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Authors: David Drake,Roger MacBride Allen

The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III

BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
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DAVID DRAKE

THE WAR MACHINE

ROGER MACBRIDE ALLEN

CRISIS OF EMPIRE III

Other Baen Titles by the Authors

Roger MacBride Allen

The Torch of Honor

Rogue Powers

Orphan of Creation

Farside Cannon

David Drake

Hammer’s Slammers

At Any Price

Counting the Cost

Ranks of Bronze

Time Safari

Lacey and His Friends

Vettius and His Friends

Men Hunting Things
(editor)

Things Hunting Men
(editor)

Crisis of Empire
Series:

An Honorable Defense
(with Thomas T. Thomas)

Cluster Command
(with W.C. Dietz)

THE WAR MACHINE: CRISIS OF EMPIRE III

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 1989 by David Drake and Roger MacBride Allen

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

260 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10001

ISBN: 0-671-69845-1

Cover art by Paul Alexander

First printing, November 1989

Distributed by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, N.Y. 10020

Printed in the United States of America

To Jim Baen,

Founder of the Feast

Chapter One
Loss

“Face facts, Spencer. She’s gone. We’ve taken her away from you—and
you
away from her.” The Kona Tatsu officer was weary, and there was a sour note in his voice. “Sign the paper and be done with it.”

Commander Allison Spencer sat behind his desk, drawing back from both the Kona Tatsu man and the divorce agreement that sat on the desk blotter. Spencer didn’t even want to touch the paper. It was too like the man who brought it: ordinary looking, harmless in appearance; yet full of threat and danger, made strong by secrets and conspiracies.

Commander Spencer looked at the secret policeman and felt his own throat go dry, felt fear make the blood pounding in his temples. Al Spencer was a brave man, a good intelligence officer, cool in the face of danger—but only fools were never afraid, and even fools knew to be afraid of the Kona Tatsu.

The secret policeman seemed to have judged that his victim was not going to speak. “You and your wife are as lost to each other as if we had shot one or both of you dead,” he said. “And, I might add that we need
her
—but we don’t need you. While it would be inconvenient for us to kill your wife—or rather your
former
wife—there would be no such inconvenience if we killed
you.
Indeed, I am carrying written authorization to shoot you dead here and now should you fail to cooperate. Need I add it scarcely matters to me which it is to be? Sign or die. Now.”

Spencer found himself staring fixedly at the divorce agreement as if it were some loathsome creature, and he was watching it in helpless, horrified fascination as it gnawed at his own vitals. He could do nothing, nothing at all against the words on that paper.

This morning, two hours ago, he had given Bethany a casual kiss goodbye as he left for another routine day of flying a desk at headquarters. And now—he clamped his hands around the arms of his chair and fought for control.

“May I know the reason for the divorce?” Spencer asked at last, in as even a voice as he could manage. “Am I charged with a crime? Or is it permitted for me to know?”

The nameless secret policeman sighed and seemed to give in just a bit. “It makes no difference. The facts will all be public soon enough. Indeed, the whole point was to make them public. No one is charged with anything but being who they are. You are charged with being nobody, and found guilty. Your former wife, Bethany Windsor, is found guilty of being Anthony Hildebrant Windsor’s niece and his closest living relative. That same uncle of hers, Anthony Windsor, is the new Governor of Harmony Cluster. General Anson Merikur, the new military commander of Harmony—”

“Merikur? He’s no general; he’s just a naval commander. What the devil does Merikur have to do with . . .” Spencer began, but the answer came to him before he could complete the question. From a political view it made perfect sense. “Oh my God.”

“As I was about to say,” the Kona Tatsu man went on dryly,
“General
Merikur has taken not only a new rank and command in his new service but, as of an hour ago, he has also taken a fiancée. That fiancée is the niece of the newly appointed Governor, as a matter of fact. Bethany Windsor—that is to say, the former Bethany Spencer—was taken aboard Governor-select Windsor’s ship soon after you left her at home this morning. She has already signed her copy of the divorce paper—under protest, if that’s any comfort. She will be married to Merikur as soon as possible.”

“So Merikur has stolen my wife to get himself into the ruling family,” Spencer said quietly. His tone of voice was deceptively low and calm. His fear and shock were already swinging around, transmuting themselves into anger.

His visitor interrupted firmly. “No, he did not. I might as well shoot you dead now and save my office the trouble of arresting you for treason later on, if you believe
that.”
Spencer looked up to see the other’s eyes boring deep into his own.

“You are thinking murder and treason
already.
I can see it,” his visitor went on. “Let me assure you that you would be dead long before you could commit it. For what comfort it may be,
none
of the persons involved were consulted as to these matters. Not you, not Merikur, not his bride-to-be. Merikur has never even met Bethany Windsor.” The Kona Tatsu man’s voice lowered, became almost gentle, kindly. “Sign the paper. Sign the paper and live. Sign and salvage something of your life and career.”

It was the High Secretary’s plan, then, Spencer concluded. No one else could possibly be powerful enough to order about Senators and Generals. Spencer shut his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Spencer was a member of the High Secretary’s Guard, sworn to defend the High Secretary in any and every way, against every enemy from any quarter, unquestioningly, at the cost of his life, if need be. And this was reward for his taking that oath.

