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The Shadow of Cincinnatus
cover art © Malcolm McClinton

 

 

With the Justinian War over, Emperor Marius Drake looks forward to a short period of reform, after which he can walk away from his role as Emperor. But when the mysterious Outsiders take advantage of the Federation's weakness to launch a crippling invasion, Marius finds himself pushed to the brink of madness as he struggles to hold the tottering Federation together...

Cincinnatus casts a long shadow... and those who pick up absolute power may not find it so easy to put it down again.

 

 

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The Shadow of Cincinnatus

science fiction

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

Prologue

From: Meditations on Power: The Terran Federation, The Empire and Marius Drake (4502 A.D)

What is power?

Some would say that power is the ability to shape events to your pleasing. Some would say that power is the ability to do things denied to other people. And some would say that power is the way to get what you want, when you want it, no matter what others might have to say about it. When asked to choose between sex and power, the cynic will always choose power.

Why? Because power can be used to obtain sex.

But power can also be used to obtain more power. This was certainly true of the Grand Senate of the Terran Federation. An august body, comprised of members who had practically inherited their seats, it reached for more and more power over the Outer Worlds and the Colonies. The Colonies rebelled, of course, but the Senate fought and won the Inheritance Wars, ending the threat of the Federation snapping in two. It should have been the end.

The Grand Senate grew lazy and complacent. It fought a pointless war, purely out of greed, with an alien race that ended up costing more blood and treasure than it had anticipated. It chose to ignore growing problems along the edge of explored space, secure in its power and position. But even the more paranoid members of the Grand Senate failed to realize that it was placing more and more power in the hands of its military leaders. One of them, Admiral Justinian, rebelled against the Federation, intent on claiming power for himself.

It should not have taken long for the Federation to crush the upstart. The Federation Navy outmassed the rebels by over a hundred to one. But other military commanders had rebelled, diverting the Federation's forces, making the Grand Senate take steps to ensure that no future military commander could ever hope to gain enough power to challenge the Senate. And yet, their actions ensured that no quick and decisive war was possible. No Admiral dared take chances when his actions might be taken out of context and used against him. No General dared make plans of his own without fear of being accused of plotting a coup. The Grand Senate was effectively strangling its own ability to make war.

Eventually, Admiral Marius Drake a hero of the early fighting came to terms with the Grand Senate. He would marry into their ranks and defeat their enemies. This he did, leading the forces of the Federation to a stunning victory over Admiral Justinian. But the Grand Senate, no longer trusting him, chose to try to kill him. His best friend died saving his life.

And so Admiral Drake led his fleet against Earth, captured the Grand Senate and proclaimed himself Emperor.

Alas for Drake, he was about to discover the limits of power.

 

Chapter One

Garibaldi, Roman. One of the fastest-rising stars of the Federation Navy and a personal protégé of Admiral (later Emperor) Marius Drake. After his role in the failed peace mission to Admiral Justinian, Garibaldi was assigned to Fifth Fleet as her commanding officer...
-The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Hobson's Choice, 4098

"You know," Elf said, as she ran a hand through her short blonde hair, "this is the very definition of using a sledgehammer to crush a nut."

Roman Garibaldi gave his friend, lover and ground-forces commander a mischievous look, using one hand to brush the brown hair out of his eyes as he looked up at the gathering fleet. It was smaller, in terms of numbers, than the giant fleets that had fought the Inheritance Wars, but it was an order of magnitude more deadly, the most powerful fleet assembled in the last decade of intermittent warfare. Calling the fleet a sledgehammer sent to crush a nut was a definite understatement.

"More like using a sledgehammer to crush an atom," he said, after a moment. "Or slamming an entire asteroid into a planet to kill a single person. Or..."

Elf snorted, rudely. "Does it bother you?"

Roman shrugged, then shook his head. He'd been on the receiving end of superior firepower vastly superior firepower often enough to feel a certain kind of satisfaction at having superior firepower on his side for once. Maybe there were naval officers out there who liked the idea of a fair fight, of matching themselves against an enemy commander with equal strength, but it wasn't a sentiment any sensible officer could allow himself in combat. Besides, the more firepower brought to the party, the smaller the chance of a real fight.

