A Grand Imperial War

Lieutenant Suarez of the Imperial Marines is facing a sticky situation. The Human ambassador is having an affair with a Farsalian princess, which leads to an incident for which Suarez gets the blame. Fortunately—or unfortunately—for him, Emperor of all Humankind Stanislaus has been looking for an excuse to start a war anyway.

Desperate battles, secret missions, romantic entanglements, interstellar plots, and court intrigues now await Suarez and his doughty band in A Grand Imperial War.

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Weeks into his new post commanding the small detachment of Imperial Marines guarding the Human embassy to the homeworld of the cat-like Farsalians, Lieutenant Suarez is facing a sticky situation. The Human ambassador is having an affair with a Farsalian princess, who is a cousin of the Farsalian Matriarch. That leads to a riot, which leads to an incident, for which Suarez gets the blame, and then, oddly enough, the credit. Because Stanislaus VII, Emperor of all Humankind, decides that he is bored, and declaring war over the matter would be great fun and provide a break in the monotony of his opulent, indolent life. And that’s just to start with. Because desperate battles, secret missions, romantic entanglements, interstellar plots, and court intrigues all await Suarez and his doughty band in A Grand Imperial War.

Chapter 1—A Routine Diplomatic Incident

“Your slave is being tiresome again.” Melorah extended her claws in annoyance, just enough to pierce the skin of Richard’s bare buttocks.

“Ow!” Richard Gettricks, Human Ambassador to the Farsalian Matriarchy, rubbed his freshly punctured rear and frowned at the small amount of blood that stained his hand. “She is not my slave. She is the Cultural Attaché, and, tiresome or not, I don’t wish to discuss her at the moment.” Richard grinned lecherously and reached to stroke the downy fur on Melorah’s flank.

Melorah batted his hand aside absently, and rolled sinuously away on the Ambassador’s enormous, silken bed. “She’s spoiled my mood, lurking outside the door.”

Gettricks glanced at the door to his quarters and then back at his lover.

Melorah rolled her eyes. “Can you not hear her out there?” She sniffed. “She reeks of fear. Perhaps you should see what she wants.” Melorah arose from the bed, sashayed to a side table and poured herself a snifter of brandy from a crystal decanter.

Gettricks knew his lover’s moods well by now. He sighed in mourning for the afternoon’s love play, cruelly throttled in its crib. The Ambassador threw on a robe and tied it closed with an angry jerk. With a final leer at Melorah’s naked, silver-gray furred back he crossed the room and slapped the door control.

The door dilated open. Cultural Attaché Michiko Tanaka shrieked in surprise and jumped back.

“Is there a problem, Michiko?”

“Mister Ambassador, you startled me.” Michiko put a hand on her chest and breathed deeply.

“I apologize, Michiko. I asked not to be disturbed. I assume you have a good reason for hovering about out here.”

“Yes sir, there is a … disturbance in the plaza, out in front of the Embassy.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is a crowd of Farsalians out in front of the Embassy.”

“And why should that concern me?”

“Well, the crowd keeps growing, and they look rather angry.” Tanaka glanced around her boss at Melorah. “I think someone saw the Princess when she arrived.”

“Pardon the interruption,” The cultured baritone of the Embassy’s AI emanated from the ceiling. “I thought you should know. The crowd outside has started to hurl objects at the facade. Two windows have been broken.”

“What? This is outrageous!” Gettricks stomped off in the direction of the front hall, his bare feet slapping the marble floor.

“Madam Cultural Attaché,” The voice continued. “I’ve taken the liberty of declaring a Level One Situation. Would you like to countermand?”

Tanaka dithered for a moment before answering the AI. “No, don’t countermand, Horatio. You’d better alert the marines.”

“All six of them are already headed for the front hall.”

Tanaka dashed into the Ambassador’s quarters to snatch up a pair of slippers and then hurried after Gettricks.

Princess Melorah watched her go. She sighed with bored disdain, took a last sip of brandy and began dressing with languid grace.

✽✽✽

The ornate front hall of the Human Embassy was lit by a golden afternoon light slanting in through shattered plate glass windows. Tanaka found Gettricks picking his way through the shards littering the priceless Persian carpet at the foot of the grand staircase.

“Please be careful, Sir. You’ll cut your feet.” Tanaka offered the pair of slippers to her boss.

“The nerve of these people, this is an Embassy! Don’t they realize we have diplomatic immunity?” Gettricks shoved his toes into the slippers.

A brick sailed in from the street and connected with the chandelier. More glass debris tinkled to the floor. Tanaka snatched a silver tray from a mahogany table and sheltered from the glass rain.

“They don’t appear to be concerned with legal technicalities at the moment, Sir.”

“Oh my God, now that is just too much! That chandelier came all the way from Paris!” Gettricks jerked an umbrella free from the stand by the door and opened it. Shards of glass bounced off the taut fabric.

Tanaka peered out at the crowd of several hundred Farsalians milling about in the plaza. Dozens more filtered in from adjoining streets with each passing minute. There was an angry buzz emanating from the group. They were all males, not a supervising female in sight. Now, that was a bad sign.

A rhythmic clumping announced the arrival of the Embassy’s marines: Lieutenant Suarez, Sergeant Gold and four privates. The six bore a passing resemblance to bipedal polar bears in their powered, combat armor. Sergeant Gold directed the four privates to form a line across the entry hall.

