A tapestry jewelled hangs over the night;
As humans took to the stars they created, almost by accident, an Empire to hold the web of their civilization together. The two laws that the Empire used to separate itself from the factionalism of Earth were simple. First, anyone could be a full citizen of the Empire by service of a minimum of two years in her forces. Second, the Empire only controlled space and such planetary areas as needed for support. The planets were free to follow their paths as long as they did not interfere with interstellar matters. A one-percent tax was leveled on all interstellar commerce to pay for a Navy, Naval Auxiliary, and the attendant bureaucracy of civilization.
After several hundred years of expansion and colonization the Diaspora of Humanity came to a close. There came two centuries of growth and slow expansion in the outer 'Borders' of the empire. But in the Empire's core the six so-called 'first planets' began to demand more rights as their populations and industries burgeoned. Their reasoning being that they were the true Empire and the outer 'Borderers' merely parasites on their over-taxed largesse.
The Coming Twilight-Understanding The Fall of the First Empire
"Did you kiss Rebecca Hansen?" Albert Maclay demanded as he stared at his daughter.
Tara Maclay looked at her father from behind a curtain of hair. She trembled and then nodded as she sobbed quietly.
"You know what this means, Brother Maclay," a hatchet faced woman said sternly.
"I do," he said flatly. "I ask permission to take my wayward one to the Sin House for her reformation."
The group of three elders conferred briefly. Elder Johnson, a severely dressed gaunt man looked at Tara with narrowed eyes.
"Marriage might be a more merciful route for our poor sister," he intoned. "My youngest son has lost his dear wife recently. Perhaps they can heal each other."
Albert Maclay met the man's eyes and nodded. Tara's breath came fast and she looked at her father pleadingly. The young man in question had been sent to a far mining claim of the church's to reform his need for alcohol. By the rumors Tara had heard the effort was a failure.
"We're a poor family," Albert said with a sigh.
"The dowry will be waived," Johnson replied quickly.
"I'll take her home to get her things," Albert said evenly. "Shall we say tomorrow for the happy event?"
"Very good," Johnson said with a wintry smile. The rest of the elders nodded and smiled at the agreement. Tara felt the walls closing in.
"Tara, with me, girl," her father said with an exasperated tone. "Stop daydreaming. We have much to get done."
Tara followed out of the church complex into the dry cold air of Milton's spring. This time Tara didn't look up at the huge gas giant that held Milton in it's orbit. The tiny winking lights clustered around the single bright point of the orbital station had captured her imagination since she first realized there were other places in the galaxy. She knew most of those lights were simply drone ore shuttles, but a few were starships.
Now her whole world had collapsed in on itself, along with her future. She had been lustful and perverse and she was going to pay for her evil. But it wasn't evil, she knew that and now she felt torn in two. Then she looked at her father's worn, frowning face and doubted everything she knew in her heart. It was a silent drive to the outskirts of Gabriel, to the dirt bermed, semi-buried home she had known for all of her nearly seventeen Earth-standard years.
"Get all of your things," her father ordered. "All of them. Don't forget anything. Even the stuff under your bed."
Tara nodded dully and walked through the quiet dwelling. It was just she and her father since Donny had left for Imperial service two years ago; right after the illness had taken her mother. She picked up the framed flat photos of her family and carefully folded them away, her mother's last. Her clothes were old and plain, but patched carefully and as clean as Milton would let them be. Finally she sighed and reached under the bed.
Out came the Empire and romance. Rebecca's image smiled at her in a holo-cube. She pressed the small button on the side and flipped through the half dozen images of the dark haired girl. She wondered how much trouble the mayor's daughter was in thanks to her unholy urgings. Then she pulled out paper books, "Fodor's Guide to the Empire" and "Imperial Service-Is It Right For You?" The filled out enlistment forms she had downloaded over her family's ancient computer now nestled in the cover of the "Guide", waiting for her seventeenth birthday. Her father's signature was real. It had been her birthday present.
