Lord Barrick Sorban, Colonel, H.I.M.O.G., Ret., sipped gently at his drink and looked mildly at the sheaf of newsfacsimile that he’d just bought fresh from the reproducer in the lobby of the Royal Hotel. Sorban did not look like a man of action; he certainly did not look like a retired colonel of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Guard. The most likely reason for this was that he was neither.
Not that he was incapable of action on a physical level if it became necessary; he was past forty, but his tough, hard body was in as fine a shape as it had been fifteen years before, and his reflexes had slowed only slightly. The only major change that had occurred in his body during that time had been the replacement of an irreparably damaged left hand by a prosthetic.
But Lord Barrick Sorban preferred to use his mind, to initiate action in others rather than himself, and his face showed it. His was a precision mind, capable of fast, accurate computations, and his eyes betrayed the fact, but the rest of his face looked, if anything, rather like that of a gentle, persuasive schoolteacher--the type whom children love and parents admire and both obey.
Nor was he a retired colonel of the Imperial bodyguard, except on paper. According to the official records, he had been retired for medical reasons--the missing left hand. In reality, his position in the Imperium was a great deal higher than that of an ordinary colonel, and he was still in the active service of the Emperor. It was a secret known only to a comparative few, and one that was carefully guarded.
He was a fairly tall man, as an Imperial Guardsman had to be, with a finely-shaped head and dark hair that was shot through with a single streak of gray from an old burn wound. In an officer’s uniform, he looked impressive, but in civilian dress he looked like a competent businessman.
He held the newsfac in his prosthetic left hand, which was indistinguishable in appearance and in ordinary usage from the flesh, bone, and blood that it had replaced. Indeed, the right hand, with its stiff little finger, often appeared to be more useless than the left. The hand, holding the glass of rye-and-ginger, gave an impression of over-daintiness because of that stiff digit.
Lord Sorban paid little attention to the other customers in the bar; customers of the Green Room of the Royal Hotel weren’t the noisy kind, anyway. He kept his attention on the newsfac for the most part; only a small amount of awareness was reserved for the approach of the man he was waiting for.
The banner line on the newsfac said:
BY IMPERIAL FORCES
He read through the article hurriedly, absorbing what facts he didn’t know, and then flipped over to the editorial page. If he knew the Globe, there would sure as Space be an editorial.
At 0231 Greenwich Earth Time, 3/37/229, the forces of the Imperial
Government occupied the planet Bairnvell. (See article, Page One.)
The ships of the Imperial Space Force landed, purportedly at the request of Obar Del Pargon, rebel leader of the anti-Presidential forces. That such an action should be condoned by the Imperial File is astounding enough; that it should be ordered by the Prime
Portfolio himself is almost unbelievable.
The government of Bairnvell, under the leadership of President
Alverdan, was not, by any means, up to the standards of the Empire; the standard of living is lower, and the political freedom of the people is not at all what we are used to. But that is no excuse for interfering with the lawful government of any planet. If the
Imperium uses these methods for extending its rule, the time must eventually come when our own civil liberties will be in peril.
Perhaps Lord Senesin’s actions are not so surprising, at that. This is the third time during his tenure as Prime Portfolio that he has arbitrarily exercised his power to interfere in the affairs of governments outside the Empire. Each such action has precipitated a crisis in Galactic affairs, and each has brought the Empire nearer to conflict with the Gehan Federation. This one may be the final act that will bring on interstellar war.
Colonel Lord Sorban stopped reading as he noticed the approach of the man he’d been waiting for, but he didn’t look up until the voice said:
“I see you’ve been reading it, my lord.” The voice was bitter. “A real fiasco this time, eh?”
Sorban looked up. “It looks like it might mean trouble,” he said carefully. “Have you read all of it, Mr. Senesin?”
The young man nodded. The bitterness in his voice was paralleled by the bitterness reflected in his face. “Oh, yes. I read it. The other newsfacs pretty much agreed with the Globe. I’m afraid my father seems to be rather in the soup. Being Prime Portfolio in the Terran Empire isn’t the easiest way to stay out of trouble. They’ll be screaming for a Special Election next.” He sat down next to the colonel and lowered his voice just enough to keep anyone else from hearing it, but not enough to sound conspiratorial. “I think I’ve got a line on those tapes.”
Colonel Sorban raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well, I wish you luck. If you can uncover them in time, you may be able to save your father’s career,” he said, in a voice that matched Senesin’s.
“You don’t sound very concerned, my lord,” said young Senesin.
“It’s not that,” said the colonel. “I just find it difficult to believe that--” He cut his words off as another man approached.
The second newcomer was a red-faced, plumpish man with an almost offensively hearty manner. “Well, well! Good afternoon, Lord Sorban! Haven’t seen you in some time. A pleasure to see you again, my lord, a distinct pleasure! I don’t get to Honolulu often, you know. How long’s it been? Four years?”