After glancing outside Private McGee leaned over to Private Gupta. “Who rubbed the Kitties’ fur the wrong way this time?”

“I will not have the Farsalians referred to by that term!” Gettricks snapped.

“No calling the Kitties Kitties!” Sergeant Gold’s thunderous order shook loose more chandelier fragments.

“Lieutenant Suarez, we have a situation here.” Gettricks swept a hand at the glass-strewn entry hall.

Suarez opened his faceplate and assessed the condition of the large room. He noted Gettricks’ inappropriate attire, but decided that was probably not a constructive topic of conversation at the moment. “What’s the problem?”

“What the problem? I know that this is your first month here, Lieutenant, but surely you can see that gaggle of hooligans is trashing the Embassy. That’s what the problem is.”

“I can see that, Ambassador. Why are they trashing the Embassy?”

“That is not your concern. Go out there and disperse that crowd.”

“Excuse me, Sirs,” Sergeant Gold interrupted. “I’ve had some experience in these matters, Antares VII, the colony on New Topeka, Engstrom’s World. That is no longer a crowd. It’s a mob, now.”

Gettricks was really getting annoyed. “What difference does it make?”

“Well, Mister Ambassador, it’s a matter of focus. A crowd doesn’t have any.” Gold gestured at the plaza. “A mob is all looking the same way, thinking the same thing. They’re like a loaded gun, just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.”

Two stones and a brick sailed in from the mob more or less simultaneously. Private Gupta reached up and caught the brick before it hit a Rigilian landscape painting.

“Richard.” Melorah called from the head of the grand staircase. The humans swiveled to watch her descend the stair like the civilized predator she was. “I’ll be leaving now. Do call me when you’ve sorted this all out.”

“Now we know why there’s a mob on our doorstep,” Private Chen whispered to Private McGee.

“Too right,” McGee agreed.

“Princess, I don’t think it’s safe to leave at the moment.” Gettricks attempted to take her by the arm.

Melorah deftly avoided Gettricks’s grasp. “Not safe? Whatever do you mean?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, dearest, there are hundreds of irate males outside. They might do you harm.”

“One thousand one hundred twenty-seven Farsalian males in the plaza proper,” Horatio supplied from a speaker in the ceiling.

Melorah chuckled, twitched her pointed ears and patted Gettricks on the cheek. “How sweet of you to be concerned for me, but you needn’t fret. I am a Princess of the Blood. They wouldn’t dare.”

Before Gettricks could think to do anything about it, Melorah swept past him and was out the door. She paused in the broad, marble portico and surveyed the mob. A silence fell. The males wouldn’t meet her eyes. Most of them actually bowed their heads. With a snort of contempt, Melorah started forward. The males parted to afford her a broad avenue through them. She strode on as if the plaza were empty. The Humans stared in shocked amazement.

“Crikey!” Private McGee’s unmistakable Oz Worlder accent broke the spell.

As soon as the Princess turned a corner the barrage of bricks and stones resumed with increased intensity.

“I thought they were mad at her,” Gettricks confessed.

“No Sir,” A stone caromed off of Tanaka’s silver-tray shield. Farsalian males revere Farsalian females. They compete for female attention. These males are jealous of you, Sir.”

“I suppose I should be flattered.”

“You probably should. Of course, that won’t stop them from killing you, and us.”

“Not that this cultural discussion isn’t fascinating,” Lieutenant Suarez interrupted. “But I really think we should evacuate the Embassy before somebody pulls the trigger on that mob.”

Gettricks held up a hand. “We aren’t doing anything of the sort. Ordering an embassy abandoned looks very bad on a diplomat’s record.” The Ambassador took a step towards the front door, dragging Tanaka with him. “Michiko, if we just present a united front to these ruffians, I’m sure they’ll simply disperse and go home.”

Michiko peeked at the mob around her makeshift tray/shield. “Ambassador, maybe we should just go hide – uh I mean, go monitor developments from the wine cellar. Horatio can keep us apprised, and notify the local authorities.”

“I’m actually having a bit of difficulty contacting the police at the moment.” Horatio’s voice was maddeningly calm.

“Nonsense!” Gettricks grunted with the effort of dragging Tanaka closer to the front door. “I will not allow these hooligans to further damage my embassy.”

Suarez sighed, shook his head and turned to Sergeant Gold. Then, the lieutenant did a very unexpected thing. He used a hand signal that requested a non-lethal fragging, and pointed at Gettricks.

Gold’s eyebrows rose in astonishment. Commissioned officers were not supposed to know about such things. Suspect yes, but not know.

Suarez had found a rather interesting spot on the ceiling to stare at, which diverted his attention from whatever might transpire at floor level. Gold tilted his head philosophically and pointed at Private Gupta, who still had hold of the incoming brick he had caught. Gupta shrugged, hefted the brick a couple of times before throwing it at the back of Gettricks’ head. The Ambassador dropped like a pole-axed ox.

“Oh, Oh!” Tanaka struggled with Gettricks’ limp form. Her task was complicated because she was averting her eyes. The Ambassador’s robe had come open as he collapsed, displaying his diplomatic credentials. “Lieutenant, Lieutenant, one of those bricks has hit the Ambassador.”

