Barghest II – Chapter 9

Previous Chapter

Lame Duck

Year 2151, Day 360, Hour 1700

Societal Collapse. The end or diminishing of a society, culture, or civilization most commonly resulting from economic, environmental, or cultural change. Forces contributing to such a collapse include sub-replacement fertility, prolonged armed conflicts (internal or external), and natural disasters.

 Ex. The fall of the Roman Empire was predicated with internal political struggles, a series of expensive military expansions and overextended borders, and low birth rate among the ruling class.

“The recent increase in Culler activity over the last ten years has had a significant impact on the expense, both in lives and financial resources, to the Confederation.”

“No one is denying that. However, the advances made on both the front line and in intelligence gathering have a value which exceeds-”

“Exceeds?” President Sudarshan interrupted. In the three terms she had been in office, Cabinet meetings had never been easy. The conference room deep in the interior of the Presidential Palace had not changed much during that time, nor had her advisors, but her patience had worn thin. “What value, exactly, are you placing on those lost lives, Minister?” Nguyen Thanh Dao nodded tightly, but the action was less deferential and more bare recognition than Sudarshan preferred. She tried to convince herself that she was imagining any attitude on his part, reminded herself that although Nguyen was a loyal member of the opposition he had always given the Office of the President the respect it was due. Even in her own mind the assurance sounded hollow.

“Morally, of course every life is invaluable, Madam President,” Nguyen began. “But we have all been fighting this war long enough to know that casualties cannot be avoided and that some measurement for acceptable losses must be established. You acknowledged that when you took office.” The reminder, no matter how gently stated, still stung. Sudarshan had been on edge and sensitive for months, the last two years really. She was looking for an argument and she knew it. Unfortunately, the one person she wanted to pin down with a reason to remove from a position in the Cabinet had never given her the opportunity.

“The Ministry of Science and Research has revised those measurements again, Madam President, in keeping with your policy.” Helen Maker smoothly slid data from her tablet to each of the other members of the Cabinet and the few subordinates that were present. Sudarshan had to clench her jaw to avoid venting her frustration, instead gesturing for Nguyen to continue.

“Losses always increase before victory, and this is the time when we need to commit fully to a course of action in order to win this war. The last three years have seen successes that we can build upon. The changes approved by this administration and the previous one in funding and supporting non-traditional methods is showing results.”

“I would respectfully interject, Minister,” the Director of the Sol Intelligence Service stood from her position just behind Nguyen. The General of the Army, Pool, and the Fleet Admiral, Tsang, remained seated. “Some of the strategies employed in the last decade have certainly pushed back the Culler forces. But others have been so radical as to be dangerous for the long-term goals of the Confederation. The so-called Keres Legion, for instance, has inflamed matters within the Coalition and created obstacles to information gathering and intelligence sharing at a time when we most need to be open and collaborate with each other.”

“Are you seriously promoting transparency?” The Minister of the Treasury raised an eyebrow. “The day the SIS opens their accounts to me for a formal audit will be the day I announce my retirement.” His face turned mocking, “Don’t throw stones, or the SIS will find out just how fragile their own house is.”

“The SIS,” the Director said with a sharp smile, “has already developed a new plan for tracking and isolating key enemy targets, utilizing new SAR technology. We have the ability to work with established collaborations of Coalition Special Forces units to infiltrate the enemy and produce results that will not result in increased attacks or inflamed hostilities. If we received the support of the administration that we had twenty years ago, measurable inroads could be made. Tried and proven methods with an organization that has a long and trusted record are better investments in a time when resources are slim.”

“Keres Legion has certainly changed the way we operate,” Nguyen admitted, attempting to placate the SIS Director with an upraised hand. It shook, ever so slightly. “And I do take the concerns of my directors seriously. But both the ground and fleet forces have reported huge bumps in re-enlistment since VK10 coverage leaked the existence of the Legion. The Coalition, as a whole, hasn’t had numbers, or quality, like this since well before the CSNS Blockade.”

“Your Ministry continues to support the expenditure and discretion of the proposed black budget, including the Legion?” Sudarshan already knew what the answer would be, but she asked the question because it was expected and needed to be stated unequivocally. The process made her feel irrelevant, which stirred up old feelings that she didn’t need at a time when her leadership and power were eroding.

“Yes. I will continue to review and assess the situation with input from General Pool, Admiral Tsang, and the SIS, but at this time and for the foreseeable future the Legion is an integral part of the war effort.”

Are there any other comments on this issue?”

Unexpectedly, the Treasury Minister leaned forward, sending data to the other members of the Cabinet. “Although I understand the record of this meeting will be heavily redacted, I did want to inform you all on the most recent economic reports. Bumps in credit value and public perception of the security and confidence in the economy mirror trending reports – or gossip, really – on missions undertaken by the Legion. It is a question for your public relations departments, Madam President and Minister Nguyen, but I do feel that this is something worth considering: the people of Earth, and even our outlying protectorates and territories, have seen something inspiring and it has refocused their interest and commitment to the Culler War. If nothing else, it would seem to have had a positive influence on our economic status.”

“Thank you for your insight, Minister.” Sudarshan smiled tightly and tapped her tablet to forward the agenda displayed on the wall. “Let us move on to other budget discussions, so that we can stay on schedule.” Over the next two hours, she listened to overviews from each of the Ministers, all of whom had new projects and expanded programs that would require more funding than the previous budget. Details, including black projects, would be reviewed in private over the next month, but it was really all a holding pattern. Aside from the continued inflation of the Defense budget for classified operations, every Ministry was waiting for the next administration to lobby for substantial changes. Sudarshan was bitterly reminded that her tenure was ending, and the closer they drew to the date of the inauguration of President-elect Yardley, the less authority she wielded.