"Let's go," her father said harshly from her door. Tara looked at her clock and wondered where the last hour had gone. She zipped up her two bags, pulled on her goggles and coat, and walked outside. She stopped by the edge of their yard and looked at the tiny markers that stood silent watch over an ancient mongrel's and a tabby's remains. Tears slipped into her goggles but it wasn't until she was in the truck that she pulled them off and cleaned them.
"You forgot something," her father said flatly as he placed her semi automatic shotgun in the rack behind them. "Leapers are bad this year."
Tara shivered at the thought of the pseudo-arachnids. They weighed up to ten kilos and injected a natural acid into their prey. Humans were in fact poisonous to them, but the creatures had brains the size of a pencil lead. They were fast, but fortunately their exoskeleton wasn't very strong. Everyone of age on Milton carried a shotgun in the hinterlands.
As the old truck chugged to life Tara noticed the fuel cell indicator registered full. That was odd, as topping off the truck was one of her duties and when she had last checked it was two thirds full. She didn't mention it though as her father eased the machine down the road until they came to the end of the street. Albert stared at the vista in front of them for several minutes.
The mine's first processing of ore was just finishing. The slag from the processing was being poured out in red orange fury over the trailings of the mine. Tara shivered at the sight. It reminded her of every sermon about Hell. After the slag had cooled and turned a dull red on the heaped waste Albert turned the truck left, away from the settlement.
"F-father?" Tara asked quietly.
"I need some things in Edwardston for your wedding," he said bluntly. "We'll be on the road for a while. Get some sleep."
Tara didn't argue, even though she knew she'd never sleep. Her fear and worry would keep her awake. She secured the webbing and leaned back. She closed her eyes for just a second.
When she opened them there was a glow in the horizon that did not come from either the gas giant or Milton's far off sun. It had a sharp quality to it. Edwardston's lights filled the cold night as they drove over the bluff. Farther away on the horizon the sharper lights of the starport cut through the darkness. Tara looked at her father hopefully.
"S-s-sir, um, I don't, um..." Tara found her argument dying as her father stared resolutely out the windshield.
"I'm sorry I've failed you, Tara," her father said evenly. "I hope your husband does better by you."
"He's a drunk and I don't love him!" Tara said desperately. "Daddy, this is wrong."
"So is a girl kissing another girl!" he snapped back. "I'm sorry, Tara but this has to be."
Tara said nothing more until they parked outside a large department store that catered to the hardscrabble miners of Milton. Edwardston was not large. Most of it's buildings were bermed if not buried against the wind and cold. Mr. Maclay got out of the truck.
"You stay right there," he said a stern voice. Then he turned on his heel and almost marched into the store. He caught a glimpse of her in the reflection of the glass door. Her head was down. He hoped she was praying.
"This isn't right," Tara whispered to her self as she looked away from her father. "I'm making you do the wrong thing. I'm sorry." Tara looked up carefully and saw him disappear into the store. "I love you, Daddy."
Tara waited for him to get inside. When he was gone she pulled her coat close and slid her goggles on. She slid out and walked back to the cargo bed. She pulled out her bags. Then she went back to the cab and retrieved her shotgun. Starports were places of danger to soul and body according to her teachers and her father. According to Fodor's Guide they were places where commerce of all sorts was allowed.
She struggled to get her bags and the shotgun across the street quickly. The automatic trains that ran to the starport from Calvinburg and Edwardston stopped at open stations where everyone could see who was going to the dens of sin. As Tara came to the slab of armorcrete she saw a bright light closing on the station. She almost sobbed in relief as the silvery train stopped in front of her. She used all her strength to push the bags through the door. She didn't realize she was shivering.
"Need a hand, miss?" came a rough voice.
"Th-thank you," she said as a tattooed arm lifted her bag into the train's overhead compartment. Tara looked at the strip of short brightly colored hair that ended in a ponytail. The broad man had a mustache that was almost feral. The Imperial Sun patch on his vest indicated he had already served and was a full citizen.
"Joining up?" he asked with a smile. "I'm trying to," she said quietly as she slipped off her goggles.
