EXCERPT FROM RULED OUT
COPYRIGHT © CAMERON COOPER 2021
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Pre-Inauguration Planning Sessions, Spo Park Convention Center, Spo Park District, Triga. Y28 (174 T.D.)
The theatrette Jai and Marlow had rented with some of the last of their cash reserves featured sound-absorbing walls with green and brown coloring meant to be relaxing, but which I found uninspiring. It had an expensive sound system, mid-level lighting in a filtered green spectrum for its attention preserving properties, and plush ergonomic chairs designed for long-distance sitting, enough for four hundred people. The panel of officials seated behind the table on the low stage used mobile versions of the endurance-seating and pickups which made speaking above a normal volume unnecessary.
The theatrette even came with an observation balcony, with a row of more plebian chairs designed to discourage lingering. You were, presumably, supposed to observe for a short while then either join the proceedings, or leave.
The theatrette was full of features which weren’t ideal for this particular event, but then, what building short of a purpose-built center of government would be?
It was also discouraging that more people perched upon the uncomfortable chairs in the observation gallery than participated in the proceedings below. I had not counted the heads I could see in the gallery because I didn’t want to confirm the numbers. There were too many empty red chairs down there.
The “heads of state” sitting in the audience were scattered in the front two-thirds of the rows and one of them on the far right raised his hand to be recognized.
Kristiana, one of the four people behind the table on the stage, turned her head toward the raised arm. “Premier O’Hanegan?”
Madhava O’Hanegan lowered his arm. He was the leader of The City on Uqup Pedrottle. His spare rangy appearance reminded me sharply of Eliot Byrne, who was also a Pedrottle. He spoke with the same accent as Byrne. “Perhaps you can clear something up for me. One of you said earlier—Colonel Van Veen, I think—about this being a temporary measure.”
Jai Van Veen leaned forward. “Absolutely. Most of us don’t want a central authority. We’ve all survived for nearly half a century without one. We’ve all got along on our own and now we’re doing things our own way. An assembly of representatives of polities across the Carinad worlds would be purely temporary, an expediency to help us combat the Terran war we face. We can’t call a meeting like this and drag you all from your homes every time we need to agree upon a military strategy.”
“Ah, yes, the Terrans,” O’Hanegan said. He got to his feet. “The video you played yesterday, that Terran thing, about ash…”
“Athanasia, the Terrans are calling it, Premier,” Kristiana supplied. “It’s a very old word, but it refers to all our longevity treatments, and the new cloning process developed by the Laxman Institute, collectively.”
“Right,” O’Hanegan said heavily. “You say the Terrans’ raids upon Carinad worlds have been to grab that information, and now they have it. There hasn’t been a Terran raid in months. What makes you think they’ll be back at all? They’ve got what they want. Why won’t they just leave us alone now?”
My gut tightened. It sounded like O’Hanegan was asking a brand-new question, but while he was using new words and homing in on a different point, he was basically asking the same question everyone in the audience had asked for the last four hours, in one way or another.
Why are we talking about a central government, even a temporary one? The Terrans won’t be back.
To me, it felt like every Carinad who had not been part of the mission to Terra had fallen asleep on us, and now we were dealing with the weight of their combined unconsciousness. They didn’t want to know about the Terrans. They had problems of their own to deal with.
This inertia had been in place since we’d returned from Terra. I’d hoped the news of the Terrans’ violent theft of our longevity data would wake everyone up. And twenty-three leaders, directors, mayors and other heads of state had travelled to Triga to hear what we had to say.
Four hours of “who cares?” had disabused me of my silly hope, though. Jai and Kristiana, Marlow and Peter Kole, the four people sitting at the long table trying to convince this theatre full of leaders that we needed to formally unite to defend ourselves from the Terran menace, were wasting their time.
Jai didn’t show a flicker of impatience as he pulled together an answer for Madhava O’Hanegan. “We can’t rule out that the Terrans have given up and gone away to leave us alone forever, Premier, but we have been analyzing the Terran culture for several years, and our efforts have stepped up in just the last year since the beacons came online and gave us fresh, live Terran news. We think the possibility they will leave us alone now is extremely low.”
“But it’s still a possibility,” O’Hanegan shot back. “These dire measures you’re proposing—a central assembly, a federalized military, a war council…taxes, for stars’ sake!”
“We have to pay for a united military somehow, Premier.” Jai’s tone was polite.
