Lieutenant Alicia DeVries marched through the cavernous arch in Sligo Palace's inner wall. It was October, and autumn's paintbrush had been busy. The magnificently landscaped grounds of the immense Court of Heroes spread out before her, its autumn-splashed trees and gardens, its fountains and reflecting pools, all arranged to lead the eye inevitably to the Cenotaph at its center. The square, flower bed-defined courtyard around the Cenotaph's plain, polished marble shaft was large enough to parade an entire battalion and paved in oddly mottled-looking stone, not ceramacrete.
There was a reason for that courtyard's odd texture and coloration; every individual block of stone in it was from a different planet or inhabited moon of the Terran Empire.
Alicia still felt odd in the uniform of a Cadre lieutenant, but it was legally hers, even though she had yet to attend the OCS course which went with it, as she marched steadily, slowly down the long, straight pathway leading from the arch to the Cenotaph. That pathway was lined with simple battle steel plaques, each engraved with the names, branches of service, and serial numbers of men and women who had died in the service of the Terran Empire.
It seemed to take forever to reach the Cenotaph, and she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead, focused on the four individuals standing all alone on that plain of stone in the obelisk's shadow. There were others present, of course, seated in the reviewing stand along the southern edge of the Cenotaph courtyard, but there weren't that many. Not physically present, at least.
She crossed the edge of the stone paving, her boot heels sounding suddenly crisp and clear on its surface, and more boots sounded behind her. They hit the stone in perfect unison, their sounds echoes of her own, and she felt them at her back.
There weren't very many of them.
Tannis Cateau was there, finally released from hospital care two days earlier. And so were Erik Andersson, Alec Howard, Jackson Keller, Alexandra Filipov, Digory Beckett, James Krуl, whose hospital stay had ended one day before Tannis', and Karin de Nijs.
Nine men and women, including Alicia. The only survivors of Company C, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade, Imperial Cadre.
They marched steadily across the stone pavement, turned sharply to their left, then wheeled back to their right. Their left heels struck the stone in a single perfectly coordinated instant, and they snapped to attention facing the four men who had awaited them.
The only sounds were the cool October wind in the trees, the sharp popping of the flags atop their poles around the Cenotaph, the splash of water in the fountains at its base, the almost inaudible hum of the HD cameras hovering on their counter-grav floaters, and the distant cry of birds.
"Charlie Company, Third Battalion, reports as ordered, Sir!" Alicia said crisply, and her hand flashed up in salute.
General Dugald Arbatov, the Cadre's commanding general, returned the salute. Then he looked at the man standing beside him.
"Call the role, if you please, Brigadier," he said.
"Yes, Sir!" Sir Arthur Keita replied. Then he raised the old-fashioned, anachronistic clipboard he'd had tucked under his left arm and turned to face the nine men and women standing at attention before him in that space which would have held a battalion.
"Alwyn, Madison!" he said, not even glancing at the neatly printed columns of names on the clipboard he held.
"Present," Alicia replied, her voice firm and clear.
"Present," Andersson responded.
"Present," Tannis Cateau replied.
"Present!" Alec Howard barked.
The names and responses rang out in slow, clear cadence in the quiet, quiet afternoon. Two hundred and seventy-five names Keita called out, and two hundred and seventy-five times the response "Present" answered.
"Yrjц, Rauha!" Keita called the final name.
"Present!" Alicia answered for the last name, as for the first, and her voice was just as firm, just as clear, despite the tears shining in her eyes.
Keita nodded, tucked the clipboard back up under his left arm, turned to face Arbatov, and saluted sharply.
"Charlie Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade, all present and accounted for, Sir!"
"Thank you, Brigadier," Arbatov replied quietly, returning his salute, and turned to the third man present.
The third man wasn't especially tall. He was fair-haired and blue-eyed, on the young side of fifty, and he wore a green-on-green uniform very like the one Alicia wore. But his uniform carried no rank badges or unit insignia, and a simple golden circlet rested on his head.
