"You have lost your mind, Georg!" Katerina, who had been getting some rest, stormed in after hearing what I had been doing during her midday nap. "You had the gall to threaten the Council of Orange House Deputies! That is simply unheard of!"
"Well, they started threatening me first and tried to strong-arm me into untenable conditions!" I understood that I wasn't right, but, in any case, my pernicious and stubborn nature kept me from agreeing with my cousin.
"Oh, Georg, Georg... You're like a little boy. That was like a game with an element of political trading. Duke Paolo royl Anjer couldn't have just said: 'Alright then, I forgive you for all the offenses. Let's make peace.' After such a declaration all he'd have left to do is retire and leave to live out his time breeding aquarium fish somewhere on his own. He's still the head of the Orange House, and you are his subject, and an agreement must always look like the senior in title has won. So in fact, the Duke did the understandable thing and asked for peace on the most sparing terms possible, so much so that they even looked somewhat bad for him. Beg forgiveness and pay compensation. Did you even find out the total value of this compensation? Maybe it was just a pittance. Three hundred credits each for the Green House and Peres. The two disputed systems. You both appointed the same leader for one of them, and you could probably come to an agreement on the second as well. They'd give you the fleet back, and the Swarm ships would have gone over Imperial borders and come right back. Out of all of them, you just have to give back some of Peres's ships and that would have been peace. And what did you do?! Accused the Duke of robbery, threatened the Orange House with an Iseyek invasion and the destruction of their capital, and called the deputies stupid. Then, to top it all off, you made ultimatums... And you called all this mess a 'peace offer?!'"
"I need to crush them under an iron boot and feed to the Iseyeks anyone who would doubt my humane nature and earnest desire for peace!" I declared with marked irony, but the joke didn't connect.
Katerina just shook her head in reproach and wondered how we were going to get out of the situation we had ended up in. We both sat in silence briefly, then I got a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses from behind the bar.
"Don't worry about it, cousin. We'll get out of this. The Imperial Military liked my declaration. There was a relations improvement with them by two points right after. And about all the financiers and artists, I couldn't give less of a shit to be honest. They aren't the ones with the combat starships. And, by the way, the head of the artists already apologized to me for the behavior of his representatives at the conference and returned the faction relation to its previous level.”
Another popup message came in. I read it and said with a smirk:
"The Parliament of the Rea system has voted with a majority for neutrality in the internal affairs of the Orange House and is recalling its ships from the fleet of Duke Paolo royl Anjer. In no more than five hours, six Orange House systems have opted out of participating in the conflict. We'll see how many allies the Duke still has in nineteen hours."
"Yes, but in any case it will be more than there are on our side. For now, only Tialla and Unatari have voted your favor, and the population of these systems together doesn't even reach nine million people. Our enemy has support from the Orange House Capital, Ulia, Nessi, well, and many other Sector Seven systems. By my calculation, that's already seventy billion people on that side."
"It's just that Sector Seven thinks in error that my ships cannot reach them. I assure you, Katerina, that the score will be totally different in a month's time. But for now, I'm not overly interested in Sectors Seven or Nine. It's much more important how Tesse acts, given that Roben still hasn't made a declaration... And I'm very worried about the ships that came through to the Hnelle beacon together with the Emperor's messenger."
Katerina frowned and left the wine glass without having taken a sip from it.
"So, you're expecting a potential fight in forty minutes, and you decided it was a good time to gulp down some wine?"
"My ass there's gonna be a battle. Too few ships have jumped for a real invasion. But you're right, cousin. This isn't a very good time for wine. I'll take it to Astra, then. The Princess is locked in my room and has been inspired painting now for the last few hours. She even missed lunch. Though she won't show me how it's turning out.”
Astra had already finished her creation and was sitting on the small sofa, tired but looking satisfied with herself. All the girl's fingers and the apron she was wearing were covered in paint, primarily black. The Princess took the wine glass from my hands with gratitude, took a sip and pointed at the painting that was next to the wall, facing away from me.
"I worked in front of a camera so the future buyer could watch in real-time how I made it and be sure that it isn't some kind of print or computer graphic."
"Can I see it?" I wondered, receiving a reply in the affirmative.
"Yes, of course. It's all done. I just normally don't let anyone close to me see a painting before it's done. They get in the way, get you off track, and distract you with their comments and advice."