"Bravo!" he said and slapped her on the shoulder. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll get you to CHI. Then it's off for the Navy. It's the only service."
"Don't listen to that walrus," a lean woman said as she folded her map. "The Marines are why the Empire has a taxi service like the Navy."
"Heretic," muttered the man.
Tara looked at the lean woman and noticed how hard her body was. She had a discrete button with the Imperial Sun on her lapel. She also wore the strip and ponytail hairstyle. That's when Tara knew her trip was real. The 'spacer' cut came from hours in vacuum suits and combat armor. She looked up as the train stopped. They were on the edge of the starport. A large gate in the fence opened and let in the train.
Tara relaxed as the train passed the fence and the one-meter tall white marker that was the boundary of Imperial territory on Milton. She knew the fence had been put up by the city fathers of Edwardston in an effort to keep the contamination of the Empire to a minimum.
"Good time," the man observed as the train stopped in front of a large gray pile of a building. "Let's get you over to Customs, Health and Immigration
"Why have Customs if nearly everything is legal in the starport?" Tara wondered out loud.
"Nearly, lass, is why," he said as he and the woman each carried a bag to the imposing armorcrete structure.
"Mostly for the bookkeeping and taxes," the woman said. "Health is perfunctory here but it's critical in other places, and Immigration is to make sure you're not just hanging out in the Imperial starports."
"Oh," Tara said worriedly.
"There's ways around it if you're an underage runaway who's sincere about joining," the woman explained gently.
"Umm," Tara replied with large eyes.
"Been there," she replied. "That's how I met my husband. Just tell the recruiter the truth and good luck."
"Thank you," Tara said as she joined the very short line in the plain lobby. She rummaged through her bag and pulled out her Guide with the filled out enlistment papers. She looked up and saw her escorts were gone.
She didn't even know their names.
An hour later Tara sat on the bench on the other side of the CHI building. Her shotgun was sealed in a pouch next to her. She fingered the bracelet that glowed a faint orange. It was a sign she was officially a legally recognized minor with intent to join Imperial Service. She knew though if push came to shove she would be returned to her father. He would have to file a report with the city police, they would request her return, and only then would there be a hearing. Her father wanted her to do what would damage her soul and his. She had to find a way off planet quickly.
She knew Milton was a small starport but even so she watched dozens of people walk by. There were private security teams in full body armor and weapons walking by Buddhist nuns on the sidewalk in front of her. People in jumpsuits were everywhere. Some brightly dressed people nearby played music and sang as jugglers did impossible things with balls and clubs. She looked at them and found herself singing along very softly with their songs.
"Good pitch," a harried looking balding man said behind her.
"Th-thank you," she said looking down.
"How long until you join?" he asked pointing at her wrist. "Can you read music? Are you a soprano? Ever performed before? Can you sew?"
"F-fifty eight days, s-sir," she replied from behind a curtain of hair. "I can read music and I've s-sung both alto and soprano w-w-with my church group. I helped make the robes. I can kind of play a guitar."
"Want a job?" he asked quickly. "The base rate is on top of food and lodging and you get a one share split of the excess box office or gleaning. Any recording gets the same split after fees."
"Is that good?" she asked in a bewildered tone.
"It's a living," he said with a shrug. "But we do have a gig on a big liner waiting. We just have to get there."
"W-who are you?" Tara finally asked, flustered.
"Ach, I'm sorry, lass," he said. Tara recognized he had an accent but didn't know where it was from. "I'm Terrence McHeath and I'm managing the Shades from the Hills. That's them o'er there. I need another soprano."
Tara looked at the group and listened to their music. The jugglers had stopped and now singers hushed the crowd and then started on an a cappella version of the Skye Boat Song.
"When do we leave?" Tara asked as she stood up and grabbed her bags.
