One of the most difficult obstacles in publishing this work came from the many who still hold that the fall of the Empire was due to incompetence. Their argument consists mostly of quoting the tonnage of warships the Empire had compared to the Planets Rights forces made up of 'civilian' shipping. Had battle in space been the true measure of the war they would be right. It was not. On most planets war came in the form of opinion and economic machinations. No warship can defeat a rumor about a hated foe or a run on a currency.
Fortunately for a few planets, humans can defeat almost anything. Even other humans' hatred and greed.
The Coming Twilight-Understanding The Fall of the First Empire
Willow looked out at the water. She took a deep breath and leaned a bit further over the rail. The wind caught her hair and she thought she saw the flash of dolphin near the bow. The schooner was making good time if her observations were correct. The day was waning and she turned back to her place on the deck. She opened her knapsack and rummaged for a book on travel.
"I thought you hadn't traveled much," Beth said with a smile. "You looked like a pirate queen over there."
"It's more exciting than I thought, Beth," Willow replied. "There's so much to learn."
"How much longer is this...?" Alexander asked tightly.
"We're making about six knots," Willow said quickly. "That's assuming an averaged wind velocity of about-"
The young man bolted for the rail and leaned over it with much more urgency and less grace than Willow had.
"He didn't have to come," Willow said sadly.
"Yes, he did," Beth said softly.
"I'm worried about him," Giles said distantly. "He doesn't have much formal training."
"He got you to us before they did," Willow pointed out. "Whoever 'they' are."
"That information was beaten into him by his father," Giles replied uncomfortably. "Hardly the same thing."
Alexander walked unsteadily back the group and sat down heavily. He looked pale and almost green.
"Don't we have staterooms or something?" he asked softly.
"No," Beth said with a shrug. "This isn't a steamship, it's a coaster. Little ships like this one have to use every inch of space in their holds to make a profit."
"What we are is 'deck cargo'," Willow pointed out. "We'll be okay given the average temperature and the fact that the barometer is holding steady. The stars are supposed to be really clear at sea."
"Lady Elizabeth-" Alexander started.
"No!" Beth said quickly. "If I'm Lady Elizabeth from Sussex there might be something in the works for me too."
"But who else can travel like a noblewoman?" Alexander said in a confused voice. "If you're rude and in a hurry without a title or money it will be noticed."
"He's quite right, Beth," Giles said with a nod. "I'd planned on using your title to cover the gaps in our financing. People will extend credit to a known name."
"But a known name is what may get us into trouble," Willow said frowning.
"Rude, short of money and in a hurry," Beth said with a wicked grin. "I've got it."
"Uh oh," Willow said with a shake of her head. "I know that look."
"Hi!" the petite noblewoman said standing up and holding out her hand to Giles. "Buffy Summers, girl reporter to the best damn papers on this planet. Pleased ta meet ya! This is Alex, he does the heavy lifting. Rupert here is my agent and business manager. And this firecracker is Will the wonder research girl. Now how do you spell your name and your company?"
"Buffy?!?" Giles asked in shock. "What a ridiculous derivative of a noble name. No lady of quality would be called Buffy."
"Giles, I'm not a lady," she insisted. "I'm a reporter."
"Oh dear," Willow said softly. "With your spelling?"
"That's why I've got my crack staff," Buffy replied with a shrug.
"What about your last name?" Willow asked worriedly.
"I think I can prevent anyone from thinking of me as a noblewoman," the blonde said with a grin.
"Oh dear," Willow said again, very softly.
"Look, pops," Warren Meers snapped. "I need to get into this vest pocket country today, not tomorrow."
"You must have a passport or an Imperial identification card," the old man behind the counter said as he puffed on his pipe.
"Look, I've got all these Imperial credits to spend in over that border," Meers said softly. "Why don't you take a look at a few up close."
"Very pretty," the mustached man said with a shrug, without moving to touch the pile of enhanced plastic banknotes.
