Colonized in secret by Russians escaping the Empire, much as the Founders of the Republic escaped Terra, Kursk remains independent and sovereign, ruled benignly by a monarch claiming blood from the Romanov line. Negotiations with the Republic are proceeding for the purchase of shipbuilding and other technology.
The existence of an imperialist monarchy is unsettling to many in the Republic, but Imperatritsa Tatiana is fully aware of the strength of the Space Patrol even as it stands down from its war footing and is de-federalized, and she has proclaimed her peaceful intentions. Treaties have already been signed guaranteeing the Russian Star Empire a self-defense force of sublight warships while prohibiting them from mounting offensive weapons on newly-built starships. It is hoped that the Russian people may petition their monarch to join the Republic, while at the same time it is hoped that no one in Human Space has the stomach for another war - a war which the Republic could hardly help but win.
- Foreign Worlds, Foreign Laws: A Report on the Republic's Neighbors in the Post-Terran Era
- Dr. Constance Azumi, Professor of International Affairs, University of Alexandria, 336 JR
At first, Laurie couldn't decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Piotr, who once said in happier times, that he liked chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Piotr. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question.
Why me? The Imperatritsa insisted that she was the perfect choice for this meeting - 'You speak English, my dear Laurie, and you've dealt with the Terrans so many times on my behalf' - but right now she felt anything but diplomatic, especially with such weighty matters to discuss, and such dreadful memories competing for her attention.
She decided finally to be traditional. The Republic may have its New Texas Supercino, but Mother Russia still had her own tea. A servant brought the elegant silver samovar, three centuries old, rumored to have belonged to Tsar Nicholas himself. For a moment Laurie allowed herself to be swept away by the beauty of fine things, painstakingly crafted by hand.
The samovar wasn't the only example. Captain Fuentes was, as she had expected, armed; the most obvious weapon being a gleaming sabre that would have made any cavalryman of the Nicholas era proud.
The Jeffersonian Captain affected her deeply. She had heard so many things about the Republic - that it was a violent society where blood ran in the streets; that they had no appreciation of history; that they were crude, foul-mouthed, unclean.
As she examined the Captain of the cruiser Tredegar, she began to realize that much of what she had heard had been Terran propaganda. His other weapon was an enormous revolver, remarkably similar to another she had seen, in the vault of her family's estate. No appreciation of history? I wonder.
This man standing before her was - well - a man. Nearly two meters tall, ninety kilograms at least and none of it waste. Exotic olive skin, black hair cut short but still seen to curl, a face shaved smooth; and deep, deep blue eyes flashing so unexpectedly from such classic Latin features. She dared meet those eyes with her own.
Here is a man who has seen - and done - terrible things, she thought. The Republic had graciously made Fuentes' file available to the Russian Star Empire, and Laurie had read every word. Two wound stripes, for Barnard II and Terra. The Bronze Star, at Wilson's Colony; a cluster, at the second battle of New Israel; a second cluster at Barnard. Silver Star at Terra, where he used that very sword after his captain had been all but killed. I expected a hard, cruel man, one who would not hesitate to intimidate and brutalize, one absorbed by his own proven strength and authority - a beast, a bully. But when Laurie looked into those azure eyes she saw a man not of violence but of principle, of beliefs and ideals so strongly held that he would do anything to defend them.
She looked into the eyes of the commanding officer of a Jeffersonian attack cruiser, a ship built around an enormous energy weapon that could destroy half the population centers on Kursk in a single ninety-minute orbit - and she saw a man who wanted peace. A man who wanted that peace so badly, not for himself but for millions he had never met, that he would wade through blood, even his own, to create it. Now peace had come, and this man, with so much destruction at his command, gladly turned to building.
And a very handsome man, too.
Laurie began to think of Piotr in very different terms.
What am I doing here? Captain Roland Fuentes asked himself. I'm not a diplomat. The Navy - well, the Patrol, he reminded himself; the de-federalization was proceeding apace, gods be thanked - has people for this sort of thing. I should be back in the Black, with my ship and crew. Well, he thought in all fairness, Commander Fujita can handle Tredegar well enough - be getting her own ship soon anyway. Especially at the rate the Jeffersonian Republic Space Patrol went through officers the past few years. Fuentes suppressed a shudder, remembering the captain he had replaced. They say her new legs will be working fine in a few more months, though her eyes may never be quite right again and they'll probably have to grow a new set of those, too.
