REPORT A PROBLEM
Governor Franklen saw a shadow flitting through the garden, and heartbeat later he heard the almighty, thunderous whoosh that accompanied it. It made the windows of his palace rattle in their frames, as if the air and the earth themselves were shivering in fear. It was a marvelous sound. It startled the citizenry, frightened dogs and horses, and drowned out any conversation, but he relished it. It was the sound of progress.
The jet fighter banked high overhead, sleek and silver and shining in the cloudless sky, then straightened and roared onward toward the horizon. Within seconds it was gone.
It was heading east, he noted. Probably to do some high-altitude surveillance of the Yorkian Federation. He did not believe the Yorkians posed any significant threat. Despite the grand title, they were just a cluster of bickering feudal lords who spent more time killing each other in imaginative ways than threatening the borders of the Dominion. A few well-placed air-to-surface missiles would fragment any army they decided to form. Still, it was always wise to keep an eye on them. Their squalid living conditions occasionally meant cholera epidemics, which could easily drift into the poor, outlying populations in Dominion territory.
In a reflex action that had become second nature to him, the Governor mentally compiled a list of his neighbours and ticked them off one by one. The chaotic, squabbling Yorkian Federation. Tiny, belligerent Verdon. The hopelessly corrupt Holy Antonian Empire. The inbred hillbillies of the Brandt River Family. The noisy but ineffectual Mountain Union. The nomadic, primitive tribes of the Hampton Plain, and beyond them, the scheming but incompetent Phillipsians. Distant, secretive Coriser. The still more distant, pathetically disorganised Marian Cult. He murmured each name to himself, and was pleased to feel nothing but contempt, amusement or blank disinterest.
None of them sparked any fear in him. None of them was a match for the Red Hill Dominion. None of them had aircraft of any sort, or missiles accurate enough to take down his. None of them had anything he wanted, or at least nothing he wanted enough to make the effort of destroying them worthwhile.
None of them, in short, threatened his rule.
He picked up another, far fainter sound behind him. It was the crunch of shoes on the crushed gravel path, slowly getting closer. There was no need to turn around. He knew the footsteps well.
There no hint of the faltering, the hesitant scuffing that usually went with a man coming into his presence. These steps were calm and disciplined, and the Governor had no doubts that they would be so even if the man who took them believed he would not survive this meeting.
The footsteps halted, and the Governor turned. “General Sierra.”
As ever, the General appeared alert but relaxed, standing with deeply ingrained military bearing, feet apart, hands clasped behind his back.
“I see we’re surveying the Yorkians,” the Governor said.
“Are we expecting any trouble from them?”
‘No sir,’ Sierra replied. ‘It’s just a random sweep. We don’t suspect them of plotting anything in particular, but there’s no such thing as being too vigilant.’
‘Absolutely not,’ the Governor agreed, and he nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s funny you should mention vigilance, though. Does that explain your sudden interest in Laurelton?’
The shadow of a grimace swept over Sierra’s face, much as the jet’s shadow had swept through the garden. ‘Sir?’
‘Don’t play games with me, General. Some people think I’m getting complacent in my old age, but I know everything that goes on in Red Hill.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘For example, I know that you’ve had two of your best covert surveillance teams monitoring the two main roads in to and out of Laurelton for nearly three weeks now.’
The General was silent for a moment. ‘That is true,’ he said at length.
‘Correct me if I’m wrong, General, but the last time I looked, Laurelton was a comfortable upper-middle class suburb full of successful small business owners and corporate executives. It is quite possibly the blandest precinct in the entire Dominion. Or am I simply behind the times here? Has Laurelton suddenly become a seething hotbed of sedition?’
Sierra weathered the Governor’s sarcasm with clear discomfort. ‘No, sir.’
‘So I find myself wondering why you’ve put your best men onto watching it, and furthermore, I wonder why you’ve done all this behind my back.’
The Governor was grimly satisfied to see that the General didn’t protest the accusation, or feign innocence. ‘I didn’t think it was time to inform you of the situation. I planned to come to you when I had something concrete.’
‘Something concrete about what?’
Sierra licked his lips. ‘I have reason to believe that a resident of Laurelton is in possession of a humanalogue.’
Whatever the Governor had been expecting, it wasn’t that. ‘A humanalogue? Are you sure?’
‘No, I’m not,’ Sierra said. ‘That’s why I haven’t brought it to your attention yet.’
The Governor half-turned away from him. ‘What sort of humanalogue?’ he asked curiously.
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘I really don’t know, sir.’
Franklen stared into the distance. ‘If it’s a warlog, that could be a very serious problem indeed.’
Sierra shifted his stance impatiently. ‘This is why I didn’t tell you earlier. The worst thing to do at the moment is to indulge in speculation. We’ll know soon enough.’
‘I want more men on this job, General. Pull them off your other projects. If there’s a humanalogue running around Laurelton, I want it caught and brought in to…’
‘All in good time, Governor. Now is the time to gather intelligence. The time for action will come soon enough.’
‘Don’t talk to me like I was a child.’
‘I mean no disrespect. It’s just very important that you understand the delicacy of this situation. Any heavy-handedness on our part could jeopardise everything.’
