Since there's an awful lot of noise and screaming coming from outside, and since nobody seems to have noticed him yet, Lombar decides to lie low for a bit, and turns some dials and knobs on the tank's controls. This lets him fly into an "icy rage" after seeing Hightee Heller's transmission, but then he realizes he needs to know how others are reacting to it. Now, his tank has a padded interior, and lots of room to spare, but nobody thought to put a proper code-breaking radio in the thing, so Lombar is forced to listen in on the Army's lower-echelon chatter instead of the general staff.
He had one: the nasal twang of a typical field grade Army officer! "…But I just heard from the General Staff, Jowper. I don't think they know tup from turds!
Whoa, Charlee Nine, watch the language!
They're all confused. They say it doesn't matter if somebody stored some powder in Spiteos: the situation is political. The center of government is Palace City and as long as that's intact, we're neutral... Yeah, I know, Jowper. But you just hold your regiment in check…"
It doesn't matter whether the government is actually governing, or whether the head of an agency whose criminal activities have sparked an empire-wide revolt has crowned himself Emperor. Unless the capital itself has been wiped off the map (by means other than a black hole timeshift, anyway) there's no reason to get involved. It's just a few million civilian deaths and the collapse of society, nothing worth making a decision in such confused circumstances.
Elation soared through Hisst.
He punched some buttons, spinning through the digitals of Fleet echelon bands.
A voice sprang up, the shrill accent of a space officer: "Well, I know how you feel at squadron. I'd like to jump in and help the rebels myself, but as long as Palace City holds, the Fleet admirals think we'd be classed as rebels if we pitched in.
By who?! The emperor has been too infirm to rule for months, and more importantly has been kidnapped! The spymaster has seized power, but cannot control the empire! There is no government right now!
But the author, and therefore every character in the book, has seized upon the notion that a city's designation as a nation's capital matters more than its ability to function as the seat of a government, that a physical location is more important than the people who make decisions in it. Plus Hubbard really needs the plot to head in a certain direction, so Heller can make history and be awesome and so forth.
Nobody has ever made a dent in Palace City and the Lord of Fleet is there, so you just hold your squadron where it is and hands off. And that's final. End."
Hisst let out a sharp breath. The Army and Fleet were still neutral. The rebels were only succeeding in stirring up the civilian population, and to Hells with the riffraff.
So now we know why the Hellers are trying to further erode the Apparatus' image: they want to get the Fleet and Army off their asses and fighting. And the best way they came up with to do that was to spill a bunch of powder on the sand and say "see? They're obviously trying to use this stuff to poison everybody and take over the world!"
Trying to think back - when did Heller first return to Voltar? Sometime in the middle of Disaster, right? That's when he made contact with some Fleet buddies to resupply his ship, seized all the incriminating evidence from Gris' office, and kidnap-rescued the Emperor. And then he went back to Earth to make everything better, while Madison was contaminating Voltar with PR and Teenie was turning highborn Voltar boys gay. Heller returned to rescue his sister, and left a note promising vengeance against Lombar Hisst, and then ran off again while Madison decided that exposing Gris' crimes to the press would make Heller more famous. And once the Gris trial revealed all of the Apparatus' plots and crimes using the evidence Heller confiscated, then Hightee made her big accusation, which had no effect because the riffraff were already rioting and the Fleet and Army continued to sit on their thumbs.
My point is, maybe Heller could've talked to the Fleet commanders rather than the guys hanging around the Fleet surplus depot? Maybe the evidence he gave his buddies, proving just how corrupt and dangerous the Apparatus was, would've been better used to show the other branches of Voltar's government what the intelligence agency was up to, rather than further inflaming public opinion by being revealed at Gris' trial? Maybe those five, six freighters full of Apparatus defectors could've provided star witnesses rather than superfluous ground crews to a rebel planet?
Heller's stupidity killed millions of his own people. If he had been smart, if he had communicated rather than being a dashing rogue with a flippant response for any question, the collapse of Voltar's society could've been avoided, and the Apparatus coup could've been crushed while it was still floundering against Mortiiy's forces on Calabar.
Enough about our hero, let's focus on our villain, though if you're going by body count the two can be hard to tell apart. Lombar takes a pinch of emergency cocaine, "felt his psychic powers rise," and makes a phone call to General Muk.
"Lombar? I mean, Your Majesty?" said General Muk. "I see they've spilled the whole reserve of drugs. What are we going to do? Do you want this invasion fleet to take off at once and tend to getting more?"
Wait, why do they even need the drugs anymore? They weren't using them to pacify the riffraff, and Lombar already crowned himself Emperor, so why does he need the Grand Council?
"That would take three months there and back," said Lombar. "Listen to this plan. Relay it to your units and follow it exactly. I am certain that these rebels are going to attack Palace City next. It's impregnable. Wait until the rebels have surrounded it. Then scramble your entire invasion force, wipe them out of the sky and hit them in the rear.
Oh, right, there's an Apparatus invasion force just sitting around, watching their headquarters get utterly spanked.
With your three thousand ships
"I know how many ships I have command of, sir."
and two and a half million men, you can't miss."
