“With statistics and commonly-available data, we can make these determinations about the grand sweeps of history. There is no doubt about it, gentlemen: our research shows that, if kept to the same course, the Empire will fall within the next three hundred years.”
The lights came up on the middle-aged academic, short, balding. His face wore the smug confidence of the seasoned lecturer. “Any questions?” he asked.
He looked out upon his audience expectantly. These were no undergraduates, to be overawed by data and forceful assertions. They were none other than the Directors of the Committee for Public Safety, the five nominal co-regents of the Empire during the mad Emperor’s long, ten-year “absence”.
Director Iani spoke first, as was his wont. His beady eyes fixed intently upon the Academic like a predator observing his prey. “How long has your group been working on this?”
The Academic smiled, obviously pleased at the question. “Five years, Director, since I noticed the connections and began gathering funding and a team.”
Director Belaw spoke next. He was the eldest, and his eyes had a weary cast. “It has been merely eight years since the last one,” he observed. “Before that it was every twenty or so.”
The Academic looked baffled. “Excuse me?”
Director Iani’s mouth smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. “It’s the cost of allowing science at all.”
The other Directors nodded and muttered.
Director Belaw shrugged. “The Empiriit has asked for this kind of research to be suppressed.”
The Academic gasped. “The Empiriit? The Holy Fundament would never allow science to be suppressed!”
Belaw let this pass without comment. Two other directors asked their own question, specifically about the research and its results. The Academic, shaken, but back on solid ground, explained again how the center of the Empire could not hold because of the “centrifugal” social forces pulling at it.
With the questions exhausted, all eyes turned to Director Kolteo Ais, the chair of the committee. He had not yet spoken. He sat tall, back straight. His sunken, brooding eyes observed the Academic as from a great distance.
Finally, he spoke: “Professor, is a man free to follow his own course?”
The Academic chuckled, blinking. He jerked his hand to rest it on his belly, and took a sharp breath. “You are asking me to expound on philosophy. I am merely a scientist and a statistician, and I follow the way of the Empiriit. I know only what I can observe and what I can count.”
The Academic chuckled again and looked to the door. He scratched at his neck. “We know that the movements of the mass are determined. I could walk you through the math—with time and patience.”
“I did not ask about the mass or the math. I heard your presentation.”
The Academic nodded sharply and dropped his hand to his side. “The man? I cannot prove it; the equations are yet beyond us; but no, I believe the man is determined too, by his own nature, by his history, and by the social factors around him.”
Director Kolteo Ais nodded solemnly. He looked to his fellows. “Directors? Any further questions? Discussion?”
A general shaking of heads. Director Belaw said, “I believe the decision rests with you, Director Ais, unless anyone wishes to call a vote?” He looked around.
Again, shaking heads.
Director Kolteo Ais nodded solemnly, and looked at the Academic. “Then, Professor, this board determines that you and your group are guilty of treason. As Chair, I sentence all of you to death. Your research will be destroyed and your names forgotten.”
The Academic lost all semblance of the seasoned lecturer. “What?” he sputtered, sudden rage flaring in his eyes. “This is ridiculous! I am not seeking the fall of the Empire; I am warning you of it! If you keep to your present course, it will fall! You’ve seen the projections: we have 97% certainty!”
Director Kolteo Ais nodded and said in a sour tone, “Yes, I’ve seen the projections before. Eight years ago, as a matter of fact. But that’s hundreds of years away. We cannot sacrifice the Empire of this generation to protect the Empire of tomorrow. Not merely on the basis of some fancy math. The Empire of today is our charge, and it must be preserved.” He smiled. “And you have told me yourself that I can do no other than what I do. Why bother trying to persuade me? Why wrestle against what the Fates decree?”
A light began flashing on the table’s surface before him. He raised his eyebrows, then placed his hands flat on the table, and rose to his feet. “Guards, take him away. Round up his group. Destroy their work. Put them to death. This meeting is adjourned. Excuse me, gentlemen.”