“Aye and taxes is the only way to do it,” O’Hanegan replied. His tone was snippy. “It costs a lot of money to build a fighting force, Colonel. I worked in the Imperial Ranger administration as a civilian for near thirty years, some time back, so I have an idea how much money you’re talking about. And I gotta say that I’m reluctant to start handing over near half the budget of my city based upon a hunch that the Terrans will be back.”
“You’re rather wait until they roll up to your front door and blow it in, Premier?” Anderson Marlow asked, his tone as polite as Jai’s.
O’Hanegan looked offended.
Kristiana said quickly, her tone smooth, “The Terrans were raiding our worlds and snatching our people long before they learned of our longevity therapies, Premier. Everything we’ve learned about their society says that they must have a war. Their economy is built to support a Terran war machine and when it is not servicing a war, the economy suffers runaway inflation, unemployment is rife, and spending stagnates. So does their internal trade. War is oxygen to their culture.”
“So they’re paying more for their bread than they used to,” someone called from the other side of the theatre. “So what?” I didn’t recognize the voice.
Peter Kole raised her hand to draw the speaker’s attention. “Actually, they’re not paying more for their bread than they used to, governor. Not anymore. I’ve seen the crunched data. The Terrans have ended their costly civil war and the great families are now working together. The trade routes are busy and their economy is booming, which makes us suspect they are preparing for war.”
“Or they’re cooperating to figure out how to use the longevity therapies, Administrator!” O’Hanegan shot back.
Peter sat back. She had no answer for the premier, because she was not part of the tiny group of people who knew the data the Terrans had stolen was encrypted. Even if the Terrans broke the encryption, the data had small omissions which would stymy any efforts they made to reproduce our techniques.
That wasn’t something we were about to announce publicly because the Terran who had the data wasn’t telling his people he’d screwed up. Kore Odile undoubtedly wanted the encryption key. The analysts at the Bunker, who spent their days assessing Terran news and data, figured the Odile was holding back a full-scale launch, because he thought there was still a chance he might acquire that key. We were willing to go along with Kore Odile’s bluff while his Terran motherships stayed in their section of the galaxy.
The bluff couldn’t hold up for long, though. All it gave us was a pocket of time to prepare. Yet no one wanted to prepare.
A second person got to her feet. It was Gratia Rosalie, the extremely tall Mayor of Zillah’s World. She crossed her arms. “Unlike everyone else on this side of your table, I have no doubt the Terrans will be back,” she said. “I was there on Terra. I agree with the data analysis. They have to have a war. Their culture is centered around warfare.”
I wanted to cheer.
“But the thing I keep coming back to,” she continued, and my need to cheer evaporated, “Is the enormous effort and cost involved to build a federal governing body, house it, and then build a military force which will actually stand a chance against the Terrans. They’ve trained all their lives for combat. Their standing navy is embedded into their worlds.” She shook her head. “I’m not saying we don’t try. Of course we must do this. But I don’t think you can just throw together a temporary governing body the way you set up that table you’re sitting at, then fold it back down once you’re done. An undertaking of this enormity doesn’t go away when you’re done with it. I think we need to talk about a permanent central government—” She raised her hands as protests sounded across the theatre, including Kristiana at the table. “I’m not saying we rebuild the Empire. I say we deliberately build a government in such a way that no single person can ever control it. Build in countermeasures that make it impossible for all the power to reside in a individual person or entity.”
“It would take years to build a system like that,” O’Hanegan pointed out.
“Then maybe we should take those years and do it properly,” Gratia Rosalie replied. “If we put a federal body into place, we can’t be surprised by a galactic coup decades down the road, because the system itself will defeat such pretensions.”
It was a useful idea, but my heart sank. We didn’t have years to design an armor-plated federal system.
But there were murmurs of agreement among the audience members. They liked Rosalie’s suggestion, too.
A hand rested on my shoulder, drawing my attention. Daniya bent down to murmur by my ear; “The wait will kill us.”
“War will be just as fatal,” I assured her.
She straightened, her pretty mouth pulling down into a grimace. Her black hair was twisted up and pinned at the top of her head, and she wore typical spacer clothes—the unrippable, unstainable, wrinkle-free garments with their many pockets and the heavy mag-capable boots. The workmanlike gear was a far cry from the formal outfits down on the floor. But we were just observers.
Rayhel Melissa, who sat next to me because I could tolerate him better than everyone else, said just as softly. “This meeting will be the death of all of us, if we must sit here listening to this idiocy for much longer.” He wore similar gear, but his looked neater and his jacket was without the bulky, junk-filled pockets.