“The bastards!” Suarez helped Tanaka with the burden of her boss. “He’s unconscious, but still alive. Sergeant Gold, bring up a medevac capsule for the Ambassador.”

“Yes sir.” Gold detailed Chen to fetch the capsule.

“What are you orders, Madam Acting Ambassador?” Suarez helped Tanaka to her feet.

“My orders?”

“Yes Ma’am, you’re in charge, now that the Ambassador is incapacitated.”

Tanaka gulped. Perhaps she thought about the fact that the eight of them were the only Humans in several dozen light years. Maybe she noticed the rising fervor of the mob beyond the shattered front door. It could be she considered the degree of damage her record would suffer for abandoning an Embassy. Possibly she marveled at the trajectory of a brick thrown from the mob which hit Gettricks in the back of the head when he was facing the plaza.

Whatever Tanaka thought, what she did was suddenly clasp a hand to her obviously uninjured forehead and begin to stagger.

“Oh! Another one of those bricks has hit me!”  Tanaka moaned and swayed, somewhat spoiling the effect by briefly breaking off in mid-moan to glance at what was behind her, before swooning into the arms of a startled Private Gupta.

“Chen, we’ll need another medevac capsule,” Suarez shook his armored head.

✽✽✽

By the time Gettricks and Tanaka were sealed into medevac capsules and sedated, the mob had begun to hurl the local equivalent of Molotov cocktails through the remnants of windows and doors. A set of silk brocade drapes burned merrily. Flames caressed the ceiling.

“I assume we’re going to evacuate.” Gold straightened up from Gettricks’ capsule.

“We don’t have any choice, even if the place wasn’t about to burn down.” Suarez jerked a thumb at the blazing drapes. “From what I hear the Princess has been coming over here for afternoon delight with Gettricks for months now. And suddenly a riot starts? No, something’s up. Somebody’s using this as an excuse.”

“An excuse to do what?”

“Don’t know, don’t care, Sergeant. Not my job to figure it out. All I need to know is that the manure has hit the fan and my duty, our duty, is to get these two diplomats the hell out of the way.”

Suarez looked up at the roof. “Horatio, you still awake?”

“As always, Lieutenant.”
“Good. How does the back-door look?”

“There are currently thirty-seven Farsalian males attempting to batter down the rear entrance to the Embassy. I estimate they shall succeed in four minutes, twenty-nine seconds, plus or minus twelve seconds.”

Suarez drummed his armored fingers on the teak stairway railing.

“Horatio, can you link to the Potomac out at the starport?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good, tell the Potomac’s AI that we will be coming like the whole damned city is on our tails, howling for blood, which might just be the case. I want to lift the second the hatch slams shut.”

“The Potomac’s AI sends that the ship will be flight ready in seven minutes fifty-two seconds.”

“Thank you, Horatio. Now, wipe your data banks and fry your mainframe, authorization code BOHICA.”

“Very good, sir, BOHICA confirmed.” Wisps of gray smoke wafted from the speaker grill in the ceiling.

“Gentlemen, we are blowing this popcorn stand.” Suarez pointed at each marine in turn. McGee, Gupta each of you strap one of those medevac capsules on your back. Chen, buddy up with McGee. Selous, you watch Gupta’s back. Sergeant Gold will lead the way. I’ll bring up the rear.”

The mob was edging closer to the Embassy, chanting something that struck a gut-rumbling harmonic every few seconds.

“We’re headed for the starport. The objective is to get the hell out of here in one piece. Stay together. Try not to hurt any of the locals, but the truth is that we’re already in so much trouble that a couple of minor atrocities along the way aren’t going to make that much difference. Any questions?”

No one spoke up.

“Well, that’s good,” Suarez unslung his blast rifle, “Because I don’t have any more answers.”

The Lieutenant pointed the blaster at the skylight; two stories up, and blew the five-meter-wide hexagon of glass and aluminum into late-afternoon sky.

“Sergeant Gold, you have the point.”

“Yes, sir!” Gold bent his knees slightly and activated his jump boosters. Orange flames shot from his backpack, licking the floor, melting shards of glass and propelling the Sergeant through the skylight.

Gupta and Selous went next. Chen and McGee followed a few seconds later. Suarez paused for a final scan of the entry hall, and then blasted off as well.

Chapter 2—Minor Atrocities

Most of the mob had hit the dirt when Suarez blasted the skylight. The sudden launches into the sky kept their heads down for a few more moments. Then, once they figured out their prey was escaping, several thousand Farsalians ran after the soaring marines.

Three hundred meters above the city, Suarez steered to follow the five flaming projectiles of his command across the sky. This part of the Farsalian homeworld consisted of flat, dusty grasslands. The buildings of the capital were designed to blend in to that natural setting, as much as is possible. They were dun-colored, low and rambling. Generous parcels of savannah stretched between dwellings in even the poorest parts of town. Farsalians evolved from plains predators, and they went to great pains to preserve that heritage.

“Designating first bounce site as LZ Able.” Sergeant Gold cut off his jets and began falling.

Suarez let his suit’s AI handle the details of the initial landing, while he studied the spot highlighted by a blinking cursor on his faceplate. LZ Able was a broad oval, half a kilometer across, surrounded by an embankment. The team was falling toward the center of the oval like a cascade of mortar shells.