There are many differences in the rough "Border Nobles" and the sensibilities of the vital true aristocracy of merit and good breeding in the true core of the Empire. The First Planets have such patrons of the arts as Melissa Williams-Sung and Alfred VonCrador who have made the opera season of Miranda a joy. The urchins claiming to be musicians in the streets of much of the Empire look to the McHeaths, remnants of a failed Scottish nationalist "clan" rooted in the moribund Jocelyn sector for their support.
The First Planets, Heirs of Greatness
Tara walked along the path and felt the crunch of the new snow under her boots. The cold was helping put things into perspective, she hoped. The covered riding ring had not been a good idea for thinking. All she wanted to do was keep riding. It was as if her favorite illicit books about heroes and heroines came to life on the back of a spirited horse. She sighed and headed back into the castle like building that was the McHeath ancestral home. It almost looked like it would have on Earth a thousand years before until she opened the door into the main hall.
"Tara!" shouted little Riku McHeath-Wanatabe as he launched himself at her. She caught the four year old and spun him around in her arms.
"Me next!" piped up Jendra McHeath and held up her arms.
"No!" whined Clara McHeath-Oboto.
"Enough, everybody," Sarah McHeath called out as she pushed back a red lock of hair. "It's music time."
"Sing with us, Tara," Jendra pleaded.
"No," Sarah said firmly. "We're in rehearsal. Let's go everyone."
Tara made her way through the busy halls and rooms slowly. The weather had forced most of the hundreds of people and dozens of pets indoors for most of the day. Between invitations to sing or entreaties for petting it took her longer than she had thought to get to "Aunt" Abigail's room. Tara hesitated outside the old woman's door.
"Do come in, Tara," a firm voice called out. "Hector's waiting."
Tara opened the door carefully. A small ancient terrier wagged his tail as hard as he could at her entrance. His mistress was in a chair with a wrap thrown over her shoulders. She was glaring at a data pad as if it had offended her and should apologize. There was a tea service on the table with a mostly ignored sandwich next to it on a side table. Tara cleared her throat.
"Would you like s-some tea with your sandwich?" she asked quietly as she went to side table.
"You're sounding like my granddaughters," the older woman said over her reading glasses. Tara knew the glasses were less an affectation and more a necessity now, along with the cane. Even regenerative medicine could only do so much.
"Thank you," Tara said as she served the tea for both of them.
"I don't suppose you and Moira..." Abigail said easily.
"She and Mai Lin are getting back together," Tara said with a real smile as she sat down.
"Now I wonder how that happened," Abigail sighed. "Fire and hydrogen, those two. Oh well."
"They love each other," Tara said surely.
"I know, I know," the old woman smiled. "I'm sure someone pointed it out to them finally, after much drama."
Tara simply smiled. The old woman sipped her tea and nibbled at the sandwich.
"You're welcome here, Tara," Abigail said evenly after a moment. "You've fit in well. Our Terrence sings your praises and says you helped keep the tour running smoothly. There will be someone for you."
"I-I know," Tara said politely as she looked down. "But I need to, um, s-stand on my own, you know, make my own way. I won't do that if I stay here much longer. It's too nice here. I could have joined three months ago but, um, s-something always came up."
Abigail just nodded and sipped her tea. She looked at the shy girl in front of her.
Someone needed help, or there was something new to learn, the old woman thought. But you've been looking at the stars for a week now even if you're too young to know what's coming out there.
"So you're off to enlist," Abigail said nodding. "We must have a send off party."
"Um," Tara started with a worried look.
"Oh, really," Abigail said looking over her glasses. "You must let us dour old Scots have a little celebration."
"Of-of course," Tara said with a weak smile. "Will there be bagpipes? It-its okay if there are, um, bagpipes, I mean."
"Good, good," the older woman said as she stood up and reached for her cane. "Could you be a dear and take Hector for a walk? I need to have an old ladies' talk with my cousins."
"I'd like h-his company," Tara said as she smiled at the small dog. Abigail smiled sadly as they left. A few moments later three ladies of roughly Abigail's vintage meandered into the study and found their accustomed seats. When they had settled in and a young member of the clan had dropped off more tea and a plate of dainty favorites Abigail cleared her throat.