Not that they have much chance anyway, he thought, with a tinge of amusement. A handful of light cruisers would be more than enough to take the high orbitals of Hobson's Choice.

He looked up at the running lights of Fifth Fleet. It had only been a month since his most recent promotion and he couldn't resist a thrill of delight at seeing so many ships under his command, although he knew he was far from the only young officer promoted into occupying a dead man's shoes. The war with the rogue Admiral, Justinian, had been good for eliminating much of the dead weight in high-ranking positions, if nothing else. And yet, seeing so much responsibility resting on his shoulders worried him. He'd barely been a Captain long enough to grow accustomed to his ship before he'd been promoted to the flag deck.

"You're thinking again," Elf teased him. "It's a terrible habit right now."

"I know," Roman said, gravely. "But I need to try to plan for everything."

Elf tapped his shoulder. "You should know that isn't possible," she said, sternly. "All you can do is be prepared to adapt to change at a moment's notice."

Roman let out a sigh. "Yes," he said. "But will there be any change here?"

"Probably not," Elf said. "But we have been surprised before."

"Yeah," Roman drawled. "Better to be careful."

He shrugged. Hobson's Choice had been a thorn in the side of the Federation for years, ever since the world had been claimed by an eccentric who had thrown open the doors to anyone who wanted to operate outside the Federation's gaze. Now it served as a clearing house for pirates, smugglers, slavers, rebels and all the others who were more than a little unwelcome on Federation worlds. A vast amount of bribes, paid out to senior officers and sector governors, had ensured that the world remained undisturbed by the Federation Navy. But now everything had changed. Hobson's Choice was about to get a very unwelcome surprise.

His wristcom buzzed. "Admiral," Flag Captain Scott Palter said, "the 143rd has just reported in. They're ready to move."

"Good," Roman said. "Order the fleet to begin cloaking procedures. I'm on my way."

"Good luck," Elf said. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, then headed to the hatch. "Leave some of them for us, will you?"

Roman watched her go, then looked back at the fleet. There was another reason for bringing the entire formation to Hobson's Choice, even if it was a staggering level of overkill. Fifth Fleet had been put together in a hurry, from starships that had seen service in the recent war to new-build starships just out of the yards, with crews that had barely graduated from the academy. The mission would, he hoped, iron out any problems long before they ran into anything larger than a pirate ship or two. Even if the warlords were gone, there were plenty of other threats out there.

He smiled, then turned to walk through the hatch and down to CIC himself. It still astonished him that he'd been given command of so many ships, even if it was unlikely he'd ever command a ship personally again. That irked him, more than he cared to admit. He'd never expected to become a Commodore, not with his lack of connections. Starship command had seemed the highest achievable goal. And now he was a Commodore, holding down an Admiral's billet. His family would be proud.

The hatch to the CIC opened up in front of him, revealing a handful of consoles, a large command chair and a giant holographic tank. Lights flickered and flared within the tank, dimming to grey as the ships went into cloak, each one tagged with the starship's name and current status. The temptation to micromanage was almost overpowering, Roman had discovered, finally understanding why so many senior officers had issued so many unnecessary orders. One look was enough to tell him that Fifth Fleet's formation looked a little ragged.

An officer with less experience of actual war-fighting would see that as a problem, he thought, as he took his seat. But anyone with any sense would know better.

He looked up at the display, then glanced at Palter. They'd known each other since Roman had commanded Midway, where Palter had been his tactical officer. Thankfully, Palter had been available when Roman had been assigned to Fifth Fleet. A month in command hadn't given him the time to get to know most of his officers, particularly as Fifth Fleet was still assembling. The Federation Navy might have expanded rapidly during the war, but it was still badly overstretched. Roman was surprised that so many starships had been assigned to the Rim.

But Admiral Emperor Drake fought here before the war, Roman thought. He felt a duty to do something about the chaos along the Rim.

He took a breath. "Order the fleet to advance," Roman said. "And prepare to spring our surprise."

* * *

"The cargo is secure, sir."