"Um..." Andrew said quietly as he pulled on Warren's sleeve.
"What, short stuff?" Warren hissed.
"Those guys over there just put a rope of bullets into that gun," Andrew whispered fearfully.
Warren looked over at the machine gun crew as they steadied the belt of ammunition and closed the cover. He rolled his eyes.
"That's an ancient design machine gun with a belt of cartridges, gunslinger," he growled.
"And it's pointed at us," Andrew said swallowing.
Warren felt his palms get sweaty. The head of the team looked like any other overweight, passed over, nearly retired soldier. But the trigger on the machine gun didn't need an athlete to pull it. Meers turned back to the quiet old man in the office.
"I'm on the business of a Crown Prince of Aquitaine," he snarled.
"I'm sure he has a passport," the man replied with another shrug.
Warren whirled and stalked back to the train with Andrew hurrying behind him. After they were aboard the train Andrew sagged into a seat and gulped down a glass of water. He looked at Meers with a glare.
"I thought you could get in anywhere," he groused. Meers turned and glared at him.
"You see a data port in the rocks, Sparky?" he asked silkily.
Andrew was quiet for the rest of the trip.
"Hold still!" Tara commanded as she daubed at the cut on the girl she knew as Claire's head.
"It stings!" the girl complained. "Why does medicine from a star faring culture have to sting?"
"I think it's to prove its medicine," Tara answered easily. "This shouldn't hurt."
For a second the girl felt a pulling at her wound. Then it seemed to almost fold closed. She looked at the young woman.
"Was that stitch tape?" she asked with wonder.
"Yes," Tara replied. "My aunt sent me out with quite a first aid kit."
"I'm glad," Claire said as she met Tara's blue eyes, then she smiled and asked eagerly. "Were you a medic in the Marines? Did you see any action? Are you a hero?"
For a second it seemed to the youngster that Tara went away somewhere for a second. Then she shook her head and gave a weak smile.
"S-Sorry," Tara said with a shrug. "I just know w-w-what he-heroes do. I w-was a clerk's assistant who got in over her h-head. I was... hurt, got a medical discharge and a scholarship to the University of Oldenberg."
"Oh," Claire said with obvious disappointment.
"Where would we find the nearest policeman?" Tara asked as she reached back for the med kit.
"Policeman?" Claire asked worriedly.
"People are trying to kill you, you said," Tara explained as she pulled out an injector and carefully readied it. "Roll up your sleeve."
"But we can't go to the police!" Claire almost shouted. "I have to-ow! What was that?"
"Single stage regenerator," Tara said quickly pulling out another tiny ampule. "This a broadband AVB to kill off any bad bugs. Other arm."
Claire rolled up her sleeve with a frown and winced even before the injector touched her skin. She opened one eye when there was light snap on her skin. She looked at the site and saw a fading pinkness.
"Wow," she said touching the spot and feeling a hint of chill.
"Why can't we go to the police?" Tara asked gently.
"I have to go to... Oldenberg," Claire said quickly. "I think my mother needs me to get there."
"Who's your mother?" Tara asked evenly. Claire opened her mouth to speak, but shut it after a few seconds and looked frightened.
"I can't remember!" she wailed softly. "There was a train and, and somebody shot... and I fell and everything exploded and I, I heard them ask him if he wanted them to make sure I was dead."
Tara watched the terror build on the girl's face and almost felt it herself. She reached for the girl and took her in an embrace. Claire trembled, then rallied and pulled away gently.
"I heard one of them say NMR didn't pay him enough," Claire said tightly.
"Did you see any of them?" Tara asked as she filed away the initials in her mind.
"No," the girl answered with a sigh.
"What do you remember about your family?" Tara asked as she stood up and pulled on her pack.
"I have a mother, or maybe it's her mother," Claire said as she frowned with concentration. "My friend, the one who wrote me the letter. I think I've got the bossiest older sister in the world. I kind of hope she's my friend's but I think she's mine. Then there's..."
