After the Battle
Finally, for the first time in several days, I was able to get a good night's rest! I woke up in an excellent state of mind, a bit earlier than my alarm clock even, and the first thing I saw next to me was Astra in another transparent night shirt.
"That's a fun tattoo! It's a good picture of Boydur the Hero, even though it's strange to see him on the body of such a stern crown prince, the vanquisher of the diabolical aliens."
I figured out that the Princess was talking about the winged donkey on my shoulder. And yes, I was also bothered by the tattoo. I hadn't stopped thinking about it since my first day in the game. How many times was I ready to sink into the ground when I saw the huge fitness instructor or some serious assault soldiers training in the hall, straining to hold back laughter when looking at my left shoulder?
"An error of my youth," I tried to joke. "I just can't find the time to have it removed or changed into something more appropriate to my status."
"My Prince, you know, I could help you fix it!" Astra suggested unexpectedly. "I'm not bad at drawing, and I could tattoo anything you like on your skin. I've even practiced on Flora already – she has a pretty bouquet of flowers on her back between her shoulders and a phoenix that fell into a spider web on her left leg.
I imagined Mr. G.I.'s reaction seeing, instead of his beloved winged donkey, a grinning skull or a fiery bird flying among the stars on his shoulder, and agreed to have it done just for that. The girl moved closer, allegedly to take a better look at the drawing, but she also tenderly ran her palm over my shoulders and chest, cooing:
"The price of my work is a romantic evening together. Sound good? I spent the whole day yesterday cooped up in here. Your Highness had all kinds of adventures and entertainment: the battle with the aliens, reports to the whole Empire, the assault of a large ship, a conversation with the Emperor... And this whole time I was sitting around here with nothing to do!"
I laughed happily. It was just too unexpected to hear that yesterday, I had not been fearlessly repelling an alien invasion, but was in fact high on the hog having the time of my life. Understanding Astra and her interpretation of reality wasn’t always easy. When the girl tried to caress me again, I tenderly stopped her hand and pulled the Princess to myself:
"I agree to your price. And this is just an advance," I embraced Astra and kissed her on the lips.
The Princess froze in fear for a second, then began returning the kiss. The fact that Bionica opened the door at that very moment with a tray was, well, not very timely.
"Hey, I asked you to knock before coming in to the Crown Prince's room!" Astra said judgmentally.
The android girl said nothing, simply placing the tray with teacups on the table, before closing the door behind her on her way out. I waited a few more seconds to be sure and pulled my playful favorite back to me. We joked around and talked for three minutes, kissing and stroking one another, when suddenly the door opened again.
"Not again! I swear I'll kill her!" Astra whispered, bristling.
However, it was not the android that came into the room, but Katerina ton Mesfelle with a digital tablet in her hands. Astra darted out of the room, covering herself with a big pillow, and went to go get dressed.
"I see I have not come at the best time," my cousin said, instantly appraising the situation. "It's just that your translator told me that you were already awake, so I decided to come down and discuss some issues."
Making a mental note to talk with Bionica, I calmed my cousin down and invited her to a light breakfast. Katerina looked tired, which I told her honestly right then.
"I still haven't gone to sleep. I'm not even done dealing with the consequences of yesterday yet," my assistant laughed, gratefully accepting a mug of energizing drink from my hand. "I talked to all the important people in your name already. The ones you didn't get to anyway. By the way, Georg, you shouldn't have rejected so many calls. The Imperial Space Marshal was there, and the head of the Joint Chiefs, and Duke Takuro royl Andor from the Purple House. They are very important people and are not accustomed to being refused a conversation. I did a pretty good job on damage control though. No one was especially offended. The old Duke was almost brought to tears when he found out that the flagship of Fleet Eight is named Joan the Fatty in honor of his beloved great-granddaughter. So the Purple House offers support to your fleet in the form of experienced officer squads and access to their combat ship market. That last one is very useful to you, by the way, and will allow you to get around the ship embargo Duke Paolo placed on you.
I commended my cousin for the excellent work, though I noted that I would only be able to receive destroyers and frigates from the Purple House. Only they could be disassembled and transported through the Core without breaking any Imperial laws. Unfortunately, the same trick wouldn't work with larger ships. I would only be able to buy those at Sector Eight docks, which were now closed to me – or begin building my own, given enough materials, experienced specialists and orbital docks.
"And another thing: I found some kind of sketchy ‘Sector Eight Fleet Aid Fund,’ which has been collecting funds in the Imperial Core, supposedly for your benefit. I sicked the financial inspectors on them. Let the investigators figure out what kind of fund it is and how much they were able to collect."
