Community > Planet Tales

What Would Pravin do?

(1/2) > >>

Buster's Uncle:
Peace In Our Time - U.N. Succession
By Alinestra Covelia and Buster's Uncle

Datalinks: Aphelion Meet (redirected from 10-10-10 attacks)

1. Diplomatic context: Initial projections assumed a period of four to five decades before a full Council could meet. These projections came from calculations based on limited faction motility, helial radiation disturbances, and the slow adoption of ionosphere broadcasting tech. However, the projections failed to account for the presence of Unity resupply pods littering Chiron's surface, many containing data key to sending/receiving commlinks. After establishing face-to-face contact with Believer and Spartan factions, the U.N. communications directorate pieced together enough data from recovered data files in Unity pods and inter-faction transmissions to reestablish ties with all existent factions. The final official "first contact" brought the Hive into U.N. communications in MY 2108.

The quick pace of interfactional contact allowed for global scrutiny over any border disputes, forestalling the worst-case scenario of internecine conflict. An uneasy truce governed the standard year between full contact and first summit. In MY2110, delegates of all council member factions met under U.N. auspices at the Neutral Zone to address the Commissioner's proposed New Charter. The summit drew its name from the Aphelion of Chiron from Hercules B, considered an auspicious timeframe due to reduced native life activity.

2. Aims of the Aphelion Meet: The U.N. agenda planned for the meeting included the following unresolved binding goals: establishment of multilateral military communications; clear demarcation of border and territorial claims; an up-down vote on adoption of the Unity Charter. The agenda included the following unresolved aspirational goals: opening round of talks to set a cross-border trade regimen; initial outlines of a human rights code; discussions on a universal energy standard; and humanitarian technology-sharing for research vital to Chironside survival.

Gaian agenda: The only other faction to submit a full agenda was the Gaian leader Deirdre Skye, whose agenda mirrored U.N. interests in key concerns, but introduced several measures of binding multilateral limitations to avert the heavy man-made environmental concerns of Earthside industrial development through history. Skye also emerged as a strong supporter of native biomorph research, nominally outlawed under the U.N.'s interim preservation doctrines.

3. Diplomatic results: The meeting successfully achieved several key goals: establishing a common commlink protocol; affirming the Charter's central tenets while leaving key provisions open for revocation at a later date; and the re-establishment of Earthside "energy credit" currencies for uniform economic liquidity.

Surviving records show that the meeting was due to begin a second schedule of talks addressing military cooperation and resolving territorial disputes. The Meet participants were unable to reach consensus before the 10-10-10 Attacks, which claimed the lives of all faction leaders and Meet staff.

4. Terrorist attack: The 10-10-10 Attacks comprised a series of coordinated attacks on the Neutral Zone complexes. Together, they eliminated all seven faction members and resulted in the death by exposure of more than five hundred identified victims. Piecemeal records suggest that the initial attack occurred inside the Meet Hall, with an intentional fire or chemical alarm. This caused automated and manned systems to seal, and to activate oxygenation. Chemical tests from the site show traces of isotopes, likely pumped into the air supply from points inside the security perimeter. The initial contamination gave a lethal dosage of radiation to more than half the Meet staff. Adding to the confusion, many of those lethally affected from outset were key personnel, and thus received a disproportionate amount of first aid and support systems when no remedial effects were possible.

By 2110-10-11, a small remnant of staff were suited against the atmosphere, attempting to overcome the failsafes and possibly dealing with armed aggression. In the evening of the second day, vehicle fire directed by people or persons unknown destroyed the central hall and dormitories. The last eyewitness account recovered comes from U.N. Security Detail Pvt. Nova Sudiwikarmi, who recorded that men in his squad had attempted to exit the compound and come under fire from vehicles commanded by unconfirmed, and seemingly contradictory, factions. Sudiwikarmi surmised that the confusion after the terrorist attack caused many legitimate security personnel to use force in self-defense, at which point distinguishing terrorist from soldier became impossible. Sudiwikarmi's last transmission in the evening of 2110-10-11 describes an attempt to regroup and take control of one of the few mining rovers present as perimeter defense. Sudiwikarmi's body was recovered along with several civilians approximately 13 km from the Meet: each had signs of death by nitrogen asphyxiation save one, U.N. Minister of Education Simi Rosan, who died of a firearm injury and blood loss.

5. Aftermath and global condemnation: U.N. patrols were the first to arrive onsite, owing to border proximity, but were slow to respond to other factions' demands for information. By 2110-10-13, Acting Secretary Sarita assumed ministerial powers in accordance with U.N. succession directives. Sarita released full decedent lists to all factions, but held details of the attack confidential. She also initiated a full-scale review of security measures and numerous depositions to determine terrorist complicity within the U.N. These measures, though justified under the Police Powers act, brought U.N. internal functions to a standstill, further delaying the release of key facts to other faction representatives.

Factual findings of the U.N. investigation were made public 2110-10-15, along with a call for unity in condemnation of the perpetrators of the attack and in resolution to bring them to justice. Sarita relinquished her position after the Electorate ratified Prashanti Lal, sister to predecessor Pravin Lal, as Interim Commissioner. Her first act was the repeal of the Police Powers and the normalization of citizens' personal freedoms. Less than two days later, the interim Spartan military command officially revoked the state of truce between their faction and the U.N., and advised that U.N. personnel encountered on Spartan claims would be subject to imprisonment without trial. One week later, forces under Believer command attacked and overran a U.N. border depot, seizing sensor technology and materiel. Local reports indicated that the depot now broadcast the religious agenda of Reverend Manuel Godwinson. Despite these hostilities, Interim Commissioner Prashanti Lal on 2110-10-33 formally declared her intention to preserve civilian freedoms, even as she passed the bill mobilizing unprecedented forces to defend U.N. borders.

The Gaians under Ailean Skye communicated a statement of mutual bereavement and regret on 2110-10-18, indicating a continuation of formal truce status. No official contacts have been reported from the University, Hive, or Morganites. The state of relations with these factions, and their leadership successions - if any - remain undefined.

* ~ * ~ *
"Sister Lal?" Sarita's soft words brought Prashanti back from her thoughts. "Secretary-General, the meeting is in 20 minutes."

Prashanti turned from the sunset out the window. "Thank you, Sarita. Show them in when it’s time."

It felt strange occupying Pravin's office, being addressed as Secretary-General in his place. Prashanti was no stranger to command; since Planetfall, as Pravin's sister and most trusted lieutenant, she'd issued orders in his name, been his closest counselor.

But with him gone...

Tears began to well again, red in the sunset. The week since the explosion at the face-to-face Planetary Council meeting had been a hectic one. The simultaneous loss of leaders had thrown Chiron into chaos. "Oh Pravi," she thought, desolately.

The task of guiding humanity towards reunification had seemed endless even with Pravin’s resolute hand at the helm, and now... Prashanti wiped tears and opened the dossier on the other new faction leaders.

The faces were all new. Many were taken from furtive angles, or strange lighting, as if the photos were illicit artifacts. Far too little was known for sure - this dark cabinet of humanity's new leaders. Lord Ailean Skye was believed more detached than his late wife; the philosopher of the Gaians. Here was the new University Provost, Iskra Vadima, whose name turned up no results at all in the academic publication archives. Smiling out from the page, the broad face of CEO Chinwemma Morgan seemed oddly out of place, given the solemnity of her rise to power. The Spartan leader, Colonel Sosimo Fernan, seemed oddly friendly for a military man, beaming out from the distance like a jolly uncle, in stark contrast to Manuel Godwinson, whose fiery oratory was already the stuff of legend. And finally, rounding out the seven, the enigmatic mouthpiece of the Hive: Speaker Liren Yang, whose clockwork-regular broadcasts assured the Hive workers - and indeed any other humans inclined to believe her - of the certainty that everything was proceeding to her plan.

