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The Long Way Back

By Melody Clark
Page 1 of 51

His name was Ago Taro, but his maquisard called him The Emperor of Dust.

      He had been second-string Federation all his adult life, with alliances in the front office as well as the black market. Yet he was never to have his good name tarnished, never to fall from grace, always able to skip a rank or take another name.

      In the wake of some minor scandal, he was recalled only vaguely by those whose memories had currency to Federation Authority. They recalled him as a cipher, a dour sort who kept his place and always met his quota. Nothing remarkable enough... not even remarkable in his mediocrity... to merit notice. Just one more adequate Federation cog.

      Those on Fate's bad side enough to be placed in his charge, did remember him, but even their dim familiarity spawned only an impotent scorn. He was bland and faceless even in cruelty. If someone had taken a survey from the Refederation powers, of the most likely Taro candidates from among the Space Commanders (and it was known - or half-suspected - that Taro once had been one), this man's name would never have been mentioned. There was nothing in him to inspire greatness, of whatever sort, nothing to augur a leader of men.

      It had happened with Star One.

      When Star One fell, to let the cold insouciance of the galaxy inside, most had fled in mindless terror. The empowered and the small: the pure majesty of this omen fell on them like a super-nova to a blind man's eyes.

      But Taro had known it as a signal, a message from his one true sovereign, that force onto which his computer terminal had stumbled one bland, mid-Equinox morning: that system of insoluble Truth he had known immediately was the one true god. It became his ally, it became his friend. It asked him questions, it gave him answers.

      And when the Star fell, the voice of his ancient god spoke to him, amid the peril of disillusionment, instructing him to take up arms against those who had bequeathed him only their despair, who had built him a whole, pure vision, then disabled it. He had lived among them, eaten bread off their laden tables, laughed at their sad attempts at humour, but he had never let them touch him, because he knew they lived in lies. They had not kept the faith. He had refused to love them.

      God had reached down his mighty hand and destroyed Star One, for his sake.

      And it was up to Ago Taro to take this music of chaos and spin it into the whole, pure vision - the mighty kingdom of God. He would enforce its walls against the divisive mind of Natas. His god would tell him what was Right, indisputably Right, the doctrine that could not be disputed by the masses nor denied by the dark voice of Natas whispering in his mind. Together, he and the True God would spread their bounty across the limitless stars.

      And then would come their true campaign - One worthy of His Greatness. To wait for the one who could awaken Natas, who could stir that once-dark dragon from its dreamless sleep. Then they would follow its coward's flight into the void. And then could Taro's maquisard storm the doors of Natas' star and strike the dragon down once and for all.

      But first his God was in need of soldiers to his Cause.

      His hand was moved in the selections. They would take of the incorrigibles among the old Federation guard, those without education to inspire intellect, those who had murdered and plundered. They would take of the unrepentant crimos, likewise. Through subtle retraining and the stimulation of their half-formed consciences into a usable guilt, hewn of the regret hiding in the reaches of all men's souls, they would marshal it, nurture it. Then give it absolution. Give their guilt oblivion in the blessed surrender of autonomy. To such men haunted with regret, giving up their own minds would be a sacrament. Guilt was the bridge: with it, he could storm their souls.

      And just as the One True God commanded, it was so. Taro had his maquisard. A fighting force unparalleled.

      It started slowly. First a little border world, then another, larger one, usually with a spare population of the very young and the very old, the fighting age having been conscripted to colonial industry. Soon, they had brutalized and ransomed their way into minority status in the Borderworld Quorum.

      Slowly, the indigenous lost ground. The homeworld sovereigns were put to death. Taro took control. Thereupon, he issued his first ultimatum to the Terran-based Refederation. This had been the week of the celebration, marking four years since the opening of the Terran domes, the day before Councillor Avon - the President's closest advisor - tried to take his own life, or so the current verdict would allow.

      With it all, Taro's dispatch was met with silence.

      Two time units later, Taro claimed Artemis, then the neighbouring Arcturus and its outpost moon Arcadia. On the seventh day, they claimed Destiny.

