The old steam bus chugged its weary way to the corner and stopped with a squeal of worn-out brakes. Junior Lieutenant Karel Rathgar shoved his way as politely as he could through the press of sweating humanity sharing the ride with him, trading toe treads for elbow jabs. The bus was crowded to the bursting point and it took awhile before he found his way to the sidewalk.
Once there he looked around and there wasn't much to see. The afternoon sun took up the lower half of the sky, its fat, pink face etched with the eddies of its endless surface storms. The street wasn't particularly wide and it was jammed with traffic: trucks, buses, three-wheelers, two-wheelers, and a few cars. Barely noticing them, he smelled the familiar smells of the city, the mixture of soot, spicy cooking, sweat and exhaust fumes.
There was the usual bustle on the sidewalks: people going in and out of the tightly packed buildings along the thoroughfare, some standing around, some with little stalls selling, some standing in front of the stalls buying, and more standing and haggling. There were all shapes and colors and sizes of people; they were what the city had most of. There were prosperous and not-quite-so-prosperous businessmen, tradesmen, soldiers, crooks, gawkers and sightseers, and men and women of every other pursuit. At least a third were bureaucrats of some sort. That was to be expected. This was Novy Gagarin, on Mir Kurung, the capital world of the venerable Chayan Empire.
The Imperial Security district office looked just the same as most other government offices, which was nondescript. It was housed in an old tan brick building that had once received a coat of paint that had been peeling for the past thirty years. There was a barbed wire fence around it that gave it the look of a maximum security warehouse. A good portion of Novy Gagarin was taken up by similarly interchangeable buildings, just as dumpy, just as unimaginative in architecture, just as poorly maintained. Within them were carried out the functions of government.
There was a guard at the gate, slouching. Inside the guard shack there was a formal portrait of His Imperial Majesty, Arbin VI. The Emperor had been photographed in full uniform, complete with ribbons, orders and stars. His Imperial Majesty was staring nearsightedly at the camera and not looking very bright, giving him something in common with the guard. An identical picture adorned one wall of each and every government office, including guard shacks, on the worlds of each of the remaining 55 planetary systems making up the Empire.
At Lieutenant Rathgar's approach the guard came to a semblance of attention and saluted. Rathgar responded self-consciously. He had been a graduate of the Novy Gagarin Junior Officers' Academy for all of three hours, most them spent on the bus. He could still feel the weight of the single rosette on his shoulder boards, the awful responsibility of the brand-new officer. The guard asked to see his papers and he handed them over. He compared the poorly colored pictures in Rathgar's pay book and passport with the real article, suppressed a snicker, and handed them back.
The lieutenant couldn't go inside the compound without an escort, the guard told him. Instead, he got to stand around feeling even more conspicuous, waiting while the guard made a call. Having nothing better to do, he spent the time looking across the street.
A young girl of around thirteen had a stand with a charcoal brazier, selling hot kabobs. She was arguing with a fat man, over what Rathgar couldn't make out, but she was giving him hell. The man's face was red and from his posture he could see that he was trying to talk down to her. She was having none of it, carving liberal slices out of him with her tongue. Finally he threw down a few coins and left in a huff, taking his lunch with him. She yelled a hope that he choked to his back, then turned with a welcoming smile to her next customer.
A private emerged from the bowels of the main building to guide Rathgar to his destination. The man was thin and weedy looking, and he had needed a haircut for some time. His white uniform was shapeless and shabby, bearing liberal evidence of what he had eaten for lunch, perhaps several lunches. His getup looked especially grubby in contrast to the fine new brocade jacket Rathgar had used a month's advance of pay to buy for this occasion. It never hurts, as they told them at the Academy over and over again, to make a good impression on a new boss.
The guard led the way into the building and the lieutenant followed like a puppy, gawking as they entered the outer sanctum. There was another guard inside the double doors and he examined Karel's papers with laudable attention to detail. Imperial Security seemed to be careful about who visited its confines. Rathgar didn't know of any other government offices that required double checks on identity papers. There were few enough that even bothered checking in the first place.
They waited for an elevator, the guide saying nothing, Rathgar having nothing to say. Once the elevator did arrive, it seemed to take forever to get where it was going, stopping at every floor on the way to the ninth, picking up and discharging men and women in uniform or in the shabby attire that was the best civil servants could afford. As the doors finally opened on their destination, the first thing he beheld was yet another guard. He showed the man his papers without being asked. The guard examined them gravely and handed them back. Then he got intothe elevator to go wherever he had been going when Rathgar stopped him. The lieutenant heard a faint "har-har" as the doors closed behind him.
The escort kept a straight face and led him down a hall. They stopped in front of a door with "IIIc" stencilled on it. He pressed the buzzer on a cipher lock and when there was no response he knocked. The door was finally opened by one of the ugliest men Rathgar had ever seen in his life. He was a sergeant, short and wiry looking, with a face as black as a chunk of coal. He had the kind of features that make little children hide behind their mothers' skirts. He grinned, looking evil and showing a small fortune in gold teeth. "Speak!" he commanded of the guide.