Captain Roger Loewi nodded, impatiently. Hogshead had been orbiting Hobson's Choice for weeks, burning precious fuel, while her agents on the surface had been rounding up the cargo and lifting it to orbit. The crew had been growing increasingly unhappy, after discovering that they would neither be allowed to go down to the surface or play their games with the cargo. He'd had to face down two threats of mutiny and one crewman had actually managed to desert, although he was no loss. Somehow, slavers rarely attracted the best crews.

The cargo, he thought, sourly. One hundred and fifty women, all young, all healthy enough to bear children for a hidden colony thousands of light years from Earth. The crew was already sniffing round the hold and, if it weren't for the armed mercenaries guarding the hatches, he would have feared for their safety. For some absurd reason, the colonists wanted virgins. God knew it was hard enough to find virgins on Hobson's Choice, let alone girls who had been captured by pirates and traded to slavers on the planet below. He cursed himself under his breath, then dismissed the thought. If he didn't think of the slaves as cargo, he would go mad.

It was a living. Hogshead was too old and slow to carry legitimate cargo, even if there hadn't been a hundred warrants out for her arrest on the more civilized worlds of the Federation. And wasn't that ironic? Loewi knew for a fact that some of the slaves he'd shipped, properly modified, had been sold to high-ranking Federation officers, who would probably dispose of them before returning to Earth. Who gave a shit about the morality of shipping kidnapped women and children when the alternative was poverty and certain death? Or indenture...

He turned back to the console. "Take us out of here," he ordered. "Now."

"Gotcha, dad," the helmsman said. His son worked the console with a practiced ease. "I hear some of them are..."

An alarm sounded. Red lights appeared on the cramped display.

Loewi's mouth dropped open. For a long moment, his brain refused to accept what he was seeing. There were a hundred and fifty starships decloaking around the planet, spearheaded by five entire superdreadnaught squadrons. It had to be a trick of some kind, his brain yammered at him, an illusion created by ECM drones designed to fool far more advanced sensors than Hogshead's outdated sensor suite. But the images had a terrifying solidity that drove all doubts out of his head.

"Dad, I'm picking up a message," his son said.

"...Is the Federation Navy," a voice boomed. "Hobson's Choice is now under military control. Cut your drives and prepare to be boarded. Any resistance will result in the destruction of your vessels. There will be no further warning."

Loewi thought fast. The idea of outrunning any of the military ships was thoroughly absurd. They could be given forty-eight hours to run and the military would still catch up with them before they crossed the Phase Limit. Not that they'd be given the time, he saw, as new icons flared to life on the display. Hundreds of starfighters were launching from carriers, each one more than capable of blowing Hogshead into vapor. They were caught like rats in a trap.

His son looked up at him. "Dad?"

"Cut the drives," Loewi ordered. He knew he was dead. Slaver Captains could be shot without the formality of a trial and if the bribes no longer protected Hobson's Choice, there was no point in hoping they would protect him. But at least his children and crew would survive. They'd be on a penal planet, but they would be alive. "Cut the drives and tell them we surrender, then lock down the ship. The mercs might have other ideas."

* * *

"I think we surprised them, sir," Palter said.

Roman nodded. There had been seventy starships orbiting Hobson's Choice when the fleet had decloaked and a third of them had started to try to flee. The others had dropped their drives as per instructions, although there was no way to know if they'd meant to surrender or if they simply hadn't been able to power up their drives in time to escape. Not, he knew, that it really mattered. The fleeing ships didn't have a hope of escaping his fleet and making it out into deep space.

"Good," he said. "Dispatch the Marines. We'll go with Plan Theta."

He forced himself to sit back and watch as his fleet's smaller units moved in to tackle the fleeing ships. A couple cut their drives as soon as the destroyers entered firing range, the remainder kept trying to run until the destroyers opened fire. Roman watched, as dispassionately as he could, as five of the fleeing ships exploded, one by one. They were either pirates or smugglers, he knew, both occupations that earned participants the death penalty. But it was still one hell of a waste.

"The Marines are entering the atmosphere now," Palter informed him. "There's no trace of any resistance."

Roman wasn't surprised. To all intents and purposes, Hobson's Choice was an utterly undefended world. There was no government, let alone a military; there was certainly no one willing to fight and die in the defense of a wretched hive of scum and villainy. By the time someone managed to take control, if anyone did, the Marines would already be occupying the major settlements. Resistance would be utterly futile.

