone had placed a priority bulk order, and Reinhard’s piddling request for one or two replacement machines would have to go at the end of a long line.

He felt somewhat vindicated, but he couldn’t be sure of anything yet. All of this was a string of conclusions that he was jumping to based on a strange birthday letter from his sister. 

Still, there were other things he could check. It was difficult to look at from Phezzan, but he wanted to see the hiring and recruitment pages for various mining companies, especially those with extensive experience on inhospitable planets, and compare their current recruitment efforts to their historical, publicly filed, employment records. There did seem to be a noticeable uptick in hiring among several companies, but again, that wasn’t particularly conclusive.

Almost on a whim, Reinhard spent an afternoon putting together a fake resume and submitting it to companies on his shortlist who did have offices on Phezzan. He made up a degree for himself in structural engineering from PNU, gave himself a reasonable GPA and a scattering of skills, a fake year of experience at a local building firm as an intern, and a cover letter detailing his passion for challenging work in tough environments. He got one call back about it after a few days, and Reinhard showed up to his scheduled interview wearing a tie and a large pair of non-prescription glasses, his fake Phezzani ID card that he had borrowed from the High Commissioner’s office in hand.

As he walked into the monotonically corporate office building, Reinhard wondered if Muller was watching him, and, if he was, what exactly he thought Reinhard was doing. The idea amused him.

Even pretending to be someone else, and without ever having interviewed for any position before, Reinhard knew how to make himself look like a good candidate, and he used the interview as a space to ask lots of interesting little questions of the hiring manager.

“I’m willing to relocate, of course,” Reinhard said with a laugh, “but are you interviewing for a specific mine opening, or would I have choice in my placement?”

The answers he got back were suspiciously cagey. The hiring manager, an older woman with shrewd eyes set in a weathered brown face, said, “All our new hires go through a long training period at a few of our most established facilities, and we assess where they will be assigned after that, usually into more challenging environments.”

“I love a challenge,” Reinhard said.

“Yes, of course."

And he would ask things like, “Now, I saw that you were offering a rather generous company stock option as one of the benefits packages I could choose from. This is just curiosity, but is that likely to be more generous than a standard retirement fund?”

“Oh, yes. Over the next few years, we’re poised for growth— you would be part of our general expansion— and I think it’s a good idea to get in on that option now.”

“I see,” Reinhard said. He was taking notes. The interviewer seemed impressed with his curiosity. “And I was wondering if you could tell me what the company atmosphere is like in these places where I might be working— you know, I’ve lived in the city my whole life, so I’m wondering what the social atmosphere is like? Are there many non-company people around?”

“I think that depends a lot on where you’re positioned, eventually,” the hiring manager said. “Most of our established mines have a very decent town adjoining them, with all the amenities you’d expect from modern life.”

“What about these new mines you say you’re opening? Will they be on the frontier of frontiers? I assume most of this hiring wave will eventually end up in these new facilities, which is why I’m asking.”

She smiled. “During initial construction, there might actually be more people around than usual. It should be interesting.”

“Interesting? In what way?”

“Mr. Kircheis, if you’re trying to figure out if there will be women in these new mines, the answer is yes.” Her smile was wry. When Reinhard’s face reddened, she said, “It’s a valid enough consideration.”

Reinhard had been trying to figure out if the mines would be surrounded by soldiers, but he couldn’t ask that directly, and so he had gotten a completely different answer.

“Er, okay,” he said, thrown off his balance for the first time. “And about hazard pay, do some locations offer more of it than others?”

He kept poking and prodding, and eventually the manager asked, “And do you have any other questions?” 

Reinhard finally said, glancing down at his page full of notes, “No, I think my curiosity is fully sated.”

“I do have one more question for you, Mr. Kircheis.”

“Of course.”

“I should have asked this earlier, but it completely slipped my mind until this moment. You submitted your application through our Alliance recruitment page, but we’re here on Phezzan. You are an Alliance citizen, right?”

“Oh, I didn’t realize,” Reinhard said. “I thought that was your only website.” He laughed a little. “And, no, I’m Phezzani. But I’m looking to move to the Alliance.”

“I see.” She offered him a smile, one that was suddenly much tighter than it had been before. “I’m sure I’ll be giving you a call, Mr. Kircheis.”

“Thank you so much for your time and consideration,” Reinhard said. “I look forward to hearing from you.”

He knew he wouldn’t. He had suspected that these new positions would be for Alliance citizens only, and would almost certainly require a security clearance. Still, he had gotten plenty of good information out of this, so it hadn’t been a waste of an afternoon entirely.

Some of Reinhard’s excursions didn’t go completely unnoticed, though. His CO called him into his office one day.

“Lieutenant Commander,” Blackwell said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m well aware that what you do with your private life is not entirely my concern, but when you start borrowing our limited supply of ID cards to run around and… Look, I don’t even know what you’re doing with them. Please explain.”

“Research, sir,” Reinhard said. His hands were clasped neatly behind his back as he stood in front of Blackwell’s desk, watching the fat goldfish swim around and around behind him.

“Research about what, exactly, Müsel?”

“It’s very difficult to explain, sir,” Reinhard said. “And I’m afraid that you will probably tell me that curiosity can be dangerous.”

“For God’s sake, Müsel. Out with it. You usually do good work, so I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt, but when one of my staff starts to act crazy, it’s almost never a good sign. I’d prefer not to have to ask you to be reassigned, because I like you, and you were put here by people higher than myself.”

“Thank you, sir. This is just complicated to explain.” But he did, and he went through the whole story, starting with Annerose’s coded message and the Rosenritter’s mystery deployment, and ending with his findings about what companies seemed to be under contract to build new mines, and where.

“And you think you have enough information to pin down a planet that this is happening on?” Blackwell asked.

“Yes, sir,” Reinhard said. “There’s a limited number of choices.”

“Well, let me hear your theory.”

“Do you have a starmap of the Iserlohn corridor?” Reinhard asked. 

Blackwell humored him and pulled one up on his computer. Reinhard pointed at one star system, a red dwarf with three tiny terrestrial planets orbiting it, quite close. Reinhard pointed at the third one. “Right there,” he said. “Cahokia-3.”

“There isn’t even a navigable route there.”

“That you know of,” Reinhard said. “But maybe one was discovered recently. Or it was discovered a long time ago, and just not publicized, in case it came to have tactical value later.”

“Sure.” Blackwell scratched his chin. “I’m willing to stretch my imagination that far. But you said you did all this just to figure out where your sister was being posted?”

“Not really, sir, no.”

“Explain, then.”

Reinhard frowned a little. “If it were just any front line posting, I would just let my sister be. She can take care of herself. But she sent me that message because she wanted me to do something. She’s probably nervous.”

“About?”

“Well, sir, if I could figure all of this out, it might only be a matter of time before the imperial government finds out about it, as well.”

“Why do you say that? You were only tipped off— assuming this is all true, which I will have to confirm— because your sister has direct information.”

“All of these companies involved have holdings on Phezzan,” Reinhard said. “It might look like nothing now, but money changing hands is going to get back to the Empire, sooner or later, and when they do, they’re not going to just let us set up a base in their faces.”

“Sure,” Blackwell said. “But again, what does that have to do with you?”

“I had to figure all of this out, but now that I have, I’m sure my sister is trying to tell me to keep an eye out for anything that looks like the Empire figuring out what’s happening there.”

“And how will you know?”

“I’m not sure,” Reinhard said. “It depends on how the Empire finds this out, probably. But I can at least keep an ear out.”

Blackwell nodded slowly. “I suppose. Knowing what you’re listening for could make it easier to hear.”

“Precisely, sir,” Reinhard said.

“I’ll confirm this. You have permission to continue to look, but, Müsel, next time you get an idea like this, come to me first, instead of running all over Phezzan.”

“May I speak bluntly, sir?”

Blackwell narrowed his eyes. “Yes.”

“If I had come to you with just a strange birthday letter from my sister, you wouldn’t have listened to a word that I said.”

“I’ll keep that in mind next time you become convinced that someone is leaving you coded messages,” Blackwell said.

 


 

July 796 U.C., Phezzan

A week or so after he had mentioned the matter to Blackwell, the commodore pulled Reinhard aside and said, “I looked into that matter you mentioned. You were correct. I shouldn’t need to tell you to be careful with that information.” And that was approximately the end of the conversation.

Although the matter of the mysterious tungsten mines did not slip Reinhard’s mind for a second, not much happened with it for several months. He kept paying attention to the tungsten markets, but there wasn’t anything unexpected happening, and there was no movement of imperial ships around the Iserlohn corridor other than their usual. 

Even Annerose’s rare letters held no new information. They were exactingly scrubbed by the censors, and, as far as Reinhard could tell, Annerose wasn’t trying to drop any further hints. The only things she talked about were funny stories about the other members of the Rosenritter, which was entertaining, if not particularly enlightening. The rigor of the censors was so much that even mentions of night and day in otherwise innocuous stories were scrubbed out. That would have tipped Reinhard off to the secrecy of Annerose’s mission, if he hadn’t already known. They probably had been instructed to remove such mentions because of the short length of the day on Cahokia-3, a rather identifiable feature when it came to planets. At least Annerose’s letters sounded cheerful, which was the best that Reinhard could hope for.

Life on Phezzan and work in the High Commissioner’s office continued as it always had. There was rarely a dull moment, but there was not much that Reinhard was personally invested in.

On weekend mornings, Reinhard’s habit was to go for a long run, then sit at a cafe and get brunch while either working on his blog or reading. One bright Saturday, Reinhard was sitting in the outdoor seating of his favorite restaurant, a half eaten stack of pancakes in front of him, idly watching the passers-by walk down the sunny street as he flipped through a thick newspaper. 

This particular paper, with its large Fraktur font announcing its name, was wholly imperial, one of the ones that was a direct import to Phezzan, rather than a Phezzani-owned newspaper aimed at an imperial expat audience. Both types of papers had their benefits, of course, but Reinhard was partial to the dry, almost acerbic, editorial tone of this paper, rather than the pseudo-friendliness that Phezzani papers, even the ones that were better at replicating the imperial voice, were partial to. It wasn’t as though the tone mattered— after all, propaganda and lies were propaganda and lies regardless of how they were delivered— but Reinhard had a preference regardless.

The big news of the day was nothing special. The bulk of the paper was taken up by reporting on one particular imperial planet’s governance scandal, where the noble family that ruled the planet had decided to stop respecting imperial law (and, perhaps more importantly, was threatening to withhold imperial tax.) The story was interesting, but had little to do with Reinhard, though he made a mental note that when the imperial government did eventually stop dragging their feet and send their fleet to deal with recalcitrant nobles, those nobles might attempt to flee through Phezzan. Although the policy was, of course, to admit all refugees, Reinhard thought that there were plenty of ways of making this difficult, especially if the refugee in question was a noble with delusions of grandeur. The kaiser seemed reluctant to deal with the issue, for some reason, and Reinhard searched the paper for any clues as to why the fleet hadn’t been deployed already, but didn’t find any. That was just another thing to look at later.

Reinhard finished his breakfast, and the relevant sections of the paper. When the waiter came by to clear his dishes, a breeze picked up the newspaper on the table, scattering the pages on the ground. Not one to litter, Reinhard apologized to the waiter and picked them up, ending up with the ‘sports’ section on the top of the stack. Usually, he never read the sports columns, having less than zero interest in which horse races and hockey games were taking place, but at the top of the page there was a listing of upcoming duels of note, and his eyes fell on the top billed listing. Braunschweig vs Littenheim. The names of the actual professional duelists were listed below that, but the sponsoring parties were the ones who claimed the credit. There were never any reasons listed for the duels, just the time, place, and ruleset that would be followed, but Reinhard was fixated on it. He needed to know, immediately, why the two families closest in line for the throne were dueling.

Unfortunately, when he returned to his apartment and started researching the subject in earnest, he couldn’t find anything about it. It seemed unlikely that it was a private insult that had sparked the duel, because such matters would have been handled privately. But if it was some sort of larger, public matter, that should have been a matter of record, or at least of gossip. But there was almost nothing said about the duel other than rumors and wild speculation, which only made Reinhard more and more curious.

He had the sneaking suspicion that this was important. He looked up historical dueling records. The last time that Duke Braunschweig had sponsored a duelist personally was eight years ago. He looked up the statistics of the two duelists they had hired, to see who was likely to win. The two had faced each other several times in the past, and both of them had won about half the times. A coin flip, then.

Although Reinhard couldn’t find information online, he did have one last resort source of information available to him. One that he was very hesitant about using, and one that Blackwell would almost certainly not approve of. In the letter that Muller had shown to Reinhard, he had mentioned that Captain von Leigh was on Duke Braunschweig’s staff. Muller, then, might have some information. How to get that information was, unfortunately, not going to be easy.

He had had luck getting things out of Muller in the past, but only in trade, with Blackwell’s permission, but Reinhard didn’t think he was going to get permission, and nor did he have any secrets he was comfortable divulging to Muller in exchange.

Maybe he could make it seem like he wasn’t actually asking. After all, Muller had been willing to serve as a go between for him and Kircheis in the past. If Reinhard could pretend like that was all he wanted, then maybe he could extract the information from Muller unwittingly.

It felt somewhat slimy to consider using Kircheis for this purpose, but it was as good of a plan as he had, so he would go ahead with it. And he didn’t think that Kircheis would mind.

So, one evening a few days later, Reinhard slipped out of his own apartment, avoiding the cameras that he knew were around by going up two more floors and leaving through the unmonitored fire escape into the alley, then made his way by bus to the other side of the city, where Muller lived.

Like the Alliance staff stationed on Phezzan who lived there long term rather than having a posting of less than a year, Muller had the option to rent a real apartment, rather than live in housing owned by the Empire’s embassy. He had done so, and was clearly frugal about it, living in a six-story walkup in one of the poorer parts of the city. Not the poorest, but the official imperial housing probably would have been nicer. Reinhard couldn’t really complain, though. The official imperial buildings were under surveillance by the Alliance. Muller’s run down apartment complex was not.

Reinhard made his way to Muller’s apartment, and then simply knocked on the door. Muller didn’t answer, but Reinhard could see the light under the door, so he knew that he was home, and was just being ignored.

Reinhard knocked again.

“What the fuck are you doing at my house?” Muller asked, without opening the door.

“Unofficial business,” Reinhard said. “I need a favor. Open the door.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Muller said, but he opened the door anyway. He was in the middle of cooking dinner, as evidenced by the smell of roasting onions that wafted out into the hallway when he opened the door. “Have you forgotten that we’re enemies?”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t ask you for a favor. May I come in, or are you going to make me beg you in the hallway.”

“You’d beg?”

Reinhard raised an eyebrow, and Muller sighed and stepped aside, letting him in. The apartment was small and dark, with just a kitchen and a single larger room with a bed and couch in it. It was neatly kept, but some of the artwork on the walls indicated that Muller was perhaps a little too attached to his posting on Phezzan: movie posters for Alliance movies were a prime feature, as was a very stupid looking pinup of a Phezzan pop idol group’s lead singer. There was not a single staid imperial oil painting in sight, and only a large photograph of what he assumed was Muller’s family gave any indication that he was from the Empire at all. That, and all the books on his bookshelf and magazines scattered on his coffee table were titled in the imperial language.

Muller walked back into his kitchen. An alarm was going off, and he turned off his stove and dumped out a pot of potatoes that had been boiling, straining them in the sink.

“Are you going to ask me for your favor, or are you going to just stand there?” Muller asked. “Hand me the butter, will you? Top shelf of the fridge.”

Reinhard did as requested, and gave him the milk, too, so that he could mash the potatoes. “I won’t bother you with business while you’re cooking.” 

Muller scowled. “Salesmen always come when you’re eating dinner, because you’ll do anything to make them go away so you can enjoy your meal in peace.”

He finished with the potatoes, then pulled the roast beef and vegetables out of the oven. He grabbed two chipped plates from the cupboard, filled one, and thrust it at Reinhard. “Here,” he said. “It’s weirder to have you watch me eat than it is for me to give you dinner.”

“Thank you,” Reinhard said.

There wasn’t really a table in Muller’s apartment, aside from the coffee table, and nor were there chairs. Reinhard sat on the couch, but Muller stood, pacing back and forth with his plate in one hand and his fork in the other.

“Okay, please tell me why you’re here,” Muller said. “You’re really freaking me out.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Reinhard said. “We’re having a nice, civil conversation.”

Muller scowled at him.

Reinhard took a bite of mashed potatoes. “I need you to tell me what unit Captain Leigh’s favorite student got assigned to.”

“Gods above, Müsel,” Muller said. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his hand that was holding his fork. “You don’t have to show up at my house for this.”

“It’s not like we get the chance to have our friendly little chats often,” Reinhard said. “I didn’t want to wait for the opportunity to present itself.”

“I have no idea where Sub-Lieutenant Kircheis is. Why does it matter?”

“How do you know that’s who I’m talking about?”

Muller gave him a disbelieving look. “I thought you were trying to send a message to me.”

“What?”

“Every time you use a fake name for anything, you use his. I thought you were trying to tell me to pay attention.”

Reinhard flushed. That had been the complete opposite of what he had wanted. It was a stupid mistake. “I would have used my pen name—“

“Yeah, pass as a girl. Gods, I thought you were doing drag when I saw your sister—“

“She has nothing to do with this,” Reinhard snapped.

Muller, alarmed, held up both his hands, dangerously tipping his plate. Luckily, the mashed potatoes were glued down pretty firmly, and they stopped his vegetables from sliding off onto the floor. “Sure,” he said. “Was that really all you wanted to know?”

“What do you know about Kircheis?”

“Why do you think I would tell you?”

Reinhard narrowed his eyes.

“Look,” Muller said. “You tell me why you’re so interested in him, and then maybe I’ll tell you something I know.”

“He was—“ Reinhard formed as non incriminating of a sentence as he could— “my best friend.”

“Excuse me for finding it hard to believe that you’d go through all of this trouble to talk to someone you last saw at age thirteen.”

“Ten,” Reinhard muttered.

“Oh, even better.”

“What do you think I’m going through the trouble for, then?”

“I mean, there’s obviously some sort of plot going on. You going on about promises. And Leigh seemed to understand whatever coded messages you were sending. I don’t know. It’s not like I have that much information.”

Reinhard squinted at him. “If you think this is part of some kind of plot, then why are you continuing to participate in it?”

“I—“ Muller flushed. “If I’m keeping an eye on it, you can’t cause too much trouble.”

“Glad to hear it,” Reinhard said. “For the record, there is no plot.”

“Well, of course you’d say that.”

Reinhard shrugged. “Leigh told you to stay out of it.”

“Leigh says a lot of things.”

“And you think Leigh is involved in this hypothetical plot?”

“I think I really want to speak with him in person to figure that out.”

“Is Leigh happy with his post under Braunschweig?”

“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

“Curiosity. I saw in the papers that Braunschweig was having a duel. Think his whole staff is going to attend that?”

Muller laughed. “I literally cannot picture Leigh attending a duel.”

“What’s it about, by the way? An argument over who killed Ludwig?”

“No, some bullshit about land rights,” Muller said, suddenly a little too blasè. “I don’t really have the details.”

“Hunh, I was almost hoping they were trying to fight out the succession struggle while the kaiser was still alive.”

“They’d have to do more than just hire professionals for that,” Muller said. “The results of duels are legally binding, but I don’t think that would apply when talking about the person who then becomes the law.” He gesticulated with his plate again.

“It’s not a civilized system,” Reinhard said. “Bloodsports over a patch of land.”

“Hey,” Muller said, “It’s better than Braunschweig taking his section of the fleet, and Littenheim taking his, and having them fight for real over whatever piece of dirt.”

“Are you following the Capstrop thing?” Reinhard asked, changing the topic, in order to disguise any incriminating interest in the subject.

“Following it, sure,” Muller said. “Doesn’t have anything to do with me, though.”

“It might.”

“Says who?”

“When the kaiser eventually decides to send the fleet in, Capstrop is probably going to run.”

“No, he won’t,” Muller said. “And the prime minister is going to exhaust every possible diplomatic avenue before they dispatch the fleet.”

“Clearly whatever passes for noble diplomacy failed a long time ago, in this case.”

“Yeah, well, Capstrop has some Phezzani tech protecting his planet. He thinks he’s safe, and so does the kaiser.”

“A tool is only as useful as the hand holding it is talented.”

“You sound like Leigh.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Reinhard said. “But regardless, if Capstrop does run here—“

“Are we talking official business now?”

“No, you’re getting my opinion.”

“Your professional one?”

Reinhard smiled, but did not answer the question.

“Okay, what’s your opinion?”

“I, personally, do not want him in the Alliance,” Reinhard said. “Take that as you will.”

“And you have the power to make that policy?”

“Well, Muller, you know that the avowed policy of the Alliance is to welcome all refugees.”

Muller made a face.

“But things don’t always go according to avowed policy,” Reinhard said. “And sometimes things happen on Phezzan that no one can predict.”

“Yeah, that’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“So, if the Empire should happen to catch someone before they make it across the border, well, we can consider that still very fair.”

“Alright, alright,” Muller said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Excellent.” Reinhard put down his plate on the coffee table. “Then I’ll consider us even for the night. Thank you very much for the dinner.”

“Oh, you’re going?” Muller seemed surprised.

“As you said, we are still enemies.”

 


 

Reinhard reported to Blackwell’s office the next afternoon, a folded newspaper tucked under his arm, this time one of the Phezzani ones.

“What’s the urgent issue, Lieutenant Commander?” Blackwell asked.

Without speaking, Reinhard laid the newspaper out on the desk, open to the sports section, where a full color photograph of two duellists with swords took up a majority of the page. “Braunschweig victorious in duel with Littenheim,” the headline read.

“The Empire knows about Cahokia,” Reinhard said. “I think we need to start preparing, if we want to hold on to that planet.”

Blackwell grimaced. “I hate that I said I would give your wild speculations due consideration. Explain your theory.”

Reinhard did, leaving out everything about his conversation with Muller. “Neither of them have duelled in years,” Reinhard said. “This is more than a personal insult. It’s clearly hugely important to them, but the reason that they’re dueling isn’t listed anywhere, and there could only be a few reasons for that.”

“It’s not that one of their daughters got knocked up by one of the other’s cousins? Come on, Müsel, there’s plenty of reasons for nobles to want to shoot each other. They’ve all got blood feuds going back centuries.”

“This was specifically the two heads of the families going after each other. That’s huge. It’s not just a scandal, and if it was a scandal, there would be no way it would be staying out of the papers.”

“And what do you want me to do about it, Müsel? Even if you are right, which, I’ll give you, you. might be.”

“If Braunschweig starts moving his personal section of the fleet around, we should be ready to move.”

“We’re already ready to move,” Blackwell said. “Having a fleet waiting within a few days' travel of the corridor was already part of the plan.”

“Days travel is a long time,” Reinhard said. “Especially when Iserlohn is right there.”

“You know we can’t move them any closer. And even if we could, that’s not a move I have authority to make.”

“So, we’re just supposed to sit on our hands about this?”

“Yes.”

Reinhard scowled.

“I know you’re worried about your sister, but—“

“If the Empire already knows about Cahokia, then we’ve lost any advantage of secrecy,” Reinhard said. “We should send in a fleet now, so that we don’t lose the whole planet.”

“You believe they know about Cahokia. You’ve convinced me about sixty percent. But we need more concrete evidence, and we’re not going to get it until ships start moving.”

“By then it will be too late!”

“I’m sure the Rosenritter can hold out for a few days, for reinforcements.”

“I think we should at least prepare. Send a message to the fleet that’s on standby.”

“I’ll pass your thoughts along,” Blackwell said finally. “But we can’t start moving fleets based on every rumor that comes off Phezzan.”

Reinhard scowled. “What fleet is on standby?”

“The sixth, right now,” Blackwell said.

“May I write a message to Lieutenant Commander Greenhill, sir?”

“You hardly need permission to write to your girlfriend,” Blackwell said. “But let me read it, and I’ll make sure it goes through the right channels.”

“Thank you, sir,” Reinhard said.

Chapter Text

March 796 U.C., Heinessen

Heinessenopolis was a dirty, bustling, run down city. Annerose had lived in it for most of her adult life, and still, she thought that she would probably never get used to all of its contrasts. The fleet operations headquarters that she had just left was such a tall, glittering building, but the city surrounding it was anything but. Autumn was in full swing, and the wind was whistling through the alleys between brick buildings, tenements and corner stores, to the outskirts of the city where train tracks met highways and the edge of the huge industrial airfield. Her uniform jacket was barely sufficient to protect her from the chill as night descended, but she was savoring the cold.

Most of the Rosenritter were already on board the ships that would take them to Cahokia-3, with just the senior officers of the regiment meeting at headquarters to discuss a few last minute operational changes. Things had felt like they were moving very slowly for a long time, and then all at once, pieces started to fall into place, and Annerose had barely had time to say goodbye to Julian and Ingrid before she was standing here, almost ready to leave.

Annerose was on the edge of an industrial trainyard, watching under searing construction lights as the last of their heavy equipment was loaded off the trains and onto shuttles to bring it with them to Cahokia-3. Annerose had a familiar itch in her fingers that made her want to be ticking things off on a clipboard as the cargo moved from one place to another, but it had all been checked and double checked by people who knew what they were doing, so she had to trust it. Schenkopp had gone inside the offices to find out when the loading process would be finished. Annerose had said she could find out with a phone call, and he had said, “Lieutenant Commander, it’s not as though we will be leaving without these things, so there is no time wasted in going to see for myself.”

It wasn’t that Schenkopp was nervous— that certainly wasn’t it— but Annerose could tell he was using this as an excuse to savor the last few hours on being on a habitable planet, and Annerose couldn’t blame him. So, she accompanied him to the shipping yard, leaning on the chain link fence and shivering, but relishing the feeling of being cold, and of a long night closing in.

Schenkopp jogged back out of the office, coming up right beside her. His breath fogged the chill air. There was the smell of smoke drifting in from somewhere, the industrial kind, not woodsmoke, and a train screamed and clattered as it went distantly past them. Even several hundred meters distant, Annerose could feel it rumble the fence beneath her fingers, and its lights splashed like fire across the other still trains in the trainyard. 

“How much longer?” Annerose asked.

“Couple hours. We’ll need to get on our shuttle soon.”

Annerose nodded silently. 

“How are you feeling, Müsel?”

“Fine,” Annerose said. She chuckled a little bit. “I’m more worried about leaving Julian than I am about anything else. I think it’s bad for him not to have stability in his life.”

“He has Ms. Roscher, and your mother,” Schenkopp pointed out.

“I know,” Annerose said. “It will be fine. You should tell me I’m projecting all my stress onto the one thing that I know will be fine.”

“You’re projecting all your stress onto the one thing you know will be fine, Müsel.”

“You’re right, Captain,” she said. He tugged some of her hair playfully.

“Did you get in touch with your brother?”

“I did,” she said. “He didn’t write me back, which I think means he understood my message.”

“Good,” Schenkopp said. 

“And how are you feeling, Captain?” she asked. “Or is it insubordinate for me to ask that question?”

“Oh, you can ask,” Schenkopp said. “I’m fine. Just trying to make myself remember what fresh air feels like, before we stop feeling it for the next six months or however long.” He leaned his back against the fence, causing it to sag, and she looked over at him. His nose was catching the light, and his scarf was all untied, fluttering in the wind instead of tucked neatly into his jacket. He was smiling at her, mouth wide.

“Do you think we’ll see combat?” she asked.

“They’re sending us for a reason, Müsel,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

She nodded again. “I feel like I should be scandalized by that. But I’m not.”

“No, you feel it too, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you and your brother have the same kind of crazy,” he said. “You just haven’t had much of an opportunity to let it out.”

“What kind is that, Captain Schenkopp?” she asked, turning towards him. As he opened his mouth to answer, she reached up and grabbed his flyaway scarf, pulling him towards herself with it.

“The kind that I appreciate, Lieutenant Commander,” he said.

She tied his scarf back up and tucked it into the front of his jacket. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“I look forward to seeing an axe in your hands, too,” he said.

She laughed. “We should probably find our shuttle.”



May-August 796 U.C., Cahokia-3

The Rosenritter had been on Cahokia-3 for a little over a month, and Annerose had decided the place was not one where humans were meant to be. 

Their base was of the most temporary possible construction: huge inflatable domes the same sandy red color as the ground, to be less visible from above. Although they were rated to withstand the hot windstorms that swept across the planet, kicking up walls of sand into the sky, the domes lacked any true feeling of protection. Just being inside one without her suit on made Annerose’s skin crawl. It was an order of magnitude worse than being on a ship, she thought. Ships at least were made of comfortingly heavy metal, and could move. When she walked to the airlock, she would poke the outer wall with her finger, and it would bend inwards. She hated that.

Not that being outside was much better. Except for the few roads that had been laid down to allow the heavy machinery to move around to facilitate construction, the ground was almost entirely composed of loose, silty sand, smeared thick and unpredictable over jagged rocks. Walking was difficult, and riding air bikes sent up clouds of dust behind them.

Even standing still on Cahokia was disorienting: the sun was large and hot in the sky, and the planet spun so quickly that the shadows seemed to dance. It was autumn on this part of the planet, and though this didn’t change much about the temperature, it did mean that day would break, then night would fall about an hour later, with three hours of darkness in between. 

Annerose was glad that it was almost winter. The cooling systems of the suits could only do so much, and she found herself sweating all the time, drinking her water ration too fast and feeling ill for her trouble.

Worst of all, though, Cahokia was intensely boring and isolating.

The Rosenritter were in relatively good spirits, but the same could not be said of the mine construction crews. The mine construction workers fell into two categories: old hands who had the benefit of knowing what they were doing, but who also knew exactly how miserable the conditions on Cahokia were compared to their previous posts; and new recruits, who seemed to Annerose to wander around in perpetual dazes, always getting in the way of the Rosenritter, and being very annoying. Both of these groups were overworked, but that didn’t stop them from spending the little free time they had getting blindingly drunk, getting into fights, and wandering out of the base into the desert.

Most of the excitement of the first month on Cahokia, for the Rosenritter, anyway, involved searching for people who went missing, either from ill-advised wandering, or from being caught out working during one of the dust-storms that whipped up with almost no warning, during which a person trying to find their way back to the base could accidentally wander in the wrong direction and end up completely lost. Two people had died in this way, which was tragic, but neither of them had been Rosenritter, so Annerose couldn’t exactly do anything about it.

For all that the Rosenritter were a rowdy and opinionated bunch, they respected and obeyed Schenkopp, and, by extension, Annerose and the other officers of the regiment. They, at least, were not wandering out into the desert to die, mainly because Annerose was watching the failures of the mine management, and instituting very strict safety rules, such as posting a guard at every airlock, and requiring sign-out and written checks of every air-bike that was sent out. Annerose was not going to be responsible for entirely preventable deaths.

When she brought these common sense measures up with the mine management, offering to have Rosenritter watch the entrances to the mine and the workers’ quarters, as well as guarding all their transportation equipment, she was brushed off, in a way that she found very rude. She complained about it to Linz and Blumhart as they sat in the rec room. Blumhart and Linz were drinking, but Annerose was too annoyed to touch the beer that they had procured for her, and she was instead pacing back and forth in front of the table they were sitting at, playing cards.

“Maybe it’s because there’s only like, twenty women on the planet,” Blumhart said. “Might make them less inclined to listen to you.”

“Nah,” Linz said, slapping a card down onto the table. “Remember last week when we found two of their guys broken down, and I yelled at that guy, what’s his name?”

“Whittacre,” Annerose supplied.

“Yeah. I told him that if they didn’t want us to bring back bodies next time, they were going to have to start actually inspecting their vehicles and using the logs.”

“Hah, I do remember you telling me about that,” Blumhart said. “Think they listened?”

“Of course not. That’s the point. They’re not going to listen to us.”

“It’s so stupid,” Annerose said, continuing to pace. “It’s like they want their own people to die.”

Linz shrugged. “Don’t let it be your problem. You can’t save people who don’t want to be saved from themselves. Besides, not our job.”

“It is our problem that we keep having to solve their problems, and we don’t get so much as a thank you,” Blumhart said.

“Do you actually want to be thanked?” Linz asked.

In a funny voice, Blumhart replied, “Well, it’d be nice to get some goddamn respect around here.” And he glanced at Annerose to see if that had made her laugh, which it almost did, though she didn’t stop pacing.

“It’s just insane to me,” Annerose said. “How can you be so careless as to disregard every single safety precaution ever written, and refuse to listen even after people keep dying?”

Linz spread his hand of cards onto the table, causing Blumhart to curse and get up to get him another beer as the victor. Linz shuffled the deck as he leaned back in his chair and said, “They ignore safety because they want things to get done cheaply and quickly. You know this. Safe, on time, on budget— you know you can pick two of those, max. And they got the contract by being the lowest bidder. It’s as simple as that. Should I deal you in?”

Annerose ignored the question. “I just feel like I could do a better job than anybody over there.”

“Of course you could,” Linz said. Blunhart returned and slid the beer across the table.

“Müsel, queen of the mines,” Blumhart said. “I’d love to see it.”

“I wouldn’t,” Linz said. “Look, Müsel, you can’t manage your way out of every issue. Sometimes you just have to hit people until they listen to you.”

Blunhart snorted. “Gods, you’re not wrong. I would love to punch some of them.”

“Don’t,” Annerose said. “We don’t need to give them any more reason to hate us.”

“They’re just not used to having anybody other than their own people around, I’m sure,” Linz pointed out. “It’s not normal to have the fleet guard a mine like this.”

“Kapche-Lanka,” Annerose pointed out.

“Different story,” Blumhart said. “You never went there, right?”

“No,” Annerose said. “Did you?”

“Hah, before I got transferred into the regiment, I was stationed there for like a month. The place sucked ass.”

“Which is worse?” Linz asked. “Kapche-Lanka or Cahokia?”

“Oh, this place is worse, hands down. At least on Kapche-Lanka you could breathe the air. Kinda, anyway.” He shrugged. “Oh, and we actually got to do things other than play ranger rescue with mine workers.”

“Will you stop pacing, Müsel? You’re stressing me out,” Linz said. “Sit down, have a drink, let the mine get mismanaged into the ground. They’ll figure it out eventually.”

She scowled, but did sit down with the other two. 

“Great. Now, do I deal you in or not?”

“Fine,” Annerose said, and she tried to accept that Linz was right, and put her grumpiness aside. It wasn’t easy, though.

The troubles with the mine were exacerbated by the fact that communication off planet was impossible. They were maintaining strict radio and ansible silence, in order to minimize the opportunity for the imperial fleet to detect them. The only times they received any word about what was happening in the outside world was when one of their ships crept silently through the Iserlohn corridor to Cahokia to bring supplies. These supply drops happened very infrequently, which made time feel stretched and liquid in between.

And in between, they watched the skies, hoping to have advance warning, should any imperial fleets decide to make an appearance.

Three more months passed in this manner.

By August, Annerose had almost gotten used to Cahokia and its whims. She had become adept at running over shifting sand and cleaning omnipresent grit out of the engine of her air bike. The taste of the sand that somehow ended up in everything, despite the sealed suits and environments, no longer really bothered her. 

After the first time she had noticed a rotten, sulphurous smell in her suit, she no longer panicked when trying to find the leak and patch it with the kit at her hip. Intellectually, she knew that it wasn’t the actual components of the atmosphere that were dangerous to her, just the lack of oxygen, but it had taken that first experience with it to calm her nerves. So when one day a freakishly strong gust of wind sent her stumbling down a hill, and she cracked her helmet open, she had had a calm and clear mind while shutting off the air supply in her suit, holding her breath, removing her helmet, and detaching the emergency release of the breathing tube, so that she could jam it into her mouth. She had to run back to base, and the team she was with laughed at how she looked, chipmunk cheeked, but mild embarrassment was far better than a fatality.

Aside from missing her family, a feeling that never really left her, Annerose was too busy to think of much of anything. She barely even saw Schenkopp, since they ended up on opposite duty cycles. Annerose wasn’t sure if she should be unhappy with this or not. Well, she knew that she was unhappy, especially when she met up on an informal basis with some of the few women mine workers on the planet, and she heard Schenkopp’s name mentioned.

It wasn’t her problem.

What was her problem, though, was rescuing (again) a prospecting group that had gone and gotten their vehicle broken down and the engine filled with sand (again). She and Linz had played rock, paper, scissors for who would have the dubious honor of going out this time, and Annerose had won. It wasn’t strictly necessary for an officer to go— there were plenty of capable NCOs, and Annerose trusted the enlisted men of the regiment far more than she trusted any of the mine workers— but it was nice to get off base for a while. 

Annerose had a group of six Rosenritter with her, and it took them almost five hours of careful driving in their rescue vehicle to get even close to the stranded mine survey team. It wasn’t a particularly long distance, but the truck they were driving was large, and the route was not well mapped, so they had to move slowly or risk becoming stranded themselves. 

Luckily, the survey team had not wandered far from their disabled vehicle and its distress beacon. They had up a little shelter underneath a cliff face, while their vehicle itself was buried over the windshield in sand.

“Gods above,”Annerose said when they inspected it. “How does this even happen?”

“Windstorm,” one of the mine workers said sheepishly, in a way that Annerose doubted was the whole explanation. She suspected that running the vehicle to try to free it had contributed to how deeply it was buried.

By the time that she and the rest of the Rosenritter had dug out the back of it enough to hitch it up to tow, the telltale signs of another sandstorm were beginning to appear: a wind beginning to whip up, and a fuzzy haze appearing on their weather radar. Annerose, not wanting the trucks to get buried again, ordered their convoy of two to make their way a few miles further away from the base, to an elevated, rocky area. They parked there just as the sandstorm descended, and it was an annoying, cramped wait in the dark vehicle, with sand scraping the windows and reducing outside visibility to nothing.

Annerose slept through it, since they were relatively safe, aside from not being able to go anywhere, but she was woken up by one of the Rosenritter gently shaking her shoulder. She woke with a start, jumping in her reclined seat.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the soldier, Groteschele, said. “There’s something strange on the radar.”

Annerose rubbed her eyes. The storm was clearing up outside, though it wasn’t completely gone, she had at least a little visibility out the windows of the car, and the radar could pick up something other than blinding static. Annerose leaned towards the screen, looking at the anomaly that was being pointed out. It didn’t look like weather, it was too pinpointed and small, and it was just on the edge of their radar range, enhanced by the fact that they were well above the usual ground plane, on their elevated ridge. 

“Hunh,” Annerose said. The radar signature looked very familiar, but she didn’t want to panic anyone in the car by jumping to conclusions. She pulled up the topographical map of the area, made a note on the map of where the signature was, then reached over to flip the switch on the dashboard that would put their vehicle into radio silent mode; receive only.

“We’re supposed to check in with base—“ Groteschele protested.

“We’re going to check this out first,” Annerose said. She plotted a new course for their vehicle, one that would take them along the elevated ridge, hopefully enough to give them visual confirmation of what their radar was picking up. “If we can drive, let’s get going. I don’t want to linger here.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They began their plodding way across the ridge, carefully making their way closer and closer to the anomaly. It took several hours of slow driving to get within visible range, and the sun was rising again by time Annerose was able to peer across the sandy plains with her binoculars, the hot red light glittering in her eyes as she checked the horizon by degrees, looking far out into the distance.

There.

Her heart beat faster, and she increased the magnification on the binoculars so much that the image became huge and blurry in her eyes. It was unmistakable, though. Imperial ships, anchored to the ground with their long tethers. She counted six. 

“Confirm what I’m seeing at three o’clock,” she said, handing the binoculars off to Groteshele. He looked, then twitched when he saw what she had seen.

“I see it too, ma’am,” he said. Annerose hadn’t said what it was, not wanting to spook the mine workers clustered around them, and Groteschele understood this.

“Let’s get back to base,” Annerose said. “I want everyone in our vehicle, and unhitch the other truck. Move!”

The Rosenritters scrambled to obey, but the mine workers complained vociferously. Annerose told them, as politely as she could, that they were welcome to wait with their own disabled vehicle until they returned to pick it up, which was enough to shut them up.

The ride back to the base was as fast as they could make it, but even so, it took a long time. As they finally pulled in to the base, Annerose typed a private message to the Rosenritters in the car with her, and showed it to them.

 

> do not let the mine workers leave or speak with anyone

> they could start a riot

> and not a word of this to anyone else, understood?

 

She made sure her group understood, and slipped out of the car as Groteschele forced the waiting mine workers to fill out a long and tedious log about how their car had broken down.

Annerose ran through the base, helmet under her arm, headed directly for Schenkopp’s bedroom. It was the middle of third shift, so he was certainly asleep. She called Linz, who was on duty at the moment, as she jogged.

He picked up immediately.

“Müsel! Where the hell have you been? I was about to send out a party after you when we saw you coming in on the scope.”

“Linz, I need to talk to you and Captain Schenkopp, now. Is Blumhart on duty?”

“No, he’s off this shift.”

“Is he awake?”

“Probably.”

“Can you get him and meet me in Schenkopp’s office?”

“What’s going on? Could you not find the mining crew?”

“No, I have them under guard down in the garage,” Annerose said. “Just meet me there and I’ll explain.”

Linz could hear the tightness in her voice, so he just said, “What code is this?”

“A,” Annerose said. “But let’s not let anyone panic yet.”

“Got it. I’ll see you in a few.”

By then, Annerose was at Schenkopp’s door, and she was ringing the bell. Once, then again, more insistently, when there was no answer the first time.

The door jerked open. Schenkopp was naked and obviously somewhat disoriented. Annerose could see, in the light spilling in from the hallway, the back of some other figure passed out on Schenkopp’s bed.

“Annerose, what—“

“We have a bit of a situation, Captain,” Annerose said. “Sorry to wake you.” She was averting her eyes from everything.

He stared at her for half a second, then his brain woke up enough to register what she had said, and he said, “Give me thirty seconds,” and shut the door in her face.

“I wasn’t going to make you deal with it in the nude,” Annerose muttered to the shut door.

Thirty seconds later, Schenkopp pulled the door open again, dressed now, and began taking long strides down the hallway. Annerose followed him. “I told Linz and Blumhart to meet us at your office,” she said.

“Great.”

Linz and Blumhart were already waiting outside the doors to Schenkopp’s office when they arrived, and he let everyone in, then shut the door firmly behind them all.

“Explain the emergency, Müsel,” Schenkopp said, looking at her. He didn’t even bother to sit down, so the four of them were standing around in a huddle in front of his desk.

“I assume all your radar was knocked out during the storm while I was gone,” Annerose said.

“Of course,” Blumhart said.

“And visibility on the skies was also nil?”

“Yes.” Linz already had some idea of what was going on, but Schenkopp and Blumhart were frowning, waiting for Annerose to drop the other shoe.

“When we were picking up the surveying team, we decided to go to higher ground to wait out the storm, so that we didn’t end up buried like they had been,” Annerose said. “And when the storm cleared, we picked up an unfamiliar radar signature.” She explained going out to investigate, and the imperial ships that she had seen as quickly as she could, mentioned that was her reason for radio silence, and told them about the mine workers she was keeping quiet down in the garage. When she was done, Schenkopp was looking contemplative.

“They know where we are, then,” he said.

“How?” Blumhart asked. “We’re not exactly visible from space.”

Annerose pursed her lips. “I think they might have been waiting and watching.”

Schenkopp looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not like there’s any rush to capture this place,” Annerose said. “In fact, the more developed the mine is, the less work that they’ll have to do. So if I were the enemy commander, I’d send in a tiny, undetectable drone to watch what’s going on for a while, gather information— it’s not like we’re going anywhere— and they would see our supply ships come in to land.”

“So, we can’t yell at the mine for lax radio discipline,” Blumhart said, sounding disappointed.

“You can yell at them all you want,” Linz said. “I certainly have.”

“It’s a little late to worry about that now,” Annerose said.

“Do they know that we know?” Schenkopp asked.

“Probably not,” Annerose said. “I stopped broadcasting anything after we picked them up on the radar. They might have detected that, but it was during the last of the sandstorm, so they might not have noticed it.”

“We have an advantage, then,” Schenkopp said.

“Do we?” Linz asked. “Not like Müsel took a headcount, but six ships is a lot of ships.”

“No, it isn’t,” Blumhart argued.

“Compared to our regiment?”

“They don’t know that we know they’re here,” Schenkopp said. “That’s enough of an advantage.” Schenkopp paused. “And those ships, there’s only a few of them. They’re a weak point.”

“What do you mean?” Annerose asked.

“If they were going to attack us from the air, they wouldn’t have landed,” Schenkopp said. “That means that they’re planning a ground assault, and they’re going to have to leave those ships where they are. Weak point.”

“That still doesn’t help us if six ships worth of soldiers are coming here in tanks,” Linz said. 

“It could,” Annerose said, seeing what Schenkopp was getting at.

“How?” Blumhart asked.

“We’ll take a card from Müsel’s baby brother’s book,” Schenkopp said. “While their ships are minimally guarded, a team can go and seize them.” The plan was clicking into place as Schenkopp talked through it. “If our timing is right, if we can get those ships in the air, we can use their larger guns against their tanks en route.”

“Does anyone in the regiment have pilot training?” Linz asked.

“The ships practically fly themselves,” Schenkopp said. “It’s not like we’re going FTL.” 

Annerose thought that this was probably an exaggeration, but during her time at the Officers’ Academy, she herself had taken the introductory piloting course upon the urging of one of her freshman year roommates. She hadn’t ever gotten certified, but she said, “In a pinch, I probably could. But I can check the regiment lists to see if there are others with experience. I’m sure there are.”

“Hunh,” Schenkopp said, looking over at her. “Excellent, Müsel.”

“But even if we don’t get the ships off the ground,” Annerose said, “probably destroying them would be enough of a blow, morale speaking.”

“That’s true,” Linz said, contemplative. “But I’m sure that they have eyes in the sky by now. They’d see us heading out.”

“Not if we were to go during a sandstorm,” Schenkopp said. “I’d put money on there being another one soon.”

“It’s the season for them,” Annerose said.

“It’s always sandstorm season,” Blumhart chimed in. “But that’s questionable.”

“Do you have any better ideas? I’m all ears.”

“No,” Blumhart said. “But what’re the rest of us gonna do? Sit around and twiddle our thumbs?”

“We’re going to have to get the mine workers to shelter. And if the tanks aren’t destroyed, we’re going to have a battle here. Once they know that we know we’re under attack, we can ansible for help.”

“That’ll take days, for anyone to get here,” Linz pointed out. “And if we call for backup loudly, the Iserlohn fleet will hear us and send their backup to meet ours.”

Schenkopp glanced at Annerose. “How much would you bet on your brother being on the ball on this.”

Linz cocked his head as Annerose said, “He’s smart, but he’s not omniscient.”

“What do you mean?” Linz asked.

“I sent a coded message to my brother on Phezzan to watch what was going on here, to make sure if we needed backup, some could be called in on time. There’s a possibility that he already knows we’re under attack.”

“This is six ships coming away from Iserlohn,” Linz said. “They probably weren’t even detected by our people on their way here.”

“That’s true,” Annerose said. “But the idea would be that Reinhard might hear gossip about the imperial politics, which family was sending their ships and soldiers here. Six ships might be a minor outlay for the Imperial fleet, but if it’s one family’s personal group,” Annerose shrugged. “It might be a talking point in the court.”

“Hunh,” Linz said.

“I think we’ll have to risk calling for help,” Annerose said. “Regardless, I think this space is about to become pretty contested, especially if we do manage to beat these ships off. We’ve lost our secrecy, so we’re either going to have to make a real effort to hold this place, or we’re going to have to be evacuated. And that’s all decisions that will take place in the sky.”

“Then why bother sending just a few ships?” Blumhart asked. “If we’re going to contest this place with a fleet battle anyway.”

“There’s no point in the expense of the imperial fleet sending more than they need to to. just get rid of us,” Schenkopp said. “Iserlohn and their reinforcements are right there, if it comes down to it. And if they can deal with us with as little expenditure as possible, they’re just being economical about it.”

“True,” Blumhart conceded.

It wasn’t a great plan, Annerose thought, and it relied on a lot of factors going better than they had any right to expect, but it was the kind of plan that felt better to put into motion than just sitting around waiting to be attacked. But there was a lot to get started on, in the unknown amount of time before the next sandstorm came sweeping down towards them, so they got started.

“Müsel,” Schenkopp said. “You take the team that’s going out. Take as many people and as much equipment as you think you need.”

Annerose almost objected, almost said she would prefer to stay with Schenkopp, but she nodded. “Yes, sir.”

And so she prepared, choosing as small of a team as she thought would have a reasonable chance of success, about fifty men, and outfitting them in the small, light vehicles that they used for every day travel, rather than the defensive tanks that she left to Schenkopp. She wanted her tiny force to be fast on its feet, and she didn’t want to take away tools and men that Schenkopp would need if Annerose’s part of the plan failed. 

When the next dust storm swept down across the hot desert, Annerose and her group departed, driving blind, slow and careful, across the expanse. It was an arduous and stressful journey, and she felt rather like she was in a submarine of yore, calculating their position based on nothing but their known speed and heading, and the topographical maps at their disposal. They had no vision on the outside world, not with the sand like an impenetrable wall in front of them. They made it to within a few kilometers of the ridge that Annerose had stopped at before when the sandstorm dissipated, and they were forced to regroup and take stock of their situation. 

Miraculously, they hadn’t lost any vehicles or men during their trek. No one had wandered off course or gotten stuck in a hole or sand drift. Annerose muttered thanks under her breath to whatever god had been looking out for them, then sent a few scouts ahead to climb to a higher vantage point and spy on the imperial forces.

Annerose and her group had apparently arrived just in time. Her scouts flashed a light signal down from the heights that they were watching the imperial tanks disembark from the ships. That was good. They could lie in wait until the tanks had gone far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to respond in time to any calls for help from the ships. 

Annerose laid out her plan to her men, squatting in a wide circle in the dirt, her suit radio carrying her words to the group. She drew the six ships in the loose sand. 

“When night falls, our first priority is approaching quickly and without being seen. We’ll make the journey around this area during the hour of daylight, but as soon as we’re clear of the ridge, we’re going to sprint the rest of the distance to the ships. No lights. 

“Once we’re there, there should be only minimal crews guarding each of the ships. I want explosives underneath these ones—“ She marked five out of the six ships with ‘x’— “and I want the team with me to focus on this one.” She circled the center ship. “If there are soldiers on guard outside, we need to kill them as quietly as possible. Axes or knives. Zephyr particles only after the explosives have been placed on the bodies of the ships, or if we’re detected. I need absolute radio silence for this. Turn off your suit comms before we go in. Understand?”

There was a wave of nods from the assembled men.

“The explosives are set to be armed the moment that they are placed, and they all detonate on my signal. Once you’ve placed them, get out from under the ship. The last thing I want is for anybody to get crushed by this. After the detonation, I’m sure the last ship will try to take off as quickly as possible, which is why we already need to be inside.

“We want to try to capture whoever their leader is here. He’ll probably be of strategic value.

“Are there any questions?” 

There weren’t any, so Annerose sorted her team into small groups, giving each one a ship to be responsible for. Imperial ships usually hovered a few stories above the ground, tethered with guy wires to stop them from moving about in the wind. Because of this, each of her little teams was equipped with a launcher that would send packages of explosives on armor-penetrating spears up into the sensitive belly and vents of the ships. It was a fast and dirty plan, but it would have to do. 

They waited one of the planet’s short “days” for the imperial tanks to get further away, and then they moved in. They drove around the ridge just as the sun set, plunging them in to utter darkness, except for the imperial ships lit up like beacons on the horizon. They moved over the sandy dunes as invisibly and quickly as they could, creeping just to the edge of the light cast by the huge ships, silent in the sky.

Annerose gave the signal, and everyone spilled out of their cars, sneaking along the ground in their suits, axes strapped to their backs. She was right there with them, at the head of the pack, crouched just behind the last sand dune before the wide open space where the ground had been blown flat by the force of the ships’ engines. There weren’t any guards outside, but Annerose had no idea if anyone was watching from within the ships. There was no way to tell. 

All of the ships had their loading ramps retracted, making the bellies of the ships smooth and impenetrable. They needed at least the main command ship to lower its ramp, so that they could board. Annerose signalled to the best gunner on her team, and explained what she needed.

“Can you hit the guy wire from here? I need it to look like it snapped in the wind, so they send someone out to fix it.”

Her gunner considered it for a second, then said, “I can get the anchor point.”

“Do it.”

Annerose held her breath as the sniper laid down across the sand, setting up his rifle and taking careful aim. The shot was a single bright, silent flash, and with a puff of sand, one of the anchor wires holding down the ship snapped, whipping away under its own tension. When a strong gust of wind rolled across the dunes, the ship shuddered, its anchors no longer holding it quite as steady.

They waited. After about fifteen minutes, the ship’s loading ramp extended, and a few workers headed out, bearing flashlights and a new guy wire. While they were standing around the snapped attachment point, Annerose signalled to her team, and five groups of four slunk off through the darkness, bearing the explosives that would need to be attached to the other ships. Annerose could see where they were, moving through the murky, dust-blown darkness, because she was looking for them, but even as they moved further into the light, the distracted workers now winching the guy wire didn’t see them. She saw the packets of explosives fly up and attach themselves to the ships.

That was all she needed. She gestured to the remainder of her Rosenritter, and then they were off across the sand, dashing towards the extended ramp. 

The workers dealing with the snapped guy wire noticed them now— they hardly could have missed them— and sounded an alarm, causing the ramp to begin to retract, but by that point, Annerose was already close enough to it that she could take a running leap and catch on, while one of her Rosenritters shot at the retraction mechanism just visible inside the ship. With a flash of sparks from that shot hitting home, the ramp stopped moving, and Rosenritter after Rosenritter ran aboard.

The entry bay was empty, and as the last of the Rosenritter ran up the ramp, Annerose pressed the button that would detonate the other ships’ explosives. Even protected within the bay, she could feel the enormous change in air pressure from the blasts, and the ship she was on rocked violently. The explosives were heavy ones, taken from the mine construction crews, meant to blast deep pits in thick rock, so on the outside of a ship, or inside its delicate engine vents, they wreaked havoc. Annerose didn’t have time to look outside and glance at her handiwork; one of her men was already blasting the lock on the airlock open, letting her and her group into the main body of the ship.

Even though they had breached the airlock, that probably wouldn’t harm anyone inside the ship itself; it would take a while for the breathable oxygen to deplete, and a few of her men were already working on retracting the ramp and closing the ship up so that they could launch as soon as Annerose captured the bridge, which was her intent. 

