Authors: PP Corcoran
CAMBRIDGE - ENGLAND - EARTH
Clement Bradshaw closed the door of the car and turned up his coat’s collar against the chill of the early morning. The birds were still sounding their dawn chorus as his feet crunched up the gravel driveway and reached the cobbled doorstep of the compact, single-story, brown brick house surrounded by thick hedges, screening it from the neighboring homes. It could not have been further from an artist’s impression of the home of an ex-vice president of the Terran Federation.
A close enough glance showed regular raised mounds in the grass just inside the tree line, which hid the motion sensors linked to the security office hidden away above the detached garage. Arnie Harriman always made it perfectly clear he had no interest in the multi-layered security that surrounded President Coston wherever she went. Arnie had been in politics a long time and was the perfect running mate for Rebecca when she made her bid for president. However, his price was the reduced security. It drove the Presidential Security Office insane.
On election night when the votes were counted and Rebecca was announced the winner, a dozen agents appeared as if by magic outside Arnie's hotel room. The sight of the dark-suited, imposing, unsmiling PSO officers terrified Arnie's three grandchildren and it took all of their mother’s ministrations to calm them.
Arnie wasted no time in calling Rebecca and bluntly telling her that if the officers were not withdrawn immediately, she would be looking for a new VP before the night was over. A call from the president-elect to the head of PSO reduced the number of officers to three, and for the next six years, there were never more than three officers in Harriman’s protection detail.
Until the day Arnie Harriman tendered his resignation, he was an irascible but effective VP and a shoe in for the party’s nomination for president.
Something stinks and it was time to find out what
, thought Clement as he reached for the antique brass doorknocker. His fingers halted in midair as the oak door opened to reveal the tight face of Arnie Harriman.
"I should have known you would end up on my doorstep eventually," said Arnie through clenched teeth, "You'd better come in, you’re letting the heat out."
Clement followed the man who had been his friend and political ally for four decades into a cozy kitchen heated by an open fire in the corner. A battered metal kettle was reaching the boiling point on the stove. He shuffled along like an old man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Where was the energetic, sprightly man of only a few months before?
"I see Julie still hasn't persuaded you to install any modern appliances," Clement joked in an attempt to lighten the mood. It failed.
"Look Clement, I know Rebecca's pretty pissed at me, but I've given six years of my life to her administration. Thirty more before that in the senate and local government. I missed Julie's first steps, her first day at school, and damn near missed her graduation. Now the grandkids are getting older, and I want to spend what time I have left with them. I'm sorry if my family inconveniences the party’s plans, but my decision is final and nothing you or Rebecca can say will change it!"
Clement stood open-mouthed at his friend’s outburst and as he searched for something to say in reply, he covered his silence by pulling out a chair from the kitchen table and sitting down heavily while Arnie conducted a noisy hunt for teaspoons in a drawer. Not finding what he was looking for, he slammed the offending drawer closed, the loud bang reverberating around the quiet kitchen. Clement sat very still, watching Arnie's back as the man rested both hands on the countertop and his shoulders rhythmically moved up and down in time to his labored breathing.
"Arnie? Arnie, what is it?” Clement pleaded in a low voice. “We've been friends longer than I've been married. For God’s sake, Arnie, our kids grew up in each other’s pockets. Julie is as much my daughter as she is yours. If you can't tell me, then who can you tell?"
Arnie turned around. His face was wan and his eyes glistened with unshed tears. In silence, he reached into his pocket and passed a small PAD over to Clement with shaking hands. Taking the proffered PAD, Clement activated it and a picture of a smiling, well-groomed thirtyish man appeared on the screen. Clement recognized him immediately. As he should. Will Barr and his wife Julie, Arnie's only daughter, were frequent dinner guests at Clement's home. The picture changed to show what looked like a hotel reception desk and again, Will was in the picture, but this time he was accompanied by a woman who was most definitely not Julie. The picture changed again, this time showing Will and the unknown woman sharing an intimate candle-lit dinner. When the picture changed again, it was obvious it had been taken by a hidden camera in a hotel bedroom. The camera may have been concealed but the image was a good enough quality for Clement to make out a naked Will and an equally naked woman. Tearing his eyes from the PAD, Clement looked up to see tears running freely down Arnie's face.