The Minister of Exploration and Colonization was the last to speak, and Sudarshan realized that she had tuned out most of the discussions as he closed, “-new ten-year commitment is necessary, despite the danger posed by the current military climate. This is the time to push forward on a civilian front and find new markets and new resources. I’ll sum up the data by pointing out that birth rate increases meaningfully with new colonies and even announcements of funded exploration. The proposal also ties in with many of the projects that SAR has been working on these last few years.” He turned to Helen, “Thank you for your diligence, Minister.” She nodded back and Sudarshan had the immediate and undeniable desire to walk right out of the meeting as the older woman smiled charmingly. “Madam President, I hope you will consider the wider impact, and the cultural necessity, as you look over my proposed budget.”

“You have certainly garnered my interest, Minister. Please, make certain to have your final draft verified by my Chief of Staff by the end of next week. And thank you all for attending in person. It has been too long since we met face-to-face. Do take time to enjoy Paris while you are here.”  The attendees began to rise and the lights came up to a soft glow over the conference table. Sudarshan sat quietly, turning her ignored glass of water as the men and women in the room summoned their staff, conversed with each other, and gathered their things. Defense Minister Nguyen pushed away from the table, and his personal assistant appeared promptly to walk beside the wheelchair as he left. The man nodded at her as he passed, and Sudarshan wondered if she shouldn’t have replaced his position when she took office.

A taunting voice in her head reminded her that such a move had not been an option, not if she wanted to run for a second term. Although it had been years since she had been summoned to a small noodle shop in Omaha, the impotence she had felt then returned to her. It had grown into an angry, resentful thing in the intervening years. Each act, perceived or real, that required her to concede to an opinion that wasn’t her own had inflamed the feeling. Each time she realized action had been taken without consulting her or information was withheld a new, molten hot nail was driven into her anger stirring the embers.

“Helen,” she called out impulsively. The woman turned with a pleasant smile. Her classically fashionable suit emphasized a figure that was still fit and trim. Her white hair was swept into a perfect chignon. Her eyes were still as blue, clear, and hard as they had ever been.

“Yes, Madam President?”

“Would you stay for a moment? I have been meaning to ask you about a restaurant you recommended years ago. I can’t seem to remember the details.” She forced a smile, but she was aware that even after decades in political office and the media spotlight she would never be able to compete with the former Prime Minister for acting ability.  The room cleared quickly, leaving only the President’s private security detail behind. Sudarshan waved them away. “Step out for a moment, would you, while two old ladies have a chat.”  They hesitated, no doubt confirming their absence with the detail supervisor, before leaving the conference room and closing the door softly behind them.

Helen gracefully lowered herself into the seat closest to Sudarshan. “What kind of food did you have in mind, Avani?”

“Vital information has been withheld from me, Helen. I need to know why.”

“Information from SAR?” Helen raised her brows, her face never betraying anything. “I’m not sure I know what you are speaking of, Avani. I will admit that the reports are put together by one of my staff, but if something is missing-”

“The Culler origin.” Sudarshan felt a moment of intense satisfaction when Helen’s eyes widened with honest surprise. Just as quickly, the woman’s face relaxed into easy acceptance. “How long has SAR – how long have you known about it?”

“Is that really the question you want to ask?” She raised her eyebrows and sat back in her chair, considering. Sudarshan was fuming. “I’ll give you this moment, this one opportunity, because you have served well the interests of the Confederation. A team player, even if you sometimes whined about what needed to be done.”

“You-” Sudarshan bit off an angry retort, her fists clenching in her lap. She was the President, the President, of an entire world – a species. Forty-eight systems, including Sol, multiple outposts and stations, billions of lives. No Cabinet member, no appointed official from some backwoods rural constituency should speak to her in that way. Slowly, deliberately, she lifted her hands and pressed her palms against the cool surface of the table. “You will give me the full assessment report.”

“No.”

Sudarshan breathed out hard through her nose. For anyone else, denying the President of the Sol Confederation would have been a dangerous proposition. Sudarshan was forced to ignore the expectant gaze of Helen Maker and swallow the desire to slap her face. The knowledge, ever present, that this woman before her did not adhere to those rules rose to the forefront of her mind and left a bitter taste in her mouth. “Where are they from?”

“Quite a distance away, outside our galaxy, actually.”

“Do you have a plan to end this war?”

“Of course.” Helen leaned forward, pity emanating from her every pore. Sudarshan had to focus on the tablet in front of her to stay calm. “Since long before you were born; I’m disappointed that you did not understand that, Avani.”

“How many of the other Cabinet members know? Nguyen?”

“If you don’t already know the answer to that, I don’t think I should say.”

“You heinous bitch.” Sudarshan did not shout, but her jaw popped under the force she was clenching it. “Why even support this government, if you don’t need it? Why bother with the façade of patriotism if you are going to subvert everything the Confederation stands for?” Fury boiled in her veins like lava, but she kept her voice low while she turned her eyes to the woman who had orchestrated key moments, perhaps everything, leading up to that day. “Why give me any of this information now, and not twelve years ago?”

“Because you’re a footnote, Avani. You have been since the day you were sworn into office. A placeholder until we were ready to move forward.” Helen stood, subtly shaking out nonexistent wrinkles in her slacks. She tucked her tablet under her arm and smiled. “Enjoy your retirement.”

Next Chapter