She took a small team with her, five Rosenritter, while the rest split off to go secure other areas of the ship. They needed to strike fast, and hard, and in as many places as they could at once. That was one of the lessons that Annerose had taken from her brother’s overwhelming of an imperial ship.

Annerose ran with her team on her heels through the ship, following the largest hallways to the bridge. Red emergency lights were flashing, and alarms were blaring, but Annerose tuned them all out in her helmet, feeling just the rush of adrenaline and blood pumping through her ears.

The ship was nearly empty, running on a skeleton crew, with the majority of the soldiers out in the tanks to attack the mine. That did not mean that they didn’t encounter resistance. Just before they arrived at the bridge, Annerose’s small team of five was met by ten imperial soldiers. Only a few of them had managed to put on their armored suits, but all were carrying both guns and axes. Neither group was prepared to run into the other right then and there, as Annerose had just turned a corner, but the Imperial soldiers reacted quickly, firing at Annerose who ducked back around the corner for just long enough to detach a Zephyr particle canister from her hip and throw it around the corner. These soldiers were better prepared, so they stopped firing immediately. Annerose hoisted her axe in her hands and steeled herself, turning the corner once again.

Time moved slowly. Annerose felt as though her body was moving strangely, and not just because the gravity was different on the ship than it was on Cahokia as a whole. It was as though there was a lag between her thoughts and the start of every motion. She ordered her arms up above her head, the axe blade glinting in the red emergency lights of the narrow corridor, and her arms had a sluggishness at the start of the motion, but then she was committed to it, unable to change course, even as her eyes widened and she yelled incoherently, bringing her axe blade down directly through the neck of the person in front of her. He wasn’t wearing a suit, and he hadn’t been able to bring his own axe up in time to counter her frantic rush, so Annerose’s blade cleaved directly through him, the blood spraying out and staining the white front of her suit, getting flecks of gore on her visor. Annerose’s eyes were wide, and she couldn’t quite process what she had just done— not that she had time to. Before she could even think, she had to duck out of the way of another attacker’s axe, move to the side of the hallway so the rest of the Rosenritter could come through, and swing a retaliatory strike, meeting blade-on-blade with showering of sparks and screeching metal with a suited imperial soldier.

The average Rosenritter was far and away a better axe fighter than the average imperial soldier, and Annerose was among the best in the regiment, so even outnumbered two to one, it didn’t take long before they had dispatched this whole group, ending up standing in the gore. Annerose looked around for just half a second, then one of her men touched her shoulder, and she nodded. “Let’s go, bridge,” she said. “Come on.” It was more for herself than anyone else, that statement, to spur her into action.

Her blood was coursing through her like fire, her brain seemingly split onto two levels. On one level, she was watching herself move, feeling half outside her own body, rationalizing and thinking over what she had just done. On the other, she was a creature of pure instinct, running headlong through the hallways to the bridge, and anyone who stood in her way would be cut down with no remorse whatsoever. She would have time for remorse later, or she wouldn’t. This was a war, and she was a soldier, and these were the enemy. No matter that in a different lifetime, one of these imperial soldiers could have been her brother. Not her, though.

And it was this thought, that she was living a better lifetime than she would have if she and Reinhard had remained in the Empire, that there were personal injustices that she was fighting against, things worth killing for, that made her able to let go of her need to think and analyze every specific action she was taking.

The doors to the bridge were sealed, unsurprisingly. One of her men sawed through the lock while Annerose and the others stood guard, ready to dash inside. They shoved the door open as soon as the lock had been cut, and they were immediately fired at, though the door itself protected them from the worst of it. One bolt singed the shoulder of Annerose’s suit, but she didn’t feel it. One of her men tossed in a Zephyr particle canister (they were running low, now, but they were at the bridge, so it didn’t matter) and the gunfire stopped.

There were only about ten people on the bridge, and none of them were wearing suits or carrying axes, so Annerose felt confident yelling out, “Put down your guns and surrender!”

There was a moment of hesitation, and some of the imperial soldiers glanced backwards, at a man Annerose hadn’t even noticed before. He was deep in the shadows of the bridge, so she couldn’t quite see his face, and he was seated cross legged on top of one of the computer terminals. The silver breastplate and stripes on the shoulders of his uniform announced that he was a captain.

“We surrender,” he said in imperial, then, “We surrender,” in the Alliance language— unaccented. He held his hands up.

The imperial soldiers in the room dropped their guns to the floor, and the Rosenritter quickly ran to tie them up. Annerose ignored that for a second, looked around at the various ship consoles, and shut down the emergency alert on the ship, mostly to give the rest of the Rosenritter who were storming through the halls free movement. Now that she had taken the ship, Annerose felt free to use her suit comms to communicate with the rest of her group, since there was no longer any worry about them being detected.

“We’ve taken the bridge,” Annerose said, over her suit comms. “Search and secure the rest of the ship. Report to me if you have any problems.”

There was a general response of, “Yes, ma’m,” and one “We’re heading to the engine room now,” from the small group leaders. Everything seemed to be going shockingly well. She could see on the monitoring screens outside that the other ships were wrecks on the ground.

Annerose turned her attention to the captain, who was specifically being guarded by one of her men. Now that Annerose got a good look at him in the light, she was, to put it mildly, taken aback. Her thoughts travelled, for a brief, involuntary second, back to the first time she had ever met a person who looked like this man: the day that she had arrived on Heinessen, the well-meaning social worker who had welcomed them to the Free Planets’ Alliance could have been this captain’s older sister. Her mother had made an embarrassing fumble with the woman’s name, unused to the practice of putting the family name before the given one. Annerose had met plenty of people like that since that day, but she had never in a million years expected to see a captain in the imperial fleet with that appearance. She had thought that Rudolph von Goldenbaum had consigned them all to labor camps on the frontier, where, aside from the ones who escaped with Ale Heinessen, she wasn’t sure what had happened to them all. 

“You’re the person in command here?” Annerose asked in imperial.

The captain seemed weirdly relaxed. He scratched at the back of his head while he looked at her, but her visor was down, so he couldn’t see her face. “I suppose so,” he said. “If you mean this ship. And the rest of them. Previously.” He answered in the Alliance language, so Annerose switched to it.

“What’s your name, Captain?” Annerose asked.

“Oh, I’m obligated to provide that one, aren’t I?” he said. “Leigh. Captain Hank von Leigh.”

“Who do you report to?”

“His Majesty the Kaiser,” Leigh said, a funny little smile on his face. “But aside from that, that’s not one of the questions I’m obligated to answer.”

Annoyed now, Annerose shook her head and told one of her men to move Leigh into a different room so that she could talk to him later. She focused on getting together the Rosenritters who had been identified as having previously worked on the flight control of ships together, and getting their new stolen vehicle in the air. It didn’t take very long before they did, the ship lifting off with a shudder. Annerose was in great spirits, despite the nagging feeling at the edge of her mind that something was going to go wrong. She just was amused by the fact that both she and her brother had managed to commandeer an imperial vessel, though admittedly, she had had a far easier time of it than he had. It was just becoming something of a family tradition.

Because they weren’t planning on going into orbit, with the speed of the hulking imperial ship limited by the atmosphere, it would take about forty-five minutes for the ship to get back to the mine. That gave Annerose plenty of time to check in with the rest of her team, who confirmed that they had secured all the key areas of the ship. With that taken care of, Annerose decided it was worth talking to Captain Leigh some more. 

He was being kept in a room fairly far from the bridge, the first room that had looked like it didn’t have any easy escape points or sensitive equipment in it, some kind of wardroom for the officers. Annerose was let in by the Rosenritter guarding the door, and she found Leigh seated in a chair, his feet up on the table in front of him, with his head tilted back and his eyes closed.

“You seem very relaxed for a man who’s just been taken a prisoner of war,” Annerose said.

Leigh didn’t open his eyes. “I’ve heard that the rebel POW camps are quite nice. I look forward to having nothing to do in one.”

“How come you speak the Alliance language so well?”

“I’m from Phezzan,” he said. There was a slight smile on his face. Annerose decided that she did not trust this man, not at all. There was some niggling thought in the back of her head, something her brother had said once. There was probably more than one ‘Leigh’ in the imperial fleet, but it didn’t hurt to ask.

“Do you know a Commodore Reuenthal or Mittermeyer?”

“They’re both rear admirals, now,” Leigh said.

“That’s a yes, then.”

“All I’m obligated to tell you—“ he cracked open his eyes and looked for the rank insignia on her suit— “Lieutenant Commander, is my name, rank, and serial number.”

Some of the von Müsel hotheadedness escaped Annerose, then. “I could say that you are being kept in nice conditions right now, Captain, and it would be in your best interest to cooperate.”

“Isn’t threatening a prisoner of war with torture generally frowned upon?” His voice and smile were both amused. “What’s your name? I’ll have to make some sort of formal complaint against you.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“Why are you curious about Reuenthal and Mittermeyer?”

“No reason,” Annerose said. “Who is in command of the ground force headed to the mine?”

“Captain Ansbach,” Leigh said.

“Are you his superior officer?”

Leigh laughed at that. “No. He’s the one who told me to stay here. We’re technically in co-command, but he’s been a captain for longer than I have, so he’s the more senior— It doesn’t really matter.” He had opened his eyes all the way, now, and was sitting up straighter in his seat, looking her over. His eyes fell on the insignia on her arm. “You’re Rosenritter?”

“Yes,” she said. 

“You all get around,” he said. “I heard you were just on Phezzan.”

Annerose was grateful for her visor for hiding her face. “We were not.”

Leigh shrugged expressively. Somehow, Annerose felt like she was not in control of this conversation, or the situation. Leigh seemed too calm, like there was something that she hadn’t realized. She wanted to take her axe off her back and hold it, but that would have been inappropriately threatening. “May I ask a personal question, that I hope will stay between us, Lieutenant Commander?”

Annerose was silent for a second. “I make no promises.”

“I’ll answer a question of yours in exchange, if you like,” Leigh said.

“Ask.”

“Is Ms. Roscher doing well?”

Annerose blanched. “Why do you want to know?”

“A very good friend of mine— the Baroness Magdalena von Westpfale— would like to know that she’s safe. If I make it back to the Empire alive, I would like to let her know.”

“She’s fine,” Annerose said, unable to not sound a little choked. “She’s being taken good care of.”

“That’s good,” Leigh said. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. “I’m glad to hear that. If you should see Ms. Roscher, please tell her that the baroness and I said hello.”

“How did you learn about the base on this planet?” Annerose asked.

“I already answered one of your questions, Lieutenant Commander,” Leigh said.

Annerose scowled. She wondered if Captain Leigh wasn’t being so nonchalant with her because she was a woman. The imperial fleet wasn’t well known for its respectful treatment of female POWs. She was about to say something about that, when there was the sound of a fight in the corridor, axe on axe. Annerose whipped her own axe from its magnetic hold on her back and pulled the door open.

A fully suited imperial soldier was there, taller than she was by almost a head, and he had just bested the Rosenritter who had been guarding the door: he was on the ground, his blood pooling out around him from some wound in his chest that Annerose couldn’t see.

Annerose swung underhanded, trying to use her smaller stature as an advantage, moving in ways that would be difficult for this tall imperial to block. But he was quick on his feet, and their axes crashed together, the handles grinding along each other in a competition of strength as they each tried to force the other back. The tall man was stronger than Annerose was, and she realized she wasn’t going to win this fight on strength alone, so she tried surprise, dropping into a crouch and trying to ram her shoulder into the man’s gut to catch him off balance. The initial surprise of crouching worked: the man stumbled forward as the sudden pressure was released from his axe, but he sidestepped just enough that instead of crashing into him, they had reversed positions in the doorway, with the man in towards Captain Leigh, and Annerose in the hallway.

The man brought his axe handle crashing towards her, and Annerose couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so it smashed into the front shield of her visor, shattering the outer layer completely. She had seen the blow coming, and had braced for it, and the inner layer of her helmet hadn’t cracked, so she was fine. Annerose stood from her crouch and immediately swung her axe again, aiming for the man’s knees. He just barely managed to block her swing with the handle of his own axe, and he stumbled backwards, seeming off-balance for some reason. 

Annerose pulled her axe back and up, trying an overhead strike, but then the man yelled, “Reinhard! Stop!” and dodged to the side.

She missed her swing, but didn’t stop, attacking again. With one hand, the man blocked her swing with his axe, while with the other, he pulled his helmet completely off, revealing a wide eyed face and a shock of red hair that Annerose had never thought she would see again.

Immediately, Annerose yanked her axe back, taking up a defensive stance but not actually attacking. Kircheis dropped his helmet to the floor with a clatter. He was sweaty and panicked, his hair sticking to his forehead, and he stared at Annerose like he was seeing a ghost.

“Reinhard—“ he said.

“Annerose,” she corrected. If it had been possible for Kirceheis’s eyes to get any wider, they would have. “Drop your axe,” she ordered in imperial.

He did. It clattered to the floor, and she picked it up, now holding one in each hand. She didn’t take her wary eye off him. 

“Kircheis, er, I’m glad you came to rescue me, but this doesn’t exactly seem like—“ Leigh said from the back of the room. Annerose had almost forgotten about him. He had been watching the fight from his position in the back of the room, but had (probably wisely) not done anything to step in.

From down the hallway, there was the sound of running feet, and a few Rosenritter appeared. The whole fight hadn’t taken very long, and it was clear that the man on guard at the door had called for help before he died.

“Are you alright, Lieutenant Commander?” one of them asked, taking in the bloody scene outside the door, the disarmed Kircheis, and Annerose with her shattered visor and an axe in each hand.

“Yes,” Annerose said. “For the moment, anyway.” She passed Kircheis’s axe off to the nearest Rosenritter, who took it. “Search him. Make sure he doesn’t have any other weapons. And I want two guards on the door of this room. I want to take both of them prisoners.”

“Yes, ma’m,” the Rosenritter with Kircheis’s axe said.

The expression on Kircheis’s face was inscrutable as Annerose stepped away. Her heart was in her throat as she walked back down the hallway to the bridge of the ship. Kircheis, a man she hadn’t expected to see again. Leigh, a man who knew Ingrid, somehow.

She would have to bring them back to the Alliance with her. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted that, the possibility that Reinhard would be reunited with Kircheis. The idea itched at her, but she knew that he wouldn’t forgive her if she hadn’t done her best to keep him safe. She hated that she had been placed in this position, casting this weird light on her whole mission. Why was he here? Reinhard had told her that he would be under that Reuenthal or Mittermeyer.

The bridge was a hive of activity.

“What’s our status?” Annerose asked.

“We’re approaching the mine,” one of the Rosenritter at the navigation panel said. “We should have visibility in a few seconds— the dust is pretty heavy here.”

“Good,” Annerose said. “I want us ready to fire on the tanks as soon as we’re in range.”

“Yes, ma’m.”

Annerose stared at the display, the horizon lighting up as the sun rose on this part of the planet, causing the red sand dunes to glitter, and the haze of dust in the air to glow brilliant orange. Over the hilly, rocky land, there came into focus first one line of tanks, then another. The imperial tanks and the ones led by Schenkopp. They were already engaged in battle, the flashes of tank fire visible at even this distance. 

Impatiently, Annerose asked, “Do we have a firing solution?”

“Working on it,” the Rosenritter at the weapons console said. “We’re not quite in range.” 

They came closer. The imperial forces on the ground outnumbered Schenkopp’s group by a fairly wide margin, but they were doing something odd. As Annerose watched, the back half of the imperial tanks turned around and started retreating, heading away from the main conflict. It only took a moment more for Annerose to learn why they were doing that: as soon as their ship got close enough, the tanks began firing on them. They were still high enough in the air and distant enough that the few impacts were mostly ineffective, but Annerose still gripped the leather seat of the navigation console and said, “Can we increase our altitude? Why aren’t we firing?”

“Ma’m, there’s something wrong with the weapons control,” one Rosenritter said. “We can’t open the gun ports. They’re frozen.”

Annerose swore. “Can we get someone down there to open them manually?”

“I don’t think so— these are the exterior controls.”

“What’s locking us out?”

“There’s some sort of computer override— like it’s been put in some kind of maintenance mode that I don’t have the authority to change from this terminal.”

All this time, they were still being fired on by the tanks below, damage indicators now lighting up on key areas of the ship’s status display. The ship had already been slightly damaged by the explosions next to it, and it was not designed to fly so far within an atmosphere. Annerose closed her eyes for a second, then made a careful, dangerous, split second decision.

She pointed at the map. “Pull us out to here. I want us to land— crash— through this line of tanks. If we hit them on the nose, with all of us down in the back, at an angle that doesn’t crush the bottom of the ship, we should be able to do some damage to them, and get out alive. We can join back up with Captain Schenkopp once we’re on the ground. Understood?”

There was a moment of silence as the assembled Rosenritter processed what she was saying, then some grins and nods. “You’re fucking crazy, Lieutenant Commander,” the man at the navigation panel said. “Understood.”

The ship banked hard, then, turning around and gaining altitude so that they could escape the tank fire. Annerose communicated the plan to the Rosenritter scattered throughout the ship, and there was a general rush to meet up in the rearmost area of the vessel.

Before Annerose could go there herself, she and two other Rosenritters stopped by the room where Captain Leigh and Kircheis were being held. “We’ll bring these two with us,” Annerose said. “I think they have information that we can use. The rest of the prisoners, we’ll leave them on the ship for now. Someone can come back for them at the end of the battle. Get the captain into a suit, and put cuffs on both of them so they can’t escape.”

Her orders were quickly obeyed, and by the time they arrived at the rear bay, someone had located an ill-fitting imperial suit for Captain Leigh— one that was spattered with blood, in such a way that Annerose suspected it had been taken from a corpse. Leigh put it on, complaining the whole time.

“You don’t have to haul me around,” Leigh said, hopping around in the bay to get his other foot into the suit leg. “You could just let me go.”

“No,” Annerose said. “You’re valuable. Hurry up, we have about two minutes before we land.”

She did a quick headcount of all her Rosenritter while she waited in the bay. There were thirty nine that she counted— so she had lost ten men. It was a steep loss, but she hoped that it would be worth it.

“Brace for landing!” someone yelled. Annerose lay down on the floor, hooking her feet into the grooved metal surface that was used to lock crates in place for transport. With one arm, she covered her head, and with the other, she held onto the floor as tightly as she could.

The ship hit the ground with a sudden lurch, and Annerose was thrown into the air, her grip not enough to stop her from moving. There was a rending, screeching, horrible sound, and Annerose hit the ground again sideways, bruising her whole left side and twisting her arm badly. The lights were, miraculously, still on in the bay as the ship came to a sliding, shuddering halt. Every alarm in the ship seemed to be going off at once. Annerose pulled herself to her feet and looked around. All her Rosenritter were doing the same— it didn’t look like anyone had been grievously injured, the low angle of descent, the relatively soft sand, their slow speed, and the front of the ship all doing enough to stop them from tearing completely apart.

“Open the doors!” Annerose yelled. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

It took some doing, but the door at the rear of the bay finally opened, sending sunlight streaming in, along with a wall of sand. The ship crashing had knocked sand into the air, and the wind and relatively low gravity of Cahokia meant that it would take a while for it to come back down.

Annerose and the Rosenritter streamed out of the bay, some limping, jumping down from the open door onto the sand. Annerose tumbled and slid until she reached the bottom of the sand wall that had formed up around the side of the ship.

In the limited visibility that she had, surrounded by the cloud of dust, she could tell that the situation was chaotic. The ship had indeed crashed directly into the mass of tanks, some of which had tried to get out of the way, most of which had not succeeded. There were half-buried vehicles poking out from the carcass of the ship, and several others that had been clipped but not quite crushed, that were half buried or on fire. It was an ugly scene, devoid of people for a second, until imperial soldiers stumbled into her view, and Annerose pulled her axe off her back and began swinging, trying to make her way towards where she had last seen the group of Schenkopp’s tanks.

The imperial soldiers were getting out of their vehicles, the ones that had survived, and many of them were running headlong towards the ship. Annerose didn’t understand why, since her group of Rosenritter was pathetically small in comparison to either the imperial forces that remained, or Schenkopp’s group that was sure to be approaching. So the Rosenritter and the imperial forces ended up meeting headlong, most of the imperials not prepared to meet Annerose’s axe, but by sheer numbers, they were able to run past the Rosenritter.

The hazy, dirt-clouded chaos only became worse when tank fire continued, raining down on both the imperial soldiers and Annerose’s contingent indiscriminately. She had to assume it was from Schenkopp, but that didn’t make it any less dangerous. Annerose decided that fighting these imperial soldiers headed towards the ship was less worthwhile than getting out from the hail of tank fire and reuniting with Schenkopp on the other side of the battlefield.

She signalled this to her group, and they ran, stumbling through the sand, dodging the mess of broken tanks, nearly getting lost in the haze. Two Rosenritter were dragging Kircheis and Captain Leigh along with them, but one tank blast hit the ground very near to them, knocking Annerose, the two Rosenritter, and Kircheis and Leigh to the ground. Kircheis managed to get up first, and in a move that Annerose hadn’t known was possible, disengaged the whole chestplate of his suit, which allowed him to free his arms from the cable ties that he was being held by. 

Kircheis met Annerose’s eyes for a split second, while one of the Rosenritter who had been guarding him lunged to grab at his arm. Annerose was frozen in indecision for a second, trying to scramble up from the ground herself. But that moment of hesitation was enough for Kircheis to grab Leigh by his own arm ties and haul him away through the gloom.

The Rosenritter tried to go after him, but Annerose yelled, “It’s not worth it— they won’t make it very far.”  and turned back towards Schenkopp. She had let Kircheis go. She thought it was true that he probably wouldn’t get very far, but it was still something she had allowed. Perhaps he would find an undamaged tank and escape and wait for rescue for a while. Why had she done that? What had compelled her? She had to stop her racing thoughts and focus on the task in front of herself.

The battle only became more chaotic and fiercer as she ran. They were encountering undamaged imperial tanks now, which would have been more dangerous if they weren’t so slow moving. A person could easily slip between them and come out unscathed, without the gun having time to aim before they lost visibility in the dust.

Some of the dust was beginning to settle now, and Annerose could see Schenkopp’s line of tanks emerge from the strange red gloom. They were half in among the imperial tanks, and the tank fire was now over their heads. By driving his tanks directly in amongst the enemy, Schenkopp had negated most of the strategic value of having a greater number of tanks, and the battlefield was mired in confusion, with the imperial vehicles unable to move, and the Rosenritter getting out of their tanks, climbing unafraid on top of the imperial vehicles, and turning the whole engagement into a blaster-to-blaster and axe-to-axe scrum. Since one Rosenritter was worth significantly more than one imperial soldier in this type of condition, it was clear that Schenkopp’s forces were slowly but surely gaining the upper hand, despite their initial size disadvantage. The chaos that Annerose had caused, and the loss of about half of the imperial tanks due to the crashing of the ship, probably contributed.

Imperial soldiers were abandoning their vehicles en masse now, running towards the ship. Annerose shot at them with her sidearm as they retreated, but she didn’t think she hit any, since visibility was rather poor, and she was firing sideways while running in the other direction. She wondered exactly what order they had been given to get them to abandon their tanks like that.

Through the lessening haze, Annerose saw a familiar figure, Schenkopp, leap down from the top of one imperial tank with his axe over his head, to cleave someone’s arm from their shoulder. The imperial hit the ground, hard, and Schenkopp was off to his next target, a vitality in his step that Annerose hadn’t seen before. She joined up with him, running to his side. He glanced at her, she grinned at him through her shattered faceplate, and then together they were scrambling up the nearest sand dune and tumbling down to leap onto the top of one imperial tank that was trying to turn around and head the other direction. The hatch opened, and someone fired at Schenkopp from within the tank, but Annerose tossed her last Zephyr particle canister inside, and Schenkopp leapt down to the interior, followed swiftly by Annerose. She didn’t think for a second as they took apart the relatively defenseless tank crew.

And then they were back out, going from enemy to the next, the number of imperial soldiers on the ground growing thinner and thinner by the minute.

In the hazy distance, a great roar and scraping of metal managed to carry through the air. The ship, which Annerose had believed to be completely inoperable, began rising from the ground. The whole bottom of it was a gaping wound, with dangling metal and scorched sides, pieces falling from the sky as it wobbled into the air, barely flightworthy. Annerose remembered with a jolt that the lights had all remained on after the collision: the engine and main systems had still apparently been functioning.

Several of the nearby Rosenritter shook their fists and yelled at the escaping ship as it limped away into the sky.

Annerose scowled. “Should have left explosives on that one,” she said.

Schenkopp knocked her on the back. “I certainly did not expect that thing to fly. Thought you were a goner for sure when you crashed it, honestly.”

“The landing was relatively soft,” Annerose said, which made Schenkopp laugh. He signalled to the Rosenritter to find any remaining imperial forces on the ground and take them prisoner. The few who were left surrendered themselves in short order, since the alternative was to die of oxygen deprivation out in the desert, now that they had no chance of escape or retreat. 

There was a general air of jubilation as the Rosenritter returned to the mine. It was undamaged, as Schenkopp had managed to surprise the imperial forces before they even got close. The mine workers were all in a state of panic, but the Rosenritter were practically dancing through the hallways of the base, breaking into the alcohol rations and doling them out to the regiment.

“Is that really wise?” Annerose asked Schenkopp, who passed her a beer once they were in the mess. They hadn’t even taken off their armor except for their helmets, so they were covered from head to toe in red dust stuck to them with dried gore.

“Poor Blumhart’s group didn’t see any action, since the captain made ‘em stay here to guard the mine,” Linz said, appearing to lean on her shoulder. “They’ll make sure there’s no surprises coming our way.”

“Drink and be merry now,” Schenkopp said. “If imperial reinforcements show up without our own fleet to counter them, we’re extremely fucked.” But he said this with a broad smile on his face, and he raised his own glass. “Prosit!” 

There were about five million thoughts running in all directions through Annerose’s brain at that very moment, but the first and foremost of them was, unfortunately, that Schenkopp looked very good, filthy under the harsh electric lights, and so he must be right. “Prosit!” she said back, and knocked her glass on his.

“That’s the spirit,” Linz said. 

The celebratory mood was contagious, despite any of her misgivings, so Annerose was soon mildly drunk.

“I gotta say, Müsel,” Schenkopp said, “you really did a miracle with that crashing the ship move.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Things were not going so well for us on the ground. Being outnumbered four to one, approximately.”

“Did I hit that many of the tanks?” she asked. 

“Well, you know, you plowed through a bunch of them, and you split the forces, and you knocked up a wall of sand that reduced visibility to zero, so they couldn’t shoot at us accurately anymore. All things that ended up giving us a massive advantage.”

“I would have preferred to stick to the original plan,” she said.

“Using the guns?”

“Yeah, I guess there was someone who locked us out of being able to have full computer control on the ship.” And, thinking of the way that the imperial forces on the ground had immediately turned and began shooting, she added, “And someone was probably able to send a warning radio transmission, as well.” She was still annoyed by that, but Schenkopp grinned at her.

“What, don’t you think that this was more exciting than any bland bombing run could have ever been?”

“I think it was less effective,” she said.

Schenkopp laughed. “I’d like to see a more effective strategy. Takes balls to crash like that, anyway.”

“Are you glad you let me join the regiment?”

“Don’t know what I’d do without you, Müsel,” he said, sounding genuine. But when did he not sound genuine? That was the problem, wasn’t it?

Her thoughts were muddy with alcohol and exhaustion and the billion things she had to think about: Reinhard and Kircheis; the looming threat of imperial ships arriving from Iserlohn; the hostile planet they were trapped on; the fact that she had survived when a good number of the Rosenritter hadn’t; the fact that she had, personally, with her own hands and axe, killed tens of people today; the untold numbers more who had died by her orders. It all weighed heavily on her, so when Schenkopp stood up to sing some half bawdy, half melancholy song, she slipped out of the crowded mess and into the hallway, where she leaned heavily on the wall, just trying to get her thoughts in order.

She was tired enough that she really should just go to bed, but the frantic energy that had spurred her through the day had left in a rush, so the idea of convincing her legs to even move her steadily down the hallway was one she had to think about and consider very carefully before she could act on it. She stood there with her eyes closed for so long that the singing in the mess ended and the sounds turned to applause and then to general yelling and more celebration.

The door swung open, letting out even more sound, and Annerose cracked her eyes to see who had come into the hallway. It was Schenkopp. 

“My singing offend you that much?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m just exhausted.” She straightened up.

“See, if you drank more—“ Schenkopp said with a grin.

She shook her head. “I’d prefer that at least one officer be both awake and not blindingly hungover tomorrow. I’ll take that sacrifice for the team and head to bed.”

He chuckled. “I’ll walk you to your room.”

“Thanks.”

They started down the empty hallway, the sounds of celebration fading out behind them, until there was just the sound of their heavy footsteps and the now familiar and comforting whirr of the ventilation. 

“How did you like your first real action?” Schenkopp asked.

“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “I…” She hesitated. The rush of it all, the feeling of the axe in her hands, giving orders and feeling like she had been on the extreme precipice between life and death— it had all been thrilling and real in a way that almost nothing else had felt like before. She had felt wholly there, like a different kind of creature who could do absolutely anything. All the restraints that had been acting on her— polite behavior, careful reasoning, human civility, everything else— they had all fallen away. They came back to her now, of course, and made her feel overwhelmed or guilty or some other emotion that she couldn’t put words to. But the primal yell she had let out when she first brought the axe down into someone’s chest— that scream had made her throat raw, and she could still feel it.

“Nothing else quite like it,” Schenkopp said. “You did good.”

“You already said that.”

“Just making sure you knew.”

“Thanks.” She glanced up at him. “I get what you meant, about the feeling of the regiment.” She didn’t think that some other random assemblage of Alliance soldiers would have the same hot, bubbling bloodlust and joie de vivre that the Rosenritter had. No one else would have smiled and called her a crazy bastard when she suggested crashing the ship they were all riding. No one else would have leapt around with axe in hand quite so willingly. She had, though. What did that make her?

He chuckled. “You’re one of us.”

“For better or for worse, I guess.”

“Better, for sure.”

“I liked being out there with you,” she said after a second. “I almost asked you not to send me out by myself, you know.”

He chuckled. “I’ll take that as a compliment and not just your insecurities talking.”

“No,” she said. “I just meant—“ The heat was rising to her face. “You look natural with an axe. Suits you.”

“I could say the same to you.”

“Never thought I’d look natural covered in blood.”

“That suits you, too.” They had arrived at her room, and they were hesitating outside of it. She found it hard to believe she looked anything but terrible, and probably smelled worse, except for the fact that she undeniably thought that Schenkopp looked very good, and he was in the same state that she was. Some of her exhaustion had faded on the walk— probably just leaving the chaotic environment of the mess had helped— and she suddenly felt as though, if she needed to, she could run another five miles, so long as Schenkopp was there with her. He was grinning at her in that funny way he had.

“I’m filthy,” she said. “I should take a shower before I go to bed.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to it, Lieutenant Commander.”

He gave her a cheeky salute and started back off down the hallway, humming one of his familiar, bawdy songs. Annerose suddenly felt like she couldn’t bear whatever this was between them anymore. She balled up her fists at her sides. She wasn’t Annerose-who-didn’t-want-things, not anymore. She was standing in the hallway, covered with other people’s blood, and she didn’t want Schenkopp to walk away, not now.

“Walter!” she yelled after him, her raw throat hurting at the effort.

He stopped and turned, looking at her. Her face felt like it was on fire, but she held open the door to her room and said, “You should get clean too, Captain.”

“Is that so?” he asked, but laughed and came back over.

He was so close to her, and he really did look good, and she was feeling crazy and wild and tired and energetic all at once. She hooked her fingers underneath the breastplate of his suit and pulled him into her room. 

Chapter Text

December 795 U.C., Heinessen

The white dress uniform chafed at Fredrica Greenhill’s neck, and she resisted the urge to fiddle with it. It was unfortunate, Fredrica thought, that one of her first official duties as a member of the Sixth Fleet was to attend a party. By all rights, she should not have been invited, being by every measure the least senior person in the room. But someone had gone and put her name on the list, so she had to be around. She wasn’t even sure if she would have preferred her name to be on the list because of her father, or because of her own strange merit by her adventure with Reinhard at Condor Base. She was a minor celebrity, but she didn’t think it was enough to get her invited to this event in the capitol building, with what felt like every flag officer on Heinessen in attendance. It was the kind of party that people brought their wives to, so she at least wasn’t the only woman in the room.

Fredrica had a very good memory for names and faces, so she was carefully watching who was speaking to who at this event, mentally cataloguing this information on the off-chance that it would become important later. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, though, since this was a holiday party, and any political machinations were invisible to Fredrica’s mere people-watching.

She had arrived at the party in Vice Admiral Moore’s entourage. Moore was the commander of the Sixth Fleet, and Fredrica was assigned under him as a staff officer, but had only met him for the first time the other day, so it had been rather awkward for her to stand next to him for a prolonged period of time. So, when Moore had said that he wanted to introduce his wife to the wife of Vice Admiral Paeta, Fredrica had taken that as an invitation to make herself scarce, which she had.

The room was splendid, the kind of opulence that hearkened back to some designer’s idea of what government should look like, with one massive golden chandelier hanging pendulously from the ceiling, casting little sparkles of glittering lights across the assembled guests. 

In high school, Fredrica had taken an elective at her local community college about art history, one of those things that she had thrown herself into with a random fervor for no reason other than she had a brief but furious interest in it. In that class, the professor had gone to great lengths to discuss how, after separating from the Galactic Empire, early artists of the Free Planets’ Alliance had disagreed about the national iconography that should be promoted. Should they build things that were familiar and comforting, and risk replicating the culture of the Empire they had just fled? Should they look to the art of utopian projects of the past, and risk coming to their same ends? Or should they create something entirely new— if that was even possible. 

Her art professor had pointed out architecture as one of the fiercest realms under which this battle had been fought. As soon as buildings moved from being mere utilitarian structures put up to provide shelter from the elements and nothing more, a whole generation of self-taught architects had leapt at the opportunity to build things that would define the form and function of the Alliance for years to come, and they all hated each other. The stately, austere, marble capitol, with its columns and carvings, looked as different as it possibly could from the glittering spire of the Fleet Headquarters thrusting upwards from the barren ground around it.

Fredrica picked at some canapes as she studied the architecture, losing herself in remembering what all the different parts of a column were called, as she leaned against one at the side of the room, not-quite hiding behind a truly voluminous potted fern. Plinth. Torus. Flutes. Capital. What was the formula for buckling under a compression load? 

Her musing was interrupted when someone she didn’t recognize wandered over to her. He was a pale man, with narrow, dark eyes and a captain’s pin on his collar. Fredrica stood up straighter when he approached. He was holding a bottle of beer in his hand, and was smiling, an odd, asymmetrical twist of his lips.

“You’re Lieutenant Commander Greenhill, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Fredrica said. 

The man stuck out his hand to shake, and Fredrica shuffled her plate of hors d'oeuvres to her other hand to reciprocate. “Captain Andrew Fork,” he said. “I work in your father’s office.”

“Oh!” Fredrica said. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“The pleasure is mine. I’ve heard quite a lot about you.”

Fredrica’s face burned. “Only good things, I hope.”

“You think your father would say something unkind about his unusually successful daughter?” Fork asked.

“No, but he has kept funny- looking baby pictures of me in his wallet for my entire life, so I wouldn’t have been that surprised if he decided to take those out and show people.”

Fork laughed. “No, though he does keep your Academy senior photo on his desk.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I’m half worried about you taking my position, from the way he talks about how talented you are.”

“He wouldn’t ever want me to actually work under him,” Fredrica said. “And I wouldn’t, either.”

“Oh?”

“I want to succeed under my own merits. Working for my father isn’t a good step on that path.”

Fork nodded, looking contemplative. “I see. So, you’re taking your chances at the front?”

“The Sixth Fleet is headed to the front?”

Fork raised a sly eyebrow. “Maybe.”

“Well, Captain, perhaps a party is not the best place to hint about sensitive information.”

“You’re right, of course,” he said, then tapped his nose with a smile. “It’s all up in the air right now, anyway.”

“I’ll take your word for it. But being assigned to a fleet, rather than a desk job, does mean that I need to be prepared to actually fight.”

“Of course. Your, uh, friend, Lieutenant Commander Müsel— he’s not in a fleet, is he?”

“No, he’s with the High Commissioner’s Office, on Phezzan.”

“An interesting choice.”

“I believe he was personally recommended to the position by the Secretary of Defense.”

Fork nodded. “I’ve met Secretary Trunicht. He does like to get involved with the careers of those he thinks are promising.”

Fredrica inclined her head. “I’m thankful he hasn’t been meddling with mine.”

“How would you know that he hasn’t been? I certainly have heard your name enough to think that you’re promising.”

“Well…” She wasn’t sure if Fork was attempting to flirt with her. His words indicated that he was, but his somewhat nasally and unaffected tone could have been taken for boredom. But he was the one who had approached her. She tried to smile and relax. Let him flirt with her, that was fine. Perhaps her father had even sent him over here for that purpose. “Like I said, I want to succeed under my own merits.”

“The secretary nudging your career along because he noticed that you and Lieutenant Commander Müsel performed an almost unheard of feat while still cadets and graduated first and second in your class is not failing to acknowledge your merits, Ms. Greenhill! Quite the opposite, in fact.”

She blushed further. “I suppose. But Müsel wanted to trade posts with me when he received his assignment, so I suppose I’m glad that I don’t have any complaints about my position.”

“He doesn’t like his post?”

“I’m sure he’ll get used to it,” Fredrica said. “He likes the idea of being on the front. But we couldn’t trade places, because his imperial is far better than mine, and I’m told that’s a prerequisite for a posting on Phezzan.”

“If it’s excitement he wants, I’m sure there will be plenty of that on Phezzan, as well. Your father’s office often handles information that comes out of there.”

Fredrica nodded. “I know, I told him as much.”

“May I ask a personal question, Ms. Greenhill?”

“Of course.”

“You and Lieutenant Commander Müsel—”

“We’re just friends,” Fredrica said firmly.

“I see,” Fork said with a smile. “Then would it be inappropriate for me to offer to get you a drink?”

Fredrica hesitated for a fraction of a second. “I wouldn’t mind that at all,” she said. Fork seemed pleasant enough, and since he also was not a flag officer, it was nice to talk to someone at least slightly closer to her own rank at the party. 

“Excellent,” Fork replied. “I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll just sit down right over there,” Fredrica said, pointing at an empty table. Fork nodded in acknowledgement and then vanished into the crowd to find her a drink. Fredrica took a seat at the table, smoothing out the navy blue tablecloth and watching the party with her chin on her hands.

She saw her father, about halfway across the room, in conversation with Job Trunicht. Her father looked vaguely annoyed, from the way he was standing, with one hand behind his back fiddling with his wedding ring. He always did that whenever he was tense. But his face seemed perfectly pleasant.

The force of Fredrica’s stare attracted his attention when he made a glance around the room, his eyes landing on his daughter and his face breaking out into a genuine smile. He said something more to Trunicht, then turned away, beginning to walk towards Fredrica, who stood from her seat as he got closer. Trunicht followed him over, though, even though Admiral Greenhill had clearly been attempting to escape him.

Fredrica put a smile on her face as they came over, somewhat unsure how to navigate the fact that this was her father as well as a superior officer.

“Are you here all alone, Lieutenant Commander?” her father asked with a smile.

“Not anymore, sir,” she said. “It’s good to see you. And Secretary Trunicht—“

“Have you met my daughter, Job?”

“No, we haven’t yet had the pleasure,” Trunicht said. “Delighted to meet you, Ms. Greenhill.” He shook her hand.

“The pleasure is mine, sir,” Fredrica said.

“I know all about you by reputation, of course, so it’s good to see you in the flesh before you head out.”

“Is the Sixth Fleet really deploying, sir? People keep mentioning it.”

“People?” her father asked.

Fredrica didn’t want to throw her newfound acquaintance, Fork, directly in the line of her father’s ire, so Fredrica said, “I couldn’t help but overhear a few discussions.”

“It’s a possibility,” Trunicht said. “It has been a topic of heated discussion recently that a fleet should be stationed near enough to the Iserlohn corridor to reinforce our existing forces, to get us more time in the event that the Empire decides to invade with more of a force than they have been.”

“You think that’s likely, sir?” Fredrica asked.

Her father frowned. “Kaiser Friedrich is not as war-hungry as many of his predecessors. Perhaps we’ve been lucky, in that sense.”

Trunicht nodded. “But the kaiser is very old. And his sons-in-laws are both military men. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to assume that to make a good show of leadership, they’ll want to strike a decisive blow against us as soon as one of their children takes the throne.”

Fredrica chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “But won’t they be too busy fighting each other for the throne?”

“I expect the kaiser will name an heir before he dies,” Trunicht said, waving his hand. “It’s the one job he really has, to continue the dynasty.”

“Yes, he doesn’t have to worry about his pick being voted out,” her father said, voice very dry. Trunicht didn’t seem to notice, though Fredrica thought it had been a pointed jab.

“Civil war in the Empire would be better for us, of course, and perhaps there will be one if the line of succession ends up contested anyway, but I would rather be prepared than not.”

“I see,” Fredrica said. It seemed as though there was something else that Trunicht wasn’t saying, some further reasoning that was going unspoken, but she didn’t have enough information to put together what it was. The explanation that he had given was a reasonable one, after all. 

It was at this point that Captain Fork returned, bearing two glasses of wine. Fredrica waved him over, feeling like her father would probably appreciate yet another excuse to get Trunicht to leave. Her father raised his eyebrow at the second glass of wine in Fork’s hand, though he set both down on the table.

“Captain Fork was getting me a drink,” Fredrica said by way of explanation.

“I see,” her father said. “Good to see you, Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” Fork said. “And you, Mr. Secretary.”

“It’s quite the gathering of the next generation of promising officers, isn’t it?” Trunicht said. He turned to Fredrica. “Captain Fork has a keen strategic mind, you know.”

“Is that so?”

“Proposals with his name on them have a way of working themselves up the chain to land on my desk,” Trunicht said. “It gets a man noticed, that’s for sure.”

“Thank you, sir,” Fork said.

“I look forward to seeing both your careers develop, of course.”

“I’m sure we won’t disappoint,” Fork said. Fredrica thought this was a bit of an overconfident statement, but Trunicht just laughed.

“Of course not! I shouldn’t monopolize the time of the young, though. I’ll see you on Thursday, Dwight?”

“Yes,” Fredrica’s father said. “Thursday.”

Trunicht nodded and vanished. Her father relaxed fractionally. “Now, of all the people to see together here, I didn’t expect it to be the two of you.”

“The captain just introduced himself,” Fredrica said. “I was half wondering if you had told him to be polite and say hello.”

Her father chuckled. “No, I wouldn’t need to do that. You let me know if he gives you any trouble.”

Fork just laughed, though the glance that her father gave her indicated he was only mostly joking. “Yes, sir,” Fredrica said, trying to inject levity into her voice.

“Will you be staying until midnight, sir?” Fork asked.

Her father glanced at his watch. It was a quarter to eleven. “No, probably not,” he said. “My wife hates it when I stay out too late.”

“Mrs. Greenhill isn’t here tonight?”

“No,” her father said. “She wasn’t feeling up to it.” Fredrica kept her smile pleasant, even though she knew perfectly well why her mother wasn’t in any position to be attending parties. If she didn’t think about it, it couldn’t upset her.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Maybe next time,” Fork said.

“Yes, perhaps,” her father said. “But this is a work function, and not a Greenhill family reunion, so perhaps it’s for the best.”

“Did you put my name on the guest list?” Fredrica asked.

“Me, no, I have no control over such things, though I’m glad to see you come.” He shrugged. “There’s a general list that noteworthy officers get put on, so long as they’re well behaved at parties. You were probably pulled from that list. Captain Fork, as well.”

Fork smiled. “There are worse lists to be on.”

“Certainly.”

Her father glanced at his watch again. “I really should be making my way out.”

“Tell mom I said hi,” Fredrica said.

“Of course. I’ll see you next week, Fork.”

“Yes, sir,” Fork said.

Her father nodded goodbye and then vanished away into the crowd. Fork gestured magnanimously at the chairs, so they both sat down. “Thank you for the drink,” Fredrica said.

“You didn’t mention what you liked, so I figured wine was a safe choice.”

“I’m not picky,” she said. “But you’re right.”

Fork raised his glass. “To the next generation of promising young officers.”

Fredrica chuckled and knocked her glass on his. “Cheers!”

They drank. “So, now you’ve met Secretary Trunicht. What did you think of him?”

“I don’t know,” Fredrica said. She didn’t know Fork enough to confide any of her actual opinions. “I can see why he’s popular, I suppose. He certainly has a way of saying things to make you feel like he’s on your side.”

Fork nodded. “Suppose that’s why he’s a politician instead of an admiral.” He fiddled with his wine glass. “I like him well enough, and he has been generous to me in my career.”

“Well enough?”

“I might want his job someday, so I shouldn’t get too attached.”

Fredrica laughed, but Fork clearly hadn’t been joking. “Really?”

“Oh, I mean, I like working under your father, it’s a good place to be, but I have goals, you know.”

“I see,” Fredrica said.

“Don’t you?”

“Captain—“

“Please, just call me Andrew.”

“Andrew…” Fredrica glanced around the room, wondered what exactly would be polite to say. “I would like to do the best work I can in whatever position I’m in,” she finally said. 

“A noble but not lofty ambition,” he said. “You’ll make a good staff officer, then.”

“I hope so,” she said.

“Why don’t you set the bar higher? It’s not as though you aren’t capable.”

Her eyes flicked around the room once more, and she took a sip from her wine glass before she answered. “Take a look around the room,” she said.

“Alright.” Fork glanced around obligingly.

“How many women do you see here?”

“Plenty.”

“And how many are not the wives of the politicians and flag officers?”

“Well, there’s Cornelia Windsor right over there. She’s on the High Council.” He pointed out the redheaded woman who was having an animated discussion with several of the other High Council members.

“And among the flag officers?”

He scanned the room further. “Commodore Delmar. Over there. She works at HQ, I believe.” The commodore was an older woman, speaking to the wife of Admiral Kubersly.

“And she’s the only one,” Fredrica said. She finished her glass of wine and smiled at Fork. “So I set my ambitions where they make sense to be set.”

“That’s just because women aren’t drafted,” Fork said. “And they enroll in the Academy at far smaller numbers, and most of those that do end up as doctors, or in the administrative track. It’s harder to advance there. And most of them retire far sooner, so that they can raise a family.”

“Yeah.” He was wrong— the statistics didn’t bear that out to the degree he was implying— but she wasn’t going to argue with him.

“So, if you want to have a career, don’t say you can’t. I think you have talent.”

“Thanks,” she said with a smile.

“So, with nothing holding you back, what would you want to do?”

“Hah, that’s a good question. I want to make my father proud. I want to protect people— did you know I grew up on El Facil?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“That’s where my mother’s family is from. We lived there before my father got permanently assigned to Heinessen.”

“Were you there during the invasion?”

“Yes, my mother and I were very lucky— we had connections that got us onto the merchant ships that were able to escape.” She shook her head. “I was just a kid, but there’s a part of me that feels so guilty— so many people didn’t get to escape, and they’re still in prison camps somewhere in the Empire. Or dead, of course.” She stared out across the assembled officers at the party. “If I’m ever in a position like that, I want to… Do better, I guess.”

He nodded. “I think that is very admirable of you.”

“Thanks. You want to be a politician, though?”

“I want to be able to make decisions,” Fork said. “That’s the most grating thing about this career, is that sometimes you have to watch other people make choices you know are wrong, and you can’t do anything about it.” He chuckled and took a sip of his wine. “’S why I write so many proposals you know. It’s a way to influence how people are thinking even if you aren’t the one in command just yet.”

“That makes sense,” Fredrica said. “Good luck with that. I mean it.”

“It’s not luck. It’s skill and hard work. And a good sense of timing.”

“Maybe so,” she said. “But it’s not so easy to wish someone those things.”

He laughed at that. They chatted for a while about less important subjects, with him getting up to get more drinks whenever they ran out, and so Fredrica was a bit tipsy when midnight finally rolled around. It was a warm summer night in Heinessenpolis, so the whole party headed outside right before midnight, so that they could hear all the bells of the city echoing and clanging their New Year’s greetings through the streets. It was a joyful sound, and Fredrica enjoyed the long minute that it stretched on, standing next to Fork on the marble steps of the building. The capitol’s own heavy bell rang out its sonorous clangs directly above them.

“Happy New Year, Lieutenant Commander!” Fork called over the din.

She smiled at him. “Happy New Year!” she said back.

As the tolling of the bells began to fade, there was a general rush for the party attendees to leave, no longer wanting to linger. “Are you heading out?” Fork asked.

“I should, shouldn’t I?” Fredrica said. It wasn’t as though there was much waiting for her in her barely-furnished apartment in the junior officer housing, but it was late, and the party was over.

“Of course,” Fork said. “Will I see you again?”

“Certainly,” Fredrica said. “Until the Sixth Fleet heads out, I’ll be here in Heinessenpolis, and you seem to know more about the Sixth Fleet’s movements than I do.”

He smiled. “Excellent.”

“Give me a call,” Fredrica said. She fished through her uniform pockets for paper and pen, which she always carried, and scribbled down her number. Fork took it.

“I suppose I could have asked your father for your number.”

She shook her head, blushing. “Oh, please, there’s really no need for him to be involved in any of my personal business.”

He laughed again. “Of course not. I will see you later, then, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Fredrica, if that’s not too improper.”

“Certainly not. Goodnight, Fredrica!”

She waved at him as she trotted down the marble stairs, slightly drunk and trying not to trip over her own feet.

 


 

July 796 U.C., on board the Pergamonn , in the Anaheim Starzone

Being able to receive personal mail was something of a rare luxury while on the front. It had to wait until the ship was in a safe enough position that large amounts of ansible data could be transferred, and not just the bare minimum of what was required for the fleet to function away from central command. Today was one of those days, the Sixth Fleet feeling confident enough in its positioning just outside of the Iserlohn corridor that they could make the request for all of the news updates and personal mail and entertainment media to be sent over.

Fredrica was waiting for the mail to come in, just like everyone else, though she was doing it in the Officers’ Lounge aboard the Sixth Fleet’s flagship, the Pergamonn. The lounge was mostly empty— Fredrica had been assigned to second shift duty, so her free time extended into third shift, when the majority of the crew was asleep. Not that time meant anything, on board a ship where there was no sun, and the hallway lights were unchanging, but it was customary to have the majority of the staff officers on the same schedule— first shift— so that most of the logistical work of the fleet could be accomplished more smoothly. Only a skeleton crew of staff officers was assigned to the other two shifts. Fredrica could have resented this, for being cut out of the main decision making loop, but she didn’t really mind.

She was, after all, despite her rank, one of the least experienced officers in the entire fleet, and some of the stares and comments she got about that from the more senior staff were unpleasant, to say the least. It was better to stay out of sight, and therefore out of mind, even if that wasn’t giving herself much of an opportunity to be distinguished in a good way. She was glad to have this time of relatively few responsibilities to get her feet under her, and she rather liked the quiet organizational work that she got to perform alone on her shift, checking in with all the sections of the 13,000 ship strong fleet, making sure that there were no technical or logistical problems rearing their heads anywhere. She was good at solving problems, and when she presented her end-of-shift report to the officer coming to relieve her, he always had something funny to say about the number of things she had been dealing with.

Her shift today had been uneventful, as much as such things ever were. It had been her responsibility to make sure the data transfer was set up smoothly, though it had still been transferring when her shift ended— it was a long process. So, she was waiting in the lounge, her tablet balanced precariously on her lap, half distracted by the blinking television across the room. It was playing one of the standard fleet PSAs that played on lounge TVs on every ship across the entire FPA, whenever the TV wasn’t actually being used to play a movie or some other media. Fredrica could have turned it off— she had that power as an officer— but she was hovering on the edge of annoyance that hadn’t yet compelled her to stand from her chair and go through that tedious process.

This particular PSA was on the dangers of thyoxin. She couldn’t even say that it was one of the more lurid ones, since the occupational safety ones tended to be quite gory, but it was unpleasant— half corny drama about addiction interspersed with the narrator stopping the story to show graphic photos of rotted organs and miscarried fetuses. The TV was muted, but Fredrica could recall with perfect clarity the words and intonation of the narrator, and she mouthed along unwittingly to the sobbing woman on the screen, shaking her husband, “Your crimes! Look what they’re going to do to us!” 

“You watch these things?”

Fredrica jumped, startled, and turned to see the broad shoulders of her one friend in the Sixth Fleet, Lieutenant Commander Jean Robert Lapp, as he strolled directly past her and went through the trouble of turning off the TV with his authorization code.

“That’s a strong word for it,” she said. “It just happened to be in front of me.”

“I can’t stand the stupid things,” he said. “Especially this one. Gives me the creeps.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“I guess, but given the fact that everyone has seen this, and people still do thyoxin, I don’t think it has much of a real impact. It just makes it hard for me to eat while it’s playing in the room.”

“Didn’t know you had such a weak stomach.”

“I don’t,” Lapp said. He sat down next to her on the worn couch, kicking his feet up onto the table, dislodging some of the magazines laying there. “Cookie?” he asked, holding up a plastic bag full of chocolate chip cookies.

“Stealing from the kitchens, now?” she asked, reaching into the bag and taking one.

“No, these are from Jessica.”

“Wasn’t aware that you could receive baked goods through the ansible,” she said, holding up her tablet where the data transfer progress bar remained stubbornly stuck.

“She bakes them for me before I leave, tells me to save them for special occasions, and I bribe Dr. Chang into letting me keep them in the medical freezer, so they stay fresh.”

“What do you pay him off with?”

“Mostly I promise to introduce him to all of Jessica’s friends,” Lapp said. “That, and I have some very nice liquor that I keep for just that purpose.”

“I see,” Fredrica said. “These are good, so I suppose it’s worth it.”

“I’ll pass the compliment along,” Lapp said.

“Thanks for sharing.” She turned towards him. “What are you doing up, anyway? You’re still first shift, right?”

“I’m allowed to want to see the mail come in, aren’t I?”

“It’s not like it’ll be any different in the morning.”

“I, personally, find it hard to sleep when I know I have a letter waiting for me,” he said. “Don’t you feel the same?”

“I guess.”

Lapp caught the tone in her voice. “You don’t sound excited.”

“They moved my mom to hospice last month,” she said.

He frowned, but it was a sympathetic expression. “You didn’t tell me.”

“It never really came up,” she said. 

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Fredrica took another bite of her cookie. “We all knew this was coming eventually.”

