“My family and I are at your mercy, Mr. Chairman,” said the frail man who bowed his head before the might of the Colonization Board.
The man couldn’t have been older than forty-five, but appeared to be in his mid-sixties with a tangled mop of gray hair, leathery skin and a puckered hole where his left eye had once been. The man reached out and put an arm around his wife’s shoulders and even from where she stood at the back of the assembly hall, Admiral Kira Miyaru recognized the long, curved scars of someone who’d fended off a groundling attack with his bare hands. Pinkish lines criss-crossed weathered skin to the man’s elbow, ending in a large circular welt of tissue on the joint.
His wife leaned against him, propping herself up with his strength. On his other side, a starved-looking young boy shuffled his feet, head bowed and eyes cast down like some kind of abused creature. All three of them were too thin, dressed in threadbare clothes made of some colorless synthetic, their shoes patched and repatched until not even the original manufacturer would have recognized their make. The tablets on their wrists were generations out of date, with cracked and battered screens—a far cry from the high-tech, invisible neural interfaces the Empire paid to put in her head.
Chairman Alvin Card leaned back in his seat of state and regarded the impoverished family down the slope of his bulbous nose. They were one of a hundred such families the Colonization Board would be seeing today. A line of supplicants ran along one wall of the cavernous room, out the front door of the state building, and down the marble steps.
It had only been a few months since Kira had last seen Card, but in that time the fringe of brown hair ringing his shining pate like a poor man’s crown seemed to have receded further. He’d also put on an extra ten pounds, and that was being generous.
“The next colony ship embarks in a month,” Card said, “but it is nearly full. There are two cabins left in first class, however…”
The man’s wife slumped visibly.
“Please, sir,” he said, “we can’t afford first class tickets. Won’t you make an exception?”
“Do you have any money?”
As if the fat bastard didn’t already know the answer.
“Enough to eat, but little besides,” said the man. “We live in Camp Six, near the water treatment facility.” Translation: in a stinking smog. “I’ve been looking for work since we arrived three years ago, but with the unemployment rate so high and employers giving precedence to natural born Ariadneans, I can’t get work, not even with my training as a robotics engineer.”
Card frowned and pretended to consider it, but Kira could tell that mention of the man’s work experience had piqued his interest. The chairman asked several more questions in a disinterested tone. Where had the man been schooled? What jobs had he held previously? Card finally traded a look with another of the board members, a tall, severe woman with full fake lips who sat in front of a holoscreen. She tapped on the translucent crystal touchpad for a minute. Passenger lists and diagrams scrolled down through the air before her faster than Kira could follow. She finally leaned over and whispered something in the chairman’s ear.
“There is one other possibility.” The edge of a predatory smile appeared briefly on Chairman Card’s face before he swallowed it with a practiced smoothing of his facial muscles.
The young boy looked up. The whole family held their breath as one organism. They had to be tight knit to survive the destitute poverty of Ariadne’s filthy, overflowing refugee camps. Those who went it alone rarely made it out alive.
“If you agree to this, all three of you must sign a contract to serve the Colonization Board for a term of no less than ten solar cycles, galactic standard time.”
The woman began to protest, but her husband gently hushed her.
“In exchange for your service, you will be provided passage to New Kali in the Elturis System, plus room and board in shared lodging upon your arrival.”
The whole audience, including Kira’s normally aloof security guards, held their breath, still and silent. It was a rare thing for a family to be offered free passage to a new colony. Everyone waited with rapt anticipation.
Everyone except for her. Was New Kali a chance to start a new life? Sure. Would Card and the Colonization Board profit greatly if he made this deal? Without a shred of doubt. And if this family accepted his offer, they would move from a refugee camp to a potentially worse situation. Founding a new colony was no walk in the park. She clicked her tongue disdainfully.
Card glanced in her direction, but seemed unable to pick her out among the crowd of journalists, attorneys, family, friends, and other observers who stood near.
“Mr. Chairman,” said the old-looking robotics engineer. “I beg your pardon, sir, but my wife has been dealing with some health issues. What kind of work will she be required to do?”
