by Christopher McKitterick



Trade Police General Mare Noma

Mare Noma marched into ITU Central's vast conference chamber. The dignitaries milling about the space had demanded her presence due to "The most dire emergency the Union has faced since the Fall of Empire," as they described it. Bah, she thought. Only due to her long experience concealing emotions could she mask the irritation at having to appease these soft-hands by flying here in-the-flesh. She could serve the Union much better by keeping the Force running smoothly. To people whose ancestors' genes had been mutated by the Passivity Plague – survival drive-handicapped soft-hands – everything was an emergency. The two alien cultures that were part of the ITU were no better: Only Humans had murdered their way to the top of the evolutionary heap on their cradle-worlds, and now Humankind had mostly lost its capacity for aggression. The Caloom and Capellans, Our alien friends, were merely sentient consumers. Perfect partners for a union of salesmen, but awful military companions. Thus the Trade Police – the "Force," as everyone in the service called it – existed to protect those unable to defend themselves.

"Dire emergency," bah, she thought. Two decades of caring for her father while his brain slowly died had taught Noma that the worst tragedies sometimes take a long time to play out. If only his disease were something reversible like the Plague, she thought. Instead, it was chemical damage from drinking a glass of poisoned wine. Intended for her. This she never forgot.

A holo of Trade Police Commander-in-Chief, Donne Fausser, marched beside her through a fog of comm and data icons. A fine measure of her self-control was how she refrained from sneering while he acted as if they were conversing companionably like humans – this while, in her opinion, he was most emphatically no longer a human. But to behave toward him as he deserved would harm the Force, and that she would not – could not – do. Mostly she ignored him, pretending to be otherwise involved by muttering greetings to those she passed. Also she distracted herself by studying the dizzying opulence of the chamber.

Parabolic arches of gold-flecked marble suspended the clear, domed ceiling a hundred meters above the tile floor; bronze vines wrapped the arch legs and crept across the glass, obscuring much of the starry confusion that was the galactic core. As she walked, Noma enjoyed the perfume of a thousand floating plants, their roots swaying in the ventilation; incense and spices thickened the atmosphere, as did the subtle, human scent of fear – all of this refreshed her senses, deprived as they were by the sterile environment of her home on Fuchs Station. Nano-information trade had made this beauty possible, and nowhere in the known galaxy was there so much concentration and variety of wealth as on ITU Central.

Through the air buzzed solid and holo bumblebees and hummingbirds in all shades of the rainbow, most of which served as data conduits. Countless more stationary interactive icons vied for her attention, but her headgraft was set at max security and blocked all uninvited data sharing, so she tuned them out. Across the floor's ceramic tile clicked jeweled lizards, platinum cats, golden dogs.... A pair of skinless, mechanical lions whirred and ticked to each side of her, guarding the entrance atop red-silk pillow perches. Their faceted ruby eyes tracked her every movement. She was certain without asking that those clockwork felines had been painstakingly crafted from blueprint by hand rather than assembled from program by nanos, as would have been sensible. They did not even appear to serve information.

All this shameful extravagance, decadence even, only underlined how separate she felt from these genetically damaged people, not to mention the aliens. And how badly they needed her and her Force to protect them. These were but wealthy children, needing a protective and perhaps stern hand to shield them from the dangers of their innocence.

Noma watched the hundreds of human dignitaries from all across the galaxy – and the handful of aliens – stroll, speak, and shout, all in-the-flesh, all in this single room... an unreasonable risk in her estimation. Some floated in suspension webs, some reclined on colorful organic cushions that massaged their backs; the smoke-drenched, octopoid Capellan official even sat within a draped litter held by eight dark-tanned men: possibly mechanicals or synthetics, because slavery was illegal... or maybe they were just well-paid to play a role. Perhaps slavery fetishists? She didn't care; that was none of her business. She nodded to slavemaster and democratically elected Premier alike.

At the assembly's request, she had posted her guards outside. Jen Petropoulos had protested leaving Noma unguarded, especially here, at the heart of Plague-confused humanity. "Who knows what sorts of accidents could happen?" Jen had said, with Noma amid people whose basic survival drive had been bred out of their family lines.

