William Zellmann

The Emperor's conspiracy

Chapter I

As I struggled toward consciousness, my first sensation was of overwhelming cold. The next was the smell and, yes, the sour taste of vomit.

I shook my head to clear it, and instantly regretted the action as the movement touched off a severe pounding. I groaned and cursed as I tried to examine my surroundings without moving my aching head.

The massive unpainted gray duracrete walls and barred grates, together with the uncomfortable cold, told me everything I needed to know. Jail, or whatever they called it on Haven. Depressed as I was about being in jail, it was as nothing to the knowledge that I was on Haven.

Weak sunlight did its feeble best to pour through the small, barred window. Haven is hardly the vacation spot of known space. Oh, it's about average size for a man-settled planet, and its gravity is only. 92 of standard. Unfortunately, though, while the system's primary is a class G0 dwarf, the same class as Prime's, Haven is slightly farther from it. More importantly, for the last thousand years or so, Haven has been emerging from an ice age. The glaciers have retreated enough that slightly over half the land between the poles and the equator are ice-free, at least part of the year. At the poles it's uninhabitable.

Man wouldn't have bothered with a world like Haven except for two things. First, the system hosts no less than four jump points. Second, it's the rim system nearest the rest of the Empire.

The first point guaranteed that Haven's system would become a major recalibration point for transiting starships. Such a busy transit point would inevitably develop into a trading hub, and Haven was habitable, barely. Even counting the expense of coping with the extreme climate, it was still cheaper to settle the planet than to build an orbiting space station big enough to serve such a hub. So a few hardy souls, mostly employees of the trading combines, came to Haven. They poured low, massive, ugly, super-insulated duracrete buildings to withstand the incredible storms, and settled in to stay.

The second point was why Haven was home to more than just a few traders and chandlers: someone with a nasty sense of humor selected Haven to be the capitol of the Rim Sector. Or perhaps it was just some bureaucrat who learned Haven was physically closest of the rim planets to the rest of the Empire, and didn't know, or didn't care, about its climate.

At any rate, Haven is now home to several million people. I'd never be one of them, though. I hate the cold.

That partly explained why I was in jail. From the surface, Haven City just looked like a cluster of huge, featureless gray domes, interspersed with a few more conventional buildings half buried in snow. But all those domes were interconnected by duracrete tunnels, and a lot of Haven City is underground. In contrast to the colorless ugliness of the surface, Haveners decorate the interiors of the tunnels and buildings in blindingly bright, sometimes garish, colors and patterns matched only by their equally garish clothing styles.

Of course, with the lack of outside amusements, they had come up with an amazing variety of indoor activities, many of which included or featured liquid refreshment. Alcoholic liquid refreshment.

Since I left the Empire Fleet some ten years ago, drinking and bar brawls had become increasingly important parts of my recreational activities. Hari, my engineer and best friend, was beginning to nag me unmercifully about it. But no matter how often I told him, he just didn't seem to understand that drinking helped blur the faces and drown the memories…

Metallic clanks that reverberated in my aching head announced the arrival of my jailer, accompanied by Hari. If I hadn't been so miserable, I probably would have snickered at the appearance they made. The jailer was short and stout, almost as wide as he was tall. His greasy black hair and blue chin lent him an apelike appearance. He barely came up to Hari's chest.

Hari was almost a comical opposite. Two meters tall, Hari is skinny, looking almost emaciated. His white hair is so thin as to be nearly invisible at any distance, which gives his head a skull-like appearance. Add to this the fact that Hari spends very little of his time off our ship, the Valkyrie, and his paleness instantly brings to mind a corpse.

But Hari is also undoubtedly the best engineer I've ever met. He has an instinctive feel that seems to let him know in advance if something is going to happen to the old bitch. He also saved my life.

When I dropped off my resignation letter and fled the Fleet, I was verging on suicidal. Hari resigned his commission to come with me. He nursed me through the nightmares and the sometimes-monumental drunks. He talked me through the depressions. He's my best — okay, only — friend.

Right now, though, he didn't look it. Now, Hari's pale cheeks blazed an angry red. His expression was grim.

I sat up on the bunk, suppressing a wince at the roaring pain in my head. I tried to greet him, but all that came out was a wordless croak. I swallowed, and almost gagged at the sour taste of bile.

Hari just shook his head in furious frustration as his gaze swept over my unshaven, vomit-stained person. Finally, he sighed deeply. 'All right, let him out.' His gravelly bass voice was, as always, a surprise, coming from that thin body.

The jailer shrugged and applied the key strip to the cell's lock. The door slid open. I rose unsteadily, and gathering what I could of my tattered dignity, walked out of the cell.

As I retrieved my belongings from the jailer I heard the desk sergeant tell Hari, 'Drunk 'n disorderly, assault 'n batt'ry, assaultin' police officers. We'll send the damage bill out to yer ship. Don't try t' lift off 'til it's paid, 'r you'll both be in here.' Hari nodded, glaring at me. While Hari was still dealing with the financial matters, I slipped into the 'fresher to make myself more presentable.

The image in the mirror didn't make me feel any better. I grimaced and scraped what I could of the dried vomit from my rumpled, creased uniform. A wetted towel got most of the rest. I couldn't depilate, and my chin and cheeks were darkly shadowed. I resolved to try to stay downwind of everyone. I splashed cold water on my face, hoping to banish some of the sallowness from my skin, the bleariness from my eyes. I didn't have notable success, but the splash of cold water did wash most of the cobwebs from my brain.

At least I didn't have to worry about a tangled mass of hair. Habit forged in the imperial marines had kept my hair only about a centimeter in length. I ran my fingers through it to give it a semblance of order. I examined myself again, and came to the reluctant conclusion that I'd done all I could. It would have to do until I could get to a 'fresher back aboard Valkyrie.

Hari was waiting when I left the 'fresher, his thunderous expression radiating disapproval. We started for the jail's door, and he started.

'Damn it, Val, this has to stop. You're getting as bad as Con!'

I winced at that. Con Wiler was Valkyrie's Astrogator. He was also the shallowest human I've ever known. He had an amazingly large collection of porn vids, and spent nearly all his in-space time in his stateroom, immersed in them. When grounded, Con spent all his time and all his money on port bars and port prostitutes. He was always drinking, drunk, or hung over. He didn't enjoy bar brawls, but he often bore evidence of the anger of boyfriends, husbands, or fathers.

'Don't be silly, Hari,' I replied, stung. 'It's only once in a while.' I tried a weak smile. 'And at least I'm not chasing women.'

The smile didn't work. Hari just shook his head in exasperation. He opened his mouth to reply, but closed it as two men walked up.

The blinding colors of their clothing contrasted with their colorlessness. They were completely average. Average height, average weight, average hair color, average everything.

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