I heard my cousin out carefully and expressed for the hundredth time how helpful a decision it had been to bring her over to my side. When I told her, Katerina began to laugh:
"Georg, I've already told you that my defining characteristic is my quick decision making. And it was precisely that characteristic that brought me here. Before you were brought to report to the Emperor again, I carefully studied all the accusations against you and figured out that you would most likely get out of it again. And so I thought: on the one hand, I had the possibility of going pale before the Emperor himself when the accusations inevitably melt away again; or, on the other hand, I could come over to Crown Prince Georg's side, who is quickly gaining in popularity. I chose the second, and that was why I got in touch with you and warned you about the danger. During my conversation with you, I kept trying to think up any reason for you to offer me a job. But it turned out that I didn't have to think anything up. You offered me more than I was expecting to receive all on your own."
We both laughed and agreed that the situation came together quite successfully and our cooperation was beneficial to both of us. Making use of the occasion, I asked the long-ago-unanswered question about what my new assistant was expecting to be paid. Katerina dealt with that issue with surprising indifference:
"Georg, it's up to you. I know you won't insult me, and this job has already paid dividends for me. After all, the most important thing in my line of work is name awareness."
Intrigued, I opened the popup on my cousin:
Katerina ton Mesfelle, speaker of the Sector Eight Fleet
Relation to you: Your second cousin
Achievements: Master of rhetoric, participant in the capture of the alien battleship in the Hnelle system.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +30 (warm)
At first, I got caught up on the part about "participant in the capture of the battleship" and didn't understand right away what she was talking about. Then I looked at her fame and couldn't even believe my eyes. With the series of reports from the attacked Hnelle system, Katerina had been able to raise her fame by seven points in one go! That's what I'm talking about! I wonder what mine looks like. However, when I opened my own characteristics, I was met by something of a disappointment:
Yeah, they had gone up, though not nearly as much as my cousin's. But all the same, I was in quite a good mood.
"Name your price, cousin. How should I pay you? I could offer you a luxurious island with a palace on Unatari, I could give you profit shares from the ice processing facility on Tivalle, or if you prefer the boring way, I could pay you in money."
"I don't need a lot. Any of those would make me happy. What kind of palace are we talking about here?”
I started describing the tropical island with the wonderful palace, many rooms and all that, but I was suddenly interrupted by a whole bouquet of incoming system messages.
Global standing decrease. Current value -15
Standing change. Green House (Empire) opinion of you has worsened.
Present Green House (Empire) faction opinion of you: -31 (opposed)
Standing change. Green House opinion of Orange House has worsened.
Present Green House opinion of Orange House: -7 (mistrust)
Standing change. The Kingdom of Veyerde's opinion of you has improved.
Present Kingdom of Veyerde opinion of you: +5 (warm)
I raised my eyes, perplexed, and saw that Katerina had also clearly been thrown off. She was smiling only with the corners of her mouth and said, not hiding her surprise:
"I just received a strange message. The Green House reduced their opinion of me and the whole Orange House. It can't have taken that long for the news about me switching sides to the Orange House to have reached Duke Amelius royl Mast ton Lavaelle, can it?"
"I don't think you're the reason, cousin. It's just that I also just got my own set of relationship worsening messages from the Green House and at the same time an improvement with the Kingdom of Veyerde. It was probably something connected with Princess Astra again. You were included just for being here and of course as a belated 'thank you' for switching sides to the Orange House.”
Just then a message came in from the officer about a long-distance call from the Kingdom of Veyerde.
"Now we'll get this figured out!" I smiled to Katerina and gave permission for the call.
The monarch, Kant royl Pikar ton Veyerde, was looking especially regal today. With a proud face, a luxurious royal robe and a gold crown on his head, he looked to be at least one of the first in line to the Emperor's throne, and not the ruler of a puny settlement on a remote planet.
"Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle, I'm glad I got the chance to speak with you. I have noticed that your Highness has grown close with Princess Astra, and I am sure that my daughter will do her best to make you keep liking her, and you will not leave her without support in any case. That is why I today, with a light heart, refused Baron Henrik ton Lavaelle and officially broke Princess Astra's engagement with him."
"Yes, I already noticed the Green House's reaction to that," I said with dissatisfaction in my voice.
The King smiled sadly.
"Your Highness may think me out of place and even tactless, but I had my reasons, and I will try to explain. As you perhaps already know from the news, seven hours ago the aliens attacked the Nayal system and cut our star system off from the Empire. The Sector Seven Fleet retreated, and now we're expecting the alien ships to arrive in our system any minute. My mother-in-law, Fesilia, Astra and Flora's grandmother, was a spontaneous Truth Seeker and somehow foretold this tragic day, even naming this very date. And though she wasn't always right in her predictions, I always held this date in mind and tried to have all my daughters out of here, safely in the Empire in any case. Also, my trusted representatives have taken most of the Kingdom's children out under various pretexts. The men are staying to fight. Yes, we are fully aware that there is no chance of rescue, but the soldiers of the Kingdom of Veyerde will fight to the last breath to defend our motherland. My whole fleet, just four old-model frigates are prepared to meet the enemy and die with honor..."