It took Suarez a few seconds to recognize the place. Then he grunted in appreciation of Gold’s chutzpah. “Well, this ought to be interesting.”

LZ Able was Matriarch Behroma Memorial Stadium, and there was a game in progress. Players scattered and the crowd buzzed in puzzlement. The six humans rode their retros in near the mid-field marker, torching black circles in the knee-high grass. A ball came bouncing by. Suarez trapped it absently under one foot.

The name of the game translated roughly as ‘Steal Away’. There were four teams, three goals and two balls in play at all times. It was a rough game by Farsalian standards, which meant that it was murderous.

“Hey, I’ve got money on this game,” McGee complained. “I wonder how the Maulers are doing.”

“Look for yourself. The score board is over there. Goals are shown to the left of the column marked ‘Deaths During Play’.” Gupta suggested, but didn’t take his eyes off the pack of players that had reformed themselves and were cautiously creeping back to mid-field.

McGee awkwardly twisted around the medevac capsule on his back to scan the scoreboard. “Bloody buggers, they’re losing by seven points! Now I don’t feel so bad about interrupting the game.” A light dawned in McGee’s eyes. “Say, as long as we’re here, how about we even the odds a bit? Nothing serious, just toss a few fragmentation grenades at the other teams.”

Gupta scowled. “You simply want to win your bet. Even if you do, how do you expect to collect?”

“Well, I don’t, but it’s the principle of the thing. Now, isn’t it?” McGee nodded, smugly satisfied with his irrefutable logic.

“Shut it! We got work to do.” Gold must have had money on the other team.

“We’ve worn out our welcome here.” Suarez eyed the obviously enraged players. “Sergeant, keep the hops lower from here on out. We don’t want to give anybody enough time for a radar lock.”

“Yes sir!” Gold glared at McGee. “You heard the Lieutenant. Keep it low. Keep it tight. Let’s bounce!”

Gold turned, bent his legs and launched into the air.

McGee chuckled. “Silly game anyway.”

Before he followed his men, Suarez kicked the ball clear, but didn’t stick around to see if he’d scored.

✽✽✽

The string of marines jetted along, fifty meters above a broad and curving residential boulevard. Suarez noted with guarded optimism that they were about halfway to the starport. Naturally, fate chose that particular moment to pitch another curve ball.

Suarez’s command suit AI highlighted three blips closing fast on their tail, local air cars.

“We’ve got company! Everybody hit the deck!”

Several Farsalians leaned out side windows of the cars, clutching the unmistakable shapes of weapons. Before everyone reached the ground the nearest air car opened up with blaster fire.

“Weapons free,” Suarez unleashed his men.

From a purely technical viewpoint the results were precise and immediately effective. Almost a dozen small missiles rode streaks of fire from the grounded marines. This was more than enough to destroy the air cars. Multiple detonations merged into one fire ball, a bright cloud that rained debris.

Suarez had no time to admire the handiwork. His status panel indicated he had a man down. It was Gupta.

Suarez and Gold clumped over to where the swarthy private lay unconscious on the ground. McGee knelt over his comrade.

“Guppy! Guppy, are you alright man?”

Gupta came to long enough to gasp. “Don’t call me by that ridiculous name, you Ozzy lout.” Gupta’s eyes rolled up and he passed out again.

McGee heaved a heavy sigh of relief. “That’s my Guppy, all right. He’ll be just fine, he will.”

“Glad to hear it.” Gold thumped the top of McGee’s helmet with an armored fist. “Now get that medevac capsule off Gupta’s back and secure it to Chen’s.”

Gold and Selous watched the ends of the street. Suarez studied the diagnostic scans of Gupta’s suit and the medical readouts on Gupta. McGee helped Chen switch the capsule. Fortunately, Gupta was not in serious trouble, assuming he saw the inside of Potomac’s sickbay within an hour. His suit was another matter. A bolt from one of those blasters must have fried a good chunk of the suit’s circuitry. The damned thing wouldn’t even open up to remove Gupta at the moment. With a sour face Suarez instructed what was left of Gupta’s suit’s AI to keep working on it and walked over to Gold.

“Orders, Sir?”

Suarez glanced around at the five men trying not to look as if the they were listening very intently to what he was about to say. Gold did a better job of it. He’d been deep in the brown stuff plenty of times before this.

After quickly ticking off the options in his head, Suarez came to a decision. “Gold, continue on to the starport. I’ll stay behind with Gupta and follow at the best pace we can manage. Once you’re aboard the Potomac wait no more than ten minutes for Gupta and me, then lift and make for home.”

Gold held Suarez’s eyes for a few seconds. “Yes Sir.” He grabbed McGee by one of the lifting handles technicians use to horse the suits around while servicing them. “You heard the LT. Selous, you got the point. McGee and Chen are next. I’ll bring up the rear.”

“We just can’t be leaving Guppy here!” McGee struggled, but Gold knew what he was about. A few quick key strokes on McGee’s external control pad slaved the suit to Chen’s. McGee’s suit movements started to mimic Chen’s.

Inside his hijacked suit, McGee continued to protest. “Hey, hey I got an idea! Let’s unship Gettricks from the evac capsule and put Guppy in there. Maybe we can come back for Hizhoner later.”

