- (Star Force Series #9)
The space around Earth was quiet. There were no enemy ships in the system and at least three hundred defensive vessels glided around the planet in belt-like loops. The battleships and carriers could be seen from the ground at night. Reflecting the light of the sun, they looked like lost, fast-moving moons and the citizens of my world were comforted to see them patrolling in orbit.
I yearned to be with the fleet but that wasn’t my role anymore. I was trapped in a glass tower in Geneva, Switzerland. Outside my massive office window, the Alps shone white with snow and black with rough stone. The mountains here weren’t like the old, worn-down lumps in my native California. These peaks looked like a predator’s teeth when the sun set behind them.
It was October and in this part of the world the air was already crisp and cold, promising the winter to come would be a harsh one. It was Wednesday, late in the afternoon, and my life as a dictator was weighing heavily on me today.
For all intents and purposes, I, Colonel Kyle Riggs of Star Force, was in charge of running Earth. I hadn’t wanted the job, and I didn’t think I was particularly good at it. I’d never wanted this kind of power, despite what my enemies liked to claim.
Do you want to rule the world? It does sound like a pretty sweet deal from the outside. Imagine how it would go: women would throw themselves at you, and if they didn’t, you could have them executed. Everyone would listen to you, and your schedule would set itself. Enemies would die in quiet cells, and sycophantic loyalists would be rewarded on the basis of how thoroughly they massaged your already monstrous—and growing—ego…
I wanted none of it. Especially after I learned that the job was—for the most part—a giant pain in the ass.
I remembered reading a book about Damocles, who’d been invited to sit upon his king’s throne. He hadn’t enjoyed being king for even a single day while I’d had the job for seven long months. Although he’d lusted for power, he didn’t relish the reality, and I now felt I understood his plight.
As Damocles had learned twenty-five centuries ago, power is a double-edged sword. Yes, I could have had people executed if I so desired. But I didn’t want to kill anyone. I wanted to unite humanity, to lift us up to meet our real enemy: the machines.
You would think that being gifted with a magnanimous leader, a man who was generally friendly and reasonable, people would rejoice and cooperate. That wasn’t how it went. Once they figured out I wasn’t a bloody tyrant like Crow, they decided to push. They wanted to see how far they could manipulate or disobey old Riggs before he pulled the rug out from under them. I guess that’s human nature.
So, instead of taking it easy, I found each day began with a raft of problems. Seven long months ago we’d retaken Earth and “liberated” my home planet. In that time, there’d been less progress in every part of government than I would have liked to see. It had taken four full months just to quell rebellions and riots. Dark memories filled my mind when I thought of those early days. Every morning had been littered with news reports of looting and pillaging in dozens of cities. Set free of the empire, people had gone wild. They’d tried to break apart and return to the past, to become a hundred separate nations again.
I hadn’t allowed it. Fragmentation of the empire at this point would leave us too weak. The Macros might come back any day, and when they did, we had to face them as a united force to destroy them in their thousands.
I wanted freedom as much as the next guy, you have to understand. I commiserated with my people’s yearning to go back to the old days of bickering and border skirmishes, but weakness now could mean the end of the line for our species. We couldn’t self-indulge in the past—at least, not yet.
The world had settled down eventually. They’d adjusted to the new order of things. The first day during which no one was assassinated or left dying in the streets of a burning city, I’d wanted out of my position. In my own mind, I’d imagined I would give the reins of power back to the governments of Earth and let them sort it out. Surely, they could see the logical need for a single world government at this point. Maybe something like the old UN could take over.
But that just wasn’t going to work. I realized that now. They couldn’t agree on who should rule and how they would go about it. Old rivalries hadn’t vanished, they’d just been put aside temporarily. I could tell it would take several generations to change people in that regard. Every time I granted our new world parliament more sovereignty, they immediately became as self-centered, corrupt, bureaucratic and inept as the original UN had been in the past.
I couldn’t afford to wait for them to decide how much money I should have to build up the fleet, or who should get the contracts. Not with unknown alien powers ready to pounce upon us at any time from beyond our known systems. So I didn’t ask—I took what I needed and I ordered people to build what I wanted. Since I had the fleet behind me, they obeyed.
Largely because it was the easiest route available, I’d left Crow’s Imperial governing infrastructure in place. I had to start with something. Not everything was the same, of course. I released all political prisoners no matter how irritating they were. I’d already destroyed the Ministry of Truth and now encouraged a free press. I allowed elections for all local and national leaders in every country. Until you got up to the world government itself, it was all very democratic. But at the top, I appointed my own people and kept the real power tightly in the grip of Star Force. These decisions were alternatively lauded and berated by the press, and there were plenty of negative consequences for everything I did.
“I thought we were pretty good at vicious tactics,” I told Admiral Miklos one cold October afternoon, after a swarm of envoys had been ushered from the buildings and shut outside. “But these businessmen are like warriors in suits.”
“They wield words and bribes like weapons,” he agreed. He picked up a shiny metal bust, which had been left behind by one of the dignitaries. He hefted it speculatively. “I do believe this thing is solid gold.”
Miklos was an Eastern European, and he still had an accent. He wore a beard that was a little fuller than regulations allowed for and had intense eyes. He stared at the golden likeness of me as if he were examining an alien animal.
“Yeah,” I said. “Looks like real gold. Who gave that thing to me?”
“It came from the Turkish delegation, I believe,” Miklos replied. “They probably calculated that anything less than solid gold would be considered an insult. Crow liked this kind of ego-building gift, and they seem to be determined to follow the protocol he began.”
I sighed and reached out my hand for the bauble. Miklos hesitated before handing it to me, still frowning.
“Has this gone through security, sir?” he asked.
I shrugged. “You tell me.”
Miklos found a file in the government archives on his tablet. He shot it to my tablet with a flick of his finger, and I examined it.
“Every test Marvin could put it through,” I said, examining the file. “No toxins, explosives or even nanite viruses showed up. He couldn’t detect anything.”
“Okay then,” Miklos said, putting the statue into my palm.
I examined the workmanship. It was really quite good. The damned thing looked exactly like me.