"New lieutenant," the private told him, not sounding very interested. "He's got a pass to see Commander Prell."
The sergeant said to beat it and the guide left. Rathgar was invited into a standard government office, consisting of four desks that were mostly covered with papers. There were a few file cabinets, some battered-looking computer terminals, and a corkboard with some mildly smutty cartoons tacked to it. Most of the papers that were lying around were stamped with demands for various shades of secrecy. On the floor was a carpet with neither color nor nap, hiding warped tiles, many of which had successfully escaped the glue that formerly held them to the concrete. Except for the profusion of secret documents the place didn't look much like Rathgar had expected it to look. Other sergeants occupied two of the desks. Through a door he could see another office filled with enlisted men and women, some of whom were working industriously, others of whom were conversing with that peculiar type of body language that said they were killing time.
His host was Sergeant Kawi. He introduced the other two sergeants as Banda and Merkar. The former was bald, with a chunky-looking physique and bland features. Merkar had the same chunky physique, only with a head full of curly black hair. He had one of the largest noses Rathgar had ever seen on a human being. So much, he thought, for the myth that Imperial Security men were so inconspicuous that one forgot their features as soon as they were out of sight.
He explained to Kawi who he was, that he was there to see Commander Prell, and that Lord Vespin had sent him for an interview.
"Can I see your papers?" Kawi asked. Rathgar handed them over, as he seemed to be handing them over to everyone else in the building. Kawi scanned them quickly, then handed them back. "We'll get you a badge if you come to work here," he said. He and the others were wearing plastic picture badges clipped to the pockets of their tunics. The guide and the guards inside the building had been wearing the same kind. The guards' badges had red borders, while those working in the offices had blue.
He straightened his uniform again while Sergeant Merkar announced him. When he came out and told Rathgar to go ahead, he stepped through the door, came to rigid attention, and saluted, just like he had been taught at the Academy. "Junior Lieutenant Karel Rathgar reporting, sir!"
Commander Prell returned the salute with bored precision and growled for him to have a seat and relax. Rathgar obeyed half the order, perching on the edge of the single available chair.
His prospective boss didn't look overjoyed to see him. Prell's uniform was meticulously pressed and spotlessly clean. His black hair was cropped so short that his scalp was visible everywhere but the top of his head. He had an olive complexion, slit black eyes, high cheekbones, and flat features. He did not look like a friendly man.
Rathgar had spent five years in the easy-going environment of the Academy. There had been good companionship and a lot of drinking parties. They had taken a minimum load of academics while busy making contacts with others like themselves, contacts that were supposed to be valuable in years to come. The cadets had spent a good deal of time learning the socially acceptable things to do in a given situation, and had spent nearly as much time "learning to deal with people." Somehow they'd forgotten to include people like Prell in the curriculum. He wasn't the sort of man, Rathgar thought, easily "dealt with" by brand new junior lieutenants.
"You can smoke or chew if you like," Prell said. "Don't take any notes. When you leave this office, whether you're working for me or not, you leave anything that's said right here."
"Yes, sir." So far he didn't have much to take with him, except for the fact that everyone in the building seemed interested in seeing his papers and that Sergeant Kawi was ugly and Banda had a big nose. Or was it Merkar?
"Make that a rule for your career," Prell went on. "Your work never leaves the building with you. Outside these four walls, you don't know anything about the doings of Imperial Security. Is that clear?"
"What's your connection with Lord Vespin?" He asked.
"My father's land adjoins one of his estates, sir. I've known him slightly all my life." As a matter of fact, Lord Vespin had once whacked Rathgar's ten-year-old butt for stealing oppies out of one of his groves. Rathgar didn't know if he had grown up a better man for the experience or not; he did know that he quit stealing Lord Vespin's oppies. They had other, less vigorous neighbors.
"You're a sprig of the nobility?" From his tone of voice Rathgar gathered that Prell wasn't.
"Very minor nobility, sir. My father's hereditary justice of the peace for our district. If he wanted to, he could call himself a baron--there's a patent--but we don't have the money to support the pretense. We never had that much to do with Lord Vespin, except for social obligations."
"But he still thought enough of you to nominate you to the officers' academy and help you get a position when you finished?"
"He did the same for several of us, sir. Younger sons who lived near him, I mean."
"The Gods save us all!" Prell murmured. His expression said he had a vision of dozens of younger sons of Vespin's neighbors descending upon him, all with recommendations for jobs. "How did you do in your class?"
"I was number two academically, sir."
"Why not number one?" Rathgar explained that one year he had taken the wrong math course and found that certain types of calculus are very hard to comprehend until one gets the hang of them.
"Did you take the next year's course?"
"Yes, sir." He'd had the hang of it by then and coasted through it.
"Why did you pick Imperial Security for your assignment?"
"Three reasons, sir: I want to serve the Empire, Lord Vespin recommended it, and I didn't want to go to a line unit."
"Hmph. If you really wanted to serve the Empire, a line unit would be the place to do it. But I guess it's more glamorous to be a dashing young staff officer in intelligence than it is to be a dead young platoon leader."
Rathgar couldn't think of an answer to that. All he could do was feel misunderstood.
