Cornelius marched through the vestibule of the news station. He barged through a turnstile and pushed his way through one of the four revolving doors. Outside, an armored black limo with tinted windows waited for him, engine idling. One heavy-grade SUV-type escort vehicle was in front of the limo and another was behind it. The left rear passenger-side door of the limo clicked and hissed open as he approached. He ducked into the limo, next to a woman with a honey-blonde pixie cut wearing a black pantsuit and white blouse—his executive assistant and apprentice, Gillian Bass.
“You did well, Sir,” Gillian said.
Cornelius snorted. Compliments meant nothing to him.
The lead escort vehicle slowly accelerated into the four-lane street. At the correct interval, Cornelius’ driver pulled behind it, and the rear escort vehicle followed in tandem.
The divider separating the front and passenger compartments allowed Cornelius to discuss confidential matters. “Any new developments from our intelligence on Orqron?” he asked Gillian.
She unlatched the attaché case on her lap. It opened to reveal a portable information terminal of high efficiency.
She skimmed over the report she had and said, “Well, of the several tribes the Orqron Government is engaged in land feuds with, General Conlan’s intelligence team, working with Orqron’s Ministry of Defense, has confirmed it was the Nagamasulli Tribe who shot down Zenith Combat Technologies’ (ZCT) delivery transport. Perhaps had ZCT not been so reliant upon the Orqron Government to protect their ships and increased their own security measures, they could’ve prevented the catastrophe.”
“Perhaps, but the Orqron Government is a Union-approved trading partner, and any interference with our arms industries’ distribution services deserves a severe response. If it were up to me, we’d deploy a retaliation force to Orqron to decimate the Nagamasulli Tribe. That would send a strong message to every tribe on the planet, letting them know the Commonwealth will not tolerate the killing of its people and interference of its business practices. We need to instill fear into them. And though deploying a retaliation force to Orqron would not violate Article II of the Union Charter, as the Nagamasulli drew first blood, Chief Executive Kerner believes engaging in active combat on Orqron is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth. He’s too concerned about being labeled a warmonger. We need someone in the Chief Executive’s seat who’s willing to do what’s right, not what’s best for their image. Someone who isn’t afraid to make tough calls, regardless of public scrutiny.”
“Such as yourself, Sir?”
“Indeed. Now what of the Falgoah Clan? I have been quite wary of them as of late.” Gillian looked troubled. “Something bothering you?”
“It’s just that . . . the central government playing judge and jury and herding an entire race of Zelaforians into ships and casting them off their homeworld as intergalactic refugees seems a bit cruel,” she said ruefully. “Who is anyone but the Falgoah and Chalderat to resolve their age-old feud?”
There wasn’t a detectable trace of compunction on Cornelius’ face. “The Falgoah themselves are responsible for jeopardizing their existence,” he replied frigidly. “Both the Falgoah and Chalderat were warned of the repercussions of not complying with the ceasefire negotiated by the Ambassador Corp. It was the Falgoah who broke that ceasefire, made inroads into Chalderat territory and started another war. And disobedience and betrayal must have severe consequences. The Falgoah’s belligerence could not be tolerated in the Commonwealth, just like the Coalition’s belligerence cannot be tolerated. Now proceed with the report.”
Gillian tapped a series of keystrokes. A holovid ballooned from the device’s emitter. “This video was captured by our surveillance drone. It shows a Falgoah clansman meeting with a male human.” She touched the holo with her forefinger and magnified the human’s face. “Facial-recognition programs cross-referenced his face through our terrorist database and came up with a seventy percent probability that he is Drake Vikander, leader of the Vikander Faction.”
Cornelius curled a finger around his chin, deep in thought. “So the Coalition has formed an alliance with the Falgoah.”
“But why would the Falgoah ally with the Coalition? What do they have to gain by the central government seceding to the Coalition’s demands for independence or equality?”
“What they want is to return to their homeworld and reclaim their land from the Chalderat.” Cornelius’ insinuation was that, “Perhaps the Coalition has grown exhausted of the government not giving in and is now planning a complete takeover of the government, which would allow them to invite the Falgoah back to Zelaforia.”
Gillian powered off the device. “That’s a reasonable deduction.”
“We should be retaliating against the Nagamasulli Tribe. We should be attacking the Falgoah Clan right now, but that video wouldn’t be enough proof for the Union leaders to permit us to send armed forces to the planet the Falgoah are residing on to exterminate them.”
“Yes, and besides, the Union says the Falgoah have already paid their price with the Commonwealth’s choice to exile them, to prevent them from disturbing the peace in Noshkanu any longer. The Union says there is no need to either attack or monitor them. Which means that video footage is illegal. So the footage can’t be used to incriminate the Falgoah. It’d actually incriminate you.”
“Not necessarily. There are loopholes in every rule, regulation, and policy, loopholes a smart Chief Executive would exploit, to keep an eye on a possible threat to the Commonwealth. We’re surrounded by enemies seeking to tear apart our republic, and many of my confrères and the Chief Executive do nothing. Apparently, they’d rather be reactive than proactive. And inaction has negative consequences, as you know.”