A woman who'd she'd known all her life, with her smile and dark hair and the knitting she was always doing lay turning pale and still as a revolver roared in Dawn's defense. An old man who'd taught her how to twist and escape tossed her out of a window. He yelled at her to run. He turned back and she heard his gunshots stop coming. They'd died because of Dawn Summers. An engineer with a smile and a daughter of his own was dead because of Lady Summers as well.
Thank goodness she was just Claire, Dawn's friend.
"Dawn," she said with a sad smile. "They must have been after Dawn."
"Dawn is your friend?" Tara asked hopefully as she picked up her staff.
"Yes," Claire answered quickly. "I must need to get to Oldenberg for her. I'm sure it's important."
"Let's get to the next town at least," Tara said easily.
The two girls walked through the early afternoon. Claire asked questions about space and Tara's home world. Tara asked about Europa and found Claire to be very well informed. She told Tara about the nations that made up the Peninsula and Isles of Albion. She knew of the odd conditions on Europa in an almost abstract way since she had never known anything different. To Claire having a telegraph station every twenty-five kilometers was normal, as was radio waves only traveling well over the oceans and seas.
As the path lowered onto the high plain of Breton Tara noticed an unsettling feeling growing very slowly. This time it was hard and cold. She looked around her. In the distance she thought she saw movement. She stopped and took off her pack. She pulled out a pair of small binoculars. As she focused she caught sight of a man on horseback. As she watched his approach her unease rose.
"Let's get off the trail," she said firmly. "When he gets out of sight at that next bend we double back."
Something in Tara's tone told the girl not to argue. As they lost sight of the horseman they both scrambled off the trail and headed back behind a screen of scrub and trees. After a few minutes Tara froze in place. The horseman rode past their position without slowing. Where they left the trail he slowed briefly and then spurred his sweating mount. In a few more minutes the feeling of unease left Tara.
"How long have you had that?" Claire asked with a touch of a quiver in her voice.
Tara looked down at the small Military Technologies 7.7 millimeter revolver in her hand.
"It's another present from my aunt," she said with a tight, worried smile. "I think I may need to get her a nice thank you card."
The rider, who called himself James Tyrrell for now, stopped his mount and looked at the earth of the trail. He could have sworn he'd seen two girls on the trail. What worried him was that he hadn't felt them. Something was blocking his ability and that worried him. He didn't like feeling worried. He did that and more to others. It was almost as if there was an unseen threat in these woodlots and tiny farms. He spurred his horse. It would be good to be away from here.
"I tell you, we came looking for a lost child," William said in a tight voice.
"All three of you?" the policeman said with a glare. "A mercenary and a pair of noblemen?"
"I didn't say we were noblemen," William said evenly.
"You did not have to," the policeman snapped.
"Hey, flatfoot, what gives?" a new voice called out. "We've got deadlines. Let us out of this rickytick town."
"Not without authorization!" bellowed the policeman.
William felt Liam pull him back. As the policeman turned and slammed the gate of the town closed there was a collective sigh from the crowd of men and a few women holding briefcases and valises. Then the demands started as the crowd headed toward the small hotel and the bars of the small Breton town. After Liam had pulled him into the doorway of house William turned to the Irish nobleman.
"Before you get ruffled, I may have a way out of here," Liam said quietly.
"On foot?" William asked wearily. "We need to make speed. Lady Dawn could be out there and hurt. Another night may be fatal, for her and a lot more people."
Liam simply knocked on the door of the house twice and then twice again. The door opened and a middle-aged woman looked out. When she saw Liam she smiled and opened the door. The two men entered quickly and the woman slammed and barred the door behind them. Then she turned and fondled Liam's rump.
"A pity, my fine Irish cob," she said with sigh. "You're sure you can't stay?"
"No lass, and that's the real pity," Liam said with a quick kiss. "I'm sorry, my manners must have been left on the trail. Madame Bontecou, may I introduce Lord William of Oldenberg."