The secretary tapped on the crystal. The holograms facing the chairman changed their layout and configuration.
“We don’t have anything in our records. What is her condition?”
“Lung damage due to smoke inhalation during a Kryl invasion. Insurance won’t cover it.”
Card grunted. No more explanation was required.
They went through a series of different options until she finally agreed to take a cooking and cleaning job—essentially indentured servitude. While some Solaran bureaucrat, the son of a rich senator, helped set up a tax-collection system and monopolized industry on the new world, this poor woman would scrub his toilets or serve him home-cooked meals made from the best vegetables the hydroponics farms could grow. Meanwhile, her husband and son would break their backs doing manual labor and eating gruel.
The Colonization Board was oh so magnanimous.
Kira glared at Card and knotted the cloth bag she’d brought with her between her fingers. It was not often she felt ashamed to wear the crimson-trimmed navy uniform as a Rear Admiral in the Solaran Defense Forces, but today was one of those days.
They could do so much more for these people.
If only it wasn’t so profitable for the Solaran Empire to do less.
For the hundredth time that day, Kira wondered how her request to halt colonization efforts would be received by the populace. Life on new colonies was hard… but was life in a refugee camp on the overpopulated city-planet of Ariadne any better?
Not in the eyes of these three. At least on the new colony they had a chance to start fresh.
Once they agreed to the woman’s job, the father of the family said, “Very good, sir. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We accept.”
His wife covered her mouth with both hands and choked back tears—tears of relief. Tears of happiness.
Tears of hope.
Kira took a deep, steadying breath and steeled herself. Even if she got what she wanted, this wasn’t going to be easy.
The family departed with a bounce in their step. The next group of petitioners in line watched them go with hungry, jealous eyes.
The secretary stood and leaned down to whisper in Chairman Card’s ear.
“What?” he whispered fiercely. “This is our busiest day in months. The Maiden of Kali departs in less than a week. No, dammit, I don’t care if the Emperor himself booked the appoint—” He strangled the word in his throat as another member snapped at him, something about decorum and points of order. “Of course. Yes. Okay, fine, fine. It won’t take long in any case, I promise you that.”
Kira’s name flashed into the secretary’s holoscreen, the letters reversed from her perspective. She hadn’t had to wait in line with the other petitioners. She strode into the building on the power of her rank and uniform, having been granted an urgent appointment by the Solaran Defense Forces on grounds of galactic security. When they learned this, the guards at the building’s entrance had saluted her and then parted like the ink-dark seas on Posibar.
Yet despite her station and the authority she bore on orders from the Executive Council, after seeing that family eagerly gather up their scraps she felt like a fly before the swatting machine.
Don’t let this insolent bureaucrat intimidate you, Kira told herself firmly. Stand tall.
The Chairman lifted his chin as she approached and clasped his hands together so hard his knuckles turned white. “I didn’t recognize you at first, Admiral Miyaru. Good to see you again.”
Sure it is. “Likewise, Mr. Chairman,” Kira said, careful to keep any malice out of her tone. “I hope life has been treating you well.”
“Of course, Admiral. Busy season, you know, as it always is before a colonial voyager departs. Now you are here to discuss…” He glanced over at the holoscreen in front of the severe secretary, whose lips were pursed into a firm rosebud of disapproval. The Executive Council must have thrown their weight around to get her this appointment on such short notice, and these people obviously did not take kindly to it. “A matter of galactic security. Is that right?”
“Yes, Mr. Chairman. My pilots discovered something while evacuating Robichar that poses a great danger to the Solaran Empire’s colonization missions. I thought you should be made aware of it as soon as possible.” It would have been sooner if they hadn’t rejected her request for an audience so many times she’d been forced to go to the Executive Council.
The waiting queue of supplicants began to stir and murmur amongst themselves. She felt a sense of hostility float toward her. It was thick and cloying, like steam on a hot summer’s day.
“Which is?” Card asked.
Kira forced herself not to glance to the side. “It is a sensitive matter. Can we please speak in private?”
“I don’t have time for this. Whatever you have to say can be said right here.”