Franklen eyed his military commander dangerously. ‘I don’t like your tone. Do you forget who you’re speaking to?’
‘Forgive me, Governor. I’m only bold because you force me to be. Nothing can be done about the Laurelton humanalogue yet, and it would be a mistake to try. I have as many men on it as I need. When the time comes I will take whatever steps are needed to bring it in.’
‘If you were any other man, I’d seriously consider having you removed from my service.’ The Governor narrowed his gaze. ‘And you know what that would entail.’
‘All too well, Governor.’
‘One day, my dear General, your indispensability will be your downfall.’
‘I hope not, sir.’
‘I hope not too.’ Franklen let this ghost of a threat linger in the air for a few seconds, then added. ‘I’ll leave this matter in your hands, for the moment. But you’ll keep me informed as the situation develops. I don’t want this secrecy of yours to become any sort of precedent.’
Franklen let the sudden flame of irritation that had flared up inside him dwindle and extinguish. He could not maintain any sort of anger towards a man who had proven his absolute loyalty a hundred times. Sierra’s devotion to the Red Hill Dominion was unequaled.
‘Walk with me,’ he said. Sierra obediently fell in beside him as he started to stroll up the gravel path. For a few moments they walked in silence.
‘You know, even an amilog would have its uses,’ Franklen observed, after a few dozen steps.
‘Was that a tone in your voice?’
‘Of course not.’
‘I know your opinion on amilogs. And you know I’ve listened to your counsel. When that Marguerite female came up for sale six years ago, I let Stev Kulendra buy it rather than taking it for myself.’
‘And look at what happened to him.’
‘What do you mean? He’s as happy as a pig in shit.’
‘But his company is floundering. Amilogs are a distraction.’
‘Most men need a little distraction every now and then, General,’ Franklen said pointedly.
‘Most men don’t rule the Red Hill Dominion, Governor,’ Sierra replied.
The Governor chuckled mildly. ‘Damn you and damn your logic.’
Sierra said nothing.
The path paused at the crest of a small hill, where a stone bench had been placed so that people could sit and take in the view. It then proceeded down the other side, where it became the Governor’s sculpture walk.
Franklen planted himself on the bench and let his eyes roam across the vista. Beyond the garden walls could be seen the tops of the city’s taller buildings, and the suburbs that swelled up on other, distant hills. Mount Erin was a hazy blue pyramid far off to the west.
‘I suppose you think
is my mistress,’ he said, gesturing at the sprawl.
‘It’s the life you’ve chosen, Governor.’
‘True. But she’s a demanding bitch, isn’t she? There’s always someone out there who thinks they can take this away from me.’
‘We won’t let that happen,’ Sierra assured him.
The Governor appeared not to hear. ‘I make sure dissent is crushed as soon as it crawls out into the daylight, but there’s always more hiding somewhere, waiting. You’d think they’d appreciate everything I’ve done for them.’
‘There are always malcontents,’ Sierra observed.
‘Oh, I don’t know, Mike,’ Franklen said, in one of his capricious bursts of familiarity. ‘Maybe I could be doing more. I should stop dropping dissidents down into Mr Smith’s miserable hole and start making an example of them. My father was a great believer in public examples.’ He inclined his head meaningfully at the sculpture walk.
Sierra’s only reaction was a tightening around the lips. ‘I don’t think that would be productive. As a result of your more restrained style of leadership, Red Hill has become a prosperous state. Technological progress is booming. Things your father would have considered luxuries are now within the reach of ordinary citizens. I worry that tightening your grip might only strangle these advances.’
‘So it’s a trade-off between power and prosperity? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘I prefer to say that a benevolent ruler often achieves more than a merciless one.’
‘You’re probably right.’
‘I’m glad you appreciate my position.’
‘Still, there’s something wonderfully simple and straightforward about mercilessness. You kill someone, stick their head on a pike outside the palace gates, and watch opposition evaporate.’
Sierra twitched. ‘I believe advanced technology needs advanced government.’
‘Oh relax. I was just thinking aloud. I’m not about to order another purge.’
In the moment of silence that followed, the Governor leaned down and collected a few stone fragments from the path. He idly tossed one at the nearest object on the sculpture walk. It ricocheted off the hollow aluminium with a musical ‘poing!’, setting loose a fine shower of white alum dust.
Had anyone other than the Governor thrown stones at the sculptures, the walk’s curators would have had a fit. But not with him.
The Governor stood and motioned for Sierra to do likewise. They set off down the sculpture walk, with Franklen absent-mindedly lobbing the larger flecks of gravel in his hand at every second or third object. When he’d run out of decent sized lumps, he tossed the remainders at one of the larger pieces, a towering metal fin originally painted red, with a faint white cross in the centre. They pittered across its ancient surface like harsh raindrops.
‘Do you know why I built this walk, Mike?’
‘I don’t think you’ve ever spelled it out.’
