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Lighting Out for the Territories

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December 795 UC, Phezzan

Reinhard had always hated parties, and this one was no exception. He didn’t mind the stiff white dress uniform he was wearing, nor did he mind the food, or the music. It was simply the concept of being at a party, when he would rather be doing something productive. But as a newly appointed military attache at the FPA High Commissioner’s Office on Phezzan, he had been invited to a New Year’s party at the estate of the Landesherr, Adrian Rubinsky. 

The guest list at the party was as varied as the population of Phezzan itself. Most of the guests were dressed in the chic and slinky Phezzani fashion, with shiny, slick fabrics draped loosely over people’s bodies; bare arms and swooping necklines showcased elaborate jewelry. This fashion was almost gender neutral. As far as Reinhard could see, the only difference between a tunic and a dress was the presence of pants underneath. Of course, there were plenty of more staid fashion choices present. Many men were wearing simple suits of either the cuts fashionable in the Alliance or the Empire, and there were a scattering of women in the traditional imperial gowns, as well. Reinhard could even spot a few people in imperial fleet uniforms on the other side of the room, presumably Reinhard’s counterparts from the imperial embassy on Phezzan. After all, at this party hosted by the Landesherr, one group couldn't be invited without inviting the other. 

Reinhard’s commanding officer, a commodore by the name of Jeremiah Blackwell, sidled up to him as Reinhard lurked near the refreshments table. Blackwell was a stocky man, shorter than Reinhard by a few inches, and his nose looked like it had been mashed to a pulp several times in his adolescence, giving him an oddly pug-nosed appearance. His normally olive cheeks were flushed slightly; he was drunk already. “So, Müsel, how are you enjoying your first Phezzani party?”

“Am I supposed to be enjoying it, sir?”

“That would be the point of a party, Müsel.”

“It’s fine, sir. I’m not much of a party person.”

“You should go talk to people. There’s plenty of girls who would like to meet the resident celebrity.”

Reinhard wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know why I should be famous on Phezzan. I was under the impression that I was sent here in order to let my fame die down a little bit.”

Blackwell laughed, loudly, which caused several nearby party guests to turn and look at him. “No, of course not. There are many qualities required for a posting on Phezzan, and one of them is how good you look to the local populace. It’s a PR move to put you here, for sure.”

“I see.”

“So,” Blackwell said, nodding at one of the photographers who was circling the room like hawks, “it might be for the best if you get photographed speaking with someone interesting, rather than standing around the snacks all night.”

“Is that an order, sir?”

“There’s no orders at parties. It’s just a suggestion. But part of our duties here are to maintain positive relationships with Phezzan.”

“The Secretary of Defense may have made a mistake in assigning me here personally, then,” Reinhard said. “If the job is to go to parties, that’s never been a skill that I have cultivated.”

Blackwell laughed. “Where would you prefer to be posted?”

“On the front lines, sir. Ideally in the Sixth Fleet.”

“Why the Sixth Fleet in particular?”

“Lieutenant Commander Greenhill is posted there.”

“She your girl, eh?”

“No, sir. We just work very well together.”

Blackwell patted Reinhard on the shoulder, and he was luckily too drunk to notice Reinhard’s slight grimace. “You’ll get her someday, I’m sure.” He chuckled a little. “Though in the meantime, Phezzani girls are beautiful and liberated, if you know what I mean.”

Reinhard frowned. “I see.”

Blackwell pointed again. “Now, see, there’s a woman you should talk to.” He was indicating a tall redhead, dressed in black, with a circlet of diamonds tight around her neck that glittered in the party lights. She was standing by herself, holding a glass of wine but not drinking it.

“Who is she?”

“Dominique Saint-Pierre. You’ve probably heard of her before. She’s pretty famous.”

“I don’t believe I have, sir.”

“Well, she’s better known under her stage name, Primacy.”

“Oh, yeah.” Reinhard looked at her, and the weight of his gaze seemed to attract Dominique’s attention, because their eyes met across the room. “What’s a musician doing here?”

“Anybody who’s anybody comes to these events. But in particular, she’s involved with Rubinsky. I went to a party at her house, once.”

“Interesting,” Reinhard said.