The King froze, clearly listening to a message, then went silent and asked to be put through to his daughter. It wasn't possible to get ahold of Astra. She clearly heard the conversation with her father and was now standing in her room, pale and worried.
"My daughter, the aliens have just arrived in Veyerde. I've been informed about two Hermit destroyers and many flat disks that these invaders carry their landing troops in. This is our last conversation, and there's so much I wish I could tell you... You know how difficult it has been for me to collect dowry for your sisters. After paying for Rosa, Liana and Fialka, there was only forty thousand credits left. Under different circumstances, I would be ashamed at having left such a modest dowry for my daughters, but I simply had no choice. Astra, you are my favorite daughter, but I have nothing to give you other than a father's advice and parting words. And before the enemies cut off the line, I'll rush to give you my final instruction. It would be hard for you to wish for a better patron than his Highness Crown Prince Georg. Help him, hold on to him, find your special place in the Crown Prince's retinue and never give it up to anyone. Remember old Fesilia's prediction. There was a lot about you specifically. I'll leave my crown by the small waterfall, in that little hole where you used to hide your toys from your sisters. And if you ever get back to Veyerde, the symbol of its power will await you.
Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky, I entrust Princess Astra to your guard. And now, your Highness, I mean you no offence, but I need to go to my soldiers."
When I went into the medical wing, I decided not to hide the difficult truth from Flora and honestly told her about my conversation with the monarch. And though Kant had not been a father to her, everyone Flora knew and was friends with lived on Veyerde, and I supposed she would be upset. However, the little paralyzed girl took the news about the alien attack on her home planet with surprising aplomb.
I am indifferent to their fate. Everyone I used to know is left in the far, careless past to which I will already never return. They heard Fesilia's prophecy and knew when the invasion would happen. They could have saved themselves. Those who remained were well aware what they were getting into. I feel no sympathy for them. There’s good news though. Look at the doctor's table.
I turned back to the table that Nicosid Brandt normally worked at. A thin stylus was rolling back and forth on the smooth surface of the table. Then it began spinning like a top, before falling off the table onto the floor. I turned to the paralyzed girl and saw obvious pride in her eyes.
"Flora, the Dark Mother's envoys are coming to Hnelle today. They want to take you for study, find out your capabilities and see if mobility can be returned to your body. They clearly want to know about what happened to you."
I know that they won't be able to help me. But all the same, we need to let them study me so they are sure I'm a lost cause, lose interest, and leave me alone. My Prince, don't worry about the secret getting out. I have constructed mental protection for myself, taking yours as my basis. It's elegant work. Miya thought through everything and was so meticulous with the details that her work inspires admiration. My mind and my memory will remain open for reading, as before. Let a Truth Seeker dig around in my childhood memories as long as they want; they'll find out about my favorite toys, and my relationship with King Kant and his daughters, but no one will be able to read what I really want to keep hidden.
"You were able to figure out Miya's work?" I asked in surprise.
Yes, though it wasn't easy. I'm not sure that someone else would be able to understand it, but Miya and I are now very strongly connected. We are two Truth Seekers of the same master, and I can see characteristic kindred traits that unite our work. Miya is unique. There are no others like her. She has already been serving House Mesfelle for four generations, and it's because her true ability shines through precisely with your family. She has bound her fate so closely with House Mesfelle that she wouldn't be able to live with another master at this point. Such spiritual closeness gives Miya great powers, but also limits her freedom. While your Highness is in the body of the Crown Prince, all you have to do is call her and Miya will appear no matter where she is. You just have to order something, and Miya has to carry it out. Other Truth Seekers aren't so dependent on their master and don't have to obey if they have a difference of opinion. But Miya is so connected with her master that she cannot contradict him. And while you are in that body, Miya is not capable of harming you. That is her biggest secret.
The information was quite valuable. However, I didn't rush to answer the paralyzed girl, as I was distracted by an incoming message:
The Kingdom of Veyerde has lost sovereignty of the Veyerde system.
The Kingdom of Veyerde has ceased to exist.
I rushed into my room and found Astra crying uncontrollably with her face buried in a pillow. I had never been able to calm down an upset girlfriend in the past, so this time I didn't even try. Instead of that, I called the communications officer and asked to be put through to the Sector Seven Fleet Commander. Marat ton Mesfelle answered instantly, as if awaiting my call.
"It hasn't even been five seconds since my fleet came out of warp... to be more accurate, what's left of my fleet. They tore us to shreds in the Nayal system. It was a miracle we got away."
"What happened there in Nayal, Marat?" I wondered.
"It all went to shit, cousin. The aliens appeared just twenty-five miles from my ship. Two Hermits and a Meteor. While we were figuring out what was what, the fleet had already lost three light cruisers, all destroyers and seven frigates. Then there were more horrible losses as we fled the station under heavy fire..."
