Barghest – Chapter 15

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Strategic Milestones

 

Hour 0700, Day 294, Day 2138

Seventy-seventh anniversary of Culler attack on the Pluto surveillance outpost. Three Earth military vessels are destroyed. Damage to the dwarf planet is so severe, its orbit destabilizes within the year and it gradually breaks apart.

“Gregory Maker,” the Prime Minister said with exasperation into her phone, “are you honestly telling me you are going to deny your child the right to see her mother?”

Avani Sudarshan did her best to appear as though she could not clearly hear the conversation. She sipped her coffee and kept her gaze resolutely on the colorful leaves slowly falling in the garden. The Palace of Versailles had been significantly renovated, she had been told as much when she first took office as a Representative, to accommodate offices and meeting rooms for over eight hundred elected officials as well as the Congressional halls for the lower and upper houses.  Additional structures had been added nearby, along with an extensive excavation under the palace itself, to provide space for staff and government appointees.  Everything had been done according to French regulations – giving the entire campus the uninterrupted look of a 17th century planned community. No vehicles were allowed on the grounds, and so politicians and gardeners alike were often seen walking into the nearby city to get transportation to Paris, where the President’s offices were located.  Her attempt to focus on the details of gardening and architecture was interrupted by the Prime Minister’s voice.

“You won the court case, Greg….Yes, however- please don’t interrupt…Do you think she will entice a ten-year old away? I doubt it…There is nothing more important to that woman than her career. Clara is a smart girl, she will see that…Thank you…Yes, and please let me know how it goes. I love you too.”  The phone was handed over to a guard. Behind dark glasses and a stoic expression he was doing a much better job than Sudarshan of looking disinterested. “Children,” Helen Maker said with a charming smile, “they call for advice – but really are hoping you’ll say what they want to hear.”

Sudarshan smiled back, reflexively, and nodded. The older woman took a seat. She poured herself a cup of coffee, adding milk and sugar from the provided tray. They sipped in silence for a few minutes, while Sudarshan tried to determine why she had been summoned. It had been nearly twenty years since the last time she had met privately with the Prime Minister. A reprieve Sudarshan had been grateful for. After being exiled to India for that summer so long ago, she had returned in the fall of 2119 to her seat in the House of Representatives and given her support for the Emancipation and Suffrage bill. It had taken years, after the Constitution was amended to give GMH individuals rights, for her to regain her popularity after that abrupt policy change. Sudarshan should have been proud of what she had accomplished since then. Huge strides in environmental efforts in Earth’s oceans. Reform for the punitive work colonies. A relaxation on corporate restrictions. Her election to the Senate in 2128 should have been a crowning achievement.

However, in the back of her mind, she could always hear a whispered reminder: your career was never yours to take care of. Knowing how delicate a hand had guided her election to the House only made her question every victory, every failure. Which were hers, and hers alone? Did it matter? She had done good things, great things, improved lives. She had done some things that she was not proud of either, but not since the E&S bill had she ever been asked to vote contrary to her beliefs. I am my own person, she reminded herself. No one owns me. I can leave at any time. I will leave, she resolved, publicly, if the Prime Minister thinks she can push me to act again. With those thoughts strengthening her spine, Sudarshan set down her cup and opened her mouth.

The Prime Minister beat her to it, “I have decided to step down.”

Sudarshan blinked and snapped her teeth shut. Vivid blue eyes waited placidly for her response, but she had none. Helen Maker had cut her teeth on international politics. She had held the seat of Prime Minister for a record three terms. The idea that the wolf in sheep’s clothing in front of her would willingly give up that kind of power was unbelievable.

“That…must have been a difficult decision for you,” Sudarshan floundered.

“Indeed. However, it is time for something new, a bit more out of the public eye.” The junior Senator felt like she was listening to an extremely unfunny mad lib – none of the words made sense. Helen Maker was the least public politician in the Senate. She rarely took interviews, stating that her voting record spoke for itself, and was notorious for holding marathons of private meetings and closed town hall sessions with her constituency. She had once been quoted as saying that inviting the press to listen to a public official answer questions was the surest way to hear a lie. Sudarshan wasn’t certain if that was something the woman actually believed or merely election propaganda, but either way the Prime Minister was rarely in the public eye.

“Oh,” she responded inelegantly.

“Perhaps something that peaks my interest will open up when the new Administration takes office.” The Prime Minister picked a dainty toast point from the tray and spread it with clotted cream. “So many appointments change hands when a President is sworn in.”

That comment turned Sudarshan’s bewildered silence into a sharp expectation. Nothing the Prime Minister ever said was flippant or one-dimensional. A junior Senator from the subcontinent was not so egotistical to think she had been summoned to a private breakfast meeting just so that she could be the first to hear of Helen Maker’s pending retirement and personal observations on administrative offices. It was also exceedingly strange that the woman would speak as though an incumbent, from her own party, would not be reelected. As far as Sudarshan knew, the President’s party nomination was already assured. His reelection – a shoe-in.

“That is true,” Sudarshan said after a long silence. “But a fresh perspective might be beneficial to some agencies.”