“May I approach, Mr. Chairman?”
He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Very well, come forward.”
The Chairman of the Colonization Board was as much a judge as an administrator. In matters of colonial expansion, Card was invested with the power of the Emperor himself. In the rare instances where appeals were sought, the decision went to a vote of the whole board and, if no majority decision could be reached there, on up to the crown. Before coming today, Kira had checked the records. Card had been appointed Chairman at the end of the Kryl War twelve years ago. Since then, not a single appeal had gone to the Emperor.
She must choose her words wisely if she didn’t want to get sucked into a bureaucratic quagmire. She composed herself as she strode up to the high bench. She was just tall enough to see over the desk—and Kira was usually the tallest person in the room.
“What is so important that you cannot speak in front of the board like everyone else?” Card demanded in a whisper.
“This is a matter of galactic security, Mr. Chairman, and not everyone here has clearance.”
“Why did you not seek a private appointment with my office?”
You weasel, Kira thought furiously. She almost lost her cool then, but managed to reign her temper back in with a supreme effort of will. She took a deep breath before saying, “I tried, Alvin. Your office denied five requests in the weeks since the Paladin of Abniss returned to port.”
“It is our busy season, as I’ve said. They have instructions to delay any non-urgent matters.”
“This is urgent, Mr. Chairman. A Kryl hive led by a rogue Overmind has already forced us to evacuate one colony and—”
“I am well aware,”—he twisted each word into a knot as it passed over his tongue—“of your previous mission. Which is why it is imperative that we not fall further behind schedule. We’ve had to divert fifty thousand refugees previously bound for Robichar to other colonies, and you brought back another million we are still scrambling to find housing for!” His voice had risen in volume to match his anger. She felt the audience leaning forward, listening in. Though they were dozens of feet away, it felt as if the refugees were all crowding in at her back, breathing down her neck. She stretched her neck and cleared her throat softly.
“Would you rather we left them on Robichar to be slaughtered by the Kryl?” Her words echoed sharply through the large chamber. She hadn’t meant for her voice to rise quite so high or fast, but the words were out before she was able to contain them.
Card practically choked. A bead of sweat dripped from a neatly plucked eyebrow and splattered onto the tabletop. “I would rather you stay in line, Admiral. Matters of colonial expansion are the Board’s responsibility, not the Fleet’s.”
“Except when it puts the people of the Solaran Empire in danger.”
“You got what you wanted—we evacuated Robichar. Now do your job and eliminate this rogue Overmind so that no more of our citizens have to suffer.”
“We eliminated as many of the Kryl as we could without endangering the civilians we were there to rescue, Mr. Chairman, and we continue to monitor their movements. Had we been given the support I had asked for, things may have gone differently, but the Fleet was too busy running patrols on trade routes to your colonies to deploy a sizable force to Robichar.”
“That is a military matter, and none of my concern.”
Yes, it is, you slimy, pedantic son of a xeno.
The Solaran Defense Forces had the Fleet stretched so thin that she had been forced to evacuate Robichar with a single destroyer and half a dozen wings of starfighters and their support craft. It was only due to their ability to track the hive’s movements, her tactical prowess, and a good bit of luck that they got the colonists out in time. And not all of them had made it.
Not that Card gave a damn.
Kira was a tall, broad-shouldered woman, but even despite her six-plus feet in height, she still had to gaze upward to meet Chairman Card’s eyes where he sat at the center of the long, curved desk. She reached up and dropped the cloth bag in front of him. It landed on the table with a thunk.
So he wanted this to be public? Fine. Without so much as an explanation, she whipped the cloth bag off the sealed, aluminite container it concealed.
Card hissed a breath in through his teeth and leaned back in his chair. “By Animus! What in the name of Earth is that?”
“What we discovered on Robichar.”
Inside the transparent, sealed jar was a Kryl parasite about the length of her pinky finger. Its thin, segmented body sprouted eight legs, each ending in hair-thin multi-pronged talons. Its body was translucent, and through its skin a network of veins pulsed with silvery-blue blood.