Gold pointed at Selous. “Let’s hop.”

Selous nodded and took off. Chen and McGee’s suit followed as one.

Gold saluted Suarez before he followed. “Good luck, Sir.”

Suarez chuckled and shook his head, watching his command climb away from him into the dusk. “Got any extra luck lying around, Gupta? I seem to be fresh out, myself.”

Gupta remained silent, His heart rate and other vitals glowed in a corner of Suarez’s faceplate display.

“Guess not.”

Suarez gathered Gupta in an awkward fireman’s carry and jetted toward the starport in a slow, clumsy flight that barely cleared the house tops. It was going to take a lot more jumps to get there with his suit doing double duty.

✽✽✽

The first sign of more trouble came several hops later. Suarez and Gupta landed at one end of an open-air market place where perhaps a dozen natives were doing some early-evening shopping. Midway down the market strip was one of those hunt-your-own-dinner restaurants the Farsalians liked so much. The marines had visited one several days ago to welcome Suarez to his new post. It had been fun. The management had allowed them to use spears. Normally Farsalians ran down and killed their dinners armed only with their claws.

Several of the patrons had watched the two Humans land. Before Suarez noticed, a crowd was milling about outside the restaurant. Suarez recalled that Farsalians tended to be more aggressive than normal when hungry. The pack started moving in his direction.

“Time to leave.” The lieutenant gathered Gupta for another hop.

Suarez activated his jets and was rewarded with a meager belch of flame and smoke, accompanied by blinking, yellow warning message in his faceplate display. The text provided what would have normally been useful details concerning overheated plasma coils. At the moment, though, the only point that concerned Suarez was the subtext, which read: No more hops. Run like hell.

Farsalians are a technically advanced, star-faring species. One would be excused in assuming that such a race would immediately recognize the futility of attacking an armored marine with bare claws and teeth. However, rational thought is a much-undervalued virtue in Farsalian culture. Not that Human culture was much different in that regard.

With a bloodcurdling screech, a large, tawny male leaped on Suarez’s back and raked his claws across the Lieutenant’s faceplate. Another one busied itself with trying to gnaw a hole in the armor on his left thigh. Through the curtain of slashing claws Suarez could see a couple of dozen more locals flood out of the restaurant and head his way, literally fighting each other to get at him.

The Farsalians couldn’t hurt him or Gupta by themselves, but they could pile on enough to hold them down until someone had the presence of mind to fetch some kind of can opener. That was Suarez’ primary worry.

With a mighty grunt, Suarez grabbed hold of the crazed Farsalian on his back and flung him into the midst of the onrushing pack. They went down like a seven-ten split. The Lieutenant discouraged the Farsalian on his leg with a hard stomp, and then kicked him at the crowd to try and pick up the spare.

The way his living projectiles flew through the air gave Suarez an idea.

“Sorry to have to do this to you, Gupta.” Suarez lifted the unconscious marine clear of the ground. “But, if I try to run with you, you’ll unbalance me.”

Holding tight to an arm and a leg, Suarez spun about a couple of times like an Olympic hammer thrower and then launched Gupta in the general direction of the starport.

“Happy landings!”

Bruised, battered and rather discouraged, the enraged Farsailians watched Suarez run after the briefly ballistic Gupta, rather faster than they could follow on foot.

Gupta’s impact had demolished a shed several hundred meters away in someone’s backyard, but Suarez’s faceplate display reported the marine was no worse for the ride. The Lieutenant dug through the kindling and dragged the Private clear. Out of the corner of his eye, the mob he’d used for bowling practice could be seen milling about at some distance, following.

Suarez shrugged. “It worked once, why not again?”

Gupta was flung in the direction of the starport. Suarez sprinted after him.

The fourth time Gupta landed Suarez had to drag him down from the branches of a thorny, red tree. The crowd was growing and edging closer.

Suddenly, a tone sounded within Suarez’s helmet and the display informed him that Gupta’s suit AI had been able to restore limited functions.

“It’s just too bad you’re not awake and able to take advantage of that, Private.” Suarez pondered aloud. He was halfway through another launch before it occurred to him that, while Gupta couldn’t use the suit, his commanding officer could.

Checking his spin, Suarez settled Gupta to the ground again and leaned over to enter a code on the external keypad. After a moment Gupta’s suit, with the unconscious Gupta inside, stood and assumed the same position as Suarez’s suit. Suarez waved his arms and did a deep knee bend. Gupta’s suit followed suite with a barely perceptible time lag, maintaining a precise three-meter parade ground distance all the while.

Suarez chuckled. “Sleeping on duty, Marine? Shocking! I should think a nice long run is just the thing to wake you up. About face!” Gupta spun with him. “At the double, now!”

The pair of Marines sprinted across a dusty meadow and vaulted a dry river bed. Suarez could just make out the starport’s control tower at the top of the jump. The ruddy glow of the local sun painted the western sky a pail orange that shaded through amber to a deep blue. The planet’s nearest neighbor, a ringed gas giant that made Jupiter seem puny in comparison, brightened with each passing minute.

✽✽✽

A detour around a tall stand of leafy trees brought the pair of Marines face to face with a large animal grazing on the tawny ground cover in patch of savannah a half-kilometer square. The thing was about four meters tall, and stood on six tree-trunk legs. It slowly raised its shaggy head and stared stolidly at the Humans, about a hundred kilograms of plant matter still hanging out of its massive jaws.