Already, these faces were making their presence known in the U.N. corridors of power. Within days, the Spartans and Believers had begun pushing their troops towards Peacekeeper territory, in clear violation of the border agreements. Days when Peacekeepers watched their new leader and wondered if she really had what it took to lead.

Prashanti smiled to herself, despite it all. Turns out, she did. In a democratic civilian government with strong institutions, all you needed to lead in times of war was a damn good general. And Daoud al-Bahraini had been just the damn good general she'd needed. They'd mobilized in mere hours and held the line until the crisis passed.

And people on the holopodes were cheering in the streets, clasping each other and shouting with joy. And chanting. Prashanti brought her hand to her eyes again, but for tears of humbled happiness, not bereavement. They'd been chanting her name.

She smiled and dried her eyes properly. This was no time to be getting soft-headed with pride, or a time to be weeping with despair. Her people were still in peril; they needed her to be strong, sure, and above all, wise.

And as she had promised at the ceremony, she would lead them out of the darkness.

"What," she wondered as always, "would Pravin do?"

Buster's Uncle:
Command of Your Faculties - University Succession
By Alinestra Covelia, with Buster's Uncle

Zakharov hand-picked his entourage for the Summit, assembling the best minds on Chiron. His thinking was simple: diplomacy was merely problem-solving dressed as a zero-sum game. His solution was to bring his most accomplished academicians to identify solutions that would result in maximal net gain to all involved and win the University the respect of the rest of the factions. That done, he and his faction could then retire to their ivory towers undisturbed for continued peaceful research.

The news of the attacks brought a profound sense of crisis to the faculty left behind at University Base. Their Provost was gone. The cream of mankind's thinkers was dead. Centuries' of man-hours of research was irretrievably lost.

More important was the issue of tenure. There were numerous important chairs vacated, and suddenly every last published academician realized a tidal wave was on them. A mad scramble to the top, to fill one of the still-warm hoverchairs of the dearly departed. To win a place free of cares or worries about the next meal, the next paytab, the access to limited laboratory resources and assistants.

The higher one got, the safer one's seat and the broader one's powers. An assistant professor might have a research assistant or two and receive time on high-level equipment. Higher up, you got other accredited thinkers working under you, and you spent less time grubbing in the labs for your living and more time pondering and pontificating... and then happily claiming partial credit for the work of your subordinates.

The first contender to the Provost's throne was Helmut Voss, widely acknowledged as overdue for a high-ranking tenure position. A brilliant theoretical quantum physicist, Voss had fallen from favor after his keystone publications happened to lock horns with those of Zhu Linwei, a protege of one of Zakharov's proteges. Although spared the savagery of hostile peer-reviews, Voss' findings languished in the limbo of obscurity, suppressed by a powerful academic board which stood to lose status otherwise.

Voss had worked patiently on his brainchild in the interim, perfecting and innovating. Remaining top in his field was easy - few others wanted to touch a politically tainted field like that anyway. Currently, Voss had honed his work product into something that ought to glide through the confirmation process as it bedazzled the peer review committee.

The committee seemed politely welcoming. There were handshakes, smiles. A few jokes. Voss fielded the questions confidently, finding them well-crafted to the subject matter. But there was one reviewer, a woman named Vadima, who asked nothing but off-topic questions.

"How many gathering teams did you supervise in a managerial capacity?"

"Please describe for us your experience with lectures and seminars - especially in dealing with student attrition."

"Have you had any dealings with the campus police or direct dealings with the support staff?" By this, she meant the workers - the University's underclass of those unable to make the exacting grades in the hierarchical education system.

Voss answered as best he could. Afterwards, the review board members gave him a warm farewell and withdrew to discuss his application in confidence.

Two hours later, by holopode, Vadima informed him he had been overlooked for promotion this round. However, she stressed, they were very impressed by the caliber of the work he had performed, and in the next round he would be a strong candidate. She did not have the dates before her, but she expected them to be starting in a month's time.

Voss sat back, thoroughly nonplussed. Rejection was nothing new. But previous rebuffs meant years in the wilderness. Why would they be revisiting the lists in a mere month? What were they looking for now that he had failed? What were they looking for a month from now that he might succeed?

Voss considered contacting a few distant friends. It had been years since they'd talked, but he wondered if anybody else had gotten this odd brush-off too. Then he sighed. Hardly worth it. If they were scrambling to defend their articles as well, they'd hardly have time to waste on him.

He did run a search on the woman, though. Where had he seen her before? The interface returned the identity but little information. Iskra Ivanovna Vadima. University staff. Apart from that, her face remained grainy onscreen, bland as a cipher.

He sat up as his commlink warbled. Well, fancy that. It was Wussowski. What could he possibly want to talk about, after all these years?

* ~ * ~ *
"Who the hell does she think she is?" Wussowski demanded. "Asking all these inanities about bloody logistics. Hours spent arguing before budgetary meetings. Coordinating cross-departmental data sharing."

Wussowski downed his glass and slammed it down angrily. "Bollocks. Is all I have to say to that."

"I know, the datalinks don't say much about her. I did some digging," Voss said. Arulkumaran had joined them too, and his glass had caused a dent in the verroplast top of the table when he'd sounded off earlier.

"If you ask me, she's some sort of jumped-up secretary. What sort of ninny bothers to do budget negotiations these days? You just leave that up to your delegates," he said unsteadily.

"What did you say her name was? Vaghima?"

"Vadima," Voss corrected. "Iskra Ivanovna Vadima. She's not published in any of the journals I searched, and she wasn't on any public committee. Nothing in physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics- none of the databases I checked. All I found about her came from a manual trawl of the Provost's effects. Apparently, you’re right; she's a secretary or something."

Arulkumaran choked on his bulb of vodka. "They put a secretary in charge of the selection committee?"

"Hey, it's important," countered Wussowski sagely. "Caffeine pills make the faction run; they've gotta have somebody up top to keep the dispensers working."

Voss tapped his teeth. No record of academics, no record of publications, no record of peer reviews. Who was Vadima and what was she doing?

"Have we gotten a look at the Provost's will yet?" he asked.

"Still in probate," Arulkumaran said. "They won't release the details till they're done valuating everything. Not that it matters - Provost said he'd leave all his personal possessions for the common welfare."

Voss thought about this.

"I think she's Security," he said. "I think Zakharov might have appointed a former intelligence operative to screen these positions. It's the only reason I can think of why there's nothing to her name. Why would a security woman ever publish anything?"

Arulkumaran and Wussowski thought about this in silence.

"Not publishing?" Arulkumaran asked eventually. That was hard to imagine. "What the hell's wrong with her?"

Arulkumaran shook his head. That was how it worked in the University. You put together your first report, researched to exacting standards. And once you have that first, damned good report, you got the attention of the leaders in the fields. They graced you with work time on their budgets, and you got to learn at the feet of the masters. Later, you'd be further insulated from the vicissitudes of funding, personnel, and equipment time disputes, able to focus primarily on churning out papers, theses, and dissertations - each a fundamental distillate of your corner of the human corpus of knowledge. Each a fitting tribute to your own brilliance and your contribution to the University.

Wussowski smiled. "Yeah, it's like she's got some sort of inadequacy - the type you only talk about behind closed doors," he said drunkenly. "Hope she gets it all out there before it's too late."

* ~ * ~ *
They were not the only skeptics. Vadima found herself talking to four members of the review board in chambers later. One, like her, was named by the Provost to the review board in his will - Bent Jorenson. Like her, Jorenson was a mid-level administrator.