Exposed to the light, the creature had swelled up to five times its original size, opening its petal-shaped mouth in a silent scream, and was now flinging itself violently against the wall of the jar closest to the chairman. The container rocked on the desktop, causing the chairman to flinch and shove his chair backward.
“This parasite was pulled from the body of one of my starfighter pilots by a surgical bot.”
Card narrowed his eyes and stared down his round nose at her. “And what, pray tell, does this have to do with the Solaran Empire’s moral imperative to find a home for every citizen?”
She heard the shouts of “Yeah!” and “That’s right!” from the crowd of petitioners behind her.
Card recovered from his shock faster than she expected. He may have been an obese, balding bureaucrat, but she had better be careful not to assume he was a dimwit. His unkempt physical appearance had caused her to lower her expectations. Appearances always presented a real danger in politics, something she did not consider herself very good at.
Instead of falling into the trap of playing his games, Kira did what she knew how to do best in difficult situations—she boldly stated the unvarnished truth.
“The pilot we found this parasite in was hallucinating so badly he thought his comrades-in-arms were xenos trying to kill him. He attacked them and had to be detained by force. This same parasite took another pilot, who caused an explosion in my hangar that killed seven good soldiers and injured dozens more. On Robichar, another one of my pilots uncovered a Kryl plot to kidnap children and convert them into mutant Kryl-human hybrids using the same parasite you’re looking at. Does that count as a clear and present danger to the Solaran Empire, Mr. Chairman?”
She left the bit about the Telos relics out of her story. The idea of a relic that could be weaponized against the Kryl would have been laughable if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. She couldn’t very well include that part without revealing the relic, and while she had been willing to make a scene if the chairman gave her no other choice, she still hadn’t been willing to expose such a dangerous weapon to the public. The relic was stored securely on her destroyer and would remain so until she had assurances. And it wasn’t the chairman she’d hand it over to when she did.
He just stared at her, fury rising in his clenched face.
“So, what does this have to do with the Empire’s moral imperative to expand?” Kira went on, turning from the chairman and raising her voice to address everyone in the room. “Everything.”
If these people were going to be sent to colonize a new world, they deserved to know the danger they would potentially be facing. “Before I left on the mission to evacuate Robichar, I told you the Kryl were up to something, but I didn’t know what. Well, now I do, and here’s the proof. The Kryl are roaming again. They’re developing dangerous new abilities, ones that involve kidnapping and turning our people—our children—into xeno mutants. This new, rogue Overmind is the greatest danger the Empire and her colonies have faced since the end of the Kryl War.” She turned back to Card and met his eyes. “So I’m asking, Mr. Chairman, for you to pause colonial expansion until the threat has been eradicated. Until we can ensure the safety of all of our citizens.”
A worried murmuring broke out among the crowd. Husbands turned to their wives. Mothers clutched their children to their skirts. Friends whispered worriedly in each other’s ears.
Meanwhile, Chairman Card’s face had darkened to a livid shade of red. “Request denied.”
“Sir, please. Galactic security—”
“I have made my decision!” he shouted, shooting to his feet and knocking his chair over, the wood—the rare, expensive, and elegantly carved wood—of its frame clattering carelessly on the marble floor behind him. He strode away and departed through a door set flush with the wall. His secretary gathered her things and followed her boss. After a moment’s hesitation, the other members of the board went, too.
When Kira turned back to the people, she found no sympathy. A sea of agate-hard eyes stared back at her, faces set in sneers, jaws clenched in anger.
In that moment, Kira realized she’d made a fatal mistake. Knowing the chairman would deny her request, she had let her temper get the best of her. She’d used the moment and her position to publicly humiliate him. And in her desire to crush his ego, she had inadvertently turned the people she was trying to protect against her.
Kira turned her eyes down in shame. She was a soldier, not a politician.
Taking a deep breath, she wiped her expression smooth and pulled her shoulders back. One day, they would understand. And until then, she could deal with their judgment. She’d lived long enough as a false war hero in the public eye. This wasn’t much different. On some level, she even welcomed the change.
But by the Spirit of Old Earth, she hated playing politics.