Such thoughts made Fuentes uncomfortable in these elegant, civilized surroundings. I don't belong here, in more ways than one. The Imperial Palace was quite a shock to a man used to the casually-efficient, shirt-sleeve environment of a Republic warship, even without the instinctive allergic reaction any Jeffersonian felt toward anything resembling a monarchy. He had showered with a scandalous amount of water, shaved and scrubbed, groomed 'til it hurt, then done it all again because it didn't feel right. It's one thing to hop in the sponge-sack for a few minutes to scrape last night's sweat and yesterday's work off you. It's quite another to dress up to meet an Empress - or at least her designated representative. It took half an hour for him to put on the JRSP's red-white-and-black dress uniform for the third time in as many years, and still he felt dirty, like he was tracking mud on the fantastically expensive rugs, imported from Terra over half a century ago and centuries old before then. Here in the Imperatritsa's sitting room on the planet Kursk, he felt like a wild ape that had broken out of its cage and found its way into a princess' mansion.
Which is probably exactly what they think.
But Fuentes had been sent here for a reason. The war - the War, and gods grant there will never be another - was over... and there was a helluva mess to clean up.
One of the untidy bits was the Russian Star Empire. Founded by Russian monarchists seventy years after the Europa Incident, fifty before the War, they followed a line of monarchs claiming Romanov blood. Their society and their capitol world were a fascinating blend of 19th and 23rd centuries; marble columns and micromainframe computers, tapestries and transatmospheric shuttles. Starships and silver tea service.
The Russian Star Empire had a Navy - if one were being generous with the term - and outposts on two more habitable worlds. They had wisely stayed out of the Republic-Empire War, declaring utter neutrality - until it became obvious that the Jeffersonian Republic would not only defeat but devour the Terran Empire. Now they wished to discuss diplomatic relations, trade, and the like.
And Patrol Central in their infinite wisdom dispatched Captain Roland Fuentes, commanding CS07 JRS Tredegar, Crimson Band, Silver Star and all, to sip tea and chat pleasantly with an asthmatic, inbred spinster who blindly follows the obsolete and irrational concept of a monarchy. Fuentes had read Countess Simonova's file as well.
'You speak Russian, Captain.' 'Your experience with the Eyani makes you just the man for the job, Captain.' 'Wear that dashing sabre of yours, Captain.'
Benefits of a classical education. Just because I was dating a girl named Gordeyeva twenty years ago and wanted to impress her with her mother-language. I went through all that, even developed a taste for vodka, and she goes and marries some surgeon who comes home every night and doesn't have a job that could kill him twenty different ways before lunch when people aren't shooting at him....
The captain reined in his bitterness. They don't put everything in those files, and a lot probably gets lost in the translation from Stellar Russian to Jeffersonian English.
She might be quite nice. Besides, he had his orders.
Fuentes tried to turn his mind to more comfortable thoughts. Like most Jeffersonians, and all Patrol officers who were worth anything, he was a student of history. He had chosen his sidearm for effect - a reproduction of the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield's Patent cavalry revolver of 1875 CE. Not exactly correct, but strikingly similar to the Russian contract model of 1871. Besides, it was as close as anyone aboard could get without fabricating something, and that would have taken too long. He hoped Lieutenant Commander O'Meara was taking good care of the Remington percussion replica Fuentes had traded for the S&W. Certainly she was, Fuentes thought; a distant ancestor of O'Meara's had carried an original at Chancellorsville, and she'd been lusting after Fuentes' reproduction for months.
The big top-break Schofield was loaded, of course, and a Patrol-issue Lexington Armory M169A5, the compact officer's model, rode discreetly beneath Fuentes' uniform jacket. By now, every living Human and Eyani knew that Jeffersonians never traveled unarmed. Allowing Jeffersonian Citizens to bear arms in foreign territory was a non-negotiable condition of relations with the Republic.
If you don't like it, you shouldn't have invited us in the first place. Asking a Jeffersonian to leave his weapons at the door is like asking an Eyani to take off his fur coat - and almost as dangerous. The Eyani were quite sensitive about their luxurious pelts, especially since Imperial ladies took a fancy to them during the Occupation.
Don't think about that now! It would be completely improper to lose one's breakfast in the Imperial Palace. His own kind of killing did not affect him this way; combat was easy - to Fuentes, the Rules were simple and clear, even on the bridge of a 38,000-ton interstellar cruiser in the biggest fleet engagement since Leyte Gulf. But Fuentes had met Eyani, talked with them, made friends of the bearlike people with two arms, two legs, and two in between. Neither they nor Fuentes had any objection to using the skins of dumb animals for clothing, decoration, or food, but.... Making coats out of People is against the Rules.
