A Stroke of State

11 05 2012

Today marks five years since the first post in Orbital Shipyards, a not-insignificant anniversary! To celebrate the fifth birthday of Orbital Shipyards, presented here is a full-length short story set in the OS universe, featuring many familar characters – and some new ones as well.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts, opinions and feelings regarding the colonisation of Fram.

 
 

A Stroke of State

An Orbital Shipyards Story

Dave Blades

 
 

Alae Iacta Est

 

Anastas withdrew from Clarendon’s attack.

‘–the hell would you do, Faliste?’ Clarendon asked angrily. ‘What the hell do you want to do? Shoot them down as they arrive? You can’t turn these ships away. You can’t stop what’s coming.’

‘Charles, please don’t,’ Anastas replied with a hint of nervousness. ‘Don’t do this. If the full Presidium ratifies the Enabling Act, you’ll tear down the government.’

‘Oh come on, Faliste. At least I’m doing something. You sit there at your paper, and you print these – these defamatory, liberal articles.’ Clarendon waved a hand dismissively. ‘But you’re too weak to put blood on the chamber floor.’

The Speaker of the Presidium mounted the podium.

‘I hereby declare,’ said the Speaker, ‘this Plenum of the Presidium of the Colonies open. The Speaker recognises the Member for Alpha-3 and Chairman of the Presidium.’

Clarendon turned away from Anastas and nodded to the Speaker. Anastas opened his mouth to reply to Clarendon, but no words were formed. As Clarendon gathered his tablet and stylus he locked eyes with Anastas and, without any emotion, proceeded to the floor of the Presidium chamber. Anastas leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head held in his hand.

‘Members of the Presidium,’ Clarendon began. He addressed the members gathered for the plenum: sitting in rows ranked by candidature and organised into the various colonies were the sixty full and thirty candidate members of the Presidium. ‘Today is a significant day. Since we landed on this world and named it Fram – and brought the light of human civilisation to the light of another star – this new home of ours has orbited Alpha Centauri B almost seven times. But in that time, our homeworld has orbited the Sun twenty-four times.

‘Today marks twenty-four Earth-years since Planetfall.’

Anastas heard a brief murmur among the members. He rubbed the tiredness from his eyes. He put one hand over his mouth and watched Clarendon.

‘In those twenty-four years we have achieved great things. We have built this great city; we have welcomed three more colony ships to Fram; and we now number close to twenty thousand. We have walked on the moons; sent explorers to the other planets; and we have built space stations to orbit our new home. We have begun to warm our world and have established outposts across its globe. Days like today, though they might seem arbitrary, allow us to reflect on what we have accomplished in these twenty-four years.’

Two rows ahead of Anastas and to his right, in the section of the chamber for the members for Alpha-2, Gina Divero looked over her left shoulder. Her eyes, a piercing blue not diminished by her years, found Anastas’ own. She subtly raised an eyebrow, and Anastas imperceptibly nodded in return. The edges of his mouth tightened and his lip trembled, although he hid this by running his hand through his beard.

‘Still I recall,’ continued Clarendon, ‘those grim days of the Bottleneck. Those nine years when the first of us, borne here by Quoqasi, struggled alone to secure our place on this world–’

With a flourish of anger, Anastas grabbed his own stylus and quickly stood. He ascended the steps to the back row of the chamber and traced its curvature around to the exit. The section for the original Alpha colonies was farthest to the right of the chamber, and his steps echoed on the basalt floor, punctuating Clarendon’s words. Anastas felt Clarendon’s eyes on him. He kept his own gaze fixed ahead, the muscles of his neck taught.

Anastas heard Gina’s voice behind him.

‘Charles, please,’ she interrupted. ‘If I might address the floor…’

At the entrance to the Presidium chamber, Anastas was met by Ruslan. His friend was smiling. Shining on his collar was a platinum emergency services badge.

‘Are you okay?’ Ruslan asked.

Anastas took a deep breath and steadied himself.

‘Yes. Dizzy.’

‘You’ll be okay. Are we on?’

Anastas nodded. ‘Seal the chamber. No one gets in or out unless Gina or I say so.’

Ruslan handed a tablet to Anastas, on which a voip program was running and connected to a number of tablets across the city.

‘We’re on, ladies and gentlemen,’ Anastas said. ‘Good luck.’

The door to the Presidium chamber sealed shut behind Anastas, immediately silencing the argument developing on the floor between Clarendon and Gina. Anastas handed the tablet back to Ruslan, and put a hand to his friend’s shoulder.

Alae iacta est,’ Ruslan said.

‘What?’

‘Nothing. The die has been cast.’

Anastas smiled, briefly.

‘You’re the second person to mention Caesar to me this week.’ Anastas took his hand from Ruslan’s shoulder. ‘Can you manage here?’

Ruslan nodded. ‘I’ve got some of my security team closing off this floor. You should go. You’ve places to be.’

The sound of alarms began to wail outside.

 
 

The Loudest Voice

 

Gina entered Clarendon’s office and he stood to greet her.

‘Ah, Georgiana,’ said Clarendon as he gestured across his desk, ‘please, take a seat.’

