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BOOK ONE:
THE EMPIRE'S WASP

Blackness.


Blackness over and about her. Drifting, dreamless, endless as the stars themselves, twining within her. It enfolded her, sharing itself with her, and she snuggled against it in the warm, windless void that was she. The blackness was all, and yet, beyond the comfort of her cocoon, dimly perceived, the years drifted past. They were there, beyond her sleep, recognized, and yet not quite real.


Deep, deep at the heart of her the fiery coal of purpose still glowed, but dimly, dimly. A once-fierce furnace, drowsing its way towards ultimate extinction.


A tiny fragment of her being watched sleepily as the white-hot coal cooled into a dimmer, fading red, and under the thick, soft blankets of blackness, that fragment wondered if she would ever be called again. Those she had once served were long vanished, she knew without knowing how she knew, yet every once in a while, floating in the dreams, an echo summoned her close, close, to the surface of her sleep. They were few in number, their existence fleeting and flickering like tiny mirrors of her own fiery essence. Not so many of them, perhaps, and yet, in so many endless years, the numbers were enough to trouble her slumber.


There. Another one flickered on the very edge of her dreams—another tiny flash of potential, of possibility. All the myriad futures in which she and that echo might meet, their purposes become one, shifted and shimmered about her, like the floating constellations of the zodiac . . . and so did the futures in which they never would.


Which would she prefer, her sleeping mind asked itself drowsily? To rouse once more—perhaps one last time—or to sleep, sleep, until there were no dreams, no echoes and mirrors?


She had no answer, and so she snuggled deeper under that soft shroud of non-being, and simply waited for whatever would be.


Or whatever would not.


Prologue

"Just who is this child?" Colonel McGruder asked, gazing at the psychological profile floating in his holo display. "And how did we come to have this information on her?"


"Her name is Alicia DeVries," Lieutenant Maserati replied, "Alicia Dierdre DeVries, and she's in her final form. Education administered the standard exams to her class six months ago, and her results popped straight through the filters. So they retested last week. As you can see, the retest only confirmed the original results."


"Final form?" McGruder turned away from the display to look at his aide. "It says here that she's only fourteen!"


"As of six weeks ago, yes, Sir," Maserati replied. "She's, ah, in the accelerated curriculum. If you'll notice here—" the lieutenant flipped a command into his computer through the neural linkage, opening a window in the colonel's display to show him the girl's academic transcript "—she's already made the guaranteed cut for admission to Emperor's New College next year under ENC's gifted students program."


"Jesus." McGruder gazed at the transcript for a moment, then looked back at the psych profile. "If she looks like this at fourteen . . ."


"That's why I felt she should be brought to your attention, Sir," Maserati said. "I don't believe I've ever seen a stronger profile than this one, and, as you say, she's only fourteen."


"Too young," McGruder mused, and Maserati nodded. Scholastically, young DeVries was four standard years ahead of the vast majority of her age cohort. The test results had been forwarded to Colonel McGruder's office because the results of every Fourth Form student whose profile cracked the filters were sent here. But imperial law positively prohibited actively recruiting anyone—however high their test results, however severe the need, and even with parental consent—before he or she turned eighteen . . . among other things.


"Besides," McGruder continued. "Look at the genetic profile." He shook his head. "Couple the Ujvári gene group with this academic profile, and she's never going to come our way, anyhow. If she's already accepted for ENC, you know that's where she's going." He shook his head again, his expression sour. "It's too bad. We could really use her."


"I agree, Sir," the lieutenant said. "And I also agree that she's undoubtedly going to be under a lot of pressure to accept the ENC slot. But I think this may be one of the ones we want to flag to keep an eye on anyway. Especially when you consider this."


He sent another command over his headset, and his computer obediently opened yet another window.


"You've already noticed the genetic profile, Sir. But she gets that from her father's side of the family, and I thought you might find her maternal grandfather's résumé . . . interesting, as well," he said blandly.


* * *


". . . so I told the Lieutenant it was a Bad Idea." Sebastian O'Shaughnessy chuckled and shook his head. "And she told me she was the platoon commander and I was only the company first sergeant. The way she saw it, that meant we'd do it her way. So we did."


"And after you did?" his granddaughter asked with a huge grin, green eyes sparkling.


"And after we did, and after the post-exercise critique, the Lieutenant called me into her office and told me the Captain had . . . counseled her on the proper relationship between a brand, spanking new lieutenant, fresh out of the Academy on New Dublin, and a company first sergeant with nineteen standard years in the Corps."


O'Shaughnessy smiled back at the girl.


"I'll say this for her—she took it like a Marine. Owned right up and admitted I'd been right without ever letting either one of us forget she was still the Lieutenant and I was still the First Sergeant. That's harder than it sounds, too, but she was a good one, Lieutenant Chou. Stubborn, like most of the good ones, but smart. Smart enough to recognize her mistakes and learn from them. Still, I don't know if she ever did figure out that the Captain'd deliberately let her screw up by the numbers just to make the point. But it's one a good officer never forgets, Alley. There's always someone who's been in longer, or knows his job better, and the trick is to use that person's experience—especially if he's a long-service noncom who's been doing his job since about the time you were born—without ever surrendering your own authority or responsibility. That's why any good officer knows it's really the sergeants who run the Corps."