“Speak of the devil,” Blackwell said. Dominique was walking towards them, still holding her wine delicately in her hand. “I’ll let you have a little chat.”

Reinhard frowned at Blackwell as he disappeared into the crowd, but he was quickly replaced with Dominique.

“So, you’re the celebrity,” Dominique said. Her voice was low for a woman’s, and somewhat sultry. Reinhard’s brain took a moment to adjust to what she was saying, since she was speaking in the pidgin that was the common language on Phezzan, half imperial language, half Alliance. When Reinhard had been on the planet as a child, he hadn’t minded it, because it meant that he could understand about half of spoken conversation, and the rest was meaningless. Now that he could speak both languages fluently, the way that the pidgin mixed them together grated on his ears. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to which words came from which tongue, and Reinhard felt like he was fumbling when he tried to compose a sentence. He would have preferred to pick one language and stick with it, not this messy conglomeration. Still, he replied as smoothly as he could.

“It’s my impression that there are many celebrities on Phezzan, and I have had only about five minutes of fame. Ms. Saint-Pierre, was it?”

“Just Dominique,” she said. “Being called ‘miss’ anything makes me feel like a schoolteacher.” She smiled. “But you’re…” She studied the pin on his collar. “Commander?”

“Lieutenant Commander,” Reinhard supplied.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Reinhard said. “I admit I’m surprised to find that I have such a reputation around here. You would think that after anything exciting I’d done was more than a year old, the news would have moved on and forgotten about me.”

“Hmm,” Dominique said. “Well, one thing that people don’t tend to do is forget a pretty face. And you certainly have one. It helps to have it attached to an intriguing personal story as well, I think.”

“Perhaps,” Reinhard said. “Though I would prefer to be defined first by what I am doing now, second by what I have done in the past, and not at all by things as superficial as looks. Besides, my sister is much nicer looking than I am.”

Dominique laughed. She reached out and touched Reinhard’s cheek with one finger. Reinhard pulled back immediately, and she dropped it with a raise of her eyebrow. “I’m afraid that you have it in rather the wrong order. First impressions matter quite a lot, and they’re usually based entirely on the superficial.”

“I’m afraid I’ve never made anything but a poor one.”

“No,” Dominique said. “I think you’ve made quite an interesting one on me.”

“I don’t know what basis you have to say such a thing.”

“A superficial one, Lieutenant Commander.” She smiled. “And based on what I know about your accomplishments. I have to ask: you’re not planning to do anything so dramatic while you’re here on our little planet, are you?”

“Fortunately, it’s unlikely that I will be put in dramatic circumstances. Phezzan is a peaceful place.”

“We like to think so, yes.” She glanced behind herself. “After all, where else can you find imperial and Alliance soldiers standing calmly in the same room together?”

“Do you know them well?” Reinhard asked, looking at the group of imperial soldiers, all dressed in their own formal uniforms. They looked approximately equivalent in number and rank to his own group.

“I’ve spoken to most of them,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I know them well. I’m sure you’ll get to know them better than I do.” She laughed a little.

“I wasn’t aware that I would be associating with them at all.”

“Oh, you probably won’t, though it’s my impression that some small matters are often conducted through the offices on Phezzan— prisoner exchanges and the like— but it’s longstanding tradition for your office to spy on theirs, and the other way around.”

“I see.”

“See, they’re already watching you.” The group of imperial soldiers were looking at Reinhard quite openly, now that he was speaking to Dominique, though he had felt their glances on him earlier in the party as well. There were a few particularly vitriolic expressions on their faces. Reinhard’s exact counterpart, a light- haired man wearing a lieutenant commander’s uniform, who was probably about the same age as Annerose, was studying him particularly intently.

“Should I be worried?” Reinhard asked.

“Probably not,” she said. “Though it’s a little unusual that they have reason to dislike you personally, rather than as just a member of the Alliance fleet.” Her lips turned upwards in a little bit of a sly expression. “Actually, hate you or not, they’ll probably try to recruit you.”

“Recruit me?” Reinhard asked, narrowing his eyes. “I thought it was well known that I am an imperial expatriate.”