“Still, it’s never good to be waiting on bad news.”

Fredrica nodded. “I knew when I signed up that I wouldn’t get to pick my assignment,” she said. “That’s the way it works. So I can’t complain that I’m not there.”

“Your dad’s with her, right?”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “That’s good, at least.”

“I’m sure she’s very proud of you.”

Fredrica shook her head. “Hah, I don’t know about that.”

“Oh, come on, what parent wouldn’t be proud of their famous daughter.”

“I’m not that famous,” Fredrica said. “And it’s not—” She sighed.

He nudged her shoulder, then held out the bag so that she could take another cookie. She did, appreciatively. Lapp didn’t say anything, giving her space to elaborate or not.

“There were a few days when everyone thought I was dead— you probably didn’t follow the news that closely— but I think that nearly killed her.” She shook her head. “And when I got back to Heinessen, she was so upset, she said, ‘I’m glad I’m dying, so that I’ll never have to go through that again.’”

“Ouch,” Lapp said. “That is… Tough.”

“Do your parents worry about you like that?” she asked.

“Jessica probably does, but I have a bunch of brothers for my parents to worry about. I don’t think they’d notice if I vanished,” he said with a bit of a wry chuckle. “You’re an only child, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Blessing and a curse, I guess.”

“Your father doesn’t feel the same way, though, does he?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s very different, with him. I mean, he understands.”

“He’d have to.”

“Yeah.” She finished her second cookie.

Lapp changed the topic slightly, to something less depressing. “You expecting a letter from your handsome captain?”

“Andrew? Oh, yeah, probably.”

“How’s that going?”

“Good, I think,” she said. “I look forward to seeing him when this tour is up.”

Lapp nodded. “You’ll have to get Lieutenant Commander Müsel to help plan your wedding.”

Fredrica rolled her eyes at that and took another cookie. “Now that is premature, Mr. ‘Waiting way too long to propose’. I only even met him in January.”

Lapp just grinned in his friendly way. “Well, I hope it continues to work out. Your dad likes him, right?”

“Well enough, I think,” Fredrica said. “Says he’s a competent officer, which isn’t the highest compliment, but, you know…”

“He thinks no one’s good enough for his daughter?”

Fredrica’s face heated up. “It isn’t true.”

“Fathers are prone to that, I’m told.”

“Yeah.”

“When Jessica and I decide to have kids, I hope they’re boys, so I never have to worry about developing that new and interesting paranoia.”

“I think my parents would both have entirely different sets of weird paranoias if I had been a boy, even if nothing else had been different.”

Lapp laughed. “That’s almost certainly true.”

Fredrica’s tablet made a chime on her lap, as several new messages rushed into her inbox, the data package arriving. One was from Fork, one was from Reinhard, and the last was from her father. She tensed up, her finger hovering over the letters, not sure which to open. It seemed like a bad sign, that her mother hadn’t written.

“Let’s see what your captain has to say,” Lapp said, acting more like a gossiping schoolgirl than a grown man, leaning over her shoulder to look. “Oh, it has attachments.”

Fredrica’s ears burned. “He said he would send me a paper he’s been working on for me to look it over.” But his curiosity spurred her to not open that letter, and she instead clicked on Reinhard’s.

“Why don’t you date him, by the way? He always struck me as a catch. His sister’s quite good looking.”

“It didn’t work out,” Fredrica muttered, scanning the opening paragraph of Reinhard’s letter, which was a general update on his life on Phezzan.

“Oh, I wasn’t aware that you had tried it.”

“I’m just glad that we can still be friends,” she said, hoping that Lapp would get the hint and not ask her any more questions about Reinhard. He was silent, allowing her to read Reinhard’s letter in peace.

After the first mundane paragraph about Reinhard’s general well being, the tone of the letter suddenly shifted into something that sounded— to Fredrica— to be weirdly desperate and out of character.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about what my life would have been like if my mother hadn’t been able to take Annerose and I away from the Empire. If Annerose had been trapped, captured, with no one there to rescue her and get her to the Alliance side of the corridor. I’ve been waking up in a cold sweat about it, having nightmares where she’s taken to somewhere, and I can’t get to her in time.

You must dream about things like that too, don’t you? About El Facil. Do you ever picture yourself, now that you’re in the fleet, as one of the officers on board one of the ships that tried to run away from El Facil and leave all the civilians behind?

I know that you joined the fleet for that reason, so you could never let something like that happen again. It’s good, then, that the Sixth Fleet is on standby to rush in to the rescue should the Empire decide to pull any tricks in the Iserlohn corridor. I wish I could be there with you. I get the feeling that something is going to happen, and that I’ll be too far away, on Phezzan, to do something about it. I know I shouldn’t be so worried, because you’re there, and you’ll make sure everything is all right.

I’m just fretting because Annerose isn’t on Heinessen, and all her letters are censored to nothing, so I can’t get a good sense of how she’s doing. I’m sure she can handle herself, but you know how it is. She’d tell me that it’s not my responsibility to worry about her, but I can’t help but feel responsible.

Anyway, I read in the news that Duke Braunschweig and Marquis Littenheim are dueling. I hear it’s something about land rights, but one has to imagine it’s some proxy argument for the throne. What do you think about that?

 

The rest of the letter was other random musings and questions about how she was finding life in the Sixth Fleet. Fredrica frowned and showed the strange section to Lapp. “What do you think of that?”

“Is he usually this worked up in his letters? I haven’t spent that much time around him, but from what I have, he always seemed generally level-headed.”

“I guess this is the first time that Annerose has actually been deployed.” She was hesitant, trying to find some reasonable explanation for Reinhard’s odd letter, to try to calm the wrong feeling that it had stirred up. Reinhard was usually so economical and forthright in his letters. This was decidedly not that.

“True, maybe he is just venting.”

“But he usually wouldn’t…” She bit her lip. “It feels like he’s trying to tell me something.” She said this slowly, not sure if Lapp would think she was being paranoid.

His tone was curious, though. “Like what?”

“That I need to rescue her,” Fredrica said. “Even if that’s against official orders.”

Lapp raised an eyebrow. “Interesting thing to put in writing, if it’s true.”

“Well, he didn’t say that outright,” she said.

“What would she need to be rescued from? The Rosenritter are usually pretty self sufficient, I’m led to believe.”

“I don’t know.” 

“You don’t know where she’s been deployed, do you?”

“No. Presumably it’s secret.”

Lapp narrowed his eyes. “He’s talking about being on the other side of the galaxy, her being inside the Empire, isn’t he?”

She read the paragraph about Annerose again. “That’s one way to interpret it.”

“Could she or the Rosenritter be on some sort of infiltration mission? Inside the Empire? They’re all expats, after all, so they’d be better at spying than other people.”

Now, that was a disturbing thought. “He says he’s still getting mail from her, though. And he wouldn’t ask me to try to, what, break through the Iserlohn corridor by myself.” But even as she said those words, she remembered the conversation she had had one day with Reinhard at Condor Base, where he had briefly entertained the fantasy of stealing a ship to break through into the Empire. She shook her head. Even though she had gotten mad at him that day, he had clearly just been putting on a show of bravado for the sake of it.

“You’re right,” Lapp said. “I have no idea what he’s trying to say to you.”

She laid the tablet back down on her lap and stared out across the lounge. “It seems important, though.”

“We probably just don’t have enough information to act, right now. If it becomes important, then we’ll probably figure it out.”

“You sound confident of that.”

“There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t do,” Lapp said. “I’m surprised you hadn’t figured out that rule number one yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone here has a job to do,” he said, “and trying to do every job, especially the ones you don’t have enough information or knowledge about, is only going to get you killed.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But it sounds like, if I do nothing…”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll keep an ear out, and if anything sounds related, I’ll let you know right away.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate it. You’re probably right.”

Lapp grinned. “I’m always right.”

“Do you say that to Jessica?”

“Of course, and then she rolls her eyes at me.” He grinned. “Don’t worry about Annerose, or Mr. von Müsel, for that matter. They can take care of themselves.”

“True.” She looked back down at the messages on her tablet. “I suppose I should see what the latest is from my dad. Weren’t you waiting on a letter?”

“Didn’t bring my tablet with me.” Lapp was smiling. “I’ll read it when I get back to my room.”

Fredrica shook her head, then opened the letter from her father.

She didn’t get past the second line before the fingers of her left hand involuntarily curled in to her thighs. She took one sharp inhale of breath, a stifled gasp, then held it to stop from crying out.

 

My Dearest Fredrica, it began. Your mother died last night.

 

Tears were welling up in her eyes, so badly that she couldn’t read the rest of the letter. Lapp saw it, though, or at least the important part, and he said, “Oh, jeeze, Greenhill, I’m so fucking sorry…”

“I—“ she began. “I have to go.” And she stood up so rapidly that she bruised her shin on the coffee table, fleeing the room.

She would be okay, but not right this moment.

 


 

August 796 U.C., on board the Pergamonn , within the mouth of the Iserlohn Corridor

Time seemed to stretch, after Fredrica had learned about her mother’s death, especially because the monotony of life on board the Pergamonn was broken by almost nothing. Almost immediately after she had received that news, the fleet had changed paths and moved deeper into the Iserlohn corridor, and now spent their time moving from starzone to starzone, doing their best to avoid imperial patrols. That meant that there was no more mail, not from anyone. The hours were dull, and the days were filled with a sadness for her that made the cold, gunmetal grey interior of the Pergamonn even more lifeless than it had already felt.

Lapp gave her space and put up with her moping when he did come visit her, often bearing some of the expensive alcohol that he said he had stashed in his room. She was grateful to have a friend, more than anything, and a thought at the back of her mind said that she should probably be treating him better when he was around, but she couldn’t really.

She spent her off-duty time sleeping, mostly, and her on-duty time trying to keep her mind on nothing but her job. This worked out in practice. She couldn’t even decide if she wanted this tour of duty to come to a close or not, because she wasn’t sure how she would feel, facing her father, and the looming prospect of her mother’s funeral. Her mother had been cremated, and so the ceremony to scatter her ashes could wait until Fredrica returned home. Small comfort, she supposed.

She wondered how her father was doing, on Heinessen. She wondered if maybe the kaiser really was dying, and so they really were about to encounter an imperial invasion force, right then and there in the corridor. They didn’t, though. And nothing interrupted the monotony of their patrol for a long time.

Fredrica was on duty, late into the second shift, when the call came in. One of the communications specialists on duty picked up the weak trace of a broad distress signal, the kind that was very rarely used, the kind that was just supposed to get the attention of any ship in the area, as quickly as possible— with the knowledge that that sometimes included Imperial ships. It was used when you didn’t know where an ally or rescuer might be, and so was simply directed as loudly and widely as possible.

This signal was weak, though, indicating that it had crossed a great distance, and the warping pathway that the ansible message had taken through space— the same paths that allowed ships to cross interstellar distances faster than light— might have been very thin indeed, limiting the strength of the message. 

“Lieutenant Commander Greenhill,” the communication specialist said, coming up to her while she was on duty, “Do you know anything about this?” The specialist had a look on his face of moderate skepticism as he showed her the message.

It had been transmitted using one of the key encryptions that the fleet used, but the message header, the authorization code, was not standard fleet issue. Instead, it was signed by “Michael Derwin, Cahokia-3 Mine Authority, Entaur Corporation.” 

The message itself was quite short.

 

Request aid all available fleets. Imperial presence located in C Stzne. Ground force only seen now. Force at C3 not sufficient to hold planet if full fleet arrives. Immediate assistance needed.

 

And was signed off with a long string of contract information that Fredrica found completely meaningless, aside from the fact that the signoff authority block included the name of Job Trunicht, the defense secretary.

Though the communication specialist was still standing there waiting for her to do something, Fredrica instead opened up a starmap on the computer in front of her, and ran a search for Cahokia starzone. There it was, near the Iserlohn corridor, though on the starmap there were none of the usual route lines between the well mapped parts of the corridor, so she had no idea how long the journey would take. She stared at the map for a long second.

“This message,” she said to the communication specialist, “is the authority verifiable?”

“We can’t get in contact with Heinessen right now,” the specialist said. “We’re ansible silent right now.”

“I’m aware. I mean, is there any way this could be a false broadcast?”

“Anything is possible, but it’s not likely. Our communications chain is designed to block spoofing like that,” the tech said. No one wanted a fleet to get drawn into a known location by the enemy under false pretenses, like a faked distress call.

Fredrica drummed her fingers on the console in front of her. “I don’t have the authority to do anything about this other than escalate it. Captain Chu is on duty. Let’s see what he thinks.”

So the captain was summoned over, and when he was shown the message, Fredrica saw his eyes widen imperceptibly, as though he knew something about what was going on. He immediately summoned Vice Admiral Moore (who had been in the middle of eating dinner), who took one look at the message, seemed very annoyed, and then announced a course change for the fleet, moving them deeper into the Iserlohn corridor at full speed. 

Lapp had wandered onto the bridge of the Pergamonn at some point after Moore arrived, and he sidled up to her. “Looks like somebody had secret orders that the rest of us mere mortals weren’t privy to.”

“You’re not supposed to be here if you’re not on duty,” Fredrica said. 

“I suspect that ‘who is on duty’ is about to become much less relevant in the short term.” He held out his tablet to her. “This is the nav course that’s being disseminated.” 

She looked at it. A new line on the starmap connected them to Cahokia Starzone, one that she knew hadn’t been there before. She studied it. “Do you think there’s another route, one that goes further toward Iserlohn?”

“Or past Iserlohn?” Lapp asked in a whisper, accompanied with a raise of his eyebrows.

“We’re not— now?” she asked. The idea that the Alliance was about to launch an attack on Iserlohn Fortress itself frightened her. She could see a plan suddenly crystalize before her eyes: the Iserlohn Fortress garrison fleet was lured out of its hiding hole by this false distress signal coming off of Cahokia— perhaps there was something actually on Cahokia to catch their attention to begin with— the Sixth Fleet went out to meet them, leaving the rest of Iserlohn relatively undefended, while another Alliance fleet swept through the corridor to take the fortress. Was that what was happening? Her thoughts were swimming.

“Maybe,” Lapp said. “Or it could be exactly what it looks like.”

Fredrica’s mind felt like it was buzzing, trying to trace back every word she had ever heard Vice Admiral Moore say, to think if she could get a hint about what was going on. Her father must have known about this plan, if Moore had secret orders. What had he said, at that New Year’s party, when she had met Captain Fork for the first time? They had both been in on it, whatever it was, and Trunicht, talking about the deployment of the Sixth Fleet, something missing from what they were actually saying.

Thinking of her father, of course, brought her thoughts crumbling to a halt as she thought about her mother, a thought she was unable to drag herself away from. She had taped a family photo to the inside of her tablet’s cover, so she always saw her mother smiling back up at her, whenever she opened it. Her father had known that Fredrica was going out into danger, while her mother lay dying. The thought was unpleasant, no matter what angle she approached it from.

“What about that letter Müsel sent you?” Lapp asked, shaking her out of her haze.

“Oh, uh,” Fredrica brought the text of the letter back to her mind. “How would he know about this?”

“If his sister is there—“ Lapp tapped the starmap— “he’d know about it. Probably can’t put it in writing.”

“That makes sense.” She glanced around, making sure that no one on the bridge was paying attention to them. “But why wouldn’t a Rosenritter have sent the distress call, if that was the case?”

“If I had to bet,” Lapp said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I’d say complicated political reasons. That’s usually the excuse for everything, and it’s also usually well above my paygrade.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Hunh? We’re going to do our job as staff officers and hope that Moore doesn’t run into anything we can’t handle.”

“But Reinhard—“

Lapp patted her shoulder. “Commandeering a vessel is a lot different than trying to get a fleet to bend to your whims when you’re only a lieutenant commander. Trust me, I know.” He grinned. “What would you even try to do, anyway?”

Fredrica bit her lip. “Reinhard seemed to think that there would be a reason we’d need to run away— maybe whoever comes from Iserlohn will be too strong. We should have a back up plan, for getting whoever’s on that planet off of it, just in case.”

“Careful you don’t say that too loud,” Lapp said. “Moore hates defeatism.”

“But—”

“I get it,” Lapp said. “Want my advice?”

“Sure.”

“Put together a nice, flexible plan now. If things start to go south, I’ll help you bring it to Moore when he’s distracted.”

She didn’t like the sound of that, but she nodded. “I guess we’ll see how this goes.”

“That’s the spirit.” Lapp wandered away, going to check in with the various other staff officers, doing some subtle reconnaissance. Fredrica took his advice, and she began putting together an evacuation plan. 

It took quite a while for them to get close to Cahokia, though, more than a day of travel, even though they had already been in the Iserlohn corridor. The longer it took, the higher Fredrica’s tension mounted, though no one aside from Lapp could see it. She hated having to leave the bridge at the end of her shift, and she sat in her tiny bunk afterwards, continuing to work on her plan, covering as many bases as she could think of. Luckily, as soon as they were underway, Moore had released information about the mine and stationed forces on Cahokia to the rest of the officers who had previously been unaware. There was no longer any reason to keep it secret, after all, since the imperial forces clearly knew about the base there.

Reinhard had been right— her mind did keep going back to that terrifying time as a child on El Facil, clutching her mother’s arm in the chaos of the spaceport, running, being dragged onto a ship, the horrible feeling of finally getting into space and seeing the imperial fleet just waiting there for them, the miraculous relief when, somehow, they made it out.

She had been too young to understand the mechanics of that escape, at the time, but she had replayed the events over and over in her head. She would never say it out loud, but she suspected that someone in the imperial fleet had allowed them to get away. There wasn’t any other explanation that she could see. That kindness somehow coexisted with the horror that El Facil had become after the merchant ships had all fled, and the imperial fleet landed on the planet. 

Fredrica tried not to think about it, but if there was one thing she was good at doing, it was remembering everything she had ever seen, and thinking about it in great detail. Had her mother thought they would get off the planet? Had she thought that it was better to be shot down in space than it was to try to remain on the surface? Her mother had never talked about it, afterwards, and Fredrica suddenly wished she had. It was the kind of thing that she now wished she had, her mother’s memories of that day.

But all of that was gone, now, and the only thing that she could do was do her best to ensure it never happened again. The people on Cahokia-3, mine workers, Rosenritter— Fredrica would make sure they were either protected or able to get out. She swore it.

They didn’t make it all the way to the Cahokia starzone. That was the problem.

The imperial fleet wasn’t making any attempt to hide, having begun jamming communications long before they were actually visible. As soon as the Sixth Fleet detected the communication blockage, Moore ordered them to go sub-light and assess the situation.

Fredrica was standing in the back of the bridge, anxiously watching the situation progress. It was first shift still, so she really shouldn’t have been there, but like Lapp had said, shifts for officers stopped really mattering once a certain threshold of excitement was reached. No one was going to be going to sleep unless they were dead on their feet. Lapp was further afield in the bridge, speaking to the man plotting the imperial fleet’s position, but he returned to Fredrica to give her an update.

Whoever the imperial admiral was had made a prediction, a gamble, about which way the Alliance fleet would approach from, and had decided to meet them far into the route before the planet, instead of fighting directly in the space around it. On one hand, this was good, because it meant that the residents of Cahokia-3 were likely unharmed and not going to be involved, but it also meant that, unless they could break through the imperial lines to Cahokia, there would be no way to rescue them. This did not play well with most of the evacuation plan scenarios that Fredrica had envisioned. That might have been the point.

“Do we know what flagship that is?” she asked, nodding to the magnified image of the imperial fleet on the nearest screen.

“Sure,” he said. He consulted his tablet. “That’s the Westberlin — which belongs to… Rear Admiral Wolfgang Mittermeyer.” He showed her the accompanying picture. There was a constantly updated database of imperial commanders and what could be gleaned about their service records from both past encounters, as well as any news that trickled off of Phezzan. 

Fredrica’s blood went cold as she looked at the smiling photograph— an official image of some sort— of the blond man, next to the diagram showing his class of flagship. 

“Something the matter?” Lapp asked.

“No, not really,” Fredrica said. “Just I’ve heard of him before.”

“I haven’t,” Lapp said. He looked down at the information they had. “His service record’s got a lot of gaps in it. Oh, he was on Kapche-Lanka a while ago. Maybe that’s why they sent him to deal with this. Taking over a mine is taking over a mine.,” 

“No, I mean, not from anything he’s done. I— I was on the sister ship to that one. The Ostberlin . At Condor Base. And Reinhard said that the, uh, he was a commodore at the time, Commodore Reuenthal, mentioned this one.”

“Fascinating,” Lapp tucked his tablet underneath his arm. “I suppose we’re going to be the first people this Mittermeyer cuts his teeth on as a front line rear admiral, since it looks like he was doing mostly internal policing before. That should give us an advantage, anyway. Moore has lots of experience.”

Fredrica nodded. “True.”

Still, she couldn’t help but worry. The conversation that Reinhard had relayed to her, after their encounter at Condor Base, had think that Mittermeyer and Reuenthal were approximately equivalent. Reuenthal had been slippery, luring the Alliance fleet at Condor into a deadly trap and escaping nearly unscathed himself. If that was any way to judge the competency of Mittermeyer, Fredrica was a little nervous. He was young, too. The picture of him she had seen didn’t look like he was even in his mid thirties. It could have been an old picture, of course, but she didn’t think so. Reinhard had said that Reuenthal was young. 

It was an extremely frustrating experience to watch the battle begin. The sides were approximately evenly matched, but Mittermeyer’s fleet took the more aggressive stance, despite being the defending force. They blitzed towards the Sixth Fleet, surprisingly well coordinated for how large the fleet was. It was a testament to their commander, Fredrica thought, being able to keep the whole fleet organized and moving as one single unit. They had probably trained extensively.

Moore hesitated, which was the exact wrong thing to do, and when the enemy came closer, he began to sweat as he ordered the Sixth Fleet to take up a spear formation, the two forces meeting in a chaotic, confusing collision.

Again, Mittermeyer took advantage of this, and Fredrica watched with growing concern as the flanks of the imperial fleet spread out, attempting to surround the Sixth Fleet, which had been stopped in its tracks. Moore made the choice to pull back, retreating before they could be fully encircled, but their losses from that half-encirclement had been decidedly heavy, and Mittermeyer was not backing off. Even as he reorganized his fleet, he was pursuing them, not letting up the assault for even a second. 

“This is not going well,” Fredrica said to Lapp.

“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t love this at all.”

It wasn’t as though Moore was a bad commander, and the Sixth Fleet was well trained, but something about Mittermeyer’s relentless nature made the Sixth Fleet fumble. It might have been the way that Mittermeyer was taking the initiative when Moore probably felt by rights that the initiative should have been his. This had knocked Moore off balance, and it was making it hard for the Sixth Fleet to gain the upper hand, while Mittermeyer gained more and more advantage, pressing them back again and again.

“Müsel is going to kill me,” Fredrica said.

“Why?”

She scowled and looked down at the plans that she had made to evacuate Cahokia-3. All of them were useless, now. “He warned me. He gave me time to figure something out. But I can’t do anything.” Her voice was stiff and raw.

“Come on, Greenhill, even if that was your fault, which it’s not, we haven’t lost yet. Moore isn’t gonna give up so quickly.”

“And you’re looking at the same battle situation as I am,” she said. “There is no way we’re going to be able to break through.”

He nodded. “So, what are you thinking?”

She was frustrated with herself. “I don’t know— God. I feel so useless.” She balled up her fists, trying to keep calm. “It’s not even like I feel like I would be able to do a better job here if I was in charge.”

“Thought you graduated second in your class.”

“Strategy wasn’t my best subject,” she said. “I mean, I did well in the class, but Müsel could wipe the floor with me in the games.”

“Good to recognize your limits, I guess.”

“But I can’t just stand here and watch this happen, and give up on getting those people out,” she said. “That’s the whole reason I joined the fleet.”

“There has to be a way to evacuate them,” Lapp said. “Maybe a detachment could go back out and around, come in through the ‘exit’, closer to Iserlohn fortress.” He showed her the route on his tablet, the three routes like the legs of a triangle, with Cahokia at one of the vertices. The thick main trunk of the Iserlohn corridor was one leg, while they were in the lower leg, about halfway to Cahokia, fighting it out with Mittermeyer. The third leg, reaching from Cahokia back up to the ‘top’ of the Iserlohn corridor, was empty and clear.

Fredrica shook her head. “It would take too long. That’s like, what, four days travel? By the time anyone got that far around, their force will already be occupying the planet. There’s no way that’s fast enough to get to them but through.”

“And we’re not going to break through,” Lapp said. He, too, sounded resigned. “Jessica’s going to be pissed at me.”

“Is Moore going to retreat?”

“Not until he absolutely has to,” Lapp said. “He really doesn’t like that.”

She nodded. There was a plan forming in the back of her mind, one that felt half crazy, but also, maybe, just maybe, possible. It was the kind of thing that she thought Reinhard might have come up with. The kind of thing that they had done together at Condor. She wished that he was here, but he wasn’t, so it would just have to be her. “Lapp,” she said. “How willing is Moore to take advice?”

“You have to present it to him at the right time,” he said. “That’s why I said I’d help you get your old evacuation plan to him when he was distracted.”

“I think— there’s a way we can get to the people on Cahokia.”

“Oh?” Lapp asked. He grabbed her arm and pulled her off the bridge. They had already been talking quietly, in a relatively unobserved corner, but she followed him out, down the hallway, until they ducked inside a currently-empty meeting room. “What are you thinking?” he asked.

“This is probably crazy,” she said.

“Go on.”

“What if, next time we charge forward, we know we’re going to get pushed back, what if we had a few ships, five, maybe, pretend to be disabled. When the rest of the fleet is forced to pull back, and the imperials follow it, those ‘disabled’ ships would be left behind on the other side of the imperial line. They could sprint to Cahokia, evacuate everyone there, and then take the other exit back into the main part of the corridor.”

Lapp considered this for a long second, his expressive face going through several different shifts as he chewed it over. “Moore won’t like that right off the bat,” he said. “But I think he could be convinced of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Get that in writing,” he said. “Now.”

“Okay— I will. How detailed do you need it?”

“Detailed enough that he can pass it off to somebody like Captain Keene to follow.” Lapp’s voice had a bit of an edge to it. “I’ve been around here long enough that I think I know the best way to get him to agree to something.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re lucky,” he said. “You’ve got fame on your side. He might listen to you.”

“Nobody thinks I’m experienced.”

“And,” Lapp said, “the best way to make Moore think an idea is a good one is to present it immediately following an idea that he thinks is a terrible one. He’ll be more open to any other suggestions.”

She nodded. “That makes sense.”

“You’re going to owe me big time for this, Greenhill.”

“What?”

“I’m going to say the dumbest shit to Moore’s face that he’s ever heard, and then you’re going to come in and look like a smart and reasonable hero. Got it?”

“Lapp—”

He raised an eyebrow. “Come on, Greenhill. Buy me a drink when this is over. We’ll call it even.”

“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

“Write down your plan. I’ve gotta get back to my shift. But when it’s ready, you just give me the signal.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s not like I have any better ideas,” he said. “This one is worth a shot.”

She nodded. He lightly punched her shoulder, then left. She got to work.

It didn’t take her that long to write her proposal, working at a fever pitch. Every second she spent off the bridge, she became more worried that the situation in the battle was changing so fast that her plan was becoming obsolete, and that there would be no hope of rescuing Annerose. But when she finally made it back to the bridge, plan in hand, she saw that the situation was basically as it had been, the Sixth Fleet stretched out into a long line, trying not to let themselves get outflanked by Mittermeyer, who was rearranging his fleet to try to pierce through their center. He almost certainly would, Fredrica thought, if they didn’t get their flanks back closer. They were spread too thin. But that was not a problem that she could solve. She would have to focus on only what she could do.

Lapp caught her eye as she returned to the bridge, and she gave him a thumbs up. He nodded in her general direction, then sauntered over to Vice Admiral Moore, who was leaning over the console at the top of the bridge, watching the battle progress, with an increasingly frustrated expression on his face. She couldn’t hear what Lapp was saying, but she watched as he got Moore’s attention, said something very earnestly, pulled out his tablet, and tried to explain something to the vice admiral. Moore shook his head, but Lapp kept talking and gesturing, until Moore actually told him to leave, and Lapp did, pretending to be dejected as he headed back to his post. 

Fredrica gave Moore a couple minutes to let Lapp’s fake proposition sink into his head, and then she took a couple deep breaths and approached.

“Vice Admiral, sir,” she said.

He looked up at her. “What is it, Lieutenant Commander?”

“Sir, if I may, I would like to make a suggestion.”

Immediately, Moore seemed exhausted and impatient. “Greenhill, I certainly hope you’re not about to waste my time.”

“No, sir,” she said. “I have an idea about how we can evacuate the mine workers that are trapped on Cahokia-3 right now.”

He looked at her. “It would take far too long to loop around, Greenhill. You just graduated the Academy, so you should be fresh on navigation.”

“That’s not what I’m about to suggest, sir.”

“Tell me your thoughts, then.”

“It’s obvious that the only way to get to them in any reasonable time frame is to go through the imperial lines. It would be… difficult… for the whole fleet to break through, but we don’t need a whole fleet to evacuate the few thousand people on Cahokia. Just a few ships.”

“Go on.”

“So, sir, I thought— we have plenty of ships that are lightly damaged, but still maneuverable. Next time we charge the imperial fleet, or they charge us, we should have those damaged ships pretend to be completely disabled. As you draw back, the imperial fleet will follow you, and those few ships will then be left behind the imperial fleet. They can race away towards Cahokia, evacuate the planet, and then exit into the main Iserlohn corridor. Such a small number of ships won’t be detectable in the corridor.”

He considered this for a long moment. “That’s defeatism, Greenhill.”

“It’s pragmatism, sir. I was on El Facil— the thought of not doing our best to keep civilians out of enemy hands is— well, difficult for me to bear. And if we win here, we can always just bring them back. There’s no harm in trying, sir. And a few damaged ships isn’t going to win or lose the battle for you.”

“This is better than the last idea I heard, I’ll give you that. And your father’d have my head if I didn’t give you fair consideration.”

Internally, Fredrica burned at her name being the only thing that was giving her a fighting shot here, but it was worth it, to be able to get what she wanted. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’ve written this down?”

She immediately handed him a sheaf of papers, with her bare bones plan printed out on it. He flipped through it for a minute, skimming the plan. Then he called out, “Captain Keene, come here for a second.”

Keene, a man in his thirties with a shaved head and severe face, came over. “Sir.”

Moore handed Keene the stack of papers. “Transfer yourself to the Byzantine . Take command of it, and the other four ships listed here— Carolina, Sel-de-Mer, Bluebird, and Green Lake — and follow this plan. You’re going to be evacuating Cahokia. Coordinate with whoever you need to to make that happen.”

“Yes, sir,” Keene said, and immediately began to head off.

“May I go with him, sir?” Fredrica asked.

Moore glanced at her, as though he had already forgotten she was there and had come up with this plan. “Yes. Go,” he said.

Fredrica saluted, then ran off to follow Captain Keene. Lapp grinned at her as she ran past him, her heart thumping high in her chest.

Keene was a very quiet man, and when Fredrica followed after him, the only thing he said was, “You wrote this?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

He was thumbing through her plan as they walked. “Not bad. But only if there’s no one stationed on Cahokia.”

She nodded. “I don’t think there will be, sir. It would be stupid for the imperial fleet to put their own people on the planet before this battle, just in case they lost it. They’d have plenty of time to take it once they’ve won, but it would be a waste of time beforehand.”

He just nodded. “Hope you’re right, Greenhill.”

“I hope so, too, sir.”

Keene was efficient at getting them onto a shuttle, and transferring ships. Once on the Byzantine, he explained the plan to the captain of that ship, as well as the others. Fredrica just watched, and provided clarity when needed. They did this just in time, because the imperial forces were massing again.

The Byzantine was right at the front of the fleet, unlike the Pergamonn , so Fredrica experienced for the first time the real terror of being in the direct line of fire. They were even hit once, but the already wounded Byzantine still managed to shake off the blow. Then they, along with the other ships who had been selected for this mission, pretended to be dead in the water, turning off their engines and no longer broadcasting anything, as the remainder of the Sixth Fleet pulled back, further and further, with the imperial fleet chasing them.

The moment when the imperial fleet surrounded them, passing through the debris field of all the other really destroyed ships, was one of the most heart-stopping moments of Fredrica’s life. She watched on the screen as the collosal grey bulks of the imperial ships slid silently all around, close enough to some that they could see the individual plating on the hulls, read the ships’ names. The Westberlin even passed near enough to them that Fredrica could see that the flagship had been damaged— a huge gash had been ripped in its side— but it was still limping along with the rest of the fleet.

And then the imperial fleet was past them, leaving just the debris cloud and their ships, playing dead. They waited, long enough that it seemed like no one would see them if they engaged their engines, and then the ships signaled with their light signals, and moved out together, sneaking away from the battlespace, then going FTL towards Cahokia.

It took a long time to get there. Cut off from communication with the rest of the Sixth Fleet, Fredrica was consumed by anxiety about both what was coming and what was behind them. She hoped that Lapp was alright. She hoped that Annerose was still alive. She hoped, desperately, that she had been correct in her guess that there wouldn’t be any imperial forces waiting for her on Cahokia.

The starzone finally came into view when they dropped to sublight. Then the planet came into view: one of three, a glittering, tiny red ball, spinning so quickly that Fredrica could see its rotation easily as they came closer to it.

The biggest relief was that there was no sign of imperial presence anywhere, except for one completely wrecked ship that was for some reason in orbit around the planet. It wasn’t putting off any radio signals, so it may have been abandoned. Since they couldn’t see any imperial ships, they were free to get in radio contact with the base.

“Cahokia-3 Mine Authority, do you read me?” Keene sent. “This is Captain Keene, aboard the ship Byzantine, of the Sixth Fleet. Do you read?”

“We read you, Byzantine,” the reply came. Fredrica didn’t recognize the crackling man’s voice. He identified himself, though. “This is Commander Linz, Rosenritter.”

“What’s your status?” Keene asked.

“Not so bad. Where’s the rest of the Sixth Fleet?”

“Further back in the passage. We’re going to be evacuating you in the other direction.”

“Evacuating? That bad, hunh?” There was muted laughter from the other side of the radio. “We took care of our guys, and we were outnumbered five to one. They musta sent all of Iserlohn after you.”

Keene was visibly annoyed by this remark, but Fredrica put her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter.

“Are you prepared to evacuate?” Keene asked.

A different voice came over the radio this time— and Fredrica could have melted with relief when she heard Annerose. “Yes, sir,” Annerose said. “We are. Will you be sending down shuttles?” She was professional. Possibly she had wrestled the radio away from the less professional Rosenritters.

“As quickly as possible,” Keene said. “Don’t bring any equipment with you.”

“Should we self destruct the mine?” Annerose asked.

Keene closed his eyes for a second, clearly running the mental math. Technically, it would be better to destroy it, but Moore would call that defeatism. Finally, he said, “No. Leave it. I’d rather just evacuate you as quickly as possible. It’s a long road back to civilization.”

“Understood, sir,” Annerose said. 

And then the detailed work of coordinating the evacuation began. Fredrica found herself very, very busy, getting shuttles where they needed to be, and helping ensure the ships were filled evenly with passengers, none of the ships they had taken being particularly well suited to suddenly having a few thousand highly agitated mine workers as guests. Still, they managed it, as quickly as they humanly could. 

A good chunk of the Rosenritter command staff ended up on the Byzantine, including Lieutenant Commander Annerose von Müsel. She, along with Captain Schenkopp (whom Fredrica had never met) strolled onto the Byzantine’s bridge, dressed in battered looking combat suits, their helmets tucked under their arms. They had been on one of the last shuttles to come up from the planet, after all the mine workers had been taken care of.

Annerose’s eyes lit up when she saw Fredrica, walking over to her across the chaotic bridge. All the ships were beginning to head out, and setting the course tended to require many hands on the bridge, rushing all around. 

“Greenhill! You made it!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Fredrica said, grinning. She and Annerose were the same rank, but Fredrica couldn’t shake the feeling that Annerose was the senior student who had taken her under her wing as a freshman. 

“Did Reinhard get my message, then?”

“What message?” Fredrica asked.

“I sent him a chunk of metal in the mail,” Annerose said.

“He sent me a cryptic note about his dreams. I’ll be honest that I didn’t know how to interpret it.”

Annerose bumped her shoulder with her own. “For Reinhard’s sake, you should probably tell him that you interpreted his message perfectly. It’ll hurt his ego if he feels useless.”

Fredrica shook her head. “Don’t be mean to him. I would have wanted him here.”

“I could say the same,” Annerose said. “But I am glad to see you. What is the situation with the rest of the Sixth Fleet?”

Fredrica sighed. “I hope they’ve retreated.”

Annerose nodded, understanding her tone. “Well, can’t say I’m sad to see the end of this place. It’ll be good to be going home.”

“Yeah,” Fredrica said, first earnestly, then remembering that her mother’s funeral was awaiting her on Heinessen, “Yeah.”

Captain Schenkopp wandered over. “Müsel, did you take a look at that hulk out the window?”

“I saw it,” she said.

“You sure did a number on that one.”

“I suppose,” Annerose said. Fredrica was deeply curious as to how Annerose could have wrecked a ship in orbit, but that was a question for another time.

“I’m told I have you to thank for our little rescue here,” Schenkopp said, holding out his hand to shake Fredrica’s.

“A lot of people worked together to make it happen,” she said, shaking his hand. “I’m just doing my best.”

He laughed. “That’s not the kind of talk that earns promotions.”

Fredrica watched on the screen as the red dot of Cahokia receded into nothingness.

“Well, it was worth a shot, I suppose,” Annerose said. “Too bad it won’t be becoming our own Iserlohn Fortress.”

“It’s not as convenient,” Shenkopp said. “I thought it was a stupid idea from the outset.”

Chapter Text

August 796 U.C., Phezzan Dominion

Reinhard did not hear anything from either Fredrica or his sister for a long time, nor did he hear anything about the movements of the Sixth Fleet, or Imperial land dealings, until one morning in late August, when he purchased his usual tranche of newspapers to look over. The headline on his preferred Imperial rag read, in thick bold font, “Iserlohn Stationed Fleet Repels Invasion, Deals Heavy Blow to Rebel Fleet.”

The paper went on to describe how a small detachment from the Iserlohn fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Mittermeyer— a name that made Reinhard inhale sharply— had defeated a much larger Alliance force before they even made it to Iserlohn. Absolutely no mention was made of Cahokia, though Reinhard knew that this was the confrontation that he had been desperately trying to warn Fredrica about. It was interesting to note, as well, that the number of ships the paper claimed were in the Alliance fleet was far exaggerated from what Reinhard knew the size of the Sixth Fleet to be. Perhaps this was to add to the illusion that this was an attempt to overtake Iserlohn fortress itself, or to simply make the Imperial victory seem more impressive.

His analytical mind chewed all this over, while his emotional mind was barely coherent, wondering if Annerose and Fredrica had survived this encounter. If Annerose was in a prisoner of war camp on the frontier of the Empire right now, Reinhard was already thinking over a plan to hitch a ride on, and then commandeer, a merchant ship heading from Phezzan into the Empire, and then lead a charge to break her out.

When he arrived at work, he marched himself into Commodore Blackwell’s office and asked, “Sir, have you seen this?” holding up the paper.

“You have a letter,” Blackwell said, reaching into his drawer and pulling out a folded piece of paper without even glancing at the headlines. “And can you give a call to our papers on Phezzan and make sure that the headline reads something slightly more flattering for us in today’s edition?”

“Did we hold Cahokia?”

“Of course not,” Blackwell said. “But they did us the favor of not mentioning it, so we won’t either.”

He was looking at the letter that Blackwell had handed him; the letterhead was from the desk of the Chief of Staff to the Space Fleet Commander, Admiral Greenhill. Blackwell was silent as Reinhard read the first few lines. Greenhill first thanked him for his assistance with alerting the admiralty that the Imperial forces were aware of Cahokia, and then finished with letting him know that Fredrica and Annerose were both accounted for. Reinhard nodded, relieved.

“I’ll get those headlines written, sir,” he said.

“Quickly, or you’ll miss the afternoon publishing window,” Blackwell said, and shooed him out of his office.

It took another two weeks before he got letters from Annerose and Fredrica. Both of them arrived at once, and, unsurprisingly, both had very little to say aside from the expected reassurances of their good health. One line in Annerose’s letter stuck out.

 

You will have to forgive me for keeping this very brief. I hope that we can see each other sooner, rather than later, because I’m sure there is much for us to discuss. Perhaps we’ll be together by the New Year, and you can give me a birthday gift in person. :)

 

He interpreted this, as he was sure she had intended, that there was some kind of vital information that she couldn’t write in a letter. This annoyed him, because he hated the feeling of not knowing something, but he didn’t have a choice but to wait. He would have leave in a few months, and he could make the trip back to Heinessen then. 

The act of waiting was not something that Reinhard had ever been particularly good at, but it turned out that he didn’t have to wait as long as he was thinking he might.

One of the nicest minor benefits of being stationed on Phezzan, Reinhard had found after living there for a while, were the huge number of open-air markets that sprung up in every empty lot in the city, and especially farmers markets that descended on various parks on certain days of the week. This part of Phezzan, being equatorial to accommodate the space elevator, always had an abundance and astounding variety of very fresh fruit, available for relatively cheap, if one was good at haggling. Reinhard was good at haggling, and he had developed a taste for such treats. It was a far cry from anything that could be had in the windy city of Wrightsville in his adolescence, and the Empire had not been the most adventurous when it came to dietary choices.

So, on a relatively frequent basis, Reinhard found himself wandering through the market stalls, picking up mangosteins and peaches and telling the vendor that only an idiot would pay that much for half a kilo of grapes. He was just concluding one such transaction, under a green-striped awning where huge bunches of fingerling bananas dangled from hooks on the ceiling, when someone he recognized sidled up next to him.

Reinhard stiffened immediately as Muller, dressed in plain clothes and speaking in the Phezzani argot, said, “Been a while, Mr. Kircheis.”

“What do you want?” Reinhard asked. He wasn’t particularly worried about Muller, but he couldn’t help but do the standard glance-around to see if anyone else was watching, and think closely about the feeling of his sidearm, tucked up against his back. 

Muller jerked his head, indicating that Reinhard should follow him. Reinhard did, somewhat warily, and they ended up in the rear of the crowded market, behind the last row of stalls, leaning up against a brick building. The only person who seemed to notice them was a nearby vendor, who gave them a look that warned them thoroughly not to shoplift, and then turned back to her wares. 

“What is it you wanted?” Reinhard asked again.

“You’re not the only one who’s allowed to pay visits, or do grocery shopping,” Muller said. He held up his own shopping bag, which was filled with a head of cabbage. “I’ve been looking for a chance to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“Couple things,” Muller said. “Mostly, I’m playing messenger here.”

“For whom?”

“First of all, Leigh says to tell your sister—“

“What about my sister?” Reinhard asked, tone suddenly venomous. 

Muller held up his hands. “All I was going to say was ‘hello,’” Muller said.

“Why does Leigh have anything to say to her?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“They met each other,” Muller said. “In August.”

“I didn’t know that,” Reinhard said.

“Apparently, it was a whole thing.” Muller shrugged. “Your sister made it back alright, didn’t she?”

Reinhard considered what Muller might be able to do with that information, decided it wasn’t much, then nodded.

“Oh, good.” He laughed a little, ruefully. “I’m glad everyone I know got out of there unscathed.”

“You do not know her.”

“Well, you’d be pissed at me if she died or whatever,” Muller said, rather defensively. “I’m just trying to be friendly.”

“There was something about us being enemies, last time we spoke.”

“Look, you sneak up on me when I’m in the middle of eating dinner, I’m allowed to be defensive. I sneak up on you while you’re buying bananas, I won’t hold you being snippy against me.”

Reinhard had to admit that Muller was right, though he didn’t like it. “And the other things you’re playing messenger about?”

“Leigh made some sort of remark about Baroness Westpfale crying about your guest on Heinessen, but I don’t really know if he meant for me to pass that along,” Muller said. “She’s doing alright, isn’t she?”

“As far as I’m aware.”

“Good.”

“And anything else?”

“Oh,” Muller said. “I think you’re right about that whole Castrop affair.”

“In what sense?”

“It hasn’t hit the news yet, but I’m told Castrop has taken the Imperial envoy sent to talk with him prisoner. Leigh is torn up about it. They’re friends, apparently.”

“So, what, the Kaiser’s going to send in a fleet?”

“I have no idea,” Muller said. “Above my pay grade, out of my jurisdiction, et cetera. But there is a possibility that if Castrop flees, he’ll be bringing the envoy along with him as a shield.”

“Would that work?”

“Yes, I expect it would,” Muller said. “I’d personally be hesitant to shoot down a ship on which a count— and the Kaiser’s loyal servant— is being held prisoner. Otherwise we would, probably before he got to the corridor.”

Reinhard nodded. “So, what are you planning?”

“I don’t know,” Muller said. “It’s too early to really say.” He frowned. “I don’t personally care if Castrop himself lives or dies or gets to your side of the galaxy or not at this point, but I’m sure you can find a way to separate Count Mariendorf from the rest of them. He’ll come back to the Empire willingly.”

“Yeah,” Reinhard said. “I can do that.”

Muller let out a relieved rush of breath. “Great. Thank you.”

Reinhard held up one hand. “Just as long as you don’t send anyone chasing Castrop into our side of the corridor.”

“No,” Muller said. “I think he’s a relatively small problem.” The contemplative tone in Muller’s voice gave Reinhard pause for a second, but he didn’t think Muller was lying to him. A disgraced noble was less important than the mother of a potential heir to the throne, and they had been able to manipulate that situation in a mutually beneficial way.

“Good. Out of curiosity, who will the Kaiser give Castrop’s planet to, once he flees?”

“Eh, the crown might absorb it. Traitors’ property is forfeit, and the people there might do better under direct rule than under some vassal. Either that, or whoever the Kaiser is feeling generous to on that day. Could be anyone.” Muller shrugged. “Why do you ask?”

“No real reason. Curiosity, I suppose. They’re a big wine producer, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yeah, real good stuff,” Muller said. “I’d bet money that that’s why Castrop thinks he can get away with anything. Probably spends most of his time extremely drunk.”

“Maybe,” Reinhard said. “I’ll have to write a treatise on alcohol production on your side of the galaxy.”

Muller chuckled. “I look forward to it. All your rebel drinks are cheap and disgusting.”

“They get the job done,” Reinhard said. “Besides, lots of things sold on Phezzan are actually Phezzani products under different branding, and the other way around.”

“So every time I’ve gone to a bar and a girl has asked me to buy her a Heinessen Ale she’s asking for a Phezzani knockoff of whatever passes for real beer?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“Is it that different?”

“No,” Reinhard admitted.

“Pity,” Muller said. “A whole half of the galaxy, consigned to drinking terrible booze.”

 


 

October 796 U.C., Phezzan Dominion

In early October, the Castrop affair came home to roost. Reinhard learned about it without the newspapers, and without Muller: their eyes on the navigation office noticed a request for a direct route from Castrop’s planet to Phezzan. This matter appeared on Reinhard’s desk, and he escalated it up the chain to Blackwell.

“We’re going to want to search this ship,” he said, presenting his dossier on Castrop to the commodore. “A man like that is definitely bringing along taxable income stashed underneath the floorboards.”

“The ship itself is worth more than any jewels he could be hiding,” Blackwell replied, looking at the picture that accompanied the nav office filing. “At least the engine. Sell that to a merchant and you’re set for life.”

“I don’t know about that. Set for life I’m sure means something different for me and you than it does to a man who’s in trouble for not rendering unto the Kaiser that which is the Kaiser’s.”

“He’s coming to the wrong side of the galaxy if he hopes to have a whole planet to himself,” Blackwell said with a yawn. “We can only hope he doesn’t make trouble. The rich ones always do.”

“That’s why I’d like to search his ship, sir,” Reinhard said. “Make sure there’s nothing on it that could be troublesome.”

“Such as?”

“There are things worth more by weight than gold and jewels,” Reinhard said. “He could have information that he’ll try to sell.”

Blackwell considered this. “He’s a man who lives in the relative boonies, with his claim to money being agriculture. I don’t know if he’d have military secrets, or whathaveyou.”

“Still, sir,” Reinhard said. “I just have a feeling that there’s more going on with him than meets the eye.”

Blackwell drummed his fingers on his desk. The goldfish swam placidly around in the tank behind him. Reinhard waited. “It costs us goodwill with Phezzan when we want to use their ports for searching vessels, you know. Can it really not wait until he arrives on Heinessen, or wherever he’s headed?”

“I really don’t think it should, sir.”

“All this effort for a two-bit noble,” Blackwell muttered. “It was one thing for Ms. Roscher, this is—“ He shook his head. “You file the request with the Phezzan Port Authority, then. I’ll clear it with our immigration and import office.”

“Thank you, sir,” Reinhard said, relieved.

“Yeah, yeah,” Blackwell said.

 


 

Castrop’s ship was huge, opulent, and garishly yellow. It sat unassumingly in the docks at the top of the elevator. Reinhard had gone up to meet it as it came in, accompanied by staff from the High Commissioner’s office who would be checking the ship from top to bottom. The ship had arrived ahead of schedule, which meant that Reinhard was late when he reached the top of the elevator, and it had been up to a few rather put-out Phezzan Port Authority workers to explain to Castrop that all his passengers would need to exit the ship so that it could be searched. Castrop, predictably, had not taken this well, and so when Reinhard arrived, there was an argument in progress between the disgruntled port chief and one of Castrop’s retainers, a cowed looking man whose fashion looked out of place despite the outlandishness of some Phezzani garb: he was wearing a toga.

“You can either stay and wait for clearance, and comply with the Alliance import control, or you can apply for a permanent station permit and remain on Phezzan, or you can turn around and go back the way you came,” the port chief was saying. “Those are your choices. I’m sorry if you don’t like them, but the Alliance has requested an injunction against your travel permit until your ship is searched.”

“This is an outrage,” the retainer said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before.”

“It’s part of our route issuing contract with—“ the port chief began.

Reinhard interrupted the conversation. “Pardon me,” he said. The port chief, who was relieved to have the appropriate person come deal with the problem, left. “You’ve arrived ahead of schedule, Herr…?”

“Pfeffer,” the retainer said, looking at Reinhard’s alliance uniform, and the lieutenant commander’s pin on his collar. “You’re the one who’s going to search the ship?”

“Are you the ship’s captain?” Reinhard asked.

“No, that’s Captain Reiber; he’s still inside. Lord Castrop wanted me to inform you that he does not consent to his ship being searched.”

Honey, rather than vinegar, Reinhard thought, and bit down the reply that was on his tongue. “It would please me greatly to speak with Lord Castrop myself,” Reinhard said. “Perhaps we can work something out.”

Pfeffer sighed. “I can tell him you said that, but he’s not—“

“I would simply like to welcome him to our side of the galaxy,” Reinhard said. Pfeiffer nodded, then headed back inside the ship. Reinhard turned to his group. “When Castrop comes out, I’ll talk to him, you get consent from Captain Reiber to search the ship. Understood? I want every passenger pulled out to interview them individually, and to make sure that no one is hiding anything. And I want to take a sweep through the ship myself once it’s empty.”

There were nods of assent from his soldiers, and Reinhard waited for a few minutes, looking out the wide port window at the fabulously gaudy ship that Castrop had arrived in. For Reinhard, who was used to the sparse utilitarianism of Alliance military ships, and the functional with an aesthetic veneer of Imperial fleet ships, this pleasure cruiser was garish in the extreme. He was sure that, no matter what the exterior looked like, the interior was worse by far.

Castrop emerged from his ship into the busy port, and was directed to where Reinhard was waiting. Reinhard thought that Castrop gave off the air of being an extremely overgrown baby, in the way that his skin was sleek and smooth like an infant who had not yet been exposed to any of the harshness of the world, with fair hair so fine and wispy that it threatened to float away in just the gentle HVAC of the port at the top of the space elevator. 

“Lord Castrop,” Reinhard said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Castrop looked at Reinhard with an expression that put Reinhard immediately on edge. It was disdain mixed with something else— an immediate expectation that Reinhard was there just to serve him. It reminded him most closely of the feeling he had when he remembered the last days he had spent in the Empire— it was the type of expression he imagined would have been on the Kaiser’s face had Annerose been presented to him. Of all the flaws of the Alliance, this specific expression of entitlement that Reinhard realized must grace the faces of most nobles was one that his side of the galaxy was mercifully free of.

“The port order we received was signed by a Commodore Blackwell,” Castrop said. “You do not look like a commodore.”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said, false deference in his voice. “I’m Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. The Commodore sent me in his stead, as my Imperial is better than his. He thought it would be a more pleasant welcome.” This was, of course, a complete lie. Reinhard was good at lying, though, and it was easier to lie in Imperial than it was to lie in the Alliance language.

“And are you going to release my ship?” Castrop asked. “I warn you, you will regret not allowing me to pass through unhindered.”

“Sir, I will be happy to discuss this with you further. If you’ll come with me, please,” Reihard said. “I’m sure this will all become much clearer over a drink. Perhaps some of Heinessen’s finest?”

Castrop’s lip curled up. “I urgently need to speak to your government on Heinessen,” he said. “I trust that they will be able to clear up this misunderstanding better than you can.”

“Of course, sir,” Reinhard said. “I’m sure I can arrange an ansible call for you, if you’ll come with me…” He just wanted to get Castrop away from his ship, so that the captain, who assuredly had more sense, could consent to the search. If that meant letting Castrop wade through the endless layers of bureaucracy before getting to talk to anyone in the Alliance government who wanted anything to do with him, Reinhard was happy to waste his time like that. 

Castrop followed Reinhard away, and Reinhard jerked his head for two of his subordinates to accompany him. The Alliance had an office in the upper section of the elevator, and Reinhard led Castrop there. He had been allocated a small staging area from which to conduct his investigation, and Reinhard cleared the room of curious Alliance export control workers and got Castrop set up with an ansible connection to the immigration authority on Heinessen. Castrop complained the whole time about how long the process was taking.

“I don’t want you listening in on this conversation,” Castrop said. “It’s highly confidential.”

“I’ll just step out so you can conduct your business in private, sir,” Reinhard said. Although he was getting quite the bad impression of Castrop, this allowed him the chance to go inspect the ship for himself. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let one of my men know.”

Castrop gave a grunt of acknowledgement as the dial tone on his call to Heinessenpolis went through. Reinhard stepped out of the small office. 