The others were high-ranking academicians, known to Vadima only through reputation. Now, they were making that reputation obnoxiously clear.

"What I don't understand is, why appoint a review board at all and then give executive authority to one chairperson?" asked Tove Sigmundsdottir.

"You voted the same as I did each time, remember," said Vadima. "Having second thoughts, Tovarish Tove?"

Sigmundsdottir's eyes crinkled slightly - the Soviet-era pun had evidently struck a chord. "Not about the votes, but my question still stands," she said. "If the Provost appointed you as the executive override vote, why have the rest of us? I’m too old to have been appointed for my looks, arresting as they may still be."

"I still don't understand why you blocked Voss," Petrovich blurted out. He was head of the weapons research wing, with a special ethical waiver- something he saw fit to underline at any opportunity. "Voss is eminently qualified to a top-tier post. He deserved it ten years ago. If not the most advanced physicist alive, we might just as well put mindworms and chiropractors in charge.

“…We’re not going to, are we?"

"And what about Arulkumaran?" blustered Koesterbrueck, before he was motioned aside by his colleagues. "Turning him down after all his advances in xenobiology is nothing short of criminal. Are we the University or the Mediocracy?"

Vadima sat down at her desk and steepled her fingers. "Last month, shortly before his final checks for the departure, Zakharov confided to me his fears about the faction's progress," she said.

"In short, he feared academic ossification."

"What the hell do you mean?" demanded Filvin.

"It means to convert or harden, as with a bone," interjected Jorenson helpfully. Filvin rounded on him and seemed about to say something indelicate, when Vadima's voice cut through the hubbub again.

"We have become a nation of ivory tower intellectuals - we must consider taking a step downwards, closer to the ground we sit on. The Provost's very words, conversation of 10-09-22." Vadima brought the relevant document up on the datapad. "The Provost feared we were losing touch with our own underlings. That we had distanced ourselves too far from the servitors who support our labs, our experiments, and provide us the sampling universe for human talent."

"...and dumbing down the admissions process is the answer?" demanded Filvin. "Appoint a janitor Provost to placate the drooling masses?"

"It seems to me that I am not a janitor," Vadima said quietly. "And it appears your hypothetical has been realized. I hold the executive veto, after all."

There was a moment of silence.

"As I see it, our current round of promotions is to be purely administrative. We need people who have experience overseeing subordinates - and not as a mere step to the next promotion, but who can do so as a regular career, to maximal efficiency," Vadima said. "That rules out many of the academics who would follow the cloistered promotion models - I need people who have represented and fought for causes in meetings against other worthies.

"Second, our current round of promotions must restore our ability to control the faction psyche situation. It must not have escaped your attention that drone activity has steadily grown as we found new bases and expand. We can no longer insulate ourselves with a scramble to the top. We are reaching saturation point with the ratio of tenured positions that our workforce can support. Any more, and the top-heavy structure starts crumbling.

"Finally, our current round of promotions must bring in an outwards-facing leadership. One that acknowledges the realities of the Meet: that other factions survived the Unity fragmentation, and that among them are extremist who could do us harm. That realizes we must deal with other factions sharing different values and who is conscious of the image we project among them."

Jorenson sat down in his chair and leaned back a trifle jauntily, eating from a tray of food.

"The Provost said largely the same to me," he said, his mouth full of nougat.

Koesterbrueck got up. "I will not stand for this," he said. "The University has lost its top talent and you're proposing to replace them with a circle of pen-pushers. The Provost has vested in you the powers, for who-knows-what reason... but I shan't sit here and watch as you tear this place apart. Consider the reputational damage my resignation would cause you."

"It is true, you serve at will, and may withdraw from the panel at any time," Vadima reminded him. "Bear in mind that I retain my executive veto over all considerations for your replacement. If you want to retain any influence at all over the proceedings, it is objectively in your best interests to remain with the panel and perform your duty."

"...with you obstructing me at every turn," finished Koesterbrueck.

Vadima held an open hand, in a gesture of indifference. "We are appointing the top echelons only. And they must be filled as I have indicated. Fewer abstract academicians, more experienced managers. But do not fret, Koesterbrueck - the second-tier postings remain to be filled, and I expect we'll get round to those next month. Assuming we stick with our schedule, of course."

She stood up. "It has been a tiring day, and tensions are high," she said. "I proposed we adjourn today's meeting and reconvene tomorrow as arranged. Think on what I have said, and let me know if you think we can be compatible. I shall be here at my holopode if you wish to contact me in private over the next few hours."

* ~ * ~ *
Jorenson, unsurprisingly, was the first to dial through.

"I think it went rather well, don't you?" he asked happily. Seeing Koesterbrueck and Filvin disconcerted pleased him greatly. Under the old system, as a manager of people, Jorenson had merely been a mid-tier citizen. But now, with the promise of a reshuffle in the social deck of cards, he was looking at new vistas of influence.

"Why's that? Because they've put us janitors in charge of the faculty?" asked Vadima archly. "We're not here to make sport of them, Bent. I was deadly serious when I said we'd be appointing the pure academicians to tenure next round."

"Yes, yes, I know," Jorenson said, with a flicker of irritation. "But permit me this minor show of insouciant glee, won't you? And if you want me on the board as your loyal middle classman voting buddy, you'll be seeing more of it."

Vadima sighed. Jorenson had been the Provost's primary aide. He was smart, no doubt about that, but there was the clear skew to his personality that showed he had no place in the rigid competition of academia. Perhaps the Provost had noted it too when he appointed him his personal secretary.

"Just remember, we two are the examples they see of the new ranks of leadership. There's an image we must sell them."

Jorenson smiled and gave a mock bow, and signed off.

Vadima answered a waiting call, and this time the blonde, frazzled hair and prematurely lined face of Tove Sigmundsdottir filled her holopode.

"Is this a bad time?" she asked anxiously.

Vadima tilted her head back. "No, not at all. How can I help you?"

Tove's wrinkled forehead smoothed slightly. "I wanted to make sure I understood you correctly. The rejections you gave today were based on... administrative unsuitabilities?"

Vadima nodded. "If you wish to put it like that."

"But tenure generally goes to theoreticians," Tove said. "Should we be giving out tenures to management types?" She frowned. "All due respect to you, of course."

"...of course," murmured Vadima. "What is tenure if not a public office, appointed from above? Tenure does not make a citizen a satrap ruler, Tove," she said. "They have responsibilities beyond pure research. If we allow ourselves to pursue nothing but airy abstractions while the campus burns, we will soon find ourselves rooting amid the ashes."

"But that's what the workers are for - that's their compact, their social agreement, their place in the system," Tove said. "Academia relies on freeing the mind from the logistics of discovery, and allowing it to pursue its inspirations uninhibited."

"Two months," Vadima said. "That's how long the security forces give us at our current rate of psyche allocation. Once news of the Provost's death becomes fully known to our workers, they'll be calling for greater representation at the top. Otherwise the factories close down, the power goes off, and weapons become the new currency. They'll need skilled negotiators, managers, middlemen to help them make the transition. And that's not even counting the threat from other factions. Who knows what they might do in the aftermath."

Vadima sighed. "I never said this would be easy. But we inherit a faction that is quickly dividing into two unequal demographics, with nobody in between. We have the hands. We have the brains. But there can be no understanding between them without the heart as mediator."

She held the other woman's gaze for a few moments.

"Do you understand?" she asked.

Tove looked back at her and nodded. Then she cut the line.