More reports came in as smaller parties of marines boarded the surrendered starships. Most of them were smugglers few pirates would lurk in orbit when they could be back out in space, hunting for their next prizes but three of them were slavers. Two of the slavers were empty, having returned to Hobson's Choice for more slaves, while the third was crammed to bursting with young female slaves. They'd been kidnapped, according to the Marines, or sold into slavery by their families. And if the fleet had waited another hour or two before launching the invasion, they would never have had a hope of freedom.

"Move them to the hospital ships," Roman ordered. How could anyone sell their children into slavery? He'd grown up on an asteroid and no one had ever threatened him with anything worse than being sent to bed without his supper. But the Rim of explored space was rarely civilized. A family might decide it was better to sell one child, no matter how horrific it was, than lose everyone. "And then transfer their former captors to the brig."

He looked down at the display as more reports came in from the planet's surface. A handful of locals, no doubt expecting the death penalty as soon as they were identified, had tried to put up a fight. The Marines hadn't bothered to try to talk them down, knowing it would be futile. Instead, they'd simply called up heavy firepower from a hovertank and blown the enemy building into flaming debris. The bodies would be found and identified later.

"All the ships have been secured," Palter reported. The display flickered and updated as the Marines took control of the captured ships, showing their status. "Should I dispatch prize crews?"

"See to it," Roman said. It galled him, but Fifth Fleet's logistics were appallingly weak. The Grand Senate had been willing to build thousands of new warships for the Federation Navy, but they'd been reluctant to pay for new freighters. It was a piece of short-sightedness that, he suspected, would come back to haunt them. Fifth Fleet was far too dependent on a small handful of bulk freighters for his comfort. "And prepare them for transit to Athena."

The hours ticked by, slowly. Roman felt growing impatience, even though he knew the invasion was proceeding with astonishing speed. Hitting a more normal colony world, even one without defenses, would take much longer. Hobson's Choice comprised only a handful of minor settlements, after all. They could literally round up everyone on the planet, load them into prison ships, and drop them off at the nearest penal world.

It was nearly nine hours before Elf contacted him, privately. "Roman," she said, once the link was secure. "The planet is under control."

"Good," Roman said. "Any problems?"

"None," Elf said. She sounded perturbed. "But there's an odd shortage of captives."

Roman frowned. A planet was a large place and someone with the proper training or equipment could remain undiscovered for quite some time, if they tried. And finding them would require more time than he had.

"Did they have a chance to go to ground?"

"I'm not sure, but I don't think so," Elf said. "They only had around twenty minutes of warning before we came down and landed around the settlements. We're interrogating some of the captives now, but it sounds as though a large number of people have been gone for quite some time."

"Someone's been recruiting," Roman said, slowly.

"It looks that way," Elf agreed. "The missing people are all mercenaries or starship pilots, as far as we can tell. And we know we didn't capture many mercenaries when we occupied Admiral Justinian's territory."

Roman considered it. "What about our agents?"

"No sign of them," Elf said. "They weren't planning to stay on Hobson's Choice indefinitely, though."

"True," Roman agreed. The last time he'd visited Hobson's Choice, he'd helped to insert a number of agents from ONI. And no one had heard from the agents since. "Have the prisoners moved to the ships, then earmarked for interrogation," he said. If someone was recruiting...pirates? Smugglers? Or Outsiders? "If we offer someone a chance to escape a hellworld, they might talk."

"I'll see to it," Elf said. Her chuckle echoed down the link. "Easiest invasion I've ever seen, Roman. I didn't lose a single Marine."

"We could do with an easy victory," Roman agreed. The Federation Navy had fought hard in the war, but it had also been badly demoralized. Between the certain knowledge that some senior officers had turned on the Federation, and the Grand Senate's relentless attempts to control the Navy as thoroughly as possible, there were too many officers frightened to do anything without orders in triplicate. "Good work, Marine."

He took a breath. "Detach a handful of Marines to sweep the surface," he ordered. There was no point in keeping the entire fleet in the backwater system, but they could leave a few surprises behind. "I'll assign a destroyer squadron to the high orbitals. If we're lucky, we should snag a few strays before word gets out and rogues start avoiding the planet."