Steam rose from a delicate porcelain cup, creating a warm mist in the cool autumn air. “It is unfortunate that you missed your train today.” The Prime Minister’s abrupt change of topic had Sudarshan reeling again. “But since you did, you might as well stay the weekend in Paris. Perhaps you will even run into some old friends this evening. Jon Morton and his family have an apartment on the Seine. They often eat at a little place on the river.” Maker named a small restaurant that Sudarshan had never heard of, but she filed it away. She had, of course, met the chair for her political party, but she would not have said they were old friends. “If you should see him, do be certain to say hello for me.”

The Prime Minister asked her guard for the phone, and Sudarshan took that as her dismissal. As she walked past manicured lawns and artfully trimmed shrubs, the Senator was reviewing the every scrap of information she had heard about Jon Morton, Helen Maker, or the Sol Confederation President. There were hundreds of possibilities, all with repercussions that went far beyond a simple election.

***

Two Years Later…

Soledad Venegas knew he shouldn’t take another skewer of grilled meat and vegetables. He certainly didn’t need it. The former Congressional Representative ran one hand over the love handles that had appeared around his sixty-fifth birthday and had stubbornly remained. He glanced over at the media coverage playing on a wall display. The news anchor was still making small talk. It could be another hour before the election results were announced. He shrugged and took a third shish-ka-bob. It was real beef, after all, not the printed protein that tasted like meat. An expensive and rare treat that Helen Maker only offered her closest friends.

“Uncle Sole?” Clara’s freckled face, followed by a frizzy black ponytail and knobby, skinny body, popped around the doorway from the dining room. He wasn’t really her uncle, but he and his wife had been spending a significant amount of time at the Maker farm since his retirement from politics. “Daddy wants to know if you need another beer.”

“Clara,” Helen reprimanded lightly from her place on the sofa with Venegas’ wife.

“Sorry, Grams.” Clara did not sound at all sorry, and it made Venegas grin. “Uncle Sole,” she began again in an overly formal voice. She affected an accent that he thought was supposed to be British. “Would you care for another refreshment, sir?”

“I thank you for the offer, kind miss, but I am fully refreshed.” He gave a little bow and was rewarded with a bright smile full of sparkling braces. The orthodontics were unusual to see anymore, but Greg Maker had insisted that his daughter not receive any genetic therapy not medically necessary. It was already apparent that the eleven-year old was going to be shorter than average. Venegas wondered what other challenges Clara would face due to her father’s hippie views.

“Thank you, Clara,” Helen called out as the child waved and bounced back toward the kitchen.

“Wow, grandma,” Venegas teased, “are you the manners police?”  He sat in a nearby armchair, but did not have the opportunity to even take a bite before his wife was turning up the volume.

“Shh, they are announcing it,” she said.

“Votes from all precincts have not yet come in, but the results are conclusive. Avani Sudarshan has swept the election. In January, Ms. Sudarshan will be sworn in as the next President of the Sol Confederation. Let’s go to Henri, reporting from the government district in Paris.” Venegas sat down his plate, the beef forgotten.

“Well,” his wife exclaimed, muting the reporter again, “who would have seen that coming eighteen months ago?”

“The public can be unpredictable,” Helen agreed. Venegas didn’t say anything. Helen hadn’t spoken of it directly, but no change in their political party – especially one at the highest level – happened without her input. He could guess that she had done far more than comment on a replacement that was so unexpected.  Greg and Clara entered, and Venegas’ wife turned to them to discuss the results. Helen’s phone rang, and she stepped into the study to answer it. The door, right behind Venegas’ chair, was not closed all the way, so he heard clearly when she spoke.

“Congratulations, Avani…I am sure you have a celebration waiting for you…” There was a long silence. Venegas watched Clara, pretending to be sworn into office. She had her right hand on an empty cookie plate, in place of the Sol Constitution. “Thank you for considering me, Avani,” Helen finally continued. “I would have to think about it, of course. My decision to retire was not one I made lightly….If you really feel I would be able to do some good…Yes, I’ll let you know next week.” She offered congratulations again, that time in Hindi, before stepping back into the living room. Their eyes met briefly. Venegas felt, in that moment, every one of his years. He was nearly three-quarters done with his life, and Helen seemed like she was just getting started.

“Grams, do you think I would make a good President?” Clara was standing on a footstool, failing miserably at looking impressively Presidential in her torn denims. She held a half-eaten skewer of beef and vegetables in one hand, using it like a microphone, and the cookie plate in the other.

“Oh, you can be anything you want, my dear. And I am sure you will be exceptional at it.” Helen smiled, and Venegas was struck with a cold reality. His old friend used the same expression on her granddaughter that she did when manipulating military leaders. “Why stop with such a limiting career?”

Greg laughed, and so did Venegas’ wife. He couldn’t manage more than a tight smile, though, as Clara took the suggestion with all the seriousness of a child, verging on young adulthood. “Right!” She threw her arms open wide, “Empress Clara! Benevolent leader of the Galaxy!” The remains of her shish-ka-bob flew off of the stick and hit the wall with a splatter of marinade and smoky tomato. “Well,” she said, looking at the mess and the disapproving expression on her father’s face, “that or a jockey.”

“Go get a rag, Empress Jockey,” Greg ordered. Clara grumbled and slumped away. Venegas was looking at Helen. The calculation in her gaze, focused entirely on a little girl, was frightening.

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