“Two, I think,” said the colonel.
“Really? Only two? It seems longer. How’ve you been?”
“Well enough,” said the colonel. “Excuse me--Mr. Heywood, I’d like to present you to the Honorable Jon Senesin; Mr. Senesin, this is Robar Heywood, of South African Metals.”
While the two men shook hands and mouthed the usual pleasantries, Colonel Lord Sorban watched them with an amusement that didn’t show on his placid face. Young Senesin was rather angry that the tête-á-tête had been interrupted, while Heywood seemed flustered and a trifle stuffy.
“So you’re the son of our Prime Portfolio, eh?” he said. There was a trace of hostility in his voice.
Colonel Sorban saw what was coming and made no effort whatsoever to stop it. Instead, he simply sat there in straight-faced enjoyment.
“That’s correct, Mr. Heywood,” Senesin said, a little stiffly.
“I should have known,” Heywood said. “You look a great deal like him. Although I don’t know that I’ve ever seen your picture in the newsfacs or on the screens.”
“Dad prefers to keep his family out of the spotlight,” said Senesin, “unless we get publicity for something other than the accidental fact that we happen to be the family of the Prime.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I see. May I stand the three of us a drink?” Senesin and the colonel were agreeable. The drinks were brought. Heywood took a swallow of his, and remarked casually: “Do you agree with your father’s politics, sir?”
“I don’t know,” Senesin said flatly.
Heywood misunderstood completely. “Yes, I suppose it is a bit disappointing. Hard for a man’s son to divide his loyalty like that. You can’t support his actions, and yet you hesitate to condemn your own father.”
“You mistake my meaning, Mr. Heywood,” young Senesin said sharply. “I said, ‘I don’t know’ because I honestly don’t know what my father’s politics is any more.”
But Heywood only compounded his error. “Of course not. How could you? Since he became Prime, his policies have been erratic and unpredictable, not to say foolish.”
This is it, thought the colonel, wondering what young Senesin’s reaction would be. He didn’t have to wonder longer than half a second.
“Mr. Heywood,” said Senesin, his voice oddly tight under the strain of suppressed emotion, “a person should learn to know what he’s talking about before he makes any attempt to talk. If you must talk drivel about my father, I’ll thank you not to do it in my presence.” And before Heywood could formulate an answer, Senesin turned to the colonel. “If you’ll pardon me, my lord, I have another errand to perform. I’ll see you at eleven.” Then he turned and walked out.
Heywood stared at his receding back. “Well,” he said after a moment, “I guess I spoke out of turn. But he seemed...” He turned back to his drink, shrugged. “Oh, well. Tell me, my lord, what do you think of Senesin’s policies? How long do you think he’ll last in office?”
The colonel adroitly avoided the first question by answering the second. “I dare say he won’t last long. There’ll be a great fuss in the File, and most of his own party will desert him--I think. They hardly have any choice, considering the reaction of the populace to this Bairnvell thing.”
“And I agree,” said Heywood decisively. “We’ve got no business interfering with the lawful governments of planets and systems outside the Empire. The old days of Imperial expansion are over. Why, the way Lord Senesin acts, you’d think Emperor Jerris the First was on the throne.”
“Well, not quite,” Colonel Lord Sorban said dryly. “I can’t imagine any Prime Portfolio in the time of Jerris I daring to act on his own initiative.”
“Exactly,” said Heywood, just as though the colonel had agreed with him. “That’s why we have a constitutional Empire today. One man can’t be allowed that much power without the consent of the governed. The people must have a right to depose anyone who abuses the power they give him.” He swallowed the remainder of his drink. “Can you imagine what it would be like if the present Emperor tried to pull that sort of stuff? Not that he would, mind you; he’s too good an Emperor for that. He sticks to his job. But these are different times. And then, too, we can’t afford to antagonize the Gehan Federation. After all, I mean, war...” He shook his head at the thought.
Colonel Lord Sorban had listened to Heywood’s soliloquy with patience, but he felt his irritation growing. Much as he had enjoyed the play between Heywood and young Senesin, he had expected to get some information out of the boy before he left. And besides, Heywood’s clichéd monologue was beginning to pall.
Therefore, the colonel finished his own drink, uttered some polite banalities and got out.
He walked around the corner to the restaurant, was bowed into a seat by an ultrapolite android, and quietly ordered his meal. While he waited, he spread the newsfac on the table in front of him, holding it with his right hand while his left elbow rested on the table and his left palm cradled his left jaw. In that position, there was nothing odd-looking about the fact that his left thumbtip was in contact with his larynx and his left middle finger was pressed tightly against the mastoid bone just behind his left ear. His lips began to move slightly, and anyone at a nearby table would have assumed that he was one of those readers who are habitual lip-movers.