“You’re just some kind of big, docile Farsalian cow thing, aren’t you Bossy?” Suarez hoped his voice sounded reassuring to the creature.

The cow thing’s jaws snapped open, raining vegetation and revealing a truly impressive set of yellow fangs. The thing bellowed, a base sound like an enraged fog horn, and pawed the ground.

“Oh crap!”

Suarez didn’t need to consult the threat data base in his suit’s AI. The million-year-old programming in his hind brain analyzed the situation and informed him that this creature most probably intended to stomp him into jelly or use him for dental floss … possibly both. Whether the armor of his suit would hold up to either process was an interesting academic question, but one he’d rather not participate in answering.

The Farsalian killer cow whipped its two-meter head back and forth, bellowed again, and charged. Suarez, and Gupta because his suit mimicked Suarez’s, fired a couple of blaster bolts at the enraged herbivore. The shots had no effect besides starting fur to smolder on its back.

“Oh crap!” Suarez realized that he was repeating himself, but didn’t seem to be able to come up with anything else at the moment.

The Marines turned and ran. The mad cow pursued, making the ground tremble with each thudding tread. Suarez glanced back, terrified to find the thing was actually gaining on them. This was shaping up to be a very embarrassing way to not reach the safety of the starport, even without the getting stomped into jelly part.

Suarez reached the stand of trees at the edge of the field when a desperate ploy popped into his head. He and Gupta leapt high into the trees and clung there, hidden in the foliage. The cow crashed through the trees at ground level and continued beyond, bellowing into the distance.

The two Humans slid to the ground. Suarez peered through the gaping hole the creature had left. The officer glanced over at Gupta’s suit, which, of course glanced away from him.

“Let’s get out of here before that thing comes back.” They turned and sprinted for the spaceport.

Suarez and Gupta crashed through a tangle of dry bushes to emerge on the edge of the starport’s parking lot. The pursuing Farsalian’s had apparently called ahead, for the parking lot was jammed with air cars and the air cars were packed with angry, armed Farsalians.

The Humans and the Farsalians stared at each other in surprise. The locals had been watching the gate, not the shrubbery.

“Well, this is awkward.” Suarez reached for his blast rifle.

A feral snarl erupted from several hundred predatory throats. The crowd surged forward.

Suarez hoped some pyrotechnics would dissuade the Farsalians, or at least stun them long enough to allow a quick transit of the parking lot. An eye-searing bolt shot from the business end of his rifle and an air car erupted in flames. It surprised Suarez when Gupta’s blast rifle also belched destruction. In the shock of encountering the crowd he’d forgotten that the private’s suit would mimic his actions.

Gupta’s bolt wasn’t aimed, but the lot was crowded enough that it connected with a vehicle, which exploded with a satisfying boom. Suarez was satisfied, anyway. Most of the locals seemed to suddenly remember pressing engagements elsewhere.

Unfortunately, an angry, aggressive, hard core of Farsalians in the parking lot still wanted some Human blood on their claws. About fifty locals rallied and started firing back. A few actually charged the Marines, howling and leaping.

“Christ on a crutch, I don’t want to have to kill all of them!” Slugs and laser bolts from the Farsalians’ eclectic mix of weaponry peppered the ground about the two Marines, and the two Marines themselves. “But maybe I’ll have to.”

The Marines hosed blaster bolts back and forth across the lot for a few moments, greatly increasing the general level of chaos by exploding more air cars. Then Suarez concentrated his fire on the three or four clumps of Farsalians that genuinely seemed to be aiming their weapons, instead of just firing in his general direction. A short sequence of keystrokes on the keypad would have zeroed Gupta’s blaster in on where Suarez aimed his, if only Suarez had had the time to punch them in.

“Private Gupta, it is time to declare victory and beat feet!”

The Marines charged through the burning air cars, firing on the move. They were almost to the fence when Gupta tripped over a Farsalian body. In an instant, he was covered with murderous locals.

Suarez brought his blaster up before he realized he couldn’t fire and not hit Gupta. Swearing, the lieutenant raised his aim slightly and swept the crowd with fire, trying to thin the numbers he’d have to deal with hand to hand. He ran forward to rescue his comrade.

Gupta’s suit twisted under the weight of hostile Farsalians, still aping Suarez’s movements. Suarez reached him and began to pull gray-furred predators off, flinging them casually over his shoulder. The Farsalians flew several dozen meters before they landed.

In short order Suarez had excavated down to Gupta and yanked the Marine to his feet. One of the Farsalians had been at work on Gupta’s shoulder with a plasma torch. The torch sputtered and flamed on the ground. Suarez kicked it under a burning air car and assessed Gupta’s condition in a glance. The armor on Gupta’s shoulder was discolored and buckled, but seemed intact. Gupta was still unconscious.

“This is getting old. Let’s get the hell out of here before these people get anymore bright ideas.”

Suarez didn’t bother hopping the fence separating the parking lot from the landing field. He and Gupta just ran through the chain link barrier, leaving a ten-meter hole behind them.

“Put it on my tab!”