"She's not staying then?" Deidre McHeath-Holland asked sadly. "Pity, she has the Sight."
"No, you old witch," Abigail said with a sad smirk. "She's seventeen. And she's right. She needs to find her own way."
"Pity," Deidre repeated.
"Nice figure on her," Fiona said with a nod. "Our Moira is letting that get away? She's back with her coloratura?"
"Yes, and I think young Tara had a hand in getting them back together," Deidre said with a wink.
"Oh dear, our two best sopranos living together again," Fiona said with a sigh. "It's going to be Carmen for breakfast."
The group chuckled and sipped their tea. There was a reluctance to speak in the air. They looked at Abigail. She finished her tea and pulled out a flat data panel.
"You've all read and agree with Lorna and Kiska's analysis?" she asked evenly. At their nodding she took a ragged breath. "Then it's begun. We'll be sending out collie teams to collect our strays. Even stochastic analysis doesn't give us an idea of how much time we have to get everyone settled into the Jocelyn Sector."
"What does your gut say, cousin?" Arlene asked as she drew out her knitting. "I'm thinking someone who ran Sector Intelligence for her majesty's Fourth Fleet should be able to guess."
"Three to five years," Abigail said after a shrug. "Every day we get from here means we have to strengthen our ties within the Sector. All I can say is thank God our Anne caught an Imperial scion. Peter will be useful in rebuilding."
"And her wife has good genes, too," Fiona pointed out. "Didn't realize she wanted one of each. Have you seen the latest pictures of my great grandchildren?"
"Yes," Deidre said quickly. "Including the sledding ones. Who tells the McHeath?"
"I'll tell Donald," Abigail said as the rest nodded in relief.
Without thinking she touched the model on the mantle of her last command, a Levitow class destroyer. She thought of the crew who had fallen to keep the Pax Terra safe. She put on a sweater with pockets full of small candies and tissues and leaned on her cane as she left to talk with her son on a subject both had dreaded.
This is going to break his heart, she thought. At least we see this coming. Empires are the things of men. They fail in time.
Europa is a beautiful mystery. Only the second terraformed planet in the Jocelyn sector it developed at an unprecedented rate and was ready for full life forms in less than a decade. Designed by Jaeger Interstellar to be one of the "continent" planets, Europa holds a vast array of life forms lost on Terra for generations. If all of this sounds too good to be true, it is.
In addition to a wonderful growing bed Europa has the strongest planetary electromagnetic fields in the Empire. Travelers are warned not to take electric equipment relying on stored power or fields, comm units, or shimmer make up. All of these have a very shortened range or lifespan on Europa. Theories abound but few facts have been proven, so be ready to rough it.
Europa was a popular and inexpensive destination for hundreds of nationalist groups in the closing days of European nationalism, so while on planet be sure to take one of the many quaint transport forms and visit the many post-nationalist and royalist nation states, none of them more than a few hundred kilometres from border to border. Oldenberg is a popular starting point and has an Imperial accredited university.
A word or warning for travelers: cash cards do NOT work except in the larger banks. Be wary of pickpockets in the cities and bandits in the hinterlands.
From Fodor's Guide to the Empire, 285th Edition
Willow Rosenberg read her parents' letter one more time. She looked at the unsigned Imperial waiver. She folded both up neatly and put them into her satchel. The bench under the oak creaked as her friend joined her.
"No permission, huh?" Lady Beth Summers asked.
"I either get letters that might as well start out 'Dear Colleague' or ones that make me feel ten years old," Willow said with a sigh. "I'm going to be seventeen in a week. I'm not going to stay here. They're just being all delaying with the inevitable."
"I wish I could go," Beth said soft voice.
"Kind of hard, what with you being the future Countess of Sussex East and West and having the whole United Kingdoms thing on top of that," Willow said gently. "And by the way, future Countesses don't say `huh'."
"So if I say it often enough I'll get to go to space instead?" Beth asked hopefully.
"And those people are all rude," the brunette went on.
"You'd know, Cordelia," Willow said sweetly. Beth fought a smile.