"Keep watching, there’s more."
Clement forced his eyes back to the PAD. Another hotel. Another woman. Clement’s anger built, anger at Will for not only betraying Julie, but for betraying the kids. The pictures of Will's infidelity at last ended but the next set stole the breath from Clement. A series of pictures of Arnie's grandkids being dropped off at school. The last picture was frozen with a rifle’s crosshair superimposed on each of the smiling children's faces and below the images was a simple message: “You cannot protect them. Resign now.”
Horrified disbelief was evident on Clement's face as he slumped in the chair. Any words of consolation escaped him.
When Arnie recovered enough to speak, he did so sotto voce. "I found this PAD in this very kitchen. Somebody got past the perimeter security, entered the house without leaving a trace, and left the PAD. My PSO detail reviewed the security cameras’ recordings on the pretext a fox had been at the trash. They showed only members of the detail entering or leaving the house. Either the security recordings have been tampered with or the person who left the PAD is in my own detail. Targeting me is one thing, Clement. I'm a politician and I can take my licks, but this... this is too much. They’re only kids, for Christ’s sake..."
Clement stood and embraced his sobbing friend, his own voice coming out in a hoarse whisper. "You did the right thing, Arnie. Anybody would have done the same. However, I promise you this. I will find out who is behind this and there is no rock they can hide under. And when I do find them, prison will be the least of their worries."
COMMONWEALTH UNION OF PLANETS SECRETARIAT BUILDING
GENEVA – EARTH – SOL SYSTEM
Rebecca Coston entered the plush conference suite on the 102nd floor of the sparkling glass edifice that was now home to all things Commonwealth. The view through the floor-to-ceiling windows was breathtaking. The sun glistened off the still, blue waters of Lake Geneva and Rebecca’s eyes followed the shoreline as it flowed from its natural beauty into the technological brutish gray and white of Geneva city on the far side of the lake. Rebecca was not alone in admiring the view. Leaning heavily on a thick, highly polished wooden stick was the still impressive figure of Chairman Tarrov. The Persai was now nearing his 168
birthday and the last five years had not been kind. His once-powerful frame was bowed and his lush fur showed more silver than black. Rebecca's advisers told her, from their analysis of research into Persai aging, that once a Persai began to deteriorate physically, the aging process accelerated rapidly and the end came within a matter of months. A small tear welled in Rebecca's eye as she thought of a future without Tarrov's calming influence and his sage advice, which had served her so well over the turbulent last few years.
Surreptitiously wiping her eyes, she fixed her most pleasant politician’s smile on her lips, straightened her back and walked to the chair.
"Chairman Tarrov, I see I am not the first to arrive."
Tarrov slowly turned his whole body to face Rebecca and she was sure she could detect a faint grimace of pain as he did so. "No indeed, Madam President. Although I must admit I do not know why our friend Bezled has asked for this extraordinary meeting. Surely with the Others’ end in sight there are no matters too pressing that they could not have waited until the next quarterly meeting? The selection process for a new Chairman of the Council of Twelve is due to begin shortly and my presence will be required on Pars."
Rebecca gave a most apolitical shrug. "I'm in the dark as much as you."
"I note you are not accompanied by Governor Crothers today."
A frown wrinkled Rebecca's forehead at Tarrov's observation. "My advisers thought it best, what with the impending vote in the Senate concerning my bill to allow Janus to become an independent world, that Governor Crothers’ time would be best spent shoring up the votes we need to ensure defeat of this so-called Earth First movement."
The Chairman released a sharp, barking laugh. "Perhaps, Madam President, you should join me in my retirement."
Rebecca let out a small laugh of her own. "Believe me Mr. Chairman, the elections next March cannot come speedily enough." Again, a frown creased her forehead. "These Earth First people worry me, though. They’re advocating the dissolution of the Commonwealth now that the threat from the Others has been dealt with. They want Earth to go it alone and implement a complete isolationist policy. Don't they see? Just because we’ve dealt with the Others, there’s no reason to believe we’re not going to encounter another hostile race out there as we expand." Rebecca bowed her head and shook it slowly in frustration. "It still amazes me how some people can be so shortsighted."
The elderly Persai placed a large, comforting hand on her slim shoulder. "Do not fret, Rebecca. In my experience, extremists of all views have a very limited lifespan. The people will see through them soon enough."