"Your Majesty," Arbatov said with a deep bow, "I beg to report that Charlie Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade, of your Cadre is all present and accounted for."
"Thank you, General," His Majesty Seamus II, Emperor and Prince Protector of Humanity, replied in a beautifully trained tenor voice, then turned to face Alicia and her eight fellows directly.
"For four centuries," he said, after a moment, "the Imperial Cadre has served Our house and Our empire with a courage and a devotion seldom if ever matched in human history. The Imperial Marine Corps, and the Imperial Fleet, have fought and died with supreme gallantry. We and the Emperors and Empresses who have come before Us have been humbled again and again by the sacrifices of the men and women of the Empire's regular armed forces. We are deeply and humbly cognizant of all they have accomplished, and of the price they have all too often paid in the Empire's service. But it has been Our Cadre which has carried Our personal banner and served as Our personal sword, Our paladins and Our champions.
"In all those four centuries," he continued, and Alicia felt the eyes from the review stand, the cameras beaming the ceremony live to every planet, moon, asteroid, and space station in the Sol System and recording it for every other planet of the Terran Empire, "the Cadre has never failed Our trust. It has not always achieved victory, for even Cadremen are mortal. At times, far more often than We could wish, they have died, but even in defeat, they have died striving for victory. The Cadre has never tarnished its honor, never failed to rise to the challenge of its own standards. It may have been defeated, may have died, but it has never surrendered.
"You and your comrades who are present today only in spirit," he said, looking each of the nine survivors in front of him in the eye, "have upheld not simply the finest traditions, but also the honor and the courage of Our Cadre. By your service, by your sacrifice, by your accomplishments, you have brought to Our house and to Our throne an honor and a devotion which no man, no Emperor, could possibly have demanded. An honor and a devotion which fills Us with pride, with sorrow, and with a gratitude no words, actions, or rewards can ever truly express. We thank you, we thank your comrades who have died in battle, not simply as Emperor, but also in Our own person. We are humbled by what you have done, and we ask you to accept Our profound gratitude and acknowledgment of the debt which We owe to you and can never adequately repay."
He stepped forward, and Alicia DeVries found herself shaking the hand of the most powerful single individual in the history of the human race. It was a strong hand, firm, and he looked directly into her green eyes for a moment before he released her hand and moved down the line to shake Tannis Cateau's.
He shook all of them by the hand, one by one, and then stepped back to his position. He resumed it, and Arbatov cleared his throat and turned to the final man present-the only one in the uniform of the Imperial Marines, and not the Cadre.
"Sergeant Major!" he said.
"The formation is yours."
The Marine stepped forward and faced Alicia and the others.
"Charlie Company, attention to orders!" he snapped, and the cadremen snapped back to rigid attention, staring straight ahead, as he opened an official-looking binder.
"Corporal Tannis Cateau, front and center," he said, and Tannis took one crisp, precise step forward, turned to her right, and marched to the center of the abbreviated line. Then she whipped back to her left, facing him, and snapped back to attention.
"By order of, and on behalf of, His Imperial Majesty Seamus, of his House the seventeenth and of his name the second," the Marine read from the first citation in his binder, "your gallantry and actions far above and beyond the call of duty on July 23, 2952, Standard Reckoning, on the Planet of Fuller, are hereby gratefully recognized.
"On that date and planet, you and your comrades, displaying the utmost determination, devotion to duty, and courage against impossible odds, nevertheless persevered in your mission. Despite the death in battle of ninety-six percent of your total strength, you and the other members of Charlie Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade, Imperial Cadre, continued with your mission, stormed a heavily defended terrorist strongpoint, disabled and destroyed its ground-to-space defenses, and held your position against overwhelming attack until relieved by the Imperial Marines whose assault shuttle landing you had made possible. Although yourself critically wounded, you and your fellows defeated the final, desperate assault of four times your own number of heavily armed, well-equipped terrorists, as a consequence of which five hundred and ninety-three imperial subjects were saved from near certain death. Your actions upheld-and exceeded-the finest traditions of the Imperial Cadre. For your devotion, valor, and sacrifice, His Majesty directs and decrees that you be awarded the Solarian Grand Cross for actions above and beyond the call of duty."
