“You have to make up your mind,” my older brother Emil told me in his imperious manner. He had been bossing me around since I was a toddler. I didn’t appreciate it anymore now at forty years old than when I was five. “You are either going to serve Sparta or you are going to serve the Emperor. You cannot have it both ways!”
“Even the Council is divided, and you expect me to commit to this foolishness?”
“The Empire is on its last legs. Sparta must fend for itself.”
“The Navy is all that stands between civilization and the forces of barbarism…” I started into my spiel, but Emil cut me off.
“Your precious damn Navy!” Emil exclaimed. “Where was your vaunted Navy when Oberon was lost?”
“We can’t be everywhere at once; we are down to less than a thousand ships. Many of them are old and in need of maintenance. We do what we can,” I answered weakly.
“Our family lost a big portion of our wealth when Oberon was lost. I don’t know if we will recover.”
“Oh bullshit, Emil,” I retorted. “This station alone is worth more than some entire worlds in the fringe systems!”
We were standing on the observation deck of an industrial mining station in the heart of the asteroid belt. The three-story emerald-alumna semi-spherical window gave us a view of a thousand various nearby planetoids that were being exploited for their mineral wealth. Our family owned the station and had mineral rights to every rock within the entire asteroid belt.
“You have no idea what it costs to maintain this facility,” Emil told me from his six-foot-six height. He had been looking down at me like that as long as I could remember. I’d stopped growing at one inch over six feet and he never let me forget it.-
“Emil, you forget who you are talking to,” I told him disgustedly. “This station was paid for lock, stock, and barrel before you were born. It has been kicking out profit ever since.”
“It is not so easy now; the low-hanging fruit has all been picked. We are struggling to stay in the black.”
“Cry me a river, Emil.” Under the laws of primogeniture, Emil had inherited the bulk of the family fortune. My grandfather had bought me a commission in the Imperial Navy and I had been wearing the Emperor’s standard since I was fifteen.
The Navy was my life. I was at the pinnacle of my career. As a four-striper captain, I commanded a battlecruiser. I would go no higher in the naval service since I was a Colonial and had no Imperial blood. With one significant exception, to become an admiral, a candidate had to have some claim to the purple. I had earned my position through hard work and loyalty but would go no higher.
“It is not easy for me, you know,” Emil said defensively. I didn’t envy Emil his position or his fortune. As one of the fifteen founding families of Sparta, the Sinclairs had obligations and responsibilities that stretched even our immense wealth. I knew Emil was caught on an ever faster speeding treadmill running hard to stay in the same place.
Oberon had been a colony-world founded by Sparta thirty years prior. It had been an immense gamble and all of the founding families had taken catastrophic hits when it fell to the barbarians. Lucky for the Sinclairs, the mining operation in the asteroid belt, started by our grandfather, still generated enough cash to keep the wheels on the wagon, but barely.
“You might have to sell one of the estates,” I suggested.
“Never!” Emil exclaimed. “Those ranches and farms were founded by our ancestors and are sacred ground.”
“Oh give me a break, Emil. It is just dirt.”
“See, see – that is what I mean! You go off to fly around the galaxy in your little toy ships and have forgotten what the Sinclair family name means!”
I had to be careful. We had just traded insults that bordered on fighting words. I had slightly disparaged the Sinclair legacy and Emil had insulted my precious Navy. One of us had to back off.
It would be me, it always was.
“I am sorry Emil,” I said with a conciliatory smile. “I know the estates mean a lot to you.”
“They should to you as well,” Emil said critically. “But I know, you have been gone so long, it is not the same. I am faced with it every day.”
I wanted so to make the sign of the world’s smallest violin, but I tamped down the temptation.
“Seriously Emil, it is my considered judgment that I serve Sparta better by staying in the Navy. The majority of the council agrees with me. The vote last night was to remain in the Imperium.”
“Those old men!” Emil snorted disgustedly. “They cannot see beyond the ends of their gray beards.”
“That is treason, Emil, be careful,” I told him quietly.
Emil glanced over his shoulder reflexively but knew we were in the one place where no monitoring device could reach. The observation deck on the station was one of the few private places in the system.