The room began to quiet as the officials noticed the two cobalt-blue Force uniforms of Noma and her superior marching onto the raised debate dais.

"We can't permit such gatherings, sir," she subvocalized to Fausser on their private, shielded, wavelength. "I don't care how important they think these meetings are. It simply invites trouble."

She had to wait eight seconds for the signal to reach him through their wormhole relay – "ansible" to the general public – and for his response to travel back. For this very reason – the delay problem – Noma had to appear personally whenever the Interstellar Trade Union requested emergency attention from the Force. This summons had been classed Top Emergency, something these soft-hands hadn't done before. She hoped she had a real job this time.

Could be worse, she thought; the last "emergency" pulled her halfway across the galaxy to a fresh colony world, and communications had to be passed through six wormholes. The colonists were being devoured by native predators, and because Inhabitation Laws protected the killers which were nominally intelligent, the fool civvies had to be taught how to protect themselves without accidentally wiping out the creatures in response. Add to that the frustration of getting Plague-softened minds to do anything aggressive at all. The solution had been simply to set a local nanofactory to building non-lethal, automated defense systems – a task any orderly could have accomplished. New colonies were always trouble, but never really enough to be interesting or particularly useful to her ambitions.

"Ah. General," Fausser said, his interactive holo speaking just loud enough for those nearby to overhear, "we can't afford such luxuries as dictating how to keep Union representatives safe. We wouldn't want to appear Empiric, would we? Our duty is simply to protect these wise officials from themselves. Should their brashness cause them trouble..."

The Commander didn't need to finish. It was clear to Noma that the filthy monster was hoping something dreadful would befall this conference. She wouldn’t put it past him if he had planned a terrorist strike here just to show how vulnerable these people were... and why they should heed the Force's advice. Noma was pretty certain that Fausser was incapable of the concern for her that he so often expressed. An emerald-scaled Nile monitor scampered across her left boot, drawing her out of these morbid thoughts.

A few steps later, Noma reached the Trade Police terminal and accessed; the wood podium housed secure conference hardware. Because her behavior controlled the logic of Fausser's holo, he, too, stopped, crossing his arms and glancing about the room: standard programming. He could program other actions if he wished to make a speech or otherwise appear truly present.

"The floor recognizes ITP General Mare Noma." The voice spoke smoothly from all around, penetrating yet not overloud. Upon recognition of a speaker, the data icons and sound effects shut down, clearing the gaudy fog and silencing what Noma realized had been a din. People's discussions quieted. Soon all she could hear were hushed voices and a trickle of water from a stream crossing the room. Occasionally a servo whined.

"General Noma present," she said, "and Commander-in-Chief Fausser, via HR link. How may the Force be of service?"

President Nakayama was recognized. Though he sat behind a stone desk across the room, his holo appeared a meter from Noma, before her podium.

"General, we fear we need your help. We ask you to provide your own analysis of the feed from a long-range probe. It had been sent to study one of the Empire's lost systems in the Small Magellanic, a system called Rosco. The probe seems to have found something... disturbing. When you're ready?"

She nodded to the man's image.

The room went black as she unfiltered her headgraft to accept the feed. She monitored it passing through the podium software, and when it appeared safe opened a buffer to sift it for hidden infotoxins. When her own firewall certified it, she forwarded the data through her relays so Fausser could watch, as well. One thing about him she found useful was his enormous information-processing capacity.

Noma let her mind adjust to the 360° perspective. She ignored the words and numbers streaming along a slice of her globe-shaped view. The probe was one of the Xerxes class, an unmanned craft hardly as big as her fist. It emerged from its final wormhole-jump into realspace at almost zero relative velocity: a deep-probe tactic designed to avoid interest should it emerge into an alien-inhabited system. She also assumed it was cloaked against radiation emission or reflection. Standard procedures.

Exceptionally few stars pricked the darkness, but in the opposite direction her eyes traced the graceful spiral of the Milky Way, billions of stars sweeping the darkness, so densely packed that they looked like paint splashed against a black canvas. Dozens of globular clusters danced around the intensely glowing core. South edge of the companion galaxy, Noma determined.