Tannis saluted sharply, and Sir Arthur Keita stepped forward and personally draped the midnight blue ribbon of the Terran Empire's second highest award for valor about her neck. She exchanged salutes with Keita, then turned and marched smartly back into her place in the short, short line of cadremen with the same perfect precision. She resumed her position, and the Marine's eyes moved to the man standing to her immediate right.
"Corporal Erik Andersson, front and center," he said, and Andersson stepped forward in turn.
"By order of, and on behalf of, His Imperial Majesty Seamus," the Marine began again.
Eight times, with minor variations, he repeated the citation. Eight times the dark blue ribbon supporting the glittering gold cross went about a waiting neck. And then he looked up and called one final name.
"Lieutenant Alicia DeVries, front and center."
Alicia stepped forward, marched down the length of the line to face him, and saluted sharply. The Marine returned her salute.
"By order of, and on behalf of, His Imperial Majesty Seamus, of his House the seventeenth and of his name the second," he said, "your gallantry and actions far above and beyond the call of duty on July 23, 2952, Standard Reckoning, on the Planet of Fuller, are hereby gratefully recognized.
"On that date and planet, subsequent to the deaths of every officer and senior noncommissioned officer of your company, you assumed command of Charlie Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Fifth Brigade, Imperial Cadre. Despite the loss of some eighty percent of your company's total numbers immediately upon reaching the planet in an ambush by enemies present in overwhelming strength, you maintained your unit's cohesion and effectiveness. Under the most adverse circumstances possible, you continued against overwhelming odds with the mission your unit had been assigned. In the face of additional heavy and grievous losses, in the full knowledge that you faced insurmountable odds, you and the surviving men and women under your command nonetheless fought your way to your objective in the face of almost continuous attack. Upon reaching that objective, you assaulted a prepared, well dug-in, formidably armed force almost nine times your own strength. Despite the odds against you, and despite further grievous losses, the surviving members of Charlie Company, under your leadership, successfully took the objective, cleared the way for a Marine landing, and held their position against a massive counter attack, fighting hand-to-hand after exhausting their ammunition, until relieved, at which time only five men and women of your entire Company remained in action. By your actions, leadership, courage, skill, and devotion you upheld the highest traditions of the Imperial Cadre and of the Terran Empire and saved the lives of ninety-seven percent of the hostages seized by the terrorists opposed to you. In recognition of your accomplishment, His Majesty directs and decrees that you be awarded the Banner of Terra for actions far above and beyond the call of duty."
There was an audible murmur from the reviewing stand behind them. The Banner of Terra was the Empire's highest decoration. Like the Solarian Grand Cross it could be won only on the field of battle, and, unlike even the SGC, it entitled its wearer to take a salute from any member of the Empire's armed forces, regardless of relative rank, who had not himself earned it. It was almost always awarded posthumously, and in four centuries, less than three hundred men and women had ever received it. In fact, at the moment, there were only two other living recipients in the entire Empire, but the tradition was that it must be awarded by someone else who had earned it, if that was at all possible. And so the Empire had recalled Sergeant Major Sebastian O'Shaughnessy to Old Earth for this ceremony.
Alicia DeVries looked into her grandfather's eyes as he handed his binder of citations to General Arbatov and accepted the blood-red ribbon and the golden starburst radiating from the exquisitely rendered representation of mankind's ancient birth world from Sir Arthur Keita. She bent her head slightly as he draped the ribbon about her neck, and the weight of the medal settled against her collarbone.
For the first time in history, that medal was worn simultaneously by two members of the same family, and the sergeant major straightened it carefully, then stepped back and saluted her sharply.
She returned the salute, then stepped back into her own position, and Arbatov turned to Keita.
"Brigadier, dismiss the formation," he said, and Keita saluted.
"Yes, Sir!" He turned back to face the short line, and all the other members of Charlie Company, standing invisibly at their backs.
"Company," he said sharply, "dismissed!"