“Certainly it is. And that’s why it would be an incredible propaganda move to lure you back to their side. It would make the crowd go wild.”

“They should give up on that idea.”

She laughed. “Never say never, Mr. von Müsel.”

“I can and I shall. Even if I did not hate the Goldenbaum dynasty to my core, the fact remains that the Secretary of Defense felt safe in posting me here because he knew that my own sister and mother are staying well inside the Alliance. I would never leave without them, which is to say that I will never leave.”

“Don’t be annoyed at me,” Dominique said. “I’m not saying that you would. I’m simply describing to you some of the possibilities.”

“Indeed.” 

“Did you pass through Phezzan when you left the Empire as a child?”

“I did.”

“Is there a reason you didn’t stay? Most imperial travellers do.”

“It didn’t make sense, financially speaking. My sister and I were too young to work, and my mother was in ill health. I don’t think you’ll be insulted for me to say that it’s far easier to be poor in the Alliance than it is to be poor on Phezzan.”

Dominique smiled. “There are no poor people on Phezzan.”

“I am aware that that is the party line.”

She laughed. “Is your impression of our little planet different now that you’re an adult?”

Reinhard thought for a second. “In some ways. When I was a child, I saw with the eyes of a child, as they say. I have a much better grasp on the working of things now.”

“The working of things?”

“I have some interest in economics,” Reinhard said.

“Oh, really? In what way?”

“I enjoy seeing how everything is interconnected. Economics is a way of explaining and controlling that interconnectedness.”

“You’re in the right place, then.”

“Well, I’ve always had more of an interest in the Alliance domestic policies than I had with Phezzan.”

“The two things are inextricably linked, aren’t they?”

Reinhard looked at Dominique carefully. “Yes, they are.”

“Are you planning to go into business when you retire from the fleet?”

“I have no intention to retire any time soon.”

“That’s not a yes or a no.”

“Business requires capital, which I rather lack,” Reinhard said. “And no, it doesn’t interest me.”

“Politics, then?”

He successfully resisted the urge to grimace. “No.”

“Then you’ll go back to school and become an academic?”

“Like I said, I have no interest in retiring from the fleet any time soon. It’s a career that I’m well suited for.”

She nodded. “You are young, though.”

“You seem very interested in me leaving the fleet.”

“You aren’t worried that you’ve already accomplished the greatest thing that you could? If I were in your shoes, I would spend every moment wondering if I shouldn’t get out, because this career is all downhill from where I was.”

Reinhard actually laughed at that. “You and I are very different people, then. There is always somewhere higher to climb. And in the grand scheme of things, what I have accomplished was flashy and exciting, but not particularly tactically relevant. The loss of one ship for the imperial fleet is nothing, and while the saving of four hundred Alliance soldiers may mean much to their families, in a war where battles regularly involve the lives and deaths of millions of people, it’s insignificant.”

“That’s an interesting way of thinking about things.”

“Is it?”

“You want to be in charge of the lives and deaths of millions?”

Reinhard’s smile showed teeth. “I would like to see the Goldenbaum dynasty destroyed,” he said. “And that is a goal that will involve a great many people, a far greater number than are on a single ship, or in a single fleet, even.”

Dominique studied him for a moment. “Well, it would be quite undiplomatic of me to wish you luck with that goal, so I shall have to wish you only good health.”

“Thank you,” Reinhard said.

“You’re an interesting man. I must invite you to my house sometime,” Dominique said. “Until then.” She wiggled her fingers in a kind of strange wave, and then vanished off into the party before Reinhard could even say goodbye. He shook his head a little, then returned to perusing the snack table. Even though he was no longer speaking with anyone, he could still feel eyes on him, and he looked over again at the group of imperial soldiers. His eyes met across the room with the lieutenant commander he had noticed before, and that man narrowed his eyes.

Hoping to perhaps overhear some of their names or conversation, Reinhard circled the room, moving slowly towards the imperial group, though he pretended like he was surveying the guests of the party in general. He saw Dominique had moved to talk to some older man, and she pointed at Reinhard, who nodded. The older man broke off from Dominique and headed towards Reinhard, which was annoying, because it prevented him from getting closer to the group of imperial soldiers. Still, just in case this man was important, Reinhard waited for him to arrive, and put a polite smile on his face.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel,” the man said. He was a slender man, with dark hair and a grim face. He was wearing some sort of robe, which Reinhard had first taken as regular Phezzan fashion, but then realized was Earth Church formal attire. “May I speak with you a minute?”

