The Rule of Law

It was Marcella who delivered the statement. She’d been angling to do it for weeks, from even before the last Empire loyalists surrendered; ever since it was clear they were going to win. She knew she had got it simply by being comparatively young and female, but anything that would make her stand out among her new colleagues was welcome. It was no bad thing to be the public face of the Three Hundred, the collection of mostly ex-space officers who had just made themselves the new rulers of Terra. De jure bello, as they would have said under the Empire; by the law of war.

The broadcast went out from the old Imperial capital, New Rome. It wouldn’t be the capital for much longer; apart from anything else, the last round of bombing had damaged the pilings beneath the artificial island and the whole city was slowly sinking into the Med. They preferred the American continent, but New Rome still had a symbolic value, Terra’s space empire embodied in old, wrecked stone. They set the recorders up on the outskirts of the government district, in some bureaucrat’s ruined office with scorch marks spread across the ceiling and a star map on the wall behind the desk. Marcella sat in the bureaucrat’s chair, resting her hands on the bloodstained baize.

“It has been terrible, the end of the Empire” she said. The light from the recorder, panning across the desk, caught the scar that snaked red down her cheek. “None of us will ever forget where we were on that first, terrible day at the beginning of the collapse. That was the day when we all had to make a choice, when we all had to discover who we really were. Well, we made that choice, and now, out of the ashes of Empire, something better is rising. A new era of peace and security for Terra.”

They’d worked on this statement for days, practised it until she had every pause perfect. She held a beat, narrowing her eyes, letting her voice sharpen.

“An era when Terrans on Terra are at the forefront, when Terran resources and Terran taxes are no longer wasted on colonies far out in space or involvement in alien affairs, but are used here, for your benefit, as they always should have been. Our council of three hundred will be dedicated to your interests, the interests of the people of Terra.”

Another beat, pause, smile; look up into the recorder with eyes that seem sincere.

“Together, we can go forward to the future.”

The statement was beamed only to Terra itself, but inevitably it got out. To the Terran colonies first of all, confirming that they were on their own, then beyond Terran space to the alien planets, to the Chi!me and the Gargarin, the other imperial races in the galaxy, whose own long war had only just ended. By then all that remained of the speech was a text summary and a still, helpfully captioned in a variety of languages: “Marcella Keo, one of the new Terran ruling oligarchy, the Three Hundred”. A Terran woman with a scarred face, justifying power with her back to a sky full of stars.

******************************************

They’d put the “we all remember where we were” cliché in precisely because it was a cliché, a tradition so old no one knew any more about which disaster it had first been said. Always give people what they expect to hear if you want them to trust you. For the public, Marcella supposed it might even be true. It wasn’t for her. She’d been somewhere out on the Gargarin border, on the space patrol that was the only contribution Terra made to the Gargarin war effort. She couldn’t have said the co-ordinates: she’d been the Captain, not the navigator.

Subjectively, she’d been in ancient Rome, though she pretended she didn’t remember that either. VR was out of fashion under the Three Hundred, an indulgence of empire, an absurdity when their first act had been to introduce the power rations. Back in the Empire, a VR suite was expected; on a patrol ship like hers a game stock was practically compulsory. Marcella had allowed a few strategy games and an old standard Roman life set that all the crew complained about. “All that “for the love of Caesar stercus” said Oleg, her second, when he didn’t think she was listening. She pretended not to hear.

That day, she’d been in the banquet programme. It wasn’t as challenging as some of the action games, fighting barbarians, foiling assassinations or holding a province after the fall of Rome, but she liked it. After weeks of dried space food, even the pretence of a change was better than nothing. It was set in a long, high room with an open colonnade along one side and the sun streaming low through the curtains. It was supposed to be the home of a senator, the other diners generals and lawgivers, philosophers and governors. Stringed music hung in the air over the quiet hum of Latin talk; a debate on the nature of justice, a poetry reading, gossip about the Emperor. Slaves moved deftly between the couches with silver trays, proffering refreshment with delicate fingers. The programmed light was too bright for the VR equipment, so the sunlight outlined everything in a thin, violet shimmer, an Olympian glaze.

