Chapter 25

“You’re certain it’s him?” Emperor Beniti said for the third time. “If he returns, having single-handedly captured the Orion government’s newest battleships, his popularity will go through the roof. There will be no stopping him. And I didn’t sell half my estates to buy the Baron’s council vote, just to lose the emperorship to a stiff, shoulder-boarded military man like Pearson! He knows nothing of politics. If he did, he would have made securing the throne his first and only priority.”

Beniti was a rotund man with dimples that made it hard to take him seriously at times, because he always appeared to be slightly smiling. But many great figures had met their political demise because they had underestimated him.

“Pearson can be quite persuasive, when he wants to be,” his military advisor was quick to point out.

“What is the worst case scenario?” Beniti asked. “Does he have the charisma to pull all of Home Fleet to his side?”

“I don’t think so, your eminence. Your fleet will back you,” he said. “But if the Orion nation backs him, it could give him a significant fleet element to challenge us. As you know, we are not yet fully back to pre-invasion strength.”

“Yes, yes, I understand that. You’re always trolling for more money to buy more ships.” Beniti fixed the man with a challenging stare. His military advisor had his own prissy faults, but he could be a good negotiator, on top of possessing a great military mind. Beniti briefly considered whether buying Pearson off would work. Probably not, if he had any of the stalwart honor of navy personnel.

“What I need is leverage against this man. Something that will keep him off balance, no matter how he whines about being named an emperor candidate—and make no mistake, that is all he was! He is the only living man left that can seriously challenge me.”

Beniti thought about the problem a bit more, but couldn’t really come up with anything better than what he already had. Of course, he could threaten Scott’s family, but he needed something even more cunning. Beniti had come too far to let anything get in his way now.

And then it came to him. Military men fought at the will of the government to keep the borders safe. But they also formed ties with others like themselves--band of brothers and all that. Beniti just had to find former navy personnel and threaten them, or better yet, use them as hostages.

* * *

As Adamantine dropped out of hyperspace in Alpha Centauri, along with a handful of Orion escort ships, the CIC plot came alive with scores of ships blocking the path to the Earth side of the system. Scott knew that they had been steadily picking up what amounted to a Terran fleet escort as they continued toward the capital. He was sure that whoever had enthroned himself as emperor knew he was here.

Their Orion screen provided minor protection from the steadily growing Terran escort, but Scott knew it sent a message as well. It painted him as a traitor to the crown, having made alliances with the Orions in the battle to drive out the Valdi.

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