He pushed that line of thought away. His newest friends were free now; the last time he had seen Gr'Chut, he had been wearing a Chief's harness, three Imperial-issue pistols, at least two hundred rounds of ammunition, and... and it was best not to think about what happened to the Imperial garrison stranded on Eyan when their naval support fled. As they sowed, so did they reap.
The sabre on Fuentes' left hip was quite functional as well - it had seen use at the Battle of Terra, in the Red Hour, when seven Republic ships including Tredegar found themselves repelling boarders, not all of them successfully. Imperial Commandos had stealthed their way onto the hull and cut through to the bridge eight compartments deep, then used shotguns loaded with tungsten-alloy flechettes. Captain Powers' armored e-suit had barely saved her life - from the waist up, at least. Months later and her case was still big news in the medical and science sections of every newsfax and -cast in the Republic. 'We're learning so much,' the doctors kept saying.
The enemy boarding party had been very surprised when half the bridge crew produced shortswords or hatchets or clubs, and one gleaming sabre. Can't have bullets or plasma bolts bouncing around the bridge of a starship. Sometimes the old ways are best. Later, when he'd had time to reflect on the incident and review the bridge recordings, Fuentes had been disgusted to learn that the "elite" Imperials weren't as good at hand-to-hand as average Patrol personnel, and even worse at fighting in free-fall.
One of Fuentes' handful of fencing trophies had been earned in weightlessness.
And what would Countess Lorraine Ekaterina Simonova think of all that?
Fuentes knew that beneath her dignified, placid facade, she was examining him. He examined right back. Despite having read her file, she was much younger than he expected, in her early twenties; golden hair elaborately arranged, framing a classic heart-shaped face punctuated by startlingly-light blue eyes, under a complexion so fair that next to Fuentes she looked unhealthily pale. A petite young woman, much shorter and slimmer than the Jeffersonian ideal of lean, predatory robustness, but well-proportioned and - Fuentes admitted - highly attractive.
Looks aren't enough. If they were, the Terries would have won the War with their uniforms alone.
"Captain Fuentes, I presume," she said in accented but skilled English. She extended her hand.
Fuentes wasn't completely at a loss. He straightened, almost to military attention (or as close as a Jeffersonian usually got to it), then gently grasped her silk-gloved hand and bowed precisely over it. "A pleasure to meet you, Countess Simonova," he responded in Russian.
"Please be seated, Captain," she said, gesturing toward a richly-upholstered chair wide enough to accommodate a military man and his sidearms. "I am honored that you speak my language, but if you do not mind, may we continue in English? I feel I may need the practice, in future relations between our governments."
'Governments?' I would have said 'nations.' "Of course, Countess, and thank you for your courtesy." Monarchists. Go figure. Fuentes sat with practiced ease, sweeping his sabre and the holstered revolver around to clear the arms of the chair.
Probably two hours of small-talk before we get to business.
Laurie had learned from his file that the Jeffersonian spoke Russian, but was still surprised when he did so with such fluency, even using the Muscovite dialect that her own Stellar Russian was descended from. More Terran lies? This man is not one of the uneducated, barbaric anarchists we have come to expect.
And how could such barbarians have defeated the mighty Terran Empire, if that is all they were?
She was quite unsettled when he bowed over her hand in precisely the appropriate manner, the hand that wielded the beautiful sabre with such skill and determination touching hers with such instinctive tenderness. Barely concealing her confusion, she covered by inviting the captain to sit, then chose to converse with him in English. In Russian, I might forget who I am speaking with. She also hoped that concentrating on English would keep her mind focused, and prevent it from straying to thoughts of... Piotr. "Would you like some tea, Captain?"
Again he surprised her, graciously responding, "The tea of Russia is at least as famous as the coffee of New Texas, Countess. I would be honored to share some with you." At a gesture from Laurie, the servant, a silent, gray, dignified man who had served the Simonovs for three generations, expertly poured and served. Fuentes took his plain, while Laurie preferred a touch of cream.
Laurie reflected on his form of address. The proper form was "milady" or even "your excellency," but she knew that the Jeffersonian Republic disdained systems of nobility. Fuentes used her title like a military rank; he could have done so in such a way as to make her feel ashamed of not having earned it, as he had earned his, but somehow he did not, and she let the matter pass without taking offense.