"Stop, stop. What did you say you did? You were just sitting near the warp beacon?" I asked in surprise.
"Well, it's not like we were just sitting there. The ships were docked at the station, charging energy before the jump to Veyerde. Many of the crews were on the station itself. All they told me was that I just needed to calm down the residents of the Kingdom of Veyerde, who some psycho old lady had predicted an alien invasion to..."
I frowned dissatisfied:
"Marat, try to choose your words more carefully. You're talking about the grandmother of Princess Astra, my favorite, who is here in the room."
"I apologize, I didn't know. Well then, that doubtlessly dignified lady made a bunch of predictions in her life, but they're all so confusing that it's hard to figure them out. One of the most famous, about the invasion of the aliens into the Veyerde system and the fall of the Kingdom – that prediction is different from the others because the sorceress predicted a specific day. The prediction happened long ago, thirty years, but as that date grew closer, the people of the Kingdom began remembering the prophecy more and more, and they got worried. Refugees appeared, and recently they took all the children out to neighboring systems. Rumors about how panic had taken hold in Veyerde even reached the Emperor himself. Even I was sent to figure it out and hold off a possible invasion. We went as fast as possible, and when we were at the second to last system, Nayal, we took a break to recharge our warp drives. I gave the people leave to the station, so they could relax for a couple of hours and blow off steam before the potential upcoming battle. It was then that the aliens attacked my fleet. The only thing we managed to do was shoot down one Meteor, then everyone who was left alive and had the energy went into the warp. Just six ships escaped: my flagship, the battleship Knight of Light, one heavy cruiser, one Yataghan heavy cruiser, two light Thrushes, and two Pyros."
Though I was surprised at what was, in my view, a rushed retreat of the heavy ships from two, not-too-strong enemy destroyers, I didn't make Marat feel guilty for retreating. Probably, like once happened in my fleet at the Vorta beacon, the crews of the remaining ships were in a state of near panic and were simply not able to continue the fight.
"What should I do, Georg? Tell me. You've been in a similar situation!" Marat unexpectedly asked for advice.
"First thing you need to do is calm down and let the teams also get some rest. After that, go over footage of the battle with your officers and find your mistakes. By the way, send me the recordings too. I'm very interested in the aliens' behavior. Maybe I can also notice something and give you some advice. Well, and after that it's clear, restore the fleet. Buy ships to replace those that were destroyed. Differently from me, Duke Paolo hasn't forbidden you from buying ships for your fleet."
"With what money?" Marat ton Mesfelle laughed bitterly. "Two Yataghans to replace those lost is one hundred twenty million credits. Six Thrushes is another thirty, and fifteen million for new frigates and destroyers. One hundred sixty-five million! I don't have that much money, and beating something out of that miser Duke Paolo is just not gonna happen..."
I agreed with my cousin that shaking money from the head of the Orange House’s piggy bank was no trivial matter. Also, I realized fairly quickly that I had found an excellent way of breaking the embargo.
"Marat, it occurs to me that we each have something we can help the other with. I can give you money: four hundred million to buy ships for your fleet. That will allow you to not only compensate all your losses, but also significantly grow in force. In return, you will buy ships for my fleet in your name."
Marat went silent and said thoughtfully:
"Well, I can buy them for you, but how can I get them to Sector Eight? They won't let them through the Core..."
"For now, you just buy what I tell you. Let the teams fill out, the officers get used to the captains, then I'll tell them where to go."
"Georg, if you're planning something against the law like an attack on Perimeter Sector Seven targets or an attempt to power your way through the Core, I will have to refuse you."
Ugh, I didn't want to open maps, but there was no other way.
"Calm down, Marat. I wasn't thinking of doing anything illegal in your zone of responsibility. It's just that, very soon, in three weeks maximum, the Parn warp beacon will be turned on, and it will open a direct route from Sector Seven to Eight. That was how I was planning to get my ships through."
"How do you always know everything, cousin?" Marat asked in surprise. “Well, alright, I'll buy the ships for you, but under one condition. Let's not call it a condition, but a request. When the beacon turns on, help me take back Nayal and Veyerde. Since you have a lot of experience fighting the aliens and such a reputation, the enemy will flee as soon as they even catch wind of your ships."
My second cousin's attempt at flattery was so awkward that I even started laughing.
"Alright, I agree. I'll help you. I need to get my Astra her home planet back."
When the screen went out, I heard Astra's voice:
"Tell me honestly, Georg: could he have won that battle in the Nayal system? Would you have won?"
"Now yes, I would have won, even despite how unexpectedly the attack began. But a month and a half ago, I would have done no better than my cousin. The debacle in Vorta was even more terrible. Don't blame Marat ton Mesfelle. The first encounter with aliens is always like that. You need a deep defeat for a fleet commander to understand that it's all serious and the old methods won't work."
