The Oblong Office definitely made more of an effort to look like its American counterpart than the parts of the SAU House I’d just seen. The configuration was the giveaway: a desk facing couches and chairs, official-looking junk around the room…
But to be fair again, the place also looked like it was a functioning office, and as President Fabian Kohl stood up behind his desk at our arrival, I got the sense he had actually been doing a lot of work just before we’d arrived.
Advisors had probably just been shooed out another door – military and political people discussing how the Union should handle an incursion like the one being mounted by our fair Belt Squadron. Whatever those conversations had suggested, Kohl was a solid head of state: he pushed any concerns or frustrations off his face and moved from behind his desk to greet me.
I should mention that Armin Deboer was already standing in front of the desk, and both men offered their hands to me. I took them to be polite, and then the President gestured to the chair and two facing couches. Rufus continued to stand while I sat on the couch nearest the door, on the end closest to the President. Deboer sat opposite me, and Kohl took the chair. Setoguchi stood behind the President’s chair, probably wary of Rufus… and right to be so.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” I opened with a smile, crossing my legs and lacing my fingers together in my lap. “Long flight. Much to do.”
Kohl undoubtedly hadn’t known what to expect, and though I opened pleasantly he was hardly lulled, “Flexibility is necessary in the face of major events of state.”
I could tell he might have wanted to say ‘major threats’, but had contained himself.
“Quite so,” I agreed.
We then fell silent, sizing each other up. I also considered the Secretary of State – in this model of government, essentially a counterpart for Craig B. Macdonald – before looking back to the President.
Kohl finally cracked on the silence: “So tell me, Rear Admiral Barron, aside from rescuing someone from a transport under our flag… what brings you to the Union of Solar Asteroids?”
It was the sort of question he didn’t like asking, because Presidents shouldn’t have to inquire about the mundane issues. His people should have told him in advance why we were here, so he could cut to the chase. He was the most powerful person in these parts, after all.
I stared at him after he asked the question, wondering for a second how much he knew. Then I decided to simply come out with it: “Your Governor, George Madison, from Etat Valcour.”
A stab of shock managed to break through to Kohl’s face, and his eyes immediately jumped across to Deboer. The Secretary of State had a more muted reaction, but I think he was surprised as well.
“I see you know him,” I added, then carried on. “Well he was a friend of mine, actually. He hails from our part of the solar system. He and I went through the Academy together…”
Kohl’s eyes grew a little wider, and his concern was contagious; behind the chair, Setoguchi was tensing. This was an interesting reaction, so I continued to trundle along.
“…then he turned traitor, formed a Syndicate of pirates, and we had to put him down. Appears that he fled here after his defeat, but he’s been named an enemy of the Empire by our government. It’s our duty to do him harm… and he finally tipped us off as to where he was… when he sent assassins into our Empire. We tracked those assassins to Etat Concord, then decided we’d come here for a chat before we go out to Etat Valcour to obtain him.”
I hadn’t thought through any of the possible ramifications of blurting all this out to the President and his senior advisors. I really didn’t care. They couldn’t stop me if they tried, so by being frank perhaps I was just giving them a chance to save something of the relationship between Empire and Union.
“George Madison did that?” Kohl asked, exasperated.
His reaction – open-mouthed shock – seemed genuine, and difficult to reconcile in that moment. I didn’t think I’d given enough of an explanation to turn the President against one of his own so quickly.
“So you’re not here by his request, to assist him?” Setoguchi asked sharply, and that question – a bit too revealing – earned a glare from Deboer.
I blinked – my turn to be surprised, “Well he wanted us to find him, I know that. But no, we’re certainly not here to assist him.”
Kohl and Deboer exchanged looks that spoke volumes. Then, following my example of simply blurting out information, Kohl leaned forward, “Admiral, Madison is my stiffest competition in an election scheduled for later this year. He has been making a name among voting citizens as being a strong leader who can protect us against the future aggressions of your Empire. He has spoken of a history of resistance, but never detailed it. He’s polling well on his pledges… the citizens here chafe under authority… but there has never been a concrete threat by your Empire against our Union. At least, not until your arrival here.”
I stared at Kohl, and in an instant the whole of Grant’s design fell into place in my head. He had come here after Deep Black, created a quick-and-dirty new identity for himself and had managed to get elected Governor… probably picked the most desperate rock in the Union, just knowing that once he had the office, he could leverage it.
He’d then spun a story for himself – freedom fighter, wise leader, warrior – but in order for that narrative to have teeth, he needed the voting public to have some idea of the ‘dangers’ out there.
He’d needed to get someone from the Empire to show up in the SAU, and to throw around some heavy Imperial metal before going home again. And he’d known exactly who he could manipulate into playing the part for him.
Son of a bitch, brilliant and overcomplicated as usual.
Our presence here – the stories we’d already generated – would probably give him a huge boost in the polls over Kohl… and as I stared at the President, I realized the other elegant part of this whole situation: by us coming to Lexington and meeting the man, we’d created an impossible situation.
If Kohl cooperated with us to get Grant Merger, it would appear that he was trying to use the Empire to remove a political rival – playing right into the story Grant was spinning.