Commander Prell looked at him thoughtfully. Rathgar got the impression the older man could actually see inside his head, that he was weighing his weaknesses and strengths. He knew that if Prell didn't think he had at least the chance of measuring up, he would be sent back to Lord Vespin with his tail between his legs, recommendation or no recommendation, to be put to work in some other, less important capacity.
He wasn't sure if that would be disappointing or not. Going by his own first impressions, he was sure there were other officers in His Majesty's service under whom it would be easier to serve. Perhaps he would be happier someplace other than Imperial Security, or even in Imperial Security working for someone else.
It was too late to back out, though. All he could do was tell himself that if he was turned down it wouldn't be the end of the world. Vespin was one of the most powerful men on the planet, a member of the Imperial Staff. Even though Prell might be able to ignore his recommendation, Rathgar certainly couldn't. But if Prell turned him down he was off the hook.
His opinion became moot; he guessed he must have made a better impression than he had thought. "You'll act as my staff chief," Commander Prell told him after a bit of consideration. "You'll have the three sergeants outside under you. Don't let them goof off. Don't mess with the people they supervise. Learn everything you can from them. Keep out of my hair as much as you can, but come to me with the things I should be concerned with. Got all that?"
"Good. You'll start work at seven o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll expect you to be on time. You'll also be in standard white work uniform. In other words, get rid of that stupid fashion-plate costume and don't let me see it again unless you're going to a ball."
Rathgar had a job, but he still felt misunderstood.
After six months of working for Commander Prell, Rathgar had settled in, somewhat, to his routine. He had a tiny office, big enough for a desk, a file cabinet and his person, provided he didn't breathe too deeply. Said desk at the moment was littered with dozens of pieces of paper, most of them impossible to make head or tails of.
Sergeant Kawi's knock at his door interrupted his concentration. It was all Rathgar could do to remain civil when he told him to come in.
Kawi's dark face was sympathetic. Perhaps because their personalities were mirrors of each other, he and Rathgar got along with barely any of the effort that normally goes into accommodating oneself to another person. "Boss wants to see you, sir," he said.
"Thanks," Rathgar responded, without really meaning it. Prell had dumped a two-year budget projection on him with a minimum of instructions on what to do with it, or even how. Then he'd given him a Damage to Property report to investigate and fill out. It had taken Rathgar nearly as long to research how to do it as it was taking him to fill out and label the pile of forms in quadruplicate that made it up. On top of that, he had a pile of tech manuals, a few intelligence summaries, most of them out of date, and a handful of agents' reports. Out of them he was supposed to compose was what Prell called a "book report" on a Councils artillery division -- what were its capabilities and weaknesses, how it was organized, what equipment the Imperials could expect to see in use, and where they could expect to see it employed. Finally, he was also responsible for the day-to-day housekeeping of the section, for the problems of each of the sergeants and through them of their dozen each subordinates, for all the section's equipment, for the men's personal equipment, and for arranging briefings and tours for visiting brass hats. Periodically Prell would off-handedly add something else to the list.
Sometimes Rathgar found himself wishing he was his brother Fillip. He, too, could have possessed the good sense to stay home and spend his time chasing girls, driving fast cars, and sampling whatever drugs were fashionable at the moment. Novy Gagarin, besides its complement of government buildings, was also home to a staggering selection of dance halls, beer joints, sleazy clubs, and all the other pleasures that appeal to young men looking for a bit of dissipation. Rathgar's life would have been much simpler and much more pleasurable.
He put such thoughts from his head and buttoned his plain white work tunic. He didn't have time for dissipation. His social life consisted of saying "excuse me" to people on the bus on his way to and from work and his relations with the sergeants. His boss kept him too busy for anything else.
He set off for Prell's office, wondering what new load of work was about to drop on him to rob him of evenings and weekends.
Prell was behind his desk when Rathgar walked in. There was no knocking or saluting. The commander looked spruce, competent, and wide awake. Rathgar knew for a fact that he'd been there the night before when he'd left work, and that he'd been there when he had come in--early, of course. Rathgar had quickly discovered that he always got more work done without the distraction of having 39 people vying for his attention. He had his suspicions that Prell felt the same way, only that the number he had in mind was 40.
"Sit down, lieutenant," he invited. Rathgar complied, still using the forward third of the chair after half a standard year. He wondered if he had done something stupid again, or if his boss just wanted an update on what was going on.
It seemed Prell wanted an update. They talked for awhile, and Rathgar tried to answer Prell's questions honestly. He was the kind of boss who would stand for no evasion. Just once the lieutenant had claimed a report was almost done when in fact he hadn't even started it. When Prell finished with him, he was a sadder, wiser, but more honest man.
This day he seemed satisfied with the answers he received, even though Rathgar felt like he should have had at least two of his projects done a week before. "You're learning, lieutenant," Prell told him. "To be honest, I didn't think you would when you first got here."
"Thank you, sir."
"You've been here for almost six months now," he went on, as though Rathgar hadn't spoken. "You're still working on the side issues. Sergeant Banda took care of most of the garbage you're doing now until you got here, you know."