"But that that particular loss came at too high a price to my family... Who am I now? The youngest of fourteen sisters and the only one not married. No home, no people, no kingdom. I'm not even sure that I have the right to use the title 'Princess' anymore, now that the Kingdom of Veyerde no longer exists."
Astra sat gloomily like a raincloud. After that, she gave a decisive start:
"I need paint and canvas. I want to express the feelings I'm experiencing on the destruction of my Kingdom."
Now I've already been sitting for more than an hour in front of a screen, looking over offers from Sector Seven docks. The selection turned out to be sufficiently great, but all the same I ran into financial problems again. I was planning on spending around a billion credits on obtaining ships. On first glance a significant sum, but I really wasn't letting myself go too wild either.
Above all else, I was interested in battleships but, as it were, there weren't any of them in stock. The only option was to buy a Tyrant under construction that would be ready in three months, the price of which was three hundred twenty million credits. I confirmed the order.
Then the heavy cruisers. For some reason, in Sector Seven there was preference given to the rocket-equipped Yataghans. Four such ships disappeared from the list of available ships right before my eyes – clearly it was Marat covering the losses in his fleet. There were two more Yataghans in stock, but I was in no rush to close the deal; rocket ships had no place in my fleet’s battle plan, in that they couldn't deal damage instantly. At first glance, you can see how difficult it would be to take out an alien Sledgehammer with rocket ships. Rockets don't all arrive from the same ship at the same time, and a Sledgehammer's shields would be fully recharged in the time between strikes.
Light cruisers. In stock there were the Thrushes, specialized in electronic warfare; then the also rocket-equipped Whirlwinds; and something called Curses, without rockets or cannons, armed exclusively with drones. There were many Curses ready to go, around forty, but I was cautioned by a note: "Production stopped due to low demand after the introduction of more modern models."
For curiosity’s sake, I read the specs on these ships. The shield was frankly a bit weak, with low durability on a level closer to that of a destroyer than that of a cruiser... However, their high speed, good maneuverability and ability to release thirty-five combat drones at once meant that these light cruisers had a chance to be put to good use. Sure, just one wouldn't amount to much – its drones could be quickly shot down, which would make the ship totally powerless. But what if there wasn't just one such ship in a fleet but forty? One thousand four hundred fast drones – that's a force to be reckoned with. Especially if the drones are "pesky:" fast, durable, and with a sharp bite.
I ordered all forty Curses, all the more so given that they were being sold for three million apiece. I also bought expensive drones for them. I also bought all the Thrushes and improved electronic warfare equipment for my whole fleet.
Frigates. I wasn't fast enough on this one. My second cousin bought everything that was in stock or was expected to be ready in the next few months. All that was left was cloaked frigates with turrets or rocket-bomb cannons. And neither of them were in demand. At their price of fifteen million per ship, clients preferred to buy five cruisers and not just one cloak-capable frigate. In principle, I was also of that opinion and would have preferred cruisers but, because there weren't any, I bought thirty stealth bombers and five turret-equipped cloaked frigates. And on that, there was no more money, and all I could do was console myself with hopes that a fleet of cloakers would be a force powerful in its unexpectedness.
I ordered frigates and destroyers separately with the Purple House. Fifty Pyros, twenty Warhawks, ten Flycatchers, and ten Surgeons. I indicated that they should be delivered to Perimeter Sector Seven to Marat ton Mesfelle's address. I finished all the orders and sent Marat the money, then called Popori de Cacha. However, another chameleon from my bodyguard team appeared instead.
"My Prince, Popori de Cacha is at a farewell ceremony. He has gone with the rest of your bodyguards and the two frigates. They are preparing the bodies of the two soldiers who died in the assault of the alien battleship to be sent back home."
"That means both chameleons died? I didn't know. Though the losses of assault troops, especially in the very beginning of the battle for the Behemoth, were nothing short of gruesome. It wasn’t until later, when the number of entrances shot into the side of the battleship became significant, and the number of assault troops that got inside reached the thousands, that the aliens started to give up positions and the resistance weakened. But in the beginning it was simply hell... Practically no one survived from the first groups, whether human or Alpha-Iseyek. I made myself a note to award medals of honor to the surviving assault troops of the first wave, then asked him to call the head of my security nevertheless.
"Popori de Cacha, I am very unhappy with you!" I sharply declared, just after the image of the chameleon appeared on the screen. "Two heroes have died who served me in faith and truth and defended me from all dangers, and you hid that and didn't even invite me to bid farewell to them, the greatest representatives of your race! If the chameleon mourning ceremony didn't allow the presence of other races, you could have said so, but just keeping quiet is not appropriate! And you could have asked me about sending the bodies to Sss. Do you think I would have refused you?!"
For the second time in my life, I managed to put Popori de Cacha in a state of contemplation. The chameleon pointed both of his eyes at the screen, but my head bodyguard's pupils were covered with an opaque film. The silence went on for fifteen seconds, after which the bipedal lizard awkwardly bent down on one knee.
