Location: Capitol City, New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Are you serious…No bullshit?” Admiral Sonya Berg stated flatly from her side of the table.
“I am.” Ezekiel Mackintosh, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, couldn’t help but smile. “I just got the confirmation today from their team leader. The audit is completed.
The Commonwealth Emergency Operations Center (CEOC) was normally bustling with activity, and throughout the rest of the underground structure it was, but in one room the PM was alone with his trusted advisors. Guards outside were instructed not to interrupt unless the sky was falling.
Their political opponents in the Eagle Party had come to calling these people the Gang of Five. They used the derogatory ‘gang’ because they claimed the five people involved were usurping the interactions of humanity away from the rest of the Commonwealth’s chosen representatives, and driving the future of the interstellar power without any input from the Council. Of course, that wasn’t correct. Sure the newly minted Gang of Five was the tip of the spear between the Commonwealth and the Hegemony, but they conferred with experts all the time and regularly involved Representatives. The outrage was mostly because it was an election year, and the PM’s Progressive Party had a fifty-fifty chance of losing their majority, and through that the Prime Minister.
Ezekiel tried to not think about the results that were currently being tallied across the Commonwealth, and instead focused on the other four members of his gang. As the PM, he sat at the head of the table. To his right was High Admiral Xavier Gilmore, leader of the Commonwealth’s military and a Representative from the military world of Asgard. Next to the High Admiral was Admiral Sonya Berg, the Chief of Naval Intelligence. Ezekiel never really felt completely comfortable around the Fleet’s head spy, but her presence was necessary due to the information at her disposal. He wondered for a moment if the rumors about her having files on key members of the Council, foreign governments, and senior military officers throughout humanity’s various polities were true. If it was, ignorance was bliss was probably the best policy.
On his left was Admiral Theodore Garrett, the head of the Infantry component of the military. He’d supervised the deployment of a lot of the new combat tech, so his technical expertise made his presence vital. On Garrett’s right was the final member of the official gang, Minister of Commerce Jodi Harrington.
Jodi Harrington was a stately woman of humble origins. Born on the simple planet of Hudson’s Harbor, which was as middle of the road as possible on every metric the Commonwealth used to evaluate itself, Jodi quickly rose through the ranks and became planetary governor before forty. She was only one of a handful of people in the Commonwealth to have such a distinction. Granted, the planet only had one and a half billion people, and its major industry was seafood export, but it was still impressive. After two four-year terms as governor she stepped down and went into industry. She bounced around some of the big name corporations and rose to senior VP level with a reputation for fixing problems with creative solutions. Her corporate experience with a political background was what led Ezekiel to nominate her for Commerce Minister in the first place.
The Minister of Commerce wore several different hats in the Commonwealth. Since the Commonwealth main reason for existence was to regulate trade, provide for the common defense, and administer the taxation that allowed the governance of those first two pillars, Minster Harrington had a very important job. She was a referee, negotiator, tax assessor, arbitrator, and if necessary judge, jury, and executioner. The Commerce Ministry was a powerful tool in the Commonwealth’s arsenal against rogue corporations and planetary governments. So, it made complete sense that she would be involved in the negotiations between the Commonwealth and the auditors sent by the Hegemony.
There was a sixth person present in the room, a silent member of the gang, but people didn’t know that she was present and Ezekiel strived to keep that a secret. Connie Price, his Chief of Staff, was a valuable asset, and potential go-between for the PM and other factions during this tenuous process. She sat quietly in the corner, didn’t say a word, but everyone at the table knew how much influence she wielded with the PM.
“It’s about time.” ADM Garrett huffed and leaned back slightly in his chair. “The situation with the Windsor’s is becoming worrisome.”
Ezekiel had tried to downplay the raids, but the intergalactic media outlets were on the scene of every encounter like fried on rice. Depending on the outlet’s financial backing or corporate ownership, that coverage tended to be skewed for or against the PM.
“Our pickets have reported fleet movement, but they’re moving out piecemeal and sporadically.” High Admiral Gilmore informed. “We’ll get a battlecruiser-sized element setting sail from their home system along a path to one of our junctions, but they never arrive when we calculate, and then they turn up back home.”
“They’re taunting us, measuring our surveillance capabilities, and planning something,” Sonya stated. “My sources in the Kingdom are thin, but they all say something big is going down. All the major houses are involved.”