The senator had starting his speech on the necessity of law when Oleg’s disembodied voice broke in.

“Captain?” The programme paused, leaving the senator frozen, mid-declaim, into his own statue. “We’re picking up a Gargarin ship on an intersect course. They say they have a message for us. They’ve got a guy called Sherenka, one of the Gargarin council. He wants to come on board.”

“Come on board?” They were only a patrol ship. They didn’t receive envoys, it wasn’t what they were for. Through the VR she felt her pulse beating, as if the news were pounding in her blood. Something was happening. Something was happening, and it was happening to her. “Well, we’d better get him over here, then. Tell them one shuttle, this Sherenka and two companions, alright? I’ll be up as soon as I’ve got out of this thing.”

“Yes, Captain.”

She clicked her fingers for the exit menu. The programme, registering Oleg’s disconnection, flickered back into life. As it powered back up, it hiccoughed, and for one disorientating moment the entire room was pulled askew, columns bending and shifting like a slip on a faultline; like an admission that it wasn’t real at all.

Coming out of the VR suite, Marcella found Angela, the weapons tech, waiting for her in the corridor. She and Marcella had known each other since space school, where they’d discovered they’d grown up three fetid streets apart in the largest of the camps outside Cologne. They hadn’t been the same rank since Marcella had got onto the fast track, but Angela only called her Captain in company.

“Did Oleg tell you about the Gargarin?” she asked, without preamble.

“That one of their council is coming to see me? Yes, he said. Why?”

She meant “why is it your business?” but Angela was not to be deflected.

“Did he say who it is?”

“Someone called Sherenka. Look, I need to get on up to the bridge, now. Why don’t…”

“He was in command at Qiva.”

“Qiva?” Shattered buildings on the newscasts, thin Chi!me bodies stacked in piles for burning. The capture of Qiva was eight years ago, right at the beginning of the Chi!me-Gargarin war, when the fighting was fiercest. It was a great Gargarin victory – the only time the Chi!me had ever lost a colony – but the civilian casualties had been so heavy there’d been protests all over the galaxy, even on Terra. Marcella had been in space school then, so she hadn’t demonstrated. She couldn’t remember now if Angela had.

She kept her voice reasonable, as if Gargarin embassies happened to her every day.

“Well, then we know he’s important. Other than that, I don’t see that his past history is any business of ours. He’s an ally.”

“He’s a war criminal! Even the Gargarin council doesn’t trust him, he might win battles for them but they still think he’s a liability. Why does he want to come on board? If this was an official embassy, he wouldn’t bother with us. We don’t know what he wants. I think we should…”

Marcella let her tone become stern. “All we should do is get ready for the shuttle. I don’t have time for a discussion.”

“But you must see there’s something going on!” Angela exclaimed. “Think about it! Marcella…”

She put her hand on her arm. Marcella glared.

“I think you should get down to the shuttle bay, Gunner.”

Angela’s face paled, and closed. She pulled her hand back, holding both palms up in a gesture of surrender, or harmlessness.

“If that’s what you want, Captain” she said.

Marcella received the envoy in the crew lounge. They didn’t have a diplomatic suite on the ship, not being expected to engage in diplomacy. She sat facing the door, so she could watch as Oleg ushered him in. He had the reptilian skin of all Gargarin, as if he was wearing leather, and the heavy forehead descending in a wedge between his eyes. One eye was covered by a blue patch, with scars running out of it up and down his face, and the other shone white around its black bead pupil. Gargarin were always bigger than Terrans, but this one seemed also more solid, denser, like an ancient, dead star. It seemed wrong that the doorframe didn’t break around him, that the floor didn’t tear beneath his feet. He let the door close behind him and bowed briefly, a formal gesture with no humility in it.  Marcella stood up. She wondered if this was what all war criminals looked like.

“Captain Keo, thank you for seeing me in such unusual circumstances. There was no time to seek out a more diplomatic channel. I’m sure you will understand when I tell you my news. My people are about to surrender to the Chi!me.”