"Aye, sir," Elf said.

"And then we'll set course for Athena," Roman concluded. He felt a thrill of anticipation at the thought of seeing the Rim. "And see just what's waiting for us there."

He closed the link, then settled back in his chair. All things considered, it had been a cakewalk, almost laughably easy. Thousands of captives had been liberated, hundreds of pirates, slavers and smugglers would face justice and Hobson's Choice would no longer be a thorn in the Federation's side. And the fleet's morale would improve as news of the victory sank in.

Emperor Marius would be pleased.

 

Chapter Two

Drake, Marius. Commanding Officer of the Grand Fleet. Betrayed by the Grand Senate after his victory over Admiral Justinian. Rebelled against their authority and made himself Emperor of Earth.
-The Federation Navy in Retrospect, 4199

Earth, 4098

"I'm not interested in excuses," Marius snarled. "I want to know what happened and why."

General Theodore Ricardo looked unhappy. "We had a riot. On Earth."

"I can see that," Marius snapped. There were times when he thoroughly understood why the Grand Senate had shot so many military officers in the years following the First Battle of Earth. One month of being emperor had convinced him that no one in their right mind would actually want the job. "Why was this one allowed to happen?"

The general hesitated. He was a short balding man, with an air of nervousness that reminded Marius that Ricardo had no real experience on the front lines. The Grand Senate had left him in command of Earth's security forces, apparently believing he posed no real threat to their supremacy. Marius suspected they might have had a point. General Ricardo lacked the ability to take a shit without permission from his superiors, written in triplicate and countersigned by every Grand Senator on Earth. Leaving him in command might have been a mistake.

"The protests swelled beyond our ability to handle them," Ricardo said, finally. "We were rushing troops to the area when it turned into an outright riot. At that point, we lost control of large parts of Atlanta and had to hold back the troops, then advance when we had mustered sufficient manpower. By that point, a considerable amount of damage had been done to the city."

Marius sighed, sitting back in his chair and glowering around the office. It had once belonged to the Federation President and, despite having all of the luxury torn out of it, was still too distracting for his comfort. The president had been a powerless figurehead for nearly a century, ever since the Imperialistic Faction had collapsed following the Blue Star War, but he'd still lived in luxury. And so had the Grand Senate. No wonder they'd been so badly disconnected from their people.

He shook his head, then looked at the display. Troops patrolled the streets of Atlanta and a dozen major cities, while hundreds of rioters too greedy or too slow to escape capture were marched off to hastily-erected detention centers. They hadn't expected any form of violent response, he knew. The Grand Senate's policy towards riots among the underclass had been to allow them to burn out in their own time. But then, most of the riots during that period had been staged. This one had been real.

"It makes no sense," he muttered. "They want to return to having their wants and needs provided rather than stand up for themselves?"

"It was inevitable," Professor Kratman said. The professor who had become Marius's Minister of State seemed unemotional, but Marius could hear an undercurrent of anger in his tone. "The Grand Senate took care of their needs in exchange for their votes. Over the years, it became a formality. And now you've removed their access to the social security network."

Marius gave him a sharp look. "Was it a mistake?"

"No," Kratman said. "The Federation spent far too much money every year just taking care of the population of Earth. But they grew used to sucking at the Federation's teat and now...well, they don't know what to do without it. And then there's the birth control measures..."

"There's no choice," Marius said. "Earth's population is already too high."

He looked down at his hands. On Mars, where he'd been born, it was rare for a family to have more than two or three children, keeping the population relatively stable. The planet simply couldn't afford unrestricted population growth. But on Earth, with food, drink and clothing provided by the government, the population seemed to spend most of its time turning out new children, who would grow to adulthood and start turning out new children of their own. Earth's crime and infant mortality rate was the highest in the known galaxy, yet the population had continued to expand. It was utterly unsustainable.

His solution had been simple enough. The government-provided foodstuffs would be laced with contraceptives. Anyone who ate the food would be unable to have children without medical intervention, at least for a year after swallowing the drug. The idea had been to limit population growth as much as possible, while simultaneously encouraging emigration from Earth to the outer worlds. But the population of Earth had been babied so much that relatively few wanted to leave the comfort of humanity's homeworld.