Spencer opened his eyes, looked at his visitor, and looked down to stare again at the paper. Trapped. There was nothing he could do. He had no option at all. With a savage curse, he snatched up a pen, grabbed at the paper, and scribbled his name across it. He stamped his thumb on the fingerprint block, hard enough so his thumb hurt. He shoved the paper back across the desk. “Get out,” he said.

The Kona Tatsu man folded the paper and slipped it back into his jacket pocket. Spencer forced himself to watch the man go. The secret policeman stood, and his face betrayed something at last, an expression of faint distaste. Whether it was the job he was doing that he disliked, or Spencer’s lack of discipline, Spencer neither knew or cared.

If the KT man had drawn a weapon and blown a hole in Spencer at that moment, Spencer wouldn’t have much cared about
that,
either.

Spencer watched the nameless man go, and sat motionless, staring at the door, long after he was alone. His whole life, his happy, settled, ordered world had been uprooted, crushed, tossed aside, for the sake of some imagined and momentary political advantage.

Incredible that a single flick of a single pen from a single man so far away could do so much so abruptly.

The High Secretary, the
de facto
if not
de jure
Emperor of all the worlds of the Pact, chooses to move a few of the pawns about the gameboard. An assistant prepares the appropriate written orders, the High Secretary scribbles his signature and thus commands the move without half a moment’s thought.

There is no need to consult the pawns.

A word, a gesture, from the High Secretary was enough to send the Kona Tatsu itself scampering, enough (for the moment, and in this case, anyway) to force Merikur and Senator Windsor to accede to the High Secretary’s wishes.

The mail chute
chuffed
and a fat envelope plopped out onto Spencer’s desk. It took him a moment to become aware enough of his surrounding to notice its arrival. Numbly, he picked the packet up and broke the elaborate authenticator seal. He pulled out the pages automatically. He had to concentrate in order to read the words and understand them.

But all at once he
did
make sense of them. His stomach knotted up and his hands clenched into fists, crumpling the handsome, formal parchment with all its seals and ribbons. They were
promoting
him. Making him a captain in recompense for robbing his wife. Blatantly, obviously trying to make it all up to him with yet another flick of yet another pen.

Spencer crushed the ornate commission into a ball and threw the dirty thing in the waste chute. He stood up and staggered out of his office. He needed some air.

***

Sitting woodenly by the shore of Lake Paho an hour later, he began to convince himself that he was calm. He told himself he was able to face the situation a bit more clearly now.

Damn
them all, he thought. Damn the officers and the flunkies and the traditions and the hypocrites.

The horrible thing was that by their lights, a promotion
did
make it up to him,
did
make things all right. Half the officers in the Cluster would have cheerfully abandoned their spouses in exchange for such an early promotion, perhaps betrayed their closest friends into the bargain without hesitation.

But that wasn’t fair. In the Guard and the Navy, marriages tended to be business arrangements, politically correct and family-arranged. Most marriages among the military officer class had all the romance of a corporate takeover. Indeed, that had been true of his own match to Bethany. Wed to each other eight years ago, they had been barely more than strangers at the time they exchanged their vows. Her parents had been alive then, and her Uncle Anthony Windsor a minor figure, yet to perform the political masterstrokes that would launch him to the heights of the Pact’s ruling elite.

If her parents had already been dead then, leaving her as Anthony Windsor’s
de facto
heir, and if Anthony Windsor had been as powerful then as he was now, Allison Spencer and Bethany Windsor would never have been wed; it never would have occurred to anyone to dream of permitting her to be wasted on such an unremarkable match.

Back then, she had been one of several relations to an unimportant official. Now she was the sole surviving family member of a sector governor. Therefore she had value. Political value, access value—hostage value if it came to that.

And what value did Commander—no,
Captain
Allison Spencer have? He stood up and began walking around the lake. The wind was biting and cold, even for early spring, and the sky was a steel-grey roof over the land, seeming to seal off the world from hope. Al Spencer pulled his coat tight around his body and knelt down beside the water to stare at his own reflection. He saw a handsome face there in the grey water, youthful in appearance even for his twenty-five standard years. Dark-skinned, lean-featured, dark brown hair and light brown eyes. He knew he was young, and strong, even intelligent and capable.

All that he was, he had offered up in service to the High Secretary. And today he had been told exactly how much that service was worth. The High Secretary might demand unswerving loyalty and devotion from his Guard—but he did not provide it in return.

With a sudden, impulsive determination, Spencer stood up and turned away from the still waters of the lake. She could not be gone already. He would find her.

Five minutes later he was back at his desk, rifling the drawers to find the military-issue Artificial Intelligence Device, the AID, he was supposed to carry at all times. Like many desk-bound officers, Allison Spencer had never quite found the pocket-sized but bulky device useful enough to carry, whatever the regs might say. His desk terminal was all he ever needed. But now he was going to be on the move—and more importantly, it was harder to trace queries from a mobile AID, since it could patch into the data net from practically anywhere.

Al knew without thinking that he would have to hide his actions. It was a conditioned reflex. In the world of Pact society generally, and in the military specifically, it was all but certain that a given person would be under surveillance from time to time. Everyone learned a few tricks for beating the watchers when a little privacy was required.

Spencer found the AID at last, buried under some forms in one of the drawers. He hurried out of the building and started walking. Better to walk. Cabs were easy to track. He wanted to be on the far side of Lake Paho, well inside the central core of the city, before he switched the device on. That way it would patch into the data net through some other link than the Guard HQ signal.

BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
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