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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Baen, 2002
Series: Heritage Universe: Book 5
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
Space Opera
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Hans Rebka, interstellar trouble-shooter, had solved the mystery of the gigantic Artefacts built by a race that vanished millions of years ago, and at the same time had defeated the warlike Zardalu, onetime tyrannical rulers of the galaxy. But that was only a warm-up for the main event. In one arm of the galaxy, something is destroying whole stellar systems. Investigating the wave of stellar destruction, Rebka and his motley crew of humans and aliens discover a battle beginning that may determine the ultimate fate of the galaxy itself. Rebka and company must act quickly. Unfortunately, they are trapped on a planet directly in the path of destruction...



On Candela, in the Phemus Circle.

As a last meal it left a lot to be desired.

Hans Rebka stared down at the mess on his plate, then up at the guard.

"Kolker, what's this supposed to be?"

Rebka was naked. He was shackled at the ankles and his hands could move only far enough from the iron chair's arms to allow him to eat. Even so, the guard took a step back at the prisoner's scowl.

"Isn't it what you asked for, Captain?"

"I requested as my last meal the best that the planet could provide. Take a look at that plate. I've seen more inviting pig shit. Smell it for yourself, and tell me what happened."

"Wait a minute. I'll try to find out." Kolker did not take up the offer to smell the plate of food. That would have brought him within reach of Rebka's hands. He took another step back, close to the room's bare stone wall, and his lips moved. Through his implant he was in contact with more senior officials. After a few seconds he nodded.

"Captain, that meal was provided on instructions from Minister Schramm. Apparently it is the best that the planet can provide. But not this planet. It is the best that can be had on your home world, Teufel." The guard hesitated. He knew that every word and gesture was being recorded. "The minister thought that you would appreciate a little joke."

"Did he?" Hans Rebka picked up the spoon. It was, like the plate and little tray that it sat on, made of a thin and flexible plastic that no amount of treatment or hardening could turn into a weapon. "I must be losing my sense of humor. But the terrible thing, Kolker, is that he's right. I've been away from Teufel so long, I'm spoiled. Do you know what they say about Teufel?"

"Yes. I have heard it many times."

"Then I won't bother to repeat it." Rebka dipped the tip of the spoon tentatively into the black goo on his plate. He tasted it, grimaced, and laid down the spoon. "Once I'd have gobbled this up and gone back for seconds. The minister knows what's what in the worlds of the Phemus Circle. This is as good as it gets on Teufel."

"Are you going to eat it?" In the weeks that Rebka had been in captivity, a peculiar relationship had developed between guard and captive. Rebka had done his best to become friendly, and he was good at that. But Guardsman Kolker, who suspected--rightly--that given half a chance Hans Rebka would kill him and try to escape, had remained respectful but aloof.

"I told you," Rebka went on. "I've become picky these past few years. I'd rather die hungry than eat that." Hands chained together, he waved the plate away. "It's all yours. Do what you like with it."

The guard approached warily and snatched the tray out of Rebka's reach. "I can't bring you anything else, you know."

"I understand. And you can't share your food with me, either, right? Don't feel bad. I've been hungry before. And people waiting to be executed are not expected to enjoy their final night."

Kolker nodded and retreated to the metal door. He pushed the tray through a narrow horizontal opening at waist height, then stood motionless. He seemed to be listening. At last he nodded, turned to Hans Rebka, and said, "Minister Schramm asks if you have any last request."

"Certainly. Tell the minister that I would like to be allowed to write my memoirs."

The guard frowned. Finally he said, "You are joking, are you not? Excuse me, Captain Rebka, but I do not think it would be a good idea for me to transmit that message."

"Very wise of you. It's my impression that Minister Schramm only like little jokes that come from him." Rebka glanced around the bare, dimly lit and windowless cell. "So. What now, Kolker my friend? Dinner is over and death is twelve hours away. We have the whole night ahead."

"I am to remain here with you. If you would like to talk, or if--"

The rest of Kolker's words were cut off by a metallic rattling at the door of the cell. The guard spun around, pulling his weapon from its holster. He stood poised to fire as the door swung open.

The four men who entered were equally wary. They wore guards' uniforms, and all held drawn guns.

"Stay right where you are, all of you." Kolker, part of his attention still on Hans Rebka, backed up against the stone wall. "I have absolute orders to admit no one. If you do not leave this room at once, I must shoot."

"You got orders? Well, so do we." The biggest of the newcomers held an envelope out to Kolker. "I'm Colonel Toll. Check with Guard Central if you don't believe me." Toll stared at Rebka. "He's the one who caused all the trouble? He sure don't look up to it. Anyway, we've come for him."

"For Captain Rebka? I cannot allow that. I have orders from Staff Advisor Lanski to remain here with the captain until morning, when he will be taken away for execution."

"And we have orders from Minister Schramm to take Rebka away with us. Do I need to tell you who's higher in the line of authority?"

"I was warned that there might be some kind of rescue attempt. If I do not obey my orders--"

Kolker was interrupted by a laugh of disbelief from Rebka and by an impatient, "Read the bleeding papers, mister. We don't have all night," from Colonel Toll.

"They seem to contain the right authorization." Kolker was trying at the same time to scan the document he was holding, keep one eye on Hans Rebka, and train his weapon on the quartet of guards standing in the doorway. "But this makes no sense at all. The prisoner is scheduled for execution at dawn, on the basement level of the building where we are now. This instructs you to take him to 132-B. That's above surface."

"More than just above surface. 132-B is Minister Schramm's suite, up at rooftop level." Colonel Toll waved his gun at Rebka. "Can you walk?"