“Of course, Mister…?”

“Bishop Degsby,” he said. 

“Pleasure to meet you, Bishop.” They shook hands.

“Likewise,” Degsby said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Is that so?”

“I do keep in occasional touch with my counterparts in other parts of the galaxy. When I was informed that you were being stationed here, I asked if any of the bishops on Heinessen had ever met you.”

“Yes, I met Bishop Martine, once,” Reinhard said. “My mother is very involved with your church.”

“So I gather. Do you have any interest in religion?”

“Not in particular. I have always had much more concrete things to occupy my time and attention.”

Degsby smiled, a rather unpleasant expression. “You are not alone in that. However, I would say that matters of the spirit can be as concrete as matters of the body.”

“Is that so?”

“Ms. Saint-Pierre said that you have an interest in the way economies of money tie the galaxy together.”

“Yes.”

“Economies of spirit tie the galaxy together, as well. Ideology has moved more men and mountains than anything else.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Reinhard said. “At the root of it, most people are motivated by trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from. Ideology is a layer of abstraction on top of that.”

“You think there’s nothing deeper?”

“Look at the Goldenbaum dynasty,” Reinhard said. “They have mobilized more men in force than any other group before them, and I’d have to run the numbers, but I might even say that a proportionally higher number of their citizens are in their fleet than any other nation has had in their military. And yet what ideology do they have to speak of? The kaiser doesn’t even claim to have the mandate of heaven, just the blood of Rudolph, however many generations removed he is. All those people are fighting for the ideology of stability: the Goldenbaum dynasty has been making sure they’ve had food on the table, to a certain extent, for as long as they can remember, and they want that to continue.”

“And the Alliance?”

“Has a little more claim to ideology than the Empire does, and a little bit more claim to self-defense, since the fear that invading imperial soldiers would put civilians in prison camps is a justified one. But if liberty were the true motivator of people that the Alliance claims it is, the Goldenbaum dynasty would have ceased to exist long ago.”

“You have a bleak view of your homeland.”

Reinhard’s smile was cold. “The Alliance is my home, and I am grateful to it for all that it has given me, but I do not pretend that the reason I fled there as a child was out of some ideological purity. It was out of a simple desire to keep the ones I love safe. To say anything to the contrary would be the height of hypocrisy.”

“And yet you claim to hate the Goldenbaums?”

“Hatred is not ideology, Bishop. It’s personal.”

“I see, though I’m not entirely sure that I agree.”

“Oh?”

“If humans cared about nothing except for their next meal, as a species we would never have left the plains and jungles of ancient Earth. We would be no more than animals.”

“Well, you would be happy for that, wouldn’t you?” Reinahard asked. 

The bishop laughed, but it was cold. “No. I’m no luddite, just, as you say, an ideologue.”

“Humans have always had excess energy to put towards creating these layers of abstraction— certainly the amount of abstraction involved in, for example, buying a loaf of bread at the corner store makes it very far removed from the process of growing wheat, and even agriculture is a step removed from hunting and gathering. But despite every layer that is processing the food, shipping it around the planet, the act of laboring at a job to earn currency with which to purchase food, the complex web that controls the price— in the end, bread still ends up in someone’s hand. And the number one predictor of civil unrest and governmental collapse is just that: the cost and availability of bread.”

“These are views that any first year economics student could hold,” Degsby said.

“That doesn’t make them untrue. Furthering one’s education is just better understanding these layers of abstraction.”

“Perhaps.”

“And I’m not an economics student. I’m an officer in the Alliance fleet.”

Degsby chuckled again. “That, at least, is very true. I’m still not sure that you will be able to convince me that ideology is useless, though.”

“Trying to convince someone of that is a useless endeavor. I’m not disagreeing that it can provide people with a sense of meaning in their lives, like art or scientific advancement—“

“It provides many things. Meaning is one, community is another. The promise of something more than just an endless scramble for bread.”

