The Hall of Dedication was a vast dome – one of the single largest structures to rise above the canopy of Sasheron. Through the reinforced glass of the dome shone the brilliant sunlight of a waning spring afternoon; beyond it on one side lay Sasheron’s main military staging facility, the second-largest stretch of developed land on the planet that wasn’t parked over, while on the other side lay some of the dense, red-leafed forest that had earned the world the moniker of “The Ruby of the Empire.”

Within the dome, opposite its arched entrance, between the main floor and the red expanse, a raised plinth was home to a rank of statues, armour alloy in three-times-life scale. There was one silvery statue for each race that had a large enough world in the Empire to muster a battalion of Imperial Guard, and two more: one, more alien than the rest, representing the Diplomatic Corps and, through it, all the Empire’s friends and allies; and another, ambiguously musteline – a hybrid of ermine and otter, if one read one’s history – to stand for all the races that hadn’t yet gained that distinction. Except for the amphibious Shikat in Diplomatic Corps regalia, all wore uniforms of the Imperial Service; and despite the anonymous grey of the metal, they wore Imperial Guard insignia.

Fitting, then, that the evening’s proceedings were to happen as the sun sank into a red sunset, with the red forest in the background.

Each statue stood at attention, holding up a standard. Their banners were of real cloth, each with the emblem of that race’s home, the Diplomatic Corps, or the Exploratory Corps; and they fluttered in the carefully-maintained breeze that swept through the Hall.

The main doors opened wide, and the beat of drums began to sound. Squad after squad of dress-uniformed soldiers marched in through the arch, each bearing pennants for its unit and the larger unit it represented, a dizzying whirl of colours and symbols. Watchers in the gallery stood – servicemen at attention and holding salutes, either in the Imperial fashion or according to their respective traditions; civilians in even more varied poses of respect.

Chief Petty Officer Erik Andrewsson, platoon leader of the 177th Marine company – the “Undaunted Warriors” – aboard the SLA Second Fleet battlecruiser Valorous, tried to tune out the splendour around him, the hundreds of eyes watching here alone, the untold billions who would see a broadcast of the service. He tightened his grip on the company standard, the Warrior beset on all sides, standing firm. Most people on the floor, or yet to enter, had drilled for four months or more; he’d only had full use of his body for half that, thanks to the mess that had won him a Gold Star for Courage, his first Crimson Wreath for major injuries in the line of duty, and first refusal for the honour of standard-bearer.

It had been hard, working back up to the Authority’s standards of physical readiness, and even more of one to reach proper drill form; but to turn down that honour, even for medical reasons, if he hadn’t given his all to work for it would have been an insult to the men and women who hadn’t made it back with him.

It was them, after all, for whom this whole procession was happening – and too many others like them.

Erik wheeled behind the Valorous‘s Marine commander, his paces locked in step with all the other booted feet on the dome floor. They took up their assigned position near the front, turned to face the plinth and the dais beneath it, and continued marking time as others filed in behind them. Early entrants as they were, the two squads from the Valorous stayed marching in place for some time as the dome continued to fill.

Finally, the toll of a gong rose over the pounding feet, followed by an amplified female voice as the duty commander of the Imperial Guard called out, “Company…” The word drew out for some time, giving everyone warning, such that when she finally barked, “Halt!”, there were no mistakes; three more beats, then all boots struck the floor and stayed there.

“Ladies, gentlemen, others,” she went on, “His Imperial Majesty, Clan-Chief and Chief of Chiefs, seventy-third of his name, Emperor Saurok Amir!”

The drums rolled, building into a thunderous rumble, then with a sharp rap, settled into another steady tattoo. Murmurs drifted down from the gallery, and by their progress Erik could gauge that of the Imperial procession, right down the open aisle the assembled soldiers had left in the middle of their ranks. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of red and gold; then, mounting the dais, the Emperor’s elite guard spread their formation, ruby-red body armour trimmed with gold, plasma casters held crossbody, the air around them shimmering with the nimbus of personal shields – even here, they were vigilant.

The rifles were almost redundant. Those were the best-equipped soldiers and most potent psychics in all the Empire, each one a match for hundreds if not thousands of conventional soldiers – and now their charge stepped free of their ranks.

Compared to the military and quasi-military panoply around him, the Emperor was simply dressed: scarlet suit with sapphire trim, the Saurok clan colours, in conservative civilian style; his manner marked him as someone of note, someone long accustomed to authority, but aside from his retinue and the shimmer of his own shield, he would have been easy to mistake for any other well-positioned ermine. He wore the trappings of his rank with practised ease, his gaze sweeping over the assembly with pride as he began to speak in a clear voice.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and those not so easily defined; servicemen, citizens, friends and allies of the Empire; you gathered here today, all seeing this on Sasheron and all who will see it beyond – for over five thousand years, our peoples have had need of those who would stand up and do what must be done in our defence, whatever the cost to themselves. As spring comes again to the Capitol, we take the time today, in a tradition unbroken for more than forty-three hundred years of Empire, to honour their service, and to remember those who paid the highest price.”

He began to stride along the row of statues as he went on, “For a time without open war, this past year has been one of marked strife and pain for those in Our service. For each serviceman on the floor before me, there is one who cannot be here to be acknowledged, and there have not been this many on the floor since the Taravil Uprising thirty-seven years ago.

“This past year, four thousand two hundred and twelve people gave their lives to safeguard the Empire against its enemies. The Bureau of Records has published their names and their last great deeds, as it has since its inception, and I encourage everyone to look over some of those stories, and give thanks; but today We wish to draw special attention to those of special bravery, who saw impossible odds against them and spent all they had on making the impossible happen.”