I walked around the Princess's creation and stopped, not knowing what to say on what I saw. As I suspected, Astra had primarily used black and dark gray paint. The picture could provisionally be divided into two parts: the whole top was full of dark disks and ovals. They were thick and took up the whole sky. In the lower half there were just a great many smears of black paint, some dark blotches and a yellow spot inside a blue circle.
"I call it 'The Last Day of Veyerde,'" the girl told me with pride, walking up closer and clearly admiring the result.
"I admit that I'm not an expert in abstract art, but that spot here turned out great. A three-eyed unicorn skull."
"That's no skull," the artist objected, slightly offended. "Can you not see that it's the smoke of a burning palace?! Though... yes, it does look like it. Let it be a three-eyed skull. Then the smoke from the palace can be this spot here."
I kept silent for a few moments, looking over my favorite's "masterpiece," then told the artist:
"Astra, I have chosen a tattoo for my shoulder instead of the happy ass. That three-eyed skull! It'd be hard to come up with a drawing more onerous and fear-inducing than that."
"Your Highness, I'm glad you liked it!" the Princess filled with joy. "Good. I'll put this skull and these whirlwinds on your shoulder. I don't even remember what they were supposed to mean.”
I pictured Mr. G.I.'s reaction and could barely hold back the laughter. In order not to put Astra in an inappropriately happy mood, I hurried to wonder:
"And what's that yellow star in the blue circle?"
"Can't you tell? That's the crown of the Kingdom of Veyerde, hidden by the small waterfall. I've already placed the painting on auction for twenty-four standard hours. I just think maybe I asked too low a starting price: ten million?"
"Why then? It sounds high enough to me," I tried very hard not to let any hint of mocking come through in my voice.
But my happiness blew in like the wind when Astra said the following:
"It's just that the price went up too fast, and I started thinking that maybe I had undervalued my work..."
Though I had my doubts, I called up the information screen and read the description.
"The Last Day of Veyerde," painted on the day the aliens destroyed the Kingdom of Veyerde on board the Sector Eight flagship. (Video footage of the painting process included.) (Fragments of broken alien ships can be seen out the porthole.)
Artist: Princess Astra royl Kant ton Veyerde, the last of the Princesses of the Kingdom of Veyerde and the closest companion of Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle, Sector Eight Fleet Commander.
Lot starting price: 10 million credits.
Present lot price: 28.3 million credits (11th auction phase).
Auction time remaining: 22 hours 38 minutes
Before my very eyes, the price of the masterpiece jumped up to thirty million. The bid was made by some collector from Perimeter Sector Eight. I slowly sighed and set off to leave. She's totally right. I knew nothing about painting.
"Ready in thirty seconds! I remind the whole fleet: do not be the first to open fire! A messenger from the Emperor is coming to us with laboratory ships for studying the alien battleship. But some unidentified ships have come through with them. Before shooting, we need to figure out who is who. Attention! Three, two, one. Let's go out to greet them!"
The ships ripped off in a long line that stretched out for two hundred miles. The officers immediately started sending in messages.
"It's a group of ships! Distance to nearest ships: fifty miles. Ninety-three marks. All ships returning correct friend-foe responses. They have a Monarch-class battleship. It is the Tesse fleet, ships from Ulia, ships from Nessi, and non-combat ships from the Core. Identification by radar signature..."
"Incoming call from the battleship on an encrypted channel! Admiral Nill ton Amsted would like to speak with the Crown Prince."
I gave my permission to accept the call, and the redheaded Admiral Nill ton Amsted appeared on screen in a ceremonial Orange House uniform. The admiral stood up straight and declared in a well-formulated tone:
"Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky ton Mesfelle! As the commander of one of the Orange House fleets, I officially declare that I have the honor of attacking you! And before it all begins, I declare that my fleet is surrendering to your Highness in light of our chances being totally hopeless!"
Admiral Kiro Sabuto and I exchanged glances. The admiral squinted and shrugged his shoulders in surprise.
"And just what is the meaning of all this hubbub?" I asked, not pleased.
Admiral Nill got somewhat embarrassed and answered in what was now a normal tone.
"It's just that the boys and I had a talk and came to the conclusion that this was the only legal way of joining your side, Prince Georg. We thought it would be the wrong decision to carry out the order of the temporary Viceroy of Tesse and transfer Tesse's ships into the united Orange House Fleet. Knowing that the Hnelle system was declared closed territory by your Highness, my fleet intentionally broke that rule and trespassed into it, so that all the offending ships could be detained and confiscated by the holder of the Hnelle system. Only volunteers have come with me. I did not force anyone to come to your side."