‘Thank you, Charles.’

He leaned back into his chair. Gina ran her finger along the edge of his desk.

‘Very nice,’ she said.

Charles smiled. ‘Chairman of the Presidium. For what that’s worth.’

‘Oh,’ Gina replied. ‘Quite something, I expect.’

She leaned back into her own chair and stared at Clarendon across the desk.

‘Let’s talk about the cracking plant,’ she said.

‘We’ve discussed the plant in the last plenum,’ Clarendon answered, ‘and it will doubtless be discussed further in the next Congress of the Central Committee.’

‘Let’s talk about why the contract went to Alpha-3 and not one of the newer colonies.’

Clarendon laughed. ‘First it was the location, now it’s the contractors.’

Gina continued. ‘Gamma-4 submitted a proposal with a much shorter construction time. Beta-2’s proposal used less refined metals. And yet, somehow, the contract went to your own colony of Alpha-3.’

‘You know,’ Clarendon said, ‘sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that you’ve been on the Presidium for as long as I have–’

‘You know that I have budget oversight, Charles.’

‘–only you and I, from the beginning. Do you remember the First Congress, Gina?’

‘We could also discuss the northern hemisphere aquifers, or the atmospheric heating stations. Are you deliberately suppressing competition?’

Clarendon abruptly pushed himself out of his chair and walked to the window of his office. Cranes were moving slowly around the grounding station away to the west. The distorted shadow of the space elevator was cast on the curved surface of the Dome; as the elevator descended to the surface, its shadow climbed the dusty roof over the city to meet its source.

‘I remember the First Congress,’ he said after a moment. ‘You encouraged us all down this path of governance. You were very passionate. Very eloquent.’

Gina managed a half-smile with one corner of her mouth. ‘Something not lost, I hope, in my old age. This could be very serious, Charles.’

Clarendon was snapped from his reverie.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ he waved a hand dismissively. ‘Contracts of this sort are decided by a committee. I make them neither alone nor arbitrarily. And the one truism of politics is that voices will be raised against any decision – especially one where there are obvious and clear-cut losers.’

‘I will agree with you there,’ Gina conceded. ‘But never forget that this isn’t Earth. Economics is at its most basic the application of finite resources. On Fram our resources are scarce, and so much more precious as a result. Our lives depend on their careful management. The people won’t take corruption light–’

‘Corruption!’ Clarendon exclaimed. He turned to face Gina. ‘Corruption? For God’s sake. I took you for another sort of woman.’

‘Oh?’

‘One who would choose her words with more care. One who would not so casually throw weighty terms about. You talk about construction projects. I built this planet! When you and the rest of Alpha-2 were leeching off the rest of us, Alpha-3 was building a world.’ Clarendon turned back to his window and gazed out upon the city. ‘Do you think this city would be here without Alpha-3? Do you think there would be a world here to greet the Cato in six months? You know that there a more ships coming after it, and more after them, and after them. Fram isn’t ready for the population boom that is coming.’

Gina rose from her own chair, and moved to stand beside Clarendon. As she gazed out across the city, she could make out the far side of the Dome, enclosing the irregular western edge of the crater. Clarendon saw where her gaze fell.

‘Nothing I have done,’ he said more calmly, ‘is any different to your own lobbying for your home. My God, in those days, you would never shut up about Alpha-2.’

‘I won’t let this go, Charles.’

‘As ever, Gina, you’ll make a mountain out of a molehill. And after you’ve screamed yourself hoarse on the floor of the Presidium, you’ll see that our colleagues are pragmatic, and have no time for your self-indulgent brand of liberalism.’

Gina shook her head despairingly.

‘Voices are raised against any decision, yes, but thousands of voices are raised against this decision, Charles.’

‘I remind you that some voices are louder than others. And none louder than the Chairman of the Presidium.’

Gina turned and walked to the door. She sighed.

‘On your tablet is a subpoena to appear before the oversight committee. I’m launching an investigation. You’ve been served.’

She hovered in the doorway.

‘Are not the people the loudest, Charles?’

 
 

A Stroke of State

 

Anastas emerged into the shadow of the Chancery, a tall, dark building made of native basalt and built high on the eastern wall of the crater. It afforded a commanding view of the city, spread across the bowl of the crater. Rushing through the classical columns of the forecourt of the Presidium chambers, Anastas stole glances at this great city: the space elevator, descending through the eye of the Dome to the grounding station at Charlotte Station; the dozens of massive cargo cranes that surrounded the cable, dwarfing rows of cargo containers in the storage yards; the colony pods, almost a dozen, bulky shapes that still dominated the cityscape; and the thin streets lined with cherry blossoms that flowered close to periapsis and turned the boulevards into garments of white and pink.

Sirens were blaring throughout the city. Between the disorientating wails was a repeated civic message: ‘Evacuate. Please proceed to the nearest pressurised space. Evacuate. Please proceed to the nearest…’

As Anastas left the Chancery for his offices, he could see throngs of pedestrians rushing across the forum and frantically running for the nearest buildings. Some of them wore facemasks and breathing equipment, although many did not; those who did had taken the equipment from emergency stations in the streets. All of these people were looking up at the Dome.