The moment passed as the meeting room door opened and the tall, waif-like figure of Representative Hoolas of the Benii entered, accompanied by Prime Minister Bezled. On seeing Rebecca and Tarrov already present, Bezled made directly for his seat. "As we are all here, shall we get straight down to business, ladies and gentleman?"
Taking their assigned seats, the others waited as Bezled settled himself. "Friends. The people of Garunda have a proposal, which I have been instructed to present to you in person, hence our unscheduled meeting here today. Before I proceed... I think it important for me to explain the Garundan context in which this proposal has come about."
It was obvious by the normally animated Bezled's hesitancy that he was unsure how the Garundan proposal was going to be received.
"If I may interrupt for a moment, Prime Minister," came the deep baritone voice of Tarrov. "It has always been our unwritten understanding that all member planets of the Commonwealth will get a fair hearing before any decisions are made, so please do not fear what you have to say will not be considered with the appropriate level of importance."
The Garundan gave Tarrov a grateful nod before continuing. "In Garundan culture, we have an honor code which our warriors have followed for as long as we have had the written word. We call it Yolva. I believe in English it translates to “succor.” Following the defeat of an enemy, it is the duty of the victor to provide for his vanquished enemy’s needs. The widowed spouse and children of a deceased enemy soldier would become the responsibility of whoever killed that soldier. Over the centuries as my people progressed from simple tribes to city-states to true nations, Yolva has been rigidly followed. Not to follow it is a stain on the very honor of my people..."
The penny dropped for Rebecca and her mouth opened slightly as she realized what Bezled was about to say and what the political ramifications would be.
"Garunda intends to provide Yolva for the remaining Others!" Bezled stated resolutely.
And there it was. Rebecca could not believe what she was hearing. Forget the Earth First movement, what would her own people have to say about the Garundan proposal? Never mind the Alonans. "Prime Minister, perhaps in the case of the Others, Yolva may not apply. After all, they were intent on wiping out your entire race, all our races for that matter. We have all seen the images of the dead worlds that the Others destroyed. Do you think they would have shown you mercy?" Rebecca looked desperately to Tarrov for support but the old Persai remained implacable. Hoolas, on the other hand, looked as shocked as Rebecca.
Before Rebecca could frame a stronger argument, Bezled continued. "Ever since your intervention, which prevented the Others’ assault on our world Madam President, my people have struggled to come to terms with our new place in the universe. The sudden influx of advanced technology which you humans and the Persai have so freely shared with us have allowed our young from every nation to realize their dreams of going to the stars. Our standard of living has reached heights we would never have believed possible. However, there are many among us who see these gifts as changing who we fundamentally are as a people. Because of this, alongside the new sciences and the knowledge they bring, we have been determined to fully educate our young in our history, lest they forget where we came from and the very essence of who we are." A small smile crept onto the prime minister’s face. "Indeed, it was a group of our young ones who took it upon themselves to petition the government to invoke Yolva. It seemed we of the older generation had become so engrossed in the conflict and our eventual victory, we forgot our duty to the vanquished."
As Bezled stopped speaking, an uneasy silence settled in the room. Rebecca was still marshaling her thoughts when Tarrov cleared his throat. His deep rumble filled the room.
"Bezled, my friend. The Persai watched as the Others wiped our home-world and all our people from the stars. We vowed that one day we would have our revenge on those who carried out that most heinous of crimes. Seeing the humans come to your aid gave us hope, so we revealed ourselves and found our faith in them was not wasted. We became allies and when the humans’ hour of need arose, the Persai, Garunda, and our new friends, the Benii," Hoolas gave a small bow of her head, "stood shoulder to shoulder with them. We defeated the Others and I never thought I would feel a prouder moment... until today. You, Prime Minister, put the rest of us to shame. We defeated the enemy, is now not the time to do the honorable thing and ensure we treat survivors as we would wish to be treated?"
Rebecca was flabbergasted. The old Persai was agreeing with Bezled.
What the hell
? Did he not see the political wasp’s nest this move would stir up?
Tarrov pointed a fur-edged finger at Rebecca, "In your history Madam President, following the end of your second world war, did the victors not rush to the aid of the starving, defeated enemy? Aided them in rebuilding their homes and factories. Treated them as equals and welcome them back into the fold of the world community?"