And when there are no real comforts, Marius thought, that becomes truly pathetic.

"But we are short of manpower to handle the riots," General Ricardo said. "We should consider making concessions..."

Marius looked up at him, angrily. "Would you suggest we give in to pressure? To threats of violence? To riots that only make life worse for the rioters?"

He sighed. What sort of idiots thought that destroying shops, houses and infrastructure would encourage investment in their areas? Or that it would improve their lives?

"I would suggest that we are moving too fast," Ricardo said. "We should consider slowing down."

"But that would be seen as a sign of weakness," Kratman pointed out, sharply. "We cannot afford to suggest that we would surrender, if pushed hard enough."

Marius tapped the table, sharply. "No, we can't," he said. "The reforms will continue, General, until the time has come when they will no longer be needed."

"Yes, sir," Ricardo said. "And the prisoners?"

"Exile," Marius said, shortly. There was no point in organizing trials. "They can do something useful on a colony world."

He rubbed his temple, feeling a pounding headache building up under his skull. If he'd known just how much stress being emperor would cause him, he might have seriously considered going into exile after the Grand Senate had tried to kill him. Or, perhaps, seizing some of the more productive sectors for himself and leaving the Grand Senate to administer the Core Worlds themselves. But the Grand Senate, for all its honeyed words, had never given a damn about the population. Marius, for all of his harshness, was trying to help.

But no one likes to have medicine forced down their throats, he reminded himself.

"That raises another problem," Ricardo said. "We need more transport."

"The shipyards are turning out more freighters," Marius said. "They will come."

"But slowly," Lawrence Tully said. The Comptroller of Earth sighed. "We have to move carefully to avoid destroying the remains of the economy."

"We need them now," Ricardo snapped. "And not just for transporting prisoners..."

"The problem," Tully snapped back, "is that the entire economy is hanging on a knife-edge. A single false move could completely destroy it, shattering the entire Federation."

Marius gritted his teeth. The headache was growing worse.

"We have to sort out who owns what," Tully continued, as if he hadn't said the same thing over and over again, at every meeting they'd held. "And we have to sort out the legal basis..."

"Enough," Marius said. If the meeting went on, he'd do something he'd later regret. Or, worse, that he wouldn't regret. "General, have the prisoners moved to a detention camp and hold them there until they can be transported to a colony world. Keep the troops on the ground and make it clear that any attempt to raise a second riot will result in harsh repression and exile. Find the leaders, if you can, and have them arrested too."

"That will be difficult," Ricardo said. "The old leaders are gone."

Marius sighed. The Grand Senate had once controlled the protest movements on Earth, something that had puzzled him until he'd realized just how effective it was at keeping the lower classes from developing effective ways to make their voices heard. Everything from trade unions to outright anarchist groups had been controlled by the Grand Senate, a web of patronage that had given them staggering levels of control over Earth. But that network was gone now, leaving a new generation free to take its place. God alone knew how it would develop in future.

"Do your best," he said. He raised his voice. "Dismissed."

Professor Kratman hesitated at the door, then left when Marius glowered at him. The others left even quicker, as if they were glad to be out of his presence. Marius watched them go, then sat back in his chair and tried to think. There were too many problems on Earth for any of them to be solved quickly, no matter what he did. And then there were the persistent problems caused by the Grand Senate's mismanagement of the rest of the Federation. A good third of the settled worlds were restless, only held back from trying to declare independence by the certain knowledge that it would draw a harsh response from the Grand Senate. But the Grand Senate was gone.

Life was much simpler on the command deck of a superdreadnaught, he told himself. Even when he'd been trying to keep the political commissioners from interfering in military operations, it had been so much simpler than trying to reform Earth, let alone the remainder of the Core Worlds. I knew what I was doing there.

He rose to his feet, guided by an impulse he didn't fully understand, and walked through a sealed hatch that led down into the lower levels of the President's House. It was a larger building than most people realized, although it had been decades since the government had been based out of it. Now some of the old offices had been reactivated, but others had been left alone. Marius had no intention of surrounding himself with a small army of bureaucratic sycophants, not when such inhuman creatures had played a large role in the Grand Senate's decline and fall. But his plans to reform the bureaucracy had floundered on the cold hard fact that he needed the bureaucracy to make his reforms effective.