* ~ * ~ *
The first wave of positions went to a strange crop of people, all told. Like Vadima, few had published in the usual science journals and none had prior recommendations in the usual Collegiums. For a while, the academicians stewed in their collective umbrage, irked at their replacement by an arriviste class of facilitators rather than faculty. Behind the scenes, psyche agents worked to quiet the drones, intelligence agents enjoyed unprecedented funding for their extraterritorial actions, and a new tier of civil servants entered the workforce to reconcile the efforts of the elite with the laborers.

The second wave of tenures, however, came quickly afterwards and satisfied most expectations. A reassuring new crop of researchers ascended to the empyrean heights of government funding.

"Our function," said Provost Vadima to the first cohort of civil servants, "is to free up the thinkers to do just that. They must continue undisturbed, in their quest to be knowledgeable in all things and all subjects.

”For too long the University has emphasized the physical sciences to the exclusion of all else. As we demonstrate the value of the soft sciences we’ve mastered in application, this will change.

“I can speak only for myself, but I did not struggle and sacrifice for so many years to obtain my PhD in Operations Management to be dismissed as a mere janitor... so do your jobs well.”

Buster's Uncle:
Junta Politics - The Spartan Succession
By Alinestra Covelia

All told, it could have been far worse. At first there was Menzies, Aldercott, Chen, Hommel, and Fernan. As it turned out, Major Chen was on bordermarch duty on the morning of 10-10-10, with two columns of rovers to his command. His original plan for the day had been to patrol until relieved by Fernan, but the emergency transmission changed all that.

Major Sosimo Fernan reached the rendezvous point to meet with Chen in private, discussing the latter's vital message: the Colonel was in mortal danger. After a hurried consultation, Fernan took his double column of rovers and legions back towards Spartan territory. For his part, Chen was to proceed at full speed to the Neutral Zone and make a thorough trawl, then return to the Spartan border, to guard against any enemy incursion.

It would take the force days to get to the Neutral Zone, and Chen Tse-Kuo had been an exemplary captain. Hardly surprising, either - he'd fought on the Taiwanese side during the Greater China Incidents back on Earth, and he'd put up a damn good fight against a crushingly superior force. Thinking ahead to the succession struggles, Fernan thought it would serve the Federation well for Chen to spend the next few days far far away.

And then there were four.

Fernan raced towards Spartan Citadel, where Major Pietr Hommel held jurisdiction. Hommel had the best-trained forces in the entire federation, and slightly more in number than any other commander, owing to his location near the frontier. He also had a strong sense of loyalty to the Spartan cause, though Fernan had heard him quietly remonstrate with the Colonel once or twice after Scrum meetings. A younger man, Hommel seemed to have wisdom beyond his years, quite devoid of any of the fiery impetuousness usually observed in military youth.

"We need to ensure a smooth transition," Fernan said. "Santiago is going to be out of commission for a while as she recovers." That last part was not a complete truth. Fernan knew nothing of the Colonel's condition, but he did know Hommel valued an individualist touch, and his loyalties were fairly clear - as long as the chain of command was, too.

"How is the Colonel?" Hommel asked. There was the trace of stress in his voice.

"We're still trying to find out," Fernan said. "Major Chen is taking his task force at top speed to the Neutral Zone to determine the situation. He'll come back to the border to stand guard afterwards - our goal is to keep things as orderly as possible."

Hommel pondered this. Chen was one of those types whom you kept out of combat for as long as possible until absolutely necessary. Once he got started, it was hard to rein in the momentum. "Chen said that to you?" he asked, faintly incredulous.

Fernan allowed himself a wry grimace that could have been a smile. "We talked at the border," he said. It was technically true, at least. "When he gets back, we need to be well on our way to a peaceful caretaker regime."

Hommel nodded. "I'm in. What's our first move?"

"Who's your captain of the mobile forces this cycle? Ebert?"

"Ebert, that's right."

Fernan stroked his chin. Ebert was something of a hot head, but the men looked up to him. It would do.

"I'd like to borrow Ebert and as many columns of your rovers as you can spare. They'll stay under his command, but we need to demonstrate unity through a display of strength," he said. "If we get enough men to our banners, we can shut this thing closed without a shot. If we're lucky."

"Fair enough, Sosimo," Hommel said. "Give me fifteen minutes to brief him, and he's yours. Standard report protocols, I assume?"

"Best make it double-encrypted. These are dangerous times. And keep a lid on it. Who knows what the others will do if they find out prematurely. Or not do."

And then there were three.

* ~ * ~ *
Menzies was a spook. From the start, he stood out, with his shoulder-length unruly mop of hair and his scraggly beard. Fernan suspected the beard was a foil to distract from the man's evident lack of age. Hommel might have seemed just on the young side of the Major's rank, but Menzies... He'd seen raw recruits older than this one.

Fernan shivered. They said the man had unusual powers. He apparently fritzed out a bank of computers walking past them at Sparta Command and gotten himself thrown into the clink briefly. Then those damn worms came, and the spook took off with a group of his oddball cronies. They'd been this close to a court-martial when they came back from the wild with Planetpearls and docile larvae.

It had been a metric hour since Chen brought the news by mouth. Chen had then turned right around and headed back towards Neutral Zone. Hommel was the only other person who knew. Unless, of course, Menzies' freak talents lent themselves to clairvoyance too.

Fernan had an aide trawling the internal COMINT transmissions for any news of Colonel Santiago's fate, but so far Chen's discretion had paid off. Nothing on the airwaves, and nothing in the conversations either.

Hommel and his men took up at a vacant resupply depot, and Fernan hailed Menzies. The base at Blast Rifle Crag welcomed him in.

"We need to talk in private," Fernan said, eventually, to Menzies. Once they were cloistered, he came right to the point. "Your research is the largest non-military budget item in the entire Federation treasury rolls."

"Is this to be an economics test?" Menzies asked sardonically.

Fernan ignored the interjection. "In the case of a factionwide emergency, if there should be a shortfall of energy and resources, your research would be the first to get the axe," he said bluntly.

Menzies was regarding him warily now. They said those eyes could stop your heart. Or maybe crush your trachea. Fernan fingered his badge.

"We have reason to believe there was a terrorist incident at the Meet," he said blandly. "The Colonel may be dead, or she may be coming back to resume control of the faction. But either way, there will be war. And somebody is going to pay. My job today is to make sure the war isn't a civil one."

Menzies stood up. "You have your guns and rovers, Major Fernan, but I have something far greater. The power of the mindworms," he said. Fernan fought the urge to roll his eyes. "With just a thought, my men can husk your columns."

"...and Hommel's too? And Chen?" Fernan countered. "Hommel's forces are just beyond the Sunrise Ridge. Chen returned from the Neutral Zone to my jurisdiction this morning." That, too, was only technically true. "Tell me if your mindgame spooks can handle those odds. And what would you have achieved anyway? Another slight reprieve for your cultivation tanks, before you run out of credits to keep the power on. And then at one stride comes the dark."

Fernan leaned forward. "I remember when you were just prisoner J-R-0705 in Sparta Command, Menzies," he said. "Nobody could ever prove you were guilty of anything. And for the record, I don't think you were. But we're getting very close to a crisis situation here, and it's decision time. You're either going to observe a smooth transition of power, or you're in the way. And bear in mind that your clean record of innocent verdicts might very well depend on your choice in the next few minutes."

Fernan stood up. "And just so you know, Hommel's man Ebert is receiving my vital signs every minute, as a security measure. If anything happens to me, you'll be back in your cell before sunrise tomorrow. If you do choose to go that route, I hope for your sake you like violent-crime drones for company."

He walked out. The sword was hung, now. Time would tell if Menzies heeded it.

And then there were two.