"Your ship's name, Captain - 'Tredegar?' Do I pronounce it correctly?"
"May I ask, what is the significance of this name?"
Fuentes smiled, as any captain would when speaking of his ship. "My ship is named after an industrial center of the Confederate States of America during the First American Civil War. Weapons and ship components were made at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, for the Confederacy's struggle against northern tyranny."
This response puzzled Laurie - she had been taught that the Southern Rebellion had been undertaken by southern tyrants, seeking to perpetuate slavery. She nearly asked Fuentes about that, but wisely chose to defer the question. She had not had time to thoroughly examine the files on Jeffersonian history, concentrating instead on the one man with whom she would negotiate, but she had learned that Jeffersonians hated slavery and loved the Confederacy. Obviously the Republic's version of history differs from the Terran Empire's. It would be unwise to follow that line of questioning without understanding how those histories differed.
Still, this was the first Jeffersonian she had ever met, and she could not resist asking questions. "Please forgive my curiosity, Captain; I wish to understand more about you and your society."
"By all means, Countess, ask whatever you like."
"Thank you, Captain. ...Your - revolver? Is that the correct word?" At a nod from Fuentes she continued, "Your revolver seems quite similar to one of my family heirlooms."
The captain smiled again. "It is indeed, Countess; your ancestors ordered several thousand revolvers very similar to this one in the late Nineteenth Century, for the Tsar's forces. This is a reproduction of a version used in smaller numbers by American cavalrymen during the same period. Would you like to examine it?"
Startled, Laurie barely avoided lurching back in her chair. It was considered unladylike for women to handle weapons in the Russian Star Empire. "Is... is it allowed?"
Now it was the captain's turn for confusion. "...If you mean, is it allowed for me to let someone else handle my sidearm, certainly; this is not combat, we are not enemies, and this sidearm is my personal property, to be used or shared as I see fit." Brow furrowing in thought, Fuentes continued: "If you mean, is it allowed for a woman to handle a weapon, most certainly; women are quite equal in the Republic. In fact, my predecessor as captain of Tredegar, and my current second-in-command, are both women." The captain glanced at the servant with the eyes of a man who had learned not to underestimate such people. Subtly emphasizing the pronoun, he concluded, "I would have no trouble allowing you to examine my revolver."
A woman in command of a starship! She had read Fuentes' file, but it referred only to 'Captain B. Powers,' making no note of that person's gender. Suddenly it was Laurie who began to feel like a backward savage. Thrilled, she could not resist the opportunity. "That will be all, Grigory," she said in Russian, and the servant, utterly expressionless, bowed and left the room.
Fuentes watched him go, then drew the long-barreled handgun, keeping it pointed away from Laurie and himself, and keeping his finger away from the trigger. He cocked the hammer, but not all the way. With his thumb, he pulled back on a latch at the rear of the weapon and it split open, the barrel and cylinder swinging ninety degrees from the grip on the great hinge at the midpoint. Five gleaming brass cartridges were extracted from their chambers by a little steel star with six points; Fuentes removed them and slipped them into a pocket of his uniform jacket. Why only five, when there is room for six? Laurie wondered. Ask later. "Have you ever handled a firearm before, Countess?" the captain asked.
"No, Captain. ...It is not considered... proper... for a woman to do such things." Laurie's heart pounded with the excitement of doing what was forbidden.
An expression of - distaste? - crossed Fuentes' face, but it was quickly concealed, and then he smiled. "You should visit the Republic, Countess. In my nation, women are encouraged to arm themselves. It greatly reduces the potential for, their... mistreatment. That was in fact one of our founding principles, some two of your centuries ago."
Now the captain's tone changed; for the moment, he was no longer a naval officer or a diplomat, but a teacher. "There are certain laws of firearm safety. The first is, All Firearms are Always Loaded - even when they're not. Like any powerful tool, a firearm must be treated with constant respect; one moment of inattention can have tragic results."
I wonder, Laurie thought, if he thinks of Tredegar's weapons the same way? A Valiant class strike cruiser, with that terrible beam weapon that cut Imperial ships twice its size in half- does he think of that awesome device as merely a tool?
Yes, she realized. Of course he does....
The captain continued. "The second law is, Never Point a Firearm at Anything You Do Not Want to Destroy. Always keep the firearm pointed where it will do the least harm if it were to fire. That way, if a mistake is made, the results will not be as tragic as they might have been.
