Chapter Seven

Imperium Primus, Orbital Stardock

Cassius Decimus, high admiral of the Imperial Navy and strong right hand of His August Majesty, Verus Licinius, strode into the command center with posture rigid and hands folded behind his back. His guards, marines in the sleek armor of the legions with blast rifles held at the ready, took up their positions beside the door while the admiral himself stepped forward into the center of the room. All around him, officers leapt from their workstations and snapped to salute with fists over their hearts; Decimus made no obvious response, regarding them impassively. It was good to make them sweat for a while, he thought, to remind them that his every word and gesture was their law. Discipline and order; the Empire was built on these things. Soon it would be time to remind the rest of humanity of that simple fact.

Finally, he nodded. "At ease," he said, permitting the officers to return to their seats. He turned to face the only one who remained standing, a sharp-featured woman in her early thirties whose uniform marked her as holding a rank only slightly inferior to Decimus's own. She was young for such a position, but she was ambitious, capable, and ruthless; in the Empire, those qualities could carry one far. "Vice-Admiral," Decimus snapped. "Report. What is our current status?"

Veradis Quintius, commander of the military shipyards that orbited Imperium Primus and, for the moment, Decimus's second-in-command, saluted sharply. "The work goes well, my lord," she said. "The damage our ships sustained at Bahrina has been repaired; the armada once again stands at full strength."

"Excellent," Decimus said, smiling tightly. "I am pleased with your efficiency, Vice-Admiral, and the Emperor will be pleased as well when I report your progress to him. He has longed for this war for two decades; we shall deliver it to him – and deliver him victory." He paused for a long moment. "And what of the… modifications we spoke of earlier? Do they proceed?"

"They do, my lord," Quintius said, though her voice betrayed her doubts. "The weapons are not yet operational, but they are being installed as we speak. However, begging the admiral's pardon, I do not see the need. I have studied the military capabilities of the Dozen Stars in detail, and by my estimation, the armada as it stands is more than capable of subduing it. These upstarts do not have the strength of the Alaelam Alliance to oppose us."

"Your analysis is not incorrect, Vice-Admiral," Decimus said. "But you miss a number of crucial facts. For one, to war with the Dozen Stars is to war with Realtran; their two nations' fates have been entwined from the beginning, and they will stand or fall together. We face not one foe, but two – and that is not counting the Alaelam. They were defeated but not destroyed. I for one doubt we have seen the last of them, and they will strike where we least expect it. But, more importantly, we do as our Emperor wills – and what he wills is that the Dozen Stars be not simply defeated but crushed utterly, to serve as an example to all others who would dare defy his rule. It was by blood that this Empire was built until it encompassed all the stars; it is by blood that we shall rebuild it. Do you understand me, Vice-Admiral?"

"Of course, my lord," Quintius said, saluting again. "Your will be done."

"Not my will, Vice-Admiral," Decimus said quietly. "The Emperor's will; I am merely his instrument. Do not ever forget that." Turning away from Quintius, he walked across the room to the viewport that dominated the far wall and stared out into the blackness of space. Imperium Primus hung below them, a great orb that from this distance was mostly of silver, save for the occasional patches of blue or green. Decimus's gaze, however, was drawn away from the world of his birth, the throneworld of what he intended to see made once again the United Empire of Humankind in truth as well as in name, and up to the shipyards that curved away out of sight, a great semicircular ring of metal.

Warships were docked along its length, having their repairs completed and the modifications which the Emperor had demanded installed. Only the closest of these was near enough that Decimus could make out its features, but his chest swelled with pride at the sight. Spear of Caelus was his personal command, the flagship of the mighty Imperial armada; it was a Deceres-class battle cruiser, named for a type of seagoing warship from Lost Terra, and was more than twice the size of any of the Equestrian battleships so favored by the Dozen Stars. Decimus could say with pride that the Spear had never been defeated in battle while he commanded her.