“The tide is running against them,” Emil murmured. “The vote was close, eight to six. If one council member changes his vote, they will be locked.”
“Then it will be up to you, will it not?” Emil was the chairman-pro-tem of the council. As the patriarch of the Clan Sinclair, Emil did not vote in council, but if the council became deadlocked it was Emil’s duty to determine the outcome. “Do you really want that responsibility?”
For once Emil’s glib tongue was stilled. The enormity of the decision had evidently never seemed real enough for him to consider it as an actuality.
“If we declare independence we will need your ship.”
“I am sorry Emil; you ask the one thing I cannot do. If having my ship and my service is necessary for Spartan independence you had better remain loyal to the Emperor,” I told him with finality and spun on my heel to leave the area.
Emil said nothing. He was not surprised; he knew where my loyalties lay.
Emil was only half right. What he did not know was I had no particular affinity for the Imperial Royal family. I appreciated the Empire for one reason. It supported the Navy. The Navy was a supranational organization. On paper, it was a military tool of the Emperor. In fact, the Navy was a force for justice and peace within the Empire.
The immense trackless distances between the two hundred forty-eight settled systems that made up the Empire, made governing from a central location difficult to impossible. As a result, each system had a governor who wielded practically unlimited power in his jurisdiction.
The Navy was the only check on these would-be despots.
When the Navy arrived in a system the senior officer of the ship or flotilla, be he captain or admiral, was the Emperor’s direct representative. The governor, no matter how august or well connected, became number two for the duration of the visit.
The first meeting when the Navy arrived in a system was with the chairman-pro-tem of the council. Any petitions from citizens that had not been resolved by the governor or council would be reviewed by the senior officer’s staff. If the staff’s evaluation determined a case or cases had merit, they would be presented to the senior officer who would evaluate the complaint or petition with his staff and JAG officer.
The naval officer’s decision was final and without recourse to appeal; it was as if the Emperor himself had spoken. It was this threat that kept the governors, for the most part, in check. On any given day without warning or notice, a battlecruiser or fleet could appear in orbit above the capital city and a no-nonsense naval officer holding the power of life and death could appear in front of the governor’s desk.
It was a very real and very dangerous possibility that hung over all two hundred forty-eight governor’s heads.
Every single naval officer went through the same training. The Naval Academy was on the Imperial capital world of Byzantium. Most officers served an apprenticeship as midshipmen in the fleet from their fifteenth birthday until they were twenty. After a battery of tests and with supporting reports from their service in the fleet, a thousand middies were selected to attend the academy.
By the end of the six-year matriculation, half would have dropped out or been eliminated. Every year the academy added about five hundred young ensigns into the fleet. These officers served for up to fifty years. They took a verbal oath to support the Emperor; they took a blood oath to support the Navy.
A few Royals were inducted into the academy without serving as midshipmen. These were connected men, directly related to the Emperor himself. From this privileged group, future admirals would be selected. Once in a generation, a commodore would be promoted from the fleet who was not a royal.
This particular officer would eventually be promoted up a fast track to become Admiral of the Fleet. He was the Navy’s admiral. The Admiral of the Fleet answered only to the Naval Board. The board was made up of twelve retired admirals whose only concern was the Navy itself.
This was a system that had evolved over four hundred years, much to the chagrin of some Emperors who thought the Navy should be their own private tool and plaything. Emperors came and went.
The Navy was forever.
“Deck four,” I told the elevator. As the door closed I watched Emil standing there staring out at the profusion of asteroids as if evaluating each for its potential value. Seeing him there with the weight of worlds on his shoulders reminded me I didn’t want his job.
The elevator opened into an anteroom at the head of a long corridor of doors which led to individual apartments. This was “family country” off-limits to all but Sinclairs and attendants. On either side of the hall, the anteroom was furnished with two identical settees, a couch, a coffee table, and two end chairs. Standing in front of the one on the left were three men.
“Mister Johansson,” I addressed the warrant officer standing between two fleet marines. “Is the transport loaded?”
“No Sir, not quite,” my chief of staff told me. “They had to bring in some more tungsten. We exhausted what the station had in stock.”