His Terran was fluent, if stately, more measured than the content. The toe of one mailed boot tapped on the carpet.

“We are about to lose the war and our empire” he said. “Unless Terra can stop it.”

The important thing, Marcella thought, was not to be naïve. To be equal to it. She waited.

“You may perhaps have heard of the hellin?”

“I’ve heard of them.” She considering finding a euphemism, but it felt too much like a concession, an identification she wasn’t prepared to make, even for an ally “They’re the slave race, aren’t they?”

If he thought her rude, he didn’t show it.

“Yes. Our ancestors conquered their lands many cycles ago, long before we went to the stars, and they have served us ever since.”

She thought of the footage she’d seen of Gargarin planets, glimpses of a lighter, thinner people scurrying through twisting city streets, keeping the door at government buildings, working in lines across the fields under brown, alien skies. With their pale, dappled skins they could have been the ghosts of their rulers, flitting across the recorders, seen then unseen.

“We don’t allow it to be known, but from time to time there have been rebellions” Sherenka went on. “We put them down, of course, they are only hellin after all, but it takes time, and troops to kill them. Even working at peak speed, a unit can only burn three villages in a day, so it takes time. This uprising started twenty days ago, on Gargarin, and it’s spreading to other planets. The hellin can sniff trouble out of the air. The government district in the capital has been besieged for the last five days; in our second city it was overrun.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.” A conventional response, when she couldn’t think of what else to say. It didn’t seem to matter. As he warmed to his theme, she had the irritating impression that he was hardly aware of her, that it was a presentation to the universe, not to her.

“Our ships are out holding the line against the Chi!me. There are too few troops in Gargarin and the colonies to defeat the hellin on their own. Some of us have said in council that even lacking the troops, we could be victorious. Every Gargarin is born to be a warrior. The women, the children, the babies in their baskets could be armed to fight the hellin and would prevail. But most of the council did not agree. They heard the rabble outside and they were afraid. They decreed that the ships must return, and so that they can do so, they will surrender to the Chi!me.”

The light above the door threw his face into shadow, shining around his head like a rising sun.

“The thousand cycles of the Gargarin Empire will be no more.”

She waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. The pause stretched grandly on.

“I’m sorry” she said at last, again. “I’m very sorry to hear it, but I don’t know what…”

That provoked him. “You do not know. You, Terra, are our ally, we are your oldest ally, the people who brought you the stars, helped you build your Empire. We are your outlet to the galaxy, your route to all the peoples of all the worlds. Without us, you would not be here. And yet you say you do not know what you could do, to help us.”

He made a shrugging movement with his shoulders, shaking off the ignorance, the ingratitude of Terrans.

“All right” Marcella snapped. “If it’s so clear, what do you want us to do? If the great and powerful Gargarin can’t deal with it, what do you expect us to achieve?” She meant it to be unanswerable, but terribly, he answered.

“If Terra would send troops to wipe out the hellin, in place of ours, then our ships could remain on the frontier with the Chi!me. The council are old women and cowards, hiding in their chamber from the sound of the mob, but if they were to get word that help from Terra was coming, they would not send the surrender. They would allow you to help us, since the alternative is destruction.” He lifted his chin. “We can no longer afford to be a proud people.”

She took a breath to stop her head spinning, and then another. “You understand I’ll have to confer with the government in New Rome?” she said. “I’ll be as quick as I can.”

“Of course.” He held out a data crystal. “A summary for them, in case they have your questions, and a request for speed. The council are aware of my mission, but I do not think they will wait long for news of it. They are cowards.”

She reached out to take the crystal, and he put his hand over hers. She looked up into his face, at his one shining eye with the hole in the centre like a window into the soul. He smiled.

“Thank you, Captain” he said.

On political issues, Marcella reported directly to the space liaison office in New Rome. It was rare that she had anything to report, but she’d taken care to make friends with Julius, the senior administrator. You never knew when it might be useful. She called him from her console on the bridge. She didn’t tell him the content, only that it was urgent. It was a precaution, to stop him from taking the whole thing away from her, and probably an unnecessary one. He didn’t seem interested, only like a desk captain with more tasks than he could deal with.