* ~ * ~ *
Aldercott had dominion over Sparta Command in the absence of the Colonel, and he had access to Santiago's ear most other times. Fernan recalled the frank, unstinting discussions he himself had shared with the Colonel - not exactly collegial, but a telling insight to her thoughts and priorities for the Federation. Aldercott, on the other hand, had always struck Fernan as a mere sounding-board: something you speak through to hear the sound of your own voice, rather than somebody whose input you sought.

Unfortunately, Aldercott also had access to the Command Center and training grounds. That meant he had the largest number of men of fighting age in absolute terms, though a good number of them were green recruits and non-commissioned officers. Unlike Fernan's own forces, most of Aldercott's men had never fired a rifle in earnest hostility against another human being.

All the same, Fernan didn't want to put that to the test if he could help it. He left his rover columns as close to the citadel as he could without triggering the sensors, and proceeded in a civilian transport to the command center. There, Aldercott's aide, Colvin, came to meet them.

"You know Ebert, I trust - captain of Major Hommel," Hernan said. "We must speak with Major Aldercott urgently, in private."

Colvin refused to leave, and Aldercott, spotless in his ceremonial uniform, did not ask him to.

"This is an unexpected visit," he said with a jauntiness that betrayed his age. He was fit, too - his cropped grey hair a pleasant sight against his sleek jawline. Fernan had to give him that: the man knew how to make power look good.

"The Colonel may be dead," Fernan said without preamble. "I spoke with Chen and Hommel and Menzies, and we are agreed that a smooth and orderly transition of power is called for. I do not know the details of the Colonel's health, but I do know we are liable to enter a state of war against one or more neighboring factions, and the Federation must unite under one leader to preserve the chain of command. I am here to accept your oath of loyalty."

Aldercott regarded Fernan narrowly. "Why should I swear it? I have the largest force under my command, and you have what? A skirmishing border party?"

"Two columns of rovers," Fernan corrected him. "Currently approaching your base from the southern and southwest passes. That is in addition to twelve infantry legions and two artillery support battalions. Ebert here is the representative of Major Hommel, who commands two columns of rovers and a further five infantry legions. Your current troop strength is roughly equivalent, though I notice you have no artillery detail this cycle, and half of your eighteen infantry legions are still earmarked as 'green'. As it currently stands, logistical calculations suggest your defenses will hold out no longer than two days. And you can rest assured that if the Colonel returns and learns that your opposition led to such loss of life, she will at the very least order a court-martial."

Fernan remained standing, watching the older man as the facts solidified.

"Before you commit to any regrettable actions," he continued, "you may wish to reflect on the fact that Chen's legions and columns will be crossing back into Spartan territories under my command, with two more columns of rovers and at least six legions deployable. As I recall, your Command Centers may be able to rush-train a militia of roughly comparable numbers. But will they be ready to do battle against Chen's force, fresh from the battlefield?"

Aldercott's lips were a thin compressed line as he made his way to his desk.

"You're bluffing," he said. "Chen could be gone for weeks."

Fernan sighed. "And you would be history after two days," he said. "And don't bother with the pistol either. We're both wired to vital monitors. It's a good step to take if you are tired of your post."

Aldercott whirled around. His hand was empty. "It has been ten years," he snarled, his face mottled. "Where were you in the Unity Rebellion? How many of Yang's goons did you bag, grasshopper? And here I am, medals on my chest but breastfeeding rookies in the training halls."

Ebert had risen, but Fernan laid a hand on his shoulder and propelled him back into his chair.

"Major Aldercott, with your aide Colvin as a witness, I would like to advise you that you are the sole remaining obstacle to a transition government. I understand there may be elements of compensation still to discuss, but we need unity at this time. Will you swear your oath of loyalty to me as commander in chief?"

The older man had calmed somewhat. Hands straight down by his sides. Eyes glaring murder at Fernan. The tense snorts of his breathing the only response.

"Very well," Fernan said. "I hereby call upon Colvin to place you under house arrest and to confine you to your quarters for the next two days pending reassessment. Colvin?"

The aide stepped forward uncertainly.


Fernan nodded. "You've heard what has gone between us today. Do you have any difficulty understanding and obeying this order?"


"Very good. Ebert, over to you."

And then there was one.

* ~ * ~ *
Ebert took charge of the commlinks and authorized entry to the waiting forces outside the city. He hailed Hommel and left reports of their success at Sparta Command, along with suggested protocols for dealing with Chen upon the latter's return. Early reports from Blast Rifle Crag, however, suggested that Menzies was expelling the military guard there.

For the first time, Fernan smiled.

"He has made his choice. Prepare a cell for him here."

"We're not entirely sure where he is," Ebert warned.

"Perhaps. But we know where he will be. He will be hauled before us and made to kneel at our feet," Fernan said. "We now have free rein to do what we do best, Ebert - establish peace through superior force."

"Like the good Colonel would have intended?" Ebert asked.

"Just so."

Buster's Uncle:
Strained Relations - The Morganite Succession
By Alinestra Covelia, with Buster's Uncle

In the aftermath of the 10-10-10 attacks, the news that CEO Morgan was inaccessible was bad enough. Worse was yet to come: on the second day, it surfaced that his will was inaccessible too.

A frenetic search quickly uncovered the relevant file in an encoded data node the day after the attacks, but the Morgan clan seemed oddly reticent about its contents. Something convulsed the supreme First Family of Morgan Industries, and they weren't telling what.

Nnamdi Atanwe was the first to figure it out. On the second day, security forces took a considerable number of junior family members into custody for questioning. A quick call to a few friends in the security detail told him all he needed to know: the family needed to cooperate in order to crack the password to Morgan's will, and the last members to be contacted wanted a higher share in return for their passcodes. After talks got nowhere, the seniors lost their patience and began applying police pressure on their younger family members. The weakness of their legal theory - obstruction of justice - seemed to bother nobody amid the chaos. With its CEO and other major officers lost in the Meet wreckage, the corporation drifted rudderless as numerous lieutenants jostled for captaincy.

Atanwe noted that only a handful of Morgans were released on the third day. The remainder must have been tough bastards indeed to continue withholding their codes. He decided it was time to act.

The proposed shareholder vote seemed well-intentioned enough on the face of it. The Morgan family was still embroiled in the search for its scion's will and testament - the corporation needed new leadership. Atanwe contacted Godswill Tsefeye in Research and Andre Morgan-Reilly in Holographics, and hammered together the language to change the board. After hours of holopode conferences with other concerned stakeholders, Atanwe proposed a shareholder vote: to appoint an interim board of directors, replacing the Morgan family scions until such time as their family had stabilized the issue of the will.

Tsefeye was skeptical. "The employees and workers don't care to have another oligarchy in place of the old nepotism," he said. The employees and workers individually held the smallest numbers of shares, but if the calculations were to be believed, enough of them had accumulated bonuses for good work over the past decade to make them a serious voting bloc.

Atanwe reassured him. "Make the language plain and simple," he said. "This is not an ouster. We need stability and calm - new leadership until the family sorts out its problems. Every hour of chaos that goes by destroys shareholder wealth. They'll understand that."

Tsefeye was still doubtful. "How will you convince them? Most of them don't look like the types who read the fine print in contracts."

Atanwe smiled. "We'll try to get Reilly on board."

Andre Morgan-Reilly had never had much love for the Morgan family. He'd married into their clan, but the woman he'd married seemed happy enough to keep her two romantic companions from before, and furthermore to use his hard-earned profits for the Holographics division to feed and clothe them. The divorce had been mercifully quiet, but Morgan-Reilly had nurtured a not-so-quiet dislike of the clan ever after. It didn't help that he was still their employee either.

"I like it," he said bluntly. "Hit them while they're down."