Which was not to say that there was not room for the mighty vessel to be improved. Even from this distance, Decimus fancied he could see the sparks flickering along the hull where the service mechs worked, installing the new cannons that had been built according to the Emperor's specifications. Decimus didn't know where his sovereign had gotten the designs; Verus Licinius was many things, but he was not, so far as the admiral knew, an engineer. Some of the scientists who had worked with the plans thought the style was old, and yet seemed more advanced than anything the Empire fielded today; perhaps they had been scavenged from the fall of the Third Republic and kept hidden by the Empire's archivists until they were needed. The engineers assured Decimus, however, that the new cannons would have a greatly increased range and could punch through all but the strongest shields – and that when they impacted, they would emit an energy pulse that could incapacitate the abilities of even the strongest Adept, so long as they were nearby.

Decimus frowned at the thought; this particular effect of the weapons made him wonder if the designs were not from the Third Republic at all, but had been provided by the Alaelam renegade, Al'Aymar Alaen. The admiral revered Verus Licinius, but he could not say the same for the Emperor's counselor; he did not trust Alaelam, and he did not trust turncoats or Adepts, and Alaen was all three of those unfortunate things. Not for Cassius Decimus were the mutterings of mystics or the schemes of traitors; he put his faith in strategy, in the strength of arms, and in the might of the Empire. He knew that many of the Imperial elite paid lip-service to the Imperial Cult while quietly scoffing at it behind closed doors, but Decimus was a believer; he had been one ever since he had graduated from the officers' schola and Licinius himself, then newly-crowned, had come to speak at the ceremony. Even then, he had realized that this man truly was the anointed ruler of all humanity – and that it was Decimus's destiny to lead the conquering fleet that would make that rule a reality. Though his family was obscure, not one of the great and influential patrician gentes, this sense of implacable purpose had carried Decimus far and, ultimately, into the highest seats of power.

Now, it would carry him to victory over the Dozen Stars, and to the realization of the destiny he had foreseen so long ago.

"You have done well," he finally said, turning away from the viewport and back to Vice-Admiral Quintius. "I must leave shortly and return to the planet; the Emperor will attend the games this afternoon and expects me to be there with him. Complete our preparations, Vice-Admiral. For soon, our fleet must be ready to launch – to the Dozen Stars, to war, and to victory."

"Understood, my lord," Quintius said, saluting again; the cold light in her eyes mirrored that which Decimus knew must surely be in his own.

/

The thunderous noise of the arena greeted Publius Vedrans Quarinis as he stepped into the Emperor's private box. Even as high in the stands as they were, in a box protected from the press of the crowds by the faint shimmer of a forcefield, the sheer immensity of the great stadium could be overwhelming, and today it was full to the brim. Always a popular national pastime, today the arena was to host the last games before the armada was launched and the Empire went to war with the Dozen Stars. Everyone who could manage to get tickets were here, and most of those who couldn't were probably watching on holo.

Quarinis stepped forward until he reached the front row of seats, pausing briefly to incline his head in a gesture of respect to the towering praetorians who stood guard at the box's corners. The Emperor was already there, of course; Licinius sat in the center of the front row, hands folded in front of him as he pensively regarded the arena floor far below, waiting for the sport to begin. Admiral Decimus, recently arrived from orbit, sat at his right hand, immaculate as ever in his stiff uniform; as usual, his thin face was unsmiling, but his eyes were almost feverishly bright, as if the fervor behind them was just waiting to be unleashed. Quarinis didn't much care for Decimus, but he respected the man's skills at his chosen profession. They exchanged a nod as he took his seat on the admiral's other side. Glancing over, he saw that Al'Aymar Alaen was seated at the Emperor's left. As ever, his expression was unreadable behind his heavy mask and robes, but his posture gave an unmistakable sense of disapproval. Well, that was nothing new; as a member of the Emperor's entourage, Alaen was often required to attend the arena whenever Licinius did, but he made no secret of the fact that he considered it barbaric.