With those words, Emperor Amir stopped in front of the statue on the clockwise end of the line, a stocky feline woman who carried the flag of Jinsalu, the black flag and silhouette of a spread, clawed hand on red – a jaguar. “Remember Master Chief Petty Officer Zamiss Berdrash, who held the line for two crucial hours during a slaver raid at Damras III. Remember Serviceman Terval Carnasi…”

The grim recitation went on, naming, for each statue in turn along the line, the members of that race whose sacrifice had earned them Gold Stars. The statues had been added to alternating ends; the ermine themselves fell in the middle of the tally, between the two names belonging to no citizens of the Empire at all, and two more who belonged to minor races. The ermine weren’t all that populous, but they had an enduring tradition of service; it was no surprise to anyone in Imperial uniform that their tally, twelve, was as high as that of more numerous races.

A third of the way from the latter end, the tigers were announced, and Erik’s throat tightened at the name of Serviceman Madrin Leshri; then, at length, the Emperor came to the final statue, the fox holding the quartered flag of the Aldwyn Confederacy. There were three names on that list, and the first two – Serviceman Karl Andrewsson and Senior Petty Officer Tanya Ivansdottir – almost broke him, tears clouding his sight.

But he blinked them away and stood strong as the last name was read – Lieutenant Commander Terrell Josefson, slain like so many in the defence of Seth; and while Erik didn’t know the name, he, like pretty much everyone else, had heard of that battle, and held his head a bit higher in quiet salute.

For the sake of those he had lost – his best young recruit, his younger brother, and his lover – for the sake of his comrades who had lost as much, and for the sake of all the Empire, he would not break now, would not mar this moment of recognition.

The Emperor strode back towards the centre of the line. “This was a year of great pain,” he repeated, “but also one of distinction. When dire troubles threatened the safety of the Empire, hundreds of people rose up to bar their way. Two hundred twelve of them gave their lives in times of bleak desperation that would break the wills of most people. It is estimated by Our officials that in so doing, those honorees alone traded their lives for more than thirty-five billion others in direct peril. Taking all in all, Our best estimate is that the four thousand two hundred twelve to die in the last Sasheron year, and the efforts of their brave companions, averted ninety-seven billion other deaths – truly an accomplishment to pride.

“The cost of Our freedom and safety is high. We should all be honoured that so many are willing to pay it.

“Join Us, please, in a minute of silence for Our fallen.”

The Elite, still as statues themselves up to now, snapped into motion; presenting arms, then inverting them – only a careful eye could spot the quick motion of disconnecting power cells and quenching capacitors – muzzles grounded, gauntleted hands folded over stocks. As one, they lowered their heads, relaxing their vigilance – at least partly – for this one moment.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and others,” the Emperor declared, “the fallen defenders of the Empire: Let them never be forgotten.” He lowered his head, hands clasped in front of him.

As the seconds went by, the only sound was that of flags fluttering in the breeze. The Emperor’s timing was exquisite; it was during that silent vigil that the sun sank at last below the horizon, casting dim twilight over the assembly.

“Thank you,” the Emperor said at last. Quietly but crisply, his guards came back to attention, bringing their weapons up and across their bodies once more, while he went on, “Many threats still face Us, and sadly We cannot doubt that new ones will arise. Beyond Our borders and those of Our allies, danger presses in from all sides. Within, for reasons ranging from grief, injustice, or insult; through greed or impatience; to simple uncaring and beyond – there will ever be those who rise up and lash out at their fellows. It may be that this Empire will always have need of those willing to place themselves in harm’s way. But so long as We do, so long as some still rise to that calling, We give those defenders Our solemn vow – should harm befall you on Our behalf, We will keep your legacy alive – We will remember you!”

The drums broke into a sudden flurry of sound, rolling once, twice, then striking and snapping into silence just as sudden. Where the fourth beat would have been, instead a mighty voice spoke outside – a line of twenty-four surface-to-orbit cannons, one for each statue, firing as one, splitting the air and streaking the sky with light.

When the echoes had faded and the sky had fallen dark, the Emperor went on, “Even now, the Empire is beset by conflict. At this very moment, sworn servicemen are struggling for their lives, and for all the efforts of nearby garrisons to come to their aid, some of those lives may be lost. It is a dangerous life they have chosen – but to all those who have so chosen, to those on the front lines and those here and all throughout the Empire who stand up to serve it, oath-sworn or civilian or ally from without, know this: We know you, We respect you, and with Our deepest gratitude We thank you.”

Again the drums; again the guns fired in salute, their pledge rising to the stars.

“Before our races met, before we reached the first distant stars, before the Empire was founded – before all those things, there was fighting. This time of relative peace that we now enjoy was built on a foundation of conflict, and there have been many who sought to topple that peace. Millions of lives have been lost in its defence – and through all that sorrow, Our records have kept the names and deeds of the fallen. We have learned from the hard lessons of the past, and moved beyond the most barbaric excesses of warfare. We have always striven to sell lives dearly if we must at all, and to guard the legacy of those lost, because from the Empire’s founding We have known that each of those lives was one of value and distinction – and We have always been grateful. The Empire remembers its heroes, as it ever has.”

After those last soft words, the drums beat their warning once more; one last time, twenty-four guns sent their solemn pledge roaring skyward.

“You have Our solemn thanks,” the Emperor declared, “for your time today. Peace be upon you, all who witness this.”

A lone horn began to sound a slow, plaintive melody. One by one, in the same order they had entered, the squads turned outward, swept round to the front of the dome, and strode past the dais to receive the Emperor’s salute, marching not with the pounding stride that had brought them in, but the stately pace of a solemn procession; and in turn, they turned down the aisle and marched out of the dome, into the deepening night.