A cloud-shrouded world spun below her so rapidly that it must have been hugely massive to retain that much atmosphere. Half the planet was bathed in shadow, the night alive with lightning, and a fiery aurora encircled the arctic. Then an odd detail beyond the atmosphere caught her attention.

"What's that nebulous effect?" she asked. She had seen something like this before, but she couldn't place where. An odd foreboding made her chest feel tight.

Someone answered, though she didn't bother to open his ID icon that appeared when the comm recognized him; she'd once received more than she'd bargained for when blithely examining an ID icon. "Appears the system still has an accretion disk instead of planets, right?" said the man. "So you're wondering why we have such a big planet in the middle of all this primordial stuff?"

Noma wasn't wondering that. She waited patiently for an explanation. Appearing patient was her number-one skill. It regularly kept her alive. In all likelihood, she believed, it had assured her promotion to number-two status in the Force.

"Here's a zoom of one of those meteoroids." An inset holo flicked to life beside the whirling planet. One dust mote out of the trillions orbiting the white star grew larger until it filled the probe's pov. It wasn't just a dust mote.

"Micromachine," Noma determined.

"Yes," the man answered. "This type is eleven millimeters diameter."

Noma stared at the machine as it spun lazily on its axis. Dozens of spines gleamed in the sunlight – antennae? She couldn't be sure. Otherwise it was featureless.

She glanced back at the glowing disk that surrounded the sun and extended well beyond the planet's orbit. "Are all those... meteoroids like this one? All machines?" Incredible. Why?

"Seems that way," he said. "But wait. The fun's just beginning."

Then it struck her. She could hardly speak. Now she remembered where she'd seen this before. "Disinfecting" such cluttered solar systems had been a primary duty of the early Force, hundreds of years ago during its formative days. She found her voice.

"This system has been occupied by an Empire Ship."

Voices in the chamber rose a pitch as well as a few decibels. Whispers changed to murmurs, murmurs to clear talk. Noma tried to ignore them – this clearly was not news to those in attendance – and focus on the new information. God, she thought. I thought we'd cleaned up the last of those swarms. Even without an Empire Ship to back them up, these tiny robots could devour entire star systems. On the positive side, they couldn’t go interstellar without being pushed through a wormhole in an Empire Ship's bow pulse.

"Are you getting this, Fausser?" she subvocalized to her Commander-in-Chief.

The inset cleared, shifted over on top of the world, and expanded to fill her forward vision. Now computer enhancement stripped away the planet's clouds. This place was heavily industrialized, densely populated along the equatorial region, and utilized high tech agriculture. So, she decided, the locals managed to rebuild after the Ship's devastation.

"Yes, General," Fausser said. "Those indeed look like an Empire Ship's automatons. Good analysis. Odd that so many were left behind. A Ship's prestige was based on how big a cloud of automata it possessed. Battle trophies of a sort, as they were built from the material of systems they... visited."

But Noma wasn't listening to him. She gasped. Bulging up from the surface of the world, she saw a shape. There could be no mistaking what she glimpsed: A long oval the size of a continent, partly sunken into the crust of the planet, millions of black wood planks forming the hull.... From the rear protruded a rocket nozzle, the opening as wide as a city; around the front ran a sparkling ring of metal, with radial stripes leading to the thing's pointed tip.

She could barely allow herself to think what she saw: A grounded Empire Ship.

Bone Ship, Empire's Curse, Blood Ship — they'd been called many things in many languages over the millennia of their dominance. But was it really downed and not just hiding, waiting for the Eternal Galactic Empire of Man to rise from its grave, waiting to serve again? Again the very notion of a surviving Empire Ship shook her.

My god, Noma thought. A Blood Ship. Most feared phrase in the galaxy for nearly 4,000 years during the reign of the Eternal Galactic Empire of Man. She recalled a story from a book all citizens of the Union read, to instill fear of empires and, at heart, to terrify them into behaving like good citizens who were part of a benevolent union of trade worlds. The tales had been passed down from survivors of the Delmoni Atrocity, and Noma had heard it from a holographic storyteller – and been properly horrified. That horror later galvanized her into devoting her life to making sure no empires ever rose from the so-called "Eternal Empire's" ashes.