The setting sun blazed to the right, turning the ranks of grounded starships a crimson hue. The faceplate display indicated the location of berth twenty-seven gamma, a bit more than a kilometer ahead where he fervently hoped to find Potomac waiting. They were almost home.

A threat warning warbled in Suarez’s ear.

“Ah Christ! What now?”

The lean shapes of four military aircraft approached on an attack run.

“These jokers are starting to get on my nerves.”

The lieutenant’s missile racks were empty and his blast rifle was no match for the diving aircraft. His suit AI informed him the fighters were painting him with targeting radars. The planes would be on them before Suarez could get a missile out of Gupta’s racks, let alone load and fire it.

Suddenly, the lead aircraft disintegrated into a cloud of debris. A second plasma bolt zipped skyward and destroyed the next plane. The remaining two peeled off and ran, low and fast across the landing field, zigzagging around docked starships.

“Thank you, Potomac!”

The Marines sprinted the last several hundred meters and bounded into the Potomac’s cargo bay. The ramp slammed shut behind them on emergency override.

“Brace for immediate lift off. Brace for immediate lift off.” The calm voice of Potomac‘s AI provided a stark contrast to the rumbling roar and heaving deck beneath there armored boot soles.

“Gold, where are the civilians?”

“Safely tucked away in the sickbay, Sir, the same place we’ll be taking Gupta once we open his can.”

Chen and Selous worked on Gupta’s dorsal seal, while McGee hovered and fretted like a mother hen.

Gold chuckled. “Hizhoner regained consciousness shortly after we came aboard. He has a large lump on his head and some rather unkind things to say about you, Sir.”

“Does he? Well, the ambassador’s opinion of me is the least of my worries at the moment.”

Suarez broke his neck seal and pulled his helmet off. The air in Potomac’s cargo bay reeked of metal, machine oil and plastic. It was one of the sweetest perfumes the Lieutenant had ever breathed. He tilted his head and considered Gold.

“I seem to remember I ordered you to lift ship no more than ten minutes after you got aboard.”

“Yes sir, you did at that. Was it longer than ten minutes? I must have lost track of time.”

“Really?” Suarez turned his head to stare at the large, red digital chronometer display on the bulkhead next to where Gold stood.

Still looking at Suarez’s, Gold nonchalantly smashed the display with an armored elbow. “Would you look at that, Sir? The damned thing’s broken. What shoddy equipment the Navy buys nowadays.”

Chapter 3—Sordid Little Plans

The thunderous echoes from Potomac‘s engines made Princess of the Blood Melorah pause in the middle of the broad avenue leading to the gate of the royal palace, and look skyward. She smiled and chuckled before padding lightly up the low, broad steps, not deigning to return the salutes of guards flanking the entrance. The palace was a vast complex of buildings and interconnecting compounds, which had been expanding with a casual absence of planning for eight hundred years, ever since the Farsalian Pride had managed to unite the race under one rule.

Having grown up in the royal palace, Melorah navigated its labyrinthine passageways with deceptive ease. She silently stalked past the dusty trophies from hunts on dozens of worlds and victories centuries old. The palace was never well lit. Tonight the shadows pooled in corners and seemed ready to flood all.

An elderly retainer, who Melorah privately called Treats for the tasty morsels he would slip to her as a child, greeted her at the portal to the Matriarch’s Lair. The retainer bowed low.

“Her Majesty is expecting you, Princess Melorah. Please follow me to the arena.”

“What is she doing at the arena at this time of night?”

“Whatever Her Majesty wishes to do, I’m sure.”

Melorah had a very good idea what Krensalah IV, the Farsalian Matriarch, was doing in her personal arena in the dead of night, and when she got close enough the scent wafting down the ramp from the arena confirmed it. It was the sharp, pungent smell of Farsalian males preparing to battle for dominance.

Melorah entered the royal box silently and stood for a moment to assess the scene. The Matriarch lazed on her throne. About her hovered the members of her inner circle. Norefaj, the Chamberlain, pivoted her head slightly to note Melorah’s presence with unconcealed calculation. Beyond, circling each other warily in the sand of the otherwise empty arena, were two males. One was young, a superb, sleek-furred specimen. The other was a bit past middle age, scarred, graying and moving about with a business-like economy of effort.

Melorah strode to one end of the opulent royal box and lounged against a smooth, marble pillar, brazenly apart from the crowd of sycophants about the Matriarch.

“Is that Jezarah down there? It looks as though some upstart has challenged him again.” Melorah locked eyes with her sovereign. “Isn’t he getting a bit old for this type of thing?”

Krensalah, the Farsalian Matriarch, returned her impassive gaze to the pair in the arena. “Yes, he is. He’s been my chief stud for a long time now. Even though he hasn’t sired a litter on me in five years, he won’t step down.”

“Stubborn and prideful, have to admire him for that, I suppose.” Melorah stretched out an arm to pluck a drink from a nearby table.

“I do more than admire him, cousin. Still, sooner or later some young male will rip his throat out, because he’s too damned proud to admit he’s getting old.” Krensalah’s hackles rose slightly.

“Pity, but that’s the way things are, and have always been with males.” Melorah swirled her wine and regarded her royal cousin with slitted eyes.

The young male in the arena made a sudden rush towards Jezarah, hissing a challenge. There was a brief and furious exchange of slashing blows. In another instant the combatants separated. They crouched, facing each other across five meters of blood-spattered sand, panting, snarling. The savage sounds echoed back from the empty seats in the arena.