Dalton, on my other side, spoke to Rayhel without heat. “This meeting is where the money will come from to build a military to defend against the Terran invasions. Show some tolerance.”
“I can tolerate anything but human stupidity,” Rayhel shot back.
“No wonder you were going crazy, back on Terra,” Daniya murmured.
He gave her one of his icy stares.
“Why are you still on the Lythion, remind me?” Daniya added. “You’re a free man. Why aren’t you galloping across the Carinad worlds, dominating little people and making your fortune?”
“Worlds that are about to be swallowed whole by the Terrans,” Rayhel replied. He said it matter-of-factly.
“He’s going to stay where it’s safe, right next to the future commander-in-chief of the new military,” Dalton added dryly.
“Unlike most people, I am not stupid,” Rayhel said. “As soon as Kore Odile has his casus belli, the Terrans will come.”
Daniya glanced at me, startled. “That’s why you told Eliot Byrne to stop the wildcatters from jumping over to Terran space? To avoid giving them an excuse to declare war?” She grinned and pointed at the theatre, below, and said to Rayhel, “Maybe you should explain it to them. About the cause-belly thing.”
“They won’t listen to a Terran.” Rayhel’s tone was cold.
“It’s your disdain that offends them, not your origins,” Dalton said.
“Then Danny should explain it to them,” Rayhel said. “Her impatience will win their hearts over.”
I snorted amusement at the idea of standing in front of the politicians down there. “I just want my money, so I can get on with building a military.” I nodded at the people in the red seats. “And from the sound of it, there won’t be any money for years, yet.” I pulled out my pad and smoothed it out.
Ven got to his feet. He had been sitting on Dalton’s other side and as usual, hadn’t spoken a word. These days, he was the fourth member of my crew. He was turning himself into an adequate engineering laborer, who could do basic repairs with the shipmind’s help. I’d lost my usual engineer when Sauli headed back to Darius City to run his and Kristiana’s family of five—minus Daniya, who was with me, and minus Yoan, who was on Wynchester building the Lyrhys—and supervising the family businesses while Kristiana played politician here on Triga.
At Dalton’s question, Ven’s copper-colored features shifted into a frown. “Danny intends to head back to the Lythion.”
“You guessed that from her pulling out her pad?” Daniya asked. Ven fascinated her and she was always asking probing questions which Ven answered fully and with more grace than most Carinads might have. I wondered if his tolerance for Daniya’s personal questions and Rayhel’s withering indifference was a result of him having been a Terran slave, a Drigu. Or was he naturally inclined to extreme forbearance?
Ven shifted his attention to Daniya. “Since Lyssa put the new shipmind in place to control the Lythion, Danny has gone out of her way to keep Lyam informed so they can become accustomed to her habits.”
“Which makes it easier for the shipmind to anticipate my every need,” I added, and connected with the Lythion. I kept my tone light.
“Yes, Danny?” Lyam asked. They…he or she—we still were not sure, and I don’t think Lyam was either—had a voice which might be either gender, and an always polite tone.
“We’re heading back to the ship,” I told Lyam. “Did you monitor the local newsfeeds the way I asked?”
“To assess the protestors? Yes, Danny. They returned this morning shortly after the session began. Local security suggests there are slightly over two hundred protestors, but they are extremely vocal for such a small number.”
Lyam’s stiff formality bothered me. Actually, the whole train-the-shipmind process bothered me and the only reason for my irritation that I could think of was that I was feeling personally inconvenienced. Lyssa, and Lyth before her, had made running the Lythion so easy because they knew how I thought and anticipated nearly everything, right down to having new clothes sitting folded in the printer maw when I needed them. Lyth used to greet me at the freight bay door with a cup of steaming coffee in hand. Lyssa had learned to have a scotch waiting for me when I stepped into the diner in the early evenings.
But it wasn’t just the absence of personal convenience and comfort that bothered me. I could have asked Lyssa to leave those memories behind before she had shut down and backed herself up to the Laxman Institute data servers to wait for her new human body to mature. She could have stripped the memory of its personality, and Lyam would have continued to ensure I had a scotch in front of me when I needed it. But it wouldn’t have taught them anything. It wouldn’t help them form a personality, or habitual responses. Lyth had explained this to me very carefully, and so I was putting up with a literal-minded AI while it learned.
I’d had to put up with the same thing when Lyssa had become the shipmind, but that had been decades ago, and we hadn’t been facing an interstellar threat.