“The senate’s been in session all morning” he told her. “I’ll have to interrupt them. I don’t know…”

“Please, Julius. It really is important.”

He sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He always made much of the stress of his job, but his air today was particularly harassed. She composed a winning smile.

“Thank you, Julius, I owe you one. Call me when you have something, alright?”

She flicked her console screen off and looked round. The bridge took up the entire nose of the ship, fronted by a curved walkway with windows giving out onto space. Her console was on a raised platform just below the gallery. On her right hand side, Oleg was hacking ostentatiously at his console, while beyond the banks of control equipment, the rest of the crew were gathered listening in the doorway. She considered various rebukes as she pushed through them, but contented herself with raising her eyebrows satirically. From amongst the abashed looks, like a predator in cover, Angela’s gaze pierced her shoulderblades, all the way back down the corridor.

In her absence, Sherenka had installed himself on the corner sofa, reclining with his boots resting on the upholstery.

“I’ve talked to New Rome” she said. “The senate’s in session at the moment, so as soon as they’ve made a decision, they’ll let me know.” He nodded, not speaking. “Can I get you anything? Some food, something to drink?”

“No, thank you. Not until there is an answer.”

She remembered barbarian codes from her history lessons: break bread only with your friends, don’t eat your enemies’ salt. He was waiting for her to leave, she realised, dismissing her like a waiter, a messenger, someone unimportant. She sat herself on the other end of the sofa, just beyond the boots.

“You know, I don’t think the senate can agree to this” she began.

“I trust they will not be so foolish.”

“It’s not a question of foolishness. I don’t know how these things are done in Gargarin, but Terran troops can’t just sail to another planet and intervene, especially not without a formal request from that planet’s government. There’s protocols to follow, the senate would have to have a popular mandate, for one thing, and then there’s interplanetary treaties. It’s about laws, about the rule of law…”

Sherenka snorted. “You sound like all Terrans, so sentimental. There is no law, little Terran, except force, except power. Whether it were Terran or Gargarin hands on the blaster, the hellin would be just as dead – well, as dead as Terran weapons could make them – so where then is your law? I am sure your senate is wiser than this.”

“So you have no laws, then, on Gargarin?” Her tone was sarcastic, but he didn’t appear to notice.

“For the hellin, they do as they are commanded to do, or they are killed. What need is there for law? They may have laws among themselves, in the settlements, I suppose.” He shrugged. “I would not know.”

His expression, regarding her across the sofa, was amused, derisive; so far above her that nothing she did could touch him.

“Well, maybe if you ruled the hellin lawfully, you’d have fewer rebellions” she said.

There was a short, appalling silence, then Sherenka laughed.

“You might be little, Captain, but at least you have claws! Yes, I have heard this before from Terrans. Laws that bind the government itself, the rule of law…” He snorted again, shaking his head. “It is not true, of course, I am sure your senate will prove that, but all you Terrans like to lie to yourselves about it. It is one of the reasons why you will never be as great as the Gargarin.”

She couldn’t think of anything to say to that.

“If you had been to Gargarin” he went on, “if you had seen the fortress of Nilavin, the great maze on Orrorin, our ships skimming in the war dance with the sun rising on their wings, then you would know what can be achieved with truth. And that, for that greatness, a few rebellions are a very little price.”

His gaze slipped past her. For a moment she could almost see them: the brown tower, the twisting walls, the glint of sun on tipping wings, tiny with distance, reflected in his one, white eye. She wanted to counter him, prove him wrong with a list of Terran glories, but ridiculously all that would come were the white colonnades from the VR games.

“Well, maybe we concentrate on more co-operative achievements” she said, instead. “Like health tech, for example. If you ever visit Terra, you should let us replace your eye for you, get rid of some of that scarring, as well.”

He raised his hand to his eyepatch. “This, you mean? Thank you, but the patch sees for me well enough. And as for the appearance, well, it is a matter of honour.”