Rathgar already knew that. He hadn't thought it was very complimentary to be saddled with a sergeant's work when he'd come on the job. Then he'd learned that the sergeant had been saddled with a lieutenant's work, and that he hadn't thought much of it, either. At least one of them was happy now.
"You've yet to work my main project," Prell told him. That came as a relief. He'd been afraid that his main project had been to do all the Damage to Property reports in the Empire, until he got them down pat. "Unfortunately, my main project is about to become your first and only priority. Sergeant Banda can have the side issues back for awhile, until we get rid of them for good."
"Yes, sir." He was next thing to overjoyed at the thought of getting rid of most of that stuff, overlaid with only a hint of sympathy for Banda.
"Things have been happening, Rathgar," Prell said, settling back a little more comfortably in his steel chair. "The Empire's running down. The rebels aren't doing much better, but they're going to come out on top. Unfortunately for us, they're going to come out on top pretty soon, not eventually." The words he was speaking were melodramatic, but his tone of voice was everyday. It served to accentuate the worry he was obviously feeling.
"What's happened, sir?"
"Have you ever heard of the Sangrama Experiment?"
"No, sir. Can't say that I have."
"I'm starting to think you might be the only one in 130 planetary systems who hasn't," Prell said. There was an edge to his voice that worried Rathgar.
The name of the project itself was significant. Lord Sangrama had lived a thousand years before. He was considered by many to be the greatest general in Imperial history, with the possible exception of the Founder Himself. A thousand years before, during the Chankallah War, the Empire had been pushed back into the confines of the original twenty five systems united by the Founder. Sangrama had been hereditary king of Thay. When the enemy had attacked Thay the old general had repulsed them using his household troops and local levies. He had then raised more troops from his own and neighboring systems and he had gone over to the offensive. After four hard-fought, year-long campaigns, the Chankallans had been forced onto the defensive. Sanatin, the brilliant young general who had planned and led their offensive, had been captured and shipped back to Mir Kurung, to be exhibited to the populace in a cage until he died.
The Chankallans had finally been beaten on their home world. That had been in Sangrama's seventh campaign. The Chankallan Emperor the--Shar-kalli-sharri--was killed in the fight for the Holy Moka. The riches that adorned that temple--it was actually more of a prayer hall--were shipped to Kraken, the Founder's World, to adorn the Temple of Savan Chaya. The Chankallan heiress had been shipped to Mir Kurung, the new capital, to warm the bed of the Chayan Emperor.
Every schoolboy knew the story of how Sangrama had saved the Empire. Every schoolboy also knew the story of what had come next. Three adult Emperors had been killed in a single year while leading the Imperial forces against the enemy. Along with them had been killed the men who, had they lived, would have carried on the Imperial line. Virtually the only direct male descendant of the Founder left alive was Charl XI. He was twelve years old at the time of his accession, 22 at the time of his marriage to Princess Ayesha. He was also stupid--some sources said he was mentally retarded--and gratuitously cruel. Only Lord Sangrama's presence as High Minister had kept his rule from ruining the Empire even more thoroughly than an enemy victory would have done.
A group of dissatisfied nobles had come to Sangrama with a proposal: Charl XI was to be deposed and Sangrama was to declare himself Emperor. The Chayan family was to be replaced with that of Sangrama.
The Great Defender's reply had been simple and to the point: The family of Savan Chaya I had governed a prosperous and growing Empire for over a thousand years. Some individual Emperors had been bad; the majority had been good. Loyalty was owed to the Imperial House and to Charl XI as its current head. He was the only living, legitimate male representative of that house. Sangrama was willing to defend him with his life, like him or not.
More importantly, Sangrama was willing to defend the Emperor with other people's lives. To prove his point, he proceeded to conduct a blood purge of all those who might be opposed to the stability of the Imperial Line. The old man had died in the fourth year of the purges, of bone cancer at 83. Charl XI died that same year, poisoned by the long-suffering Empress Ayesha. She disappeared with an adventurer named Morgan, and most people hoped the couple lived happily ever after. Even the regents didn't bother trying to chase them down.
Sangrama's purge, though, had left such a passion for legitimacy in the hearts of the few powerful nobles left alive that Charl's and Ayesha's infant son had ascended the throne without the slightest opposition. He was Hari Ganu, who presided over the Imperium's Golden Age.
"We need a general of the same caliber and loyalty as Sangrama," Prell explained without Rathgar even having to ask the question that was on his mind. "We simply don't have one. They just don't make them like him anymore. If they do, they don't give them the same kind of freedom of action. Current projections indicate that one or the other of the rebel groups will be on Mir Kurung within the next fifty years. In about half that time the Empire will have ceased to function as an effective political unit. Within ten years we'll have passed the point of no return, where no matter what we do the process will be irreversible. The projections were made at Lord Vespin's request, and the results are absolute Top Secret."
Rathgar felt chilled to the bone. He had known that the Empire was in bad shape in its wars with the rebels, with the Nung pirates, and with the mysterious Second Empire. The Empire had occasional victories, but the losses outnumbered them. The victories were minor and the losses major. It was less than half the size it had been even a hundred years before. For the Empire to actually fall was an entirely different matter. It was like being told a star was going to go out.