I should have had Tully shot, he thought, as he passed a trio of armed guards. But he was too effective at his job.

The secure door hissed open, revealing a detention facility. Quite why there was a detention facility in the basement of the President's House was beyond him, even though he'd spent an hour digging through the archives last month in search of the answer. Maybe he didn't want to know the answer. At least one of the Federation's early presidents had been forced to endure a nasty separation from his wife before leaving office. He pressed his finger against another scanner, then opened the hatch. Inside, there was a line of detention cells. Nine out of ten were empty.

He walked to the occupied one and keyed a switch. The forcefield turned transparent, revealing a young man sitting on the bench, looking down at the solid metal floor. He'd once been relatively handsome, Marius recalled, and cut a swath through his superdreadnaught's female crew. Now, dressed in an orange prison uniform, he looked tired and worn, perhaps even on the verge of madness. Marius might have kept him alive, but he hadn't bothered to provide any form of mental simulation. After what the man had done, Marius had decided, he was damned if he was doing anything to make imprisonment any easier to bear.

"Hello, Blake," he said.

Blake Raistlin turned to look at him. His dark skin was pallid and his eyes were sunken, as if he were too tired to sleep. Marius hadn't looked like that since the dreaded final exams at the Academy, back before the Blue Star War. But Blake Raistlin had far more to bear than just the risk of failure, after years of hard work. His failure had cost his family everything, including their lives. Marius had shot some of them personally.

"Admiral," Raistlin said. His voice was almost a whisper. "How nice of you to visit."

Marius studied him for a long cold moment. "You're still a prisoner," he said. "How does it feel?"

"I stopped caring," Raistlin said. "And you're a prisoner too."

"True," Marius agreed. Being emperor was like being in prison. He was all-powerful...but, at the same time, he was limited. And he couldn't go anywhere without a cordon of heavily-armed guards. "But you're the one in the cell."

Raistlin shrugged, expressively. "Why have you kept me alive?"

Marius felt a sudden surge of blind hatred. He'd trusted Raistlin, he'd depended on the young man...and, when the orders had arrived, Raistlin had tried to kill him. And Tobias, his friend, had died saving his life. He should be alive now, Marius knew, perhaps serving as an advisor or even as co-emperor. Instead, he was dead and buried and nothing would ever be the same again.

"Because I can," Marius said. "And because we might need a show trial to distract the masses."

Raistlin laughed. "Being emperor not all it was meant to be?"

"Your people left behind one hell of a mess," Marius said. "Didn't they give a damn about the population of Earth?"

"Of course not," Raistlin said. His voice lightened, slightly. "They were only raised to give a damn about their families."

He paused, dramatically. "Why are you here, Admiral?"

Marius looked through the forcefield, considering his answer. In truth, he wasn't sure himself why he'd come. Raistlin could be left to rot away, eating tasteless prison food and drinking water, until the day his mind finally gave out. Or he could be put on trial. Or he could simply be taken out back and have a bullet put through the back of his skull. Marius had killed the senior Grand Senators personally. It would be no challenge to kill Raistlin himself.

But that wouldn't make the young man suffer, he knew.

He'd been betrayed. A military organization couldn't survive without trust and trust was one thing that had been in short supply, after the mutinies and rebels and the imposition of a small army of political commissioners. Raistlin had been trusted, even though Marius had known of his family connections. There had seemed no grounds upon which to reject the talented young man. But, as soon as the orders came, Raistlin had tried to kill his commanding officer. The betrayal could not be allowed to go unpunished.

And you want to make him suffer, he thought. Shooting is far too good for him.

"Because I can," Marius said. He paused. "Would you like to know what happened to the rest of your classmates? The ones who served the Federation Navy over their families?"

Raistlin started to giggle. There was more than a hint of insanity in the sound.

"Admiral," he said, "what do you think you've built?"

Marius stared at him, more disturbed than he would have cared to admit. "What do you mean?"

"Riding a tiger is perfectly safe," Raistlin said. He giggled again, then caught himself. "It's when you try to get off that you start having problems. My family rode a tiger for far too long and could never muster the courage to try to get off. Each little compromise, each one a good idea at the time, built up into an overwhelming structure we could never free ourselves from.