“What about the crystal?” The primary product of the station was the emerald-alumina transparent crystal with which the observation deck was glazed. It was extremely rare and even more valuable. This unique product provided the overwhelming majority of the Sinclair family’s income.
The formula was a closely guarded family secret. The materials from which it was made existed only in this asteroid belt as far as anyone knew. The fusion-powered plasma smelter which formed the final product was unique in the galaxy. It took so much power that a second fusion power plant was required to feed it seed power.
What made this material so valuable was its unique structure. On the surface, it was harder than diamond, but under stress, it would bend and not break. It had a thermal transfer rate of zero. It was perfectly comfortable with absolute zero temperature on one side and plasma grade fury on the other. It was transparent to light and radio waves making it perfect for many military applications.
Sparta paid its taxes to the Empire in sheets of the crystal.
“Yes Sir, the crystal is all loaded,” he replied. “The station chief tells us the tungsten is on its way in and we should be able to get underway in less than an hour.”
“Very well Mister, take the marines down to deck six to the lunch room,” I instructed him and handed him a metal plate the size of a business card that would give him access to the civilian dining area and pay for their meals.
“Aye Sir,” the warrant officer smiled. Having access to the private dining hall’s gourmet cooking would be a treat for the grunts. The two tall well turned out marines were my personal guard and accompanied me everywhere. Only here within the security of Sinclair station could they relax their vigilance. It was a break for all of us.
“Sir, may we check commo from the dining hall?” the senior of the two marine sergeants asked. He wanted to make sure I could contact him in the outside chance I needed too. He wasn’t too concerned that our communication link would fail within the station, but he was a marine, always prepared, always thinking ahead.
“Certainly Sergeant,” I replied. “I’ll be down the hall in my grandmother’s stateroom.”
As the three walked into the elevator they were smiling among themselves in anticipation of the coming meal, food on the battlecruiser was not bad, but nothing like what was served on the station.
My grandmother’s stateroom was the first door on the left. It had pride of place close to the elevators and had been my great grandfather’s suite. He had built the original station and was the patriarch of our generation, revered and almost worshiped by his progeny.
Jantz Garet Sinclair had been a legendary figure. He had been born with an almost innate sense of mathematics. From the time he was introduced to simple arithmetic in his fifth year, he devoured the subject. By the time he was ten years old, he had surpassed all of his teachers and was exploring quantum mechanics at a level that left all but the most advanced physicists behind.
It was he who had developed the formula for the transparent material that was the basis of the family fortune. He alone developed the methods of forging it that gave it almost supernatural properties.
For all of his success, he had not been satisfied. He had been looking for something else. He built Sinclair Station to manufacture the crystal but for the first decade of its existence, the river of money that flowed into the family’s coffers from its sale was plowed back into basic research. The station grew and became the largest research lab in the galaxy.
What the patriarch was searching for was a closely guarded secret. Toward the end of his life, he evidently found it, but it was never revealed to the public. One day he simply shut down ninety percent of the research facilities and released the several hundred scientists and engineers who had worked for twenty years on his quest for the Holy Grail.
When questioned by family members, he would only give them a satisfied smile and tell them “I am finished.” He retired to the largest of the Sinclair estates on Sparta and spent the last twenty years of his life raising racehorses. As far as I knew, no one in the family ever knew what he had been looking for.
I walked up to the carved wooden double doors and glanced at the family coat of arms carved into its polished surface. I thought about the family motto: “The Spirit makes (a man) noble.” My Nana had told me when I was older it would make sense, but I still didn’t quite get it.
I then glanced up at the lens of the recognition system. I saw a micro-pulse of blue as it scanned my retinas and heard the click of the opening lock.
My grandmother was setting up the table for three from a cart of food out of the dining hall. I was shocked at how she had aged. I had not seen her for five years. We had been patrolling at the far end of the Empire and had been completely cut off. Her ever-present assistant, Lyna, had not changed since she had been my nanny. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, had long black hair and the body of a movie star.
Lyna was an android and had been my grandmother’s nanny as well.
Lyna was hovering around behind my grandmother, clearly uncomfortable letting my grandmother serve herself.