“Don’t let him leave,” he said to the soldiers waiting outside. “Keep him occupied if he finishes his call. Find him some paperwork to declare all his imports and make him sign it or something, if you need to. If he causes trouble, call me.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Reinhard walked back through the rather labyrinthine Phezzani port, he felt observed, in a way that set him on edge. It was the kind of observation he had gotten used to, mainly from Phezzan’s own voyeurism of the High Commissioner’s Office’s staff, and from the mutual spying that they engaged in with the imperial embassy. He had gotten very good at noticing the careful half-glances that followed him through a crowded market, and though he didn’t see Muller today, he was sure that Muller was somehow watching him.

“I’m not going to kidnap your count,” Reinhard muttered under his breath as he watched someone follow him down the hallway out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t worry about that, Muller. I’m sure I don’t want him.”

He arrived back at Castrop’s ship, and found that the captain had indeed given them permission to search the ship, as all the passengers were exiting in a rather chaotic fashion. There were many women, all dressed in togas, emerging confused into the harsh port lights. Reinhard pulled one of his soldiers aside and said, “Did the men come out first?”

“No, sir, this is just it. Mostly women.”

They were clustering together in groups, looking around warily, watching the male retainers with suspicion. The men were watching the group as well, though some of them were eyeing the market stalls that set up throughout the port, probably wondering what things they were going to have a last chance to buy before heading into the Alliance.

“When you interview them,” Reinhard said, voice low, “make sure you interview the women alone, and take Rackham in there with you, to make them feel safer. Ask them where they actually want to go, and if they do want to go to the Alliance, ask them if they want to go with Castrop or by some other route. I don’t want this man’s harem— or whatever this is— being dragged along with him unwillingly.”

These instructions delivered, Reinhard briefly spoke to the captain of the vessel, thanked him for his cooperation, and then boarded the ship to search it. His subordinates were already hard at work marking down various valuables that were in the hold, but Reinhard, who had not seen Count Mariendorf’s name on the passenger list that had been handed to him, was intent on finding the prisoner— or the remains of the prisoner, if Castrop had already decided that he had served his purpose.

The interior of the ship was just as garish and opulent as Reinhard had expected from a man who had no taste, less sense, and far too much money. It was clear that the pseudo-Roman aesthetic of marble columns and heavy velvet drapes meant to muffle sound and obscure lines of sight had been tacked on to the existing, more functional, structure of the ship beneath, and some of the workmanship was shoddy. Reinhard could see that the mosaics on the floor didn’t quite extend all the way to the edges of the hallways in every place, revealing traces of the more sturdy floor paneling beneath. The mosaics themselves mostly depicted dancing nude women. Reinhard ignored them, making his way through the ship, opening every door.

As Reinhard walked through the ship’s hallways, he began to develop the sense that there was something not-quite-right, beyond just the decor. Like the hallways didn’t seem to match up with the rooms. He wished, not for the first time, that he had Fredrica was here with him; he was sure that if she had been creating a mental model of the ship as they walked through it, she would immediately intuit what was the usual mismatch of pipes being routed through walls versus what Reinhard suspected were hidden caches.

He started pulling back the drapes from the walls, especially as he neared the ship’s hold, and though mostly this revealed maintenance closets that opened without any trouble, at one point he found a locked door. He asked if there was a keycard that could be used to open the door and was told that there was not, though Castrop himself would have access to everything. Considering that Castrop was not currently aware that Reinhard was going over his ship from top to bottom, it did not seem prudent to ask him for access to his locked room in the hold.

Luckily, the lack of a key had never once stopped Reinhard, and so one member of his team brought out a standard tool that was used to break the seals on spaceship doors. Reinhard adeptly rammed it through the pressure seal, then was able to saw through the lock with the cutter. 

The smell was the first thing that hit them, after Reinhard cracked the second layer of the pressure seal, allowing gas to escape. It wasn’t a corpse smell, which was a good sign, but it was stale and filthy nonetheless. The soldier next to Reinhard wrinkled his nose as the door swung open.

The man inside lunged out, and it was unclear if he was attempting to punch Reinhard or not, but he slammed into Reinhard’s shoulder with his arm, a wild expression on his face. Reinhard stumbled, caught off guard, but was able to react, grabbing the man’s arm and pinning him to the wall. It was easier than he expected, and he perhaps overreacted, as the man slammed weakly into the purple drapes, the wild look on his face fading as he processed who was surrounding him. Reinhard’s assistant had whipped out his sidearm and was training it on the man.

“Put that down,” Reinhard said. “Not necessary.”

“Yes, sir,” the soldier said, and he slowly put his gun away, though he still looked at the man with some suspicion. 

Reinhard released the man, slowly. He didn’t make any further attempt to move, and Reinhard could see now that he was in fairly bad condition: so dehydrated that his lips were cracking open and his eyes were sunk deep into his face. He was middle aged, probably in his late forties or early fifties, and he had blond hair streaked with grey, above a face that would have probably been handsome in better conditions. He was wearing the standard Imperial fashion, unlike most of the other passengers of the ship, albeit a filthy, bloodied version.

“Are we on Heinessen?” the man rasped, speaking clumsily in the Alliance language.

Reinhard answered in the Imperial language. “This is the port of Phezzan,” he said. “What’s your name?” He suspected this was Count Mariendorf, but he had to confirm.

“My daughter— where’s Hilde?”

“Daughter?” Reinhard asked.

The man’s expression was sinking into despair. “Please— Hildegarde— is she alive?”

“Did we have a Hildegarde on the passenger list?” Reinhard asked his assistant.

“No, sir.”

“What’s your name?” Reinhard asked again, trying to keep his tone even to calm the man.

“Franz,” he said. “Franz von Mariendorf.”

“Herr Mariendorf—I’m Lieutenant Commander Reinhard von Müsel, of the Free Planets’ Alliance. We’re searching this ship as part of normal import control. Could you please tell me why you were locked in here?”

“I need to find Hilde,” he said, and took a weak step forward, as if he was going to head down the hall. Reinhard caught his arm.

“We’ll find your daughter, sir, don’t worry.” Mariendorf’s sunken eyes were flicking back and forth down the hallway. “But could you tell me why Lord Castrop had you locked in here?”

“He was using me—“ Mariendorf said. “Leigh— he wouldn’t fire on the ship if I was on it…” He answered distractedly, still trying to pull away from Reinhard’s gentle grip, though he was in such bad condition that his attempts weren’t much.

“Leigh?” Reinhard asked.

“Captain von Leigh,” Mariendorf said. “He’s a friend of mine, was sent to get me, or get Castrop, I don’t know what his orders were. Please, I need to find Hilde.”

“Sir, you’re not really in much condition to be making a search. And I don’t really understand why you were taken prisoner?”

“I work for the ministry of the interior,” Mariendorf said. “I was sent to negotiate with Castrop about his duties to the crown— it doesn’t matter. Please let me go.”

“Herr Mariendorf, please calm down,” Reinhard said. “If your daughter is on this ship, I give you my word that we will find her.” He turned to his assistant again. “Could you get this man some water?”

“Yes, sir.” His assistant nodded and headed out around the corner. 

As soon as he was out of earshot, Reinhard, still gripping Mariendorf’s arm, said, “Herr Mariendorf, if you need any further assurances of my goodwill towards you, your Captain Leigh and I know each other, though we’ve never met.”

This brought Mariendorf up short. “You know Hank?”

“It’s a long story, sir,” Reinhard said. “And I would like to finish searching this ship before Castrop realizes that’s what’s happening. Aside from your daughter, are there other people being kept prisoner here?”

Mariendorf shook his head. “Not that I know of.”

It had only taken a moment for Reinhard’s assistant to go get a bottle of water, and he returned. Mariendorf took it appreciatively and drank. “Thank you,” he said.

“Do you have any idea where your daughter is being kept?”

“No,” he said. “She was in here with me, but…”

“Castrop took her out?”

“No, she escaped. I assume they caught her and put her somewhere else.”

Reinhard nodded. “I assume I would not be able to convince you to go see a doctor while we finish searching the ship.”

“You would be correct about that, Lieutenant Commander,” Mariendorf said. Reinhard couldn’t precisely blame him for not trusting him completely, but it did make the rest of the journey through the hallways of the ship slower. Reinhard ordered the rest of his team to temporarily put aside their inventorying of the ship’s hold, and focus on finding other concealed rooms. They scoured the main areas of the ship from stem to stern, pulling back all the drapery and opening every closet, but they didn’t find any other locked doors like the one that the count had been trapped inside. Mariendorf grew more agitated the further they went.

When all of the visible doors had been exhausted, Reinhard asked if there was any way they could get a thermal camera, to see behind walls. One of his team was saying that probably they could, when Reinhard’s phone rang.

The caller ID was Commodore Blackwell. Reinhard picked up immediately. Blackwell never called anyone unless it was a complete emergency.

“Müsel,” Blackwell said, sounding very unhappy. “What are you doing?”

“Searching Castrop’s ship, sir,” Reinhard said. “As we discussed.”

“Stop doing that right now,” Blackwell said. “The Secretary of Defense is breathing down my neck, telling me to let them through ‘unmolested’— that was the word he used.”

“Sir, there’s some extenuating—“

“I don’t care, Müsel. I’m sorry. Get yourself off that ship, get the passengers back on, and let them go.”

“May I ask why the situation has changed, sir?”

“Castrop says that he has vital information related to the security of Heinessen, and he fears that he’ll be assassinated on Phezzan before he can deliver it to us.”

“I see,” Reinhard said.

“You can say ‘I told you so’ all you want later, but I don’t want anything happening to Castrop to be on my head. This just became bigger than whatever intuition you managed to get.”

“Sir, there is one other thing that I really need to deal with, that I’m sure will make Castrop unhappy when he finds out about it.”

“What is it?”

“I’ll tell you when I’m back on the ground,” Reinhard said. “But trust me when I say it needs to be done.”

“Christ in heaven, Müsel. Is it going to delay you getting off that ship?”

“Not really, sir, no.”

Blackwell was audibly frustrated, and couldn’t give a clear yes or no over the phone, but he said, “If this all comes down on us, it’ll be you going to the court martial, not me.”

“Thank you, sir,” Reinhard said. He hung up before Blackwell could say anything else. He turned to Mariendorf. “We have about five minutes to find your daughter, before I really can’t disobey Commodore Blackwell any further. Pick one room on this ship for us to give a more thorough search to.” Although it was cruel, this seemed like the only way to not let Mariendof completely blame him if they couldn’t find his daughter before Reinhard was forced to leave the ship. She would probably appear once Castrop arrived at Heinessen, anyway. Blackwell might be able to talk somebody there into doing a more thorough search at that time.

Mariendorf closed his eyes in stifled anguish. “Lord Castrop’s suite,” he said.

It was a good choice, Reinhard thought, and they walked as quickly as they could through the hallways. Reinhard hadn’t been in the bedroom suite before, but another member of his team had, so the door was open. It was a set of a few rooms, larger than any of the other passenger areas by far, with the same over-the-top aesthetic as the rest of the ship, though combined with Castrop’s most personal tastes. The entertaining area’s most interesting features were a recessed pit in the floor, lined with plush cushions; and one entire wall that was a fountain, the sound of trickling water echoing through the room.

Reinhard began pulling back the drapes and looking carefully at the wall panels for any hint of a hidden door. Mariendorf did the same, growing more and more frantic with every passing second, his motions erratic as he ripped the velvet fabric back.

Five minutes elapsed. Reinhard felt sympathetic as he announced this fact to Mariendorf, whose face fell.

“Hilde!” he yelled, voice muffled by the drapes. “Hilde!”

Reinhard stood there in silence for a moment.

“Did you you hear that?” Mariendorf asked.

“No,” Reinhard said.

“Hilde!”

This time, Reinhard listened more closely. There was the rush of the water from the fountain, the sounds of their breathing, the whir of the ventilation, and— yes— a faint tapping sound, as though from a great distance away, or through heavy layers of material. He turned towards the sound.

“Fraulein Mariendorf!” he yelled. “Where are you?”

Again, the faintest drumming sound, bare fists pounding on metal, perhaps. Reinhard took a step forward, towards the fountain. The water flowed down across the stone facade undisturbed, but he stuck his hand in the water and felt at the gap between the stone and the original metal wall, feeling up and down for any kind of opening. There, his fingers caught on something almost imperceptible, an indentation that was probably a fingerprint reading device. But where there was something like that, there had to be a crack where the door opened, and there it was, cleverly hidden among the rocks. 

“The door opener,” Reinhard said. “Give it to me.”

And it was in his hands, and he was jamming it into the crack in the rocks, and the pressure seals were hissing open, causing the fountain’s water to bubble and spray all around his hands as he wedged the tool in there, and then the door was sliding open, and there, on the floor, with her hands tied to the wall and a gag tied across her face, was Hildegarde von Mariendorf. She was wearing a dirty dress, and her feet were bare— though not for lack of shoes. She had one shoe held in her toes to extend her reach with her feet slightly, and it was that that she had been using to hit the door. Her wrists were scraped bloody and raw from her restraints, and her hands were swollen.

She looked to be about Reinhard’s age, maybe a little younger, and the expression on her face was a kind of determined anger, though it lightened when her father stepped past Reinhard.

Her father rushed in with a wordless cry, falling to his knees and immediately trying to untie the gag from her face.

“Are we on Heinessen?” were the first words out of her mouth as soon as she got free enough to talk. She also could speak the Alliance language, albeit with a thick accent. Like father, like daughter, Reinhard supposed.

“Phezzan,” Reinhard and Mariendorf said at the same time.

The cords tying her to the wall were thick industrial wire rope, and so instead of trying to cut through that, Reinhard pulled his utility knife off his belt and knelt to pry apart the crimps holding it to the hooks on the wall. This took some effort, and he wrecked the blade of his knife thoroughly, but he was able to open up the fastener enough that the wire rope could be pulled apart through the loop.

She sat up, rubbing her hands and wincing. “Thanks,” she said. “Mr….?”

“Lieutenant Commander Reinhard von Müsel,” he said, switching to the Imperial language for her. “Can you stand up?”

She struggled to her feet, her father giving her a hand. “Oh, I’m dizzy,” she said, but she leaned on her father’s arm for a moment and then recovered. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” he said, “I’m fine now. Are you?”

“Been better,” she said.

“I’m sorry to rush you,” Reinhard said, “but we really do need to get off this ship as quickly as possible. Can you walk?”

“Let me put my shoes back on,” she said. “Gods, I hate this stupid dress.” She pulled her shoes back on her feet.

Reinhard led them through the maze-like hallways of the ship. The rest of the passengers were re-entering, now, and they looked at the Mariendorfs and Reinhard with naked suspicion or fear. A glare from Reinhard usually sent most of them scurrying out of his way.

At the entrance of the ship, Reinhard summoned a few of his subordinates over. “Take the Mariendorfs down to the High Commissioner’s Office,” Reinhard said. “Get them any medical treatment that they need, and some clean clothes, and lodgings for at least the night. I’ll stay here for the moment, in case I need to deal with Castrop himself, but I want to talk to them later.”

Mariendorf had been listening to this exchange. “Am I your prisoner now, Lieutenant Commander?”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said. “This is Phezzan. I have no authority to take prisoners.”

Despite his grim condition, Mariendorf said, in a weak but dry tone, “I’ve been finding that authority to take prisoners is not something that is really necessary. Force will suffice.”

“Dad,” Hilde said. “We can cooperate.”

“Yes,” he said. “Alright.”

“Thank you,” Reinhard said. The Mariendorfs were shuffled away. Reinhard watched them go, some odd feeling in his chest when he saw the way the father wrapped his arm around his daughter’s shoulder, and she leaned onto him.

They left just in time, because Castrop returned, red faced and apoplectic. He was taller than Reinhard, and physically larger by far, so Reinhard suddenly understood why all his retainers had an air of painful deference: despite his round cheeks, Castrop was a fierce man when angry. He stormed up to Reinhard, who didn’t flinch or step back.

“I told you that there would be consequences,” he said. “You, you—“

“You are welcome to proceed to Heinessen, sir,” Reinhard said, keeping his tone even. 

“I’ll have you dismissed from your post for this,” Castrop said.

Reinhard lost his temper at that remark, finally, saying, “You will need to get used to not having your way, Herr Castrop. There are no lords in the Alliance, so do not expect your words to have as much sway there as they did in your old home.”

Castrop slapped Reinhard. The blow was undignified, and it stung, leaving a red welt across his face. A younger Reinhard might have retaliated viciously, but he stood there and took it, narrowing his eyes. 

“Do not speak to me that way,” Castrop said.

“The laws for self defense on Phezzan would have me well within my rights to shoot you for that,” Reinhard said, coldly. “And if I believed that your threat about my dismissal held any water, I would be far more willing to accept a dishonorable discharge for killing you than I would for whatever you think you could do.”

“You will regret this,” Castrop said, turning on his heel and walking away.

Reinhard felt a cold vindication at that. He had certainly won this encounter, having managed to free the captives, and he didn’t care what Castrop did after that. 

Reinhard walked over to the port window, and watched a few maintenance drones detach themselves from the side of Castrop’s ship as it prepared to depart. He wanted to make sure they were really leaving. It didn’t take long. The long docking arms that held the ship to the port fell away, and it engaged its engines and slid silently away, only vanishing out of sight when it moved ‘above’ the port window.

After the long journey down the elevator, Reinhard presented himself back at the High Commissioner’s Office. Blackwell was waiting for him outside his office. He pointed into a little conference room with a glass door, where the Mariendorfs were sitting by themselves, eating takeout from styrofoam containers.

“I assume this was the other issue you had to deal with,” Blackwell said.

“Yes, sir. That’s not a problem, I hope.”

“We’ll see if it becomes a problem.” He was frowning deeply. “I found out what has Heinessen all worked up, by the way.”

“What is it, sir?”

“Castrop’s planet was protected with the same Phezzani tech that protects Heinessen: the Artemis necklace. Apparently, his was destroyed with just one ship, and he wants to tell us all about it, in exchange for— well, I don’t really care what he’s trying to sell it for.”

“Every technology has weaknesses,” Reinhard said. “A good fleet stationed permanently above Heinessen is obviously—“

“Nobody wants to listen to that kind of talk,” Blackwell said. “Not when someone from Phezzan is trying to sell them a miracle.”

“Clearly,” Reinhard said, voice dry. “Castrop can sell whatever story he has. I don’t think it has anything to do with them.” He jerked his head in at the Mariendorfs, who were watching them have this conversation outside the door.

“They say they were being used as hostages. You believe that?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “I’m sure at least he would have been shot if they had made it into the Alliance without me finding them. Castrop might have kept the girl for his own amusements.”

Blackwell made a face. “What do you want to do with them?”

“Do with them?” Reinhard asked. “Probably just see if they have any information, which I don’t think they do, and then let them loose on Phezzan. It was a humanitarian act to get them out, if you can forgive such things.”

Blackwell chuckled. “Be careful, or you’ll get a reputation for that kind of thing. Between Ms. Roscher and this—“

“There are worse reputations to have,” Reinhard said. “Did any of the other passengers decide to disembark at Phezzan, by the way?”

“A few.”

“Good,” Reinhard said. “I expect Castrop is going to yell about this when he gets to Heinessen.”

“You stuck your neck out, and mine by extension.” He scratched his chin. “Depending on exactly how much fuss he makes, you might get pulled from this post. I don’t know if I’d have the ability to fight to keep you.”

“That’s alright, sir,” Reinhard said. “I’d rather be on the front lines, anyway.”

“You are a strange one. You wanted to talk to them?” He looked in at the Mariendorfs again.

“Yes, just for a minute.”

Blackwell nodded and walked away. Reinhard entered the conference room where the Mariendorfs were. They had gotten a chance to bathe, at some point, and someone had given them both new clothes: cheap Imperial fashion, though Hilde was wearing a man’s suit rather than a dress. They looked much better than they had just a few hours previously, the only traces of having been locked up for who knows how long being the visible wounds on Hilde’s wrists, and the still-sunken look of the count’s face. They both stood up when Reinhard came in.

“Castrop left for Heinessen,” Reinhard said. He gestured magnanimously back at the table, and both the Mariendorfs sat. He pulled out a chair across from them. “How’s your dinner?”

“Good, thank you,” Hilde said.

“Yes, I appreciate the Alliance’s hospitality very much,” the count said. Although he spoke the rest of the sentence in the Imperial language, he hesitated and said ‘Alliance’ in the Alliance language— apparently not wanting to offend and call them ‘rebel territories.’ Reinhard almost smiled at that.

“Well, you’re on Phezzan,” Reinhard said. “It’s in everyone’s best interests to be hospitable around here.”

“Will we be allowed to leave?” the count asked.

“I assume you have no desire to immigrate to the Alliance,” Reinhard said. “You’re welcome to, of course. Or you can stay on Phezzan and do as you please.”

“No, I don’t believe that would be in anyone’s best interest,” the count said. “I’m very grateful that I will have the opportunity to return to my own life, with my daughter.”

Reinhard reached across the conference room table for the sticky notes and cup of pens that sat in the middle of it. He wrote down Muller’s name and contact information on the top note.

“When you walk out of here, go see Lieutenant Commander Neidhart Muller, over in the Imperial Embassy. He’ll make sure you get where you need to go.”

Hilde took the note and looked it over. “You know him?”

“Phezzan is a very small planet,” Reinhard said. “It’s inevitable that you cross paths with your counterpart on the other side on occasion. He has a reputation for being dependable, anyway.” 

“Thank you,” the count said. “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“You said you knew Captain Leigh— could you explain how?”

Hilde leaned forward. “You know Hank?”

“That’s a strong word for it. My next door neighbor, when I was a child— I fled the Empire when I was ten, with my mother and sister— was one of Captain Leigh’s students.”

“How do you know that?” Hilde asked. “Which student?”

“My daughter weaseled her way into attending some of Captain Leigh’s classes when he taught at the Imperial Officers’ Academy,” the count explained. “She might have been his classmate.”

“Hah,” Reinhard said. “Were you following the news of, not this most recent February, but the one before that, when Rear Admiral Reuenthal attacked Condor Base?”

Hilde nodded. “Yes, I knew about that.”

“I don’t believe Imperial papers carried the full story,” Reinhard said. “Rear Admiral Reuenthal took the base staff prisoner. I was stationed there at the time, and with a friend of mine, Lieutenant Commander Greenhill, we were able to commandeer a ship and rescue the prisoners. Anyway, during that process, I overheard a conversation between Rear Admiral Reuenthal and Captain Leigh, talking about his students. That’s how I knew him.”

“Oskar never told me about that,” Hilde said, leaning back in her chair. “I’ll have to beg him for the details, next time I see him.”

“I’m sure Rear Admiral Reuenthal does not want to regale you with that story,” the count said, sounding tired.

“He won the engagement,” Reinhard said.

“Wait, but who is the student of Hank’s that you know?”

Reinhard’s hand instinctively went to the locket underneath his shirt, but he didn’t pull it out. “Siegfried Kircheis,” he said. “Do you know him?”

Hilde let out a startled laugh. “Oh gods, yes, I know him. He’s my closest friend. He was just—” She cut herself off. 

“Small universe,” the count said. “Lieutenant Kircheis is a good man.”

Reinhard felt odd, suddenly jealous of this woman. “Please give him my fondest regards,” he said, voice tight. 

“I will,” she said. “I promise.”

Reinhard wanted to question her further about Kircheis, but stifled that desire. This was not the time, or the place. “What were you doing on Castrop’s planet, if I may ask?”

Hilde looked at her father. “There was the idea that I might be able to negotiate for my father’s release. Obviously, it failed.”

“And how did you end up being taken prisoner?”

“I knew Castrop was going to use my father as a bargaining chip for as long as he could,” Hilde said. “So I was attempting to free him, and I ended up trapped as well.”

“I see,” Reinhard said. “And what caused Castrop to leave his planet?”

“I don’t know,” the count said. “Neither of us were in much of a position to observe what was going on, when he finally loaded us onto his ship.”

Reinhard nodded. It was a slightly evasive answer, and he noticed that Hilde hadn’t said anything, even though she had been eager to talk before, so Reinhard decided to play his hand. “Castrop said that the Artemis Necklace that was protecting his planet— the same one that protects Heinessen— was destroyed, and that caused him to flee. Do you know anything about that?”

“If anyone could take care of something like that, it would be Hank,” Hilde said confidently, though Reinhard thought there was an air of something else underneath that confidence. Fear, maybe, and the confidence was a mask.

Reinhard nodded. “But you don’t know how he did it?”

“No,” the count said, and he seemed genuine.

“I lost contact with him, before everything went down,” Hilde said. “I don’t know what he did.”

“Alright,” he said. “I appreciate your honesty.” He stood, and the Mariendorfs did as well. He held out his hand, and they shook, first the count, then Hilde. “If you need anything else while you are on Phezzan, don’t hesitate to contact me, or anyone else at the High Commissioner’s Office.”

“Thank you,” the count said. “I owe you a great debt, for myself, and for my daughter.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Reinhard said. “I have developed something of a reputation for freeing captives, it seems.”

Hilde laughed at that. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Commander. I wish I could get to know you better.”

“This war won’t last forever, Fraulein Mariendorf. When it ends, perhaps we can be friends.”

She smiled. “I would like that very much.”

 


 

About two weeks later, Blackwell called Reinhard into his office. He didn’t look happy, his lips pinched in a way that Reinhard had never seen before. 

“Take a seat, Müsel,” Blackwell said, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

“Yes.” As Reinhard sat, Blackwell stood, taking a few steps to look into his huge fishtank, watching the fat goldfish hide behind some aquatic plants. “I was worried that this Castrop affair would cause you trouble.”

“What’s happened?”

“Castrop never made it to Heinessen,” Blackwell said. “His ship was destroyed en route.”

Reinhard raised his eyebrows. “How?”

“Analysis of the wreckage is ongoing.”

“There weren’t any ships we’ve identified as imperial agents that followed him,” Reinhard said. And he had gotten Muller to promise that there wouldn’t be. “Was it pirates?”

“Pirates would take the ship whole, so they could sell the engine. There’s a few possibilities, none of them are good.”

“What do you think it was, then, sir?”

“I don’t know,” Blackwell said. “I’m not an explosives forensics expert. But—“ he turned back towards Reinhard and pulled out a letter from his desk, passing it to him— “There are certain parties on Heinessen who believe that your delay of Castrop was specifically to allow an agent to plant a timed explosive on the ship.”

Reinhard stood, his chair scraping across the floor. His face was red, infuriated. “I am not a traitor,” he said.

“I told you this would come down on your head,” Blackwell said. He continued to hold out the envelope, which Reinhard had not yet taken. “That’s an inquest summons. You’re going to have to explain your case.”

“What case?” Reinhard spat. “I was well within my rights to request that we search that ship; you know that. And every procedure was followed. And we were right to do it!”

“Castrop apparently sent a scathing message to Heinessen about you,” Blackwell said. “If he had arrived safely, it probably would have been forgotten. But he didn’t, so your name is the last one that anyone’s heard.”

“This is ridiculous,” Reinhard said. He took the letter. “Am I being discharged? Court martialed?”

“There’s at least one person on Heinessen who thinks this is as ridiculous as I do. That’s why it’s an inquest, and not a court martial.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I don’t know,” Blackwell said. “But maybe you can avoid it going on your permanent record.”

“If they’re looking for someone to blame, and they’re picking me as their victim—“

“You wanted to go to the front lines anyway,” Blackwell said. “If they punish you by saying you’re not fit to work on Phezzan anymore, that’s where they’ll send you. Just cooperate, and it will probably be less painful.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Müsel, if you go in there yelling and biting, that will only make you look worse, and make it easier to blame you.”

“There’s nothing I can do, then. I’m some sort of sacrificial victim to make Heinessen politicians feel good about themselves.”

“That’s the way it is, sometimes,” Blackwell said. “You could resign instead.”

Reinhard scowled. “No.”

“Then you’ll go to Heinessen, play polite, and hopefully this will all be smoothed over somehow. Or at least forgotten about.”

“It’s absurd,” Reinhard said.

“I’ll prepare a written testimony in support of you,” Blackwell said, “though I don’t know how much it will help.”

Reinhard tried to relax his shoulders. “Thank you, sir,” he said through gritted teeth.

“You have been a very valuable member of my staff here, and I will be unhappy to lose you, if you are reassigned. I can hope that it won’t go that way, but hoping for the best is a way to make yourself unhappy.”

“When do I leave?”

“The merchant ship Belorussia is departing in three days. I’ll arrange your passage.” 

Chapter Text

March 796 U.C., Heinessen

Julian had been living with Annerose as his guardian for a bit more than a year, and so he had grown very used to having her around. Ms. Ingrid having moved herself into the house didn’t change the dynamic all that much, except that Julian cooked meals for three instead of two, and he was forced to begin picking up the Imperial language. He was approximately conversational, at this point, if conversation was limited to household vocabulary and sentences no longer than a few words. Still, he was getting better. His listening was better than his speaking, and that was the important thing, anyway, since Ms. Ingrid herself was trying to practice her Alliance language.

In any event, they had made a pleasant little household for a while, one that Julian was quite happy to call home, even if the strange status that Annerose occupied in his life was nowhere near a replacement for his own father, and Ms. Ingrid occupied an even less definable position. It didn’t matter, so long as no one asked him to explain. The few times at school he had been asked about his family, he had certainly avoided mentioning the fact that Ms. Ingrid and Annerose were something more than friends, whatever they were. 

The first night after Annerose had left for her deployment, Ms. Ingrid had been distraught, even if she didn’t say that aloud, and she sat up on the couch all night long, the TV muted, showing some ancient movie, one Julian had never heard of before. He had tried to stay up with her to make sure she was okay, but she had shooed him away. In the morning, he had found her slumped over with her head on the arm of the couch, and he had covered her up with a blanket before he got dressed to go to school.

Although communication between the two of them was difficult, Julian took his responsibility to take care of and watch out for Ms. Ingrid very seriously, and it was clear that Ms. Ingrid felt similarly seriously about being Julian’s surrogate guardian while Annerose was out of the house. It was a funny situation, and Julian could find the humor in it, even though he wished that Ms. Ingrid would let him take on the majority of the responsibilities. He didn’t mind cooking, after all, and she wasn’t very good at it.

They made an odd pair, heading out to the grocery store together: obviously unrelated, and Julian already a few inches taller than the petite redhead. Julian did all the talking, and Ms. Ingrid looked around in that nervous, dreamy way of hers, sometimes getting caught up examining the differences between two brands of potato flakes for so long that Julian had to assertively point at one of them, even though there was no real difference. 

Julian kept careful track of the household expenses, and though he would never admit it to Annerose, as she would certainly tell him to stop being ridiculous, it was a point of pride for him to make sure that all the money that he and Ms. Ingrid spent came solely out of the stipend Annerose was granted for Julian’s care. Although he had access to it, he would have never dreamed of touching the bank account into which Annerose’s salary was deposited.

Mrs. von Müsel came by at least once a week, making the train ride in from Wrightsville to check on Julian for Annerose, and Ms. Ingrid for the Earth Church. Julian liked Mrs. von Müsel well enough, but he couldn’t help but regard her with the same type of suspicion that Annerose had, and probably even more. Ms. Ingrid liked having her company, probably not least because Mrs. von Müsel would have long conversations with her in her native language, ones that Julian could only pick up every tenth word from. 

He asked Ingrid, once, what they had been talking about. He had been in the kitchen mixing cookie dough during their conversation, letting the snappy Imperial wash over him, his ears always perking up when he heard his own name mentioned. Ms. Ingrid had sounded choked up at points, though since Mrs. von Müsel had a consoling tone, Julian didn’t think it was anything that he needed to be too worried about. Still, after Mrs. von Müsel had left, and they were sitting at the kitchen table eating the chocolate chip cookies, he asked, “Are you alright, Ms. Ingrid?”

“Yes,” she said, and put that wan smile on her face.

“Were you talking about me?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head and sounding earnest. “Caribelle, she said, about my son— Erwin.”

“Oh,” Julian said. “What were you saying?”

Ms. Ingrid looked down at her hands. “Caribelle took Annerose, Reinhard away,” she said. “I can’t bring Erwin.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. He understood some of the intricacies of her political situation, and it was true that if she had brought her baby with her, there would have been no way that  she would have ended up here safely, in Annerose’s kitchen with Julian. She probably would have died, if she had fought too hard. Julian leaned on her shoulder. “I’m sure he’s being taken care of.”

“Yes,” Ms. Ingrid said. “I know. I said I want him to be like you.”

Julian flushed a little. “He’s your son, so I’m sure he’s great.”

“Yes, but Ludwig’s, too.” And that was the end of that conversation.

 


 

Julian’s birthday, near the end of March, was celebrated without too much of a fuss. Ms. Ingrid had insisted on making the cake, even though the only thing she could really cook well was rice, so it was lumpy and ill-frosted, but Julian appreciated it all the same, along with the letter that had come from Annerose (accompanied with a gift she had hidden in her bedroom before she left for her deployment: a very nice winter jacket), the journal and pens that Ms. Ingrid had gotten him, a knitted hat from Mrs. von Müsel, and the book on merchant ship design he had gotten from Rear Admiral Cazerne. The Cazernes had invited Julian and Ms. Ingrid over for dinner on his birthday, and Julian had had a very pleasant time playing with the new baby and reading to Charlotte, though as usual, this sort of thing made Ms. Ingrid melancholy in a way Julian was sorry that he couldn’t fix. He liked the Cazernes quite a lot, though, and he was always happy to hear what the rear admiral had to say about life in the fleet.

After dinner, Julian and Ms. Ingrid were walking home through the chill autumn night, the stars barely visible through the thin cloud cover. It wasn’t a long walk between the Cazernes’ house and theirs, but they weren’t going particularly fast. Ms. Ingrid liked taking walks, Julian had learned.

“When’s your birthday, Ms. Ingrid?” he asked.

“July,” she replied. “Summer, where I lived on Odin.”

“That’s winter, here,” Julian said. “What was it like when you lived on Earth?”

“We didn’t have birthdays,” she said. “I didn’t keep track of the days.”

“At all?”

“No.”

“Oh, wow,” Julian said. “That’s sad. We should do something to celebrate this year.”

She ruffled his hair. “It’s alright. I don’t need anything.”

“No, really,” Julian said. “We will. I want to.”

Ms. Ingrid smiled and was about to say something else, when they heard an odd sound coming from a nearby bush, a strained cry of some kind of animal. Ms. Ingrid stopped, nervous, even though they were in the middle of a suburban neighborhood and there was no chance of anything dangerous in the dark. Julian was reminded that she had spent several years living in the wilderness, and who even knew what kind of creatures lived in the untamed wilds of Earth. 

“It sounds like there’s something hurt there,” Julian said, stepping forward and turning on his phone flashlight to investigate. The light from nearby streetlamps and houses’ front doors didn’t penetrate the relative gloom of the trees and bushes they were standing near, the foliage that made up the beginnings of the greenbelt next to the town’s reservoir. 

Ms. Ingrid watched Julian as he took a few steps forward onto the grass off the side of the road, her hands curled into fists around her sleeves. Julian came closer to the sound, not sure what he was looking for, but peeling back the bushes with one hand. The animal cry turned into hissing, and the light from Julian’s phone landed on the figure of a supremely bedraggled cat, curled up on the ground underneath some bushes. One of its hind legs was twisted in a way that didn’t look normal, and it had dried blood and puss matting in its long fur. 

“It’s a cat,” Julian called back to Ms. Ingrid as he crouched down. The cat continued to hiss at him, but he reached out his hand towards its head, and it made no move to bite him, though it bared its teeth. Gingerly, he pet the top of its head, trying to calm it down. The cat cringed back, but the hissing subsided after a second. 

“What happened to you?” Julian murmured. He pulled off his jacket, laying it on the ground. With as delicate of a touch as he could, Julian tried to maneuver the injured cat onto his jacket, causing a new round of howling and hissing to break out.

“Julian!” Ms. Ingrid cried, still very nervous.

“It’s alright,” Julian said. He picked up the cat and jacket, carrying both in his arms back out to the street. “Poor thing,” he said as he showed the cat to Ms. Ingrid.

She looked at it with a combination of fear-- it was still hissing, though it made no move to bite-- and pity. “What’s wrong with it?” she asked.

“I think it was hit by a car,” Julian said. “Can we find it a vet?”

Ms. Ingrid was nervous, but she looked at Julian’s wide-eyed expression and probably decided that if she didn’t say yes, Julian would find a way to take matters into his own hands. She nodded, and so the cat ended up in a cardboard box on the kitchen table, while Julian made phone calls to vets, and then eventually got a taxi to take them to somewhere that would be able to help on short notice, at night.

It turned out that the cat’s leg was beyond saving, but the rest of the cat would be alright with care and antibiotics. Julian was told he was a male cat, probably only a little over a year old. The cat had to stay at the vet’s office for several days following its surgery, and, in that time, Julian wondered which of the two people living in Annerose’s house had the actual authority to decide if they could adopt a cat while Annerose was out.

On one hand, Julian was actually supposed to be living there, and Annerose usually let him do as he pleased. On the other hand, Ms. Ingrid was the adult, who was nominally taking care of him. These two ideas conflicted, and he was further worried by the idea that when Annerose got back, she might not want to be surprised that Julian had adopted a three legged cat. Granted, this did not stop Julian from wanting to do it, and so he prepared as meticulous of an argument for it to Ms. Ingrid as he could, in an attempt to get her on board.

“I want to adopt the cat,” Julian said.

“Okay,” Ms. Ingrid said back, which was unexpected, to say the least. Julian almost began arguing, just in case Ms. Ingrid wasn’t thinking everything through, but then decided that he did not want to accidentally un-convince her. So, after the cat was well enough to be moved, he moved into the house.

“What should we call him?” Julian asked. The cat had been shaved, to get rid of all the mats in his fur, so he was scrawny looking and defensive on three legs. Julian looked in at him through the bars of the cat carrier on the kitchen table.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Ingrid said. She was still a little nervous about the animal, and wasn’t putting her fingers up to the front of the carrier to let the cat sniff her as Julian was.

“Maybe we should name him after Lieutenant Commander Annerose’s brother,” Julian said. “Then she’d have to like him, when she gets home.”

Ms. Ingrid looked at the cat, then went into the living room to look at the von Müsel family photo. “I don’t think they look the same.”

Julian laughed. “Have you seen the photos of Lieutenant Commander Reinhard when he was on that Imperial ship? He looked just as dirty as this one did.”

“No,” Ms. Ingrid said. “He looked like a god, when I met him.”

“You don’t look much like a god, do you, little fellow,” Julian said to the cat. He called across the house, “Maybe-- well, Lieutenant Commander Reinhard wants to be an admiral, maybe that’s what we can call him.”

“Okay,” Ms. Ingrid said. “Admiral.”

Julian grinned, then let Admiral out of his carrier. “Welcome home, Admiral,” he said.

 


 

July 796 U.C., Heinessen

Julian missed Annerose very much after several months had passed, and there was no sign yet that she would be returning at any point. He kept checking the news, and would occasionally dare to ask Rear Admiral Cazerne if he knew anything, but Cazerne shook his head and told Julian that, knowing anything or not knowing anything, he couldn’t say it. Annerose’s absence was therefore mysterious and interminable, which made it worse.

He could tell that it grated on Ms. Ingrid, too, because she started attending her worship at the Earth Church more and more often. Julian always accompanied her, even though he found it mind-numbingly boring. It was worth it to follow Annerose’s commands, to make sure that nothing bad was happening to Ms. Ingrid there. There never was anything, and on the rare occasions that she did speak to the bishop or any of the church officials, the conversations were polite and about nothing in particular, mostly inquiring after her health and happiness.

Still, Julian wondered if it wasn’t his presence there in the cathedral at her side that made it so nothing else happened. So he continued to follow after her.

They made one of these visits to the Earth Church cathedral in the middle of Heinessenpolis one cold night in late August. Ingrid and Julian were kneeling in the doors, listening to the droning chanting from the robed figures in the front. Ingrid was absorbed, humming along under her breath, but Julian was looking around at all the other people in the pews, examining the various rapt expressions on their faces. Julian looked at their clothes, trying to figure out what the demographics of the church were. Mostly middle or lower class, he thought, though that might just be because those people made up the majority of society itself. There were a few more affluent looking families or individuals, usually sitting up near the front.

After the end of the service, Ms. Ingrid usually liked to stay and pray for a little while longer, and this was even more tediously boring to Julian than the service had been. He watched everyone head out, and then because he had nothing else to occupy his mind, he listened carefully to the muffled conversations happening amongst the parishioners in the narthex, beyond the large, open doors into the church itself. He heard the bishop’s voice, then another voice that he had to think hard about where he recognized it from-- it sounded very familiar for some reason, and not in the way that Julian had grown used to hearing the other members of the church. He turned his head slightly, then almost jumped in surprise. Job Trunicht, the secretary of defense, was greeting Bishop Martine. Martine made a little gesture, then Trunicht began to follow him towards one of the hallways that went towards the church offices.

Julian leaned towards Ms. Ingrid. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

She nodded, her eyes closed, and Julian got up. He felt like his footsteps were echoing too loudly on the marble floor, but none of the remaining parishioners in the church paid him the least attention as he pulled open the hallway doors and slipped inside. The bathrooms were indeed in this direction, after all. He didn’t see the bishop and the defense secretary, but he knew where the bishop’s offices were, so he headed in that direction, looking all around to make sure no one was following him. The hallways were empty.

The bishop’s office door was closed, but Julian could hear muffled voices coming through it, and he listened.

“...Don’t think it will be much longer,” Trunicht said.

“He seems to be ill,” the bishop agreed.

“And is that your work?”

“Mr. Secretary, if we had the capability to kill the kaiser, do you not think we would have done it long ago?”

“It’s a fair question, by my estimation,” Trunicht said. “You seem to have dealt with his son easily enough.”

“If that was our work, I haven’t heard of it. It would be dangerous for the person who did it to admit to such things.”

“You couldn’t ask his wife?”

“She knows nothing, I’m sure. Brandy?”

“Thank you.”

There was a clinking of glasses.

“Was that her I saw out there?” Trunicht asked.

“Oh, yes. She comes often. Sweet woman,” Martine said. “Quiet,”

“Hunh,” Trunicht said. “So, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Phezzan, mostly.”

“And what about our friendly neighbor?”

“You are aware that we have a fair share of influence on Phezzan, are you not?”

“Vaguely,” Trunicht said. “Are you about to sell me something?” There was a wry tone in his voice. “I’ve put my foot down on buying more Phezzani tech for defense, you know.”

“No, not precisely,” Martine said. “Though, as you know, everything on Phezzan has a price.”

“I’m well aware.”

There was a momentary silence, Martine seeming to consider his words. “Some things have prices in things other than money.”

“I wasn’t aware that Phezzanis thought of things that way. Fiat seems to be one of the few things they care about.”

“Perhaps. But Rubinsky could be convinced to care about more.”

“Such as?”

“Phezzan is in a delicate position, and is going to have to make some choices for its own future. I’ve been told that Duke Braunschweig is not particularly partial to Phezzan and its excesses, and that he is both more militaristic and more frugal than Kaiser Friedrich is. And I think with this whole Castrop affair, he’s begun to see just how Phezzan’s existence as an independent entity has the ability to give a few people too many ideas.”

“That is not new information,” Trunicht said. “Don’t waste my time, Martine.”

“Of course not, Mr. Secretary. I’m simply saying that if Phezzan does not wish to be overrun by the new kaiserine’s father-- and he would have the ability to do so, once he consolidates his base-- Phezzan may have a vested interest in--”

Julian missed the rest of the sentence when he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. He jumped, horrified and startled, but saw that it was Ms. Ingrid. She put her finger to her lips, then tugged on his sleeve. He followed her away down the hall and back out of the church.

As they stood at the bus stop with their hands in their pockets, waiting for the bus to take them back home, Julian said, “Are you mad at me?”

“I know that Annerose told you to listen,” she said, staring up at the streetlights against the cloudy night sky. “You were doing what she asked.”

“They were talking about you,” he said.

“I know.”

Julian hesitated. “Do you know who killed Prince Ludwig?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“I did,” Ms. Ingrid said.

Julian looked at her with new, wide eyes. “Does Bishop Martine know that?

“Yes.”

“He told Secretary Trunicht that he didn’t know.”

Ingrid shook her head. “How can I explain to you…” The words didn’t seem to come easily to her. “I am not useful if they think I am difficult.” 

Julian nodded, slowly, thinking this over. “Do you know what they’re planning with Phezzan?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to know. I hope…”

“What?”

She stared out into the darkness. “They will kill Erwin,” she said.

“Bishop Martine and Secretary Trunicht?”

She shook her head. “No, no-- my sister in law. Princess Amarie.”

“Why?”

“If she hears that someone will support Erwin for the throne… Phezzan, the church, anyone…” She shook her head. “I hope the secretary understands.” But she didn’t sound confident.

“Trunicht didn’t sound like he trusted the bishop.”

“Maybe, maybe not. He doesn’t need to trust.” She bit her lip. “Julian, listen to me.”

“I’m listening, Ms. Ingrid.”

“There is no way to be happy and to be kaiser,” she said. “But for Erwin to live… I will do as they say.”

Julian leaned on her arm. “Should we tell Lieutenant Commander Reinhard about this? He won’t let anything bad happen on Phezzan.”

“No. No, we can’t tell. He may know, anyway.”

The bus pulled up at the stop with a hiss and screech of brakes, and they both climbed aboard, squeezing into seats in the back. Ms. Ingrid leaned her head on the window as the bus began to move, her breath fogging up the glass. 

“Are you alright, Ms. Ingrid?” Julian asked.

“Just thinking,” she said.

“About what?”

“I always pray,” she said. “I pray that someday I’ll see everyone again-- Erwin, and Maggie, and Janie, and my mother and father, all those people…” She shook her head. “I can’t, if there’s a war. But if the war ends-- and I can help make it end-- then I might. And I want it to end without anyone else getting hurt: you, or Annerose, or her brother. That’s all I want.”

“And you think the bishop knows how to do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t possible.”

“It might be,” Julian said. “Lieutenant Commander Reinhard thinks that the war will end.”

She nodded. “I hope so.”

 


 

September 796 U.C., Heinessen

Julian was asleep in his bed, one night during the first week in September, the blankets pulled up around his chin, when he was woken by the sound of the front door opening. It was the kind of thing that would wake him up. He was used to Ms. Ingrid sometimes getting up at night, unable to sleep, and going on walks. Julian would hear her and usually go with her, against her protests, because he worried about her. But this was different. He hadn’t heard the creaking of the floor right outside the room Ms. Ingrid shared with Annerose; and as the front door opened more, he thought it sounded like more than one person was coming in. He got out of bed silently, then crept out of his room. He was not going to let Annerose’s house get robbed, or if people were after Ms. Ingrid, he was not going to let them get her. 

From his position at the top of the stairwell, Julian could see one tall man in the hallway, lit only vaguely by the streetlights coming in through the windows, his face completely indistinct. There were other footsteps in the living room; maybe this man was the lookout.

Julian decided that there would be no way he would make it down the stairs without alerting the lookout standing at the bottom, so he made the decision that it would be best to come off as intimidating as possible to make them go away. He didn’t really have a backup plan, but he felt that this was probably what Lieutenant Commander Reinhard would have done.

He took a deep breath, then lithely leapt down the top few steps and jumped, landing on the intruder’s back and wrapping his arms around his neck. 

The man stumbled forwards, with Julian hitting him like a train. There was a momentary, intense tussle, which involved the man trying to pry Julian’s arms away from his neck and face to breathe, while Julian clung on with all his strength, until the man finally stumbled sideways into the hallway table, causing a great scraping and clattering as Ms. Ingrid’s keys fell off and to the floor.

“Walter, I told you to be quiet so you didn’t wake the whole-- Gods above.”

Annerose had emerged from the kitchen, holding a wine bottle in one hand and the corkscrew in the other, and Julian hastily let go of Captain Schenkopp, falling to the floor and landing badly enough that he sat down, very, very embarrassed.

Behind Annerose, several of the other Rosenritter officers appeared-- Julian recognized them as Commander Linz and Commander Blumhart, along with a woman that he knew was familiar, but couldn’t place. Linz and Blumhart were both laughing.

“Annerose, I’m going to have to stop coming to your house if your resident gremlin attempts to murder me every time,” Schenkopp said. “You alright, Julian?”

Julian hastily stood. “I’m very sorry, sir,” he said. “I thought you were breaking in.”

“Clearly.”

“What’s going on?” Ms. Ingrid had emerged from the bedroom upstairs. “Julian?”

“Lieutenant Commander Annerose is home, Ms. Ingrid!” Julian said.

“I see I completely failed to not wake the whole house up,” Annerose said sounding rueful. “We were trying to be quiet.”

By this point, Ms. Ingrid was on the way down the stairs, and had scooped up Admiral in her arms, who had emerged from the bedroom to stare dolefully at the intruders. She smiled at Annerose, who smiled back. Schenkopp looked between the two of them with an inscrutable expression on his face. “Welcome home,” Ms. Ingrid said. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“Complicated travel situation,” Annerose said. “Sorry to startle you.” It was at this point that Annerose processed the cat. “You know what? Let me finish pouring the wine for everyone.”

“I’ll help,” the other woman said.

“The rest of you, go sit in the living room or something.” Annerose shooed the Rosenritters out of the kitchen. “Julian, please put a shirt on.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Julian said, and scrambled to obey.

When he got back downstairs, now fully dressed, the whole party had migrated to the living room. Annerose was sitting squished between Schenkopp and Ingrid on the couch, all three of them looking a combination of pleased and confused. The woman that Julian didn’t recognize was holding Admiral on the armchair, and Blummhart and Linz had dragged in dining chairs to sit on. Linz was complimenting Annerose on the tapestry embroidery hung up above the couch. Blumhart handed Julian a half-full glass of wine, which he looked at Annerose for permission to take. She nodded at him.

Julian took a sip, then immediately made a face. Ms. Ingrid covered her smile with her hand.

“Julian, you’ve met Lieutenant Commander Greenhill, right?” Annerose asked, distracting everyone from Julian’s reaction to the wine and gesturing to the woman petting Admiral.

“I believe we met at graduation,” Greenhill said. “Nice to see you again, Julian.”

“Oh, yes!” Julian said. The meeting with Greenhill had been brief, but he had been impressed with her since she had been with Reinhard during his adventure on Condor Base. “You’re in the Rosenritter?” he asked. 

She laughed so hard that Admiral was affronted, and jumped out of her lap to go investigate the other party guests. Ms. Ingrid scooped her up. “No,” she said. “I’m with the Sixth Fleet. Well, I’m supposed to be. But I was separated from the group,” she said. “It’s a long story.”

“Can you tell me where you were, now that you’re back?” Julian asked. “I missed you.”

Annerose smiled. “I missed you, too. I see you have been getting on alright.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She glanced at Schenkopp. “Are we allowed to talk about it?”

“It’s not like we’re going back there,” Schenkopp said. “I don’t see why not.”

So, with many interruptions from Schenkopp, Linz, and Blumhart, Annerose told the story of going to Cahokia-3, how she had warned Reinhard to keep an eye out in secret code, how Greenhill had interpreted it, the battle on the surface of Cahokia-- a brief interlude for Greenhill to describe the fleet battle-- and how all the Rosenritter and mine workers had been evacuated with Greenhill’s clever plan, and the way that they had snuck back out through the Iserlohn Corridor, and had returned to Heinessen to drop off all the civilians. Which meant that the Rosenritter were back at their normal posting for the foreseeable future, Greenhill was waiting to figure out what her official status was, since the Sixth Fleet was still technically out on patrol near the mouth of Iserlohn.

It was a thrilling story, which took long enough to tell that Julian ran back into the kitchen at one point to see if there was more wine for everyone (there was.) Julian just knew he wanted to hear Annerose talk about how she had taken over a ship in more detail, but by the end of it, Annerose was yawning through asking, “So, tell me what you’ve been up to, Julian.”

“Nothing, really,” he said. “You should get some sleep.”

“I agree,” Schenkopp said, extracting himself from the couch. “Linz, Blumhart, we’re not going to monopolize Müsel’s breakfast cereal as well as her midnight wine.”

“It’s alright,” Annerose said, standing. “You don’t have to go.” Ingrid looked like she might have stood as well, but Admiral was asleep on her lap.

“I simply do not think that there are beds enough for all the officers of the regiment,” Schenkopp said. “I’ll see you sometime tomorrow, I’m sure. There will probably be some sort of stupid debrief with higher ups.”

Annerose sighed. “I’m sure there will be.” The gears were already turning in her mind, Julian could see it. “If they hold the mine against us…”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Schenkopp said. “And if it does get blamed on us, well--” he grinned-- “that’s the kind of thanks Rosenritter get in general.”

“Suppose I’ll have to get used to it.” 

He laughed. Annerose reached up and tugged on his collar, stuffing his scarf back into position. He leaned down to allow it, and she kissed him. Linz wolf whistled at that. Julian glanced at Ingrid, who was looking down at Admiral in her lap.

“Tomorrow then, Annerose. Goodnight, Julian, Fraulein Roscher. Greenhill, do you need a ride somewhere?”

“Annerose, would you mind if I stayed the night?” Greenhill asked. “I don’t really…”

“Of course,” Annerose said. “Reinhard’s bedroom is empty, right?”

“Yes, ma’am. I can go put some sheets on the bed.”

“Perfect,” Annerose said. “Thank you, Julian.”

“Then I’m sure I’ll see you around, Greenhill,” Schenkopp said.

“Yes, sir,” Greenhill said. “Have a nice night.”

 Schenkopp saluted jauntily, then shoved Linz and Blumhart towards the door. The house was immediately much quieter after they left, and Julian ran upstairs to put sheets on the bed for Greenhill. She came upstairs after a second and helped him get the fitted sheet on. 

“I’m sure Reinhard won’t mind me sleeping on his bed,” Greenhill said. She looked around at some of the boxes of random accumulated objects in the corner of the sparse bedroom. “He doesn’t stay here much, I assume.”

“No, ma’am,” Julian said. “I think he would if he wasn’t on Phezzan.”

She nodded. “Makes sense. Wish he was here. It would be a fun little party if he was.”

“He thinks he might come back for New Years,” Julian said. “That’s what he said in one of his letters, anyway.”

She smiled. “Oh, I hope so. And I hope I’m on Heinessen, as well.”

“Thank you for rescuing Lieutenant Commander Annerose,” he said as they unfolded the comforter and shook it out.

“Hah,” she said. “I’m sure she would have been fine without me. But I’m glad I could do what I could.”