Trouble was, the Delmoni Atrocity wasn't just a legend, but a record of one of the Empire's final police actions.

Fausser's voice startled Noma out of her thoughts.

"General? Is something wrong?"

She drew a breath and composed herself. "No, sir. Seems we have a problem."

A moment later, a meteor-shower of micromachines flashed out of the void and the probe's transmission died. Noma's head jerked a bit and her hands came up into a defensive stance as the shock of seeing an Empire Ship combined with the realism of the holo momentarily tricked her reflexes. The feed shut down and she found herself looking out across an assembly of concerned and terrified faces. Those faces gradually melted away Noma's fear, replacing the feeling with something more befitting a woman of her rank. She found it difficult not to smile.

The soft-hands need us, she realized. Suddenly she felt invigorated. If that Blood Ship is still functional, they have no idea how badly they need us. Already she began thinking far ahead, planning, worrying out the means to destroy this last remnant of the Empire before it destroyed the ITU – and to do it in the way that best advanced her goals.

"Yes," Fausser said after the delay. "We do indeed face a delicious problem." His reference to taste, flavor – certainly not accidental – nearly made Noma sneer.

"General?" prompted President Nakayama.

Noma brought her hands down, carefully straightening nonexistent wrinkles from her uniform. She cleared her throat. This was her big chance; she had to play it just right.

"There's little question. The object on the surface of that planet appears to be an Empire Ship. Dependent of course on further study of the data... but I would wager it's a certainty, and we can't risk losing that kind of bet."

Crowd noise rose a few more decibels as she spoke. There were cries and arguments were sparked. Servants dashed away and back, swarmed with message icons for their superiors. The representative of the Caloom culture padded out of the chamber on its four slippered feet; its young assistant, still cream-colored, spoke quietly.

"Apologies," it said, huge black eyes staring who-knows-where. The chest-mounted mouth moved languidly while its grub-like body stood on four skinny legs, two arms weaving the air in a sign language few humans understood.

"The Caloom culture of the Interstellar Trade Union can no longer participate until you resolve your problem. The Caloom hereby officially do remove ourselves. We must return home. We sincerely wish you luck against your old Human Empire."

The young speaker followed its senior out of the room. The Capellan entourage – other aliens present – huddled closely to one another, speaking in their native language, but Noma did not doubt that their decision would parallel the Caloom’s.

Yes, Noma thought, just the mention of a Blood Ship is enough to break relations with our alien friends. That'll hurt the Union plenty, put the fear into them. No dumb aliens to swindle out of their resources. In fact, 90% of all products used by the Caloom and Capellans were Human-nanofactured, including all space-travel technology. They’ll go back to being simple animals without us, she thought.

"Is it still... functional?" asked someone, unannounced.

Another burst in, "Those pictures were sent almost five years ago! Had to cross nearly five light-years before reaching the nearest ansible at Montbonne System. The damned Blood Ship might already be entering Montbonne‑"

"As we speak," shouted yet another, "people might be dying!"

An electric tingle of fear and excitement raced along Noma's spine as she thought, You may be right.

"Silence," commanded Noma in a voice amplified by dedicated psychmanipulation software. Most of the humans quieted immediately, if only for a moment.

"I've studied the probe's transmission," said Fausser to her only. "That vessel isn't fully operational. Seems something's wrong with the wormhole generator. It can't go anywhere just yet."

Noma accepted that and spoke. "The ship posed little danger as of time these images were taken. But the development of its world concerns me. If the inhabitants are descendants of an Empire ship crew, they may be able to repair their vessel – might already have, for that matter. I most vehemently recommend we sterilize that world immediately."

She had spoken before consulting Fausser, but he allowed her full freedom to make decisions when communication delays proved troublesome. She had to force a smile into a grimace when she saw the similarity between her own autonomy from him and that of the Empire Ships from the Empire. Blood Ship Noma, defending the galaxy....

Noma's comments were met by cheers and shouts and general mayhem.

President Nakayama's holo quietly asked, "How?"

"If you will quiet the assembly..." she said.