“Josephina, you should let me do that,” she was telling Nana as I walked in.
“I don’t get to wait on my grandson anymore, and I am doing it,” Nana told her. Both ladies smiled as I walked in. My Nana sat everything aside and came to me, smothering me in a big hug and kissing me on both cheeks. When she pulled back to hold me at arm’s length, there were tears in her eyes.
“Nana, you have not been keeping up your rejuvenation therapies,” I exclaimed in shock. The last time I saw her she didn’t look a day over thirty. Today her hair had turned white and she was stooped and wrinkled.
“We can talk about that later; say hello to Lyna,” she ordered.
“Hello Walter,” Lyna said. She was smiling but made no move to come closer or to touch me. When I had been a toddler she had been very cuddly with me but by the time I reached my tenth birthday she had become a bit distant. I remember at the time being puzzled and hurt. When I asked my Nana about it, she informed me that Lyna was a machine. I was shocked and for a long time refused to believe it.
“Is Emil joining us for dinner?” I inquired in some surprise about the third plate. Emil seldom left his office and command bridge when he was on the station.
“No, I have a surprise for you,” Nana said looking toward the bedroom where the door was sliding open. My sister appeared at the door and looked at me with undisguised affection. Rosslyn Yemen Sinclair was my older half-sister twenty years my senior, only child of my father’s first wife who had died giving birth to the difficult baby.
My mother and father had been killed in some bizarre boating accident mere weeks after I was born. Emil and I had been staying with our grandmother on her estate at the time. It seemed to make sense for us to just stay with her, and my grandfather, after our parents passed away. Rosslyn had moved to the estate after our parent’s death to assist my grandmother and had been as much a mother to me as a sister.
What Rosslyn did was somewhat of a mystery. She came and went from the estate at odd hours and would be gone sometimes for weeks. When she returned sometimes she would be gaunt and haggard as if she had been under terrible stress. Other times she would look as if she hadn’t eaten since she had left the estate.
Rosslyn never talked about her profession and Nana refused to talk about it. My grandmother’s position on the subject was that if Rosslyn wanted anyone to know her business she would tell them.
My sister loved horses and was an accomplished equestrian. She rode jumping competition and won consistently in her class. She was athletic and competitive. When it came the time in my studies to learn hand-to-hand combat, she taught me. She was an accomplished artisan in the Korean art of Goju-Ryu karate. This fact added to the mystery of who she was and what she did in her shadowy absences from the estate.
She was dressed this evening in a one-piece short-sleeved black, form-fitting dress cut just above the knee. Her coal black hair was cut in a professional bob with bangs almost to her eyebrows. She came across the tile floor with her black high heeled pumps clicking across the room. She walked like a cat with no superfluous motion. Her rare smile was genuine and warm; she loved me as if I was her own flesh and blood.
She stopped one step away and reached up to stroke my cheek and looked at me for a long moment without speaking. Then she stepped close and hugged me almost desperately as if she thought I might slip away.
“Oh Walty,” she whispered. “I have missed you so…” Her expression and her voice were soft but her body was hard against me. She was still in extraordinary physical condition.
“Captain, we are in the dining room, do you read?” the sergeant’s voice sounded in my left ear from the bud embedded there.
“Yes sergeant,” I subvocalized. “Enjoy your meal.”
“I have pheasant or salmon, which would you prefer?” my Nana asked, she knew my favorites.
“How about a bit of both?” I responded, with my mouth watering. I was tired of Navy food as well.
My grandmother’s suite was sumptuous. I looked around remembering. It seemed smaller than I remembered, but it was stadium-sized compared to what I was used to aboard ship. The great room contained a sitting room, dining room, and bar. It was probably two thousand square feet of open space. The ceiling was well over ten feet in height and one end was open to space.
In reality, it was glazed with the crystal, but it was so transparent it gave the impression one could simply step out into the black void. The single sheet of emerald-alumina was the largest ever cast. Its value was astronomical, yet here it was, forming one wall of a suite that was now used and inhabited, perhaps a week, every two or three years.
Thinking about it for a moment, I decided Emil’s money problems were mostly in his own head.