"My Prince, I am seriously at fault! I completely ignored the fact that the death of security personnel close to you could seriously affect your feelings. Unfortunately, you cannot bid farewell to Ivy-de and Sygi-de. Their bodies have already been cremated in the isolation chamber of Boydur the Hero. But if my Prince could help with delivering the ashes to the planet Sss, the whole Chameleon race would be indebted to your Highness."
"Popori de Cacha, I promise you that the whole Sector Eight Fleet will soon depart for Sss to honor the memory of the two heroes. And for now, my gratitude to the chameleons will be expressed in another way: the crews of Tusk-1 and Tusk-2 will receive more modern ships, either Warhawks or Pyros. Though, considering your race's inborn talents and ability to operate well in invisibility, I would prefer to see your compatriots as the captains and navigators of the cloaked frigates that will soon be arriving."
Standing change. Popori de Cacha's opinion of you has improved.
Presumed personal opinion of you: +67 (trusting)
Standing change. Chameleon race opinion of you has improved.
Chameleon race opinion of you: +10 (trusting)
That time, the popup messages didn't surprise me. I was counting on such a reaction, which is why I only slightly smiled at the confirmation of my hypothesis.
"And one more thing. Popori de Cacha, there is a very big mission that I want to entrust to you and your subordinates. I have been told that a multitude of interesting things have been found on the Behemoth. They will probably be studied by the commission on its way in from the Empire. But Imperial scientists are one thing, and the Orange House and my fleet is something a bit different. It seems fair to me that the soldiers who risked their lives so we could have these valuable artifacts and pieces should also have the right to receive samples of valuable technology. Do you agree with me?"
"Yes, my Prince, that is fair," agreed Popori de Cacha, clearly listening to me very intently.
"Then get your subordinates and visit the Behemoth with them. If you find anything that makes you curious, load it into the ship. I'll give you a freighter for these purposes. I'm especially interested in the alien drones, so that is your priority target. As I was told, the Behemoth didn't use all its drones in the battle, so I really need valuable combat drones. I am also interested in biological specimens, modules and everything you consider necessary. But I'll repeat: I'm especially interested in drones. The mission is secret, and if anyone asks about the goal of your return to the Behemoth, say that you are looking for the remains of your soldiers. Is the mission clear?"
"Yes, my Prince. We'll do it quietly and unnoticed. If needed, I'll even find scientists of my race to study these valuable trophies."
I understood perfectly where the head of my guard was leading. Chameleons would also be very interested in alien technology. In that, our goals aligned perfectly.
"That is precisely what I wanted to offer your race. Chameleons are renowned for their ability to figure out technology and build duplicates. As it were, I have a need of just such an ability. I'll find a remote place where no one will be able to interfere with your research. I'll give you laboratories and all necessary equipment. I'll give you the necessary number of people to help and provide reliable security for the laboratories. Everything that results from the research will belong in equal measure to humanity and the Ravaash race. Later you can call your ambassador, Pandedede-de-Rua, and we can talk with him about all the concrete details of the agreement. And for now, hurry so you'll have time before the Imperial commission arrives."
I dined in the company of Kiro Sabuto and several ship officers, discussing present affairs and periodically reminiscing about yesterday's battle. We were talking about when the two Sledgehammers were firing on Joan the Fatty.
"My Prince, would you not consider the option of transferring the fleet headquarters to a more appropriate and resilient ship?" asked the graying Major Anarip ton Dyme, responsible for the cruiser's electric systems and the coordination of shield recharging connections in combat. "We were practically destroyed, after all. It was a miracle we got away. And then there wouldn't have been anyone in charge, and the whole fleet would have fallen apart..."
"No, the fleet wouldn't have fallen apart. Admiral Kheraisss Vej would have taken over command and led us to victory," Kiro Sabuto disagreed. "Though it is true that the Fatty barely escaped yesterday."
Everyone looked at me inquisitively. I then smiled self-consciously:
"Yes, that really was a close call. I was basically counting on destroying one of the two enemies, then we would take out the second. We could be recharged by nine cruisers and the Surgeon. In ideal conditions, there shouldn't have been any complications. But the fact that the shield barely made it through one Sledgehammer strike... It looks like we still have work to do on fleet cohesion. The ships 'healing' us took too long to figure out what was going on and turn their attention from Bride of Chaos to the Fatty. And that delay practically became fatal."
"I have gone over the timing of the events," Nicole Savoia said, not raising her eyes. "It only took us two and a half seconds from the strike to start healing."
Everyone went silent, mulling over what they'd heard.
"So, what do you say about moving to a stronger flagship?" Anarip ton Dyme repeated his question.
"I don't especially see the point of temporarily transferring the headquarters to Bride of Chaos. The Uukresh will become our new flagship when it's done," I said, revealing my plans to my subjects for the first time.