‘It was a statement of intent, I suppose. I wanted to make the Red Hill Dominion a place where the Golden Century could be reborn. That’s why I tolerate freedoms in Northern Trading and ResumeCorp that I wouldn’t stand for in the general population. I wanted them to be the future of Red Hill. They’re the ones who will eventually produce computers and flying cars and adjuvants and yes, even humanalogues. I wanted them to be Red Hill’s answer to all of these.’
With a broad sweep of his arm he took in the entirety of the sculpture walk.
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘Each of these sculptures represents one of the titans of the Golden Century. Corporations, for the most part.’ He tapped one of the arms of a metre-high three-pointed star, mounted on a marble plinth. ‘See this one? The doctor told me that they made cars and dirigibles.’ He gestured to its neighbour, which consisted of the badly-corroded letters I, K, E and A in what had once been yellow on a blue background. ‘And this corporation made furniture.’
‘What about that one?’ Sierra pointed at what appeared to be a curvaceous letter M, fashioned out of some extremely tough, high tech yellow plastic.
‘That one we’re not sure. The doctor said it either manufactured food or children’s toys; he wasn’t sure which. It no longer existed when he was built.’
‘The point is that these companies had operations in every corner of the planet. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing their insignias. They conquered every country in the world and the people welcomed them with open arms. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.’
The General gazed around at the sculptures lining the path. ‘So you built the walk to remind you about the possibilities of power?’
‘Yes, more or less. To be honest, though, I’m less convinced with time.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because for all their power, they couldn’t survive the Golden Century. They were killed off in the pinnacle of mankind’s achievement. The furniture chain died in the early 2080s. The car company died at the very end of the century. The food or toy makers were long gone by the time the doctor was built in 2077. That says it all.’
‘Think about it, Mike. What sort of pitiable power is it that can’t even survive the most glorious days our race has ever known?’
‘Do you have an alternative?’
‘There’s nothing much to do other than fall back on military muscle.’
‘No army survived the Golden Century either.’ Sierra reminded him.
‘Yes, but the order they imposed allowed the corporations to flourish. Maybe their mistake was in allowing their armies to atrophy and relying on economic power. I wonder if I should intersperse these sculptures with a few ancient rifles and grenade launchers, and… what was that thing?’
‘What was what thing?’
‘You know, that big energy weapon. It could vapourise a man inside a steel-plated tank without damaging the tank, or melt a soldier’s internal organs without singeing his uniform.’
‘You mean the Quantum Dysfunction canon?’
‘That’s the one. I should see if our archeologists can dig one up. I could put it over there.’ He pointed at something that resembled a stylised hockey stick; an odd, abstract steel swoosh. ‘We’ll get rid of that. Nobody knows what it is anyway. Screw symbolism – I like the directness of a deadly weapon.’
‘It’s your sculpture walk,’ Sierra conceded.
‘Don’t be surly, General.’ Franklen chided. He surveyed the installations with satisfaction, then smiled at a devilish thought and glanced at Sierra. ‘Of course we could always go back to what it was in my father’s day. You know what he did, don’t you, General? He used to cover his enemies in pitch, tie them to stakes up and down this path, and set them alight to be human torches. Then he had garden parties on the lawn down there. It sent a very powerful message.’
‘I’d like to think your sculpture walk is an improvement, Governor,’ Sierra said tightly.
‘Oh, I know you’ve never approved of that kind of behaviour. You’re a great asset to the Dominion, General, but for a military man you’re remarkably squeamish.’
Sierra had the look of a man who has formulated three or four responses but decided it was more expedient to say nothing. Franklen chuckled amiably.
‘I’ll let you get back to your duties now, General. I don’t think I need to remind you that I want that humanalogue. Failure is not an option.’
‘It never is.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. Use whatever measures you want. Do whatever needs to be done.’
‘Yes, Governor. I won’t disappoint you.’
‘I know you won’t. I’m sure you’ll manage this operation with your usual clear head and thorough efficiency. You have my complete confidence.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘You also have full responsibility if it gets screwed up. Do you understand me?’
‘Ah, General, this is a great opportunity for the Dominion. If it turns out to be an amilog, maybe it can shed a bit more light on some of these old sculptures. And it could be something useful to have around – few things have more value than a completely trustworthy servant.’
‘If it’s a medilog, who knows? I could replace the doctor with something that actually works as it should. Or it might even be possible to use it to repair the doctor. Two medilogs, General! I could live forever!’
‘And if it’s a warlog…’ The Governor’s eyes sparkled. ‘If it’s a warlog, there’s no end to what I could do. I’d have two warlogs, General. Properly used, two warlogs could decimate all opposition from here to the sea and the Notredam Ranges. The Yorkians, Coriser, Phillipsia… the Red Hill Dominion would roll over them like a tidal wave.’
The Governor was lost for a moment in reveries of absolute power. Then he said, ‘Well, off you go. I look forward to your next report.’
‘Of course. Good day, Governor.’ As custom demanded, Sierra waited until the Governor had turned from him before taking his leave.
As he strode across the lawn to the palace, he glanced back at the sculpture walk. He had a sudden vision of the hillside at night, flickering under the light of a dozen blazing bodies lashed to heavy posts. Irritated, he dismissed the image, and continued on his way at a brisker pace.
The Tip Jar