Space was space. It had to be. It wasn’t as though every star system, every world, every object floating in the void somehow had its own pocket universe to inhabit. Yes, the relative positions of celestial objects might change, and on some worlds the old and stupid took delight in pointing out that you can see Aquarius or Canis Minor from such and such a world, but all of that was meaningless. Space was space, stars were stars, planets were planets. If you’ve seen one frozen ball of rock or gas giant or titanic sphere of nuclear fusion, you’ve seen them all.
But as Jupiter flew past the starboard observation deck, and continued to fly past for several hours, Varle knew that this star system was different. At Titan he transferred from the dreadnought Sagittarus to a light cruiser for the jump to Mars, and from there…
He caught his face in the translucent reflection of the window and laughed at himself. “The homeward do not speak of Home.” Such a silly superstition! As if saying the planet’s name would somehow doom the ship to disaster! Wherever did such stupid, childish thinking come from?
And yet, he realised some time later, as the defence platforms of Deimos tracked his ship’s final approach, that he had still kept the world carefully out of mind.
Mars was spectacular, a shimmering sphere of sandy yellow, vivid green and iron oxide red. Spider webs of buildings and transport routes branched off of man-made lakes and rehydrated seas. Space elevators tethered to docking platforms allowed vast quantities of equipment and innumerable personnel to transfer to and from the Prime Colony effortlessly. Mighty dreadnoughts, flanked by destroyers, cruisers and non-combatant craft blotted out the sun as they passed, lumbering inexorably toward distant jump points or mooring points. Dozens of warp gates and hundreds of navigation beacons allowed thousands of ancillary craft to go about their business. Tempests, Spartacus and Minotaurs flew in long, lazy patrol circles through the airspace of the Legion Headquarters, turning back anything that somehow failed to heed the warning buoys. A pair of colossal battleships, larger than anything Varle had witnessed before, ensured that the point was well made.
Briefly, he considered visiting Mars. He toyed with the notion of touring the Legion Headquarters, or perhaps the historically-preserved Olympus Mons and its vast industrial landscape. The tour books insisted that Mars contained a hundred and one things that every Imperial citizen should see and do before they die. Yes, he decided, he would do just that when his business on the Home Planet was conducted.
And when he saw her, and all thoughts of Mars were forgotten.
The approach was blocked by a dozen battle fleets, their capital ships and support craft all adorned in the same brilliant white and blood-red decoration. Cruisers, destroyers, missile carriers, fleet carriers, dreadnoughts, super-dreadnoughts, strike cannons and a hundred types of ship Varle could not identify were all arrayed in the formation of the aquila. Shoals of fighter craft soared amongst the larger craft; from training ships to state of the art Lightbringers and Archdragons, the sky was alive with Warden vessels. At the heart of the fleet was an artificial moon, so vast its shadow trapped a hundred square miles of central Pacific in darkness. Varden; the headquarters of the Order. His Order.
The sight of it took Varle’s breath away. He had served the Wardens for nigh on thirty years, but until now he had never come closer to Varden than Alpha Centauri. Its gleaming structure made the mighty fleet craft seem insignificant, as diminutive as attack drones and even less threatening. The sight of it left Varle stunned; it took him a few moments to remember to keep breathing.
The world span as his ship changed course. Nations that were once distant and inconsequential were now sprawled out below him: the Australian Commonwealth; the Asian Alliance; the Holy Russian Empire; New Byzantium; the African Confederation. Somewhere, beyond the turn of the world, lay the wonders of the United States and the United Federation, but he had no eyes for those places now, nor any other place on Earth. Yes, now he could use that ancient name, for now he had seen Europa, and the true glory of the Empire.
The city of Europa stretched from the Mediterranean to the North Sea; from the Kiev Regency to the western coast. Its tallest buildings touched the sky, feeding and feeding from the starships that suckled on their umbilical docks. Recreational parks large enough to be seen from space broke up the world-spanning mass of steel and glass, and in the centre of each such space was a titanic monument of Imperial glory. The continent-spanning city sparkled with the light of billions of craft that wound through its gleaming structures or travelled its pristine roads. It was impossible to take in. As he somehow tore his gaze away, Varle saw his own awe and wonder in the eyes of the seasoned travellers with him. This was the true glory of Earth and the Empire; no living soul could ever become accustomed to its splendour.
A shuttle carried him down to the planet, to the grand Imperial Palace that encompassed much of what had once been Rome. The air was the sweetest he’d ever breathed. The sky the bluest he’d ever seen. Exotic birds sang in the trees that lined the roads and walkways, and Sol warmed the world enough that most of the people worked in open jackets and short-sleeved shirts. All around him the glittering white marble spires of the Imperial Palace rose upward, and every flat surface not adorned with a holodisplay or some artistic fresco bore an Imperial banner.
Four men in Wardens uniforms greeted Varle as he basked, close to tears in awe of his surroundings. Two more approached from another direction, dressed in a similar uniform but with the colours changed; matt black with white decoration. He wore an admiral’s rank pins, and Varle saluted him. “Captain Elim Varle, 1046th Intelligence Division. Praise the Emperor!”
“Praise God,” the admiral replied. He had matt-black hair and a face like a mob boss. “Chuprin, 4th Homeguard Fleet, Holy Russian Empire. Walk with me.”
Varle did as ordered. They proceeded toward a vast cathedral structure punctured by walkways and monorail tracks. The front was dominated by a pair of black granite slabs two hundred feet high. As they drew closer Varle was able to make out names of servicemen carved into the surface.