The Dome stretched across the crater like a bubble of steel and hardened plastic, and enclosed the city and its atmosphere. The evacuation alarm warned citizens that the Dome had been breached and that the thick, mostly-carbon dioxide environment of Fram was rushing into the lower-pressure, oxygenated atmosphere of the city.

Anastas proceeded across the forum and along the tramline; here, a number of street-cleaning bots had gone into hibernation mode. His offices were located in the government quarter, a short run from the Chancery. In the lobby, a crowd had gathered, mostly of pedestrians who had been near the building when the alarms started, but also some curious office workers.

‘Meteorite?’ asked one of Anastas’ graphic designers as he entered.

‘Likely,’ Anastas lied.

The woman snorted. ‘We’ll be here for days. Last time it took city maintenance thirty hours to repair.’

In the conference room, Anastas met another candidate member of the Presidium, Woei-Hann Liu. He shook her hand. He placed his tablet on the conference table and turned to the smallest wall, on which a softscreen had been spread out. On the screen were a half-dozen video links to various groups of conspirators scattered throughout the city. Some of those video feeds jumped erratically; these were fed from tablets held in the hands of owners still running through the streets of the city.

Anastas tapped the screen with his hand, and the feed from Environmental Control expanded and was superimposed over the others.

‘The city is in lockdown,’ the man reported. ‘Of course, there is no breach, but we have immobilised the city’s population.’

Anastas nodded.

‘Excellent.’

‘It will take maintenance a little while to work out that there is nothing wrong with the Dome. When they do, though, we won’t be able to keep them in lockdown without changing their access privileges.’

‘It may come to that,’ Woei-Hann replied.

Anastas tapped the softscreen and the feed collapsed back into the lattice of other feeds.

‘We’ve immobilised the Presidium in the Chancery,’ he reported to all the groups. This information was the go-ahead for the next stage. A series of grim and nervous faces nodded back at Anastas. ‘We can proceed.’

One by one the conspirators logged out and the screen went blank. Anastas started to pace the length of the conference room. Woei-Hann leaned over the table; shoulder muscles tensing like a cat, her straight black hair falling over her neck.

‘You and I,’ she said, ‘we’re the only members of the Presidium involved in this coup–’

Anastas cut her off quickly.

‘It’s not a coup.’

‘Don’t fool yourself, Anastazy. We’re usurping the state apparatus. We’re deposing the government and replacing it with something else. And you and I are the only ones absent from that plenum.’

‘There’re no military or paramilitary forces here.’ Anastas was chewing on his thumbnail. ‘This isn’t the insinuation of some small, critical part of the government. This is a popular movement. There will be no violence.’

‘We hope.’

Anastas looked into her eyes. ‘There will be political change. And this change will be sudden, yes, and it will be engineered. But it shall not be violent.’

Woei-Hann put her hands on her hips.

‘A bloodless coup d’état is still a coup d’état.’ She sighed. ‘And if we fail, you and Gina and I–’

‘It’s not failing that I am fucking worried about,’ Anastas snapped. ‘If we fail, we fail. But if we neither succeed nor fail, this could drag on for weeks, and we’d tear the city apart.’

‘Oh please,’ Woei-Hann replied. ‘We’re all too educated for a civil war.’

‘But not too educated for the Presidium to exact some petty revenge on you and I? No. We’ll succeed – if we seize and occupy all of our objectives.’ Anastas stopped pacing, and stared at the blank screen. He felt his hand shaking, and put it in his pocket. ‘Ungh. I feel sick.’

 
 

What Have You Done?

 

Gina sipped a ginger tea as she read from her tablet.

‘Have you read Maley’s article?’

Woei-Hann, candidate member of the Presidium for Alpha-2 as Gina was full member, sat down across from her. She was sipping her own roasted chicory and soya bean drink.

‘Yeah,’ she replied.

‘I wonder if our Chairman has read it yet.’

Woei-Hann nodded. ‘Mmm. There’s been a lot of chatter online.’

‘“Where Does the Buck Stop in Presidium Corruption Scandal?”’ Gina read from the headline of that morning’s edition of The Praeco. ‘Bold enough to catch the eye of even the most apolitical of citizens, don’t you think? This has to be Anastazy.’

‘I think you give him too much credit,’ Woei-Hann replied. She blew on her drink, and the smell of roasted chicory wafted toward Gina. ‘The decision to run with a story is the editor’s – not the newspaper’s representative to the Presidium.’

‘Come now, Anastazy Faliste all but owns this paper.’ She motioned toward the tablet. ‘This is his powerbase on the Presidium. My God, would you read this:

“Chair of the Budget Oversight Committee, Georgiana Divero, will convene a hearing this week that is expected to investigate dubious, anti-competitive practices including influence peddling and kickbacks between high-ranking members of the Presidium and a number of industry contractors.”

‘It’s the section later on in the article that will most interest you,’ Woei-Hann said.

“Representatives of Thirty Four Design Bureau, a subsidiary of the Alpha-3 and Alpha-4 construction conglomerate, have declined to comment…”

‘No, further down.’