“The Senesin boy says he has a lead on the tapes. That’s all I could get out of him just now, but I have an appointment with him at eleven tonight. How far shall I let him go, Sire?”
The sensitive microphone in the tip of his thumb picked up the nearly inaudible sounds; the speaker in his middle finger vibrated against his skull and brought him the answer to his question.
“For the moment, I’ll leave that up to you. But I wouldn’t try to stop him just yet.”
“Very well, Sire,” murmured the colonel. He had already made up his mind to let the Senesin boy go as far as he could. The lad was smart, and his attack would at least provide a test for the psycho-sociological defenses that surrounded the Emperor.
“Do you think those tapes--if they exist--are genuine?” the voice asked.
“According to young Senesin,” the colonel said carefully, “the tapes are supposed to show that certain ... ah... ‘highly-placed persons’ in the Imperial hierarchy are influencing members of the Government illegally. You figure out what that might mean, Sire; it’s a little too ambiguous to mean much to me.”
“‘Influencing,’ eh? That could mean anything from a broad hint, through pressure and bribery, to actual brainwashing,” said the voice from the finger.
“Which one do you think it is, Sire?” the colonel asked with mock innocency.
The voice chuckled, then said, “I haven’t tried brainwashing yet.”
“No-o-o,” agreed the colonel, “but you might have to if Lord Evondering gets in, and if you have to, you will.”
“Colonel,” said the voice gently, “there are times when I believe you don’t have a very high opinion of your Sovereign’s moral outlook.”
The colonel grinned, although he knew the listener couldn’t see it. But he knew the other was grinning, too. “I humbly beg your majesty’s pardon.”
“You’ll have to wait a while, colonel; Imperial pardons have to be by the Portfolio for the Interior. Your Sovereign is an impotent figurehead.”
“Sure you are, Sire,” said the colonel. “Meanwhile, what about those tapes?”
“Get them--or copies of them. They can’t be dangerous in themselves, but if they’re genuine, I want to know who’s bugging this place. I can’t have spies in the Palace itself. Otherwise, keep your eyes on the Senesin boy.”
The voice went on giving instructions, but the colonel lifted the thumb of his left hand from his larynx; the waiter was approaching, and if he wanted to speak to him, it would be better not to have to interrupt the flow of words from his finger.
The android put the dishes on the table. “Coffee, sir?”
“Yes,” said the colonel. “Cream, no sugar. And bring a second cup as soon as I’ve finished with the first.” Only a part of his attention was given to the waiter; the rest was focused on the instructions he was receiving. The instructions kept coming until after the coffee had been brought. Then the voice said:
“No, Sire,” said the colonel, replacing his thumb.
“Very well. I’ll be expecting your report sometime between eleven and midnight.”
The colonel nodded, brought his hand down from the side of his jaw to pick up his fork and begin a concerted attack on his lunch.
Hawaii, with its beauty and its perfect climate, had been the obvious choice for the center of the Terran Empire. For centuries before the coming of interstellar travel, the islands had been used to a mixture of tongues and races, and the coming of the Empire had merely added to that mixture. In the five centuries since Man had begun his explosive spread to the stars, more “races” had come into being due to the genetic variations and divisions that occurred as small groups of isolated colonists were cut off from Earth and from each other. The fact that interstellar vessels incorporating the contraspace drive were relatively inexpensive to build, plus the fact that nearly every G-type sun had an Earth-like planet in Bode’s Third Position, had made scattering to the stars almost an automatic reflex among men.
It had also shattered the cohesion of Mankind that had been laboriously built up over several millennia. The old U.N. government had gradually welded together the various nations of Earth under one flag, and for nearly two centuries it had run Earth like a smoothly operating machine. But no culture is immortal; even the U.N. must fall, and fall it did.
And, during the chaos that followed, a man named Jerris Danfors had grabbed the loosened reins of government just as Napoleon had done after the French Revolution. Unlike Napoleon, however, Jerris had been able to hold his power without abusing it; he was able to declare himself Emperor of Earth and make it stick. The people wanted a single central government, and they were willing to go back to the old idea of Empire just to get such a government.
Jerris the First was neither a power-mad dictator nor an altruist, although he had been called both. He was, purely and simply, a strong, wise, intelligent man--which made him abnormal, no matter how you look at it. Or supernormal, if you will.
Like Napoleon, he realized that wars of conquest were capable of being used as a kind of cement to hold the people together in support of their Emperor. But, again, unlike Napoleon, he found there was no need to sap the strength of Earth to fight those wars. The population and productive capacity of Earth was greater than any possible coalition among extra-Solar planets and vastly greater than any single planet alone.
Thus the Terran Empire had come into being with only a fraction of the internal disruption which normally follows empire-building.
