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The Hostile Stars

XXIV. Epilogue

Tlienjpraviashav tumbled through emptiness, the Imperial ship hurtling past him in an instant. A feeling of hatred and loss shook through him. Curses filled his mind and his mouth. Then he wept.

After a long while, he began to look around him. Far away, a single object was bright enough for him to detect on the maximum magnification his helmet could provide. It was moving slowly against the background of the stars.

He took a bearing on it and began to accelerate to match its course. He was a long time in traveling.

A huge spherical bulk of spaceship hung in the viewport of Rhylanor's largest private cabin. Fighters, tiny at this distance, buzzed around the Tigress class battleship like bees around a hive. Below them, dirty gray clouds scudded through the atmosphere of the planet Rhylanor, showing blood red at the terminator line where the planet's dim sun first touched them as they crossed from night to day. It was, Moak thought, a singularly unattractive world from space, even if his ship was its namesake.

He watched as the computer plotted fleet strength and readiness in three dimensions in the air in front of him. He nodded to himself, and then spoke aloud. "Excellent. Oh, computer, re-open the commendations list and add Chief Petty Officer Paul Marak-Enshluggi to the list."

"Affirmative," the computer replied in cold, unemotional tones.

"I see that they've restored the computer's old personality," said Darrell from the doorway, where he was standing.

"Ah, hello, Anton. Yes, they have. The ship was crawling with technicians for a while. They ended up removing the entire computer, as well as the transponder. Now why would they do that?

"Funny thing is, I never would have noticed a computer's personality before...won't you come in for a drink?"

"Thanks. I'm glad you're giving a commendation to Paul. If he hadn't been outside the airlock, I would have died with the rest of them." Anton crossed the floor with an unsteadiness that was not so much a limp as an uncertainty as to how to move one of his legs.

Moak watched him. "How's the prosthetic?"

"Fine," said Anton as he sank into a chair across from Moak's day couch. "How's your shoulder?"

Moak grimaced at the reminder. "Better. I put too much strain on it during the fight, the doctors tell me. Probably won't ever be quite right again." He sipped his drink.

Anton nodded. "I don't have time to have the leg regenerated, so I'll have to make do with this until then."

"I would have thought you had earned some time off."

"It was mine for the asking. But I wanted to go back into action."

"Your Zivije plan was approved?"

"Yes. I'll be taking my own team of commandos there soon. The Zhodani have actually landed units on the surface. Just the kind of work for an old campaigner like me."

Moak handed him a drink in a crystal glass. He put the bottle down on the glass-topped coffee table between them. "Then here's to your success."
"Thanks. And also thank you for speaking to the Admiral."

"Ah, well. I seem to have rather more influence with him these days."

"That so?"

"Yes. In fact, I'm joining the High Command. Strictly as a staff officer, you understand."

"You're leaving Rhylanor?"

"Yes. Anyway, the ship itself is headed for the yards. It's unlikely it will ever be ship-of-the line again. Too much damage."

"Well, then, to our respective new jobs."

They drank. "I enjoyed the concert," said Moak.

"Thank you. That was an old Solomani piece. Who knows how old. Pre-starflight, for sure. By a man named Barber. Seemed appropriate for the occasion, though."

"Very. I'll miss your playing."

"Thank you. It's doubtful I'll have the time to practice where I'm headed."

Anton watched the activity around the battleship outside the viewport for a moment. "How's Commander Luzammi?" he said.

"Recovering very well. I saw her yesterday."

"It's a shame, isn't it." Raini had been in contact too long with Tlienjpraviashav. There was no way of telling what commands he might have implanted in her subconscious, at least not with the techniques available to the Imperials. If they could have used telepathy -

She would be taken care of. The Navy would not let her every want for anything again. But she could not stay in the service.

No one could trust some one whose mind had been probed by a Zhodani Consul himself.

The Subsector Capital was not a world ideal for a honeymoon. A tiny planet whose starport was one of the busiest in the Sector, Rhylanor was home to billions of people ruled by a group of hereditary nobles, many of whom were Imperial Nobles as well. The atmosphere was so thin as to be barely noticeable. The architecture was singularly uninteresting, consisting of huge arcologies - single buildings the size of cities - crowded with people, people everywhere. Lara and Paul were shocked to find that the cheapest hotels rented rooms in shifts.

Despite this, they were happy. They toured the sights together, such as they were. One of the arcologies gave them a tour of the food and air processing plants, the technical details of which bored Lara but interested Paul. They visited the birthplace of Olav I, the Admiral who had led his fleet to the Imperial Capital after the first war with the Zhodani, killed the Empress, and made himself Emperor - starting sixteen years of civil war.

After so long cooped up inside a besieged system, with only intermittent news from the outside world, it seemed to Lara that everything had suddenly changed. The war was going much better, and some experts were saying that the tide had turned. The surrender of the Zhodani fleet here in Rhylanor system was merely the latest of their setbacks. Duke Norris of Regina, who had personally taken over the conduct of the war, was hammering away at the remaining Zhodani positions. Peace seemed likely, if not before the end of the year, than by the next Emperor's Birthday.

For the first time in months, she and Paul could spend all of their free time together, and they relished it. Even the poor food they could afford in the restaurants - mostly a protein mash with a pudding-like consistency - seemed a delicacy. They didn't talk together about their future, though. Like Raini Lusammi, Paul had been discharged from the Navy. He couldn't protest; the memory of how he had been turned into a sleepwalking puppet by the Zhodani was with him all the time.

One night they rented a pair of vacc suits and rode a tram out of the arcology and into one of the few wilderness areas left on the planet. It looked like a mad Zen rock garden dropped from a vast height by a forgetful god. Lichens - Rhylanor's only native life - covered the rocks with a gray slime. They found a flat rock and sat down on it, staring upwards into the purple-black sky. The stars were almost as clear as they would have been from space.

She held his arm and sighed. "So, after the war," she said, picking up a conversation that had fizzled out during dinner, "where will we live?"

"I don't know," said Paul absently. "My homeworld probably doesn't appeal to you -"

"Mora? No. Last thing I want to do is live on another subsector capital."

"Right. And your home system - sorry, dearest, but an asteroid belt? I love space, but I don't want to live in it."

"I don't particularly want to go back to Glisten either."

"It doesn't matter, really. We'll have to make do with wherever the Marines station you. And you don't have any leave time coming soon to go househunting."

She looked at him sideways, slyly. Should she tell him that she was going to have to take a leave in a few months?

She decided not to. After all, the robot doctors in the arcology were supposed to not make mistakes, but it had been known to happen.

"You're right," she said. It really doesn't matter. So long as the war ends soon. I was married in the middle of a battle. I don't want our child to be born during one.

They were quiet for a long time, alone among the vacant beauty of a harsh landscape. Far away and above them, men fought together or died alone among the stars, the very stars that seemed to shine confirmation down upon their love.

Previous: XXIII. Confrontation