Gina skimmed the next paragraphs, which outlined a series of projects that Maley had identified and linked with the investigation. She read aloud again:

“Where does the buck stop? The Praeco has learned that the current Chairman of the Presidium, Charles Clarendon, has been implicated and a subpoena issued for his testimony before the hearing–”

Woei-Hann: ‘Yeah. That’s it.’

“–and, if true, the connections between the Chairman and Alpha-3 would come under intense and public scrutiny.”

Gina paused. She leaned back into her chair, and cupped her tea between her hands. ‘Clarendon is going to think that I leaked this.’

‘Almost certainly,’ Woei-Hann responded, ‘although the question is whether he will respond to Maley, or come after us directly.’

‘You know,’ Gina said after a sip of tea, ‘in some ways it doesn’t matter. The public are outraged. Look at the comments on this article. Whether he’s found guilty or not, it’s out there for all to see.’

‘Mud sticks?’

‘Mud sticks,’ Gina repeated. ‘And whether he thinks I leaked it doesn’t matter; I called for the investigation that brought the whole affair out of the Presidium chambers and into the public sphere. In fact, he’ll probably just assume that I leaked it in an attempt to unseat him. Now I understand why he reacted the way he did.’

Woei-Hann drained the last of her ersatz coffee, then cleared her thoat.

‘You could, you know.’

‘What?’

‘Unseat him. Call for a vote of no confidence. Have him impeached.’

Gina shook her head.

‘Not after calling for the investigation. It would be seen as at best as a pretext and at worst as a stunt. Besides, there are larger issues. I genuinely believe that he is misusing resources and giving preferential treatment to the richer colonies. This isn’t about leadership; this is about what is best for the people.’

Woei-Hann leaned forward conspiratorially.

‘So have another full member introduce the motion,’ she said. ‘Obviously not Faliste for the same reasons you just outlined. If this story gets bigger as the hearing goes on…’

‘Which it likely will.’

‘…well, the Chairman and anyone tied to him will be teetering on the brink. All they would need is a push.’

Gina suddenly set her tea on the desk and stood up.

‘My God, Woei-Hann,’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re the leak! You leaked it to the press!’

‘You have an opportunity here,’ she replied. ‘You’ve served on the Presidium as long as he has, and you don’t even have a cabinet portfolio. He’s a corrupt kleptocrat. What you could do for this planet!’

Gina walked away from the desk and started pacing. She kept one hand on her hip, and with the other held one finger up to silence Woei-Hann.

‘Don’t speak to me. Don’t say a word. I can’t speak to you without counsel present.’ Gina scrolled through the directory on her tablet, pushed it away, held her hands to her forehead and pushed back her hair. ‘I’ll have to make a statement. Announce that we’ve found the leak. I have to distance myself from this. I don’t think you’ll keep your job, but we might transfer you to another position–’

There was a noise from outside, a roar like that of the surf, diminished by distance. Riding above that noise was a single voice, reduced to the harshest syllables as though a voice whispered in the next room.

Gina moved to the window, which looked down on the forum before the Chancery.

‘Oh my God,’ she said.

Woei-Hann joined her, and together they looked down as, several stories below them, a crowd of hundreds gathered in the forum. The crowd roared in surges, like crashing waves, agitated not by wind or tide but by the voice bellowing out from a loudspeaker. Reduced even by the distance and the window, the edge of rage in that roar was noticeable.

‘Look at them, Gina,’ Woei-Hann said with timidity. ‘Look at the anger. It’s unforgiveable that a man like Clarendon, a man who lived through the Bottleneck as you and I did, could be so careless with the colony’s resources. These are our lives, this is our future. They’ll lynch him and burn the Chancery to ashes if you don’t direct that anger.’

‘You’re being disingenuous,’ Gina replied. ‘You’re exaggerating.’

‘Maybe. But look. There must be nearly a thousand people there. A thousand people. How many more are thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same anger? If this isn’t resolved at the next Congress, the people will resolve it themselves.’

Gina watched the crowd with a concerned frown, watched the crowd condense and fluctuate, watched hundreds of educated minds meet and cry out together in frustration. Her tablet chimed.

‘A message from Charles,’ she said to Woei-Hann. She shook her head with disappointment, then read aloud: ‘‘You ambitious bitch. What have you done?’’

 
 

O’er the Ramparts We Watched

 

Anastas nervously coordinated the movements of the conspirators across the city. Before any other sites were secured, the priority was to seize the city’s servers. It was through the servers that almost all of the city’s communications passed, and all data was stored here. The first to report, thus, was the group assigned to occupy the various, decentralised hubs of the server, found in each of the colony pods.

‘We immediately took the Chancery offline,’ reported the face on the soft screen. ‘Without wireless access, neither the Presidium nor its staff can use their tablets to communicate with the rest of the city.’

Woei-Hann was standing next to Anastas.

‘And their access to the server?’

‘Nothing not already in their local history.’

As each of the hubs was taken offline, sections of the city lost online access. Only Anastas’ group of conspirators was online. Much of the city’s population would assume that this outage was related to whatever had damaged the Dome.

Ruslan logged on. Woei-Hann tapped the notification and soon his smiling face was filling the softscreen.