“You are to report to the Emperor,” Chuprin said. “This is more of a formality than anything; it’s not like his Holiness is going to tell you to piss off back to Draco!”
Chuprin nodded. “It is an arrangement. You see, we Russians are a proud people with a long memory. We remember things that our neighbours forget. This can cause problems sometimes. The Europeans, such as they are, like to think that because the Emperor built his capital on their land that they are somehow better than everyone else. Byzantium’s problem is they don’t remember their founding, or where their territory stops and Russia begins. But Russians don’t forget these things. We were independent of the Direktorium, and we are technically independent of the Empire as well. Almost a thousand years ago the Emperor came up with a solution; he became the head of the Russian Church, and thus our de-facto head of state.”
“You mean Earth isn’t united?”
The admiral laughed. It was a deep belly laugh that seemed entirely improper for their formal, almost holy surroundings. “Earth cannot be united! As long as there are two men still alive on Earth they will disagree as to how to divide it! No, captain, Earth is not united; it is merely as close to united as we can ever hope.”
They stepped into a cylindrical lift and, to Varle’s surprise, descended. Weather forecasts, news feeds and other day to day information cycled unheeded on blue-tinted display screens. As they passed underground, the windows glazed over and displayed an artificial cityscape; a panoramic view of somewhere called Tokyo.
“So you’ve got to tell me, because I’m dying to know; have you ever seen a Biomorph?”
Varle shook his head. “Not directly. I have seen images recovered by our pilots, and I’ve studied a few of their artefacts, but I don’t think anyone has seen one face to face yet.”
“Shame,” Chuprin said, and nothing more.
The underground was less pleasing to the eye; all function, no style. Dull brown walls and dull-grey floors, with the occasional exposed pipe or maintenance box. Chuprin led the way as they wound their way through the facility. Imperial Army staff and the occasional Legionary saluted as they passed. After several minutes they stopped outside of a door that looked no different to any other. Chuprin opened the door for him. “Good to meet you, captain Varle. Do God and the Emperor proud.”
The room was painted army issue beige and decorated solely by a bronzed lectern behind which a pair of Warden officers sat, one male, one female, both lieutenants by their rank pins. Above the central position of the lectern was a spherical green-lensed camera that tilted up to focus on Varle as he entered, and remained fixed on him throughout. A dozen storm troopers in Wardens uniforms stood at attention around the edge of the room.
“State your name for the record,” the female officer said. Varle obeyed. “Captain, you are here because your work in compiling, analysing and studying the data concerning the alien incursions in the Precursor Sectors has been nothing short of exemplary. The Emperor himself has taken note of your talents and wishes you to remain here on Earth. You would take up a senior position in Imperial High Command and be tasked with coordinating an Empire-wide response to this new threat. You will of course be provided a full support staff, though if there is anyone in particular you feel essential to your duties you can request their transfer. The placement also comes with an immediate promotion to station-commodore.”
“Am I being asked, or ordered to take this position?” Varle questioned.
“Asked,” the male lieutenant clarified. “This placement is a request from the Emperor. You are free to reject it if that is what you wish. You have the assurance of the Emperor doing so will not jeopardise your future career prospects.”
Varle’s attention now turned to the mechanical eyeball hanging from the ceiling. “and am I addressing the Emperor directly?”
It was the woman’s turn to speak once more. “He cannot be here in person, but he is watching.”
Before Varle could respond a voice came out of the eyeball’s speakers. It was deep, powerful and oozed authority. It was a voice he had heard many times in recordings and prepared announcements. It was a voice to which he had sworn loyalty all those years ago, as a cadet at Fort Protector. The voice of the Emperor."
“Captain Varle,” the Emperor said through his viewing device. “The Biomorphs represent the greatest peril our Empire has ever known. I believe your talents are put to best use here. If you think otherwise; if you truly believe you are needed elsewhere more urgently, then say so now. I trust your judgement, captain. Tell me where you must be to fight this menace, and I will speed you there with all haste.”
It took some time for Varle to find his voice once again. He felt like an infant stood before his father. Like an unbeliever confronted by God. “I… I honestly don’t know where I should be… Emperor.”
“Then will you indulge me? Take this offered station. Do your duty. If it becomes clear your talents are wasted on Earth, then you need only make this known to me.”
Varle’s head bowed before the camera. “I accept, Emperor. I live only to serve the Empire.”
For a moment, Varle thought he heard a chuckle from the unseen Emperor. “As do I, station-commodore. Go forth and serve my people.”
And with that the camera retracted. The two officers stood up, saluted, and departed via side doors. Varle, somewhat shaken, turned and stepped back out into the hall. Chuprin was waiting.
“I know that look,” he said. “It’s frightening to come face to face with God.”
“Indeed,” Varle replied.
Chuprin smiled at him and offered over an envelope. It was sealed with red wax and stamped with the aquila. “Everything you need; travel passes, address and key card to your new accommodation, new rank insignia, security clearance codes - memorise and destroy those - and a brochure of places to visit. Your new job starts Monday.”
Varle pocketed the envelope, unopened. “What do I do until then, sir?”
“Have a vacation!” Chuprin’s belly laugh echoed off the walls. “Go see some sights! I’d have a long weekend in Moscow if I were you, it’s the finest city in the world, present company excepted. See ancient buildings, enjoy our food and drink. Maybe enjoy our women too, or men if that’s your thing. Maybe you’ll even find religion; we could use more of that around here.”
“I may just do that. Thank you, admiral.”
Chuprin saluted the new station-commodore. “Praise God,” he said, and marched away.
“Praise him indeed,” Varle smiled, and set about trying to find his way back to the surface.