"Try me."

"Right. Get him out of those shackles, Guardsman Kolker. We'll take over from here. Anything that happens to him after he leaves this cell will be my problem, not yours."

* * *

Down in the basement cell there was no day-night change of lighting. Hans Rebka had been chained in near-darkness for more than three weeks. The elevators were almost as dimly lit as his cell, and sudden emergence into the brilliance of evening sunlight of Candela made him flinch and throw up his forearm to protect his eyes.

A familiar and outraged voice said, "He is naked! How dare you bring a prisoner naked into my quarters?"

Rebka lowered his arm and blinked away tears. His eyes could see only fuzzy outlines in the large, windowed room, but the voice told him that the figure a few paces away was Minister Schramm.

"I'm sorry, Minister." That was Colonel Toll. "I was ordered to bring him here at once. No one mentioned clothing."

"Did no one also tell you to use your common sense? Find clothes for him at once--or give him your own."

"Don't worry on my account, Minister." Hans was beginning to see more clearly. "Once I'm executed I doubt if I'll care what I'm wearing."

"You will not be executed." Another figure standing behind Schramm swam into focus. "Is that not correct, Minister?"

"It is correct."

Schramm was a tall, fleshy man in a style of dress that for the impoverished worlds of the Phemus Circle represented extreme opulence. He spoke without enthusiasm, but Rebka paid him little attention. The man at Schramm's side held his eye. He wore the shimmering white suit with gold epaulets and light-blue trim of an inter-clade Ethical Councilor. If any such councilor had ever before made a visit to Candela, or any other world of the Phemus Circle other than Dobelle, that was news to Hans.

"Though I should point out," went on Schramm, "that the execution of this prisoner is more than justified. He attempted to bring down the authorized government of the Phemus Circle--"

"I am aware of the charges against him." The councilor stepped forward, placing himself squarely between Rebka and the minister. "Don't push your luck, Minister Schramm. There are those of the Council who believe that such a change to the Phemus Circle is long overdue. However, that is not my business today. Captain Hans Rebka?"


"I am Inter-clade Councilor Jeremiah Frole. I am here to inform you that you are needed on Miranda, and that you will leave with me."

"As simple as that?" Rebka waved a hand toward Schramm. "With no objection from your friend the minister?"

"I provided the necessary... explanation." Jeremiah Frole nodded toward a wall screen. Hans Rebka glanced across at it for the first time and realized that it showed a view of Candela as seen from space. The whole planet wore a circlet of bright points of light.

"Armed ships," the councilor went on. "Two hundred of them. We had a previous unfortunate experience with the Phemus Circle. We sent for one of their political prisoners, rather than coming to collect her in person. She suffered, we were told, a fatal accident before she could leave the surface of Candela. We did not want that to happen again. We brought forces designed to discourage such a possibility."

Schramm said, "Councilor, the previous case was no more than a regrettable--"

"Just so, Minister. I feel sure that nothing similar will happen this time." Jeremiah Frole turned to Rebka. "Captain, how soon can you be ready to leave after you have clothing?"

"Forget the clothes. I'm ready to go right now."

"Don't you have possessions that you want to take with you?"

"Not one thing. Since we're leaving, I guess I can do without this, too." Rebka had been standing with his fists clenched. Now he opened his right hand palm upward, turned it over, and allowed a gram or so of blackish powder to fall to the floor. While the others stared, he said, "Pepper. The best I could manage. Took me nearly three weeks, saving it from my food."

"What did you plan to do with it?"

"Whatever I could. At the very least, I'd give somebody a faceful. I wouldn't go down without a fight." Rebka turned to face Schramm. "I can't say I'm sorry to be leaving--but don't worry, I'll be back."

"If you have any thoughts of starting up another rebellion against the Phemus Circle government--"

"Of course I don't. At least, not as my top priority. I'll want to settle a few personal scores first with the people who sentenced me to death and locked me away. From now on you'd better watch your back, Minister. Every minute of every day."

Rebka turned away without waiting for Schramm's reaction, but Jeremiah Frole saw the instinctive movement of hand toward belt.

He shook his head. "Not this time, Minister, or you may not care for the result. We'll be clear of Candela orbit and make our first Bose transition in half a day. After that you can do as you like--but it won't be to this prisoner."

He followed Hans Rebka out of the room. As they moved along the corridor he noticed for the first time the condition of the naked man's legs and bony back.

"You were tortured!"

"I was?" Rebka turned his head and saw what the councilor was staring at. "Oh, you mean the sores. That wasn't torture."

"Then what was it?"

"Just what you expect when you have no clothes on, and they chain you to sit in an iron chair for a few weeks."

"They did that to you? That is torture."

"Not by Phemus Circle standards it isn't. I've slept in worse beds. But don't get the wrong idea, Councilor, I'm really happy that you came along when you did. I was beginning to wonder just how I was going to make it out of there. Gratitude doesn't begin to express it."

They had reached ground level and begun walking to a waiting car. They passed half a dozen men and women, but only Jeremiah Frole seemed concerned about Hans Rebka's nakedness.

"We will provide you with clothing as soon as we are on board the ship," he said. At the car he hesitated. "Your file describes you as a problem solver and troubleshooter. I hope that remains true."

"Why? Seems to me you just got me out of trouble."

"Perhaps. I notice that you have not asked why I came here to take you to Miranda. That is just as well. For if you were to ask, I am not at liberty to tell you."

The councilor held open the car door for Rebka. "However, when you do learn the reason why you are being removed from Candela, I hope that your feeling toward me and the Council will still be one of gratitude."

Copyright © 2002 by Charles Sheffield


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