“Nana, does Emil handle your finances as well as the rest of the family’s?” Looking at that chunk of emerald had sent my mind off into financial matters.
“No, I have my own resources. The Carlisle estate is in my name and I have the largest minority share of stock in Sinclair Station.” Carlisle had been my grandmother’s maiden name. Her family’s estate had been second only to my great grandfather’s.
“That is a relief. Emil seems to think he is stretched to the breaking point.”
“Oh piffle!” Nana exclaimed. “The Sinclair family fortune is so diverse and spread out throughout the Empire; it is difficult to know what our status is. Emil is a worry wart.”
“Would you like to try the Sauvignon Blanc?” Lyna asked. She was standing holding a frosty magnum of a clear white wine.
“Oh yes, do,” Nana encouraged. “It is a vintage we have been experimenting with from the estate. Emil is extremely fond of it. I brought a dozen cases up with me when we came out this time. This is a four-year-old vintage, very dry.”
Lyna poured a couple of swallows in a delicate glass blown from the crystal. It was so thin and light it gave the illusion of the liquid being suspended in the air. The wine was superb, magic in a glass. I examined the long-stemmed crystal.
“Is this something new? I was not aware the crystal could be formed into this thin shape.”
“Oh no sweetheart, this set was made by your great-grandfather. He took the secret of its manufacture to the grave with him.”
“You mean this set of glasses is the only one in the galaxy?”
“No, I have a twelve glass set and a carafe at the estate that he gave to my mother and he made the third set to present to the Imperial family.”
“Do you have any idea what they are worth?”
“I would imagine they are almost priceless, but why are you all of a sudden worried about money? You never were concerned about it before.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I think Emil’s worries penetrated my shell.”
“Well, stop worrying, we are in no danger of bankruptcy,” Nana laughed.
Rosslyn joined Nana and I at the table and we held hands while Nana returned thanks. Her prayer was heartfelt as she thanked God for her family and the chance to be together again, even if for a short time.
When I opened my eyes and glanced up I was surprised to see Rosslyn staring at me with a small possessive smile. She winked at me as if mocking my grandmother’s prayer. I knew they didn’t exactly see eye to eye, but I was surprised at the overt rebellion. I acted as if I hadn’t seen her gesture.
“Nana, thank you,” I told her. “I miss you more than you know.” She was my grandmother and I was not going to pick sides in any disagreement between her and my sister. I loved them both.
I nodded and dived into the pheasant. It was superb but I left room for the salmon. It had been years since I had actually had fresh meat and fish. The stuff that came out of the Navy’s kitchen was synthesized from various algae. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly could not compare to the actual product.
Nana had fallen silent watching me eat. She seemed to be considering something. As I was finishing up a chocolate soufflé that was so light I thought it might float up out of the dish, she looked at me with an uncharacteristically serious demeanor.
“There is something I need to tell you,” she said at last. “I am on the last lap of my race. This is the last time we will be together. I am dying, Walty. The doctors give me less than six months to live.”
“No!” I exclaimed. “That is impossible; we’ll get different doctors, put you back on rejuvenation…”
“Walty, stop,” she cooed covering my hand with her wrinkled one. “Son, you have to understand I am one hundred fifty years old. My body is worn out, three-quarters of my joints are artificial, and half of my spine is plasteel. The family has spent three fortunes on keeping me going the last thirty years. I have an inoperable brain tumor.”
“No sweetheart, you will have to let me go. I am done. I want to go; I want to be with your grandfather.” My grandmother was a believing, practicing Christian and she was convinced that Bapaw was waiting on the other side.
“Your grandmother is right, there is nothing to be done,” Lyna interjected. “You must listen to her.” That stopped me. Lyna had been ordering me around since I was a toddler. If “Lyna said,” it was gospel truth.
“I am going to give you your inheritance,” Nana told me.
“I don’t want it; just turn it over to Emil. He seems to be in a tight right now.”
“You don’t understand sweetheart, all of the property and money goes to Emil under primogeniture anyhow. There is nothing I can do about it.”
“Well, what is my inheritance then?” I asked suddenly intrigued.
“I am giving you Lyna.”