Atanwe made a placating gesture. "We are not looking to remove them permanently just because of the emergency," he said. "This is strictly temporary."

Morgan-Reilly grimaced. "Ten years they've been feeding off the backs of the workers they employ," he muttered. "Now their Great Sun is dead and you see the vermin crawling about looking for any leaf to hide under. People are pissed, Atanwe. People are ready for an overthrow, and all they need is a nudge from the media."

Atanwe sighed. "And what happens when they get tired of us, in three weeks' time?" he asked wearily. "You can't go toppling your board as if they're dictators. We must follow the corporate articles. Otherwise, we have anarchy. You need to make them see - our only goal here is to stabilize the board and resume business as usual under interim leadership."

"Define 'interim'," said Morgan-Reilly.

"Say, until the next shareholder standard vote," Atanwe said.

The other man was silent for a moment. This lent itself to interesting possibilities. What the shareholders vote in today as an emergency measure might - with adequate cultivation - hold for reaffirmation next year. If they were happy with the work in between.

"Before I commit myself, I need to know for sure that Morgans aren't coming back," he said at last. "It's true I can usually make the media say what I need them to, but if they bounce back and look around for heads to lop, they'll know who called the shots."

Atanwe nodded. "I'm still checking up all my leads. I think they're still looking for the will, and I think it requires complete consensus before they can resolve the situation."

Morgan-Reilly broke into a broad, vindictive grin. "Well, you should be just fine then. I'll be standing by."

Atanwe sat back and pondered. If the family needed every last passcode to unify itself again, what would happen if one of the codes was forever buried?

He plumbed through the newsfeeds from the past two months, and found the name he was looking for - one hand already reaching for the holopode controls.

* ~ * ~ *
Director Chukwumba sat shivering in the darkness, trying to ignore the increasing nausea. They had bundled him into this isolation cell with the final words "You hold the key to your own release" and sealed the door.

The cell was comfortable enough - no sharp edges, no hard surfaces without adequate padding, and the temperature was even balmy warm. But his shivering had nothing to do with the heat. A man of his age tended to carry ailments and imperfections of the body, such as the need for dialysis.

Additionally, a man of his age might forget minor details - such as the passcode needed to unlock the Morgan will.

He sat back, mouth open and breathing shallow, as his family outside engaged their corporate civil war in earnest.

* ~ * ~ *
The security men hailed the residence once. Then again. When no response was forthcoming, they broke open the door and swarmed into the apartment.

Inside, the place was a ransacked mess. The security officers hesitated, then went in, pistols low. Inside the solarium, they found him, sitting shoeless and tie askew around his neck, staring into the middle distance.

"Mister Nwora Nwabudike," they said.

He made a waving gesture of dismissal.

"You are Nwora Nwabudike?" they asked.

He bit his lip and turned away. The guard sergeant nodded, and went forward with the scanner.

"I am taking you into custody, Director, under the powers given to me by the corporate charter. As per the requirements of the shareholder vote, we are to remove you from the indicia of office and to confiscate corporate equipment from your possession."

Nwora held out a hand. The sergeant scanned it, then nodded.

"I'm sorry, Mister Nwora," he said gently. He brought out the restrainers and deftly locked Nwora's hands with them.

"Help yourself to whatever's left," the civilian said gamely. "She took everything already."

"Who did?" asked the sergeant sharply, but Nwora would say no more.

The sergeant synchronized reports remotely, noting that none had resisted with force so far. There was only one more house left to go.

* ~ * ~ *
Chinwemma came in with another tumbler of whisky.

"Flora told me they got Nwora as well. Just in the last hour," she said. "His apartment was torn apart like a chestnut."

Arinze took the tumbler from her and downed it unsteadily, his statesmanly features blurring already from the alcohol.

"Nwora was weak," he said. "They won't get me that easily."

Chinwemma looked up at him. Arinze was a tall, lean man - the sort that her friends used to nickname "the plainsmen". It ran in his family, too. His cousin, Chukwumba, had the same lean shanks and lanky reach. Legend had it that the flat muscles and sprawling arms could propel a spear through still air and two consecutive shields of ironwood.

Chinwemma watched her husband loosen his tie and load a shredder pistol. Around them, other young men did likewise - retainers or majority investors or cronies, all facing certain arrest and imprisonment. Some had clear guilt on their consciences: they had misappropriated corporate funds, or taken their knowledge to gain unfair advantages, or placed themselves in positions of conflicted interest and personal gain. Others were simply the victims of guilt by association: brothers by marriage, sporting friends, trusting investors and drinking buddies. Even poor Chukwumba, she thought - even though he alone of the Directors set a high standard for frugality and honesty.

"Do you have another?" asked a young man, waving a glass at her. She stifled her distaste for his soaked breath and took it from him graciously.

"Of course," she said. Then, raising her voice, "Anything for the last real men among the Director's group."

This raised a few ragged cheers among the crowd, and a few more proffered tumblers. She brought the drinks into the dining hall and had started filling them when the intercom came to life.

"Director Arinze Morgan, this is the Security Police, with a warrant for your arrest. Open your premises and come peacefully."

She hurried out with the drinks. The men were scrambling now, taking up positions behind pillars, ducking around upturned desks and tables, peeking up across chairs.

Chinwemma turned to the intercom. A young man was standing there, his hand on the mute button.

"What do I tell them?" he asked.

Chinwemma looked at the gathered men and smiled. She held up a glass of the whisky - vintage stuff, taken from Earthside - and arched an eyebrow.

"Come get him yourself, neh?" she suggested defiantly. The men cheered as she brought the bottle among them. They drank it down and settled as the young man at the intercom passed on the message.

She was well-ensconced in the back room by the time the shredder fire broke out.

* ~ * ~ *
In a Morganite shareholder vote, especially one brought about in reaction to a share price plummet after the decapitation of the corporate officer chain, there is rarely the luxury of time. Agendas are sparse, details are few, and more usually than not, the sense of aggrieved indignation by voting shareholders carries the day.

On the third day, at a prearranged time, key voting blocs sympathetic to Nnamdi Atanwe, Godswill Tsefeye, and Andre Morgan-Reilly convened a special emergency vote removing the board of directors and installing a new interim board. In many ways, the vote was purely symbolic - many former directors were now in hiding or already in custody to answer to their family's demands for passcodes. More remarkable still, several Morgan family associates switched sides and voted for the measure - most notably Chinwemma Morgan, a recent addition to the family by marriage. Her vote against the ruling family gave considerable support for the interim leadership's cause.

Arinze Morgan had died resisting arrest, which largely locked the will of Nwabudike Morgan. There might be challenges and court-mandated overrides, to be sure, but lawsuits were lengthy affairs and the corporation would be long out of Morganite share ownership by the time the sluggish courts reached a verdict. As the fractured family clan recovered from the loss of their patriarch's personal fortune, they sought to regain the good graces of the public in the aftermath. Chinwemma's exoneration in the public eye would likely help them rehabilitate in the new corporate order. Her success, two weeks after the raids, in securing the former directors' releases from solitary confinement to house arrest also added to her reputation as an honest peacemaker.

When the triumvirs of the new board were seated, they found themselves joined by a shrewd aging housewife, armed with the still-formidable combined proxies of the remaining Morgan family. Chinwemma garnered just enough general shareholder support from both sides of the aisle to to make it stick. With the interim board divided behind the new CEO Morgan, the year to come promised to be an interesting one.

A news reporter asked about her motivation in freeing potential rivals to the family empire, during a spot on primetime Morgan-Reilly broadcasting. Her response was simple.

"We are all Morganites today," she said. "And our CEO would have wanted it thus."