The analogy wasn't too far off the mark, either. There were enough projections of what would happen if there were suddenly no Empire. The three rebel groupings had little to offer their citizens, at least according to Imperial propaganda; in this case it was backed by the intelligence reports Rathgar was privy to every day. The Dornists, the Councils and the IPUM were respectively corrupt, corrupt and cruel, and corrupt and ferocious. Once there was no Empire to present a common enemy to them, they would fall upon each other and destroy the civilization so painfully built up over the past two thousand years. What would happen then was anybody's guess. Perhaps there would be another few thousand years of Dark Ages. Perhaps the Second Empire would come and replace Imperial civilization with something else, something unknowable. To date all contact between the two civilizations had been one-way.
"The facts," Prell told him, "were put before the Imperial Staff. After some argument, the members were made to see the truth of them."
"Yes, sir." Karel knew that move itself had been an accomplishment. Members of the Staff were noted for seeing what they wanted to see, which was usually whatever was in their immediate and personal interest.
"Extreme situations demand extreme measures. Even blasphemy can be excused, given the right circumstances. Lord Vespin proposed that Lord Sangrama be raised from the dead and put in charge of our forces. He was to deal with the rebels the same way he dealt with the Chankallans. A little over a year ago, his body was removed from the Tomb of the Founder and shipped to Haben. A new body was grown from cells taken from the old one."
Regeneration from individual cells was a common enough occurrence, usually confined to regrowing limbs or damaged organs. Regrowing an entire body was occasionally done, but not often. There were good reasons: "How could that help us, sir? Regrowing the body, from what I understand, would reproduce the brain but not the mind. They'd just end up with a person who looked like the original. By the time they'd finished educating it... him, I mean, they'd still have no guarantee he'd even think close to the way the original did."
Rathgar's boss nodded at that. "If those were all the facts, you'd be right. But there are a number of additional facts in our favor, one-time facts as it turned out. First, Sangrama was buried in the Tomb of the Founder. His body's been sealed and undisturbed all this while, just like those of the other great men of Imperial history. He was preserved by the same technique. It's a combination of irradiation and freeze drying. The bacteria causing decomposition of the soft tissues were destroyed, and new ones were kept out. The preservation was near perfect. The brain was dehydrated and a little shrunken, but its components were all there, essentially intact."
"I see," Rathgar said, not really seeing.
"Now, as it turns out, there was a genius med tech named Voll who worked at a military hospital on Haben. He specialized in brain damage, and he was working on the reconstruction of damaged brain tissue."
"To have Sangrama's whole brain reconstructed, sir?"
"To have his whole mind reconstructed," he corrected. "There's a difference. Voll found a way of taking a DNA or RNA blueprint from the original tissue and feeding it directly to the reconstructed tissue. The key to the process is that brain activity is at least to some extent holographic--if you have part of it, you can rebuild all of it. The more you have the better the job of reconstruction. Even though some of the cells of the original brain were destroyed during the irradiation, knowledge, memories, and even personality were all recreated, sort of like dubbing a recording. The trick from that point was to maintain the same endocrine balances as in the original body and let the healthy new brain deal with integrating the old contents. As it turned out, the hormones were actually the hardest part."
When Rathgar had been in school he had read about the little worms that could be trained to do little worm tricks like crawling toward a light. When they were ground up and fed to other little worms of the same type, worms that hadn't been taught the tricks, the ignorant were enlightened with their dinners, so to speak. He'd thought the whole idea sounded gruesome in school, and it didn't sound any more appetizing now when the subject was a human being and not a worm. He could see how it was feasible, assuming personality was a mechanical rather than a metaphysical process and that the process could be extended from worms to humans. "Was the experiment successful, sir?" he asked.
"Lord Sangrama was alive, well, and functioning when the Dornists raided Haben eight months ago. He was painfully emaciated and very weak from the force-growing process--it's hard enough just growing new limbs, so you can imagine an entire body. He had no knowledge of modern Imperial, which was to be expected, given the changes in the language since his day. Lord Vespin sent a monk who's fluent in Old Dai to give him language lessons, but I don't imagine he had time for many sessions before the attack came."
Rathgar didn't quite know what to think. On the one hand, he was excited by the prospect of the Empire managing to save herself from extinction or barbarism. On the other hand, the scheme seemed hare-brained to say the least, a last ditch attempt that relied too heavily on the past and not enough on what the Empire had now. And there was also the distinct feeling that they were meddling with things better left unmeddled with. The whole affair had a distinct whiff of the black arts about it.
"We think the whole purpose of the rebel attack," Prell went on, pulling Rathgar's thoughts back in the right direction, "was to kill Sangrama. All the other damage done to the world was gratuitous, though the Gods know there was enough of it. The rebels went through the hospital like a fire through a dry wood. They killed Voll, they killed all his assistants they could lay hands on, and they destroyed all his notes and working papers--those they didn't take with them."
"And all this was eight months ago, sir? What happened to Sangrama? Did the rebels kill him? Or was he captured?"