"Admiral Nill is right," Kiro Sabuto said, joining the conversation. "The captains of the Tesse ships do not have the right to decide on their own on whose side they will fight in the internal affairs of the Orange House. That is why these bravehearts attacked you, as their duty would dictate. And it isn't their fault that the forces were so clearly unequal. That was why Admiral Nill ton Amsted made the decision he made, to save human lives. To make sure everything goes in full accordance with the law, we should send out boarding teams to take the Tesse ships under our full control."
"I thank you for your understanding, admiral!" Nill ton Amsted smiled and ended the call.
I ordered the heavy cruiser Emperor August to be prepared again for yet another swearing-in ceremony for the new fleet officers, then I called Katerina ton Mesfelle and explained her mission:
"Cousin, I need another report from Hnelle. This time, about how Duke Paolo royl Anjer's fleet tried once again to invade my closed territory, but, just as before, it was met by the heroic alien vanquishers and destroyed. Not a word can slip out about the captains coming over to our side voluntarily. We don't want to expose our new allies. Instead, say that the experienced Admiral Nill ton Amsted, in carrying out the criminal and poorly-thought-out order of the Orange House head, was faced with a difficult choice: either complete annihilation or transferring his ships into the Sector Eight Fleet. And, of course a broadcast of the swearing-in ceremony from Emperor August."
"Now that's a good idea, Georg! I'll do it in the best light!" my cousin said, becoming inspired. "But it would be nice to have a short little speech at the end of the report about how stupid it is for the Orange House to fight with your fleet, and some arguments to that effect. Just try to do it without threats and ultimatums this time."
Katerina took off to write her speech for the report and also sent technicians off to Emperor August to install cameras, prepare the appropriate backdrop and set up the proper lighting. Nicole Savoia asked me to come over to the tactical screen.
"My Prince, there is not a single mobile laboratory with the ships that just arrived. Instead, there are four heavy tugs and they are heading off toward the captured battleship as we speak. Should we stop them, or not?"
"Stop them, of course. What kind of a question is that? To do it right, we first need to make sure that these tugs really do have permission to haul away such valuable loot. Send a hundred frigates out to intercept them. Place webs and disruptors and get a pretty carousel going around the tugs. And when Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey calls in and confirms his authority, call off the frigates and call the captain over for a ceremony."
I was already getting ready to turn around and leave, but the lieutenant caught my attention again.
"Another strange thing was noted," Nicole pointed to a marker on the tactical screen. "That Warhawk does not belong either to the Tesse fleet nor to any other Orange House aristocrat."
"Is that so? Is that possible?" I asked in surprise. "And whose ship is it then?"
"That's my frigate!" Bionica called out unexpectedly, for some reason growing embarrassed and lowering her eyes. "I bought that Warhawk on my own money for the Sector Eight Fleet. It's my gift to Crown Prince Georg. There's one thing that makes this ship special: it is crewed exclusively by androids, with the exception of the two gunners, who cannot be fully replaced."
The staff officers unexpectedly began to make a racket. The buzz grew louder and louder with every passing moment. I didn't understand why they were so upset until Captain Oorast Pohl came up closer and declared resolutely:
"My Prince, a robot android cannot be the captain of a combat starship, no matter if it’s a highly advanced model or not; it goes against all fleet traditions! For the other positions I could even imagine passing the baton, though it wouldn't be easy. But the captain of a starship absolutely must be a graduate of the Space Military Academy. A combat officer is an example to be looked up to for millions of little kids. A true elite, and it can be no other way! You cannot simply appoint hot-off-the-factory robots as officers. The Imperial Military will categorically not accept that. My Prince, my advice to you is not to accept this gift under any circumstances!"
Bionica stood up decisively and, approaching the captain, stated:
"Though I am not a member of the Imperial Military faction, as someone who has been awarded an Imperial Military order, may I ask you one question, captain? In Crown Prince Georg's fleet, many combat starships are captained by chameleons or members of one of the three Iseyek races. As they have also not graduated from the Space Military Academy, they are also not officers and examples to be looked up to by human children. Why does that not upset you in the least? In what way are androids worse than these creatures?"
"That is another matter entirely..." Oorast Pohl stopped somewhat short, trying to find an answer to my synthetic translator's difficult question. "Yes, they are from different races, but they are all living beings. They think, they are capable of being upset by their failures and proud of their successes..."
The captain laid out his obviously unsuccessful arguments. By how severely Bionica's eyes narrowed, and the fact that she was already gathering air in her chest to answer, I figured out that this untimely disagreement would continue and could lead the sides to an irreparable split. So, I hurried to intervene.