‘The Chancery is ours.’ He paused. ‘We’ve moved most of the people over to the city council building. My teams have cleared every floor and there’s a guard at every entrance.’

Over Ruslan’s shoulder, Anastas could see a red-haired woman wearing the same ES badge as Ruslan.

‘And the Presidium?’

‘We can hear them arguing. Whatever Divero said, I’d say it’s worked.’

Woei-Hann noticeably relaxed.

‘Why the hell are you smiling so much?’ Anastas snapped.

‘Aren’t you excited?’ Ruslan replied. ‘Change is in the air.’

Another window appeared next to Ruslan’s.

‘Ruslan, I have to go. Let me know if anything changes with the Presidium.’ Ruslan giggled and was minimised; Anastas switched to the next face on the screen. ‘Myke. Give me good news.’

Mykelle smiled.

‘I’ve evacuated most of my staff. The broadcast station is yours. Assuming that you have things under control over at that salubrious little newspaper of yours, then you now control the planet’s media.’

Anastas looked out over the open-plan office beyond the conference room’s glass wall. The only people in the bull pit were the editor and lead investigative journalist, Maley, who had first broken the story. The two were leaning over the editor’s desk, gesturing animatedly. Anastas caught the editor’s eyes, who indicated that they would soon be ready.

‘Excellent. Stay on this line; they’re just finishing up and we’ll have something shortly.’

The next group to report in was that tasked with securing Charlotte Station. Charlotte was the centre of the city in both geographical and infrastructural senses: built at the basin of the crater, it was equidistant to the crater rims and the natural transit centre for the public transportation network. Moreover, material unloaded in orbit would have to pass through the grounding station of the space elevator.

‘We need emergency services down here! Oh God, its framming awful–’

‘What’s happened?’ yelled Anastas.

The face on the screen was shaking. ‘God, the tram hit them, two of them, I think they’re from Beta-3, God we need paramedics here in two minutes or they’re going to die–’

Woei-Hann interrupted. ‘Have you secured Charlotte?’

‘What? Yes, yes, all the tramlines are locked down. Jesus, where are the emergency services?’

Anastas again began to pace and rub his forehead nervously.

‘We’ll send someone out,’ Woei-Hann said. ‘One of Ruslan’s team.’

‘With the trams down, it would take them fifteen or twenty minutes to get there,’ Anastas replied. ‘We have to call it in.’

‘Oh, please, Anastas. Think. ES will wonder why we have comms and they don’t. They’ll know something is up.’

‘They’ll know anyway, in a short while. I won’t let those two die.’ Anastas shook his head, but kept his hand to his forehead. ‘I won’t be responsible for that.’

‘We’ll lose Charlotte.’

Anastas looked Woei-Hann in the eye, and took a deep breath.

‘We might lose the people if they die.’

 
 

Regents Pretending to be Kings

 

Gina stepped into the cabinet offices and, arranged around the long table, were fifteen other pairs of eyes assiduously avoiding her own.  This was the core of Presidium – its Chairman and the fifteen deputies that each represented a colony. The remaining seventy-four members of this bloated yet entrenched political body had not been invited to the closed session.

Clarendon sat at the centre of the long side of that table, conferring in whispers with the representative of his own colony, Yi Jianyu, a man seemingly untouched by age. By comparison, lines furrowed Clarendon’s forehead, and his blue eyes were hooded beneath his brow; there were clutches of wrinkles gathered at the corners of his eyes. Clarendon ran a hand over his baldpate as Gina took her seat across the table and to his right.

‘The circumstances of this meeting could have been better,’ Clarendon began. He did not look at Gina, but a handful of his cronies did, and she managed to look them each in the eyes. ‘Let’s start with the productivity figures, I think.’

One of the deputies for the new Gamma colonies, and also the cabinet minster for industry, rattled off a series of figures indicating a significant slowdown in many sectors of industry.

‘It’s very hard to avoid the conclusion,’ Clarendon said, ‘and it was not a conclusion that I was that keen to draw myself for quite a while, but you can’t avoid concluding I think on all the figures we have that productivity growth has slowed. Now it has slowed in a number of colonies, not just in the city. But I think I’d be right in saying it seems more pronounced in the city.’

‘I remain unconvinced,’ Gina ventured.

‘I don’t see how you can refute these figures,’ said the Minister for Industry, waving his tablet emphatically.

‘I don’t dispute your numbers,’ Gina responded sharply. ‘I remain unconvinced that your notion of constant and continuous growth is appropriate here.’

‘Here?’

‘Fram. The colonies. This isn’t some banana republic emerging from a civil war. When did this, all of this–’ Gina waved her hand expansively to indicate the world around her ‘–stop being about colonising distant stars and become instead just some microeconomy? Why are these meetings about productivity and inflation and stimulus?’

Clarendon cleared his throat and began to speak, but did not immediately look down the table at Gina.

‘We all knew that, eventually, Earth would send more and more colony ships. We had five years between the second and third and fourth fleets, but the Cato will be the first of many, many more.’ Clarendon placed his hands together. ‘Fram isn’t ready, and it won’t be unless we dramatically improve productivity now.’