"We think he might have escaped. Anyway, we hope he did. We have some evidence in that direction, though it's not conclusive by any means. Lord Vespin's man on the scene managed to trace his movements as far as the woods around the hospital, which was a relatively safe place. We think he may have gotten away from there, but nothing's come to light on him since."
Rathgar wondered if he might not be grasping at straws. If they'd traced him that far, and there were a lot of Dornists around in control of things, he thought the chances might be just as good that Sangrama had been captured, or that he was buried under some bush in the woods. Or maybe even just lying out in the open and decomposing, the body not yet found.
"I found out about the raid last night from Lord Vespin," Prell went on. "It was reported formally, but nothing was said about Sangrama. Only a very few people know about the project at all, at least that's what we were thinking. On Haben there were supposed to be even fewer, only Voll, his staff, Vespin's man, and the monk who was sent to give him language lessons. Even the monk and Voll's staff weren't supposed to know who he was, though I imagine Sangrama must have told the monk his name. But he was supposed to be referred to by all concerned as 'Lord Igrek.'"
"Any idea how the information got out, sir?"
"Maybe from here," he said wearily. "Maybe from the Imperial Staff. It's not unheard-of for a member of the staff to have a leak in his organization. The information may even have been let out on purpose. Who knows anymore? The ins and outs of Staff politics are certainly beyond my comprehension. Sometimes I think they're beyond the comprehension of the Staff."
What he was saying was nothing new, certainly no surprise. Even with the facts prettied up by the press, it often seemed like the good of the Empire was pretty far down the Staff's list of priorities. It might come after the personal power of the members and that of their families. That there were exceptions to that rule like Lord Vespin only served to point out the contrast the more glaringly.
"The fact remains," Prell said, "that word did get out, and there's no way to get it back in. The rebels expended a lot of force to try and make sure he was dead."
It seemed to Rathgar to be an inefficient way of doing things. Product of his age that he was, Rathgar couldn't understand the rationalization that would send thousands of men to do a job of murder when one or two men would have done it better.
"Lord Vespin wants our team to leave for Haben and pick up the trail in those woods."
"Can that be done, sir?" Rathgar asked, not quite willing to believe. "The trail will be a full year old if we leave tomorrow, and you know it'll take longer than that to make all the arrangements. We'll be lucky if we're off the planet in a month."
"Lord Vespin's man had some leads that he passed along. All we can do is try our best. Vespin knows we can't produce miracles."
Lieutenant Rathgar wasn't all that sure he liked having the responsibility for the very survival of the Empire resting on his shoulders, whether anybody expected miracles or not. They were supposed to pick up an eight-month-old trail -- a year old by the time they would get there -- to find a man who would then work a miracle and defeat the rebels single-handedly. It wasn't the kind of odds he'd bet on in a casino. He hoped the Empire had a fall-back plan.
"We'll be leaving within a week," Prell ordered. "You'll handle the administrative details personally: off-world passports for the team, ship space, rations, the lot of it. Let me know if you have any trouble. We have a 'full cooperation' order personally signed by the Emperor, for what good it'll do. Vespin's also providing some major money for bribes, which'll probably do us more good."
In common with most Imperials, Rathgar had never been off his home world, even though it happened to be the administrative capital of the Empire. He wondered if Haben would be much different from Mir Kurung. He'd have to read up on it.
"By the way," Prell added, lowering his voice, "just for your own information, Lord Vespin's man on Haben found it desirable to return here to make his report personally."
"He'll be coming back with us?"
"It turned out he wanted to report personally to somebody else, too. We don't know to whom. He did manage to pass on some sort of information that probably was not passed on to Vespin. Keep that in mind. There will be somebody on Haben who knows everything we do, and a little more. They'll probably be actively trying to keep us from finding it out."
They boarded the passenger transport at Noyes Gagarin, on Mir Kurung, along with 25,000 or so other people. There they stayed for four solid months, until they got off at Anama, on the world of Haben. The ship was old, creaky, dirty, and it smelled strongly of oil, sweat and fried chilies. The route was subject to periodic turbulence that was beyond the capacity of the ship's aged antigravity system to handle, causing widespread space sickness, which added to the the collection of interesting odors.
Their enlisted men and women had been left back on Mir Kurung, the intent being to replace them with local levies who were familiar with the terrain when they landed. Prell and Rathgar shared a cabin that could have comfortably accommodated a single midget. The three sergeants had similar quarters, only with more bodies to accomodate. They ended up hot-bunking. The five of them spent most of the time reading, playing cards or talking, to each other and to other passengers. Rathgar learned a lot that way, most notably never to play cards with Kawi, and especially not with his deck. Sergeant Banda had a hot shipboard romance with an exotic-looking beauty who, when the moment of truth arrived, turned out to be a guy.
They could have turned the ship around half-way out and put them back on Mir Kurung. It would have taken them hours to notice the difference. As far as Rathgar could tell, the spaceports of both worlds were identical, down to the dirt in the corners. That wasn't so surprising, he found out from one of the crewmen from the ship. Not only does function govern the way a space port must be laid out, but so do blueprints. Many years before, somebody had gotten the idea that all spaceports in the Empire should be built to a standard design. A set of blueprints had been drawn up and issued, existing spaceports had been either modified or replaced, and ever since all spaceports in the Empire were identical, whether they needed to be or not.