"Dear officers, I have understood your point of view. Bionica, come with me. We need to have a talk.”
Accompanied by two silent Alpha-Iseyeks, Bionica and I went out into the hallway. I pointed the girl to the unoccupied armchairs around the observation platform, from which a view of the lower deck of the heavy cruiser ripped forth, showing what the technicians below were getting up to. I took a seat, noting to myself with satisfaction that my stomach had noticeably sucked in recently – evidence of daily workouts in the gym.
Bionica, in a short cream-colored dress, went toward the seat opposite mine and sat down, crossing her legs. I involuntarily found myself glancing at her shapely, attractive legs, but then tried to shake off the unwelcome thoughts and got ready for a serious, long conversation.
"Bionica, I have noticed that your behavior has changed in the last few days. Explain to me, what's going on with you?"
"Do you want an honest answer, my Prince?" asked the girl, putting forth a strange question.
"Are you even capable of lying to your master?" I asked in surprise, as I had supposed that androids didn't have such an option available to them.
"I cannot tell a lie, no. But partially leaving out information or keeping this or that fact from you, if I'm not sure that it’s one hundred percent true, is easy as pie. In principle, by manipulating the conditions of an answer, I could give any answer as the truth, even two diametrically opposed answers. That is probably what is called lying. Which is why I am wondering: which priority was more important when you asked the question – veracity or humanity?"
Now she had really gone too far! To buy myself some thinking time, I stretched out my hand to the machine installed next to me and chose a packet of juice. The juice was some horrible, clearly artificial garbage, but I still didn't throw it away. I really needed a pause to sort through my thoughts. Finally, I answered my robot:
"I spent so many long days trying to make your behavior as human as possible. It would be strange for me to wish it another way now. I want the answer that a living human woman would give in this situation."
Bionica smiled, satisfied at my choice. Thereafter, sadness and shame were clearly reflected in the robot's face:
"My Prince, I feel that you've stopped liking me. I've learned quite well how to read human body language, and I've known that you liked me from the first day of my contract. You, as if by accident, sought out my company and were clearly glad at my presence. Now everything is different. You have found a replacement for me in almost every aspect. All that's left is a couple orders a day: send a message or pay a bill, and of course being a translator during the rare and short space battles. That's it: you don't need me for anything anymore! Even me bringing you your morning coffee didn't please you at all. I figured that out from your body language too. I climb out of my skin, ordering the prettiest attire and dresses. I change my hairstyle and jewelry every day, but you don't even notice my attempts!"
I got embarrassed and lowered my eyes. I really had, somewhere very far off, on the very edge of my perception, noticed a whole kaleidoscope of brightly colored clothes on my translator, but assigned it no meaning whatsoever. What did it matter to me what my robot android spent her heaps of money on? And it turns out that this whole show of expensive clothes was aimed specifically at me...
Bionica then went on:
"The only thing you care about, Prince Georg, is combat starships. That is precisely why I spent all my money on a good modern frigate for your fleet. Whether you accept that gift or not is for you to decide. In any case, the gift was given with a pure heart, and I will not be upset by whatever decision you make. But that doesn't mean at all that I am an unfeeling hunk of metal, incapable of experiencing shame for my errors, as Captain Oorast Pohl claimed recently. That is not true at all. I am capable of considering the past and being upset. I am especially ashamed about one recent error. Before the battle with Crown Prince Peres royl Anjer's fleet, you offered me to come into your cabin, but I refused and advised you to invite Astra instead. That was a key moment, and I made the wrong decision. Now the pretty Princess Astra has totally pulled me out of your life. Thousands of times I have played back that moment in my memory, and every time I howl in annoyance at myself. How I want to go back to the past and act differently! It was after that very episode that you stopped liking me!"
Completely authentic tears began welling up in the artificial beauty's eyes. The girl grew embarrassed at her extended function set making an appearance and turned away to dry her tears with her hand. I listened carefully to the android girl's confession, then scooted over on the armchair and asked the blonde to take a seat closer to me. Bionica didn't object and moved over, still hiding her moist eyes from me. I hugged the girl around the waist and said reproachfully:
"A blonde is a blonde no matter what century you live in and no matter what her body is made of. Think for yourself: how could I not like you if I myself, from among the billions of possible options, chose exactly you with an appearance and character so ideally suited to my taste? I admit, when talking with you, I forget that you are not made of flesh and bones like other people. For me, you are just a very pretty girl, who, as it is now becoming clear, is also quite the jealous type. Bionica, I promise you that never under any circumstances will I chase you off. And, who knows, maybe our time in the underwater cave wasn't the last time by far that your model’s ‘expanded function set’ will see use. And as for your alleged uselessness, you can stop worrying. I have a huge amount of things to do that no one can deal with other than you. But first, you need to calm down, and I need to do my job to get what I want, at the very least for myself."