As the Windsor’s threat became more pronounced, the Commonwealth did their research on the foreign government and its society. It was much more feudal than anything they’d dealt with in a long time. The high nobility had leeway, with a Royal Warrant, to engage in warfare separately from the Crown. When it was inter-house warfare that wasn’t a big deal, but it made for an untenable diplomatic position when dealing with other starfaring nations. Ezekiel had received reports that some of the commerce raids perpetrated by the Windsor’s weren’t even executed by the Royal Navy, but by individual High Noble Houses. Admiral Berg reported that lion-share of the spoils of those battles went to those houses, with a small tax going to the Crown.
If ADM Berg was saying the Windsor’s had something big planned that couldn’t be good for the Commonwealth, and what wasn’t good for the Commonwealth wasn’t good for its PM. Ezekiel’s political brain was counting down the seconds to the end of elections. Different planets did them on different time tables, so the whole process took nearly six months from start to finish. It was an exciting and stress-filled time in politics as running tallies were kept day-to-day. If Ezekiel was being honest with himself he was nervous. His party was currently in the lead, but with the planets that had voted he’d expected that lead to be several percentage points larger. He was hoping the end of the audit and successful start of trade with the Hegemony would push the Progressive Party over the top.
“Any idea where they will strike?” It was a question the PM had started asking every meeting, and the answers were pretty much the same.
“Long-range sensors have picked up Windsor’s ships at Queensland, Harper’s Junction, Sacs Prime, and Premier Etat de Napoléon,” Sonya replied.
Ezekiel sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers to relieve the building tension headache. Whoever was at the helm of the Windsor’s Intelligence network was a genius, because that spread of potential targets made for tactical and political headaches.
Queensland was an Aussie world, the first major junction system in the Mid-Worlds along the Windsor’s supposed axis of advance, part of the Oceanic Alliance, but was sort of an unofficial territory of the Commonwealth. The Alliance, which contained seven systems spread out across over two hundred light years, was on good terms with everyone they interacted with, and freedom of the space lanes was a big part of their charter. The Commonwealth had been in Queensland nearly as long as the Aussies, and as part of their common defense pact, had a major anchorage in the system that was the home port for a sizeable chunk of the Eleventh Fleet. If the Windsor’s hit there, the PM would have to commit that sizeable force to action, and their likely destruction.
Harper’s Junction was another junction system along a less likely axis of advance. It was less likely because there weren’t many places to go from there. It was a bit of a dead end from modern transportation standards, but if the Windsor’s had portaling tech, and better mapping of the area, they might be able to find routes that the Commonwealth hadn’t explored yet. It was also a firmly held Commonwealth system, but with a decisively anti-military opinion. There was no anchorage, and an understrength battalion was the only Commonwealth military presence aside from the system defense force, which was laughable at best. Harper’s Junction’s best line of defense was its galactic geography, but now it might be their undoing. The Nineteenth Fleet was anchored at Point Break ninety light years away, and would be the responding force, but it was a nine hour jump by Launcher, and if the Windsor’s took the Launcher then they were in trouble. The High Admiral saw the problem, ordered, and then deployed one of Gold Technologies new stealth QE beacons to the system, but the device was still two weeks away. The PM hoped the Windsor’s held off until then.
Sacs Prime was a corporate world at the border of the Outer Rim and Mid-Worlds. The likelihood of Windsor’s hitting it was even smaller than Harper’s Junction because it was off in the completely wrong direction from any reasonable axis of advance. It was relatively unpopulated because of the toxic atmosphere created by the high mineral composite of the planet. It wasn’t cost effective to terraform the world, so half a dozen domed cities had been erected for the two hundred thousand corporate employees that called Sacs Prime home. The Sacs Fifth Avenue Corporation was an old company headquartered back in Earth’s New York Metropolis. While not even close to being in the same league as Gold Technologies, it was a well-respected corporation, with friends in high places, and a defense agreement with the Commonwealth. The task force at New Lancashire had been the closest naval assets before retreating; now it was Eleventh Fleet at Queensland. If the Windsor’s hit the two systems simultaneously the naval commanders would have to make a decision about where to allocate their forces. Sacs only had a few corporate defense force cruisers to defend the world from pirate raids, and wouldn’t stand a chance against the Windsor’s capabilities.