"I know how many men I have too, sir. It's almost like you're awkwardly repeating information we both already know so that an observer could hear it."
Since the Army and Fleet are useless and the Domestic Police have collapsed, the Apparatus invasion fleet will take out the rebels, then "slaughter dissident elements in the streets" until they bring the burning empire back under control, and then go to Earth, and months later return with the drugs they need to... well, you can't rule an empire without drugs, okay? Maybe some good old heroin will make the Lords forget about the whole "poisoned the emperor" and "usurped power" and "criminal agency slaughtering its own people" thing. And once you have the Lords, the riffraff will fall in, right?
Muk thinks it's just "brilliant!" Or maybe he's gunning for a promotion to Super General or something.
"Splendid!" said Muk. "You're a genius, Your Majesty. I have no doubt that we can win now."
"Nor have I," said Hisst and clicked off.
He laughed a short barking laugh. He had not told Muk part of his plan: it consisted of making very certain that the rebels attacked Palace City at once. In all the history of Voltar, the place had never fallen but, cream on cream, he was going to bait the trap.
In the goofiest way possible. If you thought Heller using a tractor beam to pull over a castle was silly, just you wait.
Lombar manages to get himself strapped in, upside-down, into the driver's seat, using said driver's corpse as a cushion and his broken arm as a prop. Now, Voltarian weaponry seems to shoot blasts of energy, but they really use cartridges or shells, which can get overheated by fire or molten armor and so shoot off even after a battle is over. Lombar hopes to use this fact to gain the element of surprise.
He took a long, shuddering breath. It was now or never: in the next minute he would either be blown to pieces or he would rule Voltar without question.
He set the blastcannon for automatic repeating fire. It would now roar at two thousand blasts a minute, each one capable of knocking down a building. He pressed the trip.
He was still alive. It hadn't flashed back.
The whole tank on recoil bucked into the air!
Yeah. This is happening.
Hastily, hard put to keep his hands on the controls, Lombar started the tank engines. He began to guide the tank off, flying it upside down.
BLOHW-OW-OW-OW-OW! roared the blastcannon.
To any observer it would look like the tripped weapon's recoil was driving the tank into the air, out of control.
Rebels bent on mop-up stared. Some of them even laughed to see the monster kicking itself upward. There was even something sexual about it.
Oh, go Freud yourself Hubbard. Anyway, how could people possibly see sexual references in things without psychology perverting them first?
The rebel troops soon realize that this flight isn't unmanned, and start ineffectually shooting at Lombar's tank. So if the tank's cannon can flatten a building with each shot, but the tank's armor can withstand ordnance fired from an orbiting warship, what exactly do two tanks do when they fight? See who can pound the other into the ground first? Ram each other?
Lombar Hisst, in a crazy surge of glee, flipped on the tank's loudspeaker system and bellowed into the mike, the sound of his voice racketing across the wreck-strewn parade ground: "You idiots! You just overlooked Lombar Hisst, the Emperor of Voltar! I'll laugh in the faces of your corpses when you try to crack the gates of Palace City!"
He let out an insane shout. "COME AND GET ME!"
And so the big bad of the book, after propelling himself into the air with a spurted stream of tank fire, shouts "neener-neener!" and runs off to hide in his pillow fort.
He shoved the throttles wide open.
Accelerating swiftly up to the speed of sound and then passing it to obtain five times that velocity, he shot the flying tank southwest, scorching above the desert.
Five times the... well, now we know why Voltar tanks have cushioned interiors.
Outrunning both enemy fire and enemy spaceships, Lombar's flying, supersonic, invincible tank crosses the desert in a mere seven minutes, arriving at Palace City and that bloody stupid time distortion garbage. The guards kneel, and he's invincible, nothing can stop him now, etc.
For the first time, he was certain. He would remain Emperor! He could not lose.
Palace City, in 125,000 years, had never been breached.
Do these guys know what a "siege" is? How long can the palace sustain itself if it's surrounded by an army for a few years? Or maybe the enemy can't disrupt the food supply because it's thirteen minutes in the future or something.
He and his title were completely safe.
The rebel forces would be caught in a box and crushed like insects.
Well, they'll be outside his gates soon, so they're surrounding his box, but soon they will be caught in an even bigger box!
All Voltar was at his mercy.
And he had none whatever to give them.
Only slaughter and drugs.
In a quarter of a year or so. Once that fleet gets to Earth.
He marched grandly up the curving stairs to his kneeling generals.
How wonderful it was to be a real Emperor!
"Rise, you (bleepards)," he said. "We've got to get an Imperial reception ready. The bill of fare will be rebel blood."
And there's the author's traditional end-of-chapter attempt to make things dramatic, as if the outcome was still in doubt.
An amusing chapter, all said. There's a lot of staggeringly stupid bits, but there's something so cheering about a tank flying around like that. Makes me think of more entertaining media. I'd say it destroys the gravitas the book is going for, except Mission Earth is so ineptly done, and so wildly varied in tone, that this scene instead fits perfectly.
Back to Chapter Three