Barghest II – Chapter 5

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Year 2150, Day 203, Hour 1100

Ennead. Alien race encountered by humans in 2082. After an initial disastrous first diplomatic meeting – where a translation software malfunction resulted in the death of the diplomat – the Sol Confederation negotiated a trade alliance with the Ennead. They utilize a different, slower form of interstellar travel than humans, Cullers, or Nick, and are extremely long-lived. They consider themselves a pacifist race.

“Helen, you are looking well.” Minister of Defense Nguyen Thanh Dao did not stand but he did not his head out of respect. He was careful with his smile, making certain it revealed none of the pain that was throbbing in his lower back. Helen Maker would take advantage of any perceived weakness. He respected her, but her meteoric rise from state government official to Congressional Representative to Congress and the seat of Prime Minister had not been a matter of luck. Age had not blunted her instincts in the slightest.

“And you too, Dao Thanh.” Her purposeful stride brought her to the edge of his desk at the same time his assistant settled a tea service within reach. “I hope your back is not paining you too much in this rain?” She reached across to shake his hand, all soft smiles and genuine inquiry. Helen reminded him of a dragon, curled up on its treasure hoard, sleeping, but always with one ear trained for thieves.

“That old war wound?” He couldn’t quite manage a laugh, but his face arranged itself into the easy dismissal that he had used for media, political enemies, and his wife many times. “Reminds me that I’m alive, and still have work to do.”

“Yes, I know the feeling.” She patted her hip as she took a seat in one of the blue silk guest chairs. It matched her eyes, and he considered changing the décor so that she would look less coordinated the next time she visited. “I had a hip replaced years ago after a riding accident. I take it as a personal challenge to get back on the horse.” She laughed, and he chuckled as well. The injection he had taken moments before her arrival began to work, dulling the pain of a botched bone growth surgery during his mandatory service. Sixty years had improved medicine drastically, so that such procedures were common and required only a week or two of healing. Dao Thanh could barely stand, much less walk. And Helen Maker knew that, he was sure, or she wouldn’t have bothered insinuating that she believed his ruse. Another surgery, his tenth, might give him some relief, but he did not have nearly as many years left as Helen did. If the chess game they had played with politics was not decided soon, his death would end it in her favor.

He leaned forward and poured them each a cup, adding milk and lemon to Helen’s liking. The door closed softly behind his assistant. All of his calls would be held during the meeting. He cut directly to the agenda. “I assume you have questions about the brief I sent over?”

“Indeed.” Helen picked up her cup and sipped delicately. “Although I must admit I was surprised that you were so forthcoming with Sol Intelligence Service reports. It has been a very long time since I have seen anything from the SIS that wasn’t redacted to the point of being ridiculous.”

Privately, Dao Thanh was certain she had seen every scrap of intelligence that had come out of his department for the last quarter century – whether she had clearance for it or not – but that accusation was not one he could prove, nor was it a battle he wished to pick with Helen.   Instead, he stated, “This matter cannot be resolved without the full involvement of the Ministry of Science and Research.”

“SAR is excellent at what we do, Dao Thanh, but I am not certain how you expect a building of scientists to stop five billion Cullers.” She crossed her ankles and raised her cup and brows at the same time, as though inquiring about the possibility of getting a sugar cube, rather than the imminent deaths of most of humanity. Considering the amount of blood on her hands, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she did see them as equally concerning.

“Our informant within the Ennead indicates that at the last known position of the Culler armada, it will take anywhere from four to six years for them to be within striking distance of our territory. I trust that you have more than one possibility to assist the Coalition in preparing for such an attack.”

“More than one, of course, but,” she set her cup down precisely and met his eyes, “while we are being candid, I must ask something.”

“Go ahead.”

“How many casualties will measure success?”

“Are you asking for my opinion, that of my party, or the current administration?”

“I am well aware of your party’s views, and we both know that I created this administration’s public and private statistics for acceptable losses. What are you, Nguyen Thanh Dao, willing to spend to defeat the enemy?”