‘Productivity,’ Gina repeated.

His hands still folded together, Clarendon turned to look at Gina and she caught the venom in his eyes.

‘There is a bigger picture here, Gina. There are twenty thousand people living on this planet, and twenty billion crowding and overcrowding the inner planets of Sol.’

‘Perhaps you might explain this bigger picture before the oversight committee. Maybe you could explain how mismanaging scarce and vital resources might qualify as ‘improved productivity.’’

There was the sound of whispering and of cabinet members shuffling in their seats.

Clarendon ignored her invitation. ‘Yes, I suppose we should thank you for the current controversy. This periodic bounce of uncertainty and anxiety will be with us for a few years. Anxious and turbulent markets.’

‘You’ll answer to the Central Committee, when the Congress convenes next month.’

Clarendon put his hands flat on the table and looked down the table to his various cronies.

‘No, I don’t think so.’

Gina opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by Yi, sitting at Clarendon’s right hand, who leaned forward and interjected.

‘I’m distributing,’ Yi said, as he sent digital copies of the bill to the tablets of each of the deputies, ‘copies of an Act that I propose we vote on today. Please take a moment.’

Gina locked eyes with Clarendon. After several long seconds, he said:

‘Read.’

The document was titled Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Colony, and there were five articles within it. After a short preamble, this bill launched into successive attacks on the executive function of the Central Committee and its powers of oversight over the Presidium. It concluded by postponing the next Congress of the Central Committee until the current political crisis had been resolved.

‘This is astonishing,’ Gina managed. ‘This is disgusting. You’re proposing to indefinitely postpone the legitimate assembly of the government of this planet.’

Yi said, ‘The Presidium is the government.’

‘No,’ Gina argued, ‘the Presidium is a body of caretakers, caretakers who preside between sessions of the Central Committee.’

Clarendon smiled a syrupy smile, and spread his hands.

‘We are the de facto government,’ he said, ‘and the Enabling Act merely recognises that. Makes it de jure.’

‘Crap. At best, we’re regents pretending to be kings. Enabling Act? You’re afraid. You don’t want to go to elections; you don’t want to dilute the power base you’ve built here in this room. What do you think the Central Committee will make of this? Do you think they’ll surrender their prerogatives to decide questions and make policy?’

The Minister of Industry scoffed.

‘The Central Committee is a swollen, distended monstrosity. Point me to an example in history of a civilisation in which a full four percent of its population were politicians?’

Clarendon held up a hand.

‘We’re not replacing the government. We’re…well, we’re rescheduling a meeting.’

‘Rescheduling a meet–’ Gina stopped, disgusted, overcome by frustration. ‘Why am I the only one challenging this?’

She looked from face to face, the faces of Clarendon’s cronies, who held her gaze, and the faces of those unaligned deputies, who looked to the table and avoided her eyes. At last she came to Clarendon, and saw in his eyes a glimmer of spite, and realised suddenly that she had played to him, done his bidding, a queen that had reacted to the blundering thrust of his rook by exposing her king, and now, at checkmate, the government she had built and protected for two decades was at risk.

Clarendon smiled, a little, imperceptibly, just at the corner of his mouth.

‘Shall we call the vote?’ he asked.

The only ‘no’ vote stormed out of the cabinet room.

 
 

We, the Central Committee

 

Anastas sent through the file to the broadcast studio.

‘Okay, Myke. That’s it.’

Mykelle’s eyes looked away from her screen briefly as she passed her tablet to someone out of picture.

‘Last chance to write this off as a bad idea,’ she said.

‘Alas, we’ve crossed that Rubicon.’

Mykelle nodded. ‘Sending it out now.’

Woei-Hann and Anastas picked up their tablets. Anastas tapped his stylus nervously on the conference table. He thumbed refresh – again, and again, and again.

‘Oh, come on.’

A message from the ombudsman of the Central Committee appeared in his inbox. Moments later, the same message appeared in Woei-Hann’s inbox. And, Anastas knew, the same message was received on the tablets of the sixteen thousand voters of majority age around the city; minutes later, relayed by Port Mayflower and orbital satellites, this message appeared in the inbox of those three thousand citizens in the mines and colonies across the planet.

‘Citizens of Fram,’ began the media message, read by one of the newsreaders over at Mykelle’s network, ‘we are faced by a political crisis without parallel in the history of our world. We, the Central Committee, propose a solution to this current crisis. Attached you will find the text of a referendum, the results of which will determine…’

Anastas stopped the video preamble and opened the referendum document.

A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Colony of Fram as a republic with the Central Committee being replaced by a Senate directly elected by the People, and the Presidium being replaced by two Consuls elected by a two-thirds majority of the Members of the Colonial Senate.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?

Anastas moved to tap the screen with a finger sore from his nervous nail biting; his hand froze, and, for a moment, his mouth parted and the colour drained from his face.

He clicked: Yes.

Anastas put both hands atop his head and interlaced his fingers. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

‘We need eight thousand, nine hundred and seventy one votes,’ he said, eyes still closed. ‘Eight thousand, nine hundred and seventy one ‘yes’ votes for a majority.’