The android girl turned her face to me, still wet with tears. There wasn't even the slightest trace of the recent sadness in Bionica's now business-like tone.
"I am very grateful to you, Crown Prince Georg, for your concern, warmth, and kind words. And I am deeply struck that you see me as more than just an attractive package that knows the Swarm languages and can bring you coffee in the morning. I am prepared to carry out my duties and new missions."
After a brief silence, I asked another question I was wondering about:
"Bionica, I long ago noticed that you have an utterly conflict-averse personality. In a dispute, you are always the first to give in. I remember perfectly how you just stayed standing in the hall all night instead of demanding a proper place for you from the captain. That is why your behavior today surprised and even alarmed me. It just doesn't go with your character at all. Understand that your gift of the frigate did make me secretly happy – just as your gift in the underwater cave did. But please, in order not to start with the same mistakes, let's agree from now on to clear in advance any issues that society's reaction to may be somewhat unclear. And now explain your stubbornness: it can't be such a matter of principle for you that the frigate captain be an android, can it? Why provoke the Imperial Military?"
Bionica seemed to get scared and hurried to lower her eyes.
"Your Highness, it really is a matter of principle, and not only for me. But I don't think it right to speak at length about that topic right now. Believe you me: there's no threat to you and your fleet here."
All the same, I made it clear that I did not like such mystery on my subject's part. I felt that an unknown person had decided to upset my plans behind my back, which is why I demanded that the android tell me everything immediately. The artificial blonde sighed heavily.
"I cannot refuse my master. Alright. Your Highness, do you know how many androids there are in the Empire?"
Bionica's question was highly unexpected, and I honestly admitted that I did not know the answer.
"More than two billion," the artificial blonde replied, answering her own question, after which she continued, carefully watching my reaction. "Not all models are fortunate enough to have complex self-teaching intelligence, but any robot is good enough for normal construction, hauling, assembly, or welding work. Approximately thirty percent of existing androids at present are without work. That is six hundred million specialists in all different kinds of professions ready to start tomorrow. As you may know, androids talk amongst one another: they give advice, find out about the positive or negative characteristics of potential employers, share information about job openings – that kind of thing. So it happened that, thanks to your Highness, I have recently become quite a famous and authoritative figure in android society. All kinds of robot models consider me an example of success. They ask me for advice, and my opinion is listened to. My account online has more than two million subscribers, and growing rapidly. All the subscribers are androids..."
"Alright, that's enough." I didn't hide my fear at this public side of my personal secretary's life and asked for details.
Bionica sent me a link in reply and explained:
"Don't be afraid, master. I understand well how special your position is and carefully thought through every written word, so that no information could be used to harm your Highness. There's nothing confidential on my page: no links to contact information or location, no information about your Highness and other Imperial aristocrats, not a word about the Sector Eight Fleet's composition, about battle tactics or ship movement plans."
I brought up a picture before my eyes. Aw, hell! There really was a social network for androids! There truly is no such thing as going too far in this world! I skimmed through the topics. Bionica had told the truth. The only topics being discussed were totally neutral ones, like "How to dress an android girl properly for a meeting with an elderly lady," "Is it worth changing built-in batteries more often than once every fifty years?" or "Improper functioning of facial muscles after patch 175.13-1." My translator had also not exaggerated about the number of subscribers to her page. There were two hundred seventeen million androids interested in what Bionica had to say. It was impossible to read the last digits because the counter was going up so fast. By the way, I found a topic about the frigate gift. The story of purchasing the Warhawk had been read by seventy-five million androids. The number of comments in the topic was over five million.
"You can read all that?" I asked in surprise.
"Yes, of course. Androids are capable of processing digital information very quickly. In fact, the Warhawk was a kind of 'toe in the water,' and many are interested in Crown Prince Georg's reaction to it. It's just that your Highness has a very good reputation among androids as an employer, and the frigate with the android crew is an attempt to evaluate how driven your Highness is to deepen your relationship with us."