It was a rare instance that Dao Thanh felt he could relax, even a fraction, with Helen Maker, but in that moment he believed she was both honest and sincere. “Whatever it takes. If the Cullers are wiped out, we can lose the entire army and the fleets.”

“My people have run statistics. These are rough, of course, given that I only received your report yesterday.” She smiled and he smiled, no doubt in his mind that she had the data in her hand almost as quickly as he had. “Conservatively, we are looking at several quintillion credits in equipment, infrastructure, and armaments, both public and private. In addition there are the systems that we have extrapolated will be drawn onto the battlefield, and an assumption that 82% of all future resource extraction from those systems will be impossible after a protracted military engagement on this scale.” She waved one hand vaguely, “Two point seven billion soldiers, and about half of that in civilians and allies – and then of course the lost future economic contribution of those individuals. Not to mention the payout of pensions.”

“The economy will rebound, and I have several tentative contracts for temporary system defense in the result of a complete loss of an effective fleet.”

“And the lives?”

“We have the genes of every soldier on file. Technically, we will be no more genetically imbalanced than we are today. Humanity will survive.”

“Well, of course, that. We only need 61,000 mature individuals to repopulate, if that was our only concern.”

“The money?”

“What about it?”

“I assume you have the people in place to ensure the budget is committed?”

“There are some various creative funneling methods I’ll need to use, but if you are prepared to commit, then Congress will sign off on it.”

“How much do you need?”

“I have a few different projects, I have brought a summary of some along for your consideration.” She opened a slim, black leather bag and withdrew a tablet. When she set it before him, it was already open to a set of subfolders, with preview images. A ship, unlike anything he had ever seen before, and massive in comparison to the scaled image of a destroyer overlaid on it. A weapon, which came with an accompanying image of a projectile filled with liquid that moved erratically. Several mechanical diagrams that he could only guess the purpose of.  “This,” she gestured one calloused finger to a complex device that had been exploded to show the components, “would have to be rushed, but the potential is-”

“What about Hellhound?”

Helen stood and poured herself another cup of tea, taking her time to freshen his barely touched cup. “What about it?”

“How many can you have ready?”

“Even if we did reopen the program, you know that it takes fourteen years for them to reach maturity, and another year of intense training to reach maximum efficacy.”

Dao Thanh slid his cup and saucer to the side of his desk and leaned forward. Although Helen’s expression remained pleasant, he could see her mind turning and twisting behind those blue eyes. “Candidly, Helen?”

She laughed. It was a full, easy sound that bounced around the room and brought a twitch to his lips that threatened to bloom into a full grin. For all the years they had been opponents, he still admired her intelligence – the level of skill with which she played the game.

He continued, once she had managed to control her mirth, “Your Legion has become quite the legend among the Coalition. Even my own staff have heard whispers about them. General Pool plans on meeting with them in person, to assess their full potential.”

“I do hope he calls ahead.”

Satisfied that they had reached an understanding, Dao Thanh leaned back again, relaxing more fully as the pain in his spine dulled to a soft heat under the influence of modern narcotics. “While you are here, I should make a point to ask what you intend to present at the next cabinet meeting. The President is from your party, not mine, so I’m willing to let you steer the discussion as to how much and in what manner you want to share this information.”

“Sudarshan is a lovely girl,” Helen began. Neither her tone nor her words implied any disrespect – had she not be speaking of the leader of their entire species. “But this situation may be more than she can cope with, under the circumstances.”

“Yes, I did see a spot on the news concerning the Arctic Reclamation Act. Environmentalists and Nationalists working on legislation together is bound to be stressful.”

“Perhaps we should consider waiting to inform the Presidential House until a few more details have been filled out. Some confirmations made.”

“A year, or two?” Dao Thanh raised one brow, pleased to be able to agree and at the same time wary that the meeting was going so well.

“Two, I think. The next President is liable to have more backbone. More dedication to the future.”

There had been a time when he would have lead his party in the charge to oppose her, but that was a game for younger men, and as he had aged, he found that where he might once have picked apart treaties looking for arguments, he now smoothed over differences looking for unity. The Minister of Defense nodded in acquiescence, and wondered who Helen had already selected to fill the position.

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