"A pleasure, monsieur," Madame Bontecou said with a wry smile. "You are traveling with this reprobate?"
"He does seem to know the most charming women, at the very least," William said as he bent over her hand.
"You are a brave young man," she said with a restrained laugh. "Come, this way."
She turned and led them to a large grandfather clock that swung away from the wall. The woman took the stub of a candle from a box inside the opening and lit it. A few stairs leading into blackness appeared as she started down. Liam followed the woman without hesitation, and William brought up the rear, only jumping a little when the clock thudded back into place behind him. The stories of Breton smuggling seemed more credible in the light of a single candle.
A few mostly dark moments later the three entered a snug, well-aired stable. The prince saw a winding trail outside the door that seemed to be mostly in shadow. Just inside the stable door a pair of large dogs were tethered. Riley was already cinching a saddle onto a sturdy mare. He stopped and bowed slightly to Madame Bontecou. She smiled at him in a way that made William hope any Monsieur Bontecou did not have a jealous bone in his body.
"Escape the fourth estate?" the mercenary asked as he bent back to saddling the mare. There were two other horses saddled and ready to go.
"Yes, but I don't understand where all the vultures of the press are coming from," William replied as he bent to check the cinch on the gelding nearest him.
"There is some excitement on the railroad," Madame Bontecou said quickly. "They say a girl, a noble, was murdered by bandits. Some say the bandits were all wearing blue scarves. It is some political party's sign in that nest of vipers called Aquitaine."
"They're being awfully indiscreet," Liam said worriedly.
"That's the new way of the press," William said with a frown. "Der Signalhorn has become the most popular paper in Oldenberg. It was failing, just another rag full of scandals and jingoistic ranting. I don't know how it's selling for two pennies less an issue now and the owner is riding in a four in hand. The good old Standard is struggling just to stay afloat."
"Strange," Liam said with a thoughtful look. "I ran into the same thing at home. The Examiner is shaky but the damn Bugle is everywhere, and nearly half the price. And their reporters have no sense of decorum at all."
"Tabloid journalism makes it to Europa," Riley sighed.
"All I know is that with all of these noisy gossip-mongers running about town a poor honest woman can't make a living," Madame Bontecou snapped. "Your silver-tongued friend says you may be able to help lead them off if you can get out, so here you are. Leave the horses at the stable in St. Denis." She let out a small sigh. "What a sad day it is to watch three handsome young men leaving."
Tara was only listening with half an ear to the girl beside her as they walked back to the trail. The woman shivered as she remembered the feel of the revolver in her hand. She'd pulled a gun on a feeling. Years of firearm safety violated because of the witchcraft she was damned with. She stopped and shook her head gently.
"What's wrong?" Claire asked worriedly.
"I w-was thinking s-s-something I promised my aunt I w-wouldn't think," Tara said with a shaky but rueful grin.
"I think I understand, kind of," Claire said after a second. "Were you thinking something bad about yourself?"
Tara just stared at the young teenager for a moment and nodded. Before she could form a question the tall weeds on the trail moved and a large horned head appeared in the midst of the foliage. The cow looked at the two girls and let out a bellow. The beast tossed its head and frayed rope flopped into view. Claire eased forward and then pulled the rope. The animal lumbered out.
"I'd say we weren't the only wanderers today," Claire said holding the rope.
"And somebody wants to be milked," Tara said looking at the cow's full udder.
"You know about milking cows?" Claire asked in a surprised tone. "But you come from space."
"Yeah, but some cruel people think raising a huge bunch of kids on a working farm is better than letting them live in an EZ Food world," Tara said with a smile. "Actually, I didn't really know about where milk came from until I left home. When I found out how they did it in the olden days I didn't drink any for a week."
"You've eaten at EZ Food?" Claire asked excitedly. "Of course you have! Were the fried pods really wonderful?"
