PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 1 of 62 )
: “ The Other Side of the Coin ”
Union Of Border Worlds
16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)
“What's your power, baaaabyyy..." Caitlin More jigged through her morning routine, her bare feet slapping against the warm tile of the kitchen floor. Each tile was programmed to adjust to a 72 degree temperature whenever it was about to be stepped on.
"Morning, sweetheart. Why are you singing?" David More swung his head in for kiss, but missed his target as his wife swung around, almost spilling her coffee in the process.
"Yeah, uh huh..."
The phone rang.
"David, it's Fiona. You wanted me to remind you you've got a seven o'clock with Senator Kiernan about the appropriations bill."
"Is Caitlin singing?"
He shrugged. "Thanks. See you in a few" David turned to his wife. "I'm heading out."
She stopped for a moment, standing on tiptoes to kiss him goodbye on the cheek. Her brow crinkled adorably. "Have I been singing?"
"Nobody really knows."
"That's a foolish thing to say.
Someone must know something." Melek snarled, but it was a guttural, raspy sound.
"Report back to me once the Assembly has voted. I need to know where the Sihkag
stand on the matter." He waved a trembling paw over the sensor, and the screen
faded to black.
"Prince Melek? All is in readiness."
Melek rose slowly, age sapping the strength from his knees and ankles. "You are certain the archive is empty?"
Melek shook his head and ran his talons through the back of his mane, a dismissive gesture. "Never mind the Highness. For that matter, forget the Lordships, Your Glorious, Your Grace, and," he shuddered, "Exalted One."
The designers of the archives had received strict instructions to make the building look as old and careworn and possible. Down the marble path Melek and his young chee'dyachee walked, the sides flanked with torches, casting strange shapes on the crimson and brown of the building's polished porcelain sides. The turrets and minarettes were of a kind which hadn't been built since before the Hari War.
Entering between the stern, disciplined eyes of the two guards standing at the front door, Melek guided his assistant towards the historical section. Selecting one dusty volume, he let it drop on the table. The loud sound frightened the young chee'dyachee, who half-jumped at the noise, so alien to the quiet of the archives.
"This," Melek said, his voice a bit stronger than it sounded earlier, "is the historical account of Xag, First Emperor of the First Empire."
The young cub gave it a cursory glance. "I have read it, as have all schoolcubs." Confidence while avoiding arrogance. A rare trait among the aristocracy of late, so shaken in their places of power they cling to past glories and pretensions.
Melek chuckled and pulled out a seat, gesturing towards another for the cub.
"We've got some things to
discuss." David More was the fourth eldest son of his family to become a
senator, in his case, the UBW Senate, and he'd be damned before he'd be the
first to let his pet project die. "You know what I want. Now I need to know what
Senator Konstantin, of New Kiev, smiled thinly in return. His grandmother always used to tell him understatement was a tool for cowards and statesmen, not for a true man of the people. "You're proposing a two trillion credit decrease in defense spending over the next three years. My constituents are very concerned about your party slashing the fleet."
"We're not talking about slashing the fleet! We're talking about the three billion families in the Union below the poverty line. We're talking about subsidizing agriculture in the Orsini System. We're not, we're not, we're not talking about crippling defense spending."
Vladimir chuckled, the short barks reminding David of a bear. "I'm going to make this simple, Senator More. If you pursue this spending cut, we'll crash the Locanda program."
David stared across the desk for a moment, but the burly Russian's eyes didn't waver. He was serious. "The Locanda project is reclaiming over a million tons of industry and space for over two hundred million people. Once we're done eradicating the virus..."
"It won't happen."
Melek smiled. "Because it is important. Because they are things you need to know." He stopped, looked around for any within earshot. "Because you'll be Emperor one day, and you need to know how to get there without a knife in your throat."
The chee'dyachee froze, his
mane on end. "Highn... ah, that is, Prince Melek... I certainly do not aspire
"We never do. That's half the point, really."
"Then again, why?"
Melek heaved a sigh, the breath catching in his throat. Occasionally there was pain in his side these days. "I have power, young one. Enormous power. I am head of the Sivar priesthood, which gives me titular control over the Cult. I am of the Kiranka, which assures me Royalist support. I command the Caxki legions at the behest of the Assembly, which leaves the bulk of our military forces under my control."
"Then why not be Emperor, Prince Melek? Why not assert your greatness now?"
Melek laughed in spite of himself, himself and the pain. "You've certainly had that one bottled up for a while, haven't you? To answer, my impetuous protégé, Emperors have a shorter life expectancy than dilithium harvesters. That was the miracle of what Xag accomplished." He thumped the book with one tired paw for emphasis. "For one Kilrathi to hold power over all Kilrathi, for one aging creature to hold sway. That is what you must strive for."
"I understand, master."
"I don't understand, Fiona." David
slammed his fist against the authentic oaken desk. "How can he just block
funding like that?"
"He's Subchair of the Oversight Committee."