"And here you are, Emperor," he added. "How long will it be until you become everything you accused us of being?"

"You're the last of the Grand Senatorial families," Marius snarled. It was a lie, but close enough to the truth. The lower-level aristocrats had been exiled to a distant world where they would be left alone. It hadn't occurred to him until much later that they might be happy to have left Earth for more reasons than merely being allowed to keep their lives. "And when you're gone, you will be nothing."

Raistlin rose to his feet and walked up to the forcefield, which spat and crackled at him as he stopped. "Look at yourself," he mocked. "What happened to the proud commanding officer who stood unmoved on the bridge as his ship plunged into battle?"

"He found himself having to clean up a mess that should really have been solved hundreds of years ago," Marius said, gathering his temper. "What happened to the young lieutenant who had the entire universe ahead of him?"

"He did his job," Raistlin said. "He followed orders."

He smirked at Marius's scowl. "Tell me, Admiral," he said. "When you were born, on Mars, the planet of war, were you ever exposed to any culture?"

Marius frowned, puzzled. Mars wasn't a barbaric backwater any longer. Hell, it hadn't been anything of the sort since the First Interstellar War. These days, it was as civilized as Earth, perhaps more so. The population hadn't forgotten just how thin the line between life and death could be, even now.

"There's a song," Raistlin said. "From an opera. Many a king on a first-class throne, if he wants to call his crown his own, must manage somehow to get through, more dirty work that ever I do."

Marius gave him a dry look. "I'm no stranger to dirty work," he said.

"But are you prepared, Admiral, for the dirty work you'll have to do as emperor?" Raistlin asked. "You're not the person I knew and respected any longer. The job is changing you beyond recognition. What will you be in ten years, Emperor? Will you really give up the job?"

"Yes," Marius said.

He took a moment to gather himself. "You will be put on trial, eventually," he stated, flatly. "And then you will join your family in death."

"See?" Raistlin said. "You're not the person you used to be."

"Neither are you," Marius said.

He hit the switch, darkening the forcefield, then turned and walked away from the cell. It was hard to say which of them had gotten the better of the encounter, even though Raistlin was in a cell and Marius...was in a prison of his own making. He shook his head as he strode past the Marines, too distracted to acknowledge their salutes. No, he knew which of them had come out ahead. Raistlin was right, in so many ways.

But he's still the one in a cell, he reminded himself, as he made his way back to his quarters, where his wife was waiting for him. And he will die soon.

 

 

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Author Bio

Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to children's SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester ... before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.

Chris has been involved in the online Alternate History community since 1998; in particular, he was the original founder of Changing The Times, an online alternate history website that brought in submissions from all over the community. Later, Chris took up writing and eventually became a full-time writer.

Chris has produced The Empire's Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo's famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.

Website: http://www.chrishanger.net/
Blog: http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall

TTB titles:

Schooled in Magic fantasy series
  Schooled in Magic  book 1
  Lessons in Etiquette  book 2
  Study in Slaughter  book 3
  Work Experience  book 4
  The School of Hard Knocks  book 5
  Love's Labor's Won  book 6
  Trial By Fire  book 7
  Wedding Hells  book 8
  Infinite Regress  book 9
  Past Tense  book 10
  The Sergeant's Apprentice  book 11

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire military SF series
  Barbarians at the Gates  book 1
  The Shadow of Cincinnatus  book 2
  The Barbarian Bride  book 3

Author web site.

 

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The Shadow of Cincinnatus Copyright 2014. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- via Amazon Kindle; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; Kobo Books
List Price: $6.50 USD

 

  Author News

"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
Author interview on
Blogcritics

"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Author interview on Blogger News

Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books

"Deconstructing Emily" blog post

"Schooled in Magic is a fantasy book, but it draws extensively from real history."
Guest post on As the Page Turns

"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on Review From Here

"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on The Story Behind the Book

"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful.
I think they were hoping I'd know some great secret to success that I could tell them."
Guest post on The Writer's Life eMagazine

"No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Author Christopher G. Nuttall discusses The Decline & Fall
of the Galactic Empire novels in an interview with Edinburgh49

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book

 

  Reviews
 




 


 

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