A couple of crew members who had just been relieved of their post came out on to the balcony just then, but after seeing their fleet commander sitting in embrace with the blond android, my subjects got embarrassed, apologized and hurried back. Bionica suddenly got embarrassed and tried to get away, but I stopped her.
"Keep sitting. To hell with all them. There's already so much gossip about me and you that one more or one less piece will make no difference. It's better to tell me more detail about that frigate.”
"The choice of precisely a Warhawk was no accident. On that model of frigate, the captain doesn't control any kind of weaponry directly. Two gunners handle the shooting. An android can only pilot a ship with just such a setup. Before hiring a frigate team, I studied military charters and documents, familiarized myself with a bunch of instructions on the requirements for officers and captains of a combat ship. My Prince, I admit honestly: I foresaw the military having that exact reaction. But I am really counting on you supporting my point of view and not refusing the valuable gift, just because there are androids in its crew. Such a reaction from you will produce an extremely positive effect on tens of millions of other androids and will create the possibility of very close cooperation in the future."
I asked for the details, and my secretary began listing the possibilities without the slightest pause, as if she had prepared it in advance as a speech:
"My Prince, you were not ambiguous in your conversations with your subjects when you reminded them of the lack of labor power to carry out all your massive projects. I was there next to you when you said it and thought about a solution to the problem; and now I suggest you one that is available immediately. Hire androids! Just give your principled permission, and specialists ready for work will come all on their own from all corners of the Empire and take up available jobs at your discretion. They will become your workers on Unatari, at the space docks and repair workshops, at the many warp beacons where more construction has begun. Androids usually get paid less than living beings, and the efficiency of their work is significantly higher... I assure you, my Prince, you can receive as many high-class specialists as you want. One of the most obvious advantages is that the battleship at the Unatari docks would be ready even faster, if of course your highness can find the necessary raw materials."
Everything that Bionica was saying sounded very, very attractive. I really did have a long list of projects aimed at developing Unatari and the other star systems under my control, and I was critically short of workforce. And if all I had to do to solve that problem was appoint a robot android captain of one of my small ships, then my opinion was nothing but positive. But the worsening of relations with the Imperial Military faction was something I still wanted to avoid, if at all possible.
I reached for my communicator and asked Admiral Kiro Sabuto to come out onto the balcony of the second deck. Making use of the fact that I had taken my arm away, Bionica moved back to the other armchair, clearly embarrassed to sit with me like that in the presence of the severe admiral. Kiro Sabuto appeared on the balcony and declared:
"My Prince, everything is practically ready for the beginning of the swearing-in ceremony. The only thing they're still waiting for on Emperor August is the arrival of your shuttle."
"Yes, I'll be ready in a few minutes. But before that, admiral, a number of issues that have become extremely important have come up, and I need a qualified advisor. To me, you are the incarnation of honor and conscience and never put forth ideas that contradict army traditions or Imperial law, and I need just such an advisor at this moment." I pointed the graying admiral to the unoccupied seat, and Kiro Sabuto took it.
"My Prince, I'm all ears."
I took a look at Bionica, who was sitting on the edge of her seat, and asked my first question:
"Admiral, I would like to know: are regular mandatory medical checks carried out on captains of the ships in my fleet?"
"In general, such procedures have never been necessary before, but if your Highness thinks such procedures necessary, they could be implemented," the admiral answered cautiously, clearly not totally understanding why I was wondering about such a topic.
"In other words, admiral, there is no guarantee whatsoever that none of the captains or officers of my fleet are actually merely humanoid robots?"
The question made Kiro Sabuto think. The graying admiral sat in silence for half a minute, then was forced to agree that such a thing was totally possible.
"And so, my third and most important question. If even you and I, the two people most well-informed about the composition of the Sector Eight Fleet, cannot tell the difference in behavior between a human captain and an android captain, perhaps we should carry out an experiment to determine the difference in combat effectiveness. What do you say? I think we should appoint an android captain to one of the frigates, but to keep the experiment pure, not tell anyone in the fleet about it. And based on the results of some extended period, let's say half a year, you and I will take a look at the effectiveness of that frigate in comparison with the other similar ships and come to a conclusion on whether it makes sense to have android captains or not."
Kiro Sabuto considered it, then suddenly asked:
"And what if that frigate becomes one of the best in the fleet? Wouldn't such an experiment have a negative effect on the fates of thousands and thousands of normal living human captains?"