And if he didn’t cooperate, and tried to fight us, we’d defeat him and he’d look too weak to stop us, also playing into Grant’s narrative.
In either case, all the villain would have to do was escape us one more time… and he probably had a clever stratagem for that as well.
You don’t see plans like Grant’s very often, but it’s like poetry when they work. He’s a master at these sorts of things. He seems to get a lasso around all sorts of situations that appear uncontrollable.
And the worst part – or the best – is this: even when you’re within the jaws of his trap, and you realize what’s going on, you have no real choice but to continue forward.
Understanding that, I finally blinked myself out of my thoughts and returned my attention to Kohl. Perhaps he wasn’t bright enough to realize that cooperating with us would undermine him…
“Well, we can take a problem off your hands then, Mister President,” I tried it coyly, and Kohl’s expression soured.
“You cannot swan in here and take one of our Governors on charges that we have no way of substantiating. Your Empire has a reputation, Admiral Barron, and such actions would play right into it.”
He had no choice but to resist us. His only hope at this point was that he could resist us and win on his own, thus making Grant redundant. But I could tell from the look on his face that he wasn’t confident. Even if he had no familiarity with his own fleet – which seemed unlikely – he must have known that Grant and Dave Caldecott effectively had taken control of the distribution of the SAUN… that if they knew I was bound for Lexington they wouldn’t have sent him any good ships for protection.
But he had to try. He had no choice.
And I was sympathetic to his situation. I understood that this leader – whose politics, character and position I knew absolutely nothing about – had just been outmaneuvered in a manner rarely seen in human history. And that I was the weapon Grant was using to thrust him aside.
Unfortunately, sympathy couldn’t change one thing: Grant had killed Karen. Grant had attacked Daragh’s ball… he’d been responsible for Idaho… and he’d killed Karen.
Also, come to think of it, Kohl’s government, or its predecessor, had also supplied the Tharsis-class battleships to the Martians. So they weren’t exactly innocent and naïve either.
“I’m going to Valcour, and there I’m going to deal with him,” I said firmly, my stare fixed right on Kohl. “I’m just here to let you know that, under our laws, any group that knowingly harbors an enemy of the Empire, that assists or protects him in any way, is subject to the same treatment as that enemy.”
Strictly speaking that’s true, though you might recall that the Coalition of Unaligned Asteroids had been looking after enemy of the Empire Dave Caldecott for us… most of the time we partnered with other states to keep an eye on our declared enemies.
This time, nope.
“You make threats against our Union, Admiral,” Kohl’s voice dropped, and now he aimed to mix menace with severity. “Would you really risk war between our two great states, just for a vendetta against one man? No matter who he is?”
I simply stared at Kohl, and I think he realized I was thinking about his words. He added one more idea: “What you say he did… if he is such a criminal, you would be descending to his level and doing to our Union what he did to your Empire. Is that worth it? Is that right? I ask you.”
I had been in good spirits for the entire meeting – inappropriately so, in fact. And now, perhaps inevitably, a cloud began to gather over me. It was a fast change, and I think Kohl noticed as my expression grew darker.
If he didn’t notice, he certainly heard.
“Risk war between our two great states?” I asked gently, and then tilted my head. “Mister President, understand what this is: a courtesy call. Your state is not great. It is far from great. It is like a dozen other states I’ve seen in a dozen other places around this Belt. You think I’m worried about starting a war with you? My own squadron could tear everything you’ve built here to pieces in a matter of weeks. If we summoned our battleships, we’d destroy you all in days. And when I got home I’d have to put up with a parade in my honor – thanks for being the hero who killed the criminals hiding an enemy of the Empire, a man who has done more to inflame our great state than your entire collection of rocks could manage in a decade. Mister President, you do not matter, and your state is a novelty. Do not mistake yourself for something of consequence.”
Kohl didn’t like that.
Setoguchi really didn’t like it.
And Deboer just stared at me – his cold expression was not resentful, but thoughtful. He was the one I worried about most, because he wasn’t reacting emotionally.
But he wasn’t the problem for now.
Having delivered my statement, I came to my feet, and Kohl watched me rise without coming out of his chair.
“Now, that transport you stopped short of orbit has an assassin aboard. We’re going to find that assassin. And we’ll leave the rest of the crew aboard. If your warships try to intervene, we’ll destroy them. If your dome tries to intervene, we’ll deal with you as well. Use your imagination on that one.”
I turned and rounded the couch I’d been sitting on, coming to a stop beside Rufus, whose stony expression was reinforcing my heartless words.
“And Mister President, one more thing: you think I’ve descended to the same level as Grant… as George Madison. I think you’re right. And believe me, it’s neither a surprise, nor something I’m particularly ashamed of. Good day.”
With that, Rufus and I turned and left. Our immediate concern was getting back to Wolf, because while it would not be diplomatically wise for Kohl to try to take us prisoner, it was still possible he would.
But since there’s no point building useless suspense, I’ll tell you: they drove us back to our shuttle like perfectly decent and civilized human beings. As soon as we took off, President Kohl declared a state of alert for Etat Lexington.