The guards closed in on the Academic from either side. He flung out his arms and roared, a quite unbecoming sound from a man of his stature. He fought like a madman, but the guards subdued him efficiently. They dragged his limp form out of the conference room.
Director Kolteo Ais watched for a moment, his face unreadable. Then he, who rarely hurried, left the room quickly through another door without looking back.
He slowed when he reached his office, tugged on his waistcoat to straighten it, and entered the antechamber. “Marrem? I saw there was a message for me.”
Major Marrem Mus, Kolteo’s trusted right-hand man, sat behind his desk in the antechamber and looked up. He wore a smart Imperial uniform, grays and blacks, with the Imperial cog and stars on his breast, his rank on his collar. “Yes, sir. You were right. Your brother-in-law has arrived in the system. He’ll be at the public spaceport soon.”
Kolteo drew his sidearm, checked its charge, and re-holstered it. “Get Romik and Frens over here on the double. I’d like to welcome my brother-in-law back to civilization.”
He went into the inner office to retrieve his coat and sword belt.
Marrem made the call, then joined Kolteo. Romik appeared a moment later, a bull-necked man with meat-grinder hands, dressed in the black armor of an Enforcer. An excellent soldier, and Kolteo’s head armsman these past four years. Kolteo filled him in.
Romik grinned. “Do you think he’ll be expecting you?”
Kolteo pressed his lips together in a shallow smile. He buckled on the sword belt and checked his smallsword, dagger, and shield generator. “He’ll be expecting me.”
“Why go yourself? Why not send a squad of Enforcers to arrest him?”
Kolteo looked at Romik. “Some things a man must do himself. Our departed Emperor ruled through deceptions, catspaws, and convoluted schemes. You’re too young to have seen it up close. As a Director I prefer an approach more fitting the title.”
Romik shrugged. “You’re the boss.”
Marrem smiled. “Shall I arrange for a tail?”
“Yes, exactly what I was going to ask. And call up at least two teams, the very best—Julin knows all the tricks, I would wager.”
Marrem nodded, and left to make another call. Romik shook his head. “Who is this brother-in-law of yours?”
Kolteo laughed. “He’s the son of Grand Admiral Bran Terch. That’s who he is.”
“That blundering idiot?” scoffed Romik. “I’m hardly impressed.”
Kolteo arched an eyebrow. “Don’t forget he was my father-in-law. You didn’t know him, Romik. His reputation is undeserved. He was a great man.”
“He got his fleet lost on a routine operation. With the Emperor himself aboard.”
Kolteo shook his head. “You didn’t know him.”
Romik shrugged. “No, I didn’t know him, and I don’t know this brother-in-law of yours. Julin, was it? He’s no Grand Admiral. But I wouldn’t care if he was Milleganda himself. You’re no mewling kitten yourself, if I may be so bold to say.”
“No, I’m not. And I’ll have you and Frens besides. Hardly a squad of pushovers we’ll make. But I’ve taken the measure of Julin. He’s formidable, like his father. Perhaps moreso, as he doesn’t have all the Empire at his back.”
“It seems he’s about to have all the Empire at his face.”
Kolteo smiled, his jaw set. “I doubt that will even make him blink.”
Romik chuckled. “Will Frens and I be enough then?”
Kolteo smirked. “We’re not going to start anything. Not yet. I want to understand his game first. And besides, my wife would never let me hear the end of it if I did.”
Frens, his other armsman, arrived, and the trio prepared to leave. At the door, Kolteo stopped and turned back to Marrem. “Oh, I almost forgot: I just sentenced an academic and his team to their doom. See to it that their case is handled by our most tenderhearted Enforcers. Perhaps they could simply destroy their work and dump the academics out somewhere… memorable. Make them walk home. You know the drill.”
Marrem nodded. “I’ll see to it, sir.”
Continued in: 2. Confrontation in the Spaceport
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