A memory of horrors beyond description rushed through Gillian’s mind. Then she said, “Well, picking fights with our enemies before they’ve even made an attempt to strike us might actually have negative consequences itself, making us look like the scourge of the universe, thereby allowing our enemies to garner more support to overtake us.”
“We’d simply crush their ‘support’ as well.” Silent for a moment, Cornelius reflected. “Because politicians of Earth were too hesitant to take the necessary offensive action that could’ve prevented widespread Armageddon, I had to watch lands be bathed in the blood of heroes and oceans turn into mass graves. I had to watch billions of people die on our beloved motherworld. Those politicians wanted to be as punctilious as possible. They were frightened of being labeled as belligerent. Yet, their overly cautious approach to defense was the very thing that cost lives. I’ll be damned if I let history repeat itself, in our intergalactic republic.”
He glared out the window. Uniquely shaped flyers soared across the sky. Richly dressed citizens, citizens he had sworn to protect, strolled or rode the slideways—moving conveyor-like sidewalks. Infographic pop-up holos appeared as the slideways transported people past shops. Cleaner golems sucked up trash and swept, keeping solar-paneled streets perfectly pristine. Far out, scaffolding reached a thousand feet heavenward, more buildings being erected. Construction flyers hovered.
Cornelius said, “Peacemongers like Chairwoman Amaechi want to divert funds from the defense budget to appease the colonies’ inhabitants and try to cater to every one of their emotional mandates. But our military might is the reason why the Commonwealth and the Union have not been overran. Debilitating our military, our greatest asset, would be disadvantageous. The chairwoman’s compassion for the indigent is admirable, but right now, when we have enemies seeking to do us harm, the indigent cannot be prioritized; and if a few succumb to death in the meantime, so be it.
“The chairwoman’s naiveté is further demonstrated by her willingness to placate to the Coalition’s demand to give the governors more power. If we give in once, we give in again and again, making the central government appear weak.”
The limo and the motorcade swerved right, onto another street. The scores of Eden citizens sauntering past storefronts and open-air cafés were mixed with a sprinkling of intergalactic tourists. Cornerstone City was a magnet for excursionists from the other Union Worlds and from the Commonwealth’s twenty-two Union-approved trading partners.
“The chairwoman also rebukes the social structure formulated by the Omni-system, for the New Humanity,” Cornelius said, his repulsion of Oviereya penetrating his tone. “The system specified the correct function for everyone in our republic, therefore we don’t waste time, education, and resources prepping people for roles they have a low probability of adding value to. Some are better positioned for success as simple resource harvesters. It’s because of the Omni-system that people know where they belong, and where they belong is appropriate, with respect to the value they add to our society. The integration of divisive immigrants into the CDF, such as the female cadet detained at the Academy today, is proof that when the Omni-system’s social structure is deviated from, even slightly, the perfection of that structure is corrupted. The lottery experiment should be done away with altogether.
“Instead of worrying about colony inhabitants’ frivolous woes, we need to be increasing our efforts to wipe out the alien marauders who raid our ships. We also need to increase our efforts to wipe out the intergalactic traffickers who abduct our women and children. Hunting down and destroying this scum is the responsibility of the CDF. If it were up to me, I’d triple the number of expedition parties scouring the galaxies these fiends’ operations span. They need to be annihilated completely, to rid the universe of them, so they will no longer harm not only us but any race of beings.”
Cornelius was a ruthless man. He had no limits when it came to doing what he thought was right to protect his people. When he was a U.S. soldier on Earth, he had been reprimanded for using unlawful interrogation tactics on POWs. As a general in the CDF during the Bhalkran War, he had ordered bombs dropped on innocent Bhalkran villages to eradicate the Commonwealth’s enemies hiding among them. He followed the logic that if a few must die to save the many, so be it, especially when the “many” were his own people. Such actions had made him a controversial figure in the Commonwealth.
“We need to have the strongest military of all galaxies,” he declared. “We need to be feared.” The deranged look in his eyes confessed his mental instability. How sound his mind was had even become the subject of watercooler conversation in the Parliament. “Neither Chairwoman Amaechi nor our feeble-minded Chief Executive are fit to helm our intergalactic republic and lead the New Humanity to prosperity. We need to become the Super Power we have the potential to be. No one knows what is out there in the many galaxies of this universe. It may be only a matter of time before something terrible and incredibly powerful comes knocking at our door, and we must be ready.”
Cornelius had tried to continue his and Thom’s agenda to expand the military and its reach, an agenda hampered by filibuster and other bureaucratic red tape. It also didn’t help that Jared was nowhere near the militant his father was, being more of a centralist.
“Truth is I’m hoping our incorporated status gets revoked, to unchain us from the Charter’s constraints,” Cornelius professed. “Then we wouldn’t have to play politics to do what needs to be done with our military. Even if I were in the Chief Executive’s seat, it’d be next to impossible to convince two-thirds of the Parliament to rescind our incorporated status. Maybe this civil war will be a blessing in disguise. Even many of my fellow conservatives have reservations about detaching from the Union.”
“So when do you plan to announce your intention to run?” Gillian asked.