Buster's Uncle:
Strength Amid the Grieving - Gaian Succession
By Alinestra Covelia, with input from Buster's Uncle

"If I don't come back with the pledges-" Deirdre had begun.

"Nonsense," Ailean had said. "You're going to be fine. You'll bewitch them." He'd slipped his fingers through her hair. "And if that doesn't work, you'll go to plan B and just reason with them."

Deirdre had averted her face, though her sigh showed her resistance was token. "-if I can't, though, we're out of luck."

Ailean had stopped at that, pensive. For the past ten years, they had held true to their promise - to learn to coexist with Planet, not merely to survive at its expense. Ten hard years of sacrifice and their ecological niche stance was losing much of its popularity. And Paloma's rival Pragmatists were gaining support. Much lay on the Meet and its outcome, and whether Deirdre came back a prophetess, or a pariah.

"We might lose our place in the Gathering, I suppose," he'd said. "But what if we did? We'd still be tilling the soil. Looking across broad vistas of a brave new world. Fulfilling our deepest destinies under an alien sky. We'd face the new world together, if nothing else."

Deirdre had burst into sudden giggles at that.

"What is it?" he'd asked.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't be laughing. That's not funny," she'd chastised herself. "You're such a hopeless romantic even without knowing."

Ailean had thought this over, confused, until she had pulled herself back to him again.

"Always the dreamer, never the pragmatist," she'd said. Then, with a quickening in her eyes, and catching her lip between her teeth: "Come then, daftae. You get to fulfill my deepest destiny - under an Ailean Skye."

* ~ * ~ *
Paloma wasn't a bad person, Ailean would be the first to admit that. But she had radically different views of how to run the faction, and she had proven herself skilled at rallying support behind her arguments. Where the true Gaians swore, as noted in their faction charter, never to repeat the destructive exploitation seen back on Earth, the Pragmatists argued for a middle ground.

They had pushed for cultivating and changing the native plants. Trapping and hunting the native life. All in the name of survival. The Gaian protests of slippery-slope unsustainability and self-contradictory ethics fell increasingly on deaf ears. Skye had even gone to stricter laws to dissuade poaching and despoiling.

A month prior, it had come down to a key vote, brought by Paloma before the Gathering. Her motion asked the settlement leaders to repeal the ban on hunting and planting forests. There had been close deals, tense agreements. In the end, the vote came down barely in the purists' favor.

Since then, there had been razorbeak attacks at the Jevics family homestead. Crops damaged, even a civilian injured. A straight vote on a hunting repeal would go the other way now - the tide was turning away from the long-term question and more towards small-minded short-term security. Or a pale facsimile thereof.

Ailean turned back to Yates, the mug of berry wine still warm. The older man seemed truly sad.

"I wish I could give you better news," he said. "But with the bad harvests and the local fauna activity..." He sighed. "It was different ten years ago, Ailean. It was just me and my brothers, and nobody else. Then you get married, and now you have a wife to think of. And then younger feet start running around the house. People think different once kids are in the equation."

Ailean nodded. "I understand," he said. "It's a tough row to hoe."

He took his leave and went back to the rover, where McKinnell was already waiting.

"Any luck with the Belleterres?" he asked. McKinnell made a so-so gesture.

"Could be. Seemed shook," he said. "Maybe you should have come with me. They seem to like you well."

"Yates is changing his mind," Ailean said. "Not that I blame him. I reckon we might be able to sway him back if we get him electric perimeter fencing. He might not need to hunt then."

"That's the spirit, good man!" smiled McKinnell. "Keep bouncing back." He looked down at his datapad. "Next up, the McClellands."

Ailean tilted his head thoughtfully. The McClellands were friends of Deirdre's. They were thinkers first, and settlers second. Maybe they might prove more sympathetic to the questions that were important, rather than merely urgent.

"What are we on? Five Nays so far?" he asked.

"Aye," said McKinnell. "And one Abstention."

"Let's see if we're destined for a Yea tonight," he said, hoisting himself into the rover.

* ~ * ~ *
Joely McClelland was a tall, willowy woman with light brown hair and piercing green eyes. Her primary calling had been research in biofuels, giving her political views a rather different set than those of earthy farmers. Ailean had a good feeling about her support - not least because her husband, Prentice, was among the diplomats attending Deirdre to the Meet.

"Absolutely," she'd said. "Without doubt or hesitation. More tea?"

McKinnell came back from the signals room.

"Ailean, there's reports of Pragmatists looking for you," he said. "They've been at the homesteads we visited earlier today. Wouldn't say what for."

Ailean exchanged startled glances with Joely. "Whatever could they want with me?" he mused.

Joely sat back, thinking. "Don't they need a supermajority quorum to pass emergency laws without your wife present?" she asked.

Ailean sat up. "You could be right. All they have to do is put me in radio contact and they'd be able to motion for a vote. It might happen tonight," he said, rising to his feet.

"We have six more homesteads to visit," McKinnell said. "We were going to hit them tomorrow."

Joely fingered her cup of tea. "I could put you up for the night here," she said slowly. "Tell them you'd moved on earlier in the night if they come looking."

Ailean looked back at her. They held the thought a moment - a shared glimmer in the mind.

McKinnell cleared his throat. "Mrs. McClelland?" he said. "A 'Sarah Stanek' hailing you now. Apparently signal strength is coming from just around the hills to the west."

Sarah Stanek was the local head of household most sympathetic to the Pragmatists. Ailean picked up his datapad and rebreather mask. "We must be going," he said hurriedly. "If they ask us where we've gone, let's say..." he checked the map, "to Feldspar's."

"Of course," said Joely airily. "Do let me know you're all right though. They won't be here in the morning." She handed him his outer wrap, and her fingertips crossed his briefly. The memory of the touch flickered in her eyes.

And then they were gone, through the airlock and into the dusky gloaming.

* ~ * ~ *
They headed towards the sunset for a while, darkening their driving window against the glare. They left off the path to Feldspar's and headed to the next household on the list - Mimura's, by the riverbend.

The first hailing went poorly, however.

"Ailean? Is that you?" came Hiroki's voice. "There are visitors here. They have to talk to you."

Ailean exchanged glances with McKinnell. How had the Pragmatists managed to scramble people out here so fast? He nodded, and McKinnell cut the commlink.

"They must want that emergency vote bad," he muttered. "Figures they'd wait till Deirdre was away from home before chancing it."

Ailean smiled grimly. "Deirdre wasn't sure she'd have anything worth talking about after the Meet, let alone during it," he said. "They could have just waited a few weeks and the vote would still be the same."

"Orders?" McKinnell asked. They were idling, still amidst the twilight breezes. Ailean looked at his pad. Dammit, they'd have to double back.

"Back to Joely's, I guess. We may have to take her up on her offer," he said.

"Very good," McKinnell said without any inflection whatsoever. He turned the rover around and plotted a return course.

Ailean pondered this. "No," he said suddenly. "Let's go to Feldspar's. We're going to court every last vote we can. They want to follow us in the night, let them. But I'm damned if I'll make it easy for them."

McKinnell smiled broadly. "Now you're talking."

* ~ * ~ *
Feldspar was primarily involved in the cultivation of evergreens, and his plants took readily to the Chironian atmosphere. However, Gaian conservation laws strictly forbade any plantings outside of carefully marked boundaries, to prevent invasive Earth species from squeezing out native plant life. Feldspar had never been very likely to back the Gaians in any case, spending precious hours of his time uprooting saplings and burning the fruits of his labor because of their regulations.

Feldspar had merely been their feint, their alibi. So it would have taken a miracle for Ailean and McKinnell to get to him now before the Pragmatists did.