The ship's gravity had been adjusted gradually over the course of the trip so they didn't even notice the very slight difference between Haben's 1.14 standard gravity and Mir Kurung's .978. The clock presented a little more of a problem. Mir Kurung's day was 20:47 hours long, while Haben's was 28:02. They would have more standard hours to work and sleep, but the adjustment on the ship had given them all a continuous case of space lag. Rathgar thought his body's "day" was up to about 25 or 26 hours by the time they landed, but the synchronization had been uncomfortable. An extra 7 3/4 hours is a sizable difference. Since the two planets possessed almost identical atmospheric compositions and pressures at least they didn't have to go through that adjustment.
It wasn't until they were outside the spaceport that the differences between Haben and their home world actually hit them, and then they were hit just as strongly by the similarities. Mir Kurung's sun was a gentle red, the planet lying very close in, number two of six. Haben's sun was just the opposite, a big blue-white, with the planet lying way out in the system, the 43rd of 180-odd major planets and the last of those even potentially habitable by humans. Next orbit out was a gas giant. That meant that the sun was a tiny, incandescent dot in the sky that couldn't be looked at with the naked eye. Back home watching sunspots had been a boy's summer afternoon pastime. It wasn't recommended on Haben.
But those were just superficial differences. The sky was different, the native plants were different, and the native animals were different. That was the extent of it. The rest of the world was about like home. Native animals were six-legged, but they were bilaterally symmetrical, with heads and even eyes, of a sort. There were even native "trees" and "grasses," just not many of them. For every native plant or animal seen there were two or three or more that were either originally terrestrial or that had been introduced from other worlds of the Empire over the past couple thousand years.
The buildings were, for the most part, of the same approximate designs they were used to. Government buildings and enterprise offices looked like warehouses, or maybe vice versa. Temples looked like temples, gaudy or severe, depending on the religious persuasion of the builders. Private homes looked like private homes; there were long rows or yellow or gray apartment complexes, crammed full of working families. There were sprawling Great Houses, set on enough hectares to feed a largish city, for the rich. There were drafty little houses up on stilts where farmers and hands lived. Haben had been part of the Empire for a long time. It would take an archaeologist to find out what it had once been like.
The people they saw looked remarkably like people everywhere, nothing exotic about them. They came in all colors and sizes, from light-skinned blonds who could have been kin to Rathgar, to dark-skinned kinkies who could have been family to Kawi, with the "somewhere in between" shade heavily predominating. The common people dressed in loose pants or sarongs, which they called sampots. Upper class men favored trousers and jackets, with broad hats to keep the sun from their heads. Upper class women wore dresses nearly as daring as those in fashion back home. The local accent was twangy and nasal but it was perfectly comprehensible in most places, but varying, sometimes dramatically, from location to location.
They put a call through to the local Imperial Security office from the spaceport, and after awhile their colleagues sent a bus to take them into town. The vehicle was of local manufacture, steam-driven, as were most public conveyances in the Empire at that time, and as battered as any city bus to be seen in Novy Gagarin. It was poorly sprung and the seats were strictly utilitarian, devices designed to keep bottoms from hitting the vehicle's floor, not for comfort. The driver wore the same uniform they did: whites with a hard kepi, with the stylized "IS" on the hat band and the cuff band. He seemed not at all surprised to see them, and he didn't seem exceptionally welcoming. In fact, it didn't seem he cared one way or the other why they were there or whether they were there.
Traffic on the way into town was light. The scenery on the drive was flat and unexciting, consisting of hectare upon hectare of farmland, rich, but not very scenic. Haben was mostly temperate zone due to its distance from the sun, and it fed itself very well in comparison to many worlds. The farmland gradually gave way to the suburbs, consisting of scattered industrial and residential parks. These in their turn gave way to the closely packed buildings of the city proper.
Haben's capital was a twin city. The Governor's residence and offices and administration were in Anama, which had broad, tree-lined boulevards and too much traffic. Ban Wazli, on the other side of the river, was a dirty, teeming industrial city, also with too much traffic. The two cities had different "personalities," but they did share their traffic problems.
Ban Wazli's Imperial Security offices were housed in a walled compound on the edge of the city. There were the usual guards and identity checks, though not quite so stringent as back home. A harrassed-looking duty officer found them temporary quarters in a crumbling old barracks that Rathgar was sure must have been left over from three or four wars back. It was already overcrowded when they got there; they were starting to miss the spacious accommodations they had on the ship.
Once the NCOs were settled in, the duty officer showed Prell and Rathgar to the commandant's office. The city's detachment commander was a major who looked like he'd grown old in his job, which he may well have done. He was a member of the middle aristocracy, and so had likely attended a Field Grade Officers' academy many years back, graduated with the rank of major, and never advanced since. After talking to him for awhile one could see why that might have happened. The man spoke in platitudes and generalities. Vagueness was his friend and helper. His attempts at making polite conversation very nearly put Rathgar to sleep. Part of it was caution on the major's part; he was afraid Prell had come to take his command away from him, even though Rathgar guessed there were lots of other qualified people locally who could have done that.