‘We’ll get them,’ Woei-Hann replied. ‘And then we’ll have our fait accompli.’

Anastas brought his hands down on the table.

‘It’s a little more than that.’

‘It’s an accomplished fact, Anastas. A done deal. We return civic services to the city and free the Presidium and we present them with something that has already happened. Something they cannot reverse. Evidence of the people’s support for us.’

‘No, that’s not what this is about,’ Anastas insisted. ‘This is legal. It has to be legal. We use the laws of the government to change the government. We work within the framework of the law; we’re not some revolutionary mob acting with violent, extra-judicial abandon.’

Woei-Hann snorted.

‘Sure, this is legal, but barely. Open source democracy, e-democracy, whatever, it only goes so far. We’ve asked the people of Fram to agree to a radical change of government based on, what? Twenty words? This is a referendum in twenty-five-words-or-less. The first thing the Presidium will say, the first thing Clarendon will say, is that the people made an uninformed decision. This referendum–’ she gestured toward her tablet, lying on the table beside her ‘–is the fait accompli by which we wrest control of the government.’

Anastas scratched at his beard, and used his hand to mask the involuntary snarl that suddenly twisted his face.

‘Do you really see the world in such realist–’

He was interrupted by the vibration of his tablet. The face of one of the Charlotte Station group appeared, and Anastas transferred the call to the softscreen.

‘We’ve lost Charlotte,’ the face reported.

Woei-Hann: ‘God damnit.’

‘Emergency services have cleared most of the platforms. I think we still have the line heading to the North Gate. Most of us have fallen back to the cable, and have barricaded ourselves in the grounding station.’

‘All right,’ Woei-Hann said. ‘Stay there. We still control the elevator.’

‘Was anyone hurt?’ Anastas asked.

‘I don’t think so. There was a scuffle. I think Goulburn and Davies were arrested.’

‘And the pedestrians hit by the tram?’

‘I saw them wheeled away on a stretcher. The paramedics didn’t appear to be in a rush, so I guess they’re going to be fine.’

‘Or, they’re too far gone,’ Anastas said.

He closed the feed. He put one hand to his forehead as he paced before the softscreen.

‘Ruslan’s team can be here in five minutes,’ Woei-Hann said. When Anastas did not reply, she reminded him: ‘The head of ES is a Clarendon crony.’

Anastas rubbed his temple. ‘The Presidium still can’t communicate with the rest of the government. We have to keep it that way.’

‘We need to hold the broadcasting studio, so that we can announce the results of the referendum to the people.’

Anastas stared through the softscreen with unfocused eyes.

‘You’re right, but I don’t think ES will go for the studios. The referendum has already gone out. They know we’re moving against the Presidium, and they’ll know the Central Committee is behind it. I think they’ll move on the Chancery.’

‘Okay.’

‘There’s nothing more we can do from here. Let’s get over to there and hope that the referendum closes before ES arrive. What do you think?’

Woei-Hann smiled.

‘There’s no better image for a coup than the people surrounding the site of government.’

 
 

The Romans are but Sheep

 

Gina repeated: ‘A republic?’

Anastas nodded.

‘A classical republic, on the Roman model. A Senate elected by the people, which in turn elects two consuls to one-year terms.’

Gina thought to herself.

‘One Earth year, or one Fram year?’

Anastas smiled. ‘A Fram year.’

As they moved through the museum, Anastas – in hushed tones – broadly explained the conspiracy to Gina. The immobilisation of the Presidium and then the city, the seizure of key facilities, the referendum. Anastas framed the plan in terms of a revolution, but reflexively allowed that it was a coup d’etat, a stroke of state, a stroke made by a disenfranchised body through an established executive.

‘You must understand my reservations,’ Gina said quietly, her voice lost in the museum crowd. ‘I’ve just tried to stop another man from destroying our government. You’re proposing nothing dissimilar. Like Charles, you’re illegally seizing the government for yourself.’

‘It will be legal. All changes to the constitution must go to a general referendum. We wrote that into the constitution.’

‘The legality will be disputed.’

‘Maybe,’ Anastas replied. ‘But the Central Committee is behind this. Seven hundred and fifty men and women, elected by their contemporaries. Clarendon doesn’t even have the entire Presidium: he has the parliament, sixteen people, none of whom were elected by the people.’

‘Fifteen.’ Gina looked away sadly.

‘Sorry. Fifteen.’

‘And the Central Committee will just stand aside, when the dust settles?’

‘Win or lose,’ Anastas replied with a skittish nervousness. He and Gina came to a display that featured sections of Quoqasi’s hull, recovered in various states from across the surface of Fram. Anastas ran his fingers longingly along the melted, blackened edges.

‘Do you remember the First Congress?’ he asked.

‘You know, Charles asked me the same thing,’ Gina said. ‘Yes. I remember. Six and a half years ago.’

‘Nearly twenty-four Earth years. Almost half my life.’ Anastas pulled back his hand, turned to look at Gina. ‘I remember you standing at the front of that crowd, arguing for a change of government.’

‘And I remember you,’ she replied, ‘making some offhand remark that led to our constitution and our government.’