But Man can flee as well as fight. Every invading army is preceded by hordes of refugees. Ships left every planet threatened by the Empire, seeking new, uncharted planets to settle--planets that would be safe from the Imperial Fleet because they were hidden among a thousand thousand stars. Mankind spread through the galaxy faster than the Empire could. Not even Jerris the First could completely consolidate the vast reaches of the galaxy into a single unit; one lifetime is simply not enough.
Nor are a dozen.
Slowly, the Empire had changed. Over the next several generations, the Emperors had yielded more and more of the absolute power that had been left to them by Jerris. While history never exactly repeats itself, a parallel could be drawn between the history of the Empire and the history of England between, say, 1550 and 1950. But, while England’s empire had begun to recede with the coming of democratic government, the Terran Empire continued to spread--more slowly than at first, but steadily.
Until, that is, the Empire had touched the edges of the Gehan Federation.
For the hordes that had fled from the Empire had not forgotten her; they knew that one day the Empire would find them, that one day they would have to fight for their independence. So they formed the Federation, with its capital on the third planet of Gehan’s Sun.
It was a federation in name only. Even after several generations, the refugees had not been able to build up enough population to fight the Empire. There was only one other way out, as they saw it. They formed a military dictatorship.
In the Twentieth Century, the German Third Reich, although outnumbered by its neighbors and enemies, populationwise, had concentrated all its efforts on building an unbeatable war machine. Japan, also outnumbered, had done likewise. Between them, they thought they could beat the rest of Earth. And they came dangerously close to succeeding.
The Gehan Federation had done the same thing, building up fleets and armies and material stockpiles as though she were already at war.
And, in doing so, her citizens had voluntarily forfeited the very thing they thought they were fighting for--their freedom.
But they posed a greater threat to the Terran Empire than that Empire had ever faced before. Any nation so totally prepared for defensive war may, at any moment, decide that the best defense is a good offense. Any nation which subjects its people to semislavery for the sake of war must eventually fight that war or suffer collapse.
The Empire had to change tactics. Instead of steady expansion, she was forced into a deadly game of interstellar chess, making her plays carefully, so as not to touch off the explosive temper of her opponent.
It was not a situation to be handled by clumsy fools.
And Lord Senesin, the Prime Portfolio of the Imperial File, the elected leader of the Empire, the constitutional head of the Imperial Government, was accused, not only of being a clumsy fool, but of being a dangerous madman. The planet Bairnvell was an independent, autonomic ally of the Gehan Federation, and, although not actually a member of the Federation, was presumably under her protection. For the Imperial Fleet to go to the aid of rebels trying to overthrow Bairnvell’s lawful government seemed to be the act of an insane mind. The people of the Empire wouldn’t stand for it.
Colonel Lord Barrick Sorban was well aware of the temper of the people and of the situation that prevailed politically in the Empire--more so, in fact, than most men. He was also well aware that internal strife of a very serious nature could so dangerously weaken the Empire that the Gehan Federation would be able to attack and win.
His job was to cut off that sort of thing before it could gain momentum. His job was to maintain the Empire; his only superior was the Emperor himself; his subordinates hand-picked, well-trained, and, like himself, unobtrusive to the public eye. And not one of those subordinates knew who the colonel’s superior was.
The colonel strolled along the streets of Honolulu with all the courteous aplomb of a man who was both an officer and a gentleman of leisure. He dropped in at various respectable clubs and did various respectable things. He went into other places and did other things not so respectable. He gave certain orders to certain people and made certain odd arrangements. When everything had been set up to his satisfaction, he ate a leisurely dinner, topped it off with two glasses of Velaskan wine, read the tenth edition of the Globe, and strolled out to the street again, looking every inch the impeccable gentleman.
At ten minutes of eleven, he took a skycab to the fashionable apartment house where the Honorable Jon Senesin, son of the Prime Portfolio, made his home. The skycab deposited him on the roof at two minutes of eleven. The android doorman opened the entrance for him, and he took the drop chute down to the fifteenth floor. At precisely eleven o’clock, he was facing the announcer plate on Jon Senesin’s door.
Senesin opened the door. There was a queer look--half jubilant, half worried--on his face as he said: “Come in, my lord, come in. Care for a drink?”
“Don’t mind if I do, Jon. Brandy, if you have it.”
Young Senesin poured the brandy, speaking rapidly as he did. “I’ve made an appointment to get those tapes, my lord. I want you to go with me. If we can get them, we can break this whole fraud wide open. Wide open.” He handed the colonel a crystal goblet half filled with the clear, red-brown liquid. “Sorry I left so hurriedly this morning, but if that Heywood character had said another word I’d have broken his nose for him.”
The colonel took the goblet and looked into its depths. “Jon, what do you expect these tapes to prove?”