“The election is a year away, and we need to stir this ship in a new direction as soon as possible. So I have decided to proceed with Operation New Wave.”
“Yes. Not my favorite course of action but a necessary one. And one to the liking of my . . . special benefactors.” Benefactors who remained a mystery to Gillian. “Jared is nowhere near the Chief Executive his father was, a man I was proud to serve under. With Kerner and Deputy Chief Norton dead, I’d be next in line to assume the Office of the Chief Executive, by decree.”
“And how are their deaths to be orchestrated?”
“When Kerner . . .” A ferocious boom roared. “What the hell?” The explosion flipped the lead escort vehicle onto its roof, glass and metal crunching.
The driver of the limo swerved around the ruined vehicle—tires squealing—and accelerated.
The two security personnel in the mangled, flipped-over, vehicle were as good as gone.
There was a mesh of shouting and screaming as gangs of pedestrians ran and stumbled across the slideways.
Another swelling of flames tossed the rear escort vehicle into a rollover. It smashed into a parked hazmat truck. Crash! A third explosion whipped the limo into an uncontrollable tailspin, tires screeching, and it slammed into a commercial van.
Gillian turned to Cornelius, breathing heavily. “Sir, you okay?” she huffed.
Cornelius cringed. There was a pang in his neck from the whiplash. “Fine,” he blurted. He reached a hand behind his neck, massaging the ache. Assassination attempts while en route from one destination to another was the reason he preferred ground-based transportation. Had he been blown out of the sky, in a flyer, he’d be dead by now. There was more security traveling via land, in his opinion.
What was left of the dashboard flashed colors and rang nosily. The driver’s seat destroyed, Cornelius’ chauffeur was dead.
Gillian stiffly reached for the sidepiece stowed in her harness, shoulder smarting. “Sir, stay inside.” She pulled the door handle. There was a click, but the bent-up door refused to budge. “Dammit!” She pulled the handle again and threw her throbbing shoulder into the paneling, prying the door ajar. She rammed her shoulder into the door again, exacerbating the pain. It shrieked open. She stepped out, heels clicking the pavement. The surrounding streets and slideways quickly emptied of pedestrians. With a shaky two-handed grip, she extended her firearm and twisted left and right. Her heart thudded as she was reunited with the mayhem of urban warfare, in memory: people screaming all around, staccato pops of gunfire, noisy sirens rising and falling. A killing hell she didn’t want to relive.
Her nervous eyes scanned the devastated street. A bead of sweat snaked down the bridge of her nose. She spotted two dead Rumanoahans and one dead Vash’Ru, from the Union Worlds Rumanoah and Vash’Ru, and one dead Orsodonian from the Commonwealth’s trading partner Orsodonia. This was the first time offworld races had been killed on Eden soil, in what the central government would label as a terrorist attack. The incident was bound to cause political anarchy. Gillian stood within history in the making.
She took in a lungful of smoke-scented oxygen and stabilized her posture. It had been years since she was in a high-stress combat scenario. Quickly, she said into her government-issued wrist PDA, “Mayday.” It was the call sign for Cornelius’ emergency evac flyer.
A droning sound, speeding in her direction, reached her ears. Alarmed, she spun to her right as a levi-cycle whooshed to a stop in front of her. A helmeted man fully covered in dark clothing reached for the pistol holstered on his thigh.
Gillian’s heart hammered her chest. “Fuck!” Military reflexes kicking in, she yanked the door closer and dropped to a crouch. Shots rang. Sparks flying, a peppering of bullets ricocheted off the armor. The mystery assassin emptied a full clip and thumbed the magazine release.
The magazine clattered. That was Gillian’s cue. Her adrenaline spiked, and she rose—relentlessness in her gray eyes. The assassin clapped in a new mag but was too late. Gillian fully extended her arms and double tapped the trigger of her firearm. The weapon bucked in her hands as it discharged two loud shots.
The bullets struck the assassin’s vest. He recoiled upon impact, dropping his weapon. Clack! With deadly neohuman precision, Gillian captured him in her gun’s sights and discharged the fatal round. The bullet demolished the glass visor of the assassin’s helmet, striking him between the eyes.
A mist of red liquid spritzed the air as he flopped to the ground. Thump. Hostile down.
Hands trembling, Gillian remained alert. Her eyes probed the area for more assailants. “Stay inside, Sir!” she demanded Cornelius. “Your evac team is on the way!”
“I’m well aware of security protocol, Ms. Bass!” Cornelius snapped back, a high level of agitation in his voice.
Being the man responsible for martial law’s execution and its loosely regulated oversight, many government antagonists directed their anger toward Cornelius. And the word of him possibly running for Chief Executive frightened many who were or had family suffering under his anything-goes martial law. Fearing the possibility of him taking office, Cornelius was a high-priority target for violent anti-government radicals and fringe groups.
Gillian stood in front of the limo with steel posture, keeping a watchful eye out for more hostiles and maintaining her aplomb. Sirens blared in the limo’s direction. The massive roar of an incoming aircraft in her ears, she looked skyward. It was Cornelius’ evac flyer.
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