Stifled cries pierced the din for a moment, evidence of Nakayama's use of crowd control, a direct-touch psychmanipulation pulse available only to him and the speaker to twinge the nerves of the independent representatives. This proved his determination to curry favor with the Force, because ill-considered use of the pulse could result in his early retirement. The roar subsided to a rumble. Noma was impressed that he, a mere soft-hands, dared go to such lengths. He must truly care about his charges. His parents might even have altered their genes – an illegal act – so that he might be born free from the Plague. Her estimation of him rose several notches.

"Ladies, gentlemen, esteemed nonhuman friends," Noma began. "If we value our Interstellar Trade Union, we must destroy that world," she gestured toward the sky, "that Empire Ship's lair. I suggest we act immediately by launching an attack from the nearest permanent HR portals. Even so, the missiles will take several years to reach their target." This was just a handy lie to cover her real intentions and to gain time to move ahead on some other Force projects.

"Therefore we also request advance approval and funding for an engineering action to build closer portals so we can continue the bombardment and study the system more carefully. Finally, we request blanket advance approval to mount whatever further operations we deem necessary to eliminate this menace before it threatens the ITU. We will submit a cost estimate presently."

That met with any number of complaints:

"'Blanket advance approval'? Are you insane!"

"We simply cannot allow you infinite freedom to..."

"This is blackmail!"

When the complaints grew loudest, she simply stated, "You brought this problem to us. That was the correct decision. I am telling you how we will solve your problem. The finances our operations will expend are nothing compared to the losses you will experience once that Empire Ship returns to the star lanes."

That provoked other voices in support of the Force. Hearing them, Noma remained quiet and let them argue. During the next few minutes, the debate's course gradually shifted to her side, as she'd expected. After all, no one but the Force was prepared to meet a threat like this – and nobody feared the Force nearly as much as they feared the legendary Blood Ships. Few besides those employed by the Force could be depended on even to defend themselves, what with the ongoing spread of Passivity Plague – something that had never seemed a problem, because there existed no threat.

They need us, she thought. We'll get our blank check, and at last we'll be freed of their damned funding collar. Things will be run properly from now on. I'll be the one they thank. And then I'll have the power to oust that blight on the galaxy, that disgrace to the Force, that corruption of human genetic material named Fausser.

Yes, finally, an interesting assignment . Her pulse pounded. Her thoughts felt as sharp as lasers. Now, how exactly to destroy a Blood Ship....

"Fine work, Mare," Fausser said in his quiet, confidential voice. "Before you leave, be sure you get that blanket approval signed. We'll need absolute freedom to take care of this problem. I'm developing an operating plan as we speak."

He smiled and nodded, the hologram black hair on his hologram head gleaming in the glow of the miniature sunglobes bobbing through the air. Noma felt sick at the sight of him, at his approval. She could spit at him. But even though this wasn't physically him, she had to control herself: The real Fausser was watching, always watching.

"Thank you, Commander," she said with the hint of a smile. "I'll take care of everything." She returned her attention to the assembly.

"You'll want time to discuss our offer," she told them. "We must get to work on this problem immediately. I'm staying at the local Force headquarters until tomorrow morning. You know how to contact us. Thank you for the summons and your time." She stepped away from the podium, briefly speaking with officials as she marched out.

Noma walked past clockwork lions, feeling their ruby stare. As she emerged into the sunshine, she was immediately surrounded by Jen Petropoulos and eight of Noma’s personal guard, men and women carrying particle weapons and wearing black-striped blues: the Force's choicest soldiers, midrank officers who answered only to her.

Noma closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and smiled like a fiend. Yes! At last she had a real mission. This was the problem she'd been seeking to secure the respect she needed – respect that would be her most powerful tool and weapon. At last she had begun walking the final leg of a long and excruciating journey.

"General-?" said Petropoulos, her chief bodyguard.

Noma looked at the woman, the closest she had to a friend. She wore a quirky smile on her dark-skinned face.

"Good news," Noma said. "They found an Empire Ship."

Petropoulos' mouth fell open and her features went slack. The others staggered or murmured, completely out of character for such disciplined soldiers. At least their expressions showed that their eagerness outweighed their fear.

Noma put up a hand. "Trust me," she said. "It is good news. I'll explain later."

Interstellar Trade Police General Mare Noma drew a deep breath of sun-warmed air. At long last she was alive.