Pheromones steamed off of the two males and wafted into the royal box. Melorah breathed the ancient, heady scent of males fighting for the right to breed. That and the events of the afternoon made her impulsive, reckless. She sipped her wine to steady her nerves.

“Your timing needs some work. The mob attacked before I even left the Embassy.”

The Matriarch didn’t turn her eyes from the contest below. “You appear none the worse for it, cousin.”

“I managed. Still, I was told I would have more time.”

Norefaj stepped in between Melorah and the Matriarch. “More time for you to indulge in your perversions?”

Melorah carefully placed her goblet on the low wall separating the royal box from the arena, in the event she needed her hands, and claws, free. “I recall you voiced a different opinion when my perversions proved convenient to your sordid little plans, Chamberlain.”

“How can you live with yourself? You carry the stench of that Human on you even now!”

“Do I?” Melorah raised an arm to her nose and sniffed with sensuous abandon. “Ah, so I do.” She extended her arm. “Does it excite you? It’s a shame I didn’t arrange for you, Richard and I to spend some time together.”

Norefaj extended her claws and hissed.

“Enough!” The Matriarch sprang from her throne and leapt between Melorah and Norefaj with a fluid swiftness. She glared at her Chamberlain. “You will recall that Melorah was acting under my orders.” Krensalah swiveled her scornful stare to Melorah. “No matter how much she enjoyed it.”

Melorah smiled, retrieved her wine and leaned back against the pillar. “Mission accomplished, Majesty.” She sketched an insolent salute.

In the arena, the males were slashing at each other again. The sudden resumption of combat interrupted the female conflict. Krensalah’s chief mate retreated from his young challenger, limping and bleeding from a deep gash in his leg.

The Matriarch gripped the wall between her and the arena. Claws scratched the polished stone. “Do you even care why you had to seduce that Human?”

Melorah shrugged. “To relieve the monotony of palace life?”

Krensalah watched her favorite mate fighting for his life. “We both know there’s more to it than that, Cousin.”

“Well, obviously you wanted to precipitate an incident.”

The Matriarch nodded. “I will use that incident as an excuse to seize the Sakastan System.”

Melorah snorted. “I visited the only habitable planet in that system once, before I knew better. It’s a muddy little place, not even anything there worth hunting.”

“It’s strategically located.”

“Strategically located in the middle of nowhere.”

“Curse you, Melorah! Can’t you see that Sakastan is on the frontier of the Ursolian Empire?”

Melorah sobered. “The Ursolians? That is a dangerous game, cousin.”

“Watch your step, Melorah. That bored and decadent mask slipped a bit. One might even wonder if you actually care about anything beyond your own comfort and pleasure.”

In the arena the young male circled Jezarah, feinting charges and assessing weaknesses.

“Perish the thought.” Melorah sipped her wine. “I haven’t a care in the world, especially with the Matriarchy in your capable claws.”

Krensalah didn’t bother to look away from the pair in the arena. “There is more to royal blood than pleasure, power, and privilege, Melorah. There will come a day when duty will settle on your shoulders and you will face a choice. You will bear it properly or try to shrug it off. Only duty is not so easily shirked. It merely slides down and becomes your shackles.”

The challenger howled and leapt, slashing at Krensalah’s mate. When the males separated the older combatant had gained a few scratches, but the younger male’s arm hung limply, dripping blood.

“Well, Melorah, it seems the old rascal still has a few tricks under his fur.” Krensalah barred her fangs and favored Melorah with a sly look. “It won’t be long now.”

Almost as if he’d heard his mate’s words, Jezarah pounced on his challenger. In a few seconds of desperate struggle, the younger male lay dead in the center of the arena, his blood draining into the sand from a savaged throat. Jezarah straddled the body, howling triumph into the night.

The sight and the pheromones stirred arousal in the females of the royal party.

“Leave us!” The matriarch hissed a husky-voiced command before vaulting the low wall of the royal box to land in a crouch on the sand.

Reluctantly, Melorah filed out behind the other females. Between the sight of her cousin about to perform the ritual post-combat mating and the earlier abortive dalliance with the Human ambassador, it had been a frustrating day. A dozen paces along the corridor Norefaj, the chamberlain, blocked her path. The rest of the group disappeared around a bend, leaving Melorah alone with Norefaj.

Melorah stared at her for the space of a few heartbeats. “I’m tired, Norefaj. It’s late. What do you want?”

“Now that you’ve done your nasty little duty for the Matriarch, Princess, it would be best if you slunk away and not bother her again.”

Melorah briefly pondered the naked hostility on Norefaj’s tawny-furred face. The Matriarch’s passionate caterwauling echoed from the arena behind her.

“As a Princess of the Blood I serve at the pleasure of the Matriarch. If you wish to know my future plans, I suggest you ask her.” The pitch of the Matriarch’s moaning deepened for a moment before crescendoing with an ear-piercing shriek. “Although, I’d wait a while if I were you. She seems rather distracted at the moment.”

“Don’t play games with me! You have been marginally useful, but that ended today. Stay away from the Matriarch, and stay out of my way.” Norefaj spun about and padded stiffly away.

Melorah sighed, a very frustrating day indeed.

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