December 16, 2183 (continued)
“Hello Warren,” Safreth said. “Welcome home. If I’m not mistaken, you haven’t been back since you graduated from high school.” He straightened, stepping away from the tree. “I gather we need to talk.”
Armstrong came to a stop. Star City’s governor had just caught him by surprise, and on thirty-six hours without sleep he wouldn’t be at his best trying to improvise.
His plan had been to play the bully, try to push Safreth either into backing down, or making an unwise show of defiance that would justify his arrest. He’d intended to barge into the governor’s office, interrupt whatever he was doing, and force the issue. With a bit of luck, Safreth would be in the middle of talking to the other offworld governors about how to respond to the arrival of the Terran force, and they’d all get the message at once. He’d left it to the various company commanders to decide their own tactics, based on their understanding of the local culture of each Colony, but he knew a number of them planned the same opening move.
That was out the window now. Safreth’s whole manner, from his carefully relaxed lounging posture to his casual use of Armstrong’s first name, was meant to demonstrate that he’d neither be intimidated nor provoked. He’d clearly realized the tactic Armstrong would try. Had he also anticipated Armstrong’s plan to commandeer the governor’s office? By meeting here, at the military base, Safreth had preempted that move. Even if Armstrong carried through with it, it wouldn’t have the same impact now.
Safreth immediately removed all doubt about that. “I know that you’ll be needing to address the Colony as a whole,” he said. “That’s easiest from the governor’s office, so I wanted to offer you the use of it. I started off in Colony Engineering, I’m happier going hands-on than sitting behind a desk anyway.”
So much for that. “Thank you, Governor, I’ll be able to handle things from the military headquarters here.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lt Gillespie shift position a bit, and silently willed him not to show surprise as the change of plans. Armstrong continued, “But I’m glad to hear you’re willing to cooperate. I was concerned that you weren’t going to see reason.”
“Oh, I have no problem with your mission.” Safreth waved an airy hand. “Tell the Colony about the Presidential order, get your transports ready, have your troops all lined up at the spaceport to organize boarding. Anyone who wants to leave is certainly welcome to. In fact, there’ve been people heading planetside for weeks.”
Armstrong knew all about the “evacuation” to date— far too slow to meet President Monroe’s deadline, and almost certainly consisting only of the twenty percent who’d voted to obey the order in Star City’s referendum. He’d seen the report from Intelligence that the loss of that fraction of their population would actually help the Colonies achieve self-sustaining lifesystems. It wasn’t a legitimate attempt to follow the Presidential order.
It did, however, provide the Colonies with a fig leaf to cover their defiance. Enough offworlders had been heading planetside to book up all the commercial passenger flights to Earth— the more so with the airlines cutting back on flights, since they were traveling empty in the other direction. By quietly ignoring the fact they could have chartered extra transport, the Colonies could pretend they were trying to comply.
Time to take that fig leaf away. “Yes,” said Armstrong. “I understand there’s a limit to the available flights to Earth. We’re here to facilitate the evacuation any way we can, including making military transport available.”
“I’m sure the people on the wait list for departure will appreciate that,” Safreth answered. He paused, then took things out into the open. “Of course, no one who wants to stay will be forced to leave.”
“That’s not how it’s going to be, Governor,” said Armstrong. “The President of the Terran Federation has issued an order to evacuate the offworld Colonies, completely, by January first. I’m here to see that order carried out. You offworlders have stalled for months and I’m well aware it’s too late now to reach the deadline. But the evacuation will begin by that date— or we will have to compel it.”
“I don’t think you have the means to do that,” Safreth said, “and I don’t think you’ll ever get orders to try— I know your present orders explicitly prevent you from using force against the civilian population. You’re here to try and talk us into leaving, not to make us do it.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Governor. Yes, my mission specs are to settle this peacefully. But if you defy a lawful executive order, rest assured I’ll get the necessary additional orders.”