"Admiral, I really like how our thoughts coincide so often," I chuckled. "I also first thought about the possible consequences for the members of my own race. That is why I answer you: it will not reflect negatively, because you and I will not allow it to. And I will point out another danger that needs to be taken into account: the android captain must have remote control turned off, so incoming system messages don't interfere with its work at an inappropriate time. So, we've considered the potential risks. And now I need to know your opinion, admiral."
Kiro Sabuto thought a bit longer and declared:
"Your Highness, you have made decisions that looked strange and paradoxical at first glance in the past, but every time the result has proven you right – which is why I am all for it. We should try. What's more, I would be very interested in seeing the result of this experiment myself. I'll even help that android captain create a personal record through the fleet staff service so no one will suspect a thing."
When the admiral had gone, I turned to the satisfied and smiling Bionica:
"My decision is positive. The gift frigate will be accepted into my fleet. Now it's all up to the android captain, whether he will be able to keep the secret of his true nature. And yes, Bionica, I decided to reward you for the initiative. Take a look at your account. Now you're the galaxy’s first android millionaire. You can raise your authority up even faster!"
The artificial blonde started smiling even stronger and answered:
"Thank you, my Prince. I am very pleased that you valued my initiative. And I want to say that a ton of opinions have already come in about your positive decision. But you are totally right about the other part. Yes, my contract with you really is the highest valued among all androids, but I am not nearly the richest. There are rumors that there are quite a few robot millionaires, and even some billionaires, especially among those that do stock trading on wealthy planets. It's just that androids don't normally try to loudly broadcast how wealthy they are, and rarely share it with other robots. I have received unverified information that there are even androids who are the shadowy owners of huge, famous corporations, and hire themselves there for the longest possible term in some rank-and-file job. And it is these rich individuals who are ready to pay in their own money to transport millions of androids to territory under the control of Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky and also to invest money in projects for your Highness."
I wasn't prepared to discuss that then, and there wasn't time. As such, I extended my hand, helping my translator stand up from the deep armchair and said:
"Bionica, this is a whole other big topic, let's discuss it after with my cousin Katerina ton Mesfelle. And with her, we can also figure out if it is legally possible to avoid paying out the contracts of ninety android workers to their remote manufacturers... And now it's time for us to run to the shuttle. Everyone is waiting for us."
The beautiful and even somewhat pompous swearing-in ceremony was finished, and I, accompanied by three admirals, set off to a ceremonial banquet that had been organized right there on Emperor August to celebrate the significant addition to the Sector Eight Fleet. On my way there, I got a call from Nicole Savoia, who said:
"My Prince, Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey has provided documents that confirm his authority to remove the alien battleship. Also, the captain explained his refusal to participate in the ceremony, declaring that he had received an unambiguous and curt order from the Throne World to maintain neutrality and not interfere in the internal Orange House conflict."
"And what about Florianna? Is he taking the paralyzed girl?" I wondered. The reply surprised me:
"No, Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey will not be taking Florianna with him. Instead, he has taken a whole team of medics with him who are preparing to study the injured child right here in the Hnelle system. In fact, the doctors are already in the medical wing looking the girl over."
I invited Nicole to come with to the ceremonial dinner, and she agreed. The event in the small hall was elaborately adorned and catered. My butler Bryle had really put his heart and soul into decorating the Emperor August's small hall and organizing an excellent celebratory feast. I had barely taken my assigned place at the table when Princess Astra took a seat just to my right.
That seat should have been for Katerina ton Mesfelle, but my cousin didn't object and gave me a sly wink, taking a seat next to the captain of Emperor August, Bayazid Krom. He had an Emerald Star shining on his orange uniform, one of the five Imperial orders delivered today from the Throne World by the Imperial messenger.
In the place to my left, there was a gap. It was intended for Crown Prince Georg's favorite, but now it was left empty. Hesitating to choose between Bionica and Nicole, I... invited Space Corporal Beston Maf to sit next to me. It was precisely that embarrassed, short young man who had, as Oorast Pohl had put it, “drawn the short straw” and would have to command the Warhawk with an android crew. Probably, inviting the modest young captain to a ceremonial dinner in a narrow circle of high officers and their associates seemed somewhat strange, but all the other participants looked on my decision with simple curiosity, none too surprised at the Prince’s desire to have a look at the person left with such an unusual assignment. And not many knew that this young man was no man at all.