“The circuses, then.”

“I prefer to think of it as the roses.”

“Indeed.”

“And there have been countless people in the universe who have given up their lives for the sake of the religion. People are motivated by many things.”

Reinhard’s voice was dry. “The proportion of people in a society who would gladly become martyrs is relatively small, and certainly an unstable base upon which to base a society.”

“But that type of person will always become an agitator in a society where they’re given no alternative. Ale Heinessen—”

“I do not think that Ale Heinessen would have joined the Earth Church,” Reinhard said.

“Perhaps not. And I don’t expect you to, either.”

“I’m glad.”

“But we’re not really at cross purposes,” Degsby said.

“That’s a dangerous thing to say in a place like this,” Reinhard said. “For you to show anything more than social politeness to the Alliance could jeopardize your standing within the Empire.”

“The branches of our church are relatively independent. But you are correct. I would like to speak with you again, at some other time.”

“On official business?”

“That is a difficult question to answer,” the bishop said. “I will let you know when.”

“Of course,” Reinhard said.

“Again, it was a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Likewise.”

The bishop headed off.

“What did he want?” Commodore Blackwell asked, coming up to Reinhard. “I see him around all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve ever spoken.”

Reinhard shook his head a little. “He said he has something to speak to me about later.”

“You as a private citizen?”

“No, it sounded more than that.”

“Interesting,” Blackwell said. He shook his head. “I hope it’s nothing too messy.”

“I wouldn’t know, sir.”

“Well, keep me updated.”

“I will. How much longer are we staying at this party?”

“It’s a New Year’s party and it’s not even midnight! Find someone more entertaining to talk to,” Blackwell said with a laugh. “Enjoy yourself.”

“I will try to, sir,” Reinhard said.

When Blackwell walked away, shaking his head, Reinhard noticed that he was still being watched by his imperial counterpart. Their eyes met across the room, and both of them glared at each other. Unfortunately, their little staring contest was interrupted by that man’s commanding officer wandering between them, and Reinhard took that moment to disappear away into the crowd of the party.

 


 

January 796 UC, Phezzan

The bishop did send Reinhard a message, requesting a meeting at a small, private residence outside the capital city limits. Reinhard drove there himself, though he did tell Blackwell about the meeting, getting his permission and keeping him in the loop. Reinhard didn’t like the fact that he had been singled out as the recipient for whatever message the Earth Church wanted to send. He wasn’t sure if it was because of his mother, or because of his fame, or, worst of all, if it was because the Earth Church thought that as someone young and inexperienced, he would make some kind of mistake. Reinhard was determined not to let that happen.

He parked the car in the driveway and walked up to the house to ring the bell. As he waited for someone to answer the door, Reinhard took a moment to admire the architecture. The building was bright white and attractive in the early morning light, and its odd curving roof contrasted with the geometric windows that glinted from its sides. The door opened as Reinhard was craning his neck to look at the colorful stained glass above the entryway.

“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?” a servant asked, startling him. Reinhard nodded, and he was let in to a clean and minimalist interior where he was offered coffee (which he accepted) while he waited for the bishop to arrive.

The bishop appeared a few moments later, dressed in a plain black suit, rather than the robe he had been wearing previously. If the bishop was trying to signal anything with his clothing choices, the only thing that came across was conservatism. Reinhard would have preferred him in the robes, because at least that was showing some intention. Reinhard stood to shake his hand.

“I’m glad you could make it, Lieutenant Commander,” Degsby said.

“Of course,” Reinhard said. “It didn’t seem like the type of invitation that I could refuse.”

The bishop chuckled. “Perhaps. Though, of course, if I could dictate policy to the Alliance, the galaxy would be a very different place.”

“I seem like an odd choice for discussing policy with,” Reinhard said. “I am the most junior member of the staff at the High Commissioner’s office.”

“But you have some qualities that the other members of your office lack.”

“I’m not sure what those could be,” Reinhard said. “The Alliance strives to have all of its officers reach a high level of competency.”

“I’m not talking about training, Lieutenant Commander. I’m talking about you, personally.”

Reinhard took a sip of his coffee. “But this is not personal business.”