His granddaughter looked at him for a moment, her eyes much more thoughtful, her fourteen-year-old face serious, then nodded.


"I know how much I hate admitting it when I'm wrong," she said. "I bet it's a lot harder for an officer to admit that. Especially if she's new and thinks looking 'weak' will undermine her authority."


"Exactly," Sebastian agreed. Then he glanced at his chrono. "And speaking of being wrong," he continued, "isn't there something else you're supposed to be doing right now instead of sitting here encouraging me to gas on?"


The girl blinked at him, then looked at her own chrono, and sprang to her feet.


"Omigod! Mom is gonna kill me! Bye, Grandpa!"


She bent to plant a quick kiss on his cheek—at fourteen she was already a full head taller than her mother—and disappeared magically. He heard her thundering up the short flight of steps to her cubbyhole bedroom and shook his head with a grin.


"Was that Alley, or just a runaway air lorry?" a mild tenor inquired, and Sebastian looked up as his son-in-law poked his head into the room.


It was easy to see where Alicia's height had come from. Sebastian stood little more than a hundred and seventy centimeters, but Collum DeVries was better than twenty centimeters taller. He was also broad-shouldered, and powerfully built, even for his towering height. In fact, he looked far more like the holovid's idea of a professional Marine than Sebastian ever had. Of course, appearances could be deceiving, Sebastian reflected with, perhaps, just the slightest edge of smugness.


"Alley," Sebastian told him with a chuckle. "I think she'd forgotten all about that exam."


"You mean she was too busy pestering you for stories to remember it," Collum corrected. He smiled as he said it, but there was a faint yet real edge behind the smile.


"She doesn't see that much of me," Sebastian said, and Collum nodded.


"True. But I'm afraid that aura of martial glory of yours can be a bit overwhelming for a teenager."


Sebastian leaned back in his chair, regarding his son-in-law with fond exasperation.


"I'm sure an 'aura of martial glory' could be overwhelming," he said mildly after a moment. "That wasn't what we were talking about, though. In fact, she's a lot less interested in war stories than she is in picking my brain for the nuts and bolts of how the Corps really works."


"I know."


Collum looked at him for a moment, then sat down in the armchair Alicia had abandoned in favor of her upstairs computer workstation. The chair shifted under him, twitching into the proper contours, and he leaned forward, propping his elbows on his thighs.


"I know she is," he repeated, his distinctive slate-gray eyes unwontedly serious. "In fact that's what's worrying me. I'd almost prefer for it to be an adolescent fascination with the idea that combat can be 'glorious' and exciting."


"Would you, now?" Sebastian gazed at him thoughtfully.


Sebastian was more than merely fond of his son-in-law. Collum DeVries was probably one of the most brilliant men he'd ever met, and he was also a very good man. Sebastian suspected that it was rare for any father to believe any man could really be worthy of his daughter, and he admitted that there'd been an additional edge of concern in his own case when Fiona brought Collum home for the first time. Those gray eyes, with their oddly feline cast, coupled with his height and fair hair, had been impossible to miss. The Ujvári mutation's combination of physical traits was as well advertised as its mental traits, and Sebastian had braced himself for the inevitable confrontation. But that confrontation had never occurred, and over the years, Collum had amply demonstrated that he was, indeed, worthy of Sebastian O'Shaughnessy's only daughter.


Which didn't necessarily mean they saw eye-to-eye on every issue, of course.


"Alley—unfortunately, I sometimes think," Collum continued "—is exactly like both of her parents. She's smart—God, is she smart! And stubborn. And the sort who insists on making up her own mind."


"I agree," Sebastian said, when the younger man paused. "But this is a bad thing in exactly what way?"


"It's a bad thing, from my perspective at least, because I can't get away with telling her 'because I'm your father, that's why!' Or, at least, because I'm smart enough myself to know better than to try."


"Ah." Sebastian nodded. "A problem I had a time or two with her mother, now that you mention it."


"Somehow I don't doubt that for a moment." Collum grinned, his face momentarily losing its unusual expression of concern. But the grin was fleeting.


"Oh," he went on, waving one hand, "if I tell her not to do something, she won't. And I've never been afraid she'd sneak around behind my back to do something she knew Fiona or I would disapprove of, even now that the hormones have kicked in with a vengeance. But she'll make up her own mind, and if she thinks I'm wrong, she's not shy about letting me know. And when the time comes that she decides it's right for her to make a decision, she will make it—and act on it—even if she knows it's one I'd strongly oppose."


"Every child does that, Collum," Sebastian said gently. "At least, every child who's going to grow up into a worthwhile human being."


"You're right, of course. But that doesn't keep me from worrying about one of those decisions I don't want her to make."


He met his father-in-law's eyes—the same green eyes he saw when he looked at his wife or his older daughter—very levelly.


"It's a decision we all have to make, one way or the other, even if we do it only by default," Sebastian said after a moment.


"Sure it is," Collum agreed. "But I'm afraid of how quickly she's going to make it. I want her to take time to really think about it. To consider all of her options, all of the things she might be giving up."