Julian just smiled at her, and then when the bed was made, headed back downstairs. He stopped in the kitchen doorway, then ducked back out of sight, when he saw Annerose and Ms. Ingrid embracing in the kitchen. After a second, they began speaking in low tones in the Imperial language, fast enough that Julian couldn’t follow, and he heard his own name mentioned a couple times. He shook his head, deciding to give them privacy, and went to gather up all the dirty wine glasses from the living room. When he returned, with his hands full, Ms. Ingrid was headed upstairs, and she ruffled his hair. “Goodnight, Julian,” she said.

“Goodnight, Ms. Ingrid.”

Annerose was rinsing out the empty wine bottles in the sink and recycling them. She glanced at Julian when he came in with all the glasses in his hands. “Oh, you didn’t have to get those; I would have.”

“It’s fine, ma’am. I’m glad you’re home.”

“I’m glad to be home,” she said. The last bottle tossed into the recycle bin, she leaned against the counter and looked at him. “You look taller,” she said. “Did you grow while I was gone?”

“I don’t know,” Julian said. “I haven’t measured.”

“The coat I got you fit, right?”

“Yes, I liked it very much.”

Annerose watched him put the wine glasses away. “You have been alright with Ingrid?”

“Yes, she’s great,” Julian said.

“I feel really bad about leaving you for so long,” Annerose said. “I hope…”

“It’s alright,” Julian said. “I don’t mind.”

“It’s not fair to you.” She shook her head. “You would be more than right to be angry with me for it.”

“I’m not mad,” Julian said earnestly. “I’m very happy you’re back, but I’m not mad at you for going. I understand, you know, you have your position.”

She smiled. “You’re very mature.” Still, she seemed sad, her tone wistful and her smile not reaching her eyes. “I wish I didn’t have to make you be such a grown-up about it.” She turned and looked under the sink for the dish detergent to start the washer. “I think that Rear Admiral Cazerne probably should have found someone else to take you,” she said, not looking at Julian.

He froze, his heart sinking.

“I couldn’t help but think, when I was out there on Cahokia, what if I had died, or been taken prisoner, or if this whole thing had dragged on for months longer-- it was already so long. It’s just not fair to you,” she said. “No child should have to have their guardian…” She put the soap in the dishwasher, then turned around.

Annerose caught sight of Julian’s crestfallen face. “See,” she said. “I knew I shouldn’t have… Oh, Julian, I really am sorry.”

“You’re going to send me away?” he asked, standing very stiffly.

“What?” she asked. “Oh, gods, no, Julian--” And she quickly wrapped him in her arms, getting the remnants of dish soap on his back. He didn’t mind at all. She was strong and warm, and he had missed her, and it was strange to have her back all of a sudden, but there was nowhere else he would have rather been than here. He hugged her back with all his strength.

“I missed you so much, and I was worried about you while I was out,” Annerose said. “And I am so sorry for leaving, because it’s not fair--”

“It’s okay, Lieutenant Commander,” he said. “I promise.”

“I wish I didn’t have to make you promise that,” she said, then stroked his hair.

Chapter Text

September 796 U.C., Heinessen

Annerose woke up before her alarm the next morning, unused to the warm comfort of her home bed, and the gentle snores of Ingrid next to her. The sun was just peeking up over the horizon; the sky outside was a chilly pink of early morning.

The cat-- Annerose couldn’t believe she had a cat now-- was curled up near her head, his voluminous tail tickling her ear. Ingrid must have let him get used to sleeping on the bed, but Annerose wasn’t sure if she was thrilled about letting that continue. Still, it was cozy and peaceful, just for a second. Some of Ingrid’s hair had fallen across her face, and out of some indefinable instinct, Annerose propped herself up on her elbow and tucked it back behind Ingrid’s ear.

Ingrid murmured sleepily and rolled towards Annerose, opening her eyes. “Good morning,” she said with a smile.

“Morning,” Annerose said. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s alright,” Ingrid said. She looked over at the clock on the bedside table. “Should get up, make sure Julian eats breakfast before school…”

“I shouldn’t have interrupted his sleep on a school night,” Annerose said.

“He’d have been sad if you didn’t. Probably would have wanted to stay home from school to talk to you.”

Annerose chuckled at that, then lay back on the bed. “I missed you both.”

“I’m glad you’re back,” Ingrid said.

“I hope I don’t have to go out again for a while,” Annerose admitted. “It was exciting, but…” She shook her head. “It’s a different life than this one.”

“I’m happy you’re safe.”

Annerose thought of the chaotic and dangerous last few days on Cahokia. “I was very lucky,” she said.

“No, you were strong,” Ingrid said. “That’s not luck.”

“I think you usually need both.” 

“Maybe. But I don’t want to rely on luck for you to come home. I trust you more than I trust chance.”

Annerose rolled towards Ingrid. “Thought you and my mom were praying for me.”

“I did that, too,” Ingrid said. Annerose smiled, and there was a momentary lull in the conversation as they just looked at each other for a second.

“I meant to ask you something,” Annerose said.

“What?”

“When I was on Cahokia, I met someone who claimed to know you. Did you ever know a man called Hank von Leigh?”

Ingrid’s eyes widened, her face paling. “Leigh?”

“Did he do something to you?” Annerose asked, suddenly angry.

Ingrid grabbed Annerose’s hand in both of hers. “No, no, he-- he… Was a friend of mine. Is he alive?”

“I think so,” Annerose said.

Ingrid relaxed, boneless, onto the pillow. “Good. That’s good. I’m glad.”

“I took him prisoner for a little while,” Annerose said. “But he escaped.”

Ingrid laughed at that. “I can’t even imagine.”

“He asked me about you, and told me to give you his regards,” Annerose said. “From him and Baroness Westpfale.”

Ingrid scrunched up her face. “Oh, Maggie,” she said.

“Who is she?” Annerose asked.

Ingrid shook her head. “Leigh and Maggie saved my life,” she said. “They helped me escape to Earth.”

“Oh,” Annerose said. “I wish I had know. I would have thanked him.”

“It’s okay,” Ingrid said. “Nobody’s supposed to know. If anyone found out…” Ingrid shook her head. “Maggie took the blame for… a lot of things. I hope she’s alright.”

“For killing Ludwig?”

Ingrid shook her head. “No, no.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Ingrid closed her eyes. “The night I killed him,” she said, “it was at a solstice party, in the palace. I went back to our bedroom, and Ludwig…”

“You don’t have to tell me the story,” Annerose said, hearing the clear unhappiness in Ingrid’s voice, with the remembered pain. “It’s alright. I don’t need to know.”

“No, it’s alright,” Ingrid said. “You deserve to know the story, probably. Or someone does. Ludwig, he threatened me, and I tried to tell him to stop, because of the baby, but he kept-- he was so drunk.”

“I’m so sorry, Ingrid,” Annerose said.

“He had his knife out, and I thought-- I don’t know what I thought. I probably shouldn’t have done it. But when he came for me, he was drunk, and I was sober, and I thought if I let him do what he wanted, I would die, and I just… I got the knife, and…” She made a motion, reaching up into the air, and she pretended to stab her own chest, eyes still closed.

“And I was just there, in the bedroom, with him dead on the floor, and I didn’t know what to do. So I called Maggie-- she was at the party-- and she helped me get rid of my dress, and we left the party through the front door-- everyone saw us leave together; she gave me an alibi… And so we were at her house, and she called Leigh, and Leigh lied to everyone, lied to the Kaiser, told him that it was Braunschweig or Littenheim that did it…”

“And how did Maggie take the blame?”

Ingrid half-laughed, but it was a sad sound. “She told the truth.”

“That you killed Ludwig?” Annerose wasn’t really following the story.

“No,” Ingrid said. “No, she told everyone why I left the palace to go to her house… Why I always was with her-- she told the Kaiser we were sleeping together. That was why I went to her house after the party. I couldn’t have killed Ludwig, because I had some different thing to hide. It was only luck that the assassin didn’t get me and the baby, too. I happened to be out, so they couldn’t kill Erwin before he was even born.”

Annerose was silent for a second, trying to process this information. “Oh.”

Ingrid turned towards her. “She gave up a lot to save me,” Ingrid said. “All her standing.”

“I can imagine,” Annerose said, feeling rather faint. “It was true, though?”

“Yes,” Ingrid said. 

“Oh.”

“Maggie was the first person I ever loved,” Ingrid said, sad and wistful.

“I thought the Earth Church didn’t like homosexuals,” Annerose said. It was a stupid thing to say, but it was the one thing her brain latched on to.

“No one likes homosexuals,” Ingrid said. “I don’t think that matters.”

Annerose moved to get up. Ingrid caught her wrist. “I should go see Julian off to school,” Annerose said.

“Thank you,” Ingrid said. “For passing on Leigh’s message.”

“Yeah,” Annerose said. She wished she hadn’t. She thought that she would have preferred not to have learned all of this; it sat heavily in her mind, making her unable to deliberately ignore quite a few things that she had been happily and willfully not thinking about. “I probably won’t see him again.”

Ingrid smiled. “Probably not. But… I’m glad to know he’s alright. He really did save me.”

“I owe him a debt, then. For you,” Annerose said. Confused as she was, she couldn’t help but be horrified at the alternatives for Ingrid, had she not been able to escape Odin. Here, in Annerose’s bed, with the morning light streaming in through the window, this felt like a better world for both of them than any other universe. The branching paths of fate had led them here, somehow, and Annerose was happy to have her here, despite herself. Just so long as she didn’t think about it. Just so long as it didn’t mean anything.

This relaxed Ingrid, who let go of her wrist. “Better stop Julian before he makes coffee. I don’t think it’s good for his developing brain,” she said with a yawn. “But he makes it for me before I can stop him, most days.”

Chapter Text

October 796 U.C., Phezzan Dominion

Reinhard was in a foul mood as he waited in the port at the bottom of the space elevator, about to make his ignominious departure from Phezzan. The elevator car he was supposed to ride on was scheduled to arrive in half an hour, and he had nothing better to do than watch the vendors hawk their wares. He wouldn’t miss this when he returned to Heinessen, but he did like Phezzan’s weather, and he didn’t mind some of the culture, either. Despite himself, he had grown used to the place. Strange, to think that he had lived decent parts of his life on all three of the major capital planets in the galaxy. Had he liked any of them? He couldn’t actually say. They were just places.

There was an argument going on in front of him between a vendor of pornographic magazines and a woman whose child had just knocked over the front display stand. Both parties felt equally aggrieved, and it was entertaining to watch them yell at each other as foot traffic flowed around them. Reinhard watched as both mother and vendor attempted to tug the same dirty book out of the five-year-old’s hands. He was distracted enough by the scene that he didn’t notice someone coming up to him until it was too late, and Muller sat down on the bench beside him.

Reinhard was tempted to start something with him that would eclipse the argument across the way, but he didn’t.

“I hear you’re getting sent home,” Muller said, speaking in the Phezzani argot. He was dressed in a long raincoat-- it was monsoon season-- but Reinhard could see the edges of his Imperial uniform peeking out underneath the sleeves.

“I thought we had agreed that you wouldn’t send a ship after Castrop,” Reinhard hissed.

“There was no ship that followed him,” Muller replied, affronted. “I keep my promises. And, besides, you didn’t see us send a ship. You would have.”

“What do you want, Muller?”

“Came to say goodbye, since I probably won’t see you again.”

“How sentimental of you.”

“I’m offended that you didn’t come see me.”

“We’re not friends.”

“I know. We’re about to be enemies again, as soon as you leave Phezzan.” He shrugged. “It’s a shame that the rest of the galaxy is at war.”

“We should stop pretending that the war doesn’t exist here,” Reinhard said.

“No,” Muller said. “I don’t think I will.” He reached to his side, and pulled out a wrapped package. “Got you a going away gift.”

Reinhard hesitated, then took it. “What is it?”

“Open it.”

“I’ll call Phezzan Port Security and say you’re handing me a bomb.”

Muller laughed. “Come on.”

Reinhard peeled the shiny green wrapping paper back, revealing a book. He flipped it over to look at the front cover. It showed a candid photograph of some of the early members of the Goldenbaum dynasty, but someone had taken a thick black marker to the photo, and crossed out the eyes of some of the figures. “ Every Point Forms the Line: A New History of the Goldenbaum Dynasty, 30-75 I.C. ” Reinhard crumpled the wrapping paper in his hands. “Not sure why you think I care about the Goldenbaums at all.”

“I would have gotten you something about economics if I was actually getting you a book you care about,” Muller said. “But you care about the book’s author.”

Reinhard took a closer look at the book in his hands. “Captain Leigh wrote this?”

“Ages ago,” Muller said. “I think he was working on it while I was his student. It’s only just now getting published.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t ask him,” Muller said. “Anyway, he sent me a review copy. Figured you could have it since I’m done with it.”

“Is it any good?”

“Sure. It’s interesting, anyway.”

“Thanks,” Reinhard said after a second.

Muller glanced at his watch. “Look, Müsel, I’ve gotta run. But if you get dishonorably discharged or whatever, you should come back to Phezzan. You could make a living with your writing here.”

“I’m not going to get discharged,” Reinhard said. “And I don’t think you have the license to extend Phezzan’s hospitality to me.”

“What do you mean?” Muller asked with a funny smile. “Phezzan welcomes everyone.”

“Sure it does.”

“Don’t get killed or anything,” Muller said.

“You have a low opinion of my future.”

Muller shrugged. “Alright, here’s a higher opinion: when you get really famous, don’t forget about me here in the embassy.”

“Muller, when the Alliance invades this place, I’ll make sure you get a cushy POW camp spot.”

Muller laughed. “You kill me, Müsel.” He stood, then extended his hand. Reinhard stood as well, then they shook hands. Muller’s grip was firm, and he put his other hand on Reinhard’s shoulder. “What am I going to do without you around to make life interesting?”

“Bug my successor’s apartment, I’m sure.”

“Oh, right. I’ll add that to my to-do list.” 

“You shouldn’t stand around here talking to me, or somebody’s going to send you back to Odin.”

“Yeah,” Muller said. He startled Reinhard by pulling him in for a brief hug. “I mean it, stay safe on Heinessen, or wherever they send you.”

“Don’t be sentimental, Muller. It doesn’t pay,” Reinhard said, extracting himself from Muller’s grip. Muller seemed disappointed for a second, but Reinhard offered him a small smile. “Thanks for the parting gift.”

“No problem,” Muller said. Even though he had said he had to leave, he seemed reluctant to go. Reinhard nodded at him. “Alright, well, goodbye, then.”

“See you around,” Reinhard said, though they almost certainly wouldn’t.

Muller gave a wave that seemed like it was half approaching a salute, then headed off, glancing back over his shoulder at Reinhard a couple times before he vanished off into the crowd of the port.

Reinhard sat back down, then flipped open the book that Muller had given him. There was Leigh’s name, in crisp blackletter, on the title page. The dedication was funny.

For all those whose history will never be written.

As was his habit, Reinhard flipped to the index and bibliography at the back of the book, skimming over them in order to get the jist of what he should expect to be covered. If this had been some sort of economic treatise, he would have recognized more of the sources, but he felt out of his element as he looked down the long list of titles and names. At the end, he ended up on the acknowledgements page, and he looked at it out of curiosity.

This work would not exist without a great deal of support from everyone in my life. In particular, I would like to thank the following people:

Kaiser Friedrich IV, whose patronage and support made researching and publishing this work possible.

Duke Otto von Braunschweig and Princess Amarie von Goldenbaum, for taking a chance on me.

Commodore Dietrich Bronner, for allowing me unprecedented access to the Imperial archives.

Count Franz von Mariendorf, for your constant generosity.

Rear Admiral Oskar von Reuenthal, for everything.

Rear Admiral Wolfgang Mittermeyer, for encouraging me to close the gap.

Baroness Magdalena von Westpfale, for everything else.

And Evangeline Mittermeyer, for finding this book a home that wasn’t my desk drawer.

I would also like to thank all of the faculty and staff at the Imperial Officers’ Academy, the rest of the 479 Misfits, the Imperial Archive librarians, Fleet Admiral Gregor von Muckenburger, Admiral Willibald von Merkatz, Vice Admiral Theodore Staden, Captain Paul von Oberstein, Lieutenant Siegfried Kircheis, Hildegarde von Mariendorf, and my father.

It was an odd list, for sure, and Reinhard felt very strange about it. Kaiser Friedrich was given top billing in the acknowledgements, which was… something. Reinhard would have to read the book to see how fawning about the Goldenbaums Leigh had decided to be. He wondered just what the Kaiser was having him say. The disgust at seeing the Kaiser’s name first was completely cancelled out by seeing Kircheis’ name third from last in the list. He wondered exactly what Kircheis had done to merit a spot, right next to the young Mariendorf. 

The about the author page at the end of the book showed a smiling photograph of Leigh, wearing a captain’s uniform, and, although Reinhard had known that Leigh did not look like the standard Imperial citizen, it was still a little strange to see his black hair falling into his dark eyes in the photo, seeing him for the first time. Annerose had met him, Reinhard remembered. He would have to ask her what she thought.

He found that he was grateful to Muller for the gift, as he boarded the ship that would take him back to Heinessen. It was a long and dull journey, and having something to read was a pleasant diversion. He went into the book expecting to argue with the author. He sometimes posted reviews of economics texts on his website, and though this book had nothing to do with his primary subject, he thought it would amuse Muller, who would surely keep reading his blog, to see his thoughts. But his red pen for scribbling notes in the margins of the book sat mostly unused except to highlight, as Reinhard found himself well and truly absorbed in the weird story that Leigh pulled together about the early years of the Goldenbaum dynasty. 

It was, truly, a “new” history, one that, as promised by the title, connected dots that were meant to have remained buried by time. Leigh had gone through the weeds in whatever Imperial archives he had access to, and had managed to construct a riveting narrative. Reinhard was fascinated by this challenging way of looking at these early years of the Empire, which in official histories had been a relatively smooth, if strict, transition period. There had always been much discussion of new laws passed, and shaking out the remaining republican and degenerate elements in society, but Leigh didn’t focus on that, instead trying to pry apart what strings of power at the very top of society were being pulled, and why, and by who. He followed the money in an abstract sense, in a way that Reinhard appreciated. “ Cui bono?” one chapter title asked. Cui bono, indeed.

Reinhard found the book darkly funny, in certain places. Leigh went through how much of the dynastic infighting had been over claims to the throne, and how some of it had been blamed on republican elements, rather than on its true culprits. It reminded him of how Ingrid had killed Prince Ludwig, and how the Earth Church had covered it up for their own gains, but how republicans had taken the blame. He wondered if Leigh was a good enough investigator, if he would be able to pry that narrative apart. Probably it was too soon for that, though. Leigh must have only been able to research and publish this work because the history was so ancient, hundreds of years old. Those ancient Goldenbaums didn’t need much protecting.

Still, some of the legitimacy of the dynasty hinged on the idea that the line was unbroken, and that the ruler was there because they carried Rudolph’s standard. For Leigh to have Kaiser Friedrich’s blessing to openly discuss infighting and squabbling and hordes of illegitimate children and everything else the book alleged, it was interesting-- about as interesting as the fact that Leigh, a clear foreigner, had the Kaiser’s favor in the first place.

All in all, Reinhard wasn’t sure what to make of the book. The picture he had of Leigh in his mind was only growing stranger by the day. He wondered if they would ever get a chance to meet.

 


 

November 796 U.C., Heinessen

Despite the relative ignominity of his return to Heinessen, when Reinhard stepped into the bustling floor of the spaceport and found Annerose waiting for him, he couldn’t help but break out into a broad smile, the kind that was reserved for her and her alone. She didn’t look much different than when he had last seen her, but when she ran towards him and embraced him, her grip was crushing.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” she said, running her hand down the back of his head, then pushing him away so that she could look at him more fully, as the spaceport crowd streamed around them. “You’ve gotten so tanned on Phezzan; I hardly recognize you.”

Reinhard laughed. “I’m sure I’ll lose it fast, now that I’m back in Heinessenpolis. Or when they kick me out into space.”

She shook her head. “We can talk about that in a minute-- let’s get out of here. I feel like I have so many things to tell you.”

“I figured you would,” Reinhard said. “If there’s one thing about being back here, it’s not having to wait until my regularly scheduled leave to find out what all your secrets are.”

“I don’t know if they’re secrets.” She held his elbow as they made their way out of the spaceport. It was a cool spring afternoon and grey clouds filled the sky, so that everything appeared flat and lifeless. Wind pushed them forward through the parking lot, making it difficult to speak until they made it into Annerose’s car. 

Reinhard waited until they had made it out of the complicated parking lot before he asked, “So, what is it that you needed to tell me, but couldn’t even put down in code?”

Annerose half laughed, though suddenly the sound was strained. “You know, I’ve been thinking over all the different ways to tell you about what happened on Cahokia, and now I’ve forgotten what I resolved to say.”

“Did something happen to you that I need to be concerned about?” Reinhard asked. “Something with your CO?” His eyes were narrowed.

“No, Reinhard-- Walter’s great.” There was an odd tone in her voice, but she didn’t seem like she was lying. “No, this has nothing to do with him.”

“What is it, then? It couldn’t be that bad, if it isn’t Schenkopp and you’re unhurt.”

Her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “While I was on Cahokia-- I ran into someone--”

“Oh, Leigh, yes, I know,” Reinhard said. “Muller told me. I’ve been looking forward to hearing about that.” He reached behind him and fished in his bag for the book that Muller had given him, now slightly battered. “Did you know that Leigh wrote a book? It’s pretty good.”

Annerose glanced at him sideways. “No, I didn’t,” she said. “You already knew about this?”

“Well, only what Muller told me. He said Leigh says hello.”

“What exactly did he tell you?”

“Only that Leigh was on Cahokia, and that you encountered each other. What actually happened?”

“Did he mention anyone else?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “Should he have?” His tone edged into concern.

“I guess that depends on how much Leigh told him…” Annerose said hesitantly.

“Who else should he have mentioned?”

There was a long silence, which grew tenser as Annerose merged onto the highway, moving all the way into the left lane and rushing past the rest of the traffic.

“Who should he have mentioned, Annerose?”

“Sieg was there,” she said, finally. “With Leigh.”

Reinhard’s hands balled into fists, and he said the first coherent thought that popped into his head. There were plenty of incoherent ones that preceded it, flashing by on a tidal wave of longing and other feelings, but his annoyance at Muller was easy to parse. “Muller-- that bastard-- I swear I’ll kill him.”

There was a weird relief in Annerose’s voice. “He should have told you, then?”

“I asked him once if he knew where Kircheis was posted, and he lied to my face!”

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” Annerose said. “Well, now you know. He’s assigned under Leigh, or at least they were together, on Cahokia.”

“He’s alive, right? You wouldn’t be telling me this if he was dead.” He had thought that the dedication to Kircheis in Liegh’s book was a guarantee that he was fine, but he had to check.

“Yes,” she said. “If Leigh is alive, then Sieg is, too.”

Reinhard nodded and tried to calm his racing mind. Still, he couldn’t keep from dashing out questions as fast as he could form the words. “What was he like? When did you see him?”

Annerose went through the situation on Cahokia, how the plan had been to destroy and capture the Imperial ships on the planet. Reinhard nodded along, analytical mind working over the story. Though he was impatient to hear about Kircheis, some other part of him was proud of his sister. “And when I came to the bridge, Leigh was there. He surrendered, and I took him prisoner.”

Reinhard didn’t know if he should laugh or yell. “Just Leigh?”

“I’m getting there,” Annerose said. She had to pause telling the story so that she could get off the highway. “I went to interrogate him.”

“What were you trying to find out?”

“I didn’t realize it was the same Leigh that you had told me about, at first, so I wanted to make sure of that, and I was going to try to find out more of the details of his mission on Cahokia, but he ended up talking to me about Ingrid and this other woman, Baroness Westpfale, who was a… friend… of Ingrid’s.”

“I heard about her from Muller,” Reinhard said. “Is she important?”

“She and Ingrid were close,” Annerose said. “But other than that, I don’t really know.”

“Well, what happened next?”

“I was in the middle of speaking to Leigh, alone, when Sieg--” She broke off, making a strange sound. “I didn’t realize it was him, and he didn’t realize it was me-- we both had our helmets on. He killed one of my men who was guarding the door.”

“How?”

“With an axe,” Annerose said. “He was trying to rescue Leigh. We fought.”

“What did he fight like?” If he hadn’t known that both people involved were completely fine, Annerose right in front of him unharmed, Reinhard would have been unable to listen to this story with any degree of patience.

“He would have won,” Annerose said. “He’s good.”

“Of course he is-- but you are, too.”

“I don’t know if he would have won against Walter, but he has a height advantage on me.”

“But he didn’t kill you, obviously, so what did you do?”

“He shattered my helmet,” Annerose said. “And when he saw my face…” She hesitated. “He stopped attacking me. I took him prisoner, too.”

Reinhard was biting his fingers in agitation. “I wish I could have been there.”

“What would you have done?”

“I would have tried--”

“To convince him to come back with you?”

Reinhard couldn’t quite admit to it, but that had been part of what he was thinking. “I don’t know.”

“If it hadn’t been so chaotic, he might have stayed a prisoner. I lost him in the rush.” Her tone was very carefully neutral, but she went on to describe the crashing of the ship and the battle outside. “I lost track of them both then, but they must have made it back into orbit.”

Reinhard shook his head. Everything was too much to process. All the glimpses of Kircheis he had been having across space were so fleeting and insubstantial, but they were also something real to hold on to. Now that he had lost contact with Muller, there would be no more passing strange messages back and forth with Leigh, and that loss was felt so much more keenly, now that Annerose had seen Kircheis in the flesh, been close enough to touch him.

“Are you alright, Reinhard?” Annerose asked.

“I have to be, don’t I?” He looked out the window at the city streets. “I doubt either of us will see him again by chance like that.”

“The universe must be a smaller place than it seems.” Annerose was wistful, now.

“Did he say anything to you?”

“We didn’t have a chance to actually talk.” She shook her head. “He’s loyal to that Leigh. Seems like a lot of people are.”

Reinhard shook his head. “I can’t say I understand.”

“You don’t trust Sieg’s judgement?” Annerose asked, and for once when mentioning Kircheis, there was a teasing smile in her voice. Reinhard glanced over at her, and his hand went to the locket under his shirt.

“I haven’t seen him in a decade,” he said. “I’m afraid-- I don’t know.”

“He mistook me for you, you know,” Annerose said. “That was what made him drop his axe.”

All his thoughts slid across the surface of his mind like pebbles across an iced-over lake. He wished he could have traded places with Annerose. He was silent for a minute, just thinking. When he spoke, it was to change the subject, though his voice was nearly choked. “Aside from Cahokia, how have you been? And Ms. Roscher and Julian?”

 


 

It was a happy reunion to see Ingrid and Julian again. Reinhard was surprised to find that he would not need to sleep on a day bed in the living room or on the couch, as his room had been left vacant. It took only a cursory investigation to determine where Ingrid had been sleeping, and Reinhard decided not to ask any more about it. If he had been younger, he would have been jealous for not having the sum total of his sister’s affections, but between all the people crammed into her tiny house, Reinhard admitted he had lost that battle long ago, and tried to put it out of his mind. He did like Julian and Ingrid, after all. Especially when he heard the story of how Julian had attacked Schenkopp for “breaking in.” Reinhard laughed so hard that he couldn’t breathe.

“You’ll have to start taking axe lessons,” Reinhard said to Julian once he had recovered his breath. “That way, next time Captain Schenkopp breaks in, you can really get him.”

“Have you been keeping up your practice on Phezzan?” Annerose asked mildly.

“Hmph,” Reinhard said. “I would like to retain the element of surprise and not answer that question.”

Although the joy of being back with his family didn’t wear off, it was overshadowed by the lingering threat of the inquest that Reinhard had been summoned back to Heinessen for. He had been given a date to appear for a hearing in the capitol building in less than a week. 

Cazerne stopped by Annerose’s house one night to discuss it over cups of coffee. Ingrid had taken Julian out to the movies.

“I find it hard to believe that all of this trouble is being gone to over some two-bit defector,” Reinhard said dismissively, dumping sugar into his coffee until it was almost too sweet for his taste. It was just a nervous habit. 

Cazerne sat primly at the head of the table, looking across from him with a small frown. “Claiming to have information about critical weaknesses in the defense of Heinessen is important. It looks very bad that you ordered his ship searched and he was killed immediately after.”

“Not quickly enough, since he had time to complain about me.”

“Reinhard,” Annerose said, frowning, “that is the kind of talk that you will need to avoid during your hearing.”

“It’s not a hearing,” Reinhard said. “It’s an inquest.”

“Call it whatever you like,” Cazerne said. “But I’m afraid your entire career is on the line.”

“Absolutely everything I did was completely above the board and approved by my superiors.” This wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough. His motivations had been more complicated than the ones he had told Blackwell, but everything he had actually done had been under Blackwell’s supervision.

“I know. And the letter from Blackwell should help your case significantly.” He sighed. “Under normal circumstances, I would say it’s a good thing that you stopped human trafficking at the Phezzani port, rather than them making it all the way to Heinessen, but unfortunately the circumstances don’t warrant that.”

“Have you heard who I’m being questioned by?” Reinhard paused. “Since this is a military matter, is there a reason it’s not taking place in HQ?”

“It’s not a military matter,” Cazerne said. “It’s a political one.”

“An inquest, not a court martial... I was told that was because someone was looking out for me.”

“Maybe someone is,” Cazerne said. “It’s being run by the Committee for Public Defense,” Cazerne said. “They don’t usually hold hearings like this. It’s strange-- I don’t have a good idea of what angle is being taken. I am a little worried that the best case scenario is that you’re being used a scapegoat to prevent something else from coming of it.”

The Committee for Public Defense was a strange group-- it was comprised of a mix of fleet officials appointed by the defense secretary and several members of the Alliance Legislative Council, as well as one representative from the office of the defense secretary. It was generally understood that they served as a lobbying arm for the fleet to influence budget proposals. While he had heard of them performing hearings before, it was usually on financial appropriations, and not a question of misconduct or treason. “How am I even supposed to present my case if I don’t know what angle they’re going to come at me from?”

“You’re not on trial,” Annerose said.

“Sure I’m not.”

“What I mean is that you might not even have a chance to argue in your own defense.”

Reinhard scowled and drank his coffee. “I hope that I can.”

“I’m sure it will be more of answering direct questions, rather than them letting you explain yourself. That might be better,” Cazerne said. “I don’t think you’re likely to ramble, but I’ve been told that the less talking that you do at these things, the better.”

“‘These things,’” Reinhard said. “Have you ever heard of something like this before?”

“I’ve heard of court martials for political reasons,” Cazerne said. “Again, I do think you’re pretty lucky this isn’t one. It would probably look bad if the resident hero was strung up in front of a tribunal.”

“What is this, then?”

“Private,” Cazerne said firmly. “This is a locked-doors event-- I asked to be admitted and was told I wouldn’t be allowed.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better. I’d like to be able to speak with-- I don’t know.” He frowned. 

“I feel as though if you were in more trouble, you wouldn’t be freely sitting here discussing it with us. You’d have been on a military transport back from Phezzan and kept under lock and key the whole way.”

“True.” Reinhard bit his finger. “I hate not having any indication of what’s going on.”

“Have you spoken to Fredrica about this?” Annerose asked.

“No,” Reinhard said. “Why?”

“Her father--”

“I’m not going to ask Fredrica for that kind of favor,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know why you’d even suggest it.”

“Because Fredrica is your friend, and her father owes you.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Reinhard said. “I’m not going to bother her with this.”

Annerose frowned. 

“I wish I had more information for you,” Cazerne said. “If this goes badly, I’ll see what I can do for you.”

“I can handle it,” Reinhard said.

 


 

The day the inquest began was gloomy, and cold for the season. Reinhard left the house before anyone but Annerose was awake, and she straightened his already-straight beret on his head and wished him luck. He made his way into the capitol, and when he presented himself at the information desk in the front lobby, he was checked in and escorted to a hearing room, whereupon his phone was confiscated before he was allowed in.

He was early, but Reinhard had never had too much of a problem with waiting in stiff silence, keeping his expression carefully neutral even under the scrutiny of the guard at the door. After some time, people began filtering in and taking up seats at the table in the front or in the gallery behind Reinhard. He wasn’t sure how many people he had expected, but he assumed that either no one would be spectating this small affair, or a much larger audience than this. The people who filled out the rows behind him were mostly dressed in civilian clothing, though there were a few fleet uniforms scattered among them. Again, not as many as Reinhard would have expected. Even though Cazerne had said it was a political matter, Reinhard hadn’t really believed him.

There was a man who arrived a few minutes after Reinhard, who sat down in the gallery section and began staring at him, in a way that Reinhard couldn’t interpret. It wasn’t exactly hostile, but it was piercing. He was young, maybe in his early thirties, and he had a sallow, drawn face. A captain’s pin glinted on his lapel. Reinhard met his gaze, undeterred.

More people trickled into the room. He recognized the man who took the center seat at the panel at the front of the room-- Mr. Negroponty, Reinhard believed was his name. He held some high position within the department of defense, and so he ended up in the papers fairly often, usually standing near Job Trunicht and glowering. He was a fat man, with slicked back black hair, and he looked at Reinhard with a distaste that reminded Reinhard of the way Muller had looked at him, across the room of that first party he had attended on Phezzan. Involuntarily, the thought made him smile, and Negroponty’s eyebrows furrowed. 

A man at the front called the assembly to order, and a hush fell over the room. 

“This meeting for the Committee for Public Defense is now in session,” the man said. He read out a long string of rules of decorum, beginning with reminding everyone that the contents of the meeting were not to be discussed with anyone without prior authorization, and then going over the procedure of the hearing. Reinhard listened carefully, as this time seemed to be his only opportunity to figure out what was about to happen to him. He was fairly sure he wasn’t about to be outright accused of being a traitor-- Cazerne was right that he would be in jail already if he was-- but Reinhard knew he was in dangerous territory.

“We shall begin by swearing in Lieutenant Commander Reinhard von Müsel, who will be giving testimony today. Lieutenant Commander, please stand.”

Reinhard stood, placed his right hand over his heart and his left in the air.

“Reinhard von Müsel, do you swear to answer all questions truthfully and to the full extent of your knowledge?”

“I do so swear.”

“You may be seated.”

Reinhard sat.

Negroponty was the one to begin the questioning. “Mr. von Müsel” --and the lack of his rank already grated-- “you have been stationed on Phezzan since your graduation from the command academy last December, is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your superior officer, Commodore Blackwell, has sent my office quite the letter in support of your personal character. Were you aware of that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you ask him to write it?”

“I believe he thinks I am being summoned back to Heinessen unfairly,” Reinhard said. “I did not ask for him to testify on my behalf.”

“Are you aware of the contents of this letter?”

“No, sir.”

“Commodore Blackwell says, and I quote, ‘I have seen absolutely nothing to suggest Lieutenant Commander von Müsel’s disloyalty or incompetence. He has followed every command given to him to the letter, and in circumstances where his personal judgement was required, he has behaved with the intelligence and dignity one should expect from every officer of the Alliance fleet.’ What do you think of that, Mr. von Müsel?”

“I should write him a thank you note,” Reinhard said, unable to keep some of the sarcastic twist out of his voice. “It’s very complimentary.”

“I wonder, why is it that Commodore Blackwell is so eager to reassure this board of your loyalty?”

“Because a reasonable person would expect that I am about to be questioned about it, given that I am here in some sort of trial,” Reinhard said. “He also reassures you against my incompetence and malice, as you just read.”

“You’re not in a trial, Mr. von Müsel.” Negroponty looked down for a moment at some of the papers in front of himself, that he had pulled out of a dark briefcase. “In some people’s opinions, this should have been a court martial, but it was not up to them.”

One of the other people sitting at the head of the table, a prim looking woman in a neat blue suit, pinched her lips and said, “Mr. Negroponty, let’s keep the discussion on the matter at hand.”

Negroponty frowned. “Of course, the councilwoman is right, as always. The fact of the matter is, Mr. von Müsel, you were responsible for delaying the passage of a refugee with critical information about the security of Heinessen, and the delay you caused resulted in that refugee’s death. It is the duty of this council to determine why that happened. Your superior officers have agreed that you were not at fault-- perhaps that is true, perhaps it is not. You are, however, the person responsible.”

The difference between ‘responsible’ and ‘at fault’ sounded much like the difference between ‘inquest’ and ‘trial’ to Reinhard. “I did not kill Mr. Castrop,” Reinhard said. “Nor do I believe that there was anything I could have done to prevent his death.”

Negroponty seemed about to reject Reinhard’s statement out of hand, but the woman spoke up again. “Perhaps we should walk through the events leading up to his death, so this council can have a clear picture of what transpired. The official record provided to us by Commodore Blackwell is scant on detail outside of names and timestamps.”

“Councilwoman Carell, may I remind you--”

“Of course, Mr. Negroponty, you are chair of this committee.” Her smile was thin. “I won’t interrupt your line of questioning.”

Negroponty glowered, but when he spoke, he had gotten back to the point. “Mr. von Müsel, let’s begin at the beginning, then. What was it that originally made you aware of Mr. Castrop’s intention to defect?”

“I read about his situation in the newspaper,” Reinhard said. “I followed all the major Imperial papers on Phezzan-- you can learn a lot that way.”

“When was this?”

“Several months before he actually did, when it was just beginning to be reported how Castrop had refused to pay various taxes.”

“And that made you sure he would defect?”

“I didn’t get the impression that he would be interested in putting up a heroic principled stand when the Kaiser brought his fleets against him,” Reinhard said.

“At the time, were you aware of the Artemis Necklace that Mr. Castrop was using to protect his planet?”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said.

“It would be very foolish of a minor noble to make a stand like that without having some sort of defense, wouldn’t it?”

“I believed that Mr. Castrop was a very stupid man.” There were a few stifled laughs from the audience behind Reinhard. “And I have seen nothing that would change that belief.”

“When did you become aware of the Artemis Necklace?” 

“When Commodore Blackwell described it to me,” Reinhard said. “After Castrop had already departed Phezzan.”

“It’s curious,” Negroponty said. “Your excuse for wanting to search Castrop’s ship in the first place was that he might be carrying information. What sort of information did you think he had?”

Reinhard had, at least, been prepared for this question. He couldn’t admit that he had been acting on Muller’s advice, or that he had lied to Blackwell, but he could fudge the truth here, look just a little guilty. That false guilt would cover up the real lie. He let his normally piercing gaze slide away from the front table down towards his hands. “I assumed he might have military information, since he thought he could put up some resistance against the Imperial fleet. Or financial information, about Phezzan. I looked into his dealings… They didn’t quite add up. It was enough to make me think he would have something.”

“You thought he might have military information, but you just said yourself that you considered him to be making a grave error in judgement?” Let Negroponty think he had caught him in a lie.

“I don’t trust nobles, sir,” Reinhard blurted out. He ran his hand over his braided hair, looking down. He pretended to get himself under control. “I assumed he was wrong about how he could use whatever information he had, but he must have believed he had enough of an advantage to make standing up against the Kaiser even possible. Maybe he thought he had allies-- it could have revealed what the allegiances for the throne were…”

“What do you mean, you don’t trust nobles, Lieutenant Commander?” the councilwoman asked. “Wasn’t your family nobility in the Empire?”

“Reichsritter,” Reinhard said. “The ‘von’ means less than nothing.”

“No class solidarity?” Negroponty asked. Reinhard glared at him.

“I grew up poor, Mr. Negroponty,” Reinhard said, and it was quite easy to let real venom into his tone. “Poor enough that my father tried to-- no, he did-- he sold my sister . To the Kaiser. To use as he pleased.” There was a moment of tense silence in the room. “That is why I do not trust nobles.”

“Please do keep your composure, Mr. von Müsel,” Negroponty said after a moment. “Your lack of trust for Imperial nobility doesn’t seem to factor in to why you wished to search his ship, does it?”

Reinhard narrowed his eyes. “What are you asking?”

“I trust nobles about as far as I can throw them, and I’m sure that everyone in this room would say the same, of course. But if you were looking for Mr. Castrop to have military information hidden on his ship, why couldn’t it have waited until he made it all the way to Heinessen?”

“Don’t you think he would have sold what he knew of the Artemis Necklace’s weaknesses at the highest possible cost?” Reinhard asked, letting his voice raise. “Wouldn’t it have been better to get that information from him before he had a chance to use it as blackmail?”

“But you failed to acquire that information,” Negroponty said, whacking his hand on the table. “And now we have no idea what critical flaw the Artemis Necklace that protects this very planet has.”

“I was in the process of conducting a thorough search,” Reinhard said. “I was ordered to leave before I could finish.”

“Yet you had plenty of time to find the two other nobles you removed from his ship,” Negroponty said. “The von Mariendorf family, wasn’t it?”

Reinhard stayed silent.

“Do you have nothing to say for yourself?”

“Are you asking me a question, Mr. Negroponty?” Reinhard leaned forward. “I was searching his ship; they were what I was able to find before I was ordered to stop.”

“And you let them wander back to the Imperial embassy without any further thought.”

“Is it the policy of the Alliance government to hold civilians hostage on Phezzan?”

“I am asking the questions here, Mr. von Müsel.” He shuffled his papers around. “Additionally, I would note that when you questioned the passengers of Mr. Castrop’s ship, you asked all of them if they would like to remain on Phezzan-- presumably to return to the Empire-- or find different passage to our side of the galaxy.”

“Yes.”

“Explain this to me.”

“Sir, the fact that five women did request alternate passage to Heinessen should answer your question.” 

“Lucky them,” Negroponty said dryly. “They made it here alive.”

Although Reinhard had begun his justifications with feigned emotion, he was now legitimately angry, and he clenched his fists on the table in front of him before wiping his sweaty hands on his pants. “If you wish to accuse me of being a humanitarian-- please do,” Reinhard said. “Mr. Castrop was a cruel and stupid man. I had the suspicion that not everyone travelling with him was there of their own will, and I was correct.” He sucked in a breath, glaring at Negroponty. “This country took in my family in the darkest hour of our lives. I will not be someone who turns away from providing that help to others.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “If Fleet Command did not want me to provide assistance to refugees on Phezzan, I should not have been posted to Phezzan.”

“Rest assured, Mr. von Müsel, you no longer will be,” Negroponty said. Reinhard glared at him, but said nothing.

“Chairman,” the councilwoman who had spoken up before said, “perhaps we should put this aside for the moment and walk through the day’s events.”

Negroponty’s lip curled in a sneer, and he took a long moment, glancing back and forth at Reinhard and the councilwoman, before he shuffled some of the papers in front of himself and said, “Very well. Let us begin with Mr. Castrop’s request to dock at the Phezzani port…”

Reinhard put his smooth professional face back on as they walked through the timeline of the day’s events. It took well over an hour for him to describe everything that had occurred, interrupted as he was by the occasional prompt, jibe, or question from Negroponty. At least the conversation remained on facts, and Reinhard was not asked for reasons behind things, though he sensed that he would be. At the end of his description of the day, finishing with the release of the Mariendorfs into the freedom of Phezzan, the councilwoman asked if they could take a five minute recess.

Reinhard was only too happy to do so, as he had grown stiff and uncomfortable in his chair. He stretched and asked if he was allowed out to use the restroom, and he was pointed in the right direction.

Reinhard was washing his hands when the door opened, and he glanced over to see who had come in. It was the captain who had been sitting in the gallery watching Reinhard. He didn’t move towards the stalls or urinals, but instead joined Reinhard near the sink. It reminded Reinhard very much of the rather unsubtle way that Muller had occasionally approached him on Phezzan. Reinhard immediately ascertained that Muller was the more competent agent than this man was.

“Did you need something, Captain?” Reinhard asked.

“I figured I should introduce myself.”

Reinhard hit the button on the hand dryer with his elbow, filling the bathroom with its over-loud whine. “You have me at a disadvantage, Captain.”

The man didn’t offer his hand, but he said, “My name is Andrew Fork. I work for Admiral Greenhill.”

“Oh-- Lieutenant Commander Greenhill mentioned you in one of her letters.” Reinhard offered a genuine smile. If Fredrica liked him, Reinhard could give him the benefit of the doubt. “Pleasure to meet you, though I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

“I agree,” Fork said.

“Did she send you here to keep track of me?”

“No,” Fork said. “I’m actually here on an errand from the Secretary of Defense.”

The hand dryer finished its cycle, and Reinhard hit the button again so that they could continue talking. “And what does Mr. Trunicht want with me?”

“He is prepared to help you if you cooperate with him in there.” With the alternative being that his career would be destroyed if he didn’t.

“Cooperate in what way?”

“Make the committee understand that Phezzan was responsible for Castrop’s death,” Fork said. “He needs an excuse to pressure Phezzan-- that’s why he organized this whole inquest.” He jerked his head, indicating the committee outside. “None of them will admit it, but that’s the seed he’s planted for them to investigate.” 

“He’s the one who saved me from a court martial? So I could be a tool for him?”

“He has an interest in your career beyond just this. But yes, he made this happen.”

“The Secretary of Defense is playing with fire, trying to go against Phezzan.”

“Are you willing to do it?”

“I don’t like being bribed or threatened, Captain.”

Fork frowned. “This is neither. It’s the opportunity for you to change the future of the galaxy.”

Reinhard wanted to retort that that was a bribe, but the fact that Fredrica trusted this man stopped him from being outright rude. “I’ll consider it,” Reinhard said. He couldn’t deny that the prospect interested him, for his own reasons. After investigating the economic stranglehold that Phezzan held over the Alliance, it seemed right that someone should make moves towards breaking it. “I can only answer the questions that they ask.”

“They’re about to ask about the circumstances surrounding Castrop’s death,” Fork said. “This is the time.”

Reinhard nodded. The hand dryer wheezed its last. “Please give Lieutenant Commander Greenhill my regards,” Reinhard said, and brushed out of the bathroom past Fork.

The five minute recess stretched out to more than fifteen minutes, as it took quite a while for Negroponty and the rest of the committee to return to their seats. As Reinhard waited for everyone else to shuffle into the room, he had plenty of time to think about Fork’s offer.

He didn’t like Job Trunicht much. The man had a slimy way about him, and using Reinhard as a pawn to manipulate the committee was a low move. 

Unfortunately, the idea of spurning Trunicht and being sent to some do-nothing post for years was unbearable. Reinhard’s record probably showed that he would be too well suited to be posted to the front-- Trunicht would probably personally make sure that Reinhard never saw the interior of a ship again. Even if he could prove his merits and work his way back up, the waste of time-- Reinhard bit his finger, annoyed.

It was cooperate with Trunicht and be rewarded, on one hand-- getting closer to the halls of power was exactly what he wanted-- or take his pride and end up destroying his career. And perhaps Annerose’s and Fredrica’s, too. Reinhard wouldn’t put it past Trunicht to hold that over him.

Especially considering that Trunicht was aware that Ingrid was living in Annerose’s house. It would not be difficult for that to become a scandal that ended with a dishonorable discharge for Annerose, and Ingrid being whisked away to some Earth Church safehouse, never to be seen again. It turned his stomach, on Annerose’s behalf. Although he was perhaps being paranoid-- Fork hadn’t mentioned any of that as a threat-- Reinhard couldn’t help but consider every avenue of power that Trunicht held over him.

He hated being a pawn. But he couldn’t bear the thought of more wasted time, not now that he knew Kircheis was holding to his promise on the other side of the galaxy, and he didn’t like the possibility that Trunicht could destroy Annerose’s career as well as his own. It wasn’t much of a choice.

The rest of the committee made their way in and sat down. Negroponty looked annoyed, more even than he had been before. Perhaps the councilwoman had cornered him while they were both out of the room.

As Negroponty called the room to order, Reinhard glanced to the side, where he could feel Fork’s eyes on him.

“Now that we’ve discussed your experience searching Mr. Castrop’s ship, I believe this committee would be negligent if we did not ask what you know about Mr, Castrop’s death.” Negroponty said.

“I don’t know anything about it, sir,” Reinhard said.

“Yes,” Negroponty said. “You’ve said as much. But Councilwoman Carell has a list of questions regardless. Councilwoman, you have the floor.”

“Thank you, Mr. Negroponty,” the woman said. She looked at Reinhard with a studying gaze now. For all that she had been the one holding Negroponty back during the beginning of this inquest, Reinhard had no idea what her goal was. He was sure that he was about to find out. “As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Castrop’s ship was destroyed in deep space, within the Phezzani navigational area, just before they were intending to switch to Alliance commercial navigation routes. It was apparently quite the violent end to the ship, as debris has been found moving at a significant fraction of lightspeed. Analysis of the wreckage has been inconclusive as to the specific cause, but I’d like to walk through some of the possibilities. First of all, Lieutenant Commander, let’s eliminate the unlikely: while you were on board Mr. Castrop’s ship, did it appear to be in ill-repair enough that this could have been completely accidental?”

“No, Councilwoman,” Reinhard said. “I’m not an expert, but there were no obvious signs of damage, and the docking certification that was given to the Phezzani Port Authority indicated that maintenance was performed regularly. Everything I saw indicated that Mr. Castrop liked his ship, and spent quite a lot of money on its upkeep.”

The councilwoman nodded. “Thank you. Now, Commodore Blackwell provided a list of people who boarded or disembarked from Mr. Castrop’s ship while he was in the Phezzan port. Is that list comprehensive?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “We had the ship under surveillance the entire time.”

“In the port record, it notes that Mr. Castrop took on some supplies while in port; were those loaded by the ship’s crew?”

“Cargo is loaded through a different process than passengers are. Usually, it’s done outside the station itself using automated cargo drones. It’s highly unlikely that a person could have snuck onto the ship through that route, as it would have triggered an alarm.”

“Do you know what was in the cargo that he purchased?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “We don’t have the ability to monitor every transaction on Phezzan, unfortunately.”

“That is unfortunate.” She looked down at her notes. “Would it have been possible for the cargo to have been replaced with something destructive-- a timed explosive?”

“It’s possible, I suppose, though if I were a member of Mr. Castrop’s staff, I would check that we had received the items we paid for, before departing port. I also think that Phezzani vendors would be risking a lot of their reputation if they took an Imperial bribe on rather short notice to destroy a ship so blatantly.”

“I’m not asking for your speculation, Lieutenant Commander,” she said. “But you are saying it is possible but unlikely that the cargo was tampered with?”

“I believe it would have been difficult for any Imperial agent on Phezzan to tamper with the cargo without it being detected,” Reinhard said.

“Our embassy has some ability to identify Imperial ships departing from Phezzan, correct?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “I don’t believe it’s prudent to discuss the details.”

“I understand. Did any ships that appeared to be Imperial follow Mr. Castrop after he departed?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “I can say definitively that he was not followed by an Imperial ship, unless they were using an undiscovered nav route that bypasses Phezzan entirely-- and that would not be worth revealing and using over a single escaped noble.”

“Could an Imperial ship already inside Alliance territory have caught him?”

Reinhard thought about this for a moment. “We’ve long been aware that single Imperial ships perform reconnaissance missions, crossing through the Iserlohn corridor. If they had Mr. Castrop’s navigational data ahead of time, they may have been able to intercept him. It seems unlikely, though, as it would be far simpler for them to send a disguised ship through Phezzan. They have been prepared to do so in the past.” Reinhard paused, seeing his chance. “May I make an observation?”

The councilwoman raised her eyebrows. “If you must.”

“Mr. Castrop did not appear to be a high priority of the Imperial government. When I spoke to Count Mariendorf, I was informed that only one ship had been sent after him, not an entire fleet, and that ship had avoided firing on him because of Mr. Mariendorf’s status as a captive. I am given to understand that if Mr. Castrop was considered dangerous, the Imperial fleet would not have hesitated to destroy his ship long before he made it to Phezzan. Count Mariendorf may be a respected member of the court-- I don’t know-- but even nobles will be trampled in service to the crown, when they must be.”

“You would know,” Negroponty said.

Reinhard scowled.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the councilwoman said, “it seems as though you’re saying that every traditional mode of destroying a ship would be too inconvenient for the Imperial government to stoop to.”

“I don’t know how Mr. Castrop’s ship was destroyed,” he said. “I can answer questions about things that I’ve seen, but I did not see anything that would have led me to believe Castrop wouldn’t make it to Heinessen alive. If I had, I would have done my due diligence to prevent it.”

“Could there have been a saboteur already on board Mr. Castrop’s ship?”

“One who knew to get off on Phezzan? You should summon the women who left his ship as potential witnesses.”

“Or one who escaped the ship in an escape pod, to be picked up later,” the councilwoman said.

“The only way to answer that is by analysis of the debris,” Reinhard said. “Councilwoman, I don’t know what you hope to gain by asking me. If the Imperial government has some new, secret method for destroying ships-- I don’t know how I could discern it from where I stand.”

She ignored his protest. “Lieutenant Commander, we would like to be thorough here. You should consider yourself lucky that this is not a court martial, because you claiming to know nothing would not stand up under their scrutiny. It would be evidence of your incompetence, which Commodore Blackwell helpfully told us not to consider. So, I would like to ask, in your opinion, what are the ways that Mr. Castrop’s ship was destroyed?”

“Are you asking me to speculate, Councilwoman?”

“If speculating is the only thing you’re capable of.”

Reinhard frowned. “Perhaps one of the maintenance or cargo drones planted an explosive within his engine opening. Maybe the navigation package he was sent was tampered with, and it introduced a malicious program that caused his engine to collapse as he came out of lightspeed. There could have been a saboteur on board, even one who sacrificed himself. Maybe a supposed merchant ship already in Alliance space was armed and destroyed Mr. Castrop’s ship on a bribe.” He splayed his hands. “There’s no way to know, and without a full forensic analysis of the debris-- maybe if the central computer’s recording system is found…” He trailed off with a huff, and tried to sound genuine. It was all a show, now more for Job Trunicht than anyone else. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. I’m sorry that Mr. Castrop is dead, along with all his passengers. I don’t know what else I can say to you.”

There was a moment of silence. The councilwoman opened her mouth to say something, but Negroponty instead cut her off. “I don’t believe this is useful speculation, Councilwoman. If Mr. von Müsel has nothing to say, he has nothing to say. Ask him questions he could know the answer to, instead of trying to lead him and this committee around like a dog on a leash.”

The councilwoman’s face darkened. “I have no more questions.”

“Good,” Negroponty said. “Nor do I.”

Reinhard couldn’t resist glancing across the room at Fork, but his expression was completely empty. Reinhard looked away.

Chapter Text

November 796 U.C., Heinessen

Julian was the only person in Annerose’s house when Reinhard returned from his inquest hearing. Annerose was still off at her own duties, and Ingrid had gone grocery shopping. Julian reported this to Reinhard when he met him at the door, like he had appointed himself the XO of the household. 