“The tool that is chosen to complete a task is as important as the hand wielding it, is it not?”

Reinhard frowned. “So, what are these qualities that you think I have in particular?”

“You’re a former imperial, you hate the Goldenbaum dynasty in a very personal way, and you have at least some familiarity with the workings of my church.”

“And why would these qualities be advantageous for some Alliance official policy?”

“Calling it official policy might be a step too far,” the bishop said. “I will tell you, but you must swear that what you learn here will be kept secret.”

“I am going to tell my commanding officer.” Reinhard had no desire to get trapped in the machinations of the Earth Church.

“Of course,” the bishop said. “I mean primarily secret in that it will not reach the ears of the public, or the imperial embassy here.”

“We are not usually in the business of sharing information with them,” Reinhard said, voice dry.

“Voluntarily, no. Unwittingly, yes,” the bishop said. “I am just trying to impress on you the need for operational security.”

“And this room here is secure?”

“Yes,” the bishop said, though Reinhard didn’t doubt that his every action and word was being recorded by someone. “Do you swear, then?”

“I will share this information only with those in my direct chain of command,” Reinhard said. “Yes.”

The bishop stood and walked to the door. He opened it and called, “Ingrid, you can come in.”

A woman appeared in the doorway, maybe in her mid twenties, though her pale face looked somewhat weathered and sun-marked underneath her braided red hair. She was short and slender, though it was hard to see much of her figure under the brown Earth Church robes she was wearing. Her hands were clutching the fabric at her sides, and she seemed nervous. 

Reinhard stood, though he wasn’t sure if he should offer her his hand or not. The bishop switched to speaking entirely in imperial, not the Phezzani pidgin. “Lieutenant Commander von Müsel, this is Ingrid von Roscher. Ingrid, this is Reinhard von Müsel, of the Alliance fleet.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Fraulein,” Reinhard said. Ingrid didn’t offer her hand to shake, so Reinhard just nodded at her, and the three of them sat down.

“Are you aware of who Fraulein Roscher is?” the bishop asked.

“No,” Reinhard said.

Ingrid didn’t meet his eyes when the bishop said, “She is the former wife of Prince Ludwig von Goldenbaum, and the mother of one of the possible heirs to the kaiser’s throne, Erwin Josef.”

“I see,” Reinhard said. He could suddenly understand why this was a matter to be kept secret. While people fled the Empire through Phezzan all the time, it was rather rare for them to be as high profile as this.

“She has been living banished on Earth for the past several years, but with the kaiser’s health growing worse as of late, it was decided that she might be safer on a planet on the other side of the Phezzan corridor.”

Reinhard nodded. “Were you banished to Earth just so that you wouldn’t be an influence on your son, or was there some other reason?”

“There were several overlapping scandals involved in Ludwig’s murder,” the bishop said. “It was a combination of factors.”

Reinhard wondered what it was that the bishop was clearly ill-disposed to disclose. “I see. Are you looking to permanently live in the Alliance, or is this a temporary safety measure?”

“I would like to return to Earth someday,” Ingrid said, speaking with a very soft voice for the first time. Her eyes were downcast.

The bishop ignored her. “There may come a time when Fraulein von Roscher can return to the Empire, but at this junction, it is not clear when that time may be.”

“How old is Erwin Josef now?”

“Five,” the bishop said.

“Does he have a strong claim to the throne?”

“The young Elizabeth von Braunschweig and Sabine von Littenheim have equally strong competing claims. Sabine’s is slightly stronger, as her mother is the oldest of Kaiser Friedrich’s three children, though, of course, Erwin Josef is the only boy.”

Reinhard nodded. “It is unfortunate for the Goldenbaum dynasty that Ludwig died before the succession could be assured.” At the mention of Ludwig, Ingrid looked down and away. Odd.

“It benefits some people,” the bishop said.

“That much is obvious.” Reinhard paused for a second. “If I may be blunt, what benefit is it to the Alliance if Fraulein von Roscher were to take refuge with us?”

“I was under the impression that it was the Alliance’s avowed policy to take in all imperial refugees. A policy that you yourself benefitted from.”

“The circumstances are quite different,” Reinhard said.