Kiro Sabuto took a look around and, after making sure that the team members eating at the tables next to ours wouldn't overhear our conversation, lowered his voice to a whisper:
"My Prince, I heard there were difficulties with its repair, like there aren't enough materials?"
"There's a lot that there isn't enough of," I agreed, also speaking in a whisper. "We need very high-capacity energy batteries, a thousand tons of armor panels made of special alloys for the chassis, heavy energy neutralizers, shield recharging modules, both for the Uukresh itself and neighboring ships... Almost all the necessary equipment has already been ordered in the Core, but there have been troubles with its delivery. Some freight forwarders are complaining that the Orange House Customs Service isn't letting starships with materials for us through, either holding them up at Ulia or turning them back altogether. In particular, they didn't let through equipment for the heavy cruisers we captured in Hnelle and Himora. That is why I don't want to risk expensive equipment for the Uukresh and am trying to solve the problem of how to reliably get goods transported to us at the moment."
We continued to eat in peace and converse. Everything was normal, when suddenly...
Global standing decrease. Current value -16
Standing change. Green House (Empire) opinion of you has worsened.
Present Green House (Empire) faction opinion of you: -32 (opposed)
Standing change. Empire Artist faction opinion of you has worsened.
Present Empire Artist faction opinion of you: +4 (indifferent)
Global standing decrease. Current value -17
Global standing decrease. Current value -18
Standing change. Red House (Empire) opinion of you has worsened.
Present Red House (Empire) faction opinion of you: -2 (indifferent)
Global standing decrease. Current value -19
Standing change. Empire Financier faction opinion of you has worsened.
Present Empire Financier faction opinion of you: +1 (indifferent)
Global standing decrease. Current value -20
What a damn gift basket! What did that come to me for? What did I do wrong? I looked at my dining partners worried and alarmed, but they were still talking about the previous topic like nothing had happened, making fun of the silent communications officer who had tried to hang up on the Dark Mother yesterday. After a few seconds, I realized my companions had simply not seen any of these messages, given that all the information was only related to me there. All the same, I was put on edge by the intensity and coordination of the informational attack made against me. Having all of them come in at once definitely couldn't have been a coincidence.
"My Prince, incoming call from the head of the Orange House, Duke Paolo royl Anjer ton Mesfelle," I was told from the headquarters.
I looked around. It wasn't good to go into a conversation with such a powerful man blind, not able to see his face, but there weren't any video screens in the dining area. I asked for a few minutes and headed for the fleet headquarters. An image appeared on the big screen, and I saw Duke Paolo on the backdrop of some kind of huge hall, which was totally packed with people. Thousands and thousands of people, most clothed in the colors of the Orange House, were occupying all the seats, and I couldn't see even one free spot.
"Greetings, Duke Paolo royl Anjer." As the junior in title, I greeted him first and, as demanded by courtly etiquette, gave a slight bow to one of the highest aristocrats in the Empire.
"Georg, the people gathered in the hall are representatives of all different levels of society from the star systems of Perimeter Sectors Seven, Eight, and Nine, and they have entrusted me, as head of the Orange House, with offering you a peaceful end to the conflict. I have named eight conditions that you must carry out to end the confrontation, and the representatives of the star systems of the Orange House have unanimously supported them. And now I officially ask you: do you agree to all of them?"
I laughed in reply:
"Duke Paolo, you can't be serious supposing that I don't have more important things to do than watch the broadcast of your meeting, can you? No, I'm not joking, I'm really stricken. Yesterday, there was a most serious alien invasion in Hnelle, which my soldiers were barely able to stop. Today, the aliens captured the Nayal and Veyerde systems in Sector Seven, and you have yet to even take the pains to ask the person in charge of its defense what has happened! I swear, if you were my subject, I would've long ago given you the wall for incompetency and sabotage! Instead of doing what you're supposed to and supporting the defensive capability of the territory you've been entrusted with, you are doing jack all! And I'm not even talking about how your avarice, Duke Paolo royl Anjer, has led to a chronic lack of financing for the fleets and has served as a reason for the terrible losses in the battles with the aliens. A month ago, you, in the presence of Emperor August himself, promised one hundred fifty million to support my fleet. Where is this money, I ask you?! Duke Paolo, you have deceived the Emperor himself! Such actions are qualified as state treason. There's no way around it."
"Don't forget, I gave you ships, Georg!" the Duke answered me in a slightly cracking voice.
I laughed again.
"Fifteen frigates without crew?! The value of this ‘aid’ was three million credits. Where are the other one hundred forty-seven million in ships?! Instead of doing what you promised, you did the opposite and tried to rob me of systems I earned justly! Is that your true aid to the fleet?"
"Crown Prince Georg, you're forgetting your place!" the Duke sharply interrupted me. "I want to hear a concise answer: do you agree to peace on the terms set forth by the Orange House?"