“When will Annerose be back?” Reinhard asked, hanging up his uniform jacket and beret on the hook and kicking off his shoes.

“She should be back in about forty minutes. I’ll start cooking dinner as soon as Ms. Ingrid brings the groceries.”

Reinhard ruffled his hair, then headed into the living room. Julian tagged at his heels, hands behind his back, nervous. “Did everything go alright?” Julian asked.

“I don’t know,” Reinhard said. He looked at Julian carefully. “Ms. Roscher told me you follow politics.”

Julian nodded. “I try to.” There was something in his voice, beyond the teenage eagerness, that caught Reinhard’s attention. “Rear Admiral Cazerne said that this was a political problem.”

“He mentioned that to you?” Reinhard loosened his scarf as he sat casually on the couch. Julian hovered in the doorway. “He must have a high opinion of your political acumen then.” He smiled.

“Well, not exactly to me,” Julian admitted. “I heard Lieutenant Commander Annerose say that to Captain Schenkopp.”

“Ah.” Reinhard drummed his fingers on his lip. “I love being gossiped about to Captain Schenkopp. What do you think about him, by the way?” He tried to keep his voice neutral.

“I like him,” Julian said.

Reinhard nodded. “And what do you think about the politics?”

“Lieutenant Commander Annerose didn’t mention what the politics were.”

“What do you think they are?” This wasn’t exactly fair to Julian, since Reinhard had been unprepared for the angle that was taken in the questioning, but Julian cast his gaze out the window, looking at the afternoon light streaming in through the blinds, and took only a short time to consider.

“I think the Secretary of Defense was looking for an excuse to invade Phezzan. After the Kaiser dies.”

Reinhard tried not to let his surprise show on his face. “And why do you say that? It’s an odd conclusion to draw.”

Julian seemed reluctant, but he shook his head. “It’s about Ms. Ingrid. I don’t know if I should--”

The front door squeaked open. “Julian?” Ingrid called. “Can you help me with the groceries?”

Julian gave Reinhard a nervous smile, then yelled, “Yeah, I’m coming,” and headed off into the kitchen. There was some thudding and rustling of bags and quiet conversation for a while as Julian and Ingrid put away the groceries; Reinhard let them do that until he heard the rush of water as Julian washed his hands to start making dinner. He wandered into the kitchen and leaned against the wall. Ingrid smiled at him from her seat at the table; she was shucking several ears of corn, leaving a stringy green mess in front of her.

“How was your trial?” she asked. “You look well.”

Perhaps he would have been scowling more if things had gone very badly. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I have a question for you.”

She tilted her head, and her eyes flicked to Julian, who was unwrapping some fish fillets to marinate. “What do you want to know?”

“Has Job Trunicht been talking to you?”

“No,” she said, and let out a breath. “Why do you ask?”

“You know I can understand you,” Julian said, in clumsy Imperial. He looked at Ingrid, then at Reinhard. “It was something I overheard, okay?”

“You do a lot of listening to things, don’t you?”

“Lieutenant Commander Annerose told me to!” Julian protested. Reinhard just laughed.

“What did you overhear?”

“The Secretary of Defense was talking to Bishop Martine,” Julian said. “He was saying that lots of things on Phezzan could be bought-- I didn’t really understand but…” He shook his head. “Am I right? Is that what he was looking for?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “Or something close to it.”

“What was he looking for?” Ingrid asked.

“Job Trunicht wants some excuse to pressure Phezzan,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know if he wants to invade, exactly-- but something.” He poured himself a glass of water. “You know anything about that?”

“Only as much as you,” Ingrid said. “I’m to be their tool. As is Erwin. As soon as the Kaiser dies. A tool doesn’t need to know anything.”

Reinhard nodded. “No one has threatened you, have they?”

“No,” Ingrid said. “Why would they have?”

Reinhard smiled, realizing consciously for the first time that Ingrid was likely to be very, very good at lying. He would let it go for now. “Just making sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you to be tainted by association with me.”

“Are you that disgraced?”

“I ought to be,” Reinhard said. “But I think all I’m likely to get is a slap on the wrist and sent to the front.”

“Calling you back from Phezzan should be punishment enough,” Julian said with a scowl.

“They won’t send me back there, in any event. As long as I’m not sent somewhere boring, I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe you’ll be assigned somewhere in the capital.” Julian’s tone was optimistic.

“I’d rather be sent to the front.” Reinhard finished his glass of water and dropped the cup in the sink, where it clattered and signalled an end to the conversation. “I’m going to go work on that book review I was writing for my blog. Call me when dinner’s ready, or if you need any help with it.”

“I think we can handle some vegetables just fine,” Ingrid said, gathering the empty corn husks to toss them into the garbage.

Reinhard made his way upstairs to his bedroom and flopped down on his bed. The room was still cluttered with boxes, as it was being mostly used for storage, and he resolved to clean it up if he did end up assigned somewhere in the capital. He stared up at the ceiling, and he pulled his locket out from under his shirt, twisting the chain around his index finger and rubbing his thumb on the embossed metal medallion. 

If Fork hadn’t been lying, which Reinhard didn’t think he was, and if Trunicht intended to do as Fork had said and improve Reinhard’s career, there was a good chance that he could angle his way into a position on Heinessen. Some more political job. He didn’t entirely hate the idea, though he figured that he soon would. His job on Phezzan had been more interesting than he expected, but he wasn’t sure that he would be able to tolerate being some low ranked aide to Trunicht for long. 

He thumbed the locket open and stared at the lock of red hair. It was almost the exact shade of Ingrid’s, and that recognition discomfited him. It would have been very easy for someone to instruct Ingrid to tell Reinhard what to say, with either threats or cajoling. Either she really hadn’t been threatened, or she had kept quiet. Why?

His thoughts went to Kircheis as they often did, but they were vague and unformed. He closed the locket and twisted it around in his hands for a moment longer. He pulled out his computer to begin working on his review of Leigh’s book. He couldn’t help but think that Muller would be amused by it.

Before he could get deeply into the writing, he checked his messages, and was not surprised to find one from Job Trunicht himself. Reinhard had figured that there would be one, though he had wondered if it would come through Fork, or some other intermediary. If he had been in Trunicht’s position, Reinhard didn’t think he would have wanted such a long paper trail connecting the two of them.

 

Lieutenant Commander von Müsel,

I would like to personally apologize for the proceedings earlier today. It should have been below my esteemed colleagues in the Committee for Public Defense to interrogate you as they did. It is clear to anyone watching that if there is blame for what happened in the Phezzan Corridor, it is not yours.

Still, it seems unlikely that you will be able to return to your post on Phezzan. It is a shame, since I had thought you well suited for it after how the media took to you during the Condor Base affair. 

If you are available, please come to my office tomorrow at two thirty, and we can discuss a posting suitable to your rank, talents, and loyalty.

Respectfully,

Job Trunicht

Secretary of Defense

 

The letter annoyed Reinhard. Trunicht’s thinly veiled feeling of superiority oozed out of every line. The attention drawn to finding a posting suitable to his rank-- it frustrated him. That was surely just an excuse to get Reinhard shuffled out of Trunicht’s hair. 

And his loyalty! If Trunicht had thought that Reinhard was loyal to him… Reinhard ground his teeth.

Not that he had much of a choice. He would go meet with Trunicht, even if everything about him was unpleasant. As much as this had been half a threat, it was also an opportunity, if Reinhard played his cards right.

He wrote out a quick confirmation email and sent it back, then settled down to actually work on his book review, as promised.

After dinner, during which Reinhard had carefully turned the conversation topics away from the events of the day, and after he had helped Julian clear the dishes, Reinhard sought out Annerose. He leaned in the doorway of her bedroom, watching as she inspected the frayed hem of the leg of one of her uniform pants. She didn’t look up at him, but she said, “Are you going to haunt my doorway forever, or are you going to come in?”

“Want to take a walk with me?”

“I had figured you didn’t want to talk about your punishment.”

“Is that a yes?”

She sighed and folded the pants, laying them neatly on the top of her dresser. “Of course.” 

They headed outside together, the warm summer air dancing around them, the clouds the pale pink of sunset above the trees. They walked arm in arm down the wide street, and Annerose leaned her head on Reinhard’s shoulder. “Was it really that bad?” she asked. Her loose hair tickled his neck.

“No,” he said. “I think I’m going to escape relatively unscathed.”

“How did you manage that?”

“By being unscrupulous and playing someone else’s game,” Reinhard said.

“Now you are making me worried.”

Reinhard described the interaction he had with Captain Fork in the bathroom during the inquest, and the hearing itself. Annerose was silent until he finished, save for kicking a pebble down the sidewalk between them as they went.

“And so you wrapped the Committee for Public Defense around your finger for Job Trunicht?”

“I made some implications,” Reinhard said. “I didn’t stick my neck out too far.”

“Hunh.” Her tone was too carefully neutral.

“I hope you’re not too ashamed of me for that,” Reinhard said.

“I don’t think I would ever be ashamed of you,” Annerose said. “I’m concerned, but not ashamed.”

“I thought you had been, back on Odin.” He nudged her head with his, and with a bright laugh said, “Glad to hear you’ve changed your mind.”

Even in the rapidly dimming light, the sudden flush on Annerose’s cheeks was visible. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”

Reinhard just laughed again. He sobered quickly. “I’m going to meet with Trunicht tomorrow,” he said. 

“Is that a good idea?”

“You really are concerned.”

“I’m not going to question you if you think it’s for the best. But I wouldn’t trust someone who engineered to put you in that position,” Annerose said. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to work this into an advantage for yourself.”

“Snubbing him will be worse, even if he does just want to push me around.”

“And will you be able to bend the knee?” Annerose asked. “As I recall, you’ve never been very good at that.”

Reinhard made an annoyed noise. “You do think little of me.”

“No, I don’t,” she said. “But I know you’re proud.” Her voice was warm when she said that, so Reinhard didn’t bristle.

“I can do it for you,” Reinhard said. “That’s all I have to think about.”

“Me? What about me?”

“It’s not like Job Trunicht isn’t aware of where Ms. Roscher is living. It would be very easy for him to have you discharged, and her removed, if he thought he could use that against me.” He could feel Annerose stiffening beside him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Captain Fork was not the first way that Trunicht tried to contact me. If he had gone through Ms. Roscher first… I asked her if he had, and she said no.” He shrugged.

“Reinhard--”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I want you to be happy. I don’t want anything I’ve done to come back and cause you problems.” He pulled his locket out from under his shirt and fiddled with it, running his thumb over the seam between the two halves.

“You know there’s not-- It’s not like that.” Annerose’s eyes followed the glint of the locket in the last waning rays of sunlight.

It amused him to feel like he had the upper hand on Annerose in this matter, but he didn’t want to annoy her so much that she refused to talk about things with him, so he just said, “Well, you wouldn’t want her to leave, would you?”

She hesitated, then let out a rush of breath. “No.” Still kicking the pebble down the street, she said, “Thank you, if you really did sell yourself out to Trunicht for me, then.”

“I’m not sold,” Reinhard said. “I’m going to spin it into an opportunity.”

She was happy to change the subject. “Do you think that Trunicht is going to be able to stir up support for antagonizing Phezzan, or whatever it is he’s going to do?”

“It wouldn’t be difficult,” Reinhard said. His political mind clicked back into high gear. “It’s not even necessarily a bad idea. We can barely afford to service the debt that we owe them-- which isn’t the type of thing politicians really like to think about. And the Artemis Necklace-- it clearly is a faulty piece of technology. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some sort of shutoff switch that Phezzan is holding on to, ready to sell if the time is right. That might even be what was done to Castrop’s planet.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter-- we really shouldn’t be relying on Phezzan tech in the first place; maybe this will finally knock that into people’s heads.”

“What good will any of this do?” Annerose asked.

“The Earth Church wants to play its cards,” Reinhard said. “They seem to have decided that this political situation is not going to hold-- someday someone is going to come after Phezzan, and if it’s not done on their terms, they’ll lose their power. Trunicht and the Earth Church, they just want to make sure all the pieces fall into place in a way that’s favorable.” He bit his finger, thinking. “If the price of a puppet on the throne of the Empire is Phezzan’s independence, I can understand why they would make that trade.”

“Does the Earth Church really have the power to make that bargain? You’d know better than I would.”

“They think they do. Or at least, they’re telling Trunicht that they do. It’s only decorum that’s prevented people from invading before now, and Trunicht is making moves to discredit that decorum. Once there are ships in the Phezzan corridor, it won’t really matter what power the Earth Church thinks it has. ”

“Political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” Annerose said, frowning.

“Among other places.” He shook his head. “I don’t know if I would be so eager to throw away the economic power that they have.”

“Will they lose it?” Annerose asked. She was hesitant, as though worried that Reinhard would reprimand her for not understanding something. “Most of the actual physical goods Phezzan produces are made either within the Alliance or the Empire, aren’t they?”

“Sure,” Reinhard said. “But the Empire half will be cut off, and I would bet that Trunicht and everyone else on the council will be very eager to nationalize the Phezzani industries that are operating on our side of the galaxy. Especially if they want to ramp up war production for a trip into the Empire.”

“I hate this,” Annerose said.

Reinhard looked at her sharply. “Why?”

“I hate feeling like we’re on the precipice of something terrible. If we invade Phezzan, or the Empire…” She shook her head. “I can’t even imagine how destructive it will be.”

Reinhard clutched his locket. “The Goldenbaum Dynasty needs to be destroyed,” he said. “It’s the only way we’ll have peace in the galaxy.”

Annerose looked away. “And Ingrid’s son?”

“He deserves to have his mother, and both of them deserve to not be used as political tools. And the only way that will happen is if-- you understand.” His voice was hard.

She looked over at him. “It wouldn’t be so bad to stay like this forever,” she said. “You and me and Ingrid and Julian.”

“And Captain Schenkopp?”

Annerose smiled faintly. “Him, too.” They turned a corner, starting to circle back towards their house. “I don’t want to lose all this. And seeing you get pulled into it, and Ingrid… Do you think me silly to be afraid?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “I can’t blame you for being content.”

“Not content. Happy,” she said. “I’m happy.”

Reinhard’s knuckles were white as he gripped his locket. Annerose wrapped her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close.

 


 

Trunicht’s office was not difficult to find. When Reinhard presented himself at the lobby to get his visitor’s pass, he was escorted directly to it, though he was made to wait outside as Trunicht finished some phone call. He was finally let in to the office, and Reinhard got a quick look around before his eyes settled on Trunicht sitting at his desk.

The office was unpleasantly ostentatious, with a large painting of Trunicht on the right wall, and several official looking awards and plaques clustered around it. Trunicht’s desk was situated in such a way that anyone coming to speak with him in the afternoon, as Reinhard was, would be nearly blinded from the glare coming in through the large window directly behind him, with a prime view of the statue of Ale Heinessen, with his outstretched arms. They framed Trunicht’s head like horns or a halo, depending on the angle.

He didn’t stand when Reinhard entered, and Reinhard saluted sharply.

“Glad you could make it, Lieutenant Commander Müsel,” Trunicht said. “Especially on such short notice.”

“I have no duties while I’m here in the capital, sir, so it’s hardly an imposition. Thank you for taking an interest.”

“Not at all,” Trunicht said. His smile was thin, and he didn’t offer Reinhard a seat. “How did you find the Committee for Public Defense?”

“I understand that they have a duty to perform,” Reinhard said, as carefully neutral as possible.

“I could do without them, myself,” Trunicht said. “I’m glad they didn’t rake you over the coals too hard. It would have been an inconvenience.”

“An inconvenience, sir?”

“Well, I’ve taken an interest in the career of the Hero of Condor Base.”

“Thank you, sir.” The stiffness in his shoulders was acceptable, and the only thing he could allow. “I apologize for squandering the posting you recommended me for on Phezzan.”

“Squandering? I wouldn’t say that. You’ve done this nation a great service, I think.”

Reinhard hesitated, then said, “With regards to Ms. Roscher?”

Trunicht’s smile was thin. “Among other things. There was the business with Cahokia, too, wasn’t there?”

“I hadn’t been given the impression that my name was attached to that.”

“I like to know who is capable of getting things done,” Trunicht said. “It’s a quality I seek out in people, and you seem to have it in spades.”

He could tolerate flattery, even if it was insincere. “Thank you, sir.”

“And you were right to search Mr. Castrop’s ship, as it turned out.” A cloud passed in front of the sun behind Trunicht’s head. The room grew dimmer, Trunicht’s face in shadow.

“Do you really believe it was Phezzan who killed him?” Reinhard asked.

“What do you think?”

He played his card. “Do you really believe it was Duke Braunschweig who killed Prince Ludwig?”

He could see Trunicht’s perfect row of teeth. “And what would you know about that?”

“I know that it doesn’t really matter who killed the prince, or Castrop, so long as there’s someone there to take the blame.”

“You may be right, Lieutenant Commander.” He laughed. “I’m glad you’re astute, as well as talented.”

“Thank you.” There were only so many times he could say that.

“In any event, even if it wasn’t some Phezzani scheme that killed him, the fact remains that Phezzan sold us a technology to protect our planet on the promise that it was completely invincible, and we’ve seen it be destroyed by one single ship.”

“I think there’s an adage about no ship being unsinkable, sir,” Reinhard said.

“I didn’t buy the Artemis Necklace,” Trunicht said. “So I don’t stand to lose face from it being a bad investment, at the very least.”

Reinhard had no idea what to say to that-- it was rare that he was left speechless-- so he just nodded.

“Well, Lieutenant Commander, I shouldn’t waste too much of your time, or too much of your talent, as it were.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Unfortunately, you have ended up in a little bit of a predicament with this whole”-- he waved his hand-- “inquest. I’d love to have you assigned to my office, but I think that would look bad for the both of us.” He picked up a pen and tapped it on his desk. “I think there’s likely some post that will suit you well… You do have an eye for manufacturing, supply chains-- I’m sure there’s some place involving those things that would be appropriate for you. You’d get to stay on Heinessen, at the very least.”

Trunicht wasn’t really looking at him. “Sir,” Reinhard said. “I would like to be sent to the front.”

Trunicht laughed. “The front? Why?”

“I appreciate that you would like to reward me in a way that looks like a punishment. I know that posts on Heinessen are highly sought after. But I’m not the kind of man who would be happy to sit at a desk for several years.”

“The thing about talent,” Trunicht said, “is that it’s often wasted at the front.”

“I would not waste it,” Reinhard said. “I want to make the most of myself, sir.”

Trunicht raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think you’d do at the front?”

“Sir, I understand that I am still just a year out of school, and only a lieutenant commander. When things begin changing in the galaxy, I want to be able to participate.”

“You’re an ambitious man, Müsel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I like that.” His lips curled.

“May I say something else, sir?” Reinhard said.

“Of course.”

“I should hope that when things start changing in the galaxy, my ambition and loyalty will be rewarded.”

Trunicht looked him in the eye for a moment, and Reinhard was not going to look away, not until Trunicht said, “If you do make the best of yourself at the front, then many new opportunities will open up for you.”

“Many more than had I asked for a desk job on Heinessen, I assume?”

“Perhaps.” Trunicht rolled his pen around between his fingers. “Phezzan was an opportunity for you. You’ll have to work hard to replace it.”

“I will, sir.”

“Good.”

“You won’t move until the Kaiser dies, will you?”

“I don’t know what the future holds any more than you do, Lieutenant Commander.”

“When he dies, call me back here. I’ll work for you directly.”

“Are you in a position to be making demands?”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said. “But if I don’t make my intentions clear now, I doubt I’ll have another chance.”

“Your intentions?”

“I want to see the Goldenbaum Dynasty ended,” Reinhard said. “I don’t want to watch others do it for me.”

“I see.” Trunicht folded his hands. “And yet you’re keeping the mother of the future Kaiser in your house?”

Reinhard stiffened, and it was an act of sheer will to resist reaching for his locket. “The kindest thing that could be done for Erwin Josef would be to free him from the burden of being the Kaiser, and to reunite him with his mother. I have no hatred towards him as a child whatsoever.”

“Of course.” Did Trunicht think Reinhard had some other scheme? Reinhard couldn’t tell from the slickness of his voice.

“Do we understand each other, sir?” Reinhard asked. He knew he was pushing his luck, but he didn’t have much of a choice.

“I think we do,” Trunicht said. “If you make enough of yourself on the front to be useful to me when, as you say, things in the galaxy begin to change, I’ll call you back to Heinessen.” That was phrased in the most weasley way possible, but Reinhard understood it was the best he was going to get. The mention of Ingrid had been a veiled threat to not push his luck.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome. I won’t forget about you, Lieutenant Commander.”

Reinhad nodded, and understood he was being dismissed.

Transfer orders arrived for him the next day, sending him to the front.

 


 

Despite having asked for it, Reinhard couldn’t help but feel a little mellow as he packed his bags to head out, not even having much to pack. When he had first broken the news to Annerose, she had been stiff and silent, and that night he had heard her crying through the thin wall that separated his bedroom from the master bedroom. Ingrid had murmured indistinct condolences.

It wasn’t fair, either for her to worry or him to be upset about her worrying. After all, she had been in harm’s way far more than he had, at this point. She was a member of the Rosenritter.  But it was touching that she loved him, even if it felt like a dig at his competence, and so he tried to tolerate it.

Julian had been solemn when Reinhard had broken the news, sitting in the kitchen together after Julian came home from school. They were alone in the house, a plate of cookies that Julian had made the day before sitting between them as a snack, and the air perfumed by some roses in a vase at the head of the table.

Captain Schenkopp had brought Annerose the flowers earlier in the week, when he had come for dinner and stayed the night. Ingrid had vacated to the couch, and had not accepted Reinhard’s offer of sleeping on his bed, despite Reinhard’s protestations that he would be fine in the living room, and that his room was her bedroom anyway, technically. In the morning, he had found her with her red hair splayed out across the arm of the couch, the pillow having slipped onto the floor during the night. The sight stirred something in him, and he turned away.

“It’s not like I’ve even been here very long,” Reinhard pointed out. “You’re lucky to be rid of me before I spend too long on Heinessen and get annoyed with it.”

“I wouldn’t mind, sir,” Julian said. “I like having you here.” Julian flushed as he said this, though it didn’t appear to be a difficult admission.

Reinhard laughed. “I appreciate it, Julian.” He leaned back in his chair. “I’m sure I’ll be back before you’ve had too much of a chance to miss me.”

“You think you’ll be back soon? Why?”

“I made Trunicht promise to call me back when the Kaiser dies,” Reinhard said. “I doubt he’ll live too much longer.” He picked up a cookie and gestured with it. “I’ve got a clock hanging over my head, I think. A lieutenant commander isn’t going to be able to do very much in the grand scheme of things-- so I can’t waste any time out there.”

“I wish I could go out there with you,” Julian said.

“Hah, Annerose made me finish high school before I was allowed to do anything remotely exciting, tedious as it was. You’d better do the same.”

“Yes, sir.” He was solemn but unhappy. “Lieutenant Commander Annerose doesn’t want me to be a soldier.”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t have preferred me to be one either, if she had her way.” Reinhard smiled. “But if you’ve put your mind to it, I don’t think she’ll oppose you when the time comes.”

“I hope so.”

“Why do you want to be a soldier?” Reinhard asked. “It’s not exactly the easiest career choice.”

“My father was a soldier.”

“I know, but that can’t be the whole reason.”

He thought about it for a second. “Why did Lieutenant Commander Annerose become a soldier?”

“You’d have to ask her.” Reinhard said. “I’m sure she would say that it was to help me, but I think there were probably other reasons that she doesn’t talk about.”

“I want to help you, too,” Julian said.

“That can’t be true,” Reinhard pointed out. “Annerose told me you wanted to be a soldier before you even met her. Or me, for that matter.”

Julian got up from his chair and turned away, mindlessly picking up the flower vase on the table and dumping out the water in the sink to replace it with fresh. 

Julian finished filling up the vase with fresh water. “I want to protect people, I guess.”

“That’s what Fredrica-- Lieutenant Commander Greenhill-- said to me once. I guess you have that in common.” He smiled at Julian as he put the flowers back down. “It’s a noble goal.”

“What about you?”

“I don’t think the Goldenbaum Dynasty should continue to rule,” Reinhard said with a shrug. “That’s the simplest way to phrase it.”

Julian just nodded. 

Reinhard stood up, then ruffled his hair. “You and Annerose will hardly miss me when I’m gone,” Reinhard said. “You’ll hold down the fort for me, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Julian said. “I promise.”

“Excellent.”

It was later, when Julian was asleep and Anneose was out with Schenkopp, probably not due to return until the next afternoon, that Reinhard sat down next to Ingrid on the couch. She was watching television, though it was muted without subtitles, and the room was dark, so the flickering blue of the news anchor’s backdrop danced across her drawn face. She looked over at him as he sat down, but didn’t say anything.

“You won’t let Annerose be too upset about me going, will you?” he asked finally, draping his arms over the back of the couch and crossing his legs.

“She worries about you,” Ingrid said. “But she understands.”

“I’ll be fine, you know.”

“You should say goodbye to your mother before you head out.”

“I will,” Reinhard said. “I’m going to see her for lunch tomorrow.”

Ingrid nodded absently. There was a long stretch of silence between them.

“Will you be honest with me?” Reinhard asked.

She looked over at him. “The only answer you’ll accept is ‘no,’” she said. “I don’t know why you ask.”

“Well, I just want to tell you that you don’t need to lie to me.”

She nodded, looking away again.

If someone did ask you to make me do something--”

Ingrid shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “I can be a tool,” she said. “But I don’t want you to be one, too. Or Annerose.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“How can I not?”

“I have never found a situation that I have not been able to turn to my own advantage,” Reinhard said. “Anyone who thinks that they can manipulate me should be more careful.”

“I hope you’re correct,” she said. “You’ve sold yourself to Job Trunicht.”

“The alternative was being sent somewhere backwater for years,” he said. “You’re not the only one he is capable of threatening.”

Ingrid stared into the silent TV screen. “You would have made some advantage of it,” she said, turning his words against him. Reinhard frowned.

“It would have been an annoyance, anyway. I don’t mind keeping myself in Trunicht’s good graces.”

She was silent.

“Do you think that’s a bad idea?”

“I don’t trust him,” Ingrid said.

“Neither do I.”

“Whatever he’s promised you, I don’t think he’s going to give you.”

“And what has he promised you that you’ve given up hope on getting?”

She just shook her head. “You would be better off far away from him, I think.”

“Ingrid--”

She shifted uncomfortably.

“I won’t do anything that’s going to jeopardize Annerose’s happiness. Or yours.” His hand found his locket, though it was underneath his shirt. She didn’t look at him. “You can take that as a promise.”

“Annerose’s happiness?” Ingrid shook her head. “I don’t think you understand her happiness at all.”

“I don’t?” Reinhard asked, affronted.”I think I should understand my own sister very well.”

Ingrid smiled, a thin expression. “I appreciate your sincerity. But she could be happy without me.”

“No,” Reinhard said, voice firm. “She told me herself that she wants you to stay with her.”

Ingrid’s laugh was mellow. “I believe you.”

“Then why would you have preferred to have Trunicht--”

“I wouldn’t have preferred it,” she said. “But it’s useless for you to do things for my sake.” She closed her eyes, the television’s glow tracing only her cheekbones and the tip of her nose, leaving her closed eyes dark shadows on her face. “I’m a doomed woman, Mr. von Müsel.”

“I don’t believe that at all.”

“Annerose wants all of this to last,” Ingrid said. “It’s not going to. Sooner or later, someone is going to use the tools they’ve purchased, and if that’s you or me, or the government of Phezzan-- nothing is going to stay the way it has. I wish I had learned that lesson years ago. But I know it well enough now.” She took a deep breath. It surprised Reinhard how calm she was, how controlled her voice was. “I appreciate everything that you and your sister have done for me, more than I could ever express.”

“Annerose won’t let anything happen to you,” Reinhard said.

“She won’t be able to stop it.”

“I think you underestimate what she is capable of doing for the people she loves.”

“I think you’ve misunderstood, Reinhard,” Ingrid said.

“Misunderstood what?”

“Annerose does not love me.”

Reinhard was silent for a second, then said, “I know you said that you would not promise not to lie to me, but I would hope you respect me enough to not try to delude me about the obvious.”

“The obvious?” She laughed again. “It’s amazing that we have the appearance of a scandal, where no such scandal really exists.”

Reinhard thumbed his locket through his shirt. “I would know what it looks like,” he said, trying to say what he meant. It was an offer, reciprocity.

She nodded, and there was a moment of silence. Reinhard waited for her to fill it. “She isn’t capable of loving me,” she said. “Did you think she was?”

“You share a bed with her.”

“Like children,” she said.

He hesitated. “But you love her.”

“Yes.”

“Does she know that?”

“Yes.”

Without realizing it, he had tugged his locket out from under his shirt, and was twisting it around his finger. It wasn’t his responsibility, what Annerose felt for Ingrid, but he couldn’t help but feel responsibility, or something close to it, anyway. He had never had much sympathy in his heart for other people’s romances before, but this was different. Perhaps because he had brought Ingrid into Annerose’s life. Perhaps because he liked her better than he liked Captain Schenkopp. Perhaps just because when he caught a glimpse of her hair from behind, it reminded him so strongly of Kircheis that he was taken back to being a child on Odin, with the person he loved beside him.

“I think she might--” Reinhard began, but Ingrid put her hand on his knee and stopped him.

“It’s alright,” she said.

“She said to me that--”

“If she said she loves me, it’s because she likes to feel like I need her,” Ingrid said. “And that’s enough, even if that’s the only kind of love she will ever have for me.” Her smile was wistful. “And she likes that I take care of Julian, and that you and I get along, and that I’m a companion for your mother, and that I don’t ask her for anything more than she is willing to give me.”

“Why do you stay?”

She just shook her head, and Reinhard found that he understood. 

“Do you want me to say anything to her?”

“No, no. There’s nothing that needs to be said.” She let out a breath. “Though I suppose I’m grateful to talk about it with you, anyway.”

“I guess you don’t really have anybody else.”

“Your mother operates under the impression that I sleep in your bedroom.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Reinhard said. “She knows a lot more than she lets on, I think.”

“Well, I couldn’t talk with her about it. Or Julian.”

“Yeah.” Reinhard paused, then said. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Do you need me to be honest?”

“I’d like it.”

“You can ask.”

“What do you think of Captain Schenkopp?”

Ingrid let out a small breath and looked away. “He’s a good man, and he makes her very happy. I can’t be unhappy about that.” Of course he wasn’t going to get an honest answer-- the pain was evident in her voice, even if she was saying true things about Schenkopp’s character. Reinhard would have to try not to begrudge him as well.

“Thank you for the honesty,” he said. “I do appreciate it.”

“Do you?”

The chain of his locket was squeezing his fingers purple. Reinhard looked over at Ingrid, then pulled it off his neck and held it out to her. She took it, the TV’s glow catching the gold metal as she opened it.

“Siegfried Kircheis,” Reinhard said after she had looked at the photograph and curled lock of hair. “We knew each other on Odin.”

“And you loved him?”

“Yes.”

Ingrid was silent for a moment. “When I left Odin, the Earth Church told me I couldn’t take anything with me. Not even the clothes on my back. They gave me new ones. It’s nice that you have a memento.” She was still looking down into the photograph, and it began to make Reinhard antsy, almost ready to ask for the locket back. “You look just like her, you know.”

“I know,” he said. 

She passed him back the locket, and he slipped it on under his shirt, glad to have its cool weight against his chest once again. 

“I’m going to see him again,” Reinhard said. “Someday. No matter how long it takes.”

“I hope so,” Ingrid said, though it didn’t sound like she believed him.

“I shouldn’t have asked you to make sure she doesn’t worry about me,” Reinhard said. 

“No, it’s alright.” She reached for the remote and turned the silent TV off, plunging them into a near-darkness that Reinhard’s eyes struggled to get used to. “It’s nice to be able to take care of her, too.”

As Reinhard’s vision finally adjusted enough to see the stars in the dark sky through the window, Ingrid stood, blacking them out, except where the streetlights caught the edges of her hair, a crown of light, just this side of red. 

“I think we all have to look out for each other in the ways we can,” Ingrid said. “I think that’s all we have, when it comes down to it.” She offered Reinhard her hand to help him stand, and he took it, not letting go even after he was on his feet.

“Right,” he said. “So if there is anything that I can do for your happiness-- and Annerose’s-- I’m going to do it.”

She shook her head, and he couldn’t see her face well enough in the darkness to read her expression. “Goodnight, Reinhard,” she said.

“Yeah, goodnight.”

Chapter Text

December 797 U.C.

Captain Reinhard von Müsel found himself more disappointed than he was expecting to be as he left his ship, the Constantinople , for the last time. He had understood that his assignment to it had always been temporary, but having spent a year onboard, and several months in command of it, he had grown attached to the chunky old battleship. She was outdated even by the Alliance’s standards-- older than he was by a decade, and in service the whole time-- but in these quarters, that just meant she was an extremely lucky ship. 

Reinhard had been assigned to the Constantinople as its XO, still a lieutenant commander, but had quickly earned a standard promotion. Nine months into his tenure on board, Captain Jonesburg had been shot in a drunken bar-fight, and Reinhard had been given command of the ship in his stead. He had performed well despite his youth, and so he was leaving with a promotion in hand, summoned back to Heinessen.

The Kaiser had died. It had taken a while for the news to reach Reinhard, on patrol in the Iserlohn corridor as he was. But it had reached him as soon as his patrol group made it far enough out of the corridor that they could break their communications-silence.

Patrols in the corridor were being doubled, just in case, but Reinhard was going home. The Heinessen spaceport where he left the Constantinople for good was eerily devoid of ships, aside from those that had accompanied his in for their turn in drydock and retrofit. Everyone was on high alert, though Reinhard doubted that the rumblings of civil war within the Empire would lead to any kind of invasion. The readiness was likely just someone-- Trunicht, probably-- preparing for a different kind of engagement, with some plausible deniability.

Reinhard, while waiting for his shuttle to take him down to Heinessen’s surface, leaned against one of the railings against the windows, looking at the empty docking bays and the bulk of the Constantinople , with its running lights slowly blinking off one by one as the port workers prepared to give it a thorough check of all its systems. Although he always had something on his mind, his thoughts were the melancholy kind that came with being close to seeing home, and Annerose, for the first time in a year. He was therefore uncharacteristically startled when someone came up beside him.

“Well, if it isn’t the Hero of Condor Base himself,” the man said. “What’s a man like you doing in a place like this?”

Reinhard jumped, then smiled to recognize who it was. “Captain Attenborough-- I didn’t know you were coming into port.” He had seen Attenborough several times over the past year; they were in the same fleet, though not usually on patrol together. Their conversations had usually been short, one or the other of them always needing to rush off somewhere, but it was nice to see someone familiar, even if he was more Annerose’s friend than his.

“I’m getting kicked off the front, so I hitched a ride back on the Westmoreland. And there’s no need to be so formal. I hear we’re the same rank now.”

Reinhard straightened and turned so that they could converse more easily. “Are you being punished or something? It seems like you should be a commodore by now. You’ve been a captain long enough.”

Dusty laughed, the bright outside lights illuminating his friendly expression. “No, not at all. It’s nothing personal, they just don’t want to make me the youngest flag officer in the Alliance, unless I’ve done something particularly impressive.”

“And everything at Legnica doesn’t count?”

“Of course not.” Dusty grinned. “I’m not really that concerned.”

“Weren’t you put in charge of a whole battlegroup?”

“Oh, sure, they’re making me work above my paygrade.”

“I would be unhappy at having duties incommensurate with my rank,” Reinhard said, frowning. “In either direction.”

Dusty clapped him on the shoulder. “And that’s why I’m not particularly worried.”

Reinhard raised an eyebrow and waited for elaboration.

“They’ll go ahead and make me the youngest flag officer, just to set a bit of precedent, and then you’ll outstrip me just as quickly. That’s what your sister tells me. All’s well that ends well, anyway.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Fair? All’s fair in love and war,” Dusty said with a grin. “But don’t worry about that. I’m probably going to get my letter soon enough-- it’s not worth getting worked up about the day or the hour. How have you been?”

“Fine,” Reinhard said. He nodded to the Constantinople outside the window. “Pretty weird to leave my first real command, but I think I’ll be able to do more on Heinessen than I will in the corridor, at least for now.”

Dusty whistled the chorus of “Leave Her, Johnny” while cheekily conducting himself with one wagging finger, then said, “You parting with the crew on good terms?”

“I think so,” Reinhard said. “It was only ever supposed to be temporary, until they could find a permanent replacement for Jonesburg.”

“I heard about that,” Dusty said slyly.

“How?” Reinhard asked. “I thought it had been hushed up.”

“Well, you heard about it.” 

“One of my NCOs witnessed it and ran to get me so that I could deal with it. And even if he hadn’t, I could have hardly avoided it.” Reinhard shook his head. “It was a disaster.”

“Very undignified,” Dusty said.

“But how did you hear about it?”

“Well, I can get any bartender to gossip with me.” He grinned. “I missed my calling as a journalist, now I’m stuck being a starship captain instead.”

That got a chuckle out of Reinhard. 

“Did he live, by the way? Your former captain?” Dusty asked.

“Oh, yeah, he’s fine. Discharged, though.”

“That goes without saying.”

“Where are you being assigned?” Reinhard asked.

“I’m on leave for the next three weeks,” Dusty said. “They haven’t told me what I’m doing after that, but I’ve heard that Bucock wants me as a staff officer.”

“And how did you hear that?”

Dusty just tapped his nose. “I can’t give away all my trade secrets. Journalistic privilege and all.”

“I hope it’s true. I like Bucock.”

“Really? I didn’t know you had met him.”

“No, I haven’t, but my sister has a good opinion of him, and I trust her more than I trust almost anybody else.”

“Of course, Commander Müsel’s word is as good as gold.” He smiled. “She angry about you outstripping her?”

“I doubt it,” Reinhard said with a shrug. “I haven’t told her yet, though.”

“Well, if she’s upset, that’s her own fault. No room for growth in the Rosenritter, I’ve heard.”

“Not until they promote Schenkopp, which isn’t going to happen,” Reinhard agreed.

“No?”

“People don’t like promoting Rosenritters to flag officers,” Reinhard said. “They don’t have the best track record.”

“And what do you think of Herr Schenkopp?” Dusty asked, a funny flourish on his name.

“Annerose likes him. As I said, that’s good enough for me.”

Dusty laughed again, which made Reinhard frown, but there was nothing malicious in it. “So, where are you headed on Heinessen?”

“I’m joining Job Trunicht’s advisory staff, actually,” Reinhard said.

Dusty’s eyebrows shot up. “I knew you had redeemed yourself from your Phezzani disgrace, but I didn’t know it had gone that far.”

“Trunicht has always been interested in my career.” His voice was neutral. “And I don’t think I was ever really in disgrace.”

Dusty pointed to the Constantinople . “You got kicked out to the very front onboard a tin can twice your age. That’s a posting for someone whose career is in disgrace, if I’ve ever seen one.”

“I asked to be sent to the front,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, right, I forget that you feed on danger and derring-do.”

“It’s better than being assigned to staff some prison camp in the boonies,” Reinhard said. “It gave me a chance to make some good of myself.”

“I get the sensation that you could do that anywhere.”

“If you get too complimentary of me, Annerose will get jealous.”

That made Dusty smirk. “We couldn’t have that, could we?” He tilted his head. “Are you planning to stay with her while you’re on Heinessen?”

“Probably,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be there, but there’s no point in trying to get my own place when Annerose has room for me.”

“I’m going to get annoyed with my family before my three weeks are even up,” Dusty said. “Probably going to have to fork out some money for a hotel. If I wasn’t in space so often I would have put in for officer housing before now, but I didn’t see the point in it unless I got a position on Heinessen.”

“If I wasn’t staying in the spare room, I’m sure Annerose would let you have it.”

“Hah, and what a scandal that would be.”

“I doubt it,” Reinhard said, which he hadn’t intended to be any more than a bare statement of facts, but it made Dusty laugh.

“You seeing anyone on Heinessen?” Dusty asked. “Some beautiful, charming--”

“No,” Reinhard said.

“Ah.” Dusty grinned. Across the concourse, someone was waving at them, a man with curly orange hair.

“Attenborough! What are you doing?” the man across the way yelled. “We were supposed to be getting drinks!”

“Oh, jeeze,” Dusty said, glancing behind himself and making a chagrined expression. “I’d better run.”

“Who’s that?”

“One of the Spartinian pilot-officers in my battlegroup. Poplan. Great guy.”

“Annerose know him?”

“No,” Dusty said. “And it’s probably best that we keep it that way.”

“Alright,” Reinhard said with a smile. “I won’t tell her who you’re consorting with.”

“‘Consorting,’ that’s a good one. Not exactly the vibe, though.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Hey, if you’re not busy all the time in your new post, give me a call! We could get drinks.”

“I’m sure Annerose would love to have you over for dinner.”

“Well, sure-- I--”

“Attenborough!” Poplan yelled. “I don’t have all day!”

“You’d better go,” Reinhard said. “I shouldn’t keep you.”

“Yeah, alright. See you around.” Dusty’s tone had fallen.

“Definitely,” Reinhard said, which made Dusty smile again. He gave a jaunty wave and headed off to talk to the pilot, who immediately punched him in the arm.

“Hey, I need that arm for writing!” Dusty said, still loud enough that Reinhard could hear.

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Poplan asked.

And then the two vanished out of sight.

 


 

Annerose’s house was the same as he had left it, on the outside, and even standing in the doorway, he could hear Annerose happily chatting with Julian, the sounds drifting out the open window. He had arrived home by taxi, wanting to surprise her. She had known that he was coming back to Heinessen in general, but he hadn’t given a date. When he rang the doorbell, Annerose opened the door and blinked in surprise before wrapping him in the tightest hug she could give. This was rib-crushing, but he didn’t mind at all.

“Reinhard! What are you doing here?!”

“They kicked me out of my ship,” he joked, trying not to whack her knees with his luggage as she continued to hug him. “So, now that I’m homeless, I figured I’d come darken your doorstep.”

When she let go of him enough to run her hands down his arms and see his new captain’s pin on his collar, she raised her eyebrows.

“This is recent, isn’t it?” she asked, fingering it.

“As of this week,” Reinhard said. “I would have told you as soon as I got it if I thought I was going to be out in space for any longer, but I figured I could give you the news in person.”

“I half feel like I should be saluting you at the door.” But she was smiling.

“Please, don’t,” Reinhard said. “It’s not fair that you don’t have the chance to advance.”

“I don’t mind.” She took his jacket and hung it up on the hook.

Julian and Ingrid, having heard Reinhard’s voice, poked their heads out from the kitchen. Julian did salute, and Reinhard gave him one back, which made him grin. He had grown like a weed in the year that Reinhard had been gone, which didn’t surprise him, but it was odd to see him eye to eye, rather than as a child.

Ingrid was smiling, but her face belied some anxiety. “Welcome home,” she said. “Are you staying?” Her Alliance language had improved significantly, evident from the first words that she spoke. 

“If you’ll have me,” Reinhard said to Annerose.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “We can set up your room easily enough.” She tugged his elbow, and the whole group proceeded back into the kitchen, where the smell of a roast cooking in the oven permeated the room. Julian had clearly been in the middle of cutting up vegetables for a salad. “You should have told me you were coming, but I guess you’re right on time. Walter’s coming for dinner tonight.”

“Is he?” Reinhard asked. He leaned over to Julian and in a stage whisper said, “Does he still do that a lot?”

Julian laughed. “Yes, sir.”

Annerose looked Reinhard over, pursing her lips. “Hm. Now that you’re both captains I hope that you don’t get any wrong ideas about how you should behave.”

“You should kick me out if you don’t think I can be a good dinner guest,” Reinhard said.

“I believe in the potential of your better nature. You saw him last time you were here, right?”

“Yes, and we got along just fine,” Reinhard said. He wandered over to the fridge and looked through it to find a snack, though he closed it again without pulling anything out. “When’s he going to be here?”

“About an hour,” Annerose said. “Do you have anything nice to wear?”

“Nothing but my dress whites,” Reinhard said. He had sold all the civilian clothes he had bought while on Phezzan, so that he wouldn’t have to carry them back, and while on board the Constantinople had worn little other than his uniform.

“Julian, don’t you have something that Reinhard can borrow--” She stopped when she saw the look on Reinhard’s face. “Oh, nevermind then.” He would just have to wear his shirtsleeves, though he didn’t think this was a problem.

“By the way,” Reinhard said, “I saw Dusty Attenborough when I was in the station. He’s on leave for the next few weeks. You should invite him for dinner.”

“Oh, he didn’t tell me. Of course I will. Fredrica’s planetside too, you know. We could have a little reunion.”

“Really? I thought she was still with the Sixth Fleet.”

“They’re rotating out for maintenance right now. She’s apparently helping coordinate it from the ground.”

“Oh-- I had assumed from her letter she was still on orbit.”

“She just came in last week. I think it’s some sort of political thing, trying to make it get done faster, that she’s planetside for.” Annerose shrugged. “She sounded stressed when I talked to her on the phone-- sounds like it’s been a mess for whatever reason.”

“I think everybody’s trying to rush everything,” Reinhard said. “Which I believe usually gums up the works.”

Annerose bit her lip and nodded.

“You on standby?” Reinhard asked.

“Always,” Annerose said. “Even though we just got back.” The Rosenritter had had a relatively brief deployment to Capche-Lanka, to provide extra support for destroying two Imperial bases there. It had gone well, but the fleet higher-ups had not wanted the regiment to remain there for an extended period of time.

“It’s not like you’re useful, sitting around in the capital.”

Annerose picked one of the baby carrots out of Julian’s salad bowl and threw it at him. Reinhard caught it, stuck out his tongue at her, and ate it.

“Go shower before Walter gets here. You smell like a space station.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Reinhard said, laughing.

He headed upstairs, abandoning his suitcase in the cluttered bedroom that was still mostly being used for storage-- he really would have to clean that out-- and went to go shower and change into a fresh uniform. When he was standing in the foggy bathroom with his towel wrapped around his waist, blowdrying his long hair as quickly as he could, there was a timid knock on the door.

“You need the toilet?” he called. “I can get out.” This was the problem with Annerose’s small house, he remembered.

But the door cracked open and Ingrid stepped inside, closing it behind her. 

“You’re lucky I’m decent,” he said.

“You’re going to work for Trunicht?” she asked, getting straight to business. Helpfully, Reinhard turned the blowdryer all the way to its maximum, so that there was less chance of being overheard over its deafening roar, especially by the too-observant Julian.

“Theoretically,” Reinhard said. “I got the transfer order to his department, but no start date. It’s not exactly clear where he intends to fit me in.”

“Have you spoken with him?”

“No.”

“Do you know… what’s going to happen?”

Reinhard looked into her face. She was biting her lip, meeting his eyes.

“I’ll let you know when I find out,” he said. “I’m not going to keep you in the dark.” He transferred the hair dryer to his other hand. “To be honest, I’d been hoping you could tell me what’s going on.”

She shook her head. “I haven’t heard anything.”

“Not even when Julian eavesdrops on bishops for you? Or through my mom and her, uh, connections?”

“Nobody seems to know what’s happening on Odin.”

“I’ll tell you what’s happening,” Reinhard said. “Civil war, or the start of it.”

Ingrid squeezed her eyes shut. “The news that comes in through Phezzan--”

“Don’t trust anything it says,” Reinhard said flatly. “The Imperial papers have their own interests, and I’m sure there’s a communication breakdown of massive proportions happening over there.” He dropped the hair dryer to the counter, still running, and ran a brush through his hair so he could start to braid it. “Their fleet can issue statements all it wants when its only enemy is us,” Reinhard said. “But when it’s becoming factional?” He shook his head. “Probably the best sense we’ll have of who’s winning is by what refugees start flooding through Phezzan.”

“What will happen to Erwin?”

Her voice was steady, but it was that steadiness that belied how miserable she was. Reinhard looked at her for a second, then put a comforting hand on her arm. “I think the best news you can hope for is that you don’t hear anything about him. That will mean the Earth Church is protecting him, like they promised they would. No one will say anything about him until he becomes important. And we can only hope that he won’t. Not now, at least.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“I promise-- as soon as I do hear anything from Trunicht about what the plans are, you and Annerose will be the first to know.”

She nodded. “You should get dressed. Captain Schenkopp will be here in a minute.”

“I wanted to ask, how’s that--” But Ingrid was already leaving the bathroom. Annoyed, Reinhard turned the hair dryer off, leaving himself in the hot and sticky silence of the bathroom.

He took his sweet time getting dressed, dawdling in his room until he heard Annerose loudly greet Schenkopp at the door. She made very sure he could hear her say, “And guess who showed up at my doorstep this afternoon?”

Schenkopp’s low voice was less audible through the floor, but Reinhard finished doing his red tie and opened the door in time to hear: “--didn’t think you were entertaining some other captain.” He must have seen Reinhard’s jacket hanging up by the door.

Annerose laughed. “No, Reinhard got promoted.”

“I should congratulate him.”

By this time, Reinhard had appeared on the stairs, looking down at where he and Annerose were loitering in the entryway, her hand on his scarf. “Thank you, Captain,” Reinhard said.

He looked up at him with a smirk. “I suppose your punishment is over, then?”

“I wasn’t being punished.” Reinhard descended the stairs with as much grace as he could muster.

“And I’m next in line for the Imperial throne,” Schenkopp said. “Being assigned to a ship as old as the one you were on is like someone was trying to get you killed.”

“The Constantinople was a good ship,” Reinhard said. “Lucky, too.”

“If he was really being punished, he wouldn’t have been promoted twice in a year,” Annerose said. “Come on-- Julian made dinner.”

Julian and Ingrid said their hellos to Schenkopp in the other room, and Schenkopp commented on how good Julian’s cooking looked.

“Are you the youngest they’ve ever made someone a captain?” Schenkopp asked as they sat down at the table. Julian listened with interest.

“I don’t know,” Reinhard said, feeling rather miffed that Schenkopp was bringing up his age. “I don’t know if they keep track of these things.”

“I feel like you have to be.” Schenkopp tilted his chair back on two legs. Since Annerose was out of the room getting the bottle of wine, she couldn’t glare at him, but Ingrid looked faintly worried that he was about to fall backwards into the wall. “You graduated the academy two years early, and they made you a lieutenant commander to start out with-- I don’t know how anybody could be faster.”

“I’m sure someone has,” Reinhard said. “If you’re at the front and lucky, you can get promoted quickly. That’s what I’ve been told.”

Annerose reappeared with the wine bottle. “Maybe one of the 730 Mafia has you beat,” she said. “I’d have to look up their service records.”

“Doubt it,” Schenkopp said. “It’s impressive, I will admit that at least.”

“Oh, you don’t have to begrudge him, Walter,” Annerose said.

“What in the world gave you that impression?” He was silently laughing.

Annerose just pursed her lips as she sat down.

Julian handed around the roast and mashed potatoes, and Reinhard was forced to pass the roast to Ingrid without taking any himself. He took more than his fair share of potatoes in his stead. When Julian raised an eyebrow, Reinhard pointedly ignored him. No one had bothered to explain Reinhard’s lie about being a vegetarian to Julian before, as when Schenkopp had come to dinner when Reinhard before, Annerose had always just asked him to cook something meatless. Reinhard didn’t think Schenkopp noticed Julian’s expression, but he did notice Reinhard’s mound of mashed potatoes.

“Still a vegetarian, I see,” Schenkopp said.

“Yes,” Reinhard said. He hoped that none of the other people at the table would give the game away.

“I would have told Julian to make something you could eat if I had known you were going to be here for dinner,” Annerose said, though it was with a tone of fatigue from Reinhard’s stupid, years-old lie.

“What do you eat, when you’re out in space? I don’t think I’ve met many vegetarians in the fleet, and I certainly haven’t had dinner with them.”

“There’s usually something,” Reinhard said. He ate some potatoes so that Schenkopp would stop asking him questions. Of course, that was not destined to be the case.

“So, where are you being assigned now?” Schenkopp asked. 

“Job Trunicht’s advisory staff,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know if it will be a permanent position, or what it’s going to involve.”

“Helluva time to be assigned there.”

Reinhard just smiled. “How has life been with the Rosenritter?” Reinhard asked. “Did you like Capche-Lanka?”

“Like? No, not at all,” Schenkopp said. “I don’t like the snow.”

“Really? I figured after Cahokia that you’d all have had your fill of the heat.”

“I didn’t like that place, either, now that you mention it. But at least when you sweat on that planet, it doesn’t freeze to your face. That’s all that matters to me.”

“I liked Capche-Lanka better,” Annerose said. “Not having a breathable atmosphere on Cahokia was very annoying. And the sand I could have done without, too.”

“I hope the next place we go is lush and tropical,” Schenkopp said. “I wouldn’t mind a jungle.” He grinned at her. “You’d think there has to be some planet where I can swing through the trees.” He raised his arms to illustrate, and though Annerose pursed her lips, it was still clear that she was entertained rather than annoyed.

“I think you were born in the wrong century, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Annerose said. “I don’t think there are any tropical planets in the Iserlohn corridor.”

“Ah, but when we break through into the Empire-- there has to be at least one planet with a jungle.”

“It’s a nice fantasy,” Reinhard said.

“Phezzan’s tropical, now that I think about it. At least the capital is, near the elevator.” He tapped his chin. “You said you liked that climate, didn’t you?”

Ingrid looked down at her plate, and Julian glanced between Reinhard and Schenkopp, listening carefully. 

“You planning to take a vacation there?” Reinhard asked, taking a sip of his wine.

“I don’t think I would be the one to plan it, no,” Schenkopp said, the corner of his lips twitching. “I don’t have much of a head for that kind of logistics.”

“I suppose that’s why you’re a Rosenritter.”

Schenkopp just grinned. “Precisely. And why you’ll be stuck somewhere behind a desk, while we see all the action that’s coming.”

“I’m not sure what action you think is about to happen,” Reinhard said. “I think the Imperial fleet is going to be busy chasing its own tail for the foreseeable future.”

“Why should we have to wait for them to come knocking? I’m tired of playing the game on their terms.”

“It’s not as though Iserlohn will be any less well defended--”

Schenkopp barked out a laugh. “That old thing.”

“I wasn’t aware that Iserlohn Fortress had become a trifle, suddenly.”

Schenkopp nudged Annerose with his elbow. “Don’t you think if someone could do the job of getting us inside those fortress walls, we could take the whole inside ourselves?”

Annerose laughed, though Reinhard didn’t think the joke had been particularly funny. “Maybe,” she said. “I think I’d like to try.”

“It is the getting inside the walls that has historically been an issue,” Reinnhard said, voice dry.