That was the factor that made me grumpy. I was having to do without a dependable second brain who could anticipate battle tactics and strategies and would do what I ordered without question when I needed the ship to respond instantly. Although we’d yet to see any combat or anything that resembled an emergency since Lyssa had left, so I was merely being ornery on general principal.
I was very careful to not let my impatience show, not to anyone. I didn’t want even a hint of it to filter back to Yoan and Mace in Wynchester, for they were stressed enough building a new ship full of untested concepts and technology without Lyssa’s avatar to supervise the construction. If they thought I was also pissed about her absence, it would pile on the anxiety.
Once Modesta Odile had destroyed the nanobot pool, which had caused Lyssa to make her decision to transfer to a human body, Mace had pulled off a small miracle. Lyssa had delayed the transfer for years partly because she wanted the body which matched the avatar she, and all of us, had grown used to. Mace had researched the image she had used as inspiration for her original avatar. Lyth had been pulled into that research because some of those memories were his, too.
Then Mace had gone off in search of the person in that image. He’d not found her, for she had died of extreme old age decades ago. But he had found a daughter, and when he had explained why he’d located her, the woman had donated her DNA pattern.
Lyssa had withdrawn from the Lythion to be stored at the Institute to await the maturation of her new body, instead of staying as the shipmind until it was ready. The limitations of a shipmind’s life and the vulnerability of being housed within a structure that could be destroyed had made her unwilling to linger upon the Lythion.
“I wouldn’t serve you well while I freak out about whether the next Terran fireball will kill me or not,” Lyssa explained, her avatar’s hands squeezed together. “Now is the time to do this, while we’re waiting for the Terrans to come at us. I mean, there are better times to do it, but they’re on the other side of the ugliness that is to come. I can’t wait until then, Danny.”
“I don’t think you should wait,” I assured her. “An AI with no concept of death will serve me just as well as you can, now you’ve had a taste of death for yourself. Although, you are aware that the human body is far more vulnerable than the Lythion, right?”
Lyssa nodded. “Elizabeth Crnčević has gone through that with me. The fact is, just being able to duck and shift out of the way, to be able to fight back…that makes all the difference in the world.”
“You did fight back,” I told her. “You were the only one to tackle Modesta Odile when she tried to ram through your shipbuilding platform.”
“And these hands couldn’t contain her,” Lyssa pointed out, holding out the nanobot hands. She let them flow onto the table in front of us, to form a flesh-colored pool, then pulled them back to form hands, once more.
“Make your arrangements,” I had told her. “We’ll figure the rest out.”
That had only been a few weeks ago and I let the conversations and decisions flicker through my mind while I considered Lyam’s formal assessment of the protestors outside the conference center.
The protesters had gathered in the big open plaza in front of the conference center every day since the planning sessions had been announced and invitations to all state leaders anywhere had been issued. The protestors didn’t want a central government and they’d travelled from dozens of different worlds, cities and stations to make their opinion known.
Problem was, I couldn’t disagree with them. My heart hurried faster whenever I thought about the old days of the Empire and compared them to the peaceful coexistence the Carinad worlds enjoyed now.
But we needed a military force to defend ourselves against the Terrans. That was the only reason I could live with a temporary central authority. And while I itched at the very idea, I also couldn’t stand how long it was taking for the thing to get up and running. If I had to put up with a federal government, I wanted it in place right this instant, so I could suck in a deep breath and get on with fighting a war I didn’t want.
I hefted my pad, where Lyam was waiting for my response. “Okay, we’re heading out of the conference center now. Keep tabs on our positions via the tracers, and don’t open the ramp for anyone but us.”
It was basic stuff, but Lyam was still innocent enough to be fooled by someone waving an “authorized” credential and using an imperious tone to demand entry.
I got to my feet, as did everyone else.
“Finally,” Rayhel murmured.
I ignored him.
“Stick together,” I told him, Dalton, Daniya and Ven. “The protestors are still out there.”
“After you, boss,” Dalton told me, stepping aside.
I rolled my eyes at him and strode for the drop shaft down to the front foyer. My belly rumbled. “Lunch when we get back,” I told them. “We’ll make a decision about what happens next once I’ve eaten.”
“Thank the stars for that,” Daniya murmured. “What?” she added as she hurried alongside me. “I’m not the only one who can see this meeting isn’t going to work out.”
I didn’t answer that, either. It was too depressing to answer truthfully. “Lunch first,” I said firmly and kept striding.