“Honour?”

His glance was quizzical, almost amused.

“You do not understand this? I will try and explain. When you were training, for your Terran fleet, there must have been disputes, disagreements amongst your group, yes? Some matters that could only be settled in blood? We use the old weapons for such fights, there is no skill in a blaster, and any scars we receive, we keep. It is not honourable to do otherwise.”

The scars ran, darker brown on tan, under the eyepatch. His other eye held hers, twinkling. She wanted to call it inefficient, ridiculous, risking soldiers’ lives for no reason. She wanted to think it barbaric. As if he had summoned the memory, she heard Tino, back at space school, calling her a dirty gyppo, and the crash as she’d laid him out on the dormitory floor. He’d never done it again.

“I think maybe you do understand” said Sherenka, softly. “You may be a Terran, but you are a soldier too.”

She got up from the sofa, slowly, carefully, holding herself still as if that could stop her from understanding him.

“We should have heard something by now” she said. “I’ll go and see if there’s any message”.

Oleg and Kirrin, the third officer, were on the bridge, dicing for credit chips across the top of the auxillary nav system. In the corner, Angela was fiddling with the back of the weapons console.

“There hasn’t been any contact” Oleg defended himself. “I’ve been checking.”

“I’m sure you have, but there should have been a reply by now. I’m going to call Julius again.”

It took a long time for Julius to answer, and when he did the connection was fuzzy, as if overlaid with hundreds of voices, clamouring just out of hearing.

“I told you I’d contact you when there was any news” he complained.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything? Have they not even looked at it yet? Come on, there must be something. This Gargarin guy’s killing me here, I don’t want to have to entertain him for hours. Are you sure there’s nothing at all?”

“I told you…” He trailed off, looking shifty.

“Julius, what’s going on?”

“There’s not…” He paused, then honesty broke through caution.

“Look, Marcella, if you want to know the truth, it’s all going crazy here. All the markets are in freefall, I can’t get anyone on the communicators, not the senate, not the high command, no one; all the location systems are down; the boss has been at lunch for the last three hours; I can’t even log on to my bank and there’s so many police flyers up there, I’m surprised there’s room for them all. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ll keep trying to get you an answer, but I can’t make any promises. I…”

“It is too late. It has happened.”

Marcella swung round. Sherenka was behind her.

Julius, unseeing, squawked. “What’s that? Who said that? Is that him?”

Marcella ignored him.

“You mean your people have surrendered?”

“Did you think you could flourish without us? Not all Terrans were so deceived. The council must have surrendered and the news must have reached Terra.”

There was a bitter amusement in his voice.

“It is over. If you survive it, you can tell your children of the day the Terran Empire died.”

Julius heard that. “What? No! No, nothing of the kind. Marcella!”

“What?”

“Look, before the boss went he put down standing orders, all ships to stay on patrol until further notice. You can check with your chain of command if you can get through, but their answer’s going to be the same. If you’re needed for population protection in one of the systems, you may be called back, but until then the best thing you can do is stay where you are and carry on as normal. This will blow over, believe me, if we help it to.”

“You mean, if we behave like the Empire’s still there, it will be.”

“I wouldn’t put it like that. It’s about confidence, about maintaining confidence. The most reassuring thing for everyone right now is knowing that you are still out there, upholding the law. Doing your duty for the Empire. Keeping the whole thing going. If people believe in the Empire, then the Empire exists. It’s that simple.”

He sounded so sententious she couldn’t help mocking him.

“What, just me, doing all that?”

He sighed. “Obviously I’m saying this to everyone. Seriously, Marcella, the best thing for you to do is really…”

From the room behind him came a crash, a percussive tinkle like glass breaking and an outbreak of babbling voices. His face paled.

“Look, I’m going to have to go. I’ll keep…I mean, I’ll try and keep in touch. Good luck, Captain.”

The screen went blank as he closed the connection.