"Of course you do," Sebastian said, but Collum's eyes flickered at the ever so slight edge he allowed into his voice.


"I'm genuinely not trying to pussyfoot around the issue, Sebastian," his son-in-law said. "And I think you know how much respect I have for the military in general and you in particular. I know exactly what you did to win the Banner, and I know how few other people could have done it. I think it's unfortunate that we still need the Marine Corps and the Fleet, but I'm fully aware that we do. And that we'll go on needing both of them—and thanking God we have them—at least until the Second Coming. If anyone knows that, those of us who work for the Foreign Ministry do."


And that, Sebastian reflected, was nothing but simple truth, despite the fact that Collum DeVries was an Ujvári, with all of the ingrained personal distaste for violent confrontation which went with it. No one would ever confuse Collum with a weakling, but like the vast majority of Ujváris, his entire worldview and mental processes were oriented towards consensus and pragmatic compromise. As one prominent geneticist had put it, the Ujváris suffered from an excess of sanity, compared to the rest of the human race, and Sebastian had always thought that summed it up quite well.


They did have their detractors, of course. Some people saw their bone-deep—actually, gene-deep—aversion to confrontation as cowardice, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Personally, Sebastian had always viewed their attitude as more than a little unrealistic, but he was prepared to admit that that could have been his own prejudices talking. And whether it was unrealistic as a personal philosophy or not, it was definitely one of the things which made them so effective in the diplomatic service, or as analysts and policymakers, capable of standing back from personal, adversarial approaches to policy debates. And it was also the reason why, despite their intellectual prowess, Ujváris as a group had a well-earned reputation for looking down their philosophical noses at other people who were readier to embrace . . . direct action solutions to problems. And at the people, like the citizens of New Dublin, where the tradition of service to the House of Murphy ran bone-deep, who were called upon to implement those direct actions at the command of the Emperor.


But Collum had never shared that private, unstated Ujvári disdain, possibly even contempt, for the military. It was not a career he would ever have chosen for himself, but that was largely because he recognized how supremely ill-suited for it he would have been. Not to mention the fact that his own greatest potential contribution had lain in other areas.


"At the same time," Collum continued, "the fact that I respect the military—and you—doesn't mean I want my daughter to charge into your footsteps before she's had the opportunity to look around and consider all of the other equally valid, equally important things she might do with her life."


"Equally important, perhaps," Sebastian said, his New Dublin accent surfacing with unusual strength. "But there's not a single thing she could be doing that would be more important, Collum."


"I never said there was." DeVries' eyes never wavered under the green gaze which had weakened the knees of generations of Marine recruits. "But there are sacrifices involved in the life you've chosen, Sebastian. Don't tell me you didn't hurt inside when you saw how much Fiona and John had grown up—how much of their lives you'd missed—when you came back home from a deployment. Or how much it hurt when you lost one of your friends to the Rish or some Crown World lunatic or Rogue World merc. I respect you for being willing to make those sacrifices, but that doesn't mean I want my daughter to make the same ones without thinking about it long and hard."


And you hate the very thought of getting the personal letter from the Minister of War, Sebastian thought. You're terrified your daughter won't come home one day. Well, you've a right to be . . . but she's the right to make the decision herself anyway, when the time comes.


"Are you asking—or telling—me not to answer her questions?" he asked. "Not to discuss my life with my granddaughter?"


"Of course not!" Collum's vehement denial was genuine, Sebastian realized. "You're her grandfather, and she loves you. She wants to know about your life, and you have every right in the universe to share it with her. For that matter, you damned well ought to be proud of it; God knows I'd be, in your place! I'm just . . . worried."


"Have you discussed it with Fiona?"


" 'Discuss' isn't exactly the verb I'd choose." Collum shook his head with an expression Sebastian recognized only too well. Fiona, after all, was very like her mother had been.


"I've voiced my concerns," Collum continued, "and she shares them, I think. But she's got that damned O'Shaughnessy serenity. She just shakes her head and talks about leading horses to water, or tying strings to a pig's back leg."


" 'Serenity' isn't exactly an O'Shaughnessy characteristic," Sebastian said dryly. "Trust me, she got it from her mother's side of the family. But she's a point. You'll not convince Alley to do anything she thinks is wrong. And you'll not convince her not to do anything she thinks is right."


"I know that." Collum inhaled deeply. "And I know it's not something that's going to happen tomorrow, too. But she adores you, Sebastian, and she's not immune to that New Dublin tradition. I'm not saying she wouldn't be considering the Corps even if her grandfather had been a mousy little civilian and not a genuine military hero. I think she would. But I'll be honest. It scares me."


"Of course it does," Sebastian said gently. "And you know I've never tried to glamorize it, or underplay just how ugly it can really be. But I adore her, too, you know. If this is something she's seriously thinking about, then I want her to know what it's really like. The bad, as well as the good. And I promise, I'll never encourage her to do anything behind your back, Collum."


"I never thought you would." Collum stood, and touched his father-in-law lightly on one shoulder. "I guess as much as anything else, I just needed someone to lean on for a moment about it."


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