“I doubt that. Monroe needs us. Without the Colonies to blame for all the problems on Earth, he’d be nothing. There’ve been plenty of politicians like Monroe in history. Demagogues who gain power by finding villains to blame for hard times. Blame the rich people. Blame the foreigners. Blame the stamp collectors.” Safreth shrugged contemptuously. “It doesn’t matter how absurd, so long as the politician can make desperate people believe it. Then he’s got it made. The worse things get, the more popular he becomes. In office, he can even go out of his way to make things worse, knowing he’ll benefit rather than be blamed. So long as the enemy is out there. But they go away? It’s all over. Without his cause, he’s nothing. If we evacuated the Colonies, leaving Monroe and his Earthers naked and alone with the fact that it’s the Sun causing Earth’s crop failures, he’d be doomed. And he knows it.”
“You’re wrong. The President called me to meet with him before the Offworld Force launched. Privately, off the books. He’s not playing this situation for advantage, he’s a true believer— and he’s determined to see it through.”
“Maybe I’m wrong.” Safreth shrugged again. “I suppose we’ll see. Of course, the overwhelming majority of the world’s industrial capacity operates offworld. Close all that down, and the economic troubles we’ve seen so far will be nothing to what comes next. Monroe might call that a fair bargain, since unlike the environmental collapse it’ll hurt us harder, at least at first. So the choices are, he’s a demagogue who doesn’t care about the harm he does so long as he stays in power, or a fanatic who doesn’t care about the harm he does so long as he has his Cause. Either way, we’re not the threat to the people of Earth.”
Armstrong shook his head. “Governor, you’re an elected official. Debating the merits of policy is part of your job. It’s not part of mine. If my commander-in-chief issues lawful orders, I’ll carry them out.”
“Just so long as you keep track of the ‘lawful’ part,” the governor answered. “The President’s got authority under the emergency powers to evacuate a ‘city or other region.’ It’s never been done for a whole state, but whatever. But he’s got no authority, under any state of emergency, to dictate policy to a state government ‘unless that government is in a state of rebellion.’” Safreth smiled coolly. “Funny thing about civilian governments, they have lawyers in them. Mine tell me that since we can’t be ordered to adopt a policy of helping you evacuate the Colony, then we can only be called in rebellion if we actively try to block you. So you have no lawful authority to seize control of the Colony, to replace or arrest our government officials, or anything else. Unless we try to get in your way. And to come back to where I started: you’re welcome to try and talk people into leaving all you want, which is all your current orders let you do anyway. So, no rebels here.”
“So I can’t kick out your government for passivity.” Armstrong saw no point in contesting that point at the moment, though he’d be sending a query to the JAG office. “But as a civilian in an evacuation area, I can still arrest you for refusing to leave, and toss you into a planetbound transport by force. Along with everybody else. I don’t have orders to take such action yet, you’re correct about that. When they come, don’t count on legal technicalities to insulate you.”
“As far as that goes, if you get those orders, I suppose you’ll have a decision to make.” Safreth shrugged yet again. “In the meantime, I’ve made the Colony-wide address system available to the terminals in the base here. Make your speeches, deliver your warnings, anyone who wants to leave can.”
He turned and strolled away, not waiting to hear any further reply. Armstrong watched him for several long, slow moments, eyes narrowed, until Lt Gillespie spoke up. “Respectfully, you might reconsider taking over the governor’s offices, Commander. The symbolic value of speaking from there would carry some weight.”
Armstrong shook his head. “Occupying the office thanks to his largesse is a completely different matter from taking it over in a show of force. We’d look like we were working for him.”
“Wouldn’t that actually improve our position? If it seemed to the population we were speaking for their Colonial government?”
“No. This isn’t about persuading the population. That’s a trap. Safreth didn’t point us toward the Colony com system in order to help us accomplish our mission. They’ve already voted on the issue, and they’ll have heard every threatening speech President Monroe made ahead of that vote. No, it’s Safreth and his government we have to either persuade or outmaneuver.”
He rubbed his eyes, suddenly aware again of how tired her was. “Tell the FCS officers we’ll be setting up headquarters on base after all, and call a tac briefing for two hours from now. Tell everyone to come with options.”
He lowered his hands and watched Safreth continuing down the walkway, until he disappeared as the path curved around a stand of trees. “I’m not sure yet if he’s really that confident, or if he’s just a cocky son of a bitch. Before this is over, we’ll have to find out.”
TO BE CONTINUED