"Yes, but do they know that?" Cordelia bristled. "I mean Chases are an old family, I mean pre-Spaceflight old, but they were all 'how quaint' and they were just, well, rude. I don't know why Daddy deals with them."
"Because Europa doesn't have much in the way of metal ore," Willow explained carefully. "Kind of hard to run a railroad without metals."
"That's why I have to take the stupid iron supplements, right?" Cordelia asked petulantly. Willow sighed. It seemed that everything the daughter of director of the Peninsula Railway didn't want to be correct about science was blamed on her tutor.
"No, that's just being female," Willow said patiently. "There's enough metal bound up in the ecosphere-"
"Oh, no," Cordelia whined. "Not ecology too!"
"How's the dance coming?" Beth asked quickly.
"Wonderfully," Cordelia sighed. "I kind of let it out I and Lady Summers were looking for escorts for the Cotillion next year. I've even got an invite out to Benjamin Levy."
"No!" Willow said with a start. "I mean, oh, really that's nice and all and he's going to college and he's on the rowing team and I'm sure he wants to come down and dance with some girls' academy junior who'll just turn into somebody who can't shut up and who'll breakout right before the dance-"
"Breathe, Will," Beth said worriedly. "We'll get you ready."
"Yeah," Cordelia said with a nod. "I love a challenge."
All three girls looked up at the sound of a bell as it rang out over the manicured grounds of the Walsh Academy for Girls. Young women hurried along paved walks to various buildings. Cordelia and Beth smiled as they stood up and headed for the stables.
"Come on, we'll be late," Beth said as she broke into an unladylike run. Cordelia followed her.
"Yeah," Willow muttered. "I'll bet nobody rides horses on other worlds with orbital stations and the electricity works and there are computers and I want off Europa now."
Then she too broke into a run. As much as she hated it, equitation was a class.
Willow moved slowly in the library. The gelding everyone had told her was gentle for them had been restless. At least she hadn't been thrown today, though given the way her muscles felt afterwards it might have been less painful to fall. This evening she had a study session for Beth and Cordelia on mathematics and basic chemistry. She was gathering books when Mrs. Greene, the librarian, had asked her favorite student to put back a health book in the locked cabinets.
"Here's the key dear," Mrs. Greene said casually.
"The key to the locked bookcases?" Willow asked with reverence. "I'll be careful and no one will get in there. I promise!"
"I know, dear," the older woman said nodding. "I'll be right back."
Willow headed to the back of the library and slipped the key into the lock. She was putting back the book when the title of the book beside it made her stop. She pulled it out looked for the place to reshelve it. She stopped and looked at it.
"Oh, 'Tribadism and Other Practices', not tribalism," she said to herself. "What's a tribad?"
Willow opened the book. A few minutes later she heard Mrs. Greene return through the sound of her blood pounding in her ears. She slipped the book with its illustrations back into the bookcase. Willow hesitated and looked towards the librarian. She pulled out the book again and copied down its information on the flyleaf onto her smallest notebook. Shaking she returned the book and latched the bookcase. She drifted to the desk and handed Mrs. Greene the key.
"Thank you, dear," the librarian said and then frowned. "Are you all right Willow? You look flushed."
For once words failed her as she just shook her head. She looked up quickly as her friends entered and smiled weakly.
"Let's get this over with," Cordelia sighed.
"Are you okay?" Beth asked worriedly. "Violet was a bit hard-mouthed today."
"I'm fine," Willow said quickly. "Just really sore muscles and all, that's it."
"Well, didn't you say the rump is a big muscle?" Cordelia asked with concern. "You need the butt for dance practice."
"I know!" Beth said brightly. "Massage. Cordy and I will get that big muscle relaxed with some soft liniment and massage."
"I don't want to put you out," Willow said desperately.
"No, it's all right," Cordelia said firmly. "I know you're shy, but trust me, it works. We'll have you ready for dance lessons in no time."
"We're doing this," Beth said just as firmly. "Don't worry, Will. It'll just be us girls."