"Which has absolutely nothing to do..."
"Which has everything to do with Kruger-style politics, and that's not going to change. They're the fleet's babysitters, like it or not. And they can hold up their legislative review of anything they want."
"No, I mean it! He has a hundred worlds thinking they're a bunch of damned cowboys. We're a society. We need homes, food, water..." he threw the plasticene folder across the room, "...and there're forty million people starving in Leo Sector alone, and an outbreak of Watson's over in Hanover..."
"It's easy to explain to Border Worlders why they need new guns, new ships, new pilots," said Fiona.
"Easier, but not better."
"No argument. But the most simple-minded idiot..."
"You mean the average voter."
"Right... the most simple-minded idiot will rail against the government for cutting military spending. Where does he think that money goes? They look at the veterans out of work and they talk about how disgraceful it is, but their only solution is to bring them back into the military. Send them back to killing. They never see the work programs, the colleges founded specifically for veterans by the government to retrain them for the postwar world, the scholarships and medicines and food programs for their kids, and, hell, the terraforming concerns which make it so maybe their wives don't have to wear three layers of lead-lined clothing before going down the street to buy milk."
"We really could have used that military right now, Fiona," Dave sighed.
"They have a word for a society which A-lists its military and tells the citizens to go fuck themselves."
He exhaled, hid his face in his hands. "We can't do everything, can we?"
"We do what we can."
"I can't." The young Kilrathi
trembled, and his fur still hadn't relaxed. Melek made a shushing sound.
"It's all in the histories. Everything you need to gain power. Xag never declared himself Emperor." Melek laughed as if he had just told that great joke about the Utaru. "He was the greatest general of his age. He knew, better than anyone, that warrior Kilrathi are never content to be ruled. They would never consent to be lorded over by an Emperor. So he declared himself Chief Priest, and gathered his legions, and married the right daughters to the right sons, and there he is." He tapped the book again with one well-manicured claw. "Thousands of cycles after the fact, we call him Emperor. One of a very select few to ever die of old age. And you won't find the word once in any of his letters."
The young Kilrathi seemed overwhelmed. Although his manefur relaxed, his whiskers twitched nervously, and his vertically-aligned green pupils were contracting and expanding. His tail swished back and forth, clearing a small semi-circular floor area of the artificial dust the curators sprayed the archives with every morning.
"There are many, master, who have been the power behind the throne. Their honor is assured, yes, but..."
"Not behind the throne, young one. There's no need for a throne. Only power."
"And why to me, master?"
"Because I am old. Because you are my successor, just as I was Thrakhath's." The wizened old feline coughed once, twice, then cuffed the younger Kilrathi behind the ear. "Because I trust you. And because there is a great darkness that will need to be fought beyond my death. A battle."
"We fight them, every single day
Fiona. And the crazy thing is, we're both right and we're both wrong." David
shrugged. "Politics. Yeah, it's a bad idea to cut fleet spending with Kilrathi
warlords setting up petty governments left and right only a few years ago. Yeah,
these Nephilim are cutting through the rim. I don't know." He leaned back,
exhausted. "Maybe he's right."
"David." Fiona handed him a thin package. He keyed his mail code and opened it. Out spilled hundreds of thousands of little slips of plasticene microfilm, a prismatic rainbow of paperwork.
"What the hell is all this?"
"Remember when you helped cancel the Arcadia program to free up money for health care? Well, those," and she nodded towards the fluttering pieces of semi-transparent plasticene, "are birth certificates. One for every child saved from Ellison's Disease, paid for with the grant you approved from the money you freed up to go into the development of the vaccine, one fortieth of one of those over-priced Arcadia's sticker price. All of those babies survived because you decided you'd rather have medicine than a gun."
David sat, stunned. Despite his years in politics, he was often left with nothing to say. "Fiona...this is..."
"Not my idea," she interrupted. "They arrived at your house this morning, but Caitlin wanted you to get them after your meeting. 'Just in case,' she said."
She nodded towards the birth certificates. "That's what those are. By the way, you've got a meeting with the Varni representative at eleven."
He didn't seem to have heard her. "David? Did you hear me? I said you've got..."
"A meeting with the Varni ambassador. Right. About gaining Senate representation. I'll meet him in the conference room."
"Why not here?"
"Why do you care?"
"I've never seen a Varni."
"I'm not bringing him here, Fiona."
"He might eat you."
"He can't eat me. His mouth's not big enough."
"They can unhinge their jaws."
"Yeah. Last thing we'd see would be those cheap Versace knockoffs kicking their way down his unhinged throat."
"Your love for me is touching, David. Really."
"Look, just call the Varni, and let him know I'm honored to be welcoming a new race..."
He paused. A thoughtful expression crossed his face.
He smiled, leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together. "Fiona, call back Senator Konstantin. Tell him I'd like to meet him for lunch, let's say at the Ocarana Café."
She cocked her eye at him, suspicious. "You're up to something."
"And you're not going to tell me."