Well, Quarinis didn't suppose he could blame him for that; he had little appetite for bloodshed for its own sake, and generally found the arena tedious at best, but he had learned to tolerate it. A patrician of his rank was expected to follow the games and be able to converse intelligently about them, and so Quarinis did. Adjusting his position in his seat, he leaned forward to get a better look at the arena floor far below them. It could be modified to simulate a variety of different terrains to offer distinct challenges or even facilitate the reenactment of famous historical battles, but today it was in one of its default configurations, an open, sandy plain. Well, that made it less likely any of today's matches would be particularly interesting, but Quarinis could endure it for a few hours…

He was shaken from his thoughts suddenly as someone slapped him heartily on the back. "Publius, old boy!" a deep, jovial voice boomed. "Fancy seeing you here, eh?"

Quarinis knew that voice almost as well as he knew his own. Sighing, he straightened up and turned to face the speaker. "Tertius," he said flatly. "I wasn't aware you'd be joining us today. I trust you are well, brother?"

Tertius Quarinis laughed. He was a big man, as tall as his younger brother but much broader in the shoulders – not to mention broad across the stomach, Quarinis noted; broader than he had been last time they'd spoken. It seemed life on Imperium Primus agreed with Tertius. A year Publius's senior, Tertius had succeeded to Gens Quarinis's senate seat after their father had retired and held it ever since – he wore his white senatorial toga with aplomb. Though the family resemblance was there if one searched for it, Tertius's face was round rather than severe, and though his hair, like his brother's, had gone white, he also wore a short, neatly trimmed goatee. Quarinis frowned at that; in the Dozen Stars most men wore some form of facial hair, but in the Empire, it was generally considered crass and most men, especially patricians, went clean-shaven. Not that Senator Tertius Quarinis had ever allowed being considered crass to stop him from doing anything.

"Life's been treating me well enough these days," Tertius said, slapping his belly as if to underscore that point. "Can't believe His Majesty managed to get you back out here after all those years in the Dozen Stars! Did I hear you managed to kill off their new queen already? Or was that the old one? I can never keep track!" He threw back his head and laughed again. Quarinis frowned at him and massaged his temple. This was going to be a very long afternoon after all.

"Queen Artakane was alive and well last I heard," he said. "And I implore you, brother, please refrain from announcing state secrets in the middle of a public place. It sets a bad precedent."

"Lighten up, Publius!" Tertius said, taking the empty seat on his brother's right; as one of the longest-serving and best-connected members of the senate, his rank entitled him to certain privileges – such as sitting in the Emperor's box at the arena. "You're always so serious – you need to relax a little. Here, have some wine!" Tertius waved to a serving mech and it floated over; it was carrying a tray laden with a large bottle, several glasses, and a selection of snacks.

"No thank you, Tertius," Quarinis said. "But feel free to have some yourself; don't hold back on my account." If Tertius was eating or drinking, he'd be less likely to be talking, which would in turn be a great relief to his brother's state of mind. Quarinis knew full well that, despite appearances, Tertius was no fool – a man didn't last as long as he had in the senate if he was. That said, Tertius Quarinis had to be taken in small doses and at particular times, and for the moment, Publius wasn't in the mood.

Tertius shrugged and gestured for the mech to pour him a glass of the wine; as he was doing so, Verus Licinius suddenly stood and raised his hand; the crowds across the arena fell silent as a towering holo of the Emperor was projected above the center of the stadium. "My people," he declared. "Today, we stand upon the brink of destiny. One enemy has been crushed; soon, another shall be brought to heel. A new age is dawning – and it shall be our age! We go once again to war, and we shall be victorious! But for today – let the games begin!"

A thunderous roar of applause greeted the Emperor's words; as Licinius took his seat again, carefully hidden doors on either side of the arena floor opened and two massive mechs rumbled onto the field. One floated above the ground, a gleaming metal sphere that trailed a dozen twisting arms below it like some monstrous mechanical jellyfish; the other was heavily plated with armor and huddled close to the ground on a pair of tracks but bristled with weapons. Quarinis leaned forward, interested now. Some people had little interest in battles between mechs, feeling that they lacked the passion and human element of a duel of gladiators, but Quarinis had always preferred them. The battle wasn't really between the mechs, he understood, but between the engineers who designed and outfitted them. What weaponry and clever technological trickery would they use to try and anticipate and counter their enemy's moves? To Quarinis's mind, there was an artistry in that which living gladiators often lacked.