Lastly, and most unlikely, but maybe the best case scenario for the Commonwealth was Premier Etat de Napoléon. Premier Etat de Napoléon was at the intersection of the Core and Mid-Worlds and an EU system. It had a small contingent of EU battleships and a system defense force christened the grande marine de l’état by the locals. Reports of the grande marine de l’état didn’t paint a good picture of their combat readiness, and they would be quickly swept aside. It was a heavily populated world, and would demand the Commonwealth honor its mutual defense treaty with the EU, but that left wiggle room. Honoring the defense treaty and committing fully were two very different things. Ezekiel would still have to send spacers and marines to their deaths, but he could limit the number. That call would likely be left to the High Admiral, but the blood would still be on Ezekiel’s hands politically.
“We could divert a few squadrons from Second Fleet,” ADM Garrett was discussing the logistics, but the PM was through with the conversation.
“Let’s table this and get back to the real matter at hand.” He ignored the pointed looks from the military officers around the table. “Jodi, tell us what you have.”
The Commerce Minister knew her strengths and weaknesses, and didn’t butt in while the career military strategists discussed war matters, but when the PM called on her she was ready.
“Mister Prime Minister,” she smiled as the lights dimmed slightly and a holo appeared. “With the audit completed, validated, and received by the Hegemony banking system we now have standing in their vast empire.” There were a lot of figures and graphs hovering in the air, but Jodi boiled it down to what was most important. “We’ve been given a mid-range credit rating. The auditors said they’re impressed with our capabilities, but the unpredictability, their words not mine, of the human race is going to give potential investors pause. Their central bank has offered up a start-up loan of ten quadrillion Hegemonic credits to help upgrade our infrastructure.”
Ezekiel’s eyes bugged out of their sockets at the number. He wasn’t going to be the man that indentured humanity to alien bankers, but then he read the other highlighted points of the loan. “A quarter percent interest per century!” The PM’s jaw literally dropped.
“I’ve been dealing with the auditors for several months, Sir, and I think I’ve picked up a few things from them. First off, this Hegemony has been around for a long time, and they play the long game. I can only assume medical technology is more advanced for them and they can live longer than a few centuries to reap the rewards of a deal like this. I also get the distinct impression that there is an inherent lack of greed among their kind, or at least the species primarily responsible for banking operations. It seems counterintuitive from a human perspective, but it would be unwise to place our own values and notions about the universe on an alien species.” The Commerce Minister simply shrugged.
“Very well put, Jodi,” Ezekiel collected himself from the information bomb just dropped on him. “A loan like this has to be approved by the Council, but if we package it with the threat the Windsor’s pose then we should be able to get the votes to pass it despite the lame-duck mentality of election time.”
“That’s not all, Sir,” Jodi spoke up before the PM continued. “The auditors, now that they have completed their work, have invited humanity to a conference.” That got some attention from the military personnel. “The subject of the conference doesn’t seem to be limited to any one topic, but several other Hegemony species will be present, and I got the impression they wanted us to attend.”
Everyone in the room thought about it for a moment. So far human’s interactions had only been between the Twigs and the auditors, who most closely approximated giant floating jellyfish; if the jellyfish were coated in a sickly-pink membrane with a grey glob of matter at the top where you could literally see synapses firing off every millisecond like an eternal fireworks finale. They had thin tendrils that could reach outside the membrane and manipulate objects, but like the Twigs, they seemed to come from a low-gravity world. Personal force fields kept them from being squashed, but the tendrils were extremely nimble and would put galactic-famous pianists to shame. They were also incredibly intelligent when it came to numbers and the amount of information they could take in at once was staggering. It was how they were able to audit the entire Commonwealth so quickly despite the Windsor’s raids.
“We will graciously accept their invitation. Get the details and report back to me. As of now, you’ll be the chief ambassador, Jodi. You know them the best, and you have the best grip on our situation.”
The Commerce Minister gulped at the unexpected task, but her personality demanded she rise to the occasion. “Of course, Sir. I’d be happy to represent us.”
“You’re going to need a crack security detail,” ADM Garrett interjected. “I doubt it is good diplomacy to show up with a task force of battleships at your back and a battalion of infantry surrounding you. We don’t know what you’re going to be walking in to.”
Jodi paled a little bit at that part. It wasn’t her job to think of those kinds of things.
“I think we have an answer to that,” ADM Berg interjected with a look at the High Admiral.
“I’ll make the call,” Gilmore knew what his chief of intelligence was thinking, and he agreed. This was the perfect opportunity to validate a concept in development.