"Of course not."
"You can be such a borton. I'm calling you Senator Borton from now on."
"And several new names for you are coming to mind with every passing second you're not setting up my meeting, including 'unemployed'."
She made an annoyed sound. "By the way, your wife was singing because you have real bad morning breath and she didn't want to have to kiss you goodbye."
"Thanks Fiona. Set up that meeting!"
"Oh, go pluck a Firekkan."
"I'll do it. And this creature..."
the chee'dyachee said, searching for the name.
"S'pulchr. I have only heard it in whispers and garbled communiqué, but it's his name... one of them, at least. I believe he was in charge of planning the Andorran Jak-tu and the biotoxin attack on the Imperial Palace during the coup."
"Doesn't that make him an ally then, master?"
"No, for two reasons. One, we have no knowledge of him, no leverage. Not only is his power base outside our control, it's impossibly outside our perception. That makes him dangerous in a way men like Jukaga never were. Two, I would have preferred K'sihrak's little masquerade monarchy to endure a bit longer. As it is, there are still far too many Royalists for my taste, too many throwbacks to the Imperial Age. And the Council of Eight no longer fights as it once did. Something powerful has cowed them. Even the Kiranka never did that." His voice became quiet, hushed. "Remember the story of Vorghath the Hunter, and never walk a path upon which a single stone lays you do not rule."
"Enough for today," Melek finished. "We'll discuss more specifics tomorrow. In the meantime," and hefted the volume with some effort, restraining the urge to grunt his strain, "this is to be your blueprint. Study it."
"I will. Thank you sire."
"You're welcome," Senator
Konstantin murmured, downing a sip of Irish coffee, careful not to spill any on
his thick black beard. "So, I am to assume you've reconsidered your position?"
David smiled, pulled a datapak from his briefcase. "Well, something like that. I think you're going to drop your speedbumps to the appropriations bill, or you're going to be out of a job."
Konstantin laughed. "You're going to fire me?"
David didn't match the laugh with one of his own. All he sported was a small, knowing smile. "This," he said, indicating the datapak, "is the Varni Republic's petition to be officially represented in the Border Worlds Senate, since their colony worlds are in our space, and they do pay taxes to the government. We granted them dominion status until we could sort out the whole mess with Confed."
"I fail to be concerned for my paycheck thus far, David. If you cannot..."
David held up his hand. "The thing is, that's not the kind of thing that goes through Oversight. It goes straight to the floor, and the whole Senate votes on it. And seeing as how my party holds the majority..."
"So we'll invite a few more cold-blooded creatures into politics."
David laughed. "That's funny, Senator. But see, because it's so rare... this is actually going to be our first exercise of it, very few people read Article XIX, Section 24, Paragraph 2 of the UBW Constitution."
Konstantin looked concerned. "Something about electoral process. It doesn't..."
David raised his hand again, this time for silence. "Article XIX, Section 24, Paragraph 2. If at any time a new member race is invited to join the Union of Border Worlds, new elections for all Senatorial and other elected positions thereof shall be held immediately afterwards, to ensure fair and equitable government." Konstantin trembled, but David retained his small smile. "They put that in there, as I understand it, to make sure that bigots wouldn't hamstring a new entrant, and that the new race's political beliefs were immediately represented by counting their votes. It's somewhat based on the old British Parliamentary system, when they had to hold new elections every time a new monarch was crowned."
"Which means we will be running the nastiest, most brutal competition on New Kiev we have. He'll make your life a living hell, and even if you do still win, it will cost all the political capital you have. Can you take that chance, Senator? You lose your job now and half-a-dozen projects you've been well-compensated to hammer through the Senate go with you." David tossed the small datapak in the air and caught it. "Just how many times do these kinds of people shoot you for breaking a contract? But on the other hand, if you let the appropriations package go through... well, we're going to have an awful lot to do that'll probably take priority over ousting a beloved incumbent. Especially one that makes such great borscht."
Konstantin said nothing, occasionally making an odd sputtering sound.
"Anyway," David said, standing and grabbing his briefcase by the handle, "I've got to be going. Call my office if you need anything."
"More." David turned. Konstatin was standing, his hands shaking, eyes raging. "If at any point I can make your life more inconvenient in the future, please believe me when I say I will make every effort to do so."
David shrugged. "So what else is new."
"The military will never forgive you. You'll lose the serviceman's vote."
David seemed to consider this for
a moment, then tossed the datapak to himself again. "Hell, Vladi, if those
muscleheads really want my job, then for five bucks and a decent turkey sandwich
they can have it."
"They're dying out there right now; More. They don't have the ships they need and our sons and daughters are dying." David heard the genuine emotion in the old Russian's voice.
"Yeah," he said, a hint of regret in his voice. "But they'll win. I'd rather build worlds worth fighting for."
Konstantin spat, shook his head, then raised his coffee mug.
"To the Union."
David sprinted back to the table, lifting his own mug.
"To the Union."