Prell explained that they were there on special assignment, without going into details. That seemed to put the man's mind a little at ease. Prell increased his comfort level by assuring him that they wouldn't be interfering with his day-to-day operations any more than they absolutely had to.
After about a half hour of listening to his description of the raid, Rathgar started wishing Prell would take his command away from him. The major hadn't bothered conducting after-action research, other than the bare notation in his log that it had occurred. He wasn't much up on local conditions; his specialty was space-to-surface missiles. He could tell them something about them, not that they'd been used in the raid, but he couldn't tell them much about where to start their own investigations. Rathgar was glad they had copies of the reports that Lord Vespin's man had brought back with him. They might not have been complete or accurate in all particulars, but he was willing to bet that they would have more leads in them than they would ever get out of their colleagues on the scene. Rathgar had quickly learned when he began associating a little more with other officers in IS that men like Prell were a distinct minority in the Imperial service. Sometimes Rathgar thought he was a minority of one.
They made their way out of the commandant's office without either of them doing him violence. While they were waiting for a car to be sent around to take them back to their temporary quarters, the lieutenant started to express his opinions of the major. Prell cut him off before he had gone far enough to actually relieve much impatience. "You're right," the senior officer agreed. "The man's an ass, and he probably comes from a long line of asses. He's what we have to work with here until we're set up, so we'll use him as he is, not as we'd like him to be."
"... find his nether regions with both hands without turning around to look," Prell finished for him. "He does have a staff, though, not all of whom will be complete dullards. Use him to help us with our quartering and such, even if he can't help with our operations. Have Kawi mine his organization for people with half a brain; we'll woo them away from him and put them to work for us. We've got to get tied into the local system here, meaning we need people who know their way around. None of us even knows the bus lines. I don't want to go stumbling around here for years, getting nothing done."
Rathgar bowed to his boss's superior wisdom and left to find Kawi. He was stuck in a tiny room with two other NCOs who resented his presence. The lieutenant and the sergeant departed to find a noodle stand, there to have lunch and discuss what they would have to do to get up and running.
"No sweat," Kawi told him, munching a meatball that was mostly onion and grain. "I'll just nose around and find who can count to ten without a reference book. No problem there. Who's gonna find our quarters for us? The adjutant?"
"I'll get with his NCO. That way things'll go quicker." The adjutant, not working for Prell, would send his NCO to do the actual work of finding a place for them. After that worthy reported -- and only then -- he would pass the information on to Rathgar, to pass on to Prell, who would have Rathgar pass it to Kawi if he hadn't already. It would take a couple weeks or longer that way, just to find a building with some space in it, not to mention furniture and equipment. With Kawi there to say yea or nay to the arrangements and to offer his sage advice things would go smoother. They would also avoid finding themselves someplace that would interfere with their work, for instance in a swamp or next door to a whorehouse. "How about the people on our list?" Kawi asked him. "Should we get on them right away, or should I wait until we're all settled in?"
They had all been looking forward to having a talk with Monk Brayan, Sangrama's tutor. Corporal Suwan was on record as having actually spent some time with the old general, perhaps even saving his life if her testimony could be believed. Alka Plakida, one of the civilian laborers from the hospital, had also spent some time with him.
Starting out before they were ready to go was not Prell's way. He didn't like the idea of them just jumping in and hitting everybody in sight with questions and maybe giving the wrong people ideas. "We'll have to wait until we're set up and operational," Rathgar said regretfully. "They've kept this long, they'll keep for another few days. How soon do you think you can come up with a place for us to work?"
They had gone over their requirements for work space during the time spent on the ship, when Kawi and Merkar hadn't been relieving Rathgar of his pay and Banda hadn't been chasing what he thought were women. Kawi and he both knew what they would need, which technical facilities they would have to be close to, how much floor space would be needed, even how many entrances and exits would be needed. The four-month journey had given them lots of time to go over everything in detail. It was just a matter of finding a place that matched their specifications. "Give me a week," Kawi said. "If I don't have us a place then, I'll know where to find one, and who to pay off."
"Okay." Rathgar knew the sergeant well enough by now to take him at his word.
"How you fixed for money, lieutenant?" Kawi asked, having apparently jogged his own memory.
"I lost it all to you guys on the trip out here. Why? Do we need to bribe somebody already?"
"Not yet. I'm broke. Lost it all at cards and the tiles."
"You lost all that dough you won from me?"
The sergeant grinned, showing his mouthful of gold. "Can I borrow twenty tiels from you to go slumming tonight?"
"Twenty tiels! Who told you I was made of solid silver? Is that in the line of duty?"
"You know how dedicated I am, boss. Besides, we need to get the flavor of the place."
"Okay," Rathgar said, digging into his pocket. "Just try not to get your face bashed in again. Let me know if you find out anything of interest."
"I'll call you from the hospital."
"Don't even joke like that. And don't let the boss know I'm financing your night of debauchery."