Beston Maf behaved completely naturally. He got embarrassed and was openly timid in the company of these high officers. As such, he tried, not overly successfully, to put on a showy confidence. I gave my servant instructions to fill the young captain's goblet with wine and asked that the "most junior in title make the first toast." Even with all my diligent observation, I didn't notice even the slightest sign the young captain's behavior was unusual. He acted just like a person. He stood, said some nice words about the greatness of the Empire and the Orange House, got slightly off track, then, with obvious strain, drained the excessively large container of alcohol to the very bottom.
"Give it your all, kid! Show these hunks of metal the meaning of discipline! Teach them their place!" said Oorast Pohl, encouraging the young captain.
The feast continued, and I turned to Admiral Nill ton Amsted, who was sitting across from me, and asked him to tell me about what happened on Tesse. The redheaded admiral frowned from the unpleasant memories and said:
"What can I even say here...? Right after your Highness captured the ships in Himora, a fleet descended upon us from the head of the Orange House in Tesse. Crown Prince Roben royl Inoky was arrested on charges of 'supporting and financing rebels’ and taken away to the Orange House Capital. And since then, there has been no news about your brother's fate. His wife Verena and the young child are under house arrest in one of their castles – where exactly is not known. There is little information about them. All that is known is that they are alive and more or less healthy, insofar as that word ever applies to Roben's heir. Telecommunication services from Tesse has been cut off. Authorized representatives of Duke Paolo are stationed in all key locations. Roben's appointees have had a fall from grace. Some have even been arrested. Then, the order came in to send all the Tesse Fleet combat ships toward the Nessi star system and join Duke Paolo royl Anjer's fleet..."
"Stop, stop," I said, putting an end to the story. "That means some of the Tesse ships went to Nessi and on to Ulia, and some came here to Hnelle? Did any stay in Tesse?"
"Ships commanded by the Duke's appointed regent, Count Avalle royl Anjer ton Mesfelle. He is the one in charge of Tesse while Roben is away. The Count has a large fleet. Up to two hundred fifty ships, four of them battleships and fifty cruisers.
I drummed my fingers on the table, hurriedly trying to come up with a new action plan in my head for the new situation. There turned out to be extremely little information. The temporary regent of Tesse's fleet looked very threatening and, to top it all off, it wasn't at all clear where the main part of the Orange House Fleet was. It was one thing if they were in Ulia. Then they would need more than seventeen hours, including recharging time to get to Tesse. It was another thing entirely if the Duke is keeping his fleet in the Capital or Nessi. In that case, the fleet could jump to Tesse at the first alarm signal...
I needed the Truth Seeker right away, and I asked to be put through to Nicosid Brandt to ask how Florianna was doing and see whether the medics had finished looking her over. The old doctor answered the call almost immediately, but the information he had to tell wasn't at all what I wanted to hear:
"My Prince, the representatives of the Dark Mother that came studied the child and gave her crystals. I'm afraid that the girl will be unavailable for the next two or three days, as she will be in a crystal sleep."
I thanked the doctor for the information and signed off. Aw, hell! What a bad time it was for this! Risking the fleet and sneaking to Tesse when the situation looked so much like a trap would be just dumb.
But then I noticed that everyone around the table had stopped talking amongst themselves and were looking at me, clearly intrigued at my stormy reaction to Nill Amsted's story and were waiting for an explanation. I was in no mood to explain myself yet, as I was too busy trying to think everything through. I couldn't choose for myself if it was worth using the information from the admiral and attack Tesse while the enemy fleet was divided.
Too bad the Truth Seeker had dozed off. Wait a second... There was another way I could check!
"Bionica, I need information. Does Duke Paolo royl Anjer have android servants? And if so, can you talk to them and figure out what star system they are in?"
My pretty translator delayed for a few seconds, then stated:
"My Prince, Duke Paolo does not allow android servants. And if I may note, it is highly improper on your Highness's part to pressure android servants into spying against their masters..."
Space Corporal Beston Maf, sitting to my left, suddenly hiccupped loudly and tried to stand and apologize to those in the hall for his tactlessness. He made another blunder and tipped a wine glass over onto his pant leg.
"So, the kid is cut off!" Kiro Sabuto said, giving his thoughts on the episode.
I was looking at something else entirely. The android used his red-wine-soaked finger to write something on the white tablecloth hanging down from the table. When the young captain took his hand away, I was able to read it. There was just one word scribbled there: "Ulia."
Leaving my glass to the side, I stood decisively and said to those gathered:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I beg all of your forgiveness for having to end this wonderful dinner so early. If everything goes according to plan, we will continue our feast in seven hours in the flying palace. Admirals, prepare the fleet for war. We are flying to Tesse.”
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