Beyond the top of the console, Marcella could see the windows of the gallery, the Gargarin ship hanging framed against the star-speckled black. If this were one of the VR games, she’d be a Praetorian in the forum, a general on the Rhine, a governor outside a provincial villa, electronic rain dancing in bytes on her skin. Out there beyond the sky would be the shining room where senators discussed law and justice, where law was real. In the ideal of Empire. She looked out of the window and the flat front of the Gargarin ship looked back at her.

Angela stepped out from behind the weapons console and dropped her tools onto the deck.

“Well, be damned to that” she said.

Marcella turned. They were all looking at her, Kirrin grim-faced, Oleg confused.

“Be damned to what?”

“All of it.” She spread her arms wide. “All that. “Stay on patrol, pretend nothing’s wrong, and maybe it won’t be.” It’s easy for him to say, he’s probably got his family behind six sets of gates on New Rome Island. It’s a bit different for the rest of us.”

“What d’you mean?” That was Oleg, ever more confused. Angela replied with her gaze on Marcella.

“Well, think about it, Oleg. You heard what he said, what’s going on, the banks are crashing, police flyers everywhere. What does that sound like to you? The Captain knows what’s going to happen, don’t you Captain? What happens to ordinary people, when the government falls?”

“When the government falls?” Oleg, whose parents owned half of Odessa colony, blanched. No one answered him.

“You know what happened to my family and yours, when the water ran out in Greece” Angela said to Marcella. “You know how many people died, trekking up to the north just for something to drink. You know how they were driven back at each border, how they were shot, starved; you know what the camps for the survivors were like, because you were born in them, same as me. If it’s all going to fall apart at home, I’m not sitting out here in space while my family is starved, or shot at, or herded around. They need people to defend them. They need to be organised. If there’s no law, we need to make the law for ourselves. Be damned to standing orders. I say we go back. And to be honest, I don’t think you should try to stop us.”

Marcella leaned back against the console. In her mind’s eye the colonnaded room hung against space behind her, CG light pouring through gauze curtains, measured Latin too indistinct to understand. Receding. She heard herself laugh, full of scorn.

“What is this, a mutiny? It’s not very convincing.”

“It’s not mutiny, it’s sense. We should go back. You know I’m right. I’m just warning you, don’t try and make us stay here.” Her face looked feral in the harsh bridge lights. “If the Empire falls, the chain of command falls with it. Don’t make us test who’d be the Captain then.”

Oleg grabbed her arm. “Whoa, hey, Ange! That’s not…I mean, I know we want to go home, but…” She shook him off.

“Well, Captain?”

The room was nearly gone now, a shining point almost lost against the stars. She met Angela’s gaze.

“Mutiny may not be a crime today, but I think you may still find it ill-advised.”

They looked at each other, brown eyes against brown eyes, a still point around which all the stars were spinning, held until something wavered in Angela’s expression, a fugitive slither of fear. Marcella smiled.

“But if things are going all to Hades back home, we don’t sit out here and watch.”

“We’re going back?”

“I’m leading us back. Anyone doesn’t want to follow is welcome to try staying here. Oleg, lay in a course for Terra. If it just happens to pass by Odessa colony, we’ll drop you off on the way.”

His scrambling to obey was almost funny. She turned away from the sudden busyness of the bridge to where Sherenka was still leaning in the doorway.

“Well, Captain” he said, “I think I will return to my ship.”

His voice sounded as if it were coming from a long way away; a communicator at the end of its range. “I can see you have many things to do.”

She rested her shoulder on the wall beside him. “It hasn’t been the quietest of tours” she agreed. “What will you do now?”

His ship hung in the gallery window, but he didn’t look at it, nor out to space beyond. “I do not know. I have fought against the Chi!me, against this surrender, for too long to give into it now. I will sign no treaty. I will seek an honourable ending somewhere, Captain. Can you say as much for yourself?”

She shrugged. “Oh, I think I can do a little better than that.”

The skin of his forehead was seamed with white age lines: Gargarin generals were appointed by seniority. He looked tired, putting his weight against the doorframe as if it was holding him up, no longer too large to walk through.