“You aren’t going to proudly proclaim that you could take it, if you had a fleet?” Schenkopp asked.

“Overconfidence is the mother of disaster,” he said and ate some more mashed potatoes.

“You’ve got plenty of time in your life left to capture Iserlohn,” Annerose said. “But I don’t think you can pretend that you haven’t thought about how to do it.”

“Of course I’ve thought about it. But I’m not going to boast about something I haven’t done yet.”

“What do you think, Julian? Could Captain von Müsel take down Iserlohn?” Schenkopp asked, completely unfazed by Reinhard’s dig.

“Of course,” Julian said, without any hesitation, which made Annerose shake her head, hiding her smile with her hand. “But maybe you should work together.”

“Right,” Schenkopp said. “We’d make a great team. I get along so well with your sister, after all, and you’re not so different.” 

“Maybe someday,” Reinhard said.

Schenkopp leaned back in his seat. “Well, I’ve heard that we aren’t likely to be taking a jaunt to Iserlohn any time soon, so I won’t be in a rush for that.”

“And how have you come into possession of intimate knowledge of the top level plans for our fleets?”

Schenkopp just smiled and turned to Julian. “How’s the end of your school year been going?”

“Very good, sir,” Julian said. “I’m looking forward to it being over.”

The conversation was light after that, though Reinhard couldn’t help but be annoyed at Schenkopp for having insinuated that he knew more about the plans for Phezzan than Reinhard did. He hated feeling like he was missing information. Although he had asked for the posting at the front, he had still been completely out of the political loop in the capital for more than a year. And a commander of a single old battleship was rarely privy to much strategic gossip, especially when he spent much of his time on a communications blackout on patrol. 

He was suddenly anxious to get moving with his new posting; he wanted some real detail about it. Schenkopp could brag about the Rosenritters’ occasional bouts of excitement all he liked, but Reinhard did want to get his hands onto the real plans. 

Schenkopp didn’t know anything, Reinhard decided, watching him make Annerose laugh. No one would have told the captain of the Rosenritter anything; they weren’t trustworthy in the eyes of the fleet higher-ups. That was why Schenkopp wasn’t going to become a commodore any time soon. Schenkopp was as in the dark as anyone else at the table was, and he was just trying to figure out if Reinhard knew anything. That realization relaxed Reinhard somewhat, though he couldn’t shake his annoyance that Schenkopp was able to pretend to be carefree about being in the dark. Ingrid couldn’t-- and Reinhard was twisting his napkin around his fingers underneath the table. Julian hung onto every word.

It was only Annerose and Schenkopp who were relaxed; they were amused by each other to the point of caring about very little else. Reinhard stopped paying attention to what they were saying, at some point, but he couldn’t help but notice the way they touched each other, how Annerose’s hand would linger on Schenkopp’s when she took his wine glass to refill, or how he tucked some of her hair behind her ear as she leaned across the table to grab the salad bowl, or the way his hand very clearly made its way to her thigh underneath the table when she sat back down. And he couldn’t help but see the way she smiled at his touch, and hear the way her voice turned up with a sweet interest in everything he said, even if it was silly or mundane.

He didn’t begrudge her her happiness, intellectually. But he couldn’t help but notice it, and it was that noticing that set him on edge. He could be polite, though, and he could hold up his side of the conversation for the rest of the meal.

After dinner, Annerose asked if anyone wanted to watch a movie, clearly just trying to find a way to kill time with Schenkopp there until it was an acceptable hour for everyone to go to bed. Ingrid assented, knowing exactly how this usually played out, but Reinhard found sitting in the armchair and half paying attention to some schlocky action flick unbearable, and so he wandered out of the living room after just a half an hour, standing in the kitchen and sneakily eating some of the roast he had not been able to partake in while Schenkopp was in the room.

Absentmindedly, he looked at his phone and he realized he had a text message-- one from Dusty Attenborough, of all people. He was apologizing for having had to run when they had met in the station.

The noise of the movie from the other room was muffled, and Reinhard twirled the end of one of his braids around his finger. He didn’t really want to go back in there, and he couldn’t stay in the kitchen all night, and going up to his room would have felt like some kind of defeat. He texted Dusty back. 

 

Reinhard: No worries. Did you just arrive planetside?

 

Dusty: no-- i got in a few hours ago. been with my family

 

Reinhard: Are you busy right now?

 

Dusty: nah. I’m hiding in my bedroom so my mother can’t pester me about whatever she has on her mind

Dusty: if they keep me on Heinessen I am going to have to get my own place-- i can’t bear too much of this haha

Dusty: with my luck i’ll be back at the front though

 

Reinhard: Feeling like your rumored posting with Bucock is not going to happen?

 

Dusty: no, i think it will, i just think that bucock will have the bad luck of leaving the capital as soon as i’m with him

 

Reinhard: Still want to get a drink? I don’t really feel the need to stay here while my sister is entertaining Captain Schenkopp.

 

Dusty: lol of course!

Dusty: there’s a great little bar in the brownstone district if u want to meet me there

 

Reinhard: Sure. Be there in half an hour.

 

He stuck his head back into the living room enough to catch Ingrid’s eye. She was sitting next to Annerose on the couch, the enormous fluffy cat stretched out across both their laps. Schenkopp had his arm wrapped around Annerose’s sounder. Reinhard silently beckoned to Ingrid, and she eased herself out from under the cat’s weight. 

Annerose looked up at her as she got up, but then noticed that it was Reinhard who had gotten her attention and just smiled.

“Let’s go out,” Reinhard said, once Ingrid had joined him in the kitchen. “I don’t want to stay here.”

Ingrid glanced back to the living room. “I don’t really want to leave…”

Reinhard crossed his arms. “She’s not going to miss us if we go. Come on.”

“Where are you going?”

“Have you met Captain Attenborough?”

“No.”

“He’s one of Annerose’s school friends. He wants to get drinks.”

“Shouldn’t Annerose--”

“She’s busy. Let’s go.” His tone was the same one he had often used with his junior officers aboard the Constantinople , and it seemed to work on Ingrid just as well.

She sighed, but assented and went to get her shoes from near the door. As she did, Reinhard stuck his head back into the living room. “Ingrid and I are going out. We won’t be back until late.”

“Have fun,” Annerose said. He could have done without the weird relief in her voice.

Julian looked up. “Can I come?”

“No,” Reinhard said. He left so that he wouldn’t have to see Julian’s disappointed expression. He found the keys to Annerose’s car hanging on the side of the fridge, and pulled on his uniform jacket. “Ready?” he asked Ingrid.

They headed out. Ingrid stared dolefully out at the scenery as Reinhard drove, his window down and the cool night air fluttering the pieces of his hair not tucked inside his braids. He liked driving quickly. Annerose, if she had been in the car, probably would have been annoyed at the speed at which he took corners.

The bar that Dusty had invited him to was fairly busy, and it took a minute for Reinhard to find a place to park. It was easy to spot Dusty once they made it inside, though. He was already at the bar, leaning on it with both his elbows and chatting animatedly with the bartender as he fixed a drink for someone else. He looked up when Reinhard slid onto the barstool next to him.

“You made it!” Dusty said. His eyes were bright, and in the neon glare of the beer advertisements above their heads, his freckles stood out on his face like dark constellations.

“I’m glad you could provide an excuse for me to get out of the house on such short notice,” Reinhard said.

“Feeling’s mutual, honestly.”

Ingrid was hovering behind Reinhard’s shoulder, and Reinhard turned to her. “I should make the introductions-- Dusty, this is Ms. Ingrid Roscher. Ingrid, this is Captain Dusty Attenborough.”

A strange expression crossed Dusty’s face for a second, but he covered it up as he extended a hand to Ingrid, who shook it. “Pleasure to finally meet you,” he said. “The other Müsel’s told me all about you in her letters.”

“Likewise,” Ingrid said. “I’m happy to make the acquaintance of Annerose’s friends.”

“What brings you out here with Captain Reinhard tonight?”

“I dragged her along,” Reinhard said as Ingrid took a seat. Dusty flagged the bartender over to get them all a round of drinks. “I figured Annerose’s house was a little crowded with so many people in it.”

Dusty laughed. “I can imagine.” When the bartender passed them a round of beers, Dusty raised his. “To mutual acquaintance.”

Ingrid smiled and raised her glass.

“You know, it’s funny to me that she’s managed to stay with Schenkopp for so long,” Dusty said. “I thought it was a fine relationship while the three of us were in school, but it didn’t seem destined to last, from what I heard of it back then.”

“My sister and I are both tenacious people,” Reinhard said.

Dusty laughed. “I can imagine. I suppose she’d have to be to stand being, what, one of five, ten women in her regiment? And I think the only female officer the Rosenritter have ever had.”

“I don’t think it bothers her,” Ingrid said.

“No, of course not,” Dusty agreed. “But it makes sense.”

“Are you like your siblings at all?” Reinhard asked.

“Hah, maybe,” Dusty said. “I guess we’re alike in being the baby brother, you and me. But my older sisters--” He shrugged. “I think my mother would say that we’re all equally ridiculous, but they never had the burden of my parents’ expectations.”

“Do you stand to inherit?” Ingrid asked.

“What? Oh, no.” Dusty laughed. “I guess you do come from the Empire-- we don’t really do that here. No, I don’t inherit, unless you count that my grandfather’s dying wish was that I join the military. As much as I would have preferred not to.”

“You’re a reluctant soldier, who’s still going to become the youngest flag officer the Alliance has had?” Reinhard asked. “It says something about you.”

A strange smile touched Dusty’s lips. “Something good, I hope.”

“Of course,” Reinhard said. “It’s almost a shame that Bucock is going to take you in his staff-- I wouldn’t mind working with you at all.” Despite the friendly atmosphere between them at the bar, and the briefness of their encounters up until now, the part of Reinhard’s brain that was always paying attention to other people’s strengths and weaknesses couldn’t help but slot Dusty neatly into his most interesting mental category: people who could be useful to him in the future.

“Hey, it won’t be forever,” Dusty said. “We both seem to get shuffled around often enough-- it’s only a matter of time before we end up in the same place, I bet.” He took another sip of his beer. “But I have to say, I’m glad I won’t be working so closely with Mr. Trunicht.”

“You don’t like him?” Reinhard asked.

“I’ll say I didn’t vote for him, at the very least.”

“Any reason?”

“He is a conservative,” Dusty said. “ I am not a conservative.” He paused and looked at Reinhard with a more searching expression. “Are you trying to get me to badmouth your future boss?” Dusty leaned one elbow on the bartop. “I suppose it’s not likely that any of his spies are around this kind of place.”

“Spies?”

“Unless you count as one,” Dusty said, laughing again. 

“Secretary Trunicht has an interest in my career, as I said,” Reinhard reiterated. He wasn’t sure what Dusty was implying. “I’m trying to get a more complete picture of what kind of man I’m going to be working with. That’s all. I’m not a spy.”

Dusty held up his hands, disarmed. “I know! He just has a reputation.”

“Of what kind?”

“You know.”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

Dusty did look around again. The bar was crowded, but no one was paying attention to them, not even the bartender. “It surprises me that you haven’t heard the rumors.”

“I’ve been in space for the past year, and on Phezzan for the year before that.” Reinhard tipped his beer glass around in his hand, watching the foam stick to the side of the glass. “I haven’t had the time or the ability to keep up with the capital gossip.”

“That’s fair. Don’t repeat this, if you’d be so kind. Or, if you do, it wasn’t me that told you.” He chuckled.

“Of course not.”

“You know the Patriotic Knight Corps?”

“No,” Reinhard said.

“Yes,” Ingrid said at the same moment.

“Good-- you pay attention.” He nodded at Ingrid. “They’re, well, my father would go as far as to call them a terrorist organization. But they’re a political group, or secret society, or private army, depending on who you ask. They’ll show up in costume at the houses of liberal candidates, or journalists who have been a little too critical of certain people or policies, and they’ll make a lot of noise, do some vandalism… That sort of thing.”

“That doesn’t really sound like terrorism to me. Is your father overreacting?”

“It makes too big of a stir if you kill a politician,” Dusty said. “But if a politician’s mistress is killed by a hit-and-run driver, that’s the kind of thing that stays out of the news. And a paper’s offices might be too big to target, but if a reporter’s house is robbed, and then the police refuse to investigate…” Dusty shrugged expressively. “A string of the kind of incident that sends a message, anyway. Maybe it’s not terrorism to the masses, but it tells a certain group of people that they need to be afraid.”

“And you’re sure that those things are connected to the PKC?”

“They do their best to obfuscate it, but…” He shrugged. “I believe my dad about this, if not much else. He’s worried about it.”

Reinhard nodded. “And what does that have to do with Trunicht?”

“It’s somewhere between an open secret and a rumor,” Dusty said. “Trunicht is heavily involved with them.”

“I find it hard to picture him dressing up in a costume and going out to stir up trouble,” Reinhard said. “I think that would look very bad if he got unmasked.”

“Oh, yeah, no, I doubt it’s anything like that,” Dusty said. “It’s more of-- well, it’s Trunicht’s enemies that find themselves getting harassed, more often than not. And the PKC seems to sometimes have information that they shouldn’t, and they’re clearly well funded…” He trailed off. “I don’t know if he directs them-- maybe even that would be too close of an association-- but he’s involved.”

“I’m hearing a lot of speculation and not a lot of fact.”

“Hey, you don’t have to believe me,” Dusty grumbled. “I’m trying to do you a favor.”

“I believe you,” Ingrid said. 

“Hah, I appreciate it.”

Reinhard thought for a moment. “Who’s in this PKC?”

“They wear masks for a reason,” Dusty said. “And they don’t tend to get arrested, even when they make noise. So I don’t know. People with connections, I’d guess. Probably a lot of ex-fleet-- they’re well trained, possibly even current fleet stationed on Heinessen. Some police, probably-- I’m sure you know the type.”

“Why are you warning me?”

Color touched Dusty’s cheeks. “It would be terrible for you to make a wrong step and end up on Trunicht’s bad side.” He paused. “Or, worse, make the right ones and end up in too deep.”

Reinhard nodded. “I appreciate the warning.”

“Any time,” Dusty said with a smile.

“If you need anything from me, let me know,” Reinhard said.

“Hey, I’m not here to try to make an exchange.” He didn’t seem that offended; he was just smiling. “Besides, I don’t know how much clout you’re really going to have over there in Trunicht’s office. I wouldn’t want you to make me a promise that you’ll have trouble fulfilling.”

“I don’t think that would be an issue.”

“I like your confidence.” He grinned. “But really-- this is information between friends. I’d hate to see you walk in there blind.”

“Why?” Reinhard studied Dusty’s face, which was earnest and open. Dusty just looked at him for a second, considering, then shook his head, his floppy hair falling into his face.

“You know what?” Dusty said, finishing his beer. “I changed my mind. I do want something from you.”

Reinhard silently raised an eyebrow.

“Buy me a drink,” Dusty said.

“That, I can certainly do,” Reinhard said. Nothing he knew about Dusty told him that he was being manipulative, so the free offer of information probably was just a gesture of friendship. He tried to relax as he flagged down the bartender to get them some more drinks. Focusing on Trunicht’s political machinations, and the loud bar with the jukebox jangling away, and Dusty’s smiling face, and Ingrid’s shoulder bumping his-- it was enough to push thoughts of Annerose out of his mind for a while, at least. He and Ingrid had come here to have a good time out of the house: he resolved to do just that.

When he had been out at the front, on the Constantinople , in command, there had been no reason for him to feel this way. There had always been the next step to take, some order to give or carry out, a clear and direct sense of his place in the moment. He had a good rapport with his crew because he was confident and knowledgeable on the bridge, clear when speaking, and friendly in the moments that duty allowed him to be friendly in. It all was easy to understand and act upon. But outside of that context, when things were personal , he was perpetually disarmed. 

He pushed his discomfort about Annerose and Schenkopp to the back of his mind, as well as the lingering feeling that he didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing here, and said to Dusty, “So, your father’s a journalist? Where does he write for?”

Dusty was more than happy to tell him all about his family-- the contentious relationship he had with his father, the way his bevy of older sisters babied him despite that being completely inappropriate, his mother’s conviction that he was the reincarnation of his grandfather. It was nothing like Reinhard’s childhood or family life, and so he was interested despite the mundanity of the subject. When Dusty asked about him, Reinhard didn’t feel like talking about his family, so he instead gave a few funny anecdotes about his time working on Phezzan, which Dusty was appropriately amused by.

Ingrid listened to the conversation passively. Reinhard tried to include her in the conversation a few times, but she clearly wasn’t interested, and after a while got up to go pick some music on the jukebox in the back. Reinhard kept one eye on her across the room, but no one bothered her as she leaned against the wall and put coin after coin into the machine.

Dusty glanced over at her after she had been gone for a while. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Did Ms. Ingrid over there come to be your chaperone, or your date?”

Reinhard laughed. “Neither. She’s just a friend, and Annerose doesn’t baby me like your siblings do. No, I made her come, like I said. I figured she would enjoy getting out of the house while Captain Schenkopp was there.”

“It’s never exactly been clear to me from your sister’s letters what’s going on with anyone other than Captain Schenkopp.”

Ingrid had her eyes closed and her head tilted back against the wall. She wasn’t paying Reinhard and Dusty any attention at all. “I don’t think I could explain it to you,” Reinhard said. “I don’t even know if Annerose herself could.”

Dusty laughed. “I think we’ve all been there, at one point or another.”

Reinhard’s hand crept up to his locket, but when he realized what he was doing, he dropped it back to the bartop. “Yeah.”

The song playing on the jukebox ended, and they both watched Ingrid fish around in her pockets and purse for coins and come up dry at last. Reinhard sighed, and Dusty raised his eyebrows.

“I should probably take her back home. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded at keeping her cheerful.”

“I’m afraid I probably didn’t help as much with that as much as I might have. Did I keep you cheerful at least?”

Reinhard had not been expecting the question, and he wasn’t sure how to answer. “Although it wasn’t your responsibility, I think you did.”

Dusty grinned. “Then I’ll consider it an evening well spent. We should do this again.”

“Of course. And I wasn’t kidding before-- I will have Annerose invite you to dinner.”

“And put more people around her table?” He laughed. “But sure, just let me know when. I’m free, until I’m not.”

Reinhard stood. It had been a long time since he had last casually gotten drinks with someone directly outside of work-- he thought the last time might have been with Fredrica, ages ago-- and he thought about expressing that to Dusty, but changed his mind as he opened his mouth. “I’ll see you around, then?”

Dusty stood as well. He offered Reinhard his hand. Reinhard took it, and Dusty grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Absolutely. Have a nice night, Reinhard.” 

It took a moment before Dusty let him go, and by that time, Ingrid had noticed them both standing and had sidled over.

“Ready to go?” Reinhard asked.

“Of course. It was a pleasure to meet you, Captain Attenborough.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, Ms. Roscher.” They nodded at each other, and Reinhard walked Ingrid out.

The night was much cooler now, and it was late, after midnight. He hadn’t realized just how long he had been talking to Dusty for. They would probably be able to sneak back into Annerose’s house without any further awkwardness, so that was a success, too.

They were both silent as Reinhard drove them home, feeling mellower and taking the roads more slowly this time. 

When they were just a few miles from Annerose’s house, Ingrid spoke up. “Are you going to see Captain Attenborough again?”

“Why do you ask? Do you not like him?”

“He seems nice,” Ingrid said. “He likes you a lot.”

Reinhard hit the brakes a little too hard at the next red light. “It’s good to have friends. Annerose is always telling me I should make more.”

Ingrid just let out half a sigh and shook her head, resting her forehead on the cold glass of the window. “I agree with her.” She didn’t say anything for a bit longer. “But I’m not going to tell you what to do.”

Reinhard was silent for a while. “He’s nearly eight years older than me. I don’t think I need to be worried about--”

“You’re the same rank.”

He was grateful that she didn’t bring up the fact that Schenkopp was that much older than Annerose, approximately. But she wouldn’t do that. His fingers were tight on the steering wheel, so he couldn’t reach for his locket. “It’s not like that. We hardly know each other.”

She just shook her head again, and they drove in silence the rest of the way.

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

July 798 U.C., Heinessen

The winter was a cold and difficult one. Annerose didn’t think that she had ever felt a season like this on Heinessen before, but perhaps the snow only felt less beautiful and the wind colder because of the persistent bad news that hung in the air. Everyone was on edge, and she couldn’t blame them for it. It was hard to bear driving past the line that stretched out down the street towards the food bank, people pulling their jackets up around their throats to keep out the gritty grey snow.

She felt, more than anything, guilty about her position of relative comfort. She and the rest of her family were isolated from the collapse that had brought life on Heinessen to what felt like a standstill. She had her salary, and Reinhard’s, and the stipend that she was given to care for Julian, and the pension that Ingrid received. They would have been fine on even her salary alone, of course, which was why she did feel so guilty.

Reinhard was busy almost all the time these days, rarely even coming home in time to eat dinner. When he made it back, he would usually sit alone at the kitchen table, microwaved leftovers in front of him, staring into space with a steely, concentrated look on his face that disturbed Annerose. When she came in to speak with him, it would break, and he would smile at her, but that determined look weighed heavily on her mind.

Sometimes, he would have hushed conversations with Ingrid that Annerose only caught pieces of. They were mostly updates on the civil war in the Empire-- information that Annerose wasn’t sure how he had gotten, and was sure that she wasn’t supposed to have. She didn’t pry, though she wondered if Julian did, pressing his ear to the wall that separated his bedroom from Reinhard’s, when they had their quiet conversations in there.

She wasn’t sure if it reassured Ingrid any. She was listless, too, and didn’t eat enough. 

All of this combined left Annerose spinning her wheels blindly, unable to do anything to change the state of the galaxy, its weight pressing in and crushing her whole household. She tried to put her energy into her duties with the Rosenritter, but as they had been kept “on alert” on Heinessen, doing nothing but training and waiting for something in the situation to give, there wasn’t much that she could do. When she sat at her desk, she was consumed with the nagging, undefinable worry that had only been growing these past few months, and the only thing she could do to clear her head was leave her desk and go on long runs around the base, the cold winter air and the exertion pushing out the rest of her thoughts.

She was returning from one of these runs when Linz caught her. Annerose was brushing crusted snow off her pant legs as she walked distractedly down the too-hot base corridor to her office, and when she looked up to unlock her door, she found Linz leaning against it.

“The captain’s been looking for you, Musel,” he said.

It was lucky that her cheeks were already stripped red from the cold. “How long has he been looking?” she asked, stifling a wince.

“He asked me where you went about a half hour ago.”

“And did you tell him where I was?”

“I told him you were in the warehouse, checking inventory.”

“Did he believe you?”

“No,” Linz said. “You’d better go find him.”

“Well, thanks for trying.”

“You’d cover for me, wouldn’t you?”

“Doubt it,” Annerose said.

Linz just laughed. “Good luck,” he said, then wandered off down the hallway with a wave behind him.

Annerose took a minute in the bathroom to compose herself, splashing warm water on her face and re-tying her hair that had come loose. She reluctantly made her way to Schenkopp’s office, and sharply rapped on the door. He summoned her in.

He sat behind his desk while she stood in front of it, and for the first time, Annerose knew he was going to tell her off, as was his duty as her superior officer. He just leaned on his elbows and stared at her for a minute. She kept her back straight, eyes fixed firmly above his head.

“Is there some specific thing that’s eating you, Musel?” Schenkopp asked. “You’re distracted. It’s not like you.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Annerose said. “No excuse.”

Schenkopp stared at her for a second. “I am this close to telling you to take the regiment up into the mountains for some cold weather drills, just to get your mind off whatever it is.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But I don’t think it would change things. And the regiment wouldn’t appreciate that kind of vacation.”

“No, sir.”

“Will you stop? You’re not in trouble.”

“If you weren’t professionally concerned, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in your office.”

“I’d rather have it in my office than in your house, Annerose.”

“Because of Reinhard?”

“No,” he said. He crossed his arms. “Because I’m sure I’d get distracted.”

Annerose flushed at Schenkopp’s smile, but even she could tell that it was a deflection. “I’ll try to be less distracted myself,” she said.

“I can’t blame you,” he said. “I think this is the longest we’ve been without an official deployment in a while. It puts the regiment on edge. But you’re usually more patient than almost anyone else.”

“I don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said.

Schenkopp smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Commander von Musel! You of all people should know what’s going to happen.”

“I should?”

“The only reason I haven’t shaken you down for information myself is that I think your little brother might murder me in my sleep for forcing you to break his confidences. That, and I don’t particularly care where we get sent, and what we end up doing when we get there. I know it’ll happen soon enough.”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Annerose said. “Reinhard doesn’t tell me anything.”

“I find that very hard to believe,” Schenkopp said.

“I’m not lying.”

Schenkopp looked at her for a long second, then relaxed. “No, I know. But he’s Job Trunicht’s little protege these days, so I’m sure he knows more than almost anyone else. He might have information about our deployment plans. Did he say that he won’t tell you anything, when you asked him?”

“I haven’t talked to him about it.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll laugh at me if I tell you the truth,” she said. “So let’s just say I don’t want to put him in a position of breaking his professional oaths.”

Schenkopp chuckled. “Well, that’s stupider than the truth. Come on, Annerose.”

Annerose shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like Job Trunicht very much, and I’m afraid that Reinhard is involved in something--”

“Dangerous?”

“I don’t know. Something. I told you it was stupid.” She looked away for a second. “If he offered to talk about it himself, I’d be less concerned. He’s never kept this quiet about anything from me before.”

“The best cure for that worry is to ask. He wouldn’t lie to you, would he?”

“About his work with Trunicht? I doubt it.”

“Then ask. Get your mind back on something concrete.”

“And I assume you want to know, whatever I find out.”

“If your brother holds my future in his hands…” He shrugged expressively.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think too hard,” he said with a grin. “That’s where all the trouble usually starts.”



Annerose did not ask Reinhard what the plans were for the future of the Alliance right away. Even phrasing it that way in her head made her hesitate. Every time she passed by Reinhard in the hall and thought to open her mouth to ask if they could talk, privately, she was overcome with the sensation that if she learned what he had been doing, she might think him a totally different person than just her younger brother.

Of course, he hadn’t ‘just’ been her younger brother for a long time, not since the day they had left Odin, but it chilled her, to think of what he might be caught up in now.

About a week later, one day after work, Annerose received an unexpected phone call from Jessica Edwards, of all people, saying she was in Heinessenpolis to visit her cousin, and was wondering if Annerose would like to get a coffee. Annerose immediately agreed. She hadn’t seen Jessica in a long time, more than a year, though they had video called at least every couple of weeks to keep in touch.

They met at a steamy little cafe not far from the city center. Jessica was already there when Annerose arrived, dusting off snow from her shoulders. She looked approximately the same as always, her neat blonde hair falling softly around her face. Her expression was pensive, and she was tracing a wiggly line in the fog on the window she was sitting next to, so she didn’t notice Annerose until she slid into the booth across from her, making her jump.

“Annerose!” she said, breaking into a smile. “You scared me.”

“Sorry,” Annerose said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m so glad you could make it out here.”

“Of course-- I couldn’t miss the chance to see you, and honestly it’s not that far. Why didn’t you tell me you were planning to visit? You could have stayed with me.”

Jessica laughed. “I know how crowded your house is these days. I couldn’t impose.”

“It would not be an imposition at all. Did you have to get a hotel?”

“No, I’m staying with my cousin.” Her tone fell.

“Is something wrong?”

“Oh, just the reason I’m up here. My grandmother’s losing her house, so I’m helping her move in with her other family. It’s mostly been putting everything in boxes and driving the truck back and forth.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“It’s alright,” she said. “She would have had to sell the property sooner or later-- she’s in her eighties. I guess this was just the push that will get her into my cousin’s house.”

“Still, I’m sorry. It can’t be easy.”

“We’ll all live.”

“Aside from that, have you been holding up well?”

“As well as can be expected.” Jessica looked out the window. “I think I’ll be out of a job when the end of the school year rolls around, though.”

Annerose’s eyebrows shot up. “The Command Academy is letting you go?”

Jessica laughed. “No, I’ll still have that piano job-- it’s only a couple hours a week anyway. But Thernussen College is cutting back on staff. They never actually gave me tenure, so I expect I’m on the chopping block.”

“I’m so sorry,” Annerose said.

“Don’t worry about it.” She put a smile on her face, though Annerose could tell it wasn’t as easy as it had been years ago. “Jean makes good money, and so I’ll be fine regardless. I’ll see if I can pick up other performing gigs or tutoring-- I used to play for weddings all the time.”

“I hope Thernussen College doesn’t actually drop you,” Annerose said. “You’ve been working there for years.”

Jessica just shook her head. “I shouldn’t dump all my troubles on you when I get to see you so rarely. How have things been with you?”

“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “Fine. It’s been weird having Reinhard living with me, but not in a bad way.”

“Is he still working for Job Trunicht?”

“He is.”

Jessica frowned, then said, “Shall we get some coffee?”

“Of course.” They both headed over to the counter to place their orders, and Annerose stopped Jessica before she could pay. “You’ve come all this way to visit-- my treat.”

Jessica’s smile was tight, but she didn’t refuse. When they sat back down, she said, “So, how are things with Mr. Schenkopp?”

“Good,” Annerose said. “Really good.” She couldn’t help but smile. “The whole regiment is antsy, sitting around waiting for something to happen, but everything is great with him.”

“When’s he going to ask you to marry him? I feel like you’ve been seeing him long enough.”

Annerose shook her head and took a sip of her coffee, burning her tongue and getting foam under her nose. She wiped it off delicately with a napkin. “He’s not ever going to ask me to do that, so I’m not holding my breath.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just not the type of man he is,” Annerose said. “He’s not what you’d call housebroken.”

Jessica laughed. “You’re talking about him like he’s a puppy instead of your CO.”

She waved her hand. “You know what I mean.”

“And you aren’t unhappy about that? Do you not want to get married?”

She looked out the window. “I mean-- it would be nice,” she said. “But even if I can picture myself in a white dress, I don’t really see Walter wanting to walk down the aisle. If he changes his mind someday-- sure. But I’m not the same person I was as a freshman.” She laughed. “I think I understand what we both want much better now.”

“I guess it’s different, with the two of you being in the same unit,” Jessica said. “I think part of me wanted Jean to propose just so that we could have, I don’t know, something that felt real even when he was away.”

“I get that,” Annerose said. “But I have him in the ways that matter. Besides, I don’t think him moving into my house permanently would do anyone any good.” She laughed, but even as she did it felt strange. “Everything’s in a nice equilibrium.” She looked out the window again.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh…” She struggled to put together a cogent explanation and failed, so she said instead, “Reinhard doesn’t really get along with Walter. He’d be unhappy if he moved in with me.”

“You shouldn’t let what Reinhard thinks stop you,” Jessica pointed out. “He’s perfectly capable of getting a place of his own.”

“I suppose. I like having him with me, though.”

“Reinhard aside, Annerose-- do you want Schenkopp to live with you?”

“You’re asking as though you think I’m unhappy.”

“You seem tense.”

“Not about Walter.” She smiled and tried to relax.

“Alright, I won’t push it.” Jessica smiled and fell silent.

Annerose peered out at the barely visible street through the fogged up window for a moment, then said, “I guess it’s just difficult to explain in a way that makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t.” She paused. “I love Walter-- and what we have is-- it’s real, and it’s enough. I don’t need anything from him that he doesn’t already give me. I feel like I’m halfway to being a different person when we’re out with the regiment together, compared to when I’m home. Even if he’s also there in my house, it’s-- it’s different than when we’re out doing things.” She shook her head. “And it’s not like I need someone else to help run my household.”

“I guess I can’t relate to that,” Jessica said, letting out a little sigh. “When Jean is around-- it’s not really the big things that are what I miss when he leaves. It’s like” -- she laughed-- “I know it’s silly, but when I’m playing piano in the living room, even if he’s doing something upstairs, I like the feeling that he’s just around to hear me. And the house is always so quiet after he goes.”

“My house is never really quiet,” Annerose said.

“That’s true,” Jessica said. “But even if I had a baby-- like you have Julian-- I’m not sure that would be the same.”

Annerose saw an opportunity to change the subject and seized on it. “Do you want a baby?”

“Eventually. It will happen when it happens, I’m sure. I probably shouldn’t be in any rush, now that we won’t have as much income, and things in the universe are…” She trailed off.

“Yeah.”

“I suppose if you don’t want to marry Walter, you don’t want kids of your own?”

“I have Julian. I don’t need to rush into anything else while he’s my responsibility.”

Jessica nodded. “And I suppose you would have to leave the fleet.”

Annerose hadn’t even considered that. “It’s not really worth thinking about,” she said.

Jessica smiled at her and was silent, drinking her coffee.

“Can I ask you something?” Annerose asked. “Not about this.”

“Of course.”

“Do you not like that Reinhard is working for Secretary Trunicht?”

“It’s not as though anyone in the fleet has much control over their posting,” Jessica said. “I can’t really say anything about it.”

“But you don’t like it.”

“I don’t like Job Trunicht,” she said. “He’s-- this whole campaign of riling up everyone against Phezzan-- it’s ridiculous.” She crumpled her napkin. “The last thing we need is another front on this war. I don’t know what his angle really is. Even if ending trade with Phezzan would be good for the economy-- and I don’t know if it even would be-- when we break ties with them, that just means they won’t have any reason not to let the Imperial fleet through their corridor right to our doorstep. Jean is worried that if there’s a second front like that, we won’t be able to withstand it.” 

“I don’t know what Trunicht is really angling for.”

“Does Reinhard like him?”

“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “I doubt it. But he doesn’t talk about work very much.”

“Why not?”

“I think he’s just tired when he gets home. And he has a much higher clearance than I do-- I’m not “need to know” in any way.”

“He trusts you, though.”

“Of course he does. But if there’s no reason for him to tell me the details-- maybe it’s better.”

“I guess if he doesn’t divulge Job Trunicht’s secret plans to you, you can’t tell them to me,” Jessica said. She was joking, but her smile was tight.

“Why, would you want to do something with them?”

“I-- no, of course not. But I wish that the public had more of a clue what he’s angling for. It’s one thing to stir up sentiment against some sort of threat in order to win elections-- but Job Trunicht seems like he might be the kind of man who would follow through on that. I don’t know if the crash is really enough to justify some kind of isolationist economic policy, or… I don’t know. I can’t tell what he’s going to do.”

Annerose bit her lip. “You’re probably right that he is going to do something.”

“So, you do know something.”

“No,” Annerose said. “Not really.” She looked away, but continued to talk. “All I know is that this is the weakest the Empire has ever been. I wouldn’t be surprised if Job Trunicht smells blood in the water.”

Jessica paled. “But this is-- it’s not like we’re in much better of a situation,” she said. Her brow furrowed. “Maybe that’s too conspiratorial of me to think.”

“What?”

“Could Phezzan have caused this crash just so that we wouldn’t have the ability to launch an attack on the Empire?”

“Now you sound like Trunicht,” Annerose pointed out.

Jessica frowned. “You’re not wrong.”

A deathly silence fell between them, and Annerose was the one to break it. “I think we’re going to be fighting in the Phezzan corridor, one way or another, before the year is out,” she said.

Jessica’s hand shook as she raised her mug to her lips, so badly that she had to put it back down without taking a sip. “Really?”

“I hope I’m wrong,” Annerose said. “But I don’t think we’re going to have peace in the galaxy for much longer.”

“Peace,” Jessica said. “Like we have any semblance of that.”

“There’s been no movement through Iserlohn, at least. That’s something.” She didn’t think Jessica would appreciate her mentioning how anxious the rest of her regiment was to get on the road with axes in hand.

“True.” Jessica smoothed out the napkin that she had crumpled. “There’s nothing I can do about it, or you, and probably not even your brother. I should try not to worry.”

“You can vote against Trunicht in the next election.”

Jessica actually laughed. “Trust me, I have been,” she said.

“So have I.”

“Fat lot of good it does the both of us.” But she was smiling now.

“I think the opposition just has to have a better candidate. All these other parties come and go without ever really gaining much of a foothold.”

“It’s because there’s too many of them,” Jessica said. “They can’t form a unified block like the conservatives have been able to.”

“Why is that, you think?”

“They keep losing elections, everyone has new ideas about how to run a better party, they split-- same story every few years.”

“I sometimes wish I followed politics more closely,” Annerose said, “since they really do control everything that happens to me. But it’s hard when there never seem to be any good outcomes.”

“Maybe Trunicht’s plans of big talk against Phezzan will backfire on him,” Jessica said. “If the reality of intensifying the war hits people, maybe that will cause them to vote for a pacifist party.”

“Maybe,” Annerose said. “But I think people tend to get more angry about things that are directly affecting them. And Phezzan’s effect on the economy is easy for everybody to see. War-- it’s far away.”

“Not for me,” Jessica said.

“True.” Silence fell between them. Annerose finished her coffee.

“When did you become such a pessimist, Annerose?”

“Am I, really?”

“You’re not telling me that nothing will come of all this.”

“Well, I hope you think I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“No, I know you wouldn’t.”

 


 

It seemed that everyone wanted Annerose to investigate what Reinhard was doing with Job Trunicht, but the idea of finding out had never felt less appealing. It wasn’t that she needed to work up the nerve to talk to Reinhard-- that wasn’t quite it. When she thought about why she was so hesitant to find out what the plans for the future of the galaxy were, the thought was like sticking her tongue into a hole left by a missing tooth: a slimy emptiness where something should have been, or would be soon. She imagined she could taste blood.

She resolved to do it the next morning, while Reinhard was getting ready for work and before Ingrid and Julian got up. They would have the house to themselves, and Reinhard would have an excuse to leave if he couldn’t-- or didn’t want to-- tell Annerose for some reason. She wouldn’t press him too hard. 

But that left her that night, sitting on the side of her bed, not quite ready to go to sleep but with nothing else to do with herself. She stared across the room at the wall mirror, watching Ingrid’s reflection as she pulled on her nightgown over her head, then shook her mane of red hair free from the neckline. Ingrid must have felt the attention on her, because she turned around and met Annerose’s eyes in the mirror.

“You’re quiet,” she said.

“Just thinking,” Annerose replied.

“May I ask what about?” Ingrid sat down on the bed behind her, and Annerose didn’t mind when she ran a hand over her hair, fingers carding through the golden waves.

“Has Reinhard told you what Job Trunicht’s plans are?”

“Not in so many words,” Ingrid said. “I know enough. What my role is going to be. And Erwin’s.”

“And mine?”

“Do you want a role?” Ingrid asked. Her fingers were deft and painfully gentle as she braided Annerose’s hair, not quite stroking her cheek when she reached to gather the hair that lay in front of her ears.

“Want,” she repeated dryly. “I don’t think it really matters what I want. I’m a soldier.”

“It matters to me.”

Annerose was silent for a minute as Ingrid continued to braid. She knew, as much as she was capable of knowing anything, that she should have never allowed her life with Ingrid to be like this. The feeling that Ingrid’s soft touch stirred in her heart was something cousin to regret.

“Right here, right now, I have everything I could ever want,” Annerose said after a while, as Ingrid found an elastic and tied off the end of the braid. “So what I want is for nothing to ever change, and I know that isn’t possible. So I’m trying not to want it so badly.” She laughed, but it was a sad sound. “If I had never figured out how to get the things I wanted, or even figured out how to want them, it might be easier.” They sat still for a moment, and then Annerose shook her head, breaking the quiet spell of the room. “It doesn’t matter.”

She pulled back the covers and slid underneath them, Ingrid following a moment later. She reached over to the bedside table and turned off the light, plunging the room into darkness, at least until her eyes adjusted enough to see by the streetlight filtering in through the blinds.

Usually, they lay back to front, with Annerose’s arms draped over Ingrid’s waist, but tonight, Ingrid rolled to face her in the darkness.

“You know you’ll always have me, Annerose,” Ingrid said.

“Even when you are playing whatever part has been picked out for you?” Annerose asked. “Even when you’re back with Erwin?”

She couldn’t see Ingrid’s face in the darkness. “Do you not want to stay with me?”

Annerose wanted to bury her face in the pillow, but she turned onto her back instead. “I wish I could be so optimistic. What either of us want has nothing to do with it.”

“I’ll ask for you to stay with me.”

Annerose was silent.

“Annerose--”

She squeezed her eyes shut, but tried to keep her voice steady. “You’re their tool,” she said. “I’m worried-- you’ll be lucky if you don’t make trouble, they don’t drug you like they did--”

“That won’t happen,” Ingrid said.

“How do you know?”

There was a moment of silence, then Ingrid said, tentatively, “If you want to stay with me, you’ll find a way.”

Annerose rolled onto her side, away from Ingrid. There were half formed, blurry pictures in her mind of other women: Janie of Earth, and Magdalena from the Empire, people who Ingrid mentioned in passing occasionally. Never bitterly, but always sad. Hadn’t they loved her more? And hadn’t they left Ingrid alone? She buried her head in her pillow.

Ingrid touched her arm, her touch feather light. Annerose tried to relax, but was stiff as a board, and couldn’t sleep for a long time.

 


 

Annerose woke up already exhausted, but she could hear Reinhard’s alarm going off in the next room, so she pulled herself out of bed, taking one long look at Ingrid, still asleep in the darkness. Her arms were wrapped tight around her own chest, knees pulled up and in. Annerose tugged the blanket up over her, then shuffled out of her bedroom and downstairs.

She listened to the distant sound of Reinhard starting the shower as she made coffee. He was done quickly, and he came into the kitchen just as the coffee maker gurgled its last. He was surprised to see her.

“Captain Schenkopp want the regiment to run early morning drills today?” he asked as he fished around in the fridge for the cream. Annerose poured two mugs, then sat at the beat up kitchen table. She opened a plastic package of muffins, took one, and shoved the pack towards Reinhard’s seat.

“No, I wanted to catch you before you went out.”

Reinhard raised his eyebrows as he sat across from her. “There some trouble I should know about?”

“No,” she said. “Not from me, anyway.”

He looked at her silently, and she halfheartedly nibbled at her muffin. She steeled herself; she was not going to become a person who didn’t face her troubles head on. “Reinhard, I’ve been respecting your privacy when it comes to your work-- you haven’t wanted to tell me, so I haven’t asked-- but for Ingrid’s sake, I think I need to know what Secretary Trunicht’s plans are.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you,” Reinhard said, making a face. “Things have been in flux for this whole year.” He looked away, taking a sip of his coffee. “Besides, I’ve already told Ingrid everything that pertains to her. You could have just asked her, you know.”

“Everything?”

“Well, everything she asked about. She mostly cares about what things are happening in the Empire. I don’t think she wants to know about the fine logistical details.”

Annerose narrowed her eyes; Reinhard was being cagey, even if he was playing nonchalant. “I care about the fine logistical details.”

“Sure,” he said. “What do you want to know?”

“Is Trunicht preparing to have the high council break all diplomatic ties with Phezzan?” Annerose asked.

“That’s part of it,” Reinhard said.

“And what’s the rest?” Annerose asked. “Are we invading the Empire through the Phezzan corridor, since we’ll be disregarding their autonomy?”

Reinhard put his coffee down. “If we did that, the first thing the Empire would do would be to break through whatever thin line we have and set up a base on Phezzan,” he said.

“Then how does Ingrid play into all of this, if we’re not invading the Empire?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Annerose narrowed her eyes.

Reinhard crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. “It took some effort, but I secured the best role for you and the Rosenritter,” Reinhard said.

Annerose stared at him.

“I wouldn’t really trust anyone else to do it, the rest of the Alliance not trusting your regiment notwithstanding.”

“Are we sending in a small squad to put Erwin on the throne?” Annerose asked, her blood running cold.

“Not exactly,” Reinhard said. “We’re going to annex Phezzan. That’s the first step.”

On some level, Annerose had known this was coming. The writing had been on the wall, and it had only been her desire to hope for the best that hadn’t let her voice it. Schenkopp had predicted it over a year ago, and that had been before Phezzan’s policies had destroyed the Alliance economy. She put her half eaten muffin down on the table.

“How long has this been the plan?” Annerose asked.

“Trunicht has been wanting an excuse since before the whole Castrop affair with the Artemis Necklace. He’s been trying to build up sentiment against them in the High Council to approve an invasion for several years. It’s just become a publicly viable strategy recently.”

“And the situation with the crash is just the push he needed to get it approved, is that it?”

Reinhard looked away. “It’s no longer political suicide to suggest. But if it hadn’t been the crash, there would have been something else.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s an expert at turning a situation to his advantage, that’s all.”

The coldness in Reinhard’s voice disturbed her. “And you respect that?”

“We’re going to end this war, Annerose, and we’re going to win it. That’s all I care about.”

“And so we’re going to throw away the one peaceful relationship that we have in the galaxy, become the kind of conqueror that the Empire wants to be?”

“Phezzan is part of the Empire,” Reinhard pointed out. “Their neutrality has always been a mirage.” He drank his coffee.

“How many lives is this going to cost, Reinhard?”

“How many would it cost if this war dragged on for the next hundred years, because no one was willing to do anything?” He stared at her across the table. “It’s going to be worth it. For everyone in the Alliance, and everyone in the Empire, too, eventually.”

“And Ingrid?”

“She will be safe.”

“I don’t know how you can guarantee that.”

“She isn’t going to go anywhere near Odin until the planet is captured,” Reinhard said. “Which Trunicht wants to do quickly.”

Annerose was silent for a long second. Reinhard stared at her. “Do you really think this plan will work?”

Reinhard’s gaze flicked out the dark kitchen window. “I will do everything in my power to make it work.”

“That’s not what I’m asking.”

“We’re not going to have a better opportunity within our lifetime,” he said. “The Empire is weaker than it’s ever been. If we can’t accomplish it now--” He shook his head. “At the very least, I know that the invasion of Phezzan will succeed, and with that, we’ll have an equal to their control of the Iserlohn corridor.”

“How do you know that will succeed? You sound less confident about the rest.”

“I had my hands on the development of that plan,” he said. “You trust me, don’t you?”

His gaze was hard, but his tone was soft. He was asking for her reassurance, like she would always be his older sister, him always looking up to her. Annerose couldn’t meet his eyes. “Yes,” she said.

“Good.” There was a moment of silence. “The Rosenritter will be securing the key parts of Phezzan’s capital. The capitol building itself, the landesherr’s residence, the navigational office, all of that.”

“Why didn’t you ask me first?”

Reinhard lifted his chin. “Do you not want the job?”

Annerose was silent.

“If I had asked the commander of the Rosenritter, he would have wanted the opportunity,” Reinhard said, lifting his chin.

“You’re not giving it to Walter,” Annerose said. “You’re giving it to me.”

“Do you not want it?” he asked again, anxiety creeping into his voice. The petulant kind. “I can get Trunicht to change the plan.”

“Just tell me why,” she said.

“Because I trust you,” he said. “I don’t trust anybody else to do it right.”

Annerose just shook her head and looked out the dark kitchen window. “I know.” They were silent for a long time. “I won’t refuse the assignment. For you-- or Ingrid-- or even Walter would want it. You’re right about that, at least.”

“Why don’t you?”

“It’s not that I don’t want it.” Even as she allowed herself to consider the details, she could feal her heartbeat speeding up, her mind kicking into action. She could half-taste the hot, fragrant air of the Phezzani capital on her tongue. There was a part of her that did want the assignment, as much as she was sure Reinhard would have wanted it, running around with an axe in hand rather than being behind the scenes.

“Then what?”

“I don’t think I’d feel half as strange about this if--” She cut herself off.

“If it was just you and me,” Reinhard said. “Against the universe.” He had read her mind. If there had been no Ingrid, no Julian, she wouldn’t have minded being tossed headlong into Trunicht’s scheme.

“Do you want that?”

He looked at her, then away. “I want what you want,” he said. “And you--”

She reached across the table and put her hand on his arm, still damp from the shower. She squeezed it, gently. “You’ll always have me,” she said. If he needed her to say it, she could do that-- it was easy enough. But she withdrew her arm after he smiled. “You should have told me this was what you were planning, though.”

He laughed. “Maybe next time.” But the sharpness was back on his face, and it told her that there would be a next time, and she wasn’t likely to get any more advance warning than she had here. She let it drop.

“I will need to tell Walter.”

Some of the humor left Reinhard’s voice. “The official orders will be on his desk within the next two weeks,” he said. “You can give him some advance warning, but keep it light on the details.”

“You haven’t given me any details.”

“I’ll show you the ConOps tonight.” He glanced at the kitchen clock, then grimaced and stuck the rest of his muffin in his mouth.

“Yeah, go, don’t be late,” Annerose said, waving him off and picking up his empty coffee cup to bring to the sink.

“Thanks,” he said, but she wasn’t sure what he was thanking her for.

 


 

Julian picked up on Annerose’s change in posture immediately. Now that the wheels had started moving, she had something to focus on, and it took her mind off of the melancholy that had settled over the country. She caught herself taking up the same posture that she had seen in Reinhard: staring into space while she was sitting on the couch with Julian, her embroidery completely forgotten on her lap as she consulted a hazy mental map of Phezzan’s capital and tried to estimate how many tanks they’d be able to send in each squad through the streets. Or she would sit at dinner, Julian narrowing his eyes at her, and draw out incomprehensible figures in her smear of mashed potatoes and gravy. Perhaps that was part of why Reinhard had avoided eating with them, coming home late aside.

He was a good boy, and though he was surely listening to every detail that any of the adults who came in and out of the house let slip, he didn’t bring up the matter to Annerose, except quietly asking if there was anything he could do to help, and bringing her more coffee whenever her cup sat empty and abandoned by her elbow as she wrote opaque notes into her notebook and tapped out requisition forms on her laptop.

After the orders had officially been given to the Rosenritter, Annerose pulled Reinhard aside one evening and asked if she could tell Julian what the plan was, at least in broad strokes. Reinhard gave her a sidelong glance and said that he would do it.

“Why?” she asked. “I’m his guardian.”

“He’s going to have questions about more than just what you’re going to be doing,” Reinhard said. “I think I’m better equipped to answer them.”

“And what, exactly, are you going to tell him?”

“What I think he needs to know.”

“Gods above, Reinhard.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing with him--”

“I’m not playing a game,” Reinhard said. “What were you planning to tell him?”

“Where we’re going to be deployed, and for how long,” she said.

“He’s going to want to know more than that,” Reinhard said. “He’s not that much of a child anymore.”

“Like you would know what a child looks like.”

Reinhard just grinned at her, and Annerose frowned. “It’s not like he isn’t going to talk to you directly afterwards,” Reinhard said. “But if I tell him everything that I think he needs to know, I at least have the excuse of being able to defer to something being a state secret. If you know it, you don’t.”

“That won’t fly with him. He thinks you tell me everything.”

“Do you think that?”

“Reinhard--”

He put his hand on her arm, and she sighed. 

“Fine. You tell him what he needs to know.”

He nodded. “It’s mostly-- I know he keeps an eye on the Earth Church. I’m sure he’s going to have questions about that.”

She nodded. Reinhard smiled at her and headed off down the hallway.

Julian found her later. She was in the unfinished basement, folding a basket of laundry on the rickety card table set up next to the washer. He came over to her, the single bare bulb above casting harsh shadows on his face, making him look far older than he was. “Let me do it, Lieutenant Commander.”

She pushed the basket towards him. “Mate the socks,” she said. “I hate doing that.”

He nodded and got to work, silent, as she picked some lint off a pair of his jeans.

“Reinhard talked to you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. There was a heaviness to his tone, and he scuffed his sneakers on the concrete floor. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“I’m going to be seventeen next year,” he said.

“I know.”

“I know I can’t enlist now, but on my half birthday, I could enroll in a training course, and then go into the fleet when I turn seventeen.”

Annerose was silent for a long time, folding the jeans neatly and smoothing down the pile of worn fabric when she finished and placed them on top of the rest of the still-warm clothes.

“You’re going to be an adult soon enough,” Annerose said, “and I won’t be able to tell you what you can or can’t do.” She pulled one of Ingrid’s shirts out of the laundry basket and shook it out. “I don’t know if I’ve ever really had that right.”

“You don’t want me to enlist in the fleet.”

“I want you to stay safe, Julian,” she said. “I know I sound like a hypocrite.”

“I would.”

“Don’t you worry about me when I go out to the front?” she asked, leaning on the table.

“Of course,” Julian said. “But I know you can take care of yourself. And I can take care of myself.”

“It’s not a matter of just yourself,” she said. “If you enlist, you’ll have to take whatever commander you’re assigned under, and there’s just as many bad ones as good ones. I’ve been very lucky, my whole career. I trust Walter with my life. And Reinhard-- he’s been lucky to be away from the front for most of his career so far.”

“He wouldn’t see it that way.”

“Of course not. But I do.” She sighed. “You remember when you first came to live with me, and I thought Reinhard had died on Condor Base?”

Julian nodded, stuffing a pair of socks into a ball and tossing them back into the basket.

“I can’t do that again, Julian,” she said. “Not for you, not for Reinhard. It would break my heart.”

“What about Captain Schenkopp?”

Annerose shook her head. “Why do you want to be a soldier?” she asked.

“I want to help-- you and Captain Reinhard.”

“Julian, there’s no help that you being in the fleet could do for me, at least not right now. In a few years, maybe when you’re eighteen, the situation might be different.”

“How so?”

Her movements were snappy as she folded the next shirt, flicking the collar of Reinhard’s uniform shirtsleeves back into its correct position. “Reinhard-- he’s going to go far,” she said. “I can imagine that in a few years, he’s going to have enough control over his own posting that he could request staff, at the very least. He would request you, and then you could help him. But you’ll be more useful with more education under your belt, and probably with an officer’s pin on your collar, if your heart is set on going into the fleet.”

Julian’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t agree?”

“By the time I’m eighteen, the war might be over.”

“Julian.” Annerose’s voice was hard, and Julian looked up at her warily. “If the war is over by then, if we can have peace in the galaxy for the first time in over a hundred years, that would be--” She shook her head. “Anything else, you can complain about. But do not ask for more death in this universe. Do you understand?”

His cheeks were red, but he nodded. “I understand.”

“Good.” She went back to silently folding laundry.

They worked on it together for a minute. “I just feel so useless,” Julian said, breaking the silence. “I feel like I’ve been just-- if I don’t go into the fleet then someone has to repay all the money that was spent on me-- I’m just being a burden--”

“Julian!” Annerose put down Ingrid’s blue dress, the one with the collar she had put embroidered stars on. “You are not a burden. Not to me, not to anyone. You don’t have to do anything to earn your place here.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He sounded unconvinced.