“Are they? This was what Bishop Martine had to say, when I asked about you.” The bishop reached inside his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. In the Alliance language, he read, “The von Müsel family claims to have fled the Empire because the daughter, Annerose, was to be sold to the kaiser.”

Ingrid showed no signs of understanding this exchange. Reinhard’s face was hot. “There is a world of difference, Bishop, between a fifteen year old girl being sold into slavery, and a woman becomming the wife of the second most powerful man in the Empire.” He spoke in the Alliance language as well.

“It is naive of you to think that the son did not inherit the sins of the father,” the bishop said, voice clipped. He switched back to the imperial language. “Fraulein, how old were you when you met Prince Ludwig?”

“Fifteen, Your Holiness.”

“And when you married him?”

“Seventeen.”

“And when you had his child?”

“Seventeen still.”

“And was he kind to you?”

“No, Your Holiness.”

“Please describe to the Lieutenant Commander exactly how Prince Ludwig was unkind to you.”

Reinhard raised his hand. “No, don’t,” he said. “I get what you’re trying to do.”

“Then you see that this is a woman who is just as deserving of shelter in your country as your sister was.”

“That may be the case, and I certainly feel sympathy for you,” Reinhard said. “But usually we do not escort refugees off Phezzan. We simply allow them into our borders.”

“But you see how these circumstances are different.”

“Bishop, as I said, I have sympathy for your plight, but I am not at liberty to say anything other than what the Alliance’s official stance towards refugees is. I will need to discuss this with Commodore Blackwell.”

“I understand. If at all possible, I would like your response on this matter quickly.”

“Are you in danger here?”

“No,” the bishop said. “At least, not at this moment. But the longer she remains on Phezzan, the more difficult it will be to keep her undetected.”

“Does the imperial government know that you left Earth?”

“A significant amount of effort was spent in faking Fraulein Roscher’s death. I believe that this effort was not wasted, but it would be if news of her presence on Phezzan were to become public.”

Reinhard nodded. “I will present your case to my superiors,” Reinhard said.

“I chose to ask you because I suspected you would be able to present our case well,” the bishop said, and stood. Reinhard rose as well, and they shook hands. “I look forward to your response.”

“Goodday, Bishop, Fraulein,” Reinhard said, and then left the house as quickly as he could.

He certainly wasn’t going to phone his boss about this, for fear that the phones in the High Commissioner’s office were tapped, so he drove back quickly. As he drove, he noticed a rather nondescript blue car following behind him. It trailed him by a good distance, and often other cars moved in between, but it was definitely following him, and it hadn’t followed him to the bishop’s house earlier. 

To test his tail, Reinhard pulled off the main road onto a winding back road, and took several turns randomly, disobeying his navigation system. As he expected, the car that was following him, now with less traffic to hide behind, dropped back even further, to the point where Reinhard often lost sight of it behind trees and bends in the road. Still, it was following. Eventually, Reinhard came to a place in the road that looked like people used as the entrance to a hiking trail, where there were several other cars parked. He pulled into that patch of dirt and looked behind him at the road. The other car, moving too slowly, was forced to drive past. Reinhard tried to get a good look at the driver, but the windows were tinted, so he couldn’t. Annoyed, he waited a few minutes, then drove off again.

As he got back to the main road, he noticed that his tail had reappeared. Reinhard scowled into his rearview mirror. Apparently, his borrowed car was being tracked in some way other than purely visual. Still, it didn’t really matter, because Reinhard wasn’t headed anywhere except for back to the High Commissioner’s office.

When he got back, he found Blackwell in his office, a clean place whose one interesting feature was the large fishtank at the back, where a single goldfish swam in ponderous circles. 

“Von Müsel, how was your meeting with the bishop?” Blackwell asked cheerfully as Reinhard saluted and entered his office, shutting the door behind him.

“Very interesting, sir,” Reinhard replied, taking the offered seat in front of Blackwell’s desk.

“Tell me all about it.”

“Is this office secure, sir?”

Blackwell raised one thick eyebrow. “There’s of course no way to know that, but I believe it is, yes.”

Reinhard nodded, then explained the situation with Ingrid and what the bishop wanted. Blackwell was nodding and tapping his chin.