Memories of long past history lectures flooded back to Rebecca. Of course. The Marshall Plan. An American economic aid plan, which pumped billions of dollars into the war-weary economies of not only Western Europe but Asia. Within seven years, the countries receiving aid not only reached prewar economic production, but exceeded it. The plan was seen as a great success, not only did it reinvigorate the world’s economy, it had the added effect of bringing former enemies together in a common goal. That cunning old dog’s knowledge of human history never ceased to amaze her.
Tarrov forced himself to his feet and ever so slowly walked around the table until he stood beside the Garundan. "The Persai will follow where Garunda leads in this matter."
Rebecca looked across at Representative Hoolas, who was yet to comment. "Representative?"
Hoolas looked from Rebecca to Tarrov and Bezled before she spoke, "I cannot claim to have as deep an understanding of human history as Chairman Tarrov, nor have my people suffered the loss of so many of our people as other member planets of the Commonwealth during its struggle against the Others. Furthermore, we have no culture of Yolva like our Garundan allies. However, I do understand the Garundan position in this matter and I find myself inclined to agree with Chairman Tarrov. What gives us the right to stand idly by and watch the remaining members of a race, even one as inherently evil as the Others, simply die?"
Rebecca had been a politician long enough to see when she was on the losing side. She said, "It seems I find myself outnumbered, Prime Minister. May I inquire how you propose to fulfill your duties under Yolva?" Rebecca sat back with her best game face on. If you cannot win by sound argument, then tie them up in technical details.
Unfortunately, Bezled was prepared. He reached into his jacket and produced three more PADs, which he passed to each delegate. "Phase One is the expansion of our current prisoner-of-war facilities on a suitable planet. By ‘suitable,’ I mean a planet that is capable of supporting sufficient food production now and in the future, and has adequate natural resources for a minimal level of industrialization. We believe we have identified such a planet: Planet IV in star system 84137. Phase Two. The transportation of all POWs from their current location to Planet IV..."
Rebecca saw her chance and jumped at it. "There are a lot of POWs to move, Prime Minister and I’m not sure when the shipping vehicles would become available to transport them."
The Prime Minister went on, completely unperturbed. "If adequate transport is not immediately available, then Garunda is willing to suspend its colonization program in its entirety to make the hulls available to complete the movement of the POWs."
This comment took the whole room by surprise. The drive to colonize as many planets as possible as quickly as possible had become not only a political but economical imperative for the entire Commonwealth, and here were the Garundans willing to put it all on hold in their need to satisfy Yolva. Rebecca's next statement was made with newfound respect. "Excuse my interruption, Prime Minister, please continue."
"Phase Three. Security. We understand that not all the peoples of the Commonwealth may be happy with our need to honor Yolva and as long as the Others exist then they could be deemed to be a threat, so as part of the project we intend to build a series of secure compounds. These compounds will house adequate medical facilities to see to the wellbeing of the POWs and they will also contain sufficient military forces to subdue any localized uprisings by the POWs. In orbit will be a single space station based on the planned orbital fortress design and a network of surveillance satellites. This station will be equipped with a number of assault and cargo shuttles. The station will also house an army brigade, which will be on call to support the compounds as required. A flotilla of destroyers will patrol the system at all times."
"That’s a significant military presence, Prime Minister," commented Hoolas.
"Garunda is willing to provide all the necessary naval ships and army personnel," stated Bezled matter-of-factly.
The Garundans have certainly thought this through
, Rebecca thought.
"Phase Four. De-programming. I think I speak for all of us gathered here that we are all of the opinion the Others were simply puppets being controlled by some unseen puppet master."
There was a mumbled agreement from all present. “A puppet master whom we have yet to meet, and I fear such a meeting will be an unpleasant affair," said Tarrov.
After a moment’s reflection, Rebecca realized a consensus was reached. "It will be a hard sell for me to get it passed in the Senate Prime Minister, but I think I can do it."
"The Persai Council will not allow your honor to be besmirched, Prime Minister," growled Tarrov.
Hoolas stood and stretched her long arm across the table to touch Bezled's arm in a very human gesture. "The Benii agree to your proposal."