“You know I love you, Julian. Not because you cook dinner or help me with the laundry, or because you’re a star student, or because-- even if none of that was true, I would still love you and want you here. And want you safe.” She would have hugged him, but they were on opposite sides of the table.

He balled up another pair of socks, not looking at her. “Thank you,” he said.

“Don’t thank me. Gods.” She was uncomfortable now. “Love isn’t-- it’s not something I want to hold over you.” She thought of Ingrid, sitting on the couch upstairs, loving her and getting nothing in return, but never once demanding. Her mouth was dry, but she kept talking. “But I don’t want you to spend a second of your life thinking that loving you, or having you in my house, is some kind of obligation.”

Julian nodded and ran the back of his hand over his eyes. “I love you too, Lieutenant Commander.”

She handed him another sock, one that had stuck itself to the next tee shirt in the basket. “I know. And I know that’s why you want to be helpful. I’m not trying to make you feel bad.”

“I know you’re not,” he said. “I just can’t help feeling like a kid.”

“You are a kid,” she said. “But you’re going to be a great man someday. So try to enjoy being a kid while you are one. Reinhard refused to take that advice, but maybe I can get through to you.”

Julian laughed at that. “Captain Reinhard is a great man.”

“Not quite yet,” Annerose said. They got down to the last few items of clothing in the basket, and Julian mated the remaining socks. “What did Reinhard tell you, by the way?”

“The Earth Church’s plans.”

“And what do you think about them?”

He was pensive. “I think they’re going to find out that Job Trunicht has different goals than they do, sooner or later.”

The basement was chilly. It was that, and the seeping damp, that made Annerose’s skin crawl, she decided. “I’m sure.” She was silent for a second, and she felt sick even as the thought settled into her brain, but she voiced it anyway. “Julian--”

“Ma’am?”

“I think there is a way you can help me,” she said.

“Whatever you want,” he said, eager, leaning forward.

“You know the Earth Church is going to want to use Ingrid for their plans,” she said. “I’m going to be off planet, probably for a long time. I don’t know where Reinhard will be.” She picked up the stack of folded clothes and dropped it into the empty basket. “Will you take care of Ingrid for me, while I’m away?” she asked. “Protect her, for me?”

“Of course!” He stilled. “Is she going to be in danger from Secretary Trunicht?”

“I don’t know who she’s going to be in danger from. Not from where I’m standing. I think you know more than I do already, since you’ve been going to church with her.”

Julian nodded, deadly serious. “I promise,” he said. “I won’t let anything bad happen to her.”

“That’s a relief off my mind,” Annerose said. “I trust you, Julian.”

“I won’t let you down. Or Ms. Ingrid.”

Annerose smiled. “Thank you.” But as she picked up the laundry basket and headed back upstairs, Julian at her heels, the basement’s chill didn’t leave her skin.

Chapter Text

September 798 U.C., inside the Phezzan Corridor

Annerose was no stranger to the journey between Heinessen and Phezzan, but this was the first time she had felt its length so acutely. Perhaps it was the fact that some of the intricacies of their mission were still being changed and updated as they were en route, perhaps it was just because this was so much more involved than ferrying Ingrid away to Heinessen-- or running there herself.

Annerose’s quarters on board the ship were cramped. She could stand in the slim walking space to the side of her bed and touch the opposite side of the room with her fingertips without bending over, and her desk was a little fold-out section of the wall that she could just barely squeeze her computer and elbows onto. It was a privilege as an officer and a woman to have her own space; Schenkopp had his own room but Linz and Blumhart were sharing, and the rest of the regiment were stacked like sardines in the hold of the ship, a not unusual situation for them as ground troops being ferried from place to place.

On the dull grey wall across from her bed, Annerose had taped up a photo she had taken just before her departure, everyone crowded together on the couch in her living room. Ingrid was squished between Julian and her mother. Reinhard stood stiffly next to Schenkopp behind the couch, though Schenkopp leaned forward, resting one elbow comically on Julian’s head. Annerose herself had ducked into the picture just as the camera’s self timer went off, folding ungainly to the ground in front of the couch, smiling. 

She stared at the picture now. She doubted anyone else looking at it could see the force she had been exerting to keep the smile on her face in the camera’s freeze frame, but she could. She hadn’t even wanted to be in the photograph; it had taken Schenkopp’s goading and every ounce of willpower she possessed to agree to get in the picture. Even now, she was tempted to fold the photo over so that she couldn’t see herself and the tension in her shoulders, when at least Reinhard and Schenkopp were so calm about the future.

She had never felt this anxious about leaving Julian and Ingrid before, though she had tried not to show it when she had said her final goodbyes at the airport. Annerose was simply overcome with a nameless dread. Nothing good could come of this invasion of Phezzan, no matter how much Reinhard believed in it. 

Someone knocked on the door to her cabin, and Annerose bolted upright from her reverie to slide it open. It was Schenkopp, leaning on the doorframe with both his hands in his pockets. Annerose glanced to either side of the hallway (empty) and then stepped back to let him in. It was a tight enough squeeze in the room that he had to close the door behind himself, and the only comfortable way for them both to sit was on the skinny bed, cross legged, facing each other.

“Our final debrief isn’t for another hour and a half, right?” Annerose asked. She checked the time.

“That’s right,” Schenkopp said. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, this is you making your rounds.”

He grinned at her. “That it is,” he said.

“Am I first on your list, or last?”

“Oh, Commander, I thought you knew me better than that.”

“Last, then.”

“I’ll have my drinks with the rest of the enlisted men after the debrief,” Schenkopp said. “But I’ve been around to all the NCOs already.”

“And Linz and Blumhart?”

“They hardly need me to pat them on the back and say whatever the fuck,” Schenkopp said. “Not like the NCOs need it either, but I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t. But yes, I have spoken to Linz and Blumhart.” He opened up Annerose’s footlocker and looked inside. “You still don’t keep anything good in here?”

“Not before our debrief I don’t,” she said.

“Your brother is more tolerable in two circumstances: when he’s focused on business, and when I’m drunk. I imagine both of those together would make me downright enthralled with the man.”

“Come on, Walter,” she said. “You like Reinhard.”

“I do. He hates me, though.”

“He respects you.”

“Sure.” Schenkopp grinned.

“So, what words of wisdom did you have for Linz and Blumhart on the eve of our landing?” she asked.

“You know, I can’t even remember.” He looked steadily over at her. “Do you want me here as your CO, or something else?”

“What’s the difference?”

“You never answered my question,” he said, half-smiling, but looking at her with intent.

“Which question?”

“How are you feeling?”

“Do you want me to answer that as your subordinate?”

“I’d like you to answer it.”

“Fine, sir,” she said. “Prepared for whatever’s coming. I know the regiment’s got my back, and I’ve got theirs, and the plan is sound.”

He laughed. “Now give me the real answer.”

“You don’t want the real answer,” Annerose said. She leaned back on her hands and gave him a long look. “I don’t think there’s any way this could go as smoothly as we’re planning it to.”

“No plan has ever survived contact with the enemy,” Schenkopp said. “That’s not news.”

“Reinhard--”

“Your brother is smart, but he’s gotta learn that someday. Might as well be tomorrow. He’s not the problem though. It’s everybody he’s been having to sweet-talk.”

Annerose just bit her lip. “This isn’t like Cahokia, or Kapche-Lanka, or anything else like that.”

“No,” Schenkopp said. “We’re storming paradise, rather than hell, for once. I’m planning to make the best of it.”

Annerose shook her head and was silent.

“Your trouble is clearly not just the fact that we’ll be around civilians, and infrastructure, and plans put in place by people you don’t trust.” He held up his hand to forestall the objection on Annerose’s lips. “I’m talking about the Earth Church, not your brother. So, what is it that’s eating you?”

“Do you really think this is going to end the war?”

“No,” Schenkopp said bluntly. “You’ll notice that we’re going to be remaining on Phezzan until told otherwise, not continuing on to take Odin.”

“That isn’t just because we wouldn’t be trusted in the Empire’s capital? It would look strange, wouldn’t it?”

“There would be great ways to spin it, if we were there, and your brother could have had us heading back out on ships as soon as we were done here, leaving a different force to occupy Phezzan. Probably would have been a better choice, and it’s not like he doesn’t want to give you glory.”

“Or something,” Annerose said. “He’s as eager to capture Odin as anybody. Probably moreso.”

“Yeah, well, he seems pretty certain that it isn’t going to happen. He wants Phezzan held, and he’s leaving us here to do it, and he’s expecting that everything else is going to go to shit.”

“Have you talked to him about that?”

“Of course not. But I know your brother. You see it too, don’t you?”

“I don’t know what I see,” she said. “It’s not clear how much sway Reinhard has.”

“More than he lets on, I think.” Schenkopp glanced at the photo on her wall. “Me saying that the war isn’t going to end tomorrow doesn’t seem to have helped you any. Can I say something else?”

“As my commander?” She tried to relax her shoulders. “You don’t have to ask me permission to speak freely.”

Schenkopp didn’t dignify that with a response. “Keep your eyes on today. Tomorrow, at the most. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen six months from now, two years from now-- that’s nothing you can control. Your responsibility is to the regiment, and yourself, and you fulfil those responsibilities in the moment. You’re going to have an axe in your hand tomorrow, and if your thoughts are lightyears away, on Heinessen or Odin, you’re going to be putting yourself at a disadvantage.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Annerose--”

“Walter--”

He smiled at her, then nodded at the photo. “Nothing you have is going to vanish just because you’re not looking at it and worrying about it. When something’s gonna go, you’re going to know.”

Annerose turned away. It was less comforting than he wanted it to be, she was sure. Schenkopp put his hand on her leg, and that was heavy, and warm even through her pants.

“And you know,” he said. “As long as we are both in this regiment-- today and tomorrow, and the day after that-- I’ve got your back, and I trust that you’ve got mine.”

He squeezed her leg, and then dropped his hand. The thin bed squeaked as he stood. Annerose looked up at him.

“You’re going?” she asked.

“I’m a man of the here-and-now, Annerose.” He leaned on the wall and looked at her steadily. “And I need you to be here-and-now for the debrief. You tell me what it’s going to take to get you there.”

She stood. They were chest to chest, the tiny room that much smaller, the closer they were together. “Stay,” she said. “I’ll be here.”

He nodded. “Can’t say I don’t appreciate that choice.” His tone was warm, the professionalism he had been wearing slipping off like his scarf as Annerose reached up to pull it from his neck. 

When he went to toss his jacket on the ground, Annerose stopped undoing his belt and pointed at the hook where her own jacket was hanging. “I don’t want you to make a wrinkled impression on Admiral Greenhill.”

Schenkopp laughed and shook his head. “You’re going to make me fold my pants, too?”

“Shut up.”

 He obliged and kissed her, though she squeaked in mild annoyance when his hand stroking her head tugged out her neat bun so that he could run his fingers through her hair. Still, his touch grounded her, made her feel real, in ways that so little else did. She was suddenly anxious to feel as much of her skin against his as possible; she was devouring his mouth.

Annerose tugged Schenkopp back, pressing herself against the tiny strip of wall at the back of her room. She was closed in, and when he stripped off her shirt, the cool of the wall trailed along her skin, too hot to stay inside of. She could feel the lines of tension in Schenkopp’s back, in his arms when she steadied herself on them, in his neck when she leaned her forehead on his shoulder, then kissed her way along his collarbone to his throat, tasting how salty and human he was, sweating despite the frigid ship’s air.

He was right: when she was with him, she couldn’t think about anything else, and she didn’t want to.

When they finished, they sat side by side on the narrow bed, Annerose’s head against Schenkopp’s shoulder. Some of the tension had gone out of him, and he didn’t object when she idly rubbed his back.

“You’ll come with me to the enlisted mens’ lounge tonight, won’t you?”

“Did you think I wouldn’t? Of course I’ll come. My team would have my head if I didn’t,” Annerose said. “Though I’ll only have one drink.”

He chuckled. “Sensible.”

“I don’t want to be hung over while we’re on our way down to Phezzan. Shuttles have always made me a little nauseous.”

“That’s what tank beds are for.”

“And you’re going to spend the night in a tank bed?” she asked, tugging on a curl of his hair.

“Might be more roomy than this,” he said. 

“You might be right.” She rubbed his shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

“About tomorrow?” He leaned back on his hands and looked at her. “Alright. Better than I was a few hours ago, and probably better than I will during our debrief.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“What were you unhappy with, a couple hours ago?”

He smiled. “You know, I don’t just go around to everyone for your benefit.” His tone was teasing, but he wouldn’t be saying it if he wasn’t serious. “I like to reassure myself that everybody’s in the right place. Of course, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be, but--”

“I get it,” Annerose said. 

They sat silently for a moment, then Schenkopp knocked her arm with his elbow, his moment of vulnerability concluded. “Better shower and get dressed. Debrief coming right up, and we have to shuttle over.”

“Yes, sir,” Annerose said. “I’ll be there.”

 


 

Annerose was not one to feel out of her depth in rooms full of superior officers-- her work under Cazerne had cured her of that instinct if she had ever had it-- but she did take a moment to take a steadying breath before she walked into the meeting room, then found her seat in between Reinhard and Schenkopp. Linz and Blumhart were sitting on Schenkopp’s other side, and they seemed more uncomfortable than she did, their stiff backs an unusual sign of them attempting to be on their best behavior.

There were several admirals in the room: Greenhill, who was at the head of the whole charge into the Empire; Vice Admiral Moore, supporting Greenhill; and Bucock, who was going to coordinate the occupation of Phezzan. There were other higher officers there too, but those were the ones she was most interested in. Reinhard had clearly had a hand in this selection-- she would have bet that Moore had only earned his place because of Fredrica’s presence as his staff officer-- but it was a solid representation of the Alliance leadership nonetheless. This plan, though Schenkopp thought it was not destined to succeed, was at least having as much support behind it as possible.

Commodore Fork, another face Annerose knew well, sat near the head of the table, next to Admiral Greenhill. While Reinhard had been responsible for much of the planning of the Phezzani operation, Fork was his counterpart for the Imperial invasion. Annerose had to wonder if that burned Reinhard; the Imperial invasion was a more prestigious assignment. But Fork was older, and higher ranking, and technically Admiral Greenhill’s staff, and not Trunicht’s.

Annerose didn’t expect that she, or any of the other Rosenritter, would have much to say during this meeting. Although they would be boots on the ground on Phezzan, everything had already been meticulously planned, and she doubted there would be any major changes. This meeting was almost more of a formality than anything.

The beginning of the meeting started with Admiral Greenhill calling the group to order, then immediately passing the presentation off to Commodore Fork, who stood up at the front of the room and ran through the complicated plan for how the Alliance forces should pass through Phezzani space. The vast majority of ships in their long fleet would be moving through, but there would be a moderate ground occupation force led by Bucock that would remain behind, performing the double duty of setting up a supply line between the Alliance, Phezzan, and the fleets headed into the Empire.

The largest question that remained with their invasion was how easy it would be to pass through the Phezzan corridor into the Empire itself. Though the Alliance had known navigation routes on their side of the corridor to Phezzan, they lacked up to date information on how to navigate into the Empire itself. Therefore, even more importantly than seizing the government headquarters on Phezzan and subduing the population, the Rosenritter needed to capture the computers inside the Navigation Office. Without that information, progress into the Empire would be dramatically slowed, as the Alliance fleets would need to send out scouting ships to trace a navigable path, leaving the fleet slow and vulnerable.

The main body of the fleet wasn’t planning to stop, plowing through the Phezzan corridor even before the Navigation Office had been seized, but they would be waiting for the data the Rosenritter were going to get them. It was this that made several of the members of the upper echelons of the leadership cast dubious glances at the four Rosenritters at the table. Schenkopp sat and smiled serenely under their withering gazes, and Annerose focused her attention on Commander Fork’s presentation.

“Now, for the critical ground portion of this, I will turn things over to Captain von Müsel to present the plan,” Fork said.

“Thank you, Commodore,” Reinhard said, standing. “As you are no doubt aware, the Rosenritter were chosen for three reasons: first, their exemplary record in ground engagements, especially under their current commander, Captain Schenkopp; second, because they are the only unit in the entire Alliance fleet that has experience performing operations on Phezzan itself; and third, because of their unit-wide fluency in the Imperial language, which will make it easier for them to navigate and communicate while on Phezzan. This will be vital when it comes to taking the Navigation Office.

“Although we have been provided information which we believe is accurate as to the defenses of the office, and have been assured that the computers will not be wiped, I understand that you have worries about the veracity of this information. There is only so far trust gets us. To that point, the Rosenritter will be entering the city by shuttle, on a single ship while the rest of the fleet remains out of detection range. This ship will be equipped with a commercial navigational beacon, and should be able to approach quite close to the planet without being recognized as a military target.”

Reinhard pulled up a map of the streets of Phezzan’s capital. “The Rosenritter shuttles carrying the team taking the Navigation Office will be able to land here.” He pointed to a large, empty green area on the map, with a lake in the center. “The water provides the ideal empty landing spot, closest to the Navigation Office itself, just three blocks south. Because we’re opting for this water landing, this part of the assault will take place on foot. Captain Schenkopp will be leading the team heading to the Navigation Office.” Reinhard nodded at Schenkopp.

Admiral Bucock interrupted Reinhard. “If I may, Captain?”

“Of course.”

“Captain Schenkopp,” Bucock said, “are you confident about taking this on foot? I’m not questioning your abilities, but you are going to have a very small detachment, and three blocks is not insignificant.”

“I’m confident, Admiral,” Schenkopp said. “Phezzan is not well defended. Their police force is smaller than that of Heinessenpolis’ and Phezzan’s charter forbids them from having any nationalized armed force outside of that, so there is no organized city defense that could stop us. Citizens of Phezzan may be armed, but I’m certain that they know it’s within their best interest to stay out of our way.”

There were some chuckles around the table at that.

“The Navigation Office has its own security force, I assume?” Bucock asked.

“Yes,” Schenkopp said. “And I expect that will be more troublesome to deal with, but it won’t be a problem until we’re at the building. And, even though we’ll be on foot, if the building is not as open as we’re hoping, we will be carrying plenty to get us inside.”

“Are you at all concerned about the possibility that the building could be equipped with some sort of emergency explosive?”

“We’ve considered it,” Schenkopp said. “If we were already on the planet and had time to get underneath the building, I would prefer that. But we don’t. If there is a detonator somewhere, I can only trust that the information we’ve been given assures us that it will not be used. And, if it is used” --he shrugged expressively-- “not the way I’d prefer to go, but it is how it is. There is a backup, or more than one, of the Nav Office’s computer system hidden in a much more secure location on Phezzan. It’ll be your job to find it then, if we can’t take this one.”

Bucock nodded. “Alright. You can continue, Captain Müsel.”

“Thank you.” Reinhard nodded at Schenkopp, then switched the slide. “The rest of the landing force will take the capital airfield, with secondary and tertiary locations on these fields outside the city. Since these landing forces will be able to use cargo descent shuttles, they will be equipped with vehicles and will be able to quickly move to our other primary locations.

“Commander Blumhart will be taking a team to capture the Imperial Embassy. We expect this to be the most well defended location, and for there to be heavy resistance within the building. The primary goal is to read data from the embassy’s computers. This will likely not be possible, but would be valuable. A secondary goal is to capture as many of the staff there as possible, especially the officers. His team has been provided with a list of targets of particular importance, based on what we know they know of internal Imperial workings.

“Commander Linz will be securing the base of the space elevator, while Admiral Bucock’s forces secure the top. The space elevator will be a vital piece of infrastructure for using Phezzan as a base from which to resupply our fleets out in the Empire. Although the port at both the top and bottom are large, and have their own defense force, they are unlikely to put up much resistance after they receive the order to surrender.

“That order will come from our last point of attack, the capitol building, and the Landesherr, Adrian Rubinsky. Commander von Müsel will be leading the team to the capitol, and will have the goal of forcing Rubinsky to sign an official statement of surrender. A small secondary team will surround, but not enter, the Landesherr’s residence.”

“Will he sign something like that?” Bucock asked.

“We’ve been given assurances that he will,” Reinhard said.

“Is Rubinsky aware of this invasion?”

“In order to avoid prematurely compromising their sources, the Earth Church has not provided us with information like that.”

“Not sure I like trusting those bastards,” Moore said, and there was general agreement from the table.

“Secretary Trunicht believes in this plan wholeheartedly,” Reinhard said. Several of the admirals at the table, including Greenhill, couldn’t manage to hide their twitches of distaste at the mention of Trunicht’s name. Bucock was the one with the best poker face, even though Annerose knew he personally disliked the man very much. “And, as far as we have been able to independently confirm, the Earth Church’s information has been accurate and complete.”

“Trust but verify,” Bucock said. He stroked his chin and looked pensive.

“Exactly, sir. But at the end of the day, it is irrelevant what Rubinsky does, or how accurate the Earth Church’s intel is. Phezzan is a soft target: by capturing its major government facilities, we will have it functionally under our control very quickly.”

“We’re not taking into consideration non-state actors here,” Greenhill said, interrupting at last. “Phezzan’s infrastructure isn’t nationalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the capital’s electric supplier, regardless of any official surrender, holds the city hostage.”

“As soon as the key locations have been seized, including the space elevator, the rest of Admiral Bucock’s ground troops will be able to begin landing. If any corporation tries that, it will be at most a day or so before we take control of the infrastructure.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much damage could be caused by encrypting the computer systems that control the water supply,” Greenhill said. “Or something equivalent.”

“Even in the worst case scenario, things like pumps and generators are physical equipment, and if it is necessary, we can bring our own experts in to put them on our own control systems. But I would hope that any corporation on Phezzan thinking of exerting their power in a stunt like that understands that there is a carrot and stick happening here: if they cooperate, their lives will be able to continue without much interruption from us. If they refuse to cooperate, it is their own people who are knocking out their electricity for however long it takes for us to repair it. And when it gets repaired, it will be our infrastructure. Part of the eventual goal is to nationalize most of Phezzan’s industries.”

“That’s a pretty bad worst case scenario, Müsel.”

“I don’t disagree, sir,” Reinhard said. “But I am hopeful that we will avoid it. And in an emergency, we are well set up to supply the residents of Phezzan with the essentials that they need to live: it’s one planet, and is the base of our planned supply line anyway. There is no long-term risk to the welfare of Phezzan’s citizenry.”

Greenhill nodded. “It would be expensive.”

“This entire operation is the most costly single enterprise the Alliance has ever undertaken,” Reinhard said. “It’s a bet against the future.”

“Let’s hope we don’t lose, then,” Greenhill said.

“Yes, sir.”

The meeting continued on. There were plenty of logistical details to step through, and Fork and Reinhard did a good job of answering every question that came up. Still, the questioning from Bucock and Greenhill had put a new seed of discomfort in Annerose’s stomach, despite how much she trusted Reinhard’s plan.

At the end of the meeting, she gathered up her things. Reinhard leaned behind her and said to Schenkopp, “Captain, may I have a word?”

Schenkopp grinned, the kind of expression designed to get under Reinhard’s nerves. “Of course,” he said. They walked out together, and Annerose could hear Schenkopp say, “So, you think you’ll make flag officer with this?”

“Do you?” Reinhard responded.

They were out the door before Schenkopp had the chance to reply. 

Admiral Greenhill came over to Annerose as she got up to go. “I see your brother managed to make sure you got the most photogenic assignment,” he said, leaning on the table. Linz and Blumhart laughed to hear it. Annerose shot them both a nasty glare, and they gathered their belongings and headed off.

“I don’t think he was in charge of deciding that, sir,” Annerose said. “And I don’t need special treatment. I would have been just as happy to trade with Linz or Blumhart.”

“I’m sure,” Greenhill replied. “My daughter says good luck, by the way.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Your brother did an admirable job, in my opinion. We’ll see how it shakes out, of course, but the plan is sound. It’s a shame he’s Trunicht’s protegee and not one of my staff.”

“You have Commodore Fork,” Annerose pointed out. “He’s talented, as well.”

“Of course. I’m just trying to pay your brother a compliment. He’s going to go far.”

“Well, thank you on his behalf.”

“He’ll be remaining with Bucock during the operation, I assume?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “He’s OPS only, and probably won’t be doing much except writing reports to tell Trunicht how things go.”

“I won’t be surprised if Bucock deputises him. He’s a man who hates to see talent go to waste.”

“Is that allowed, sir?”

“Is your brother likely to object?”

Annerose laughed. “No. But Trunicht might.”

“Secretary Trunicht, by never once setting foot on the front himself, has little idea of what push coming to shove looks like on the front. Your brother lived on Phezzan: he knows the place more intimately than Bucock does, so he’ll be an asset when figuring out the logistics of occupying the place. If Trunicht objects to that, he can summon him home.”

“I doubt he’d do that,” Annerose said. “This whole invasion is his brainchild--”

“His ticket to his political future, really,” Greenhill said. “But go on.”

“Either way, he’s not likely to do anything to jeopardize it.”

“You would think, Commander.” Greenhill gave a wry smile. “I look forward to your mission’s success.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Greenhill clapped her on the shoulder, and then turned and left to talk to Moore. Annerose headed out of the meeting room. 

Reinhard and Schenkopp’s voices were echoing down the metal corridor of the ship-- they hadn’t gone far-- so she turned in their direction to find them. Schenkopp was leaning against the wall, and Reinhard was standing in front of him, his face deadly serious. Annerose hung back, not wanting to interrupt, but she listened.

“No, I’m sure there won’t be massive armed resistance. There are plenty of people on Phezzan with private security, but they wouldn’t risk getting involved,” Reinhard said. “That, at least, I’m confident about.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“You don’t sound confident.”

“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Schenkopp said. “No matter how good it is. I’m confident in myself, and in my regiment. That’s enough for me.”

“Be honest-- is this a good plan?”

“What, invading the Empire?”

“No, your street level assault tomorrow.”

“The time for you to ask me if I think it’s a good idea or not and get an honest answer is long gone,” Schenkopp said. He studied Reinhard for a second, and Reinhard stood stiff-backed under Schenkopp’s gaze. “Yes,” he finally said. “It’s a plan I respect and am happy to follow. I think tomorrow will be a success.”

Reinhard’s posture changed, relaxing fractionally. “Thank you,” he said. He held out his hand. “Good luck, Captain.”

Schenkopp grinned, then shook Reinhard’s hand. “Thanks, kid,” he said. Just to ruin what semblance of a moment there was between them, he turned down the hall to Annerose and called, “See, I told you we get along when talking tactics.”

Annerose shook her head and walked over. She smiled at Reinhard. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Fine,” he said, and there was no way to tell if that was an honest answer. “Do you know where Commander Blumhart went? I need to ask him a favor.”

“Hey, you don’t get to give orders to my officers,” Schenkopp said. Annerose punched him in the arm.

“They’ve probably headed back to our shuttle out already. You don’t want to miss your shuttle back with Bucock, though.”

“Right,” Reinhard said. He frowned.

“What was it you wanted him to do for you?” Schenkopp asked. “If it’s not too stupid, I’ll tell him.”

“At one point a couple years ago, I promised someone who works in the Imperial Embassy, Neidhart Muller, that when we invaded I’d save him a cushy spot in a POW camp,” Reinhard said. “I’d like to make good on that promise and not have him get killed.”

Schenkopp laughed. “Incredible. Yeah, I’ll let Blumhart know.”

“Thanks.”

“You were planning this that far ahead?” Annerose asked.

“No,” Reinhard said. “It was a joke.”

“Why were you joking like that with him?” Schenkopp asked.

“He did me a couple big favors,” Reinhard said. “As much as two people on opposite sides of this war could be friends, I guess we were.”

“Hunh,” Schenkopp said. “Well, I’ll see what we can do.”

“You’d better go,” Annerose said. “See you when you get down to Phezzan.”

Reinhard said nothing for a moment, then reached out and hugged her, his grip crushing. “Good luck.”

“I’ll be fine,” Annerose said. She felt better now than she had earlier in the day, some of the anxiety falling away to be replaced with the usual tight knot of excitement in her stomach. Perhaps the feeling was the same, but her interpretation of it was different. She could see tomorrow in her mind’s eye, picturing herself heading towards the capitol building that she had only ever seen from a distance, breaking down its doors. That was clearer in her vision than any hazy nightmare of the future. “You’re not allowed to worry about me.”

“Alright,” Reinhard said. “I won’t.” He released her and smiled.

“Good,” Annerose said.

Without another word, Reinhard headed off down the hall to take his shuttle back to Bucock’s flagship, giving a half wave over his shoulder as he went.

 


 

Once things were put into motion, they did not stop. Momentum carried Annerose from the moment she woke up early, too early, the next morning, squashed between the wall and Schenkopp’s heavy form in her slim bed, her alarm clock wailing that the appointed hour had arrived. 

Annerose and Schenkopp didn’t say goodbye to each other as they separated for their independent missions. Seemed like bad luck to say goodbye.

She didn’t have time to think, let alone make any decisions, as she dressed, ate, then assembled her squad of men in the shuttle bay, walking between them to check the fit of their armor, whacking them on the back as encouragement that they could barely feel through the heavy protection they were wearing. She had a rifle slung over one shoulder, and her own axe on her back. Her throat was already raw from yelling instructions by the time they were all loaded into the shuttles.

Their ship was alone, separated from the bulk of the fleet: any Imperial battleship could have killed them in one blow. But there was no Imperial battleship in orbit, and until their ship swerved out of Phezzan’s shipping lanes, cruising towards a close orbit as fast as it could, they were just one other massive ship in the line of merchant ships waiting to dock at the elevator. Phezzan had no true defenses-- it was forbidden by their Imperial charter-- so although Annerose couldn’t see or feel any of their ship’s movements from her position waiting inside one of the landing shuttles, she doubted they were facing much, if any, resistance. 

She looked down at the tablet in her lap as the mothership made its final approach, running over the plan and map of Phezzan’s streets, waiting for the pilot of their landing shuttle to hear the order to drop them out of the bottom of their mothership, then scream down into the atmosphere. The drop came, without any warning, with the ground-- the gravity that the mothership’s engine provided them-- falling out beneath them.

Nausea turned her stomach. She was pressed several different directions in her seat as the shuttle banked and turned to put them in position to descend. None of the maneuvers were more than a few Gs, but they were incessant. She put a grim smile on her face, though the expression would be barely visible through her helmet in the odd light of the shuttle interior. 

Her men were in good spirits. Many of them had lifted up their visors to yell over the throb of the shuttle’s engines to the people in the cramped seats next to them. Their conversations were inaudible, and she strained to hear the pilot’s announcements in the cockpit behind her.

“Coming close to the atmosphere now,” he said. And then the shuttle started to vibrate, banking to one side-- or maybe it was leveling out.

She lifted her own visor. “This is it!” she yelled. She received enthusiastic handsigns in response all up and down the length of the shuttle, and a few energetic whoops reached her ears over the noise. She pointed at her head. “Helmets on! We’re moving as soon as our wheels touch the ground!” 

Her visor came back down over her face, and she gripped the hard edge of her seat as the shuttle violently shuddered, chattering her teeth until she clenched her jaw together with what must have been enough force to snap bone. She couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the engine, or whatever this sound was, and her vision spotted in and out with the jolts and judders of their descent.

She wished there was a window in this shuttle that she could see out of, but she had to be content with blindness. The shuttle deployed its long drogue chute, slamming Annerose forward as they decelerated, aiming to land on a short runway that wasn’t designed to take shuttles coming in at this speed. It was all they had, and it was technically within the shuttle’s tolerance so long as they used the chute to slow them down just that much more, and she had to trust the pilot-- she had to.

They landed with a thud that made her knees ache, and her hands moved on instinct to unlatch her restraints, and she was up and yelling: “Let’s go, let’s go!”

She tumbled out into the Phezzani air: it must have been warm and wet, but her suit kept her cold. It was the middle of the local night. All around the airfield, other shuttles were coming to a stop and disgorging their passengers, their chutes flapping up from the ground like snakes, Rosenritter hopping over them as they ran across the tarmac to where vehicles were already being unloaded: fleets of airbikes that would hold two passengers each, then further back the tanks that she hoped they wouldn’t need.

It was chaotic, but a silent and practiced kind of chaos. Rosenritter took up stations around the shuttles, shooting at the few airfield security cars that dared to approach (why they bothered, Annerose didn’t know-- they were hopelessly outnumbered); while others in one of the heavy tanks cleared away the barriers that had risen up from the access road to block traffic, shooting or trampling them down to clear a path for the smaller vehicles. Annerose’s, Linz’s, and Blumhart’s teams found their squads and their vehicles and left the airfield and screamed down the road out into the city.

The lights and sounds were fragmented; everything had a jagged edge to it as they headed through the streets to the city.

The capitol building was lit, the slick Phezzani architecture glowing with an inner light. It was a beacon above the rest of the city, and while they had their route and alternate routes memorized, it was something visible to drive them forward.

A keening emergency siren sounded, echoing through the nearly empty streets. Lights came on in buildings in response. Annerose couldn’t see into the windows that high up, not with her helmet on, but she imagined that the residents of the buildings they were passing were pressing their noses to the glass. 

Cars swerved out of their way, hopping up onto the sidewalk as the Rosenritter barreled down both sides of the street. The Phezzani police force, what there was of it, was not prepared to resist an invasion, even one that was just a little more than one regiment in size-- hardly anything when compared to the thirty-thousand ship fleet now bearing into detection range.

The lack of resistance changed as they came closer to the capitol building itself. Police had gotten there in time to surround the building, heavy trucks barricading the way, and they were crouching behind them with guns drawn. Annerose ordered her men to halt just out of clean firing range. They were mostly on airbikes-- quick but not easily defended. The tanks were on their way, but they were slow; it would take another few minutes for them to arrive. If they could breach the capitol without firing a shot, that would be a much better look in the eyes of Phezzan’s citizens. 

“Set up a perimeter, outside their effective range. Don’t allow anyone else to approach. And give me the horn,” Annerose said. Around her, her men scrambled to obey, taking up positions in the intersections that led to the capitol building. One of her men passed her the megaphone, and it shrieked as she turned it on. “This is Commander von Müsel of the Rosenritter! If you value your lives, stand aside and you will not be harmed.”

There was no response for a long time, though there was an uncomfortable shuffling in the ranks of the police officers. She was about to repeat her hail when the capitol’s PA system crackled to life. “Phezzan is an autonomous nation. Your presence here is--”

“There are thirty thousand ships entering orbit around Phezzan,” Annerose said into her own mic. “Surrender now if you value your lives.”

The response was a few blaster shots that didn’t quite reach the Rosenritter taking cover down the block. 

“Should we charge them?” one of her men asked.

“Map,” she said, and held out her hand. A tablet showing the location of all their forces superimposed on Phezzan’s streets was pressed into her hands. The tanks were five blocks away, and inching closer. “No,” she said, jerking her head at the police forces. “They don’t have reinforcements coming. We can wait five minutes for the tanks.” 

“I don’t much like waiting, Commander,” the man who had given her the map said, glancing up into the sky. There were sounds of police helicopters circling overhead, dousing them with searchlights, but since they hadn’t been fired upon yet, it was clear that they weren’t about to be.

“Well, we all have to do things we don’t like, Carlsburg.”

They heard the tanks before they saw them, rumbling over the wail of the emergency sirens and the sizzling of the ineffective fire from the police’s guns. Shouting followed the tanks: the city had well and truly woken up now, and residents were opening their upper windows and yelling obscenities in whatever language they had to hand, chucking bottles down twelve stories to shatter uselessly against the gunmetal of the tanks, which trundled on without paying them any mind.

The tanks filled every intersection around the capitol building, and Annerose got on her squad comms. “I want just enough fire to clear a path in, and one shot to breach the main doors. On my mark, then hold. Units on foot, prepare to enter the building on my signal. Don’t chase anyone who runs.” Annerose held up her hand; though the street was noisy, the world narrowed to a silent point around her. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark.”

The tank fire roared, obliterating the vehicles that had parked themselves in front of the capitol building’s steps and cratering a hole in the building itself. Smoke poured out, and the police began running, looking for cover and finding none.

“In!” she yelled, running with her squad. Her armor protected her from the fire of scattered truck remains that she dodged past, but the heat pressed down on her, urging her up the steps, through the rubble. She was at the front of her unit, axe in hand. Operationally, she knew she should have been towards the back as the unit commander, but she wasn’t going to heed that logical thought. Someone tossed a zephyr particle canister into the wreck of the main entrance, and all the police remaining inside dropped their guns to the floor, clattering on the slick black granite tiles before a single shot had even been fired.

The Rosenritter worked like a well-oiled machine, clearing room after room of the building. The security forces offered token resistance. Although they were well trained, they were overpowered by the Rosenritter in the close combat axe fights that the hallways offered, as soon as zephyr particles were in play. 

Automatic defenses, reinforced doors that locked down hallways, a ventilation system that could be weaponized to poison the intruders-- none of these were any match for the Rosenritter, who knew well enough not to lift their helmets and how to breach the doors of any spaceship, sturdier by far than these.

At last, they reached their target, the Landesherr’s office and broke open the door. Unsurprisingly, they found it completely empty.

The office was neat and stylish, the kind of slick style of strangely shaped furniture and flat glass that Phezzanis preferred. It was an island of calm in the sea of chaos that was the rest of the building, with Rosenritter continuing to clear rooms and take prisoner anyone who happened to be in their way, on the off chance that they were someone important. 

Annerose looked around the office for a second, put her axe down on the Landesherr’s mirrored-glass desk, then hopped up to sit on top of it. Several of her men laughed. She chided herself momentarily for acting so relaxed and glib-- this was a deadly serious time-- but her men, despite their laughter, were guarding the windows and doors, alert as always.

“Did the secondary team have any difficulty surrounding the Landesherr’s private residence?” Annerose asked.

The NCO who she had placed in charge of coordination with the other teams, Durer, replied, “They’re in place, ma’am. They haven’t engaged any of Rubinsky’s personal security, but they haven’t attempted to go in, either.”

“Good. As soon as this building is secure, we’ll leave a reserve here and go meet up with them. What’s the status of the other teams?”

“Commander Blumhart’s team reports that the Imperial Embassy was empty, and the computers were wiped. He’s occupied the building, but is asking if any other team needs support.”

“Fuck,” Annerose said. “I wonder who tipped them off.”

“Should I tell Blumhart to meet us at the Landesherr’s residence?”

“No,” Annerose said. “We shouldn’t need backup for that. Any word on Schenkopp or Linz?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Tell Blumhart if he needs somewhere to go, he can feel free to pick one of them to go support. I’ve got this covered.”

She took some more time to check the status of her squads within the building: what their losses were, how clear the building was,what important prisoners they had managed to take; and then broke off several squads to make the longer trek to the Landesherr’s residence.

The journey on airbikes, while punctuated by occasional stops where the road had been blocked off by police, went by in a blur for Annerose. She kept checking the status of Linz and Schenkopp’s teams, but no report came in from them. She didn’t let this anxiety eat at her, shoving it out of her mind. A report came in that some of Bucock’s ships had forced a docking at the top of the space elevator and had taken it under control.

They arrived at the Landesherr’s house on the outskirts of the city, a strangely peaceful scene despite the tanks surrounding the house: the emergency sirens that continued to wail in the city center were inaudible here. The only sounds were the hum of the engines of their airbikes and tanks, and the insects buzzing and chirping in the trees and garden behind the house.

“What’s the status on house security?” Annerose asked, peering up at the building. All the windows were dark.

“There must be some,” the NCO who had led the team to surround the house said, “but we haven’t seen any of it. Nobody’s come out, and none of us have gone in.”

“Any signs of automatic defenses?”

“We’ve done a scan. Nothing deadly underground. We can’t see inside the building, but it’s unlikely to be any more dangerous than the capitol itself.”

Annerose rather doubted that was true. On Phezzan, the rather anemic governmental defense was likely surpassed by private mercenary forces protecting factories, and private weapons defending homes.

She ordered a squad of Rosenritter up to the front door. They were prepared to knock it in, but found instead that it simply opened for them.

“A warm welcome?” Annerose wondered aloud, slipping her visor down over her face as she jogged up to the door to join them, axe in hand.

With her squad, she stepped inside the house. It was dark, but spotlights from the vehicles outside penetrated the gloom, revealing minimal, luxe furniture. The noise from outside disappeared entirely, and it was an odd silence of their heavy footsteps clacking on the floors. 

The first floor of the house was empty. They cleared it cautiously, expectant for some sort of trap, but there was no sign of Landesherr Rubinsky, or any defenses.

Annerose climbed the central, open staircase, flanked on either side, emerging into the second floor, a wide open living room. The lights from outside didn’t reach all the way up here, so it took a moment for Annerose to register that there was someone here, seated on the couch, facing the approaching Rosenritter, whose white armor was a dark bulk against the plate window behind them.

“Took you long enough to decide to come in,” the person said, and Annerose realized the voice, low and sultry, belonged to a woman. She reached to her side, and the men next to Annerose pointed their guns at her, but all she did was press a button to turn on the lights, revealing her fully.

She was a strikingly beautiful woman, in the warm, dim light. Her hair was red-- like Ingrid’s, Annerose noted-- and she wore a black dress, one that clung tight to her sides, though the slit in the leg that allowed her to sit with her legs crossed went all the way up to her hip, revealing the edge of red lace underwear. She was smiling, looking directly at the men, and holding a wine glass in her left hand.

Annerose flashed a signal with her free hand to the men behind her, stepping forward so they could fan out into the room, checking through the second floor just as they had the first, giving the woman a wide berth. She remained seated, hardly moving anything except her eyes, watching as the Rosenritter made their meticulous search.

“He’s not here, you know,” the woman said.

“Who’s not here?” one of her men, Weber, demanded.

“Adrian,” she replied. “He’s long gone.” She was remarkably calm. Annerose kept her eye on her, even as she listened to the reports coming in over the squad comms and walked the perimeter of the room herself, getting confirmation down each of the hallways that the building was completely clear.

“Who are you?” Weber asked.

“Are you in charge here, big fellow?” She smiled at him, and when he didn’t answer, she said, “I’d like to talk to whoever’s in charge. Perhaps we could make a deal.”

“We’re not making deals,” Weber said.

“This is Phezzan. Everyone’s here to make a deal, whether they know it or not.” She took a sip of her wine, and then put the glass down. When she slowly stood, Weber raised his axe, but Annerose stepped in, giving him the signal to stand back.

“I thought you were the leader,” the woman said. Annerose didn’t know why, but she allowed the woman to circle her. The eyes of the squad were on them both, and Annerose’s axe was in her hand; if this woman tried anything, she wouldn’t have time to take another breath. But she just walked in a slow circle around Annerose, several inches taller than her in her stilettos. “We should talk in private.”

The woman stopped her circling in front of her, and reached out one finger to run along the edge of Annerose’s axe blade. When her finger reached the top, she pressed down enough to puncture the skin, blood welling to the pinprick injury. It was the first her blade had been wetted all day; she had only swung her axe to chop down doors so far. 

“You’ve wounded me,” the woman said. “How cruel.”

It was curiosity, Annerose thought, nothing but curiosity as to what the woman would say unprompted that had kept Annerose silent and still. But when the woman went to press her bloody fingertip to Annerose’s closed visor, Annerose finally grabbed her wrist to stop her.

“What’s your name?” Annerose asked.

Upon hearing her voice, the woman’s expression changed. There was now curiosity in her eyes, and a new shift in the sultry way she tilted her head, now eyeing the rank insignia near Annerose’s throat. “Dominique Saint-Pierre,” she said. “And may I ask who you are, Commander…?”

Annerose dropped Dominique’s wrist, then, against common sense, unlatched her helmet and took it off, holding it loosely at her side. She met Dominique’s eyes, trying to keep her expression blank. “Annerose von Müsel.”

“We couldn’t have met before, but you look familiar to me,” Dominique said. Her eyes traced Annerose’s face, in a way that made Annerose want to check her hair, the attention making her wonder if something was out of place.

“You must have met my brother,” Annerose said. “He was attached to the High Commissioner’s office.”

“Of course,” Dominique said, but her tone made it clear that she had already known exactly why Annerose looked familiar; she had been playing pretend. She must have an incredible memory for people. “He paid you a compliment, when I spoke with him. He said you were more beautiful than he was. I’m gratified to see that he was telling the truth.”

“Where is Rubinsky?” Annerose asked. She kept her eyes locked on Dominique’s face.

“Do you want to make a deal, Commander?” Dominique asked. “I know where he is, and I’m willing to trade that information.”

“I don’t have the authority to make deals,” Annerose said. “Nor would I want to.”

“Authority, now that’s a funny thing,” Dominique said. “It tends to mean very little, in the moment. If you made a promise to me now, I think your superiors would feel obligated to keep it.”

“Why?” Annerose asked.

“Because if you do not act now, you will never find Adrian.”

“And what kind of promise do you want me to make in exchange for Rubinsky’s location?”

“I would like you to appoint a certain person to be the civilian overseer of Phezzan, whatever that job title ends up being. Our representative among your occupation government, as it were.”

“I don’t have the authority to make that promise,” Annerose said. “And Rubinsky’s location is not worth that much to me.”

“It’s not?” Dominique asked. “I would think it’s worth a great deal.”

“A man who’s running because he does not want to face his people as his country is occupied--”

“Commander, you’re quite naive. He’s sold you out.”

Annerose silently waited for Dominique to explain, continuing to stare at her. Dominique’s smile only curled more hungrily.

“He knew about this plan. I know the plan was that he was going to surrender to you nice and quietly. But he decided he would have more to gain if he warned the Empire of the invasion, helped them evacuate their embassy, allowed them to put their own ships in position outside the corridor… Deal fatal blows to your strategy.”

“With a plan involving so many people, the information was bound to get out,” Annerose said. “It hardly matters if Rubinsky leaked it. We don’t actually need him to sign a surrender.”

“But you’ll want revenge,” Dominique said. “And you can’t have that without him.”

“I’m not the kind of person who needs to take revenge on a man trying to merely save his own skin. Rubinsky is irrelevant, if he’s not here to sign a surrender.”

Dominique’s eyes roved over Annerose’s face, then out the window. “You have ships in orbit, don’t you? Ones that can’t land, but are full of soldiers ready to occupy this planet with more than just the force you’ve brought with you.”

“Thirty thousand ships,” Annerose said.

“They’ll have docked as many as can fit at the top of the elevator, haven’t they? And they’ve pushed out all the merchant freighters to do it. There’s probably soldiers and supplies on their way down now.”

Annerose was silent, but her heart was suddenly pounding. It wouldn’t be unlikely for Reinhard to be in the port at the top of the elevator, or even on his way down with the first batch of soldiers, coming to celebrate her victory. “What are you saying?” she asked.

“Even if not you, someone will want revenge,” Dominique said. “And you shouldn’t be so quick to throw away their chance at it.”

“What’s going to happen at the spaceport?”

Dominique silently pointed out the window behind Annerose. She turned.

The sun was beginning to rise, and the horizon was a pink crescent, the stars now invisible against the lightening sky. The slick glass of the city glittered distantly. 

Annerose had seen the sun rise on Phezzan before. Normally, it caught one edge of the space elevator, making it glow, glittering and golden, with its other side in shadow, until the whole thing had caught the full light of the risen sun. 

Now, crawling down from the sky, the wrong direction to be lit by the sun, and a dripping, angry red, the elevator glowed from within.

“He described it to me,” she said. “He likes to brag, and I’m good at making men talk, if nothing else.”

“What’s happening?” Annerose thought her voice might die in her throat, but the words came out clear anyway.

“It’s a failsafe that was built into the elevator. If it was ever knocked too far out of position, it might come crashing down onto the planet and kill-- oh, I don’t know how many people it would kill. There had to be a way to render it harmless, quickly, in case something like that happened. That’s a chemical reaction-- it’s breaking the polymers that hold the elevator together. And the port itself-- it had a nuclear self-destruct. To prevent an invasion just like this.”

Annerose was transfixed, both by Dominique’s voice at her ear, and by the flaming sword that pierced Phezzan’s sky.

“It’s going to knock out all ground-to-orbit communications, if it hasn’t already. And it’s going to make detection of ships in the debris cloud very difficult, if not impossible.” Dominique let the silence stew for a moment. “Do you want revenge, Commander?”

Annerose closed her eyes, but the image of the burning elevator was seared into them. “Where is Rubinsky?”

“Promise me I’ll get what I want,” Dominique said. Her voice was low and quiet, directly in Annerose’s ear. “And you can have him.”

“You can be the--”

“I don’t want the position,” Dominique said. “I want Rupert Kesselink to have it.”

“Who?”

“Exactly,” she said. “Appoint him.”

Annerose turned away from the window. Her squad was silently watching, though some were looking out the window, their expressions hidden by their visors. “Weber,” Annerose said, and her voice did crack this time. “Can we raise command?”

There was a tense moment of silence as Weber consulted over the local radio with the coordinating group outside. She couldn’t hear the squad coms, her helmet still dangling from her fingertips. “No, ma’am,” he said. “We’ve lost contact with OPS.”

Annerose’s expression hardened, and she slipped her helmet back onto her head, locking it in place. She felt better as soon as Dominique couldn’t see her face anymore, and the hiss and chatter of squad coms were back in her ears. “Where is Rubinsky?” she asked.

“Promise me,” Dominique said. “Rupert Kesselink will be the head of whatever local government you put in place.”

“I promise,” Annerose said.

Dominique smiled. “The Imperial embassy keeps an emergency escape ship registered as a private cruiser at an airfield a couple hundred kilometers south of here. They’ll be waiting for the debris cloud to be thick enough that they can leave the area without being detected. You still have a couple hours to catch them.”

Annerose turned away from Dominique, heading back downstairs. Weber followed her. 

“Do you really intend to give her what she’s asking for?” he asked.

Now, outside of Dominique’s piercing gaze, Annerose could think and answer more clearly. “I don’t have that power,” she said. “She knows that better than I do. But I can get her in front of people who have that power. She’s betting that’s enough.”

Weber nodded. “You trust that this isn’t a trap?”

“Yes,” Annerose said, though she couldn’t say why. “Can we raise Blumhart’s team?”

“We can try. Communications have been--”

“I know. If we can get ahold of him, I want his support for chasing our missing Landesherr. And the Imperial embassy staff. We’re spread too thin, at this point.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And I need you to take a team, find this Kesselink, get him and her” --she jerked her head back towards the room where Dominique was-- “on a shuttle and up into orbit. Give them to Captain von Müsel.”

“Your brother?”

“He’s Trunicht’s appointee,” Annerose said. “And Trunicht is the one who has the ability to make political assignments, or at least the power to pull those strings.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She dismissed him, and Weber hurried to obey. Annerose walked back outside the house, her eyes trained on the disintegrating space elevator that split the sky. Despite the urgency of the situation, she just stood and looked, until one of her men came up to her. 

“Ma’am, we have Commander Blumhart on the line. He’s at the base of the elevator.” He held out a handheld radio.

“Blumhart, what’s your status?”

“Have you looked up into the sky recently?” he asked. “Fuck, Müsel.” He sounded exhausted, even over the weak strains of the radio, interrupted by hisses and crackles of interference.

“Yeah,” she said, looking into the red sky. “ I can see it. What’s Linz’s status?”

“He got a blaster bolt in his shoulder. He’ll be fine, but he’s pissed. The security here was tighter than you had at the capitol, I’ve heard. We just got this place under control, and by then-- Yeah.”

“Don’t think Phezzanis care if you assassinate politicians, but if you disrupt shipping--”

“I guess.”

“I need you to loan me some men,” Annerose said. “As many as you can spare. I’m thin on the ground, but I have some intel about where your missing embassy staff went, and we need to track them down before they escape.”

“Fine,” Blumhart said. “Send the details.”

“Blumhart--”

“Yeah?”

“Nevermind,” she said. 

 


 

A small number of aircraft had come down with the landing party, and Annerose commandeered several to take her and Blumhart’s loaned men to find Rubinsky. These were armed, light planes, with wings that folded up to fit inside the cargo shuttles. They had no information on the airfield other than it showing up on maps of Phezzan, and with communication networks down and the city in chaos, there wasn’t going to be any chance to get any more information, so Annerose had very little with which to brief her men. They took it in stride.

As they flew, the sun rose. Although it was a clear day, without a cloud in sight, the light was muted and strange, grey with the remains of the space elevator drifting into a new tenuous orbit around the planet. She wondered if they would fall down into the atmosphere eventually. The portion of the elevator that was within Phezzan’s atmosphere was drifting away in a grey plume, stretched out like a banner across the sky behind them. Annerose ordered her men to keep their helmets on whenever they were outside. Even upwind of that, she didn’t know what it was made of, and didn’t want any of them to risk breathing it in.

It took about forty minutes for them to reach the airfield that Dominique had named. It  was tiny, and surrounded on all sides by thick forest. It had one runway, without even a control tower, but there was one slick space cruiser tethered at the end of the runway, with people standing guard outside.

There was no preventing them from noticing the approach of the planes. As soon as they saw them, the watching guards ran pell-mell back into the ship, drawing up the ramp. The engine glowed to life.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Annerose said. “Fire on that ship. Do not let it take off.”

The ship was a relatively small passenger vehicle, luxe but light, and it lacked the heavy shielding that military ships had, even if it was financed by the Imperial government. It only took a few shots to cut into the engine chamber, and the ship’s pilot made the wise decision to kill the engine before it exploded under fire. It slumped back down to the ground. Several of Annerose’s men whooped, but Annerose just ordered the pilot to land as quickly as possible.

The fact that they had to land gave the Imperial cohort time to evacuate the ship, or try to, anyway. Some of Annerose’s planes remained in the air, and fired on the cars that the fleeing Imperials ran to, parked just underneath the treeline. They hit a few before they could go far, but a couple managed to get away, losing the tailing planes in the thick forest.

Annerose’s plane landed, and she and her men ran out of the plane, pursuing the Imperial staff who were now trying to escape on foot into the forest. This, at least, did not get many of them very far. 

Annerose saw a familiar-looking man extracting himself from the wreckage of one of the cars that had been trying to escape, the one that had made it about half a kilometer down the narrow road before the plane managed to fire on it. He was clutching his arm and limping as he stumbled out of the passenger seat. When he noticed Annerose sprinting towards him, he tried to pull his sidearm out, but he fumbled with it as he half stumbled, half ran down the road. Annerose tackled him to the ground before he could get off a shot, sending them both heavily down the asphalt.

Muller groaned, and Annerose wrenched the gun from his hand and chucked it into the undergrowth.

“Gods, you couldn’t let a man get away, could you?” he muttered in Imperial, laying limply on the ground beneath her.

Annerose flipped her visor up. “My brother wants a word with you.”

Muller lifted his head to look at her face, then thunked it back down onto the road, closing his eyes. “Müsel,” he said. “I should have fucking known.”

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 b