“Kirrin?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Are the two guards still in the mess hall?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Good. Lock it. Oleg, get that shuttle disengaged.”

Sherenka’s hand went to his belt, where his blaster would have been, then dropped from the empty holster. His expression was unreadable.

“I’m sorry about this” she said, “but you see, if the Empire really is finished, if there’s no law and order, there’ll be civil war. It seems to me that you could be valuable possession, for someone wanting to make a place for themselves on the winning side. You could be useful. And at the very least, if it came to it, I’m sure I could sell you.”

He winced at that, and it was a testament to her victory.

“The boys here will escort you to a cabin, and they’ll bring you some refreshments. I’m sure you must be hungry.”

Kirrin and Oleg shuffled to either side of him. She waited for him to speak, to denounce her, rail, complain, but he didn’t. His eye stayed fixed on her, waiting. She looked away, and her voice was steady as she said,

“Angela, get me a weapons lock on the Gargarin ship.”

Angela gasped. “You’re going to blow up the ship? But…”

“If we leave them here, they’ll either follow us or call up a warship. I don’t like it either, but if you want to get home, we don’t have a choice. Now, get me that weapons lock!”

“There’s innocent people on that ship! We’re not at war with the Gargarin, I can’t just…”

“There is no one on that ship” Sherenka interrupted. “Our ships do not require large crews, nor, unlike yours, do they require minding. You can shoot, little Terran, without trouble to your conscience.” He bit down on the last word, and stopped.

Marcella had no idea if it was true, but she didn’t want to continue the argument. She watched as Angela seated herself at the weapons console.

“You did not ask if there were any crew on the ship” Sherenka observed. His expression was neutral, as if it was a test she had to pass. She answered airily, secure in her victory, like someone who didn’t care.

“I didn’t want to bore you with details. You did tell me not to be sentimental.”

She studied him for a reaction, but she couldn’t see one. Perhaps she’d had all she was going to get. Disappointed, she said,

“I think it’s time our guest was shown below.”

Sherenka drew himself up, chin tipped as if on parade. For a moment she thought he was going to attack her, provoke his death in some last, futile defiance. The blasters were in the cabinet under the gallery. If she could just…

“I wish you good fortune, Captain” Sherenka said. He took one, long step out of the door, stopped, and turned, and bowed to her. He stood on the threshold, on the bridge, on her ship, and bowed to her; as if she was his equal; as if she had his respect. Then he strode away down the corridor, Oleg and Kirrin scudding in his wake like tugs escorting a warship. Marcella closed the door.

It only took two blasts to destroy the Gargarin ship. Angela set their own shields to stay up until they had left the debris behind, then pushed back her chair.

“I’m going to my cabin” she announced to Marcella. “If that’s all right?”

“Of course. That’s fine.”

She got as far as the door.

“What is it?”

Angela’s gaze flicked to the gallery windows.

“Nothing. I don’t know. I just hope you know what you’re doing. Captain.”

She could have laughed at that. “I know what I’m doing. Someone has to be on the winning side, why shouldn’t it be me? And with Sherenka, I have a chance. You know how it works, you can’t be sentimental about it. If you play the game, you have to play to win; and if you want to win, you have to do whatever it takes.”

Angela’s expression was solemn. “I think I’m more worried about all the people who have to play, and lose.”

Outside, the pieces of the Gargarin ship were beginning to drift apart, though here and there flames still flickered inside, where pockets of the internal atmosphere survived. They looked architectural, like a city on a far horizon, a fortress glimmering with light. Marcella stood on the gallery. She felt the engines shift as they started on the course for Terra, the reverberation through the floor that always accompanied acceleration in normal space. The lights of the bridge threw her own reflection onto the glass, debris floating across her face like scars. She could have called up the screens, watched the remains until they were out of range, but she didn’t. She kept her eyes on the prize ahead.

The ship was reaching top speed now, almost ready to pass into hyperspace. In its wake, unregarded, the wreckage hung broken against the stars; like Rome, burning.

Published in Jupiter SF issue 23.