"It would seem I've already explained to you that I didn't watch the broadcast, so I have no idea what you got up to there, behind my back. Tell me the whole list, and I'll answer your question."
The Duke exchanged glances with someone I couldn't see, gave a heavy sigh, and began reading the text.
"First condition: give the Tivalle and Sigur systems to the individuals appointed by the Orange House. Second condition: return Peres ton Mesfelle his illegally captured ships. Third condition: compensate Peres ton Mesfelle for his unlawful resignation. Fourth condition: return the warp beacon transportation network to working order. Fifth condition: until the extent of your illegal activities has been determined by an Orange House court, transfer control of your fleet to a court-appointed commander. Sixth condition: ask official forgiveness of all Green House individuals who suffered and pay out their requested compensation. Seventh condition: the Iseyek ships are to be returned to Swarm territory. Eighth condition: official resignation from power, though if the first seven points are immediately carried out, the council will not insist on the eight point. Georg, the conditions we have offered are more than fair. You keep your title and the rich Unatari system, and if the court finds in your favor, your fleet will also be returned to you."
Silence took over in the hall. Everyone froze, waiting for my decision. I couldn't understand: were they really counting on the idea that I would agree to these idiotic conditions?
"Are you kidding? Maybe you'd also like me to shave myself hairless, put on a tutu and dance a jig on a nuclear launch pad? No? Well then, attention to everyone in the hall. I have the official right, given by Emperor August himself, to undertake any actions to come to peace with the Orange House within one hundred days. I repeat once again for the dumbest among you: ANY actions. If what I have to do to make peace is wipe the face of the Orange House Capital clean, or resettle half the population of Ulia in labor camps mining for radioactive ore on Sss – I'll do just that, and my actions will be declared fully legal. I hope such radical steps won't be necessary, but just be aware that I do have the legal right to undertake such actions."
Agitation could be heard in the hall. The people were clearly taking my information into account. I then continued:
"Now I will speak specifically to the representatives of Sectors Eight and Nine. You can't have already forgotten what the Swarm is, can you? Have you forgotten why Sivala, Forepost-4, Aiwe, Forepost-12, Forepost-13 and Vorta are totally depopulated? I see that you haven't. So, know that the Swarm has given me five billion Alpha-Iseyek landing soldiers ready for battle for the Sector Eight Army, which I already know how to lead and what to feed. The aliens thirst for battle. They are hungry and want to eat. The Iseyek consider human meat a high-calorie food and would just love to be able to attack a human planet. In one day’s time, two at most, there could be praying mantis landing modules falling from the sky above your planet. My will is the only thing standing between your planets and devastation. And you still dare provoke me with these conditions? No, are you serious?"
The buzz in the hall grew deafening. I raised my hand, calling for quiet.
"I haven't finished yet. Now I suggest we talk about the aliens – the aggressive, powerful race that is more technologically advanced than humanity. The Sector Eight Fleet is the most battle-ready combat division in the Empire, and I suppose it is the only one capable of really repelling an alien attack. I'm not sure what body part you were thinking with when you unanimously signed under these mindless ideas of the Duke's to disband my fleet, split it up or give it to another commander who has never even seen an alien with his eyes before. If it hadn't been for my soldiers stopping the alien invasion at Vorta or in Hnelle, the star systems of Li, Tesse, Unatari, Himora, Tialla, Fastel and even the Orange House Capital would already be lost to humanity. Remember who saved the lives of the inhabitants of these systems and show at least a shred of decency and justice to the soldiers who gave their own lives to stop the invasion.
And finally, my peace conditions. I will name these conditions just one time, and anyone who doesn't have time to write them down will have only themselves to blame. No, I am not preparing to demand that Duke Paolo royl Anjer, who was caught stealing red handed and is losing his connection to reality, resign. Just as I didn't demand his son's resignation. Peres wanted to leave politics all on his own. No one forced him to do that. I'm demanding something else entirely: support for the fleets that defend you and your families. Inhabitants of Sector Seven, Commander Marat ton Mesfelle needs your support like never before! His fleet is in a difficult position after the defeat in the Nayal system. I even had to give personal funds to Marat ton Mesfelle to buy ships, as it would seem that Duke Paolo totally forgot who was defending the Orange House's systems. Inhabitants of Sector Nine, you have a wonderful, talented warrior, Svetlana ton Mesfelle, who Duke Paolo also stopped supporting long ago, instead pocketing the tax funds that were earmarked for fleet upkeep. To the representatives of Sector Eight, I would appreciate your help, but in general I just ask that you not stop me from doing my job. Anyone who to support the blockade against my fleet will automatically become my enemy and an enemy of Emperor August, and enemies of the Emperor must be destroyed under Imperial law. I give you twenty-four hours to remove the blockades and other restrictions against my fleet. After that time is up, whoever hasn't accepted my peace offer will be destroyed. And that's all I have to say."
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