 ‘The Presidium and the Committee worked, Gina, they worked well for twenty years. But now our population is too large, our economy too developed. We’ve lost that human scale that we started with.’

Gina put her hand over her mouth.

‘Leopold Kohr,’ she said through her fingers. ‘The problem is bigness itself.’

 ‘And Clarendon has commandeered our government, as simple as can be.’ Anastas smiled wryly. ‘I think I know, now, how Cicero and Cato felt, watching Caesar erode the foundations of their government. I’m angry at Clarendon, don’t get me wrong, but I’m more sorry that our form of government is so clearly crippled if it can be so easily usurped.’

Gina nodded to herself, lost in her own thoughts.

‘I know that he would not be a wolf,’ she said with melancholy, ‘but that he sees the Romans are but sheep.’

‘What’s that?’ Anastas asked.

‘Shakespeare. Julius Caesar, actually.’

‘Are you saying that the people of Fram get the politicians they deserve?’

‘No, not at all,’ Gina replied. ‘But…what if he’s right?’

‘Clarendon?’

‘Yes. Look at this. We waited nine years for the second fleet to arrive from Earth. They had to be sure the colony had made it before sending more ships. Then the third and the fourth fleets were five years apart, enough time to absorb the influx of colonists, expand our infrastructure, you know.’ She ran her own hands over the remnants of Quoqasi, the ship that had borne Gina and Anastas and Clarendon and Woei-Hann and Ruslan and four thousand others to Fram, all those decades ago. ‘The Cato is just the first in a massive surge of ships from Earth. Are we ready for these migrants?’

‘Many of us against unregulated immigration from Sol. Not just the Kohrists.’

‘It’s not just that,’ Gina said. ‘I think that’s why he’s been pushing these projects through. Using the normal processes, we may not be able to cope with what’s coming.’

 ‘Come on.’ Anastas stiffened. ‘How would we have a better chance, inefficiently wasting away resources and time? The tender process is there to assure maximum economy.’

Gina shook her head. ‘What’s going to happen to him?’

‘Who? Clarendon?’

‘Yes. If you succeed.’

Anastas paused. ‘He’ll be brought before the Procurator General on charges of corruption, including influence peddling, patronage, accepting kickbacks, and gerrymandering.’

Gina pressed her hand against the piece of Quoqasi’s hull. Her eyes were misted by nostalgia and the passage of time. She appeared a defeated woman.

‘And the entire Central Committee is behind you?’ she confirmed.

‘All of them.’

Gina sighed.

‘All right. Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius. Tell me what I have to do.’

 
 

Turning a New Page

 

Gina and Anastas, telecast across the planet, went before the crowd that had spontaneously gathered in the forum. They stood together on the steps of the Chancery, and waves of energy from the crowd crashed over them. Their faces were lit by flashes of light.

‘Citizens of Fram, my brothers and sisters,’ Gina began. ‘We did it!’

The crowd erupted in a prolonged roar. Anastas watched thousands of beaming, excited faces, and, despite himself, he felt a smile form across his own face. He looked over at Gina and saw her enthusiasm and genuine affection for the people expressed in the lines around her eyes.

Anastas held both hands out above his head, and the crowd slowly drew quiet.

‘We should celebrate and honour the way in which we conduct this great democracy. It’s been on display again tonight. The will of the people has triumphed over those who would deny the gathering of our voice.’ Another roar, loud and enthusiastic, and again quieted by Anastas’ outstretched arms. ‘We acknowledge the people of Fram, who today made a resounding choice; who today looked to the future; who today turned a new page in our world’s history. Ours is a common pride in this great endeavour, and today, when we chose to make that great endeavour even greater, I feel that pride as never before. Thank you, my friends and family of Fram.’

Another howl from the crowd, and again Anastas could not keep the warmth and happiness in his chest from spreading across his face in a broad, deep smile.

 ‘We are each now citizens of a young and brave republic, a republic chosen by the people,’ Gina yelled across the sea of gathered faces. ‘We thank all of you for the trust you have placed in that republic. I want to say to all of you tonight that never will your sacred trust be taken for granted. And, while the referendum passed with a supermajority, we know that there were many who did not support the idea of a republic. I want to say to everyone who voted ‘no’ that this will be a republic for every colonist and citizen of Fram, and your voice shall always be heard.’

‘In its last act before voluntarily surrendering its power, the Central Committee has elected both Gina and myself–’ Anastas put his hand on Gina’s shoulder ‘–acting Consuls of the Republic until elections are held for the Senate next week. Candidates for the Consulship will be nominated once a Senate elected by the people of Fram has convened.’

The crowd shouted out again, a sound punctuated by applause. Anastas moved his hand from Gina’s shoulder, brushing down her arm – he placed his hand in hers and raised both above their heads. Waves of sound and light crashed over them.

Holding their linked hands high in the air, both Anastas and Gina yelled:

‘To the republic!’

 
 
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24 08 2012
Epilogue « Orbital Shipyards: Alpha Centauri System

[…] plant; public objection led to a constitutional crisis and the collapse of the Presidium in popular revolution. Two Consuls and a Senate replaced the Presidium and the Central Committee that had governed the […]

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