"Unless you eat too many and never want to see another pod in your life," Tara laughed.
"I have got to get to a real space station someday," Claire said wistfully. "Right now we have to get her home. A loose animal means a fine most of the small farmers around here can't pay very easily."
"But what about getting to Oldenberg?" Tara asked evenly.
"Not the police?" Claire said turning to her. Tara could see the hope in her eyes.
"No," the older girl answered with a sigh as she remembered the feeling of unease the rider had given her. "Not until we know more."
I'm trusting my instincts, Aunt Abigail, Tara thought to herself. Even the one that scares me.
Claire found herself smiling and nodding. She didn't know why, but she knew Tara was telling her the truth. The cow pulled at the rope. Claire noticed a small plaque on the halter. She squinted at it and saw the pattern of colored bars on the plaque.
"We still have to get her home," Claire said firmly. "Looks like we head back up the trail a bit."
In an office in the neutral Kingdom of Zenda a young woman bent over the telegram that had come in just moments before. She consulted the sheet of code from the pad in the wall safe and wrote down the message in five letter groups. Then she burned the telegram and the one time use code sheet. Mr. Hoffman's timid assistant had been sure this was an unbreakable code. She mixed the ashes with those in the ashtray and took the message to the only other occupant of the office.
"This is confirmed?" he said reading it twice.
"It comes from Mr. Hoffman," she said with an efficient nod. "The sheet number matches and the words are clear."
The manager of Hoffman Publishing nodded and then dictated a message. The woman left and started working on twenty telegrams. It was not efficient, but Mr. Hoffman had insisted each of the minority owners of his newspapers believe only they were the recipient of a silent partner's support of their once failing newspapers. None of them had seen Mr. Hoffman, only the manager on visits to their various head offices. The young off worlder had insisted on this. He felt no one would take a young man seriously.
"Are you through?" Meers asked as he paced in Prince Louis' private railcar.
"We're through," Andrew almost snapped back.
"What is that?" Louis asked petulantly.
"Something to make your hunters' jobs a bit easier," the off worlder said with a smirk.
The Aquitaine nobleman strode across the car and snatched the paper off the desk in front of Andrew. He turned to Meers with a puzzled look.
"A thousand Zendan florins?" Louis asked in a shocked tone. "Just for finding Dawn Summers? Reporters would sell their mothers for a tenth of this. Why would they listen to you anyway?"
"I know the owners of a few papers," Meers said with a smug grin. "They'll listen to me, and then their newshounds will be beating the bushes looking for Summers or her body."
"And when they find her my people will not be gentle," Louis said with a leer. "Some hounds may fall victim with the quarry."
"The news business is tough," Warren said with a chuckle. "Besides, as they say in the media business, `if it bleeds, it leads."
"I can not fathom how rare this ore is your superiors want," the prince said nonchalantly.
"I've never said anything about an ore," Meers answered innocently.
"Your NMR is after some resource," Louis replied tersely. "I will find out what it is. I will know the price of my thrones to be."
The prince turned and left the railcar in what Travers would have called a huff. The Planets Rights man looked out the window at a platform full of young people of Aquitaine waiting for the train that would take them to the Imperial starport. From there they would enter service for an Empire that Meers held responsible for all the things wrong with Miranda and the First Planets.
"Norris Mason Reynolds doesn't want your resource," Meers said very softly. "They just want you to spend it closer to home."
"We'll be in Brest on the morning tide," Willow said as Beth pulled her favorite long sleeved gym shirt on. The blonde turned to her and tossed a leather jacket a size too big over the shirt.
"What do you think?" Beth asked as she turned around in front of her friend.
"Too polite and, um, I don't know, missing something?" Willow said worriedly as the daylight faded. Beth burrowed into the packs on deck and pulled out a battered brimmed hat and Willow's smallest notebook.
"Whadaya say now?" Beth asked as she leaned forward and snapped open the notebook.
"Hi, Buffy," Willow said with a smile.