After a lengthy struggle, the tentacled mech prevailed, managing to take apart the tracked mech's armor with careful applications of fusion cutters on the ends of its arms and then disabling its internal motor. After that, another bout began, and then another, and another, mechs and beasts and gladiators fighting one another for glory, exorbitant prize money, and the entertainment of the masses. Contrary to the stereotypes in the Dozen Stars and elsewhere, while mechs were destroyed and animals killed, human gladiators rarely perished – a good gladiator was expensive to train and equip, whether slave or free, and their sponsors and masters were loath to throw such an investment away. But then, there were always times when accidents did happen, and when one downed gladiator was taken from the field, heavily bleeding from an accidental wound, the cheering of the crowd was louder than at any other point in the day.

Finally, the games drew to close, and the last event of the day began. The detritus from the last match was cleared away and six praetorians, their armored chassis painted a deep black, marched into the center of the arena; each of them held a giant electro-axe in one hand, and in the other clutched the bound and struggling form of a man or woman. Holos flashed the faces of each of the prisoners across the stands and their captions described what each of them had been found guilty of. These six had been captured together; their crime was sedition and plotting to undermine the Imperial throne.

The holocams turned back towards the Emperor's box, and suddenly Licinius's image was once again projected across the arena. Those who had committed crimes against the state were often executed at games such as these, but the Emperor reserved the right to pardon the accused at any point. Often, he did so in a demonstration of his mercy and benevolence, though those who were not properly appreciative of such a gesture were liable to find themselves spared death only to be thrown back into prison for the remainder of their lives. Today, however, Quarinis doubted any such mercy would be forthcoming.

He was correct. Licinius leaned forward, seeming to study the prisoners for a long moment, though he had no doubt already made up his mind. Then, silently, he raised his right hand and made a fist with the thumb pointed down.

Beside Quarinis, Tertius winced sympathetically and closed his eyes. The former ambassador, however, did not look away as the praetorians cast the prisoners, some sobbing, some defiant, to the ground in front of them and raised their axes. The weapons flared to life as they were energized, and then they came down. Six traitorous heads were struck from their shoulders, to the roared approval of the crowd.

Quarinis didn't look away, but from the corner of his eye, he thought he could saw Al'Aymar Alaen quietly rise to his feet and slip out of the box, and a part of him wondered what that might mean.

/

It was not disgust at the deaths that inspired Alaen's departure. He disdained the Imperial brutality – not least because, centuries ago, the great Matari had died in such a fashion, in an arena much like this one – but he had long since grown accustomed to it. He would pay any price in blood to take back what was rightfully his; only then would he turn his attentions to ensuring that his erstwhile allies got the justice they deserved.

No, throughout the games, he had felt a prickling awareness growing on his mind, a sense of being watched. He knew what it meant – another Adept was attempting to spy on him, or someone nearby, likely the Emperor himself. He didn't know if Licinius had noticed; the Emperor had seemed so intent on the executions below that he might well not have. But Alaen did, and he suspected that this must be the same person his students had warned him of.

Ducking into a passage behind the Emperor's box, where it was currently empty and quiet, he focused his will, attempting to seize upon the questing senses of the intruding Adept and determine just who they might be. For a moment, he thought he had them – and then they slipped away, leaving behind nothing but a faint sensation that called to mind the distant sound of mocking laughter. Alaen frowned behind his mask. Yes, they were skilled, whoever they might be. And Amaru was right – the feeling of this new Adept's mind was Alaelam. Not Midaia ast Carann, then, or the so-called "Professor", Shiran. Certainly not the young queen, Artakane. No, this was someone from the Alliance – not someone Alaen knew, but then, he had been gone for decades. The Conclave had new members now, men and women he'd never met face to face. Perhaps this was one.

In any case, he was watching for them now. And when they showed themselves again, he would have them. And then he would learn just who they were, and what their interest portended.