As it turned out, luck was not on Ailean's side. Two rovers had poured out from Feldspar's homestead towards them. McKinnell slammed on the brakes, pulled a smart reversal, and peeled away into the night, pressing out a new zig-zagging trail in the underbrush.

"Is this strictly necessary?" Ailean asked. "I don't think we need to go so fast."

"Up to you, sir." McKinnell slowed. Ailean looked behind them. He couldn't see anything in the dark, but the readings showed the pursuers not far behind. "I, uh... I could take us closer to the treeline, if you think it would help," McKinnell said.

Ailean shook his head. "No, I don't want them risking injury just to get us," he said. "Try to lose them around the hills. They'll find it hard to triangulate us that way."

McKinnell nodded and floored the accelerator again. At that point, a commlink warbled. Somebody was trying to get through. Ailean looked at it uncertainly. Then he flicked it on.

"Ailean Skye?" came a heavily accented voice. They recognized the commlink speaker immediately: Paloma. Only with a strange tightness in her voice. "Mister Skye, I must speak with you. Immediately, please!"

What was it? Ailean wondered. A pleading note in her voice? Paloma was about to put him to a vote that would crush him. What on Planet did she have to be worried about?

McKinnell leaned over and spoke in a low voice. "We can still outrun them, sir. We have enough air for two days."

Ailean thought about this as the underbrush whipped by into the distance.

"Hello?" Paloma's disembodied voice asked. "Hello? This is very important, I cannot talk about it over transmissions. Can we please meet face to face? Ailean? Are you there?"

He shook his head. The game was up, either way. Time to end this with a scrap of dignity.

"Ailean Skye here, reading you loud and clear Paloma. We'll be powering down and putting up lights. Watch your step, I think we're heading into sinkhole terrain."

* ~ * ~ *
The two rovers came to a halt on opposite sides of Ailean's own, transfixing them in their spotlights. Ailean stepped out into the darkness, grateful for the breathing mask's faceplate. He was sure his expression looked sheepish - and with good reason.

A handful of people came out of the other rovers and approached them, turning from black silhouettes to white-lit paperdolls in an instant as they stepped into the headlights.

Ailean watched as one female suited figure, rather shorter than her companions, came up to him and faced him in the spotlight. It was Paloma, her Brazilian features brightly lit through the rebreather.

"I didn't have time to prepare a concession speech," Ailean joked. Then his boyish smile disappeared as Paloma stood, wordless, in front of him.

She had clearly been crying.

"No," she said simply. "Not about the vote."

There was a running dampness about her eyes and nose, and lines of tension ran across her forehead. Her manner was composed now, but hinted at some terrible anguish.

"Paloma? My God, what has happened?" he asked.

She began sobbing again, her tears rasping in the commlink before she turned it off. She doubled over silently in her grief, and Ailean reached out and put a hand uncertainly on her shoulder. A few moments later, and she recovered enough to speak.

"There will be an emergency vote, but not about conservation laws," she said. "There was an attack. At the Neutral Zone. On the Meet faction leaders."

He nodded, transfixed with the dawning certainty. It all made sense, now. The ground pursuit. The frenzied radio calls. Realization came upon him and broke, like a sudden wave. Beyond, only stars of numbness in the dark.

"Ailean," she said. "Your wife - our leader - Deirdre is dead."

* ~ * ~ *
McKinnell had driven him to Feldspar's. They had given him light home-brewed wine to soften the blow. Paloma had gone through the facts with him - such as they knew, anyhow. There had been a few minutes' work with datapads, and then he'd clipped on a commlink and gone live - joining every other household in the faction in an emergency vote to determine their next leader.

To Ailean, none of it felt quite real. The whole world bustled and fretted around him, but he could only watch it from numb distance, knowing she was no longer in it. When they pressed the notes into his hand, he had scanned them over and started reading, almost gamely. After all, what difference did it make? She was gone.

He'd given a quick speech, informing them of the 10-10-10 attacks. The fact that Deirdre's commlink was down, and the preliminary reports that nobody had survived. Then he told them, as they must all know, that he felt the loss of their leader as keenly as anybody.

That done, he slumped back in his chair, suddenly tired beyond all description. McKinnell shot him an odd look. Ailean looked back at him blearily. "You know," he said musingly, "before she left, I told her we'd face the new world together, if nothing else. I wish we could." He nodded to himself, then drew a ragged breath as his eyes suddenly, shockingly, filled with tears. "Oh, how I wish we could!"

McKinnell reached over to pat his shoulder with one hand. With the other, he deftly deactivated Ailean's microphone, still broadcasting his last few words.

"She'd called me daft," Ailean said, and buried his face in his hands and wept bitterly at her loss. His grief came in quiet, sobbing gales that brunted him like the sirocco against sand-polished outcrops.

He wept for the loss of her unfailing optimism, evident each morning in her smiles at daybreak. He wept for the loss of her dream, that humanity could live without forcing its demands upon the fragile land. Most of all, he wept for the loss of her guidance - the bright spark of leadership that had guided hundreds of survivors from the wreckage of the Unity and the dead Earth, to a more harmonious future.

* ~ * ~ *
Outside of Ailean's private world of grief, a tide was turning in the Gaian faction. A reminder of the values they had held, coming to the surface of a new unspoiled land. A resolution they had adopted, of a new ethics born of prudence, beyond the sordid hardscrabble of pure survival. And a call to arms, unwitting though it might be, to rally behind a new leader.

We'd face the new world together... I wish we could...

From scattered households, putting aside the minor disagreements over the words of laws, a vehement response emerged. We face the new world together...

It was Paloma who sealed it, giving the call to nominate another Skye for leader. And united in their grief, the faction's citizens supported the motion with unanimous consent.

* ~ * ~ *
He still saw her in dreams. Sometimes very saddening, her vision. But more often comforting. Snippets of the past - a walk in the groves, the air so rich there was no need for masks... straightening up from the planting, smiling at their identical poses of backache... a drowsy morning in a hammock, wrapped in each other's warmth except for her twittering feet, cold in his side...

The first night afterwards, the dream was different though. More focused, clearer. Almost as if it was a continuation of a conversation that had never truly ended - merely adjourned.

"What's that you've got there?" she asked playfully.

He looked down and picked at the sash. "They made me leader," he said, with a fair bit of surprise.

She made a face of teasing awe. "Very grand!" A curtsey, a twirl. "Must I call you Lord Skye, now?" Every motion with the same effortless grace she had held in life. Just as he'd remembered her.

Sudden longing, and the pain of loss, gripped his heart. "I miss you," he said, unable to keep the despair from his voice. "We all miss you. Terribly. You can't imagine."

She made shushing sounds, as to a baby. "Of course I know," she said. "But you're in good hands. You're all in good hands."

He looked up at her. She was faint, passing through trees and valleys and fields as if hardly there. Strange, he thought. Here, in the visions, she faded in and out of reality like a yearning thought. Yet every waking hour in her absence felt like a dreamscape with no escape - with nothing real remaining.

"What shall we do without you?" he asked.

She laughed at that. "You do what is right," she said. "What you stood for all those years ago. What you came here to the new world for. I was only a fellow traveller. You hold the truth within you - all of you."

He strained to see her. She was already gone from sight. Only her voice remained.

"Don't leave me," he called to her, his voice cracking. How could he wake, knowing she was gone forever?

"It's time, Ailean," she said gently. "Go and lead the people who have sashed you." A ghostly caress, as of the breeze below a mulberry tree. "And you are not alone, my love - I'll be here if you need me."

When he woke, his pillow was wet with tears. But his sorrow faded with the dream as he rose and faced the new day, brave in the knowledge that they faced the new world together.


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version