"Third, Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until You Are Ready to Fire." Fuentes demonstrated by laying his trigger finger alongside the frame of the weapon, completely outside the loop of steel around the trigger. "Firearms are nothing more than tools, simple machines; they do nothing without deliberate operation by a thinking being. They never 'just go off.' Do you have all that, Countess?" he asked gently. She nodded, unable to speak. "You may wish to remove your gloves. They may be stained by the solvents and lubricants used to clean and maintain firearms, though they are harmless to the skin." Fuentes produced a handkerchief. "You may wipe your hands on this afterward, if you wish."
Laurie pulled off her elegant silk gloves and laid them on the table next to the tea service. Fuentes then folded the weapon closed with a click and handed it to her. It filled her hand as her fingers glided over the smooth walnut grips. She almost slipped her finger onto the trigger, but remembered in time Fuentes' safety lessons, and straightened her finger along the frame as he had.
The revolver was quite heavy, well over a kilogram, and a third of a meter long. Finding her voice, she asked, "Do women in your Republic carry weapons like this?"
"Sometimes. Women are at least as fond of classic designs as are men. But in all honesty, this revolver is as much a concession to fashion as a means of protection. The majority of Citizens carry more modern designs, smaller, lighter, and more efficient, similar in principle to your own Navy's Gorloff pistol. A few carry variants or derivatives of the personal energy weapons we developed during the War, but those are not yet widespread."
"And... does everyone constantly go armed, even in your cities?"
Fuentes grinned, almost chuckling. "Nine out of ten adult Jeffersonians have earned their full Citizenship, and the right to bear arms that goes with it. About half of our Citizens exercise that right in public at any time."
The captain was proving most cooperative, as though these were questions he wanted to answer. As though he were awarding me credit for each one I asked.
Piotr never treated her like that.
Exhilarated, Laurie plunged ahead. "I've been told that sort of thing leads to... problems."
Fuentes' eyes flashed, not with anger, but conviction. "As one of our Founders said, 'An armed society is a polite society.' I must admit there was quite a bit of bloodshed in the first few years, but still less by far than in any one of the societies we left. After a couple of generations, the kinds of people who tended toward crime and violence had been... removed... from our society by responsible Citizens, usually while actually performing some criminal act. Crime is quite rare in the Republic now, and we continue to bear arms to keep it that way."
Fascinated, Laurie pressed on, as the revolver weighed heavily in her hands - heavily, and yet lightly. "Are there... duels, in the Republic?"
Another smile. Laurie was getting to like those. "Not like you have here in Russia," Fuentes said. "Death-dueling is often treated as murder under Republic law, and dueling with firearms is generally looked-down-upon as unsophisticated. Duels are quite rare on our worlds; most that are fought are done with swords, and almost never further than first blood."
"And... have you ever fought a duel, Captain?"
A pained expression crossed Fuentes' face and Laurie cursed herself for her insensitivity, but after a moment, and before she could apologize, he recovered his composure and replied, "No, not formally. ...I did however win the last Third Fleet Fencing Championship, before the War."
Laurie's mind raced and she felt a chill run through her body as a stray thought, hidden away in the dark corners of her mind for months now, began to blossom into a possibility - a plan.
Piotr's family, the Borolevs, were rich, powerful, strong in influence at Court; Laurie's own Simonovs less so. Laurie herself owed her position solely to the Imperatritsa, who had taken a personal interest in her - it was in fact Tatiana who had arranged for her to meet Piotr, and encouraged their courtship. The Imperatritsa was not unaware of how Laurie and Piotr's relationship had deteriorated in recent months, but it was too late to back out now. Both families had too much, politically, riding on the hoped-for union.
But now, Captain Fuentes had opened a window in her mind; a doorway, beckoning her down a twisted and dangerous path - with a rich prize gleaming in the distance.
It is possible.
I could be free of Piotr without dishonoring myself or my family - indeed, placing them in a position to demand reparations of the Borolevs.
But I must use caution. One false step - 'one moment of inattention can have tragic results.'
She turned the weapon over in her hands, running her eyes over the old, old lines, feeling its balance, examining the details. There is less mystery here than the men of Russia would have their women believe. The captain is correct; this is simply a tool, a machine, powerless without human will to operate it.
Do I dare try to make such a tool of Captain Fuentes?
But I may make of him an ally.