      The loss of Destiny had been enough - an old Refederation (or more to the point, Roj Blake) ally. It transformed the Refederation response from silence into cautious apprehension, and their intelligence had Taro plotting the downfall of Alpha Fatima, the Refederation's first and strongest ally.

      Vendarian was sent there - in the wake of the Avon Problem - to counsel Taro into surrender.

      When Steavn Change took power - a weakened and embattled power, but power regardless - he dispatched a Stellar Intellpost to Vendarian on Alpha Fatima.

      It instructed Ambassador Vendarian to issue their own ultimatum to Taro: that Taro was to immediately surrender the captured homeworld governments to their own leaders. And if he did not tacitly accept all conditions as set forth in the mandate, the Refederation would send the full measure of its armament against him, seize his cretin maquisard, his fleet of bastardized Galaticrafts, and consign him to some borderworld wasteland for the rest of his lamentable life.

      In receipt of the Intellpost, Vendarian summoned Change over the viscom.

      "But don't you think the wording far too inflammatory, Steavn?" Vendarian fought for reason, the image of him on the vis-screen unaccountably old and pale.

      "I am tired of impudent troublemakers making me lose sleep!" Change replied. "Issue that ultimatum, Ven, as it is worded. Make no revisions. Give no ground. Tell that smug, self-deluded little bastard to stop this circus insurgence of his or I will personally mount the offensive."

      "Steavn, listen to reason. That creature is insane. You don't know. You've never seen. Handing him this tract is the same as aiming a neutron blaster at my skull and pulling the trigger!"

      "For once in your politically correct life, Ven, consider something besides your neck, will you? That is all."

      "But if you will only-"

      "I will do nothing!" Change roared back. "That is all, Ven." With that, Change released the signal relay and the face of Vendarian scattered into a blank space of undetected wave.

      The next time unit, Taro relayed a message through the renegade sub-standard frequency. It indicated that Taro's official response to their official ultimatum had been encoded for automatic Terran return at 1200 hours.

      At 1200 hours, a High Council-assigned, L-type cruiser floated mechanically into landing position. It did not respond to clearance transmissions, it simply kept to flight plan and made a mathematically precise landing.

      Change met the cruiser at the portwalk, as an air car towed it in for his inspection. Two Service aides stepped forward to carefully extract the cruiser's only cargo: a body bag. Steavn watched through a veil of fingers as the aides opened it.

      The Medtech's consensus was that Vendarian had been dead for thirty-six hours, not having much survived the issuance of Change's ultimatum. The Intell-text of it had been spiked to the dead man's chest, then drawn over with a series of six parallel lines: lines one, three, four and five, unbroken, lines two and six were broken. Some sort of primitive binary code.

      Change merely stood there for the longest time, staring down at the pattern that the lines formed, as if he might perceive a meaning there. But no matter how his soul sought answers in it, his brain found only a meaningless sequence of parallel lines.

      "What in hell have you done?" Change whispered softly, reaching down to rip the tract from Vendarian's body. He glanced one last time at the pale face staring back at him with the accusation of death. "Fasten it up again," he told one aide, handing the tract over to the other. "Go to the Index and find out what the hell that is and what the bloody hell it means."

      It was called Ko.

      The Forty-Ninth Hexagram, of an ancient tool of divination called the I Ching. It was the trigram earth moving over the trigram fire - a volcano of change seething under the crust. And when the hexagram was formed by the Yarrow, it presaged the coming of revolution.

      The day after, Alpha Fatima's Homeworld Parliament - newly enjoying a native peace after a long civil war - were made prisoners of war by Taro's maquisard. The universe's last civilization of adult Auronar were now slaves.

      Noi Tan of the High Council, himself Auronar and, to make matters all the worse for Change, another damnable friend and ally to Roj Blake, gripped Steavn's hand around the merographic polyscribe and signed Change's name to the Intellpost, this one sent out over general frequency, this one addressed to Sen Leusip. Asking him to make contact - to discuss certain issues of mutual interest.


      And then there was war.


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Melody Clark

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