"Stand aside, Captain."
The militia captain outside the door wore the same lightning bolts as the rest of Jongdomba's HQ guard company. They were, as Alicia had surmised, more of a personal bodyguard than a military formation, and she suspected that most of them were probably his employees in civilian life, as well. They certainly seemed to consider themselves much more in the nature of his personal retainers than as members of the planetary armed forces.
Now the captain looked uncertainly at Lieutenant Kuramochi, Alicia, and the additional pair of Marine riflemen behind them.
"Captain Goparma," Kuramochi said, glancing at the name stenciled on his breastplate, "I don't want to see anyone else hurt if it can be avoided, but Brigadier Jongdomba is currently under arrest. I suspect that the courts are going to determine in time that he's somewhat exceeded his authority as the commander of the planetary militia, and I remind you that martial law has been declared in the Emperor's name. That means an imperial court will be doing the deciding … and that at the moment, my authority as Governor Aubert's representative supersedes that of any militia officer. So you can either stand aside, or be removed, however forcibly seems appropriate. Which is it going to be?"
Goparma stared at her a moment longer, then stepped to one side.
"Thank you, Captain," Kuramochi said courteously. Then she nodded her head sideways at Alicia. "I believe, Captain," the lieutenant continued, "that it might be best for all of us if you'd surrender your sidearm to Private DeVries. Just as a precaution, you understand."
The militia officer flushed, his face dark with mingled humiliation, anger, and fear. But he also unbuckled his pistol belt and passed it across to Alicia. She took it and slung it over her left shoulder, trying to look calm and self-possessed, as if things like this happened to her every day. And, she reflected, the captain was luckier than quite a few of his fellow "guardsmen." When Metternich said there'd been a little "breakage," he hadn't been joking. Almost a dozen of Jongdomba's bully boys were dead, and twice that many more were wounded.
"Thank you," Kuramochi repeated, then strode past him and opened the door he'd been guarding.
The basement conference room on the other side was enormous. It was also comfortably and luxuriously furnished, but its sixty or so occupants seemed unappreciative of its amenities. The air was stale, heavy and hot with the failure of the Presidential Mansion's air conditioning plant, and a thin skim of old-fashioned tobacco smoke hovered. The men in the room-there were no women present-were disheveled looking, their faces and body language tense, and their heads jerked up as the door opened.
Lieutenant Kuramochi stood in the doorway for a second or two, then stepped through it and headed directly for a small, wiry man who looked remarkably less dapper and distinguished at the moment than he did in his usual appearances on HD.
"President Shangup," she said courteously, holding out her hand. "I'm Lieutenant Kuramochi Chiyeko, Imperial Marines. Governor Aubert and Major Palacios extend their compliments and have instructed me to escort you to the spaceport."
"I- I see." Shangup gave himself a shake, then took her offered hand. "I'm delighted to see you, Lieutenant. Ah, may I assume you've already met with Brigadier Jongdomba?"
"I'm afraid there was a little misunderstanding there, Mr. President," Kuramochi said. "The Brigadier appeared to be under a misapprehension as to the content of my orders from Major Palacios and the limitations of his own authority. At the moment, I'm afraid he's under arrest. So are most of the members of his headquarters company. I'm afraid most of those not under arrest were killed or wounded in the course of our … misunderstanding. "
"Under arrest?" someone blurted from behind the President. Kuramochi's expression never flickered and her eyes never looked away from Shangup's.
"Does that mean you're in command now, Lieutenant?" the President asked after a moment.
"Effectively, I suppose I am, at least temporarily. I'm afraid I've had to place most of the Brigadier's staff under arrest, as well. And as far as I can determine, Colonel Sharwa never made it to the Mall in the first place. I believe Major Cusherwa is the Brigadier's logical successor under the circumstances, but he's been coordinating the defensive perimeter. I understand he's on his way to the CP to assume command of all militia forces now."
"I see." Shangup blinked, then inhaled deeply.
"To be completely frank, Lieutenant," he said, "I'm very happy-and relieved-to see you. Some of Brigadier Jongdomba's recent decisions have seemed … less than optimal. In fact, I'm afraid he's been less, ah, stable than most of us had believed."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Sir," Kuramochi said. The lieutenant's voice was politely attentive, Alicia noticed, giving no indication that Kuramochi had recognized the militia captain outside the conference room door as the President's jailer. Alicia wondered whether Jongdomba had definitely made up his mind to attempt what amounted to a coup d'etat, or if he'd still been stumbling toward one. Or, for that matter, if he'd been considering the possibility of one even before the present emergency arose.
"May I assume, Mr. President," Kuramochi continued, "that you and these other gentlemen," she nodded pleasantly to the rumpled Delegates, "are, indeed, prepared to accompany my platoon and myself back to the spaceport, where Major Palacios and Governor Aubert will be able to assure the safety and continuity of your government?"
"You may indeed, Lieutenant," the President said firmly.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to walk, Sir," Kuramochi warned him. "Major Palacios considered sending transport to collect you, but we don't have any armored vehicles or air transport, and we know there are enough shoulder-fired SAMs floating around Zhikotse at the moment to rule out the use of air lorries. We'd rather not have you and the Delegates smeared across the pavement somewhere because we failed to spot a SAM in time."
"I think keeping us unsmeared is an outstanding idea, Lieutenant." Shangup surprised Alicia with an amused snort and a broad, toothy grin. "And I've always considered walking an excellent form of exercise," he continued. "At the moment, I find myself quite looking forward to the opportunity to indulge in it with you."
"I'm delighted to hear that, Sir. In that case, if you'll forgive me, I'll go and see about organizing an orderly withdrawal from this position."