“And what’s your opinion of the situation, Müsel?”

“In what sense?”

“Any thoughts you have. I was told that you’re quite intelligent. I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

“This is obviously some sort of power play within the Empire’s domestic politics,” Reinhard said. “I don’t doubt that as soon as the kaiser dies, the Earth Church is going to try to produce her and set her up as a possible regent for their favored successor to the throne. It’s a pretty long-shot move, but this kind of opportunity to grab power is once in a generation, I would be shocked if they didn’t try to take advantage.”

“And what would the Earth church want with a kaiser in their pocket?”

“The same thing anyone would want with a kaiser in their pocket: advancing their own policies, favoring them economically, et cetera.”

“What would those policies be?”

“If we take the Earth Church at their own stated policy position of returning Earth to the political and spiritual center of the galaxy, a successful power grab might end up with, for example, moving the capital off of Odin and to Earth, or establishing Terra worship as the state religion.” Reinhard shrugged a little. “There’s many degrees of success that they could have, and if they’re truly playing the long game, they might want to disestablish the Goldenbaum monarchical rule and install their own brand of leadership.”

“An interesting theory.”

“That’s assuming that their stated goals align with their real goals, though.”

Blackwell nodded. “And do you think that this will be a positive or a negative, for us?”

“I don’t know,” Reinahard said. “In the short term, it might be a positive.”

“Why?”

“If there’s a succession struggle within the Empire, it leaves them very weak, possibly for a few years. There might even be a civil war, if things really go badly for them. Even if we do nothing during that time, that’s still time where we do not risk being attacked, or we could take advantage of that kind of opportunity.”

“I see.”

“And the Earth Church, if they do gain control, might attempt to sue for peace, at least initially.”

“Really?”

“In this scenario, we would have given their regent shelter and assistance when she needed it.”

“Hm. But in the long term?”

“In the long term, again, if their stated goal is to unite all of humanity under Earth’s banner once again, I highly doubt that can be accomplished in a purely peaceful way,” Reinhard said. “The peace wouldn’t last. They might even try to stage some kind of similar coup within our own borders— right now they’re demonstrating that they have the initiative to do such a thing.”

“So, you’re saying that we shouldn’t help them?”

“No, sir. I think we have little choice but to at least give von Roscher shelter.”

“Why is that?”

“It is our position to give shelter to imperial refugees. They could very publically turn that around on us if we didn’t, and it would probably be a bit of a blow to our image on Phezzan, and with any republican sentiments within the Empire itself.”

Blackwell nodded. “I can’t say I disagree. I don’t like it, though.”

“Neither do I,” Reinhard said. “They chose me to present this information to because they thought that they could manipulate me. I don’t appreciate that thought, or the thought that they could manipulate the Alliance government into strengthening their religion.”

“Why would you be easy to manipulate?”

“I am an imperial refugee, my mother is a member of their church, and I have some sympathy for women,” Reinhard said. “That’s all.”

“Sympathy for women?” Blackwell laughed. “Is this Roscher pretty?”

“I wasn’t exactly paying attention to that, sir,” Reinhard said.

Blackwell laughed at him again. “Maybe that’s for the best. It would make a pretty bad image if one of my staff got involved with her.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well,” Blackwell said with a sigh. “I think that we do have to help her. I’ll run this by my higher-ups, but I think I can say for sure that if this becomes, or has the potential to become, a publicity matter, it’s better to do the thing that makes us look good than whatever might need damage-control later on. And it’s not like there’s no precedent for this kind of thing. We’ve helped a good number of refugees across.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But while we’re waiting for this official word to come down, if you could, I would like you to do some digging.”

“Into the Earth Church?”

“Yes. See if you can find out any more concrete details on their plans, both short term and long term. Whatever resources you need, within reason, you can have.”

“I will get started right away, sir.”

“And remember, Müsel, discretion is the better part of valor.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great.”

He ushered Reinhard out of his office. Reinhard abruptly realized that he had forgotten to mention the car that had been chasing him, but decided that perhaps his first step in this espionage mission would be to go down into the garage and try to find where the tracking device was hidden on the fleet car. He could report it to Blackwell when he had found it.